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"Well, if it's a publicity stunt, we'll read all about it in the papers tomorrow morning," said the Inspector, as he took Miss Withers home. Yet, strangely enough, there was no mention of the scene in the theater in any New York daily. A human stooge took the place of poor Ivanitch in the act at the Palace, and the show went on.
Miss Hildegarde Withers and her old friend Inspector Oscar Piper were in the habit of meeting once a week for a mild orgy of spaghetti and the theater. She entered his office at Centre Street one rainy afternoon some days after the tragedy aforementioned, and found him deep in a telephone conversation.
He waved to her and went on talking. "But it's not up to the Homicide Squad! Your friend would do better to see a vet, or get in touch with the S.P.C.A."
Miss Withers was graced with a long and inquisitive nose, and for most of her forty-odd years she had been completely unable to keep it out of other people's business. Her nostrils widened a bit now, as she scented a faint suggestion of the adventure for which she had secretly longed for weeks.
"See him!" she said tersely.
The Inspector looked up at her. "But it's not in my line!"
"It may be in mine," said Miss Withers.
The Inspector shrugged his shoulders and returned to his telephone. "Sorry, Tomlinson. Had a crossed wire. Yes, tell your friend I'll see him. How about Monday?" There was a pause. "Why--yes, I suppose so. He's in the city, you say? Very well, I'll stick around for half an hour, if he can get here by then. Name's Neville, you say? Right you are. G'bye."
He swung around in his chair. "See what you've done? That was Chief Tomlinson of the Bronxville force.Wants me to see a man about a dog. Now we've got to stick around here until dark."
Miss Withers was fumbling in her capacious handbag. She finally found the clipping for which she sought and handed it to the Inspector. He read aloud: "For sale, very cheap to good home, pedigreed 18-months-old terrier, wonderful pet, female, must sell, as dog poisoner in neighborhood, phone Prospect 6-4435."
"I clipped that out of the Times last Sunday," she told him.
"Looking for a mate for Dempsey?" asked Piper.
He smiled, remembering his spinster friend's one unwilling venture into dog-breeding, which had transpired at Catalina Island a year or so before. At the climax of a thrilling series of adventures in murder, the good lady had discovered herself the guardian of a pedigreed wire-haired fox-terrier, the most effervescent, roguish, combative puppy that ever gnawed a slipper.
"I was not," she answered him shortly. "But what do you make of this--and of what happened in the theater the other night?"
"Nothing," said the Inspector. "It happens every now and then that some misbegotten crank takes it into his head to sneak about, poisoning his neighbors' pets because their barking annoys him. This can't have anything to do with the trouble in Bronxville--the phone exchange mentioned is in Brooklyn."
Miss Withers opened her mouth to say something, but closed it again as the office door opened and the uniformed man in the outer office ushered through a quiet gentleman who announced himself as Henry Neville, president of the Knickerbocker Kennel Club. He wore a pince-nez and a worried look.
"I'll wait outside," suggested Miss Withers. The Inspector said nothing, knowing full well that wild horses could not have dragged her from her chair. Neville looked at her through his glasses, and the Inspector motioned him to proceed. "This lady is my unofficial assistant, Miss Withers,"
"Assistant!" muttered the school teacher indignantly. But Neville was getting right down to cases.
"Inspector," he began, "you may not be aware of the fact, but in the last six weeks more than a hundred dogs have been murdered within a radius of fifty miles of this city. This is not the usual matter of a neighborhood crank. With those the S.P.C.A. is quite capable of dealing. But these animals are mysteriously killed, sometimes in broad daylight, by a poison which leaves no traces that veterinary surgeons can discover in the stomach. Sometimes they are even stricken while being walked on a leash by their owners..."
"The Big Bad Wolf," said Miss Withers cryptically. She was listening eagerly.
"I came to you," Neville went on, "because I happen to know the chief of police in my home town, and he promised to use his influence."
"Yes," objected Piper, "but what has the Homicide Squad got to do with suburban dog poisonings?"
"The squad knows poisons," said Neville. "And this may not be a suburban matter very long. Three weeks from today we are holding, or planning to hold, the annual dog show of the Knickerbocker Kennel Club in Madison Square Garden. It has occurred to many of our members that perhaps this fanatic, who has largely confined himself to ordinary mutts on the street, may seize his--or her--opportunity to do wholesale murder among the thousand or so canine bluebloods that will be gathered there. I've talked to private detectives and found them totally incapable of protecting us and our exhibitors. So I ask your advice."
"Here it is," said Piper, biting his cigar. "Call off the show."