Read CHAPTER XV - Penny’s Evidence of Penny Nichols and the Mystery of the Lost Key , free online book, by Joan Clark, on ReadCentral.com.

The bedroom door opened and Max Laponi entered.

Penny Nichols had lowered herself to the narrow ledge not an instant too soon. There had been no time to pull the window down after her.

As she heard the man walk across the room she huddled fearfully against the wall, feeling certain that he would notice the open window immediately. Her position was a precarious one. She dared not move lest even a slight sound betray her to the man inside. On the other hand, it was doubtful how long she could remain where she was without losing her footing. She knew that if she once glanced downward her courage would fail her.

Penny could hear Laponi muttering to himself.

“I thought I left that window down,” she heard him say. “If anyone has been in here ”

He crossed to the bed and ran his hand under the pillow. Penny peeped through the window just as he removed a shiny object.

“Another revolver!” she gasped. “That’s one I missed.”

The sight of the weapon seemed to reassure Laponi for he appeared relieved. He next crossed over to the bureau and searched for the diamond ring. Penny was very glad that she had not touched it.

“I guess everything is the same as I left it,” the man muttered to himself. “Still, I’d have sworn I left that window down.”

As Penny huddled flat against the wall, he moved over toward it. She held her breath, waiting. Would he look out? If he did, then all was lost.

Laponi stood for some minutes at the open window, seemingly absorbed in his thoughts. Then he abruptly slammed it down and turned away.

“That was a narrow escape!” Penny congratulated herself. “If I ever get out of this mess I’ll take care not to get myself into another position like it!”

She cautiously crept along the ledge until at last she was able to stretch out her hand and grasp the sill of the next window. After pulling herself through she quietly closed it behind her. Then she tiptoed to the bedroom door and looked out. No one was in sight.

Carefully secreting the articles which she had taken from Laponi’s room, she darted past his door and safely on to the bedroom which she shared with Rosanna. The latter arose as she burst in upon her.

“How you startled me, Penny.”

She was due for another shock as Penny dropped the revolver upon the dresser.

“Penny, where did you get that thing?” she demanded nervously.

“Not so loud or someone may hear you,” Penny warned. “It came from Laponi’s room, and that’s not all I found either.”

She drew forth the letter and the missing key. Rosanna stared incredulously.

“Surely they can’t be mine, Penny.”

“I suspect they are. Take a look at this letter and tell me if you notice anything wrong.”

Rosanna studied the letter briefly, then shook her head.

“It reads just like the one I received.”

“That’s the point. Notice the name at the top.”

“Why, it looks as if it might have been changed!” Rosanna cried.

“And I think it has been. It’s my opinion that Max Laponi found your letter and the missing key. He’s a rank impostor.”

“Then you believe he is the one who has been frightening the household by playing on the pipe organ?”

“I haven’t made up my mind about that yet,” Penny returned thoughtfully. “But one thing I’m certain about. Laponi is a dangerous man.”

“Let’s get away from here right away.”

Penny laughed shortly. “I should say not! This mystery is growing more exciting every minute. I mean to discover Max Laponi’s little game!”

“But he may harm us,” Rosanna protested. “Especially if he suspects you’ve searched his room.”

“Laponi is armed,” Penny admitted with a frown. “But for that matter so are we.”

“You wouldn’t dare to carry that revolver!”

“I most certainly would. Not that I’d care to use it, but it might serve as protection.”

“It seems to me we should call in the police.”

Penny shook her head. “Not yet. But I do intend to wire my father. I’m going to ask him to learn all he can about Laponi. It may turn out that the man has a prison record.”

“You suspect that because you found the revolver in his room?”

“Well, honest citizens don’t carry weapons without permits.”

“You’re thinking of doing it,” Rosanna challenged.

Penny laughed. “This is an extra special emergency. But I have another reason for believing that Laponi is a crook. I suspect he has a stolen ring in his possession.”

She then told of finding the diamond ring under the dresser scarf.

“All diamonds look somewhat alike,” she acknowledged, “but I’m sure I’ve seen that ring before.”

“Where?”

“In Bresham’s Department Store. I think it’s the same ring that was stolen the afternoon I met you there.”

“Laponi does bear a slight resemblance to the shoplifter,” Rosanna admitted thoughtfully. “Only the store thief was a much older man.”

“Disguised perhaps. Oh, I may be wrong, but at least it will do no harm to have Father look into the matter.”

“When he gets your wire, Penny, he’ll probably be so alarmed that he’ll send word for you to start back to Mt. Ashland at once.”

“Not Dad. He’d rather catch a crook than eat. I’m sure he’ll help me.”

“When will you send the wire?”

“Right away. I’d like to leave the house before Laponi sees me.”

However, as the girls stepped out into the hall a few minutes later they heard loud voices coming up from the living room. Penny instantly recognized Laponi’s sharp tones and paused at the top of the stairs to peer down.

“It’s Max and Caleb Eckert,” she reported in a whisper. “My, what a quarrel they’re having!”

The girls listened for a minute but the voices of the two men died to a low murmur and they could distinguish only an occasional word.

“Unless you want Laponi to see you we’d better slip down the back way,” Rosanna suggested.

Using the rear stairs the girls were able to leave the house without being observed. They drove directly to Andover where Penny dispatched a lengthy wire to her father. She requested him to learn all he could concerning Max Laponi and if possible to send her a complete description of the diamond ring which had been stolen from the department store.

“I wonder why Caleb and Max Laponi were going at each other in such dreadful fashion?” Rosanna mused as they drove back toward the Winters’ mansion.

Penny had been pondering over the same question.

“I suppose Caleb may be suspicious of him,” Rosanna went on when Penny did not answer.

“Possibly. Old Caleb hasn’t acted too honestly himself, Rosanna.”

“I know he hasn’t. He doesn’t like to answer questions and his interest in Mr. Winters’ safe is rather puzzling. It seems to me that everyone at Raven Ridge acts queerly.”

“Including me?” Penny teased.

Rosanna laughed and squeezed her arm affectionately. “Of course I don’t mean you. You’ve been wonderful and I’ll never never be able to repay you for all you’ve done.”

“Nonsense, so far I’ve accomplished exactly nothing. But I have a feeling that before another twenty-four hours elapse things are going to start breaking for us.”

“I hope so,” Rosanna sighed.

Neither Max Laponi nor Caleb Eckert were in the living room when the girls returned to the house. Alicia was reading a book by the fireplace but at sight of Penny and Rosanna she coldly withdrew.

“I’m glad she’s gone,” Penny smiled. “It clears the atmosphere.”

“Must we stay here tonight?” Rosanna asked. “Couldn’t we go to a hotel and come back in the morning? Since I know that Max Laponi ”

She broke off as Penny shot her a warning glance.

“Even the walls seem to have ears in this house, Rosanna. Come outside and we’ll do our planning there.”

They went out into the yard and sat down on a stone bench.

“I know I’m a dreadful coward,” Rosanna acknowledged. “Only I’m so afraid something terrible is about to happen.”

“Now don’t let your nerves get the best of you,” Penny advised kindly. “I shouldn’t have shown you that revolver I found in Laponi’s room. You haven’t been the same since.”

“It wasn’t just the revolver. It’s everything.”

Penny was silent for a moment. Then she said quietly:

“I don’t blame you for feeling the way you do. Perhaps we are taking a chance to remain here tonight. I shouldn’t do it only I feel that it will give me an opportunity to clear up the mystery.”

“But if you suspect Max ”

“I do suspect him of a great many things, but I’m not certain of his game yet, Rosanna. Besides, I must have absolute proof before I dare notify the police. Tonight I intend to watch the mouth of the tunnel.”

“I can’t permit you to do it by yourself. If you insist on taking such a chance I’ll go with you!”

Penny remonstrated but at length it was agreed that shortly after nightfall the two would steal down to the lake’s edge and lie in wait at the mouth of the tunnel for the mysterious ghost to appear.

For a long time the two girls sat staring out across the lake, each absorbed with her own thoughts. What would the night bring forth?

“I believe I’ll walk down to Caleb Eckert’s cabin and chat with him for a few minutes,” Penny remarked a little later as her companion arose from the bench. “Want to come along?”

“No, I think I’ll go inside. The air is growing chilly and my sweater is upstairs.”

“I’ll be glad to wait for you.”

“If you don’t mind, I believe I’ll just rest. You go on alone.”

“You really don’t mind?”

“Of course not. But I doubt if you’ll find Caleb at home. He usually goes fishing about this time of day.”

“Well, I may as well see anyhow. I want to ask him about that picture of Jacob Winters. I intend to keep annoying him until he gives me a satisfactory answer.”

As Rosanna returned to the house, Penny walked swiftly in the direction of the cabin.

“I’m only wasting my time,” she thought. “Caleb has no intention of ever producing that photograph.”

Penny rapped on the door, noticing that it was partly ajar. There was no response. She knocked a second time.

Far out on the lake she could see a small rowboat with one lone fisherman. No doubt it was Caleb, she decided.

She started away from the cabin, then abruptly halted as she was struck with a sudden thought. With Caleb out on the lake she would have an excellent opportunity to search his shack for the photograph of Jacob Winters. She felt convinced she would find it there.

“Entering people’s private quarters seems to be a bad habit of mine,” she chuckled. “Still, it’s all in a good cause.”

Penny surveyed the lake again. The rowboat was nearly out of sight.

After a moment of indecision, she pushed open the cabin door and entered. Caleb had left everything in a clutter and she scarcely knew where to begin her search.

She looked in the desk and in several table drawers. She searched in the magazine rack and even in the kitchen cupboard. She was growing discouraged when she finally opened a closet and peered up at the high shelves. Far above her head was a stack of old papers.

Although Penny had given up hope of finding the picture, she brought a chair and climbing up on it, took down the papers.

As she lifted the stack, an object which had been lying on the shelf was brushed to the floor. She bent down to pick it up. To her amazement and delight it was a photograph.

She stared in disbelief at the man’s face and then turned the photo over to read what had been written on the back.

“Jacob Winters.”

“And Caleb told me he didn’t know where he could get a photograph!” Penny thought indignantly. “All the time he had this one hidden here on the shelf. Why, I’m positive this picture came out of the album Rosanna and I found. Very likely Caleb tore it out himself!”

Hastily replacing the papers on the shelf, Penny tucked the photograph into her pocket and prepared to leave the cabin. She was highly elated over her discovery.

“This will prove quite a valuable addition to my collection of evidence,” she chuckled. “No wonder Caleb was afraid to have me see it.”