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"THE SIGN ON THE ROOF" 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: "Death Chair," "The Gold Kimono" and "The Vengeance of Hop Fi." All four are now available as RGL first-edition e-books.
"The Sign on the Roof" made its first known appearance in the Scottish newspaper The Hawick News, where it was printed as a serial from July 26 to September 27, 1935.
The text used to create this RGL version of the novel appeared in The Auckland Star, New Zealand, between September 14 and October 5, 1935. Ambiguities, inconsistencies, typographical, OCR and other obvious errors have been corrected without comment.
Thanks go to the Australian bibliophile Terry Walker for processing the digital newspaper image files of the serial used to make this e-book.
—Roy Glashan, May 11, 2017
HAD it not been that Bitterly met Vaughan outside Lonsford Road tube station; had it not been for the fact that Vaughan was fresh from one of his bi-weekly quarrels with his wife, and Bitterly, half-amused, half-sympathetic, had given him the theatre tickets so that Mrs. Vaughan might be lured to a better frame of mind, the journalist would, in all probability, have gone to see the play himself. In this case he would not have met Diane Vallery that evening at the Blue Light, and, therefore, would not have been unduly concerned with the fact that an enterprising police constable, flashing his bull's eye in the early hours of a winter's morning through a gap of the hoarding at the bottom of Derham Crescent, discovered, lying across the apex of a pile of bricks, the body of the man with the broken back.
Upon such slender chances does life depend.
Vaughan went off pleased with the theatre tickets, and Bitterly crossed the street and made his way homewards.
It was seven o'clock. A mist was blowing up from the direction of Kensington Gardens. A thin, throat-catching mist heralding, he thought, the promise of a pea-soup fog. There was a slight drizzle of rain and the suggestion of an easterly wind. It was one of those entirely depressing evenings that London can produce so successfully at an unexpected moment.
Bitterly, his hands in his raincoat pockets, his black soft hat (almost a trade mark of a journalist in these days) set at its habitual angle on his head, his usual half-smile about his mouth, looked an almost jaunty figure. But his looks belied him. He was bored—unutterably bored.
And this increasing boredom with life and everything connected with life, which was enveloping his mentality almost like a blanket, perturbed him. He realised that for the last six months there had been no "kick" in life for him. It was a matter of getting up in the morning, going to Fleet Street to his desk in the offices of the Sunday Argus, doing the hundred-and-one jobs throughout the day that fall to the lot of a news editor, and going home at night. Then the business of eating his dinner, making up his mind that he would start to write a novel—that realistic novel that every journalist is going to write and never does—and eventually, somewhere in the region of eleven, putting on his hat and going round to the Vallery's because there was nothing else to do.
Just now his steps had brought him to the top of Derham Crescent, in which the Vallery flat was situated. It was not so misty here, and standing hesitant for a moment, Bitterly could see the light in the top hall of the flat at the far end of the crescent. He continued on his way, his mouth twisted a little as he thought of the domestic scene which was probably taking place in the interior of that flat.
Up in the kitchen—an overheated and tiny room—Diane would be preparing dinner; almost struggling in her efforts to achieve a punctuality which was dependent on the sporadic arrivals of the family—not forgetting Bardella, the lodger, whose inevitable lateness was almost a proverb.
Downstairs, on the floor below, in the sitting-room, would be congregated the rest of the Vallery ménage.
There would be Charles Vallery, her husband, the man who had always had hard luck; with his shabby, would-be smart clothes, a coat cut in at the waist too much, and dirty fingernails, poring over the sports columns of an evening newspaper. Charles would be "picking them out" for tomorrow; working out one of his amazing "doubles" or "trebles" that never managed to quite come off, or, if he were suffering from one of his fits of depression, gazing into the fire, thinking about something—no one ever knew what. There would be his mother, with her hawk nose and her restless, shifting eyes sitting straight up in her armchair, brooding about something—no one ever knew what—and sending one of her rare smiles of approbation at Charles, or one of her looks of ill-concealed dislike at Herbert.
She reminded Bitterly of an eagle—a rather vicious eagle, waiting to swoop down on anything unable to defend itself. In spite of the smiles she gave Bitterly, her presumed interest in his work, her inevitable seeking after knowledge, she appeared to him always to contain something remotely evil, some threat against anything or anyone. He crossed her path adversely.
There would be Herbert, Diane's brother, the young man who had always had a scheme for getting out of debt, but who only succeeded in getting deeper in. Herbert, who "adored" his sister, but who never bothered to give her a hand with anything, who spent his life in dubious night clubs making the acquaintance of still more dubious women, and who regarded every new caller at the flat as a new fount for borrowed "half-dollars."
Bitterly had met them a year before. He had floated across their lives, and, for some reason, had continued to see them until the chance acquaintanceship had ripened into a peculiar sort of friendship—a friendship which even he could not quite understand. Three, four, five nights a week would find him wandering round to the Vallery flat at ten or eleven at night, playing bridge, drinking tea, talking; never really understanding why he went there, but only realising that the day seemed incomplete if he did not go there.
Not that it was always pleasant to be there. There would be evenings when Mrs. Vallery, Charles' mother, would give vent to one of her fits of rage, when Charles would be forced to take his mother away and soothe her ruffled feelings. There would be evenings when Bitterly, playing bridge with them, would use his quiet, quick observation and would realise, with a cynical smile, that Charles was cheating. Charles was quite a good cheat. There were evenings when Charles and Herbert would indulge in a quarrel, and other more interesting times, when Charles would talk about their old life in Ceylon on the plantation when he was wealthy, before he lost his money—before, as he would say, with his self-pitying smile, they were "reduced to this."
It was on these occasions that Bitterly wondered why, even if they were "reduced to this," Charles might not at least wash behind his cars and keep his finger-nails clean.
He opened the street door and mounted the stairs to his flat on the first floor. Half way up he heard the telephone ringing.
Bitterly hurried up the remaining stairs and cursed as he inserted his flat key and opened the door.
He walked across the hall and sitting room, without bothering to switch on the light. Grabbing the telephone, he asked curtly who it was.
It was Diane. And it was apparent to Bitterly that she was somewhat diffident and rather nervous. Her voice, invariably cheerful, was quieter than usual. He sensed that she was speaking from the telephone in the sitting room of the Vallery flat, speaking softly so that no one else should hear.
Her questions came quickly
"How are you, Michael? Forgive me, please, for bothering you. Did you intend to come round here tonight? You might? Please don't. If you could possibly manage it could you meet me somewhere? I want to talk to you. Yes, it is rather urgent. I'd be very grateful. I can't say much now."
He was reassuring.
"Don't bother, Diane. Something worrying you, eh? Well—never mind. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems! Meet me at the Blue Light Club. You'll find the address in the book. I'll be waiting for you in the hall. Will ten-thirty do? All right. Good-bye."
He replaced the receiver and switched on the light. Then he stood, his hands in his raincoat pockets, his hat still perched on one side of his head, wondering.
HE was five minutes early at the Blue Light and was surprised to find Diane waiting in the hall. As he walked toward her, Bitterly noted with approval—he had always an eye for women's clothes—how well she was turned out. He knew that everything she wore was made by herself; yet the general impression that she always managed to convey was that of a very well-bred, well-dressed woman who had not a care in the world. But it was obvious to Bitterly, observant as he was and familiar with her varying expressions, that something was wrong. She was paler than usual; there were shadows beneath her eyes; also, as he took her small, gloved hand in his, he felt her fingers tremble. He wondered what it was all about.
"How are you, Michael?" she said. "I think it very good of you to come and meet me. Were you surprised when I telephoned?"
He smiled. "I'm a journalist," he said. "Nothing could surprise me. In fact, I think it would be rather wonderful to be surprised by something."
"Are you so bored?" she said. Her eyes lit up for a moment. He nodded, gloomily whimsical.
"Definitely," he said. "What shall we do about it? Shall we ring up Charles and tell him that we're going to run away together, or shall we throw a bomb at somebody? At least we would get a good news story out of it. Anyhow, it's apparent to me that I must be serious. I realised that you were speaking very quietly on the telephone so that the family shouldn't hear. I imagine that I'm going to be let into some dark and murky secret of your past. Hey? Come upstairs and have some coffee, and tell me all about your past life."
They went upstairs. He seated her in a secluded corner and ordered coffee When it was brought he gave her a cigarette. As he lit it he spoke to her quietly.
"Listen, Diane," he said, "just for a minute I'm going to be serious. You know, during my somewhat varied career in umpteen different professions I've come across many strange things and heard many strange stories. I want to give you a little warning. I know you've got something serious to talk to me about. You're not the sort of woman who asks a man like me to meet her to advise her unless she's in a pretty bad jam. You're quite intelligent, quite determined. There aren't many situations that you couldn't handle yourself, and if you've been forced to come to me for advice then I know it must be fairly serious.
"But here's my warning. It coincides with the oath of a witness in a court of law—the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Do you know, Diane, I've sat and listened to women asking my advice, knowing perfectly well that they have kept the crux of the whole situation to themselves. They've talked round it, kept back the salient fact, the thing that matters. Don't you do that.
"On the other hand, understand this, if there's anything that I can do I will do it willingly. I like you, Diane, and I suppose I've spent, during the last year anyway, quite a little time in your house."
He smiled. "Anyway, I know what it's about, roughly," he said. "Let me make some guesses. Charles has lost his job, or alternatively, his mother's decided to leave you, or, alternatively, Herbert's decided to leave you, or Bardella's going to leave you. You're in a bad way financially, maybe."
He leaned forward dramatically.
"Don't tell me the brokers are in, are they?" he said with a grin. "You see, I think it's one of two things. I think it's money, in which case my poor purse is at your disposal, or it's love, in which case I either have to slay somebody for you or make some man realise that he's unconsciously loved by a very charming woman."
She shook her head. "It's neither of those things, I'm afraid, Michael," she said quietly. "It's worse than either of them. Lack of money means little to me. I've been learning for years how to do without it. As for people leaving the flat, Bardella's gone. She won't have to worry about money any more. She's just inherited four thousand pounds from an aunt. How I envy her! Still, I'd manage to scrape through, however short of money we were, and it's not love. I've learned to do without love, too. It's worse than either of those things.
Bitterly looked at her quickly. He was surprised—for some quite unknown reason—that her eyes met his squarely.
She was even smiling a little. A strange and rather lovely person, he thought. She regarded the point of her neat brown shoe.
"You're surprised, aren't you, Michael?" she said. "I suppose I don't look like a person who should be able to be blackmailed... but, as you would say, 'That's just how it is.'"
He grinned. He refused to regard this business seriously in his mind. In any event, he thought it was no use looking serious. Probably the whole thing was a storm in a teacup of some sort; some local scandal or tittle-tattle.
"Supposing you tell me about it," he said. "All about it."
"It began a long time ago," Diane said quietly. "In Ceylon. There was a man there—he was manager of a fairly large concern on the island; his name was Vincent Lariat.
"Owing to a set of circumstances which don't matter a great deal at the moment, this man was able to make things fairly uncomfortable for me. He did. Needless to say, Charles thought the worst and made a great deal of trouble about it. That was one of the reasons we came over here.
"Naturally I thought it was all over years ago. I'd almost forgotten about it until a few days ago.
"About eleven o'clock last Monday morning this man Lariat appeared at the flat. I opened the door and nearly dropped with surprise when I saw it was he. He said he wanted to speak to me, that he must speak to me, and I let him in. I was rather nervous and I didn't want any bother, more especially as Bardella was packing up and generally preparing to leave, and Bardella at the best of times is a mischief-maker with an inclination to interfere in other people's business.
"I took him into the sitting room and asked him what he wanted. He said he wanted money and wanted it very badly and that unless I gave him some he would go to Charles and make trouble."
Bitterly interrupted. "Did he indicate how he would make trouble?" he asked.
She thought for a moment.
"He suggested that he would resuscitate things... things that I hoped Charles had forgotten about," she said. "I told him that I hadn't any money, that we were practically penniless. Then he got angry and began to shout and I told him that unless he got out I'd call the police. He went, livid with rage."
She smiled a little pathetically at Bitterly.
"I'm frightened, Michael," she said.
Bitterly nodded. "I expect you were," he said. "Tell me, where was your mother-in-law whilst all this was going on? Isn't she usually about?"
"She was out—luckily," said Diane. "She returned after he'd gone and she went off next day to some friends at Westover for a holiday. She's there now."
He nodded again. "Why, particularly, are you frightened of this man Lariat?" he asked. "Supposing he does go to Charles... well, what's Charles going to do about it. You say that he thought the worst before. By the way, exactly what did you mean by that?"
Bitterly filled his pipe carefully.
"You know, Diane," he said, "I told you before we began to talk about this that half-truths aren't any good. They don't get anybody anywhere. If I'm going to help you over this thing the least you can do is to tell me the whole truth about it. Otherwise one can do nothing that matters."
She smiled again. She looked quite pathetic, Bitterly thought, mainly because she was trying to look anything but pathetic. The smile, which was an attempt to be brave, failed dismally.
"I don't know what you'll think of me, Michael," she said after a moment. "I do hope that you won't be too hard in your mind, but I can't tell you any more. I've got to be as loyal as I can, even if it's only to myself. I thought you might help me, somehow—I don't know how. I suppose the very idea is unreasonable...."
Bitterly shifted uncomfortably.
"You're putting me in a devil of a position, Diane," he said. "You ask me to help you and you give me no information on which to base any plan of campaign. And why come to me? What about Herbert? He's your brother, you know."
She laughed. "Don't be silly, Michael," she said, with a little grimace. "Surely you know Herbert well enough to know that he's just the sort of person one doesn't go to if one is in trouble."
She got up suddenly. "I'm going home, Michael," she said. "And I owe you an apology. I've wasted your time."
He smiled. "I wouldn't say that, Diane," he said. "Just wait until I've paid the bill and I'll see you back to your door."
They took the tube back to Lonsford Road.
She was very quiet and such conversation as occurred was made by Bitterly. They were both rather uncomfortable.
He shook hands with her at the street door of the flat.
"Look here, Diane," he said. "Don't misunderstand me; but I haven't spent four years of my life in a news room without learning that nobody can make bricks without straw.
"Of course, I suppose I could try to find this fellow Lariat and give him a good hiding, but would that do any good? It might make matters worse. Don't you see, if one is dealing with a blackmailer one has got to know just what one is fighting, and, unless you tell me, I can't do anything that is really effective. Think it over and if you decide that you can 'come clean,' as they say in the films, let me know and we'll have another talk. In the meantime, if this fellow annoys you again you can ring me—either at the office or at my flat—and I'll come along—pronto."
She pressed his hand.
"You're really rather nice, Michael," she said. "But I don't think I'll have to trouble you again about this. I'll have to think of something else. Good-night."
NEXT morning Bitterly awoke with a definite sense of depression. He was annoyed with life. Women, he thought, were a disturbing influence. They were always getting into some sort of trouble and, having got into it unaided, invariably wanted someone else to get them out of it.
The truth of the matter was, of course, that Bitterly resented the fact that Diane should, for some reason best known to herself, have decided that she would not tell him the whole truth of the circumstances surrounding the "blackmail" business. He was annoyed because his amour propre was scratched at the idea of receiving a half-confidence. Diane's attitude irritated him.
The question was, did Charles really know what had happened in the old days in Ceylon or was there something else which prevented Diane telling her husband about Lariat's visit last Monday? After all, no matter how weak he might be, surely he was at least man enough to protect his wife from insult.
In this frame of mind Bitterly went through the day, definitely unable to dismiss the matter from his mind.
That evening, returning to his flat, he was disinclined, after dinner, to go round to the Vallery flat and play bridge, as had been arranged a few days before. He felt he could not go round and see them, simply because he had a disinclination to meet Diane; that, in some strange way, a barrier had been erected between himself and the Vallery household.
He went through the quite regular process of sitting down at his desk and deluding himself that he was going to do a few hours' work on his novel. He went through the usual process of getting up again five minutes afterwards, having achieved nothing. Eventually, he went for a walk, wandering round the sordid streets at the back of Edgware Road, trying to get rid of his ever increasing boredom and trying, also, to think about something else except the Diane Vallery business and the possibilities of the blackmailing gentleman making himself even more unpleasant in the near future.
This possibility concerned Bitterly. Beneath his attitude of cynicism he was really rather a chivalrous sort of person, although, as he had pointed out to Diane, he had discovered, on more than one occasion, that chivalry did not always reap its own reward.
Eventually, at 2 o'clock, he returned home and went to bed. His last realisation, before going to sleep, was that he was thinking too much about this business. He wished that something would turn up to make life a little more pleasantly interesting.
But he did not know that fate, which has a method of its own in interfering in our lives, had already planned for him some excitement in the very near future, an excitement which he might have done his best to evade.
Sometimes boredom is the lesser of two evils.
NEXT morning, soon after 8 o'clock, his telephone bell jangled. Bitterly, awakened from a deep sleep, cursed vociferously. An early telephone call usually meant that the editor had discovered some "big" news story, and Bitterly, like most news editors, had a profound distrust of the big news story which "broke" early on a Saturday morning and which usually managed to peter out into nothingness by Saturday midday. He got out of bed and walked into the sitting room to the telephone.
It was Jacquot, the Argus crime reporter.
"Good morning, Michael," said Jacquot. "Sorry to bother you, but would you mind doing something on your way down to the office?
"The position is this: This morning, at 5 o'clock, the police found the body of a man lying on a pile of bricks behind a hoarding at the bottom of Derham Crescent. They have been pulling some houses down there. This fellow's back was broken and the local police seem to think that he was a cat burglar who was climbing up the side of the house which was being pulled down, in order to get at the place next door. It looks like a good story and I wondered if you would drop in at the police station on your way down and see if there is anything new on it. I'd do it myself, but I've got an idea that I might work from another angle."
"All right, Bill," said Bitterly. "I'll call in and see them myself, and listen—don't go chasing rainbows, will you? I know you when you get on a story; it doesn't matter how obvious it is, there just has to be something mysterious about it, and, even if there wasn't anything mysterious, you'd make it. So long, see you later."
He hung up the receiver and, reflecting that it was no good going back to bed, bathed, shaved and dressed, and, after drinking a cup of coffee, wandered round to the police station. Just inside the office he met Gyves, the divisional detective inspector.
"Good morning, Mr. Bitterly," said Gyves pleasantly, "I can make two guesses what you have come about. You want some information about the fellow we found in Derham Crescent this morning. Well, here it is and here's all there is of it.
"This morning, soon after five o'clock, Mullens, who was on duty on that beat, flashed his lamp through a space in the board hoarding round the houses they are pulling down at the bottom of Derham Crescent. Lying across the top of a pile of bricks was a man. Mullens had a look at him—he was dead; his back was broken. The divisional surgeon believes that this man died between two and two-thirty this morning."
"Do you know who he was?" asked Bitterly.
Gyves shook his head.
"We don't know a thing about him," he said. "There was nothing on him, not even a laundry mark. He had money in his pocket, a new suit, new shoes, new everything."
"What do you think happened?" he asked.
"It is as obvious as the nose on your face," he said. "That place was built for a cat burglar. They are pulling down houses at the end of the Crescent and there is a sort of a natural stairway of broken wall, which any man could easily climb and so reach to the roof of the next house. It is quite obvious that this fellow had climbed a considerable way up. It had been raining a couple of hours before and there is no doubt about it that the bricks were slippery; also, he had on a pair of new shoes.
"He slipped and fell, broke his back and either died straight away or a little later, unable to move or call out, and that is all there is to it. He is not a particularly nice looking piece of work though and the new clothes he was wearing are of the cheap, ready-made type that can be bought in a slop shop anywhere. That's all there is to it, Mr. Bitterly, and I've done you a favour in telling you that.
"If I did my duty," continued the D.D.I. humorously, "I'd make you ring up the Press Department of Scotland Yard and they'd not tell you half as much as I have."
"Tell me, when's the inquest?" he asked.
"Tuesday morning, as ever was," replied the D.D.I., "and I'll tell you what the verdict will be in advance—accidental death; and do you mind telling your bright reporters, including that Sherlock Holmes of yours, Bill Jacquot, that we don't want them scrounging round this police station, making our lives a misery all day, we have other things to do. Incidentally, if it is of any use to you the Photo Press Bureau took a picture of the house and bricks and all the rest of it this morning, so you can get it from them if you want it."
"O.K." said Bitterly with a grin. "You are a nice fellow even if you are a policeman. So long."
He caught a bus and was in Fleet Street in half an hour. He was still thinking about Diane. He had definitely made up his mind that he would telephone some time during the day and arrange to see her. Maybe something else had happened; there might have been another visit or some more threats from her blackmailing acquaintance and he thought that she might be in a more confidential frame of mind. Walking down Fleet Street on his way to the Argus office he thought that at least he might try to do something about it. He also realised that, cynically, he was trying to find a sop for his own conscience, that even he, Michael Bitterly, a hard-boiled news editor, was not too keen on leaving a woman in the lurch.
In the news room the news of the Derham Crescent death had already come over the Press Association ticker. Bitterly scanned the slip bearing the report, which the boy had brought to his room.
"The body of an unknown man was found this morning by a police constable lying on a pile of bricks behind a hoarding at Derham Crescent, N.E. Up to the moment no identification has taken place. The police theory is that the man was a cat burglar who slipped and fell from the side of the wall of the house which he was trying to climb."
There followed a description of the man.
Bitterly initialled the slip and sent it in to the sub-editor's room. Let them make what they can of that, he thought. It was certainly not going to be Saturday's leading story. Accidental deaths were fairly common these days, although the cat burglar angle certainly improved it a little.
His ruminations on this point were interrupted by the large face of Jacquot as it peered round the door. Jacquot had that peculiar expression which meant that he had found something good. He closed the door carefully behind him, pushed his dilapidated hat on to the back of his head and sat down in the chair by the side of Bitterly's desk. The news editor threw him a cigarette.
"Well, Bill," he said, "you look very mysterious. What do you know?"
"I think I know something," he said. "Listen here, about this dead man on the bricks. There's more in this than meets the eye. Here's the dope: this morning, when I was out, I ran into Blooey Stevens—you know, the fellow who keeps that doss house near Seven Dials. I wanted to see Blooey about something else, and after a couple of pints he got confidential. He knows something about this dead man."
Bitterly nodded. "What does he know?" he asked.
"Just this," continued Jacquot. "This fellow parked himself at Stevens' doss house last Saturday night. Apparently, he had just arrived from abroad somewhere, worked his passage. He was down and out and almost in rags. Anyhow, the thing that made Blooey connect him with the dead man was the fact that on Sunday night he was asking where Derham Crescent was. As a matter of fact, he tried to borrow the bus fare there, but couldn't raise it. When Blooey heard the news this morning he got Scrool, the man who does the cleaning, to wander up to the mortuary and have a look at this fellow. Scrool came back and described the man. Blooey says it is the same fellow."
Bitterly nodded again.
"Well, where does that get you, Bill?" he said. "The police think he is a vagrant, a cat burglar. Their theory seems to fit the case."
"Have a heart," he said. "Listen to this. A fellow arrives from some country abroad. He is down and out and broke; he hasn't even got a bus fare. He goes about, trying to find out where Derham Crescent is, and then, five days later, he is found dead on a pile of bricks at Derham Crescent.
"Why does he have to be a cat burglar? Cat burglars don't usually come from abroad and suddenly decide to do a job, do they? Here's another thing; Blooey says that on Monday night this fellow came back to the doss house in a very good humour. He had got some money from somewhere and was flashing it all over the place. Then he went off; moved to better quarters. He took a room somewhere in the Edgware Road and I've got an idea that I can find out just where that room was.
"It looks to me as if there is something screwy behind this business."
"And here's another thing. How do we know that this fellow died of a broken back, just because that's the most obvious thing?"
Bitterly laughed. "What are you going to do, make a first class mystery out of this, Bill?" he asked. "What do you think he died of?"
"I don't think anything," said Jacquot, "but I know that police surgeons are not so keen about going to the trouble of a post mortem over an unknown tramp. But just because that fellow was found on those bricks with a broken back it doesn't seem to me he had to die that way. He might have been killed anywhere; might have been poisoned. After all, the obvious place to throw a body is behind a hoarding that's not going to be disturbed over the weekend."
"There might be something in what you say," he said. He had a great confidence in Jacquot, Jacquot had a nose for news; Bitterly wished, rather cynically, that it were not quite so good, for something was hammering away inside his head, telling him that the dead man on the bricks was none other than Lariat... he knew it was Lariat, just as he knew that the dogged obstinacy of Jacquot was on the way to turn something that the police might let go as an accident to an unknown wastrel, into something else that was not so nice. Outwardly he showed nothing; he merely expressed professional interest.
"What do you want to do, Bill?" he asked.
Jacquot stamped out his cigarette-end on the desk and threw it into the wastepaper basket.
"I want to get hold of this fellow that Stevens knows, the fellow who knows the address that this man went to in Edgware Road after he got the money. I want to find out what they know about it. I want to find out where he got that new outfit from and I want to find out where he got the money to buy it.
"Listen here, Mike, do you know, when they found this fellow he had 23 one-pound notes in his pocket, and he's a cat burglar? Yes, and I am the Prince of Wales! Have you ever known of a cat burglar going out to do a job with 23 one-pound notes in his pocket?"
"It's strange," said Bitterly. "It certainly does look odd. Do you think he was murdered?"
"You've said it," said Jacquot. "I think he was murdered and, afterwards, they chucked him over the top of that hoarding. That's easy enough to do. Maybe that's what broke his back."
Bitterly showed more interest.
"Look here, Bill," he said. "I tell you what we'll do. Not a word about this to anyone. Go and see Stevens again. Find out where this man lived in the Edgware Road. See the landlady, try and find out who he was, where he came from. He must have talked to somebody. Slip back as quickly as you can and let me know. We might be able to print a story on this to-night."
Jacquot nodded and picked up his hat.
"O.K.," he said, "I'll be seeing you."
TWO hours later he came through on the telephone.
"Listen, Mike," he said. "There's a story here all right. Get this. Stevens tells me that last Monday, about 5.30 in the afternoon, this fellow came back to the doss house. Later he talked to a man named Mavins, who was staying there. He asked Mavins where he could get himself some clothes. Mavins put him on to a slop shop, run by a fellow called Izzey Myers, in Bone Street, off the Edgware Road.
"On Monday evening this fellow went to Myers and bought himself a new outfit, and it was Myers who put him on to the room a few minutes' walk away which he took that night. I've seen the landlady. This fellow came along and saw her and took quite a decent room on the second floor, at 25 shillings a week. He also arranged that he should have certain food. Now get this, he paid his rent in advance up till the end of the week. He told her that he had just come over from Ceylon and that he was going back there the following Saturday. He seemed to be well supplied with money. He was quite quiet, behaved himself excellently.
"On the Thursday night at twelve o'clock he knocked at the door of her room and asked her if she could let him have a sheet of notepaper and an envelope. She was annoyed at being disturbed. She asked him if the morning would not do. He said he 'had got to write a letter' that night. She told him that, in any event, he had missed the last post. He said he didn't give a damn about that; he had got to get the letter written and posted.
"Anyhow, to cut a long story short, she gave him the notepaper and the envelope and he went upstairs, first of all asking her if there was a stamp slot-machine in the neighbourhood where he could get a stamp. It was quite obvious that he wanted to catch the seven o'clock post the next morning, Friday morning. It stands to reason that that letter was pretty important if he had to knock her up to get that notepaper and envelope. I'd give something to find out who that letter was for.
"And get this, Mike; he was going back to Ceylon on Saturday. He had only arrived the Saturday before, after working his passage, absolutely broke. And he had not intended to go back, because, down at Blooey Stevens' doss house, he had asked other people about the possibility of getting a job over here.
"We know that this fellow had got some money, and it's pretty obvious that he was going to be able to pay his own fare back to Ceylon. Before you ask me to tell you why, I'll tell you. I went down to the Ceylon Steamship Line, giving a description of the dead man. They remembered him. Why did they remember him? Because he was the fellow that worked his way back and had been paid off the Saturday before, and now he comes back to the dock office inquiring about a third-class passage. He told them he had just worked his way back on one of their boats and the inquiry clerk asked him if he had come into a fortune. He grinned and said, 'Maybe.' It looks as if the plot is thickening all right, doesn't it?"
"You're right," said Bitterly. "There's a story here, Jacquot. Look here, keep on it, take a run down to Tilbury and, if the boat he came over on is still in the dock, get aboard her; find out anything you can about this fellow. There may be something big behind this."
IT was one o'clock and Bitterly was just going out to lunch when Jacquot telephoned again.
"I've a bit more," he said. "The boat he came over on is still here. His story was true all right; he worked his passage and took £8 in wages. He lost the whole lot, except five shillings, playing cards the day he came ashore. He said he knew where he could get plenty more. And there's one thing he seems to have asked everybody. He wanted particularly to know where Derham Crescent was. Funny he should be so interested in that place. They didn't like him aboard the boat. They say he was a nasty bit of work. What do we do now, Mike?"
"There's nothing you can do," said Bitterly. "We've got enough to work on. I've got an idea that we won't say anything about what we've found out. We'll run this story on the lines as it came over the ticker. A couple of days' work on this and we might find out a lot. By the way," said Bitterly casually, "what's this fellow's name?"
"Oh, I might have remembered that," said Jacquot. "I meant to tell you. Funny name for an Englishman to have, his name was Lariat. Vincent Lariat."
"O.K.," said Bitterly. "Come back, Bill."
He hung up the receiver and sat gazing out of the window in front of him. So the man who had died on the bricks at Derham Crescent was Vincent Lariat, the man who had called on Monday to see Diane, the man who had blackmailed her. He had been certain of this all along, from the moment that Jacquot had telephoned that morning. Yet there had been a sneaking hope in his mind that it might not be so, that it might be merely a very long-armed coincidence.
He stood for a long time, looking out of the window, drawing almost unconsciously at a cigarette, and wondering what the next thing would be. Jacquot suspected murder, and when murder was suspected the first thing the police did was look for a motive. And there was motive enough in all conscience. He wondered just how much Jacquot, with his keen nose for news and his flair for arriving at the crux of a situation, would find out within the next couple of days. Supposing he discovered Lariat had already been in Derham Crescent, had already called on and threatened Diane?
Bitterly was worried.
BY four o'clock in the afternoon Bitterly felt that he must take some sort of action about Diane. He was concerned with the Derham Crescent death from two distinct viewpoints. Primarily, he was interested in the fact that he now had a definite suspicion that Diane Vallery was implicated in this business. His secondary viewpoint, the news angle, was purely professional, and he knew that Jacquot, having started an investigation, would see it through to the bitter end.
He rang the bell and sent for Jacquot.
"Anything fresh, Bill?"' he asked, as the crime reporter entered his office.
"You know all there is to know, Michael," said Jacquot. "I don't think there is anything else I can do to-day. We've got some very interesting facts, and now there is only one thing to be done."
"What?" asked Bitterly, knowing perfectly well what the reply would be.
Jacquot lit a cigarette.
"It's as plain as the nose on your face that this man Lariat wanted to talk to somebody who lives in Derham Crescent. His one idea, ever since he had been in England, seems to me to have been to find out where the place was and to go there. Why? That's what I want to know. I think I'll take a look round that district to-morrow, Mike," the crime reporter concluded.
Bitterly shook his head.
"It's the very thing I don't want you to do," he said. "Just think for a moment. The actual situation in this case is this: Officially, at the moment, from the police point of view and that of everybody, this is an unknown down-and-out and nobody is bothering very much about it. We have an idea that there is something more behind it, but before we come into the open we want one story that we can substantiate, not a lot of theories. Just because this man wanted to know where Derham Crescent was it doesn't follow that somebody in Derham Crescent murdered him. You have to see a murder because the only form of death that interests you is murder!"
"But," continued Bitterly, "there's another aspect and it is this. The inquest will be held next Tuesday and tomorrow the sole topic of the conversation in the neighbourhood of Derham Crescent will be who and what the man was. If you go snooping about there immediately, if there is anybody in or around the place who knows something about this fellow Lariat, you can take it for granted that they are not going to talk to you. Why? Well, obviously, because if they had anything to say, if they had any reason to believe that this man Lariat was coming to Derham Crescent, they would have already mentioned it to the police. After all, a full description of the man has been printed in every newspaper. It stands to reason, therefore, that if anybody in Derham Crescent knows anything about him and hasn't said anything they have a very good reason for keeping quiet. That being so, they are not going to talk to anybody, not even Jacquot."
Bitterly smiled at the reporter and threw him a cigarette. He was watching Jacquot keenly and saw that he had agreed.
"You see," continued the news editor, "I've got another idea about this thing too. It's purely a theory. You say that this Lariat was looking around for a job. It's quite on the cards that he read an advertisement in a newspaper or, maybe, heard of something while he was coming over on the boat. Perhaps some member of the crew had tipped him off that there was work to be obtained in the neighbourhood of Derham Crescent. There may have been some quite innocent reason for his being interested in the neighbourhood. We've got to be careful not to make any mystery.
"My idea is this. We'll lay off this business tomorrow. We'll wait till Monday midday just to see if there is anybody who does come forward, after reading the description of the man to identify him. Remember this, the only people who know that this man was Vincent Lariat are yourself, myself, Blooey Stevens, Scrool and, possibly, the man Mavins. Stevens, Scrool and Mavins are not going to talk to anybody—those three people have a rooted objection to getting mixed up with anything connected with the police. You and I aren't going to talk. Now then, let's wait and see what happens. Lay off till Monday midday, then talk to me about it again."
Jacquot considered for a moment.
"I think you're right, Michael," he said. "I think we've got to lay off to give anybody who wants a chance time to come forward. If they don't then we'll get ahead with it."
"All right." said Bitterly, "that's how it is."
He felt a sense of relief after Jacquot had gone, knowing the enterprising crime reporter would not make any fresh discoveries for a little time, time enough to give Bitterly the opportunity of doing what he wanted to do. He lit a cigarette and thought for a few minutes.
Then he telephoned to the Vallery flat. Diane herself answered.
"Hallo, Diane," said Bitterly. '"This is Michael. Have you read the papers this morning?"
Her voice came coolly over the wire. "Oh, yes," she said. "I suppose you're referring to what the police found."
Bitterly was a little shocked at her coolness. "That's right," he answered. "You know who it was, don't you?"
"Yes," she replied. "I know who it was, Michael. I knew when I read the description in the midday newspaper."
"How do you feel about it?" he asked.
There was a moment's pause, then—"Oh, I suppose I'm glad," she said. "I expect I ought to feel sorry, but I am not a hypocrite; I am glad."
"Look here, Diane," he said. "I want to talk to you alone. I'm going off at ten o'clock to-night; would you like to meet me at that little café, the place near the Lonsford Road tube station? I'll be there at twenty past ten."
She answered without hesitation. "Oh, yes, Michael," she said. "I'll be there."
"O.K." he answered and hung up the receiver. He thought that Diane had taken the news of Lariat's death very coolly. Too coolly.
MICHAEL BITTERLY left the Argus Office at ten minutes to ten. For November the night was a fine one and, as he walked to the tube station Bitterly ruminated on the strangeness of life. He wished the interview before him was with anyone else but Diane. Bitterly was a good journalist, a keen investigator, possessed of a really good analytical mind, excellent for solving problems where other people were concerned, but not so good where he himself was concerned. He was thinking that, in other circumstances, he would rather have enjoyed the subtle questioning which would not fail to elicit roughly the possibilities of Diane Vallery being implicated in Lariat's death.
She was waiting for him when he arrived at the café and, as he pushed open the door, he saw her seated in the far corner, neat, well-groomed and with her usual smile of welcome. It seemed to Bitterly that her presence added a subtle touch of tone to the indifferent café and for a moment it seemed ridiculous that there should be any connection between this woman, whose quality was obvious, and the sordid death of a cheap blackmailer. But the thought was dismissed almost before it had taken shape for, like every other newspaper man, Bitterly knew that truth was, indeed, stranger than fiction, that it is always the totally unexpected and incongruous which is true and that the obvious is seldom true.
He took off his overcoat and ordered coffee for them both. Then he sat down, gave her a cigarette and came straight to the point. One of Bitterly's methods of cross-examination was to make an apparent appearance of complete frankness and honesty in order to put the mind of the questioned person at ease. He used this method now.
"I've asked you to meet me to-night, Diane," he began, "because I am worried, very worried."
She looked up surprised. "I am sorry, Michael," she said. "Can I help?"
"I hope so," he replied. "You see, it may sound fatuous to you, but when I discovered this morning that this dead man, this man who died so near your flat, was none other than the Lariat who had been to see you last Monday morning, and about whom you asked my help, I should not have been human if I hadn't thought there was the possibility of a connection between you and his death."
"Do you think I killed him, Michael?" she said. "And, even supposing I wanted to kill someone, I don't think I should be awfully good at breaking their back. Isn't that a strange method of murder?"
He looked at her.
"We know that his back was broken, Diane," he said, "but we don't know that that is what he died of. It may have been that. And because I wanted to talk to you about it, it doesn't mean that I believe that you did it. You see, I feel a little bit odd about not offering you my help the other night. I was thinking this afternoon that, had I been a little more sporting this death might not have happened. Not that my attitude was not justified. It was. You only gave me half your confidence.
"What worries me is this. I've got a very good crime reporter, Bill Jacquot, and Jacquot has already discovered that this officially 'unknown' man is none other than Lariat. He has discovered that Lariat arrived from Ceylon last Saturday and that from the time of his arrival in this country he was interested in the whereabouts of Derham Crescent. Jacquot knows that Lariat wanted to see somebody who lived in Derham Crescent. In point of fact, it was only this afternoon that I was able to stop him making inquiries tomorrow.
"Don't you understand this, Diane? That it is quite possible that somebody may have seen this man come to your flat on Monday, that Jacquot will find out, that he will trace a connection between yourself and Lariat? Well, what's the next thing? The police are going to want to know something about it. An ordinary case of accidental death of an unknown man will turn into something which they have got to investigate. Would you like that?"
"I should not like that at all, Michael," she said.
Bitterly thought that her voice sounded grim. She shook her head. He could see that she was perturbed.
He nodded. "Precisely! I want to find a way round that. Maybe this man did meet his death in the way the police think. Maybe he was a cat burglar and maybe he did fall down and break his back. Personally," he went on with a little smile, "I don't believe that. But what I do want to do is to assure myself that there is no possible means of definitely connecting you with this death. Once I have done this, then there is no reason why I cannot loose the sleuth-hound, Jacquot, and let him get on with it.
"If anyone in the neighbourhood tells him that they saw Lariat come to your flat it's quite easy for you to confirm the fact and say that he came to ask you where somebody was whom he once knew lived in the Crescent, somebody who had moved."
"I see," she said. "I think I understand. I'll answer any questions you want to ask, Michael."
"All right," he said. "Well, you know that the police theory is that this man died between two and two-thirty last night. Where were you then?"
"I was in the flat," she answered. "In bed."
He nodded. "That's all right," he said, "because everybody else in the family knew that you were in the flat and in bed."
She shook her head.
"Oh, no, Michael," she said. "I was alone."
He looked up surprised. "Alone?" he queried. "Where was everyone then, Diane? Where was Mrs. Vallery, your husband's mother?"
"She went away last Tuesday," she answered. "She went to stay with some friends of Charles' near Westover."
"Where was Charles, Diane?" he asked.
"Well, it was Friday night," she said. "You know, Charles always works late on Friday night. You ought to know that."
He nodded. "Of course. That's the night he drives that commercial traveller man out to Beaconsfield. isn't it?"
"Yes," she said, "he does that every Friday night, as you know. Mr. Bardon, the traveller, arrives about 12.30. Charles meets him at the station, drives him out to Beaconsfield and then comes back."
"What time did he get back to the flat?" asked Bitterly.
"I don't know," she said, "but it must have been well after half past three."
"Why?" he asked.
"I was up at half-past three," she said, "talking to Herbert. We noticed the time and Charles had not returned. I think he came in about 40 minutes after that. I think so."
"I see," said Bitterly. "So Charles was driving Bardon out to Beaconsfield and arrived back at about ten past four. Now what about your brother Herbert?"
"Herbert came in at a quarter past three. He had been to a party. I was asleep and he woke me up. He was making himself some tea and I heard the rattle of the tea things, so I got up and put on my dressing gown and went into the kitchen. When I got there I had a bit of a row with Herbert." She smiled at the recollection. "First of all he had used all the milk for himself; there was none for me, so I couldn't have any tea and, secondly, I was rather fed up with the hours that he keeps. He is always coming in at three and four o'clock in the morning. That's what made me notice the time. Then I went for him about the cat," she said, her smile deepening.
Bitterly grinned. The cat, poor old Shah Persia.
"What had he done to the cat?"
"He hadn't done anything. That was the point," she replied. "You know, the Shah Persia is always getting himself lost or wandering in along the window ledge to the people next door. He disappeared on Friday morning and I asked Herbert to go and look for him. We usually find him in the basement of the house next door. I was angry with Herbert, firstly for being selfish and using all the milk—he is a selfish person you know; secondly, about his late hours, and thirdly, about not even bothering to look for the Shah. I suppose I was talking to him till about twenty five to four, then I went back to my room, disgruntled and tea-less."
Bitterly nodded once more.
"I see," he said. "So the position is, Diane, that between two and two-thirty, the times between which this man was supposed to have died, there was nobody at all in the flat except yourself?"
"That's so, Michael," she said. "I was alone." She smiled again, sadly. "Does that make it look very bad for me?"
He grinned. "It would make it look very bad for you if Jacquot knew it. Consider the situation: here's a man calls at your flat last Monday, tries to blackmail you into giving him some money, you refuse and send him about his business. Five days later this man is found dead, quite near to your flat, and at the time he died you were alone. From the moment this man has arrived in England he has been trying to find where Derham Crescent is. What for? Obviously, because he wants to find you for purposes of the aforesaid blackmail and, as he came to Derham Crescent to find you last Monday, most people would believe that on his second visit to Derham Crescent he came to find you. It's also not so good that at the time of this second visit you are quite alone in your flat.
"But now, look here, Diane," said Bitterly. "You know that I'd like to help you. Why don't you tell me all about this man Lariat? Why don't you tell me what the hold was he had over you? Why don't you tell me the truth?"
She looked up at him; her eyes were a little cold, the coldness of pride, Bitterly thought.
"I am sorry, Michael," she said, "but I cannot tell you that. I told you once before that it doesn't only concern me. If you want to think that I had something to do with this awful business you must think it. I know I didn't."
"That's all very well, my dear," he said, "but it's not what I think. I know you. It's what other people may think."
She looked him in the eye again. "You know what my life has been like, Michael," she said. "It's a long story of unhappiness, and you know what my life is like now. Do you think I care what people think? What anybody thinks? Now I must go home."
"All right," he said. "Anyhow, thank you for answering my questions. By the way, where's Herbert? Is he on another of his nocturnal jaunts tonight?"
She laughed. "Oh, yes," she said. "Herbert spends all his time and his money, as you know, 'chasing the high spots,' as he calls it. To-night I believe he is at a midnight dance at the Pear Tree Club, one of those nasty little places which some young men find so interesting."
Bitterly nodded and made a mental note of the Pear Tree Club. Then he took her home.
He left her on the doorstep. He said "Good-night" at the door of the house and walked slowly back to his rooms. He was even more worried. He was beginning to suspect Diane.
BITTERLY had spent an hour walking up and down his sitting-room, considering the interview which he proposed to have with Herbert, considering Herbert's mentality and wondering just whether he knew anything about the man Lariat, whether by any chance he was aware of the truth of the circumstances which had taken place in Ceylon between Lariat and his sister.
At last he knocked out his pipe, put on his hat and took a taxicab to the Pear Tree Club. This club was one of those places which call themselves clubs, but which anyone may enter, providing one has five shillings and doesn't look like a policeman in plain clothes.
Bitterly found Herbert seated at the far end of the dingy smoke-laden dance-room, filled with the usual crowd of over-dressed young Jews and flashy, jaded women. Herbert was busily engaged in a rather too intimate conversation with one of these who looked as if she had put her lipstick on with a trowel and he was not too pleased when Bitterly told him that he wanted to talk to him.
Eventually, however, Herbert's weak good nature asserted itself and, together, they left the club.
"What's the trouble, Michael?" asked Herbert, a little drunkenly. "Something must be very wrong when the great Michael Bitterly condescends to chase me about the West End in the dead of night. What's the matter?"
"We'll go and have some coffee," said Michael, "and I'll tell you about it."
A few minutes later they were seated in Lyons' Corner House in Piccadilly Circus.
When their coffee had been brought, Bitterly started: "Now listen here, Herbert. I don't want you to get the wind up, and I don't want you to take a too serious viewpoint of what I'm going to tell you, but I believe that forewarned is forearmed. Here's the point.
"Just how much you already know about what I'm going to tell you I don't know, but I'm going to take it for granted that you don't know anything. The position is this: Last Monday morning a man by the name of Vincent Lariat called at the flat and saw Diane. This man, apparently, had known Diane and Charles and possibly yourself in the old days when you were on the plantation in Ceylon. Anyhow, this man has some hold, slight or otherwise, over Diane, and he called on her for the purpose of blackmailing her into giving him some money. She hadn't got any. She told him so and she threatened him with the police. He went off, swearing vengeance. Diane was, naturally, frightened and she did me the honour of asking me for my advice and help.
"Rightly or wrongly I was not inclined to do anything for her until she told me the whole truth about the matter. She refused to do this for some reasons best known to herself.
"If you've seen the papers this morning you know that a man was found dead on a pile of bricks at the bottom of Derham Crescent. This body was that of the man Lariat, the man who called on your sister and threatened her last Monday."
Herbert took a gulp of coffee and lit a cigarette. Bitterly thought that his face was a little white.
"Well, what about it, Michael?" he said. "What's it got to do with me?"
"It hasn't got anything to do with you," said Bitterly with a smile. "But it may have a lot to do with Diane. You see, ever since this man has been in this country, which is a matter of just over a week, he's been trying to find out where Derham Crescent was. Obviously he wanted to find your sister. At the present moment the man is classified by the police as unknown, but in point of fact, he isn't a bit unknown. I know who he is, my chief crime reporter knows who he is, and, maybe, other people know too.
"Do you realise that if somebody recognises the description of this man in the newspapers and comes forward and identifies the body and the police discover that this was the man who called on your sister last Monday, Diane may very easily be dragged into this business?"
Herbert's face took on a look as near indignation as was possible.
"Why?" he asked more soberly. "What's it got to do with her? Even if this fellow did go to see her it doesn't mean that she'd know anything about what happened afterwards on Saturday morning."
Bitterly considered for a moment.
"We may know that, Herbert," he said. "But, however much we like to think that, it doesn't mean that the police will think that. Supposing, just for the sake of argument, they become sufficiently interested in this man to order a post-mortem. Supposing, for the sake of argument, they found that he died from some other cause than having his back broken. Don't you see that they would then look for a motive?
"Don't you see that there is one person who would have a motive for removing Lariat? In point of fact, one might easily believe that, as this man had only been in this country for a week, there was only one person who really wanted him out of the way, one person with a motive for putting him out of the way, one person only who had cause to fear him and who knew him, that person being Diane.
"Don't you see this?" Bitterly continued. "This man made trouble for your sister in Ceylon. He went to see her last Monday morning when it's known that he's penniless, but on Monday night he has money, sufficient money to move his rooms and to buy himself clothes. It may easily be that people might believe that it was Diane who found that money for him, because she was frightened. Don't you see that, beside the landlady, nobody seems to have seen or talked to this man since last Monday morning, when he called at the flat, except Diane?"
Herbert leant across the glass top table.
"Oh, really," he said. "Well, don't you believe it, Michael. Don't you believe it. Maybe I can surprise you."
Herbert grinned. "Maybe you'd like to know that this Vincent Lariat came to see me on Monday, too."
For a moment Bitterly's habitual calm deserted him, he was amazed. Herbert grinned.
"I thought that would surprise you," he said. "Look here, Michael, if you think anybody is going to hang anything on to my sister because this fellow made a lot of trouble in Ceylon, because he came to see her last Monday, because he's dead now, you can think again.
"You say you wouldn't help her because she wouldn't tell you the whole truth. I'll tell you why she wouldn't tell you the truth. She didn't tell you the whole story because she wouldn't give me away."
Herbert paused for a moment, stubbed out his cigarette and lit a fresh one. Bitterly noticed that his fingers were trembling.
"I didn't know that the swine had been to see her last Monday," continued Herbert. "If I had I might have lost my temper with him, although, heaven knows, he had me in a tough corner."
"You know, Herbert," he said. "I think the best thing you can do is to tell me all about this right from the start. Let's have some more coffee."
They waited for the coffee to be brought; then Herbert went on.
"This is the way it is," he said. "I suppose I am a bit of a fool, but then I always have been. You know, when we were out in Ceylon, Charles and Diane were running the plantation, Charles' plantation. I used to work in the offices of a big tea firm out there. I had a decent job and this fellow Lariat was the office manager. Well, to cut a long story short, one day Lariat discovered some cash was missing. He also discovered that I was the person who had had it. He was a nasty bit of work, was Lariat, a fellow who was always very proud of his success with women, and he was very keen on Diane.
"Instead of having me kicked out of the place and arrested, he went to Diane and made some pretty lousy suggestions to her. I've got to say, in fairness to myself, that I didn't know this at the time. Diane told him to go to blazes, but naturally she was very worried about the matter. She didn't want her brother to see the inside of a convict prison.
"Eventually, Lariat compromised. He stopped pestering her and said that he would be quite prepared to forget about it if the money were put back and he had £200 for himself.
"Well, Diane did it. She begged, borrowed, did everything she could. She got the money and she was able to put back what I had taken, and she was able to give Lariat the £200. But, as a result of this business, her name got coupled with Lariat's, and Charles, who, as you know, is a pretty nasty specimen, made things pretty hot for her. This was just before we left Ceylon.
"Now you've got to realise that I'm now working in the London office of the same firm, and if they know what I'd done out in Ceylon they'd fling me out as soon as look at me. The fact that the money had been put back would mean nothing to them, and Lariat knew this.
"He was waiting for me outside the offices last Monday at lunch time. He looked like a tramp. He told me he wanted to have a talk with me and I was pretty frightened, I can tell you. I took him over to a pub near by, and gave him a drink. He told me that he was down and out and broke, that he'd got to have some money and that I was going to find some for him or there'd be trouble. He said he'd tell the firm about what happened in Ceylon and I'd be flung out. I told him that I hadn't got any money and I told him that I was up to my neck in debt and couldn't raise any. He said that didn't matter, I'd got to get it from somewhere, that he'd give me till 7.30 that night to get it or next morning he'd blow the gaff.
"He said something else, too, that was rather peculiar, having regard to what happened afterwards. He was, obviously, in a rage. I know why now; he'd just left Diane. She had just threatened him with the police. Anyhow, he was pretty livid as he said this. He said that if he had two million pounds he'd still make me find some money just to annoy me.
"I didn't know what to do. Eventually, I thought there was just a chance I might raise a few quid by the evening, so I asked him to meet me at 7 o'clock at the Green Fly in Mayfair. I said I'd do what I could. He said he'd be there and I had better have some money, and went off.
"Well, my luck was out. I couldn't raise a bean. I suppose I've borrowed money from everybody I could. Anyhow, I turned up at the Green Fly at 7, and a few minutes afterwards in he came.
"What a change had taken place! He'd got a new suit on; he looked quite decent. He slapped me on the back and told me I was the best fellow in the world. He said I was to forget about everything he'd said that morning, that he was only having a game with me, that he liked me a lot. He insisted on buying drinks and gave me a big cigar. He was flashing ten-pound notes all over the place.
"He stayed with me for half an hour, then he went off, waving goodbye to me as he went out."
"I see," said Bitterly. "So he got some money from somewhere and he wanted to be your friend? He wanted you to forget everything he'd said that morning. That's rather funny." Bitterly thought for a moment. "Devilish funny," he continued. "In the morning after he has left Diane, he is livid with rage, he tells you that if he had two million pounds he'd still make you find some money. But in the evening he wants to be very friendly with you. He's got some money and he buys you drinks.
"I'd like to know where he got that money. Anyhow," he continued, "let's get to the important part of this business, Herbert, let's get to Friday night."
Herbert looked up, obviously interested.
"What about Friday night?" he said.
"Just this," said Bitterly. "It seems that Diane was alone in the flat at the time when the police surgeon believes this Lariat died. Charles, apparently, had gone to drive Bardon out to Beaconsfield, his usual Friday night job. Mrs. Vallery was with friends in the country, and you weren't there either. What time did you get back to the flat, Herbert?"
Herbert thought for a minute. "I suppose it would be about half past three," he said. "I'm afraid I was a little bit binged. I shouldn't have noticed the time except that Diane commented on it."
Bitterly nodded. "Tell me, Herbert," he said, "exactly what happened after you arrived home?"
Herbert considered. "I let myself into the flat," he said eventually, "and had a look into the sitting room. I thought there was just a chance that Charles might have got back early, but it was empty, so I switched off the light and went upstairs to the kitchen. I expect I made a bit of noise, and you know Diane's bedroom is immediately opposite the kitchen.
"Anyhow, eventually I decided I would make myself some tea. I tried to keep as quiet as I could, but I expect I must have rattled the teacups a bit, because, a little while afterwards, Diane came into the kitchen. She asked me if Charles were back, and I said 'No'. Then she said she thought she'd have some tea. Then the trouble started—I'd made my own tea and drunk it and there wasn't any milk; I'd given it all to the cat.
"I think she was annoyed about it. She was annoyed with me generally. She gave me a little lecture on the hours I've been keeping," said Herbert, looking a little bit sheepish. "That's how we came to notice the time. It was twenty-to-four. I suppose she thought I was in a mood to take a good telling-off.
"She was annoyed about the cat, too. One of my jobs," continued Herbert, with a grin, "is wandering round the neighbourhood, finding the Shah when he gets lost, which is a business which happens about four times a week."
"I see," said Bitterly. He lit another cigarette and drew at it slowly. He was thinking. Here was an incongruity. When he had talked to Diane she had told him that there was no milk for her tea because Herbert had drunk it all. Now here was Herbert telling him that there wasn't any milk for her because he had given it to the cat. Yet a second afterwards, he had said that she was additionally annoyed with him because he hadn't been to look for the cat. How could Herbert have given the milk to the cat if he had not been to look for it? Bitterly made a mental note.
"What were you doing on Friday night, Herbert?" he asked.
"I was at the Pear Tree Club till about half past twelve," said Herbert. "Then I met some people and I went off to their place near Russell Square. It was a bottle party and we all got rather tight. I was there till about 3 o'clock, I should think," said Herbert. "Then I went home."
Bitterly nodded. "I suppose everybody at that party was fairly tight, Herbert?" he said. Herbert nodded.
"I'm afraid they were," he said with a grin. "Why?"
"Just this," said Bitterly. "I don't suppose there was anybody sufficiently sober at that party to know the exact time that you did leave, was there?"
Herbert agreed. "I should think not," he said.
"And what time did you get there, do you think?" asked Bitterly.
"I should think about one o'clock," said Herbert.
Bitterly nodded. "And you left about three?"
He leaned across the table.
"Look here, Herbert," he said. "I think this is the way it is going to be. You were at the Pear Tree Club till about ten past twelve, you met your friends at about twenty past twelve, you got to their place in Russell Square about a quarter to one, and you left there about half past one, arriving home at Derham Crescent at about three minutes to two. If you liked to hurry you could walk it in that half an hour."
"What's the idea?" asked Herbert.
"The police think that this man Lariat died between two and two-thirty," said Bitterly, "and I think it would be a very good idea if, instead of arriving home at 3.30, the time when you did arrive, you arrived home at 2 o'clock."
Herbert nodded. "I see," he said, "you want somebody to have been in the flat with Diane at the time when the accident took place."
He leaned across the table to Bitterly, his face tense. "Look here, Michael," he said. "You don't think that anybody is going to suggest that Diane had anything to do with this, do you?"
"I don't think anything," he said, "but I think it's going to be a very good idea for you to be in a position to say that you were in that flat at 2 o'clock. It's going to short-circuit my crime reporter, Bill Jacquot, from jumping to any premature conclusions, and it's not going to hurt anybody. The great thing is—I want you to be certain that there was nobody at that Russell Square party sufficiently sober to know the time when you did actually leave."
Herbert grinned. "Don't you worry about that," he said. "They were all cockeyed when I met 'em; and, as for knowing what time I left, they were in such a state that none of them would probably even remember that I'd ever been there."
"All right," said Bitterly. "Stick to that, and you needn't say anything to Diane about it. In any event, nobody is going to be making any inquiries round Derham Crescent until Monday afternoon at the earliest, and, if needs be, I can see you again before then. In the meantime don't say anything to Diane about it. There's no need to worry her."
They finished their coffee and walked back together. At Notting Hill Gate station they parted, Herbert going off to the flat, leaving Bitterly to walk slowly to his own rooms.
BITTERLY, seated on the top of the bus which was taking him towards Oxford Street, pondered on the interview which lay before him, the interview with Bardella. After leaving Herbert the night before he had wandered about, trying hard to find some point from which he might form a working basis of thought. Obviously, Herbert's story had completely altered the complexion of things; but, really, it only complicated things more. If anything it made matters rather worse for Diane.
Twenty minutes later he knocked at the door of Bardella's flat. She opened the door herself, receiving him with that vivacious and welcoming smile which she reserved for most members of the male sex.
"Fancy seeing you, Michael," she said. "You were the last person I expected. I thought you didn't like me."
"Really," said Bitterly. "Why, Bardella?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said, "except that you've always been rather standoffish, haven't you? You haven't exactly thrown yourself at me, have you?"
"Maybe not," he said. "But, then, Bardella, I have never had an opportunity, have I?"
He sat down in the chair which she indicated while she took her seat at the very new and rather ornate little writing desk which stood in the corner of the over-furnished sitting room, by the window.
"To what am I indebted for the honour of this visit, Michael?" asked Bardella. "Don't tell me it's my sex appeal."
"Oh, I don't know," he replied airily. "That might have a lot to do with it. But, in point of fact, Bardella, I wanted to talk to you about something that is rather serious."
She made a grimace.
"I don't like serious things," she said. "I hope it isn't going to be too awful. What is it? Has Diane been saying catty things about me? Has she been telling you that I've vamped Herbert or something? I wouldn't be surprised."
He laughed. "I don't think she says catty thing about anybody, Bardella," he said. "No, it's not that. I wanted to talk to you about this dead man—this man who was found with a broken back behind the hoarding at Derham Crescent. You've read about it, of course?"
She nodded, surprised. "Yes, of course," she said.
She leaned forward with a dramatic gesture.
"Listen, Michael," she said. "For heaven's sake, don't tell me that you suspect me of murder. I couldn't hurt a fly!"
Bitterly, tired of Bardella already, came down to hard facts.
"Listen here, Bardella," he said. "Have you ever seen or spoken to this man?" She shook her head.
"I have not, Michael," she said. "But why all these questions? What's all the trouble about? Whatever can it have to do with me?"
"Nothing at all, my dear," said Michael. "But, you know, I'm a news editor and my business is trying to find out things; very often a tiny overheard remark, the flimsiest clue may be important. So you've never spoken to this man. Have you seen him?"
Bardella shook her head. "No, I have not," she said shortly.
Bitterly nodded. "I see," he said. He leaned forward. "But you've heard him, haven't you, Bardella?" he said. "You've heard him talk?"
She stiffened. "Look here, Michael," she said. "I don't like all these questions, I think it's rather rude. I am surprised at you, coming here and—"
"Don't get so excited, Bardella," he said. "Why don't you tell the truth? Do you mean to tell me that you did not hear this man's voice whilst you were packing your things, just before you left the Vallery flat last Monday? Of course you did, and why are you disguising the fact?"
"I'm not disguising anything," replied Bardella angrily. "I don't stick my nose into everybody's business. I've got my own affairs to think about. Why should I have heard him?"
"You must have heard him," said Bitterly doggedly. "You can hear anything in that flat, especially if a voice is raised, and his was—very much so. Just what did you hear? Take a tip from me, Bardella, and tell the truth. It's easiest in the long run."
"I didn't hear anything; I told you that before," she said at last. "All I heard was the door slamming when Lariat went out."
Bitterly grinned sarcastically. "So you didn't hear anything, eh? But you know his name's Lariat. What a little liar you are, Bardella! Shall I tell you just what you did? When you heard Diane's and this man's voices raised in that quarrel you stopped your packing and, if I know anything of you, you opened your bedroom door, stepped quietly across the hall and listened at the keyhole. Isn't that what you did?"
She flushed. She said nothing.
"And then, in good time, if I know you, you would return to your bedroom and from the window you would inspect this very angry caller as he left the entrance downstairs."
Bardella's face was still flushed with anger.
"What I heard, what I didn't hear, or what I saw is my own business, Mr. Bitterly," she said. "And I'll thank you to mind yours. It's very nice of you to go snooping about the place trying to find out anything you can for your old newspaper, but I am not answering any questions, at least, not until I'm asked by somebody who has authority to ask. Then," she added, with a malicious little smile, "I might have something very interesting to say."
Bitterly understood. He realised that Bardella had overheard the quarrel between Lariat and Diane—she had overheard him threatening Diane. She thought that, possibly, the police might be interested in that quarrel. Bitterly thought that a little soft soap might help. He got up and walked over to where she sat at the writing desk.
"Look here, Bardella," he said. "You and I don't want to quarrel—it's foolish. After all, I only asked you a few civil questions, you know."
She made no reply, but took a cigarette from a box on the table and lit it. Bitterly noticed that her fingers were trembling, probably with anger, he thought.
Then something else caught his eye. Pushed against the corner of the desk was a very new cheque book. The counterfoil of the one cheque written was right in front of his eyes. The date on the counterfoil was the Monday before and the cheque had been made payable to "self or bearer" and was for £100. Ridiculously enough, there flashed into his mind the fact that Lariat had got some money from somewhere on that day. Quite a lot of money. Bitterly made up his mind to take a chance.
"Look here, Bardella," he said. "Honest people don't mind answering questions, do they? I know perfectly well that I've been rather annoying you by asking a lot of stupid questions, but there is something else I'd like to ask you. It's a rather personal thing and I hope you won't mind."
He stood above her, smiling at her.
Bardella reacted and smiled back.
"Oh, I don't really mind, Michael," she said, "if it's going to help you at all. What do you want to ask?"
Bitterly pointed to the counterfoil. "This is a silly question," he said, "But it looks as if you drew £100 in notes last Monday, Bardella. Would you mind telling me what for?"
Her face went as white as chalk—then she flushed. Then she got up.
"You mind your own business," she said, "and get out of here; I'm not standing for any more of your insolence. Get out, do you hear?"
"So that's how it is, Bardella, is it?" he said. "You just don't want to say what you got that money for."
He picked up his hat.
"Might I make a suggestion?" he said airily. "Might I suggest that you gave some of it to Mr. Vincent Lariat?"
Bardella was as white as death.
"You get out of here," she spluttered, almost speechless with rage, "and don't you come here again!"
"All right," said Bitterly, "I won't. But you haven't answered my question, Bardella, and you haven't denied the suggestion that you gave some of that money to Lariat."
"I wouldn't even bother to answer your question," said Bardella. "I've told you to get out—now get out. And mind your own business!"
Bitterly went. He was not displeased with the interview.
WALKING along Oxford Street in the sunshine, he realised that, after his suggestion she had given some of the money to Lariat, any ordinary woman—unless she had something to hide—would have explained for what actual purpose the cheque had been drawn. It certainly looked as if Bardella had got something to hide. He allowed his mind to wander for a moment.
Supposing, for the sake of argument, that Bardella had overheard most of the conversation between Lariat and Diane. Bitterly knew that Bardella disliked Diane. She was jealous of her good looks, her figure, everything, as one woman can be jealous of another.
Supposing, for the sake of argument, that Bardella, powerful for once, by reason of her newly obtained wealth, had quietly gone after Lariat and bought the whole story from him in order that she might have something up her sleeve. Was this too improbable?
The idea intrigued Bitterly. He turned it over in his mind as he stopped to light a cigarette. Looking up after his first puff he saw that he was standing outside a bank. That gave him an idea.
WALKING slowly up Oxford Street, he turned over the idea in his head, wondering whether it would be possible to carry it out; wondering whether his bank manager—an old friend—would be decent enough to stretch a point and do what Bitterly wanted. He made up his mind to telephone him after lunch. Just past Bond Street he went into Maison Lyons for some coffee. He did not really need the coffee, but wanted to think and he was glad to be able to find a quiet table in the corner on the ground floor.
Briefly, as he sat smoking a cigarette and sipping the coffee which had been brought to him, Bitterly summarised the complete circumstances from the beginning. He intended to think from two separate angles. First of all, a complete summary of facts, a summary which would take into consideration any incongruities of evidence, and, secondly, after having made the summary in his mind, he intended to let his mind wander at will in search of a possible solution or solutions.
It was quite obvious from Jacquot's investigations that Vincent Lariat had worked his passage over from Ceylon. On Saturday, November 4, he received £8 wages, all of which, with the exception of five shillings, he gambled away recklessly. Now, it is hardly the habit of a man, arriving in a strange country, to gamble away his only capital unless he believes he can get some money or a job. Lariat was not concerned at the moment with getting a job because he had said that he knew where he could get plenty more money.
Late on Saturday he had arrived at Blooey Stevens' doss house in Seven Dials. Over the weekend he had asked, on more than one occasion, where Derham Crescent was. He had tried to borrow the fare there.
On Monday morning (Bitterly remembered that this was Diane's story and, at the moment, must not be believed in its entirety, just in case she were concealing some salient fact) he had gone to Derham Crescent and had tried to get money from Diane. They had quarrelled and, eventually, on Diane informing him that she would call the police, he had left, vowing vengeance.
There was not the slightest doubt that Bardella had overheard the quarrel; had listened to it. This was proved by the fact that she knew Lariat's name.
Apparently, on leaving the flat, Lariat had gone round to Herbert's offices, and, without mentioning the fact that he had visited the flat, had given Herbert until 7.30 that evening to find some money. There was an interesting point about that.
At seven that evening Herbert meets Lariat as arranged, but Lariat's whole attitude has changed. He wants to be friendly with Herbert; he buys Herbert drinks. He flashes £10 notes so that it is quite obvious that, between noon and 7.30 on Monday evening Lariat had got some money from somewhere.
After this, apparently, he disappears. So far as Bitterly knew he had not seen Herbert again and he had not seen Diane (this was a surmise—he might have seen either or both of these people in the meantime), but it was known that he was, during this time, living in the room at Bone Street which he had taken on the Monday evening, apparently, before he had met Herbert.
On Thursday night, November 9, the night that Bitterly had met Diane at the Blue Light Club and when she had told him her story, Lariat had written a letter, a letter so important, from his viewpoint, that it was worth while disturbing his landlady in order to borrow a sheet of notepaper and an envelope. It was also so important that it had to be posted immediately, although there was no collection until seven o'clock the next morning.
It was, therefore, quite obvious that, for some reason or other, it was necessary for that letter to be delivered to the recipient as early as possible on Friday.
The next night, Friday, November 10, or in the early hours of Saturday morning, Lariat goes to Derham Crescent, and at 5 o'clock on Saturday morning Police Constable Mullens discovered his body on the bricks.
Briefly, these were the facts as Bitterly knew them, and, having assimilated those in their order, he began to extract such interesting points or incongruities as struck him. He took out his notebook and a pencil and made a note of them. They were:
(1) (a) Why was it necessary for the letter that Lariat had written to be delivered early on Friday?
(b) Was this letter anything to do with his proposed visit to Derham Crescent the following night?
(c) If so, was the letter to Diane and was Lariat's visit a result of something he had heard from her?
(2) Was it not a strange coincidence that on this crucial night, at the time of Lariat's death, Diane was alone in the flat?
(3) With reference to (2), could it be that the difference between Herbert's story of the quarrel with Diane, his reason for this quarrel being that the cat had drunk all the milk, as against Diane's reason that he had drunk the milk, was due to some arrangement between Herbert and Diane that he should go out that evening and leave the flat because Diane needed it for a possible interview with Lariat?
(4) Was it possible that there was, in connection with Lariat's death, some concerted action between Herbert and Diane, both of whom had reason to fear the dead man?
Now Bitterly allowed his mind to run on another angle, the Bardella angle. He knew that Bardella was as mean as she could be, yet, according to the counterfoil on the cheque book, she had drawn, the previous Monday, what was for her an immense sum from the bank—£100.
It seemed possible that Bardella, having overheard Lariat's threats, and possibly the story of his hold over Herbert, during the quarrel in the flat, might have, in a moment of generosity, more especially if she were at all keen on Herbert, advanced him the sum of £100 in order to buy Lariat off, in which case, of course, Herbert's story of the Monday evening meeting with Lariat was lies. Yet Bitterly had to admit it had seemed to him that Herbert was speaking the truth; after all, he concluded with a grin, even Herbert's capacity for lying had its limitations.
The thing to do was to attempt to ascertain what the actual position was as between Herbert and Bardella. Possibly they had been having some sort of affaire. You never knew with a woman like Bardella just what she would or would not do, and Herbert would be game for anything of that sort.
Bitterly could not get out of his mind the peculiar attitude of Bardella when he had asked her to tell him what the cheque for £100 was for. He was positively certain that if she had nothing to hide she would have told him what she had drawn the money for, especially after he had suggested that she had given it, or some of it, to Lariat. More and more it was borne upon Bitterly that he had to find out just what had become of this £100.
In the meantime he intended to go on with the interviews. As a newspaper man he appreciated interviews. He had talked to Diane and Herbert and Bardella and he had learned a few facts. Very well, then, further interviews with Charles, and, if necessary, Charles' mother Mrs. Vallery, might bring even more clues to light.
There was no doubt in his mind that if the old woman knew from Charles—as Bitterly thought she did—of the old trouble in Ceylon and also knew that the villain of the piece, Lariat, was the dead man found in the vicinity of the flat, she would very quickly bring her amazing and cynical curiosity to bear on the matter and would probably create a situation which was the last thing desirable at the moment.
She would have a weapon which she could use against Diane; nothing could stop her talking to anyone who would give more sympathy to her beloved son.
But predominant in Bitterly's mind was the fact that Bardella had been disinclined to tell him for what purpose she had drawn the £100 from the bank on the Monday before, and here he hoped that he could bring his idea to a successful conclusion.
THE bank that Bardella used was a branch of Bitterly's own bank, the Amalgamated Counties Trust, and Bitterly hoped that, by bringing all his persuasive powers to work, he could, somehow, through his own bank manager, find out the numbers of the banknotes which Bardella had received in exchange for her cheque, that is, supposing she had drawn the money in banknotes. And, once he had the numbers of these banknotes, Bitterly knew exactly what he intended to do. He would have something solid—something tangible to work from. Banknotes invariably go back to banks and, however troublesome the process might be, Bitterly had made up his mind that he was going to find out where Bardella's £100 had gone.
BITTERLY'S luck held. After leaving the café he took a taxicab and went to his bank manager's private house in Regent's Park. Fremling was in and was in a good humour. He had agreed to do all he could to assist Bitterly in finding how the money had been paid to Bardella and, if in banknotes, what the numbers were. Luckily, the Amalgamated Counties Trust, Bardella's bankers, were affiliated to Bitterly's own bank, and Fremling proposed telephoning the manager of the Margaret Street branch at his private house that afternoon, calling on him and atempting to persuade him, between bank managers, to go to the Margaret Street bank, inspect the ledger and give the required information. Fremling had agreed to ring Bitterly at his flat at 5 o'clock and to report on his success or otherwise.
Now Bitterly caught a passing omnibus, his destination being the Press Club in Fleet Street. It was certain that he would find Jacquot there, and it was also certain that Jacquot, even if he had left Derham Crescent severely alone, would have been investigating other angles of the Lariat business. Possibly he had found some other clue. In any event, the conversation would do no harm.
He found Jacquot in the billiard room of the Press Club, practising cannon shots and carrying on a desultory conversation with Charles Eade of the Sunday Graphic, who, with his inevitable black coat and striped trousers and rather formal black hat, tilted slightly over his nose, gave one the impression of a rather plump member of Parliament. It was obvious to Bitterly immediately he entered the billiard room that Eade was trying to pump Jacquot about the Derham Crescent death, but he had his work cut out. Jacquot was giving nothing away, and Bitterly admired the manner in which he talked quite openly about the death to the quick-witted Eade, at the same time giving the definite impression that all his investigations had gone to show that the police theory the dead man was a cat burglar was right.
Eventually, Eade went off and Jacquot put up his cue, accepted the cigarette offered him and began to talk.
"You know, Michael," he said, "I am more convinced than ever that this cat burglar business is a lot of nonsense. I have kept right away from Derham Crescent, but I spent an hour this morning talking to the servant girl at the Bone Street place where Lariat lived. The landlady is as close as an oyster, says she doesn't want to be mixed up in any Police Court business, but I guessed that the skivvy would have some time off today, so I hung about until she came out.
"She talked all right. It is quite obvious that Lariat had plenty of money when he arrived at Bone Street on Monday night. He gave the girl a five-shilling tip and told her to look after him whilst he was there. Apparently he was very effusive, talked a lot.
"He told the girl he was going back to Ceylon the following week and would be darned glad to get out of England. He didn't like the place—never did.
"Apparently, she said that it was odd for him to come to England all the way from Ceylon for just one week and then return, to which he replied that when he arrived in England he hadn't the slightest intention of going back, but that he'd had a bit of luck and that his going back to Ceylon was good business for him."
Jacquot took up his billiard cue once more and began knocking the billiard balls about. Bitterly could see that he was biting his lip, an inevitable sign that the crime reporter was worried.
"You know, Michael," he said at last, "there's something damned screwy about this business. You know that from the first I've been against this cat burglar idea... yet there's one thing that supports it, and as much as I dislike the idea, I've got to take notice of it."
Bitterly pricked up his ears. What had happened?
"You will remember," Jacquot continued, "that this fellow Lariat was wearing a pair of new shoes at the time his body was discovered. Now it stands to reason cat burglars don't go out to climb up the sides of houses wearing new pairs of shoes; that was one of the things which made me so certain that Lariat was not a cat burglar. Well, that point's gone west anyhow.
"Apparently, on the Thursday morning Lariat asked the Bone Street skivvy where he could buy a pair of rubber-soled shoes in the neighbourhood and she told him. Apparently, also, Lariat forgot to buy them; but the point's there, and I wonder what in the name of all that's holy Lariat could have wanted with a pair of rubber-soled shoes."
"How do you know that he forgot to buy them?" he asked.
"The skivvy told me. Lariat apparently remembered on the Friday about two-thirty and the girl told him the shop she had suggested closed early on that day. Lariat cursed about it, but evidently was not going to take the trouble to go further afield in search of rubber-soled shoes. He let it go, and that's all there is to it.
"Maybe, of course," continued Jacquot, "he just wanted a pair of shoes like that to wear about the house—maybe he liked them."
Bitterly smiled again.
"And maybe he was a cat burglar, Jacquot," he countered. "Cat burglars always wear felt or rubber-soled shoes."
Jacquot shook his head.
"That man was no cat burglar," he said doggedly, "I'm damned certain he wasn't."
He relapsed into silence for a while. It was quite obvious, he said eventually, that Lariat had not gone to Derham Crescent for the purpose of carrying out any burglary, but had gone there for some specific reason, and once that reason was obvious, the whole story of the death would be plain.
Bitterly, heading Jacquot off once more, produced the reporter's original theories that Lariat had been killed somewhere else and thrown over the hoarding, or that someone had lain in wait for him, knowing that he was going to Derham Crescent.
Jacquot agreed that this last might be true. He also agreed that it was possible that, as the dead man had asked for information as to the whereabouts of Derham Crescent in Stevens' doss house, one of the more desperate of the down-and-outs, who spent their nights there when they had the necessary fourpence, might have lain in wait for him, more especially if they had, somehow, known that he had some money.
Bitterly supported this theory and suggested that Jacquot check up on the men who were staying at Stevens' place on the Saturday and Sunday nights. This investigation, he thought, would keep Jacquot busy and would, in any event, probably lead nowhere.
Eventually, fairly satisfied with the situation as regards Jacquot, Bitterly went off, leaving the other engrossed in his billiard practice. As he went down the stairs the news editor thought to himself how amusing it would be if it were discovered that it was one of these down-and-out inhabitants of Stevens' doss house, who for the sake of a few pound had lain in wait for and killed Lariat, but this thought lasted for only a minute. The money found in Lariat's pocket put paid to that idea. Jacquot had not remembered that. He walked towards Charing Cross, his mind busy with the next move in the game.
Now he wanted to talk to Herbert again, to talk to him about Bardella, and to trap him, if possible, into some admission that there was, or had been, something between them. This must be the next move, he thought.
He telephoned Herbert at the flat from a call-box at Charing Cross and was lucky to find him in. Herbert agreed quickly to go straight round to Bitterly's rooms and meet him there. It seemed to the journalist that there was an obvious desire to please suggested by Herbert's telephonic conversation. Bitterly thought that the young man was frightened.
He took a cab and minutes later found Herbert waiting for him on the doorstep. They went upstairs to Bitterly's sitting-room.
"Any news?" Herbert asked.
Looking at him, Bitterly thought that Herbert had been having a thick night somewhere. He had dark circles under his eyes and his nicotine-stained fingers were shaking. One side of his face was well shaved, but on the other there was still a definite growth of beard which gave him the appearance of having decided in the middle of shaving that the process was not worth while.
Bitterly motioned him to a seat.
"Look here, Herbert," he said. "Let's do a little straight shooting. I went round to see Bardella this morning and I think she knows something."
Herbert salt bolt upright in his chair.
"Bardella knows something?" he queried, a puzzled expression on his face. "What can Bardella know?"
"Use your brains," said Bitterly. "Bardella was packing up to leave on the morning that Lariat came round and had his quarrel with Diane. You know, as well as I do, that you can hear anything that is said anywhere in the flat. It's quite obvious to me that Bardella must have heard the quarrel. I asked her about it. First of all she said nothing; then she gave herself away by mentioning Lariat's name, and I knew she had been listening.
"You know as well as I do, Herbert, that there is no love lost between Bardella and Diane. She said that if somebody who had authority to ask her questions did so, she might have something interesting to say. What could she mean by this? Surely, only that she had heard the quarrel and that possibly Diane had threatened Lariat or that Bardella had elicited sufficient from the conversation which she had overheard to have gathered enough about the old business in Ceylon to make things fairly uncomfortable for Diane.
"Then an idea came into my head—you needn't get furious with me if it doesn't happen to be correct—you are a great fellow for women, Herbert, a veritable Don Juan, in fact," continued Bitterly with a smile, "and Bardella can hardly be described as well—staid, can she? It struck me that"— Bitterly shrugged—"there might have been some mild sort of flirtation between you and Bardella and that, possibly, after Lariat had been round to your office, you might have got into touch with her and asked her to give you a hand, to lend you some money to pay off Lariat."
Herbert flushed, then grinned feebly.
"You're a pretty clever swine, aren't you, Bitterly?" he said. "It's a good shot, but it's not quite right. There hasn't been anything between me and Bardella ever; in fact, I know she's keen on somebody that she used to go out and meet—don't you remember how she used to doll herself up? I always knew that some man was responsible for that.
"Well, it's true that I did intend to touch her. I rang her up on the Monday afternoon to ask her if she'd lend me a tenner for a week or two. I thought that would do to stave Lariat off, but she wasn't in her office; she'd gone."
"Well, I'm glad the shot wasn't too far out," he said. "I like to think I am right sometimes. Tell me, Herbert, do you think it possible that Bardella, having overheard the quarrel between Diane and Lariat, might have nipped downstairs, gone after him and given him some money in order to get the rest of the Ceylon story out of him, just so that she might have something on Diane? Do you think it's possible?"
Herbert shook his head.
"No, I don't," he said. "I'll tell you why. Bardella gave me the impression that when she left the flat and finished up at her office she was going to start an entirely new sort of life, going to be the grand lady in fact. I don't think Bardella would ever risk coming to actual words with Diane. She might, of course, but in her heart of hearts she had a great respect for Diane. She knew she wasn't fit to black her shoes. No. I think you're wrong there, Michael."
Herbert lit another cigarette. He got up and walked over to the fireplace. His mind seemed occupied with some weighty matter.
Eventually he spoke.
"Look here, Michael," he said, "why don't you leave this business alone? As far as I can see, this thing is going to blow over if nobody interferes with it. Why should the police get any other ideas beyond what they've got, beyond the idea that this fellow is a cat burglar? It's all very well to talk about your crime reporter digging something out, but what can he dig out? It looks to me as if the thing is obvious."
Bitterly walked over to the window and looked out.
Possibly, so far as Herbert was concerned, the wish was father to the thought. No doubt Herbert would like him to stop sticking his nose into this business. Bitterly looked down the deserted street; the November afternoon sun was reflecting on the windows of the house opposite. Somewhere in the neighbourhood a street organ began to play a popular tune—"Love's a funny thing." Bitterly smiled to himself, there was a world of philosophy in that song title.
Suddenly his fingers tightened on the window-sill. Herbert's question and the street organ together had shown Bitterly something. He knew now why he was so very interested in this business. Why he was ferreting, probing and digging, trying somehow to elucidate the truth of the matter, trying by any means to build a wall of protection round Diane.
"Love's a funny thing"...
Standing there, Bitterly knew that he loved Diane; knew that his visits to the flat, even if the realisation was only subconscious, were because he wanted to see her, to be with her. He could understand his own attitude of mind towards the Derham Crescent tragedy now. He knew why he had been impatiently trying to prove anything except that Diane had seen and talked with Lariat on the night of the death. He found himself amazed; amazed that a person of his own cynical attitude of mind could, after all his experience and experiences, fall in love. But the fact remained. Looking out of the window and seeing nothing, Bitterly realised that his own life was bound up with Diane's.
He pulled himself together and, turning, faced Herbert.
"I've got my job to do, Herbert," he said. "It's all very well for you to say that this thing can be left where it is at the moment. I've told you Jacquot has got an idea that Lariat was killed and I'll bet you any money you like that he will confirm it, in some way or other, before many days have passed.
"I have two angles of thought about this; one, as a newspaper man, I'd like to scoop this story; the other one is that, if possible, I'd like to do my best to prevent Diane's name being mixed up in it. You're all friends of mine, I've accepted your hospitality; the least I can do is to try and keep her out of trouble, if I can legitimately."
Herbert started nervously as the telephone bell jangled. Bitterly went over to the instrument. It was Fremling.
The bank manager's voice came concisely over the wire.
"Well, Bitterly," he said, "you can think yourself very lucky. I've managed to get the information you want, although the process used, as you know, was somewhat irregular. I saw my friend who manages the lady's bank. Last Monday afternoon—just, before closing time—she presented a cheque, payable to 'self or bearer,' for £100. The money was paid to her in ten £10 notes. Here are the numbers, would you like to take them down?"
"Fine," said Bitterly. "Hold on. I'll get a pencil." He went to his desk, took pencil and paper and returned to the telephone.
"O.K.," he said.
He took down the numbers as Fremling read them out to him. In his heart there was a strange sense of elation. Bitterly felt that he had got his "kicking-off" ground. He had got something tangible to start from. Inside him was the firm belief that now he might find out the truth.
WITH a mind that hovered midway between hope and fear of disappointment, Bitterly made his way through the quiet Mayfair streets to the Green Fly.
Upon this visit and the results thereof a great deal depended; for some instinct—an instinct that, through years of experience, Bitterly had learned to trust—told him that he was to learn something at the Green Fly which might easily put the key to the mystery of Lariat's death into his hands.
The rain had started again. It was drizzling miserably. He turned up his coat collar with the thought that life was sometimes like the weather, uncertain, unsettled and uncomfortable. Then he turned the corner and saw before him the coloured electric neon lights that proclaimed the Green Fly.
Bitterly went to the bar and bought himself a whisky and soda. He allowed his imagination to wander, playing with the idea that last Monday about this time the man Lariat, whose body now lay in the mortuary, had stood against this very bar, buying Herbert drinks with money that had come from— where?
He inquired for the manager and very soon found himself confronted by a plump and smiling personage who explained that his name was Brinks, and who positively radiated the artificial bonhomie associated with his profession.
Bitterly came straight to the point. He asked the man whether there was any system obtaining in the organisation of the Green Fly which made a memorandum of banknotes passed either in the restaurant or in the bar. The manager was verbose on the point:
"Definitely, Mr. Bitterly," he said with a glance at the journalist's professional card. "Quite obviously, we deal with a very—'floating population' shall I say—some of them being birds of passage who are not too particular as to their methods. Of course, we do not cash cheques and very naturally we scrutinise any banknote received very carefully.
"In point of fact," he continued with a pleased smile, "after a rather unfortunate occurrence last year, when some counterfeit ten-pound notes were passed in this very bar, I instituted a system under which any banknote received over the bar counter was immediately sent to the head cashier in the restaurant for examination. This cashier also makes a note of the number of any notes received and the different departments from whence they come. So it should be quite easy for us to trace this banknote for you if it were actually paid into the bar last Monday evening, and if you will wait a minute I will find out what happened."
After a few minutes he returned, bearing a slip of paper in his hand.
"Only one banknote was received in this bar last Monday night, Mr. Bitterly," he said. "It was sent into the cashier at about this time and here is the number."
He handed to Bitterly the slip of paper.
Bitterly looked at it and smiled. The number on the note was that of one of the ten-pound notes drawn by Bardella on the Monday afternoon from her bank! He put the piece of paper into his pocket, thanked the effusive manager, and, buying himself another whisky and soda, sat down at one of the ornate little tables.
Now he had something to work on. Had one of his theories been right? Was it possibly true that on the Monday morning Bardella, overhearing the quarrel between Diane and Lariat, had run after him and had promised him money for the rest of the story? Had she drawn this money from the bank, met Lariat later and handed him one or more of the notes?
Bitterly's brain jumped to another angle—something had flashed into his mind. He remembered the remark of Lariat to Herbert on the Monday when he had called at the office, when he had told Herbert that if he had a million pounds he would still make Herbert find some money. Was there not here a possible explanation as to his change of attitude to Herbert in the evening—when he wanted bygones to be bygones, Herbert to forget all the threats which he had made that morning and to be good friends? Was there not an explanation that Bardella, having got the whole of the story from Lariat, had paid him on condition that he set Herbert's mind at ease, on condition that he ceased to threaten Herbert?
Bitterly realised that, if this theory were right, Herbert was a liar and that there was, or had been, in all probability, something between him and Bardella.
At this moment, however, his ruminations were cut short by no less a person than Herbert himself. Herbert stood at the top of the short flight of steps which led from the street door down into the cocktail bar. Obviously, he was drunk. He stood swaying foolishly, his hat at a ridiculous angle on one side of his head, wearing a very new and flamboyant tie and a very new pair of yellow chamois gloves, the condition of which showed that Herbert had measured his length on a not-too-clean pavement more than once.
He balanced himself precariously, supporting himself on a very new imitation ebony-and-silver stick and regarding Bitterly across the intervening space with that look of owl-like wisdom which distinguishes the intoxicated.
Bitterly smiled back at Herbert.
Eventually, after a pause, that worthy negotiated the stairs and propelled himself across the room, flopping down in a chair at the news editor's side.
"Dear old Michael," he said thickly. "Just fancy seeing you here. You don't know how glad I am to see you. You're a great guy, Michael, and you just don't know how grateful I am to you for trying to look after Diane in this Lariat business. She's a great girl you know, Michael, and—" he continued heroically, "she's my sister. I'd do anything for her, absolutely anything."
He paused to order a double whisky and soda from a nearby waiter in an unnecessarily loud voice. When it was brought he took a gulp and continued to talk.
Bitterly, all ears, hoping that Herbert's inebriation might produce more truth than Herbert's sobriety, listened intently. Herbert rested his wobbly head on his hand which, supported by the table, waggled with the weight of his unsteady head.
"You know, Michael," he continued, "I've been thinking; I've been thinking about Bardella."
He leaned towards Bitterly with a mysterious air.
"I've come to a conclusion," said Herbert, with a sinister glance round the bar. "I've come to a definite conclusion about Bardella. I think Bardella's a bitch! And—" continued Herbert, "I always have thought so.
"As for my being in love with her, or there being anything between us, that's rubbish. But you can take it from me that Bardella was in love with someone. Do you remember how she used to doll herself up at the end of the week, when she used to go out in the evenings? What did she do that for?" continued Herbert. "If a woman dolls herself up it's because she's going to meet a man. Goodness knows, she looked lousy enough on the other nights."
Bitterly interrupted. "Well, what man do you think she went to meet, Herbert?" he asked.
"How do I know?" said Herbert. "I'm just putting up my ideas. I don't know what man she went to meet. You know, Michael, you're all wrong about this thing—you're absolutely wrong about the whole business. All this stuff about this guy Lariat being murdered by somebody is just rubbish; you can take it from me that he fell off whilst he was trying to climb up the side of the house. He was just a common or garden cat burglar. That's what he was.
"You can take it from me," Herbert continued, nodding his head sagely, "that the police are right. After all, Michael, they ought to know what they're talking about. They get paid for finding things out, you know."
Herbert flopped back in his chair and regarded Bitterly with an attempt at steadiness, obviously awaiting a reply.
"Maybe you're right, Herbert," said Bitterly. "Maybe!"
"Anyhow, let's forget it; what does it matter to us? You know, Michael, I'm very pleased with life. I had a good day yesterday. I won some money. Not that I back horses—I never do. I used to, but I gave it up; but I backed a horse yesterday; a pal of mine gave me the tip—sort of celebration you know, celebrating the fact that that blackmailing cuss Lariat would not bother me any more. The joke is," Herbert went on, "the horse arrived first. How it did it I don't know, but it did. That's why I'm going to buy you a very big drink because I like you, Michael, and you're a nice fellow."
Herbert summoned the waiter once more and ordered a double whisky and soda for Bitterly. When the drink was brought Herbert fumbled in his pocket and, eventually, with much gusto, he produced a ten-pound note which screwed up in a ball, he threw with an air of abandon on the table.
The waiter reached out for it, but Bitterly was first. Some instinct made him stretch out his hand, pick up the banknote and, under pretence of smoothing it out on the table, examine it.
"Nice things, tenners, you know, Herbert," he said.
He was surprised to find himself speaking coolly, for the banknote which he was now handing to the waiter, and which he had just smoothed out and inspected as it lay before him, was another of the banknotes drawn by Bardella from the bank the Monday before.
He got up. His one idea was to get out of the Green Fly before his face betrayed him, before he showed the half-drunken Herbert that he was aware of this last terrific development.
"I've got to be getting along, Herbert," he said. "I'd forgotten an appointment. I'll see you soon. Good-night."
At the door he looked back at Herbert, who, swaying about in his chair, was about to drink the whisky that Bitterly had left on the table. Was Herbert a murderer after all?
BITTERLY, his hands in his pockets, walked slowly back in the direction of his rooms. His amazement at the last discovery was leaving him. Why be astonished? After all, if it were true that there was some connection between Herbert and Bardella, there was no reason why he should not have one of her banknotes. It looked as if Herbert had been lying. Bitterly tried hard to formulate in his mind some definite scheme which would implicate both Bardella and Herbert, which would match up with Herbert's possessing the banknote and which would connect in some way with the death of Lariat. At the back of his mind, of course, was the definite idea that the whole story was false, that Herbert had not backed any horse and that he had got the money from Bardella or—and here was another idea—from Lariat himself. After all was it impossible that Lariat, being so very keen on being friendly with Herbert on the Monday night, might not offer to lend him some money? Surely this was not at all impossible.
And, even if it were not, this last idea opened up new fields of thought. If Lariat and Herbert had become so friendly that Herbert was prepared to accept money from the man who had threatened his sister, might not the young man have had some other appointment somewhere with Lariat—an appointment, for instance, on the Friday night, the night of the death? Here again, Bitterly remembered that he had only Herbert's word for his movements on that important night.
Again, if this presumption were true, if the banknote had been given or loaned by Lariat to Herbert, if they had succeeded in becoming such good friends, was it impossible that Lariat had gone to the flat on Friday night for the purpose of meeting Herbert? In other words, had there been some scheme, some plot of some sort or other, between Lariat and Herbert or, alternatively, between Lariat, Diane and Herbert?
If this presumption were correct, the following points might easily be explained: First, the discrepancy between Herbert's and Diane's stories about the milk and the cat; secondly, the uncertainty on Herbert's part as to what time he had actually arrived home.
He caught a bus at Marble Arch and, mounting the steps, suddenly came to the conclusion he was going to talk again to Diane. If necessary, he was going to tell her that Herbert was in possession of one of the Bardella. banknotes. There might be some reaction from her which would tell him something, but he would say nothing to her about Lariat having had some of the money. That was something which he intended to keep very much to himself.
Bitterly got off the bus at Lancaster Gate and telephoned Diane. She was in and he arranged to meet her in a quarter of an hour at the café near Lonsford Road Tube Station. This done, He continued his journey on foot. Ten minutes' time found him turning into the little café.
A few minuter after that Diane arrived. Bitterly, watching her walk into the place, looking at her with eyes that saw somebody whom he loved rather than the figure of a woman who was merely an acquaintance in a difficult situation, marvelled at her equanimity. She came towards him with the usual little smile playing about the corners of her mouth. He got up.
"Sorry to bother you again, Diane," he said.
She laughed. "Don't worry about that, Michael. I like talking to you. What's happened? Have you got some more information for me? Has anybody found anything fresh about this thing? Do you still believe that I'm a murderess?"
"I've never believed that you were a murderess, Diane," he said, "although I must say that I believe you are holding out on me somehow or somewhere. Anyhow, I wanted to see you. I haven't seen you for days and I was worrying a little about you. I am very fond of you, you know, Diane," he continued with a smile.
She laughed again. "I'm delighted to hear that, Michael," she said. "I need friends, especially nice, strong, reliable people like you. By the way, you haven't, by any chance, seen that brother of mine, have you? I'm worried about him."
Bitterly played for time.
"Now, why should I?" he asked. "You know, Herbert and I haven't got a great deal in common."
She laughed again loudly.
"I never thought that," she said. "In point of fact, I don't think that there are two people more different in the world than you and Herbert. You are the very opposites of each other, aren't you? He's weak and foolish and rather conceited and you're usually quiet and I should say"—she smiled mischievously—"very grim and very determined. But I am worried about Herbert. You know, he makes an awful ass of himself if he's got any money."
Bitterly raised his eyebrows. "And has he got any money?" he asked casually.
"Oh, yes," said Diane. "He's got the—for him—large sum of £15/13/6. He backed a winner yesterday. If I know anything of him he'll spend the whole lot to-night, probably on some rather indifferent female acquaintance."
Bitterly's heart beat a little quicker.
"That was a pretty good bet for Herbert, wasn't it?" he asked.
She nodded. "It wasn't his fault," she said. "Charles got a tip from his commercial traveller friend, Mr. Bardon. It was what they call a 'long shot'—an outsider—and, for once, it won."
"I see," said Bitterly, preparing himself for more shocks. "Did Charles back it, too?"
"I believe he did," she answered, "but only for very little. Herbert was terribly afraid yesterday that Charles might not have put the money on after all."
She laughed at the recollection. "The relief on Herbert's face when Charles appeared with his winnings was a sight for the gods," she said.
Bitterly, stealing a few seconds to think, lit a cigarette. Here was more mystery. So the Bardella banknote had come from Charles. Bitterly thanked his stars that he had not asked Diane the question, that the information had come to him of her own volition. So Charles had backed the horse, Charles had drawn the winnings and had paid Herbert his share with one of Bardella's banknotes. He thought quickly. One thing was obvious. He had got to talk to Charles. He gave her a cigarette and lit it.
"How is Charles?" he asked. "What's he doing this evening?"
She blew a little smoke ring and watched it sail across the room.
"He's very well," she said. "At least, as well as he ever is. Charles has a complex that he's bearing the weight of the whole world on his shoulders, and, as for what he's doing, to-night's one of his busy nights, He has to stay late at the garage tonight. He takes it in turns every other Sunday."
She looked at him again and Bitterly could detect the spark of mischief in her eyes.
"Don't tell me you're concerned about Charles, Michael," she said. "The next thing you'll be telling me is that you like him."
Bitterly grinned. "I wouldn't tell you that," he said. "To tell you the honest truth, I don't think a lot of Charles. But I like to think as much as I can of him merely because he happens to be your husband, which I think," he added, "is rather a pity. But, to be serious for a moment: tell me how is Charles taking all this business; this business about Lariat, I mean? Surely he must realise something is afoot. Have you or Herbert let him know that I'm particularly interested in this thing?"
Diane considered for a moment. "Charles is being definitely strange, for him," she said. "Oh, he knows you're snooping about on the case, of course; but probably he thinks you're doing that merely as a news-editor. I must say that I don't quite understand his attitude. He's never even mentioned it. Of course, Charles doesn't know that the man who was found on the bricks was Lariat; still, knowing Charles' liking for the macabre, I should have thought that he would have taken a great interest in the thing. No... he's very detached... extraordinarily detached and so—also for some unknown reason—is his mother."
"So she's back again," said Bitterly.
Diane nodded. "Yes... very much so; she came back this morning."
"And hasn't she discussed the local scandal—the Lariat business?" he asked.
"Not one word," replied Diane. "In point of fact, I wondered whether Charles hadn't found out, in some way or other, that the man was Lariat. Yet how could he? No one, except ourselves and Herbert, can know who he was; but Charles' very silence on the matter is suspicious. Every time I look at him or his mother I have a vague idea that they're trying to spare my feelings—and please can I have some coffee? You've forgotten to ask me if I want some. You're much too interested in finding things out, aren't you, Michael, to worry about my coffee?"
They laughed together and Bitterly ordered the coffee. Watching her as she drank it, being near to her, he found it an effort not to tell her in his odd, direct way, just what she meant to him, of his discovery that he loved her. But he dismissed the thought immediately. There was a great deal to be done first.
They shook hands and he watched her as she walked down the Crescent into the shadows. Then, after a moment, he turned and walked quickly back to the tube station. He was going to find Charles.
STANDING at the entrance to the garage, Bitterly could see the white wall at the far end and, in one corner, the big, lighted window behind which, at the desk, the sleek, red hair of Charles could be discerned. Bitterly walked quickly through the garage yard and tapped on the office window.
Charles looked up; then he saw Bitterly and smiled his usual peculiar smile. Always Charles laughed, or smiled, or looked pleasant. Bitterly had had the impression that he was entirely mirthless; that, to him, a smile was a mere alteration of the features without any of the good humour or good fellowship which should accompany it.
Charles, who was writing, threw down his pen, walked to the door, opened it and stood there waiting for Bitterly.
"Good evening, Charles," Bitterly said, as he stepped into the office.
"You look wet," he said. "I wonder what it can be that brings the great Michael Bitterly to see me on such a nasty night? Don't tell me I'm news!"
He grinned again.
As Bitterly undid and shook his raincoat, a definite idea came to him, an idea that Charles was, in some way, prepared, that Bitterly's appearance was not entirely unexpected. By this time Charles had returned to his desk and, fumbling in a drawer, produced two or three rather bent and generally bedraggled cigarettes. One of these he handed to Bitterly. The journalist lit it and looked at Charles through a cloud of smoke.
"Congratulations on your win, Charles," he said. "I was glad to hear from Herbert that both of you had cleaned up. I didn't know you were such an expert in horse-racing."
Charles did not answer. He looked at Bitterly with something very akin to a stare on his face. He sucked at his cigarette, which was hanging at the corner of his mouth. Watching him, Bitterly could see something which looked like caution come into his eyes. It was as if Charles were expecting some trouble and was prepared for it.
"Now, don't tell me that you've come all this way to talk to me about that," he said.
Through the smoke Bitterly could see his eyes gleaming a little, rather like the eyes of an animal. His expression had changed. He seemed a little more at ease. He began to look as if he were rather enjoying himself. So Charles was being clever, was he? thought Bitterly. Well, two could play at that game.
"Oh, I don't know, Charles," he said. "Why shouldn't I come round here to congratulate you on your win? Besides I might have an ulterior interest. We writers are always supposed to have some hidden motive, you know."
"That's as may be," he said sarcastically. "But, you know, Bitterly, I've got a lot of work to do. I hope you're not going to keep me too long talking about this win. By the way, where did you hear about it? Did Diane tell you?"
The sneer deepened. Bitterly lied easily.
"Oh, dear, no," he said, "just a little bird; maybe, Herbert himself; maybe somebody else. I'm sorry you're so busy, Charles, but I want to talk to you, and don't take me too seriously when I say it's for your own good."
Charles turned on his revolving chair. Bitterly thought that he could detect a tenseness about his mouth. At the same time, there came to him a feeling that he was now rather in charge of the situation. Somehow, there was conveyed to him an idea that Charles was rather frightened of something. He seemed less cocksure.
And this feeling gave Bitterly a definite sense of moral superiority. He threw away the end of the battered cigarette and produced a fresh one from his case, which he lit. Bitterly took his time over everything that he did toward lighting the cigarette, rather in the manner of a professional pugilist who likes to keep his opponent waiting in the ring. Eventually, he spoke.
"You know, Charles," he said, "I've been wanting to come and see you for two of three days, because there are one or two things that I think you ought to know, things which may be of importance to you. As you're so busy, I won't waste any time. It's about this man who was found dead at the bottom of your Crescent."
Charles looked up. Bitterly saw he was still smiling.
"Well, what's it got to do with me?" he asked quickly.
"I don't know," said Bitterly. "You see, Charles, it may have nothing to do with you. On the other hand, it may have a great deal to do with you. I think I ought to be candid with you, Charles. Have you ever heard the name Lariat?"
Bitterly stopped speaking. He was watching the other like a cat. Charles said nothing. He licked his lips. Bitterly know that he was thinking, or rather trying to think, quickly trying to make up his mind as to what he should say. Bitterly, with a certain Machiavellian joy, saved him the trouble.
"Well, never mind, Charles," he said. "It's really not of great importance at the moment, except that I think you ought to know that the unidentified man who was found dead on those bricks was Vincent Lariat, the same individual who, I believe, caused you a certain amount of trouble twelve years ago in Ceylon."
Bitterly stopped speaking. He was still watching Charles. Charles shifted in his chair uneasily.
"Well, what about it?" he said. "Supposing he was? What the devil's it got to do with me?"
"I don't know," he said. "That remains to be seen. You see, Charles, the position is really a little bit unfortunate. Naturally, directly the story of this death broke we investigated it. That's our business. It wasn't long before my crime reporter, Jacquot, discovered who the man was. By a coincidence I talked to Diane about it. I thought there was just a chance that she might know something about it, you know, living in the neighbourhood. Then I discovered, if you please, that this man Lariat had called on her the Monday before and threatened her. In fact, she told me a certain amount of the Ceylon story.
"Then I began to get concerned, Charles. I began to be concerned for you," Bitterly continued hypocritically. "I realised that there were features about this death which made it look like—" he paused.
"Like what?" Charles asked quickly.
"Like murder," said Bitterly. "I didn't like that idea at all, because, you see, there was a chance that Diane, and all of you, for that matter, might get mixed up in this thing.
"The point is, Charles, that the inquest is to be held, as you probably know, next Tuesday morning, and I find my own position is a very, very difficult one."
Charles turned round again in his chair.
"What's all this got to do with me?" he asked. "How does it concern me?"
"Oh, it does, Charles," he said pleasantly. "It definitely concerns you. You see, the point is this, Charles. Apparently Diane has a motive for wanting Lariat out of the way, because Lariat came to her and threatened her, or tried to blackmail her, or something. I don't know much about that. She was very vague about it all," lied Bitterly. "Then, again, I was rather astounded to find that Herbert might have a motive for wanting Lariat out of the way, because, you see, after leaving Diane, Lariat went on to Herbert's offices and apparently tried to blackmail him. Of course," said Bitterly, smiling cheerfully, "you may still ask what this has to do with you. But the point was, Charles, that, as both Diane and Herbert were annoyed with Lariat, you might be annoyed too. After all, I should think you've got more reason to be annoyed with Lariat than anybody else has. Wasn't he responsible for all that trouble twelve years ago? Wasn't it actually through him that you had to leave Ceylon? Why should he go to Derham Crescent, even if he were a cat burglar? Why should he select that place?"
Charles got up. He stood, with his back against the desk, looking at Bitterly. The sneer had gone from his face, and in its place was a look of definite hatred such as Bitterly had seldom seen. When at last he spoke his voice was rasping.
"Look here, Bitterly," he said, "I don't know what you're getting at, and I don't care, but I think it's a damned impertinence on your part to stick your nose in my business, to discuss my private affairs with my wife, or Herbert, or anybody else. I object to your coming here asking me a lot of questions. I like your damned cheek. You're all the same, you newspaper men; you couldn't behave like gentlemen if you tried."
Bitterly grinned. Charles' anger, which he considered to be more the anger of fear than that of a sense of injury, amused him.
"Dear me," he said. "What a pity you haven't got your old school tie on, Charles. I think that last speech of yours needed it. Now, supposing you and I get down to hard tacks, and I tell you exactly what I mean.
"I think, unless we're all very careful, we shall find that by to-morrow night you might easily be in a position where Diane is in some way implicated in this inquest. Now, I naturally believe that you don't want that to happen, therefore, my only business is to assure myself, as an ordinary decent citizen, that neither you nor any member of your family had anything to do with the death of Lariat."
Charles leaned forward with a look of extreme sarcasm on his face.
"Would it surprise you to know, since you know so much, Mr. Amateur Detective," he said, "that Lariat came to see me last Monday, too. Perhaps you consider that a motive for my having killed him?"
Bitterly covered his amazement by coolly lighting a fresh cigarette. By the time this process was finished he had got himself well in hand. He made up his mind to try a bluff.
"Why not, Charles?" he asked. "In point of fact, since you tell me that Lariat did call on you, I can only imagine that he called on you for the same reason that he called on your wife and brother-in-law."
"So Lariat was blackmailing you too, was he, Charles?" he said, with a sarcastic smile. "Now we're getting warm, aren't we? And I suppose you were very annoyed with him. After all, you had good reason to be, you know. He made life pretty uncomfortable for you in Ceylon. By the way, Charles, I suppose you'd be indignant if I asked you just what you were doing last Friday night."
Charles grinned cynically.
"Not at all," he said. "Since we are all being such good citizens—every Friday night I drive a special customer of ours down to Beaconsfield—Bardon the commercial traveller. I was with him. That lets me out, in any event," said Charles.
"Sorry if you find you can't hang this thing on to me now—that is, supposing he was killed, which I very much doubt."
Bitterly changed his tactics. His one idea now was to get the story of what had happened between Lariat and Charles.
"Look here, Charles," he said, "don't be a fool and don't get annoyed. If you'd think quietly for a minute, instead of being all up-stage and county, you'd realise that I'm trying to be your friend. I'm trying to keep you and your family out of this business. Don't you see what anyone would think? This man, apparently, is threatening all of you. You were all afraid of him—"
"Don't you believe it," said Charles. "I wasn't; I never have been."
He sat down once more in his chair.
"Look here," he said, "since you say you are trying to be friendly, here's what happened as far as I'm concerned. Lariat came to see me here in this office last Monday afternoon. He didn't say a word about having seen Diane or Herbert. He came here and told me that he was down and out, that things had been very bad in Ceylon, and that he'd been told that there was a good chance of getting a decent job in England. He said he was penniless, and asked me to lend him a quid.
"I lent him nothing. I told him just what I thought about him; just what I thought of any man who made love to another man's wife, as he did to mine, even although she does deny it. I told him," said Charles, his voice rising, "that he could go to hell, and that one of these fine days he'd learn that the best thing to do in his life is to go straight. And," continued Charles, with satisfaction, "he listened. I told him that, if he stayed in this country and started trying to make more trouble for me, I'd go to the police, and they'd soon look after him. And I advised him that the best thing he could do would be to get out of England and go back to Ceylon. We didn't want people like him over here."
"I see," said Bitterly, sarcastically. "And he just stood there and listened to a lecture from you, did he, Charles? He just took that nicely and quietly?
"Do you mean to tell me, Charles, that you never saw Lariat again after that interview here in this garage office last Monday, because you will find it damned difficult to make other people believe that."
"Will I really?" said Charles. "Well, once again you're wrong, because I can prove that I never saw Lariat after that day."
"That's interesting," said Bitterly, "but, personally, I don't see how you can prove that. It's a long time between Monday afternoon and Friday night, yon know. How can you prove you didn't see him? Look here, Charles," said Bitterly, forcing a little kindness into his voice, only because he wanted to get this so-called proof out of Charles, "don't you realise, my dear fellow, that the thing for you to do is to keep yourself and your family out of this business. You know what the newspapers are. Of course, if you can prove that you didn't see Lariat again after Monday that makes it right for you, providing, of course, that people will accept proof."
Charles grinned. "They've got to accept it," he said. "They can't do anything else."
He felt in the breast pocket of his coat and produced a folded sheet of notepaper. With an air of triumph he opened it.
"Listen to this," he said. "Last Thursday night Lariat wrote me this letter. It's written from some place in Bone Street—some place where he was living."
Charles began to read.
"MY DEAR VALLERY,—
"I have been sitting and thinking about our conversation on Monday afternoon and I have come to the conclusion that you are right. I have certainly made a mess of my life and I know now that I have been a fool. I have done what you said. I have thought things over and I have seen with your own viewpoint that honesty is the best policy. I shall be leaving Fenchurch Street at 10.30 next Saturday morning for Ceylon.—
"Well," said Charles with a smirk, "does that prove that I have never seen Lariat since Monday? Does that prove that what I said about his visit to me was true? Here, read it for yourself."
He threw the letter to Bitterly. Bitterly opened the folded notepaper and read it. His mind was racing, a thousand questions were flashing across his brain, but predominant was this one. Why should it have been necessary for Lariat to knock up his landlady to borrow the notepaper and envelope he needed to send this letter? Why was it necessary for him to go out after midnight to post it? There was nothing in this letter. It could have been written the next morning, for that matter. Why had Lariat taken all that trouble in order to send this very ordinary letter to Charles?
Bitterly read the letter again, imprinting the words on his mind. Then he handed it back to Charles.
"Well, Charles," he said, "that certainly lets you out."
Charles took the letter and put it back in his pocket.
"You know, Bitterly," he said more pleasantly, "I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill. Of course, I see your angle; all you writing people like to find a mystery when there isn't one. But I think that your ideas are wrong. I don't believe that anybody will connect this fellow with us. We don't know or care anything about what happened to him or what he was doing. You can take it from me that the police are right. He was a cat burglar and managed to kill himself in the process. Well," said Charles, "he won't be missed, that's a certainty."
Bitterly got up and buttoned up his raincoat.
"Perhaps you're right, Charles," he said. "Anyhow, I'm glad that I had this talk with you. I'm sorry if I gave you the impression that I was prying into your private affairs, but I'm afraid quite a lot of a newspaperman's business consists of prying into other people's affairs. We get hardened to it, you know."
Charles laughed. It seemed to Bitterly that, now that he had said all that he had to say about Lariat and had produced the letter which—according to him—proved his complete absence of motive as regards Lariat's death, Charles was quite happy. He gave the journalist another dilapidated cigarette.
"Oh, that's all right, Bitterly," he said. "Forget it."
Bitterly said "Good-night" and left the garage office. On the other side of the garage yard he turned and looked back at the lighted window, behind which Charles' figure was once more seated at the desk. Charles was smiling as he bent over his papers. Bitterly pulled his hat over his eyes and turned away.
BACK once more in his rooms, Bitterly lit his pipe and settled down in an armchair in front of the fire.He was amazed at the trend of events, but, after all, there had been so many amazements and surprises since the morning before, when Jacquot had telephoned and started all this strange business. It was remarkable, he thought, that so many things could happen in so short a time. Since the discovery of Lariat's body he had found himself dealing with the possibilities of people, whom he knew more or less intimately, being concerned with a murder—a murder, which was, in effect, as sordid as any that had ever come into his knowledge.
Conning over the interviews which he had had with Diane, Herbert, Bardella and, now, last of all, Charles, he smiled to himself as he realised how this thing had changed in his mind since the morning before. He was certain of one thing, Charles was lying. It seemed to Bitterly quite improbable that Lariat should have gone to Charles in an attempt to borrow money from a man who, at least, thought that he had been wronged by the would-be borrower.
It was quite obvious that Charles had seen and spoken to Lariat, but the thing which was predominant in the journalist's mind, the question that he desired to answer most, was why had it been necessary for Lariat to write that relatively unimportant letter to Charles and to take such trouble to see that it was dispatched by a certain time? Obviously, Bitterly considered, it was necessary, for some unknown reason, for Charles to receive that letter as early as possible on Friday. That, and only that, could have been the reason for Lariat's insisting on posting it on the Thursday night before going to bed, although he had been informed that there was no postal collection until seven o'clock next morning.
It seemed to the news editor that Charles' story as to his meeting with Lariat on the Monday afternoon was false. Why should Lariat consider that Charles would agree to lend him money? Against this there was, of course, the possibility that Lariat, friendless, and refused any sort of assistance from Diane, and not really expecting any from Herbert—in spite of his threats—might, as a last resource, go to Charles in the hope that a show of penitence on his part would secure from him some small financial assistance. Bitterly thought that this was just possible.
After all, Charles would rather like the idea of being the wronged man who had returned good for evil! Yet, according to Charles, this little scheme had not come off, and Lariat had been sent about his business. But, if this were so, why was it necessary for Lariat to write that cryptic letter to Charles? Once more the letter seemed to stand out as a salient point in the welter of apparent lies surrounding the death of Lariat. Again, Bitterly found himself rather in a maze after hearing the stories of Diane, Herbert, Bardella and Charles, and after analysing in his mind their replies to his carefully thought out questions, he considered that the salient points in the mystery of Lariat's death might be elucidated if these questions could be answered. He took a piece of paper and a pencil and wrote them down.
(1) What was the explanation of the discrepancy between Herbert's story and Diane's story with regard to the cat?
(2) Why had it been necessary for Bardella to draw £100 from the bank on the previous Monday?
(3) From whom had Lariat obtained at least one of the Bardella banknotes?
(4) From whom had Charles obtained another of these banknotes, the one which he had given to Herbert as part of his winnings?
(5) For what reason had Lariat gone to see Charles on the Monday before, after visiting and threatening both Diane and Herbert?
(6) Why had Lariat gone to Derham Crescent on Friday night? Was this at the invitation of any of the parties concerned? If not, what reason would he have had for going there? Obviously the cat burglar theory was rubbish.
(7) If the idea which had at one time seemed possible, that Diane and Herbert had concocted a joint story about the happenings on Friday night, were a fact, which one was trying to protect the other? Or, had they both been concerned in some way with the death of Lariat?
(8) Was Bardella actually connected with the mystery or was her connection with it merely an accidental one owing to the fact that she had given somebody some money, part of which had, eventually, got into Lariat's hands?
(9) If Charles were lying, why?
(10) Once again, why had it been necessary for Lariat to take such pains to write and dispatch that unimportant letter so that Charles received it as early as possible on Friday?
It was this last point which stood out predominantly in Bitterly's mind as being something most important to the solution of the mystery. For some reason or other this letter, which Charles had produced so blithely, seemed to Bitterly to constitute one of the most important factors, if not the most important factor, in the case.
Now he thought of Bardella. Bitterly rather imagined that he had Bardella in a corner. He remembered her bad temper when he had seen her early that morning.
Bardella then, at least, according to her own way of thinking, had been mistress of the situation, but Bitterly thought now that the tables might be turned. Now he was in a position where, if he wanted, he could definitely inform Bardella that he knew where at least two of her banknotes had gone, this young lady might be inclined to come off her high horse and be more frank about the disposal of her £100.
And why not ask? The idea intrigued him. He walked over to his desk, took up the telephone receiver, and asked Directory Inquiry for Bardella's telephone number. There was a chance, of course, that she might not be on the telephone, but, after a moment, he was pleased to hear her rather high-pitched voice asking who the caller was.
"Hello, Bardella," he said. "This is Michael Bitterly. I'm sorry to trouble you at this time of night, and I'm very glad to have found you in, but I wanted to apologise"—he grinned to himself—"for my seeming rudeness this morning and to tell you that I discovered some information which might interest you."
Bardella's voice was suspicious.
"Oh, really," she said shortly. "It must be very important for you to ring at this time of night. I was in bed. I hope you've not rung up with some more impertinent questions. I don't want to make myself unpleasant, you know!"
"That's as may be, Bardella," he said. "Of course, I realised this morning what you were getting at. You mean that, having overheard the quarrel between Lariat and Diane, you might inform the police of that fact and they might be inclined to make inquiries, possibly implicating her, into this business. But I've an idea that you won't do that, Bardella—not that I care—Diane's business has nothing to do with me," he continued airily, "but I don't think that you'll feel inclined to discuss this matter with anyone, Bardella. Your own position isn't quite so secure, you know...."
There was a pause; then...
"What do you mean by that?" she asked. "If you think that I'm going to answer your silly questions because you threaten me, let me tell you that you're wrong—quite wrong."
"That's all right, Bardella," said Bitterly. "Don't you bother your head about questions.
"I've not rung up to ask any questions at all. I rang up to tell you one or two things. Would you be interested to know that I've discovered where some of your £100 went, the sum you were so secretive about this morning?"
Bitterly heard a gasp from the other end of the telephone. There was a long pause. Then, in a voice which was obviously shaky, Bardella spoke.
"I don't understand," she stammered.
Bitterly took advantage of the situation. "Look here, Bardella," he said, "this thing's getting pretty serious, and if you're not careful you're going to find yourself involved in a very nasty business. Don't you think that the best thing you can do is to tell me the truth?"
There was another pause. Bitterly was quick to take advantage of Bardella's hesitancy.
"Now, look here, my dear," he said, "take a tip from me. I think there's going to be a great deal of trouble over this Lariat business, and I think that if you're not careful you may easily be involved in it. I'm not suggesting for one moment," he continued, "that you've done anything which you consider to be wrong, but you know, Bardella, people often do things innocently, but other people get entirely mistaken impressions as to their motives. Now, supposing we talk this thing over again. Don't you think that it would be a good idea? Don't you think that you would be wise to put all your cards on the table?"
There was another pause.
Then Bardella spoke shortly. "Well, when?" she asked.
Bitterly grinned. It looked as if things were coming his way.
"There's no time like the present, Bardella," he said. "Why not put some clothes on and I'll meet you outside your flat in a quarter of an hour. I can do that easily in a cab. Then we'll go somewhere and have some coffee and talk things over. I know this sounds pressing, but, for your own sake, I think you ought to know just what is happening. I'll come over right away."
"Very well," said Bardella, "I'll be waiting for you outside. But you'd better make it half an hour. I've got to get dressed."
She clicked back the receiver. Bitterly breathed a sigh of relief. Once he got the information that he desired from Bardella, once he knew to whom she had given that money, then he could trace its further progress into the hands of Charles and Lariat. He felt definitely elated. Pausing only to fill and light a pipe, he seized his hat and went downstairs.
TWENTY-FIVE minutes afterwards found him walking up and down the deserted pavement outside the main entrance which led to Bardella's flat. But here Bitterly had ample time for cool reflection, for the minutes passed and there was no sign of Bardella.
Eventually, having waited fifteen minutes, he walked upstairs and tapped on the outside door of the flat. There was no reply.
An idea seized Bitterly and he cursed himself for a fool. Bardella had made it half an hour not because she wanted to get some clothes on, but because she wanted to cut her stick and run. Bardella was frightened; that had been obvious on the telephone, and, like a fool, he had deliberately led her into believing that he knew more than he actually did in the hope of making her talk.
After another minute's wait Bitterly tried the handle. The door was open. Inside, in the tiny hall, the light was on. Looking through the door into the sitting room, Bitterly could see dimly that Bardella's desk was in a state of confusion. Through the other door, leading to the bedroom, he could see the flung-back bedclothes, the open drawers and the general confusion which exists in a room when somebody has packed quickly. Bitterly whistled to himself.
He walked into the sitting room and switched on the light. The waste-paper basket was filled with hurriedly torn up correspondence. Stuck on the mantelpiece in front of the clock was an envelope. It was addressed to the caretaker. The flap was not stuck down and Bitterly opened in and read the note inside. In a few terse words Bardella had informed the caretaker that she was going away for an indefinite period and that any letters were to be forwarded to her care of her bank. So that was that. Rather than talk Bardella had run away.
Bitterly slumped down into a chair and refilled his pipe. What the devil was he to do now? Just when there had been a chance of really finding out something definite he had thrown it away simply by being in too great a hurry. He got up and made his way back into the hall. He thought that it might be a good idea to search the flat, that he might possibly come across a clue of some sort, but a moment's reflection told him that Bardella was not such a fool as to leave anything incriminating about the place. She had too much brains for that. Besides she would guess that he would come up to the flat and look around when he discovered that she had not kept her appointment outside. He stepped out of the hall and was just about to close it behind him when he heard the telephone in the bedroom ring. He slipped back, crossed the hall, and ran to the instrument.
"Hallo," said Bitterly quietly.
"Exchange speaking," came the reply. It was the telephone operator. "Do you still want that number?"
Bitterly thought quickly. So Bardella had wanted a number, had telephoned, obviously, after he had spoken to her on the telephone. The number which she had wanted had been engaged or unobtainable at the time and she had asked exchange to ring her. But she had been unable to wait for it: she had been afraid that she would run into him. Bitterly softened his voice.
"Yes, please, exchange," he said. "I'll have the number now."
He waited. After a few moments a voice spoke. Bitterly started. There was no mistaking that voice. It was Charles!
But he had to make certain.
"Who are you, please?" he asked.
"This is the Associated Garage Company," replied the voice.
Bitterly quietly replaced the receiver.
So it was Charles! Bardella had telephoned Charles—or, rather, had tried to telephone him and had then cleared off because she had been afraid to face the interview with Bitterly.
He knocked out his pipe in the fireplace and switched off the light in the bedroom, which had been on when he had arrived. Then he walked slowly downstairs. Outside, after a moment's indecision, he turned his steps in the direction of his rooms. For a moment he had been tempted to go round to the garage office once more to see Charles and to use any sort of threats in order to get the truth out of him, but obviously this idea was useless.
There was not the slightest doubt in Bitterly's mind that Charles' story of the interview on Monday with Lariat was nothing but lies. It was becoming more and more obvious that there was something afoot—something ominous.
For the first time there came to Bitterly's mind an idea that, perhaps, Diane was in some sort of danger; that something else might happen. But by the time that he had reached home he had regained his usual coolness. Nothing was going to be gained by getting excited or hurrying things. Whatever he had discovered had been the result of coolness and decision. He would carry on along the same lines.
Walking up and down his sitting room he concentrated his mind on Charles. There was an increasing tendency in his mind to connect Lariat's death directly with the meeting that he had had with Charles on the Monday before. Bitterly thought that if only he could ascertain exactly what had happened at that interview the whole business might become fairly easy.
He wondered if there had been any truth at all in Charles' story—in anything he had said. After all, with reference to Charles' movements on Friday night—the night of the death—there was only Charles' word for them. Supposing be had not seen Bardon, the commercial traveller, on that night; supposing that was a lie, too...
Bitterly picked up the telephone directory and began to look through the Bardons. Eventually he found the number—Erasmus Bardon—he remembered Herbert joking, a long time ago, about the strangeness of the name. And, as he found the telephone number Bitterly experienced a slight shock. For Bardon's address was No. 1, Derham Crescent; that would be the opposite end—the Lonsford Road end of the Crescent, and on the opposite side of the road to the Vallery flat.
For some unknown reason Bitterly felt amazed that Bardon should live in the same road. He had always imagined him living somewhere in the country. Well, he was going to talk to Bardon.
He looked at his watch. It was 12.30; pretty late for making appointments, but there was also more chance of finding his man in. He walked over to the telephone and rang the number. Two minutes afterwards he was speaking to Bardon, and five minutes after that—having persuaded the traveller that his business was urgent—Bitterly was walking rapidly round to No. 1, Derham Crescent.
ON his way to Derham Crescent Bitterly found himself wondering at the casualness with which Bardon had received his telephone message. He had not seemed at all surprised and had contented himself with saying he would be very glad to see Bitterly and would he come round?
Having regard to the fact that the latter had said nothing beyond the fact that he wished to see the commercial traveller rather urgently, it seemed a trifle strange. Vaguely, it appeared that Bardon might have been expecting such a telephone call, despite the lateness of the hour—a surprising attitude.
This surprise, however, was dispelled considerably by the appearance of Bardon, when, in response to Bitterly's ring, he opened the door of No. 1, Derham Crescent. He was a tall, broad and florid man, radiating good humour and joviality—a veritable outsize in Mr. Pickwicks, Bitterly thought. His rotund body was enveloped in a plaid dressing gown, in one hand he held a bottle of whisky and in the other a corkscrew. It was apparent to Bitterly that Bardon was one of those people who would welcome anybody at any time or in any place, providing they were prepared to be as jovial as he was.
He looked inquiringly at Bitterly and smiled.
"Come in," he said. "Make yourself at home. I don't know what you want, but anyway come in and have a drink."
He led the way into a comfortable sitting-room, motioned Bitterly to a big armchair which stood on one side of the fire and, after taking his hat and coat, poured out two immense whiskies. Apparently, thought Bitterly, Bardon was not above having a merry night with anybody.
After giving Bitterly his whisky, the commercial traveller plumped himself in the other chair.
"Well, what can I do for you?" he said, with a glance at the card which Bitterly had handed him.
The journalist was careful. First of all he knew very little about Bardon; just how friendly he was with Charles, or Bardella, for that matter, was an unknown quantity and Bitterly did not intend to give anything away that might come to the ears of any of the characters who were playing in this strange drama, which was becoming more melodramatic with every hour.
He outlined the purpose of his visit to Bardon. He pointed out that, naturally, he was out to make a newspaper story out of the death of the unknown man at the bottom of Derham Crescent; that his paper was keen, as all newspapers are, on getting a new angle, and that he was checking up purely as a matter of form on the movements of different people who might, possibly, have come in contact with this unknown man; that one of these people was Charles Vallery, who had said he spent Friday night in Bardon's company.
Again, merely as a matter of form, said Bitterly, he was checking up on this information. He paused and sipped his whisky.
"Oh, that's right enough," said Bardon. "Vallery was with me on Friday night. Funny fellow, that chap Vallery, and I must say he rather disappointed me."
Bitterly pricked up his ears.
"I didn't know that he was a disappointing sort of man," he said. "I thought he was rather a good fellow."
"Well, that depends on what you call a good fellow," he said. "Mark you, I was very sorry for Vallery, especially after he told me his hard-luck story some months ago. You know, he used to be fairly well off at one time; had a place in Ceylon. He's got a damn pretty wife, too, I must say; I've often seen her walking up this road. It was because I was rather sorry for him that I agreed to his driving me out to Beaconsfield on Friday nights.
"You see," explained Bardon, "I live out there, but my business keeps me in town all the week, and I usually go back on Friday night for the week-end. I used to hire a car and be driven out by one of the garage men from the Associated Garages—you know, Vallery is the office clerk there—but he asked me if he might do the job; said the extra money would be very useful to him, and I agreed. But he's a strange fellow," said Bardon, "a very strange chap."
He took a gulp of whisky, looked inquiringly at Bitterly's half-full glass, and proceeded to pour himself out another drink, after which he stirred up the fire and settled back in his chair with a sigh of contentment.
It was obvious to Bitterly that Bardon was a man who liked talking, and he proceeded to encourage him.
"Of course, you know, I've known Vallery for some time myself," he said. "I thought that he was a bit strange, too. I wonder if our ideas of his strangeness agree?"
"I don't know," said Bardon; "I find him strange because I think he does extraordinary things." He frowned. "I don't like people who do extraordinary things," he said.
It seemed to Bitterly that Bardon was remembering something to Charles' disadvantage. He thought that he would like to know what this was.
"Well, he must be an odd fellow if he's annoyed you," he said, "because I should think you're the very essence of good temper. What happened? Did he run you into a telegraph pole or something last Friday?"
"Good heavens, no," said Bardon. "He didn't drive me anywhere last Friday. He was round here."
Bitterly pricked up his ears. This was beginning to be interesting.
"So you didn't go to Beaconsfield after all?" he said. "That's funny. When I was talking to Vallery he rather gave me the impression that you did."
"Nonsense," said Bardon, passing the whisky bottle to Bitterly. "That was the whole thing. I didn't go anywhere near Beaconsfield last Friday night. I stayed here and I asked him to come round. That's when he behaved so strangely."
"Really?" said Bitterly. "What did he do?"
Bardon took another gulp of whisky.
"I'll tell you," he said. "You see, it was like this. This going down to Beaconsfield on Friday nights is a regular business and this last Friday night was the first time I've ever missed going home for the weekend; but, on the Monday before, in the morning, I heard of some business that would keep me in town over the following weekend, so I telephoned through to Vallery at the garage—so as to give him lots of notice—and told him I shouldn't be needing him on the Friday night. I was a little bit sorry because I knew it would mean the loss of about fifteen shillings to him, so, to make up for it, I asked him if he'd like to come round here about nine o'clock on Friday evening and drink some really good whisky—this whisky. I'm in the whisky business, you know. He said he was sorry, but he couldn't manage it, and we let it go at that.
"However, round about a quarter to four on the Monday afternoon he rang me up at my office. He was awfully funny on the telephone—nervous or something, and his voice sounded so different that at first I had difficulty in recognising it. However, he said he'd altered his plans and he'd like very much to come round on the Friday night, but he had a job to do which would keep him busy till about half past eleven and could he come then? I said that he could. I'm a pretty late bird and I seldom go to bed before about three. I've got out of the way of it, and so I said that would be all right and I'd expect him.
"Well, he didn't turn up at eleven thirty, and I thought that he wasn't coming, but about twenty past twelve he arrived and, to my surprise, he brought his mother with him—an old, hook-nosed woman; a nasty old piece. I didn't like her a bit. I thought that was a bit funny. I'd asked him round to sample a bottle of really fine old Scotch whisky, not to have a mothers' meeting; but he explained that the old lady had just come back from the country suddenly and that he'd met her at the station.
"This seemed a bit odd to me; after all they live at the other end of the street, and I wondered why he couldn't have taken her home first and then come back to me. It would only have made him three or four minutes later, and goodness knows, he was late enough. But, anyhow, there she was.
"Well, they came in here and they both had a glass of whisky, but when I asked them to have some more they wouldn't. That surprised me a bit, because Vallery knows I'm a man who likes good spirits and good company, and I always thought he was a man who liked liquor.
"Well, we sat and talked, and I've never felt so uncomfortable in my life, with that old woman sitting bolt upright in a chair and interjecting a word here and there. Presently I got tired of it. I began to wish that they'd go, but not a bit of it. Directly Vallery stopped talking—and he seemed to be talking just for the purpose of wasting time—his old mother would go on with it. They talked about Ceylon and the war and motor-cars. I've never been so bored in my life. I really began to wonder why Vallery had come at all.
"This went on until somewhere just before two o'clock and then, for some quite unknown reason, Vallery began to take an extraordinary interest in the weather; said that he wondered if we were going to have any rain and then he wondered if it were raining then. Eventually, nothing would content him but that he must go outside and see if it were raining."
"How strange. I suppose you can't remember the exact time when he went out?"
"Oh, yes I can," said Bardon, "because the clock on the mantelpiece here struck two whilst he was away."
"I see," said Bitterly. An idea had begun to take shape in his brain.
"I suppose he was away for some time?"
"Oh, no," said Bardon. "He just went outside the front door and stood on the doorstep to see if it were raining. Then he came back. I thought that he looked awfully funny, as he came back into the room. Directly he got back the old girl spoke to him. 'Well,' she asked. 'Is it all right?' 'Oh, yes,' he said. 'It's a lovely night. It's not raining at all,' and he sat down again.
"Well, now," said Bardon, spreading his hands in wonderment, "would you believe it, but, just as before they neither of them would drink any whisky, now they did nothing but drink whisky. He asked if he might have a drink and she followed suit. Would you believe it? They sat there till three o'clock and they drank nearly a bottle of my best old Scotch between them."
"I see," he said. "Tell me, when you do go down to Beaconsfield, Mr. Bardon, at what time would you think Vallery returned home? About three, I suppose? About the time that they left here?"
"Oh, I suppose so," answered the commercial traveller. "I don't know, of course; I've never come back with him, and, another thing"—he winked at Bitterly—"I don't think Vallery always went straight home; I believe there was a little bit of skirt in the case."
"Really?" queried Bitterly. "That's interesting."
"Oh, yes," said Bardon. "I know that, because one very rainy night I asked him whether he'd like me to put him up at my place at Beaconsfield; it was pouring cats and dogs, and I thought I could save him the journey back in the wet. But no, he said he had to pick up a young woman somewhere, and I often chaffed him about it afterwards. Pretty good alibi that, you know. I suppose he used to pick her up on his way back and take her for a joy-ride, telling his wife I'd kept him late or something."
"And they left at three o'clock, did they?"
"About that," said Bardon. "Altogether, it was the funniest night I've ever spent in my life. Can you explain it?"
"No, I can't," he said. "It's certainly odd."
Bardon changed the subject and went on talking; but Bitterly was not listening. Here was more mystery.
On the Monday morning Bardon had asked Charles to spend the Friday evening with him and Charles had refused. Later in the afternoon—after he had seen and spoken to Lariat—he had telephoned Bardon saying that he had changed his mind, asking if he might come, saying that he would be fairly late, and saying nothing about his intention of bringing his mother with him.
What had happened on the Monday afternoon to make Charles Vallery desire to visit Bardon and to take his mother with him? And what was the mystery connected with the sudden appearance on the Friday night of Charles' mother? Why had Mrs. Vallery suddenly left Westover and come to London and then, afterwards, returned to Westover. For she had returned to Westover, and without any other member of the family knowing. Bitterly remembered that both Diane and Herbert had told him that Mrs. Vallery was away on the Monday morning; that she had been away at the time Lariat had called and threatened Diane, and they had also said that she had not returned from Westover until after the discovery of Lariat's body. Where had she spent Friday night?
It seemed to Bitterly that the happenings of the Monday afternoon—so far as both Charles Vallery and Bardella were concerned—might serve to throw a great deal of light on the question of Lariat's death. Definitely Bitterly now knew that these following things had happened on the Monday afternoon so far as these two people were concerned:
(a) That for some reason Bardella had suddenly decided to draw one hundred pounds from the bank in notes; suddenly, because the cheque had been presented at the bank almost at the moment of closing time.
(b) That some of this money had found its way into Charles Vallery's possession by Saturday, when he had paid over one of the notes to Herbert, and that Lariat himself had been in possession of at least one of the notes on the Monday night.
(c) That on the Monday morning Charles Vallery had refused Bardon's invitation to spend the following Friday evening with him, after hearing that the usual journey to Beaconsfield was to be cancelled, but in the afternoon, presumably after the time that Bardella had cashed her cheque and after the visit of Lariat, he had telephoned Bardon, asking if he might come after eleven o'clock at night. Why?
These were the three subsidiary questions which, taken into conjunction with Bitterly's original ten questions, would, he thought, put him in a fair way to solve the mystery. In addition to these there was another interesting point.
Bardon had said that he thought it strange Charles should bring his mother with him as an uninvited guest. He thought it odd that Charles had not taken his mother home, more especially as the Vallery flat was only two minutes' walk down Derham Crescent.
But Bitterly saw an explanation for this. No one had been told that Mrs. Vallery had returned to London on the Friday night. It seemed apparent that the reason why Charles had not taken her home before visiting Bardon was because he did not wish anyone to know she had returned to London. Obviously, after they had left Bardon's place he had taken her somewhere else to spend the rest of the night and then returned home himself afterwards. Why?
Bitterly brought himself out of this maze of conjectures and possibilities as Bardon poured himself out another whisky and soda.
"Well, what do you make of it?" said the commercial traveller.
"It's a bit of a mystery, isn't it?" he said. "The thing that puzzles me is why did Vallery bring his mother along here? Why didn't he take her home first?"
"Oh... I believe he did say something about that," replied Bardon. "He was, as usual, quite vague—he's a terribly vague sort of fellow, is Vallery, you know. He muttered something about there being nobody in the place. He said his brother-in-law was at one of his Friday night parties and would not be back until four in the morning, and he didn't want the old woman to be alone in the place. I really wasn't listening at the time, but it sounded rather silly."
Bitterly nodded. It was silly.
Charles knew perfectly well that Diane was in the flat; but he thought that Herbert would not be at home until about four o'clock. In any event, this was no reason why his mother should not have gone back home. It was merely an excuse...
Bitterly finished his drink and got up.
"Well, thank you very much for your kindness, Mr. Bardon," he said. "I don't think that you've been able to help us a great deal, but that isn't your fault! Anyhow, I've enjoyed your whisky. It's great stuff!"
"Well, that's something," he said. "Sorry I can't help more."
He helped Bitterly into his raincoat and led the way along the passage to the front door.
Following him, Bitterly found himself thinking about Charles Vallery's curiosity about the weather on the night of his visit to Bardon. Why had he been wondering whether or not it was raining? And why had he taken the trouble to go to the front door to see? But this question was soon to be answered.
Bardon opened the door for Bitterly and stood on one side to let him pass. As Bitterly, standing on the doorstep, turned to shake hands with Bardon, he found himself looking down the street. As he looked, on the other side of the road, down where the Crescent curved, towards its end, a light went on in an upper window. Bitterly realised that the light was in the Vallery flat—he knew why Charles Vallery had gone outside to see if it were raining. He knew why it was necessary that he should go outside.
Vallery had gone out to the door, not to see whether or not it was raining, but to watch for a signal from his own flat, the switching on or off of a light in his own hall, which he could easily see from Bardon's doorstep. Why?
BITTERLY, knowing that sleep was impossible while he was trying to fit together the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle he had set himself, was walking through the dark streets. Almost naturally, he found himself taking a familiar course, and as he turned into Derham Crescent he saw, a dozen yards in front of him, the slow-moving figure of a policeman. It was Police Constable Mullens, the officer who had discovered Lariat's body. Mullens, moving with the slow, ponderous and seemingly bored gait of the policeman on night duty, occasionally flashing his lamp on to the doors of houses, varied this process by flapping is arms across his chest in an effort to keep warm.
As he heard Bitterly's steps the police constable turned and recognised him.
"Good evening, Mr. Bitterly," said Mullens, "you're pretty late. Are you looking for a story?"
Bitterly smiled and returned the policeman's greeting.
"It looks to me as if we have had all the stories we are going to get in these parts of the world, Mullens," he said. "Have you found out anything yet about the man on the bricks?"
Mullens shook his head.
"I don't think so," he said. "Mark you, I don't know what the powers that be are doing, but I do know that the D.D.I. here doesn't think much of it. You see, we don't know anything his man—who he was or what he was. He's just a professional vagrant, I should think, who, on the strength of pinching a few quid from somebody or other and getting himself a new suit of clothes, thought that he'd try his luck as a cat burglar. One thing he didn't know was that it's easier to think you can be a cat burglar than actually to be one. Climbing up the sides of houses is no easy job, even for an expert at the game, and when amateurs try their hands at things like that they are certain to come to no good."
"So you think he was an amateur?" said Bitterly. "Why?"
"Well, sir," he said, "you can take it from me that no expert cat burglar would ever go out to do a job wearing a pair of shoes like this fellow was. They were new, dangerous for climbing. I guess that's why he fell.
"You see, a lot of people these days are inclined to get a bit bored with life, or down and out, or something like that, and they think they'll have a go at it. I should think this fellow was one of those people. I had a look at him in the mortuary, and, although he was a nasty bit of business, he didn't look to me like an experienced house-breaker. I should say he was just a thoroughly bad hat out to make a few quid.
"You see, the fact that they are pulling those houses down at the end of the Crescent is a temptation. It looks so easy to climb up the side of the first house."
Whilst they had been talking the two men had walked slowly down the Crescent. They had passed Bardon's house by ten or fifteen yards, when Mullens pointed over to the hoarding at the end of the Crescent on the other side of the road.
"You can see what he was after, Mr. Bitterly," he said. "If he climbed up the side of that end house there, he could have got into any of the houses on that side of the Crescent. You see, these are old houses. They were built before contractors thought very much of either cat burglars, or fires for that matter. The roofs are flat, and once he got on the roof of that end house he could have walked along and visited any house in the Crescent. Do you see how near to the roof the top line of windows is? Why, an experienced climber could hold on to the roof with one hand and almost open the top window with the other. I wonder we've not had more burglaries like that down here.
"The funny thing was that I never saw anything of this guy. After all, the Crescent's not a very long street, and, except for one little bit where the curve comes, you can see practically the whole length of both sides of the road. Now, the doctor says that this fellow died somewhere in the region of twenty past two, but, of course, he can't say for certain to the minute; it might have been two o'clock, or it might have been ten-to-three. Now, I patrolled down here at two, and I suppose I was back here again about twenty-past. I've always flashed my lamp through that gap in the hoarding at the bottom every time I passed, but I never saw a sign of a thing."
Bitterly nodded. "That's funny," he said. "Where do you think he came from?"
"I don't know," said Mullens. "The only thing I can think of is that when I came down the Crescent earlier he must have followed me down, keeping well in the rear. Then, when I turned out of the Crescent at the bottom, he must have slipped behind the hoarding. Maybe he didn't try to climb up that time, but waited to see if I would come back. Maybe he did wait. You see, there's a pile of bricks behind that hoarding, the pile he fell back on, and he might easily have hidden behind that whilst I flashed my lamp through the gap. It's very quiet here, and he'd have heard my footsteps coming along. Then, knowing that I'd be away about twenty minutes, maybe he thought he'd have time to shin up and get on the roof before I appeared again. Once he was up there he was safe—I shouldn't have been able to see him."
"I expect that's how it was, Mullens," he said.
By this time they had reached the bottom of the Crescent and Mullens, with a smile, turned off and continued his beat.
"Good-night, sir," he said. "I hope you don't think you'll find anything round here tonight, because I think you'll be disappointed. Things never happen in quick succession, you know; this is the first body I've ever found since I've been a police officer, and I expect it'll be my last."
He went off and disappeared into the darkness.
Bitterly turned and retraced his steps. He stopped as he reached the gap in the hoarding and looked through. The moon at this moment emerged from behind the clouds and a pale beam of light illuminated the miniature devastation wrought by the demolishers in their work. The whole corner surrounded by the hoarding—about sixty square feet—was laid waste, and old boards, piles of bricks, and all the refuse connected with the pulling down of houses, lay about the place in profusion.
Some impulse caused Bitterly to squeeze through the gap in the hoarding and to climb over the large pile of bricks and rubbish which confronted him. He climbed down the other side and looked about him. Lariat must have stood here, he thought, wondering whether the steps which he could hear approaching were those of a policeman, who might inspect the place, or whether they belonged to some late bird going home.
A sudden idea came to Bitterly, an idea that he, too, might try to climb the wall, that in doing so, he might, in some undefinable manner, discover something. He remembered that it was only when he had actually walked along the passage leading to the front door in Bardon's house and stood on the doorstep—in other words when he had actually gone through the same process as Charles Vallery—that he had discovered that, standing in Bardon's doorway, Charles had waited for the signal from the Vallery flat. Was it not possible that by going through the process which Lariat had experienced—the climbing up of this wall—he might find some other point which would help him? He felt in his pocket for his gloves and pulled them on. Then, half-humorously, impelled by one of those strange impulses which make us all do weird things in extraordinary circumstances, he began to climb.
And he was surprised at the ease with which he was able to mount the side of the house. The moon was stronger, and he hoped that nobody would see him. It would certainly be an amusing news story if he himself were arrested by some strange police officer on a charge of attempted burglary. But the Crescent was very quiet—there was no sound to be heard.
Once or twice, as he climbed, Bitterly thought that he could distinguish places where a foot had kicked away a piece of brick or mortar in order to obtain a better foothold.
Two minutes later and Bitterly had reached the parapet of the roof of the house and swung himself over it. He was standing on the roof of the bottom house of the Crescent. Looking up the Crescent, along the line of roofs, he could see that what Mullens had said was perfectly true. The roofs of the houses were flat and undivided and with the exception of one or two raised channels fixing drain pipes or lightning conductors, anyone could walk uninterruptedly from one end of the Crescent to the other along the roofs.
Quietly, and impelled by the same motive, Bitterly began to walk towards the place where he considered the Vallery flat would be. This was not far, for it comprised the top two floors of the house situated six houses from the bottom of the Crescent.
When he reached it he stood looking over the low parapet, which reached to just above his waist, down into the quiet Crescent below, thinking how different the street looked from this altitude. Then he looked straight in front of him across the Crescent and found something else of interest.
Immediately opposite him stood a house which was one storey lower than those on either side of it. Behind it, at the back of the roof, Bitterly could distinguish in the moonlight the high wall of an artist's studio, and leaning against the wall formed by the side of this studio and standing right back from the street so that it was only possible to see it from where he stood was a large sign on which he considered the commercial artist who kept the studio had probably been working. The black lettering on the white ground of the twenty-foot sign was easily distinguishable to Bitterly, and the strangeness of the wording made him concentrate his attention, wondering just what the sign was advertising. The bottom half of it was in the shadow and he could not read it. But, on that part which showed in the moonlight, Bitterly saw distinctly the words,
HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY.
As he stood looking and wondering, something clicked in his brain. He started involuntarily as into his head came the wording of the strange letter which Lariat had written to Charles Vallery, the words which were exactly similar to those on the sign on the opposite side of the road. He remembered them.
"...I have seen with your viewpoint that honesty is the best policy..."
Bitterly stepped back, raising his foot as he did so to avoid a slight projection on the floor of the roof behind him.
So that was the explanation of the letter. He saw it now.
"...I have seen with your viewpoint that honesty is the best policy..."
I have stood on this roof—I have seen the sign opposite—I have identified the spot.
That is what Lariat had really meant. Bitterly looked round. He realised that the projection which he had moved his foot to avoid was a trapdoor leading down into the Vallery flat. So that was where Lariat had stood.
Bitterly sat down, unheeding of the wet surface of the roof, lit a cigarette and began to think. Here was the explanation as to why Lariat had been in such a hurry to post the letter to Charles Vallery on the Thursday night. Here was the explanation as to why he had gone to the trouble of borrowing notepaper and envelope to write it. Here was the reason why Charles must have that letter on Friday mid-day.
It was to tell him that an hour or so before that letter was written Lariat had reconnoitred the ground and had identified the Vallery trapdoor by means of the sign on the roof of the house opposite, and for some reason it was necessary that Charles should know that this reconnaissance had been carried out before mid-day on Friday.
Again the explanation leapt to Bitterly's brain. Obviously, so that he could communicate with his mother who had come back so suddenly—so unexpectedly—on Friday evening. Surely that must be the reason. Bitterly's jaw hardened as he began to see daylight. His mouth set in grim lines as his brain, quickly putting together the different points which he had made in his investigations during the last few days, resolved them into the grim, filthy and sinister plot which had ended in the death of Lariat.
And the thing which had given him the clue, the thing which, in conjunction with the sign on the roof opposite, had made clear to him, first of all hazily, and then unmistakably, walked slowly along the parapet on the side of the roof and disappeared as it jumped behind an adjacent chimney pot. It was the Shah of Persia—the Vallery cat.
BITTERLY got up and quietly walked down to the end of the roof. He looked over the parapet, up and down Derham Crescent, and saw that the way was quite clear; that there was nobody in the Crescent, and that he could climb down unseen. Then, very carefully, he began to descend.
A few minutes afterwards, with a quick glance up the Crescent, he pushed his way through the gap in the hoarding and began to walk quickly home.
The action of walking pleased Bitterly, for at this moment his brain was in a complete turmoil, a turmoil out of which several concrete facts emerged, facts that horrified even him. His experiences as a journalist, which had brought him into contact with most phases of life, sometimes in the most sordid degree, had never shown him such an unutterable baseness of mind as that which stood behind the story of Lariat's death.
But he was going to make certain, quite certain, although he was definitely assured in his own mind as to the culpability of the person whom he knew to be responsible for the death of Lariat. Yet behind this death, there lurked an even more sinister mystery; a more deliberate plot.
A plot at which the majority of the most despicable sort of crooks would have boggled, a series of ideas of which only the lowest kind of mind would be capable, yet a plot so well conceived, so cunningly thought out, that it had every chance of success, and it had failed only because in its execution the unforeseen had occurred, and because, by luck and obstinacy, Bitterly had been able to piece together such bits of the jig-saw puzzle as had come his way, and had, eventually, found the solution.
He felt that he was now in a position to answer fairly accurately the ten main questions which he had written down in his room before his attempt to see Bardella, when he had discovered that she had run off—her first real error of judgment.
It had begun to rain again, furiously, but he hardly noticed the raindrops beating on his face as he hurried back along the slushy, deserted streets.
Twenty minutes later, his wet clothes removed, seated at his desk in a dressing-gown, he strove to get to the bottom of the last puzzle.
Charles, he reflected, had refused Bardon's invitation on the previous Monday morning before his interview with Lariat, but, after the discussion with the latter, it was necessary that Charles should be at Bardon's house at two o'clock on Saturday morning in order to receive the signal which Lariat should have given, but which he had been unable to give because he was already dead.
With reference to the sudden arrival of Charles' mother, her appearance as an uninvited guest at Bardon's house, it was necessary that she should be there with her son to await the signal from Lariat and, if that signal were given, to act as a necessary witness.
Now what was he to do? Bitterly's mind was as cool and calculating as a machine. He was surprised at the coldness with which he found himself able to review the situation. Obviously, the first thing to do was to talk to Herbert. Where would he be?
Bitterly had a definite idea that Herbert, with what would seem to him murder on his conscience, would hardly be at home sleeping. The journalist thought that it would be more probable that he would be at his favourite night-club, the Pear Tree, and, however drunk he might be, Bitterly thought rather grimly that the facts which were to be disclosed to him would have a definitely sobering effect. In any event, he knew that it was impossible for him to think of sleep. His one idea was to get this business finished somehow.
He realised that these were the early hours of Monday morning, and that next morning the inquest would be held—an inquest which would bring to light this terrible plot, so he thought he might be as well to go to the Pear Tree and see if Herbert were there, instead of walking up and down all night, thinking at a time when action was necessary.
Fifteen minutes later, he had secured a wandering taxi, and was speeding towards Piccadilly. Three quarters of an hour after that Herbert, slightly tight, but, even so, very curious and a little bit frightened of the expression which was in Bitterly's eyes, sat in the armchair on one side of Bitterly's fireside, facing the journalist, who regarded him with a smile.
Bitterly carefully filled his pipe, looking at Herbert all the time. Then, he took out his cigarette case and threw it over to the young man, who caught it and groped for a cigarette. The journalist lit his pipe and then lit Herbert's cigarette for him. As he held the match to the cigarette, he spoke:
"Well, Herbert, what did you do it for?" he asked. "Oh, there's no need to pretend any longer. I know you killed Lariat and I don't say that I blame you particularly for it, either; but you and I have got to do a certain amount of talking, so you'd better take it easy. Here, hold up!"
He caught Herbert as the young man slumped forward in a dead faint, pushed him back into the chair and went off for a glass of water. Then he stood holding the glass, watching Herbert as consciousness permeated his addled brain. Bitterly gave him the glass and watched him drink.
"I shouldn't worry yourself too much, my lad," he said. "It's about time you grew up, anyhow; besides, you don't think that you can get away with killing people off hand, do you?"
Herbert gulped. He sat looking into the fire; his face drawn.
"How did yon know?" he said eventually. "How did you find out? I'm damned glad somebody knows... anyhow... Now I suppose you'll give me away. You've got your news story all right haven't you, Bitterly?"
He laughed hoarsely.
"I wonder what the devil they'll do with me," he concluded. "Do you think they'll—?"
"Hang you? Not a bit of it," said Bitterly cheerfully. He smiled at Herbert. "Personally, I think it's about the best thing you've ever done in your life, and I don't think I should ever have suspected you except for a few coincidences and the fact that I saw the cat on the roof tonight!"
Herbert looked tip. He was beginning to pull himself together.
"You were up there?" he said.
"Yes... I was up there, and I saw some very interesting things, two to be exact: the sign on the roof opposite—and the cat... directly I saw the cat I knew it was you."
He leaned forward.
"Now listen, Herbert, let's get this thing straight. You think you know all about this business and I've no doubt that you think you know why you killed Lariat, but you don't. As the Americans say, you don't know the half of it.
"The thing's this. We've got to do some quick thinking, you and I, and we've got to be cool, and calm and collected. There's no need for you to worry a great deal because I tell you, here and now, that no jury is going to convict you of either murder or manslaughter. If you are tried you'll be found not guilty on either charge... in any event I don't think you could be charged with murder. But I want you, in your words, to tell me exactly what happened last Friday night, and I want you to answer any questions that I put to you as if you were on oath. If you do that I don't think you need worry. I think we can get this business straightened out all right. Well, are you going to do it?"
"Oh, yes, I'll do it," he said. "There's nothing else for me to do. Anyway, the whole thing's got to come out."
He opened Bitterly's case and helped himself to another cigarette, which he lit with an unsteady hand. Then he sat for a few moments, puffing out the smoke straight before him. At last he spoke.
"You see," he said sombrely, "I didn't tell you the exact truth in the beginning. Last Monday night when I met Lariat at the Green Fly you just cannot imagine how relieved I was when I found he was going to be decent about things. I had expected him to be terribly tough. I thought I was in for a bad time, and when I found he'd got some money from somewhere and he wanted to be friends I was very relieved. So relieved that, maybe, I stood for one or two things that I'd have been annoyed about in the ordinary course of events.
"I told you that he bought me a drink and a cigar. He was flashing a ten-pound note about. Whilst we were having a drink he began to talk about Diane. He asked me whether I'd ever thought in the old days that she was even a little bit keen about him. If things had been normal I'd have probably knocked him down. I'd have told him that she'd always hated the very sight of him or the sound of his name, but because I was so relieved I played round the subject. I said that I didn't think she was shockingly keen on him and let it go at that.
"He smirked in an odd sort of way rather as if he'd got something up his sleeve.
"On Friday night—the Friday night—I met those people and went to the party as I told you—"
"Forgive me interrupting, Herbert, but tell me, had you arranged beforehand to go to that party? Was that a definite thing or was it done on the spur of the moment?"
Herbert shook his head. "Oh no, it wasn't done on the spur of the moment. You see, I really didn't know these people at all. They were pals of Charles. Some people that he'd picked up somewhere. But he told me on the Wednesday that if I looked them up on Friday night I could have a darn good time, and it wouldn't cost me a penny. He said it would be a first-class all-night party. I thought at the time it was rather decent of him, and I said I'd go.
"But, as a matter of fact, it was pretty awful. I met them and they were the most shocking crowd. They were all tight and not even decently tight. The women were shocking—even for me," said Herbert, with an attempt at a self-deprecating grin. "Anyhow, I thought I'd better stay on for a bit, so I went along with them to their place. But I soon got fed up with it, and I left there at a quarter past one—not at the time I told you—and started to walk home.
"On my way home, I thought that I'd been making rather a fool of myself with these lousy parties and cheap women. I rather made up my mind that I'd try and turn over a new leaf. Then I remembered about the cat. I got fed up with myself a bit more because Diane had asked me to go and look for the Shah—and I hadn't done a thing about it.
"She had an idea that the Shah used to go to the basement of the house next door, but I guessed that I'd find him on the roof—that was the place he used to go to.
"I got home about ten minutes to two, went up the stairs quietly, got the ladder and pushed open the trapdoor, which, as you know, is just outside Diane's bedroom, and which is about eight feet from the ground. I got through and walked about looking for the cat.
"Eventually I saw him, but when I went to pick him up he ran down the roofs towards the end of the Crescent. I didn't bother because I knew they'd pulled the house down at the end and that he'd have to stop there when he got to the edge.
"Sure enough when he reached the end he stopped, sat down and looked at me. He didn't attempt to escape again. I reached him and was just stooping down to pick him up when I got an awful shock.
"A head and shoulders appeared over the edge and a man started to climb over. It was Lariat.
"For a moment I was so amazed that I couldn't speak. Then eventually I said, 'What the hell are you doing here, Lariat?' He was in the act of putting his leg over the edge of the parapet and he just looked at me and grinned.
"'I have come to see your little sister by appointment. Herbert,' he said, 'and, if you'll take a tip from me, you'll make yourself scarce.'"
Herbert paused for a moment, then:—
"I'm not much of a guy," he said. "I know I'm pretty weak and rotten, but there are some things I don't stand for. I remembered his remark of the Monday night before when he'd asked if I thought Diane was a bit keen on him, and I remembered all the trouble that the lousy tyke caused her in Ceylon through me. I saw red and I hit him straight between the eyes just as he was in the act of getting over the edge of the parapet on to the roof. He hung for a moment, then he gave a gasp and fell backwards.
"I got frightened. I realised that the thing for me to do was to get out, away from the flat, to go back to the party and then come back later. So I climbed down the side of the house. This was my first idea.
"Then I realised that I'd left my hat and coat in the flat. That would give me away. I thought I'd get them, so I started to climb up the side again and got on to the roof.
"You can imagine I was in a hell of a state. Just as I reached the trapdoor, which was still open, there was the cat sitting there. Without thinking I picked him up, quietly got down the ladder and went into the kitchen. Directly I put the Shah down he ran to his milk saucer, which was empty, and, still not thinking, I emptied the milk jug which was on the table—there wasn't much milk in it—into his saucer. He drank the lot.
"Then I picked up my hat and coat, crept down the stairs and cleared off. There was no one in the Crescent. I walked some way, then I got a cab and went back to the party at Russell Square. They were so drunk that they'd never missed me. That was fine, I thought.
"While I was there I suddenly remembered that anybody going into the flat would find the cat there and they would know that I'd been out on to the roof for it. I left the party and went back home. I crept up once again and found the Shah, put the ladder up to the trapdoor and pushed him through on to the roof.
"Then I went back to the kitchen and began to make some tea. Then Diane came out and there was the trouble about the milk. Of course, I daren't tell her that I'd given it to the Shah. I had to tell her I'd drunk it myself."
HERBERT threw his cigarette-end into the fire and lit another. A little colour had come back to his cheeks. It was obvious that he was feeling more than relieved at being able to talk to someone about the Lariat business.
"Well, what's the next thing?" he said eventually. "I suppose we've got to tell the police."
Bitterly was silent for a while. He was thinking. An idea had come into his head that he found definitely amusing—an idea that, if he could carry it out, would make Charles suffer as he deserved to suffer. After a few minutes he spoke.
"I'm not so certain about that, Herbert," he said. "You see, you only know one side of this story. You think that you're the person solely responsible for the death of Lariat, but you're not, my lad. It's true you knocked him off the roof. It's true it was your hand that actually sent him to his death; but have you ever asked yourself what he was doing on the roof, Herbert?"
Herbert looked up.
"It was pretty obvious," he said. "Diane was alone in the flat and he was going to get through the trapdoor; he was going to—"
"Precisely," Bitterly interrupted. "But have you ever asked yourself how it was that Lariat knew Diane was alone in the flat?"
Herbert sat back in his chair, his mouth open with amazement.
"Now look here, Herbert," said Bitterly, "I'm going to do something that may seem very strange to you. I'll tell you just why I'm going to do it. I'm in love with Diane; I want to marry her. It's quite obvious, having regard to what I know, that it's impossible for her to continue living in the same house with Charles Vallery any longer. In point of fact, I think, in a little while, you're going home to bring Charles round here. I want to talk to Charles, but the first thing I want you to get in your head is this. I've got a theory, a very good theory, and it's one I'm going to put up to Charles."
An expression of utter bewilderment crossed Herbert's face.
"What do you mean, Bitterly?" he asked. "What's in your mind?"
"I'm going to accuse Charles of the murder of Lariat," he said, "and the joke is that I think I can almost prove he did murder Lariat! You see Herbert, what you don't know is that Lariat was on the roof at the express invitation of Charles, and it's for that precise reason that no jury in this country would ever convict you of either murder or manslaughter. If ever there were a justifiable homicide it was that."
Herbert sat staring at Bitterly. After a full minute he spoke.
"My God!" he said. "You mean that Charles—"
"Precisely," said Bitterly. "I mean that Charles, knowing that there was nobody in the flat except Diane, had arranged with Lariat that he should get through the trapdoor and walk into your sister's room. You'll know why presently, but at the moment the point doesn't matter.
"Now," Bitterly continued, "Charles is going to be put into a very peculiar position. In organising his very clever little plot he didn't realise that he was creating a chain of circumstantial evidence that might easily stamp him as the deliberate murderer of Lariat.
"And the only way in which he can disprove that he murdered Lariat is by telling the truth about the despicable bargain he made with him.
"Let's take this thing from the start. Don't interrupt me—even if you are surprised—because I want to have a rehearsal of what I intend to say to the enterprising Charles"—he smiled grimly—"when I see him.
"Last Monday Lariat went to see Charles. He would have arrived at the garage somewhere in the region of three o'clock, maybe just afterwards. Now why should he want to see him? The answer is that Lariat wanted money and wanted it badly. My story is going to be that he went there for the express purpose of blackmailing Charles.
"And Charles supports this theory. What does he do? He gets some money and he hands it over to Lariat. I know where he got the money and I know why he got it, and if Charles likes to tell the truth about that, well and good. But he won't want to tell the truth; therefore, having regard to what happens afterwards, I say that he allowed himself to be blackmailed by Lariat.
"Lariat goes off very pleased with himself. He tells you that he wants to be friends and he flashes about some of the money he has obtained from Charles.
"In the meantime Charles has already begun to think that Lariat is likely to be a nuisance. He thinks that he will not be satisfied with the money he has been given and will come back for more, so he proceeds to think out a little plot for the removal of Lariat.
"He has already refused an invitation from Bardon, the commercial traveller, who has told him he will not want him on Friday and has asked him to go round there to spend the evening; but, now, it becomes necessary that Charles should accept the invitation, in order that he can actually know when Lariat is in the flat; so he rings up Bardon, soon after Lariat had left him, and tells him that he would like to come after all, but that he will be fairly late.
"Charles must somehow make Lariat go to the flat. He must, somehow, get him there in order that he may kill him, apparently justifiably, in defence of Diane's honour. So our story is that Charles suggested to Lariat at the interview (a) that Diane was really rather keen on him and (b) that there would be nobody in the flat at all late on Friday night.
"Lariat takes the tip, and Charles, realising that Lariat must turn on the light in the hall when he drops through the trapdoor, knows that, from Bardon's doorstep, he will see the light go on. All he has to do then is to walk down the street, let himself into the flat with his key and kill Lariat.
"In the meantime, Lariat, as arranged, writes a letter to Charles telling him that he has seen the sign on the roof, i.e., identified the proper trapdoor, and that all is well.
"Charles, at two o'clock, goes out on to Bardon's doorstep and sees the light go on. He knows that Lariat has arrived. He knows, also, that you are still at the party to which he has deliberately sent you, and he knows that his mother is away in the country where he has sent her.
"Twenty minutes later, knowing that Lariat will leave the flat by the same way as he entered it, Charles leaves Bardon's flat and walks down the Crescent. When he arrives at the bottom he pushes through the hoarding, climbs to the roof and waits there for Lariat.
"Soon after that Lariat appears and walks along the roof. As he is preparing to climb down Charles deliberately throws him over the edge, intending to kill him that way, and if that fails, to descend and finish him off as he lies injured on the bricks.
"And our case is that Charles' idea was it wouldn't matter if he were caught, because no jury is going to find a man guilty of murder when that man arrives home to find a man who has already been suspected of an affair with his wife, and, in a fit of rage, kills him.
"You know as well as I do that this case which I have just outlined to you, this murder accusation against Charles, is pure rubbish. You will say, and rightly, that Charles could disprove it easily, and I entirely agree with you.
"Charles could disprove it, but, in order to do so, he has got to tell the truth. The only way that he can break the chain of circumstantial evidence which I propose to produce on Tuesday morning is to tell the police the actual facts of the case.
"So he is forced either to accept the accusation of murder or, to clear himself of it, to recount in detail the plot against Diane of which he is the author.
"If he does so the rest is easy. Charles will find himself faced with a proposition which will in the long run lead to another criminal charge, one of conspiracy, being brought against him, and the way will be easy for Diane to divorce him.
"In any event, it looks to me as if the truth will eventually have to come out. But, at the moment, until we have dealt with Charles, I think, Herbert, we will say nothing about it. Now are you going to do what I tell you?"
"Oh, yes, Bitterly," he said. "I'll do what I'm told. I don't quite understand what you're getting at, but I think I'm prepared to leave this matter in your hands."
"Now listen. I want you to do exactly what I tell you. I want you to go home and awaken Charles. I want you to tell Charles that I know the whole truth about the Lariat business, that I've got a definite idea he was the person who killed Lariat, and that I intend to go to the police first thing in the morning.
"I rather fancy this will annoy our friend Charles. He will be furious. He'll tell you it's a lot of drivel. Your attitude is that you've heard what I've got to say about it, and that it looks pretty black for Charles; that you have just left me, and that the best thing he can do is to come round here and see me at once.
"You'll find he'll come round all right. I shall expect him here, in fact, within about ten minutes from the time you get home."
"All right, Bitterly," he said.
Bitterly put his hand on Herbert's shoulder.
"Nothing is ever as bad as it seems," he said. "And we've all got to grow up some time. If this rotten business turns you from a young waster into a decent man, then it will he well worth the death of that skunk Lariat. Life's up to you, Herbert.
"Now, get along and send me Charles. I'm looking forward to the interview."
BITTERLY stood outside the street door waiting for Charles. He had not the slightest doubt Charles would come—and quickly; his instinct for self-preservation would see to that.
Bitterly knew that when Herbert had told Charles the story which they had arranged Charles would give vent to an outburst of temper, followed very quickly by a great fear for his own safety. Then, with a feeling of security, born of the fact that Bitterly's accusation of murder was, in reality, false, he would dress himself and hurry round to walk into the trap prepared for him.
The journalist heard him before he saw him; heard his staccato steps on the pavement. In a minute Charles appeared round the corner, and, in another few seconds, stood facing Bitterly.
He had dressed hurriedly. Beneath the upturned collar of his overcoat Bitterly could see the collar of his pyjama jacket. His face was white and his mouth was working, twitching with rage or fear. Looking at him, Bitterly wanted to strike out at the face before him; to keep on hitting it until he had knocked every semblance of humanity from the features of this human rat. But he found it not difficult to control himself. After all, his revenge would be more complete the other way.
He grinned in Charles' face.
"Hello, Charles!" he said pleasantly. "Do you want to see me?"
Vallery gulped. He could hardly speak.
"Look here, Bitterly," he said after a moment, his face taut with malevolence. "Young Herbert's just been back to see me. He's got some cock-and-bull story about my having something to do with Lariat's death. Apparently you're responsible for that story. Apparently—"
"Just a minute, Vallery," said Bitterly. "You know, it's not a very good place to discuss murder, is it? On a doorstep? Come upstairs."
He led the way up the stairs, walking slowly. Behind him came Vallery. Bitterly was still smiling very ominously.
In the sitting room Bitterly closed the door behind Charles. When he spoke he was surprised at the quietness of his own voice.
"Now listen, you rat," he said. "Don't come round here with any of your cheap exhibitions of presumed temper, and remember that all the time I'm talking to you I'm keeping my hands off you with great difficulty. Remember that if I'm not kicking the life out of you it's only because I've got something very much better up my sleeve in store for you. Now, sit down."
Charles Vallery sat down in the armchair by the side of the fire and looked at the other. His eyelids were twitching, keeping his mouth company. He was scared to death. He watched the other closely. Bitterly, standing on the other side of the fireplace, looked down at him, still smiling.
"So Herbert told you I had said you murdered Lariat, did he? Well, the joke is I did, Charles, and the joke is I can very nearly prove it. I'm calling it a joke because, of course, I know you didn't kill Lariat. Somebody else did. Herbert did. Do you know why he did, Charles?"
Vallery said nothing. He could not speak.
"I knew you'd come running round here," Bitterly continued in the same level monotone, "just because you were frightened and just because you don't know how much I know. But I know the lot. I know the whole story. That letter gave you away, Charles; that was the last thing I wanted to complete this interesting jig-saw puzzle. And another joke is that you thought that letter was going to convince me of your innocence. I have seen with your viewpoint that 'honesty is the best policy.'"
Bitterly sat looking down at the thing opposite him, smiling like a devil.
"That was a good idea, Charles, but not quite enough. You didn't think that I'd get out on the roof and see the sign too, did you? I know why you arranged for Lariat to write that letter to you.
"It was a very pretty little plot, Charles, quite charming, a plot of which a husband and a son might feel very proud. Just so that you know how much I know I'm going to tell you the whole story, and just because I'd like you to know that you're a fool, I'm going to tell you just how I was able to piece it together.
"Last Monday, just a week ago, for these are the early hours of Monday morning, Lariat came to you somewhere in the region of three o'clock. When you told me that he came round to borrow money you told the truth. You refused it, and, as you refused it, Charles, you got an idea; I should think the lowest, filthiest idea that a man ever got. You remembered the fact that your wife's name had once been coupled with this man Lariat's, and you wanted to get rid of her, didn't you, Charles? Why? Because you wanted to marry Bardella, with whom you had been having an affair for months, whom you used to meet on Friday nights when you were coming back from Beaconsfield; and here was the chance. If you could only get Lariat discovered in your wife's bedroom, you could divorce her, couldn't you, Charles, and marry Bardella and Bardella's new-found money?
"And what could Diane do? Nothing. Friendless, suspected by you and your mother of something in connection with this man in Ceylon, and with no money to fight, she would have gone under. Your plot would have succeeded. So you put up the idea to this skunk Lariat, and he agreed to do what you wanted. Then you telephoned Bardella and told her that you had to have some money quickly. Bardella dashed round to her bank and drew £100, most of which, I imagine, she gave to you. You gave some to Lariat on account, obviously, promising to pay the balance to him at Fenchurch Street station last Saturday morning, when he was supposed to go back to Ceylon. Lariat told you he'd been to see Diane; he told you he'd been to see Herbert. All this helped your plot. You could accuse Diane of having already met this man.
"What you didn't know was that Lariat was going to change one of those banknotes at the Green Fly and I was going to trace it.
"Then, what was the next thing? You had to have your evidence, didn't you? So you telephoned Bardon, whose invitation you had refused that morning, knowing that you could see the light go on in your flat hall from his doorstep. You told him that you could come on Friday night, but that you would be late. Then you arranged the details of your plot with Lariat.
"Your mother was away at Westover. She was out of the way. Bardella had already left the flat and you were going to arrange to get Herbert away at a party. The coast would be clear for Lariat, but, just so that there could he no mistake, Lariat was to climb up on the roof and scout around; he was to identify the trapdoor leading down to the hall outside your wife's bedroom, one night before the big night, and he was to let you know when he had done this by writing you that letter, the letter he was so keen to get posted on Thursday night.
"Then, on Friday night he was to get through the trapdoor at two o'clock and he was to switch the light on in the hall so that you could know the time had arrived when you and that precious mother of yours were to dash down the street from Bardon's house, slink up the stairs and discover this misconduct of your wife's. Then the rest would be easy.
"But unfortunately, Charles, most unfortunately for you, Herbert decided that he was sick of his party; he came home. He went on to the roof to find the cat, instead of which he found Lariat, and very properly he hit him and knocked him over the edge. That disposes of Lariat, and a very good disposal, too.
"Now, Charles, do you think, having heard this pretty little story, that any jury is going to find Herbert guilty of even manslaughter? I don't.
"You see, Charles, the unfortunate thing is that every step in the game is provable. The banknote, another of the Bardella banknotes that you were foolish enough to give to Herbert in payment of his winnings, definitely proves you had the money from her. The letter that you received from Lariat was the signal to you to get in touch with your mother and bring her back on the Friday afternoon so that she could act as a witness on Friday night. That is why you never told anybody she had come back and why, after you left Bardon's, you sent her off somewhere to stay the night, before returning to Westover and then eventually coming back to the flat as originally arranged.
"A very pretty little story, Charles. And I'm going to make you tell it. I've arranged with Herbert that he says nothing to anybody. Tomorrow morning I'm going to the police. Formally, I'm going to accuse you of the murder of Vincent Lariat, knowing perfectly well that the only way you can disprove my accusation is by telling them the truth."
Bitterly looked down at the man sitting opposite him. He was still smiling. Charles was trembling. His hands, his knees, shook. Little beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. He was unable to speak.
"Just imagine, Charles," Bitterly continued, "what a good time you'll have at the coroner's inquest on Tuesday when you stand up and tell them, in front of a crowd of people, how, with your nasty little friend, Bardella, and the partly innocent assistance of your mother, you plotted the unjust downfall of a woman whose shoes you are not fit to lick. It will be awfully nice for Bardella, won't it, Charles?"
"Now, about this murder accusation, Charles," he continued.
"My case is this. Lariat came to you last Monday to blackmail you. You gave him money to keep his mouth shut. That's my first point. Now disprove that, Charles. You can, quite easily. Tell them that you rang up Bardella to get some money for you and tell them exactly what you gave that money to Lariat for.
"My next point is that you suggested to Lariat, because he was blackmailing you, that you were prepared to act as the complaisant husband; that you suggested the following Friday night was the time because there would be no one else in the flat. You did this because you intended to murder him on the following Friday night, and you telephoned Bardon and said that you could go to his house so that you could see when Lariat arrived, so that you could go down to the flat, pretend to find him with your wife and kill him. Of course, Charles, you can disprove all that very easily, if you want to. All you have to do is to tell them why you had to be at Bardon's flat at two o'clock, why you had to receive Lariat's signal, and why you had to take your mother with you. I don't mind.
"My third point. You arranged for Lariat to write that letter so that, after you had killed him, it might be taken as a proof of the fact that he was not blackmailing you. All right. Produce that letter, Charles, and explain to them why the sign on the roof was mentioned!
"You see, Charles, everything points to my accusations being true. Every single fact and every bit of circumstantial evidence which I have collected points to you as being the deliberate murderer of Lariat. Everything says that you laid a cunning and well-thought-out plot to kill this man who was blackmailing you and making your life a misery; this man, who had arrived in this country saying that he knew where he could get money, meaning that he was going to get it from you.
"But you can smash my case down, Charles. You can prove your innocence just as easily as I can—apparently—prove your guilt. Let me tell you just what to say and just what to do, and let's see how you like the idea.
"Produce Bardella. Explain to the Court that you had been having an affair with her while she was living as a guest in your house. Explain that you two wanted to get married, but you couldn't do it because your wife was in the way. Then tell them how, when Bardella had inherited some money, you two found the situation unbearable. Bardella will prove all this for you if you ask her to.
"Then tell them that when Lariat arrived you realised you could use him in your plot. Bardella can prove that she, and not you, supplied the money for Lariat.
"Put Bardon in the box and he can prove for you that when you went to his house on the Friday night you were not alone, as I say you were, and as a murderer would be, but accompanied by your mother. Then get your mother to give evidence for you by telling how you got into touch with her and told her that you had discovered that Diane was having an affair with Lariat; that you had found that Lariat intended to visit Diane that night and you wanted her to come along as a witness of your wife's misconduct.
"Produce Lariat's letter and tell them what that was written for. Produce Herbert and get him to tell them how you arranged that he should be out of the way at a party on Friday night.
"All right. Do that, and see what they think of you. They'll know you for the dirty, sneaking rat that you are, a man who tried to betray his wife so that he might marry another woman just because she had some money. They'll think a lot of you and a lot of Bardella, and a lot of your mother, won't they? You'll get the sack from your job and there won't be a decent man who will ever speak to you again in your life.
"And I'll see that the real story gets over, Charles. I'll plaster your lousy face on the front page of every newspaper in this country. There'll be no place for you to hide your head.
"And Bardella will stand by you, won't she? You bet she will. When this story breaks she'll run like the little coward she is; like she ran when I went round to see her last time. Rats always leave a sinking ship, and, believe me, Charles, you're sunk!"
Charles had sunk down into his chair, a huddled heap.
Bitterly walked across and, dragging him up out of the chair, looked into his face.
"Now, get out of here," he said, "and keep on walking. Don't think that you're going to go home, Charles, because you're not. You're never going there any more. If you go round to Derham Crescent I won't be responsible for what Herbert does to you. In any event, I think I'll have the key."
He put his hand into the right-hand pocket of Charles' overcoat. It encountered the key—and something else.
Bitterly pulled it out. It was a small automatic pistol. He smiled.
"So you brought a gun with you, Charles, did you?" he said. "I suppose you were going to threaten me or something. You're a brave fellow, aren't you? Well, you can keep your gun. You haven't got enough guts to kill anybody.
"Now, remember what I've told you and remember this—later on I'm going round to the police. Formally, I'm going to accuse you on the information in my possession of the murder of Vincent Lariat. Of course, you could run off and hide, but they'd find you, Charles. They'll always do. Then it's going to be amusing. Now get out."
Charles Vallery looked once at Bitterly—his face piteously malevolent. Then he half walked, half staggered to the door. Bitterly heard his slow steps going down the stairs. The street door slammed.
Bitterly went back to the fireplace and stood, his elbows resting on the mantelpiece, looking into the flames. He wondered just how far or how near Diane was at this moment, whether in this chaos of plot and counterplot there lay a gleam of hope for their happiness some day.
He felt utterly exhausted. His brain desired only sleep.
At the back of his mind was a half-formed idea to go round to Derham Crescent to speak to Diane, to tell her the truth. But in a moment he realised that the idea was foolish. She would know soon enough.
He closed his eyes and immediately was asleep.
BITTERLY was awakened suddenly by the noise of a passing cart. He opened his eyes and bestirred himself.
In that moment came to him the realisation of what had happened in that room a few hours before. As he stretched his stiff limbs he realised that this was to be a day of activities! The first thing to do was to go to the police; to create the situation which would force Charles to divulge his own low beastliness; to bring on Charles' head the retribution he so richly deserved.
The telephone jangled.
Bitterly walked to the desk and took off the receiver. He had an idea that it might be Charles—a suppliant for mercy!
It was not. It was Jacquot.
"Hullo, is that you, Michael?" said the crime reporter. "Listen, what's the matter with that neighbourhood of yours? Have you heard the latest?"
"I've been asleep," said Bitterly. "What is it?"
"Nothing much," said Jacquot. "A suicide, that's all, and where do you think it was?
"Apparently, at 7.30 this morning, Mullens, the police officer who found the body of that guy on the bricks, has found another one—Charles Vallery. Used to live in a house up the Crescent, shot himself through the head—obvious suicide. Mullens found the body in practically the same place as Lariat's. You might look in at the police station, Mike, on your way down, and see if there's anything else to it. I don't expect there is. It looks like a plain, ordinary suicide."
"All right, Bill," said Bitterly. "See you later. So long."
He walked to the window and looked out. So Charles, for once in his life, had done something sensible. He had taken the easiest way out.
Bitterly walked to the telephone. In a few minutes he heard Diane's voice on the wire.
"Listen, my dear," he said. "I suppose you know about Charles. Well, don't worry. There's an awful lot in life, you know, and I want to talk to you about investigating its possibilities together.
"I'm coming round now; we'll talk it over. And listen... stop crying..."
"I'll try, Michael." she answered. "And please come quickly."
He was about to leave when the telephone rang again. It was Jacquot once more.
"Say, listen, Mike," said the reporter. "I think that we were wrong about that guy Lariat. I've been talking to some of the fellows round at Stevens' doss-house—the first place he stayed at. One of these men says that Lariat was talking about cat burglars, and said he wouldn't mind having a go himself some time. Maybe he'd done somebody down for that money he had on him.
"Anyway, the D.D.I. in your district says that the inquest is all fixed. The police say accidental death and I've had the tipoff that they don't want any big theories from us. They've got enough to do. What do we do?"
Bitterly smiled to himself. He realised now that it would never be necessary for the police to hear any of his big theories.
"Just let it go, Bill," he said. "There'll be other stories. Let 'em have it their own way. He was a cat burglar and it was accidental death."
"O.K.," said Jacquot. "I've got another case waiting for you, Mike—a real story this time; so that suits me."
"Fine," said Bitterly. "It suits me, too. I'll be seeing you, Bill."
HE hung up the receiver and went out. At the end of the street, over the roofs, a weak winter sun was beginning to push out from behind the clouds.
Bitterly smiled at the omen and hastened his steps.
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