THERE was a man who had a way with women. His name was Alphonse de Riebiera, and he described himself as a Spaniard, though his passport was issued by a South American republic. Sometimes he presented visiting cards which were inscribed 'Le Marquis de Riebiera', but that was only on very special occasions.*
[* The opening of this story was modified for publication
in The Woman from the East, where it reads:
LAWYERS who write books are not, as a rule, popular with their confrères, but Archibald Lenton, the most brilliant of prosecuting attorneys, was an exception. He kept a case book and published extracts from time to time. He has not published his theories on the Chopham affair, though I believe he formulated one. I present him with the facts of the case and the truth about Alphonse or Alphonso Riebiera.
This was a man who had a way with women, especially women who had not graduated in the more worldly school of experience. He described himself as a Spaniard, though his passport was issued by a South American republic. Sometimes he presented visiting cards which were inscribed 'Le Marquis de Riebiera', but that was only on very special occasions.]
He was young, with an olive complexion, faultless features, and showed his two rows of dazzling white teeth when he smiled. He found it convenient to change his appearance. For example: when he was a hired dancer attached to the personnel of an Egyptian hotel he wore little side whiskers, which, oddly enough, exaggerated his youthfulness; in the Casino at Enghien, where by some means he secured the position of croupier, he was decorated with a little black moustache. Staid, sober and unimaginative spectators of his many adventures were irritably amazed that women said anything to him, but then it is notoriously difficult for any man, even an unimaginative man, to discover attractive qualities in successful lovers.
And yet the most unlikely women came under his spell and had to regret it. There arrived a time when he became a patron of the gambling establishments where he had been the most humble and the least trusted of servants, when he lived royally in hotels, where he once was hired at so many piastre per dance. Diamonds came to his spotless shirt front, pretty manicurists tended his nails and received fees larger than his one-time dancing partners had slipped shyly into his hand.
There were certain gross men who played interminable dominoes in the cheaper cafés that abound on the unfashionable side of the Seine, who are amazing news centres. They know how the oddest people live and they were very plain spoken when they discussed Alphonse. They could tell you, though heaven knows how the information came to them, of fat registered letters that came to him in his flat in the Boulevard Haussman, Registered letters stuffed with money, and despairing letters that said in effect (and in various languages) "I can send you no more—this is the last." But they did send more.
Alphonse had developed a well organised business. He would leave for London, or Rome, or Amsterdam, or Vienna, or even Athens, arriving at his destination by sleeping-car, drove to the best hotel, hired a luxurious suite—and telephoned. Usually the unhappy lady met him by appointment, tearful, hysterically furious, bitter, insulting, but always remunerative.
For when Alphonse read extracts from the letters they had sent to him in the day of the Great Glamour and told them what their husbands income was almost to a pound, lira, franc or guilder, they reconsidered their decision to tell their husbands everything and Alphonse went back to Paris with his allowance.
This was his method with the bigger game; sometimes he announced his coming visit with a letter discreetly worded, which made personal application unnecessary. He was not very much afraid of husbands or brothers; the philosophy which had germinated from his experience made him contemptuous of human nature. He believed that most people were cowards and lived in fear of their lives, and greater fear of their regulations. He carried two silver-plated revolvers, one in each hip pocket. They had prettily damascened barrels and ivory handles carved in the likeness of nymphs. He bought them in Cairo from a man who smuggled cocaine from Vienna.
Alphonse had some twenty "clients" on his books and added to them as opportunity arose. Of the twenty, five were gold mines (he thought of them as such) the remainder were silver mines.
There was a silver mine living in England, a very lovely, rather sad-looking girl, who was happily married except when she thought of Alphonse. She loved her husband and hated herself and hated Alphonse intensely and impotently. Having a fortune of her own she could pay—therefore she paid. Then in a fit of desperate revolt she wrote saying: "This is the last, etc." Alphonse was amused. He waited until September when the next allowance was due, and it did not come. Nor in October, nor November. In December he wrote to her; he did not wish to go to England in December, for England is very gloomy and foggy, and it was so much nicer in Egypt; but business was business.
His letter reached its address when the woman to whom it was addressed was on a visit to her aunt in Long Island. She had been born an American. Alphonse had not written in answer to her letter; she had sailed for New York feeling safe.
Her husband, whose initial was the same as his wife's, opened the letter by accident and read it through very carefully. He was no fool. He did not regard the wife he wooed as an outcast; what happened before his marriage was her business—what happened now was his.
And he understood these wild dreams of hers, and her wild uncontrollable weeping for no reason at all, and he knew what the future held for her.
He went to Paris and made inquiries: he sought the company of the gross men who play dominoes and heard much that was interesting.
Alphonse arrived in London and telephoned from a call box. Madam was not at home. A typewritten letter came to him, making an appointment for the Wednesday. It was the usual rendezvous, the hour specified, an injunction to secrecy. The affair ran normally.
He passed his time pleasantly in the days of waiting. Bought a new Spanza car of the latest model, arranged for its transportation to Paris and in the meantime amused himself by driving it.
AT the appointed hour he arrived, knocked at the door of the house and was admitted...
Riebiera, green of face, shaking at the knees, surrendered his two ornamented pistols without a fight....
AT eight o'clock on Christmas morning Superintendent Oakington was called from his warm bed by telephone and was told the news.
A milkman, driving across Chobham Common, had seen a car standing a little off the road. It was apparently a new car and must have been standing in its position all night. There were three inches of snow on its roof, beneath the body of the car the bracken was green.
An arresting sight even for a milkman, who at seven o'clock on a wintry morning had no other thought than to supply the needs of his customers as quickly as possible and return at the earliest moment to his own home and the festivities and feastings proper to the day.
He got out of the Ford he was driving and stamped through the snow. He saw a man lying, face downwards, and in his grey hand a silver-barrelled revolver. He was dead. And then the startled milkman saw the second man. His lace was invisible; it lay under a thick mask of snow that made his pinched features grotesque and hideous.
The milkman ran back to his car and drove towards a Police station.
Mr. Oakington was on the spot within an hour of being called. There were a dozen policemen grouped around the car and the shapes in the snow; the reporters, thank God, had not arrived.
LATE in the afternoon the superintendent put a call through to one man who might help in a moment of profound bewilderment.
Archibald Lenton was the most promising of Treasury Juniors that the Bar had known for years. The Common Law Bar lifts its delicate nose at lawyers who are interested in criminal cases to the exclusion of other practice. But Archie Lenton survived the unspoken disapproval of his brethren and concentrating on this unsavoury aspect of jurisprudence was both a successful advocate and an authority on certain types of crime, for he had written a text hook which was accepted as authoritative.
An hour later he was in the superintendent's room at Scotland Yard, listening to the story.
"We've identified both men. One is a foreigner, a man from the Argentine, so far as I can discover from his passport, named Alphonse or Alphonso Riebiera. He lives in Paris and has been in this country for about a week."
"Very, I should say. We found about two hundred pounds in his pocket. He was staying at the Nederland Hotel and bought a car for twelve hundred pounds only last Friday, paying cash. That is the car we found near the body. I've been on the 'phone to Paris, and he is suspected there of being a blackmailer. The police have searched and sealed his flat, but found no documents of any kind. He is evidently the sort of man who keeps his business under his hat."
"He was shot you say? How many times?"
"Once, through the head. The other man was killed in exactly the same way. There was a trace of blood in the car, but nothing else."
Mr. Lenton jotted down a note on a pad of paper.
"Who was the other man?" he asked.
"That's the queerest thing of all—an old acquaintance of yours."
"Mine? Who on earth—?"
"Do you remember a fellow you defended on a murder charge—Joe Stackett?"
"At Exeter, good Lord, yes! Was that the man?"
"We've identified him from his finger prints. As a matter of fact, we were after Joe—he's an expert car thief who only came out of prison last week; he got away with a car yesterday morning, but abandoned it after a chase and slipped through the fingers of the Flying Squad. Last night he pinched an old car from a second-hand dealer and was spotted and chased. We found the car abandoned in Tooting. He was never seen again until he was picked up on the Chobham Common."
Archie Lenton leant back in his chair and stared thoughtfully at the ceiling.
"He stole the Spanza—the owner jumped on the running board and there was a fight—" he began, but the superintendent shook his head.
"Where did he get his gun? English criminals do not carry guns. And they weren't ordinary revolvers. Silver-plated, ivory butts carved with girls' figures—both identical, There was fifty pounds in Joe's pocket; they are consecutive numbers to those found in Riebiera's pocket book. If he'd stolen them he'd have taken the lot. Joe wouldn't stop at murder, you know that, Mr. Lenton. He killed that old woman in Exeter although he was acquitted. Riebiera must have given him the fifty—"
A telephone bell rang; the superintendent drew the instrument towards him and listened. After ten minutes of a conversation which was confined so far as Oakington was concerned to a dozen brief questions, he put down the receiver.
"One of my officers has traced the movements of the car, it was seen standing outside 'Greenlawns', a house in Tooting. It was there at 9.45 and was seen by a postman. If you feel like spending Christmas night doing a little bit of detective work, we'll go down and see the place."
They arrived half an hour later at a house in a very respectable neighbourhood. The two detectives who waited their coming had obtained the keys but had not gone inside. The house was for sale and was standing empty. It was the property of two old maiden ladies who had placed the premises in an agent's hands when they had moved into the country.
The appearance of the car before an empty house had aroused the interest of the postman. He had seen no lights in the windows and decided that the machine was owned by one of the guests at the next door house.
Oakington opened the door and switched on the light. Strangely enough, the old ladies had not had the current disconnected, though they were notoriously mean. The passage was bare, except for a pair of bead curtains which hung from an arched support to the ceiling.
The front room drew blank. It was in one of the back rooms on the ground floor that they found evidence of the crime. There was blood on the bare planks of the floor and in the grate a litter of ashes.
"Somebody has burnt papers—I smelt it when I came into the room," said Lenton.
He knelt before the grate and lifted a handful of fire ashes carefully.
"And these have been stirred up until there isn't an ash big enough to hold a word," he said.
He examined the blood prints and made a careful scrutiny of the walls. The window was covered with a shutter.
"That kept the light from getting in," he said, "and the sound of the shot getting out. There is nothing else here."
The detective sergeant who was inspecting the other rooms returned with the news that a kitchen window had been forced. There was one muddy print on the kitchen table which was under the window and a rough attempt had been made to obliterate this. Behind the house was a large garden and behind that an allotment. It would be easy to reach and enter the house without exciting attention.
"But if Stackett was being chased by the police why should he come here?" he asked.
"His car was found abandoned not more than two hundred yards from here," explained Oakington, "He may have entered the house in the hope of finding something valuable and have been surprised by Riebiera."
Archie Lenton laughed softly.
"I can give you a better theory than that," he said, and for the greater part of the night he wrote carefully and convincingly, reconstructing the crime, giving the most minute details.
That account is still preserved at Scotland Yard, and there are many highly placed officials who swear by it.
And yet, something altogether different happened on the night of that 24th of December...
THE streets were greasy. The car lines abominably so. Stackett's mean little car slithered and skidded alarmingly. He had been in a bad temper when he started out on his hungry quest; he grew sour and savage with the evening passing on with nothing to show for his discomfort. The suburban high street was crowded too; street cars moved at a crawl, their bells clanging pathetically; street vendors had their stalls jammed end to end on either side of the thoroughfare; stalls green and red with holly wreaths and untidy bunches of mistletoe; there were butcher stalls, raucous auctioneers holding masses of raw beef and roaring their offers; vegetable stalls; stalls piled high with plates and cups and saucers and gaudy dishes and glassware, shining in the rays of the powerful acetylene lamps...The car skidded. There was a crash and a scream. Breaking crockery has an alarming sound...A yell from the stall owner; Stackett straightened his machine and darted between a tramcar and a trolley....
He twisted his wheel, almost knocked down the policeman who came to intercept him and swung into a dark side street, his foot clamped on the accelerator. He turned to the right and the left, to the right again. Here was a long suburban road; houses monotonously alike on either side, terribly dreary brick blocks where men and women and children lived, were born, paid rent and died. A mile further on he passed the gateway of the cemetery where they found the rest which was their supreme reward for living at all. The police whistle had followed him for less than a quarter of a mile. He had passed a policeman running towards the sound—anyway, flatties never worried Stackett. Some of his ill-humour passed in the amusement which the sight of the running copper brought.
Bringing the noisy little car to a standstill by the side of the road, he got down and, relighting the cigarette he had so carefully extinguished, he gazed glumly at the stained and battered mudguard which was shivering and shaking under the pulsations of the engine.
Through that same greasy street came a motor-cyclist, muffled to the chin, his goggles dangling about his neck. He pulled up his shining wheel near the policeman on point duty and, supporting his balance with one foot in the muddy road, asked questions.
"Yes, sergeant," said the policeman. "I saw him. He went down there. As a matter of fact, I was going to pinch him for driving to the common danger, but he hopped it."
"That's Joe Stackett," nodded Sergeant Kenton of the C.I.D. "A thin-faced man with a pointed nose?"
The point duty policeman had not seen the face behind the windscreen, hut he had area the car, and that he described accurately.
"Stolen from Elmer's garage. At least, Elmer will say so, but he probably provided it. Dumped stuff. Which way did you say?"
The policeman indicated, and the sergeant kicked his engine to life and went chug-chugging down the dark street. He missed Mr. Stackett by a piece of bad luck, bad luck for everybody, including Mr. Stackett, who was at the beginning of his amazing adventure.
Switching off the engine, he had continued on foot. About fifty yards away was the wide opening of a road superior in class to any he had traversed. Even the dreariest suburb has its West End, and here were villas standing on their own acres; very sedate villas, with porches and porch lamps in wrought-iron and oddly coloured glass and shaven lawns, and rose gardens swathed in matting, and no two villas were alike. At the far end he saw a red light, and his heart leapt with joy: Christmas—it was to be Christmas after all, with good food and lashings of drink and other manifestations of happiness and comfort peculiarly attractive to Joe Stackett. It looked like a car worth knocking off, even in the darkness. He saw somebody near the machine and stopped. It was difficult to tell in the gloom whether the person near the car had got in or had come out. He listened. There came to him neither the slam of the driver's door nor the whine of the self-starter. He came a little closer, walked boldly on, his restless eyes moving left and right for danger. All the houses were occupied. Bright lights illuminated the casement cloth which covered the windows. He heard the sound of respectable revelry and two gramophones playing dance tunes. But his eyes always came back to the polished limousine at the door of the end house. There was no light there. It was completely dark, from the gabled attic to the ground floor.
He quickened his pace. It was a Spanza. His heart leapt at the recognition. For a Spanza is a car for which there is a ready sale. You can get as much as a hundred pounds for a new one. They are popular amongst Eurasians and wealthy Hindus. Binky Jones, who was the best car fence in London, would pay him cash, not less than sixty. In a week's time that car would be crated and on its way to India, there to be resold at a handsome profit.
The driver's door was wide open. He heard the soft purr of the engine. He slid into the driver's seat, closed the door noiselessly and almost without as much as a whine the Spanza moved on.
It was a new one, brand new...A hundred at least. Gathering speed, he passed to the end of the road, came to a wide common and skirted it. Presently he was in another shopping street, but he knew too much to turn back towards London. He would take the open country for it, work round through Esher and come into London by the Portsmouth Road. The art of car stealing is to move as quickly as possible from the police division where the machine is stolen and may be instantly reported to a 'foreign' division, which will not knew of the theft until hours after.
There might be all sorts of extra pickings. There was a big luggage trunk behind' and possibly a few knick-knacks in the body of the car itself. At a suitable moment he would make a leisurely search. At the moment he headed for Epsom, turning back to hit the Kingston By-pass. Sleet fell—snow and rain together. He set the screen-wiper working and began to hum a little tune. The Kingston By-pass was deserted. It was too unpleasant a night for much traffic. Mr. Stackett was debating what would be the best place to make his search when he felt an unpleasant draught behind him. He had noticed there was a sliding window separating the interior of the car from the driver's seat, which had possibly worked loose. He put up his hand to push it close.
"Drive on, don't turn round or I'll blow your head off!"
Involuntarily he half-turned to see the gaping muzzle of an automatic and in his agitation put his foot on the brake. The car skidded from one side of the road to the other, half turned and recovered.
"Drive on, I am telling you," said a metallic voice. "When you reach the Portsmouth Road turn and bear towards Weybridge. If you attempt to stop I will shoot you. Is that clear?"
Joe Stackett's teeth were chattering. He could not articulate the 'yes'. All that he could do was to nod. He went on nodding for half a mile before he realised what he was doing.
No further word came from the interior of the car until they passed the racecourse; then unexpectedly the voice gave a new direction:
"Turn left towards Leatherhead."
The driver obeyed.
They came to a stretch of common. Stackett, who knew the country well, realised the complete isolation of the spot.
"Slow down, pull into the left...There is no dip there. You can switch on your lights."
The car slid and bumped over the uneven ground, the wheels crunched through beds of bracken...
The door behind him opened. The man got out. He jerked open the driver's door.
"Step down." he said. "Turn out your lights first. Have you got a gun?"
"Gun? Why the hell should I have a gun?" stammered the car thief.
He was focused all the time in a ring of light from a very bright electric torch which the passenger had turned upon him.
"You are an act of Providence."
Stackett could not see the face of the speaker. He saw only the gun in the hand, for the stranger kept this well in the light.
"Look inside the car."
Stackett looked and almost collapsed: there was a figure huddled in one corner of the seat—the figure of a man. He saw something else—a bicycle jammed into the car, one wheel touching the roof, the other on the floor. He saw the man's white face...Dead! A slim, rather short man, with dark hair and a dark moustache, a foreigner. There was a little red hole in his temple.
"Pull him out," commanded the voice sharply.
Stackett shrank back, but a powerful hand pushed him towards the car.
"Pull him out!"
With his face moist with cold perspiration, the car thief obeyed; put his hands under the armpits of the inanimate figure, dragged him out and laid him on the bracken.
"He's dead," he whimpered.
"Completely," said the other.
Suddenly he switched off his electric torch. Far away came a gleam of light on the road, coming swiftly towards them. It was a car moving towards Esher. It passed.
"I saw you coming just after I had got the body into the car. There wasn't time to get back to the house. I'd hoped you were just an ordinary pedestrian. When I saw van get into the car I guessed pretty well your vocation. What is your name?"
"Stackett?" The light flashed on his face again. "How wonderful! Do you remember the Exeter Assizes? the woman you killed with a hammer? I defended you!"
Joe's eyes were wide open. He stared past the light at the dim grey thing that was a face.
"Mr. Lenton?" he said hoarsely. "Good God, sir!"
"You murdered her in cold blood for a few paltry shillings and you would have been dead now. Stackett, if I hadn't found a flaw in the evidence. You expected to die, didn't you? You remember how we used to talk in Exeter Gaol about the trap that would not work when they tried to hang a murderer and the ghoulish satisfaction you had that you would stand on the same trap?"
Joe Stackett grinned uncomfortably.
"And I meant it, sir," he said, "but you can't try a man twice—"
Then his eyes dropped to the figure at his feet, the dapper little man with a black moustache, with a red hole in his temple.
Lenton leant over the dead man, took out a pocket case from the inside of the jacket and at his leisure detached ten notes.
"Put these in your pocket."
He obeyed, wondering what service would be required him, wondered more why the pocket book with its precious notes was returned to the dead man's pocket.
Lenton looked back along the road. Snow was falling now, real snow. It came down in small particles falling so thickly that it seemed that a fog lay on the land.
"You fit into this perfectly... a man unfit to live. There is fate in this meeting."
"I don't know what you mean by fate."
Joe Stackett grew bold: he had to deal with a lawyer and a gentleman who, in a criminal sense was his inferior. The money obviously had been given to him to keep his mouth shut.
"What have you been doing, Mr. Lenton? That's bad, ain't it? This fellow's dead, and—"
He must have seen the pencil of flame that came from the other's hand. He could have felt nothing, for he was dead before he sprawled over the body on the ground.
Mr. Archibald Lenton examined the revolver by the light of his lamp, opened the breech and closed it again. Stooping, he laid it near the hand of the little man with the black moustache and, lifting the body of Joe Stackett, he dragged it towards the car and let it drop. Bending down, he clasped the still warm hands about the butt of another pistol. Then, at his leisure, he took the bicycle from the interior of the car and carried it back to the road. It was already white and fine snow was falling in sheets.
Mr. Lenton went on and reached his home two hours later, when the bells of the local Anglo-Catholic church were ringing musically.
There was a cable waiting for him from his wife:
"A HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU, DARLING."
He was ridiculously pleased that she had remembered to send the wire—he was very fond of his wife.