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Chapter 15 THE HOUSE IN THE WOODS

At last they had reached their goal, the place which the two spy suspects undoubtedly had been in the habit of visiting regularly every week for months past.

Sheltered by a great rock and the underbrush about it, Jane, with Fleck and Thomas Dean, peered eagerly out at a dingy, weather-beaten frame structure which neighborhood gossip had told them was the sheltering place of the "Friends of the Air." In its outward appearance at least, Jane decided, it was disappointingly unmysterious. It looked to her merely like a cheap summer boarding-house that had gone long untenanted. There was a two-story main building, cheaply constructed and almost without ornament, sadly crying for new paint, and the usual outbuildings found about such places in the more remote country districts.

Still from Chief Fleck's manner she was certain that he regarded their achievement in locating the place as of the highest importance. They had run their two automobiles noiselessly up the lane leading from the main road until they were perhaps half a mile distant from the house and then had concealed them in the woods near-by, being careful to obliterate all traces of the wheel tracks where they had left the lane. Making a détour among the trees they had reached their present position not more than three hundred yards away from the buildings. They had carried the rifles with them, and these now were close at hand, hidden under the log on which the three of them were sitting. Carter, with the other men, under Fleck's orders, had divided themselves into scouting parties and had crept away through the woods to study their surroundings at still closer range while the waning afternoon light permitted.

At first glance one might have been inclined to believe the buildings untenanted. There seemed to be no one stirring about the place, and some of the unshuttered windows on the second floor were broken. The only indications of recent occupation were a pile of kegs at the rear of the house and near-by a heap of freshly opened tin cans. Near one of the larger outbuildings, too, was a pile of chips and sawdust.

"There does not seem to be any one about," whispered Jane. "What do you suppose they do here?"

"I can't imagine yet," said Fleck with an impatient shake of his head. "The fact that this house is important enough for the Hoffs to visit once a week makes it important for us to cautiously and carefully investigate everything about it. It may be a secret wireless plant away off here in the woods where no one would think of looking for it. It might be a bomb factory where their chemists manufacture the bombs and explosives with which they are constantly trying to wreck our munition plants and communication lines. Perhaps it is just a rendezvous where their various agents, the important ones engaged in their damnable work of destruction, come secretly to get their orders from the Hoffs and to receive payment for their hellishness accomplished."

"It's all so funny, so perfectly absurd," said Jane with a nervous little laugh.

"Absurd," cried Fleck indignantly, "what do you mean? It's frightfully serious."

"Of course, I understand," Jane hastened to say. "I was just thinking, though, how funny we are here in America, especially in the big cities. We know nothing whatever about our neighbors, about the people right next door to us. In one apartment we'll be doing all we can to help win the war, and in the apartment next door the people will be plotting and scheming to help Germany win, and it is only by accident we find out about it. Take my own father and mother. They haven't the slightest suspicion of the people next door. They would hardly believe me if I told them the Hoffs were German spies. They see them every day in the elevator. Young Mr. Hoff has been in our apartment several times. My mother has met him and talked with him. I was just thinking how amazed and horrified she will be when she hears about it and learns what I have been doing."

"You are perfectly right," said Fleck soberly. "We are entirely too careless here in America about our acquaintances and neighbors. We know that we are decent and respectable, and we're apt to take it for granted that everybody else is. We don't mind our neighbors' business enough. Nobody in a New York apartment house ever bothers to know who his neighbors are or what their business is, so long as they present a respectable appearance. I know New York people who live on the same floor with two ex-convicts and have lived there for three years without suspecting it. We should have here in America some system of registration as they have in Germany. Tenants and travelers ought to be required to file reports with the police, giving their occupation and other details. If that plan were in use here enemy spies would lack most of the opportunities we have been giving them."

"Yes," said Dean, "you are right. I've lived in Germany. Over there a crook of any sort can hardly move without the police knowing it. Their system certainly has its good points."

"It surely has," Fleck agreed. "If the Prussians' character were only equal to their intelligence they would be the most wonderful people in the world, but they are rotten clear through. They have no conception of honor as we understand it. Only the other day I read of a Prussian officer who led his men in an attack on a chateau, guiding them by plans of the place he had made himself while being entertained in the chateau as a guest before the war."

"Don't you think any of them have a sense of honor?" asked Jane in a troubled tone.

Her mind had reverted, as she found it frequently doing, to Frederic Hoff and the sealed packet he had entrusted to her. He had professed to love her and had demanded that she trust him. Was it, she wondered, all a base pretense on his part? Was he—for Germany's sake—taking advantage of her affection for him to make her the unwitting custodian of some secret too perilous for him to carry about with him? Perhaps that little parcel she was carrying in the bosom of her gown contained the code he and his uncle used? Had it not been for Dean's presence she might have been tempted to take Fleck into her confidence and tell him of the peculiar incident, though in spite of all she knew about him she felt that Frederic Hoff's feeling for her was real, and that toward her he always would show only respect and honor, as he always had done hitherto; and yet—

Before the chief had time to answer her question Dean with a whispered "hist" pointed to a path in the rear of the buildings they were watching. Behind the house two rugged hills, their sides of precipitous rock so steep that they hardly afforded a foothold, came down close together, making a V-shaped cleft through which a narrow path ran in the direction of the river. Looking toward this cleft to which Dean was pointing they now saw a group of workmen approaching the house.

All of them were in the garb of mechanics, yet as they approached in single file down the path, the quick eye of the chief noted that they were keeping step.

"They've all of them seen service," he muttered to himself, "either in prison or in the German army."

Some of them carried kits of tools, and they walked with the air of fatigue that results from a day of hard physical work. They seemed to have no suspicion as yet that they were under observation, for as they walked they chatted among themselves, the sound of their German gutturals reaching the watchers, but unfortunately not distinctly enough to be audible. Dean was busy counting them.

"There are fourteen," he announced, "two more than we were expecting to find here."

"At what do you suppose they are working?" asked Jane curiously.

"Here comes Carter," replied Fleck. "Perhaps he can tell us. His face shows that he has learned something."

Carter, crawling rapidly but silently through the underbrush, approached breathlessly, his sweaty, begrimed countenance ablaze with excitement.

"What's up?" asked Fleck, as soon as he was within hearing.

"My God, Chief," he gasped, "they've got three big aeroplanes out there on a plateau overlooking the river—three of them all keyed up and ready to start."

"Friends of the Air," muttered Fleck; "so that's what it means."

"They've evidently smuggled all the material up and built the three planes right here," Carter went on. "I watched them putting on the finishing touches and testing the guy-wires. There is a machine shop, too, rigged up in one of those outbuildings. The thing that gets me is how they got the engines here. All the planes are equipped with powerful new engines."

"If there are traitors in the army and navy, why not in the aeroplane factories, too?" suggested Fleck. "A spy in the shipping department could easily change the label on even a Liberty motor intended for one of Uncle Sam's flying fields. Even when it didn't turn up where and when it was expected, it would take government red tape three months to find out what had become of the missing motors."

"These machines"—said Jane suddenly, "they must be the 'wonder-workers' old Mr. Hoff was always talking about."

"And that last advertisement we read," Dean reminded them, "announced that the wonder-workers would be ready Friday. It looks as if we got here not a minute too soon."

"You bet we didn't," said Carter. "Every one of those three planes is fairly loaded down with big bombs, scores of them."

"To bomb New York," said Fleck soberly; "that's their plan. Zeppelins for England, big guns to shell Paris, bombs from the air for New York. It's part of their campaign to spread frightfulness, to terrorize the world. Undoubtedly that is the reason Berlin sent Frederic Hoff over here, to superintend the destruction of the metropolis. There have been whispers for months and months that the city some day was to be bombed, but we never were able to discover their origin."

"And not a single anti-aircraft gun or anything in the whole city to stop them, is there?" cried Jane. "Wouldn't it be terrible?"

Fleck smiled grimly.

"Any foolhardy German who tries to bomb New York from the air has a big surprise coming to him—a lot of big surprises. The war department may not have been doing much advertising, but it has not been idle."

"Then we have some anti-aircraft guns!" cried Jane delightedly. "I never heard anything about them."

"That would be telling government secrets," said Fleck, smiling mysteriously, "but I'd just like to see them try it. I have sort of a notion to let them start their bombing."

"Oh, no, we mustn't," Jane insisted. "We mustn't let those aeroplanes ever start. Can't we do something right away to cripple them?"

"There's plenty of time," the chief assured her. "It is best for us to wait until after dark. The early morning would be ideal time for an aerial attack on the city, when everybody is helpless and asleep. There's generally a fog over the river and harbor, too, before sunrise at this season of the year, and that might help them to mask their movements. It would take an aeroplane less than an hour to reach the city from here, so that there is no likelihood of their starting until long after midnight. That gives us plenty of time, and besides we must wait until the Hoffs arrive."

"That will make two more—sixteen of them against our nine," warned Dean.

"We cannot help it how many of them there are," said Fleck. "It is of vital importance for us to know just what their plans are. It is unlikely that they will post guards to-night in this secluded spot, where they have been at work in safety for months. As soon as it is dark we can smash the aeroplanes."

"That will be easy," said Carter. "I know something about aeroplanes. Cut a couple of wires, and they are out of business. Sills, one of my men, is posted on bombs, and he'll know just how to fix the fuses to render them useless."

"What's more," said Fleck, "if I understand German thoroughness, they will go over their final plans in detail to make sure that everything is understood. The darkness will let us slip up closer to the house, and we may be able to overhear what they say. Don't forget, too, that our main job is to catch the Hoffs red-handed."

"That's right," said Dean. "They are the brains of the plot. These other fellows are just workmen taking orders."

"I'm puzzled," said Fleck, "to know what they plan to do with the aeroplanes after the bombing has taken place. There is not one chance in a thousand of their being able to return here in safety without discovery. It will be sure death for the aviators that take up those machines."

"Sure death!"

With a shudder Jane recalled what Frederic had said to her only a few hours ago as they parted—that he was going away and might never return. Was this what he had meant? Was he, Frederic, to be one of the foolhardy three who proposed to forfeit their lives in this desperate attempt to deal destruction from the air on a sleeping city, to wreck innocent homes, to cripple and maim and destroy helpless babies and women? She could not, would not believe it of him. That he had the courage and daring to undertake such a perilous task she did not doubt. She realized, too, that the controlling motive of all his actions was his high sense of duty toward his country, and yet in spite of all that she had learned about the plots in which she was enmeshed, her heart refused to believe that he ever could bring himself to participate in such wanton frightfulness. She recalled the spirit of mercy that he had shown toward herself and Thomas Dean after the accident as contrasted with the brutal indifference of his uncle. She kept hoping against hope that something might happen to prevent his arriving here. Devoutly she wished that she might awake and find that it was all a terrible mistake, a hideous unreality, and that the "Friends of the Air" were not in any way associated with the Hoffs.

Yet her reason told her it must all be true, terribly, infamously true, and that he was one of them, perhaps the leader of them.

One by one the members of the various scouting parties had come creeping in through the forest. All of them verified what Carter had already reported. One man, more venturesome than the others, had even dared to creep close up to the rear of the house and had seen through the window the workmen, gathered about their supper of beer and sausages, toasting the Kaiser with the unanimity of a set formality.

As the light waned, secured from observation by the undergrowth between their position and the house, they sat there discussing plans of action, selecting while the light still permitted the most advantageous posts from which they could make a concerted rush on the plotters. Fleck was insistent that they should do nothing to betray their presence until after the Hoffs had arrived, and Dean once more voiced his protest against Jane taking part in the attack. "I will be of far more use than you with your crippled arm," she resentfully insisted. "I can handle a revolver as well as any man, and a rifle, too, if necessary."

"Dean is right," Fleck decided. "It is no work for a woman. Here is an automatic, Miss Strong. You will stay here until after we have rounded them up. If we get the worst of it, which is not likely to happen, make your way to the automobile and telephone the commandant at West Point."

Reluctantly Jane assented. She realized that further protest was useless. Fleck was in command, and his orders must be obeyed unquestioningly if their plans for the capture of the plotters were to be successfully carried out.

Presently they heard in the distance the sound of an automobile approaching, and soon they could distinguish its lights as it negotiated the rough, winding woodland road that led to the house. A toot from the horn as it arrived brought the men within the house tumbling out the front door with huzzas of greeting for their leaders, and Fleck observed that all the men as they came out automatically raised their hands in salute.

"Ex-German soldiers, every one of them," he muttered.

As the Hoffs got out of the car a shaft of light from the opened front door threw the figures of the new arrivals into sharp relief, and Jane saw, with a shudder of terror, that Frederic was dressed in an aviator's costume. There was no longer any doubt left in her mind that he was one of those going to certain death, and a dry sob choked her.

The Hoffs passed within the house, and the door was closed.

"Now," cried Fleck, "to your stations, men. Each of you take a rifle. You stay here, Miss Strong. Come on, Carter."