THE MAN WITH THE NERVOUS AFFLICTION

Bill came to the surface a few yards from the motor boat. Three or four
quick strokes brought him to the side, where with the help of an
extended hand, he clambered aboard to face the stranger.
Getting back his wind, Bill took stock of the man. His first impression
had been of his slight build, but on closer scrutiny Bill saw that he
was well-knit, with very broad shoulders. He had a rather sallow,
clean-shaven face, with unexpectedly large and very bright dark eyes.
These eyes never left Bill for a second as he opened the throttle and
sent the boat skimming round the end of the island.
“That was a very nice dive,” the man spoke abruptly, with a quick nod as
if to emphasize the point. “Fond of swimming, aren’t you? Though not as
keen on it as you were this morning, eh?” He grinned at what he
considered a good joke and nodded his head emphatically.
Bill began to realize that this continual nodding must be a form of
nervousness and that probably the man himself was unconscious of it.
“Thanks for the lift, Mr.—er—Sanders?” he said.
“That’s right—Sanders is the name,” the man at the wheel jerked out.
“The young lady recognized me, it seems. Needn’t have been so dramatic
about it, though. I kind of guessed you’d have enough of Pig Island by
this time.”
“What made you think so?”
“Well,” Mr. Sanders nodded, “there’s no reason to keep the thing a
secret. I moseyed over to the island a few hours ago. Tied up down
t’other end from the houses. Happened to overhear Deborah talking to old
Jim. Caught on to the fact they’d taken you for Slim Johnson, and that
they meant to keep you with them a while.”
“And they didn’t know you were spying?” The more Bill saw of his
smiling, nodding rescuer, the less he liked him.
“Oh, it ain’t likely I let ’em catch sight of me! I don’t know about the
girl, but old Jim Hancock is one of those fellers who never misses with
a rifle.”
“So you, I take it, Mr. Sanders, are working for the other side in this
mysterious business?”
“I _am_ the other side, Mr. Midshipman Bolton. What made you think I’d
want to chum up with Evans’ secretary?”
“Evans’ secretary!” Bill repeated in amazement. “You mean—that
girl—Deborah—is his secretary?”
“Surest thing you know, young man. Evans owns Pig Island—didn’t he tell
you that?”
Mr. Sanders laughed sardonically and nodded until Bill thought he would
burst a blood vessel—he hoped he would.
“And so,” said Bill, light dawning at last, “you decided it would be
swell to have me throw myself into your arms, as it were. And before
those people on the island and I woke up to the fact that we were on the
same side of the fence in this mixup!” Mentally he cursed himself for
his impulsiveness.
“Who’d have thought you’d tumble so fast?” sneered Sanders.
Then as Bill made a threatening move toward him, an automatic whipped
into sight from beneath Sanders’ armpit.
“Oh, no you don’t, sonny!” he barked. “It won’t pay you to get nasty
with me. Sit down! It’s time you learned a few things, you young whelp!”
“There’s no doubt about that,” Bill agreed bitterly, looking into the
blue-black muzzle some four feet away. He bent backward as though to sit
down on the thwart, when without warning his right leg shot out and he
planted a smashing blow with his bare foot upon the under side of
Sander’s wrist. The automatic flew harmlessly overside, while the
astounded man found himself seized by his tingling wrist. His arm was
jerked forward with a suddenness that almost wrenched it from the
socket, while Bill’s other arm wrapped tightly about the semi-paralyzed
member. There came another wrench, and dizzying pain, and he went
headfirst out of the boat, after his revolver. When he rose to the
surface, his craft was already some yards away.
“As I said before,” Bill called to him, “there’s no doubt about it. You
should learn _savatte_—the French method of foot-boxing, you know. That
arm-hold I learned among others from a _jiu-jitsu_ professor—a Jap. It
pays to have international tastes. Incidentally I don’t think the
current is bad about here. You’re only about sixty yards from shore.
Cheerio—as they say in Merry England. A pleasant swim, Mister Sanders!”
Sanders said nothing. He felt too sick even to swear. His right arm
pained him so that he turned on his back and headed for shore, using his
left and both legs as a means to propel his aching body.
Bill widened his throttle and sped up the motor boat, keeping the shore
line on his left. A mile farther on he came to the mouth of the cove
where he had bathed with Charlie that morning. He shut off the engine
and took a survey of his surroundings.
The gentle breeze had gone with the morning. Not a branch moved, not a
leaf stirred on the trees above the rocks. Bill guessed it must be close
to seven in the evening, for the sun was barely discernible above the
woods, and long shadows lay upon the quiet water.
Next, he made a thorough inspection of the boat which brought to light
two interesting items. In a locker forward he came upon the clothes he
had left on the beach that morning. Bill was delighted, for this find
provided him with two things he needed badly, shoes and a watch.
Beneath the clothes was a light overcoat of covert cloth, apparently the
property of Sanders. He pulled it out and was about to put it back
again, when a thought struck him. A closer inspection of the coat
brought forth, first, a pair of pigskin gloves, then from the inside
pocket, Bill extracted three envelopes.
All three of these missives bore the Stamford, Connecticut, postmark,
and all three were addressed to
Zenas Sanders,
General Delivery,
Clayton, Maine.
Without the slightest hesitation, Bill took the papers from the slit
envelopes. Two proved to be bills; one for repairs on a car, the other
from a tailor for three suits of clothes. The third letter, however, was
headed “Gring’s Hotel, Stamford, Conn.,” and bore the date of three days
earlier. It ran—
“Dear Sanders—Just a line to say I have engaged the experts as
directed. Got them in the big city and they sure do ask a big price.
But that is your business.
“Now you have located the exact position, it either means taking the
Evans’ bunch for a ride or making a snappy job of it. Personally I
don’t think it can be done in one night.
“Don’t write any more. Both mails and telegraph are too risky. That
gink Evans is wide awake. He’s watching this end too—and you know he’s
intercepted two messages already. I know what to do, but if you must
send your fool instructions, send them by word of mouth, or better
still, fly down here and go up with us. Then we could run in nights
and stand out to sea day times, and you would be on board to direct
operations. That would stop Evans having you followed up there when
you join us as you must eventually. Also if we don’t write any more
there’ll be no chance of his being able to get documentary evidence.
If you send a man, let him say Zenas and nod like you. Then I’ll know
he’s Okay.
“Yours,
“Slim.”
Bill read this over three times. The writer, he guessed, must be Harold
Johnson, the fellow he had been taken for on the island. He recalled
distinctly that Sanders had referred to him as “Slim.” Who or what the
“experts” were he had hired, was beyond Bill. On the other hand it was
obvious that Slim feared Mr. Evans. The scheme, as he saw it, was that
Johnson and his men intended coming by boat to Maine, where Sanders had
been successful in locating something they wanted. And, having arrived
in Maine waters, the boat would put her crew of gangsters ashore at
night and stand off the coast day times. That robbery of some sort was
their objective, Bill had not the slightest doubt.
But what they intended to steal or where it was located, Slim had not
said. Perhaps it was something concealed at Turner’s—hidden in a safe,
possibly—and the “experts” had been hired to get it. Still, if Mr. Evans
was hiding something in a safe at Turner’s, what prevented him from
moving it to the strong room of some metropolitan bank, where it would
be beyond reach of both Sanders and Johnson? Bill discarded the idea of
the safe then and there. The best he could do was to get in touch with
Mr. Evans or his men just as soon as possible.
He slipped the letter back into the overcoat pocket, and folding the
coat, replaced it in the locker. He did not want Sanders to guess that
he had read that letter. Then he thought over a plan of procedure. If he
took the motor boat to Pig Island, he must take the coat with him, and
Sanders’ suspicions would be aroused. If, on the other hand, he beached
the craft and made for Turner’s, Sanders, who was very likely now
footing it for the cove, might think that in his hurry Bill had
overlooked Slim’s letter. Also, he would be more likely to find Mr.
Evans at Turner’s, and then, there was Charlie to be considered. If the
boy had reached the house and his father had not turned up, he would be
forced to stay in that gloomy place himself overnight, a prospect that
not even Bill relished.
As he reached these conclusions, Bill sent the motorboat skimming into
the cove and beached her. Then, slipping into his socks and shoes, he
picked up the remainder of his clothes. It took him but a moment to
cross the sand and climb the rocks. Soon he was jogging along the lane
at a smart trot. He neither met nor saw a single soul. At last he gained
the back door by way of the overgrown shrubbery. He found the key under
the mat where they had left it after breakfast. Bill inserted it in the
lock and walked into the back entry.
Instead of calling Charlie, he walked into the big kitchen and looked
about. Everything seemed exactly as they had left it after washing up
that morning.
“Well, it’s a cinch the kid never got back here,” he said to himself.
“He’d have spent most of the day in here, consuming provisions, and
there’s not a thing been touched. I’d better make sure, though—and if I
can scare up a gun of sorts, all to the good!”
His inspection of the entire house, including the cellar, proved his
surmise to be well founded. He was alone in the place. Charlie, he
figured, had either trudged into Clayton to get in touch with Ezra
Parker, or he had been captured by Sanders and his men.
And then it occurred to Bill that it would be well for him to see Parker
himself, tonight, so he went down the tunnel to the garage and switched
on the lights.
It was dark by the time he got back to the library. He went the rounds
of the ground floor again, turning on electrics as he went. If Bill was
to be caught by anybody around the spooky house, it would not be
unawares, if he could help it.
He got himself some supper and ate it in the kitchen. But somehow, after
going to the trouble of preparing food, he had little appetite. The
possibility that the house might have another hidden entrance of which
he knew nothing made him feel nervous and jumpy, especially since he had
not found anything remotely resembling a firearm of any sort.
After he had washed his plate and cup at the kitchen sink, he went back
to the library, and pulling down a book at random from the shelves, went
out of the room to the hall.
He had decided to wait until eleven, and then make tracks through the
woods to Twin Heads Harbor. Ezra Parker was due to fly over the house at
midnight and the lighted garage would be sure to send him to the harbor
directly afterward.
Bill planned to spend the intervening time in the comfortable alcove
which formed a little lounge below the staircase in the hall. Here he
could at once be aware of the slightest movement from any part of the
house. And with the curtains drawn, he was shut off like a monk in his
cell.
But instead of settling down to his book, he grew restless. Twice he got
up and examined the shutters on that floor to make sure they were
barred. Each time he went back to his curtained retreat, ashamed of
himself. This house was giving him the creeps. For some reason, he could
not tell why, his nerves were on edge.
As ten o’clock chimed faintly from the mantel timepiece, he thought he
heard footsteps. He started up, reviling himself for his folly. The
house was old, and it was only the stairs above him that creaked softly.
With calm deliberation he brushed past the curtain into the hall,
determined to pull himself together.
Standing at the foot of the staircase, a hand on the great oak
balustrade, he could hear the quiet patter of a mouse behind the
panelling. The tick of the little clock in the alcove, and the hiss and
sigh of the wind without, were all that broke the silence of the night.
No human being save himself seemed to be stirring for miles around.
Slowly, in stocking feet, he walked down the kitchen passage, paused,
and slowly returned. Then he mounted the stairs. All was quiet above. An
impulse took him up the narrow stairway to the third story, where he
looked out a window at the end of the corridor. The night was dark and
only a grayish glimmer marked the sea. The island was invisible. Up
there, with the still house below him, he felt like an onlooker in some
mysterious play where life and death were casual matters and any means
were fair if they led to triumph.
But there was nothing to be gained by pursuing such thoughts—and far
from being an onlooker, Bill was very much in the thick of it all. He
descended, made another tour of the ground floor, and returned to the
alcove. Feeling distinctly more cheerful, he ate a couple of cookies,
took up his book and began to read. Perhaps five minutes later, he heard
a gentle tap—
It was not imagination this time. Of that he was quite certain. Bill was
perfectly calm. He had got over his bout of restlessness that had kept
him on the jump. The only disturbing point about the sound was whether
it came from within or without the house.
A leaf blowing against a window, that might have caused it. The creak of
an old beam would have made the same sound. He waited in silence, and
kept a tight grip on himself. No more strung-up nerves, whether this was
a false alarm or not. Perhaps a minute later, he heard the click again.
With an exclamation of annoyance, Bill got to his feet, brushed aside
the curtain, and peered into the hall.
He found himself face to face with Mr. Zenas Sanders.