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   Chapter 5 No.5

Ashton Kirk, Secret Agent By John T. McIntyre Characters: 14645

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The Hound Strikes the Trail

Old Nanon led the secret agent through the rear of the house and then up the stairs from floor to floor and room to room. His eyes seemed to take in everything, gauging, measuring, speculating; now and then he asked a question to which she returned a brief, illuminating answer. Finally they descended and Ashton-Kirk examined the front door. Beside the ordinary spring lock it had a heavy bolt.

"When you left the step and went back into the kitchen to prepare the coffee, did you close this door?" he asked.

"I did; and bolted it."

"Did you look at it after the body was found?"

"It was I who opened the door for Drevenoff when he started after you. It was still bolted."

Both Fuller and Drevenoff stood in the hall; and as old Nanon paused at the library door, Ashton-Kirk said to the Pole:

"How far away is the nearest police station?"

"About half a dozen blocks," answered the other.

"I want you to go there at once and report what has occurred."

"I can call them upon the telephone," suggested Drevenoff.

"I prefer that you go in person," said Ashton-Kirk, smoothly. "More than likely they will send a man or two; if so, please wait for and return with them."

Nanon opened the library door, turned the switch which controlled the library lights, and then stepped back.

"He is there," she said, one lean finger pointing to the empty doorway.

"Will you not go in?" Ashton-Kirk looked at her keenly.

"No." She drew back further, and he noted her make the same furtive sign that he had caught upon his first visit. "He has filled the world with evil," she went on, "and you see the end of it. Who knows but what that room swarms with things that the soul should fear?"

With this she turned and retraced her steps down the hall, and they saw her re?nter the room where the girl had been left.

"A queer sort of old party," commented Fuller. "And one that seems to stick to her opinions."

The two went into the library and closed the door behind them. The hideous thing which sat huddled in the desk chair compelled their instant attention; the head lay tipped back and the face was caked with dry blood. From one thing to another the secret agent swiftly turned his attention; his singular eyes were narrowed, his nostrils widened like those of a hound searching for the scent.

"He was killed while he sat," said he to Fuller. "His position in the chair is too natural for it to be otherwise. And from the size of the wound I should say the weapon was a small one; the fact that no one, not even a woman seated just outside the door, heard a report, also indicates the same thing."

Around the library went the secret agent; the side windows were tried, but were fast, as were those opening upon the porch. A raincoat lay upon the floor; upon the top of the highboy rested a dark, soft hat.

"The bag!" said Ashton-Kirk in a low voice.

"Was there a bag?" asked Fuller.

In a few words the other related what old Nanon had said. Fuller whistled through his shut teeth as he searched the room with a glance.

"It's gone," said he, "and a hundred to one the thing we want is gone with it."

"Perhaps," said Ashton-Kirk quietly. "But we are not at all sure of that. The person who is keyed up to the pitch of a desperate deed such as this seldom is in the state of mind to make an intelligent search. If the desired thing is at his hand, well and good, but if it is hidden the chances are decidedly against him. Witness the attempt upon the rubies of Bostwick's wife, in which her butler lost his life; also the astonishing matter of the numismatist Hume.[1] A miscalculation spoiled the criminals' chances in the first case; and a misunderstanding with a confederate was fatal in the second. The beast in a man is uppermost when he can do murder; and even the most intelligent of beasts is not a reasoning thing."

"That sounds like truth," said Fuller. "But this is the way I look at it. Dr. Morse was clearly in a state of dread; all about him agreed that these queer things, which were continually recurring, had broken his nerve. A servant enters a room and finds him preparing for a journey. Yet apparently he has not mentioned his intentions in this regard even to his niece, to whom he is much attached. To my mind this indicates that he was about to run off somewhere without saying anything to any one. He feared to remain and he feared to tell that he was going, thinking it would, somehow, leak out."

"Well, and what next?"

"The most natural thing for him to do under the circumstances," proceeded Fuller, "would be to take with him the article which created all the fuss. It would be against human nature to leave it behind. He was about to put it into the bag, or he had already done so, when the servant saw him endeavoring to turn the key."

"That," smiled the secret agent, "is rather well thought out. But you have overlooked one thing. That Dr. Morse intended doing as you state would necessitate his knowing definitely what his mysterious communicants desired. His own acts and especially his own words, as overheard by his niece, indicate the reverse of this. And if he did not know what they wanted," with a twinkle in his eye, "it is certain that he could not pack it away in a bag."

Fuller looked perplexed, but nodded understandingly.

"That's so," said he. "I forgot, for a moment, that the case had that peculiar phase." Again he looked all about. "However," he continued, "the bag is not here, and if the murderer took it with him, you can bet that he had an excellent reason for so doing."

While Fuller was speaking, Ashton-Kirk lifted the coat from the floor; several of the pockets were pulled out. At once he examined the coat worn by the dead man; the inside pockets of this were also turned out, as were those upon the lower outside.

"There was a search," said he. "But, as before, when the house at Sharsdale was broken into, the personal valuables were not its object. Here is his watch in his fob pocket, and this," taking up a torn card case from the desk, "lies just where the criminal flung it in his anger at not finding what he wanted. Its contents," pointing to a tightly wadded heap of bills also upon the desk, "are there."

"Suppose," doubted Fuller, "that the paper wanted was in this pocket case. The murderer would have taken it. As it stands, you do not know whether he found it or not."

"I think I do," replied Ashton-Kirk. "A man who has sought for a thing for a long time is delighted at finding it. The man who threw those bills upon the desk," holding up the tightly twisted lump, "was angry. That is plain in the vehemence of the act."

He stooped and pulled open drawer after drawer in the desk; their contents were tumbled, showing that a rough and hasty hand had been plunged into them. Fuller was gazing in fascinated silence at the long, supple, inquiring fingers as they deftly ran through everything; then suddenly he noted them halt. At once his glance went to the owner's face; Ashton-Kirk, his eyes turned in a sidelong look toward a door at the rear of the room, stood in an attitude of listening. Fuller was about to speak, but the other lifted his hand in a warning gesture. There was an instant's silence, the secret agent listeni

ng as before; then he bent toward Fuller and said softly:

"Switch off the lights!"

Stealthily Fuller crossed the room and did so; then he stood waiting. In a few moments he heard a slight creak from the hall, and a muffled sort of jar. A minute or two passed; he was then astonished to hear the voice of the secret agent speaking in an unconcerned tone of voice.

"Hello," muttered the young man, "he is mighty cool about it, whatever it is. Turning off the lights to hold a conversation is rather new, I should say, outside of a spiritualistic seance."

A short time passed; then steps came along the darkened hall, and Ashton-Kirk's voice said:

"Now, Fuller, the lights, if you please."

Fuller turned on the lights once more, and again the two entered the library.

"I thought I heard you speaking to some one," said Fuller inquiringly.

"Over the telephone," said the other, quietly. "There was a little matter that I desired information upon."

Again he resumed his inspection of the room. The furniture, piece by piece, passed under his keen eye; the floor, the walls, the hangings, the books and writing materials-nothing escaped him. At length he came once more to the highboy with its numerous drawers and glistening glass knobs.

First one and then another of the drawers he pulled open; like those of the desk, they told of the same hasty hand. However, this seemed to be all they had to tell, for the secret agent did not spend more than an instant over each. But as he was about to open the last but one, Fuller saw him pause and bend nearer. Then out came a morocco case and from this was produced a powerful magnifying glass. It was the knob upon the left hand side of the drawer that had caught his attention; putting the lens on this it threw up a thick, dark splotch.

"Blood!" said Ashton-Kirk.

Fuller bent forward with great interest.

"In searching the body after the shooting," said he, "the fellow, whoever he was, probably came in contact with the flow from the wound. And in opening the drawer he transferred it to the knob."

But Ashton-Kirk shook his head.

"No," said he. "It is his own blood. Look!" and he ran the glass from knob to knob upon the other drawers; "there are no marks here. And yet a man making a search would invariably start at the top, as I have done." Then the lens shifted back to the knob with the splotch. "Mark this one closely," he added, "and tell me what you see."

"The knob has been broken," said Fuller at the first glance.

"Exactly. All along its top there is a keen ragged ridge. Probably seizing this to tear open the drawer, the criminal cut himself."

For a moment the speaker stood studying the broken knob with its particle of dried blood; then like a flash he turned to Fuller, his singular eyes ablaze, and snapped:

"On the desk there is a paper-weight. Get it."

Fuller, astonished, did as he was bidden.

"What now?" he inquired.

"Throw it through a bookcase door," was Ashton-Kirk's astonishing reply.

Fuller stood amazed.

"What?" gasped he.

"Throw it through a bookcase door," repeated the secret agent, busy with his lens.

Fuller stood a moment, hesitating; the other arose impatiently, took the heavy paper-weight from him and sent it crashing through the door of the nearest case. The glass splintered and fell jingling to the floor; Ashton-Kirk selected two small pieces and handed them to Fuller.

"In the kitchen you will find hot water and soap; wash and dry these carefully."

The assistant went hastily, and while he was gone, Ashton-Kirk bent once more over the broken knob. With the thin blade of a pocket-knife he picked at the fragment of dried blood; finally he worked it loose and caught it upon a card as it fell. Carrying this to a small table above which hung a light, he examined it carefully. Then to Fuller, as the latter returned, he said:

"Are they ready?"

"All ready," replied Fuller, and he placed the two pieces of glass ready to his employer's hand.

Once more Ashton-Kirk looked at the blood clot; selecting that portion of it which appeared to be thickest he pressed the back of the knife blade carefully against it; then taking it up with the tip of his fingers he carefully broke it in two at the exact place. Sharply he brought the pieces under the light; two crimson, shining spots of uncongealed blood showed within the outer crust.

"Excellent," said the secret agent. "I thought it possible, but scarcely dared hope for it."

One after another and with delicate care he applied the newly exposed surfaces of the clot to one of the bits of glass; a fair sized smear of red appeared upon the smooth glaze. Then he drew the second glass across the top of the first; the result was that he now possessed two distinct smears of the blood.

With much satisfaction he placed these upon the top of the highboy.

"Now we'll leave them to dry," said he, "and in this place they'll not be likely to be disturbed."

Fuller was filled with curiosity as to the meaning of the foregoing performance, but the other had already resumed his prowling up and down, and the aide understood that this was no time for questions.

After a little, Ashton-Kirk opened the door at the back of the library, and they entered the rear room. There was a long window overlooking the lawn, and a door opening into the hallway. The room was scantily furnished; but upon the shelves were a stack of books in wrappers; also there were a number of filing cabinets.

The secret agent looked at some of the books.

"Remnants of editions," he said. "Morse was his own publisher, it seems."

Fuller examined the window.

"All tight," said he. "A Caspar window holder."

The door leading to the hall was fitted with a large old-fashioned lock, from which protruded a copper key.

"That looks safe enough," said Fuller, as he glanced at this.

"If it were fast it might be," said the other, drily. "But I had occasion to use it while you had the lights out, and found it unlocked."

Nanon was summoned and Ashton-Kirk met her in the hall.

"This door," said he; "is it usually left unlocked?"

"Never," she answered. "Dr. Morse always had it fast from the inside. He kept his books and papers there, and did not care to have them disturbed."

"That will do," said Ashton-Kirk. The old woman was just about to turn away when there came a loud peal at the door-bell.

"The police," said Fuller.

"Go and see," said Ashton-Kirk to Nanon.

Grimly she went along the hall, her spare, strong figure iron-like in its rigidity; Fuller's eyes followed her and then turning to the secret agent, he said:

"The thing looks queer, doesn't it? Everything tight as wax, but a very effective job done for all." Then, lowering his voice, he added: "There were only four of them inside; and from my way of thinking the thing rests between them."

The front door had opened in the meantime; they heard the murmur of voices and then it closed sharply. The old Breton woman hurried back to where they stood; and as she came the hall lights showed that her lined face had gone a livid yellow; her bony, large veined hands were outstretched.

"Who is it?" asked Ashton-Kirk.

She pointed toward the door quiveringly.

"The Japanese," she answered.

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