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Chapter 27

THE DETECTIVE'S THEORY


Bounding up the steps three at a time Larry rang the bell of the Potter residence. He thought the door would never be opened, and, when the stately butler did swing back the portal the young reporter, not waiting to ask for anyone, stepped into the hall.

"No one at home," the servant remarked with a smile, for he had gotten to be on quite friendly terms with Larry.

"No one home?"

"No. Mrs. Potter and Miss Grace have gone to Lakewood, N.J., for a few days. Mrs. Potter was quite ill, and the doctor advised a change of air, so she suddenly decided to go."

"When are they coming back?"

"I can't rightly say. In a few days, I expect. I was told to tell you that if anything important occurred you could write to them. Here is the address," and the butler gave Larry a slip of paper.

"I wonder whether I ought to telegraph?" thought Larry to himself. "I think this is very important, yet I am not sure enough of it myself. I can't see Retto until the day after to-morrow. I had better wait until then. If my suspicions are confirmed I will send a message, in case they are not back by that time."

Larry was about to leave the house when he saw a man coming up the front steps. He recognized him as a member of the private detective agency which he and Grace had visited.

"Is Mrs. Potter home?" asked the man of the butler, who was standing in the opened front door, while Larry remained in the shadow of the hall.

"No, she has gone to Lakewood."

"Lakewood! That's too bad!" exclaimed the man.

"Is it anything important?" inquired the butler.

"I think I have located Mr. Potter," was the answer. "I am a private detective, hired by Miss Grace Potter. I came to see if she or her mother would accompany me to try to identify a man I believe is the missing millionaire."

"Where is he?" asked the butler.

"In a hospital, quite badly hurt."

"Mr. Potter in a hospital! Badly hurt!" cried the servant in alarm. "What shall I do? Can't they bring him home?"

"We must be sure it is him," the detective went on. "The description answers pretty well, but it would take a member of the family to make sure. So there's no one home, eh? Well, that's too bad. I wanted to test my theory that the hospital patient is the missing millionaire."

"You can telegraph to them," suggested the butler. "I have the address."

"That's what I'll do," the detective replied. "I'll tell them what I have discovered. They can get here to-morrow and we'll see if he's the right man."

The officer took the address the servant gave him and hurried away.

"Did you hear that?" cried the butler to Larry. "Mr. Potter is found!"

"I hope it proves true," the reporter replied. "That is just what I came about, but when I found Mrs. Potter gone I didn't know what to do. I had rather the detective would take the responsibility of telegraphing. Perhaps the man in the hospital is not Mr. Potter?"

"Do you know him?" asked the butler.

"I have met him several times," replied Larry, "but I did not know he was Mr. Potter. It just dawned on me that he might be."

"Well, well, how strange it all is," murmured the butler. "Who would have thought it? Well, we can't do anything until to-morrow."

"No, I guess not," answered Larry, as he went down the steps.

His mind was in a tumult. More and more he was coming to believe that the mysterious man in the hospital was the missing millionaire.

"That's what he meant when he said I was following him too close," mused Larry. "And I never suspected it! How glad Grace will be! What a story I shall have! I wish I had discovered him myself, without any help from the detective agency, but it will make good reading, anyhow. I must arrange it so we can get a scoop out of it."

His first act was to go to the office of the paper and tell Mr. Emberg what had occurred. The city editor was much excited by the news.

"That will make a great yarn!" he exclaimed. "I hope your friend Grace soon comes back with her mother and makes the identification complete. We must do nothing to hasten matters or some other paper will get on to the game and spoil our story."

"Even the hospital people don't suspect yet," said Larry. "They don't know who their patient is—not even his assumed name."

"I guess things are coming our way. We'll clear up the Potter mystery and the Sullivan disappearance at the same time. I believe Sullivan is in with Mr. Potter on some deal. It begins to look suspicious. The friends of Reilly and Kilburn are all at sea. They'd give a thousand dollars to know which way Sullivan was going to jump."

Larry paid an early visit to the hospital the next day to see how matters were progressing. His friend, the nurse, greeted him with a smile.

"I guess you can have an interview with your mysterious acquaintance now," she said. "He is much better than we expected, and, for the first time since the operation, talks rationally. We have not questioned him yet. We are not as curious as you newspaper men are."

"Well, we have to be," responded Larry. "Can I go up now? Has the man who was here yesterday been back?"

"Yes to your first question, and no to the second. You can go up. The superintendent left word to that effect. He is quite friendly to you."

Larry started for the ward where Retto was. His heart was beating strangely. He felt that he was on the verge of solving the secret of the millionaire's disappearance and restoring to Grace her father.

As he approached the bed where Retto reclined he was motioned back by another nurse on duty there.

"He has just fallen asleep," she said. "When he awakens again you may speak to him. He has been writing a letter."

Larry was disappointed. He looked at the man who had played such an important part in the disappearance of the millionaire, and who, he believed, was destined to assume a much more important rôle. The patient's beard and moustache had grown since the accident, and the smooth-shaven man was no more. Instead, Larry saw before him a person who, as he recalled the photographs of Mr. Potter, bore a remarkable resemblance to the millionaire.

Of course, Mr. Potter had only a moustache and no beard, but aside from that Larry was positive that, lying on the bed in front of him, was Grace's father.

Victor Appleton

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