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Title: The Memory Man Author: Coutts Brisbane * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000291h.html Language: English Date first posted: March 2020 Most recent update: March 2020 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Published in 1948 by Thomas Nelson & Sons, Melbourne
I. THE OBJECTIVE
II. THE WATCHERS
IV. PERRY DAVISON, MATHEMATICIAN
V. THE LAIR
VII. "THE BEST-LAID SCHEMES..."
VIII. THE MEETING IN REGENT'S PARK
IX. END OF SONIA
X. THE HUB
XI. THE CLUES?
XII. AT THE "NEW ORIENTAL"
XIII. "IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED"
XIV. THE EYES
XV. THE CAVE IN THE QUARRY
XVI. BILLY HARWOOD'S PIECE
XVII. KING'S EVIDENCE
XVIII. MYSTERY FLAT
The hand that beckoned to him was in an
ordinary pigskin glove
Weston whirled round
A rope-noose dropped from aloft
A dark figure loomed up on the landing
Perry Davison, mathematician, inventor, eccentric—and something else—made a bombing range-finder which the authorities found very valuable. An equal value was set upon it by agents of the German Secret Service organization. Davison's niece, Ellice, and her reporter friend, Billy Harwood, became involved in the game of wits and violence which resulted from attempts to steal the plans of the invention from the inventor and his country. Conjuring, a chalk cavern, and a villain who uses the device of a bat—being thereby known as "The Flittermouse"—play their parts in a story without a dull page in it.
NAVAL officers, several of flag rank, in uniform or civvies, curt of speech. Several obvious landlubbers, treated with deference, for they were high officials. Some score of naval ratings, half of them armed with rifle and bayonet, and disposed at sundry vantage points along the shores of the inlet, the rest manning the launches and pinnaces which had brought this gathering of the big brains of H.M. Navy to this lonely bit of water. Lastly, a pancake-shaped buoy of perhaps twenty-five feet in diameter, anchored about a quarter of a mile from shore, the resting-place of a dozen gulls and the centre of interest of all these gentlemen.
At intervals one of the junior officers, wearing earphones and seated in the larger launch, murmured to the admiral beside him.
"Forty-two thousand feet, sir," he said at length. "They're about to open fire."
"They're going to start, gentlemen!" proclaimed the admiral loudly. "Keep your eyes open."
A pause. Glasses were turned on the target. Clang! Something hard and heavy had smacked upon the steel pancake. It dipped and rocked to the blow of the unseen missile; the gulls, rudely disturbed from their nap, flung themselves into the air with shrill cries, only in time to escape the stream of bullets whistling down out of the apparently empty blue overhead. Out of the void they came, struck with clash and clatter, ringing weird chimes from the echoing steel for twenty seconds or so, never a bullet wide of its mark. Then the discharge from the unseen aircraft ceased. In the silence the voice of the lieutenant was again audible.
"Dummy torpedo this time, sir," he said, and even with the words a long shining cigar of steel flashed down the sky and smashed into the middle of the pancake, driving it under water by sheer weight of the blow.
It was an amazing shot, miraculously accurate indeed when one considered that it had been launched from a plane flying at a height of nearly eight miles upon a target quite invisible to the naked eye of the marksman.
The observers gathered together, talking in low voices. They smiled; evidently they were very pleased. From high aloft came a faint humming, increasing in volume. A speck appeared, diving out of the blue. It began to circle, the humming died down, and silently the plane slid low, alighted near the dented target, and glided up to the waiting group of boats.
ON the line of dunes behind the alert sentries one of three men lying behind grass tufts brought a camera with telescopic attachment to bear upon the flying-boat, and perfunctorily took a couple of photographs.
"It is a gesture only, to show that we have been here," he murmured as he stowed away the plate carrier. "It is of foolishness the most absurd that we should be here at all. The English may be fools, As Piranelli says, but they are not such fools as he would have us believe. Very evidently they have got hold of a most valuable range-finder. His information is correct as far as it goes, but he was wrong when he assumed that we should be able to gather more here. Let us go."
"Und gif up a good job?" asked Schelm incredulously. He was a small, round, plump man with narrow, fat-surrounded eyes that always seemed on the point of closing entirely. "Nod so! This is somethings worth discovering."
"Who said anything about giving up?" Karyl Thunnsenn's ice-grey eyes glinted momentarily with amusement. "I only point out that our Piranelli does not know everything. There is something in these pictures I have just taken that will shake the big stiff's confidence in himself. He won't puff out his big chest and look mysterious as a staff officer when I point it out to him, no!"
"But what is it?" growled Ostoff, he of the prominent cheekbones and slanted eyes. "Tartar" would have described him well enough but for the flaxen hair and heavy moustache which made a mongrel of him. "I think it is foolishness not to do what he orders. He is the man who pays."
"Because of that we are here, though I knew it would be time wasted. But look, both of you. You see that man with the large head wrapped in the thick overcoat, sitting beside the tall admiral? Look at him closely so that you will know him again."
"I see. Who is he, then?" asked Ostoff impatiently as he scanned the group in the stern of the largest launch through his glasses. "To me he bears the look of a stuffed owl."
"None the less I am of the opinion that he is important. But, as you hinted, Schelm, we may as well do something to justify our expenses. We will continue as arranged and try to have a look at this flying-boat when she is in the hangar. Personally, I think the range-finder will have been removed, but Piranelli shall be obeyed to the letter. Come!"
And wriggling on their bellies like the reptiles they were, the three got themselves out of sight of the sentries before they rose and hurried away.
"TO challenge all persons approaching my post—though 'ow the 'ell I'll see anyone ten foot away in this blinkin' smother beats me!" rumbled James Clifton, A.B., profanely making additions and alterations to his Sentry's Duties Orders as he nearly collided with his particular pal, Cubby Hart, who, walking noiselessly, had emerged from the rolling fog wreaths that encompassed the dock and the hangar behind it, wherein reposed Sky Ranger, Mark IV., Ho. Ov. 3o, the flying-boat that had that morning penetrated those high altitudes where very few planes had heretofore soared.
"Pursuin' which," went on James, "it becomes my bounden dooty to ask you what the blue blazes you're doin' here, not being cast for this partic'lar form of hilarious enjoyment? Speak on, and also let's 'ear why you've brought along that club."
"Doin' sentry go meself this morning, while all those perishin' brass hats were watching doings, I saw three darlings sitting pretty away back amongst the marram. They had glasses and a camera, and they were takin' what you'd call an uncommon strong interest in proceedings."
"And why didn't you cover yourself with glory by tryin' to grab the blights?" asked James. "Nasty espions, that's what they were."
"Seeing that this blessed sky rocket hasn't been photographed by newspaper chaps more than twenty times, and by the news movies about fourteen times, I reckoned they were welcome to all they could pick up. But I took enough of them in to recognize 'em again half an hour ago when I came back from the village. Leaning on the sea wall, they were, looking this way as far as the fog would let 'cm. Therefore I plucked this twig from the Loot's collection, and came to reinforce you."
"Meanin' by that, you expect the three to pay a visit hither?" said James doubtfully.
"Not otherwise, Jimsey. If I'd made a bobbery down along on the beach yonder, I'd like as not been called a fool for interferin' with harmless tourists. Up here, if we chance to encounter the pippins, it's zeal and smart work, and mebbe another tuppence a week. Continue your per-amb-oolations, brother, while I go lie doggo inside the hangar doorway. Don't talk. I've got my hopes."
"Anyone that called you potty'd be an unxush flatterer!" growled James and resumed his pacing as Cubby Hart melted into the darker blur that indicated the hangar door.
Perhaps there might be something in Cubby's notion, he reflected, for the range-finder was a hush-hush affair, the sort of thing that half a dozen foreign powers would give a lot to get hold of. James had been greatly impressed himself, and it was likely enough that these watchers had been impressed also. Well, if they were fools enough to come snooping round they wouldn't find anything, anyhow. The range-finder and its gadgets were not in the plane any more, but safely locked away.
To and fro, fro and to! James invented a perfectly new and quite unpublishable name for the first man who invented sentry go, and said it aloud in several different keys five times. It was as he was saying it for a sixth time that something like a long silver wire jetted from behind the mooring bollard at the end of his beat, and took him on the chin, bursting into a sort of icy spray that instantly dissolved into gas.
"Urrrh!" gasped James, and reeled. Rifle and bayonet clashed to the boards, his knees dotbled under him, and sinking forward, he fell on his face, senseless.
Three dark figures materialized from behind the bollard. They did not pause to examine James. They knew that having inhaled a whiff of that gas he was safe for an hour or two at least. They glided ghostlike towards the hangar door.
"And the Lord said unto Cubby Hart, smite the blighters!" murmured Cubby happily, and charged.
A fist met and slowed him, but the blow he discharged' sent the bestower stumbling back against the others. A swinging leg tripped him, he dropped on his knees, slashed at a retreating form, heard a howl of pain, dragged himself up, discovering as he did so that he had a wrenched ankle. With curses and clatter the three shadows were bolting across the wharf.
Cubby made a stumbling hop, sprawled over friend James, and grabbing his rifle, flung it to his shoulder and let drive. Happily he emptied the magazine in the general direction of the line of flight. And very shortly after officers and men swarmed out and about, there was racing and chasing, a very private little inquiry, and two ratings in sick bay—but no prisoners.
By taking thought over their symptoms, James and Cubby contrived to spin out convalescence for three days, living high on medical comforts, and basking in the warmth of official approval.
Nothing more happened in the neighbourhood of the hangar. Illicit activity concerning that new and very effective range-finder for aircraft had been very effectually discouraged, and all was peace.
"THIS is the lurking-place of England's greatest mathematician," said Miss Ellice Davison, with a mock dramatic flourish of slim fingers towards the windows of the third and topmost floor of a rather frowsy-looking building in Soho Square. "Since you're going to meet my only near relative, Billy, I must prepare you for a shock. Uncle Perry is a most amazing man with figures. He cleared up all the honours to be had at Cambridge, and then, somehow or other, secured a job at the Admiralty, and has remained its darling ever since."
"This sounds very mysterious," murmured Billy Harwood as the pair began to climb the stone stairs that led to Uncle Perry's eyrie. "But what exactly does he do? Add up accounts or audit 'em?"
"Billy, you must have something done to stimulate your imagination. Do you suppose that even our blessed Government would pay Nunky two thousand a year for clerks' work? No! I really know very little about it, but if the Admiralty want to discover how far a gun will shoot, or how much a battleship will weigh, or—or any little trifle that runs into millions, like that, they just send a man from the office round to Uncle Perry with the particulars."
"And he gets busy with a blackboard?" suggested Billy.
"No; this is where the most amazing part comes in, for he does it all in his head. Sometimes he takes a little walk, sometimes he just lies on the sofa and plays with the cat, but it works out in the same way in the end. He jots down the answer, and the messenger takes it away. Another odd thing is that he never gets mixed up, and never forgets anything that he has once seen or heard. Once he took me to see the house where he and dad were born. He hadn't been there for more than thirty years, but he described all sorts of little details beforehand, and they were all absolutely correct."
"Then he must be a sort of walking reference library or catalogue?" said Billy.
"He is. Dick Weston told me that when they want figures or details of some ship or gun, or anything he has ever had to do with, at the Admiralty, and are in a hurry, they simply phone up Uncle Perry. It's much quicker than digging through files. He reels off the particulars like an automaton."
"Very wonderful," agreed Billy; then, with a suggestion of jealousy in his voice, "Who's Dick Weston?"
"Oh, he's a dear, too, an old friend of Nunky's. He has some sort of billet in the F.O. or Ordnance. You'll like him. Coo-ee! Uncle Perry ahoy! Turn out!"
They had reached the topmost landing and halted before a door on which was pinned a card inscribed, "No Milk To-day." It opened as the girl knocked and yodelled. A thin man of middle age and medium height, with a large dome-like head and bald pate beamed benevolently upon her from a pair of mild brown eyes that seemed to be perpetually astonished.
"Uncle Perry Davison in person," announced Ellice. "Beloved Nunky, I've brought my very dearest friend to see you, Billy Harwood, who is also on the staff of the Evening Comet."
"Come in, my infants." Perry Davison's voice was unexpectedly deep. He boomed the words. "My place is not—er—palatial, Harwood. But perhaps my little girl has prepared you?
"No, Uncle Perry, I wanted him to realize it all at a glance. Billy, Uncle's dark secret is about to be exposed. He is not a tidy man. Behold the lion's den!"
With a chuckle of enjoyment at Billy's bewildered amazement, Ellice shoved him into Perry Davison's study. It was a fair-sized room, containing a desk set before a window, an ancient sofa set against the opposite wall, a bookcase containing a couple of rows of stately calf-bound volumes bearing the arms of Cambridge University, and wearing the desolate air of books that have never been opened, and about a thousand copies of paper-covered weeklies: Boys' Journal, The Adventurer, The Conqueror, Nick's Weekly, and such sugary-sweet productions as jenny's Own, Home and Fireside, and Lady Moira's Budget, which presumably catered for girls of all ages.
They filled the shelves, they overflowed upon the floor. There were stacks of them on the desk and beside it, around the sofa, on two of the three chairs. The things were everywhere, their gay colours killing the pattern of the carpet. Billy gazed, his mouth a little open. Even in the reporters' room of the Comet he had never seen anything approaching this litter of near-literature.
"Uncle Perry is not a highbrow reader," explained Ellice. "I believe he has read every story that ever was written for small boys or pin-headed girls in the last dozen years. Haven't you, Uncle?"
"Fourteen years, ten weeks, my dear," murmured Perry. "But I like them. They are so splendidly direct, and things happen with such amazing frequency in them. Why, Nick Nixon, the boy detective, can't leave his lodgings without crossing the path of his deadly enemy, Dr. Shenton, disguised as a street sweeper. And then we have action at once. I find them most absorbing."
Billy Harwood stared at him. For a moment he thought of the quotation about great wits being near akin to madness, but the brown eyes were steady and their utter innocence belied any suggestion that the smile curving the firm lips might be ironic. Besides, he was Ellice's uncle, and Ellice and Billy, though they chaffed each other continually, were already a great deal more than friends. It seemed, too, that the innocent eyes had already fathomed their open secret, for Perry's manner was almost paternal as he motioned them to the sofa.
"It's a bit late for tea, and I haven't any milk anyhow," he said. "I had to go out very early, and I've just got back. So you'd better come and have a little bite of dinner with me. Will—will it be a—er—a sort of celebration of something, my dears?" he asked, turning to Ellice.
"Yes, sir!" Billy plunged boldly. "Ellice and I love each other, and we hope you'll approve of our engagement."
"My dears, of course I do. I know Ellice well enough to be sure that she has chosen wisely. You're both very young, of course, but youth often has a wisdom denied to the purblind eyes of world-worn elders," murmured Perry dreamily. "You have my consent and my very best wishes."
"Where did you read that, Nunky?" Ellice came in like a chorus.
Perry blinked, passed a finger across his forehead, and stared at the pile of Jenny's Own Weekly.
"'Her Love Denied,' 9th February, 1938," he murmured, turned over the pile, and miraculously extracting the copy in question, flipped it open and ran a finger-nail along a passage. "There you are! It seemed to—er—fit the circumstances. I'm afraid I shouldn't have known what to say otherwise," he concluded apologetically.
"It fitted very nicely, Nunky!" said Ellice warmly. "There! We'll say no more about it! Where did you go to-day?"
"Oh, I hardly remember. Down by the sea. Fresh air is good sometimes, isn't it? And where are you two off to?"
"Which, being interpreted, means you aren't going to tell us," Ellice said. "Though I know you remember how many rocks stuck up out of the sand and there were twenty-two gulls sitting on them. We'll be more open. Billy has been told off to interview the great Hi Lo, the Chinese illusionist man at the Megatherium, and I'm going along to help supply atmosphere. Do you know him, Nunky?"
"Hi Lo?" repeated Perry. "The name seems a contradiction in terms. I have seen it in bills, though. A conjurer, isn't he?"
"Yes, a first-class one, sir, but his great stunt is his cabinet trick. He gets members of the audience to tie him up, handcuff him, or chain him. Then he's fastened in his cabinet and hoisted off the stage. A couple of minutes pass, and then the cabinet is lowered and found to be empty, while Hi Lo comes walking down the aisle carrying the handcuffs and things. It's a trick, of course, but it's wonderfully well done."
"Most interesting! I must go to see him one evening."
"Why not to-night, with us, sir? We'd have to leave you to interview him when he finishes his turn, but afterwards we might have a bite of supper. What about it?"
"I can't to-night. I have an engagement. But some other evening I should like to see him. Now, what about this bit of dinner? If you don't mind, we'll go to the Café des Deux Mondes. It's close by, and the cooking's fairly good. They know me there."
"All hands clear for action, then," cried Ellice gaily. "Let's get going!"
THE Café des Deux Mondes scarcely lived up to its resounding title. It was small, anything but cosmopolitan in decorations or cuisine, and indeed was rather a frowsy and old-fashioned restaurant. But its chef was fairly accomplished, and its charges were reasonable. Though it did not do a boom business, it had a regular clientèle, and on the whole did well enough.
That is, it showed a fair profit, enough to support its proprietor, Antonio Piranelli, in the very modest luxury which seemed to be all he desired.
The "Deux Mondes" was divided into three parts. Half a dozen marble-topped tables by the entry formed the café proper. The restaurant beyond could accommodate about sixty diners at a pinch; beyond this again, flanking the serving hatches and tables, was a small room with one table, reserved by the proprietor for himself and his friends.
It had a rather unusual feature, a curtained recess furnished with spy-holes through which Piranelli might observe the restaurant without being seen himself, besides a narrow door leading to a corridor running into a side alley. Antonio Piranelli, therefore, did not need to be at home to anyone he did not wish to see. A dozen steps and he was out.
However, on this evening of the day that had seen the interesting trial of the new combined rangefinder and sighting apparatus known to a few people in the Admiralty as RRS. SS. 4, it was not he but Karyl Thunnsenn who sat in the little alcove and from time to time glanced expectantly into the restaurant as he made his report in a low voice.
"So, as we discovered the hangar to be well guarded, as I had anticipated, we retired. Ostoff has received contusions on the shoulder and knee, I myself have a bullet hole through the skirts of my overcoat. The only result of the expedition is two photographs, which I will show you in a moment. They could have been obtained with a great deal less trouble from any news photograph bureau."
"Meaning to say it was all wasted time and trouble, eh?" growled Piranelli.
"Meaning exactly that. I've been wanting to talk to you straight, Antonio," Thunnsenn said softly. "Ostoff and Schelm think the same. You're a fine boss to work for, only you aren't good at the practical side of the work. You get good information up to a point, and then you fall down on the work-out, so to say."
Piranelli's pale, rather pasty face grew crimson, a hand slid towards his left armpit—and fell away again as Thunnsenn's eyes grew suddenly steely. He smiled wryly with a visible effort.
"You say—up to a point. Whatta you mean by that?" he asked.
Thunnsenn glanced again through the spy-hole, nodded to the other couple, and drew out a flat folder. Two photos lay within. Each showed the flying-boat, Sky Ranger, Mark IV. Ho. Ov. 3o, and the group of launches by her.
They were first-class photographs, giving remarkable detail of the plane, the launches, and the men in them.
"D'you see anyone you know among these fellows?" asked Thunnsenn carelessly.
"That is Admiral Ryde-Harker. And that is Sir Astley Marshall, yes, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Very good!" murmured Piranelli.
"Thought so! The trouble with you, Antonio, is that you don't see what's under your nose. See this fella that's sort of out of the picture, not having a brass-bound hat. D'you know him?"
Thunnsenn indicated one figure with a finger tip. Piranelli frowned as he stared at it.
"In effect—I seem to know the face," he grunted. "And yet—"
"Take a look at those three folks that have just come in and sat down. Giorgio is going, to take their order. See if you recognize one of them," purred Thunnsenn, slipping aside and inviting Piranelli with a gesture to take his place at the watching post.
"Eh? But—but that is Mistaire Davison! You mean to say he..." Piranelli stammered, turning puzzled eyes from a swift scrutiny of the restaurant. "He come here reg'lar, I dunno how long. Alla the time I been here. What you mean? He is like this man in the boat, but—he is a fool man! He speaks soft and low, or else he bellows. Sometimes I t'ink he is not what you call all there!"
"You're the one who isn't all there sometimes!" sneered Thunnsenn. "You get bits of good information, yes, but you miss a lot. Now, I don't get much, but what I get is a lot better. That's Perry Davison. He was down looking on at that show. D'you know why? Because he's the man who worked out all the figures for this new range-finder and sighting apparatus. He's the man who has worked out the figures for all the new construction, all the gadgets connected with the British Navy, for the past eight or nine years at least. Why, he could tell us all we want to know—and you think he isn't all there! Gosh, Piranelli, you can be an awful sap!"
"Eh?" Piranelli's astonishment was ludicrous. "Thatta fella? Why, he—he is so silly—he see me do a leetle conjuring trick wit' a coin I make to vanish—and now, whenever I see him, he ask me to do it some more. A leetle silly trick that a boy might do, but it please him no end! I cannot believe he is so clever as you say."
"Yes, he is." Thunnsenn turned to Ostoff and Schelm. "The coast's clear. Better get to it now," he said, and like one the pair slid out through the side door. Piranelli saw them go and turned interrogatively to Thunnsenn.
"What is the great beeg idea?" he asked, still in the muted tones of one who has received a shock. Thunnsenn lit a cigarette and blew a cloud before he smiled tantalizingly, and replied:
"We're not in this for our health, Antonio, and if we don't show results soon we'll all be told we aren't wanted. And perhaps we'll be made safe, eh?"
Piranelli shuddered. He did not like that allusion. The Great Power for which he and the others worked had a short sharp way with its discarded servants. It made them safe; shut their mouths in the one absolutely effective way. He wilted.
"My Karyl, we are all together in this. We shall help each other all we can. What do you propose, eh?"
"That we take the quickest and best way of getting the information we want. We'll never get it in your way. You think these English fools—but they're not. They only play at being fools, the very best way of fooling so-clever men like you. We shall never see that range-finder, so therefore we must investigate the man who knows all about it, this Davison. I have found where he lives, close by in Soho Square. He lives alone. He is out every evening. Schelm and Ostoff have gone to search his rooms. They may find something valuable. If not—there are ways to make him talk. Now, go and make much of him. Later I will follow him and see where he goes."
"Yes. I will make myself ver' friendly," agreed Piranelli, and presently went out into the restaurant.
He paused at a couple of tables for a friendly word with the early diners, then passed on to the table where Perry Davison beamed upon Ellice and Billy as they discussed hors-d'oeuvres. The beam broadened as Piranelli halted before him, his pasty face one expansive bright smile.
"Good-evening, Mistaire Davison! You find all righta, eh?" he said throatily as he bowed.
"Quite all right, so far. I'm introducing my young friends to your celebrated establishment, so go on being all right," chuckled Perry. "I—er—I say, Piranelli, you—you couldn't do those tricks with that half-crown, could you?" he added diffidently. "Piranelli's very good at conjuring, Ellice. He should be on the stage. Show them, Piranelli!"
"It ees nothing!" Piranelli shrugged and smiled deprecatingly. "Mistaire Davison, he mak' too much of my leetle tricks. They are not so ver' wonderful—but I show you. It is old, old, of course. So!"
He picked up half a crown that hadn't been there a moment before, from the corner of the table by Perry's side, flicked it into the air. It disappeared, to reappear from the empty tumbler beside Ellice. For a couple of minutes he put the coin through its paces, while Perry, smiling rather foolishly, followed all his movements, his mouth opening and shutting in a series of pleased chuckles.
Billy Harwood, watching both performances, was astounded. Surely Uncle Perry could not be quite so simple as he appeared to be? Billy could not decide whether he looked more like the village idiot or a new-born babe. He glanced at Ellice, who nodded reassuringly, as much as to say that her uncle's vagaries were all in the day's work and nothing to be astonished at.
"There now! One time I show you some others, Mistaire Davison, wit' leetle apparatus, how I mak' a goldfish come in a bowl that was empty, and some more things like that, if it amuse you," said Piranelli. "It is a good fun. All for a laugh. Now, I mus' go see to the chef."
With another broadly comprehensive, benedictory smile Piranelli bowed and retreated in good order, followed by Perry's thanks.
"It's very wonderful, isn't it, my dear?" he said in awed tones.
"Nunky dear, it isn't really! You should see the things this Chinese Hi Lo does."
"He's really marvellous, sir," supplemented Billy. "This chap means well, but he can't be expected to be like a real professional."
"I must endeavour to see Hi Lo. But I still think Piranelli is marvellous," insisted Perry.
Billy nodded and let it go at that. One can't tell the uncle of one's dearly beloved that by rights he should have a nurse always in attendance, but once again he reflected that great ability of one kind too often is accompanied by something very like imbecility in others.
The dinner proceeded. Piranelli, back in his den, grinned sourly at Thunnsenn.
"You saw?" he said. "That is the way he does every time. He asks me to do that foolishness. Those two with him thought I was a great fool's head. But—"
"Let them think!" snapped Thunnsenn. "But keep on good terms with him. I have a notion—if this search fails, as it may. Tell me when he is going."
Ellice and Billy were the first to move. They wanted to see the show at the Megatherium, and went off, leaving Nunky to finish his coffee. When at last Perry Davison went out into the night Thunnsenn was close behind him.
Davison did not return to his flat. He walked slowly down Dean Street, turned out of it, wandering aimlessly along as though taking a constitutional, halted suddenly before a shop, made as though to enter, turned back; in short, for the next quarter of an hour he gave a perfect exhibition of indecision.
Thunnsenn fumed. He had much ado to keep out of sight of his quarry. This aimless tacking to and fro began to get on his nerves. They were in Queen Street, when all of a sudden Davison seemed to make up his wandering mind, and stepped into a taxi. Thunnsenn promptly signalled to another, and as it stopped, a big, ugly-looking man brushed him aside.
"My need is greater than thine, sweet chuck!" remarked the stranger. "Charing Cross, driver, and move!"
"My cab!" snarled Thunnsenn, trying to step into the vehicle. With a side glance he saw Davison getting under way. Another moment and the trail would be lost. "I called it!"
"My thanks for your kindly service, fair sir!" quoth the big man. "Move, driver! Double fare!"
And upsetting Thunnsenn's balance with that double thrust of a finger used by the police in argument, he slammed the door and rolled off. Thunnsenn swore in four languages, all to no avail. Perry Davison was gone into the everywhere.
Thunnsenn returned to the Café des Deux Mondes in no mood to enjoy the excellent dinner that awaited him. Schelm and Ostoff had not returned. They did not enter till nearly ten o'clock, and a glance at their weary, forlorn faces showed at once that failure had been their portion.
"It wass the maddest place I haf ever seen!" declared Schelm. "What do we find in his desk? Cross-wort puzzles—und they are mostly done wrong also! Und everywhere else are foolish papers for boys, yes, und for fool-girls! Ach! I am seek with the foolishness of it all! Ostoff also!"
Ostoff shook his head morosely. He produced half a dozen copies of Jenny's Own Weekly and spread them on the table.
"There are these. There are many figures and letters on the margins. I think it is a simple cipher," he said with a sneering look at Schelm. "Myself, I have, I think, solved the beginning. We will see. Look, they are all beside the fool love-story-tale called 'When Love was Barred.' Wait but a little and I think I have it. This one!"
He got busy with pencil and paper. Thunnsenn, watching, grew interested. Schelm took a hand after a surreptitious glance at Ostoff's figures. For a few minutes the three were absorbed. It was Thunnsenn who looked up first with a queer wild glare in his eyes.
"It's a cipher—and simple enough," he growled. "But what do you make of this sentence? 'Poor Ernestine! How sad to lose her faith in human kindliness! How foolish!' What can that possibly mean? Is it a key sentence?"
"If it iss, then what iss this?" Schelm snorted. "Listen! 'My heart bleeds for Ernestine. Is she always doomed to misunderstand Anthony?' Now, that makes sense, yes—no? But what does it mean? Iss this man insane?"
They looked at each other in perplexity. If these sentences were but the outpourings of a simple, sentimental soul, moved by the troubles of the heroine of "When Love was Barred," why in the name of common sense had Perry Davison gone to the trouble of writing them in a cipher? The thing was beyond reason. They suspected that the simple words held the clue to some tremendously important secret.
"It is perhaps that herein are hidden words of another code?" suggested Ostoff. "Or the hiding-place of his real papers, his notes?"
"Whatever they are—" began Thunnsenn.
Thus! thud! thud! Three blows fell upon the narrow door giving upon the corridor to the alley, three odd, glinting points of light suddenly appeared on the inner surface of the upper panel. With a low cry of fury and alarm, Piranelli leapt at the door, unlocked and tore it open. The outer door slammed as he did so. He sprang down the corridor, wrenched the door open and stared out into the alley. It was empty. He returned to find the three staring at—three small stilettos, the sort of thing sometimes to be found in ladies' work-baskets, and sometimes in the sleeve of a Neapolitan water-front rat!
They had bone handles and needle-sharp points which had driven clean through the tough wood. They were arranged in a triangle. Attached to the handle of each was a small tab bearing a name.
"'Thunnsenn. Schelm. Ostoff,'" read Piranelli in a voice that was none too steady, and plucked the things out. "You bes' take each the proper one," he said with a ghastly attempt at a chuckle, and handed each of the three the weapon bearing his name. "Well? What is it all about, eh? Who is this that knows you, that knows you are here?"
"Perhaps it is a hint from up above, eh?" suggested Thunnsenn. "Our big Number One is not pleased with the lack of progress? This is a notice to proceed more quickly? Very well. But what now? Think, Piranelli!"
"So you need me after all? It is good that I have thought," Piranelli declared. "Listen! I have watched this Mistaire Davison and it seems to me he is what you call good subjec'. I can put heem to sleep, I do think, if it is rightly work. To-morrow night, then. He always stay longer on a Sunday. I make a leetle festa, I ask him upstairs, I tell him I show him more tricks—and I put him to sleep. Then, you shall come and ask him what question you wish. If, as you, Thunnsenn, say, he has these so many secrets in his head, then we get them out, eh?"
"If you really can hypnotize him..." Thunnsenn said doubtfully.
"But yes! I am good at it. I have the strong power, and it is easy with the proper things to help. I will do it. To-morrow. Now, go—and watch well. I do not like these leetle daggers. It is a bad sign!"
The three slipped out, none of them happy. The mystery of the stilettos was disquieting from its very oddity. Death, they felt, hovered near. Each had his hand upon a hidden weapon as they took their way by a devious route to the flat they occupied at the top of an old block in a street off Holborn. But nothing happened to disturb them further, no-one was in sight when at last, after many turnings calculated to baffle any follower, they regained their quarters.
"But can Piranelli really hypnotize this man?" asked Ostoff.
"I haf seen. He is goot, yes," replied Schelm. "For a while once he did it on the stage, in America. Then he kill a man by accident, and so he leave der country. Oh, yes, he will do it, I think."
"THUNDERING good copy this'll make, if I do say it as shouldn't," burbled Billy Harwood triumphantly as he and Ellice Davison made their way out by the stage door after interviewing the Great Hi Lo. "He's a great old bird! That's a quaint notion of his that every schoolboy should be taught conjuring. It would certainly make 'em keen on the uptake and able to use their hands."
"Yes." Ellice paused to glance at an odd-looking motor vehicle drawn up by the door. It was a van of sorts, with a closed rear compartment. Light glowed from the curtained windows, a Chinese chauffeur sat in the driving-seat stolidly regarding nothing in particular. "Is that his car?"
"Yes. I say, John, may we takee lookee insidee honourable Hi Lo's piecee car? We writee piecee 'long about Hi Lo in piecee newspaper. Lookee see. Hi Lo givee me thlis piecee Chinee carving, 'long just now."
The Chinese regarded him without blinking, as though used to such exhibitions of pidgin—as it is not spoken.
"Mr. Hi Lo does not usually show his car, sir, but you may look if you wish, since you are a pressman," he replied in English tinged with the Oxford accent. "However, there is very little to see."
He threw open the door, revealing a couch with cushions and a rug or two, a mirror, and lacquer boxes and chests.
"Mr. Hi Lo occasionally dresses in here when he is in a hurry. Sometimes, when he is unable to sleep well, I drive him out into the country that he may rest in quiet, near Nature's bosom. No, thank you, sir. Mr. Hi Lo does not like me to accept gratuities."
"Thank you, then," said Billy, and hurried Ellice away. "That was one in the eye for me!" he growled. "And I thought one could safely tip him. As it is, we come out the best of the whole affair. This carving and that bit of jade Hi gave you must be worth something. Perhaps we shouldn't have accepted them, but he made us feel that he'd be hurt to the soul if we didn't. Fine old boy. I wonder how old he is? There's no guessing with an Oriental. Now, what about a small spot of supper?"
"I can't, Billy, after that dinner with Nunky. Home and beauty sleep for me—and you'd better write up your copy before you turn in."
USUALLY Perry Davison took his leisure over his Sunday-evening meal at the Café des Deux Mondes, passing an hour or two afterwards deep in his favourite literature. This Sunday evening he had a pocketful of furious fiction, but he was not destined to get very far with it, for he was still dallying with an ice when Piranelli appeared beside him.
"My dear Mistaire Davison, I want to ask of you the honaire to join me in my room upstairs. I have the things I spoke about, the things to conjure with, yes, and I show you some more leetle tricks. A leetle liqueur, eh? And coffee, and a leetle bit of fun, eh? It will give me most great pleasure," said Piranelli all in a breath, and waited expectantly.
He was not disappointed. Perry Davison rose to the bait like a hungry trout.
"You will do more tricks? Splendid! You're wonderful, Piranelli! You've no idea how I enjoy seeing you do these things. How did you learn to do them? Or is it a natural gift?"
"I not know. Mebbe it is a gif'," admitted Piraneli modestly. "But you shall see what I do. Mebbe I teach you."
"Superb—though I'm afraid I'm too stupid to learn." Perry thrust The Boys' Best into his pocket and followed Piranelli aloft, all eager expectancy, like a child at a pantomime before the curtain goes up.
It was no magic cave that he entered, but a parlour done in the worst taste of the Plush Period. That wasn't Piranelli's fault, however, for he had merely taken over the furnishings of the place with the rest of the restaurant fittings when he purchased the business. He never saw them; it is doubtful if he ever gave them a thought. He planted Perry in an arm-chair that was at least comfortable, if hideous, and pointed to a little table.
On it stood a tiny bedside lamp shaped like a lighthouse, which sent forth a brilliant beam of light. Somewhere in the room a little electric fan or something of the kind hummed soothingly.
"Make yourself so comfortable, Mistaire Davison, I mak' ready. In one leetle minute I start," murmured Piranelli softly, and fussed about his guest, putting a cushion under his head, then switching off all the lights but one of low power that hung over a table by the curtained window recess.
"Very good of you, Piranelli," Perry said, and stared at the bright point of light in the little beacon.
Piranelli glided softly out. There was silence in the room save for that drowsy, persistent humming. The infrequent traffic of the street was muffled by the window curtains.
Purrurrurrrurrur! The humming went on and on. Perry blinked at the steady beam. His eyes shut, reopened. A faint smile played about his mouth. His eyes closed again. When they opened he seemed to be aware of Piranelli's staring into them compellingly. Great dark eyes, magnetic, commanding—something!
"Slee-eep, slee-eep!" droned Piranelli, his drowsy voici mingling with the eternal humming.
His long fingers strayed soothingly over Perry's forehead, sweat stood in beads upon his own as he concentrated all his will-power in the effort to dominate his victim. Perry blinked once more. Suddenly his eyes closed once again, his whole body seemed to relax and grow flaccid, a thing of loosened muscles and inert nerves. Piranelli's fingers moved ever so lightly and—"You are asleep!" he said in low tones vibrant with command. "You are asleep!"
"'Sleep!" murmured Perry in a queer flat voice. "'Sleep!"
"Stand up!" hissed Piranelli. Perry Davison rose, moving like an automaton. "Sit down!" Perry sat down and relaxed. Piranelli smiled evilly, turned, beckoned. "It is done! It was easy!" he whispered.
From behind the curtains of the recess came the Three, soft-footed—Schelm smiling foolishly, Ostoff uncertain and suspicious, Thunnsenn critically alert, openly sceptical. He stared at Davison.
"Is it really so? Perhaps the man is fooling you—or allowing you to fool yourself," he said softly. "Cannot you make a test? It might be clever acting. If so..."
With a sudden movement he flicked out a long, thin-bladed, very keen knife. Piranelli grinned sourly.
"I show you. Open your eyes!" he barked, if one might be said to bark in a whisper. "Give me that knife!"
Perry's eyes opened. They were fixed in a queer unseeing stare.
"Take that knife. Stab me!" he commanded, and in a flash Perry had leapt to action. He took the knife from Piranelli's hand, thrust at him, drove the point deep—into the cushion he interposed. "Stop! Drop it!"
Perry relapsed into his chair, the knife fell at his feet.
"Yes!" Thunnsenn drew a deep breath. There had been no mistaking the earnest intention of that thrust. Perry Davison, mildest of men, had undoubtedly attempted to stab Piranelli. "Yes, that is convincing. I did not think you could have done it."
"He is a good subject. He is easy. Some men—no, but this one, as I have seen long ago, yields at once. My will it is so much more stronger. Now, look in his pockets first."
They looked. They found a pocket-book with a few pounds in it, three pipes, tobacco, cigarettes, pencil stumps, a key ring minus keys, a pocket-knife, a box of corn pads, pipe cleaners, but never a scrap of paper except juvenile literature.
"Just so!" Thunnsenn seemed to assume command. "I will question him. First. You work for the Admiralty, do you not?"
Perry Davison turned his vacant eyes towards him. He shivered. It was as though the words had awakened something in his dormant mind. His lips moved:
"If blood be the price of Admiralty, oh, God, we ha' paid in full!" he murmured softly.
Three of the four looked at each other in perplexity; Schelm smiled.
"You of English literature have not much read," he said. "It is a quotation from der poet Kipling. Try him again. Der connection is not made quite correct."
"Who is your chief? Who is the man who gives you instructions?" Thunnsenn asked, and waited the reply eagerly. Would it be the name of that unknown head of the British Information Department which every foreign spy so ardently desired to discover? But no!
"Tommy Cole, Sir Thomas Cole, known to his friends as Old King Cole, and a very jolly old soul is he," replied Perry in a sing-song voice.
"That is the right. He is the head of Construction," muttered Ostoff. "But do not waste time. About this range-finder—tell us all about the range-finder for aircraft. What is the principle?"
Perry shivered and was silent. Thunnsenn repeated the question in sharp tones of command. Perry's lips moved silently, then he spoke in the same queer flat voice:
"'Nine thousand two hundred!' came the voice of the range-finding midshipman in the top. Instantly the sights were adjusted. Lieutenant Craddock raised his hand. 'Fire!' he said quietly, and with a tremendous thundering roar that made the whole great ship quiver the huge turret guns uttered their first word in the battle. The mighty shells screamed away across the heaving seas. Dick Manley's heart leapt with—'"
"This is wrong! It is not a range-finder of ships, it is the range-finder of that plane!" cut in Thunnsenn.
"He quotes from one of those fool-boy stories we found in his room," growled Ostoff. "His mind, it is supercharged with the rubbish!"
"'Nine thousand yards away a mighty triple burst of flame leapt high from the deck of the enemy cruiser as the great shells drove—'"
"Stop!" rasped Thunnsenn, and obediently Perry halted in mid-sentence. His unseeing eyes regarded the four blankly, never a suggestion of intelligence in them.
"You do not ask him right," interposed Piranelli. "It is needful to mak' a start at the beginning, to get him in the tune. Ask first about the plane. That makes a start. Then go on to the rangefinder."
"Yes. Tell us of the new plane, the flying-boat that went up to forty-two thousand feet. You were there, in the boat with the admiral. Now, remember! The plane. It went very high? And then the gun was fired, and..." Thunnsenn spoke softly this time, persuasively, halted suggestingly.
Perry responded promptly:
"'As the plane zoomed aloft at the touch of the joystick, Hardy Drake's gaze riveted itself on the four Boche planes emerging from the cloud above him. They had been lurking there, awaiting just such an opportunity as this. Four against one! Long odds, yet the undaunted boy's heart beat high with the joy of battle, he—'"
"Stop!" Thunnsenn almost howled the word. Perry broke off abruptly. "But this is ridiculous! We get nowhere at this rate! Yours is truly a fine notion!" He glared at Piranelli contemptuously.
"His mind, it is supercharged!" murmured Ostoff. "Perhaps if you should try him another way, ask him a question about his home, maybe that start the right train, eh? I make the suggestion only."
"Do as you like!" snorted Thunnsenn. "I think it is waste of time. I see nothing for it but forcing the information from him when he is awake—and then—he would of course disappear."
He flicked his knife suggestively before the unseeing eyes. Perry did not blink. Piranelli grabbed Thunnsenn's arm.
"Do nothin' so foolish! It is known he come here. If anything should happen to him, then we would have to go ver' quick. Wait! I try him, as Ostoff says." He turned to Perry, grinning persuasively, as though the victim could apprehend. "Mistaire Davison, somewhere at home you have secret hiding-place, eh? Somewheres you keep secret things, eh? You tell me, now. Leetle secret place, eh?"
The four bent about Perry eagerly. In spite of the search Schelm and Ostoff had made, it seemed probable that somewhere in the flat valuable information lurked ready for the earnest seeker. Perry breathed deeply. He sighed, and spoke in a voice quavering with emotion.
"'Darling! Heart of my heart! Listen, and I will tell you the dread secret that has haunted me day and night ever since it was thrust upon my unwilling ears. You know the old tower and the secret stairway that leads to the dungeon far below? In its depths—'"
"Hell!" snarled Thunnsenn furiously. "That is more of this infernal balderdash! I'm going! Better wake him up and give your idiotic show. Don't let him suspect anything. In a day or so I'll take my own measures—and I shan't fail. I'll screw his secret out of him if I have to take him to bits, a joint at a time. Come, Ostoff, Schelm! I have a plan—but it needs polishing. Good-night, my clever Piranelli! We will see you to-morrow. Perhaps you will be in your senses by then!"
And the Three filed out, leaving Piranelli glaring but speechless.
Perry Davison sat immobile, his gaze fixed upon vacancy. He did not stir as Piranelli placed an old silk hat, a pack of cards, and one or two simple conjuring tricks on the table, extinguished the little lighthouse, then, bending over him, passed his long fingers across his forehead.
"You remember nothing—nothing!" he said softly. Then: "Awake!"
Perry awoke. Piranelli beamed upon him, offered him a glass of wine.
"You mak' to go asleep," he said genially. "I was detain. A man come on business, but now I am all ready to show my leetle tricks."
"I'm sorry," murmured Perry, blinking and rubbing his eyes. "I suppose I must have dropped off. But now I'm awake again and eager to see all you can show me."
Piranelli began. It was not a great display, but simple Perry thought it marvellous, and said so. And so—to bed, where he slept, presumably undisturbed by dreams, or suspicion of the evil that had been attempted against him, and was being planned at that very moment by the Three.
The Three were disquieted. That strange, inexplicable incident of the three stilettos bearing their names had had its effect. They returned to their quarters with precaution sharpened by the consciousness of failure. They walked in a sort of mental fog, afraid of what the unknown who had struck the things into Piranelli's door might have in store for them.
Who was he? As they walked back to their den together after Piranelli's fiasco, each revolved the problem, delving into his murky past for a clue to the mystery.
Schelm, who had dabbled in the illicit drug traffic for a while, remembered queasily a man whose daughter had been ruined body and soul by the abomination he had supplied to her. That man had sworn to tear Schelm's heart out, soon or late. Schelm had side-tracked him, worked a trick that landed the fellow in an American prison, but he would not stay there for ever. Perhaps it was he—but no! He would not know or care anything about Thunnsenn and Ostoff. Perhaps—a flash of intuition illuminated Schelm. He turned to the others.
"Der man that iss call der Flittermouse!" he exclaimed. "He iss der fellow who put der stickers in der door! Remember, it was he who got Mannheim! He has been put to stimulate us, yes! I am certain sure I have der right!"
The Flittermouse! The name was suggestive of the methods used by the mysterious hatchet-man, the killer who disciplined that legion of the damned to which the Three, and Piranelli, belonged, the spy organization with its ramifications all over Europe. It was continually busy against the day when its masters would launch that mighty mass attack which would overwhelm England in red ruin.
Had a man of the legion qualms, did he try to escape into obscurity to begin a new and honest career; did a man try to betray his employers or purchase immunity for himself by furnishing information; did he wish to retire and live in peace on his ill-gotten earnings? Then the Flittermouse, seldom seen, unrecognized when he fluttered about his destined victim, would do his work.
The police, English, or French, or American, would find a dead man, drowned, or run down by a car in the dark, or apparently poisoned by his own hand. The reports might or might not mention that he wore a ring with a tiny vampire bat engraved on the cornelian with which it was set, a ring which none of his friends knew that he possessed. But word that the Flittermouse had swooped again would stiffen the ranks of the legion.
Therefore the Three looked at each apprehensively. Then Thunnsenn laughed.
"I don't think so. If it had been he, then surely there would have been one for Piranelli also. We have but to be on our guard, and one day we will discover who it was, and then...But meantime, listen to me!"
Far into the night they elaborated plans for Perry Davison's undoing.
"MR. RICHARD WESTON, F.Z.S., Yelverton Mansions, Regent's Park," said Dick Weston's card. It might have carried a few other significant initials such as M.C. and D.C.M., but he wasn't the sort of fellow to advertise his past activities.
At forty-five he was the beau-ideal permanent bachelor in easy circumstances, with no other object in life, apparently, than the rather desultory study of the birds and beasts in the near-by Zoo—so far as the outside world knew.
Bob Barnett knew better, though. He had been Weston's batman in days that now seemed very remote, and had since graduated into a very efficient man-of-all-work, and a staff sergeant-major in the sort of warfare in which Dick Weston was now very privately engaged.
On the morning after that queer fiasco which followed the hypnotizing of Perry Davison, Bob made his report, standing by the breakfast-table while Dick whiffed his first cigarette.
"I marked the three down, sir, at 12 Pulverley Street; that's at the back of Holborn. Offices on the ground and first floors, a party of the name of Widdicombe that's an artist of sorts, doin' advertisement pictures, on the second, and these three have the third. Been there about a month. Place taken in the name of Piranelli. They get their milk from a shop called Smiles round the corner, and the chap called Thunnsenn smokes a mixture of Perique and Latakia that he gets from the shop alongside. They got in a lot of groceries from Coles' Stores in the next street a couple of days ago. That's about all, sir, so far."
"Good. You've gone strong on supplies, B.B.," replied Weston with a nod of approval. "So we have four marked down, including Piranelli. But Number Five is the man we want to locate. According to our information, he is likely to be on the job somewhere, though it's quite on the cards these four don't know about it. So far as we can make out he has a sort of watching brief, to see that these fellows don't slacken."
"And if they do, sir, what happens?" asked B.B.
"They'd get prodded—fatally perhaps," chuckled Weston. "But the point is, that they've somehow got hold of the notion that Perry Davison is the man who can tell them what they want to know."
"Which is so, isn't it, sir?"
"Very much so. If they could only get a quarter of the information stowed in Perry's innocent-looking head, they'd be on velvet, and it looks as though they had discovered that. They're not the sort to stop at anything, so we must keep a sharper watch on him than ever."
"Yes, sir." B.B. frowned and looked thoughtful. "If we only knew where he went of an evening, sir, it'd be easier. He's mostly always missing after he's had dinner in the 'Deux Mondes' den. I s'pose you haven't a notion, sir? I've followed him half a dozen times now, and always he somehow loses me. I dunno whether it's luck or judgment."
Weston shook his head doubtfully. His friendship with Perry Davison dated from the days when he had been told off to keep an eye on the mathematician during the period when a number of highly confidential blue prints had been entrusted to his care that he might make certain calculations.
They had become quite intimate in a casual sort of way, meeting at odd intervals only, for Weston had to be careful that his own connection with F.O. Information should not be suspected. Perry Davison knew vaguely that he had some sort, of connection with officialdom, but to the world at large he was merely a kind of consultant zoologist, the fellow who could advise about monkeys for gas tests, and the proper treatment of carrier pigeons in the field, subjects of which he actually knew little or nothing. Still, the blind sufficed, and gave excuse for his frequent visits to the Zoo, where he met sundry people, as and when such meetings were necessary.
"If he gives you the slip, the chances are that he can give anyone else the slip too, B.B.," he murmured. "Davison is an enigma. He's extraordinarily innocent in many ways, lives in the clouds of the higher mathematics most of the time, I fancy. But now that these blights are on to him we'll have to take precautions. I know he has the prints of that new range-finder somewhere, for he's working out formulae for various weights of missiles, but where they are only he knows. However, I'd better meet him and warn him. Ah, there's the postman!"
They kept early hours in the flat. The morning post had just arrived with the usual rattle and ring. B.B. returned from the letter-box with a solitary missive, directed in block letters. Weston frowned as he opened and read, then said:
"More trouble. Sonia Markoff. Wants to meet me ten-fifteen, by the seal pond. Says she has information about this very chap we were speaking about. She thinks he's the Flittermouse—and he's in London."
"That's what they call the fella that does the watchin'? Do you think that lady's quite reliable, sir? I don't mean that she isn't honest, but she's a Russian—and they're apt to be fanciful, aren't they?"
"The Gestapo murdered her father, and she's keen as mustard to help us all the time. She may be imaginative, but she's usually correct. It was she who let us know that there was a fifth man on Davison's trail, though she hadn't identified him then. Now she appears certain he is the Flittermouse—Vampire would be a better name, to my thinking—and she wants to describe him. Well, well, ours is a hard life, B.B. I'll kill two birds with one stone and meet Davison at eleven."
He got Perry on the 'phone and made the appointment.
"In the parrot house at eleven, then. You won't know me, you understand. We'll meet as casual strangers with a common interest in the big blueand-yellow macaw. Don't be late, or go wandering round among the lions. Parrot house. Right!"
He turned grinning to B.B.
"He wants to know if parrots like shortbread. He has some which has given him a bilious attack, but he doesn't like to throw it away. Now, B.B., what would you make of a man like that?"
"I give it up, sir. They do say, though, that there's a special Providence looks after kids and drunks and—and fellas like him," muttered B.B. "O' course he's awful clever in his partic'lar way—but otherwise, well, it strikes me he sort of wants a keeper."
"We'll supply the want as far as we can, B.B. And remind me to take some raisins, in case the shortbread doesn't find favour."
DICK WESTON strolled slowly across Regent's Park towards the Zoo, deep in thought. He must provide Sonia Markoff with a student's ticket which would enable her to get into the gardens early, before they were opened to the general public. She might carry a sketch-book and pose as an artist, or a camera, or an imposing-looking note-book. Thus there would be less likelihood of her being followed.
He felt that she was utterly reliable, but it was quite probable that she was a marked woman. Most White Russian exiles who by any chance might be esteemed dangerous were objects of interest to more than one foreign government, and he did not want his connection with her to be known, for then much of his usefulness would be lost.
From now on Perry Davison must be more carefully guarded. Hitherto there had been no especial need for more than the shepherding of any special messenger carrying papers from the Admiralty or Perry himself, on the rare occasions when he bore such documents in person.
"I'll have to make him understand that he's running risks. He'd better have a student's ticket, too, in case I want to talk to him at length," he thought, and so entered the Zoo at ten minutes past ten.
Though he had growled over Sonia Markoff's note, he was really rather elated at the prospect of a chat with her, quite apart from the professional aspect of the meeting.
Sonia was no beauty, held no sex allure. She was forty if she was a day, squat of figure, rather dowdy, swarthy, with more than a suggestion of the Mongol in her features; but she was essentially a woman of the world, moulded by hard experience imposed on a liberal education, and her talk invariably stimulated Weston.
"It's a pity she can't be given some sort of billet in the F.O. She knows more about real politics than ninety per cent. of the fellows who think they know everything!" he reflected, and paused as he neared the vicinity of the seal pond.
The beasts were making an unusual amount of noise. Generally at this hour they were somnolently awaiting the appearance of visitors, who might distribute largesse in the way of fish, but as yet there was no-one about.
The morning was damp and misty, chilly, discouraging to casual strollers. The only people he had so far encountered were art students leaving the place and one or two keepers busy at their work of cleaning up dens and yards. The mist hung heavily around the pond. No one was in sight. The seals were gathered upon the rocks, barking raucously, their heads all turned in the same direction. They stared towards the further extremity of the pond, at a point where the railings bordered the margin closely.
Dick Weston halted to gaze at them, as somewhere a clock chimed the quarter after the hour. Sonia had not arrived. Usually she was well before time at such meetings, all impatience, chafing at the bit as it were. Something must have delayed her, the fog perhaps.
She lived somewhere in an outer suburb, Dick believed, at an address known only to one man, that chief whose name was never mentioned by anyone concerned with Information. Much of her time was passed in various obscure cafés and tiny restaurants where fellow exiles foregathered.
She would appear presently, walking fast, her odd, glacier-blue eyes so startlingly out of keeping with her raven hair and Tartar features, glinting with suppressed excitement. A volcanic personality had little Sonia.
Casting surreptitious glances to right and left, Dick continued to regard the seals. The seals continued to bark. One, a big sea-lion, the fellow with the most distressing voice of all, plunged once, swam a little way in the direction towards which all gazed, thought better of it, and sliding hurriedly back to the rock, scrambled aloft to give tongue once more.
Dick shivered involuntarily. There was something desolate and sinister in the wreathing mist and that raucous barking. He thought of those dismal rocky islets in the Arctic Circle, the original homes of so many of the seal folks—and the direful tales of ruthless slaughter by sealers that had cleared them of life.
Ten minutes passed. A quarter of an hour. The clock chimed again. No-one appeared. Decidedly Sonia had been delayed by something unforeseen. He would take a turn around and return in five minutes. He walked slowly along the line of railings towards the focus of the seals' gaze, reached it, glanced casually over the railings into the water, which was shallow at that spot.
Something lay in the water, just covered, something dark with something white and...
Dick Weston controlled himself with a tremendous effort, forced himself to look to right and left before bringing his horrified eyes back once more to the water. One long, long moment he stared, then walked slowly on. Only the exercise of his iron will prevailed to school his face into its ordinary expression of pleasant interest in the world at large, for—Sonia Markoff had kept her appointment!
She lay there in the water, her white face just below the surface, her strange eyes staring sightlessly up into the slow curling wreaths of mist, while from her throat slowly oozed that which tinged the water about her ruddily.
Dick Weston was not a man to be readily upset by the sight of death by violence, but he was sickened and shaken by the horrid vision. His natural impulse was, of course, to vault the railings and draw the body from the water, summon assistance, do the dozen futile and fruitless things demanded by ordinary human feeling.
This woman had been his friend, and she had been foully done to death probably but a few minutes before he arrived by the pond. Every instinct bade him raise an instant alarm, to set men scouring the gardens and the park for the murderer.
But the instinctive impulse was quenched even as it arose, by cool reflection. No-one had seen the murderer at his work, most likely no-one had seen him in the vicinity of the pond. Long before this he would have quitted the place. He might be, and probably was, miles away by now, leaving never a clue that would be of value.
If he, Dick, gave the alarm he would inevitably be connected with Sonia by the fiend who had done the deed, would in his turn become a marked man. He never gave a thought to any possible danger to himself, but such a discovery would most certainly diminish his usefulness and destroy any chance of avenging the murdered woman.
He had had presence of mind enough to look closely at the ground by the railings, but the gravel held no footprints, nothing had been dropped, there were none of those clues which in fiction help the amateur detective so amazingly. The man who had done the murder was an adept at his craft. He had struck his victim down, searched her, put her in the water, and decamped, all in swift order. Everything had been in his favour—the absence of visitors, the fog which lowered visibility to some twenty yards or so. Perhaps trained sleuths would be able to find something, but he, Dick Weston, was not a trained sleuth.
It would make no whit of difference to Sonia when her body was discovered, and the rule of the Service, "Never, if it can be avoided, involve yourself in a matter concerning another agent," held good. So, putting sentiment from him, Dick tried to compose himself, to look as though he had not experienced a terrible shock, and walked on outwardly serene, inwardly boiling with rage against the murderer.
The Flittermouse, it must be, that unknown personality of whom every secret-service man in Europe had heard but who as yet had never been identified. He had flitted to and fro about the Continent, though so far he had not operated in London, and more than half a score mysteries had been laid at his door.
Duchalet, of the French service, had started on a mission from Paris to London. London had had notice of his coming, a meeting had been arranged; and Duchalet had been found in his locked compartment of the Dover-Victoria train, suffocated. There had been a prune stone wedged in his gullet to account for the mishap, but a very private inquiry after the inquest at which the coroner gave a verdict of death by misadventure showed that it had got there after death.
And there had been the curious affair of B.14, one of Weston's colleagues engaged on work in Holland. He, a fine swimmer, had been drowned while bathing at Scheviningen—because in some strange way he had taken a powerful soporific before starting for his swim.
There was also the case of Selim Hafiz, who had offered information to the British F.O. and then committed suicide—to all appearances—before he could give it. A double crosser, Selim, but his death in a Liverpool hotel had all the marks of the Flittermouse's methods to those who knew.
And now poor little Sonia Markoff! Her note said that she had solved the mystery of the Flitter-mouse's personality! He must have known or suspected, and that had sealed her fate.
"I'll have to see the Chief, get her home address, and take a look round there. It's quite likely that she may have left some account of him. It would be like her to take that precaution at least," thought Dick, and nodded in answer to the salute of a keeper as he strolled through the lion house.
It was eleven o'clock when he turned into the abode of the parrots, about a thousand parrots, judging by the racket they were making. There was but one man in the place, Perry Davison; and Perry was the prime cause of the racket, for he was encouraging a big blue-and-yellow macaw to lead the chorus by stimulating yelps and whistles. He turned his innocent eyes on Weston as he halted by him.
There was no recognition in them. Perry was playing the part of the lad from the country, indeed of the village idiot in an intelligent moment, and strangely enough playing it to perfection. He grinned sheepishly.
"Would these birds eat coconuts, back in their native haunts, d'you know, mister?" he inquired, shouting to make himself heard over the racket.
In spite of the tragedy that oppressed him, Dick could not help grinning in return. The pride of Cambridge dons managed to suggest a near-human!
"No, doughnuts and shortbread," he replied, glanced round to satisfy himself that no-one else had entered the house, and continued in tones that carried only to Perry's ears: "Perry, I came to warn you that you are in danger. I can't tell you exactly what form the danger may take, but four men are after you at least, probably five. Four of them I can describe, one of the four you know well. He is Piranelli, the man who runs that den where you so often go for dinner. He's really a thug, Perry."
"He's a very pleasant fellow, and he can do conjuring tricks. I don't see any harm in him," replied Perry. "He showed me a lot of tricks last night, and—"
"Steer clear of him, Perry! The others are Thunnsenn, Schelm, and Ostoff. They are all bad medicine, but Thunnsenn is the worst, for he has brains. I can't tell you anything about the fifth fellow yet, but he is probably the limit. Now, you mustn't go out at night by yourself, understand, or get into a lonely place, and you'll have to be careful about travelling. Don't go into an empty railway carriage, or one occupied by only a single man. In short, be very careful."
"Yes," murmured Perry meekly. "Why?" he shouted to make himself heard.
"Because it's quite possible that an attempt may be made to kidnap you and screw your knowledge out of you. That range-finder, for instance. By the way, is your safe a good one? You still have the blue prints of the range-finder, haven't you?"
"Safe? I've got one. It keeps the butter cool in hot weather if I remember to put ice in too, but I never lock it. If I did I should most likely lose the key, and it would be difficult to open, though it's an old one. Besides, no-one but a fool would keep anything of value in a safe. It's the first place where thieves always look for valuables, isn't it? So why make things easy for them?"
"Then where the deuce do you keep plans and papers?" snapped Dick. The strain he had undergone had told upon his usually equable temper. "Surely not in a chest protector or something of that kind?"
"That wouldn't be a bad sort of place," Perry chuckled. "But no, it isn't anything I carry about. If you think it isn't a safe place, why not come up to my place and look for it? It's in my study. You've been in there. Why not pop along this afternoon and take a look?"
Weston, recalling the wild confusion of that den, shook his head.
"I've other things to do, Perry. Now, listen while I describe these fellows. First, Thunnsenn. He followed you from the 'Deux Mondes' two nights ago. Fortunately I was on watch, and I upset his sleuthing by bagging his cab—but that can't always be done, you know, so you'll have to do as I tell you. Thunnsenn is..."
He described the Three in detail, feeding the macaw and his neighbours with raisins the while. Perry listened attentively and nodded.
"All right, I'll know them. But, if they're such a bad lot, why don't you have 'em run in and deported? They're undesirable aliens, are they not?" he asked.
"We haven't a thing against them, Perry. Besides, we know them, and keep tabs on them. If they were deported, others that we don't know would be put on the job, and we might not identify them till it was too late. Now, get home and get on with your work. Don't go out at night."
"But I've got to eat. I don't like tinned things, and the 'Deux Monde's' cookery suits me," interrupted Perry plaintively. "And if I stop going there these chaps will smell a rat, and perhaps do something desperate, eh? By the way, what could they do besides burgling my place?"
"They may try to carry you off—and, well, they might torture you to make you divulge what you know. You remember all sorts of details of the range-finder and other things, don't you?"
"Everything. I never forget anything," said Perry simply. "That's not a boast. I'm made that way, that's all. I remember the first time I met you, you were wearing socks that didn't quite match, dark grey with a sort of silver stripe. The stripes on the left sock were wider than those on the right. You had nicked your chin when shaving. You wore a dark-grey waistcoat and a Winchester tie, and you had a silk handkerchief to match the waistcoat, and—"
"Oh, I accept everything! Now, get home! Go across the park to Hanover Gate. I may ring you later," said Weston, and presently strolled after Perry as he wandered through the gardens to the gate.
Weston's eyes and ears were alert. He noted at once an air of suppressed excitement in one of the keepers hastening towards the seal pond. He glimpsed two others carrying a stretcher, and a policeman making at speed after them.
Sonia Markoff had been found. There was nothing for him to do about it, but make a report—and see his chief. He wanted to get Sonia's home address, and then make search before the news of her death got into the papers. But first he must see that Perry Davison got safely home, for it needed no sixth sense to warn him that Perry was now very probably being shadowed continually.
He was not at all surprised to see a squat, plump figure leave the Zoo soon after Perry, and follow briskly in his wake as he walked across the park in his characteristically abstracted way, stopping occasionally to admire the landscape, but never looking back. If Perry had turned he would surely have recognized Schelm from Weston's close description. Evidently Schelm feared recognition, for at each halt he contrived to turn his back, stoop to adjust a shoelace, or in some other fashion hide his face.
"Like a blamed ostrich! I wonder what Perry would do if he did recognize him?" thought Weston, and closed up behind Schelm.
The three were perhaps twenty yards from each other when Perry reached the Outer Circle, and there it last he turned. Instantly Schelm had buried his face in his hands as he lit a cigarette and blew a cloud. And then Perry side-stepped through the gate and along the footpath as a van came bowling along in one direction, while a private car of the type used by commercial travellers rolled slowly by in the other, and so was lost to view beyond the gate.
Schelm blew another cloud and followed. So did Weston, and nearly collided with the German beyond the gate. Schelm had halted, staring perplexedly along the Circle road to the right, then across towards the houses and traffic in Park Road. Perry Davison had completely disappeared!
Where? He could not have taken Cover, for there was none to take, except he had climbed railings made to disconcert climbers. Schelm ran a few steps, realized, the futility of the proceeding, came back glowering at the grounds of the house by the gate. He peered. The rumble of muttered curses came faintly to Weston as he passed out.
"Now, how in thunder did he do that?" Weston asked himself. "He must have twigged that he was being followed, and run like blazes along the Circle. But he's no sort of sprinter so far as I know. He couldn't have got out of sight in the time unless he did a hundred yards in near record. Anyhow, Schelm has lost him—and he'll get hot ears for it from his dear leader Thunnsenn, I expect. I'd better see the Chief at once."
THERE was nothing about the little office in Caversham Street, Westminster, to show that it differed in any respect from other offices in that vicinity. An engineering company occupied the ground floor, an architect had his chambers and drawing-office on the first and second, the third displayed a brass plate of the Rivers Construction Company on its door.
But it had one unusual feature, a second staircase that led to the basement, with a passage which in some mysterious way communicated with the ground-floor office of Hibbert and Sankey, Commission Agents, in Warley Street, which ran parallel with Caversham Street. It was by this latter entrance that Dick Weston came into the presence of "our Mr. Jelland," a suave, grey-bearded gentleman seated at a big desk covered with papers, who greeted him with a half-smile and a lift of the eyebrows as he motioned him to a chair.
"Sonia Markoff has been murdered—by the Flittermouse, I presume," began Dick, and detailed everything that had occurred.
"Mr. Jelland" listened to the end without Comment, then opened a safe in the wall beside him, and took out a small book. His lips moved silently as he began to transcribe something written in a cipher.
"That's her address. Get there as quickly as possible. The house is unoccupied. She did her own housework—rather sketchily, I expect. A great loss. She was a remarkably useful woman," he said, and relaxed so far as to heave a deep sigh. "Make certain that you get everything that might have any bearing on her—her activities. And," he opened a drawer and took out a small automatic pistol, the sort of weapon that looks like a toy but is deadly in expert hands, "better take this. It is possible that the Flittermouse may have found something on her body, a letter for example, or perhaps a tradesman's account. You'll find a car waiting at Hibbert and Sankey's. Come back to report, of course. Good hunting!"
"I hope so," murmured Dick, and departed as he had come, while 'Mr. Jelland' spoke briefly into a phone.
"MOSSY COT," Upper Ridge, Barnstead, was one of a dozen tiny bungalows set along the edge of a wooded road, and it seemed that Sonia had adopted the name of Sarah Markham for use in that neighbourhood.
So much Weston had gathered from his memoranda. The question was whether Sonia's murderer had learned also. Weston had wasted no time, but still the murderer had had a full two hours' start. Therefore it was with precaution that Weston went up the short winding path through thick shrubbery, after bidding his driver, a sturdy, taciturn trusty, roll on to the end of the road and return when signalled.
Everything was very quiet. Evidently the Upper Ridge was the refuge of folks who wanted to keep themselves to themselves, for no sound but the barking of a small dog at some distance broke the woodland stillness.
"This place is all right so long as one isn't discovered," thought Weston, and inspected the front door. "But it offers fine facilities for thuggee. One might be done in here and the neighbours be none the wiser. No signs of the lock having been tampered with—but she would have a key! Caution!"
He stole round to the rear door and listened. No stir within, never a sound. A saucer of milk and a plate of cold meat set upon a window-sill suggested provision for a cat, but no cat was visible. Weston took a little tool from his pocket, inserted it in the keyhole, there was a snick, the lock gave, and he entered, bolting the door behind him.
On a table in the tiny kitchen were the remains of a hasty meal. A pile of dirty dishes showed that, as Mr. Jelland had suggested, Sonia was no keen housekeeper.
He passed through into a sitting-room, dusty, untidy, and made for the desk that stood in a corner. Except for a few receipted bills it was empty. A bookcase suggested a hiding-place for papers, but it contained only a couple of dozen paper-covered novels, and they held nothing.
Weston turned over the rugs on the parquet floor, satisfied himself that nothing was hidden in the chimney, passed through to an unfurnished room, and thence to Sonia's bedroom.
It was sparsely furnished with a narrow bed, a chest of drawers, a table and chair by the bedside. Sonia was an old campaigner, and Spartan in her personal habits. She had limited herself to the bare necessities of comfort. Weston found only linen and towels, till, with an afterthought, he turned to the bed itself, and the large square pillow. There was something hard inside it. Then Weston purred satisfaction as he slipped a hand between pillow and slip and drew out a small, canvas-bound sketch-book.
Dead against regulations, Sonia had kept a pictorial record of people she knew or had encountered, in a series of lively and accurate portrait sketches.
Evidently the things had been drawn from memory, but a memory that was photographic as a camera, with an added touch of caricature that made them more telling than most photographs. Weston frowned as he recognized, early in the series, "Mr. Jelland," himself, Bob Barnett, whom she had seen several times, a colleague whom he knew only as C9, Delamere of the F.O., whom she had once been detailed to watch over, as well as a score of waiters, and others persons unknown.
But it was the last page of drawings which Weston stared at intently. There were a dozen sketches of the head of the same man in full face and profile, repeated over and over as though to make sure of the fellow's grim expression, while the better to identify them a little bat was lightly scribbled in a corner.
"The Flittermouse! She saw him. Perhaps she knew the name he goes under, and where he might be found. But these should be useful," Weston thought, and tearing the page out, stowed it in his notecase. Then he turned to the fireplace, and tearing away the other pages, crumpled them and set them in a blaze.
That book, falling into enemy hands, might have been dangerous. It was better out of the way. He wondered how Sonia, usually so careful, had ever come to make such a record, but it had served a good purpose. A clue to that enigmatic personage, the Flittermouse, had been discovered at last, and now it only remained to...
A board creaked. Weston whirled round and flung himself aside as a man leapt across the room, striking fiercely with a length of gas-pipe. The blow grazed Weston's head, fell on his shoulder numbingly. He was on his knees, reeling as the fellow cannoned into him. He saw a strange, yellow-brown, wrinkled face with terrible dark eyes, realized that the face was a mask, went over at the impact of a thudding fist, struck out with his half-useless left arm, a flatling blow that took the aggressor in the neck and slowed him.
That moment's pause was Weston's salvation. His right hand reached a jacket pocket and found the little pistol. As he rolled clear of clutching fingers reaching for his throat he slipped the safety catch and fired through the pocket.
By good luck rather than good aim the little bullet scored a hit on the arm upflung for another blow. Down fell the leaden club, the man leapt back, sprang to the door, hurling down a paper bag, that burst as it fell, and filled the room with a pungent, blinding cloud of—pepper!
Weston fired again blindly. With closed eyes he gathered himself up and leapt to the door as it crashed shut in his face. Then the pepper caught his nostrils, he sneezed violently, wrenched the door open, heard the rear door bang, ran to it, and got it open in time to see through tears his man leaping the hedge at the bottom of the steeply sloping garden.
He raced after him, but before he had covered a dozen yards there came the sudden rattle of a motor cycle, and down the steep meadow, towards a gate at the bottom which gave upon a lane, went the thug, riding superbly over the uneven ground. He reached the gate in twenty seconds, whirled through, and was gone, the quickened rattle of the exhaust dying to a murmur as he whizzed away along the leafy tunnel.
"The Flittermouse! And I lost him!" growled Weston, becoming aware for the first time that his shoulder pained him abominably. "But he's the fellow Sonia drew in these sketches, I'm certain. Mask of goldbeater's skin or something of the sort. Let himself in with her key, I suppose. A narrow shave. If he'd had a pistol I'd have been done for. Why only pepper and gas-pipe?"
He examined the bag which had held the pepper. No clue there, and the piping that had so nearly brained him was equally useless as a guide to the whereabouts of the Flittermouse. Yet the enigma of why he had not carried a pistol or knife remained unsolved. Perhaps it was because the Flittermouse only expected to encounter a solitary woman servant.
"Are you all right, sir?" The trusty, summoned by the firing, stood at the door.
"Quite all right—except for a bang on the shoulder with this bit of pipe, and sore eyes from pepper. Did you see a motor cycle come along the road?"
"No, sir, though I heard one going off. Was that him?"
"Exactly. We've had a chance and lost it, but then, on the other hand, he had a chance and lost it, too. Also he gathered a slug in the arm. He is the Flittermouse. You've heard of him, Waller?"
"Heard of—not exactly believed in, sir."
"He's very real, Waller. I've got some portraits of him, so the sooner we get back the better."
"And the lady, sir? I've driven her once or twice out here. Is she all right?"
"Dead, Waller; murdered this morning by that hound. I'm still wondering why he didn't murder me. I suppose he wanted to be quiet, and my bullet cramped his style. Anyhow, let's return."
"Good sketches! Plenty of character in this face—mostly bad. Bit of a reptile—all fanatic, a very dangerous combination," commented 'our Mr. Jelland.' "And now he knows you. We'll have to alter your appearance a bit. Let me see—"
He studied Weston silently for a couple of minutes.
"Y-es, there's a well-fed look about you to build upon. 'You had better adopt the pose of a canvasser for a wine merchant. Diggle will see to your outfit. Call upon a few people in your neighbourhood, to lend verisimilitude to your proceedings. If you land an order, see that it's filed and filled."
"What about Perry Davison, sir? Shouldn't we take some further precautions? We don't want him to suffer."
"Perry is better able to take care of himself than you seem to think, my boy. Have you discovered yet where and how he spends his evenings?"
"No, sir. Somehow he always has managed to give both my chap B.B. and myself the slip, though I'm certain he can't know that we're following him."
"There you are! Perry's innocence seems more than equal to your cunning, so it may be equal to anything these thugs can do. Anyhow, I need him—as ground bait. I want, if we can manage it, to collar these four in flagrante for something that has no apparent connection with their real object, you understand. If they were caught taking Perry's spoons, say...."
"And the Flittermouse?"
"I'll have these sketches photographed and multiplied. They shall be sent all round. Poor Sonia! She shall be avenged, sooner or later! Now, see Diggle, and let him fix you up."
An hour later Dick Weston, as a portly, slightly pompous gentleman, equipped with a neat sample case, might have been seen trying to do business at the door's of several houses in Regent's Park neighbourhood. That he did not succeed in booking any orders was not wonderful, since he lacked the technique of the professional traveller, and was mainly concerned with trying out his disguise. It proved good enough to deceive the doorman of Yelverton Mansions, and even the alert B.B. had to eye him for a long moment before recognizing him.
"Yes, it's a good make-up, sir," he murmured. "Are we in for a session?"
"Sonia Markoff was murdered in the Zoo this morning. I saw her body at the edge of the seal pond. And I went out to her cottage at Barnstead, had a turn-up with a fellow I believe to be the Flittermouse, put a little slug in his arm, and picked up what I hope and believe to be portrait sketches of him. Has a packet arrived yet?"
"Yes, sir. And I'm sorry to hear about Miss Markoff, sir. A real good 'un, she was." B.B. paused to pay Sonia the tribute of a sigh. "How did the blighter get away, sir? Will you know him again?"
Weston touched a padded shoulder gingerly and explained. Then he opened the packet and displayed the photos of Sonia's sketches.
"Presumably she saw him in a restaurant or café, hence the sketches of waiters which occur on the same sheets. She jotted the sketches down soon after leaving the place where she saw the Flitter-mouse. The waiters' portraits should identify the place, eh?"
"That fat pig of a garçon ought to be easily spotted, sir. Mebbe if I was to do a round of likely places I'd find him, and then that'd be part of the way of finding this chap."
"You're somewhat easy to spot yourself, B.B. No, I've got a better notion. Little Ellice Davison is doing a series of short articles about some of the odd feeding-places of London. She is going to all sorts of out-of-the-way dens as well as the better-known ones. I'll ring her."
He reached for the phone. B.B. shook his head and looked unhappy. He knew Ellice well, and liked her more than a little.
"Some of them aren't exactly the right place for a young lady like Miss Davison," he ventured.
"That little girl is modern and tough, B.B., but she hasn't been doing these stunts entirely alone. She has a lad in tow now, and ... Put me through to Miss Ellice Davison—in Features, yes. Hello, child! Weston speaking. Come round to tea this afternoon; I've a job for you. What? The best beloved, I s'pose? Well, bring him too. If he's a pressman there may be something in it for him, only he must keep it under his hat for a while. As soon after four as you can make it, then."
He hung up, glanced through the sheaf of photos, and stowed them in a drawer of his desk.
"Something special in the way of sandwiches, B.B. And now I'll relax. Cheek pads and a padded waistcoat don't make for real comfort."
And relieving himself of these appurtenances of his disguise, he filled a pipe and settled to reflection, the fruits of which he laid before Ellice and her attendant Billy when they duly arrived about four-thirty.
Obviously Piranelli and the Three had concluded that it was futile to make any further attempts to steal the range-finder itself, and so would concentrate all their efforts upon Perry Davison. Somewhere amidst the wild confusion of Perry's study the blueprints of the range-finder were concealed.
"Then they're safe, sir!" interrupted Billy. "Finding the proverbial needle in a haystack would be easy compared with finding anything in that room."
"That's where I see danger for Perry," said Dick Weston. "These earnest seekers, defeated in their attempts to sneak the plans direct, may try to kidnap him. Piranelli will certainly think of that, since it is the favourite Italian method of bringing pressure to bear. Then they would resort to torture. Or they might even try to kidnap you, Ellice, and then try to get the secret as the price of your freedom."
"Uncle Perry is very fond of me, I know, but I don't think he would agree to that. He has a very strong sense of duty," Ellice reflected aloud. "No, he'd never betray a national secret—or any other—on any account. I'd just have to stay a prisoner all my days if freedom depended on his having to give in."
"But such a thing couldn't happen here," Billy said insistently. "It's too absurd to suggest it. This isn't like the U.S.A. Over there kidnappers have plenty of chances, for there are lots of desolate places not far from big cities. Why, in New York State there are abandoned farms where one might live for months and never see anyone, if you were a little way off the main roads. I was over there for a while last year, and I went about with a chap on a New York paper, who was engaged in a hunt for a kidnapped child, so I know. But it couldn't be done here."
"No?" Weston smiled. "My dear boy, there are spots within twenty miles of London where I'd guarantee to keep a prisoner for half a year with small chance of being discovered. However, there's little risk for Perry if only he'd trust me fully, for I've arranged for a constant watch to be kept over him. But—" Weston paused, frowning perplexedly. "Do you know where he spends his evenings—the time between about seven-thirty and eleven, Ellice?"
"Of course not! Why should I? But I believe he once told me that he takes long walks through the streets at night."
"Then he must do his walking underground," growled Weston. "For time and again the man I've told off on the job has lost him, and he's a very good shadow. Can't you find out where he goes? It would make guarding him a lot easier for us."
"You've known Uncle Perry a good many years. Have you ever managed to get anything out of him that he wanted to keep to himself?"
"N-o," admitted Weston. "One might as well question a feather-bed. I daresay we'll catch him out soon. But you can perhaps help me in another way. Look at these photos of sketches. We want to lay our hands on this fellow, known as the Flitter-mouse, who was seen by the person who made the sketches in some café or restaurant where this very plump waiter was employed. Now, have you seen Fatty in any of the places you've been visiting? He's big enough to be a prominent feature and not easily overlooked, I should think."
Ellice and Billy bent over the sketches, but did not recognize the fat waiter or the Flittermouse.
"We've only been to four places so far, and one was the 'Deux Mondes' with Uncle Perry. Dining there with him came in nicely for my 'Feed the Brute' series," Ellice explained, "But we may happen upon this fat waiter sooner or later. What do we do then? Call the police and have him arrested?"
"No! no! He isn't a criminal. He's merely the landmark, so to speak, the beacon identifying a place this Flittermouse has visited, and may possibly frequent. If you find the waiter, let me know at once and I'll do the rest. That's all."
"But what if we should see this other chap, the Flittermouse himself?" asked Billy. "He should be easy to recognize from these sketches. Surely you'd like to have him jugged right away?"
"Yes, but for heaven's sake don't you attempt it. You'd collect a bullet or a knife thrust, and he'd be off into the blue. If by chance you should see him, phone me as quickly as possible. Whatever you do, don't let him suspect for a moment that you recognize him."
"What's he wanted for?" asked Billy.
"A few murders—though we haven't a scrap of proof, so you see we must gang warily. You'll be careful?"
"Caution shall be our middle name, sir. But—I've been thinking—if you find it so hard to keep track of Mr. Davison of an evening, t'other people, the would-be kidnappers, must find it rather difficult too."
"I daresay. In which case they might turn their attention to Ellice. Look after her, my lad! Remember, no venturing into romantic, badly lit alleys in search of local colour. But if you should get into what looks like being bad trouble, use this."
Weston took a small, odd-looking gadget from a pocket and gave it to Ellice. About three inches long, one end was fitted with a little thumbscrew, while the other finished in something that looked like a whistle.
"One of your gifted uncle's little contrivances," Weston explained. "It's a self-blowing police whistle. His notion was that a policeman might not have the time or the wind to blow the ordinary pattern, so he invented this. There's a steel bulb containing liquid carbonic acid gas in this container. One turn of the thumbscrew releases the stuff, it expands in this chamber, and as it escapes it blows the whistle. It makes a fiendish noise, and goes on for about three minutes. Don't monkey with it and let it loose without need, for it would call up every policeman within a mile or two. I made a demonstration to one or two Scotland Yard officials. They thought it was too loud, and wouldn't adopt it, but I believe it has found favour in the Argentine. Keep it handy, Ellice. Even in your pocket it'll make row enough to scare thugs into stampeding. One sharp turn, remember, and the trick's done."
"Many thanks; I'll keep it handy. And now we must be moving. We are booked for the 'Locust' to-night. It's a vegetarian place, so there's little chance of seeing the fat waiter there. But we go to the 'New Oriental' on Sunday, where they serve all sorts of weird Eastern dishes, mostly greasy, so that's more promising."
"All good luck," said Weston as he saw the pair off, and waited till B.B., who lurked below, returned with word that the pair were safely away in a taxi.
"But if you'll excuse me sayin' it, sir, I think it'd be just as well if Miss Davison didn't come here any more till this business is settled," suggested B.B. "For if this gang should twig that you're working against them—and there's always a chance of that—why, that would give her away. And if they find out that she's Mr. Davison's niece, which it seems to me they're pretty certain to do, then she'd give you away, coming here."
"Great minds think alike, B.B. The same notion occurred to me just before they arrived. I'll warn her to-morrow—and meanwhile I'll have a word with Perry. Perhaps when I tell him that Ellice may be running risks on his account, he'll be more open with me."
But Perry was not. He listened attentively to Weston's emphatic words—then a chuckle came over the wire.
"My dear fellow, I'm very much obliged, but really I think I can take care of myself. I'm getting quite a lot of amusement out of those bunglers. One of them is keeping watch on these premises at the present moment, but I have a notion that he won't gain much by it. Quite probably he will presently find that he is watching empty rooms, and any arrangements he may have made for my taking off will be wasted."
"But, man alive, think of Ellice!" barked Weston. "The child may be incurring grave risks. These brutes are ingenious, and they might succeed in kidnapping her. Perhaps it might be best if you took her away on a long holiday. Simply do the disappearing act."
"No, I can't get away just now, and Ellice would refuse to go. She is doing very well on her paper, and wouldn't throw up her work. I know the child. Besides, you're using me as a sort of ground bait, aren't you? You want to catch these fellows in flagrante, don't you? Well, watch over Ellice to-night and to-morrow. I'll see what I can do about Sunday and the 'New Oriental.' It's rather—er—exotic, I believe. Keep calm. Do you know a beautiful poem entitled, 'Curfew shall not ring to-night'? It's quite touching."
"You're an incredible ass!" snarled Weston, and banged down his receiver.
Perry Davison smiled blandly, and opening a window, leaned out to observe the weather, and, incidentally, give the watcher at the corner a good view of his unmistakable head. Then he shut the window and went into his bedroom adjoining. The watcher, Schelm, waited as the dusk deepened into darkness, but never a light gleamed from Perry's windows. After a while he crept up the stairs and listened. No sound came from within. As he turned to go he trod upon something which stuck to his boot soles. He ventured to flash a torch, and found that he was attached to the cover of that popular girls' weekly, Sweethearts, which had been smeared with a sort of aromatic golden syrup. A good deal of the stuff was transferred to his fingers and clothes before he got rid of the sheet. Indeed, it still embarrassed him when, knocking on the side door of the "Deux Mondes," he was admitted by Piranelli.
"Well? Why have you not followed him?" demanded the Italian.
"He has not left his rooms. I think he sleeping iss. There iss no light therein. I listened also, and no footsteps sound," reported Schelm as he seated himself beside Thunnsenn, who was frowning over an evening paper. With a bitter little laugh Thunnsenn nodded at Piranelli.
"Notta left his room?" Piranelli's attempt to suppress his rage rendered him nearly unintelligible. "And he com' in here and have a quick dinner, 'bout hour ago! Schelm, I tella da world your head is one solid bone, yes. Your eyes they are the eyes of the boiled codfeesh! What for you lick your fingers at me? You mak' to insult, eh?"
"Nod so! It is some sticky stuff—on a piece of paper on der landing-place outside of his door. I tread in it, and it to my fingers also sticks itself. Und I tell you I watch der door, und he do not come out therefrom."
"You are one blind fool! Anuzzer door out there mus' be." Piranelli shook his hands at the ceiling in helpless fury. "Then he corn' here and eat and mak' me do my fool trick wit' the coin. Oh, I tella you he is laugh at us! He will know someone was at his door by the sticky paper that is gone—for you did not put it back, eh?"
"In pieces it wass needful to remove it. Und do not call me fool. Yourself no better are, no!" growled Schelm.
"Shut your heads!" Thunnsenn interrupted. "If you both had a little more brains you would make one idiot. Read this little article in the Comet. Here!" His finger jabbed at a heading "London Feeds," with the sub-title, "Wopsy Daisy," decorated with a sketch of an immensely stout Italiano not so very unlike Piranelli, plucking a coin from the empty air, to the amazement of a yokel-like person not in the least resembling Perry Davison.
Ellice had written the thing in a style to suit the picture. She did justice to the chef, she was kindly to Piranelli, but somehow contrived to suggest that he was a prince of unconscious entertainers, a prime buffoon without knowing it. Schelm chuckled; Piranelli's face grew purple.
"I will go to the law, I will mak' thees paper to pay the heavy damage," he exploded as he finished reading. "I will mak' the fella who write thees smile on the far side of his ugly face, I—"
"Yes?" Thunnsenn's drawl was contemptuous. "Is your name here, is the name of the 'Deux Mondes' mentioned? No. And it was not written by the young man, it was written by the girl. See, it is signed 'Ellice.' And she is Perry Davison's niece."
"Eh?" Piranelli stared at him open-mouthed. "How you know that?"
"Giorgio served them; I asked him. He heard the girl addressed as 'Ellice,' she called Davison 'uncle.' You might have learned as much for yourself if you could use your head for anything but eating. But now you know it, does anything suggest itself to you? We seem to get no farther forward with Davison himself. Why not try another line of attack? Why not investigate the niece, and..."
Piranelli smiled a slow nasty smile as the suggestion penetrated his rage-muddled mind. He purred:
"Catch her, and then say to thees Mistaire Davison, 'We have your dee-ar niece ver' safe. You give us thees plans of the range-finder and we give you back your so-precious niece quite safe, all in one piece,' yes? That is it, eh? We start to find where she go to-morrow, eh?"
"How quickly you grasp an idea," sneered Thunnsenn. "You're a quick worker too, aren't you? Start to-morrow! I've had Ostoff trailing her since I read this stuff in the early edition of the Comet. He should report something to-night."
Ostoff returned late, tired, hungry, and in a bad temper.
"I trailed her from the paper office to a flat off Regent's Park. Afterwards she and the young man went to the Locust Restaurant, then to a picture theatre, and afterwards to her home, a small flat in Iverna Mansions, off the Earlscourt Road. Now perhaps you'll tell me the reason for this, Thunnsenn?"
"We must learn her ways, my friend, and await an opportunity to get her away quietly to a convenient spot, where she may be kept till Davison ransoms her with the secret. Piranelli has the place ready."
"It ees my hen farm. You know him, not so far off, eh? Old Giuseppe who feeds the hens, he is so old he ees silly. He not care if he see thees girl. But he not see her, and you dope her, eh?"
"Yes, we'll dope her," Thunnsenn said quietly. "Now we'll go home."
The Three returned towards their rooms in Pulverley Street, Holborn, in very thoughtful mood. Schelm was greatly depressed because he had been so easily diddled by Davison. He had despised him as a half-wit, a man with some mathematical ability, no doubt, but otherwise a poor creature. It had never occurred to him before that Perry might be on the alert. Was that sheet of syrup-smeared paper a trap? If it were, it was a foolish device, for what use would the imprint of a shoe-sole be? Footprints weren't filed in cabinets like...He halted with a loud, gasp of dismay.
"What's the matter? Indigestion?" snapped Thunnsenn.
"I have it—that sticky stuff. I smeared my fingers—und most certainly I must have left fingerprints on der stair rails, der walls also, most plainly, yess! It was for that thees trap was made, to get these prints of my fingers. Und if to der U.S.A. they are sent—"
"Yours are already filed there, are they? And they might land you in the electric chair?" Thunnsenn chuckled horribly. His hand shot up, beckoning a crawling taxi. "Pile in! We're going back to make sure. You're not much use, Schelm, but we must stick together."
"Or we hang together," added Ostoff unfeelingly.
"Wait for me here," said Thunnsenn as he stopped the taxi in Soho Square. "I shan't be long."
The outer door at the foot of the stairs leading to Davison's apartment was locked now, but that meant little to Thunnsenn, for he was expert in the gentle art of cracking a crib. The lock yielded almost silently, he crept up the stairs, a pencil of light playing over rail and wall. Thus he rose nearly to the upper landing, where the air was still heavy with smoke—the smoke of magnesium flares. He hardly needed to see the white smears on the wall to tell him that the fingerprints had been duly powdered with some white dust to make them visible, and then photographed.
"You were quite right, my dear Schelm! It is even possible that the negatives are now on their way to Scotland Yard," Thunnsenn said as he rejoined the others. "Thank your stars that it isn't possible so far to send clear details of finger-prints by cable. We have about a week before we need disappear from Pulverley Street."
"Why need we disappear, Thunnsenn?" asked Ostoff. "And if Schelm alters his appearance, he need not go either. No-one knows us here."
"Perhaps not. We shall see. But meanwhile we must work fast. We must get that girl as soon as possible. To-morrow we will try to work out a plan."
And a little heartened by his leader's confidence, Schelm managed to sleep fairly well.
THE "New Oriental" Restaurant had been started in a small room at the back of a confectionery and coffee shop in Upper Wardour Street. It quickly became popular, for its proprietor, a Eurasian from Madras, was an excellent cook, and knew how to cater for the tastes of a score of different races. Soon it expanded into the yard at the rear, and then into an old warehouse behind. Now the original shop served as the entrance vestibule, where a small Negro presided as doorman and vendor of cigarettes, the yard having been converted into a sort of winter garden for coffee, cocktails, and light refreshment.
Beyond, the restaurant proper made a valiant attempt to be altogether Oriental. The walls were decorated with paintings of elephants and tigers done in Mahratta Indian style, the furniture had a Chinese flavour, and the waiters, who were mostly coloured, ranged in tint from whitey-yellow to black. They were clad in a variety of costumes, and the general effect under coloured lights was rather startling to the unprepared eye.
"'Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee!'" quoted Billy Harwood as Ellice and he seated themselves at a table. "At least it's gaudy if not gorgeous. What d' you think of it?"
"As good as a fireworks show. Look at that brown man's turban. Cloth of gold and silk, and his jacket or waistcoat or whatever it is, is beautifully embroidered. You'd look very fine dressed like that, Billy."
"I'd look very blue when the tailor's bill came in," replied Billy, who was more practical than romantic. "Even in India, where labour's cheap, that rig-out must run into a lot of money. But I say, look! Just behind you. It's the great Hi Lo himself, taking an evening off, I suppose. He sees us. He's bowing."
Billy returned the salute with the best bow he could contrive; Ellice turned and smiled. Hi Lo bowed again and subsided into Oriental impassivity.
"That's another expensive costume, though you wouldn't perhaps think it, Billy," Ellice explained. "That black jacket is the very best quality silk, and his blue trousers, too. What do we eat?"
After a wrestle with a puzzling menu they threw themselves on the mercy of the Burmese waiter, and contrived to make a satisfactory meal. And now a further touch of Orientalism was added to the general effect, for on a little platform at the further end, appeared a chocolate-faced gentleman, who, to the wailing and thudding of a flute and hand drum, sang an Indian love-song. Then followed a Chinese gentleman, who performed a solo on the one-stringed fiddle. Hi Lo and the other Chinese present applauded, the rest of the diners looked a trifle puzzled or bored, for Chinese music isn't understood by anyone but Chinese people.
A juggler followed. And then, as another songster lifted up his voice, Ellice leaned closer to Billy and laid the photograph of the sketches that Weston had given her by his plate.
"Look see! Over there under the purple elephant with the tiger biting him—the fat man with the wagon—surely that's this man?" she whispered, and indicated a very plump waiter of slightly saddle-tinged complexion, who was steering a liqueur-laden wagon between the tables.
"It's like him," agreed Billy. "But wait till he gets closer."
The waiter came closer, and there was no doubt that he was the original of the sketch.
"There's a telephone box in the winter garden. Go and ring up Dick Weston from there," said Ellice. "He'll be pleased to hear that we've been lucky, though how this is going to help him to catch this chap called the Flittermouse I don't know."
"Cigarettes, sare or madam?" whined a voice at her elbow, and a round brown face thrust itself into view by her elbow. "Turkey, Egyptian, 'Merican cigarettes, or cigars," he chanted. Then his eyes fell upon the sketches. "Them very good. That's awful like ole Clarry and the Toff too. Did you do 'em, miss?"
"No—yes—that is—is this man, the Toff, as you call him, in here to-night? Does he come regularly?" asked Ellice, scarcely daring to believe in her luck. Why, if the Flittermouse should be here, then he would be easily caught and disposed of. She waited for the answer breathlessly.
"Him? The Toff? I dunno. He comes in sometimes two or three days, then he don't come no more for a while. Yesserday he was in. Mebbe he come to-night. I tell him you want to speak to him?"
"No." Billy Harwood selected a packet of cigarettes at random and put half a crown in the brown palm. "Keep the change—and don't tell the Toff anything. We'll surprise him, perhaps."
"Don't waste time. Go and phone at once, Billy. Tell Dick exactly what the boy said," whispered Ellice. "Hurry!"
"Just a moment. Waiter! Bill," said Billy, and paid. "Wait here, but I thought we might as well be ready to go just in case anything breezed up. Keep an eye on the fat waiter."
Billy hurried into the winter garden and got Dick Weston on the wire.
"That's great good luck!" exclaimed Weston when he heard the news. "I never hoped you'd get results, let alone so quickly. I'll see about having the place surrounded at once. Perhaps you and Ellice had better get away, though I don't think there can be any danger. By the way, is Perry Davison anywhere in the offing? He said he'd drop in at the 'New Oriental' this evening."
"We haven't seen him. Do we know you if you come here?"
"I hope you won't, but don't greet me if you do recognize me. I'll be along in a quarter of an hour or so. Don't let anyone hear you mention the word 'Flittermouse' if you're talking. Better not talk."
Weston rang off. Billy stepped out of the box, and a man who had been waiting close by accosted him.
"Mr. Perry Davison wants to speak to you, sir," he said in a strong foreign accent. "He is waiting outside in a taxi. He wants you to come at once. The matter is urgent. This way, if you please."
Billy had no time to be surprised, but indeed nothing in connection with Perry could astonish him. He would not have been greatly put out if the taxi to which his guide led him, drawn up a few yards beyond the entrace, had been decorated with Solomon's Seal and a few other cabalistic characters.
But it was quite a commonplace taxi, the hand that beckoned him from the dark interior was clad in an ordinary pigskin glove.
"What's the trouble, Mr. Davison? Shall I fetch Ellice?" Billy began—and stumbled into the cab impelled by a sudden blow on the back of the head, which knocked the senses out of him, while the gloved hand grabbed and guided his relaxing body to the further corner of the seat, where he slumped in a crumpled heap.
Ellice looked up from the little book in which she had been jotting a few notes to refresh her memory, to find a grey-badger type of man bowing before her.
"Mr. Harwood has gone to your uncle, Mr. Davison, who is in a taxi outside. They want you to come at once. It is most urgent," he said, speaking with a strong foreign accent. "May I conduct you?"
"Who are you?" asked Ellice, not so much from caution as from curiosity.
"I belong to the Special Continental Branch of the C.I.D.," he replied. "I am on the look-out for a Continental crook. Please come quickly."
Ellice slid into her coat, which had hung over her chair back, and followed him out. The great Hi Lo watched her pass, his narrow, almond-shaped eyes blinking.
Ellice saw the taxi and the beckoning hand.
"Please hurry. They want you to help identify a man," said the voice behind her, and then she felt hard hands on her shoulders, while the beckoning hand closed suddenly over her mouth.
She was hauled into the cab, the man behind her gripped a nerve plexus in such a way that she was almost paralysed, and stumbled on to her knees. The hand on her mouth tightened for a moment, then a pad or handkerchief soaked with something icy was slipped over her nostrils. She felt the taxi moving, heard the gears whine.
"Dope—we're caught! Ether!" she thought, and then one hand deep in the coat pocket from which she had been unable to withdraw it, encountered something hard and cold. "The—whistle—one sharp turn—blows itself."
Striving not to breathe though the pressure on her pent lungs was becoming intolerable, Ellice's fingers groped for the thumbscrew, grasped it, and with a supreme effort, for her arms were grown, numb, turned it.
A weird and terrible wailing whistle rose and shrilled through the night. It was pitched to the same note as the ordinary police whistle, but its blast was stronger, louder, infinitely more penetrating.
"Scrag her!" yelled the man holding Ellice's arms.
"It isn't her," replied the other, and the pressure on the girl's mouth and nostrils relaxed for a moment, allowing her to gasp one lungful of untainted air. "Must be the lad. Give him another!"
But the hand groping for Billy's mouth found nothing protruding from it—and still the wailing went on. Other whistles were answering it, the whole police of the district were apparently on the alert.
As the car crossed Oxford Street it had to slow and swerve across the stern of a huge lorry, then as it darted on again a closed van which seemed to be at least as speedy drew up on the off side. A sudden cloud of something pungent jetted into the face of the taxi driver, blinding him. A thundering sneeze rang out, the wheel jerked in his hands, and the car, swerving, butted into a lamp-post and came to a standstill.
The driver sprang down, wrenched open the door as the two men within picked themselves out of the tangle in which they had fallen. He grasped the nearer, hauled him out.
"I can hardly see. Pepper! Quick, lead me, run!" he gasped. "Schelm, are you there?"
"Yes, yes. Leave them, Thunnsenn. Run!"
The Three were away even as the closed van drew up alongside the wrecked taxi. Two men sprang out. They gave no heed to the flying thugs, to the men running toward them, but swiftly lifted the unconscious Ellice and Billy from the floor of the taxi to their own vehicle. And even as they did so the whistle ceased, having blown for the appointed three minutes twenty seconds, the supply of liquid gas being exhausted.
With a purr and a whizz the van was away. It whizzed through the streets, empty at this hour, for there is but little traffic off the main thoroughfares of a Sunday night. Presently it slowed, glided to the curb close to the side entrance of Ivema Mansions.
Ellice was gasping now, preliminary to recovery; Billy was moaning and grunting and wobbling his bruised head. Their two rescuers lifted them out, dumped them on the stone seat in a recess beside the door, and departed.
Slowly Ellice recovered her senses as the cool night air played over her face. She blinked, sat up, recognized Billy, and understood where she was, but not how she had come there.
"Oh, my head!" groaned Billy, and sat up also. "I—you—someone slammed me on the back of the head—as I went to see a chap in a taxi," he said slowly. "The man—said your uncle wanted to see me—and that was about all. I went right out. How did you—"
"Same thing—only they doped me—ether, I think. But—here comes the doorman. Tell him—cab smash, get a doctor. Urrh! That beastly ether!"
"WHY didn't you go to the 'New Oriental' as you said you would, and so save the youngsters a very unpleasant experience?" growled Dick Weston. "Nobody, least of all themselves, seems to know exactly what happened. The kidnappers' taxi ran into a lamp-post and buckled a front wheel, whereupon they scooted. But who took Ellice and Billy to her flat?"
"How should I know?" replied Perry Davison plaintively. "I rang her up to learn if she had returned, and was told of the affair. It won't do, Dick. You mustn't put her on to anything of that sort again. If you must have ground bait, use me."
"So I have; but the beggars haven't nibbled to the extent I had hoped. These three don't count for much; it's the unknown Flittermouse I'm after. If I could get him, the others could go hang themselves in their own way. There is very little to do till we get some definite evidence."
"And for that we had better go direct to Ellice and Billy," said Perry with unwonted decision. "Someone will have to see the boy home anyhow."
Perry had rung up his niece's flat but a few minutes after the doctor had arrived to tinker the pair up. He had then communicated with Dick Weston at the "New Oriental." Dick had come to his rooms in Soho Square. Now they spun away to Earlscourt together, and found Billy Harwood and Ellice sitting side by side trying to reconstruct the whole affair.
"It was extremely foolish of both of you not to be on your guard after the warning I gave you," said Weston. "Now, tell us everything. Don't omit any detail, however trivial."
He and Perry listened in silence to their narrative till Ellice spoke of the cigarette boy who had seen the photo of the sketches of the fat waiter and the Flittermouse.
"The boy knew the Flittermouse at a glance, and called him the Toff. He said that he sometimes visited the place regularly for several days in succession, then wasn't seen there for a while. Hadn't you better go and talk to him? And perhaps the Chinese illusionist man, Hi Lo, who was sitting just behind us, might tell you something, if he hasn't gone yet."
"That's a notion. We'll go there at once. You must go to bed, Ellice, and stay at home to-morrow. We'll take you to your place, Billy, as we go," Weston said. "Now remember, both of you, and you in particular, my dear, don't go trapesing off with the first man who tells you a plausible story. I haven't the remotest notion who your friend in need was. He might possibly be one of the Special Branch, but anyhow you can't rely on his help again, so be careful."
"I'll be careful as a mouse in a cats' home," promised Ellice with a touch of her usual flippancy. "I shan't be able to go to the office to-morrow, anyway, so I shan't run into any danger. Goodnight. Good hunting!"
But that night's hunt yielded no results. The darky boy at the "New Oriental" could tell nothing more about the Flittermouse, and the Chinese illusionist had gone, apparently before Ellice had left the restaurant. The disabled taxi had been taken from a rank some miles away while its lawful driver was having an early supper.
"And that's that. We're back where we started," growled Weston as he parted from Perry. "We'll talk it over to-morrow. I must get results."
Thunnsenn, Ostoff, and Schelm sat dismally at breakfast. Ostoff, red-eyed because he had taken about half a pound of pepper full in the face overnight, was frowning heavily, for his comrades had laid the whole blame for the fiasco upon him. Schelm in particular seemed unable to drop the unpleasant topic.
"Bud for your so-great foolishness we should by now have der niece of thees Davison quite safely in der hiding-place have bestowed. If you a gas-mask or even goggles had worn you—"
"And if you are fool enough not to wear a gag, take that," rasped Ostoff, his temper breaking at last. The coffee-pot was by his hand, and with a sudden jerk he sent it flying at Schelm's head.
The German ducked, but not quite swiftly enough; the spout of the pot caught him on an ear, and decanted a pint of hot coffee upon his shirt front. Up he sprang, pawing at a breast-pocket for a weapon, while Ostoff, whipping out a knife with a foot long blade, crouched for a spring. Next moment would inevitably have witnessed the beginning, probably the finish also, of a mortal combat, if Thunnsenn had not acted quickly. Leaping up, he thrust Schelm into his chair, and sent Ostoff reeling back against the wall with a jab of straight fingers to the solar plexus. Ere they could recover he had the pair covered with a big automatic, which twitched to and fro from one to the other threateningly.
"None of this nonsense!" he snarled. "You, Schelm, have not proved yourself so brilliant that you can afford to reproach Ostoff. But the main cause of our failure was that confounded whistle, which called attention to us and brought that car on our track."
"Van. It a covered wagon of light make was," Schelm corrected. He put up the pistol he had drawn. "Bud I say der fault was that Ostoff no covering to his eyes wore. If—"
A thundering knocking on the outer door at the head of the stairs interrupted him. The Three "froze" like animals of the jungle who hear or see something dangerous. Except for the infrequent calls of Piranelli, they had had no visitors.
"We a spy-hole should have contrived," whispered Schelm. "Like to a periscope, yes—no?"
Again came the knocking. A voice, strange to the Three, came apparently through the letter-box, urgent and insistent.
"Open—or I'll be forced to break in!" it said. "Now is your opportunity. It will be too late in an hour."
"Cover me!" growled Thunnsenn. "If it should be a trick, don't wait for me, but bolt. Don't shoot unless you must."
He strode to the door. The pistol in his pocket covered the man who stood on the mat—a man in the uniform of an inspector of police.
"Take your hand out of your pocket, Thunnsenn. We have no time for explanations. Schelm and Ostoff will go to Piranelli's poultry farm at once, taking your baggage. You will put on this Coat and cap and come with me. None of you will return here. Every minute's delay increases the risk that you may be arrested."
Thunnsenn, usually so cool and resourceful, stared open-mouthed. The speaker was grey-haired, had a prominent aquiline nose, and narrow eyes set a little aslant. A greying moustache hid his mouth, the peak of his cap shadowed bushy grey eyebrows. A grey badger of a man and hard bitten; Thunnsenn judged that e was disguised, but the disguise was so cleverly done that he was uncertain.
"Why should I obey your instructions?" he asked, taking the policeman's coat and cap the other held towards him. "Who are you?"
"Acting under instructions from a certain source. See!"
He stretched out his left hand; on the middle finger was a ring with a gold bezel. On the bezel, apparently inlaid in red enamel, was a tiny bat.
Thunnsenn shivered, stood aside motioning the visitor in. He called softly, but Schelm and Ostoff had heard all, and were already busy with the suitcases. Without more delay Thunnsenn stripped off his jacket, put on the blue coat.
"The trousers?" he suggested. "I have a blue pair."
"No time. You will drive. A rug over your knees will do. Come."
"At Piranelli's place, then, we meet again," said Thunnsenn, and followed his leader down the stairs and out into the street.
A big car stood at the curb. Thunnsenn slipped into the driving-seat, the "inspector" sat down beside him, cast a swift glance up and down, and nodded.
"Get on! Oxford Street, then through the park to Earlscourt Road. We are going to finish what you began last night, and take away Davison's niece."
"But surely she will refuse to come? After last night she will be afraid to venture," Thunnsenn said doubtfully. The other shrugged, then winced as though the action had pained him.
"I think not. I am quite official. If necessary I will arrest her. I have a warrant."
"You have?" Thunnsenn ejaculated. "But she's a journalist. She may detect a fake. And do you think Piranelli's place safe? He may be under observation."
"Oh, it's a genuine enough document, only the dates and the name have been faked. But it's unlikely that it will be needed. I do not mean to take the girl to the poultry farm, but to another hiding-place not very far from it. Speed up a little."
He acknowledged a policeman's salute. Again Thunnsenn noticed him wince, drew a conclusion: the man's right arm pained him. He was suffering from rheumatism—or a wound. He said no more till he swung the car to a standstill before the door of Iverna Mansions.
"When I return with the girl I will sit behind with her. You will not drive too fast at first. We are going to Tavernham. You know it?"
"Yes. But you'll have to direct me when we get there."
"I shall. Now, no smoking while you wait. You are on official business."
With a grim smile the sham inspector turned away; Thunnsenn saw a uniformed porter spring to attention and conduct him to a lift.
Ellice Davison did not feel very fit that morning, but she had resolved to go to the Comet office. Her "Features" page was not run on any time schedule, and she had plenty of matter to fill it already on hand. But she was keen on her work, and did not relish the thought of another interfering with her cherished notions of make-up.
So, though she still dawdled over breakfast she was ready for the road when her bell rang, and Inspector Tomkins of the City Police presented his card with apologies for disturbing her.
"I'm afraid you'll think me an intolerable nuisance," he apologized. "But we've picked up a man who may be one of the thugs who attempted to carry you off last night. We have him at Cannon Row, and we'd like to see if you can identify him. I suppose your uncle has told you it's important that we should lay the gang by the heels?"
"Uncle has told me very little, but perhaps you can tell me more, inspector? I'll keep it secret."
"Strictly speaking, I shouldn't, but as you've been a victim I might stretch a point. Shall we go? The story really began some years ago with an inventor, who managed to utilize infra-red rays in a new way. But let's wait till we're in the car."
Ellice nodded, smiled to the porter, and tripped into the waiting car, which rolled off at once.
"To continue, he made a most excellent combined range-finder and bomb-sight for the use of aircraft flying at great heights. He first made a small-scale model. I have it here. See!"
'Inspector Tomkins' showed a small, nickel-plated contraption in the palm of his hand, sighted along the top of it as one might aim a small pocket pistol—and next moment a silver thread of liquid darted from it and struck Ellice accurately upon the upper lip, just below the tip of her nose.
"O-ooh!" she wheezed, gasped, and collapsed senseless in her corner.
"Quite so, my dear girl!" purred "Inspector Tomkins," and put away his liquid gas squirt. "This time there shall be no interference from outside."
OSTOFF and Schelm lost no time in gathering their belongings and Thunnsenn's. They were old campaigners and knew the advantages of travelling light, so they had only three suit-cases to carry down the stairs. They were quite unaware that they were objects of interest to the occupants of the second-floor rooms, an advertising artist named Widdicombe, and his youthful assistant, Jimmy Howe.
Jimmy, an ingenious youngster, had fixed up an arrangement of two mirrors outside the window by which he worked to enable him to see anyone entering the front hall before they reached the inner door, and also some little way along the street. He had rigged the apparatus first with the object of saving himself the trouble of answering the door to casual hawkers or canvassers, but lately he had watched with an object.
Bob Barnett, otherwise B.B. for short, Dick Weston's invaluable factotum, having located Messrs. Thunnsenn, Ostoff, and Schelm, had thought fit to take Harry Widdicombe and Jimmy Howe into his confidence, in part. He had told them enough to make them eager to help by watching the goings and comings of the Three; and Jimmy was still boy enough to jump at a chance to play the sleuth—just as B.B. had calculated he would.
B.B. had none of the professional detective's contempt for amateur effort, provided he could pick his assistant, and that he was young, for in his experience an enthusiastic boy would stay on the job all his waking hours. When he asked Widdicombe and Jimmy to keep an eye on the Three and report if they had any visitors or showed signs of moving, he knew that he would be well served.
Jimmy's work suffered, no doubt, but no-one went in or out of 12 Pulverley Street without being given his very special attention; he even invented excuses for staying late, and loitered within sight of the door long after he should have been on his way home.
So there was nothing wonderful in the fact that he saw "Inspector Tomkins" as he alighted from his car, and before he had crossed the pavement. Something was going to happen at last to reward his hours of vigilance.
"Guv'nor, I believe one of those darlings upstairs is going to be copped!" he exclaimed gleefully. "Or perhaps all three. Anyhow, an inspector has come in. I'll bet he's going up to them. I'll pop outside and see."
He encountered the "inspector" on the landing, passed him with no more than a casual glance, and bolted back the moment he could do so without being seen by him.
"Guv'nor, he has gone up—but there's something odd about him. He's wearing a City police cap—and we're outside the City boundary here. We're in the Metropolitan area. And he's carrying a Metropolitan cop's coat and cap. I guess you'd better ring up that chap Barnett, as he asked us to."
"My budding Sherlock, he probably knows all about it, but there may be something in it," said Widdicombe resignedly, and rang up. Weston's aide B.B. had asked him to co-operate as a patriotic duty, but he had no enthusiasm for the job. However, an exclamation from B.B. quickened his interest. "I didn't see the officer myself, but young Jimmy seems to think there's something unusual in an inspector of City police being here at all, on the wrong side of the border. And he carries a spare coat and a Metropolitan constable's cap."
"Still more unusual," replied B.B. "Get Jimmy to keep tabs on them and see where they go, if they go out. This is important. I'm coming at once."
"Hooray! that sounds like business!" chuckled Jimmy. "But if I'm to follow these chaps about I'll have to have a taxi, guv'nor, and that means money. And I haven't got any."
"Keep an eye on the door; I'll get you some," Widdicombe said, and unlocked a drawer of his desk.
Jimmy at the window looked down in time to see the "inspector" and Thunnsenn crossing the pavement to the car. In spite of his cap and coat he recognized the latter.
"Golly! The cop's off with that tall chappie—who's wearing the bobby's hat and coat and tweed trousers. Something very queer. Tell Barnett when he comes," gasped Jimmy, grabbed the handful of cash Widdicombe held towards him, and was out, racing down the stairs.
But he was too late. The car was out of sight before he reached the street, and though he ran to the nearest corner he could not see it. It might have gone any one of at least four ways, so it was useless to think of following it. Slowly he returned. He had failed on his very first assignment, and B.B. would be disappointed in him. And then, as he neared the door of No. 12, Ostoff and Schelm, carrying suit-cases, came out; while a car swung slowly past them, pulled up at No. 16, and disgorged B.B.
"The tall chap went off with the inspector rigged in a cop's cap and coat but wearing tweed bags," began Jimmy. "But I lost 'em. But those two look like doing a guy, and—"
"Get after them. Don't let them see you. I'll follow, ready to pick you up," said B.B. "Be casual and they won't notice you."
Jimmy needed no coaching. Already he had worked out a complete method for following a suspect. One needed only a newspaper and a pocket mirror, pretended to be absorbed in the news, and without looking directly at the quarry, followed him by occasionally squinting in the mirror. But luckily Jimmy had neither mirror nor newspaper handy this morning, so he had to proceed like an ordinary boy on an ordinary errand, and thus escaped drawing attention to himself.
But Schelm and Ostoff glanced back once only and did not notice him. They had no reason to think they might be shadowed as yet, though Schelm was nervous about his finger-prints. Still, they would soon be on their way to Piranelli's hen farm, and since Schelm was a townsman he counted that as the end of the world, where he would be safe from discovery.
"This Davison a most curious person is," remarked Schelm. "Perhaps we a mistake have made concerning him, yes—no? Ach!" He started and made a long step forward; something had touched his ankle. He looked down. A small cat again rubbed itself against his foot, arching its back and purring loudly. Schelm laughed. He liked cats. "Der leetle one for me much affection shows," he said, and stooping, patted the animal.
Then he rubbed his eyes, for there were two cats. A second had darted from a doorway and gone through the same performance as the first, while a third was speeding across the street towards him.
"Come on," growled Ostoff. "We have no time for tomfoolery." He raised a beckoning hand and a taxi wheeled to the curb. "Get in!"
Schelm followed him. So did two of the cats, though Schelm did not discover this till the taxi was moving and the little creatures had cuddled down on his feet.
"Most strange this is. If I in ancient Egypt was, much honour would I receive because der little ones so favour me," he said complacently.
"But since you in London are," mimicked Ostoff with a sour grin. "Your boot soles and trousers' ends examined should be, for you have picked up some perfume that to cats most grateful is."
"Eh?" Schelm hoisted one foot, sniffed, and examined it. "These shoes are der ones I wore when I that accursed sticky stuff received from der paper on der stairs of Davison. I think it still to der leather clings. To these cats perhaps it is ver' nice."
Ostoff frowned, watched the cats as they rubbed themselves against the German's shoes, and nodded.
"I think we have made a great mistake about that Davison also," he said. "For you must have laid a trail from his rooms to the 'Deux Mondes'—-and so to our rooms. Perhaps he followed it with a cat to guide him. Did you see a cat when you searched his place?"
"A saucer of milk therein was, but no cat at that time," replied Schelm. "Also I remember meat upon a stick in a cupboard. It is possible, yes, but most improbable, yes."
"I begin to think that the improbable is most likely to happen with that man," muttered Ostoff. "But here we are. Leave the beasts in the cab."
He shoved the cats back into a corner, but they would not be denied; climbing swiftly over Schelm they greeted him as he alighted. The driver grinned.
"D' you always travel with the small family, guv'nor?" he asked cheerily.
"You will take them back to where we engaged you, if you please. They are not our cats. I will pay the fare," said Ostoff.
"I'm willing, guv'nor, but you've got to catch 'em and pop 'em inside," said the driver, and waited while Schelm grabbed his worshippers, and shoving them inside the taxi, slammed the door. "I've carried a young elephant and a coupla hundred white mice in this very taxi likewise, so we do see livestock as well as life, don't we?" The driver chuckled, and drove off.
"See, then, here are three more," snarled Schelm. "I go within."
He hastened to the side entrance of the "Deux Mondes" pursued by three cats which had got wind of him. Ostoff, following with two of the cases, had much ado to drive the animals away before he entered. They found Piranelli in a towering rage.
"Thees man that is dress like the big police bug come and give me a fine scare before he show me a ring. You have seen it?" he demanded.
"We have seen nothing. He spoke only with Thunnsenn, who gave us the word to come here. We are to go to your chicken farm," Ostoff replied. "We meet Thunnsenn there. Do we go in your car—or what?"
"He have taken my car, so you must go other ways. A taxi, mebbe?"
"So as to leave a good trail, eh?" Ostoff said angrily. "No, we will go in your van that brings the eggs and chickens and vegetables. And we'll go now. I don't know who this fellow is, but Thunnsenn obeyed him, and he is no lamb, so we'll get away at once. Give us something to eat on the way and—put them out!"
Someone had opened the side door and in streamed five cats. They made straight for Schelm. Ostoff leapt to the door; it shut in his face. He tried to drag it open, but it was fastened. When it yielded to his and Piranelli's combined efforts they found that the handle had been tied to a gutter-pipe with a twist of stout wire. Piranelli lowered his voice to a whisper.
"I do not like thees at all. I lock thees door after I let you in jus' now, yet it is open to let in those cats, and then fastened thus. Someone listens, eh? And the cats? Why they follow Schelm? Why—"
"I can't tell you," replied Ostoff wearily. "But I'm certain of one thing that we have bitten off more than we can chew this time. Everything we try fails. At this rate—"
The shrill telephone bell in the alcove cut him short. Piranelli answered the call, listened. A broad grin of triumph spread over his greasy, sallow face.
"Yes, that is mos' good!" he purred. "Yes, they are here. They shall come on at once; yes, quite immediate."
Still grinning, he turned to Ostoff and Schelm, who was busy repelling the advances of the cats.
"You say your piece too soon, Ostoff. This time there is no fail. That was Thunnsenn, and he ring from a road box. He say that he and the man that corn' for you have got the girl, the niece of Davison. They send him word later on—and then we shall get the range-finder. Hooray! All finish. You taka da van and get on."
"Looks to me as if it was just begun," growled Ostoff. "Better not take those cats, Schelm. They might disagree with the chickens."
"Hang der cats! I do not them lofe any more," snarled Schelm, shoving aside the adoring five. "Give them to eat, Piranelli, and we ourselves will remove from thees place."
"Get into the van in the yard. Here is the name of the farm, and the way you shall go," said Piranelli, and led the way to the yard in the rear of the restaurant.
"ARE they going to stay here all day?" complained Jimmy. "Can't we do something?"
"The reg'lar, first-class sleuther has the patience of an oak tree," said B.B. reprovingly. "And that takes a hundred years to get its full growth, so don't start fretting about waiting for half an hour. I'd like to know why the cats followed the square-head. Look over there now. There goes another couple!"
"They've been hanging about our stairs, come to think of it. I've heard that you can get cats to follow you if you put valerian on your soles—but I don't know what valerian is."
"It's a plant. You can get the extract or essence from a chemist. I believe they're coming out the back way. Nip over to the corner and see. Hurry!"
Jimmy got over in time to see a small 8-h.p. van emerging from the back alley which served a line of shops, and identified the occupant easily, for Schelm was in the act of depositing a cat on the ground, none too gently, while others lined up on the curb, wailing as the van got under way. Jimmy scuttled back to B.B. Presently they were rolling south and by west at a discreet distance behind the van.
"Of course if you want to go back to work you can," said B.B. "Though I'll be glad of your help. After all, you're doing national service."
"So you said before. But when do the guv'nor and I hear exactly what it is?" asked Jimmy. "If these chaps ahead are bad eggs, why don't you have 'em arrested without all this running around? Not that I don't like it," he added hastily. "It's a great sport. But I should think you'd want to get them jugged while you had the chance."
"Because they're little bugs and we want the big bug, Jimmy. If we were to try to put these fellows in the jug now, we might lose them for lack of definite evidence, and we'd certainly lose the Flittermouse, the big fellow we're after. If we get him we break up a gang of spies. Now don't ask any more questions and you won't be told any lies."
On through Croydon went the Piranelli van, turned aside from the main road, and began to climb a long hill. B.B. had to fall back lest the pair in the van should see that they were being followed. Past an estate in course of being changed from a private park to a paradise of red-brick villas, each with its sixty by forty garden, through open fields, then along a narrow lane running to the ridge of the hill went the van, and so at length turned into a gate beside a cottage. Beyond were several long sheds and a field of cabbages, a garden with high hedges and a greenhouse. On the southern side of a shed stood a row of modern beehives and one ancient straw skep.
B.B. had stopped at the turn of the lane and backed his car out of sight before getting down and peering cautiously at Piranelli's farm. Jimmy was beside him as he turned away.
"I say, I could crawl down behind that hedge and get close up to the cottage without being seen," he suggested.
"I don't know if you'll do any good, but you might overhear something, so go if you like," replied B.B. ungraciously. "I'll stow the car and join you."
He backed down the lane, found a field gate, and running the car behind a barn, returned. He came upon Jimmy lying in a ditch regardless of discomfort, peeping through an opening at the foot of the hedge at three men talking together by the cottage door. They were the Three—Ostoff, Schelm, and Thunnsenn—reunited.
"I don't see the chap who was rigged up as the inspector, and the tall chap has left off the cop's cap and coat," whispered Jimmy, and was silenced by a frown.
Thunnsenn was arguing with the others. He seemed to be urging them to do something which they were reluctant to do. Finally he tossed a coin. The lot fell upon Schelm, who shrugged his shoulders sulkily, picked up a basket, and followed Thunnsenn across the yard to a gate opening on pasture. B.B. touched Jimmy's shoulder and drew him back.
"If we follow the hedge we'll be able to see where they go without showing ourselves," he whispered, and led the way at the double.
The field path slanted swiftly downwards towards a gate in a wire fence and low hedge; Thunnsenn and Schelm passed through, and at once disappeared.
"They've seen us! They've ducked down behind," said Jimmy.
"No. There's a chalk pit or something of the sort behind. Run!" replied B.B., and stooping low, they raced to the fence and peered through—into an old abandoned quarry pit.
Thunnsenn and Schelm were descending a narrow path cut down the face of the pit. On the farther side was an overgrown road, by which the chalk had been removed. A weather-worn board beside it announced:
Direct Supply Mushroom Co.
No Admittance. Trespassers will be Prosecuted.
The lettering was nearly defaced by sun and rain. Footpaths straggled through the weeds from one to another of a dozen mouths of tunnels driven into the heart of the hill. Each was closed by a stout door secured by bolts and padlocks.
"I remember hearing about this place," said B.B. "The company was going to supply mushrooms to all the London restaurants and hotels, but it was badly managed and went broke. I suppose Piranelli took it over, but he doesn't seem to be working all the caves. D'you notice that half those doors haven't been opened for months? The weeds grow right up against them."
"That one second from the end has been opened only a shorts time ago. The weeds have been broken down but they aren't withered yet," Jimmy said, eager to show that he too was able to draw conclusions from what he saw. "And a car has been close to it. Some of the weeds that were broken down are beginning to rise again, so I'd say it was an hour ago or perhaps more. I think those two are going there now."
"You'll finish up at the head of Scotland Yard," chuckled B.B. "What more do you deduce? What's in that basket?"
"Grub and a bottle of something to drink. And some hay has been taken into that cave this morning. I can see wisps of it sticking to those thistles. I guess it means that the fat chap with the basket is going to camp in the cave."
"Perhaps. Or else that someone is already there, and the fat man is going to look after him," suggested B.B. "We'll see what they do."
Thunnsenn unlocked the door, the pair went in. After a couple of minutes they came out, minus the basket, instead of which Schelm carried a packing-case. This he set by the door, and after Thunnsenn had refastened the padlock and given him the key, sat down. Thunnsenn stayed talking for a minute, then began to reascend the path.
B.B. and Jimmy had retreated to their observation post before Thunnsenn returned. The van had meantime been loaded with eggs and other produce by a grubby old Italian, who presently drove off.
"Now what?" asked Jimmy. "Do we go back—or have a cut at seeing what's inside that mushroom cave? I shouldn't wonder if they had a prisoner there."
"Laddie, anything is possible in this affair. But how would you propose to get into the cave? The door is locked, and that fellow has the key, and is posted for the express purpose of stopping anyone going in or getting out."
"We might go round and drop a stone on his nut from above," said Jimmy. "Not a heavy one, just enough to knock him out, but not to kill him."
"You unscrupulous young fiend! No, we shan't take such strong measures, but we might watch him for a little. Now, quietly."
They crept away towards the quarry once more, B.B. quite undecided what to do, but certain that he must attempt nothing violent, for after all they had nothing definite against the man Schelm or his friends.
Ellice Davison was suffering a terrible dream. She thought she was being dragged across an immense field of thorns by huge hands, which held her by the ears. A black moon looked down on her out of a blazing sky. Then the whole sky grew dark, she fell a few thousand fathoms, and stretching out a feeble hand, found that it touched hay.
"No harm will happen to you if you do not try to escape," said a voice that she seemed to recognize. "Food will be brought to you presently. You may call for help if you wish to, but it will do you no good. Rest till to-night."
There was a movement in the obscurity, light gleamed for a moment, then a door slammed, and Ellice was left alone in semi-darkness. She sat up for a moment, but her head spun so that she was glad to drop back upon the heap of hay where she had been laid. She tried to recall exactly what had happened. She had been in a car with Inspector Tomkins going to Scotland Yard—and that was all except for an icy spray upon her lips a moment before she lost consciousness. And now she was a prisoner. Inspector Tomkins had been a delusion and a snare; she had been a fool—and she would pay for it!
It had been the most natural thing in the world to go with a policeman to a police station; she should have been safe, but here she was in some underground den smelling of earth and mould, and lighted only by two or three pencils of grey light that came through small holes in the upper part of a strong door.
"Mr. Weston and Uncle both warned me to be very careful," she thought miserably. "And Billy, too. Poor Billy will be half off his head with worry when he hears I'm gone. He was going to ring me from the office if I didn't turn up. He'll have done it by now, if..." She peered at the little watch on her wrist. It was a quarter past twelve. "He'll know by now, and he'll tell Uncle, and the clever old darling will do something to find me. That's a car!"
She had heard the sound of a starter near by. In a moment the car was gone. Silence fell. She was dropping into a doze when the door opened a little way and two men came in. They held their hats before their faces. The shorter and fatter carried a basket, which he laid down on the path of hard-beaten earth close to her. The other spoke in a hoarse whisper, which disguised his voice.
"Here is food and a bottle of light wine and some milk. No harm will come to you. You will be released soon, I hope. Blankets will be brought to you later. You are quite safe here. There are no rats. Do not worry."
"You'll suffer for this, you know," said Ellice as firmly as her aching head would permit. "You can't carry people off and get away with it."
Only a grunt responded. The door reopened the pair passed out. She heard a bolt shot, a lock clicked.
Voices murmured for a minute, then silence fell. Ellice eyed the basket. It had been prepared by someone who knew his job. The cork of the wine bottle had been drawn, half a cold roast chicken and some ham enticed her to forget her wrongs for a few minutes. She made a swift meal, and was still busy with cheese and a tomato when there came a sudden curious gurgling sound outside, as though someone were endeavouring to sing under a smothering blanket.
"What on earth is happening now?" murmured Ellice, and still giddy, though she was rapidly recovering, tottered towards the door.
Schelm had received orders to mount guard over Ellice with a very bad grace. He had been sleeping badly lately, and had meant to make up for it that afternoon. Besides, he was anxious about the fingerprints he had left on the walls of Davison's staircase. They might ensure his extradition to the U.S.A., and once there he would be doomed. Already he was planning to leave England and get himself under cover if it should be possible, but to do that meant disobeying the orders of his superiors, and would put him in peril of the Flittermouse. Dare he run the risk?
Seated on the packing-case, Schelm weighed pros and cons. He had a fair sum of money and a couple of valuable diamond rings, which never left him by night or day. He had also several passports, one of which would take him to Spain and another to Italy. Should he go while the going was still good?
He stared around the skyline rim of the quarry, but saw nothing. Down there he was out of sight of his comrades. If he took the road out he could soon reach a bus route. With luck he could be aboard some vessel and away in the course of a day or two. Perhaps he might fake up signs of a struggle which would make Thunnsenn and Ostoff think he had been attacked and carried off, or at the very least confuse their judgment.
That was a good notion, he thought, but just how should he set about it? If he...
"Kindly raise your chin a little. Do not shout or you will be shot—silently but quite fatally," remarked a quiet cultured voice, and with a start Schelm came back to earth to find himself confronted by a man who had masked himself roughly but effectively with a folded newspaper in which eyeholes had been cut, tied round his face with a bit of string. "Keep the hands down, please!"
The muzzle of a clumsy-looking pistol fitted with a silencer emphasized the last words. Schelm's right hand, which had started to move towards the pistol holster strapped under his armpit, fell back again. Obeying the gesture of the masked one's finger, his head lifted—and a rope-noose dropped from aloft with beautiful precision over his head and tightened with a jerk around his neck, nearly strangling him. Instinctively he clutched at it; the unseen man at the other end hauled; the masked man leapt forward, snatched away Schelm's pistol, hovered before him while, with starting eyes and foaming lips, he fought for breath; then, without haste, tapped him once upon the head with the heavy butt. Schelm's legs doubled beneath him; down he went senseless.
The masked man stooped over him, made sure that he wasn't shamming, and went swiftly through his pockets. He found the key of the padlock on the cave door, and still with the same unhurried swiftness, opened it. Blinking in the sudden light, Ellice Davison stumbled out, just as a second new paper-masked figure appeared, clambering down the face of the cliff to drop beside her.
"Do not fear!" he said in a curious hoarse whisper. "We have come to take you back to London. But you must promise not to try to discover who we are. You are to be blindfolded. Close your eyes."
Ellice closed her eyes. This was of a piece with all the rest of the day's doings; part of the nightmare that she was beginning to believe she was suffering from. She felt a big silk handkerchief tied over her forehead, then a hand took her arm and she was hurried away. In half a minute she was being guided and half lifted into a motor vehicle of unfamiliar pattern, for she was seated upon one side of it. Then a door shut and they were off.
Once or twice a hand steadied her when some ruggedness of the road threatened to upset her balance. Once she asked a direct question:
"How did you find out I was there?"
"We ancient ones sometimes have strange powers," was the reply in the same strained whisper, and after that Ellice asked no more. If these people to whom she was so much indebted did not want to betray their identity she could do no less than respect their wishes.
For several minutes they travelled slowly, then, reaching a better surface, the pace quickened. Ellice, sitting in darkness, lost account of time, but when they slowed again she heard the sounds of heavy traffic and knew that they must be nearing London.
"We are near Trafalgar Square," said the voice at length. "I am taking off the handkerchief. I will help you out; you will keep your eyes shut while you count twenty, and not try to identify us. Have you any money?"
"Yes, enough for to-day. Now, shall I go to Scotland Yard—or not?"
"The latter. Tell your uncle; tell Mr. Weston. They will do what is necessary. I suppose you didn't recognize the fellow who decoyed you away?"
"No. I'm pretty sure he was disguised, but it was very well done. Thank you again for getting me away. But won't you trust me with your names?"
"Not at present. Now you get out. Be more careful in future. Good-afternoon!"
Ellice felt herself guided to the pavement. She stood stock-still, eyes closed, counting. For full measure she counted forty, then opened her eyes. She faced the National Gallery and some three hundred pigeons, many of whom seemed to think that she must be about to feed them, for they crowded around her.
"You deserve something," Ellice said, and invested in two bags of corn from the nearest merchant. "This is a thank-offering," she explained to the pigeons, "so get busy."
Broadcasting the grain, she boarded a bus and was soon in the office of the Comet.
B.B. and Jimmy went back to the edge of the quarry, peered down, and instantly saw that something had been happening during their half-hour's absence. The fat man who had sat on the packing-case now reclined beside it in a very uncomfortable position, for his legs were tied together at the ankles and drawn up towards his back. The wrists were made fast to the same bit of rope, which finished in a running noose round the neck.
"He's been well and truly trussed by an expert!" exclaimed B.B. admiringly. "Very smart work. And that cave door's open. I really think we may venture to go down and take a look, eh? The fat gentleman who, I may tell you, answers to the name of Schelm at this present time, seems to be in the never-never country for the moment. Come on."
They raced down the narrow path recklessly. Schelm was snorting and grunting as they passed him; his eyes opened, he recognized young Jimmy, and swore hoarsely as he noted the open door. He tried to sit up, but the noose tightened about his neck, and half strangled, he fell back gasping.
B.B. and Jimmy halted, peeped in at the door, then entered. They noted the hay on which Ellice had been laid, and the tray with the remains of her meal, the half-filled bottle of wine—and the cork. B.B. pounced on it, examined it, and crowed delightedly.
"It's wonderful how blamed simple some of these crooks can be. Of course, I s'pose they had no reason to think they would be followed, but still you'd think they'd take elementary precautions, so to speak. But here's a plain clue left for anyone to pick up. See!"
"'Café des Deux Mondes. G. Piranelli,'" Jimmy read, then pointed to one of the plates, which bore the same legend.
"A regular give-away," he agreed. "But who was the prisoner, and how did he get away?"
"He was a she." B.B. pointed to imprints of small heels and soles in a patch of soft earth. "And I've a fair notion who it was. But she's gone. Who got her away, and how?"
"I'm mixed too," Jimmy admitted. "What are we going to do with this chap Schelm? Shall we try to bring the car round and take him away or..."
"Or put him out of his misery, I suppose you'd like to say? I think that—"
With no warning the door shut with a crash; the bolt clanged home.
"We're fairly caught!" exclaimed Jimmy. "The others must have spotted us."
"Those fellows couldn't possibly have got down in time. I'd have seen them," growled B.B. "Stand clear!"
He leapt at the door, crashing his shoulder against it. It creaked but did not yield. Strong measures were needed. Jimmy opened his eyes as B.B. drew a heavy automatic pistol from a holster hidden under his left arm, beneath his coat.
"Don't believe in these things as a rule, but they're useful at times," he observed, and fired at the spot beside the head of one of the staples securing the bolt on the outside where it was clinched in the planking.
The heavy bullet drove through the wood as though it had been paper, and bringing up against the bolt plate, smashed one end clear of the fastenings. A curious gurgling sound echoed the shot. B.B. put his eye to the hole he had made, but could see only Schelm's feet kicking convulsively. Bang! bang! Two shots rang out, a bullet drilled the door a couple of inches above B.B.'s head.
"At it together!" snapped B.B., and he and Jimmy leapt again at the door.
Their combined weight tore the bolt from its weakened fastenings, the door flew open, the pair staggered out, B.B. throwing up his pistol ready for a shot. There was no-one to shoot at, no-one on the floor of the quarry, no-one on the path or in the field above. Only from beyond the curve of the narrow way that led out of the quarry came the sound of a motor cycle buzzing off at high speed.
"There goes the fellow who bolted us in and nearly put a bullet through my head as a hint to stay put," said B.B. "And now what are we to do with Schelm?"
A gasp from Jimmy answered him; he turned and stooped over the prisoner. Schelm had ceased to move. The noose round his neck had been drawn tight, which doubtless accounted for the gurgling heard a few moments before; yet he had died not from strangulation but from a bullet fired at close range through his heart. On his forehead was stuck a scrap of paper, no bigger than a postage stamp, bearing a little hieroglyphic in black. B.B. pointed to it.
"The mark of the beast!" he muttered. "And we let him get away! Jimmy, it's the sign of the bat. That darling was the Flittermouse himself, and he came to punish this poor beggar because he'd failed to carry out the job assigned to him, and let whoever was confined here—and I guess I know the lady—escape. But someone's coming from the house. See the birds rising? We'll hook it out this way and go round."
They left the quarry by the cart road only in time, for Thunnsenn and Ostoff came over the ridge as they disappeared.
Thunnsenn halted at the head of the path, stared, then without a word hurried downwards. Ostoff, a few paces behind, went through exactly the same performance; they came to Schelm's body together.
"I suppose he deserved it," said Thunnsenn in a flat voice. "The girl's gone. The Flittermouse came for her, perhaps—found her gone. But who blew the door open?"
He went into the cave, examined the ground, found prints of both B.B.'s and Jimmy's feet, and others. He shook his head with a grim smile.
"Altogether we haven't been away an hour. It seems to have been rather crowded with incident down here. What d'you make of these other foot-prints? They were left by outsize rubber shoes."
"An outsize man, or else he was wearing overshoes to leave a false track. It doesn't matter. Do we leave Schelm here?"
"He has been our comrade and fellow-worker, though I always thought him a fool except when it came to work with figures. I think I saw a spade in the next cave. Get it. We'll bury him. Then I think we had best go into hiding till we can make certain of doing the job. No more indirect methods. I propose that we make another search of Davison's premises, and if that fails, try to catch Davison himself and screw the secret out of him." Thunnsenn's pale eyes gleamed icily for a moment. "Even if I have to flay him alive!"
They wasted little time on Schelm's obsequies. A convenient cleft in the floor of one of the unused caves received the body; then the pair made haste to collect their baggage and make off to the nearest railway station, some two miles away. While they waited for a train Thunnsenn rang up Piranelli.
"It's possible that he may have been arrested," he whispered to Ostoff. "We don't know where we stand."
But Piranelli replied in person, in a jovial mood, for he thought to hear of complete success.
"Whatta?" he gasped when he heard the terrible news. "Thatta Flittermouse? He keel Schelm? Now whatta we do? You com' with me, we go back to Italy, eh? I gotta leetle villa wit' a vineyard. You stay awhile, all safe, eh?"
"I don't think it would be safe. We're going to try to do this job. We'll find lodgings not too far away, and meet you at night in the café. We'll come by the back way, of course. Don't weaken—or you may be the next target for the Flittermouse."
"Orright, I stay." Piranelli's voice was more than a little shaky. "And I getta you the lodging, so you not need to look. Wait till it ees dark before you corn'. There was a man who wanta me to find him someone for his two room, ver' close to Soho Square, round da corner. That would do, eh? Ver' handy for thees Davison, eh?"
"Y-es." Thunnsenn's tone suggested doubt. "But—do you know him? Would he want to ask questions if we left suddenly? What does he do?"
"He is a Chinese. He keep leetle shop for da fancy dress, sell leetle conjuring trick, make-up for actors, all thatta sort o' thing. He not worry if you paint da nose green.'
"Very well. We'll go there, but first we'll come to you. I'll need a bit of making-up myself. The girl may have seen me. I don't think she did, but one must be safe."
"I fix you up," agreed Piranelli. "You come quick as you can."
An hour or two later the pair sneaked in. Piranelli took them up to his parlour, that plush-furnished apartment where the attempt to extract information from the hypnotized Perry Davison had proved so great a fiasco. Thunnsenn and Ostoff dropped into easy chairs and relaxed. Veterans though they were, they had found the day's doings somewhat trying.
"Thees man wit' the ring wit' the bat on it," began Piranelli. "I think he mos' likely the Flitter-mouse himself, yes? If he is, then he is the one that do in the poor Schelm, eh?"
"Perhaps," agreed Thunnsenn. "But that doesn't worry me so much as the mystery of who took the girl away. There were two concerned in it—but not the same two as those who were in the cave and blew the bolt off the door. And were they the people who spoiled the 'New Oriental' job?"
"I dunno," grunted Piranelli. "I wanta save my own t'roat. If this fella corn' again, we do him in, eh? Mak' ourselves safe that way, eh? And then we go 'way. What you say?"
"We'll stick to the job a little longer," Thunnsen said firmly. "Davison goes out every evening. We'll pay his rooms another visit, and this time we may have results. Now you'd better set about this disguise before we visit these rooms you've got for us."
Piranelli set to work. He was something of an artist, and took much pleasure in the task. He began by providing each man with pads fastened to the molars by elastic bands, which had the effect of making their faces appear broader and fatter. Thunnsenn's eyebrows were reinforced with some additional bristles. Ostoff's moustache, which suggested the old-time walrus face fur, was nearly all removed, but he was supplied with a suggestion of sideboard whiskers that greatly altered the side view of him. Thunnsenn, originally clean-shaven, sprouted a thin, dark line of hair upon his upper lip that gave him a Latin air, though he was a man of the North. Piranelli, carried away by the fervour of creation, wanted to extract one of his rather prominent incisors, but Thunnsenn drew the line at that.
"Yes, I daresay it would alter the shape of my mouth, but I'll keep it," he said, and surveyed himself in a mirror. "Yes, you've done a good job. I hardly know myself. We may venture out, I suppose. But won't this Chinese who sells makeup and conjuring tricks see that we are made up? I should think that he would."
"Oh, I tell him that you are in the profesh. I say you have been, on the music halls. I tell him that you both are singers of the comic song," Piranelli said. "That was a good one, eh? Because it do not matter how bad you sing if he should hear you. He only say, 'Oh, they are comics, it does not matter!'"
"You are not complimentary, but no matter. We will go now. See you later—perhaps with something to show you. Sit up for us," replied Thunnsenn, and the pair made for their new lodgings.
Ah Chow's small shop window displayed a full-bottomed wig of late seventeenth-century pattern, a Chinese bride's headdress of tinsel and kingfisher's feathers, a couple of stage swords, and a make-up box. No doubt he was well known in the profession, for otherwise he could have done but little business, since the things were faded and dusty, as though the window had not been disturbed for years.
A door-bell rang as Thunnsenn and Ostoff entered, and in a moment Ah Chow appeared. He was a plump, urbane Chinese of middle age, with the presence of a mandarin and the accent of a professor.
"From Signor Piranelli? Ah, yes. The two rooms on the first floor are vacant. One pound fifteen per week—to professionals only, you understand. To the bourgeoisie—to any others, two pounds five. I have to respect the prejudices of my esteemed patron, the great Hi Lo, who occupies the upper floors. Therefore I have to ask you to refrain from noise after midnight, and before nine in the morning."
"But yes, certainly," replied Thunnsenn. "We shall not make a noise. We are preparing to make a little play. We will be writing, but not shouting. We shall not rehearse for a while, and then it shall not be here. The great Hi Lo shall not have to make complaints."
"Wei shall show you the rooms." Ah Chow clapped his hands, and another Chinese, also plump, urbane, and speaking with the accent of the pundits, bowed from a doorway giving on a corridor.
He conducted them upstairs, displayed the rooms which were well furnished and very clean—and remarkably cheap. Thunnsenn nodded to Ostoff; here was the ideal home from home.
"We will take them for three months," he said untruthfully, since, if all went well, they would not stay three days. "And, if we may, we'll stay now."
Later they saw a small covered van—almost a caravan in miniature, on the bonnet of which sprawled a large Chinese dragon—stop before the door. It was driven either by Mr. Ah Chow or Mr. Wei—it's very difficult for Europeans to distinguish between Chinese on first acquaintance—and almost immediately the great Hi Lo rustled downstairs clad in a voluminous scarlet silk robe, got aboard, and rolled off to the Megatherium.
Ostoff and Thunnsenn went forth into the night, ready for anything. They reconnoitred the windows of Perry Davison's apartment from below, then, seizing their moment, went aloft, and after knocking for a moment, let themselves in, for the lock was easily manipulated by such experts.
"If he should return, we'll operate at once," said Thunnsenn, showing his teeth in a snarling smile. "This time there shall be no failure!"
"If he has the plans here we shall find them," declared Ostoff confidently. "There is no such thing as a hiding-place which cannot be found. So much space, so many square metres to be accounted for. If there is some portion not accounted for—there is your hiding-place. That is all."
"Exactly! Now act upon it," Thunnsenn agreed, and pointed to the littered floor of Perry Davison's den.
THE last edition of the Comet was off the machines, the office empty except for the solitary night watchman, when Ellice and Billy arrived at Dick Weston's quarters to piece together the tale of the day's doings.
"I wanted to tell the editor all about it, and get him to talk to Scotland Yard, and—" Billy Harwood said.
"And I stopped him. I'm not going to figure in a sensational crime story even if it is run by my own paper!" declared Ellice Davison. "So we came to ask you what we were to do about it. That's what you wanted when you rang me up, isn't it?"
Dick Weston nodded. When B.B. returned with his report of the doings in the old quarry he had rung up the Comet office and confirmed his henchman's guess that the captive released had been Ellice.
"It was a sound enough plan—but B.B.'s precaution in having this boy I told you of keeping watch over the three, would have frustrated it, even if this unknown rescuer hadn't arrived. Who is he? Or rather, who are they, for there were two men concerned? The same pair who pulled you two out of that taxi, we presume. All very mad—but haven't you a notion as to who they may be?"
"Not an idea," Ellice replied. "We've puzzled over it, but we can't think of anyone who could possibly do it. Why, Billy even suggested that Uncle Perry might have a hand in the job of getting us free the other night, and letting me out today! As if Uncle Perry could ever find half enough energy! And anyhow I should have known his voice, of course."
"Well, I've made up my mind about two things," Billy said with great firmness. "One is that I'm going to take you straight home now; and the other is to go and see your Uncle Perry, and tell him that he must send these plans or designs or whatever they are back to the Admiralty. When this gang of thugs knows that it can't get the things, perhaps it'll stop worrying about them."
"The trouble is that they seem to know that uncle carries the figures in his head," Ellice put in. "So they think they could get all they want out of him, even without the plans."
"One way or the other, I'm going to talk to him. It's absurd that you should go in danger of being kidnapped just because you're his niece. Now you'd better come along home. You need a good sleep."
"If you'll be advised by me, you'll leave Perry Davison alone. In some obscure way he seems to slip out of sight whenever you want him. It's as though he was so thin that when he turned sideways he became invisible. However, go and tell him everything, and let me know what he says," Weston said.
Of course Billy meant that Ellice should get her beauty sleep, but what with one thing and another, the many points that they had to talk over, and the many suggestions each had to make, it was past ten o'clock when at last Billy climbed the stairs to Perry Davison's den.
The outer door had not been locked. He had seen a faint glow of light through a curtained window, and knocked, certain that he would find the evasive one at home. For half a minute there was no reply, though he heard the sound of muted voices. Perry had company for once, then, though he was, according to Ellice, something of a recluse.
Then the door opened suddenly, light so strong that Billy was momentarily blinded flooded the landing, there was a guttural exclamation, and before he could be sure of anything except that two men were looking at him, Billy was grabbed, hauled inside, and flung down on that very sofa which Perry sometimes occupied when working out some great mathematical problem mentally.
"If you make any noise you'll have a foot of steel in your gullet!" remarked the taller of the two. "Keep quiet and no harm will come to you." A long knife glinted horribly near Billy's throat, and he wilted. He would cheerfully have taken his chance in a free-for-all rough and tumble, but the sight of cold steel daunted him for the moment.
"All right," he agreed almost cheerfully. "It wouldn't do any good anyhow. Have you come to look for the plans of the rangefinder? I don't think you'll get them. Perry Davison is rather cleverer than you think he is. Have you tried looking on the carpet?"
Now the carpet was covered about a foot deep with copies of Perry Davison's favourite reading matter: blood-and-thunder boys' weeklies, and sugary-sweet girls' journals. No wonder the man with the knife growled again and made a threatening movement of the gleaming blade.
"Move the desk. Perhaps there may be a cache beneath it," he directed, and fished out a coil of thin but tough wire. "Now, my good young man, try no resistance, or you will be hurt. Hold out your hands!"
Billy obeyed perforce, and in a few moments his wrists were bound together. Another length of wire secured his ankles. Laid on the sofa he could do nothing but watch the progress of the search.
He readily discovered that these two men were disguised. Though he was almost certain that one was the grey badger man who had awaited him outside the telephone box of the "New Oriental," he knew that he could not have sworn to him, once the artful eyebrows and toothbrush moustache were gone.
But now the pair had shifted Perry's desk, after examining the drawers which were filled with more juvenile fiction and a multitude of scraps torn from newspapers, apparently stowed away for reference and then forgotten. A cursory glance at each drawer satisfied the searchers that what they sought could not be concealed there.
The clear space of carpet left by shifting the desk revealed nothing no secret trap-door or other hiding-place. With more growling they shoved it back to its former position.
"Not so easy, eh?" said Billy.
"You had better hold your fool's tongue!" snarled the tall man. "Ah, what is that?"
The moving of the desk had naturally shifted several layers of assorted fiction, revealing what looked at first glance like a section of flower-bed. Several large scarlet rhododendrons flaunted themselves against the yellowing newsprint of the journals. The tall man picked one up. It had been carefully cut with scissors from a piece of wallpaper of the same pattern as that covering the walls of the room. Two other flowers had been treated in the same fashion. Had Perry Davison been amusing himself after the manner of a three-year-old child?
The pair did not appear to think so. They turned to the wall, laid their cheeks against it, and squinted along the surface. The tall man chuckled grimly.
"So! We have it. Here, this one, see!" He laid his hand on one of the rhododendrons—and the paper gave to the touch. "Clever enough, yes! Look, the plaster is cut away almost to the outline of the flower, and he prepared flowers to paste over the hole whenever he needed to put away—what?"
"Look quickly!" the grey badger man rasped. Suspense was telling on his nerves. "Is there anything there, or is it only a blind?"
The tall man examined the aperture carefully before venturing his fingers. He grasped something laid between laths and wall—and drew out a long roll which he spread with feverish haste upon the desk top.
Billy managed to sit up and catch a glimpse of the sheets, blue with white lines; the blue-prints that the Three had been at so much pains to annex were theirs at last. Billy groaned. He had only the vaguest notions of the range-finder and its value, but he felt that something of vital importance had been Jost to the nation, or at least that its value had been greatly discounted since it must be shared with a possible enemy. The two thieves laughed delightedly.
"Aha, young-my-lad!" crowed the tall man. "Here we have the box of all right tricks! I had thought of killing you, but I give you your life because of this great joy. Remain still and continue to breathe. Give our felicitations to the good Davison."
He thrust the roll of plans into a breast pocket, twiddled his fingers mockingly, switched off the lights and went out, the grey badger man on his heels.
The door shut, Billy rolled off the sofa, and stood upon his feet. He had made another bad mistake. He saw now that he should have been more cautious, should have stood away back from the door until he was certain that all was safe. Why, the very sound of voices should have warned him to be cautious, since he knew that Perry saw but few people. If he had only made a bolt downstairs and given the alarm, the pair might have been caught before they had time to escape. But now they were off with the plans, and Perry Davison would have to bear the blame.
Of course he should not have been so careless, but, after all, the hiding-place was a good one, and would never have been found if the cut-out flowers had not given the clue to its whereabouts. But perhaps he, Billy, might still do something towards catching the thugs. Cautiously, lest he tumble upon his face, Billy shuffled to the telephone, started to try to lift it with his teeth, and then let go as he observed that the wires had been cut.
He made for the door, but it had been locked on the outside. There was nothing to be done but await the return of Perry and break the bad news to him. Meantime Billy felt that he would be a lot more comfortable if he could only get rid of the wire that bound his limbs, but the job had been done by an expert, and though he broke several fingernails in the attempt he could not loosen his bonds.
Time seemed to stand still. He heard the noises of the street die down as the traffic thinned, and then suddenly, without any warning at all, the light was switched on. Perry Davison stood in the doorway leading to the inner room, staring at Billy with a slightly puzzled frown.
"I'm glad to see you, my boy, but how..." he began, caught sight of the wire gleaming at wrists and ankles, and with a very unusual steely glint in his grey eyes, came forward, opening a pocketknife as he stooped over the lad. "Visitors, eh?" he remarked, his glance around the room taking in the hole in the wallpaper. "You interrupted them and suffered for it?" He slashed the wire away.
"Oh, sir, I'm so terribly sorry that I couldn't save the plans. They found those cut-out flowers, and then they were not long in finding the hiding-place."
"They'd have been bigger asses even than I think them if they had disregarded so clear a clue," replied Perry with a dry smile. "They got a nice bundle of blue-prints to play with, which ought to keep the darlings busy for a week, though whether they'll find them as useful as they think is quite another pair of shoes."
"Then it was all a sell?" cried Billy, at once glad and disappointed: glad that no harm had been done, humanly sorry to think that his emotion should have been wasted. "You put those things there to be stolen?"
"Oh, the thieves wanted something tangible. They've got it. They won't worry me for a little while. Still, I shall really be sorry when they cease from worrying. You see, I lead a very quiet life, and they have provided a certain amount of mild excitement."
"Mild excitement!" Billy nearly choked as he spluttered. "But, sir, haven't you heard about Ellice—and the cave—and the mystery men who—"
"Yes, I had a full and particular account from Ellice herself over the phone, and a regular jobation from Weston. That's why I shall have to see if we can't contrive to put an end to these activities. I won't have the child's comfort interfered with in this fashion. Now, I think you had better stay and have a bite of supper with me—if the visitors haven't takers my provisions."
They had not, and Perry spread a queer but interesting assortment of delicatessen. Billy washed down a varied meal with ale, and, much more cheerful than when he arrived, prepared to go.
"You'll let me know how I can help to catch the blighters, sir," he said. "I'd like to lend a hand, if only because of the way they've treated me."
"Very well. Third time may be lucky, you know. Instead of their catching you, you may catch them," said Perry, and fumbled with the fastenings of the outer door. "Confound the thing, it's locked!" he exclaimed.
"Yes, I heard them do it. But—how did you get in, then?" Billy asked.
Perry produced a key, persuaded the door to open.
"The ordinary way—only as I found it locked I must have locked it also, without remembering it. Good-night, my boy. Tell Ellice that she must have no more adventures. They might become dangerous!"
"Certainly he's the most casual old boy that ever walked," Billy concluded as he made for a bus. "Ellice has had two narrow shaves of being kidnapped and held to ransom, and he treats 'em as if she'd had her bag snatched. One would think he had no natural affection."
Back in his rooms the unnatural uncle was lying on the sofa vacated by Billy, shaking with a convulsion of laughter.
"It's a very funny thing, but your professional crook simply can't help being a person of one idea," he observed to the ceiling. "And he is apt to repeat that one idea again and again through lack of imagination. One of this couple favours abduction and holding the prisoner to ransom, the other believes that direct methods and searching these premises is the correct procedure. So far both methods have been given a trial, so I suppose that at this rate another attempt at abduction will be in order—with me playing the leading part. But there should be a lull for a day or two, at least until they discover that blue-prints on occasion are not all they seem, and that their deductions are not necessarily correct every time."
Still smiling, he secured the outer door with a little device of his own contriving, and, with a bundle of the week's most lurid crime serials, meandered thoughtfully into the kitchen.
Thunnsenn and Ostoff did not sleep much that night. According to all the rules and regulations of their delightful calling they should have been instantly on their way to wherever they had arranged to meet with their superior, there to hand over the fruits of industry, the blue-prints of the range-finder and bomb-sight.
That they did not even think of starting was merely caution, the instinct of self-preservation, and a certain low cunning combined with a wholesome mistrust of their employers. Once the prints were out of their hands they would have to trust that their services would be properly rewarded—and, alas! that trust had sometimes been betrayed in the past.
Therefore they proposed to keep something in hand. Good photographs might be negotiated with some rival buyer. The mere threat that they might be sold would probably be enough to ensure liberal treatment. That course was a bit risky, but both Thunnsenn and Ostoff thought they knew to a dollar or two just how much they could ask.
So for some while after midnight they made very careful photographs with Ostoff's miniature camera, taking several pictures of each sheet, to be on the safe side. They scarcely glanced at the prints while they were doing it, being more concerned with the clearness of the detail than with what it represented. It was well past one o'clock and they were weary when Thunnsenn unpinned the last print and stowed all up the chimney, wrapped in an undershirt. This was mere force of habit, for he did not anticipate that any attempt would be made to rob him, but still it was as well to be on the safe side.
Then the pair slept soundly and long. It was not till the next day was well aired that they prepared to go out. Thunnsenn retrieved the prints, spread the uppermost on the table, and looked at it with interest. The thing it represented might be the means of blowing thousands of folks to rags and tatters and bringing victory to its users.
"It's—it's—slightly complicated!" he muttered in the first reaction.
"Y-es," Ostoff agreed. "More than slightly. Complexly complicated, I should say. Now, this telescopic arrangement—"
"That isn't the telescope, it's..." Thunnsenn began to correct him and stopped, having lost the thread, as it were.
The creator of those plans would have been vastly pleased to see the effect his effort had upon the pair. He was a young draughtsman entrusted with confidential work whom Perry had commissioned to draw a set of spoof designs for an instrument such as never was nor could be. The young man was an admirer of Mr. Heath Robinson, and he let himself go in imitation of his idol, so far as T-square and compasses would allow.
Wherever it was humanly possible he introduced complications. To pull a lever in order to adjust the direction of the thing's nozzle meant also the moving of at least a dozen universal joints, so that the nozzle weaved around like a snake shedding its skin, and that was the simplest of the arrangements.
Neither Ostoff nor Thunnsenn was a trained engineer, but each knew a fair amount about matters mechanical. At first they were impressed by the evident ingenuity with which the designer had avoided the obvious, only to be puzzled by the apparent lack of reason in the thing. It was as though a man were to employ a lawnmower, a sewing-machine, and a bandsaw to thread a needle.
Thunnsenn weakened first. He threw down the pencil with which he had been tracing the path of a ray of light emanating from something very like a cooking stove, only to find it finishing in a volute, tore up a sheet of paper on which he had jotted some figures, and swore wholeheartedly.
Ostoff held on a minute longer, then he too laid down his pencil and added a word or two to Thunnsenn's remarks.
"It is tomfoolery," he declared. "The design looks as if it should mean something but it doesn't. Perhaps if water ran uphill I might comprehend, but as it doesn't I am forced to conclude that—"
"We have failed again!" rasped Thunnsenn. "I came to that conclusion some time ago. Oh, I will get even with this Mistaire Perry Davison and his so clever drawings! I will teach him! Yes, Ostoff, there is nothing for it but to tear the secret out of him—or else we must disappear, as Piranelli suggested. I shan't wait to risk the fate of Schelm. What do you think of doing if we should fail again? It is possible when one is dealing with a man like this, for Piranelli's estimate of him was entirely mistaken."
"I shall go into hiding too—if needful it should become. But..." Ostoff, with useless precaution, for the door was shut, paused to look around before he continued in a low voice. "Perhaps we might make ourselves safe for a while by striking at the Flittermouse before he could strike at us, eh? It would mean another life in another country, but it would be better than this. I have a friend in Java. It is a good life down among the islands. You would come?"
"I might—if it should be needful. Meanwhile let us make one effort more. To-night we will go to Davison's rooms and wait till he returns. Then we will do all that is needed to make him speak. If we can get the real plans, so much the better. If we cannot, then he shall be made to describe them in detail, as he can. But I am sure he has the plans there, so it will be really only a matter of making him tell where they are hidden."
"Don't you think the police will be looking for us? That young man will have given our description."
"They will watch the railway stations and the seaports, but they won't think of seeking us just around the corner. That is why I came here. But we will stay indoors to-day. The good Wei will doubtless get us something in from Piranelli's."
Wei procured them a meal. They were ostentatiously busy with pens and paper when it came, but it was Giorgio, the little Neapolitan waiter, who entered. He brought them also a note from Piranelli—only a line, but disconcerting.
"He leave word he see you to-night." The he in question was indicated by a rough scrawl of a thing with wings. "He is the man that was the inspector policeman."
"So! I thought as much," murmured Thunnsenn. "He may be of help, but—we'll stand no more driving. We are not Germans like Schelm to endure being bullied. If he begins, we leave him in Davison's place?"
"Yes. And go away at once. He can have these fool plans to take with him to—Valhalla." Ostoff showed his teeth in a sinister grin. "Let us eat."
They made their meal and lazed. When Giorgio returned for the dishes he took with him a reply to Piranelli's warning. It was simple: a pair of wings and the words, "Be ready."
The afternoon wore on. Thunnsenn rehearsed his plan of action with Ostoff over and over again, so that there should be no hitch. Perry Davison usually went out for dinner about six-thirty. Sometimes he walked, sometimes he took a taxi; sometimes he simply was not at home, having slipped out unseen. That was the nett result of the investigations of the Three who were now Two.
Thunnsenn proposed to call upon Perry as he was preparing to go out, and rush him the instant he opened the door. After that—well, all would depend on Perry's obstinacy. If he was reasonable he would be let off with a minimum of personal discomfort; if he was not, he would never be quite the same again, for the Two would not stick at anything. If they left Perry the worse for the meeting, that would be his fault.
"The landing is here—the door opens here—the handle is on our right side, remember—and the inner door of the other room is on the left," Thunnsenn repeated, and made all clear with a diagram. "You will hit him on the point of the jaw; I will catch him as he falls, and..."
He broke off. Someone had knocked on the door. Was it the Flittermouse making a premature call before they had had time to arrange a plan for dealing with him if the other should miscarry? But no. A portly Chinese bowed low, presenting the scarlet button on top of his black cap to Ostoff's gaze.
"I am Hi Lo, living in apartment up over above," he said in a fluting voice. "Hearing from excellent Ah Chow that members of our ancient and honourable profession of entertainment makers were arrived in these chambers, I do myself the honour of requesting your company to drink tea with me, now, at once, if not too vastly inconvenient. You will give yourselves the trouble to walk up the stairs?"
Ostoff and Thunnsenn looked at each other. Neither felt the least inclined towards tea-parties, yet at least an hour must pass before they could start to interview Perry Davison. Why not pass it cofortably in the company of the celebrated illusionist? They nodded to each other.
"It will give us the greatest of happiness to accept the kind invitation of the honourable Hi Lo," said Thunnsenn. "This is Gog and I am Magog. We are going to present a little show about which I do not say anything now—because it is not properly made, no."
"I understand. Now, do this person the great honour," said Hi Lo, and bowed them out and up the stairs to a door which was opened by Ah Chow.
Hi Lo had converted the rooms of an ordinary and ugly London apartment into something very like the interior of a house in Canton or Peking. The walls were hung with fine Chinese paper in a design of willows upon the banks of a lake, the furniture was of carved rosewood, the windows were screened with rose-coloured silk, while a rosy light came from a gorgeous hanging lantern adorned with dragons.
"All the better. He will not notice our make-up so much in this light," muttered Thunnsenn in Ostoff's ear. "What a charming room, Mr. Hi Lo. It's like a little slice of China."
"My people know how to make themselves full of comfort," purred Hi Lo. "Please to be seated."
The guests sat down on the low chairs he indicated. Ah Chow moved to and fro quickly. In a trice a table was spread with plates and dishes filled with preserved ginger and a variety of little cakes. Hi Lo began to talk. His English was a trifle quaint, but the stories he told were very amusing. He had travelled all over the Continent before settling in England. He liked English audiences best. Once they took to a man they stuck to him for the rest of his career. They liked a good mystery, too, which was why his great cabinet trick was so popular.
"And you two, though you are not English, perhaps you like to be diddled and bamboozled also?" he went on. "You like to be fooled? Though, of course, you would be very hard to fool."
Thunnsenn and Ostoff, who had been very thoroughly fooled by Perry Davison, made haste to agree for the sake of politeness..
"Then I do for you a simple little trick, though perhaps you will see how it is done," continued Hi Lo with his blandest smile. "Look, now; here is a serpent snake."
He held out his empty hands, and as he spoke a snake appeared in them, a yard of green grass snake, its head swaying to and fro, its forked tongue flickering, all very much alive.
"Take him—for a necklace!" cried Hi Lo, and flung the reptile.
It fell upon Thunnsenn's shoulder, and in a flash had closed around his neck. Thunnsenn did not like snakes—very few folks really love them. With a gasp that was nearly a howl of consternation he clutched at the creature and pulled it off, to stare blankly at a green snake, certainly, but one made of paper and wood.
Ostoff laughed and clapped his hands.
"Splendid!" he cried. "First class. But what has become of the real fellow?"
"Real living meat-snake at present is about to descend from shelf upon your honourable left shoulder," replied Hi Lo, and cool scales slithered across Ostoff's cheek as the snake dropped to his shoulder and glided along his arm back to its master. "That fool you, eh? You think it was real snake on your neck, Magog?"
"Yes," agreed Thunnsenn. "I certainly did. It was very high-class conjuring."
"Oh, I do more than that, some time," said Hi Lo carelessly. "Now I put the snake to bed. Good-night, Confucius."
He seemed to toss the creature into the air, and certainly it melted out of sight, to reappear upon a tray which Ah Chow carried, returning with little glasses and a glass flask of curious workmanship. Hi Lo lifted the flask and filled three glasses with a sticky-looking green liqueur.
"This is made from the beautiful flowers of the water-lilies of Nangpo and the blossom of the green lotus. The taste is like nothing you have ever tasted before. Drink," boomed Hi Lo, and lifted his glass, "to the continued prosperity of the English stage!"
He sipped, then drank the whole of the glassful. Thunnsenn and Ostoff did the same. They had never tasted anything quite like the liqueur, for it had a curious flavour resembling aromatic coconut.
"Good!" said Thunnsenn a little thickly. "Very good! But too strong. Another glass or two would make a man drunk."
He started, for from a recess a clock chimed softly. Six o'clock! It was time to get ready for the visit to Perry Davison. He rose. He did not want to leave that rose-tinted room and the soothing company of Hi Lo: even his snake was harmless. But duty was duty. Perry must be dealt with. He made a magnificent bow to Hi Lo, who seemed somewhat larger than he had been.
"We have enjoyed this more than anything else, ever, everywhere," he said rather confusedly. "But we must go. Got to see a man on very important business—matter o' life an' death almost."
"That's right," came in Ostoff. "He doesn't know it yet, but..." He pulled himself up suddenly, realizing that what he was going to say was very unwise. "Very good business for all of us," he murmured. "Very good tea. Many good thanks."
"The pleasure is all mine," purred Hi Lo. "Another time."
Then they were out, floating rather than walking downstairs, feeling happier than they had been for many a long day.
"Very good tipple—but it's powerful," Ostoff said. "Now, if we succeed—do we come back here?"
"Yes." Thunnsenn opened the door of their rooms with a fumbling action. "But only to get our bags. Then just as we said," he added. Curiously enough he had forgotten what they had arranged, but that did not matter. Nothing mattered. He felt gloriously light and free. "Come on!"
The open air steadied the pair somewhat. They walked straight, they did not bump into anyone, they reached the door of Perry's home without mishap, ascended one flight of stairs, and came to a halt as a dark figure loomed up on the landing. It was the sinister person who had already figured as an inspector of City police in a Metropolitan area. He was not in police uniform, but clothed in a black suit of a cut that made him look like a clergyman. His face was very pale, either from make-up or rage. He spoke in low tones, but his words were meant to be bitter and cutting.
"Schelm has paid for his foolishness. Unless you succeed to-night you shall pay also. Come! The man Davison is in his room. Go and settle the matter at once."
Thunnsenn laughed, the grim Ostoff smiled. The powerful stimulant they had swallowed had given them courage. If this man was the mysterious and sinister Flittermouse, they were not afraid of him. He was no longer mysterious, and so had lost his power of terrorizing them.
"You shall come too, my dear fellow, and see your orders carried out," said Thunnsenn, and drew the other's right arm affectionately under his own left. "I am in charge of this affair. We can't risk your spoiling it by interfering. So!"
He snatched suddenly at a hidden holster and whipped away a small but deadly automatic. Ostoff, closing in on the other side, got his fingers on the hilt of a knife before the Flittermouse could draw it.
"Exactly so!" he echoed. "You must not our plans upset."
He wrenched the knife clear and playfully Flourished it as all three moved upstairs. The Flittermouse did not attempt to struggle. He glowered banefully at the pair.
"You are drunk!" he accused suddenly. "Or mad. He will hear you coming."
"He will hear us," corrected Thunnsenn. "And that will reassure him. If you have a good singing voice, you may join us in song. Shall we try the Gipsies' Chorus from Trovatore, Ostoff?"
Without waiting for reply he burst out in a high tenor. Ostoff joined in with a discordant, rumbling bass. The racket echoed up and down the stairs; Perry Davison must certainly have heard it long before the three reached his door.
Indeed, it seemed as though he expected visitors. For the door stood ajar. Pinned on it was a sheet of paper inscribed, "Back in five minutes. Go in and make yourselves at home."
Thunnsenn flourished his free hand in a salute and laughed loudly.
"Sir, we accept the kind invitation!" he cried. "Come in, my friends. We will await the good Davison, even as he desires."
"But this means that friends come to visit him," said the Flittermouse. "We shall be interrupted."
"'The more the merrier.' That is a good old English byword. Come in. We await them in the inner room. Allons, my friends!"
And singing the "Marseillaise," he rushed the Flittermouse into Perry Davison's den, dragging Ostoff with him. Something clicked as they crossed the threshold, the door closed suddenly behind them, but for a moment Thunnsenn took no heed.
"Behold the beautiful room!" he cried. "Behold the good hiding-place. Observe the papers. Observe—"
"Be quiet!" yelled Ostoff. "It is a trap. Out! Ach, it is a liquid gas. It..."
With a gurgle he subsided. The Flittermouse threw off Thunnsenn's grip and made a desperate attempt to claw the door open before the gas cloud caught him and dropped him. Thunnsenn alone, despite the strange liqueur he had swallowed, retained his presence of mind and reeled towards the window, intending to smash a pane. But the spray of liquid jetting from a tube in the ceiling overhead had filled the room with vapour in a few seconds, the same sort of pungent, breath-taking, soporific gas that had been used by Ostoff in the beginning upon James Clifton, A.B. Perhaps the three realized that they had been hoist with their own petard, or knocked out with their own gas; but they had little time for it since not more than ten seconds had elapsed from the time of their entry till they all lay on the floor breathing heavily, but quite insensible.
The hissing gas discharge ceased. For a minute more there was silence save for the laboured breath of the three. Then a muffled figure masked with a wet towel scurried in, flung open the windows and outer door, and hurried out again. Voices sounded in one of the inner rooms. Somebody laughed.
PIRANELLI had spent an uneasy afternoon. He did not know how he stood. He knew that Thunnsenn and Ostoff had entered Perry Davison's rooms on the previous night, and had there maltreated Billy Harwood, and quite failed to achieve their object since they proposed to pay another visit this very evening. But he had no details, had no idea whether he was in any danger of being arrested, or whether Thunnsenn and Ostoff were really ready to brave the wrath of their employers by wiping out the man they thought must be the Flittermouse. He had done his best to prepare for any event. All the money he could scrape together was sewed in a tight wad under his waistcoat, several good jewels were stowed in the lining of his jacket. If he must bolt suddenly, at least he would not go empty-handed.
Twice he went for a short walk down the street and round the corner to a point from which he could see the shop of Ah Chow and the windows of the rooms above it, but on the second occasion he felt that someone was watching him. He could not identify the shadow, but the feeling persisted. When he returned to his café he passed through to the yard behind and into the shed where he stowed empty packing-cases and bottles. Shutting the door, he whispered:
"I think I am being watched. Perhaps this place will be searched. I think you had better go away."
"Go out as if you are in a great hurry. Go to Oxford Street. The shadow will follow you, and while you are gone I will go away," said a voice. "Continue as before till you receive other orders."
Piranelli obeyed to the letter. He darted out of the café door, cramming on his hat as he ran. He was a good enough actor, and he managed to give the impression of a man running for his very life, but so far as he could see, nobody ran after him. None the less, as he halted a little out of breath, for he was not as slim as he had once been, he again had that curious feeling of being stared at from behind. And then a man whom he recognized as an occasional customer, who had had lunch in the "Deux Mondes" that day, dropped out of a taxi and ranged up alongside him.
"Pleasant evening, isn't it, Piranelli?" he observed genially. "But really you shouldn't scuttle along at such a rate in crowded streets. It's liable to be misunderstood. One policeman thought you were running off with someone's watch, and I had to tell him who you were, and that you were probably only running after a new idea, some fresh way of serving veal, perhaps."
"Aha! you maka da fun, Mistaire, Mistaire..." Piranelli paused expectantly.
"Usually known as B.B., which is short, sweet because it reminds you of honey, and easily remembered. As I was going to say, it's no use running away, Piranelli. We haven't got a great deal against you so far, and you'll get off lightly, or, if you can give useful evidence, probably you'll get off altogether. Only you must stay beside me. If you try to bolt it will be unpleasant."
"Mistaire B.B., I dunno what you talk about!" protested Piranelli. "You maka da fonny tale, like the tales of the talkies."
"It won't do, Piranelli! Where's that fellow Schelm?"
"I dunno what you talk about. Was this Schelm a customer at the 'Deux Mondes'? I notta know the name."
"Then it was the Flittermouse, not you, who murdered Schelm in the quarry? The police got his body out of the hole in the rock this afternoon. Better tell all you know, Piranelli."
The café proprietor's swarthy face had turned a curious mottled grey-white. His twitching fingers fumbled at his throat, he glanced nervously behind him and at the passers-by, then suddenly the whole man seemed to shrink, to become smaller, flabbier, just as a rubber balloon shrinks when prodded with a pin.
"I notta know that!" he whispered. "I notta know nothin'—but if I tella you, the one they call the Flittermouse—he will kill me."
"No he won't, for we're going to catch him. He's as good as caught already—if he's the fellow who sneaked into your backyard a while ago. Unless he grows wings he won't leave the district. Now—what about it? Are you going to get your evidence in first or must you let Ostoff or Thunnsenn beat you to it? Make your mind up, for I've got to see a show this evening. Are you going to talk?"
"I tella you all I know—though mebbe you know already," Piranelli replied with a little groan, and obeying B.B.'s gesture, stepped into the waiting taxi.
IT was about a quarter of an hour later that B.B. rejoined Dick Weston, who still hovered in the neighbourhood of the "Deux Mondes."
"He has spilt the whole pot of beans, sir, or at least he's doing it now. I didn't wait to hear it all, but it's pretty juicy. He seems to have acted as a sort of clearing-house for every secret-service agent of both Italy and Germany."
"Yes, so I understand. And a valuable lot of misinformation has passed through his hands. In his way he's been about the most useful man we have had."
"Eh?" exclaimed B.B., and stared at his master. "Meaning exactly what, sir? I can't understand why he wasn't jugged long ago."
"Piranelli is one of the finest examples of the fly flat I've ever known. He thinks himself clever, while he is really a fool. Thanks to that, we've been able to keep tabs on the activities of this crew. Had we arrested and deported him, another man, probably with more brains, would have taken his place, and we might have had some real trouble. As it is, I'm grateful to him—and he'll have reason to be grateful to us for saving him from the Flittermouse. I think it probable that the killer had him marked down for an early exit."
"And the Flittermouse, sir—why didn't we sail in and bag him in Piranelli's shed? Aren't we taking big chances that he'll escape?"
"No." Weston shook his head and began to move. "We've had the place ringed since he arrived, so he can't. And you forget, B.B., that we have yet to get definite proof that the fellow who sneaked in a little while ago is really the Flitter-mouse. If we arrested him now we might find that he was merely a stalking horse for the real fellow. Whereas, if we but let him join up with Thunnsenn and Ostoff we have fair reason for assuming that he is the genuine mouse, and also ample grounds for arresting him."
But how do we know that they're likely to go to Mr. Davison's place to-night?" B.B. persisted.
"Confound it, man, don't you see that from their point of view it must be now or never? They had plain notice that Davison knew their intentions, for he provided a spoof set of prints for them. They're simply calculating that he will never imagine they've already found out that they are spoof, and so will be off his guard. Which is where we come in. Now, don't talk any more. Here we are. And there they go!"
Weston had timed his movements well, for as he and B.B. turned the corner they saw Thunnsenn and Ostoff emerge from Ah Chow's shop. B.B. also noted that several loungers who had been unobtrusively loafing around the neighbourhood began to move also. He grinned. He knew the signs. One of the men ranged alongside Weston as they slowly advanced.
"The fellow from Piranelli's yard went into Mr. Davison's place ten minutes ago. Do you think he'll be quite safe, sir?" he said.
"I've come to the conclusion that Perry Davison is much better able to take care of himself than we are," replied Weston. "Now, take it easy. We want to let 'em get busy."
They reached the door and began to ascend the stairs towards Perry's eyrie. Faint sounds floated down to them, a thud or two, noises as of heavy bodies being dragged to and fro, but silence reigned when Weston and B.B. reached the door and halted to listen. Never a whisper, no racket of breaking timbers or thump of displaced bricks.
Weston looked a trifle uneasy. Had he miscalculated, had he underrated the guile and strength of the thugs? But they were assuredly inside, since there was no other place where they could have gone. Why were they so silent?
"I don't like this," growled Weston, suddenly anxious. "Down with the door. Quick!"
Two stalwarts, strong-arm men selected for a job that might prove tough, leapt at the door together. Their shoulders thudded against the panels, and the door opened as the catch tore free of the jamb. Batons up, ready to charge, they took a couple of long strides, flung open the inner door, and halted, surveying the wild confusion of Perry's den.
"No one here, sir," said one to Weston at their heels. "Unless he's buried under the papers."
"Go through, quick." Weston pointed to the inner door, then sprang to it himself, flashing out a pistol, for he fully expected to be met by three desperate men.
But the room was empty. Perry's bed in the sort of condition that might be expected from Perry, a table and one chair, with a chest of drawers set against the wall, made up its contents. No villains at bay, no Perry Davison. Weston dashed out into the little kitchen. A few pots, a frying-pan, various oddments of crockery. No sign of Perry or the invaders of his peace.
"If you ask me, no-one has been in here for a week or two," said B.B., critically inspecting pots and the top of the gas stove. "Look at that now. Spiders are fools, but this is the first time I've seen a web across a gas-burner. Not new, either. Been there three or four days."
"Yes, yes!" snapped Weston impatiently. "But where is Davison? Where are those three fellows? Hang it all, we know they came in here. There's a trap-door. They may have gone on the roof."
"Not that way, anyhow. More cobwebs," B.B. pointed out. "Messy sort of way for a gentleman to live, I must say. I s'pose the idea was not to let anyone into his secrets. We'll look at the windows. Bound to have gone out—somewhere."
All the men, good detectives enough, looked around for the usual signs, but found no broken locks, no recently disturbed dust. Two or three minutes' intensive search convinced them all that: (a) there was no visible sign of anybody having left the flat by the windows, the roof, or the small service lift, for each and all had not been used recently; and (b) that Thunnsenn, for one, had been in the place, since one of his shoes, which had apparently dropped off, perhaps in a struggle, lay half-buried amongst the littered papers in Perry's den.
Besides this, the three men had been seen to go in, and since there was not a sign of their having gone out again, it was a logical conclusion that they should still be somewhere in the place. Only they were not. Dick Weston went to and fro, re-examining the windows, only to agree with his men. Nobody had gone out by them or by any visible exit.
"Of course there's some hidden way out, but where the deuce is it?" he growled. "It's absurd that we should be foiled like this."
"Spoken like the villain in a melodrama, my dear Mr. Weston. Please go on. Where's Uncle Perry?"
Weston swung round to find Ellice and the inevitable Billy Harwood at his elbow.
"We received a mysterious message from him about a couple of hours ago," went on Ellice. "He rang us up and told us that we were to go to the Megatherium this evening and ask for his box. He said he was standing treat, and there would be supper afterwards. Now Uncle Perry isn't stingy, but this is the first time on record that he has ever asked me to go to a show. So I thought we'd come round to see him, and...Why the gathering of the clans? There isn't anything wrong, is there?"
"That's just what I can't tell you. Three thugs came in here, with the intention presumably of robbing Perry or compelling him to tell them something they wanted to know. We came in some minutes later and found the place empty. Question: Where have they gone? And if Perry was here when they entered, where has he gone?"
"There's some secret hiding-place here, sir," suggested Billy. "Mr. Davison came out of it when those blighters had gone, last night, for I'm certain he didn't come in at the front door."
"Never mind about last night, Billy. Where has Nunky gone now? Oh, Mr. Weston, are you sure that these brutes didn't get hold of him and carry him off somewhere?"
"I can tell you nothing about him. He should have been here. He assured me that he would probably receive a visit from the gang, and said he would stay as a bait. Well, they came—and that's all," Weston concluded blankly. "So what?"
The sharp note of the telephone bell answered the query. Mechanically Weston lifted the receiver. His face changed from anxiety to relief and irritation as he listened.
"Oh, very well! But what's the game, what tom-foolery is this? Were you here? Did Thunnsenn, Ostoff, and another fellow come up? Yes? Then what...? Here, hold on. Answer me!"
But answer was there none; although he joggled the lever and demanded to be connected with the ringer again, it was no use, for the message had come from a public phone box.
"That was Perry," he exploded, wheeling on the listeners. "He invited me and two or three men to the Megatherium this evening. We are to ask for his box. He admits that those three scoundrels were here, but he absolutely declines to say what happened. Says I'll know everything in good time, and I'm not to worry. What d'you make of that?"
"That you're not to worry, dear sir," said Ellice. "Nunky has the situation well in hand, and is taking steps to ensure that an adequate settlement will be forthcoming. That everything is arranged for, in the best official language. You'll go to the Megatherium, of course?"
"Since an explanation may be forthcoming from that lunatic Perry, I suppose I must. And you also, I presume?"
"I wouldn't lose Nunky's explanation for worlds. But I doubt if you, or anyone else, will understand it. Have you ever known him explain anything if he didn't wish to?"
"I don't remember having ever asked him," growled Weston. "I should not hope to get anything rational out of him if I did."
"Come away, Billy. We'll see you later, Mr. Weston, when you've cooled down a bit. You're not fit company when you're in a temper," said Ellice.
"You shouldn't have said that to him. It's like hitting a man when he's down," admonished Billy when they had reached the street.
"I hope he feels it, then!" snapped Ellice. "Dick Weston has always patronized Uncle Perry, treated him rather like Lo, the poor Indian, or the good chimp at the Zoo, who is so nearly human that he may be trusted with a teacup. Now Uncle Perry has had a chance of showing Dick Weston that he can do something for himself, and he seems to have done it. Dick's thoroughly puzzled."
"Don't wonder at it. I'm puzzled myself," admitted Billy, which was magnanimous. "But Weston and his chaps will find the secret passage or hiding-place. It's quite simple. You measure the building, work out its cubic capacity, measure up the visible space, and if they don't tally—why, there you are. You just look around till you find the missing place."
"My! Isn't it simple? Just like a parlour game," said Ellice. "Well, let's leave them to play and walk around a little till the Megatherium opens."
Weston and his men, with growing irritation, sounded walls, and measured spaces, and found exactly nothing to their purpose. At last, about seven-thirty, they desisted.
"We'll go round to the Megatherium and perhaps find Davison there. And perhaps we'll get some satisfaction out of him. There's nothing to be gained here."
It was a humiliating admission, and it didn't improve Weston's temper to find Perry still missing when he and two of his fellows entered the stage-box reserved for him. There he found B.B., Ellice, and Billy.
"Don't scowl so, dear Mr. Weston," cooed Ellice provocatively. "That villain, Uncle Perry, hasn't arrived yet, but he has arranged everything for your comfort. You are to ring for drinks whenever you want them; and everything else you want will be forthcoming later on. Try and enjoy yourself in the meantime."
But Weston could not adopt this cold-blooded attitude. As he saw it, he had yielded to Perry's request that the gangsters should be allowed to pay him another visit against his better judgment, and had been let down by the mathematician. Left to himself, Weston would have arrested Thunnsenn and Ostoff out of hand, would have put a cordon around the Café des Deux Mondes to trap the supposed Flittermouse, taken Piranelli at the same time, and trusted that one or other of the gang would break down and give the conclusive evidence needed to put a rope round the Flittermouse's neck.
Perry's queer conduct had apparently spoiled everything. There had been no dramatic arrest, no breaking in upon the gang and finding them red-handed engaged in putting Perry to the question. Instead all were missing.
"We've never a shred of direct evidence against the Flittermouse that will really identify him," he thought. "It may be possible to do it by circumstantial evidence, but this tomfoolery hasn't made that any easier. We've got Ostoff and Thunnsenn for illegal entry and tying up young Billy Harwood, but the other chap might conceivably wriggle clear. Oh, confound Perry Davison!"
The show started. The Megatherium shows were always good in their particular fashion. A blend of the old-fashioned music hall and the later type of revue, the turns ranged from trained cockatoos to potted Shakespeare. But certainly the greatest attraction was staged at nine-fifteen.
"If you haven't seen Hi Lo you've missed a lot, sir," said Billy to Weston. "Ellice and I saw him not long ago. We did an interview with him. He's an awfully decent old boy. He gave Ellice a very fine bit of green jade. He's no end clever. The disappearing cabinet trick is—"
"I happen to have seen it—twice," replied Weston stiffly. "It's certainly a good trick. Not new, but Hi Lo manages to put personality into all his show."
"I expect Uncle Perry will come along any moment now. I told him about Hi Lo, and he said he'd like to see him. I expect he'll want to ask him, to do some of his tricks over again, as he did that fat Italian, Piranelli, when he did the vanishing-coin trick. Uncle Perry is very simple in many ways."
Perry's mysterious doings did not match with simplicity. Weston blinked at that. In doubt, lie concentrated his attention on the stage as Hi Lo came on.
A very magnificent figure was the Chinese entertainer, clad in scarlet silk robes with gold and blue embroidery and a remarkable headdress that made him look a foot taller than nature. He began with simple-seeming tricks; twisted a couple of pieces of tissue paper into butterflies, and kept them fluttering in the air around him with a fan, balanced billiard balls on a cue, went on to more elaborate conjuring, and concluded that part of his act amidst a cloud of pigeons taken apparently from a borrowed silk hat.
Then, while the famous cabinet was being brought on, Hi Lo came down to the footlights and addressed the audience in his curious, high-pitched, singsong voice.
"Lady and gentleman, to-night I make a leetle difference in my big cabinet trick, just for this one night, all for one particular purpose. Of a usual way I get people to go inside the cabinet, or I go inside myself all handcuffed, then I open the cabinet, and they are not there any more, or someone else opens it, and the cabinet is quite empty with nobody inside. But to-night I make this difference. I show you the cabinet empty, then I ask some people to look in and see that it is empty, then I shut the door, and I say the word and the people open the door, and there are three men that you have not seen before, and you say to yourself 'How did they come to be in the cabinet?' You understand all that, please? Thank you! Now, if you lady and gentleman in that box shall be good enough to come down on stage, all of you, you shall see that the cabinet is empty inside and outside too. Please to come down."
With a superb bow to Ellice Davison, Billy, and the others, Hi Lo waved invitingly as he backed towards the cabinet.
"This way," said an usher, who seemed to have been posted for the purpose, opening the door at the back of the box. "Through here, if you please."
"I hope I don't get stage fright, Billy," said Ellice with a laugh. "I suppose Hi Lo recognized us. I feel frightfully self-conscious. Everybody will be looking at us."
"You won't see them, and they'll be looking at Hi Lo, not at us," Billy answered. "I've been on before. Good-evening, Mr. Hi Lo."
"It is Mr. Harwood of the Comet, and Miss Davison also," said Hi Lo in a low voice that did not carry to the audience. "You shall have something good for your paper presently, but do not be in too much hurry. Good-evening, gentlemen. Come this way. Now you observe the cabinet. It is suspended by these four stout ropes, one from each of the upper corners, and kept steady by these four ropes from each of the bottom corners. Now, lady and gentleman, please to look and see that there is no deception. There is nothing under the cabinet or over it, or at the sides. There is no way in but the door. Please to look close, then tell the audience."
"There's nothing to say except that the cabinet appears to be entirely detached from the ground. There's no sort of connection except the ropes that I can see," said Weston to the audience.
"Please to sit down here," Hi Lo went on, and bowed them to a row of chairs set on one side of the stage. "Now, lady and gentleman, everybody has seen inside the cabinet, everybody has seen it is quite empty, and that there is no secret way into it. Now I wrap it all up in this sheet—so." With the aid of his assistant Ah Chow, Hi Lo wrapped a thin but opaque cloth round the cabinet, which was suspended about a foot from the stage. For a few seconds the drapery hung to the boards all round the bottom of the thing, then the Chinese fired a pistol and snatched away the sheet.
"Now, gentlemen, be ready," he said softly to Weston and B.B. "You shall have the large surprise. Will one of you be good enough to open the door?"
It was B.B. who flung open the door, but Billy and Ellice were close enough to see clearly into the cabinet, and they spoke out together as they saw and recognized the three men who, handcuffed together back to back in the very limited space within the cabinet, lurched forward and stumbled to the stage, reeling groggily.
"There's the beauty who took me out to the taxi at the 'New Oriental' and cracked me one on the nut!" cried Billy, pointing at Ostoff, who was linked by the wrist to Thunnsenn.
"That's the man who was dressed as a police inspector, and doped me in the car yesterday," exclaimed Ellice. "Don't let him get away!"
The man between Thunnsenn and Ostoff turned a diabolical glare upon her. Weston's eyes narrowed. That glare identified the man. He was the fellow who, with goldbeater's skin seamed upon his forehead and cheeks, had visited Sonia Markoff's cottage shortly after her murder. Instinctively he stepped forward.
"Arrest them, Craig!" he said to the Yard man.
"One leetle moment," begged Hi Lo. "Remember the honourable audience. Make the good bow, you three thug men. It is last bow you shall make."
Ostoff swore, the saturnine Thunnsenn grinned sardonically and inclined his head, the third man merely glowered; and amidst the usual applause the curtain came down.
"Now take them away," growled Weston. "And you'll please to explain, Mr. Hi Lo, how you come to have these fellows, and what has become of Perry Davison? I want to know where he has stowed himself away."
"Is he all right? Those brutes didn't hurt him?" Ellice asked.
"He is entirely all right, and all in one piece still," fluted Hi Lo. "But we must not stay here. The next turn comes on. Take away the bad men, yes, but all of you others come to my rooms. There the good Perry shall come to tell of all these mystery doings. It is there more comfortable than these wings. My car waits. There is plenty room. Miss Davison, to me the honour, yes?"
The bow was overwhelming; Ellice took the proffered arm, feeling as though she walked in a fairy tale, where anything was likely to happen. Ah Chow stood by the car, or rather caravan; with a flourish he swung the inner door open. Ellice sank upon a couch running the length of the car, as it started. There was something vaguely familiar about the sensation. One rides facing across the line of route only in buses, never in a private car of the ordinary sort. Ellice shut her eyes. Yes, she was in the car that had brought her back from the cave of bondage yesterday! Therefore Hi Lo and his man had been the friends in need. But how had they come to reach her, to know the moment when she could be recovered with a minimum of trouble and danger? Opening her eyes, Ellice studied Hi Lo, who sat opposite to her, a polite smile on his vermilion lips, make-up heavy on cheek and jowl, hands tucked away in the wide sleeves of his robe.
That, she had read, was a Chinese mark of politeness. Why, she could not guess. Incidentally it might be handy when Hi Lo wanted to conceal some distinguishing deformity of the hands. But she was given little time for speculation. The car slowed, stopped. Hi Lo arose, magnificent as ever, helped the girl to alight, led her up the stairs. The room where Thunnsenn and Ostoff had had tea a few hours before was all of a rosy glow, flowers filled a couple of great bowls, a table laid with the promise of ample fare was set in the middle.
Hi Lo beamed upon Ellice and Billy, Weston and B.B.
"Excuse but one moment to remove excess of stage paint," he said in his high-pitched voice—and was gone, disappearing as though by one of his own tricks.
"I suppose I am standing on my heels," murmured Weston. "It's all very mad—and I must not stay long, but I'll confess it's a pretty scene."
"Though most unsuitable setting for tragic narrative, eh?" Hi Lo had returned. His towering headdress was gone; before his face he held a large wooden mask. "But please to be seated. Mr. Perry Davison has arrived. He asks you to forgive delay in propelling himself into your most welcome presence."
"Yes, yes," said Weston testily. "But it's high time he made some sort of explanation. He's got me fogged. Where is he?"
"He trusts honourable Mr. Weston will now be satisfied."
And with these words Hi Lo lowered the mask and presented the chubby and deceptively innocent face of Perry Davison, its outer edges still showing traces of yellow grease paint.
For a long moment nobody spoke. Weston looked flabbergasted, B.B. lay back in his chair convulsed with silent laughter, Billy Harwood stared at the changeling as though he expected to see him perform some other extraordinary transformation, Ellice smiled ecstatically and clapped her hands gently as if applauding. Impulsively she got to her feet, flung an arm round Perry's neck, and kissed his cheek.
"You clever darling!" she said. "So it was you who saved Billy and me from being carried off that night from the 'New Oriental,' and got me away from that beastly sham, inspector yesterday!"
"Er—I couldn't have you worried by those posturing mountebanks, my dear, so I had to interfere. I had Ah Chow waiting around the corner and followed you out. And as I was afraid another attempt would be made I had your flat watched. Word was sent to me directly your visitor, that sham inspector of police, arrived, and though I was a little late in starting, I managed to pick up the trail."
"How, sir?" asked B.B.
"Oh, I arranged with the porters at your flats to give me the description and number of any car in which you were likely to travel. I was already on my way before you started, and I picked you up quite easily, though I had to keep well behind to let your captor commit himself. Then, when he had left the man Schelm in charge, Ah Chow and I simply half-strangled him and took you away. It was quite simple, my dear."
"How did you work your disappearances, Perry?" asked Weston in a hushed voice. "For instance, that day you met me in the parrot house in the Zoo, Schelm followed you out and you disappeared in the Outer Circle."
"Simple! I knew the fellow was after me. He had been, all the morning. My trusty Ah Chow was in waiting, I sprang into the van through a trick door in the rear, and was away. I used the method to dodge the men you put on to guard me when I got tired of being shadowed. And, of course, I could always disappear from my rooms—as I did this evening, taking the three thugs whom I'd drugged."
"And that was worked—how?"
"Come upstairs." Perry led the way to the next floor and along a dark corridor to a small lift.
"Two of you. You, Ellice, and you, Weston. If you had a plan you'd see that we're round the corner in the next street. Now, steady."
The lift rose silently; stopped. Ellice and Weston peered out into Perry's kitchen. Across the corridor through the open doors they could see the paper-littered den.
"But we went over this place a dozen times and found nothing," Weston said. "How's that?"
"You didn't notice that the gas stove was rather an outsize, and was never used, did you? It's merely a dummy, and at this moment it is above us. This lift occupies its place. Quite simple, but effective, I think."
"Very effective, Nunky. But why all the elaborate secrecy and why the double life?" asked Ellice.
"Er—the fact is, my dear, everyone expects a mathematician to be an abysmal ass in everything apart from mathematics. It's the sign and seal of the pursuit, so to speak, and none is considered genuine who knows enough to go in out of the rain of his own accord. I'd always been good at conjuring. I invented my cabinet trick, and wanted to make money out of it. But I knew that if the Admiralty got to know that I was an entertainer they would argue that I must have some intelligence apart from mathematics. They'd have lost confidence in me at once, and I should have had to resign. So, with the connivance of my good friend Ah Chow, Hi Lo was born. And now, shall we go down to supper?"
"Just one moment, Nunky. All this bother has been over some plans or blue-prints, hasn't it? Have you got them hidden up here, or did they never exist?" asked Ellice.
"But of course they exist, my dear. I had to use them to make some scales of ranges; very technical stuff. So you want to know where they are hidden? The place is in here in plain sight. Look!"
Perry skipped from the lift, swung a kitchen chair to the middle of the room, and climbed upon it. The ceiling overhead was discoloured; rain had evidently come through from the leads above, the plaster was seamed with cracks, a hole had been made in the middle of the damaged section to allow the rainwater to run away before it should have brought down part of the ceiling.
"Nature was good enough to provide the suggestion," said Perry, and, sticking the end of his forefinger in the hole, raised a foot or so of the plaster high enough to show the mouth of a recess above the laths. "Simple enough, eh? Specially tough plaster on fibre board, hinges well oiled and hidden. Place empty now. Took the things back this evening along with the three doped thugs, though they weren't on show. But, as I was saying..."
Closing the cache, Perry returned to the lift.
"Giving my show always makes me hungry," he said, and touched the lift button.
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