Chapter II. Tom Overhears Something
 

"Everything seems to be all right," Tom remarked, "but another inch or so and he'd have crashed into me. I wonder who he was? I wish I had a machine like that. I could make better time than I can on my bicycle. Perhaps I'll get one some day. Well, I might as well ride on."

Tom was soon at Mansburg, and going to the post-office handed in the letter for registry. Bearing in mind his father's words, he looked about to see if there were any suspicious characters, but the only person he noticed was a well-dressed man, with a black mustache, who seemed to be intently studying the schedule of the arrival and departure of the mails.

"Do you want the receipt for the registered, letter sent to you here or at Shopton?" asked the clerk of Tom. "Come to think of it, though, it will have to come here, and you can call for it. I'll have it returned to Mr. Barton Swift, care of general delivery, and you can get it the next time you are over," for the clerk knew Tom.

"That will do," answered our hero, and as he turned away from the window he saw that the man who had been inquiring about the mails was regarding him curiously. Tom thought nothing of it at the time, but there came an occasion when he wished that he had taken more careful note of the well-dressed individual. As the youth passed out of the outer door he saw the man walk over to the registry window.

"He seems to have considerable mail business," thought Tom, and then the matter passed from his mind as he mounted his wheel and hurried to the machine shop.

"Say, I'm awfully sorry," announced Mr. Merton when Tom said he had come for the bolts, "but they're not quite done. They need polishing. I know I promised them to your father to-day, and he can have them, but he was very particular about the polish, and as one of my best workers was taken sick, I'm a little behind."

"How long will it take to polish them?" asked Tom.

"Oh, about an hour. In fact, a man is working on them now. If you could call this afternoon they'll be ready. Can you?"

"I s'pose I've got to," replied Tom good-naturedly. "Guess I'll have to stay in Mansburg for dinner. I can't get back to Shopton in time now."

"I'll be sure to have them for you after dinner," promised Mr. Merton. "Now, there's a matter I want to speak to you about, Tom. Has your father any idea of giving the work he has been turning over to me to some other firm?"

"Not that I know of. Why?" and the lad showed his wonder.

"Well, I'll tell you why. Some time ago there was a stranger in here, asking about your father's work. I told Mr. Swift of it at the time. The stranger said then that he and some others were thinking of opening a machine shop, and he wanted to find out whether they would be likely to get any jobs from your father. I told the man I knew nothing about Mr. Swift's business, and he went away. I didn't hear any more of it, though of course I didn't want to lose your father's trade. Now a funny thing happened. Only this morning the same man was back here, and he was making particular inquiries about your father's private machine shops."

"He was?" exclaimed Tom excitedly.

"Yes. He wanted to know where they were located, how they were laid out, and what sort of work he did in them."

"What did you tell him?"

"Nothing at all. I suspected something, and I said the best way for him to find out would be to go and see your father. Wasn't that right?"

"Sure. Dad doesn't want his business known any more than he can help. What do you suppose they wanted?"

"Well, the man talked as though he and his partners would like to buy your father's shops."

"I don't believe he'd sell. He has them arranged just for his own use in making patents, and I'm sure he would not dispose of them."

"Well, that's what I thought, but I didn't tell the man so. I judged it would be best for him to find out for himself."

"What was the man's name?"

"He didn't tell me, and I didn't ask him."

"How did he look?"

"Well, he was well dressed, wore kid gloves and all that, and he had a little black mustache."

Tom started, and Mr. Merton noticed it.

"Do you know him?" he asked.

"No," replied Tom, "but I saw--" Then he stopped. He recalled the man he had seen in the post-office. He answered this description, but it was too vague to be certain.

"Did you say you'd seen him?" asked Mr. Merton, regarding Tom curiously.

"No--yes--that is--well, I'll tell my father about it," stammered Tom, who concluded that it would be best to say nothing of his suspicions. "I'll be back right after dinner, Mr. Merton. Please have the bolts ready for me, if you can."

"I will. Is your father going to use them in a new machine?"

"Yes; dad is always making new machines," answered the youth, as the most polite way of not giving the proprietor of the shop any information. "I'll be back right after dinner," he called as he went out to get on his wheel.

Tom was much puzzled. He felt certain that the man in the post- office and the one who had questioned Mr. Merton were the same.

"There is something going on, that dad should know about," reflected Tom. "I must tell him. I don't believe it will be wise to send any more of his patent work over to Merton. We must do it in the shops at home, and dad and I will have to keep our eyes open. There may be spies about seeking to discover something about his new turbine motor. I'll hurry back with those bolts and tell dad. But first I must get lunch. I'll go to the restaurant and have a good feed while I'm at it."

Tom had plenty of spending money, some of which came from a small patent he had marketed himself. He left his wheel outside the restaurant, first taking the precaution to chain the wheels, and then went inside. Tom was hungry and ordered a good meal. He was about half way through it when some one called his name.

"Hello, Ned!" he answered, looking up to see a youth about his own age. "Where did you blow in from?"

"Oh, I came over from Shopton this morning," replied Ned Newton, taking a seat at the table with Tom. The two lads were chums, and in their younger days had often gone fishing, swimming and hunting together. Now Ned worked in the Shopton bank, and Tom was so busy helping his father, so they did not see each other so often.

"On business or pleasure?" asked Tom, putting some more sugar in his coffee.

"Business. I had to bring some papers over from our bank to the First National here. But what about you?"

"Oh, I came on dad's account."

"Invented anything new?" asked Ned as he gave his order to the waitress.

"No, nothing since the egg-beater I was telling you about. But I'm working on some things."

"Why don't you invent an automobile or an airship?"

"Maybe I will some day, but, speaking of autos, did you see the one Andy Foger has?"

"Yes; it's a beaut! Have you seen it?"

"Altogether at too close range. He nearly ran over me this morning," and the young inventor related the occurrence.

"Oh, Andy always was too fresh," commented Ned; "and since his father let him get the touring car I suppose he'll be worse than ever."

"Well, if he tries to run me down again he'll get into trouble," declared Tom, calling for a second cup of coffee.

The two chums began conversing on more congenial topics, and Ned was telling of a new camera he had, when, from a table directly behind him, Tom heard some one say in rather loud tones:

"The plant is located in Shopton, all right, and the buildings are near Swift's house."

Tom started, and listened more intently.

"That will make it more difficult," one man answered. "But if the invention is as valuable as--"

"Hush!" came a caution from another of the party. "This is too public a place to discuss the matter. Wait until we get out. One of us will have to see Swift, of course, and if he proves stubborn--"

"I guess you'd better hush yourself," retorted the man who had first spoken, and then the voices subsided.

But Tom Swift had overheard something which made him vaguely afraid. He started so at the sound of his father's name that he knocked a fork from the table.

"What's the matter; getting nervous?" asked Ned with a laugh.

"I guess so," replied Tom, and when he stooped to pick the fork up, not waiting for the girl who was serving at his table, he stole a look at the strangers who had just entered. He was startled to note that one of the men was the same he had seen in the post-office--the man who answered the description of the one who had been inquiring of Mr. Merton about the Swift shops.

"I'm going to keep my ears open," thought Tom as he went on eating his dinner.