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Title: The Black Star - A Detective Story
Author: McCulley, Johnston
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Black Star - A Detective Story" ***

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THE BLACK STAR


[Illustration: A section of the floor had swung downward with a
crash._Frontispiece_]



                            The Black Star

                          A Detective Story

                                  BY
                          JOHNSTON McCULLEY

                          _Frontispiece by_
                            EDGAR WITTMACK

                            CHELSEA HOUSE
                   79 Seventh Avenue, New York City
                                 1921



                           Copyright, 1921
                           By CHELSEA HOUSE

                            The Black Star

   All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign
                languages, including the Scandinavian.


CONTENTS


- CHAPTER I—AN AIDED ESCAPE

- CHAPTER II—THE BLACK STAR

- CHAPTER III—INTO THE PIT

- CHAPTER IV—ROGUE FOR A DAY

- CHAPTER V—MUGGS ON GUARD

- CHAPTER VI—AN UNPROFITABLE AFTERNOON

- CHAPTER VII—IDENTICAL ORDERS

- CHAPTER VIII—THE POLICE GET A TIP

- CHAPTER IX—“CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST”

- CHAPTER X—CAUGHT IN A NET

- CHAPTER XI—CLOSE QUARTERS

- CHAPTER XII—AT THE CHARITY BALL

- CHAPTER XIII—MUGGS—GREAT LITTLE MAN

- CHAPTER XIV—UNEXPECTED NEWS

- CHAPTER XV—THE CHALLENGE

- CHAPTER XVI—A NOCTURNAL VISIT

- CHAPTER XVII—INTERRUPTED CONVERSATION

- CHAPTER XVIII—MYSTERIES

- CHAPTER XIX—SUSPICION

- CHAPTER XX—THE VOICE ON THE WIRE

- CHAPTER XXI—THE END OF THE WIRE

- CHAPTER XXII—ON THE SCENT

- CHAPTER XXXII.—INTO THE VAULT

- CHAPTER XXIV—HOW IT ENDED

- CHAPTER XXV—SHADOWED BY THREE

- CHAPTER XXVI—A MAN OF MYSTERY

- CHAPTER XXVII—IN BLACK STAR’S HANDS

- CHAPTER XXVIII—THE POLICE LAUNCH

- CHAPTER XXIX—BLACK STAR TAKES A TRICK

- CHAPTER XXX—MUGGS IN ACTION

- CHAPTER XXXI—IN THE BANK

- CHAPTER XXXII—A NARROW ESCAPE

- CHAPTER XXXIII—PUZZLED POLICE

- CHAPTER XXXIV—WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CHIEF

- CHAPTER XXXV—AN UNEXPECTED BLOW

- CHAPTER XXXVI—IN CUSTODY



                            THE BLACK STAR



CHAPTER I—AN AIDED ESCAPE


Winds whistled up the river, and winds whistled down from the hills,
and they met to swirl and gather fury and rattle the city’s millions
of windowpanes. They carried a mixture of sleet and fine snow, the
first herald of the winter to come. In the business district they
swung signs madly back and forth, and roared around the corners of
high office buildings, and swept madly against struggling trolley
cars. They poured through the man-made cañons; they dashed out the
broad boulevards—and so they came to the attention of Mr. Roger
Verbeck, at about the hour of midnight, as he turned over in his warm
bed and debated whether to rise and lower the window or take a chance
with the rapidly lowering temperature.

“Beastly night!” Verbeck confided to himself, and put his head beneath
the covers.

He slept—and suddenly he awakened. A moment before he had been in the
midst of a pleasant dream; now every sense was alert, and his right
hand, creeping softly under the cover, reached the side of the bed and
grasped an automatic pistol that hung in a rack there.

From the adjoining room—his library—there came no flash of an electric
torch, no footfall, no sound foreign to the apartment, nothing to
indicate the presence of an intruder. Yet Verbeck sensed that an
intruder was there.

He slipped quietly from the bed, shivering a bit because of the cold
wind, put his feet into slippers, and drew on a dressing gown over his
pajamas. Then, his pistol held ready for use in case of emergency, he
started across the bedroom, taking short steps and walking on his
toes.

A reflection entered the room from the arc light on the nearest street
corner. This uncertain light was shut off for an instant, and Verbeck
whirled quickly, silently, to find another man slipping up beside him.
It was Muggs—a little, wiry man of uncertain age, who had been in
Verbeck’s employ for several years, valet at times, comrade in arms at
times, willing adventurer always. Muggs bent forward until his lips
were close to Verbeck’s ear.

“I heard it, too, boss,” he said. “Somebody in the library!”

Verbeck nodded; they crept nearer the door. Inch by inch, Verbeck
pulled aside one of the curtains, until they could peer into the other
room. A gleam from the corner arc light penetrated the library, too.
It revealed the interior of the room in a sort of semi-gloom, causing
elusive shadows that flitted here and there in such fashion that they
scarcely could be distinguished from substance. Also, it revealed an
open window near the fire escape—and it showed the form of a man
standing before Verbeck’s antique desk in a corner.

Muggs bent beneath his master’s arm to see better. He felt Verbeck
grip his shoulder, and looked up to find him indicating the open
window. Like a shadow, Muggs, who also held a weapon in his hand,
slipped through the curtains, crept along the wall, and advanced
toward that window to cut off the intruder’s retreat.

An instant Verbeck waited; then he stepped into the room, found the
electric switch, and snapped on the lights, and leveled his automatic.

The man before the desk whirled with a snarl that showed two rows of
jagged, uneven, yellow teeth. He took in the situation at a glance,
saw Muggs at the window, and Verbeck at the door, and knew he had been
caught in a trap. His eyes narrowed and flashed; he bent forward,
giving the appearance of a rat at bay, and his hand dropped slowly
toward his hip.

“Better not!” There was a certain quality in Verbeck’s voice that told
the burglar the man before him was neither nervous nor afraid, and
would shoot if necessary. The thief’s hands went above his head in
token of surrender, and the belligerent light that had been in his
eyes faded.

“It appears,” said Verbeck, “that we have discovered you in a delicate
position.”

“Aw, don’t try to be clever! I guess you’ve got me, all right!”

“Rather unceremonious, this call,” Verbeck went on. “Why didn’t you
send up your card from the office?”

“Aw——”

“Be seated, please!”

Still holding his hands above his head, the burglar took the chair
Verbeck indicated.

“Now, Muggs——” Verbeck said.

Muggs had been waiting for the word. He sprang away from the window
and took the cords from the portières. Working swiftly, he bound the
burglar’s hands behind his back, then fastened them to the chair. Then
he assumed the rôle of guard, and Verbeck lowered his pistol and
walked toward the desk.

“I fancy you didn’t find much, my man,” he said. “This is a bachelor
apartment, you know, and there is little of value in the library
unless you seek books or pictures.”

“Aw——”

“If you had entered the dressing room now—— But, of course, if you had
done that, Muggs probably would have filled you full of lead first,
and made a complete investigation afterward. It is better for you that
you didn’t enter there. Why you should crawl into a bachelor’s
apartment, when there are so many pretentious residences where silver
and plate are to be found, not to speak of women’s jewels, is more
than I can fathom. You must be an amateur at this sort of thing. Um!
What is this?”

On the desk was a sealed letter addressed to Mr. Roger Verbeck, the
address having been stamped with rubber type. In one corner of the
envelope had been pasted a tiny black star. On the polished surface of
the desk other little black stars had been pasted. There was one also
on a vase. There was another on the glass door of a bookcase.

“The Black Star!” Verbeck exclaimed.

He turned swiftly to scrutinize his prisoner, but there was no
expression on the man’s face to denote that he showed interest, and he
was looking at the floor. Muggs was watching the bound thief closely,
but his dancing eyes and parted lips showed that Verbeck’s words had
interested him deeply.

“So! We are honored by a visit from the Black Star, Muggs!” Verbeck
said. “Think of that! The cleverest crook the town ever had to worry
over—the man who got the famous Smith diamonds and cracked a safe
across the street from police headquarters, who has lifted half the
silver in town and stripped society women of their jewels—and he has
paid us a visit. We must be getting important, Muggs—eh?”

“Yes, sir,” said Muggs.

“Well, well! The man every one is looking for and cannot find, who has
been sending naughty notes to the police, telling them how dull they
are. I understand he even tips off what he intends doing, and then
does it under their very noses. Very clever chap—for a crook! Declares
all the detectives in the world can’t catch him! Um! Suppose we see
what is in this letter.”

He grinned at the prisoner and ripped the envelope open. In it was a
single sheet of paper. The letter, too, was printed, and its uneven
lines showed that it had been stamped one letter at a time. It was
similar in appearance to the letters the newspapers declared the
police had received. Verbeck read it swiftly:

  Mr. Roger Verbeck: Last night at a certain reception people were
  talking of the Black Star. You made the remark that the Black
  Star was not a crook, but a gang—that the police didn’t catch
  him because they had so many cases on which to work that they
  couldn’t give their undivided attention to any particular one.
  You declared that any clever man who applied himself to the task
  could capture the Black Star and break up his gang. You boasted
  that you could do it yourself, and easily.

  To show you how useless it would be for you to pit your brains
  and skill against mine, I am putting this letter on your desk
  while you sleep in an adjoining room, and am leaving my sign on
  some of your belongings. I am even putting a black star in your
  bed within a foot of the spot where you rest your head while you
  are sleeping. After this exhibition, either admit that the Black
  Star is clever, or do as you boasted you could do—catch me.

“Read it, Muggs,” said Verbeck, guarding the prisoner himself as Muggs
obeyed. “What do you think of that, eh? Intended us to wake up and
find these things stuck all over the place! Trying to show us how very
clever he is, this naughty Black Star, and we catch him at it.
There’ll be joy at police headquarters over this. Now you just keep
your eyes on this gentleman, Muggs, while I get into my clothes, and
then we’ll continue the entertainment.”

Verbeck hurried to the dressing room, leaving Muggs on guard, and
dressed as swiftly as possible. He carried a topcoat and cap to a
chair near the door of the bedroom, and then he hurried over to the
bed.

The Black Star had done as he had said. On the head of the bed was one
of the little signs, and whoever had placed it there had put his hand
within six inches of Verbeck’s head. The man in the other room,
Verbeck decided, had done that first, then gone into the library to
finish his work.

Verbeck hurried back and relieved Muggs.

“Go and get into your clothes,” he ordered, “and then hurry back here.
I’ll try to entertain our guest while you are gone.”

He drew up a chair and sat down, facing the prisoner, and less than
six feet away. He was humming a tune, and there was a smile playing
about his lips. Had the prisoner been well acquainted with Roger
Verbeck that smile would have put him on guard.

Verbeck already had formed a plan. He and Muggs understood each other
well, thanks to sundry adventures in which they had participated in
the four corners of the earth, and he knew that Muggs even now was
reading the note he had scrawled hurriedly and left on the dressing
table, and would act accordingly.

“The Black Star—well, well!” he exclaimed, grinning at his prisoner
again. “And so you are the clever crook?”

“I’m not saying anything!”

“You decorated the head of my bed with that thing, I suppose?”

“You can suppose all you like.”

“Thanks! Rather surly, aren’t you?”

“You hand me over to the police, and you’ll get yours!” said the
prisoner.

“Are you, by any chance, trying to frighten me?”

“I’m giving you fair warning. You hand me over and you won’t live long
to gloat about it!”

Roger Verbeck grinned again and resumed his humming. His eyes never
left the prisoner, but he was thinking deeply. In the first place, the
letter from the Black Star bothered him. The remarks that the Black
Star accused him of making he had made. But the puzzling part of it
was that he had made them to half a dozen friends when there was no
stranger near. He had spoken them in a drawing-room in the presence of
Faustina Wendell, his fiancée; Howard Wendell, her brother, and some
others concerning whose integrity there was no question. How, then,
had the Black Star heard of them?

The Black Star had terrorized the city for the past four months.
Whenever a master crime was committed a tiny black star had been found
pasted on something at the scene of operations. The police had been
unable to get a clew. Each crime seemed bolder and more daring than
the one before, and more highly successful. The Black Star sent
taunting letters to the newspapers and police, and the public demanded
his arrest and imprisonment with loud voice.

His crimes, too, showed a deep knowledge of private matters. It
appeared that the Black Star knew the interior arrangements of
residences he robbed. Sometimes he even knew the combinations of
safes—for in two instances a safe had been opened and looted, and then
properly closed again, but with a tiny black star inside it. He was
aware when valuable jewels were taken from safe-deposit boxes to be
worn at some affair; he knew when members of families were out of the
city, or servants absent. He had shown in a thousand ways that he
possessed knowledge of great value to a criminal.

Roger Verbeck’s boast had not been an idle one. He believed sincerely
that no crook could be so clever but what some honest man could match
wits with him and win. He believed, too, that the Black Star did not
work alone, but was the leader of a band. Not for an instant did
Verbeck think the man he had taken prisoner was the notorious Black
Star, but it pleased him to let the prisoner believe he did.

His first impulse had been to call the police and hand the man over.
But he guessed that such a course would not insure the capture of the
master crook, and that the prisoner would refuse to talk, take a
sentence for burglary, and thus allow the Black Star and the others to
go free.

It would be clever, Verbeck decided, to allow this man to escape, to
shadow him, and to learn more. Roger Verbeck had adventured with Muggs
scores of times, and he yearned for an adventure now. Here was his
chance. Besides, the Black Star had issued the challenge.

Muggs returned fully dressed. For an instant the eyes of master and
man met, and there flashed between them an understanding.

“Better look at this chap’s bonds, Muggs,” Verbeck said. “We don’t
want him escaping before the police come.”

Muggs bent behind the prisoner’s chair and fumbled with the cord, and
when he arose his eyes met those of Verbeck again, and Verbeck knew
that Muggs had obeyed orders.

“Now go down and call the house manager,” he directed, “and I’ll
telephone the police.”

Muggs hurried out into the hall. Verbeck left his chair and stepped
back to the door of the bedroom.

“I fancy you’ll be secure for a moment or so,” he told the prisoner.
“You’ll scarcely get away unless you carry that chair with you.”

He backed through the curtains, grasped his topcoat and cap, and
crossed the room on his toes and unlocked the hall door. To cover the
sound of the key turning in the lock, he spoke as if calling a number
on the telephone.

“Hello! Police headquarters?” he asked. “This is Roger Verbeck
speaking. Hurry up here! I’ve just caught the Black Star trying to
loot my rooms. My old address—yes!”

And while he spoke he opened the door, so that his voice would drown
any squeak the hinges might give; and then he slipped into the hall
and hurried to the front stairs. He dashed down the three flights four
steps at a time.

The prisoner had tugged desperately at his bonds and had felt them
give. With sudden hope, he had worked furiously to get free. He was
through the window and descending the fire escape as Verbeck finished
the imaginary telephone message to the police, exulting at what he
fondly thought had been his close escape.



CHAPTER II—THE BLACK STAR


Verbeck found Muggs at the corner of the apartment house, standing in
the shadows and trying to shield himself from the stinging sleet and
biting cold wind.

“He’s just reaching the ground, boss,” Muggs said. “See him?”

“I see him. Be careful now, Muggs; we don’t want to lose him. Thanks
for understanding and loosening his bonds. There he goes!”

The erstwhile prisoner had reached the ground and was darting through
the shadows toward the alley. Down this he ran for half a block, then
crept between two buildings, and so reached the boulevard near a
corner, with Verbeck and Muggs a hundred feet behind him. It was
difficult trailing the man through a storm of sleet and fine snow, but
Verbeck and Muggs had trailed men before, sometimes for amusement, and
at other times through necessity.

The man hesitated at the curb a moment, then struck across the
driveway. Verbeck and Muggs followed. They took opposite sides of the
walk and slipped along over the frozen ground, darting from shadow to
shadow, always watching the elusive shadow ahead. At the street
crossings their quarry walked across boldly, and they could not follow
instantly for fear of being detected, but they always picked up their
man again, once they were across.

Thus they covered a dozen blocks, and it appeared that the midnight
prowler considered himself safe now. He hurried down a cross street,
his head bent forward against the cold wind that swept up the hill.
Block after block Muggs trailed him, while Verbeck shadowed from the
other side of the street, dodging into dark doorways now and then when
he expected his man to look behind.

The quarry stopped at a corner, lighted a cigar, and stood waiting.
Muggs was concealed in a doorway fifty feet behind him; Verbeck was in
another doorway across the street.

An owl car came along, and their quarry boarded it. But Verbeck had
been expecting that, and for some time had been watching a taxicab
standing before a drug store on the corner. As the owl car started up
again, Verbeck dashed across the street, and he had the chauffeur out
of the drug store and into the seat before Muggs reached the spot.

“Follow that owl car,” Verbeck directed. “There’s a man on it that
we’d like to see when he gets off.”

“I’m wise,” the chauffeur cried. “Fly cops, eh? Get in!”

The cab lurched along the slippery street, keeping half a block behind
the owl car. Whenever the car stopped, the cab drew up at the curb,
and Verbeck put out his head to watch. But their quarry remained
aboard.

“If this keeps up we’ll clear out of town,” said Muggs.

“Anxious for action?” Verbeck asked, laughing. “You may get plenty of
it before we are done. Have a bit of patience, Muggs.”

“I’ve got patience, all right, boss—and I’ve got a hunch, too.”

“Let’s have it!” At times Verbeck had a great deal of respect for
Muggs’ hunches.

“I’ve got a hunch we’d have done better if we’d handed that gent over
to the police.”

“I gave you credit for understanding the situation, Muggs.”

“Oh, I understand what you want to do, all right. It’d be great to
clean up this Black Star and his gang single-handed, hog tie ’em all,
then call in the cops and hand ’em over—especially since he sent you
that sassy note—but I’ve got a hunch we’re going up against a stiff
game. This Black Star ain’t no slouch!”

“Afraid?” snarled Verbeck.

That touched Muggs on a tender spot, and Verbeck knew it. Muggs turned
deliberately and faced his employer.

“If that’s the way you’re looking at it, boss,” he said, “trot right
along and I’ll be behind you. Go the limit, and I’m in the first seat
on the right-hand side. But, all the same, I’ve got a hunch.”

The taxicab stopped again. Verbeck put his head from the window and
immediately opened the door. Their quarry had left the owl car and was
starting down the dark cross street.

Giving a bill to the chauffeur and telling him he need not wait,
Verbeck hurried to the corner, with Muggs at his heels. Shadowing here
was difficult work, for there was unimproved property, and some old
estates not well kept up, where sidewalks were bad and the footing
uncertain, and where untrimmed trees and thick underbrush furnished
multitudes of dark spots.

Uphill and downhill, always against the biting cold wind and sleet,
their man led them. Finally he crossed a vacant lot and made directly
for an old house far back from the street in the midst of a grove of
trees that now were swaying and snapping in the storm.

“So that’s where the Black Star lives!” Verbeck said.

He and Muggs had small difficulty following their man now, for there
was a low hedge behind which, by stooping, they could make their way
unseen. Their man reached the side of the house and went along it
until he came to a door. Beside the door there was a box on the
ground. As Verbeck and Muggs watched, the man they had been following
raised the lid of the box and took something out.

“He’s putting on clothes,” Muggs whispered.

His actions could not be observed well, but it did appear that he was
donning an overcoat or a robe of some sort.

“And he’s putting on a mask,” said Muggs. “What’s coming off here?”

“I imagine we are in for an interesting time,” answered Verbeck.
“Watch him now!”

He had stepped up to the door, and they could see him put out his
hand. Through a lull in the storm there came to Verbeck and Muggs the
tinkling of a bell, then a sharp click, and the door flew open and
their quarry disappeared inside, closing the door after him.

Verbeck and Muggs hurried around the end of the hedge and to the
house. A few feet from the door was a window. Verbeck had no more than
glanced at it before Muggs was at work. Verbeck never had inquired too
closely into Muggs’ past, but from what he had seen from time to time,
he had reason to believe that Muggs knew a thing or two about crooks’
methods, and now he had more evidence of it. In an instant almost
Muggs was sliding that window up slowly, inch by inch, making no
noise, and carefully pulling aside the curtains behind it.

Another moment, and Verbeck was standing inside the house, with Muggs
beside him. They heard no voices. Step by step they made their way
across the room to the opposite wall, searching for a door.

Then they saw a streak of light that penetrated from an adjoining
room, where a door sagged in its casement, leaving a crack through
which a man could see. Verbeck knew this house. For several years it
had been deserted, not kept in repair, the grounds not kept up. It
belonged to an estate in litigation, and could not be sold, and the
heirs had refused to build a more substantial residence for the rental
it might bring in. He was surprised to find it inhabited, and he
imagined that the Black Star and his band were making use of it
surreptitiously.

But when he applied his eye to the crack in the door, expecting to see
a room almost barren, filled with dust and cobwebs, two or three
boxes, some burning candles—a typical resort of thugs—he faced a
surprise. He was looking into a room that had been newly decorated and
was furnished lavishly. Expensive rugs were on the floor; pictures
adorned the walls. There was a massive library table in the center of
the room, an armchair beside it, books and papers and magazines on it.

On one wall of the room was a small blackboard, with chalk and an
eraser in a box beneath it. Before this blackboard, standing erect,
was their quarry—dressed in a long black robe that covered every
portion of his body, even his head being enveloped in a hood, and over
his face a black mask.

There was no one else in the room. The man before the blackboard stood
stiffly and silently, like a soldier at attention. Behind the door,
Verbeck and Muggs waited, scarcely daring to breathe.

Then a door on the other side of the lavishly furnished room was
thrown open, and another man came into view. He, too, was dressed in a
long black robe, and had a black mask over his face. But he had a mark
that distinguished him from the other, for on the front of his hood
was a black star, formed of jet, that flashed in the light.



CHAPTER III—INTO THE PIT


Instinct and experience told Verbeck that this sight might prove too
much for Muggs and he gripped the smaller man by the arm to indicate
that he was to maintain quiet. It was well he did so, for subsequent
proceedings were highly unusual and mysterious.

The Black Star nodded to the other man and stepped across the room,
where there was another small blackboard attached to the wall. When he
stood before it he nodded again, and the other picked up the chalk and
started to write, and thus they conversed, each writing on his
blackboard and erasing after the other had read.

“Number Six,” the man wrote.

“Countersign?”

“Florida.”

“Report,” wrote the Black Star.

“Carried out your instructions, but was caught by Verbeck and his
valet. Escaped when they went to call police.”

It seemed that the Black Star grew taller and straighter as he looked
at the other man, and Verbeck and Muggs could see his eyes glittering
through the black mask. They expected him to roar a rebuke, a
denunciation, but he did not. He faced the blackboard again and wrote
rapidly:

“You are a blunderer. We have no use for the man who fails.”

“I did not fail,” the other wrote on the board quickly. “I put a black
star on his bed and scattered others in library. I was putting letter
on desk when they caught me.”

“Did you come straight here?”

“No. I shook them off first. I got away before they raised an uproar.
Came on owl car, got off several blocks back, and cut down the hill.”

The Black Star motioned for him to erase this last, and then walked
slowly to the table. There was a pile of letters on one end of it, and
the Black Star picked up one and read it, shook his head, and put the
letter in the pocket of his robe. He pressed against the end of the
table, and a drawer shot open. Verbeck and Muggs could see that the
drawer was half filled with money and jewels.

The Black Star took out some money and threw it on the table. He
closed the drawer and walked back to his blackboard, and picked up the
chalk to write again:

“You will not be safe here for some time. Verbeck or his man might
recognize you. Take that money and catch the first train for Chicago.
Return and report one month from to-night at midnight.”

The other man read and bowed his head. There was no hesitancy in his
manner; he acted like a man who had received orders that he knew he
had to carry out. He went forward and picked up the money, and, with
it clutched in one hand, he backed to the door and lifted the other
hand in salute to the Black Star. The Black Star nodded, and the other
backed through the door and closed it.

Muggs hurried across the room to the window to watch, while Verbeck
remained gazing through the crack in the door at the Black Star, who
sat down in the armchair and began inspecting the letters on the
table. The minutes passed. Muggs returned and reported that the other
man had put the robe and mask in the box, and had slipped away through
the trees. Still the Black Star sat at the table, and that for which
Verbeck had been waiting did not come to pass—the master criminal did
not remove the mask from his face.

Another adventure appealed to Verbeck now. He decided to face the
Black Star in his den. He confided his intention to Muggs in whispers
and gave his orders, and, disregarding Muggs’ mouthings concerning his
“hunch,” slipped across the room to the window and let himself out.

He found the robe in the box and quickly put it on, then adjusted the
black mask. Beneath the robe, his hand clutched the butt of his
automatic. Searching the edge of the casement, he found a push button
and touched it with his finger. Inside, a bell tinkled.

A few seconds passed, and then there was a sharp click and the door
flew open. Verbeck entered and closed the door after him. Before him
was a long corridor, musty, the air in it rank, dust on walls and
ceiling. It appeared that the entire house had not been renovated,
only the one room.

Verbeck slipped along the corridor to where a streak of light entered
it, indicating a door. Holding the pistol ready beneath his robe, he
opened the door and stepped into the room, and stood beside the
blackboard as the other man had done. The Black Star was not there.

The seconds seemed hours as he waited, trying to keep his eyes away
from the door behind which he knew Muggs was watching him, his ears
strained to catch the first sound of the master criminal’s approach.
Then the other door opened, and the Black Star appeared and walked to
his station on the other side of the room. He nodded his head, and
Verbeck picked up chalk and eraser and turned to the blackboard.

He was playing a dangerous game, and did not know how soon he would be
detected. He felt small fear, for Muggs was waiting to help him, and
he had heard nothing, seen nothing to indicate that the Black Star had
allies in the house.

“Number Four,” Verbeck wrote on the board.

“Countersign?”

“Florida,” wrote Verbeck.

He turned to find the Black Star’s eyes glittering straight into his.
The flaming jet on the hood seemed to be dancing in derision. Verbeck
wondered whether he had made a mistake, and he soon found out, for the
Black Star turned to the blackboard and wrote rapidly:

“Number Four is a woman, and Florida is not her countersign.”

And then he faced Verbeck again.

The crisis had arrived sooner than Verbeck had expected. The Black
Star knew him for an intruder, and knew also that he must have
observed a great deal to be able to don robe and mask and start the
blackboard conversation. The master criminal could be expected to act
with dispatch.

Before the Black Star could make a move Verbeck’s robe parted and his
left hand emerged, holding the pistol ready for instant action. With
his other hand he waved toward the armchair, and then he spoke:

“Sit down! And put your hands flat on the table!”

His eyes still glittering into Verbeck’s, the criminal obeyed.
Standing at the end of the table, Verbeck confronted him, scarcely
knowing what step to take next. The man before him did not speak, but
those glittering eyes—burning, malevolent, ominous—seemed to cry out
with surprise, hatred, and threats.

“So you are the Black Star?” Verbeck said. “Quite a comedy you play
here, eh? Masks hide faces and blackboards take the place of spoken
words. A very clever crook—you. But I said a clever man could find
you, and I say it again. This is the best proof of it, isn’t it? You
challenged me—and I have come. So your man thought he had escaped, did
he? If ever you see him again, tell him that his bonds were left loose
purposely, so that he’d escape and could be shadowed here. Allow me,
sir—Mr. Roger Verbeck, at your service!”

Verbeck raised a hand and tore off his mask, and bowed low in irony,
meanwhile watching his victim, for he did not make the mistake of
underestimating the cleverness of the man before him, and he was alert
for tricks. He saw the Black Star’s hands contract and his arms
stiffen, and imagined the master crook calling down curses on the head
of the man who had led enemies to his stronghold.

Then the Black Star spoke—in a low, penetrating voice, almost a
monotone, obviously disguising his real tones.

“I suppose you think you are very clever?” he said.

“I don’t advertise my cleverness like some persons, and then fail to
live up to my estimation of myself,” Verbeck replied.

“You have done something no outsider has done before—you have seen the
Black Star in his workshop. That is, indeed, a rare privilege. And, of
course, you’ll pay for it in the end.”

“You think so?” Verbeck asked.

“I presume you started out with the intention of handing me over to
your stupid police. The greatest and most difficult thing, you perhaps
thought, would be to locate me. Well, you have located me—and your
task is but begun.”

“Indeed?”

“It takes evidence to convict.”

“Naturally,” said Verbeck. “Suppose I call the police now. How about
the robe and mask you wear, that star, these blackboards, those
printed letters identical with ones that have been received by the
police and the newspapers? Evidence? This room is full of it!”

“But, when you get right down to the point,” said the Black Star,
“you’ll want evidence of theft and burglary, you know.”

“I never heard of a gang yet where some one wouldn’t turn state’s
evidence.”

The Black Star chuckled, and through the slits in his mask his eyes
seemed to be dancing with delight.

“That is just where my cleverness comes in,” he said. “To show you how
little I fear you, Roger Verbeck, I’ll tell you things no man knows
except myself. I can tell you, for instance—and it is the truth—that
the Black Star does have a band working for him, but that not one of
them ever saw his face or heard his voice.”

“Nonsense.”

“Not nonsense, but the truth. So certain am I as to what is going to
happen to you, Roger Verbeck, that I’ll reveal secrets and show you
how useless it would be to fight me, before you—er—cease to trouble me
further. I say no member of my band ever saw my face or heard my
voice, and it is the truth. I say, moreover, that I never saw the face
of one of my band or heard his voice, that I know nothing of their
names or identities, and, whenever a crime is committed, I do not know
which person or group does the work. Can you understand that? Turn
state’s evidence, Mr. Verbeck? Not a man of them knows a thing to
tell, except against himself.”

“Rot!”

“The truth,” said the Black Star. “Attend me closely. I reveal my
methods to you, because you’ll never pass them on. I began my work
years ago. I have a genuine partner, who is not in this city at the
present time. When I decided to invade this town he came here. He
rented this old house and fixed up this one room in it. The
furnishings were carted one at a time, and they were unloaded several
blocks away and fetched here at night. When everything was ready, I
came.

“My gang? This one man who knows me got the gang together. Every one
of them is an expert in his particular time. Each was eager to work
under me, for I am in a position to insure success and big profits. My
organization extends farther than you dream. Each man was fetched here
and taught what to do. Here he comes to get orders and to report.
There is no conversation except on the blackboard; and masks are
always worn.

“At the first, these men drew numbers out of a box, and in addition I
gave each a countersign. I issue orders by number, and they report by
number. If I was on the witness stand at this moment and wanted to
betray my men I couldn’t do it. I could only say that a certain crime
was committed by Number One, for instance—but if all were lined up
before me I couldn’t swear they were members of my band, because I’d
not know. Do you understand that, Mr. Roger Verbeck? Very clever, eh?
We work together, yet were we to pass on the street we’d not dream we
knew one another. Absolute protection—you see? Hand me over to the
police this minute—if you can—and it will avail you nothing. No jury
would convict on the evidence that could be presented. And my
organization, in a hundred different ways, would come to my rescue.”

“I thought none of them knew you,” said Verbeck.

“That is the truth. You do not understand everything yet. I have a
band of men who do the real work. And I have an organization that
collects knowledge I must have. Every man and woman in that
organization has a very good reason for being loyal to me——”

“Women?”

“Yes,” said the Black Star. “Many women! People in every walk of life.
And, naturally, I have arranged it so that I could harm them, but they
never could harm me. I heard of your foolish boast of last night,
didn’t I? How do you suppose I knew that? And I can tell you the
combination of the safe in your dressing room, Mr. Verbeck, if you are
skeptical, and tell you also that there is nothing in it at the
present time that we desire. There is a bundle of stock certificates
and deeds in the upper right-hand pigeonhole, and a score or more old
coins in a drawer at the bottom.”

“How do you know that?” Verbeck demanded.

“I know a multitude of things, Mr. Verbeck. Get this idea in your
head—I do not know the names or faces of my real workers, but I do
know the identities of those who gather my information. I know them,
and could punish them—but they do not know me. Tidy little
arrangement? I fancy you’ll not find a flaw in it.”

“You have deluded yourself into thinking it is perfect,” replied
Verbeck. “Suppose one of your crooks is captured while committing a
crime, and brings the police down on you to save himself?”

“He would not. If he kept his mouth closed, the organization would
save him. If he played traitor, the organization would save me and see
that he got the limit. I could convince you if I wished to talk more,
but I do not; I must protect the organization as it protects me. You
have pitted your cleverness against mine, Mr. Verbeck, and you have
been successful in your first attempt—you have located me. And now
what are you going to do about it?”

“Suppose I hand you over to the police?”

“Even if you could do that—and I am not admitting it—you’d be laughed
at in the end, and I’d probably conclude by suing you for heavy
damages. Believe me when I say everything has been thought of, and for
every attack there is a defense arranged. Also, to hand me over to the
police would be to warn all the others, and you’d have a difficult
time convicting me without their testimony. And there is another
thing——”

The Black Star hesitated.

“Say it!” said Verbeck.

“I have said that my organization is far-reaching. If you meddled in
my affairs, the chickens might come home to roost. You are up against
something regarding the magnitude of which you know very little, Mr.
Verbeck. I have only just begun my organization in this city, but
already it is broad enough to cause you pain and chagrin, did I put it
to work.”

“I suppose,” said Verbeck, “that you imagine you are going to frighten
me by this lot of pointless talk.”

“You may be a very clever man in some things, Mr. Verbeck, but in this
you are no better than a babe. Did I take the fancy to do so, I could
make you one of my organization, too. But you have gone too far for
that—you have discovered too much.”

“You’d make me join your band of crooks!” exclaimed Verbeck, laughing.

“I could force you to be a loyal and obedient member, believe me, if
such was my desire. You do not realize, sir, the strength of the Black
Star and his band. You do not realize how very little you know. You
have heard my voice, that is true, and you have seen my workshop—but
even you, Roger Verbeck, have not seen my face.”

“And what is to prevent me taking a look at it now?”

“This,” said the Black Star. “You are standing at the end of the table
with a pistol in your hand. I am seated, and my hands are on the table
before me, so that you could fill me full of lead before I could get a
weapon from beneath my robe. But the toe of my left shoe, Mr. Verbeck,
is resting on a button in the floor—a button that works a trigger—and
you are standing over a cement-lined pit twelve feet deep. Before you
could shoot, my toe would press the button—so! And down you go, Mr.
Verbeck, through the floor and into the pit, and the trapdoor comes up
again—so!—and you are a prisoner in the darkness—you who tried to
match wits with the Black Star!”

It all had happened in a second of time. A section of the floor had
swung downward with a crash, and Roger Verbeck had been dashed to the
bottom of the pit. The one shot he fired went wild, the bullet burying
itself in the ceiling. The trapdoor closed again—and the Black Star,
standing at the end of the table now, threw back his head and laughed
uproariously.

And the laughter died in his throat as he sank suddenly to the floor!
For Muggs was through the door as Verbeck shot downward, and the butt
of his automatic had crashed against the Black Star’s head just behind
the left ear.



CHAPTER IV—ROGUE FOR A DAY


Muggs was a product of the slums, and had known the inside of a
prison. Five years before, Roger Verbeck had picked him up in Paris,
at a time when Muggs was contemplating throwing himself into the
Seine, for misery and crime and poor living had broken his spirit and
made existence a nightmare. Verbeck had taught him that wits can be
used for honest purposes, had given him a home, and in return Muggs,
in his gratitude, gave Verbeck what services he could. He was of the
type willing to die to save a benefactor pain.

Muggs had not struck the Black Star a light blow, and when the master
crook fell, Muggs knew he would remain unconscious for some time to
come. He was sobbing and calling to Verbeck in a low voice as he put
his foot beneath the table and felt for the button. He could not find
it at first, for in his eagerness he was not methodical. Then he
quieted down, and, getting down on hands and knees, went over the
floor, inch by inch, until he felt a little knob through the rug.

His hand went out; he pressed the knob. At the end of the table
appeared a yawning chasm, as a section of the flooring fell back.
Muggs was at its side in an instant.

“Boss! Boss!” he called.

“I’m all right, Muggs! Not even scratched, and not stunned. Hurry up
and get me out of here. And watch that chap——”

Muggs was on his feet, looking wildly about the room. There was no
ladder, no rope, nothing that could reach to the bottom of that
twelve-foot pit. But there was a couch in the corner, and Muggs tore
off the cover and carried it to the pit’s edge.

“Grab it, while I brace myself, boss,” he directed. “Then climb—I can
hold you.”

And so Verbeck emerged from the pit, bracing his feet against the wall
of it and climbing hand over hand up the couch cover, while Muggs,
above, braced his feet and bent back, gripping the other end of the
cloth. Then the trapdoor was closed again.

“Have you killed him?” Verbeck cried when he saw the form of the Black
Star on the floor.

“I felt like it, but I thought you’d want him again, boss. I just gave
him a smash behind the ear.”

“Um!”

“Don’t you think we’d better call the police now, boss? I got a
hunch——”

“You heard what he said, didn’t you, Muggs? If the police take him in,
the others will discover it, and escape. And he said some other things
that have me guessing. How did he know what I said last night at a
private reception in a private residence, eh? I know none of his
crooks was close enough to overhear me. And how does he know what’s in
my safe? He says he even knows the combination of it, and I don’t
doubt him.”

“Then what are we going to do, boss?”

Verbeck had slipped off his robe, and now handed it, together with the
mask, to Muggs.

“Put these outside in the box, then hurry back,” he directed.

As Muggs rushed away, Verbeck bent forward and took off the Black
Star’s mask. There was revealed the not unhandsome face of a man about
forty-five. Verbeck contemplated this countenance as he started to
remove the Black Star’s robe. It was one he never had seen before.
Despite the Black Star’s words, Verbeck had been half of a mind that
the master crook was some one known to the city in general as a
respectable man, a sort of Jekyll and Hyde.

Muggs returned, and the Black Star was gagged and bound with a curtain
that Muggs tore from one of the doorways and ripped into strips.

“And now——” Verbeck began.

He did not complete the sentence. On the wall above his head a bell
tinkled. Verbeck and Muggs looked at each other, the same idea in the
mind of each.

“Another crook,” Muggs whispered.

“No doubt.”

“What’ll we do?”

Verbeck hesitated a moment. “This is a great chance, Muggs,” he said
finally. “I’ll play the Black Star’s part. I’ll be a crook pro
tempore.”

“What kind of a crook is that?”

“The kind I’m going to be, Muggs. Hurry! Get this chap in the other
room and shut the door—and watch.”

As Muggs obeyed, Verbeck put on the Black Star’s robe and mask. The
little bell jangled again. On the wall below it was a button, and this
button Verbeck pushed. He could hear the click as the door was
unlocked, and he slipped through the door by which the Black Star had
made his entrance, and found himself in another dusty, unfurnished
room.

In a moment he heard some one enter the other door. He waited for a
time, as the Black Star had done, then opened the door and walked
boldly into the room, nodding his head to the other man in robe and
mask and taking his position at the Black Star’s blackboard.

“Number Eight,” the other wrote.

“Countersign?”

“Harvard.”

Verbeck did not know, of course, whether it was the proper
countersign, but he had to take the chance.

“Report,” he wrote.

“Have information you desire.”

The man stepped away from the blackboard, put one hand beneath his
robe, and took out a letter, which he threw on the table. Then he went
back to the blackboard and stood at attention.

Verbeck went to the table and picked up the letter. He ripped it open,
watching the other meanwhile, then lowered his eyes to read. What was
written there was startling and very much to the point:

  Mrs. Greistman will wear diamonds and rope of pearls at Charity
  Ball. They will be taken from safe-deposit box during the
  afternoon. After the ball they will be kept in safe in Greistman
  library. Safe is old one. Library is on first floor; one door
  opens into hall; three windows, one opening on veranda and
  others on side of house and shaded from street lights by vines
  and trees. All servants sleep on second floor, in the rear. Mr.
  and Mrs. Greistman and daughter sleep on same floor, in front,
  latter on left side of hall, parents on right side as you face
  rear of house. Daughter subject to insomnia, especially after
  brilliant society events, and often takes sleeping draft.

There it was, full information that indicated the Black Star
contemplated getting the Greistman jewels, reported by means of the
organization, no doubt. The note had been written on a typewriter, and
there were no marks on the envelope. Any active crook might have been
able to discover where the members of the Greistman family slept, and
learn where the safe was kept, and how the doors and windows of the
library were located, but only some one in close touch with the family
could know when they anticipated taking the jewels from the
safe-deposit box and where they would be kept the night after the
ball.

Verbeck found himself wondering how this information had been obtained
and whether the man who now stood before him in robe and mask had
obtained it or was merely a messenger to carry it to the Black Star.
He stepped back to the blackboard and picked up the chalk again.

“Where did you get information?” he wrote.

“As you instructed,” came the written answer.

Verbeck could ask no more without betraying himself. He had no idea
regarding the identity of the man before him. It was possible, of
course, for him to call Muggs from the other room and overpower the
crook, but it was doubtful if the man would talk and reveal anything
after he discovered he was not dealing with the Black Star, but with
an outsider. And what Verbeck wanted was accurate knowledge; he would
have to be careful not to arouse the man’s suspicion.

“Good!” he wrote on the blackboard. Then he nodded to the man, as if
in dismissal. But the other did not seem ready to go, and acted as if
there was something wanting.

“Any orders?” he wrote finally.

Verbeck remembered the pile of letters on the end of the table, and
now he went over and inspected them. They were orders for members of
the band, evidently, for on each envelope a number was stamped. He
found the one marked “Eight,” and took out the sheet of paper it
contained. There were the orders the Black Star had prepared for this
man:

  At three o’clock in the afternoon there is a committee meeting
  of the Browning Club in a parlor of the second floor of the
  National Hotel, at which Miss Freda Brakeland will be present.
  Manage to be in the lobby of the hotel after the meeting, and
  meet Miss Brakeland as if by accident. Talk of the Charity Ball,
  and ascertain whether she is to wear the famous Brakeland jewels
  at that affair. Report in usual manner here at ten o’clock at
  night; and remember that no excuse can be accepted for failure.

Here was another glimpse of the Black Star’s work. Verbeck, after a
moment’s thought, decided to give the man his orders and let him go.
He would continue to play at being the Black Star and discover all he
could of the master crook’s plans. Perhaps he would be able to prevent
the wholesale theft of valuable jewels; for it appeared that the Black
Star intended a series of crimes following the Charity Ball. This man
before him had orders to report the following night, so there was no
object in exciting his suspicions now.

Verbeck would have given a great deal at that moment to have been able
to peer behind the other man’s mask. Who was this man before him who
could be expected to engage Miss Freda Brakeland in conversation
without arousing suspicion? Somebody who belonged in the city, surely,
somebody well known in society, for Freda Brakeland was one of the
most exclusive and unapproachable women of the younger set.

Verbeck was annoyed by the Black Star’s threat that the chickens might
come home to roost. He was astounded at the lines of information
gathered for the benefit of the master crook, and a multitude of
questions rushed to his mind, none of which he could answer. He
decided to refrain from calling in the police at present, at least
until he discovered more.

And now to Verbeck came another plan he decided to use. He placed the
orders on the end of the table and motioned for the other man to pick
them up; then he hurried to his blackboard and wrote supplementary
orders there:

  Pass the northwest corner of First Avenue and American Boulevard
  at exactly two o’clock in afternoon on your way to the hotel.
  Stop on corner, remove hat, and pretend to brush dust from it.
  If there is to be any change in your orders, an envelope will be
  slipped to you at that time; otherwise, go ahead as you have
  been directed.

It seemed to Verbeck that the other man expressed surprise in the way
his shoulders straightened and his head lifted, and for an instant
Verbeck feared he had attempted too much. But the other only nodded
that he understood, then saluted and backed out of the door. Two
minutes later Muggs came in from the other room and reported that the
crook had put robe and mask in the box outside, and had hurried away.

“I’ll get him!” Verbeck said. “He’ll stop on that corner and give the
sign, and then I’ll follow him. I’ll learn who it is that’s helping
the Black Star gather valuable information. We’ve got to stick to the
game now, Muggs, old man!”

“I’d call the police——”

“Not yet! I’m going to play this game myself until it gets too hot for
me. The Black Star challenged me, didn’t he? I’ll have plenty of
evidence before I call in the police.”

“What about the chief crook in the other room? He’s conscious again.”

Verbeck paced the floor for a time, his head bowed, thinking.

“I have it!” he exclaimed at last. “You get out of here, Muggs, and
hurry to the garage and get my car. Stop at the rooms and get that
bunch of keys in the right-hand drawer of my desk——”

“The keys to the old place?”

“Yes. We’ll take the Black Star there, Muggs. Bring the car to the
corner nearest this house, then hurry in and help with him. We’ve got
to have it done before dawn. Hurry! That’s what we’ll do, Muggs! We’ll
take the Black Star to the old house, and there you’ll guard him,
while I play master crook in his mask and robe.”



CHAPTER V—MUGGS ON GUARD


When Muggs had departed Verbeck got up and walked into the other room,
where the Black Star was on the floor in an uncomfortable position.
Muggs had left the window open, and the cold air swept in, bringing
sleet and snow with it. It had been all one with Muggs whether the
Black Star froze to death or not.

Verbeck closed the window. He didn’t want to carry the man into the
furnished room for fear some other member of the gang might come to
make a report, although now it was almost three o’clock in the
morning. So he threw the door open wide and rolled in the couch and
lifted the Black Star upon it, covering him with two heavy portières
that hung before one of the doors. However, there was no expression of
thanks in the Black Star’s countenance.

Verbeck went back into the other room and closed the door behind him.
He took a candle from a shelf in the corner and lighted it, then made
an inspection of the house from bottom to top. No other room was
furnished; there were no arrangements for cooking, no store of food.
The Black Star, then, did not live here, only came here to receive the
members of his gang. That would make it possible for Verbeck to remain
away from the house except at night.

He went back to the furnished room and conducted an investigation
there. First he looked at the orders in the envelopes. Nine was the
highest number there, but Verbeck did not know how many envelopes had
been given out that night before his arrival. And the orders were
astounding.

Only one had to do with gathering information; the others concerned
projected crimes. Some of them Verbeck could not understand, since
they referred to orders given previously. But others indicated not
only crimes, but the manner in which they were to be committed. They
told what to steal and just where to steal it, where there was danger
and where there was none. Verbeck began considering whether he should
give these orders out if any more men called. Taking the place of the
Black Star did not include aiding in crimes, he told himself. He would
issue orders of his own, orders that would keep the members of the
band from their nefarious business, but at the same time would keep
them in touch until he could arrange a wholesale capture.

Verbeck fumbled around the end of the table for several minutes before
he found the spring which released the drawer and caused it to open.
As he and Muggs had seen earlier in the night, there was an abundance
of money in the drawer. There were half a score of diamond rings, too,
a pearl necklace, other gems. There was a box of little rubber type
and an ink pad and a small memoranda book.

Verbeck opened the book. On the last written page of it he found
something that interested him. At the top was a date—that very day—and
below was a list of numbers, with hours set opposite. The book told
when members of the band were expected to report. Verbeck found that
the first was Number Three, due at nine o’clock that night. And from
then until two o’clock the next morning others were due at stated
intervals. The entire band, it was evident, was to appear for orders
within a few hours and comparison of the book with the printed orders
gave Verbeck an inkling of the scheme.

The Black Star had, indeed, planned a staggering blow to the city’s
pride; his band of crooks was to make a specialty of stealing jewels
taken from safe-deposit boxes to be worn at the Charity Ball. For a
few hours these valuable jewels would be protected only by ordinary
safes in residences, and during those few hours the members of the
Black Star’s band would strike.

Verbeck went in to see that the Black Star was as comfortable as he
could be while bound and gagged, and then walked over to the window.
The storm was dying down; the snow and sleet had almost ceased to
fall, but the cold seemed to be increasing.

Returning to the furnished room, he sat down beside the table to wait.
An hour from the time Muggs had departed the bell tinkled. Verbeck
adjusted his mask and touched the button that opened the door. In a
moment Muggs stood beside him.

“Here are the keys, boss,” he said. “I’ve got the car near the mouth
of the alley, and the lights are out. We can take him along the
hedge——”

“Good!” Verbeck interrupted.

They went inside and lifted the Black Star and carried him out.
Verbeck took off mask and robe and put them on the table, and one by
one blew out the candles. Then he closed the door and helped Muggs
carry the Black Star through the musty hall. Another moment, and they
were outside.

It was not particularly a difficult task to carry their man along the
hedge and to the car, and there Verbeck put him in the back and got in
beside him, while Muggs took the wheel. They made their way slowly up
the hill and to a well-paved street, and there Muggs turned on the
lights and the car rushed forward through the night.

The old Verbeck place was one of the city’s landmarks. It was closed
now, and had been closed for the greater part of the past five years.
It had been bequeathed Verbeck, the last of his family, by his father,
and the young man had had no desire to repair it and live in it alone
with a staff of servants. He preferred his apartment, and to live in
it with no servant except Muggs.

But now, betrothed to wed Faustina Wendell, Verbeck was contemplating
tearing down the old house and erecting a mansion in its place for his
bride. The present house occupied the center of the block. It was
surrounded by trees and tangled underbrush. The walks about it were in
poor condition, and nobody ever approached it. It was to this place
that he was taking the Black Star.

It was a long, cold ride. The Black Star groaned and threw his head
from side to side, indicating that he wanted the gag removed, but
Verbeck declined to accommodate him. He was taking no chances with the
Black Star.

The machine lurched and skidded along the streets, dashed along
boulevards, swung around corners. Muggs was putting on all possible
speed, for the dawn was not far away.

The machine was finally brought to a standstill before the double
gates that opened into the driveway of the old Verbeck place. Verbeck
got out and helped Muggs throw open the gates, and they drove in.

There was fuel in the house, and after they had carried the Black Star
in and made him comfortable on a couch Verbeck built a fire in the
large grate in the living room. Then he removed the man’s gag, and all
his bonds except those which held his hands fastened behind his back.

“There, Mr. Black Star!” he said. “It has been an exciting night. You
sent a man to invade my apartment, and in turn I invaded your place of
business—I suppose that is what you’d call it—and made you prisoner,
with the aid of this very good friend of mine. And now you are
here—and I’m quite sure you don’t know just where. And here you’ll
remain for the time being, until I form some plans and put them in
operation. You’ll be kept warm, and you’ll have food. Muggs will guard
you. And you’ll be unable to escape.”

“All very clever,” the Black Star retorted. “But you are playing with
fire, Mr. Verbeck, and are liable to be badly scorched.”

“I’ll run the risk of that.”

“Remember, I told you my organization has a long arm. I’m storing all
this up against you.”

“Very kind of you, I’m sure.” He turned to Muggs. “How do you want to
work this thing?” he asked.

“Just let him fuss around with his hands tied, boss,” Muggs said.
“I’ll get a strap or some rope from the closet and tie ’em properly.
And if he tries any funny tricks I’ll either shoot him or pound him on
the head with the butt of the gun—’tis immaterial. You can leave it to
me, boss.”

And Verbeck knew by the expression of Muggs’ face that he could.



CHAPTER VI—AN UNPROFITABLE AFTERNOON


Verbeck put his car in the garage, returned to his apartment and
slept. He awakened at eleven o’clock, rushed through bath and
breakfast, got the car out again, purchased groceries, and whirled
away toward the old house.

There he found Muggs pacing back and forth, with the pistol in his
hand, reading the Black Star a lecture on the evils of a nefarious
existence. The Black Star looked disgusted.

“If you’re going to keep me prisoner,” he told Verbeck, “I’d be
obliged if you’d give me another jailer.”

“What’s the matter with Muggs?”

“Barring the fact that he is insane, he may be all right. I don’t want
to be talked to death.”

Verbeck gave him a grin for answer and unpacked the groceries. He had
small time to spend here, and, taking Muggs into a corner, he bade him
be sure to guard the prisoner carefully.

“You may not see me again until to-morrow morning, Muggs,” he said.
“I’ll be busy this afternoon, and to-night I’m going to that house
where the Black Star has his headquarters and start some plans going.”

“You’ll be careful, boss?”

“I’ll be careful, Muggs. When it comes time for sleep what are you
going to do here?”

“Stay awake, I guess.”

“There is a vegetable pit in the basement, remember. Get plenty of
blankets from the closet and put them there, and make him climb down
and sleep on them. You can bolt the trapdoor and sleep in peace here
before the fire. Careful, now. I’m off!”

At one o’clock he put the car in the garage again, for he had decided
he’d not use it that afternoon. Precisely at ten minutes of two he was
standing at the corner on which he had directed the crook the night
before to fumble with his hat and await orders.

It happened to be a pet day with shoppers. Traffic officers worked
furiously to keep the crossings free of vehicles; uniformed footmen
opened limousine doors and helped well-dressed women across the walks
and into shops. Conversations seemed limited to dry goods and
bargains.

Verbeck had not remembered how the corner would be thronged when he
gave the Black Star’s man his orders. The corner now was a jam of
human beings. Verbeck crossed the street and stood beside a stone
pillar in front of a show window, from where he could watch easily.

The hour of two arrived, and Verbeck scrutinized every man who passed
the corner. Five minutes passed, and no one had given him the signal.
And then he saw Howard Wendell, the brother of his fiancée, walking
slowly down the street close to the curbing.

Verbeck drew back quickly behind the pillar. If Howard Wendell saw
him, he undoubtedly would stop to talk, and Verbeck did not want to
hold a conversation just then.

Wendell passed without seeing him. He stopped for an instant on the
corner; he removed his hat, and he ran one hand around the brim of it
as if brushing away dust.

Verbeck’s jaw dropped and his eyes bulged with amazement. The next
instant he was chuckling at the coincidence of it. There was no
possibility of Howard Wendell being a member of the Black Star’s band,
of course. The boy accidentally had done what Verbeck had ordered the
crook to do, that was all, and when he came to think of it Verbeck
realized it was a natural thing for any man to do, and wished he had
told the crook to use some other sign.

Howard Wendell walked on up the street, and Verbeck continued his
watch. The minutes slipped by, and no other man gave the sign. A doubt
entered Verbeck’s mind. That boast he had made at the reception—Howard
Wendell had heard that, and the Black Star had known of it soon
afterward. And Howard had given the correct sign.

“Bosh! Can’t be!” Verbeck muttered to himself. “I’m a fool to think it
for a minute. Why on earth would Howard be mixed up with a gang of
crooks? Even if he wanted to be, how could he get into a first-order
gang like that of the Black Star? They’d not have him! I’m crazy to
think of it!”

He looked at his watch; it was a quarter of three. He decided to go to
the hotel where the unknown crook was to hold conversation with Miss
Freda Brakeland. Perhaps he could decide the matter there, learn the
crook’s identity.

The lobby of the hotel was thronged when Verbeck entered. He met men
and women he knew, but managed to keep free from lingering
conversation. He wanted to be at liberty to make a complete
investigation.

Then he met Faustina Wendell face to face.

“Why, Roger!” she gasped. “Fancy meeting you here! I’ve heard you say
you hate hotel lobbies.”

“I came in to take a peek so I’ll hate them more,” Verbeck replied.
“And you?”

“Browning Club meeting, dear.”

“It is over already?”

“A quarter of an hour ago. In fact, we met only to postpone it, for
every one is talking of the Charity Ball to-morrow night.”

“I see,” said Verbeck. He did see—that he had missed his chance to
learn the identity of the crook.

“I came down in the electric,” Faustina continued. “Come along home
with me, if you haven’t an engagement.”

He entered the electric and sat beside her as she piloted the car
through the busy streets. She was giving all her attention to the
driving, and he did not attempt conversation. And now that her face
was in repose, it seemed to Verbeck that there was a peculiar
expression on it, one that he was not used to seeing. He would have
sworn that the girl beside him, who had promised to be his wife, was
anxious, worried—and that was foreign to her nature.

The Wendells had been wealthy once, but were not now. Mr. Wendell had
died two years before, leaving an estate much smaller than was
anticipated. His widow had built a modern apartment house, and from it
derived an income, the Wendells living in one of the apartments on the
first floor. Yet they had enough to maintain their position in
society, and this was an important position, for the Wendells were an
old pioneer family, noted for piety and pride.

“You are looking tired,” Verbeck observed.

“You’re not very complimentary, Roger. Perhaps I am a bit tired,
though.”

“Too much Charity Ball?” he asked.

“I am not worrying much about that. I intend going, of course.”

“I should hope so,” Verbeck said.

“Would it disappoint you very much if I said I’d rather not?”

“Nothing you can do will disappoint me,” he said loyally; “but I
cannot imagine a Charity Ball without you in attendance. Are you
thinking of remaining away?”

She was looking ahead, and Verbeck imagined that her lips quivered for
an instant.

“Is anything the matter?” he asked. “You don’t seem to be yourself
to-day.”

“I—oh, it is nothing, Roger! Perhaps I am a bit nervous. Let us talk
of something else. Here we are at home. You’ll come in, of course?”

He followed her inside, and greeted her mother, who immediately left
them alone.

“Now,” Verbeck said, bending toward her, “tell me what is troubling
you. I can see that there is something.”

“Really it is nothing, Roger. Perhaps I am a bit out of sorts.
And—what I said about the ball—forget that, please.”

“But if you do not wish to go——” he said.

“Can’t we decide it to-morrow afternoon, dear? All right—let us leave
it until then. Perhaps I’ll be feeling better.”

“And there is no trouble—nothing I can do to help?” he persisted.

“Foolish boy! I’m just—just tired.”

“Then I’m going to run right away and let you rest. I ought to be
downtown, anyway. I’ll telephone the garage for my car.”

He went to the telephone and sent in his call, then returned to sit
beside her. She was trying hard to smile and act naturally, but
Verbeck knew something was troubling her. But he imagined it might be
something connected with the family finance, and so did not press her
for an answer.

The car came from the garage, and Verbeck left, and drove through the
streets in a way that defied all traffic ordinances. He had failed to
identify the crook who had received orders to speak with Miss Freda
Brakeland. And something was troubling his fiancée, and Faustina had
refused to confide in him. It had been an unprofitable afternoon.

And there was a busy and dangerous night before him.



CHAPTER VII—IDENTICAL ORDERS


Eight o’clock that night found Roger Verbeck in the Black Star’s
headquarters, the room put in order, and the candles burning. He was
sitting at the end of the long table, in robe and mask, and with the
little rubber stamps he was busy writing out orders. All the orders
were identical; the ones previously written by the Black Star had been
destroyed.

Promptly at nine o’clock the little bell on the wall tinkled, and
Verbeck, shutting the drawer in the table and holding his automatic in
readiness beneath his robe, went to the wall and pressed the button
that opened the door. He hurried from the room, and waited.

Presently he entered again, to find a masked and robed figure standing
before the blackboard. Number and countersign were given, and Verbeck
handed the man his orders and a twenty-dollar bill taken from the
drawer in the table. The man bowed and went out.

Nine-thirty brought another man, and the same ceremony was observed.
Ten o’clock brought the member of the band to whom Verbeck had given
orders the night before. After he had written his number and
countersign, Verbeck whirled to the blackboard.

“Report,” he wrote.

“Browning Club meeting was postponed, and I missed the person you
mentioned,” the other scribbled on the board. “I followed her, and
spoke with her later in a tea room. She will wear her jewels,
including the famous ruby collar.”

Verbeck nodded for the man to erase. Again he found himself wondering
at the identity of this man who could talk so freely to Freda
Brakeland. And now he wrote on the blackboard himself:

“Why did you not carry out orders?”

“Pardon, but I did.”

“You appeared at the corner I mentioned?”

“Yes. Nobody approached me, so I went on as ordered.”

Verbeck wondered whether the man was speaking the truth, whether he
had appeared at the corner, as ordered, and Verbeck had missed him. It
was possible, he knew, because of the throng of shoppers. And, again——
The robe effectually disguised the man before him, but Verbeck
imagined he was taller than Howard Wendell. He told himself again he
was a fool to think that the man before him was his fiancée’s brother.
He had half a notion to order him to remove his mask, but thought
better of it. This man was a crook, could be nothing else. And Verbeck
dared do nothing that would arouse suspicion and endanger the plan he
had formed.

“Very well,” he wrote on the board; then went to the table and tossed
the proper envelope toward the other.

The man picked it up and read the orders. It seemed to Verbeck that he
appeared startled. He went to the blackboard and wrote again:

“Are you sure, sir, that these are my orders?”

“Yes,” Verbeck wrote.

“Must I carry them out?”

“They must be carried out—to the letter,” wrote Verbeck.

The other hesitated a moment, then wrote rapidly on the board:

“You are unfair, but I am unable to help myself.”

And then, as Verbeck started forward, the other saluted and darted out
of the door, to hurry down the dusty hall. Roger returned to the
table. He half wished he had forced the other man to remove his mask.

Ten-thirty o’clock brought a woman. Verbeck knew she was a woman
because he could see her hands, the fingers covered with rings and the
bottom of her skirts showed beneath the robe. Her writing on the
blackboard was unmistakably feminine, too. The Black Star had said
that women belonged to his organization, but Verbeck had not
anticipated meeting one in this house; he had believed they worked on
orders transmitted by others.

“Everything arranged,” the woman wrote on the board. “It will be easy.
I’ll get the necklace about three o’clock in the morning and hide it
where you ordered. It may be found there any time after four o’clock.”

Here Verbeck found himself facing something of which he knew nothing,
some crime already outlined by the Black Star.

“Disregard all previous orders,” he wrote, “for the time being. I have
new orders for you, and you’ll attend to them first. Do you
understand?”

“Yes,” she wrote.

He threw her envelope on the table, and she read the instructions it
contained. She, too, scribbled a protest on the blackboard.

“Isn’t it dangerous?” she wrote.

“Carry out your orders. You do not know all the scheme, remember.”

“I understand. I’ll obey.”

Then she hurried out.

At eleven o’clock the bell tinkled again, and Verbeck admitted another
of the band. This one, too, was a woman. She appeared timid, whereas
the first had given every indication of being used to this sort of
thing. Her hand trembled as she wrote her number on the board. Then
she gave her countersign and waited.

Evidently she was not working on a case, but had reported to get
orders. Verbeck had no orders ready for her, for her number had not
been on the list he had found in the Black Star’s book. Apparently
this was her first visit, or else the Black Star had not contemplated
making use of her at the present time.

He took orders he had printed for one of the others and put them on
the end of the table, motioning for her to pick them up and read. As
she advanced toward the table, Verbeck found that her eyes were upon
him, and she seemed afraid to touch the envelope. She opened it
finally, read quickly, and Verbeck thought she gave a little cry. She
staggered backward, but seemed to regain her composure as he started
forward to aid her, and backed away from him. The sheet of paper
fluttered from her hand to the floor.

Verbeck stooped and picked it up, and handed it to her. She did not
seem to see it—she was looking down at Verbeck’s hand. Like a wild
thing, she whirled around and rushed back to the blackboard and seized
the chalk.

“Where did you get that ring?” she wrote rapidly.

Verbeck answered on his board:

“Why? Do you fancy it?”

“Where did you get it?”

“That is my personal and private business,” he wrote. The ring was a
peculiar signet he had picked up abroad and had worn for years.

The woman dropped the chalk to the floor. She raised one hand as if to
put it to her face; she dropped it again; her eyes burned into
Verbeck’s from behind her mask; then she gave a cry that expressed
pain and despair, and hurried through the door and into the hall.

“Well, what do you think of that?” Verbeck mused. “Was she really
frightened or only playing a part? I wonder if the Black Star has been
treating her badly and has made her afraid of him? She seemed awfully
interested in my ring—because she’d never noticed it on the Black
Star’s hand, I suppose. If she should be suspicious—— But she couldn’t
do anything if she was!”

The members of the band continued to arrive at intervals, but there
were no more women. Verbeck received their numbers and countersigns,
and gave out copies of the orders. At three o’clock in the morning he
decided there were no more to come. Two women and eight men had been
received during the night—ten persons had walked into the trap he had
constructed. Less than twenty-four hours, and the Black Star and his
band would be in the hands of the police. Verbeck felt that he had
planned well.

At half past three o’clock he left the house and walked five blocks to
catch an owl car. Half an hour later he was on the boulevard,
approaching the building in which he had his rooms. As he reached the
steps of the apartment house he happened to turn and glance down the
street. He saw a man dodge behind a lamp-post a short distance away.

Verbeck stepped into the vestibule, waited a moment, then stepped out
again quickly. Again he saw the man dodge behind the post.

Darting down the steps, Verbeck ran toward the man. A shadowy form
rushed across the driveway and lost itself in the shadows of the
underbrush. Verbeck stopped and retraced his steps. He doubted whether
he could catch the man, and he wasn’t inclined to pursue him at that
hour of the morning. Perhaps it was not a man watching him, but a
lurking thief, he thought, and at the same time he felt that he had
been under surveillance.



CHAPTER VIII—THE POLICE GET A TIP


Verbeck arose at noon to face the day that meant the culmination of
his plans. As he bathed and shaved and dressed he kept thinking of the
prowler he had seen a few hours before. Could it be possible, he asked
himself, that some of the Black Star’s band had grown suspicious and
would take an active part against him? Had the Black Star, a prisoner
in the old Verbeck house, sent out some message from his prison
calling for rescue? Verbeck was half afraid he had made some blunder,
had overlooked something that would allow the master criminal to turn
the tables and emerge victor from the duel of wits.

He telephoned the garage for his roadster, and hurried out to the old
Verbeck place, taking with him a lineman from the telephone company’s
office. The lineman connected the telephone, which had been out of
service.

“How is the prisoner?” Verbeck asked Muggs after the lineman had
departed.

“Down in the vegetable pit, thinking of his sins.”

“Fetch him up,” Verbeck directed, and began carrying in the food he
had purchased before running out from town.

It was a surly Black Star who entered the living room, with Muggs at
his heels urging him on. He no longer was handsome because of a two
days’ growth of beard and dark circles under his eyes. He glared at
Muggs malevolently as he crossed the room and sat down stiffly on a
divan.

“How long,” he demanded of Verbeck, “are you going to keep me
prisoner, with a maniac for jailer?”

“Probably until a late hour to-night. But you need not be confined in
the pit again. I’m going to have Muggs keep you in this room, where it
is warm and comfortable. I want to give you a bit of liberty until
to-night.”

“And then?”

“Then I’ll probably hand you over to the police, and you’ll have
mighty small freedom for years to come.”

“Indeed?” the Black Star snarled. “You have arranged everything, have
you? Planned a coup of some sort?”

“Time will tell,” said Verbeck.

“And don’t you ever stop to fear for yourself?”

“I haven’t felt particularly afraid at any time.”

“I have warned you that the arm of my organization——”

“Is a long one—I remember,” said Verbeck. “The arm of the law also is
long, Mr. Black Star, and a clever, honest man can outwit a clever
crook any time, as I said once before. You called it a boast, I
believe.”

“You are not done yet.”

“Certainly not—but I’ll be done within a few hours.”

Verbeck walked to a corner and beckoned Muggs to him.

“I’ll return to-night, some time after nine o’clock,” he said. “I want
you to watch the Black Star well, Muggs. If he escapes now——”

“Why don’t you call in the police, boss?”

“And spoil everything? I’m going through with this now—I’m going to
nab the Black Star and his gang.”

“Then there’s something big coming off, and I’m not to be in on it?”
Muggs demanded.

“Neither am I, Muggs—at the moment it comes off. But we’ll both be in
at the finish—and we’ll be there strong. Just curb your curiosity,
Muggs, until this evening. I’ll explain everything then. Careful, now,
and don’t let the Black Star escape. I fancy you’ve been aggravating
him.”

“Aw, boss——”

“He looks it. Haven’t you?”

“I was just reciting a list of his sins, boss.”

“Well, Muggs, recite less and keep your eyes open more. Watch every
move he makes. Don’t you use that telephone, and don’t let the Black
Star get near it. I had it connected so we can use it to-night. Now
I’m off!”

He got in the roadster and started back downtown. He stopped before a
suburban drug store and went into a telephone booth. He had not wanted
to send this telephone message from his own apartment nor from the old
Verbeck place, for it might be traced.

He called police headquarters, and asked to be connected with the
chief. No, he said, the chief’s secretary wouldn’t do. It was
something about the Black Star.

In a moment he heard the chief’s gruff voice.

“Listen carefully,” Verbeck told him, “for I am not going to repeat
what I say or answer questions. This is very important, and if you
disregard it you’ll be sorry. Have your secretary get on the phone
extension and take down in shorthand what I am going to say.”

There was a short wait while the chief made the necessary
arrangements, then Verbeck heard himself commanded to speak.

“I have run down and caught the Black Star,” he said. “I am holding
him prisoner now. I cannot hand him over to you just yet, for, if I
did, and the least news of it leaked out, you’d never catch one of his
gang, and, without his gang, you never could convict him. Never mind
how I know it—I am not talking nonsense. You’ve got that?”

An excited voice told him that the chief understood.

“Now, listen to this,” Verbeck went on. “I have arranged for all the
Black Star’s band to be at a certain place at the same time, so you
and your men can take them all. Keep quiet, chief, and don’t ask
questions. I want you to send men enough to arrest them—eight men and
two women are in the crowd. They are to be arrested just when and
where I say. If you let as much as one of them escape all my work and
yours probably will have been for nothing. When you get them you’ll
find stolen property on every one. And as soon as I learn you have all
of them under arrest I’ll turn over the Black Star to you, I’ll tell
you where and how he met the members of his gang and gave them orders,
and I’ll let you have the inside workings of one of the smoothest
crooks’ schemes ever devised. But if you make one false move——”

A torrent of words over the wire stopped him for a moment.

“No questions, I said,” he went on. “You have understood so far? Very
well! No, I’ll not tell you who I am or where I am! Very well, if
you’ll not listen! I’ll call you up later, when you’re in a better
mood, and explain where you are to make the catch. Good-by!”

And an irate Roger Verbeck strode from the telephone booth, went out
to the street, and sprang into his car to drive furiously down the
thoroughfare. No excited chief of police could bully him with a lot of
mandatory questions, he told himself. Let them fuss and fume for a
time, then they’d listen when he telephoned.

His actions had the desired effect. At police headquarters there was a
spirited debate for five minutes between the chief and his secretary
as to whether the telephone communication had come from some practical
joker. The secretary was inclined to believe that it had. The chief
insisted that some member of the Black Star’s band had turned against
him and was engineering his downfall.

Verbeck drove on through the streets until he reached the Wendell
apartment house. Faustina was waiting for him, and again Verbeck
noticed that anxiety was stamped on her face, and now he thought there
was a look of fear also.

“Well, here we are,” he said. “And what about the ball?”

“I—I have decided to go,” she said, looking at him peculiarly.

“Brother Howard going, too?”

“Yes—he is going.”

“With any particular young lady?”

“No—alone.”

“Good! Will you be angry, Faustina, if I ask you to go to the ball
with Howard? I cannot explain just now, but—well, I’ll be there late,
in time to have a couple of dances and bring you home. I’m sorry that
I cannot explain exactly—it is something important that will keep me
away until late.”

He looked up, to find her staring at him fixedly.

“Why—what is the matter?” he stammered.

“I—oh, Roger, it is nothing!”

He sat down beside her and started to take her in his arms, but she
drew away from him.

“Why, Faustina——”

“I’m—oh, I’m just a bit nervous, Roger.”

“There seemed to be something troubling you yesterday, and there
certainly is to-day,” he said. “Can’t you confide in me, Faustina? Is
there anything wrong—anything I can do to help?”

“Nothing you can do—to help,” she said.

“Then there is something wrong?”

“Don’t ask me, please, Roger. I’m nervous, worried. Just let me rest
until to-night—I’ll try to be all right then. Certainly I’ll go to the
ball with Howard—and expect you later. And now you’ll go, won’t you,
Roger? I must lie down—and rest.”

The puzzled Verbeck walked slowly to the door, Faustina following him.
He took her in his arms and kissed her. She did not return the caress,
and she seemed on the verge of tears.

“Don’t worry,” he said softly.

“You tell me not to worry.”

“Why, yes. Perhaps whatever is troubling you will cease to trouble.
We’ll talk of it to-night? You’ll let me help you?”

“Yes,” she said, “we’ll talk of it to-night. We must talk of it
to-night.”

Verbeck hurried out, got into the car, and started for the business
district. Faustina’s actions and manner worried him, yet his mind was
busy with the Black Star and his affair. Once the Black Star and his
band of crooks were handed over to the police he’d look into
Faustina’s trouble, he told himself. Perhaps Howard was running about
too much. Perhaps there was financial trouble in the family. Whatever
it was, he’d smooth things out, he promised. He couldn’t have Faustina
worrying.

He drove carefully now through the heavy traffic, and finally stopped
before a hotel. There he entered a public telephone booth, and called
police headquarters again. Once more he got the chief on the wire.

“Will you listen now, and ask no questions?” he demanded. “This is no
hoax, so you’d better act on my tip.”

Then he told the chief where the members of the Black Star’s band
could be captured, and when and how.



CHAPTER IX—“CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST”


That evening there came the heavy winds again. They came as night
descended, to howl about buildings and shriek through the streets,
carrying the merest suggestion of snow. They swayed the arc lights,
rattled signs, and shook skeletons of trees. And then they settled
down to a steady blow from the north, and soft snow began to fall
heavily. And through the steady sheet of snow gleamed thousands upon
thousands of incandescent bulbs at the big hall where the Charity Ball
was to be held.

That hall had been built to hold thousands, and its capacity would be
tested this night. On the dancing floor would be women famous in
society, stately matrons, pretty girls enjoying their first social
season. Gowns to dazzle would be shown by hundreds, and
jewels—precious and famous jewels—would flash reflection from myriads
of electric lights—jewels taken from safe-deposit boxes to be worn at
this affair, and then to be returned to their hiding places.

The galleries would be filled with spectators; a gigantic orchestra
would please musical ears; in the streets outside, hundreds of
limousines would be waiting for the end.

Verbeck was thinking of the scene at the big hall as he drove his
roadster out to the old place again shortly after ten o’clock that
night. He had intended going to the old house earlier, but had been
delayed in carrying out his plans. And now everything was done—there
was nothing more to do except await the appointed hour, call police
headquarters, ascertain that the members of the Black Star’s band were
in jail, and then turn over the Black Star himself. He would have a
good excuse to escape the plaudits of the police and reporters at
headquarters—he would have to hurry to the big hall to dance with his
fiancée and escort her to her home.

The gates were open, and Verbeck sent the car through and along the
driveway, and brought it to a stop where it would be shielded by the
corner of the house from the swirling snow.

When he entered the living room, the Black Star was sitting on the
divan in the corner, and Muggs was pacing back and forth before him,
still preaching on the merits of an honest existence as compared to a
life of thievery.

“Everything is lovely, boss,” he reported to Verbeck. “This gent has
been getting restless, but he hasn’t made a move he shouldn’t. I’ve
been hoping he would—I haven’t taken a pot shot at a man in ages.”

“We’ll have no carnage, Muggs,” said Verbeck, laughing. “We want to
hand him over entire, not in pieces. Give me that pistol, and I’ll
watch the gentleman while you untie his hands and fasten them again in
front instead of behind his back. I’m going to give him a cigar to
smoke; he’ll need it to quiet his nerves.”

Muggs did as he was ordered, and the Black Star accepted the cigar
with good grace and puffed at it with evident enjoyment.

“Do we call the police now, boss?” Muggs asked.

“Not yet, Muggs.”

“You and I have done a lot of things, boss, in all corners of the
world,” he said in a whisper, so the Black Star could not hear. “When
you feel that you can’t hold in any longer, you make me stop being a
valet, and let me be a comrade, and we go out after adventure. It’s
always been all right. But, about this thing—— Boss, I told you I had
a hunch.”

“I’m afraid your hunch isn’t working well this time, Muggs. The thing
has been accomplished. I’m merely waiting here until the police make a
move I requested them to make, and then we’ll surrender the Black
Star. It hasn’t been so very much of an adventure, after all, has it,
old man? There hasn’t been much excitement—not what we call
excitement.”

“I’ll not be satisfied until the police have their hands on him,
boss.”

“Neither shall I. But nothing is going to happen, Muggs, to bother us.
Keep that hunch of yours until another time.”

Muggs resumed his guard of the prisoner, and, though he asked Verbeck
nothing concerning the plans he had made, there was a question in the
expression of his face. Verbeck lighted a cigar for himself, and sat
down not far from the Black Star. He looked at his watch.

“It is half after ten,” he announced. “Mr. Black Star, in exactly an
hour and a half the police will take into custody some of your people;
eight men and two women, to be exact.”

“Indeed?”

“Exactly,” said Verbeck.

“Would you mind telling me how this is to be done? I am somewhat
interested and wholly skeptical.”

“Last night,” said Verbeck, “I assumed your robe and mask, and played
at being the Black Star. I destroyed the orders you had prepared,
countermanded all of which I learned, and issued new orders of my own.
There was no hitch in the arrangement. Not one of them became
suspicious as far as I could see.”

“And the orders?” the Black Star asked, interest showing in his face.

“Were the same in each instance,” said Verbeck. “The orders make it
possible for the police to round up the entire gang at one swoop.
They’ll be kept separate until I turn you over and tell all I know.
With those facts upon which to work the detectives will have no
trouble getting confessions. As for you—Muggs and I can swear to
enough to convict you, especially after the police have searched that
house where you had your headquarters.”

There was a look of apprehension in the Black Star’s face now, but he
did not pretend to Verbeck that he was alarmed.

“May I ask how you expect to catch these persons?” he asked.

“Yes—and I’ll tell you. There was a flaw in your perfect arrangement,
Mr. Black Star. You taught your crooks to work in the dark, and not
ask questions. They have faith in you; and if you ordered one of them
to enter the First National Bank at noon and hold up the first teller
to the right, he’d perhaps do it, believing that his work was only a
part of a big scheme and that he’d escape consequences because of some
plan of yours.”

“True,” said the Black Star. “I have issued orders that seemed
dangerous, but were not so when a man knew all the different angles of
my plan.”

“Exactly. And so, when I gave orders that seemed dangerous, scarcely
an objection was raised. You want to know how they are to be captured,
eh? Here is a copy of the orders I gave each, Mr. Black Star, listen
to it!”

Verbeck pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and read:

  “You will dress as well as possible—evening clothes if you
  can—and attend the Charity Ball. I give you herewith money for
  ticket and other expenses. You will mingle with the crowd on the
  dance floor, and, working alone, lift all the jewels you can. Be
  careful of discovery, but do not fear the outcome. Between ten
  o’clock and midnight will be the best time for you to do your
  work.

  “Exactly at midnight you will be in the southwest corner of the
  lobby, where there is a drinking fountain. Before going there
  put a bit of red ribbon on the lapel of your coat. If you see
  others wearing this sign, do not speak to them or give them any
  attention. Follow these instructions to the letter, and our
  great plans will be consummated. It is to be a big clean-up, and
  all arrangements have been made.”

Verbeck ceased reading, and looked across at the Black Star.

“You understand?” he asked. “Each one thinks he does not know all the
plan, but will be safe if he carries out his instructions. I gave each
a bill out of the drawer in the table, and I told the women to wear
the red ribbon on their shoulders. A score or more of detectives will
be in the neighborhood. At midnight they will take in custody all who
wear the red ribbon. A quick search will disclose stolen property in
their possession. You see? I don’t know whether Pm guilty of a felony
or not, ordering them to steal like that, but I guess I’ll be
forgiven, since it is in such a good cause.

“So there goes your perfect arrangement, Mr. Black Star. Those crooks
who have been trusting you will be cursing your name before long. And
you’re going to the penitentiary with them. You can’t be crooked and
get away with it always—no matter how clever you are. And all this,
Mr. Black Star, because you overplayed your part by sending a man to
put a letter on my desk. You needn’t sneer—I’m not meaning to praise
myself. There are a thousand men in town who could have overcome you,
given the chance I had.”

“I am not sneering at your egotism,” said the Black Star, apparently
without emotion. “I am sneering at the futility of your plans. I
warned you, Roger Verbeck. I told you that chickens come home to
roost. So you’ll send my men and women to jail, will you? You’ll break
up my organization? You strike me a deathblow like that—and you’ll
strike yourself one at the same time.”

“I’ve heard your pointless talk before,” Verbeck said.

“But this is not pointless talk, Roger Verbeck. It is very much to the
point. I told you that I had an organization that gathered
information, didn’t I? I said it was separate and distinct from the
band that committed the crimes. You have made the grave mistake, I
fear, of mixing the two bands together—and the consequences will not
be to your liking.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes—indeed! How do you suppose I heard of your boast at that
reception a few nights ago? How do you suppose I know so much about
people’s private affairs? I’ll tell you, Roger Verbeck—I know because
men and women of your acquaintance belong to my organization. You
don’t believe that, eh? You will—soon.”

“I scarcely can imagine any of my friends turning crook.”

“Not voluntarily, perhaps. Not because they need money, either—not
always.”

“Explain,” Verbeck said.

“I’ve told you I have a partner who knows me well—he and I work
together. Some of the organization know him, but not one knows me, nor
has seen my face or heard my voice. If you are skeptical, I’ll outline
the plan in a few words. In Chicago, for instance, we caught a certain
youngster of this city when he was in trouble. He was extricated from
his scrape, and the price of it was that he join my organization. We
held something over his head. Deathly afraid, he carried out my
orders; he feared to refuse. Through him we brought into the
organization the girl to whom he was betrothed—threatening to send her
sweetheart to prison unless she joined the band. You see? A sort of
endless-chain affair.”

“I don’t believe it!” Verbeck exclaimed.

“You want proof, eh? In ten minutes, Roger Verbeck, you’ll be giving
me my liberty, and you’ll be moving heaven and earth, with me beside
you, trying to prevent the capture of those people at the Charity
Ball. You know who told me of your boast at that reception? He told me
because he admires your native cleverness—begged me to stop everything
and leave town, for, he said, if you started out to get me you’d do
it.”

“He was a sensible man, and you should have taken his advice,” said
Verbeck.

“I am telling you the truth, Verbeck. The man who told me was Howard
Wendell, the brother of the girl you expect to marry.”

“You lie!” Verbeck cried, springing from his chair. Muggs snarled, and
stepped forward, ready for a fray, but Verbeck motioned him back.

“I do not lie,” said the Black Star. “I told you to beware, that the
chickens might come home to roost. Two months ago Howard Wendell was
in Chicago on some business for his uncle. We knew him—we wanted him.
A man already a member of the organization saw to it that Howard
Wendell went the pace for a few days. He is but a boy, we’ll say—he
was easily led. He woke up one morning to find that he had gambled
away three thousand dollars of his uncle’s money. He was almost insane
because of what he had done. His friend took him to my partner; my
partner gave him the money.”

“But that——”

“Wait! In return he gave my partner a check drawn on a bank in this
city. Of course it was a forged check. Oh, he did not intend it as
deceit! He said the check was worthless. My partner laughed and said
he knew it, but that he would keep it until the boy could pay—if he
never paid, it would be all right. My partner, you see, owned the
gambling house where the money was lost. You begin to understand?”

Verbeck still stood before him, hands clenched.

“But the next day he was informed that the check would be presented,
would be returned, and that he would be arrested for having written
it—unless he did as he was ordered. That is how Howard Wendell became
a member of our organization.”

“You beat!” Verbeck cried.

“Don’t beat me up yet—please,” sneered the Black Star. “If you stop to
do that you’ll suffer considerable anguish later. I am not done—there
are more chickens coming home to roost. What numbers did the men have,
those to whom you gave orders?”

Fearing, Verbeck told him.

“So? Howard Wendell is one of them, Verbeck. He is the one who brought
you the letter that first night concerning the Greistman
jewels—remember? He’ll be one for the police to nab to-night. He must
have been surprised to get orders like that—he understood he was to do
nothing except gather information.”

Verbeck felt that the Black Star was speaking the truth. Howard had
objected to the orders—had said that they were unfair to him, but that
he was unable to help himself. It had been possible for him to tell
the Black Star of Verbeck’s boast. He had given the sign that
afternoon before seeking a talk with Freda Brakeland. And the police
would capture Howard Wendell through Verbeck’s planning, capture him
with stolen jewels in his possession.

“And the women?” the Black Star asked. “Tell me quickly! What numbers
did they have?”

Verbeck told him.

“The first is one of the cleverest in the organization,” said the
master crook. “She is an experienced thief. But the second—small
wonder you did not find her number in the book! She is a new one. That
was her first visit, and I had ordered it some days before. She was
brought into the organization through her love for another, a member
of her family. So she’ll be caught, too, eh? And do you know her
identity, Roger Verbeck? Do you know the woman you are handing over to
the police through meddling with my affairs? I’ll tell you—gladly: She
is Miss Faustina Wendell—your fiancée!”



CHAPTER X—CAUGHT IN A NET


Silence followed the announcement of the Black Star—silence for a
moment, during which Muggs watched his master and waited for the sign
that he was to choke the man on the divan into insensibility for
daring to say such a thing. But the sign was not given.

Suddenly Roger Verbeck felt sick at heart. The Black Star’s tone, his
bearing, the expression in his face told that he spoke the truth. And
Verbeck knew enough to confirm it. Faustina had been acting in a
peculiar manner. And that second woman who had called on him in the
Black Star’s headquarters—how timid she had appeared, how afraid! She
had reeled when she read her orders. She had demanded to know where
Verbeck got the ring he was wearing. And that very afternoon, when he
met her at her home—her words had been mysterious, her actions out of
the ordinary.

“So you see how it is,” the Black Star was saying. “Do you want to
save her, save her brother also? Then release me, and I’ll help—for I
must save those friends of mine. I’m as much in the dark regarding
them as you, for I’ve never seen any of their faces, remember. You
realize what will happen if they are caught, don’t you? There could be
no escape from the penitentiary for any of them. And there are things
to be found in my headquarters—notes in Faustina Wendell’s
handwriting, for instance, notes giving information——”

He stopped at the look that came into Verbeck’s face.

“And you think I’ll let you go now?” Verbeck demanded. “Why, I’ll
fight you more than ever now! You’ve made a cat’s-paw of that boy;
you’ve dragged the sweetest and most innocent girl in the world into
your filthy scheme.”

“The prosecuting attorney won’t consider her innocent when he reads
those notes.”

“You’d have me let you go—then you’d try to drag _me_ into the mess to
save my intended wife! And, through me, others—and so on! It’s fight
you and beat you now, or surrender to you like a coward, and let you
go ahead with your nefarious plans. I’ll take the chance, Mr. Black
Star!”

Verbeck looked at his watch; it was a quarter of eleven. He whirled to
face Muggs.

“Guard this crook!” he cried. “Guard him well. Shoot him if he tries
to escape!”

“What are you going to do, boss?”

“I’m going to play the game out to the end. I’m going to the ball and
save Faustina Wendell and her brother—and I’m going to see that the
police get the others, and then this man here. That’s all I have to
do—get Faustina and Howard away in time. This crook’s clever scheme
has another angle—nobody can swear the Wendells are mixed up in this.
That’s what I have to do—separate the crooks from the innocent
victims. Watch that man!”

Muggs screeched at him. The Black Star tried to tell him something.
But Roger Verbeck had dashed from the house and toward his machine. He
was almost sobbing, and fear gripped at his heart. The chickens had
come home to roost! No wonder Faustina had acted so peculiarly, small
wonder she had shown anxiety! And she was in danger. He had ordered
her to steal—perhaps her love and fear for her brother would lead her
to do so. She might be caught in the act—Faustina Wendell, proud
daughter of one of the pioneer families, caught stealing jewels!

And his ring—she had recognized that! Great Heaven! Did she think he
was the Black Star? Did she imagine he had played on her love to make
her a member of a band of thieves? What might she not suspect, when
she had seen that ring?

She would remember that he had led a sort of wild life in the ends of
the earth, never showing a tendency to settle down until he had fallen
in love with her. She might pile up the little things until she had a
mound of evidence—women do such things. She might doubt his manhood,
really believe he was the master crook, brutal enough to endanger the
girl he professed to love and her brother. Had Howard Wendell noticed
that ring, too? Had Howard been the midnight prowler waiting on the
boulevard to see what time Verbeck reached home?

He was in the car, out of the yard, rushing like the wind down the
street, not caring whether the machine skidded perilously through the
snow. It was almost eleven o’clock; he had ample time, more than an
hour. It would be a simple thing, after all, merely to get Faustina
and Howard to one side and see that neither wore a red ribbon, let the
police capture the others, and then explain.

Then another thought came to him—those notes the Black Star had said
were in the house where he made his headquarters! The captured men
would talk, mention that house, and the police would search. Faustina
might be endangered in that way. He didn’t dare take the chance of
leaving those notes until after he went to the ball. He’d have to
search for them, find, and destroy them.

There was more than an hour—he had ample time. He drove the machine at
a furious pace, disregarding police, who shrieked at him, barely
missing trolley cars, dodging pedestrians at crossings. Out along the
long boulevard it was easier going, for there the wind had swept the
pavement clear of snow, and there was not so much traffic. He left the
paved street and cut down the hill toward the old house where the
Black Star had established his headquarters. He did not have time to
take precautions; he trusted to the good fortune that always had stood
at his side in emergencies. He turned the machine to the curb a block
away from the house, sprang out, and rushed across vacant lots toward
his goal.

Through the dusty hall he rushed, reaching in his coat pocket for
matches. He found a candle in the furnished room and lighted it. Then
breathlessly he began his search.

Nothing was in the drawer at the end of the table except what he had
seen before. There was no furniture in the room in which letters might
be concealed. He inspected the couch, but found nothing. He ripped the
seat and back from the armchair, but his search was not rewarded. In
the kitchen he opened drawers and bins, but found nothing except dust
and cobwebs. He rushed back to the Black Star’s room again.

His foot found the trigger of the trapdoor, and he opened it and crept
to the edge of the pit to hold the candle and peer down. There was
nothing but the smooth cement walls and flooring. He ripped away rugs,
searched the floor, finally stood, panting, beside the table in
despair.

“He lied!” he gasped. “He must have lied—and I have been losing time!”

He looked at his watch again—it was one minute after eleven o’clock.
It would take him only fifteen minutes to reach the big hall where the
Charity Ball was being held if he drove swiftly, and so he had time
for further search, but it seemed of no use.

Staggering against the side of the table, he threw out his hand to
grip the edge—and a drawer shot out!

He forgot the place and danger, and gave a cry of joy. Accident had
accomplished what search had failed to reveal. The drawer was half
filled with papers. He inspected them quickly—yes, there were several
notes in Faustina’s handwriting, and a forged check for three thousand
dollars in the bolder scrawl that belonged to Howard Wendell. The
Black Star evidently had had that check close at hand to show the boy
now and then in case he thought of quitting the organization.

There were other letters, too, the handwriting of which Verbeck seemed
to recognize, but could not quite place—letters written by other
victims of the Black Star, he supposed.

He carried them to the grate, set them afire, fed them to the flames
one at a time. He ran back to the table and pressed the edge of it all
the way around, and found one other drawer. There was nothing in it,
however, and he felt that he had secured and destroyed all the
dangerous papers there. The fire in the grate died down. Verbeck
stirred the ashes to make certain nothing remained that would give a
clew. Then he blew out the candle and started through the dusty hall
to the door.

As he reached it he stopped in alarm. Creeping toward the house from
the hedge were two men. Far to the right were two more. To the left
were two more. He heard a sibilant whisper from near the wall a short
distance away. Light from the nearest street lamp flashed against a
policeman’s shield.

The police were surrounding the house!



CHAPTER XI—CLOSE QUARTERS


Muggs stood in front of the door for a moment after Verbeck had dashed
from the house, then turned to face the Black Star again. Muggs’ lower
jaw was shot out, his eyes were narrowed, and, but for Verbeck’s
orders, he probably would have launched himself at the Black Star and
attempted the old-fashioned retaliation known as “beating up.”

Muggs was small in size, but he had great strength in his arms and
shoulders, and possessed knowledge of a multitude of tricks to aid him
in the art of self-defense or aggression. He worshiped Roger Verbeck.
He was ready at any time to fight for Verbeck, to defend his life and
his happiness. The fact that the Black Star had caused his master
misery was enough to make Muggs want to throttle the man. But Verbeck
had decreed against that.

Muggs wished he was at his master’s side, helping him in the fight. He
imagined Verbeck driving the roadster at top speed through the streets
to the big hall; he fancied him entering upon the brilliant scene
there, as he had intended doing at a later hour, getting Faustina
Wendell and her brother to places of safety, then witnessing the
capture of the Black Star’s band. He anticipated a telephone call from
Verbeck telling of success.

Meanwhile he walked back and forth before his prisoner, the pistol
held in his hand, and raged at the man on the divan.

“A cur like you causing a man like Mr. Verbeck pain!” he exclaimed.
“Killing’s too good for you! I hope you get a life sentence. But he’s
got you, Mr. Black Star! My boss has you! Have your little signs
pasted on his bed and all over his library, will you? Leave sassy
letters for him, eh? I reckon you’re sorry for it now!”

The Black Star still was smoking the cigar Verbeck had given him. He
blinked at Muggs, and puffed at the cigar furiously, then suddenly
bent forward and bowed his head on his hands.

“That’s right!” Muggs went on. “Think of your sins! Do a little
wailing yourself! Cause my boss trouble, will you? You’d better put
your head in your hands and wish you’d played straight! Small good it
will do you to repent now, you scum!”

The Black Star’s head bent lower; he was a picture of misery. Muggs
looked at him with scorn and turned to walk the length of the room. He
stopped his tirade long enough to pick up a sandwich from the table
and begin eating it. He imagined the Black Star about to weep because
disaster had overtaken him—and Muggs always felt disgusted when he saw
a man weep.

But the Black Star was not weeping—he was endeavoring a subterfuge.
When he bowed his head, the burning end of his cigar rested against
the rope that bound his wrists together. Now and then he puffed again,
until the rope was scorched. Strand after strand was burned through as
Muggs talked.

“Getting your dirty hands on your betters and making them join your
gang!” Muggs said, walking back toward him. “You got your hands on one
too many, I guess. And I’ll be a witness at your trial, too! I’ll help
send you over the road——”

He had passed the Black Star and was about to turn. And at that
instant the Black Star sprang. Muggs was taken unawares. A fist dealt
him a blow on the back of the head. As he staggered forward, trying to
turn, the pistol was wrenched from his hand and the butt of it crashed
against his temple. The Black Star struck him even as Muggs had struck
the Black Star in his headquarters room, when Roger Verbeck was shot
into the pit.

“Take that, you whelp!” the Black Star cried. “Try conclusions with
me, will you—you and your precious master? You haven’t whipped me yet!
There’s something in that old house I want—money, and those
letters—money to get me away to Chicago, and the letters to send to
the prosecuting attorney with a sarcastic little note. I’ll fix your
precious master and his girl. And while he’s trying to save her I’ll
be taking a train out of town. As for my crooks—bah! I never saw their
faces—they are no friends of mine. Let ’em go to prison—there are
plenty more crooks to be had!”

He kicked the prostrate Muggs and hurried from the house. He did not
know exactly in what part of the city he found himself, but he made
for a crossing where he had seen a trolley car flash past, where he
could make a start downtown.

And Muggs, groaning in pain, remained on the floor, but he was not
fully unconscious. He had heard every word uttered by the Black
Star—they seemed to ring in his brain. He kept telling himself he
wanted to get up, he wanted to do something—but he could not. He
struggled mentally to rise, and finally his will was communicated to
his muscles. He rolled over, sat up on the floor.

Dizziness overcame him, but he closed his eyes and bit his lower lip
and tried to master it. And in time he did, and staggered to the divan
and fell upon it.

What was it the Black Star had said? That he was going to his
headquarters to get money and letters, that he was going to leave the
members of his band to their fate, and make his escape. He must stop
the Black Star! Verbeck’s plans would be shattered unless he did. And
the Black Star would be a living menace to Verbeck unless he was
stopped, and perhaps would build up another organization in some other
city. Even in this moment of pain Muggs, though claiming no superior
power of reasoning, could not help but think what a fool the Black
Star had been to tell Verbeck his schemes. That was the man’s
weakness—he had to boast. It was boasting that had brought him to the
close attention of Roger Verbeck and caused all the trouble.

“My hunch was right,” Muggs muttered. “I told the boss—that I had a
hunch!”

He sat up again; the dizziness had passed, but his head still pained.
He must act quickly, he kept telling himself over and over. Then the
plan for which he had been groping flashed into his brain.

Muggs sprang to the telephone and called police headquarters. He got
the chief on the wire.

“The Black Star has escaped!” he cried. “You’ll get his gang down at
the dance, but you’ll not get him unless you hurry. He knocked me down
and escaped. I know where you can catch him—if you’re quick!”

Shotted queries and commands came to him from the frenzied chief.

“A house—in the south end of town!” Muggs gasped. “A deserted house—he
has his headquarters there! He’s gone there to get money, then he’ll
get out of town. You can catch him! ... What’s that? Oh, yes—I didn’t
give you the address!”

Muggs swayed from the telephone, but in a moment had gathered his
strength and was talking again. He gave the location of the house, and
the chief said that he understood.

“And I’ll be there—I’ll start right now,” Muggs added. “I’ll be there
to identify him.”

Sudden decision had come to Muggs, and he stumbled away from the
instrument without further words, not even stopping to hang up the
receiver. He hurried across to the door and threw it open and went
out. The stinging cold air refreshed him. He started along the
driveway.

By the time he reached the boulevard, Muggs was himself again, except
that the pain pounded in his head because of the blows the Black Star
had given him. He hurried along the street, half running. On the first
corner he waited for a car.

An automobile came along, bound for town, and Muggs hailed the driver.
He was a private chauffeur going to the big hall to fetch home from
the ball some of the women of the family for which he worked. Muggs
told him it was a matter of life and death, and the chauffeur allowed
him to crawl up beside him and put on speed. Five minutes later, well
down in town, Muggs got off and hailed the first taxicab he saw,
offering double pay if good time was made, and the cab soon was
rushing toward its destination.

The police had acted promptly on Muggs’ information, and as the
taxicab whirled around a corner half a dozen blocks from the goal,
Muggs could hear in the distance the shrieking of a siren on a police
automobile. He urged his chauffeur to greater speed. At a corner he
stopped the cab, paid the driver, and the next moment was running down
the dark side street toward the deserted house.

He slipped along the hedge and crept near the wall, making his way
toward the door. It was closed, and Muggs did not try to open it, but
went on to a window. He raised it as he had that first night when
Verbeck had been with him. Muggs wanted to get inside and catch the
Black Star at work. He wanted just one blow at the Black Star before
the police arrived, for the blow that had been given him, and for the
misery Verbeck had been caused. Then he’d gladly hand the Black Star
over to the authorities.

He slipped through the window. As he did so the police automobile
stopped on the nearest corner, and men piled out of it and ran forward
to surround the house. Muggs gave them one glance, then left the
window and stepped softly across the room. Light was coming through
that crack in the door—the Black Star was there!

Muggs put his eye to the crack. He did not see the Black Star—he saw
Roger Verbeck just blowing out the candle and starting to enter the
dusty hall!

The meaning of the situation flashed over Muggs in an instant. The
Black Star had not arrived yet. Verbeck had come here to get those
letters before going to the big hall. And he—Muggs—had brought the
police! They would capture Roger Verbeck—and there was nothing to
prove that Roger Verbeck was not the Black Star!



CHAPTER XII—AT THE CHARITY BALL


Muggs jerked open the door, rushed through the furnished room, and
entered the hall.

“Boss! Boss!” he hissed.

Verbeck was just recoiling from the outer door. He closed it as
noiselessly as he could and hurried back.

“Boss!”

“That you, Muggs?”

“Yes. That devil worked a trick on me—he got away. He intended to come
here and get money, then hurry out of town. I—I telephoned the police,
boss, to come here, and I came myself to identify him. I didn’t know
that——”

“All right, Muggs. I understand. You did right.”

“But I let him trick me—and the cops are here. If they catch you
they’ll think you’re the Black Star.”

Verbeck realized that even better than Muggs. If the capture was made
at the big hall, and the prisoners questioned—as they would be, and
mercilessly—Faustina Wendell and her brother, under the strain, might
give evidence that would convict him.

“We’ve got to get away, boss!”

She had recognized the ring, Verbeck was thinking. Perhaps it was
Howard Wendell who had watched as he went home that night. Yes—he’d
have to escape.

“Oh, boss! I said I had a hunch!”

“Quick!” Verbeck whispered. “And be quiet! My roadster is at the curb
a block away. We must get out and reach it. How many policemen?”

“A dozen at least, boss—and there may be another auto full of ’em
coming.”

“Hush! Some one is trying that door now. Into the kitchen with you!”

Muggs hurried through the kitchen door. Verbeck pushed him into a
closet and bade him remain there until he returned. Then he went from
the kitchen to the dining room, and there he lifted his pistol and
sent three shots ringing into the ceiling.

Another instant and he was back in the kitchen, in the closet with
Muggs.

“Perhaps they’ll think the Black Star has committed suicide when they
hear those shots and find there isn’t a light,” he whispered. “There
is a window behind you, Muggs. Can you open it quietly and without
attracting attention, while those police are wondering about the
shots?”

Muggs went to work, making no noise. The window was raised a fraction
of an inch at a time. Verbeck turned the key in the closet door, for
things might come to a pass where seconds of delay would mean
everything.

Finally the window was open. Muggs, putting out his head cautiously,
looked around.

“Only one man on this side, boss,” he reported. “The others have gone
around to the door.”

“They’re in the house,” Verbeck replied. “They’re flashing their
torches—I can see them in the hall through the keyhole.”

“This side of the house is dark, boss, shaded by trees. And there is a
drift of snow against it. We might get out without being heard or
seen.”

“Try it!” ordered Verbeck grimly.

Muggs went first, like a shadow, and soon was standing beneath the
window in the deep darkness close to the wall. Verbeck followed,
almost afraid to breathe, expecting every second to hear the challenge
of a policeman and to be taken. But finally he, too, stood in the
shadows against the side of the house.

“One man,” Muggs whispered. “See him? We’ve got to hurry—those cops in
the house will be through searching soon. You wait here, boss.”

Muggs slipped away beneath the trees; Verbeck could scarcely see him.
Nearer and nearer he got to the unsuspecting policeman, who was
watching the group in front of the door. Then Muggs sprang, and the
policeman went down. It had been done without noise, with a single
blow, but not effectually enough to render the officer unconscious for
long.

Verbeck hurried across and joined Muggs; each took a deep breath, and
then, just as the man on the ground raised a cry they darted out into
the open, racing for the hedge.

Behind them was a chorus of cries, a fusillade of shots. They got to
the other side of the hedge and ran wildly for the street. Behind them
came the determined pursuit, a captain shouting orders. As they ran,
Verbeck found himself wondering at the queerness of it—that he and
Muggs had been forced to attack a guardian of the law in the interests
of justice. Verbeck promised himself to make that policeman a handsome
present when things were straightened out.

More shots whistled near them—the police were through the hedge now.
On and on they ran, Verbeck slightly in the lead. They saw a police
auto standing in the street near them, another at the other end of the
block. And Verbeck’s roadster was a block away!

They were in the street now, running at their utmost speed. Behind
them came the pursuing policemen, while others rushed toward the
automobiles, intending to take up the pursuit in that manner if the
quarry got away. Nearer and nearer they came to the roadster. When
they reached it Muggs sprang to the wheel. Verbeck threw himself in
beside Muggs.

“Shoot at ’em a couple of times, boss, and slow ’em up,” Muggs said.

“That’s going too far. Get up on the boulevard!”

The car started. Another fusillade of shots came, none taking effect.
The machine skidded around the corner and dashed at the hill. It
lurched and swayed over the soft, snow-covered ground. Behind came the
two police automobiles, their sirens shrieking.

Muggs reached the boulevard, and opened her up. He had no idea except
to shake off pursuit. Verbeck glanced at his watch as they passed
beneath a light—it was twenty minutes after eleven. Events had been
occurring rapidly in the last half hour. And he was working under a
close time limit, too. He had to escape the pursuit, and he had to
reach the big hall before midnight to save Faustina Wendell and her
brother.

Verbeck looked back continually—they did not seem to be gaining. The
streets flashed by. Muggs narrowly evaded collision a score of times,
for he was taking desperate chances. To escape, and to save Faustina,
and all in forty minutes of time—that was task enough. Added to the
mental strain of this was the fact that the Black Star had escaped,
and that Verbeck’s case would fall down in part because of it. Yet
some of the work would be good, for the band would be broken up
partially, at least, if the officers at the big hall caught the
thieves with stolen goods in their possession.

They did not seem to be able to gain on their pursuers, and the
precious minutes were flying. They took corners at a reckless pace,
zigzagging through the city in a vain attempt to outwit those who
followed. Now and then Verbeck waved his hand to indicate a turn, and
Muggs obeyed.

They skirted the retail district, and got to the wholesale district,
where there was scant traffic at this hour of the night, but always
behind them came the two police automobiles, sirens shrieking,
officers screeching.

“We can’t dodge ’em, boss!” Muggs yelled.

Verbeck looked at his watch again. He had only thirty minutes! But an
automobile going at racing pace can cover a lot of ground in thirty
minutes, even through the streets of a city. On they dashed, twisting
and turning, never gaining, just holding their own.

Down another hill they raced, and now they were near the stockyards.
Here there was no pavement; here the mud and slush and slime splashed
over the machine and around them, and the auto lurched and skidded
dangerously.

“Slow down at the next turn,” Verbeck ordered, “I’ll drop off, and you
keep on. Get away if you can—work back into town and give them the
dodge. I can’t waste another minute—I’ve got to get to the big hall.
And I can’t do it in the machine, for we can’t shake them off.”

“I can take you back nearer the hall, boss.”

“I’d not dare try to drop off there—they might see me. But here, where
it is so dark—— At the next turning, Muggs!”

“Boss——”

“Here we are! Get away if you can, and if you do, come to the hall
later. I’ll be all right!”

They made the turning, and Verbeck dropped off, and then Muggs opened
her up again and dashed on along the muddy street, and behind him
rushed the determined police in their two automobiles. They passed
within forty feet of Roger Verbeck, who was inside a stockade, in
close proximity to a hundred startled Texas steers.

Less than thirty minutes—and he was at the stockyards. There was not a
second to waste. He could not glance at his watch to get the exact
time without striking a match, and he did not dare do that because
some watchman might see and apprehend him. He got out of the cattle
pen and started running along the street in the dark, toward the
nearest car line. Slush and mud splashed over his trousers, and he
realized that he would not be the usual well-groomed Roger Verbeck
society knew when he invaded the big hall.

He boarded a car, drew his overcoat close around him, and crouched in
a corner. It seemed that the car stopped at every street, that it made
wretched time. The blocks never before had seemed so long. Verbeck
looked at his watch again, fearing he would be too late. He felt on
the verge of screeching to the motorman to give the car greater speed.

Finally it was up in town, and Verbeck got off and rushed for the
nearest taxicab stand. In an instant he was inside a machine, and a
chauffeur was taking chances to earn the extra pay promised him if he
reached the hall before midnight.

Verbeck took out a handkerchief and wiped off his pumps, and brushed
mud and slush from the bottoms of his trousers as well as he could. He
smoothed down his hair, and tried to regain his composure so that he
would appear outwardly calm at least. He would have to enter the hall
in a matter-of-fact way. An excited entrance would attract attention.

The cab stopped before one of the entrances of the hall. Verbeck
glanced at his watch again—it was five minutes of twelve. As he sprang
out he tossed the chauffeur a bill. He took a deep breath, threw back
his shoulders, handed his ticket to the man at the door, and stepped
into the lobby with a smile on his face.

Three men were loitering in the southwest corner by the drinking
fountain. Two more were approaching, and a woman was walking toward
the fountain from the opposite direction. All the men wore bits of red
ribbon on their coat lapels—the woman on her right shoulder.

And Verbeck saw something else, too—men who were scattered about in
couples, each couple pretending to carry on an animated conversation,
but watching the corner. They were detectives, several of whom Verbeck
recognized.

He walked past the fountain swiftly and turned the corner. Faustina
Wendell and her brother were approaching him side by side, each
decorated with the red ribbon. In a moment they would be out where the
detectives would see, if they had not been observed already. Verbeck
had removed his hat and coat, and as he turned the corner he tossed
them to a check boy. He almost ran forward to meet Faustina and
Howard. He knew it lacked but a few seconds to midnight.

“Quick!” he whispered as he met them. “Don’t ask questions, but, for
Heaven’s sake, do as I say! Take off that red ribbon—quick! Howard!
Get back on the floor—anywhere to get out of sight. Faustina—come!”

Verbeck himself tore the ribbon from her shoulder as Howard removed
his own. He pushed Howard ahead of him until he was on the dancing
floor. He grasped Faustina about the waist—he waltzed her out into the
crowd!

The hands of the clock pointed to midnight—and from the southwest
corner of the lobby came sounds of a commotion as the detectives,
obeying their orders, closed in on the Black Star’s crooks.



CHAPTER XIII—MUGGS—GREAT LITTLE MAN


Verbeck felt Faustina grow limp in his arms, and he waltzed her to a
position near the wall and the door. Howard stepped over to them.

“You—you——” Faustina was trying to speak.

“Don’t say a word,” Verbeck whispered. “I understand everything. There
is no danger for you. I have destroyed all the notes you wrote and the
check Howard gave.”

“But——”

“Thank Heaven I was in time! I almost failed to save you!”

“To save me——”

“Careful—whisper! Step closer, Howard. I, too, was almost caught in
the Black Star’s trap. I discovered his hiding place and took him
prisoner. I knew his gang would have to be caught if ever he was to be
convicted, and so I tried to play a lone hand against him. Muggs
warned me—he had a hunch, he said. While the Black Star was kept
prisoner I played his part, issued orders, got all of the gang to be
here to-night, then informed the police to take them in.”

“You——” Howard began.

“Careful—act naturally! I gave you and Faustina orders, too, not
knowing. Then the Black Star told me what I had done, tried to get me
to let him go free. And I rushed to that house where he had his
headquarters and destroyed the letters and Howard’s check. Nobody
knows you were involved except the Black Star and myself, and the
Black Star cannot prove anything. And that Chicago partner of his, you
may be sure, will remain away. You’ll never be bothered. I’ve saved
you—but I had a narrow escape.”

“Oh, Roger!” Faustina whispered. “And—almost—I thought that you were
the Black Star. I recognized the ring and your hand—and Howard watched
that night and saw you go home at four o’clock in the mor——”

“I was afraid of that,” Verbeck said.

“I didn’t—really—mistrust you,” she said. “But it—it looked so
peculiar. And so we came here to-night—but we talked it over first,
and decided we’d not steal. I couldn’t do it, dear, and neither could
Howard. And you must not blame Howard too much about that check. He
was young, thoughtless—it has been a great lesson to him. They really
stole the money from him, and he got it back from them. We intended
going to the corner—at midnight—no matter what happened. We expected
the worst—but we couldn’t steal.”

“My girl!” Verbeck breathed.

There was more commotion in the lobby. Some of the dancers were
walking in that direction, and Verbeck led Faustina there, with Howard
on her other side, in a manner as natural as possible.

The Black Star’s men and the woman wore handcuffs. Detectives were
taking jewels from them, gems they had stolen in the last hour or so.
One of the men already was cursing the Black Star aloud, swearing that
the Black Star had betrayed them and declaring he would tell
everything he knew. Verbeck was thankful he had gone to the house and
destroyed the letters.

“There were to be eight men and two women,” he heard a captain say.
“We’re one man and one woman shy.”

“I saw another woman with the red ribbon on,” spoke up one of the
detectives. “Maybe I’d recognize her if I saw her again.”

“We’ll have all the exits guarded, and you can look——”

Verbeck whirled to Faustina.

“We’ve got to get out of this quick!” he said. “That man may have seen
you, may recognize you. If we get out now we are safe, for if he saw
you on the street afterward in different clothes he’d never recognize
you. And nobody would suspect Faustina Wendell. But right now it would
be dangerous for him to see you.”

“What can we do?” Howard asked in sudden alarm.

“Quiet! Act naturally, for Heaven’s sake. Come with me to the door.
You came in the electric?”

“Yes,” Faustina said.

“Get all our things in the check room, Howard—as naturally as
possible, remember—and meet us at the door——”

Already he was leading Faustina toward the nearest entrance. The
captain of detectives was rushing there to go on guard immediately.
Howard came from the check room, and Verbeck put Faustina’s wrap over
her shoulders.

“Wait a minute there!” It was the captain of detectives who called to
them. “I want to see you before you go—— Oh, ’tis you, Mr. Verbeck?
You and your young lady and her brother? Go right along, sir. We’re
trying to catch a crook or two—we want to watch all who leave. Sorry
to have bothered you, sir——”

“That’s all right, captain,” Verbeck said. “I hope you catch your
crooks.” He lifted his hat and led Faustina out into the corridor,
Howard following. They went out into the softly falling snow and the
blur of thousands of electric lights to safety.

They started toward the corner where the electric had been left. But
before they reached it Verbeck halted in surprise, and with an
exclamation of unbelief on his lips. Muggs was running toward him.

“May I speak to you a minute—boss?” he asked.

Wondering, Verbeck excused himself and stepped to one side.

“I’ve got the Black Star in the car across the street, where it’s
dark,” Muggs said. “I gave him a crack on the head and threw him on
the floor of the car and put a robe over him—but he’s liable to come
to any time.”

“How——”

“For the love of Mike, boss, hand the devil over to the police and get
rid of him. I’ve still got that hunch!”

Verbeck hurried back to the others.

“Get in the electric and wait for me at the corner,” he directed.
“I’ll be only a minute or so.”

As they started on, Verbeck followed Muggs across the street. He knew
exactly what he intended doing; there would not be any waste of time.

“We’ll act on that hunch of yours right now, Muggs,” he said. “Drive
to the entrance of the hall.”

In a moment they were there. Verbeck went inside and called the
captain of detectives to him.

“Bring a couple of your men and come out here,” he said. “I’ve got the
Black Star for you. Yes—come along! I’m the man who caught him,
captain, and did the telephoning to the chief.”

The captain and two others followed Verbeck to the curb. The Black
Star was groaning, but not yet conscious.

“Take him away,” Verbeck directed. “I’ve got to escort my fiancée
home, and she’s waiting in a car at the corner. This is Muggs, my man.
He’ll follow out to my fiancée’s home with the car, and I’ll drive
right back in it to headquarters and tell you the story. Watch that
man, captain—he’s a smooth customer. Muggs—you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” said Muggs.

He stepped aside with Verbeck as the officers carried the Black Star
around the corner to a patrol wagon—the Black Star was wearing
handcuffs.

“The police followed me back up in town,” Muggs explained. “I couldn’t
get away by running, so I tricked ’em. I went to the union depot—time
for a bunch of trains to be due, you see, and a big crowd there. I got
a lead on ’em and whirled around the corner and stopped my car among a
bunch of others—got out and was standing on the walk looking innocent
and picking my teeth when the cops rushed by. They went on past the
depot—supposed I had gone that way. Easy! Then I started up again to
get back near the hall. Remember that dark space near the middle of
the viaduct, where so many holdups come off? Just as I got there I saw
Mr. Black Star sneaking along with a suit case in one hand. Stopped
the car and smashed him on the head with a wrench before he knew it!
Threw him in the car and covered him up—see? Easy!”

Verbeck’s hand gripped that of Muggs for an instant, and then he
hurried to join Faustina and Howard.

“We’ve got the Black Star, too,” was all he said. “I’ll have to run
back to police headquarters after I go home with you, and tell them
all about it. And I’ll explain the entire thing to both of you
to-morrow morning. I suppose you’ll kiss me now, Faustina, even if
Howard is looking? You wouldn’t, you know, when you suspected me of
being the Black Star.”

Although she was driving the car, Faustina ran the risk of collision
by taking her eyes off the street long enough to do as Verbeck wished.

Then, satisfied, he settled back in the seat beside Howard.

“One thing,” he said, “I shall do. After this I’ll pay more attention
to any hunch Muggs may get. Great little man—Muggs!”



CHAPTER XIV—UNEXPECTED NEWS


It was exactly one o’clock in the morning when Mr. Roger Verbeck
clasped in his arms Miss Faustina Wendell—dainty, sweet, and
twenty-four—and pressed upon her lips an ardent kiss.

“It is time for little girls to be in bed,” he said after the kiss.
“We’ll talk it all over this evening.”

There was another kiss, and then Roger Verbeck followed Howard Wendell
to the outer door, turned up the collar of his ulster, and hurried out
into the blinding snowstorm to where Muggs awaited him.

Muggs sat behind the wheel of Roger Verbeck’s powerful roadster, his
chin down in his coat collar, and allowed the soft snow to pile
against the side of his head, meanwhile listening to the purring of
the engine and living over again the events of the past two days.
Muggs was a modest man, but even in his modesty he was forced to admit
that he had something to do with the fact that the Black Star now was
in the hands of the police.

“Dreaming, eh?” Verbeck demanded, stopping beside the roadster.

“Excuse me, boss. I didn’t think you’d be out so soon.”

“We’ve got to hustle down to police headquarters—remember that, Muggs.
We must tell the chief and his boys what happened. All they know is
that they have made some arrests on our information. Drive slowly.”

Muggs started the roadster and drove on. He stopped the machine in the
blinding snow at a corner and squawked the horn. Reasonably sure at
last that he could cross without maiming half a dozen pedestrians for
life, he sent the roadster down a side street and stopped it before
police headquarters.

“Get out, and come in, Muggs,” Verbeck directed. “You’re in on this. I
hope we can keep away from the newspaper boys, or we’ll both have our
pictures in the papers. Come along.”

They hurried across the walk, threw open the front door of
headquarters, and entered. And just inside the door they stopped,
confronted by a scene that was a commingling of confusion and
hysteria.

Half a dozen detectives were scattered along one wall, looking as if
they wished to be elsewhere. Three or four uniformed officers stood
about nervously. A captain sat behind his desk and chewed savagely at
his mustache. And up and down the center of the big room strode the
chief of police, waving his arms and bellowing accusations and charges
of cowardice and incompetence.

“Babies! Fools!” the chief was shouting. “I’ll have the shields off
every one of you for this! Haven’t the newspapers been laughing at us
enough? You’ll drive me to drink! I’ll hand my resignation to the
mayor in the morning! I’ll—— How d’you do, Mr. Verbeck?”

“How do you do, chief?”

“Here’s the man who did it—Roger Verbeck! Because he got peeved at
this Black Star he turns in and runs him down—what you boobs are
supposed to get paid for doing! He takes chances—he and his chauffeur,
or whatever he calls him—and he gets his man! Keeps the police out of
it, and does it all by himself, just to show you up——”

“Scarcely for that reason, chief,” Roger put in.

“Don’t misunderstand me, Mr. Verbeck—I’m not belittling what you’ve
done. I’m just showing these alleged sleuths that they are wanting in
intelligence. Here’s a plain citizen gets peeved and goes out and
rounds up a big crook—hands him over to you all done up in a bundle
and handcuffed, watches while you throw him in the wagon, and then——”

The chief stopped a moment and gurgled in anger.

“_And then, by Heaven, right at the door of headquarters, you let him
escape!_”



CHAPTER XV—THE CHALLENGE


Silence for a moment, save for Muggs’ single gurgle of disgust, and
then:

“What’s that?” Roger Verbeck demanded, stepping forward and facing the
chief.

“They let him escape, I’m telling you! How, in the name of all that’s
human, they could do it is more than I can guess! Don’t ask me—ask
some of these boobs! For months we’ve been crazy to get this Black
Star—we have him handcuffed and in the wagon—and he escapes! He’s been
gone an hour or more. He’s probably ransacked the mayor’s house and
blown up the vault of the First National Bank in that time, just to
show his anger at being pinched. Ah-h!”

The chief sputtered his wrath again.

“Out!” he cried to his men. “Out—every man of you! Some of you saw
that crook’s face—though I doubt if you can tell me now whether he’s
got one eye or two. Out, and get him! Don’t come back until you do!
Get out of here—and I’ll break the man who dares to report no
progress! Out, fools!”

Glad to escape their superior’s wrath, the detectives scattered, and
the uniformed men ascended the stairs to the room used by the
reserves, there to discuss the latest event in lowered voices, for the
chief’s command did not apply to the “harness bulls.”

The chief beckoned Verbeck and Muggs to follow him into his private
office.

“It’s enough to drive a man insane!” he exploded, reaching for his box
of cigars and passing it around.

“How did it happen?” Verbeck asked.

“Don’t ask me! The wagon stopped before the jail door as usual. We had
the eight crooks and this Black Star. As they started to get out, two
of the crooks bumped my men aside, two more tripped at the end of the
wagon, the female crooks of the gang pretended to faint, and the Black
Star made a dash for the alley. One of the fools took a shot at him
and smashed a fourth-story window across the street. He made a clean
get-away with the bracelets on him! Think of it! Right here at
headquarters! They thought he was knocked out——”

“Probably he was shamming,” Verbeck observed in an emotionless voice.

“You’d think anybody’d watch out for that—but not these fine
detectives of mine! And every newspaper in town knows we had our hands
on the Black Star and let him go. They’ve been pestering the life out
of me, and I tipped off the capture as soon as my men telephoned from
the Charity Ball, where you handed the crook over, thinking the
department would get a little credit. And now they’ll be worse on me
than before. I’ll resign! I’m done! But I’ll break some of ’em
first——”

“Your men are after him, aren’t they?” Verbeck interrupted.

“Yes—they’re after him. They’ve been after him for four months, and a
lot of good it has done. You tell me your story, Verbeck; there are
some things I don’t know.”

Speaking quickly, Verbeck did as he had been requested, telling the
chief of his discovery of the Black Star, and of how he had played
master criminal for a day in an effort to corral the band. He
explained how the Black Star had an organization that gathered
information for him and another that committed the crimes. When he had
finished the chief chewed at his cigar and smote the desk with a palm.

“Great scheme!” he exclaimed. “Got an organization that reaches into
every corner, eh? No wonder we had a time trying to get a line on him!
Oh, he’s a master crook all right! Great Scott! Maybe some of his men
are right here in headquarters!”

“It is possible,” Verbeck said.

“Well, his perfect plans are spoiled now, at any rate. And half a
dozen of my men have seen his face—besides you and this man Muggs of
yours. So I suppose he’ll make a break and get away; he’ll be afraid
to work here any more. We’ll send his eight crooks over the road, but
not the Black Star, eh? That’ll be one nice stain on my department!
But, thank Heaven, his work is done in this town!”

Suddenly the chief sat forward and regarded Verbeck gravely.

“See here!” he exclaimed. “There may be considerable danger for you.
Even if the Black Star beats it, and his plans are smashed and his
organization scattered, some of his friends may take it out on you for
getting hands on him and spoiling their game. You may be a marked man.
Better let me send a couple of good men up to that bachelor apartment
of yours. And you’d better stay, close around home for a few days,
until we know how things are going to be.”

“Pardon me,” said Verbeck, “but from what you have told me to-night I
scarcely think a couple of your men would be of much value. I’d rather
rely on myself and Muggs.”

“Rubbing it in, eh? I don’t blame you! But you can have the men if you
want them.”

“No, thanks, chief. I’ll go along home now and get some sleep. Here’s
hoping you catch your man. He didn’t have much of a start, and he had
handcuffs on his wrists—but he’s a slippery customer. My man can
testify to that. He slipped away from him once, and left a bump on his
head when he did it.”

“Better let me send up those men, Mr. Verbeck, even if they are pretty
much worthless. We don’t want to have you found knifed in bed some
morning.”

“I’m not afraid of any of the gang, chief, and the Black Star can’t
organize again and issue orders until he has a new headquarters. And,
remember, I’ve talked to the Black Star. He isn’t the sort of man who
kills.”

“No?”

“No; he’s the sort that takes a pride in being a master criminal who
uses brains instead of violence in pulling jobs no other man would
approach and in doing them in a neat manner. Did he ever leave a
mussed-up safe behind?”

“He generally unlocks ’em, takes what he wants, puts one of his blamed
black stars in ’em, and locks ’em again—cuss him!”

“There you have his character, chief. Good night!”

Verbeck and Muggs made their exit in dignified and proper manner, and
they did not speak until they were in the roadster and a block from
police headquarters, on their way home. Then Muggs broke the silence
in characteristic fashion.

“Whaddaya know about that!” he exclaimed in great disgust.

“The Black Star is a clever man, Muggs.”

“His pals helped that get-away.”

“Certainly—thinking that, with the Black Star at liberty, the
organization will come to their rescue in some manner.”

“I noticed you swallowed that bunk the chief handed out about this
Black Star making a break for other parts, now that he has been seen
by a few cops.”

“You think I swallowed it, Muggs?”

“I was hopin’ you didn’t.”

“Well, I didn’t, Muggs. I boasted I could capture the Black Star, and
he’s just the sort of man to try to show me I cannot. I wouldn’t be
the least bit surprised if he remained in the city for the purpose of
making a laughingstock of me.”

“That’s the way I’m looking at it, boss.”

“I fancy we’ll hear from him in a few days, Muggs.”

They put the roadster in the garage at the rear of the
bachelor-apartment house, and then ascended to Verbeck’s apartment.
Muggs snapped on the lights in the library, while Verbeck threw off
hat and overcoat and gloves and reached for his favorite pipe. He
glanced at the clock on the desk—it was within a few minutes of four
in the morning.

He gave an exclamation, took a quick step forward, and looked at the
face of the clock again.

On the glass, directly over the figure IX, _had been pasted a tiny
black star_!

“That wasn’t there when I dressed last evening,” Verbeck mused. “So
he’s been here since he escaped the police, eh? That is pretty swift
work!”

Muggs hurried in from the bedroom.

“Boss! Look!” he cried. “This was pinned on your pillow!”

He extended an envelope. A black star was pasted on it. The letter was
addressed to Roger Verbeck.

“Swift work!” Roger exclaimed again.

“Boss, my hunch is workin’ yet! Telephone the chief to send up them
men—let him send twenty of em!”

“One moment, Muggs! Your solicitude for my welfare is overwhelming—but
suppose we read this entertaining epistle before making a move.
Perhaps I’ll want to fight this out alone.”

He ripped the envelope open, took out a sheet of paper, unfolded it,
and read:

  Mr. Roger Verbeck: You almost had me, but at the supreme moment
  I escaped. You have seen me; so have police officers and eight
  of my band who never saw me before. You have discovered some
  things concerning me, but what you have found out is as nothing
  when compared to what you do not know. This little incident has
  served to put an edge on my wit.

  You boasted you could catch me—do it! And the next time hang on
  to me until I am behind the bars—and even then I’ll triumph. I
  laugh at you and your efforts, as I laugh at the police. I am
  not going to run away! I’ll even keep you informed of my
  movements—and then you cannot get me. And, for the trouble you
  and your man have caused me, I am going to get you, Roger
  Verbeck, and get you good! I do not contemplate violence on your
  person—that would be the resort of an ordinary thug. But I’ll
  hurt you, Roger Verbeck, in a thousand ways, break you down,
  ruin you, make you a joke, until you’ll curse the day you first
  heard of the Black Star. It’s a fight to a finish between us.
  Every place you turn you’ll be reminded of me and my purpose.

  Sleep well to-night, and in security, for you’ll need the rest.
  The moment you awake the fight is on. And I’ll know when you
  awake. I’ll know every move you make, and I’ll almost know every
  thought in your head—you poor fool!

                                *****

Roger Verbeck took the most of that epistle as a matter of course, but
his eyes narrowed to two tiny slits when he read that “poor fool,” and
his lips set in a straight line. That “poor fool” stung Roger Verbeck
almost as much as the unpardonable phrase would have stung him.

He handed the Black Star’s letter to the waiting Muggs.

“We’ve fought some pretty good battles, Muggs, but nothing to what
this is going to be,” he said. “On your toes, Muggs! Forget that hunch
of yours! We don’t quit until I stand in court and hear a judge
sentence the Black Star for his crimes, until I watch him pass in
through the doors of a State prison. Think what he’s done, Muggs—of
the decent persons he’s forced into his gang! This is going to be the
hardest fight of our lives.”

“My coat’s off, boss, and my sleeves rolled up!”

“Good! We’ll fight alone, if we can. There is no one we can trust.
Police officers, persons we meet every day, our acquaintances, even
our friends, may be in his organization—and he’ll soon get it working
again. But we can trust each other, Muggs.”

“You said something there, boss! You bet we can!”



CHAPTER XVI—A NOCTURNAL VISIT


Verbeck opened his eyes at eleven o’clock that morning after a
dreamless, refreshing sleep to find Muggs standing at the foot of his
bed, fully dressed, grinning, the morning newspapers in his hands.

“They’ve got it all, boss,” he reported. “That Black Star sent letters
to the papers last night by special messengers, and from a downtown
hotel. Whaddaya think of his nerve? Here it is—story of the whole
thing, givin’ us a lot of credit and makin’ fun of the police for
lettin’ the crook escape. I’ll bet that fat chief has a fit when he
reads this!”

“Probably he read it several hours ago and already has had his fit,”
Verbeck said. “Had breakfast? Yes? You’re the original early bird,
Muggs. Well, I’m famished!”

Verbeck bathed and dressed in record time, and hurried to the café in
the basement, eager to eat and be gone before the regular luncheon
crowd gathered to point him out and make remarks about his pursuit and
capture of the Black Star.

No sooner had he seated himself at his favorite table than the waiter
placed before his eyes an extra edition of one of the evening papers,
damp from the press. Roger spread it open to find his own portrait
gazing at him from the front page, and as he waited for his toast and
eggs and coffee he read.

The Black Star had sent a letter to the evening paper also, but
through the mail, with a special-delivery stamp affixed. Again the
master criminal scoffed at the police, threatened some particularly
daring crimes to demonstrate that he did not fear them, and then paid
his respects to Roger Verbeck. A reproduction of the last paragraph of
the Black Star’s letter was shown in the paper:

  To All Whom It May Concern: There is war between myself and
  Roger Verbeck, who caused me considerable trouble the last few
  days. I hereby warn all persons not to give aid to this enemy of
  mine—to refuse him shelter, food, clothing, refuse to hold
  conversation with him, or have business dealings with him of any
  sort whatsoever. Against those who dare disobey this order I’ll
  strike—and strike hard.

                                *****

Roger smiled as he read that paragraph; he presumed it was one of the
Black Star’s jokes—for he had discovered that the master rogue had a
sense of humor. Certainly it could be nothing else. Roger Verbeck was
the last of one of the city’s old families, a young man respected by
all, with unlimited wealth at his command, possessing a myriad of
acquaintances and legions of friends. This warning of the Black Star
was very liable to fall upon deaf ears.

Still, it was embarrassing, and Roger found himself frowning because
of the unpleasant publicity. That was one way the Black Star could
fight him—by making him ridiculous through the newspapers; for it was
certain that the papers would print any letters the Black Star sent
them. Roger caught a vision of future days of horror, with every one
pointing him out, joking him, making his life miserable. On the
streets, at any of his clubs, wherever he met his friends, his name
would be coupled with that of the Black Star. There would be but one
escape—and that by capturing the master crook, turning the laugh on
him, and so ending the affair.

Having breakfasted, Verbeck had Muggs get out the roadster, and they
drove to police headquarters. The snowstorm was at an end, and the day
was warm for March. But they failed to find the spirit of spring
prevalent when police headquarters was reached.

A sleepy chief paced the floor of his private office, chewing at his
inevitable black cigar. Detectives, plain-clothes men, and uniformed
officers rushed in and out. Telephones rang.

“Don’t ask me,” the chief roared when he saw his visitors. “I’ll tell
you—it’ll take less time. We haven’t got him. We haven’t even
discovered a trace of him. The handcuffs he wore were found in an
alley less than half a dozen blocks away—and that’s all. He’s found
time to send letters to the papers—and to me.”

“He sent one to you?” Roger asked.

“He did. If ever I get my two hands around the throat of that Black
Star I’ll choke the life out of him. I wouldn’t care if he got mad and
sent me cuss words—but he called me a blanked fool!”

“Ah! We are fellow sufferers,” Verbeck said. “That’s what he called
me.”

“You! You’ve heard from him?”

“When I got home this morning his black stars were pasted around my
apartment, and I found a letter pinned to my pillow—or rather Muggs
did. Here it is.”

Verbeck handed it over; the chief read it. Then the head of the city’s
police department sat down before his desk, thought for a moment, and
finally pushed a button. A sergeant entered.

“Send me Detective Riley!” he ordered.

A moment’s waiting, while the chief chewed his cigar and Roger and
Muggs puffed at theirs. Then Riley entered and saluted his chief
respectfully.

Detective Riley was a man of fifty, and he had been in the department
since the age of twenty-one. He knew every inch of the city, and was a
man of nerve and resource. But for his honest and outspoken opinions
of political leaders undoubtedly he would have been high in the
department. As it was, he was satisfied.

“I believe you know Mr. Verbeck, Riley,” the chief said.

“I certainly do, sir,” the detective answered, grinning at Roger. “His
father got me my job on the force, and I taught Roger how to hold a
bat when he played ball on the corner lot near the old Verbeck place.”

“Um! You know this town pretty well, too, and you’re an honest man.
Sit down—and listen. You’re going on the trail of this Black Star,
Riley. And if you’re in at the death when he’s nabbed I’ll see you
made a captain, if I have to go into politics myself and slay half a
dozen ward bosses who don’t like your looks.”

“Some special line of work, sir? I’m already assigned to the case.”

“So is every other man in the department. Yes—this is a special line
of work. You are to glue yourself to Mr. Roger Verbeck and hang on.
Understand?”

“But, chief——” Roger began.

“Just a moment, Mr. Verbeck. I admire your courage and all that, but
we’ve got to do this in proper fashion. You’ve been threatened by this
Black Star. He’s going to take you partly into his confidence so he
can make a fool of you. I want Riley with you for two reasons. The
first is that you are going to have police protection whether you wish
it or not. If Riley is with you and Muggs, one man can be awake and on
the job always, yet all of you get plenty of rest. The second is that
Riley can add his police experience and knowledge of crooks and the
city to your natural courage and cleverness. Understand? If this Black
Star communicates with you or makes a move against you in any way
Riley will be there and on the job to help. You’ll not lose time
sending to headquarters for assistance.”

“I understand, chief.”

“Another thing. Do you feel you can trust Riley?”

“I certainly do,” said Verbeck earnestly.

“Good enough! It isn’t every one we can trust in this game. You take
Riley with you and go after the Black Star, independent of this
department—just as you did before, except that you’ll have a regular
officer along. And we’ll work on our own lines. And between us, we’d
ought to get our hands on him. Riley knows a certain private phone
number he can use in case of emergency, and a call will rush a score
of men to any part of the city. That’s agreeable? Get out, then, and
take Riley with you! I’m going to lie down on the couch and take a
nap.”

Verbeck laughed and led the way from the private office, waiting in
the lobby with Muggs while Riley went to his locker for certain
paraphernalia he always had on his person when engaged on a particular
case.

“I like that guy,” Muggs confided in a whisper.

“The chief?”

“Naw! This Riley. I’m glad he’s goin’ to be along.”

“If I needed a recommendation for Riley—which luckily I do not—that
would be the best I could get,” Roger said, and he meant every word of
it.

“I think the three of us can make the Black Star look like a sucker!”

“You don’t want to underestimate the Black Star, Muggs. Whenever you
feel inclined to do so, remember a certain smash behind the ear he
gave you recently when you thought his hands were tied.”

“He’ll never do it again!” Muggs declared. “If I ever get my lamps on
that man again I’ll forget how to turn my head!”

Riley returned, and the three went out to the roadster.

The greater part of the afternoon was spent in Verbeck’s apartment
discussing plans for the campaign. There was no sense, Riley pointed
out, in running blindly around town trying to find the man they
wanted; for the Black Star, it was to be supposed, was in hiding for
the time being, and without doubt planning a campaign of his own.
Detectives were watching railroad stations, hotels, and lodging
houses, and the deserted residence where the Black Star had had his
headquarters. There was nothing for the three men who sat in Verbeck’s
library to do except wait for the master criminal to make the first
move.

Roger visited Faustina Wendell for an hour that evening, while Muggs
and Riley remained outside in front of the house where she lived with
her mother and brother. Then the three returned to Roger’s apartment
and spent an hour around the pool table.

“A crook works at night if he’s breaking safes and vaults,” Riley
said. “Hence it is proper that we are prepared for night work. I
suggest we never retire until four or five o’clock in the morning and
get up about noon. Then we’ll be ready to jump if anything happens.”

“Get a deck of cards, Muggs,” Verbeck ordered. “What Detective Riley
says goes. By the way, Riley, I’ve ordered the roadster left standing
in front of the building all night, ready for a quick jump.”

“That’s the stuff! I wish this Black Star would hurry up and start
something. I’m anxious to get into action.”

Tired of cards, they played pool again, and then they read, and then
they talked of the Black Star some more, and finally they began
wondering if it wasn’t time to retire.

“Just four o’clock,” Verbeck announced.

And then the telephone rang!

Roger stepped across the room to the desk and picked up the
instrument; Muggs and Riley were on their feet, eager to know what the
message would be, and hoping it was a call to battle.

“Is this Mr. Verbeck’s apartment?” a voice demanded.

“Yes,” Roger answered.

“And who is this speaking?”

“This is Mr. Verbeck.”

“Indeed? I thought perhaps it was that dolt, Detective Riley, from
headquarters. I understand he is a more or less permanent guest of
yours.”

“Who is this?” Roger demanded in turn.

“Pardon me for not telling you before. This is the Black Star.”

“What’s that?” Roger exclaimed.

“I assure you I am the Black Star. This is not one of your friends
playing a joke on you. I just thought I’d call you up and say that the
letter I sent the newspapers was meant. I’ve already made a move
against the manager of the apartment house where you live because he
hasn’t ousted you.”

“Indeed?” Roger asked, beckoning Riley and Muggs toward him.

“You think I am jesting? I never jest about my work, Mr. Verbeck. I
imagine you’ll have to find another home before night. Pardon me if I
ring off now. It is possible you are sending Detective Riley or Muggs
to another telephone to trace this call. And that would be both
unnecessary and embarrassing for me. For I am speaking to you from the
office of your own apartment house. Good-by!”

Roger Verbeck dropped the telephone, spoke a dozen quick words, and
was running out into the hall, closely followed by Riley and Muggs.
Down three flights of stairs, four steps at a time, they rushed, and
into the lobby.

Not a person was in sight.

From outside came the roaring of an automobile engine. They ran to the
door, hurled it open, and hurried out. Tearing down the broad
boulevard was Roger Verbeck’s big roadster, and the man who drove it
turned an instant to wave one hand at them.

“The nerve of——” Muggs began.

Detective Riley emptied his automatic at the vanishing car, and
growled low in his throat because he knew he had missed.

“The night clerk——” Verbeck cried. “Where was the clerk?”

They rushed back into the lobby. They heard doors slamming on the
floors above as tenants, aroused by the turmoil and shooting, started
an investigation. And they heard groans coming from behind the long
desk.

Verbeck vaulted the counter, and cried out in surprise. On the floor,
bound hand and foot, and gagged, was the night clerk of the
bachelor-apartment house.

In the middle of his forehead was pasted a tiny black star!

And pinned to his breast was a card that bore this information:

  To the Manager: This is just a hint that Roger Verbeck must go.
  If he does not, my next demonstration will be more disastrous.

                                *****



CHAPTER XVII—INTERRUPTED CONVERSATION


Detective Riley grasped the nearest telephone and sent an alarm to
headquarters. Less than an hour later the report came that Verbeck’s
roadster had been found abandoned on a corner in the heart of the
city, but that no trace of the Black Star had been discovered.

In the meantime the night clerk had told his simple story. A man had
entered and asked whether a Mr. Rodney Stone lived there. The clerk
said no such person was registered. Sure that no other person was in
the office, the visitor pulled an automatic from his pocket and
ordered the clerk to throw up his hands.

The clerk was forced to obey, and believed at the time that he was the
victim of an ordinary holdup man, and rejoiced that all funds, except
a few dollars, were locked in the safe, which he could not open. But
his visitor walked behind the counter and forced the clerk to stretch
out on the floor, threatening death if he made a sound. He bound and
gagged him, pinned the card to his breast, and stamped his brow with a
black star, then walked calmly to the switchboard, looked at the guest
list to find the number of Verbeck’s apartment, called Verbeck, held
his conversation, and hurried out of the front door.

Gentlemen guests of the house in all sorts of night attire heard this
story and looked upon Roger Verbeck with varied emotions. Some envied
him the adventure and publicity, others feared for him, but the great
majority was thinking of that warning and wondering whether they could
find new quarters that day, and Roger Verbeck knew it.

The manager said nothing, for Verbeck had lived there for years and
was excellent pay, but he looked worried.

“I’ll discuss this matter with you later,” Roger said, and he beckoned
Muggs and Riley and led the way back to his apartment.

There they lighted fresh cigars and sat at the long table in the
library, Muggs and Riley silent and waiting for Roger to speak.

“Well, we’ve got to move,” he said after a time. “If we don’t, the
others will, for they’ll be afraid the Black Star will demolish the
place with a bomb. Perhaps it’ll be best, after all.”

“But where?” Riley asked. “He’d bomb another hotel just as quick if
that’s his game.”

“I have a place of my own—the old Verbeck place, Riley. You know it.
Muggs knows it, too, for there we kept the Black Star prisoner for a
day and night before we handed him over to the police.”

“I remember it,” Riley said.

“A big, old house in the middle of a block of ground, surrounded by
trees and tangled underbrush. I intend to have it torn down and a new
residence erected in its place after I’m married. We can go there with
fuel and provisions and make ourselves comfortable. There is a
telephone, so we can keep in touch with headquarters. We’ll be by
ourselves, and so need fear no spies of the Black Star. We can conduct
our campaign from there.”

“Great!” the detective exclaimed.

“No fear of spies, and nobody to bother us. We’ll make it our
headquarters. One of us can be on guard all the time. The Black Star
will have to be very clever to get at us there. And if he does he’ll
be injuring my own property, and he’ll not be hurting some outsider
who has no concern in this affair. Let’s get some sleep, then go ahead
with our preparations.”

It was noon when a much-relieved apartment-house manager saw them
drive away in Verbeck’s recovered roadster, the back of the car heaped
high with provisions. Half an hour later they had reached the old
Verbeck place and unloaded the car; Muggs had built a roaring fire in
the living-room fireplace, and they were making themselves
comfortable.

“This thing of working in the dark gets on my nerves,” Riley admitted.
“I’d rather catch sight of this Black Star committing a crime and have
a chase, a sort of running fight, and either victory or defeat at its
end. But what can we do? Here we must sit, waiting for him to make a
move. How do we know where he’ll strike next? He may rob a bank, rifle
some lady’s jewel case—we can’t tell. We’ve got to wait until he does
something, and then take up the trail. You had a hot trail before,
Roger—one of his men led you to him and you had a chance to get hands
on him.”

“I fancy that, in his egotism, he’ll announce where he’ll strike
next,” Verbeck said. “He’s done it before.”

“If he does it again we’ll get him!” Riley said.

They made a tour of the grounds and looked through the house. There
was little more than dust and cobwebs in the house, and the furniture
was covered, except in the big living room and one bedroom, which they
made habitable. Then they devoured the luncheon Muggs had prepared.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon when there came a knock at the
front door, and when Verbeck opened it he found ten policemen and a
sergeant in plain clothes standing before him.

“What’s this mean?” he demanded.

“Chief’s orders, Mr. Verbeck,” the sergeant replied. “These men are to
surround the block and guard your house.”

“But that is just what we do not want!” Verbeck protested.

“Chief’s orders. Here’s a letter he told me to give you. He got it by
messenger a couple of hours ago.”

He handed Verbeck the letter. It was from the Black Star and addressed
to the chief. It read:

  Within four days I will commit my greatest crime since coming to
  your fair city.

  Within four days I’ll make a huge laughingstock of Roger
  Verbeck. His sudden change of residence will not save him from
  the punishment I intend administering to him.

  Within four days!

                                *****

Verbeck handed the letter to Riley, and faced the sergeant again.

“No doubt the chief means well, but I don’t need so much police
protection,” he said. “There are three of us here, and all of us will
not sleep at once.”

“My orders, Mr. Verbeck.”

“Telephone the chief,” Riley suggested.

Verbeck hurried to the telephone, and called headquarters and got the
chief.

“I don’t want this squad of men out here, chief,” he said.

“The orders come direct from the mayor, Mr. Verbeck, and he’ll not
countermand them. That threat of the Black Star’s is too strong to be
ignored. I didn’t call you up before I sent the men out because I knew
you’d object. Those men will not bother you. They’ll surround the
block and stay out of your way, and be relieved at stated intervals.
They’ll serve to keep the curious away, and they’ll be there to guard
the house in case you three men rush out on a chase or anything like
that.”

“But——” Verbeck began.

“I insist, Mr. Verbeck. We cannot afford to run chances. If anything
happened to you, and we hadn’t given you protection after receiving
those threats, we’d never hear the last of it. You’re a prominent
young man, remember. Just let the men stay. You haven’t heard
anything, have you?”

“Not a thing,” Verbeck replied, “and we can’t make a move until we
do.”

“We’ve got the greatest dragnet in the history of the department in
operation—watching every exit from the city and searching
everywhere—have corralled half a hundred suspects already. If the
Black Star is in the city we’ll get him. We’re only hoping he’s brazen
enough to tip off where he is or what he intends doing. If he does, he
may find he has gone too far.”

“But really, chief, I’d rather not have the men here.”

A rattling noise came through the telephone, and another voice spoke.

“Get off the line!” the chief roared. “This line’s busy.”

“Pardon me,” said the voice. “I just wanted to tell Mr. Verbeck that
he’d better let the police remain. He’ll need them to guard him.”

“Who the devil are you?” the chief roared.

“I am the Black Star!”

“W-what?”

“Fact, I assure you. You might as well shout from the housetops,
chief. I know everything you do and say. So you’ve got out the
dragnet, eh? Might as well call in your men; it’ll not do any good to
tire them out.”

“How—what——” the chief stammered. He was beginning to realize that the
Black Star actually was on the line and speaking.

“Don’t excite yourself, chief. And you, Mr. Verbeck, if you relish
protection, better let the chief scatter a hundred men around your
place. Even that number wouldn’t save you!”

“How’d you get on this line? Where are you?” the chief shouted into
the instrument, not realizing he was talking foolishly.

“Possibly I’ve tapped the line right in police headquarters
building—who knows?” the Black Star taunted. “And you scarcely can
expect me to tell you where I am. Why not find me? Go right on hoping
I’ll be brazen enough to tip off what I intend doing, chief—it does a
person good to hope.”

“You—you’re a devil!” the chief exploded.

“Thanks for the compliment! Good-by!”

Again the rattling sound, and then they heard the Black Star’s voice
no more.



CHAPTER XVIII—MYSTERIES


Verbeck turned and told Riley and Muggs, as well as the policemen,
what had occurred over the telephone.

“That man ain’t human,” the sergeant offered.

“You bet he is human, and by that token we’ll get him!” Riley
declared. “He thinks he’s playin’ a funny game, and he is, but there’s
an end to every game.”

“He sure is human!” Muggs declared. “’Twas a human fist he smashed me
with in back of the ear once—I know! But we’ll get him!”

“The fact of the matter is,” said Riley, “that we don’t know whether
it was the Black Star talkin’. If he’s got a bunch of helpers, maybe
one of them’s at police headquarters and just naturally tapped the
chief’s private telephone line.”

“It was the Black Star—I know his voice,” Verbeck said. “There is no
doubt about it. He speaks in a peculiar, halting way that I’ll defy
any one to imitate correctly.” He turned to the sergeant. “You may
post your men,” he said. “I presume the chief’s orders must be
obeyed.”

After the sergeant and his men had gone, Verbeck closed the door and
turned to face Muggs and the detective.

“This waiting makes me nervous,” he admitted. “I’d like to be doing
something. But, as you said, Riley, we can do nothing except wait
until the Black Star makes a move, and then attempt to get on his
trail. If ever we do get on his trail——”

“We’ll get him!” Muggs announced.

“So we may as well make ourselves comfortable. You cook a good dinner,
Muggs—we’ve got all sorts of supplies. Riley, take another cigar and
get that sour look off your face. All we can do is wait.”

Muggs departed for the kitchen, and Riley stretched his length on a
divan and blew clouds of smoke toward the ceiling. Verbeck walked to a
window and observed that the police had been scattered around the
block just inside the fence.

In the kitchen pots and pans rattled, and they heard Muggs mumbling to
himself because the fire would not blaze to suit him. Riley, after a
time, arose and paced the floor like a hound that wanted to be on the
scent and had been retained in kennels. Verbeck called up Faustina
Wendell and held a conversation of some ten minutes, during which his
fiancée expressed a thousand fears for his welfare, and Verbeck stated
half a hundred times that she was not to worry. His telephone
conversation at an end, he began pacing the floor also. The monotony
of waiting was tiresome.

“We’ve got to start a checker tournament or something lively like
that,” Riley declared, “or we’ll go insane. Some time during the next
four days, eh? Ain’t that what the Black Star said in his letter? I
wish he’d make it to-night. And I’ll bet that the devil, just to be
ornery, will wait until the last hour of the four days. Where do you
suppose he’ll strike?”

“That’s a hard question to answer,” Verbeck replied. “He’s liable to
do almost anything that means profit. You want to remember that he had
an organization that was collecting information for him, as I
discovered. He knows more than we think. He has combinations of safes,
knows the personal habits of people, knows—oh, everything that a crook
would want to know if he pulled off a job! The information I found
tabulated at his headquarters was all concerning jewels to be worn at
the Charity Ball, but Heaven alone knows, besides himself, what he had
gathered in the way of facts before that.”

“But he said he’d commit the greatest crime since he’d got to town,”
Riley went on. “What could that be? He’s turned some pretty good
tricks, you’ll remember.”

“He might get into the vault of the First National,” Verbeck offered.

“No chance! That’s the finest——”

“Pardon me, Riley. Fine vaults and burglar-proof affairs do not seem
to bother the Black Star. You remember how he robbed the
safety-deposit boxes of the National Trust, don’t you?”

“Well, what would be something big he could do?” the detective asked.

“He goes after money, but jewels are his particular delight, if I have
judged the man correctly,” Verbeck said. “He has some perfect
arrangement for disposing of them at a profit, I suppose. And there
are half a hundred places he could make a rich haul of jewels. He’s
what might be called a jewel fiend, Riley. He—— Ah!”

“What’s the matter?” Riley asked, looking up quickly and stopping his
pacing.

“I have an idea.”

“If it’s anything that will help us catch the Black Star or bring him
out of his hole so we can chase him, for Heaven’s sake let us have
it!” Riley cried.

“It is something that may bring him out of his hole—a trap! Why didn’t
I think of it before? And it can be arranged easily.”

“Let’s have it, then.”

“As you know, I am to be married soon. My gift to my bride will be the
same my father gave my mother—the famous Verbeck diamond necklace.
That necklace is in a certain safe-deposit vault now, and I’ll not
even tell you where it is.”

“But where’s the trap, Roger?”

“A moment, Riley—don’t be so impatient. That necklace is the same as
the day my father clasped it on his bride’s throat. That was a good
many years ago, and fashions in jewel settings change. So naturally,
before I present it to my bride, I’ll have to have the stones reset.”

“Sure.”

“The stones alone are worth a quarter of a million dollars—enough to
tempt any jewel thief, and especially a jewel fiend, since some of the
stones have histories. Now—suppose it gets noised abroad that I am
having the necklace reset for my fiancée. The newspapers, we’ll say,
print the history of the necklace and tell of my intentions. It is
announced that the jewelry firm of So & So is to do the work, and that
the necklace has been taken from the safe deposit and now is in the
vault of that firm.”

“I begin to get you, Roger.”

“I thought you would. If you were the Black Star, and read that in the
papers, what would you do? If you were the Black Star and held enmity
for me, and wanted to turn a big trick to show your contempt for the
police, what would you do?”

“Ha! I’d pinch that necklace, thereby getting a quarter of a million
in stones, and some other truck as well—and at the same time get
square with Mr. Roger Verbeck.”

“Exactly, Riley! Even the Black Star would fall for that trap. If he
could get those stones, he’d not only have a handsome profit, he’d
make a laughingstock of me—what he has sworn to do. See?”

“And you’d be takin’ a mighty big chance to do it.”

“Ah! As it happens, there is a paste duplicate of the necklace. That
will be sent to the firm of So & So—the real firm to be decided
between us later. And there we can fix a trap, have the place watched
night and day, be on the job ourselves. Either the Black Star will not
have the courage to go after it—or he’ll go after it, and we’ll catch
him. And we’ll get him when he has the paste jewels in his hands, and
give him the laugh, along with a term in prison.”

“Great—great!” Riley exclaimed. “But can you do it?”

“I’ll make the arrangements to-morrow. It’ll be like throwing out bait
to catch a big fish.”

“A sucker!” Riley gurgled.

“If he doesn’t make some sort of move to-night we’ll make the
arrangements to-morrow. We’ll bring him out of his hole where we can
get on his trail.”

Mr. Muggs walked slowly into the room from the kitchen, his face
inscrutable.

“Boss, you bought that bread at the delicatessen, didn’t you?” he
asked.

“Yes, Muggs.”

“Just picked a loaf off the counter and had it wrapped up?”

“Why, yes!”

“Didn’t notice anything unusual about it?”

“No. What do you mean, Muggs? Isn’t the bread good?”

“And we got right into the car with it and came here and put it with
the other stuff on the table in the kitchen——”

“Yes—yes! What’s the trouble?”

“Did you notice the top of the loaf carefully when you picked it up?”

“Yes, confound you! What——”

“And the old Dutchman wrapped it up right under your eyes, didn’t he?
And we brought it here, as I said, and I unwrapped it and put it on
the table when I unwrapped the other things. I looked at it when I did
that—I know I looked at the top of it, and there wasn’t anything the
matter with it then—and that was less than two hours ago, wasn’t it?”

“Muggs, if you don’t tell us——” Verbeck began.

“Oh, I’ll tell you, all right, boss. On the top of that loaf now,
right down the middle of the top, is a row of little black stars.”

“What!” Verbeck and Riley cried in a breath.

They rushed into the kitchen. Muggs pointed at the bread dramatically.
As he had said, there was a row of the little black stars down the
middle of the top of the loaf.

“This beats the deuce!” Riley exclaimed. “How did they get there?”

“I’ll swear they were not there when that loaf was wrapped,” Verbeck
said.

“And I’ll swear they wasn’t there when I unwrapped it,” Muggs
declared. “And now they are there! So they must have been put there
while we were talking in the living room!”

“Great Scott!” Riley cried. “Do you mean to say the Black Star or one
of his men has been here and did that?”

“No little bird did it!” Muggs exclaimed.

“Stand back!” Riley said. “Here is where experience takes the lead.
I’ll just look into this.”

He investigated the kitchen first. None of the windows had been
unfastened since they had come to the house, and dust on the sills
showed that nobody had touched them. The back door had not been
unlocked, for there was an abundance of fuel in the kitchen, and Muggs
had not been obliged to go out for water. Riley opened the door,
however, and his eyes met a drift of snow unmarred by footprints.
Nobody had entered there.

There was but one other door, and that opened into a pass pantry,
which, in turn, opened into the dining room. Riley went into the
dining room, which had not been touched, since they had decided to eat
in the living room, and found no traces of an intruder there. Even the
dust on the floor had not been disturbed. There were no traces in the
pass pantry, and it would have been impossible, of course, for any one
to have entered through the living room, since they had been in it
constantly since reaching the house, and would have seen any unwelcome
visitor.

“Humph!” Riley said, and looked at Muggs suspiciously.

“Boss, he thinks I done it!” Muggs exclaimed.

“Nonsense!” Verbeck replied.

“I don’t think you’re a member of the Black Star’s gang, if that’s
what you mean,” Riley stated, “but I do think it wouldn’t be a bit
past you to try out a little joke.”

“I didn’t! Boss, I swear I didn’t!”

“I believe you,” Verbeck said.

“Then it’s mighty puzzlin’,” Riley declared. “Rows of black stars
don’t go stickin’ themselves to bread of their own accord.”

He stepped back and looked at the interior of the kitchen again. No
one had entered or left by the rear door or any of the windows—that
much was certain. No one could have entered from the living room
through the pass pantry. Then——

The table stood beside the range. Over the range was a big hood that
opened into a wide chimney. Riley went forward and peered into the
hood—struck a match and held it beside his head and peered into the
chimney’s wide mouth. There was some dust and soot sprinkled over the
back of the range, but Riley could not tell whether it had been
sprinkled there recently, because the house had been uninhabited for
so long that dust and soot and cobwebs were everywhere.

“Where does that chimney go?” he asked.

“It is one of those old-fashioned, wide chimneys that run straight up
through a house, with stove-hole openings, in every room,” Verbeck
answered.

“We’ll just take a look upstairs. You can remain here, Muggs, and keep
your eyes open.”

Riley led the way up the broad stairs and he had his automatic
clutched in his hand. Dust—everywhere was dust! They searched all the
rooms of the second floor, though long search was not needed, for the
deep dust on the floors showed no trace of footprints.

“Anything above?” Riley asked.

“Garret—two rooms half finished,” Verbeck announced.

“They made their way up the narrow stairs and raised the trapdoor. The
two half-finished rooms were deep with dust also, and cobwebs hung in
clusters before stove holes.

“False alarm, I reckon,” Riley said. “But it beats me. You don’t
suppose Muggs——”

“I do not,” said Verbeck. “I know Muggs well—he’d not try a trick like
that.”

“Humph! Something mighty funny about this! Whoever put those stars on
the bread didn’t enter by kitchen door or window, and didn’t go down
the chimney from one of these upper floors. Those stars must have been
put there by the delicatessen man when you bought the bread. Muggs
just didn’t notice them when he unwrapped the loaf—that’s all. It’s
the only way they could have got there!”

They started back down the narrow stairs. As they reached the second
floor they heard Muggs’ voice, coming to them weakly, as if from a
great distance, and with a note of pain in it.

“Boss! Boss!”

Four steps at a time Verbeck took that last flight, with Riley two
jumps behind him. They rushed through the living room and into the
kitchen. They saw Muggs reeling toward them from the door, staggering
toward the table, trying to hold one hand to his head.

“Muggs! Muggs! What is it?” Verbeck cried, grasping him by the arm.
“You’re hurt, man! Your head’s bloody! You——”

“Look! His forehead!” Riley cried.

On Muggs’ forehead was a tiny black star!



CHAPTER XIX—SUSPICION


Muggs apparently was making an effort to speak, but could not collect
his wits. Blood was flowing from a wound on the back of his head. He
staggered again, and would have fallen had not Verbeck helped him to a
chair. Riley, preferring effective methods to kindness, grasped a pail
of water and dashed the contents of the pail in Muggs’ face.

“What happened?” the detective demanded.

Muggs sputtered and spat, and sat more erect.

“I’m—all right now,” he gasped.

“Tell us!”

“I—I looked around after you went upstairs—then bent over the stove to
arrange the pots. Something smashed me on the head—that’s all I know.
I think somebody grabbed me by the coat collar as I started to fall. I
woke up and found myself on the floor—and tried to call the boss.”

“That’s all?” demanded Riley.

“Y-yes.”

Detective Riley took charge in this emergency without as much as
mentioning the matter to Roger Verbeck. He ran to the rear door and
jerked it open, observed that the snow was still innocent of
footprints, then put a police whistle to his lips and blew a vigorous
blast.

The sergeant came running, one of the men with him.

“Bring your men in closer and watch all sides of the house!” Riley
commanded. “Watch the roof, too, particularly the mouth of the
chimney!”

The sergeant turned away, shouting his orders. Riley slammed the door
shut and whirled toward the stove.

“Into the other room, Roger, and watch the stairs—and have your
automatic ready,” he said. “In the chimney is the only place a man
could be to pull off these stunts, and if he’s in the chimney he’s
going to be smoked out!”

He grasped the paper that had been around the provisions and threw it
into the stove. He opened the drafts, and reached for more paper. The
stove roared—smoke and flame sprang up into the chimney and through
the big hood.

“Watch her, Muggs—more paper when she needs it—and hold your gun
ready, man! You’re all right?” Riley cried.

“I’ll watch ’er!”

Riley sprang into the other room. “Come!” he commanded Verbeck, and
ran up the stairs again. Once more they looked into all the rooms on
the second floor, and knew that nobody had been in any of them. Once
more they ascended to the garret and looked into the two half-finished
rooms there—and found nothing. Not a track was in the deep dust, not a
cobweb had been brushed from a wall.

“What’s that door over there?” Riley asked, pointing across one of the
rooms.

“Small closet—never used except to store toys in when I was a kid,”
Verbeck answered.

“We’ll just—— No use, though! Look at those cobwebs on the doorknob!
Nobody in there! This beats me! Let’s go down again!”

They retreated down the stairs, and went out on the veranda. No one
had come from the house, the sergeant said. Smoke, and even flame, was
pouring from the top of the chimney.

“All right, sergeant—return your men to their posts, but keep a close
watch,” Riley said. “No—there isn’t anything much wrong.”

The sergeant knew there was, but he knew also that Riley did not talk
when he preferred to remain silent. He sent the men back to their
posts, and Riley and Verbeck reēntered the house and closed the door.

In the kitchen Muggs was still putting paper into the stove, and Riley
ordered him to stop.

“If he was in that chimney, he’s a dead man,” the detective said. “And
if he was a dead man, he’d fall and smash that hood to bits. So he
isn’t in the chimney—and wasn’t—and he isn’t upstairs in any room—and
he didn’t enter from outside. We’ve been dreaming.”

“Not much we haven’t!” Muggs exclaimed. “Look at this bump on my
head!”

“Then please explain it!” Riley roared. “Explain those stars on the
bread and the one between your eyes. I suppose this Black Star has
spirits to help him or something like that. Give me an answer!”

“The Black Star,” Verbeck observed, “is a smooth article.”

“He is,” Riley admitted, “when he can smash a man on the head without
coming into the house to do it. Ha! The basement!”

There was a door opening into the basement from the kitchen, and it
was locked. Moreover, an investigation showed that the bolt had not
been shot for some time, for dust and cobwebs were on that bolt and on
the door around it. Nevertheless, Riley opened the door, drew out his
pocket flash lamp, and descended into the basement with Verbeck at his
heels.

The basement was large, but nothing was stored in it now except a
small quantity of fuel. It did not take Riley and Verbeck long to
decide no intruder had been in the basement.

“Looks mighty funny to me!” Riley declared. “If that Muggs man of
yours is playing tricks——”

“Would he smash himself on the head?” Verbeck demanded, something of
anger in his voice.

“Such things have been done before. A little rap would start the
blood, and he might have shammed a great deal of that
staggering-around business. You don’t suppose this Black Star has got
hold of Muggs—corrupted him or got the hooks into him?”

“I do not!” Verbeck replied emphatically. “I’d stake my life on Muggs.
He’s loyal! If the Black Star tried anything like that Muggs would
tell me at once.”

“Then how did it happen? Answer me that! It stands to reason, doesn’t
it, that nobody has been in this house except the three of us?”

“It looks that way, but——”

“Humph! You go right ahead thinking what you like, Roger. As for me,
boy, I’m going to keep one eye on Mr. Muggs.”

“But——”

“Don’t be angry now. It’s my business to be suspicious of people. I
knew you when you were a baby, and I’m right with you in this scrap
with the Black Star. You’ve lived with this Muggs man for some time,
and you think he’s loyal—sure! He’s somewhat of a stranger to me, and
I look at him from the outside, and don’t see him with any rosy waves
of glory around his head. No insult meant, Roger. I’ll just keep an
eye on him, and if he ain’t guilty it won’t hurt him a bit.”

They went back to the kitchen. Muggs, now that the excitement was
over, was going ahead with the preparations of the evening meal. Half
an hour later he had it ready, and the three of them ate it in the
living room, while Muggs groaned now and then and held his hand to the
back of his head often, apparently not noticing that Riley eyed him
constantly.

“If I get my hands on that Black Star I’ll kill him!” Muggs promised.
“That’s the second time he’s smashed me on the head!”

“Maybe the Black Star didn’t do it,” Riley said.

“Either him or one of his crooks!”

“But we couldn’t find a trace——”

“I don’t care,” Muggs interrupted; “if we knew absolutely that there
wasn’t another human bein’ within ten miles—I know a man smashed me on
the back of the head with a blackjack! I’ve had it done often enough
in my life, and I know the feelin’! And as I fell he grabbed me by the
shoulder and slapped that black star on my face! Don’t tell me!”

The meal at an end, they discussed the trap Roger had proposed to set
for the Black Star, perfecting details and deciding just how the
scheme was to be worked. It was planned that Roger should go into the
business district the following morning and arrange matters with a
jewelry firm, communicate to the newspapers the news that he intended
having the famous diamond necklace reset, and arrange with the chief
to have the jewelry establishment crowded with officers day and night.

So Roger retired at eleven that night, leaving Riley and Muggs on
guard. He slept in the bedroom, with his clothes arranged beside the
bed on a chair so that he could don them quickly if an alarm came from
headquarters that the Black Star had committed the great crime he had
promised. He was to arise at five and let Riley and Muggs sleep from
five until ten. Then they would take up the watch again, and Roger
would go into town about his business.

At five o’clock Muggs awoke him, announcing that he had cleaned the
bathroom and arranged the bath.

“Anything happen?” Verbeck asked. “I’ve slept like a dead man.”

“Quiet night, boss. Riley went out at midnight and prowled around the
grounds a while and talked with the cops. Nobody’d been near the
place, he said. I’ll have some coffee ready by the time you’re
dressed, and when you’ve had it Riley can go to bed.”

“And so can you, Muggs.”

“Not for some time, I ain’t. You can bet I ain’t goin’ to let you be
alone in that room with both Riley and me asleep. Look what happened
to me in the kitchen when I was alone!”

“I’ll call in the sergeant in charge of the squad, Muggs.”

“Yes, and maybe he’s one of the Black Star’s men for all you know!”

“Nonsense! Well, I’ll let you stay up until seven—how’s that?”

“That’s a little better, boss.”

Verbeck dressed and had his coffee, and Detective Riley retired to the
bedroom. Muggs curled up on the divan. Verbeck paced the floor for a
time, and then threw open the door and went out on the veranda for a
breath of morning air. The squad of police had been changed, and the
new sergeant in charge hurried toward Verbeck across the lawn.

“I brought you the morning papers, Mr. Verbeck,” he said, “when I came
on duty. Thought perhaps you’d like to have ’em.”

“Thanks, sergeant.”

“Your name certainly is in all of them! Say, is it true what they
say?”

“And what do they say?”

“That you were planning a trap for the Black Star and he knew all
about it?”

“What!” Verbeck cried.

He grasped the papers and opened the first that came to his hand.
Great headlines told of the day’s progress in the Black Star case. The
attack on the hotel clerk was exploited at length, the removal of
Verbeck and Muggs and Riley to the old Verbeck place mentioned. The
paper told how the place was surrounded at all hours by policemen, and
grilled the police department because the dragnet had caught nothing
but small fish.

The eight crooks arrested with the Black Star, and who really aided
his escape, had been bailed out. Bail of five thousand had been fixed
in each case, and two famous criminal lawyers had appeared and put up
forty thousand dollars cash, refusing to say for whom they acted,
merely declaring the crooks were their clients.

“So they’re loose!” Roger thought. “They’ll be at work again—or else
they’ll all jump bail and so keep from betraying the Black Star’s
secrets. I imagine it’d be worth forty thousand to him to have his
plans safeguarded.”

He read on. At two o’clock that morning, just as the paper was going
to press, a messenger boy had appeared with a letter from the Black
Star. The press had been stopped to get in this latest bit of news.
The messenger declared he had been called to a prominent hotel and
handed the letter by a distinguished-looking gentleman whose
description did not tally with that of the Back Star.

That letter read:

  Within three days!

  Within three days I commit the greatest theft I have perpetrated
  since coming to the city!

  Within three days I make a huge joke of Roger Verbeck, who dares
  match wits with me!

  I know all that goes on—I know everything! The police dragnet is
  most amusing. They never would dream of looking for me where I
  am hiding!

  I know, for instance, that yesterday afternoon, and again last
  evening, sitting in the living room of his ancestral home, Roger
  Verbeck planned with Detective Riley and Muggs, Verbeck’s man of
  all work, to set a trap for me. Very clever—had I not learned of
  it.

  Let Roger Verbeck understand that he may advertise to his
  heart’s content that he is having his famous diamond necklace
  reset at a prominent jeweler’s—and hope that I’ll take the bait
  and try to steal the jewels while a crowd of police are waiting
  to make a capture—but his hopes will be in vain. I am planning
  something bigger than the theft of the Verbeck necklace. The
  shock will come soon——

  Within three days!

                                *****

Verbeck did not go back into the house just then. He thanked the
sergeant for the papers again, and turned toward one end of the
veranda, to stand there and look off down the street, thinking.

It was almost uncanny what this Black Star knew. It was beyond belief
that either the Black Star or one of his confederates had been in the
house and overheard those conversations. Had they not searched the
house from bottom to top the evening before?

How, then, had the knowledge reached the Black Star? Three men knew of
that plan—himself, Riley, and Muggs. Then either Riley or Muggs, on
the face of things, must have conveyed the information to the Black
Star.

“I can’t believe it—I can’t!” Verbeck told himself.

He considered Muggs first. He believed in Muggs’ loyalty, had received
many manifestations of it. Muggs also had entered the first chase of
the Black Star with zeal, had in reality effected the crook’s capture.
Would he turn traitor now?

There was that affair of the evening before, when Muggs had received
the blow on his head. There was the affair of the stars on the bread.
Search had revealed that nobody was in the house. Who had put the
stars on the bread then, and who had struck down Muggs and stamped his
forehead? Had Riley been right? Was Muggs a Black Star man? Had he
stamped that bread himself, given himself a wound, and pretended to be
badly injured for a time just to carry out the orders of the master
criminal?

Then he considered Detective Riley. He would as soon believe Muggs
guilty as Riley. His father had been Riley’s benefactor. Riley had
known him since he was a baby, had taught him how to play baseball,
how to swim. Yet in the last few years he had not seen much of Riley,
and maybe he had been caught in the net of official graft. Maybe he
was no longer honest, save on the surface. Perhaps, angered at last
because he had not received the promotion he deserved, he had turned
crook and was trading on his reputation for honesty.

Muggs had said Riley had gone out and prowled around the house about
midnight. He had a chance, then, to communicate with some agent of the
Black Star. That would give the Black Star just about time to write
the letter to the paper and have it delivered so that it would reach
the newspaper office by two o’clock.

Back and forth, back and forth across the veranda, Roger Verbeck
paced, trying to fight down suspicions he did not believe worthy of
him. Muggs disloyal? He could not believe it! Riley turned crook? He
could not think it!

Yet there was the morning paper. No one but Riley and Muggs had heard
those plans. They had been discussed at the table in the center of the
living room, with all the doors closed, and they had been discussed in
low tones as the three men bent over the table. Why, it was doubtful
if a man could have overheard, had he even been in an adjoining room
and listening—and Verbeck knew no man had been in an adjoining room.

“I can’t believe it!” he told himself again. “Yet here it is—and must
be believed! I’ll say nothing—I’ll just let them read the papers. And
I’ll watch! If either Riley or Muggs has turned against me, my faith
in human nature is gone! Can’t I have even one honest ally? Must I
fight this master criminal alone?”

Muggs called to him from the doorway, wanting to know whether Verbeck
was not cold without his coat. He looked at Muggs. He saw the seamed
and wrinkled countenance, the eyes that twinkled kindly, the doglike
look of devotion in the face—Muggs, who had fought for him scores of
times, who had been willing in some of their adventures to lay down
his life for the man who had saved him from the Seine. No—Muggs could
not be disloyal!

Detective Riley, then?



CHAPTER XX—THE VOICE ON THE WIRE


At seven o’clock Verbeck ordered Muggs to bed, promising to call him
with Riley at ten o’clock. He had kept the morning papers from Muggs,
for he had decided to announce the failure of their contemplated trap
when both men were facing him.

When snores from the adjoining room told him that Muggs was in a heavy
sleep, Verbeck decided to make a tour of the house by himself in an
effort to solve the mysteries that had been puzzling him. Automatic
held ready, he crept softly up the stairs and examined every room on
the second floor, looking at every window and door, but failing to
find as much as a track in the dust.

He mounted to the garret once more and peered into the two
half-finished rooms there. Then he returned to the first floor and sat
down before the table in the living room, trying to think it out. He
asked himself again whether Muggs had really put those black stars on
the bread and had wounded himself in an effort to make Verbeck believe
he had been attacked. What would be the motive? Verbeck shook his head
because he could think of none. And had Riley betrayed their
contemplated trap? Again he asked himself the motive, and told himself
there was none, unless Detective Riley was a member of the Black
Star’s band and acting under the orders of the master criminal.

He paced the floor, and occasionally went on the veranda, fighting
down the belief that either of the men had turned against him, calling
upon himself to have faith in them.

Ten o’clock came, and he awoke Riley and Muggs and prepared coffee
while they dressed. He put the coffee on the table, with butter and
rolls, and scattered the newspapers around. Then, as the two men began
eating, he walked to the nearest window and stood looking out over the
snow-covered lawn.

Presently there was an exclamation behind him, and he whirled around,
to find both Muggs and Riley staring at newspapers as if they could
not believe their eyes. Verbeck decided that either they were
genuinely surprised, or were good actors.

“Yes,” he said before either of the others could speak, “the Black
Star knows. It will not be necessary for me to go into town and make
arrangements with the jewelers and the chief.”

“But——” Riley began, and stopped and looked at the paper again.

“Yesterday afternoon I discussed the matter with Riley,” Verbeck went
on. “We sat here at the table and talked in ordinary tones. Last
evening the three of us discussed it, sitting at the table and
speaking softly. I doubt whether a man, had he even been in the
bedroom adjoining, could have understood us clearly. Yet the Black
Star knows all about it—he knew in time to have that letter reach the
newspaper by two o’clock in the morning. I, for one, am certain I did
not communicate with the Black Star or any of his crooks.”

He turned his back upon them again, and looked through the window.

“But—but——” Riley stammered. “Why, nobody except the three of us knew
anything about it!”

“Exactly!” said Verbeck.

“Then how—— You don’t think I tipped it off in any way?”

“Boss,” cried Muggs, “you don’t suppose I——”

“I am not thinking, or supposing, anything about it,” said Verbeck.
“We are confronted by facts.”

“Well, let’s consider the matter squarely,” Riley offered. “Even if we
take it for granted that either Muggs or myself is a member of the
Black Star’s band, when would either of us have had a chance to betray
the plan?”

“You went outdoors and prowled around considerable about midnight,”
Muggs said. “You had a chance then.”

“If it comes to that, my impetuous friend, you were alone in the
kitchen yesterday afternoon while Roger and I were discussing the
matter. You were there when mysterious black stars got stuck on a loaf
of bread and when there was an alleged mysterious assault on your own
person committed by somebody who could not have been in the house at
the time.” Riley showed some anger in his voice.

“You accusin’ me?” Muggs demanded.

“You accused me, didn’t you?”

Verbeck turned away from the window and walked to the table.

“Suppose we cease all accusations,” he said. “I cannot think either of
you would do such a thing. Muggs has demonstrated his loyalty to me
scores of times. You, Riley, owed your start in life to my father, and
have known me since I was a toddling baby. I can’t believe either of
you guilty of this. And yet—there are the facts. Only we three
knew—and the Black Star knew soon afterward. We’ll just call this
another little mystery added to those that have gone before. Eat your
rolls and drink your coffee. We’ll not discuss the matter further
now.”

Riley and Muggs made pretense of eating as Verbeck walked to the door
and went out on the veranda again, but for the most part they glared
at each other across the table, each suspicious of the other
apparently.

The telephone rang, and Verbeck hurried in from the veranda to answer
it. It was the chief speaking.

“Everything all right out there?” he asked. “Good! Say, is that right,
what the papers say about you planning that trap about the necklace?”

“Yes,” Verbeck answered.

“But, how the deuce——”

“I don’t know,” Verbeck interrupted. “There evidently was a leak
somewhere, yet it seems impossible. It’s just one of those things that
cannot be explained.”

“Anything can be explained,” the chief declared. “But we’ll have to
talk of that affair later. I’ve just had a telephone message from the
editor of one of the evening papers. He received a letter from the
Black Star through the morning mail. The Black Star says he is going
to pull off that big crime of his within twenty-four hours. So get on
your toes, you people! I suppose he means to-night.”

“What plans have you made?” Verbeck asked.

“Of course, we have no idea what he is going to do. We’re having
special guards around the largest banks and trust companies. All we
can do is to wait for an alarm. When we get it we can rush to the spot
and take up the trail. We’ll keep in touch with you.”

Again there came that peculiar, rattling noise they had heard once
before while holding a telephone conversation. Both Verbeck and the
chief waited for the voice they knew they would hear.

“Hello!” it said. “This is the Black Star! I’m too busy to talk long,
so please listen—and do not swear over the wire, chief. I have been
listening to your interesting conversation. Make all the preparations
you like, chief, but they’ll avail you nothing. You’ll be sufficiently
startled before daybreak to-morrow morning. I will mention, too, that
I am going to commit this crime myself, without any aid whatever. As
for you, Mr. Roger Verbeck, you will be the laughingstock of the city
to-morrow, so prepare to be ridiculed.”

“Indeed?” Roger said.

“Another thing, Mr. Verbeck. I know every word you have said to
Detective Riley and Muggs this morning. You wrong them, Mr. Verbeck,
with your suspicions. I was but waiting for some one to call you up so
I could break in and tell you so. You see, if I called myself you
might be able to trace the call. Neither of the men, Mr. Verbeck, sent
me information regarding the clever trap you proposed. I just simply
knew. I know everything! Good-by!”

Again the rattling sound, and then Roger Verbeck heard nothing over
the wire except the explosive profanity of the chief of police, who
finally gave the information that he would call again later, and rang
off.

Verbeck turned from the instrument with a beaming face, and hurried
forward to clasp Riley and Muggs by their hands.

“I was a fool to doubt either of you a second,” he said. “The Black
Star has just proved to me that it wasn’t necessary for either of you
to turn traitor.”

“Was that crook on the wire again?” Muggs demanded.

“He certainly was—broke in while I was speaking to the chief. He told
me he knew what I had been saying to you here a very few minutes ago,
and that I was unjust in my suspicions.”

“If either of us were guilty he might say that just to help us out—to
make you think we were all right so we could go on doing his dirty
work,” Riley warned.

“But the fact that he knew our conversation of a few minutes ago shows
he might have heard us speaking yesterday about the trap. I am quite
sure neither of you have had a chance to communicate with him in the
past half hour.”

Riley rose ponderously from the table and crashed a fist down on it.

“Then tell me,” he said, “how this crook knows what we say here in
this room!”

“I wish I knew!”

“We’ve searched this house from bottom to top, and he isn’t in it. To
hear what we said he’d either have to be in the basement under us or
in an adjoining room, and then he couldn’t hear half of it. This thing
gets my goat!”

“Then here is something that’ll please you, Riley. The Black Star has
sent another letter to a paper, so the chief told me, saying he’s
going to commit this big crime of his within the next twenty-four
hours. I suppose he means during the night some time.”

“Then we’ll get on his trail!” Riley shouted. “We won’t have to work
in the dark any more. At least we’ll know where to start. He’s got to
come out of hiding to commit a crime, and we can trail him from where
he pulls it off!”

“Yes, and where will that be?” Muggs asked.

“Wherever it is, we’ll have something to start on. I just want a
start—that’s all! That crook’s going too far with his mysterious black
stars and his telephone stunts and mind-reading performances! He’ll
make a slip! Never a crook lived that didn’t make a slip some time!”

“I’d like to know how those stars got on that loaf and how I got
tapped on the head!” Muggs announced. “That Black Star must be able to
make himself invisible!”

Riley snorted.

“He’s a human man, and that’s all there is to it—a clever, human man!”
the detective declared. “And we’re clever, human men! We’ll get him!
And he’ll be visible enough when we do! There never was a mystery that
didn’t have a common, everyday solution, if a man’s wise enough to
know how to look at things. Twenty-four hours, eh? Some time to-night?
We’ll be crazy before he pulls off his trick—crazy from waiting!
You’re sure that roadster is loaded with gas, Verbeck?”

“I’m sure, Riley. Every officer in town knows that roadster, and the
chief has issued orders that we are to be allowed to smash all speed
limits if we see fit.”

“Then all we can do is wait—wait for the alarm. It may come in ten
minutes, and it may come at two o’clock to-morrow morning. And waitin’
is the worst thing I do!”

The day passed, every hour seeming an age. Muggs cooked the evening
meal with head cocked for the sound of the telephone bell. Riley paced
the floor, looking at his automatic and handcuffs every half hour.
Verbeck smoked innumerable cigars and betrayed nervousness in
innumerable ways.

Nine o’clock came and passed—ten—eleven. Midnight struck!

The telephone rang!

Verbeck reached the instrument in two bounds, and Muggs and Riley were
close behind him, ready for a dash, Muggs with his hand on the
doorknob.

“Hello!” Verbeck cried.

“Hello! Hello! Mr. Verbeck?”

It was a woman’s voice, one that Verbeck never had heard before, an
excited woman’s voice.

“This is Mr. Verbeck.”

“Listen! I may not have a chance to repeat! Do you want to locate the
Black Star before he commits his crime? Do you want to learn why he
has heard everything you’ve said there?”

“Who is this?” Verbeck tried to control his voice and speak in a
matter-of-fact way.

“Never mind my name. I have a reason for what I am now doing. You must
act quickly. Take all the help you can get. You have police there—take
them all!”

“Yes; but what——”

“Listen, please! I will not have a chance to telephone again. Look
around your living room. Look at the center leg of your table. And
then—follow the wire! All the help you can get—act quickly—and follow
the wire!”

And the unknown woman rang off.

Verbeck whirled to the others, speaking rapidly, starting back across
the room toward the table. With Muggs and Riley beside him, he went
down on his knees to investigate the center leg. Riley was the
fortunate one. An exclamation of disgust escaped him.

“Boobs! Boobs! That’s what we are! A common, everyday dictograph disk!
And we never thought of it! Look!”

He pointed to the bit of metal.



CHAPTER XXI—THE END OF THE WIRE


“Follow the wire!”

The unknown woman’s words seemed to ring in Verbeck’s head.

“We must decide instantly,” he said. “Shall we follow the wire or
remain here and await an alarm?”

“Follow the wire!” Riley advised. “That woman is one of the Black
Star’s gang that’s turned against him. She’s tipped us off right, and
I’ll bet on it! It’s only a few minutes after midnight. It shouldn’t
take us long. Dictograph! Huh! No wonder he knew everything we said.
Poor boobs!”

“Do we go alone, or take the police?” Verbeck asked.

“Let’s take ’em. It won’t hurt, and may do a great deal of good. We’ll
have the sergeant leave one man here to take any telephone message
that comes.”

Riley ran to the door and blew his whistle. Verbeck and Muggs already
were at work. Before Riley could instruct the sergeant that a man be
detailed to remain at the house while the others followed, Verbeck and
Muggs had pulled the heavy table to one side—to find the wire passing
through a tiny hole in the floor and into the basement.

Verbeck led the way below. The wire was picked up easily, running to
an outside wall and through it. On the outside it went up the side of
the house, beside a water pipe, thence to a tree near by.

“Follow the wire—and be quick about it!” Riley commanded the sergeant
and his men. The police knew only that this had something to do with
the pursuit of the Black Star, but the excitement of Verbeck and his
companions was infectious, and they went at their work eagerly,
sensing that seconds were precious.

Electric torches flashed as they surrounded the tree, and one man
prepared to climb.

“There it runs!” Riley shouted. “Flash your lights! See it? To the
other tree!”

Thus they crossed the yard to a corner, going from tree to tree,
flashing their lamps always on that slim, long-hanging wire.

“Whoever heard of a dictograph wire this long!” Riley exclaimed.
“Nobody but the Black Star would use it. No telling where it runs—and
we haven’t a great deal of time! Send back another man, sergeant, to
stand by the house and bring us news if there’s a telephone call. Send
one who can drive Verbeck’s roadster to us!”

A man was selected and sent, and the tracing of the wire went on. They
came to the corner, and there the wire sprang from a tree to a
telephone pole, and across the street to another pole, then to an
unimproved block of land, where it ran from tree to tree as before.

Led by Verbeck and Riley, with Muggs at their heels, the police waded
through snowdrifts, crashed through wet underbrush, rending the black
night with the light of their torches. The wire twisted from tree to
tree, never more than a few feet above the ground.

“Whoever laid that wire didn’t waste any time,” Riley said.

They lost it in a clump of brush, but found it again. Every man of
them was wet to the waist now from breaking through the drifts of
snow, but their enthusiasm was not dampened.

“We’ve been half an hour already!” Muggs protested. “How far does this
thing run?”

No one took the trouble to answer him. They had crossed the unimproved
block at last and reached another street. Once more the wire sprang to
the crosspiece of a telephone pole, and across the street to another.
Now it ran along the edge of a private park to a narrow alley, and
there it followed the roof line of sheds.

They began exercising some caution now, for there was no telling where
the wire would end, or when, and they did not care to stumble on the
retreat of the Black Star unprepared for a clash. Muggs, some paces
ahead of the others, strained eyes and ears to detect the presence of
a foe. Muggs didn’t feel sure they had done right in following the
wire, but he realized that the tip from the unknown woman was one that
could not have been ignored.

At the end of the alley, the wire ran in the direction of a cross
street. Here it was suspended from the trees again, but higher, and
there was difficulty in following it. It took half an hour to reach
the next corner, and there the wire turned back toward Verbeck’s
house.

“’Tis a quarter after one,” Riley said. “There’s been no alarm from
headquarters, or we’d have had the man coming after us in the
roadster. But where the deuce does this wire run?”

Down the street a block, around the corner, went the wire, from tree
to tree, now high in the air and now looped low. To the alley again,
and down it in the black night! Here, their torches flashing, they
followed it from shed to shed, and finally came to where it ran down
the side of a garage and so reached the ground. Muggs dug frantically
with his hands until the snow had been thrown to one side. The wire
ran beneath a board, and half a dozen men scraped snow away until the
board could be raised, Verbeck and Riley working frantically and
urging on the others.

The board ended at the edge of an iron manhole, and Riley, with a
muttered curse, got up from his knees.

“Into the sewer!” he exclaimed. “Into the sewer! Think o’ that!”

“It’s a fake—we’ve been done!” Muggs declared.

“’Tis no fake!” Riley protested. “Here’s the wire, and we was told to
follow it, wasn’t we? Into the sewer!”

“Off with that cover!” Verbeck shouted, stepping forward and taking
command. “You’ve forgotten something, Riley. This is the old sewer,
and has been used for two or three years as a conduit for gas pipes
and electric wires. There’s no sewage in it.”

Riley’s exclamation of relief showed that he had forgotten. Like
madmen they worked at the covering of the manhole, smashing the ice
around it, tearing at it with their hands until they were raw and
bleeding. Presently they hurled it to one side.

“In we go!” Verbeck said. “And let’s try to make better time!”

“Easy there! We go—but we go prepared!” Riley said. “I’ll go first, if
you don’t mind, Roger. Some of the Black Star’s gentlemen friends
might be waiting in this old sewer with implements of destruction to
greet us.”

He flashed his torch, and lowered himself. A moment later they heard
his call, and one by one they slipped from the alley into the big bore
in the earth, the last man letting the manhole covering fall into
place.

Straight ahead they went now, bending low, dodging elbows of big gas
mains, on the alert for uninsulated electric wires. The cement walls
were covered with frost, the air was like that of a refrigerator.

They made a turning, and went on, always following the little wire
that had been looped along the joints of the gas main. And always they
were on the alert, flashing their torches ahead, expecting to be
greeted any instant by some show of hostility. They knew the
reputation of the Black Star—these men. Perhaps, after all, this was
his trick. Perhaps they would find themselves prisoners underground,
or face some new peril the master criminal had invented for their
discomfiture.

Another curve in the big bore, with Riley stopping them and creeping
ahead to peer around the bend, and be sure no danger waited! They made
their way along as swiftly as they could now, their teeth chattering,
their hands numb with the cold. And now the wire ran to the roof
again, along a smaller gas main, and so to another manhole.

“Out again into the night!” Riley grunted. “What do you know about
that? Well—let’s get after it!”

They got beneath the manhole covering and fought to get it free. It
was heartbreaking work, for the covering had a weight of snow above
it, and ice filled every crevice. But finally they felt it give, and
after a time forced it a short distance to one side, the snow caving
in upon them.

Muggs crawled up and dug at the snow! Inch by inch they forced the
manhole covering back, and finally they emerged into the open air and
closed the covering again. They traced the wire to a tree at the end
of the alley, and from there to a telephone pole, and across the
street in the usual manner.

They spoke but seldom now. They were almost exhausted; more than one
feared they had been hoaxed. Again they flashed their torches and
followed the wire, once more across the corner of an unimproved lot,
across another street, and then——

“Wh-what?” Riley cried. “Do you see where we are? Back to Verbeck’s
place—that’s what! On the other side of the house!”

He would have said more, but Verbeck’s grasp on his arm stopped him.
Into Verbeck’s heart had come a sudden fear, and he didn’t see the
advisability of the sergeant and the police squad knowing everything.

“What kind of a stunt is this?” the sergeant growled.

“Never mind!” Riley counseled sternly, aware of what the end might be.
“We’ve been following this wire, haven’t we? Very well! We had a
reason for wanting to know where it ran. And that’s all.”

The sergeant subsided, but he guessed that it was not all.

They were in the yard of the Verbeck place again now, the wire running
from tree to tree as before. Finally it sprang to the side of the
house, and down it to a window in a rear room. There Riley, who was
leading, stopped.

“That’s all for the present, sergeant,” he said. “Go inside and get
warm—you and the men. If there’s been any telephone message, come out
and tell us.”

The men needed no second invitation to hurry to the fire, and they
followed the sergeant rapidly around the corner of the house toward
the veranda, leaving Verbeck and Riley and Muggs alone beneath the
window.

“Well?” Riley said.

“Follow it!” Verbeck commanded. “It must end somewhere. And we don’t
need the squad with us when we find the end.”

“That’s the way I looked at it. Great Scott, what a chase! Through the
snow and through the sewer——”

“No message!” the sergeant shouted from the veranda.

Muggs raised the window. They crept over the sill into the dusty room.
Again Riley’s torch flashed, and they saw the wire running up the side
of the window to the ceiling and through it.

“To the floor above!” Verbeck said.

They ran to the stairs and went up. As they passed the door of the
living room, they saw the policemen standing before the big fireplace,
extending their numb hands to the blaze.

They had no difficulty locating the wire on the second floor. It came
from below, and ran up the side of a window. It followed the border of
the wall paper, and once more it penetrated a ceiling.

“Into the garret!” Riley said.

They ran up the narrow stairs. Riley and Muggs both held their
automatics ready now, and Verbeck reached for his. They threw open the
door opening into one of the half-finished rooms. There was the wire,
almost hidden as it ran along the bottom of the window. It followed a
wide crack in the floor across the room. It disappeared into the wall.

Riley raised a hand for silence, and pointed to the floor.

“We were blind before,” he whispered. “See those tracks? Whoever made
them scattered dust behind him. They’re almost obliterated—but there
they are! We didn’t use our eyes before. And that wire——”

“Must run into the old toy closet,” Verbeck interrupted. “But—see
here! The door of the closet is locked on this side, and you can see
it hasn’t been opened.”

“You’re right—it hasn’t! But we’ll just take a look!”

Verbeck turned the key. Muggs and Riley focused the light of their
torches on the door, and held their automatics ready. Verbeck sprang
aside and hurled the door open.

The interior of the closet was flooded with light. All three gasped as
they looked.

No Black Star menaced them with weapon. No diabolical engine of
destruction was there.

But there was the end of the wire!



CHAPTER XXII—ON THE SCENT


“He’s done it! He said he’d make me a laughingstock—and he’s done it!”

Verbeck’s exclamation brought them to their senses. They stepped
through the door.

There was a blanket, a store of provisions, a telephone that they knew
without examination had been connected with the one in the living room
below, and the end of the dictograph wire.

Fastened to the telephone were several sheets of paper. Verbeck tore
them away, and while Muggs and Riley held their torches he read in a
low voice the Black Star’s message:

  “Mr. Roger Verbeck: I am assuming you have answered the call of
  the damsel and have followed the wire. The snow is somewhat
  deeper than when the wire was stretched by me, and possibly you
  have been put to some inconvenience, but it was necessary, I
  assure you. I trust you liked your trip through the old sewer.

  “I thank you for your hospitality, for here I have lived beneath
  your roof since escaping the silly police.

  “I thank you cordially for the police protection afforded me
  while the chief had his dragnet in operation. It was amusing to
  look from the window and watch the officers guarding the house
  carefully to see that I was not disturbed.”

“If ever I get my hands on that devil——” Riley exclaimed.

“Keep still, Riley—let me finish it! There may be need for haste yet.”

Verbeck read on:

  “I said I’d make you a laughingstock, and I have. To-night I
  send letters to the papers telling them how I hid in your own
  house, listened to all your plans over a dictograph, and tapped
  your telephone wire. You cannot hope to match wits with the
  Black Star.

  “It was very simple. I came here the night I escaped, after
  visiting your apartment and mailing a few letters. Only two of
  my band knew of my whereabouts and aided me—one of them the
  charming woman who told you to follow the wire.

  “The second night I strung the dictograph wire, tapped the
  telephone, and carried my provisions here. Then I attacked the
  apartment-house clerk. I felt very confident you’d move here
  after that, and I guessed correctly.

  “You came. I rested and ate and listened to your conversations.
  At night, by means of a candle, I signaled from the window to a
  friend, who took down my messages for the papers and the chief
  of police.

  “It has been great entertainment, I assure you. It was very
  convenient for me to keep in touch in this way.”

“That’s sarcasm for you!” Riley exploded.

“Quiet!” Verbeck demanded, and read on:

  “Is there anything to explain? Ah, yes! My mode of entrance was
  not through the door. I strung the wire to the wall and through
  the hole there, retreated after covering my tracks with dust,
  and entered in a different place. Perhaps you know your old
  family estate, Mr. Verbeck, and perhaps not. If you will look at
  the end of this closet you’ll see a section of wall that can be
  removed. I fixed that. It opens into an old, wide chimney. At
  some time when the house was remodeled, and the new chimney
  built, a part of this old one was left intact, probably to save
  the trouble of remodeling the garret. Inside the chimney you
  will find a rope ladder—not very well made, it is true, yet
  serviceable. Descend, and you’ll be able to get into the new
  chimney. Go down far enough and you will find yourself beside
  the hood over the kitchen stove.

  “By extending a hand down while you three were in the living
  room, I was able to put on your loaf of bread the black stars
  that bothered you so much. I was able in the same manner to tap
  Mr. Muggs on the head as he bent over his pots and pans. It was
  a scientific tap, and as he reeled I clutched him by the collar
  and decorated his forehead with a star. Very simple, I assure
  you.

  “I nearly laughed aloud when Riley built the big fire to smoke
  me out if I happened to be in the chimney. I had got back into
  the old chimney, of course, and closed the opening by that time.

  “Thanks once more for your splendid hospitality. To-night being
  the time for my best effort so far in your city, I must leave
  you. My new headquarters have been arranged by my friends, and I
  am sure they’ll prove much more comfortable. I’ll direct my work
  from there hereafter.

  “Since I had to get away from your house, I had a certain woman
  call you up and tell you to follow the wire. I knew it would
  take an hour or two for you to do so. After you had gone, I
  descended the chimney, slipped out of the back door. At least,
  that is what I intend doing after writing this letter, and I am
  sure my plans will come out all right.

  “I would like to use your splendid roadster again as I leave,
  but cannot, as I have made other plans.

  “And now, Mr. Verbeck, search this closet well, and you’ll find
  a short note telling you what I intend doing to-night. The
  search may delay you a little, and delay will help me.”

                                *****

As Verbeck finished reading, and crammed the letter into his pocket,
Riley, muttering madly to himself, began pawing among the Black Star’s
provisions in search of the note. Muggs attacked a pile of old toys in
a corner. Verbeck stood still in the center of the closet for a
moment, astounded.

The Black Star had hidden in _his_ house, with the police guard around
it! The Black Star had sent word to the newspapers of what he had
done. Laughingstock! Roger Verbeck would not dare show his face among
his friends, unless—— There was one way to wipe out this slur the
Black Star had thrown upon him—by capturing the master criminal at his
work!

Verbeck joined in the search. Working frantically, they hurled toys
around the closet, scattered cans and boxes of provisions, shook
blankets. Then Verbeck remembered the opening in the wall, and sought
until he found it. There, pinned to the top rung of the crude rope
ladder, was the note.

“Read it, quick, boss!” Muggs begged. “I want to get my hands on that
crook! I’ll show him how to tap me on the head!”

Verbeck read quickly:

  “As you have said, I love jewels—especially diamonds. There is a
  new shipment in the city that exceeds in value even your famous
  necklace, Mr. Verbeck. The general public does not know of this
  shipment, which has just been received. But, having ways of
  finding out things, I do know of it.

  “To-night I raid the vault of Jones & Co., diamond importers, on
  the second floor of the National Building.”

                                *****

With a roar that could have been heard half a block, Detective Riley
sprang through the door and toward the head of the stairs, Muggs and
Roger Verbeck at his heels.

Four steps at a time they took the two flights, and burst into the
living room like madmen, startling the officers there.

“Quick!” Riley cried to the sergeant. “Call headquarters, private
line! Tell them to surround block of National Building. Black Star’s
raiding Jones & Co.! You, Muggs! Start the car! Ready, Verbeck?”

The sergeant whirled toward them.

“Phone’s dead! Wires cut, I suppose!” he reported.

“Of course! Trust the Black Star not to forget that! Get the nearest
phone, sergeant—probably one across street!”

He dashed out, following Verbeck. They sprang into the roadster. Muggs
sent the machine shooting at the big gate, through it, into the broad
boulevard, sounding his horn like a maniac, jumping the powerful
engine into its greatest speed.



CHAPTER XXXII.—INTO THE VAULT


Verbeck and Muggs had taken many wild rides in the big roadster, but
nothing that compared to this. On the boulevard, the street cleaners
had removed most of the snow, but the slush had frozen, and the going
was treacherous. The car skidded from side to side, at times almost
turned end for end, lurched and swayed sickeningly.

Detective Riley gritted his teeth and clung to one end of the seat in
which Verbeck crouched. Muggs bent forward, squinting his eyes and
trying to get a clear view ahead. They turned corners and swept around
curves at dangerous speed, sprang down hills as if the car was some
wild thing running for life from a hereditary foe.

It was half past two o’clock in the morning, and few vehicles were
abroad, a fact for which Muggs gave devout thanks. They reached the
edge of the business district, yet he did not slacken the car’s speed.
Detective Riley had said no word since the start—now he was the sleuth
on the trail, the officer of the law ready to try conclusions with the
criminal. Neither did Roger Verbeck speak, not even to shriek orders
to Muggs, for Muggs did not need orders, and Verbeck was thinking of
the humiliation in store for him unless the master criminal was
caught.

Muggs dodged an owl car by less than a foot, and took a corner on two
wheels. Riley would have been dashed from the machine had not Verbeck
flung an arm around him. Down another hill they raced, and into a
cross street, where the heavy traffic of the day had obliterated the
most of the slush, and the going was safer.

They were within a few blocks of their destination now. Verbeck and
Riley were both wondering if the sergeant had been able to get to
another telephone and notify headquarters. The Black Star might have a
chance of escape if the block was not surrounded.

And they were not certain that he had not committed his theft and
escaped already. He had had plenty of time while they were following
the dictagraph wire, especially since it was certain his plans had
been made carefully. Would they arrive in time to find him at work?
Or, would they find the door of the vault open and a fortune in jewels
gone?

Riley bent over and screeched in Muggs’ ear:

“Stop that horn! And stop the machine at the corner this way!”

Muggs nodded that he understood. He drove around another corner, and
swung the roadster to a stop. Riley sprang to the walk, Verbeck and
Muggs following closely. They hurried around the corner and to the
entrance of the big building.

Automatics and electric torches were held ready now. There was no
watchman in the entrance, and they started to creep up the stairs to
the second floor. And there, at the top of the marble steps, just in
front of the heavy glass doors that opened into the establishment of
Jones & Co., they found the watchman.

He was stretched on the floor, bound and gagged and with a black star
on his forehead. Riley motioned for silence, and relieved the watchman
of gag and ropes.

“He slipped up on me,” the man whispered. “He’s inside now.”

“Only one?”

“Just one man!” the watchman whispered. “He tapped me on the head and
had me gagged before I knew what was happening. Then he bound me. I’m
sure there was only one man. He unlocked the door with a key.”

“How long ago?”

“Half an hour or more.”

“Then he’s gone out some other way,” Riley whispered to the others.
“He wouldn’t stay in there that long. What’s the matter with
headquarters, I wonder? I don’t hear any siren. Here, you, watchman,
go down and tell the men, when they come, to surround the block, and
send a few in here. We’ll go on in.”

The watchman tottered to the top of the stairs and started down. Riley
drew Verbeck and Muggs close to him.

“No lights until we’re sure where we stand,” he instructed. “He may be
ready to shoot, if he’s still in there, and a light furnishes a swell
target. There’ll be a faint light inside, reflected from the stairs. I
know this place. This is the only entrance except a freight elevator
at the rear. There are windows, of course, that open into the court.
I’m afraid he’s gone that way! Ready? Come on, then, and keep your
eyes open!”

Inch by inch Riley swung the glass door open, so as not to make any
sound. Inch by inch they crept inside and closed the door again. Here
the aisles were covered with thick carpets. An uncertain light came
through the door and made the interior of the gem store a mass of
shadows.

Before them was the general retail salesroom, with its rows of
counters and show cases on either side, and its divans and chairs in
the center. Slowly, carefully, holding weapons and torches ready, they
crept from shadow to shadow, scarcely daring to breathe, fearing they
would make a sound.

They soon were convinced nobody was in the salesroom. They came to the
partition in the rear, and found the door partly open. Here they
redoubled their caution. If the Black Star was present he was
somewhere behind that partition.

Riley opened the door carefully, and they stepped inside. Here they
found a dim light, too, coming in from the street. Here were tables
where diamonds were displayed to purchasing merchants, sets of mirrors
so an employee could see the entire interior at a glance, and, at the
opposite end of the room, the door to the great vault of Jones &
Co.—the vault that held always a fortune in jewels and was supposed to
be impregnable.

They crouched—and looked. Verbeck drew in his breath sharply.

The door of the vault stood open.

In it, his back toward them, gloating over a handful of jewels,
was—the Black Star!

As they watched, they heard him chuckle softly, saw him throw up his
head—_and walk into the vault_!



CHAPTER XXIV—HOW IT ENDED


Verbeck’s whisper was so low that Riley and Muggs scarcely could hear
it, yet they could detect the note of exultation:

“We’ve got him!”

That was all, and then they started to creep forward, their eyes on
the vault, from which not a bit of light came. The Back Star evidently
was working in the dark.

Foot by foot they made their way noiselessly toward the open door,
expecting every instant to see their quarry step forth and confront
them, ready to prevent him fighting his way to liberty. They listened,
too, for the sound of feet in the room behind them that would tell of
the arrival of the police, but the sound of feet did not come.

And now, at last, they were within six feet of the open door, staring
into the blackness of the vault, from which came not the slightest
sound. Verbeck felt his heart pounding at his ribs like a trip hammer
as they waited. The seconds passed.

Then Riley spoke in a low, tense tone, yet his voice seemed to roar
through the place:

“Come out, Mr. Black Star! We’ve got you!”

Silence their answer!

“Come out! Why delay the game?”

Still no answer. Riley reached out and touched Verbeck, touched Muggs,
a voiceless command for action. They crept forward again, Verbeck to
one side, Muggs on the other, Riley directly before the door. Now they
were in the shadows, and between them and the door was but a faint
streak of light that came through the windows from the street—a streak
of light they would have to cross to reach the vault door.

What would happen when they crossed that streak of light? Riley
imagined he knew. Verbeck felt sure that he knew. Muggs already
imagined he heard the cracking of an automatic, grunts of pain, faced
the whirlwind charge of a desperate, cornered man, fighting his way to
freedom.

“Come out!” Riley commanded again. “Come—or we’ll come in after you!”

Still no answer. Riley crouched and held the torch high above his head
in his left hand, ready to touch the button and send a shaft of light
into the vault. In his right hand he held the automatic, safety catch
off, ready to fire on the instant.

He touched the button.

Light shot through the blackness and illuminated a pathway through the
vault door and to the interior. From side to side Riley swung his
light, expecting every instant to hear the shot he anticipated. There
was no man in the light’s path, but it did not penetrate to the
corners.

Riley expelled his breath in a great gasp of determination, and
slipped forward. Verbeck and Muggs closed in. If the Black Star was
waiting for them to rush, then the moment for the rush had arrived.

Muggs could endure the suspense no longer. His nerves were on edge. He
gave a subdued squeal and sprang across the path of light, grasped the
door, hurled it shut, twisted the handle.

“We’ve got him—got him!” he screeched.

Riley’s light showed the perspiration standing out on his forehead in
great globules.

“Why did you do that?” the detective demanded.

“We’ve got him! Turn on the lights! The police will be here in a
minute, then he’ll have no chance to escape!”

Riley would have had it otherwise, and Roger Verbeck had anticipated
having the Black Star in shackles by the time the police arrived, but
that could not be helped now. Riley went around the room until he
found the electric switch; he threw it, and the room was suddenly
brilliant with light.

“Well, we’ve got him, anyway,” Verbeck said. “The Black Star may be
able to get into a vault, but I’ll defy him to get out of that one
except by the door.”

“Yes, and he’ll be dead before he gets out that way, if some one who
can open that vault doesn’t come soon. Where’s a telephone?”

He saw one in a corner, and rushed toward it and gave the private
number.

“That you, chief?” he asked. “This is Riley? Have you sent men? What’s
that—just started? Great Scott—— He did, eh? Say, chief, have the desk
sergeant telephone to the manager of Jones & Co. to hurry down here.
We’ve got the Black Star locked in the vault, and have to get it
unlocked. Yes—sure!”

He hung up the receiver and turned to the others.

“Men on the way,” he said. “The chief says he just got the telephone
message. Says the sergeant said he tried three phones near your place,
and all of them had wires cut. Pretty smooth article, that Black
Star—but we’ve got him! There they come now!”

From the distance came the sound of a siren, the clanging of a
patrol-wagon bell. Then the pounding feet on the marble stairs, loud
commands, and men rushed into the establishment of Jones & Co.

“We’ve got him!” Riley exulted. “Caught him at it! Locked him in the
vault! And now we’ll stand around until the manager gets here and
works the combination. He played a smooth game, all right—ask Mr.
Verbeck about it. But we got him! I reckon he’s mighty sorry now that
he stayed in town to make a fool out of Mr. Verbeck.”

They waited, crowding about the place, talking excitedly in whispers,
debating whether the Black Star would put up a fight when the door was
opened, whether he’d commit suicide and cheat the law, now that he was
cornered.

Then the chief came beaming, dreaming of the vindication of his
department the newspapers would have to grant. He grasped Verbeck by
the hand warmly, patted Muggs on the back, congratulated Detective
Riley.

“I didn’t tip off the reporters this time,” he said. “Too late for
’em, anyway. They’ll get it in the noon editions to-day, though. Laugh
at the police department, will they? Not after this!”

And then the manager of Jones & Co. arrived, a gentleman the
personification of dignity generally, but at present the
personification of excitement and dread. He stammered when he talked,
and threw up his hands in horror when he saw his establishment crowded
with police, and it took the chief some minutes to assure him that his
property was safe and the would-be thief locked in the vault.

He advanced to the door and prepared to work the combination. His
nervousness caused him to make a mistake at first, but finally he
nodded that all that was necessary to open the door was to turn the
handle.

The manager retreated then, to hide behind a show case in fear of
flying bullets.

“Might as well come out, Mr. Black Star, and take your medicine!”
Riley cried “We’ve got twenty men here, with guns pointing at that
door. You make a hostile move when we open it, and you’ll see your
finish!”

He nodded to the police, twisted the handle, and threw the door open.

Light flooded the interior of the vault. Half a dozen officers, Riley
at their head, rushed.

A cry of consternation came from the detective. Verbeck and Muggs
crowded through to took inside.

On the floor of the vault were empty trays that had held jewels. Among
them were empty chamois bags. Mountings of inferior value were
scattered about. But no master criminal stood before them, ready for
battle, or in token of surrender!

“Gone!” Muggs cried.

“But he can’t be gone!” Riley shrieked. “We saw him step into the
vault! We came right up, never taking our eyes from the door! Muggs
slammed the door and twisted the combination. There’s no way in or out
except the door!”

“Gone!” Verbeck echoed.

The chief of police swore. The manager of Jones & Co., who had left
his place of safety, tore his hair and lamented his loss and berated
the police.

“He—he can’t be gone!” Riley reiterated.

Verbeck, his heart sinking, stepped inside and looked around. Fastened
in the corner of one of the trays was what he had feared he would
find—a letter written by the Black Star and addressed to himself. He
read it swiftly, then handed it to the chief, and threw wide his hands
in a gesture of momentary despair.

And this is what he had read:

  Mr. Verbeck and Aids: I am leaving this because I assume you’ll
  find my other note at the house and follow me here. I dare say
  that, when you entered you saw me standing before the open door
  of the vault. You watched, and saw me enter the vault. Did you
  not? You did not! Your eyes deceived you! I intend waiting here
  until you arrive, to add one more small bit to my evening’s
  entertainment.

  Illusion, my dear Mr. Verbeck—all illusion. The dim light coming
  in from the street, you know, helps some. You will notice that
  there are many mirrors scattered around the room. I took the
  liberty of moving a few of them to serve my purpose. Go back to
  the door at which you entered and look at the vault. Have your
  silly Muggs stand ten feet to the right of the door to the room.
  Now look at the vault, Mr. Verbeck, and it will appear that the
  silly Muggs is standing in the vault door. You follow? Simple,
  old-fashioned mirror illusion that won’t even go at country
  fairs any more. And you fell for that!

  For, when you enter the room, I shall be standing within ten
  feet of you, and you’ll imagine you see me in the vault door,
  and creep forward. I’ll take two steps to the right, and you’ll
  think I have entered the vault. You’ll advance toward it, and
  I’ll step outside quietly to the window that opens on the court,
  let myself down a rope already prepared, and be on my way—with
  this excellent collection of diamonds. All thought out
  beforehand, you see!

  I have made you a laughingstock, as I promised, but I am not
  done with you yet. I defy you again, Roger Verbeck, as I defy
  the police. You’ll hear from me soon.

                                *****

They snapped out the lights and tried it—Muggs standing where the
Black Star had said—and found it was so.

They went to the court and found an open window from which a rope
dangled to the ground floor below.

Then they placed a guard and went out, leaving the manager to estimate
and bemoan his loss.

“He’s a devil—a devil!” the chief was muttering.

“He’s human—and we’ll get him yet!” Roger Verbeck answered, and the
fighting look was in his face when he spoke.



CHAPTER XXV—SHADOWED BY THREE


Roger Verbeck’s powerful, four-seated roadster, its curtains up
against the fine drizzle of rain, and with Muggs at the wheel, drew up
when the traffic policeman raised a warning hand, and waited for the
cross-town stream of vehicles and pedestrians to pass.

It was eight o’clock in the evening, and the streets were thronged.
Crowds were hurrying toward the theaters; more crowds were making for
a big automobile show, and others were hastening toward a large hall,
where there was to be a mass meeting, at which infuriated speakers
would demand that the police department of the city capture instantly
the Black Star, the notorious master criminal, who, with his band of
clever crooks, had terrorized the city for half a year.

Verbeck’s car was of foreign make and of peculiar appearance, and it
was natural that it should be recognized. Muggs bent over the wheel
and gritted his teeth as he heard the expressions passed by
pedestrians, and the young man beside him looked straight ahead as if
seeing nothing and hearing nothing.

“When you goin’ to get the Black Star?”

“What’s Black Star payin’ you to hold off, Verbeck?”

“That crook’s too much for you, ain’t he?”

“Well, well—so he hasn’t caught you again?”

Those were samples of the remarks being passed, and they made Muggs
want to get from the roadster and fight his way into the midst of the
mob. Muggs knew better than any one else how Verbeck, since the
memorable day when the Black Star had dared the young millionaire to
capture him, had tried every means in his power to get hands on the
master criminal.

The Black Star had written again to Roger Verbeck, saying that he and
his man Muggs would be abducted by the Black Star’s men, taken to the
master crook’s new headquarters, for which they had been searching in
vain, and from there taken to the scene of a big crime. They would be
forced to stand by under guard and watch the crime committed, and then
they would be treated to shots from the vapor gun the Black Star and
his men used, and left unconscious on the spot—laughingstocks for the
public.

That letter had been sent to the newspapers three weeks before, and as
yet the Black Star had not abducted Roger Verbeck and Muggs. The
criminal, in another letter to the papers, insisted that this was not
because he had not had an opportunity to effect the abduction, but
because preparations had not been completed for the next big crime.

So now, as Verbeck’s roadster waited at the corner, those who
recognized the car and its occupants enjoyed a few moments of
sarcastic abuse. It was nothing to the general public that Verbeck had
spent time and money in an effort to capture the master criminal after
the police had failed, that he had risked his life half a score of
times, and once even had been accused of belonging to the Black Star’s
band himself.

The unthinking public looked only at results—and there had been none.
Muggs and Verbeck and the few thinkers in the city knew well that, if
the Black Star was caught, these thoughtless ones would be the first
to praise Verbeck loudly; but in the meantime the sarcasm was highly
unpleasant.

After a time the traffic cop turned and raised a hand, and Muggs
growled again and threw in the clutch and piloted the heavy car across
the street and down the broad avenue. They were out of the congested
district within a few minutes, and speeding along a boulevard that led
to a section of the city where large and modern apartment houses were
to be found.

Half a block behind Verbeck’s roadster a man trailed on a motor cycle,
seemingly paying no attention to the car ahead, but in reality keeping
close watch on it. A short distance behind the motor cycle trailed a
runabout with one man in it. The runabout was a small car, but a
mechanician could have told after a second glance that it was a
powerful one. The man in the runabout was watching both the motor
cycle and Verbeck’s car.

A short distance behind the runabout was a lightweight truck. Behind
the wheel of the truck was a young man, who appeared eager to get home
after an overtime delay in making deliveries. He wore greasy overalls
and jumper, and a slouch hat pulled well down over his eyes. The
collar of the jumper was turned up to keep out the drizzle.

Thus the procession moved along the broad boulevard, and, after a
time, Verbeck’s roadster drew up at the curb in front of an imposing
apartment house. Muggs remained behind the wheel, but the man he had
been driving got out and hurried into the building. It was natural
that he did so, for on the ground floor lived his fiancée. The threat
of abduction, it appeared, did not keep Roger Verbeck from paying his
customary visits to his sweetheart.

The man on the motor cycle pulled in at the curb on the opposite side
of the street, dismounted, and appeared to be tinkering with his
machine. The runabout passed him, and its driver bent out and spoke a
few words as it passed, the motor cyclist nodding in reply. Then the
runabout went around the next corner, where it stopped, its driver
getting out and walking slowly back up the boulevard, like a belated
laborer on his way home.

The light truck did not pass Verbeck’s car. It turned into an alley
and pulled up behind a garage there. Its driver got out and walked
quickly back to the mouth of the alley, and there he peered around the
corner of a high fence and down the boulevard. He noticed that the
motor cyclist had left his machine and crossed the street and was
approaching Verbeck’s roadster. He saw the man who had been driving
the runabout walking slowly from the other direction.

The driver of the truck chuckled lightly to himself and remained at
the mouth of the alley in the shadows, watching.



CHAPTER XXVI—A MAN OF MYSTERY


Muggs, crouched down behind the wheel, watched the fine rain beat
against the wind shield of the roadster, and hoped he would not have
to remain in that position of inaction for long.

He observed a man approaching along the sidewalk, a man who glanced at
the apartment houses as if seeking a certain one. Directly opposite
the roadster this man stopped, looked around for an instant, and then
hurried over to Muggs.

“Know where the Albemarle Apartments might be?” he asked.

“They might be almost any place, but I’ve got an idea you’ll find them
in the middle of the next block,” Muggs replied. “It’s a big, white,
brick building.”

“Thanks,” the other growled.

He turned away—and as quickly turned back again. Reflection from the
light on the corner flashed from something he held in his hand. A
small cloud of vapor rushed at Muggs’ face. Muggs gasped, and his head
fell forward.

Instantly the other man sprang into the roadster, lifted the
unconscious form of Muggs from the driver’s seat, and placed it in the
rear seat, afterward throwing a robe over it. Then he took Muggs’
place behind the wheel, crouched forward, waiting.

The motor cyclist stopped beside the roadster at this moment.

“Got him all right?” he asked.

“Cinch! Muggs is now sleeping peacefully in the rear beneath a heavy
robe. I sure caught him off guard.”

“Well, Verbeck is the next job. He may stay in there talkin’ to his
girl half the night, and he may be out in three minutes. It’ll be a
game of wait, I guess. I’ll hang around to give help, if you need it,
and be ready to jump in as soon as you get him. You gave Muggs a heavy
shot, didn’t you?”

“I guess he’s good for half an hour in dreamland, all right.”

“Verbeck wants to get a heavy shot, too. When we get out on the river
road we can bind and gag the two of ’em. Careful now. If we miss out
on this the big boss’ll half kill us.”

“I ain’t never failed him yet, not the Bl——”

“Cut it!” the motor cyclist exclaimed. “Be gentle with that name
around these parts. This is the home of Verbeck’s fiancée, remember,
and Heaven knows what sort of cops might be posted around here. I’d
better duck now.”

He left the roadster and walked a short distance down the street,
finally coming to a stop against a wall. There he waited in the
shadows, as did the driver of the light truck at the mouth of the
alley. The truck driver had witnessed the undoing of Muggs, and had
chuckled some at it, but had made no move to interfere. Little cared
he if the Black Star’s men rendered Roger Verbeck’s chauffeur
unconscious and hurled him into the rear of the roadster!

Fifteen minutes passed. The motor cyclist left his retreat and walked
up and down the street now and then. The man in Verbeck’s car remained
crouched behind the wheel of the machine, and the truck driver at the
alley’s mouth did not change his position.

Then the front door of the apartment house was opened, and a man and
woman stood framed in it for a moment. The woman stepped back, and the
door was closed again; the man turned up the collar of his raincoat
and stepped briskly down the steps and toward the waiting roadster.

The watcher at the mouth of the alley betrayed some interest now. The
motor cyclist left his place of seclusion and walked forward slowly,
head bent as if against the force of the storm.

“Home, Muggs!”

The man who had taken Muggs’ place reached forward as he heard the
words and found the seat beside him occupied. And for the second time
that evening he turned swiftly and discharged a cloud of vapor from
the pistol he carried. For the second time also that vapor rendered a
man unconscious instantly.

“Great! Walked right into the trap!” It was the motor cyclist who
spoke. He got into the car and aided his companion in putting the
second unconscious man in the rear, under the robe. “Better let her
out now!” he went on. “We’ve got ’em both—Verbeck and Muggs. I reckon
we caught ’em off their guard. They didn’t expect to get that vapor
stuff right here on the boulevard. Great idea of the boss to always
give a man what he doesn’t expect! I guess this’ll put a crimp into
young and handsome Mr. Verbeck. Nail the boss, will he? Huh!”

The other had turned the roadster, and now it darted up the boulevard
at a speed perilously near the limit allowed by city ordinance. From
the mouth of the alley darted the light truck, and took up the
pursuit. The driver of it was chuckling again, evidently at the ease
with which the Black Star’s men had made Verbeck and Muggs captives.

The Verbeck roadster led the way up the boulevard, and, after a time,
turned into a side street. Down a long hill it dashed, with the light
truck following less than a block behind. Traffic was passing in both
directions, but the speed of roadster and truck did not diminish to
any great extent.

Now the residence district was left behind, and the two machines were
passing through the dark wholesale district. Here the truck dropped a
short distance behind, and its driver glanced around frequently to see
whether any other machine was following.

And then a railroad crossing was reached, and the roadster was forced
to stop against the gates while a long freight train was pulled slowly
by. The truck drove up and stopped behind it. The driver got down and
stepped across the sidewalk and into a cheap saloon on the corner
there. He came out again almost instantly, puffing at a cigar he had
purchased. He stood beside his truck, looking at the train, shaking
the raindrops from his coat collar. The two men in the front seats of
the roadster glanced at him, but apparently he gave them no attention.

The end of the train rattled past; the gates began to lift. The
roadster started slowly forward across the tracks. The man who had
been driving the truck gave a quick spring—and landed on the rear of
the roadster, where there was a broad bulge in the body, with an extra
wheel lashed upon it. Top and curtains were up; the men in the
roadster could not see him.

They were in the poorer part of the city now, and presently at the end
of the paved streets. Here there began a road that curved along the
river, and, after striking this road, the man driving the roadster got
all speed possible out of his machine. The other crept into the rear
end, lifted the robe, gave the two prisoners fresh shots from the
vapor gun, and then bound and gagged them.

On and on they rushed through the night, the wheels hurling mud in all
directions, the brilliant headlights cutting a path through the
darkness.

They came to a bridge, and so crossed the river. Here the man who rode
on the rear end of the car was exposed twice as it flashed under the
bridge lights, but no bridge tender observed him. It was a bad
night—the tenders merely stepped to the doors of their tiny houses,
saw that a motor car was passing, and let it go at that.

On the other side of the river, the speed of the car decreased. After
a time the machine was driven from the main road into a sort of lane.
Here the going was slower yet, for the mud was deep and the roadbed
cut into deep ruts. The car lurched from side to side in such fashion
that the man who rode behind was almost hurled off.

He could hear the men in the car talking now.

“Nearly there—better dim the headlights,” one of them was saying.

Instantly the headlights were dimmed, and in the semidarkness the car
plowed on through the mud. Now it approached an old house, from one
window of which a light flashed. The car was stopped. The man who had
been riding behind dropped off into the mud and crept through the
black night toward the fence.

One at a time, the two unconscious prisoners were taken from the
roadster, carried through a gate up a walk, and to the front door of
the old house. A bell would tinkle, the door would be opened, the
prisoner handed over. After that had been done, the roadster, with all
lights out, was turned around and left in front of the gate. Then the
men who had accomplished the abduction entered the house, and the one
light that had shone from a window was extinguished.

Now the man who had been crouching against the fence moved rapidly,
yet with extreme caution. He crept past the gate, and where a great
tree threw its branches over the fence he vaulted over. Standing
against the trunk of the tree, he waited for a time in silence,
listening intently for some noise that would tell of a human being
near. He heard nothing but the moaning of the wind, the beating of the
river against the shore, the soft patter of the rain on the leaves.

He crept forward again, a few feet at a time, and finally reached the
side of the house. He listened near a window, but could hear nothing.
He found the window fastened, went on to another, and found that
locked also.

Now he sensed something near him, but it seemed to be animal rather
than human. His hand dived into a pocket and came out with one of the
Black Star’s vapor guns. With his back against the side of the house,
he listened and waited.

He was sure now that he could hear breathing. Then he made out two
eyes glaring at him in the darkness. Those eyes seemed to flicker for
an instant, and in that instant the man lurched quickly to one side.

A body fell against him; he heard a snarl. He sank to his knees,
grasped a hairy throat, discharged the vapor gun, and felt the body
relax. His hands worked swiftly in the darkness on a mission of
exploration. He was chuckling again as he got upon his feet. So the
Black Star did not depend wholly on human beings to guard him—he had
trained dogs!

Should there be another dog, he might sound an alarm before the vapor
gun got in its work. The prowler knew that, and so he hesitated no
longer, but hurried around the end of the house. Here he found a
cellar window unlocked. A moment later he was inside the house.

He had an electric torch in a pocket, but feared to flash it here.
Again he listened for a time, and then felt his way around the wall,
and so came to a flight of steps. Up these he crept, to find a locked
door at the top.

Once more he listened, and seemed to hear voices coming from a
distance. He reached in another pocket, drew forth a key of peculiar
shape, and worked at the lock of the door for some time. On the other
side a key fell out with a clatter. He waited fully a minute, scarcely
daring to breathe, but decided at the end of that time that the noise
made by the falling key had not been heard.

Now he turned the knob, and presently opened the door half an inch.
Bit by bit he threw it back, and finally stepped into the room. He
closed the door behind him as carefully as he had opened it, and even
searched and found the key and locked the door again. Hurrying
noiselessly across the room, he entered another, and finally passed
into a narrow hallway. He carried the vapor gun in one hand now and
his electric torch in the other. At any instant, he knew, discovery
might come. Some place in that hall a door might be opened, and light
flood it. He was liable to stumble against one of the Black Star’s men
in the darkness.

When he reached the other end of the hall he stopped to listen again.
Once more he heard voices coming as if from a distance, and decided
that they came from some room on the second floor. He was bold enough
to flash his torch once now, and discovered a rear staircase. To this
he made his way, and up it, and into a hallway on the second floor.

Now he felt that he was on more dangerous ground. He could hear the
voices plainly, and could locate the room from which they came. Toward
the front of the hall a thin streak of light streamed from beneath a
door.

He managed to slip into the room adjoining that from which the light
came. After listening for some time there, he flashed his torch again.
The room was large, bare, dusty. On one side were two windows, the
panes filmed with dirt. On the opposite side from which he had entered
was another door, with some old curtains hanging before it.

He crept across to this door, careful that the boards of the floor did
not creak with his steps. He bent and peered through a keyhole into
the room beyond. He did not chuckle now, for a chuckle might have
meant disaster, but he did smile, and the expression on his face was
one of lively satisfaction. He had arrived at an opportune moment.

Caution remained with him, however. He hurried back across the room
and locked the door with the key from his pocket. Then he journeyed to
one of the windows and made sure that it was unlocked and that from it
a man easily could drop to the ground. That done, he went back to the
keyhole again and bent down to watch.

As he took up his position a deep voice came from the other room, a
voice that seemed to be issuing orders in a tone that meant the
speaker generally had his orders obeyed instantly.

“All ready now! Bring those two back to earth, and we’ll have the
show!” the voice said. “Number Ten, get out of the house and down to
the river and see that everything is prepared. It is now nine-thirty
o’clock, and we want to leave about eleven.”



CHAPTER XXVII—IN BLACK STAR’S HANDS


The man who peered through the keyhole saw a large room, furnished
lavishly. The furniture was massive and antique; the rugs on the floor
were valuable; tapestries of rare worth were there; cut glass was on a
heavy buffet at one side of the room; an antique lamp standing near
the center of the room shed an uncertain yellow light that made some
things look grotesque and others fantastic.

At the end of a long table and beside this lamp stood the Black Star,
his robe and hood and mask in place and the star of flaming jet
flashing on the hood. Behind him was the blackboard upon which he
wrote orders to those of his band not enough trusted to hear his
voice. To one side were six members of the band, each dressed in black
robe and mask.

On two chairs a short distance in front of him, their hands and feet
bound and their mouths gagged, were the two prisoners of the roadster.
As the man of mystery watched, one of the Black Star’s followers
approached the chairs, and for an instant he held a small sponge
beneath the nostrils of each of the two men.

He stepped back near the others. A moment passed, and then Muggs
groaned and opened his eyes. Those eyes seemed to flash fire when he
took in the scene.

“Well, my dear Muggs, here we are again,” the Black Star said,
laughing a little. “You regain consciousness a second sooner than Mr.
Verbeck, as I have noticed before. That, I presume, is because you are
a tougher specimen of humanity.”

“You—you——” Muggs stammered.

“What’s this? Your gag has slipped? That is well, for I was about to
have it removed, anyway. So you can talk, eh?”

Muggs waved his head from side to side and caused the gag to slip
again.

“I’d talk to you with my fists if I had th’ chance!” Muggs said.

“There you go again—always violence! I have wondered many times how
Mr. Verbeck can put up with you. Ah, Mr. Verbeck is in the land of the
conscious again, I perceive!”

Muggs turned his head and looked at the man beside him. Then he faced
the Black Star again.

“Them ropes on his arms are too tight and that gag’s chokin’ him,”
Muggs complained. “You treat me rough if you want, but you treat my
boss decent or I’ll have somethin’ to say to you some time.”

“You scarcely are in a position to threaten just now, Mr. Muggs,” the
Black Star replied, laughing. “However, Muggs, it is not my intention
to cause Mr. Verbeck any great degree of physical discomfort. Mental
discomfort, of course, is another thing.”

He made a motion, and one of his men hurried forward and removed the
gag. He looked at the ropes, too, but shook his head as he regained
his former position at the Black Star’s left.

“There, Muggs, are you satisfied?” the Black Star asked. “Your beloved
master has had his gag removed, and may talk or shriek to his heart’s
content. My man indicates, however, that the ropes are all right. You
cannot tempt me, Muggs. Once, or twice before you and Mr. Verbeck were
able to unfasten your bonds. I want nothing like that to happen
to-night.”

He walked around the end of the table and toward the two prisoners,
and he laughed aloud as he looked down upon them.

“Well, Roger Verbeck, here is the Black Star’s new headquarters,” he
said. “You often have wished to see the place, I believe, so take a
look. You still think you can match wits with the Black Star, eh? I
have done as I threatened. I have had you and Muggs abducted, and I am
going to take you along to-night when we do our little trick, and then
leave you unconscious on the spot for the city to laugh at. Aren’t you
about ready to admit that the Black Star is too crafty for you?”

“Scarcely,” came the reply in a firm voice.

“Why, my men tell me it was like kidnapping babies to get you and
Muggs to-night. It really was a shame to do it. So you are going to
continue your efforts to capture me, eh?”

“I am—certainly!”

“Um! Your voice almost has the note of fear in it. You do not seem as
sure as you did the last time I had the pleasure of entertaining you
for a few minutes.”

“A few minutes is right!” Muggs put in. “You’ve got your dirty hands
on us three times now, but you’ve never kept us longer than a few
minutes. And you’ll not keep us to-night——”

“I fear you err, my dear Muggs. I am taking no chances with you or
your precious master to-night. As I live, Mr. Verbeck, your face
appears changed. Your cheeks are somewhat thinner. That comes, I
suppose, from living in continual fear of me. Let me see! Um! It has
been about three weeks since I informed you of my intention to abduct
you and make you a laughingstock again. You’ve been worrying about it
all that time, eh? Been fearing to sleep or eat or ride abroad? Small
wonder your face is thinner and your voice expresses fatigue.”

“He’s been off his feed!” Muggs blurted out. “And he’s had a bad cold.
You needn’t think me, or my boss, either, would let anything you said
throw a scare into us!”

“Indeed? Had a bad cold, eh? I truly am sorry I did not give you this
little entertainment when you were in good physical condition. But
everything is prepared, Mr. Verbeck, and also you neglected to inform
me you had a cold and wanted to discontinue this fight until you were
better.”

The Black Star laughed again as at a good joke, and Muggs growled
imprecations deep down in his throat, but the other man merely looked
the Black Star straight in the eyes and remained silent.

“I trust you understand the program, Mr. Verbeck,” the master criminal
went on, his laugh at an end. “It has been about six months since you
made your foolish boast that you could capture me. You should know by
this time that it is an impossibility. However, you have had some
excellent fun trying it, and I have enjoyed the battle immensely. But
now it must end. It is getting to be a bore.”

“Really?”

“Exactly. You’re a sportsman, I believe. I’ll make a deal with you. If
Roger Verbeck does not capture the Black Star within the next
twenty-four hours, after being right here and seeing the Black Star’s
headquarters, and being taken by the Black Star to the scene of
to-night’s crime—then Roger Verbeck gives his word of honor that he’ll
stop his feeble attempt and not bother the Black Star more.”

“Roger Verbeck does nothing of the sort!”

“Still determined, eh? Very well. Then, Mr. Verbeck, we are going to
take you and your man Muggs with us. We’re going to give you a dose
from a vapor gun and leave you where the crime is committed, as I said
we’d do. We’ll give the alarm ourselves and have the police find you
two there unconscious. Then let the public laugh! I fancy you’ll hear
a howl go up for you to be ordered off the case. I’d not be surprised
if you were hounded out of this town, which has been your home all
your life.”

“I think not.”

“Which shall you do—make the deal I proposed or be made a public
laughingstock again?”

“I make no deals with a crook!”

“And what’s more, you’re wastin’ your breath,” Muggs put in. “You
leave my boss alone! He’s about half sick. He’s said a hundred times
that you’ll get too fresh some day. Some day you’ll overlook a bet,
make a mistake, and then he’ll get you. And I’ll be right there, I
hope when the gettin’s got!”

“You are a very boisterous man, Muggs,” the master criminal said.
“You’d be very vicious, I imagine, under some circumstances. Please do
not be so violent. I abhor violence.”

“You’re right; you’ll abhor it if I ever get my hands on you proper!”
Muggs exclaimed.

The Black Star brought the palms of his hands together sharply.

“Enough of this chatter!” he commanded. “We have scant time before
leaving here for the scene of the evening’s festivities. You have
decided, Mr. Verbeck, to be made a laughingstock! Very well!”

“And where is this to take place?” came the question.

“Ah! Roger Verbeck thinks I fear to tell him in advance, does he? Why,
sir, I’ll even tell you every detail of the proposed crime, if you
wish. You are most certainly my prisoner, and cannot warn the police,
and, could you, it would avail those stupid police nothing. One could
steal the buttons off their uniforms and they’d not know it until the
next day.”

“I’m listening!”

“Such impatience!” the Black Star exclaimed. “Attend me closely, then,
Mr. Verbeck—you also, Muggs. Little good it’ll do you! It is my
intention to-night to reap a harvest of some three hundred thousand
dollars in money and securities. Quite ambitious—that? Merely an
ordinary task for the Black Star, I assure you.”

“You’re th’ original shrinkin’ onion!” Muggs declared.

“Silence, please, while I explain. The money and securities I
mentioned are in the vaults of the National Trust Company. Those
vaults are impregnable, it is said. This is a joke, of course. With us
it will be as easy to get that fortune as it would be to purchase a
new cravat.”

“You’re some modest violet!” said Muggs.

“Keep quiet, Muggs, and hear the plans,” the Black Star said, his eyes
glittering through his mask. “Within the past two months there has
been formed in the city a new lodge called the Knights of Certainty.
When one understands things that title is rather a good joke. Many
good men have heard of the order and wondered why some one did not ask
them to join, I presume. The membership was strictly limited. Members
of my own band form the lodge.”

“And you’re the supreme boss crook!” Muggs said.

“Another remark, Muggs, and you get the vapor gun. Mr. Verbeck, you’d
better warn your man to remain silent!” The Black Star evidently was
getting angry.

Muggs turned his head and found his fellow prisoner indicating that he
was to be quiet. Muggs obeyed.

“It would be a difficult task to get into a meeting of the Knights of
Certainty,” the Black Star went on. “We’re mighty particular who sees
things. I may mention that, from the moment we hired our hall and put
in furniture, the room has been under close guard, one of our own men
even doing the janitor work. This hall is on the third floor of the
American Building, adjoining the National Trust Company. We have been
making our preparations nightly, of course, working from our hall.
Some excellent carpenter and mechanical work has been done, and now,
when we wish, we have merely to pass through a wall to a stairway and
then make our way over a trail we have prepared to the vaults of the
bank and loot them.

“Everything is prepared, I assure you. At this moment my men are in
the uniforms of the watchmen, and doing their work. There will be no
one to molest us. The vault locks have been fixed so that a few turns
of the knobs will unlock them, and yet an expert would swear that time
locks and other protections are in perfect working order. It has taken
us some time to get this state of affairs prepared, but the reward
will be well worth our trouble. The bank received a heavy gold
shipment two weeks ago. Negotiable securities are piled in the vaults.
The bank, in addition, always carries a heavy cash balance, for it has
numerous branches and small affiliated banks. Yes—I fancy we will be
well repaid for the work we have put on it.”

“If you get the stuff!” said Muggs.

The Black Star whirled toward him, and one of his men stepped forward,
but the master criminal decided to let the remark pass. He walked to
the head of the table and glanced at his watch.

“We start in half an hour,” he said. “Number Six, go down to the river
and inform Number Ten to be ready to get away instantly.”

Once more he faced his prisoners.

“How do you like my new headquarters?” he asked. “Only a few chosen
and trusted men of mine come here. This is a ramshackle old house, but
I have three rooms fixed up comfortably. And there are things of value
in it, believe me! I find it advisable to dispose of loot slowly. I’d
hate to flood the market and lower prices.”

He laughed again, and once more turned toward his men. For a moment he
conversed with them in whispers, ignoring his prisoners. A bell
tinkled presently; the Black Star touched a button on the end of the
table, and a few seconds later the man who had been sent away
returned.

“Everything ready, chief,” he reported in a low tone.

“Ah! Number Four, telephone Main 5782, ask for Gregg, and say that Mr.
Stewart will have four cases of eggs to-morrow. That will tell those
at the other end that we are starting.”

The man designated moved swiftly across the room to the telephone and
sent the message. The Black Star waved a hand, and another man
approached the two prisoners, a vapor gun in his hand. They twisted
and turned in their bonds, but the gun did its work; the Black Star
laughed again as their heads fell forward.

“Clever Mr. Verbeck and clever Mr. Muggs,” he said. “Their attempts to
capture me are childish, to say the least. Get ready now, for we must
be off.”

The men removed their robes and masks and put on overcoats and soft
hats. The Black Star took off his robe, but his hood and mask remained
in place, and the overcoat he donned had a wide collar that, when
turned up, effectually hid his face. No one, without looking at him
squarely under a bright light, could have seen the mask.

The master criminal waved his hand, and his men picked up the two
unconscious prisoners. He led the way, and they followed, and the last
man out turned off the light. Their steps sounded in the front
hallway, the door latch clicked—they were gone.

The man who had been watching all this through the keyhole chuckled
aloud now, and presently he opened the door with his key and slipped
into the headquarters room.

There he stood for some minutes to listen, for he wanted to be sure
that he was alone in the house, and then he crossed the room to the
telephone, took down the receiver, and called a number in a soft
voice.

The number was that of police headquarters.



CHAPTER XXVIII—THE POLICE LAUNCH


Down on the bank of the river a speedy launch was concealed under
overhanging trees. Two men were waiting in it when the Black Star, his
other followers, and the two prisoners arrived. The prisoners, still
bound, were stretched on a robe in the bottom, the Black Star and his
men got aboard, and the launch slipped almost noiselessly out into the
stream and started down it toward the city.

The craft showed its lights properly, but it kept away from all other
vessels, and the men aboard crouched down low and spoke in whispers.
In time the two prisoners groaned and opened their eyes, the effect of
the vapor having worn off, and at a sign from the Black Star one of
his men inspected bonds and gags and made sure that they were secure.
The Black Star did not want any slip this night with a fortune at
stake.

“Your attitude this evening puzzles me, Mr. Verbeck,” the master
criminal whispered in a sarcastic tone. “You do not seem to be your
usual self. Three or four times now I have had you as prisoner, and we
have exchanged some conversation, and while I cannot say that I know
you well, yet you do not seem the Verbeck of old. Apparently you have
given up the fight; you are passive. Been worrying, eh? Afraid I’ll
abduct your fiancée, as I almost did once, and through her force you
to join my band? Stop your silly attempt to capture me, Verbeck, and
your worry will end. No? Very well, then!”

Muggs gurgled behind his gag at this baiting of his comrade, and the
Black Star laughed at his ineffectual attempt to speak and at the
angry glint in his eyes.

“Nor do you seem to be up to standard, my dear Muggs,” he went on. “I
am disgusted with you this evening. Here you have been in my power for
a couple of hours, and have not made a violent move. Generally you
manage to slip your ropes by some clever means. Losing your fighting
spirit, are you?”

Muggs gurgled again, and the Black Star laughed softly and turned
away.

“We do not go into a wharf,” he told his men. “We will take no chances
of the police being informed and in wait for us. We stop at a certain
place and transfer to touring cars. Get those fantastic robes from the
locker and dress Verbeck and Muggs in them. We’ll mask them, too, and
so, when we reach the city, if any one gets inquisitive we are merely
initiating two gentlemen into the Knights of Certainty.”

They were halfway to the city now, and his men began carrying out his
orders. Suddenly the engineer of the launch growled something, shut
off the power, cut out all the lights, and let the craft drift.

“Police launch!” he hissed over his shoulder.

Up the river and directly at them rushed a high-powered craft that was
hurling back the water from her bows. Her searchlight was sweeping the
river. The Black Star growled orders, his men stretched beside him on
the bottom, and the engineer hurled quantities of sacks over them.
Then he snapped on the lights again and started the launch forward
slowly, for he would be able to escape suspicion that way better than
if discovered by the searchlight and found to be drifting without
lights burning.

For a moment the searchlight rested on the launch, which continued on
its course. The police craft swung in and headed directly for it. A
hail came across the water. The launch was slowed down and the police
boat stopped almost alongside.

“Who are you, and where are you going?” an officer demanded.

“This is the launch _Speedy_,” the engineer replied. “I’m runnin’ to
th’ fish market with a load o’ sacks. What’s th’ matter?”

“Seen any other launch?” the officer demanded.

“Nope!”

“How far have you come?”

“From the mouth o’ th’ river. Good fishin’ there now.”

“I’ll come aboard and look you over,” the officer said.

The police boat started slowly and swung nearer. In that instant the
Black Star’s engineer acted. He threw on the power and dropped, for
the wheel was locked. The screw churned the water and hurled a great
wave at the police boat.

Behind, the men in the police boat were shouting, and a fusillade of
revolver shots spattered around the Black Star’s craft. But the police
found themselves at a disadvantage. The Black Star’s launch was
swifter, and the police boat was headed the wrong way and had to be
turned. While the turn was being accomplished, the firing continued,
and the searchlight kept the prey in sight but that prey was gradually
putting distance between itself and the boat behind.

The Black Star’s boat was a hundred yards in the lead by the time the
police launch had straightened out and taken up the chase in earnest.
The grim race was on, with the police firing at times, and the
searchlight always playing on the vessel ahead. The Black Star had
crawled from beneath the sacks now, and was directing operations.

“All the speed you have, and get around the bend,” he ordered. “We can
leave the boat and take to the touring cars. We’ll be lost in the city
before they can telephone headquarters or get cars and trail us!”

The bend in the stream was not far ahead now, and the master criminal
issued further orders. The two prisoners were treated to shots from
the vapor gun again. The siren of the launch shrieked a message to the
men ahead waiting with the touring cars.

Around the bend—and the launch dashed for the shore. As it was
reached, the police boat came into view, its searchlight trying to
pick up the quarry. The Black Star and his men tumbled out, carrying
the prisoners. From the road a short distance away came the honking of
an automobile horn.

Then the searchlight struck them, and the police launch turned and
headed for the shore. More flashes of flame split the darkness, and
bullets whined through the trees and underbrush.

But the Black Star and his men were in the dense woods now and
hurrying along a narrow path that led to the road. They reached the
two waiting motor cars and tumbled in, and the automobiles started
toward the city.

The police were just leaving their boat and rushing into the woods,
flashing their pocket torches, their revolvers held ready, calling to
one another. They reached the road in time to hear the roaring of two
motors and to see two cars disappearing down the highway. They wasted
another fusillade of shots, and then hurried back toward the boat.



CHAPTER XXIX—BLACK STAR TAKES A TRICK


The Black Star rode in the first car with his two prisoners and three
of his trusted men, and the others followed in the second car as close
as safety would permit.

Both chauffeurs got all the speed possible out of the machines they
drove. The police had been left behind for the time being, but there
was danger of them getting to a telephone in some way and sending an
alarm to headquarters. If the Black Star’s autos were headed off as
they were entering the city, disaster might follow. If they could gain
the city’s streets and separate, undoubtedly their chances for getting
to the lodge hall unobserved would be excellent.

The Black Star was not worrying about the police. He deemed it a
coincidence that the launch had run upon him. He believed the officers
had been looking for river thieves, and that they would continue to
look for them. He did not think for a moment that the police in the
launch were looking for the Black Star and members of his band. How
could that be possible? How could the police know that this was the
night the Black Star had chosen for a crime and that he would be
coming up the river in a launch?

“We’ll be at th’ bridge in a few minutes,” the master criminal’s
chauffeur warned.

“The road curves up to the bridge,” the Black Star replied. “I do not
think it possible that word could have been sent ahead, but it is well
to be prepared. Slow down as you reach the curve and shut off your
lights. The car behind will do the same. We’ll stop this side of the
curve and investigate.”

On dashed the cars, and presently the Black Star’s chauffeur decreased
his speed, forcing the chauffeur behind to do the same. The lights of
the two cars went out; they rolled along the road with scarcely any
noise, and presently came to a stop.

Here the road ran close to the river, and by getting from the car and
walking a hundred feet the master criminal could look down at the
bridge. He took one of his men with him and went to make his
investigation. He saw at a glance what was happening.

The police, it was evident, had reached a telephone. The bridge at the
moment was swinging open. And when it was open it remained so, though
there was no boat in sight to make the passage through. And, as the
master criminal watched, he saw the police launch darting up the
river. Its searchlight flashed upon the bridge, and its siren
bellowed. It turned toward the shore and touched. The police sprang
out and ran up the bank. The Black Star could see them reach the floor
of the bridge and run along it to the tender’s shanty. Then they
scattered, hiding among girders and along the bridge approach.

“Um! Very clever!” the Black Star said to his man. “There is only the
one road, too. We drive at a furious pace on to the bridge; we see the
draw open, and we stop—and the clever police spring out and make us
all prisoners. Very clever—except that I anticipated it.”

“Maybe we could turn around and get back to our launch,” his man
suggested.

“Fool! In the first place, we’d lose valuable time, and then, when we
did come up the river, we’d have to clash with the police boat again.
Also, my brainy friend, if our launch is where we left it, you may be
sure there is a police guard there waiting for us to return. If you
happen to have any brains, try to use them.”

The Black Star’s man gulped and kept silent.

“Go back to the cars and have all the men come here, bringing Muggs
and Verbeck,” the master criminal ordered.

The man obeyed; within two minutes all were grouped around the Black
Star, and the unconscious prisoners were on the ground at the foot of
a tree. The Black Star explained their predicament.

“You chauffeurs, get back in the cars, turn on the lights, and drive
on to the bridge,” he instructed. “When the police question you,
simply say you have been out to that road house on the river bank
earlier this evening—which will be true—and not finding fares there,
or prospects of any, are on your way back to the city. Admit you heard
firing back on the road, and saw men rushing through the trees. Say
you didn’t stop because you were afraid of being held up—there have
been several automobile holdups in that vicinity recently. And argue
with the police as long as possible, while we do our part.”

The chauffeurs hurried away. They ran some risk, they knew. They might
be put under arrest, but they had little fear of that. Both held
licenses as public chauffeurs, and they had established the road-house
alibi on the master criminal’s orders. And, if held, the Black Star
would see that they were bailed out—and then they’d simply jump their
bail.

“We’re going through that bridge and to the city, and we’re going in
the police launch,” the Black Star told the others. “That’ll be rather
rubbing it in, but the police deserve it. I’ll write a letter to the
papers afterward, telling just how we did it. There is only one man in
the launch. We must seize it and make a quick get-away. Run under the
bridge and straight up the river. We’ll desert the police boat a short
distance down the stream. I’ve arranged for two taxicabs to be there.
I wasn’t exactly sure where it would be best to leave our own launch,
and I always prepare for emergencies.”

He led the way through the brush on the bank of the river. They had
but a short distance to go, and they were directly opposite the police
boat and about a hundred feet from it when they heard the two
automobiles run up on the bridge and stop at the command of a
policeman.

The Black Star was a wise general; he did not send all his men forward
at once. Had he done that, the engineer of the launch would have been
suspicious and instantly sounded an alarm. The master criminal
selected one man, and had him walk boldly through the brush and down
to the launch. In the semidarkness the engineer of the launch would
believe him to be one of the plain-clothes men returning with orders.

The Black Star’s man was within a dozen feet of the boat before the
engineer was aware of his approach, for he was busy with the
searchlight. He turned when he heard the man splashing through the mud
at the edge of the river, and before he could ask a question he
received a shot from a vapor gun and collapsed in the bottom of the
boat, unconscious.

The searchlight had been playing on the bridge approach. The Black
Star’s man swerved it aside for a moment, and then back into position,
thus notifying his master that his work had been accomplished.

Down through the brush crept the Black Star and his men, carrying
their two prisoners. They reached the launch and boarded it, and the
master criminal’s engineer hurried to his machinery. The police
engineer had been tossed out on the shore.

But the escape was not to be made without trouble. There was a captain
in charge of the police squad who thought quickly. When the two empty
automobiles reached the bridge, and the questioning of the chauffeurs
began, this captain ordered half his men to return to the launch and
go back up the river to look for traces of their quarry. They broke
through the brush just as the launch’s engineer was put on the shore.

The mere sight of men aboard the launch was enough to tell the police
what had occurred. They charged forward, shooting wildly and yelling
alarms to their companions up on the bridge. Bullets smashed into the
sides of the craft as it backed slowly away from the shore. The
engineer was doing his best, but he could not turn and put on speed
until safely away from the shallows.

It was a perilous moment for the Black Star and his men. The criminals
returned the fire, but made no attempt to hit their targets, for the
master crook’s orders always stood against inflicting wounds or
causing death, unless it was absolutely necessary. Crouching in the
bottom of the launch, they waited for the engineer to back out into
the stream. More police were hurrying down from the bridge, and soon
would be firing at the launch. And they would be able to keep up their
volleys until the launch was some distance away, endangering the Black
Star and his men and prisoners every moment of the time.

But the master criminal, it appeared, though he pretended to abhor all
violence, was no physical coward. He sprang to his feet, away from the
protection of the bulwarks, and jumped forward to the searchlight.
While bullets rained around him he reached the light and turned it. It
flashed straight into the faces of the foes on the shore, blinding
them at that short range, making them easy targets, and rendering them
incapable of aiming at the men on the launch.

Some continued firing in the path of light; others sprang for cover in
the brush, expecting the men on the boat to fire a volley. The laugh
of the Black Star rang out; he continued playing the light on them.
The launch was out in the stream now and turning; a moment later the
engineer gave her the maximum amount of speed, and she dashed beneath
the bridge and toward the city.

“Too bad our prisoners could not have been conscious and enjoyed this
little battle,” he told his men. “Really, Muggs and Verbeck are not in
the thick of it at all to-night. Generally they cause a part of the
trouble, but to-night all our trouble has come from others.”

He chuckled as if well pleased with himself.

“Some joke this—stealing the enemy’s boat,” he observed.



CHAPTER XXX—MUGGS IN ACTION


For fifteen minutes they ran in silence, and then the Black Star went
forward and stood beside the engineer.

“Put in at the alley between National and Washington Streets,” he
ordered. “Out with your lights, and make as little noise as possible.
The two taxicabs should be waiting at the end of the alley. Get ready,
men, and pick up Verbeck and Muggs. We don’t want to lose any more
time—we’ve lost enough already.”

He was not chuckling now; he spoke in a stern voice, and his men knew
that the Black Star was thinking only of the big-planned crime now, of
getting the money and securities from the vault of the National Trust
Company and removing the fortune to his headquarters. Then the band
would scatter as usual, and in the morning the police would discover
that the lodge hall of the Knights of Certainty had been a crooks’
workshop and the robbery made possible because of it—but they would
make the discovery too late, as usual.

They would find little black stars pasted in the lodge hall and on the
vaults, and none of the members of the Knights of Certainty would be
seen again. The Black Star and his men would leave behind a couple of
hundred dollars’ worth of furniture—and take away between two and
three hundred thousand in coin and negotiable securities. And the next
blow perhaps would be struck in a different section of the city and at
an unexpected moment, as usual.

The lights of the launch went out, and her speed was cut down until
she scarcely crept through the water. Closer and closer she slipped to
the shore, inside the shadows of large warehouses. She passed the end
of a street, went in closer, and came finally to the alley. Silently
the men lashed her to piling there.

The two taxicabs were waiting, and the transfer to them took but a few
minutes. With curtains up, they crept to the mouth of the alley,
turned into a street, and sped along it toward the business district.
There was nothing unusual in the appearance of the taxicabs. A score
of police officers would have glanced at them once, and then turned
away. Repeatedly they were held up at crossings by the theater and
café crowds passing. They were caught in traffic jams, but their
chauffeurs puffed at cigarettes and waited nonchalantly until they
could go ahead.

They reached the front of the building where the Knights of Certainty
had their hall, but did not stop there. They went into the alley and
pulled up at a little side door. One of the men got out, rapped on the
door, and gave a password when a slot in it was opened. The Black Star
and his men got out, glanced around, carried their prisoners from the
cabs, and went into the building. The door was closed again; the two
taxicabs drove away.

An elevator made two trips to the third floor, and the Black Star and
his men entered the lodge hall. Guards took up the positions that had
been assigned to them. The doors were bolted securely; the windows had
been fitted with opaque glass and heavy curtains.

“Well, here we are,” the Black Star said. “Mask, gentlemen! Now bring
our prisoners back to life, and we’ll let them see how easy it is to
take money.”

While his orders were being obeyed the master criminal went to one of
the walls and pressed against a certain spot there. A section of the
wall swung out, and in the aperture a masked man stood.

“Everything all right?” the Black Star asked.

“All safe, sir,” came the reply.

“The watchmen——”

“Not a hitch there, sir; they are all unconscious and our men in their
places. We have reported regular for four hours, and not a suspicion
at headquarters or they’d have investigated before this. The patrolman
on the beat even looked in at a window once and waved at our man on
the first floor.”

“Excellent!” the Black Star said, rubbing his hands in satisfaction.

He walked back to the end of the room. His prisoners were revived now
and had been placed side by side in chairs before one of the curtained
windows in the rear of the hall.

“Ah, Mr. Verbeck and Mr. Muggs!” the master criminal smirked. “You are
conscious again, then? ’Twas a pity you didn’t see the little fight we
had with the police. I’d tell you all about it, but we haven’t the
time to spare, and you can read about it in to-morrow’s papers. Well,
here you are in the hall of the Knights of Certainty. You see the
aperture in the wall? My mechanics have arranged a passageway between
the walls of the two buildings. We have a sort of glorified
dumb-waiter, and by its use can descend to the first floor of the
National Trust Company’s building. Simple, eh? I regret I cannot
explain the method we are going to use to get into the burglar-proof
vaults. Did it become public property, the manufacturers might invent
some means of counteracting it. Kindly sit still, gentlemen, while I
have my men prepare the way.”

He deliberately turned his back and walked to the center of the hall
again and called his men to him, all except the guards near the doors.
He issued instructions, and two men hurried to the aperture in the
wall and disappeared. The Black Star was the commanding general now,
and his followers were eager to obey.

For fifteen minutes perhaps he paced the floor, glancing at his
prisoners now and then, and often stopping to issue some whispered
instruction. Then one of the men he had sent below returned.

“All ready, sir,” he reported.

“The vaults are opened?” the Black Star asked.

“Yes, sir, and every strong box. All you have to do is take out the
swag, sir.”

“The suit cases are there and ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Two of you carry Mr. Verbeck to the dumb-waiter, and we’ll descend
with him,” the master criminal commanded. “Sorry I cannot take you at
the same time, my dear Muggs, but the capacity of our dumb-waiter is
limited. I’ll have you taken below before we are through, though. In
the meantime, sit calmly on your chair.”

He laughed as he turned toward the aperture in the wall, laughed again
as two of his men carried the bound and gagged prisoner as if he had
been a log of wood, and chuckled as he saw the anger flashing in
Muggs’ eyes. The Black Star, his helpless prisoner, and his two men
disappeared, and the aperture in the wall was closed.

Those who remained glanced at Muggs, but did not approach him, and
made no offer to taunt him. They left that to the Black Star. All
except the guards at the two doors and one who peered through a slit
in the curtain at a front window, gathered in the middle of the room
and spoke in whispers.

Muggs tugged at his bonds for the hundredth time, and realized that he
had been bound well. There was no hope of slipping from these ropes.
Here was no broken glass upon which he could saw the ropes, as Roger
Verbeck had done once. Nor could he manage to get his fingers into a
hip pocket and extract a knife that opened with a touch of the thumb
and cut his bonds with that as he had done once before when in the
Black Star’s hands. Back at the master criminal’s headquarters he had
been searched and his knife taken from him.

He racked his brain for an idea that would lead to release, and could
think of none. On the first floor of the adjoining building, he
guessed, the Black Star and his men were filling suit cases with the
wealth of the National Trust Company, and a helpless and raging
prisoner was being forced to watch the crime and endure the taunts of
the Black Star at the same time. If only he could be free and have a
good automatic in his hand——

He glanced at the Black Star’s men again; they were not even looking
in his direction; they knew well, he supposed, that he could not make
a move. He could only sit in the chair against the curtained rear
window and look straight ahead, absolutely helpless.

He imagined that he could hear a slight noise outside the window, but
it was not repeated. If he could have seen, he would have noticed that
the point of a sharp knife pierced the heavy curtain directly behind
him, and where none in the room could see. Working slowly, cutting an
inch at a time, that knife made a slit half a foot long.

Then Muggs heard the slightest suggestion of a whisper.

“Muggs! We’re here to help, but must move carefully. I’m going to cut
your ropes and slip you a gun. Hold your arms tight so the ropes won’t
fall away until you’re ready. Steady now!”

Muggs might have shrieked his happiness had not the gag prevented. He
didn’t pretend to know the owner of the voice, and he didn’t care
much, so that it was a friend. One thing he did know—it was not the
voice of Roger Verbeck. And it was not the voice of old Detective
Riley, who had helped Muggs and Verbeck several times in their effort
to take the Black Star. It was a strange voice, but welcome for all
that.

Muggs felt a knife sawing at the ropes that bound his wrists together
behind him. He caught the ends as the ropes were severed, and held
them so that they would not drop away and alarm the Black Star’s men
before his feet were free.

The knife was working on the ropes that bound his feet now. It was
slow and tedious work, and at times the knife was still. Finally Muggs
felt the last rope give, and he heard the whisper again.

“I’m going to slip you an automatic. Stick ’em all up and hold ’em
while we break in behind you. If we make a false move we’ll lose. Is
the Black Star still below? Wiggle your fingers if he is.”

Muggs wiggled his fingers by way of answer, and almost immediately he
felt the butt of an automatic pressed against his palm.

“Now!” the voice whispered.

None of the criminals were facing Muggs. He stretched his arms and
legs once to restore circulation, and then sprang from his chair.

“Hands up!” he shrieked, and leveled the automatic.

Every man in the room whirled to face him at that command. One reached
for a weapon, and Muggs shot over his head. Behind him the window was
shattered, and there was a sudden commotion as half a dozen uniformed
policemen, a lieutenant at their head, tumbled into the lodge hall
with guns held ready.

“Keep ’em up!” the lieutenant warned.

Another of the Black Star’s men reached for a gun, and the sergeant
dropped him. Another darted quickly across the room, and the bullet
that went in his direction missed its mark. He reached the wall—and
the light switch.

The lights went out.



CHAPTER XXXI—IN THE BANK


The forces were about even, and these men of the Black Star’s
organization whom he had taken into his inner circle, and, in a
measure, into his confidence could be expected to put up a brave fight
to save themselves and their master from capture or death. They knew
how the public regarded the Black Star and his band; they knew what a
jury would do to any one of them who stood in the prisoner’s dock, and
that the judge would give the limit of imprisonment to any declared
guilty.

So, as the lights went out, there came a scattered volley from the
criminals, who had darted to different parts of the lodge hall. Muggs
and most of the policemen, however, anticipating that volley, had
thrown themselves flat on the floor, and they fired at the flashes and
changed their positions quickly.

Again volleys were exchanged, and shrieks of pain told that some of
the bullets had found human marks. The lieutenant was bellowing his
commands, urging his men to guard doors and windows. In the darkness
it was impossible to tell policeman from criminal, and both sides
ceased firing.

There came a rush, and some of the Black Star’s men reached the door
that opened into the hall and threw it open. They were met by a stream
of light from the corridor, and saw more policemen standing there
awaiting them, their weapons held ready; there was no escape that way.

The light made it possible for the police to shoot again, and two of
the criminals went to the floor badly wounded. Others ran to the front
windows, but there was no way of escape there, for it was three
stories to the ground; nor could they reach the rear windows and fire
escape, for the police were on guard there.

They were cornered in the lodge hall, and knew it. To each of them
came the thought that prison was better than death—for no murder was
charged against the Black Star’s band. And they had faith in their
master and his organization—arrest did not mean prison necessarily.

“Throw down them guns, or take it!” the lieutenant commanded.

One of the Black Star’s lieutenants groaned, threw down his gun, and
put up his hands. Then the others followed his example. They couldn’t
understand how the police happened to be there—the Black Star had
almost always managed to lead them astray before. They began wondering
how it fared with the Black Star and the others on the floor below.

“Once too often this gang has tried to put over something!” the
lieutenant said as his men snapped handcuffs on the crestfallen
criminals. “We’ve got you this time, and you’ll do a long stretch
each.”

“We was only holdin’ a meetin’,” one of the men replied.

“Yeh? I know all about that meetin’. Masks on your faces, and the
Black Star and some more down in the bank, and Muggs bound and gagged
in a chair—and you was only holdin’ a meetin’. Down to the wagon you
go now, and straight to the hoosgow!”

Muggs was not listening to this tirade of the lieutenant’s. No sooner
had he seen that the battle was over than he had raced across the hall
to the wall where the Black Star had touched a hidden button and
caused an aperture to show there. He pressed the wall frantically, but
with no result. He covered every square inch of it near where he had
seen the Black Star put his hand, but no opening appeared.

“Needn’t waste time there, Muggs, if you want to get to that Verbeck
man of yours,” he heard the sergeant saying. “There’s some trick about
it, of course, or it wouldn’t belong to the Black Star. We were
outside the window on the fire escape, and saw him open that, and
heard what he said. So we’ll just guard this end here, in case they
should open it and try to come up. The lower floor is guarded, too,
and they’ll be mixing things there in a minute; they’re waitin’ until
Black Star gets his hands on some money and stuff. We want to get him
with the goods, see? Men all around the block, too—a mouse couldn’t
get away. We’ve got him this time!”

“How’d you know?” Muggs demanded.

“Don’t ask me! Some tip to the chief—and it sure was a correct tip.
Two thirds of the night relief is scattered around this block right
now. Here’s where we clean up. By George, I’m sorry you and Verbeck
didn’t do it!”

“Didn’t we?” Muggs snarled.

“You wouldn’t have done much, I guess, bound and gagged the way you
were—just been left here for another joke. Nope! The police get the
credit for this—the police and whoever tipped this off. One of the
Black Star’s men did it, I suppose—some one that was sore at him for
something.”

“Guess again!” Muggs snarled. He didn’t fancy this belittling of Roger
Verbeck by a lieutenant of police.

He turned and hurried across the hall and into the corridor, and sped
down the stairs. He wanted to get around to the other side of the
block and see what was transpiring in the National Trust Company’s
building. He had forgotten the fantastic robe in which the Black Star
had dressed him, and the laughter of one of the policemen in the hall
brought it to mind. Muggs tore the robe off and growled his
imprecations, and ran on as the policeman laughed again.

At the entrance to the building an officer held him up with leveled
weapon, not being sure of his identity. Muggs lost time until another
lieutenant appeared who knew him and ordered his release. He reached
the street, sprinted for the corner, darted around it, and reached the
front of the bank.

Everything seemed quiet there. Half a dozen policemen were standing on
the sidewalk, and there seemed no commotion inside.

“Why don’t you get in? Why don’t you do something?” Muggs wanted to
know. “Standin’ here like dummies that ain’t got——”

“Easy there, man!” one of them replied. “We’re doin’ something, all
right. You just wait here with us until we get the signal.”

“Wait nuthin’!” Muggs exclaimed. “I’m goin’——”

“Wait, Muggs! We know the Black Star is in there and what he’s doing,
and we know he’s got Verbeck in there. Take it easy—we’ve got it
planned and we’ll get him with the goods.”

“You’ll let him get away with half of what’s in the vaults, that’s
what you’ll do!” Muggs stormed. “I’ve seen that gent work before. You
just let me get in there! I’ve got a score or two to settle with him!”

“You’ll have to wait——”

He was interrupted by the blast of a whistle. Instantly the officers
were active. They sprang to the big double doors of the bank and
crashed them open and tumbled inside. Others who came running took up
their stations outside to watch every exit. Muggs was the second man
through the front door.

It was dark inside, save where some light came through the windows
from the street. The police flashed their torches and charged through
the main room and into the office section. They tumbled over low
partitions and scrambled over tables and desks and chairs, working
their way back of the cages toward the vaults.

There had been officers stationed inside the building before the Black
Star and his men arrived to begin operations, and they were in the
front of the charge. It had been the chief of police who had given the
signal on the whistle. Through a glass partition he had watched
proceedings until what he judged was the right moment to act. He was
eager to catch the master criminal with loot in his hands, to get such
evidence that there would be no possibility of a mistrial or
acquittal.

There was the sound of crashing glass as the partitions went down.
There was a loud command for the Black Star and his men to throw up
their hands and surrender.

There came a deafening crash, and a cloud of vapor rolled toward the
police. Some inhaled it and fell; others, guessing what it meant,
tried to hold breath until it passed, though it half blinded them and
made their eyes smart and torrents of tears run from them.

Over the noise and confusion rang the mocking laugh of the Black Star.
Through the gas cloud they could see him retreating, shielding himself
with the body of his bound and gagged prisoner. Three men who
retreated before him carried two heavy suit cases between them.

Shots rang out, but none fell. Those of the police who had not been
rendered unconscious by the gas bomb charged again. They saw the Black
Star back into a little side corridor, saw him hesitate a moment by
the wall, put his hand against it, and saw an opening appear.

Through this opening his men darted. He stepped into it himself, still
using his prisoner as a shield. Then the opening closed.

“We’ve got him—got him!” the chief cried. “Our men are watching the
top of that between-the-walls business he built, and we are watching
the bottom. He can’t get out. He’ll give up or he’ll stay there and
starve. And if he doesn’t give up mighty quick we’ll go in after him.”

Muggs grasped the chief by the arm and opened his mouth to speak, but
the chief was quicker.

“I know, Muggs,” he said. “The scoundrel’s got Verbeck in there. But
we’ll get ’em—and I don’t think he’ll hurt Verbeck.”



CHAPTER XXXII—A NARROW ESCAPE


When the Black Star had entered the aperture in the lodge hall, and
the panel closed behind him, he flashed his electric torch around the
interior of a space about five feet long and three wide.

“Notice our ingenuity, Mr. Verbeck,” he said. “Here we have
constructed, as I remarked, a sort of dumb-waiter between the walls of
the two buildings. It took considerable time, and great care was
necessary, but the job will be profitable for all that. Every bit of
material had to be smuggled into the lodge hall, but we did it without
the stupid police suspecting anything was wrong.

“I am sorry that I cannot remove your mask and gag and discuss this
bit of work with you, but you might shriek and call down our foes.
Kindly give me your close attention now. You see this small cable
running through the corner? I pull on it like this—similar to the
old-fashioned elevators, you see. And down we go!”

The little box arrangement crept downward slowly as the Black Star
chuckled his satisfaction. There was not the slightest noise; the
holes even had been greased so the cable would slip through silently.
Inch by inch the box descended. It was insufferably hot, and the air
was bad. None spoke a word until the descent of the box stopped, and
then the Black Star turned to his prisoner again.

“We are at the bottom,” he said. “You see this small button here? It
is connected with an electric light signal that we installed, and when
I press it a certain number of times it conveys a meaning to one of my
men in the bank. The little bulb light, I assure you, is cunningly
hidden. You see, I am prepared for everything, Mr. Verbeck. Perhaps
that is why I am so successful.”

He reached out and pressed the button. There was a wait of half a
minute, and then a green bulb glowed in the top of the box.

“Ah, the coast is clear!” the Black Star said. “We are about to take a
fortune in money and securities from the strongest bank in the city,
Mr. Verbeck, from a bank that boasts its vaults cannot be opened by
burglars.”

The Black Star chuckled again, and then pressed against the wall. An
opening showed before them, and one of the Black Star’s men stood just
outside, masked.

“All ready, sir,” he reported. “The suit cases are on a table before
the vault’s door and you have only to open that door and step inside.”

“The watchmen are on duty?”

“In front on the two upper floors, sir, and in the rear on this floor
at this time. He has to punch his report box there in ten minutes.”

“Guard the corridor, then. I want only the three men with me in the
vault room. Should there be trouble, use the back exit, and leave this
for me and those working with me.”

He stepped out as he ceased speaking, and the men behind him carried
the prisoner between them as they had on the floor above. They were in
a narrow side corridor that ran from the offices to an alley
entrance—an entrance used by directors when they attended a meeting,
and by bank officials when they desired to get out of the building
without seeing some undesirable.

Along this narrow corridor they walked slowly, bending low when they
came to a place where light came through the windows from the street.
They opened a door and passed through an office, opened another door,
and were in the vault room.

“Put Mr. Verbeck in that chair at the end of the table and facing the
door of the vault,” the Black Star whispered to his men. “I want him
to have the privilege of watching operations. Then, when we are done,
we’ll pin a nice little note to his breast, put him to sleep, go away,
and telephone the stupid police to come here and find him. And then
the public can have a laugh.”

His men obeyed him, and the Black Star turned to the door of the
vault. He chuckled again as he reached a hand forward, grasped the
handle, and swung the heavy door open. He looked back at his prisoner
and waved a hand in derision, and then stepped into the vault.

The others could see his torch flash, and presently he came out.

“A very good haul, I imagine,” he announced, and began piling packages
of bank notes into one of the suit cases. “I am gathering the big
bills—haven’t time to bother with such things as fives and tens at
first. Perhaps, if we have time, I’ll take a few packages for the men.
Now for some more.”

Six trips he made into the vault, and each time he came out with his
arms filled with bundles of bank notes, which he put into the suit
case. On the seventh trip he carried two bags of gold coins and put
one in the first suit case and locked it, and then threw the second
sack in a corner of the second suit case.

Securities were the next things he went after. He filled the second
suit case with bonds, even stopping to flash his torch over them and
discard those of small value or such as would not be easily
negotiable.

“You see how simple it is, Mr. Verbeck, when a man with brains plans
things?” he asked. “Quite a bit of wealth here, what? More than many
ordinary men would earn during their lifetimes. And I take it as an
evening’s diversion, after some weeks of preparation, of course, and
make it, instead of a lifetime’s work, only one bit of work out of
many good ones. I am going to make one more trip. I have heard of a
certain diamond necklace that is kept in this vault, and I want it, if
it can be found quickly. If I do not get it to-night I’ll have to rob
this place again, and I have made it a rule heretofore never to strike
twice in the same place.”

Even his own men marveled at the man’s composure. Here he was robbing
the strongest financial institution in the city, entering a vault
considered impregnable, and without showing the slightest nervousness.
Apparently he was in no great hurry to get away. He might have been a
man in his own home, showing his friends treasures taken from a
private safe.

Then came the sound of a distant shot, the sound of breaking glass, a
man’s shriek. The Black Star hurried from the vault and stood
listening, and the faint light from the street showed that there was
some concern in his countenance. One of the watchmen came running in
from the corridor.

“The red signal!” he exclaimed. “The signal from the lodge hall!”

“Quietly, quietly, my man,” the master criminal said. “Nothing ever is
gained by getting into a sweat when quick thinking is necessary. Give
the signal and go out the rear way—all of you.”

“But you, sir?”

“I’ll take care of myself—go! Undoubtedly those fools upstairs are
frightened at nothing.”

But a fusillade of shots from the lodge hall above gave the lie to his
words.

“Something appears to be wrong,” he said. “I suppose we may as well
get out of here and into our between-the-walls box. Pick up the suit
cases, men. I am sure I don’t imagine what has happened. There is no
way in which the police could have been informed. If you were not my
prisoner now, Mr. Verbeck—but you are, and so is Muggs. I was going to
bring Muggs down here and leave him with you, but he’ll have to miss
this share of the fun, I think. One moment, Mr. Verbeck, until I
decorate your breast with a sarcastic note.”

He reached in his pocket and brought forth the note he had prepared,
and stepped toward the prisoner, reaching to his lapel for a pin.

“We’d better hurry,” one of his men suggested.

“Are you afraid, when I am here beside you?” the Black Star demanded.
“Such a man has no place in an organization like mine.”

“I’m afraid for you, sir—that’s all.”

“Your solicitude for my welfare overwhelms me. Start on, my man, and
I’ll be with you almost instantly.”

The three men started toward the door with the suit cases. The Black
Star bent forward to pin the note on the breast of the man before him.
And then the chief’s whistle came.

With the crashing in of the front door of the bank, the Black Star was
a changed man. He grasped his prisoner by the shoulders, jerked him
from the chair, and dragged him across the room to the office door.
Through the offices police poured in upon him. His hand dived into his
pocket, and came forth, holding a round object about the size of a
tennis ball. He hurled it on the floor in front of the advancing foes.

There was a roar as the bomb struck, a hiss as the cloud of vapor
spread. The Black Star laughed mockingly, and backed toward the wall,
shielding himself behind his helpless prisoner’s body. He touched the
wall, and the opening appeared. He went in, still carrying his
prisoner, and in the little box he laughed again, aloud, and tugged at
the cable.

“Quite a bit of excitement, Mr. Verbeck,” he observed. “But here we
are, safe and sound, and with the suit cases filled with loot. Now I
wonder what brought those police down upon us. I suppose I’ll have to
go through my organization and ask a few questions. And if there is
such a thing as a traitor—ha!”

He tugged at the cable again, and the box ascended.

“Listen to the poor fools pounding on the wall!” he exclaimed. “They
will have difficulty, I imagine, finding how that opening is caused.
You notice, my dear Mr. Verbeck, that when I opened it either above or
below, I press the wall with my hand. That is merely a trick, should
some one be observing too closely. As I do that, I touch the real
spring with the toe of my shoe. Men can press with their hands all day
and not find it.”



CHAPTER XXXIII—PUZZLED POLICE


As he ceased speaking, the Black Star turned suddenly and gave his
prisoner a shot from the vapor gun. His own men evidently had guessed
what was coming, for they turned their faces away, and each held a
small sponge to his nostrils, for in that close space the vapor seemed
twice as heavy.

“Quick, now!” the master criminal instructed his men. “I don’t know
how it happens that the police came down on us, but they’re here, and
I suppose the block is surrounded. We can’t go up, and we can’t go
down—yet. The men upstairs must have been overcome, since the fighting
has stopped, and the bank is full of police. So we’ll try the halfway
station.”

He tugged at the cable, and the car stopped. He flashed his torch on
the wall, and then pulled the cable again and forced the car to ascend
as slowly as possible, while he looked closely at the wall.

“Here’s the scratch we made,” he said finally, and stopped the box. He
pressed against the wall, and a new aperture showed. “In with you,” he
instructed, “and don’t forget the loot.”

The three men stepped past him and into a tiny room that had been
constructed between the walls, halfway from the first floor to the
third. The Black Star followed, turned to tug at the cable and send
the box on to the top of the shaft, and then closed the opening and
turned to face his three men and his unconscious prisoner.

“Here we are!” he said. “Speak in whispers now, and we’ll be all
right. We have some ventilation here, and you may smoke if you wish.
This little room was connected with an airshaft in the building,
you’ll remember. You see what forethought does? I had this constructed
just for such an emergency. The percentage of chance was against it
ever being needed, but I thought it better to take no chance, and you
see what it has meant. That is why I always win. I prepare for every
possible contingency.”

The police, at that moment, were trying it. Down below, the chief was
ordering his men to hammer through the wall, since they were unable to
find the spring that released the panel. Those above had been
unsuccessful in their search for the spring, too, and both above and
below officers were smashing at the wall with axes, trying to cut
their way through.

Down in the bank, Muggs was raging.

“I knew you’d let him get away!” he cried. “I knew it!”

“We’ve got him trapped,” the chief answered.

“How do you know it? Ain’t you got some respect for the Black Star’s
schemes by this time?”

“We’ll get him—you’re worrying about Verbeck, that’s all. I don’t
think he’ll hurt your boss.”

“The Black Star’ll get out some way!”

“Take it easy, Muggs,” the chief advised. “We’ve got the entire block
surrounded. Every door and window is being watched. Why, I’ve even got
men watching the sewer connections. Not a rat could get out of this
block without being seen and caught.”

“Yeh? We had him surrounded in a house once out on the river, and
didn’t he get to the roof and streak it away in an aëroplane?”

“Well, you may be sure he hasn’t any plane on the roof of this
building, Muggs. He couldn’t have driven it here and landed—he’d have
been smashed to bits, and, besides, some one would have heard or seen
him. An aëroplane makes a noise. And he didn’t have any on the roof at
supper time, because one of the watchmen we found bound and gagged
lives up there, and he just told me he’d seen nothing suspicious.
We’ve got him in a trap, I tell you.”

The wall crashed in, and the men fell back, half expecting to face a
fight with the Black Star and his men. But their torches showed them a
dark shaft running up between the walls and a cable in one corner of
it, and that was all.

They cleared away the debris. Up in the lodge hall the other policemen
smashed through the wall, too, and sent a shower of bricks and plaster
down. Through the shaft they held conversation with those below.

“That box business is up here, chief, but she’s empty,” one of the men
called.

“What’s that—empty?”

“Not a sign of anybody in it or anything. It was at the top of the
shaft.”

The chief sputtered a moment in impotent rage, and then shouted his
orders up the shaft.

“Two or three of you get into that blamed thing and come down, and you
examine the walls every inch of the way. Keep your torches going and
have your guns ready. I tell you they’ve got to be in the shaft
somewhere!”

Then he stepped back and waited. The cable moved, and by glancing into
the shaft the chief and his men could see that the box was descending
slowly. The chief turned to send a captain outside to warn the men who
surrounded the block that closer watch was to be kept.

“They’re in this block—and they can’t get out without being nabbed!”
he declared.

And then the box struck the bottom of the shaft, and with a sigh of
relief a lieutenant and two men crawled out.

“Not a thing!” he reported. “We examined every foot of the walls, and
there isn’t a crack nor a hole a mouse could get through. The top of
the shaft is solid wall, and so is the bottom. The Black Star and
three of his men went in there and took Verbeck with them, and they’ve
gone up in smoke or something!”

“You’re a fool!” the chief retorted.

He got in the box himself with two men, and went up and came down
again, and confessed himself bewildered. Reports came in from the
streets that not a person had left the block. The Black Star and the
others, it seemed, had melted into thin air and drifted out and away.

The Black Star at that moment was chuckling softly and assuring
himself that his prisoner was not regaining consciousness. He had used
the vapor gun in the box before reaching this hole in the wall,
because he didn’t want his prisoner to know where he had been. For the
Black Star intended having his little joke.

He and his three men had held their sides to keep from laughing aloud
as the police went up and down the shaft, so close to them at times
that they could hear the muttered curses of the officers.

“The entrance to this little room was the best job of all,” he said.
“They could look right at it and not see it, and, if they did see it,
they couldn’t get in.”

“But we’re due for quite a rest here,” one of his men complained.

“Don’t get nervous,” the master criminal warned. “We are due to get
out of here before daylight, and don’t you forget that. Don’t think
that I intend to stay here all day to-morrow, waiting for to-morrow
night. If we did we might find that the stupid police had sealed up
the bottom and top of the shaft. That’d be lovely, wouldn’t it?”

He chuckled again as his three men shuddered at the thought of being
interred alive. He went to the wall and pressed against it, and the
panel slid back three or four inches. Leaning forward carefully, the
Black Star glanced down.

He could see the flashes of the police torches at the bottom of the
shaft, and he could hear Muggs and the chief in a lively argument.
Glancing up, he saw the flash of a torch at the top. He reached out,
knowing that his hand could not be seen unless several torches were
flashed down the shaft at the same time, and pulled at the cable. The
box began to ascend.

It was halfway to the hole in the wall before the chief noticed it,
and then, thinking the men above were raising it, he shouted for them
to lower it again. While they conversed by shrieks and yells, the
Black Star brought the box opposite the sliding panel and gripped the
cable there.

The men below and the men above tugged at the cable, but the box
remained in place. The Black Star, still chuckling, took pencil and
paper from his pocket and scribbled a note, and pinned it to the
breast of the unconscious man before him. Then he tumbled his prisoner
into the box.

“Go down to your friend, the chief, and mystify him, my dear Mr.
Verbeck,” the Black Star said. “You have not indulged in much action
this evening. I trust the chief will unbind you, and that when you
regain consciousness you’ll join in the chase.”

He chuckled again, tugged at the cable, and sent the box downward, and
then closed the panel and sat down beside his men.

“Listen now, and you’ll hear a roar!” he exclaimed.

“But how are we goin’ to get out, sir?” one of the crooks asked.

“Don’t worry about that. What time is it?”

The man flashed a torch and glanced at his watch.

“It’s almost two o’clock.”

“Ha! Then we’d better get out of here within the hour. It’ll be
daylight by four-thirty, and I want to be back at headquarters before
then. You know how I am going, of course.”

“I know how you’ll go if you get out of here,” the man replied.
“Getting out of here is what is worrying me.”

“Don’t worry—it causes gray hairs. Listen!”

They could hear a commotion at the bottom of the shaft. The box had
reached its destination, and the bound, gagged, and unconscious man
had been seen and taken out.

“It’s Verbeck!” the chief cried. “He’s doped, or something!”

“Vapor gun!” Muggs explained.

“Then they’ve sent him back to us. But where did he come from? Answer
me that! He didn’t come from the top, and there’s no place between
here and the top where he could come from. Unbind him, you men, and
take that gag off. Maybe he can tell us something when he gets rid of
that vapor dope. What’s this—a note?”

One of the men held his torch, and the chief read it swiftly:

  Dear Chief: Here is Roger Verbeck safe and sound. Since you
  don’t seem able to make very much war against me, perhaps you’ll
  revive Verbeck and let him get into the game. I’ve kept him
  pretty quiet to-night. I’m sending him to you out of the sky, my
  dear chief, you might say. At least, you don’t know where I am
  sending him from, and cannot find out. I don’t know how you got
  on my trail so swiftly to-night, but it didn’t save the bank
  from losing a vast sum, and didn’t help you much, did it?

                                *****

“If I ever get my two hands on that man he’ll never live to stand
trial!” the chief promised. “Verbeck conscious yet? We’ve got to look
into this business. I tell you the Black Star’s somewhere in this
building. He’s somewhere in that shaft——”

“But he can’t be,” a lieutenant protested. “There isn’t a place in the
shaft where a man could leave the box.”

“Nevertheless——”

“Verbeck’s come to!” one of the men cried.

They knelt beside him, aided him to sit up, tried to get him to talk.
They shot questions at him as bullets come from a machine gun, and he
waved them away.

“Where did they take you, Verbeck?” the chief demanded.

“I—don’t know. I’ve been unconscious——”

“All the time?”

“They did it—just after the box started up. That’s the last I
knew—until now.”

“They’re in that shaft!” the chief cried. “I’m going up again to see!”



CHAPTER XXXIV—WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CHIEF


The head of the police department, knowing that a crowd surrounded the
block now, and that news had gone abroad that the Black Star and some
of his men had been cornered, and that certain newspaper reporters
were standing by and waiting to see whether the police would be made
again to look like fools, grew frantic. Also, his determination to
capture the Black Star increased. He had his men drive every one out
of the bank building and guard the offices and corridors, and, leaving
four men to guard the bottom of the shaft, with two others, he got in
the box and started to ascend.

The Black Star, from his post above, heard the chief issue these
orders, and knew the box was on its upward journey.

“Couldn’t be better,” he told his men. “Only four at the bottom of the
shaft now. You know we have to go, of course? Hurry through the
corridor to the narrow flight of stairs in the rear, and climb!”

“But——” one of his men began.

“Silence, fool. The box is almost opposite us!”

The chief and his two men were ascending slowly, examining every inch
of the walls with their torches. They stopped for a moment just
outside the panel, but evidently saw nothing to make them suspicious,
for the box continued its ascent.

It went on until it was at the top, and there the chief held a
consultation with his men, and examined the lodge hall’s walls, making
certain by questioning the men on guard that it would have been
impossible for the Black Star and his men to have passed through the
room without being seen.

Then the disgusted and sorely angry chief got into the box with his
two officers again and started to descend, more puzzled than before.

The Black Star heard the descent begin, and growled orders to his
three followers. He touched the wall and slipped the panel back three
inches, and thus he waited, one hand ready to close the aperture
instantly, the other holding a vapor gun. Below him one of his men
stretched out on the floor and made ready to grip the cable when the
master criminal gave the word.

The box continued to descend. The chief was speaking of the futility
of examining the walls again. He was going to double the guard around
the block, he declared, and wait for daylight, and go through the
buildings inch by inch until he found the Black Star. The master
criminal’s men, all but the three with him, had been accounted for,
and now were in cells at police headquarters, he was saying.

The Black Star hissed a warning to the man on the floor. The box came
directly opposite the aperture in the wall. The man on the floor
gripped the cable and stopped it, and as he did so the Black Star’s
vapor gun worked. Three times he pressed the trigger, filling the box
with stupefying gas. The chief was the first to topple forward; the
other two were unconscious almost instantly.

The Black Star and his men staggered backward, holding the little
sponges to their nostrils. The air cleared, and then the master crook
opened the panel to its greatest extent, and hauled the chief of
police and his two men inside the little room.

“Lively now,” the Black Star commanded. “Only four men at the bottom,
remember, and there are three of us. I’ll hurl a vapor bomb as soon as
we get to the bottom, and you be ready with your guns. I’ll take one
of those suit cases. Number Ten, you take the other. And you, Number
Six, make sure of at least two of the men at the bottom, if you can.”

They got into the box and started it downward, leaving the chief and
his two men in the halfway room. They mumbled a conversation so that
the men below would hear it and think nothing was wrong.

Foot by foot they drew nearer the bottom of the shaft. Finally the box
jarred and stopped.

A bomb crashed at the feet of the four men standing less than half a
dozen paces away; the cloud of vapor surged at them as the Black Star
and his three men sprang out. Vapor guns flashed—and the four
criminals rushed through the narrow corridor toward the rear stairs.

They had not hoped to get away without an uproar being raised, and
they did not. Two of the four guards shrieked as they fell, and other
policemen came running from the front of the bank. They arrived in
time to see their comrades falling and to see four dusky shapes
running down the corridor. Their revolvers spoke, and the Black Star
and his men once more found themselves in the midst of a leaden hail.
As they got to the bottom of the stairs one of the men stumbled and
fell, coughing because of the wound he had received.

The Black Star and the other two had no time to stop. It was an axiom
of the master criminal’s organization that every man should care for
himself in such an emergency. “Get away with the loot!” was the motto.
A man arrested would be bailed out or aided to escape from prison by
the organization, if possible—but the others of the organization were
waiting to share the loot and could not be denied for the sake of a
single man.

So the three ran on, springing up the stairs two at a time, reaching
the second floor and going on to the third. Behind them came the
determined pursuit. Outside in the streets other officers heard the
commotion, and prepared for a dash on the part of the crooks. The
Black Star hurled another vapor bomb, and checked the pursuit for a
moment, but not for long.

They were on the fourth floor now, and they could tell by the sounds
that officers were rushing up the broad stairs in front. The Black
Star was glad that the elevators were not running. Had they been, he
could have made a swifter get-away, but also the pursuit would have
been closer.

Now they were panting because of their exertion, but did not slacken
their pace. The fifth floor was reached, and half a dozen policemen
dashed down a hallway at them. Once more there came a fusillade of
bullets—and another of the Black Star’s men fell. There remained only
himself and one other now—but they kept hold of the two suit cases
filled with loot.

The top floor was above them, and they reached it only by hurling two
more vapor bombs. They rushed along a hallway toward the front of the
building now. They came to where a curving iron stairway led to the
roof, and up this they rushed, exposed to the shots of the police as
they came into view.

The Black Star threw his last bomb. The man behind him staggered and
fell, but was upon his feet again instantly. He gasped that he had not
been wounded, had only tripped on the edge of a step. They reached the
little door at the top, threw it open, and dashed out on the roof. The
door was slammed behind them, bolted, and barred. The bars constituted
another of the Black Star’s preparations against emergencies—his men
had affixed them the last thing that evening.

On the other side the police crashed against the little door, fired
into it, and then realized that it was a metal, fireproof door, and
proof against their bullets. It was another case where axes would be
necessary.

It took several minutes to send word down and get axes from below, and
then the assault on the door began. They took turns working at it, for
this was no easy task. Finally the hinges gave a trifle, and they
redoubled their blows, while others behind them got ready to give
battle. The word spread below rapidly—the Black Star and one of his
men were on the roof, trapped. They would be prisoners or dead soon
now. If the police could not get at them through the door, then the
fire department would be called, ladders would be raised, and they
would be reached that way.

The door gave again; some of the police cheered. With revolvers held
ready, they waited for the blow that would hurl the door to the roof
and let them through.

The door crashed—and a roaring filled their ears. A gust of wind swept
back against them. Something dark showed against the sky. They heard a
mocking laugh.

“His aëroplane, curse him!” a sergeant cried in anger. “There he
goes!”

Again they heard the laugh. They fired in the air, knowing as they did
that their target already was beyond reach. The beating of the
aëroplane’s engine grew fainter.

The sergeant stepped to the flagpole at the corner of the roof and
took from it a bit of paper that had been fastened there. He read it,
then put it in his pocket to give his chief. And this is what he read:

  Farewell, gentlemen. You gave me a run for my money to-night,
  battered up some good men of mine, and took others prisoner, but
  I have triumphed in the end.

  Perhaps you wonder how the aëroplane happened to be here on the
  roof, where it could not possibly have landed, though it can
  take off from here. Why, it was carried up from the lodge hall
  in sections to-night after the building watchmen had been
  disposed of and my men took charge, and expert mechanics worked
  hard to assemble it. I had not expected to use it, but found it
  necessary. It was another emergency for which I was prepared.
  Always prepare for emergencies and never make mistakes, and you
  may be successful, like me.

  By the way, I am getting away with quite a fortune, and with the
  place filled with police. Tell that to the papers, and give my
  respects to Roger Verbeck and Muggs.

                                *****

“Got away—got away with th’ goods,” the sergeant muttered. “Oh,
heavens! What will th’ public say to this? They’ll clean out the
department from the chief to th’ office boy!”



CHAPTER XXXV—AN UNEXPECTED BLOW


The Black Star took his aëroplane to an altitude of three thousand
feet, circled over the city, and finally started down the river. He
gave all his attention to the machine, and did not even glance at the
man who sat beside him. Far below were the lights of the city where he
had stolen so many fortunes in money and jewels the past six months,
the city he had terrorized, at whose police he had scoffed, and the
home of Roger Verbeck, the young millionaire clubman who had sworn to
capture him.

Well, Verbeck had not captured him, he thought. He had made the young
clubman a laughingstock more than once. He had made his efforts appear
childlike and foolish, and so he was satisfied. For he would have to
leave this particular city now, he knew. His last two adventures had
almost resulted in his downfall. In them he had lost many men,
including his most trusted lieutenants. The man beside him really was
the only one left whom he could trust.

He could afford to retire for a time, and that was what he would do,
he decided. He had ample funds. He would call the remainder of his
band together in a couple of days, at some new headquarters—for he had
a feeling that the present one was dangerous after to-night—give them
their share of the money on hand, and then pack up and get out.

War-ridden Europe did not appeal to him now, but there was Japan and
China and the South Seas. He’d spend a year or so touring around,
taking life easy, enjoying himself, spending his money, and gloating
over some of the magnificent jewels that the band had stolen and which
he had claimed in his share of loot.

When the country had begun to forget the Black Star he’d reappear in
some other city, organize his band again, and start his depredations
anew.

It took the Black Star only a few minutes to decide this. Having
decided it, he felt better. He looked down at the river, and failed to
see any craft.

“I’ll go to headquarters,” the Black Star told his man. “You go on
with the plane and hide it in the usual place back in the woods, and
then get into town. I’ll send you word in the usual way within a
couple of days where to have the men come for their share. I’m going
to give up the present headquarters, for it’ll be dangerous after
to-night, I am afraid. I’ll pack up and get out by noon to-morrow.”

“Verbeck’s roadster is near the front gate,” the man reminded him.

“That’s right—got to get that out of the way before daylight. You go
ahead with the plane, though. I’ll get the suit cases in the house,
and then run the roadster up the road and drive it into the river off
the cliff.”

He turned the plane toward the shore and descended slowly. On reaching
the ground the master criminal tossed the suit cases overboard, then
sprang out himself.

“Good night,” he said.

“Good night, sir.”

The plane, with its engine roaring, took the air. The Black Star
picked up the heavy suit cases and started for the road.

After all, he was thinking, it would be a relief to get away and give
up his dangerous occupation for a time. He hated to admit it even to
himself, but to-night’s business had shaken him. He had almost felt
fear, especially when he had been cornered in the halfway room.

But he had succeeded. He had made a last big haul. He was safe
now—there remained only to leave the headquarters, meet the men, and
distribute some money, and then quit the city for the West and China
and the South Seas. Crime didn’t pay, eh? Well—he had made it pay!

He decided that he’d send a last sarcastic note to the police, the
newspapers, and to Roger Verbeck, just as he left. He chuckled again
now as he thought of Verbeck. It seemed that he had been unable to get
into action to-night. How he would rage when told that the Black Star
had escaped again! How funny little Muggs would snort! How the fat
chief would fuss and fume! Yes—the Black Star had had his fun as well
as his profit!

He reached the gate and passed through it up the drive to the house.
Here he set the suit cases down on the porch and unlocked the front
door. Then he took the loot inside, struck a match, and applied it to
the wick of a lamp. A hasty glance around the room told him that
nothing had been disturbed during his absence. For a moment he stood
in the center of the room and listened and looked about. Then he put
the suit cases on a table.

He threw off hood and mask and overcoat and hat, and opened the suit
cases. Before him were the bundles of bank notes, the two bags of
gold, the packages of securities—a fortune!

He laughed lightly and went to a cupboard and got out crackers and
cheese and a can of fish. He laughed as he ate his simple meal, and
promised himself a gorgeous dinner before another twenty-four hours
had passed.

Having eaten, he put the remainder of the food away, closed the suit
cases again, lifted a trapdoor in the floor beneath a rug, and put the
loot in a hidden box there. He stretched his arms and glanced at his
watch. It would be daylight within the half hour now, and he needed
sleep. He decided that he’d retire and rise in about four hours. Four
hours of sleep would refresh him enough, he decided, for the time
being. He wanted to smuggle himself and his ill-gotten gains into the
city by noon.

Keen eyes watched his every movement through the keyhole in the door
that opened into the adjoining, unused room. The mysterious man who
had trailed the abductors there early in the evening was still in the
house. The hours had seemed doubly long—but he had waited.

He watched the Black Star carefully now. He had made sure that he had
returned to the headquarters alone, and now he was awaiting his
chance. He knew that the Black Star had a couch in the room on the
other side of the headquarters room, and would sleep there if he
decided to go to bed.

He watched him as he removed coat and vest and took off his shoes and
donned a pair of slippers. And then he crept softly across the room,
unlocked the door that led to the hall, and slipped out.

Foot by foot he made his way along the hall, and noiselessly, for he
had removed his shoes. He reached the door of the room where Black
Star slept, and crept inside and went across to the other door, and
there, crouching at one side, he waited.

The Black Star finished undressing and put on a pair of gorgeous
pajamas. Then he turned off the light and started for his couch. He
passed through the door.

And then he gasped in surprise and alarm, tottered, tried to curse,
and fell forward unconscious into the arms of the other man, a victim
of his own vapor gun.

The man who had caused his downfall laughed aloud now and ran to the
lamp to light it again. From a corner he carried ropes and bound the
unconscious man securely. He gagged him, too, and propped him up in a
chair and tied him in it with ropes.

Then he whirled toward the trapdoor beneath the rug, and managed to
get it open. He lifted out the suit cases and other boxes in which
valuables had been stored.

“Money, securities, and jewels!” he said. “I guess I’ll just take care
of these, Mr. Black Star!”

He laughed again, half in relief and half in pure joy, and then he
rushed across to the telephone. For the second time that night he
called a number—the number of police headquarters. And then he gave a
startling message.



CHAPTER XXXVI—IN CUSTODY


When the Black Star opened his eyes he saw a peculiar-looking
individual before him, scarcely half a dozen feet away, who held an
automatic pistol in his hand in a threatening manner. This individual
was dressed in greasy overalls and jumper, and had a soft hat pulled
down low over his forehead. The collar of his jumper was turned up so
that scarcely any of the face could be seen except the eyes. His hands
were dirty; his hair was black and long, and apparently needed cutting
badly.

“Well, I’ve got you, all right!” the individual growled in a hoarse
voice. “Pretty good pickin’ around these diggin’s, too. Notice the
swag I’ve got here on the table?”

He bent forward and tore the gag from the Black Star’s mouth.

“Talk, if you want to,” he offered. “Black Star, eh? Big crook, eh?”

“Who are you?” the Black Star asked.

“What do you care?”

“I am interested. Any man who can put me down and out—and I suppose
you are the one who did it—interests me strangely. So you think I am
the Black Star?”

“I know it.”

“I suppose you want to join my organization and are taking this
melodramatic way to show me you are fitted?”

“Guess again!”

“Well, what is the idea, then? I suppose you realize what you are
running up against when you tackle the Black Star?”

“I know that, all right, and I’m not scared.”

“You’re not very communicative,” said the other. “Suppose you untie me
now, and we’ll talk business. If it is money you want——”

“Why untie you when I’ve got it all right here on the table?”

“Well, what are you going to do?”

“Give you a surprise,” came the answer.

The Black Star saw the man before him straighten up suddenly. His hand
went to his hat, and the hat came off, and with it a black wig. And
then he smiled and bowed.

“Roger Verbeck!” the Black Star gasped.

“At your service, Sir Crook! I said I’d get you, and I have!”

“But—— How did you get here so soon? I saw you back at the National
Trust—as I was leaving.”

“Pardon me, my dear Mr. Black Star. You are not very observing, are
you? How many times have you seen me, spoken to me?”

“Half a dozen, I suppose.”

“But never paid particular attention to me, did you?”

“I never had a chance particularly, as I always saw you under
conditions of excitement.”

“That was one bad mistake you made. You should know me when you meet
me face to face.”

“I know that, all right, but you haven’t answered my question—how did
you get here so quickly, and alone? How did you know where my
headquarters was?”

“Naturally, since I was out to get you, I just discovered that.”

“One of my men turned traitor, I suppose.”

“Indeed, no. I did it all by my own little self, Mr. Black Star. I
said six months ago that I could get you, and you dared me to try. You
went right ahead with your crimes, and you made a fool of me on
several occasions. You always prepared for every possible emergency;
that was it. You never made a mistake. You went ahead on your thieving
way, and I told you that no criminal could be successful for always,
no matter how brainy a man, and that some day you’d make a mistake.
You’ve made one—and now you’re going to pay for it. For you’re going
to jail from here, Mr. Black Star. I’m going to see you in the
prisoner’s dock, as I swore I should. And I’m going to follow you to
the doors of the penitentiary, and see them close behind you. You have
to pay for your career of crime. Every criminal must pay! He may
succeed for a time, but in the end he pays! He can’t dodge the law of
compensation.”

“I’m not in jail yet, Mr. Verbeck.”

“You’ll be there soon. I notice you are slipping your foot along the
floor. I presume you are looking for the button that throws a trap and
opens a pit beneath where I am standing. Might as well give up. I
found that trap several hours ago and wrecked the spring. Oh, I’ve got
you this time, Mr. Black Star!”

“Several hours ago! I don’t understand.”

“You made a mistake, that’s all—a bad and a sad mistake.”

“Suppose you tell me about it.”

“In good time,” Verbeck replied. “I am waiting for some friends of
mine—Muggs and the police and some others.”

“You’ve called the police?”

“To hand you over—yes. How did you escape them to-night? I warned them
what you were going to do.”

“So that’s how they discovered it! But how could you warn them, when I
had you abducted and carried here and had you watched every minute of
the time until—— What do you mean? Explain!”

“You made a bad mistake,” Verbeck reiterated. “That explains
everything. Ah!”

Down the road a siren shrieked. Verbeck deliberately turned his back
on the Black Star, walked through the house and threw open the front
door. Two automobiles splashed through the mud and stopped near the
front gate.

“That you, Verbeck?” some one called.

“Yes. Come right on in!”

He went back and stood before his prisoner again.

“Quick, Verbeck—let me go!” the Black Star begged. “I’ll do anything
you say—let you give them back the stuff——”

“Save your breath!” Verbeck replied.

The crowd rushed in from the road. The chief and Muggs were in the
lead, and half a dozen officers, revolvers in their hands as if they
were expecting another battle, followed at their heels. They stopped
in astonishment when they saw Verbeck.

“Wha-what——” the chief cried.

“No questions!” Verbeck begged, laughing. “Here is the Black Star,
chief, and there is the loot he got to-night, and some jewels he
obtained in other robberies. See that you don’t let him get away this
time! I got him—as I said I would. And where is—— Ah!”

Another man came through the door and stood at Verbeck’s side. Every
man there except Muggs gasped in surprise, and Muggs only grinned.
Here were two Verbecks, alike except that one was an inch shorter than
the other and slightly thinner in the face.

“Here is the explanation, gentlemen,” Verbeck said. “I discovered that
the Black Star was having me shadowed night and day. The men who
shadowed had to report some time, of course. I got the idea that if I
could get some one to take my place I might shadow the Black Star’s
shadow and so find his headquarters. When he threatened three weeks
ago to abduct me and let me witness his next crime, I realized that
here was my chance. Gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to my cousin.
His father and mine married sisters—perhaps that is why we look so
much alike.”

“Your cousin!” the chief gasped.

“He has been living out West. I wrote him full details, and he came on
to help me. I smuggled him into my house and let him take my place. He
went out with Muggs, visited my fiancée in my place, went to my clubs
a bit. Only Muggs was in the secret, for I didn’t want to take a
chance of having that secret leak out. And I shadowed the shadow,
waiting for the abduction, and to-night it came. Mr. Black Star, I
came here on the rear of my own roadster, which carried your
prisoners. I put your watchdog to sleep and entered this house, and
I’ve been here since. I overheard your plans and telephoned the police
as soon as you had left.

“I wanted to be in at the death, of course, but knew I could not get
back to the city in time. And I had a suspicion that you’d escape the
police at the last minute, as you had so many times before—so I
remained here, waiting for you, and when you came I succeeded in
making you my prisoner. While you were gone I examined the house and
found many interesting things.

“In your excitement at planning and carrying out a big crime you made
a mistake, Mr. Black Star—you didn’t use your eyes, didn’t observe
closely. You took my cousin for me. That’s all. And now you must pay!
Oh, yes! I must decorate you as you have often in the past decorated
me.”

He took a bit of paper from his pocket and he pinned it to the Black
Star’s breast while the master criminal sputtered his wrath. It read:

  Mr. Black Star: Never depend on the eyes of others but use your
  own. Because Muggs drove a roadster and my cousin looks like me,
  your men took it for granted that my cousin was me, and you let
  it go at that. That was your mistake.

                                                      Roger Verbeck.

“Now, chief, take your man,” Verbeck concluded. “And don’t let him get
away this time. And you, Muggs, go out and get the roadster ready.
We’re going home! There is a telephone, chief, if you want to give the
glad news to the papers.”

Muggs turned toward the door. The adventure was over, Muggs knew. He
was no longer comrade in arms—now he was chauffeur and valet and
all-around man to Roger Verbeck—until that young gentleman should feel
the call of adventure again.

                               THE END





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