Chapter VII. The Wireless Wiretappers
 

Kennedy did not wait at Bluffwood longer than was necessary. It was easy enough now to silence Montgomery Carter, and the reconciliation of the Verplancks was assured. In the Star I made the case appear at the time to involve merely the capture of Australia Mac.

When I dropped into the office the next day as usual, I found that I had another assignment that would take me out on Long Island. The story looked promising and I was rather pleased to get it.

"Bound for Seaville, I'll wager," sounded a familiar voice in my ear, as I hurried up to the train entrance at the Long Island corner of the Pennsylvania Station.

I turned quickly, to find Kennedy just behind me, breathless and perspiring.

"Er--yes," I stammered in surprise at seeing him so unexpectedly, "but where did you come from? How did you know?"

"Let me introduce Mr. Jack Waldon," he went on, as we edged our way toward the gate, "the brother of Mrs. Tracy Edwards, who disappeared so strangely from the houseboat Lucie last night at Seaville. That is the case you're going to write up, isn't it?"

It was then for the first time that I noticed the excited young man beside Kennedy was really his companion.

I shook hands with Waldon, who gave me a grip that was both a greeting and an added impulse in our general direction through the wicket.

"Might have known the Star would assign you to this Edwards case," panted Kennedy, mopping his forehead, for the heat in the terminal was oppressive and the crowd, though not large, was closely packed. "Mr. Jameson is my right-hand man," he explained to Waldon, taking us each by the arm and urging us forward. "Waldon was afraid we might miss the train or I should have tried to get you, Walter, at the office."

It was all done so suddenly that they quite took away what remaining breath I had, as we settled ourselves to swelter in the smoker instead of in the concourse. I did not even protest at the matter-of-fact assurance with which Craig assumed that his deduction as to my destination was correct.

Waldon, a handsome young fellow in a flannel suit and yachting cap somewhat the worse for his evidently perturbed state of mind, seemed to eye me for the moment doubtfully, in spite of Kennedy's cordial greeting.

"I've had all the first editions of the evening papers," I hinted as we sped through the tunnel, "but the stories seemed to be quite the same--pretty meager in details."

"Yes," returned Waldon with a glance at Kennedy, "I tried to keep as much out of the papers as I could just now for Lucie's sake."

"You needn't fear Jameson," remarked Kennedy.

He fumbled in his pocket, then paused a moment and shot a glance of inquiry at Waldon, who nodded a mute acquiescence to him.

"There seem to have been a number of very peculiar disappearances lately," resumed Kennedy, "but this case of Mrs. Edwards is by far the most extraordinary. Of course the Star hasn't had that--yet," he concluded, handing me a sheet of notepaper.

"Mr. Waldon didn't give it out, hoping to avoid scandal."

I took the paper and read eagerly, in a woman's hand:

"MY DEAR MISS FOX: I have been down here at Seaville on our houseboat, the Lucie, for several days for a purpose which now is accomplished.

"Already I had my suspicions of you, from a source which I need not name. Therefore, when the Kronprinz got into wireless communication with the station at Seaville I determined through our own wireless on the Lucie to overhear whether there would be any exchange of messages between my husband and yourself.

"I was able to overhear the whole thing and I want you to know that your secret is no longer a secret from me, and that I have already told Mr. Edwards that I know it. You ruin his life by your intimacy which you seem to want to keep up, although you know you have no right to do it, but you shall not ruin mine.

"I am thoroughly disillusioned now. I have not decided on what steps to take, but--"

Only a casual glance was necessary to show me that the writing seemed to grow more and more weak as it progressed, and the note stopped abruptly, as if the writer had been suddenly interrupted or some new idea had occurred to her.

Hastily I tried to figure it out. Lucie Waldon, as everybody knew, was a famous beauty, a marvel of charm and daintiness, slender, with big, soulful, wistful eyes. Her marriage to Tracy Edwards, the wealthy plunger and stockbroker, had been a great social event the year before, and it was reputed at the time that Edwards had showered her with jewels and dresses to the wonder and talk even of society.

As for Valerie Fox, I knew she had won quick recognition and even fame as a dancer in New York during the previous winter, and I recalled reading three or four days before that she had just returned on the Kronprinz from a trip abroad.

"I don't suppose you have had time to see Miss Fox," I remarked. "Where is she?"

"At Beach Park now, I think," replied Waldon, "a resort a few miles nearer the city on the south shore, where there is a large colony of actors."

I handed back the letter to Kennedy.

"What do you make of it?" he asked, as he folded it up and put it back into his pocket.

"I hardly know what to say," I replied. "Of course there have been rumors, I believe, that all was not exactly like a honeymoon still with the Tracy Edwardses."

"Yes," returned Waldon slowly, "I know myself that there has been some trouble, but nothing definite until I found this letter last night in my sister's room. She never said anything about it either to mother or myself. They haven't been much together during the summer, and last night when she disappeared Tracy was in the city. But I hadn't thought much about it before, for, of course, you know he has large financial interests that make him keep in pretty close touch with New York and this summer hasn't been a particularly good one on the stock exchange."

"And," I put in, "a plunger doesn't always make the best of husbands. Perhaps there is temperament to be reckoned with here."

"There seem to be a good many things to be reckoned with," Craig considered. "For example, here's a houseboat, the Lucie, a palatial affair, cruising about aimlessly, with a beautiful woman on it. She gives a little party, in the absence of her husband, to her brother, his fiancee and her mother, who visit her from his yacht, the Nautilus. They break up, those living on the Lucie going to their rooms and the rest back to the yacht, which is anchored out further in the deeper water of the bay.

"Some time in the middle of the night her maid, Juanita, finds that she is not in her room. Her brother is summoned back from his yacht and finds that she has left this pathetic, unfinished letter. But otherwise there is no trace of her. Her husband is notified and hurries out there, but he can find no clue. Meanwhile, Mr. Waldon, in despair, hurries down to the city to engage me quietly."

"You remember I told you," suggested Waldon, "that my sister hadn't been feeling well for several days. In fact it seemed that the sea air wasn't doing her much good, and some one last night suggested that she try the mountains."

"Had there been anything that would foreshadow the--er-- disappearance?" asked Kennedy.

"Only as I say, that for two or three days she seemed to be listless, to be sinking by slow and easy stages into a sort of vacant, moody state of ill health."

"She had a doctor, I suppose?" I asked.

"Yes, Dr. Jermyn, Tracy's own personal physician came down from the city several days ago."

"What did he say?"

"He simply said that it was congestion of the lungs. As far as he could see there was no apparent cause for it. I don't think he was very enthusiastic about the mountain air idea. The fact is he was like a good many doctors under the circumstances, noncommittal-- wanted her under observation, and all that sort of thing."

"What's your opinion?" I pressed Craig. "Do you think she has run away?"

"Naturally, I'd rather not attempt to say yet," Craig replied cautiously. "But there are several possibilities. Yes, she might have left the houseboat in some other boat, of course. Then there is the possibility of accident. It was a hot night. She might have been leaning from the window and have lost her balance. I have even thought of drugs, that she might have taken something in her despondency and have fallen overboard while under the influence of it. Then, of course, there are the two deductions that everyone has made already--either suicide or murder."

Waldon had evidently been turning something over in his mind.

"There was a wireless outfit aboard the houseboat," he ventured at length.

"What of that?" I asked, wondering why he was changing the subject so abruptly.

"Why, only this," he replied. "I have been reading about wireless a good deal lately, and if the theories of some scientists are correct, the wireless age is not without its dangers as well as its wonders. I recall reading not long ago of a German professor who says there is no essential difference between wireless waves and the X-rays, and we know the terrible physical effects of X- rays. I believe he estimated that only one three hundred millionth part of the electrical energy generated by sending a message from one station to another near by is actually used up in transmitting the message. The rest is dispersed in the atmosphere. There must be a good deal of such stray electrical energy about Seaville. Isn't it possible that it might hit some one somewhere who was susceptible?"

Kennedy said nothing. Waldon's was at least a novel idea, whether it was plausible or not. The only way to test it out, as far as I could determine, was to see whether it fitted with the facts after a careful investigation of the case itself.

It was still early in the day and the trains were not as crowded as they would be later. Consequently our journey was comfortable enough and we found ourselves at last at the little vine-covered station at Seaville.

One could almost feel that the gay summer colony was in a state of subdued excitement. As we left the quaint station and walked down the main street to the town wharf where we expected some one would be waiting for us, it seemed as if the mysterious disappearance of the beautiful Mrs. Edwards had put a damper on the life of the place. In the hotels there were knots of people evidently discussing the affair, for as we passed we could tell by their faces that they recognized us. One or two bowed and would have joined us, if Waldon had given any encouragement. But he did not stop, and we kept on down the street quickly.

I myself began to feel the spell of mystery about the case as I had not felt it among the distractions of the city. Perhaps I imagined it, but there even seemed to be something strange about the houseboat which we could descry at anchor far down the bay as we approached the wharf.

We were met, as Waldon had arranged, by a high-powered runabout, the tender to his own yacht, a slim little craft of mahogany and brass, driven like an automobile, and capable of perhaps twenty- five or thirty miles an hour. We jumped in and were soon skimming over the waters of the bay like a skipping stone.

It was evident that Waldon was much relieved at having been able to bring assistance, in which he had as much confidence as he reposed in Kennedy. At any rate it was something to be nearing the scene of action again.

The Lucie was perhaps seventy feet long and a most attractive craft, with a hull yachty in appearance and of a type which could safely make long runs along the coast, a stanch, seaworthy boat, of course without the speed of the regularly designed yacht, but more than making up in comfort for those on board what was lost in that way. Waldon pointed out with obvious pride his own trim yacht swinging gracefully at anchor a half mile or so away.

As we approached the houseboat I looked her over carefully. One of the first things I noticed was that there rose from the roof the primitive inverted V aerial of a wireless telegraph. I thought immediately of the unfinished letter and its contents, and shaded my eyes as I took a good look at the powerful transatlantic station on the spit of sand perhaps three or four miles distant, with its tall steel masts of the latest inverted L type and the cluster of little houses below, in which the operators and the plant were.

Waldon noticed what I was looking at, and remarked, "It's a wonderful station--and well worth a visit, if you have the time-- one of the most powerful on the coast, I understand."

"How did the Lucie come to be equipped with wireless?" asked Craig quickly. "It's a little unusual for a private boat."

"Mr. Edwards had it done when she was built," explained Waldon. "His idea was to use it to keep in touch with the stock market on trips."

"And it has proved effective?" asked Craig.

"Oh, yes--that is, it was all right last winter when he went on a short cruise down in Florida. This summer he hasn't been on the boat long enough to use it much."

"Who operates it?"

"He used to hire a licensed operator, although I believe the engineer, Pedersen, understands the thing pretty well and could use it if necessary."

"Do you think it was Pedersen who used it for Mrs. Edwards?" asked Kennedy.

"I really don't know," confessed Waldon. "Pedersen denies absolutely that he has touched the thing for weeks. I want you to quiz him. I wasn't able to get him to admit a thing."