SLIGHTLY bewildered by the rapidity with which the events of the past few moments had followed one another, and dazed by the inexplicable mystery of the weird light that had blazed through the panels of a locked door, Donovan hesitated briefly as he sought to adjust his reasoning faculties to the improbabilities of the facts that confronted them, and select a plan of action consistent therewith.
Long since had the call of duty merged with, or been subordinated to, an overmastering urge to discover the fate or the whereabouts of Nariva Saranov, and to determine definitely her connection with the plotters, that he might fix her responsibility in the matter of the murder of Mason B. Thorn and the attempts upon his own life. Just how far she was involved with Goertz and Saranov he could not know, and now the shooting of Saranov had helped to upset whatever theories he had commenced to entertain relative to the connection existing between the three.
If Goertz and Saranov had been in league with one another, and there was no doubt in Donovan’s mind but that they had been, it seemed unlikely that Goertz should have shot Saranov, while the conclusion that Nariva had been guilty of the murder of her father was impossible of entertainment. Who, then, had shot Saranov? Was Saranov dead? The fact that he had seen and recognized the face at the window but a moment since, would have, under ordinary circumstances, settled that question definitely in the mind of so sane and intelligent a man as Macklin Donovan; but the circumstances of the past few hours had been anything but ordinary, filled as they had been with mysterious disappearances and other inexplicable and seemingly supernatural manifestations of various kinds.
Where was Nariva? Was Saranov dead? If Saranov were not dead, it was reasonable to assume that if he could find him, he could find Nariva also, since the most natural conjecture would place father and daughter near one another. But where to search for them! They had not left the Thorn home, yet they were not in the Thorn home. Already had the place been searched until there remained no unrevealed hiding place where even a cat might have concealed itself successfully from the searchers. There remained but a single tenable conclusion—all others were preposterous, unthinkable, verging on the demoniacal.
Sane judgment assured him that Saranov was not dead—that the face he had seen at the window must have been the face of a living man, and that that man was Count Boris Saranov. The thing to do, then, was to follow. He walked quickly across the room, raised the window, and stepped out upon the balcony. The apparition, or the man, whichever it had been, had disappeared to the left, so toward the left Donovan looked. Three feet away was the balcony before the windows of the dressing room and bath; beyond that, at similar intervals, the balconies of the adjoining house. Below was the small garden between the rear of the house and the garage. Nowhere, upon the balconies nor in the garden, was anyone in sight, though he knew that directly beneath him were the policemen guarding the back entrance.
Stealthily, that he might not attract the attention of the officers, Donovan climbed over the handrail and stepped to the next balcony. There he paused for a moment, listening. He heard nothing other than the subdued night noises of the city. Cautiously he made his way to the nearest balcony of the house next door. The window letting upon it was wide open. Within was darkness and silence. He threw a leg over the sill and drew himself into the interior, silently. His feet dropped softly to the floor and he stood erect. The boards were carpetless. There was a feel of vacancy about him. Although he could not see, he guessed that the chamber was unfurnished—but it was not unoccupied. Of that he had startling proof immediately.
From out of the darkness at his left came a low-toned whisper.
“Go back!” it warned. “In the name of heaven, go back before they kill you!”
For just a moment Donovan hesitated, then he turned and moved quickly across the room in the direction from which the voice had come. He walked with his left hand extended before him, in his right his automatic.
“Who are you,” he demanded, “and who will kill me?”
“S—s—st!” warned the voice. “They will hear you.”
Simultaneously a door at the far end of the room opened, revealing the figure of a large man silhouetted against the doorway of a lighted room across a hall.
“Is that you, Drovoff?” demanded the man in the doorway.
Beyond him Donovan caught a glimpse of several men and a woman, seated or standing about a table. At the gruff question of the man in the doorway, those who were facing him looked up, while the woman, whose back had been toward the door, turned around. Macklin Donovan caught but a fleeting glimpse of her face, as at the very instant that she turned a hand reached out of the darkness and powerful fingers seized his arm. He was jerked violently through an opening, the sides of which he could feel his body strike against as it passed between, and at the same time his pistol was wrenched from his grasp and he heard the loud voice of the man in the doorway crying: “Answer me, damn you, or I fire!”
Then a door closed behind him and there came to his ears, faintly, the muffled report of a pistol. He tried to grapple with the man who was dragging him along, half backward, through the darkness, but the man was very powerful and the whole incident lasted but a moment before he felt himself swung violently around and pushed heavily backward into the dark, where he stumbled and then sprawled headlong to the floor.
As he fell two thoughts dominated his mind—one was that he must lie very quiet for the purpose of deceiving his assailant into the belief that he was stunned, that he might thus take advantage of the other and overpower him—the other was the realization that the woman he had seen in the lighted room was Nariva Saranov.
It seemed to him that he had scarcely fallen before he heard footsteps in front of him, running toward him. He heard a door fly open, and with the click of an electric switch the room was flooded with light. He leaped to his feet then to grapple with his assailants and as he faced them he uttered an oath of astonishment and stepped back in utter incredulity. They were the two police officers whom he had left but a few minutes before in the house of the late Mason B. Thorn, next door.
Then he glanced hurriedly about the lighted room—it was the one which he had first occupied in the Thorn home, and from the window of which he had stepped a minute or two since. He was nonplussed. The policemen looked at him questioningly.
“What’s happened?” asked one. “We thought we heard a scrap goin’ on in here.”
“No,” replied Donovan, “I was just looking for something in the dark and stumbled over a rug.”
“Where was the shot—did you hear it?” asked the other.
“Yes,” replied Donovan; “that’s what I was investigating.”
The officer scratched his head. “That’s funny,” he said. “We looked in here the first thing after we heard the shot—we didn’t see you.”
“Perhaps I was on the balcony then,” suggested Donovan, realizing that they referred to the shot he had fired at the light from the closet, and that they must have examined the room immediately after he had left it by way of the window. He didn’t want to tell them the truth, yet. He wanted to work out some plan, if he could, to learn the truth about Nariva Saranov before he was forced to expose her to arrest and all that that would mean to her whether she was guilty of any wrongdoing or not.
“That’s it,” said the officer, “you must o’ been on the balcony. We just looked in an’ didn’t see no one, an’ then we searched the other rooms.”
“Find anything?” asked Donovan.
“No,” he replied, “an’ for one I didn’t want to find nothin’. I’ve had enough of this joint. I got so now I’m afraid I’m goin’ to find something every time I poke my head into one of these rooms—an’ I don’t know what it’s goin’ to be. That’s what gets me.”
Donovan moved toward the hallway. Through the pall of mystery a light was breaking. What it would reveal he could scarce even guess, yet that it would illuminate several hitherto seemingly inexplicable occurrences seemed probable, and it might lead to complete revelations. It might also lead to deeper mystery, and there was even a greater chance that it might lead to death; but that was a chance that every man in the service expected to be called upon to face in the pursuance of duty.
In only one respect did the plan forming in his mind disregard the straight path of duty, and that lay in his determination to carry it through alone, notwithstanding the fact that he might enlist the cooperation of an ample force of police to assist him. Call it love, call it infatuation, call it what you will—it was this passion that he felt for Nariva Saranov that prompted him to formulate his plan in secrecy and carry it out alone. Whatever she might be, however guilty of attempts upon his life, love demanded that he give her every chance, and that he could not accomplish if he shared his suspicions with the police, even though one of them were his father, for the best of policemen appear to assume all those under suspicion as guilty until proven innocent. If he led them, as he believed he could, to her hiding place, they would arrest her with the others, and all would be thrown into jail. He must, if possible, first discover the degree of her guilt. If he found her guilty, he assured himself sternly, no consideration of love would deter him from carrying on along the straight path of duty.
As he moved toward the doorway one of the officers pointed at the floor behind him.
“There’s your gun,” he said. “It must have dropped out of your pocket when you did the Brodie.”
“Yes,” agreed Donovan, as he turned and recovered the weapon, still further mystified by the fact of its return to him.
In the hallway he met his father coming from the third floor, and called him aside. “I think I’m next to something,” he whispered in a low tone. “Don’t ask me any questions. I’ll tell you what I want and then you tell me if you’ll do it.”
“Shoot,” said Lieutenant Donovan.
“I want every light above the first floor shut off and a stall made that will kid anyone who may be listening into believing that all of you have gone downstairs. But instead post three or four men in this hall, in the dark, and have one close to each of the doors on this side—mine, Saranov’s and his daughter’s, with orders to nab anyone who comes out unless they give a countersign that we’ll agree upon.”
“How can anyone come out when there ain’t nobody in any of these rooms?” demanded Terrance Donovan.
“I don’t know,” replied his son. “That’s what I want to find out. The countersign can be Three Gables. Whisper it an’ all your instructions to your men—if walls ever had ears it’s these walls.”
“What are you goin’t to do?” asked the father.
“Never mind—I told you not to ask me any questions.”
The older man shook his head. “Mackie,” he said, “there’s something about all this night’s business that I’ve got a hunch is hooked up with something I can’t tell you about, yet. If I’m right it’s all got more to do with you than it has with Mason B. Thorn. I wish you’d get out of this house an’ go home. I’ll send a couple of the boys with you.”
Young Donovan laughed. “I supposed you’d laugh,” said his father, “but I wish you’d do it, Mackie. I don’t think your life’s safe here.”
The younger man placed a hand affectionately on his father’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Dad,” he said, “I can take care of myself, and even if I can’t, you don’t want a son of yours runnin’ away from his post, do you?”
Lieutenant Terrance Donovan turned slowly away. “The lights’ll be out an’ the men posted in two minutes,” he whispered, “an’ God be with you!”
In less than the brief time he had stipulated the upper floors of the Thorn home were in darkness and Lieutenant Donovan with several of his men were descending to the first floor with considerable show of noise, that any listener might think a greater number were descending than actually were. Behind him he left three burly policemen silently guarding three doorways in the blackness of the second-floor hallway. What had become of Macklin Donovan, he did not know.