Chapter XIX. The Germ Letter
 

Lynn Moulton made no fight and Kennedy did not pursue the case, for, with the rescue of Antoinette Moulton, his interest ceased.

Blackmail takes various forms, and the Moulton affair was only one phase of it. It was not long before we had to meet a much stranger attempt.

"Read the letter, Professor Kennedy. Then I will tell you the sequel."

Mrs. Hunter Blake lay back in the cushions of her invalid chair in the sun parlor of the great Blake mansion on Riverside Drive, facing the Hudson with its continuous reel of maritime life framed against the green-hilled background of the Jersey shore.

Her nurse, Miss Dora Sears, gently smoothed out the pillows and adjusted them so that the invalid could more easily watch us. Mrs. Blake, wealthy, known as a philanthropist, was not an old woman, but had been for years a great sufferer from rheumatism.

I watched Miss Sears eagerly. Full-bosomed, fine of face and figure, she was something more than a nurse; she was a companion. She had bright, sparkling black eyes and an expression about her well-cut mouth which made one want to laugh with her. It seemed to say that the world was a huge joke and she invited you to enjoy the joke with her.

Kennedy took the letter which Miss Sears proffered him, and as he did so I could not help noticing her full, plump forearm on which gleamed a handsome plain gold bracelet. He spread the letter out on a dainty wicker table in such a way that we both could see it.

We had been summoned over the telephone to the Blake mansion by Reginald Blake, Mrs. Blake's eldest son. Reginald had been very reticent over the reason, but had seemed very anxious and insistent that Kennedy should come immediately.

Craig read quickly and I followed him, fascinated by the letter from its very opening paragraph.

"Dear Madam," it began. "Having received my diploma as doctor of medicine and bacteriology at Heidelberg in 1909, I came to the United States to study a most serious disease which is prevalent in several of the western mountain states."

So far, I reflected, it looked like an ordinary appeal for aid. The next words, however, were queer: "I have four hundred persons of wealth on my list. Your name was--"

Kennedy turned the page. On the next leaf of the letter sheet was pasted a strip of gelatine. The first page had adhered slightly to the gelatine.

"Chosen by fate," went on the sentence ominously.

"By opening this letter," I read, "you have liberated millions of the virulent bacteria of this disease. Without a doubt you are infected by this time, for no human body is impervious to them, and up to the present only one in one hundred has fully recovered after going through all its stages."

I gasped. The gelatine had evidently been arranged so that when the two sheets were pulled apart, the germs would be thrown into the air about the person opening the letter. It was a very ingenious device.

The letter continued, "I am happy to say, however, that I have a prophylactic which will destroy any number of these germs if used up to the ninth day. It is necessary only that you should place five thousand dollars in an envelope and leave it for me to be called for at the desk of the Prince Henry Hotel. When the messenger delivers the money to me, the prophylactic will be sent immediately.

"First of all, take a match and burn this letter to avoid spreading the disease. Then change your clothes and burn the old ones. Enclosed you will find in a germ-proof envelope an exact copy of this letter. The room should then be thoroughly fumigated. Do not come into close contact with anyone near and dear to you until you have used the prophylactic. Tell no one. In case you do, the prophylactic will not be sent under any circumstances. Very truly yours, DR. HANS HOPF."

"Blackmail!" exclaimed Kennedy, looking intently again at the gelatine on the second page, as I involuntarily backed away and held my breath.

"Yes, I know," responded Mrs. Blake anxiously, "but is it true?"

There could be no doubt from the tone of her voice that she more than half believed that it was true.

"I cannot say--yet," replied Craig, still cautiously scanning the apparently innocent piece of gelatine on the original letter which Mrs. Blake had not destroyed. "I shall have to keep it and examine it."

On the gelatine I could see a dark mass which evidently was supposed to contain the germs.

"I opened the letter here in this room," she went on. "At first I thought nothing of it. But this morning, when Buster, my prize Pekinese, who had been with me, sitting on my lap at the time, and closer to the letter even than I was, when Buster was taken suddenly ill, I--well, I began to worry."

She finished with a little nervous laugh, as people will to hide their real feelings.

"I should like to see the dog," remarked Kennedy simply.

"Miss Sears," asked her mistress, "will you get Buster, please?"

The nurse left the room. No longer was there the laughing look on her face. This was serious business.

A few minutes later she reappeared, carrying gingerly a small dog basket. Mrs. Blake lifted the lid. Inside was a beautiful little "Peke," and it was easy to see that Buster was indeed ill.

"Who is your doctor?" asked Craig, considering.

"Dr. Rae Wilson, a very well-known woman physician."

Kennedy nodded recognition of the name. "What does she say?" he asked, observing the dog narrowly.

"We haven't told anyone, outside, of it yet," replied Mrs. Blake. "In fact until Buster fell sick, I thought it was a hoax."

"You haven't told anyone?"

"Only Reginald and my daughter Betty. Betty is frantic--not with fear for herself, but with fear for me. No one can reassure her. In fact it was as much for her sake as anyone's that I sent for you. Reginald has tried to trace the thing down himself, but has not succeeded."

She paused. The door opened and Reginald Blake entered. He was a young fellow, self confident and no doubt very efficient at the new dances, though scarcely fitted to rub elbows with a cold world which, outside of his own immediate circle, knew not the name of Blake. He stood for a moment regarding us through the smoke of his cigarette.

"Tell me just what you have done," asked Kennedy of him as his mother introduced him, although he had done the talking for her over the telephone.

"Done?" he drawled. "Why, as soon as mother told me of the letter, I left an envelope up at the Prince Henry, as it directed."

"With the money?" put in Craig quickly.

"Oh, no--just as a decoy."

"Yes. What happened?"

"Well, I waited around a long time. It was far along in the day when a woman appeared at the desk. I had instructed the clerk to be on the watch for anyone who asked for mail addressed to a Dr. Hopf. The clerk slammed the register. That was the signal. I moved up closer."

"What did she look like?" asked Kennedy keenly.

"I couldn't see her face. But she was beautifully dressed, with a long light flowing linen duster, a veil that hid her features and on her hands and arms a long pair of motoring doeskin gloves. By George, she was a winner--in general looks, though. Well, something about the clerk, I suppose, must have aroused her suspicions. For, a moment later, she was gone in the crowd. Evidently she had thought of the danger and had picked out a time when the lobby would be full and everybody busy. But she did not leave by the front entrance through which she entered. I concluded that she must have left by one of the side street carriage doors."

"And she got away?"

"Yes. I found that she asked one of the boys at the door to crank up a car standing at the curb. She slid into the seat, and was off in a minute."

Kennedy said nothing. But I knew that he was making a mighty effort to restrain comment on the bungling amateur detective work of the son of our client.

Reginald saw the look on his face. "Still," he hastened, "I got the number of the car. It was 200859 New York."

"You have looked it up?" queried Kennedy quickly.

"I didn't need to do it. A few minutes later Dr. Rae Wilson herself came out--storming like mad. Her car had been stolen at the very door of the hotel by this woman with the innocent aid of the hotel employees."

Kennedy was evidently keenly interested. The mention of the stolen car had apparently at once suggested an idea to him.

"Mrs. Blake," he said, as he rose to go, "I shall take this letter with me. Will you see that Buster is sent up to my laboratory immediately?"

She nodded. It was evident that Buster was a great pet with her and that it was with difficulty she kept from smoothing his silky coat.

"You--you won't hurt Buster?" she pleaded.

"No. Trust me. More than that, if there is any possible way of untangling this mystery, I shall do it."

Mrs. Blake looked rather than spoke her thanks. As we went downstairs, accompanied by Miss Sears, we could see in the music room a very interesting couple, chatting earnestly over the piano.

Betty Blake, a slip of a girl in her first season, was dividing her attention between her visitor and the door by which we were passing.

She rose as she heard us, leaving the young man standing alone at the piano. He was of an age perhaps a year or two older than Reginald Blake. It was evident that, whatever Miss Betty might think, he had eyes for no one else but the pretty debutante. He even seemed to be regarding Kennedy sullenly, as if he were a possible rival.

"You--you don't think it is serious?" whispered Betty in an undertone, scarcely waiting to be introduced. She had evidently known of our visit, but had been unable to get away to be present upstairs.

"Really, Miss Blake," reassured Kennedy, "I can't say. All I can do is to repeat what I have already said to your mother. Keep up a good heart and trust me to work it out."

"Thank you," she murmured, and then, impulsively extending her small hand to Craig, she added, "Mr. Kennedy, if there is anything I can do to help you, I beg that you will call on me."

"I shall not forget," he answered, relinquishing the hand reluctantly. Then, as she thanked him, and turned again to her guest, he added in a low tone to me, "A remarkable girl, Walter, a girl that can be depended on."

We followed Miss Sears down the hall.

"Who was that young man in the music room?" asked Kennedy, when we were out of earshot.

"Duncan Baldwin," she answered. "A friend and bosom companion of Reginald."

"He seems to think more of Betty than of her brother," Craig remarked dryly.

Miss Sears smiled. "Sometimes, we think they are secretly engaged," she returned. We had almost reached the door. "By the way," she asked anxiously, "do you think there are any precautions that I should take for Mrs. Blake--and the rest?"

"Hardly," answered Kennedy, after a moment's consideration, "as long as you have taken none in particular already. Still, I suppose it will do no harm to be as antiseptic as possible."

"I shall try," she promised, her face showing that she considered the affair now in a much more serious light than she had before our visit.

"And keep me informed of anything that turns up," added Kennedy handing her a card with the telephone number of the laboratory.

As we left the Blake mansion, Kennedy remarked, "We must trace that car somehow--at least we must get someone working on that."

Half an hour later we were in a towering office building on Liberty Street, the home of various kinds of insurance. Kennedy stopped before a door which bore the name, "Douglas Garwood: Insurance Adjuster."

Briefly, Craig told the story of the stolen car, omitting the account of the dastardly method taken to blackmail Mrs. Blake. As he proceeded a light seemed to break on the face of Garwood, a heavyset man, whose very gaze was inquisitorial.

"Yes, the theft has been reported to us already by Dr. Wilson herself," he interrupted. "The car was insured in a company I represent."

"I had hoped so," remarked Kennedy, "Do you know the woman?" he added, watching the insurance adjuster who had been listening intently as he told about the fair motor car thief.

"Know her?" repeated Garwood emphatically. "Why, man, we have been so close to that woman that I feel almost intimate with her. The descriptions are those of a lady, well-dressed, and with a voice and manner that would carry her through any of the fashionable hotels, perhaps into society itself."

"One of a gang of blackmailers, then," I hazarded.

Garwood shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps," he acquiesced. "It is automobile thieving that interests me, though. Why," he went on, rising excitedly, "the gangs of these thieves are getting away with half a million dollars' worth of high-priced cars every year. The police seem to be powerless to stop it. We appeal to them, but with no result. So, now we have taken things into our own hands."

"What are you doing in this case?" asked Kennedy.

"What the insurance companies have to do to recover stolen automobiles," Garwood replied. "For, with all deference to your friend, Deputy O'Connor, it is the insurance companies rather than the police who get stolen cars back."

He had pulled out a postal card from a pigeon hole in his desk, selecting it from several apparently similar. We read:

$250.00 REWARD

We will pay $100.00 for car, $150.00 additional for information which will convict the thief. When last seen, driven by a woman, name not known, who is described as dark-haired, well-dressed, slight, apparently thirty years old. The car is a Dixon, 1912, seven-passenger, touring, No. 193,222, license No. 200,859, New York; dark red body, mohair top, brass lamps, has no wind shield; rear axle brake band device has extra nut on turnbuckle not painted. Car last seen near Prince Henry Hotel, New York City, Friday, the 10th.

Communicate by telegraph or telephone, after notifying nearest police department, with Douglas Garwood, New York City. "The secret of it is," explained Garwood, as we finished reading, "that there are innumerable people who keep their eyes open and like to earn money easily. Thus we have several hundreds of amateur and enthusiastic detectives watching all over the city and country for any car that looks suspicious."

Kennedy thanked him for his courtesy, and we rose to go. "I shall be glad to keep you informed of anything that turns up," he promised.