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Text - "The Secret Pact" Mildred A. Wirt


Then he raised his hand in friendly salute and turned toward the house. "Poor Mr. Judson," she thought. "So discouraged and yet so gallant! How can Pauletta be completely blind to his suffering? Doesn't she realize?" Penny did not regret having kept the young woman's secret, for she felt that the revelation of their meeting would only add to Mr. Judson's troubles. Pauletta represented his entire life, and if it developed that she had acted unbecomingly, the shock might be a severe one. "I can't believe that Pauletta would steal," she told herself. "She must have had another reason for wearing the disguise." Penny was satisfied that if Mr. Judson had not interrupted, the young woman would have explained her puzzling actions. Therefore, she was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She made up her mind that she would return as soon as she could to talk privately with Pauletta. The Parker house was dark and deserted when Penny let herself in with a key. Her father had not expected her home so early and, disliking an empty house, had remained away. There was no telling where he had gone. After preparing a belated dinner for herself, Penny spent an hour with her studies. However, her mind kept reverting to the events of the day. A great deal had happened. Her meeting with Peter Fenestra had been interesting. Anchor Joe's mishap worried her, and she remained disturbed by the threatening message left on her desk. "Could it have been written by a prowler in the building?" she mused. "Ever since we started the paper I've felt that someone was hiding there. It may be a scheme to get me away." Before dropping off to sleep Penny made up her mind that the following night she would set a trap for the intruder. Taking Louise into her confidence, she made careful plans. Preparing a tasty lunch, the girls wrapped and laid it conspicuously on the counter of the downstairs advertising room. "Now the stage is set," declared Penny. "Louise, you go upstairs to my office and tap on the typewriter. I'll hide here and see what happens." After Louise had gone, Penny secreted herself in a storage closet not far from the counter. By leaving the door open she could see fairly well in the dark room for street lights cast a reflection through the plate glass windows. The minutes stretched into a half hour. Louise's typewriting, at first very energetic, began to slacken in speed. Penny moved restlessly in the cramped quarters. She had not imagined that waiting could be so tedious. An hour elapsed. Far down the street a clock struck ten times. With a weary sigh Penny arose from the floor. Inactivity bored her, and she no longer could sit quietly and wait. As she started from her hiding place, intending to call Louise, a door opened at the west end of the room. Instantly Penny froze against the wall, waiting. A flashlight beam played across the floor, missing her by a scant two feet. Penny, her heart beating at a furious rate, remained motionless. She could see the squat, shadowy figure of a man moving toward her. Boards squeaked beneath his weight. Midway across the room, the man paused, evidently listening to the steady clatter of Louise's typewriter. Satisfied, he went to the window where he stood for several minutes watching street traffic. As he turned again, the beam of his flashlight swept across the front counter, focusing upon the package of food. The man gave a low exclamation of pleasure. With the swiftness of a cat he darted to it and tore off the paper wrapping. Penny waited until he was eating greedily. Then stealing along the wall, she groped for the electric light switch. As she pressed it, the room was brilliantly illuminated. At the same instant, the girl gave a shrill whistle, a signal to Louise that the culprit had been trapped. The man at the counter whirled around, facing Penny with startled dismay. He was a gaunt, unshaven fellow in his late fifties with shaggy hair, and soiled, unpressed clothing. Before he could retreat, Louise came down the stairway, blocking the exit. "What are you doing here?" Penny questioned him. "Why did you steal my lunch?" The man's lips moved nervously but no sound issued from them. "Shall I call the police?" prodded Penny. She gave him a severe glance. "No, don't do that," the man pleaded, finding his voice. "Don't call the police. I'll go. I won't bother you any more." "Why have you been hiding in the building?" "Because I have no other place to sleep, Miss. The cops chase you off the park benches." Penny was surprised by the man's speech which belied his disreputable garments. His tone was well modulated, his manner respectful. "You've been living in this building a long while?" she asked curiously. "Maybe six months. I sleep down in the furnace room. I didn't do any harm." "You're hungry, aren't you?" Penny inquired, less severely. "Yes, I am, Miss. Lately I haven't been eating any too often." "You may finish the lunch," said Penny. "And there's a thermos bottle of coffee under the counter." "Thank you, Miss, thank you. I surely am obliged." With a hand which trembled, the man poured himself a cup of the steaming beverage. "You haven't told me your name," said Penny after a moment. "Folks just call me Horney. Old Horney." "What is your real name?" "Mark Horning," the man answered reluctantly. "I'm curious to learn how you've been getting in and out of the building." "With a key." Old Horney devoured the last bite of sandwich, and poured himself a second cup of coffee. "A skeleton key, you mean?" Penny asked in surprise. "No, Miss. I have my own key. In the old days I used to work here." "You're a former Press employee?" "Sure, I know it's hard to believe," Old Horney replied, "but when a fellow's out of a job and money, it doesn't take long to go to seed. I lost my place when Judson closed down." "And you've been unable to find other work?" "In the past nine months I've worked exactly six days. No one hires an old fellow any more. If I could have kept on with Judson three more years I'd have been due for my pension." "What work did you do on the paper?" asked Penny with growing interest. "I was a pressman." Penny shot Louise a glance which was almost triumphant. Her voice when she spoke held an undertone of excitement. "Horney," she said, "it's barely possible I may be able to find some sort of work for you later on. Do you mind writing your name on this paper?" The old man took the sheet she handed him, without hesitation scrawling his name, Mark Horning. Penny studied the writing a moment. To her relief it bore not the slightest resemblance to the warning message left on her desk the previous night. "Horney," she questioned, "did you ever try to frighten me away from this building?" "Oh, no, Miss," he replied. "Once I tiptoed up to your office. When I saw you were working there, I slipped down to the basement again." "Did you ever place a note on my desk?" "I never did." Penny was satisfied that Horney had told the truth. Yet if he were not the culprit she was unable to guess who had warned her to abandon the plant. "Horney, I've decided that we need a watchman around this place," she said abruptly. "If you want the job, it's yours." "You're not turning me out?" "No, you may stay. I can't promise much of a salary, but at least you'll have a place to sleep and enough food." "You're mighty kind," Horney mumbled gratefully. "Mighty kind." He hesitated and then added: "I promise you won't be sorry you did it, Miss. Maybe you'll find I can be of some real use around this plant. I'm at your service and what's more, I'm for you one hundred per cent."

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