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With Links of Steel
by Nicholas Carter
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WITH LINKS OF STEEL

Or, The Peril of the Unknown

New Magnet Library No. 1164

by

NICHOLAS CARTER

Author of the celebrated stories of Nick Carter's adventures, which are published exclusively in the NEW MAGNET LIBRARY, conceded to be among the best detective tales ever written.

Street & Smith Corporation Publishers 79-89 Seventh Avenue, New York

1904



CHAPTER I A CRAFTY ROBBERY. CHAPTER II CONCERNING SENORA CERVERA. CHAPTER III THE KILGORE DIAMOND GANG. CHAPTER IV GETTING DOWN TO WORK. CHAPTER V BEHIND THE SCENES. CHAPTER VI A SHOT IN THE DARK. CHAPTER VII A STRATEGIC MOVE. CHAPTER VIII FOUND DEAD. CHAPTER IX NICK STRIKES A STARTLING CLEW. CHAPTER X ON THE TRAIL. CHAPTER XI THE CRIME AND THE MEANS. CHAPTER XII CLOSING IN. CHAPTER XIII CRAFTY CERVERA. CHAPTER XIV IN A WARM CORNER. CHAPTER XV THE DIAMOND PLANT. CHAPTER XVI THE CUNNING OF JEAN PYLOTTE. CHAPTER XVII THE GAME UNCOVERED. CHAPTER XVIII AT CROSS-PURPOSES. CHAPTER XIX HANDS SHOWED DOWN. CHAPTER XX THE BOOT ON THE OTHER LEG. CHAPTER XXI AN ONLY RESOURCE. CHAPTER XXII THE LAST TRICK.



WITH LINKS OF STEEL

CHAPTER I.

A CRAFTY ROBBERY.

"Mr. Venner, sir?"

"Mr. Venner—yes, certainly. You will find him in his private office—that way, sir. The door to the right. Venner is in his private office, Joseph, is he not?"

"I don't think so, Mr. Garside, unless he has just returned. I saw him go out some time ago."

"Is that so? Wait a moment, young man."

The young man halted, and then turned back to face Mr. Garside, with an inquiring look in his frank, brown eyes.

"Not here, sir, do I understand?" he asked, politely.

Mr. Garside shook his head. He was a tall, slender man of forty, and was the junior partner of the firm of Rufus Venner & Co., a large retail jewelry house in New York City, with a handsome store on Fifth Avenue, not far from Madison Square.

It was in their store that this introductory scene occurred, and proved to be the initiatory step of one of the shrewdest and most cleverly executed robberies on record.

It was about eleven o'clock one April morning. The sun was shining brightly outside, and at the curbing in front of the store were several handsome private carriages, with stiff-backed, motionless coachmen, in bottle-green livery, perched on their boxes, all of which plainly indicated the very desirable patronage accorded the firm mentioned.

In the store the glare of sun was subdued by partly drawn yellow curtains, which lent a soft, amber light to the deep interior, and enhanced the dazzling beauty of the merchandise there displayed.

The store was a rather narrow one, but quite deep, with a long-counter on each side, back of which were numerous clerks, some engaged in waiting upon the several customers then present.

At the rear of the store was an office inclosure, with a partition of plate glass; while at either side of this inclosure was a smaller room, entirely secluded, these being the private offices of the two members of the firm.

Mr. Garside was standing about in the middle of the store when the young man entered and inquired for Mr. Venner. As he turned from the clerk who had informed him of Venner's absence, he added, half in apology, to his visitor:

"I was mistaken, young man. My clerk tells me that Mr. Venner is out just now. Do you know where he has gone, Joseph?"

"No, sir, I do not."

"I think he will presently return," said Garside, again reverting to the caller. "Is there anything that I can do for you? Or will you wait until Mr. Venner comes in?"

"I will not wait, Mr. Garside, since you are one of the firm, and probably know about this matter," replied the young man, drawing a small cloth-covered package from his breast pocket. "Here are the ten diamonds for which Mr. Venner sent us an order this morning. I come from Thomas Hafferman, sir, and will leave the stones with you."

The man mentioned was also a jeweler, and a large importer of diamonds and costly gems.

Mr. Garside's countenance took on an expression of mild surprise.

"From Hafferman? An order from Venner?" he murmured, inquiringly. "I was not aware that Venner sent out any order for diamonds this morning."

"One of your clerks brought the order, sir, and requested Mr. Hafferman to send the stones here as soon as convenient," replied the messenger. "Mr. Hafferman did not know your clerk personally, so I was sent here to deliver the stones."

"What is your name, young man?"

"Harry Boyden, sir. I have worked for Mr. Hafferman for nearly five years. I think you will find that the order was properly sent."

"Wait just a moment, Mr. Boyden," suggested Garside, smiling.

Then he hastened to the rear of the store, and spoke through the open window near the cashier's desk.

"Do any of you know of an order sent out by Mr. Venner this morning?" he inquired, addressing the several clerks at work in the office. "An order to Thomas Hafferman for ten diamonds."

Only a girl stenographer, seated at a typewriter near the office door, replied:

"I think Mr. Venner sent Spaulding out about half an hour ago, sir," she replied. "I saw him give Spaulding several letters."

"Ah, doubtless it's all right enough," bowed Garside; "yet I wonder that I had heard nothing about it. Joseph, has Spaulding been here within a few minutes?"

"No, sir," replied the clerk, the same who had at first been questioned. "I saw him go out just before Mr. Venner departed, and he has not yet returned."

Garside had now reached the middle of the store again, where Boyden was still waiting.

"Are you quite sure that the order came from Mr. Venner?" he again inquired. "How long ago was the messenger at your store?"

"About half an hour ago, sir," Boyden readily answered. "The order was, I presume, signed by Mr. Venner."

"Was it our man Spaulding who delivered the order? Do you know him by sight?"

"I do not, sir. Joseph Maynard, yonder, is the only clerk here with whom I am acquainted, and I think he will vouch for me," said Boyden, now beginning to smile at Garside's manifest caution over receiving the diamonds. "Surely, sir, no harm can come from your keeping the stones until Mr. Venner returns, since I am willing to leave them with you," he added, laughing.

"Oh, no, no—I wasn't thinking of that," Garside quickly answered. "I wished only to avoid the needless trouble of returning them, in case the order did not come from us."

"I think the order was all right, Mr. Garside. Besides, sir, I saw Mr. Venner yesterday at our store, examining some diamonds. Doubtless these are the same."

"Oh, if that's the case, leave them, by all means," Garside cried. "I was not aware that he had called there. Probably they are for some order of which he has personal charge. Yes, yes, Mr. Boyden, leave them, certainly. Here, Joseph, place the package in one of the vault drawers, and hand it to Mr. Venner when he returns. Sorry to have detained you so long, Mr. Boyden. Had you begun by stating that Venner called yesterday upon Mr. Hafferman, I should not have demurred over the matter."

"There's no harm done, Mr. Garside, none whatever," replied Boyden, bowing and smiling. "I appreciate your caution, sir. If there proves to have been any mistake in ordering them, you can easily return the stones. Good-morning, sir."

Garside replied with a nod over his shoulder, having turned to hand the parcel to his clerk back of the counter, and Boyden immediately departed.

"Is that young man an acquaintance of yours, Maynard?" inquired Mr. Garside.

"Yes, sir. He has been with Hafferman for several years."

"Doubtless it's all right, then. Odd, though, that Venner should have made no mention to me of this order. Hand him the package as soon as he comes in."

"I will, sir, at once."

Maynard had already placed the small parcel in a drawer of the huge steel vault back of the counter, and he now resumed the work at which he had been engaged.

Mr. Garside sauntered toward the front of the store, and presently greeted a lady who entered.

Twenty minutes passed, and the incident of the diamonds was almost forgotten by both employer and clerk.

Soon both were reminded of it, however, by the entrance of another man—a smooth-featured young fellow, with pale blue eyes, a sallow complexion, slightly pock-marked. He was of medium height, and well put together, and was clad in a neat business suit of fashionable appearance.

Quickly approaching Mr. Garside, who was then disengaged, he tendered one of Thomas Hafferman's business cards, and said, glibly, while bowing and laughing lightly:

"Excuse me, Mr. Garside, but we rather owe you an apology. Our Mr. Boyden left some diamonds with you a short time ago, which should have been delivered to Tiffany & Co. Mr. Hafferman read the order without his spectacles, and it's rather a good joke on him, for he thought it was signed Venner & Co. The blunder was partly owing to the fact, no doubt, that Mr. Venner called to see him yesterday about some diamonds."

"There!" exclaimed Garside, as if quite pleased to discover that he had been so nearly right. "I knew well enough that Venner had not sent out any order without mentioning it to me. Yes, your Mr. Boyden left the stones here. For Tiffany & Co., eh?"

"Yes, sir, and they should have been delivered long ago," was the reply, with a conventional laugh. "If you please, I'll leave them there on my way back. Deucedly stupid blunder on Hafferman's part, I'm sure; and I hope—"

"Oh, there's no harm done, I guess, and but little time lost," interrupted Garside, joining in the other's laugh. "You will deliver them, you say?"

"If you please."

"Here, Joseph, hand me that package of diamonds left here by Boyden. They were sent to us by mistake. I knew it well enough at the time. Here you are, Mr. ——"

"Raymond, sir. I am cashier at Hafferman's. Many thanks. Sorry to have troubled you—very sorry."

"No trouble at all," laughed Garside, accompanying Mr. Raymond toward the street door. "The trouble has been all yours, sir."

"That's quite true," smiled Raymond, as he bowed himself out with the package of diamonds in his hand. "But now the pleasure is all mine!" he added to himself, upon reaching the sidewalk.

Then he strode rapidly away, quickly losing himself in the midday stream of people thronging the famous New York thoroughfare.

Less than five minutes later, before any misgivings had crept into the mind of Mr. Garside, the senior member of the firm came hurrying into the store.

"Oh, I say, Venner!" exclaimed his partner, stopping him near the office door. "What diamonds are you thinking of buying of Hafferman?"

"Of Hafferman?" echoed Venner, with a look of surprise.

"Weren't you looking at some stones there yesterday?"

"Yes, certainly. Some very choice diamonds. I want ten of the first water, a little larger and more perfectly matched than any we have in stock at present. But how did you learn that I had called there?"

Mr. Garside quickly informed him of the several incidents of the past half hour, when, to his consternation and dismay a look of sudden apprehension swept over Venner's face.

"Raymond—the name of Hafferman's cashier!" he cried. "Nothing of the sort, Philip. Their cashier is named Briggs. I know him well."

"Briggs! Briggs!"

"Briggs—yes, Briggs!" reiterated Mr. Venner, excitedly. "By Heaven, there must be something wrong here!"

"Dear me! If this Raymond was an impostor, we are done out of—"

"Wait—wait!"

Checking his partner with an impulsive gesture, Venner rushed into his private office and seized his desk telephone, quickly calling up the firm by which the diamonds had been sent.

Garside followed him into the room, only to hear the questions hurriedly asked over the wire by his excited partner, who presently dropped the telephone and leaped to his feet, crying loudly, so loudly that his voice filled the entire store, and brought all hands hurrying in his direction:

"There's no doubt of it, Garside, none whatever. You have been duped—swindled—robbed of four thousand dollars' worth of gems! Raymond was an impostor—a crook—"

"Venner—hush! You are losing your head," protested Garside, white with dismay. "It's enough that we have lost the stones, so at least keep your head. Waste not a moment. Notify the police. Telephone at once for men from the central office."

"Blast the police! The central office be hanged!" cried Venner, choking down an oath of wrathful contempt. "I'll have none of your police—none of your central office men! I want a detective—not an effigy of one!"

"Rufus—"

"Silence, Garside, and leave this affair to me," Venner harshly interrupted. "You've had fingers enough in it already."

With which rebuke Mr. Rufus Venner strode passionately out of the office and into the store proper, shouting loudly to the clerk previously mentioned:

"Maynard—here you, Maynard! Call a cab at once and go for Nick Carter! Lose not a moment! Don't wait to ask questions, you blockhead! Away with you, at once! Bring Nick Carter here with the least possible delay!"

Maynard had already seized his coat and hat, and was hurrying out of the store.

And thus began one of the most stirring and extraordinary criminal cases that ever fell within the broad experience of the famous New York detective mentioned.



CHAPTER II.

CONCERNING SENORA CERVERA.

Joseph Maynard arrived at Nick Carter's residence just as the famous New York detective was about preparing for lunch, and quickly stated his mission, disclosing the superficial features of the crime.

Nick Carter habitually looked below the surface of things, however, and in trifles he invariably discovered more than the ordinary man. Before Maynard had fairly outlined the case Nick keenly discerned that the robbery could not have been committed by any common criminals, and he at once decided not only that he would take the case, but also that it gave promise of something far more startling than then appeared aboveboard.

Yet even Nick's keen discernment utterly failed, at this early stage of the affair, to anticipate its actual magnitude and tragic possibilities.

Having consented to accompany Maynard to the scene of the crime, Nick turned to Chick Carter, his reliable chief assistant, who also had been an attentive listener to Maynard's disclosures.

"You had better come with me, Chick," said he. "This affair has rather a bad look, and in case quick work is imperative, I may need your assistance."

"Go with you it is, Nick," Chick heartily cried, hastening to put on his coat and hat.

"From the circumstances disclosed by Maynard, however," added Nick, "I am inclined to think that these rats have very carefully covered their tracks, and that a still hunt for their trail may prove to be our stunt. Yet you had better go along with me."

"I'm ready when you are, Nick."

"Very good. Come on, Mr. Maynard. I see you have a carriage at the door. We will not delay even for lunch, but will snatch a bite later."

Together the three men left the house, and it was precisely one o'clock when Nick was ushered into the private office of Venner & Co., where the two members of the firm then were seated, apparently still engaged in discussing the audacious robbery.

Mr. Rufus Venner, it may be here stated, was a man of about forty years of age, and was a very well-known man about town. Darkly handsome, with an erect and imposing figure, an habitue of the best clubs, a man still unmarried, yet of whom hints were frequently dropped that he was very popular with the fair sex, whom he was known to lavishly entertain at times—this was the senior member of the firm of Venner & Co., and the man who, quickly arose to greet Nick Carter and Chick when the two detectives entered.

"Your clerk has already given me the main facts of the case, Mr. Venner, so we will dispense with any rehearsal of them, and get right down to business," Nick crisply observed, immediately after their greeting. "There are a few questions I wish to ask you, and concise replies may expedite matters."

"I will respond as briefly as possible, Mr. Carter," Venner quickly rejoined, as they took chairs around the office table. "I do not fancy being robbed in this scurvy fashion, sir, and you may go to any reasonable expense to discover and arrest the thieves. Now, Detective Carter, your questions?"

"To begin with," asked Nick, with a steadfast scrutiny of Venner's darkly attractive face, "what is the value of the stolen diamonds?"

"About four thousand dollars."

"Ten in number, I was told."

"Precisely."

"Are they of uniform value?"

"Nearly so. They are splendid gems, and perfectly matched, and are worth about four hundred dollars each. I wanted them for a special purpose, which—"

"Which I will presently arrive at," Nick courteously interposed. "I understand, Mr. Venner, that you called yesterday at the store of Thomas Hafferman and made some inquiries about these stones?"

"I did, and also examined them."

"In what part of Hafferman's store were you at the time?"

"In his private office."

"Were any of the clerks present?"

"Not any—Stay! One of the clerks brought in the diamonds to Mr. Hafferman, but he did not remain. Only Mr. Hafferman himself remained with me while we discussed the matter."

"Do you know the clerk's name?"

"Boyden, I think, he was called."

"The same who brought the diamonds here this morning," put in Mr. Garside. "His name is Harry Boyden."

Nick made a note of it in a small book which he drew from his pocket.

"Did you make any deal at that time regarding the diamonds?" he inquired.

"I only had them reserved for me a day or two, stating that I would either call again or send an order for them, if I decided to purchase them," replied Venner.

"Are you quite sure that only Mr. Hafferman heard you make that statement?"

"Sure only in that the office door was closed, and that he alone was with me. If there were any eavesdroppers about I did not suspect it."

"Naturally not," smiled Nick. "Now, then, for what special purpose did you want those particular diamonds? I think you referred to one."

A slight tinge of red appeared in Venner's cheeks when he replied, a change which by no means escaped Nick's observation.

"I wanted the stones, or then thought I might, for a customer who contemplated giving me an order for a valuable diamond cross, to be worn upon the stage. We happen to have in stock no diamonds perfectly adapted to her requirements, and so I called upon Hafferman to learn if he could supply me."

"Who is the customer, Mr. Venner?"

"I do not see how her identity can be at all essential to the investigation of this affair, yet I have no objection to disclosing it," said Venner, frowning slightly.

"Why demur over it, then?" demanded Nick, bluntly.

"Only because of an aversion to bringing the lady into the case, of which she, of course, knows nothing," retorted Venner. "I expected the order from Senora Cervera, the Spanish dancer."

"Ah! Is she not a member of the Mammoth Vaudeville Troupe, which has been playing here to packed houses for several months?"

"She is, yes."

"I have heard that she makes a great display of diamonds."

"That is true, Mr. Carter. She possesses a magnificent collection of jewels, and wears them with an abandon against which I frequently have cautioned her."

"By way of explanation," put in Mr. Garside, with an odd smile, "Venner might add that he enjoys quite friendly relations with the Spanish senora."

"I see no occasion, Garside, for comments upon my interest in Sanetta Cervera," declared Venner, with a frown at his partner. "My relations with her, Detective Carter, are only those of a friend and a gentleman. She called here several weeks ago to have some diamonds reset, when I met her personally, and was deeply impressed with her extraordinary grace and beauty. I since have shown her some attention."

"Quite natural, I am sure," observed Nick, smiling indifferently. "As you remarked, however, none of that appears to be material. I understand, Mr. Venner, that you were absent when Boyden brought the diamonds here this morning."

"I was," bowed Venner. "I received a note from Senora Cervera this morning, asking me to call upon her at eleven o'clock at her rooms, and to bring with me a diamond pendant which we have in stock, and which I had the pleasure of showing her a few days ago."

"Ah, I see."

"She stated in her note that if I would call upon her at the hour mentioned, she would decide whether to purchase the pendant, or have us make the diamond cross for her."

"You complied with her request, Mr. Venner, and went to call upon her?"

"Certainly."

"Where is she quartered?"

"She rents a furnished house uptown."

"Does she live alone?"

"With her servants only."

"How many?"

"She keeps a butler, a male cook, and two housemaids. Also a girl to look after her wardrobe and act as her dresser at the theater."

"Evidently Senora Cervera is wealthy," said Nick.

"Well, not exactly wealthy," rejoined Venner. "She is the popular craze just now, and from her professional work she derives a very large income which she scatters as if dollars were dead leaves. In a word, Detective Carter, Senora Cervera is an arrant spendthrift."

"So I have heard," nodded Nick.

"You have?"

"Oh, yes!" laughed the detective. "That appears to surprise you. It will not, when I tell you that there are very few public characters in New York of whose general habits I am not tolerably well informed. Of course, Mr. Venner, you have no doubt of this Spanish dancer's honesty?" Nick added, bluntly.

Venner flushed deeply, and instantly shook his head.

"Most assuredly not," he cried, with some feeling. "Senora Cervera dishonest? Impossible!"

"Improbable, Mr. Venner, no doubt; but not impossible."

"It is, sir," declared Venner, positively. "I know her well. Such an idea is absurd. Drop it at once, Detective Carter. Indeed, sir, if I thought her name was to be dragged into this affair, or her reputation to be in any way imperiled, I would quietly suffer the loss of these diamonds, and cease this investigation at once."

Nick laughed softly, and suppressed the response that, nearly rose to his lips.

"Don't do it, Mr. Venner," said he, complacently. "My observation was not intended to cast any reflection upon Senora Cervera. I have no doubt that she is perfectly honest."

"I should hope not, sir."

"By the way, have you the note she sent to you this morning?"

"Yes. Here it is."

"By mail, or a messenger?"

"A messenger brought it."

"Ah!" murmured Nick, briefly studying the written page. "Plainly a foreign hand. Very firm and forceful. It indicates a strong and determined character. I should say that Senora Cervera is a woman of rare qualities."

"That is perfectly correct, sir. She is a woman of rare qualities."

"What did she decide to do about the diamonds, Mr. Venner?"

"She gave me an order for the cross, Detective Carter, to be made and delivered as soon as possible."

"This was during your call upon her this morning?"

"Certainly."

"You had previously sent no order to Hafferman for the stones?"

"Surely not."

"Yet a written order was received by him, or he would not have delivered the goods."

"In which case, then, it was a forgery."

"No doubt of it," Nick readily admitted. "Chick."

"Yes, Nick."

"Take a carriage and go at once and interview Hafferman. See what you can learn from him. Get the written order received by him, and bring it here. Have a look at young Boyden, and see what you make of him. Also get the written signature of Mr. Hafferman, and that of each person employed in his store. Understand?"

"Sure thing!" nodded Chick, already seeing clearly the line Nick's investigation was taking, though neither Venner nor his partner yet perceived it. "I will return as quickly as possible."

"You will find me here," nodded Nick. "Wait a moment!"

"Well?"

"Also get a description of the party who delivered the written order at Hafferman's store. Inquire what he said at the time, and why he did not attempt securing the diamonds then and there."

"Probably he was not known there, and knew he could not get them," observed Venner, by way of explanation.

Nick made no reply to this, however, and Chick hurriedly departed.



CHAPTER III.

THE KILGORE DIAMOND GANG.

"Now, gentlemen, only a few more questions, and I then shall be ready to go at this case in a more energetic fashion," said Nick Carter, immediately after Chick's departure. "Were any of your clerks absent from the store, Mr. Venner, at the time of this robbery?"

"As I was absent myself, I cannot say," replied Venner, rather dryly. "How about it, Garside?—you were here."

"Only one clerk, a young man named Spaulding, was out of the store."

"Was he out on business?"

"Yes, under my instructions," Venner quickly explained. "We have numerous old accounts on our books, and just before I went uptown I sent Spaulding out to try to make a few collections. I think he has returned by this time."

"It does not matter, since he was out under your instructions," said Nick, closing his notebook. "Now, Mr. Venner, who among your employees knew you thought of buying this lot of diamonds from Hafferman, or that you had called at his store to examine them?"

"Not a soul," was the prompt reply.

"Are you sure of that?"

"Absolutely. I had said nothing of the matter, even to my partner, there being nothing definite about it before I saw Senora Cervera this morning. I am sure that none of my clerks had any idea of my intentions."

Nick was not so sure of it, yet he did not say so. He arose and took from Venner's desk a block of plain paper, which he laid upon the table.

"Gentlemen," said he, "I want the signature of your firm, in the handwriting of each of you. Kindly let me have this."

"What's that for?" demanded Venner, abruptly.

"I wish to make a comparison with the forged order which my assistant will presently bring from Mr. Hafferman," Nick coolly explained. "I would suggest that you do not delay me."

Venner made no reply, but took a pen and signed the firm's name upon the blank paper.

"Now yours, Mr. Garside."

"Mine also, Detective Carter?" queried Garside, with a look of surprise.

"If you please."

"Surely," cried Venner, with some resentment, "you do not suspect that Mr. Garside or myself—"

"Pardon me!" Nick bluntly interrupted. "I am not in the habit of discussing my suspicions. That I should suspect either of you, however, is utterly absurd."

"I should say so!"

"Therefore do not argue with me over an absurdity. If I am to continue this investigation, gentlemen, I must do it in my own way. Either that, or I shall drop the case at once. Your signature, Mr. Garside."

Garside hastened to take the pen, and dashed off the firm's signature below that of his partner. Nick tore the page from the block, then handed the latter to Venner.

"Now, Mr. Venner," said he, "have each of your employees, from first to last, write his name with pen and ink upon this paper. Don't overlook one of them, not one, from your bookkeeper down to your office boy. If Spaulding is still out, get his signature later, and send it to me by mail. I will wait here while you are thus engaged."

Venner now vaguely perceived Nick's suspicions and design, and he could not consistently offer any remonstrance. Yet he plainly resented the idea that any of his clerks could have been guilty of co-operation with the criminals who had committed the robbery that morning, and his dark features wore a grim and sullen expression when he took the block of paper and repaired to his main office.

Nick Carter sat and waited, silently sizing up the case as he then saw it.

Just as Venner returned with the numerous signatures, Chick also put in an appearance again, bringing with him the forged order which had been left at Hafferman's store. Nick merely glanced at it, then thrust it into his pocket.

"Did you see Boyden?" he inquired of Chick.

"Yes, and spoke with him," nodded Chick.

"What about him?"

"He looks all right."

"Did you get the signatures of Hafferman and his clerks?"

"They are on this paper."

"Good enough. Let me have those of your employees, Mr. Venner. Are they all here?"

"Yes, all of them."

"Very good," said Nick, putting the several papers into his pocket. "Now, Chick, what of the man who visited Hafferman's store with the forged order?"

"He merely left the order and asked that the diamonds should be sent here at once."

"What sort of a man?"

"Dark, about fifty, with a heavy mustache and wavy hair," said Chick, glibly. "Quite a big fellow, Hafferman states."

"H'm!" ejaculated Nick, with a significant nod. "Now, Mr. Garside, describe the man to whom you delivered the diamonds."

"Raymond?"

"If that is the name he gave you."

"He is a well-built, smoothly shaven fellow, of about thirty years, with a sallow complexion, slightly pock-marked—"

"Ah, I thought so!" Nick curtly interrupted. "That's quite sufficient, Mr. Garside."

"What do you mean, Carter?" quickly demanded Venner. "Do you already recognize these criminals?"

"I recognize their work."

"And the men?"

"I've them in mind from the outset."

"Impossible!"

"Not so, Mr. Venner," Nick now declared, with emphasis. "Without a shadow of doubt, sir, you have been victimized by the notorious Kilgore diamond gang, a trio of the shrewdest and most daring scoundrels that ever stood in leather."

"You amaze me."

"Do I?" inquired Nick, smiling softly. "Well, sir, if I were to tell you the history of these rascals, you would be more than amazed—you would be astounded. No crime is too desperate, no knavery too hazardous, no villainy too despicable, for them to attempt, and too often successfully execute. They have perpetrated their crimes over two continents, and are known to the police the world over."

"That is not very complimentary to the police," said Venner, dryly. "I marvel that such distinguished scoundrels are still at large."

"A fact which stamps them no ordinary criminals," replied Nick, pointedly. "Nor are they, sir."

"What do you know of them, Detective Carter?"

"David Kilgore, the chief of the gang, is one of the shrewdest and most daring of knaves, a man of splendid education, polished manners and broad experience. He possesses nerves of steel, the cunning of a fox, and would not shrink even from murder, if his designs required it. Yet he invariably covers his tracks so cleverly, or so quickly vanishes when hard pressed, that thus far he has successfully eluded the police. That's David Kilgore, sir."

"And what of his associates?" inquired Venner. "I think you spoke of a trio."

"His confederates are scamps of the same sort, and nearly his equal in craft and daring," replied Nick. "Perry Dalton is one—the smooth, pock-marked rascal whom you, Mr. Garside, had the pleasure of meeting this morning. He is nicknamed Spotty Dalton, because of his slight disfigurement."

"And the other?"

"Is a man named Matthew Stall, more commonly called Matt Stall. He is a Western man, a graduate of a California university, and is an expert electrician. Oh, I know all about them," laughed Nick, "although this is the first time I have been up against them personally. I am rather glad to discover that they are here in New York."

"Why so, Detective Carter?" Venner carelessly inquired, with a subtle gleam in the depths of his dark eyes.

"Because I have long wanted to match my talents against those of Dave Kilgore and his rascally push," declared Nick, with grim austerity. "The last I knew of them they were in Amsterdam, Holland, where some of the finest work in diamond cutting is done, as you doubtless know."

"Indeed, yes."

"They probably had to jump that country for obvious reasons, and very likely the European continent," added Nick. "They have long avoided New York, and the fact that they are now here is significant of—well, well, we shall see! That's all, gentlemen!"

"But what do you intend doing about this case?" demanded Venner, as Nick abruptly rose to go.

"All that can be done, sir," the famous detective bluntly rejoined. "I accept the case, Mr. Venner, and will do my best with it. When I have anything to report, you shall hear from me."

"But—"

"There really is nothing more to be said, gentlemen, and the sooner I get to work the better," Nick gravely interposed.

"But will you advise me of any steps that you may take?" persisted Venner, briefly detaining him by the arm.

"Very probably," nodded Nick, though really he probably would do nothing of the kind. "And now good-day, gentlemen. If reporters call upon you, you may give them all of the facts, and state that Nick Carter is at work on the case. I want this Kilgore diamond gang to know at the outset that I am after them—and fully resolved to land them where they belong."

"Behind prison bars, eh?" inquired Venner, with an odd smile.

"Yes, sir! Behind prison bars!" declared Nick, forcibly. "Again, gentlemen, good-day. You will hear from me later."

Mr. Rufus Venner, with his partner at his elbow, stood in the office door and silently watched the two celebrated detectives as they strode quickly through the elegant store, from which they presently vanished into Fifth Avenue.

There was a smile of subtle cunning, combined with cruel and malicious determination, on Venner's dark face and he muttered under his breath, as the store door closed upon Nick's imposing figure:

"Hear from you later, eh? Very good. Very good, indeed, Mr. Detective Carter! Hear from you again—that is precisely what I want! Early and often, Detective Carter; early and often, if you please! It is precisely for what the little robbery of this April morning was invented!"

"But was it necessary—was it really necessary, Rufus?" whispered Garside, who alone had overheard, and whose paler face and tremulous figure betrayed fears which his swarthy senior partner would have scorned to feel. "This Carter is a most artful and discerning man. I am so afraid you have barked up the wrong tree. Was it necessary, really necessary, Rufus?"

Venner turned upon him with a half-smothered snarl of contempt.

"Bah! You'd be afraid of your own shadow, Garside, if left alone with it," he sneered, between his white, even teeth. "Necessary—of course it was necessary! Otherwise, I should not have adopted the ruse. We are about to attempt a big game—an infernally big game! When it matures, when it is finally launched, the very first concern that finds itself bitten will rush to Nick Carter for aid."

"There is no doubt of that, Rufus."

"Surely no doubt of it! He is the greatest detective in the country—and the greatest will be none too clever, nor too expensive, for those who find themselves duped by our unparalleled design."

"I should say so."

"What will be the result, Philip?—what will be the result?" added Venner, with a curious mingling of exultation and asperity. "If our victims appeal to Nick Carter for help—are we not also already in his good graces? Have we not insured his confidence in us by this little move of to-day? Will he not reveal himself and his suspicions to us, just as I have designed, and keep us posted about his every move, and so forewarned and forearmed? Of course he will—to be sure he will!"

"But he is such a crafty and daring—"

"Bah! Is he more crafty than Dave Kilgore?" demanded Venner, significantly. "Is he more daring than Spotty Dalton, or more determined than anyone of the Kilgore gang? Not by a long chalk, Philip, and I know of them of whom I speak. Ay, as much and more of them than does Detective Nick Carter."

"Perhaps you are right, Rufus," murmured Garside, nodding. "We certainly are about launching a tremendous, an utterly unparalleled, swindle. The like of it was never, never known. There should be millions in it. Yes, yes, Rufus, you are right. It was wise to preface our gigantic operations by getting well in touch with Nick Carter."

"To be sure, it was wise, Philip, or I should not have taken the trouble to do so," said Venner, with much less acrimony. "So be a man always, Philip, and never a flunky. You have played your part admirably this morning. Let it be played as well, Philip, even to the finish—even to the last ditch!"

Philip Garside's color had returned, and he smiled confidently and nodded in approval.

Plainly enough, this hushed yet emphatic intercourse between these two indicated one fact—that Detective Nick Carter was up against a far deeper game than he then imagined.



CHAPTER IV.

GETTING DOWN TO WORK.

"Well, Nick, old man, what have you made of it?"

The question came from Chick Carter, in his familiar and cheerful fashion, several hours after the interview held by the two detectives with Rufus Venner and his partner in their Fifth Avenue store.

It was now about six o'clock in the evening, and Chick had just returned from having a confidential talk with one of the stage hands of the theater in which the then famous attraction, the mammoth European and American vaudeville troupe, of which Senora Cervera was a star attraction, had for several months been playing to crowded houses.

Chick found Nick seated at the table in his library, with a powerful magnifying glass in his hand, while the table was strewn with the papers he that morning had brought from the office of Venner & Co.

Nick looked up with a laugh, and knocked the ashes from his cigar.

"Well, there's no doubt about it, Chick," he replied. "We are finally up against them."

"The Kilgore diamond gang?"

"Precisely."

"I'm glad of it, Nick, as you remarked this morning."

"Well, I've not changed my mind since then. So am I."

"We shall now find out whether they are as crafty and desperate as they have been painted."

"I guess there is no doubt about it, Chick."

"Well, if we fail to throw them down, Nick, my money shall go on Kilgore from that moment," declared Chick, with a grin. "What have you dug out of that mess of papers, Nick? Have you arrived at any conclusions?"

"Rather!" smiled Nick, significantly. "Did you ever know me to study for five hours over anything of this kind without arriving at some conclusion?"

"Never!" laughed Chick. "And the best of it is, Nick, your conclusions nearly always prove to be correct. What's the verdict, old man?"

Nick glanced at the French clock on the mantel.

"Sit down and light up," he replied. "We have half an hour before getting down to work against this push. I will devote it to informing you of the case as it now appears."

"Good enough!" exclaimed Chick, drawing up a chair and lighting a cigar. "Let her go, Nick. I am all ears, as the donkey said to the deacon."

"To begin with," began Nick, more gravely, "this order sent to Hafferman, for the diamonds which he delivered at Venner's store, is merely a forgery. Neither Venner nor Garside wrote it, that's as plain as the nose on an elephant's face."

"Which is plain enough, surely," nodded Chick.

"Furthermore," continued Nick, "the forgery was not the work of any clerk employed in either store. I have compared the writing of each and every clerk with that of the forged order, and I will stake my reputation upon my conclusion. The forgery was committed by some outside party."

Nick was an expert chirographist. To have deceived him with a disguised handwriting would have been utterly impossible, and none knew it better than Chick, who now nodded approvingly.

"Some outside party, eh?"

"There is no doubt of it, Chick. And this conclusion at once suggests two very natural questions," Nick went on. "First, was one of the Kilgore gang in Hafferman's store when Venner went there yesterday, and did he overhear enough of what passed between them to enable him to plan the job done this morning?"

"Possibly."

"In opposition to that theory, however, is the fact that the forged order is written on one of Venner's printed letter sheets."

"By a little adroit work, Nick, one of the gang could have obtained a sheet of Venner's office paper."

"That is very true," admitted Nick. "But since this is a theory founded only upon conjecture, with no positive evidence to back it up, the stronger probability is rather to the contrary."

"Right, Nick, as far as that goes."

"I think so."

"And what is the second theory suggested?"

"That some clerk in one of the stores got wind of Venner's contemplated purchase, and revealed the fact to one of the Kilgore gang, by whom I am confident—bear in mind—that the crime was committed."

"That theory seems plausible," nodded Chick. "There is young Boyden, you know, at Hafferman's. He may have got wise to Venner's intentions. Garside remarked that he appeared quite anxious to leave the diamonds until Venner should return. That would have been very natural on his part, in case he was then co-operating with the party who finally secured them."

"The same objection again arises, however," argued Nick. "Boyden is not employed at Venner's, and therefore has not access to his letter paper. Furthermore, Venner's visit was made only yesterday afternoon, less than twenty-four hours before the robbery occurred. It seems hardly probable that Boyden was already in league with the Kilgore gang; and, if he was not, it is even less probable that he so quickly got in touch with them."

"By Jove! that's so," cried Chick. "As a matter of fact, then, neither of these theories has a reliable leg to stand upon."

"That's exactly my conclusion," laughed Nick.

"And what then?"

"Concerning that side of the affair," replied Nick, "several irresistible convictions are therefore forced upon me. One of the Kilgore gang certainly knew of Venner's visit, and of the request he made Hafferman regarding the diamonds. Otherwise he could not have planned the job so neatly. Somebody must have informed him. Somebody must have provided him with one of Venner's letter sheets. If we eliminate the clerks, and the members of both firms, we are left very much in the dark."

"I should say so," rejoined Chick. "The affair becomes a dense mystery."

"It becomes a mystery that I don't quite fancy," declared Nick, with a significant nod. "In fact, Chick, I'm not at all favorably impressed with this robbery. To me it has a mighty fishy look."

"Why so, Nick?"

"It is not like this Kilgore gang, mark you, to have been dickering with a dirty little job of this kind, netting them only a few thousands at the best; yet a job in which they incurred as much danger of detection, Chick, as in one infinitely greater."

"By Jove! that's so. There's no getting away from that argument, Nick."

"Instead of trying to get away from it, Chick, I'm going to stay with it," continued Nick, with emphasis. "I am beginning to suspect that this paltry little robbery may in some way make a far deeper and darker game. At all events, Chick, we'll not wind ourselves in a search for those diamonds, at least not before we have sifted these side issues a little finer."

"Good enough!" cried Chick, heartily. "I agree with you on every point. Only your long head, Nick, old man, could have deduced such shrewd conclusions; and I believe, by Jove! that you have hit the nail on the head."

"If I have," rejoined Nick, grimly, "we'll drive the nail home a little later, and home to stay."

"That we will."

"There remains one other feature of the case," added Nick, "and, starting from that, we will begin work upon the affair this very night."

"You refer to that Spanish dancer, Cervera?"

"Precisely."

"And the fact that she requested Venner to call at her house this morning?"

"Exactly," nodded Nick. "She fixed the hour, mind you, probably knowing that Venner would comply with her request. Hence there exists a possibility that she designed to get him away from his store at just that time, in order that the robbery could be successfully executed."

"In which case, Nick, we necessarily must figure her in with the Kilgore gang, despite Venner's declaration of her honesty."

"Certainly we must, Chick, in case her note to Venner was written for the purpose mentioned," nodded Nick. "Of that, however, we have no positive evidence. It may have been purely accidental that her note was sent to-day, and mentioned the very hour when the theft was committed. Obviously, in that case, the thief outside was waiting for some opportunity when Venner should be away from his store. Cervera would then be out of the affair, as far as any criminal intent is concerned."

"Very probably."

"So there you are!" exclaimed Nick, with another glance at the clock. "Our half hour is up. You now have my measure of the case, and next we will get down to business. We will drop this fishy-looking robbery for the present, Chick, and first of all make a move to learn something about Senora Cervera, and her relations with Rufus Venner."

"A good scheme, Nick, and I'm with you."

"Have you been at the theater?"

"Yes, and fixed things with Busby."

"You can get in upon the stage to-night?"

"Sure thing, as I told you," laughed Chick. "Busby is the boss scene shifter there, and he consented to work me in as a stage hand."

"Ah! very good."

"I have got to make up for the part, however, and must soon be about it. I am due there at half-past seven."

"Get at it, then," said Nick, rising. "See what you can learn about Cervera, and what you make of her from observation. In case Venner is about there, keep your ears alert, so that you can overhear."

"You trust me for that, Nick," cried Chick, laughing.

"Meantime, Chick, I'll have a look at the show from the front," added Nick. "And after Cervera does her turn, in case Venner is there, and she departs with him, you then may leave the couple to me. I'll be waiting for them at the stage door."

"Right you are, Nick. So here goes!"

Shrewd deductions, indeed, those of Nick Carter.

Plainly enough, Garside was quite justified in his apprehension that Rufus Venner had barked up the wrong tree.



CHAPTER V.

BEHIND THE SCENES.

Nick Carter had a double object in the work laid out for that night. If Senora Cervera was indeed in league with the Kilgore gang, and in any way responsible for the diamond robbery, Nick was resolved to secure positive evidence of it.

While her letter to Venner appeared to implicate her, since it had taken him from his store just at the time of the robbery, it seemed hardly probable that this brilliant Spanish girl, whose extraordinary grace and whirlwind dances had made her the talk of the town, could be identified with a gang of criminals notorious the world over. Yet the bare possibility existed, and Nick never ignored even the shadow of a clew.

He further reasoned that, in case Cervera was in league with the suspected gang, one or more of them might visit the theater in which she was performing, and Nick decided to have a look at the audience that evening. He was sure he could identify Kilgore or any of his gang, even if disguised, as would be very probable.

Nick's second object was that of learning the exact relations between Senora Cervera and Rufus Venner, and a part of that work he confided to Chick. With himself in the front of the house, and Chick on the stage, Nick believed that nothing worth seeing would escape them.

His own search early in the evening, however, proved futile. It was the last week but one of the mammoth vaudeville attraction, and the theater was densely crowded. Though Nick watched the lobbies and the smoking room, and also made a systematic study of the auditorium, he could discover no sign of the parties he was seeking.

About nine o'clock he returned to his chair in the orchestra, and settled himself to have a look at Cervera, whose act was one of the last on the program.

Just at that time Chick Carter, in the overalls and blouse of a scene shifter, made his first pertinent discovery—that Rufus Venner, clad in immaculate evening dress, and carrying an Inverness topcoat on his arm, had arrived upon the stage.

"He seems to be at home behind the scenes," soliloquized Chick, furtively watching him. "Evidently he has some kind of a pull with the manager, or he could not get admission to the stage. Probably through his friend, the Spanish senora."

Venner was then in one of the left wings, apparently indulging in small talk with a handsome girl of about twenty, who had just finished her turn upon the stage. She was rather simply clad, but was strikingly pretty and modest appearing; and upon consulting a program with which he had provided himself, Chick learned that her stage name was Violet Marduke; and that she was cast as a singer of ballads.

"Evidently employed to fill in," thought Chick, who had not been much impressed with her songs, though he decided that the girl herself was a beauty. "And by his admiring glances, Venner also thinks pretty well of her," Chick mentally added.

"Room here, mister," growled a voice at his elbow. "Make room for the reptiles."

Chick turned quickly about, and then involuntarily recoiled from the startling object that met his gaze.

In front of a scene then set in the second grooves of the Stage, the continuous performance was still in progress. Meantime, several of the stage hands were wheeling to the center of the stage, back of the scene, the properties of the next performer on the program—and grewsome properties they were.

The object beheld by Chick was a huge, cagelike den, mounted on low wheels, and having a broad front of plate glass. Inside of this den were several wicker baskets, some of which were open, while others were covered and locked.

In the open baskets, or writhing freely about the floor of the den, were fully fifty serpents of various sizes, many being only a foot or two long, while several were as many yards in length.

A more repulsive and blood-curdling sight Chick had never experienced, and the stage hand who had asked him to move laughed at his look of mingled horror and repugnance.

"Ever seen any like 'em after a jamboree?" he inquired, good-naturedly.

"Well, hardly," said Chick, subduing his aversion. "If I were to go on a drunk and see anything like them, I'd sign the pledge the next morning."

"A good scheme, too."

"I should say so."

"Some o' the crawling divils are as bad as they look," added the stage hand, while he helped to place the snake den squarely on the stage.

"What do you mean?" inquired Chick, still gingerly surveying them.

"Pizen!"

"Venomous?"

"You bet! Durn 'em, I wouldn't touch one of them for the wealth of Rockefeller."

"Do you mean that some of them still have their fangs and poison bags?"

"Sure! D'ye see that little copper-colored cuss down there in the corner, not more'n a foot long? If he got a crack at you, you'd not live ten seconds."

"Well, I will take deuced good care that he gets no nip at me," declared Chick, with a grin. "Why do they have such dangerous things around?"

"H'm! What would be the excitement, or the credit of snake charming, if the wriggling beasts were made harmless by pulling out their fangs?" demanded the stage hand. "It would be like a dog fight, with the dogs muzzled. These belong to that heathen Hindoo, the snake charmer. He shows next."

"Pandu Singe?" inquired Chick, glancing at the name on the program.

"Sure. He handles 'em like so many babies. There he is now, just coming from his dressing room. He looks a bit like a snake himself."

Chick turned and gazed curiously at the approaching foreigner.

Pandu Singe was a tall, swarthy man, with straight, black hair, an Indian cast of features, and a pair of intensely black and piercing eyes. Their glitter was indeed like that in the eyes of a snake, yet the Hindoo, approaching without a word to anybody, or a glance to either side, was not without a certain sort of savage dignity.

He wore a red turban around his head, while a loose, black robe, belted around his waist, reached nearly to his ankles. With a gesture he signed the several men away from his hideous den of reptiles, and Chick retired up the stage.

The detective had barely made his change, when he heard the low voice of Busby near by, the friend who had smuggled him upon the stage that evening.

"Hist! There she is, Chick!"

"Cervera?"

"Yes. Down yonder, just to the right of the electric switchboard. Slip in back of this wood wing, and you can have a good look at her."

"All right, Busby, old man," whispered Chick. "Don't you pay too much attention to me, or it may be noticed. I'll see all there is to be seen, old boy."

Busby winked understandingly, and Chick stepped back of the scenery mentioned, through a portion of which he could easily watch Cervera unobserved.

That she was a daughter of sunny Spain no man would have doubted. Her wavy hair was as dark as night, and her eyes were as radiant as the night stars. Her rich, olive complexion was much rouged, adding to the brilliancy of her splendid beauty.

She appeared to be about twenty-five, and was clad in her stage costume, which combined all the bright hues of the rainbow, and was enlivened by a myriad of dazzling jewels and diamonds.

The costume served to display to advantage her matchless figure, however, and Chick was fain to admit that he had never seen a much more striking beauty.

"She's a bird, all right, and no mistake," he said to himself, while intently regarding her handsome face and jewel-bedecked figure. "Yet she has a bad eye, despite her beauty, and a cruel mouth. She certainly would put up a wicked fight, if once aroused. Yes, a deucedly bad eye! What in thunder is she staring at, to look like that!"

From her position near one of the lower wings, Sanetta Cervera was gazing steadfastly across the stage at something which Chick could not see.

The dark eyes of the Spanish dancer had taken on a threatening glare. Her curved brows had drooped and knit, until they formed a straight line below her forehead, and her red lips were drawn and firmly compressed.

Before Chick could discover any occasion for this mute display of feeling, the performance in front of the set scene concluded, and the act of the snake charmer was due to begin.

Then came a rapid change of scenery, during which Chick was again obliged to change his position, and for a time he lost sight of Cervera in the stir and confusion of the busy stage.

He did not succeed in locating her again until she began her performance, when a full stage was given her for the marvelously graceful and impassioned dances of which her act consisted, and which had fairly turned half the heads in the city.

In the white glare of the limelight, she certainly presented a wild and dazzling picture. Her beauty was indescribably accentuated. She appeared like a being ablaze with diamonds. Her every attitude was one of seductive grace, her every movement as swift and light as those of a startled leopard.

At its conclusion her act evoked thunders of applause, and then Chick saw her hastening toward her dressing room, flushed with excitement and panting for breath.

Suddenly she halted and her smile vanished.

Then Chick saw her turn abruptly toward one of the wing scenes, where she met Venner face to face.

The wealthy Fifth Avenue jeweler laughed and extended his hand to greet her, but she frowned and hesitated before accepting it; and Chick made a quick move and stole back of the scenery, near which the two briefly remained standing.

He arrived in time to overhear only a few words, however, of which he could make nothing bearing upon the diamond robbery, or relating to the Kilgore gang.

"Pshaw! You are entirely wrong, Sanetta," Venner was expostulating, with voice lowered. "Your eyes have deceived you."

The woman replied through her teeth, with a hiss like that of a snake.

"My eyes deceived me? Never! You lie! I know what I see!" she fiercely answered, with but a slight foreign accent.

"You are wrong, Cervera," protested Venner. "I—"

"I am not! I see—and I know!"

"But—"

"Caramba! I say you shall go with me!"

"Why, certainly, if you wish it. Am I not here for that?"

"You know that I wish it—and you shall go."

"Whenever you are ready, Sanetta," replied Venner. "Yet your infernal—"

"Silence! You shall wait here till I have changed my suit. Then we will go—we will go together. You shall wait here."

"Go and make the change, then," said Venner, bluntly. "I will be here when you return."

"H'm!" thought Chick, as he heard Cervera move quickly away. "Evidently there is something amiss between them, but what the dickens is it?"

Still watching, he soon saw Cervera return in her street attire, when Venner quickly gave her his arm, and they departed by the stairs leading to the stage door.

Chick immediately recalled Nick's instructions—that the couple should now be left to him.



CHAPTER VI.

A SHOT IN THE DARK.

It was nearly eleven o'clock when Rufus Venner and Cervera, the latter enveloped in a voluminous black cloak, emerged from the stage door of the theater.

As they made their way through the paved area leading out to the side street, where a carriage was awaiting them, a sturdy, roughly clad fellow in a red wig and croppy beard suddenly slouched out of a gloomy corner near the stage stairway and followed them, with movements as stealthy and silent as those of a cat.

As the carriage containing Venner and the dancer rapidly whirled away, this rough fellow darted swiftly across the street, and approached a waiting cab, the door of which stood open.

"After them, Patsy!" he softly cried, as he sprang in and closed the door.

The driver of the cab was one of Nick Carter's youthful yet exceedingly clever assistants, and the rough fellow was Nick himself.

He had left the theater the moment Cervera concluded her performance, and since had completed a perfect disguise in the cab, which he had had in waiting, with all the properties for effecting the change mentioned.

That Patsy would constantly keep their quarry in view, and without being suspected, Nick had not a doubt. Nor was he mistaken. At the end of twenty minutes the clever young driver slowed down upon approaching an uptown corner, and signaled Nick to get out.

The detective alighted from the door on the side from which he had received the signal, yet the cab did not stop. Nick trotted along beside the vehicle for a rod or two, keeping it between him and the side street into which Patsy quickly signed that the hack had turned.

"Fourth house on the right," he softly cried. "I saw them pull up at it just as I reached the corner, so I kept right on up the avenue. They've not gone in yet."

"Good enough," replied Nick, approvingly. "Take home the traps I have left in the cab."

"Sure thing. You don't want any help to-night against this push, do you?"

"No, indeed. There'll be but little doing to-night, I imagine. Remember the house, however, in case I fail to show up."

"You may gamble on that, sir. I have it down pat."

They had now passed the upper corner of the side street, and Nick felt sure that he had not been seen leaving the cab. He darted quickly back of the vehicle and gained the sidewalk, then stole back and peered around the corner.

Cervera and her companion were just mounting the steps of an imposing stone residence, entirely separate from its neighbors, and their carriage was driving rapidly away.

Nick waited until the couple had entered the house, then he crossed to the gloom of a doorway on the opposite side and had a look at the dwelling.

From basement to roof there was no sign of a light. Even the hall appeared to be in darkness, and Nick waited and watched for several minutes, expecting to see at least one of the rooms lighted.

Not a glimmer or gleam, however, appeared from any quarter.

"H'm!" he presently muttered, a little perplexed. "Either they are remaining in darkness, or else they have all of those windows heavily curtained. If the latter is the case, I must discover for what reason.

"Possibly they are entirely alone in there, and have gone to some room at the rear of the house. Or maybe they have suspected an espionage, and are now watching from the gloom of one of those front windows. I'll fool them if that is so, and will also have a look at the rear of the house. There is something out of the ordinary here, that's certain."

Keeping well in the gloom of the block of dwellings near by, Nick retraced his steps to the corner, then crossed the street and presently approached a paved driveway leading to a small stable at the rear of the suspected house.

The high gate, composed of sharp iron pickets, was securely closed and locked; so Nick returned to an alley which he had just passed, and which ran back of a block of dwellings fronting on the avenue where he had left the cab.

Stealing into the alley, Nick quickly scaled the high, wooden fence, crossed two adjoining back yards, and thus reached a wall near the stable mentioned.

To mount the wall and drop back of the stable was equally feasible, and Nick then had the rear of Cervera's dwelling plainly in view.

Then his searching gaze was rewarded. One of the rear rooms was brightly lighted, with only the lace draperies at the two windows preventing observation from outside.

"Evidently a rear sitting room, or library," thought Nick, calculating the arrangement of the house. "I will at least learn who is in there."

He listened briefly for any sound in or about the stable, then stole quickly across the gloomy, paved yard and approached the house.

The windows of the lighted room were two feet or more above his head; but having reached a position just below one of them, he sprang up and seized the stone coping outside, and drew himself up to peer into the room.

Then, just as his head rose into the glow of light from within, clearly revealing his location, Nick heard a sound the deadly nature of which he instantly recognized.

Ping!

It was the short, sharp, peculiar song of a flying bullet—once heard, always remembered.

Then came the dull thud when the leaden ball beat itself shapeless against the stone wall beside him.

The bullet had passed within an inch of Nick's ribs, and he knew at once that he was now a mark for hidden foes.

Yet there had been no revolver report to suggest their location, and Nick instantly surmised that the ball must have been discharged with an air gun.

He knew that it must have come from some quarter behind him, however. And he knew, too, how to bring his murderous assailants from their secret cover.

As quick as a flash, the instant the ball smote the wall beside him, Nick let go his hold upon the stone coping and dropped into the darkness below the window, falling prostrate upon his back.

As he lay there his hand touched something hot, and he drew it nearer to examine it.

It was the battered chunk of lead which had come within an inch of ending his life.

"They meant business, for sure," he said to himself, while waiting for his quick-witted ruse to operate. "I'm blessed if this affair is not taking on a new and lively interest. I reckon there'll be more doing to-night than I gave Patsy to believe.

"Ha, ha! The scoundrels are already breaking cover!"

His alert ears had detected a sound from the direction of the stable, and now he silently drew his revolver and held it gripped by his side.

Presently the stable door was cautiously opened. Then a momentary beam of light, evidently from a bull's-eye lantern, shot across the paved area, and lingered for an instant upon Nick's prostrate figure.

Nick remained as motionless as a corpse.

Then two men, both large and powerful fellows, and both heavily bearded, came quickly from the stable and hastened toward him.

"Done for with a single shot," remarked one, as they approached.

"Looks like it, Dave," was the reply. "When I piped his head in the light from the window, I felt sure I could drop him."

"Well done. 'Twas a good shot. Shove your hand inside his vest, and see if his heart is beating. Then we shall know for sure whether he's down and out. If not, we must—"

"Throw up your hands, instead, both of you!" Nick sternly interrupted, half rising with weapon leveled. "At the first move by either, I will shoot to kill!"

Nick had foreseen that his foxy strategy must be very quickly detected, and he had resolved to take the bull by the horns, and attempt to arrest both of his cowardly assailants.

That he was up against uncommon men, however, men of extraordinary nerve and reckless daring, appeared in what instantly followed, even under the very muzzle of the detective's revolver.

As quick as a flash, before Nick's threatening command was fairly out of his mouth, the man called Dave made a kick at the detective's uplifted arm, so swift and accurate and forceful that Nick felt the bones of his wrist fairly crack under the blow, and the fingers of his hand gripping the weapon turned numb and tingling as if from an electric shock.

"At him!" snarled the ruffian, even while he kicked. "At him, I say! Quick—the pear!"

It was plain that these men were not doing such desperate work together for the first time. Both fell upon Nick like wolves upon a stricken elk, yet they found the detective waiting for them.

Nick hurled one aside, unable to use his revolver, and grappled with the second, both falling heavily to the pavement.

Then number one was at him again, and got him by the throat, with a grip from which Nick thrice wrenched himself free, at the same time fiercely banging the head of the other upon the stones upon which the terrific combat was being waged.

An oath of vicious rage broke from the latter, and then he fiercely cried again:

"The pear! D—— you, be quick! The pear!—the pear!"

As if in response to this, Nick, who was panting under his violent efforts to overcome both powerful men, suddenly felt something thrust forcibly into his mouth.

Still manfully battling with his opponents, Nick tried to eject the object, opening his jaws wider in the effort.

The object, which was shaped like a solid pear, instantly expanded, and Nick could not close his jaws.

Again he tried, opening them still wider, and again the pear-shaped object expanded and held them rigid.

Then Nick guessed the truth.

While struggling with might and main to beat these ruffians, he had been made the victim of an infernal instrument but seldom seen in these days, and one of the most agonizing and diabolical devices of man's perverted ingenuity.

The object in Nick's mouth was a "choke pear!"

This vicious instrument of torture dates back to the time of Palioly, the notorious French robber and renegade, when it was very worthily called "the pear of anguish."

It consists of a solid gag, so to speak, yet it is so constructed, with interior springs, that, once thrust into a person's mouth, it expands as fast as the mouth is opened, and rigidly distends the victim's jaws.

The more widely the victim gapes to eject the "choke pear," or to cry out for aid, the larger the hideous object becomes, until torture, suffocation and death speedily ensue.

Had this infernal device been generally available to modern criminals, Nick would have been warned by the significant words he had heard, and would have guarded himself against it.

As it was, however, he had been caught; and in the mouth of any ordinary man the "choke pear" would have been irresistible.

But the muscles of Nick Carter's jaws were like fibers of steel, and the instant he realized his situation he opened his mouth no wider. Instead, while hands and arms were still engaged in the furious conflict with his assailants, he brought his jaws together as if with superhuman power, and with a force that crushed the infernal device between them, much as if it had been little more than an eggshell.

One of the ruffians heard the snapping crunch, and uttered a cry of amazement.

The cry was echoed by hurried footsteps in the house.

Then a rear door was suddenly thrown open by Rufus Venner, and a flood of light revealed the struggling men, still battling furiously on the pavement.

Nick now had both opponents down, and within another minute he would have had them at his mercy, a fact which Venner instantly perceived.

He sprang nearer, drew his revolver, and dealt the detective a single swinging blow upon the head.

Nick dropped like an ox struck down in the shambles.

The darkness of night was as nothing to the darkness that instantly fell upon him.



CHAPTER VII

A STRATEGIC MOVE.

Nick Carter had a head that was used to hard knocks, and it required more than one to put him down and out for any considerable period.

The great detective recovered consciousness within half an hour after the blow received from Rufus Venner, and he fell to taking the measure of his situation the moment the cobwebs began to clear from his brain.

He found himself bound hand and foot with ropes, and lying upon the floor of a dark room. That he was in the dwelling occupied by the Spanish dancer, Nick had not a doubt.

As his mind became clearer and his eyes accustomed to the darkness, Nick discovered a narrow thread of light some yards away and close to the floor, and presently the sound of lowered voices faintly reached his ears.

"A light in the next room," he said to himself. "Probably the whole gang is out there, sizing up my case, and deciding what to do with me. If they are there, I must get a better look at those two ruffians. I owe them something for their work of to-night, and I always mean to pay such debts.

"One of them was called Dave, and it may have been Dave Kilgore himself. In which case, by Jove! I was right in thinking that this diamond robbery only masks some deeper and bigger game.

"I wonder if they suspect my identity. If not, what sort of a game have they been playing here to-night?"

Nick very quickly measured the various possibilities of the unusual situation.

If the man whose name he had heard was indeed David Kilgore, then Rufus Venner, as well as Cervera, might be in league with the diamond gang, and the pretended robbery only a move made with some secret design.

On the other hand, Venner might be entirely ignorant of Kilgore's identity, and without any serious suspicions of Cervera, being himself a blind victim of these notorious criminals.

"If the latter is the case," reasoned Nick, "the gang may stand in fear of me, and perhaps are afraid that I shall foil some scheme they have in operation, or are about to undertake. Then they to-night may have aimed only to discover the extent and nature of my suspicions.

"If that is the case, plainly it will become me to be a little foxy. I will see if I can contrive to overhear anything from out yonder."

Bent upon wriggling nearer the closed door revealed by the thread of light near the floor, Nick quietly turned upon his side and cautiously worked his way over the carpet.

He had covered scarce a yard, however, when the sharp, metallic ring of Cervera's voice fell plainly on his ears.

"Look again, one of you," she curtly commanded. "See if that vagabond has come to himself."

"That's your humble servant!" thought Nick.

He quickly rolled back to his former position on the floor, and prepared to play the fox.

In a moment the door was thrown open, admitting a flood of light, and a man strode into the room and dropped to his knee beside the motionless detective.

"I say!" he harshly growled, shaking Nick roughly by the shoulder. "Brace up, you dog! Brace up, d'ye hear?"

Nick groaned deeply, then slowly opened his eyes.

"Oh, my head—my poor head!" he muttered, like one dazed and in pain.

"Your poor head, eh?" sneered the other. "You're dead lucky to have a head left you. Pull yourself together, do you hear?"

"Let me be! Where am I?"

"You'll soon find out where you are. Sit up here!"

"What do you say?" cried Venner, from the next room. "Has he come to?"

The man at Nick's side turned his head to reply, and Nick then obtained a clear view of his profile.

"Humph!" he mentally ejaculated. "Matthew Stall in disguise! One of the diamond gang, sure enough, and I now know I am on the right track."

"Yes, he's finally coming to time," cried Stall, in reply to Venner. "He will be all right in a minute."

"Bring him out here," commanded Cervera, sharply. "Get the wretch up, and bring him out here."

This was precisely what Nick wanted.

Stall immediately bent lower, and released the detective's ankles.

"Get up, you varlet!" he then growled. "Get up, I say!"

Still groaning, and incoherently muttering, Nick permitted himself to be raised to his feet, and Stall then supported him and urged him out through the open doorway and into the adjoining room.

In his red wig and croppy head, together with his rough attire and dazed aspect, Nick certainly presented a wretched appearance. He blinked confusedly, glanced down at his bound wrists, yet at the same time took in every feature of the brightly lighted room.

It plainly was the library of the house, and both Rufus Venner and Cervera were seated near a handsome center table. Upon it lay most of the woman's jewels and diamonds, evidently lately removed, and presenting in the rays of light from the chandelier above a dazzling temptation to such a fellow as Nick then appeared to be.

In an easy-chair, near the wall, sat the man called Dave, at the time Nick was thought to be dead outside. Now, in the bright light of the room, Nick instantly recognized him to be David Kilgore, despite a heavy disguise which the criminal obviously believed to be impenetrable.

Nick gave no sign of the recognition, however, being content to await developments, and to shape his own course accordingly.

From that moment, however, the name of neither criminal was once mentioned; and Nick was compelled to infer that Venner might indeed be entirely ignorant of their true identity and knavish character.

The eyes of all were upon the detective, as he stood swaying slightly on the floor; and Cervera sharply demanded, with a threatening frown:

"Well, you vile miscreant, what can you say for yourself?"

"Me?" queried Nick, pretending to pull himself together. "Nothing at all."

"I guess that's right."

"What should I say? Why have you got me here, and tied up in this fashion?"

"You'll soon find out," cried Cervera, with vicious asperity. "What were you doing out back of my house?"

"Nothing much," Nick evasively growled, waiting to learn which way the cat was about to jump.

"Nothing much!" sneered Cervera. "You'll find that will not go down with us."

"I was looking for a chance to sleep in your stable," muttered Nick.

"You lie, you dog!" cried Kilgore, fiercely. "You were at the back window."

"Was I?"

"And your game was to rob me of my jewels," Cervera angrily added, with her eyes emitting a gleam as fiery as the blazing gems at which she pointed. "That was your game, you renegade!"

"Do you think so?"

"I know so!"

Nick hoped she did.

"And all I regret is," added the vixenish Spaniard, "that the bullet of my watchman did not end your villainous life."

"We can end it now, senora, if you say the word," put in Matthew Stall, with grim readiness.

Nick never accepted such scenes as this at their face value, for he had witnessed many a similar game of bluff. This one might be all right and on the level, he reasoned, yet there still existed the possibility that he was recognized, and that these remarks implying the contrary were only a part of some well-laid plan.

"If you think I'm a thief, why don't you hand me over to the police?" he shrewdly demanded.

The ruse worked. For a moment Cervera was caught with no ready reply, and Nick promptly decided that he was known, hence could not well be given to the police.

Yet these parties so obviously aimed to hide the fact that he was known to be Nick Carter, that Nick quickly resolved to let them have all the rope they wanted, and to meet them with a counter-move—that of boldly declaring his own identity, and so disarming them of any misgiving that he had recognized Kilgore and Matthew Stall, or even had any suspicions of Senora Cervera.

It was a very clever counter, and Nick went at it cleverly.

"Why don't you give me to the police, if you think I'm a thief?" he repeated, when Cervera made no reply.

"The police?—bah!" she now cried, with a sneer. "For what? That you may square yourself in some way, or make your escape, and then come back here to attempt the job again?"

"H'm!" thought Nick. "They don't want to let me go before learning what I suspect. I won't do a thing but fool them in that."

"Police be hanged!" Cervera quickly added. "In my country we have a surer way of removing such villains as you."

"What way?" queried Nick, coolly.

"Caramba! The garrote!"

"Choke 'em off, eh?"

"Or the poniard!"

"A stab between the ribs, I take it."

"Yes! It is what you deserve."

"But you will not try it on me," declared Nick, confidently.

"Don't you be too sure of it."

"Oh, I'm sure enough of it."

"The law would never reach us—don't think that," cried Cervera, with a passionate sneer. "Caramba! we'd plant your miserable bones where they'd never be found. Don't think, you wretch, that we fear to do it."

"Yet I don't fear that you will."

"You don't?"

"Not I, Senora Cervera."

"How dare you utter my name with your foul mouth?" screamed the dancer, with a vicious display of scornful resentment. "Not kill you? I've a mind to order it done at once, you wretch! I hate such reptiles as you!"

Nick laughed.

"If you were to order it done, senora, and the knife were at my throat," said he, "your order would certainly be countermanded."

"What! By whom?" cried Cervera, with her passionate, dark eyes fiercely blazing. "I'll have you know that I rule here—and not here alone!"

"Yet your command would be revoked, senora."

"For what reason, villain?"

"It would be revoked at the request of our mutual friend, Mr. Rufus Venner, to whom I presently shall explain my conduct, and also implore your own pardon, senora, for having made you the mark of my very unworthy suspicions," cried Nick, with a sudden dramatic display of dignity and confidence.

It brought Venner sharply to his feet.

"Good heavens!" he cried. "What do you mean, sir?"

"Ay, what do you mean?" roared Kilgore, bracing straight up in his chair and reaching for his gun—a move Nick pretended he did not see.

"I only mean, gentlemen, that I am no burglar," cried Nick, in his natural voice, at the same time raising his bound hands to remove his disguise. "Allow me, Mr. Venner, to present myself in proper person."

"The devil and all his followers!" yelled Venner. "You're—you're Nick Carter!"

"None other," bowed Nick, smiling and tossing his disguise upon the table. "Plainly, Venner, you are greatly surprised at seeing me—and I do not wonder at it."

Yet for all that Nick did wonder a little, since he could not yet determine just how much of this scene was on the level.

The faces of Kilgore and Matthew Stall, however, betrayed more secret exultation than surprise. Plainly enough both were now convinced that Nick did not recognize them, nor even suspect that he himself had been recognized—and these were precisely the two convictions Nick had aimed to convey by his masterly move in thus disclosing himself.

"Yes, Senora Cervera," he hastened to add, before any of the startled group could speak, "I owe you a profound apology. I did you the injustice to suspect you, not only of being a thief, but also of being identified with the notorious Kilgore gang, three of the cleverest and most dangerous swindlers in the world."

"Perdition!" gasped Cervera. "You astound me."

"I was led to suspect you, senora, because your letter to Venner took him from his store just at the time of the robbery," Nick quickly went on to explain, thus putting his own strategy on a solid basis. "I shadowed you from the theater to-night, intending to watch you and your house, a design which has nearly cost me my life at the hands of your faithful watchman.

"I am glad to add, senora, that I now have completely changed my views, and I trust that you will bear in mind that you were a stranger to me, and so pardon my unworthy misgivings. It is impossible that you, Senora Cervera, could be guilty of any evil, or know aught of so accomplished a knave as David Kilgore, or any of his clever gang."

A shrewder move could scarce have been conceived. That Nick would thus have declared himself in the very presence of Kilgore, if known to him, seemed utterly absurd; and the eyes of both Kilgore and Matt Stall were aglow with a vicious amusement and satisfaction much too genuine to be entirely concealed.

"Well, Mr. Carter," cried Venner, now hastening to release the defective's hands, "you certainly have had a close call, and are lucky to come out of it with a whole skin. These two men are employed by senora to guard her house at night, and they naturally mistook you for a burglar."

Despite his keen discernment, Nick could not determine whether this man was lying, or was really as blind as his words implied. Content to await further discoveries, however, Nick laughed quickly, and replied:

"Well, well, Mr. Venner; I am quite accustomed to close calls and hard knocks, and I assure you that I bear the senora's watchmen no ill will for having done their duty as they saw it. Senora Cervera is to be congratulated upon having secured the services of two such faithful fellows."

Kilgore had all he could do to keep from laughing aloud, so blinded was he by Nick's artful duplicity.

"And when I inform you, senora," cried Venner, "that Detective Carter is in my employ, and is really a royal good friend, I am sure that you will pardon him for having been so misled by your letter of this morning."

Senora Cervera was blushing now, yet to Nick it appeared a little forced, and there was in her evil, black eyes a gleam he did not like. Yet she at once arose and came to shake the detective by the hand.

"Oh, if my dear friend, Mr. Venner, says it is all right, I am sure it must be so," she cried, smiling up at Nick. "But I am afraid, Detective Carter, that you will now think me dreadfully severe, and my two watchmen more brutal than bulldogs."

Nick laughed deeply, and glanced at the display of diamonds on the table.

"When one has such valuable toys as those in her house, senora, bold men and vigilant bulldogs are both essential," said he, heartily.

"That's true, sir; indeed, it is."

"And with your permission, senora, I will shake hands with your two watchmen also, to show them I bear no resentment. After which I will take myself home, to nurse my little tokens of their vigilance and prowess."

This brought a laugh from all, and Nick, ever shrewd and crafty, now shook hands with the two criminals he fully intended to finally land behind prison bars. Then he bowed himself out of the room, and was accompanied by Rufus Venner to the front door of the house, where he bade him a genial good-night and departed.

When Venner returned to the room, he found Dave Kilgore seated on the edge of the table, with his false beard in his hand, and a look of intense distrust on his evil, forceful face.

"Crafty—infernally crafty!" he cried, as Venner entered. "I tell you, Rufe, that man must be watched. He is a man to be feared—constantly feared! I'm cursed if I can tell whether he gave us that on the level or not."

"Pshaw!" sneered Venner, contemptuously. "Of course it was on the level."

"I'm not so sure of it—not so sure of it!" reiterated Kilgore, with clouded brow. "I tell you, Venner, that he must be watched, and we must be guarded. We have too much at stake to suffer Nick Carter to queer our game."

"There is one sure way of preventing it," cried Cervera, with passionate vehemence.

"Kill him?"

"Yes! Take his life!" hissed the dancer, through her gleaming white teeth. "You were fools to have missed it to-night. Even the law would have acquitted you."

"There are nights to come!" Kilgore grimly retorted.



CHAPTER VIII.

FOUND DEAD.

"What's the trouble yonder, Nick?"

"Where?"

"In the park."

"Humph! Something wrong, evidently. Come on, Chick, and we'll see."

It was nearly sunset one Monday afternoon, and almost two weeks subsequent to the incidents last depicted.

That at least one of Dave Kilgore's suggestions had been adopted, and he and his gang had become rigorously guarded, appears in that the Carters had utterly failed to accomplish anything against them in the interval mentioned. Despite constant vigilance and incessant work on the case, neither Nick nor Chick had been able to secure an additional clew.

Kilgore and Matt Stall had vanished as if the earth had swallowed them.

The mammoth vaudeville troupe had completed its engagement, and was now disbanded for the season.

Senora Cervera still retained her uptown house, and frequently received Venner as a visitor; but never a sign of the diamond gang, or of any stranger, could the detectives discover, in or about her place.

Rufus Venner was attending to his business as usual, and appeared all aboveboard. Now and then he called upon Nick about the stolen diamonds, expressing a hope that they would be recovered; but in no way did he lay himself open to further suspicions than Nick had at first conceived.

Yet Nick was too shrewd to press him with questions, and so perhaps betray his own hand. As a matter of fact, the famous detective was in quite a quandary over the case, because of his conviction that some big game was secretly afoot, and his utter inability to strike any tangible clew to it.

Such a state of affairs was very unusual, and Nick chafed under it. It indicated that he was up against men as good as himself, and his vain work of the past ten days served only to aggravate him, and embitter his grim and inflexible determination to unearth the whole business.

This Monday afternoon, as Nick and Chick were passing Central Park, the attention of the latter was drawn toward a group of men in one of the park walks, somewhat removed from the street. A policeman was among them, and they appeared to be gazing at something upon the ground.

"It looks like the figure of a woman," said Nick, as he and Chick entered the park. "Officer Fogarty is there, and—yes, by Jove! it is the form of a woman."

The two detectives quickly reached the scene, and the park officer at once recognized Nick, respectfully touching his helmet.

"What's amiss here, Fogarty?" inquired Nick.

Fogarty pointed to the motionless form upon the ground.

"Dead!" said he, tersely. "We've just found her."

"Keep those people further away, Fogarty," said Nick, with a toss of his head toward half a score of men gathered near by. "I will see what I make of the case."

The figure was that of a girl, rather than a woman, apparently about eighteen years of age. She was lying partly upon her side upon the greensward, and evidently had fallen from one of the park seats upon which she had been resting, and upon which her straw shade hat was still lying. She was neatly clad in a suit of dark blue, and her girlish face indicated some culture and refinement.

Near her, upon the grass, lay a piece of brown wrapping paper, and a yard of two of string, evidently removed from a small, square box, which she had dropped and partly fallen upon when stricken with sudden death.

A mere glance gave Nick these superficial features, and he quickly knelt beside the girl, and felt her hand and wrist.

"Dead as a doornail," he murmured to Chick, who also had approached. "I find her hand still warm, however. She can have been dead only a few minutes."

"Heart failure, perhaps," suggested Chick.

"I don't think so."

"Why?"

"She doesn't look it. Her form is plump, her cheeks full, and she appears to have been in perfect health."

"Yet she is dead."

"No doubt of it."

"A pretty girl, too."

"Very. See if there is any writing on that brown paper."

"No, Nick; not a line."

"Here, here, let me see it! What's this? It is punctured with tiny holes, evidently made with a pin."

"So it is, by Jove!"

"Perhaps she made them with her hat pin, while sitting there on the seat. See, Chick, there is the pin still in the hat."

"I see it, Nick. What now?"

Still kneeling beside the girl, Nick was holding the sheet of paper between himself and the sky.

"No, the punctures are not uniform," said he. "I thought that they possibly had been made with some design, and perhaps formed some word or sentence that would give us a clew to the mystery."

"None such, eh?"

"Not a sign of it. Evidently she jabbed the pin through the paper only in idleness."

"She is lying on a box of some kind, from which she probably had taken this wrapping paper."

"So I see," nodded Nick. "Lend me a hand, Chick, and we'll have a look at the box."

With gentle hands the two detectives moved the girl's lifeless form, and Nick then took up the box mentioned.

It was about four inches square, and was made of silver, with an open work design of vines and leaves, which displayed a blue silk lining through the metal apertures. Plainly enough it was a lady's jewel casket, and one of considerable value; but it was entirely empty, and it bore no name or inscription.

For several moments Nick Carter examined it very intently, with his brows gradually knitting closer and closer; and all the while Officer Fogarty, and the group of men in the gravel walk a few yards distant, mutely gazed and wondered.

Chick Carter, however, who could read Nick's every change of expression, saw at once that the great detective not only was making some startling discoveries, but also was arriving at deductions far too subtle and significant to have been reached by any less keen and practiced observer.

"What do you make of it, Nick?" whispered Chick, dropping to his knee beside his companion.

Nick also lowered his voice, and for several minutes the two conversed in rapid whispers.

"It is a jewel case, Chick; and quite a valuable one."

"So I see."

"I don't think it belonged to this girl. She looks as if she were the maid, or possibly the companion, of some woman of wealth or distinction. Her attire also indicates that. Hence so valuable a toy can hardly have belonged to the girl, but more likely was the property of her mistress."

"No name on it?"

"Not even an initial. Not a mark of any kind."

"It is empty."

"Yes."

"Can the girl have been robbed of its contents, here and in broad daylight?"

"Worse, Chick!" whispered Nick, between his teeth. "Worse even than that."

"Good heavens, Nick! What do you mean?"

"Chick, this girl was foully murdered!"

"Murdered!" echoed Chick, with an involuntary gasp. "Can it be possible?"

"It certainly appears so to me."

"But the means?"

"That is the mystery."

"There are no signs of violence."

"Wait a bit. Notice her right wrist, just back of the thumb and near the pulse. Notice that tiny red spot, barely observable. It might have been made with the point of a pin. Do you see, it?"

"Yes, now that you call my attention to it."

"It means something. I am convinced of that."

"Others are not likely to discover it."

"I hope they may not, Chick," Nick hurriedly rejoined. "I am flooded with ideas and suspicions, which I wish to consider and put in order before too much of this mystery leaks out. I'll explain later."

"Perhaps her hat pin is poisoned," suggested Chick.

"I don't think that."

"Or possibly—"

"Wait a moment. Look at this box."

"Well?"

"That wrapper was punctured while still on the box," explained Nick. "Notice that the pin went through the spaces in this metal design, and then through the silk lining inside."

"Plainly enough, Nick."

"Notice this particular puncture in the interior of the lining."

"By Jove! there's a faint tinge of red around it."

"Left when the pin was withdrawn," whispered Nick, significantly. "Chick, it's a tinge of blood!"

"I believe you're right, Nick."

"I am convinced of it. Also that there's a mystery here which cannot be solved in a moment," said Nick, impressively. "I wish to conceal these discoveries until after I have considered them more fully, and also identified this girl. See if you can find her purse, or anything that will reveal her name."

While Chick was thus engaged, Nick arose and glanced sharply around in search of any evidence indicating that such a crime could have been committed unobserved in so public a place.

The seat which the girl had occupied stood on the greensward, about eight feet from the gravel walk. By several clusters of shrubbery some feet away at either side, the seat was somewhat obscured from the view of persons approaching along the walk from either direction. Several trees cast shadows nearly over the spot, which was one very likely to have been selected by a couple desirous of being somewhat alone while resting from an afternoon stroll.

Nick quickly noted these several features, then glanced at Chick and asked:

"Do you find anything?"

"Nothing by which to identify her."

"Her purse?"

"It contains only a few pieces of silver. No cards, nor so much as a scrap of paper. Other than her purse, there is only a latchkey in her pocket, and a perfectly plain handkerchief. Her identification must come later."

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