Chapter IV. The Air Pirate
 

Rounding up the "Group" took several days, and it proved to be a great story for the Star. I was pretty fagged when it was all over, but there was a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that we had frustrated one of the most daring anarchist plots of recent years.

"Can you arrange to spend the week-end with me at Stuyvesant Verplanck's at Bluffwood?" asked Kennedy over the telephone, the afternoon that I had completed my work on the newspaper of undoing what Annenberg and the rest had attempted.

"How long since society took you up?" I asked airily, adding, "Is it a large house party you are getting up?"

"You have heard of the so-called 'phantom bandit' of Bluffwood, haven't you?" he returned rather brusquely, as though there was no time now for bantering.

I confess that in the excitement of the anarchists I had forgotten it, but now I recalled that for several days I had been reading little paragraphs about robberies on the big estates on the Long Island shore of the Sound. One of the local correspondents had called the robber a "phantom bandit," but I had thought it nothing more than an attempt to make good copy out of a rather ordinary occurrence.

"Well," he hurried on, "that's the reason why I have been 'taken up by society,' as you so elegantly phrase it. From the secret hiding-places of the boudoirs and safes of fashionable women at Bluffwood, thousands of dollars' worth of jewels and other trinkets have mysteriously vanished. Of course you'll come along. Why, it will be just the story to tone up that alleged page of society news you hand out in the Sunday Star. There--we're quits now. Seriously, though, Walter, it really seems to be a very baffling case, or rather series of cases. The whole colony out there is terrorized. They don't know who the robber is, or how he operates, or who will be the next victim, but his skill and success seem almost uncanny. Mr. Verplanck has put one of his cars at my disposal and I'm up here at the laboratory gathering some apparatus that may be useful. I'll pick you up anywhere between this and the Bridge--how about Columbus Circle in half an hour?"

"Good," I agreed, deciding quickly from his tone and manner of assurance that it would be a case I could not afford to miss.

The Stuyvesant Verplancks, I knew, were among the leaders of the rather recherche society at Bluffwood, and the pace at which Bluffwood moved and had its being was such as to guarantee a good story in one way or another.

"Why," remarked Kennedy, as we sped out over the picturesque roads of the north shore of Long Island, "this fellow, or fellows, seems to have taken the measure of all the wealthy members of the exclusive organizations out there--the Westport Yacht Club, the Bluffwood Country Club, the North Shore Hunt, and all of them. It's a positive scandal, the ease with which he seems to come and go without detection, striking now here, now there, often at places that it seems physically impossible to get at, and yet always with the same diabolical skill and success. One night he will take some baubles worth thousands, the next pass them by for something apparently of no value at all, a piece of bric-a-brac, a bundle of letters, anything."

"Seems purposeless, insane, doesn't it?" I put in.

"Not when he always takes something--often more valuable than money," returned Craig.

He leaned back in the car and surveyed the glimpses of bay and countryside as we were whisked by the breaks in the trees.

"Walter," he remarked meditatively, "have you ever considered the possibilities of blackmail if the right sort of evidence were obtained under this new 'white-slavery act'? Scandals that some of the fast set may be inclined to wink at, that at worst used to end in Reno, become felonies with federal prison sentences looming up in the background. Think it over."

Stuyvesant Verplanck had telephoned rather hurriedly to Craig earlier in the day, retaining his services, but telling only in the briefest way of the extent of the depredations, and hinting that more than jewelry might be at stake.

It was a pleasant ride, but we finished it in silence. Verplanck was, as I recalled, a large masterful man, one of those who demanded and liked large things--such as the estate of several hundred acres which we at last entered.

It was on a neck of land with the restless waters of the Sound on one side and the calmer waters of the bay on the other. Westport Bay lay in a beautifully wooded, hilly country, and the house itself was on an elevation, with a huge sweep of terraced lawn before it down to the water's edge. All around, for miles, were other large estates, a veritable colony of wealth.

As we pulled up under the broad stone porte-cochere, Verplanck, who had been expecting us, led the way into his library, a great room, literally crowded with curios and objects of art which he had collected on his travels. It was a superb mental workshop, overlooking the bay, with a stretch of several miles of sheltered water.

"You will recall," began Verplanck, wasting no time over preliminaries, but plunging directly into the subject, "that the prominent robberies of late have been at seacoast resorts, especially on the shores of Long Island Sound, within, say, a hundred miles of New York. There has been a great deal of talk about dark and muffled automobiles that have conveyed mysterious parties swiftly and silently across country.

"My theory," he went on self-assertively, "is that the attack has been made always along water routes. Under shadow of darkness, it is easy to slip into one of the sheltered coves or miniature fiords with which the north coast of the Island abounds, land a cut-throat crew primed with exact information of the treasure on some of these estates. Once the booty is secured, the criminal could put out again into the Sound without leaving a clue."

He seemed to be considering his theory. "Perhaps the robberies last summer at Narragansett, Newport, and a dozen other New England places were perpetrated by the same cracksman. I believe," he concluded, lowering his voice, "that there plies to-day on the wide waters of the Sound a slim, swift motor boat which wears the air of a pleasure craft, yet is as black a pirate as ever flew the Jolly Roger. She may at this moment be anchored off some exclusive yacht club, flying the respectable burgee of the club--who knows?"

He paused as if his deductions settled the case so far. He would have resumed in the same vein, if the door had not opened. A lady in a cobwebby gown entered the room. She was of middle age, but had retained her youth with a skill that her sisters of less leisure always envy. Evidently she had not expected to find anyone, yet nothing seemed to disconcert her.

"Mrs. Verplanck," her husband introduced, "Professor Kennedy and his associate, Mr. Jameson--those detectives we have heard about. We were discussing the robberies."

"Oh, yes," she said, smiling, "my husband has been thinking of forming himself into a vigilance committee. The local authorities are all at sea."

I thought there was a trace of something veiled in the remark and fancied, not only then but later, that there was an air of constraint between the couple.

"You have not been robbed yourself?" queried Craig tentatively.

"Indeed we have," exclaimed Verplanck quickly. "The other night I was awakened by the noise of some one down here in this very library. I fired a shot, wild, and shouted, but before I could get down here the intruder had fled through a window, and half rolling down the terraces. Mrs. Verplanck was awakened by the rumpus and both of us heard a peculiar whirring noise."

"Like an automobile muffled down," she put in.

"No," he asserted vigorously, "more like a powerful motor boat, one with the exhaust under water."

"Well," she shrugged, "at any rate, we saw no one."

"Did the intruder get anything?"

"That's the lucky part. He had just opened this safe apparently and begun to ransack it. This is my private safe. Mrs. Verplanck has another built into her own room upstairs where she keeps her jewels."

"It is not a very modern safe, is it?" ventured Kennedy. "The fellow ripped off the outer casing with what they call a 'can- opener.'"

"No. I keep it against fire rather than burglars. But he overlooked a box of valuable heirlooms, some silver with the Verplanck arms. I think I must have scared him off just in time. He seized a package in the safe, but it was only some business correspondence. I don't relish having lost it, particularly. It related to a gentlemen's agreement a number of us had in the recent cotton corner. I suppose the Government would like to have it. But--here's the point. If it is so easy to get in and get away, no one in Bluffwood is safe."

"Why, he robbed the Montgomery Carter place the other night," remarked Mrs. Verplanck, "and almost got a lot of old Mrs. Carter's jewels as well as stuff belonging to her son, Montgomery, Junior. That was the first robbery. Mr. Carter, that is Junior-- Monty, everyone calls him--and his chauffeur almost captured the fellow, but he managed to escape in the woods."

"In the woods?" repeated Craig.

Mrs. Verplanck nodded. "But they saved the loot he was about to take."

"Oh, no one is safe any more," reiterated Verplanck. "Carter seems to be the only one who has had a real chance at him, and he was able to get away neatly."

"But he's not the only one who got off without a loss," she put in significantly. "The last visit--" Then she paused.

"Where was the last attempt?" asked Kennedy.

"At the house of Mrs. Hollingsworth--around the point on this side of the bay. You can't see it from here."

"I'd like to go there," remarked Kennedy.

"Very well. Car or boat?"

"Boat, I think."

"Suppose we go in my little runabout, the Streamline II? She's as fast as any ordinary automobile."

"Very good. Then we can get an idea of the harbor."

"I'll telephone first that we are coming," said Verplanck.

"I think I'll go, too," considered Mrs. Verplanck, ringing for a heavy wrap.

"Just as you please," said Verplanck.

The Streamline was a three-stepped boat which. Verplanck had built for racing, a beautiful craft, managed much like a racing automobile. As she started from the dock, the purring drone of her eight cylinders sent her feathering over the waves like a skipping stone. She sank back into the water, her bow leaping upward, a cloud of spray in her wake, like a waterspout.

Mrs. Hollingsworth was a wealthy divorcee, living rather quietly with her two children, of whom the courts had awarded her the care. She was a striking woman, one of those for whom the new styles of dress seem especially to have been designed. I gathered, however, that she was not on very good terms with the little Westport clique in which the Verplancks moved, or at least not with Mrs. Verplanck. The two women seemed to regard each other rather coldly, I thought, although Mr. Verplanck, man-like, seemed to scorn any distinctions and was more than cordial. I wondered why Mrs. Verplanck had come.

The Hollingsworth house was a beautiful little place down the bay from the Yacht Club, but not as far as Verplanck's, or the Carter estate, which was opposite.

"Yes," replied Mrs. Hollingsworth when the reason for our visit had been explained, "the attempt was a failure. I happened to be awake, rather late, or perhaps you would call it early. I thought I heard a noise as if some one was trying to break into the drawing-room through the window. I switched on all the lights. I have them arranged so for just that purpose of scaring off intruders. Then, as I looked out of my window on the second floor, I fancied I could see a dark figure slink into the shadow of the shrubbery at the side of the house. Then there was a whirr. It might have been an automobile, although it sounded differently from that--more like a motor boat. At any rate, there was no trace of a car that we could discover in the morning. The road had been oiled, too, and a car would have left marks. And yet some one was here. There were marks on the drawing-room window just where I heard the sounds."

Who could it be? I asked myself as we left. I knew that the great army of chauffeurs was infested with thieves, thugs and gunmen. Then, too, there were maids, always useful as scouts for these corsairs who prey on the rich. Yet so adroitly had everything been done in these cases that not a clue seemed to have been left behind by which to trace the thief.

We returned to Verplanck's in the Streamline in record time, dined, and then found McNeill, a local detective, waiting to add his quota of information. McNeill was of the square-toed, double- chinned, bull-necked variety, just the man to take along if there was any fighting. He had, however, very little to add to the solution of the mystery, apparently believing in the chauffeur- and-maid theory.

It was too late to do anything more that night, and we sat on the Verplanck porch, overlooking the beautiful harbor. It was a black, inky night, with no moon, one of those nights when the myriad lights on the boats were mere points in the darkness. As we looked out over the water, considering the case which as yet we had hardly started on, Kennedy seemed engrossed in the study in black.

"I thought I saw a moving light for an instant across the bay, above the boats, and as though it were in the darkness of the hills on the other side. Is there a road over there, above the Carter house?" he asked suddenly.

"There is a road part of the way on the crest of the hill," replied Mrs. Verplanck. "You can see a car on it, now and then, through the trees, like a moving light."

"Over there, I mean," reiterated Kennedy, indicating the light as it flashed now faintly, then disappeared, to reappear further along, like a gigantic firefly in the night.

"N-no," said Verplanck. "I don't think the road runs down as far as that. It is further up the bay."

"What is it then?" asked Kennedy, half to himself. "It seems to be traveling rapidly. Now it must be about opposite the Carter house. There--it has gone."

We continued to watch for several minutes, but it did not reappear. Could it have been a light on the mast of a boat moving rapidly up the bay and perhaps nearer to us than we suspected? Nothing further happened, however, and we retired early, expecting to start with fresh minds on the case in the morning. Several watchmen whom Verplanck employed both on the shore and along the driveways were left guarding every possible entrance to the estate.

Yet the next morning as we met in the cheery east breakfast room, Verplanck's gardener came in, hat in hand, with much suppressed excitement.

In his hand he held an orange which he had found in the shrubbery underneath the windows of the house. In it was stuck a long nail and to the nail was fastened a tag.

Kennedy read it quickly.

"If this had been a bomb, you and your detectives would never have known what struck you.

"AQUAERO."