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THE story of the alleged disappearance of Evelyn Cross was too fantastic for credence. According to the available evidence, she melted into thin air shortly after four o'clock on a foggy afternoon in late October. One minute, she was visible in the flesh—a fashionable blonde, nineteen years of age and weighing about eight and a half stone.
The next minute, she was gone.
The scene of this incredible fade-out was an eighteenth-century mansion in Mayfair. The Square was formerly a residential area of fashion and dignity. It had escaped a doom of complete reconstruction, but some of the houses were divided up into high-class offices and flats.
This particular residence had been renamed "Pomerania House" by its owner, Major Pomeroy. He speculated in building property and had his estate office, as well as his private flat, on the premises.
The ex-officer might be described as a business gentleman. Besides being correctly documented—Winchester, Oxford and the essential clubs—he had not blotted his financial or moral credit. In appearance he conformed to military type, being erect, spare and well dressed, with a small dark tooth-brush moustache. His voice was brisk and his eyes keen. He walked with a nonchalant manner. He had two affectations—a monocle and a fresh flower daily in his buttonhole.
Shortly after four o'clock on the afternoon of Evelyn Cross' alleged disappearance, he was in the hall of Pomerania House, leaning against the door of his flat, when a large car stopped in the road outside. The porter recognized it as belonging to a prospective client who had called previously at the estate office to inquire about office accommodation. With the recollection of a generous tip, he hurried outside to open the door.
Before he could reach it, Raphael Cross had sprung out and was standing on the pavement. He was a striking figure, with the muscular development of a pugilist and a face expressive of a powerful personality. Its ruthless force—combined with very fair curling hair and ice-blue eyes—made him resemble a conception of some old Nordic god, although the comparison flattered him in view of his heavy chin and bull-neck.
He crashed an entrance into the hall, but his daughter, Evelyn, lingered to take a cigarette from her case. She was very young, with a streamlined figure, shoulder-length blonde hair and a round small-featured face. With a total lack of convention she chatted freely to the porter as he struck a match to light her cigarette.
"Confidentiality, we shouldn't have brought our dumb-bell of a chauffeur over from the States. He's put us on the spot with a traffic cop."
"Can't get used to our rule of the road," suggested the porter who instinctively sided with Labour.
"It is a cockeyed rule to keep to the left," admitted Evelyn. "We took a terrible bump in one jam. I'm sure I heard our number plate rattle. You might inspect the damage."
To humour her, the porter strolled to the rear of the car and made a pretence of examining the casualty before he beckoned the chauffeur to the rescue. When he returned to the hall, the major had already met his visitors and was escorting them up the stairs.
The porter gazed speculatively after them, watching the drifting smoke of the girl's cigarette and the silver-gold blur of her hair in the dusk. The skirt of her tight black suit was unusually short so that he had an unrestricted view of her shapely legs and of perilously high-heeled shoes.
As he stood there, he was joined by an attractive young lady with ginger hair and a discriminating eye. Her official title was "Miss Simpson," but she was generally known in the building by her adopted name of "Marlene." She was nominally private secretary to a company promoter who had his office on the second floor; but as the post was a sinecure she spent much of her time in the ladies' cloakroom on the ground floor, improving her appearance for conquest.
"Admiring the golden calf?" she asked, appraising the quality of the silken legs herself before they disappeared around the bend of the staircase.
"She's got nothing on you there, Marlene," declared the porter.
He had a daughter who was a student at a commercial school and was biased in favour of typists.
"Except her stockings, Daddy. Where's the boss taking them?"
"I was asking myself that. The gent's a party after an office. There's only a small let vacant, right at the top and that's not in his class."
"Maybe the girl's going to Goya to get her fortune told," suggested the ornamental typist, tapping her teeth to suppress a yawn.
For nearly ten minutes she lingered at the foot of the stairs, chatting to the porter and on the outlook to intercept any drifting male. The place, however, was practically deserted, so presently she mounted the flight on her way back to her office. She paused when she reached the landing of the first floor, where there were three mahogany doors in line, each embellished with a chromium numeral.
Just outside the middle door—No. 16—the major stood talking to Raphael Cross. Impressed by the striking appearance of the fair stranger, she patted the wave of her ginger hair and lingered in the hope of making a fresh contact.
Consequently she became a witness to the beginning of the amazing drama which was later entered in Alan Foam's case book as "Disappearance of Evelyn Cross."
Although she was friendly with the major, on this occasion he was neither responsive nor helpful. He merely returned her smile mechanically. Only a keen observer might have noticed a flicker of satisfaction in his hawk-like eye, as though he had been expecting her.
Then he started the show, like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, by pulling out his watch.
"Your daughter's keeping you a dickens of a time," he remarked to Cross. "I thought she said she'd be only a minute. You're a patient man."
"Used to it." Cross grimaced in continental fashion. "I'll give her a ring."
He prodded the electric bell of No. 16 with a powerful forefinger. After a short interval it was opened by the tenant of the apartment—Madame Goya.
She was stout, shortish and middle-aged. Her blued-white permanently waved hair did not harmonize with an incongruous dusky make-up and orange lipstick. Her eyes were dark, treacly and protruding, in spite of being set in deep pouches. She wore an expensive black gown which flattered her figure and a beautiful emerald ring.
"Will you tell my daughter I'm ready to go,' said Cross.
"Pardon?" asked the woman aggressively. "Your daughter?"
When Cross amplified his request, she shook her head.
"Miss Cross was here only to make an appointment. She left some time ago."
"Left?" echoed Cross. "Which way?"
"Through this door, of course."
He stared at her as though bewildered.
"But the major and I have been standing outside," he said, "and I'll swear she never came out."
"Definitely not," agreed Major Pomeroy. "Are you sure she's not still inside, madame?"
"If you don't believe me, come in and see for yourself," invited Madame Goya.
Throbbing with curiosity, the ornamental typist crept to the closed door of No. 16, after the men had gone inside. She heard voices raised in angry excitement and the sound of furniture being bumped about. Presently the major came out alone. His face wore a dazed expression as he took hold of her elbow.
"You've just come upstairs. Beautiful, haven't you?" he asked. "I suppose you did not notice a blonde in black coming down?"
"No," she replied. "I didn't meet a pink elephant either. It's not my day for seeing things. What's all the blinking mystery?"
"Hanged if I know," said the major helplessly. "Boss out, isn't he? Be a good girl and nip round to every office and flat in the place. Ask if anyone's seen her. They haven't. I know that. But I've got to satisfy her father."
The ornamental typist made no objection to being useful, for a change. She spun out her inquiries to a series of social calls throughout Pomerania House. True to the major's forecast, no one had seen a loose blonde, so presently she returned to the first floor.
Raphael Cross, the fair stranger who had attracted her fancy, had come out of No. 16 and was pacing the landing as though on the verge of distraction. Her first glance at him told her that it was no time for overtures. His features were locked in rigid lines and his eyes looked both fierce and baffled. He glared after the figure of the porter as the man returned to his station in the hall. The major spoke to him in a low voice.
"You heard what the fellow said. I've known him for years before I employed him. He's definitely reliable."
"The hell he is," growled Cross. "Someone's lying. Where's my girl?"
"Oh, we'll find her. I admit it's an extraordinary affair. Almost uncanny. I'm at a loss to account for it, myself. But you may be sure there's some simple explanation."
"I know that. This is a put-up job. There's someone behind all of this. It's an infernal conspiracy."
Major Pomeroy stiffened perceptibly, while the sympathy died from his eyes.
"Who do you suspect?' he asked coldly.
"I'll tell you when I've got my girl back. I don't leave this ruddy place without her. Order that porter to see to it that no one goes out of this building until there's been a systematic search through."
"Certainly... Shall I ring up the police?"
The question checked Cross' hysteria like a snowball thrown in his face. He hesitated and gnawed his lip for some seconds before he made his decision.
"No, Pomeroy." His voice was low. "This may be kidnapping. If it is, the police are best kept out."
The major's hostility melted instantly.
"I understand," he said in a feeling voice. "Come down to my office and I'll ring up a reliable private detective agency."
Halfway down the stairs, he returned to caution Marlene.
"Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut—there's a good girl."
"Cross my heart."
Within two minutes after the men had entered the major's office, she was telling the whole story to the tenant of the flatlet, No, 15. This lady—according to her visiting card inserted in the slot of the door—was named "Viola Green," while her occupation was supposed to be that of a mannequin.
She limped out onto the landing, her hands in her pockets and a cigarette between her lips; yet, in spite of her pose of nonchalance, there was no hint of stereotyped boredom in her face. Her expression in its vivid expectancy was a challenge to the future, as though she claimed the maximum from life and refused to admit to compromise.
She was distinctly attractive, although both face and figure were somewhat too thin. Her short black hair had bright brown gleams and her eyes were hazel-green. She wore black slacks, a purple-blue pullover and rubbed silver sandals.
Although the majority of males in Pomerania House were on friendly terms with Marlene Simpson, the women avoided speaking to her. Viola Green was the exception. She was not only unhampered by snobbery or moral criticism, but she was responsive to a psychic bond between them.
Both girls were held in allegiance to the lure of the profession. Viola had studied at an academy of dramatic art, while Marlene had toured the provinces as a glamour girl in a cheap revue. Total lack of success had forced them into uncongenial jobs, but their thwarted instincts drew them together to discuss the stars of stage and screen with passionate interest.
On this occasion, Viola only wanted to hear the scenario of the drama on the first-floor landing.
"So what?" she asked, with an economy of language familiar to Marlene.
She listened to the story with wide-eyed open-mouthed interest, but at its end she made the requisite ribald comment.
"Well, I've heard of people wanting to reduce quickly, but that's overdoing it... Was she kidnapped?"
"That's what it looks like to me," replied the ornamental typist. "I saw her go up and I was mucking about in the hall all the time afterwards. But she never came down, unless she's the Invisible Man."
"What's your guess?" asked Viola.
"I believe Goya stunned and gagged her. She'd about ten minutes to play with. Then she hid her in a cubby-hole behind the panelling. There might be one behind the mirror or at the back of the clothes closet. But the blonde's father swears he won't go until she is found, so he'll soon scoop her out... Oh boy, you should see father—hundred per cent Aryan and like an earthquake. He's got that look in his eye that tells you he knows all the answers."
Viola, who was growing bored, distracted her attention.
"Your telephone's been ringing for ages," she said.
"Yes, I heard it," commented Marlene. "Sounds quite profane. I seem to recognize my master's voice. Perhaps I'd better listen to his little trouble. See you later. Bye-bye."
She mounted the stairs in a leisurely fashion while Viola stood and gazed down into the hall. About this time, when dusk blurred its modern improvements, the old mansion had power to fascinate her. She did not recall the patched and powdered ghosts of Berkeley Square but only the lately receded tide of the last century, as she thought of the families who had lived private lives within those walls.
In those spacious days, the offices had been double drawing rooms where parties were held. Girls in white tulle frocks had sat on the stairs and flirted with their partners behind feather fans. Children had peeped down enviously from between the banisters.
But now the clocks were stopped and the music stilled. Sighing at the thought, she limped across to the tall windows at the end of the landing. Outside, the Square Garden was spectral with misted shadows and tremulous with tattered leaves shaking from the plane trees. In the distance a sports car hooted through the darkness.
It was driven by Alan Foam, who was on his way to investigate the alleged disappearance of Evelyn Cross.
Viola was still gripped by the story, although her common sense rejected it as nonsense. At that time she was yearning after her old gods and suffering from histrionic starvation. Unable to resist the chance of dramatizing herself, she stretched out her hands and groped in the air. "Lost girl," she whispered. "Where are you?"
As she waited, the lights were turned on throughout the building. She heard the faint tapping of typewriters and the distant ringing of telephone bells. The atmosphere of Pomerania House was entirely normal—commercial and financial.
There was no warning wave from the future to tell her that this was a prelude to a moment charged with horror, when she would cry out in anguish to someone who was not there and get no answer from the empty air.
WHEN Alan Foam was asked why he had become a private detective he explained that he liked solving riddles and wanted an occupation which would take him out-of-doors. His original ambition had been the secret service, but circumstances forced him to accept his father's compromise of a share in the firm of Girdlestone & Gribble.
On the whole he was disappointed with the work. Instead of adventures, his main activities were protecting people from blackmail and aiding them to procure divorce. In the course of a few years he became tough and cynical, with no illusions as to the fragrance of hotel bedrooms and with a conviction that the human species had evolved the most deadly type of blood-sucking parasite.
At times when his mind rebelled against its storage of gross details, he considered the antidote suggested by his mother.
"Why don't you marry, Alan?"
"Waiting for the right girl," he told her. 'I've checked too many hotel registers."
"Well, hurry up and find her." She added inconsequently, "You used to be such a dear little boy." There were times, however, when he was keenly interested in his work, especially when his enterprise had been recognized by his superiors. It was after one of these rare occasions that he leaped to the telephone and tried to disentangle the statement from Major Pomeroy's secretary.
It appeared so unlike the routine case of disappearance that he was afraid it was too good to be true.
"You say she's gone—but she never left the building?" he queried.
"Well, it sounded like that when they were both shouting at me," replied the girl doubtfully. "But it doesn't make sense. I suppose I got it wrong."
"Never mind. I'm on my way."
As Foam scorched through the dun shadows of the Square, he was struck by its derelict appearance. It seemed darkened by a pall of antiquity and decay. The old houses might have been barnacled hulks of vessels stranded in a dry-dock by the receded tide of fashion.
When he approached Pomerania House, it suddenly glowed with lighted windows. A large and powerful car was parked outside, while the porter stood on the pavement, fraternally scanning the stop press in the chauffeur's paper.
Following his custom, Foam looked keenly at both men. The chauffeur was a clumsy Hercules, showing a section of standardized glum face below his goggles. The porter appealed more to Foam as a type of labour. He was elderly, with a square, sensible face and steady blue eyes.
He did not return Foam's approval, for he looked at him sourly. The detective understood the reason for his instinctive antipathy. He knew that he was regarded as a by-product of the police force and consequently to be avoided like a mild form of plague.
The porter stiffened as he spoke to the chauffeur in his official voice.
"Your guv'nor says not to wait for him. He may be kept here till midnight."
"Am I to come back and fetch Miss Evelyn?" asked the chauffeur.
His voice was tinctured with curiosity, but the porter was not to be drawn.
"I've given you the message," he said. After the car had driven on, he spoke to Foam. "From the agency? You're expected. This way." Foam followed him through the lobby and into the hall of Pomerania House. As he looked around him he had partly the sensation of being in a museum. Its proportions were fine, although some of its space had been encroached on by offices. Most of the panelling on the walls had been preserved and also a large oval portrait in a tarnished gilt frame, which hung over the original carved mantelpiece. This was a painting of a former owner of the house by Sir Joshua Reynolds and depicted a Georgian buck with full ripe cheeks and a powdered wig.
The old crystal chandelier—long disused—was still suspended from the ceiling. The statue of a nymph, posed on a pedestal, gazed reproachfully at all who used the telephone booth, as though it were the bathing hut where she had left her clothes and to which they denied her re-entry.
He with these relics of the eighteenth century, the flagged marble floor, as well as the shallow treads of the curving mahogany staircase, was covered with the thick rubber flooring of commerce. The radiators were not concealed and the panel lighting was modern, to correspond with the low painted doors leading to the reconstructed portions. The porter jerked his thumb towards the staircase.
"Up there," he said. "First floor. I can't take you up. My orders are not to leave this door."
"No lift?" asked Foam.
"No. The boss did as little conversion as possible... One never knows."
Foam nodded to show he understood the threat—the shadowy pick of the house breaker swinging over the old mansion. He hurried across the hall and ran up the stairs, covering three steps in each stride.
Three persons—two men and a stout woman—stood on the first landing, while a ginger-haired girl loitered on the flight of stairs leading up to the next floor. Foam recognized Major Pomeroy, whom he knew by sight, but in any case it would have been easy to pick out the father of the missing girl. Cross was plainly gripped by violent emotion, for his large hands were clenched and his jaws set in an effort to control his facial muscles.
The major came forward to meet him and introduce him to his client; but Foam cut out the preliminaries. Ignoring the others, he telescoped the incoherent explanations he had received over the telephone into a concise statement as he spoke to Cross.
"Your daughter has disappeared and there is no time to lose. Give me the facts."
Braced by the curt voice, Cross recovered his self-control.
"We came here together just about four," he said. "My daughter went into that room." He nodded towards No. 16. "She never came out."
"Then she must be inside still," said Foam.
"No. She has disappeared."
Foam stared at him, wondering whether he were knave or fool. He might be the instigator of some cunning trick—as yet unidentified—or himself the victim of a confidence trick.
"Who is the tenant of No, 16?" he asked.
"I am," declared the stout woman, surging forward. "I am Goya. Madame came to see me about placing an order for hand-made gloves."
Although he was repulsed by her huge painted frog-mouth, her meretricious appearance, Foam spoke pleasantly.
"Let me have your story, please."
"It's a pleasure," said Goya grandly. "Madame stood just inside the door. I looked up and asked, 'Appointment?' You must understand my time is too valuable to waste on chance callers. She shook her head, so I said, 'Kindly write for one. Good afternoon.' She left at once. In fact, she was in and out again without opening and shutting the door a second time."
Foam turned to Cross.
"While you were waiting, I suppose you and the major were talking? Can you remember what it was about?"
Cross looked blankly at the major who answered for him. "We started by discussing business—I was trying to interest Mr. Cross in some office accommodation, but he was unable to make an immediate decision. So we began to argue about Danzig."
"Then I suggest that you were too engrossed to notice when your daughter slipped past you—especially as you were not expecting her to come out so soon."
"No, it's a pack of lies," declared Cross. "The major and I stood here, facing the door. It was shut. We can both of us swear she never came out."
"I'm afraid it's not so simple as that," agreed the major. "The porter was in the hall and he states positively that she never came downstairs or left the building. One of the typists was there with him—and her story is the same as his... Miss Simpson. Would you mind coming down for a minute?"
The ginger-haired girl came down the stairs with the assurance of an ex-"Lovely". Rolling her eyes at Cross, she smiled at Foam.
"The major's got one of his facts wrong," she said. "I'm a private secretary—not a typist. But I'll sign on the dotted line for the rest."
"That brings us back to No. 16," admitted Foam. "Is there any other way out of it? No door of communication between it and one of the adjoining rooms?"
"Definitely not," declared the major.
Foam glanced at the doors to the right and left of No. 16. "Who rent these?" he asked.
"Two girls on their own," replied Major Pomeroy. "Miss Power is in No. 57 and Miss Green in No. 15. Neither of them saw Miss Cross. We have also inquired at all the flats and offices in the building. Every effort has been made to find her."
Foam continued to gaze reflectively at the doors. "I suppose you have the customary references with your tenants?" he asked, as he considered the dubious personality of Madame Goya.
"I do not," replied the major. "To my mind, that rule penalizes strangers. I prefer a gentleman's agreement. I can trust to my judgment to size up anyone. Besides an unsatisfactory tenant gets spot-notice."
He laughed as he added, "I've discovered that references are not infallible. For instance, I don't know a thing about Miss Power except that she is a student. But she's an ideal tenant—quiet and regular with her payments. On the other hand, Miss Green is a bishop's granddaughter and she's a little scamp."
"Quite. I'll have a look at No. 16. But I want a word with the porter first."
Feeling a need to clarify the situation, Foam hurried downstairs. He was not satisfied by what he had already heard. Although three persons had given him the same facts, he could not ignore the factor of mass suggestion. But he instinctively trusted the porter, who reminded him of a gardener he had known in boyhood.
When he reached the hall, the man was at his post, watching the door.
"What's your name?' asked Foam.
"Higgins," replied the porter.
"Well, Higgins, can you be sure that it was Mr. Cross' daughter that you saw go upstairs? The lights were not turned on."
"I saw her face when I lit her fag," replied the porter positively. "She came here once before with her father, so I knew her by sight."
"Did you actually see her go into No. 16?"
"No. You can't see the landing from the hall because of the bend of the stairs. But I saw the three of them go up, and so did Marlene Simpson."
"Is there a back entrance to Pomerania House?"
"Yes, the door's over there. But she'd have to come down the stairs and cross the hall to reach it—and she didn't. It's a blinking mystery to me."
Foam was on the point of turning away when he asked another question on impulse.
"Higgins, you see a good many people. In confidence, can you place Mr. Cross?"
"I'd say he was a gentleman," replied the porter. "Not Haw-haw, like the boss, but a bit colonial."
"And Miss Cross?"
"Ah, there you have me. I know a lady and I know a tart; but when they try to behave like each other, I get flummoxed."
"You mean—Miss Cross was lively?"
"Thanks, Higgins. That's all."
Foam was on the point of going upstairs when he stopped to peep through the open door of an office which had Major Pomeroy's name painted on the frosted glass panels. A little girl with a pale, intelligent face and large horn-rimmed glasses stopped typing and looked up at him expectantly.
"I'm from the agency," he explained. "Do you happen to know Mr. Cross' private telephone number?"
He blessed her for her instant grasp of his meaning.
"That's been attended to," she said. "The major told me to ring up the apartment hotel where Mr. Cross is staying before I got on to you. They had no news of her, but the major said it was too soon."
"Nice work," approved Foam. "Keep ringing the number."
Running upstairs to the landing where Cross and the major were still waiting, he opened the door of No. 16.
It was a typical example of the architecture of its period—large and lofty, with an ornate ceiling and cornice decorated with plaster mouldings of birds, flowers and fruit. The walls were panelled with cream-painted-wood, much of which was hidden by fixtures—a cupboard wardrobe, a tall erection of book shelves and a full-length mirror in a tarnished gilt frame. A huge oil painting of a classical subject—a goddess supported by super-clouds and surrounded by a covey of cupids—took up much space.
It was furnished in modern style, with a conventional suite of a divan and two large easy chairs which might have come from any window of a furnishing store. The colouring of the upholstery was neutral and toned with the buff Axminster carpet. Madame Goya's personal taste was indicated by cushions of scarlet and peacock blue and by a couple of sheepskin rugs dyed in distinctive tints of jade and orange. The open grate had also been modernised with built-in tiles and an electric fire.
Such was No. 16—the room in which, according to the inference of the evidence, a girl had faded into air.
FOAM did not need the aid of Euclid to reject the vanishing theory as absurd. If the girl were actually lost inside Pomerania House, it stood to reason that she must be still there—in the flesh. It seemed to him that the mystery admitted one of two explanations.
The first was that Evelyn Cross had slipped away voluntarily out of the house. Unfortunately, the chances of this were remote, since it involved choosing the identical blind moment of four witnesses, all endowed with normal senses.
The second was that she had been kidnapped—in which case Goya must be the agent. This, too, was not a watertight theory. Apart from the necessity of co-operation with another person—or persons—in Pomerania House, Goya would have to devise as ingenious and foolproof hiding place for her victim, in view of the inevitable search of her premises.
Foam considered that such a crime would be highly hazardous, but he had no choice in the matter he had either to find the girl—dead or alive—or to disprove her father's suspicions. Cross was in no mental state to wait patiently for proof that Evelyn had merely slipped away. Besides, delay was dangerous because, in the worst case, the girl would be gagged and trussed-up in a restricted space, with a shortage of air.
At the far end of her room, Madame Goya sat at a small table near the radiator, stitching gloves. An adjustable lamp threw a cone of light upon her work, but left her face in shadow. Behind her were closely drawn window curtains of lined brown velvet.
Foam looked around for the evidence of a bed other than the inadequate divan, before he asked a question.
"Do you sleep here, madame?"
"I?" repeated the lady incredulously. "What a grim idea. I have a flat in St. John's Wood—This is merely a lock-up place of business."
It did not suggest a workshop to Foam's suspicious eye. It was so tidy and free from snippets or threads that he suspected the glove-making to be a blind to some dingier profession. At the same time he remembered the major's statement about objectionable tenants, so concluded that the line could not be too obvious.
He turned to the major.
"You searched the room thoroughly, of course?" he asked, "What about the window?"
"It was closed and the shutters bolted," replied Major Pomeroy. "This room is nearly hermetically sealed—Madame prefers to work by artificial light."
Foam's nose confirmed the statement. The temperature was that of a forcing frame, while the air smelt of burnt pastilles, rotten apples and fog. He glanced at the open door of the cupboard wardrobe which revealed a fur coat on a stretcher, and then crossed to the long mirror.
"Sure there is no door hidden behind this?" he asked as he tried to shake the frame.
"Look for yourself," invited the major. "The rawl-plugs are fixed as tight as a vice and there are no signs of tampering. You can take it from me that I've examined and tested every fixture personally."
"Not enough," declared Foam. "They must all come down."
He was surprised by the relief in Cross' eyes.
"I'll say this for you. Major," he said. "You know how to pick them. This young man seems to understand." Holding Foam's arm in a powerful clutch, as though to enforce his sympathy, he went on speaking. "You understand, don't you? I'm a stranger over here in a strange city and my daughter disappears in a strange house; not a friend near. No one I can trust or count on. It's like banging at a locked door. I can't get in."
"Everything is being done," said the major in a soothing voice, "I've rung up my builder and asked him to come over. He should be here soon."
"Soon?" repeated Cross with savage scorn. "Stop spoon-feeding me with dill water. While we're wasting time, what's happening to her? It's easy for you to be calm, but it's my girl that's gone. I'll break up the place if I have to do it myself."
As he spoke he gripped the mirror and tried to tear it from the wall.
In spite of his acquired crust and his ingrained suspicion of emotion, Foam felt a certain sympathy with his client. He had recently lost a favourite dog while he was exercising it in one of the parks. He soon regained it since his profession gave him a pull in dealing with dog thieves; but he still remembered the sharp thud of his heart when no cocker spaniel answered to his whistle and the horrible emptiness of the expanse of grass.
In order to give Cross time to recover, he turned to Major Pomeroy. "Who is this builder you've sent for?" he asked.
"He's the man who does all my conversion work," explained the major. "He's only in a small way of business, but he's honest and capable. His name's Morgan. To save time"—he stressed the words for Cross' benefit—"I told him to bring along a couple of men with picks, just in case it may be necessary."
"Good. I'll see if he's come."
Glad of an excuse to leave the torrid room, Foam went outside onto the landing and looked down into the hall. As he waited, he took note of his surroundings. The upper portion of the mansion had been redecorated recently, for the rough parchment-tinted paper was clean; but there were a number of scratches on the enamel paint of the staircase wall, evidently caused by the arrival and removal of furniture.
The damage seemed to point to the conclusion that, in spite of his system, the major's tenancies were short-lived. He was beginning to wonder the cause when the major gave him a practical proof of his consideration. He came out of No. 16 and stood beside Foam.
"It's fair to put you wise," he said in a rapid whisper. "I can't vouch for Cross. I know nothing about him. Better watch your interests and ask for a cheque in advance."
Foam broke off as Cross appeared. Biting on a cigarette and blowing it up into continuous smoke he began to tramp the landing as though unable to keep still. As he passed No. 15, the door was opened and a dark girl, wearing slacks, limped outside.
With her arrival, a new element entered into Foam's life. He was one of those men who invest the past with glamour and whose boyhood was his happiest memory. Although he still lived in the same house—and liked it very much—it had shrunk and changed for the worse. The meals were not so good as they used to be. His parents had aged regrettably. The rest of the family had grown into uncongenial adults with families of their own. And the weather—which used to be perpetual summer—had gone to blazes.
Among the friends of his boyhood was the gardener who had borne a resemblance to the porter of Pomerania House; but his most treasured recollection was of a black-haired schoolgirl who had spent one holiday at the house next door. She was from the country and she introduced him to new adventures of her own invention.
He never forgot that enchanted summer or the girl who taught him to play. He never saw her again, but the instant he caught sight of the tenant of No. 15, he felt a rush of welcome as though he were recapturing the companion of his youth. Even while he knew that the lady in trousers must be Miss Green and "a little scamp," according to the major's description, he fell under the old spell.
She was certainly not shy, for she challenged attention by making an entrance as though she were on the stage. Her gaze flashed over the men like the sweep of a searchlight. Foam thought he had never seen so arresting a face as her eyes met his as though in unconscious greeting. Even when she spoke to Raphael Cross in a voice which was trained in elocution, he acquitted her of any charge of boldness. He felt instinctively that she was snatching a rare opportunity to test her personality and to hold the attention of an audience. "Have you found your daughter yet?" she asked.
Cross shook his head without speaking. As the girl looked compassionately at him, Foam felt absurdly jealous of the fine build and fair curly hair of his client.
"Of course not," the girl told him. "You've set about it entirely the wrong way. Why didn't you tell that young man"—her glance indicated Foam—"that you've lost an exclusive model gown? Leave out all mention of the girl who was wearing it. She'll only weaken the case... don't you realize that no one cares about the human element? All the laws are framed to protect property."
"Isn't that rather sweeping?" asked Major Pomeroy.
"I call it an understatement," declared the girl. "The law imprisons for theft but they only fine for cruelty. If I murdered you, the press would make me into a public heroine. I should be called a beautiful young brunette. But if I pinched a stamp off you, I should be put into quod and the papers would describe me as a young person. That's because stamps are property—and property is sacred."
"But why pick on me?" asked the major indulgently. "Oh, by the way, this is Mr. Foam. He will probably want to interview you about—"
He bit off the end of his sentence—in deference to Cross' feelings—and mentioned the girl's name.
"This is Miss Green, the tenant of No. 15."
"Viola Green," supplemented the girl. "I'm called 'Greeny' on the set. Nice cool little name, does it make you think of tender young lettuce?"
"No." said Foam. "Unripe apples."
He was determined not to be biased by Viola's attraction. In order to escape, he turned to the major with a suggestion: "While we are waiting for the builder, suppose I have a few words with Miss Power? Merely routine."
"You'll find her at home," said Viola, who seemed uncrushable. "Power's a lady. She peeks behind curtains while I run out into the street to see the accident. And she's incredibly rich. She has all the proper pots and pans. I know, for I borrow them."
When Miss Power opened the door of No. 17 in response to the major's ring, Foam summed her up in his first glance.
She was about twenty-seven—probably younger—with short blunt features and a set expression which suggested strength of character. She was not perceptibly powdered and used no lipstick. Her thick fair hair was brushed back and worn in a small knot at her neck. She wore a tailor-built suit of blue-and-green speckled tweed—the skirt of which was calf length and revealed sports stockings and stout brogues.
"Will you come in?" she asked formally, after the major had explained Foam's standing.
As he looked round him, Foam noticed that the room was smaller than Madame Goya's and bore signs of being a living-place. It had evidently been converted into a flatlet by the expedient of chopping off a strip at one end, for part of it was concealed by a cream-painted wooden partition.
There was the same standardized suite and buff Axminster carpet as in Goya's apartment, with the addition of a cheap wardrobe and an oak bureau. The central table was piled with books and papers, besides a portable typewriter and two framed photographs. One was a cabinet portrait of a clergyman—the other a hockey team of schoolgirls, wearing tunics and long black stockings.
The faces were too small for recognition at that distance, but Foam was certain that Miss Power was among the players—probably as captain. Miss Power apologized for the disorder.
"Rather a mess—but I'm studying at high pressure for an advanced exam. I've been working here all day. I've already told Major Pomeroy that I've seen no strange girl. No one, in fact."
"Did you hear her voice?" asked Foam.
"Are these walls thick?"
Miss Power glanced interrogatively at the major, who answered the question.
"As a matter of fact, the dividing wall between No. 16 and No. 17 is merely lath and plaster. The original wall was removed during the conversion. I had to take in some of Madame Goya's apartment to make the flatlet."
"Rather a risk of disturbance in the case of a noisy tenant," commented Foam.
"I hear nothing of the next-door tenant," remarked Miss Power coldly.
Foam realized that it was characteristic of her type to profess ignorance of her neighbour's name, although she must see it daily on Goya's door. He also concluded that the glove maker's mysterious occupation was discreet, for Miss Power would not hesitate to lodge complaints.
"Does the second door lead to your bedroom?" he asked, glancing at the partition.
"No," replied Miss Power, "I sleep here on the divan. Kitchen, bath and the rest are down that end. Slum conditions—but one has to pay for an address... You can look inside."
Foam inspected the premises alone, for the major took the opportunity to go outside. There was the anticipated clutter of cramped domestic fixtures, but no sign of an extra exit. Unless, however, the builder revealed a secret egress from No. 16, the adjoining flatlets were free from suspicion.
"Thank you," he said. "I hope I shall not have to disturb your work again. If you should learn of anything unusual about this building or the tenants, will you let me hear. This is my number."
Her swift glance at the photograph of the hockey team made him aware of his blunder. He had outraged her code of playing the game. Ignoring his card, she opened the door.
"I'm too busy working to notice anyone or anything," she told him coldly.
It was a relief to return to the landing and into a friendlier atmosphere. His heart felt absurdly light when Viola limped to meet him, as though she, too, recognized a bond between them. She might have been the playmate of his childhood inviting him to play, when she whispered to him from a corner of her mouth:
"The major's in the hall, giving the builder the lowdown... Isn't this a thrill? Aren't you loving it?"
"I should," replied Foam. "I'm getting paid for it."
"Oh, of course. I forgot you're a cop. You look just a nice boy, with no brains and rather tough... Well, from the criminal angle, how does Power strike you? She reminds me of an underdeveloped 'still.' Too true to type... do you suspect her—or anyone?"
With a rare wish to humour her, he compromised. "I'll tell you someone whom I trust. It's Higgins."
"Who's 'Higgins'?" asked Viola.
"The hall porter, of course."
Viola began to laugh heartlessly. "You poor sap, don't you know the first rule is never tell your real name to a policeman? The porter is 'Pearce.' He double-crossed you all right."
And then—swiftly and sweetly—just as his childish playmate used to relent after she made fun of him—Viola changed her mood.
"You win," she said. "Pearce really is honest. He's hopeless at telephone lies. The time I've wasted, trying to corrupt him... Not dishonest lies. Just professional swank. You've got to swank in the profession... look, here's the builder."
She stopped talking to gaze with frank interest at the builder. He was a burly Esau, with shaggy hair and bushy eyebrows. His face was hollowed by elongated pits—the graves of original dimples—and his brown eyes were a challenge to humbug. He gave an impression of bluff honesty, plus intelligence, but minus any scruples with regard to personal feelings.
Foam liked him on sight, from his bowler hat to his square-toed boots. He commended him, too, for the brisk manner with which he came to the point.
HAVING made his protest, the builder was now officially on the job. Calling his men from the hall, he clumped into No. 16 and gave a quick look around it.
"Everyone outside, please," he ordered. As the only inmate of the room, Madame Goya recognized the personal note. She surged forward, her fat arms outstretched like the wings of a guardian angel, resisting pollution of her premises.
"Pardon," she contradicted, "I shall stay. This is my flat. I am within my legal rights to see what goes on here."
The builder, who was married, knew when he was outclassed he turned instinctively to the major for protection.
"Can we run out the furniture, chief?" he asked.
"Afraid not," replied the major nonchalantly. "It would block the landing."
"All right, you're the boss. But I warn you we'll waste time shifting all this junk about... Madame, I am sure you would prefer to remove your valuables yourself?"
The workmen exchanged grins when Goya, with slow and measured movements, cleared from the book shelves a collection of odd china, dead flowers, cigarettes, packs of cards, cosmetics, a crystal, cactus plants and a tea outfit, besides a few novels which bore the labels of a twopenny lending library. She piled them up dangerously on the chairs and also upon the marble mantelpiece which had been retained when the grate was modernized.
"Now then, get a move on," ordered the builder impatiently. "Start and shift the glass."
Following his instructions, the men unscrewed the long mirror and propped it against an armchair. Its removal revealed no outline of a concealed door through which Evelyn Cross might have been whisked. There was nothing more incriminating than long drooping moustaches of cobwebs on the wall. The cupboard wardrobe was next wrenched from its position—not without damage to the panelling. Then the huge goddess came down to earth with a bump when her frame was swung off its nails.
Soon the room was cluttered with fixtures, but Goya persisted in remaining, although the builder chased her from one refuge to another as he examined and sounded the woodwork. The major also stayed, apparently to protect his interests. Foam and Viola could only get an occasional glimpse of the proceedings, for Raphael Cross blocked the doorway.
At first he watched every movement with concentrated eagerness; but with lack of results, his keenness staled and he could not control his impatience. As he paced the landing again, Viola drew Foam's attention to the fact he kept lighting cigarettes, only to throw them away after a few puffs.
"He's like a planet," she whispered, "No rest for him... It makes me boil. You can see he's in hell—but the major is only worried about the damage to his precious property... Oh, come along—I want a front stall for the show."
She plucked Foam's arm and dragged him across to the doorway. He noticed that she seemed actually to thrive on excitement, for her colour grew deeper under her rouge. Although he felt a curious pleasure in sharing the experience, he considered it his duty to warn her of a possible shock.
"I'm going to say something you may not like," he told her.
"Sounds like an overture," she remarked. "But I'm a modern girl. I can take it."
"Just this. That girl's father is nearly off his rocker. Now I suspect he has grounds for his guess—whatever it is. That's why I want you to go back to your flat while the going's good.'
"Because they may find her—and a murdered body is not a pleasant sight."
Although her eyes expressed horror at the prospect, she was not convinced.
"That's all right," she assured him. "I can't be sick for lack of raw material."
At that moment, as though he were following Foam's train of thought, the builder spoke to Major Pomeroy.
"The panelling is O.K., chief. We'll try the floor next for loose boards."
He gave the order to the men.
"Roll up the carpet. Shift the stuff as you go along."
Wedged into a corner by a displaced divan, Madame Goya made an angry protest. "Am I included in the 'stuff'? Let me out, you idiots."
Then she turned to jeer at the builder.
"I don't know what you think you're doing. If there was a trapdoor in the floor, the girl would have dropped through the ceiling of the room below. Very clever of you."
Her eyes bulged at the builder's blunt explanation.
"A body could be wedged in the space between the floor and the ceiling boards," he told her.
"A body?" she repeated, in the rising note of hysteria. "Ah, now I'm beginning to understand. I've been very dense. I've only just realized that I am under suspicion."
As the builder retreated before her threatening advance Major Pomeroy tried to soothe her.
"No one is suspected," he said. "The idea is farcical. We are simply doing our best to satisfy Mr. Cross that his daughter is not on the premises."
"Indeed? That doesn't fool me. Now it's my turn to give orders. I insist on this room being hacked to bits, to clear my character."
"That's not necessary," explained the builder. "I've tested every inch of the walls and there's not the smell of a hollow ring."
"What are you holding up the work for?" demanded Cross, pushing his way into the room. His ice-blue eyes glittered angrily at the major's explanation. "Haven't I made myself plain?" he asked. "Strip the walls—and to hell with the expense."
"Finish the floor first," said the builder.
His examination proved a lengthy business, owing to the accumulation of furniture. There were constant checks and displacements while the men rolled back yard after yard of carpet to expose dirty, stained boards. Foam was growing bored when a diversion was created by the major's secretary whom he had met in the office. She entered the room quietly and slipped a typewritten paper into her employer's hand. He glanced at it and then strolled across to Cross.
"Mind signing this?" he asked casually. "It's merely to indemnity me for damage. Better read it first."
Ignoring the advice, Cross scrawled his signature with a force which drove the pen into the paper. The major shrugged as he placed it inside his note case. "Not too satisfactory for me," he explained to Foam in a whisper "Merely a gentleman's agreement, it doesn't cover the ground, but I could not worry the poor chap with details." As he spoke, there was evidence of an increasing bill. With a crash, followed by the splintering of glass, the long mirror fell forward against the marble mantelpiece.
Madame Goya screamed like a steam siren before she began to blame the nearest workman.
"It wasn't me, mum." he declared firmly. "You moved the chair it was laying against."
"But it shouldn't have been on the floor at all," she wailed. "It was safe on the wall. Who's going to buy me a new mirror?"
"That will be taken care of," promised the major quickly as the builder rose from his knees. He dusted the knees of his trousers and shook his head.
"Floor's not been tampered with," he said. "The window's screwed and the grate sealed. That only leaves the panelling."
The men began the work of demolition in a gingerly manner, first loosening the panels before removing them carefully. Instead of commending their caution, however, their slow progress only exasperated Cross to fury.
"Smash it up," he commanded.
The builder caught the major's eye and nodded.
"It's only cheap wood," he said. "It's not genuine old stuff."
The men seemed to enjoy their job after they had received license to wreck. They hacked at the wood and tore it down in jagged sections while Viola gasped with rapture.
"Gorgeous," she said. "I'm just in a mood to appreciate a nice spot of destruction."
"Why?" asked Foam.
"Because property can't feel. No nerves."
"Any connection with the I.R.A.?"
"No, no initials by request."
"Then why have you got this extraordinary grudge against property?"
"Because I am one of the unemployed," Viola told him. "Yesterday, I was a mannequin. I was showing a dress when I slipped on the polished floor and did a nose dive. I passed out cold—but no one bothered about a little thing like that. They reserved their sympathy for the model gown. I'd split it when I fell and it was ruined. So I was sacked."
She stopped her story and caught hold of his hand.
"I've got to clutch someone," she said. "I've been mopping it up—but now I'm growing afraid. There's only one panel left. It will be there—behind the last bit."
She infected Foam with some of her apprehension. In spite of his common sense he could feel the electric quality of her suspense vibrating in her fingers as he watched the swinging picks of the men. He heard the heavy breathing of Raphael Cross, while Madame Goya stood motionless like an idol.
Then the last section of panelling was removed—to reveal only a blank plaster surface...
Foam was conscious of deep relief—and unconscious of a stifled flicker of disappointment. This case had promised to be something out of the ordinary. In spite of sordid eavesdropping and vigils, his sense of romance was not extinct. The secret service was still the poster of a thrilling film—plastered with foreign travel labels and drilled with bullet holes.
But now the alleged disappearance of Evelyn Cross was revealed as the wild guesswork of hysteria. A man had lost his head and played the fool. Probably a drink too many over the odds.
The time was still to come when he would envisage the case as a newspaper poster of a crime, with blood-stained corners flapping in the wintry rain—a record hideous with gruesome details of cold-blooded murder...
At first, no one dared to look at Raphael Cross. The workmen began to grin but quickly composed their faces in recognition of an awkward situation. Then the builder spoke to Major Pomeroy.
"The way out," he said, "is through this door. It's close on six. I'll be seeing you in the morning, chief."
He hurried away as though to avoid any further argument, while the others straggled after him. As he reached the landing, the decorative typist—Marlene—began to descend the flight of stairs leading to the second floor. She was dressed for her homeward journey, for she wore a fur coat and a comedian's hat; but she had been waiting for her chance to see the mysterious Evelyn Cross again.
The sound of six notes striking from a church tower in the Square made the builder glance at the tall grandfather's clock which stood out from the wall in one corner of the landing.
"Stopped," he commented. "That's the worst of these antiques."
"Oh, Grandpa still toddles more or less," explained Viola. "At his age, he likes a rest now and again—but he was going strong this afternoon."
Her words made Foam glance casually at the clock, when he noticed that the hands were stationary at seven minutes past four. This was about the time when Evelyn Cross had visited Pomerania House.
He could never explain the impulse which made him suddenly open the back of the case. As he groped in the interior, he could feel two foreign bodies which had interfered with the mechanism of the works. Drawing them out, he held them for inspection.
A pair of fashionable ladies' shoes with very high heels.
THERE was no doubt in Foam's mind as to their ownership, He turned instinctively to Raphael Cross who was staring at them as though stunned.
"Are these your daughter's shoes?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Cross dully.
"Can you identify them positively?"
Cross twisted his mouth in doubt before he shook his blonde head.
"Of course not," she said. "But it's the kind she always wears."
"You're sure there are no distinctive marks?" insisted Foam, thrusting the shoes into his hand.
"Hell, how should I know? Her shoes all look alike to me."
Although he himself hardly knew pink from blue, Foam was annoyed by this lack of paternal perception. Before he could connect the shoes positively with the missing girl, he would have to establish her claim by the tedious process of elimination.
Fortunately Viola came to his rescue.
"They aren't mine, worse luck," she said. "And they aren't Power's. She always wears the sensible sort, with low heels. Perhaps they belong to Madame Goya—"
"Pardon," broke in a confident voice. "Those shoes are mine."
Foam did not need Viola's gasp to realize that the claimant was a courageous opportunist. The decorative typist—Marlene—stepped forward and took the shoes from Cross' limp hands.
"I bought them last week, in my lunch hour, at the Dolcis in Shaftesbury Avenue," she explained glibly. "They had a sale on. You can see the soles aren't marked. I've not worn them yet."
"Last week?" commented Foam. "Why didn't you take them home?"
"Because I've been out to dinner and pictures every evening. I couldn't lug a parcel round with me."
"But how did they get inside the clock case?"
"I can't even guess," replied the girl lightly. "Someone's idea of clean fun, I suppose... Well, thanks frightfully for finding them. Bye-bye."
"And try checking up on that tale," muttered Viola ironically, as she watched Marlene's triumphant descent. "A sale and the lunch-hour rush. Nice little combination... Well, she's got them now for keeps—and good luck to her."
"Am I right in concluding that young lady has a successful technique?" asked Foam.
"Positively stunning," Viola told him. "She eats on the house. Everyone takes her out, from the boss to the office boy. Fair play to her; she treats them all alike... Now I'd be nice to the boy and snub the director. That's snob complex, really."
She stopped talking as Madame Goya came on to the landing—her draped figure looking massive and majestic as the Statue of Liberty.
"Don't let the men go," she commanded Major Pomeroy. "They'll have to move my things at once. It's up to you to find me good temporary quarters in this house... Impress on the builder to make a rush job of renovating No. 16. I can't risk losing my connection."
"You shall have preferential treatment," the major assured her with dreary patience. "If you will go down to my office, I'll join you as soon as I possibly can."
He glanced uneasily at Cross, who still stood staring into vacancy—and then basely shifted his responsibility to Foam.
"You'll want to discuss this business with Mr. Cross," he said. "What about my flat? It's next to my office. You'll find drinks there."
"Nothing for me," broke in Cross. "I've got to get this clear. Where's Evelyn? Where's my girl?"
He staggered slightly and stared helplessly around him, as though trying to find a chair.
Instantly Viola slipped her thin arm through his and marched him into No. 15. She pushed him down onto the divan and then ducked behind the partition at the end of the room. When she came back, she was holding a small tumbler. "Drink this, darling, and you'll feel better," she invited Cross.
When he made no attempt to take it—but sat and rubbed his eyeballs—she changed her tactics and gave him a smart slap on the cheek.
"Snap out of it," she commanded.
His response to treatment was immediate. His eyes lost their daze of apathy and the muscles of his face ceased twitching. For one moment, he glared at her as though he would attack her; then his fury gave way to surprise and he swallowed the brandy.
"Thanks," he said. "You understand."
His self-control restored, he turned to Foam.
"Now, young man," he said briskly, "I want to hear your opinion."
"Suppose we consider the facts," suggested Foam. "Will you admit that your daughter could not have been kidnapped inside this house? It takes a complicated conjuring apparatus to work the 'Vanishing Lady Illusion'—and the builder proved the room had not been tampered with. Do you accept his report—and the evidence of your own eyes?"
"I must," said Cross.
"Good. The alternative theory is that she faded into air... Do you believe in the supernatural?"
"Then the only explanation is this. Your daughter slipped past you when all of you were too engrossed to notice her. This sort of thing has happened before. Famous pictures have been stolen from galleries when they've been crowded with tourists. The thief has contrived to choose the psychological moment when his confederate distracted their attention... Of course, in your daughter's case, it was unintentional and not deliberate. I feel sure she'll soon be back at your hotel."
Foam stressed his words for he wanted to convince not only his client but himself. While common sense forced him to accept his own explanation, he knew that he had not flattened out every snarl in the tangle. It was true that five persons had declared that Evelyn Cross had gone upstairs and had not returned; but four of these witnesses were not entirely reliable. Cross was neurotic and the major influenced by his own interests, while neither Madame Goya nor Marlene inspired complete confidence.
There remained the porter. Foam believed that his testimony was both honest and truthful; but he could not acquit the man of a natural self-deception. He was sure that Pearce did not remain at his post with the fidelity of the lava-submerged sentry at Herculaneum, because when he arrived at Pomerania House the porter was outside the house and fraternizing with Raphael Cross' chauffeur.
Up to this point, therefore, the inference was that Evelyn Cross had made a voluntary disappearance—which was a rational deduction. Unfortunately, Foam's complete confidence had been flawed by the discovery of the shoes. Since it was obvious that they belonged to her—in spite of the typist's claim—they introduced an element of mystery into the case.
Foam could not understand why Evelyn should have removed them as a preliminary to walking upon fog-slimed pavements, while her choice of a boot closet was even more perplexing. The mere act of opening and shutting the clock case would advertise her presence on the landing and shatter any alternative idea that she wished to creep away noiselessly upon stockinged soles.
He was relieved when Cross sprang from his chair with restored vigour. "I am sure you are right," he said to Foam. "There's no need to worry."
As he looked around him, his keen eyes' remarked the poverty of Viola's apartment. The familiar suite and buff Axminster carpet seemed to indicate that Major Pomeroy had semi-furnished these three rooms in order to exact an increased rental. There was little else besides a cretonne curtain—with pierrots printed on a black ground—which concealed a row of pegs and served as a substitute for a wardrobe.
Instead of a mirror, a large bill of a stage performance by the London Repertory players was pinned over the mantelpiece. Cross picked out the name of "VIOLA GREEN" printed in small type.
"Professional?" he asked, looking at her with new interest.
"I'm trying to be one," she confessed. "It's funny. Power looks like a vicar's daughter and probably comes from a brothel. Now I am a scallywag, but I really am a parson's daughter. We're a tragic family. We're all in the church, and we want to go on the stage."
"What happens then?" asked Cross.
"We have to stick in the church. The tragedy is we have no talent. But fate's most ironic blow is this: My grandfather really is a born comedian, yet he will persist in being a bishop. No ambition."
"Never mind. Perhaps I can help you. I've some influence in a film company... No strings to the offer, my dear. You've been good to me and I don't forget. I have a daughter of my own." The light gleamed on his fair, curling hair as he expanded his broad shoulders and drew himself up to his full height. His head was thrown back so that his heavy chin was merged into the powerful muscles of his neck. At that moment, he presented such a splendid type of self-assertive manhood that Foam—who was glad to be ordinary—felt a twinge of jealousy.
"Here's my card," said Cross. "Send in your bill and you shall have a cheque. You stood by, and that helped... Good evening."
"I'll come down with you," offered Viola.
Foam did not attempt to accompany them, for he wanted to snatch the chance of making a few notes. Whenever he took up a new case, it was his custom to jot down his first impression of every person. It was essential to capture these mental snapshots without conscious thought, so that it could not be a reasoned opinion but merely an instinctive recognition of personality.
The second step was to put the results in his office drawer and forget about them until the time came to compare them with his up-to-date knowledge of a client.
On this occasion, he was afraid that he might be unable to trap an unbiased impression of Viola. Trying to make his mind a blank, he scrawled rapidly across the small pages of his notebook, as though his fingers were the medium of automatic writing.
He snapped the elastic band over his book as Viola limped back into the room.
"Sit down," she invited. "I've still chairs left. If you'd come last week, you'd have seen me in all my glory with a gorgeous meretricious suite of veneered walnut. All the wrong people admired it. But the plain van took it away... Sorry I have no booze. Your client had the last drop."
"What do you think of him?" asked Foam curiously.
"Good looking in that way," commented Viola casually. "Gosh, he registered enough emotion for twenty fathers. I've got a hunch he is a sugar daddy. It would be enough to make him all steamed up if his girl walked out on him and he couldn't produce her to her lawful parents."
Foam had too expert a knowledge of faked relationships to reject Viola's theory. As he was not concerned with the morality of a case, he even welcomed it because it helped to explain his own instinctive distrust of Cross. He had attributed it to unworthy prejudice, based on a dislike of spectacular good looks. But now he realized that the root of his suspicion was his inability to credit Cross with the ordinary feeling of a father. He could not imagine him tossing a baby up in the air or running a small daughter to school in his car. On the other hand, he could picture him at the races, cigar in the corner of his mouth, hat tilted over one eye and accompanied by a flash lady friend.
He realized that Viola had curled herself in a big chair and was looking up at him with inquiring eyes.
"He made rather a nasty crack when he told you to send in your bill." she said.
"I shall charge him for my time," explained Foam.
"Tell me all about your work."
He slew the impulse to magnify his job.
"I do hole-and-corner jobs for people who don't want police limelight," he said. "It's a sordid life. My mother thinks it has made me a rough and common person."
"It's made you real. I've no use for fakes... have you got a fag?"
As he lit her cigarette, he asked her a question. "Have you any idea of Goya's real business?"
"I should say it's crystal gazing and a spot of blackmail," she replied. "Crowds of society people steal up to consult her. My guess is she's in with a bunch of business crooks and gets tips from tainted sources. I mean she bets on certainties and sometimes sells the dope to her clients. She knows which horse is going to be pulled and which round the heavyweight is going to sleep."
"Have you heard of any trouble with the police?"
"No. She'd be too cautious. When I asked her to tell me my fortune, you should have seen the dirty look she gave me."
Although he believed the case was finished, Foam continued to tap her feminine intuition for the pleasure of watching each change of expression which swept over her vivid face. "Have you any slant on Miss Power?" he asked.
"No. If she's what she looks like, you know as much about her as I."
"The major, then?"
"Oh, he's a gentleman—even when I'm late with my rent. But he's like a gull after money. He sees it miles away and swoops."
"Thanks. Thanks for everything. I've got to get back to the office."
She looked after him wistfully when he reached the door. "It's been fun, hasn't it?" she said. "Come in again and tell me the end of the story."
"I'll do that... But this is the end of the case." Foam spoke confidently and with conviction.
On his return to the office, he outlined the affair to his senior—Mr. Gribble—who agreed that Cross had been fooled, not so much by his daughter as by his own conscience. Such a fury of suspicion and fear indicated a murky past when it was based on the certainty of enemy action.
"That's his own affair," was the cynical official opinion. "Find out if his cheque is good."
Another case had broken, so Foam worked late. Just as he was about to leave, he rang up Cross' hotel, merely for confirmation.
"Is that the bureau?" he asked. "Can you tell me whether Miss Evelyn Cross is in?"
"No," replied the clerk. "She went out this afternoon and she's not come back yet."
Foam had lived that moment before... For an instant, he felt a sense of frustration and loss, as though he were staring again at a stretch of empty grass and whistling to a dog which was already far in the distance.
He shook off the impression. Opening his notebook, he reread the high-pressure jottings he had made in No. 15 on the characters in the case.
"Raphael Cross. Volcanic. Too good looking. Unfatherly, dark horse."
"Major Pomeroy lean, long faced, well dressed. Old school tie, decent instincts. God save the King."
"Madame Goya. White hair, dirty face. Fishy business. Wouldn't play cards with her."
"Miss Power. Blonde, solid, tweedy hard voice. Been to right school."
"Viola Green. Brunette. Too thin. Wears trousers. Anti-property bias. Stimulating."
It seemed to him a pitiably poor collection of drivel. Such a pallid crop of potted personalities was not worth, pencil or paper.
Yet there—under his eyes—were two separate clues which, later, were to help him towards a solution of the mystery.
FOAM was fortunate in the possession of a pleasant home background. His parents lived in a large house in Highgate, which—in spite of family prosperity—resisted change and clung to its shabby old-fashioned comfort. The furniture and carpets had grown to be such old friends that renovation was out of the question. Usually, pets had to be ejected from the best chairs when they left their fur behind them in token of ownership.
In spite of these shortcomings, the atmosphere was genial and the standard of living lavish. In winter, huge fires leaped up the wide chimneys and often set them afire; while Foam Senior was as discriminating over his cellar as his wife was generous in her housekeeping.
The father was an officially retired doctor who retained a few favoured patients for the sake of occupation. He took a keen interest in his son's work, regarding the agency's sordid cases as a substitute for lurid fiction. Alan pandered to his weakness, for he knew that he could trust in his professional reputation for keeping secrets.
That night, after he had reported his day's work, the doctor looked at him severely over his glasses.
"Are you satisfied with the findings?" he asked. "If it were my case I should want a post-mortem... To take one point, how do you account for the complication of the discarded shoes?"
"Why should I?" asked Foam. "There is no more definite proof that they belong to the Cross girl than to the typist. My own guess isn't evidence."
"Then mark my words, my boy, there's another guess coming to you."
Mrs. Foam, who was excluded from official confidences, overheard the last sentence.
"Alan doesn't guess," she contradicted. "He deduces—in the same way that you diagnose."
"Rubbish," chuckled the doctor, "I may ask my patients questions and observe their symptoms, but I have to guess what double-crossing is going on inside them. We all guess. Even you have to guess what time to put dinner."
He winked at Alan, inviting him to share his amusement over his wife's wrath. Long experience of meals all around the clock had made her expert in dealing with the eternal conspiracy of a doctor's household against the cook. For the rest, she was a kindly, capable woman, who sat on boards and knew as much about drains as a plumber.
"I organize," she cried indignantly.
The subject of meals reminded Alan of a girl who had claimed immunity to sickness from a basic cause. He wondered whether she were hungry. It was true that she had been unemployed for a very short time; but he could imagine her spurning her final wage envelope as a grand gesture of compensation for the damaged gown.
"How does a girl make out when she is sacked?" he asked his mother.
"She goes to her exchange and claims insurance while she is unemployed," explained Mrs, Foam.
"But this girl's not organized. She's a fathead and too film crazy to keep a decent job."
"Can she act?"
"She thinks she's rotten, but off the stage she puts on a very good show."
"Then I should ask her out to dinner as often as possible."
Mrs. Foam's eyes gleamed with pleasure behind her glasses, although she preserved her poker face. This was the first time Alan had expressed interest in a girl.
The following morning, directly he reached the office, Foam had a call put through to Cross' hotel. At first he did not recognize the voice which replied when he asked for his client. It was no longer roughened by emotion, but confident and even jaunty.
"I suppose your daughter is back?" he asked with stressed heartiness.
"No," replied the voice casually. "But I heard from her this morning."
Although it was not the news he had predicted. Foam drew a deep breath of relief.
"Good," he said. "I was sure you would hear. Where was the letter posted?"
"Oxford," replied Cross. "It was just a picture post card of some college. The time stamped on it is ten-thirty p.m., last night."
"Does it clear up the mystery?"
"Practically. Hold on a minute and I'll read it to you."
After a short wait, Cross' voice boomed down the wire.
"I've found it. It says, 'Sorry to walk out on you, but I had a date for a week-end in the country. I'm still a hick and my friend is swell. And did I fool you! All your fault for butting in. Back on Monday.'"
"Is it her handwriting?" asked Foam.
"I'd say it was."
"Did she take your car?"
"No. She says she's with a friend... Well, this takes care of everything. Send in your bill. I want to get clear of the whole affair."
"Thanks." Foam spoke absently, for he was still chewing an undigested chunk of the post card. "What does she mean when she says it was your fault that she had to fool you?"
"I think I know," chuckled Cross. "When she goes out, she always comes in the car with me and I drop her somewhere. She told me to put her down at Pomerania House, but really she was going to meet this friend of hers in the Square. I threw a spanner in the works when I said I'd come in with her and see Major Pomeroy. Her appointment with the Madame was only fake... Anyway, that's my guess."
"Sounds plausible," agreed Foam. He was about to ring off when Cross spoke to him again.
"Will you be seeing little Greeny soon?" he asked.
As he listened to the familiar title, Foam's ears began to burn. He felt the impotent anger of an outclassed rival as he remembered his last vivid impression of Raphael Cross—flamboyant and forceful—his blonde hair gleaming under the electric light. In the space of a few minutes he had cloven an entrance into Viola's life, compelling her confidence.
"I shall be seeing her tonight," he said quickly.
"Good," commented Cross. "Will you tell her I may be able to pull off a good job for her? Something in her line... That girl would never stand behind a counter or tap a machine. She warns a bit of the spice of life. I should know something about girls, with one of my own."
"What is the nature of the job?" asked Foam.
"Companion to William Stirling's daughter. I met them in the Queen Mary, coming across."'
"'You mean Stirling, the millionaire?"
"Millionaire, my foot. The chap's a multi-millionaire who gave his wife diamonds to the value of a quarter of a million, British currency, just as you and I give our wives a diamond bracelet."
Foam was beginning to realize that Cross' use of the plural was typical of an extravagant standard. Apparently the man had to exaggerate values as well as emotions.
"How can you recommend Miss Green?" he asked. "You know nothing about her."
"Oh, Mrs. Stirling will take up her social references. But she will rely on me to give her the personal slant. I'm a judge of character. That girl has guts. I was going over the edge when she blacked my eye."
"She only flicked your face," corrected Foam.
"Same thing. She saved me... I shall be seeing Mrs, Stirling this afternoon. Tell Greeny to ring her up this evening and mention my name. Mrs. Stirling won't go after her. She'd better clinch it while the going's good. Tomorrow there'll be a queue of applicants after the job, a mile long."
"I'll try to impress her with the importance," promised Foam, who was beginning to discount the face value of Cross' statements. In order to prove to himself that he was not jealous of such a comedian, he added casually, "Why don't you go and see her yourself?"
There was a short silence. When Cross broke it, he had ceased to bellow like a stag in the mating season.
"I can't bring myself to enter that house again," he said in a husky voice. "It will stir up the mud in my brain. That's something I must forget."
"I understand," said Foam.
"Then it's more than I do. I can't make out if that bunch is on the level. The major seemed a gentleman. When Greeny went back upstairs, he told me she often stings him for her rent, but he doesn't like to turn her out. The fact is, his sort shouldn't be in business. Too soft... Now just take down Mrs. Stirling's number and see to it that Greeny rings her."
When Foam rang off, he gave the bookkeeper instructions to send in the bill of Messrs. Girdlestone & Gribble. Since the case was officially ended, he tried to forget it; but at the back of his mind was a vague unrest, probably a symptom of a grumbling curiosity.
He wanted to see the elusive Evelyn Cross in the flesh and hear the exact details of how she had managed to slip away from Pomerania House. Further, he wanted to appease his vague distrust of Raphael Cross, which persisted in spite of the fact that Viola's new patron had entrusted him with a welcome commission.
He switched on to a new case where his client—a retired schoolmistress—was being blackmailed through the indiscretion of a talking parrot; and he worked at it with savage energy, mainly because the blood-sucker was a youth with blonde curling hair.
It was fairly late in the evening when he was free to visit Pomerania House, directly he entered the hall, he smelt the acrid odour of distemper. There was further evidence that the house decorator was in action, in lightish smudged footsteps on the red rubber flooring of the stairs.
"Have they started work on No. 16 already?" he asked Pearce.
"Started and finished," replied the porter. "They made a rush job of it because Madame carried on so about being turned out of her room. The builder had to put on all his men. It was only papering. It's the painting as takes the time. Do you want to see the major?"
"No. Miss Green."
"She's in. Go right up."
On his way upstairs, Foam passed a man who carried rolls of paper, and when he reached the landing, the builder was just coming out of No. 16. He recognized the detective and stopped to chat.
"We're well up on time," he said, with a satisfied glance at his watch. "The men have made a nice job of it. Like to see it before it is covered up with fixtures?"
Foam's first glance around No. 16 told him that expense had not been spared, although the effect was too ornate for his taste. The white walls were divided by gilded mouldings into panels which were decorated with golden fleur-de-lys, while the paper shimmered in the light as though it were brocade.
"The old girl chose the best paper in the book," confided the builder. "The major tipped her that it would have to last her lease. The gentleman who was here yesterday will have to pay stiff for his nerves. I'd have tried to reason with him, but the major was in command. Can't think what had bitten him. He certainly wasn't lit."
"Well, let's hope that this paper will be allowed to stick on," commented Foam.
"It ought to last a lifetime at the price," agreed the builder.
When Foam tapped at the door of No. 15, an angry voice shouted to him to come in. He surprised Viola in the act of kicking a stool around the room. She was not dressed for football, for she wore her tightest suit and a ridiculous little bun of a hat perched at a perilous slant.
When she recognized her visitor, her glare changed to a beam of welcome.
"Oh, you. I thought it was the major. I'm furious with him, I'm bubbling like a camel."
"What's the matter?" asked Foam.
"I can't stand seeing people being imposed on, especially when they're out of luck. Those blue-pencil skunks are taking advantage of poor Rafe's trouble to bleed him. Goya's had her room done up regardless. The major egged her on. I never want to speak to him again. I'd leave tonight, only I'm owing rent... What are you grinning at?"
"Cross' idea that the major is too delicate for business,"
"The poor pathetic lamb. He'll find out. Why, the major fights to the last ditch if a tenant wants a new washer on a tap... Oh, has Evelyn come back?"
"She's coming. I've got a message from Cross."
As he delivered it, Foam watched the changes of expression which swept over Viola's vivid face. Her first excited interest deepened into hope and then dulled into incredulity. When he had finished speaking, she gave a skeptical laugh.
"He's overdone it again. A millionaire? Nothing less? It sounds phoney to me. D'you think it's white slave traffic? They've not wanted me before. Suppose I'm not white enough... Pity. Goodness knows I could do with a job."
She flopped bonelessly down on a chair, kicked off a high-heeled shoe and massaged her instep tenderly.
"I've been the round of the west-end dress shops today," she told him. "No luck."
"Why don't you go home?" asked Foam.
"Because I want to live. You don't know what it is like at home. Four thick meals a day—and trudging muddy lanes to deliver the Parish Magazine. I'd sooner go hungry and not know just what's round the corner. It's far better to be able to feel."
"If I were Cross, I'd say I had heard all that a million times. Won't your father make you a small allowance?"
"No he says there's a good home waiting for me. It's a case of mutiny."
"Well, what about a spot of dinner? We can discuss Cross' offer better over food."
They had their meal at an old-fashioned restaurant, where the food made up for the lack of display. The tables were set in alcoves, the lights had dark red shades, and there was no orchestra. Sitting together in the warmth and privacy of the most secluded nook, Foam told Viola about the message from Evelyn Cross.
"I'd like to see her," she said. "She's only a kind of wraith to me."
"You are bound to see her if you get the Stirling job," Foam told her. "I gather the two families were friendly on the voyage."
"Then you think I ought to ring the number?"
"Why not? There is a millionaire called 'William Stirling.' I'll make private inquiries about the family for you. I won't let you go to any bogus job."
"Then I'll phone directly I get back. It may give me a laugh. What is life without its comic strip?"
Foam accompanied Viola back to Pomerania House on the pretext of hearing the result of the telephone call. As they entered the hall, Foam noticed that Pearce was not on duty while the major was acting as his deputy. Trained to observe, he got the impression that they were not entirely welcome, although the major's manner was suave when he came to meet them.
"Would you like an honest-sweat-of-your-brow job, Foam, for a change?" he asked, ignoring Viola's scowl. "I can use any full-sized man. My tenant, Madame Goya, has just put me on the spot. She insists on going back to her room first thing tomorrow morning, even if we have to work all night. The builder says he's through and I've had to get in a couple of men to put the fixtures back."
Taking no notice of the major's humorous effort, Viola held out a couple of coppers.
"My twopence," she said icily. "I want to telephone."
The major watched her as she shut herself in the booth; and the marble statue of the bathing nymph also stared at her through the glass, as though in envy of her suit.
"Miss Green's a sport," remarked the major. "She won't complain if there's a spot of knocking. Miss Power's different and she works late—worse luck. Hello, here's the new mirror."
In the absence of the porter, he went forward himself to meet the man.
Because he knew that Cross would have to pay for it, Foam looked at the new fixture with a certain interest. It seemed a poor exchange for the original antique, for both frame and glass were modern and ornate. In compensation, however, it was exceptionally massive. Its weight completely bowed down the man who carried it upon his back, although he appeared to be strongly built and muscular.
The bill was evidently mounting up for Raphael Cross. Viola commented on the fact when she came out of the telephone booth.
"It was only the glass that was broken," she said. "Why didn't they use the old frame? It had that lovely mellow look and must have been worth pots. I wonder if the major sold it. Bet you there's been dirty work at the crossroads."
"I'm afraid it's a case of a fool must pay for his folly," Foam told her as he went upstairs to smoke a last cigarette.
He stayed a little time to listen to her account of her telephone interview. Although she had only spoken to Mrs. Stirling's secretary—who had granted non-committal permission to call the following morning—she had built a pyramid of future plans on the invitation.
"Gosh, imagine a country parson's daughter living with millionaires," she cried. "But I hate rich girls. I've come up against them when I was doing crowd work in the studio. They expected all the breaks and they got them, just because they didn't need the pay envelope... I used to fight them like hell—tread on their toes and jog their elbows when they were blacking their lashes. Merely overtures to the battle... Good night, and bless you for bringing that message."
After he had closed her door, Foam lingered for a minute on the landing, as though unconsciously absorbing the atmosphere of the old house. It was dimly lit and almost absolutely quiet. The hum of commerce and high finance had died down and there were no convivial sounds of social life.
The work had not yet been begun on No. 16, for Foam could see into it through the half-open door. The men had evidently gone to bring more fixtures, for the room was bare except for the book shelves and the mirror which were propped against the wall.
Acting on impulse, he stepped inside and gripped the frame of the mirror to test its weight. He expected that it would need extra effort to move it, so he exerted his full strength.
To his astonishment, he lifted it with almost ridiculous ease. The frame was nothing but a gilded sham—light and hollow as a clay pipe stem.
It seemed a glaring example of the major's cupidity and deceit. He had bought a gimcrack affair for which he meant to overcharge Cross grossly. To prevent Foam from detecting the fraud, he had gone to meet the man and had instructed him to walk with bent back, as though he were bearing a heavy load.
In every particular, Foam had guessed right. It was only for lack of special knowledge that he missed the real explanation of the incident.
WHEN Viola called at the Stirling's hotel the following morning to keep her appointment, she was in a state of acute nervous tension which she tried vainly to overpower. To nerve herself for the ordeal, she wore her smartest suit and her most sophisticated veiled hat; but in spite of her pose of nonchalance her heart hammered as a diminutive page conducted her up in the lift and along carpeted corridors.
She was left to wait in a sitting room of the suite usually reserved for visiting royalty. To her surprise, however, she was not neglected indefinitely. Mrs. Stirling evidently knew the value of time for, punctual to the minute of her appointment, the page appeared to escort her to the boudoir.
At first, Viola thought that the small dark woman seated at the bureau must be the private secretary. She had foolishly expected Mrs. Stirling to be the traditional millionaire's wife of the screen—with a permanent wave, a large powdered face and ropes of pearls. To be true to type, she would retain evidence of her rapid growth to social eminence through the forcing bed of wealth, in specks of earth and manure—the grating accent and ill-bred mannerisms of her low origin.
In direct contradiction to this mental picture, Mrs. Stirling created an impression of insignificance which was misleading, She suggested flat tones by her plain gown, her absence of jewellery and her low voice. Greeting the girl gravely, she began to chat to her, apparently to put her at her ease.
It was not until then that Viola grew gradually conscious of the beauty of her tapering fingers—the delicate arch of her instep—the artistry of her dress which was as faintly grey-green as a weathered stone wall. Soon she realized that Mrs. Stirling had a strong personality and that her questions were not aimless, but contrived to make her reveal unconsciously her character. After she had been subjected to a painless, but searching elimination, the millionaire's wife began to explain the situation. She talked so frankly and simply that she put a slur of reality on an unnatural state of affairs.
"It will seem strange to you," she said, "because kidnapping is not a British crime. You do not know what you are spared. With us, it is the constant dread of the octopus."
Her involuntary shudder as she paused showed that she was deeply moved; but her voice was calm when next she spoke.
"At home, Beatrice is always guarded by detectives. They are present at any important social function and also when she goes out; but when she visits her friends privately, the situation is more delicate. That is why she has a personal companion who never leaves her."
"You really mean she is never alone?" exclaimed Viola thoughtlessly. "How revolting."
"Beatrice would love to hear you say that." Mrs. Stirling smiled faintly. "Sometimes she likes to consider herself a victim of fate, although she would hate to change places with any other girl. Besides, she is so used to constant company that if she were left, she would be as terrified as a child in the dark... To understand the position, you must realize that she is not an ordinary girl, and ordinary standards cannot apply. She will control great wealth and must accept very heavy responsibility. If you were to take her out of her specialized atmosphere of wealth, she would suffer like a fish gasping in the air."
"I understand," Viola told her. "I've never been rich—but I do possess imagination. But you said Beatrice had a companion already. Is she here in London?"
"No, we had to leave her behind at home. It is a real loss, for Cassandra Thomas is a very marvellous person. Of course, she was coming over with us; but the night before sailing, she met with a traffic accident and broke three ribs. When we saw her in the hospital, she insisted that someone had tripped her up. The doctor said she was light-headed, but we thought it wiser to take no risks. There was no time to find a substitute in New York, so we brought over two detectives with us. You see, we had previously decided to come for a holiday with only Cass, as all our friends assured us we should be perfectly safe over here."
Again Viola led back to the subject of the companion.
"What would be the duties?" she asked.
"Not so much duties as qualities," replied Mrs. Stirling. "You would go everywhere with Beatrice—shops, theatres, social functions. But whoever accepts the responsibility must be quick willed, courageous, loyal and never off guard. Above all, she must be tactful."
Viola looked around her at the luxurious room, with its silver-birch furniture, thick pale grey carpet and curtains of ice-blue brocade. For a short time she could live in such opulent surroundings—drive in luxury cars and sit in a box at opera and theatre. Although the temptation to swim with the current was strong, she took a perverse pleasure at the prospect of turning down the offer. She told herself that there were too many girls out of work for her to feel sympathy with the Beatrice Stirlings of the world.
"Anything more?" she asked sweetly.
"You world have to keep her interested. In some ways she's a high-spirited child; but she is serious minded as well, and she has a craving for social experiment. That is Cass' special subject, so she is able to hold her. But even that has a certain danger. Sometimes she threatens to run away and live in a slum to find out for herself what it is to be poor."
"She never would," said Viola scornfully. "She'd be just a rich girl playing at being poor."
"Then I think you could teach her something, if that is your view."
Viola shook her head as she sprang from her chair.
"I'm sorry to have wasted your time," she said, "but I wouldn't dare to take it on. Your daughter is altogether too precious for me to accept her responsibility. If anything happened to her, I could never forgive myself. I should want to make a hole in the Thames."
"That shows you have real loyalty," said Mrs. Stirling; "Please sit down again. I believe you are the person we are hoping to find."
Looking back on the incident that night, when she was in her own room, Viola could neither understand nor explain why she allowed herself to be persuaded to remain. Quiet little Mrs. Stirling seemed to possess some hypnotic force through the power of her wealth, as though she had the Stirling millions behind her, exerting pressure upon Viola.
All the same, she made an effort to escape from the suckers of the octopus which—according to Mrs. Stirling—continually menaced their household and which might grip her in its tentacles while ii was feeling its way towards its prey.
"I don't think you understand the real position," she said. "How can Mr. Cross recommend me as companion for your daughter when he only met me two days ago for the first time? He knows nothing at all about me. Besides you only met him on the voyage."
"Do you imagine I should take such risks?" asked Mrs. Stirling calmly. "It is true that Raphael Cross is only a casual acquaintance—but he appealed strongly to both my husband and myself. We are judges of character and can trust our intuition. He told us that he was very impressed by the way you behaved when he—he had that fright about his daughter. But I should not dream of considering you without immaculate personal references. I warn you these will be tested most thoroughly through personal interviews with your sponsors. Is it true that your grandfather is a bishop?"
"Oh, yes. But what did Rafe Cross tell you about me?"
"He said he was worked up to the verge of a mental crash when you began to beat him up."
"Trust him to overcall," declared Viola. "I—"
"You did the right thing at the right moment," cut in Mrs. Stirling. "That is what matters to me. I don't care what it was. Of course, we shall only require you for two or three weeks; but I hope the terms will compensate for such a short engagement."
When she mentioned the figure, Viola experienced the thrill of a miner who has found a gold nugget. From that moment, she was desperately anxious to be engaged. She calculated that she could save enough to keep her while she made another round of the studios, chasing her special will-o'-the-wisp.
"I don't want a permanent post," she said quickly. "I'm hitch-hiking to the moon."
Mrs. Stirling looked reflective.
"Ah, yes," she said, "I remember R. C. told me you were a film actress. You must promise not to rush off if Hollywood wants you to make a picture."
Viola duly promised that Beatrice should have first claim on her services, although she was guiltily aware of a dormant spasm of disloyalty when she considered the strength of such a temptation.
"Pray it will never happen," she thought.
"And now," went on Mrs. Stirling; stretching out her hand for a writing tablet, "will you give me at least six names and addresses, so that my secretary can take up your references without delay."
Viola reeled off a list of clerical titles and then paused effectively, like a conjurer with a reserve hidden in his hat.
"These are all on the moral side," she remarked. "Would you like some socialites?"
"Oh, dear," protested Mrs. Stirling. "I do hope you won't teach my daughter American."
"Perhaps she'll teach me English," said Viola, colouring faintly at the thrust.
Mrs. Stirling laughed as she pressed a bell button.
"I feel hopeful," she declared, "I won't interview any more applicants at present. Suppose you wait and see Beatrice? She's out shopping with Mack. He's one of the detectives we have over here. He's been with us so long that she regards him as a sort of radio uncle. The other guard—Don—is as amateur who came for the vacation. He's a college boy and a young giant. His father is an overseer in one of our factories. My husband is very insistent on the personal element between employer and employee, and Don worships Beatrice. She's a sort of fairy princess to him... Now what would you like to drink?"
In support of her character as perfect companion, Viola's choice was non-alcoholic. Presently, over coffee and cigarettes, Mrs. Stirling began to gossip as she asked Viola for details of the Pomerania House incident.
"It seems strange to you," she said at the end of the girl's ultra-dramatic recital. "But it's poignant to me. If Beatrice seemed to disappear like that when we were in some store, I should be frantic... My only criticism is that R. C, did not take it seriously enough. He ran a risk in not sending at once for the police."
"What's his daughter like?" asked Viola curiously "Pretty?"
"She certainly appealed to the men on board," replied Mrs. Stirling after a pause. "We saw nothing of her. She refused all my boring invitations to cabin parties. Of course, she and Beatrice had nothing in common... But her father was the most popular man on the ship. We were bridge partners nearly all the time coming across. He's a marvellous player."
She broke off as the door was flung open and a girl burst into the room.
"Here is Beatrice," she announced with fond pride.
With a sudden revival of her antipathy to Miss Dives, Viola looked at her critically. She decided instantly that Beatrice had neither beauty nor glamour. She was tall and strongly built, with a round face which only escaped the reproach of "pudding" by the perfection of her complexion and the intelligence of her expression. Her hair was dark, thick and so determinedly straight that it was merely slightly shaped.
As she stood there, she was not only a faultless type of glowing health and youth, but she actually managed to impart some suggestion of royalty. At the time, Viola attributed this to her dress. On that morning of fog and mud-slimed pavement, her flared white coat with its wide collar and cuffs of fox, her white fur cap and the huge bunch of lilies-of-the-valley she had pinned to her muff made her appear too exotic and costly to be a commoner.
It was a whim of her father's that she should not wear colours until she was twenty-one. Unaware of the reason for this extravagant costume, Viola gave her best imitation of a society girl in response to Mrs. Stirling's introduction. Too shy to be her usual simple self, Beatrice tried to imitate her poise.
"Going to join the jolly old chain gang?" she asked. "Definitely morbid idea, isn't it?"
Mrs. Stirling smiled as she caught Viola's eye. "You'll soon be 'tu-toi'-ing each other," she prophesied. "By the way, Beatrice, Miss Green acts for the pictures."
"Oh, do you?" cried Beatrice, forgetting her pose, "Do you really? How enchanting! Have you contracts and stand-ins and things?"
"I've things," Viola assured her. "Have you been shopping?"
"Yes. I've had the time of my life exploring Selfridge's—entirely alone. It was marvellous. No cameras. No one knew me. I felt as free as a bird. I gave poor old elephant Mack the slip."
Viola noticed the panic which flickered into Mrs. Stirling's eyes, but her face and voice remained serene.
"Did Mack come back with you?" she asked her daughter.
"Yes. I picked him up again outside, by the car."
"Just send him to me, will you? You can say 'Good-bye' to Miss Green now."
Viola hoped to slip away before she was forced to witness a painful scene; but the detective came into the boudoir almost as Beatrice went out. He was a burly Scot, with high cheek bones and a thatch of sandy hair.
"What happened, Mack?" asked Mrs. Stirling. "Two store detectives trailed her all the time," replied Mack. "I tipped them off to give the lassie a wee treat."
Mrs. Stirling smiled and then held out her hand to Viola in dismissal.
"If I come, I'll see your daughter changes her adjectives twice a week," the girl promised.
Directly she was outside the hotel, she hurried to the nearest telephone call box and rang up Foam's number. In her state of triumphant excitement, she felt she must share the news of her brilliant prospects. It was a disappointment when a clerk at the office of Girdlestone and Gribble told her that Alan had gone to the north on business.
By the time she reached No. 15, she was sober and subdued. As she looked around her, in spite of its shabby bareness, it represented an oasis of safety. Doubts of the wisdom of accepting the responsibility of the Stirling post began to depress her. The Selfridge incident seemed to point to two facts; firstly, that in spite of her mother's belief, Beatrice resented constant companionship and, secondly, a certainty that she would try to repeat the escapade.
"If she were kidnapped," she thought, "I might be held as an accessory after the fact. Things can look black against innocent people."
Within the course of the next few days, events moved too quickly for her to resist them. Her friends and relatives rallied to the cause of her references with such enthusiasm that she found herself officially engaged and installed at the hotel as a member of the Stirling household. When she rang up Foam on his return to London, she was in a position to give him the latest news of Evelyn Cross.
"She's not come back. Raphael Cross came here last night to tell us so. We've misjudged him terribly. Imagine it. His hair has turned white from the shock."
THE following morning, Foam received a telephone message from Raphael Cross, asking him to call at once at his hotel.
It was a large modern building with a number of service flats in addition to the usual bedrooms. The most expensive were at the top of the building, where a fine view of London could be obtained from the covered veranda. In one of these apartments, Cross had made his temporary home.
Foam knew the hotel intimately because it had been the scene of his first sleuthing adventure to get material for divorce. At the time, he had disliked the sordid business intensely; but since those early days, he had acquired the accessory protective rind. Yet, apparently, his first impression persisted, for as he went up in the lift, he was conscious of a heaviness of spirit which was almost like a foreboding of evil.
A chambermaid opened the outer door and showed him to the sitting room. Cross was using it as an office, for he was seated before a bureau littered with papers while he telephoned. As Foam entered, he was jotting down figures on a pad, but at the sight of his visitor, he finished his business abruptly and rang off.
"Sit down, Foam," he said. "Glad you've lost no time."
Although Viola's message had prepared him, Foam was startled by the change in Raphael Cross. A week of strain had altered him so completely that it was impossible to connect him with the blonde and compelling stranger. He was wearing horn-rimmed glasses, through which his ice-blue eyes looked merely keen and business-like. His white hair added years to his age, while his powerful shoulders were heavily humped and lines struck down from nostril to lip, like the rays of the setting sun.
As he looked at him, Foam realized that he had no longer any cause for jealousy. This grief-blasted parent could hold no possible challenge to youth. With a violent swing-over of his sympathies, he was shocked by the force of an emotion evident in so drastic a physical change.
"Have you been ill?" he asked.
"You mean this?" said Cross, touching his hair. "It practically turned in a night. I had been lying awake as usual—thinking—and in the morning when I looked in the glass, I could hardly believe my eyes. I'd heard of such a thing happening, but I never believed in it. The joke's on me."
He laughed mirthlessly before he changed the subject.
"When you went to Pomerania House to give Greeny my message," he said, "did you hear about the redecoration of Madame Goya's flat?"
"I saw it," remarked Foam significantly.
"Then you know all about it... Well, I got the account for it—and I raised hell. The builder's a decent chap. I didn't squawk about his charges for the demolition. It was the ruddy rest... I could have bought a new mirror for one-third of the price and the bill for doing-over the room was nothing less than a hold-up... It's not the money I mind, but I won't be exploited, do you get me?"
"Perfectly. What have you done about it?"
"Mailed him my cheque and told him to sue me for the difference. I got a receipt in full, by return, with a gentle wail that I was incapable of understanding 'a gentleman's agreement.' That's your officer and gentleman... But you're not here to talk of that."
Cross removed his glasses to rub his eyeballs.
"My daughter has not come back. Foam," he said. "I've not had another line from her. I'm beginning to think that post card was a fake to throw me off the scent. Anyone could imitate her writing."
"Officially speaking, I was paid off the job," Foam reminded him. "Have you done anything about it?"
"No. You were so sure it was a normal escapade. But I suppose eight days' absence constitutes an official disappearance?"
Ignoring the thrust, Foam asked a question.
"Have you had any demand for ransom?"
"No," replied Cross.
"Good. The lapse of time is against kidnapping. As a rule, you are not left long in the dark about the money end. But, of course, it is impossible for me to form an opinion, when I know nothing of the real facts... All the same, I think you've given her enough rope. It may be either accident or loss of memory. You should consult Scotland Yard."
With a throwback to his former restlessness, Cross got up from his chair and began to prowl around the room.
"I don't want to let the police in on my affairs," he confessed. "That doesn't sound too good—but I have my reasons. I want you to find her privately."
Apart from the question of future fees for the firm, Foam welcomed the request. He was not only annoyed by any unfinished work, but the case of the alleged disappearance of Evelyn Cross seemed linked up with Viola.
"I'll be glad to do my utmost," he promised. "But it's only fair to warn you that our agency can't be as effective as the Yard. They have a specialized organization for dealing with missing persons."
"How do they work?"
"They'd keep a tab on every blonde who figures in accidents, police-court incidents, inquests and cases of losses of memory. The airports, seaports, railway stations and coach stations would all be notified. And they'd ensure wide publicity through the press, the B.B.C., posters and so on."
"Just what I was getting at." Cross struck the bureau. "I'd sooner cut off my right hand than have her photograph published."
"But we shall want one to send to our agents," Foam warned him. "I promise you it shall not be reproduced in the press—and I'll guarantee secrecy."
"No. Besides I haven't got one."
"There's her passport photograph."
"She's got that. She always carries her passport in her bag."
Although Foam did not believe him, he reminded himself that his client's obstinacy originated in his instinct to protect his daughter.
"If we are going to find her, we shall want your cooperation," he remarked.
"I know that," said Cross. "I'm not going to hold out on you. Smoke?"
He gave Foam a small cigar and lit one himself.
"This is the low-down," he declared. "I'm British—but I've spent most of my life in Australia, Canada and the U.S. I've been comparatively poor until recently. Then I got a mining concession which promised to make me a millionaire. I wasn't able to wait for it to mature so I sold out. Directly after, the ore petered out. I give you my word there was nothing crooked—just a hunch—but I got a shoal of threatening letters. They figured the mine was salted—and I figured it was a good time to take a trip to Europe."
Foam made no comment on the confidence which was—more or less—what he had expected to hear. It did not matter to his client whether he believed him or not. The important point was to work on the case without blinkers.
"It boils down to this," he remarked. "You don't want any publicity, lest you should put any of these disillusioned people on your track?"
Cross nodded vigorously before he added, "You see, if one of these suckers got Evelyn, he'd be out for revenge more than ransom. That is why I can't rule out kidnapping."
"In that case, she must have been seized after she left Pomerania House. You know she could not have been kidnapped inside the premises right under your eye. Why didn't your chauffeur notice her when she came out?"
"Because he was driving round most of the time. When we came there before, the policeman told him off for parking too long in the Square."
"She left her hat in the car. Anything else?"
"Yes, her fur coat. She was carrying her bag."
"I see... Will you describe her?"
"She's about nineteen. Say five feet seven inches in her heels. I don't know her weight, but she's slim. Blonde hair. She wears it in a long bob and rolled up in curls in front. Blue eyes. Round face. A goodish bit made-up. She's got to cover a small red patch near her left eye."
"That birthmark is a bit of luck for you," said Foam bluntly. "It will save dragging you all over the country to identify casualties. Was she wearing distinctive clothes?"
"No, the usual smart west-end rig. Black suit, very short skirt, tan stockings, string of pearls and a white camellia."
As he jotted down the particulars, Foam cursed modern standardization. He felt he would have had a better chance had the missing girl been black haired and green eyed, with a thin, vivid face.
"Had she any love affair?" he asked.
"I don't know," replied Cross. "She's always had a bunch hanging round her. I'm too used to them to take special notice."
"Do you know how she spent her time over here?"
"No. I'm out all day on business. She comes with me in the car and I usually drop her somewhere. She plays round on her own—makes her own plans and tells me what show we're going to at night."
"Does she pick up strangers?"
Foam expected an explosion to follow his question but, to his relief, Cross accepted it as a matter of course.
"Sure she does," he said. "She gets that from me. I always talk to everyone. It's all right at home, but it seems it's all wrong here. Mrs. Stirling blames me for letting Evelyn off the chain. But I'd sooner let her take a chance in the open than put her in a cage like that poor Stirling kid. It's degrading to her and it's dangerous as well. Every machine breaks down in time. She's got a good brain, but her judgment and intuition must be so much pulp. What could she do if she found herself in a spot, with no one round? I call it criminal to take away anyone's liberty."
The outburst made Foam realize that his client was a man of natural strong passions in general, rather than a distracted parent, in particular. His eyes blazed and he shouted as though he were personally concerned about any menace to Beatrice Stirling.
"I still think this is a girl's freak," said Foam. "You would, be surprised at the number of voluntary disappearances which are investigated by the Yard. Young people don't confide in their parents."
"I don't want Evelyn's confidence," said Cross. "But I can't understand why she should want to walk out on me."
As he glanced around him, Foam had a glimmer of understanding. The apartment was nothing but an amalgamation of expensive material—plate glass, chromium, carpet and upholstery. There was no personal touch—no attraction to keep a girl at home and no welcome when she returned. While he made allowance for the fact that it was a hired flat, he remembered the seaside apartments of his boyhood on which his mother left her stamp after an hour's tenancy.
"She'll soon walk in," he prophesied. "We'll spare no efforts, but I must point out we've practically nothing to go on. Now you have doubts of the handwriting on the post card, we can't be sure whether your daughter went to Oxford. Assuming she did, we don't know whether she travelled by train, car or plane. We don't know whether she was alone or whether she had a companion. We don't know whether the companion was male or female. But, of course, we shall make inquiries at all the hotels in Oxford as to whether any blonde girl slept or ate there."
"Let me hear from you every day, news or no news," said Cross. "I'm too impatient to sit and knit... have a drink before you go."
Over a whisky-and-soda, he switched from the subject of Evelyn to Viola Green.
"I hear little Greeny got the Stirling job."
"I thought you were going to exert your influence in films." said Foam.
"Not on your life. How the devil do I know she can act? That girl ought to be staked by someone, but not by me. I've no interest in girls. If I make up to a woman, it's only because want to get in with her husband."
"Exactly. Never mix friendship with finance. While we are on the subject, has anyone any interest in your daughter's death? I mean—insurance?"
Cross looked fierce at the question, but he answered quietly.
"No one. I carry a goodish bit of insurance, myself, but I've not insured Evelyn for a cent. Besides, you have to produce your corpse before you can collect."
When he returned home that evening, Foam told his father about the case.
"You were right about the 'guess'," he said. "I haven't one fact to work from."
"What about the shoes?" asked the doctor.
"Just another complication. But we can neglect no chance. We shall have to make inquiries at every boot shop in Oxford, as well as the towns on the way, to find out if anyone remembers a blonde who bought a pair of shoes... In my opinion they did not belong to her at all. There's no earthly reason why she should have removed them and left them behind."
He would have been more perplexed had he known of a certain parcel which was lying in a Sunderland post office. The postmark was London, W.C.2, and it was addressed to a mythical inhabitant who was to call for it.
Apparently the mysterious Evelyn had shed more of her belongings on the day she disappeared. For inside the wrappings was the identical black suit which the porter had noticed when he watched a blonde girl ascend the stairs at Pomerania House.
WITHIN the course of a few days, Viola had adapted herself to her new surroundings and taken the measure of the Stirling family. She was allotted a suite which was close to their apartment and which appeared a type of super-luxury to her after the deficiencies of No. 15, Pomerania House. Whenever she turned on the softly glowing concealed lighting, or tubbed in the green glass bathroom, she felt the resilience of a seahorse riding the crested surge.
On the debit side, there were pitfalls and disadvantages, particularly when Beatrice was testing her new companion with the merciless severity of youth. She was not only a natural athlete herself but had been coached in every game by experts, while Viola's skill was below the average. When they played golf, however, she managed to stay the course in the bitterest wind; and although she did not actually swim stroke for stroke with Beatrice, she remained in the water for the same length of time.
At first, Beatrice was inclined to be critical and contrast her with the inimitable Cassie. The American companion was older, besides being ultra-intelligent and steady as a rock. She could discuss economics and social conditions, while Viola—according to Beatrice's standard—was not educated. She only read thrillers and saw British and American pictures in preference to continental films.
Soon, however, she began to recognize an exciting quality in Viola which stimulated her to emulation, even while it baffled her to define it. She seemed possessed of a lightness of heart and spirits which was independent of circumstances and free from the control of others. It aroused not only her admiration but also a secret envy.
"What do you get out of life, Greeny?' she asked.
"Moments," replied Viola.
"What do you mean exactly?"
"I can't pin it down 'exactly.' Darling, you've the sort of mind that would crucify a butterfly. That's a compliment, of course. I have no brains, myself."
"But what special sort of moment?" persisted Beatrice.
Because Viola had been trained in elocution, but denied the chance to exercise her accomplishment, she loved the sound of her voice.
"A moment of flutter and dazzle," she replied. "Like foam in your eyes when you swim in the sea. There—and gone. Big things let you down. You expect too much of them, or you are too nervous and excited to realize them. It's only afterwards that you can enjoy them. I don't think anyone can be happy unless they can grasp the moment."
"And what happens then?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all... It's just being alive—and knowing it."
In her turn, Viola found Beatrice a curious mixture. Besides reading widely, she had travelled and remembered the places she saw. In some respects she was an intelligent and gracious adult with a genuine sympathy for poverty; in others, she was undeveloped as a child. Unfortunately, she had inherited some of her father's astuteness and delighted to display her sharpness at the expense of duller wits.
On the whole, however, she helped to redeem the race of rich girls in Viola's eyes. The situation was often delicate, especially as Viola had to be a shadow in the background whenever the heiress entertained young men; but if one of these dared to resent her presence, Beatrice snapped at him as fiercely as a crocodile with multiple toothache.
Viola saw little of the millionaire. He was a small, lean, grey man, devoted to his women, but otherwise so negligible that she was comfortably unaware of him as a power in the financial world. Her private name for him was "Billy goat," and she conceived the altogether false idea that he was controlled by his own wealth. In her imagination, she saw him as a puppet dragged through the market at the heels of his unruly millions, amid a chaos of stampeding bulls and bears. She soon lost her awe of Mrs. Stirling also, whom she had credited solely with devotion to ideals. The great little lady was a genuine philanthropist and was both simple and kind. She was entirely free from snobbery, which was partly due to the fad that the family felt itself set too high above social values to recognize them.
When it came down to bed rock, the real passion of her life was bridge. Although in consideration to others, she insisted on low stakes, she always wanted to win and was a bad loser. It was chiefly because of her devotion to the game that Raphael Cross was such a frequent visitor at the hotel.
In spite of the absence of news about his daughter, he was always excellent company. He had a fund of anecdotes about his experiences—most of which bore the stamp of a fertile imagination; but he was also a good listener, even if he could not resist the temptation to cap a story.
It was only when he was off his guard that his friends could detect the signs of strain in a sudden sag of his facial muscles and a blank stare, as though he were searching for someone who was not there.
"Whenever he's dummy, he's miles away," Mrs. Stirling confided to Viola. "And have you noticed the way he watches Beatrice?"
"I have." agreed Viola, who could always do justice to emotions. "There's wistful hunger in his eyes. Tragic."
Apart from her natural sympathy for him, he had given her further cause for gratitude. The first time they met in the hotel lounge, he drew her apart and spoke in a low voice.
"Are you keeping on your apartment?"
"I'd like to," she replied. "It's L.S.D. I rang up the major to ask if he would reduce the rent while I was away, but his telephone went out of action suddenly... I believe he trains telephones instead of seals."
"Leave it to me. I'll fix it for you."
Later when they were at dinner, he asked her a question.
"Who's paying the rent of your flat, Greeny, to keep it for you?"
"I am." said the millionaire. "Thank you for bringing it to my notice, Cross."
Viola divided her smile of gratitude between the men, for she did not want the trouble of moving from Pomeranian House.
No one liked to ask Cross for news of Evelyn, since he avoided the subject himself. Once however, Viola overheard a low-toned question from William Stirling.
"Any demand note yet, Cross?"
"No, thank Heaven," replied Cross. "It's not the worst yet. That's about all that keeps me going."
Then he raised his voice. "What's this I hear about a Baby Austin, Beatrice? Is it serious this time?"
"Mighty serious for him." Stirling replied for his daughter. "He'll be shot as my final hint."
Viola saw the pucker of Beatrice's brow and gave the girl's hand an impulsive squeeze. Although she knew that young Austin was far below Beatrice's standard in every way, she also guessed at a perverse passion which the heiress concealed for the young rip.
"Then I mustn't ask him to my lunch tomorrow," went on Cross.
Although the Stirlings preferred to entertain him at their hotel, he was their host sometimes when they went out at night. This was the first occasion that he had succeeded in collecting them for lunch and Viola was included in the party.
She could not force any enthusiasm for the invitation, for she was beginning to want the stimulus of real companionship. Here, she had either to provide entertainment for Beatrice or to act as audience to Cross, while a wide gulf divided her from Mr. and Mrs. Stirling. Her own pang of longing at the thought of Foam had inspired her gush of sympathy towards Beatrice.
She introduced his name hopefully into the conversation while she asked Cross a question.
"Have you seen Alan Foam lately?"
"No," he replied. "He rings me every day, of course."
"I'd like to meet him again. He bought me a dinner when I was hungry."
"Greeny," cried Beatrice in horror. "You can't mean that."
"Can't I? Then look at my figure... don't you wish you were poor, too?"
"Who is this Alan Foam?" asked Mrs. Stirling.
"He's the young chap who's trying to find Evelyn," explained Cross. "As a matter of fact, I'd like another opinion on him. You know how much I respect your judgment. I'm an unconventional bloke—so may I ask him to our lunch?"
"Do," said Mrs. Stirling graciously. "I will give you my impression of him afterwards."
Foam was not impressed by any condescension on the part of his client when he received the invitation. He had seen too many rich men writhing on the gridiron to be a respecter of wealth. It was only in the hope of meeting Viola again that he promised to be present.
It was a fine morning when he walked along the Embankment, with a cold blue winter sky and a windy river. As he climbed the hill up to the Strand he felt in holiday mood, and this was increased by the sight of Viola at the entrance to the Savoy Hotel.
"I thought you'd never come," she told him. "I've been waiting to get you alone. Confidentially, it's lonely to be rich. And now, we belong to the same profession. I'm a detective, too."
"Tell me all about the job," urged Foam.
"Not now. Later. Here's R. C."
Bearing down upon them like a torpedo, Cross grabbed Foam and took him over to the Stirling family. While he was drinking sherry, he had not the least idea that Mrs. Stirling was studying his reaction to her remarks. In his turn, he summed her up as a nice, quiet little woman, without any side.
When he was placed between the girls at lunch, he turned first to Beatrice in order to do his duty and get it over. Just as he was trying vainly to remember the name of Robert Taylor's new picture, she saved the situation by discussing politics. He soon discovered that she knew more about the subject than himself and that he could not satisfy her with platitudes when she demanded the basis of his statements.
It was a relief when Raphael Cross suddenly decided to assert his personality. Swooping down on his guests, he controlled the conversation and kept it spinning around himself. As their host, he was the central figure and he made them revolve around his axis. He was at the top of his form and gave an excellent imitation of a carefree man as he fired off his best cracks and led the laughter.
Suddenly he stopped dead in the middle of a sentence, arrested by the sound of his name uttered in a high-pitched voice.
"Well, I declare. If it isn't Raff Cross."
His guests all turned and looked in the same direction. A big, raw-boned woman—middle-aged and grizzled—was advancing towards their table. She was dressed like the average smart American tourist. Her suit was well cut—her hat was fashionable and worn at the correct angle on well-waved hair. Her veil was crisply new—her shoes and bag matched her colour scheme. Her sophistication, however, was superimposed on a primitive structure, for her skin was tanned and her eyes puckered from the sun and wind of the prairie.
Cross' face shone with welcome. Springing from his chair, he threw his arms around her wide shoulders and kissed her as impulsively as a boy.
"Nell," he shouted—"Nell Gaynor. Not a day older. You haven't changed a bit."
"Nor you," beamed the woman. "My word, it's good to see you again."
"He's a masterpiece;" whispered Viola. "That's life. You'd call it overacting on the boards."
With a guilty memory of ducking from his own maiden aunt, Foam watched the reunion. There was no doubt of the genuine warmth of Cross' greeting. He seemed to have forgotten that he was entertaining a multi-millionaire as he asked an eager question:
"How did you come, Nell? Fly?"
"No, ship. The same class all through. I've come on a tour of Europe. We've a dandy schedule. France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and then home. I've only three days to do London."
"With me. I'm showing you the sights."
"I know, Raff Cross, drinking dives and strip-tease acts. No thanks, I'll stick to my schedule... And now I'd like to meet your friends."
Recalled to the presence of his guests, Cross introduced her.
"This is Miss Nell Gaynor—one of my oldest friends and the greatest lady in the U.S.A. We used to fish and hike together when we were kids."
"Don't you believe him," declared Nell, beaming at Mrs. Stirling. "We are friends, but we weren't playmates. He's a good ten years older than me—and I'm no chicken. He's the same old liar in spite of his British clothes. They look all wrong to me."
Cross shouted with laughter.
"It's great to hear Nell on the warpath again," he said. "You always get the truth from Nell."
"Where are you staying?" asked Mrs. Stirling.
"At the English Speaking Union," replied Miss Gaynor.
"How interesting! A former secretary of mine is staying there at present. Her name is Miss Hereford. I'm hoping to see her soon. You must get in touch with her, for I am sure you will like her and she could probably be helpful to you. She knows the best ways of going to places. I will ring her up and tell her that anything she can do for you will be a personal favour to me."
"Thanks for the introduction. I'll look her up for certain. That reminds me. I've all the latest news about your folks, Raff."
As Nell spoke, the glow left Cross' face as suddenly as though a shutter had been slammed down over a fire.
"Not here." he said quickly. "One minute, Nell. I've something to tell you."
They watched him as he thrust his arm within hers and walked with her a short distance from the table. As he whispered to her, her pleasant face grew grave and she nodded several times, apparently in assent to a request. Then he raised his voice again.
"Won't you join us, Nell?" he invited.
"Can't," she replied. "I'm only here to pick up an Australian who's been lunching here. We're going to a show together, and she is coming back to the English Speaking Union afterwards for tea with me."
"Then I'll see you out."
When Cross returned to his table a few minutes later, he apologized to his guests.
"I was arranging to see Nell again," he explained. "That's a splendid woman."
By that time, Foam had given up hope of any private talk with Viola. She was now definitely part of the Stirling outfit, and he had to stand by and see her drive off with them at the end of the luncheon.
He was about to go when Cross spoke to him:
"I'm worried, Foam. I should have made Nell stay. But my throwing a party and her meeting a friend mucked things up. I've a deal to put through besides, this afternoon. All the same, I've a hunch I've slipped up... When she was talking to me, there were strangers sitting all around, listening. There was quite enough to link her with me."
"Does she know that your daughter has disappeared?" asked Foam.
"Not yet. I was scared she'd blurt out a question about Evelyn and I couldn't bring myself to explain in cold blood, before other people. When I was whispering to her, I warned her there was bad news and asked her not to mention my family or my affairs until she'd seen me again."
"When will that be?"
"This evening. She's coming to dinner. Now there's something I want you to do about that... hold on a minute. I've got to telephone first about some stock."
"Right," said Foam. "I want to ring the office, too, to put off an appointment. I'm too late for it."
Apparently everyone seemed to have the same idea, for he had to wait his turn to get a box. By chance the first to become vacant was adjacent to the one where Cross was conducting a heated conversation. Even through the glass, Foam could hear his raised voice although he could not distinguish the words. His client was evidently having trouble in making his meaning clear, for suddenly he shouted in anger:
"I said 'Hereford,' you fool."
As he got his own number, Foam vaguely wondered where he had heard the name before. It was not until he was back at the office that he remembered that Mrs. Stirling's late secretary was a Miss Hereford.
At the time it was merely an unimportant coincidence. It was not until the end of a blood-stained case that he realized its importance.
WHEN Foam came out of the telephone box, Cross was waiting for him.
"Glad to have had this chance of meeting you socially, Foam," he said. "Now it's over, I have a commission for you. It's outside your professional line, but you must charge up our time in the usual way."
"What is it?" asked Foam.
"It's Nell—I told you she was coming to dinner with me tonight. I offered to send the car for her but she shouted me down. She wants to walk and see all she can of London. I'd feel easier if she had company on the way, because she's a stranger. I've an important deal pending and I have to stay close to the phone all day. So I'd be glad if you would call for her at the English Speaking Union, and bring her to my hotel."
Foam was about to recommend the services of a district messenger when a glance at Cross' furrowed brow made him change his mind. He reminded himself that this man had been recently a generous host and that it was more worth while to preserve his peace of mind than his own petty professional pride.
"What time?" he asked.
"She said she couldn't start before six. Nell's always great on a schedule. Show up in good time even if she's got to keep you waiting. It's a lady's privilege, you know."
Foam consulted his engagement book.
"This side six," he commented. "Yes. I can make it."
He returned to the office in an irritable mood and was sharp with the new typist when she assured him that the grammatical errors in his letters were due to his dictation. He was satiated and—at the same time—starved, since he had eaten a heavy lunch and scarcely exchanged a dozen sentences with Viola. At the time, it was enough to sit beside her, but now that it was too late, he cursed himself for a missed opportunity.
It was a relief to leave the office and start for Nell's club. He felt that a good walk would calm his nerves, besides giving him a chance to learn something of Cross' early history. Although Nell had been warned not to speak of his private affairs, the woman was so blunt and simple that she would probably talk freely when she gossiped about old times.
He reached the English Speaking Union at five minutes to six, only to be told that Miss Gaynor had left about ten minutes previously. With so much start, and with no knowledge of her route, he felt that any attempt to overtake her would be a hopeless proposition, so he returned to the office. His day's work had been shot to bits, but now that his chiefs and the staff had left, he pottered about for some time, picking up the threads of an interrupted case.
Presently he felt justified in starting for home. When he got outside the building, however, he discovered that his mind was not at rest. Raphael Cross had been insistent that Miss Gaynor should have an escort. Although it was not his fault that he had missed her, he decided it would make a better impression if he assured himself of her safe arrival.
He did not want to return to the office to telephone, and the only public call box he passed was occupied, so he resolved to go slightly out of his way and call at Cross' hotel. It had turned foggy again, and as he walked through the dim Mayfair streets he seemed to have wandered back to the timeless atmosphere of Berkeley Square. The air was laden with raw vapour, and the moist pavements were speckled with bone-dry patches which marked the spots where fallen plane leaves had lain. In the circle of light from each street lamp, they looked weirdly bleached and brittle like dead butterflies stamped into the stone.
Spectral pedestrians bumped into him with material force. Buses rolled by with windows steamed by the breath of passengers. It was a relief to reach Cross' hotel and get out of the chill damp.
The entrance hall, with its thick rose-pink carpet and its brilliant strip lighting, was a pleasant contrast to the outside fog; but in spite of the warmth and comfort he was again vaguely conscious that he disliked the place. This impression persisted while he mounted in the lift to the top floor and remained with him until he reached Cross' flat, so that he was reluctant to ring the bell.
The door was opened instantly by Cross. His blue eyes were heavily ringed, as though the skin around the sockets had been artificially darkened—an effect which combined with his velvet smoking jacket to give him a theatrical appearance.
"Where's Nell?" he asked sharply.
"I imagined she was here," replied Foam. "She left her club at a quarter to six, so I missed her. Sorry."
Cross began to gnaw his lip.
"Queer," he said. "It's not like Nell to let me down."
"She's on the way," Foam reminded him. "Remember it's a lady's privilege to be late."
"Yes that might be it. I'll ring up her club. Maybe she went back or something and then stayed talking. Nell would be chatty with a corpse... don't go, Foam. Just hang around until I'm through."
Nodding casually, Foam picked up an evening paper which lay on a table. He wanted his own dinner and could not understand such anxiety about the safety of a mature woman. Expectant of good news, he barely looked up when Cross returned to the hall.
"She's not there," he said, breathing heavily. "What can be keeping her?"
"Lost her way," suggested Foam.
"She speaks English. Besides, she could take a taxi."
"Probably she got tired and dropped into a news theatre on the way."
"That's more likely." Cross spoke more confidently. "Don't go, Foam."
"But I've got to get some dinner."
"You can eat here. I'll have a snack sent up for her when she comes. But if she doesn't come, I may want advice or help."
They went down to the restaurant for a most uncomfortable meal. Cross drank heavily but ate practically nothing, while he rushed the waiters ruthlessly through the courses. Throughout the dinner, he talked exclusively of Nell Gaynor.
"It was mighty queer to me to see her all dolled up," he said. "When she's at home on the farm she wears slops and an old broken hat. She does the work of two men and earns nothing but wrinkles and her keep."
"Then how did she manage to come on such an expensive holiday?" asked Foam skeptically.
"I'll tell you... Ever since her teens, she's been saving up for a trip to Europe. After her work was done—and she worked early and late—she'd slave at any odd job she could persuade the neighbours to give her. She'd hike miles to pick berries and then boil them into jelly to sell. She'd raise seeds and sell them for a dime a packet. She'd nurse and cook and sew. No one could get born or laid out without Nell. It's taken years of her life to scrape the cents together... But she's made the grade. When I saw her come in, in her smart new clothes, I wanted to stand up and cheer."
He added hastily, "You don't want cheese, do you? Then we'll go back to the flat. The coffee's filthy."
Foam accepted his fate and allowed himself to be propelled towards the lift. When they reached the hall. Cross turned to him.
"I wouldn't spoil your dinner for you. Foam," he said, "but I won't hide it from you. I'm worried stiff about Nell. It's foggy and she is not used to traffic on the wrong side of the road. I counted three ambulances going by before we went down to the restaurant."
"She's not triplets," Foam reminded him lightly. "Two of those were someone else—so why not the third?"
"But I feel something's gone wrong. That call's never come through."
Cross started at the question. Then the sudden flicker of alarm in his eyes died out and he compressed his lips, as though his agitation had betrayed him to the verge of some indiscreet admission.
"The call from the Overseas," he replied after a pause. "I'm having Nell paged there, in case she went back with her Australian friend. I'll give them another ring... have a drink, Foam. Help yourself."
Foam wished he could break away, but he did not like to desert his client. He mixed himself a whisky and splash and turned on the radio, keeping the pitch muted. Although he was of tough fibre, he realized that his own nerves were on edge for he felt a qualm of apprehension when Cross returned from the telephone.
"No news," he said thickly. "It's this waiting gets me down. But I'm sure something's happened to her. We must ring the hospitals and police stations."
Foam noticed that his brow was thickly beaded with sweat. He seemed so shaken that the detective offered to make the necessary inquiries.
"Try this district first," said Cross.
As he waited to get his number, Foam glanced around him with unreasonable dislike. The room was not repulsive but merely sterile and conventional. Carpet, curtains and upholstery were all of faint shades of brown and fawn, with blurred stripes and blotches which blended into the main pattern like a tiger in the jungle. Modern art was presented in a pale green statuette of a woman which resembled a deformed and lopped tree trunk. The only flowers were glass orchids in a beaten-brass bowl.
He could not understand his instinctive recoil because his imagination had been calloused by harsh facts later on—when he met a lady in the apartment, in circumstances of extreme horror—he remembered his shrinking and wondered if he had felt the first shiver in the air.
Even then, a shock was on its way. Contrary to his expectation, his first inquiry yielded a grim result. Steeling his voice, he spoke to Cross:
"Stand by for bad news."
After asking more questions and noting the details, he rang off.
"The local police station reports a middle-aged woman was knocked down by a car in the Square this evening, about six-thirty her passport was in her bag—I'm afraid there's no doubt it's your friend."
"What hospital?" asked Cross.
"You mean—she's dead?"
"I'll go right over. You wait here."
Foam was relieved that he had not to share the ordeal of identification. He mixed himself another drink and began to pace the room. Presently he realized that he kept lighting fresh cigarettes which only survived a few puffs. As he remembered that Cross had done the same while waiting for the result of the builders' demolition of Goya's flat, he had some glimmer of his client's state of suspense.
"There's no mistake he's been put through it," he reflected.
Presently he heard the outer door bang to as a sign of Cross' return. When he came into the room, he walked directly to the table—splashed brandy into a glass—and swallowed it in a gulp. Then he slumped down into a chair as though every muscle were nicked.
"It's Nell," he said, covering his face with his hands.
Suddenly, to Foam's surprise, tears trickled through his fingers while his shoulders shook with sobs.
"I never thought I could feel like this." he said. "I'm hard—Nell's got me beat... It's her poor face—all bloody where the car ran over it."
Foam tried to steady him with a practical question.
"Were there witnesses of the accident?" he asked.
"Did the police reconstruct it?"
"Yes, the marks were on the road. They couldn't miss it. The swine never stopped. It was murder. Foul and deliberate murder."
Foam paid little attention to the charge. Cross had been drinking all the evening and was strung up to a pitch of hysteria when his vision was distorted.
"Let yourself out, Foam," commanded his client. "Bring me the brandy. I'm drunk—but I've got to pass out. I've got to forget her face."
Convinced that he could be of no further service, Foam was only too grateful to return to his Highgate home. He was unusually appreciative of its old-fashioned comfort as he entered the drawing room. There was a red caked fire, a dog snoring on the rug, and two sane and vigorous parents. Outside the window was a belt of laurels—inside were thick grass-green curtains, excluding every draught. Mrs. Foam, who liked a warm atmosphere, always referred to them guiltily as, her "crime against hygiene."
When Alan told them the story of Nell's tragedy, she was chiefly concerned by the fact that her precious son had practically eaten no dinner.
"God rest her soul," she said briskly. "What did you have for lunch, Alan?"
After she had dragged from him the entire menu, she seemed to resent it as a challenge to her own housekeeping.
"Nothing I couldn't give you, myself," she snorted. "Cook's in bed—praise be—so I can raid the larder and find you some real food."
After she had gone, her husband displayed his usual interest in his son's case. His shrewd eyes were grey slits in his red face as he made a suggestion:
"I appreciate the fact that you can only tell me snippets, Alan. At the risk of being youthful, it seems to me that the poor woman knew something which had to be suppressed,"
"No, Doc," said Foam. "It was an accident. But there is one queer point. My client seemed to believe she was doomed because he didn't receive a telephone call."
When Cross rang up his office the following morning for news of Evelyn, his voice sounded normal. It held the usual eager pitch which slurred down to dull acceptance when he heard there was nothing to report.
Later in the week he called at Girdlestone & Gribble's and asked to see Foam, His composure was absolute as he explained the reason.
"I've been busy over this bad business of poor Nell's death," he said. "She's only got a married brother with no family he's a heel. Nell worked the farm. All the same, I had to ascertain his wishes about the body. And, of course, I had to attend the inquest. Lucky break for the police I was able to identify the body."
"What's being done?" asked Foam.
"I'm to have her cremated. That's why I'm here. I want to book you in for the funeral... Poor Nell always wanted a slap-up burial. She used to joke about it. 'None of your coffee-and-cake beanos for me. Bury me with sherry-and-ham.'... I don't want to be the only one there. I'll pay for your time and I'll bring your flowers. Nell loved lots of flowers at funerals."
Foam conquered his first impulse to refuse.
"I'll come," he promised, "but only as a matter of sentiment. Cut out the payment." He added in a casual voice, "What was the verdict of the inquest?"
"Death from misadventure," replied Cross.
"You accepted it?"
"Of course. What the hell are you getting at?"
As Foam remained pointedly silent, he laughed bitterly.
"You mean I talked about murder when I was plastered. But things are best left as they are. I can't afford to stir up any mud as long as my girl is missing. Besides, what's the good? I can prove nothing. It would only give her brother useless pain."
Foam scribbled on his pad as he mentioned a new possibility.
"I know you cautioned Miss Gaynor not to gossip about our business," he remarked. "But she struck me as having a frank and expansive nature. Do you think she mentioned anything about your daughter or yourself to her Australian friend during the afternoon?"
"She did not," replied Cross. "I had the same idea, so I called at the Overseas Club and asked the woman to repeat everything—however trivial—that Nell said about me. I was too cautious. If only she had talked before she died."
When Foam promised to attend Nell's funeral, he had no idea of the length of the journey. He stifled base regret for wasted time as the motor hearse turned off at the Horns, Kennington, to proceed on the long trail up Brixton Hill, past blocks of new flats at Streatham, downhill and skirting the Common to Norbury.
They were not the only mourners at the chapel. The Australian was there, out of sympathy for a fellow tourist who had been cheated out of her holiday. She was accompanied by an American lady—a complete stranger to Nell—who wanted to pay respect to a compatriot and also to witness an English ceremony.
Foam felt unusually responsive to the pathos of the occasion. When the short dramatic service was over and the coffin sank from sight, he had a sudden clear vision of Nell's, beaming face.
As he thought of their brief meeting at the Savoy Hotel, he was teased by a clouded memory which worried him like a hair against his cheek. Unlike the perfect witness at a murder trial, he could not remember distinctly everything which had been said; yet he was vaguely conscious of a discrepancy—insignificant in itself—which might acquire importance when placed in conjunction with another forgotten trifle.
It was as though Nell were trying to tell him that she had spoken before she died, and that her words would be the last link in the solution of the mystery of Evelyn Cross.
WHILE Foam's agents chased elusive blondes across the map of the west country, the horror was limping on its way to Raphael Cross' flat...
Apparently he had no instinctive warning of its approach. His recovery from the shock of Nell Gaynor's death appeared as complete as the stoicism with which he accepted his daughter's continued absence. But, although he seemed to be in excellent spirits, the intelligent Beatrice was not deceived.
"He's black and bitter inside—and he makes the air black and bitter too," she confided to Viola. "I can feel it whenever he's near. Have you noticed that he laughs only with his teeth? I don't believe he ever forgets."
"Then he's putting on a good show," approved Viola.
As though to justify her compliment, Cross further vindicated his detachment by giving a small party in the flat which had no hostess. His hospitality was not entirely voluntary, for Mrs. Stirling expressed a wish to see his hotel.
"I'm curious about people's backgrounds—when I like them," she said.
"Mine's a very simple affair after yours," Cross warned her. "Just rooms with service. I only wanted some quiet place where I could relax and where Evelyn could ask her friends for a drink."
"But I'd like to see it."
"I'll be honoured. Shall we say tomorrow evening?"
Viola was rather annoyed to be included in the party. On similar social occasions—when Beatrice accompanied her parents—she was not supposed to require official protection, so that Viola, as well as the detectives, was off duty.
When the Stirling party reached the hotel. Cross escorted them directly to the restaurant. He had chosen a meal with discrimination and supplemented the wines, while the manager had made himself responsible for the arrangements. At the end of the dinner, the millionaire and his wife insisted on his presentation, that he might receive their congratulations and the ladies might accept his sprays of orchids.
Viola, who was left out of the floral decorations, looked on with a somewhat thin smile during the little ceremony; but the social atmosphere remained warm, and the Stirlings were in a gracious mood when they mounted to the top of the building for their inspection of Cross' flat.
According to his custom, the millionaire made no comments, but he accepted his host's cigar as a sign of his approval. While he smoked it, he alternately watched his wife and daughter with a tight-lipped half smile. Mrs. Stirling was in a rarely expansive frame of mind when she insisted upon being charmed with everything. She might have been a bride, exploring her future home as she fluttered around, calling her daughter's attention to features which had no novelty and asking eager questions about the fixtures. "I'm enchanted," she declared. "It's perfect."
Cross stopped in the act of pouring out coffee.
"Not perfect," he said. "There's no hostess. I shouldn't be doing this."
"Oh, you poor man. Let me—"
"No. I'm keeping her place warm for her to carry on again."
Then, to reward her enthusiasm, he answered her unspoken question and told her the only thing she wanted to know—the rental of the flat.
She was indignantly impressed by the figure.
"Only that? William, did you hear? Think of what we have to pay for nothing."
"It's called 'The Royal Suite,'" her husband reminded her.
"There's nothing in a name. It's atrocious how we are always exploited. I often wonder what we pay for?"
"Indiscretion." Stirling chuckled as he added, "When a woman confides to the press that she had soaked her old man for a small fortune in diamonds alone, it stands to reason she's not shown the bargain basement."
"Besides, my sweet," broke in Beatrice, "you'd hate it really. You'd miss all the extras on your bill. You like to think you are simple—but we all know that you're terribly complex."
As Mrs. Stirling's delicate face began to acquire the pained expression which was her substitute for sulking, Cross saved the situation.
"Simple or complex," he said, "women are all alike in one thing. They are superstitious... And so are most business men."
"Are you?" she asked.
"Yes... Sometimes I feel tempted to go to a clairvoyant about Evelyn. But the only one I have any confidence in is Goya. I could never go near her now, after the way I was stung over her room. Yet she seems to be psychic. A chap in the city told me she gave him a winner."
Beatrice's eyes lit up with excitement. "I've simply got to consult her," she declared. "Greeny, we'll make it tomorrow."
"No," said Cross sharply. "Don't let her go to that joint, Stirling."
"There's no need for her to go," remarked the millionaire with grim humour. "I'm psychic too. My spirit guide tells me I shall never have a son-in-law named 'Austin.'"
"No," agreed Cross. "Beatrice must wear a coronet. Nothing short of the best is good enough for her."
Beatrice laughed and tossed her head as though in rejection of homage which was her right. As usual, she wore white, and her frock of sprigged silk accentuated her youth. That night, as a privilege, she had been allowed to wear colour—a string of corals—which matched her lips. But although she was a charming picture, she lacked the beauty which alone could justify her parents' idolatrous admiration.
As she watched the group, Viola felt suddenly impatient with the conditions of her new life and critical of her companions. Mrs, Stirling looked delicate and expensive as porcelain in peach brocade, while the men both appeared more distinctive in evening dress. They made her think of a young man who often wore the same suit all round the clock—a man with resolute eyes who called himself "rough and common."
Foam belonged to the things which were real; the shifts of her flatlet—the scraping and subterfuge—the heart-breaking pursuit of the Gleam. At that moment, she felt both homesick and very lonely.
She started at the sound of a loud double knock.
"I expect that's my mail," remarked Cross. "I never get a chance to collect at the bureau. It's always brought up. These young rascals know I'm good for a tip."
He went into the hall and opened the outer door.
"Only one, sir," announced a boy's hopeful treble, "but it's 'urgent.'... Thank you, sir,"
Cross returned, whistling an air from The Beggar's Opera. He was about to flick the letter down on the bureau when he glanced at it. Instantly his tune stopped in the middle of a bar.
"The address is printed," he said.
"Open it," commanded the millionaire sharply.
"Yes... of course."
As Cross made no attempt to rip the envelope, but stood staring at it like a man hypnotized by a snake, Mrs. Stirling took it from his limp fingers. Slitting it open, she read it aloud in a low voice...
"You can have your daughter back for the sum of five thousand dollars in one-pound British treasury notes. Bring parcel to Victoria station yard Friday night at 11.30. Leave it in telephone booth marked with chalk cross. Clear off at once and do not look round. Remember you will be under observation. If you play fair, your daughter will return—same night. Don't inform police. If you do, it will be too bad for her."
Cross showed no sign of emotion as he listened.
"I've been expecting this," he said in a flat voice. "I knew they were holding her."
Viola was ashamed of her excitement at the invasion of drama. The dead atmosphere of the steam-heated room had suddenly become quickened with seething emotions—fear, pity, suspicion, anger. She noticed that the millionaire's face had grown grey, while his wife appeared to have shrunk as they both gazed fearfully at Beatrice.
"They are only thinking of their precious Beatrice," she thought. "She's safe enough with her bushel of hand-picked detectives. The other poor girl may be in terrible danger. But it's nothing to them."
The millionaire broke the silence.
"You know what you have to do, Cross," he said harshly. "You must ring up the police at once."
"No," protested Cross. "I dare not risk it."
"You must. It's tough, but you've got to face up to it. It's your only chance. If you don't call their bluff, these vermin have got you on the spot. To start with, their price is too low. That's phoney in itself. It means they will keep on raising it on you. Then again, you've no guarantee they'll stick to their part of the bargain."
"It's easy for you to talk," Cross reminded him, "It's not your daughter. You wouldn't risk it, yourself."
As Stirling protruded his lower lip stubbornly, Viola caught his wife's instinctive movement of protection as she stepped in front of her daughter. Although her small face remained composed, her eyes held both fear and defiance as she listened to her husband.
"If it were Beatrice, I'd notify the police at once. Kidnapping is the vilest crime of cowards who work in the dark. But my policy is always to come out into the open and start a fight. Mark my words—these skunks will take your cash and keep your girl."
Suddenly Viola wanted a cool professional opinion to clear the air of the conflicting currents of emotions. While she admitted that she was biased in favour of Alan Foam, it was also common sense for Cross to avail himself of paid service.
"Your detective should have a chance to earn his money," she dared to suggest. "Couldn't he trace this person by the letter?"
"Not a hope," said the millionaire. "The postmark is 'E.C.4.' That proves the letter was written elsewhere. The paper is on any standard block and there won't be incriminating fingerprints. Even the police could make nothing of it."
"It's spelt correctly," commented Beatrice. "Perhaps this letter is a hoax."
Stirling smiled with pride.
"I believe Beatrice has got something there," he declared. "It could be an attempt to touch you by someone who's not got your girl. One of the complications of every kidnapping case is the horde of money-sucking scoundrels on the make."
"Then you still don't think she is kidnapped?" asked Cross. "Not even after this letter?"
"No. I think it got us rattled so that we forgot the facts. Your own detective sticks to it that it's a case of voluntary disappearance. But the chief point against it is the length of time which has elapsed before a demand for ransom. There's no sense in that."
"Who knows of Evelyn's disappearance besides ourselves?" asked Mrs. Stirling.
"Quite a bunch," replied Cross. "Of course, I've told them at the hotel she's away visiting. But there were plenty at Pomerania House that day. Major Pomeroy, the girl who was studying, Goya, a bunch of typists and Greeny."
Viola felt an unpleasant sensation of spurious guilt as they all looked at her at the mention of her name. Although her conscience was clear, the millionaire's searching eyes made her realize not only her responsibility regarding his daughter but also the shrivelling effect of being under suspicion.
"You can cut out the girls," declared Cross. "The major's only prune juice. He's incapable of a criminal act... Still, any one of them might have talked. It could have come round to some unprincipled person."
"I am sure it is leakage," said Mrs. Stirling. "R.C., you really must ring up the police."
"What can they do?" he asked.
"Leave it to them. They know the ropes. But these wretches who are trying to make capital out of someone's trouble deserve to be punished."
"You're right. I believe the letter is a hoax. Ring up the Yard."
Cross walked to the telephone. His resolution lasted until the end of the official interview. "If we are wrong," he said, "I have just killed my girl."
THE following morning, Cross called at the office of Girdlestone & Gribble to tell Foam about the anonymous letter. He appeared to be depressed and convinced that he had made a mistake as he explained the situation.
"The Stirlings filibustered," he declared. "Father, mother and daughter talked and talked until I gave way against my own judgment. It's out of my hands now. The police are taking action tonight."
If Foam considered that he had received shabby treatment, he showed no sign of personal feeling.
"If the letter is genuine," he said, "it is a case of kidnapping, and I would prefer the police to deal with it. If it is phoney, then your daughter is still missing and I must continue on the job as long as I am retained... By the way, do the police know about your affairs?"
"No. I told them my daughter walked out on me and that I put a dick on her trail. Like you, they think it is an escapade. Their idea is there's been some exaggerated gossip about the affair and some smart Aleck is trying to cash in on it."
"Do you know what line they are taking tonight?"
"Yes. They've arranged an ambush and a dummy ransom," explained Cross. "Their note said I was to deliver it in person. But I told the police I was bound to see red and smash in someone's face. So one of their men of my height and build will act as stooge,"
"I take it they will ring you at once to let you know exactly what breaks?"
"Of course." Cross mopped his forehead as he added, "It's this waiting gets me down. That letter was a direct threat to Evelyn."
"I don't think you need take it too seriously," said Foam. "According to you, this unknown enemy of yours is one of your dupes. That in itself proves he is not so sharp as yourself. Why should you credit him with extra cunning and resource? For one thing, he's short of cash, if you cleaned him out."
As Foam expected, Cross' mercurial spirits bounded up at the reminder.
"That makes sense," he remarked. "D'you know. Foam, you're the only decent chap I've struck in this business. Everyone else seems out to hurt... That's why I gave the police your office number and told them to ring me up here tonight. But if I've crashed the lights, I can cancel the order."
"Why here?" asked Foam.
"Because there's nowhere else. I don't want to inflict myself on the Stirlings and I don't want the message to go to my hotel. The night clerk will be bored, and when he hears it's from Scotland Yard, he'll listen in to my private affairs. I've had to leave a hotel before this because the management didn't want any connection with the police. They are sensitive on the subject. And I want to stay put."
"I understand," Foam assured him. "Certainly you can come here to take the call. I'll make it right with my chiefs."
"Thanks... But there's something else. I want you to be here, standing by. I might need advice or action. Of course, you'll be paid for your time."
Foam was too used to night work to raise any objection, so he promised to return to the office at eleven o'clock. To his annoyance, however, he could not forget the appointment. Its memory persisted through the day's routine, as a vaguely unpleasant ordeal. He surprised his mother by arriving home at Highgate in time for dinner, but he paid for his punctuality by a restless evening, prowling from room to room.
It was an actual relief when he wished his parents "Good night" and went from the warm comfort of the house to the outside chill and gloom. As he had time to spare, he walked the short distance from the tube station, so he was surprised to find Raphael Cross waiting for him outside the office.
He wore a cape over evening dress and an opera hat tilted to one side of his head, while under his arm was tucked a bottle of whisky. As he stood there in the shadow of the doorway, he reminded Foam of some tipsy masher from the nineteenth century—an illusion fostered by the dark Hogarthian buildings and the gibbous moon which was just crawling above the roof line.
He explained his festive attire—"Loaned the copper my hat and coat." Then he pointed to the whisky. "Got to fortify," he said.
"Good idea," agreed Foam.
He steered his client into Mr. Girdlestone's private room which, for no reason at all, was called the board room. It was a vast Victorian apartment, furnished with massive chairs arranged around a central table. The wallpaper was brown and covered with gilt ferns, while the new Axminster carpet combined crude colours—red and green—with an uneasy sprawling pattern.
Over the marble mantelpiece was an oil painting of Girdlestone's father, as though to suggest the founder of the firm; but, as a matter of fact, the gentleman had been painted to celebrate freemasonic promotion. There was also an attractive framed portrait of Mrs. Gribble, who photographed well. At one time, there had been one of Mrs. Girdlestone also, but it had been mislaid by the cleaner. Fortunately, the men were too used to it to notice its loss, and both of them referred impartially to the survivor as "The Missus."
Cross noticed it immediately. "Pretty woman," he remarked. "Edwardian. She's not like that now. Are those her own teeth?"
"Hanged if I know," replied Foam.
"Isn't she your missus?"
"Good night, no. Old enough to be my mother."
"Of course... Got any soda?"
"No. We'll have to hitch up to the tap."
Foam knew that Cross was talking in order to control his nerves. He invited him to take Mr. Girdlestone's deep leather chair while he hunted for a corkscrew and glasses.
"Not long to go," he remarked.
Cross looked at the clock and groaned.
"An eternity. Foam, I am in hell. I'm doomed to spend my life waiting. Remember Nell? She never came. And all the time, she was lying out there in the road. And now this. Waiting."
"You did the right thing to let in the police," Foam assured him.
"If I've not, it's Evelyn takes the rap."
The two men drank and smoked in silence broken only by the hoots of traffic. They watched the dock continuously and, from time to time, consulted their watches. It was plain that Cross was in a torment of suspense which presently affected the case-hardened Foam.
His thoughts were concentrated on the drama which was being enacted at Victoria. He wondered if it was running according to schedule, or whether there were unexpected complications supplied by members of the public. The whisky he had drunk began to flaw his imagination; so that the station did not seem the familiar terminus where he had often stalked quarry. It was dark and filled with shadows, where watchers awaited the approach of the blackmailer. The telephone box marked with a cross acquired a sinister significance. Even at that moment, a stealthy form might be stealing inside.
Suddenly the telephone bell began to ring with a shrill clamour. Foam leaped to answer it, but before he could reach it, Cross had snatched it up from the table. As he listened to the message, he stared before him with incredulous joy and wonder.
"Yes," he mumbled. "I'll be right over."
His hand was shaking as he rang off.
"She's back," he said hoarsely. "I can't believe it. Eve's back."
The news was so unexpected that Foam could not credit it.
"How d'you know?" he asked.
"They've just rung up from the hotel. I left this number at the desk in case anything broke. I never dreamed of this. We must go over there at once."
Foam was curious to see the girl of whom he had heard so much. Even then, it was difficult to believe that she was actually at the apartment where he would see her in the flesh. It was a triumph of duty over inclination when he reminded Cross of the expected message from the police.
"That doesn't matter now," declared Cross. "Besides, I don't want the line blocked. I've got to ring Evelyn. I must hear her voice again."
It was a natural wish, yet Foam felt impatient at the delay. After the call was put through to the hotel. Cross had to wait for the porter to connect him with his flat. Presently, however, a fatuous smile spread over his face.
"That you, honey?" he shouted. "Where've you been?... Bad girl... You bet I'll hear all about it.. listen, I've got a young chap here who's been trailing you for me. Just say something to him."
Foam took the receiver which was moist from his heavy breathing. The next second he heard the faint tinny notes of a light soprano voice.
"Hallo. Are you the sleuth?"
"I am," replied Foam. "You've been very elusive. I suppose I am speaking to Miss Cross?"
"Evelyn to you. You've been looking for me in the wrong places. I'll let you in on a secret. The right place is here. Come over and check up... Bye-bye."
She rang off with a tinkling laugh. Directly the wire was dead. Foam had the strange feeling that he had been talking to a ghost. In his impatience to meet her, he experienced the irritated frustration of a film patron when the heroine procrastinates on the verge of rescue. While they were wasting time, Evelyn might disappear again. It seemed as impossible to capture her as to pin down a flicker with the point of a knife.
"Shall we start?" he suggested.
Cross nodded, but stopped to refill his glass.
"She's been away with a boy friend," he explained. "Well, that's youth. Suppose I shall have to put her over my knee... Come on."
When they were outside the office, Foam looked around in vain for a taxi. Although the hotel was not far away, he felt it would take too long to walk, as Cross seemed inclined to stagger. His own legs were not entirely reliable, while the old buildings showed an ominous tendency to rock in the light of the misshapen moon.
He seemed to be trapped in a nightmare where it was impossible to make progress. At the same time, he was plagued by a realization of urgency. His brain worked remorselessly to reassemble morbid possibilities. He reasoned that if Cross were really being followed by an enemy, that person would watch his hotel. Therefore, the girl's absence would be no secret to him. He would assume naturally that she was away on a visit—but he would be waiting for her to return.
Up to this point, she had been under masculine protection. Here was the psychological moment when she was vulnerable to attack—after she had left her lover but had still to make contact with her father.
It was a great relief when a taxi stopped to drop its fares a few yards away. He hailed it although the hotel was only the other side of Piccadilly. After he had given the address and climbed inside, Cross shouted a direction to the driver.
"Stop at the first chemist."
He explained the reason for the delay as, instead of merely crossing the lighted thoroughfare, they began to cruise slowly along in the wake of a string of traffic.
"I'm tight. Foam. I can't meet Evelyn in this state."
After they had stopped at a chemist's he appeared sober enough to display expert knowledge on the subject of a draught. Foam chafed at the delay, although it was justified by the result. Soon they were back in the taxi and turned from the rushing river of lights into the dark canal of a side street. As the floodlit front of the hotel came in sight, Cross gripped Foam's arm.
"Evelyn's up there," he said. "Or did I dream it?"
"We talked to her over the phone," Foam reminded him.
They pushed their way through the revolving door and interviewed a sleepy porter in a mulberry uniform.
"Did my daughter go up to the flat?" asked Cross.
"Yes, sir," replied the man casually. "She took the key. She said she'd let you in."
A drowsy page—who was still awake to the possibility of a tip—rushed to take them up in the lift. As they mounted, Foam remembered his repugnance when last he had made the ascent. The bleak and stereotyped room had been the scene of a vigil for a dead woman. It was a happy thought that even now it was transformed by the atmosphere of a light-hearted girl. Probably Evelyn had strewn her possessions around it—her hat on a chair, her lipstick on the table, her cigarette ends on the floor.
He felt both excited and expectant as he followed Cross down the corridors to the flat lights were turned on in the hall and a glow streamed through the open door of the sitting room. With a jubilant "Cooee," Cross burst inside...
Foam waited in the vestibule so as not to intrude on their meeting. Within the first few seconds, however, the silence told him that something was wrong. There was no squeal of delight from the girl—no eager rush of feet.
Instead, he heard a dull thud as though someone had fallen to the ground. Rushing into the room, he stood in the doorway, while his heart seemed to turn over.
At first, he could not credit what he saw. A blonde girl was seated in one of the big chairs. She wore a tight black suit, the skirt of which was wrinkled above her knees to display slim legs in tan silk stockings. All the marks of identification were present, including a string of pearls and a tiny red triangular scar. Her hair was attractively fair—her eyes round and blue.
But they were dead and staring—her face was darkly cyanosed—and a string was knotted around her throat.
At last Foam had met Evelyn Cross in the flesh—for only the flesh remained. Her hands were folded on her lap and supported a card which bore a roughly printed message:
This Comes To You Through The Courtesy Of The Police.
THE Stirlings did not hear of the tragedy until the next morning. Mrs. Stirling enjoyed the importance of announcing news, so Beatrice pandered to her weakness by never looking at the papers until they were—so to speak—formally declared open. As the embargo did not touch the financial press, the millionaire also kept to the tacit family agreement.
It was a shock to them all when—after she had read out the headlines of national importance—Mrs. Stirling gave a faint scream.
"Evelyn Cross has been murdered!"
Although her sensitive nature abhorred horror, she conscientiously gave them the details of the crime in a low controlled voice. As she listened, Viola vibrated with the same terrible excitement that had possessed her when the ransom note arrived. Every nerve tingled as though a wire of high voltage had released its current.
When she looked around her, she could hardly credit the fact that the other listeners were continuing breakfast. While she shuddered at the picture of a blonde girl—contorted in the agony of her struggles, with slim twisted legs and laddered stockings—Beatrice ate cereal and her father manipulated grapefruit.
Again she accused them of lack of sympathy and felt hotly resentful; for she was unable to realize that the family was egocentric on the subject of kidnapping. It was the shadow which overhung their lives and held a poignant interest. Because of its menace, they were putting up a brave show to disprove its reality—the parents acting to reassure Beatrice, while she—for their sakes—also played her part in a debunking drama.
"Look at us," they seemed to say. "Our detachment proves that we know we are immune."
The truth was they were severely shaken by the tragedy. It was impossible to ignore the existence of the octopus when its tentacles had just closed upon a victim—useless to reason that Raphael Cross and his daughter attracted sensationalism and that Evelyn had received no protection.
As though she suddenly remembered that Viola was an extra guard to her daughter, Mrs. Stirling looked at her with unconscious appeal.
The girl missed the message, for she was enthralled by the account of how Evelyn Cross came home for the last time. Her vivid imagination reconstructed each detail until she almost felt that she had assumed the personality of the victim. She knew exactly how Evelyn had thrilled when—as the night porter at the hotel testified—she had called out a gay "Good night" to her unknown escort.
The man had only heard a car drive on before she entered through the revolving door. Viola was sure that it was a triumphant entrance—brazen to the point of swagger. She had enjoyed an episode—so no regrets, thanks—and she was ready to receive the jolly old parental slipper.
Viola came with her every inch of the way, longing, yet impotent to drag her back. She mounted with her in the lift, which as it rose, foot by foot, took her nearer to what awaited her inside the flat. She accompanied her down the length of carpeted passages—unlocked the front door—and then stepped inside the hall.
Someone stood inside. Waiting for her...
A black mist passed before Viola's eyes—a roaring in her ears deadened the sound of Mrs. Stirling's low, rapid tones. The next second she shook off her morbid obsession. With a welcome return to normality, she became aware of hand-painted china-marigolds on the breakfast table and a copper-red sun shining through the fog.
With a fastidious shudder, Mrs. Stirling threw the paper aside.
"It's too revolting—too terrible," she declared. "I can't read any more."
Feeling convinced of unhealthy curiosity, Viola picked up the sheet to discover the horror which had conquered Mrs. Stirling's stoicism. It was there in a single line at the end of the account, stating the date of the inquest.
No one ever laughed at Mrs. Stirling since, in spite of her sweet nature, she had an acute sense of personal dignity. To atone for a lack of humour, her recognition of any call to service was unfailing. Although the repugnance in her dark eyes showed how she shrank from an unpleasant duty, she spoke firmly to her husband.
"Will, we must go to that poor man at once."
The millionaire chewed his lip as he mumbled a protest.
'I'm not sure we would be welcome. He may resent us."
"My dear, we did advise him to call in the police. This may be the unfortunate result."
"Then I shall go alone."
"No, no. Of course, I'll stand by the poor chap."
As she was leaving the room, Mrs. Stirling turned back to speak to Viola.
"We are all going to the Ritz for lunch with some very old friends from Boston. You will be free for that time. Miss Green, if you care to make any private arrangements."
Unaware that Beatrice was watching her, Viola did not hide her relief. She felt thoroughly out of sympathy with the Stirlings that morning because they seemed to claim a right to preferential treatment over smaller incomes. Directly the millionaire and his wife had started for Raphael Cross' hotel, she rushed to her room and telephoned to Alan Foam.
It was a disappointment when his secretary told her that he had not yet come to the office. Too impatient to leave a message, she rang on and hunted up his home address. She did not realize the extent of her daring until a discouraging feminine voice admitted grudgingly that she was connected with Highgate.
"Can I speak to Mr. Alan Foam?" she asked.
"You can not," said the voice. "Are you the office again? What I told you before stands. My son is asleep and I am not going to wake him. He's been out all night on the firm's business."
"It's not the office," Viola told her. "It's just—a friend. Will you ask him to ring me up?"
When it was too late to recall it, she regretted that she had not said "Miss Green," instead of blurting out her playful nickname. As the ferocious voice was identified as Alan's mother, she almost expected to hear her bite the wire in baffled fury. She was the more surprised, therefore, when Mrs. Foam spoke to her in friendly tones.
"I'll give him your message on condition you do something for me. Make him take you out to lunch—and see to it that he eats something. He is not as tough as he thinks. He's been standing by that poor man whose daughter's been murdered and he didn't come home until the small hours. The case is in the papers, so I'm not revealing secrets."'
"I'll stuff him," promised Viola before she commented on what had interested her most in Mrs. Foam's explanation. "He's got too much imagination to be tough," she declared.
"I'm surprised to hear you say so. You're the only one who's noticed it besides myself. You know, his heart is in the secret service, only he could never get the hang of German construction. Unless you hear to the contrary, the luncheon appointment will stand. We'll say one sharp, for he'll only bolt a cup of coffee for breakfast, as he is so late. What place shall I tell him?"
When Viola mentioned the modest restaurant where they had previously dined together, Mrs. Foam rang off with a satisfied smile. 'No gold digger,' she reflected.
Beatrice greeted Viola with a strained smile when she came into her sitting room. She knew that her companion would use her brief spell of liberty to resume her private life, which she only revealed in rare and exciting flashes. Although Viola told her nothing about her engagement, her face hinted that a mysterious entertainment was scheduled for the near future. "Lunching out?" she asked casually.
"Out," replied Viola. "What's your show like?"
"You mean the Boston friends? Oh, congenial. They'd probably bore you."
Viola did not notice the resentful note in Beatrice's voice, as her own thoughts slipped back to the crime. "I can't get poor Evelyn out of my head," she said. "I keep thinking about her. What was she like exactly?"
"Ask someone else. There's a convention about speaking no ill of the dead."
"Oh, don't be stuffy. I can always take the truth."
"But this is brutal truth. Honestly, she was inferior in every way. Her voice was common, and she had no conversation and no ideas. Of course, it was not her fault that she was uneducated. She attracted a crowd of men, and her taste was anything but discriminating."
Knowing that Beatrice's standard was exacting, Viola discounted much of the criticism. She told herself that Evelyn had been the average light-hearted, light-headed girl whom she had met while doing crowd work for the screen. If she had catholic tastes and would kiss a baker's boy as readily as a peer, then good luck to her. Probably the baker's boy had nicer lips.
"I'm glad she had her fling," she said softly. "Everyone should live."
"Everyone except a millionaire's daughter," amended Beatrice.
In her anxiety not to be late for her appointment, Viola was dressed and waiting for the Stirlings' return, so that she could discharge her responsibility in regard to Beatrice. They did not come until she was growing impatient to start. Unable to rush away immediately, she asked for news of Raphael Cross.
"He's a sight calmer than I am," said the millionaire, with a touch of resentment. "You'd think he didn't feel it."
"He doesn't," explained his wife gently. "His nerves are frozen by shock later on, I'm afraid he will suffer all the more."
In spite of her harassing mission, she had lost her shrivelled appearance and the light had returned to her eyes. When she began to talk eagerly, Viola believed she understood the secret of her relief.
"The police are sure it wasn't a kidnapping crime," she said. "The appearance of the body rules out any idea that she had been kidnapped when she disappeared."
"How?" asked Beatrice.
Although Mrs. Stirling contracted her delicate brows in token of a distasteful subject, she did not shirk the explanation.
"The body of a kidnapped person would bear signs of starvation, or ill-treatment, or personal neglect," she Sold her daughter. "Victims lose heart over their appearance and refuse to eat, even when they are fed. Besides they usually have no facilities, for taking care of themselves. But Evelyn was in perfect condition. She might have come straight from a toilet club. She had had a recent pedicure-enamelled hearts on her toenails—and she wore bridal lingerie."
"According to Greeny, she'd been living," explained Beatrice.
"That seems to be the police angle," agreed Mrs. Stirling. "They think she went off with a young man."
Viola waited for no more news of the crime. Hailing a taxi, she soon reached the small restaurant where Foam was waiting for her. He looked worn, but his face lit up at the sight of her while her own eyes glowed with welcome.
"This is a shabby dump after your present splendour," he remarked. "But you chose it."
She looked around her appreciatively as she seated herself opposite to him in a mahogany pew and inhaled the warm sauce-laden atmosphere. It was exactly as she remembered it during moments of depression; the same coarse, white tablecloth, dingy French mustard, thick crimson and green glasses and floral decorations—artificial daffodils with maidenhair fern.
"It's enchanting," she said, "all of it. You can count yourself in. You look so adorably rough. I'm sick of stuffed boiled shirts. Gosh, your eyes are red."
"I've been on the job all night," he explained. "Poor old Cross wasn't up to cope with police procedure."
"Did they really take photographs and measurements and fingerprints and statements and—"
"And everything they could take?" finished Foam. "Yes, they did."
She noticed the flatness of his tone and remembered her promise to his mother. "Don't let me hear another squeak, from you until you've had lunch," she commanded.
When he had finished his meal, he told her the main facts of the murder. She was thankful to hear that Evelyn could not have suffered, according to the medical evidence, as she had been stunned before being strangled. Her assailant had entered the room from the fire escape and through an open window; but he had been seen by no one and had left no clues to his identity.
"Cross told the police nothing about his private affairs," said Foam. "He admitted under pressure that his daughter picked up strangers and had been absent from the hotel, presumably living with a young man. In the circumstances, they conclude it is a crime passionel. The ransom demand proved a hoax. No one showed up at Victoria, so it looks like a device to lure the father from the flat. Cross kept the revenge angle to himself. But it's no odds. The police have a better chance, working on this line than I did when he confused the issues with a lot of dope about mysterious enemies."
"Do you mean he was just pulling your leg over them?"
"I know no more than you do. He kept me in blinkers. I ought to feel sore—but I'm only sorry for the poor devil. My hunch is, he found himself caught up in a delicate and complicated situation—owing to special circumstances—and he tried to lie his way out of it, thinking he acted for the best. Of course, he's a natural liar. He gave his Christian name to the police as 'Richard.' Admitted that he had snaffled 'Raphael' as more striking for business purposes."
"That's common sense," approved Viola. "I shall adopt another name when I've crashed the posters like the other film stars."
Her eyes grew dreamy as she watched the fading spiral of her cigarette smoke.
"Remember the first time we met?" she asked. "All the suspense and excitement, like the mistletoe bough. One expected to find—anything. And Raphael Cross was terrific. I can see him now, with his huge shoulders flung back and his fair hair glittering. He was all force and passion—like Thor hammering down the door."
"The builder's men did the wrecking," Foam reminded her. "All Thor did was chew cigarettes and curse."
It was strange that the old jealousy could persist even after Cross had lost his title to a rival. Watching his glum expression. Viola asked a question: "Worried about the case?"
"No," he replied. "It's not my headache. The police are working on it and I'm on the job. I was called in to find a missing girl. I didn't find her and she's no longer missing. My firm will send in their bill, so I score either way. And that's that."
Foam raked his rough hair with his fingers.
"The trouble is," he confessed, "I've a bit of my father in me. The old man's a doctor, and when a patient dies on him and he's not satisfied that he's killed him himself, he makes a post-mortem to find cause of death... I want to know too. I want to know exactly how and when Evelyn Cross got out of Pomerania House without attracting the attention of anyone there—and what happened to her afterwards. I abominate unfinished cases—all bits and pieces."
As Viola remained silent, he changed the subject with a question. "How many detectives are keeping tab on Beatrice Stirling?"
"Two," replied Viola. "One is always off duty."
"So if the detective were nobbled, there'd only be you. Is the girl likely to double-cross you?"
"No, there are no rules, but she keeps them all."
"All the same, be careful. Especially of yourself."
She tried to assure him that that lack of sleep could account for his sudden apprehension. At that moment, his latent prejudice against Raphael Cross flared up into a threat to Viola. It was through his agency that she had become attached to the Stirling household. A multi-millionaire's daughter was such glittering bait to a kidnapper, that he flinched at the possibility of a grand scale reproduction of the recent tragedy.
As he thought of poor, dead Nell Gaynor and then of a murdered blonde girl, it seemed to him that Raphael Cross was dogged by evil fortune which spent its force on others.
He repeated his caution.
"Be careful for yourself."
THE following day, Raphael Cross drifted into the Stirlings' hotel. He appeared to be as pathetically aimless as a lost dog, but he refused to refer to the tragedy.
"It's all behind me," he said. "Nothing can bring her back. Any bridge this afternoon?"
Although Mrs. Stirling and the girls were impressed by his courage, he antagonized the millionaire by his lack of emotion.
"No bridge for me," he said. "Not in the mood. I want to go somewhere quiet with Beatrice."
As he looked at his daughter with slavish devotion, Cross spoke bitterly.
"You're right, Stirling. Enjoy her company while you have her. I let Evelyn come and go. It seems now I was wrong, but I wanted her to have her freedom... I never go to the zoo. I hate to see caged animals."
"I wonder which caged animal I resemble," said Beatrice.
The silence which followed her recognition of the personal element was so strained, that Viola tried to introduce some comic relief.
"Darling," she said, "you are like me—perfect simian type. We must go to the monkey house and pick out our doubles."
The rebellion faded from Beatrice's intelligent brown eyes, which appeared smaller than they were because of her youthful plumpness.
"Too near the bone. Greeny," she said gaily. "It's on record that the first time I saw a monkey, I said 'Hallo, Daddy.'"
Bending down, she kissed the foci of Raphael Cross' head with a complete lack of self-consciousness.
"We don't really forget," she whispered, as though in apology for the frivolity.
Her father—who was minus her scruples—began to ask questions as to the progress made by the police towards detection of the criminal.
"Nothing new," explained Cross. "There's been a police message on the air from the B.B.C. asking for information from—or about—any person or persons in whose company she had been last."
"I heard it," said Stirling. "No one come forward?"
"Crowds. People who saw her in different cars, with different men, in different places—all at the same time."
"What about the fellow she went off with? Is he lying low, too?"
"Naturally. She's been murdered since she left him. Only a fool would let himself in for certain trouble."
The millionaire's lips tightened to a thin line. "I don't understand you. Cross," he said coldly, "Anyone would think you had no interest in avenging your daughter's death."
Raphael Cross' blue eyes blazed with sudden passion. For a moment he seemed to recapture his old electric quality, so that—in spite of Foam's ridicule—Viola thought again of Thor.
"You're right," he shouted. "I don't care a damn one way or the other. Only one thing matters. Evelyn is dead. I've got to forget. I can blow out my brains—or I can keep on with bridge and business as usual. I may try out both ways before I'm through."
"I still can't see it," said Stirling, plugging his point. "If it were my child, I'd hunt down her murderer if it took my last cent and the last day of my life. But I'd find him—and when I did, I'd tear him limb from limb."
This time it was her father whom Beatrice kissed, rubbing her petal-smooth cheek against his parchment skin.
"You've got a lynch complex, my sweet," she told him, "and you can't expect civilized people to agree with you. To punish you, I'm going to ring up Billy Austin and ask him if he'd like you as a father-in-law. Coming, Greeny?"
As the girls walked off, arm in arm, Stirling spoke with appreciation. "We're grateful to you, Cross, for finding us that girl. Beatrice is never bored with her. All the same, I'm glad they've gone. I want to talk to you with the gloves off." He turned to his wife—a question in his eyes—but she shook her head as a sign she intended to stay. "The papers make out," began Stirling bluntly, "that Evelyn's murder is a common or garden crime of passion. Now that doesn't show your daughter in too good a light. Of course, I don't know what really happened and I'm not asking—It's not my affair."
"I'll be frank with you." said Cross, speaking with an obvious effort. "It was an escapade. There have been other week-ends I could not check up on, although she never went off for as long as this before. I've forced myself to look upon it as youth—and the natural thing—and to take a broad view. I hope you can be broad too."
"But the story is in the press," persisted Stirling. "In your place, I'd have lied to the last ditch to protect my girl's honour. Why didn't you hand out your revenge theory about the mining claim to the police?"
"Tell them my private business?" asked Cross derisively. "The last thing I'd do is give them a break. But they won't make an arrest working from the 'passion' angle. All they got from me is mud in their eye."
"You seem very prejudiced," remarked Mrs. Stirling. "Why?"
"Because, if I hadn't called in the police, Evelyn would be alive."
The apprehensive look that flickered between Mrs. Stirling and her husband betrayed that they expected the reproach. Her small figure seemed to shrivel as she shrank back into a corner of the grey-blue divan, while the millionaire's lean face appeared to have acquired extra lines. At that moment the richest guests in the hotel looked pitiful and deflated—a tonic example of the non-staying power of wealth to any complacent moralist with inexpensive tastes.
"I'm not blaming you," went on Cross. "You gave me advice but I was not forced to take it. I'm a free agent and I went to the Yard under my own steam. There is no doubt about it—I was watched... They knew I'd gone."
"What is your own idea of what happened?" asked Mrs. Stirling anxiously. "Keep quiet, Will, and don't interrupt."
"I can tell you, more or less," said Cross, "and I don't think I'm far out. Certain parties wanted to get even with me over a business score. Their idea was to kidnap Evelyn and stick me up for ransom. Make me sweat both ends. But when they came to action, they found out that murder is a nice, simple proposition compared with kidnapping."
Mrs. Stirling's eyes dilated and her lips parted as she listened with enthralled interest.
"I've figured it out," went on Cross. "Kidnapping is a question of getting the victim in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment. It needs a perfect decoy, plus perfect timing... Now that's almost impossible. You might work it in a special set of circumstances, like a girl taking a country walk alone. But in our cases, with people always around, you can call it off right away. You couldn't make a strong lively girl into a paper parcel and walk off with her without questions asked."
In her relief, Mrs. Stirling forgot her own ban on interruption. "I see your point," she cried. "It's true—society is its own protection against an anti-social crime. Of course, Beatrice is never alone. And your Evelyn was so popular. That was her protection."
"Yes, I figured she was safe in a crowd of boy friends. Besides, kidnapping is a fifty-fifty proposition. You pay a ransom, but you can't bank on getting your girl back. On the other hand, the kidnapper may get your girl, but he can't bank on the father coming across with the cash. And of course, if the police are notified, his hope is dead as frozen mutton."
"And that is why I advised the police," broke in Stirling, eager to justify his judgment.
Cross looked at him with cold, hostile eyes, as—ignoring his interruption—he went on speaking. "These parties found they'd taken on a tricky job. Of course, they watched my hotel and kept a tab on our movements. They must have seen Evelyn meet her chap outside Pomerania House and knew where they went—but still they couldn't get her, with him always around. So they grew impatient and sent that ransom letter to find out where they stood... When I went to the Yard, they knew I wasn't going to play ball with them."
His voice thickened and stumbled to a pause. "They took their revenge instead," he said, after a pause. "It was just mean spite work... The hoax letter they sent was a two-way stunt. It showed them where they stood over the ransom—and it took me out of the flat."
"But how could they possibly know that she was coming back that night?" asked Mrs. Stirling.
"They probably sent her a fake message from me. I shall never know the whole. I'm in the dark about so much. There was a crowd of suckers, so I don't know who stabbed me in the back... But I am sure of one thing. It's this. Never bring the police into a case of kidnapping. Keep them out, and you still have a chance."
Mrs. Stirling rose impulsively and, taking Cross' large hand pressed it in silent sympathy. Her husband looked on as he first swallowed vigorously and then cleared his throat.
"There's something more that's got to be said, Cross," he was beginning, when his wife stopped him.
"No, let me say it. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do and that's the reason why I must do it. R, C. knows how much I feel for him and that I wouldn't hurt him any more if I could possibly help it."
Cross looked down on her and smiled bleakly. "That's told me," he said. "Shall I say it for you? You don't want me to go round with Beatrice any more. That it?"
She nodded—her eyes full of concern for his wounded feelings.
"Not in public," she explained. "Of course, we are not afraid of her being kidnapped over here. It's not a British crime. But your trouble proves that you are marked in a certain quarter—and we don't want to attract any attention to Beatrice, or have her linked up in any way to that."
"That's O.K. with me."
"Then you do understand? You don't blame us? Thank you, R. C. But remember, we shall want to see all the more of you in private, or Beatrice will start a mutiny. Come here whenever you can. And now, what about some bridge? I can fix up a game."
Mrs. Stirling was crossing to the telephone when Cross called her back.
"I wonder if you would like to see something first?" he said. "I have some photographs of Evelyn. She looks so peaceful."
Drawing from his pocket a small pile of shiny unmounted photographs, he handed them to Mrs. Stirling.
Tears started to her eyes as she gazed at the top copy. It showed a girl apparently asleep in bed. Only a little of her face was visible as it was concealed—partly by the sheet and partly by her thick waving hair which was spread out over the pillow.
"Beautiful," she murmured. "Will, isn't she sweet? No one would guess—"
She broke off with a scream—her face stiff with horror and her hand rigidly extended. While passing the first photograph to her husband, she had seen the second portrait her action had exposed.
There was nothing beautiful or peaceful about it. A blonde girl in a contorted pose with staring eyes.
Cross sprang forward and snatched it from her. "How the hell did that get in?" he muttered. "It's one of the police snaps. I'm sorry you saw it."
"You should be more careful. Cross," remarked the millionaire. "That's not the sort of thing to show to women. Suppose Beatrice—"
"Hold your tongue." In her anger, the delicate Mrs. Stirling snapped as fiercely as any fishwife. "You make me sick and ashamed of your drivel about my feelings. Surely I can bear just to look at a photograph when her father—"
Her voice broke and she burst into tears.
"We mustn't let Beatrice hear about this," said her husband.
While her peace of mind was being safeguarded, Beatrice was engaged in a telephone conversation with young Austin. She showed to least advantage on these occasions as she shed her dignified adult personality and lapsed into silly school-girl sentiment.
Viola stood beside her to keep her company and act as her inspiration. Bored with preparing verbal bullets for the other girl to fire, she was gazing idly around the room, when the sight of a bowl of blue forced hyacinths aroused a memory.
"I've got to ring up someone at once," she told Beatrice. "It's my only chance to avert a tragedy."
"You make everything sound dramatic, Greeny," remarked Beatrice enviously. "Use this line. I've finished."
Although she went into her bedroom where Viola's words were inaudible, she could hear a bubbling undercurrent of laughter. It suggested excitement—intrigue—and made her sullenly resentful of the special circumstances which had denied her her freedom.
The millionaire had been premature in his gratitude to Raphael Cross. The perfect companion was in danger of wrecking the Stirling machine by the introduction of the personal element, against which all the devotion of parents and service of hirelings could not prevail.
THE bowl of hyacinths in Beatrice's room had reminded Viola of her own bulbs. She had left behind her, at the bottom of the kitchen cupboard in her flatlet at Pomerania House, an orange bowl of purple crocuses. They were just beginning to show pallid spikes when she had rushed off to her new job, without giving a thought to their welfare. Unless she could ask someone to water them at once, by her return they would be shrivelled beyond hope of recovery.
At first, she did not know to whom to appeal. Major Pomeroy would make promises and purposely forget to ask his own secretary or the porter to do the job. It was not his policy to let the staff wait on tenants and waste the time for which he had paid. On the same principle, he discouraged incoming calls on the public telephone in the hall.
There remained Madame Goya and Miss Power. Madame had a telephone installed in her flat, so she could contact her without trouble; but as she remembered the woman's bulging eyes and inquisitive stare, Viola shrank from the idea of letting her loose among her secrets. She had visited the universal "Uncle" frequently in her lean periods and the corresponding gaps in her apartment were tactlessly revealing.
Miss Power was the ideal person for the commission. Although her manner was coldly grudging, she had never refused to loan her possessions. Moreover, she was not only conscientious, but her code would not allow her to notice either deficiency or makeshift.
Unfortunately she was not a telephone subscriber, Viola knew it was hopeless to count on delivery of any message she sent to the office while she dared not make Madame Goya the medium, lest she should offer her own services. Suddenly she realized that it was her chance to get in touch with Alan Foam and ask him to act as her messenger.
"Take the message when you go home," she told him. "It's only a little out of your way. You'll find Power in because she always swots all day. She's a grim virgin but she's the only person I can rely on."
It was a strange experience for Foam to renew his association with Pomerania House. When he had first entered it he was summoned to explore a baffling mystery which had fizzled out into wind; but, to atone for his disappointment, he had drawn from the air the intangible spirit of romance. His youth had returned to him in a meeting with a black-haired girl, and some shreds of enchantment still lingered.
The porter, who reminded him of the old gardener, stopped reading his evening paper to admit him.
"Remember me, Pearce?" he asked.
"I remember your business," replied the man grimly, "The boss told me it was that gentleman's daughter what was murdered. Explains why he carried on like he did. He knew she was going to be done in. It was a close shave for us you didn't find what you were looking for then."
As Foam did not respond, he added with a change of manner, "The boss is in his office."
Directly Foam entered the hall, he realized that without the dramatic and emotional circumstances of his first visit it had lost its fascination. Its eighteenth-century atmosphere had receded into the past, leaving behind it only some stranded museum pieces.
A sound of rapid typing issued from the office where Major Pomeroy stood in the doorway. As he caught sight of Foam, he stepped back instinctively, as though in retreat. Thinking better of it, he stopped to light a cigarette with a shade too much deliberation before he sauntered forward.
"Want to see anyone?" he asked nonchalantly. He looked as usual—thin, disillusioned and immaculate—but Foam received the impression that he was an unwelcome visitor.
"Miss Power," he replied.
The major's eyes filled with keen inquiry, but he said nothing. Directly Foam had explained that he had come to deliver a message from Viola, he thawed to geniality. "Charming girl. Too casual to be an ideal tenant, but at least she is loyal. I'm keeping her apartment vacant for her—had to turn down an attractive offer. By the way, the Cross murder has done me no good. I'm losing a tenant over it—Miss Power."
"How could it affect her?" asked Foam.
"You've said it. How? But you made some inquiries at her flat the day Miss Cross was missing and that would be enough to scare our Miss Power. She probably feels that Pomerania House was indirectly connected with a crime, since the father was so suspicious of these premises. Seen anything of Cross lately?"
"Now and again," replied Foam vaguely. "Have you?"
"No. To be frank, I don't want to after he left me with the baby to hold. I was put to inconvenience and expense through his panic and I'm still getting the repercussions. Miss Power is a good tenant. But, of course, this murder shows he was really up against something. In fact—apart from business—I feel sorry for the poor devil."
As the men stood and talked, several people passed them on their way out to the street. Foam recognized Marlene, the ginger-haired typist—attractive in a coat of white fur fabric—before he became aware that Madame Goya was coming down the stairs.
She wore a sable cape and a tiny hat with a cloud of floating veiling. The furs made her appear unusually bulky, but in spite of her overweight she balanced herself perfectly on high Spanish heels. As she recognized Foam, her darkly pouched eyes began to bolt while her painted frog-mouth gaped open.
"You again?" she cried shrilly. "It's no use asking me questions, I know nothing. Nothing."
The major suddenly gripped her arm, but his voice was suave as he hurriedly explained Foam's errand. She recovered her composure immediately and gave an apologetic laugh.
"Silly of me. But your other visit was a calamity. You upset me terribly—turning me out of my flat and making me lose business. Can you wonder that directly I saw you I said to myself, 'More trouble.'"
"That's the sort of reputation you have here, Foam," remarked the major. "I'll see if Miss Power is in."
In contrast with his usually leisurely movements, he bounded up the stairs. His haste and also his offer to act as a messenger struck Foam as being so out of character that he became curious.
"I seem to be putting the wind up this outfit," he reflected. "Why? Does he want to prepare Miss Power for the shock of seeing me?"
He was about to sprint after the major so that he could witness her reaction when Madame Goya stopped him.
"You acted for Mr. Cross, didn't you? What was his daughter like? There were no photographs in my paper, but they said she was a blonde. Was she fair like her father? Did she have blue eyes?"
"I only saw her once," replied Foam. "That was—afterwards. Then her face was purple-black and her eyes were like something on a fishmonger's slab. I didn't want to look at them twice—so I cannot tell you their colour."
He deliberately wanted to horrify the woman as he both disliked and distrusted her; but now that she was on her guard, she merely clicked with conventional horror. He noticed, however, the signs of shock in her scared eyes and wobbling chin.
"Might be Anno Domini—or an accident—or gin," he decided. "There can be nothing against the old ruin. Her flat looked like the walls of Jericho after the men had done their little bit."
Her innocence in connection with the Cross affair had been proved in too drastic a fashion for him to question. Yet he had an uneasy impression that she had been holding him back from following the major. All the while she had asked for information her eyes watched the landing, and the moment Miss Power appeared at the top of the stairs she hurried away.
He had only a vague recollection of Miss Power, apart from the fact that she was fair and wore tweeds. Looking at her more closely, he realized that she might be considered attractive, although she did not appeal to him. She was blonde and slim, with excellent complexion and teeth; but her face was a shade too narrow and her eyes were hard.
He told himself that she was typed—the conventional vicar's eldest daughter. She was dressed in the same blue-green speckled suit and wore similar stout stockings and shoes. And yet he was conscious of some change in her appearance.
As he stared at her, trying vainly to discover the point of difference, she gave him a hint not to waste her time.
"I understand you have a message for me from Miss Green."
When Foam explained Viola's request, her reception was characteristic.
"I am giving up my rooms here," she said. "But you can tell Miss Green that I will water her bulbs before I go. They should keep moist until she comes back. Of course, I shall have to ask Major Pomeroy for the key of her apartment. Before he gives it to me Miss Green must give him the authority. Otherwise I may place myself in a false position."
"I will give Major Pomeroy her telephone number," promised Foam.
When he was in the tube, travelling home to Highgate, he turned over in his mind his recent visit.
"The case of the missing girl is over," he thought. "It's lumber now, and the sooner I clear it out of my mind, the better."
Suddenly he remembered the notebook in which he jotted down his first impressions of the persons in each new case. It was on occasions such as this that he had proved its value. It had recorded a significant loss of weight which pointed to worry and also revealed an altered personality—indicative of a deliberate attempt to create a false impression.
It was only to satisfy his curiosity that he searched his pockets. When he found that he had left the record behind him at the office, he dismissed the trifle from his mind.
When he reviewed the matter later he acquitted himself of blame. The missing girl had been found, and it was the business of the police to follow up any clues.
Yet the fact remained that had he been able to freshen his memory at that moment, he might have started a train of suspicions and thus averted a second crime.
EVENTS were moving swiftly towards catastrophe. Like a procession of shadows sweeping over a lighted wall—a speech or contact was a forecast of future developments. Spinning in a whirl of infatuation, Viola's head was not sufficiently clear to register emotions or to notice when Beatrice withdrew her confidence.
The younger girl's clear brown eyes lost their candour and narrowed with jealousy when, on entering Viola's room that evening, she surprised her at the telephone. Her companion was engrossed with her conversation while she had managed to create her special atmosphere of excitement.
"No," she said, "I've heard nothing. But I know the man. He's waiting for me to move. It's nothing to him that he's wasting precious time... Yes, I'll get in touch with him and authorize the loan of my key."
Feeling excluded from a mystery, Beatrice went to her own room and waited there for her companion. Unconscious of helping to create an emotional crisis, Viola spun out her call. As a matter of fact, what sounded like melodrama in Mayfair became a casual matter when it was linked up with the Highgate end of the wire. Foam had merely rung her up to give her Miss Power's message when he learned that Major Pomeroy had not yet telephoned for her instructions.
The thrill was localized in the sound of Alan's voice. Viola did not realize how the time had passed until she glanced at her watch. After putting through a brief call to Major Pomeroy, she hurried into Beatrice's room.
"I was just ringing up Pomerania House," she explained.
It cost Beatrice an effort to respond naturally, since her intelligence accused her of sulking. While she had been reared as a fairy princess and accustomed equally to homage and restrictions, her schoolgirl instincts had been suppressed. She was now in the grip of her first adolescent passion and—instead of spending it normally on a youth or a series of "raves"—she idealized Viola with the force of an affectionate and generous nature.
"Pomerania House," she repeated with affected vagueness. "Isn't that the address of your flat?"
"Flatlet." corrected Viola, beginning to gurgle like one of her faulty taps. "I'd love to show it to you. Especially the bathroom."
"Is the shower very old fashioned?"
Viola grinned at a memory of the wooden partition which enclosed the composite kitchen-scullery-larder-bath.
"Oh, you must see it," she declared. "It would show you how the poor live. Listen, Princess, the bath has a cover and I keep my dishes on top."
Without making any comment, Beatrice turned away and lit a cigarette. As she rarely smoked or drank, Viola glanced at her in some surprise. It changed to concern when she noticed that the girl's hands were shaking.
"Anything the matter?" she asked.
"Nothing." replied Beatrice in a strained voice. "Only I rather resent the way some people—exciting people like yourself—despise the people who have money. You don't seem to realize that it takes brains—and vision—and courage to make a large fortune. You only know Daddy's private life. I know he is unimpressive and that you sneer at him because everything he thinks, or says, or does is based on his love for Mother and me—But in the financial world, he is a force."
"Of course, he is. As if I didn't know it, don't be silly."
"Silly? But I am not exactly unintelligent. Apart from my education, I've read widely and studied social problems. I mean to do something definitely constructive with my wealth... So it does not amuse me to be regarded by R. C.—and yourself—as a pedigree Peke which has to be kept on a lead."
Beatrice spoke with stiff lips while she rigidly controlled her facial muscles; but in spite of the lack of emotion, Viola surrendered herself to the drama of the situation.
"Cut," she commanded, with instinctive imitation of a film director. "You have it all wrong. Completely out of focus. Why you are the only girl I've ever put on a pedestal. I think the world of you. If you were in danger, I'd risk my own life to save you."
Beatrice gave an ungirlish laugh. "Really," she said, "I feel I ought to applaud. But I wish you could break away from this guarding complex. I'm a free agent. I may yet prove to all of you that I am not a cipher."
"Oh, if you want to be snooty, I can't help it."
Beatrice was only waiting to be laughed out of her mood but Viola neglected the chance of reconciliation. She felt she had made one good gesture and had been definitely snubbed. So she talked in her best social manner as the girls walked towards the sitting room of the suite.
The millionaire and his wife were drinking cocktails before dinner while they waited for Raphael Cross. He joined them a few minutes later, making a tempestuous entrance. There was suppressed exultation in his face and voice and a boisterous excitement, suggestive of a schoolboy who had saved his side at cricket. He had changed into evening dress, but had evidently dressed away from the mirror, for his bow was tied crooked.
"What's happened?" cried Mrs. Stirling impulsively. "Have they—?"
She stopped, expecting to hear news of the arrest of Evelyn's murderer.
"Marvellous news," he shouted. "I know my future."
His announcement stunned his audience with a shock of surprise.
"Fortune telling?" asked the millionaire incredulously.
"Yes. Amazing. I'm still staggered. The fact is, all my life I've had a secret ambition to fill a certain exalted position. It's all so fantastic—so impossible—that I've never opened my mouth to a single soul. The only chance of fulfillment could come through a series of extraordinary repercussions. But each one of these would be a miracle in itself. As each event broke, instead of fizzling out, it would have to contact; and set in motion the next sequence."
"It just couldn't happen," declared Stirling. "You might have a series of lucky reactions, but they couldn't continue to operate indefinitely."
"My own point of view exactly. But Goya not only told me I should attain this—prominence—but she knew the first link in the chain of events. She looked into the crystal. The whole thing was like witchcraft."
"You'd better have a drink," suggested Mrs. Stirling.
"Thanks, Christina. You too, drink to my future."
Viola noticed the use of Mrs. Stirling's Christian name. She knew it was authorized since no one would attempt to take a liberty with the great little lady. "All one big family," she reflected. "I'm the outsider." She failed to notice the eager flame in Beatrice's eyes which betrayed the fact that she also wanted to dip into the future. Unable to bear the prospect of parting from Viola, she was hoping to lure her to America. But the way was stopped by the faithful companion—Cassie—and Beatrice could not contemplate the prospect of disloyalty.
Torn between two impulses, she wanted guidance. This wonderful clairvoyant could warn her if she courted disaster, or reassure her if she were too scrupulous. Cassie's interest in the family might be mainly financial, in which case matters could be arranged.
During dinner she was unusually silent. At the end of the meal, she took possession of Raphael Cross.
"Come into a huddle," she invited. "I want you to tell me of tight corners and how to get out of them."
"You'll never be in a tight corner," her father reassured her. "If I didn't think Mack and Don were equal to the job, I'd sack them,"
"But I might strike the unguarded moment when I'd only myself to depend on. I want to be prepared."
Raphael Cross laughed indulgently.
"I'm afraid she remembers my gangster yarns," he said. "Well, Beatrice, the big thing is—never give yourself away. No matter what is sprung on you, register no surprise. That gives you the vital time to think a jump ahead—and it jolts your opponent because it's unexpected."
"How, exactly?" probed Beatrice with characteristic thoroughness.
"How? I'll give you the angle. Suppose when we were together, I pointed a revolver at you. If you screamed or started to run, I'd be bound to plug you. Instinctive action, you know. But if you sat tight and smiled at me, you'd have me guessing."
"Well, I might say to myself, 'She's not scared. Why? Does she know something that's in the bag?' And while I was trying to figure out what that might be, it would be your chance to plan your next move... It boils down to this. Never be taken off guard."
"I could do that," declared Beatrice. "I've a natural poker face, haven't I, Mother?"
"Yes," admitted Christina regretfully. "A barbarous game—but Beatrice plays it perfectly.
"I'll have to spring a surprise on you and see how you react," said Cross.
"I'll hold you to that."
Beatrice's wish to shine was rooted in humility as she felt some special quality was necessary to acquire interest in Viola's eyes. She looked eagerly at her companion to see the effect of her boast, but Viola stood aloof from the circle of admiration.
"I hope my experience won't set Beatrice going," said Cross. "Christina, don't let her go near that dump. I still smell the stink of fish."
"She shall not," promised Mrs, Stirling serenely. "Miss Green will remember it's verboten."
Beatrice made no protest as, taking Cross' arm, she led him to the door. "Come down to the lounge," she said.
Viola welcomed the decision, since the lounge offered more entertainment value than the privacy of the royal suite. Sitting in a corner, where she would be available if Beatrice claimed her services, she was able to watch the movement of social life around her. Raphael Cross and Beatrice sat in an alcove, veiled in a faint smoky haze, as Cross waved his cigar to illustrate his points.
Don—the college boy—was also in a position where he could keep an eye on the heiress. He was a young giant, with curling hair growing low on his forehead and a resolute chin.
When the millionaire and his wife entered the lounge they stopped to speak to Viola.
"Bea's putting on a show to distract poor old Cross," explained her father proudly. "She must get her unselfishness from her mother."
"We are going out, but I know she will be safe with you and Don," remarked Christina Stirling, ignoring the compliment.
As she smiled down at her, Viola was captivated by the delicate austerity of her beauty. Accustomed to view people as photographic material, she appreciated the slight hollows and sharp angles of her bone structure. Christina wore a chinchilla wrap over draperies of faint blue and mauve, and the soft collar—framing the perfect oval of her face—seemed symbolic of the encircling warmth and protection provided by their favoured circumstances. No draught could chill the mother as she stepped into her car, while the daughter was guarded doubly—like a card queen.
"Nothing can touch them," thought Viola, with a shade of resentment.
She accompanied the parents when they crossed the lounge to wish their daughter "good night."
"Any good market tips, Bea?" asked her father.
"Not too practical," she replied. "An explosive cigar is nice and showy, but you can't offer a stranger a cigar without some encouragement. And I couldn't throw pepper in anyone's eyes."
"I could," declared Viola ruthlessly. "If anyone made a pass at you, I would."
"While we are on the subject of tips," broke in Christina, "I hope Will has been helpful to you, Raphael. A hint costs him nothing—but you might appreciate it."
Cross shook his head.
"No," he said vehemently. "I appreciate the thought, but I hope William will do nothing of the kind. I admit that when I play round with boys who are in the money, I usually keep my ears buttoned back... But this is different. I've got to know Christina and Beatrice. I value that friendship too much to let money spoil it."
Christina's pale cheek flushed deeper than her taint touch of rouge. "That's the loveliest compliment I've ever received," she said.
When they had gone, Beatrice decided to go early to bed. Viola accompanied her dutifully as far as the door of her own room, when Beatrice spoke in a mysterious whisper.
"I want to make a very private call. I must be certain no one listens in. I dare not use my line because of Don—Do you mind if I use your phone?"
"Why ask?" inquired Viola. "I used yours."
Unconcerned by the slavish copy of her own technique, she lit a cigarette and leaned against the wall of the corridor.
In the hope of arousing curiosity, Beatrice waited before she turned over the pages of the telephone directory. Eventually she rang up a number in St. John's Wood. It was a speculative call, based upon an uncommon name; but it was justified when a deep voice boomed over the wire like an imprisoned bumble bee.
"Madame Goya speaking."
"Do you carry on your business at Pomerania House?" asked Beatrice.
"Yes," admitted Goya.
"Then please listen carefully. I have to consult you on a very important matter. I want you to look in the crystal for me. Tomorrow—"
"'You must make an appointment."
"I can't. You must keep the afternoon free for me. There's no question of your losing money. I will pay for any appointments you have to cancel."
There was a slight pause before Goya gave proof of having swallowed the hook.
"It must be understood that you come to order hand made gloves," she stipulated.
"As many as the machine can turn out," declared Beatrice, who welcomed a chance to display the paternal shrewdness.
"Then I will book the appointment," said Goya. "What name?"
"I can't tell you that. You can call me Madame X."
"But cannot you give me some reference to prove you are not of the police?"
"Yes. Miss Viola Green."
"That will do. I know the name. I will wait all the afternoon for you. You have only to open the door and walk in. No. Sixteen."
THE following morning, after the girls had finished lunch, Viola made a cheerful reference to their parting.
"Golly, how the time flies. This time next week, you'll be in state on the Queen Mary and the flag will be flying over Pomerania House to show I'm in residence again."
Beatrice bit her lip at the reminder. As she thought of grey foam-flecked rollers rushing past her stateroom window sweeping them apart, she set her jaw with determination to keep her appointment with Goya. Although she knew there would be strong opposition to it, she was desperate to find out whether Viola was enclosed in the crystal which mirrored her future.
"I want to see your apartment this afternoon. Greeny," she said.
"Your mother will have to O.K. that," remarked Viola, playing for safety.
"Leave it to me and stand by."
In spite of her special gifts, Beatrice had rather elementary mentality as regarded the truth. She looked upon it as an accommodating quality which—like a sharp lawyer's contract—was satisfied by adherence to the text of the agreement. Bursting into her mother's boudoir, she interrupted Christina's study of a bridge problem.
"We're going to see the Academy of Dramatic Art where Greeny studied elocution," she announced. Then she raised her voice. "Greeny, I've just told Mother we propose to visit your old dump."
"Objection?" asked Viola, appearing in the doorway.
"Of course not," murmured Christina. "But rather dull. I hope you'll enjoy it."
"Come on, Greeny," commanded Beatrice. Nervous lest the success of her strategy should be spoiled by a fatal chance remark, she almost dragged Viola from the room...
Looking back later, Christina remembered that Beatrice had forgotten to give her mother her customary farewell kiss.
When the girls were back in Beatrice's room, the heiress asked a question.
"Like to come to America, Greeny?"
"My wings are always fluttering. When Hollywood calls me, I shall fly over on the Clipper."
"And then you'll forget me? I know you want to go back to your own flat. I've seen you look around this room as if it were a padded cell."
Viola glanced involuntarily at the peach brocade curtains, the deep, padded chairs—where she lost her gloves—and the snowy sheepskin rugs, while she cursed her own too-expressive face. "Don't be fatuous," she said. "It's been an enchanting experience. Of course, all this is rather—fat. But that's because I like plenty of room to circulate."
"So do I. Strange but true."
Viola felt suddenly convicted of selfishness as she looked at Beatrice. She had heavy circles beneath her eyes, suggestive of secret tears.
"She's been doing the pillow act over young Austin," she reflected. "It's barbarous to keep her nobbled... I wonder if I could let her off her chain. I'll have a shot at it."
Although the car was waiting outside the hotel, she rushed back to the boudoir. Mrs. Stirling's delicately pencilled brows puckered at the interruption.
"What is it?" she asked impatiently.
"I've a hunch Beatrice is fretting," explained Viola. "This holiday should have been a real break for her, but the Cross affair and all the suspicion has balled it up. Oh, don't you remember how happy she was that day at Selfridge's? Couldn't we leave the detective at home this afternoon? Just for once. I'll take marvellous care of her."
Christina's face wore the set expression which showed that she was deeply moved.
"Mack's on duty," she said, after a pause. "He has watched over Beatrice since she was a baby. He'd refuse. You couldn't break down his loyalty."
"Couldn't we pretend to shake him off?"
"I'll see what he has to say about it."
When the Scot appeared he listened to the proposal with a grim face, but his keen eyes twinkled.
"I'll trail them in a taxi," he said.
"Good show," approved Viola. "This is where I begin to run."
Dashing from the room, she gripped Beatrice's arm and rushed her towards the lift.
"Let's get off the mark before Mack," she panted.
When the girls—breathless with laughter—collapsed in the car, Viola felt that her stratagem was justified. It was not only the scamper which made Beatrice's cheeks glow with colour; she seemed revitalized by the escapade.
"I hope he'll chase us," she said. "It's like Chicago."
The day was exceptionally dark, and the fog had thickened so that they seemed to be driving through the dun water of an ancient dock. Tiny yellow globes loomed murkily from vague buildings in the underworld. The conflict of light with shadow striped the misted windows with a confusion of nebulous patterns, so that Viola almost expected to see a strand of seaweed wavering outside the glass, or the gaping mouth of a fish.
Enclosed in comfort, she wished that they could go on floating, with no port of call. The car was warm and she had eaten a heavy lunch; for, faced with the prospect of lean times ahead, she was developing camel technique and eating for the morrow.
Presently Beatrice called through the tube and told the chauffeur to stop at a jeweller's shop in Bond Street, "I want you to choose a souvenir, Greeny," she said.
Viola protested in a half-hearted fashion, for she liked the idea. "If you really want me to remember you," she suggested, "what about a string of cultured pearls? Whenever I wore it, I should think, 'If she wasn't a real princess, she was a damn good imitation.'... Cor lumme, that's my first swear for ages. But I don't suppose I can do you much harm now. The time's too short."
When they were inside the shop and she discovered that Beatrice intended to buy her some real jewellery, she put up a strong opposition.
"Sweet of you. Princess, but no and no; I'm not a cadge, definitely."
"But I only want you to remember me," wailed Beatrice.
As she refused to look at any substitute while Viola spurned the jewels with the contempt of the mother of the Gracchi, they left without buying anything, to Beatrice's disappointment.
"Suppose we just dither and then go home," suggested Viola when they were back in the car.
"No, I've got to see the academy," said Beatrice.
When they arrived at the semi-visible Victorian building, Viola tried to sidetrack Beatrice by proposing a diversion.
"Let's go into the office and pretend we want to enrol as students. I want to see if anyone remembers me. While I was there, I was always changing the colour of my hair. I was grooming myself for stardom."
Unfortunately Beatrice considered that her obligation to the truth was covered by a view of the exterior of the academy.
"There, I've seen it," she remarked. "Now we'll go to your flat."
Viola could not understand her own reluctance to visit Pomerania House. It was as though she had a presentiment, of disaster. At first, she thought she was missing the broad back of the detective, seated beside the chauffeur. Although the taxi was following them as faithfully as a trained meal-hound, she had lost her usual sense of security.
It made her realize that the shock of Evelyn Cross' murder—combined with the responsibility of the job—was beginning to wear her down. Foam had warned her to be very careful in view of the fact that she would be thrown on her own resources, should the human element fail. Yet she had deliberately shunted the detective at a time when Beatrice was showing signs of rebellion.
As the car turned into the darkness and comparative solitude of Pomerania Square, the fog grew more baffling in its density. It floated between the leafless trees in spirals of misty vapour and piled itself up in shifting columns. Viewed in the shrouded light from the lamps, the central garden might have been a churchyard and the drifting shapes a company of straying ghosts which had forgotten the exact locations of their graves. Viola began to shiver with apprehension.
She was not the only one to suffer from nerves. The afternoon had dragged with Madame Goya. She remained in a state of tension, as she did not know the time when Beatrice Stirling would arrive and she had to be in readiness. She was also keenly elated at the prospect of money coming to her, since the identity of the heiress was no secret to her.
"My palm is itching," she murmured. "A good omen." She paced the long room, her high heels pitting the pile of the carpet, while she smoked continuously. Occasionally she went to the door to listen. There were many false alarms—footsteps on the stairs and girls' laughter—when the typists went down to the cloakroom to wash. Each sound sent her waddling back to her table to take up her pose. Seated under a blue-shaded lamp, she placed her stumpy fingertips together while she stared at the crystal.
Presently she grew nervous under the strain of continuous inaction. Her palms were clammy and her heart knocked with suspense, Ever since she had glanced at her morning paper and read about the murder of a blonde girl, she had been in a state of suppressed fear. Although she was void of financial honesty, her code rejected crime. One cheated ladies in the way of business but one did not murder them.
As she was overweight and had a weak heart, the shock appeared to have slowed her circulation. The entire sordid business was a mystery which frightened her the more because she had not been able to discuss it. Whenever she mentioned the subject, she received only a blank stare or a shake of the head.
Her treacherous heart leaped at the sound of a loud bump from the other side of the thin partition wall. Eager for company, she hurried out on the landing just as Miss Power was pushing a box of books through the open door of her flat. She wore a matching topcoat over her greeny-blue tweed outfit and a stitched hat of the same material was pulled down over her eyes.
As Goya appeared, she looked at her as though she resented her presence.
"Has the van come?" asked Goya.
"No," snapped Miss Power, turning back to her room.
"But you are dressed."
"I believe in being ready."
"You're telling me. I've been kept hanging about all the afternoon. And I'm not the thing. That murder—"
Goya broke off as Miss Power slammed the door of No. 17 behind her. Unable to unburden herself in gossip, she crossed the broad landing and peeped over the balustrade. She saw only the white gleam of the bathing nymph in the hall. Heaving a deep sigh, she returned to No. 16.
Presently she decided that a dash of spirit in a hot drink would warm her up. As she had lunch and tea on the premises, she always brought vacuum flasks with her and a thermos—still unopened—stood on one of the bookshelves.
Uncorking it clumsily, she poured out some coffee with nervous haste, so that some of it slopped into the saucer. Then she dropped down on the divan and began to drink lustily with deep gulps.
Suddenly she clucked with annoyance as she realized that she had been holding her cup and saucer crooked. The overflow had drained down on one arm of the divan, where it spread out in a blotch as large as a misshapen vine leaf.
As she stared at it, the mishap was magnified to a disaster. Its special significance began to dawn on Madame's slow brain, stiffening her features in a grimace of horror. Rushing from the room and down the stairs, she flung open the door of Major Pomeroy's office.
She stood in the doorway, making mouths at him until she recovered breath to speak.
"I've had an accident," she gasped. "I've spilt coffee over the divan."
TO the surprise of his secretary, the major stopped in the middle of his dictation.
"I'll finish later," he told her.
Although the matter only concerned the familiar careless tenant, he was obviously anxious to inspect the damage to his property.
"If you'll go on up," he said to Goya, "I'll join you in a minute."
Putting on a dangerous spurt, Madame hurried up the stairs. The major followed her at his usual leisurely pace; but when he had closed the door of No. 16 behind him, his expression lost its nonchalance.
"Look," she cried, pointing to the stain. "It shows."
"Like hell," he agreed. "You fool."
"It was an accident. Help me push the divan back against the other wall."
"No. There's no time for a general shift round. She may be here any moment. Find something to cover it."
"What?" she quavered, her painted frog-mouth beginning to gape.
"A scarf—or large handkerchief. Quick."
Galvanized into motion, Goya rushed to the wardrobe cupboard and scraped in the deep pockets in the lining of her fur coat. Scooping up a large silken square of blended shades of purple and fuschia, she threw it negligently over the stain.
"There," she said. "Everything's all right again."
The major looked at her with cold contempt. Taking up her largest pair of scissors, he deliberately cut the scarf into halves.
"How dare you?" she protested. "You've ruined it."
"And you might have ruined everything else," the major reminded her.
Slipping one half of the scarf into his pocket, he arranged the other half over the stain and then stood looking at it as though to study the effect.
"Don't touch it," he commanded. "Keep away from the divan. You'll be safer over at your table."
Madame Goya obeyed meekly. When she had seated herself with difficulty in the narrow space, she clapped one hand to her heart.
"That was a close shave," she said. "I'm glad I called you. I should never have noticed I'd slipped up until it was too late."
"It is dangerous to forget. Later on, it will be dangerous to remember."
"But you can't blame me for feeling nervous. I'm a woman, Major, and I've had a terrible shock. I keep asking myself who murdered that girl. And why?"
Major Pomeroy moistened his lips.
"No good asking me," he said. "All I know is, we've got to go through with it."
"Suppose I backed out?" asked Madame in a low voice.
"I don't think you could—now."
There was menace as well as doom in the major's voice. Then shaking off his heavy mood, he glanced at his watch and walked briskly to the door.
"I must hustle," he said, "or I shan't have time for the finishing touch."
The major was right when he mentioned the time factor, for Goya's client had just reached Pomerania House. As the car stopped before the beautiful and familiar door, Viola felt a pang of spurious guilt. Although the visit had been authorized by Mrs. Stirling, she knew that it was her exaggerated description which had made Beatrice anxious to see her room.
The porter welcomed Viola as an old friend.
"Cor lumme, I'm glad to see you again."
"Cor lumme, I'm glad to see you," responded Viola. "I want my key, please I'm going up to my flat."
While she waited for Pearce to return from the office, she began to point out the special features of the hall to Beatrice.
"I'm enchanted," the girl assured her. "What a marvellous sweep of staircase. All this is history living here must make you feel uplifted. No wonder you despise luxury hotels."
Then suddenly, with a swift change of expression, her lips curved in a smile of superior amusement. At that moment she might have been older than her mother. "Are you going to keep poor old Mack outside in the fog?" she asked. "It's all right, he knows I'm wise to him. The last time we got out of the car, I waved to his taxi—and he waved back."
"Well," gasped Viola, forcing a laugh; "You make me feel a wart."
"I was practising my poker face so as to be ready for. R. C... But suppose you fetch Mack?"
When Viola had gone outside the hall, Beatrice intercepted the porter and took from him the key of No. 15.
"Where abouts is No. 16?" she asked casually.
"Next to fifteen,"' replied Pearce. "It's the middle door."
Viola met Mack as he was mounting the steps of Pomerania House, without waiting for an invitation. He grinned at her to express his appreciation of the acumen of the Stirling brain.
"You can't fool the lassie," he said proudly.
"I've an inkling of something of the sort," remarked Viola. "For your information, we are going up to my flatlet. First landing, No. 15."
"No. 15," chanted the Scot. "Under observation. O.K."
Beatrice stood at the foot of the staircase, still gazing around her. Her face was flushed—her voice low and husky—as she placed her hand impulsively on Viola's arm.
"I want to tell you something. I've loved this afternoon—and I'll tell you why. It's because you tried to give me a thrill. That counts terribly—because it shows me you were thinking of me. Yours was like Browning—high failure. Oh, Greeny, wouldn't it be wonderful if you and I could go together on a real adventure! Just the two of us—and both of us free."
The unexpected outburst made Viola feel embarrassed and vaguely guilty. It was disconcerting to realize that Beatrice was slipping beyond her mental control, while the glow in her eyes suggested banked-up fires of affection which only needed a breath of encouragement to shoot up in a blaze.
In spite of her instinctive urge always to play up to a dramatic situation, she felt it was healthier to sustain the character of a cool and capable companion.
"It will be an adventure for you to walk upstairs," she remarked. "There's no lift."
To create a diversion, she called out to Pearce: "There's a furniture van outside. Who's shooting the moon?"
"Miss Power," replied the porter.
"Power? Then it's my mistake. No shooting. Beatrice, come up quickly. You're going to see a real type. Perfect lady."
As they mounted the shallow treads, a shout warned them to stand clear of the bend. A man was rolling a packing case down the stairs, while Miss Power stood on the landing to direct him.
She nodded to Viola as she turned back into No. 17. "I watered your bulbs," she said.
"Thanks," called Viola. "And thanks for all the loans."
"What did you borrow?" asked Beatrice curiously.
"Husbands. She has three of everything. And now for No. 15. Good old No. 15."
First pressing it to her lips, Viola inserted the key in the lock. It was stiff from disuse and she had to use some force to turn it. While she was wrestling with it, Mack lumbered up the stairs. With his deceptive elephantine speed he took up a position outside No. 17, from whence he commanded a general view of the landing.
Miss Power did not leave him long in possession of his post.
"Will you kindly stand on one side?" asked a cold voice behind him. "You are blocking the door. The men are bringing out a wardrobe."
Mack glanced into the dismantled room and then sidestepped to avoid the thrust of a determined piece of furniture which seemed to be acting in co-operation with the removers. It came forward with a rush, but apparently misjudged the width of the doorway for it filled it up completely like a wall.
"You've got her flush. Try her sideways," advised Mack.
Still busy with the key, Viola looked up just as Major Pomeroy sauntered up the stairs. He was holding a slip of paper, at the sight of which she had a pang of premonition. She felt certain that he was bringing her some important news, and she prayed that her loyalty would not be put to the test. Then she noticed that Beatrice had opened the door of No. 16, so that Madame Goya's apartment was visible from the landing. Compared with its former appearance when it was under suspicion of concealing a girl, it looked comparatively bare. The white and gold walls presented plain surfaces in the place of wooden panels. The velvet window curtains had been removed, revealing closed white shutters. Even the wardrobe had been left open and contained only a fur coat on a hanger.
The place was dimly illuminated by a single lamp on the table at the far end of the room. Behind it, Goya sat hunched over her crystal like an ugly idol. The light showed the buff carpet, the conventional suite and a huge picture which hung on one wall. On the other side, the mirror in its new gilt frame reflected an orange and jade rug and part of the divan with brilliant cushions. The stain on its arm was covered by a purplish silk scarf thrown over it with apparent carelessness.
Viola had seen the room since its redecoration, so its altered appearance was not a novelty. At the same time, she was aware of a slight change. It was not any addition to the furniture, for her impression was of an eclipse or loss.
While the thought flashed across her mind, to her dismay Beatrice walked into No. 16.
"I have an appointment with Goya," she said imperiously. "Naturally I wish it to be private. Please stay outside, Greeny, or wait in your apartment. I'll join you there."
Viola bit her lip as she realized that she was up against a complication she had hoped would never arise. The situation was delicate, for she had no authority to coerce the girl. She had to rely on her command of the personal element, and if this broke down, she was powerless.
"I'll get it in the neck when your people hear of this," she appealed. "Have a heart and cut it out."
"But I've got to go," explained Beatrice. "I must know the future because it's connected with you."
"With me? If you let me down now, I've got no future. I shall never get another job."
Beatrice had already walked halfway towards the table when she turned round to face Viola. She laughed with triumph because the positions were reversed and she was now on top. In spite of her own annoyance, Viola was forced to admire her. At that moment she looked beautiful—a perfect picture of youthful charm. Her dark eyes gleamed with mischief and her cheeks flamed with excitement. In her snowy ermine coat and cap, she might have been a princess strayed from a Hans Andersen fairy tale.
"Darling," she said, "you do sob stuff marvelously. But I'm immune to it. It is time you realized that I am a free agent—not a pedigree Peke."
Viola spun round at the sound of Major Pomeroy's voice. He was standing in the open door of No, 16 and he still fingered the slip of paper.
"Some studio or other rang up this morning," he drawled. "They wanted your number. I told them I'd have it looked up and we'd ring them later. I'm afraid my secretary has been too rushed to attend to it—I wonder if you would care to speak to them yourself. It might be more satisfactory. The booth in the hall is free."
As she listened, Viola felt almost suffocated by excitement. A miracle had happened, for the studio actually remembered her. Probably they were casting for a new picture and needed girls of her type. There might even be a chance of a small part, and if this did not materialize nothing could alter the fact she would be once more acting for the screen.
Having delivered his message, the major transferred his attention to Miss Power's blocked wardrobe. Thrilled and elated, Viola was on the point of dashing downstairs to the hall, when she remembered Beatrice.
She had accepted her responsibility. It was impossible to leave her alone in a strange house. Even if Mack were left on guard, it would not justify her absence, since the terms of her engagement had stipulated for personal attendance.
"Thanks, Major," she called through the open door. "I'll call at your office for the number when I'm leaving. Since they have been kept waiting already, they can wait a few minutes longer."
Even as she spoke, she told herself bitterly that her chance was lost. For a moment she felt bitter and rebellious; then, with a sudden change of mood, regret was wiped out by gratitude that she had not yielded to the treachery of her impulse. It was a moral victory which she must consolidate by making a more vigorous attempt to influence the mutinous heiress.
"Beatrice," she said.
As she turned her head, she stared around her in utter incredulity. There was no sign of Beatrice anywhere in the room.
Within the space of a few seconds, she had disappeared is completely as though she had faded into air.
AT first, Viola felt she was the victim of a monstrous practical joke.
"Beatrice," she called, "where are you?" There was no reply and she cried out again. As she waited, the silence appalled her. The sound of her own voice—sharp and thin as a twanged wire—was also alarming. It was a reminder that one half of her mind had a perception of some horror which was mercifully blurred to the other.
She looked around her with a dim sense that the situation was familiar. This had happened once before in the fading light of just such another foggy evening. She remembered how Marlene, the ornamental typist, had spun her a preposterous yarn about a girl who had faded out—and that afterwards, she had stretched out her arms in groping gestures, trying to touch someone who was not there.
That had been a piece of foolish acting, yet the present was equally unreal. She had a sudden vivid vision of Beatrice, flushed and laughing, in her ermine coat—red and white as a rose thrown upon snow. She was a blooming flesh-and-blood reality. It was impossible for her to be reduced to an element and imprisoned in the air.
As she stood and stared out at the landing, her brain seemed to grow duller every moment. She heard the ticking of the grandfather's-clock in uneven beats, like a heart about to stop, as Miss Power's wardrobe was forced from its wedged position. She saw it hoisted and carried down the stairs, while the major preceded it as he cautioned the men not to scratch the paint on the walls.
Then Miss Power—wearing gloves and carrying a suitcase—came out of No. 17, and Mack, who had learned his lesson, jumped clear of the door...
She watched them as though she were the spectator at a drama. Although every action seemed to be performed in slow motion, she timed them subconsciously as she mechanically counted the ticks of the clock. Within the compass of a couple of minutes, something had happened—something which she was still too stunned by shock to comprehend.
For the present, her sensations were chiefly physical. They frightened her because they conveyed a threat. She felt dizzy from the gallop of imprisoned blood in her temples and the increasing pressure around her head, as though the brain were being locked in quick-setting plaster.
"I'm going to have a stroke," she thought.
The terror of the idea stabbed her back to reality and she ran out to the landing, screaming for the detective. "Mack, Mack!"
The Scot, who was leaning against the wall, hastened to meet her.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"She's gone," gasped Viola.
"Yes—disappeared. She's in there somewhere. We must find her."
Mack—his eyes like chips of broken glass—looked through the open door into Goya's flat and then rushed heavily towards No. 15.
"Not there," cried Viola, following him and clinging to his arm in a vain effort to wrench him round.
"Get out, you liar."
He shook her off with a force which sent her staggering backward as he burst open the door.
As she looked into her flatlet, she felt that she must be dreaming. It was rather a dark room as it looked out onto a narrow side street and involved a heavy bill for electric light. When she had packed to go to the Stirlings' hotel, she had bolted and shuttered her window as a matter of course. She expected, therefore, to find the place in darkness... Instead—the light was switched on and the window was wide open.
Outside was an iron stair which the major had added as a precaution against fire. It was wider and easier than the average escape, so the staff of the offices sometimes used it as a back way down to the street. Mack was on the point of climbing out onto the narrow balcony outside the window when Viola made another attempt to stop him.
"Mack, come back," she screamed. "You must believe me. It's her only chance. She is in Goya's flat. There's some terrible trickery."
"Ring the Stirlings," cut in Mack, his foot on the first rung of the stair.
She had never before seen such cold anger in any face, and she shrank back although her conscience was clear. The sensation of being imprisoned in an evil dream was so strong that she looked around her, expecting to see Beatrice laughing at her bewilderment. Then, suddenly, the, explanation of the mystery burst—like a bomb—inside her head. Beatrice had been kidnapped.
She tried to reject the hideous thought on the score of impossibility. There could be no panel trap where a girl might be hidden, since No. 16 had recently been renovated by a builder of proven honesty. But even assuming some place of concealment, there remained the problem of forcibly removing a strong and active girl without attracting attention.
While she was talking to Major Pomeroy, she had heard no sound of a cry or struggle and no other person had been present except Madame Goya. The fortune teller—who was stout—was wedged tightly in her armchair and was imprisoned there by the barrier of the table. She would have needed the collective characteristics of a contortionist, a strong woman and a gymnast to have leaped on her victim, disposed of her and returned to her place in complete silence.
"Goya," thought Viola, with a spurt of hope. "She was there. She must have seen what happened!"
When she rushed inside No. 16, Goya was still posed at the table before her crystal. As she drew nearer to her, Viola's heart sank, for the woman's lids were closed and her chin rested on her chest.
At Viola's cry, she nodded violently like a china mandarin and blinked her eyes open.
"I wasn't asleep," she gabbled, with the instinctive defence of one caught napping. "I was only resting my eyes while I waited for a client. Crystal gazing puts a great strain on them. I don't suppose I am betraying a confidence when I say I am expecting your Miss Stirling. You would be sure to know... But where is she? Didn't, she come with you? I've not seen her."
Viola's unspoken question was answered both in words and by Goya's eyes which looked blank and dazed. It was unimportant whether she were sleep-sodden or obstructive. The fact remained that she was tongue-tied.
"Do you want anything here?" she asked.
The question recalled Viola's wandering wits.
"Your telephone," she replied.
"Use it by all means."
Seizing the receiver, Viola heard the operator inquire, "Number, please?"
The request was repeated while she tried desperately to think clearly. But her mind remained a blank, so that she was forced to ring off again to her dismay.
"Can't you remember your number?" asked Madame Goya.
"No," replied Viola. "My brain seems jammed." As she spoke dully, her eyes were fixed on the box divan. It was larger and more luxurious than her own, so the receptacle underneath—which held her own bedclothes—would be correspondingly spacious. Too distraught to realize what she was doing, she rushed to it, swept off the cushions and raised the lid. Inside was stacked a collection of empty stout bottles. "Only 'dead men,'" she murmured. Becoming conscious of Goya's protruding eyes, she tried to explain. "I'm sorry. But I know she is here." A swarm of bees seemed to be buzzing inside her head, but above the maddening humming and the beating of a myriad wings she heard Goya speaking slowly and clearly, as though she were trying to instruct a mental patient.
"You came in here to telephone, my dear. But you couldn't remember the number. Now suppose you go down to the office? The major will be able to help you."
At the reminder that priceless time was slipping away in ghastly misunderstanding and confusion, Viola rushed from the room and tore down the stairs. Her ankle was still weak from her accident and—while still some distance from the bottom—it gave way, so that she fell down the last steps. Hearing the crash, Pearce hurried to help her. Unconscious of any injury, she limped across the hall to the major's office.
"Ring the Stirlings," she gasped. "I've forgotten their number. Tell them their daughter has disappeared."
Major Pomeroy's nonchalance was equal to the shock. Without showing surprise, he spoke to his secretary. "'Get the Colosseum Hotel, please. Ask for either Mr. or Mrs. William Stirling."
Miss Taylor stopped tapping her noiseless machine and took up her telephone. As she watched her, Viola became oppressed with a sense of guilt. Her loyalty had stood the test, for the studio call had not made her desert her post. Yet, as she waited to speak to Mrs. Stirling, she felt under the ban of universal condemnation.
The office was familiar to her with its red-and-blue Turkey carpet—its deep comfortable chairs and the handsome desk. It connected with the major's flat—which was somewhat cramped—and he often used it in the evening after business-hours. Many a time Viola had sauntered inside, her hands stuck negligently in the pockets of her slacks, to make a complaint or offer some casual excuse for non-payment of her rent.
On such occasions, Miss Taylor always dealt with her in order to save the major from being worried by his tenants. She was a competent secretary and remained coldly impersonal, even when Viola tried to introduce the human element. Viola knew that she disliked her and, as she attributed the fact to jealousy of her more glamorous profession, she ignored her hostility with contemptuous pity.
The situation was now reversed as, for the first time, she wanted the reassurance of Miss Taylor's approval. She started nervously when the secretary looked up from her desk and spoke to her:
"You're through. Will you take the call, please?"
"No," declared Viola desperately. "No, I can't tell them."
After a slight pause, the major picked up the receiver. "Is that Mrs. Stirling speaking?'" His deferential voice contrasted with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth. "This is Major Pomeroy speaking from Pomerania House. Will you come over at once? I'm afraid there's bad news about your daughter... Thanks."
He rang off and spoke to his secretary. "More trouble for poor old Goya."
"And for us," Miss Taylor reminded him, with a grimace. They seemed to have forgotten Viola's presence. She swayed as she stood, suddenly overcome by the delayed effect of her crash down the stairs. Then the walls of the room whirled around her and she dropped to the floor in utter collapse...
Presently intermittent rushes of consciousness returned. She felt that she had been away on a long journey, groping in darkness. As she struggled to get back, she welcomed faint sounds that were familiar—a distant telephone bell and the hum of voices. At last, with an effort, she managed to open her eyes.
The room seemed to be full of people for she was ringed around with a circle of staring faces. In an instinctive attempt to hide from them, she closed her lids again.
"She's shamming," said a voice, vibrant with cold fury.
"No," declared a kinder tone. "She really took an awful crash. Probably a slight touch of concussion. She'd have come out of a faint sooner."
Viola began to wonder numbly who was the unpopular victim of the casualty before she realized that they were talking about her. Head throbbed so painfully that it was difficult to control her eyesight, but gradually she recognized the Stirlings. The millionaire looked grey as a leaden statue, with frozen features and merciless lips. Christina's soft brown eyes were glazed with anguish, but when she spoke to Viola her voice was controlled and even gentle.
"Miss Green, can't you make an effort? Try to tell us where Beatrice is. Please"
Beatrice. As Viola remembered what had happened, she was overwhelmed by the horror of the moment. Highly emotional and sensitised to impressions, she was always swift to snatch at each perception and drain the rapture from a sound or a scent. Now this complex nervous machinery was jammed by shock and taking its revenge in dislocated nerves.
While she was trying frantically to answer the appeal of Mrs. Stirling's eyes, she felt her faculties begin to slip away again. It was an agony to realize that vital time was passing. Beatrice was somewhere in No. 16, and they must find her before it was too late. As she struggled to speak, she was conscious of a weight inside her mouth as though her tongue were leaden. There was failure to concentrate—a sense of fading away—and then a block of darkness...
When she recovered consciousness for the second time, a satin cushion was placed under her head; a handkerchief soaked in eau de Cologne lay on her forehead, and a pungent whiff was in her nostrils. Madame Goya bent over her, holding smelling salts to her nose; but instead of being repelled by the ugly frog-face—so close to her own that it looked like a painted mask—she felt grateful for kindness.
The room was no longer blurred by a quivering mist. She saw every face distinctly while her mind had grown clear. The absence of Miss Taylor, and the comparative silence in the hall, told her of further leakage of the precious time which might yet save Beatrice. The Stirlings, Major Pomeroy and Goya were present, while even as she stared around her the door opened and Raphael Cross entered.
"I've only just got your message." he said.
At the sight of him Viola felt a revival of courage and also of hope. His vitality and personal magnetism were so strong that he inspired an atmosphere of confidence. Going straight to Christina, he pressed her hands.
"You know what I feel," he said.
Her lips quivered, but when she spoke to him her voice was calm.
"Yes, I know, Raphael. Oh, the comfort to have you. But you mustn't be too sweet, or I may give way. I've got to concentrate on Beatrice." She added in a lower voice, "and I must be strong for two."
Glancing involuntarily at the stricken millionaire, he nodded in understanding.
"I'm here to help you," he told her.
Crossing to the divan on which Viola had been placed, he gave her a friendly smack.
"Poor little Greeny." His voice was kind but firm. "You look as if you'd taken an awful beating. But don't think of yourself. Think of her... What happened?"
Fortified by his compelling eye, she blurted out her story. It sounded so fantastic that she gazed hopelessly at the skeptical faces. "Beatrice ran into No. 16 to get her fortune told. I followed. I turned to speak to the major, and in that minute she disappeared."
Chilled by the silence, she appealed to Raphael Cross. "It's true. You've got to believe me. For it happened to you. It's the same room. There's some horrible trickery about it. You must break it up. Pull everything down."
Cross' shrug was a disclaimer of responsibility.
"History repeats itself," he remarked. "I'm afraid this young lady seems to have too good a memory. Well, Major, there may be something in it for you—again. Shall we send for the break-up squad?"
Major Pomeroy ignored the thrust.
"I should certainly not authorize the destruction of my property a second time on a frivolous charge," he said coldly.
"That goes for me too," declared Madame Goya. "'Once bitten, twice shy.' No one shall destroy my beautiful new decorations."
"The question does not arise," broke in Stirling. "The girl's lying. She has been helping my daughter to elope."
"Whatever's happened," said Cross, "Beatrice is gone and we have to get her back. You know what you must do, Stirling. Ring up the police."
Stirling and his wife stared at each other, their faces drawn with fear. Then Christina spoke.
"No. That terrible photograph... I cannot forget her eyes."
"But you advised me," Raphael Cross reminded them.
"And you want me to take my own medicine?" asked Stirling.
The glint died from Cross' eye.
"No," he told them. "I want no one to go through the hell I suffered, least of all you. It's because of my feeling for you, I want to steer you in the right direction. The cases are different. I feared the worst from the beginning because of my private knowledge of motives. But if this is a common or garden kidnapping—and not an elopement—all your own arguments stand good. You must call in the police."
RESENTFUL of the injustice which blamed her for the catastrophe, Viola made another effort to protest. She was struggling to sit up, when stumpy fingers pressed her head down on the cushion again.
"Lie still," whispered Goya. "What's the good? They won't believe you."
Viola recognized the sound sense of the advice. If she rested, there was less chance of her remaining a casualty and, as such, in no condition to defend herself. Although she had always distrusted Goya, she felt grateful to her because she alone showed any sign of friendly feeling.
In spite of her innocence, her sense of guilt grew almost unbearable as she watched the stricken parents. While they tried to hope that Beatrice's absence would prove an escapade, she felt certain that they sensed the menace of the dreaded octopus. The millionaire appeared shattered by the blow, but his anguish hurt her less than his wife's courage.
"I couldn't keep up like that," she thought. "I was nearly haywire when I lost Peter, and he was only a dog. But she's trying to smile at her husband. I played her too low. It wasn't only fur coats—and orchids—and bridge—that kept her going. It's real character... I've laughed at all of them just because they had too much money. Oh, how cruel the poor are to the rich!"
She was trying to swallow the lump which rose persistently in her throat when the door was pushed open and the detective—Mack—walked inside. His face was damp and greyish—his movements heavy with the lag of a defeated man. Christina ran towards him, but he answered her unspoken question with a shake of his head.
"I've lost the trail," he confessed, running his finger inside his collar as though unable to bear its pressure. "She was nowhere in the street. Cars were passing all the time through the Square, but the traffic cops spotted nothing... But she came down the escape. I checked up on that at one of the offices opposite. A clerk went to the window to pull down the blind and he saw a girl in a white coat coming down the stairs. It was nearly dark and he didn't wait to see where she was going."
Viola listened with utter bewilderment. She was asking herself by what miraculous feat of levitation Beatrice could have moved through solid walls to the outer stair, when the detective continued his account.
"I got on to Don at once and phoned him to contact Austin, himself. He seemed our best bet. No good ringing him up to ask and be told lies. If she's with him, Don will find her. He's fighting mad."
"Will he ring up the hotel?" asked Stirling.
"No, I gave him this number as I reckoned you'd be here... We ought to hear any minute now."
Instinctively—everyone turned towards the telephone as though beseeching it to speak.
"What happened, Mack?" asked the millionaire.
"Didn't she tell you?" inquired the detective, jerking his thumb towards Viola.
"I've only heard lies. I want your account."
"Well, when we got here, we went right up to the landing. Green told me they were going to her apartment. I parked outside another door where the tenant was moving out, so that I could keep my eye on No. 15. Green began to unlock the door and Beatrice stood by her, waiting to go inside. Then my attention was taken off by a wardrobe which stuck while they were taking it out and I helped to shove it. I saw Beatrice just before I turned round—and the next minute Green screamed out that she had gone. I dashed straight into fifteen and found the light on and the window open. I went down after her, but I had to climb out onto the balcony to reach the stair. All the time, Green was trying to drag me back and make out she was somewhere else. She was putting up an act to help Beatrice make her getaway."
Viola listened with a recognition of his personal hostility towards herself. When she had first gone to live at the hotel, she had been surprised at his use of Beatrice's Christian name. She soon discovered that he was privileged on account of his years of loyal service, and that the Stirlings were too simple by nature to expect him to give a title to a girl whom he still regarded as a baby. Knowing this, she was pleased by the compliment when he began to call her "Vi." Now she was "Green," in evidence of her drop from favour.
Suddenly the telephone bell began to ring. Mack was first to answer the call—waving back the parents who pressed around him. His eyes glinted with excitement, but as he listened his eagerness died and his mouth sagged with disappointment.
"No," he said—hanging up the receiver—"she didn't go to meet Austin. Don traced him to a Turkish bath, where he'd been all the afternoon. The chap didn't know anything. Don said he was sure he wasn't stalling. He went round to Austin's apartment to find out if she was there, but the porter said she'd not been seen."
"Where is Don speaking from?" asked Stirling.
"From the hotel. He's been checking up on telephone calls. The switchboard girl told him Green made a date to have her fortune told by Madame Goya this afternoon. She wasn't really listening in, but she heard a bit and she took the call from Green's line."
"This doesn't look too good to me," said Raphael Cross sternly. "I warned you on Goya because I know girls can get their heads stuffed with suggestions."
"I never made an appointment," declared Viola.
"That's right," said Goya. "It wasn't her voice. I'd know hers anywhere."
"She's an actress," the millionaire reminded her. "Surely she could imitate any voice."
"But I didn't," protested Viola. "Besides, Mrs. Stirling gave us permission to come here."
"I gave permission to visit your dramatic school," said Christina wearily. "But what's the good of going into this? It doesn't matter if we've been deceived and let down. All that matters is to find Beatrice."
Shaken by her fall and confused by the circumstantial evidence which was piling up against her, Viola was beginning to wonder what had actually happened when the porter entered the office.
He held an envelope which he gave to William Stirling. "I've just noticed this in the letter box," he explained. "It must have come by hand. I took the mail from the postman myself. It's marked 'Urgent,' so the messenger should have delivered it personally."
"That's right, Pearce," said Major Pomeroy quickly. "Mr. Stirling is expecting it."
Almost before the door closed, Cross snatched the letter. "The address is printed," he said. "Remember mine?"
The millionaire's face was frozen with fear—his lips too stiff to speak. Although she was also cold with foreboding, Viola had a vivid recollection of the evening when Cross had received his anonymous threat. The Stirlings had been genuinely shocked and sympathetic, yet they had viewed the situation from an isolationist angle.
She wondered whether Raphael had a similar memory as he slit open the envelope.
"'My very dears,'" he read. "'Tell Greeny I'm having my adventure. I'm kidnapped. Soon you will be told my price. Please pay it if you think I'm worth it, and even if you don't. I'm fit and in good spirits, don't worry. Back soon.'"
The silence was broken by Cross. "Do you recognize her handwriting?" he asked Christina.
"It's hers," she said, speaking with an effort.
"Is it what she would say?"
"No. She used to tell us never to pay out a dime in ransom for her... We hated her talking of it, even in joke. She declared it was unintelligent to ignore any subject—and she used to say a kidnapper rarely kept his share of the bargain."
"I'm afraid," said Raphael gently, "that she was obliged to write what they told her—only they'd have the sense to let her say it her own way, for the sake of the genuine touch."
Suddenly Christina lost her calm as she pressed the letter to her lips.
"Her hand touched it," she said. "It's a sort of link with my precious baby."
Her husband put his arm around her.
"No object in staying here now," he remarked. "Better get back to the hotel and wait."
His voice held such hopeless grief that Viola felt almost grateful to Madame Goya when she created a diversion.
"One moment, please, all of you. I said I wouldn't have my room broken up for a second time... I've changed my mind. If a kidnapping case is going to be connected with Pomerania House, then the sooner I'm outside, the better. My business won't stand dirt... Major, I give you formal notice that I shall leave tomorrow."
Major Pomeroy raised his brows and shrugged wearily.
"I need not remind a business woman that you would break your lease," he said. "Suppose we talk it over quietly tomorrow morning?"
"We certainly will—but I shall not change my mind."
Mrs. Stirling moved towards the door but turned back to speak to Major Pomeroy.
"We've been a terrible nuisance. I'm so sorry. Thanks—for everything."
While Viola was admiring a code in which the personal element was subject to a sense of consideration of others, Christina asked her a question.
"Will you return to the hotel with us, Miss Green? Or do you prefer to remain here?"
Her voice—though toneless—was kind, but Viola shrank guiltily before the pain in her eyes. "Here, please," she whispered.
"You will come back to the hotel," commanded the millionaire. "How do we know you have not been acting in collusion with the gang?"
"Oh, no," cried his wife. "I'll never believe that. She knows Beatrice was fond of her."
"She's not cleared of suspicion. Why did she try to stop Mack going after Beatrice? Why has she told us a pack of lies?"
Viola did not feel capable of making another effort to clear herself. As she wondered if anyone would believe her preposterous story, she suddenly thought of a young man with resolute eyes and a stubborn chin. Alan Foam was a fighter, not to be browbeaten by millionaires. The mere idea of getting in contact with him revived her courage. He would be able to advise her if he could not give her actual help.
At this juncture, however, she doubted whether she would be allowed to make a private telephone call. Someone was certain to listen in, when—in view of the general suspicion—her appeal to him might be construed as evidence of his indirect complicity. She was looking around the hall helplessly while she wondered whether she could possibly creep into the telephone booth unseen, when the sight of Madame Goya suggested another expedient.
The woman stood at the foot of the staircase, mechanically making up her face without the aid of a mirror. She stopped, clubbing on dusky, powder when Viola spoke to her in a whisper.
"Madame, I want to telephone privately."
Goya opened her bag and handed a key to the girl. "Use mine," she muttered, smearing her lips with an orange lipstick to conceal their movement. "Be sure to lock the door after you."
"Thanks. You're a real sport, I'm sorry you are going. Good-bye, if we don't meet again."
After a furtive glance at the group in the hall, Goya held out her hand. Her heavy over-painted lips quivered and her eyes were mazed with fear. She looked like a woman who expected a blow but did not know who would strike it.
"We're neighbours," she said thickly. "We're both in a jam. I hope we both of us come out of it all right. Good-bye," Throwing her furs around her and drawing down her veil, she walked towards the street door. Moved by an impulse she could not understand, Viola stood and watched her until she was out of sight...
The Stirlings were still talking to Major Pomeroy when she drew near the group. Her wits sharpened by her need, she framed her request in a cunning fashion.
"May I go up to my flat? I want to find an important letter." She noticed that the detective caught Stirling's eye and gave an almost imperceptible nod. "That's all right," he said. "Will you give me a light?"
When Viola handed him her matches, he put the box in his pocket. "I'll be smoking a fag at the bottom of the fire escape," he told her. "I want some fresh air too."
Hiding her jubilation with a grimace of annoyance, Viola walked upstairs with the lagging step of defeat. When she reached the bend, she hurried as quickly as her injured ankle would allow her until she reached No. 16. As she had hoped, Mack thought she meant to burn an incriminating paper and then give them the slip. Outwitted by his strategy, she was now merely trying to save her face. Stepping inside the darkened room, she fumbled for a switch and succeeded in lighting one small pendant in the centre of the ceiling. It threw only a pencil of illumination on the long room and made it appear eerie and unfamiliar.
As she looked around her nervously, Viola recalled that she was standing on the exact spot where Beatrice had stood just before she, disappeared. A cloud of questions surged around her—Where had she gone? How? The letter in her handwriting seemed proof that she had contrived some magical method of transportation.
At the thought of the dark laughing eyes, Viola began to gulp.
"She could have been spoilt and horrid," she reminded herself. "But she was sweet and unselfish and generous. I was a damned prig not to take that ring. I hurt her... Oh, darling dear, I'd give my life to get you back."
She was crying bitterly when she reached Madame's work table. Brushing away her tears, she memorized Alan's number before she took up the telephone.
The exchange did not reply and took no notice of her repeated rings. She listened to intermittent hums and snaps until her impatience mounted to fever. It was not only the knowledge that she was keeping the Stirlings waiting for her which set her fingers rapping; even more than their displeasure she dreaded the risk of interruption before she got in touch with Alan.
As she looked down the length of the large room, it appeared dim and strange. Only its centre was illuminated by the thin shaft of light which was bluish as daylight streaming through a hole drilled in the ceiling. Walls and floor were darkish and seemed to be peopled with shadows which shifted vaguely as though one were stalking another.
Suddenly she discovered that she had grown nervous of her surroundings. This submerged fear had been increasing steadily until she realized that she dared not linger there alone. The place held a horror. A few hours ago it had swallowed a girl.
She was afraid of what had happened there—afraid of what might happen again. Slamming down the receiver, she began to rush towards the door before she stopped—to stare with incredulous horror. In that second, she believed that her imagination was playing an evil trick.
As she glanced into the clouded confusion of the darkened mirror, she thought she saw—instead of her own reflection—the face and figure of Raphael Cross.
Even as she recognized him, she remembered that there had been no sounds of opening door or footsteps. Turning to look behind her, she saw only the empty room. If he had ever stood there, he had faded into air.
She forced herself to look again into the mirror... The old greyish glass reflected only her white face and scared eyes. They held such terror that she was frightened of them her nerve crashed utterly and she rushed—like a mad creature—from the place.
THERE was a terrible awakening for Viola the following morning. After hours of heavy sleep, she opened her gummed eyes and stared at the familiar luxury of her room her head thumped and her throat was parched, while the taste in her mouth reminded her of the aftermath of an occasional wild party.
"Was I tight?" Even as she asked herself the question, she suddenly remembered that Beatrice was missing.
After the shock of realization was dulled, her mind began to grope back to the events of yesterday. Although the drive from Pomerania House remained a blank, she was sure that she had been on the point of collapse when she entered the hotel. Some kind and masterful person had insisted that she swallowed a drink which was dynamite. After that, she had retained consciousness only long enough to flop into bed.
As her memory continued to unwind further, she had a vague recollection of being in Madame Goya's apartment in order to telephone secretly to Alan. It was then that something frightened her, but the cause of her alarm was mixed up with an incredible looking-glass illusion which must have been a dream.
Weary of straining her mind, she began to wonder whether there had been any fresh developments and if the kidnappers had got in touch with their victim's parents. Although she shrank from the ordeal of meeting the Stirlings, she got out of bed and began to dress. Instead of bracing her, the shower only revived her to a pitch of apprehension when she dreaded all news. She stood for some time outside the royal suite, listening to the muted sound of voices and trying to summon courage to enter. In the end, a chambermaid who was busy about the rooms officiously opened the door of the boudoir for her before she could protest.
Her first glance at the Stirlings gave her the impression that they had sloughed their personalities, so that nothing remained but hollow externals. The millionaire looked shrivelled as a mummy as he slumped in his padded chair; only his eyes were alive and glittering with resentful anguish.
Christina wore a charming housecoat of stiff hydrangea-blue brocade. Her complexion was restored, her hair reset; yet she reminded Viola of something dumped upon a refuse heap.
It was a relief to turn to Raphael Cross, who had made an early call. Although his intensely blue eyes betrayed a certain strain, his vitality made him appear doubly real and refreshing in contrast with the others.
Viola moistened her lips and tried to speak but the words died in her throat. Cross nodded a greeting while the millionaire glared at her. Christina was first to answer the appeal of her eyes.
"No," she said. "Nothing... Still waiting."
Cross bit savagely on his cigar.
"Part of the system to put you through the hoop," he said. "You should know. You've got to stay put. The demand will come—as it came for me."
The millionaire clenched and unclenched his fingers. "If I could only contact them," he growled. "I'd let them know there's no limit. No limit. We only want her back,"
Viola noticed the steely glint in Cross' eyes and she wondered if the memory of Evelyn still rankled.
"No limit might suit the interested parties," he remarked harshly. "But you've got to face up to this. Beatrice might know too much to be turned loose again. She's not an infant that can't tell its story to the press. She's far too intelligent to be fooled."
"But they could keep her from knowing where she was taken," said Christina—her eyes piteous as though she were pleading with Cross for hope. "They could blindfold her and never let her see their faces. They could disguise their voices. Remember, they are strangers to her."
"If they are strangers, there's a chance," Cross told her. "But we can't rule out the possibility that she knows them—or one of them. The thing was worked too easily... I've a hunch it is someone she had accepted but not really noticed—like a servant. Or it might be someone she knew and trusted too well to suspect."
As Christina stared at him blankly, he took her hand.
"My dear," he said, "you must call in the police. They could get some line on her. Someone, besides that clerk, must have seen a girl in an ermine coat. It might give some indication of whereabouts she was snatched."
A quiver passed over her face. "No," she declared, "I dare not."
Suddenly Stirling raised his head and looked at Viola. "Someone she trusted," he repeated.
The implied accusation goaded Viola to explode.
"If you mean me," she cried, "it's a monstrous lie. I loved Beatrice. But it's no good telling you. I demand justice. I must talk to someone outside all this, just to clear my mind. I'm telling a tale I can't believe myself. Yet it's true... I want to see Alan Foam."
"You've met him," explained Cross, to freshen the Stirlings' memories, "The private dick I put on to find Evelyn. No good at all."
"But I must see him," insisted Viola.
"You can see him here," conceded Stirling. "Don will put through your call."
As Viola was turning to go, Christina spoke to her in a gentle voice.
"Have you had breakfast, Miss Green?"
"No," replied Viola.
"Then go down to the restaurant at once."
"She has," interposed Cross, nodding towards Christina.
His curt tone checked her rising hysteria.
"Sorry," she muttered. "I didn't mean to dramatize myself. Of course, I'll go."
A little later when she was trying to eat grapefruit, Don brought her a message from Foam. The young man's eyes were sunken from loss of sleep and his voice was surly.
"Your chap can give you ten minutes. Coming over now. I warn you, don't talk secrets. I may be snooping round."
The change in the friendly college boy made Viola uneasy lest Foam should regard her with the epidemic suspicion. Unable to finish her breakfast, she went up to her sitting room. When she heard his step outside the door, she tried to assume a pose of jaunty unconcern, but she was handicapped by the fact that she had no trouser pockets. She was stuffing a cigarette into her holder when he came into the room.
She puckered up her lips to whistle—only to forget her gesture as she met his gaze his eyes gave her reassurance of her hope that he would be on her side, trusting her and caring for her. To her dismay, her defiance broke down as, flinging her arms around his neck, she began to sob upon his shoulder. Then, just as he was exulting in the knowledge that he held her in his arms, she pushed him away.
"Fool," she said. "I never thought I'd play ivy to your oak. I hate ivy. Filthy clinging stuff... Oh, daring dear, I'm in a fearful mess. But you'll never believe my tale."
"Spit it out."
"Spoken like a dentist—and an honest man. Well, here goes."
As she rushed into her story, she watched Foam's face closely his eyes glinted with sudden excitement when he heard of Beatrice's disappearance, but otherwise they remained remote and thoughtful. When she stopped, she challenged him fiercely.
"Do you believe me?"
"I should," he replied. "That stuff is too thin and snarled for your imagination. You could put over a better line... honestly, I'm desperately sick about Beatrice. Nice kid. No side."
As he recalled the lunch at the Savoy, he forgot the beating he had taken over politics while he remembered the heiress youthful freshness—her open appreciation of ice pudding and her shy adoration of Viola.
"Is there any hope of getting her back?" asked Viola.
'"Depends," he replied. "If she's been grabbed by a professional gang, it's not too good, especially as her people won't call in the police. They're playing a mug's game. But it's natural that Cross' experience should shake them up... On the other hand, if there's a conspiracy connected with Pomerania House—where the show started—the parties concerned will have to stay put and carry on as usual—If they bolted, they would give away the show. In such a case, her people might get her back."
"If they could prove suspicious conduct on the part of anyone, that person is bound to link up with others. This can't be a one-man job, and they must all hang together. As a matter of fact, I've never been quite satisfied with that first affair."
"You mean the shoes in the clock-case?"
"Intelligent girl... Yes, those and some other points. Wait for me to throw them into shape."
Foam alternatively frowned and scrawled in his notebook. When the list of his findings was complete, he read it out to Viola.
"First, Evelyn Cross asked Pearce to light her fag. An old dodge to ensure recognition. Why?
"Second, the carpet and suite in No. 16 and No. 17 were exactly alike. Those in your flat were of inferior quality. Why?
"Third, you told me you noticed a difference in No. 16, and you think it was a lack of colour. That might mean that you were subconsciously missing a few of Goya's brilliant rugs and cushions. Why?
"Fourth, a girl in a white coat was noticed on the outside stair. Not conclusive evidence because one of the typists—Marlene—has a white coat."
Foam stopped to ask a question. "Sure you're keeping nothing back?"
"Just one thing," confessed Viola. "I had a fright last night when I went into No. 16 to ring you up. For one horrible second I thought I saw Raphael Cross in the mirror."
To her surprise, Foam did not hoot with derision.
"Looking glass," he muttered, "That's rather suggestive. Two rooms that are identical in certain respects. It gives the idea of duplication... I wish this were my case. It might be interesting. But I must go."
After glancing at his watch, he turned to Viola and tilted her chin.
"That's the way to wear it," he said, "And tell Cross, from me, to persuade the Stirlings not to pay any ransom. That would prove fatal for Beatrice."
Viola clutched him in a stranglehold before he reached the door.
"Aren't you going to help us?" she demanded.
"What can I do?" he asked. "I'm on the outside."
"But I'm in it up to the neck. Beatrice was in my care when she vanished. I can never be happy again—never. Well, I must snoop round alone. I've heard danger is sweet."
As she expected, Foam collapsed at the threat. "You win," he said. "Since you've hired me, I'll go to Pomerania House and nose round for any alteration in the landscape."
"At once, my precious?"
"No, my priceless. I'm on an important case—and the firm's interests must come first—I'll pay that visit when I out to lunch."
"It may be too late."
In spite of her former eagerness to speed him on his way he had to wrench his oak from the clinging embrace of the ivy. Once he was back in the office, his legitimate business occupied him until nearly two o'clock he rammed on his hat, ready to start, when he remembered his memory trap—the notebook in which he had entered his first impressions of those connected with the alleged disappearance of Evelyn Cross.
As he glanced at the pages, he grimaced and muttered "Lousy." It looked barren of promise until he noticed that a comment he had made on Viola might bear indirectly on a psychological aspect of the mystery. Then, as he checked his latest memory of Miss Power with the written description, he found the comparison inaccurate because he had used the adjective "solid."
Forcing his memory backwards, he saw again the perfectly moulded tweed suit with rounded hips and padded shoulders. Yet the last time he had met Power in Pomerania House, her lines had been spare and her costume had not defined her figure.
"Diet?" he queried. "Worry? Illness? Or—?"
Acting on impulse, he rang up Viola.
"Has Power lost weight recently?" he asked.
"No." Viola's voice was puzzled. "She's always been the same build. One of Pharaoh's lean kine."
"Then would you call her tweed outfit a perfect fit?"
"Oh, don't be silly. It bags and sags. Evidently cut to allow for shrinking,"
Suddenly it struck Foam as significant that Power had remained in her room during the excitement on the landing, so that Viola had not seen her on that occasion.
"Listen," he said. "The first time I met Miss Power, her suit fitted her like a sausage skin. Does that suggest anything?"
"Is this an intelligence test? Was she wearing one suit over another?"
"Bright girl. And the inference?"
"I'm stumped this time. What?"
"It might be impersonation."
Foam could almost feel the vibration of Viola's excitement across the wire.
"Are you telling me that the clerical Power is a crook?" she cried.
"No, we mustn't jump to conclusions. Perhaps she feels the cold. All the same, I'm going over to Pomerania House before I eat. I've a hunch I shall find something there—and if I do—an explanation will be indicated. One person should be forced to incriminate another from self-interest, and we may learn the truth about Beatrice."
Her tone was so vehement that she imparted her own sense of urgency to Foam. Taking a taxi, he drove to Pomerania House. Directly he entered the hall, he noticed signs of removal—footmarks smudged on the rubber flooring and wads of packing paper on the stairs. Pearce was clearing up the litter, so the major—immaculate as usual—came to meet him.
"Anything I can do for you?" he inquired nonchalantly.
"I wonder if I might have a look at No. 16," asked Foam. "If Madame Goya has no objection, of course."
"Madame will not object because Madame has evacuated herself. Broken her lease and cleared out her stuff this morning. Lucky break for me. I've been snowed under with inquiries for office accommodation of late. Now I intend to gut those three flats and convert them into business premises. Two are empty and I can shift little Miss Green."
His confident air in conjunction with the word "gut" made Foam plug his request.
"Might I see what is proposed? I'm always egging my firm to move to more convenient offices."
"Pleasure, my dear chap. I'm always ready to explain my plans to prospective clients. Conversion is my hobby as well as my business. Morgan is up there already, getting the first rough idea."
When they reached the landing, the builder stamped to meet them. His bowler hat was pushed back, revealing a bushy forelock which was whitened with coarse powder. His coat was also covered with grit, but in spite of his untidy appearance he beamed with satisfaction.
"I reckon this house will be my O.A.P., chief," he said. "Cor lumme, there's a chronic fall of plaster. I warned you that the division wall was too thin to bear any weight."
"Which wall?" asked Foam, with a premonition of defeat.
"One between 16 and 17," replied the builder. "Come and see."
They followed him into No. 16, where a jagged oblong hole gaped in the division wall. The pile of fragments on the floor told Foam that the job had been well and truly done.
"How did it happen?" he asked.
"Taking down the mirror," explained the major. "I warned Madame against fixing it there. It was twice the weight of her old one."
Foam grinned sourly as he remembered the ease with which he had lifted the gilded fraud. Although the major could not know they shared a secret, it was a barren victory in the absence of proof.
"Was the mirror smashed too?" he asked.
"No, luckily it escaped damage."
As Foam stared at the gap, his disappointment was heavy. He had believed he was about to make an exposure of villainy, but he was too late.
With the destruction of the evidence, it was impossible to prove his suspicion that Beatrice—like "Alice"—had stepped through the looking glass.
MADAME GOYA was afraid.
That in itself was strange—for she did not lack courage. Stranger still was the fact that she was afraid of a man. Strangest of all was the origin of her fear—a reference to herself as "the old girl."
During a sordid career of blackmail and bucket-shop activity, her life had been threatened more than once, but she had never found herself up against a situation she could not control. She prided herself on the possession of a masculine brain plus an expert knowledge of crooked finance with which to floor heckling shareholders. Added to this consciousness of power was a lack of moral scruple and a supreme contempt of greedy suckers. Now, for the first time, she was afraid of her own business associate whom she had formerly despised. The murder of Evelyn Cross had revealed his cruel and ruthless purpose, and from that time onward she had conceived an increasing terror of his muscular hands.
She had gone into the scheme with some misgiving. Kidnapping was not her line of country, besides being highly speculative, as it was impossible to count upon pulling in the ransom. It promised, however, such a swollen return for her outlay that in the end her cupidity won.
Because it was her money that financed the venture, she had been arrogant and confident. She looked upon it as one more shady transaction until, suddenly, it ramified into crime. The murder had not been included in the original schedule and made her wonder whether she were being treated as a guinea pig who paid her own fees.
When she overheard the contemptuous allusion to herself, she told herself that her foreboding was justified. Instead of sitting in her usual place at the top of the board table, she was merely one of the suckers—"the old girl" who had found the money. Her function was fulfilled.
On the evening when Beatrice disappeared from Pomerania House, she was too overwrought to wait for her hired car to bring her back to her apartment in St. John's Wood. As she shivered in a taxi, she kept her eyes fixed on the meter, hailing each advance in fare as another stage of her journey farther from danger. It was with a sense of reaching the safety of port that she entered the cheerful entrance hall of the mansion flats.
When she reached her apartment, her faithful slave had been listening for her step and was waiting to open the door.
Maudie was an elderly wizened blonde, with sharp, peering eyes and triangular patches of rouge on her cheek bones. In defiance of her age, she wore the short-skirted uniform of a chambermaid in a French farce.
She took charge of her agitated mistress, fussing over the huge woman like a mother cat tending her half-drowned kitten. She fortified her with brandy and listened to the outpouring of her suspicions and fears, as she peeled off her outdoor clothes. Soon Goya lay stretched on a divan, her feet in feathered mules and a cigar between her lips.
"I'd like to stay put, Maudie," she remarked, looking around at the stuffy luxury of her flat. "I'm safe here."
Maudie perched herself on a table and crossed her bony silken knees as she lit a cigarette.
"You've got the rats," she said. "That's right, Maudie. It doesn't make sense not to finish the job. If it breaks all right, and if I don't get pulled in, I'll retire and we'll go and live in Paris."
"See me dance the can-can," chanted Maudie. As she displayed her lingerie in a dance calculated to cheer her mistress, Madame laughed shrilly. She changed into a smart dinner gown and had an expensive meal in the restaurant. Afterwards she sat in the entrance lounge, listening to the wireless music and watching the television.
When she went up to her flat, she was her normal self. She looked on and jeered when Maudie insisted on searching the flat before locking the windows and doors.
"You'd better be armed," she advised, when she tucked up Goya in her bed. "You'll dream sweeter if you know your little friend-in-need is just under your head."
"You silly faggot."
It was not a pistol that Maudie slipped under the large frilled pillow, but a bottle. Madame's eyesight was not good enough for her to use a gun while Maudie had been raised in a razor-slashing district—in order to compromise with social values, she had introduced her mistress to the refined weapon of vitriol.
In spite of the precaution, Madame passed a miserable night. When she lay awake, she imagined that someone was trying to get in at the window—and when she slept, she dreamed that he had got inside. There followed developments which awoke her in a sweat of terror and made her heart inflate and tug like a captive balloon.
When Maudie brought in her morning chocolate, she was in a state bordering on nervous prostration.
"Maudie," she whispered, "this flat's not safe."
"Safe as clink," declared the woman. "People all around."
"And there are verandas all round too. They join up. Anyone could get in."
"Well, anyone can get out, if it comes to that. 'We'll move to a hotel today."
"No. Hotels aren't safe. People coming and going a the time."
"Do you fancy the country?" asked Maudie patiently.
"The country?" Madame screamed faintly. "Fields and trees. They'd give me the jitters... No, I'll have to stay put."
As the morning advanced, she regained control over her nerves by the tonic of routine. When her hired car called at the usual time, she was cheered by the sight of the chauffeur—Cromer—who was detailed to drive her. He was a burly man, and his broad back always inspired her with confidence while it advertised the fact that his coat was tight to bursting point.
"Call back for me in an hour," she told him when the car reached Pomerania House.
Despite her leaping heart, she sailed into the hall in her usual grand manner; but, instead of going upstairs, she went into the office. The little secretary, who was opening the mail, looked up—expectant of trouble.
"Kindly tell Major Pomeroy I am leaving this morning,"' announced Madame.
"Won't you reconsider your decision?" asked the secretary. "There's nothing in the papers about what—what happened yesterday. Even Pearce knows nothing about it. I'm sure there will be no publicity."
"Thanks, my arrangements are made. The van is due to remove my furniture. Where is Pearce?"
The major, who stood outside listening for his cue, sauntered into the office he explained that the porter was in the basement, looking for a fault in the electric light plant, and then expressed regret at losing a satisfactory tenant.
Within half an hour the farce was finished. The removal van arrived punctually, and the men were directed to No. 16 by the major. After the furniture had been run outside in record time—and a crash had been duly recorded for the benefit of inquisitive ears—Goya walked into the office and laid down her key.
As she did so, she felt a lightening of her spirit.
"Will you leave a forwarding address?" asked the secretary.
"You have it. St. John's Wood."
Goya waited outside the house for her car with a sense of relief. Anticipating her freedom, she stared arrogantly at the major when he rejoined her.
"Let me know any change of address," he whispered.
"If any—you will be informed," she told him. "If you think I shall fade out of the directory just when I'm expecting my dividends, you're sanguinary sanguine."
Her good spirits were soon flawed. When she entered the hall of the mansion flats, the tenants were discussing a recent tragedy. For some reason—as yet obscure—the lift had crashed from the third floor to the bottom of the shaft and an elderly lady had been killed.
When she heard of the accident, Madame was chiefly curious to obtain any gruesome details. Her sympathy for the victim was expressed in conventional eye-rolling and lip-pursing. It was not until the daylight was fading that it suddenly assumed a sinister significance.
Major Pomeroy's secretary rang up Madame's number. Maudie answered the call and returned to Madame, giggling with excitement.
"Heard the latest comic?" she asked. "You're a stiff, did I laugh?"
She was explaining that the news of the lift accident had reached Pomerania House through a porter who knew Pearce and that it was assumed that Madame was the victim on account of her age and foreign name, when she noticed that her mistress' lower jaw was wobbling.
"Maudie," she said hoarsely, "they thought it was me because it was meant for me. That lift was fixed,"
"Don't act silly," argued Maudie. "They can't try no tricks with me standing by with me razor. I haven't lost me slice."
"You're a fool. I daren't stay here. That girl was bumped off in a flat. She knew too much. I know more."
"If you aren't a good girl, I'll put you across me knee. Lie down and get some shut-eye."
After the devoted shrimp had tugged and hoisted the big woman up on the ornate bed, Madame began gradually to relax under the influence of warmth and comfort. Released from rubber confinement, she wore a wrapper while her stockinged feet rested against a hot-water bag. Around her was the assurance of her familiar luxury—her thick carpet and brocade hangings.
She had begun to doze when she was awakened by a sound at the window. Starting up, she was in time to see a man's head duck below the sill. Her shriek brought Maudie scampering to her bedside.
"My goodness, my Guinness, what's wrong now? Got foot-and-mouth disease?"
"A man outside," panted Goya. "On the veranda."
"Only the window cleaner."
"Oh—him. I thought it was a man."
As though the shock had jolted her brain, she suddenly smote her head in dramatic fashion.
"Maudie, I've just thought of a hide-out. Honeysuckle lodge. I'll ring up Abe and Elsa. Get their number."
After some animated conversation over the telephone, she told Maudie to pack a suitcase. Already she felt a foretaste of security. Honeysuckle Lodge was not a country cottage but an ultra-modern residence. During a sensational career, the master of the house had acquired too many enemies to sleep soundly at night without the protection of every burglar-proof device. Combined with high encircling walls, electric wires and savage dogs, the place was impregnable as a fortress.
"Good old Abe said 'Come at once,'" she beamed. "He knows what it is to be on the spot. There's no room for you because Elsa's got a lot of company."
Maudie did not share her enthusiasm.
"I don't like it," she hinted darkly. "You're safe so long as you stay in your hole. They know you're safe so they scare you into thinking they've got you trapped. They're only waiting for you to bolt, to get you."
Madame only laughed at the philosophy of threat and ordered Maudie to ring up the garage.
"Say it must be my usual driver."
While she waited for the car she rang up Pomerania House and gave her change of address to the office. She had sunk too much money not to keep in touch with her associates, while she knew she would be invulnerable to attack once she had driven through the gates of Honeysuckle Lodge.
Darkness had fallen when she started on her journey. As the car began to move, she looked back. Maudie's little pitted eyes were screwed tightly, while tears roiled down the shrivelled, rouged cheeks. It struck her unpleasantly as a bad start.
She felt in a fever of impatience now that she was actually on her way to safety. Although she suffered from dromophobia—the dread of travelling at high speed—she wanted to scorch through built-in areas and crash light signals. She shut her eyes and sat rigidly upright, only glancing occasionally through the window to check her progress.
Kensington slipped behind, Hammersmith blended into Chiswick and the car swung round the bend into the Great West Road. The coloured illuminations of the modern factories quivered through her lids whenever she blinked; but presently the avenues of electric globes were sliced by alternate groves of darkness. The alternations of glare and shadow were a welcome indication that they were gradually working towards open country where they could increase the pace.
Presently the chauffeur stopped the car before a garage. '"Won't keep you a minute, mum," he said.
As she waited, Madame began to grow drowsy after her broken night. She drew the rug higher and relaxed her stiff limbs. Feeling safe for the first time, she tried to sleep when the car restarted her head drooped lower and her thoughts were clouded. Some undercurrent of blurred consciousness made her aware of acceleration, and she rejoiced at the knowledge that she was rolling nearer to her fortress.
Presently they passed through Slough when she opened her eyes, responsive to the flicker of the bright lights in the street. Refreshed by her nap, she began to take an interest in the shop windows and the people passing on the pavement. Then—suddenly—as she glanced at the chauffeur, she felt a chill.
This was not the familiar back behind which she had sat so often. The livery was the same colour—bottle green-but the coat had no strained seams. It fitted its wearer and appeared to be new.
Instantly her mind began to race with terror as she remembered the stop at the garage. She had not opened her eyes when the chauffeur returned, so had not seen his face. It was possible for her loyal driver to be detained by a trick while someone else took his place... The powerful back, the bull-neck and the massive shoulders in front reminded her of the associate from whom she was fleeing. At the thought of him, her imagination flared up to remind her of Maudie's foreboding that she was being lured from the safety of her hole.
She opened her lips instinctively—only to realize that she was too numbed with shock to scream, A yell like a steam siren was essential to make herself audible above the din of the traffic, while she could only splutter and gasp. The car was travelling too fast for her to jump out without injury, and she dared not attract the mystery driver's attention by hammering on the windowpane.
"Keep calm, you mug," she told herself. "It's Cromer in new livery. I must think back—remember what he wore when he called for me."
But, although she strained her memory, all she could recapture was a mental picture of the tearful Maudie.
"The old girl knew. Never seen her sloppy before... Well, better get it over. Speak to him. Make him turn round."
But what then? If she saw the face she dreaded, the man could be there for one purpose only. The substitution was proof of deliberate design. By forcing his hand, she would only precipitate her own fate.
The lights grew infrequent as they began to run clear of the town. The need for action reminded her that she must use her best weapon—her woman's craft. Accustomed to lying her way out of tight corners, her tricky brain swiftly suggested a ruse.
She opened her bag and drew out a picture post card she had received as she was leaving. She had retained it for the sake of the address. Trusting that the darkness would hide the fact that it had been through the post before, she nerved herself to lean forward.
"Cromer," she said, dropping the card on the seat beside him, "just pop this into the next pillar box."
The hoot of a passing lorry almost drowned his voice, but she had expected it to be disguised. Again she stared at the groomed grey hair visible under the cap and the powerful neck. They revealed nothing of the identity of the driver. Cromer—or the other? It might be either.
As their headlights picked up the scarlet gleam of a pillar box upon the semi-country path, she felt breathless with suspense, although she anticipated that he would stop, so as not to arouse her suspicion. This road was not propitious for his purpose. He would need a quieter place—off the main road—to carry out his program effectively.
Opening the door, he leaped from the car and began to walk towards the pillar box. Instantly she clambered over to his vacant seat—her flabby muscles galvanized by the driving force of fear. Gripping the wheel, she extended the car to sixty miles an hour.
Her inhibition forgotten, a sense of power filled her as the hedges flew past. Fortunately, the road was straight and free from traffic, for her myopia did not permit her a driver's license, and she steered by luck only. She knew she was near the turning down to the river, where it was spanned by a private wooden bridge which led up to the lodge gates of Honeysuckle Lodge.
Feeling herself already within the fortress, she recognized the white finger post pointing down the lane. As she plunged into the darkness she saw the lights over the bridge shining through seasonal vapour. Their reflections quivered in the river and guided her through the final yards of her descent.
Suddenly she felt a tremendous jar, as though the car were an armoured tank crushing over an obstacle. It reared forward—and then dived steeply downward. In a moment of incredulous horror, she saw a sheet of water spreading over the glass. In the light of the lamp it appeared the colour of clear ale, but as she watched it, it swiftly deepened through shades of dun and brown to blackness...
Before the car was entirely submerged, a motorist who had scorched along the route earlier in the evening—removed the decoy lamps and threw the posts into the river before he re-lit the lamps on the bridge—a dozen yards farther on.
At the same time, Cromer—wearing his new uniform—was trying to hitch-hike back to town, after being stranded—the prank of an eccentric woman.
THE tragedy was reported in the second editions of the morning papers under the heading "RIVER FATALITY.". As the identity of the victim was established by her car, Foam pounced upon the paragraph. While he was reading it, he pondered its significance.
"Goya blotted out. Seems to suggest a methodical organization. Consumes its own smoke as it operates, and no use for spare parts."
He had no time for further speculation. His firm was collecting material for a divorce action which, owing to complications—plus the exalted rank of their client—exacted the utmost delicacy of approach. Moreover, in the absence of any official status, he regarded his promise to Viola as a sentimental surrender rather than a practical offer of help.
Meanwhile, Viola had read the account of the accident with a shock of horror. She tried to feel compassion for the drowned woman, but her honesty would not let sentiment cloud her final judgment.
"Wonder what made her drive by night," she thought. "She always had a chauffeur. Perhaps it was a secret blackmailing visit. Well, she was decent to me, but only once. No use blinking the fact she put on a stinking show."
Her interest was dulled by suspense as the hours crawled by without further communication from Beatrice. She had the sense of being gagged and ear-plugged, drifting in a blinding fog through an iceberg zone. With the exception of Christina, everyone looked at her with cold hostility and avoided speaking to her. Although she agonized to join in their discussions, she was kept outside the Stirling circle.
She was lingering near the royal suite a little after three o'clock, when Don came charging down the corridor. She caught a glimpse of something white in his hand and dashed after him to the apartment. As she paused in the doorway, she saw the millionaire swoop down on the letter like a famished gull.
"It's her writing," he said in a high, cracked voice.
He jagged the envelope open in a nervous zig-zag, but even in that moment of stress, he resected his wife's reserved occupation of official news announcer. Mechanically he handed her the letter.
She read it aloud in a low, rapid voice.
"Precious people, they want Mummy's diamonds. The entire collection. Take them out of their cases and put them in a bag. At five o'clock today, order a taxi to be called from the rank. Your messenger must tell the taximan to take the Great West Road, turning off at the first by-road after Staines. He must then drive very slowly until he sees a car coming towards him. If it dips its lights twice as a signal, he must stop. The messenger must get out and hand the bag through the window of the car, which will slacken speed.
"The next part is very important. The taxi must wait ten minutes before returning to London, don't take the number of the car for its plate will be changed at once. The messenger must not be connected with the police or any detective agency. Neither Don nor Mack must come, don't make any attempt at an ambush or follow the car, for the taxi will be under constant observation. The gang is large and powerful and will cover any move you make. The taxi must be chosen haphazard from the rank, and there must be no collusion between the messenger and the driver.
"Darlings, keep cool heads and follow these directions implicitly. It's deadly important to me. I want to come back to you so very much. Make no mistake—these people mean business. They want the diamonds. They tell me to write this. Remember Evelyn Cross.
"Till we meet—all my love. Beatrice."
In the silence that followed, Stirling picked up the letter.
"Her handwriting is steady," he said proudly. "They've not broken her courage."
As Viola looked at the bold characteristic strokes, she was suddenly reminded of Mrs. Stirling's statement that kidnapped persons often looked thin and neglected. It was treason to connect a fairy princess with a lapse of standard; yet she had a horrible vision of Beatrice as she might be at that moment—sitting in sordid surroundings, her white fur grimed her hands dirty, and with strands of hair falling across unfamiliar pale cheeks.
"Ring up Raphael," said Christina suddenly. "He will tell us what to do."
Ignored in the crisis, Viola went back to her own room. Presently she rang up Foam's number and was fortunate in finding him still in his office. He stopped checking reports and switched his mind off his case while she told him the contents of Beatrice's letter.
"Any hope?" she asked, licking her dry lips nervously when he made no comment.
He did not reply at once, as though he were considering Viola's capacity to take punishment. In the end, he gave her the truth.
"It's not too good. This seems a jewel robbery rather than a kidnapping case. As the girl is the means of getting the goods, my hunch is she'll be bumped off directly they handle the diamonds. They want her to write the letters while they are still bargaining. So long as her people recognize her handwriting, they know she is alive and they will keep the deal open."
"Couldn't they imitate her writing?"
"Yes, but a forgery can be spotted."
"They might force her to write several letters and then murder her."
"That girl would refuse to write a bunch, even with a gun poked in her ribs. She is too intelligent not to guess the inference, and she would argue that if she had to go out, either way, she'd be damned if she would deliver the goods."
"You forget something. They could threaten her with torture."
"Cut it out," advised Foam. "Listen, you. Ill treatment would make her handwriting shaky and give away the game. They've got to sell the idea that she'll be returned intact and without one hair out of place directly they receive the ransom."
"And won't they?"
"But that's terrible." Viola's voice thickened in a sob. "Can't you suggest something? You must. Alan. You must."
"My child, it's not my case... If I had to carry on at this point, I should stall them with imitations while I pounced on Major Pomeroy and clawed the truth out of him about the monkey business at Pomerania House. I'd give him the works now, while he's still shaken by Goya's death. If there is a conspiracy about that vanishing, he must be working in with her... Now could you sell the idea lo Beatrice's parents?"
Whipping up her courage, Viola rushed into the sitting room of the Stirling suite. Raphael Cross was talking to Christina in a low voice. She noticed that his face was pale and lined as she drew a deep breath—to steady her nerves—before she began to plead for the substitution of duplicate imitation jewels.
As though stunned by her daring, no one attempted to silence her. When she stopped, Christina questioned Raphael Cross with her eyes.
He shook his head and grimaced.
"Theatrical stuff," he remarked. "Fakes would get you nowhere. This gang would test the jewels before they released Beatrice."
"But it's only a gag to give you time to grill the major," explained Viola.
"I'd doubt if he'd squeal. My experience of Pomeroy convinces me he is a deep and slippery customer. I don't forget how he stung me... By the way, William, have you imitation duplicates of the diamonds?"
The millionaire merely tightened his lips as a hint that he did not reveal secrets. His puckered eyes glared at Viola as he suddenly pounced on her.
"Who gave you this advice?" he asked. "Have you been blabbing to that detective?"
"Yes," she admitted, "but he won't—"
"Get out. And stay out! Haven't you done enough mischief? Didn't it occur to you that if one whisper of this leaks out now—at this critical stage—this gang would think we'd double-crossed them?... Ah."
He broke off as the door opened and the detectives entered the room. Don carried a large case which he placed upon a substantial card table. The millionaire produced the key—which he kept upon a ring—and unlocked it, revealing smaller cases closely packed together in the interior.
He and Mack pressed their catches open and shook out each glittering content onto the green cloth-ring, brooch, bracelet, necklace, tiara. It was rather like shelling peas on an overpowering and magnificent scale, as they piled up the jewels and threw aside the empty receptacles.
Viola gazed with enthralled eyes at the multi-hued gleams which flashed from the diamonds, but Christina scooped up a handful contemptuously as though they were pebbles.
"Just mineral ore," she said bitterly, dropping them through her fingers. "To think my Beatrice is only worth a few chips."
The millionaire snapped his jaws like a pike.
"We've still to settle on our messenger," he said. "What I said about Christina stands. I refuse to risk her—"
"And I won't let you go, Will," declared Mrs. Stirling. "I cannot lose my man too."
Her words made Viola glance at the millionaire in wonder. Since Beatrice's disappearance, she had regarded him somewhat as a shrivelled sheath or a stuffed bundle of clothes. Now the need for swift decision had restored his dominant personality. Like a recharged magneto it galvanized his nervous machinery, changing him from a cipher to a dominant figure.
"She's right, Will," approved Cross. "You are too rich a prize. I'm glad of it for it leaves me in—They would accept me—I have no official status."
He did not disguise his disappointment when the millionaire shook his head.
"You're not a safe medium, Raphael. You'd flare up, Remember you wouldn't trust yourself—before."
"That was different. Evelyn was my own."
Cross continued to argue the point but Stirling would not weaken. Just as the men appeared to have reached a deadlock, Cross made a suggestion.
"My chauffeur. Bergman. He's a thick-headed chump with no curiosity. He'll carry out orders like a machine."
"Have him over," ordered the millionaire.
Viola blundered from the room, lost in a maze of misery. Her faith in Foam made her believe that Beatrice's life was, about to be sacrificed to a preconception based upon fear. Evelyn Cross' terrible death overshadowed the situation—clouding the parents' judgment. They were hypnotized by the horror of a photograph—a snapshot of a blonde with blackened face and protruding eyes.
When she rang up Foam and told him of her failure, she was unfairly furious with him because he would not linger to talk.
"Nothing to say," he said. "They've turned down my suggestion."
The hands of the clock seemed paralyzed between the hours of four and five. As the daylight faded, Viola grew desperate at the feeling of the slow drift towards certain disaster.
"Waiting," she told herself, "always waiting. If this was a picture, there would be action. Things would begin to rip right up to the punch. Even Alan has let me down to shadow some mystery dame."
She did Foam an injustice, for he was neglecting his own work in an effort to recapture an impression. During a breathing space over a snatched lunch, he followed up each implication in the alleged disappearance of Evelyn Cross.
He started from his theory that Madeline Power was wearing two suits. But while he had a glimmer of the workings of a conspiracy, he was baffled by the necessity for co-operation on the part of one person whom he could not logically include. It was here that his deductions were not only wrecked by lack of motive but by a counterblast of overwhelming contrary evidence. It was as though he reached an indicated direction—only to find a finger post pointing the opposite way.
"Snakes biting each other's tail," he muttered. "Only, in this case, the weakest members are being devoured. Sooner or later, by the process of elimination, I shall know who is tops... When it is too late."
As he recalled his meeting with Nell Gaynor, he was particularly conscious of a discrepancy. The woman was perfectly natural and genuine, yet she had contrived to strike a false note. It was something she had said—or failed to say...
When five o'clock drew near, Viola felt she could not endure to stay in the hotel. Although her fright in No. 16 had made her shrink from the prospect of returning to Pomerania House, she decided to go back to her own apartment. The Stirlings had no legal power to keep her against her will. "They can send my luggage or keep it," she thought recklessly, as she dragged on a coat and hat and snatched up her handbag.
When she reached the entrance hall, a page rushed forward to swing her through the revolving doors. He was a precocious youth who cherished a secret passion for her because of her likeness to his favourite film star.
She smiled at him—causing him to blink with rapture—before she went out into the electric glare of Piccadilly. As she stood, she saw a taxi leave the rank and drive to the entrance of the hotel. Then Bergman appeared—a vast stolid figure, negligently swinging a black bag.
"He's carrying Beatrice's life," she told herself...
For several minutes, the telephone bell had been ringing in her deserted room at the hotel. After a while, the switch-board girl spoke to Foam as he tried vainly to get in touch with Viola.
"She's not in her room. Shall I have her paged?"
"Yes," he replied. "At once, please. It's too urgent to waste time calling her to the phone. Take this message and see she gets it as soon as possible."
The hotel staff took a specialized interest in the members of the millionaire's party. The girl wrote down Foam's dictation, reread it rapidly, and called for a page. Out of several applicants, the precocious youth had special information.
"Eight-one-eight," he repeated. "She's just gone out. I'll catch her up."
He had not far to go as Viola still stood and watched the taxi. As it began to move, a youth in a buff-and-chocolate livery gave her a slip of paper.
"Just come through," he said breathlessly. "Very urgent."
She read the lines at a glance.
"Foam speaking. R. C. is 'X.' Don't let him or his chauffeur handle any goods."
VIOLA stared after the receding taxi with a feeling of utter helplessness. The situation had passed beyond her control. To attempt to stop the march of events was like trying to clutch at giant machinery which wrenched itself from her hold her knees weakened and the lights of Piccadilly grew blurred.
It was too late... Yet—even as she accepted defeat—her dominant instinct flickered to life. Struggling for recognition beneath the clogged cells of her brain was a sense of familiarity with the situation—a feeling that she had been there before. Suddenly she realized that she knew how to act in such a crisis because it was a stock development of drama.
At the suggestion, her mind cleared and her quivering nerves were stilled. While the traffic shrieked past her, she might have been in a soundproof room, writing a scenario, as she reviewed the problem.
The first step was elementary. She had to follow Bergman. The keen eyesight of youth enabled her to read the number of the distant taxi just before it was obscured by a van. As though she were a witch mumbling a spell, she repeated the figures until she had scribbled them in her engagement book. Rushing towards the cab rank, she thrust the paper almost in the eyes of the first driver.
"Trail that number," she cried. "Don't let them see us follow them. It's desperately urgent."
The man's hard-bitten face remained expressionless.
"What's your limit?" he asked.
"None. You're wasting time. Oh, hurry, man!"
The only sign he gave of having heard her was to lower his flag with a leisurely movement. Maddened by his deliberation, she took a pound note from her bag.
"That will carry you on," she said.
Payment on account proved a better stimulus than emotion. Within a minute she was seated in the taxi and rattling on her chase.
The man drove past the shops, the hotels and the clubs of Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner. Instead of continuing in a straight line, heading for the Great West Road, he turned downwards in a southerly direction.
Viola's heart began to pump with excitement as she realized that Alan's suspicion justified her own melodrama. He had deduced that the directions given in 'Beatrice's letter were subterfuge to cover its real purpose. The object was to enable a member of the gang to act as messenger and thus get possession of the diamonds.
The stratagem had proved successful, for Bergman was taking the jewels to the safety of their hide-out, where—by the ethics of crime—Beatrice would be held a prisoner. Viola's heart throbbed exultantly as she reminded herself that she was the heroine—playing lead for the first time in a real-life drama.
Held in a dreamlike state of elation, she seemed to remain static while an unfamiliar city spun past her. Although she knew every stage of the way, this was not the London she had seen before she entered the taxi. She was in a different medium, where each exterior was but a painted plaster shell faithfully reproduced by the scenic artist.
Past stalely, darkened town-mansions, between brilliantly lit shops and offices, across the river, through an area of factories, gasworks and public houses, climbing up to the vast blocks of flats and the super-cinemas of the suburbs. Farther out still—leaving the Commons behind—following the gleaming trail of tram lines out into the Green Belt, where miles of small houses and gardens unwound on the ribbon system. Then the long lines were succeeded by semi-detached villas which in their turn yielded to larger and more widely spaced residences, standing in ambitious grounds.
As she looked through the windows, Viola resolutely kept her nerve keyed high, but beneath her jubilation flowed a sub-current of apprehension. A warning voice whispered that she could not remain enclosed indefinitely in the security of a film. Nothing but a transparency shielded her from the peril of reality.
She was trying to cling to her illusion of safety when the driver shattered her confidence by whistling down the tube.
"We're getting well out," he warned her. "They'll be bound to spot we're following them soon. If they beckon me to overtake them, what will I do?"
With a sickening recoil to defeatism, she admitted that the man was voicing her dormant fears as she realized the flaw in her scheme. She was the opposite number of the heroine who complicates a rescue by searching a racketeer's flat in his absence—on a tacit understanding with the audience that she will be trapped.
"Idiot," she thought. "When he notices the taxi, he'll string me along just to shake me off. He won't lead me to Beatrice. And if he did, what can I do—alone? What can I do?"
She was distracted by the waste of vital time. Besides Foam, she was the only person who knew that Bergman was the link connecting Beatrice with her people. While he was carrying her death warrant in the diamonds, Raphael Cross was also at liberty—an unchecked lethal force. Even if Alan could prove the conspiracy, what was the good of vengeance after Beatrice was dead?
As she hesitated, the driver called again down the tube.
"Road straightens out just after Foxley," he said. "Are you game for a race?"
"No. Wait. I'll think of something." As she rejected the idea of an open chase as suicidal policy, a flash of intuition suggested a desperate chance.
She must stop trailing the taxi and let it get clean away—while she waited on the road for its problematic return.
The expedient was bold and crafty but the risks were heavy her idea was to bribe the driver of Bergman's taxi to tell her the address of the hide-out. But he might refuse the information—or he might lie. Bergman might leave the taxi before he reached his destination. In the worst case, she might miss the taxi altogether if it returned to London by a different route.
"How far to Foxley?" she asked.
"Just round the bend," replied the driver.
"Please stop. I'm getting out here."
He glanced at the meter.
"You've still some mileage," he told her. "I could take you back to the tram terminus."
When she shook her head, he lost interest and drove off, leaving her stranded in the darkness.
As she walked towards Foxley, the polished surface of the arterial road flowed like a black river between countrified banks, topped with naked thorn hedges. It was proof that she had nearly left the region of bricks and mortar. As she recalled the open landscape ahead, she assured herself that if Bergman had any doubts, they must disappear when milestone succeeded milestone without any persistent taxi rattling in his rear.
She argued that he had no special reason to suspect pursuit, since he could not know of Foam's telephone message. In addition, the plot was reared on a foundation of security. Through his personal magnetism and the bond that he himself was a victim, Raphael Cross had created a privileged position both for himself and his associates.
Although she was acting on Foam's information, Viola was like the historic lady who did not believe in ghosts but was afraid of them. She feared Cross because of a monstrous memory—now faded to a smoky smudge—when she believed that his reflection had looked at her from a darkened mirror; yet the idea of him in a criminal capacity was too great a strain on her credulity.
As she remembered his disappointment at Stirling's refusal to appoint him messenger, it seemed to indicate that he had counted on being chosen as medium and of handling the diamonds. This wound account for his decision to take an anonymous taxi. He was too wily to risk the infinitesimal chance that his own car might be recognized when far away from the radius of the Great West Road.
Not far from Foxley she stopped under a railway arch to write a note in the light of its lamp. Holding a leaf from her engagement book against the rough grey stone wall, she licked her pencil and pressed upon the paper. She wrote with the distinctness of printed characters and left one line blank.
"Beatrice is held at... Counting on you for immediate action. Too late to stop goods. Greeny."
After adding Foam's name and his home telephone number, she continued to plod along the slimed camber of the road in order to avoid passing motorists. A spit of moisture in the air made the surface perilous to high heels, but she persevered until she reached a point where the road forked. She had forgotten this by-pass which interfered with her plans. Uncertain of the direction from which the taxi might come, she had to stand and check the stream of intermittent vehicles.
After a while the strain of inaction began to undermine her resistance. She could not restrain her imagination from hovering around dark horrors or wrench her mind from the passage of vital time. Doubts thickened—as she wondered whether she would fail to see the taxi, should the traffic increase at the critical moment.
"Perhaps it will refuse to stop," she thought. "Or I might forget the number. That happened that awful time I tried to ring up Alan. Everything began to buzz and then went blank."
She was repeating the number in a frantic monotone when suddenly it flashed—in illumined numerals—through the gloom. Its appearance was so unexpected that at first she stared at it in stunned surprise. She felt as though she had materialized her own desire from the very urgency of her call... It was on the point of passing by when she realized the danger and waved to it to stop.
To her great relief, the driver saw her, for he slammed on his brake and skidded across to her side of the road.
She studied his face with deep anxiety. He was young, with pale hollow cheeks, bad teeth and sunken eyes. He suggested vaguely a permanent member of the minority and a champion of lost causes, on the shaky evidence of a visionary expression and a red tie.
Viola determined to blast a response from any buried chivalry.
"I'm in terrible trouble," she said. "I want someone to help me—someone who's brave and intelligent. Please. Will you? It's only to drive to the nearest telephone box and ring up this number. Ask for Alan Foam and tell him exactly what's written here. If he's out, tell whoever answers the call to write down the message. You must insist that every effort is made to locate him... Say it means life or death, do you understand?"
"Yes, lady," replied the young man, as he read the paper. Then he pointed to the vacant space. "You've left out the address," he said.
"I know." Feeling it time to work a financial spell, Viola produced her remaining pound note. "I've been waiting here for you to tell me that. I'm cold and scared... Where did you drive that man you picked up outside the Colosseum Hotel? I know I can trust you and you'll tell me the truth. You're my very last hope."
He hesitated as he glanced from the money to her attractive face. Suddenly the note won, for he pocketed it with a smile. "I'm for you, mate," he told her. "The bloke paid me off at Starfish Avenue, Asterwood. It's a new housing estate they're building for stinking millionaires just off the main road four—five mile farther on. He made me get there by the loop road and then work back to it through a chronic lot of lanes. But I'm used to driving lunatics."
"Which house?" asked Viola.
'I didn't wait to see. But there won't be many took."
"Oh, thank you, mate." Viola clasped the driver's hand. "You will never know what this means to me."
"Couldn't I go to this address for you instead of the other bloke?"
"No, it's too delicate and too dangerous. It needs trained handling. But it's noble of you to offer. Please go quickly."
Inspired by her pleading voice, he drove off into the darkness.
She looked after the cab with shining eyes because the young driver was her link with Alan. At this crisis, she realized the need of his practical experience; but he was too remote and the time element too pressing to depend on his help. While he was on his way out to Asterwood Beatrice might be murdered. She had to keep him in reserve in case of her own failure, but her hopes of success were high. She was close to Foxley constabulary where she could enlist the power of the law. She began to run, exulting in the thought that within a few minutes a police car would be speeding to the rescue.
Foxley was a straggling top-heavy village—two lines of mean brick houses perched on the summit of high banks. Flights of perilous steps led up to their doors. When she saw the blue lamp of the police station, she literally stormed her way inside. A fresh-faced young constable tried to detain her by the authority of the law, but he was unfairly outclassed by shock tactics.
When she was inside the inner office, she was further reassured by the familiarity of her surroundings. She had seen this bare official room on many a set. Before a knee table was seated a middle-aged man in uniform his cleft chin, moustache and spectacles reminded her of a photograph of Rudyard Kipling. Because she had loved his jungle folk in her childhood—and stimulated by her recent success—she burst into her story.
"A girl has been kidnapped. She—"
He interrupted her with a question.
"Name and address of the father?"
"William Stirling. He's the famous millionaire. He is staying at the Colosseum Hotel, Piccadilly."
"And now your own name and address?"
As she supplied the details, she was vaguely chilled to notice that he nodded to the young constable who went into the outer office.
"Now what were you going to tell me?" invited the official.
Eager to convince him, Viola began a dramatic recital of Beatrice's peril. In her own vocabulary, she "gave it all she had." She was getting near the end of her story when the young constable returned.
"You're through, sir," he said.
Putting up his hand for silence, the official spoke into the telephone upon his desk.
"Sergeant Barker speaking from Foxley constabulary. I have just received a report that your daughter is missing... What's that? She's at home?... Yes... Yes... A young woman of the name of 'Green'... Yes, I'll speak to him. Put him on the line."
WITH a landslide of her hopes, Viola listened to the barking and spluttering of the wire. The air seemed to vibrate as though she were still standing under the railway arch while a train thundered overhead. She knew exactly when Raphael Cross succeeded the millionaire by the man-of-the-world smile which spread over the sergeant's face.
"My own impression," he remarked—"Ha-ha. Yes, we learn how to sum them up... Is that so? I'll ask her... Thanks very much."
As he rang on, he sprang a question on Viola.
"Been on the stage?"
"Yes," she replied, "but I—"
"Listen, young woman. I've just been advised that this is not the first time you've made yourself a public nuisance. Take my advice. Control your temperament and keep out of the limelight—or you may find yourself let in for a nasty spot of trouble."
As she gazed at him, she wondered that she had ever thought he looked kind.
"I swear I've told you the truth," she declared.
'"You've told me a pack of lies," contradicted the official. "The girl's father denies she is missing."
"That's because he dare not admit it. The kidnappers have threatened him that if—"
"Yes, I know all about that... That's the way out."
When she continued to plead, he nodded to the young constable who tried to escort her to the door. Losing her temper, she was guilty of resisting the police and had to take the consequences. After a brief scuffle, she found herself out in the road—her face flaming with humiliation.
"Thrown out on my ear," she muttered wrathfully.
In that zero moment, she longed for a double support—for the mental stimulus of Foam's practical mind and the physical pressure of his arm. Her disappointment was the more crushing because she believed she had worked out a simple and sensible scheme of rescue, instead of attempting a solo demonstration.
"Wish I was doing the good old ivy stunt now," she thought.
Her defeat made her anxious to get in touch with Foam in case the taxi driver had failed to deliver her message. If he dashed off immediately to Starfish Avenue, even then it might not be too late. There was a chance that Bergman would wait for Cross' arrival before testing the diamonds.
As she trudged along, she looked in vain for a public telephone booth. Presently she reached the gate of a modern rough-cast house built in Tudor style with a steep roof and black painted beams. After climbing through an ambitious rock garden by crazy-paving, rustic steps and a hump-backed bridge—all slippery with moisture—she met with disappointment.
An elderly and immaculate maid barely listened to her request before she shut the door in her face.
"Sorry. We're not on the phone," she snapped, although Viola could see the wire glistening in the light of the porch lamp.
Evidently the residents in a lonely district were taking no risks with strangers. When she had toiled up to the front entrance of the next house—also built upon rising ground—her peals and knocks were disregarded, although lights were streaming through the windows.
It seemed hopeless to climb up to other elevated residences while priceless time was oozing to waste. Smitten with sudden hysteria, she began to run madly, with no sense of direction and no idea of future action. She only knew that Beatrice was in danger and that she must reach her before it was too late.
She was lost to any fear of danger from traffic, although cars flashed towards her in a glare of headlights and streaked past with the blast of horns. Sometimes she was alone in a clear, cool darkness like brook water when she saw only stars and trees, but almost before she was conscious of relief the peace was shattered by another explosive snarl.
As she rushed downhill, she had the sense that she too was a piece of mechanism, wound up to continuous motion her limbs seemed controlled by springs, and her feet beat the ground with the regularity of pistons. She felt neither strain nor effort, as though she were running on a limitless reserve of power.
Filled with exultation, she increased her pace to a spurt and lengthened her stride. She was geared to top speed—unconsciously flogging her nerves in a furious drive beyond the pitch of her endurance, when she literally leaped to disaster. One moment she was a tireless automaton, the next, the machine was wrecked by the human element.
Her collapse was sudden as an actual crash. She stopped fighting for breath, while the stars were blotted out. At first she was terrified, but after a struggle her lungs began to function as the pounding of her heart diminished to a more normal beat.
"Just winded," she muttered scornfully "Run myself clean out. Got to walk if I can't hitch-hike. No, not clever."
As she began to plod along the road she realized that she was in poor shape for further sustained effort. Her legs were weak, her ankles ached and her chest remained tight; yet, while she was compelled to reduce her pace, every nerve and fibre protested against the check. "Hurry, hurry, or you'll be too late," they threatened.
She dared not look at her watch lest she lost heart altogether, but she could not help recalling the taxi driver's estimate of the distance.
"Five miles. Even if I've run one mile, that leaves me an hour away at four miles an hour. And I'm doing about two. Swell hope."
All the luck seemed to be against her. The occasional motorists who shot past, travelling in her direction, were blind to her signals. Either she was invisible in the darkness, or they were taking advantage of the level stretch to let their cars out.
After a while the journey became a test of endurance when she stumbled along in a dazed dream. She had no idea of how many milestones she had passed or how long she had been walking. Before her stretched an endless black track, split by a white dividing line. Whenever her head cleared, she thought of the dangers and difficulties which lay before her. She wondered what awaited her at Starfish Avenue and how she could help Beatrice—if she found her. But she could not keep her mind focussed on her problem. After a few seconds, it slipped back into a muddle of disconnected phrases.
"Keep going. Remember the tortoise. Good old tortoise, good old Waft Disney... Beatrice... Cut. Take it on the chin. Knees up, Mother Brown... Beatrice, Beatrice... Doing the Lambeth Walk."
Her shuffle had lapsed to a crawl when suddenly she stopped babbling at the sight of a tangle of lights which sprawled over the darkness rather like the constellation of Hercules. A board identified the estate as "Starfish Avenue," and advertised it as the speculation of a building society. Her weariness forgotten, Viola turned off from the road and entered the meadow through a deeply rutted gap in the hedge. As she toiled on a tour of exploration, she realized that the apparent confusion of the houses was due to the lack of a road to connect them in any sequence. There were indications of pavements, however, where she picked her way over muddy patches and dangerous loose bricks.
The residences were all of one type—small, compact and well built—with two living rooms and a kitchen on the ground floor and three bedrooms and a bathroom above. They were planned for young people to begin their married life, and for old people to end theirs in retirement. Some were still in process of erection for she distinguished scaffolding reared against the starry sky. Others were finished but either unlet or unoccupied.
A few were tenanted, and it was upon those that Viola concentrated her search. She argued that the windows of the hide-out would be screened to prevent anyone catching sight of Beatrice from outside and that, consequently, she might not see its lights; therefore, in order not to risk passing it in the darkness, she had to plough across soggy pasture from house to house.
Flashing her torch in at bare windows, she revealed either the clean plaster walls of unlet property or finished decorations chosen by future owners. Amid these blind shells, the lighted casements of happy homes gleamed like oases. As the tenants were free from the annoyance of being overlooked, no blinds were drawn and she had a clear view of each interior.
In "Mon Abri," a young couple posed sentimentally in the firelight. An elderly pair listened to the wireless in "Locarno." Romping children turned "Peace Haven" into a merry hell.
Viola began to feel sick from repeated disappointment. The acid of failure was corroding her courage so that she lost all faith in the taxi driver's word. She was turning back to the road when she noticed the dark outline of a house built on the highest part of the meadow. It was situated in a far corner, and to reach it she had to cross a patch of waste ground.
Thistles pricked her ankles, and she had to crunch over the broken crocks and empty tins of a refuse dump; but as each step brought her nearer, her conviction grew that this was the house she sought. When she was flush with its windows, there was ominous proof of a temporary prison, for the glass was covered completely with net in addition to drawn, dark curtains.
This was the moment she had been dreading. She was outside—without plan or resource—helpless as a timid forest creature that had blundered near a den of tigers. Yet, as she waited, personal peril was swamped by a more insidious fear—the threat of annihilation—when the emptiness of the house seemed to reach out and touch her with the chill of dead fingers.
Filled with foreboding, she wandered around the building, seeking a chink of light or a whisper from within, but the darkness and silence remained unbroken. When she reached the back door, she had scaled a peak of desperation when she was reckless of consequences. Stooping over the cinder path, she picked up a brick and smashed a glass panel.
After she had slipped her hand through the jagged aperture, she had to strain dangerously to reach the bolt, but she managed to press it back and enter the house. For several seconds she stood in the darkness, not daring to move or betray her presence. As she grew bolder, she groped around to find a wall switch.
The glow of electric light proved that the premises were served by a borough corporation and, therefore, were formally occupied. She gazed around at a white-tiled kitchen, equipped with cabinet and frigidaire as builder's fixtures. It bore signs of recent use and also of neglect. There was a litter of tea leaves, egg shells and cigarette stubs soaked in the sink. A kettle stood drunkenly on the gas stove and water dripped from a primrose porcelain tap.
Viola craned her neck and strained her ears—listening.
"Empty," she whispered. "They've gone."
It was no longer an ambushed attack that she dreaded—but desolation. In deep heaviness of spirit, she made a thorough search of the house—forcing herself to examine any cupboard or recess which might conceal a body.
The top floor was as bare as when the builder had departed, with the exception of the bathroom. There, crumpled towels and soap lying in the water, showed that it had been put to its legitimate use. But the ground-floor rooms were most revealing. Someone had lived in one of these, for there was a bed with creased linen and a cheap suite. In the other was stacked a collection of odd furniture. Books were heaped untidily on the floor beside a broken microscope and a typewriter.
The elaborately upholstered windows were plainly a sop to allay the suspicions of passers-by, for all the floors were bare with the exception of a few rugs. Viola's temples tightened as she recognized their jade and orange colouring. There were also brilliant-hued cushions from Goya's flat, and her mirror leaned against the wall in two parts—the glass separate from its frame.
The photograph of a clergyman, placed upside down on a mantelshelf, gave her the clue to the ownership of the student's library and the odd table and chairs. All these had belonged to Miss Power—thus linking the two women in an ominous partnership.
But there was no trace of Beatrice—no personal belonging left behind; not even a breath of her special faint perfume—apple bloom. It was not until Viola was leaving the house that her heel slipped on something lying in the passage.
She picked it up—a brown orchid which once had been white.
As she placed it tenderly inside her bag, she fought another brain storm. It was agony to know that Beatrice had actually been there only a short time before, and that she had probably missed her by minutes. She felt aimless and helpless as a rudder-boat drifting before a gale. All that was left of purpose was a blind instinct to get back to London.
She lurched with weariness as she walked along the main road her head swam and her feet felt weighted with lead. She knew that she was physically incapable of reaching even Foxley, but the knowledge did not trouble her. She could walk until she dropped. After that, there was nothing to be done.
Suddenly the headlights of a powerful car picked up her staggering figure. After it had passed her, it stopped and a chauffeur came to meet her with a message.
"My mistress wishes to know whether you would like a lift."
She was too exhausted to do more than gasp her thanks and her destination to the elderly couple who sat in the saloon. She noted vaguely that both were elderly, with big pink faces, white hair and horn-rimmed glasses. They appeared prosperous and kindly. After the wife, had firmly checked her husband's curiosity, he asked no further questions and Viola was left to lie back, with closed eyes, in healing peace.
Soothed by the warmth and swift motion, she fell asleep until she was awakened by flashing lights and traffic hoots. As she vaguely realized that she was back in Piccadilly, the chauffeur stopped the car.
"Colosseum Hotel," he announced.
The same page who had brought her Foam's telephone message rushed forward to assist her through the revolving doors. She looked at him in slight wonder to find him unchanged. It seemed to her that a very long time had passed since she had last seen him.
Her feet, dragged on her way to the lift, as though weighed down by the heaviness of her heart; but even while she shrank from the ordeal of being the herald of Beatrice's fate, she fanned the fury of her anger with the millionaire.
"If he hadn't let me down, Beatrice would be back," she reminded herself. "He shall have the truth from me."
When she reached the Stirling apartment, she flung open the door before her courage cooled... Then she stood—staring in incredulous joy, as though unable to believe what she saw.
There were lights, laughter and voices raised in happy excitement, with everyone talking at once. The room seemed full of people. Mack and Don were there, besides the Stirlings and Foam. All were paying homage to the central figure. Radiant as a fairy princess, Beatrice wore spotless white her cheeks flamed with colour and her hair shone—as though in mockery of Viola's nightmare vision.
Viola was about to rush forward and hug her in frantic welcome, when her instinct restrained her.
"Back again?" she asked casually. "Good show."
"Not bad," agreed Beatrice, with equal nonchalance. "Been mucking about?"
The gratitude in her eyes spoke to Viola, thanking her for her understanding. She had been living at high pressure, surfeited with emotion, and appalled by the threat of extinction. She wanted only to forget her hideous experience, of which this prolonged rapture of reunion was too poignant a reminder.
It was the blessed balm of British understatement which restored her to a normal world.
Unable to resist one touch of drama, Viola drew the browned orchid from her bag.
"Yours?" she asked. "I picked it up in Starfish Avenue." Then suddenly she dropped her pose. "What happened?" she cried. "Won't someone explain?"
Before anyone could speak, Foam began to give her a brief outline of events. While the others concentrated on Beatrice, Viola was the central figure for him. He noticed the weariness and strain of her pale, vivid face, and knew that she was only sustained by her unquenchable spirit. "After your taxi driver rang me up, I got in touch with Mr. Stirling. He contacted the Foxley crowd as the nearest police. In the shortest possible time they collected Beatrice and arrested Bergman and Power. Soon afterwards, we pulled in Pomeroy and Cross... In fact, the only delayed action was my difficulty in persuading Mr. Stirling of the truth."
The rasp in his voice was pointed by Viola's accusing eye as she glared at the millionaire.
"You must forgive me," he faltered. "I nearly made the most terrible mistake of my life. The mere thought of it makes me cold... I can never thank you. Of course, there would have been a reward for Beatrice."
When he produced his cheque book, Foam did not discourage him. The practical young man knew that no time was more propitious for payment than the peak moment of gratitude. He pocketed the cheque, thanked the millionaire, and put his arm around Viola.
"I'm taking her to spend the night with my people," he announced. "We're going to get married."
THE following night, at his Highgate home, Foam explained the conspiracy to Viola. They sat before the drawing room fire in opposite chairs. She nursed a dog while he suffered an opportunist cat to stay on his knee, merely to preserve the domestic atmosphere. As Mrs. Foam reported to the doctor in the library, "They were settled in."
This was his story—pruned of Viola's questions and comments.
"To start with, an Anglo-American bunch of crooks got into a huddle to steal Mrs. Stirling's diamonds. They were Raphael Cross, Bergman and Bergman's wife, whom you know as 'Miss Power'. I'll continue to call her that. By the way, 'Raphael' is Cross' real name. He adopted 'Richard' at the time of Evelyn's murder, in case his newspaper publicity should cross the Atlantic.
"When they were unsuccessful, they switched to the idea of kidnapping the daughter and demanding the diamonds as ransom to cut out the risk of hot money. They planned to try their luck during the London visit when they counted on relaxed vigilance. But they were a bit too smart in arranging an accident to the companion, because the Stirlings brought over two detectives in her place.
"Their plot was to lure Beatrice into a room from which there was a secret exit. To carry it out, they formed a small syndicate, with Goya to finance the scheme and Major Pomeroy to provide the essential house property. Goya was a real business shark; but the major was caught on the hop. The poor devil was proud of his financial record when he played the market and faced bankruptcy.
"These two persons had no idea that they were to be involved in anything but a dirty deal. Evelyn's murder shook them up badly. As a matter of fact, they were scheduled to be bumped off later to avoid the risk of leakage, but chiefly to save the gang from sharing the loot. Some of the value of the diamonds was bound to be lost in breaking them up and reselling them; but split among three, it was a rich haul.
"There were two things essential to success. One was to establish confidence. Cross was ideal for this job he had enough personal magnetism to charm a bird from the bough. He was also an expert card player, which got him in solid with Mrs. Stirling on the voyage he was sufficiently clever, too, to overact, with his tall stories and his exaggerated emotions. The touch of comedian was to blind them to any sinister slant in his character.
"Now I'll come to the plot. Cross was supposed to have a daughter—Evelyn. In reality he is unmarried. The blonde was a girl he picked off the street in New York. He promised her a share in the ransom—knowing all she would get would be a sticky finish... To keep myself tough over her, I have to remind myself that she knew exactly what kidnapping would mean for Beatrice when she callously agreed to join the gang.
"Well, Evelyn Cross was supposed to vanish from No. 16, Pomerania House. The major timed the act when he could count upon a witness. She was the flighty typist—'Marlene'—and she was habitually on the prowl. They waited until she appeared on the scene, and then Cross raised Cain and insisted on the room being gutted to expose a hidden place of concealment. Goya did her stuff, and an honest builder was called in to give the place the necessary O.K.
"No. 16 was cleared of all suspicion. That was the whole aim of the act. But so as not to saddle it with even a slur of mystery, Cross gave it out that his daughter had written to him—in proof positive, she was not lingering in Pomerania House in a state of chemical dissolution.
"The next step was to redecorate No. 16, when Cross and the major staged a quarrel over the cost. This was to allay suspicion of any alliance between them. The builder did the papering, but the same night—under pretence of restoring the fixtures—Cross and Bergman did the real job of reconstruction.
"The major got the porter out of the way and admitted them in the disguise of workmen. Incidentally, you and I turned up at an awkward moment. Cross was just carrying in the mirror, but he pretended to stoop under its weight so that I could not see his face.
"That same night the two men cut a doorway in the dividing wall between No. 16 and 17. The major had made his original division of the premises expressly for the kidnapping; so he ordered the builder to put up a thin division, on the ground that it would be only temporary. Of course, this was a dodge to give them an easy job.
"This doorway was then inset in the frame of the mirror which was firmly screwed to the wall of No. 16; but the glass was loose and hinged like a door so that it could swing inwards at a touch. It was secured at the back—in Power's room—and the bolt was concealed by a curtain. On Goya's side, it looked like an ordinary long mirror.
"The police, however, would have discovered the subterfuge, for they would have made a thorough examination of the premises if they had been called in after Beatrice's disappearance. And this brings me to the second essential to success.
"The police had to be kept out.
"To do this, the wretched Evelyn was murdered to serve as an awful warning to the Stirlings. Of course, Cross attributed this to his own appeal to the police. It did not square with his original revenge motive, but his aim was to present himself as a father too crazed with fury and grief to be logical.
"The murder was committed by one of the Bergmans, who got into Cross' flat by the fire escape. Cross arranged to be at my office for the sake of an alibi, in case he should be suspected of bumping off his daughter. It still sticks in my throat how he spun out the time so that he could be sure or her being dead before he returned to his flat.
"Meantime, you were roped into the plot. Cross could not introduce a female gangster as Beatrice's companion, so he chanced his luck. He summed you up, found out you could furnish the correct social references, and then counted on his personality to control the situation. He must have found you a gift from the fairies with your imagination and dramatic temperament.
"Before long, he got both you girls where he wanted you. He made Beatrice rebellious and determined to assert her independence by a visit to the crystal gazer. And this brings me to the actual kidnapping.
"Its success hung on perfect timing. The gang worked to a schedule and saw to it that their watches agreed—for one second's hesitation would have ruined the show. The mirror door was opened between 16 and 17, and their furniture arranged so that one room would appear to be the reflection of the other. In accordance with plan, the major had furnished all three flatlets alike, although yours was inferior quality, as it was only eyewash. To complete the illusion, Madame divided her bright rugs and cushions between her room and Power's.
"When you stood and looked down into 16, you actually saw a section of 17 with part of a divan and a rug on the floor. The duplication was so perfect that you accepted it for the usual mirror.
"So did Beatrice, until she was close enough to it to realize that she was not reflected in the glass. At that second, according to the timing, the major distracted your attention by telling you about a studio call. Well, Beatrice has told us what happened next. Suddenly Cross appeared inside the frame he smiled at her and put his finger to his lip—when she realized that he was springing a surprise on her to test her self-control.
"As she said, everything after that happened so quickly that she could not remember things clearly. According to her 'A mountain fell on her' and she passed out. Her first experience of being sandbagged.
"The rest was smart teamwork by the gang. All three of them were now in 17. Cross had been hiding behind the kitchen partition when the front door was left open for Mack's inspection. The wardrobe was then blocking the entrance, so Beatrice and the incriminating rug and cushion were locked inside it and the mirror was bolted in its original position.
"As the girl was stunned, she was spared the anguish of knowing that only the back of the wardrobe divided her from her faithful Mack, and that he actually helped to shove it clear. Between them. Cross and Bergman ran it down the stairs and got it on the van. They drove it out to Starfish Avenue, and Power followed to take charge of their prisoner.
"They ran negligible risk of being recognized as fake removal men, for the major had sent the porter on an errand. The main lights in the building were not turned on, so both stairs and landing were on the dark side. Cross butted the wardrobe with his head as he shoved it, hiding his face. That dodge gave Mack no chance of spotting him—and when you came out of 16, you were too steamed up over Beatrice disappearing to notice anything. As for Bergman, you all knew him as a chauffeur and had no idea what he looked like without his goggles and peaked cap.
"Now you understand why you had not a chance to convince anyone when you gave your version of what happened in No. 16. Cross had already pulled that tall story and it had been proved false. On top of the builder's evidence, the major played up with a natural reluctance to be stung twice.
"There was another factor—a prejudice against smashing up new and costly decorations. Then—as a climax—someone saw a girl in a white coat leaving by the outside stairs.
"When the Stirlings arrived on the scene, they fell into Cross' trap and refused to call in the police. Their nerve had been completely shattered by Evelyn's murder. Cross contrived to let Mrs. Stirling see an exceptionally ghastly snap he had taken of the dead girl. Naturally, no mother would risk that fate for her child.
"The gang were sitting pretty—but there was one bad moment. Just before Beatrice arrived at Pomerania House, Goya spilled coffee on the arm of her divan—spoiling the 'reflection.' They hadn't time to rearrange the rooms—as angles and effects had to be studied—so Goya cut a scarf in two to cover up her arm and the opposite number.
"Well, when the show was over, Cross wondered whether Power had remembered to remove her half. If someone found it, it might have started the first awkward question. He stole up to 17 when he heard someone in 16. Making sure it was Goya, he opened the connecting mirror door—and saw you.
"Praise be you cut and ran... If you'd been curious—but I won't go into that... Cross gave you a drink to make you pass out and counted on your thinking you had dreamed the whole thing.
"There remained the stiff fence of collecting the ransom, when Cross banked on being chosen as go-between. Then the gang could cache the diamonds while arranging to smuggle them across to the Continent. They could take their time and realize their fortune gradually, as they still had funds in hand from Goya.
"From then on, they had chiefly to avoid being suspected. The major has confessed to his share of the plot, so we know the connecting links. As a matter of fact, his nerve had crashed, and he was about to bale out. He will get off with a term of imprisonment, but the other three will swing.
"Now for the tidying up of the plot. Goya was bumped off by the removal of the lamp on the bridge—and her chauffeur was lucky not to share her fate. Beatrice was to join the legion of 'Lost Girls.' They had worked out a neat method to obliterate her, while the parents were to hope on. By the time they called the police in, any trail would be stone cold.
"The major had to destroy the evidence of the door cut in the wall between 16 and 17. He did this that night by jagging the straight outline to simulate a hole torn in the plaster. The original chunks they had hacked from the wall had been carefully kept, and when these were piled on the floor they bore out his story of a too-heavy mirror.
"Directly afterwards, the builder was to convert the three rooms into office accommodation and thus remove the last shred of evidence.
"Now I must explain how they worked the first 'disappearance' on which the success of the kidnapping depended. Pearce swore he saw Evelyn go upstairs and declared that she never came down. Why?
"The reason was this. She never came in. And since I've got to sell you the idea you are marrying a smart detective, that was the first point I tried to establish. I was suspicious because of Evelyn asking for a light—but Pearce was so convinced that he had watched her go up the stairs, that I had to accept his story.
"The major has told me of an incident which slipped the porter's memory. After the cigarette was lit, Evelyn asked him to investigate the rear of the car. That was her signal to nip back in the car and hide under the seat. At the same moment, Power slipped out of the major's flat into the entrance hall. Pearce could see her back through the glass panes of the door, as she stood talking to the two men—Cross and the major. He was completely taken in because she wore the same black outfit as Evelyn. Her blonde hair was now hanging down her back and she was smoking a cigarette.
"When she reached the landing, she was out of his range of vision. So she was able to slip into her own flat, pull a tweed suit over the black costume and thick stockings over her silk ones, knot up her hair and put on stout shoes. Her smart high-heeled shoes were the only thing which might connect her with the incident—in case the detective who was called in insisted on searching her apartment. That was why she slipped them inside the clock case, where—if found—they could not be traced to her.
"The major tells me he posted the black suit to an imaginary address that night. Then Evelyn lay low at Starfish Avenue. She must have been thrilled when they phoned her to return to Cross' flat the night of her murder... Well, she got a grand time on the voyage...
"Now about my part—From the first, I felt something was fishy. But while the story of a vanishing girl was preposterous, I could see no ulterior motive. Fortunately, I jotted down my first impressions of the people in the case.
"This memory trap first put me on the trail. I had written down Power as 'solid,' while she was slender. You suggested she was wearing one suit over another, confirming my own guess. My second comment was that you had a 'property bias.' Now, in view of the admitted national respect for property, it struck me that No. 16 might have been deliberately redecorated on an expensive scale—to save it from being broken up again.
"By now, other things were beginning to stick out, but I told you about those before. Power was leading me to suspect a general conspiracy. I lumped together the major, Goya, Power, Pearce and the typist—'Marlene.' If I hadn't fallen for you, I should have included Viola Green.
"Pearce, of course, had a clean sheet and Marlene was only the major's stooge. He gave her a white coat and invited her to tea on the afternoon Beatrice vanished. As he was boss, they had to be careful not to advertise their flirtation, and he told her to come down the back stair and wait for him at the basement lobby. There were some crowded offices opposite, and he banked on someone getting a glimpse of a white coat.
"Well, my general suspicions got me nowhere. A conspiracy had to include Cross, and I could not see where he could fit in. I was up against the fact that his own daughter had been murdered. I remembered, too, that the shock of her disappearance had turned his hair white. It was logical for me to accept his grief as genuine because I had been with him when his friend—Nell Gaynor—was killed. He broke down completely and shed real tears.
"In the end, Nell opened my eyes. When she blundered into the plot at the time, she helped to whitewash him further. You could see her genuine affection for him which he returned... Criminals are often soft over their mothers or their old flames, while sensible women are fools over criminals. I expect, when Nell was a small girl, she invested the big bad boy with glamour.
"Cross was worried lest she should gossip about him and his private affairs to Mrs. Stirling's former secretary at the American Club. To stop all danger of leakage, he phoned Bergman to fix up an 'accident' to the secretary. But Bergman decided to stop gossip at the source—Nell. He probably identified her by bringing her a fictitious message from Cross.
"By a stroke of justice, Nell avenged her murder. If you remember, she was blunt to rudeness. When they met he remarked that she had not changed, which I suspect was masculine flattery. Now what was her own comment? She did not say, 'Well, you have. What's happened to your hair?' or something like that. That sort of remark would have been in character. Instead she said, 'Neither have you.' And then she went on to criticize his clothes and expose his age.
"I realized then that when she had last seen him, his hair was white, and that he had dyed it for his London visit. It could not have been done to acquire glamour for, in that case, he would not have washed it out again. That didn't make sense.
"No, it was deliberately planned so that his sham grief over his daughter's loss should carry conviction and stamp him as a genuine distracted parent. But what he counted on as a master stroke of strategy proved the actual link which connected him with the conspiracy.
"It was Nell who upset his apple cart, when she practically told me that his hair had not turned white from shock. Such calculated cunning to register emotion suddenly revealed him in a new light—I saw him not as a splendid figure, with warm and generous impulses, but as a cold-blooded criminal. The Raphael Cross I knew had faded into air."
Non sibi sed omnibus
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