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Chapter 26

A NEW CLUE


Larry moved to one side. The unexpected outcome of his interview had startled him. He did not quite know what to do.

The doctor came up on the run and made a hasty examination of the patient. Then he sent for another surgeon. Larry heard them talking.

"What is it?" he asked of his friend the nurse.

"His skull is fractured," she said in a low voice. "They did not think so at first, but now the symptoms show it. They are going to operate at once. It is the only chance of saving his life."

"There goes my story," thought Larry, regretfully.

It was not that he was hard-hearted or indifferent to Retto's sufferings. Simply that his newspaper instinct got ahead of everything else, as it does in all true reporters, who, if they have a "nose for news," will make "copy" out of even their closest friend, though they may dislike the operation very much.

"You had better go," the nurse advised Larry. "You will not be able to see him again for some time—no one will be allowed to talk to him until he is on the road to recovery—if we can save him. He has a bad fracture."

Much disappointed, Larry left the hospital. It was hard to be almost on the verge of getting the story and then to see his chance slip away.

"I'm sure he was just going to tell me where Mr. Potter is," thought the reporter. "Now it means a long wait, if I ever find out at all from him."

He told Mr. Emberg what had happened. The city editor decided to follow out his first plan, of not connecting the accident at the pier with the Potter mystery.

"If he has to be operated on for a fractured skull," Mr. Emberg remarked to Larry over the wire, "he will be in no condition to tell his name, or give any information for some time. The story is safe with him. Now you'd better get busy on some other line of the case. The Scorcher is out, but they only have a scare yarn, without any foundation, to the effect that Mr. Potter is still in Italy, and that his family knows where he is."

"That's all bosh!" exclaimed Larry.

"That's what I think," the city editor said. "Now get on the job, Larry, and arrange to give us a good story for to-morrow. Keep watch of Retto, and as soon as the doctors will let you see him try again, though of course it may not be for several days."

Larry was all at sea. He hung up the telephone receiver with a vague feeling that being a reporter on a special assignment was not all it was cracked up to be.

"Easy enough to say get a good story for to-morrow," he remarked to himself, "but I'd like to know how I'm going to do it? The story—the only story there is—is safe with Retto, and he can't tell it."

"What shall I do?" Larry asked himself. "Let me think. I guess I'd better go see Captain Tantrella and ask him to keep mum about Retto until I have another chance at the man. Then I'll—I'll go and tell Grace. She'll want to know all about it."

He found Captain Tantrella at his hotel, having finished all the details connected with the docking of the Turtle. The commander readily agreed to keep quiet concerning Retto's identity, since the captain had no desire for further newspaper notoriety.

"I will do more than this," he declared. "I will give you the package belonging to that queer man. I have to sail again soon, on a long voyage, and he might need it before I come back. You can give it to him if he recovers. If he does not—well, the authorities can open it. It may contain money or something that will tell about the poor fellow. I leave it with you."

Larry was glad to get possession of the package that seemed of such importance to Retto. He wished he could open it, as he thought he might get a clue to the connection between the millionaire and the mysterious man, but he knew he would have no right to do that. Also it would give him a sort of claim on Retto, and, by returning the package, he could have a good excuse for going to see him.

"Now to tell Grace," remarked Larry, as he left Captain Tantrella. "I'm sure she'll be anxious to hear the news."

The millionaire's daughter was indeed glad to see Larry. She had read the first edition of the Leader, and wanted to know if there was anything further to tell.

"I hoped to be able to give you some definite news," replied Larry, in answer to her questions. Then he related the scene in the hospital.

"Poor man!" exclaimed Grace. "I wish I could go and see him."

"I'm afraid they wouldn't let you," said the reporter. "I called up the place just before I came here and they said the man was still under the influence of ether, though the operation was over."

"Was it a success?"

"They think so, but it will be some time before he will be able to talk to anyone about your father. We shall have to be patient."

"It is so hard," complained Grace, and Larry agreed with her. He did not yet see how he was going to get a story for the next day's paper—that is, a story which would have some fresh features in it.

"I don't suppose you have anything new to tell me?" he asked of Grace.

"Not much. I have had another letter from my father. It came a little while ago."

"Is it the same as the others?"

"The contents are, but the envelope is different. He says he will soon be home, and tells us not to worry."

She gave the missive to Larry. He looked at the post-mark, and saw that it had come from a downtown sub-station.

"This was mailed near the steamer pier!" he exclaimed. "Close to where Retto was hurt. He must have posted it just previous to the accident. I wish I had known this before."

It was too late now, and Larry gazed regretfully at the envelope. Clearly, Retto had not been far from Mr. Potter at the time of the accident. Perhaps the missing millionaire was hiding downtown in New York.

"I must make some inquiries in that neighborhood," thought Larry, as he arose to go.

"Another thing," Grace said. "That man Sullivan was in front of the house again this morning."

"I must see him!" exclaimed Larry. "I'll make him tell what his object is. This thing has got to end!"

He was fiercely determined that he would force some information from the politician. Evidently Sullivan had a game on hand which the reporter had not yet succeeded in fathoming. "I'll hunt him up at once!" he added, as he bade Grace good-bye.

"Be careful," she cautioned. "He is a dangerous man."

"I will," Larry promised.

But he could not find Sullivan. For once that wily politician denied himself to reporters, and kept out of their way. He was sought by a number of newspaper men, for the matter of a candidate for the eighth assembly district was again to the fore, and the henchmen of Kilburn and Reilly were making rival claims as to Sullivan's support.

"Where is Sullivan?" was the cry that went up, and in the next two days that became almost as much of a mystery as the disappearance of Mr. Potter.

"Get busy, Larry," advised Mr. Emberg, and Larry did his best to follow the advice.

Three weeks passed, and Sullivan was not found. His family professed not to know where he was, and the best newspaper men in New York could not find him. Larry was working on the case with all the energy he had thrown into the Potter disappearance.

Meanwhile the young reporter kept a close watch on the hospital where Retto was. The operation had been a success, but the patient was in a fever, during which he was out of his mind. He could not recognize anyone, much less talk intelligibly. Larry made several calls at the institution, but it was of no use.

"You can't see him," said the nurse, when he had paid his usual visit one day, "but he is much better. I think by the day after to-morrow you can talk to him. His fever is going down and he has spells when he talks rationally. There was another man in to see him to-day."

"I thought you said no one could visit him."

"Well, we made an exception in this case. The man was a private detective, searching for a missing man, and he wanted to see all the patients. He looked at your friend last, and went off, seemingly quite excited."

"What missing man was he looking for?" asked Larry.

"A Mr. Potter. Seems to me I've read something about him in the papers. He's very rich."

"Mr. Potter!" exclaimed Larry. "The detective must be from the private agency," he added to himself. Then aloud: "Did he recognize Mr. Ret—er I mean the man with the fractured skull?" and he waited anxiously for the nurse's answer.

"He seemed to, but I was called away just then."

"I know how Mr. Potter looks," Larry went on. "He has a moustache, and the man here is smooth-shaven."

"No, the patient has a moustache and a beard now," the nurse replied with a smile. "They grew since he has been in the hospital."

A sudden idea came to Larry. An idea so strange that it startled him. He dared not speak of it. He believed the detective held the same theory.

"I'll call again," he said, thanking the nurse for the information she had given him. "I must see Grace at once," he murmured, as he left the hospital. "Strange I never thought of that. A beard and a moustache! The private detective! I wonder if he recognized Retto? I must hurry. Oh, if this should prove true!"

He hurried to an elevated station and was soon on his way to Grace's house.

Victor Appleton

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