Constance Dunlap/Chapter 4
"Won't you come over to see me to-night? Just a friendly little game, my dear—our own crowd, you know."
There was something in the purring tone of the invitation of the woman across the hall from Constance Dunlap's apartment that aroused her curiosity.
"Thank you. I believe I will," answered Constance. "It's lonely in a big city without friends."
"Indeed it is," agreed Bella LeMar. "I've been watching you for some time and wondering how you stand it. Now be sure to come, won't you?"
"I shall be glad to do so," assured Constance, as they reached their floor and parted at the elevator door.
She had been watching the other woman, too, although she had said nothing about it.
"A friendly little game," repeated Constance to herself. "That sounds as if it had the tang of an adventure in it. I'll go."
The Mayfair Arms, in which she had taken a modest suite of rooms, was a rather recherche apartment, and one of her chief delights since she had been there had been in watching the other occupants.
There had been much to interest her in the menage across the hall. Mrs. Bella LeMar, as she called herself, was of a type rather common in the city, an attractive widow on the safe side of forty, well-groomed, often daringly gowned. Her brown eyes snapped vivacity, and the pert little nose and racy expression of the mouth confirmed the general impression that Mrs. LeMar liked the good things of life.
Quite naturally, Constance observed, her neighbor had hosts of friends who often came early and stayed late, friends who seemed to exude, as it were, an air of prosperity and high living. Clearly, she was a woman to cultivate. Constance felt even more interest in her, now that Mrs. LeMar had pursued a bowing acquaintance to the point of an unsolicited invitation.
"A friendly little game," she speculated. "What is the game?"
That night found Constance at the buzzer beside the heavy mahogany door across the hall. She wore a new evening gown of warm red. Her face glowed with heightened color, and her nerves were on the qui vive for the unlocking at last of the mystery of the fascinating Mrs. LeMar.
"So glad to see you, my dear," smiled Bella, holding out her hand engagingly. "You are just in time."
Already several of the guests had arrived. There was an air of bonhomie as Bella presented them to Constance—a stocky, red-faced man with a wide chest and narrow waist, Ross Watson; a tall, sloping-shouldered man who inclined his head forward earnestly when he talked to a lady and spoke with animation, Haddon Halsey; and a fair-haired, baby-blue eyed little woman gowned in becoming pink, Mrs. Lansing Noble.
"Now we're all here—just enough for a game," remarked Bella in a business-like tone. "Oh, I beg pardon—you play, Mrs. Dunlap?" she added to Constance.
"Oh, yes," Constance replied. "Almost anything—a little bit."
She had already noted that the chief object in the room, after all, appeared to be a round table. About it the guests seemed naturally to take their places.
"What shall it be to-night—bridge?" asked Watson, nonchalantly fingering a little pack of gilt-edged cards which Bella had produced.
"Oh, no," cried Mrs. Noble. "Bridge is such a bore."
"No—no. The regular game—poker."
"A dollar limit?"
"Oh, make it five," drawled Halsey impatiently.
Watson said nothing, but Bella patted Halsey's hand in approval, as if all were on very good terms indeed. "I think that will make a nice little game," she cut in, opening a drawer from which she took out a box of blue, red and white chips of real ivory. Watson seemed naturally to assume the role of banker.
"Aren't you going to join us?" asked Constance.
"Oh, I seldom play. You know, I'm too busy entertaining you people," excused Bella, as she bustled out of the room, reappearing a few minutes later with the maid and a tray of slender hollow-stemmed glasses with a bottle wrapped in a white napkin in a pail of ice.
Mrs. Noble shuffled the cards with practiced hand and Watson kept a calculating eye on every face. Luck was not with Constance on the first deal and she dropped out.
Mrs. Noble and Halsey were betting eagerly. Watson was coolly following along until the show-down—which he won.
"Of all things," exclaimed the little woman in pink, plainly betraying her vexation at losing. "Will luck never turn?"
Halsey said nothing.
Constance watched in amazement. This was no "friendly little game." The faces were too tense, too hectic. The play was too high, and the desire to win too great. Mrs. LeMar was something more than a gracious hostess in her solicitude for her guests.
All the time the pile of chips in front of Watson kept building up. At each new deal a white chip was placed in a little box—the kitty—for the "cards and refreshments."
It was in reality one of the new style gambling joints for men and women.
The gay parties of callers on Mrs. LeMar were nothing other than gamblers. The old gambling dens of the icebox doors and steel gratings, of white-coated servants and free food and drink, had passed away with "reform." Here was a remarkable new phase of sporting life which had gradually taken its place.
Constance had been looking about curiously in the meantime. On a table she saw copies of the newspapers which published full accounts of the races, something that looked like a racing sheet, and a telephone conveniently located near writing materials. It was a poolroom, too, then, in the daytime, she reasoned.
Surely, in the next room, when the light was on, she saw what looked like a miniature roulette wheel, not one of the elaborate affairs of bright metal and ebony, but one of those that can almost be packed into a suitcase and carried about easily.
That was the secret of the flashily dressed men and women who called on Bella LeMar. They were risking everything, perhaps even honor itself, on a turn of a wheel, the fall of a card, a guess on a horse.
Why had Bella LeMar invited her here? she asked herself.
At first Constance was a little bit afraid that she might have plunged into too deep water. She made up her mind to quit when her losses reached a certain nominal point. But they did not reach it. Perhaps the gamblers were too clever. But Constance seemed always to keep just a little bit ahead of the game.
One person in particular in the group interested her as she endeavored intuitively to take their measure. It was Haddon Halsey, immaculately garbed, with all those little touches of smartness which women like to see.
Once she caught Halsey looking intently at her. Was it he who was letting her win at his expense! Or was his attention to her causing him to neglect his own game and play it poorly?
She decided to quit. She was a few dollars ahead. For excuse she pleaded a headache.
Bella accepted the excuse with a cordial nod and a kind inquiry whether she might not like to lie down.
"No, thank you," murmured Constance. "But the cards make me nervous to-night. Just let me sit here. I'll be all right in a minute."
As she lolled back on a divan near the players Constance noted, or thought she noted, now and then exchanges of looks between Bella and Watson. What was the bond of intimacy between them? She noted on Mrs. Noble's part that she was keenly alive to everything that Halsey did. It was a peculiar quadrangle.
Halsey was losing heavily in his efforts to retrieve his fortunes. He said nothing, but accepted the losses grimly. Mrs. Noble, however, after each successive loss seemed more and more nervous.
At last, with a hasty look at her wrist watch, she gave a little suppressed scream.
"How the time flies!" she cried. "Who would have thought it as late as that? Really I must go. I expect my husband back from a director's meeting at ten, and it's much easier to be home than to have to think up an excuse. No, Haddon, don't disturb yourself. I shall get a cab at the door. Let me see—two hundred and twenty-eight dollars." She paused as if the loss staggered her. "I'll have to sign another I O U for it, Bella. There!"
She left in a flutter, as if some one had winked out the light by which she, poor little butterfly, had singed her wings, and there was nothing for her but to fly away alone in the darkness with her secret.
Halsey accompanied her to the door. For a moment she raised a questioning face to his, and shot a half covert glance at Constance. Then, as if with an effort, adhering to her first resolution to go alone, she whispered earnestly, "I hope you win. Luck MUST turn."
Halsey plunged back into the game, now with Bella holding a hand. He played recklessly, then conservatively. It made no difference. The cards seemed always against him. Constance began really to feel alarmed at his manner.
Once, however, he chanced to look up at her. Something in her face must have impressed him. Turning, he flung down the cards in disgust. "That's enough for to-night," he exclaimed, rising and draining another glass on the tray.
"Luck will come your way soon again," urged Bella. "It all averages up in the end, you know. It has to."
"How did you enjoy the evening!" insinuated Bella.
"Very much," replied Constance enthusiastically. "It is so exciting, you know."
"You must come again when more of my friends are here."
"I should like to. But to-night was very nice."
Halsey looked at her contemplatively. She had risen to go. As she took a step or two toward the door, still facing them, she found Halsey at her side.
"Shall we go over to Jack's for a bite to eat?" he whispered.
There was as much of appeal in his undertone as of invitation.
"Thank you. I shall be glad to go," Constance assented quickly.
There was something about Haddon Halsey that interested her. Perhaps Bella and Watson exchanged a knowing glance as she crossed the hall for her wraps. Whatever it was, Constance determined to see the thing through to a finish, confident that she was quite able to take care of herself.
Outside the raw night air smote dankly on their fevered faces. As they walked along briskly, too glad to get into the open to summon a car, Constance happened to turn. She had an uncomfortable feeling. She could have sworn some one was following them. She said nothing about a figure a few feet behind them.
The lively, all-night restaurant was thronged. Halsey seemed to throw himself into the gayety with reckless abandon, ordering about twice as much as they could eat and drink. But in spite of the fascination of the scene, Constance could not forget the dark figure skulking behind them in the shadow of the street.
Once she looked up. At another table she could just catch a glimpse of Drummond, of the Burr Detective Agency, alone, oblivious.
Never did he look at them. There was nothing to indicate that he was even interested. But Constance knew that that was the method of his shadowing. Never for a moment, she knew, did he permit himself to look into the eyes of his quarry, even for the most fleeting glance.
She knew, too, that there must be some psychological reason for his not looking at them, as he otherwise must have done, if only by chance. It was the method followed by the expert modern trailer. She knew that if one looks at a person intently while in a public place, for instance, it will not be long before the gaze will be returned. Try as she would, she could not catch Drummond's eye, however.
Halsey, now that the strain of the game was off, was rattling along about his losses in an undertone to her.
"But what of it?" he concluded. "Any day luck may change. As for myself, I go always on the assumption that I am the one exception—unlucky both at cards and love. If the event proves I am right, I am not disappointed. If I am wrong, then I am happy."
There was something in the tone of the whimsicality that alarmed her. It covered a desperation which she felt instinctively.
Why was he talking thus to her, almost a stranger? Surely it could not have been for that that Bella LeMar had brought them together.
Gradually it came to her. The man had really, honestly been struck by her from the moment of their introduction. Instead of allowing others, to say nothing of himself, to lead her on in the path he and Mrs. Noble and the others had entered, he was taking the bit in his teeth, like a high-strung race horse, and was running away, now that Bella LeMar for the moment did not hold the reins. He was warning her openly against the game!
Somehow the action appealed to Constance. It was genuine, disinterested. Secretly, it was flattering. Still, she said nothing about Bella, nor about Mrs. Noble. Halsey seemed to appreciate the fact. His face showed plainly as if he had said it that here, at least, was one woman who was not always talking about others.
There had been a rapid-fire suddenness about his confidences which had fascinated her.
"Are you in business?" she ventured.
"Oh, yes," he laughed grimly. "I'm in business—treasurer of the Exporting & Manufacturing Company."
"But," she pursued, looking him frankly in the face, "I should think you'd be afraid to—er—become involved——"
"I know I am being watched," he broke in impatiently. "You see, I'm bonded, and the bonding companies keep a pretty sharp lookout on your habits. Oh, the crash will come some day. Until it does—let us make the most of it—while it lasts."
He said the words bitterly. Constance was confirmed in her original suspicion of him now. Halsey was getting deeper and deeper into the moral quagmire. She had seen his interest in Mrs. Noble. Had Bella LeMar hoped that she, too, would play will-o'-the-wisp in leading him on?
Over the still half-eaten supper she watched Halsey keenly. A thousand questions about himself, about Mrs. Noble, rushed through her mind. Should she be perfectly frank?
"Are you—are you using the company's money?" she asked at length pointedly.
He had not expected the question, and his evident intention was to deny it. But he met her eye. He tried to escape it, but could not. What was there about this little woman that had compelled his attention and interest from the moment he had been introduced?
Quickly he tried to reason it out in his heart. It was not that she was physically attractive to him. Mrs. Noble was that. It was not that fascination which Bella aroused, the adventuress, the siren, the gorgon. In Constance there was something different. She was a woman of the world, a man's woman. Then, too, she was so brutally frank in inviting his confidences.
Over and over he turned the answer he had intended to make. He caught her eye again and knew that it was of no use.
"Yes," he muttered, as a cloud spread over his face at not being able, as usual, to let the gay life put the truth out of his mind. "Yes, I have been using—their funds."
As if a switch had been turned, the light broke on Constance. She saw herself face to face with one of the dark shadows in the great city of high lights.
"How?" she asked simply, leaning forward over the table.
There was no resisting her. Quickly he told her all.
"At first with what little money of my own I had I played. Then I began to sign I O U's and notes. Now I have been taking blank stock certificates, some of those held as treasury stock in the company's safe. They have never been issued, so that by writing in the signatures of myself and the other officers necessary, I have been able to use it to pay off my losses in gambling."
As he unfolded to her the plan which he had adopted, Constance listened in amazement.
"And you know that you are watched," she repeated, changing the subject, and sensing rather than seeing that Drummond was watching them then.
"Yes," he continued freely. "The International Surety, in which I'm bonded, has a sort of secret service of its own, I understand. It is the eye that is never closed, but is screened from the man under bond. When you go into the Broadway night life too often, for instance," he pursued, waving his hand about at the gay tables, "run around in fast motors with faster company—well, they know it. Who is watching, I do not know. But with me it will be as it has been when others came to the end. Some day they will come to me, and they are going to say, 'We don't like your conduct. Where do you get this money?' They will know, then, too. But before that time comes I want to win, to be in a position to tell them to go—"
Halsey clenched his fist. It was evident that he did not intend to quit, no matter what the odds against him.
Constance thought of the silent figure of Drummond at the other table—watching, watching. She felt sure that it was to him that the Surety Company had turned over the work of shadowing Halsey. Day after day, probably, the unobtrusive detective had been trailing Halsey from the moment he left his apartment until the time when he returned, if he did return. There was nothing of his goings and comings that was not already an open book to them. Of what use was it, then, for Halsey to fight!
It was a situation such as she delighted in. She had made up her mind. She would help Haddon Halsey to beat the law.
Already it seemed as if he knew that their positions had been reversed. He had started to warn her; she now was saving him.
Yet even then he showed the better side of his nature.
"There is some one else, Mrs. Dunlap," he remarked earnestly, "who needs your help even more than I do."
It had cost him something to say that. He had not been able to accept her help, even under false pretenses. Eagerly he watched to see whether jealousy of the other woman played any part with her.
"I understand," she said with a hasty glance at her watch and a covert look at Drummond. "Let us go. If we are to win we must keep our heads clear. I shall see you to-morrow."
For hours during the rest of the night Constance tossed fitfully in half sleep, thinking over the problem she had assumed.
How was she to get at the inside truth of what was going on across the hall? That was the first question.
In her perplexity, she rose and looked out of the window at the now lightening gray of the courtyard. There dangled the LeMar telephone wire, only a few feet from her own window.
Suddenly an idea flashed over her. In her leisure she had read much and thought more. She recalled having heard of a machine that just fitted her needs.
As soon as she was likely to find places of business open Constance started out on her search. It was early in the forenoon before she returned, successful. The machine which she had had in mind proved to be an oak box, perhaps eighteen inches long, by half the width, and a foot deep. On its face it bore a little dial. Inside there appeared a fine wire on a spool which unwound gradually by clockwork, and, after passing through a peculiar small arrangement, was wound up on another spool. Flexible silk-covered copper wires led from the box.
Carefully Constance reached across the dizzy intervening space, and drew in the slack LeMar telephone wires. With every care she cut into them as if she were making an extension, and attached the wires from the box.
Perhaps half an hour later the door buzzer sounded. Constance could scarcely restrain her surprise as Mrs. Lansing Noble stepped in quickly and shut the door herself.
"I don't want her to know I'm here," she whispered, nodding across the hall.
"Won't you take off your things?" asked Constance cordially.
"No, I can't stay," returned her visitor nervously, pausing.
Constance wondered why she had come. Was she, too, trying to warn a newcomer against the place!
She said nothing, but now that the effort had been made and the little woman had gone actually so far, she felt the reaction. She sank down into an easy chair and rested her pretty head on her delicately gloved hand.
"Oh, Mrs. Dunlap," she began convulsively, "I hope you will pardon an entire stranger for breaking in on you so informally—but—but I can't—I can't help it. I must tell some one."
Accustomed as she was now to strange confidences, Constance bent over and patted the little hand of Mrs. Noble comfortingly.
"You seemed to take it so coolly," went on the other woman. "For me the glamour, the excitement are worse than champagne. But you could stop, even when you were winning. Oh, my God! What am I to do? What will happen when my husband finds out what I have done!"
Tearfully, the little woman poured out the sordid story of her fascination for the game, of her losses, of the pawning of her jewels to pay her losses and keep them secret, if only for a few days, until that mythical time when luck would change.
"When I started," she blurted out with a bitter little laugh, "I thought I'd make a little pin money. That's how I began—with that and the excitement. And now this is the end."
She had risen and was pacing the floor wildly.
"Mrs. Dunlap," she cried, pausing before Constance, "to-day I am nothing more nor less than a 'capper,' as they call it, for a gambling resort."
She was almost hysterical. The contrast with the gay, respectable, prosperous-looking woman at Bella's was appalling. Constance realized to the full what were the tragedies that were enacted elsewhere.
As she looked at the despairing woman, she could reconstruct the terrible situation. Cultivated, well-bred, fashionably gowned, a woman like Mrs. Noble served admirably the purpose of luring men on. If there had been only women or only men involved, it perhaps would not have been so bad. But there were both. Constance saw that men were wanted, men who could afford to lose not hundreds, but thousands, men who are always the heaviest players. And so Mrs. Noble and other unfortunate women no doubt were sent out on Broadway to the cafes and restaurants, sent out even among those of their own social circle, always to lure men on, to involve themselves more and more in the web into which they had flown. Bella had hoped even to use Constance!
Mrs. Noble had paused again. There was evident sincerity in her as she looked deeply into the eyes of Constance.
Nothing but desperation could have wrung her inmost secrets from her to another woman.
"I saw them trying to throw you together with Haddon Halsey," she said, almost tragically. "It was I who introduced Haddon to them. I was to get a percentage of his losses to pay off my own—but"—her feelings seemed to overcome her and wildly, desperately, she added—"but I can't—I can't. I—I must rescue him—I must."
It was a strange situation. Constance reasoned it out quickly. What a wreck of life these two were making! Not only they were involved, but others who as yet knew nothing, Mrs. Noble's husband, the family of Halsey. She must help.
"Mrs. Noble," said Constance calmly, "can you trust me?"
She shot a quick glance at Constance. "Yes," she murmured.
"Then to-night visit Mrs. LeMar as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile I will have thought out a plan."
It was late in the afternoon when Constance saw Halsey again, this time in his office, where he had been waiting impatiently for some word from her. The relief at seeing her showed only too plainly on his face.
"This inaction is killing me," he remarked huskily. "Has anything happened to-day!"
She said nothing about the visit of Mrs. Noble. Perhaps it was better that each should not know yet that the other was worried.
"Yes," she replied, "much has happened. I cannot tell you now. But to-night let us all go again as though nothing had occurred."
"They have twenty-five thousand dollars in stock certificates already which I have given them," he remarked anxiously.
"Some way—any way, you must get them back for a time. Let me see some of the blanks."
Halsey shut the door. From a secret drawer of his desk he drew a package of beautifully engraved paper.
Constance looked at it a moment. Then with a fountain pen, across the front of each, she made a few marks. Halsey looked on eagerly. As she handed them back to him, not a sign showed on any part of them.
"You must tell them that there is something wrong with the others, that you will give them other certificates of your own about which there is no question. Tell them anything to get them back. Here—take this other fountain pen, sign the new certificates with that, in their presence so that they will suspect nothing. To-night I shall expect you to play up to the limit, to play into Mrs. Noble's hand and assume her losses, too. I shall meet you there at nine."'
Constance had laid her plans quickly. That night she waited in her own apartment until she heard Halsey enter across the hall. She had determined to give him plenty of time to obtain the old forged certificates and substitute for them the new forgeries.
Perhaps half an hour later she heard Mrs. Noble enter. As Constance followed her in, the effusive greeting of Bella LeMar showed that as yet she suspected nothing. A quick glance at Halsey brought an answering nod and an unconscious motion toward his pocket where he had stuffed the old certificates carelessly.
A moment later they had plunged into the game. The play that night was spirited. Soon the limit was the roof.
From the start things seemed to run against Halsey and Mrs. Noble even worse than before. At the same time fortune seemed to favor Constance. Again and again she won, until even Watson seemed to think there was something uncanny about it.
"Beginner's luck," remarked Bella with a forced laugh.
Still Constance won, not much, but steadily, though not enough to offset the larger winnings of Watson.
Fast and furious became the play and as steadily did it go against Halsey. Mrs. Noble retired, scarcely repressing the tears. Constance dropped out. Only Halsey and Watson remained, fighting as if it were a duel to the death.
"Please stop, Halsey," pleaded Mrs. Noble. "What is the use of tempting fortune?"
An insane half light seemed to glow in his eyes as, with a quick glance at Constance and a covert nod of approval from her, he forced a smile and playfully laid his finger on Mrs. Noble's lips.
"Double or quits, Watson," he cried. "Return the new certificates or take others for twice the amount. Are you game?"
"I'm on," agreed Watson coolly.
Halsey laid down his hand in triumph. There were four kings.
"I win," ground out Watson viciously, as he tossed down four aces.
Constance was on her feet in a moment.
"You are a lot of cheats and swindlers," she cried, seizing the cards before any one could interfere.
Deftly she laid out the four aces beside the four deuces, the four kings beside the four queens. It was done so quickly that even Halsey, in his amazement, could find nothing to say. Mrs. Noble paled and was speechless. As for Bella and Watson, nothing could have aroused them more than the open charge that they were using false devices.
Yet never for a moment did Watson lose his iron cynicism.
"Prove it," he demanded. "As for Mr. Halsey, he may pay or I'll show the stock I already hold to the proper people."
Constance was facing Watson, as calm as he.
"Show it," she said quietly.
There was a knock at the door.
"Don't let any one in," ordered Bella of the maid, who had already opened the door.
A man's foot had been inserted into the opening. "What's the matter, Chloe?"
"Good Lawd, Mis' Bella—we done been raided!" burst out the maid as the door flew wholly open.
Halsey staggered back. "A detective!" he exclaimed.
"Oh, what shall I do!" wailed Mrs. Noble. "My husband will never forgive me if this becomes known."
Bella was as calm as a good player with a royal straight flush.
"I've caught you at last," fairly hissed Drummond. "And you, too, Mrs. Dunlap. Watson, I overheard something about some stock. Let me see it. I think it will interest International Surety as well as Exporters and Manufacturers."
Through the still open door Constance had darted across the hall to her apartment.
"Not so fast," cried Drummond. "You can't escape. The front door is guarded. You can't get out."
She was gone, but a moment later emerged from the darkness of her rooms, carrying the oak box.
As she set it down on the card table, no one said a word. Deliberately she opened the box, disclosing two spools of wire inside. To the machine she attached several head pieces such as a telephone operator wears. She turned a switch and the wire began to unroll from one spool and wind up on the other again.
A voice, or rather voices, seemed to come from the box itself. It was uncanny.
"Hello, is this Mrs. LeMar?" came from it.
"What is it?" whispered Halsey, as if fearful of being overheard.
"A telegraphone," replied Constance, shutting it off for a moment.
"A telegraphone? What is that?"
"A machine for registering telephone conversations, dictation, anything of the sort you wish. It was invented by Valdemar Poulsen, the Danish Edison. This is one of his new wire machines. The record is made by a new process, localized charges of magnetism on this wire. It is as permanent as the wire itself. There is only one thing that can destroy them—rubbing over the wire with this magnet. Listen."
She had started the machine again. Whose voice was it calling Bella? Constance was looking fixedly at Drummond. He shifted uneasily.
"How much is he in for now?" pursued the voice.
Halsey gasped. It was Drummond's own voice.
"Two hundred and fifty shares," replied Bella's voice.
"Good. Keep at him. Don't lose him. To-night I'll drop in."
"And your client will make good?" she anxiously.
"Absolutely. We will pay five thousand dollars for the evidence that will convict him."
Constance's little audience was stunned. But she did not let the telegraphone pause. Skipping some unimportant calls, she began again.
This was a call from Bella to Watson.
"Ross, that fellow Drummond called up to-day."
"He is going to pull it off to-night. His client will make good—five thousand if they catch Halsey with the goods. How about it?"
"Pretty soft—eh, Bella?" came back from Watson.
"My God! it's a plant!" exclaimed Halsey, staggering and dropping heavily into a chair. "I'm ruined. There is no way out!"
"Wait," interrupted Constance. "Here's another call. It may serve to explain why luck was with me to-night. I came prepared."
"Yes, Mrs. LeMar," came another strange voice from the machine. "We'd do anything for Mr. Watson. What is it—a pack of strippers?"
"Yes. The aces stripped from the ends, the kings from the sides."
The group looked eagerly at Constance.
"From the maker of fake gambling apparatus, I find," she explained, shutting off the machine. "They were ordering from him cards cut or trimmed so that certain ones could be readily drawn from the deck, or 'stripped.' Small wedge-shaped strips are trimmed off the edges of all the other cards, leaving the aces, say, projecting just the most minute fraction of an inch beyond the others. Everything is done carefully. The rounded edges at the corners are recut to look right. When the cards are shuffled the aces protrude a trifle over the edges of the other cards. It is a simple matter for the dealer to draw or strip out as many aces as he wants, stack them on the bottom of the pack as he shuffles the cards, and draw them from the bottom whenever he wants them. Strippers are one of the newest things in swindling. Marked cards are out of date. But some decks have the aces stripped from the ends, the kings from the sides. With this pack, as you can see, a sucker can be dealt out the kings, while the house player gets the aces."
Drummond brazened it out. With a muttered oath he turned to Watson again. "What rot is this? The stock, Watson," he repeated. "Where is that stock I heard them talking about?"
Mrs. Noble, forgetting all now but Halsey, paled. Bella LeMar was fumbling at her gold mesh bag. She gave a sudden, suppressed little scream.
"Look!" she cried. "They are blank—those stock certificates he gave me."
Drummond seized them roughly from her hands.
Where the signatures should have been there was nothing at all!
Across the face of the stock were the words in deep black, "SAMPLE CERTIFICATE," written in an angular, feminine hand.
What did it mean? Halsey was as amazed as any of them. Mechanically he turned to Constance.
"I didn't say anything last night," she remarked incisively. "But I had my suspicions from the first. I always look out for the purry kind of 'my dear' woman. They have claws. Last night I watched. To-day I learned—learned that you, Mr. Drummond, were nothing but a blackmailer, using these gamblers to do your dirty work. Haddon, they would have thrown you out like a squeezed lemon as soon as the money you had was gone. They would have taken the bribe that Drummond offered for the stock—and they would have left you nothing but jail. I learned all that over the telegraphone. I learned their methods and, knowing them, even I could not be prevented from winning to-night."
Halsey moved as if to speak. "But," he asked eagerly, "the stock certificates—what of them!"
"The stock?" she answered with deliberation. "Did you ever hear that writing in quinoline will appear blue, but will soon fade away, while other writing in silver nitrate and ammonia, invisible at first, after a few hours appears black? You wrote on those certificates in sympathetic ink that fades, I in ink that comes up soon."
Mrs. Noble was crying softly to herself. They still had her notes for thousands.
Halsey saw her. Instantly he forgot his own case. What was to be done about her? He telegraphed a mute appeal to Constance, forgetful of himself now. Constance was fingering the switch of the telegraphone.
"Drummond," remarked Constance significantly, as though other secrets might still be contained in the marvelous little mechanical detective, "Drummond, don't you think, for the sake of your own reputation as a detective, it might be as well to keep this thing quiet?"
For a moment the detective gripped his wrath and seemed to consider the damaging record of his conversation with Bella LeMar.
"Perhaps," he agreed sullenly.
Constance reached into her chatelaine. From it she drew an ordinary magnet, and slowly pulled off the armature.
"If I run this over the wires," she hinted, holding it near the spools, "the record will be wiped out." She paused impressively. "Let me have those I O U's of Mrs. Noble's. By the way, you might as well give me that blank stock, too. There is no use in that, now."
As she laid the papers in a pile on the table before her she added the old forged certificates from Halsey's pocket. There it lay, the incriminating, ruining evidence.
Deliberately she passed the magnet over the thin steel wire, wiping out what it had recorded, as if the recording angel were blotting out from the book of life.
"Try it, Drummond," she cried, dropping on her knees before the open fireplace. "You will find the wire a blank."
There was a hot, sudden blaze as the pile of papers from the table flared up.
"There," she exclaimed. "These gambling debts were not even debts of honor. If you will call a cab, Haddon, I have reserved a table at Jade's for you and Mrs. Noble. It is a farewell. Drummond will not occupy his place in the corner to-night. But—after it—you are to forget—both of you—forever. You understand?"