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"DEATH CHAIR" is one of four "lost" Peter Cheyney novels recently discovered in the digital newspaper archives of the National Libraries of Australia and New Zealand. The titles of the other three are: "The Gold Kimono," "The Sign on the Roof" and "The Vengeance of Hop Fi."
So far as can be ascertained, "Death Chair" was first published by the English newspaper The Sheffield Mail in 1931. Evidence to this effect is given by following advertisement printed by the latter's sister-paper The Sheffield Independent on April 15, 1931:
NEW SHEFFIELD MAIL SERIAL
"DEATH CHAIR" tells of a journalist who looked for a story and found a murderer. It is full of thrills, puzzling situations and brilliant amateur detective work. MR. PETER CHEYNEY is already well known to Sheffield Mail readers who will remember his splendid stories "The Vengeance of Hop Fi" and "The Gold Kimono."
See if you can solve the mystery of "Death Chair." Read the first installment in next Friday's Sheffield Mail.
In 1937 the British magazine Detective Weekly published three short novels with the titles "The Gold Kimono," "The Mark of Hop Fi" and "The Riddle of the Strange Last Words," all under the by-line "Stephen Law," which is evidently a pseudonym used by Peter Cheyney. Internal evidence suggests that the last of these works is a version of "Death Chair."
The raw text for the present RGL version of "Death Chair" was published as a serial in The New Zealand Herald, from 21 May—16 July 1932. The digital newspaper image files were pre-processed by the Australian bibliophile Terry Walker. Small amendments to the resultant file were made where necessary by the New Zealand editor and writer Keith Chapman ("Chap O'Keefe").
On May 21, 1932, The New Zealand Herald advertised the serialisation of "Death Chair" with the words:
Here is a story of unusual interest by that virile writer, Peter Cheyney. "The Death Chair," like its name, is a sensational and startling story that thrills the imagination. It teems with mystery, and sensational happenings. Anthony Vaness, whose mind is ever occupied with thoughts of criminals and crime, is a man of few words but great undertakings. Criminals had always fascinated him, and from the time he had been a junior reporter on a great and leading newspaper dashing about at the erratic bid of news editors, his one idea had been to specialise in the best type of story. The years had brought realisation of this wish. "The Death Chair" is an astounding story told by a great writer in his most brilliant form. It is drama, pathos, humour, a story that captivates the minds of all who read. Do not miss the opening chapter which starts in the New Zealand Herald Supplement this morning.
To meet the requirements of newspaper serial layout The New Zealand Herald printed "Death Chair" in 36 chapters. The RGL e-book edition presents the story in 12 chapters with more logical chapter breaks. OCR, typographical and other obvious errors have been corrected without comment.
—Roy Glashan, April 5, 2017
LOOKING out from his study window on to the quiet street beneath, Anthony Vaness's mind was occupied with thoughts of crime and criminals. The very words, he thought, had an ominous sound, and he realised that beneath the superficial atmosphere of quietness and discipline which lay around him an unceasing battle was raging, a battle between the forces of evil and those of law and order.
He turned away from the window and returned to his desk. Sitting down, he switched on the reading lamp, and centred his mind on the papers which lay before him. The light of the lamp illuminated the top of the desk, which stood out like a little island of light in the otherwise dark room, reflecting on the clean-cut, and almost ascetic features of Vaness, on the firm jaw and the quiet grey eyes set wide apart, eyes which had the ability to flicker with a sudden gleam of interest.
Criminals had always fascinated Vaness. From the time he had been a junior reporter on the Daily Sun, when his business consisted in dashing about at the erratic bid of news editors, for the purpose either of covering some unimportant story or of interviewing some equally unimportant film actress on an equally unimportant subject, his one idea had been to specialise in the best type of story which a newspaper can print—the crime story; and the years had brought the realisation of this wish. Tonight was the culminating point in his career. Before him on the table lay his contract with the Daily Sun, the paper which he had left three years ago in order to become a freelance; a contract under which he was to write a series dealing with ten criminal trials which had each one in its own time caught and held the attention of the Great British public.
Strangely enough, it seemed to Vaness that the first story with which he was to deal, the case of John Durward, was the most uninteresting. Ten years before Durward had been brought to justice on a charge of embezzlement. The evidence against him was definite, and he had been sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. To the trained mind of Vaness, the case seemed so simple it was almost entirely without interest. It contained none of those romantic touches which make the most sordid crime a little less sordid; there was no woman in the background for whom this crime had been committed. Here was a plain, straightforward story of a man, a merchant banker, who had embezzled and used the monies entrusted to his care, who had been brought to justice and convicted.
Vaness considered that the only two points of interest in the case lay in the suicide of John Durward in prison, and the means by which he had been brought to book. Vaness considered it strange that Durward, who, by reason of good behaviour was to have been released after eight years' imprisonment, should have killed himself by opening a vein in his arm within nine months of the time when he would have been a free man.
Vaness's journalistic mind told him that the main point of interest in the story, from the public point of view, would be the man who had brought Durward to book, Ralston, one of the cleverest chief inspectors that Scotland Yard had ever known. Vaness's lips curved in a little smile of pity, as he thought of Ralston today. True, he was still a power in the land, but the sudden paralysis which had come upon him four years ago, and which had condemned him to an invalid chair, had caused his retirement from the CID ... although, with his usual courage, he had carried on and was now possibly the most famous private detective in Europe.
The journalist liked the idea of being once more able to tell the public of Ralston's past achievements, to tell them of the patient and painstaking methods which had enabled him to build up the evidence, scrap by scrap, against Durward, evidence which, although circumstantial, showed the jury plainly that here was a criminal of the most dangerous type.
Vaness knew that this compliment on his past career would please Ralston, and would strengthen the bond of friendship which existed between them even more if that were possible. Vaness brought his mind back to the work on hand, and turned to the papers before him.
His notes on the case told him that Durward's partner, who was quite innocent of any complicity in the crime, was still alive, living at St John's Wood. It seemed to Vaness that one of the first things for him to do was to get in touch with this partner—Hugo Strex—and to endeavour to get from him a pen picture of Durward, as Strex had known him—a picture of this smiling hypocrite who could give liberally to charities and endow hospitals with one hand, while with the other he stole from people who invested in his business.
Vaness rose from the table, walked over to the telephone, and called Strex's number. A few minutes afterwards he spoke to Strex.
"Good evening, Mr Strex," he said, "I'm sorry to disturb you at such a late hour. I'm Anthony Vaness, and I'm writing the story of the Durward trial for the Daily Sun. It occurred to me that having been associated in business with John Durward for so many years, you might be able to give me some information about him which would be of interest to our readers. Can you give me an appointment?"
Strex's voice came wearily over the telephone. "I suppose I must if you want it," he said, "but I'm sick of talking about the Durward case. The whole thing was a great shock to me, a shock I've never really got over. I'm an old man, Mr Vaness, and I'm sorry that you newspaper people can't leave me alone."
"Oh, I shan't trouble you very much," Vaness replied cheerfully, "the whole thing won't take half an hour, Mr Strex. What about tomorrow morning?"
"I'm going away tomorrow," said Strex. "If you want to see me about it you will have to do it tonight. I'm busy now. The earliest time I can see you will be at ten minutes to twelve. If you'd like to come along then I'll give you half an hour."
"That will suit me excellently," said Vaness. "I'll come along then. Good night, Mr Strex. Thank you."
He hung up the receiver, and turned to his desk, well satisfied with his conversation. He thought that even the Durward case could be made interesting through his interview with Strex on the dead criminal, and his notes on ex-Inspector Ralston's career. He was glad that he had achieved the interview with Strex, for he had heard that Durward's late partner was a crusty old gentleman of uncertain temper, morose and grim, whose life, embittered by his partner's defalcations, had been a lonely one.
Vaness looked at his watch. It was ten o'clock. The idea came to him that a walk through the quiet streets would enable him to turn over in his mind the proposed interview with Strex. He threw off his dressing-gown and put on his coat. He lit a large briar pipe, ran blithely down the stairs, and hatless began his walk.
VANESS'S observant eye found nothing to interest him on his stroll. The quiet squares and streets of the West End through which he wandered had no great points of interest. Like most journalists, even while he was engaged on one story, his eves were always looking for another. He walked about for fifteen minutes, inhaling great breaths of the cool night air, then turned, intending to retrace steps homeward. Crossing Manchester Square, he called a cheery "Good-night," to the policeman on duty—an old friend of his—and was continuing on his way, when his eye was caught by a splash of colour in the shadows on the other side of the square.
He looked again. The splash of colour was a girl. A stray gleam of light from an adjacent lamp reflected on her blonde head, and shimmered on the blue velvet of her evening-cloak. She was endeavouring to start a car, but apparently the starting handle was too much for her. As Vaness walked in her direction to offer assistance, she stepped back from the bonnet of the car with a little exclamation of disgust.
"Can I help?" Vaness asked. "You seem to be having trouble."
"Thank you so much," said the girl, smiling. "Something's gone wrong with my self-starter, and I never can use a starting handle. It's so good of you."
During the moment in which he looked at her, before turning to seize the car's starting handle, Vaness noted the extraordinary beauty of the girl. Tall, slim and straight, she possessed a quality, almost a dominance, which made Vaness realise she was cast in no ordinary mould.
His practised arm soon had the engine running. He opened the door of the car for her.
"All is now well, and nothing remains but for me to wish you good-night."
She smiled back.
"Oh, yes, something still remains," she said. "Can you tell me, please, where Garron Mansions are? I was told they were somewhere about here, but I seem to have been driving in circles. Do you know them?"
Vaness grinned. "I ought to. I live there."
"Then Garron Mansions must be a very nice place," she sparkled back at him. "Do you think it would be a fair bargain if, in return for showing me where they are, I were to drive you back there?" She stood looking at him, her head slightly on one side.
"I think the bargain would be most unfair," said Vaness. "The pleasure of driving back with you would be worth so much more than my paltry information which could be secured from any policeman."
"Never mind," she said, "we'll call it a deal. Jump in!"
Vaness sat beside her, and the car moved off. Glancing sideways, he noticed the slimness of the white hand which held the steering wheel, the expensive rings which bedecked it, and the calmness with which it navigated the big and powerful car.
"By the way," he said, "there are four entrances to Garron Mansions, which is just round the corner on the right here. Which one do you want? Do you know the number of the apartment you're looking for?"
"Indeed I don't." she replied. "I want to find a Mr Anthony Vaness. He's a journalist, I think. I know he lives in Garron Mansions, but that's all."
Vaness laughed. "This is most amusing, because I'm Anthony Vaness."
She turned her head suddenly. Vaness saw that the smile had faded from her face, and the blue eyes which looked at him were cold and hard.
"I see," she said quietly, turning her eyes once more to the road. "That makes things so much easier, doesn't it? I want to talk to you, Mr Vaness."
"I shall be delighted," the journalist replied, "but I hope that our interview will not be a very long one, as I have to be in St John's Wood at a quarter to twelve. By the way, you will want to pull up at the first entrance. Here it is."
She stopped the car. Vaness got out, and held the door for her. Then he led the way into the mansions, and rang the bell for the lift.
He was not particularly surprised at their coincidental meeting. Many such events take place in the life of a journalist. People came to him with stories to sell, with rumours which they had heard, with insinuations against people which they would like to see in print; all sorts of things. The journalist listens to them all, carefully separating the wheat from the chaff, so he was not particularly intrigued by this beautiful woman's wish to see him, although he was slightly intrigued with her. Vaness had met many pretty women in his time, but he remembered no one exactly like this one.
The lift carried them to the first floor where Vaness's apartments were situated.
He led the way into his study, and pushed forward a chair for her. She seated herself, and he knocked out the ashes of his pipe. He offered her a cigarette which she refused, then, drawing up a chair for himself, he sat down. "Now," said he, "what can I do for you?"
The girl looked straight at him, and Vaness noticed that the white fingers, which lay on the arm of the armchair, were trembling.
"My name is Alexia Durward," she said. "I'm the daughter of John Durward, who was convicted and sentenced ten years ago, the man who killed himself in Parkhurst Prison three years ago. I have reason to believe that you are about to write a series dealing with crime and criminals, and I believe, too, that the story of John Durward, my father, is to be the first. I have come to ask you not to write that story, Mr Vaness."
Vaness, surprised for once in his life, pulled himself together quickly.
"I'm very sorry, Miss Durward," he said, "but I have contracted to write the story, and it's my duty to write it; I shall write it."
She rose to her feet. Vaness saw that there was a suspicion of tears in her eyes.
"Mr Vaness," she said, "can't you understand that the publicity which this story of yours will bring is something which is distasteful to me? My father is dead. Is there any reason why this sordid business should be raked up once again? Writing such things is your business, but I will willingly pay you double whatever sum your paper is to pay you if you will not do this."
"I'm sorry," said Vaness. "I can understand your attitude, but you must understand that if I don't do it someone else will. Besides, you see, I specialise in these things. I have always done them, and handling this series is rather a big thing for me. By not doing it I cannot save you anything because it will still be done, and I should only succeed in making myself unpopular with my paper. I'm very sorry, Miss Durward, but I can't agree to your request."
Vaness took a cigarette from a silver box and tapped it on his fingernail. "May I ask you one thing, Miss Durward?" he said. "How do you know I was about to write this series? The whole thing was only arranged this afternoon, and my definite instructions were sent round here from the editor of the Daily Sun only four hours ago. It would interest me to know how you came into possession of the information."
She looked straight into his eyes, and he saw that hers were hard. "That, Mr Vaness," she said, "is my business. Not only did I know you were going to write this series, but I don't think I'm very far from the truth when I tell you I think you will try to interview Mr Hugo Strex, my father's late partner. It seems a pity an old man like Mr Strex should be worried by you."
"Indeed!" replied Vaness. He was feeling angry with this girl. "You seem to know a great deal, Miss Durward, but I must admit that in this case you have again guessed right. I am going to interview Mr Strex. In fact I'm seeing him tonight."
The girl picked up her handbag which she had laid on the table. A little smile played about her mouth, a hard smile, slightly ominous, Vaness thought.
"I don't think so, Mr Vaness," she said. "I intend to see Mr Strex, and after he has heard what I have to say to him I don't think you will get your interview."
She turned on her heel, walked to the door, and opened it. "Good-night, Mr Vaness," she said. She closed the door behind her. Vaness heard her steps retreating down the passage, heard the lift bell, heard the lift descend.
Outside in the street he heard the purr of her car as she drove away.
VANESS returned to his table and stood tapping his blotting pad with a pencil. Here was a development. He realised life was indeed strange, and a journalist is favoured with glimpses of the strangeness. He could understand the girl's point of view very well. Vaness was fair-minded and, putting himself in her place, he realised the publicity following the publication of his story of the Durward affair would certainly annoy her, but what was he to do?
The fact remained—and he smiled a little humorously as he thought this—that had not John Durward committed the crime for which he was imprisoned no one would be able to write about it. This apparently, had escaped the notice of Durward's beautiful daughter. At the same time in his heart he felt for her, but what he had told her was correct. Supposing he had refused to have written the story. Someone else would do it, and the result would be the same in the long run. But her last remark perturbed him.
What was she going to say to Hugo Strex which would make him refuse to give the interview he had promised Vaness? The journalist began to be a little annoyed with Alexia Durward. If Strex did refuse to say anything about her father, it would make it very difficult for Vaness. The story was thin as it was, and this further interference, if it were successful, would very nearly spoil it altogether. Vaness thought it was a pity people could not mind their own business but must forever be interfering; yet, at the same time, he realised he was interfering with the girl's life. He threw his cigarette away, and refilled and lit his pipe.
A glance at the clock told him it was a quarter past eleven. He made up his mind to go out to Strex immediately. He was fairly certain the girl had driven straight to Strex's house. He thought it almost as certain he would meet her there. He rather hoped that he would. He felt he would like to explain to her that he felt and sympathised with her, but that he himself was not in a position to be able to help.
Vaness, who had never in his life been particularly drawn to any woman felt strangely attracted by Miss Alexia Durward. She had courage, he thought, and after all she was doing what any woman would have done. He put on his hat, ran quickly down the stairs and walked round to the garage, which was in the next street.
As he drove in the direction of St John's Wood Vaness found himself wishing that it were possible to drop writing about the Durward case. The idea came to him that some other important case in the annals of British justice might be substituted for it. The idea pleased him. He made up his mind that, if he met the girl at Strex's house, he would tell her he would see the Daily Star editor in the morning and make a suggestion that another case, one possibly more interesting from a public point of view, should be used in place of the Durward case.
Having come to this conclusion, Vaness felt more happy. He believed a solution was found, and he was glad for the girl's sake.
He drove slowly along the main road. A hundred yards down the road to the left was a long avenue of trees, and at the end of this avenue, forming a cul-de-sac, stood the sombre Strex house. Vaness had passed the place previously, on occasion, and noticed the old-fashioned and rambling architecture reminiscent of nearly a century ago which made the house a landmark. He was thinking that in any event his talk with Strex would be interesting, for Strex himself must have lived an interesting life.
Vaness was turning into the avenue when a car suddenly shot past him. He jammed on his brakes, and pulled into the side of the road with an exclamation. The car had been going at such a speed and driven so erratically that it had missed his own by inches. Vaness looked quickly out. He was just in time to recognise the car. It was the girl's. There was no mistaking the large and powerful body and the rather out of-the-way design of the luggage rack.
The girl had wasted no time.
A determined little thing, Vaness thought half-humorously, but somebody must tell her not to drive about the roads at that speed, otherwise she would come to a sticky end.
Vaness restarted his car and pulled up before the massive iron gates of the house. He got out and walked up the winding carriage drive. The front of the house was in complete darkness, and an eerie stillness enveloped the place. Mounting the portico steps, he pulled the ancient bell chain, and the clanging of the bell reverberated through the house. After a five minutes' wait the door was opened and an ancient face peered round the corner.
"Is Mr Strex in? He's expecting me," Vaness said.
The man motioned him to come in. "Mr Strex is in his study, sir," said the butler. "Will you go through? It's straight along this passage, the last door on the right."
Vaness handed the butler his hat, and walked down the passage until he came to the door. He tapped, but there was no response. He waited and then knocked again more loudly, but still no answer. Vaness turned the handle of the door, opened it, and stepped into the room.
Used to sights of all descriptions, he stood aghast at the scene which lay before him. Lying over his desk, the blotting paper of which was red with his blood, was sprawled Hugo Strex. From between his shoulder blades projected the handle of a knife. Vaness walked over and looked at him. There was no question he was dead. His hand, still clutching a pencil, had scrawled on the corner of the blotting pad in front of him the letters "Dur," but the rest of the words he had written were obliterated by his own blood.
Vaness walked to the door, called loudly to the butler, then he walked back to the table and took off the telephone receiver.
"Hallo, exchange, give me Scotland Yard," he said.
SITTING in his study Vaness turned over in his mind the sudden and amazing happenings of the day before, culminating in the murder at St John's Wood.
Scotland Yard had been quick to act, and investigations were proceeding. Vaness had been glad he had said nothing to the police about his meeting with Alexia Durward; there was time enough for that. He had also been more glad because in the afternoon the Daily Sun had postponed the crime series. It had asked him to cover the new murder which was filling the day's newspapers.
It seemed to Vaness more than probable the girl had killed Strex. It also seemed to him—and he was experienced in these things—that his own evidence at the inquest, which was fixed for two days ahead, would certainly end in her being sent for trial. Here was a girl who had definitely told him that Strex would not give the interview which he sought. And just before he had discovered Strex's body he had seen her car in the vicinity of the house.
He realised things would look very black for her, for hers was a very adequate motive for killing Strex. Up to the moment no one of any great importance at Scotland Yard had been assigned to the case. The preliminary photographs, measurements, and the other up-to-date techniques used for the recording of crime, had been in progress. This did not thrill Vaness particularly; he had seen all that before. At the back of his mind was a vague uneasiness with regard to the evidence against the girl which he knew he would have to give.
He could hardly bring himself to believe that a girl—and she seemed a very nice girl—could bring herself to kill a man in order to prevent him giving an interview to a pressman. Yet at the same time he realised that, with the sometimes weird workings of the feminine mind, a woman who is angry is often very much more dangerous than a man.
He got up and walked to the fireplace. He stood looking into the embers of the fire, and wondering what the outcome of all this would be. Somehow Vaness felt some sort of responsibility for the girl. Logically there was no reason for this. At the same time he felt if he had been a little more gentle, explained to her more fully the pros and cons of the business, she might not have been driven to drive forthwith to St John's Wood, and do what she had done.
Amidst these gloomy thoughts an idea suggested itself which cheered him immensely. He would ring up Ralston, and explain the whole thing to him. Ralston would be interested because he had originally handled the Durward case and knew Strex well. Probably by this time, Vaness thought, he had digested every bit of information which was possible to be obtained from the newspapers or his colleagues dealing with the case.
Vaness stepped towards the telephone, but before he could reach it the bell rang. He took off the receiver.
"Hallo," said a voice, and Vaness smiled as he recognised it as Ralston's.
"Is that you, Vaness? You're covering the St John's Wood murder for the Sun aren't you? You are? Good! Well, I've got a surprise for you. The Yard have asked me to take charge of the case. Pretty extraordinary, isn't it, for an old cripple like me, tied to this blooming chair of mine, to be called in to run this case? You see, the big people down there are fairly busy at the moment, and as I knew Strex and all that crowd, I suppose they think I stand a chance of handling the business. Anyhow, I'm pleased with the compliment."
"I'm glad to hear that, Ralston," said Vaness. "Strangely enough I can tell you rather a lot about it. By the way, are you working by yourself on the case?"
"Oh, no," replied Ralston. "I've got a young inspector, a man named Soames, attached to me as my official watchdog, but I don't think the Yard will interfere very much in what I do."
"Have you got any idea in your head as to who might be responsible for this murder?"
Ralston's full-blooded laugh came back over the telephone.
"You bet I have. I've got a pretty good idea," the ex-chief inspector answered, "and I think, with a little care, that person will soon he brought to book. Why don t you come round and talk it over? My house, as you know, is on the edge of St John's Wood, and, if necessary, we can go over to Strex's house and look round. It must have given you a nasty shock, Vaness, finding him like that."
"You're right, Ralston, it did for a moment. Anyhow, I'll come over right away, and we can talk about it. I'll be with you in twenty minutes. So long!"
He hung up the receiver. Within a few moments he was sitting in his car, driving towards Ralston's house.
He wondered what was behind the detective's statement that he had a fairly good idea who was responsible for the murder.
Was it possible that Ralston knew something of Alexia Durward which would enable him to come to the conclusion that she had killed her father's partner, or had he some other idea? Was there a possibility someone else had committed the crime?
Vaness found himself hoping sincerely that the latter was the case. He could not associate the beautiful girl, whom he had met for the first time the night before, with the murder. He did not like to think of her as being responsible for that huddled, bloodstained figure sprawled on the desk in the lonely house. Yet his own cursory examination had shown him the force which had driven the knife into Strex's back was not great; a woman could easily have done it. A child could have done it.
Whoever had stabbed Strex had known his or her business. The point of the knife had been inserted under the shoulder blade, and pushed upwards into the heart.
AFTER he parked his car at an adjacent garage, Vaness walked quickly round to Ralston's house, and rang the bell. The door was opened by a trim maid, and the journalist saw Ralston propelling his invalid chair out of a room further down the hall and advancing with outstretched hand.
"I'm glad to see you, Vaness," he said. "Come in. Mary will take your hat and coat. I expect you'd like a drink after your drive. By Jove! This is going to be like old times."
Vaness took off his things, and joined his host in the cosy study.
"I must say you look fairly pleased, Ralston," he said. "I suppose a good murder is meat and drink to you."
"Well, to be sincere, I'm glad to be back in harness again," the detective answered. "Mark you, since I left the Yard so many years ago, as you know, I've done a lot of international detective work. That was not bad fun, but when this cursed paralysis began to get me I had to give up most of my European work, and prepare myself to settle down to a more or less humdrum existence here. You see, as a private detective, one has to do so much of the donkey work oneself. That's why I'm so very pleased the Yard have given me this case to handle. The fact that I'm tied to this chair doesn't matter. There are lots of people to do my running about for me, although"—he pointed proudly to the back of the invalid chair—"since I've had his little electric motor fitted I've been able to get nearly anywhere. One of these fine days I expect you'll see me being summonsed for speeding!"
Vaness laughed. "I've always admired your grit, Ralston. You've got a good nerve. But now tell me, what's your idea about this murder? Who do you think did it?"
Ralston selected a cigar from the box at his elbow, pierced and lit it carefully. Then he looked up at Vaness.
"Look here, my lad, you know as well is I do that the first thing in any crime is motive. Now I knew old Strex fairly well. I was very sorry for him when I discovered Durward had been playing ducks and drakes with their joint money. Strex was nearly heartbroken. It practically ruined him, but he saw the thing through, and as far as he was able paid what little he could to some of the people who had been the most hard-hit by the business. He was left with very little money, and he led a lonely life in that rambling old house of his—the only bit of property he had left—attended only by the weird butler who had been with him for many years. He had no friends, and he had no enemies. Robbery could not have been the motive ... there was nothing in the house worth stealing. Revenge was certainly not the motive. As I said just now, Strex hadn't an enemy in the world. He was such a. foolish old man, and if anyone had asked him for something he would certainly have given it to them had it been within his power.
"Take your own case, for example. Soames tells me that you telephoned Strex last night for an interview. Personally, if I had been Strex I should have told you to have gone to the devil, and taken the Daily Sun with you. Instead of which, the old man was prepared, just because he could never refuse anybody anything, to give you an interview at midnight. That was the type of man Strex was, and the crime was certainly not one of revenge...
"No, my dear fellow," continued Ralston, propelling his chair a little nearer the fire, "there was a very real motive for that murder. In fact, I don't think I'm very wrong when I say that you were the cause of it."
Vaness looked up, surprised. "What the deuce do you mean?"
"Just this. You were going to interview Strex last night. Now, strange as it may seem, Strex has never discussed this case with anybody, with the exception of myself, since the trial ten years ago. It's quite possible that Strex would have had many hard things to say about John Durward. Doesn't it strike yon as being probable that someone might have wanted to shut Strex's mouth once and for all?"
"I see," said the journalist. "You think that Strex could have made things uncomfortable for somebody?"
"Yes, I do," said Ralston, "and I've got a pretty good idea who that somebody is. Did you know that John Durward had a daughter?"
"I did," replied Vaness. For a moment it was on the tip of his tongue to tell Ralston of the meeting with Durward's daughter, and of the interview which had occurred in his flat, but he instantly decided to say nothing.
Ralston's quick brain, knowing nothing of the girl's interview with the journalist, had immediately jumped on a possible motive for the crime, and Vaness was so lost in admiration that he felt inclined to say nothing about Alexia Durward until he had heard the rest of Ralston's theory, after which he would produce his evidence in support of the detective's reasoning.
Ralston drew at his cigar, and looked into the embers of the fire.
"She's a determined girl, that girl of Durward's. I remember her during the trial. She was only a slip of a thing then, about seventeen, but she did her damnedest to get her father off—she actually went to the box on some abstruse point or other, and lied like a trooper in a vain attempt to save him. Of course, it was no use."
He knocked the ash from his cigar and looked at Vaness with a smile.
"Here is the actual motive for the crime in my opinion," he said. "Durward had managed to get quite a bit of money put on one side—money and securities which we could never trace. It's more than likely the girl has this money, for she seems pretty well off by all accounts.
"Well, I think old Strex knew about this, but he was such a sportsman that even though some of this cash actually belonged to him I think he was quite satisfied to let the girl have it. You see, in his funny way, he was fond of John Durward, and when he had got over the first shock of hearing and knowing that his partner was a criminal he was inclined to be rather more sympathetic than I should have been!
"I believe the girl thought Strex might give away something about this money during the interview. She seemed to know quite a lot, this young lady, and she may even have known you were a friend of mine and likely to discuss the interview with me afterwards. In which case she would have lost the money she lives on and there would have been further mud thrown at old Durward's memory.
"I think she took a chance; she probably intended only to threaten Strex, and then her feelings getting the better of her she lost her temper and, blind with rage, killed him with the Italian dagger he used as a paper knife."
"What about the butler?" said Vaness. "I suppose there's no chance of suspicion in that quarter."
"None at all," replied the detective. "The poor old man has lost the only job he's ever likely to have through death, and is almost heartbroken. Of course, as you know. Vaness, I was never a man to jump to conclusions, and before I actually fix the murder on Alexia Durward I'm going to have a chain of evidence against her in which there is not one weak link, and I don't think that it will take me very long to forge the clip in, either. Besides, I've got to show the Yard I'm not a 'has-been' and here is my opportunity."
"It seems a pity that a girl should have done this," said Vaness. "By the way, I've got something interesting to tell you—something which supports your theory to an extraordinary degree. Would you be surprised to know that—"
The telephone bell rang loudly, and, with surprising agility Ralston propelled his chair over to the instrument.
"Hallo, Soames," he said. "Oh, so you've checked up, have you? What—actually in St John's Wood! Good, let me know all about it. You'd better come round at once."
He hung up the receiver.
"Soames—the Yard man working with me on this case—has definitely checked up that Alexia Durward was here in St John's Wood last night," he said. "Another link in the chain!"
He held out his hand. "So long, Vaness. You can tell me your interesting bit of news tomorrow. I've got to see Soames and our conversation must, of course, be private. Ring me up sometime and come along and tell me all about it. In the meantime, don't let anything get into your paper. Just the usual stuff, you know, description of the crime and all that, and that Scotland Yard are in possession of clues which will shortly lead to an arrest. I'll let you know when you can get ahead with the real story."
Vaness shook hands. "Good-night, Ralston. I'll probably see you tomorrow."
As he drove back to Garron Mansions, Vaness felt a wave of admiration for the virile powers of the crippled ex-inspector. Ralston had apparently put his finger on the criminal, and with his unerring instinct he would follow every clue, every shred of evidence, until his chain was forged. A chain which would bind—and hang—Alexia Durward.
The thought affected Vaness strangely. Somehow the possibility of the girl being a criminal—a murderess—appalled him. Yet it seemed to him that she, and she only, was responsible for the murder of Strex.
IT was with these thoughts running through his brain that Vaness disregarded the lift and walked slowly up the stairs to his flat. The last forty-eight hours were now assuming a definite shape in his mind, and he realised that from a journalistic point of view he had been lucky to have experienced a strange series of events from the very beginning.
His knowledge of newspapers told him the Strex murder case, when Ralston would allow him to write the full story, would be one of the biggest sensations of the year in journalism.
Arriving on the first floor, he was so deep in thought that he almost ran into the arms of the hall porter, Jenkins.
"I'm glad you've come, sir," said the man. "There's a lady been to see you, and I didn't know when you'd be back. I recognised her as the lady who came with you the other night, so I've put her in your sitting-room. I hope you don't mind."
Vaness nodded. "All right, Jenkins."
The hall porter went down the stairs and he stood uncertainly outside the door leading to the sitting-room. Why had Alexia Durward come to see him? What new development was about to take place? The amazing thought suddenly struck him that she was going to confess; that she would tell him the story of how she had killed Strex, but mixed with elation at the thought of this wonderful scoop was one of great pity for the girl.
He pushed open the door of the room, and entered. She was sitting in an armchair looking into the fire.
A wave of sorrow swept over Vaness. He saw that her beautiful face was drawn and her eyes haggard as she looked at him.
"I must apologise for disturbing you again, Mr Vaness," she said, "but I've been so terribly upset all day that I've come to you because, although I know you so slightly, I felt that in you I should find at least some friendliness."
Vaness threw his hat on to a chair, and helped himself to a cigarette, which he lit. He did this more from desire to gain time than because he needed to smoke. He did not know what to say to the girl. How could he tell her that she was suspected; that he believed she was the murderess of Hugo Strex?
Her next words, however, solved that difficulty.
"Mr Vaness, I'm in a terrible position. Last night I told you I was going to Hugo Strex, and that after I had seen him he would not give you the interview you sought. You know that I went to Strex's house last night. By the way you look at me I believe you think I had something to do with the dreadful murder. Please believe me when I tell you that I know nothing of it. I am absolutely innocent."
Her feelings overcame her and she broke down. Burying her face in her hands, she sobbed bitterly.
Vaness felt appallingly uncomfortable. His first instinct had been to try to comfort the girl, but he realised that if she were left alone she would probably tell him all she knew of the business. Naturally enough, thought the journalist, she was not going to say she was guilty.
After a few moments the girl dried her eyes.
"Forgive me for behaving like a child," she said, "but you will understand that I've been terribly worried all day. Last night, immediately after I left your flat, I drove home. I'd come to the conclusion that I would not go and see Strex, and that if you made up your mind to write the story of my father's trial you would probably do it; that nothing I could say or do would stop it. I had already garaged my car, and was walking to my flat in Knightsbridge when suddenly the idea came to me that at least I would go and plead with Strex not to divulge anything about my father's trial.
"I went back to the garage, got my car and drove towards St John's Wood. I must have arrived there, at Strex's house, only a few minutes before you did. I was about to ring the front-door bell when I noticed the door was open. I've visited Mr Strex several times and know just where his study is, and that he was usually to be found there, so I walked straight to the study. When I got there I found him as you found him—murdered—with that horrible knife sticking into his back.
"I'm afraid I lost my head. I had been upset all day, and instead of informing the police or calling the old butler, or doing anything sensible, I was so terrified I dashed out of the house, jumped into my car, and drove off as quickly as I could. You will remember I nearly collided with you as you drove your own car round the corner of the avenue.
"My headlights shone directly on you, and I recognised you easily. After I'd passed, the thought came to me that I should pull up, come back and tell you what had happened. Then I thought you wouldn't believe me; that you would think I had killed Strex."
The analytical mind of the journalist, which had forgotten everything for the moment except the case, immediately seized on the salient points of the girl's story.
"Listen, Miss Durward," he said, "you say that after you discovered Strex had been murdered you turned and ran straight out of the house. When you entered the house the front door was open. Did you close it after you as you left?"
"No," the girl replied, "I didn't. I was so frightened that I ran straight along the passage, through the open door, straight to my car. I didn't wait for anything."
"I see," said Vaness. "That's strange."
"Why?" she asked.
"Because if your story is true somebody closed the front door between the time you left and I arrived. It was shut when I got there. I rang the bell, and had to wait for the old butler, who by his appearance had obviously been asleep just before he opened it."
"It seems as if there might have been someone in the house," the girl said. "Do you think that whoever murdered Strex was concealed in his study; that the murderer saw me open the door, saw me run away, and then closed the door after me?"
"I don't know, Miss Durward. But what I do know is this: your position in this case seems to me to be rather a serious one. Looking at you, I cannot believe you to be a murderess. Yet at the same time the evidence against you up to the moment, although circumstantial, is fairly strong. As far as I'm concerned, the police don't know that you came to me last night, or that you went to Strex's house. Tonight I was about to tell Mr Ralston, the detective handling the case for Scotland Yard; but circumstances prevented it, although I fear I shall have to tell him what I know. There'll be a coroner's inquest very shortly. I shall be on oath. I'll have to give the truth. So if there's anything which would appear to mitigate the circumstances, if I were you, I would tell me now."
She frowned. "Mr Ralston... Is that the Inspector Ralston who was in charge of the case against my father?"
"Yes," said Vaness.
"Isn't that strange? That the same man who arrested and secured the evidence against my father should now be appointed in charge of this case in which it seems I'm suspected. I rather like Mr Ralston. He had to do his duty in my father's case, but he seemed very kind. He was very nice to me, endeavouring to save me from as much pain as possible. Will you ask me anything that you want? You may rest assured I shall tell you the truth."
"There are two or three things which I should like to know," said Vaness. "But in the meantime won't you take off your things and let me send for some tea? I feel it would brace you up a little."
"I would like that," she said.
Vaness helped her off with her coat, rang the bell, and ordered tea. By the moment he found it more difficult to believe the girl sitting in the big chair by the fire had murdered Strex. He was intrigued with the situation, and with her. At the back of his mind was the hope that something she might say would alter the complexion of the crime so much that at his next interview with Ralston he would be able to produce some extenuating circumstance which would serve to give her a chance.
After she had drunk the tea a little colour came back to her face, and she seemed more cheerful.
"Now, Mr Vaness," she said, almost brightly, "I'm ready for your inquisition."
Vaness smiled. "It won't be a very difficult one, but there are one or two points in connection with this business which I don't understand, and which I would like to understand. Candidly, I want very much to believe you had nothing to do with it, but at the moment that's a little awkward.
"I told you last night: the idea I should write this crime series, including the trial of your father, only evolved yesterday afternoon in the Daily Sun offices. My definite instructions from the editor were sent round here by hand at seven o'clock last night, yet you came here to ask me not to write the account of your father's trial. In other words, please tell me this: by what means had you secured information telling you what had happened in the Sun offices that afternoon?"
Vaness looked at the girl intently.
"There's another point which intrigues me," he said. "In the course of conversation with you last night you told me you thought I should not interview Strex. I was taken off my guard by your knowledge, and told you rather angrily that I had arranged to do this. Tell me, please, how did you know those two things? How did you know that I was about to write the story of the Durward trial, and how did you guess I was going to interview Strex?"
She returned his gaze and her eyes were frank. "I had no idea till yesterday afternoon at half past five when I was brought this..."
She handed an envelope to Vaness. "My maid told that it was delivered by hand by an urchin, one of those small boys whom one sees playing about the street. He delivered the letter and ran off quickly. If you read it your question will be answered."
Vaness took the envelope and examined it carefully. It was a square envelope of cheap manilla paper, such as may be bought at any stationer's. He took out the folded sheet of paper which was inside. The paper was just as ordinary as the envelope. It bore no watermark; it was written in a thin shaky hand, so shaky that it immediately occurred to Vaness that it had been written by someone's left hand:
Dear Miss Durward,
Anthony Vaness has been commissioned to write the story of your father's trial. He will probably interview Hugo Strex tonight, because Strex leaves London tomorrow morning. If you have any respect for your father's memory you will go to Vaness, at Garron Gardens, near Manchester Square, and ask him not to write this story. If he refuses your request inform him that you will request Strex not to give him an interview, and that you will go immediately to Strex's house and make this request. As Vaness's account will depend mainly on what Strex has to say, the fact that he believes that you can stop Strex giving the interview will probably cause him to reconsider his decision to write the story. In any event, go to Strex's house afterwards, and persuade him to refuse to give the interview. I know that he will agree.
A Friend of Your Father.
Vaness sat staring in amazement at the piece of paper in his hand. He looked at the girl. She sat beside him, her hands clasped nervously, her face tense, her eyes wide open watching him. Vaness thought she was speaking the truth. At the same moment he recognised the devilish ingenuity of the writer of the note.
"By God!" he said eventually. "The writer of this letter laid a trap for you, Miss Durward, into which you have fallen. He knew you would come to me, that you would tell me you were going to Strex's house, and you would go to Strex's house. In other words, he secured me as an independent witness that you were with Strex at the time of the murder. Have you any idea who could possibly have written this note?"
"None whatever," the girl replied. "I don't know the handwriting which, in any event, looks carefully disguised."
Vaness returned the letter to the envelope and put into his breast pocket. He walked up and down the room, his brain busy. He was undecided as to the course he should pursue. Should he get in touch with Ralston immediately, and inform him of the turn which events had taken, tell him the whole story of the girl's previous visit, of her second visit, and her production of this mysterious letter?
Vaness knew without consideration what Ralston's reply would be. He would believe that the girl had faked the letter in order to divert suspicion from herself by throwing it on to someone else. Vaness realised that Ralston in his own mind was fairly certain the girl had committed the murder and, logically weighing the whole business, Vaness had no real reason to suppose the ex-inspector was wrong.
Pacing up and down the room, his hands behind his back, Vaness faced a fact. He was attracted to this girl, he liked her, and because he was so attracted, he was unwilling to believe she was a murderess. Yet his own experience as a journalist dealing with crime had taught him it was often the least expected person who committed a crime. What was he to do?
A mind picture came before his eyes, a picture of the Old Bailey, with this girl in the dock, prosecuting and defending counsel fighting over her like dogs over a bone.
At the moment Ralston was in the position of a prosecuting counsel. Suddenly an idea struck Vaness. Why should he not put himself in the position of defending counsel? Ralston had at his disposal all the forces of law. He was convinced that Alexia Durward had murdered Hugo Strex. Well, let him prove it! Vaness would be doing no harm if he, on his own part, conducting an entirely independent line of inquiry, were to work from the basis that the girl was innocent. If the girl had committed the murder there would be not be the slightest possible doubt that at some point during their independent investigations the evidence collected by Ralston and that collected by himself would meet.
In other words, if this girl had committed the crime, his endeavouring to find evidence to prove otherwise would be useless, and Ralston would win. But if it were possible, as it seemed it might be, that the letter in his pocket was not a fake produced by the girl for her own ends, then she would have a sporting chance of proving her innocence.
Vaness stopped abruptly in his pacing and turned to the girl.
"Miss Durward," he said, "I've come to rather a strange conclusion. It's not for me to say whether I believe you guilty or innocent of this crime, but I am prepared to do this. It's certain within the course of a few days that the police's suspicions of yourself will definitely be aroused. I don't think they'll arrest you immediately; that's not their method these days. Ralston will probably get an adjournment of the coroner's inquest in order that he may obtain all the evidence against you that he requires. In the meantime, because the police are working on the premise you are guilty, I propose to take the opposite view. For the sake of argument, I will temporarily adopt the belief you are innocent. I will take it as a fact that this letter you have given me was delivered to you as you've stated; that there's someone—some man or woman—who attempted to pin the murder on you.
"Because of my position as a journalist handling the case I shall be in touch with Inspector Ralston practically every day, I shall see each move the police make and, knowing that and working from the point of view that the basis on which they are building their evidence is false, I shall do my best to meet each fresh piece of evidence against you with any evidence in your favour my investigations may produce. That's all I can do. Whether you murdered Hugo Strex or not I don't know, but I'm trying very hard to believe that you didn't. Well...?"
THE girl rose from her chair. A little smile had appeared about her mouth, and her cheeks were flushed.
"That's the most wonderful piece of news I've heard today," she said; "You will realise, Mr Vaness, that it's a horrible thing for me to be without a friend at this time. I believe you are my friend, and although you say you don't definitely know whether I'm guilty of this murder or not, I believe in your heart you think me innocent. I think, too, that truth will out, and that whatever circumstantial evidence there may be against me I am sure you will be able to combat this and find out something which will prove my innocence. I can hardly tell you how relieved I feel now."
A little mischievous gleam came into her eyes.
"After all," she said, with a smile, "it isn't every criminal who has the great Mr Anthony Vaness trying to prove her innocence, is it?"
She laughed, and, as Vaness laughed with her, the thought came to him that no murderess would ever laugh like that.
"There's something else, too, Mr Vaness," she said. "My father was innocent. Of that I'm sure. How the circumstances arose which enabled him to be convicted of that terrible crime I don't know, but I know he was innocent, and I know one day the truth will be known... In the meantime the Durward family seems to be thoroughly unpopular with the police!"
Vaness helped her on with her coat.
"Go home, and sleep soundly," he said. "Just lead your ordinary life, and don't do anything at all or go anywhere without letting me know first. I think in any event we've got a week in which to work undisturbed. I hope for your sake I shall be lucky."
She held out her hand. "I wish you luck, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Back again at his favourite place by the window, Vaness watched the tail light of her car disappear in the darkness. He realised that the proposition was a difficult one. Yet somehow this battle against odds attracted him, for like most men in love, Anthony Vaness had not realised it.
His ruminations were soon over. He was of a sufficiently practical mind to understand he had no time to waste. He knew Ralston! The ex-chief inspector was a rapid worker and, in spite of his physical disability, Vaness had not the least doubt that within a few days he would pile up sufficient evidence to secure a warrant for Alexia's arrest.
Strangely enough, Vaness considered the position one to be entirely favourable to Ralston's chance of victory. He was aware the girl would be asked to account for her movements on the night of the murder, that she had no alibi, and that her presence at Strex's house must eventually come to light.
Ralston's suggested motive for the crime was a strong one. In fact, there were two motives, and either might have caused a determined woman to murder Strex. The first was a desire to avoid publicity; the second, and stronger, was a determination that the money which had come to her from her father should not find its way into the hands of the police.
Now that Alexia Durward had gone, and the atmosphere of his sitting room lacked her rather wonderful personality, Vaness wondered if he had not been a fool. What chance was there of fighting Ralston successfully? The only possible evidence pointing in the girl's favour was the letter. Vaness accepted that he must work along the line that this letter was not a fake; that it had actually been written by someone who desired to put the responsibility for the Strex murder on Alexia; but to look for the writer of the letter would be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Once more the journalist's mind went back to the picture of the scene which had unfolded itself to him as he opened the door of Hugo Strex's study. He visualised once again a huddled figure sprawled over the desk, and the movement of the long window curtains behind the chair in which Strex sat. The French window had been open, and it seemed to Vaness that if Alexia's story were true, and the murder had been committed before she arrived on the scene, the murderer must have entered via the lawn at the back of the house, opened the French window, which must have been left unlatched, and stabbed Strex.
It was also plain to Vaness that if it were this murderer who had closed the front door after the terrified girl had run out, he must have seen her enter Strex's room. He must have been hiding behind the curtain.
The thought occurred casually to Vaness that, for all he knew, the murderer might have still been there when he entered the room. He remembered that he had telephoned Scotland Yard, and then gone off and summoned the old butler before he had even tried to look round the room. Anyone hiding behind the window curtains would have had ample time to make an escape while all this business was going on.
Then there was the blotting paper and the few letters which were legible on the bloodstained sheet. Strex had written D-u-r. The rest had been obliterated by his own blood. Obviously he had written the word "Durward," and something else. What was that something else?
Several sentences flashed their way through Vaness's imaginative brain. "Durward's daughter killed me." That might have been one sentence. Against the guess, was there anything else which Strex might have written indicating some other assassin?
If he had been killed by a stranger whom he had not recognised, he would not have written the name Durward. Then again, Vaness realised it was more than possible, and the police doctor's report confirmed the belief, that Strex had never seen the individual who had killed him. The blow had been struck from behind, and Strex had fallen face forward on to his desk.
Why, then, if he had not seen his assailant, should he be concerned in writing something about Durward? Was there some secret which Strex had carried through the years, and which, as a dying man, he had wished to make plain to the world?
Suddenly three words flung themselves into Vaness's head. "Durward was innocent."
Well, supposing Strex had tried to write that, supposing he had written it? Vaness found the idea affected him strongly. He would like to believe those words were the true ones.
THE house telephone buzzed. Vaness took up the instrument.
"A gentleman to see you downstairs, sir," said the hall porter. "Mr Soames. Shall I send him up?"
"Yes," Vaness said. "Ask him to come up, and if anyone wants to see me I'm engaged."
He walked out into the hall to meet the cheerful face of Inspector Soames of Scotland Yard, Ralston's official assistant.
"Glad to meet you, Mr Vaness," said Soames, putting out his hand. "Mr Ralston suggested if I had time I might come round and make your acquaintance. He told me he'd asked you to make nothing public at the moment, and he said I could tell you just how far we'd got.
"The position is briefly this. The medical evidence definitely stated that Strex was stabbed from behind. It's also absolutely definite, by the position of the wound, he could not have seen the individual who killed him. We've had the medical evidence checked up from three different angles, and, for once, the doctors agree. Strex must have died immediately he was stabbed.
"That produces a rather peculiar situation. If Strex died at once he could not have written that word, or those words, because the bloodstain obliterated most of them on the blotting paper. That means to say that he must have written them before he was stabbed, which is interesting. I don't think there's any doubt about our finding out exactly what he did write, because the chemical department of the Yard are fairly certain they will be able to read everything which was written on the blotting paper."
"I see," said Vaness. "By the way, inspector, is Mr Ralston at all definite about how the murderer entered the house?"
Soames smiled a little cynically. "Murderer, Mr Vaness? Why not murderess? We've got a pretty good idea who pulled this job. There's a daughter, a pretty determined sort of girl, I believe, and we've found out this much about her. She was out on the night of the crime. She took her car from the garage about twenty two minutes before the actual time that Strex was killed. I have the most substantial evidence that her car, which is most distinctive, was seen driving away from the avenue in which Strex's house is situated immediately after the time the murder took place."
Vaness handed the inspector a cigar.
"That's interesting, inspector," he said, "but you've not answered my question."
The inspector shrugged. "Well, of course," he said, "whoever it was killed Strex went in by the front door. They must have gone in by the front door."
Vaness's heart gave a bound, but he betrayed nothing.
"Why?" he asked.
"Well, it's obvious," said Soames. "I was down at the house within fifteen minutes of the time you telephoned the Yard. You will remember I sent Sergeant Harris straight into the study while I questioned the butler. As Harris entered you came out. After taking a look at the body Harris examined the room. The window was locked, for as you know, they have no catch inside as is usual, but an ordinary door lock to each window. So the murderer didn't come in that way."
Vaness nodded, and looked into the fire. His heart was thumping wildly. Here was a point which practically proved the innocence of the girl if the main points in her story were true. Vaness remembered on entering the study that the window curtains behind Strex were moving. Only two things could have caused them to move; that the window behind them was open and that the wind was moving them; or, two, that while he was looking at the murdered man the murderer was still behind the curtains.
He had not left the room until Sergeant Harris, who found the windows locked, had entered it, so one thing was clear to Vaness. While he had been telephoning Scotland Yard, with his back to the window, the murderer had passed out on to the lawn, locked the window behind him, and disappeared.
Vaness felt so excited that he could hardly conceal his elation.
"What's the next move in the game, inspector?" he asked.
"Well, I suppose Mr Ralston will take a statement from the girl," Soames replied. "The inquest will not be held until next week We arranged this because we thought we'd like to have a little time to investigate. Nobody thought events would move so quickly. Ralston's pretty good. I personally should never have thought of Durward's daughter, but old man Ralston could pull a motive out of a hat, I think, if he wanted one. There seems to me no question about the whole business. Of course, the fact the girl's car was seen near Strex's house is purely circumstantial evidence. On the other hand, people don't just drive about for nothing. If the girl had some alibi in St John's Wood she'll be able to prove it. If not, I don't think there's any doubt she'll give herself away when she makes a statement."
"When do you propose to take this statement, Soames?"
The Yard man got up, and picked up his hat.
"I'm not quite certain, Mr Vaness," he said, "but I rather think that Ralston will see the girl tomorrow. He's putting a lot on this statement of hers. He's a good cross-examiner you know, I think he'll trip her into an admission all right... Well, I must be going, I need a rest. See yon soon, Mr Vaness."
He shook hands and departed.
Left to himself, Vaness reconsidered the situation in the light of the new information. That the girl's car had been seen in the neighbourhood of Strex's house seemed to him to force the necessity of telling Ralston the whole truth about the girl's visit to the house.
Vaness now felt quite justified in doing this. He thought his own evidence about the French windows being open when he entered the room, and being locked when Harris examined them some considerable time after the girl had left the house, would throw an entirely new complexion on the crime, and would force Ralston to realise the girl was innocent.
IT was past midnight when the journalist arrived at Ralston's house. He had walked out to St John's Wood because he had felt it necessary for him to arrange his ideas so the detective should not be annoyed at his withholding of an important part of the story. To Vaness's mind there was no question that the episode of the French windows absolutely cleared Alexia. Somewhat amusingly, he began to feel rather sorry for Ralston who would have to start on an entirely new theory.
He found the detective seated in his den, writing in a large book with almost labourious care. It struck Vaness, as he watched, that this care—this amazing genius for taking pains—was the quality which had brought success to the majority of Ralston's investigations.
The older man listened carefully as the journalist unfolded his story. Not once did Ralston appear surprised—like Vaness he was too experienced to be surprised at anything that might happen in this world—but from time to time he smiled, half cynically.
When Vaness had finished speaking, Ralston waved him to a chair, indicated the cigar box, then trundled his invalid chair round the desk and pulled up opposite his visitor.
"Did you expect me to be surprised?" he queried. "Well, I'm not! I don't think I should be surprised at anything any member of the Durward family did. They've got lots of brains, the Durwards, and it seems the girl has more than her fair share.
"My lad, you've been had on toast. Oh, don't jump down my throat, a pretty woman has made a fool of better men than you and me... Speaking for myself, I'm glad, because this new aspect of the case definitely settles my mind on one point.
"Which is?" interposed Vaness.
"That she committed the murder. I'm sure of that now," said the detective. "Put briefly, your story is this: the girl admits she went to Strex's house, her reason being that she wished to ask him not to give the interview. When she arrived the front door was ajar and she went straight to the study. Strex was dead. She immediately rushed out of the house, leaving the front door still open. She got into her car and drove away. During the few minutes elapsing between her departure and your arrival, the front door is closed by some person unknown—presumably inside the house and not the butler.
"When you entered the study you observed the window curtains behind Strex moving as if they were swayed by the wind, or by someone standing behind them. Because you did not leave the room until the arrival of Harris, who searched the place and found the windows locked, you come to the conclusion that while you were telephoning the Yard with your back to the windows, the person behind the curtains slipped out on to the lawn at the back of the house, locking the window behind him with the key which he had removed.
"Well, there isn't much wrong with your reasoning, my lad, except that it's based on a false premise. It is quite probable that you saw the curtains move while you were standing looking at the body, but I can give you a very good reason for that. There was a cat behind those curtains, it was asleep, and your entrance into the room disturbed it. Probably as you were telephoning it wandered past you and went out of the room."
Vaness laughed. "That's as may be, but purely theory; juries are not inclined to take very much notice of theories. You know just as well as I do, Ralston, my evidence will break down any case against Alexia Durward."
"It won't," said Ralston shortly "You've given me a surprise this evening. Now I'll give you one. There was a cat behind that curtain, and the window was locked all the time. I know. I was with Strex before either the girl or you arrived."
"What!" exclaimed the journalist.
"I thought that would surprise you." said Ralston. "Strex phoned me immediately after you telephoned him for an appointment for your interview. He asked me to come round and look through the notes he had taken on the Durward case in order that he might plan out exactly what he should say to you. During our interview he complained of feeling cold and got up from his chair and shut and locked the French windows, putting the key in his pocket where we found it when the body was searched. When he drew back the curtains I noticed a cat was asleep, lying at the bottom of the window behind the curtain. This cat caused the curtains to move while you were in the room—nothing else would have done so.
"Don't you see how this entirely disproves what the girl told you? This letter business is a fake for the purpose of casting suspicion on some person unknown. The story that the front door was open when she arrived is false. When I left, about fifteen minutes before her arrival, the butler shut the door after me. She entered the house with a key which she had—a key which we found dropped at the place where the wheel marks show her car stood while she was in the house.
"I am sorry to disappoint you, Vaness, but take it from me: Alexia Durward killed Strex, and I shall have her for it as sure as you're alive."
VANESS walked slowly back to Garron Mansions conscious of a feeling of intense hopelessness. He had gone to see Ralston firmly convinced the arrival of the mysterious letter, and the information about the French windows would practically clear Alexia, but now he realised how utterly the detective had smashed this theory.
Vaness thought the coincidence of Ralston seeing Strex so soon before his death was really quite probable. After all, Ralston was the man who had brought Durward to justice, and it was very natural, more especially as Ralston lived in the vicinity, that he should ask the detective to come round and discuss the matter before giving to Vaness the interview he had promised.
On the other hand, it seemed strange to the journalist that Strex should have asked Ralston to visit his house, and not himself gone to Ralston's. Strex was an old man it was true, but Ralston was a cripple.
Vaness's mind finally reasoned that Strex might have asked Ralston to go to him because he wished to show the detective certain documents connected with the case—documents, possibly too bulky to be carried. It was a credible theory.
It seemed to Vaness the detective knew more about the case than he admitted. His remark with reference to the cat behind the curtains had definitely destroyed Vaness's theory about the murderer being concealed there while he was in the room. Now what was to be done? He had nothing to work on, no possible clue on which he could start a fresh line of investigation.
To find the writer of the anonymous letter would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. It was therefore with a heavy heart that he let himself into his flat. He switched on the lights, walked over to the fireplace and, putting his hands on the mantlepiece, gazed into the embers of the dying fire.
It seemed to him it was becoming impossible not to consider that the girl had committed the crime. A neighbouring clock struck two. Subconsciously Vaness raised his head to check the time by his own clock on the mantlepiece. Propped against the clock was a letter addressed to Anthony Vaness, Esq. Vaness reached for it, knowing it was from Alexia. He tore it open with impatient fingers and read:
Dear Mr Vaness,
Another letter has been delivered at my flat today which I enclose. The mystery seems to deepen every minute. I have done nothing about this letter, and shall do nothing until I hear from you. I do hope that you have progressed since I saw you last. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for your help. Will you telephone me tomorrow morning?
Vaness put her note in his pocket, and turned his attention to the enclosure. It was written on the same common paper as the first letter, and in the same, obviously disguised, handwriting.
Dear Miss Durward,
By this time Ralston will be convinced that you are the murderess of Hugo Strex. Every possible thread of evidence points that way. Only one person will believe that you are innocent. That person is yourself, but, believe me, that won't save your neck. The coroner will open a formal inquest tomorrow morning, and Ralston will ask for an adjournment of a week or ten days in order to complete his enquiries. At the end of that period you will be under arrest, and I wouldn't give tuppence for your chances. Therefore, you will be well advised to take my tip and act immediately as follows. Tomorrow night go out to Pinner so as to arrive at eleven o'clock. Tell nobody, and take nobody with you. At 11.10 Police Constable Selks will come off duty, and report at the Pinner Section House. A few minutes after that he will leave for his house in Grange Road. Wait for him at 11.15 at the south end of Grange Road. He will be expecting to see you. Selks can tell you who the man was who murdered Hugo Strex, but he will tell only you and nobody else. If you act promptly after seeing Selks you will be able to save yourself. Unless you take my tip you will find yourself pushed off a six-feet drop within two months.
A Friend of Your Father
P.S.—I made a mistake. They use a four-feet drop for a woman.
Vaness whistled. Here was more mystery. Ralston's idea that Alexia was writing these letters to herself seemed to him to be arrant nonsense in the light of the new missive.
What motive could the girl possibly have for writing such a letter, which, as far as Vaness could see, would not help her in any way.
Another thing, the writer of this letter betrayed an extraordinary knowledge of Ralston's movements. It was only half an hour ago that Ralston had told him the inquest would be held next day, and that he, Ralston, would ask for a ten days' adjournment to complete his inquiries. Yet the writer of this letter, which apparently had been written some hours before, knew exactly what Ralston intended to do ... or was it merely a good guess?
Was it possible, Vaness asked himself, that someone actually in the police force or at Scotland Yard knew something about the Strex murder? Who was this Police Constable Selks whom Alexia was asked to meet in a deserted suburb of London at eleven fifteen at night?
Vaness flung his hat into the corner, lit a cigarette, threw himself into an armchair, and thought. He realised his first business was to endeavour to find out the motive behind the letters.
If somebody had written the first letter asking Alexia to go to Strex's house in all innocence, and not with the intention of hanging the crime on to her, and after this had written the second letter, which on the face of it appeared to be an attempt to help her in the purpose of trying to prove her innocence, why didn't the writer come forward and say whatever he or she had to say?
What motive kept this mysterious person in the background?
Taking another line: supposing, for the sake of argument, this second letter was as dangerous as the first. Supposing that just as the first letter had caused Alexia to see him, Vaness, and then go on to Strex's house thereby becoming implicated in his murder, why should this second letter not be an attempt to implicate her still further?
Vaness went to the sideboard and made himself a cup of coffee over a spirit-lamp. As he drank it he realised there was something he could do ... and he made up his mind to do it promptly.
Putting down his empty coffee cup, he took his hat, walked down to the garage, got out his car, and drove to the Daily Sun building.
WITHIN five minutes he had entered the office of the night editor.
"Hallo, Vaness," said Sparkes, "what are you doing here? Got some copy to turn in on the Strex murder?"
"Nothing doing yet in that direction, Sparkes," replied Vaness. "Old man Ralston has asked me to shut up till he's ready, and then we're going to have the story first—and, as far as I can see, it's going to be a story! By the way, I've got an idea that I'm going to link up this Strex case with the Durward case. You remember it, Sparkes. I believe you were a reporter at the time, and there are one or two facts I'd like verified. Do you remember who covered the case for the paper?"
Sparkes grinned. "I did. That's why it was so well done. The story of the Durward case was one of the biggest scoops the Sun ever had. Why, we ran a special edition for it. John Durward very nearly kicked the bottom out of the market when Ralston pinched him. The whole thing was a nine days' wonder, I remember—"
"Never mind what you remember," interrupted Vaness. "It's a marvellous thing, but a reporter's never happy unless he's telling somebody how clever he is or was, and you're not a reporter now, Sparkes. You've descended in the world. You're only a night editor which, as you know, is the lowest type of animal. Here's what I want to ask you. When you were on the Durward case did you ever hear of a police officer called Selks?"
"Did I not?" said Sparkes, puffing at his pipe. He leaned over his desk, and Vaness knew he was at last going to get some information.
"This lad Selks did himself a bit of no-good over the Durward case. At the time he was a detective sergeant, and I believe marked for further promotion at the Yard. Old Ralston was an inspector in those days, and Detective Sergeant Selks was assigned to assist him. After the trial, Ralston discovered that when proceedings were started, the Durward crowd had tried to straighten Selks's front—in other words, graft him. Whether Selks accepted the bribe or not, I don't know. Anyhow, Ralston, who as you know, is as sharp as a needle, got an idea something was wrong. Once he'd got old Durward safely stowed away in Parkhurst he began to do a little investigation with reference to Detective Sergeant Selks.
"The results were never made public, but there's no doubt that Ralston was able to prove to the Scotland Yard authorities Selks had committed some sort of misdemeanour, because two months later Detective Sergeant Selks was transferred to Pinner, and you know what it means when a Scotland Yard detective is transferred to a place like Pinner. It's very nearly as good as the sack.
"Selks, who had seemed a promising young fellow before the Durward case, went to pieces in Pinner, making a fool of himself on several occasions. Nothing sufficient to get him dismissed from the force, but a lot of silly, quibbling little idiocies—cheeking his superiors and things like that. The result was he began to go down the scale even more, and the last thing I heard was that he was a plainclothes policeman attached to the sub-section house at North Pinner. He'd even managed to lose his three stripes."
"I see," said Vaness.
Here was news! For some reason, it seemed to Vaness that he had at last put his finger on some point from which he could work. The information which Sparkes had just given him about Selks at least proved that the writer of the two mysterious letters knew what he was talking about.
Vaness wondered just what it was Police Constable Selks had to say to Alexia Durward. He wondered, too, how it was that the writer of the letter knew Selks had something to say. If Selks was prepared to meet Alexia the following night at eleven fifteen in Pinner, then it stood to reason there had been some sort of conversation between him and the writer of the letter.
It seemed simple to Vaness. He had somehow got to get the name of the writer of that letter from Selks, and he made up his mind he was going to do it if he had to use Chinese torture.
VANESS bade Sparkes good-night, ran down to the street, and drove back to Garron Mansions. He had already decided what he had to do. He intended to allow Alexia to take no chances.
Acting on the supposition the letter was an attempt for some reason best known to the writer to lure Alexia to Pinner late the following night, Vaness would spoil this little scheme by definitely forbidding her to go. He himself would keep the appointment at the south end of Grange Road. And when Police Constable Selks appeared, he would have to talk.
Vaness took the girl's note from his pocket. Her telephone number was on it, and he rang her. It took ten minutes to get through, but he was rewarded by the sound of a soft and sleepy voice asking who it was.
"Listen, Miss Durward," he said, "this is Vaness speaking. I've done a bit of checking up on Police Constable Selks, and I rather think I may have a clue at last. One thing you definitely must not do. You are not to go anywhere near Pinner tomorrow night. At ten o'clock I want you to come round here to my rooms. I shall be going out to Pinner myself. You will stay here until I return, and several people will know that you're here. This time I'm going to see that you have a perfect alibi. I'm taking this precaution in case this letter is another attempt to get you in a little deeper over the Strex business. Whatever Police Constable Selks was going to say to you he can say to me. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I do, Mr Vaness," Alexia said. "And I'll do whatever you say. I'll tell you how grateful I am when I see you to morrow night."
"Don't worry about that. Keep cheerful, and be here tomorrow at ten! I'll be glad to see you. Good-night, Alexia."
Vaness hung up the receiver. It was not until he had done so that he realised he had called the girl by her first name.
NEXT morning found Vaness at the coroner's inquest. This was the mere formality everyone knew it would be. On the request of the police, the inquest was adjourned for ten days.
Ralston, sitting in his chair, his round face as good humoured as ever, nodded to Vaness, and when the proceedings were over joined him in the corner where pressmen were discussing the crime.
"Well, my lad," he said, "give me a hand down the steps, and I'll be obliged."
Vaness assisted Soames to carry Ralston and his chair down the steps from the coroner's court. When they had stowed him safely into his car Ralston beckoned Vaness to join him.
"If you're not going anywhere else, I'll drop you at your place."
The car started, and soon they were threading their way through the London traffic.
"Have you got any more clever ideas?" asked the detective brightly. "Mind you, I think it's a good thing for a pressman not to be swayed too much by what policemen think. There's always the other side of the question, although in this case, Vaness, you're backing a loser."
"That's as may be," said Vaness, "but I'm now thoroughly sure in my own mind that the girl's innocent. What do you think of this?"
He handed the second anonymous letter to Ralston who read it, then handed it back with another smile.
"Well," said the detective, "I think it was written by the same person who wrote the first one, and if I'm allowed one guess I'd say that person was Alexia Durward. Look here, young fellow, don't you realise this girl is making a fool of you? She's got brains all right, like her father had, and she knows we're going to get her for this murder. Obviously then, the thing for her to do is draw as many red herrings across the trail as possible. It's an old dodge indulged in by many criminals. She's producing new evidence—evidence which we shall prove is worthless, but which she thinks will possibly affect the minds of the jury at her trial. She's set herself out to create the idea someone else has committed this murder, and that this someone had enough brains to try pinning the whole business on her. Take it from me, she wrote that letter."
Vaness lit a cigarette. "All right. For the sake of argument, let's imagine you're right. Let's take it for granted she wrote both the letters. Very well, how is it that she has the knowledge which the writer of these letters certainly possesses? In the first place, how did she know that the Daily Sun had commissioned me to write those crime stories? How did she know the inquest this morning would be adjourned for ten days, and how did she know about this fellow Selks?"
"All perfectly obvious questions," said Ralston, "and each one with a perfectly obvious answer. It stands to reason that before this crime was planned she had enough sense to investigate the circumstances surrounding it. She probably heard through somebody in the Daily Sun offices about your writing the story of the Durward trial. Don't you see that's just the time when a clever criminal would elect to act? She had to act pretty quickly because otherwise Strex might have given away something which she wanted kept quiet. By coming round to you, asking you not to write the stuff, informing you she was going on to Strex's place, then producing the first letter which told her to go there, she creates a motive other than that of killing Strex. I know perfectly well that when she goes on trial and is asked why she went to Strex's house, she will say because she received the anonymous letter telling her to do so.
"That's her get-out. We know she went to Strex's house for the purpose of shutting his mouth, and nothing else. When she found she could not do this by fair means, she used foul, that's all. This girl is clever enough to prepare beforehand an excuse for anything she plans to do. I admire this in her. Most criminals do the job first, and think of the excuse afterwards."
"All right," Vaness conceded. "Be that as it may. But how does she know about Selks?"
"That, too, is perfectly obvious," said Ralston. "Remember that Alexia Durward was seventeen at the time of her father's trial, and I don't mind telling you that if anyone could have got him off she would. She was a tough witness. She swore black was white, and green was blue. Luckily, our evidence was so strong, and so plainly truthful, that the jury didn't believe a word she said, although I'm certain most of them sympathised with her. They always do with a pretty girl. Now Selks, who was then a Detective Sergeant at the Yard, was working with me on this case. While we were gathering our evidence I had an intuition something funny was going on. I sent Selks to interview several witnesses and take statements. When I read those statements it seemed to me most of them were in favour of John Durward.
"One day I took the trouble of checking up a statement which Selks had taken from a witness. I found the statement had been modified—generally cut about and altered by Selks to such an extent that, had I not seen the witness myself and got the true story from him ... well, we should never have bothered to put him in the box, which is just what Selks wanted.
"Unfortunately, I was never able to prove Selks had been got at. But I'd bet my last penny that Miss Alexia Durward had bribed Selks to alter and modify statements so that they would read in her father's favour.
"As I say, I couldn't prove anything, but after Durward was convicted I put the whole thing up to the authorities at Scotland Yard. Selks denied vehemently that he had been grafted, but they evidently didn't believe him—they transferred him to Pinner, and I don't know of anything worse that could happen to a policeman.
"Apparently they were justified. Selks's record since then hasn't been particularly good. After his first quarrel with the authorities for something or other—I forget what—they reduced him to the rank of constable, hoping and believing he would reform. For some reason known to himself, he didn't do so.
"What's more natural therefore," concluded Ralston, "than that the girl, having made use of Selks in her father's trial, now proposes to make use of him again in her own? Do you see my point?"
Vaness sighed. "You're a horrible fellow, Ralston. Every time I make myself believe I've got a new line on this case you very carefully and very logically smash the whole thing to pieces. Still, I'm not dead yet. I believe Alexia Durward is innocent, and I'm going to try and prove it."
"Why not?" said Ralston. "Go right ahead. Wouldn't it make a wonderful headline? 'Leading Crime Journalist Confounds Scotland Yard!' But, take it from me, you'll never see that in print. I've told you before it's always the person who least looks like a murderer that is one. Ever seen a photograph of Crippen? You have? Well, will you find me a more good-natured and nicer-looking gentleman? Do you remember the Seddon trial? Another nice-looking killer. Believe me, the person who looks like a murderer never is one, and I think you will one day agree that under the charming exterior of our friend Miss Durward lies a very cruel and calculating brain..."
The car drew up outside Garron Mansions.
"Well, here we are, I expect I'll be seeing you soon. When you've got some fresh clues let me know. In the meantime, rest assured I'll have your Alexia at the Old Bailey inside a month. So long, Vaness."
Vaness waved back from the pavement. Although he had agreed with the logic of Ralston's theories, he was not satisfied in his heart. He ascended to his flat, and rang Alexia.
"The inquest's over," he told her. "It's been adjourned for ten days as we thought. We've got to get a move on, because it's certain, unless something wonderful turns up, that you'll be arrested during the next week. Don't lose heart. Everything's going to be all right, and don't forget that you're to be round here at ten sharp tonight."
"I promise," said the girl. "Tell me, Mr Vaness, did you inform Mr Ralston of the second letter? You did? Didn't that make any difference?"
"Not very much, I'm afraid," said the journalist. "Ralston's got an idea in his head that some attempt was made during your father's trial to bribe Selks. He believes, too, that Selks is a bad lot, and that he would allow himself to be grafted again today. No, Ralston isn't inclined to believe anything at all about the Selks business, except that you're making a bid to confuse the issue. Never mind though. Don't worry. Everything will be all right."
Vaness said goodbye and hung up. But he did not feel as cheerful as he had sounded. He realised how intensely the girl must be suffering. She must know she was being watched, that every movement she made was under the surveillance of Scotland Yard, and the arm of the law was only biding its time until it stretched out its fingers to take her.
THE day dragged wearily through. Every minute seemed like ten to Vaness, who was impatient to see what the interview with Selks would bring forth. In spite of what Ralston had said about Selks, Vaness believed that no police officer of Selks's experience was going to be foolish enough to allow himself to be brought into this business without having something to say which at least sounded like the truth. Against this, Vaness could not help thinking that if Selks really knew something in Alexia's favour, it would have been his duty to come forward earlier in the proceedings and made a statement.
At last ten o'clock arrived. It was a drizzly, foggy, night. Looking from his window, Vaness was able to see only the half-obscured lights of the street lamps. Presently he heard the sound of a car, and felt his heart thump with excitement at the thought of seeing the girl.
He ran down the stairs to the entrance to meet her. His brain had been so busy on the intricacies of the case that he had hardly given a thought to himself and her as personalities. He realised, half angrily, that this girl was beginning to mean more to him than mere newspaper "copy".
She entered the mansions smiling, her cheeks prettily flushed. She held out both hands to Vaness.
He said, "I'm delighted to see you looking so well. What's the cause of it?"
"Did you expect to see me looking like a ghost?" she answered. "Or like the papers prefer to think the conventional murderess looks—a haggard female, glancing always over her shoulder to see if she's being watched? I know I'm being watched, but I'm not allowing it to worry me very much. You see, being innocent, I don't think that anything horrible can happen to me."
"Of course it won't," said Vaness. "But we mustn't stand here in the cold. Come upstairs."
He led her into his sitting-room, and took her coat.
"My sister-in-law will be here in a minute," he said. "I rang her up, and asked her to come round here so that you shouldn't be alone. I've given orders that you're to have sandwiches and tea. There are lots of books, or if you like you can even read one or two things written by that well-known journalist Anthony Vaness."
"I should like to do that," she said. She looked at him mischievously. "Do you think I've got sufficient intelligence to understand the writing of this famous journalist?"
Vaness grinned. "I expect so. You've got courage, haven't you? I think you're very brave to make yourself appear so light-hearted when, underneath, you must be worrying terribly."
He took her hands. "Don't worry too much. Somehow, I'm certain this is going to come out right."
She looked back at him. Her eyes were very soft.
"I feel that, too. Funnily enough, it's only since this morning that I've felt like that. I think you're awfully good to me. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Don't you?" said Vaness. "I haven't done very much, but I hope before we're through that I shall have done much more. Anyway, I can hear the step of my esteemed relative on the stairs."
Vaness's sister-in-law, a middle-aged woman, entered the flat, bringing with her an atmosphere of good cheer. The journalist had tactfully explained to her the circumstances when he had telephoned her earlier in the day, and she, like most women, was glad to feel she was taking part in something which savoured a little of the mysterious.
Vaness almost forgot the more important business of the evening as they sat in front of the fire and talked about everything except the Strex murder. It was almost with regret that at a quarter past ten he put on a leather overcoat, bid them "Au revoir," and went off to his car.
THE fog had lifted a little outside London, but the streets were wet and greasy. Vaness drove carefully, his mind busy with the interview which lay ahead.
He found himself wondering what manner of man Selks was, whether he would be truculent, or whether, if his information was worthwhile, he would be prepared to come out in the open and state frankly what he knew. Vaness recognised that even if he were successful in persuading Selks to adopt the latter course the policeman's evidence would be somewhat discounted by his record. It would be only natural that Ralston would do his utmost to question the veracity of a witness whose reputation was not of the first quality.
He allowed his mind to drift back to the girl as he had seen her last—smiling, close to happy, as she talked. A thought came to him almost as a shock; it was why was he was taking all this trouble over a business that seemed almost hopeless? He calculated that in fighting for Alexia Durward he was fighting for himself. Behind all his scheming and planning lay the protective instinct of a man to fight for the woman he loved.
Sitting impatiently at the wheel, Vaness cursed the slippery roads and his tyres which, very worn, skidded easily, and necessitated attentive driving. Arrived at Pinner, it took him some little time to locate Grange Road, but eventually, after being misdirected twice, he found it.
The road was long, bounded on either side by the usual type of suburban house, with an occasional tree here and there. One or two street lamps illuminated the darkness weakly. Altogether, Vaness thought, Grange Road was a most unprepossessing place. He drove slowly along it, for he had gathered Alexia's appointment with Selks had been made to take place at the far end of the road.
Vaness wondered what sort of brain Selks possessed, and just how much trouble he was going to give. By all accounts Selks was a fairly truculent customer. Vaness knew the London policeman gets a very square deal from his superiors, and that Selks had first been transferred, then reduced in rank, did not influence Vaness to think favourably of his character. On the other hand he must have been a fairly obstinate man to stay on in the police force after being demoted when, as Ralston had pointed out, everybody thought and hoped he would resign.
All things considered, the more he thought of it the more he was inclined to believe that Ralston's theory about Selks was correct. Vaness's mind was divided into two parts. One part was drawn irresistibly to Alexia; trying hard to believe in her innocence in spite of all evidence to the contrary, endeavouring to seize on every favourable point and multiply it in her favour. The other part, the logical side of his mind, realised that the actual weight of evidence, and the theories adduced by Ralston, were almost incontrovertible.
Vaness rounded a bend in the interminable Grange Road, and was astounded to see at least another half mile of road before him. The road seemed to get more dreary and desolate as he progressed. The houses now were smaller and detached. On the right and left of him open, dank, green spaces showed up fitfully in the light of his headlights.
This was a most peculiar place for an appointment, but it fitted with the other grim, somewhat grotesque features in the case.
Suddenly Vaness was awakened from his half reverie. Somewhere ahead of him came the strident blast of a police whistle; then another; then a shout. He trod on his accelerator, and the car leapt forward.
In the darkness, in spite of his headlights, Vaness could hardly see where he was going. Then twenty yards in front of him he saw the figure of a policeman with his hand raised.
Vaness jammed on his brakes, and pulled up. The policeman came up to the car, and put his head in.
"Sorry to trouble you, sir," he said, "but I'll be obliged if you drive straight down the road, take the first on the left, and drive until you come to the police station. Would you go in, ask for Inspector Durrant, and say that Morgan would like the ambulance sent along?"
"Certainly," replied Vaness. "Has there been an accident? I hope this job won't take me long because I've got an appointment here with a policeman who, I think, is attached to your station—Police Constable Selks. Do you know him?"
The policeman looked at him queerly.
"I know him all right, sir, but I'm afraid he won't be able to keep that appointment. He's just been shot on the corner of the road here. I found him two minutes ago as I was going off duty. I've blown my whistle, but there's nobody much around here to hear it. Be as quick as you can, sir."
Vaness restarted his car, and drove towards the police station as he had been directed. His mouth was set in a taut line, but his eyes were bright.
His theory about the letters was right and Ralston was wrong. Alexia had been sent the first letter telling her to meet Strex the night Strex was murdered. Had she come to meet Selks she could just as easily have been accused of his murder.
Vaness felt in his pocket for a cigarette. Things were becoming interesting.
SITTING in a little teashop in Pinner High Street, where he had driven after seeing Selks's body taken away, Vaness went over the events of the evening.
So far as could be gathered, Selks had left the police station to go off duty at eleven o'clock. The police station was ten minutes' walk from the south end of Grange Road. Morgan, who had left the station to go off duty at five minutes past eleven, and who had hurried because of the rain, had found Selks lying in the gutter at thirteen minutes past eleven.
The divisional police surgeon, hurriedly summoned to the scene of the murder, had stated quite decidedly that Selks had been killed only a minute or two before Morgan found him.
Vaness had made the most of his time. He had informed Inspector Durrant at the station that he represented the Daily Sun, and although he had been asked to give his word not to publish any details of the murder until further police investigations had taken place, he had elicited from the inspector Selks' private address. It had occurred to him the wife of the murdered constable might possibly be able to give him some information.
Vaness now firmly believed Alexia was the victim of a plot. His first impulse had been to drive back to London immediately, see Ralston, and acquaint him with the facts, but on second thoughts he had decided to say nothing to Ralston immediately. He believed the detective honestly and sincerely considered Alexia to be guilty of the Strex murder. He would probably scoff at Vaness's new theory as he had scoffed at his previous ones, and he would probably try to prove that the Selks murder was unconnected with the first one.
Vaness understood that however honest-minded a police officer may be he is always inclined to find evidence to prove someone guilty just because he thinks that person is guilty.
Smoking cigarette after cigarette in the teashop, Vaness reckoned he held a trump card and should keep quiet. If Alexia were arrested within the next three or four clays, which Vaness thought extremely probable, it would be good policy to hold back the evidence of the second letter, and the connection between the writer and the Strex and Selks murders. The secret should be produced only when Alexia was charged before the magistrate.
Vaness based this idea on the remark Ralston himself had made. He had said during their drive from the coroner's court that a clever criminal will always produce as much conflicting evidence as he can, even if he has to manufacture it. But in this case the evidence certainly was not manufactured, and Vaness thought even the strictest magistrate would be justified in refusing to commit an accused person for trial in face of the evidence of two letters and the theory that the individual who had murdered Selks—and who could not possibly be Alexia—was the same individual who had murdered Strex.
Under these circumstances, Vaness thought that, while he was prepared to listen to any theory Ralston might produce about the Selks murder, he would divulge nothing to anyone. He made up his mind not even to discuss it with Alexia.
He believed that if luck favoured him he might have found a starting point from which he could build up his case against Ralston's.
VANESS wondered if Mrs Selks, the wife of the murdered man, could say anything which would throw light on the business. She might know nothing. On the other hand she might have ideas...
Vaness had originally decided to interview her the next day, but he decided now it would be a good thing to do it immediately. From a psychological angle, she would be much more inclined to talk after she had got over the shock of hearing that hex husband had been murdered, and the idea of intruding instantly on a woman's grief did not appeal very much. Yet at the same time, Alexia's freedom might depend on anything Mrs Selks had to say.
Vaness paid his bill, left the teashop, and drove off. Further down the road he found a telephone box where he rang through to his flat and spoke to Alexia. In a few words he informed her about what had happened at Pinner. He said that, although he had been unable to talk to Selks, possibly this new crime would be a potent factor in proving her case. Then, with a cheerful word or two, he rang off.
After some difficulty, found the house of Police Constable Selks, which stood on the far side of Pinner.
Mrs Selks, though heartbroken at the news of her husband's death, was quite prepared to talk. It seemed to Vaness that she was well acquainted with the salient points in Selks's career and, like most wives would, firmly believed injustice had been done to him.
Sitting in a cheaply furnished but spotlessly clean sitting room, Vaness listened to her story and wondered whether it was absolutely true, or whether her belief in her husband caused her to exaggerate in his favour. She sat looking straight before her, her eyes dark-rimmed with crying, her fingers plucking at the arms of her chair.
"You may not believe me, Mr Vaness, when I tell you that I am truly not surprised at what has happened to my husband. For years he has been dogged! Somebody, some unseen hand has tried to ruin him. During the Durward case he was accused of being bribed by the other side. I know this is a lie. He was the best and straightest man in the world, and no one on earth could have bought him.
"After the Durward case was over, all sorts of accusations were brought against him. I'm not saying there was not some ground for them. He had been, as I told him, foolish during the Durward trial, because my husband was a man who believed in his own abilities as a detective, and he was firmly convinced in his heart that John Durward was innocent. I believe this thought might have tempted him to stretch one or two points in Durward's favour at a time when he was supposed to be securing evidence against him. But I don't believe he altered any evidence or faked any statement which was made to him by a witness. They couldn't prove anything against him.
"On the other hand, they wouldn't believe his side of the story, and he was transferred here to Pinner. I'm not saying for a moment that Inspector Ralston, who was in charge of the Durward case, was an enemy of my husband. He came after I moved here to live and pointed out that his action as regards my husband had been practically forced on him by the authorities at the Yard, although I could see that he himself believed the charges were true. He advised my husband to do nothing, but to carry on with his job here in Pinner, and he promised he would do everything he could, if ever an opportunity arose, to get him reinstated.
"Unfortunately, my husband wasn't the type of man to take anyone's advice. He was nursing a grievance against Inspector Ralston, Scotland Yard, and everybody else. He became irascible and bad tempered, and he used to be the best tempered man in the world. Never a moment of the day passed but what he was planning and scheming to make what he called a comeback. His attitude soon made him unpopular with his superior officers here, and I'm afraid to a great extent he deserved his unpopularity. Then, after some quibbling row at the station, he was reduced to police constable and, although he could have resigned and had his pension, he refused to do so. He believed that while he stayed on in the police some opportunity might arise which would enable him to prove that they were wrong about him, and so secure his reinstatement."
"Have you any idea, Mrs Selks," asked Vaness, "as to who would be likely to murder your husband?"
"Not the slightest. I can't understand it at all, and I can't understand what he was doing in Grange Road. He never comes home that way. There's a short cut from the police station through a lane opposite, which he always takes."
"Do you know if-he received any letter, or anyone had made an appointment with him in Grange Road?" Vaness asked.
"He had a letter yesterday morning, and I was rather surprised, because immediately after reading it he tore it up. I know all his business, and when he gets letters he usually throws them across to me to read, but he didn't on this occasion. He just read the letter, frowned, and put it in his pocket. After a minute, he took out the letter and read it again. Then he tore it up and walking over to the fireplace, threw the pieces in the fire. I haven't any idea what it was, for he never said a word about it to me."
Vaness considered for a moment before he spoke.
"Mrs Selks, I'm going to tell you the truth. I came out here to Pinner tonight to meet your husband. A letter was sent to a friend of mine saying he would be coming off duty and would be at the south end of Grange Road at eleven fifteen. I was to meet him because the writer of the letter suggested your husband knew quite a lot about this Strex murder which you've probably read about in the papers. I came out tonight, and when I arrived in Grange Road your husband bad apparently been murdered a few minutes before. Do you know if he knew anything about the Strex case?"
Mrs Selks searched her mind.
"I don't know anything," she said. "Only this: the morning when the report of the Strex murder was in the newspapers, he picked up his paper at breakfast, read it, and laughed. I thought it funny he should laugh because someone had been murdered, and told him so, but he simply smiled as he put the newspaper in his pocket, and muttered something about 'they always get what's coming to them in the long run.' That's all I know."
"Look here, Mrs Selks," said Vaness, "would you do me a favour? Has your husband any private papers, a diary, or anything I could look at, and would you mind if I went through them? I've got an idea the murder of your husband and the Strex murder are associated in some way. I'd be awfully obliged to you if you'd let me look at anything he has."
She pondered the request.
"There's a box upstairs in which he kept a lot of old papers. I think some had to do with the Durward case. He used to go up there at night and make notes. I believe he was trying to work out how it was that he was falsely accused about faking evidence, but he never seemed to do anything about it, except write notes. If you'd like to look at those papers you're welcome, Mr Vaness."
"Thank you, Mrs Selks. I would like to look through them. As a matter of fact, I wonder if you've ever seen any writing like this..."
He felt in his pocket and took out the second letter to Alexia, the letter telling her to meet Selks. He folded it over so that Mrs Selks could only see the bottom half of the letter.
"Tell me," he said, "have you ever seen that writing before?"
The woman looked intently at the folded letter which he held before her eyes. "My God!" she said. "That's Garrington's handwriting. Garrington wrote that letter."
"Garrington?" Vaness echoed, "and who is Garrington?"
Mrs Selks hesitated. "My husband made me promise never to talk about this business to anybody. His reason, of course, was that he hoped to clear up the whole matter; but as he's dead I don't see why I shouldn't tell you. If you could find out the truth of all this affair, even after my poor man is dead, it would mean something to me.
"My husband never saw Garrington in his life, but he first heard of him during the Durward trial, ten years ago. When Selks was first assigned to the case he helped Chief Inspector Ralston. About three or four days after he had started taking statements from the people concerned he received an anonymous letter written in the same handwriting as the letter which you've just shown me. At first he took no notice, but afterwards he was keen to find out who the writer was. He became more keen because as the Durward case progressed, so he received more and more of these mysterious letters. The letters, in each case, contained some definite hint as to how my husband should conduct his investigations. They made all sorts of suggestions that certain witnesses were not speaking the truth, and, although the letters were not in any way favourable of John Durward's case, my husband had a decided idea that something was wrong, and that the whole business was much more mysterious than it seemed on the surface.
"Eventually a letter arrived informing my husband that if he would be prepared to falsify one or two statements taken from important witnesses the writer would be prepared to pay him a large sum of money. A meeting place was mentioned, and my husband was asked to be there. It was a little teashop in Cursitor Street at four o'clock on a Thursday afternoon. My husband had said nothing of these letters to his superiors. He was a terribly keen police officer, and he was hoping that by continuing an independent investigation he would be able to throw new light on the Durward case. His idea was, when he had completed his case, to take it to Ralston and get any kudos there were for himself.
"He told me, therefore, that he would keep the Cursitor Street appointment. If this individual, whose name he didn't know at the time, turned up, he intended to arrest him on a charge of attempted bribery, and get to the bottom of the business. On the Thursday afternoon, he went off to keep the appointment. Soon afterwards, an urgent message came from Inspector Ralston asking my husband to go to Scotland Yard at once, so I went after him to give him this message.
"As I approached the teashop I saw a man hanging about on the other side of the narrow street. He was a tall man, with a mass of fair hair—I noticed this because he wore no hat—and bushy eyebrows. He had a big moustache, too. I don't know why, but I thought he looked rather like a seafaring man. I went into the cafe, found my husband, and gave him the chief inspector's message. He said the writer of the mysterious letters hadn't appeared, but in my heart I was certain that the man I had seen waiting on the other side of the road was the man—the man who we afterwards thought was Garrington.
"I told my husband, and we left at once, but when we got outside the man was gone. Afterwards it seemed a deliberate plot to throw suspicion on my husband, because when he was accused after the trial of accepting bribes, he was asked if he had kept an appointment with someone who had written him letters offering him money. He had to admit he had, and I don't think they believed him when he said he was doing this from the point of view of duty, and not one of personal interest. After he had been sent out here to Pinner, he believed his hope of reinstatement lay in finding this man. He said his name was Garrington. How he had found out I don't know, but he was sure of it. He used to spend hours wandering about all sorts of weird places in London looking for this Garrington. Every moment he had off duty would be spent on this same fruitless search... That's all I can tell you."
"I see," said Vaness. "All this is very interesting, Mrs Selks, and it makes me more anxious than before to look through any notes your husband may have made. It may still be possible to find this man, and I'm perfectly certain that once we do find him we shall get some evidence which will not only clear up the circumstances surrounding your husband's death, but may also enable us to prove him innocent of the charges that were brought against him."
Mrs Selks rose from her chair.
"If you'll come upstairs you can look through the papers," she said. She pressed her handkerchief to her mouth in an endeavour to prevent a fresh outburst of sobbing. "It was only last night that he was up there writing."
Vaness followed her up the stairs. On the top floor of the house was a small room, an attic, which had evidently been used as a box-room. The collection of litter had been pushed away from one corner where a plain kitchen table stood—a table covered with notebooks and closely-written sheets of paper. By the side of the table on the floor was a large tin box.
Mrs Selks turned up the gas, and by its dim light Vaness sat down and looked through the books. They were all concerned with the Durward case and the whereabouts of Garrington. There were notes suggesting certain districts in London should be searched. There were the names of every cheap tavern and house of ill repute in the Pennyfields district of Limehouse. Vaness was amazed. Selks must have spent weeks if not months of his life checking up and collating this mass of evidence and suggestions.
He turned his attention to the tin box. It was locked, but the lock was an old and cheap one. A good wrench with a chisel which Mrs Selks produced opened it. Inside were bundles of papers. One of them, which she pointed out, contained the anonymous letters received by Selks during the Durward trial.
Vaness examined them. He had not the slightest doubt they were written in the same thin, shaky handwriting as the two letters which Alexia had received. Glancing quickly through the letters, he saw the suggestions in them were very much the same; that it would be worth Selks's while to do this or to suggest that.
He reached the last letter, the one suggesting Selks should meet the writer at the Green Cat tearooms in Swallow Lane off Cursitor Street. He closed the box and sat down in the chair before the table.
"This is going to be a long job I think, Mrs Selks," he said. "I want go through all this stuff, and I want to do it now. Will you mind?"
"Indeed I won't, Mr. Vaness," she said. "I'll go down and make some tea while you start. Perhaps you'd like a cup."
"I should," replied Vaness. "That's very good of you."
He turned the pages of the top notebook on the table. "I see that the last few pages in this book look as if they were written recently. Do you see? The ink's a different colour."
Mrs Selks looked over his shoulder.
"Those must have been the pages he wrote last night," she said. "He told me yesterday morning he was going to do some work up here, and I noticed when I was in the room in the morning that there was no ink, so I got a fresh bottle. I remember it was a different colour from what I usually get. He must have written those pages last night."
She went off, and Vaness heard her slow footsteps descending the stairs. He lit a cigarette, and began to read the last pages of the notebook, the pages written by Selks, according to his wife, the night before. He read:
The question is whether the person Garrington really exists or whether we were wrong in thinking that the man who was standing in the street outside the teashop, was Garrington. The only two persons who as far as I can make out would be concerned in endeavouring to bribe a police officer during the Durward case are Durward's daughter, Alexia, or Garrington, his head clerk. Garrington was not charged as an accessory to Durward as there was no evidence to connect him with the actual embezzlement although both Ralston and myself believed that he had something to do with it. I believe that immediately after the trial Garrington left this country for South Africa, but by a coincidence I learnt that a man answering the description which my wife gave of him was seen in the neighbourhood of Kennington Green. My own investigations which I have since carried out in that district cause me to believe that such a man is living at 17 Pa—
Vaness muttered a curse. Selks had apparently stopped writing just as he was about to put into black and white the very address Vaness wanted. He got up, and commenced to pace up and down the attic.
Soon he heard Mrs Selks' footsteps approaching, and as she entered the room with the tea tray an idea struck Vaness so forcibly that he gave an exclamation.
"Look here, Mrs Selks! Here's a coincidence. Last night your husband was about to write down the address where he thinks this man Garrington is living. Apparently he was interrupted because you can see he has finished abruptly right in the middle of a word. Now it's obvious by what he's written that he had been investigating in Kennington Green in the hope of finding this man Garrington. Isn't it a remarkably strange thing, when be seems to have brought these investigations to a successful issue, at a moment when he appears to have found Garrington, that he should have been murdered? Don't you see?"
The woman put the tea tray on the table. "I'm afraid I don't, Mr Vaness," she said. "What do you mean?"
"Just this," said the journalist. "Garrington knew that your husband was watching him, and he felt that the time was approaching when he'd got to do something. The letter which my friend received asking her to meet your husband at the south end of Grange Road was probably written without your husband's knowledge. At the same time another letter was, in all probability, written by this same Garrington to your husband asking him to meet him, Garrington, at the corner of Grange Road at eleven fifteen. This was the letter which your husband received yesterday morning, and which unluckily he destroyed.
"Garrington knew that your husband would keep the appointment. He knew that his one idea was to find out who Garrington was. Selks was getting too dangerous; he was beginning to find out too much, and Garrington had made up his mind that his mouth must be stopped. His idea was to turn up, murder your husband, expecting my friend would in all probability be accused of the crime.
"The technique adopted by the letter writer in the case of the murder of Strex and that of your husband is exactly the same. I'm certain that Garrington murdered both, and I'm going to find Garrington.
"I'm going to waste no time. I'm not even going to stop to drink your tea, Mrs Selks, and directly I know something definite I promise you I'll let you know at once. In the meantime don't say a word about this Garrington matter to anybody."
Vaness shook hands quickly, and ran out of the house.
He drove rapidly to the telephone box in Pinner High Street, and got through to his flat. In a moment he was speaking to his sister-in-law.
"Listen to me, Mary," he said, "and don't argue. I'm going to drive direct from Pinner to the back entrance of Garron Mansions. If I know anything of the police they are watching the front entrance to see where Alexia goes when she leaves. Take her through the back way, and I'll meet you at the Manchester Street entrance. I'm going to drive you both to your bungalow at Billericay, and you're going to stay there until I tell you to leave. I'll meet you in forty minutes. Now do it, and don't argue, there's a good girl."
He rang off, and restarted his car. He knew his sister-in-law would do exactly as he said. Like most middle-aged women, she adored adventure.
RALSTON, sitting in his chair in front of his study fire, regarded Vaness quizzically through the smoke of his cigar.
"New developments, eh, my lad?" he said. "I suppose you know all about this Selks murder."
"I know a little bit," replied the journalist. "Strangely enough, I happened to be out there last night. I was going to see Selks, but, unfortunately, he was killed before I had time to talk to him."
The detective laughed. "I thought you'd be going to see our unfortunate friend Selks eventually," he said. "I had an idea that you would think he might be able to produce a new line which would help you in your theories. By the way,"—Ralston knocked the ash from his cigar, and grinned at Vaness—"I suppose you haven't got an idea where our little charmer Alexia Durward has disappeared to, have you? All right, don't tell any lies, my lad!"
He held up his hand as Vaness was about to answer. "Apparently we lost her last night. The man we had watching her flat, being a careless young devil, was at the other end of the street when she left, and apparently she didn't return."
Vaness said nothing. It was a wonder, he thought, that the detective, who had been assigned to keep an eye on Alexia should not have known she had come to Garron Mansions last night.
"I wouldn't mind betting," continued Ralston, "that I can make two guesses as to where that young lady went."
Vaness looked up, interested. "Where do you think she went. Ralston?"
The detective looked into the fire. "I wouldn't like to be certain, but I don't think I'm far wrong in saying that our young lady had a meeting last night with the man who killed Selks."
Vaness let out a deep breath. "I must say, Ralston, I feel rather relieved. I thought you were going to tell me she killed Selks, too."
"Well, I wouldn't like to say that she hadn't got something to do with it," said Ralston. "Candidly, I believe that the Selks murder is an offshoot of the Durward trial. Possibly I'm prepared to change my theory a little bit about the Strex murder. Under certain circumstances I might even go so far as to say that since this Selks business a faint shadow of doubt exists in my mind as to whether Alexia Durward actually killed Strex. Oh, don't look surprised! I'm not eating my previous theory. I've simply allowed myself to take the line of thought that the Strex and Selks murders are connected, and that two people are jointly responsible for both."
"Those two people being?" queried Vaness.
"Those two people being Alexia Durward and a gentleman whose name, I think, is Garrington," said Ralston.
Vaness whistled. "This is indeed a surprise," he said. "May I ask who this Garrington is?"
"You may," replied the elder man. "Garrington was head clerk in the firm of Durward and Strex. No, moreover, between you and me and the doorpost, I believe Garrington was an accomplice of Durward's, and that it was with his assistance that Durward was enabled to carry out his embezzlement schemes. During my investigations I could find nothing which would enable me to prove that this fellow Garrington, a man who looked most unlike a clerk—he was a big fair-haired, hulking fellow—was very uncooperative during our investigations. I'm sure the statements he made were mostly lies.
"I always believed Garrington was the man who, possibly in conjunction with the girl, bribed Selks during the Durward trial to get certain evidence stopped or modified. I was never able to prove this, but I had a pretty good idea that a meeting took place one day between Selks and Garrington. When Selks was taxed with this he had to admit it, although he produced some cock-and-bull story about running independent investigations of his own, which nobody believed because it was obviously not true.
"Since this Selks murder, it's occurred to me that there was some connection between Strex. Selks, Garrington and the girl. Strex was a funny old man. It's quite on the cards he knew more than he ever told us, and I believe Selks met his death for the same reason as Strex. In other words, he knew a little bit too much about the other parties concerned."
Vaness refilled his pipe.
"Admitting your theory to be correct, for the sake of argument," he said, "supposing Garrington was an accomplice of Alexia Durward's, and that they were both out to get Strex and Selks out of the way, who was it sent that second letter to the girl asking her to meet Selks at a time which synchronised with his murder?"
"I don't know," said Ralston, "but I'll make a guess. It's my considered opinion that the girl wrote those two letters to herself. She wrote the first one as an excuse for her being at Strex's house the night when she knew he was going to be murdered either by herself or by her accomplice. She wrote herself the second letter, which I consider to be a stroke of genius, for a very different reason.
"This girl is clever enough to think we would never imagine her foolish enough to write herself a second letter at a time when she knew a second murder was going to be committed. She thinks this would obviously prove someone else was trying to hang the Selks murder on to her.
"Don't you see what a clever little devil Alexia Durward is? She knew Selks was going to be killed last night. She'd probably talked the whole thing over with the man who killed him, and then, knowing what was going to happen, she previously sent herself a letter telling herself to be at the place where the murder was going to be committed at the exact time of the murder. Needless to say, she wasn't there. Unfortunately, we don't know where she was last night, but I'm going to make a pretty good guess."
"And what do you guess, Ralston?" asked Vaness.
"Just this ... I should think that last night the girl went out to see the Strex murderer, whom I firmly believe to be Garrington. She went out to tell him Selks had got to be put out of the way, and pretty quickly. The probability is that she'd written a note to Selks, unsigned, reminding him of the Durward case, and telling him to be at the spot in Grange Road where he was killed. Knowing he would be there, she goes off, sees Garrington, tells him Selks must be dealt with quickly, that she has arranged for him to be at a lonely spot at eleven fifteen, and persuades him to get on with the job.
"An additional motive, of course, is the money. I expect Garrington and she raked off a pretty fair amount over that Durward business, and, naturally, they want to keep it. For all we know, Selks may have been blackmailing the pair of them."
"And what's the next move in the game, Ralston?"
"I'm going to arrest the girl, and I'm going to have London combed for Garrington. The girl hasn't gone back to her flat in Knightsbridge, but England's a small place. I should think she's probably frightened, and will try to make a getaway. She realises things are getting pretty hot, but every port's being watched, and she won't be able to leave England. We'll have her soon enough, don't worry. When we do get her, I'm going to ask her to make a statement. I'll bet my bottom dollar she'll do her best to turn King's evidence, and blame the murders on Garrington, who was probably inspired to commit both of them under her direction."
"And the result?" said Vaness.
"She'll probably save her neck. I think it's quite possible the murders were actually committed by Garrington, aided and abetted by the girl. My impression now is that she let Garrington into Strex's house with that key which we found near the place where her car had stood. I think Garrington will probably go to the scaffold, and the girl will spend the greater part of her days in prison."
Vaness lit another cigarette. "Your theories are logical enough, Ralston." he said. "But it seems to me strange that, after suspecting this fellow Garrington during the Durward trial, you should let him get out of your reach. Didn't you keep some sort of observation on him after the trial?"
Ralston smiled. "You bet we did, but after Durward had gone to prison Garrington led a very quiet life. Then, one fine day, he packed up and went off to Africa. Just for my own curiosity's sake I got into touch with a friend of mine who is in the Cape Town CID and learned from him that Garrington had bought an interest in a coastal steamer, and was behaving himself as a respectable citizen. I forgot all about the fellow until eighteen months ago..."
"Then he returned to England," said Ralston, "and after he returned I was always on the qui vive for something to happen—" The detective leaned nearer to the journalist. "More especially because I know that since his return he has had two or three meetings with Alexia Durward. You see, directly he left Cape Town my friend in the CID advised me and we waited for him this side. We didn't want him, but I wanted to keep my eye on him, just for old time's sake. This was one of my reasons for suspecting the girl immediately Strex was killed, although I must admit that at the time I never thought Garrington had had a hand in that business. Now, after the Selks murder, I am inclined, as I have told you, to think the two crimes were planned by the girl and executed by Garrington."
Vaness glanced at his watch. "Well, I must be getting along. It's nine o'clock, and I seem to spend all my time discussing murder theories with you."
"Exactly," mocked the detective. "Instead of following up your own independent line of investigations—the investigations which are going to prove Alexia Durward's innocence!" He smiled at the journalist. "And you know you 're wasting your time, my lad. I'm right—I know it and you know it!"
Vaness grinned. "Maybe. But anyway, Ralston, I'm as obstinate as you are. So long."
They shook hands and Vaness departed.
Vaness drove straight to Fleet street and in half an hour was closeted with Sparkes, the night editor of the Daily Sun, who had just come on duty. Ralston's remark about "following his own independent line of investigations" had given the journalist an idea.
"Look here, Sparkes," he said. "I want you to get in touch with our agents in South Africa. Do it quickly. I want to know all about that fellow Garrington who was mixed up in the Durward trial. Can you do this for me?"
"I suppose so," said Sparkes. "It's evident there's a story at the back of this. I'll cable right away."
"Excellent," said Vaness. "Let me know directly you hear something. I'll give you a story all right in a little while. One that will make your hair curl!"
He left the office and returned to his flat.
He was feeling satisfied with the events of the last two days. The Selks murder had absolutely convinced him of Alexia's innocence, and he felt it was simply a matter of time before he put his finger on some salient point which would clear her.
From his bookcase he took a street directory and turned to Kennington Green. A moment's search told him the only road or street beginning with "Pa" in that neighbourhood was Palmerston Street. Number 17, the address which Selks had been writing when he had been interrupted, was a house kept by a Mrs. Strevens, and Vaness had no doubt it was the address to which Selks had traced Garrington.
He made up his mind he would go to Kennington Green the next day and inspect the house. It was more than probable a bird of passage like Garrington would stay there for only a little while, but there was no harm in making a few inquiries.
His mind turned to Alexia. At least she was safe at Billericay and, apparently, the police had no inkling of her whereabouts. Tomorrow he would go down and see her, and tell her enough of his investigations to give her a measure of comfort.
He threw himself into an armchair and, lighting his pipe, gazed into the embers of the dying fire. Her face looked out at him...
Vaness for the first time faced the fact. When he had believed her guilty he had loved her; now he believed her innocent he knew he could never be happy until she was his wife.
VANESS had never felt quite so excited in his life as when he set out the following evening for Kennington Green. Sparkes had succeeded in getting a reply from the Daily Sun's agent in Cape Town, a reply which had amazed Vaness. It seemed to him the crux of the whole mystery, the starting point of any solution which would definitely solve the two murders, was Garrington.
He had no reason to suppose he would find Garrington at 17 Palmerston Street, but at least he hoped that he might get some information.
He parked his car at a garage in Kennington, sought directions to Palmerston Street from a passerby and set off on foot. As usual, it was a foggy night. Vaness, unused to the neighbourhood, walked slowly. Turning a corner, he ran straight into a man, and they both apologised. The light from an adjacent street lamp illuminated the man's face, and Vaness was surprised to recognise Inspector Soames.
"Hallo, Mr Vaness," said Soames, "what are you doing over here? It isn't too nice this side of the river tonight."
"Just a little quiet investigation, inspector," said Vaness. "I thought of asking you the same question."
"To tell you the honest truth I'm looking for this fellow Garrington, although frankly I don't think he exists. I suppose you don't know Ralston asked if he might handle the Selks murder as well as the other job, because he's now fairly certain the two crimes are linked and he's got an idea Garrington, who was employed by old Durward, lives over here somewhere. I've spent the whole day looking, but can't find him. He's probably made a getaway by now."
"Hard luck, inspector," said Vaness. "I expect he'll turn up some time. But how's the Strex business going on?"
"Ralston's called a halt just for a moment," said Soames. "I believe you know the girl got away. I put a new man to keep an eye on her, but she went out, and the young ass lost her. Anyhow, that doesn't matter very much. She'll turn up within a day or two, because she can't get out of the country. But Ralston isn't worrying so much about her as about Garrington. Confidentially, Mr Vaness, I think he's wrong. It seems to me a very much more sensible course to pursue would be to concentrate on the girl, and get some sort of statement from her. It's ten to one she'll become frightened, and if she knows anything about Garrington, she'll come across. Well, I must be getting along, Mr Vaness."
The journalist nodded to the police officer, and continued on his way. He thought it an amazing fluke that he had been enabled to discover a clue to Garrington's address while the police were apparently at a loss.
Eventually he found Palmerston Street. It was mean and dark, turning off one of the main streets, and filled with dilapidated, ramshackle houses. He walked up the street searching for number 17. Cards in most of the windows advertised rooms vacant for single gentlemen. Altogether it appeared to be a street of cheap lodgings.
At last he halted outside number 17, and pushed open the creaking iron gate. The door was opened in response to his repeated knocking by a bedraggled and dirty woman. Her hair hung in wisps about her face; her fingers pulled a shawl closer about her shoulders as the cold night air blew in at the doorway.
"Good evening," said Vaness. "I'm looking for a Mr Garrington. Have you got anybody of that name staying here?"
The woman nodded, and the journalist's heart gave a leap.
"I 'ave," she replied, "but 'e ain't in. I dunno when 'e's going to be in. Any'ow, 'e don't see nobody. What do you want with 'im?"
"I've got to talk to Garrington, that's all," said Vaness. "I don't think that would interest you."
"It does interest me," she answered surlily. "I've got something else to do beside answer people knockin' on the door all day for 'im."
"Oh ... so other people have been enquiring for Mr Garrington, have they?"
"Yus, they have. There's a cripple been 'ere twice for 'im today, a feller in a chair, pryin' about and askin' questions. I ain't Garrington's watchdog, and it's little enough 'e pays for 'is room as it is without me 'avin' to act as a bloomin' secretary."
Vaness slipped five shillings into the woman's hand.
"It must be a great trouble, I know, but I'd be glad if you'd tell me when Garrington will be back. Surely you must have some idea. What time does he usually come in?"
The woman put the two half-crowns into a voluminous pocket.
She said more amiably, "Well, to tell you the truth, sir, I never knows when 'e's in, and when 'e ain't comin' in. Sometimes 'e's away for days. Then 'e'll stay 'ere for three nights. Then 'e'll disappear ag'in. Rum sort o' feller."
"I see," said Vaness, "What is this Garrington, do you know?"
"I dunno' fer sure. 'E says 'e's a sailor, and 'e looks like one, but I dunno very much about 'im."
"I suppose the gentleman in the chair wanted to know all about him, too."
"'E did. 'E asked very much the same questions you've asked. Seems to be very popular lately, this chap Garrington. Mind you, if 'e's comin' in 'e usually gets back about 'alf past ten, stays 'ere fer about three quarters of an hour, then goes off ag'in."
"Was Garrington out the night of two days ago?" asked Vaness. "About eleven fifteen?"
"Yus, 'e was," said the woman. "I know because I went to the pictures and got back at 'alf past ten, and 'e was just going out of the 'ouse. 'E said 'e 'ad to go to the suburbs somewhere."
"All right," said Vaness. "Thanks very much for your information. I'll come back at half past ten and take my chance of seeing him then. Good-night."
He closed the iron garden gate behind him, and walked off rapidly.
So Ralston had been in search of the elusive Garrington! Vaness wondered exactly what Ralston's game was, and why, if he knew Garrington's address, he had not informed Soames of it ... or was Soames lying when he said he had not found Garrington?
It was on the cards Ralston had tipped off Soames not to tell Vaness too much. In any event, it was obvious Ralston was keen to interview Garrington.
Vaness thought he was rather a fool to do it alone and unprotected, more especially as he maintained that Garrington was a murderer. But courage, he knew, had always been a strong trait in Ralston.
VANESS walked quickly to the garage, got his car, and drove for St John's Wood. If Ralston had already connected with Garrington, the most sensible thing Vaness could do would be to get Ralston's ideas on the subject.
Should the detective be proposing to arrest Garrington when he found him, that would bring matters to a crux. The question of any association between Garrington and Alexia Durward would be brought to light. In his own mind, Vaness had very good reasons for believing there was no such association, although he had not questioned Alexia about this.
When he walked into Ralston's study, the detective was in his usual position in front of the fire. Vaness wasted no words, but came to the point.
"So you've found Garrington, Ralston."
Ralston grinned. "You bet I have. Didn't take me very long, did it? That's the man we want."
"The question is whether he stayed for you," said Vaness. "I've just left Palmerston Street. He's out. They expect him back tonight."
Ralston grinned again. "If I were a bad-tempered man, I should get pretty well annoyed with you, young fellow my lad, butting in, going asking questions, and spoiling my game. I thought you might be hanging around ever there, although goodness knows where you got your information, and I tipped off Soames not to tell you anything if he saw you. I'm sorry you went to see Garrington."
"Why?" said Vaness.
"Well, it's obvious ... I went over there this afternoon, but he isn't going to suspect me. I'm a cripple in a chair. I don't look like a policeman. Then a few hours later you turn up. Where Garrington will think nothing of an enquiry which his landlady will tell him was made by an old cripple, he'll soon get the breeze up if he hears fine upstanding fellows like yourself have been asking about him. You newspaper fellows are all the same."
"Perhaps it's lucky for some people that we are," said Vaness.
He was feeling unreasonably short-tempered. Sometimes Ralston's inevitable enthusiasm and egotism were inclined to annoy him.
"It would be pretty hard luck for some people if there weren't newspapers," he said. "Why, by this time, if you'd had your own way, you'd have arrested Alexia Durward days ago over the Strex murder, although you now believe that Garrington did it. The fact of the matter is you people pick out the most likely person and build up all the evidence you can against him or her irrespective of whether they're innocent or guilty."
Ralston bit his lips, and Vaness could see that he was thoroughly annoyed. His fingers played a peculiar tattoo on the arm of his chair. The noise of Ralston's knuckles on the wood brought the realisation to Vaness that he had been rude.
"Forgive my being sharp, Ralston," he said, "but my temper's been wearing a bit thin the last three or four days."
"That's all right, my boy," said the detective. "I get like that myself sometimes. In fact, I nearly lost my temper then. But you take a tip from me and lay off Garrington. What good can you do? Do you think he's going to confess to the murder just because a Daily Sun man asks him to? You bet he won't!"
"Well, if he won't confess it to me, he certainly won't confess it to you," countered Vaness.
"True enough, but I'm not going to arrest him for murder."
"Oh, aren't you?"
"Not a bit of it. I've got something else on Mr Garrington. There was a little burglary in which I believe he was mixed up. It took place a few weeks ago and I'm going to pull him in on that. When we've got him is the time we shall find out things on the other charge. So, meanwhile, you lay off Garrington, else I'll get angry with you."
Vaness forced himself to be pleasant.
"All right, Ralston. I won't spoil your game. On the other hand, you know, I'm counsel for the defence, and I'm going on with it. See you soon."
He shook hands with the detective, and left.
IT was twenty five minutes past ten when Vaness pulled up in his car outside the house in Palmerston Street. The iron gate seemed to creak more loudly than ever as he pushed it open. He tapped quietly on the door, and waited. In a few minutes the door was opened just two or three inches. The woman's face peered out.
Vaness with great promptitude put his foot in the opening so the door could not be closed.
"Mr Garrington back yet?" he asked.
"Yes, 'e's back," said the woman. "'E's been carryin' on blue murder. 'E let me 'ave it good and proper for talkin' to people about 'im, or sayin' anythin' at all about 'im. He says 'e won't see nobody, and if you came round 'ere askin' questions I was to tell you to go to 'ell."
"All right, you've told me. But I'm going to talk to Mr Garrington."
Vaness put his shoulder against the door and leaned on it. The old woman made the best resistance she could, but it was no use. Vaness managed to get the door open and stepped inside to the dirty and evil-smelling hall. He closed the door quietly behind him.
"My Gawd!" said the old woman. "'E'll do you in for this."
"He might try," said Vaness. "I believe that's rather a hobby of his, doing people in, isn't it? If you want good advice, you'll make yourself scarce. Which is Garrington's room?"
The woman glanced up the stairs. "The one on that landin'." She indicated the top of a long flight of narrow stairs illuminated half way up by a gas mantle in the last stages of decay. "But if you'll take a tip from me you'll keep away from Garrington. I think 'e's been drinkin'."
At this moment a door on the landing opened.
Looking up, Vaness saw the man whom he knew at once was Garrington. He was a tall, well-built man with a shock of blonde hair just greying at the sides and a bushy moustache. His shaggy eyebrows and a general air of dissipation made him a most fierce-looking customer.
He leaned on the bannister rail, and looked down.
"Well, what the hell is it you want?" he shouted.
THE woman scuttled off, and disappeared down the stairs which led to the basement. Vaness took a cigarette from his case and lit it.
"I want to talk to you, Mr Garrington," he said. "I represent the Daily Sun. I want to ask you a few questions."
Garrington gave an exclamation, almost a snarl.
From his position at the bottom of the stairs Vaness could not see the man distinctly, but he could just see the workings of his face and the evil look he bestowed on him.
"What the hell do I know about any murders?" Garrington said. "And if I did, do you think I'm going to tell you? There'll be another murder if I come down these cursed stairs. What do you want with me? Get out of here, and leave me alone!"
"Not so fast," said Vaness. "How did you know I wanted to talk about murders? A guilty mind, eh, Mr Garrington? The time may come very soon when you'll have to talk. Don't you think it would be much better to talk now, and save yourself a lot of trouble? You never know, I may be able to be of use to you."
"Oh, you might, might you?" sneered Garrington. "You come here with your questions, and think I'll answer them for you. You want to know who killed Selks. Perhaps I did, and perhaps I didn't. Find out! And what else might you be wanting to know, Mr Busybody? You'll give anything to know what I know about Miss Alexia Durward. Ah, that's got you! I thought that would make you jump. Ask her what she knows about the Selks murder. Yes, and ask her what she knows about the Strex case, too. How do I know? Oh, I know a lot of things..."
Vaness remained cool. He always believed in making the other man lose his temper.
"All very interesting, Mr Garrington," he said. "But only words ... and words won't prevent you swinging off a rope over a six-foot drop. You know what for."
In the half light Vaness could see Garrington's face was livid. He stepped forward and seized the bannister rail with one hand as if he would smash it into atoms.
Vaness's eyes, always observant, rested for a moment on Garrington's right hand... Then, without a word, he opened the door, stepped out, and shut it behind him.
Five minutes later found him speeding toward Billericay. His mouth was set in a hard, straight line, and his face was stern. Yet, mixed with his feeling of grim determination, was one of amazing happiness.
Alexia Durward was innocent ... and he could prove it.
IN front of the fire at Mary's cottage, Vaness faced Alexia. He had always described his sister-in-law as the most tactful woman he had met, and she had left them alone soon after he had arrived.
"I'm not going to keep you in suspense, Alexia," Vaness said. "I can see by your eyes the strain of all the unpleasantness is beginning to tell. The news is you've no need to worry any more. I know who killed Strex and Selks, and in a day or two the whole world will know, too."
She swayed for a moment, and Vaness thought she was going to faint. He put out a hand to steady her and when she looked as though she might fall, he caught her close in his arms.
"Alexia," he whispered. "You know I love you—that you are the only woman in the world who has ever meant anything to me. Will you marry me?"
She snuggled closer in his arms.
"I suppose I ought to be coy," she murmured. "But I must tell the truth to counsel for the defence. I love you, too, Anthony, and I'd adore to marry you. Please let me go though—here comes Mary!"
Vaness's sister-in-law entered carrying some welcome food and hot coffee. She was not very surprised to hear the news about the proposal. She knew Vaness well enough and had suspected from the start that there was more than mere journalism to his spirited efforts on Alexia's part.
"Of course, you're both dying to hear all about the murders," said Vaness when they were seated and drinking their coffee. "But the time isn't ripe yet. I haven't quite got the thing worked out in my mind so I can put it into words. It's an involved business, but you can take it from me I know enough facts to absolutely clear Alexia of any complicity in the crimes."
"What gave you your lead, Tony?" Mary asked.
"Absolute chance," said Vaness. "Just a little coincidence—one of those amazingly simple things which smash up every preconceived theory, and start us on the right track. I've got to go very carefully, but I don't think there's any chance of my being wrong and, unless the police are bigger fools than I take them to be, no reason why we shouldn't have the murderer under lock and key tomorrow night."
"I'm terribly curious," said Alexia. "I want so badly to know exactly what has happened. Do you think the murderer might not have an opportunity to escape? Does he know he's suspected?"
"I can't be certain about that," said Vaness. "I should think it extremely probable he might try to make a getaway, but a criminal has little hope of escaping from the police these days. He certainly will not be able to get out of England anyhow."
"Tell me one thing, Anthony," said Alexia. "Was the murder committed immediately after I left Strex's house, and do you think the murderer entered the house after I left it, or was he there before?"
"I should say he entered it between the time you left and I arrived," answered Vaness. "Ralston saw Strex and left about fifteen minutes before you arrived. The butler closed and locked the door after him. Then you arrived and found the front door open, and walked straight into Strex's room. In my opinion the murderer was in the room, concealed, when you entered it, and he left soon afterwards, possibly before I arrived. On this point, however, I am not at the moment certain... Anyhow, I must be off now. I've quite a bit to do. With luck I hope to be down here again tomorrow night—with the best news in the world."
Alexia accompanied him across the little lawn in front of the bungalow. She stood, her hair blowing in the breeze, while he started his car.
"Good-night, my dear," Vaness said. "Your troubles will soon be over. I'll come back for you soon."
"Please be quick, Anthony," she murmured. "I'm a little tired of being a prisoner."
"You'll have to get used to that... You'll always be a prisoner—my prisoner!"
The car moved off and she watched it until it was out of sight.
IT was three thirty before Vaness arrived back at his flat. He telephoned Sparkes immediately and had a long conversation. Then he sat down to consider a plan of action.
Within a few minutes the telephone rang, and the journalist was surprised to recognise Inspector Soames's voice.
"Hallo, Mr Vaness," said the police officer. "Have you seen anything of this Garrington tonight?"
"Oh, yes," said Vaness. "I was with him at ten thirty."
He heard Soames whistle with astonishment.
"By Jove, Mr Vaness! There'll be trouble over this. Ralston telephoned me this evening to go round to the Kennington Green house and arrest Garrington between eleven and half past. When I got there the old girl who keeps house told me Garrington had packed up and left. She doesn't expect to see him again. It's pretty certain he's cleared off because he got suspicious after your interview with him. You've frightened him off, and Ralston will never forgive you for that."
"Look here, Soames," said Vaness, "were you going to arrest Garrington on a charge of murdering Selks?"
"Not a bit of it. My orders were to arrest Garrington for a small burglary that was pulled two weeks ago. Ralston wanted to get hold of him for the lesser charge and save the murder charge for afterwards."
"I see. Well, if Ralston's so certain Garrington murdered Selks and had a hand in the Strex murder, why didn't he get on with it right away and charge Garrington with the murders?"
"I don't know," said Soames, "and it isn't my business to ask questions. But you'll get into hot water over this, Mr Vaness. As much as possible Scotland Yard always lets the press in on anything going, but we expect support from you. We don't expect you to queer our pitch by dashing about and frightening off suspected people. Ralston will be mad about this."
"Oh, that won't be the first time," said Vaness. "I saw him earlier this evening, and he was pretty angry ... and I've got an idea he'll be angrier still before I'm through."
"How do you mean?" asked the inspector.
"I mean this. I think you're all wrong to blazes, both of you! I think Ralston started this case on a theory, and he's been trying to fit his clues into the theory instead of adapting his theories to clues as they turn up. Incidentally, Soames, if you want to do yourself a good turn come round and see me tomorrow evening at five o'clock. You won't regret it."
The police officer grunted. "It strikes me, Mr Vaness, that I'd better keep as far away from you as possible after the Garrington business tonight. Ralston is only unofficially in charge of the job, and I don't want to get it in the neck from my superiors at the Yard by doing anything that's irregular."
"Follow my tip, Soames," said Vaness. "Be at my rooms at five tomorrow night and I'll put you wise to something. I'll tell you who killed Strex and Selks. If you don't come, you'll be the laughing stock of the Yard in two days. This is going to be a front-page job, you know... Well, what are you going to do?"
"I'll come," said Soames, after putting aside obvious reluctance. "I'll try anything once."
Vaness was physically exhausted from his long day's work, but found himself too excited to go to bed. He returned to his armchair and sat working out in detail the story of the Strex murder as it now appeared to him.
He could find no flaw in it. The investigations which he had carried out during the last two days, and the information he had elicited from the sources Sparkes had been able to supply after their conversation, all dovetailed.
A cynical smile curved his lips as he considered how Ralston would take the news, and the smile turned to one of pleasure as he realised what a scoop this story would be for the Daily Sun. Luck had favoured him when Alexia Durward had come to him with her original request, although he had little thought at the time what strange happenings would occur as a result of that interview.
He lit his pipe and, walking up and down the room, mapped out a plan of campaign.
VANESS, standing in front of the fire in his study, pipe hanging out of the corner of his mouth, watched the clock and waited for Soames.
Although of a cool and controlled nature, every nerve in Vaness's body was tingling with excitement. Everything depended on what happened during the' next few hours. It was with a sigh of relief that he saw the door open and Soames appear.
"Well, Mr Vaness," said the inspector, putting down his hat, "here I am, and I hope it's something interesting."
"It's interesting enough," said Vaness. "Does Ralston know you're here?"
"You bet he doesn't. I didn't take any chances on telling Ralston until I knew what you'd got to say."
"All right," said Vaness. "Sit down."
He pushed a box of cigars toward the inspector. "Light a cigar," he said, "smoke it, and however much you want to interrupt me, don't do it until I've finished talking. I want you to listen to a little story. Just for the sake of argument we'll call it an imaginary one...
"Ten years ago there was a chief inspector at Scotland Yard. His name was Ralston. Officially he was of the best character. Unofficially he was a gambler and a waster. He needed money badly. He had to have it. Among some of the peculiar friends he had made in the course of his duties was a man named Hugo Strex, partner in a firm of merchant bankers.
"Ralston first came across Strex over a matter which certainly didn't show Strex's character in a very good light, and Ralston realised that here was a man who would make a very good tool. To cut a long story short, these two between them concocted a frame-up, one of the cleverest bits of business that has ever been built.
"Strex, who was in charge of the books of his firm, was to take money out of the business for himself and Ralston. He would cook the books, framing things in such a way that if anything came to light the blame would fall on his partner, Durward. This wasn't difficult.
"After a time the embezzlement was brought to light officially by Strex himself.
"He reported it to Scotland Yard. Was it a coincidence that Chief Inspector Ralston requested that he might be allowed to handle the case? His request was granted, and Detective Sergeant Selks was assigned to help him.
"Well, what chance had Durward got? The original evidence against him had been framed by Strex, and the police officer who was prosecuting the case against him was an accomplice of Strex. John Durward went to prison for ten years, and unfortunately killed himself there.
"Everything had gone as Strex and Ralston planned, but Ralston wasn't finished with the business. Oh, no. He was out to plan a perfect crime. There were three people who knew too much: John Durward, in prison, who was innocent; Hugo Strex, Ralston's accomplice; and Detective Sergeant Selks, who from the first had a suspicion that things weren't right.
"But see how clever Ralston was. During the investigations preceding the Durward trial he had caused anonymous letters to be written to Selks making attempts to bribe him to falsify the evidence. Ralston knew that Selks, being an egoist, would follow up these letters, and endeavour to find the writer. How easy it was for Ralston, after the trial, to accuse Selks of having tried to tamper with evidence, to force Selks to confers that attempts had been made to bribe him, and eventually to get him removed to Pinner!
"Ralston was temporarily satisfied. But there were still two people at large who suspected him, and eventually they had to be put out of the way. So he planned one of the most devilish schemes ever evolved by the brain of man.
"While Ralston was certain Strex didn't want to give him away and Selks—the poor devil who was still following up inquiries in hope of justifying himself—was in no position to give him away, he was quite relaxed ... until a situation turned up which made him realise something final needed to be done.
"The situation was this. I was commissioned by the Daily Sun to write the story of the Durward trial. Ralston knew I would want to interview Strex, and Strex was getting an old man—very old, very feeble. Throughout the years he had been haunted by the thing he had done to his partner. Ralston was afraid Strex might give something away, and he made up his mind to kill him. But first he concocted a wonderful scheme—a scheme by which the murder could be laid on the shoulders of Durward's daughter, Alexia. He wrote her an anonymous letter telling her I was about to write the story of the Durward trial, and she must stop this for the sake of her father. If I refused her request she must then go straight to Strex and ask him not to give the interview.
"In other words, Ralston created a motive for Alexia Durward to kill Strex, and he created a situation by which she would be at Strex's house at the approximate time when he intended to murder the old man."
An exclamation broke from Soames's lips. "My God, Mr Vaness! You don't expect me to believe this, do you?"
"Just a minute," said the journalist, "there's a lot more yet."
"The story of the Strex murder," Vaness continued, "is briefly this: Ralston himself told me he was with Strex on the night of the murder. He told me Strex had telephoned him to say I was coming to interview him and to ask Ralston to go round and see him first. Now it struck me at the time as rather peculiar that Strex, who though an old man was quite capable of walking, should have asked Ralston, a cripple, to go round to him. Don't you see? Ralston had to have an excuse for being at Strex's house.
"Very well then ... Ralston went to see Strex. He told Strex things were getting pretty warm and that probably in future the old man must be careful not to say a word which would give either himself or Ralston away.
"Possibly, had Ralston been satisfied with Strex's attitude, he might still have let the old man live, but one thing made up his mind for him whilst he was talking to Strex. The old man, half senile, was writing some words on the blotting paper before him—the words which you found obliterated by his own blood. Those words were—'Durward was innocent.'
"Now, Soames, you will remember that piece of blotting paper went to the chemical experts at the Yard. Has anybody seen it since? You shake your head. Of course they haven't; it was destroyed by Ralston!
"Once Ralston saw Strex writing he definitely made up his mind that Strex must die. On some pretext or other he got behind the old man and stabbed him. There was no one in the house except the butler, and he was asleep.
"Ralston, knowing the Durward girl would arrive at any moment, ran and opened the front door, leaving it ajar, knowing that she would go straight to Strex's study without ringing the front door bell. He then ran back to the study and hid behind the curtains behind Strex's body. He saw the girl come in, look at the body, turn, and run straight out of the house leaving the door open behind her.
"Here, Ralston made his first mistake. He closed and locked the door. He should have left it open. Within five minutes I appear on the scene, ring the door bell, and let in by the butler go straight to the study where Ralston was still behind the curtains. He'd had no time to get away.
"He awaited his opportunity, which came when I turned my back to him to telephone Scotland Yard. He slipped out of the French windows, which he locked behind him with the key he had taken from Strex's pocket. If you remember, when Strex's body was searched afterwards it was Ralston who found that key, and it was easiest for him to find it because he put it there first."
Soames shook his head.
"All this sounds very wonderful, Mr Vaness, but there's one thing that smashes your case absolutely to pieces—something so obvious you've forgotten it."
"What's that, Soames?" Vaness asked.
"Just this: Ralston's a cripple. He can't move out of that chair of his."
"Can't he?" said Vaness. "How do you know?"
He leaned closer to the inspector. "How does anybody know Ralston's a cripple? This paralysis attacked him five years ago, I understand, just about the time he might have begun to think seriously of removing the people who knew too much about him.
"Well, yesterday I had certain enquiries made. Ralston has never attended any hospital in London; his own doctor has never treated him for paralysis. In other words, one might almost term Ralston's paralysis a very wonderful alibi. He was simply putting himself in a position where no one would suspect him of any murder, especially a murder where a good deal of walking and climbing over a twelve-foot wall was necessary. I think you will find, inspector, that Ralston can walk just as well as you or I."
"But, look here, Mr Vaness," said Soames. "Even allowing that Ralston's paralysis is a fake, how would he keep a thing like that from his wife? She'd know."
"Of course she knows," said Vaness. "Why shouldn't she know? She's in the whole thing with him. I'll stake my life the anonymous letters written to Selks during the Durward trial, and the letters written to Miss Durward during the present business, were written by Mrs Ralston with her left hand. But we shall soon see whether that's so or not."
Soames scratched his head.
"Well, I don't know where I am. It all sounds very feasible, Mr Vaness. But do you expect me to go round and arrest Ralston on the strength of it?"
"Not a bit of it," said Vaness. "We'll try a little bluff. Come with me to Ralston's place. Let me talk to him, and we'll see what happens..."
THE eerie silence of the room in St John's Wood was disturbed only by the ticking of the grandfather clock and the monotone of Vaness's voice. With his eyes on Ralston, Vaness recounted, detail by detail, the case he had built up.
Soames, sitting on the other side of the fireplace, fingered his hat nervously. He watched Ralston as if he expected him with a few words to demolish the ridiculous story to which he was listening.
Vaness finished and rose to his feet. "Well, Ralston," he said, "what about it?"
Ralston smiled rather wearily. "He's right, Soames. I did it. There are just one or two points where he's gone oft the rails, but I can put you right on those. Clever devil, Mr Vaness. Too clever, damn you!
"Candidly," Ralston continued, with a ghost of his good-natured smile, "I'm only annoyed about one thing. I plotted this affair; I've spent months scheming it out; I thought I'd evolved the perfect crime. I killed Strex, and Garrington, the man who was Durward's head clerk, had a pretty good idea I had done so. That's why he's cleared off tonight. He's a clever fellow is Garrington, and I'm afraid you won't get him.
"Strex knew too much, and I thought he might talk. Unfortunately, I had to act pretty quickly, because it was not till late in the morning of the murder that I heard Vaness had been commissioned to write the story of the Durward trial. After I heard the news I sent the urchin round to Alexia Durward's flat with the first anonymous letter. I knew she would go to Vaness's room's that night. I know she would go to Strex's house afterwards. I realised everyone would suspect her of the murder, but the most wonderful thing that could possibly happen to me was when Scotland Yard asked me to handle the case. This was the one bright ending of my scheme.
"Here was I, a murderer, asked to catch myself, and like most murderers, I was too cocksure. I talked too much to Vaness, although how he got his original idea I was the criminal I don't know; and I didn't allow for the fact he would get keen on the Durward girl... It just shows you, Soames, you must never trust these journalists too much. They're nasty fellows."
Soames rose to his feet.
"Well, Ralston," he said, "you'd better come along and make a statement. Then I think if I were you I'd shut up."
Ralston put a hand into the pocket of his coat. "I'm not making any statement, Soames," he said. "I've played my hand, and I've lost, but if you think you're going to get me in the dock you're mistaken. So long, Vaness!"
He withdrew his hand from the pocket of his coat, and put it quickly to his mouth. Then a tiny bottle fell on the floor.
Soames muttered a curse.
"Very much the easiest way, this way," gasped Ralston. His head fell forward.
Soames scratched his head.
"What do you know about that? I never suspected he'd kill himself. What are we going to do? We'll have to move him, I suppose."
"I shouldn't worry about that tonight if I were you, Soames," said Vaness. "Better to go and tell Mrs Ralston what's happened. Break it to her quietly, and say you'll take the body away tomorrow. When you've done this, meet me at the public house round the corner—the Three Feathers—in the saloon bar. I've got another surprise for you."
"This is a night of surprises," said Soames. "What's the next one to be?"
"Just this," said Vaness. "Before Ralston killed himself he was too much of a sportsman to give away the other gentleman—Garrington, the man who killed Selks."
"Heavens!" said Soames. "I'd forgotten all about that."
"I hadn't," said Vaness. "I've got a pretty good idea where our missing friend is ... this elusive Garrington. I think we might go along there and complete the haul, don't you, Soames? Anyhow, you and go and talk to Mrs Ralston. Somehow I don't think she'll be too disturbed at the death of her husband. Then meet me around the corner. See you then."
Vaness took his hat, and left the house, leaving Soames to talk to Ralston's wife.
He walked towards the Three Feathers smiling happily and unlike a man who has left the presence of death.
FIFTEEN minutes later Soames appeared. "You were right, Mr Vaness," he said. "Mrs Ralston wasn't very surprised. There's no doubt she knew about the business all along, and probably helped in it. Luckily for her, however, her husband's confession gets her off responsibility for the matter."
"Exactly," said Vaness. "What arrangements have you made about Ralston's body?"
"She's going to have it moved upstairs. There's no reason why she shouldn't. Of course, there will have to be a post-mortem, and the whole bag of tricks will come to light. By Jove, Mr Vaness, you're going to get some kudos out of this!"
Vaness agreed. "Yes, it will be a good result both for me and the Daily Sun, but it will he better still for Miss Durward. If I hadn't I managed to stumble on the truth she could have been convicted for the murder of Strex."
Soames mopped his brow. "You're right. It's been a bad business. Naturally enough, all the way through I've simply followed Ralston's instructions. He had everything in his hands. Now, Mr Vaness, what's the second surprise? I'm prepared for anything tonight."
"The second surprise is we'll get Garrington tonight—in about a couple of hours' time, I should think. He may give us trouble, for he's a tough character is Mr Garrington. I suggest you get a couple of plainclothes men to keep observation on the back of the house in Palmerston Street from half past eight tonight. We'll go to the house at about a quarter to nine, and if I am not very much surprised we shall get Mr Garrington."
The detective finished his drink.
"But why should Garrington go back there?" he asked. "Surely if he suspects we're after him he'll give that place a wide berth."
"He'll give it a wide berth after tonight, but don't you see, he'll think the police have their hands full for a day or two, and that they won't worry a great deal about him at the moment."
Vaness got up and prepared to depart.
"Get your men posted, at eight thirty," he said, "and you meet me at the end of Palmerston Street at twenty minutes to nine. And if I were you I should have an automatic in my pocket. Garrington may try to be funny."
Vaness drove straight back to his flat at Garron Mansions, and telephoned immediately to the cottage at Billericay. Alexia answered him, and he was delighted to tell her that all was well.
"Come up to town at once, my dear," he said. "There's no reason why you should continue to rusticate at Billericay in the middle of winter! I shall be out when you arrive, but you and Mary can amuse yourselves until I come back. I expert to join you here about ten thirty."
He hung up the receiver, thrilled with the relief in her voice, and after telephoning instructions to the hall porter that he was to be called at eight o'clock he lay down on his bed for a well-earned rest.
The absolute success of his theory turned on Garrington returning to the Palmerston Street house, but he was fairly certain he would. In any event, Ralston's confession had cleared Alexia, although he was naturally desirous of completing the case so that the whole thing could be finished and on the front page of the Daily Sun next morning.
Needless to say he was unable to sleep; he lay with closed eyes until the porter rang through to say eight o'clock had arrived.
KEEPING in the dark shadows which bounded the street, Vaness and Soames approached the house.
"Have you got a gun?" asked the police officer.
"Yes," Vaness said. "I'm not taking any chances where Garrington is concerned."
He pushed open the creaking iron gate and ran up the dirty steps to the front door. Close behind him came Soames. The old woman opened the door, Soames gave it a push, and they stepped into the ill-lit hall.
"This gentleman is a police officer, Mrs Strevens," said Vaness, "and he wants to have a few words with Mr Garrington. There's no need for you to announce us, we'll go straight up. Please close the door quietly so he doesn't hear."
The woman, thoroughly frightened, closed the front door softly behind them. Vaness leading the way, they crept up the stairs towards the door on the first-floor landing.
The sound of voices came to their ears. A man was being interrupted occasionally by a woman's lighter tone. Vaness motioned Soames to stand still.
"Do you recognise the woman's voice?" he whispered.
Soames listened intently for a moment.
"By Jove, that's Mrs Ralston!" he said.
"Exactly," said Vaness. "Now, get ready for your second surprise!"
He climbed the few remaining stairs, Soames close on his heels. Arriving at the door, Vaness threw it open abruptly and stepped into the room, drawing his automatic pistol from his pocket.
The woman turned towards them, her eyes wide with fear.
The man spun round with an oath, then seeing the journalist's automatic pistol pointed straight at him, said nothing more, but stood staring.
"Good evening, Mrs Ralston." said Vaness. "You didn't expect to see us quite so soon, I think!"
He turned to Soames.
"The gentleman, inspector, is Mr Garrington, alias ex-Chief Inspector Ralston of Scotland Yard... Oh, it's no use cursing, Ralston, and you might as well take off that wig and the false eyebrows and moustache. It was a good idea, but it hasn't come off. You're finished!"
Ralston tore away the wig and moustache. He sat down on the rickety bed.
"Curse you!" he said. "I loathe you, Vaness. I never expected you would have enough brains to pull this on me. Hell, the game's up this time and no nonsense!"
Soames stepped forward, and the handcuffs snapped over Ralston's wrists. Then the inspector went to the window and whistled. A minute later, two plainclothes men appeared at the door of the room.
After Ralston and his wife had been taken away, Soames turned to the journalist.
"Mr Vaness, I have to hand it to you this time. How the devil did you know that Ralston and Garrington were the same man?"
"I'll tell you," said Vaness. "It's an interesting story, and the Garrington part of it fills in the blanks in the one I told you yesterday, before we went round to see Ralston and before he made the confession I knew he would make.
"I had no idea Ralston was Garrington until after my interview with Garrington here. He lost his temper, and I noticed that he knocked his knuckles on the bannister in a rather peculiar manner. Probably I should have thought nothing of this, but before coming out here I had seen Ralston. We had a bit of an arguments and in the process he did exactly what Garrington did later. He knocked his knuckles on the arm of his chair in the same unusual manner.
"Directly I saw Garrington do that, I came to a startling conclusion that Garrington and Ralston were the same man, and I made a few quick inquiries on the assumption. In the meantime Sparkes, the night editor of the Daily Sun, had been in touch with our South African agent. He had made the interesting discovery that Garrington—the real one—had died in Cape Town five years ago. Ralston's plot was a splendid one. He planned the perfect crime, and very nearly pulled it off.
"During the Durward trial, when he was questioning this head clerk of Durward's who, by the way, had nothing whatever to do with the embezzlement, Ralston was probably struck by the physical likeness which existed between Garrington and himself, with the exception of the colour of hair and eyebrows, and Garrington having a moustache. After the investigations had commenced, Ralston wrote the anonymous letter to Selks, and made an appointment with him, at which appointment he turned up disguised as Garrington. He intended that Selks should see him but not speak to him, so that afterwards it would be easy for him to accuse Selks of having been bribed by Garrington. He adopted this method of discrediting Selks because he realised that the unfortunate man suspected something was wrong about the Durward case.
"After the trial Garrington, probably on Ralston's suggestion, went to South Africa, where he died. Ralston knew this, and therefore conceived the bright idea of adopting another personality, that of Garrington. He got the wig, eyebrows and moustache made, and he took this room where he could live occasionally as Garrington, who had turned sailor. This would account for his frequent absences.
"In the meantime he pretended to become paralysed, and resigned from the police force. He knew that eventually he was going to murder Strex and Selks, because they both knew too much about him. He also knew that, as he had a double personality, if he were accused as Ralston of the murders, he could simply confess, pretend to commit suicide, and make a getaway as Garrington.
"If, on the other hand, Garrington were suspected of the murders, he would simply appear to be Ralston.
"You see how perfect the idea was. When I accused Ralston of the murder tonight, he simply took a weak solution of chloroform which made it appear he had committed suicide. He took a chance we would not immediately call a doctor, and, even if we had, he would have seized some opportunity afterwards of making his escape and immediately adopting the disguise of Garrington. He knew the police would then be looking for Ralston, and as Garrington he would be safe.
"Unfortunately, like most criminals, Ralston made one or two little mistakes which put me on the right track. He suggested to me Miss Durward had been out to see Garrington and told him Selks was probably going to talk, and that she had suggested the easiest way out was for Garrington to meet Selks at the appointment she'd made and kill him.
"Ralston did not know, however, that at the time when he suggested she was doing this she was sitting in my rooms with myself and my sister-in-law. As you will remember, Soames, this was the day during which. Miss Durward gave your man the slip. As a matter of fact, she has been living down at my sister-in-law's cottage."
"Ralston's worst mistake was returning to this house tonight. What he should have done was to disguise himself immediately as Garrington and try to make a getaway. He would at least have stood a chance. But he thought that after he had confessed—as Ralston—to the Strex murder, and pretended to commit suicide, we would do nothing until the next day, when we would have discovered Ralston's body had mysteriously disappeared, along with his wife!
"Another mistake he made was in thinking that Miss Durward would not show me the second anonymous letter she received—the one telling her to meet Selks. For he believed I'd accepted his theory that she was the murderess of Strex, and that I was not likely to believe anything she told me.
"In fact, I believed the second letter to be another attempt to hang something on her, and went myself to the appointment at Pinner. Unluckily I was too late. Ralston, hiding in a narrow passage between the houses on the other side of the road, shot Selks with a gun, knowing perfectly well that it would be some minutes before anyone could reach the spot. The houses—or most of them—at that end of Grange Road are to let, which is why he selected the spot.
"He probably had a car waiting somewhere at the end of the lane and drove back immediately to Palmerston Street where he had a duplicate invalid chair. It would take him only two minutes to shed his disguise in a dark street, get into the chair, and become Ralston, the crippled detective."
"What a case, Mr Vaness!" he said. "Miss Durward is lucky you came in on it. The evidence against her was strong enough to hang anyone. Well, I must get off to the police station and charge this precious couple. Needless to say we shall want you for a witness."
"I'll be there when you want me, Soames," said the journalist. "Ring me at my flat."
He put another suggestion to the detective with a satisfied grin. "By the way, you might also ring Miss Durward—she's at my flat—and apologise for the mistake you people have been making."
"I'll do that," said Soames. "It's the least we can do. Well, good-night, Mr Vaness, I'll be seeing you tomorrow, I expect."
Vaness went off down the stairs. After a few words to Mrs Strevens, he walked round to where he had parked his car. Then he drove as rapidly as possible to Fleet Street.
He found Sparkes at his desk, and in a few words told him the gist of the story.
Sparkes—surprised at nothing—was jubilant.
"What a story!" he said. "You've done it this time, Vaness. This will be the biggest scoop we've had in the last five years!"
"Hold it until tomorrow, Sparkes," said Vaness. "When I've got the OK from the Yard, we'll print it before anyone else gets it. But good-night for now. There's something more for me to do... See you."
He paused at the door of the news editor's office. "By the way, Sparkes, you might ring up my flat and tell Miss Durward that I'll be along in half an hour."
"With pleasure. But it won't take you that long to drive from here to your place."
"I know, but I'm going elsewhere first."
Ten minutes later, after having knocked up a jeweller friend in the vicinity of Charing Cross, the journalist selected a charming engagement ring. Then he got back into his car and drove off towards Garron Mansions.
It was a fine cold night, and as the car sped up Regent Street, Vaness saw before him Alexia's face, smiling and lovely. The memories of the last few unhappy days were removed from her eyes.
He trod on the accelerator.
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