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The Object-compass At Work







From: The Skylark Of Space

Prescott, after a sleepless night, joined Seaton and Crane at breakfast.

"What do you make of it, Mr. Prescott?" asked Crane. "Seaton here thinks
it was DuQuesne, possibly acting for some foreign power, after our
flying-machine to use in war. I think it was some big industrial concern
after our power-plant. What is your opinion?"

"I haven't any," replied the great detective after a moment. "Either
guess may be true, although I am almost positive that Dr. DuQuesne had
nothing to do with it, either way. It was no ordinary burglary, that is
certain from Shiro's story. It was done by someone who had exact
information of your movements and habits. He chose a time when you were
away, probably not so much from fear of you as because it was only in
your absence that he could succeed as he did in getting all the guards
out at once where he could handle them. He was a man with one accomplice
or who worked alone, and who was almost exactly Seaton's size and build.
He was undoubtedly an expert, as he blew the safe and searched the whole
house without leaving a finger-print or any other clue, however slight,
that I can find--a thing I have never before seen done in all my
experience."

"His size should help in locating him," declared Crane. "While there are
undoubtedly thousands of men of Dick's six-feet-one and two-fifths, they
are fairly well scattered, are they not?"

"Yes, they are, but his very size only makes it worse. I have gone over
all the records I could, in the short time I have had, and can't find an
expert of that class with anywhere near that description."

"How about the third guard, the one who escaped?" asked Seaton.

"He wasn't here. It was his afternoon off, you know, and he said that he
wouldn't come back into this job on a bet--that he wasn't afraid of
anything ordinary, but he didn't like the looks of things out here. That
sounded fishy to me, and I fired him. He may have been the leak, of
course, though I have always found him reliable before. If he did leak,
he must have got a whale of a slice for it. He is under constant watch,
and if we can ever get anything on him, I will nail him to the cross.
But that doesn't help get this affair straightened out. I haven't given
up, of course, there are lots of things not tried yet, but I must admit
that temporarily, at least, I am up a stump."

"Well," remarked Seaton, "that million-dollar reward will bring him in,
sure. No honor that ever existed among thieves, or even among
free-lances of diplomacy, could stand that strain."

"I'm not so sure of that, Dick," said Crane. "If either one of our ideas
is the right one, very few men would know enough about the affair to
give pertinent information, and they probably would not live long enough
to enjoy the reward very thoroughly. Even a million dollars fails in
that case."

"I rather agree with Mr. Crane, Seaton. If it were an ordinary
affair--and I am as sure it is not as the police are that it is--a
reward of that size would get us our man within two days. As it is, I
doubt very much that the reward will do us any good. I'm afraid that it
will never be claimed."

"Wonder if the Secret Service could help us out? They'd be interested if
it should turn out to be some foreign power."

"I took it up with the Chief himself, just after it happened last night.
He doesn't think that it can be a foreign country. He has their agents
pretty well spotted, and the only one that could fill the bill--you know
a man with that description and with the cold nerve to do the job would
be apt to be known--was in San Francisco, the time this job was pulled
off."

* * * * *

"The more you talk, the more I am convinced that it was DuQuesne
himself," declared Seaton, positively. "He is almost exactly my size and
build, is the only man I know of who could do anything with the solution
after he got it, and he has nerve enough to do anything."

"I would like to think it was DuQuesne," replied the detective,
thoughtfully, "but I'm afraid we'll have to count him out of it
entirely. He has been under the constant surveillance of my best men
ever since you mentioned him. We have detectaphones in his rooms, wires
on his telephone, and are watching him night and day. He never goes out
except to work, never has any except unimportant telephone calls, and
the instruments register only the occasional scratching of a match, the
rustle of papers, and other noises of a man studying. He's innocent."

"That may be true," assented Seaton doubtfully, "but you want to
remember that he knows more about electricity than the guy that invented
it, and I'm not sure that he can't talk to a detectaphone and make it
say anything he wants it to. Anyway, we can soon settle it. Yesterday I
made a special trip down to the Bureau, with some notes as an excuse, to
set this object-compass on him," taking one of the small instruments
from his pocket as he spoke. "I watched him a while last night, then
fixed an alarm to wake me if the needle moved much, but it pointed
steady all night. See! It's moving now. That means that he is going to
work early, as usual. Now I'm morally certain that he's mixed up in this
thing somewhere, and I'm not convinced that he isn't slipping one over
on your men some way--he's a clever devil. I wonder if you wouldn't take
this compass and watch him yourself tonight, just on general principles?
Or let me do it. I'd be glad to. I say 'tonight' because if he did get
the stuff here he didn't deliver it anywhere last night. It's just a
chance, of course, but he may do it tonight."

After the compass had been explained to the detective he gladly
consented to the plan, declaring that he would willingly spend the time
just to watch such an unheard-of instrument work. After another hour of
fruitless discussion Prescott took his leave, saying that he would mount
an impregnable guard from that time on.

Late that evening Prescott joined the two men who were watching
DuQuesne's house. They reported that all was perfectly quiet, as usual.
The scientist was in his library, the instruments registering only the
usual occasional faint sounds of a man absorbed in study. But after an
hour of waiting, and while the microphones made a noise as of rustling
papers, the needle of the compass moved. It dipped slowly toward the
earth as though DuQuesne were descending into the cellar, but at the
same time the shadow of his unmistakable profile was thrown upon the
window shade as he apparently crossed the room.

"Can't you hear him walk?" demanded Prescott.

"No. He has heavy Turkish rugs all over the library, and he always walks
very lightly, besides."

* * * * *

Prescott watched the needle in amazement as it dipped deeper and deeper,
pointing down into the earth almost under his feet and then behind him,
as though DuQuesne had walked beneath him. He did not, could not,
believe it. He was certain that something had gone wrong with the
strange instrument in his hand, nevertheless he followed the pointing
needle. It led him beside Park Road, down the hill, straight toward the
long bridge which forms one entrance to Rock Creek Park. Though
skeptical, Prescott took no chances, and as he approached the bridge he
left the road and concealed himself behind a clump of trees, from which
point of vantage he could see the ground beneath the bridge as well as
the roadway. Soon the bridge trembled under the weight of a heavy
automobile going toward the city at a high rate of speed. He saw
DuQuesne, with a roll of papers under his arm, emerge from under the
bridge just in time to leap aboard the automobile, which slowed down
only enough to enable him to board it in safety. The detective noticed
that the car was a Pierce-Arrow limousine--a car not common, even in
Washington--and rushed out to get its number, but the license plates
were so smeared with oil and dust that the numbers could not be read by
the light of the tail lamp. Glancing at the compass in his hand he saw
that the delicate needle was now pointing steadily at the fleeing car,
and all doubts as to the power of the instrument were dispelled. He
rejoined his men, informed them that DuQuesne had eluded them, and took
one of them up the hill to a nearby garage. There he engaged a fast car
and set out in pursuit, choosing the path for the chauffeur by means of
the compass. His search ended at the residence of Brookings, the General
Manager of the great World Steel Corporation. Here he dismissed the car
and watched the house while his assistant went to bring out the fast
motorcycle used by Prescott when high speed was desirable.

After four hours a small car bearing the license number of a distant
state--which was found, by subsequent telegraphing, to be unknown to the
authorities of that state--drove under the porte-cochere, and the hidden
watcher saw DuQuesne, without the papers, step into it. Knowing now what
to expect, Prescott drove his racing motorcycle at full speed out to the
Park Road Bridge and concealed himself beneath the structure, in a
position commanding a view of the concrete abutment through which the
scientist must have come. Soon he heard a car slow down overhead, heard
a few rapid footfalls, and saw the dark form of a large man outlined
against the gray face of the abutment. He saw the man lift his hand high
above his head, and saw a black rectangle appear in the gray, engulf the
man, and disappear. After a few minutes he approached the abutment and
searched its face with the help of his flash-light. He finally succeeded
in tracing the almost imperceptible crack which outlined the door, and
the concealed button which DuQuesne had pressed to open it. He did not
press the button, as it might be connected to an alarm. Deep in thought,
he mounted his motorcycle and made his way to his home to get a few
hours of sleep before reporting to Crane whom he was scheduled to see at
breakfast next morning.

* * * * *

Both men were waiting for him when he appeared, and he noticed with
pleasure that Shiro, with a heavily-bandaged head, was insisting that he
was perfectly able to wait on the table instead of breakfasting in bed.
He calmly proceeded to serve breakfast in spite of Crane's
remonstrances, having ceremoniously ordered out of the kitchen the
colored man who had been secured to take his place.

"Well, gentlemen," the detective began, "part of the mystery is
straightened out. I was entirely wrong, and each of you were partly
right. It was DuQuesne, in all probability. It is equally probable that
a great company--in this case the World Steel Corporation--is backing
him, though I don't believe there is a ghost of a show of ever being
able to prove it in law. Your 'object-compass' did the trick."

He narrated all the events of the previous night.

"I'd like to send him to the chair for this job," said Seaton with
rising anger. "We ought to shoot him anyway, damn him--I'm sorry duels
have gone out of fashion, for I can't shoot him off-hand, the way things
are now--I sure wish I could."

"No, you cannot shoot him," said Crane, thoughtfully, "and neither can
I, worse luck. We are not in his class there. And you must not fight
with him, either"--noting that Seaton's powerful hands had doubled into
fists, the knuckles showing white through the tanned skin--"though that
would be a fight worth watching and I would like to see you give him the
beating of his life. A little thing like a beating is not a fraction of
what he deserves and it would show him that we have found him out. No,
we must do it legally or let him entirely alone. You think there is no
hope of proving it, Prescott?"

"Frankly, I see very little chance of it. There is always hope, of
course, and if that bunch of pirates ever makes a slip, we'll be right
there waiting to catch 'em. While I don't believe in holding out false
encouragement, they've never slipped yet. I'll take my men off DuQuesne,
now that we've linked him up with Steel. It doesn't make any difference,
does it, whether he goes to them every night or only once a week?

"No."

"Then about all I can do is to get everything I can on that Steel crowd,
and that is very much like trying to get blood out of a turnip. I intend
to keep after them, of course, for I owe them something for killing two
of my men here, as well as for other favors they have done me in the
past, but don't expect too much. I have tackled them before, and so have
police headquarters and even the Secret Service itself, under cover, and
all that any of us has been able to get is an occasional small fish. We
could never land the big fellows. In fact, we have never found the
slightest material proof of what we are morally certain is the truth,
that World Steel is back of a lot of deviltry all over the country. The
little fellows who do the work either don't know anything or are afraid
to tell. I'll see if I can find out what they are doing with the stuff
they stole, but I'm not even sure of doing that. You can't plant
instruments on that bunch--it would be like trying to stick a pin into a
sleeping cat without waking him up. They undoubtedly have one of the
best corps of detectives in the world. You haven't perfected an
instrument which enables you to see into a closed room and hear what is
going on there, have you?" And upon being assured that they had not, he
took his leave.

"Optimistic cuss, ain't he?" remarked Seaton.

"He has cause to be, Dick. World Steel is a soulless corporation if
there ever was one. They have the shrewdest lawyers in the country, and
they get away legally with things that are flagrantly illegal, such as
freezing out competitors, stealing patents, and the like. Report has it
that they do not stop at arson, treason, or murder to attain their ends,
but as Prescott said, they never leave any legal proof behind them."

"Well, we should fret, anyway. Of course, a monopoly is what they're
after, but they can't form one because they can't possibly get the rest
of our solution. Even if they should get it, we can get more. It won't
be as easy as this last batch was, since the X was undoubtedly present
in some particular lot of platinum in extraordinary quantities, but now
that I know exactly what to look for, I can find more. So they can't get
their monopoly unless they kill us off...."

"Exactly. Go on, I see you are getting the idea. If we should both
conveniently die, they could get the solution from the company, and have
the monopoly, since no one else can handle it."

"But they couldn't get away with it, Mart--never in a thousand years,
even if they wanted to. Of course I am small fry, but you are too big a
man for even Steel to do away with. It can't be done."

"I am not so sure of that. Airplane accidents are numerous, and I am an
aviator. Also, has it ever occurred to you that the heavy forging for
the Skylark, ordered a while ago, are of steel?"

Seaton paused, dumbfounded, in the act of lighting his pipe.

"But thanks to your object-compass, we are warned." Crane continued,
evenly. "Those forgings are going through the most complete set of tests
known to the industry, and if they go into the Skylark at all it will be
after I am thoroughly convinced that they will not give way on our first
trip into space. But we can do nothing until the steel arrives, and with
the guard Prescott has here now we are safe enough. Luckily, the enemy
knows nothing of the object-compass or the X-plosive, and we must keep
them in ignorance. Hereinafter, not even the guards get a look at
anything we do."

"They sure don't. Let's get busy!"

* * * * *

DuQuesne and Brookings met in conference in a private room of the
Perkins Cafe.

"What's the good word, Doctor?"

"So-so," replied the scientist. "The stuff is all they said it was, but
we haven't enough of it to build much of a power-plant. We can't go
ahead with it, anyway, as long as Seaton and Crane have nearly all their
original solution."

"No, we can't. We must find a way of getting it. I see now that we
should have done as you suggested, and taken it before they had warning
and put it out of our reach."

"There's no use holding post-mortems. We've got to get it, some way, and
everybody that knows anything about that new metal, how to get it or how
to handle it, must die. At first, it would have been enough to kill
Seaton. Now, however, there is no doubt that Crane knows all about it,
and he probably has left complete instructions in case he gets killed in
an accident--he's the kind that would. We will have to keep our eyes
open and wipe out those instructions and anyone who has seen them. You
see that, don't you?"

"Yes, I am afraid that is the only way out. We must have the monopoly,
and anyone who might be able to interfere with it must be removed. How
has your search for more X prospered?"

"About as well as I expected. We bought up all the platinum wastes we
could get, and reworked all the metallic platinum and allied metals we
could buy in the open market, and got less than a gram of X out of the
whole lot. It's scarcer than radium. Seaton's finding so much of it at
once was an accident, pure and simple--it couldn't happen once in a
million years."

"Well, have you any suggestions as to how we can get that solution?"

"No. I haven't thought of anything but that very thing ever since I
found that they had hidden it, and I can't yet see any good way of
getting it. My forte is direct action and that fails in this case, since
no amount of force or torture could make Crane reveal the hiding-place
of the solution. It's probably in the safest safe-deposit vault in the
country. He wouldn't carry the key on him, probably wouldn't have it in
the house. Killing Seaton or Crane, or both of them, is easy enough, but
it probably wouldn't get us the solution, as I have no doubt that Crane
has provided for everything."

"Probably he has. But if he should disappear the stuff would have to
come to light, or the Seaton-Crane Company might start their
power-plant. In that case, we probably could get it?"

"Possibly, you mean. That method is too slow to suit me, though. It
would take months, perhaps years, and would be devilishly uncertain, to
boot. They'll know something is in the wind, and the stuff will be
surrounded by every safeguard they can think of. There must be some
better way than that, but I haven't been able to think of it."

"Neither have I, but your phrase 'direct action' gives me an idea. You
say that that method has failed. What do you think of trying indirect
action in the shape of Perkins, who is indirection personified?"

"Bring him in. He may be able to figure out something."

* * * * *

Perkins was called in, and the main phases of the situation laid before
him. The three men sat in silence for many minutes while the crafty
strategist studied the problem. Finally he spoke.

"There's only one way, gentlemen. We must get a handle on either Seaton
or Crane strong enough to make them give up their bottle of dope, their
plans, and everything...."

"Handle!" interrupted DuQuesne. "You talk like a fool! You can't get
anything on either of them."

"You misunderstand me, Doctor. You can get a handle of some kind on any
living man. Not necessarily in his past, you understand--I know that
anything like that is out of the question in this case--but in his
future. With some men it is money, with others power, with others fame,
with others women or some woman, and so on down the list. What can we
use here? Money is out of the question, so are power and fame, as they
already have both in plain sight. It seems to me that women would be our
best chance."

"Hah!" snorted the chemist. "Crane has been chased by all the women of
three continents so long that he's womanproof. Seaton is worse--he's
engaged, and wouldn't realize that a woman was on his trail, even if you
could find a better looking one to work on him than the girl he's
engaged to--which would be a hard job. Cleopatra herself couldn't swing
that order."

"Engaged? That makes it simple as A B C."

"Simple? In the devil's name, how?"

"Easy as falling off a log. You have enough of the dope to build a
space-car from those plans, haven't you?"

"Yes. What has that to do with the case?"

"It has everything to do with it. I would suggest that we build such a
car and use it to carry off the girl. After we have her safe we could
tell Seaton that she is marooned on some distant planet, and that she
will be returned to earth only after all the solution, all notes, plans,
and everything pertaining to the new metal are surrendered. That will
bring him, and Crane will consent. Then, afterward, Dr. Seaton may go
away indefinitely, and if desirable, Mr. Crane may accompany him."

"But suppose they try to fight?" asked Brookings.

Perkins slid down into his chair in deep thought, his pale eyes under
half-closed lids darting here and there, his stubby fingers worrying his
watch-chain restlessly.

"Who is the girl?" he asked at last.

"Dorothy Vaneman, the daughter of the lawyer. She's that auburn-haired
beauty that the papers were so full of when she came out last year."

"Vaneman is a director in the Seaton-Crane Company. That makes it still
better. If they show fight and follow us, that beautiful car we are
making for them will collapse and they will be out of the way. Vaneman,
as Seaton's prospective father-in-law and a member of his company,
probably knows something about the secret. Maybe all of it. With his
daughter in a space-car, supposedly out in space, and Seaton and Crane
out of the way, Vaneman would listen to reason and let go of the
solution, particularly as nobody knows much about it except Seaton and
Crane."

"That strikes me as a perfectly feasible plan," said Brookings. "But you
wouldn't really take her to another planet, would you? Why not use an
automobile or an airplane, and tell Seaton that it was a space-car?"

"I wouldn't advise that. He might not believe it, and they might make a
lot of trouble. It must be a real space-car even if we don't take her
out of the city. To make it more impressive, you should take her in
plain sight of Seaton--no, that would be too dangerous, as I have found
out from the police that Seaton has a permit to carry arms, and I know
that he is one of the fastest men with a pistol in the whole country. Do
it in plain sight of her folks, say, or a crowd of people; being masked,
of course, or dressed in an aviator's suit, with the hood and goggles
on. Take her straight up out of sight, then hide her somewhere until
Seaton listens to reason. I know that he will listen, but if he
doesn't, you might let him see you start out to visit her. He'll be sure
to follow you in their rotten car. As soon as he does that, he's our
meat. But that raises the question of who is going to drive the car?"

"I am," replied DuQuesne. "I will need some help, though, as at least
one man must stay with the girl while I bring the car back."

"We don't want to let anybody else in on this if we can help it,"
cautioned Brookings. "You could go along, couldn't you, Perkins?"

"Is it safe?"

"Absolutely," answered DuQuesne. "They have everything worked out to the
queen's taste."

"That's all right, then. I'll take the trip. Also," turning to
Brookings, "it will help in another little thing we are doing--the
Spencer affair."

"Haven't you got that stuff away from her yet, after having had her
locked up in that hell-hole for two months?" asked Brookings.

"No. She's stubborn as a mule. We've given her the third degree time
after time, but it's no use."

* * * * *

"What's this?" asked DuQuesne. "Deviltry in the main office?"

"Yes. This Margaret Spencer claims that we swindled her father out of an
invention and indirectly caused his death. She secured a position with
us in search of evidence. She is an expert stenographer, and showed such
ability that she was promoted until she became my secretary. Our
detectives must have been asleep, as she made away with some photographs
and drawings before they caught her. She has no real evidence, of
course, but she might cause trouble with a jury, especially as she is
one of the best-looking women in Washington. Perkins is holding her
until she returns the stolen articles."

"Why can't you kill her off?"

"She cannot be disposed of until after we know where the stuff is,
because she says, and Perkins believes, that the evidence will show up
in her effects. We must do something about her soon, as the search for
her is dying down and she will be given up for dead."

"What's the idea about her and the space-car?"

"If the car proves reliable we might actually take her out into space
and give her the choice between telling and walking back. She has nerve
enough here on earth to die before giving up, but I don't believe any
human being would be game to go it alone on a strange world. She'd
wilt."

"I believe you're right, Perkins. Your suggestions are the best way out.
Don't you think so, Doctor?"

"Yes, I don't see how we can fail--we're sure to win, either way. You
are prepared for trouble afterward, of course?"

"Certainly, but I don't think there will be much trouble. They can't
possibly link the three of us together. They aren't wise to you, are
they, Doctor?"

"Not a chance!" sneered DuQuesne. "They ran themselves ragged trying to
get something on me, but they couldn't do it. They have given me up as a
bad job. I am still as careful as ever, though--I am merely a pure
scientist in the Bureau of Chemistry!"

All three laughed, and Perkins left the room. The talk then turned to
the construction of the space-car. It was decided to rush the work on
it, so that DuQuesne could familiarize himself with its operation, but
not to take any steps in the actual abduction until such time as Seaton
and Crane were nearly ready to take their first flight, so that they
could pursue the abductors in case Seaton was still obdurate after a few
days of his fiancee's absence. DuQuesne insisted that the car should
mount a couple of heavy guns, to destroy the pursuing car if the faulty
members should happen to hold together long enough to carry it out into
space.

After a long discussion, in which every detail of the plan was carefully
considered, the two men left the restaurant, by different exits.





Next: The Trial Voyage

Previous: Direct Action



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