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Recent bibliographic research conducted in collaboration with the Australian bibliophile Terry Walker and the New Zealand writer Keith Chapman ("Chap O'Keefe") led to the discovery of four novels by Peter Cheyney which, until now, have never been published in book form.
The titles of these novels are:
Indirect evidence supports the assumption that the present novel, "The Vengeance of Hop Fi," was originally serialised in the British newspaper The Sheffield Mail, presumably in 1928. In a blurb advertising an upcoming serial called "Death Chair" in its sister-publication, the issue of The Sheffield Independent for April 15, 1931, writes:
"DEATH CHAIR" tells of a journalist who looked for a story and found a murderer. It is full of thrills, puzzling situations and brilliant amateur detective work. MR. PETER CHEYNEY is already well known to Sheffield Mail readers who will remember his splendid stories "The Vengeance of Hop Fi" and "The Gold Kimono."
In 1928 "The Vengeance of Hop Fi" was syndicated for publication in at least two countries—Australia and New Zealand.
It was first serialised on the pages of The Auckland Star, New Zealand, beginning on July 7, 1928. Digital image files of this version are available at PapersPast, the web site of the National Library of New Zealand.
In Australia it was first published in The West Australian, Perth, beginning on September 1, 1928. The Brisbane-based newspaper The Queenslander printed its first installment of the serial in the following year, on March 14, 1929. Digital image files of both versions are available at Trove, the web site of the National Library of Australia. Copies of these files were used to produce this, the first, book edition.
A novelette published in the British magazine Detective Weekly on January 29, 1937, under the title "The Mark of Hop Fi" is presumably an abridged version of "The Vengeance of Hop Fi." Authorship of the novelette is attributed to a "Stephen Law," evidently a hitherto unknown pseudonym used by Peter Cheyney. This assumption is supported by another coincidence of name and title. In 1930 and 1931 respectively, The Sunday Times, Perth, Australia, and The New Zealand Herald, Auckland, published a Peter Cheyney serial called "The Gold Kimono." On May 20, 1937, Detective Weekly published a novelette by "Stephen Law" under the same title. Coincidentally, this issue of Detective Weekly contained the 8th installment of Cheyney's Lemmy Caution novel "Poison Ivy," so it may well be that a pseudonym was used to avoid double-billing Cheyney. The only other work found under the byline "Stephen Law" is the novelette "The Riddle of the Strange Last Words" (presumably an abridged version of "Death Chair"), which Detective Weekly published on January 16. 1937. Incidentally, the cover of this issue illustrates a scene from "The Vengeance of Hop Fi," not, as the title on the cover suggests, from "The Riddle of the Strange Last Words".
Stuck between the frame and the mirror in the bottom right-hand corner was a dirty piece of paper. At the top was a crude drawing of a German steel helmet, and underneath, scrawled in an almost illegible hand, were the words:— "Mind your own business—and live!"
Typographical and other obvious errors found while processing the source files from The Queenslander and The West Australian used to build this e-book have been corrected without comment. The name given to one of the villains in the original newspaper versions of the story—"Stahlhauben"—is not a correct German name; it is the plural form of the word for "steel helmet"(Stahlhaube). For the sake of linguistic accuracy the correct name form—"Stahlhaube"—has been used in this e-book edition. For the same reason the other name under which this character is known—"von Eison"—has been corrected to "von Eisen."
Thanks for making "The Vengeance of Hop Fi" available for publication by RGL go to Terry Walker, who collected and pre-processed the files from which the book was built.
—Roy Glashan, April 3, 2017
WHEN I got to the top of Frimley Hill I knew I couldn't stick it much longer. The blister on my heel was sending a red-hot pain up my leg with every step. I sat down in the hedge and took off my broken boot. The relief was wonderful, but tinged with the thought that I must move on in a little while. I felt terribly weak, for I had eaten nothing since the morning before. I had a shilling in my pocket—my last. Should I wire Conway from the next post office and ask him for help? Dare I risk my last shilling when I was not absolutely certain of his address?
I leaned back against the bank with my hands in my pockets. I was tired out and my head was beginning to fall forward. With a last effort I pulled myself together, and at the same moment my fingers clenched something hard in my pocket. I pulled it out—a blue leather case. I opened it and looked at the Military Cross which lay within. My last possession.
Tucked away inside the case was a cutting from the London Gazette. I opened and read it:—"Lieutenant John Relph—awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty."
Dimly, I realised that I was John Relph, sitting by the roadside, broke. The Cross in its case seemed to me like a remote connection with some other existence. With an effort I got to my feet and stumbled along the road. In the distance I could see an inn.
They were kind folk. The woman gave me some cold water and boracic and a piece of lint. I had a drink, and a crust of bread and cheese, for which they refused to take any payment. I thanked them, and sat down on the bench outside the inn.
Presently a big car appeared and pulled up outside. The face of the man who descended from the car and was about to enter the inn seemed familiar to me. He stared hard at me for a moment and then walked to where I sat. His voice was brusque, and I realised that he was a foreigner.
"I know you," he said, "I meet you in Cologne. I am Zweitt—Henri Zweitt. Don't you remember. In the riot—you help me!"
"Good God! Zweitt!" I exclaimed, astonished. "What are you doing here?"
I remembered the man well. He had got mixed up in one of the never-ending riots in Cologne which followed the British occupation. I had managed, with a party of our Military Police, to rescue him from the infuriated crowd.
"I am working for a firm 'ere," he said. "In London. Wines an' spirits. What are you doing, hein?"
I told him. He listened in silence. Then he said:
"Listen to me. I 'ave lunch 'ere. You join me. I will 'ave no refusal. Then I go to London. You come with me in the car. There is a vacancy for a clerk—a junior in my firm. I am 'ead manager. I will get you the job."
I could hardly believe my ears. Such good luck seemed impossible. I stammered my thanks.
Zweitt pulled a fat wallet from his pocket.
"'Ere is money," he said, pushing three five-pound notes into my hand. "When we get to London you will buy clothes and a lodging. Then I will send for you. I am Henri Zweitt. I do not forget."
I was silent, astounded by my good fortune. It was true that I had got Zweitt out of a nasty situation, We had arrived just in time to prevent the crowd from pulling him to pieces. Apparently, by the look of his wallet, he had done pretty well out of the war.
When, after lunch, we left the inn and entered the car I took a parting look at Frimley Hill, on the top of which I had that morning railed at my bad luck. The innkeeper bade me a hearty farewell.
"Good luck," he said. "Maybe this old house will be the turnin' point in your fortunes."
I thanked him and we set off. Henri Zweitt sat back in the car. Now that we had left the inn he seemed to have become more serious. Occasionally he glanced nervously over his shoulder at the road behind. The unaccustomed food and wine had made me drowsy, and the afternoon air was heavy. I closed my eyes and presently was fast asleep.
I WAS awakened by Zweitt pulling at my sleeve. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. We were in London, some way down Oxford Street, going towards the Park. In a minute we turned into Poland Street, and Zweitt stopped the car outside a fairly decent looking house, which he entered.
Presently he came out, and at his request I followed him into the house. Here he introduced me to Mrs. Game, the owner of the place, who showed me to a room on the second floor. It was clean and decently furnished, and there was a bathroom on the same floor. She told me the rent would be fifteen shillings a week. I thought this very reasonable, and paid a month's rent in advance.
Zweitt had disappeared, so I hurried out, and, before the shops closed, bought what I required. I returned about half-past nine, and sat in my room reading. About ten o'clock someone tapped at my door, and Zweitt entered. He appeared worried, but he accepted a cigarette, and sat down in the armchair. Suddenly, with a peculiar, strained look on his face, he leaned forward.
"Relph," he said, "you are a brave man. I will tell you—" He broke off suddenly with a forced laugh—"Eet is nothing. I mus' 'ave my joke," he said.
It struck me that his brand of humour was rather unusual, but I said nothing.
After a few minutes he went down to his room and reappeared with a bottle of whisky. He started talking about the old days in Cologne, helping himself, time and time again, from the whisky bottle. It was half past eleven when he rose unsteadily to his feet and bade me good-night. As he fumbled with the handle of the bedroom door he spoke to me over his shoulder.
"To-morrow I fix you that job," he said. "You are a brave man—I, Zweitt, am also brave." He laughed drunkenly. "I do not care for them—not one bit!" he cried, and lurched off along the passage.
I AWOKE early next morning and had finished dressing, when Mrs. Game entered, at eight o'clock, with my tea, and informed me that Zweitt had suggested that I breakfast with him in his room.
He was showing the effects of last night's whisky pretty badly, and there were heavy lines under his eyes.
Presently he got up and walked over to the window. He stood, looking out on to the sunlit street for a while. Then he turned and, with his hands in his pockets, addressed himself to me.
"Relph—you come to the office this afternoon, at three o'clock," he said. "I will see you there. Do not be late. 'Ere is the address."
He put on his overcoat and hat, and with a nod walked out of the room. I thought his manner was abrupt and moody, and, thinking that the whisky bad upset him, dismissed him from my mind. I was amusing myself looking at some books on the mantelpiece, when Mrs. Game entered.
"There's a man downstairs—a Chinaman, Mr. Relph. 'E wants Mr. Zweitt. I've told 'im that Mr. Zweitt's gorn, but 'e don't seem to understand. I thought per'aps you'd come down an' talk to 'im."
I followed her downstairs. Standing in the hall was a Chinaman. His costume struck me as being rather extraordinary. He wore a suit of blue overalls, such as are worn by artisans, and a greasy bowler hat was perched on the back of his head. A shiny pigtail hung over his right shoulder, whilst a horrible scar, starting in the middle of his forehead, reached almost to his left ear, just missing the eye. In his hand he held a letter, sealed with a great blob of black wax. He looked me over, almost insolently, as I approached.
"Mr. Zweitt," he enquired, his head on one side.
"Mr. Zweitt is out," I said. "What is it you want?"
"I wan' Mr. Zweitt," he said.
His perpetual grin annoyed me.
"Well, Mr. Zweitt isn't here," I said, "and I don't know when he will be here. You'd better leave any message you may have for him."
"I shall leave nothing," he said. "I want Mr. Zweitt. Where is he?"
"Look here," I said. "I've given you all the information I'm going to. Either leave your message or get out—whichever you like!"
He grinned more broadly. In another minute I should have hit him.
"Velly well," he said. He raised his grinning face and looked me straight in the eye. The malevolence in his gaze was appalling.
"Good morning, my gentleman," he said and, turning on his heel, walked out of the house.
I WENT upstairs to Zweitt's room and lit a cigarette. I was feeling remarkably bad tempered after my encounter with the Chinaman. From behind the cover of the window curtain I could see his dirty blue overalls disappearing down Poland Street.
I wondered what connection could possibly exist between Zweitt and the Chinaman who had brought the letter. I wondered what was in the letter, and why the Chinaman would not leave it.
Eventually I went out. I lunched at Lyons and at two o'clock prepared to make my way to the city. Zweitt had given me the address of his firm on a piece of paper. It was:
John Brandon, Ltd., Wine Shipper. Brennan's Buildings. Cannon Street, E.C. 1.
Brennan's Buildings were situated in a narrow turning off Cannon Street, and the offices were on the ground floor. When I pushed open the door a bell sounded, and, after a moment's interval. Zweitt came out of the inner room, closing the door softly behind him.
"So. You are 'ere," he said. "I have talk with Mr. Brandon about you. You go in now and see 'im."
He seated himself at a desk and commenced writing. I took off my hat and knocked at the door of the inner room. A voice bade me enter, and I went in.
Brandon was seated behind a large desk in the centre of the room. The top of this desk was littered with papers and books of every description. Everything was untidy, and his appearance was in keeping with the rest of the office. A coat which seemed much the worse for wear hung upon his shoulders. His collar, cut with very deep points, stood away from a shrivelled neck, the skin of which seemed to have the consistency of parchment. Almost entirely bald, the fringe of white hair round his head, and the long, straggling whiskers which grew to his chin gave him the most extraordinary appearance. His blue eyes twinkled incessantly. I discovered afterwards that he had the habit of fixing his eyes steadfastly upon the face of the person to whom he was talking, and this disconcerting habit he practised upon me at this moment.
"And so this is Mr. Relph," he said pleasantly, his eyes twinkling like two little stars. "Well, Mr. Relph, Mr. Zweitt informs me that he has engaged you to be our new junior. Excellent! Your salary will be three pounds per week. Mr. Zweitt will instruct you in your duties. Supposing you start work to-morrow? Very well, Mr. Relph, you may go."
I left the office having said precisely nothing. Outside Zweitt turned his chair round.
"So. You are engaged," he said. "That is good. You start work tomorrow? You will draw a full week's salary. I will see to that. I do not forget."
"You've been very decent to me, Zweitt," I said. "If ever I get the opportunity of doing you a good turn I shall certainly take it."
His eyes lighted up. "You would do that?" he said. "Yes, I believe soon you may have the opportunity. We shall see."
"Look here, Zweitt," I said. "Is there anything wrong?"
He sat silent, occasionally stabbing the pad of blotting-paper on his desk. I could not see his face. After a moment he got up and walked over to the fire-place, and stood, his hands on the mantelpiece, gazing into the fire. Suddenly he turned round.
"I 'ave been a good friend to you, Relph," he said. "If I ask you to do me a favour, will you do eet?"
I could see the beads of perspiration standing out on his forehead.
"Why, of course," I answered. "I'd do anything in my power to return your kindness. What's wrong, Zweitt?" I asked.
"'Eet is nothing much. I do not think that eet matters much at the moment, but per'aps something will 'appen—something will arise, and then I will ask for your 'elp."
He put his hands in his pockets and returned to his desk, at which he stood staring as if unable to make up his mind.
"Well, you will want to be going," he said eventually. "Per'aps I shall see you to-night. Au revoir!"
It was evident that he did not wish to say anything more at the moment, so I put on my hat and left the office. As I was about to turn into Cannon Street, I perceived the Chinaman who had called at Poland Street for Zweitt approaching. As he mounted the steps which led to the entrance he drew from the breast of his dirty overalls a letter. I could distinctly see the blob of black wax on the back of the envelope. I wondered how he had found Zweitt's business address.
For a moment some instinct prompted me to return to the office and speak to Zweitt, but I immediately dismissed this from my mind. After all, it was no business of mine. With this thought I boarded a passing 'bus, and made my way westwards to Conway's flat in Berners Street.
In a few minutes I was shaking hands with my old friend.
"Well, if it isn't old Relph," he said, heartily. "Come into the study. Of course you'll stay and have tea."
He dragged me after him into his study, and pushed me into a chair, seating himself opposite. "I'm awful glad to see you, Relph," he said. "I've seen practically none of the old crowd. What are you doing in London?"
I briefly recounted my adventures during the last three or four months, finishing up by telling him about my job with Brandon Limited. He nodded sympathetically.
"Why didn't you get in touch with me before?" he asked. "Anyhow I'm glad you're fixed up now."
"You look pretty prosperous, Conway." I said.
"Oh, I haven't done so badly," he answered. "I left the R.A.M.C. immediately after the Armistice. There wasn't much doing, and it wasn't exciting enough. Then I bought this practice, which keeps me pretty busy. Then, to my extreme joy, I managed to get appointed Police Surgeon to this district two months ago. So taking things into consideration, it might be worse with me."
He pushed over a big bowl of tobacco. "Where are you staying?" he asked. I told him. Then tea arrived, and we began reminiscing of the old days.
About 6.30 I took my leave. Conway accompanied me to the door.
"Come in any old time, Relph," he said. "I'm always here, and if I've a patient there's plenty to read in the waiting-room."
We shook hands and I set off for Poland Street. I let myself into the house with the key which Mrs. Game had given me and went straight upstairs to my room. As I entered my eye was caught by a note stuck between the glass and frame of the mirror on my dressing table. I tore Open the envelope and read:
You say to-day that you will help me if I ask. Please meet me at Salvatori's shop in Angel Alley near Wardour Street at 9 o'clock to-night. It is urgent. For God's sake do not fail.
I stared at the note in amazement! What could be the matter? By the tone of the note it seemed that Zweitt was in some serious trouble. I wondered what he wanted me to do. I hoped sincerely that I had not let myself in for something undesirable when I promised him my help. However, it was up to me to go and see what it was all about, so at twenty minutes to nine o'clock I put on my hat and went out.
IT was a dirty little cul-de-sac off one of the innumerable turnings in Wardour Street. At the end of the little street, I could see a dimly-lighted shop. I approached and examined the window. It was filled with dummy boxes of soups and sauces. A few bottles of multi-coloured cheap sweets and a stale loaf or two completed the contents. Through the window I could see a little narrow shop with a counter on which were a pair of scales and a tired-looking ham. There were one or two chairs, and a little table in the shop, and a notice saying that tea and coffee were served. At the far end of the shop was a door, the top half of which was glass, covered with the dirty remnant of a window curtain.
As I entered the shop the door at the end opened, and a man walked round behind the counter. He was a big, burly man, with dark black hair, and long black moustache—obviously Italian.
"Is this Salvatori's shop?" I asked.
The man stared. In his big black eyes I thought I could detect a look of fear.
"I am Salvatori. What you want?" he asked.
"I'm waiting for a friend," I answered. "Give me a cup of coffee, please."
He lit a tiny gas-ring on the counter, and proceeded to heat the coffee. Periodically he glanced at me and at the entrance to the shop. Presently he brought the cup of coffee, and placed it on the little table. His hand was trembling, and a stream of perspiration was running down one side of his face. He stared at me closely.
"You are Inglees, eh?" he asked.
"That's so," I responded shortly, and commenced to drink the coffee. He brought a chair and sat down on tile other side of the table.
"You e'scuse me, please," he said after a minute. "You wait for someone 'ere. You tell me who—please, I ask you."
In the ordinary course of events I should probably have been rude to the man, but when I looked up from my coffee there was such an entreaty in his look that I answered civilly.
His eyes brightened.
"You wait for Henri Zweitt," he repeated slowly. "You are a fren' of Henri Zweitt. Tell me, please. You know 'im a long time?"
I was getting fed up with being questioned.
"I haven't," I said. "Mr. Zweitt's a friend of mine, and he has asked me to meet him here at nine o clock. Anything else you want to know?" I asked, looking him straight in the eye.
He looked down at the table. "Mister," he said, tremulously, "I do not t'ink that Zweitt come—my God, I do not t'ink he come!"
"Look here," I said sharply, "what the devil's all this about?"
He looked at me. Fear was written all over the man. Beads of perspiration were standing out on his forehead.
"Listen," he said, "your name is Relph?"
"Zweitt tell me," he continued, "I tell you why I have great fear. Zweitt say you are a brave man. You will not care."
He leaned across the table. His voice had sunk to a mere whisper.
"Ten—twelve years ago. I work for a beezness in Milan. Zweitt is there also. De boss of de beezness is called Moreatte. We 'ave de office on a ground floor. Underneat' is de vaults. One day Zweitt an' me go to de circus. After, Zweitt find 'e 'as left 'is bag at de office. We go back. De door is locked, but Zweitt get tro' de window. I follow 'im. We getta de bag. Then Zweitt 'e 'ear a noise downstair. We are brave men. We go to look—"
He broke off suddenly. A motor-horn had sounded in the street nearby. Then it sounded again.
Salvatori looked at the clock above the door. It was ten minutes past nine.
"Listen," he said. "You mus' go. You come back 'ere at ten o'clock. I tell Zweitt to wait. Please, you mus' go!"
He almost pushed me towards the door.
"You come back at ten. I tell you the rest of the story—please do not fail."
"I won't fail," I said, and walked out of the shop. My curiosity was thoroughly aroused. What did all this business mean?
I turned into Wardour Street. Drawn up against the kerb on the corner was a big car. As I turned the corner a woman descended from the car, and made her way towards the cul-de-sac. She was a woman of middle height, and in the dim light of the solitary street lamp I could discern her evening cloak of bronze-coloured velvet, and caught a glimpse of beautifully dressed black hair. She entered the shop. I saw Salvatori hold the door, and bow his head respectfully.
I walked towards the Park, my brain busy with a dozen questions on this strange sequence of events. I was keen to see Zweitt, to get some explanation from him. I walked about, and at a quarter to ten retraced my steps to Salvatori's shop.
There was no one in the shop, and after a minute I rapped on the counter. Still nobody appeared. I rapped on the door at the far end of the shop. Nothing happened. With an exclamation of annoyance I pushed open the door. As I crossed the threshold a sight met my eyes which made me draw back in horror.
With his head in the fireplace, and the handle of an ordinary table knife sticking in his breast, lay Salvatori. His hands were clenched, and his eyes, wide open, were fearful. A thin stream of blood ran from the wound and trickled into the fireplace.
I remembered Conway. His place was but a few minutes away. I was turning to go when I saw Salvatori's eyelids move. Then his right hand moved, and with a terrific effort he half turned in my direction. As he moved the handle of the table knife moved with him. It seemed horribly grotesque.
I noticed a half-empty bottle of brandy on the mantelpiece. Seizing it, I knelt by Salvatori's side and poured a few drops on his tongue. He moved spasmodically. A bright metal object was revealed on the floor beside him. I slipped it into my pocket, thinking it might warrant examination later. Then the dying man's hand found mine and pressed my fingers. He was struggling to speak. I put my mouth to his ear.
"Who did this. Salvatori?" I asked.
His lips moved feebly. I raised his head. In the dim light of the dirty room I saw the perspiration on his forehead, and the fear in his eyes. His voice sounded cracked and harsh In the silent room.
"Zweitt—did—not—come." he gasped. "I tell you—"
He moistened his lips, and with a terrible effort sat upright.
"The end of de story." he gasped. "I tell you—Sour Milk—De Sour Milk!" He fell back into the fireplace—dead!
"WELL, Mr. Relph, it's a strange business."
The detective inspector turned the knife between his fingers. We were seated in Conway's study, and I had just finished telling my story to Inspector Jaffray, of Scotland Yard, who had been hurriedly summoned to the scene of the murder.
"Of course, there's no obvious motive," the Inspector went on. "It's pretty evident that Salvatori was stabbed some time between ten minutes past nine and a quarter to ten. As far as I can see there is absolutely no clue. We've got to find Zweitt. That seems to me to be the most important thing. Evidently there was some sort business going on between him and Salvatori. Then there's that Chinaman who was so keen to see Zweitt."
"It's quite on the cards that Zweitt may turn up at the office to-morrow," I hazarded.
"He may, but I don't think he will," said the inspector. "I think Zweitt will keep out of the way. I'm having all the ports watched, and we'll take good care that he doesn't get out of the country, but London is a big place, and there are lots of holes where a man can hide in spite of all the police combing in the world."
Conway lit his pipe.
"You suspect Zweitt, Inspector?" He asked.
"Why not?" said the inspector. "He has an appointment with Salvatori and doesn't turn up till late. He sees Mr. Relph talking to Salvatori and waits till he goes. Then he enters the shop. They quarrel and Zweitt stabs Salvatori."
A sudden thought leapt to my mind. Excited by the happenings of the evening I had forgotten the mysterious woman in the car who had entered the shop just after I left it. Had she murdered Salvatori? For a moment I hesitated; then some inexplicable instinct told me to hold my tongue.
"That's all very well, Inspector," said Conway, "but if Zweitt intended to kill Salvatori he would never have written that note to Relph asking him to meet him at the shop—unless, of course, the crime was unpremeditated."
"Well, Doctor, doesn't everything point that way?" asked the detective. "Relph tells us that the knife was stuck in the ham on the counter outside. I should say that the quarrel took place in the shop. Salvatori, frightened, backed towards the door of the inner room, and his assailant followed him, picking up the knife en route. Surely, if the crime had been premeditated he would have brought a weapon with him. Besides, Mr. Relph says that Zweitt is a short, square man. He'd be fairly strong I expect, and that knife isn't too sharp. A fairly strong man stabbed Salvatori."
For some reason or other I felt relieved. Then the mysterious woman had not killed Salvatori. I remembered that she was short and slight. I looked at the knife which Jaffray still held in his fingers. She would never have had the strength to drive that blunt weapon into Salvatori. The detective rose from his chair.
"I'll be off." he said. "You'll be at your office to-morrow, Mr. Relph. I want to have a talk with your Mr. Brandon about Zweitt. He may be able to give us some information."
I told Jaffray that I should be at the office at 9.30 next morning. He wrapped up the knife in an old handkerchief, and with a good-night to us both left the flat.
"It's a funny business," said Conway, when Jaffray had gone. "I wish you had heard the end of Salvatori's story. I wonder why he didn't finish it. Perhaps he was expecting someone?"
"Very likely," I answered. "The whole thing is a mystery."
I put on my hat and coat, said good-night to Conway, and made my way to Poland Street. I was feeling upset about the whole business. I don't mind excitement, but I don't like too much of it. I realised, too, that I had done wrong in not telling Jaffray about the woman. Probably she could supply vital information.
Mrs. Game met me on the doorstep. She was, in turn, excited and depressed at the news.
"Oh, Mr. Relph," she said. "I knew it! I knew murder or something shockin' 'ad been done w'en the perlice come 'ere to-night. They asked me questions till my 'ead was near fit to burst. Mr. Zweitt disappeared, too, they say! Do you think 'e'll come back, Mr. Relph? Not that I'm worrying about the rent. It's paid for a fortnight ahead, but there's all 'is clothes an' things. An' the perlice—"
"Did the police search his room, Mrs. Game?" I asked.
"They're 'ere now," she said, indignantly. "At least they've left one perliceman 'ere to see that nobody disturbs 'is room. One of the 'eads is comin' to examine everythink tomorrow. I never 'eard of such goin's on in my life. I didn't." She clattered off, perturbed, but not exactly displeased with the excitement.
I went upstairs. As I passed Zweitt's room on the first floor I looked in through the open door. One of the plain-clothes men who had arrived at Salvatori's shop with Jaffray was seated at the table smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper.
"I don't envy you your job," I said with a grin.
He laughed. "Oh, I'm pretty used to it, sir. Though why the chief should want somebody on guard here all night, I don't know. I suppose he's got something at the back of his head, though."
"He expects Zweitt to come back," I said.
The detective grinned. "I don't think we shall see much of Mr. Zweitt," he said. "At least, not unless we lay hands on him ourselves. I should rather like to see him come back to-night."
He touched his pocket, and I heard the clink of handcuffs. "My orders are to arrest him on suspicion right away; but he won't come back, Mr. Relph."
I stayed chatting with the man for a few minutes, and then, bidding him good-night, went up to my room. Sitting on the bed, I thought over the strange events which had taken place since yesterday afternoon, when I had met Zweitt, on Frimley Hill.
I WAS not feeling at all easy in my mind. At the back of my brain a conviction was growing that I had not played the game by Jaffray in withholding the information about the woman in the evening cloak. For the life of me I did not know why I had not told him, except that for a moment, as I had seen her standing beneath the dim light over the entrance of Salvatori's shop, there had seemed something pathetic in her face, something that was almost an appeal. In some remote manner she seemed to remind me of someone I had met.
What had become of Zweitt? I undressed slowly, wondering. His attitude had certainly been strange. Zweitt had been badly frightened by something or somebody. His disjointed remarks of the night before took on a new significance. Why had he not kept the appointment at Salvatori's shop?
I stuck my hands in my trouser pockets and moved over to the window, stopping suddenly as my right hand closed over something in my pocket, something I had forgotten in the excitement of the evening, the bright bit of metal I had picked up from the floor beside Salvatori.
I pulled it out of my pocket and stood staring at it in amazement. It was an identification disc on a thin silver chain, such as was worn round the wrist, during the war, by officers, and it bore the name of my friend, Harry Varney!
For a moment I thought that my eyes had deceived me. I took it under the gas bracket and inspected it closely. There was no doubt about it. In spite of the wear and scratches with defaced the silver disc, the lettering was quite plain:—
2nd Lieut. H.J. Varney, 4th Loamshire Fusiliers, C. of E.
I stood wondering. Harry Varney and I had been the greatest friends ever since we joined the regiment on the same day early in 'fifteen, until the day in 1916 when he had been reported "missing, believed killed."
What was the disc doing in Salvatori's shop?
Once again the mysterious woman came into my mind. I felt terribly uneasy.
I sat down once again and thought. There was only one thing to be done. Tomorrow I must make a clean breast of the whole business, and tell Jaffray everything I knew. Probably I had been guilty of withholding a most important clue. I put the identification bracelet down on the dressing-table and walked over to the window and looked down Marlborough Street.
The street looked stolid and peaceful, and the lamps twinkled brightly. I felt not in the least inclined to go to bed. I was over-excited, and the thought of a walk in the quiet outside appealed to me. I put on my coat and waistcoat, and, slipping quietly down the stairs, past Zweitt's room on the first floor, in which a light was still burning, I opened the front door and closing it quietly behind me walked off towards Regent Street.
LONDON streets by night have always held a strange fascination for me, and tonight the atmosphere of the last two days added to their mystery. I walked down Marlborough Street, finding some comfort in the sight of the burly policeman on duty outside the police station, and, crossing Regent Street, struck off dawn Maddox Street.
I had walked hallway down the darkened street, when I stopped to light my pipe. Turning to throw the match away, I saw a figure slink into one of the dark doorways a few yards behind me on the other side of the street. I walked on slowly for a few yards, undecided. Then, as I approached Bond Street, I quickened my pace, and suddenly turned round and faced about. Sure enough on the other side of the road a short figure disappeared from view. I carried on down Bond Street, glancing time and again over my shoulder, but evidently I was being followed no longer. I decided that the man had seen was possibly some half-drunken reveller returning home, and that my imagination was responsible for his sudden disappearance.
As I walked up Piccadilly and through Park Lane, I thought continuously of Zweitt, wondering how much or how little he knew of the death of Salvatori. The thought struck me that he might have returned to Poland Street in my absence, and I quickened my steps.
As I hurried past the dingy little shop with the wooden shutters half up, just as they had been when I went to keep my appointment with Zweitt, a picture of Salvatori came vividly to my mind. I saw him leaning across the table, his untidy black hair over his forehead, and that extraordinary frightened look in his eyes. Salvatori, as well as Zweitt, had been badly frightened of something or somebody. As I walked down Poland Street I could see that the light in Zweitt's room was still burning. I took out my key as I approached the house, but when I attempted to insert it in the lock I was surprised to find the door unlocked.
I pushed it open. As I crossed the threshold a peculiar smell came to my nostrils, a smell that reminded me of hospitals—chloroform! I stood still and struck a match. By its flickering light I saw that the hall was empty. The match went out as I stepped forward. I reached the stairs, and with a gasp of surprise tripped over something which lay at the bottom. I picked myself up, and standing against the wall on the right of the stairs fumbled with my matchbox. I was almost afraid to strike the match—afraid of what I might see at the bottom of the stairs.
The match spluttered, and then burned brightly. Lying in a heap at the bottom of the stairs was the plain-clothes man who had been left to guard Zweitt's room. He lay sprawled across the stairs, one arm hanging limply, through the banister rails. With an overwhelming sense of relief I saw that he was breathing heavily. I ran to the head of the basement stairs and shouted for Mrs. Game. Then, returning, I straightened out the recumbent figure of the plain-clothes man, and possessing myself of his whistle. I ran out into Poland Street and blew vigorously.
AN hour later, sitting in Zweitt's room, the plain-clothes man regarded Jaffray across the table with an air of an injured innocent.
"It was all over so quickly, sir," he said. "I was outed before I knew where I was. I heard the front door shut when Mr. Relph went out, and looked out of the window after him. I suppose it was somebody tapped at the door downstairs, about twenty minutes afterwards, and I thought for a moment that Mr. Relph might nave left the door unlocked, and that it was the man on the Poland Street beat making his rounds. Anyway, I went down. As I caught hold of the handle of the door and drew it towards me somebody stepped slick into me and squeezed a handkerchief or something over my nose. He must have been a pretty big man, too, for I hadn't a chance against him, and I won the Metropolitan Police Heavyweight Championship last year," said the plain-clothes man somewhat apologetically. "That's all I know about it. Next thing I knew was Mr. Relph here bending over me."
Jaffray looked round Zweitt's room. The place had been thoroughly searched. Drawers were ransacked and the contents strewn over the floor. The bed had been pulled out, and the bedclothes flung over the rail. Whoever had searched the place had done his work thoroughly.
Jaffray filled his pipe. "Well, it's no good crying over spilt milk, and they certainly put it over neatly," he said. "You're certain it was a big man, Stevens?" he asked.
The plain-clothes man nodded. "Absolutely certain, sir," he said. "Directly I felt the chloroform cloth over my nose I put my hands up and his shoulders were well above the level of my own. I'm five feet nine," he added.
Jaffray smoked silently for a minute. "That disposes of Zweitt," he said. "He's just under middle height. It looks to me like a carefully planned Job," he added. "They knew that I should be here first thing in the morning to look through Zweitt's things, if he hadn't turned up in the meantime, and they took good care to get here first. The man you saw following you, Mr. Relph, must have been a look-out man. I suppose he saw you well on your way down Bond Street, and then ran back and let the other fellow know that the coast was clear for a quick job. They knew what they were after, too," he glanced round the disordered room. "I wonder if they found it?" he added. "It's a funny business."
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him about the woman and the identification bracelet, but the presence of Stevens deterred me. I was not quite certain how Jaffray would take my admission of withholding the information, and I thought I would wait until we were alone.
After a few minutes, with a final glance round the room and a word to the man who was taking the place of the unfortunate and drowsy Stevens, Jaffray prepared to depart. I volunteered to accompany him to the end of Marlborough Street, thinking that an opportunity would present itself for me to make my confession about the mysterious woman, but Jaffray was preoccupied and evidently desirous of thinking, so I made up my mind to wait.
At the end of Marlborough Street Jaffray stopped.
"Good-night, Ralph," he said. "I shall be coming down to Cannon Street to-morrow morning to see your Mr. Brandon. See you then. So long!"
With a cheery smile he went off. As I returned to the house I wondered how Brandon would take the news of the murder and the disappearance of his trusted henchman, Zweitt. I wondered, too, how it was that Jaffray was so certain that Zweitt would not return. At the back of my head was an idea that the quiet chief inspector knew more about the whole business than appeared on the surface.
Just outside the front door I found Mrs. Game and the new plain-clothes man deep in conversation. Mrs. Game's opinion of Zweitt seemed to have changed in a remarkable manner, for she was confiding to her companion that she "'ad always thought that there was somethink funny about 'im, but then, orl these foreigners are alike, ain't they?"
I said good-night and went up to my room. It was half-past three, and the excitement of the evening had reacted on my nerves. I felt tired out. I lit the gas and walked over to the dressing table. A glance showed me that Varney's identification disc was gone!
Then my eyes fell on the looking-glass, which stood on the dressing table, and beside which I had placed the identification disc. Stuck between the frame and the mirror in the bottom right-hand corner was a dirty piece of paper. At the top was a crude drawing of a German steel helmet, and underneath, scrawled in an almost illegible hand, were the words:—
Mind your own business—and live!
WHEN I awoke next morning, the sun shining brightly through my bedroom window dispelled much of the gloom of the night before. At the same time I was considerably worried. The warning note which I had found on the mirror brought the Salvatori affair home to me personally. I walked to the office, and had been working for half an hour when Brandon arrived.
"Hard at work, eh, Mr. Relph?" His blue eyes twinkled humorously. "An excellent thing, hard work," he continued, unlocking the door of his room.
"I've very nearly finished these invoices, Mr. Brandon," I said. "What shall I do afterwards?"
"Let me see—let me see," he ruminated. "Oh, Mr. Relph, I think you had better read through those correspondence books which you will find on that shelf above Mr. Zweitt's desk—"
He stopped suddenly as the door opened, and Inspector Jaffray, accompanied by another man, entered the office. Jaffray stepped forward.
"Mr. Brandon, I believe?" he said.
"Precisely," said Brandon, "and what may I do for you, gentlemen?"
"Well, Mr. Brandon," said Jaffray, "I don't know whether Mr. Relph here has told you anything about the matter, but a murder was committed last night in Angel Alley. A man named Eustachio Salvatori was stabbed. There are some rather peculiar circumstances connected with the case concerning a man we believe to be in your employ—Henri Zweitt. I should like to ask you a few questions about this man."
"I will do my best to help you," said Brandon. "But surely no suspicion is attached to Zweitt. He is a most steady and reliable man, and has been employed here for a considerable time. I have the utmost confidence in his integrity."
He opened the office door. "Will you come in gentlemen?" he said.
"Thank you," said Jaffray. "I should like Mr. Relph to be present, if you don't mind, Mr. Brandon."
Brandon looked from the detective to me in amazement. "Of course," he said, apparently bewildered. "Of course—" He led the way into his office.
"The position is briefly this," said Jaffray. "Last night Mr. Relph received an urgent note from Zweitt, asking him to meet Zweitt at Salvatori's shop, in Angel Alley. Mr. Relph kept this appointment, but Zweitt did not appear. About ten minutes past nine Mr. Relph was requested by Salvatori to leave, and to come back at ten o'clock. Salvatori was evidently expecting somebody. Mr. Relph returned to the shop at 10 o'clock, and discovered Salvatori stabbed. As far as we can see, Zweitt did not return to his rooms last night after seven o'clock. We know he was there before that time, as Mr. Relph returned home at 6.45, and the note from Zweitt was awaiting him. At what time did Zweitt leave this office last night, Mr. Brandon?"
"That I cannot tell you," Brandon replied. "I left him working here at about 4.30 yesterday afternoon. You see, I live at Surbiton, and I usually catch the 4.45 at Waterloo. Zweitt had a fair amount of work to get through and I expected that he would be working here till about seven o'clock."
"Did you know anything of any friendship existing between the dead man and Zweitt?" asked Jaffray.
"Of that I am afraid I have no knowledge." replied Brandon. "I know that Zweitt saw Salvatori occasionally. You see, he was a customer in a small way. He served a few of the Italian houses in the neighbourhood with cheap Chiantis and other of the lesser Italian wines. We supplied him with these, and, of course, it is quite possible that in doing business they had become friendly."
"What was Zweitt doing in a motor car at Frimley?"
"At Frimley!" echoed Brandon, in astonishment. "I really cannot tell you. The day before yesterday he should have been at Kelsham!"
Jaffray closed his notebook. "Of course, Mr. Brandon," he said, "You have no idea where Zweitt is at the moment?"
Brandon smiled. "None whatever," he said, "How should I?"
Jaffray took up his hat.
"We'll be going," he said to his colleague. "Thanks for your help, Mr. Brandon. We'll let you know if we want you again."
Brandon arose and accompanied the detective to the outer door.
"I am sorry that I have been, unable to help you any more, gentlemen," he said. "If I can do anything else, please command me."
I returned to my desk.
Brandon, stood in the outer office by the window, his hands clasped behind his back. He sighed.
"Mr. Relph," he said slowly. "This is a very serious business. Can it be that Zweitt has anything to do with this awful crime? I cannot find it in my heart to mistrust him. Yet why did he send you that note? A bad business, Mr. Relph—a bad business."
He went back to his office, closing the door behind him. In spite of his remarks he seemed remarkably unperturbed by Zweitt's disappearance and the fact that he was so closely associated with a serious crime.
I was sorry that Jaffray had gone without giving me an opportunity of speaking with him alone. The warning note which I had received the night before might possibly constitute useful evidence.
At half-past twelve Brandon came to the door of his office.
"You may go to lunch, Mr. Relph," he said, "and you need not return until one-thirty. I am surprised that we have heard nothing from Mr. Zweitt, but perhaps this afternoon will bring us some news."
He went back into his room, leaving the door ajar so that he could hear if any customers came into the outer office.
I WENT out and found a teashop near Brennan's Buildings. Opening a newspaper which I had bought, I looked for some report of the Angel Alley murder. There was a very brief report of the crime, and I was surprised when I read that "the police had excellent reasons for believing that the clues in their possession would enable them to trace the murderer within a few days."
This struck me as being extraordinary. What clues had the police discovered? I wondered if the astute Jaffray had inspired the Press report in order to lull the suspicions of someone who was connected with the crime.
Finishing my lunch, I paid my bill and made my way back to Brennan's Buildings. It was then about a quarter past one. I walk fairly quietly, and I suppose I did not make very much noise when I opened the outer door. The door of Brandon's office was still open, and as I walked to my desk I looked through. I saw Brandon on his knees by the side of his desk, groping in the waste paper basket, which, as usual, was full to overflowing. I turned my back to the open door and gave a slight cough, then I turned to hang up my hat and coat. When I glanced through the door again Brandon was at his desk writing.
Presently he went out to lunch, locking his office door after him. The afternoon seemed interminable, mainly, I suppose, because I was excited.
BRANDON returned to the office somewhere in the region of three-thirty, and remained in his room until half past five. He told me that I could close the office at six o'clock, and gave me instructions as to how I should deal with any customers who might come in.
Then, with a curt good-night, he went off.
At six o'clock I tidied up my desk, put on my hat and coat, and, unlatching the Yale regulator on the door, pulled it to behind me.
Dusk was falling as I left the entrance to Brennan's Buildings, and as I turned into Cannon Street I seemed to recognise a figure as it hurried past me. I stopped and looked back. It was the Chinaman who had brought the letter to Zweitt. When I saw him he was just passing Brennan's Buildings. I walked quickly after him, but the narrow turning was crowded with clerks and typists hurrying home, and as I reached King William Street at the other end of the alley I realised it was hopeless to endeavour to find him in the crowd.
I walked to the Bank station, took the tube to Tottenham Court Road, and in a few minutes I was in Conway's flat. Conway promptly suggested that as my present abode was not a particularly cheerful spot having regard to recent events. I should move my kit and take up my abode with him, more especially as he was feeling a bit lonesome himself in the long evenings.
I was glad to agree, and went off to Poland Street, returning soon after with my few belongings.
Conversation soon turned on the Salvatori murder.
"You think Jaffray's a good man at his job, Conway?" I asked.
"He's about the best man at the Yard," he answered. "He very seldom falls down on a case, and is highly thought of."
The telephone interrupted him, and he picked up the receiver.
"It's Jaffray. He wants to speak to you, Relph," he said.
I took up the telephone and spoke to Jaffray.
"That you, Mr. Relph? I'd be glad if you could come round to Salvatori's shop at once. I'll be there when you arrive. You'll find the shop door open."
I hurried over to Angel Alley. A cold wind was blowing, and I turned up my coat collar. As I approached the shop I saw that a single light was burning inside. One or two portions of the wooden shutters had been put up over the shop window, but the right half was left unshuttered, and the flickering light inside cast fitful shadows on the dusty bottles and boxes in the window.
Pushing open the door, I entered. Jaffray was leaning against the counter, his hands in his pockets, puffing at a short briar pipe. His bowler hat was pushed well back on his head, and he seemed immersed in thought. He straightened himself as I entered, and shook hands. There was some quality about Jaffray which allayed; the feeling of depression which the dark shop and the weather had produced. Without wasting any time I told him of the mysterious disappearance of the bracelet, and gave him the warning note which had been left in my bedroom the night before.
He read the note beneath the dim gas light, which supplied the shop with its uncertain light. His eyes were gleaming, and a little smile curved his mouth. He folded the note, and put it carefully in his pocket-book. Then he chuckled quietly.
"That's a bit of luck, Mr. Relph," he said. "It's a funny thing, but criminals are the most conceited fellows in the world, and the chap who tried to draw that steel helmet was letting his conceit run away with him. I rather fancy, too, that his own life wouldn't be particularly safe if the heads knew he'd done it."
"The heads?" I queried. "Is it a gang, then?"
"That remains to be seen," he answered. "Except it's fairly obvious that it isn't one man." He walked to the centre of the shop, his hands in his pockets, and glanced about him. He stood there for a moment or two, and then turned to me.
"Will you step into the inner room?" he said. "I want you to show me just how Salvatori was lying when you found him."
I lay down in the fireplace and showed Jaffray as well as I could how Salvatori was lying when I entered the room. When I had risen to my feet Jaffray sat down in the dilapidated armchair and gazed thoughtfully at the floor, on which an ominous red stain still showed near the grate.
It was raining hard outside. A strong wind had arisen which howled dismally into Angel Alley. I glanced nervously round the shabby little room lighted only by the dim light of the cheap oil lamp.
"MR. RELPH,"—The detective's quiet voice brought me back to earth. "I'm going to confide in you. Let me tell you first of all that we are, all of us who are connected with this business, in danger. Needless to say, we shall do everything in our power to protect you. We are up against something big. I've handled a lot of bad cases, most of them successfully, but I realise I've met my match this time—I'm up against brains."
I stared at Jaffray in surprise.
"Don't misunderstand me. Mr. Relph," he said. "We've got to get them or they'll get us. They'll stop at nothing. They don't knew how much you know, but I've had to show my hand to-day."
"Then the newspaper report was right," I said.
"No, it wasn't," said Jaffray. "When I had that paragraph inserted in the papers I did it with the express purpose, of misleading certain people. It was purely by accident that I stumbled on a theory which fits the jig-saw of Salvatori's half-told story and our other slender theories."
Jaffray smoked in silence for a moment, then he me to sit down. I took the rickety chair he indicated, whilst he walked to the door and glanced round the shop. Then he returned and drew his chair nearer to mine.
"This is what we're up against, Mr. Relph," he said. "I know it sounds like a fairy story, and it's quite on the cards that I'm wrong on one or two points. The thing which put me on the right track was Salvatori's tale. You remember he said, that ten or twelve years ago he and Zweitt were employed by a firm called Moreatte in Milan. I got in touch immediately with the Italian police, who, by a coincidence, had quite a fund of information about this firm, which they cabled to me. Before I tell you about that, however, I must interrupt myself to tell you—"
Jaffray drew his chair nearer to mine. His voice had sunk almost to a whisper. The night was so quiet that the lashing of the rain outside sounded weirdly loud, and the wind moaned a dismal accompaniment.
"Outside the sacred city of Pekin," Jaffray went on, "there is a monastery. It is called the Monastery of Li Tsu Chen. Although the priests were reported to have large quantities, of treasure stored in the monastery, they were an industrious crowd, and spent their days making weird liqueurs and sweetmeats which they sold. They were good business-men, and had agents in every country of the world who sold their products tor them. This Moreatte and Co., of Milan, were apparently, their chief distributors. They seem to have been a pretty shady crowd. There were two partners running the business, an Englishman and a German. Suddenly, just before the outbreak of war in 1914, the business was shut up, and the partners disappeared. Certain information came into the hands of the Italian C.I.D. They made inquiries, and then—" Jaffray suddenly stopped speaking. He motioned me to keep silent, and listened intently.
"Listen—the music!" he whispered.
Above the sounds of the rain and wind outside I could hear a peculiar noise—Chinese music. It seemed to come from somewhere near, but the door between the shop and Salvatori's room was open, and we could see that we were alone. I felt a chill creeping over me—the soft cadences of the music (it sounded as if a reed instrument was being played softly) held something ominous. I looked at Jaffray. His face was drawn. Very slowly his hand stole to his hip-pocket. Then, as slowly, he leaned over to me and placed his automatic pistol in my hand.
"It's outside," he whispered. "Creep to the door with me, then run at 'em. Don't be afraid to shoot!"
My fingers closed round the pistol butt. I felt more secure. Together we crept to the shop door, bending low to avoid being seen through the window.
Then Jaffray flung the door open and we rushed out into Angel Alley. It was pitch dark outside, but down on the right-hand side of the alley I could nave sworn I saw the figure of a man running silently towards Mole Street. I ran swiftly in this direction, but after a moment I stopped. I knew that there was little chance of finding my man in the labyrinth of narrow turnings. A police whistle sounded—then another. I put the pistol in my pocket and hurried back to Salvatori's shop. At the end of the alley I could see a police bull's eye flashing in the shop.
I pushed open the door and entered. A police constable was bending over Jaffray, who lay on the floor just in front of the counter. His face was distorted with pain, and his eyes were closed. He breathed heavily, and in a strange gulping way. There was a sound of running feet—and two constables and Stevens came in.
Stevens spoke to one of the uniformed men.
"Over to Berners Street, quick, Jim," he said. "Get Doctor Conway. I hope to God we're not too late!"
We bent over the prostrate figure. Very slowly Jaffray opened his eyes. His will was fighting with the strange thing which was throttling him. He turned his eyes slowly to me.
"Relph," he whispered hoarsely, while I bent my head to within an inch of his face. "Careful—secret road—don't touch—the sour milk!"
A hoarse rattle sounded in his throat, and his head fell forward. The constable bent over him, then rose to his feet and touched his helmet. Jaffray lay still upon the floor. I gazed at the body of the man who a few minutes before had been talking to me in the inner room. I felt the weight of the automatic pistol in my pocket. He had given it to me. If he had kept it—?
A lump rose in my throat. I knew I bad lost a good friend.
SEATED in my bedroom in Conway's flat I tried to review the whole business dispassionately. Sleep was out of the question. Jaffray's body lay in the surgery at the end of the corridor. I was possessed by a great loneliness. I had the horrible feeling that I was struggling in a net the meshes which were drawing tighter and tighter about me. Jaffray's warning was imprinted on my brain—"We've got to get them or they'll get us!"
Unfortunately, the death of the Chief Inspector had left us in a worse position than ever. Jevons, Jaffray's assistant, who was now handling the case, knew nothing except the few facts which I was able to give him, which, with the incomplete story of Salvatori, were little enough to work on. I had given Jevons a full and complete account of my last interview with Jaffray. He had listened carefully, and then scratched his bullet head in perplexity.
"It beats me," he said. "Unfortunately, Jaffray had said very little of real importance about the case to me. I think it must have been only this morning when he stumbled upon the right track. The extraordinary thing about the whole business is this 'sour milk.' What did Salvatori and Jaffray mean? In both cases these words were practically their last. What did Jaffray mean by 'the secret road?' Who was Moreatte, and what was the connection between the Chinaman and Zweitt? It seems to me," Jevons had said, in conclusion, "that I've got to start right at the beginning again, and not lose much time, either!"
NEXT morning I started to read the correspondence books which Brandon had pointed out to me on the shelf above Zweitt's desk. I thought that there was a remote possibility that I might find some clue. I was disappointed, however, for the books simply contained copy letters, such as are usually sent out to customers, and related to shipments, or purchases and sales, to, or from, different well-known firms. I had hoped that I might find some correspondence with a firm in Milan, where Salvatori had told me he and Zweitt were originally employed, but there was nothing of the sort.
Brandon arrived fairly early, and spent most of the morning in his office. Nothing had been said of Zweitt's prolonged absence, and, as there was no mention of Jaffray's murder in the papers. I had not mentioned it.
After Brandon returned from lunch he started clearing his office of the mass of litter and packing cases, which were strewn about the place. It seemed that the office cleaners were not allowed to clean his room, and he performed this task himself pretty thoroughly. I thought it rather strange that he did not ask my assistance, and I was sorry for this, as I had made up my mind to examine his room as soon as an opportunity presented itself. The conviction had been growing in my mind that Brandon knew very much more about the mysterious disappearance of Zweitt than he had said.
Why had Zweitt been so anxious to procure the job for me? Was it because his disappearance had been arranged beforehand, and he knew that someone would be required in the office?
I could not quite believe this theory when I remembered his strained expression, and the peculiar remark be had made on the day of his disappearance. He had seemed to be in fear of something. I wondered if Zweitt was dead—if be had fallen a victim to the same mysterious agency which had been responsible for the deaths of Salvatori and Jaffray. Why had he asked me if I would do him a good turn if the occasion arose when it should be necessary.
Brandon left the office, early. I tried his door, but it was locked as usual. I made up my mind that if I could obtain his key by some means or other I would take an impression of it and get a duplicate made. Brandon had been even more taciturn than usual during the day. He seldom spoke, and when he did it was to give some direction as to work to be done. When he had gone about ten minutes I started to make a thorough examination of the outer office. I pulled out the desks, moved the furniture, and examined every nook and cranny in the place. I was just replacing Zweitt's desk, when a knock sounded on the office door. I walked over and opened it.
On the threshold stood a man wearing the leather apron of a carter. He handed me a paper, which, on examination, proved to be an invoice for several dozen bottles of liqueurs.
"Where am I to put the stuff, Guv'nor?" he asked.
"I don't know," I replied. "Unless you bring it in here. Where do you usually put it? Have you delivered here before?"
"Oh, yus," he said. "We deliver here every month. An' we usually puts the stuff down in the vault. There won't be much room left 'ere if we dumps it in this orfis," he continued, looking round.
"I suppose the vault door is locked?" I asked.
"I'll go down an' see. Sometimes it ain't. I'll leave the stuff 'ere for now."
He went outside, and reappeared in a moment with a large packing case, which he pulled and pushed into the office. Then he tramped off down the stairs.
I waited for five minutes, but the carter did not appear, so I went downstairs in search of him. There was no sign of any cart or truck outside the building, nor had the doorkeeper seen anything of such a vehicle. It struck me that it might be useful for me to have a look at the Brandon vault, and I quickly descended to the basement. The vault door was very securely fastened with an ordinary lock and an iron locking-bar and padlock. A sudden thought came to my mind. I remembered that Salvatori had said that Moreatte's offices consisted of a ground floor office and vault. Was it purely coincidence that the geography of Brandon's offices was practically the same? I returned to the upstairs office and, putting an my things locked up, and with a final glance round set off for Oxford Street.
I had proceeded some way down Cannon Street, when an idea came to me and I quickly retraced my steps to Brennan's Buildings. I went up to the office, and taking the office paste-pot I made my way down to the basement.
I put a little of the paste at each end of the locking bar where it would remain unnoticed, and a tiny piece on the padlock arm. Then I scrutinised my work carefully. Any attempt to open the door of the vaults would result in the seals formed by the paste being broken. The conviction was growing stronger in my mind every moment that the key to the Zweitt-Salvatori mysteries lay in Brandon's offices, and I made up my mind to search the place thoroughly the following evening.
When I arrived at Conway's flat I told him of my decision.
"I think you're taking a bit of a chance, Relph, don't you?" he said. "Why not leave the matter to Jevons?"
I told him that Jevons had no possible excuse for searching the offices. At least I had an excuse for remaining late on the premises, but if Jevons' men did the job some explanation would have to be made to Brandon, and that was just the thing I did not want to happen. If I discovered anything there would be lots of time to tell Jevons about it afterwards.
"By the way," I asked, "did your further examination of Jaffray's body reveal anything?"
"Nothing beyond what I have already told you," he answered. "His body was taken away early this morning, and I received a message from the Home Office pathologist that the cause of the death was strangulation, but by what means the experts could not say. Poor old Jaffray, he was such an excellent fellow."
I LEFT Conway's flat early next morning, and arrived at Brennan's Buildings a good twenty minutes before Brandon's usual time of arrival. I examined the door of the vault and found the paste seals undisturbed. As I had thought, no attempt had been made on the previous night to gain admittance to the vault.
The day passed uneventfully. Brandon continued with the clearing up of his office and departed soon after five o'clock. Soon after Brandon had left the office door opened and Jevons walked in.
"Hello, Mr. Relph," he said., "Hard at work? I want you to spare a few minutes if you can to talk to me."
"Certainly. Inspector," I said. "What's the latest news?"
"Only another mysterious message," said Jevons. "I'm beginning to think that there are quite a lot of people interested in our business."
He passed to me an ordinary business envelope, with a typewritten address. "What do you think of that, Mr. Relph?" he asked. I examined the envelope. It was posted from West Kensington, and bore the date of the day before. The address, as I have said, was typewritten, and the envelope was addressed to Jevons at Scotland Yard. I opened the envelope and drew out a quarto sheet of typing paper on which these words were typed:
Dear Inspector Jevons,
Whilst having the greatest regard for your acumen, I think it extremely improbable that your search for Henri Zweitt will be successful. I think you will be much better advised to look for the Chinaman. Best wishes for your ultimate success.
I stared at the paper in amazement. Who was this new-comer to the mystery?
"It's pretty cool cheek, isn't it?" said Jevons.
"What are you going to do about it?" I asked.
"I'm going to do as he suggests." replied Jevons with a grin. "Mr. Relph, I think that note is sincere, and I'm going to act on it. It's quite on the cards that there is someone who knows more about this business than we do, and who is afraid to come out into the open with his information, and is therefore doing what he or she considers the next best thing. Of course, the whole thing may be a fake. Still, there's no harm in trying."
"I suppose it's not possible to find out who wrote this note," I asked.
"We might try," said Jevons, "but personally I think it would be a waste of time. We know that the letter was written on a Remington No. 10 machine, because of the distinctive type. The machine was a fairly old one, too. You will notice, if you look at the letter again, that the 'e' is very badly worn with constant use, and that half of the tails of the 'y's' are missing. Also the small 'c's are set in a peculiar angle. It would probably take ten years to round up that particular machine, and I don't think we've got the time," added Jevons facetiously.
We walked over to the typewriter which stood on the small table to the right of Zweitt's desk.
"This is a Remington No. 10," he said. "It's the typewriter which is used in most business houses, and there must be tens of thousands of them in existence."
He placed a piece of paper in the machine and commenced to type.
"It's fairly easy to tell the age of a typewriter by the condition of the type," continued Jevons. "This machine now—" he broke off suddenly.
"Good God, Mr. Relph! Come here? Look at this!"
I looked over his shoulder. Jevons had been tapping out a copy of the mysterious note, and the copy in the machine bore exactly the same characteristic faults in the type as the original. The letter to Jevons had been written on the Remington machine before us!
Jevons examined the copy again carefully.
"There's no possible mistake, Mr. Relph," he said. "That letter was written on this machine."
"Then it must have been written last night after I had gone," I said. "I was the last person on the premises—the doorkeeper waited to see me off. Some one came back here last night and typed that letter, and they were either concealed in the building or they were supplied with keys. Brandon's door was locked, and concealment in this office is impossible."
Jevons walked to the door and examined the Yale lock.
"This door has been opened, and with a 'spider,'" he said. "A 'spider,' Mr. Relph," he explained, "is an instrument used by crooks to open Yale locks. If you will examine this lock carefully you will see the faint scratches on the outside."
Jevons sat down in Zweitt's chair.
"Who could have written that letter?" he said.
It had occurred to me that the letter might have been written by Brandon, but Jevons' statement that the office door had been opened with a 'spider' dispelled this theory. Brandon could easily let himself into the building at any time he liked, and therefore it was unnecessary that he should force an entrance.
Jevons looked at the typewriter in perplexity.
"It seems to me," he said, "that we shall never get to the end of the business. No sooner do I make up my mind to work along one line than something turns up to upset my theories!"
He put on his hat and went off, looking thoroughly puzzled.
AFTER Jevons had gone I went upstairs and inspected the other offices in the building.
It was just after seven o'clock and the place was empty, the cleaners having finished their work. Then I went down to the front entrance. The doorkeeper was just putting on his hat and coat.
"I shall be staying late to-night, Stevens," I said. "I've got some work to finish. I suppose I shall be able to get out all right."
"Oh, yes, sir," he answered. "The door is a self-locking one. Just give it a good pull, and it will be all right."
I said "good-night" to him and went upstairs. In a few minutes I heard the door bang after him. I was alone in the building. I had brought a packet of sandwiches and a flask with me, and I made a meal where I sat.
It was midnight before I moved from the office, when I removed Jaffray's automatic pistol from my hip pocket and slipped it in my right-hand coat pocket. Then I took my electric torch and moved over to the door. Very carefully I turned the door-handle, and pulled back the latch regulator, and commenced to open the door, inch by inch.
Outside the passage was in absolute darkness, except at the far end, where a small window let in a patch of silver moonlight, and there was not a sound to be heard. I slipped quietly into the passage, closing the door behind me, and, pulling it gently until I heard the lock click. I could reopen it if necessary with my key.
Then I tiptoed gently along to the head of the stairs and looked over the banister rail. There was a black void beneath me, but I knew that anyone attempting to reach the vault door down in the basement must pass immediately beneath where I stood at the head of the stairs. Not a sound came from below. After waiting for about fifteen minutes and hearing nothing I quietly descended the stairs, and, pushing open the door which led to the basement, made my way down to the vault door. I switched on my electric torch and examined the paste seals. They were still intact.
Suddenly I heard a slight noise—a peculiar scraping sound, which seemed to come from somewhere in the upper regions of the building. I switched off my torch and ascended once more to the first floor, and stood there listening. Perhaps the noise had only existed in my imagination, or, possibly, had been caused by a mouse or rat.
Just as I had come to this decision I heard it again—a weird sort of shuffling sound. There was no doubt that it came from somewhere above my head. I flattened myself against the left-hand wall of the corridor where the stairs led to the next floor. I reached the end of the corridor, and, edging past the splash of moonlight which came through the window, silently proceeded to mount the staircase to the second floor. As I neared the top of the stairs I heard the shuffling again, but this time it was much nearer. I flattened myself against the wainscoting by the side of the staircase and, with my pistol ready, waited. Nearer and nearer came the sound. I could not see a hand's breadth in front of me, but, it seemed that someone was approaching the top of the stairs and dragging a heavy weight along the ground behind him.
As the sound approached I retreated down the stairs, timing my silent steps as nearly as possible with those of the man above me. It was my intention to get to the bottom of the stairs where they curved round by the window and, remaining in the shadow of the curve, to let the mysterious unknown pass me and step into the moonlight with his burden.
After what seemed an eternity I reached the curve at the bottom of the stairs and flattened myself against the wall. Evidently the unknown had no notion of my presence, for he approached casually. I could hear him wheezing, whilst every step he took was accompanied by the bump of his burden falling from stair to stair. He came level with me—then passed me, so closely that I could have touched him with my hand. Then, as he moved into the splash of moonlight, I saw a short, stooping figure dragging a heavily laden sack behind him. As the moonlight fell upon his face I gave an involuntary start. It was the Chinaman!
FOR a moment I was tempted to spring out upon him, but this idea I dismissed as impracticable. It would be far better to see where he was going with his mysterious burden. He had by this time proceeded about ten yards down the corridor. I ascended a few steps and, gripping the banister rail, I lowered myself over the stairs and descended, hand over hand, until my feet touched the floor. In this way I missed the patch of moonlight at the bottom of the stairs, and found myself just behind the Chinaman once more.
Where was he going with his burden? He was so far advanced down the corridor that he must be going either to his own office, the front door, or down to the vault via the basement, I calculated that we were now about ten yards from the door of Brandon's office, and fifteen yards from the top of the stairs leading to the front entrance.
Suddenly there was silence—the Chinaman was not moving. Had he heard me? I crouched against the wall, every nerve strained to the uttermost in preparation for his spring. Nothing happened!
I waited for what seemed an interminable time, but what was in reality about five minutes. Still there was no movement. I crept noiselessly along the passage till I had reached the head of the stairs, then, with my pistol held ready, I flashed my electric torch down the corridor. It was empty! The Chinaman and the sack had disappeared!
I stood in amazement. Then I walked, down the corridor to the spot where I had last seen him. It was about twelve yards from the office door. How could he have disappeared—and where? On one side was a blank wall and on the other there was about fifteen feet of panelling leading along by the side of the stairs.
There could be one explanation only. There must be some secret way leading out of the passage.
I walked slowly down the corridor, examining the wall and the stair siding as well as I could, but I could find nothing out of the ordinary. I retraced my steps, and was considering whether I should let myself into the office, when I heard a slight sound beneath me. It seemed like the clang of metal. Suddenly it struck me that someone was opening the vault door. Could it be the Chinaman? How had he got downstairs without passing me at the stair top?
Very faintly I heard the sound again. I tiptoed quietly to the top of the stairs and looked over. All was quiet below. With my heart pumping with excitement I made my way down the stairs to the ground floor, where a quick examination of the front door showed me that the lock was intact. Then I noiselessly descended to the vault door. Switching on the torch I examined the paste seals. They were broken! I gently tried the lock on the door and gave the padlock which secured the locking-bar a gentle pull. It came off easily, The vault door was unlocked!
I sat down against the wall and considered the situation, my ears straining for the slightest sound. Was it the Chinaman who, by some secret way, had got down to the vault without passing me in the passage above? Rising to my feet. I opened the vault door inch by inch. There was only darkness in front of me. I slipped my torch into my pocket, and with the automatic pistol in my hand began to descend the stone steps which led down into the vault. I descended carefully, testing each step with my foot, and at the thirtieth step I felt the stone floor solid beneath my feet. I could not see a hand's breadth in front of me, but I was afraid to switch on my torch. I listened intently, but I could hear nothing. Where had the mysterious visitor gone?
I waited in the darkness for several minutes. The silence of the place was uncanny. I wondered if the vault were one large room, or if it consisted of several rooms joined by passages in the usual manner of wine vaults. After some hesitation, I decided to inspect the place, and with my pistol held ready I switched on the torch and flashed it about me.
The vault was entirely built up of stone and was very high. Barrels and packing cases were piled against the walls, whilst rows of shelves, on which reposed bottles of wine, divided into compartments, were affixed to the walls above the packing cases. After a few minutes, when my eyes became accustomed to the place, I made out two doorways in the centre of the walls before and behind me. As far as I could judge, one led off under Brennan's Buildings and the other in the direction of King William Street, parallel with the lane in which the main entrance stood.
I walked through the opening in front of me, and found myself in another vault, slightly smaller than the one which I had just quitted. This vault was fitted up in exactly the same way as the previous one, and I observed another opening on my right. I went through this and found myself in a third vault.
This was much smaller than the other two, and the only exit was the door through which I had just entered. There were no wine bins or shelves, but a collection of apparently empty bottles of every shape and size stood about the floor I looked about the place, but there was no sign of anyone having been in this part of the vaults. The floor was dusty, and a quick examination of the two rooms showed me that my own footmarks were the only new ones.
I knew, however, that someone had entered the vault, and it seemed certain, therefore, that they must have taken the opposite direction, and gone through the other door in the main vault.
I switched off the torch and listened. There was still no sound to be heard. An extraordinary musty smell assailed my nostrils, and somewhere I could hear water dripping. Very slowly I made my way back to the main vault, and felt my way along the wall until I reached the other entrance. I passed through. Opposite me I could just make out another opening leading into a further vault, for somewhere in this further vault a dim light was showing faintly. Was the mysterious visitor awaiting me?
I crept round the vault until I came to the opening. The light flickered regularly, and I came to the conclusion that somewhere in the place a gas jet was burning. I slipped back the safety catch of my automatic, and, holding it in readiness to shoot, I stepped into the room.
I found myself in what was practically a replica of the other vaults, except there was no door on the further side. In the right-hand corner furthest from me a gas-jet burned, and near it I could discern an ordinary cupboard door. A glance round the place assured me that there was no possible hiding-place in the vault except this cupboard. Unless my quarry had disappeared into thin air he must be hiding there! Creeping over to the door, I seized the handle and flung the door open. It was a small cupboard lined with shelves filled with wine bottles—and it was empty.
I drew back in amazement. I had searched every inch of the vaults and had found nothing. I put my hand to my forehead, and found it damp with perspiration. What could be the explanation of this new mystery. Could it be .... an idea suddenly came to me. I hurried back to the main vault, and ran quickly up the stone steps to the basement door.
It was locked. I was a prisoner in the vault!
THE unknown had scored again. Sitting on the top step, I cursed myself for a fool. The explanation was simple. The paste seals on the lock and padlock had been broken, and the locks left open for me to enter. Then the doors had been quietly locked behind me. I looked at my watch, and saw that it was nearly half-past nine.
My position was serious. Ever since I had been employed at Brandon's offices I had never known the vault door to be opened. The basement was not used except for the purpose of gaining admittance to the vaults, and unless by some stroke of luck Brandon, or someone else, came to the vault door there, was little chance of my making myself heard.
At least, I thought cynically, here was a good opportunity to examine the vaults thoroughly. So, descending the stone steps once more, I flashed my torch over the walls and ceilings of the different vaults. Apparently the main vault had been used for storing cases of wines and spirits, and the smaller vaults for empty bottles.
I turned my attention to the vault on the right, where the gas-burner was alight. This was littered with packing cases and old furniture, which seemed, judging by the thick layer of dust, to have been untouched for months. Lastly, I examined the cupboard. It was about four feet square, and shelved on three sides. The shelves were filled with bottles. Standing with my back to the door I picked up one of the bottles at random from the shelf opposite.
It was clean, and free from dust, while a glance at the bottles on the shelves to the left and right showed that they were dirty, and covered with dust.
I moved several bottles from the shelf in front of me, placing them on the floor beside me. After I had moved between twenty and thirty bottles, and was about to start on the third row, I gave an involuntary exclamation.
The bottles were stuck to the shelf!
I wondered what could be behind these bottles, which were so obviously used to conceal something. Then an idea struck me. I took the front edge of the shelf and pulled it towards me. The complete section of the shelf came out in my hands! I flashed my electric torch on the wall behind. Between the two shelves, and so arranged that the dummy bottles covered it, was a sliding panel. I pushed it to the right, and it moved easily. Flashing my torch through the aperture. I could see a long stone passage in front of me. With a little difficulty I climbed through the sliding panel and dropped into the passage.
It was damp and dark, and a trickle of water ran down the right-hand wall and splashed dolefully on the stone floor. Lighting my way and advancing step by step. I progressed along the passage. After a dozen yards or so it began to widen slightly, and then my light flashed on a dead wall which blocked the end of the passage. I flashed my torch all over the wall, but I could see no exit.
As I was about to turn back I noticed a glimmer of light on the right-hand side of the wall, about five feet from the ground. I switched off the torch. The light was coming through a crevice in the wall. I felt round the crack with my fingers, and discovered that one or two bricks were loose. Perhaps, after all, there was a way out.
I pulled my pistol out, and slipping out the cartridge clip I removed the ammunition, and using the clip as a wedge succeeded in forcing one of the bricks out of place. In doing this I had widened the original crack to such an extent that, by placing my eye to the wall, I could see the wooden floor and a stool in the room beyond.
Placing my fingers over the bulb of my torch I examined the bricks around the spot through which I had looked. They were all loose bricks, and could evidently be removed at will. I seized one of these loose bricks, and was working it out of place, when I heard a slight noise behind me. I spun round, but before I could move or cry out iron fingers gripped my throat, something sweet and sticky was pressed over my mouth, and I knew no more.
MY first impression on regaining consciousness was that there was a mystic light just in front of my nose which persisted in bobbing about like a will-o'-the-wisp. My head ached terribly and I felt horribly sick. Presently the will-o'-the-wisp light resolved itself into a candle which was stuck on a packing case a few yards in front of the spot where I lay, and seated on another case near by sat a man in tortoiseshell glasses, who smoked a cigarette through a long holder, and regarded me quizzically. He rose to his feet slowly and stretched.
"Feeling better?" he asked. "Nasty stuff—chloroform." He brushed a speck from his immaculate blue suit. "Always has such beastly after-effects."
"Look here," I said, painfully conscious that my voice sounded like nothing on earth, "who the devil are you?"
He grinned cheerfully. "That doesn't really matter," he said. "As a matter of fact, I was thinking of asking you the same question, but I guess you are the more entitled to have your curiosity satisfied first. So I suggest that you put your head back on that roll of stuff which I collected with such care for your comfort, and listen to me."
I obeyed. There was something extremely dominant in the personality of this gentleman with the tortoiseshell glasses, in spite of his quiet demeanour and manner.
"First of all, what's your name?" he asked. "That's the only question I'm going to ask you," he added—"at least, for the present."
"My name's Relph—John Relph." I said, rather truculently.
"Sure," he murmured. "I thought that was you. Well, Mr. Relph, I guess my name doesn't matter very much to you. For the moment we'll call me the Onlooker, shall we? You remember the old saving—'the Onlooker sees most of the game'—so I guess that possibly my nomenclature may eventually be justified."
"I suppose that we are both wondering about a lot of things," he continued. "You are wondering why in the name of goodness I stuffed a chloroformed handkerchief over your mouth for the purpose of dragging you back here into the main vault, and propping you up against that bundle of sacking, and then having to sit down and wait patiently until you had got over your beauty sleep. Against that I am wondering what you went to Salvatori's shop for in the first instance. So I propose to make it a square deal. Let's both spill the beans, shall we? But I'm going to tell you this before you start telling me anything. I am going to put you wise to a few things so that you can come to some definite conclusions as to what your attitude is to be with regard to myself from now onwards."
The Onlooker lit a cigarette, and for a few moments gazed at the ceiling. Then he looked at me again and I realised how quizzically charming his face could be.
"I know quite a lot about you, John Relph," he said, "But there are one or two blanks I want to fill in. I take it that I am fairly right in saying that you fell in with Henri Zweitt three days ago in the neighbourhood of Frimley. Zweitt fixes you up with a job with Brandon and Co., upstairs, and you start in. The day before yesterday—that is, the day on which you started to work for Brandon—you return home in the evening, and you get a note from Zweitt asking you to meet him at Salvatori's shop. Now what I want to know is, what did Zweitt want you for?"
I stared at him amazed. There was only one person in possession of this information with the exception of myself, and that was poor Jaffray! Incidentally it struck me as being funny that he should ask me the same question as Jaffray—what did Zweitt want to see me about?
"Look here," I said. "I don't know who you are. The fact that you call yourself the Onlooker doesn't cut much ice anyway, but you look fairly decent. I've been pushed into this rotten business, but now I'm in it I'm rather inclined to see it through. I'll answer your questions, but first of all I want to know this. Which side are you on?"
"I'm not on any side," he answered. "Didn't I tell you that I was just an Onlooker—the little fellow who sees most of the game. And here's another thing. It isn't any use your trying to put on side, John Relph. You're going to need all the help-you can get before you're very much, older. Now, once again—what did Zweitt want to see you about?"
"I don't know," I said, "and, as I haven't seen Zweitt since. I still don't know!"
The Onlooker grinned. "I thought you wouldn't," he said. "But I had a sneaking hope that you might have an idea. If we knew what Zweitt wanted to see you about, we should probably know, or, at any rate, might make a guess, at what he was afraid of and if we'd known that the rest wouldn't have been quite so difficult."
He rose from his seat and walked to the entrance of the smaller vault. He stood there for a moment listening, and then returned and sat down once more.
By the flickering light of the candle, which had burned low and was throwing grotesque shadows over the walls and ceiling of the vault, I saw that his face was grave.
"You've got to be careful, Relph," he said, "dammed careful. It must strike you as being fairly obvious that the force which killed Salvatori, Zweitt, and Jaffray isn't going to stop at another one or ten murders in order to free itself from any young gentlemen who may be making, shall we say, unnecessary and impertinent inquiries."
"You believe that Zweitt is dead, then?" I asked.
"What else is there to believe," he said. "It seems to me that Salvatori had something on his mind—something that he wanted to cough up to you. He seemed pretty certain that Zweitt wasn't going to turn up on that night, and he also seemed fairly certain that he could trust you. Also he was desperate. Doesn't it strike you as highly probable that Zweitt had seen Salvatori, had told him that he was going to meet you and let you into the secret that they both shared, and it was this fact, the fact that Salvatori knew that Zweitt was going to split, and that the other people knew it, which made him so certain that Zweitt would not come."
"Look here." I said. "How do you know, all this?"
"I know a lot of things," he replied grimly. "And I'm going to know a lot more before I'm through."
"Well, if you know such a lot, perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me why you found it necessary to chloroform me," I asked with an attempt at a cynical smile.
"Well now, doesn't it stand to reason?" he said, with a smile. "I find you wandering about the place in the middle of the night with a flash-lamp and a revolver. One of two things is entirely obvious; either your are looking for someone to shoot, or for someone you think may shoot you. When I saw you examining the end vault and the passage I came to the conclusion that you didn't know very much about this place, and that you were investigating—you were getting warm, as the children say, when you endeavoured to prise away those loose bricks in the wall at the end of the passage. Incidentally, if you had succeeded in getting through the wall I don't think you would have got off so lightly. It wouldn't have been a mild dose of chloroform, but a dose of something else—probably lead! Also, you might have spoiled one or two little ideas which I have in mind. You've got to do as I tell you, and you mustn't be surprised at the manner in which you receive your instructions. Somebody's got to get these people, otherwise there will be some more of us following in the footsteps of the unfortunate Messrs. Salvatori, Jaffray and Co., so I suggest that the first thing for you to do is to stop wandering about these vaults with flash-lamps and revolvers. There are just as important things to be done elsewhere."
"Such as?" I queried.
"Such as keeping your eye on Mr. Brandon upstairs," said the Onlooker. "I'm very interested in Mr. Brandon, and I think that with a little care he will more than repay watching. Also," he went on, "be careful what you say to Jevons. Don't put any obstacles in his way, but at the same time don't tell him too much. By the way, do you know if he's on any particular line at the moment?"
"Yes, I do," I said. "He's trying to find the Chinaman, and he knows that the letter was typed on the machine upstairs. You did that, of course."
"I surely did," he answered. "Do you want to know the reason? It was just this. I wanted to get Jevons away from this place. He worries me. Things are going on here fairly good and thick, aren't they? Look at tonight. First of all, there's you hiding round corners and dashing around the place with a pot of paste, putting seals on doors and things, then there's our Chinese friend with his particular load of mischief...."
"You know about that!" I exclaimed. "You saw the Chinaman? Where did he go to?"
"We won't worry about that for the moment," answered the Onlooker. "As we say in America, just at present he don't signify."
"But it was the same one," I said. "The Chinaman I saw to-night was the same fellow who came round asking for Zweitt."
"Not on your life," said the Onlooker. "You know most Chinamen look alike to Europeans, an' I'm prepared to lay a shade of odds that it wasn't the same man. Not that it matters very much. You see, we're in the dark about lots of things. We're looking for people and we don't quite know who or what we're looking for; we've just got odd ideas. When the time comes for us to stir up trouble we've got to be in a position to stir it up with all the trump cards up our sleeves. We've got to. Another thing—" the Onlooker looked straight at me, and I could feel his eyes, like diamond points, boring right into me—"we've got to forget some things, too," he added.
"Forget things?" I queried. "What things?"
He glanced round. Then he got up from the packing case and walked over to where I sat, and, sitting on his haunches, spoke quietly.
"Remember when you were sitting with Salvatori, and he was telling you his story," he said. "Right. What happened? Salvatori looked at the clock an' told you to go off and come back at ten o'clock. When you had left the shop you walked off down Angel Alley, but you looked back an' you saw somebody going into Salvatori's shop—"
"I saw a woman," I said. "She was wearing—"
"Never mind what she was wearing. That don't signify, see? An' you didn't see anybody. Understand? You didn't see anybody go into Salvatori's shop after you left it at ten past nine. If Jaffray knows it doesn't matter. He's dead."
"Jaffray didn't know. I didn't tell him," I said.
The Onlooker looked up quickly.
"Why not?" he asked quietly.
"I don't know—and that's the truth," I answered. "It probably sounds silly, but something stopped me. I don't know why."
He smiled—I think his was the most charming smile I have ever seen in my life.
"Good boy," he said. "There's a lot of things we do, or don't do, for no reason at all, an' sometimes they're good things. If Jaffray didn't know, then he couldn't have told anyone else, and that leaves only you and me, and we're both going to forget it right here and now."
He rose to his feet and stretched. Then he took out his cigarette case and extracted three cigarettes, which he held towards me.
"You're looking all right now," he said. "And I'm off. These cigarettes will see you home. Light one now and don't leave here now until you've smoked it to the end, and don't go mucking about in the end vault. When the cigarette is finished go up the stairs—you'll find the doors open at the top. Close them after you and shut the padlocks. You don't need a key—they're self-locking. An' I'd walk home if I were you. It'll clear your head. So long! Till next time."
I SAT there in the still darkness puffing at the cigarette. For some reason this man—this Onlooker—filled me with a strange confidence, almost a faith. I felt better about things because I felt that he was on our side.
When the cigarette-end burned my lips I made my way up the stairs. In a few minutes I was walking westward. It was a fine night, and I allowed my mind to wander over the business from the beginning. One face stood out from the little motley crowd of Zweitt, Salvatori, Brandon, and Jaffray—the face of the woman in the velvet cloak—the woman whom, something told me, I must help to protect.
CONWAY was away on a serious case, and I was breakfasting alone next morning when Jevons appeared. He sat down at the table and accepted my invitation to drink a cup of coffee. I maintained a discreet silence, for I could tell by the expression of importance on the inspector's face that he had something to say. Eventually he said it.
"We're getting on, Mr. Relph—getting on," he said, emitting a cloud of smoke from a stubby briar pipe. "I've got something at last—something tangible."
"You've found the Chinaman?" I asked.
"Well, not exactly," said Jevons. "But I'm on the way. Stevens got a line on him last night. Ran into him by accident down at the bottom of Cannon Street. Stevens was off duty, but that didn't stop him going after the Chinaman. Stevens has been feeling pretty sore with that bunch since they doped him round at Poland Street."
The inspector grinned. "Anyhow, Stevens went after him as far as the beginning of Limehouse Causeway and lost him there. But that doesn't matter. He was evidently going home—and after all it's no difficult job to comb Limehouse. We shall find that Chink all right," said Jevons, relighting his pipe.
"My theory is this," he continued. "This fellow, together with Salvatori, and possibly this man who calls himself the Onlooker, were a bunch of crooks, and I've got an idea of the form their crookedness took. They used the offices in Brennan's Buildings as a sort of headquarters after closing hours, and without the knowledge of Brandon. It seems to me that there was a quarrel or something like that between Salvatori and Zweitt, or Salvatori, Zweitt, and this Onlooker. Possibly Salvatori threatened Zweitt, and this Onlooker chap sees an opportunity of getting rid of the pair of them, and sends the Chinaman round to Poland Street asking Zweitt to meet him somewhere. Zweitt keeps the appointment, and is put out of the way. Then this Onlooker, knowing that Salvatori will be waiting for Zweitt, goes round to Angel Alley and finishes Salvatori off, too, knowing that suspicion will probably fall on Zweitt, who will be believed to have escaped after murdering Salvatori. That's the reason I'm after the Chinaman."
"How does the Chinaman come into the story?" I asked.
"That's easily explained," said Jevons. "They were running dope. There's a lot of stuff placed down in Limehouse, and I expect that Chink was an agent of theirs. When I've got this Chinaman I ought to get sufficient information out of him to get my hands on this Onlooker chap."
"And do you think that they are still using Brandon's office as headquarters?" I asked.
"Naturally, they're not," said Jevons. "Salvatori and Zweitt are out of it, and this Onlooker and any other people connected with the gang will lie low for a bit and keep out of the way."
The inspector knocked the ashes from his pipe and got up.
"I must be off," he said. "I don't think there's anything you can do for us at the moment; and I've got an idea at the back of my head that we shan't be very long now before we've got something definite."
He nodded cheerily and went off. He seemed to be perfectly happy about the situation, and, although I placed little credence in his theory of the murder, I wondered whether I had trusted the Onlooker too much before knowing more of the motive which connected him with the tragedy. However, I realised that I could go on wondering for ever, and also that I had a job to do, so I finished my breakfast, and, seizing my hat, hurried off to Cannon Street.
AS I sat working steadily at the pile of invoices before me. I wondered if, after all, there might not be some grain of truth in Inspector Jevons's theory.
I had no actual reason for believing the Onlooker to be honest, and I realised that he had never really explained why it was necessary for him to chloroform me. Certainly he had suggested that it would be dangerous for me to have removed the loose bricks and discovered what was on the other side of the wall, but, once again, I had only his word for that!
At the same time he had certainly impressed me with a desire to believe in him, and it seemed to me that I had no option but to go on believing in him until something occurred to make me change my opinion.
Presently the bell in Brandon's room sounded, and I went in. He was sitting at his desk with a pile of papers before him, and as he fixed his blue eyes intently on my face I realised how hard they were, although his lips were smiling.
"And how are you getting on, Mr. Relph," he inquired pleasantly. '"Are you shaking down all right?"
"I'm doing invoices at the moment," I said. "You see, Mr. Brandon, Zweitt had not much opportunity to tell me much about the business."
He rubbed his chin with a bony hand.
"Quite, Mr. Relph," he said. "And now you will have to get along on your own, won't you?"
"So you think Zweitt is dead?" I asked.
He looked up quickly.
"Well, the police evidently think so, don't they?" he said abruptly. He handed me a bundle of papers.
"Perhaps you will be good enough to make copies of these in duplicate," he said. "I shall be back in twenty minutes. I'm going to check stock in the vault."
Brandon had not been gone two minutes before the telephone rang. I took off the receiver and heard the unmistakably jubilant voice of Jevons.
"That you, Mr. Relph?" he said "You'll be glad to know that we've found the Chink. Pretty quick work, what? Stevens ran him to earth this morning, down at some Chinese café joint in Limehouse. I thought that bird lived down there somewhere."
"What are you going to do—arrest him?" I asked.
"Not on your life," replied Jevons "We've got no direct evidence to connect him with the murder, and if we make a mistake we may show our hand. No, I'm going to raid the joint where he works, where we shall probably come across some more evidence. The local police have an idea that the café is running dope, so we've got a ready-made excuse. By the way, I want you to be present at this raid, so that you can identify him as corroborative witness with Stevens in case we come across something that enables me to arrest him on an actual charge. Good-bye, Mr. Relph, I'll let you know full details later."
He rang off. Suddenly it flashed through my mind that Jevons was doing exactly what the Onlooker wanted him to do—going after the elusive Chinaman! I wondered if it was a false scent and if the Onlooker was deliberately distracting the attention of the stolid inspector from the real criminals in the case.
I left my desk and went to the window and opened it. Although the other office window was open there was a peculiar, stale smell about the place. I looked about the outer office for a possible cause, but found nothing. I was still considering the matter when Brandon returned.
After he had closed the outer door behind him he stood for a moment, sniffing.
"There's a peculiar smell in the office this morning, isn't there?" he said, and without waiting for an answer went into his room.
Left alone in the outer office, I sat at my desk trying to puzzle out where I had encountered the strange and offensive odour before. It seemed, in some peculiar way familiar to me, and there was not the slightest doubt that it was growing unmistakably stronger. However, after a minute or two the fresh air blowing in at the now fully opened windows seemed to improve matters and I went on with my work until Brandon put his head round the door and told me to go to lunch.
The sun was shining brightly in Cannon Street, and, for no reason at all, I felt very much more cheery about things. Suddenly, as I walked along the street, I became aware that an old man was walking by my side. I was getting so used to surprises that I was not particularly astonished when I felt a square of paper slipped into my hand. The old man disappeared without a word. I opened the paper and read:
"The Crown, Cannon Court. Immediately. Onlooker."
I FOUND the Onlooker seated at a table close to the entrance door of the Crown Inn. He indicated the chair opposite, and I sat down. He was immaculately dressed, and his cheery countenance and blue eyes, which gave no indication of his connection with a mystery, and which twinkled humorously behind the tortoiseshell glasses, seemed to match the sunlight outside.
A waiter approached and I gave my order. When the man had gone the Onlooker leaned across the table and spoke quietly.
"Say, John Relph," he said, "I haven't got a lot of time to waste at the moment, and I'm due to be away from here in a few minutes, so we've got to get busy. I guess you'll be hearing something about a raid in a minute—a raid down in Chinatown."
"I've heard about one already," I said. I told him briefly of Jevons's telephone message.
"But how did you know about it?" I asked.
He grinned. "I guess it's my particular job, at the moment, to know things," he said. "Incidentally, it was a guess. You see, it's been pretty obvious to me that this man of Jevons's—what's his name—Stevens, has been chasing some Chink around, and I hear he's run our Oriental friend to earth down at a Chinatown joint. Now it stands to reason that Jevons is going to take you along on this job in order that you may identify the Chink (if they get him) as the man who brought that letter along to Poland Street for Zweitt. Well, that's just what you're not going to do. See?"
He regarded me quizzically. "You needn't look so funny about it," he continued.. "You can take it from me that this particular Chink had nothing to do with either of the murders, an' if you don't like to take my word for it you needn't. But I'm telling you that you'll be sorry if you identify that man. You'll be spoiling our game."
"Look here," I said. "If you know where the Chinaman is, and if you know that Jevons is going to raid the place, why don't you warn him to make a get-away before Jevons and his raiding-party arrive?"
"There wouldn't be any sense in that, Relph," he said. "I don't want the Chink to make a getaway. I want him just where he is. If you're going to identify the man you'd better say so straight away, and I'll make other arrangements, amongst which will be the strict exclusion of yourself from any move in this business in the future. And here's another thing. If you do as I ask you'll be taking a pretty big step in stopping the next murder on the list. See?"
I gazed at him, astonished.
"The next murder," I exclaimed. "Do you mean to tell me there's going to be another...."
"There's going to be a bunch more if you don't watch your step and do as I tell you," he said. "Well, what's it to be?"
I considered for a moment. Then, "All right. I'll do it," I said.
"Good boy," said the Onlooker, with a smile, rising. "You'll probably have an interesting time tonight. Jevons isn't going to take any chances about his birds flying away. An', if they round up the particular Chink that we've been talking about, well, you just don't know him. So long."
He paid his bill at the cash desk, and disappeared. I ate my lunch without tasting the food. One thing was certain, and that was that the Onlooker knew every move in the game, and that he had some definite plan of campaign mapped out. His remark about 'the next murder on the list' sent a particularly nasty feeling down my spine. I'd seen quite enough of blood to last me for the rest of my life.
I WAS out of breath when I arrived back at the office, having hurried back from the Crown. As I opened the door of the outer office the smell which both Brandon and myself had noticed earlier in the day struck me full in the face. My skin stiffened with fear. I remembered what that smell was! Behind the door of the outer office stood the packing case—the case of liqueurs which the carter had brought up two days ago, which fact I had forgotten to mention to Brandon. Wondering at my own calmness, I knocked at Brandon's door. He opened it and stood facing me, inquiry written on his face.
"Look here, Mr. Brandon," I said, "I forgot to tell you that this packing case was brought here two days ago...." Brandon smiled.
"Well, what of it, Mr. Relph," he said. "We often have packing cases delivered and—"
"I know," I interrupted "But don't you see that's where the smell is coming from. Don't you know what that smell is? I've smelt it in France, and so has every other infantry soldier. There's a dead man in that case!"
For a moment Brandon tottered, and I thought he was going to fall. Then, with an effort, he pulled himself together, and, going into his office, returned with a steel case-opener and a hammer. He handed me the hammer without a word, and together we moved the packing case from out behind the door. Neither of us spoke as we worked at the packing case. At last the fastenings were smashed or prised off.
As I wrenched the lid off an execrable stench filled the office. Brandon started back with an involuntary cry, for, grinning at us from the packing case in which his body had been doubled backwards, the head completely severed from the trunk, and tied in position with a piece of tape, was what remained of what had once been Henri Zweitt!
FOR a few moments I thought that Brandon was going to faint. He leaned up against the wall, staring at the thing inside the packing-case, the perspiration standing out in great beads on his forehead.
I left him staring, and went to the telephone, where, after the usual delay, I got Jevons at Scotland Yard and told him of the latest discovery. He said he would come down right away.
When I had left the instrument, I saw that Brandon had returned to his room. Through the open door I saw him sitting at his desk, his hands held to his head, staring straight in front of him.
I wasn't surprised that the sight had affected him. I closed the outer office door and bolted it, after which I went back and had another look at Zweitt. The body had been bent double, backwards. And it was pretty obvious to me that whoever had cut off Zweitt's head had been an expert at the job, for the neck had been cut through at one fell sweep, and the decapitated head held in position by a tape running over the top and tied under the shoulders. Strangely enough the expression on the dead man's face seemed fairly peaceable.
I couldn't make much of an inspection, as the body, in the position into which it had been forced, filled up the entire packing case, and the arms had been forced backwards in order to allow it to be properly "packed." I realised with a shudder that the murderers were a pretty cool lot, and anyone who could, so carefully, pack up a dead man and forward him carriage paid were a pretty bad crowd to be up against
My ruminations were interrupted by the arrival of Jevons and three other individuals. From the passage outside a camera was produced, mounted on its tripod, and brought into the office. Then the side of the packing case was carefully knocked away, and a flashlight photograph of the body taken. Then Jevons' three assistants departed, carrying the case and Zweitt's body with them.
Jevons walked over to the fireplace and knocked out his pipe.
"Well, Mr. Relph," he said, with a grin, "wonders will never cease. I can't say I'm exactly surprised, either!"
"Not surprised!" I exclaimed. "But why was Zweitt's body brought back here? Who was the man who brought it? Was he an accomplice, and what's the idea in sending it about London in a packing case?"
Jevons refilled his pipe. "Supposing you had a dead body about the place. What would you do?" he asked. "I expect they sent it back here because they wanted to get rid of it. And I'll guarantee it was brought here in good faith by the delivery people, and in all probability collected from some railway station. We'll soon find out all about that. That's easy," continued the inspector. "The thing I want to know is, how did this fellow meet his death. By the way, there'll be an inquest—more trouble for you. Mr. Relph," he went on, "but that need not worry you. I'll get an adjournment so that we can find out exactly what the doctors have to say about it."
"It's pretty obvious that Zweitt met his death by having his head cut off, Inspector," I said. "It doesn't take very much to see that."
Jevons grinned again. "Don't you believe it, Mr. Relph," he said. "People don't kill fellows by decapitation these days. It's too much trouble. I'll bet you anything you like that Zweitt's head was cut off after he had been murdered somehow. However, we shall soon know all about that, and, when we do, I'll satisfy your curiosity." He dropped his voice. "The next thing is the raid," he went on. "I'm going to raid this café of Hop Fi's—the place where our mysterious Chinaman hangs out. We shall leave the Yard at ten o'clock, and go by car to the district section house to pick up a couple of local officers who know the neighbourhood and Hop Fi's clients. I've got an idea that this Hop Fi, who owns this café, probably doesn't know much about all this business. Apparently he's got a pretty good name with the local police. So its quite on the cards that this Chinaman, who is known as Ling, is simply an ordinary customer at the café as far as old Hop Fi is concerned."
The Onlooker's instructions flashed through my mind.
"And supposing Stevens has got the wrong man—supposing that this Chink isn't the one who came to Poland Street, what then?" I asked.
Jevons looked surprised. "Well," he said dubiously. "Stevens may have made a bloomer, but I shall be surprised if he has. Anyway, you can settle that when you get a look at the Chink."
The inspector took a look through the door of Brandon's office.
"The old man looks a bit upset," he said. "I'm not surprised. Well, I'll get along. Come to the Yard and ask for me at nine o'clock to-night, and I'll let you know what the medicos have to say about Zweitt."
He adjusted his hat at its usual respectable angle, and, with his usual nod, walked off.
THE afternoon sped quickly by. Brandon stayed in his room until close upon four o'clock; then, when a cursory "good afternoon," and a few words to the effect that I might close the office at 5 o'clock, he departed. He appeared to have got over his shock, and to be entirely disinterested in what had happened to the packing case and its contents.
When he had gone I put my work on one side and amused myself by going through the events which had happened since I met Zweitt at the inn at Frimley, in the hope that something might occur to me that would be of use. The whole thing seemed so improbable when viewed from the prosaic point of view of the present century. I wondered, too, what the Onlooker would say when he heard of the latest development.
At five o'clock I was about to leave, when my eye was attracted by something white which lay up against the wall in the shadow. I picked it up. It was a small piece of white cardboard. I wondered where it had come from. Then an idea flashed through my mind—it had fallen out of the packing case in which Zweitt's body had been packed.
I took it under the light. It was a piece of cardboard about two inches square, and written on it in a neat and clerkly hand were these words:
So do they return who walk the Sacred Road with Treachery. Before them on their journey lies the setting sun. But on their return their half-brother Death walks behind them.
I stood staring at the card. Somehow, the idea persisted that, in my hand, written on the piece of cardboard, lay the key to the mystery of the murders. I put it in my pocket. Some intuition was already telling me that it was my business to show this piece of cardboard to the Onlooker before anyone else knew of it.
With a feeling of relief at leaving the office I banged the door behind me, and in a few minutes was striding down Cannon Street. I wondered how I was going to get in touch with the Onlooker. Then it occurred to me that he would surely communicate with me next day in order to hear what had happened at the raid at Hop Fi's. It also occurred to me that to try to find the Onlooker between 5.30 and nine o'clock, when I was due at Scotland Yard, would be rather like trying to find a needle in a haystack, so I dismissed the idea.
I was glad to discover on arrival at the flat that Conway had been called away to Torquay. I was glad because I was not in a mood to answer questions, and, incidentally, it was very difficult for me to do so, having regard to the fact that I was in possession of a great deal of information that was unknown to the police, and it had been necessary for me to lie carefully to Conway on such occasions as I had discussed things with him. I had got the idea into my head that there were to be some fairly startling developments in a little while, and not of the sort expected by Jevons.
Conway had left a cheery note telling me to use the flat as my own, and had also left the key of the book-cupboard telling me that there were some good "thrillers" there if I wanted to read them. This amused me, as I considered that I was getting thrills enough at the moment, and without the trouble of reading either!
I LAY down for a couple of hours, as I thought that there might be a late night in front of me, after which, feeling fit for anything, I made my way to Scotland Yard, and was shown straight up to Jevons's room, where I found the worthy inspector awaiting me, looking very pleased with himself.
"Well, Mr. Relph," said he. "I see that you are all ready for the fray, and it might Interest you to know that I wasn't very far wrong about our friend Zweitt, either. Zweitt died from strangulation," he continued. "He'd been dead for some days, and whoever took the trouble to cut off his head did it quite an appreciable time after he had been strangled—well over a day afterwards. The more I see of this job the more I'm convinced that it's a gang business."
"That's all very well, Inspector," I said. "But what was the idea in cutting off Zweitt's head afterwards?"
Jevons shrugged his shoulders. "I don't profess to be an expert in the psychology of murderers," he said. "These fellows do funny things when they get annoyed, and I don't see that the fact that someone has cut off Zweitt's head has got very much to do with what we're after. All I want is that Chinaman, and I've got an idea that I shall get him to-night."
He picked up his hat. "Come along, Mr. Relph." he continued. "The car's waiting outside. We'll get on with the business."
We descended the winding staircase and entered the big car which awaited us. Inside were three plain-clothes, men, one of whom I recognised as Stevens, who favoured me with a grin. He was looking quite pleased with himself, and I smiled to myself when I thought of his amazement at my refusing to identify the mysterious Ling, should it be that worthy who had been followed to Limehouse.
The car moved off quickly. We travelled via the Embankment and Cannon Street, and were soon past Aldgate Pump and in the Mile End Road. Soon we were on the dark outskirts of Limehouse, and half an hour after we had left the Yard we pulled up outside a local police station. Here we were joined by two men of the E Division, one of whom took his seat beside our driver, and in a minute the car moved off again.
We turned in and out dark turnings for nearly a quarter of an hour, through little mean streets lit by occasional lamps which cast mysterious shadows over the dirty and poster-plastered walls of mean houses. Suddenly, outside a somewhat larger house, which appeared to have been turned into some sort of shop, the car stopped. The plain-clothes man beside the driver descended and knocked at the door. It was opened almost immediately, and we trooped in, Jevons and the local plain-clothes men leading.
Before us lay a dark passage lit by only a flickering gas-jet. At the end of the passage a chink of light could be seen between the heavy folds of a curtain which covered the door. We passed through these curtains, and found ourselves in a large room well lit by electric light. Tables, at which men and women were eating and drinking, were set at random all over the place. Most of the patrons of the place appeared to be Chinese, but here and there one saw a white man or woman. No one appeared to be particularly interested in us. I supposed that habitués of the place were used to sudden visitations from the police.
A tall Chinaman in a lounge suit appeared from a door on the opposite side of the room. He approached us smilingly, and after a few words with the local detective-sergeant approached Jevons.
"You wan' make search?" he said pleasantly. "By all means. You make search. You find nothing. You come with me, please."
"Just a minute," said Jevons. "Maybe you can save us and yourself quite a lot of trouble. I want a Chinaman who works or lives here. One who wears a pigtail and has a scar right across his face. I believe his name's Ling."
"Oh, yes," said the fellow, still smiling. "We got Chinaman call' Ling. He got scar. You wait.... I show you."
He trotted off and disappeared through the door. After a short interval he reappeared and beckoned us to follow him.
We passed through the door and along another passage, which was carpeted thickly. Our guide threw open a door at the far end, and we followed him into one of the most wonderful rooms I have ever seen in my life. It was a long, low-ceilinged room. The floor was covered with beautiful Oriental carpets, rugs, and skins. The furniture, examples of antique Chinese craft, would have filled the soul of a collector with delight. Round the walls hung, beautifully inlaid, burnished weapons. The lights, shaded with wonderful colour effects, enhanced the atmosphere of the room. In the middle of the room was a large divan, and seated, on this, was an extremely fat Chinaman. I think that he possessed the strongest personality I have ever encountered. He sat looking straight at me, smiling pleasantly, like his compatriot. He wore the pigtail, the slim black alpaca trousers of his race, and a wonderfully embroidered yellow jacket—the jacket of a mandarin.
Beside him, still wearing the suit of stained overalls, his greasy bowler hat on his head, stood Ling, the Chinaman who had brought the letter to Poland Street, the man who had disappeared so mysteriously that night in Brennan's Buildings. Stevens spoke:
"That's the man, Inspector," he said, pointing an accusing finger at Ling. "That's the fellow."
Jevons whispered a few words to his colleagues, and they disappeared, presumably to search the rest of the building. Then he advanced to the fat Chinaman on the settee.
"Mr. Hop Fi, I believe," said Jevons.
The Chinaman nodded—still smiling.
"Well, Mr. Hop Fi," continued Jevons, "I don't know whether you've heard of the Angel Alley murder, but I'm Inspector Jevons, from Headquarters, and I'm in charge of the case. We're looking for a Chinaman who was concerned in chloroforming a police officer, and who previously visited a house in Poland Street with a letter for a Mr. Zweitt. This is the fellow—this Ling!"
The fat Chinaman in the yellow jacket shook his head—still smiling. In some manner, although he was looking at Jevons, I felt his eyes upon me.
"Mr. Jevons, you make a mistake," he said, quietly. "Ling never do that. I tell you.... I, Hop Fi.... I say no."
Jevons turned to me.
"Mr. Relph," he said, "Is this the Chinaman you saw—the man who came to Poland Street with the letter for Zweitt?"
Almost before I realised it the words were out of my mouth. I could almost feel the Onlooker at my elbow, prompting me.
"No," I answered, "I've never seen that man before. That isn't the man!"
Jevons looked astounded. "But, Mr. Relph," he spluttered, "look at the scar—besides, Stevens—"
"That isn't the man, Inspector," I repeated.
Jevons' face dropped. I have never in all my life seen a man look so disappointed.
"Well, that's that," he said. "Sorry to have troubled you, Mr. Hop Fi.... Good-night."
He turned on his heel and I followed him from the room. Fifteen minutes later Jevons, having given instructions that Hop Fi's café was to be kept under observation, we were speeding back to Scotland Yard. Stevens had said not a word. Suddenly he turned to me.
"That was the man, Mr. Relph," he said. "Why, he was wearing the same clothes—the same dirty bowler hat and overalls."
"What's that?" said Jevons, pricking up his ears. "Wearing the same clothes, was he?" He whistled. "Well, then, you can bet your life, Stevens, it wasn't the man. Don't you see, man, that if it had been the fellow that attacked you they would have tried to make him look different. Don't you see that they've put this Chink in those clothes hoping that we would arrest him, whilst the real fellow makes a get-away, and this chap proves some alibi. Clever move, but, by Jove, we'll have him yet."
In the darkness of the car I smiled to myself once more. I was beginning to feel an unholy respect for Mr. Hop Fi, the fat mandarin. He had laid his plans and Jevons had fallen for them. There was no doubt that Ling was the man, and by the very simple process of keeping him in the same clothes the astute Chinaman had put the idea into Jevons' head that he was being bluffed. Very clever, I thought.
Outside the entrance to Scotland Yard Jevons shook hands. "Sorry to have taken you on a wild goose chase," he said. "Still, better luck next time. As for Stevens, he'll have to take more water with it in future. I'll probably get in touch with you to-morrow. Good-night!"
He disappeared into the Yard. I turned down Whitehall. A breeze had sprung up and I walked quickly. As I approached Charing Cross light footsteps overtook me, and a soft voice whispered my name. I turned quickly and stood amazed—it was the woman I had seen entering Salvatori's shop on the night of the murder. The woman in the velvet cloak!
I STOOD with my mouth open and my hat in my hand, not knowing what to say. For some reason I was unable to speak. She stood looking at me with that smile that seemed forced.
"The Onlooker asked me to meet you, Mr. Relph," she said eventually, "and to ask you if you will go at once to the Indian Café in Long Acre. He will be waiting there for you. Will you do that?"
I said I would. There were a dozen other things I wanted to say, too, a dozen questions to ask, but somehow my tongue refused to function. We walked together to the beginning of St. Martin's Lane, where she stopped and held out her hand.
"I must go now," she said. "Good-night, Mr. Relph. And thank you very, very much for all you have done." Her voice seemed to tremble.
"I haven't done anything," I said. "Nothing at all. You've nothing to thank me for."
"Oh, yes, I have," she said softly. "First of all for saying nothing to the police about my visit to Salvatori's shop, and secondly, because you were a good friend to Harry Varney."
"Harry Varney!" I echoed. "Did you know him?"
She smiled delightfully. "Very well," she answered. "He was a very dear friend of mine." She withdrew her hand from mine, for, quite unconsciously I had held it all the while. "Good-night, Mr. Relph."
I watched her trim figure in its scarlet and astrakhan coat as she walked rapidly away in the direction of St. James's. Then I turned in the direction of Long Acre.
So Harry Varney had been a very dear friend of hers. I felt amazingly disappointed. I suppose I didn't, at the moment, realise that I was jealous of her knowing any other man except myself.
Ten minutes later I found the Indian Café, a small ramshackle place in Long Acre. The Onlooker, as well groomed as usual, was seated at one of the marble-topped tables. I told him of the startling events which had occurred, of the dramatic reappearance of Zweitt, and handed him the slip of white cardboard, which I had found. His eyes shone.
"The sacred road," he murmured to himself. "Say, John Relph, I think we're getting warmer. Now if we can only put our fingers on Harry Varney I think that we shall start moving."
"Harry Varney!" I echoed once again. "Do you mean to tell me that Harry Varney is alive?"
"I surely do," replied the Onlooker. "Alive and kicking, although exactly where I haven't the remotest idea at present. You see. Relph," he continued, "this business has become more involved, because new personalities appear on the scene without any explanation as to where they come from or what they have to do with the story. At the beginning it struck me there was a great deal more in it than met the eye. Zweitt had some idea in getting you into the firm. I think this idea was self-protection. He remembered that you had saved his life once before at Cologne. Both Zweitt and Salvatori were frightened to death of something, and they had evidently made up their minds that you could help them. It's certain that they had discussed this, and this is proved by the fact that when you went to Salvatori's shop he knew who you were, and he knew that you were there to meet Zweitt. Now, the next point—the identification disc belonging to Harry Varney which you found on the floor on the night Salvatori was murdered.
"I happen to know how this came into Salvatori's possession, and I've got a fairly good idea as to who stole it from your room, Just as I am fairly certain that it wasn't our friend Ling, who certainly was the man who chloroformed Stevens on the same night."
He smoked silently for a few moment.
"It's the Chinese who get me beat," he continued. "I can't see where they come in. Hop Fi and Ling, and the rest of them. Somehow I've got the idea in my head that they hold a watching brief for somebody or something, and that business the night that you and Jaffray were surprised seems to prove it. If it hadn't been for the Chinks it seems a stone certainty that Jaffray would not have been the only one to have handed in his checks that night, you can bet your boots on that."
"What do you mean?" I asked. "Were you somewhere round about Angel Alley on that night?"
"I was," he answered smilingly. "Say, will you ever forget that music... that Chinese music. Directly I heard it I knew what it was—it was a warning. Don't you see that Jaffray knew what that music mean? Don't you remember that directly he heard it he handed you his automatic? Well, doesn't it strike you pretty forcibly that if a fellow is going to try to take you by surprise and do you an injury he isn't going to come around and play tunes to you first? He's going to get on with the job. That music was a warning for Jaffray. Then, another thing. Take Ling. Just before our friend Zweitt disappears it strikes our enterprising friend Jevons that anyone who called to see the Swiss that morning must have been in league with his murderers. It hasn't struck Jevons that the letter with the big blob of wax on it may have been another warning. That is one of the reasons that I made you promise not to identify Ling. Ling in prison as a suspect is no good to us—outside he seems to me to be a pretty useful sort of customer."
He blew a perfect smoke ring and watched it sail across the room.
"Jevons won't look further than his nose," he continued. "Let's take the Zweitt murder. We know that Zweitt met his death in practically the same way as Jaffray was supposed to have met his—strangulation. Yet some time after he is killed somebody takes the trouble to cut his head off, an' tie it on with a piece of tape. It hasn't occurred to Jevons that someone else may have cut off Zweitt's head after the murder—someone who had nothing to do with the original murder." He dropped his voice. "Was it the Chinks who cut off Zweitt's head?" he continued. "And if it was—why?"
"You mean that it was another warning," I said.
"That's right," he replied. "And that warning was for Brandon. He's the next on the list!"
"Look here, Onlooker," I said. "I've been backing you up pretty considerably for some time now. I suppose, too, that I've broken the law by working with you and withholding information from Jevons. Don't you think that it's up to you to let me know who you are, and exactly what your game is?"
"All in good time," he answered. "And I promise that you won't be in the dark very long now, But I've made a promise to keep certain things to myself, and I'm going to do it."
"When are you going to be released from that promise, Onlooker?" I asked.
He smiled, and I noticed the good-humoured crow's feet about his eyes.
"Say, Relph," he said. "If I told you who it was I made that promise to, then I guess you'd be able to answer your question yourself."
His face became sad. "It was Chief Inspector Jaffray," he said. "Now you can answer your own question. Incidentally, I want you to come down to Poplar and meet the mysterious lady—the one you saw going into Salvatori's shop on the night of his murder, the lady who gave you my message to-night. You'll like her, Relph, apart from the fact that she is Harry Varney's sister."
My heart gave a great leap, and a feeling of immense relief came over me. The Onlooker regarded me whimsically. I am certain that he knew what was going on in my mind.
"Sure thing," he continued. "She's a star music-hall artiste, and she's working the Poplar Hippodrome this week. Her act finishes at 10 o'clock, so I'll get you to be down at the stage door somewhere in the region of ten forty-five. Don't say too much about what's happening. You see, that little lady's been having a few shocks lately, and I don't want her to get more upset than is necessary."
He held out his hand. "I must be getting along now," he said. "By the way, how did Brandon take the arrival of the packing case? Pretty cool, was he?" He grinned cheerfully. "Keep your eye on that gentleman, Relph. I've got an idea in my head that we're going to have trouble with him in a minute. Cheerio!"
Left to myself, I pondered over what the Onlooker had said.
So Harry Varney, my old friend, was alive, and in England. I wondered what part he was playing in the mystery, and what weird tale he would have to tell me when we met again. I realised, too, what a relief it had been to hear that the mysterious woman was his sister. My mental picture of her, as I had last seen her in her smart scarlet coat, with its soft edging of fur, fascinated me, and accompanied me on my way back to Berners Street.
I turned in directly I got back, but I could not sleep. At last, I got up, and, walking over to the window, drew aside the window blind and looked out. As my eyes got accustomed to the darkness I saw, leaning up against the wall on the other side of the street, the Chinaman, Ling. As he stood there, immovable, in the drizzling rain, his shoulders hunched up, he presented a picture of Oriental patience which I shall never forget. I wondered sleepily what he was doing or what he was waiting for. Then I went back to bed, and after a while fell asleep.
NEXT day, on my way back to the office after lunch, I met Jevons. He was awaiting me outside the entrance of Brennan's Buildings. His usual smile was absent, and he looked gloomy.
He took me by the arm and led me away from Brennan's Buildings in the direction of a tea-shop. When we were seated he took off his hat and mopped his brow.
"Well, Mr. Relph," he said, "things are pretty serious. They've got Stevens."
"You mean Stevens is—dead?" I asked.
"That's it," he replied slowly. "Strangled—like the rest of them."
He took out his tobacco-pouch and filled his pipe. "Stevens wasn't really allotted to this case," he continued. "As you know, he was simply a plain-clothes man from one of the North-West stations, borrowed originally by Jaffray to keep an eye on Zweitt's room until Jaffray had time to go through things there. After Jaffray died I kept Stevens on because he was keen, and because he wanted a chance to get his own back on the fellow who doped him round at Poland Street. Well, anyway, Stevens was pretty fed up with things after you had said that the Chinaman Ling was not the fellow we were after. Of course, he couldn't swear that you were wrong. However, as you know, I left instructions that Hop Fi's café was to be kept under observation, and Stevens, although he wasn't a local man, asked if he might have the job. He must have got pretty busy, for late last night he telephoned me at the Yard that he'd picked something up and wanted a car to meet him at Poplar at twelve thirty. This morning his body was found by the Frimley Police in a field about half a mile from the village."
"Frimley—that's funny," I said. "That's the place where I met Zweitt in the first place."
"Exactly," answered the Inspector, "but that doesn't help me. It seems to me that Stevens must have picked up some information or seen something which made him ring for that car in order to get down to Frimley. In the meantime something else turns up, and he gets down there by other means. What happened when he got down there nobody known, and it looks to me as if nobody is likely to know."
Jevons replaced his hat and, after a little desultory conversation, departed.
I was not particularly excited by the news about Stevens. I had arrived at that state of mind when nothing would have surprised me, at the same time I wondered what it was that he had discovered that had made his prompt removal so necessary.
THE afternoon and evening passed uneventfully, and at ten o'clock I caught the Underground Railway at Charing Cross, and twenty-five minutes later was standing on the roadside opposite the stage door of the Poplar Hippodrome. I had not waited five minutes when I saw the Onlooker, accompanied by the lady who I now knew to be Harry Varney's sister, emerge from the stage door. The Onlooker looked across and, recognising me, waved for me to join them.
The next events happened so quickly that I could hardly believe my senses. The Onlooker had stepped off the pavement and had offered his arm to the girl when a long, low, grey car, with the blinds drawn, shot round the corner, and slowed down directly opposite me, blocking my view. I had just time to see that two men sat in front of the car, one driving and the other half-standing by his side. Then I sensed some sort of scuffle on the other side of the car, and saw the blinds which covered the windows on my side disarranged. Then as quickly as it had appeared the car shot off, and in a few seconds was swallowed up in the darkness of the ill-lit street.
I stood on the pavement, not knowing what to do. My first thought was to endeavour to find the car, but there was not a taxicab in sight, and in any event I realised that, with the start which the abductors had got, they, would, in their powerful car, soon outdistance any taxicab which I might have secured. I had a horrible sinking feeling in my heart that with the capture of the Onlooker and the girl the whole business was hopeless.
My next thought was to get Jevons on the telephone and tell him what had happened, but in a second I saw the impossibility of this scheme. First of all I pictured myself in a telephone box endeavouring to give an explanation of who and what the Onlooker was, together with a lot of other facts about which my own information was very vague, and secondly, supposing Jevons took it all for granted, what in the name of goodness could he do?
Suddenly I found myself thinking of Hop Fi. Although I had no definite reason to believe it a fact, yet I had already begun to look upon the fat Mandarin as a friend. I have a good sense of location, and I knew that, once I could find the local Limehouse Police Station I could manage to find my way to the Chinaman's café.
As I hurried along, I prayed that I might be in time, that Hop Fi would be able to suggest something, or do something. I remembered Salvatori, then Jaffray, then Zweitt, and last of all Stevens—found in a field—strangled.
A policeman directed me to the sub-station at Limehouse. I soon found it and, taking stock of my bearings, found my way through the twisted streets which, as nearly as I could remember, had been our route on the night of the raid. After scurrying along for twenty minutes, half walking, half running, I came to the café, and my heart stood still, for the doors were locked and bolted, and there was not a sign of life about the place.
I approached the doors. Stuck across the panel was a roughly printed notice:
CLOSED, GONE AWAY.
I retraced my steps to the main street, walked down the Causeway, and, finding a cab, ordered the driver to take me back to Berners Street. I don't think that I have ever felt so despondent in all my life as I jolted through Mile End on my way home. I was absolutely miserable.
It was in this state of mind that I let myself into the flat. A light was on in the passage, and I was surprised to see that Conway's maid was up. As I closed the flat door she came into the hall.
"There's a man to see you, sir," she said. "He's waiting in the study." I opened the study door. For some unknown reason I expected to see Jevons waiting for me, but I was mistaken. Sitting in front of the fire in his dirty overalls, his bowler hat still on, his head, was the Chinaman—Ling.
WE looked at each other. Ling, his peculiar grin upon his face, seemed slightly amused at my astonishment.
"Well, Ling," I said. "What is it you want?"
His grin broadened.
"What I wan'." he said. "What you wan', you mean. Look," he continued. "I know you go Poplar.... Mellican feller an' missy taken off in car. You go Hop Fi. Now, you come velly quick. Hop Fi say you come quick. Hop Fi always get what he wan'. You take my tip an I don' you let Hop be angry!"
"I've been looking for Hop Fi," I said. "Where is he."
He got up and sauntered over to the door.
"You min' your own business," he said shortly. "I don' answer your questions. You come... and not talk...."
I followed him from the flat and we walked quickly down to Oxford Street. Here, Ling signalled a taxicab, and we drove off towards Marble Arch.
"You meet Hop velly quick," said Ling. "But you don' talk unless he talk to you. He got no time to listen to silly goddam Englishmen. Hop Fi velly big. Supposin' I don' do what he say...he mak' someone slit my throat dam' quick... same with you! Hell of a feller—Hop Fi!"
We turned down into Hanover Square, across Bond Street, and presently stopped in front of one of Grosvenor Square's most imposing houses. We were admitted by a Chinese butler, who led us into a beautifully furnished waiting-room off the hall, where Ling signalled to me to wait, and went off with the butler.
Presently the man returned bearing a tray on which were sandwiches, a bottle of wine and cigarettes. A glass of the excellent Burgundy pulled me together wonderfully, and I had just finished my cigarette, when Ling returned and told me to follow him. We ascended the wide staircase and entered the room which faced us on the first floor. It was a spacious chamber. Massive chandeliers hung from the frescoed ceiling, and the place was redolent with the most exquisite taste in furniture and pictures,
Ling preceded me to the far end of the room. Here was an immense fireplace, and before it a table. Round this table were grouped four men. Lolling in a fauteuil, still wearing the yellow jacket and smoking a huge cigar, which looked most incongruous, was Hop Fi. Next to his chair stood a young Chinaman in evening kit, whilst on the opposite side of the table stood two more Chinamen. These last two were dressed in peculiar light grey robes, and round the neck of each, worn like a necklace, was a piece of rope. Their arms were folded and their hands hidden in the voluminous sleeves of the gowns. On the table lay a pile of papers, written for the most part, it seemed, in Chinese, and upon these papers the attention of the Chinamen was centred.
As we approached the table Hop Fi looked up and smiled. He indicated chairs, and we sat down, Ling with his hat in his hands for once. A conversation in Chinese took place between Hop Fi and the young Chinaman, who eventually turned to me and said:—
"You will no doubt feel an extreme curiosity as to why we have brought you to this house to-night, Mr. Relph. At the same time I think that you are aware that there is no time to be lost in satisfying curiosity at the moment having regard to the happenings of this evening at the music hall in Poplar.
"As you know, the American gentleman has been carried off, together with a young woman. Possibly you know who is responsible for this. Whether you do or not does not matter. The fact remains that no time may be lost in effecting the rescue of these two people, and Mr. Hop Fi has come to the conclusion that the best person to do this is yourself, and he will assist you by every means possible in doing so. It must be pointed out to you that in endeavouring to secure the release of the American and the woman you run every danger of losing your own life. Are you prepared. Mr. Relph, to carry out Mr. Hop Fi's instructions?"
"I will do anything necessary to rescue my friends," I replied. "But surely if Mr. Hop Fi knows where they are he could easily obtain police assistance."
He smiled. "I am afraid not," he said. "Whilst having the greatest regard for your English police system, Mr. Hop Fi is not at all desirous, at the moment, of having anything to do with the police organisation, or even having its attention drawn to certain aspects in this matter. In the words of your proverb he has his own fish to fry. Fortunately or unfortunately for yourself, in having mixed yourself up in this affair, it has been necessary, even up to this moment, for Mr. Hop Fi to take certain steps for your own protection. Not because he is at all interested in your welfare, but simply because it would be inconvenient for him if any more mysterious murders took place. Therefore, may I take it that you are prepared to carry out Mr. Hop Fi's wishes both in the spirit and the letter?"
I nodded my head. An energetic conversation then took place between Hop Fi and the young Chinaman, who, after a moment, fumed once more to me.
"Mr. Relph," he said, "your American friend and the lady are at this moment imprisoned in one of the vaults which exist beneath the Abbey at Frimley. The entrance to these vaults is known to us. Mr. Hop Fi proposes to supply you with a car, which will get you down to Frimley within two hours from now. After that the matter is in your own hands."
HALF an hour later the lights of London had been left behind, and the dark country road stretched before us. Through the dividing window of the high-powered car I could see Ling, seated next the chauffeur, his dirty bowler hat over his eyes, smoking a cigarette. As I looked he turned his head, and, his eyes meeting mine, he grinned happily. It seemed that Ling was enjoying himself thoroughly, and I envied him his state of mind. I had no idea of what lay before me, except that whatever happened I must see the job through, hoping that we should be in time. I must have dozed off, for it was long afterwards that I was awakened by the car pulling up with a jerk, and, looking out of the window, I could see that we had stopped by the roadside.
Ling got out and opened the door.
"Flimley velly near," he said. "I s'pose we get out here an' walk. No good tak' the car further. Car wait here."
I got out of the car, and we walked together down the road. Ling eventually found a gate leading into some meadowland. The car was backed into the field and hidden under the shelter of a hedge, after which Ling and myself set off, taking a slight footpath which led towards a copse.
On the other side of the copse, standing in a little clearing and surrounded by a low fence, stood a cottage. Ling signed to me to approach warily, and we passed through the wicket gate in the fence, and tiptoed towards a window which stood beside the back-door of the cottage. The blind was drawn only halfway, and, standing one each side of the window, we were able to look through. A fire burned in the grate on the opposite side of the room, and sealed before it, with his feet on the low mantelpiece, was a big, broad man with the square head of the conventional German. He was engaged in reading a newspaper. Behind him, on the table, lay the remains of a meal.
Ling drew me away from the window. "You listen," he said. "I tell you.... you go off a little way an' make a moan... like you hurt. He come to door to see who mak' a noise, an' I fix him!" He grinned wickedly.
I crept away outside the fence. Looking back I saw Ling standing taut beside the cottage door. When I reached the shadow of the copse I gave a low moan. Nothing happened, but when I repeated the process with a little more noise the cottage door opened, and I could just see the man standing on the threshold, listening intently.
I repeated the cry, and saw the man take a pace forward, his hand moving towards his hip pocket. As he did so, Ling sprang. I heard a horrible crack, and the big figure of the man sank limply to the ground. I hurried back to the cottage. Ling, his unlit cigarette still hanging from his lip, grinned happily.
"You get downstairs in cottage... find door to passage," he whispered. "I hide this trash... then I come...." As I stepped into the cottage he commenced to drag the limp form towards the gate.
I closed the door behind me and glanced round the room. I found a door leading into a bedroom, but there was no obvious means of exit from the room, except by the door through which I had entered. Ling joined me, and together we commenced to move the furniture and to search for some way to the passage. In two minutes we found it—a trapdoor under the truckle bed. A flight of wooden stops led down into the darkness.
Ling pulled at my sleeve.
"You go first.. velly quietly," he whispered. "I give you ten minute start... then I follow... no good both together... savvy?"
I COMMENCED to descend the stairs. Halfway down I flashed my lamp, and saw at the bottom of the stairs a rough-hewn passage, about six feet high, revetted in German infantry fashion. I switched off my torch and, pulling Jaffray's automatic from my hip pocket, I started, keeping my left hand against the earthen wall of the passage as a guide.
I stumbled slowly along in the darkness for about a quarter of an hour, when in the distance I observed a glimmer of light. The passage seemed to have become wider and the air tasted cleaner. I approached the light warily. At last I was able to see that the end of the passage was blocked by a wooden door, the top half of which was composed of dirty glass through which the light was shining.
I knelt down and peered through, and found myself looking into a large vault. The floor was earthen, and the ceiling so high that I could not see it from my present position. I could see, however, at regular intervals, the ancient stone pillars which supported the upper part of: the vault. I heard the sound of voices, and with great care began to push the door—which was unlatched—inch by inch. Soon I had made a crack big enough for me to insert my head and look into the vault.
On the right side of the vault, which was about one hundred feet square, a rough fireplace had been hewn out of the old masonry, and seated round the fire, in different stages of undress, were four men. Two of them—the two who were doing the talking—were obviously German, and, at a glance, I judged the others to be Englishmen. I have quite a fair knowledge of German, picked up during my stay, after the Armistice, and I listened intently to the conversation.
One of the Germans, who appeared to be in charge of the party, was speaking:—"I have no instructions about food," he growled. "Stahlhaube has said nothing, neither has von Gratz. Let the swine starve, or end their troubles with a bullet!"
My heart began to beat furiously. Evidently they were talking about the Onlooker and Marion Varney, and my doubts about their being alive were, for the moment, stilled.
"Have it your own way," replied the other German. "I suppose they are safe enough. The bolt on the door is weak, though; a strong man could easily force it."
The first man laughed.
"Let them try," he said. "One is a woman, and there are four of us here—armed! Are you afraid, Schreutzer?"
His companion muttered something, and then relapsed into silence. After a time the big man spoke again.
"Where the hell is von Gratz?" he said. "I suppose he thinks it doesn't matter what time he fixes reliefs in this cursed place."
"Why don't you tell him that?" sneered the other. "Or do you remember how he treated you in the front line in the old days, Sergeant?"
"I wish to God I'd put a bullet into him," said the sergeant. "There were plenty of opportunities."
I thought quickly. Evidently these men were expecting von Gratz—the man whose neck Ling had broken outside the cottage—to appear, and I imagined that in a little while someone would be sent back to the cottage to investigate. I made up my mind, and very quietly slid round the door.
"Put your hands up!" I said in German. "The first man who moves or speaks gets a bullet in his stomach."
The four gazed at me in wonderment, their hands raised above their heads. The big man was swearing quietly and calmly in German.
"That won't help you," I told him. "You can cut that out. Go and bring the man and woman behind that door here as quickly as you like."
I advanced and ran my hands over him, relieving him of a Mauser pistol and knife.
"Now get on with it!" I ordered.
The man turned, and was about to walk away when I noticed one of his companions grinning at something behind me. I turned my head, but I was too late. As I moved a shot rang out and my pistol was knocked clean out of my hand. I spun round.
There, confronting me, the board door through which he had entered still open behind him, was a man who I guessed to be Stahlhaube. He stood regarding me, smiling evilly. He was a splendid specimen of a man, over six feet in height, and with the shoulders of an athlete. His close-cropped hair covered a square head, and his face was of the type which has always distinguished the Prussian officer. The name Stahlhaube fitted him to a nicety.
He walked over to the fireplace and seated himself in a chair, keeping the pistol pointed towards me.
"So! We have another bird for the cage," he laughed. "It is realty wonderful where they come from. Mr. Relph, I am honoured to make your acquaintance," he continued with a mocking bow, "and may I ask as to the health of our esteemed Mr. Brandon?"
"Brandon's all right," I answered. "He sent me here to-night. He wants to see you...."
He laughed. "But how interesting! Mr. Relph, your lying is as inefficient as your attempted hold-up."
He turned to Schreutzer. "Go and get the other two fools," he ordered, "and then call all the other men in... be quick!"
Schreutzer went through the board door, and returned in a few minutes, followed by half a dozen men of mixed nationalities. They were the most villainous crew I have ever seen in my life. He then crossed the floor to the door on the otter side of the vault and after a moment reappeared with the Onlooker and Marion Varney.
She was very pale, but bore herself bravely, and smiled as she recognised me. As for the Onlooker, he looked thoroughly unperturbed, almost gay.
Stahlhaube addressed us generally.
"Well, Madame and Messieurs," he said, with a cynical bow, "once more you are together—as you should be. I regret that our hospitality is so inadequate, but that need not worry you a great deal, as you will not have to put up with it for very long. You constitute a nuisance to myself and my friends here, and therefore it will be necessary to remove you. You will be removed!"
The Onlooker spoke quietly.
"Say, Stahlhaube," he said. "I guess we can all take what's coming to us standing up, an' that's that. But you can bet your boots that there's something coming to you, and you'll get it all right."
Stahlhaube laughed. "Once again, my friend, I think that you are mistaken. With yourself and these two fools out of the way I consider that I may discount any further interference."
He turned to his men. "Sergeant," he ordered, "take Schreutzer and Wolff, and take the two men upstairs. Take them to the drying-room and cut their throats like the dogs they are. You can deal with the woman afterwards in the same way."
The two men approached. Stahlhaube returned his pistol to his pocket and stood, his hands behind, him, leering at Marion Varney.
Something in the attitude of the brute made me see red. I was about to spring at him, when something happened. Two shots rang out in quick succession, and Schreutzer and Wolff dropped to the floor.
There was a cry from the girl, and we spun round to see Ling, an automatic in his hand, standing just inside the door. He spoke with his usual grin. "You goddam Stahlhaube," he said quietly. "You I save for something better than a bullet...." He handed me a knife and I quickly freed Marion Varney and the Onlooker. I slipped my arm through hers and felt her trembling.
"Stick it," I said.
She smiled a reply.
"You get down the passage," said Ling. "I look after this bunch. I make 'em tie each other up... damn tight ... you bet!" He grinned at Stahlhaube.
Stahlhaube spat. "So!" he grunted. "Brandon wins a hand. So!"
We stumbled down the earthen passage. As we went I heard the soft laughter of Ling....
"Blandon," he laughed... "that pretty damn good... Blandon!"
The girl sagged on my arm. She had fainted. I picked her up and hurried on.
"Come on. Onlooker," I said. "Let's get out of this!"
LITTLE was said on the journey back to London. Personally I had no desire to talk, the events of the evening having left me nearly speechless, besides which I was very tired. Marion Varney, with her head on my shoulder, was sleeping quietly, and the Onlooker, after one whimsical glance in our direction, closed his eyes and gave a very fair imitation of being asleep for an hour or so.
We left Marion at her flat in Knightsbridge, the Onlooker promising that he would communicate with her in the afternoon. Then we returned to the street to find Ling and the car gone! The Onlooker grinned.
"I thought the Chink would take the opportunity of making a get-away whilst we were upstairs," he said. "Still, it doesn't matter much."
We commenced to walk towards Berners Street. The Onlooker was silent for some minutes, then he put his arm through mine, and said:—
"Well, John Relph, I think the balloon will go up in a minute, and at last we're going to come out into the open. Now, as regards yourself, you've got to be back at the Cannon Street office on time. I've got an idea that Brandon isn't going to have any notion as to what happened last night for quite a bit, and Stahlhaube and his bunch are going to sit back and think, too. Von Gratz is dead—that Chink is the slickest neck-breaker I've ever met in my life—and without the services of von Gratz Stahlhaube has got to go slow. Incidentally he thinks that last night's work was a job of Brandon's... Thank goodness he didn't recognise me! Brandon has got to do something in a minute, so I think that we must get old man Jevons prepared for the grand slam. Keep your eye on Brandon, Relph. Watch everybody who comes into that office to-morrow, and, if you can, remember them. Also, if you get the chance, search Brandon's private office. He's got to try and make a clean-up and a get-away in a minute, and he's liable to get careless. I'll get in touch with you some time in the afternoon. In the meantime, when you get home, have a hot bath and some coffee—you need it." He patted me on the shoulder. "So long, Relph...." He turned off abruptly and disappeared.
Four and a half hours later, having bathed and lain down for a couple of hours, I reached the office. Brandon arrived at 10 o'clock. His blue eyes were gleaming, and there was an expression on his face which boded no good for someone. He had closed the office door behind him and walked over to where I sat.
"I regret to tell you, Mr. Relph, that I shall not need your services after to-morrow. I've made up my mind to close down in the course of a few days. Of course, you will receive a week's wages in lieu of notice. Incidentally, I have a business meeting in my office this afternoon, and you will please tell anyone who calls to see me after three o'clock that I am out, and not expected back to-day." He went into his office, and I heard the lock click behind him.
As I entered Brennan's Buildings after my lunch a small boy slipped a note into my hand, and disappeared promptly. I stood on the steps and opened the envelope. The note was from the Onlooker, and read:
Dear John Relph:
Things are coming our way at last! Get in touch with Jevons immediately and request him to meet you at Conway's flat at 8 o'clock to-night. Then bring him along to No. 564 Park Lane. You'll find me in the first floor flat. Stahlhaube has the Cannon Street offices under observation, and Brandon is repeating the process at Frimley. Either of them may strike at any moment, except that I do not think Stahlhaube will move for a day or two. If by any chance you come across Ling try and find out if the Chinese are still at Grosvenor Square. I don't suppose he'll tell you, but there is no harm in trying. I shall expect you at 8.30.
So things were moving at last! I wondered as I mounted the stairs what the last acts of the drama would be like and who would play the leading parts.
At five minutes past three five men arrived at the offices and asked for Brandon, who admitted them into his room and locked the door behind them.
They were an extraordinary-looking lot. Two of them had the appearance of Turks, one was obviously German, another a Frenchman, and the last an extraordinary, overdressed young Englishman whose scented handkerchief made me want to kick him.
I listened at Brandon's keyhole, but could hear nothing except the monotone of Brandon's voice, talking continuously, with an occasional exclamation from one of the others. The meeting continued until a quarter past four, when it broke up, and the members departed one by one.
Half an hour later Brandon came out. He looked in good spirits, and his eyes twinkled vivaciously.
"I shall be here at ten o'clock in the morning, Mr. Relph," he said, "and we shall close the offices for good tomorrow afternoon. Don't be late." He hurried off.
Directly the door had shut behind him I telephoned Jevons at the Yard and made the appointment for him to meet me at Conway's flat at eight, ringing off before he could ask for explanations, which I preferred the Onlooker to make himself. Then, without further ado, I proceeded to smash the lock on the door of Brandon's office. I searched the room thoroughly, but without result. There was no sign of anything which could associate Brandon personally with any of the previous events. I stood by his desk, disappointed, and, after a moment, took up two or three of the account books which lay on his table.
I ran through the leaves casually, and as my fingers turned the pages of the last book my heart gave a leap. Pasted at the back of the book, which was a "bought-and-sold" ledger, was a plan of Frimley Abbey!
Jevons arrived at the flat at 8 o'clock punctually. It was obvious that he was bursting with curiosity, although he endeavoured to hide his eagerness under an air of unconcern.
"You know this is all very irregular, Mr. Relph," he said, "and I hope it will turn out all right. After all, it won't be very nice for you if anything goes wrong and you're placed in the position of having withheld information."
"I'm afraid I don't see that, Inspector," I replied. "After all, I'm not a policeman, and if I like to do a little investigation on my own I don't see what there is to stop me. Besides which I understand you had theories of your own. Haven't you discovered anything at all?"
"It looks to me as if there isn't anything to be found out," grumbled Jevons. "You've got to have something to start from, and I've never known a case with less to go on than this one. From the start there's been nothing at all."
"If that is so, how did Jaffray find out as much as he did in one day?" I asked. "After all, when he met me at Salvatori's shop on the night of the murder he must have had some sort of idea as to what he was up against to speak as he did."
The inspector shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I don't like it." he said. "But it's no good talking about it We'd better be getting along."
DURING our walk round to Park Lane the inspector maintained a dignified silence. Eventually we arrived at the house and were shown up to the first floor and into a room at the end of a passage. It was essentially a man's room, and the big leather arm chairs drawn up in front of the fire looked inviting.
The Onlooker rose from the depths of one of them as we entered. He invited us to it down, and we did so, Jevons looking very stiff and suspicious.
"Well, gentlemen," said the Onlooker. "I suppose it's up to me to satisfy your curiosity as far as I can. And, as regards yourself, Inspector, I may as well make my apology straight away...."
"Apology," said Jevons. "What for?"
"For leading you up the garden path generally," said the Onlooker, grinning. "I guess some of us have been—what we call in America—'making a monkey of you,' Inspector. However, that's all over. I've got an idea you may have heard of me, some time or other, Jevons," he continued. "They used to call me Paris John..."
Jevons sat bolt upright in his chair, his eyes almost starting out of his head.
"My God!" The exclamation was almost forced from his lips.... "Paris John!"
The Onlooker threw over to him a small black leather case. Jevons examined it carefully and handed it back.
"That's good enough for me, sir," he said. "I'm proud to meet you. I might have known that there was something behind all this. I suppose you've been in this from the start."
"That's right, Inspector," said the Onlooker.
"You see, Jaffray and myself knew, more or less, what we were up against. It was an old business, and after his exit I was rather keen on somebody getting on with the job in an official capacity. Somebody who wasn't going to get anywhere at all just because there wasn't any way of getting started. Mind you, I won't say that you didn't get fairly warm once or twice. When you went after Ling, for instance. The man you got at Hop Fi's in Limehouse was Ling all right, but Mr. Relph refused to identify him on my orders. Ling had nothing to do with the Salvatori and Zweitt murders except that he did his best to stop them coming off. Now, I'll start from the beginning and tell you how this business originally started.
"My name, as you know, Inspector, is Steel, Jerome T. Steel, commonly called Paris John. Fifteen years ago I was chief of the Narcotic Squad at New York Headquarters, and, at the end of 1912, I was faced with one of the most extraordinary propositions that I have ever come up against—a gang of dope dealers who had beaten us to a frazzle for the very simple reason that we could never find out where they got the stuff from. The business was obviously international, and the police of other countries found themselves up against the same brick wall. Eventually it was arranged that certain officers selected from the different national detective forces should work together. I was selected to run this international bureau, and took up my headquarters in Paris. Jaffray was the officer selected by Scotland Yard to represent British interests.
"After some time we got tabs on two men—an Englishman and a German. They were operating from Milan, and called themselves Moreatte and Co., wine and spirit importers. They were Brandon, who called himself Varley, and a Prussian named von Eisen—the man known as 'Stahlhaube.'"
JEVONS whistled quietly.
"Brandon!" he exclaimed. "Why didn't I suspect?"
"There was no reason for you to do so," said the Onlooker. "There was nothing against Brandon over there except what Jaffray and myself knew. Anyway, that explains the story that Salvatori started to tell you, Relph, on the night of his murder. Salvatori—and Zweitt were both frightened to death. Zweitt had come to the conclusion, that you were a brave man, and that, as he had done you a good turn in getting you a job, you would help him and Salvatori to get out of the country."
"But what were they afraid of?" I asked.
"I'll come to that presently," said the Onlooker. "In the meantime, I'll go back once more to the beginning. Directly I obtained this information about these two men I got into touch with the Italian section, who arranged to keep the premises of Moreatte and Co. under observation. Just when things were beginning to move, the war came along and spoiled our plans. We had to split our headquarters in Paris, and return to our respective countries, but as my own country didn't come into the war till fairly late I was able to carry on on my own.
"Fortune favoured me. I struck a man in New York who had known von Eisen in Milan. This man told me that von Eisen had left for Germany immediately war was declared, as he was on the Reserve of Officers. I made up my mind that somehow I would get to Germany, and see this von Eisen for myself. I did in 1916, when America was still neutral, and I went there on one of the Prisoners of War Committee stunts. When I got there it didn't take long to find von Eisen, for he was Commandant of the first prison camp we visited. Here an interesting thing happened. I met Harry Varney—"
"Varney!" I exclaimed. "In a prison camp... but they reported him missing, believed dead."
"Exactly," said the Onlooker. "That was a cute bit of business on Stahlhaube's part. The suggestion was made that Harry Varney had tried to escape and had been shot by a frontier guard. I was interested in Varney because Stahlhaube himself pointed him out to me as an interesting case of shell shock. Varney had completely lost his memory, but he remembered all the details of his profession—he was an analytical chemist before the war. Something in Stahlhaube's attitude when he was talking to Varney (who had, of course, been introduced to me by another name) made me suspect that the Boche had something in his mind with regard to the young man. Long afterwards, in 1922, when I had come over to England, I thought I would make some inquiries about Varney, and I began to see through Stahlhaube's little game. This Varney had been one of the cleverest analytical experts extant, and was employed in the pathological department at Scotland Yard. Drugs were his speciality. See? Next thing I heard was from the Italian police, who reported that von Eisen was back in his old haunts in Milan. In the meantime I had made the acquaintance of Miss Varney, and suggested to her that her brother might still be alive.
"Just about this time two new sorts of drug came on to the market, and we couldn't get the slightest idea where they were coming from, but at the back of my head was the idea that Stahlhaube had got young Varney in his clutches and was forcing him to manufacture the drugs for Stahlhaube's drug syndicate.
"In 1924 Jaffray and myself started our old Paris headquarters again, and we felt that in a few months we should have the whole gang well set. Well, directly Relph here told Jaffray the tale which Salvatori had begun to tell, and mentioned the name Moreatte and Co., Jaffray realised that we had stumbled on the same old crowd once more. He got into touch with me immediately, and we agreed to work together, although we knew little of the actual facts of the murder then, or why it had been committed."
"But you don't mean that you haven't found out who murdered Salvatori...." said Jevons. "I thought you said Brandon...."
"I know that Brandon was one of the original partners in Moreatte and Co., but I don't know that he murdered Salvatori or Zweitt," said the Onlooker. "Another thing, supposing that Brandon had murdered Zweitt, who was it took the trouble to send back the body to Brandon's office? Mind you, I'm not saying that Brandon didn't murder these fellows. I'm simply saying that we have no actual facts pointing that way. Salvatori was stabbed between 20 minutes to ten and ten o'clock. I'm absolutely certain of this, because I didn't leave the shop myself till twenty to ten."
"So you were in Salvatori's shop on the night of the murder, too?" said the astonished Jevons.
"I followed Miss Varney there," said the Onlooker. "She arrived there immediately after Relph left, and it was because Salvatori did not want Relph to meet anyone that he asked him to leave. We had a conversation concerning Varney, and Salvatori produced Harry Varney's identification bracelet—the bracelet which was stolen from Relph's room that night. Ling had nothing to do with this theft. The bracelet was stolen by one of Stahlhaube's gang, who, foolishly enough, left that warning with the steel helmet drawn on it. Stahlhaube wanted that bracelet back; it was the only thing which, to his mind, would connect Varney with the man he had kidnapped, and who was in his power. By the same token one might easily come to the conclusion that Stahlhaube was responsible for the murder of Salvatori. I don't believe this, though. The murder wasn't scientific enough for Stahlhaube."
"I wonder what the motive was for the Salvatori and Zweitt murders?" said Jevons. "Another thing, who and what is Ling, and what have these Chinese to do with it all?"
"That's what I'm wondering," said the Onlooker. "I'm beginning to get an idea, though. One thing is certain. Hop Fi, for some reason best known to himself, was keen on looking after the safety of Relph, Miss Varney, and myself. From what happened down at Frimley it is also certain that Stahlhaube was sure that we were, all of us, connected with Brandon, and you will remember how amused Ling was at this idea.
"It seems to me," said the Onlooker, "that the gang split some time previous to the war, and that Brandon must have transferred his sphere of activities to England, taking his own particular pals with him. We've got enough on them to clean up Stahlhaube and Brandon and as many of their respective gangs as we can lay our hands on right now, but if we do so what good do we do? All we know is that Stahlhaube stole an identification bracelet from Relph's rooms. We believe that Stahlhaube or Brandon had something to do with the Salvatori-Zweitt murders, but we can prove nothing. We know that Brandon Is preparing to make a get-away, and that he came to this decision about the time that Zweitt's body arrived in the packing case, but why we don't know. We know that Stahlhaube is out to get Brandon and that Brandon doesn't love Stahlhaube. We don't know anything about Hop Fi and his bunch—who they are or what they are after. But it stands to reason," he continued, "that something is going to happen soon, and that something will give us a lead. Brandon's next move is going to give us the big thing in this job, and I think I know what it will be."
I told the Onlooker about my search in Brandon's office, and produced the plan which I had taken from the account book. He studied it carefully.
"Good work," he said, "although it doesn't tell me a great deal that I have not already guessed. These vaults may have been used in pre-war days by the gang or, on the other hand, and I think more likely, Brandon may have information about the secret passages in the vaults which is unknown to Stahlhaube. I think—"
The telephone on the table beside me jangled. The Onlooker reached for the instrument, and then stayed his hand.
"Take that call, Relph," he said suddenly. "Your voice isn't known. There isn't a soul in London who knows my telephone number except two men, neither of whom would be ringing me at this hour. It may be a wrong number...."
I took off the receiver. "Hullo," I said. "Who is it?"
Over the wire came the unmistakable voice of Ling, the Chinaman.
"Ling speakin'," he said softly. "At Blandon's office. You bring your bunch here velly quick. They know about me here.... I think I get bumped off in a minute... you come velly quick... otherwise they get me... you bet!" I heard the receiver at the other end replaced softly. I told the Onlooker, He listened gravely.
"How does that Chink know my 'phone number?" he said quietly. Then he walked quickly to the door. "Get the car out, Waddy," he called, "and hurry! We'll be down in a minute. Brennan's Buildings. Cannon Street, and you'll have to step on the gas!"
He walked slowly back into the room. "I think," he said quietly, "that this is where something happens!"
A FEW minutes later we were speeding down Park Lane at a rate which must have caused commotion amongst the police on duty in that aristocratic neighbourhood. Inside the car were Jevons, the Onlooker and myself, whilst Waddy, a thick-set individual, sat outside with the chauffeur. Soon we were in the city. Ludgate Hill and Queen Victoria Street seemed to pass us in a flash, and a minute afterwards we were pulling up outside Brennan's Buildings.
Waddy, who had hurried off directly the car stopped, rejoined us.
"The front entrance of Brennan's Buildings has been forced," he said. "The lock has been smashed. What's the next move, chief?"
"I guess we'll take a look round," said the Onlooker.
The door of Brennan's Buildings stood open, and we trooped in. Standing in the corridor at the top of the stairs, we could see a stream of light penetrating through the half-opened door of Brandon's offices. The Onlooker threw open the door and we entered. The outside office was in a state of chaos. Zweitt's old desk, a pretty heavy affair, had been pulled or pushed into the middle of the floor and was standing on its side. Papers and packages of all descriptions were strewn about the office. The door of Brandon's room stood open. The electric light was on, and the blinds had been drawn.
The Onlooker examined the room carefully, walking about and kicking the litter of paper which covered the floor.
"I wonder where friend Ling is," he said. "Or whether somebody has completed the bumping-off process and removed his body. We'd better take a look at the vaults," he added. "Jevons and Waddy, you'd better have a look round upstairs. There's nothing of importance here. Relph and myself will search the vaults. We'll meet here directly anybody finds anything of importance."
Jevons and Waddy went off, and the Onlooker and myself made our way downstairs. There were blood splashes on the walls and floor of the corridor, and just before the vault doors was quite a small pool of blood, as if the individual hurt had rested there for a moment before proceeding further. The vault door stood open. The Onlooker produced a torch and led the way downstairs. We were at the bottom of the stone steps, when Jevons' voice came to us from the stair top.
"We've found some fellow on the second floor corridor," he said. "He's dead. Neck completely broken. Are you coming up, sir?"
"That looks like Ling's work," said the Onlooker as we ascended the stair. "Apparently breaking necks is a hobby of his. I wonder who it is? I'll be annoyed if it's Brandon."
On the second floor corridor we found Waddy bending over a huddled, prostrate body, which lay in the middle of the corridor. He turned it over on its back as we approached, and I recognised the features of the "Sergeant."
The Onlooker whistled. "Stahlhaube's been here," he muttered. "This is one of his men. I wonder what the game was? Have you searched him, Waddy?"
Waddy nodded. "Nothing on him," he answered.
"Hallo, here's Mervyn—and Johns—perhaps they can tell us something."
The first of the new-comers touched his hat to the Onlooker. "Good evening, Chief," he said. "Johns shadowed Brandon back here at nine o'clock. Brandon opened the street door with a key, and locked it after him. We were on the other side of the road. About twenty minutes afterwards we heard the sound of a shot, and ran across to see what we could find. The door was still locked. Just round the corner, though, a big car had pulled up, and a few minutes afterwards several men came out of the offices there and drove off."
"Get the car number?" queried the Onlooker.
"There was no number on the car," said Mervyn. "Nothing at all. When it had gone we went round to examine the office doors round the corner. When we came back we discovered that the front door here had been broken open. We had gone to telephone for instructions when you arrived."
"Someone smashed the front door open from the outside," said the Onlooker, "to make it appear that the assailants entered through the front door, when they did nothing of the sort."
"How did they get in, then?" asked Jevons.
"Through the passage in the vaults," replied the Onlooker with a grin. "They'll have bumped Ling off, all right," he added ominously. "We'd better get this fellow down to the Brandon offices," he continued, "after which we'll examine the vaults and passage."
As we were about to enter the offices Jevons, who had entered the inner room, gave a whistle and came to the door.
"Just a minute, sir," he said. "Come and look at this!"
I followed the Onlooker into Brandon's office. Jevons led us round to the other side of the desk. There, his body almost doubled up, and cramped in the small space cut out of the desk for leg room, was Brandon, his long grey hair visible under the inspector's flash-lamp. Mervyn and Waddy pulled him out. Laid out on the floor of the office we saw that he was alive, but unconscious. Jevons mopped his brow.
"This place is a blooming mortuary," he said. "There must have been Hell's bells going on here to-night! He's been sandbagged."
The Onlooker grinned. "It's an interesting world," he said. "You'd better stay here, Waddy, and keep an eye on our friend Brandon. I don't think that you'll have any trouble with him when he comes round."
He whispered a few words into Waddy's ear, and then led the way out of the offices. We descended once more to the vaults, and, passing through the outer one, proceeded to search the inner vault. The flickering gas-jet was still alight.
The Onlooker walked straight to the cupboard in which the bottles were stacked at the far end of the vault, and, taking hold of the bottles on the second shelf, pulled. The shelf swung outwards, leaving the aperture through which I had entered the stone passage on the night when the Onlooker had chloroformed me.
We got through, one by one. In front of us the flash-lamp of the Onlooker illuminated the stone passage. From the wall at the end of the passage a square of stone bricks had been removed, and from the other side came a dim light. The Onlooker pulled an automatic from his pocket.
"I've got an idea that the place is deserted," he said, "but we won't take any unnecessary chances."
He climbed through the hole in the wall, and we followed him. In the right-hand corner of the cellar in which we found ourselves was a wooden step-ladder, which led to a trap-door in the roof. The Onlooker climbed the steps and pushed open the trap-door. He clambered up, and, flashing his torch, lit the way for us. Above the trap-door we found ourselves in a room which had obviously been used as a lavatory.
The Onlooker tried the door. It was locked, but a good shove soon burst it open. On the outer side of the door was a painted notice—"Brandt, Herresheimer & Co.", and opposite was an iron stairway leading to the rooms above. At the top of this stairway we found ourselves confronting another door, bearing the same name. The Onlooker pushed this door open and flashed his torch into the darkness beyond.
The arc of light illuminated a circle on the wall opposite, then, as the Onlooker lowered the torch, the light fell full upon the figure of the Chinaman—Ling.
He lay propped up against the wall, a half-smoked cigarette hanging limply from his pallid lips. Across his hunched-up knees lay a Mauser pistol On the right-hand side of the greasy overalls, stretching downwards, was an ominous stain of blood, and a little trickle of the same red fluid had formed a ghastly pool on the floor beside him. Ling, his eyes moving slowly from one to the other, as we stood in a half-circle round him, appeared quite at ease. The same cynical, almost malignant, smile was upon his face.
The Onlooker smiled down at him. "Well, Ling, it looks as if you've got yours this time. Have a light?" He bent down and lit the cigarette which hung from Ling's mouth. Ling drew at the cigarette. Then—
"Good evenin', my gentlemans." he said weakly. He grinned at me. "I tell you I get bumped off," he said slowly. "I know goddam German pull his trick to-night... I follow Blandon here... I got key. German fellow... two, tree, four.... Whole lot come up from downstairs.... They come for Blandon. They knock Blandon on the head... you bet.... Then they leave big fellow... Sergeant... and go off for car... I get Sergeant.... I bump him off... this his gun ... but he get me first.... I telephone... when they come back... wind up... your fellow knock at door... they go off... but they not get Blandon... no time... they not take Blandon away."
"What was the idea in stopping them, any way," asked the Onlooker. "You haven't got any regard for Brandon, have you, Ling?"
"My order," replied the Chinaman gravely. "Hop Fi... say German fellow not get Blandon... Hop Pi say... let Blandon hang himself... give him enough rope he do it."
"Ling," said the Onlooker, quietly. "What's the game? What's Hop Fi's game? What is it your bunch is after?"
Ling raised himself on one arm. The blood trickle on the floor increased.
"You min' your own dam' business..." he said, speaking very slowly. "Hop Fi velly big man... what he say go... you interfere with him an' you get yours. If fellow stand in way... Hop Fi say go... fellow get bumped off... all the same... all pass along...." He looked at me with his usual grin.
"Good-night, my gentleman," he said. He fell forward—dead.
THE Onlooker broke the silence.
"And that's that," he said. "I guess Ling could have told us a few things if he'd wanted to. Well, gentlemen, we can move off. The evening's amusement appears to be over."
We retraced our steps back to Brandon's office. Here we found Waddy, alone.
"Did Brandon escape all right?" asked the Onlooker cheerfully.
"He surely did," said Waddy. "I walked well along the passage to let the durn fool get away with it."
Jevons swore softly. "You've let Brandon go?" he said.
"Looks like it, doesn't it?" replied the Onlooker good humouredly. "I've let him go, just so that he can do all the things we expect him to. You've got to chance something, you know. By the way, Jevons, you'd better get back to the Yard and tell them to send somebody down here to look after this mess. I'll need you some time to-morrow, with some men. I've fixed this at the Yard. I'll telephone you tomorrow afternoon."
Jevons went off, followed, a few minutes afterwards, by Mervyn and Johns.
The Onlooker lit a cigarette, and threw his case to me to help myself.
"Well, Onlooker," I said. "What's the next move?"
The Onlooker grinned. "Let's go and see Hop Fi," he said.
"Do you know where he is?" I asked.
"I expect well find him at the Grosvenor Square house," he answered. "Anyhow, we'll try."
We picked up a wandering taxi at the bottom of Ludgate Hill and drove quickly to the Grosvenor Square house. The lateness of the hour appeared to matter little to Hop Fi's butler, who received us with urbane courtesy, and showed us to a room on the second floor. Soon the door opened and Hop Fi appeared. He had evidently been in bed, for he wore a long lilac silk robe of the dressing-gown variety. As usual he was smiling, and seemed quite happy to see us.
The Onlooker rose to his feet.
"Mr. Hop Fi." I believe, he said. "I'm glad to meet you," he continued, "although I regret to be the bearer of bad news. Ling, a compatriot of yours, and who, I believe, was in your employ, is dead."
Hop Fi shrugged slightly, then spread his hands deprecatingly.
"Death comes to all of us," he murmured. "Is there any way in which I can be of service to you?"
The Onlooker smiled.
"I guess that's just a figure of speech," he said, "But if you really want to do something for me you can tell me what your little game is. I shouldn't like to see you getting into trouble with the police over here, Mr. Hop Fi."
The Mandarin smiled. "I hear what you say," he murmured. "But I regret so much that I cannot allow any course I may wish to pursue to be dictated to me by anyone, no matter in what esteem I may hold them." He bowed politely.
The Onlooker returned the bow. "That's all right then," he said. "So long as we understand one another. I am well disposed to you at the moment, Mr. Hop Fi. Good-night!" The Mandarin accompanied us to the door.
"My felicitations go with you, gentlemen," he said on the threshold.
As we walked towards the Onlooker's flat my companion was silent, but when we turned into Park Lane I could see him smiling to himself.
"Old Hop Fi's not to be bluffed," he said eventually. "I wish I knew what his game was. But he's going to pull something in a minute—that's certain, and I hope I'll be there... that's all!"
IT was three o'clock when I arrived back at Conway's flat. I made myself a cup of tea, and, donning my dressing-gown, sat down in front of the fire and thought over the events of the evening. One thing was certain, and that was that Stahlhaube and Brandon had declared war.
Of Brandon, the Onlooker had said remarkably little. I wondered why. Another thing which struck me as being extraordinary was the care which everybody connected with the case seemed to be taking with regard to Brandon's safety. Stahlhaube had evidently given orders that he was not to be killed, but sandbagged and carried off. Hop Fi had instructed Ling that he was not to be carried off, and the Onlooker had taken every care that he should make his escape.
I began to think that Brandon had something which several people wanted. Something, perhaps, which he carried in his head. My mind, roaming amongst the intricacies of the business, went back to Jaffray and his last words. What was the "Sour Milk"? Nothing more had been heard of this article or liquid—whatever it was. Yet in some way it seemed to constitute the principal item in the drama.... Sour Milk... it didn't sound particularly nice, anyhow.
I must have fallen asleep here, for the next thing I knew was the sound of the telephone. I took off the receiver and heard the Onlooker's voice.
"Good morning, sleepy head," said he, in high good humour. "I want you to do a job for me. Call around on Miss Varney, will you, and tell her that I might want her to take a journey down to Frimley today. She'd better stand by, and I'll telephone later. Got that? Right! And then come round here to lunch. I shall want you to-day."
I bathed and changed, and hurried round to Marion Varney. I found her in a pretty sitting-room, arranging flowers, and gave her the Onlooker's message. She thanked me for everything I had done for her, and I found myself blushing like a schoolboy.
"I haven't done anything at all," I protested. "And in any event I'd be only too glad to do anything for Harry or you...."
She looked up quickly. "I believe you would," she said smilingly. "You're very good at doing things, but not quite so good at talking about them or asking questions, are you?"
I realised at the back of my thick head that she was trying to help me out, that she knew perfectly well that I did want to ask her a question. I took my courage in both hands.
"I think that we're nearly at the end of this business," I said. "And if all goes well, and we do find Harry, then I'll summon up enough courage to ask my question." I held out my hand. "Until then... Au revoir."
She came with me to the door.
"Good-bye for the present," she said, with a smile, "and good luck. And, whatever happens, don't be afraid to ask your question!"
She pushed me over the threshold, and the door shut, which was a pity, as I felt that if it remained open I should have asked the question then and there.
AT the Onlooker's flat the afternoon dragged on wearily. There was something electric in the air, some premonition of dramatic happenings. Men came and went, telephone bells rang, and there was a general feeling of unrest. At fifteen minutes past four we left for Frimley. The side-pockets of Waddy, sitting beside the chauffeur, bulged ominously. Inside the car, Jevons, the Onlooker, and myself said little. The three of us were thinking hard.
Marion Varley, the Onlooker had informed us, had gone on ahead in another car, which had left earlier in the afternoon. I had the impression that he considered her presence necessary at Frimley because he thought it possible that today would find her and her brother reunited. Incidentally, there seemed a great deal of uncertainty in the air. Everything seemed to hang on Brandon's immediate movements. That he was down at Frimley everybody in authority seemed to take for granted.
Two hours after the start the car pulled up with a jerk by the side of a country road, and I saw that the Onlooker was deep in conversation with an individual who looked like a country yokel.
"Brandon took rooms at the Gat Inn a week ago," the man said. "He insisted on numbers 23 and 24, two adjoining rooms on the second floor. Somebody dropped him last night from an aluminium sporting car at the beginning of a path on the north side of the Abbey. The car chased off on the London road, and our man on that sector lost Brandon."
"How are things at the Elms?" asked the Onlooker.
"Everything's O.K. down there, chief," answered the man. "They're expecting you at any moment."
We moved off again, and a few minutes afterwards arrived outside a one-story cottage standing in a desolate location. The car stopped, and, we trooped into the cottage. The interior certainly belied the rusticity of the exterior. Two long tables were covered with papers and maps of every description, and there were two telephones, besides several other instruments. Three men were seated at the tables, at work, as we entered, one of whom rose and greeted the Onlooker.
"Well, Leaming, how's it going?" he asked. "But first, let me introduce Mr. Relph, who has been of great use to us. This is Chief Inspector Leaming, Relph."
We shook hands. Then the chief inspector pointed to the map on the table before us.
"There's the plan very nearly complete," he said. "By Jove, it's been nerve-racking work. The outer passages were easy enough, but we had the wind up about the inner works. The thing that gets me is why didn't Stahlhaube make use of the original passages instead of taking months of trouble building new ones? That's what I want to know."
"I think I know the answer to that, Leaming," replied the Onlooker. "Brandon had the original plan of the secret passages beneath the Abbey, and Stahlhaube doesn't know where they are, or at least he isn't sure of all of them. He certainly doesn't know about the one leading from the Gat Inn—the one that friend Brandon evidently intends to use. By the way, Where's the Chief?"
"In the next room," said Learning. "Come in and see him."
We followed him into the next room. On the threshold the Onlooker, with a ghost of a smile on his face, paused, and turned to Jevons and myself.
"Inspector," he said. "And you, too, Relph, I want you to meet the man who has done a great deal more than I have in this business. One of the cleverest detective officers at Scotland Yard."
We entered the room expectantly. Dusk was just falling, and Leaming was applying a match to an oil lamp which stood on the table. As the wick flamed the light illuminated the smiling face of a man who rose to meet us. Jevons's mouth was wide open in amazement, and an involuntary gasp was forced from my lips.
It was Jaffray! Alive!
JAFFRAY walked over to Jevons and put his hand on the astonished inspector's shoulder.
"Its me all right, Jevons," he said. "Believe me, I'm flesh and blood!"
He shook hands with me.
"Its fifteen minutes past six now," he said. "So we've got a good hour before we get on with the job, and I'll tell you about how I didn't die, and roughly what has been happening down here.
"I'll start back at the time when I saw you last, Relph, at Salvatori's shop, on the night of the Chinese music. I started for the door with Relph, but waited for him to get out first, as I was unarmed. As I neared the street door I turned and looked through the glass door of the back room just in time to see a pair of legs disappearing up the chimney. When I arrived the man, who was obviously making for the floor above, had disappeared. But he left something behind him—this."
Jaffray placed on the table a cut-glass bottle.
"That," said Jaffray, "is a bottle of 'Sour Milk,' the stuff that has caused all the trouble. Well, I picked up the bottle and without thinking pulled out the stopper and sniffed at it. The results were appalling. I felt as if someone was strangling me. The last thing I remember was trying to warn Relph against the stuff.
"My next experience was an amusing one. I found myself on a bed with a sheet over me, and my hands crossed on my chest. Suddenly, I realised that I was in Conway's flat, and that Conway, being divisional police surgeon, had probably come to the conclusion that I was dead, and had me moved to his flat. Then I had an idea. I would die! By Jove! I wish you could have seen Conway's face when I walked into his bedroom and told him my scheme! I then arranged my plan of campaign with Steel here. He was to handle the London end of the job, where he was unknown, and I came down to Frimley to check up Mr. Zweitt. We arranged to keep in touch daily.
"I arrived here and took lodgings at this cottage. I wanted to find out what Zweitt had been doing at Frimley. Apparently he had been seen on one or two occasions by the local police. Yet Brandon and Co. had no customers in this part of the country. Suddenly the steel-helmet warning that was left in Relph's room in Poland Street came into my head. This obviously wasn't Brandon. It was an independent warning intended to keep Relph out of the business. I came to the conclusion that it was from the same person who had put the fear of God into Zweitt and Salvatori. It didn't take long to find out that I was right. It was Stahlhaube. I spent nights wandering about this stretch of country with Mervyn, one of Steel's men, who was assisting me. Missal eventually put me on the right track. This gentleman, who I knew to be a member of the English section of the dope-distributing crowd in the old pre-war days, took to coming down here in his car almost daily. He stayed at the Gat Inn, and he always went to bed jolly early, with his door locked, just as I expect he and Brandon will go to bed early to-night. One night Missal went to bed at 9 o'clock, and I had a man watching the Gat Inn to see that he didn't leave it. Twenty minutes later I saw Missal walking across a field near the Abbey, and then I knew that there was some secret way out of room 23 at the Gat Inn leading to one of the old Abbey vaults.
"The next thing was Zweitt's overcoat, which Mervyn and I found in one of the old passages under the Abbey. I knew Zweitt was wearing his overcoat on the day that he disappeared. Zweitt's body had been sent back to Brandon's office minus the overcoat, which had apparently been taken off to facilitate the execution. Now I realised suddenly that this decapitation business is essentially a Chinese method of dealing with criminals, and I began to think of Zweitt in connection with Hop Fi and Co., who appeared to be getting busy, and about whom Steel had communicated with me.
"Of course, I knew all about the Harry Varney business, and it was fairly clear that whoever had killed Salvatori had done so between the time that Miss Varney left the shop and the time when Relph returned. Now I'll lay any odds that Zweitt was murdered that afternoon by Brandon in the Cannon Street offices, shortly after Relph had left. Brandon then left the note at Relph's rooms which purported to come from Zweitt asking him to go round to Salvatori's shop at nine o'clock. This was clever, as it made it appear that Zweitt was alive that evening, and turned the suspicion for the Salvatori murder on to him, whereas he had been dead some hours before Salvatori was killed!
"Salvatori's turn was next. Brandon knew that Zweitt and Salvatori had agreed to make a clean breast of things to Relph and ask his assistance. Under those circumstances Brandon had to get Salvatori quickly, before he could talk. Directly the coast was clear on that night Salvatori was killed either by Brandon or one of his gang, and the killer was in such a hurry that he left before the unfortunate Italian was actually dead. Next day Brandon or Missal, or some other members of the Brandon gang, packed up Zweitt's body and sent it down to Frimley, probably by car, leaving it in one of the outer vaults of the Abbey in a place where Stahlhaube must find it, as a polite intimation that they knew what his game was.
"And what was Stahlhaube's game? He had come over to England to get something from Brandon, or to get Brandon—which I don't know. He starts off with Salvatori and Zweitt, who he knows are distributing Brandon's drugs, and makes Salvatori water his stock with a special kind of Sour Milk drug which Stahlhaube is manufacturing with the help of Varney. This serves a double purpose. It kills Brandon's drug business, for the Sour Milk drug simply makes people ill, as it did me, and it also shows Brandon that someone is after him. Stahlhaube realises that Salvatori and Zweitt are between the devil and the deep sea. If they tell Brandon, Stahlhaube will get them. If Brandon finds out that they are double-crossing him, he will get them. That is why they wanted Relph's help.
"The next point of interest is the return of Zweitt's body to the Cannon Street offices, and the explanation of the slip of cardboard in the fingers of the corpse. Everything pointed to Hop Fi and Co., and, if this surmise was correct, what was their motive? Might it not be that Ling, or some other satellite of Hop Fi's, had cut off the head of Zweitt in the Frimley vault before its discovery by Stahlhaube, and after Stahlhaube had had time to see it and accept it as a warning, not from Brandon, but from the Chinese, that punishment was being meted out to the old firm of Moreatte and Co., the same hands which executed Zweitt sent back the body to Brandon as a polite reminder to him. This seems a correct idea, for it is only after this packing case reaches Brandon that he makes up his mind to close down at Cannon Street, and, after settling his account with Stahlhaube, clear out altogether."
Jaffray paused, and proceeded to fill his pipe. As he did so a plain-clothes man entered the room.
"Crown Inn on the wire, sir," said the man. "Brandon and Missal have just arrived."
Jaffray put down his pipe. "The last act, I think," he said.
TWENTY minutes afterwards our car, followed by another containing half a dozen plain-clothes men, pulled up in front of the Gat Inn. We had stopped en route at the Crown Inn for a few moments to speak with Marion Varney and Conway, who had accompanied her down to Frimley. Once in the Gat Inn we went quickly to room No. 23. Jaffray knocked at the door, but there was no reply, and it took three minutes' work on the part of Waddy and a crowbar to force the door.
The room was empty, and the reason obvious. One half of the massive fireplace had been swung back, leaving an opening—a five foot square of blackness in which we could discern the beginning of some stone steps. Jaffray, the Onlooker, Jevons, and myself entered, leaving the rest of our party behind. At the bottom of the stone staircase the light from Jaffray's torch showed us that we stood in a passage just over six feet in height, shored up by rotting timbers. A white tape ran along the earthen floor, evidently intended as a guide. We moved on.
After fifty yards the passage divided, the white tape leading off to the right. Presently we entered a small chamber or vault showing some traces of original stonework, and I guessed that we were now actually in the vaults beneath the ruined Frimley Abbey.
Suddenly the Onlooker gave a whistle of surprise. We turned and looked in the direction in which he was pointing. Behind us the opening through which we had entered the vault was closed—a thick wooden door of oak, coming from the sides or above, had cut off the passage. We were trapped!
"Say, Jaffray," said the Onlooker quietly, "I guess that tape was a smart bit of work. Some guy knew that we would follow it, an' look where it landed us! What are we going to do?"
Before Jaffray had time to speak, another voice answered him—a voice I knew quite well—Brandon's.
"What you are going to do, gentlemen, is a matter for you to decide for yourselves!"
The voice came from somewhere above us. Jaffray's light flashed round the walls and eventually stopped on Brandon's face, which, framed in a little opening a good twelve feet up in the opposite wall, grinned down on us.
"Let me explain the situation, gentlemen," he continued. "I have important affairs of state taking place tonight, a little settling of accounts with my old friend and quondam partner, von Eisen, otherwise and somewhat dramatically known as Stahlhaube. But the question at the moment is what I am going to do with you... by simply closing this trap through which I am speaking I cut off the air supply, and I should think that, in four hours, you will all be dead. This door, a contrivance of the old monks, descends from above, and no one knows how to get it up again. Quite an ideal trap... don't you think? However, should you wish to prolong your lives for an hour or so, you can do so, in which case I shall send a small assistant of mine down to you and you will hand all weapons over to him. You will then be pulled up through this trap, and you will, at least, have time to say your prayers—if you want to—before taking your departure from this life with my friend von Eisen, for whom I have arranged a little death party. Well what is it to be?"
The Onlooker spoke. "You win, Brandon," he said, "get on with the search party stunt."
A minute later a small youth of some foreign persuasion was let down through the opening, and searched us, taking all weapons from our party. This done he ascended the rope once more, and a wire ladder being let down from the opening we ascended one by one and were pulled through.
WE found ourselves in another of the earthen vaults with which the place seemed honeycombed. A dozen villainous-looking men were standing about grinning at our discomfiture, amongst whom I recognised the Englishman who had been one of the party to call on Brandon at the Cannon Street offices, and who appeared to be Brandon's second in command—Missal.
Our hands were tied securely behind us, and we were seated on a wooden bench which ran along the earthen wall. Brandon's eyes flashed over our dejected little party.
"Now, gentlemen," said he with fiendish relish, "let me explain to you the situation as it stands at the moment. As you have probably guessed, matters have come to a head between myself and my friend, von Eisen—this Steelhelmet whose brain works with such German precision that one can always be certain what he is going to do before he does it.
"Commencing some months ago with threatening and suborning my employees, and spoiling my drug stock, he knew well that eventually I should be forced to take measures for my own protection, and he took the precaution of having myself and known members of my organisation watched night and day. He also put these vaults into a peculiar state of defence, knowing that I should come here to demand my reckoning. We, ourselves, constructed certain new passages and entrances into these vaults, but this work was impossible without the knowledge of Stahlhaube, and, indeed, we rather liked him knowing about it. He had arranged that at a given signal certain galleries and passages which I had constructed should be destroyed—a very simple matter, with the assistance of a little T.N.T. This has been done, and Stahlhaube imagines that, our retreat having been cut off and the air inlets closed, we shall be forced by lack of air to take the main passage leading to the centre vault, where, weakened by lack off oxygen, we shall be easy prey for him and his men.
"But I have gone one better. My own arrangements are as follows: I am, for the moment, supplying these passages with oxygen which I have had brought in here, besides which I hold a trump card. Long before Stahlhaube arrived here I had discovered that the old pipe-lines used by the monks in the olden days for running the wines they manufactured in the different branches of the Abbey to the casks in the centre vault were still in existence and in very good condition.
"Now, gentlemen, observe the retribution of justice. This Stahlhaube discovered, through the work of a clever chemist, that certain chemicals mixed with my wonderful Sour Milk drug caused the drug to produce illness and sometimes death, instead of its usual blissful sleep; indeed, several unfortunate clients of mine met their deaths after taking the drug before this came to my knowledge.
"When I did discover it I collected all the spurious bottles of Soul Milk and saved them for this occasion. The poisoned Sour Milk is a liquid which is easily vaporised, and this vaporisation process is now taking place in the next vault, and when it is complete the vapour will be driven by compressed air through the old pipe-lines to the centre vault, where it will effectively gas my friend Stahlhaube and his colleagues. When, in twenty minutes' time, the gas has had time to take effect we shall enter the centre vault wearing gas-masks in order to protect ourselves from the poisonous fumes. I have no doubt that the sight will be an interesting one. When we arrive I shall arrange that your gas masks will be removed so that you may breathe a sufficient quantity of Stahlhaube's poisoned Soul Milk to ensure your own deaths. I shall then shake the dust of this country from my feet, and in some quiet South American Republic pass the remainder of my days considering your unpleasant and untimely end." He grinned maliciously. "Missal, see how the process is working," he added.
Missal nodded, and going to a basket which stood in the corner of the vault extracted a gas-helmet. He adjusted it carefully and disappeared. We sat silent until a few minutes later he re-appeared.
"It's a lovely sight, Brandon," he said, grinning. "It looks like the chamber of horrors. The gas worked more quietly than we thought. Stahlhaube and his crowd are all bunched up on the floor against the wall furthest from the pipe opening. What's the next move?"
"I think," said Brandon, "that we will now proceed to look after these gentlemen. See that their gas-masks are properly fitted, Missal."
Missal obeyed, and gas-masks were fastened over our heads as we sat on the bench. They were the improved type used by the German infantry in the war. The smell of the chemicals brought vivid recollections of the old days to my mind... I wished that I had finished then... decently.
Missal, his gas mask hanging round his neck, spoke to us. He had drawn an automatic pistol from his pocket.
"No nonsense from any of you," he said, "otherwise I shall present you with a few ounces of lead. Walk straight in front of you, and don't be too slow, either!"
We were pushed in the direction of the door. Behind us came Missal, his pistol in his hand, and after him Brandon and the rest. As we turned into the darkness of the passage I saw the Onlooker shrug his shoulders. It seemed a last gesture.
Now we were in complete darkness. The smell of the chemicals in the gas-mask was beastly, and added to my feelings of despair. At last, ahead of us, I saw a light which, as we approached, became the entrance to the centre vault. It was a fairly large opening, and was, I saw as we got nearer, opposite the small door which I had entered on the night when I surprised Stahlhaube's men.
Missal pushed me through the doorway, and, rubbing at the mica eyepieces of the gas mask, I saw a gruesome sight. Huddled up against the wall on the left-hand side of the fireplace was a group of about fifteen men. Some were stretched on the floor, others twisted into different grotesque positions. Seated on the table, which still stood in front of the fireplace, was Stahlhaube. His body was twisted over the table, and his head turned from us. The arm nearest us was lying rigid on the table, and the fist was clenched. Stahlhaube, I thought, had died game. I looked behind me.
Brandon stood, his legs apart, his hands clasped behind his back, nodding his heed slowly. I could imagine his blue eyes gleaming behind the gas-mask... imagine him gloating....
A great wave of hate swept over me—a wave of hatred for this inhuman fiend, who, through the days that had passed, had waited, patiently, laughing at us, plotting and scheming for this end. Salvatori's last words rang in my ears—"the end of de story...."
And this was the end of our story. To die in an earthen vault lit by a few dim lights, far away from the sky and the air. A picture of Marion flashed across my mind... the woman I loved, and who I should never see again. An intense desire to have a last fling at Brandon came to me. My hands were tied, but my feet were free. I think that Jaffray and the Onlooker were thinking the same thing, for, at this moment, they half turned. Then I saw the Onlooker, his head bent forward, looking fixedly towards Stahlhaube Then a funny thing happened. Stahlhaube's rigid body slowly relaxed. Then raised itself slowly.
Stahlhaube got to his feet! I thought I must be dreaming. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Brandon stiffen, whilst Missal was casually taking off his gas mask Then I realised. As Stahlhaube moved, I realised. Zweitt and Salvatori were not the only members of Brandon's gang who had been got at. Missal had sold Brandon to Stahlhaube!
I worked my hands free from the rope which bound them, and tore the gas-mask from my face. Missal, grinning was covering Brandon with the automatic... The huddled figures against the wall were getting to their feet....
Stahlhaube's deep voice broke the silence.
"My friend," he said, gutturally, "my friend, Brandon, there is an old proverb, 'Put not your trust in princes.' I will give you a better—'put not your trust in Missal.' The pumping apparatus did not work properly, hein? But it is too late, my Brandon. This is what you call the anti-climax." He shook with laughter.
The Onlooker, his gas mask off, looked at me and smiled. "Say, Relph," he said. "Ain't we having a time today?"
BRANDON stood swaying backwards and forwards like a man who is about to faint. Then, with a hand that shook, he removed his gas-mask. For a minute he stared at Missal and all the messages of hell flashed from his eyes. Stahlhaube, his usual phlegmatic smile on his face, lit a cigar, and sat back in his chair, regarding Brandon and Missal with obvious enjoyment.
Missal grinned back at Brandon, his face distorted in a grin.
"Well, you fool, what did you expect?" He said; "I play with the winning side. Did you think you had a chance? Did you think that we were all fools like Zweitt and Salvatori, who couldn't disguise the fact that they were double-crossing you? What's the good of staring like that. Staring won't help you. There's something coming to you all right..."
Suddenly, with an agility which belied his years, Brandon leapt at the sneering face which confronted him. Missal sidestepped and sent a smashing blow to Brandon's jaw. Brandon picked himself up and leaned, gasping, against the table. Stahlhaube appeared to be interested in the manner in which his cigar was burning.
"My Brandon," he said eventually, the cigar lit to his satisfaction, "I think that you are much too old to go in for these exercises. You are not so strong as on the day when you tried to brain me in the offices in Milan, are you, my friend? There is a chair beside you. Sit down and collect your wits, if you have any left!"
Brandon sank down into the chair. He was trembling in every limb, but his eyes still blazed fiercely.
"So!" said Stahlhaube, philosophically, "this, my Brandon, is the result of dishonesty. Honesty amongst people of our profession is even more essential than in commerce."
He flicked the ash from his cigar.
"You fool," he continued; "so you thought that you could delude me; you thought that you could put Stahlhaube out of the way and crawl to England with the formula which I risked my life to obtain."
"And which you stole," hissed Brandon.
"Exactly," said Stahlhaube. His huge face brightened for a moment with a smile.... "which I stole. Do not tell me, my friend, that you are going to give me a lecture on stealing. What brain it took to steal that Sour Milk formula! And then, when I had got it, you... you English pig-dog, you steal it from me. Pah! Did you think that Stahlhaube would not be revenged? I suppose in your little mind you thought that the war would make me forget... me, Stahlhaube.
"Whilst serving the Fatherland"—Stahlhaube very nearly clicked his heels from force of habit—"all the time I was thinking, plotting, how to get back my wonderful formula. There was a fortune in Sour Milk, a fortune for both of us. But no! You, pig, must have the lot and Stahlhaube is to be content with nothing, and put out of the way into the bargain. What good have you done for yourself? I have ruined you, for there is nothing more for you in England—or for me, either, for that matter. You with your mad brains, and your clumsy murders that bring about our ears all these fool police, who are so stupid that I mistook them for people of yours...."
He grunted with sheer disgust. Then he threw away his cigar butt with a sweeping gesture.
"Like that I sweep away the lot of you," he went on, "Stahlhaube has no mercy! And there is yet room for me in Germany—or in Russia, where extraditions are things which are laughed at. Listen!"
From the other side of the room—from the passage which led to Brandon's vault—came a shriek of agony.
"That is my people amusing themselves," said Stahlhaube. "Making a little sport for themselves with those fools of yours. Just as I shall make a little sport with you. For not one of your swine-dogs shall live, except this thing" (he indicated Missal), "this cheap traitor... who gets his life for selling you."
The Onlooker made a grimace. "Say," he murmured, "it looks as if we've jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire. This business is no joy-ride, Relph."
Stahlhaube turned to him.
"You are a fool," he said, "but you have courage. You can at least laugh," he stretched his immense chest. "I, Stahlhaube, am brave," he said, "and I admire people who have courage... therefore, you and your friends shall die quickly; that is the best I can do for you. You can deal with Brandon in heaven or hell, when you get there."
He rose to his feet.
"You—pig!" he said to Missal. "Go, tell those fools to make an end of their nonsense. There is work to be done tonight, and we have no time to waste."
He seated himself once again, and proceeded to peruse a newspaper which lay on the table. Brandon, gazing straight in front of him, said nothing, but I knew that behind the vacant countenance his brain, was working rapidly, plotting, scheming to find some way out of death.
Jaffray turned to me.
"I'm sorry I brought you into this, Relph," he said. "I didn't see that it could possibly end this way... With me it's different—part of the job."
"Don't be a fool, Jaffray," I said. "I'd have been frantically angry if you'd left me out of to-night's do. It's all in the game, you know."
Jaffray spoke to Stahlhaube.
"Von Eisen," he said. "I'd advise you to think for a bit before you start on your execution stunts. This is England, you know, and they don't stand for this sort of thing over here. Take my tip and make the best terms that you can."
"I am obliged to you," he said, "for your kindly thoughts, which are, apparently, not entirely unconnected with your own safety. But I do not make terms, especially when there are no terms to be made. Shall I play into your hands, my police officer friend? No! There is so much accounting to be done. There is the little matter of Stevens, for instance."
"So you killed Stevens," said Jaffray.
Stahlhaube looked surprised. "But, of course," he said. "What else was there to do? Do you think that I have nothing better to do than to nurse your damned policeman? He was too curious. He desired to know too much, and so he was dealt with, in exactly the same way as I shall deal with you. Did you think that it was Brandon who removed this fool? Pah! He has not the sense to remove anyone who really matters; only frightened babies like Zweitt and the Italian, who tried to buy their safety from me, and who had not the courage to go through with the job in an efficient manner. And all the while Stahlhaube was laughing! There were men working on the outskirts of the Abbey—digging, making passages so that Stahlhaube could see what they were at; men coming down and staying at the Gat Inn, so that Stahlhaube may know that Brandon, the great Brandon, is preparing for his day of reckoning, and then Stahlhaube is to walk into a trap and be gassed with the Sour Milk which he has himself poisoned! Thus thinks the great, the clever pig-dog Brandon.
"Of fools you are the greatest. There are no brains amongst you, and you are much better off dead., for then you will not be able to do any further harm to yourselves."
He got to his feet and stamped angrily about the floor. Then he walked over to the passage entrance.
"Missal!" he yelled. "What are you doing, fool. Come here at once!"
He returned to the fireplace.
"The night is passing, and I have much to do," he said, addressing us generally. "To you, gentlemen, I intend to give the freedom of these vaults. All the remaining exits save one are blocked and useless. When we leave, this one also will be closed. How long the air supply down here will last I do not know, but you will observe that at the moment it is already becoming heavy. You may amuse yourselves by running about the passages until such time as you can run no longer. I think that is not an unpleasant form of death, and I am sorry that I cannot remain with you and watch it taking effect. As for you, my Brandon, you may thank your gods that I am in a hurry, otherwise I should have thought out some more lengthy ending to your life. However..."
He went on talking, but I was not listening. From somewhere in the place came a sound... something I remembered. I felt a chilliness creeping up my spine. Stahlhaube must have heard it, too, for he stopped talking, and his eyes moved to Brandon, who was sitting bolt upright, listening. I looked at the Onlooker.
Jaffray, standing next to me, touched me with his knee.
"Don't you remember, Relph?" he whispered. "In Salvatori's shop... the Chinese music!"
Then I remembered, as Stahlhaube moved towards the doorway.
HE crossed the room with great strides.
"Missal!" he shouted. "Where are you, fool?"
No reply came from the darkness, but slowly the music became more distinct, and to our ears came the droning notes of some slow, soft tune, which held something ominous. Stahlhaube returned to the table, and stood with his back to it, staring at the blackness of the passage entrance.
Then, suddenly, he shrugged his shoulders.
"So!" he said. "This is the end! You remember that music, my Brandon. It is the music which marks the ending of their day. As it will mark the ending of ours."
He drew his cigarette-case from his pocket and lit a cigarette. For a moment I almost admired Stahlhaube.
The music stopped, and from the passage came the sound of the padding of footsteps passing along the earthen floor. Then, framed in the opening, stood a tall thin Chinaman. He was dressed in a long grey habit, something like a monk's gown, and round his neck was a piece of rope. He stood looking for a moment, and then turned and disappeared.
Stahlhaube smiled. "My surmise was correct," he said quietly and shrugged his shoulders once more.
Brandon's voice, hoarse with pent-up feeling, broke the silence.
"Why don't you do something?" he croaked. "Why don't you fight?"
"Silence, fool!" said Stahlhaube. "Will you tell me when to fight? There are some things which cannot be fought, and this is one of them. My fighting days are over!"
Footsteps approached once more, and through the passage doorway, with his characteristic waddle, dressed more extravagantly than I had yet seen him, his yellow jacket a bright splash of colour against the earthen walls, came Hop Fi. Behind him, four more figures in the grey gowns, and, behind them, framed in the doorway, a dozen yellow faces peered at us.
Two yards from Stahlhaube, Hop Fi stopped, and looked at the German. He was smiling, and, with his hands hidden in the voluminous sleeves of his jacket, he looked like some carved idol. His eyes travelled from Brandon to Stahlhaube and back again.
"And so it is written..." he said, softly.
Stahlhaube smiled and braced himself as a man braces for a plunge into icy water.
"Well, Tsuang Huang Tai," he said, in his deep voice, "The sun sets..."
"The sun sets," repeated Hop Pi, "and the bells ring in the Temple upon the Hill, and the brothers seek their cells. For so it was written... and also that they who walk towards the setting sun with treachery in their hearts shall return, and their half-brother, Death, shall walk behind them." He paused for a moment. "What say you, my brother?" he asked.
Stahlhaube lit another cigarette, and the hand that held the match was as steady as a rock.
"I say nothing," said he. "I have had my run. Stahlhaube does not excuse."
The man we knew as Hop Fi turned to Jaffray.
"Sir," he said, "I will explain to you as much of this business as it is meet that you should know. Justice walks in strange garbs, but it walks surely, and never tires. Years ago, to the monastery of the Setting Sun, which stands upon the hills in Tibet, came this man." (he indicated Brandon). "He proposed to our Master that his firm should sell to the world outside the liqueurs which the brothers made. We believed and trusted him, and we consented. Each year he, or this other man, came to the Monastery and rendered an account of their dealings.
"Many strange products are made in the Monastery—wines and strange liqueurs, drugs and scents. To whom they sold these things or whether the selling was for good or evil, we cared not.
"One brother had we whose cleverness has not been equalled by all the science of the world. This brother discovered a drug, a drug such as has never been known in the history of our time. We, not thinking of evil, told this Brandon, and from that day these two plotted and made their schemes to become possessed of our brother's formula, a secret which he guarded with his life, for to lose it meant death.
"Next year came this Stahlhaube, He stayed the night at a hut outside the monastery wall, and next morning, when the bells tolled, we found our brother dead upon the floor of his cell... dead by his own hand... for the formula had been stolen, and the man Stahlhaube was gone.
"Back to Milan he went, where with this Brandon he carried on his business. As thieves fall out, so did they fall out, and Brandon coveted the formula for himself. They could not move but our eyes saw them. They could not speak, but our ears heard them, for the sacred faith of China knows no country, and our people were everywhere. At last Brandon could wait no longer for the formula to be worked out and the spoils from our drug provided. One night, in Milan, he attacked this Stahlhaube and left him for dead, taking the formula and leaving for this country.
"Stahlhaube swore vengeance, and without his knowledge we gave him our help. Through the years we have set one against the other, helping each, hindering each, but with each help and hindrance bringing the day of justice nearer.
"Because you and your friends, in your own way and in your own place, stand for justice, we have helped you and have been glad to protect you against more dangers than you know.
"To-night is the end of the quest. To-night the blood of our dead brother shall cry out no longer. And the penance which has been upon us shall end. To-night the world shall be rid of these two, and their iniquities shall die with them.
"Go your ways in peace, for the air of this place is heavy, and there is much to be done."
Hop Fi, still smiling, stood waiting.
"I'm sorry, Hop Fi," he said. "But this business is entirely irregular, and can't happen. There are laws in this country, and if these people have broken them then there's a right way of doing things. I'm extremely obliged to you for your assistance, but we must take charge of these two."
Hop Fi still smiled.
"That, I am afraid, is impossible," he said. "I cannot, at the moment, discuss these things with you, but it is right that I should set your mind at ease."
He produced from his pocket a leathern wallet, which he handed to Jaffray.
The Onlooker looked over Jaffray's shoulder.
"That lets you out, Jaffray," he said. He turned to me and whispered... "diplomatic passports—clever old devil, Hop Fi. Get me?"
"Well, that's that," said Jaffray, "I'm finished."
Hop Fi motioned to us, and we prepared to depart, the Mandarin bowing gravely as we made out way across the floor to the passage, Here another Chinaman awaited us with an electric torch, and in silence—for we were all worn out with strain and fatigue—we stumbled along what seemed endless miles in the dark passages, until, in the distance, we saw, through a jagged hole in the wall, a light—the light of dawn.
"Gentlemen," said the Chinaman with the torch. "You will, in a moment, find yourselves outside the north wall of the Abbey. I beg of you, if you value your lives, not to cross the Abbey grounds, but to encircle it by the road, and so make your way back to Frimley. There you will find your friend, Mr. Varney, who was sent back earlier by my master's orders. He is in health. My salutations, gentlemen."
He disappeared into the blackness of the passage, and we saw his torch fade in the distance.
We climbed out of the hole, and, as he had stated, found ourselves outside the Abbey wall. The dawn was breaking and the first streak of sun cut the sky.
NO one thought to question the advice of Hop Fi's man, and we kept religiously to the road. We were all silent, and before my eyes was a picture, a mental picture of my last sight of Brandon and Stahlhaube, seen as I had crossed the vault on my way out. Brandon, his head sunk on his breast, sitting at the table, and Stahlhaube, his cigarette in his mouth, standing in front of the fireplace, bolt upright. Stahlhaube was game all right.
Twenty minutes later we entered Frimley High Street. The Onlooker, almost his old cheery self again, had already begun to whistle softly to himself. He linked his arm in mine.
"Say, Relph," he said. "I'm going back to the States soon. Sort of feel like a rest, you know. Want to come? I know a good job for a man like you. What do you say?"
"You bet, Onlooker," I said.
We were in sight of the Gat Inn, and the first sunshine was sparkling the windows when we stopped dead. The roar of an explosion shook the countryside. Back where Frimley Abbey had been there shot, almost to the sky, it seemed, a tongue of flame. Then the silence came again, to be broken by the opening of windows as a hundred heads looked out.
We stood looking back.
"Say, those Chinks are pretty thorough, ain't they?" said the Onlooker. "Blown the whole bag of tricks sky high. You'll have some job. Jaffray, sorting out the mess. Well, it's all in the day's work, and I'm for breakfast. I'm going to drink my own health in coffee, coupled with that of Hop Fi."
We walked on together, leaving the others still looking back. The sun was coming up rapidly, and, in some way, the explosion seemed to have cleared the air of all the trouble and danger that had so lately existed.
A great feeling of relief came over me, and, as the sunshine flooded the old cobbled street, I saw Marion Varney at the door of the Gat Inn, smiling, and I knew that my good turn to Henri Zweitt had not been in vain.
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