The Apartment Next Door
AUTHOR OF THE HOUSE OF WHISPERS, LIMPY, ETC.
ILUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR WILLIAM BROWN
TO THAT MARVELLOUS SCHEHERAZADE
CAROLYN WELLS HOUGHTON
THE AUTHOR, IN ENVIOUS ADMIRATION, DEDICATES THIS VOLUME
I. THE FACE OF HATE
II. THE ADDRESS ON THE CARD
III. "MR. FLECK"
IV. THE CLUE IN THE BOOK
V. ON THE TRAIL
VI. THE MISSING MESSAGE
VII. THE WOMAN ON THE ROOF
VIII. THE LISTENING EAR
IX. THE PURSUIT
X. CARTER'S DISCOVERY
XI. JANE'S ADVENTURE
XII. PUZZLES AND PLANS
XIII. THE SEALED PACKET
XIV. THE MOUNTAIN'S SECRET
XV. THE HOUSE IN THE WOODS
XVI. THE ATTACK ON THE HOUSE
XVII. SOMETHING UNEXPECTED
XVIII. WHAT THE PACKET CONTAINED
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
* * * * *
She could not bring herself to tell him, the man she loved, the thing she knew he was.
More than likely, she alone in all the world—knew who the murderer was.
Had he been standing there listening? How much had he heard?
"Thank God," he cried. "Jane, dear, tell me you are not hurt!"
THE APARTMENT NEXT DOOR
THE FACE OF HATE
It was three o'clock in the morning. Along a deserted pavement of Riverside Drive strode briskly a young man whose square-set shoulders and erect poise suggested a military training. His coat, thrown carelessly open to the cold night wind, displayed an expanse of white indicative of evening dress. As he walked his heels clicked sharply on the concrete with the forceful firm tread of the type which does things quickly and decisively. The intense stillness of the early morning hours carried the sound in little staccato beats that could be heard blocks away. A few yards behind him, moving furtively and noiselessly, almost as if he had been shod with rubber, crept another figure, that of a stocky, broad-shouldered man, who despite his bulk and weight moved silently and swiftly through the night, a soft brown hat drawn low over his eyes as if he desired to avoid recognition.
All at once the man ahead paused suddenly and stood looking out over the river. Between the Drive and the distance-dimmed lights of the Jersey shore there rose like great silhouettes the grim figures of several huge steel-clad battleships, their fighting-tops lost in the shadows of the opposite hills. Beside them, obscure, with no lights visible, lay the great transports that in a few hours, or in a few days—who knew—they would be convoying with their precious cargo of fighting men across the war-perilled Atlantic.
It was on the forward deck of one of these great battleships that the eyes of the man ahead were riveted. His shadower, evidently much concerned in his actions, crept slowly and stealthily forward, approaching nearer and still nearer without being observed.
A dim light became visible on the warship's deck and then vanished. Still the man stood there watching, a puzzled, anxious look coming into his face. Quickly the light reappeared—two flashes, a pause, two flashes, a pause, and then a single flash. It was such a light as might have been made by a pocket torch, a feeble ray barely strong enough to carry to the adjacent shore, a light that if it had been flashed from some sheltered nook by the boat davits might not even have attracted the attention of the officer on the bridge nor of the ship's watchmen. Manifestly it was a signal intended for the eyes of some one on shore.
A muttered imprecation escaped the lips of the watcher on the Drive. He stood there, straining his eyes toward the ship as if expecting a following signal, then he turned and gazed aloft at the windows of the apartment houses lining the driveway to see if some answering signal flashed back.
And in the shadow of the buildings, hardly ten feet away but half sheltered by a doorway, stood his sinister pursuer, motionless but alert.
For perhaps a quarter of an hour they held their positions. At last the man who was being followed shrugged his shoulders impatiently and set off again down the Drive, from time to time turning his head to watch the spot from which the signal had been flashed. Behind him, as doggedly as ever and now a little closer, crept the man with the hat over his eyes.
Regardless of the lateness of the hour, at a third-floor window of one of the great apartment houses lining the Drive sat a young girl in her nightrobe, with her two great black braids flung forward over her shoulders, about which she had placed for warmth's sake a quilted negligee. Jane Strong was far too excited to sleep. An hour before she had come in from a wonderful party. The music still was playing mad tunes in her ears. The excitement, the coffee, the spirited tilts at arms with her many dancing partners had set her brain on fire. Sleep seemed impossible as yet.
Looking out at the river—a favorite occupation of hers—the sight of the warships looming up through the darkness reminded her once more that nearly all of the men with whom she had been dancing had been in uniform, bringing into prominence in the jumble of ideas in her over-stimulated brain, almost as a new discovery, the fact that her country was really engaged in war, that the men, the very men whom she knew best, were most of them fighting, or soon going to fight in a foreign land. Suddenly she found herself vaguely wishing that there was something she might do, something for the war, something to help. Would it not be splendid, she thought, to go to France as a Red Cross nurse, to be over there in the middle of things, where something exciting was forever going on. Life—the only life she knew about, existence as the petted daughter of well-to-do parents in a big city—had, ever since the war had begun, seemed strangely flat and uninteresting. Parties, to be sure, were fun but hardly any one was giving parties this year. The Stantons had entertained only because their lieutenant son was going abroad soon, and they wished him to have a pleasant memory to carry with him. Most of the interesting men she knew already were gone, and now Jack Stanton was going. How she wished she could find some way of getting into the war herself.
The sound of approaching footsteps caught her ear. Wondering who was abroad at that hour of the night she pushed up the window softly and looked out. In the distance she saw a man approaching, striding briskly toward her. As she stood idly watching him and wondering about him, suddenly she caught her breath. She had sighted the other figure behind, the man creeping stealthily after him. Nearer and nearer they came. In tense expectation she waited, sensing some unusual development. They had reached her block now. Almost directly under her window the man in advance paused to light a cigarette. His shadow paused, too, but some incautious movement on his part must have betrayed him.
Match in hand, the man in advance stood stock-still, his whole figure taut, poised, alert, in an attitude of listening. All at once he wheeled about, discovering the man close behind him. He sprang at once for his pursuer. The latter took to his heels, dashing around the corner, the man whom he had been following now hot at his heels.
All trembling with nervous excitement Jane leaned out the window to listen and watch. She could hear the running feet of both men just around the corner. What was happening? The running feet came to an abrupt stop. There was a half-smothered cry, a sharp thud, like a body striking the pavement, and then came silence. Puzzled, vaguely alarmed, a hundred questions came pouring into her brain and lingered there disturbingly. Why had one of these men been shadowing the other? Why had the pursuer suddenly become the pursued? Why had the running footsteps come to such an abrupt stop? What was the noise she had heard? What was happening around the corner? Her fears rapidly growing, she was on the point of arousing her family. But what excuse should she give? What could she tell them? After all she had merely seen two men run up the side street. More than likely they would only laugh at her, and she did not like being laughed at. Besides, Dad was always cross when suddenly awakened. Undecided what to do she stood at the window, peering into the night.
Five minutes, ten minutes she stood there in tremulous perplexity. A sense of impending tragedy seemed to have laid hold of her. A black horror seized her and held her at the window. Something terrible, something tragic, she was sure must have happened. Mustering up her strength and trying to calm her fears she was about to put down the window when she heard footsteps once more approaching. Straining her ears to listen she discovered the sound was that of the steps of a man—one man—approaching from around the corner. As she watched he turned into the Drive and came on toward her. She shrank back a little, fearful of being seen even though her room was in darkness. It was the first man. She recognized him at once by his top-hat and his evening clothes. He was walking even more briskly than before, almost running. There was no sign anywhere of the shorter thick-set man who had been following him. Something in the appearance of the figure in the street below struck her all at once as vaguely familiar. She wondered if it could be any one she knew.
Presently he came directly opposite the light on the other side of the Drive so that it shone for an instant full on his face. Jane looked and shuddered. Never in all her life had she seen any man's countenance so convulsed, not with pain, but with a soul-terrifying expression of hate, of virulent, murderous hate.
Distorted though the man's face was with such bitter frightfulness, she recognized him, not as any one she knew, but merely as one of the tenants in the same apartment building.
"It's one of the people next door," she said to herself and in verification of her identification, as he approached the building, the young man cast a swift glance over his shoulder, and then, as if satisfied that he was unobserved, dashed hurriedly in at the entrance.
Jane, more than ever wrought up with fear and dread of she knew not what, sprang hastily into bed and drew the covers about her shoulders. As yet she did not lie down but shiveringly waited. Presently she heard the elevator stop. She heard the key opening the door of the next apartment. In a few minutes she heard the man moving about his bedroom, separated from her own room by a mere six inches of plaster and paper, or whatever it is that apartment-house walls are made of.
What could have happened? She was certain that something terrible had occurred in which the young man next door had played a tragic, perhaps even a criminal part. She tried in vain to conjecture what circumstance could have been responsible for the look of hatred she had seen on his face. She wondered what had been the fate of the man who had been following him. Had they quarrelled and fought? What could have been the subject of their quarrel?
She tried to summarize what she knew about the people next door, and was amazed to discover how little she had to draw upon. As in most New York apartment houses so in Jane's home all the tenants were utter strangers to each other, one family not even knowing the names of any of the others. Occasionally, to be sure, one rather resentfully rode up or down in the elevator with some of the other tenants but always without noticing or speaking to them. Jane's family had been living in the building for five years, and of the twenty other families they knew the names of only two, having learned them by accident rather than intention. About the people next door Jane now discovered that she really knew nothing at all. There was a man with a gray beard who never took off his hat in the elevator, and there was the handsome young chap whom she had just seen entering. But what their names were, or their business, or how long they had lived there, or whether they were father and son, what servants they kept, or whether either or both of them was married—these were questions she could have answered as readily as if they had been living in Dallas, Texas, or Seattle, Washington, as in the next apartment. Quickly she found that she really knew nothing at all about them except—she could not recall that any one had told her or how she had got the impression—she was almost certain they were some sort of foreigners.
Just when it was that her troubled thoughts were succeeded by even more troubled dreams she was not aware, but it was noon the next day when she was awakened by the maid bringing in her breakfast tray.
"Terrible, Miss Jane, wasn't it," said the servant, "about that suicide last night, almost under our noses, you might say."
"Suicide!" cried the girl, at once wide-awake and interested "What suicide?"
"A man was found dead in the side street right by our building with a revolver in his hand."
"What sort of a looking man was he?"
"I didn't see him," said the maid, almost regretfully. "He was taken away before I was up. Cook tells me it was the milkman found him and notified the police."
"Who was he?"
"Nobody round here knows a thing about him. He shot himself through the heart and us sleeping here an' not knowing anything at all about it."
"But didn't any one know who he was?"
"Never a soul. The superintendents from all the buildings round took a look at the body, but none of them knew him. It wasn't anybody that lived around here. There's a piece in the afternoon papers about it."
"Get me a paper at once," directed the girl.
Eagerly she read the paragraph the maid pointed out. It really told very little. The body of a plainly dressed man had been found on the sidewalk. There was a revolver in his hand with one cartridge discharged, and the bullet had penetrated his heart. He had been a short stalky man and had worn a brown soft hat. There was nothing about his clothing to identify him, even the marks where his suit had been purchased having been removed. He had not been identified. The police and the coroner were satisfied that it was a case of suicide.
Jane, reading and rereading the paragraph, recalled the unusual occurrence she had witnessed the night before. Vividly there stood out before her the strange panorama she had seen, the tall young man in evening clothes, and the short stalky man with the soft hat who had followed him. The two of them had run around the corner. Only one of them had come back. Unforgettably there was imprinted in her memory the satanic expression on the young man's face as he had hastened into the house. No wonder he had cast such an anxious glance behind him as he entered.
Jane was certain that it was no suicide. She remembered the curious thud she had heard from around the corner, like a body falling to the pavement. She recalled that it must have been at least ten minutes before the other man reappeared, time enough to have placed the revolver in the dead man's hand, time enough even to have removed all possible means of identification from the man's clothing.
It was not suicide, Jane felt certain. It was murder! Slowly but oppressingly, overwhelmingly, it dawned on her not only that in all probability a murder had been committed, but also that she—more than likely, she alone in all the world—knew who the murderer was, who it must have been—the young man next door.
THE ADDRESS ON THE CARD
Impatiently Jane looked at her wrist watch. It lacked an hour of the time when she was to meet her mother at the Ritz for tea. Her nerves still all ajangle from excitement and worry over the morning's tragedy, and her own accidental secret knowledge of certain aspects of the case had made it wholly impossible for her to do anything that day with even simulated interest.
She had been debating with herself whether or not to confide to her mother the story of the tragic tableau of which she had been an accidental witness, when Mrs. Strong had dashed into her bedroom to give her a hurried peck on the cheek and to say that she was off to luncheon and the matinee with Mrs. Starrett.
"You're not looking well to-day, dear," her mother had said. "Stay in bed and rest and join us for tea if you like."
Before she had opportunity to tell what she had seen, her mother was gone, but Jane had found it impossible to obey her well-meant injunction. She rose and dressed, her mind busy all the while with the problem of what her duty was. As she donned her clothing she paused from time to time to listen for sounds from the next apartment.
What was her neighbor doing now? Had he read of the discovery of the man's body in the street? Perhaps he had fled already? Not a sound was to be heard there. He did not look in the least like what Jane imagined a murderer would, yet certainly the circumstances pointed all too plainly to his guilt. She had seen two men dash around the corner, one in pursuit of the other. One of them had come back alone. Not long afterward a body—the body of the other man—had been found with a bullet in his heart. It must have been a murder.
What ought she to do about it? Was it her duty to tell her mother and Dad about what she had seen? Mother, she knew, would be horrified and would caution her to say nothing to any one, but Dad was different. He had strict ideas about right and justice. He would insist on hearing every word she had to tell. More than likely he would decide that it was her duty to give the information to the authorities. Her face blanched at the thought. She could not do that. She pictured to herself the notoriety that would necessarily ensue. She saw herself being hounded by reporters, she imagined her picture in the papers, she heard herself branded as "the witness in that murder case," she depicted herself being questioned by detectives and badgered by lawyers.
No, she decided, it would be best for her never to tell a soul, not even her parents. In persistent silence lay her safest course. After all she had not witnessed the commission of the crime. She was not even sure that the man found dead had been one of the two she had watched from her window. If she saw the body she would not be able to identify it. She was not even certain in her own mind that the man next door had done the shooting, however suspicious his actions may have appeared to her. Besides, he did not look in the least like a murderer. He was too well-dressed.
In an effort to put the whole thing out of her mind she tried to read, but was unable to keep her thoughts from wandering. She sat down at the piano, but music failed to interest or soothe her. She mussed over some unanswered notes in her desk but could not summon up enough concentration of mind to answer them. Restless and fidgety, unable to keep her thoughts from the unusual occurrences that had disturbed her ordinarily too peaceful life, she decided to take a walk until it was time to keep her appointment. Something—force of habit probably—led her to the shopping district. With still half an hour to kill, she went into a little specialty shop to examine some knitting bags displayed in the window.
"Why don't you knit as all the other girls are doing?" was her father's constant suggestion every time she asserted her desire to be doing something in the war.
"There's no thrill in knitting," she would answer. "Fix it, Dad, so that I can go to France as a Red Cross nurse or as an ambulance driver, won't you? I want some excitement."
Always he had refused to consent to her going, insisting that France in wartime was no place for an untrained girl.
"If I can't go myself, I certainly am not going to send any knitting," she would spiritedly answer, but several times recently the sight of such charming looking knitting bags had tempted her into almost breaking her resolution.
Inside the shop she found nothing that appealed to her, and contented herself with buying some toilet articles. As she made her purchases she noticed, almost subconsciously, a man standing near, talking with one of the shopgirls—a middle-aged man with a dark mustache.
"The address, please," said the girl, who had been waiting on her.
"Miss Strong," she answered, giving the number of the apartment house on Riverside Drive.
She recalled afterward that as she mentioned the number the man standing there had turned and looked sharply at her, but she thought nothing of it. Her father's name was well known and he had many acquaintances in the city. More than likely, she supposed, this man was some friend of her father who had recognized the name.
She lingered a few moments at some of the other counters, aimlessly inspecting their offerings, and at last, with ten minutes left to reach the Ritz, emerged from the store. She was amazed to see the man who had been inside now standing near the entrance, and something within warned her that he had been waiting to speak to her. As she attempted to pass him quickly, he stepped in front of her, blocking her path, but raising his hat deferentially.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Strong," he said, "may I have a word with you?"
Compelled to halt, she looked at him both appraisingly and resentfully. There was nothing offensive nor flirtatious in his manner, and he seemed far too respectably dressed to be a beggar. He was almost old enough to be her father, and besides there was about him an indefinable air of authority that commanded her attention. She decided that, unusual as his request appeared, she would hear what he had to say.
"What is it?" she asked, trying to assume an air of hauteur but without being able wholly to mask her curiosity.
"You are an American, aren't you?" he asked abruptly.
"A good American?"
"I hope so." She decided now that he must be one of the members of some Red Cross fund "drive," or perhaps an overenthusiastic salesman for government bonds. "But I don't quite understand what it is that you wish."
"I can't explain," said her questioner, "but if you really are a good American and you'd like to do your country a great service—an important service—go at once to the address on this card."
She took the slip of white pasteboard handed her. On it was written in pencil "Room 708." The building was a skyscraper down-town.
"What is it?" she asked half indignantly, "a new scheme to sell bonds?"
"No, no, Miss Strong," he cried, "it is nothing like that. It is a great opportunity to do an important service for America."
"How did you know my name?"
"I heard you give it to the clerk just now."
"And why," she inquired with what she intended to be withering sarcasm, "have I been selected so suddenly for this important work?"
"I heard the address you gave, that's why," he answered. "That's what makes it so important that you should go to that number at once. Ask for Mr. Fleck."
"I can't go," she temporized. "I am on my way now to meet my mother at the Ritz."
"Go to-morrow, then," he insisted. "I'll see Mr. Fleck meanwhile and tell him about you."
Puzzled at the man's unusual and wholly preposterous request, yet in spite of herself impressed by his evident sincerity, Jane turned the card nervously in her hand and discovered some small characters on the back; "K-15" they read.
"What do those figures mean?" she asked.
"I can't tell you that. Mr. Fleck will explain everything. Promise me you will go to see him."
"Who are you?"
"I can't tell you that, yet."
"Who, then, is Mr. Fleck?"
"He will explain that to you."
"What has my address to do with it? I can't understand yet why you make this preposterous request of me."
"I tell you I can't explain it to you, not yet," the man replied, "but it's because you live where you do you must go to see Mr. Fleck. It's about a matter of the highest importance to your government. It is more important than life and death."
His last words startled her. They brought to her mind afresh the mysterious occurrence she had witnessed the night before and the equally mysterious death near her home. Had this man's odd request any connection, she wondered, with what had happened there? The lure of the unknown, the opportunity for adventure, called to her, though prudence bade her be cautious.
"I'll ask my mother," she temporized.
"Don't," cried the man. "You must keep your visit to Mr. Fleck a secret from everybody. You mustn't breathe a word about it even to your father and mother. Take my word for it, Miss Strong, that what I am asking you to do is right. I've two daughters of my own. The thing I'm urging you to do I'd be proud and honored to have either of them do if they could. There is no one else in the world but you that can do this particular thing. A word to a single living soul and you'll end your usefulness. You must not even tell any one you have talked with me. See Mr. Fleck. He'll explain everything to you. Promise me you'll see him."
"I promise," Jane found herself saying, even against her better judgment, won over by the man's insistence.
"Good. I knew you would," said her mysterious questioner, turning on his heel and vanishing speedily as if afraid to give her an opportunity of reconsidering.
Puzzled beyond measure not only at the man's strange conduct but even more at her own compliance with his request, Jane made her way slowly and thoughtfully to the Ritz, where she found her mother and Mrs. Starrett had already arrived.
As they sipped their tea the two elder women chatted complacently about the matinee, about their acquaintances, about other women in the tea-room and the gowns they had on, about bridge hands—the usual small talk of afternoon tea.
To Jane, oppressed with her two secrets, all at once their conversation seemed the dreariest piffle. Great things were happening everywhere in the world, nations at war, men fighting and dying in the trenches of horror for the sake of an ideal, kings were being overthrown, dynasties tottering, boundaries of nations vanishing. Women, she realized, too, more than ever in history, were taking an active and important part in world affairs. In the lands of battle they were nursing the wounded, driving ambulances, helping to rehabilitate wrecked villages. In the lands where peace still reigned they were voting, speech-making, holding jobs, running offices, many of them were uniting to aid in movements for civic improvement, for better children, for the improvement of the whole human race.
And here they were—here she was, idling uselessly at the Ritz as she had done yesterday, last week, last month—forever, it seemed to her. The vague protest that for some time had been growing within her against the senselessness and futility of her manner of existence crystallized itself now into a determination no longer to submit to it. Courageously she was resolving that she would take the first opportunity to escape from this boresome routine of pleasure-seeking. She was wondering if the request that had been so unexpectedly made of her would prove to be her way out from her prison of desuetude.
The talk of the two women with her drifted aimlessly on. Seldom was she included in it, save when her mother, nodding to some one she knew, would turn to say:
"Daughter, there is Mrs. Jones-Lloyd."
What did she care about Mrs. Jones-Lloyd? What did she care about any of the people about them, aimless, pleasure-hunting drifters like themselves. Left to her own devices for mental activity her thoughts kept recurring to the surprising adventure she had had a few minutes before. Thoughtfully she pondered over the mysterious message that had been given to her. The man had said that it was a wonderful opportunity for her to do her country a great service. She wondered why he had been so secretive about it. She decided that she would investigate further and made up her mind to carry out his instructions. What harm could befall her in visiting an office building in the business district? At least it would be something to do, something new, something different, something surely exciting and, perhaps, something useful.
It would be better, she decided, for the present at least, to keep her intentions entirely to herself. Any hint of her plans to her mother would surely result in permission being refused. The man certainly had seemed sincere, honest, and perfectly respectable, even if he was not of the sort one would ask to dinner. She made up her mind to go down-town to the address given the very first thing to-morrow morning. If anything should happen to her, she felt that she could always reach her father. His office was in the next block.
The problem of making the mysterious journey without her mother's knowledge bothered her not at all. As in the case of most apartment-house families, she and her mother really saw very little of each other, especially since she had become a "young lady." Mrs. Strong went constantly to lectures, to luncheons, to bridge parties, to matinees with her own particular friends. Jane's engagements were with another set entirely, school friends most of them, whose parents and hers hardly knew each other. Both she and her mother habitually breakfasted in bed, generally at different hours, and seldom lunched together. At dinner, when Mr. Strong was present, there were no intimacies between mother and daughter. The only times they really saw each other for protracted periods were when they happened to go shopping, or go to the dressmaker's together, and then the subject always uppermost in the minds of both of them was the all-important and absorbing topic of clothes. Occasionally, Jane poured at one of her mother's more formal functions, but for the most part the time of each was taken up in a mad, senseless hunt for amusement.
Suddenly every thought was driven from Jane's head. Her face went white, and with difficulty she managed to suppress an alarmed cry.
"What is it, daughter?" asked her mother, noting her perturbation. "Are you feeling ill?"
"A touch of neuralgia," she managed to answer.
"Too many late hours," warned Mrs. Starrett reprovingly.
"I'm afraid so," said Mrs. Strong. "As soon as I've paid my check we'll go."
"I'm perfectly all right now," said Jane, controlling herself with effort, though her face was still white.
The danger that she had feared had passed for the present at least. Glancing toward the entrance a moment before she had been terrified to see entering the black-mustached man who had accosted her a few moments before. Her one thought now had been that he had followed her here, and in a panic she was wondering how she should make explanations if he came up to their table and spoke. To her great relief he gave no intimation of having seen her, but settled himself into a chair near the door where he was half hidden from her by a great palm. Furtively she watched him, trying to divine his intention in having followed her there. Respectable enough though he was in appearance and garb, he did not seem in the least like the sort of man likely to be found at tea-time in an exclusive hotel. As she studied him she soon saw that his attention seemed to be riveted on some one sitting at the other side of the room. Wonderingly she let her eyes follow his, and once more it was with difficulty that she suppressed an excited gasp.
There, across the room, calmly sipping some coffee, was the handsome young man from the next apartment—the man whom she had felt sure, or at least almost sure, was a murderer, about whom she had been wondering all day long, picturing him as a hunted criminal fleeing from the law. Chatting interestedly with him was another man, a young man in the uniform of a lieutenant in the navy.
What did it all mean? Why was the black-mustached man watching them so intently? Her eyes turned back to him. He was still sitting there, leaning forward a little, his brows in a pucker of concentration, his eyes still fixed on the pair opposite. It looked almost as if he was trying to read their lips and tell what they were talking about.
Jane thrilled with excitement. The black-mustached man, she decided, must be a detective. She recalled that he had said to her it was because she lived at the address she did that she was available for the mission for which he wanted her. Did he, she wondered, know about the mysterious death in the street outside their apartment house? Was that the reason he was spying on her neighbor? But what could be his motive in seeking to involve her in the matter?
Unable to find satisfactory answers to her questions she gave herself up interestedly to studying the faces of the two young men across the room. Neither of them, she decided, could be much more than thirty. The face that only a few hours before she had seen utterly convulsed with bitter hate, now placid and smiling, was really an attractive one, not in the least like a murderer's. Frank, alert blue eyes looked out from under an intellectual forehead. A small military mustache lent emphasis to a clean-shaven, forceful jaw. His flaxen hair was neatly trimmed. His linen and clothing were immaculate, and the hand that curved around his cup had long, tapering, well-manicured fingers. The cut of his clothing, his manners, everything about him seemed American, yet there was an indefinable something in his appearance that suggested foreign birth or parentage, probably either Swedish or German. The man with him was smaller and slighter. Despite the air of importance his uniform gave him, it was palpable that he was the less forceful of the two, his handsome face, it seemed to Jane, betraying weakness of character and a fondness for the good things of life.
"Come, daughter," said Mrs. Strong, rising, "we must be going."
So intent was Jane on her study of the two men that her mother had to speak twice to her.
"Yes, mother," she answered obediently, rising hastily as the hint of annoyance in her mother's repeated remark brought her to a realization of having been addressed.
Letting her mother and Mrs. Starrett precede her in the doorway she paused to look back at the scene that had interested her so strongly. What could it mean? What was going on? How was she involved in it?
Her glance moved quickly from the watcher to the watched. The blond young man caught her eye. Amazedly, it seemed to her, he stopped right in the middle of what he was saying and sat there, his gaze fixed full on her. She let her eyes fall, abashed, and turned to hasten after her mother, but not so quickly did she turn but that she observed he had hastily seized his cup and appeared to be drinking to her, not so much impudently as admiringly.
Twice after the elevator had deposited her on the floor Jane had approached the door of Room 708, and twice she had walked timorously past it to the end of the hall, trying to muster up courage to enter. A visit to a man's office in the business district was a novelty for her. On the few previous excursions of the sort she had made she always had been accompanied by one of her parents. She found herself wishing now that she had taken her father into her confidence and had asked him to go with her. Making shopping her excuse she had come down-town with Mr. Strong but had gotten off at Astor Place, and waited over for another train.
In her hand she held the card given to her by the black-mustached man the afternoon before. As she studied it now her curiosity came to the rescue of her fast-oozing courage. She must find out what it all meant, whatever the risk or peril that might confront her. Boldly she returned to Room 708 and opened the door. An office boy seated at a desk looked up inquiringly.
"Is Mr. Fleck in?" she inquired timidly.
"Who wishes to see him?"
"Just say there's a lady wishes to speak to him," she faltered, hesitating to give her name.
"Are you Miss Strong?" asked the boy abruptly, "because if you are, he's expecting you."
She nodded, and the boy, jumping up, escorted her into an inner room. As she entered nervously an alert-looking man, with graying hair and mustache, rose courteously to greet her. In the quick glance she gave at her surroundings she was conscious only of the great mahogany desk at which he sat and behind it some filing cabinets and a huge safe, the outer doors of which stood open.
"Sit down, won't you, Miss Strong," he said, placing a chair for her.
His manner and his cultured tone, everything about him, reassured her at once. They conveyed to her that he was what she would have termed "a gentleman," and with a little sigh of relief she seated herself.
"I'm afraid," said Mr. Fleck, smiling, "that Carter's method of approaching you must have alarmed you."
"Carter—Oh, the black-mustached man."
"Yes, that describes him. You see, he did not wish to act definitely without consulting his chief, yet the unexpected opportunity seemed far too vital not to be utilized. He did not explain, did he, what it was we wanted of you?"
"Indeed he didn't," said Jane, now wholly herself. "He was most mysterious about it."
Mr. Fleck smiled amusedly.
"Carter has been an agent so long that being mysterious is second nature to him."
"An agent—I don't understand."
"A Department agent," explained Mr. Fleck, adding, "engaged in secret service work for the government."
Jane's exclamation was not so much of surprise as of delighted realization, and the satisfaction expressed in her face was by no means lost on Mr. Fleck.
"Would you object," he asked, moving his chair a little closer to hers, "if, before I explain why you are here, I ask you a few questions—very personal questions?"
"Certainly not," said Jane.
"You are American-born, of course?"
"And your parents?"
"American for ten or twelve generations."
"How long have you lived in that apartment house on Riverside Drive?"
"For about five years."
"Do you know any of the other tenants in the house?"
"No—that is, none personally."
"Is your time fully occupied?"
"No, indeed it isn't, I've nothing to do at all, nothing except to try to amuse myself."
"Good," said Mr. Fleck. "Now would you be willing to help in some secret work for the United States Government, some work of the very highest importance?"
"Would I?" cried Jane, her eyes shining. "Gladly! Just try me."
"Don't answer too quickly," warned Mr. Fleck. "Remember, it will be real work, serious work, not always pleasant, sometimes possibly a little perilous. Remember, too, it must be done with absolute secrecy. You must not let even your parents know that you are working with us. You must pledge yourself to breathe no word of what you are doing or are asked to do to a living soul. Everything that we may tell you is to be buried forever from everybody. No one is to be trusted. The minute one other person knows your secret it will no longer be a secret. Can we depend upon you?"
"You may absolutely depend on me," said Jane slowly and soberly. "I give you my word. I have been eager for ever so long to do something to help, to really help. My father is doing all he can to aid the government. He's on the Shipping Board."
Mr. Fleck nodded. Evidently he was aware of it already.
"My brother, my only brother," Jane continued, with a little catch in her throat, "is Over There—somewhere Over There—fighting for his government. If there is anything I can do to help the country he is fighting for, the country he may die for, I pledge you I will do it gladly with my heart, my soul, my body—everything."
"Thank you," said Mr. Fleck softly, taking her hand. "I felt sure you were that sort of a girl. Now listen." He moved his chair still closer to hers, and his voice became almost a whisper. "In the apartment next to you there live two men,—Otto Hoff and his nephew, Fred. They have an old German servant, but we can leave her out of it for the present. The old man is a lace importer. Apparently they are both above suspicion, yet—"
He stopped abruptly.
"You think they are spies—spies for Germany," questioned Jane excitedly. "They're Germans, of course?"
"Otto Hoff is German-born, but he has been here for twenty years. Several years ago he took out papers and became an American citizen."
"And the young man?"
Jane's tone was vibrant with interest. It must be the man she had seen from her window whom they suspected most.
"He professes to be American-born."
"Oh," said the girl, rather disappointedly.
"But," continued Mr. Fleck, "there's something queer about it all. He arrived in this country only three days before we went into the war. He had a certificate, properly endorsed, giving his birthplace as Cincinnati. He arrived on a Scandinavian ship. He speaks German as well and as fluently as he speaks English, both without accent."
"Perhaps he was educated abroad," suggested Jane, rather amazed at finding herself seeking to defend him.
"He must have been," said Fleck, "yet I find it hard to believe that Germany at this time is letting any young German-American come home if he's soldier material—and young Hoff's appearance certainly suggests military training."
"It surely does."
"Unless," continued Fleck, "there was some special object in sending him here."
"You think," said Jane slowly, "they sent him here—to this country—as a spy."
"In our business we dare not think. We cannot merely conjecture. We must prove," said Mr. Fleck. "Maybe the Hoffs are O.K. I do not know. Nobody knows yet. Let me tell you some of the circumstances. This much we do know. Von Bernstorff is gone. Von Papen is gone. Scores of active German sympathizers and propagandists have been rounded up and interned or imprisoned, yet, in spite of all we have done, their work goes on. A vast secret organization, well supplied with funds, is constantly at work in this country, trying to cripple our armies, trying to destroy our munition plants, trying to corrupt our citizens, trying to disrupt our Congress. Every move the United States makes is watched. As you probably know, every day now large numbers of American troops are embarking in transports in the Hudson."
"Yes," said Jane, "you can see them from our windows."
"Now then," said Mr. Fleck, lowering his voice impressively, "here is the fact. Some one somewhere on Riverside Drive is keeping close and constant tab on the warships and transports there in the river. We have managed recently to intercept and decipher some code messages. These messages told not only when the transports sailed but how many troops were on each and how strong their convoy was. Where these messages originate we have not yet learned. We are practically certain that some one in our own navy, some black-hearted traitor wearing an officer's uniform—perhaps several of them—is in communication with some one on shore, betraying our government's most vital secrets."
"I can't believe it," cried Jane, "our own American officers traitors!"
"Undoubtedly some of them are," said Mr. Fleck regretfully. "The German efficiency, for years looking forward to this war, carefully built up a far-reaching spy system. Years ago, long before the war was thought of—or at least before we in this country thought of it—many secret agents of Wilhelmstrasse were deliberately planted here. Many of them have been residents here for years, masking their real occupation by engaging in business, utilizing their time as they waited for the war to come by gathering for Germany all of our trade and commercial secrets. Some of these spies have even become naturalized, and they and their sons pass for good American citizens. In some cases they have even Americanized their names. Insidiously and persistently they have worked their way into places, sometimes into high places in our chemical plants, our steel factories, yes, even into high places in our army and navy and into governmental positions where they can gather information first-hand. In no other country has it been so easy for them, because of this one fact: so large a proportion of Uncle Sam's population is of German birth or parentage. Why here in New York City alone there are more than three-quarters of a million persons, either German-born themselves or born of German parents. Many of them, the vast majority of them, probably, are loyal to America, but think how the plenitude of German names makes it easy for spies to get into our army and navy. Besides that, they employ evil men of other nationalities as spies, the criminal riffraff,—Danes, Swedes, Spaniards, Italians, Swiss and even South Americans,—all of whom are free to go and come as they choose in this country."
"I never realized before," said Jane, "how many Germans there were all about us."
"In an effort to locate this particular band of naval spies," continued Mr. Fleck, "we have combed the apartment houses and residences along the Drive. Three places in particular are under suspicion. The apartment of the Hoffs is one of these places. They moved in there thirty days after this country went to war. Ordinarily, where the occupants of an apartment are under suspicion, we take the superintendent of the building partly into our confidence and plant operatives in the house, or else we hire an apartment in the same building. In this case neither course is practicable. The superintendent of your building is a German-American and we dare not trust him, and there is no vacant apartment that we can rent. We have been watching the Hoffs from the outside as best we could. Carter, who has had charge of the shadowing, accidentally happened to overhear you give your address. He had procured a list of the tenants and remembered the location of your apartment. It struck him at once that you would be a valuable ally if you would consent to work with us."
"What is it that you wish me to do?" asked Jane wonderingly. "You'll have to tell me how to go about it."
"All a good detective needs," said Mr. Fleck, "is, let us say, three things—observation, addition and common sense. You must observe everything closely, be able to put two and two together and use your common sense. Do you know the Hoffs by sight?"
"Only by sight."
"They live in the next apartment on your floor, do they not?"
"Yes. Young Mr. Hoff's bedroom is the room next to mine."
"Good," cried Mr. Fleck. "Can you hear anything from the next apartment, any conversations?"
"No, only muffled sounds."
"The windows overlook the river and the transports, do they not?"
"Yes, the windows of Mr. Hoff's bedroom and the room next. Their apartment is a duplicate of ours."
Mr. Fleck sprang up and crossed to the big safe. Opening an inner drawer he took out a small metal disk and handed it to her. Jane looked at it curiously. It bore no wording save the inscription "K-19."
"That," said Mr. Fleck, "is the only thing I can give you in the way of credentials. Keep it somewhere safely concealed about your clothing and never exhibit it except in case of extreme necessity. If ever you are in peril any police officer will recognize it at once and will promptly give you all the assistance possible."
"But," protested the girl, "I don't know yet what I am to do."
"For the present I am trusting to your resourcefulness to make opportunities to help us. We are watching the house closely from the outside. Carter will identify you to the other operatives. Once a day I will expect you to call me up, not from your home but from a public 'phone. Here is my number. Say 'this is Miss Jones speaking,' and I will know who it is. I can communicate with you by note without arousing suspicion?"
"Oh, yes, certainly."
"If at any time I have to call you on the 'phone, or if any of the other operatives want to communicate with you the password will be 'I am speaking for Miss Jones.'"
"Isn't that exciting—a secret password," cried Jane enthusiastically.
"If you can manage it without compromising yourself too seriously, I wish you would make the young man's acquaintance."
"That will be simple," said Jane, remembering the admiring way in which he had raised his cup in her direction as she left the hotel.
"If possible find out who their visitors are in the apartment and keep your eyes open for any sort of signalling to the transports. If ever there is an opportunity to get hold of notes or mail delivered to either of them, don't hesitate to steam it open and copy it."
"Must I?" said Jane. "That hardly seems right or fair."
"Of course it's right," cried Mr. Fleck warmly. "Think of the lives of our soldiers that are at stake. The devilish ingenuity of these German spies must be thwarted at all costs. They seem to be able to discover every detail of our plans. Only two days ago one of our transports was thoroughly inspected from stem to stern. Two hours later twenty-six hundred soldiers were put aboard her on their way to France. Just by accident, as they were about to sail, a time-bomb was discovered in the coal bunkers, a bomb that would have sent them all to kingdom come."
"Somebody aboard is a traitor. Somebody knew when that inspection was made. Somebody put that bomb in place afterward. That shows you the kind of enemies we are fighting."
Jane shuddered. She was thinking of the sailing of another transport, the one that had carried her brother to France.
"Anything seems right after that," she said simply.
"Yes," said Mr. Fleck, "there is only one effective way to fight those spying devils. We must stop at nothing. They stop at nothing—not even murder—to gain their ends."
"I know that," said Jane hastily. "I saw something myself you ought to know about."
As briefly as she could she described the scene she had witnessed in the early morning hours from her bedroom window, the man following the younger Hoff, Hoff's discovery and pursuit of him around the corner and of his return alone.
"And in the morning," she concluded, "they found a man's body in the side street. He had a bullet through his heart. There was a revolver in his hand. The newspapers said that the police and the coroner were satisfied that it was a suicide. I caught a glimpse of Mr. Hoff's face when he came back from around that corner. It was all convulsed with hate, the most terrible expression I ever saw. I'm almost certain he murdered that man. I'm sure it wasn't a suicide."
"I'm sure, too, that it was no suicide," said Mr. Fleck gravely. "The man who was found there was one of my men, K-19, the man whose badge I have just given you. He had been detailed to shadow the Hoffs."
THE CLUE IN THE BOOK
Subway passengers sitting opposite Jane Strong as she rode up-town from Mr. Fleck's office, if they observed her at all—and most of them did—saw only a slim, good-looking young girl, dressed in a chic tailormade suit, crowned with a dashing Paris hat tilted at the proper angle to display best the sheen of her black, black hair, which after the prevailing fashion was pulled forward becomingly over her ears. Outwardly Jane was unchanged, but within her nerves were all atingle at the thought of the tremendous and fascinating responsibility so unexpectedly thrust upon her. Her mind, too, was aflame with patriotic ardor, but coupled with these new sensations was a persisting sense of dread, an intangible, unforgettable feeling of horror that kept cropping up every time her fingers touched the little metal disk in her purse.
The man who had carried it yesterday, the other "K-19" who had undertaken to shadow those people next door, now lay dead with a bullet through his heart. Was there, she wondered, a similar peril confronting her? Would her life be in danger, too? Was that the reason Mr. Fleck had told her of her predecessor's fate—to warn her how desperate were the men against whom she was to match her wits? Yet no sense of fear that projected itself into her busy brain as she cogitated over the task before her held her back. If anything she was rather thrilled at the prospect of meeting actual danger. What bothered her most was how she could best go about aiding Mr. Fleck and his men in their work.
Her opportunity came far more quickly than she had anticipated. She had gotten off the train at the 96th Street station, purposing to walk the twenty odd blocks to her home as she pondered over the work that lay ahead of her. Busy with a horde of struggling new thoughts she proceeded along Broadway, for once in her life unheeding the rich gowns and feminine dainties so alluringly displayed in the shop windows. Suddenly she pulled herself together with a start. Directly ahead of her, plodding along in the same direction, was a figure that from behind seemed strangely familiar. She quickened her step until she caught up sufficiently with the man ahead to get a good glimpse of his side face. Nervously she caught her breath. Without any doubt it was the gray Van Dyke beard of old Otto Hoff.
Where was he going? What was he doing? She paused and looked behind her, scanning the pavement on both sides of the street. She was half-hoping that she would discover Carter or some of his men shadowing their quarry, but her hope was vain. There was no one in the block at the moment but herself and Mr. Hoff. If Fleck's men had been watching his movements, the old man certainly seemed to have eluded them.
What should she do? Vividly there flashed into her mind her chief's parting words.
"Watch everything," he had charged her. "Remember everything, report everything. No detail is too unimportant. If you see one of the Hoffs leave the house, don't merely report to me that the old man or the young man left the house about three o'clock. That won't do at all. I want to know the exact time. Was it six minutes after three or eleven minutes after three? I must know what direction he went, if he was alone, how long he was absent, where he went, what he did, to whom he talked. Here in my office I take your reports, Carter's reports, a dozen other reports, and study them together. Things that in themselves seem trifling, unimportant, of no value, coupled with other seemingly unimportant trifles sometimes develop most important evidence."
To prove his point he had told her of the seemingly innocent wireless message that an operator, listening in, had picked up, at a time when Germans were still permitted to use the wireless station on Long Island for commercial messages to the Fatherland. On the face of it, it was the mere announcement of the death of a relative with a few details. But a little later the same operator caught the same message coming from another part of the country, with the details slightly different, and still later another message of the same purport. Evidently, by comparing the messages, the United States authorities had been able to work out a code.
Remembering this, Jane decided that it was her particular duty just now to follow the old German and note everything he did. For several blocks she trailed along behind him, without arousing any suspicion on his part that he was being followed. He stopped once to light a cigarette, the girl behind him diverting suspicion by hastily turning to a shop window. Again he stopped, this time before the display of viands in the window of a delicatessen store. Thoughtfully Jane noted the number, observing, too, that the name of the proprietor above the door was obviously Teutonic. She was half-expecting to see her quarry turn in here, but he walked on to the middle of the next block, where he entered a stationery store.
Hesitating but a second, to decide on a course of action, she followed him boldly into the store. She felt that she must ascertain just what he was doing in there. As she entered she saw that in the back part of the store was a lending library. Mr. Hoff had gone back to it and was inspecting the books displayed there. Unhesitatingly she, too, approached the book counter.
"Have you 'Limehouse Nights'?" she asked the attendant, naming the first book that came into her head. She had a copy of the book at home, but that seemed to be the only title she could think of.
"We have several copies," the girl in charge answered, "but I think they are all out. I'll look."
As the clerk examined the shelves, Jane kept up a desultory talk with her, questioning her about various books on the shelves, all the while watching the old German out of the corner of her eye. His back was toward her, and he seemed to be examining various books on the shelves, turning over the pages as if unable to decide what he wanted. Curious as to what his taste in reading was, Jane endeavored to locate each book that he removed from its place, her idea being that she would later try to discover their titles. To her amazement she found that it was invariably the third book in each shelf that he removed and examined—the third from the end. It did not appear to her that he was examining the contents of the pages so much as searching them as if he expected to find something there.
All at once, as she furtively watched from behind him, she heard him give a little pleased grunt and she saw him picking out from between the leaves of the book a fragment of paper, which he held concealed in his hand. Watching closely, Jane saw him thrust this same hand into his trousers pocket, and when he brought it out she was certain that the hand was empty. What did this curious performance mean? What was the little slip of paper he had found in the book? Why had he concealed it in his pocket?
Still keeping her attention riveted on him, she picked up a book to mask her occupation and pretended to be turning its pages. She was glad she had done so, for a minute later old Hoff wheeled suddenly and looked sharply about him. Apparently having his suspicions disarmed by seeing only herself and the clerk there, he turned again to the bookshelves. Jane this time saw him thrust his fingers into his waistcoat pocket and withdraw therefrom,—she was almost certain of it,—a little slip of paper. She saw him remove from the second row of books the fifth from the end, open it quickly and close it again and then restore it to its place. As he did so he turned to leave the store.
"Didn't you find anything to read to-day, Mr. Hoff?" the clerk asked.
"Nodding," he answered. "You keep novels, trash, nodding worth while."
Her nerves aquiver, Jane waited until he was out of the store and then stepped briskly to the place where he had stood. Hastily she pulled forth the fifth book from the end in the second row. Turning its pages she came upon what she had anticipated,—a strip of yellow manila paper,—the paper she was sure she had seen him take from his pocket. Hastily she examined it, expecting to find some message written there. To her chagrin it was just a meaningless jumble of figures in three columns.
534 5 2 331 54 6 644 76 3 49 12 9 540 30 12 390 3 2 519 3 6 327 20 2
Her first thought was to thrust the little scrap of paper in her purse and start again in pursuit of old Hoff, but a sudden light began to dawn on her. This was a cipher message, of course. The old man had left it here for some one to come and get. If she followed Hoff, how was she to discover who the message was for? Puzzled as to what she should do, she borrowed a pencil from the clerk on the pretense of writing a postal and hastily copied the figures, after which she restored the slip to the book in which she had found it.
Glancing about undecidedly, wondering if it would do to take the clerk into her confidence, wishing she had some means of reaching Mr. Fleck and asking his advice, she spied in a drug-store just across the street a telephone booth. She could telephone from there and at the same time keep her eye on the store. Quickly she did so, twisting her head around all the time she was 'phoning to make sure that no one entered opposite.
"Is this Mr. Fleck?" she asked. "This is Miss Jones."
"So soon?" came back his voice. "What has happened? What is the matter? Have you changed your mind?"
"Not at all," she answered indignantly. "I've discovered something already—a cipher message."
Even over the wire she could sense the eagerness in Mr. Fleck's tone, and a sense of achievement brought a radiant glow to her cheek.
"I ran into that man—you know whom—"
"The young one?" he interrupted.
"No, the uncle."
"Yes, yes, go on," cried Mr. Fleck impatiently.
"I followed him along Broadway after I got off at 96th Street and into a library and stationery store. I watched him fuss over the books there, and I think he got a slip of paper with a message out of one of them."
"Good," cried Mr. Fleck, "that is something new. Go on."
"And then he slipped a paper into a book—"
"Did you notice what book?"
"I don't know the title. It was the fifth book from the end on the second shelf, and I got the paper and copied it."
"Splendid. What did the message say?"
"It's just a lot of figures. I put it back after copying it, and I am in a drug-store across the street where I can watch to see if any one comes to get the message. What shall I do now?"
"Can you remain there fifteen minutes without arousing suspicion?"
"Certainly. I'll say I am waiting for some one."
"Good. I'll get in touch with Carter at once. He'll tell you what to do when he arrives."
Impatiently Jane sat there, keeping vigilant watch on the entrance across the street, determined to be able to describe minutely each person that entered. From time to time she surreptitiously studied the postcard on which she had jotted down the mysterious numbers. How utterly meaningless they looked. Surely it would be impossible for any one, even Mr. Fleck, to decipher any message that these figures might convey. It would be impossible unless one had the key. Figures could be made to mean anything at all. She doubted if her discovery could be of much importance after all, yet certainly Mr. Fleck had seemed quite excited about it.
She spied Carter passing in a taxi. Two other men were with him. Her first impulse was to run out in the street and signal to him, but she waited, wondering what she should do. She was glad she had not acted impulsively, for a moment later Carter entered alone, evidently having left the car somewhere around the corner. She expected that he would address her at once, but that was not Carter's way. He went to the soda counter and ordered something to drink, his eyes all the while studying his surroundings. Presently he pretended to discover her sitting there. To all appearances it might have been an entirely casual meeting of acquaintances.
"Good-morning, Miss Jones," he said quite cordially, extending his hand. "I'm lucky to have met you, for my daughter gave me a message for you."
He put just a little stress on the words "my daughter" and Jane understood that he was referring to "Mr. Fleck."
"Indeed," she replied, "what is it?"
"She wants you to go down-town at once and meet her at Room 708—you know the building."
"Aren't you coming, too?"
"Not right away. I have some errands to do in the neighborhood. I've got to buy a book for a birthday present. There's a library around here somewhere, isn't there?"
"Just across the street," said Jane, entering into the spirit of the masked conversation with interest. "I was looking at a fine book over there a few minutes ago. You'll find it on the second shelf—the fifth book from the end, on the north side of the store."
"I'll remember that," said Carter, repeating, "the fifth book on the second shelf."
"That's right," said Jane, as they left the drug-store together.
"Which way did the old man go?" asked Carter.
"Down Broadway—toward home," she replied. "I wanted to follow him, but it seemed more important to stay here and watch to see if any one came for the message he left there in the book."
"You did just right, and the Chief is tickled to death. He wants to see you right away. You have a copy of the message, haven't you?"
"Yes, do you wish to see it?"
"No, but he does. Has anybody entered the store since you were there?"
"Nobody, that is no one but a couple of girls."
"What did they look like? Describe them."
"Why," Jane faltered, "I did not really notice. I was not looking for girls. I was watching to see that no other men entered the store."
Carter shook his head.
"You ought to have spotted them, too. You never can tell who the Germans will employ. They have women spies, too,—clever ones."
"I never thought of their using girls," protested Jane.
"Humph," snapped Carter, "ain't we using you? Ain't one of our best little operatives right this minute working in a nursegirl's garb pulling a baby carriage with a baby in it up and down Riverside Drive? Well, it can't be helped. You'd better beat it down-town to the Chief right away."
"I'll take a subway express," said Jane, feeling somewhat crestfallen at his implied suggestion of failure.
Twenty-five minutes later found her once more in Mr. Fleck's office. Thrilling with the excitement of it all she told him in detail how she had followed old Hoff and of his peculiar actions in the bookstore.
"And here," she said, presenting the postcard, "is an exact copy of the cipher message he left there. I copied every figure, in the columns, just as they were set down. I don't suppose though you'll be able to make head or tail out of it. I know I can't."
"Don't be too sure of that," smiled Chief Fleck, as he took the card. "When you get used to codes, most of them identify themselves at the first glance—at least they tell what kind of a code it is. That's one thing about the Germans that makes their spy work clumsy at times. They are so methodical that they commit everything to writing. Now the most important things I know are right in here"—he tapped his head. "Every once in a while they ransack my rooms, but they never find anything worth while. Now this code"—he was studying the card intently—"seems to be one of a sort that our friends from Wilhelmstrasse are ridiculously fond of using. It is manifestly a book code."
"A book code," Jane repeated perplexedly. "I don't understand."
"It is very simple when two persons who wish to communicate with each other secretly both have a copy of some book they have agreed to use. They write their message out and then go through the book locating the words of the message by page, line and word. That's what the three columns mean. Our only problem is to discover which is the book they both have. They often employ the Bible or a dictionary or—"
He stopped abruptly and studied the columns of figures.
"This code," he went on, "on its face is from a book that has at least 544 pages. One of the pages has at least 76 lines—that's the middle column—so the book must be set in small type."
"What book do you suppose it is?" asked Jane interestedly. She was glad now that she had listened to Carter. She was sure she was going to like being in the service. It was all so interesting, and she was learning so many fascinating things.
"If my theory is right those letters indicate that the book used was an almanac. That's the book that Wilhelmstrasse made use of when a wireless message was sent in cipher to the German ambassador directing him to warn Americans not to sail on the Lusitania. They betrayed themselves at the Embassy by sending out to buy a copy of this almanac. Let's see how our theory works out."
Taking up an almanac that lay on his desk he began turning to the pages indicated in the first column of figures, checking off the lines indicated in the second column and putting a ring around the words marked by the third column of figures.
"Let's see—page 534—fifth line—second word—that's (eight). Now then—page 331—that's the chronology of the war in the almanac, so I guess we are on the right track—fifty-fourth line—sixth word—(transport)."
"Isn't it wonderful!" cried Jane.
"Damn them," he exploded. "I know we are on the right track. Some transports with our troops sailed this morning, and already the German spies are spreading the news, hoping to get it to one of their unspeakable U-boats."
Quickly he ran through the rest of the cipher, writing it out as he went along:
As Fleck finished the message his face became almost black with rage.
"Damn them," he cried again, "in spite of everything we do they get track of all our troop movements. Their information, whenever we succeed in intercepting it, is always accurate. If I had my way I'd lock up every German in the country until the war was over, and I'd shoot a lot of those I locked up. Until the whole country realizes that we are living in a nest of spies—that there are German spies all around us, in every city, in every factory, in every regiment, on every ship, everywhere right next door to us—this country never can win the war."
"What does the '97' at the end mean?" questioned Jane timidly, a little bit frightened at his outburst, yet more than ever realizing the vast importance of his work—and hers.
"Oh, that's nothing. Probably old Hoff's number. Most spies are known just by numbers."
"Yes, of course," said Jane, flushing as she recalled that she herself was now "K-19." Was she a spy? Was Mr. Fleck a chief of spies? She always had looked on a spy as a despicable sort of person, yet surely the work in which they both were engaged was vital to American success at arms—a patriotic and important service for one's country.
"I suppose," she said thoughtfully, unwilling to pursue the chain of her own thought any further, "that there is evidence enough now to arrest old Mr. Hoff right away."
"You bet there is," said Mr. Fleck emphatically, "but that is the last thing I am thinking of doing yet. He is only one link in a great chain that extends from our battleships and transports there in the North River clear into the heart of Berlin. We've got to locate both ends of the chain before we start smashing the links. We've got to find who it is in this country that is supplying the money for all their nefarious work, from whom they get their orders, how they smuggle their news out. Most of all we have got to find where the end of the chain is fastened in our own navy. The traitors there are the black-hearted rascals I would most like to get. They are the ones we've got to get."
"Yes, indeed," assented Jane, suddenly recalling the navy lieutenant she had seen in the Ritz chatting so confidentially with old Otto Hoff's nephew. Was he, she wondered, one of the links in the terrible chain? Was he the end—the American end of the chain?
"We're certain about the old man now," said Fleck, rising as if to indicate that the interview was at an end. "We've got to get the young fellow next. There is nothing in this to implicate him. That's your job. Find out all you can about him. Get acquainted with him, if possible. That's one of the weakest spots about all German spies. They can't help boasting to women. Try to get to know this Fred Hoff. It's most important."
"I'll do more than try," said Jane spiritedly. "I'll get acquainted right away. I'll make him talk to me."
ON THE TRAIL
Few men, even fathers, realize how utterly inexperienced is the average well-brought-up girl, just emerged from her teens, in the affairs of the great mysterious world that lies about her. A boy, in his youth living over again the history of his progenitors, escapes his nurse to become an adventurer. At ten he is a pirate, at twelve a train robber, at fourteen an aviator, actually living in all his thoughts and experiences the life of his hero of the moment, learning all the while that the world about him is full of adventurers like himself, ready to dispute his claims at the slightest pretext, or to carry off his booty by prevailing physical force.
Well-brought-up girls seldom are fortunate enough to have such educative experiences. Their friends are selected for them, gentle untaught creatures like themselves. Few of them learn much of the practical side of life. A boy is delighted at knowing the toughest boy in the neighborhood. A girl's ambitions always are to know girls "nicer" than she is. The average girl emerges into womanhood with her eyes blinded, uninformed on the affairs of life, business, politics, untrained in anything useful or practical, knowing more of romance and history than she does of present-day facts.
If Chief Fleck had understood how really inexperienced Jane Strong actually was, it is a question whether he would have ventured to entrust so important a mission to her as he had done. Jane herself, as she left his office, aroused by his revelations of the treacherous work of Germany's spies, and uplifted by his appeal to her patriotism, felt enthusiastically capable of obeying his instructions. It seemed very simple, as he had talked about it. All she had to do was to get acquainted with the young man next door. Yet the further the subway carried her from Mr. Fleck's office after her second visit there that morning, the more her heart sank within her, and the fuller her mind became of misgivings.
In a big city next door in an apartment house is almost the same thing as miles away. She ransacked her brain, trying to remember some acquaintance who might be likely to know the Hoffs, but failed utterly to recall any one. She reviewed all possible means of getting acquainted but could find none that seemed practical. Never in her life had she spoken to a man without having been introduced to him—except of course to Carter and Mr. Fleck, and these men, she told herself, were government officials, something like policemen, only nicer. At any rate, she knew them only in a business way, not socially. If she was to be successful in learning much about the Hoffs—about young Mr. Hoff—she felt that it was necessary to make them social acquaintances.
She must manage to meet Frederic Hoff in some proper way, but how? She thought of such flimsy tricks as dropping a handkerchief or a purse in the elevator some time when he happened to be in it, but rejected the plan as disadvantageous. "Nice" girls did not do that sort of thing, and even though she was seeking to entrap her neighbor she did not for a moment wish him to consider her as belonging to the other sort. It rather annoyed her to find that she cared what kind of an impression she made on him. What difference did it make what a German spy thought of her, especially a murderer? Yet, she argued with herself, the better the impression she made at first the more likely she would be to gain his confidence, and that she knew would delight Mr. Fleck. Was Frederic Hoff, too, really, she wondered, a spy? Her face colored as she recalled the mental picture she last had had of him, gallantly and admiringly raising his cup to her as she left the Ritz, not obtrusively or impudently, but so subtly that she was sure that no one had observed it but herself. It seemed preposterous to associate the thought of murder with a man like him.
As she entered the apartment house she was arguing still with herself about him. Her intuition told her that Frederic Hoff was a gentleman, and how could a gentleman be what Mr. Fleck seemed to think he was? As the door swung to behind her she gave a little quick breath of delight, for she had caught sight of a uniformed figure standing by the switchboard. She had recognized him at once. It was the naval lieutenant who had been at the Ritz. She heard him saying to the girl at the switchboard:
"Tell Mr. Hoff, young Mr. Hoff, that Lieutenant Kramer is here. I'll wait for him down-stairs."
Quick as a flash a course of action came into her mind. She saw an opportunity too good to be neglected. She hurried forward to where the lieutenant was standing, her hand outstretched, with a smile of recognition—feigned, but well-feigned—on her lips.
"Why, Lieutenant Kramer," she cried, "how delightful. Have you really kept your promise at last and come to see the Strongs?"
She could hardly restrain her amusement as she watched the embarrassed young officer strive in vain to recall where it was that he had met her. She had relied on the fact that the men in the navy meet so many girls at social functions that it is impossible for any of them to remember all they had met.
"Really, Miss—" he stammered, struggling for some fitting explanation.
"Don't tell me," she warned reprovingly, "that it isn't Jane Strong that you are here to see, after all those nice things you said to me that day we had tea aboard your ship."
She was hoping he would not insist on going into particulars as to which ship it was. Fortunately she had been to functions on several of the war vessels, so that she might find a loop-hole if he was too insistent on details.
"Indeed, Miss Strong," said Kramer, gallantly pretending to recall her, "I'm delighted to see you again. I've been intending to come to see you for ever so long, but you understand how busy we are now. In fact, it was business that brought me here to-day. I'm calling on Mr. Hoff, who lives here, to take him to lunch to discuss some important matters."
At his last phrase Jane's heart thrilled. What important matters could there be that a navy lieutenant could fittingly discuss with a German, with the nephew of the man whose secret code message they had just succeeded in reading? Determining within herself to keep fast hold on the beginning she had made, she masked her real thoughts and let her face express frank disappointment.
"How horrid of you," she continued, "when I was just going to insist that you stay and have luncheon with us."
He was protesting that it was quite out of the question when the elevator brought down her mother, whom Jane at once summoned as an ally, feeling sure that considering how many men of her daughter's acquaintance she had met, it would be perfectly safe to keep up the deception.
"Oh, mother," she cried, "you remember Lieutenant Kramer, don't you? I've just been urging him to stay and have luncheon with us. Do help me persuade him."
"Of course I remember Mr. Kramer," fibbed the matron cordially, all unaware of her daughter's duplicity. "Do stay, Mr. Kramer, and have luncheon with Jane. I ordered luncheon for four, expecting to be home, and now I've been called away, but your aunt is there to chaperone you. It spoils the servants so to prepare meals and have no one to eat them, to say nothing of displeasing Mr. Hoover. It's really your duty—your duty as a patriot—to stay and prevent a food-waste."
"I've just been trying to explain to your daughter that I was taking Mr. Hoff to luncheon with me. Here he is now."
Mrs. Strong's eyes swept the tall figure approaching appraisingly and apparently was pleased with his aspect. As Mr. Hoff was presented she hastened to include him in the invitation to luncheon.
"Have pity on a poor girl doomed to eat a lonely luncheon by her parent's neglect," urged Jane. "Really, you must come, both of you. Nice men to talk to are so scarce in these war times that I have no intention of letting you escape."
"I'm in Kramer's hands," said Frederic Hoff gallantly, "but if he takes me to some wretched hotel instead of accepting such a charming invitation as this, my opinion of him as a host will be shattered."
"But," struggled Kramer, realizing that it must be a case of mistaken identity and sure now that he never had met either Jane or her mother before, "we have some business to talk over."
"Business always can wait a fair lady's pleasure," said Hoff. "Is this ruthless war making you navy men ungallant?"
With a mock gesture of surrender, and as a matter of fact, not at all averse to pursuing the adventure further, Lieutenant Kramer permitted Jane to lead the way to the Strong apartment.
Soon, with the familiarity of youth and high spirits, the three of them were merrily chatting on the weather, the war, the theater and all manner of things. Jane, in the midst of the conversation, could not help noting that Hoff had seated himself in a chair by the window where he seemed to be keeping a vigilant eye on the ships that could be seen from there. Even at the luncheon table he got up once and walked to the window to look out, making some clumsy excuse about the beautiful view.
Determined to press the opportunity, Jane endeavored to turn the conversation into personal channels.
"You are an American," she said turning to Hoff, "are you not? I'm surprised that you are not in uniform, too."
"A man does not necessarily need to be in uniform to be serving his government," he replied. "Perhaps I am doing something more important."
"But you are an American, aren't you?" she persisted almost impudently, driven on by her eagerness to learn all she possibly could about him.
"I was born in Cincinnati," he replied hesitantly.
She could not help observing how diplomatically he had parried both her questions. Mentally she recorded his exact words with the idea in her mind of repeating what he had said verbatim to her chief.
"Then you are doing work for the government?"
Intensely she waited for his answer. Surely he could find no way of evading such a direct inquiry as this.
"Every man who believes in his own country," he answered, modestly enough, yet with a curious reservation that puzzled her, "in times like these is doing his bit."
She felt far from satisfied. If he was born in America, if he really was an American at heart, his replies would have been reassuring, but his name was Hoff. His uncle was a German-American, a proved spy or at least a messenger for spies. If her guest still considered Prussia his fatherland the answers he had made would fit equally well.
"You're just as provokingly secretive as these navy men," she taunted him. "When I try to find out now where any of my friends in the navy are stationed they won't tell me a thing, will they, Mr. Kramer?"
"I'll tell you where they all are," said Lieutenant Kramer. "Every letter I've had from abroad recently from chaps in the service has had the same address—'A deleted port.'"
"I really think the government is far too strict about it," she continued. "My only brother is over there now fighting. All we know is that he is 'Somewhere in France.' War makes it hard on all of us."
"Yet after all," said Hoff soberly, "what are our hardships here compared to what people are suffering over there, in France, in Belgium, in Germany, even in the neutral countries. They know over there, they have known for three years, greater horrors than we can imagine."
The longer she chatted with him, the more puzzled Jane became. He seemed to speak with sincerity and feeling. Her intuition told her that he was a man of honor and high ideals, and yet in everything he said there was always reserve, hesitation, caution, as if he weighed every word before uttering it. Intently she listened, hoping to catch some intonation, some awkward arrangement of words that might betray his tongue for German, but the English he spoke was perfect—not the English of the United States nor yet of England, but rather the manner of speech that one hears from the world-traveler. Question after question she put, hoping to trap him into some admission, but skilfully he eluded her efforts. She decided at last to try more direct tactics.
"Your name has a German sound. It is German, isn't it?" she asked.
"I told you I was born in Cincinnati," he answered laughingly. "Some people insist that that is a German province."
"But you have been in Germany, haven't you?"
"Why do you ask?"
"I was wondering if you had not lived in that country?"
"I could not well have been there without having lived there, could I?"
Kramer came to her rescue.
"Of course he has lived there. Mr. Hoff and I both attended German universities. That was what brought us together at the start—our common bond."
"Did you attend the same university?" asked Jane. She felt that at last she was on the point of finding out something worth while.
"No," said Kramer, "unfortunately it was not the same university."
She caught her breath and blushed guiltily. If Mr. Kramer had attended a German university he could not be an Annapolis graduate. He must be a recent comer in the American navy. She knew that since the war began some civilians had been admitted. It had just dawned on her that if this was the case, since visiting on board ships was no longer permitted, it clearly was impossible for her to have met him at any function on a warship. He must have known all along that she knew she never had met him. He must have been aware, too, that her mother did not know him. She felt that she was getting into perilous waters and fearful of making more blunders refrained from further questions. A vague alarm began to agitate her. If he had detected her ruse when she first had spoken to him, why had he not admitted it? What had been his purpose in accepting her invitation and in bringing into it his German friend, Mr. Hoff?
The ringing of the telephone bell came as a welcome interruption. A maid summoned her to answer a call, and excusing herself from the table she went to the 'phone desk in the foyer.
"Hello, is this you, Miss Strong?"
It was Carter's voice, but from the anxious stress in it she judged that he was in a state of great perturbation.
"Yes, it is Jane Strong speaking," she answered.
"You know who this is?"
"Of course. I recognize your voice. It's Mr. C—"
A warning "sst" over the 'phone checked her before she pronounced the name and starting guiltily she turned to look over her shoulder, feeling relieved to see the two men still chatting at the table, apparently paying no attention to her.
"I understand," she answered quickly. "What is it?"
"You know that book I told you I was going to buy?"
"It's not there."
"What's that? The book is gone!"
"The book is there all right, but it's not the book I want."
"Are you sure," she questioned, "that you looked at the right book?"
"I looked at the one you told me to."
"Are you certain—the fifth book on the second shelf."
She heard a movement behind her and turning quickly saw Frederic Hoff standing behind her, his hat and stick in hand. Panic-stricken, she hung up the receiver abruptly. Had he been standing there listening? How much had he heard? He would know, of course, what "the fifth book on the second shelf" signified. Had her carelessness betrayed to him the fact that he and his uncle were being closely watched? Anxiously she studied his face for some intimation of his thoughts. He was standing there smiling at her, and to her agitated brain it seemed that in his smile there was something sardonic, defying, challenging.
"I cannot tell you, Miss Strong, how much I have enjoyed your hospitality. You made the time so interesting that I had no idea it was so late. You will excuse me if I tear myself away at once. I have some important business that demands my immediate attention."
"I hope you'll come again," she managed to stammer, "and you, too, Mr. Kramer."
White-faced and terrified she escorted them out, leaving the telephone bell jangling angrily. As the door closed behind them, she sank weak and faint into a chair, not daring yet to go again to the 'phone until she was sure they were out of hearing.
What was the "immediate business" that was calling them away so suddenly? She was more than afraid that her incautious use of the phrase "the fifth book on the second shelf" had betrayed her. What else could it mean? Why else would they have departed so abruptly?
Mustering up her strength and courage she went once more to the 'phone.
"Hello, hello, is that you, Miss Strong? Some one cut us off," Carter's voice was impatiently saying.
"Hello, Mr. Carter," she called, "this is Jane Strong speaking. Where can I see you at once? It's most important."
"I'll be sitting on a bench along the Drive two blocks north of your house inside of ten minutes."
"I'll meet you there," she answered quickly, with a feeling of relief.
The situation was becoming far too complicated, she felt, for her to handle alone. Carter would know what to do. If Hoff and Kramer had learned from her about the trailing of old Hoff, the sooner it was reported to more experienced operatives than she was the better.
"Don't speak to me when you see me sitting on the bench," warned Carter. "Just sit down there beside me and wait till I make sure no one is watching us. I'll speak to you when it's safe."
"I understand," she answered. "Good-by."
As she hastened to don her hat and coat she was almost overwhelmed by a revulsion of feeling. Two days ago the world about her had seemed a carefree, pleasant, even if sometimes boresome place. Now she shudderingly saw it stripped of its mask and revealed for the first time in all its hideousness, a place of murders and spying and secret machinations. People about her were no longer more or less interesting puppets in a play-world. They were vivid actualities, scheming and planning to thwart and overcome each other. Almost she wished that her dream had been undisturbed and that she had not been waked up to the realities. Almost she was tempted to abandon her new-found occupation.
Then, once more, a feeling of patriotic fervor swept over her. She thought of her brother fighting somewhere in the trenches. She pictured to herself the other brave soldiers in the great ships in the Hudson. She remembered the evil plotters with their death-dealing bombs, striving to bring about a ghastly end for them all before they might strengthen the lines of the Allies. She thought, too, of those humanity-defying U-boats, forever at their devilish work, guided to their prey by crafty, spying creatures right here in New York, more than likely by the very people next door.
With her pretty lips set in a resolute line she left the house and walked rapidly north. Come what may she would go on with it. Her country needed her, and that was all-sufficient.
THE MISSING MESSAGE
After Jane left Carter at the drug-store, he did not cross immediately to the bookshop opposite. His detective work was not of that sort. He strolled leisurely around the corner long enough to give some directions to his two aides waiting there and then, moving across the street, paused in front of the window of books as if something there had attracted his attention. All the while he was keeping a sharp eye for any person who looked as if they might be connected in any way with old Hoff. Satisfied that his entrance was unobserved he strolled casually in and began looking over the volumes in the lending library. The lone clerk in the store—a young woman—at first volunteered some suggestions, but as they went unheeded she returned to her work of posting up the accounts.
As soon as her attention was occupied Carter moved at once to the end of the shelf that Miss Strong had indicated and removed the fifth book. To his amazement he found nothing whatever concealed between the leaves. The books on either side on the same shelf failed to yield up anything. He tried the shelf above and the shelf below. Perhaps Miss Strong had been mistaken in the directions. He examined the books at the other end. There was nothing there. He recalled that the girl had said that no one except two girls had entered the store between the time she had discovered and copied the cipher and the time of his arrival. If these girls had not taken the message away there could be only one other explanation—the clerk in the bookstore must have removed it and concealed it somewhere.
"Which of the war books do you think the best?" he asked for the purpose of starting a conversation.
"There's that many it is hard to say, sir," the young woman answered.
Something in her inflection made him look sharply at her. Her accent surely was English, or possibly Canadian. A few judicious questions quickly brought out the information that she came from Liverpool and that she had three brothers in the British army. Carter decided that it was preposterous to suspect her of being in league with German agents. There was only one other thing that could have happened. Some one else—some one who had eluded Miss Strong's notice—had removed the cipher message.
Promptly he had telephoned to her to meet him. He was glad that he had done so, for her evident perturbation as she answered the 'phone both interested and puzzled him. Pausing just long enough to report to Chief Fleck, he hastened to the rendezvous, arriving there first. He selected a bench apart from the others, where the wall jutted out from the walk, and seating himself, idled there as if merely watching the river. In obedience with his instructions Jane, when she arrived, planted herself nonchalantly on the same bench, and paying no attention to him, pretended to be reading a letter.
Presently Carter rose and stretching himself lazily, as if about to leave, turned to face the Drive, his keen eyes taking in all the passers-by. Apparently satisfied, he sat down abruptly and turned to speak to the girl beside him.
"All right, K-19," he said, "it's safe. Now we can talk."
"I've got such a lot to tell," cried Jane.
"First," said Carter, "just where did you put that cipher message when you put it back?"
"What!" cried the girl, her face blanching, "wasn't it there? Didn't you find it?"
Carter shook his head.
"It must be there," she insisted. "Are you sure you looked in the right book—the fifth book from the end on the second shelf on the up-town side of the store."
"It's not there. I examined every book there, on the shelves above and below and at the other end, too."
"The clerk in the store, that girl—must have hidden it," cried Jane with conviction.
"That's not likely. She's an English girl—from Liverpool. She has three brothers fighting on the Allies' side. We can leave her out of it."