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THIS book is a product of a collaborative effort undertaken by Project Gutenberg Australia, Roy Glashan's Library and the bibliophile Terry Walker to collect, edit and publish the works of Aidan de Brune, a colourful and prolific Australian writer whose opus is well worth saving from oblivion.
"I THINK you have the essential facts, of the case now, Mr. Dening," Sir John McNiven, seated at the head of the long boardroom table, sighed, almost in relief. "Of course, you understand there are reasons why we do not wish the matter to become public."
Richard Dening nodded briefly. He quite understood the knight's meaning. He glanced from one to the other of the seven men seated at the table, tensed and expectant. What bond held these seven men together? What common link could there be between them? Normally, they could have nothing in common.
That morning he had received a letter from Sir John McNiven, the managing director of the Altona Trading Company, requesting him to call on him at the company's offices that afternoon. The letter did not state the business Sir John proposed to discuss. Very vaguely worded, it had aroused the barrister's curiosity, causing him to waive his accustomed practice of only acting through the principal's solicitors. He had telephoned a brief acceptance of the invitation.
Immediately on giving his name to the inquiry clerk in the general Offices of the company, he had been escorted to Sir John's private room. The knight had barely taken time to greet him before leading him to the company's boardroom. There he had found the other six men awaiting him. Very particularly he had been introduced to them, one by one.
Most of them he knew by repute, and—Immediately the question formed in his mind. What were these men doing together—in that room?
Although he was familiar with the appearance and reputation of the seven men, with only one had he any acquaintance. That man was Reuben Gray, the younger son of an impoverished house, living on the fringe of bankruptcy; good-looking, debonair, not lazy, but entirely idle; a fashion's darling, more at home in exclusive west-end drawing rooms than in a city boardroom.
The remaining six men were wealthy. Sir John McNiven held large interests in many prosperous companies, although his main activities were centred in the Altona Trading Company, a firm of excellent repute conducting an enormous trade in the East and India. Aaron Parotta was a newcomer in the world of finance. Recently he had come into prominence through the building and organising of elaborate gambling casinos in European pleasure resorts. Rudolph N. Rudder was an American. Rumour held that he controlled big interests in the rum-running organisations that had St. Pierre and Miquelon, two islands in the North Atlantic, for headquarters of their illegal trade.
He had immediately recognised Sydney Kedwell on entering the room. "Black Ked" had an international reputation, and his features had for years decorated the sporting pages of the newspapers. Rising quickly to fame, he had, for three years, held undisputed sway as champion heavyweight boxer. Suddenly he had relinquished the title, to become the controlling force in London's night-club life.
Baron Otto von Rosenfeld was, until that moment, but a name. Very few photographs of the man, who had welded the chemical companies of Germany into a powerful combine, had ever appeared in print. Yet, in the streets of finance his was a name to conjure with. He was enormously wealthy, as wealthy as he was gross of body and full of face.
The last member of the party gathered to meet him was Anton Letoit. Dening knew him to be another quick-rising star in the financial firmament. In Paris he was idolised by newspapers and the unthinking-populace. Rumour credited him with being the brain and moving force behind the stabilisation of the franc. A typical Frenchman in appearance; yet now he sat silent and morose, hardly acknowledging the barrister's advent.
Abruptly Dening turned his attention to the man at the head of the table.
"Please forgive me, Sir John," he spoke slowly. "I can hardly accept your statement as complete."
The knight flushed. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Dening."
"Is it necessary for me to explain?" A slight smile came on the young man's lips. "If so, then—But, let me explain my own position first." He paused, glancing round the table at the men watching him; then pushed has chair back, slightly, from the table.
"As you are no doubt aware, Sir John, I am nominally a barrister. Chance drifted me into another sphere of activity. An unexpected legacy gave me the means to indulge my desires—to allow me to devote my time to an occupation that intrigued me.
"I suppose I must admit that I am a private investigator of unusual happenings, with certain reservations." The smile on Dening's lips broadened. "While practising as a barrister I chanced to elucidate a mystery that had baffled the police. Other matters, of a like nature, were brought to me. I was lucky. I found solutions where others found only failure. I liked the work, the adventure, the possibilities of excitement. Yet I have never relinquished my standing as a barrister. To preserve that status I had to make a rule that I would only act through—and by the direct instructions of solicitors acting for my clients."
"We quite understand that, Mr. Dening." Sir John spoke quickly. "Perhaps you would prefer to consider this conversation as informal and to receive formal instructions through my solicitors?"
"That would be difficult, would it not, Sir John?" Dening professed to misunderstand the knight. "These gentlemen are not members of the board of the Altona Trading Company."
"Is that material?" Reuben Gray interjected hastily.
"Only in so far that any firm of solicitors who required my services would lay the whole facts of the case before me. Sir John stated that I have now the essential facts of the case. I regret that I cannot agree with him."
"If your objections are financial, Mr. Dening—" Sydney Kedwell spoke loudly.
"They are not, Mr. Kedwell." A sharp tone came in the barrister's voice. "Have I to tell you gentlemen that it is just as essential to trust your investigator as you trust your lawyer or doctor, that is, fully and completely."
A long silence followed; then Dening spoke again.
"Perhaps you will permit me to traverse Sir John's statement. I understand that you gentlemen are engaged in an occupation, or, should I say an adventure, of a nature you do not care to inform me of. In the course of that business you came in contact with a person named Matthew Ashcombe—"
"I believed I had explained that, Mr. Dening," Sir John interrupted. "Mr. Ashcombe wrote to me explaining a method by which he could be of assistance to us. He made a definite offer. I placed the offer before my associates and they decided to accept—this person's offer."
"Yet you informed me that Matthew Ashcombe is but a name to you all; that you have never met the man; that not one of you have any knowledge of his personal appearance; no knowledge, even, of his address?"
"That is so, Mr. Dening." Anton Letoit spoke in careful, precise English. "I was in Sir John's company when the letter arrived, and he showed it to me. I advised acceptance of this person's offer. I believe that, in a telephone conversation that happened later, Sir. John invited Mr. Ashcombe to call on him, and he declined."
Sir John nodded. "Matthew Ashcombe definitely stated that he would only deal with us through correspondence, or over the telephone."
"Mr. Ashcombe proposed that you gentlemen remunerate him for his services?"
"Yes, by post."
"By means of a cheque, I presume?"
"He required the payments made by means of bank notes, sent to him through the registered post."
"You accepted that condition?"
"And sent the money in a registered packet. May I ask to what address?"
"To Grays Manor, Grays, near, Ewell."
"To Grays Manor?" Dening turned to face the young society man. "I think, Mr. Gray, that you are the man who can give me the best account of that place."
"Sir John's knowledge is more up to date than mine," Reuben Gray laughed slightly. "Of course, at one time the manor belonged to my family. Over twenty years ago my father sold the estate to Sir John McNiven."
"You live at Grays Manor, Sir John?" The barrister carefully suppressed his surprise.
"I live within half a mile of the manor, Mr. Dening." A slight frown came on the financier's face. "The manor is a ruin, and has been one for many, years."
"Yet Matthew Ashcombe directed that a valuable registered package be addressed to him there?"
Sir John and Reuben Gray both nodded.
"And—the parcel was sent?" Dening accented the question. "I presume the post office returned it to you marked 'addressee unknown?'"
"The packet was delivered and acknowledged," Gray answered briefly.
"I'm sorry; I don't understand." Dening spoke after a considerable pause. "Am I to understand that Sir John forwarded by registered post to this person a package containing bank notes amounting to—" Again he paused, glancing interrogatively at the knight.
"Five thousand pounds," the financier answered reluctantly.
"I am afraid I am very dense," Dening laughed lightly. "Let me put the question in another form. Mr. Ashcombe engaged to perform certain work and in return was to be paid five thousand pounds. At his request that sum, in bank notes of small denomination, was forwarded to him through the post. The address given was a ruined, uninhabitable house. Yet that package was delivered and duly acknowledged."
"That is correct," Gray answered, his voice very flat.
"But—someone must live there."
"That is impossible, the place is not habitable." Irritation showed in the knight's voice. "Grays Manor stands on my land. When I bought the estate I consulted architects, wishing to have the place properly restored. They informed me that it was impossible; that the only thing possible was to pull the ruins down and rebuild to the original design. I then built Upton Lodge about half a mile from Grays Manor."
"You still assure me that a registered packet was sent to Grays Manor, delivered and acknowledged?" Dening waited a moment, then pushed his chair still further back from the table. "Sir John, I regret I cannot accept that explanation."
"Yet we have to accept it," Gray broke in almost roughly, his fair face flushed. "Look here, Dening; I give you my word that what we have said is purely fact. I am not going to attempt an explanation—I cannot."
Dening shook his head slowly. He had to accept Gray's word that the statements made were true; but he was assured, in his own mind, that he had not been told all the facts.
Almost, he was inclined to leave the room; to have nothing further to do with these men. Yet the mystery surrounding the packet of bank notes, the secretive actions of the man naming himself Matthew Ashcombe, intrigued him. If he could make these men talk, some casual, unguarded word might place him on The track of the truth they appeared determined to conceal.
"I cannot refuse your definite assurance." The barrister spoke reluctantly. "Will you tell me, Sir John, was this the last you heard from Matthew Ashcombe?"
"About two months later he wrote me—this." Sir John pushed a letter that lay on the table towards the investigator. "You have read it?"
Yet Dening again picked up the letter and read it carefully. It was very guardedly worded. In view of the previous facts recounted by the knight, in view of the reluctance of these men to explain their common business with the writer of the letter, there underlay the simple words a sinister note.
"We all received similar letters." Gray laughed lightly, as he reached for his pocket book. "I can assure you, Mr. Dening, that all are in identical terms."
"You mean that Mr. Ashcombe applied to each one of you, individually for a loan of ten thousand pounds? Seventy thousand pounds in all?"
A series of nods answered his quick glance around the table.
"May I ask what action you then took? I notice this note is dated over a fortnight ago."
"We decided to forward a sum of money, with a covering letter stating that we did not feel justified in advancing a larger sum."
"You forwarded that money to Grays Manor?"
"I presume in bank notes of small denominations, as before. Was that package also received and acknowledged?"
"The package was returned to me."
"With a message?"
"Yes. The—the man telephoned that the sum was not sufficient, and that he could not accept marked money."
"Got his wits about him," Rudder laughed loudly.
"I suppose you did not think to mark the notes in the first payment, Sir John?" Dening asked interestedly.
"I did." Sir John flushed slightly. "I marked some of the notes and took the numbers of all of them."
"Did you succeed in tracing any of the notes?"
"I did," Kedwell interjected. "Some of them turned up in the receipts of one of my clubs."
"That was a step," the barrister nodded. "I suppose you tried to discover who paid them in."
"Wasn't possible," the ex-boxer laughed harshly. "There's too many small notes floating about a night-club. Besides, my people weren't on the watch; they hadn't been warned; and I wasn't at the club that night myself. I doubt if I should have noticed them if I had been. Sir John told me that he had marked the notes, but I never expected them to turn up at the Blue Heaven."
"Where were you?"
"What the hell's that to do with you?" The man spoke angrily. "Let me tell you, I've other private interests than this game, profitable as it is. I'm not going to tell you my private business, or anyone, not even to catch that skunk, Matthew Ashcombe."
Reuben Gray laughed suddenly. "Nice lot, aren't we, Dening? Dealing with blackmailers—"
"Mind your own damned business." Black Ked was on his feet, glowering angrily across the table. "I don't interfere with your affairs; keep out of mind. Understand?"
Dening's quick eyes caught the warning glance that passed between the knight and the ex-boxer. Kedwell suddenly subsided into his seat. A sudden suspicion, an almost improbable idea, dawned in the barrister's mind. Would that explain the unnatural reticence of these men?
"Let me try to understand." His cool voice dominated the antagonism that was growing in the room. "You wish me to discover a man named Matthew Ashcombe, who gave you an address at Grays Manor, an old ruin. You definitely state that the only clue you can give me is that certain registered packages have been, sent to him at that address and received—"
"There is one other matter on which Sir John has not informed you, Mr. Dening." Gray's tones were uneven. "I think you should know it and, for the life of me, I can't understand why he has not mentioned it. Of course, we agreed that he was to do all the talking, although we all wished to hear what he had to say—"
"And that, Mr. Gray?"
"Just this. After Sir John sent the first bundle of money I suggested that we should take some steps to discover who Matthew Ashcombe really was. You see, giving his address at my family's old home, I was rather interested."
"Well, we got Edward Symonds, the big private inquiry man, to trace the packet of money. I went to Ewell and Grays with him. We saw the registered articles books." The young man paused impressively. "Symonds couldn't find a single soul who knew a about the packet. There wasn't a delivery man who would acknowledge that he had taken a registered package to Grays Manor. He couldn't find a solitary soul at Ewell or Grays who would acknowledge that the packet had passed through their hands."
Dening was bewildered.
"You are assuring me that the package passed through the registered post, yet you and Symonds could not find a postal employee who acknowledged handling it?" he asked.
Gray nodded. For some moments the barrister, sat, considering. Suddenly he looked up at Sir John McNiven. "Sir John, you stated that in the first instance you received a letter from Matthew Ashcombe offering you and your associates certain services. Have you that letter?"
The knight nodded.
"I should like to have that letter."
"I am afraid that is impossible." Sir John answered without hesitation. "That letter contains—er—information that cannot pass out of my hands."
"I want a signature of Matthew Ashcombe."
"There is his signature." The knight indicated the letter that lay before the barrister. "Am I to understand that you will accept our commission to investigate the mystery, Mr. Dening?"
"Yes." Dening stood up quickly, a bright light shining in his eyes. "Yes, I will investigate the problem, and I warn you that I will uncover the whole matter. There is much to be explained, but one thing is very clear."
"And that, Dening?" Gray was on his feet, facing the barrister, a strange tenseness about his rather weak mouth.
"If you really wish to know, Mr. Gray—" For a moment the barrister paused. "If you really wish to know, I firmly believe that Matthew Ashcombe is in this room, at this moment."
RICHARD DENING was smiling quietly as he passed down the steps from Altona House into Arundel Street. In his mind was the spectacle of the seven dumbfounded men in the boardroom of the Altona Trading Company; yet, with their outward show of astonishment he believed to be mingled some sense of fear. He had not spoken on sudden impulse, or at the urge of a newly formed theory. He had decided to undertake the inquiry some time before he left the room. His final questions had been carefully calculated to evoke some show of emotion from the men gathered about the table.
Now he wondered if he had succeeded. Had he been able to read more than astonishment into the glances that had followed him from the room? For some moments he stood on the pavement, deep in thought, then, glancing at his watch, walked up the slight incline to the strand. There he again looked at his watch. Should he go back to his chambers and wait for some move, he believed would be made by one of the men he had just left, or immediately start on the plan that was slowly forming in his mind?
A moment's thought and he raised his stick, hailing a passing taxi. He gave the address of the Karmel Club as he entered the vehicle. During the short drive he forced the problem he had undertaken to solve, from his mind. For the moment he would neither wait for his opponents to move nor take any definite step himself. He wanted more information; information that only one of the seven men could provide and Reuben Gray was a member of the Karmel Club.
In the club he sought a quiet corner where he could keep a watch on the members entering the club, then abandoned, himself to reflections. The story Sir John McNiven had told that afternoon had completely intrigued him. Obviously much had been left unsaid; much that was of importance to him in his investigations; much that bore on the connection that bound these men of diverse views and objectives in one common tie. What mutual interest linked these men together? He knew that, individually, they were wealthy, with the exception of Reuben Gray; that collectively they represented a very large power in the financial world. Rapidly he scanned his knowledge of them.
Rumour reported that most of them were none too scrupulous in their methods of conducting business; yet, not one of them had ever wandered outside the rather fragile barriers of commercial morality—or, if they had, they had succeeded in not being found out. He knew that to succeed in his quest he had more to do, than to uncover the identity of Matthew Ashcombe. He had to find the common bond that held these men; men who distrusted, if they did not absolutely hate, one another.
Yes; he was certain that "hate" must be applied to the major emotion that linked these men. Whatever interest had brought them together, hate had replaced it—hatred and fear. That he had read in their glances while he probed the strange story Sir John McNiven had told him, relating to Matthew Ashcombe, blackmailer.
A happy family. Dening smiled grimly as he reviewed his clients. A gambling house manager; a rum-runner of prohibition America; an ex-boxer, night club proprietor; and three financiers, serving opposite national interests. Lastly, a young man, reputed to be financially embarrassed. The younger son of an impoverished house; a loiterer on the fringe of society, swimming with the current, yet owning no visible means by which he kept afloat.
Truly a happy family; so united that they could not depute any one or more of their number to interview him. So distrustful of each other that they had to sit and watch—listen to all that was said.
Again Dening saw, mentally, the gross unwieldy body of Baron Rosenfeld, eyes half-closed, yet probing the hidden meaning of every word that was spoken around him; the sharp ferret eyes of the Frenchman, who had broken the silence with one short statement.
He laughed gently. Had he deceived them? Did they believe that he would proceed on the quest they had set him, blindfold. He asked himself the question: Would he have taken the commission they had offered if they had acted differently? Honestly, he answered himself—he would not.
In spite of his preoccupation, Dening's eyes had searched the moving throng for the man he sought. At half-past six he shrugged slightly and rose from his seat. Reuben Gray would not come to the club that evening. Possibly he had some social engagement. He mounted the wide stairs to the dining room. On the threshold he paused to scan the tables, still seeking his man.
"Lo, Dening." He turned, to face a tall military-looking man, leaning heavily on a stout stick. "Dining with anyone?"
"No engagements, colonel. Going to dine with me? Delighted. Come on, François always keeps a corner table for me."
Dening was genuinely pleased to meet the old man. Colonel Middleton was always an interesting companion. Tonight he was specially welcome, for he was a connection of the Gray family and might possibly be able to impart information of value, if properly handled.
"Well, m'boy?" Colonel Middleton looked up sharply when he had satisfactorily settled with the club waiter the important question of the moment and had time for minor affairs. "What's the latest scandal? Still probing mysteries."
"Yes." The barrister decided on a bold stroke. "Perhaps you can help me, if you will. I'm engaged on a matter that has some relation to the Gray family's old estate. You are some connection with the family, I believe?"
"Grays Manor?" The old man peered up sharply from beneath shaggy white brows. "The Grays sold it years ago. Belongs to Sir John McNiven now. What's he been up to, the damned old scoundrel?"
"So that's your opinion of one of our leading financial props," Dening laughed gently.
"Not mine only. It's public opinion, sir. That man will finish up in jail, mark my word."
"He may engage men to keep him out of it, colonel." The younger man paused a moment. He had his guest on the wrong line. Far better he asked his questions direct. "Colonel, what is your opinion of Reuben Gray? You know him, of course?"
"Ought to." For a few seconds Middleton devoted his attention to his plate, then looked up sharply. "Go on, man. I know him. He's my godson, though I ain't proud of the fact. What's he been up to now?"
"Nothing much. Only a sideline on a lost registered letter, but the case has certain uncommon features." Dening tried to make his voice very careless. "I thought I'd like to get a line on him. You see, I don't know him very well; he's only a club acquaintance."
"Not been up to any mischief, has he?" Again the keen old eyes searched the barrister's face.
"Not to my knowledge. You say he's your godson. Then you ought to know him well. What is your opinion of him?"
"Straight, so far as I know. All the Grays are straight; it's their chief failing in this world of crookedness, otherwise they'd be better off. As for Reuben, he's got ability, if the young scoundrel cared to use it; but all he does is to fool about on nothing a year. How he manages I don't know. Last time he honoured me with a visit I offered him a hundred for the recipe. Damned useful thing to have in these days of income taxes, super-taxes and H.C.L. He laughed in my face; blasted young scoundrel; not a bit of respect for his elders."
"I think you said that the Grays had to sell the family estates," questioned the barrister cautiously.
"Grays Manor. Lord, Reuben's got nothing to do with that place. Why, he wasn't even born until long after it was sold. 'Course I know Grays Manor. Stayed there umpteen times when old Sir Luke had it. He was George's father, y'know. Reuben's George's fifth son. George sold the place; no money for repairs, no money to live in it, and the only thing that kept the roof and walls together were the mortgages. Fact."
"Pity," Dening mused. "Believe the place was in the family for quite a time. The Grays were one of the old Surrey families."
For half a minute there was silence, then Colonel Middleton burst into a great guffaw. "Pumping me for the family history." The old man enjoyed the joke thoroughly. "Well, well. What will you young fellows be up to next? I'd have blackballed you here, young Dening, if I'd known you were going to bring shop into the place. Still, just for once, I'll talk."
For a few seconds he devoted his attention to his dinner; then he looked up, a little smile crinkling his eyes.
"Ever been to Grays? Well, it'd interest you. Fine place, if it is a ruin now. That man, McNiven, ought to be scragged for not making something of it; but he says he can't, it's too far gone, and those scoundrels of architects back him up in it. Grays was a damned fine place when I was your age. I stayed there often enough. They got it from one of the Stuarts, something to do with a love affair, I believe, but that's scandal. Anyway, the Grays held the place and quite a slice of the country for quite a while; in spite of their fondness for the pasteboards and the gee-gees. Sir Luke was the last of the bunch to hold it. When he died it went to George, and he found that he'd inherited half the Jews in London, and that's all. Someone had the sense to advise him to sell. Wisest thing he's done. Moved to London and became a guinea-pig. That's all he's had to live on. Married and brought up a family of five, all boys. As I've said, Reuben's the youngest of the brood. That what you wanted to know?"
"Only one thing more, colonel." Dening spoke directly. "How old is Reuben Gray? You said that Sir George sold the estates before Reuben was born, but Sir John McNiven told me to-day that he had only held the place for the past twenty years."
"Oh, he's in it, eh?" Middleton peered suspiciously across the table. "If he told you that he only bought the place twenty years ago he's a liar, but I knew that before. Let me see; Reuben's twenty-eight or twenty-nine. No, twenty-eight. George sold the place two years before he came to live in London and drag his family name through the Throgmorton Street gutters. That makes thirty years. Then he married about a year after he sold the family pride, as well as the family estates, to the Jews; and Reuben was born six years later. Lord! Why it's nigh on forty years since George left Grays. Now, who'd have thought that?"
"Perhaps there was a previous purchaser before Sir John McNiven?" hazarded the barrister.
"Not on your life," the colonel was, positive. "I was at Grays when Sir John came there to look it over. George was living in the lodge, the only place on the land fit to live in. He and the money-knight had quite a set-to and I sat in the window seat and watched it. Thought it'd come to a dust up, and George could use his hands. Anyway, they got to some sort of terms and the lawyers patched up the sale. That what you want to know, young Dening?"
"Nothing more?" Colonel Middleton sat back with a sigh of relief. "Now then, Richard Dening, what's Reuben been up to?"
"I don't know." The barrister smiled slightly. "No, colonel, that's the truth. He's in the affair and yet he's not. So far as I know he's one of the innocent parties. What I've got to discover is the identity of the guilty man."
"The guilty man? Who's that?"
"Exactly what I want to know, but he's not Reuben."
Yet the barrister had a doubt. Could he absolve any of the seven men he had met that afternoon?
"Well, I'll take your say-so." Colonel Middleton rose to his feet. "What are you doing, Dening? How about cutting into a game of bridge?"
The barrister shook his head, pleading urgent business. Obtaining hat and stick, he strolled out on to the streets, turning in the direction of the city.
It was not eight o'clock, and he did not feel inclined for work, although plenty awaited him at his chambers. He had no social engagements, and no urge to seek companionship. Idly strolling through the hurrying pleasure-bent crowds, he came to Temple Bar and crossed the old, grey gates that guarded the Temple. Colonel Middleton had had little to tell him. Only the fact that the Grays Manor estates had passed from the family more than thirty years ago. Why had Sir John McNiven deliberately deceived him in that fact?
And Reuben Gray had sat at the table listening. He had known that the financier had not told the truth; yet he had allowed the lie to pass. Dening wondered how many truths and half truths and deliberate lies had been told him that afternoon.
He walked down the lane some hundred and fifty yards, until almost at the narrow entrance to Fern Court, then stopped abruptly. Something had sharply impinged on the Wall close to his head, dropping to the pavement with a little thud. He looked up. There was a new mark on the old bricks, only about an inch above his head. Some brick-dust had fallen on his shoulder. He brushed it away. Whatever had hit the wall had fallen to the pavement almost at his feet.
A few minutes search and he picked up a nickel coated bullet.
For a few moments he stared around him, amazed. Then he glanced up at the mark again, stepping hack to where he had stood when the bullet struck the wall. Turning carefully, he faced the direction from which he believed the bullet had come. He was facing an open court, the centre of which was occupied by a large fountain, surrounded by potted shrubs and palms.
For a moment he stood peering across the roadway, in the gathering evening gloom, then, seeing some movement among the shrubbery, he jumped forward to run across to the fountain. On the edge of the curb his foot slipped and he fell heavily to the road. At the same time he heard the "phut" of a silenced rifle, and another bullet struck the wall of the house.
Springing to his feet, greatly shaken, Dening saw a man running swiftly down the roadway in the direction of the Embankment Gardens.
FOR a moment Dening hesitated. He would have liked to pursue the man, but he had not a hope of overtaking him in the evening gloom. With a shrug he turned into Fern Court and made for his chambers. As he felt for his key the door was opened, Mick Regan welcoming him with a broad grin on his wrinkled old face.
Mick Regan was well known in the Temple. At one time valet to Sir Vincent Dening, Richard's father, the young man had brought him to he Temple on his father's death. Now, to Dening the old valet was more than friend and valet; he was an integral part of the business of the chambers.
"Gentleman to see you, Master Richard." Mick relieved Dening of hat and stick; then without question picked up a brush and carefully removed all signs of the barrister's fall on the road.
"A Mr. Reuben Gray. Said he knew you, Master Richard, and wanted your advice."
"Reuben Gray!" Dening was surprised. He turned to the study. As he entered the room he saw the young man standing at one of the windows. Hearing the door open, Gray turned and advanced to meet the barrister.
"Your man said you wouldn't be long, Dening." Gray spoke easily. "I thought you would not mind me waiting."
"Haven't been waiting long, I trust?" Dening motioned to a comfortable chair. "Hope Mick looked after you? Ah, I see he did." He nodded at the tray on the corner if the desk.
"Mighty good man, that of yours!" the young man laughed. "Wish I could pick up one like him. The men one gets nowadays—" A shrug completed the sentence.
"Cigarette?" Dening, passed a box. He waited while Gray obtained a light. "Mick said you wanted to consult me?"
"About this afternoon, yes." A frown came on the young man's fair face. "Fact is, Dening, I—we are in a devil of a hole. I didn't like what Sir John said this afternoon—so thought I'd have a word with you on the quiet. Of course, I've got to tail it with the rest of the crowd, but—"
"Rather a secretive lot." The barrister spoke carelessly.
"We've got to be." Gray paused embarrassedly. "You see, while what we're after isn't quite illegal—if it got known—" He hesitated. "—well, it's damned profitable."
"So profitable that Matthew Ashcombe thought his silence worth sixty thousand pounds?" suggested-Dening.
"Seventy—" Gray paused and stared. "Oh, I understand. You're still sticking to that theory of yours?"
"That one of the seven men around that table this afternoon was, or is, Matthew Ashcombe—yes." The barrister waited a moment, then added: "I believe there are others who have a like opinion. Shall I say you, for instance?"
Gray nodded. "Can't get away from it."
"Especially when the address given by Matthew Ashcombe is 'Grays Manor?'"
"What do you mean by that?" the young man asked sharply.
"Very little," the barrister laughed. "Others might think that a place as old as Grays Manor might hold secrets, shall we say—not known to the present proprietor?"
Again there was silence; Dening knew that he had made a point. Gray well knew that among his associates, certain suspicions pointed strongly in his direction.
"Of course there are others of your associates open to suspicion," the barrister continued easily. "Sir John for one. He has lived at Grays for over twenty years, he told me. A rich man, naturally he commands-much influence in the neighbourhood."
"You believe that someone at Grays really received the registered packets and signed for them?" the young man asked eagerly.
"Naturally. But remember, I am at present merely voicing general suspicions. We have no real evidence yet. To consider a third point—can you suggest how those marked notes came at the 'Blue Heaven' nightclub?"
"Kedwell thinks they were paid in by some visitor."
"How many of the marked notes were found?"
"Nine." Gray hesitated, then continued: "I think I see what you are aiming at, Dening."
"They were bank-notes—not Treasury notes?"
"Then the lowest possible value of the nine notes must be forty-five pounds. Surely if one visitor continually changed 'fivers' during the evening he would create comment. The waiters would notice him particularly; possibly become suspicious of the genuineness of the notes."
The young man did not reply.
"Taking my assumptions as correct, then we must conclude that no waiter at the night club noticed a customer repeatedly change bank notes. In that case the notes did not enter the club by the usual channel. We must then conclude they were passed into the club's treasury by someone who knew they were marked and who exchanged them for unidentifiable notes." Dening paused, then added: "Mr. Kedwell stated that he was not at the club that-night."
"You are suspecting him?" A quick light showed for a second in the young man's eyes.
"I am suspecting quite a number of people," the barrister answered promptly. "At present, suspicion points against you, Sir John McNiven and Kedwell—and so far the inquiry has not advanced a single step. Later, others may come under suspicion." He paused. "I don't think, Gray, that you came here tonight to suggest possible identities for Matthew Ashcombe. You mentioned that you were not satisfied with Sir John's statement of the case this afternoon?"
"I believe much was omitted that would help the inquiry."
"Sir John omitted to mention Symonds' inquiry." Gray spoke after a pause. "That is what I came to see you about. I'd like you to have a talk with Symonds."
"For what reason? I gathered that Sir John preferred that I made my own investigations unbiased by conclusions drawn from any previous inquiry."
"Yet Symonds did a lot of really good spade work."
"You were with him while he made his inquiries?"
"I went with him to Grays." Gray spoke confidently. "We thought that my knowledge of the locality might be of assistance to him."
"Yet your knowledge of Grays, and the manor is twenty years old. Would not Sir John have a better grasp of present-day local details?"
"Sir John suggested that I accompanied Symonds. I drove him down in my car."
"Symonds searched Grays Manor?"
"He went over the ruins very thoroughly."
"He made the usual inquiries at the post office; he examined every official who might possibly have handled either of the registered packets?"
"He talked with every official at the post offices at Grays and Ewell." The young man spoke emphatically. "He put both the delivery men at Grays through what was a very close resemblance to the third degree. They both swore they had never seen a registered packet addressed to Grays Manor. They laughed at the idea that they would even take a packet so addressed from the post-office."
"And the staffs at the post-offices?"
"Not one of them would acknowledge ever seeing such a package."
"Then Symonds came back to London. He made inquiries here—"
"At which offices?"
"The East Strand post office. Sir John posted the money there."
"Sir John posted it at the East Strand post-office!" The barrister spoke thoughtfully. "Has he a receipt—but of course he has one."
Gray nodded. "That's all in order," he stated. "We had it on the table when the matter first came up. The receipt is in order, I can swear to that."
"And—the officials at the post-office?"
"That's the strangest, part of the affair. There's the regular counterpart of the receipt in the post-office books; yet every official in the office swears that he never issued it."
"Symonds never let the matter rest there," Dening declared after a pause. "What of the handwriting on the receipt?"
"He went into that." A puzzled frown came on the young man's brows. "In some manner he obtained specimens of all the officials' handwritings. He found a man whose handwriting was exactly similar to that on the receipt, but—"
"Well?" Dening queried.
"That man proved that he was on holidays—over a hundred miles from London—on the date the receipt was issued."
Silence followed, lasting some minutes. Dening was becoming more and more perplexed at the answers to his questions. So far, Gray strongly Incriminated Sir John with the mysterious Matthew Ashcombe. But, Sir John McNiven was a very wealthy man. Twice five thousand pounds would not be sufficient recompense for the loss of his reputation, unless—
Dening well knew that in the City of London many men, accounted wealthy, had at times remarkable difficulties in laying their hands on comparatively small sums of money. Once a reputed millionaire had borrowed a sovereign from him to pay for his lunch, confessing with a laugh that he had not more than a couple of shillings in actual coinage in his possession. But—if Sir John had perpetrated the fraud, how had he worked it?
"What is your opinion of the affair, Gray?" Dening asked at length.
The young man shrugged. "I don't suspect Sir John."
"Yet he knew that he was addressing a valuable packet to an uninhabitable ruin?"
"He drew our attention to that fact, immediately we received Matthew Ashcombe's letter. That is the reason we engaged Symonds. Sir John suggested that we sent the money in the manner Matthew Ashcombe instructed, and then tried to trace him on the receipt of the registered packet. I can't understand how we failed."
"Have you anything to explain personally regarding the affair, Gray?" Dening put the question, very seriously. "Remember, you and Sir John are the only two members of your group, who have any knowledge of Grays Manor. You exonerate Sir John—"
"And myself, so far as I am able," Gray laughed. "Of course, that leaves only Kedwell and—"
"And—Kedwell?" the barrister asked, when the young man paused.
"Kedwell states that he was not at the club the night the money was passed in," reminded Dening.
"He said that—and he will not say where he was." Gray spoke with reluctance. "Look here Dening, it isn't fair to keep you in the dark. I was at the club that night and—and I saw Kedwell there."
"With whom?" A note of excitement came in the barrister's voice.
"With Mrs. Ashford-Lynne." Gray's reluctance to speak showed more plainly. "They were in one of the curtained recesses. They were sitting well back in the shadows and I—and I don't think anyone could have seen them very well. It happened that as I passed the alcove Kedwell lit a cigarette and I saw his face plainly. He—"
A knock came at the door. In response to Dening's impatient permission, Mick entered.
"Excuse me. Master Richard. Chief Inspector Lorrimer would like to have a word with you."
"Lorrimer?" Dening glanced at his companion, who nodded. "Show him in, Mick."
"The Chief Inspector is down in the court, Master Richard." There was excitement in the old man's voice. "He wants you to go down there to him."
"Down in the court? What on earth is he waiting there for?"
"I think, there's been an accident or something, Master Richard. He asks that you will go down to him at once."
FOR a few seconds the two young men stared at Mick in astonishment, then dashed to the door, stumbling down the stairs in their haste. At the house-door Dening, who was in the lead, hesitated, peering out on the faintly lit court.
Fern Court is not wide—a little over sixty feet between the two lines of houses; yet more than a hundred and fifty feet in length. On the west side of the court are two narrow houses, bordering the narrow, six-feet-wide entrance from Temple Lane. At the east end, the court opens on to a wide walk-way, leading up to Fleet Street.
Like many of the Temple Courts, Fern Lane is very badly lit by two inferior-powered standard lamps, placed far on either side of the erection of tubbed plants that decorate the centre of the court. Over the doorways of the houses are old-fashioned, square glass cages, that held oil lamps in the days when they were the only public illumination. Now they were never used.
Under the light-standard at the east end of the court a solitary figure was standing. As Dening appeared on the doorstep the man raised his arm in signal. Before they reached where Chief Inspector Lorrimer was standing the two men saw that at his feet rested what they took to he a bundle of loose clothing. Dening peered down and with a shock recognised that the bundle was a recumbent man.
"Glad you were in, Mr. Dening." The police officer, a short, dark, clean-shaven man with bright black eyes, spoke imperatively. "I knew you wouldn't mind me disturbing you, for that."
He nodded at the man at his feet. Passing the Chief Inspector, Dening bent over the man. He was lying face downwards, one of his arms bent strangely under him. With dawning horror the barrister recognised that from under the body welled out a dark stream of blood. He looked up quickly at Lorrimer. "Murdered?"
"Can't be anything else." The police officer nodded. "I haven't disturbed him yet. By the bye, Mr. Dening, when I asked; your man to get you down to me, I also asked him to ring up the Yard. Hope you don't mind. I've been here all of ten minutes and Mick is the first person I've seen until you appeared."
"Mick?" Dening looked round quickly. "What was Mick doing down here?"
"Said he was going up to Fleet Street to get some tobacco. He came into the Court after I found him." The detective nodded at the corpse. "One night as well be on a lonely country road as in the Temple as this hour of the night."
"It is quiet here." The barrister nodded understandingly. He looked down at the body. "How was he killed? Shot?"
Lorrimer shook his head.
"If you care to kneel down and squint under his chest you'll see the haft of a knife. Stabbed in the chest, so far as I can see at the moment. Awful lights they have here. Can't see a thing."
"There's a powerful torch in my desk." Dening straightened abruptly. "I'll fetch it." He turned towards his house. "If you don't mind, Mr. Dening, perhaps this gentleman can get it; he's with you, isn't he? Perhaps Mick can find it for him."
"Of course," Gray answered quickly. "I'll get it in a jiffy, Dening."
"Mr. Gray—Reuben Gray." The barrister answered the unspoken question in the detective's glance. "He was in my chambers when I got your message. Came down here with me."
"Been in your chambers long, sir?"
"Half an hour or more. Why, Lorrimer?"
"This didn't happen so long ago." The Chief Inspector turned to face the corpse. "I wasn't quite correct when I said that I hadn't touched him. Fact, I did. Thought he was in a fit or faint, and went to roll him over and found—that." He pointed to the blood. "I'm guessing that it happened about half an hour, or a little longer, ago."
"Half an hour?" The barrister looked puzzled. "I came into the court not much over half an hour back. He wasn't there then."
Lorrimer looked inquisitive.
"From the west entrance." Dening laughed lightly and pointed towards the opposite end of the court. "It was dark, even then, but of course this place is always gloomy. I don't think I would have missed him, though, if he had been here then."
"And Mr. Gray came up after you, sir?"
"No, he was at my chambers when I arrived. Mick had shown him into the study. Now you've got Mr. Gray and myself right, what about yourself?"
The detective grinned, clasping his hands before him suggestively.
"I don't think that even you can pin that on me, sir. I came here about ten minutes ago, on my way to your chambers. Saw something lying under this standard and went to it. Made a bit of an examination and then looked round for someone to get a message on the telephone for me. Waited for what seemed like hours and then Mick Rogan came down into the court. I sent him up to you."
"You were coming to my chambers?"
"Well, sir. You've been good enough to talk over a few matters, at times, with me." The police officer grinned. "I'll say that more than once you've given me a new angle on a case—"
"Then you were bringing me one problem to-night, and found another awaiting you?"
"Looks like it." Lorrimer scratched his head. "And I think it's a real problem. It's not often a detective gets on the scene so early. Many a time I've grumbled because I've thought important clues were lost or trampled out because the police have arrived late. This time I'm on the scene within a few minutes of the murder; the first one to discover the corpse and—and the devil of a clue can I see about."
"Perhaps you'll have better luck when we get the light. Ah, here comes Gray."
The powerful light of the electric torch revealed little at the first glance. The man was well-dressed, in a dark blue sac suit. His boots were rather heavy and broad toed. A bowler hat lay a couple of yards away, where it had apparently rolled when the man had fallen.
Lorrimer took the torch, motioning to his companions to stand well back. Directing the powerful light on the body, he scrutinised it carefully, then stepped back some paces, sweeping the light over the flagstones in the immediate vicinity of the body, while slowly circling it and the light standard. He came to a halt before the two men watching him and turned the light suddenly on them.
"Not a sign of a clue about. There's dust on the flagstones, plenty of it, but not a footprint showing. I'll guess he came to the court alone, then someone accosted him. They stood talking for a time, some distance apart, then the other man stabbed him and bolted. But how did he get within stabbing distance without leaving a footprint? Now, what has our friend here to tell us?"
He stooped and rolled the corpse on its back, directing the light on to it. A sharp exclamation from both men behind him, made him look up sharply.
"Know him, sir?" Lorrimer addressed his question more particularly to Dening, yet his keen bright eyes scanned Gray's face searchingly.
"That's Edward Symonds, the private inquiry agent." The barrister spoke positively.
"So you know him," the detective nodded. "And you, sir?"
"Symonds undertook an inquiry for me some few weeks ago." The young man spoke frankly. "I went with him on the inquiry; took him out into the country in my car. Yes, I recognise him. He's Edward Symonds."
"And stabbed through the heart." The detective turned again to the corpse. For a moment his hand hovered over the knife haft. "No, I'd better leave that for the police surgeon. There may be fingerprints, but I doubt it. Even amateur criminals know enough nowadays to wear gloves."
"What was Symonds doing here at this time of night?" Dening spoke almost under his breath.
"Ever come to see you, sir?" The detective looked up inquiringly.
"Sometimes. Symonds was one of the cleverest men in his line."
"Thought so," Lorrimer smiled.
"Thought what?" Gray asked suspiciously.
"Symonds was a bit more than an acquaintance with me," the Chief Inspector spoke musingly. "More than once he mentioned Mr. Dening; had a great opinion of his abilities. Said he'd talked over several of his cases with him. He was down at the Yard yesterday after information. Seemed to be casting about for a spot from which to start an inquiry. I suggested that a talk with Mr. Dening might help. He said that he had to gather a few more facts and then he'd probably follow my advice."
"What was he working on?" Dening asked curiously.
Lorrimer did not reply. He was searching the dead man's clothing placing the articles he took from the pockets, onto his handkerchief, spread on the flagstones.
"Wonder if he was on the same line as myself." The detective mused halt aloud. "Looks very much like—"
"When you have done mumbling to yourself, Lorrimer, perhaps you'll part with a little information. What was Symonds after that you're interested in?"
"Just a guess." The chief inspector looked up with a broad grin. "I came this evening to have a pow-wow with you. I'm guessing that Symonds had the same intention. If this hadn't happened and I'd come to your chambers I'd have found him there."
For some seconds there was silence while the detective completed his task. As he straightened, rolling up the contents of Symonds' pockets in the handkerchief, Dening spoke again.
"You say that you think he's been dead a little more than half an hour. I came home about that time back! Are you suggesting that he followed me down the Strand?"
"Is that the way you came home, sir?" the detective nodded. "That would fit. Symonds' offices are just off the Strand, in Kingsway. Perhaps he was coming down from there to you. More than probable, when he caught sight of you, he was too far behind to catch you before you turned in at this court."
The barrister did not reply. Lorrimer had formed a plausible theory, but it contained a weak spot. The detective did not know of the shot that had been fired in Temple Lane. If Symonds had heard the shot, or seen him fall, he would have run down to him.
If Symonds had been following him. Taking the torch from the chief inspector, Dening bent to examine the body. The man who he believed to have fired the shot, the man who had run down from the gardens towards the embankment, had worn a blue suit. For all he could tell, in the dusk, the man might have worn a blue suit; certainly he wore a bowler hat. He was of about the same build and height as Edward Symonds.
He laughed quietly. Why should Edward Symonds wish to shoot him? The idea was absurd. They had always been on friendly terms. Symonds had assisted him in many inquiries; he had always been willing to listen to the man's problems and help elucidate them. Even while he had been walking home that night he had planned to see the private inquiry agent the next day and secure his services on the quest he had undertaken, the uncovering of the man behind the name Matthew Ashcombe.
A sudden exclamation from Reuben Gray brought him from his reverie. Lorrimer turned sharply.
"Look at that knife, Dening." The young man spoke in little more than a whisper. "I've seen one like it before. I'll swear to that. It's of foreign make, but—"
Again the barrister pressed the button of the torch, directing the light on the dead man's chest. A moment and he shut off the light and turned to the detective.
"For a guess, Lorrimer, I'd look for a Southern Frenchman, or a Spaniard. That knife's not peculiar, except in England. Two years ago, I saw quite a lot of them, while I was on holidays on the French-Spanish frontier. They're favourite tools—and weapons—with the smugglers who infest the Pyrenees."
THE entrance into the court of a group of uniformed constables and detectives stopped the questions on Lorrimer's lips. He went to meet his men and give the necessary instructions for the disposal of the body and the quest of the murderer. For a few moments he watched the doctor making his examination of the corpse, then, after exchanging a few words with him in an undertone, motioned to Dening and Gray.
"If you don't mind, Mr. Dening, we'll go to your chambers. There's nothing for me to do here, now; Sergeant Norris is taking charge. I'd like to ask you a few questions—you and Mr. Gray. About that knife." The last three words were added, almost as an afterthought.
Dening nodded and led the way across the court and up to his chambers. In the study, Lorrimer went directly to the windows looking out on to the court. From there he could see the little group about the dead man. For a moment he stood, pulling thoughtfully at his underlip, then turned to the two men. Dening pointed to the tray on the corner of the desk and the chief inspector nodded thankfully. He felt that he needed a drink.
"So both you gentlemen knew Ted Symonds," he said, after he had slaked his thirst. "And you didn't expect him to call on you tonight, Mr. Dening?"
"No," the barrister answered without hesitation. "Though to-morrow I should probably have looked him up." Both men looked at him, questioningly. Dening was about to make a statement, explaining his intentions, when he thought he saw a warning in the detective's eyes.
"Symonds did quite a lot of work for me, one way and another." He branched on away from what he had intended saying. "He had a large and very efficient staff; that's the reason I gave him my detail work." He laughed at the look of surprise on Reuben Gray's face. "Perhaps I'd better explain, mainly for Mr. Gray's benefit, that while I am known in legal circles as an investigator—a solver of problems—I really only take the facts that others assemble and form them into a connected story that will bear the test of legal trial."
Lorrimer nodded. Dening, in the legal world, occupied the position he, at the Yard, filled. No man could possibly delve into all the byways and false trails of an investigation. That was work for the rank and file. The expert was the man who could take a multitude of varying factors and co-ordinate them into a coherent and puncture-proof story.
"Then, at the moment, you were not interested in any inquiry in which Symonds had a part?" he asked.
"Not to Symonds' knowledge. If he had come here tonight, as you suggest, he was coming on his own business."
The chief inspector nodded; he turned to the younger man.
"And you, Mr. Gray?"
"I think I told you, Mr. Lorrimer; Symonds was recently employed by me on an inquiry." The young man spoke slowly. "The matter was completed and Mr. Symonds received a cheque for his fees and expenses." He paused a moment and then added, "The business I entrusted to Mr. Symonds was partly of a family nature. I should prefer not to state it, unless it is absolutely essential. I don't think it is."
"You say the inquiry was closed and Symonds' account settled?" Receiving Gray's nod of assent, the detective continued, "Then there is no reason, within your knowledge, why Symonds should be in Fern Court tonight?"
"Except the one you suggest yourself that he wished to consult Mr. Dening."
"You thought you recognised the knife the murderer used." Suddenly Lorrimer turned to the barrister. "You recognised the make of knife, Mr. Dening? You said that it was of Spanish manufacture?"
A few moments, and he lifted from the case a sufflator, blowing a cloud of fine white powder over the dark knife handle. Again be bent to examine it. A shake of his head and he turned the knife over gingerly, dusting the powder on the newly exposed surface of the handle.
As the knife turned Dening heard a little gasp. He looked up quickly. Gray's face was ashen white. He was staring at the weapon as if unable to believe his eyes. With an effort he steadied and turned to a side table on which lay his hat and stick.
"Want me any more, Mr. Lorrimer?" He spoke in his usual careless drawl; yet Dening noticed that the lines about his mouth were drawn and hard. "If not, I'll get going."
"Not tonight, Mr. Gray." The detective spoke without looking up. "I can find you—"
"At the Albany." Gray supplied the address. "Queer ending to our chat, Dening."
A slight beckoning movement of his head and Dening followed Gray to the door. It was not until the outer door of the chambers was reached that the young man spoke again.
"Dening, that knife's bound up in what we were discussing this afternoon." His voice was low and eager. "I couldn't say anything before that policeman, but—"
"What exactly do you mean, Gray?"
"That knife! I'll swear I've seen it before, and very recently."
"Be careful." Dening spoke lightly, yet every nerve was tensed. "That knife is a very common pattern. Lorrimer said he could find a dozen like it in London, alone."
"Not exactly like that one." Gray clutched the barrister's arm, drawing him out on the landing. "Dening, I saw that knife yesterday. No, I can't be mistaken. You saw it. Did you notice that flaw on one of the edges; a strange double-nick about an inch and a half from where the haft joins the blade. That's too distinctive to make a mistake over. I tell you I saw that knife, yesterday!"
"Where?" The young man's excitement had infected the barrister. "Gray, you've got to be certain!"
"Certain! I wish I was mistaken." The young man laughed bitterly. "I saw that knife on Anton Letoit's study table when I was with him yesterday afternoon. Man, I sat with it in my hands, playing with it while we talked." His voice ran high up the register. "I don't care what that policeman says; my fingerprints must be all over it—and he knows they're there!"
WHEN Dening returned, to his study he found Lorrimer again standing at the window, looking out at the dimly lit court. As he crossed the room to join the police officer he glanced at the desk. The knife still lay on the blood-stained handkerchief.
Lorrimer half turned at the sound-of the barrister's steps. There was a puzzled frown on his face. He looked towards the knife and nodded.
"Anything there?" Dening's eyes followed the man's glance.
"Not a thing. Of course we don't find fingerprints, nowadays. The detective-story writers have put the general public wise to that precaution, Still—"
He paused, turning again to the window.
"Good view of the court from here, Mr. Dening. See, from this window to where poor Symonds lay is a clear, straight line—and not so far. By the way, your man confirms what Mr. Gray said, that he was only here about ten minutes before you got home. You found him at this window?"
"Almost exactly where you are standing." Dening was puzzled. The chief inspector was speaking inconsequently.
"Notice that knife?" Lorrimer went to the desk, picked up the knife and returned to the window, handing the weapon to the barrister. "Dangerous sort of weapon; and used tonight in a dangerous way." He paused, then abruptly: "Mr. Gray wearing gloves when you entered this room?"
The barrister hesitated to reply. Had Reuben Gray been wearing, gloves when he had come, upon him in that room? He remembered that While he had stood on the landing a few minutes, before, Gray had taken gloves from his pocket. He had been pulling them on when he walked down the stairs.
"Let that pass. I don't want you to answer unless you're quite certain. But in the court I asked you if you had been followed while on your way home—and, you hesitated to answer. I am asking you that question, again, Mr. Dening."
The barrister nodded. He had intended to tell, Lorrimer of the shots fired at him in Temple Lane, when they were alone. Yet he would not mention the inquiry with which he had been entrusted that afternoon. He did not believe that had anything to do with, the shooting.
In a few words Dening repeated the account of his movements that evening, now including the incidents in Temple Lane. Lorrimer listened in silence.
"I thought there was something uncommon about it," he said when the barrister concluded. "You told a straight story—up to the time when speaking of entering the Temple. Then you hesitated and commenced, to pick your word's carefully. So you had the idea that the man who shot at you was Symonds?"
"That idea came to my mind when, we were down in the court—he was dressed very like the man I saw running down the lane; but the idea's absurd. There is no reason why Symonds should want to shoot me."
Yet even as he spoke some instinct warned Dening that he was not reasoning correctly. He was not taking into account the statement made by Sir John McNiven that afternoon. The man had stated that they had engaged Symonds to track down Matthew Ashcombe. But that had been before Ashcombe had attempted blackmail!
The men in the Altona Company's boardroom had stated that they had tried to trace Ashcombe out of curiosity; after the man had successfully accomplished certain work for them. Had that statement been true? Had not the first payments to Ashcombe been blackmail? The possibilities to theorise were endless. He was certain that only a fraction of the truth had been told him that afternoon.
Matthew Ashcombe had undertaken certain work for that group of men. Was the Matthew Ashcombe who had undertaken the work the Matthew Ashcombe who had attempted blackmail in a large manner? He had to consider that possibility. He had to remember that Symonds had been engaged to trace and expose Matthew Ashcombe. The registered mail trick was ingenious. Had Symonds solved that? Had temptation come to him when he had discovered how the trick had been worked. Had he duplicated the trick for his own benefit?
Had Symonds, potential blackmailer of the seven men, discovered that he, Dening, had been commissioned to uncover the blackmailer? Had he, the blackmailer, tried to shoot him in Temple Lane—the one sure way to silence the man whose investigations he feared? The theory was probable.
Yet he had known Edward Symonds well; he had had many dealings with him. He believed he had penetrated the man's character. He believed him honest—he had discovered no signs of criminal tendencies in him.
"No!" Dening turned to the Chief Inspector suddenly. "I was mistaken. I do not think Edward Symonds was the man who shot at me."
"Yet you have not a glimmer of an idea who the man was?"
"Not the slightest idea."
"We've got Gray to consider," Lorrimer mused. "He knows something about that knife; I saw that in his face while he looking at it. Hold a magnifying glass against a dark background, and it makes a fair mirror. Now, just what does he know? But we're getting ahead of things! Let's go back to Symonds."
"When you first told me your movements I though Symonds had followed you down here from the Strand. But the shooting at you in the lane alters that. If Symonds had been trailing you, he'd have seen you Stop and look around; he'd have seen you fall, when you started to run across the road. He'd have come down the lane at the double. He didn't. So we've got to find another theory."
Dening looked at the detective inquiringly.
"Symonds might have come down here after Gray." Lorrimer spoke thoughtfully. "He may even have come here with Gray; that's probable. Anyway Gray comes up here and Symonds waits for him. He doesn't take any particular care to conceal himself. Perhaps he thought you were at home and that Gray was engaged with you. Then, suddenly, you turn into the court. Symonds has just time to dodge into the shadows. You pass into this house and Symonds comes out into the open. He stands under the light standard, looking up at this window." The detective paused. "That's probable. Right under the light is one of the best places to watch from. The shadows from a light above strangely distort. It's almost impossible to recognise anyone standing under a light that way, especially if viewing that person from a height."
"What do you suggest Symonds was trailing Gray for?" asked Dening.
"Perhaps you can find a better answer to that question than I can," Lorrimer laughed slightly. "We'll take the stage as set. Symonds is in the court, watching these windows. Gray is up here, watching Symonds." Again the chief inspector paused. For quite a time he was silent.
"Gray knew that knife; perhaps he had it with him when he came here." The detective hesitated. "There's quite a number of people who are expert at knife throwing—people we don't suspect of that art. For one, I can throw a knife with considerable accuracy. For all I know you can throw a knife as well as I can."
Dening shook his head, smiling.
"Anyway, Symonds came out of his concealment when you entered the house. No doubt Gray saw you enter the court. A sudden rush of anger at Symonds came over him. He saw an opportunity and took it; knowing that within a couple of minutes you would be in the room and create for him a fine alibi. He slid the window open, threw the knife and then lowered the sash, tearing off his glove." Again the chief inspector paused. "Gray took his gloves out of his pocket and put them on when he went out of the door, didn't he?"
Involuntarily Dening nodded. The chief inspector had reasoned truly.
"There's one flaw in your argument, Lorrimer," he said after a pause. "Gray was up here and Symonds was in the court. That knife was plunged right up to the hilt in Symonds' breast. The distance was too far. A knife thrown that distance would only wound."
"Wrong again, Mr. Dening. You're forgetting the fall from this window to the court. Why, the acceleration of the fall, when the knife was thrown would more than compensate for the loss of muscular power. No, Mr. Dening, the case looks fairly complete against that young man. All I've got to do now is to establish a motive."
For some time the detective paced the room, deep in thought. At length his face cleared and he turned to the barrister.
"Mr. Gray said that he had recently engaged Symonds on an inquiry. Do you know what the inquiry was about?"
Dening hesitated. For the time he had no intention of telling Lorrimer of the commission he had accepted from Sir John McNiven and his associates. Later, perhaps, he would have had to take him into his confidence, but for the moment he must keep his own counsel. Still, he could answer the question.
"Reuben Gray told me that he had engaged Symonds to trace a certain Matthew Ashcombe. I believe Symonds failed—" He paused, staring at the chief inspector in amazement. "What do you know of Matthew Ashcombe, Lorrimer?"
"Damned little." The dark eyes of the police officer flashed. "But, I'm thinking that Sergeant Chambers would like to have a talk with that man." He waited a moment, then continued: "We raided the Blue Heaven night club a few evenings ago. Chambers was in charge of the raiding party. Put quite a little flutter up among the angels. Most of them stampeded. In searching the place Chambers found, in one of the curtained recesses, a letter. It was on the table and evidently the writer had left it there when he bolted, before the police charge.
"That letter wasn't addressed to any particular person. Just started Dear Sir.' Rather a strange letter. It was signed 'Matthew Ashcombe,' and across it lay a partially addressed envelope, addressed 'R. G——' A blot followed where the pen had been hastily dropped on it."
"Lorrimer, where is that letter?" Dening gasped eagerly.
"Interested? Well, it's down at the Yard. If you call, Chambers or I will give you a look at it. Not feeling tired?"
"How can anyone feel tired when you're on the go?" the barrister laughed. "What's on your mind now?"
"I like to keep going while the going's good." The chief inspector grinned. "What about a little walk up the Strand—to Kingsway? Symonds' offices are in Royston House. Perhaps there we may find the cause of his death?"
MIDNIGHT was chiming from many clocks when Lorrimer and Dening went up to the Strand from Fern Court.
The barrister was worried and puzzled. He had a certain liking for Reuben Gray, although he was but a mere acquaintance. He had disliked meeting the young man with those other men in the boardroom of the Altona Trading Company the previous afternoon; men whom he suspected of being active on the very shady fringe of commercial morality.
Now Chief Inspector Lorrimer had made out a very strong case against Gray for the murder of Edward Symonds, the well-known private inquiry agent. The case was strong, yet there were still many links, missing. Much depended on what they would, find at the offices they were about to visit. The barrister knew that if their investigations disclosed even a shadowy motive for the murder the detective would take immediate steps and Gray would be arrested.
Lorrimer's piecing together of the events of the evening had been logical. Dening could not get away from the fact that Gray might have murdered the private inquiry agent. Every step that the detective had outlined was possible; more, entirely probable. The one fact that would close the case was a strong motive for the deed.
Dening did not believe that Gray had killed the man. He still possessed the valuable piece of evidence the young man had revealed to him on the doorstep of his chambers. Gray had stated that Letoit had owned the knife with which Symonds had been stabbed. Yet, he had admitted that the previous afternoon he had handled that knife in Lorrimer's study. He had feared, greatly, that his fingerprints were still on it. In his talk with the detective the barrister had suppressed that piece of evidence. Would it weaken, or strengthen, the case against Gray? Might not Lorrimer claim that Gray had brought the knife from Letoit's house?
He was certain that in some way the happenings t Altona House; the shooting at him in Temple Lane; and the stabbing of Edward Symonds were closely linked. Into the problem, complex as it was, came Matthew Ashcombe's attempted blackmail of the seven men, and the strange letter the police had found at the Blue Heaven night-club. What did that letter contain? Lorrimer certainly thought it valuable.
A hundred yards along Kingsway and Lorrimer entered a tall building. At the head of a couple of shallow steps, ornamental ironwork-gates barred their entry. Lorrimer pressed a bell-knob and after a long interval an attendant came to them. A few words from the chief inspector and the gates were unbarred. The man led to one of the elevators and escorted them to the eight floor. There the detective dismissed him, waiting until the lift had descended to the ground floor before moving along the corridor.
The long corridors, branching from the lift-landing, were but dimly lit by a few globes of low pressure. Lorrimer turned to the left and at the opening to a branch corridor suddenly stopped. Dening made to lead on but the detective caught his arm, pointing down the corridor. Now the barrister saw that at the end of the corridor three offices were brightly lit.
Dening wondered. The lights were in the rooms he knew were occupied by the Symonds Inquiry Agency. Who was in those offices? He almost held his breath as he followed silently in the chief inspector's steps. Had Gray, on leaving his chambers, come to Symonds' offices intent on destroying some pieces of evidence that would incriminate him? If he was there, then that would be almost an admission of his guilt.
The Symonds Inquiry Agency occupied the last three rooms on the right hand of the corridor. Lorrimer passed the first two doors and stopped at the third. On the glass of the door was inscribed the name of the firm and underneath the two words "General Offices." He tried the lock, cautiously. The lock-bolt was shot. Taking from his pocket the handkerchief of articles he had taken from Symonds' clothing, the chief inspector sorted out a bunch of keys. Taking every precaution against rattling metal on metal, he slipped, the key in the lock and turned it. Under gentle pressure, the door gave. Thrusting it quickly open, the detective advanced into the room.
There was no one in the General Offices. Lorrimer passed into the other two rooms. There was no person in the offices, yet in all three rooms the lights blazed. For a moment he stood, gazing around him, in perplexedly, then turned and looked at Dening inquiringly.
The barrister shook his head, then turned to examine the room in which they stood. The desk was in disorder, papers littered over it. The chair was thrust back from the desk, as if the occupant had risen suddenly, intending to soon resume work. He went to the door of the office and surveyed the next room. That was in perfect order, so, also, was the general office—except that one of the filing cabinet-drawers was half open. He returned to Symonds' office, crossing immediately to the desk and bending over the papers.
A moment and he drew the chair, to the desk and set down. On the blotting pad were three single sheets of paper. Propped against the inkwells, above the blotting-pad, was an open file. To the right were two other files, both shut. A moment's hesitation and the barrister turned to the three single sheets of paper. A pencilled message on the top one caught his eyes.
It was written on a telephone message form, evidently taken by the switch-attendant while. Symonds had been absent from his office. The wording was brief; a mere statement that Mr. Richard Dening had been called to the Altona Trading Company's offices to consult with Sir John McNiven. He glanced at the date and time, at the foot of the form The message had been telephoned within a few minutes of the hour at which he had reached Altona House!
Who had sent that message? Why had it been sent? What interest had Edward Symonds and his agency in his movements? Again he read the message. The sender had not given a name. On the line where the sender's name should have been written was a pencil dash. Had the switch-attendant forgotten to include the name or had the person who telephoned the message refused to give a name?
Shrugging slightly, Dening placed the sheet of paper on one side. The next document was a closely written foolscap sheet of paper. The first few lines informed Dening that it was an operative's report. He scanned down the lines quickly. Symonds was still conducting inquiries into the Matthew Ashcombe case—although Sir John McNiven and Reuben Gray had assured him that they had given instructions for inquiries to be stopped. This report dealt with an operative's endeavours to trace a Matthew Ashcombe who lived in the vicinity of Gray's or who had lived there within recent years.
The third paper was a single sheet of notepaper—a letter. The letter contained only a few lines. The signature was "Aaron Parota" and the letter was addressed to Anton Letoit. In substance, the letter asked for a loan of sixty thousand pounds to be made available immediately—"on security you are aware is amply sufficient."
For a moment Dening sat back, frowning thoughtfully. These documents were, in some way, connected. It was impossible to believe that Symonds had gathered them by chance on his blotting pad. But, what did they mean? Two of them indicated that Symonds had not dropped the Ashcombe investigation. The third was connected with the seven men he had met in the boardroom at, Altona house yesterday afternoon.
He glanced at the open file above the blotting pad, and stiffened. That folio related to Mrs. Ashford-Lynne and the loss of her necklace at Brexham Court. He remembered the case well.
Mrs. Ashford-Lynne was the widow of Captain Archie Poly Lynne, the younger son of an impoverished titled family. When he died he, to the surprise, of his friends, left few debts and only a modest life insurance for the benefit of his widow. Yet, for three years she had hung on the fringe of society, going everywhere, tolerated, if not wholly welcomed.
Her one valuable possession was a pearl necklace. Through many adversities she clung to it, claiming that the necklace was a heirloom—whether from her husband's family or her own was never clearly stated. The only valuable piece of jewellery she possessed, it was carried round to the various country houses at which she, stayed. Time and again she was warned that it would be stolen, but she always laughed, stating that she would make the thief pay dearly for his crime.
The necklace disappeared while she was on a visit to Brexham Court. Mrs. Ashford-Lynne had been at the Court a week before the theft took place; during that time she had attracted a lot of comment through a rather frenzied flirtation with Morris Pedlington, a young rising politician. Pedlington had been discovered in Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's bedroom early one morning, concealed behind the curtain. Mrs. Ashford-Lynne had raised the alarm that there was a burglar in her room. She expressed the utmost astonishment when the burglar proved to be Pedlington. Many of those who had been aroused from their early morning slumbers by her screams smiled, although General Brexham frowned disapprovingly, and invited Pedlington to an interview in his library.
What the General had intended to say to Pedlington never became known. He had hardly spoken the first sentences when the woman burst into the room with the news that her necklace had been stolen. Furious with rage at her loss, she had denounced Pedlington as the thief.
In some manner the Brexhams had managed to hush up the incipient scandal. Pedlington had left the Court within an hour, and the following day Mrs. Ashford-Lynne returned to London. A week later she wrote Pedlington, stating that she expected him to recompense her for the loss of her necklace—at her own valuation.
Pedlington had come to Dening, an old school-friend. He acknowledged that he had been indiscreet, but claimed that Mrs. Ashford-Lynne had sent a note to him that morning, asking him to come immediately to her room. He had complied with her request, to find the room empty. While he had debated what to do, he had heard the woman's screams in the corridor, and hid. He stated that he had left Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's note on his dressing-table, but when he sent for it, to show Colonel Brexham, it had disappeared.
Mrs. Ashford-Lynne had instructed Edward Symonds to obtain evidence to support a charge against Pedlington. A strange chance had put Dening, who sincerely doubted the lady's integrity, on the right track. During a very uncomfortable interview with the lady, he had convinced her that the pearl necklace had never been stolen; that at that moment the very fine duplicate she had exhibited at Brexham Court was in her possession, and that the original was at her disposal when she repaid the advance for which it was held as security.
"Anything interesting?" A heavy hand fell on Dening's shoulder. He looked up at the smiling face of the Chief Inspector.
"In some ways, yes," the barrister spoke gravely. "Not informative regarding Symonds' death, but interesting regarding the work; he was engaged on immediately prior to his murder."
"Symonds was in this room up to a few minutes before his death," Dening spoke positively. "And strangely enough he was probing into cases he had long since completed."
"How's that?" Lorrimer showed interest.
"Remember the Ashford-Lynne missing necklace affair at Brexham Court?"
"That!" The detective stared. "Pedlington had a narrow shave of standing in the dock, I believe. The matter was compromised in some way, I understand."
"In danger of having to raise an almost impossible sum of money," corrected the barrister. "Mrs. Ashford-Lynne would have come to terms—at the end. Any terms. You see—"
"So, it was that?" Lorrimer shrugged "Blackmail?"
Dening nodded. "Anything interesting in the offices?"
"Not a thing."
"Perhaps this may interest you." The barrister drew forward the operative's report on the inquiries in the Grays district. "Symonds, during his last hours, appears to have been interested in Matthew Ashcombe."
"How does that connect?"
Very carefully Dening went over the happenings of the past afternoon; his interview with Sir John McNiven and the shooting at him in Temple Lane.
"Why the devil didn't you tell me that before?" the Chief Inspector spoke angrily. "Why, this makes—"
"Does it?" the barrister laughed. "To my mind it fogs the matter still more completely. If you want to know why I didn't tell you this before—well, Gray was with us and you'd got a hunch he was responsible for Symonds' death."
"But this doesn't clear him," objected the police officer.
"Not entirely. But it brings a lot of other people into the spotlight, people who might possibly be interested in Symonds' death."
Lorrimer nodded thoughtfully. He stared around the office, a puzzled frown on his face.
"I'm hanged if this case has a starting point at all!" he exclaimed, at length. "There's poor Symonds dead, and not a thing to show why he was in Fern Court tonight."
Dening returned to a further examination of the Margaret Ashford-Lynne file. For a time the Chief Inspector wandered idly about the offices. At length he returned to the private office and stood before the desk, opposite the barrister.
"What's that door?" he exclaimed suddenly. He pointed to a door behind Dening's chair. "Does that room belong to this suite of offices? If not, why the glass panel in the door?"
"Don't know. Don't think so." The barrister pushed his chair to one side and considered the darkened surface of the door thoughtfully. "If I remember rightly, the only lit rooms in the corridor were these three."
Lorrimer went to the door and tried the handle. The door was locked. He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and produced a queerly-shaped piece of steel.
"Useful to have acquaintances in the house-breaking trade," he grinned. "They come in handy sometimes. 'Locky' Smith left this one with me, when he was going for an extended visit into the country—and was polite enough to show me how to use it. I didn't put it in the museum; it appeared to be too handy to lie idle—Ah, that's it!"
While he was speaking he manipulated the little instrument in the lock. A click, and the door swung open under gentle pressure, Lorrimer ran his hand up the lintel, within the room. A lamp on the desk came to life.
The two men found themselves looking into another office; an office furnished in a similar manner to the one behind them. A chair prevented the door being opened more than a few inches. Reaching into the room the Chief Inspector swung the chair aside and walked in, closely followed by Dening.
"Whose office is this, I wonder?" For a moment he stood, scanning the room, then his eyes went to the desk. "Jove! Look here, Mr. Dening—at that sheet of paper on the blotting-pad. Remember Symonds' habit of drawing linked triangles as he talked. There's quite a number of them there. I'll swear he occupied this room also. Lord, how I've chaffed him about those triangles. Told him he drew them unconsciously because he was also messed up with those rotten divorce cases. The eternal triangle, y'know."
Dening nodded absently; scanning the room eagerly. Suddenly he gripped Lorrimer's arm, pointing to a lady's hand-bag, lying on the corner of the desk.
"Some client's forgotten her bag." The Chief Inspector moved to pick it up. He stopped with an ejaculation of horror and surprise. "Here, Mr. Dening, look."
He led round the desk, Dening following closely. While from the door the room appeared to be in good order, on the other side of the desk was chaos. A chair lay on its side, one leg broken. A small table had been roughly forced into the knee hole of the desk. On the carpet lay a young woman, face downwards, her left arm extended, the hand resting in a pool of blood.
WHAT had happened in that room? For a full minute the two men stood looking down on the woman, then Lorrimer sprang forward, kneeling by her side.
Was she dead? Very gently he slipped his hand under her, feeling for her heart-beats. For a moment his fingers registered no movement then, as he accidentally pressed against her, she moved slightly, a small moan escaping her lips.
Immediately Dening went to the detective's side. He drew her hand from the blood, wiping it clean with his handkerchief. Very gently the men lifted her and carried her into Symonds' private office, laying her on the couch.
"What does it all mean?" the barrister questioned in a low voice.
Lorrimer did not answer. He wag flicking water on the girl's face. Already she was showing signs of returning consciousness.
"She'll do now. Let her alone for a few minutes." The Chief Inspector spoke at length. "We don't want her to know anything about that chamber of horrors until she has fully recovered."
The barrister nodded. For a moment he hesitated, then took from the desk the bunch of keys Lorrimer had taken from Symonds' pocket He found the key that locked the door and replaced the keys on the desk. He turned and looked at the girl on the couch.
"Who is she?" he asked.
"Don't know." The police officer's eyes never left the girl's face. "Jove she got a whale of a blow! What with? A sandbag? I wonder! No, not that!" He looked round at the barrister. "Haven't a ghost of a notion who she is; have, you?"
Dening shook his head. Then he remembered the bag on the corner of the desk in the other room. Taking the keys he unlocked the door and brought out the bag, locking the door again. A slight search of the bag and he turned to the police officer, bewilderment showing on his face.
"But she's not Mrs. Ashford-Lynne," he muttered.
"Who?" The Chief Inspector was instantly alert.
Dening turned the card he had taken from the bag to face the Chief inspector. It bore the name: "Mrs. Ashford-Lynne."
The detective nodded, then turned to watch the girl again: A moment and he went into the strange office when he returned he looked considerably less perplexed.
"Thought it wasn't a sandbag," he said. "Wrong place on the head for a sandbag to land unless—.No, even if she heard her assailant, it wouldn't have landed there unless he'd been only about three feet high and left-handed. There aren't many thugs of that sort about."
Dening was about to ask questions when the girl suddenly opened her eyes, looking inquiringly about the room.
"Where am I?" she asked faintly. Her eyes met Dering's. "Who are you?"
"Only a lawyer." The young man smiled down on the girl, reassuringly. "You've had a nasty tumble and we brought you in here. My companion? He laughed lightly as the girl's eyes passed to the dark, saturnine face of the Chief Inspector. "Oh, he's quite harmless. Only a police officer—Chief Inspector William Lorrimer, of New Scotland Yard. You know the place I mean; that ugly red building close to Westminster Bridge. Oh, I know he's frowning, but that's not for you. He's just trying to imagine how you could come such a tremendous cropper."
"But I was pushed," The girl spoke uncomprehendingly. "I was just entering the room when someone pushed me—.and—I don't remember anything more."
Lorrimer nodded. "You've got it about right, miss. You struck your head on the edge of the desk and went out. Do you know who pushed you?"
"No." The girl put her hand, uncertainly, to her head. "I remember turning the handle of the door and pushing it open. There was no light in the room, although I could see the light in the next room, through the glass door. I went to feel for the switch when someone caught hold of me and pulled me violently into the room. I tripped and and fell and—and—" She made to try and sit up. "I think you should lie still a little longer." Dening drew a chair to the side of the couch, motioning to the chief inspector to seat himself. "You see, even a blow from a stationary desk can hurt."
"It does," The girl was holding her throbbing head.
"Is—is it only a bruise?"
"Only a bruise, and not a very big one," Lorrimer spoke reassuringly. "But it seems to have put you to sleep for quite a while. Do you remember what time it was when you came here?"
"The clocks were chiming half-past nine when I came into the building," she answered promptly.
"Awfully awkward this question and answer business," The barrister spoke flippantly. He had to keep the girl's thoughts away from the bloody scene in the next room. "Suppose I introducer myself. I've already introduced Lorrimer and he doesn't seem inclined to reciprocate. I'm Richard Dening, a barrister, sometimes called Dick, especially by male acquaintances I'm not intimate with, and who wish to borrow money. You—" he hesitated expectantly.
"I am Ira Canning," the girl replied simply.
"Good. Now, Miss Canning, we're all acquainted. I think I should warn you that Lorrimer is one of the most inquisitive men I've ever known; always asking questions."
"You are trying to tell me that Mr. Lorrimer wants to question me." The girl laughed lightly as she struggled up to seat herself in one of the corners of the lounge. "Why—" She gazed about her in bewilderment, "you've shifted all the furniture. The desk—it stood over there."
"You've been in this room before?" The barrister spoke quietly.
"No. Only when I came here tonight to see Mr. Symonds." She hesitated. "I remember, the desk was there. I saw it for one moment when the lights came on. I—"
"Perhaps it will be better if you start by telling us why you came here," the barrister interrupted gently. "Did Mr. Symonds send for you to come and see him tonight?"
"Yes." The girl hesitated a moment. "I got his letter when I arrived home to dinner, and it was very important for me. He said that he had work for me and and—I'm out of a job. He wrote that he wanted someone at once that that he would be at her office until very late tonight. So I thought I would try and see him tonight."
"Quite right." Dening expressed warm approval. "Always strike while the iron's hot, they say. I don't know why but the person who invented the wisecrack must have known something. You came to the city from—" He paused suggestively.
"From Brixton. I live at Parkview Mansions."
"Mr. Symonds sent you a telegram, I suppose?" Lorrimer interposed.
"No. He sent a letter by hand. I was out when it arrived, and whoever brought it slipped it under my door."
"What work was Mr. Symonds offering you?" Dening disliked the idea of this girl being mixed up with the sordid work of an inquiry office.
"He said that he wanted a confidential secretary stenographer." Again Ira hesitated. "I don't know why he wrote to me, for it was quite a while since I saw him last and I didn't know that he knew I was out of work."
"Who were you working for, when you met Edward Symonds?" The chief inspector spoke quickly.
"Mrs. Ashford-Lynne. I was her social secretary."
In spite of his control, Dening gave a little gasp of surprise. Why was this woman intruding so greatly into the happenings of the past few hours? It was more than a year since he had last thought of the woman and during that tune her name had hardly entered his memory.
"So you were Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's social secretary?" The barrister repeated musingly.
"She discharged me." The girl spoke quietly, her lips curling scornfully. "She said that she could no longer afford to keep a social secretary."
"Let's get back to to-night," Lorrimer interjected. "You told us, Miss Canning, that Mr. Symonds sent for you that you came here immediately, arriving at this building about nine-thirty. You came in here—"
"No." The girl spoke positively. "I did not come into this office. It was an office very similar to this, but—but it was all the other way round—" She turned to Dening. "Do you understand what I mean?"
Before he answered, the barrister glanced at Lorrimer, who nodded.
"No, it was not this office." Dening replied slowly, trying to make his voice as reassuring as possible. "We brought you in here when we found you insensible." He paused, then continued "We did not find you in Mr. Symonds' office, you—"
"Oh, I remember." The girl was recovering quickly. "I was in the office without a name on the door. But that is one of Mr. Symonds' offices. In his letter he told me that if the general office door was shut and locked to go in at the door of an office three doors before it; cross to a door between that room and the next and he would let me into his office. He called the room I would enter his 'private clients' room."
Lorrimer nodded understandingly.
"What happened next?" he asked.
"When I came up to the door I saw that Mr. Symonds' offices were lit. I went to the general office and found the door fastened. Then I went to the door of the room three doors away. The room was in darkness, but the door was on the latch. I opened the door and felt for the light switch. Just as I pressed it someone caught hold of me and flung me into the room. Something hit me on the head and I became unconscious."
"You saw nothing unusual in the room?" Dening asked quickly.
"No, why?" Ira paused, looking at him questioningly. "Was there anything unusual in the room?"
"Have you the letter from Mr. Symonds, the letter asking you to call to-night?" Lorrimer evaded the girl's questions.
"It is in my bag." She glanced at the bag on the desk.
Without a word Lorrimer handed, her the bag. She opened it, and looked up startled.
"This is not my bag." Carefully she scanned the bag and its contents. "It is not my bag, but it is very much like it."
"There are cards in that bag belonging to Mrs. Ashford-Lynne." Dening's voice was studiously careless.
"Mrs. Ashford-Lynne." The girl stared then looked down at the bag again. "Yes, this is her bag. She liked mine so much that she bought one as like it as possible. Why—" She hesitated, staring from one to the other of the men. "Was—was it Mrs. Ashford-Lynne who threw—"
"From the present evidence it appears so." Dening's laughter detracted from the seriousness of his words. "But, you must remember that when one is startled, even a little push can do quite an amount of harm. Mrs. Ashford-Lynne might have been in that room—"
"In the dark?" interjected the girl.
"—and hearing you enter, tried to get away unobserved." The barrister ignored the girl's interjection.
"But—but where is my bag?" The girl was startled.
"I am afraid it is not in the next room." Lorrimer spoke uneasily. They had to prevent the girl entering the next room. Following on the severe blow on the head the shock of the blood and disorder might cause her serious trouble.
"I think we had better get Miss Canning home as soon as possible," Dening interposed. He turned to the girl. "If you will allow me, I will telephone for my car, and take you home. At this hour of the night—"
Involuntarily the girl glanced down at her wrist watch; to give a little cry of horror.
"Why, did I cut myself when I fell?" She held up her wrist for the men's inspection. The little gold watch and its band were covered with half-dried blood.
"So sorry, Miss Canning." The barrister spoke quickly. "Lorrimer, you cut your hand just before we found Miss Canning. You covered her wrist with blood when you helped me carry her in here."
For a moment his tall form hid the detective from the girl's eyes, as he moved to the desk and the telephone. When the chief inspector again came in the girl's view, he had his pocket handkerchief strapped roughly round his hand.
Dening called his chambers and instructed Mick Regan to bring his car to Royston House. Then, for the next ten minutes he set his keen wits to entertain the girl and prevent her asking awkward questions, or thinking of her experiences in the other room of that suite of offices. Laughing gaily, the three went down to the street. A few seconds and the car stopped at the curb.
The girl was very silent during the short drive to the southern suburb. Just before he parted from her, at the door of Parkview Mansions, Dening asked the question that had been in his mind for some time.
"Miss Canning, why did you disbelieve Mrs. Ashford-Lynne when she I told you that she was too financially embarrassed to retain longer your services as social secretary?"
For a moment the girl looked at him curiously, then laughed.
"Really, Mr. Dening." She hesitated, then laughed again. "I don't suppose I am betraying secrets by telling you. Only the day before Mrs. Ashford-Lynne made that statement she banked a very large cheque, I saw the cheque, but she didn't know I did."
"A very large cheque," Dening mused. "Did you see the amount and the signature of the drawer of the cheque, Miss Canning?"
Then at the girl's quick glance of astonishment he added, "I assure you I am not asking the question out of mere curiosity."
For a moment the girl hesitated; then turned to him suddenly.
"I don't think you are asking me questions out of idle curiosity, Mr. Dening. The cheque was drawn by Mr. Aanon Letoit and the amount was five thousand pounds."
IT seemed to Richard Dening that he had hardly fallen asleep before Mick Regan was beside his bed, awakening him with the information that Chief Inspector Lorrimer was in the study, awaiting him. He rolled over and looked at the bed-table clock. It was barely eight o'clock.
Grumbling at the uneasy consciences possessed by police officers, that did not permit them to rest for a level eight hours per night, Dening sought the bathroom, calling to Mick to serve breakfast and to inform the detective that he would be with him in ten minutes. A few minutes beyond that time he entered the sitting room, to find Lorrimer seated in a deep chair, immersed in the newspapers.
"Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Dening." The police officer looked up with a grin. "Good for you, you're not at the Yard. There you learn to take your sleep as you can get it."
"What's your trouble?" The barrister nodded towards the sideboard. "You look as if sleep and yourself were strangers. Suppose food has been in the same category. Help yourself man. If you think I'm going to discuss murders before I'm fed, you're' badly mistaken."
"I thought we might discuss a murder while you fed." Lorrimer took a chair at the table. "Have a nice drive to Brixton last night?"
"So, so." The barrister, attacked his breakfast determinedly. "Got home somewhere about three o'clock. By the time I got to bed and asleep Mick was knocking at the door, stating that you were in the study."
"So she does live at Brixton?"
Lorrimer looked up quickly. "That was one of the things I came here to ascertain. I phoned the Brixton station this morning to keep an eye on Miss Ira Canning. Just a chance. She might have given me a false name and address and changed your directions after you left Kingsway."
The barrister looked up in surprise. "You're damned suspicious at the Yard," he grinned. "What's the matter with Miss Ira Canning? Appears to me to be a very nice girl."
"That's what I want to know. So she told you her full name? By the way, she took Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's handbag home with her last night."
"No she didn't." The barrister rose from the table and went into his study, returning in a few minutes with the article. "I took it from Symonds' offices, inadvertently. Escorting the lady home, one naturally assumes that she has a bag. I picked this one up from the desk and stuffed it in my pocket. When I offered it to her at her door, she refused it; reminding me that she had lost her bag."
For some time the detective devoted his attention to his plate. "Rather strange, those handbags."
"Handbags?" Dening looked up in surprise.
"Handbags, yes," Lorrimer grinned. "You said just now that we men usually assume that a lady has a handbag. We found one last night. That belonged to Mrs. Ashford-Lynne. We have to presume that Miss Canning brought one with her to Symonds' offices—"
"She said she did."
"Yet, when we discovered her we didn't find her bag—we found Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's."
For a moment the barrister stared. He had missed the significance that was attached to the handbags.
"Looks as if we'll have to presume that both Mrs. Ashford-Lynne and Miss Canning went to Symonds' offices last night," the barrister spoke. "Can we reconstruct anything from that?"
"I think we may take it that Mrs. Ashford-Lynne called on Symonds first. The offices were locked—"
"Except the door of the darkened room," reminded Dening.
"Ur-r." Lorrimer looked up quickly.
"Miss Canning stated that she turned the handle of the door and opened it."
"That's so," the detective nodded. "But, possibly the door of that room was open when Mrs. Ashford-Lynne went there. We don't know whether Symonds had made an appointment with her or not. Anyway, we have to assume that she arrived first. Possibly she heard the 'tap-tap' of the girl's heels as she walked down the corridor and switched out the lights—didn't want to be found there. She waited by the door, and when the girl entered caught her by the arm, swung her across the room and darted out into the corridor. Miss Canning falls against the desk and is stunned, allowing Mrs. Ashford-Lynne to make a safe getaway. I think we may safely assume that is what really took place."
"Possibly," Dening agreed, "but in your reconstruction you've left Symonds out of your reckoning. Was he there to meet Mrs. Ashford-Lynne?"
"She might have obtained a key in some manner and gone there on her own account," hazarded the detective.
"You've forgotten the lights through the offices."
Lorrimer nodded. "Did you look at the files on the desk?" the barrister asked after a pause. "I did. The last file Edward Symonds was working on related to the old Ashford-Lynne necklace. I'm suggesting that Mrs. Ashford-Lynne had an appointment with Symonds; possibly made after he had sent that letter to the girl. I believe that woman was with Symonds for, some considerable time before the girl arrived. Something occurred to cause Symonds to leave his offices. There your theory comes in, Lorrimer. Symonds may have left Mrs. Ashford-Lynne in his offices, to await his return. Why, I don't profess even to guess. At the same time, Symonds and I did a lot of work together. He may have come down to the Temple to consult me on some matter. Don't forget, I was mixed up in that necklace case. Fit your reconstruction to that and we may have a good guess at the truth."
"Plausible," the detective nodded. "But you've omitted to account for the broken furniture and the blood. There was blood on the carpet; you can't get away from that. Quite a large quantity, and there wasn't a corpse. Any explanations?"
Dening made a gesture of despair. Yet an explanation lingered in his mind. Symonds might have been killed in his offices and his body taken to the Temple. If that was true, then what part did the woman bear in the tragedy? Obviously, while she could have murdered the man she must have had an accomplice to convey the body to the Temple.
How far had they gone towards an explanation of the mystery. Ignoring what tragedy had occurred in the fourth office, they had a fair explanation of the movements of the actors in the happenings immediately preceding the discovery of Symonds' dead body. But, they had not explained the blood, the evidences of a terrific struggle in that room. Unless they could fit that into their reconstruction, it was useless.
"Suppose you had a talk with that girl on the way to Brixton?" Lorrimer spoke after some minutes. "Did she say anything, that might help to an explanation?"
"No." Then Dening remembered the girl's last remark. "Yes."
Tersely he recounted again the events of the pat twenty-four hours for the chief inspector's benefit, now speaking fully of his interview with the seven men in the offices of the Altona Trading Company. Faced with the death of the private inquiry agent, he felt that he could no longer conceal the details of that interview. It appeared inexplicably entangled with the murder.
When he came to the account of his short conversation with Reuben Gray just, outside his chambers' door, the detective betrayed great interest. His lips pursed in a soundless whistle when Dening spoke of Gray toying with the fatal knife in Letiot's study. At the mention of the cheque for five thousand pounds drawn in Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's favour by the Frenchman, he sprang to his feet.
"Jesse, Mr. Dening! And you've kept that under cover all night."
"One half the night," the barrister laughed. "Don't forget, Lorrimer, this information came to me in bits and had to be fitted into a connected story. I've had to sort it out from quite a lot of irrelevant facts."
"Well, you've made quite a story of it." The detective resumed his seal and his breakfast. "Now, read me the riddle."
"Give me an explanation of how Matthew Ashcombe is able to abstract registered parcels from the care of the postal authorities; how Symonds' office came to be in that state of broken furniture and blood; an explanation of Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's call on Symonds, and why he left her in his office while he came down to Fern Court, and I'll oblige." The barrister laughed shortly.
"I can't." The chief inspector spoke decidedly. For some moments he was silent, then looked up.
"I saw the Assistant Commissioner early this morning at his home—in, fact, he was still in bed. I asked him to let me handle the case personally. He agreed. There was one matter on which we were in doubt."
"We came to the conclusion that you were pursuing some line of inquiry connected with Symonds' work immediately prior to his death. We believe that Symonds was working on a similar line of inquiry, independent and unknown to you."
Dening nodded, as the chief inspector looked up inquiringly.
"We were in doubt whether you would consider Symonds' murder an integral part of your inquiry." The police officer paused for quite an appreciable interval. "Look here, Mr. Dening, I am not going to hand it to you wrapped up in tissue paper and tied with fancy string. Here's the question that the Assistant Commissioner and I want an answer to: Are you interested in the cause Symonds' murder—or, I should say, in the identity of the murderer?"
"I am," the barrister answered without hesitation. "I believe, as you do, that Symonds' death is intimately connected with the Matthew Ashcombe inquiry. I'm going out for both crimes, and, by hook or crook, I'll get the straight, true story, Mark me, I say 'story,' not 'stories,' for I believe that before I get to the end of both trails I'll have only one story to tell, although there may be quite a lot of incidental matters intruding."
"Good," Lorrimer thrust back his chair and rose from the table. "I—"
"Mrs. Ashford-Lynne to see you, Master Richard." Mick Regan spoke from the door.
The two men stared in perplexity.
"I showed her into the study. Master Richard," the old man explained. "I told her you hadn't been up long and wasn't properly dressed, but she said that didn't matter; that she wanted to see you, important, not your clothes. She seemed rather excited and snappish, if I may say so," the men laughed. Dening had a vivid remembrance of the woman's imperious manner. No doubt she had tried to overawe and bully Mick.
"Know her, Lorrimer?"
"Don't think so." The chief inspector grinned. "You'll have to see her, I suppose."
"I shall see her," Dening decided. "She's too intimately connected with this mystery to be ignored; besides, she must have some purpose for coming here. Then—"
"Well?" The police officer looked at his companion questioningly.
"You're a distant connection of my family," the barrister laughed slightly. "You live at—yes, Glasgow is far enough away; I doubt if Mrs. Ashford-Lynne has ever been half that distance from London. Yes, you're Dr. Watson, from Glasgow, and not too bright in the 'nut' region. That do?"
"Right." The detective grinned. "I'm to play Dr. Watson to you, Sherlock Holmes. Get ahead with it."
As he entered the study Dening hesitated for a moment, scanning the woman seated beside the desk. She looked up as the two men entered, nodding, indifferently, to the barrister, but subjecting the chief inspector to a prolonged and almost insolent stare.
She was a little woman, slight, yet well-formed and very blonde. Dening judged that she could not be under forty; yet, when under discreetly shaded lights she could well pass for a women in her late twenties. Although he had known Archie Poly Lynne indifferently well before his marriage, he had only met this woman once. That was at the very uncomfortable interview when he had to explain to her that her attempt to blackmail Morris Pedlington had failed.
"I wish to speak to you alone," Mrs. Ashford-Lynne spoke impatiently, barely acknowledging the barrister's bow. Her voice was low and even; some would have called it pretty, ignoring the harshness that underlay her tones.
"Dr. Watson, of Glasgow, a distant cousin, Mrs. Ashford-Lynne." Dening motioned towards the chief inspector. "I did not think you would object to him being present. He is very interested in my work."
For a moment the woman hesitated; a small smile came on her thin lips. Dening flushed. He could read what was passing in her mind. She believed he feared to be alone with her.
"I want you to undertake an inquiry for me, Mr. Dening." The woman completely ignored the chief inspector.
"I am not a private inquiry agent Mrs. Ashford-Lynne," Dening spoke coldly. "My work is that of legal consultant to solicitor and fellow-barristers, mainly on criminal problems."
Mrs. Ashford-Lynne stared at him a moment, in mock awe; then laughed gently.
"What a mouthful," she mocked. "Am I to gather from all those words that you refuse to help me?"
"For long I have understood you to be a client of Mr. Edward Symonds."
"Mr. Symonds is dead."
"You read the papers, then, Mrs Ashford-Lynne?"
"Who doesn't?" She shrugged. "Mr. Symonds was supposed to have been killed." She paused. "Was it in your chambers, Mr. Richard Dening, or only in the court below?"
"Is that all you know, Mrs. Ash ford-Lynne?" the barrister smiled. Already he had succeeded in rousing the woman's quick temper. "If you are interested and will step to the window, you will see the light-standard—to the left—under which Mr. Symonds was found stabbed."
"Am I to understand that, when you read in the morning newspapers that Mr. Edward Symonds had been murdered, and therefore could not continue the commission you had entrusted him with, that you decided to honour me?"
"Commission that I had entrusted him with—?" Fear showed in the woman's face. "Mr. Dening—"
"But, Mrs. Ashford-Lynne, you were with Mr. Symonds, at his offices, to a very late hour last night. In fact, I believe he left you in his offices when he came down to Fern Court. I suggest that you were awaiting his return." Lorrimer spoke impatiently.
"Did you have an accident last night, Mrs. Ashford-Lynne?" Dening suggested, when the police officer paused. "I hope you did not cut yourself very severely when you fell and broke that chair. Oh, by the bye," he turned to. Lorrimer. "My dear Watson, I left Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's vanity bag on the breakfast table. Do you mind fetching it? I am sure she values it, and would like me to return it to her as soon as possible.".
"Remembered it, Sherlock, and brought it with me." The chief inspector dragged the dainty article from his pocket. He appeared to be very awkward and as he placed the bag on the desk it slipped from his fingers, the clasp opening and most of the contents spilling on the desk and the floor.
"That's careless, Watson." The barrister went quickly round the desk, stooping, with the detective, to retrieve the multitude of trivial articles with which the bag had been filled.
A letter had drifted under the desk. To retrieve it, Dening had to go down on hands and knees. For a brief moment he scanned the address. He knew the handwriting, yet he could not, for the moment, place it. Then, as he was handing it to the woman, memory returned. That letter had been written by Sir John McNiven.
"Awfully careless of Watson," he apologised to the woman, who was storing her articles in her bag. "Are you sure there is nothing missing? Now, as regards that commission you were so good as to offer me. I am afraid—"
"I have reconsidered the matter, Mr. Dening." The hard note predominated in the woman's voice. "As you—guessed, I had consulted Mr. Symonds. Now, however, I shall not act—at least for the present."
"That may be a wise decision." Dening bowed gravely. He looked up to see Mick in the doorway. "Is your car in Temple Lane, Mrs. Ashford-Lynne?"
For the moment the woman hesitated, then turned to the door. As she passed from the room she staggered slightly; recovering almost immediately, and went out.
"The lady seems perturbed." Lorrimer spoke thoughtfully.
"She is." A glint of excitement gleamed in the barrister's eyes. "She was greatly perturbed before she came here—so agitated that she inadvertently slipped on her evening shoes again, instead of her day shoes."
"What do you mean?" The chief inspector swung round quickly.
"Ah, my dear Watson." Triumph sounded in Dening's tones. "If you had stooped before the lady, as I did, to retrieve her knick-knacks, you would have discovered that the lady wore those shoes when she visited Edward Symonds last night; and—that on the delicate satin are minute drops of blood."
LORRIMER left Dening's chambers a few minutes after Mrs. Ashford-Lynne had taken her departure. He had promised the barrister to have the woman watched. There was no possible doubt, in the minds of the two men, that if she would she could explain much that was indecipherable to them at that moment.
Mrs. Ashford-Lynne had been in Symonds office when the man had left to come down to Fern Court. Dening believed that before the inquiry agent had left his offices he and the woman had had a long conference.
Yet, had Symonds left the woman in his offices? He knew that Symonds had left the door of the clients' room unlocked for Ira Canning's entry. If he expected the girl to call on him, they why had he left the woman in that room? He knew that the two women were acquainted, for Symonds had seen the girl when she had been in Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's employ. Did he plan for than to meet? The barrister could hardly believe that.
There was another possibility. He had to believe that Mrs. Ashford-Lynne and the inquiry agent had talked in the latter's offices that night. Had they finished their business and left the office together; Symonds to come down to the Temple to consult him, the woman for her home? Had she, after she had parted from Symonds, returned to the offices, suddenly determined to await his return? Had she found the clients' room door unlocked, and entered? If so, then it was possible to reason on from there on the lines Lorrimer had laid down. But, even then, that did not explain the signs of a struggle in that room.
During some part of the evening a fight had happened in that clients' room. Had Symonds been one of the participants? Was it because of what had happened during the quarrel and resultant trouble that Symonds had resolved to come to him? There was a possibility. But, in that case, Symonds would never have left the woman waiting amid that scene of chaos. He would have locked the door, until he had made up his mind what action to take.
A theory, startling and bizarre, flashed into, the barrister's mind. Ira Canning had given him evidence to show that the woman and Letoit were acquainted. The Frenchman had paid her a very large sum of money. Reuben Gray had stated that the knife with which Symonds had been stabbed had lain on the man's desk. Could he, on those facts, reconstruct the crime with Letoit as the murderer?
Mrs. Ashford-Lynne had received a large sum of money from Anton Letoit. For what reason? Had the woman held the man to blackmail? That was possible. Dening believed that the woman had few scruples; that she acquired money in every possible way. Had Letoit followed her to Symonds' offices, suspecting that she was planning to bleed him for still larger sums of money? Had some Latin emotional wave swept over the man, causing him to attack the woman? Had Symonds intervened, to receive the fatal knife in his chest? Had Letoit been the person who had conveyed the inquiry agent's body to Fern Court? That was a feasible explanation of the scene in Symonds' offices.
Theories and possibilities passed through the barrister's mind as he completed his dressing after Lorrimer had left him. He had to decide on a course of action. Definitely committed to the unmasking of Matthew Ashcombe, he had now engaged to assist in the pursuit of Symonds' murderer. The two cases appeared dissimilar, yet an inner instinct told him that in some intangible manner they were definitely linked.
His thoughts went to the girl he and Lorrimer had found on the floor of that blood-spattered room, the previous night. They had questioned her gently, fearing for her health if they applied any too great pressure. What could she tell them? One definite link she had established before he left her. That was the connection between Letoit and her former employer. Could she add further to that? Turning from his bedroom, Dening decided that his first action should be to see the girl immediately.
Passing through his study he caught sight of his morning mail stacked on his desk. It was not a large mail, and would only take him a few minutes to scan. He sat down at his desk and opened the envelopes. At the bottom of the pile lay a large envelope, addressed to him and marked personal in a large sprawling writing. Slitting the envelope he drew out a thick ornately-engraved card.
It was an invitation to visit the Blue Heaven night club. For a moment the barrister sat, frowning thoughtfully at the card. What did it mean? Turning the card carelessly between his fingers he found some words scrawled on the back:
"Hope to see you at any time convenient.—S.K."
So Sydney Kedwell had something to tell him, some matter he had not thought wise to mention in the board room of the Altona Trading Company. Dening smiled grimly, when he remembered Reuben Gray's visit was followed by the murder of Edward Symons. What would follow "Black Ked's" revelations? What had the ex-champion boxer to tell him?
Against him was the matter of the marked bank notes. Possibly he had realised that his explanation of their arrival at the night club was not too plausible; he might want to add further explanations. Certainly a man of any mental calibre would guess that, as matters stood, he must be under direct suspicion.
While Dening meditated over the card, Mick Regan entered the room to inform him that the car was in the lane. Dening rose from his desk, giving the man certain instructions for the day. Mick nodded eagerly. He was never so happy as when engaged on some investigation.
Entering the car, Dening drove down to the Embankment and turned towards Westminster Bridge. As he passed Scotland Yard he looked up at the many windowed red building. Somewhere in that place were being woven the skeins that would bring Symonds' murderer to the scaffold. Almost Dening raised his hat to the building. While not absolutely Infallible, Scotland Yard was as near infallible as anything earthly could be.
Crossing the bridge, the barrister sped through the southern suburbs As he entered Brixton Road he automatic ally slowed the machine drawing towards the curb. A few yards past the theatre he recognised Ira Conning walking towards him. He brought the car to a halt immediately before the girl.
"Why?" She glanced up, startled, then flushed. "Mr. Dening." For a moment she hesitated. "Were you coming to see me?"
"I was." The barrister looked at the girl with admiration. The previous night, amid the horror and gloom of the scene of the tragedy, he had dimly recognised that the girl was remarkably beautiful; but, at that time he was enthralled and enmeshed with the problems that surrounded him.
Now, in the broad light of day, he recognised and bowed before her beauty. She was not more than twenty-one or twenty-two; tall she yet barely reached his chin; very finely and perfectly formed, she carried herself with lithe gracefulness, her step smooth and carefree. Her bright hazel eyes met his in fine companionship.
"You are going to town, Miss Canning? Why, then—" He turned eagerly towards the open door of the car. "Will you allow me to drive you in? As you guessed, I was coming to see you."
For a moment the girl looked straightly at him then, without a word, turned and entered the car.
"Thank you, Mr. Dening."
She noticed the little sigh of relief with which she sank on the soft cushions. Sending the car forward, he circled the road, heading hack for the city. Once in the line of traffic he had time to look at his companion again. The girl was staring straight ahead, a little frown on her brows.
"Going to work, Miss Canning?" he asked somewhat awkwardly.
"I think I told you and Mr. Lorrimer last night that I was not in work, Mr. Dening."
The barrister flushed. What a fool he was, making inane remarks of that sort. She had repeated the statement regarding her lack of employment while on the drive to Brixton early that morning; yet now he was inquiring whether she was on her way to work.
"Perhaps you have something in view;" he suggested, after a moment's pause. "The morning post may have brought you luck."
She smiled, rather bitterly. "Lately my luck has been distinctly bad," she said involuntarily. "Last night—"
"I hope that blow on the head hasn't troubled you, Miss Canning," He turned to face her quickly.
"Not the blow." She spoke almost in a whisper.
For a moment she did not reply, then laughed suddenly.
"You are a terribly direct person, Mr. Dening. If you want to know, I was walking into the city to call on a friend."
Again the barrister was silent, frowning thoughtfully. A sudden suspicion came to him. Furtively he scanned the girl's face.
"You said you were walking to the city," he ventured.
Ira did not answer.
"I see you are not carrying a handbag."
"I told you, last night, that I had lost my bag." Petulance lay in the girl's voice. "Is that what you came to see me about, Mr. Dening?"
"No." Suddenly he recovered his self-possession. "When I saw you walking down Brixton Road I noticed that you were not carrying a bag. I should have left you Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's bag last night. I had it with me, and forgot."
"Why should you leave Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's bag with me?" The girl asked crossly.
"Because that bag contained a sum of money." He did not look at the girl as he spoke.
"Do you think I would use that woman's money?" Ira spoke crossly.
"In this world we have to do many things that are sometimes distasteful. You mustn't forget that it is possible that Mrs. Ashford-Lynne took your bag from Symonds' office by mistake." He paused. "You said just now that you were walking to the city. It is quite a long distance from Parkview Mansions."
For an appreciable time the girl remained silent, then laughed freely.
"I think you have missed your vocation, Mr. Dening. You should have been a detective—not a barrister."
"I have been credited with the former occupation—on occasions."
"Then you know—" For a moment she hesitated. She turned on the seat to face him—"You guessed that my lost bag contained all my money?"
"I think I—that something in my chambers told me that this morning." The barrister spoke slowly. "There I was quite a number of things I should do immediately, yet—yet, I had the impulse that I must come to see you at once." He paused "You were walking to the city, to see a friend. Will you be very angry if I conclude that you were visiting that friend—for a loan?"
For a time the girl was again silent; then shrugged slightly.
"You are terribly direct, Mr. Dening." She paused. "Do you want me to admit that your deductions are correct?"
"Then—" He paused quickly. No, he could not offer this girl money. She would reject it without hesitation. Yet she confessed that she was penniless. Quickly he branched away from the subject. "You told me that you were not working. Well, what about a holiday? I have to run a short distance into the country on business. To Ewell, in fact. Why not come with I me? We shall be back early in the afternoon, and then you can visit your friend. A drive through the country will do quite a lot to counteract that blow on the head last night, and—and you will have time to think what is the best course to take."
For more than a mile the girl was silent. Already in the distance they could see the slope up to the crown of the bridge. Dening lifted his foot slightly, slowing the car.
"You really have business in the country, Mr. Dening?" The girl glanced at him curiously.
"I will make an affidavit to that effect." He grinned down at her. "Besides, perhaps during the day we may be able to think of some means of recovering your lost handbag."
She looked up at him inquiringly.
"Chief Inspector Lorrimer appears to think that Mrs. Ashford-Lynne was in Edward Symonds' offices last night. You told me that your bag is very similar to hers; perhaps she took your bag by mistake."
Ira nodded. "You think that it was Mrs. Ashford-Lynne who pushed me last night?"
Dening nodded. "Then—direction Ewell?" he asked.
"Direction Ewell," she smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Dening. I shall enjoy a drive in your car."
The barrister turned into a side street, circling through a maze of narrow streets back to the main road. For a few moments he was silent, then started to talk on inconsequent subjects, intent on taking the girl's mind from her troubles. Under his keen play of wit, and Dening could be a very interesting companion when he chose, he soon had his companion laughing and chatting merrily. Throughout the outer suburbs Dening let the car out, drawing up at Ewell before the doors of the Royal George Hotel.
"Chief Inspector Lorrimer quite spoilt my breakfast this morning," he lied gracefully. "I really cannot absorb food and horrors at the same time."
Ira laughed. In the dining room of the popular country hotel the barrister found his suspicions confirmed. The loss of the bag, containing most, if not all, of her store of money, had caused the girl to make but a sketchy breakfast. She tackled the elaborate late breakfast the barrister ordered with spirit and real appetite.
A short rest and again they sped on through the country. Outside Ewell Dening turned into a maze of country lanes. He came on a wide road and descending a steel hill ran into the little village of Grays.
Half a mile past the village he again brought the car to a halt. On both sides of the roads were thick woods, broken on the left-hand side by ruined wide gates, of which little but the stone pillars remained. The space had been roughly boarded, but a few boards bad been broken out, permitting ingress.
"Grays Manor." Dening answered the girl's look of inquiry. "One of the landmarks of England's past. The Grays were, in their day, powers in this countryside; they ruled the lands—and they were very wide—in almost feudal state. Today—" he paused. "Yesterday I heard the present head of this once powerful family described as a—a guinea pig."
For a moment he was silent, staring through the trees at the top of the house, half-hidden by the trees from the road. He slipped from the car, opening the door on the girl's side invitingly.
Wondering greatly, Ira stepped down to the road. The barrister helped her through the break in the fence and led her along the neglected avenue until they came within sight of the house.
"And—once the Grays were lords of the countryside," he murmured, partly to himself. "Today, they are forgotten—a new man sits in their stead, rules what is left of their lands. Their house is a ruin; uninhabited except for foxes and bats."
"No one lives here?" The girl looked about her questioningly.
"The birds of the air—the furry denizens of the woods," The barrister smiled down at Ira. "Miss Canning, may I confide in you? I believe the old ruin to be the central factor in one of the greatest crime problems England has ever witnessed."
For a moment the girl was silent; then looked up at her companion.
"I think I understand," she hesitated. "You brought me here because—because you believe that the problem you are trying to solve, this old house and—any my accident at Mr. Symonds' offices last night, are all connected."
DENING did not answer immediately. Taking the girl's arm he moved towards the manor house. They came to the edge of the wood and stood, surveying the ruins.
Grays Manor had once been an imposing building. Low and widespread, the old grey walls were thickly covered with ivy, The glass and window frames had disappeared, leaving only sightless holes in the walls through which the ivy was exploring the house. The chimneys, standing gaunt against the skyline, and without the natural break of the roof, were broken and ruined. Only a few beams indicated where the roof had once crested the building.
Immediately before them lay what remained of the lawns and gardens. Already fair-sized trees had encroached far beyond their confines. Bushes had propagated everywhere; the grass-spaces were now tangles of weeds.
Dening surveyed the scene wonderingly. Sir John McNiven had stated that the architects he had consulted had declared the house impossible to repair. But, that was over thirty, possibly forty, years ago. Had it been Impossible to repair the place at that time? He doubted it. So far as he could see the walls were sound. Most of the decay he was witnessing was due to continued neglect. An empty house could deteriorate greatly in forty years. He shrugged. Was this another of the statements he had heard at the Altona Trading Company that was entirely false?
He knew that on the previous afternoon he had been told many lies. It was those lies, possibly, that had caused him to act on impulse and accept the commission these men offered. It had seemed a challenge—a challenge his quickened blood had refused to allow him to decline. He had taken that challenge to unmask the mysterious blackmailer Matthew Ashcombe; at the same time he determined that when he made his report—when he told those men which of them was the blackmailer—he would also reveal to them the intimate details of the business they had feared to trust him with.
Slowly Dening and Ira circled the large expanse of ground on which the old house stood. At one point, on the west side of the house, they came on a well-defined path. Here Dening stopped for some minutes. So far as he could judge, that path led in the direction in which Upton Lodge lay. Why had that path been trodden between the new house and the old manor? True, it was merely a track, but it showed signs of frequent use. He walked along it a few yards and came to a depression where the earth was soft. There he could see marks of boots—marks that had been very recently left by some traveller. For some minutes he studied them carefully.
Why had Sir John McNiven allowed Grays Manor to fall into that state of decay, yet had a well-worn and frequently used field path between it and his own house? He went further along the path, walking quickly. Cresting a small rise he saw in the distance a large house, surrounded by wide grounds. The path led directly to the boundaries of that house. He believed it to be Upton Lodge.
Someone at Upton Lodge was interested in Grays Manor; so interested that they frequently visited it? He believed that person to be sir John McNiven. But, why had the owner of the property allowed the surroundings of the ruins to fall into that state of disrepair, even allowing the gates to fall away into uselessness—to have to board up the entrance to the avenue.
Rejoining Ira, Dening started to explore the house. He came to a stout oaken door, hanging crazily from broken hinges. It took some effort to push it open. He found himself in a flagged passage. He had entered the offices of the house. Room after room was vacant, without doors or windows. He came to a flight of stone stairs and ascended them, to come out on the big hall, stone-flagged and high arched. Wide stone stairs led to the upper stories, above his head massive oak beams stretched from wall to wall. He could see the ruins of the roof and beyond the blue sky, strangely bright in the gloom of the old house.
No one could possibly inhabit Grays Manor; yet Matthew Ashcombe had given directions that registered parcels should be addressed to him at that place. Dening believed that in some way Grays Manor played a big part in the problem he had set himself to solve; but in what way?
Putting aside the many thoughts that crowded his brain, Dening set himself to gather a complete knowledge of the geography of the place. He believed that before he found the solutions he sought he would have to visit the place frequently. It would he well to be able to find his way about it.
At length, certain that he knew the place intimately, he sought Ira. For the time he had neglected her shamefully. He went in search of her, to find her seated on a tree trunk on one side of the avenue from the gate to the house. As he approached she looked up, smiling.
"Bored, Miss Canning? Awfully sorry I left you so long."
"I had plenty to occupy my thoughts, Mr. Dening." For the moment the girl's face clouded.
"Yesterday was rather—rather—"
"Disastrous." The barrister smiled down on the girl. For a moment he was thoughtful, then seated himself by her' side. "Look here, Miss Canning, The problem that's troubling you is—where you're going to find a job—and at once. Isn't that right?"
The girl nodded; looking up at him, questioningly.
"You went to see Edward Symonds, thinking he might offer you a post as private secretary," the barrister continued. "Why? Did you think you would like the work of a private inquiry office?"
"What choice had I?" The girl spoke in low tones. "Working girls haven't much choice in their employment. They had to keep working, or—Mrs. Ashford-Lynne didn't pay very well; not much above what it costs to live and dress decently. My money soon went when I was idle." She paused. "If Mr. Symonds had offered me a job would have taken it—however much I disliked the work—and done my best. It was that or starve."
"Then, if a job was offered you, you would take it, eh?"
"To work is good; some work is nicer than other work, of course." She looked at him curiously.
"Have you guessed why I asked you to come out here to-day?" Dening spoke abruptly.
"I know you did not bring me here out of idle curiosity." The girl flushed slightly. "I—I think you guessed I was hard up—that the loss of my bag had been staggering I think I understand why you were hungry, and—and stopped at that hotel."
"And—you are guessing that our visit here, and other things that may occur before we return to London, are not the irresponsible wanderings of an idle man with too much money and time on his hands?"
Ira laughed gaily. "I don't believe you belong to the idle rich class, Mr. Dening."
"Then you are guessing that finding you in Edward Symonds' offices last night, his death, and your recent work with Mrs. Ashford-Lynne, are of distinct interest to me?"
The girl nodded again; this time questioningly.
"Then—" Dening felt that he was behaving in a decidedly awkward manner. "Then, if I offer you a job will you believe that it is in connection with these happenings?"
"But—" Ira stopped suddenly.
"You're wondering what sort of a job I can offer you? Oh, I know I told you that I was a barrister—but I am a strange sort of barrister; one very uncommon. Some of my barrister friends look upon me as an outcast from their fraternity—they can't understand why I am allowed to retain my chambers; they think I should be expelled from the sacred enclosure with bell, book and candle." He laughed slightly. "Yet some of the men who openly avow that belief owe quite a lot of their success, in their court pleadings, to my underground work."
For a moment he paused, then continued:
"I suppose I'm rather inquisitive by nature. Anyway, I've cut out a line of work for myself in this world; work that has the approval and has obtained the interest of New Scotland Yard; work that Mr Symonds held a rather high opinion of; work that is accepted and valued by those of my confrères who are not too bigoted." He paused. "Miss Canning, all this is leading to one issue. Symonds' death was the culminating point in a series of little incidents that have aroused by curiosity. For a long time I have been working alone—or rather, with the help of my man, Mick Regan. Mr. Symonds did a lot of detail work that I shall now have to place in other, possibly less reliable hands. I shall have to add quite a lot of it to my personal work. That means that I shall have to obtain help—" He paused again, feeling rather helpless.
"And all these words mean, Mr. Dening, that you are trying to gracefully offer me employment." The girl looked up, slightly flushed. "Will you please tell me if—if they are only words—words meant out of kindness—or whether they are solemnly and strictly true?"
"Cut my throat and cross my heart." Laughingly the barrister performed the Childish ritual. "Then, that's settled?"
"What is settled?" Ira looked up in surprise.
"That now you are my secretary; that you have been that for the past thirty seconds." Dening smiled down at her. "You guessed that I was offering you employment; I have guessed that you have accepted it. My chambers are at 6, Fern Court, Temple. The business hours vary extensive. Sometimes, and usually, from ten to five, with the usual, hour for lunch. Sometimes from midnight to midnight. It all depends how the work is progressing and how it is affecting us."
"Do you really think I can help you?" Ira turned to face the barrister, her eyes shining.
"One of the first rules and possibly the chief rule, of the office of Dening and Co., is that no idle questions are asked. Business has to be strictly practical and accurate; theories are barred out." The man was laughing away her doubts. "Come along. We must get back to the car or some country policeman will be briefing us for parking in an illegal area. Besides, we have a call to make half a mile up the road."
Talking inconsequently, to give the girl time to adjust herself to the changed relations that had come between them, he led her down to the car and drove the half-mile to Upton Lodge. Passing the entrance gates he found a spot from where he could get a good view of the front of the house; yet not close enough to attract undue attention.
For some time he sat, carefully scanning the exterior of the house and its surroundings. Upton Lodge was only about half the size of Grays Manor. Yet it was a building of considerable extent. A two-storey house, the walls roughcast, the roof of red tiles, it was not an asset to the countryside. Across the front of the building, and elevated from the ground by half a dozen steps, a wide veranda straddled the lower floors. Dening thought it was just the sort of place that would attract a man of Sir John McNiven's character.
As the man and girl sat watching the house, two men came out on the veranda. Dening immediately recognised one of the men as Sir John McNiven. The other man was a stranger. Yet, was he? Something in his build and walk, the manner in which he gesticulated while talking to the financier appeared strangely familiar. But, rack his memory as he would, the barrister could not give him a name.
For quite a while the two men paced the veranda, engrossed in excited conversation. At last, they apparently came to some agreement. At the head of the steps they parted; the stranger descending to the grounds. There he turned to again face Sir John. The financier was explaining something, pointing to the east and waving his arm, as if explaining the lay of the land.
At length the man nodded understandingly, and crossed the grounds in the direction the financier had indicated. For a few minutes Sir John McNiven watched him, then turned and entered the house. The stranger walked swiftly to a small gate in the boundary fence and disappeared.
Then Dening remembered. If he had read the topography of the district correctly the man was making for the path that ran between Grays Manor and Upton Lodge. Swiftly the barrister accelerated the engine. A few yards along the road and he found a place where he could turn the car.
"Miss Canning." He spoke while the car was running swiftly in the direction of Grays. "Do you remember seeing a path coming out of the woods and leading to the ruins? Right. That man, who has just left Upton Lodge, is making for the ruins along that path, I believe. I want to know what he is doing at the ruins. I want to find out who he is, if I can. Do you mind if I leave you on the road, in the car, for a short time?"
"Do you always ask your secretaries their wishes regarding your work, Mr. Dening?" The girl looked up demurely, a little twinkle in her eyes. "Of course, I am not afraid to be left alone in the car. But, isn't there anything I can do?"
"Not for the present." The barrister spoke absently. He brought the car to a stop before a gap in the stone wall, a few yards before the gates. "I won't be longer than I can help."
Ira watched him disappear in the bushes, a little smile growing on her lips. For a few minutes she sat thoughtful, then slipped from the car and followed Dening into the woods.
ON leaving the car, Dening ran through the weeds in the direction of the little path between Upton Lodge and Grays Manor, avoiding the open avenue from the gates to the house. A long wait, and he heard footsteps on the path. A few seconds and a man came in view, walking quickly. He passed from the trees on to what had once been gardens surrounding the manor house, making for the little door by which Dening had previously entered the house, and disappeared.
The barrister was puzzled. What did the man want in that ruin? He could not but believe that be had come there with the knowledge and sanction of Sir John McNiven. Certainly the knight had pointed out the field path to him.
Keeping well under cover, Dening moved to the door. He had some difficulty in forcing it open without noise. At length he was able to peer into the passage. The man was not in sight.
Still moving as noiselessly as he could, the barrister started to explore the ruins. He had to move with the utmost caution. He went up the great staircase to the upper floors. There he had to proceed still more warily; at places he had to walk over great oak beams with only the flags of the ground floor beneath him, dodging from beam to beam, not knowing if some piece of wood, rotted through, would not collapse under his weight and let him down to death or a severe injury.
There was no one on the upper floors; nowhere where anyone could hide from him, if they had been up there. He came again to the wide stone stairway and descended to the great hall. There he looked about him perplexedly. He knew that the man had entered the ruins. He expected to discover him, and the purpose for which he had come to the old manor house, almost as soon as he entered the building. But he had found no signs of the man. Listening intently, he could not hear a movement in the building.
Where had the man gone to? A moment and he realised that he had been wasting his time exploring the top floors. The man would not have gone up there. If he was still in the place, then he was on the ground floor, where the flagstones gave secure walking, or down in the offices. He turned towards the stairs by which he had ascended to the big hall, to stop suddenly. There was another flight of stair, in a far, dark corner. Somehow he had overlooked them in his first hurried survey of the place. He went to the doorway; there was no door to it, though a pair of rusty hinges swung uselessly from staples. Beyond the doorway was a flight of steps.
Feeling before him cautiously, he went down the steps, to come to an abrupt halt before a stout door. He placed his hand in his pocket, to find that he had left his torch in the car. For a moment he hesitated, then tried to find a handle. There was not one. He felt over the surface of the door and found a keyhole. He tried to peer through it, but what lay behind the door was in darkness. He felt in his pocket for matches, to produce only his lighter. The little flame from the cigar-lighter revealed a new wooden door, barring his way. He threw his weight against it, but the door would not budge. He felt along the lintels carefully, finally deciding that the door was locked.
So the man who had entered the ruins before him had gone that way. While be had been searching the top floors the man had passed through that door, locking it behind him. What had been his object? What secret lay behind that door?
Whatever the man he had seen on the veranda of Upton Lodge had come to the manor house to find lay behind that locked door. Sir John McNiven was party to what was there. He tried to conceive some reason for that locked door in that old ruin, and lost himself in a maze of speculation. Whatever that secret was, he believed it would not bear the light of day.
Ascending the steps, he came to the open air and walked down the avenue to the lodge gates. He knew that in the house he had left signs of his presence, his footsteps were scattered round the place. It was impossible to take any means of concealing his traces; then he must be certain that what trails he had left must be accredited to the curiosity of a casual tourist.
When he arrived at the car he was astonished to find that Ira Canning had left it. A moment, and he laughed. Possibly she had become tired of sitting idly there and was exploring the woods. He stretched out his hand to the horn to recall her, then hesitated. Before he did that he would complete his tracks for the bafflement of anyone who became inquisitive regarding his presence at the old manor. So far his trail led from the woods to the back door of the building, and from that door to the road gates.
Taking care not to tread on his trail from the house to the road, he went back to Grays Manor, skirting round the house to the side door. From there he went to the woods, close to the point where he had emerged on the neglected grounds. He glanced back, with a low chuckle. If anyone tried to follow his trails they would have to consider that he had entered through the ruined gateway and after exploring the house had ventured into the woods; returning at length to the road by the way he had come.
Before leaving the little path he glanced along it in the direction of Upton Lodge. Something white on the path caught his eyes. Keeping in the shelter of the trees, he went down alongside the trail. The white thing was a handkerchief. He knew that it had not been there when he went along that trail before visiting Upton Lodge. Then, the man who had come to the ruins had dropped it.
Finding a long stick in the woods, Dening lifted the handkerchief from the path. Again in the shelter of the woods he carefully examined the linen square. There was no name on it, no initials. All he could find was the laundry mark. With a smile he placed the handkerchief in his pocket. The next day Mick Regan would trail down that laundry and obtain the name of the owner of the handkerchief.
At length he came to the road. Before going down to the car he carefully obliterated all signs of his having entered the woods through the gap in the fence. He had hardly completed his task when Ira came out of the woods.
"Did you find him?" the girl called long before she reached him.
He shook his head. "There's something strange about that place," he said. "I saw that men enter and followed. I—" He hesitated. "I found that part of the cellars was barred off from the rest of the place by a strong door. That door was locked; so far as I could see both door and lock were new."
He shut the door of the car behind the girl and slipped into the driver's seat. They had almost reached Ewell before the girl spoke again.
"I went through the woods," she said, somewhat inconsequently. "Did you miss me."
Dening nodded. "Sorry I was so long. It must have been wearisome waiting alone in the car."
"I left the car soon after you disappeared into the woods," Ira answered candidly. "I went to the house and saw that man arrive, but I did not see you."
Dening was surprised. He half turned, smiling.
"I will have to acknowledge that you are some bushman," he said. "I watched about me very carefully and had no idea that there was anyone else but that man and myself in the woods."
"I found this."
Ira opened her hand. On her palm lay a single gold coin. Dening took it curiously. It was a five-dollar gold piece.
"Where did you find this?" he asked quickly.
"At the head of a flight of steps. I think it must be the steps you say the man went down. I saw him go into one of the dark corners of the great hall and disappear. A little while and I went to where I had last seen him. He was not there. I was just turning away when I saw something glittering at my feet. I picked up that."
"And you and the man were in the house, on the ground floor, while, I was climbing from beam to beam of the upper floors, like a squirrel."
"I know." The girl nodded her head gravely. "I heard you. Once I thought I saw you and feared that you would fall. I daren't call out because that man had gone down the steps. I think I heard him shut the door you say is at the foot of the steps."
Dening did not answer. He was frankly puzzled. How had the gold coin come at the head of the steps? Had the man accidentally dropped it when he took the key of the door from his pocket? That was possible. Then, who was the man; and what was an American five dollar coin doing in the old Grays Manor?
For the moment the thought of the American, Rudolph N. Rudder, came to his mind. No, the man who had come along the field path was not Rudder. He had not the build, the free swinging stride of the rum-runner king.
A gold coin and a handkerchief; the sight of a man leaving Upton Lodge for Grays Manor, at the direction of Sir John McNiven. That was the sum total of their discoveries that day. They were facts, true, but J they only added to the mystery not towards its solution.
A glance at his watch as he drove into the town and he drew up before the King George hostelry. It was long after midday, and in spite of his double breakfast he was hungry.
Again he was inclined to think he had acted hastily in cleaving Grays Manor without further investigation. Now he was certain that the man had remained in the ruins. How long would he stay there? Would he return to Upton Lodge, or—? How had he come to Grays?
Dening now believed that somewhere in the woods surrounding the old manor was concealed a motor car He had seen no signs of a strange car at Sir John's place. He was certain that no car had driven from Upton Lodge that day. Then either the man was a guest at the financier's house, or he had driven down from the city. He had not come to Grays by train. There was no local station; he would have had to walk out from Ewell. No, that man had come from London, probably that morning. When would he return?
During lunch, Dening tried to talk to the girl on inconsequent matters, but found her strangely unresponsive. On seating herself at the table she had placed the coin beside her plate. Continually through the meal she glanced at it, while replying, somewhat inconsequently, to the barrister's remarks.
"What is it worth, Mr. Dening?" she asked at length.
"In English money, today, about twenty-five shillings," he answered laughing. "You've done a profitable morning's work, Miss Canning. By the way, put it in your bag. We might forget it when we leave."
In answer, she pushed the coin towards him. "The coin belongs to your investigations, Mr. Dening."
"Findings keepings," he laughingly objected.
"Then put it in your pocket for me, please. You forget, I have lost my bag."
He nodded gravely. She had told him the bag she had lost the previous evening contained all her money. Possibly that gold coin comprised all her wealth. He remembered when he had met her, that she had acknowledged that she was walking into the city to borrow from a friend. He slipped the coin into his waistcoat pocket.
"Five dollar pieces are rather awkward coinage in the city of London," he laughed. "Remember, before we part to remind me to change it for you."
She looked up at him gratefully, twenty-five shillings would go far to replace the money that had been lost with her purse when she had visited Symonds' offices the previous evening. She was about to speak when a man entered the dining room.
Something in Dening's face caught her attention and held her silent. She tried to guess the meaning of the expressions that chased across his face. At first a puzzled frown, as if he were trying to open some cell of his memory; then followed a dawning knowledge. Suddenly he hunched over his plate, bending his head low, until the man had crossed the room to the seat indicated by the waitress. Then he spoke, almost in a whisper.
"Finished, Miss Canning? Then we'll stroll down and see if there's a bag shop that can supply a deficit."
Ira noticed that until they passed through the door into the hall of the hotel the barrister contrived to keep his back to the room. She glanced back at the stranger. He was engrossed with the waitress, ordering his meal carefully. She wondered. Did the barrister fear that man? No, she could not think that of him. Then—
On the street she turned to him.
"Mr. Dening, were you serious when you told me that you required a secretary?"
"Serious? Indeed, very."
"And—I am engaged?" She flushed faintly as she spoke.
"Then, please, who is that man?" When he did not reply immediately, she added, "Oh, I know you recognised him. Was he the man you saw going from Upton Lodge to Grays Manor? Is he the man who dropped that handkerchief—and my coin?"
Dening nodded. "I believe so." A moment's pause, and he continued, lowering his voice, "He is Enrico Culadi, a noted Chicagoan gunman, and a great friend of Rudolph N. Rudder, the man they call the rum king of Miquelon and St. Pierre."
THROUGH the drive back to the city Richard Dening was very silent. Every hour was making his problem more complex. What was Enrico Culadi doing in England—at Grays Manor?
He had come in contact with the man on one of his frequent visits to the United States. Five years ago he had been in Chicago when Enrico Culadi had stood his trial for murder. Many days he had sat in the courthouse, intent on the evidence unfolded in one of the most noted American trials—to see the processes of the law resolve into the farce the newspapers had unanimously prophesied—the release of Culadi by order of a fearful jury, against a stupendous weight of evidence. He had stood on the court-house steps and watched the man walk to liberty surrounded by a bodyguard of admiring friends; a sneer on his lips at the impotence of the law.
He should have recognised that long, thin body, taunt with the lithe grace of a wild animal, at sight; yet never for a moment had he thought to see the man in England. He had not recognised him in the woods, yet he had immediately remembered him when he entered the hotel dining-room. Had Culadi recognised him? He wondered. If so, what would he do?
Again his thoughts went to those days in Chicago. He had seen Culadi the day after the trial ended. With some friends, in his hotel lounge, he had discussed the trial and its probable influence on the crime wave that was then sweeping the country. Incautiously he had expressed the opinion that in the circumstances the ordinary processes of law should be set aside and the gunmen hunted down under martial law—outlawed and shot at sight. A sudden exclamation from one of the group had caused him to turn—to meet the gunman's fixed, mirthless grin. Culadi had overheard, and resented his remarks. Later he had received a mysterious message. The gunman considered himself insulted. In his own time he would seek revenge.
He had repeated the message, laughingly, to his friends. To his surprise they had treated the threat seriously, insisting that he leave Chicago immediately.
Time had forced him to realise that the threat was very real. Twice he had received packages from America. Each package contained a silver bullet. With the second bullet had come a message—a threat.
Dening drove Ira to the Temple and introduced her to the scene of her future work, giving her a key to the chambers, so that she could come and go without reference to Mick or himself. Mick made no comment when Dening explained the girl's future position in the household. For a brief moment his old eyes had rested on the girl's fair face, then had passed swiftly to his master. Dening had found himself flushing, he could not understand why.
Before he sent the girl home there was an episode that caused them both some embarrassment. Dening knew that the girl was without funds. He did not know whether she was in debt, due to her long unemployment. For a considerable time they sat in the study, the barrister trying to find an opening for what he wanted to say. Then, blushing like a shy schoolboy:
"There's just one other matter. I shall want all your wits and attention for our work. You can't give me that if you're worried. You'd better put that in your bag—" He paused, shoving a roll of notes across the desk. "—you can pay it back if you want to, when you're ahead again."
Ira flushed. For a moment she hesitated, then took the money with a low word of thanks. He felt absurdly grateful that she had not raised objections—made a fuss over the simple matter. She was a girl with common-sense! He hoped that while they worked together he would have her understanding; that he wouldn't have to fool around for words to cloak his meanings in. He would be able to speak directly all that lay in his mind—and she would understand.
"Mick will drive you home, Miss Canning." He rose from his chair. "You'll like him, he's one of the best; was with my father all his life, and now looks after me." He flushed slightly. "You see, Mick doesn't understand that I've grown up. I'm still Master Richard to him—the boy who used to worry him during the holidays. He runs these chambers and does quite a lot in inquiry work for me. When you come here to-morrow morning you'll find he has everything set for you—a desk, typewriter, and all that."
He went down with the girl and Mick to where the car waited in Temple Lane and watched it drive down to the Embankment, feeling strangely lonely when it turned out of sight. He had wanted to ask the girl to stay in town and dine with him—somehow he had lacked the courage to voice in invitation. Abruptly, he turned and went back to his chambers. They looked strangely empty—before that evening he had thought they lacked nothing.
Sitting idly at his desk, fingering the papers on it, he chanced on Kedwell's invitation to the Blue Heaven night-club. He turned it over, again reading the scrawled words on the back. Why did Black Ked want him to visit the Club? Had he something to tell him; something that might help clear the mysteries in which he was at present groping?
Reuben Gray had sought him out immediately after the meeting at the Altona Trading Company's offices. Had Black Ked the same thought when he had penned those scrawled, words on the back of the card? That was possible. But did the man know of the fast-moving tragedy that had followed Gray's visit? That he would discover when he faced the man.
He glanced at his watch, then went into his bedroom. A few minutes under the shower and the fatigues of the day slipped from him. He dressed leisurely and drove to his club. Joining some friends he made an excellent dinner, then cut into a rubber at bridge.
It was past eleven when he made an excuse and left the club. Hailing a taxi, he gave the night-club's address, and a few minutes later was set down at the door of a gloomy-looking house in a by-street of Soho. Almost as his foot touched the pavement the door opened and a gaudily-garbed footman appeared. Dening produced the card Kedwell had sent him and the man motioned him to enter.
He found himself in a wide, rather bare, hall. Immediately a page took him in charge, escorting him past swinging doors to the inner vestibule of the club. There he left his outdoor wraps and followed the boy into the restaurant. A waiter led him to a well-placed table. He found he had an excellent view of the room, while partially screened from general observation.
The Blue Heaven differed little from the numerous night clubs that littered the west-end of London. No attempt had been made to carry out any idea suggested by the title. The restaurant was large and had an unusually spacious area for dancing. Close to Dening's table a broad flight of stairs led to the upper storeys, branching on a landing to right and left. The barrister guessed that on the upper floors other amusements—perhaps not too legal—awaited favoured guests. That, however, did not concern him.
Contrary to his expectations, Dening found both food and service excellent. When the wine-steward visited his table he discovered that the club possessed an excellent cellar. For a time he found amusement in watching the quickly changing scenes. He had noticed, when he came to the table, that it was set for only one person, and that his name was on the reserve-card. So Kedwell had expected him that night! Then—where was Kedwell?
For a time he waited, lazily curious of what was to happen. He believed that immediately he had entered the club, word of his arrival had been taken to Kedwell. He approved the diplomacy of the man. Before any business was discussed he was to have his meal in peace, served with all possible attention to his comfort and well-being.
Afterwards—He grinned. The game was too obvious. When other men came into the club alone one or other of the hostesses drifted towards them with words of welcome and hints of companionship. They had not approached him.
He scanned the gathering for faces he knew; to find there were a number of groups where he could cut in, a welcome guest. As he reviewed the scene he noticed tables set in quaintly screened alcoves, where a certain privacy could be obtained, yet the occupants would not be cut off too completely from the gaiety on the general floor. The table he sat at was in one of these alcoves.
Suddenly he stiffened. A man and woman were strolling down the stairs. He could not see them very distinctly for the lights were dimmed; an exhibition dance was in progress. He believed the man to be Kedwell, and smiled. Had the man waited until general attention was diverted to the dancers before coming into the restaurant?
He thought the woman's outline was familiar, naming her for Mrs. Ashford-Lynne. So Kedwell was playing about with that woman. He shook his head thoughtfully. The ex-champion boxer was certainly looking for trouble. Mrs. Ashford-Lynne was an expensive playfellow for anyone who possessed money.
Almost as the couple reached the foot of the stairs the dance ended and the lights were switched on. The woman turned quickly, making for one of the alcoves—an alcove almost immediately where Dening sat. Kedwell hesitated a moment, then caught up to his companion with a few quick steps, striding beside her, whispering urgently. The woman nodded, impatiently. The man stopped, turned and came straight to where Dening sat.
"Evening, Mr. Dening!" The tall, well-formed figure of the ex-boxer faced Dening across the table. "Hope they're making you comfortable?"
"Splendidly!" The barrister smiled. "Busy, Mr. Kedwell? No? Well, sit down and join me in a glass of this very excellent wine?"
Kedwell nodded and drew out the chair opposite the barrister. For two or three minutes he watched the dancers, a frown on his face.
"Glad you came to-night." He turned suddenly to face his guest. "You don't play about much in these places—and with these people?" There was contempt in his voice.
"About the third night-club I have visited in my life. No, they don't attract me."
"Mostly fools!", Kedwell shrugged. "Payin' fools, y'know—but damned fools, all the same. Can't understand what kick they get out of it? It bores me!"
"The art of drifting with the stream," Dening laughed slightly. "They go to night-clubs because others go. They come here, Kedwell, because someone has loudly proclaimed that to do so is 'the thing.' They don't think—they want others to do that for them. They're the followers in the human herd—and following believe they attain their ambition—membership of what they delude themselves is society."
Black Ked nodded. "Know anyone here?"
"Quite a few." The barrister did not hesitate in his reply. "For instance, you came down the stairs with a lady I have the honour to know slightly."
"Mrs. Ashford-Lynne—poor little woman." Kedwell paused. "It's rotten for a decent woman to be hard-up pressed for money, scraping all the time. A man shouldn't be allowed to marry unless he can make some provision for his wife's future, if he pegs out unexpectedly." Again the man paused. "Know her well?"
"Not very well." Dening had no intention of telling this man of the woman's call on him that morning. But, had she told him? They appeared to be intimate. Had she told him of her call at Edward Symonds' offices the previous night? Of her relations to the man's death? Lazily, he faced Kedwell.
"You didn't ask me here to discuss Mrs. Ashford-Lynne, Kedwell," he said quietly. "And I don't believe you invited me here in the hope that I would find the place and company congenial. Then why?"
Kedwell flushed. He paused a moment before replying.
"I didn't." He stared at the barrister frankly. "If you want the reason, I asked you to come here hoping to discover if you had come to any conclusion regarding Matthew Ashcombe?"
"Slightly premature, aren't you?" the barrister laughed. "Last night Edward Symonds was killed, almost on my doorstep. I spent my time until quite a late hour this morning with the police." He paused, then added: "You don't connect Symonds' death with the Ashcombe matter?"
"Why? What do you mean?" The man was startled.
"Symonds was working for you—for the group of men I met with you yesterday afternoon."
"Symonds had been working for us," the night-club proprietor corrected. "We had instructed him to stop his investigations. We thought he was doing no good and really the inquiry was only a matter of curiosity. Sir John paid his bill."
"Yet when I was in Symonds' office last night I discovered that he was still working on the Matthew Ashcombe affair; On his desk was an operative's report dated the day before yesterday."
Kedwell gazed at the barrister in amazement, half-rising from his chair. A moment, and he sat back. Dening noticed that the muscles of his face and hands were strained taut.
Why had these men feared Symonds continuing his investigations on the Ashcombe case? Had the private inquiry agent stumbled on something they feared might incriminate them? Dening thought swiftly, coldly probing. To get the truth from this mail he must question fast and hard.
"Perhaps Mrs. Ashford-Lynne knows something that may interest us." His words were careless, but his eyes were keen. "She was in Symonds' offices late last night, you know. I found her handbag there and—and returned it this morning."
"You lie!" The man sprang to his feet, his voice hoarse with passion, leaning tensely across the table. "You lie! Mrs. Ashford-Lynne has nothing to do with men of Symonds' class."
"Yet he handled a case for her some years ago," the barrister answered slowly. "On Symonds desk with the files of the Matthew Ashcombe case lay the file of the Mrs. Ashford-Lynne case, dated many years back."
Kedwell leaned back heavily in his chair, staring at the barrister with wide, perplexed eyes. A moments pause and Dening continued:
"Now—exactly why did you want me to come here tonight, Kedwell? You said you wanted information from me. I do not believe you. On the contrary, you want to give me information. Isn't that so? Yes? Well, we will drop Mrs. Ashford-Lynne, for the time. Now, what about those banknotes Sir John sent to Matthew Ashcombe—the notes that turned up here?"
TO Dening's surprise the man laughed.
"The banknotes!" Kedwell chuckled, "So you think there's something there?"
"You do," the barrister retorted. "Those banknotes are the reason back of your invitation."
For some moments the ex-boxer did not reply. He turned in his chair, scanning the crowded room, beating on the table with his fingers a tattoo to the rhythm the band was playing.
"You're no fool, Dening," he said at length. "How you guessed that lot. For instance, I know that Reuben Gray followed you down to your chambers last night—"
"Followed me?" The barrister interrupted. "He was in my chambers, awaiting me, when I arrived."
"Well, he went down to your chambers as soon as he could get away from that old fraud McNiven. Then Symonds turned up." He paused, turning to face Dening and speaking earnestly. "Say, Dening, who killed Symonds? It lies between you and Gray."
"Thanks," the barrister answered drily. For the moment he was tempted to voice a theory that had grown in his mind—a theory essentially fantastic and without, at present, a single fact to support it. He stifled the impulse, and shrugged.
"What about those banknotes, Kedwell?"
"I'll get them." The man rose to his feet. "Queer you should think I wanted to see you about them."
"Why didn't you let Symonds continue his inquiries?"
"Symonds was acting for Sir John McNiven and Gray—not for me."
"He was acting for all of you," the barrister stated. "If you did not trust Symonds—that is no reason for not trusting me. You are forgetting Sir John McNiven sent for me and, of course, I shall have to report to him."
"Sir John sent for you—yes." The ex-boxer grinned. "He sent for you on my suggestion. None of them quite cottoned to the idea, but I got it over."
He was turning from the table when Dening halted him.
"What exactly do you mean by that?"
For a moment the man paused, as if considering his answer.
"If remember right your parting words to us yesterday afternoon were—" Kedwell turned and faced the barrister. For a moment he hesitated, then quoted, slowly and distinctly: "'If you really wish to know, I firmly believe that Matthew Ashcombe is in this room at the present moment.'"
He swung on his heels and went to the stairs. On the first step he paused a moment, then turned towards the alcove where Mrs. Ashford-Lynne was sitting. For some minutes he talked earnestly with her. Again he went to the stairs, mounting them.
Much against his inclinations, Dening remained at his table. He would have liked to have crossed the room to the opposite alcove and questioned the woman. He was certain that she knew too much, not only regarding Symonds' death, but: concerning the mysterious blackmailer, Matthew Ashcombe.
What did she know? How much of what she knew had she confided to Sydney Kedwell? Certainly the man knew more than he was willing to admit. He had shown that he held certain knowledge—facts that he could only have learned from the man. But—had she taken him fully into her confidence? Dening did not believe that Kedwell professed the utmost faith in her. Could he have that if she had fully confided in him—if she had revealed only the little the barrister knew of her past life.
Kedwell was only absent a few minutes. He returned carrying a leather satchel, which he placed on the table before Dening.
"Mr. Dening," the ex-boxer spoke seriously. "I am going to admit that I believe, with you, that one of the men you met at the Altona Trading Company is the man you want—is Matthew Ashcombe. I've told you I forced them to place the inquiry in your hands. I did; and I had to use a lot more pressure than you can imagine to force them to agree."
Dening nodded inquiringly.
"I haven't anything more than a suspicion," the man continued, resuming his chair at the table. "You may have theories or facts, but I don't think you've got a definite line yet. But if you are clever as I'm told you are—if you've got the nerve to follow up your suspicions and uncover, that damned blackmailer—and, incidentally get the information to tell the police who killed Edward Symonds—then I'm behind you for all I'm worth." He grinned. "You mayn't think much of that, but I may he able to get information you can't."
"And that leads to—?" Dening, suggested.
"You think you've got something on some of us," Kedwell continued. "You're suspecting Gray because Ashcombe gave his address as Grays Manor; you're suspecting Sir John because that old, sniveller lives on that property; you're suspecting me because these notes got in among my cash, and I can't explain how." He hesitated a moment. "Mr. Dening, I'm told that in your university days you were something of a boxer?"
The barrister nodded.
"Then you know that once a man's trod the ring he never quite loses the tang of resin and canvas-dust. You're not in bad training, now." The experienced eyes travelled over the barrister's figure. "I can admit that I wouldn't like to go in the ring against you as we are now, and that with all my ring-craft—and it's that what tells, not boxing, y'know."
"What's this leading to?" Dening questioned, half laughing.
"Just this," the ex-boxer continued, "You've still got the instinct to turn to the boxing page of the newspapers when there's anything good on. I'd like to bet you've read a darned sight more of Black Ked's boxing history than I have. Well, can you say that Black Ked ever fought a mean or dishonest fight?"
For a fraction of a second Dening hesitated. He knew the man's ring career. Impulsively, his hand went across the table.
"Black Ked was a straight fighter," he said; "I'll take his word that Sydney Kedwell, night-club proprietor, has not done—will not do—anything to disgrace his record."
For a minute the hands of the men locked. Kedwell sat down and opened the satchel.
"Here's all the notes that came into the club that night. Take the lot and examine them. There's quite a pack!"
With a nod the man turned and went to where Mrs. Ashford-Lynne-waited.
For a few moments Dening watched the man, then glanced down at the pile of notes. Methodically he went through the pile, oblivious of the glances of the dancers, curiously watching the man sorting banknotes. At the top were a number of notes separated from the others by a folder of paper. He counted them; there were nine. Eight of the notes were for five pounds each, the ninth was for ten pounds.
He scanned the notes very carefully, finding the marks Sir John had stated he had placed on the notes. Under the series number had been drawn a very faint line with, a pencil. Only by holding the banknote against a strong light could the marking be seen.
Three questions troubled Dening. First, why had the notes been marked? Sir John had stated that the payment had been made for services rendered. Had the marking of the notes been only curiosity?
Then came the second question. Why had Sydney Kedwell examined the night-club's receipts for the marked, notes? Kedwell had stated that Sir John had asked him to watch for the marked notes. What reason had the knight for his suspicions. He had avoided giving a reason for his request.
The third question arose out of Mick Regan's report on his instructions that morning. He had instructed his man to discover if the banks, generally, had been warned by Sir John, or his bank, to watch for marked banknotes. Mick had reported that the banks had not been advised.
Again he went through the pile of notes, this time scanning them through a strangely shaped monocle he screwed into his eye. Now he separated out a number of other notes, placing them in a separate pile.
Replacing the bulk of the banknotes in the satchel, he turned to the notes, he had set aside. To the nine marked notes he added two more. They, also, were marked. The remaining notes he separated into a number of small piles, placing on the top of each pile one or more of the marked notes.
"Well?" Dening looked up at Kedwell, who had come to the table unobserved by him. "Find anything fresh?"
Dening pointed to the piles of notes on the table. The ex-boxer sat down, and examined them, slowly. He lifted a marked note from a pile and indicated the remainder:
"These are not marked?"
"No, yet I think they belong to my inquiry."
The ex-boxer lifted his brows, questioningly.
"They run in sequences to the marked notes," Dening explained.
"Then—" Kedwell looked puzzled. "I don't see the connection, Mr. Dening."
"Look through these." The barrister pushed the satchel of notes across the table. "You may find one or two sequences of two or three notes—not more than three notes in a sequence. In one of the sequences—one of three notes—you will find a note that has undergone different treatment from the other two. I mean in folding and wear. I take that to indicate that those notes came together by accident."
The barrister paused and drank a glass of wine.
"Now examine the sequences topped by the marked notes. For my own convenience I have arranged the notes so that the marked notes are on top of each pile. You will notice, however, that several of the piles are in sequence. There are eleven marked notes. Put the sequences together and you will only have seven piles. Now examine the notes where the sequences break, thus—" He drew two of the piles towards him. "Notice that only a comparatively few notes are missing to make a further sequence."
Dening paused and looked at his companion, who nodded.
"We know that a sum of five thousand pounds was sent to Matthew Ashcombe," the barrister continued. "Through Sir John's action in marking certain notes we have been able to reconstruct sequences of the notes paid to Ashcombe. We have, in fact, sufficient data to theorise that these unmarked notes were abstracted from the packets of notes Sir John stated he posted."
"Well?" Kedwell asked, impatiently, when Dening ceased speaking. "I follow you so far. What then?"
"Gray come here often?" he asked indifferently.
Again there was silence. Suddenly the barrister roused, slipping his hand into his pocket and bringing out his note case. From it he took some bank notes and passed them across the table, drawing towards him the notes he had selected from the folder.
"I'll buy, Kedwell," he said lazily. "I want those notes."
For a moment the man hesitated, a look of wonder growing on his face. He shifted his chair back from the table, at the same time pushing away the barrister's money.
"Don't be a fool, Dening. Think I can't trust you with a few pounds?"
The barrister shook his head. "This is different. Those notes have to he my absolute property. Now, I want you to answer a couple of questions—on Black Ked's honour."
"Well?" The man looked across the table curiously.
"How did you come to look for the marked money in this club's treasury?"
"Sir John warned me. I didn't think much of the idea, but I kept my eyes open."
"Why should Sir John believe that the notes would be passed here? He didn't advise the banks of the marked money."
"He didn't." A puzzled frown came on the ex-boxer's face. "Yet he warned me to have an eye on the cash at my place; told me he was having enquiries made in the city."
"Enquiries in which the banks were ignored? Strange, isn't that?"
Kedwell did not answer; he was staring down at the table cloth, frowning.
"Well, here's my second question, Kedwell. Remember the night? Yes? Well, remember the man who occupied a table by the wall close to where a large blue vase with a piece out of the side stands?" He paused, then spoke again in a changed tone. "Don't get many people here asking for writing materials."
"They don't usually come here to conduct their correspondence," the night club proprietor grinned. "Still, sometimes—"
"The man I want to trace did." Dening interjected. "Find me the waiter who served that table, and those men."
As the man rose to his feet the barrister spoke again. "I won't keep you in the dark. The man who asked for the writing materials was Matthew Ashcombe."
For a moment Kedwell stood, staring down at his companion; then, without a word turned and strode down the room. A few minutes and he returned, followed by one of the waiters.
"Here's the man, Dening." The ex-champion boxer spoke quietly, yet with obvious restraint. "Fraid you're mistaken, though."
Dening smiled as he turned to the waiter, repeating his description of the incident on the night of the raid.
"Yes, sir. I waited there—remember the gent asking for the notepaper, About ten minutes before the police came."
"Yes sir. He's often here. Foreign gent, I've 'eard him called Baron something."
"Baron?" Dening's eyebrows raised. "Baron von Rosenfeld?"
"That's the name." The man nodded quickly. "Knew I'd rekernise it if I heard it. Told Mr. Kedwell so."
"Was he alone?" The barrister asked, after a moment's thought.
"He 'ad another gent with 'im. One I knows better. That was Sir John McNiven, yes sir."
"Who wrote the letter?" Kedwell interposed, his eyes blazing.
"Dunno sir. I took 'im the paper and left 'em."
Slipping a coin across the table, Dening dismissed the man. He looked up at Black Ked, standing beside the table frowning.
"I wasn't here that night—I told you that before."
"Nor the night the notes were passed." Dening spoke sharply. "You were here. What's the good of trying that trick?"
With a shrug the night club proprietor turned on his heel and swung across the room, disappearing into the recess where Mrs. Ashford-Lynne waited.
Dening watched him, a wry smile on his lips. He was well aware that Black Ked had hated telling that lie. Then, what motive had influenced him? He remembered that Reuben Gray had stated that he had seen Kedwell at the club on the night that the marked bank notes had been passed. Gray had said that Mrs. Ashford-Lynne had been, with Kedwell. The barrister shrugged, staring thoughtfully down the room.
"Cheer up, big boy." A small hand, heavily perfumed, settled lightly on his shoulder. "It makes a girl's heart ache to see a nice boy sitting sad and lonely. Come and dance, Charming."
Quickly, Dening caught the girl round the waist, swinging her into the moving stream of dancers.
"What did she do to you, beautiful?" The girl, blonde, pert, yet pretty, looked up into his face, laughing. "Say, handsome, you're too young to mope over a girl. There's always plenty of daisies unplucked in the field."
"Is that so—Daisy." He laughed down at her. "But this time 'Daisy' plucked me. Isn't that so?"
The girl laughed, snuggling closer into his arms. Suddenly the barrister stiffened, swinging the girl so that his back was towards the door. A few quick steps and he managed to find shelter amid a throng of dancers.
He followed the progress of the man who had just entered the room with his eyes. The girl, who had noted his sudden movements, watched him curiously.
"Friend of yours, adore—I don't think." She giggled lightly. "Say, gorgeous, who dies if you two meet?"
"I'm afraid I'll provide the central attraction at the funeral." Dening laughed lightly. "But while you're with me, we'll try to prevent a sudden demise."
Keeping well within the shelter of the throng of dancers, he followed the man up the room. Outside the alcove where Mrs. Ashford-Lynne and Kedwell were seated, the man paused; then straightened his shoulders and entered.
The barrister steered the girl so that he passed slowly outside the retreat. Kedwell and the woman were seated on opposite sides of the table. Behind the woman's chair stood Enrico Culadi, bending forward and speaking rapidly. Some watching sense must have warned him that he was being observed, for he straightened, looking directly at opening.
For a brief moment the men's eyes met and held. A puzzled expression passed over the gunman's face. He stared intently at the barrister, frowning thoughtfully. Suddenly his face cleared; an unholy light dawned in his eyes.
"What's the matter?" the girl caught at Dening's arm, frightened. "Boy, did you see that man's face? He looked as if he'd like to eat you." Swinging her out of the throng, Dening escorted the girl to his table and poured her out a drink.
"You want that." He laughed carelessly. "Girlie, you've been keeping too many late hours. Your imagination's working overtime."
Yet his eyes never left the recess where the gunman remained. Instinctively his hand went to his hip pocket. He was unarmed, and across the floor, gay with the unthinking, laughing throng, lurked sudden death.
SUDDEN death. Dening smiled to himself as he secretly watched the alcove across the floor in which Culadi remained. The momentary panic induced by the realisation that he was facing an armed killer without a weapon, had abated. Now he was considering his position; his Keen brain was working at top speed.
Would the Chicagoan force matters in that night club? He believed not; unless the man could take him at a disadvantage, and without witnesses; get him in some position where he could make a clean getaway after the shooting. That he would have to prevent.
For the time, the ability to think and act quickly were the obvious weapons. The barrister laughed grimly. So long as the duel between them was confined to tactical activity, he believed he could keep the man guessing.
Culadi would realise that he was not in the States, where he could rely on big support; where he and his gang had the police and politicians in their pay, where graft would cover up almost any cowardly deed. He was in England, and American gunmen feared the incorruptibility of English law; the infallible tracking down of the killer and the inevitable trial and punishment.
For the moment he must wait and watch; wait, as he knew the Chicagoan was waiting, for events to shape themselves. Carelessly smiling, he turned to the girl. She was staring at him with great troubled eyes. As she met his glance, she smiled; the cloud sweeping from her face.
"Imagination, beautiful." She swung sideways in her chair, crossing her silk-clad legs revealingly. "Not much imagination, charming. What's that fellow got on you?"
For the moment the barrister hesitated. Could he trust this girl? He considered, thoughtfully. If he could. A plan was quickly forming in his mind.
"You know him?" A kick of her satin-shod foot indicated the recess in which Culadi still lurked. She struck her hand on the table angrily. "It's no good trying to fend me off. I know. I saw his eyes when he caught sight of you. I was in your arms; I felt your body stiffen. Lord, you don't think a girl like me is entirely innocent. I live by my wits, and—and if I couldn't read that tale plain, I'd starve."
Dening nodded. He recognised that the customary banter had passed from the girl's tones; that she was deeply in earnest. Yet, could he trust her?
"Daisy-" He leaned across the table.
She interrupted him impatiently. "Cut that." Her voice was sharp, almost angry. "That's all right for the night club gigolo, but—but you're different. I knew that directly I felt your arm about my waist. I don't often make mistakes; but I'll confess I did when I came to you. You looked careless, indifferent, as if you wanted to be amused and would pay for it. I thought I'd amuse you and make you pay for the experience. That's my business, you know. Just the age-long battle between the male and the female, and—" she laughed harshly, "And not often the male wins. I'm Emily Dale—though they know me here as Eunice O'Connor." Again she paused. "You call me Emily, see."
The barrister did not reply. His brain was working swiftly, considering possibilities, accepting, rejecting and arranging thoughts and ideas; placing possibilities in order; weighing potentialities.
"Listen." The girl leaned forward earnestly. "When that man comes on the floor again I'm going to him. I'll keep him busy." She laughed, a hard note ringing through her merriment. "Oh, I'll keep him awake, you bet. That's my business. Yours—you get to that door, see. Get away from here and don't come back." Her voice lowered to a whisper. "You—you don't belong here. You're too good to mix with this trash."
"No." Dening spoke suddenly. "I can't have that—"
"Do you think that he can hurt—me?" Self scorn spoke in her voice. "Lord, boy, I'm past that. What sort of innocent are you, not to read the signs on me? I'm—I'm one of the world's toys—the playthings of men—men like him."
"Think I don't know? Sure. Like calls to like, all the world over. Put me down in a town where I don't know a soul, and in half a day I'll have a dozen round me, not men like you, but men—creatures like him that I couldn't hurt if I tried." Her eyes lit with excitement. "Now, beautiful, what's his name?"
"Culadi. Enrico Culadi." The barrister spoke reluctantly, under the urge of the girl's insistence.
"Sure, and is that all? Quite an elegant mouthful. Then En and I are going to get together—some."
"You must not:" Dening spoke quickly and firmly. "Girl—Emily—you can't play with that fire. He's dangerous."
"So am I." the girl giggled; then sobered. "Gee, it was great to hear you Speak that name. It's quite a time since I've heard it from honest lips." She mused a moment. "Perhaps that's why we girls take high-sounding names. We've still got enough decency to keep something sacred."
"Listen." The barrister spoke quickly. "You're to do nothing foolish. Culadi is a noted Chicagoan gunman. Years ago he promised to put a bullet in me, over some fancied insult—because I foolishly, and openly, stated that the best way to deal with him and his kind was to place them without the law—outlaw them—and shoot them down at sight. He'd think nothing of putting a bullet in you—if you got between him and me."
"Well?" A. queer little smile played in the girl's eyes, around the corners of her set lips. "I'm not a—a—gun-moll, don't they call them? That's it, a gun-moll; but I'm—I can be dangerous."
"What's the good of playing the fool?" Dening spoke angrily. "Look here—" He paused, his hand holding some folded bank notes under the shelter Of the table. No, she would he offended if he offered her money. Quickly he changed his attack. "Emily, did you ever work?"
"Work?" The girl laughed. "I did, once, now I work at playing."
"Then work again to-night." He paused, continuing in a lower tone. "Emily, I came here to-night for a certain purpose. I didn't bring anyone to assist me because I thought I that all that was before me was a quiet talk with a friend. But now I want assistance. Can you follow instructions—that is, act as one of my staff?"
"You're a—" Incredulous suspicion flashed in her eyes.
"I'm a barrister, but barristers often have to go out after information they want. They don't get it brought to them, always. Now, will you act for me?"
She nodded; her eyes, wonderingly, on his face.
"Then, put that in your bag. No," he added, as she made a motion to refuse the money. "You've got to live. I'm employing you for this night, perhaps longer, and I pay those who work for me."
"Well?" A moment and the hardness left her face; she smiled charmingly.
"I don't want you to tackle Culadi; you've got to trail me. Understand? Culadi will shoot, if he gets a chance to do it when we are alone and there is a reasonable chance that the murder cannot be pinned on to him. If you're about, then I'm not alone and for the time he's—" He thought for a simile—"he's stymied. Understand?"
"I'm your little shadow." The girl giggled lightly. "Now what?"
"What goes on upstairs?"
"Don't you know?"
"I can guess. I'm guessing that when Culadi comes out of that recess he'll go upstairs."
"He did yesterday."
"So? Then he's been here before?"
The girl nodded.
"When he goes upstairs, you're to tempt me up there. I mean it," he added, noting the sudden clouding of her eyes. "It's all right, Emily, I can take care of myself. I wouldn't ask anyone to help me if I had a gun with me."
"You say he's a gunman?"
"I watched his trial for shooting two innocent men."
"Can you handle a gun?"
She laughed when Dening nodded. Bending, she drew up her dress on one side, and from a small holster produced a miniature automatic. For a moment she held it, open, on her palm, then slipped it into his hand.
"That's not to say that I've resigned," she laughed again. "Now, boy, we'll play Mr. Enrico Culadi for a sucker. You take your line, I'll step in when the going's good."
Carelessly, insolently, she rose to her feet, glancing down at the man with an open yawn, as if tired of his society. For a moment her fingertips rested on the table, while her eyes went to the alcove opposite. A small, provocative smile came on her heavily painted lips. She took a step, and Dening's hand came down on her fingers hard.
"Look! The Door." His voice was tense with excitement, though his manner showed only indifference. "Emily, do you know that man now entering."
"Sure." The girl exhibited the tired insolence of the demi-mondaine at the insistence of the unwelcome male "That's Rube Gray. Pot of money, almost as much time. Gee, he makes a girl smile. Rube Gray, the gold digger."
"Sure. Show a gold chain, a heavy metal bracelet, and he's on your track like a bloodhound. I'll say he'll give you a good price; for he makes us girls smile. Why, I've bought hundreds of pounds of trinkets for him. We call him the pawnbroker of Mayfair."
A quick twist and she released her fingers, moving gracefully on to the crowded floor. A moment and she was in a man's arms, fox-trotting down the floor as if she had not a care in the world.
What had the girl meant? Reuben Gray, the idle society lounger, a "gold digger?" Surely she was mistaken. Dening watched the young man strolling languidly up the hall, carelessly saluting friends and acquaintances.
Dening watched the young man keenly. Had the girl spoken the truth? Had Reuben Gray, behind his carelessness and indifference, behind his pose of idle man about town, a secret occupation. Emily Dale had said that she and other girls had bought gold ornaments for him, acted as his agents.
He gasped. Reuben Gray, the gold-buyer, was an associate of the men who had required him to track down Matthew Ashcombe. Could he find in that revelation something that would connect him with their secret occupation?
Again his eyes went to where Reuben Gray had paused beside a table of friends, close to the dancing floor. As he watched, the young man moved on, up the hall. Now Dening saw that he was accompanied by another man, and that man was Rudolph N. Rudder.
The two men proceeded leisurely up the hall until they came to the recess Where Mrs. Ashford-Lynne and the two men sat. A moment's pause, to speak to some friends at a nearby table, and they entered.
Kedwell, Rudder and Gray. Three of the seven men he was supposed to be working for; men against whom he held grave suspicions. Gray had said that he and his associates were engaged on secret work; work that while not exactly illegal, was highly profitable.
The rum-runner king of America; an ex-boxer night club proprietor, and a notorious gunman. What connection could there be between them?
A thought sprang to insistence in his brain, but he put it from him as improbable. Yet it persisted. He remembered a paragraph he had read in a newspaper a few days before. What were the words? A moment, and they rose before him, as if graven in letters of fire.
He remembered the first paragraph of that article, almost word for word. "Now Britain has a 'rum row,' a long scattered line of foreign ships laden with liquor, tobacco and other dutiable goods, lying beyond the three-mile limit, along the North Sea coast."
Yes, he remembered every word of it.
Could that secret occupation, highly profitable, be smuggling? That was possible. Had Rudder extended his sphere of liquor smuggling to include Great Britain, as well as the United States? Again words from, the article burned his memory: "Liquor and cigars are sold not only in the fishing villages, but also in towns far inland, at prices below the British duty itself."
The idea was feasible. The smuggling of liquor into Great Britain would appeal to the American rum-king. Smuggling was considered by otherwise honest people "not exactly illegal," to quote Gray's words. But, could he fit in Gray's reputed occupation with smuggling?
A movement in the recess opposite caught his attention. He stiffened, watching unobtrusively. A moment, and Kedwell and Culadi came out of the recess. For a moment they waited at the entrance, talking to those who remained, then tinned and went to the stairs.
Dening glanced over the dancing floor, looking for the girl. A slight mocking whisper caught his ears. He turned sharply, to see Emily Dale standing on the other side of him, partly concealed by a large bank of greenery.
"Still alone, pretty boy." Her light, careless tones rang through the riot of sound from the band. "I'm tired of dancing, charming. Take me upstairs, There's more amusement there."
"AMUSEMENT?" Dening laughed lightly. "Then why not dance?"
"Is there nothing but jazz to quicken the senses?" The girl moved into the light, glancing up at him carelessly; yet in her eyes he read a warning.
For answer the barrister caught her in his arms and whirled her on to the floor. A few moments and he bent his lips to her ear. "Where?"
"Follow them." Emily Dale's eyes turned to where the two men were ascending the stairs.
Deftly, Dening steered her through the careless throng of dancers until they came to the foot of the stairway. There she released herself, with an abrupt gesture.
"I'm tired." Her voice was high and irritable. "Dancing. God. We dance, and dance, lulling our senses with the roll of tom-toms, as if we were jungle niggers. Charming, I want something exciting—" She turned with a laugh, running up a few stairs; turning and holding out her hand "Come."
When he reached her she took his arm, urging him up the stairs, laughing shrilly, talking loudly. Dening glanced upwards. The men had arrived on the first floor and vanished from sight. He quickened his steps. On the floor he could see nothing of them.
Where had they gone to? For the moment he glanced down at the girl, suspicion in his eyes; then laughed. Meekly he moved, obedient to the pressure of her hand on his arm. She led him to the left, along a wide corridor. A few yards and she paused before a door.
"Ever gamble, charming?" she laughed up at him pertly. "Well, don't let me get too close to the tables, or—" She shrugged.
"They play up here?" Almost disappointment sounded in the barrister's, tones. Had he followed Kedwell and Culadi up here, to watch them at the tables? Again he glanced at the girl, suspicion in his eyes.
"Innocent," she taunted. "Do you think that Black Ked makes all his profits out of eats? Do you think that he has me and the other girls for to partner men only; to dance with the fools; to induce to order more and more food and wine?"
She laughed unrestrainedly. "Beautiful, how many men do you think have led me up these stairs in the search for excitement, perhaps in these rooms?" Her shrill laughter echoed through the empty corridor. "Oh, no. There's nothing crooked about this house. There are games, but as straight as they make them. But are you innocent enough to believe that anyone is clever, or lucky enough rich enough to beat the bank? Think again, sweetheart."
"I didn't come up here to gamble." Dening spoke steadily. "You know why I come."
Without answering, she flung open the door before which they stood and led into the room.
A series of rooms, rather. Dening believed that the space had been obtained by cutting two, or perhaps more, houses. Doorless arches, heavily curtained, separated room from room. The place, was crowded; loud with the shrill clatter of women and the deep laughter of men. In each room was a long green baize covered table, around which buzzed an excited throng. The barrister glanced about him curiously. One thing he noticed, immediately. On the walls before him, the walls he believed to be the outer walls of the houses, not a window showed.
Quickly his eyes searched for Kedwell and Culadi. They were not in the room in which he stood. He turned to pass through the curtained doorway. Indifferently, the girl moved by his side, talking inconsequently, loudly.
He came to the end of the room and paused. The men were not there. He looked about him puzzled. He had not seen a window in the rooms; not a door except the one through which he and Emily had entered.
The room in which they now stood was not used for gambling; there was no table in it. It was furnished as an ordinary lounge, and at the moment was occupied by only one couple, sitting on a table lounge in one of the corners. He glanced curiously at the girl by his side. She strolled over to one of the lounges, beckoning him to follow.
In a few minutes the girl looked up and caught Emily's eyes on her. For a moment she waited, then sprang to her feet, dragging up her companion with her. He protested, but the girl was insistent; declaring that she wanted to play again.
Hardly had the couple passed through the screening doors when Emily Dale was on her feet. For a moment she stood listening, then I moved to where a long wide mirror I stood against one of the walls.
"Thanks for the experience, Miss Dale." Dening spoke evenly, yet there was an angry note in his voice. "I told you I didn't come up here to gamble, or—"
The girl turned swiftly, a frown on her face. A smile, then a little trilling laugh. Her fingers caught at the framework of the mirror. It swung silently to one side, revealing a narrow opening. Beckoning, the barrister to pass through, the girl followed; and behind her the mirror slid again into place.
They had passed into another room, a luxuriously furnished bedroom; one which, from the evidences about, was in the occupation of a woman. Leaving the barrister where he had suddenly stayed, just within the doorway, Emily went to a big wardrobe against the opposite wall. Again her fingers found a spring. The massive furniture moved on hidden rollers, showing a closed door.
For a moment the girl looked back, her fingers on her lips, warning to silence. She bent to the panel of the door, then straightened and beckoned Dening to her side. At the same time, she touched a switch and the lights in the room were extinguished. Now on the panel of the door Dening saw a pinpoint of light. Yielding to the insistence of the girl's hand he bent, applying his eye to the spy hole, to start back with a cry of astonishment.
"How the dev—"
The girl's fingers closed swiftly over his lips. "You fool. If they find us here they'll—"
Catching the girl's wrist Dening released himself. A slight pat on the hack of her hand reassured her that he had once more command of himself. Again he bent to the spy-hole.
In the room beyond sat five persons around a table on which stood a scatter of refreshments; yet they were neither drinking nor eating. Again a little sigh of amazement rose to his lips. How had they come there? He had seen Culadi and Kedwell leave the dancing hall and come up the stairs. He thought that in the alcove had remained Reuben Gray, Mrs. Ashford Lynne and Rudder. Yet of the five, four of them were now seated in the room he was viewing, and with them, was Sir John McNiven.
What was the secret of these people's movements? Why had not Mrs. Ashford Lynne and Gray followed the two men up the stairs? How had they come to that room? Was there a secret route from the alcove in the restaurant to that room?
If that was so, and he could not doubt the evidences of his own eyes, then Kedwell's claim that he was not in the club on the night the marked bank notes were passed could be explained. Yes, Kedwell had been in the club, Gray had sworn to that. The ex-boxer had been on the premises, perhaps he had meant that. Possibly he had been in these secret rooms with Mrs. Ashford Lynne; possibly he had forgotten that, for some brief time he and the woman had gone down to the alcove for some purpose. He had claimed not to have been at the club. Perhaps he had meant by that, not in the public portions of the club, an evasion designed to protect the woman.
What were those rooms? For a moment he glanced hack at the darkened bedroom in which he stood. Were these Kedwell's private apartments? That was likely. But, this room was in the evident occupation of a woman.
Again he turned to the little hole in the wall. The five persons in the room were talking earnestly. He wished he could overhear what they were discussing. From the intent look on the woman's face the subject of the conference must he of absorbing importance.
If he could only overhear a few words, sufficient to give him a clue. He placed his ear to the panel of the door, to return again to the spy hole with a shrug of impatience. He could not hear a sound from within the room.
"Quick." The word was breathed softly in his ear. A firm hand drew him from the door. In the darkness he saw the tiny pinpoint of light on the panel suddenly vanish; he heard the soft slither of the heavy wardrobe, falling into place again.
For the moment he almost shook the girl's hand from his arm, to find the spring and roll the wardrobe from the door. Then he realised that the girl had been right in her warning. During the last seconds he had been spying into the room he had witnessed unmistakable signs that the conference was about to end. His muscles flexed, he allowed himself to be drawn across the room. Again the mirror door swung from place and he found himself stepping into the gambling house.
"Whose rooms are those?" In the brilliantly lighted room he turned to the girl.
"Black Ked's," she laughed. With a quick motion she drew him to one of the corners flanking the mirror, pressing him down on a settee and seating herself beside him. "Oh, don't look so surprised and shocked, beautiful. Black Ked's no angel, I can assure you. Lots more human than you, angel child."
So the girl had taken him into Kedwell's private apartments in the night club to watch a meeting of five persons, four of whom had been in the alcove facing his table in the dance hall below. The fifth, Sir John McNiven—
If he could only have heard what they were saying. Three of the party were members of the group who were being blackmailed by Matthew Ashcombe. Another of the party was a woman whom he had come to believe knew much of the blackmailer—a woman who, in past years, he had convicted of attempted blackmailing; who, he believed, was at that moment receiving large cheques from the men he had been asked to protect. Yet, if she was blackmailing them, how came she to be associated with them, sharing their conferences, for he could not doubt that the meeting he had witnessed was intimately connected with their secret activities.
Then, what part had Culadi, the Chicagoan gunman, with them? There he was completely in the dark. He could not even guess. Downstairs there had been five men, possibly six; for he had to presume that Sir John had been in the club before he arrived. In that room he had seen only five. Where was the sixth man, Rudder? Was he still in the dancing hall?
Quickly he turned to the girl beside him, voicing in tense words the suspicions that crowded his brain. Rudder was in the restaurant, watching the table at which he had sat; waiting for him to return to it from the dance he had started with this girl. If that theory was correct, then Rudder would be growing suspicious, for the dance had long since finished. And why had the man remained there on watch, while the gunman had attended the meeting in the upstairs room?
Emily nodded, her face paling slightly. For some time she sat quiet, her brows puckered in thought. At length she rose to her feet, turning to face him quickly. Dening made to rise, but she stooped forward, her hands on his shoulder pressing him down. For a moment he was puzzled, amazed; then behind her he saw the mirror door silently open.
The girl was bending over him, her lips moving but no words issuing from them. She moved slightly. Beyond her he saw the men he had witnessed about the table in Kedwell's sitting room moving carelessly towards the gaming rooms. Gray came first. In the room he stopped and linked arms with Sir John McNiven, who followed him through the opening. Then an interval and Culadi entered. He waited at the door for Kedwell to join him.
Slowly the four men passed to the draped curtains. At the opening Kedwell turned and glanced back to where Emily and Dening were, smiling ironically. The Chicagoan turned swiftly. For a second he looked, mildly inquisitive, at the back of the girl. Suddenly his eyes set and hardened.
Dening knew that concealment from the man was now no longer possible. Putting the girl aside gently, he rose to his feet, stepping lightly aside so that she would be in no danger should the gunman determine to open hostilities. Instinctively his hand sought his dinner jacket pocket, where rested the girl's small automatic. His fingers closed around it; yet never for a moment did his eyes leave Culadi's face.
Kedwell laid his hand on his companion's shoulder, speaking in low rapid tones. The Chicagoan shook off the detaining hand and took a single step forward. His shoulders sloped, his knees bent slightly. In his eyes was death-glare of the killer.
The man's hands hung idly by his side. Yet Dening was not deceived; he had heard too often of the almost incredible rapidity with which the man could draw a hidden gun and fire. He faced him, stolidly; watchful of every movement; tensed for anything that might happen, his fingers on the automatic in his pocket, its muzzle directed at the man.
"Mr. Culadi." A woman's voice spoke from almost behind Dening, in soft even tones. "Mr. Culadi, I thought we were going downstairs to dance."
Suddenly the Chicagoan laughed. His body relaxed. With a wide grin he turned to where Mrs. Ashford-Lynne stood in the doorway, small, dainty and wonderfully gowned.
"Sure." He drawled. "Dance? Why not?" His eyes travelled from the woman again to Dening. Lithely, with the smooth, rippling play of muscles of the wild jungle animal, he moved forward, his hand outstretched.
"Jesse! And it's Rich—Mr. Dening. Five years since we last met, Mr. Richard Dening, and I've waited."
"FIVE years—waiting to meet you again," Culadi repeated, his lips curving in a cold smile. "You remember me, Mr. Richard Dening?"
"Yes, I remember you—well." The barrister refused to see the proffered hand. He turned to the girl beside him. "Miss Dale, shall we see what amusement the rooms have to offer us?"
He offered her his arm, completely ignoring the gunman. For a moment a fish of intense hatred illuminated the cold eyes, then the lashes lowered over them. With a mocking bow Culadi stepped aside for the man and girl to pass before him into the crowded rooms. A low, ironical laugh came from the lips of the woman standing before the mirror watching the tense little drama.
"My." Emily whispered, as she and Dening passed from the room. "Now you've done it, beautiful. If ever I've seen death, I did when I watched that man."
Dening laughed, yet his heart was hammering at his ribs. Had he been wise to throw down the challenge so openly to the Chicagoan? Yet, what else could he have done? The man's assumption of friendliness was obviously assumed. Culadi might not be a coward the barrister believed he was but he was discreet. He would not force matters to an open rupture before witnesses.
The barrister turned to the girl, trying to interest her, to take her thoughts from the scene she had just witnessed. He saw her composure had been badly shaken. A few seconds, idly wandering amid the tables, and he found her again normal.
In spite of his words, his careless manner, the barrister's thoughts were racing with conjectures. If he could but find an explanation of that scene he had witnessed in Kedwell's sitting room? What had those men to discuss with, those outsiders that had to be kept from the rest of the group? He was certain that he had witnessed a meeting of one of the parties into which the group of seven men had divided; parties antagonistic one to the other.
He knew that in that group not one man trusted his associates; that the seeds of disunion were so deeply rooted that it was only a matter of time before there was an open rupture. Were Gray, Kedwell, Rudder and Sir John of one party? Were they opposed to the other three men—the three continental identities in the association—von Rosenfeld, Letoit and Parota.
If he could get into that sitting room. When he had peered through the spy hole in the door he had seen that the table was covered with papers, that the refreshments had been pushed aside to make room for them. If he could get into that room and examine those papers, alone.
Plan after plan chased through his mind, mingled with the idle thoughts he had summoned to amuse the girl. They stopped before one of the tables. What game was being played, he neither knew nor cared. He remembered that, fortunately for his purpose, he had a fair sum of money on him. He pulled out his note case, taking from it a wad of notes. A seat becoming vacant, he steered the girl to it, placing the notes by her hand.
He saw the quick gambler-glitter in her eyes as they met his momentarily. Her long fingers clutched at the notes, all her attention centring on the game. He stood behind her chair, watching, laughing when she lost, inciting her to further speculation. Again and again she lost, and he replenished the fund at her elbow. Once he glanced rapidly about the room.
Culadi and Mrs. Ashford Lynne had disappeared, possibly returning to the dancing hall. Kedwell and Sir John were playing at an adjoining table, with Gray watching them. Not one of the three was paying any attention to him.
Again he turned to Emily Dale. The girl was absorbed in the game. He saw that her luck had now turned; the pile of winnings beside her were rapidly growing. Quietly he stepped back from the table, moving cautiously to the door of the room.
In the passage, outside the gambling room, he stopped. So far as he knew the rooms contained only two doors, the door before which he stood and the mirror door to Kedwell's apartments. Yet he believed that the rooms contained many other doors. If not, then the rooms were a trap if the police raided the establishment. Certainly there were other, concealed, doors. But who knew of them?
Would Kedwell remain at the tables, or go down to the restaurant? At the moment he was playing, but—Mrs. Ashford Lynne was down in the restaurant. Dening knew that Kedwell was mad about the woman. Would he remain up here, away from her?
The barrister felt that, although he had been apparently free and unwatched in the club, he was under constant espionage. Kedwell would not let him wander about at his will. When the man had come from his apartments he had seen him with Emily Dale. Dening knew that the girl was, at heart, a rabid gambler. Possibly Kedwell believed that so long as he remained in her company his thoughts would be occupied. But if the ex-champion boxer saw that the girl was playing alone, that he had left the room?
Dening realised that if Kedwell knew that he had left the rooms alone, he would be followed. Therefore he must act rapidly, discover what he could, and again become the idle lounger enjoying an evening in the company of a demi-mondaine.
Yet he must be certain that he was, for the moment, unwatched. For minutes he leaned carelessly against the wall opposite the gambling room door, intent on every person who emerged. A long wait, and he determined that he was unwatched. Kedwell was apparently engrossed in his game. He guessed that Emily Dale had not yet missed him, that for the time being her whole thoughts were wrapped in the fall of cards and the growing pile of bank notes beside her. He believed that he could trust the girl; his one fear of the moment being that if she missed him she would guess where he had gone and risk herself to join him.
He could wait no longer. Quickly he glanced down the long passage. So far as he could see there was not a door in sight on the left-hand side of the house, the rooms on which the gambling rooms lay. Yet on that side was Kedwell's private room.
There must be a door. It was impossible to believe that all five of the persons who had gone to Kedwell's sitting room had passed through the gambling rooms. He knew that Gray and Margaret Ashford had not. The main stairway had been under his constant observation all the time he had sat in the dancing hall. They had not ascended it, yet he had not seen Sir John McNiven ascend to the upper story? Was there another stairway, in some other part of the house?
Very swiftly and silently he went down the passage in the direction of Kedwell's apartments; carefully calculating space as he proceeded. He came to the point where he believed the gambling rooms ended and paused. Another fifteen paces and he again halted. He was certain that on his left hand lay the room he sought, but no door broke the smoothness of he wainscoting.
Suddenly he stiffened. Voices down the passage caused him to turn sharply and press close to the wall. A group of men and women were leaving the gambling rooms. One of them glanced along the passage, and Dening pressed further back.
Something gave behind him, then resisted. He pressed back strongly, feeling along the wainscoting with his fingers. Again the pressure behind him relaxed. A door opened suddenly and he almost fell into the room.
Chance had given him his desire. He had found the secret door to Kedwell's sitting room. The lights were still burning, a draught from a partly open window gently stirred the hangings. He closed the door, taking care to secure it firmly. Then he went to the windows, overlooking a narrow lane.
In the darkness he could see behind he house a short yard, partly covered by a low building. He guessed that building to be the kitchens of the night club. It was only a very short drop from that window to the roof of the building. He flung up the lower sash of the window, then returned to the door. He secured this as best he could, there was neither bolt nor lock, only the secret spring to hold it in place.
Again he turned to the room, looking about him curiously. The table sill held the litter of refreshments, but the papers that had been on it when the five persons had gathered around it in consultation had disappeared.
He had expected that Kedwell would not leave any incriminating papers about; yet he was certain that they still remained in the room. Would he have time to search and discover them?
A man's sitting room, handsomely furnished, bearing many evidences of its owner's ring career. On the walls were signed photographs of many of the world's famous boxers; photographs, in standing frames, littered the cabinets and tables. Of a safe there was not a single sign.
Yet he was certain that the room contained a safe. Kedwell had come up here to bring to the dancing room the marked bank notes. He might have another office in another part of the upper storeys, but the barrister did not believe that. Psychologically, the man would require to keep his valuables close to his hand. Arrogant with his success in his ring riches, he would consider that they could not be safer than under his immediate care.
Very methodically Dening searched the room, but without success, opening cabinets and drawers in which papers might be concealed. He came to a tall cabinet in one of the corners of the room, beside the window. The door was hard to open. He tugged at it sharply, and the whole piece of furniture came forward.
With a quickening of his pulse the barrister recognised that the cabinet matched the moving wardrobe in the bedroom. He went round the cabinet and found, in the wall, a large cavity. Drawing a pencil torch from his pocket, he flashed the light into the space, to draw back with a low cry of astonishment.
The floor of the cavity was tightly packed with gold ornaments. Dening lent closer. Brooches, bracelets, rings, watches, pins, ornaments of all kinds lay huddled together in confusion. He lifted a bracelet close to his light; and again a low whistle of astonishment came from his lips. Once that bracelet had been heavily studded with gems. They had been carefully removed from the setting. He wondered what had become of them. Why had the jewels been so carefully removed and the gold support carelessly thrown in that cavity?
He picked up a heavy hunter-cased watch, to find that the works had been removed and that only the case remained. He delved into the pile, to estimate that it lay several inches thick on the floor of the cavity.
Almost he laughed at the absurdity of the find. Sir John McNiven, Rudder and Kedwell were rich men. That evening he had heard Gray described as wealthy. He believed that they were obtaining their wealth by devious means; yet why should they treat jewellery in that manner; treat it as some common thief would treat the loot garnered through some burglary?
If he believed his eyes, then here lay the residue of gigantic burglaries. At times he had seen the loot recovered by the police from some apprehended burglar. Then he had noticed that the jewellery had been treated in a similar manner; the jewels extracted from their settings and packed in tins; the gold thrown into some receptacle, haphazard, waiting the opportunity to be melted into unrecognisable ingots.
Had he to believe that these men were common receivers of stolen goods? That thought was absurd. Yet was it? Had he not evidence to that end before his eyes?
A sound at the door brought him abruptly from his speculations. He remembered the door from the bedroom; the sound did not come from there. He stepped back across the room and watched. The door from the passage was shaking. Someone was trying to open it.
Silently he swung the cabinet into place and went to the bedroom door. The key was in the lock. Turning it, he withdrew it and opened the door. As the door from the passage gave way under pressure, he entered the bedroom and drew the door shut behind him, leaving it a fraction of an inch ajar so that he could see as well as hear the newcomers.
A woman and man came into the line of view. The man was Anton Letoit, and the woman Margaret Ashford-Lynne. Crossing the room, as if in accustomed surroundings, the woman dropped wearily into a lounge chair. Letoit drew one of the straight-backed chairs from the table and seated himself.
"Well?" The woman spoke impatiently. "Are you satisfied?"
"Perfectly, madame," The financier bowed. "You have been remarkably successful."
"Yes?" Mrs. Ashford-Lynne opened her bag and drew out a gold case, extracting a cigarette. She leaned forward while Letoit flicked his lighter and held it for her.
"I want some money." The woman spoke carelessly.
"I had the honour of giving madame a cheque the other day."
"That's gone." Mrs. Ashford-Lynne laughed lightly. "My dear man, do you think money lasts for ever?"
"Not in madame's fair hands." The financier bowed ironically.
"I want two thousand pounds now." The woman took no notice of Letoit's remark. "The balance in a week—not later."
Without a word the Frenchman took out his cheque book and tore out a form. He filled it in and passed it to the woman. With a glance at the writing she folded it and placed it in her bag.
"Really, my dear Anton, you are remarkably nice to do business with." Languidly she rose from her seat. "I think I will go down to the dancing floor again. That nice Mr. Culadi is waiting for me. Really, he dances admirably, for an American."
"Culadi." A cloud passed over the Frenchman's face. "If I may be so bold as to caution madame—"
"Caution?" Laughingly, the woman tiptoed up, patting the bearded face. "Caution, my friend. Caution and I have long since been strangers. Besides—" she hesitated.
"Yes?" Letoit looked at her questioningly.
"Sir John asked me to take charge of Culadi. He fears—"
"Yes?" Again the Frenchman questioned impassively.
"That stupid, harmless barrister, Richard Dening." Margaret Ashford-Lynne spoke impetuously. "Culadi has some old feud with him. Sir John fears an open—yes, an open rupture."
Letoit frowned. "It was foolish to consult him."
"Remarkably," the woman laughed.
"Symonds was getting too active. That was the mistake." Margaret Ashford-Lynne suddenly became serious. "In some way he discovered—"
"Yes?" There was urgency in the Frenchman's tones.
"Oh, Reuben was mad to insist that Sir John send for him when that man, Ashcombe, forced his way into our business. We should have had nothing to do with him."
"If Symonds was dangerous, he is so no longer." An unpleasant smile flecked the bearded lips. "It was dangerous to call in this Richard Dening. He is far more dangerous than Symonds would ever have been."
"But—" The woman faced Letoit in astonishment. "Didn't you know Richard Dening was behind Edward Symonds all the time. We only discovered that the other day. Richard Dening owns the Symonds Inquiry Agency."
"Mon Dieu." The Frenchman started back a pace, "In that—"
Suddenly Dening's attention was distracted from the scene in the sitting room. He had heard a movement behind him. Someone was in that darkened room with him. He stepped back a pace and turned. At the same moment some heavy weapon crashed down on his head. With a little sigh he fell to the floor insensible.
THE city clocks were chiming the quarter to ten when Ira Canning turned from the Embankment into the Temple on her way to Fern Court. She was looking forward to her new employment with interest. True, as she had told Richard Dening the previous day, she was prepared to accept work of any kind, so long as it was honest. This new work in the chambers of the young barrister—a man whose name was being whispered through the city for his uncanny ability to unravel deep mysteries-showed signs of being interesting. More, she liked what she had seen of her new employer. She had told him that he was terribly direct, but she believed that directness was coupled with a rare understanding.
Mick Regan opened the door to her summons with a quaint old-fashioned knocker, a smiling welcome on his old wrinkled face. He had driven her home the previous evening. On the journey she had managed to win the approval of the man who thought little of anyone except his old master's son.
"Desk's here, miss." Mick did the honours of the study. "I've put it there, close to the window, so's you'll have the best light there is. There ain't much in this court, best of times."
Ira looked at her desk and the shining, new typewriter on its separate stand beside it. Everything was new, but with a newness that was demurely discreet; in no way spoiling the picturesqueness of the old room and the quaint, antique furniture and rare ornaments Richard Dening had gathered about him. She glanced at the old man with increasing respect. When Dening had said that Mick ran the chambers she had accepted the statement, believing that he only fulfilled orders; now she thought different.
"Mr. Dening in—" She turned and looked at the old man with a smile. "Do you know, I hardly know what to call you. Mr. Dening told me that you had adopted him. Will you adopt me also: Then I can call you, as he does, Mick."
"Pleased, miss." The withered old face lit in a smile. "Then you're Miss Ira and I'm Mick—" He hesitated a moment "—and if there's anything I can do for you. I tries to do the best I can for Master Richard, and there's times he says as he couldn't get along without me."
Ira laughed. "I am afraid I shall be the same, Mick. You have accomplished wonders here. It's a business room and—and yet you have not spoilt the comfy air Mr. Dening managed to give it."
Somehow Ira felt disappointed. She shook herself, mentally, yet could hot keep the thought from her. She had expected Richard Dening to welcome her on her first arrival. The place seemed empty without him.
Seating herself at her desk she busied herself arranging her few business and personal belongings in the drawers. Quietly, she was watching the old man about the room. She noticed that he was furtively watching her, and wondered.
"What's the matter, Mick?" She swung found on her chair, deliberately businesslike. There was something worrying the old man; it was better for her to take the initiative than to wait for him to speak.
"Nothing, Miss Ira." For a few minutes he vigorously polished a mirror that was already spotless. Suddenly he dropped his duster, facing the girl. "It's Master Richard, miss. He hasn't been home all night and his bed's not been slept in."
For a moment the girl stared, then laughed slightly; then bit her lips in self-reproach when she saw the hurt look on his wrinkled face. She went quickly across the room.
"Now, what really is the matter, Mick?"
"Master Richard doesn't do those sort of things, Miss Ira. When I got home last night, after driving you to Brixton, I found a note on the table, to call him at half-past seven this morning. When I did, I found his bed empty. He hadn't been home all night."
"He didn't say where he was going, in the note?"
"Not a thing, Miss Ira. I know he dressed for dinner, for his day clothes were on the chairs. It's not like him, Miss Ira. If he says a thing he means it; he always has, even when he was quite a boy."
"You have no idea where he was dining?"
"No, Miss Ira. Usually he dines at the club, when he's not dining with friends or at home."
For a moment Ira stood undecided, then went to the telephone. A few seconds and she was talking to the head steward at the Karmel Club. Presently she replaced the receiver and turned to the old man.
"Mr. Dening dined at the Karmel Club." She hesitated. "The head steward tells me that he was with three gentlemen, Mr. Wainwright, Mr. Frederick Ford and Captain Mann. He thinks that after dinner they went up to one of the card rooms. He is making further enquiries and will try and discover what time Mr. Dening left the club, and with whom."
"Captain Robert Mann might know, Miss Ira." Mick spoke eagerly. "He's a great friend of Master Richard's, and lives at the club."
Some sense, undefinable, urged Ira to humour the old man. Certainly Richard Dening's absence was strange. He would not stay at the club all night; if he had, the head steward would have informed her. He had definitely inferred that the barrister had left the club the previous evening. A little thrill of apprehension tugged at her heart. Again she turned to the telephone.
"Captain Mann says that Mr. Dening cut out of the bridge game soon after eleven o'clock. He mentioned something about an appointment at a night club." She swung round suddenly to face the old man. "Mick, do you—do you think anything could have happened to him?"
Mick Regan did not reply. He was standing idle in the middle of the room, a worried frown on his face. Presently he turned and without a word left the room. A few moments later he returned, holding a crumpled large square envelope.
"There was this in his waste-paper basket this morning, Miss Ira." He held the envelope out to her, back Upwards. Across the flap was embossed the title "Blue Heaven."
The Blue Heaven night club. To her mind flashed the words that Dening had used on the drive back from Ewell. He had spoken of the seven men who were being blackmailed by the man who had given his address at the old ruin at Grays. She remembered the name of one of the men—Dening had said that he was Black Ked, the ex-champion boxer. He had stated that the man was now the owner of several night clubs.
To her mind rose the vision of the man they had seen in the old ruin—the man who had mysteriously disappeared; the man who had come into the dining room of the King George Hotel at Ewell. Dening had said that he was a noted Chicagoan gunman. She remembered the barrister's account of the scene in the American hotel lobby, and how the man had threatened his life.
A little thrill of terror shook her. Had Dening gone to the night club and met that man? Had Culadi carried out the threat he had made in America; and renewed through the post by means of the silver bullets?
For some moments she sat, staring unseeingly at the old man. Then, controlling her nerves with a strong effort, she recounted all she could remember of that morning in and around Ewell.
"That's something." Mick nodded his head sagely. Peculiarly, as her apprehensions grew the old man became calmer. "I'm wondering the same as you, Miss Ira. I know the silver bullets." He went to a cabinet and fetched an exquisite old Derby saucer. On it lay two silver bullets.
Curiously, the girl picked them up. Then, under them she saw a small card. On it were half a dozen words: "I'll bring the third myself."
A sinister threat. Had Culadi brought over the third silver bullet with him to England. She wondered. Again she bent over the little tokens on her palm.
"Mick." She tried to steady her voice. "Do you know anything about guns? Would—could these bullets be fired from a revolver or automatic?"
The old man went to Dening's desk and opened a drawer. From it he took an automatic and brought it to the girl's desk. Opening the magazine he took out one of the cartridges and laid it on the girl's palm beside the silver bullets. To her inexperienced eyes they looked identical.
"Mick." Her words came with a sudden gasp. "Mick, Could you take out one of these leaden bullets and put in its place a—silver bullet."
The old man nodded gloomily. For some moments there was a silence, the girl pondering deeply.
"When I first met Mr. Dening," the girl shuddered at the remembrance of the scene in the Symonds Inquiry Agency offices, "he had with him a police officer. A—"
"Chief Inspector Lorrimer." The old man completed the girl's sentence.
"Does he know, of this?"
"He was with Master Richard before he went to meet you yesterday morning, Miss Ira."
Immediately the girl turned to the telephone and rang up New Scotland Yard. In a few minutes she was talking to Lorrimer. He listened in silence until Ira had concluded her account of the search for Dening, then briefly instructed her to wait until he arrived at the chambers.
Ten minutes later the chief inspector entered the room. Something about his brusque, matter of fact questioning dispelled the girl's fears. She had read of Lorrimer, one of the most prominent men at the Yard, a man often featured and pictured in the newspapers for his wonderful success in the suppression of crime. She knew that his abrupt, almost rude manner could soften into an almost unbelievable gentleness. She remembered his attention and sympathy towards her when she lay on the couch in the inquiry agency offices, recovering from her long spell of unconsciousness.
"Well, young lady?" The detective swung to face the girl. "That all you know?"
"Regarding the Ashcombe case?" Ira questioned. "Yes." She hesitated. "Mick has the idea that Mr. Dening talked the case over with you. It is that American—"
"Culadi." Lorrimer nodded. "That's news as regards Mr. Dening; but not as regards the man himself. We had news from New York, some while ago, that Enrico Culadi proposed to pay us a visit." He laughed grimly. "But these wild and woolly gunmen of America usually leave their artillery at home when they come to London. They've got what they call the Sullivan law over there; we don't give ours a fancy name, but it's too mighty effective for even their swell shots."
"Do you think this man, Culadi, recognised Mr. Dening?" Ira asked after a pause.
"He might have." Lorrimer rose to his feet with a broad grin. "But Mr. Dening's no fool with a gun himself. I remember—"
"Mr. Dening left his gun at home last night, sir," interposed Mick.
"Well, we'll trust that nothing's happened yet." The detective had watched the colour fade from the girl's cheeks. "Now we've got to get to work." He turned to the girl. "Miss Canning, you lost, your bag the other night. We have an idea that Mrs. Ashford-Lynne has it. You've shown yourself remarkably sharp at tracking Mr. Dening's movements this morning. Now, go and get your bag back, and see what you can find out by a little discreet questioning. I can tell you that the lady almost lives at the Blue Heaven. Get that? Don't mention Mr. Dening or that you are working for him, but press a bit on what you get from her. You can hint a bit, say that there's been a rumour about that there was trouble at the Blue Heaven night club last night, and so on. Don't be afraid. I'll have you fully covered."
He turned to the telephone, ringing up the Yard. Gaining connection with Sergeant Chambers, he gave orders for Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's house to be watched, and also for a watch to be set on the Blue Heaven. Replacing the receiver he turned to the old man.
"Mick, scribble a line to Mr. Dening to tell him you are working for me at present. Leave it on his desk, in case he returns unexpectedly. Then get down to Arundel-street and keep watch on Altona House and especially that bright beauty, Sir John McNiven. Get on to the Yard every hour and telephone through a report. Ask for Sergeant Chambers, and be will give you instructions I may have for you." He turned to the girl. "That applies to you, Miss Canning. Keep in touch with Sergeant Chambers."
"If Sir John McNiven leaves Altona House, sir?" Mick questioned, his eyes bright, his hand on the door knob, impatient to be out on the quest.
"Follow him—to hell if he leads there." Lorrimer spoke impetuously. "I've had my eye on that bird for quite a time. He can bear a lot of watching."
"And you, Inspector?" Ira spoke briefly.
"I?" The man turned swiftly, a broad grin on his dark face. "I'm going after Enrico Culadi. I mayn't-be a magician with the rod, like him and Mr. Dening, but, if I have to, I'll shoot first and ask questions afterwards. I don't care to take risks with those gentry, and I don't worry about giving them a square break. I'm going to bring him in, at sight, on some charge or another. Now, please. To work. I don't say that anything's happened to Mr. Dening, but—" A shrug completed the sentence.
Ira carried her hat to one of the I mirrors, her hands trembling with excitement. Gladly she submitted herself to the Chief Inspector's will. Almost she believed she was entering adventure. If only she could be assured that nothing had happened to—
"Mr. Lorrimer." Mick had opened the door, a strange expectant look on his face. "A gentleman to see Mr. Dening—a Mr. Reuben Gray."
A SLIGHT nod from the chief inspector and Mick Regan stepped aside. Reuben Gray strolled carelessly into the room. He looked curiously at the girl standing before the mirror, and then nodded to Lorrimer.
"Dening out?" The words were careless; yet Ira thought there was a puzzled note underlying them.
"Mr. Dening didn't come home last night." Lorrimer answered abruptly. "I was coming to see you this morning, Mr. Gray. I believe you were one of the last to see Mr. Dening yesterday?"
"To see Richard Dening?" For a moment the young man stared, open-eyed at the chief inspector, then turned to a side table and placed on it his hat and stick. "I did not see Richard Dening at any time last night, Mr. Lorrimer."
"Not at the Blue Heaven night Club?" The detective snapped the question. "I know he was there. He left the Karmel Club soon after eleven stating to friends that he had an appointment at the night club. Peculiarly, from the moment he left the Karmel Club all traces of him are missing." The police officer paused a moment. "You were at the Blue Heaven Club last night, Mr. Gray?"
A fraction of a second passed before the young man nodded.
"I was there, chief inspector, though how the devil you know that I don't know. You gentlemen of Scotland Yard appear to be keeping a very close watch on that place of late."
"Wants it, doesn't it?" Lorrimer smiled grimly. His shot in the dark had brought results. During the investigations Ira Canning had made that morning no mention of Reuben Gray had occurred. "What time did you go to the Blue Heaven, Mr. Gray?"
"Quite late—after midnight." The young man answered easily. "I spent the evening with a friend, a Mr. Rudder. He said that he had some business with Mr. Kedwell—"
"Selling him bootleg for the club's use?" A wry smile played on the chief inspector's lips. "I don't think Englishmen will take kindly to that. Usually they're rather particular regarding their spirits and wines."
Gray laughed. "The Blue Heaven is supposed to have the best restaurant cellar in town," he answered.
"They'll have to take care of it, then." For a moment the detective waited. When the young man did not speak, he added, "So you were at the Blue Heaven night club last night and didn't see Mr. Dening there?"
"What has happened to Richard I Dening?" The young man suddenly tensed. "You're sitting in his chair, uttering enigmas. What's happened to him?"
"As I said, Mr. Dening went to dine at the Karmel Club. After he had dined he cut into a game of bridge. About eleven he stated that he had an appointment and left the game. He mentioned that he was going to the Blue Heaven night club. From the moment he left the Karmel Club he disappeared. He didn't return home—nothing has been heard from him."
The police officer stated the case fully and openly; keenly watching the young man from under heavy brows. There was something about Reuben Gray that perplexed, annoyed, him. Although less than thirty-six hours previously he had spoken to him for the first time in his life, he knew the man by repute; he had seen him in diverse places, some of them places he would hardly have expected to find him, and wondered.
Now he witnessed him in a new character. The insouciance, the blasé air of wearied indolence that formed the cloak under which he moved through life had fallen from his shoulders. He had changed to the keen, alert man of action—more, if Lorrimer was any judge of his fellow men, a man of rare penetration.
Suddenly as the cloak had fallen from Reuben Gray, it was resumed. Nonchalantly the young man drew to him a seat; lounging negligently, with his long legs outstretched before him, flicking at his knees with the gloves he carried in his left hand.
"So Richard Dening left the Karmel, for the Blue Heaven night club?" The words came in a careless drawl—"and disappeared." Gray looked up, a humorous twinkle in his eyes. "Are you suggesting, Mr. Lorrimer, that Sydney Kedwell is—is kidnapping our prominent citizens?"
The chief inspector laughed, almost against his will. He was certain that Reuben Gray knew something of the present mystery, as well as that surrounding Edward Symonds' murder, but what? He could not even hazard a guess. He determined that the man would bear watching, and he should be watched, very strictly.
"So, friend Dening goes to the Blue Heaven and disappears." Gray mused; while the chief inspector held silence. "I must mark that on my remembrance tablets, Mr. Lorrimer." He looked up guilelessly. "Do you think there is any danger for me? Shall I cut out the shop—it'll be awkward, you know; so many of my friends frequent the place. Would you like me to warn them?"
He stood up, erect and lithesome; faultlessly dressed; one of the best-looking men of his set. His air was that of careless ease, yet Lorrimer noticed that his muscles were tensed; his whole frame held in repression, as if he were afraid of betraying some secret thoughts. With a careless grace that irritated, yet held the police officer's admiration, he turned to the table and retrieved hat and stick.
"Well—I'll get along." The drawling words were almost insolent. "If I come across Dening I'll tell him to trot along home—that you're waiting for him. Any message for Sydney Kedwell—Black Ked, y'know—chief inspector?"
"Not even a remembrance." Lorrimer nodded grimly. "More than probable I'll look in and have a chat with that gentleman during the day."
With a short nod, Gray turned to the door. Mick, who had remained within the room, held it open. On the threshold the young man turned and looked at the girl. From her, his eyes went to the detective, keenly watching him. He shrugged slightly, and passed from the room.
"Mr. Lorrimer?" Ira spoke swiftly.
"Mrs Ashford-Lynne might take an idea of shopping this morning, Miss Canning," the detective interrupted. He went to one of the windows and stared down into the court.
The girl flushed. Without speaking she retrieved bag and gloves and went quickly from the room. She wondered; had the chief inspector tried to snub her. The thought made her hot.
Why had Reuben Gray come to Richard Dening's chambers? She did not believe for one moment that he had not seen the barrister at the night club. He had acknowledged that he had been there; it had been proven that Dening had left the Karmel Club to go to the Blue Heaven.
What had happened after he had arrived at the night club? She was certain now that he had gone there. Why had not Lorrimer asked Gray if Culadi had been at the night club that night? Why had he talked so openly of what they had discovered, to the man?
Question after question spun through her mind as she made her way up to the Strand and caught a west-bound bus. At length, puzzled and perplexed, she put speculation from her as fruitless. She had work before her She had to see Margaret Ashford-Lynne. Ostensibly she was going to recover her handbag; secretly, to discover what had happened at the Blue Heaven night club the previous evening. That meant that she must ask questions. How could, she frame them?
Tiredly, she left the bus and walked along the familiar streets to Lexington Gardens. She came at length: to the house where she had once worked. A strange maid opened the door, and she smiled slightly as she gave her name. Mrs. Ashford-Lynne was unlucky with her servants; few of them stayed long in her employ.
A few seconds and the maid returned, nodding for her to follow up to the familiar boudoir. At her entrance Margaret Ashford-Lynne rose from a lounge, with a little cry of welcome; effective to strangers, but Ira knew how utterly false.
"Yes, Miss Canning?"
For a moment the girl hesitated, recognising that she had not thought to frame her questions in her mind, Somehow, there had been a belief that the woman would welcome her with news of her handbag—not the apparent denial that showed in eyes and voice. Suddenly, she spoke. If this woman thought to bluff her, she would make the challenge direct.
"I've called for my handbag, Mrs. Ashford-Lynne, please?"
"Your handbag?" The slightly-lifted eyebrows were expressive. "Did you leave it here?"
"I understand you took it from Mr. Edward Symonds' offices, the night before last," Ira smiled quietly.
"From Mr. Symonds' offices?" The woman frowned. "Why, I have not been—"
"Shortly after half-past nine on the night before last," The girl repeated, her lips firm. What was the woman trying to conceal? "That night I had an appointment with Mr. Symonds; he had sent for me, unexpectedly. My instructions were to enter by a certain door. I went to that door and found the room in darkness. As I entered—"
She paused, amazed at the grey pallor that spread over the woman's face. Mrs. Ashford-Lynne staggered, putting, out her hand to a small table nearby, to steady herself.
"You It was you who—" The woman stared at Ira, horrified.
"Yes. He had sent for me, told me to enter by a certain door. I believe you were in that room, Mrs. Ashford-Lynne."
"What—what did Edward Symonds want with you? Did he know that you were once in my employ? No—" Mrs. Ashford-Lynne paused quickly, pursing her lips, as if she realised that she had said too much.
"Mr. Symonds wrote and offered me work." Ira repeated evenly. Suddenly the distaste she had always had for this woman flooded her. She spoke quickly, almost savagely. "I want my handbag, Mrs. Ashford-Lynne. I know you have it. I had it with me when I entered that room. Someone flung me aside and I struck the desk and fainted. Mr. Dening and Chief Inspector Lorrimer found me. When I asked for my bag it could not be found. They offered me yours, instead."
"I—I have not your bag." The woman spoke with effort.
"That is not true." The girl's answer was decisive. "You—"
"I have never been to Mr. Symonds' offices." Margaret Ashford-Lynne almost shouted the words; her lips pale beneath the colouring.
For a moment Ira was silent, beating down the waves of anger that surged over her. Why was this woman lying?
"Then, how did your bag come in that room?" Ira spoke when she felt she had control of her voice. "I know you went to Mr. Dening's chambers yesterday morning and that then he restored to you your bag." She hesitated, then, with rising anger, continued "Why do you not want to give me my bag? Have you lost it? If so, why don't you tell me? Or, don't you want to give it hack to me? Do you want to steal—" She stopped, trying to fathom the reasons for the woman's actions.
"Yes, steal it." Ira spoke firmly. "Oh, I know quite a lot, Mrs. Ashford-Lynne, and others know, also. Do you know that when Mr. Dening restored your bag to you yesterday morning, he had with him Chief Inspector Lorrimer—"
"Chief Inspector Lorrimer—Oh!" Margaret Ashford-Lynne gasped.
"Yes. Mr. Dening told me that he introduced him to you as 'Dr. Watson.' Were you so simple as to believe that? Now, my bag, please; or I shall make a complaint to the police."
"Police? How dare you?"
"Dare?" The girl laughed slightly. "Dare ask for my handbag?" For a moment she paused, then advanced a step towards the woman. "Mrs. Ashford-Lynne do you know your and my handbags are almost exactly alike? Why do you want a second handbag—exactly similar to the first?"
The girl's voice was full of significance. Margaret Ashford-Lynne staggered, as if the words had been a blow. She stared before her with wide, frightened eyes. Ira waited, confident that she held command of the situation.
"Well, Mrs. Ashford-Lynne?" She spoke ironically. Suddenly her eyes lit on a bag lying on a chair close to where the woman had reclined. "Why—" She went swiftly across the room. "This is my bag." She made to open it.
"Don't touch that bag." The woman sprang forward, clutching at the bag in the girl's hands. Ira easily evaded her rush. Somehow, the clasp gave way as she swung it out of the woman's reach, and a glittering cascade, of jewellery fell to the floor.
For a moment Ira stared at the mass of jewels at her feet. Her eyes went to the interior of the bag. On the lining was a queer little stain that she remembered making. It was her bag.
Again she glanced at the woman, kneeling on the carpet, gathering up the fallen jewellery. Why had she denied possession of the bag; denied it in the face of the almost overwhelming proof? More, why had she stored that jewellery in the bag—her bag?
The girl was frankly puzzled. What did it mean? Why had the woman that mass of jewels? From long experience in the house she knew every article of jewellery the woman possessed. They would not make a heap a fraction of the size of this pile.
"This is my bag." Ira faced the woman stonily. "You said you did not have it, and I find it here. But it is empty. What have you done with my things?"
A moment and Margaret Ashford-Lynne looked up, terror in her eyes. She pointed, dumbly, to a half-open drawer. Ira went to it. In the drawer were the things her bag had contained that fateful night. Quickly she restored them to the bag and turned again to the woman, now rising unsteadily to her feet.
"I don't understand." The girl spoke slowly. "You denied having my bag and I find it here. I find all that jewellery in it—jewellery that I know does not belong to you." She hesitated, to continue: "There is something very mysterious going on I don't understand it at all, but I think Mr. Dening and Chief Inspector Lorrimer may he able to find an explanation when I tell them."
"Ira. You won't. For the love of heaven, you won't." Margaret Ashford-Lynne spoke pleadingly. "Oh, say you won't."
"I will. I must." The girl hesitated. "Everything's so mixed up, so peculiar, and I don't understand. But I—we've got to understand somehow. There's Mr. Dening's disappearance. We know he went to the Blue Heaven night club last night, but we don't know what for. We've traced him there, and we can't find out that he ever left the place—" She turned savagely on the woman. "You know. I know you know. What happened to him there? Was he killed—killed? Killed like Edward Symonds, and—and you know all about it. Tell me, I will know."
Shaken with fury, she advanced on the woman. For a moment Margaret Ashford-Lynne stared at her in horrified terror; then with a little sigh, sank to the floor insensible.
In sudden compunction, Ira bent over the woman. A moment, and she saw that she had fainted. For a few seconds she stood meditating. She glanced at the pile of jewellery. Should she place it in her bag and take it to Chief Inspector Lorrimer He would discover where it had come from; who were the rightful owners. Slowly, she shook her head. What did it matter about the jewellery? She had other work—she had to discover what had happened to Richard Dening.
Another glance at the woman and she went across the room and touched the bell. When the maid came she pointed to Mrs. Ashford-Lynne. Together they raised the woman and laid her on the couch.
"I'm afraid I brought her bad news." Ira tried to make her tones sympathetic. "But she is only in a faint. In quite a few minutes she will be well again, but I cannot wait. Will you tell her, from me, that I am sorry, and that I hope she will give up this night club life. It is dangerous."
On the pavement outside the house Ira paused. She was dissatisfied with herself; in some way she had muddled the quest Chief Inspector Lorrimer had entrusted to her. Had she been too abrupt. But the woman's lies and evasions had angered her.
Again she envisioned Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's face during her last moments of consciousness. There had been stark terror shadowed there. Why? Why had she fainted when asked what had happened to Richard Dening at the Blue Heaven night club?
Abruptly she turned and walked down the road. At the corner she stopped outside a teashop and looked down at the two hags in her hand. She could not go through the streets like that. She must do something with one of the bags. In that teashop they knew her well. She would leave one of them there. They would not think it strange.
Entering the shop she asked for the telephone. Obtaining connection with New Scotland Yard she asked for Sergeant Chambers. In a few moments she heard his voice on the wire. She gave her name.
"Chief Inspector Lorrimer is out at the moment, Miss Canning," the sergeant reported. "Will you give me a message?"
Briefly, yet carefully, Ira reported everything that had happened in Margaret Ashford-Lynne's boudoir; repeating, so far as she could remember, the actual words used.
"Excellent, Miss Canning." She could hear the sergeant's little chortle on the wire. "Put the wind up the lady, eh? I'll have inquiries about that jewellery made at once, and I'll give your report to the Chief Inspector directly he returns. What do you propose to do now? Go back to Fern Court?"
For a moment Ira hesitated. Was her share of the adventure to end so tamely, with a return to Richard Dening's chambers, and the interminable hours spent waiting for him to return, or to learn news of his fate? No, she could not do that.
A sudden urge came on her. For the moment there was no one to control her actions, no one from whom she had to take orders. So far, she had blundered. She had not obtained the information the Chief Inspect tor required. Could she retrieve the mistake her impetuousness had caused? Quickly she turned to the telephone.
"No, Sergeant Chambers. No, I shall not go back to Fern Court. I shall go to Ewell—to Grays. To the old ruined manor house."
FOR moments Ira stood before the telephone instrument, still holding the receiver to her ear; yet not listening to the words that came over the wire. Her brain was racing with thoughts and resolves; thoughts that had not been in her mind when she entered the tea shop.
Dimly she could hear the detective sergeant, at the other end of the wire, expostulating, commanding and cajoling, pleading, and threatening her with the wrath of the chief inspector when he learned what she proposed to do—and smiled.
What did Lorrimer's anger matter? Before he could get to her she would be far away, speeding on the quest that had suddenly dawned in her mind. She dropped the receiver on its hook, cutting short one of the sergeant's most flowery periods, and shrugged. These men. They would wait, and wait; scheme and plan, and all the time Richard Dening was in the power of his enemies, and—God knows what might happen.
Richard Dening had fallen into the power of the gang he had set out to expose. She knew that now; she had read the truth in Margaret Ashford-Lynne's face, in the sudden access of terror that had swept the woman when she had faced the question of what had happened to Richard Dening at the Blue Heaven night club.
What had happened there? She could only guess, with no clue to I guide her. She knew that Dening had gone to the Blue Heaven from the Karmel Club. She was quite certain that he had not left the building in Wyche Street. He had not returned to his chambers. Then, where had he gone? No, what had happened to him?
Thoughts chasing tumultuously through her brain, she went to a table and sat down, ordering tea. For a time she leaned her chin on her hand, abandoning herself to theories and speculations. When the meal was served she put thought from her resolutely. While she ate and drank she opened both bags and sorted the contents. Instinctively, she filled the bag Richard Dening had given her during those few happy hours at Ewell. The other she closed and, taking it to the counter, asked the girl in charge to take care of it for her. She returned to her table and finished her tea. It strengthened and steadied her.
For some moments she sat, thinking quietly. She conned over the events in Dening's chambers that morning, remembering each step she had taken while tracing his movements from the time he had arrived at the Karmel Club. In her mind she saw him leave the club. He would stand on the pavement while the porter obtained a taxi. He entered it, giving the address of the night club. Mentally, she watched him arrive at the club door, and then a blank. What had happened after Richard Dening had set foot in the club? Could she reconstruct that from what he had told her the previous day? Again she strained her memory, trying to recall his lightest word—to string what he had told her into a connected story.
And through the facts, as they marshalled through her brain, showed one fact—the face of the man she had seen entering the dining room of the old-fashioned inn at which they had lunched, the face of the man Dening had told her was Enrico Culadi, crook and murderer; the infamous Chicagoan gunman.
Had Culadi been at the Blue Heaven night club the previous night? Almost she was tempted to go to the club and find out; to ask for Sydney Kedwell, the proprietor, and demand Richard. Dening at his hands. But the man would deny her story. She could not bluff him as she had Margaret Ashford-Lynne. He might admit that Dening had been at the club the previous evening, it would he dangerous for him to deny that in face of the knowledge she and the police held, but he would declare that Dening had left the club free and unhampered. Ira knew that would be a lie. She was certain that Dening had never left the night club voluntarily. She believed that there he had discovered something vital—that his enemies had come upon him at the moment of that discovery and had stricken him down. A shudder shook her slender frame.
If they had captured him. They had, she was sure of that. Then they would not keep him in that place. They would realise that he would be missed the following morning; that the police would he informed; that they would come to the night club.
No, they would not hold Dening at the night club. That would not be safe. Then, where would they take him? To her mind rose the vision of the man she had seen stealing through the old ruins; the archway in the corner of the great hall, framing the deeper darkness beyond. The flight of steps and the locked door at their foot, of which Richard Dening had told her.
Behind that locked door. Then her impulse had been right. Dening had been taken from the night club to Grays Manor. She closed her eyes, and the vision of him in the cold, dank cellars of the ruins rose before them. He was there, hound, helpless, perhaps insensible.
She started from her seat, knocking over the table. Why was she sitting there when he was in that terrible place, a prisoner to those awful men? If Culadi held him. Again she saw the two silver bullets resting on her palm; she heard her voice asking the old servant if they could be fired from an automatic.
Outside the tea shop she hailed a passing taxi, directing the man to drive in haste to Waterloo Station. If she could get a train at once. She couldn't wait; she must get to the ruin—to that hidden locked cellar, without delay.
Stamping angrily on the floor of the car, she drove her nerves under control. She must think—think and plan. She could not rush into the country without some plan. But, what plan could she form, on the few facts that she knew? What did she know—only that Richard Dening was in danger and calling. Yes, she could hear his voice calling her to help him.
The car drew up with a jerk, and the man flung open the door. Ira jumped but, almost into the arms of a waiting porter. Impetuously she thrust some money into the man's hand, turning impatiently to the porter.
"When is the next train to Ewell?"
"Ten minutes, miss." The man glanced curiously at her; flushed with the race of emotion that had possessed her since she had left the house in Lexington Gardens. "You'll do it just right."
Was the man a prophet? She laughed as she sped through the station, gathering a ticket at the booking office, a magazine at the bookstall. Would she "do it just right?" She prayed that she would.
In the railway carriage she opened the magazine, for some moments staring at the pages unseeingly. With a little hysterical laugh she recognised that she had picked up one of the many detective story magazines. Could the writers of those stories match the one she was playing a real part in?
What would Chief Inspector Lorrimer say when Sergeant Chambers told him that she had gone to Ewell? Again she laughed. She could picture the sudden flash in those cold, dark eyes deep-set in the keen saturnine face; eyes that she had seen blaze to sudden excitement.
All too slowly the minutes passed. Station succeeded station as the train crawled through the countryside. Again she stamped on the floor, biting her lips, trying to hold herself in thrall against the consuming impatience that possessed her. Oh, why had she come by train? Why had she not found a car? To her memory came the swift speeding through the lanes the previous afternoon; with Richard Dening by her side—and a warm sense of protection swept over her.
She was going to him. Already she was far on her way, and she was only guessing where he was; she had no plans for his rescue, if he lay helpless in that old ruin.
Ewell! She sprang to the platform before the train came to rest and ran to the barrier. Ten seconds later she was on the road. Yes, there was-a taxi. She ran to it and wrenched open the door.
"Where to, Miss?" The man looked at her in mild astonishment, as she lay hack on the cushions, too exhausted by her rush from the train—from the pulsing emotions of her heart—to speak.
Almost she answered "To Grays Manor," then caught her breath abruptly. That would not do. The man knew the place was a ruin; that no one lived there. He would be suspicious, possibly watch and comment on her movements to his mates, when he returned to the town.
"To Upton Lodge, Sir John McNiven's place." The words came involuntarily to her lips. As the car moved forward she nodded. Yes, that would do. She would drive towards Sir John McNiven's house.
She sat back in the car, watching the countryside; remembering the landmarks she had noted the previous afternoon, when she travelled that road with Richard Dening. She was feeling calmer now, more composed with every yard she drew nearer her goal. Could she take that for an augury that she was right? In London she had been anxious, distrait, agitated. Here—
The belts of trees closed in on either side of the road. Ira leaned forward. A few moments and she would pass the wrecked gates of Grays Manor. The car sped on. There was but another half mile between her and Upton Lodge. She must act quickly.
Unless she stayed him, the driver would turn in at the gates and stop before the door of the house. Servants would come, wondering who was the unexpected caller. What could she say, what explanation could she make, that would permit her to go back to the old Manor House alone? She tapped sharply on the glass and the man turned his head.
"Stop please." The man looked at her wonderingly.
Ira opened the door and stepped down to the road. Quietly, as if long accustomed to alighting from a public vehicle on a long stretch of country road, without a house in sight, she paid the man.
"There is no need to say where I stopped when you get back to town." she told him. Then, why not the truth? It could not hurt her. She lowered her voice. "I'm making some investigations and I don't want it known that I am down here."
The man's, face lighted.
"Aye, aye." He grinned broadly. "Heard there was something funny up, about here. Sam Cherry, one of the postmen, told me that they were inquiring about some fellow who was supposed to live at the old manor." He paused, considering. "Lonely for you out here. Like me to hang about for a bit?"
For a second Ira hesitated, She would like to have him near. He looked—he was honest, and, she acknowledged it, candidly, she was terribly afraid.
The man, yes, but not the car. That would he too conspicuous in that long lonely country road. But, she could not separate the man from his vehicle. There was nowhere he could hide it. She shook her head.
"No, I think not." Yet there was indecision in her voice. "I want to be about here alone, but—" She hesitated. "Will you come back for me?" Again she opened her purse. "See, I will pay you to come out here again; in case I cannot meet you. Come here and wait, blowing your horn at intervals—a double hoot. Do you understand? Then—" She spoke with sudden resolution. "If I do not come to you, go up to Upton Lodge and ask for me there. Miss Canning, and tell Sir John that I came down, here to find Mr. Richard Dening, and that I instructed you to go to the police if you did not find me here."
Now she had burned her boats behind her. On her journey to Grays she had wondered if she had not spoken too freely to Margaret Ashford-Lynne. She had been haunted by the fear that when the woman recovered consciousness she would tell her confederates of her words. They would know that she was searching for Richard Dening. If Culadi had recognised him in the Ewell hotel he would remember her, when Margaret Ashford-Lynne described her. Then they would come to Grays.
"Right, missie." The man started the engine. "I'll he here, sure. If I don't find you I'll drive to Sir John's and give him your message." He paused, considering a moment. "What about me having a word with Abel Parker, miss. He's constable at Grays, I couldn't say he's as clever as he thinks he is, but the uniform's always useful, if the man inside of it ain't."
Ira shook her head. She stood by the side of the road and watched the man turn the car; followed it with her eyes until it disappeared over the little rise on the road to Grays.
Then, all of a sudden, she felt lonely, very, very lonely. About her was only tall timber, with the white ribbon of road stretching through the duskiness under the shadowing trees. She walked after the car a few yards, until she came to the gap in the hedge through which Dening had passed the previous day—and hesitated.
Under the trees, beyond the gap, it was fearsomely mysterious and lonely. For seconds she hesitated, gathering her courage, then scrambled through the gap and stood, supporting herself against a tree trunk; one hand pressed to her fast-heating heart.
Presently the very silence of the bush gave her courage. A tiny thought hammered at the back of her mind. Somewhere before her was Richard Dening, perhaps a prisoner, bound, possibly tortured. For the moment the thought that they had killed him recurred, but she put it from her resolutely. She must not think of that. He was a prisoner—a prisoner.
Cautiously she made her way between the trees, in the direction of the ruin. She came to a rough clearing, where once had been gardens, and paused, scanning the place on all sides. There was no one about. Waiting a moment to gather her courage, she sped to the house, gaining the shelter of the walls.
She waited, listening intently. Not a sound broke the stillness of the afternoon. There were only the twittering of the birds in the branches overhead, the soft rustles of the bush creatures on the ground. She came to the door and pushed it open. The passage beyond looked dark and forbidding, but she entered, stepping as silently as she could.
Very carefully Ira explored the offices and ground floor of the ruin. She crept some way up the big stone stairway, but feared to venture too far amid the wilderness of broken floors and rafters that now composed the upper portions of the house. In the hall again, she went to the narrow arched door—through which she had seen the man disappear and, after a short hesitation, felt her way down the steps until she came to the stout, wooden door Richard Dening had described to her. It was still fastened. Almost she hammered on it in her frenzy of despair. Beyond that door, she was certain, lay Richard Dening, a prisoner.She climbed to the great hall again, wandering about it despondently. What a fool she had been to come there alone. As if she, by herself, could prevail against these men. At the first obstacle she had to turn back defeated.
A small pile of stones, apparently some portion of the walls of the ruin, had been thrown into a corner of the hall. Ira dropped on the offered seat gratefully. What should she do? Should she go to Grays and find the constable? What had the taxi driver named him? Ah, she remembered, Abel Parker. But, what use could he be to her? The taxi man's description of the constable had not been enticing.
Steps outside the building brought momentary panic to her heart. Someone was ascending the stairs from the basement. A man's form loomed in the dusk of the building. Another man followed him. Ira's hand went to her heart. They would see her. She would be a prisoner, all her fine theories of rescuing Richard Dening fading into the fact of being a prisoner beside him.
Then she realised that she had not been seen; she was sitting on a level with the doorway and was now behind them, as they passed into the hall, talking in low tones. She watched them fearfully.
A moment and they turned to the head of the stairs. Waiting until they had passed out of sight, she sped to the archway. She could hear them fumbling at the door below. Suddenly a voice was raised.
"That's settled, then. The Diana sails for St. Pierre to-night, and he goes with her. You'd better bring the car about dusk. That'll give you plenty of time to get to—"
THE man's voice trailed into indistinctness; then followed the slight slam of a door being closed, and silence. Cautiously, Ira crept to the head of the steps, peering down into the darkness. She could see nothing, not a single glimmer of light. Fearfully she crept down the stairs.
She came to the door and felt over its surface. There was no key in the lock, and the door was fastened. She knelt and tried to peer under the door. So far as she could see there was no light beyond. Careless of the light dress she wore, she sat down on the dusty steps to consider.
The man had said that she ship, the Diana, sailed for St. Pierre that night. From where? She almost cried with vexation that some movement by the speaker had cut her from his last words. If only she knew where that ship lay.
There was no doubt in her mind I now. Richard Dening lay in the cellars of Grays Manor, a prisoner. He was to be taken from there at dusk, to a ship sailing for St. Pierre.
Ira remembered that Richard Dening had mentioned the island the previous day. He had said that it was the headquarters of Rudolph Rudder's illicit trade with the United States, that there he stored the huge supplies of liquor he brought from Europe, until sale and opportunity permitted him to get it past the watchful Customs agents. Then—Ira paused and wondered. Was one of the two men who had passed down those stairs Rudolph N Rudder?
For the moment she thought of trudging into Grays and telephoning Chief Inspector Lorrimer, bidding him come to Grays with a strong force of police. He could get there under a couple of hours. She peered down at her watch. There was ample time before dusk. It was just past three o'clock.
The Grays Manor Mystery. (1934, February 2). Macleay Argus Retrieved September 26, 2017, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article234509235
Yet—there was hesitation in her mind regarding appealing to the detective. He would rate her for running off to Grays alone; she guessed that he could he very fearsome when angry. But, could she have done otherwise? She had known that Richard Dening was a prisoner of these men, and she had to get him from their hands at once. Lorrimer would have questioned, asked for proofs she could not give. Time would have been wasted, and, perhaps, when they eventually arrived at Grays, Richard Dening might have been on his way to the coast.
Ira was certain that she had taken the right course. Men were not always right, although they liked to think so. They boasted that they relied on reason, supported by facts. They were afraid to guess, to rely on their intuition, as a woman did—stake all on the subtle instinct that told them when they were on the right road. Women—she had been right. Something had told her that Richard Dening was at Grays Manor, and she had come to him.
Richard Dening was in the cellars behind that door. And, with him were Rudolph Rudder and another man. Was that second man Culadi? A shiver of apprehension shook her. Although she had only seen the man once, had never looked into his eyes, she feared him intensely.
Ira laughed suddenly. A vision of herself seated outside that locked door came to her mind. The three men were locked behind that door, prisoners. One of the three she wanted, terribly, to release; the other two to hold.
Could she keep them prisoners? No, that would not do. Could she find a means to frighten, stampede these men? If she could, if she could cause them to run from those cellars in sudden terror, leave the door unlocked long enough for her to get in and release Richard Dening. But how could one lone woman induce terror in two hardened crooks? Yet— was there—could there be a way?
For long minutes the girl sat on the step, pondering. She had not a gun with her; if she had, she would not have known how to use it. She had not even a light torch. In her bag was a small folder of matches. Suddenly Ira looked at the wood door. A weapon. A silent smile curved her lips. Fire was a weapon, and she had matches. That door before her was of wood, and wood would burn. She laughed outright, then sobered suddenly. Those men, for them she cared nothing but Richard Dening was beyond that door.
Yet the idea persisted. Slowly Ira rose to her feet, going up the steps into the open. The smile lingered on her lips. She circled the house, care fully watching the walls. The manor was solidly built of stone through the ground floor and the basement; she doubted if there was any structural wood in the cellars, and stone would not burn. Suddenly she turned and ran into 'the woods, returning in a few minutes with a great armful of dead wood and branches.
Journey after journey she made into the thicket, bringing out loads of dead wood. Her dress became torn, her arms blackened and scratched, leaves and twigs littered her disordered hair; but she heeded only her work. Feverishly she worked, at first carrying her loads down the steps and piling them against the door. Later she was able to stand at the head of the steps and throw her burdens down.
Soon she had a pile of wood against the door and extending up the bottom steps. She was working quickly. At length she paused and looked down through the darkness. She believed that she had enough wood for her purpose. One more load and she would light the pile. Would she succeed in stampeding those men?
"Sakes alive." A light voice behind her caused Ira to turn quickly. A girl was standing in the hall, watching her with amazement. "What's the game, girlie?"
For a moment Ira looked at the newcomer. Then: "Who are you?"
"I?" The girl laughed slightly. "I'm Emily Dale. Who are you and what's the great idea?"
For a moment Ira hesitated. The girl looked hard, yet honest. Could she trust her? Almost she believed she could. But she had to, or else abandon her task. Rapidly she explained. Emily Dale laughed. For a moment she turned slowly on her heels, carefully examining the big hall and what she could see of the other parts of the house through the broken floors; then went to the stone pile in the corner and placed beside Ira's her gloves and bag. Drawing up her sleeves she returned to where Ira stood waiting.
"Get to it, girlie," she exclaimed. "Got a match? We'll soon smoke those rats out."
A few moments and a thin wisp of smoke lazily circled up the stone steps behind the girls, as they ran through the archway into the hall, and lost itself amid the rafters. It grew and became definite. As the smoke thickened little flickering tongues of flame illuminated the dark cavern beyond the archway. A minute more and the girls were driven far back into the hall.
"More wood." Emily laughed loudly. "Pile it on, girlie. They can't stand much more of that."
Laughing almost hysterically the girls ran into the woods, returning with their arms loaded with dead timber. The steps were now a roaring furnace; they had to stand hack from the archway and throw their loads, piecemeal, into the flames. Suddenly Emily Dale collapsed on the floor, laughing hysterically.
"Give it a rest, girlie." She chortled. "The rats' must he warm enough by this time. Lord, what a lark. I don't remember enjoying myself so much for quite a time."
Through the smoke and flames belching from the archway they heard voices shouting. Emily sprang to her feet, catching Ira and dragging her down the hall.
"They've got a throatful." Again she laughed. "Come on, we've got to get into hiding." She glanced around her. "Lord, what a place Say, this'll do"
She caught Ira's hand and dragged her to the big stairway. Hand in hand the two girls raced to the upper story clinging together, they crossed the massive rafters until they came to a spot from where they could look down at the arched doorway. The flames had now subsided considerably, but huge billows of smoke still continued to pour from the aperture.
Minutes passed, while they watched. hand in hand The smoke abated and finally became a trickle of loose whiffs. Again they heard the voices. Suddenly two men darted into the hall through the archway, coats wrapped about their heads. They ran out of the building.
Waiting some minutes, the girls descended into the hall. Skirting the hall, they looked out on the grounds watching the edge of the woods but could see so signs of the men. They went to the archway. The air within it was heavy with smoke, but still breathable. The steps were littered with glowing cinders, the stones on which they stood struck hot through the thin soles of their shoes.
"Say, girlie?" Emily Dale turned to her companion. "Now you've smoked out your rats, perhaps you'll let me know what it's all about. You said there was a man down there you had to rescue from those men. Who is he?"
"Richard Dening, my— my employer" Ira answered hesitatingly.
"Employer?" Emily's brows arched. "Gosh, if you do that for an employer, what—" She paused, glancing shrewdly at the girl before her. "Say, what 'ud you do for a—a lover?"
Ira flushed hotly. For a moment something choked in her throat. A lover? Again the swift colour flooded face and neck. But—but only a few hours had passed since she had first met Richard Dening. There had been only that morning and afternoon in the car, through these country lanes. Those few hours of intimacy while they lunched at the old hostelry at Ewell; wandered about the old town, Yet—yet she knew that if she lived—if she saw him daily for years—she could not know him better. Swiftly she turned to the girl, anger gleaming in her eyes.
"Mr. Dening is my employer." She spoke coldly. "What are you doing at Grays, Miss Dale?"
"Queer thing." The night club girl went to her hag and fetched cigarettes and matches. "It's just Richard Dening I'm after. Smoke?"
"You?" Ira refused the proffered cigarette case.
"Sure thing. Why not?" The girl laughed lightly. "He was decent to me last night, and even girls like me appreciate decency—there's few men at these night clubs they get it from anyway. Mr. Dening told me that he was there on business and asked me to help him. Paid me well to do it, too. I got gambling, made quite a pile at the tables, for once in my life. I usually lose and it was his money I gambled with, too. Then he disappeared—"
"Disappeared?" Ira echoed.
"That's where I fell down on the job." Emily shrugged. "He'd hired me to tail him and I failed. You can't put me anywhere near green baize and expect me to keep my head. Last night I had the luck to retain some sense, must have been through talking to him. Anyway, when the luck turned, had sense enough to pull out. Back to Emily, I remembered my job and had a look round. Couldn't find him "
"What was Mr. Dening after?"
"Don't know. He didn't tell me. All I knew was my own job, to keep watch on him. So I got on to that again; but he wasn't anywhere about. I searched that night club as the police have never searched it; but there wasn't a sign of him. Then I heard them talking—"
"Sir John McNiven and that Frenchman, Letoit. I only got a few words, something about taking him to Grays. I guessed that was R.D. and thought — though. Oh, damn it, I had to keep on the job until I caught up to him and resigned, you know."
Ira laughed suddenly, happily. She turned and tested the hot steps with her toes. They had cooled considerably while she and Emily had been talking, she believed they might venture down to the cellars now.
"Come on, Emily. We can go down now. You know, we have to get Richard Dening out of—"
"Who is talking about me?" A f laughing voice spoke from behind the I two girls.
They swung round impetuously. Crumpled, unshaven, yet flushed and happy, Richard Dening stood in the great hall, smiling at them.
"DICK." With a wild gesture of abandon Ira flung out her arms.
Somehow before she knew what was happening, Ira found herself in Dening's arms, strained close to him. For a moment she lay, supremely happy, then wrenched herself free, her face flushing hotly.
Emily Dale watched the little scene, a twinkle in her eyes. Nonchalantly she turned and strolled towards the archway. For a moment she waited, tapping the steps with her toe; then turned to face the others.
"Say, when you two have finished settling the relations between employer and work girl—"
"Employer?" For a moment Dening looked puzzled. He glanced at Ira's flushed face and a quick smile dawned on his lips. "Oh, you mean I've taken a job."
"Some job." The girl nodded. "I'll say she's some fast worker. Anyway what I want to know is why we're playing Guy Fawkes with this old ruin while you're enjoying yourself strolling about the country in evening clothes."
"We thought you were down there, Dick." Ira explained.
"I see." Dening laughed, then paused. "How much do you know of what has been going on? Ira, why are you out here?"
"I came to find you."
"Echo me." Emily fox-trotted to where she had deposited her things on the pile of stones. "This is the last time I'm going rescuing anyone, especially barristers who frequent night clubs. They don't deser—want it."
"But, how did you come to think I was out here?"
"I traced you out here at least, this is where I thought they'd bring you." Ira answered.
"Where did you get to at the club charming?" Emily had recovered her insouciance. "Course, I know it's my fault, but you shouldn't have let me get near the tables." Her face lit. "Say, boy, do you know I won over three hundred; mostly in good old solid Bradburys."
"Good girl.'" The barrister laughed. His arm had found Ira's waist and, apparently, she did not know it. "That was while I was finding my way into Kedwell's sitting room."
"You did?" Both girls looked at him inquiringly.
"I did." Dening laughed grimly. "Made rather an incomplete search, but found quite sufficient to give me a clue to the mystery. Then—"
"Then?" Ira looked up with troubled eyes.
"Then Letoit and Mrs. Ashford-Lynne came in. I hid and, too interested in subsequent proceedings, allowing Mr. Rudolph N. Rudder to steal a march on me." He touched his head suggestively.
"Only sufficient to shake up the grey matter a bit," Dening laughed reassuringly. "You see, we were both in the dark, and I moved at the right time. Anyway, the blow laid me out for a few minutes. When I began to recognise things again they were discussing a quick disposal of my supposed remains. Friend Culadi wanted to do things in real U.S. A. style and take me for a ride but the others outvoted him. Finally they decided—"
"Was Reuben Gray there?" Ira interrupted.
"Reuben Gray?" The barrister looked down on the girl questioningly.
"Mr. Gray came to your chambers this morning looking for you."
"No. Reuben Gray wasn't there. Only Sir John McNiven, Kedwell and Culadi." Dening paused a moment. "They got me down to the street and bundled me into a car. Culadi and Rudder brought me here and took me to the cellars below."
"And you escaped?" The question came in a duet.
"I wasn't tied very carefully, and took care to remain insensible—so far as they knew, right through. When I was alone downstairs I had little difficulty in freeing myself, then I started to explore. That took me most of the remainder of the night, but at length I found the exit. Went to Grays and found the inn. Had a meal and a wash, but couldn't find a barber in the place. Most of the natives avoided me, perhaps they thought I'd escaped from some asylum; wandering about the country at that hour of the morning in crumpled dress clothes and without a hat. Luckily Culadi and Rudder hadn't thought to search me, so I still had money on me and also a torch and—" His hand went to his pocket and came out holding the miniature automatic Emily had given him the previous night.
"Sakes alive." The girl stared. "And you let yourself be carted about like a stuffed pig, with that in your pocket?"
"Forgot all about it," the barrister smiled ruefully. "Still, if I'd remembered it—"
"Drop it." The words, like a crack of a whip, came from behind the little group.
Dening turned swiftly, to stare into the cold merciless eyes of the Chicagoan gunman, standing some few feet away, a gun in his hand.
"Drop it, Richard Dening." Every line of Culadi's body was a threat. "Drop it, I say. Quick."
Still the barrister hesitated, his hand outstretched, the little automatic resting on his palm. Could he, dare he, chance a break? He knew of the uncanny ability of the man facing him. Dare he.
With a sudden movement he sprang to one side. Simultaneously the weapon turned in his hand; his fingers caught at the trigger. Two shots rang out in the stillness of the old ruin. With a gasp of relief the barrister realised that Culadi had missed.
A little smile came on Dening's face. Why did not Culadi shoot? He had expected the first shot to be followed by a stream of bullets, spraying round. What was the man waiting for?
Had that streak of cowardice he had always believed lay under the veneer of brutality in the American racketeers come to the surface? Had his quick movements, the lightning change from an unarmed man, held up, to armed equality, cowed the gunman? That might be possible. But, what then?
Never for a single moment did he allow his eyes to wander from the Chicagoan's face. He did not want to fire again unless forced; yet, for the time he could not see any other way out of the impasse. He must wait.
Then came a thought. What had happened to Ira and Emily? He longed to glance round to where they stood but he knew that if he took his eyes from the man's face for the merest fraction of a second Culadi would recover his nerve and he would not miss again.
The gangster had fallen into the killer crouch; shoulders sagging, knees bent, his gun held easily before the body, his eyes searching his opponent's face. Dening watched warily. If only he could make the man move. If he shot now he must shoot to kill, and he did not want to do that.
Could he make the man move, turn to an angle so that his gun hand was away from his body. The barrister had a supreme confidence in his own ability with the gun. He knew that if he could get Culadi's hand away from his body he could disable him, force him to drop his weapon.
Almost he laughed. For years his favourite amusement had been a revolver. He had developed into a certain shot then reading of the marvellous feats of crack shots with the weapon, he had developed along similar lines. Now, in spite of the fact that he was facing a world-famous master of the gun he had no fear; he had to look upon it as a game of skill. Almost he could congratulate the Chicagoan, if he won.
The thought persisted. What had happened to the girls? Then, as if answering his question, Emily Dale moved into sight behind the gunman.
He frowned. Why had the girl gone there? If he fired and Culadi moved, he would chance hitting the girl. She was handicapping him ser—Almost without thought his body moved. Culadi fired again. Missed. He laughed openly.
Yet he was forced to hold his fire. He dared not touch the trigger while the girl was there. If only she would—Ah.
The girl had sprung forward suddenly, her hands raised high over her head. Now he saw that she held a big stone. Swiftly it fell urged by her tautened young muscles. Culadi collapsed with a slight groan to the flagstones.
"Good girl." Dening sprang forward, bending over the Chicagoan. A single glance and he saw that the man was insensible. He wrenched the automatic from the nerveless fingers and thrust it in his pocket.
"Dick! You're wounded."
He glanced down at Ira, white-faced and with trembling lips, standing by his side. Then he became conscious that his side was burning, as if seared by a hot iron. He glanced down. Culadi's last bullet had missed him by a fraction of an inch, cutting through his clothing. For a moment his fingers sought the wound; then he smiled.
"Branded." He laughed at the questioning look in the girl's eyes.
"No, dear, not a wound. Merely a graze. Oh, it'll bleed a little, but that won't matter."
"You're certain, Dick?"
"Absolutely." A quick reassuring pat on the girl's shoulder and he turned to Emily Dale, holding out the gun she had given him the previous night. "Here, Emily. Can you guard him for a few minutes? I don't think he'll come to his senses at once, but be may. I'm going down to the cellars. There are ropes there, the ropes they bound me with last night."
The night club girl nodded, her lips pale and compressed.
"Right." Dening moved towards the archway. "I won't be more than a couple of minutes." He paused, turning again. "You told me two men went down to the cellars and came back?"
Ira nodded. "I believe he was one—" She motioned to the unconscious man. "The other—"
"More than likely Rudder. They stayed at Sir John's place last night." Yet he still hesitated.
"Emily's got a gun and she can shoot," Ira answered his unspoken thought. "She will watch him and I will watch about her."
Dening nodded. He ran through the archway clattering down the stone steps. The big wooden door stood idly open, showing on its face marks of the ordeal by fire to which had been subjected. He went into the cellars, to where he had been thrown the previous night, guided by the light of his torch.
The ropes were where he had left them. Collecting them, he ran up to the great hall again. A few moments and the Chicagoan was securely bound. As Dening went to lift the man from the ground he groaned and opened his eyes. For a moment he strove to move; then looked up.
"That's coming later." Dening grinned down at the man. "Beaten by a girl this time, Culadi."
"No, just an average, plain-going English girl." With a quick heave he placed the man on his feet. "Now you go to the bed you gave me last night."
It was not difficult to hoist the man to his shoulder and carry him down to the cellars; Ira and Emily leading the way, lighting his steps with his torch. Dropping the man in a corner of the first cellar, Dening opened a door, beckoning the girls to follow him.
They gasped in amazement. The cellars were a series of big workshops and stores. In one were evidences of a foundry, very recently in use. In other of the cellars were stacks upon stacks of cases and barrels. Moving slowly onward, they came to a locked door.
"What's in there, beautiful?" Emily questioned.
"I don't know."
For a moment the man hesitated, then threw his weight against the door. It held. Drawing Culadi's automatic from his pocket, he deliberately blew off the lock.
The cellar was small and fitted with shelves against asbestos wainscoting that had not long been erected. Curiously, the barrister examined the loaded shelves; suspicion dawning in his mind. He tore at the brown paper wrappings of a small parcel, exposing the side of a tin. He prised it from the parcel. A glance, and he thrust it back again, an expression of disgust on his lips.
"Dope." He turned to the girls, after another glance around the cellar. "Jove, there must be a fortune in dope here."
As they went to leave the cellar, something glittered in the doorway. Emily bent and picked it up, looking at it curiously. With a little cry Ira took it from her. It was a misshapen piece of silver.
"The third silver bullet." She held it up for Dening to see.
He nodded. "Culadi threatened that he would bring it to England—and he kept his word." Now he knew why Culadi had held his fire in the hall above. The third bullet in his automatic had been the silver one of death.
Slowly they moved through the cellars. At length Ira paused before another door.
"This is locked, Dick. I wonder what is behind it?"
Again Dening used the automatic to force an entrance. At length he was able to push it open. Before them stretched another passage through the darkness. For a moment he hesitated.
"Oh, come on." Jauntily the night club girl led down the passage, leaving the others to follow her. "We want to see all the show, don't we, girlie?"
Laughingly, Dening and Ira followed. The passage narrowed, yet retained its original height. It seemed interminably long and the barrister guessed that they had long since passed the foundation walls of the house. Where was the passage leading them?
Suddenly they came to a closed door. For a moment the little beam of light played over its surface; then Emily placed her hand on the door and pushed. It swung open.
A flight of steps lay beyond the door. Puzzled, they followed it, to come to a high fence. There did not appear to be a door in it. Gripping the edge, the barrister lifted himself until he could see over on to the main road between Grays and the manor gates. Why had that path ended at the fence without a gate?
Puzzled, Dening skirmished back along the path. A few yards from the fence; behind a thick tree, he found another path. Calling to the girls to follow, he led the way. Thirty yards along the path and he saw a fair-sized house. Halting a moment to warn the girls to keep well in the shelter of the thicket, Dening strode forward; his fingers closed around the butt of the automatic in his pocket.
THE house was of fair size, built of the same grey stone as the manor house; yet there were unmistakable signs that it had been erected at a much later date. It was, apparently, of only one floor and was rather a square in shape. As he came nearer the barrister saw that behind it had once been a large garden, surrounded by a high box hedge; now part of the wilderness.
What was this house? How had he come to miss it on his previous visit to Grays Manor? So far as he could guess, it stood not many yards from the avenue from the gates to the house.
Suddenly realisation dawned on him. He remembered his talk with Colonel Middleton at the Karmel Club. The colonel had spoken of staying at the Lodge with Sir George Gray not long after the knight had inherited the manor. It was there Sir John McNiven had interviewed the owner of the house regarding the purchase of Grays Manor. Colonel Middleton had stated that, at that interview there had been high words between the two men.
Why? Something in Colonel Middleton's tones had told Dening that the dispute between the men had not been in regard to the purchase price. But what common bond could there be between the city magnate and the ruined master of Grays?
Dening laughed ruefully. He had missed points, points that might have placed him far on the road of his inquiries. He should have interviewed Sir George Gray, carefully probing on the narrative of the garrulous old army man. He should have seen Sir John again, seeking the connection between the two men.
He circled house warily, watching for any signs of life within it He believed it to be empty. From the tall chimneys came no signs of fire. He came to the front of the building, and looked towards where he believed the avenue ran. He was faced with an almost impenetrable thicket.
That piece of bushland could not have grown up during the time Sir John had had control of the estate. Very carefully he examined the edge of the thicket, to again find signs of the box hedge. He marked the place where once had stood a wicket gate. Pushing forward, he suddenly found himself on the avenue. He turned to again face the thick screen concealing the house. Now he understood. For some reason Sir John had had trees planted to conceal the lodge from observation.
A few minutes thought and he pushed back through the hushes to the lodge garden and went to the front door of the building. It was securely fastened but he believed he would have no' difficulty in forcing the lock. For some moments he stood, his ear against the woodwork, listening for sounds within the house. Deciding that the place was empty, he went back to where he had left the girls.
"Here's beautiful, at last." Emily jumped up from the log on which she and Ira were seated. "Look here, charming." Her parasol swung up to indicate the sun. "And beloved, your—ahem—employee, like myself, looks for eats, not scenery."
"May I then announce lunch though we may have to cook it," Dening laughed. He nodded back at the hedge. "I believe there is food, of some sort, there."
"Then lead me to it." Emily sped on in front.
"But the inmates?" Ira questioned laughingly.
"Quién sabe?" The barrister shrugged. "I can find no signs of them."
They came to the lodge, again examining the exterior of the building. They could see no signs of life, Yet the windows were curtained and the quick eyes of the girls discovered signs that the place had very recently been inhabited.
"Back door or front door?" asked the barrister.
"I'm not calling on the kitchen-maid," Emily announced haughtily.
"Then, it's the front door, please." Ira led the way. At the door she hesitated. Dening bent to the keyhole, but the night club girl pushed him aside, beating a smart rat-tat with the handle of her parasol on the door.
A moment, and they heard steps within the building. The door opened, and Reuben Gray stood on the threshold, smiling at them.
"Well, I'll be jiggered," Emily gasped. "Rube, the gold-digger."
"Come in." Smiling broadly, Gray held the door for them to enter. "Didn't expect to find me here, Dening?"
The barrister looked about him curiously as he entered the sitting room of the lodge. It was well furnished, and showed signs that it was well and carefully kept.
"Where's eats?" Emily roamed restlessly about the room. "I can smell coffee."
"In the kitchen," Gray laughed. "We—I've just made it."
"Come on, girlie." Emily caught at Ira's hand, dragging her towards the door. "I want to eat, and I can see this room's going to be used for a debate. These men will follow when their tummies talk."
"Wait a moment." Gray went to another door and-opened it. From the further room walked a tall fair girl, smiling rather nervously.
"We're caught, Dora—" Gray slipped his arm in the girl's. "Miss Canning—" He stopped, laughing at the girl's look of surprise. "Oh, I know quite a lot, including your name. Now, may I make you three ladies acquainted. Miss Canning, Miss O'Connor and Miss Dora McNiven, Sir John's only daughter. Dora, may I introduce Mr. Richard Dening?"
For a moment Emily was frigidly correct; then suddenly laughed.
"Oh, I guess. Another employee, with the old lodge as the secret meeting place. So the coffee was for you, Miss McNiven. Well, Miss Canning and I are going to claim shares. Come along, do."
As he closed the door after the girls, Gray turned to face the barrister.
"I'll let you talk first, Gray." Dening's smile faded from his lips. "I think you have quite a lot to explain."
"Perhaps my explanations, and yours, will solve the problems we are both tackling. Let me say, first, that I came to Grays to-day—"
"To meet Miss McNiven," Dening laughed slightly.
"Dora and I often meet here." Reuben Gray echoed the barrister's laugh. "You see, Sir John is having quite a lot of trouble to make up his mind if he will permit a formal engagement. Then, there's my father. There will be trouble with him. It wasn't until the other day that I understood why Sir John and my father hated each other so much."
Dening nodded. Here was confirmation of the theories that had come to him that day.
"Well?" he asked briefly.
"Let me go back to the reasons why I came to Grays to-day." The young man went to a sideboard and fetched a box of cigarettes. "We've got time and to spare. Dora and I were going to have a picnic meal here. Now the three girls will prepare something more elaborate, no doubt."
He paused a moment, then continued.
"It wasn't until I called at your chambers this morning and interviewed Chief Inspector Lorrimer that I learned that you had visited the Blue Heaven last night, and had failed to return home. Rather peculiar, I was there last night and missed you, somehow."
"I saw you," Dening nodded.
"I didn't see you." The young man paused. "When I learned that you had disappeared, after visiting Kedwell's place, I went there and had a word with Black Ked. I had quite a job getting the truth from him. He said Culadi and he caught you where you shouldn't have been, eh?"
Dening nodded. "Knocked me silly and brought me here. Sir John was there, and so was Mrs. Ashford-Lynne."
"I guessed that," Gray smiled. "Don't blame the old man too much, Dening. He'd got a—a megalomania—one of those fixed ideas that drive men to insane lengths. He'd do anything to see his life's ambition realised, and it certainly looks as if he has realised it."
"And—Sir John's ambition?" Dening leaned forward interestedly.
For some moments Gray smoked in silence; a frown on his face.
"Those girls will be calling us soon," he said. "So don't ask questions. I'll explain what you want to know later. Just for the moment, I'll say that Sir John is the descendant of a man one of my ancestors very gravely injured."
"You mean, that he is the descendant of someone born on the Grays estate."
"Some time over a hundred years ago," Gray nodded. "An illegitimate child; unfortunately born before any lawful children arrived. The man, when he grew up, got the bee in his bonnet that, being the eldest child of the Master of Grays, the estates should rightfully have passed to him. Got very sore when he found himself passed over. Developed an idee fixe, and passed it on to his descendants. Sir John took the disease and when he began to acquire money, and saw our family getting on the rocks, started to make himself in reality, Master of Grays. He's done it, too." There was almost enthusiasm in the young man's voice. "I know that at this moment he owns far more of the county than the Grays ever held."
Dening nodded. He understood much now; yet there were many points on which he wanted to ask questions.
"And you?" The barrister turned to the young man. "You know, Gray, you're under suspicion for quite a lot. You heard that girl, you know the name she applied to you? Then, there's Symonds' death, Lorrimer—"
Gray laughed slightly. "I've known that from the first. Things did stack up against me, didn't they? Perhaps I might have altered the aspect to you and Lorrimer, but I was pledged to silence. It wasn't until I saw a—a certain gentleman, shall I call him 'Mr. Y'—"
"I believe that 'Mr. Y' has also a call on your services." A slight smile came on the young man's face.
For some moments Dening was thoughtful. Here was news that, in some way, cleared much of the mystery. If Reuben Gray was in the employ of the Foreign Office, then he had not been far wrong on many deductions he had formed during the past twenty-four hours. He looked up at the young man inquiringly.
In answer to the unspoken question—the challenge to produce proof of his statement—Gray took out his pocket book and folded back a small flap. He handed it to Dening. Under the celluloid cover lay a small card.
"Then?" Dening inquired.
"I seem to have discovered so little of consequence," Gray shrugged. "Yet I have been intimate with them for quite a while. I could break up this gang to-day; perhaps get some of its members long terms of imprisonment, but would that bring me nearer the truth that lies at the bottom of this well."
For some moments the young Foreign Office man sat silent. Presently he looked up.
"I put the case very plainly to 'Mr. Y' this morning and, in consequence, have orders to consult you. We're to work together for the grand finale. What that will be, heaven knows."
"Who killed Symonds?"
The young man shrugged. "Symonds was found in Fern Court—"
"He was murdered in his offices," Dening interrupted. "That's clear. There's one point I'm doubtful upon. Was Margaret Ashford-Lynne there at the time, or did she go to Symonds' offices later?"
"Luncheon is served, gentlemen." Emily flung open the door with a flourish.
Gray made a sign for silence. In the kitchen his mood changed. Frivolous, almost excited, careless and witty, he kept the thoughts of the girls away from the tragedy and horrors surrounding them; even drawing Dening, whose mind was a maze of conjectures and theories, into the mad whirl of irresponsibilities he was creating.
"Look here, Gray." Dening drew the young man aside, when the girls rose from the table. "I've got Culadi up at the Manor House."
"Whew." Gray stared. "So that's what you've been up to? Culadi captured you—and you turned the tables on him."
"Not I," Dening shrugged. "I managed to get away, went to Grays and telephoned for Lorrimer to come here. He should be at the ruins by now, probably is pulling them down in an effort to locate me. I went back to the manor house and found that the girls had seen Culadi and Rudder go down to the cellars. They thought they had gone there to torture me, and smoked them out. While we were exchanging experiences, Culadi held us up at the point of a gun. Said he was going to repay a little debt he owed me. Emily, the girl you know as Miss O'Connor, got behind him and welted him over the head with one of your ancestral stones. I tied him up and placed him in the cellars."
"Oh, come on," Gray turned to the door impatiently. "Lord, man, if you've got Culadi you've got the key to the mystery. Come on."
He flung open the outer door, then hesitated.
"I suppose the girls will be all right here." Going to the door of the bedroom he knocked. Dora opened the door and he spoke a few words in an undertone. Something passed from his hand to hers.
"Wait a moment." Dening spoke hastily. He drew from his pocket the miniature automatic Emily had lent him the previous night. He called the girl and handed it to her.
"That's all right." Gray gave a sigh of relief. "Understand, girls, shoot and then ask questions. Dora, you must not open the door, except to my knock."
Again in the open air, Gray led to the ruins at a rapid rate. As they came into the open space surrounding the house he halted.
"Lorrimer's here." The young man spoke over his shoulder. "Looks as if he's brought half Scotland Yard with him."
In the great hall they found the Chief Inspector, exultant. He was seated on a pile of stones and before him stood Enrico Culadi, surrounded by a strong guard of police.
"Great, Mr. Dening." The detective crowed. "Came here to find you and found this bird already tied up for the taking. I was just asking him what had become of you." He turned sharply to the young man beside the barrister. "Now, Mr. Gray, there's quite a lot I want to know from you."
"Leave Gray alone." Dening flashed a quick glance at the chief inspector. "I'll guarantee him. Glad you found Culadi. I had forgotten him for the time. We were coming along for him, to try and persuade him to talk."
"So." Lorimar's eyebrows elevated. He thought a moment. "Say, Mr. Dening, did you leave one or two prisoners in the cellars?"
"One." The barrister hesitated, then swung quickly to face the detective, "What do you mean, Lorrimer? While I was tied up down there I had quite a sense that I was not alone."
"Well, there's someone else down there." Lorrimer spoke obstinately. "I've set my men searching through that warren."
"There are only two ways out," Gray spoke thoughtfully. "Through this hall and the passage to the back of the cottage. That's locked and the key's in the lodge kitchen. I saw it there—"
"I smashed the lock of that door when I went through the passage and found the lodge." Dening interrupted.
"Then—" With a gasp of fear Gray turned and bolted into the open air. "The girls."
He ran down at top speed, closely followed by Dening. After them swarmed Lorrimer and his constables.
WHO was the man who had been hiding in the cellars at Grays Manor? Why had Reuben Gray, at the suggestion that he had escaped from the cellars, rim from the ruins in apprehension. Dening, following the Foreign Office man closely, tried to think.
They came within a few yards of the entrance gates and Gray swerved suddenly into the thicket, breaking a way through the bushes to the front door of the lodge. There he halted, a little sigh of relief escaping his pursed lips.
"What's the matter, Gray?" Dening caught the young man by the arm.
"Nothing, as it happens." The young man breathed a big sigh of relief. "But I thought—"
He knocked gently at the door, a peculiar smooth rhythm, and waited. There was no answer. Again he knocked.
"Dora would not leave the house; she would not allow the others to leave." He spoke in a half whisper. "I wonder—"
"What's the matter here?" Lorrimer came up to the two young men, panting. "Lord, Mr. Gray, I thought the place was on fire, when you bolted like that."
Gray turned, making a sign for silence. He tried the door, to find it locked. For a moment he bent to the keyhole, and straightened, shaking his head.
"What do you mean, man?" Dening spoke roughly. "Haven't you a key?"
"Yes, I have got a key." Gray spoke in a whisper. "But the devil's left his own key in the lock, so I can't use mine."
"Who? What devil?" Lorrimer pressed forward.
"If I were only sure." The young man spoke bitterly. "You've got Culadi, so it's not he. Rudder's somewhere about, but I don't think he's there. Letoit, no he wouldn't go that far. Kedwell, I believe he's in town—"
"Lord, I'd forgotten him." Dening's face showed amazement. "Why, nothing's been seen of him since the day of Symonds' murder."
"Who?" Exasperated, Lorrimer grasped the barrister's arm, shaking him roughly.
"Parota. Aaron Parota." The barrister spoke with a groan. "The one man I've not reckoned on."
"Yes, it's Parota, the ugliest devil in the brood. There's nothing he's not capable of, to save his skin." He waited for a moment, and then flung his weight against the door.
"That is enough." A cool, suave voice spoke from the window beside the door, now open a couple of inches. "That is you, Mr. Reuben Gray. Then you will stand away from the door. You will be where I can see you. Please hurry."
Reluctantly, the young man moved a few steps from the door. In doubt, he looked back at his comrades. Lorrimer and his men were behind him, but Richard Dening had disappeared.
"Who's that?" the police officer questioned angrily. He took a couple of quick steps towards the door, to be halted by the unseen man.
"Mr. Lorrimer will keep away from the door. It is well that he should know that I have three ladies with me. If he touch that door I shoot one lady; if he touch more, I shoot another lady." A low chuckle came through the window gap. "It is for Chief Inspector Lorrimer to choose." Again came the chucking.
"Who the hell—" Lorrimer stared at Gray amazedly.
"Miss McNiven, Miss Canning and Miss O'Connor are in there," the young man explained in a rapid whisper. "Parota's captured them by some trick. We'd forgotten him—until you spoke of someone hiding in the cellars at Grays."
"Hiding in the cellars?" Lorrimer looked astonished. "What for?"
"I don't know." Suddenly Gray quickened. "Man, keep him talking. You can. He'll have to explain to you, he won't to me. Keep him talking, man."
"Why?" The detective stared, agape as the word 'Dening' formed on Gray's lips, the chief detective looked hastily around; then advanced a pace towards the window.
"I warn you to keep away, chief inspector." Again the voice spoke. "Another step and one lady dies."
"So you're Aaron Parota." Lorrimer faced the window coolly. "Well, what's your game? Gone loony, talking of shooting girls? Must be. You know you can't get away. I've got the place surrounded."
"And—I have the ladies." Again the devilish chuckle sounded. "Mr. Chief Inspector Lorrimer, are you prepared to make a treaty; what you call a bargain?"
"You will take your men and Mr. Reuben Gray back to the ancient house. There you will stay for half an hour. When you return you may release the ladies."
"And you?" Lorrimer asked the question very, much against his will, yet he had in mind Gray's injunction to hold the man in talk. "And you?"
"I will look after myself." Again the man chuckled.
"Look here, you're playing the fool." The chief inspector spoke angrily. "If you're Aaron Parota, what's the matter with you? I've no warrant for you—although I'd like to have one. If you're so anxious to get away, why don't you walk off, not sit there playing the giddy goat?"
"Certainly." A sneering laugh followed. "The good policeman must think I am imbecile."
"I'm damned sure you're mad." Lorrimer paused, staring blankly at the window. What did the man mean? A sudden suspicion came to his mind. Again he look a step forward, to be halted by Gray's hand on his arm, his voice in his ear.
"For God's sake be careful, Lorrimer. You can't sacrifice the girls. I see you've guessed, but Good God, man. Keep him talking."
Dening had guessed the solution of the riddle long before Gray or Lorrimer. Almost as soon as Parota had challenged from the window, he guessed he held the solution to, at least, one of the mysteries. A couple of quick steps and he passed behind the police officers, disappearing into the thicket surrounding the house.
Moving silently and swiftly, he passed round the house to the back door. There he paused. He could hear the voices talking at the front of the house. In the stillness of the woods every word came plain to him. He caught at the handle, turning it gently. The door was fastened. For a moment he hesitated, then stepped back and carefully scanned the face of the house.
He had to find a way in, and that without alarming the man who held the girls' lives in his hand. He wondered. How had Parota gained entry to the lodge? Gray had warned Dora that she was not to open the door, except to his special knock.
He remembered that when he and Gray had left the lodge Dora had followed them to the door. They had stood on the doorstep and heard the key turned in the lock. Had the girls locked the back door? He believed they had.
Then a little kink of memory sprang to life. He had heard the girl lock the door, and more. He had heard the gentle grate caused by her withdrawing the key from the lock.
While the girls had been in the bedroom or kitchen, Parota had come to the lodge, possibly seeking food. He had a key to the lodge; Gray had told him that each of the seven men had a key. Parota had entered the house softly, catching the girls unaware. He had disarmed them and now threatened, fearing for his life, declare that he would kill them unless the police allowed him to go free.
Lorrimer would not agree to the man's terms. Dening knew that. It was only a matter of minutes before the chief inspector read the riddle, as he had done. Then he would be relentless. Parota would not be allowed to escape. The man's own cowardly fears had betrayed him.
Again he scanned the face of the building. There were three windows on that side of the house, but they were fastened. Yet, were they secure against any attack he could make on them? Silently, he went to one of the windows an tested it. The bolt was shot. He took out his penknife and tried to find the lock, but the blade was too thick to pass.
Again he stepped back, scanning the house anxiously. On the left side he saw a small lean-to of wood, evidently erected for the storage of fuel. He went to it and found the door open. The interior was in darkness. What good could that place be to him?
Yet an idea surged in his mind. If he could communicate with Gray or Lorrimer. If he could tell them to apparently accede to the man's demands and retire from before the lodge. He, in the darkness of that hut, would wait for Parota to attempt his escape. Then—
What was the good of theorising? Parota would not allow Gray or Lorrimer to move from his sight until they had agreed to his terms. Despairingly he flashed his torch around the little space.
He gasped. There was another door to the hut, a door that opened into the house. Silently the barrister went to it, testing the lock. The door swung free. He pushed it open and stepped into the lodge kitchen.
Moving with the utmost caution, he went to the sitting room door grid listened. He could hear the man speaking at the window. A soft rustle sounded within the room. Possibly that came from some movement of the girls. He touched the handle of the door, gripping it tenderly. Slowly he turned the handle, pressing forward. The door gave, opening a fraction of an inch.
The three girls were seated on the couch, their hands behind their backs. They were looking towards the window. From where he stood he could not see Parota, nor could he see the window through which he was talking. Again he looked at the girls. Some unconscious movement he made attracted Ira's attention. She was staring at him; a little gasp came from her parted lips.
Parota must have heard that. With a sudden jerk he threw the door open, his automatic raised. He did not wait. He saw the man's face, the ugly snarling grin on his swarthy countenance, as he turned to the girls, his automatic coming up. Immediately he fired, shooting to kill.
Again he fired. For a moment Parota clutched wildly at the sill before the window, a startled expression in his eyes. He turned to face the kitchen door, the gun slipping to the floor from his paralysed fingers. For a moment he stood, swaying awkwardly, then crumpled to the floor, a huddled heap of flesh and clothing.
Quickly Dening passed into the room and picked up the outlaw's automatic. A look, a quick, reassuring nod to the girls and he turned to the front door and turned the key. He was nearly flung to the floor before the sudden onrush of Lorrimer and his men.
"Sorry, chief inspector." The barrister spoke wearily. "I had to shoot; it was his life or theirs, and I couldn't take risks. I—I don't think he is dead."
The detective nodded shortly; passing quickly to the side of the wounded man. He tore open Parota's clothing, striving to staunch the flow of blood. At length he sat back on his haunches, staring down at the partly sensible man.
"Aaron Parota." Lorrimer spoke formally. "I arrest you for the murder of Edward Symonds by stabbing him with a knife. I warn you that anything you say may be used against you."
For a long moment he waited, but the man did not speak. Rising to his feet, the chief inspector turned to one of his men.
"Perry, take Price and Weston with you. Go in the car half a mile up the road, to Sir John McNiven's place. Put everyone there under arrest. Then telephone Grays and Ewell. I want a surgeon and the ambulance here quick. Understand? Only speed will save this man's life."
Before the men had left the room he was again kneeling at the stricken man's side, arranging a rough bandage. Dening went to the couch and released the girls. Taking them to the kitchen he suggested certain work that would keep their thoughts from the tragic scene they had just witnessed. Satisfied that for the time they were safe, he returned to the front room.
Lorrimer looked up as he entered and shook his head, in answer to the barrister's questioning look. There was little hope or saving the man's life.
Undecided, the barrister waited a moment; then went to the couch on which they had laid the wounded man. If Parota would only speak, he could clear up much that still puzzled them. Almost as he reached the chief inspector's side a shadow darkened the door. He turned quickly.
"Master Richard." Mick Regan stood in the doorway. "I've brought Sir John McNiven with me. He wants to speak to you and Chief Inspector Lorrimer."
The old man stood to one side and the knight moved into the room. For a moment he hesitated, staring, wide-eyed, at the dying man on the couch. Then with firm step passed to where Lorrimer stood.
"Chief Inspector Lorrimer." The knight's voice was full and firm. "I have come to surrender myself your prisoner. I understand the charge and the warning you would give me."
"—AND it is because we recognise curiosity as a natural human failing that I have asked you to come here this afternoon."
Sir Phillip Grensham, a high official at the Foreign Office, known to the three men present as "Mr. Y," paused, glancing with a little smile at the group before his desk.
They were, gathered in a large, handsomely-furnished room in a tall building of Whitehall, overlooking St. James' Park, Dora McNiven, Ira Canning and Emily Dale, with Gray, Dening and Chief Inspector Lorrimer. More than a week had passed since that tragic afternoon in and about the ruins of Grays Manor.
Within that interval had happened the inquest on Aaron Parota, with the strictly official verdict that the man had been shot resisting arrest. Two days previous, the adjourned inquest on Edward Symonds had been concluded, with a verdict of wilful murder against the Jew.
"I have here," 'Mr. Y' placed his long thin hand on a pile of papers, "many reports on what I shall name the 'Grays Manor Mystery.' Each of those reports deals with some phase of the inquiry; to gain a connected story from them is difficult. Therefore I propose that this afternoon the incidents from the commencement of the inquiry instituted be told by the chief actors concerned. Mr. Raymond, an official stenographer of my department," he indicated a silent man seated at a desk in the corner of the room, "will make a complete record. At the same time we, individually, will be satisfied in regard to those parts of the inquiry of which we have no cognisance at the present. I trust then that—" he hesitated.
"I believe we have individually given an assurance not to speak on the matter, Sir Phillip," Richard Dening spoke somewhat stiffly.
"I quite understand that, Mr. Dening." The Foreign Office official answered immediately. "Yet, not one of you fully understands the circumstances leading up to the—er—series of tragedies in which you have borne a part; the—er—possible international complications that might have—" Sir Phillip hesitated. "That may still arise. A few days ago I had the honour of a long interview with the Secretary of State on the subject. I have been given to understand that he had communicated with the Prime Minister. In the result, I am instructed by his Majesty's Government to inform you fully; then to ask your absolute secrecy—if possible your forgetfulness—of the affair; to ask your attention for a few minutes while I outline, briefly, the first incidents in what I can only describe as—er—rather remarkable happenings."
For a full minute his chair swung sideways and the tired shaded eyes stared out over the green scene beyond his window. He looked above the trees to where, in the distance, rise the roofs and chimneys of the King's palace. Again he turned to face the little group.
"Some months ago his Majesty's Government and—er—certain valued financial advisers, were particularly exercised regarding the steady drainage of gold from many countries—" Sir Phillip paused, his tones altering slightly. "I am not referring to the—er—rather large accumulations of gold in the reserves of the—er—United States of America and the—er—Republic of France; although those reserves have, of recent months, grown—er—rather alarmingly. I am referring to what I might term the luxury gold of the people, in general; that is, gold in the form of ornaments, trinkets and service. I believe—" He fumbled with the papers before him. "I believe Mr. Richard Dening refers to that in a very complete—um—and satisfactory report he kindly forwarded to me."
Again the Foreign Office official paused, then continued.
"The continued draining of this gold has much perturbed his Majesty's Government. After consultation the—er—Government placed the matter in my hands. I deputed a young man attached to my department to make the necessary inquiries. I am referring to Mr. Reuben Gray, and—er—will now ask him to commence the combined report we have met this afternoon to compile."
Almost a sigh of relief passed round the group as Sir Phillip ended his long, rather stilted speech.
Reuben Gray flushed slightly. He glanced at Dening, then spoke quickly.
"On receiving your instructions, Sir Phillip, I went to Paris, considering that I had a better chance of success by commencing my investigations in that city." For a moment he paused. "The great increases of the Bank of France reserves has been, in my opinion, peculiar and not to be explained by ordinary means. Experts I had consulted had informed me that the French gold reserve was far in excess of normal growth. The question, as I understood it, was to discover what had caused this abnormal increase of gold accumulations."
The young man coughed, flushing again when he caught Dora's amused glances. He continued, speaking more freely.
"It was not long before my attention was directed to Anton Letoit. As you are aware, Sir Phillip, M. Letoit is a great power in Paris. A very wealthy man, he has wonderful influence with his Government. For a time I kept careful watch on him, discovering that he had very close connections with the governors of the Bank of France. Later, I traced a connection with Sir John McNiven—" He stopped, flushing painfully. His eyes sought Dora's across the room.
The girl's face was scarlet. For a moment she sat, gripping the arm of her chair. Ira placed a hand on the girl's arm, but she ignored her. With an evident effort she rose and went to where Reuben Gray sat, drawing up a chair beside him.
"Reuben—Mr. Gray, wishes to spare my father, if possible Sir Phillip." "But he cannot. He—we—must bear the penalty of our acts." She paused, clutching Gray's hand tightly. "My father is—was a man of one idea—one ambition. He thought—he was prepared to sacrifice everything to it. That he sinned—" She turned to the young man appealingly. "Reuben, you must tell all you know."
For seconds Gray was silent, his throat working painfully. When he spoke again his voice was low and hesitating.
"I discovered that Anton Letoit and Sir John McNiven had formed a syndicate with the object of purchasing gold in any form and in any quantities, I discovered that while the syndicate was ostensibly a private venture it was really owned by the Bank of France and the French Government; that Letoit was the trusted agent of his Government, handling vast credits for the purchase of gold. In fact, Letoit stood for—for France.
Anton Letoit had brought into his syndicate two of his continental business associates, von Rosenfeld and Aaron Parota." The young man paused. "I want you to see how cleverly Letoit worked. With his three associates he had agencies in north, south and west Europe. By his connection with Sir John McNiven he controlled the Altona Trading Company, with its numerous trading agencies in Asia and Africa.
"Sir John McNiven, controlling the English activities of the syndicate, brought into the venture Sydney Kedwell, who controlled a group of night clubs. The idea in admitting him into the syndicate was that his clubs would make unsuspected centres where the gold might be bought for the syndicate from its many agents. Also, they fitted up the cellars of Grays Manor for the melting of the gold into convenient ingots to smuggle into France. So far, the syndicate was not acting entirely illegally—"
"They were infringing clauses of the Gold Protection Act," Sir Phillip interposed drily.
"While their actions were, then, not criminally illegal," Gray's jaw set obstinately, "when Kedwell obtained admission to the syndicate his greed for immediate wealth brought a radical alteration. He used his night clubs not only for the purchasing of gold from the syndicate's legitimate agents, but he, personally, became a 'fence' for stolen jewellery. In this manner he obtained an additional profit, paying the thieves he dealt with the small proportion of value they usually obtain from receivers in stolen goods, and selling to the syndicate at the normal value."
"I might add," interposed Dening, "that during the past year the values of precious stones have appreciated enormously. My investigations, and admissions made by Sir John McNiven to me within the past few days, show that the Altona Trading Company was able to dispose of jewels purchased in the gold at prices showing very handsome profits."
"At this point in my inquiries," continued Gray, "I discovered that there was another competitor for gold in the world's markets—the United States of America. Through a group of financiers that Government was competing with the French Government in a secret war to corner the world's gold supply."
"Here I must place on record certain observations," Sir Phillip interrupted. "Matters in Mr. Gray's reports caused me to have enquiries instituted in the United States of America. I found that Rudolph N. Rudder, misnamed rum king of America, had become a member of the Letoit-McNiven syndicate. If I am not misinformed, the admission of Rudder into the syndicate definitely established the group as law-breakers on a very large scale. He was the Letoit-McNiven agent in America, to drain that country of its gold."
"At this point in the inquiry I referred back to Sir Phillip." Again Gray took up his story. "The affair had become world-wide, far too big for any one agent to handle. Thereafter I became merely a factor in the inquiry, dealing with the various points under direct instructions."
"A really important and valuable factor." For a moment a slight smile broke the severe lines of Sir Phillip's face. "Mr. Gray has not stated that before this he had managed to attach himself to the syndicate, and by Letoit and Sir John was looked upon as a valued addition to their body—" The man known as 'Mr. Y' paused. "I believe I may say, looking on matters from the syndicate's point of view, that Gray was a decided asset; Sir John and Letoit had not realised that decidedly criminal elements had worked in with them, and they required all the backing they could gain to combat it."
"To assist the various agents I was then employing, and to maintain a close watch on the members of the syndicate, I applied to Scotland Yard where always I could obtain the most willing and valuable assistance. Chief Inspector Lorrimer undertook certain inquiries; I regret that, at that time, I had not thought fit to inform Mr. Gray of my action; nor did I inform Chief Inspector Lorrimer that Mr. Gray was working for the British Government."
"Sir Phillip's admissions might have proved awkward for Mr. Gray," Lorrimer spoke suggestively.
Reuben Gray laughed, a laugh that gradually spread around the little group. The Foreign Office official interrupted.
"I regret that Mr.—er—shall I call him 'Operative A' acting on my instructions in the United States, is not present with us this afternoon. I have his very extensive reports by me."
Again he placed his hand on the papers. "He deals extensively with this man, Rudder. From his reports I gather that this man is a direct menace to civilisation that the United States Government does not seem able to deal with. In some manner he obtained the leases of the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, using them as headquarters for his liquor and drug smuggling operations—and also for his gold-buying dealings. Operative 'A' indicates—"
"Anton Letoit is Rudolph N. Rudder's partner in his liquor and drug smuggling trade," observed Dening quietly.
"Hell!" Lorrimer sprang to his feet. "And he left London for Paris last night. I guess it was through him that Rudder got hold of those islands."
SIR PHILLIP GRENSHAM nodded. "I will now ask Chief Inspector Lorrimer to continue the report," he said.
"The Foreign Office set me a difficult problem." The detective spoke without preface. "Thinking the matter over, I decided to try unofficial methods, consulting Edward Symonds—" He paused, then added in explanation. "Edward Symonds was one detective-sergeant at the Yard, sir; and a clever, keen man. He left the Yard to establish himself in business as a private inquiry agent.
"For a time we were unsuccessful, I then decided to break Symonds into the gang. We wrote a letter to Sir John McNiven, offering certain services, based on information you supplied me with, Sir Phillip, and using the name of—"
"Matthew Ashcombe." Gray showed real surprise.
Lorrimer nodded. "We drew an answer. Sir John accepted Matthew Ashcombe's offer of services. With Sir Phillip's help and consent we obtained a considerable amount of gold and forwarded it to Sir John. To our surprise we did not receive the promised cash for it—"
"You eventually received payment?" Dening questioned.
"We did not." Lorrimer was emphatic.
"I saw the money posted," Gray spoke quickly.
"Yes." Sir Phillip smiled at this conflict of testimony.
"Sir John obtained the money from the bank. He had it in his office at Altona House one day when I happened to call. He showed it to me," Gray explained rapidly.
"And you marked certain bank notes?" Dening interposed.
"Sir John told me that he was curious as to the identity of Matthew Ashcombe, and, trying to trace him, had decided to mark the notes. I was also curious." Gray swung on his seat to face the Foreign Office official. "You will understand, sir, Matthew Ashcombe had given his address as Grays Manor. Sir John and I both knew that the place was an uninhabitable ruin. We knew that no one of that name lived there, or at Grays, and were decidedly curious—"
"You saw Sir John pack the bank notes, address and post them?" Dening persisted.
"Yes. He addressed the parcel in my presence and I went with him to the East Strand post office, where he registered it for despatch to Grays Manor."
"Did you read the address on the parcel, or on the registration receipt?" Lorrimer questioned sharply.
"No." A doubt came in the young man's eyes. He brightened. "A few days afterwards I saw the receipt, when Sir John produced it at the board table and told us he had received a telephone message from Matthew Ashcombe acknowledging receipt of the money." Again he hesitated. "Surely he never managed to put a raw deal over me?"
"I am afraid he did," Dening laughed. "Take the facts of the case. Sir John posted a valuable parcel to Grays Manor. He holds the receipt which he shows to his associates. The parcel is received by the addressee and is acknowledged by telephone. Yet, the only parcel record showing that the parcel ever existed is the registration at the East Strand post office—"
"And that receipt was written by a man who had gone on holidays-some hundreds of miles distant from London—at the time of its issuing." Sir Phillip interposed. "Can you explain that, Mr. Dening?"
Instead of replying directly to the question, the barrister turned to the police officer.
"Did Symonds ever explain to you how the trick was worked, Lorrimer?"
"The day before he was murdered he said that he had an important clue." The chief inspector spoke reluctantly. "I was to call on him two days from that date and he promised, that he would then have a full explanation for me and evidence for an arrest."
"I thought he knew," Dening nodded. "Now, before I go further, will you explain how you and Symonds came to use the name Matthew Ashcombe, and the Grays Manor ruins as an address?"
"I don't know where Symonds got the Matthew Ashcombe from," Lorrimer grinned embarrassedly. The Grays Manor was a queer mistake. At one time Symonds had in his employ an old man named Charlie Smith. He got past work and obtained the job of gatekeeper on a country estate. He told Symonds that he was going to Grays Manor—
"But Charlie Smith lives at Upton Lodge." Dora spoke quickly, in surprise.
"Unfortunately Mr. Smith is not here to explain." Sir Phillip interposed. "We will presume that he told Mr Symonds that he was going to Grays, and that he was misunderstood to say Grays Manor."
Lorrimer nodded. "Looks like that's correct, Sir Phillip. Symonds said that he would get in touch with the man and get him to accept the parcel as Matthew Ashcombe."
"Does that explain how the mystery surrounding the packet of bank notes was worked, Mr. Dening?" queried the Foreign Office official. "I must confess—"
"The trick was worked very simply," Dening laughed. "First, I must explain that at the time Symonds completed his contract with Sir John and the syndicate—and delivered the gold—Sir John was seriously pressed for ready cash. Letoit was in France and the outgoings of the syndicate had exceeded expectations; funds were never large in London; Letoit was too much of a Frenchman to let money go out of his personal control. Sir John, at this time, had an unexpected opportunity of buying some land that would nicely round off the Grays estate he was re-creating. He took the money that should nave been sent to Symonds, or Matthew Ashcombe, and used it for his own purpose. To cover up his—er—temporary dishonesty he worked a very ingenious scheme. Let me say here that he prepared for the eventual repayment of the money directly he could lay hands on funds belonging to himself, and received additional credits from Letoit."
For some minutes the barrister was silent, frowning thoughtfully; then began to speak slowly and with much hesitation.
"Sir John duly received the gold. He prepared a packet of blank paper and addressed it to Grays Manor, to Matthew Ashcombe. This he posted and for which he duly received the registration receipt."
Again he paused, to continue:
"Before posting he treated the surface of the parcel with a preparation lately invented by a German chemist in von Rosenfeld's employ, and which Sir John was then preparing to place on the English market. This chemical had the properties of dry bleaching very effectively."
Dening rose from his chair and went to a side table on which rested an open suitcase. From it he took a small parcel and placed it on the desk before Sir Phillip Grensham.
"You will notice, Sir Phillip, that although there is the label and the post-registration label on that parcel, on neither appears any writing or printing. Both have been bleached out by this German chemical."
"But," Gray gasped. He had gone to the desk and was now examining the parcel. "But I saw him write the address. I was with him when he posted it. Then—then there's the matter of the receiving clerk's writing on the receipt, at the time when he was supposed to be on holidays."
"I think that is the clue Edward Symonds discovered and which he promised to reveal to Chief Inspector Lorrimer, when he had obtained the proof for a definite charge," Dening replied thoughtfully. "I must ask you to remember that I said this packet contained only blank paper, not the bank notes; Sir John attempted what was nearly a perfect crime, the flaw being that the parcel was posted before the gold was delivered and before you saw him in his office packing and addressing the parcel of bank notes."
Again Dening went to his case, this time bringing out a sheet of brown paper, to which an addressed label and registration label adhered.
"This is the wrapping surrounding the parcel Mr. Gray witnessed being packed and addressed." He laid it on the desk. "You will note that the ad-, dress is to Upton Lodge, Grays. I want you to particularly note how the address is written. First, it is addressed to Sir John, thus:"
He took a pencil and pad and rapidly wrote the address:
"Sir John McNiven, Kt.,
"Will you please note that the first three lines are close together; that there is the same interval between the name of the addressee and Grays as there is between Grays and Surrey. Remember, Sir John had at his command a powerful bleaching agent. If he wiped out the name of the addressee and substituted Matthew Ashcombe; and obliterated Upton Lodge, adding Manor after Grays, the address would be a perfect simile of the address on the other parcel, now entirely bleached out."
Again Dening paused, as if collecting and marshalling facts.
"Sir John posted a dummy packet he did not intend to be delivered on the 18th. A few hours in the post and the parcel was undeliverable. It was put aside for the postal officials, waiting for some claim to be made by which it could be traced. At that time they had no suspicion that any fraud was involved. On the 28th Sir. John posted the parcel of bank notes to himself at Grays. He did that so that he could be seen posting the notes. No doubt he managed that Mr. Gray should call that day and be his witness of the posting. It was not difficult to alter the date stamp on the parcel when it was delivered, and on the registration receipt he held—for a parcel to Matthew Ashcombe, to make them both the 28th. If you will take this glass, Sir Phillip, you will be able to distinguish the alterations. I must say it was a very clever scheme."
He waited; while the others gathered round the desk examining the various exhibits he had placed there. After a short time he continued:
"Sir John posted the real bank notes to himself, to obtain a witness to his posting the money to Matthew Ashcombe. That you provided, Gray. I believe it was his intention to, after the parcel had been delivered to him, to re-post the bank notes in the correct manner to Matthew Ashcombe, confident that the delay in obtaining fresh funds to replace the notes he borrowed would not be noticed—or, if noticed, he had an explanation. The telephone message that the parcel was delivered was—was—" He glanced embarrassedly at Dora, "an invention."
"But the marked bank notes at the Blue Heaven Club?" questioned Gray.
"That comes later in the report." Dening smiled rather wearily. He hated these records of trickery and crime. "First, I want to introduce you to 'Matthew Ashcombe II.'"
He paused, turning to Gray.
"You will remember that at the conference at Altona House I claimed that Matthew Ashcombe was one of the seven men gathered at the table. I was right. One of those men had conceived the idea of blackmailing his associates at the time when the first Matthew Ashcombe and his strange address were discussed at that table. That man was a gambler, and a very unsuccessful one. For a long time he had been losing large sums of money. At the time when Matthew Ashcombe first came to light he was in desperate need. He had applied to certain of his associates for large sums—unsuccessfully."
"Ted Symonds never blackmailed anyone, Mr. Dening," Lorrimer spoke heatedly. "He was my mate at the Yard, and straight. Dead straight. I'll swear to that."
Dening took no notice of the interruption.
"Two men were very disconcerted when it was suggested that I be consulted on the attempted blackmail—Sir John McNiven and Aaron Parota. They both feared that their—er—errors would be exposed. Sir John, to confuse the trail of the packets addressed to Grays, ordained that certain bank notes be passed at the Blue Heaven night club, first warning Kedwell of what might happen, but without explanations. Aaron Parota waited. He attended the meeting at Altona House at which I was present and made the remark that completely stampeded him.
"After the meeting he trailed me from Altona House to my club; and from there followed me on my walk to the Temple. When he was convinced that I was making for my chambers, he took another route and arrived at the entrance to Fern Court before me. Concealed amid a patch of garden on the other side of the lane, he shot twice at me, fortunately missing me both times. Almost as he fired the second shot I had decided where the first shot had come from, and had started to run across the lane. I tripped on the edge of the pavement and fell. Parota believed that he had accomplished his purpose and fled.'
"Who murdered Edward Symonds?" Lorrimer asked impatiently.
"A coroner's jury has said Aaron Parota," Dening answered. "We have a good reconstruction of the crime, but until it is tested by a defence we cannot be certain that it is absolutely correct." He paused for some moments. "I am afraid I am taking up considerable time, Sir Phillip, and will hasten as much as possible." Again he paused, to continue:
"Times now match very closely. Parota, thinking that he had murdered me, went directly to his offices in Royston House, Kingsway. As he approached the doors of that building, I he saw Mrs. Ashford-Lynne walking before him. He was curious regarding the business she had in that building. He followed her and saw her enter Symonds' offices. Now he became fearful. That day he had learned from Letoit that the Frenchman had, by accident, dropped his (Parota's) letter, asking for a large loan, in Mrs. Ashford-Lynne's boudoir. He had more than a suspicion that Symonds was investigating both Matthew Ashcombes. He mistrusted what use the woman would make of that letter; he feared that it would provide Symonds with a definite clue, if it fell into his hands."
"Let me, for one minute, refer directly to Symonds and Mrs. Ashford-Lynne." Dening's tone changed. "I have reason to believe that Symonds was on the point of clearing up the whole mystery surrounding the gold syndicate at the time of his murder. He had a certain hold over Margaret Ashford-Lynne, a hold of which Chief Inspector Lorrimer and myself are aware, a hold that could be used to force the truth from the woman.
"Again, Symonds had discovered the woman's connection with Sydney Kedwell. He had bidden her call at his offices late that night, with the idea of forcing her to give him the information he required to complete the case he had promised Mr. Lorrimer. He had also requested Miss Can—Ira—to call on him that day. Unfortunately, she was out when Symonds' letter arrived at her home, and she did not receive it until quite late. Believing the matter to be important she immediately went to Kingsway and was thus drawn into the maze of this tragedy."
Again the barrister paused. For a moment his eyes met Ira's with a smile of understanding.
"Symonds' letter gave Ira the idea that he wished to offer her employment. Really, he wished to question her regarding Mrs. Ashford-Lynne. Her late arrival at Symonds' offices permitted the interview with Margaret Ashford-Lynne to occur first. As we know, she was trailed by Parota, his heart filled with what he believed to be the lust of one murder; ready, if necessary, to commit a second to preserve his wretched neck.
"Let me go back a space. When Parota learned that Letoit had lost his letter and that probably it was in the hands of a woman who would sell it to the highest bidder if she discovered its value, he was in the Frenchman's study. Here the question of the Spanish knife comes up. Letoit informed me, when I questioned him, that he distinctly remembered handling the knife after Mr. Gray's call. He was certain that it was on his desk when Parota was with him. Parota and he left the room together to go to Altona House. When Letoit returned home he immediately missed the knife."
"Much of what I have stated are facts, easily provable," Dening continued, after a pause. "There is evidence that Parota had the Spanish knife—Letoit's statement is sufficient there. From now on we can only theorise."
"Parota watched Margaret Ashford-Lynne enter Symonds' offices. Fearful for his safety, he managed to overhear the conversation between the woman and the inquiry agent. Now he realised that Symonds had sufficient evidence to connect him with Matthew Ashcombe. He heard Symonds state that he was placing his proof in the hands of the police the next day. He believed that once under arrest he would be quickly accused of the murder of one, Richard Dening." The barrister laughed lightly. "Fear crowding on him, he burst in on Symonds and the woman. Symonds pluckily tackled him, but, taken by surprise and at some disadvantage, received the knife thrust in his breast. Only the woman then remained."
The barrister lowered his voice.
"Can we reconstruct the scene in that office? The inquiry agent on the floor, blood welling from the fatal wound; the woman cowering before the murderer, willing to promise anything to save her life. We can only surmise what happened during the few minutes in which Parota must have debated whether he should not commit yet a third murder. Perhaps it was because he realised that he had to dispose of a body that the woman was spared. He went to his office and came back with a large motoring cloak—it is still in his offices with the bloodstains on it. In this he wrapped Symonds' body and carried it from Symonds' offices. Luck, or cunning, served him and he managed to get his gruesome burden down to his motor car unperceived. He drove to the Temple-"
"Why?" Lorrimer broke in abruptly.
"There again we can only theorise."' Dening answered wearily. "I assume that he believed he had killed me. He had no reason to believe that he would be suspected of the murder, but his Latin blood conceived a means of blurring any trail to himself that might exist. He thought he would set the police an insoluble problem if, within half an hour of discovering my my dead body in the lane they found in the vicinity another corpse. Then, when he gets to, the Temple he realises that he has not killed me. The reaction causes him to bolt in terror. He goes to Grays, and—and the rest you know."
The chief inspector nodded. "That's feasible. I'm going to have a word with Mrs. Ashford-Lynne."
"Then you will have a long journey," Gray laughed, almost in relief. "Kedwell and Margaret Ashford-Lynne were married yesterday morning and are now somewhere on the continent—probably. The Blue Heaven is under new management."
"There remains the letter Sergeant Chambers found at the Blue Heaven," the detective spoke suddenly.
"The blackmailing letter Parota sent to von Rosenfeld," Dening laughed. "An accidental red-herring across the trail, chief inspector. It was on the table because von Rosenfeld and Sir John had been discussing it, trying to guess the identity of the writer. The envelope addressed 'R. Gr-' was part of a perfectly ordinary letter von Rosenfeld was writing to Mr. Gray, prior to his leaving for Berlin. Sir John states that von Rosenfeld picked up the letter but forgot the envelope and the blackmailing letter, when the police arrived."
"My father—Sir John—" Dora turned appealingly to Sir Phillip. "Are you—" she hesitated.
The Foreign Office official smiled kindly at the girl.
"I understand that on Mr. Dening's advice Sir John McNiven is taking an extended holiday on the continent." He laughed slightly. "When you write to him, Miss McNiven, I suggest that you advise that this holiday extends for—shall we say, twelve months? Yes, I think by that time he will have recovered his—er—balance."
For a moment he waited, then glanced around the expectant faces before him.
"I think our reconstruction is now complete. I don't think, ladies and gentlemen, that it is necessary to remind you of Lord Ardleton's request that the matter be now completely forgotten. Anton Letoit is in Paris where, I believe, he was joined by Baron von Rosenfeld. I am sorry to state that his Majesty's Government has had to inform those gentlemen that their presence in England, on British soil, will not be welcomed at the present time, nor for some considerable time in the future."
Again he paused, to continue:
"Chief Inspector Lorrimer informs me that Culadi and Rudder were arrested at Grays Manor. They are to be charged with smuggling drugs and liquor into Great Britain." A rather significant smile came on the thin official lips. "I am afraid that when they go for trial the judge will deal with them in a manner that will be entirely satisfactory to both the British and American Governments, for many years to come."
Again he hesitated, turning to the barrister.
"Mr. Dening, I have already expressed to you, at a former interview, his Majesty's Government's appreciation of your invaluable work. May I add that in the future—"
"At the immediate present, Sir Phillip," a quick smile came on the barristers lips as he went to Ira and drew her hand through his arm. "I am proposing a lengthy trip to the continent—"
"Jove." Gray sprang to his feet. "Dora said this morning that she had no reason for any delay, and—and Sir John handed over the whole reconstructed Grays estates to us for a wedding present—"
"I am to congratulate you as Master of Grays, then, Mr. Gray?" Sir Phillip had risen and come round his big desk.
"Oh, that doesn't matter," Reuben Gray waved it airily aside. "Say, Dening, what about making it a double event?"
"Sorry, old man. 'Fraid that's impossible." A broad smile came on the barrister's lips. "Sir Phillip will inform you, if you don't already know, that there is a law against a man getting married when he already has a wife."
"You darling!" Emily Dale, who had sat silent and subdued by her unaccustomed surroundings, sprang to Ira's side. "And that's the way you act towards your pals? Gosh, girlie—"
"And you, Miss Dale." Sir Phillip turned to the night club girl, very courteously. "I am instructed to convey to you, direct from the Prime Minister, Lord Ardleton, his Majesty's deep debt of gratitude for your assistance in what we have agreed to call 'The Grays Manor Mystery.'" He hesitated a moment. "I am instructed to say that if his Majesty's Government can be of service to you—"
"My! Listen to that." Emily pirouetted quickly, grasping Ira's hands. "Just think. The whole of this wonderful big, British Empire, all those people who at the Blue Heaven looked down on the little night club girl, are now saying 'thank you' to me." She turned and curtseyed mockingly to the tall man supporting himself on his stick amid the group.
"Sir Phillip, do you know what you are saying? Don't you know that my father was a small greengrocer in a back street of Peckham; that I was dragged up in the streets and at the board school, and served behind the counter of a second-rate drapery shop in Camberwell. And—and—" the tears came quickly in her eyes—"and you're saying 'thank you' to me from the swells and toffs—and—"
"We want to say more than 'thank you,' little girl." The man on whose slender shoulders rested the secret defence, in times of peace, of a mighty Empire, took her hand. "Won't you put on your wishing cap and discover if Lord Ardleton cannot play fairy godmother?"
"Perhaps he, and others, already have." For a moment she cloak of insouciance fell from, her as she looked up into the grave tired eyes.
"I'd got careless, taking the easy way—that lay through the doors of the night club. Then—then he came—" She pointed to Richard Dening. "And somehow, he said things that—that woke me up—gave me a jolt just where I deserved it—"
Again she paused, to continue in a lower voice:
"I met a man once, quite a long time ago, and he was decent to me. He came to the Blue Heaven last night and—and I found that he—he hadn't forgotten. He'd been in Australia, and—and we sat at a table and he told me what a wonderful country it was. Just the things he said, made me want to see it."
"So you're going to survey the outposts of our Empire, on a personally conducted tour?" Sir Phillip suggested gently.
"With a little gold band as chaperon." For a moment the girl's careless nonchalance peeped out. Then her eyes grew misty. "Say, he's wonderful."
"The right man always is wonderful." Ira caught at her husband's arm.
"That girl talks sense," Emily laughed through her tears. She went a step closer to the grave-faced, elderly man. "She can say what I can only think." She waited, scanning searchingly the lined worn face.
"Once a woman told you that you were—wonderful?" The girl spoke in the barest whisper. "And—and you are, you know."
"Perhaps one day she will tell me that again—when I reach her." Sir Phillip bent to the girl, his lips trembling. "It—it can't be long now. Thank God."
"Then—" The girl laid her hands on the man's shoulders, reaching up to him. I'm not worthy I know—I'm only a night club girl, and—and I've rubbed against quite a lot of dirt—but—but she will understand. For her—you're wonderful—wonderful, mister man.
Very lightly, her lips rested on his for a brief moment. Then, with head held high, she turned towards the door.
Roy Glashan's Library
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