Jacques Futrelle.

The Chase of the Golden Plate



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Dick had listened with absorbed interest. Hatch looked at him from time to time and saw only attention – not anger.

"And the Girl?" asked Dick at last. "Does it happen that you have as cleverly traced her?"

"No," Mr. Randolph replied frankly. "I haven't the faintest idea who she is. I suppose no one knows that but you. I have no interest further than to recover the plate. I may say that I called here yesterday, Friday, and asked to see you, but was informed that you had been hurt, so I went away to give you opportunity to recover somewhat."

"Thanks," said Dick drily. "Awfully considerate."

There was a long silence. Hatch was listening with all the multitudinous ears of a good reporter.

"Now the plate," Mr. Randolph suggested again impatiently. "Do you deny that you got it?"

"I do," replied Dick firmly.

"I was afraid you would, and, believe me, Mr. Herbert, such a course is a mistaken one," said Mr. Randolph. "I will give you twenty-four hours to change your mind. If, at the end of that time, you see fit to return the plate, I shall drop the matter and use my influence to have the police do so. If the plate is not returned I shall be compelled to turn over all the facts to the police with your name."

"Is that all?" Dick demanded suddenly.

"Yes, I believe so."

"Then get out of here before I – " Dick started forward, then dropped back into a chair.

Mr. Randolph drew on his gloves and went out, closing the door behind him.

For a long time Dick sat there, seemingly oblivious of Hatch's presence, supporting his head with his left hand, while the right hung down loosely beside him. Hatch was inclined to be sympathetic, for, strange as it may seem, some reporters have even the human quality of sympathy – although there are persons who will not believe it.

"Is there anything I can do?" Hatch asked at last. "Anything you want to say?"

"Nothing," Dick responded wearily. "Nothing. You may think what you like. There are, as I said, several things of which I cannot speak, even if it comes to a question – a question of having to face the charge of theft in open court. I simply can't say anything."

"But – but – " stammered the reporter.

"Absolutely not another word," said Dick firmly.

CHAPTER VII

Those satellites of the Supreme Police Intelligence of the Metropolitan District who had been taking the Randolph mystery to pieces to see what made it tick, lined up in front of Detective Mallory, in his private office, at police headquarters, early Saturday evening. They did not seem happy. The Supreme Intelligence placed his feet on the desk and glowered; that was a part of the job.

"Well, Downey?" he asked.

"I went out to Seven Oaks and got the automobile the Burglar left, as you instructed," reported Downey. "Then I started out to find its owner, or someone who knew it. It didn't have a number on it, so the job wasn't easy, but I found the owner all right, all right."

Detective Mallory permitted himself to look interested.

"He lives at Merton, four miles from Seven Oaks," Downey resumed.

"His name is Blake – William Blake. His auto was in the shed a hundred feet or so from his house on Thursday evening at nine o'clock. It wasn't there Friday morning."

"Umph!" remarked Detective Mallory.

"There is no question but what Blake told me the truth," Downey went on. "To me it seems provable that the Burglar went out from the city to Merton by train, stole the auto and ran it on to Seven Oaks. That's all there seems to be to it. Blake proved ownership of the machine and I left it with him."

The Supreme Intelligence chewed his cigar frantically.

"And the other machine?" he asked.

"I have here a blood-stained cushion, the back of a seat from the car in which the Burglar and the Girl escaped," continued Downey in a walk-right-up-ladies-and-gentlemen sort of voice. "I found the car late this afternoon at a garage in Pleasantville. We knew, of course, that it belonged to Nelson Sharp, a guest at the masked ball. According to the manager of the garage the car was standing in front of his place this morning when he arrived to open up. The number had been removed."

Detective Mallory examined the cushion which Downey handed to him. Several dark brown stains told the story – one of the occupants of the car had been wounded.

"Well, that's something," commented the Supreme Intelligence. "We know now that when Cunningham fired at least one of the persons in the car was hit, and we may make our search accordingly. The Burglar and the Girl probably left the car where it was found during the preceding night."

"It seems so," said Downey. "I shouldn't think they would have dared to keep it long. Autos of that size and power are too easily traced. I asked Mr. Sharp to run down and identify the car and he did so. The stains were new."

The Supreme Intelligence digested that in silence while his satellites studied his face, seeking some inkling of the convolutions of that marvellous mind.

"Very good, Downey," said Detective Mallory at last. "Now Cunningham?"

"Nothing," said Cunningham in shame and sorrow. "Nothing."

"Didn't you find anything at all about the premises?"

"Nothing," repeated Cunningham. "The Girl left no wrap at Seven Oaks. None of the servants remembers having seen her in the room where the wraps were checked. I searched all around the place and found a dent in the ground under the smoking-room window, where the gold plate had been thrown, and there were what seemed to be footprints in the grass, but it was all nothing."

"We can't arrest a dent and footprints," said the Supreme Intelligence cuttingly.

The satellites laughed sadly. It was part of the deference they owed to the Supreme Intelligence.

"And you, Blanton?" asked Mr. Mallory. "What did you do with the list of invited guests?"

"I haven't got a good start yet," responded Blanton hopelessly. "There are three hundred and sixty names on the list. I have been able to see possibly thirty. It's worse than making a city directory. I won't be through for a month. Randolph and his wife checked off a large number of these whom they knew were there. The others I am looking up as rapidly as I can."

The detectives sat moodily thoughtful for uncounted minutes. Finally Detective Mallory broke the silence.

"There seems to be no question but that any clew that might have come from either of the automobiles is disposed of unless it is the fact that we now know one of the thieves was wounded. I readily see how the theft could have been committed by a man as bold as this fellow. Now we must concentrate all our efforts to running down the invited guests and learning just where they were that evening. All of you will have to get on this job and hustle it. We know that the Burglar did present an invitation-card with a name on it."

The detectives went their respective ways and then Detective Mallory deigned to receive representatives of the press, among them Hutchinson Hatch. Hatch was worried. He knew a whole lot of things, but they didn't do him any good. He felt that he could print nothing as it stood, yet he would not tell the police, because that would give it to everyone else, and he had a picture of how the Supreme Intelligence would tangle it if he got hold of it.

"Well, boys," said Detective Mallory smilingly, when the press filed in, "there's nothing to say. Frankly, I will tell you that we have not been able to learn anything – at least anything that can be given out. You know, of course, about the finding of the two automobiles that figured in the case, and the blood-stained cushion?"

The press nodded collectively.

"Well, that's all there is yet. My men are still at work, but I'm a little afraid the gold plate will never be found. It has probably been melted up. The cleverness of the thieves you can judge for yourself by the manner in which they handled the automobiles."

And yet Hatch was not surprised when, late that night, Police Headquarters made known the latest sensation. This was a bulletin, based on a telephone message from Stuyvesant Randolph to the effect that the gold plate had been returned by express to Seven Oaks. This mystified the police beyond description; but official mystification was as nothing to Hatch's state of mind. He knew of the scene in Dick Herbert's room and remembered Mr. Randolph's threat.

"Then Dick did have the plate," he told himself.

CHAPTER VIII

Whole flocks of detectives, reporters, and newspaper artists appeared at Seven Oaks early next morning. It had been too late to press an investigation the night before. The newspapers had only time telephonically to confirm the return of the plate. Now the investigators unanimously voiced one sentiment: "Show us!"

Hatch arrived in the party headed by Detective Mallory, with Downey and Cunningham trailing. Blanton was off somewhere with his little list, presumably still at it. Mr. Randolph had not come down to breakfast when the investigators arrived, but had given his servant permission to exhibit the plate, the wrappings in which it had come, and the string wherewith it had been tied.

The plate arrived in a heavy paper-board box, covered twice over with a plain piece of stiff brown paper, which had no markings save the address and the "paid" stamp of the express company. Detective Mallory devoted himself first to the address. It was:

Mr. Stuyvesant Randolph,

"Seven Oaks,"

via Merton.

In the upper left-hand corner were scribbled the words:

From John Smith,

State Street,

Watertown.

Detectives Mallory, Downey, and Cunningham studied the handwriting on the paper minutely.

"It's a man's," said Detective Downey.

"It's a woman's," said Detective Cunningham.

"It's a child's," said Detective Mallory.

"Whatever it is, it is disguised," said Hatch.

He was inclined to agree with Detective Cunningham that it was a woman's purposely altered, and in that event – Great C?sar! There came that flock of seven-column heads again! And he couldn't open the bottle!

The simple story of the arrival of the gold plate at Seven Oaks was told thrillingly by the servant.

"It was eight o'clock last night," he said. "I was standing in the hall here. Mr. and Mrs. Randolph were still at the dinner table. They dined alone. Suddenly I heard the sound of waggon-wheels on the granolithic road in front of the house. I listened intently. Yes, it was waggon-wheels."

The detectives exchanged significant glances.

"I heard the waggon stop," the servant went on in an awed tone. "Still I listened. Then came the sound of footsteps on the walk and then on the steps. I walked slowly along the hall toward the front door. As I did so the bell rang."

"Yes, ting-a-ling-a-ling, we know. Go on," Hatch interrupted impatiently.

"I opened the door," the servant continued. "A man stood there with a package. He was a burly fellow. 'Mr. Randolph live here?' he asked gruffly. 'Yes,' I said. 'Here's a package for him,' said the man. 'Sign here.' I took the package and signed a book he gave me, and – and – "

"In other words," Hatch interrupted again, "an expressman brought the package here, you signed for it, and he went away?"

The servant stared at him haughtily.

"Yes, that's it," he said coldly.

A few minutes later Mr. Randolph in person appeared. He glanced at Hatch with a little surprise in his manner, nodded curtly, then turned to the detectives.

He could not add to the information the servant had given. His plate had been returned, pre-paid. The matter was at an end so far as he was concerned. There seemed to be no need of further investigation.

"How about the jewelry that was stolen from your other guests?" demanded Detective Mallory.

"Of course, there's that," said Mr. Randolph. "It had passed out of my mind."

"Instead of being at an end this case has just begun," the detective declared emphatically.

Mr. Randolph seemed to have no further interest in the matter. He started out, then turned back at the door, and made a slight motion to Hatch which the reporter readily understood. As a result Hatch and Mr. Randolph were closeted together in a small room across the hall a few minutes later.

"May I ask your occupation, Mr. Hatch?" inquired Mr. Randolph.

"I'm a reporter," was the reply.

"A reporter?" Mr. Randolph seemed surprised. "Of course, when I saw you in Mr. Herbert's rooms," he went on after a little pause, "I met you only as his friend. You saw what happened there. Now, may I ask you what you intend to publish about this affair?"

Hatch considered the question a moment. There seemed to be no objection to telling.

"I can't publish anything until I know everything, or until the police act," he confessed frankly. "I had been talking to Dick Herbert in a general way about this case when you arrived yesterday. I knew several things, or thought I did, that the police do not even suspect. But, of course, I can print only just what the police know and say."

"I'm glad of that – very glad of it," said Mr. Randolph. "It seems to have been a freak of some sort on Mr. Herbert's part, and, candidly, I can't understand it. Of course he returned the plate, as I knew he would."

"Do you really believe he is the man who came here as the Burglar?" asked Hatch curiously.

"I should not have done what you saw me do if I had not been absolutely certain," Mr. Randolph explained. "One of the things, particularly, that was called to my attention – I don't know that you know of it – is the fact that the Burglar had a cleft in his chin. You know, of course, that Mr. Herbert has such a cleft. Then there is the invitation-card with his name. Everything together makes it conclusive."

Mr. Randolph and the reporter shook hands. Three hours later the press and police had uncovered the Watertown end of the mystery as to how the express package had been sent. It was explained by the driver of an express waggon there and absorbed by greedily listening ears.

"The boss told me to call at No. 410 State Street and get a bundle," the driver explained. "I think somebody telephoned to him to send the waggon. I went up there yesterday morning. It's a small house, back a couple of hundred feet from the street, and has a stone fence around it. I opened the gate, went in, and rang the bell.

"No one answered the first ring, and I rang again. Still nobody answered and I tried the door. It was locked. I walked around the house, thinking there might be somebody in the back, but it was all locked up. I figured as how the folks that had telephoned for me wasn't in, and started out to my waggon, intending to stop by later.

"Just as I got to the gate, going out, I saw a package set down inside, hidden from the street behind the stone fence, with a dollar bill on it. I just naturally looked at it. It was the package directed to Mr. Randolph. I reasoned as how the folks who 'phoned had to go out and left the package, so I took it along. I made out a receipt to John Smith, the name that was in the corner, and pinned it to a post, took the package and the money and went along. That's all."

"You don't know if the package was there when you went in?" he was asked.

"I dunno. I didn't look. I couldn't help but see it when I came out, so I took it."

Then the investigators sought out "the boss."

"Did the person who 'phoned give you a name?" inquired Detective Mallory.

"No, I didn't ask for one."

"Was it a man or a woman talking?"

"A man," was the unhesitating reply. "He had a deep, heavy voice."

The investigators trailed away, dismally despondent, toward No. 410 State Street. It was unoccupied; inquiry showed that it had been unoccupied for months. The Supreme Intelligence picked the lock and the investigators walked in, craning their necks. They expected, at the least, to find a thieves' rendezvous. There was nothing but dirt, and dust, and grime. Then the investigators returned to the city. They had found only that the gold plate had been returned, and they knew that when they started.

Hatch went home and sat down with his head in his hands to add up all he didn't know about the affair. It was surprising how much there was of it.

"Dick Herbert either did or didn't go to the ball," he soliloquised. "Something happened to him that evening. He either did or didn't steal the gold plate, and every circumstance indicates that he did – which, of course, he didn't. Dorothy Meredith either was or was not at the ball. The maid's statement shows that she was, yet no one there recognised her – which indicates that she wasn't. She either did or didn't run away with somebody in an automobile. Anyhow, something happened to her, because she's missing. The gold plate is stolen, and the gold plate is back. I know that, thank Heaven! And now, knowing more about this affair than any other single individual, I don't know anything."

PART II
THE GIRL AND THE PLATE

CHAPTER I

Low-bent over the steering-wheel, the Burglar sent the automobile scuttling breathlessly along the flat road away from Seven Oaks. At the first shot he crouched down in the seat, dragging the Girl with him; at the second, he winced a little and clenched his teeth tightly. The car's headlights cut a dazzling pathway through the shadows, and trees flitted by as a solid wall. The shouts of pursuers were left behind, and still the Girl clung to his arm.

"Don't do that," he commanded abruptly. "You'll make me smash into something."

"Why, Dick, they shot at us!" she protested indignantly.

The Burglar glanced at her, and, when he turned his eyes to the smooth road again, there was a flicker of a smile about the set lips.

"Yes, I had some such impression myself," he acquiesced grimly.

"Why, they might have killed us!" the Girl went on.

"It is just barely possible that they had some such absurd idea when they shot," replied the Burglar. "Guess you never got caught in a pickle like this before?"

"I certainly never did!" replied the Girl emphatically.

The whir and grind of their car drowned other sounds – sounds from behind – but from time to time the Burglar looked back, and from time to time he let out a new notch in the speed-regulator. Already the pace was terrific, and the Girl bounced up and down beside him at each trivial irregularity in the road, while she clung frantically to the seat.

"Is it necessary to go so awfully fast?" she gasped at last.

The wind was beating on her face, her mask blew this way and that; the beribboned sombrero clung frantically to a fast-failing strand of ruddy hair. She clutched at the hat and saved it, but her hair tumbled down about her shoulders, a mass of gold, and floated out behind.

"Oh," she chattered, "I can't keep my hat on!"

The Burglar took another quick look behind, then his foot went out against the speed-regulator and the car fairly leaped with suddenly increased impetus. The regulator was in the last notch now, and the car was one that had raced at Ormonde Beach.

"Oh, dear!" exclaimed the Girl again. "Can't you go a little slower?"

"Look behind," directed the Burglar tersely.

She glanced back and gave a little cry. Two giant eyes stared at her from a few hundred yards away as another car swooped along in pursuit, and behind this ominously glittering pair was still another.

"They're chasing us, aren't they?"

"They are," replied the Burglar grimly, "but if these tires hold, they haven't got a chance. A breakdown would – " He didn't finish the sentence. There was a sinister note in his voice, but the Girl was still looking back and did not heed it. To her excited imagination it seemed that the giant eyes behind were creeping up, and again she clutched the Burglar's arm.

"Don't do that, I say," he commanded again.

"But, Dick, they mustn't catch us – they mustn't!"

"They won't."

"But if they should – "

"They won't," he repeated.

"It would be perfectly awful!"

"Worse than that."

For a time the Girl silently watched him bending over the wheel, and a singular feeling of security came to her. Then the car swept around a bend in the road, careening perilously, and the glaring eyes were lost. She breathed more freely.

"I never knew you handled an auto so well," she said admiringly.

"I do lots of things people don't know I do," he replied. "Are those lights still there?"

"No, thank goodness!"

The Burglar touched a lever with his left hand and the whir of the machine became less pronounced. After a moment it began to slow down. The Girl noticed it and looked at him with new apprehension.

"Oh, we're stopping!" she exclaimed.

"I know it."

They ran on for a few hundred feet; then the Burglar set the brake and, after a deal of jolting, the car stopped. He leaped out and ran around behind. As the Girl watched him uneasily there came a sudden crash and the auto trembled a little.

"What is it?" she asked quickly.

"I smashed that tail lamp," he answered. "They can see it, and it's too easy for them to follow."

He stamped on the shattered fragments in the road, then came around to the side to climb in again, extending his left hand to the Girl.

"Quick, give me your hand," he requested.

She did so wonderingly and he pulled himself into the seat beside her with a perceptible effort. The car shivered, then started on again, slowly at first, but gathering speed each moment. The Girl was staring at her companion curiously, anxiously.



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