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Title: The Three Snails Author: Aidan de Brune * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1700981h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2017 Most recent update: October 2017 This eBook was produced by: Terry Walker, Roy Glashan and 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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THIS book is a product of a collaborative effort undertaken by Project Gutenberg Australia, Roy Glashan's Library and the bibliophile Terry Walker to collect, edit and publish the works of Aidan de Brune, a colourful and prolific Australian writer whose opus is well worth saving from oblivion.
INSPECTOR Walter Paull of the Criminal Investigation Branch, Sydney stood in the doorway between the two offices, gazing before him reflectively. Behind him stood a white-faced girl, trying to peer fearfully past the Inspector's large bulk into the inner office.
The room was barely furnished. By the window stood a large plain sloping desk, in which rested a big drawings board and a large assortment of rulers, paints, inks, etc. Against the wall opposite the door was an ordinary desk, the swivel chair drawn close to the knee's aperture. In the chair sat a man leaning back, his head lolling to one side and turned so that a considerable portion of his face could be seen from the door. A small book-case and three plain chairs completed the furnishing of the room.
There could be no doubt but that the man at the desk was dead. Yet, Paull hesitated to advance into the room. For some moments he stood scratching his clean-shaven chin carefully; then, carefully keeping his large bulk between the desk he turned.
"Haven't been in there, Miss—er—You didn't say what your name was—"
"Anstey, Maude Anstey!"
The girl spoke in low hesitating tones. "No, I haven't been in there. I couldn't! I—"
"There there!" Taking the girl by the arm, the inspector led her to a chair in the outer office.
"Just a bit of an accident, I should say. Nothing for you to be frightened about. Now, sit there, m'dear. Have a drink of water? No? Well, well. Now, Miss—yes—Miss Anstey. You rang Police Headquarters? Quite right. Let me see—Yes, twenty minutes ago; Just after you got here this morning, eh? Sharp to time, yes? Ten minutes to ten now; that makes your time to arrive at half-past nine, eh? Thought so—"
The inspector rambled on, waiting for the girl to recover, in some measure, her composure. For a awhile she sat, shaken, and with little choking sobs rising irregularly in her throat. At length she quieted.
"Get here at nine-thirty; don't you?" repeated the inspector.
"Nine o'clock, sir." She spoke weakly.
"Never mind the 'sir.'" The little cupid-bow mouth twisted to an expression of distaste. "Call me inspector, or Mr Paull; I answer to both—Except when I'm at home and the missus is wild. Then to anything she thinks of."
"That's right!" The soft podgy hand of the detective patted the girl's reassuringly. "Feel better, eh? Well, well! You get here at nine, eh? What time does Mr. Delaney get here?"
"About half-past, as a rule; sometimes later."
"Irregular, eh? Well, you came in here. Got a key to the offices, eh? Thought so. Opened the door and walked in. Now—was that door open when, you arrived? Think carefully. Plenty of time! I'm in no hurry, and he—" Paull shrugged nonchalantly.
"The door was shut, Mr Paull."
"Didn't go in there at once?"
"Not for some time. I didn't think that Mr. Delaney had arrived—and there was nothing for me to do there." The girl hesitated. "I had a drawing to finish for him by the time he came and—and I was a bit behind with it—"
"So you settled down to work? Finish the drawing?"
"Yes. You're an artist, eh, like Mr. Delaney? Commercial artist. Heard of him. Good man, they say. Plenty of work here?"
"Quite a lot." The girl smiled faintly
"Well, well! You went on with the drawing and finished it. Then—well, then—"
"I thought I would tidy up Mr Delaney's room. He's—rather untidy, you know, like all men."
"Leaves things about and—" Paull grimaced. "Poor devils, men!" A slow chuckle came from the thick throat. "Ever thought what an untidy world this would be, if it weren't for the women, Miss Anstey? No? Well, take my word for it. So you went in there." He pointed to the inner office.
"I opened the door."
"Didn't go in?"
"Ah well, perhaps as well."
He paused a moment. "Where's the 'phone? Ah, here on your desk."
"There's two—one in Mr Delaney's room. There's a switch here. I take, calls and put them through to him." The girl illustrated as she spoke.
"Quite neat," Paull nodded. "So you didn't go in, there? Rang us up from here? Good! Now about yourself, m'dear. Feel all right, now? Able to stay here for a time? Good! May want to ask you some questions, later. I'll have a little look around, first. He raised himself from the low chair on which he was seated and strolled to the inner room, the girl watching him fearfully. At the door he turned.
"By-the-bye, Miss Anstey. Been long here?"
"Just over six months."
"Apprentice artist." The girl spoke quickly. "I'm here to gain experience in commercial work."
"Ah! Hm!" Paull nodded; "Well, if anyone calls, or telephones, just say that Mr. Delaney's engaged, and will be for some time. That's true—as true as ever will be. Get their names and make a list of them. Get me?"
The girl nodded. Paull turned to the inner room. Just within the door he hesitated, glancing about him inquisitively, yet not allowing, his eyes to rest on the dead man. Nothing in the room appeared to be out of place. There were no signs of a struggle. He took a few steps forward and peered over the dead man's body at the desk. On the blotting pad lay a large sketch, covered by a sheet of paper.
Again Paull scratched his chin. There was an atmosphere in the room he could not understand. The man had been murdered. From where he stood the detective could plainly view the swollen distorted face, the big powerful frame. It seemed impossible that a man of that build could be done to deaths without putting up a fight. Yet—
Nothing in the room had been disturbed. He bent to the ground close to: the desk, examining the linoleum under the deed man's feet: A few marks showed, but nothing out of the common. Then Delaney had died swiftly; almost unknowingly, as he sat alone before his desk.
The sounds of someone in the outer office brought the detective to his feet. He went to the door. Miss Anstey was at the counter, talking to a tall, thin man; carrying a bag.
"Ah, doctor! Thought you wouldn't be long after me." Paull ambled to the counter and lifted up the flap.
"Come in. I want your opinion on things before anything—or—well, you know—is moved."
He preceded the doctor into the inner office and stood on one side while the medical man made his examination. In a few minutes the doctor turned, shrugging.
"How long, Dr. Carter?"
"About twelve to fourteen hours!"
"Hm! Eight to ten o'clock last night!" Paull mused a moment; then turned in the doorway. "Miss Anstey, what time did you leave work last night?"
"Five o'clock, Inspector."
"And Mr. Delaney was still here?"
"Said he was going to work late?"
"He usually, did, Mr. Paull." The girl hesitated. "He never did much work in the daytime—drawing, I mean. Used to be in and out; rarely at his desk. Late in the afternoon he would commence work. I nearly always left him here. He would go out to dinner about six and then come back and work on."
"Till about ten o'clock—sometimes later."
Paull nodded. He turned again to face the doctor. "Cause of death?" he asked casually.
"Want me to tell you?" The medical man pointed to the thin cord embedded in the flesh of the neck. "That's plain—strangulation—and by someone who knew what they were doing."
Paull stepped to the side of the dead man and bent to examine the cord.
"Nothing out of the ordinary here; doctor. Stuff you can buy in any shop, almost. Still—"
"Want that cord, Inspector?" Dr. Carter placed his bag on the desk and opened it.
"Hmmm—Yes." Paull frowned. "The cord's not worth much; but the knot now, that's interesting. Can you—"
"Course!" A few deft movements and the cord came away from the flesh. The doctor handed it to the detective, who placed it on the desk. "That all you want from me?"
"For the time—and here," the detective nodded. "Thanks. I'll want you to see our friend later, of course. But now—well, the ambulance men are here and before I examine things we'll send him on a journey."
Paull accompanied the doctor to the door and out into the corridor. There; as he expected, he found the ambulance men, waiting. A few minutes and the body was carried out of the office. Paull shut' the door with a sigh of relief and walked over to where Miss Anstey sat at her desk.
"Mr. Delaney married, miss?"
"No." The girl hesitated. "There was a young lady who used to call sometimes."
The girl nodded.
"A brother, Ernest. Delaney. He's a printer—manager for Ferroll and Royce."
"A printer, eh?" The detective took a toothpick from his pocket and chewed it meditatively. "Commercial artist and a printer. Ah! Hm! Well; give the gentleman a ring and tell him that his brother—say, what's his name?"
"David, Mr. Paull."
"Say that brother David has met with an accident. Get me? Accident! Say he'd better come round here, at once. That's all, 'cept—Any 'phones while I was in there?"
"A Mr. Matthews rang up."
"A friend of Mr. Delaney's Mr. Paull."
"What's his line?"
"I don't know."
"Hm! Anyone else?"
"Mr. Persus rang up. He wanted to see Mr. Delaney as soon as possible."
"Mr. Persus! Who is he?"
"Mr. Delaney used to buy copper plates off him, Mr. Paull."
"Mr. Delaney used to make wonderful etchings." The girl pointed to some' frames on the wall. Paull strolled around examining the etchings. They were certainly beautiful examples of the art—even to the detective's inexpert eyes. "No one else?"
Paull nodded and returned to the inner office, closing the door after him. Again he made a rapid survey of the room. Its order and exactness exasperated him. A murder should not be committed in such surroundings. The criminal should leave some signs of his presence! An overturned chair—something smashed! But, here was nothing—nothing but the empty chair where the dead man sat. And, before the chair a large square of cardboard, covered with a sheet of paper.
Sometime between eight and ten o'clock on the previous evening David Delaney had sat at that desk, at work. Someone had stealthily entered the room creeping up behind him. The sudden cast of a thin strong cord—a strangled cry! The sudden tension of the cord; a gasp—and the deed was accomplished. David, Delaney had ceased to exist!
But, what had the murdered man been doing at the time of his death? He had not been working. The covered drawing showed that. Yet if he had finished work and covered the drawing for the night, how had his attention been engrossed so that the murderer could steal up to him? If there was one thing certain, it was that Delaney had considered that he was alone in the offices.
Paull frowned perplexedly. There was a mystery here—one he could not fathom. With a sudden gesture of impatience he drew out the chair and sat down before the desk. He leaned forward, drawing imaginary lines on the paper before him. Yes, in the quietness of the evening it would have been possible for a man to steal up behind him—to attack him unawares. But Delaney had finished work. He had covered his drawing. That meant that he had finished for the night. It was reasonable to suppose that he was on the point of rising from his chair to leave the offices. Then—
A quick examination of the surface of the paper and Paull lifted it from the drawing—to sit back, with an exclamation of astonishment. On the cardboard was a complete drawing of a man seated in a chair, bending forward over a desk, at work. Behind him was a crouching figure, holding over the seated man's head a slender cord! A revulsion of feeling, shook, the portly frame of the detective, as with ague. Delaney had been strangled while he sat at his desk before his work—at work on the sketch of a man being strangled at work!
The idea was fantastic—almost unbelievable. For long minutes Paull sat, staring at the sketch. Then, something on the upper edge of the cardboard attracted his attention. They were three little dark, round objects. He picked up one, to drop it in disgust. Three small dead snails! How had, they come to be on the drawing the dead man had been engaged upon a few seconds before he met his death?
"THREE snails!" Paull murmured the words, a grim smile playing around his lips. "The three snails! Now, what the devil are they doing here—in a common-place commercial office. A market garden—and a fellow would understand! Even an ordinary garden would help—or a window box, but—" He pursed his lips in a low whistle—then laughed, noiselessly.
Picking up a pencil he flicked the little round objects until they rolled down the cardboard to the edge of the desk. He took a powerful magnifying glass from his pocket and carefully scrutinised the shells. So far as he could see they were innocent of any foreign marks.
"No fingerprints! No marks!" He shook, his head sadly. "Now, what's a fat policeman going to do if crooks forget to leave their 'cards' about? T'isn't fair! All this scientific stuff is hampering the police. What's it all going to come to? Why, they'll want the police to attend University lectures soon—same as they do journalists—and then—Lord! We'll not only, do our detecting work but we'll be writing our own account of the crimes for the newspapers. Oh hell!"
Emptying out a match-box he swept the three snails into it and stowed the box: in his pocket. Again he let his attention revert to the sketch. A careful scanning of the drawing, and he half-turned in the swivel chair.
"Miss Anstey!" He waited until the girl came to the dividing door. "Oh, come on in, there's nothing here to bite you—or I wouldn't be here, myself. Have a look at this. Mr. Delaney's work? 'Course! Jolly good eh? Seen it before?"
"Yes, Mr. Paull," the girl replied promptly. "It's for a story. I—"
She bent to the desk and from a drawer pulled out a bundle of printers' proofs.
"Here it is. Mr. Delaney asked me to read the story and mark the places where I thought it would illustrate."
"So!" Paull was surprised. "In a story, eh? Well, Well! So Mr. Delaney illustrates a story and—and dies the same way, sitting looking at his work. That's a newie. Hm! There's something in this. Now, let's see—?"
He sat back in his chair, pondering deeply, the girl standing beside him, curiosity in her eyes. The Inspector was acknowledging himself frankly puzzled. During his service he had solved many problems—some of them bringing to him great credit and promotion—mainly by an inability to acknowledge defeat. But here, in this office he had a case where none of the ordinary methods of detection would serve.
David Delaney had been murdered while illustrating a story of a murder! The murder had been committed in a manner exactly similar to that depicted by the artist. Then the murderer had been acquainted not only with the story but with the actual lines that the artist had decided to illustrate—or there had been a coincidence far out of the common. Again, the murderer had known that David; Delaney had been commissioned to illustrate the story. Paull shook his head. Here was a situation bizarre to an absurdity! With a shrug Paull pulled the proofs of the story before him and scanned the heading:
THE ATELIER MURDER!
By Austin Farnborough.
With nervous fingers, he turned the long slips of paper, watching for the heavy double pencil marks on the margin that indicated the words the artist was to illustrate. In a few minutes he found the lines:
The door opened slowly. Into the darkened room crept a shadow. For some seconds it hovered behind the chair on which the artist sat; then moved swiftly. A strangled cry; a throaty gurgle, and the man fell back in his chair—dead.
"Humph!" Paull leaned back in the seat scowling. "Couldn't have described it better: myself." He pushed back the chair and turned his attention to the drawers of the desk. There was nothing of consequence in them. He turned to the desk-top. Under a pile of papers he found a thin copper plate—blank. "Interesting!" The detective turned to where the girl had stood, but she had disappeared.
A little chuckle came from his lips, immediately suppressed. He struggled to his feet and wandered to the door, expecting to find the artist-apprentice 'in the outer office, but she was not there.
"Feelings overcame her, eh?" Again he chuckled, wandering over to the high table on which the girl worked. There was nothing on it that interested him; only the usual paraphernalia of the studio. "Ah, well!"
He heard the click of the door-lock but did not turn.
"I beg your pardon!" The strange voice caught his attention. In spite of his bulk he whirled round, quickly.
"Sorry!" He surveyed the pretty girl on the other side of the counter, quizzically. "I'm not used to keeping office, y'know, and—"
"Mr. Delaney in?" Without waiting for a reply the girl lifted the counter-flap and passed into the outer office, making for the inner room. Paull quietly interposed between her and the door.
"Again?" A bright smile flashed on the girl's face. "Is being sorry a habit of yours?"
"Always—when I have to disappoint a charm—"
"Thanks!" A moue pursed the girl's lips. "Then Mr. Delaney is not in?"
"I'm afraid—he's out—right out!" Paull spoke slowly, looking restlessly towards the outer door for the girl artist. "I'm afraid he'll be out for quite a time."
"Dear me!" The girl paused, undecided, for a moment: "Perhaps if I wait?"
"You may; have to wait a long time, Miss—er—"
"And you are busy, Mr.—er—" The girl mimicked, laughingly.
"Paull, Walter Paull," The Inspector interposed hurriedly. "Of course, I shall be delighted if—"
"Mr. Delaney's partner, Mr.—er—Walter Paull?"
"Well—hardly that. I'm—er—sort of interested in him at the moment. Not attached here—nor anywhere else. Just drop in when anything happens, y'know."
Where the devil had the girl got to?
"Miss Anstey's out for the moment—"
He tried to remember if the girl-artist had told him the name of Delaney's fiancée. No, he hadn't asked that question. What the—
"Have you an appointment?"
"No, Mr. Paull. Do you suggest that I should have rung up Mr. Delaney and asked for an interview? It's not very usual between—" she hesitated and swung round at the opening of the office door. "Why—Bill! Fancy you coming here! Have you come to see David? Mr.—er—Paull says he's out—and he's so rude—he won't let me into David's private room."
"Sorry, miss." A couple of strides brought the detective to the door of the inner room. He flung it open with a flourish. "If I'd thought—"
"Thank you!" The girl gave a little mocking curtsy as she passed into the inner room. The young man was about to follow her when Paull tapped him on the shoulder significantly.
"Just a moment. Mr.—er—"
"Sinclair! Bill Sinclair!" The young man looked puzzled. "I don't recognise you here. Has anything happened to David?"
"A bit." Paull nodded suggestively towards the other room. "There's been an acci—"
"Come here! I want you."
"If you don't mind a moment, miss, it's a matter of business."
"Oh!" The girl rose and came to where Paull stood.
"Now I thought—I may have been mistaken—but I really thought that I—"
"Bill!" They both laughed. Paull looked from one to the other somewhat amazedly. The girl glimpsed his face, and laughed anew. "The joke's on me!"
The detective made a gesture of resignation. "Mr. Sinclair, if you'll explain."
"Impossible!" The girl mocked. "No one has succeeded in that, so; far—even mother couldn't, David tried; then Bill?"
The Inspector threw up his hands. "I'm beat! Mr. Sinclair, will you please introduce me to this young lady. I suggested to her some little while ago that I would like to know her name, but—"
"Miss—er—" the girl laughed.
"Delaney." The young man concluded.
"Miss Delaney?" The detective was staggered. "And I thought you were—"
"Miss Anstey!" Sinclair turned towards the outer door as the apprentice artist entered the studio. "Will Mr. Delaney be long? This gentleman says he's out. I come to—"
"Meet me, Bill." Dora Delaney dimpled wickedly. "Now boy, don't deny it. You know I 'phoned you just before I left home and said I was coming here." She turned to the detective. "I'm rather worried about my brother, Mr. Paull. He never came home last night. Brothers—modern brothers—are really awful! So trying to real sisters. They go out and no one can guess when they will come home again—"
The detective nodded, a worried frown on his brows.
"And the modern girl, Dora—" commenced Sinclair.
"Is no lower than an angel," Dora concluded. "But that doesn't answer my question. David didn't come home last night—so I came here for an explanation—and I'm going to have a good one!" She paused, then continued: "There are but two of us, Mr. Paull—David and me. He's a great boy, my brother, but of course, I have to look after him, carefully."
"Women always do." Paull remarked, ponderously. "It's a habit they acquired from an ancestress—looking after men—"
"They look after their brothers—until they think they want a change, then they take on the job of looking after some other girl's brother. If they want a change after that there's a special court of law to oblige them—but then—the public knows they didn't do their job properly! Looking after the other girl's, brother—I mean."
"Well, Mr. Delaney's out." The detective assumed command of the situation. "There's been a bit of trouble here. I'm going to ask you to go into, the inner room, Miss Delaney, with Miss Anstey, and let her explain."
Paull carefully avoided catching the girl-artist's eyes. "While she's talking to you I'll have a word with Mr. Sinclair here."
There was something in the Inspector's voice that sobered the mocking retort on Dora's lips. Without a word she went into the private room. As he closed the door behind the girls, Sinclair looked significantly at the detective, raising his eyebrows.
"Trouble? Bad?" The young man queried.
"Worse than that. I'm Inspector Walter Paull. That his sister?"
"Well—not quite his—his brother-in-law."
"So!" For the moment the detective hesitated. "Perhaps I'd better tell you quick, before Miss Anstey blurts, it out to her. Delaney's dead!"
"Good God! Strangled while working at his desk." The Inspector spoke in almost a whisper. "Strange, but he had just finished a drawing of a man sitting at his desk, with a strangler creeping on him from behind and—"
"What do you mean?" Sinclair clutched the detective's arm. "Strangled!"
"Just as it was described in the story," Paull nodded. "A story by a writer named Austin Farnborough—"
"Yes. Oh, I understand—but I write under the name of Austin Farnborough. That story was for the Critic and I persuaded Manning to get Delaney to illustrate it. You say—?"
"It was just as you wrote it in the story." Suspicion deepened in the detective's eyes. "The man who killed Delaney must have read that story—or—"
"Written it!" Sinclair 'completed the detective's accusation. "But, I didn't strangle David. I—"
"If you didn't, who did?" Paull shot the question at the young man. "There he sat, just as he had pictured! the man in the story sat, with, the assassin creeping up behind him. There's not an iota, of difference between the two scenes. Why Delaney had even drawn in his office setting. He drew the story—the scene—then someone acted it. Who could: have done that but the man who, wrote the story?"
A look of dumb despair grew on the young man's face. He glanced about him; as if seeking some means of escape. Paull's eyes hardened. He took a step forward, his hand outstretched towards Bill Sinclair' shoulder.
"William Sinclair, I arrest you—"
"No!" The door of the inner room, was flung open and Dora rushed in. "No, no!" He never did it! "Bill! Bill! Why don't you speak. Tell him—tell him—"
"Tell me what the three snails, arranged along the top edge of the drawing mean?" Paull spoke in hard, level tones.
"The three snails?"
With a moan of despair Sinclair turned and threw himself into a chair. "The three snails."
With a quick motion Paull produced the match-box and tilted the three round black objects into the palm of his hand, holding them under the young man's eyes. "Look! I say, look! What do those three dead snails mean?"
FOR many seconds there was silence in the room. Bill Sinclair sat with his head in his hands; Dora standing beside him, flashing indignant glances at the Inspector. Paull stood stolid and efficient before the pair, his hand outstretched and, on the palm three small black dead snails.
"There's a story here." The detective spoke, at length. "And I'm going to have it. Make up your mind to that, Mr. Sinclair. I want a satisfactory explanation of these three snails—and what they stand for. Afterwards, well, I'll hear how you spent last night between the hours of six and twelve."
"You are going to arrest him for the murder of my brother?" The girl gasped, slightly.
"That depends." Paull nodded slowly. "I'll hear what Mr. Sinclair has to say, first. I may be a policeman and I may be fat, but I'm not unjust or arbitrary, although there's more than one who say I fling my weight about more than a bit. Just as if—"
"Bill." Dora turned to the young, man. "Tell me! Bill! I want to know. I must know. You know nothing about—about David's—death?"
"Not very much." Bill Sinclair had recovered from the first shock, He now sat upright, raising his head. A slight shudder shook him as his eyes fell on the three snails in the detective's hand.
"And these—things?" Paull spoke sternly.
"I don't know."
"You don't know?" The detective spoke with expressive unbelief. "Funny that! You take one long look at the things and then almost chuck a faint. Start moaning about the 'three snails' and look as if the end of the world has come—well, if not that, then prohibition. And then you say, you don't know. Can't you think up something better?"
"I don't really know!" Bill stood up and shook himself. The colour returned to his cheeks and he squared his shoulders. Turning to the girl he slipped his arm around her.
"You believe me, Dora?"
"Of course." The girl flashed defiance at the detective.
"You don't know—but you can guess—something."
"That's just it." Bill turned to the detective. "Let's get in the inner room and—and—well, in your words—I'll come clean. That's what you want?"
Paull nodded. For a moment he paused, and then led the way to the inner room. He stood aside for the girl and young man to pass in; then, as Miss Anstey made to follow he half-barred her passage. She looked up at him in surprise, and he shrugged.
"No, I won't disappoint you." He laughed slightly. "I was going to tell you to take care of the outer office—but you know too much. If I keep you out you'll speculate—and that leads to gossip in a woman. Come in; we'll hear if anyone comes into the office; but keep what you hear under you hat—sabe?"
The girl nodded and passed into the room. Paull waited until the others were seated, and then sat down in the dead man's chair, before the desk. He swung the chair half-round and looked at Sinclair, expectantly.
"You found the three snails on the desk, you say?" The young man asked the question.
"On the cardboard—just above the drawing, yes."
"On the drawing?" Sinclair came across to the desk and bent down, peering at the illustration. He shuddered slightly and turned quickly to his chair, beside the girl.
"I'll tell you what I know," he commenced hesitatingly. "If you can make head and tail of it well, you're cleverer than I. I've puzzled over it, again and again, trying to understand—and the more I've thought of the affair the more perplexing it appears." He paused a moment, then continued.
"The first time the snails appeared I came in here with David. We had been out to lunch together and for some reason I can't now remember I came back here with him, instead of going home to work. You know. I'm an author—Austin Farnborough."
Dora looked up, flashing a bright smile at the young man.
"We came in here—David and I—arguing over something." Sinclair continued. "David led the way and as he came through the door he blocked out sight of the desk from me—you know he's more than a size larger than I am?"
Again Paull nodded. He had mentally noted that the dead man had stood well up towards six feet and broad in proportion. Sinclair, on the other hand, was not more than five-feet, eight inches, and slight in build. "First I knew was when David, staggered back, stamping on my toes, and nearly knocking me down. I managed to prise him up and push him into the room. Then I saw the snail."
"The snail?" Paull exclaimed, astonished.
"One snail." A slight smile came on Sinclair's lips. "One solitary snail—By the bye, Inspector, will you be so kind as to place the three snails where you found them?"
Paull turned to the desk and placed the three snails along the top, edge of the cardboard, about an inch apart, and half an inch from the edge. He then covered the drawing and snails with the sheet of paper.
"That's right, except for the covering paper." The author nodded. "I remember well, for after the second appearance of the snails I took full note of how and where they, were placed."
He turned to the girl.
"You see, Dora, the whole thing was bizarre—and I thought that I could later be able to use the incident in a story."
"But you said there was only one snail?" interjected Paull.
"The first time, yes. I told you that David stumbled back on me, nearly knocking me down. I pushed him into the room and into a chair. Then I closed the door and turned to him. He was staring at the drawing on his desk. Right in the centre of the top edge was one small black snail."
"Mr. Delaney seemed alarmed at the sight of it?" suggested? Paull.
"I should say he was." Sinclair smiled. "For a moment he was little more than a gibbering idiot. I got him a glass of water—had to go to the outer office for it. When I, got back the snail had disappeared but there was a bit of a mess on the linoleum just before the desk."
"That was about, a fortnight, ago." Maude Anstey interrupted. "I remember you coming put for the water. Then you insisted that. Mr. Delaney went home. I came in here later and saw the—the squashed snail on the floor."
"I thought he had done that." The author smiled. "It was the only way I could explain the disappearance of the snail. I knew he wouldn't put it in his pocket. The strange thing is that, exactly a week later, a similar incident happened—"
"A week exactly." Miss Anstey spoke excitedly. "No, a week ago, yesterday."
"Then the snails appeared at weekly intervals?" the detective mused.
"So it appears." Sinclair hesitated. "I happened to come in late that afternoon. David had just entered, the office. In fact I was in the corridor, talking to a friend and waiting for him to come up. I saw him leave the elevator and come in here. I left my friend and followed him in. Miss Anstey was not in the office at the moment and I went direct to the inner room. David was seated in that chair before his desk, his head in his hands, rocking, himself, and moaning audibly."
"Well?" The Inspector queried as the author paused. "I asked him what was the matter, and at first he wouldn't answer. I pressed him, thinking that something might have happened that I could help him with." He hesitated and smiled at the girl. "I'm not a rich man—no author can be in Australia—but I had a pound or two to spare—to help Dora's brother." Dora looked up quickly and pressed the young man's hand. Paull waited a moment before he spoke.
"'The jig's up,'" he said. "I asked him what he meant. He replied, 'You can't help Bill. I've got myself in a devil of a hole and I must find my own way out.' It was then I noticed the two snails perched at the head of his drawing—and remembered the incident of the snail the previous week. I pointed to the snails and asked: 'Anything to do with them, David?' He did not answer directly. For some seconds he sat silent, then muttered: 'When you see three snails there, Bill—look after Dora! I won't be able to.'"
"What did he mean?" asked Paull, much perplexed.
"That I cannot say." The author replied, promptly. "His manner didn't encourage me to ask questions. I let the matter drop intending to reopen it later. Hadn't a chance, though. The next day I got a commission to write six stories for the Critic. That was too good to miss, although it meant sticking tightly to my desk for a few weeks. I got Manning, the Editor, to commission David to make illustrations. That's why I came round here today. I wanted to see what David was doing with them."
"Umph!" Paull glanced from the man to the girl. "I understood that you came here to see Miss Dora?"
"Well, what if he did?" The girl spoke sharply. "Early Victorian or Edwardian, Mr. Paull?"
"Now that's where you and my missus would have words," Paull drawled, stroking his triple chins complacently. "She says that when there's girls about I'm a modern of the very latest Georgian era."
Dora laughed, gently. She turned to her lover. "That all, Bill?" Then in a very low voice: "Poor David!"
"So that's all you know, Mr. Sinclair?" Paull asked the question.
"There is one other thing I think I should mention." Yet the young man hesitated. "Just before I left David on the last occasion—when the two snails appeared—I asked him, bluntly, if there was anything I could do—money, y'know. He shook his head and pulled out a drawer, taking from it a bundle of notes! There were two or three fives, a couple of tens, and at least three twenties."
"About how many notes in the roll?" asked the detective quickly.
"About a dozen—but they weren't in a roll." The author frowned. "They were new notes, quite clean and uncreased."
"A dozen notes—fives, tens and twenties!" Paull meditated. "Three twenties—that's sixty pounds; a couple of tens, brings the total to eighty; four fives would make the clean hundred. Agree to that, Mr. Sinclair?"
"I should say you have given a fair estimate of the notes."
"Then he wasn't in want of money." Paull nodded. "What did he do with the money? Put it in his pocket?"
"No. He took one of the twenties from the packet and placed it on the desk. The others he replaced in the drawer."
"What did you do then?"
"I told him that he was foolish to keep all that money in an office desk. He grunted, and answered so shortly that I got out, as quick as possible. As I have said, I did not see him afterwards."
For some moments the detective sat, staring at the drawing on the desk. At length his podgy hand moved lightly over the papers on the desk. He found what he wanted and turned to the young man, his hand extended. "Know that, Mr. Sinclair?"
"Yes." For a moment the young man hesitated. "David used a lot of them. He was an exceedingly fine etcher. That's an etching plate."
"Hm! Small though." Paull's hand went to his waistcoat pocket and reappeared with a ten shilling note between his fingers. He spread it carefully on the plate. It fitted well, leaving a fair printing margin all round.
"What do you mean?" Dora sprang to her feet, her face aflame with indignation. "Are you inferring—"
"Testing all possibilities, Miss Delaney," Paull answered imperturbably. "Now, this plate—"
He stopped, as three slow knocks sounded from the outer office. In a single second he was at the door, wrenching it open. He sprang into the outer office and looked around. The place was empty. With an angry exclamation he ran to the flap in the counter—to jump back with a shout of astonishment. On the centre of the flap, at intervals of about an inch, were arranged three small black snails.
INSPECTOR PAULL was seated in the small dining-room of his house at Bourden Road, Ashfield. On the mahogany-topped table before him lay a strange collection of articles, all of them associated with the murder of David Delaney. Outside, it was raining. The wind, driving the rain in thick gusts before it, rattled on the windows like a charge of buck-shot. Paull shivered. Although it was only early autumn the rain had brought a distinct coldness in the air. The detective was engrossed in the problem before him, yet once he looked up as a particularly violent, gust rattled-doors and windows and swayed the walls of the house, to return immediately to a concentrated contemplation of the articles on the table.
They were few. A large sketch of a man seated at a desk, drawing; and behind him a menacing figure creeping up, intent on murder. On right side of the drawing was placed six small, black snails, and on the left a thin plate of metal and a length of cord with a knot in it.
There was little there to trace man guilty of the sin of murder, yet Paull did not despair. The three snails! Twice on the one day he had seen the three snails and then within a hate couple of hours. He had found the first three on the desk at which the dead, man sat. The second three had come on the office counter while he had been investigating the inner room.
The thought brought a smile to his pursed lips.
Many years' police work had taught him that the most dangerous criminal is the one who commits his crime and then leaves matters to follow their normal course. The criminal who tries to control or assist fate, plays directly, into the hands of the police.
Men who represented themselves by the sign of the 'Three Snails' had murdered David Delaney. They had done their foul work well, yet had hot been content to leave it. They had feared enquiries; they had tried to threaten him, and in doing so were playing directly into his hands. Now he awaited their next move, confident that it would offer him one more link in the chain of evidence he was trying to build.
Yet as he turned to the table, he sighed. The few articles before him represented almost a minimum of clues. They were all he could find in the dead man's offices bearing on the murder. They—and the story the young man—Sinclair—had told. He had searched the offices thoroughly, yet one thing he lacked. He wanted the packet of bank-notes Sinclair had mentioned in his story. He wanted to find a meaning behind the bank-notes; he wanted the connection between the banknotes and the Three Snails. He could guess—and he did; but there was little of the substance of evidence in the theory he had constructed, covering the few facts he had in hand.
In some way, David Delaney had come in contact with men from Sydney's underworld. In some manner they had obtained a hold over him. They had demanded from him certain work. What work? David Delaney was an artist. Then, it was possible to believe that the work was connected with Delaney's general occupation—or his hobby. And that hobby was etching. Paull remembered asking Dora Delaney if her brother had made money from his etching, and the girl had shaken her head.
Again Paull spread a bank-note on the metal plate. It fitted, but the margin around the note was irregular. For some moments he sat back, pondering then levered himself to his feet, scrambled to the door.
"Mary!" he called, gently.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the upper floor of the house.
"Mary, got a fiver about?"
"Me?" A stout, pleasant-featured woman came to the head of the stairs.
"Me and a fiver! Why—"
"Just the fiver, Mary dear." Paull rubbed the lowest of his triple chins, thoughtfully. "For the time I'll spare you—the fiver will be sufficient—yes, for the time!"
Mary chuckled delightedly. "Just like all you men!" She commenced to descend the stairs, slowly. "Leave your lawful wives at home to do the cleanin' and cookin' and go ambling off to Paris House, or the Ambassadors with some bit of frock. Oh, you men! And of all men—why did I ever marry a policeman?"
"'Cos you wanted taking care of, darling." Paull matched her laughter with, a subdued rumbling that shook his large frame. "Sure, if you hadn't married me you'd have been in Long Bay today—an' you know it, so don't deny it. Now, as to that fiver?"
"Me and a fiver!" The stout woman tapped the detective on his broad chest. "And what might Walter Paull be wanting with a fiver on a night when all decent men choose to stay at home?"
"Lor'." The Inspector groaned, "she, calls a detective a decent man. Don't you know the company they keep, honey? Rogues, thieves and vagabonds! Why, if it weren't for the uniform—"
"Fine one you'd look in uniform—if you could find or build one to fit you." Mary Paull passed her husband and went into the dining-room, looking inquisitively at the articles on the table.
"Ugh! Taking to collecting snails! Well, I could find you better Ones than those on my dahlias, boy—prettier ones, too; but I hate the beastly things. I can't bring myself to handle them. I have to knock them off into a tin of salt and water—"
"Salting them down for a rainy day?" Paull chuckled loudly at his small joke.
"Getting away from the fiver question." The stout woman laughed, gently. "Who's the girl, Walter? Don't mind me knowing, do you?"
"Not a bit, old girl." Paull's arm slid rounds his wife's ample waist. "Name's Mary. Good-looker, though she runs slightly to weight of late years. Shows her good taste—copying her fancy boy?"
"Go on, you!" The hand that tapped the Inspector's cheek was not light, although affectionate. She disengaged herself from Paull's arm and went to the corner of the room. From under the corner of the carpet she took a five-pound note and brought it to him.
"Now, don't waste it, dear."
"Lor'! An' she's been married to a detective for more'n twenty years!" Paull groaned. "Keeps her loose change in a vase and her solid cash under the edge of a carpet. Well, well!"
"What if I do?" Mrs. Paull bridled. "There's some people I know of as can't keep cash at all, at all. Thank the lord, I've got a husband who brings a cheque home, not cash. Good thing, too, if he had cash, he'd lend it, like—"
Mary became silent. For some moments Paull looked at his wife, a grin on his face. He slipped an arm around her, drawing her to a chair he set close beside the one he had occupied at the table.
"Thinking of Mrs. Milestone, Mary!"
"Aye." The woman turned and drew out his pocket handkerchief to wipe her eyes. "Poor woman; got a journalist for a husband—and never a bean in the house. He gets big money and gets away with it big, lends money to other journalists and then has to try to borrow it back. Them journalists never have money—although they earn plenty. They—"
"Alice Maplestone been here today?"
"What if she has?" Mary shifted; uneasily on her chair. "She came to—to—"
"To borrow a quid—and you let her have it." Paull shook a finger at his wife. "Thought I was the one at fault, lending money?"
"The poor woman hadn't a cent in the house," Mary defied.
"And today only Saturday. Maplestone gets paid Friday," Paull commented.
"Well, I can't see her starve—and now you're wanting fivers, Walter. If you're going out on wet nights to the Ambassadors we shan't have many of them left—"
"We'll have to take up the carpets, eh, what?" Paull chuckled. "Ah, well, old dear, we won't starve, even if you do lend quids to writer-chaps wives."
"And as for that fiver you're making all that fuss about—just look here. What's this metal plate for?"
He smoothed out the note and placed it carefully on the plate. It fitted exactly, with an inch margin all round. Paull looked up, to catch his wife's eyes. She nodded. "Came from that poor fellow's office?" she asked.
"The David Delaney case." Paull nodded. "You caught it in one, old girl. Yes, that plate's for bank note engraving."
"Bit thick, isn't it?" Mrs. Paull was turning it over, on her hand. "Why, Walter, it looks like two plates—a thick and a thin one stuck together."
"Hmph!" Paull bestowed but a cursory glance on the plate held out to him by his wife. He was arranging six dead snails in a row along the edge of the table. "Now, Mary, you're clever. Explain these?"
"Ugh! The nasty things!" Very gingerly she touched one of the shells with the tip of a finger. "Dead and dry—and six of them?"
"Three on his desk when we found him and three more on the counter in the outer office when someone thought I was getting too hot on the trail."
"Three snails." Mary Paull tucked her husband's handkerchief in his pocket, arranging it methodically.
"Three dead snails—looks to me like a sign, Walter.
"And is, on—What's that?" From the direction of the window came the sounds! of cutting wet glass with a diamond—a long, slow grating sound. With finger to his lips, Paull rose to his feet and moved in; the direction of the sound. At the window, he released the spring blind with a jerk. Immediately the sound ceased. He peered through the window out on the rain-swept street. A standard lamp was immediately opposite his front gate and he could see the dim outlines of his little front garden as well as the street beyond. There was no one in sight.
"Getting old—getting nervy!" Paull complained. He mounted a chair and pulled down the blind.
"Somebody was there." Mary Paull asserted positively.
"Then they jumped up on to the roof to escape." The detective laughed. "They couldn't have even got to the road before I was at the window, m'dear."
"No." The woman spoke doubtfully. "I heard them cutting the glass when you had your hand on the blind."
"Nerves!" Paull shook his head slowly. "Effects of a misplaced youth—That's right misplaced—Lost it so long ago that I've forgotten just where. Say, Mary old girl, we've had our time, eh? Hasn't been bad, has it? You've stood by me like a real brick and I've stuck tight to you—"
"Stuck tight! Should think so." Mary shook, with suppressed laughter. "Let me tell you, Walter there aren't many husbands in Ashfield as would stay in, wet night or fine, if their wives handed them five pounds notes when they asked for them. Stuck ti—"
Paull sat down heavily on his chair, which answered with creaks and groans under the sudden weight. As Mary was speaking the lights in the room had failed, leaving them in total darkness. Again at the window sounded—the grating cutting of the glass.
Paull climbed to his feet with an agility surprising in a man of his bulk, and moved around the table, followed by Mrs. Paull. At length he came to, the door and pulled it open. The passage was in darkness. He found the light switch and worked it up and down with no effect. He glanced towards the kitchen, at the rear of the house. The light there had been burning when he had been in the hall before. Now it was out. For some moments he stood listening. The strange sound was still coming from the direction of the window.
Whispering a caution to his wife, for silence, Paull stole to the front door. Half-a-minute's wait and he wrenched the door open and ran out into the rain. There was no one in the front garden—yet the sound of glass cutting still came from the window. Paull went down the path to the gate and peered up and down the road. It was deserted, glistening with the still driving rain. There was not a soul in sight. Picking his way gingerly over the wet grass—for he had only carpet slippers on, he went to the window. So far as he could see in the semi-darkness there was nothing against it—yet the sounds of cutting continued.
"Damn!" Paull scratched his head, thoughtfully "What the—" He went to the front door. Mary was standing there, a pocket torch in her hand, gazing up at the electric light-meter. One glance showed the detective one of the main wires had been cut. An ugly frown came on the detective's good-humoured face. Taking the torch from his wife's fingers he beckoned her to, follow him to the window.
Waiting a moment to listen to the strange sound, he pressed the trigger of the torch, and threw the light on the grass. "My! Look there, Walter!" Mary pointed to a corner of the window panel. On the glass was a small, black ball. As the detective watched, it moved upwards—and from it came the grating, cutting sound.
"Jove! A snail!" Paull burst into a roar of laughter. He picked the thing from the window and tossed it over the hedge into the road. "Gave me quite a start, it did!"
"Me too." Mrs. Paull picked her way from the grass to the doorstep. "And my feet are all wet, too."
"Go up and change your socks, old girl," Paull ordered.
"But the light, Walter?"
"I'll fix that." He pushed her inside the door and followed to the dining room. Taking a chair to the porch a few minutes work sufficed to give light to the house for the evening. As he entered the dining room again, carrying the chair, he stopped suddenly.
Someone had been in the room. The sketch still remained where he had placed it, but along the edge of the table were only three of the snails he had placed there. On the table lay the metal plate, bent and twisted.
"Well, they made a 'fiver' out of their work." Paull laughed ruefully. "No, I'm damned if they did." He bent to the floor and picked up the note, screwed up in a ball.
"Now what sort of crooks have we here—refusing easy money, throwing it about as if of no account?" Then he noticed a white envelope on the seat of the chair on which he had sat. For some moments he stood, surveying it, his lips pursed to a soundless whistle.
PAULL made no motion to pick up the envelope. For a long time he stood staring at the envelope, his little mouth pursed, but silent. In his eyes were a strange gleam, as of damning understanding. He had forgotten his home, his wife, the snail on the window. Every nerve was merged in the white envelope on his chair. Someone had known that he had brought to his home the few clues he had found to the murderers of David Delaney. He had been watched while he sat at the table, studying them. By whom?
He did not have to think to answer the question. The only person or persons who had any interest in the matter were the men who were responsible for the artist's death.
Yet, for the time, he had not a glimmer of an idea who these men could be. The advent of the three snails on the counter in the artist's office had shown they had been carefully watching him from the time of the murder. They had followed to his home—still watching. They had decided that he was getting too close to their trail.
He bent down to study the envelope more closely. It was addressed to Detective-Inspector Paull, in awkward capital letters. He went to where his outdoor coat hung in the hall and took from the breast-pocket a powerful magnifying glass. Again by the chair he scanned the letter, still refraining from touching it. Again he went to his coat, returning with a small black box from which he took a sufflator. Dusting the letter and the chair with yellow powder he carefully blew away the residue and scanned the letter and chair for fingerprints. So far as he could see there were none.
He looked around the room. On the mantel-piece lay a pair of scissors. He brought them to the chair and caught the edge, of the letter, gently, between the blades, lifting it on to the table and turning it over. Then he commenced to dust the chair with his handkerchief.
"Well, of all the—"
The handkerchief was snatched from his hand, smartly. "If you want to dust chairs and tables, m'boy, there's plenty of work here for you." Mrs. Paull had come silently into the room.
"But—don't use your handkerchiefs. I've trouble enough getting them white as it is, the way you use them at that office of yours. Why, what's this?"
"A letter," Paull answered with suspicious meekness.
"Any fool can see that." The good lady went to the hall and returned with a duster. "Put that thing away." She pointed to the sufflator. "Littering up my rooms with your nasty dirty powders!"
"Just wanted to see if there were finger-prints about."
"Plenty, I should say." Mrs. Paull's voice was tart. "You've been in here ever since you came home, sitting at that table and drumming on it with your fingers."
She looked up quickly. "Finger-prints? Don't you know the modern crook doesn't leave them about. And—Where did that letter come from?"
"There is an echo, also asking where." Paull spoke pensively. "The strict truth is that it was not here when we went out to interview a—a snail. It was here—"
"Then those aren't your footprints?" Mrs. Paull pointed to some wet marks on the carpet. "And I thought they were. What's the world coming to? I'll be apologising to my own husband next."
"What for? Marrying him?" The detective chuckled. "No. That was a saving grace for the poor mutt."
The good lady bridled. "Aren't you going to open your letter, Walter?"
"May as well!" Taking a penknife from his pocket Paull slit the envelope down one side. From it he drew out a scrap of paper.
"Well, of all the—
"Look at this metal plate!" Mrs. Paull interrupted. "Did you do that, Walter?"
The Inspector shook his head. He dropped the paper he had drawn from, the envelope and went to take up the metal plate, but Mrs. Paull anticipated him. She turned it over on her hands for some minutes, then began to study the edges.
"Anything there, Mary?"
"I don't know. What's in your letter?"
"Just a message." The fat voice rolled in merriment. "Listen, girlie. 'Keep out of this, Paull or you'll get yours.' And it is signed by 'The Three Snails.'"
"Not much of the snail about those folk, if they can get in and out of a house while one of the heads of the detective department is standing at his front door."
Mary Paull gave an excellent imitation of her husband's snort when displeased. "Oh, my!"
Paull was at her side in a moment. With the aid of the scissors Mary Paull had succeeded in separating the edges of the two pieces of metal that formed the plate. Exercising his martial prerogative, Paull took the plate from her and examined it under his magnifying glass.
"Well?" The lady asked impatiently.
"Careful does it!" Paull went to the sideboard. From, a drawer he took a pair of pliers. Catching the thin metal sheet in the jaw of the pliers he rolled back the copper an inch. A sudden gravity came on his face and he whistled lowly. Placing the plate on the table he rolled off the thinner, topmost sheet of metal. It came away fairly easy.
"Well, I never!" Mrs. Paull gasped. "We were right."
The detective nodded. "There's the answer to our conundrums. David Delaney was a forger." He dropped the pliers on the table and took the thicker sheet of metal in his hands. A few minutes straightening it, and he placed on the table before his wife an excellent engraving of a twenty-pound banknote. "So that's what the money was in the drawer for," he mused.
"But why didn't they take the plate just now?" asked Mrs. Paull bewilderingly.
"Why did David Delaney conceal his engraving under a false top of metal?" retorted the detective.
The questions were unanswerable. All they could understand was that David Delaney had made an etching of a twenty-pound bank note; that the crooks who called themselves the Three Snails had come to the detective's home' to leave a warning, yet had neglected to take away with them the etching for which they had killed Delaney. They must have seen the plate on the table. They had, or one of them had picked it up, and, furious that it was not the etching he expected to find, had twisted the plate out of shape.
Paull wondered at the daring of the men. They had entered the house under cover of darkness caused by the cutting of the electric light main wire, after attracting the detective and his wife into the front garden through the snail crawling up the wet window-pane. They had had to use a torch in the dark dining room; yet Paull had hardly been out of sight of the room all the time.
How had they entered and left the house? If by the front door they must have passed out under the detective's observation. No. They had been wiser than that. They had entered by the back door, after arranging to draw Paull out into the front garden. In the dining room they had waited their opportunity for the few seconds while the detective was out of sight of the room. Then, leaving the letter and the twisted plate they had escaped by the back way. Ruefully, Paull remembered that a long narrow lane lay behind the lower wall of his garden.
Paull sat down heavily in his chair. He wanted to think; to co-ordinate his thoughts to the new facts. Somewhere in the events of the past few minutes lay the clue he had sought through the long evening. Somewhere in that twisted plate of metal, or the letter, was the slender thread that would lead him to the murderers. For now he knew that three men, not one, were responsible for the death of the artist. He wanted three men who specialised in forging banknotes.
His keen brain ran over the list of crooks with whom his department had come in contact during the past few years. Of forgers; of slush-workers; he could name more than a score. But, of three men who worked, regularly together his mind was a blank.
He turned to the slip of paper bearing the warning left by the crooks. Like the name on the envelope the message was printed in ungainly capital letters. Drawing his sufflator to him he dusted yellow powder over the paper. Again he was disappointed. The crooks had been too wary to leave their cards behind them.
Paull turned with a broad grin, to face his wife, seated beside him.
He shook his head. "They're too leery for me, old girl."
"Giving it up, Walter?" There was scorn in the lady's voice.
"There isn't much to go on." Paull spoke doubtfully. "Perhaps I'm getting old, old girl. Perhaps I ain't got the scientific knowledge that's wanted in these da—"
"Bosh!" Mrs. Paull spoke emphatically. "What were those names you mentioned at dinner?"
"Pass him." The lady waved the author aside, "'Sides, he's engaged to a pretty girl and she'd have too much sense to cotton to a forger."
"That all? Well, what about Ernest Delaney? He's a printer."
"No good. The man who was going to print notes from this plate isn't advertising his trade."
"N—o!" Paull thought a moment. "There's a Mr. Matthews—a friend of Delaney's."
"Friend?" Mary Paull sniffed. "David Delaney wasn't friends with the men he made that engraving for."
"Think hot? Well, there's the last of the list. A man named Persus. Delaney used to purchase metal plates from him."
Yet Mrs. Paull hesitated before speaking. "That all you know of his associates?"
"Delaney was only—strangled—last night, old girl."
"And you've had the whole day to work on the case! Now, if they only had women detectives—"
"What world this would be! Bright and handsome—"
"Sure!" Paull chuckled. "Women detectives would arrest all the plain and ugly men and let the handsome ones go free."
"In that' case there'd be quite a dearth of husbands." The retort came swift and telling.
"Score one, old girl." Paull lifted his hands above his head. "Now-"
The tring of the telephone bell broke on the detective's words. With a sigh he struggled to his feet and waddled into the hall where the instrument hung. For some minutes he remained at the 'phone, giving vent at intervals to weird grunts and exclamations. Mrs. Paull, wriggled, excitedly, on her chair, but refused to give way to her curiosity and go into the hall.
"Rolling up!" Paull spoke cheerfully, as he re-entered the dining room. "I quite agree with you, Mary."
"The Three Snails don't run true to form—or rather, I should say—name." Paull stood before his wife, rocking from, heels to toes and smiling happily. "They're quick workers, I'll say that for them."
"Sakes alive!" The lady bounced up from her chair. "Walter, do you want me to box your ears?"
"Wouldn't be the first time you've been kissed for assaulting your lawful spouse," The detective grinned. "Well, I suppose I must tell you, or you'll poison my porridge to-morrow morning. The Three Snails have taken a fancy to Dora Delaney's company."
"What on earth—"
"Abduction, m'dear." Paull chuckled. "And that game is like erecting a sign-post at country crossroads."
A WILD night of wind and rain. Paull strode moodily up and down Ashfield railway station, waiting for the electric train to take him to the city. Suddenly he paused, to glare malignantly at a poster advertising a new mystery novel by "England's Leading Mystery Writer."
"Pah! Detective stuff! The poor mutts!" He snorted indignantly. "Lot they know about detecting crime. Never had to turn out at umpteen hours in the middle of the night, in search of a girl who's fool enough to get herself abducted by a crowd calling themselves 'The Three Snails'. Pah! Poof!"
The advent of the train saved the poster from annihilation at the hands of the detective. He mounted to a first-class carriage to swear under his breath because he had to walk the length of the compartment to the smoking section. Paull was in a real bad temper. For the 'Three Snails' to set him a problem to solve—a problem relating to their identity—was but in the day's work. The detective revelled in intricate problems—in spite of his penchant to growl often and loudly. The fewer the clues revealed, the quicker his brain became, the more involved the problem, the sleepier and fatter he appeared. Yet, behind his apparent gross smoothness lay the keenness and directness of that greatest of all hunters, the man-chaser.
The train was a slow one. Paull lay back in a corner seat, steadily chewing on a half-lit cigar. He watched the deserted platforms as the train drew in to, them, and halted a bare minute and then slid out on the short journey to the terminus. The rattle and speed lulled his irritableness and gradually his brain turned to the problem before him.
Of knowledge of the quest before him he had little. The telephone message had come from Police Headquarters. He would have to go there for further details. For the present all he knew was that Dora Delaney had been abducted from her home, in North Sydney—and in her place had been left three small, black, snails.
"The Three Snails." Paull closed his eyes and before his mental vision danced three snails, their shells in the form of heads—eyes and mouths jeering at him and his lack of knowledge of their meaning. Mentally, he jeered back, scoffingly. For the time they had the laugh of him. They knew him and he had not even a suspicion as to their identity. But time would alter that. Always he had had the dread of a criminal who knew well when to let alone—the crook who planned carefully in advance and then, when his work had been accomplished, was content to sit back, content, and await the judgment of time; to watch and wait events—to calmly accept arrests and conviction if he had failed to outguess the police and safeguard himself on all points before he acted.
In his career Paull had met with few reverses. He had seemed to possess a marvellous ability to out-think and out-manoeuvre his opponents. To himself, he confessed that his success was almost invariably due to his ability to watch and wait—to watch for the mistakes of the criminal trying to improve on his original and perfected plan; to wait, until his opponent blundered into the trap he would prepare from an intensive study of after-crime errors.
The train drew into Central Station and Paull alighted and walked down the stairs into the long, narrow vaulted compartment that made the assembling platform of the electric railway section. He turned to the left and mounted a flight of stairs that lead to the main station. Opposite the covered tramway stopping place he hesitated, and then went on to the taxi-ramp. The night was wild and stormy; he had little time to waste. Surely a taxi was in order—in spite of recent emphatic memoranda circulating the department on the need of strict economy.
Ten minutes later he alighted at the dull red-bricked building at the corner of Phillip and Hunter Streets. He sauntered up the steps and through the swing-doors, into the detective branch. Twenty yards down the corridor he hesitated, glancing to the left, towards the Superintendent's office. A light showed under the edge of the door. He turned and went up the short passage and knocked. A loud, masterful voice bade him enter.
"Got here, then, Paull." Superintendent Manners locked up with a smile as the stout Inspector entered the cosy office. "Have a good journey from the suburbs in?"
"Sure." Paull strolled across to the big lounge chair in the corner and lowered his bulk carefully into its welcoming embraces. "May I inquire if this is overtime?"
"Overtime?" The bushy brows of the superintendent lifted quickly. "Now, I really was complimenting you on the speed with which you answered the telephone call off duty."
"And I imagined I lived in Australia—the home of the happy working man." Paull addressed a fly that happened to be emulating Bruce's spider up the wall beside his chair. "At one time there was a demand for an eight hours' day. Eight hours work, eight hours play, and eight hours sleep. But, now—"
"Done your eight hour's play, Paull?"
"I entered the portals of this House of Crime at the early hour of nine, ack emma, yesterday morning." The Inspector looked significantly at the clock on the big desk.
"I left for home at five-thirty, exactly. I know that, for I caught a train at St. James' station that I am informed by the Railway Commissioners through divers broadsheets and pamphlets leaves punctually at five forty-five. There had been adduced no evidence that it was late or early, yesterday."
"Eight and a half-hours." The superintendent spoke with the air of a man who prided himself on his mental arithmetic. "I presume that during the time you slept in the 'House of Crime' you awakened for meals—say, lunch at one o'clock? Ah yes. You fill that chair too comfortably to have missed a meal."
"I said—work." Paull protested, feebly.
"That's before you m'boy." The Superintendent's manner became excessively genial. "When you return to the bosom of your family you may convey to Mrs. Paull my regrets—or congratulations—that I have been forced to deprive her of a musical accompaniment to her dreams, tonight. Now, as I said, to work—"
"Three Snails." Paull spoke dreamily, ignoring the Superintendent's covert remarks. "Even a fat policeman can stand them—so long as they are without 'manners.'"
"Now I know he has woken up." The Superintendent drew a sheet of paper before him; "Listen, Paull. Shortly after eleven o'clock to-night the Department had a telephone call from—"
"A Mr. William Sinclair." Paull interjected mournfully. "I know him better as Bill. Go on, Mr. Manners, I attend your pleasure."
"Good! Mr. Sinclair informed Sergeant Palmer, who answered his, call, that he had visited at Miss Delaney's home up to nine-thirty, this evening. He—"
"—is either too good for this wicked world—or hopelessly Victorian." Paull spoke sadly.
"Eh?" Superintendent Manners looked up, startled,
"To me, the lady appeared to be decidedly modern Georgian—and rather an unique and interesting specimen." The detective appeared to be Speaking to himself. "Then—why this nine-thirty? In the days of my youth—days when I and my Mary were—"
"Oh, go to blazes!" Manners could not help laughing. "If you're going to reveal the licentious secrets of your courting days, Paull, I'll send for the night patrol."
"Then—it is possible to shock a Superintendent of Detectives?" Paull's little eyes opened wide in feigned astonishment. "But, pray proceed, Mr. Manners. My lips are sealed."
"Mr. Sinclair left Miss Delaney's residence, at Dale Park, North Sydney, at nine-thirty. Miss Delaney complained of a headache and stated that she would retire early. She also stated that she first required a breath of fresh air and for that purpose accompanied Mr. Sinclair some hundred yards down the road, to the tram-stop. Before leaving home she informed Mrs. Weston, her aunt, who is at present visiting her, that she should not be absent more than ten minutes, or at most, a quarter of an hour."
"And did not return, at all," Paull added. He mused for a few moments. "Now, tell me. How did Mr. Sinclair come to ring up the police and not Mrs.—Mrs. Weston?"
"Sinclair rang up Mrs. Weston," explained the Superintendent, carefully. "I understood that, before leaving Dale Park Mr. Sinclair was requested by Mrs. Weston, to telephone to her, that night, the time a certain train left Central Station, the next day. He did so, after consulting one of those pamphlets issued by the Railway Commissioner you mentioned a little while ago, Mrs. Weston thanked him for his information, and then asked at what time her niece would return-"
"She had apparently not returned then?"
"Nor has since—I believe trying to make that plain to you, Inspector." Manners frowned. "Otherwise I should not have requested your presence in this humble office, a this hour of the night, after your very arduous day's toil. To continue. Mr. Sinclair was surprised—"
"As I thought—intensely Victorian!" Paull murmured.
"Eh? Oh! Well, Mr. Sinclair informed Mrs. Weston that her niece, Miss Delaney had left him at the corner of the road, with the defined object of returning to her home. In his opinion she should have rejoined her aunt at least half-an-hour before that time. Mrs. Weston became alarmed. She telephoned to all Miss Delaney's friends in the neighbourhood she had knowledge of, to be informed that they had not seen the young lady that night. Then Mrs. Weston rang up Mr. Sinclair, to report her non-success in tracing her niece. Mr. Sinclair caught the alarm and rang up North Sydney Police Station. Inspector Fawcett, knowing I had placed the case in the very capable hands of Detective-Inspector Paull, immediately telephoned this office. He was anticipated a few minutes by Mr. Sinclair."
"Friend Fawcett will rise to the very top of the detective-tree, if he is not very careful," commented Paull meditatively.
"Your perspicacity is excellent," Manners murmured, gently. "I have now only to add that Mr. Sinclair is on his way here, in his car, to take Inspector Paull to the seat of the crime, and I can tap 'Bundy' gently on the nose and retire to the bosom of my family knowing that Miss Delaney's fate is in very excellent hands."
"Bundy! Don't!" A look of almost pain passed over the stout Inspector's countenance. "Bundy and I are not friends—he lets one down. I—I long to hit him, hard—"
"You shall—one day." Manners rose from his seat and reached for hat and mackintosh. "Pray don't disturb yourself, Mr. Paull. I will leave you to meditate, in solitude, not even remembering to put out the light when you leave—others will attend to that. Anon, Mr. William Sinclair—whom you know as 'Bill'—will arrive. He will bear you to North Sydney—to an investigation I am certain you will bring to a successful conclusion. Tomorrow—"
"Is there to be a tomorrow?" Paull opened his little eyes very wide.
"I believe so. Tomorrow I will resume my labours here and trust that among the numerous reports I shall regretfully read will be one announcing another success on the scroll of Fame—headed 'Paull, Inspector—"
"There are times—" Regretfully Paull ceased to speak, for the door had closed sharply on the Superintendent's bulky form. For some moments the Inspector continued to sit in the comfortable chair, then rose to his feet and wandered down the corridor to the main hall. Almost as he passed through the swing doors, Bill Sinclair sprang up the steps into Police! Headquarters.
"So you're here!" The young author sprang forward to greet the stout Inspector. "Mr. Paull, for God's sake do something! Dora's disappeared—"
"Well?" The short, snapped word caught the young man's taunted nerves, as a blow. He stopped short and glanced keenly at the detective.
"Sorry!" He paused a moment. "I've got my car here. Can you come at once?"
"Might as well." Paull shrugged his broad shoulders with apparent indifference; yet the keen, quick look he bestowed on the young man was kindly. He pulled out his watch. "Take it coolly, young fellow! We've twenty minutes before the next punt starts to cross; the Harbour." He followed the young man out onto the street, very leisurely, pulling up the collar of his mackintosh against the storm. His quiet acceptance of the situation acted as a tonic on Sinclair's frayed nerves. The young man slid into the driver's seat and set the car in motion, turning up to Macquarie Street and in the direction of Bennelong Point.
"Been to Dale Park, Mr. Sinclair?" The inspector spoke carelessly.
"Yes. I drove there after telephoning North Sydney and Headquarters and getting instructions to-come here for you."
The young author's tones matched the detective's casual words. "In fact, I was nearly a quarter of an hour there."
"Nothing." Sinclair laughed bitterly. "Just nothing! Mrs. Weston took me to Dora's room. It's just as she left it—just as if she was going to enter it again within, a few minutes. I—"
"Didn't touch anything?" Paull questioned sharply.
"No. I remembered that."
The car slid down the hill and turned to the right, joining the long line of cars waiting for the punt.
"There's nothing to show—nothing!"
"Miss Delaney went to the corner of the street with you?" Paull hesitated. "You let her return home alone?"
"It was her wish." Sinclair flushed slightly. "I didn't want to—I wanted to walk back with her but—but I've got to get up very early tomorrow morning. There's been a bit of trouble—the Critic stories, you know. I'm behind hand on my contract and I have to pick up time. Now that's important. Davy's gone and—and—Well, you know."
"Miss Delaney's alone?" Paull nodded, understanding.
"No, she has her aunt with her."
"Mrs. Weston only came up for the day, this morning, when we telegraphed her news of Davy's death. She has to go back to Moss Vale tomorrow. Dora will be alone then—all alone until—"
"Until you can get married—that it?"
The young man nodded.
"Well, well! Best thing for the pair of you. Authors are happy-go-lucky people at their best. Marriage may steady one of them down. Who knows? You'll have, something to work for then, eh? Well, well!"
For the remainder of the journey across the Harbour, Paull chatted inconsequently, recounting to the author the events of the evening at Ashfield.
Bill Sinclair was interested, asking many questions and declaring that Paull's home adventures deserved enshrining in a story. The detective laughed. He had a very small opinion of the mystery novel detective.
The car rolled slowly off the punt at North Shore. Sinclair stood heavily on the accelerator and swiftly up the hill, towards North Sydney. Some hundred yards along the main road he turned to the right and, skirting the head of Neutral Bay, came to the suburb of Dale Park. In a quiet, tree-shrouded road he brought the car to a halt before a small cottage, set back in a large, garden. Paull alighted and watched the author lock his machine. As they turned to the garden gate the detective laid his hand quickly on the young man's arm.
"You came in by this gate when you visited Mrs. Weston, just before you came to Sydney to-night?" he queried.
"Notice anything about it? Anything strange?"
"Have another look." The detective drew the young man close to the gate, yet held him back from touching it. "See anything strange about that gate?"
The young author looked up quickly at the detective. "I'll swear they weren't there when I left the house. I must have seen them when I came out, if they had been there."
"Just so." Paull nodded wisely. "Now I really admire those fellows. A boon and a blessing to a fat policeman, like myself. No guessing—all made plain for one. They come and go—and then I come. I take one single look at where they have been and state, wisely: 'The Three Snails.' Can't miss! They put them there for me to see!"
A SHORT, slight, grey-haired woman came to the door of the cottage as inspector Paull and Bill Sinclair walked up the gravel path. The detective looked at her with interest. Somehow, he had a feeling that he must watch and doubt everyone and everything he came across in this; house. For a few minutes he stood chatting with Mrs. Weston; then, stepping back on the gravel path, carefully surveyed the front of the house.
It was a low-pitched cottage, of one floor built of rough-cast walls and with a red-tiled roof. Around it was spread a wide veranda. The front door was at the right-hand corner of the house. Around the cottage lay a wide expanse of gardens, filled, as he could see in the very imperfect night-light, with a profusion of ornamental shrubs, and flowers. There was no lawn at the front of the house, facing the roadway. Gravel paths extended in all directions, broken, at intervals by trellised arches, over which straggled flowering creepers. It was a pretty place, a garden in which an artist would delight to rest and develop, at leisure. The place intrigued the detective and for some minutes he stood out in the rain, staring around him appreciatively. Then, he strolled back on to the veranda and to where Mrs. Weston and Sinclair stood watching and waiting for him.
"Nice place, Mrs. Weston." The old lazy tones crept into the Inspector's voice. To the woman he appeared to be a stout, rather amiable old police officer, of mediocre ability. "Just the sort of a place a fat policeman like myself dreams about, somewhere in the country—a place to end one's days, when retirement from active service becomes imperative."
"Yes." The elderly little woman flashed a questioning glance at the young author.
"I live at Moss Vale—"
"Pretty place." Paull nodded. "Went there once. Remember Sam Conway, Mr. Sinclair? Got rid of his wife—in a somewhat unorthodox fashion; something with arsenic in it, y'know. They found him at Moss Vale and I went there to bring him to Sydney. Queer sort of chap. Did not want to talk about anything but birds. Well, well! Don't suppose there's anything but crows where he's living now—or was it jackdaws; well, a kind of crow. Well, well."
Very quietly, almost imperceptibly, the detective edged Mrs. Weston into the house and followed. She led into a prettily furnished living room, overlooking the front gardens. For some time the detective sat, talking to her; Sinclair fidgeting, impatiently, about the room.
Mrs. Weston could give Paull little help in his quest. She had been in and out of the room where Dora and Sinclair had sat during the evening. About half-past nine Sinclair had got up, to go home—he had said that he wanted to be up by five o'clock the next morning to finish the story he would have to deliver that day. Dora had said she would walk to the end of the street with him. Mrs. Weston had protested. It was raining—but Dora had been self-willed. She had donned rain-coat and galoshes and had gone out with Bill Sinclair.
Mrs. Weston had expected her back in ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour at latest. Half-an-hour had passed and then Sinclair had telephoned to I give her the time of the train to Moss Vale, as he had promised. She had asked him if Dora had spoken of calling anywhere on her way home. She had told him the girl had not returned home.
Sinclair had been much disturbed at her news and had driven over at once. While she was waiting his arrival she had telephoned those friends of Dora, she knew of, asking if they had seen the girl that evening. By the time Sinclair arrived she had fully realised that the girl was lost.
"Lost?" Paull frowned. "You're still certain she is not with friends?"
"How can she be?" The lady gestured to the clock; the hands now approaching two o'clock. "Dora wouldn't stay out to this hour without telephoning, home. No, someone's taken her away. I—I—"
Mrs. Weston showed every sign of dissolving into tears.
"Humph!" Paull turned to the young author who had taken a seat close beside, him. "You left here at nine-thirty—to catch a tram home? Hadn't you your car with you?"
"No." There was a slight hesitation in Sinclair's manner. "I came here! direct from the city, with Dora. We had lunch in town and then took the ferry to Neutral Bay. The tram brought us to the end of this road. I spent the afternoon with Dora and Mrs. Weston—in fact I was here when Mrs. Weston arrived."
The lady nodded in confirmation of the statement. Bill Sinclair had been in the house with Dora when she had driven up, in a taxi. She and Dora had cooked and dished up the dinner. During the evening, they had sat in that room and talked—up to the moment that Sinclair had risen to go home.
Accompanied by the two, Paull made a cursory search of the house. In the girl's room he lingered for some time, walking around peering inquisitively at ornaments and articles of attire, but touching nothing. Sometimes, he chatted, freely; at other, times he fell into long silences, but always moving about some room, or from one room to another. Once he caught a glance, almost of resignation pass between the man and woman.
"Well, well!" Paull led back to the sitting-room. "There doesn't seem much for me to see around here." He stroked his triple chins reflectively. "Don't think you meed worry, Mrs. Weston. We'll have Miss Dora back, lively as a cricket, as they say, very soon."
"You know something?" Mrs. Weston spoke eagerly.
"Just a few things." Paull tried to make his laugh as fatuous as possible. "We do see things that others don't—we policemen." He laughed again. "I've seen quite a lot, tonight. Now Mr. Sinclair, how do we get back to the city?"
"But you stay here tonight." Mrs. Weston, spoke hospitably. She glanced at the clock. "You live—"
"At Ashfield, ma'am."
"But you'd never get home, at this time of night. No, no. You must stay here, I insist!"
"Very good of you, ma'am," Paull acquiesced meekly. "If you can put, me up, I'll be very glad. Sleep on the couch, here—perhaps as well. One can't see much on a rainy night and I'd like to have a look at that garden in the morning, early."
"Oh, the house isn't as small as that," Mrs. Weston laughed. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll see about a room for you. Bill, you know where Davy keeps his whisky. I'm sure Inspector Paull is just, dying for a long drink." She bustled out of the room and Sinclair turned to small cabinet, bringing from it bottles and glasses. Paull mixed a drink in appreciative silence. A long, satisfying draught and he lay back in the comfortable chair he had appropriated, satisfied with the world and all that was in it.
For some time the young author paced the room, restlessly. Paull had noticed 'that he had mixed his whisky with very little soda, and had drunk it at a gulp. Suddenly he turned to the detective.
"Mr. Paull—Inspector. What do you think? Where is Dora?"
"We-l-l."' Paull spoke slowly. The young, man had asked a question he did not want to reply to, directly, at the moment. Gradually an idea was building up in his mind; a theory so far-stretched and fantastic that he was almost afraid of it. "I can't say right off, y'know—but I don't think she is far from here—if you know what I mean."
"I don't," Sinclair said: impatiently. "And I don't think you are as great a fool as you would like us to think. I may not be a detective, but—"
"You write detective, stories, eh?" A slow rumble, answering for a laugh, came in Paull's throat. "Well, well. Read your Sherlock Holmes? Thought so. What do you think of Dr. Watson? Bit of a goat, eh?"
"Perhaps the seemingly fool question he asks, explains the detective's reasonings to the reader."
"Hmph!" Paull meditated. "Never thought of that. Well, well! I'm not a great reader of detective yarns, y'know. Always seem a bit far-fetched to me. Of course, the author knows what is going to happen and—"
"Eh?" Paull looked up, startled. "I thought it was the rule to work, from thee end to the beginning. Always envied that way of working. Suit me, just. Hang the murderer, then set out his trial in real life. There'd be questions asked in Parliament—and that's a thing the Police Department doesn't encourage."
"I like to make my mysteries; crowd, them one on the other on, a loosely strung thread of story, and then during the last two or three chapters work out the solution, tying up all the loose threads—and that."
"That so?" Paull looked inquisitive "Ever read those stories by a lady; Agatha Christie, I think. Created a French detective—no, a Belgian—who spent most of his time in England solving mysteries the English, police could not understand. They must have been grateful: Well! Well! She gave her detective a friend. Man that was always trying to get in one jump ahead of the real detective in the story—and always falling into bloomers—mistakes, I mean; not the things that Lady Habberton used to wear."
"That doesn't explain Dora's disappearance?" Sinclair exclaimed, irritatedly.
"Course not, yet it might!" Paull shook his head. "What I was trying to get at was that things don't happen in life like they do in stories. Now, if I was one of those detectives you write about I should look wise, walk three times around that table, pick up a hairpin—beg pardon, forgot girls don't wear them now; well, say a hair-slide—and tell you to look in the cellaret. No, thanks, Mr. Sinclair, no more, and that wasn't a hint. Ah, here comes Mrs. Weston. Now I'm going to prescribe for us all. One little drink, to the safe return of Dora, and then bed with clear consciences for a good sleep. Eh, what? as the English say!"
In spite of some reluctance on Sinclair's part, Paull had his way and shepherded his companions to their rooms. He found a cosy little room, at the rear of the house had been prepared for him, and stripped off coat and waistcoat, with a sigh of relief.
As he caught at the top of his collar stud a sudden thought struck him. Opening the door, he went to the room which he knew Sinclair occupied and knocked gently. The door opened almost immediately, showing the author fully dressed.
"Naughty." Paull shook a solemn forefinger. "And I thought we'd all agreed to go to bed. Just came along to tell you not to worry if you heard me at the telephone. Just going to talk to the wife. She'll worry at my not coming home, y'know." He drew the door closed, gently, but firmly and walked in his stockinged feet to the sitting-room.
Just within the door he halted abruptly and bent to listen. For some minutes he remained tensed and alert then, hearing no sounds from the passage, shut the door and went to the telephone. The number he dialled was not on the Ashfield exchange and had 'B' for an initial letter. When the call was answered he spoke in almost a whisper. His words were ambiguous, yet might have been addressed to Mrs Paull had she been at the other end of the wire. They did not refer to the case on which he was working nor entirely to home affairs—yet the Inspector seemed satisfied that they were understood.
He turned from the instrument and stole softly to the door. Again he listened for sounds without the room, but the house lay silent. Opening the door he crept back to the room allotted to him, and to bed, to fall asleep, immediately.
The sun had hardly topped the horizon when Paull was up and dressing. Taking care not to disturb the other members of the house-hold, he crept out on to the veranda and into the gardens. For some time he paced the various paths, stopping now and again to trace their direction and general relation to the house. The set of paths, to the right of the house, interested him greatly. He went over them again and again and at last stopped at the fence dividing the Delaney property from the next house.
Finding a large flower-pot in the garden, he carried it to the fence and mounted it, although the fence was very low. A short examination, of the next premises seemed to afford him considerable satisfaction. Carrying the flowerpot back to where he found it he returned to the paths and subjected them to a very careful scrutiny. Again his manner expressed satisfaction. He stood upright and looked at his watch. It was barely seven o'clock. For some minutes he stood meditating, then having formed some sudden resolve, or plan, strolled back to the house. At the top step, leading up to the veranda, he stopped and pulled off his shoes. In stockinged feet he crept into the house, into the living room where he had talked to Mrs. Weston and Sinclair the previous night. A glance around showed him a small desk, set close to the window. In it he found notepaper and envelopes. The composition of the letter gave him some trouble. Thrice he wrote it before he sat back, satisfied. Then he carefully folded the spoilt sheets and placed them in his pocket. He read the last letter he wrote with some satisfaction, enclosed it in an envelope and addressed it with a single line. Then he returned to the garden and on the bottom step leading up to the veranda, resumed his footwear.
Ten minutes later he boarded an early tram, en-route for Neutral Bay, whistling gaily. The tram arrived at the wharf just as the ferry pulled, alongside. Without a glance back, Paull went aboard, his whistling, causing some consternation among the steamer's crew.
Bill Sinclair, in spite of his worries, slept soundly. He awoke shortly after and, dressing quickly, went into the sitting room. A letter propped against the decanter caught his eyes. It was addressed to him.
He tore it open and swore under his breath as he read the few scrawled lines.
"Mr. Sinclair." Mrs. Weston spoke from the door. "I went to take Mr. Inspector Paull a cup of: morning tea and he didn't answer to my knock. I opened the door and he wasn't there. He's not in the gardens nor in the house. Has—has anything happened to him, I wonder."
"Only a sanity self-revelation." Bill Sinclair answered bitterly. "He's chucked the job; least, he doesn't say that but—but that's what the letter he wrote me means. He's gone back to the city. Now, who's going to find Dora?"
INSPECTOR PAULL was not whistling when he came off the boat at Circular. Quay. The bare twenty minutes journey had given him time for reflection—and wonderment. For the first time in longer than his memory would carry him back in the years, he had acted on impulse. There had been little in the garden at Dale Park to cause the detective to break away from his usual solid passivity.
Although he had gone to the cottage in a state of suspended suspicion, he had to confess that Mrs. Weston, for one, was free from all complicity in the crime he was investigating. At the time of David Delaney's murder she was not even in Sydney. She had arrived at the Delaney cottage some considerable time after Dora and Sinclair had returned from the city. Bill Sinclair was in a different position. Suspicion must, to some extent, rest on him until the real murderers were unmasked. He had written the story; the story the artist was illustrating at the time of his death. The artist had been killed in a similar manner to the man in the story. That could only indicate that the murderer had knowledge of what the story contained and who could that be saving only the author who wrote it, the editor who accepted it or the artist who illustrated it.
Against the facts accumulating to throw suspicion on Bill Sinclair were the three small black snails on the drawing. They had been in the artist's office while he sat before his desk, dead. Sinclair might have placed them there, but he could not have placed the three snails on the counter in the outer office, for he had been with the detective at the time they appeared. He could riot have journeyed to Ashfield to raid the detective's house, for he had been in the company of Dora Delaney and Mrs. Weston at the time of that occurrence.
He had to presume the organisation calling themselves the 'Three Snails' was composed of three men. He was certain of that. Sinclair might be one of the three; Paull had more than a suspicion that he was. Certainly he knew more of the incidents surrounding the death of David Delaney than he had told. The house next door to the Delaney cottage had interested the Inspector.
Although the rain through the previous night had washed out many of the signs on the gravel paths sufficient had remained to make the detective certain that the house next door was unoccupied, as it was intended to appear. Someone had passed from the Delaney's cottage, to the house and back again several times during the previous day. Someone had passed between the house and the cottage during the early hours of that morning, after the rain had ceased.
For a time during the journey between Neutral Bay and Circular Quay, Paull had doubted his wisdom in leaving Dale Park so precipitately. He wondered whether he should not have remained at the cottage, communicating with the North Sydney Police and having the house next door raided? He was certain that if he had carried out that plan he would have learned many strange things. But, would he had learned the whole truth; would he have learned more than that Dora Delaney was detained, in that house; if, indeed, she was not staying there of her own free will? A police raid would have settled the many questions that puzzled the detective's brains concerning the cottage and the house next door.
But he doubted if that raid would have gone any way towards solving the mystery surrounding the murder of David Delaney. More, he had a feeling that the raid would have shrouded the murder with a still deeper pall of mystery. He came to the conclusion that he had been right to follow impulse—although he was dissatisfied that he had, in his mature and sober age, allowed impulse to master him. He grinned as he thought of the disgust on the young author's face when he found and read the letter he had left in the sitting room. But, the boy wanted a lesson. He was of the mystery writer class—writers that the detective had a deep and abiding loathing for. He was of the men who created a murderer, laid the clues backwards, and then constructed a crime to fit what they had planned.
He laughed, silently—a laugh that shook his bulky frame—at the thought of Sinclair on the trail of the girl's abductors. That would be real detective work and the author, at the end of the trail, might have to considerably reconstruct his theories of crime and criminals.
Again in the city, Paull made his way to Random Buildings and ascended to the offices formerly occupied by David Delaney. The door was locked, but Paull carried a key. He looked round the two rooms carefully and then locked the door behind him.
In the offices, standing in the doorway between the two rooms he mentally reviewed the crime. The artist was seated at his desk, finishing the illustration to the crime story. The door from the corridor was stealthily opened and a silent, stealthy black shadow glided into the room. The slow minutes passed as the shadow crept towards the inner office. The sudden, sharp spring; the tightening of the cord around the victim's throat; the dragging of the dead body back in the chair; and, the departure of the murderer.
And the reason for the crime? The double metal plate told that. Delaney was an associate of a gang of forgers. They have provided him with the metal plate and the banknotes he was to imitate; but—Why had Delaney covered the etching with the thin plate of copper? Paull remembered that his wife had stated, in her emphatic manner that Delaney had not been on friendly terms with his criminal associates. Had he covered the etching with the copper plate so as to conceal it? If that supposition was correct then there was only one logical explanation.
David Delaney had been forced to carry out the work of forgery under some definite threat. But while he had been engaged in the work he had sensed, some means of escape from his thraldom. It had been good policy for him to continue the work in case his avenue of escape from the criminals' clutches proved unusable. But, when lie had completed, the etching he had covered it with the copper plate, so that it should remain concealed until he could escape from his obligation—or hand over the etching to his associates.
The theory was reasonable. In some manner the criminals had discovered that Delaney planned to escape from the hold they had established over him. They had; gone to his office late in the evening, knowing, his habit of working long after the-dinner hours. There had been a quarrel; possibly the forgers had demanded that the etching be handed over to them immediately? Delaney had refused to comply, with their demands and they had killed him.
Then had followed the quick search of the offices. The crooks had departed, disappointed, never thinking that the etching they sought had been under their eyes all the time, perhaps actually in their hands. They had taken the bank notes away with, them. Then they had set a watch on the offices. They had come to the conclusion that the detective had discovered what they had sought, in vain. They had raided his house only to discover what they thought to be the etched plate was of plain metal.
But Paull had to acknowledge that not one of the theories he constructed would lead to the discovery of the identity of the 'Three Snails.' Sinclair might, be one of the gang. If so, then Persus might be another member? Who was the third? Could the third man he was seeking be David Delaney's brother—Ernest—the printer?
Paull left the offices, careful to lock the door behind him. A few moments of hesitation and he commenced to canvas the offices on that floor. He found there were quite a number of them. He made his inquiries in a strange, haphazard fashion, seeming more interested in talking, to the girl-clerks—and about the girl-clerks in the building. Gradually a straight line settled around his little mouth, as again and again his casual questions failed to bring the information he sought.
Then—he had just come out of an office and was debating where next to call when the elevator came to the floor and a girl alighted. She walked quickly down to David Delaney's office. At the door she opened her bag and took out a key. A moment and the door opened and the girl entered. Paull strode swiftly down the corridor and, followed her into the offices.
For some minutes he stood watching her.
"Good morning, Miss Anstey." The detective spoke casually.
"Oh!" The girl straightened from the desk over which she was bending. "Mr.—Inspector Paull! Why—you gave me quite a shock. I didn't—"
"Didn't expect to see me here?", Paull finished her sentence as the girl paused. "Now, that shows bad psychology on your part, m'dear. You should have guessed that a detective, like a ghost, returns to haunt the scene of the crime."
"But—but I thought you had—had finished here?"
"Oh, because—" Maude Anstey looked distressed. "Well, because you had taken him away—and—"
"But had not discovered who put him there." Paull chuckled.
"No, m'dear. We don't consider a case finished in our Department until we've caught our man and handed him over to—to—well, you don't want to know that."
"Then you think—" Miss. Anstey broke off suddenly. "But, what can you do here?" She faced the detective boldly. "Are—you—are you watching—me?"
"Not before ten minutes ago." Again Paull laughed his strange silent laugh that shook his huge bulk. "Fact is, Miss Anstey, I've made a mistake. I clean forgot all about you—until an hour ago.
"I?" The girl caught her breath suddenly. "What—what do you mean?"
"As a factor in the—" For quite an appreciable time the detective hesitated "—in the murder mystery."
"But—but I didn't murder him. I—I wouldn't for I—" The girl sank sobbing into a chair, tearing futilely at her bag for her handkerchief. Paull crossed the room to her side, lumberingly.
"Now, now, m'girl!" He drew out his own handkerchief and pressed it into her hand.
"Cry into that, if you want to cry at all. You can't get over the fact that you discovered him and telephoned the police. You can't, any more than I can, get over the fact that I made a big mistake when I forgot all about you. Hmm! Wonder what my missus 'ud say? Once a girl called me a 'shriek' and Mary—that's my missus—said 'it wasn't a bad description, even though I hadn't got it quite right. Now, I when I tell her I quite overlooked a pretty girl in conning my problem—well, well—she'll call me better, than a shriek. Ah! I thought you'd soon smile if I went on talking. Mary says I'd make a great nurse to put babies to sleep with my lullabies."
Maude Anstey had recovered her composure. She was looking up at the detective with a little smile on her lips.
"I'm quite all right now, Mr. Paull and—and—please let Mrs. Paull know that she's quite right."
"About the 'shriek' business?"
"No, about the lullabies."
"So? I'm as good as that eh? Well, what about yourself, young lady? You're no dud at it, are you?"
"What do you mean, Mr. Paull?" A frightened look came in the girl's eyes.
"Crooning lullabies to—to something larger than a baby."
"That a certain young lady wasn't so frightened and alarmed, at coming to work one morning and finding a dead man in the offices as she—well, as she might have been."
"You can call me 'Walter' if you like—or 'dad.' Perhaps the last might be better, as then Mary would have nothing to complain of. Never could persuade her that modern girls judge men by looks, not weight. She still thinks I'm a runner in the Philanderers' Stakes. Now, what do you think?"
"I—I think you could be—be very nice." There was a twinkle of amusement in the girl's eyes; a vagrant dimple at the corner of her mouth.
"As nice as—as David De—"
"Mr. Paull! He's dead!"
"My mistake, m'dear, I'd forgotten. By the way, know Mr. Persus?"
"No." The word was most emphatic.
"Thought so! A little bird whispered to me that Robert Persus thought very well of himself, eh?"
"He's—he's a fool, a conceited fool!" The girl spoke hotly.
"So? Thinks too well of himself?"
The girl nodded, a slight blush creeping into her cheeks. "So that's it?" The girl's eyes met Paull's and she nodded; dimpling. "Just have to raise your finger and he'll come hoppin' eh?" Paull laughed softly.
Again the girl laughed and dimpled.
"Suppose I asked you to raise that little finger? Now, m'dear don't get excited. David Delaney wasn't a bad sort of chap, was he? You'd do a bit, to get—well, you know."
"I think—" The girl hesitated, then rose from her chair and came to where the detective was standing. "Mr. Paull, if you'll trust me—tell me plainly what you want me to do—I'll—I'll try—"
"Good girl!" Paull patted her shoulder, approvingly. "'Tisn't much I want. You know where Persus lunches? Thought so. Well—Say, got plenty of money." His hand went to his trousers pocket and came away with a note, screwed up. "Oh, take it, m'dear. You're a member of the Police Department, for the time. Now, get to that lunch room and have a bang-up lunch. See Persus and let him talk to you—But then, you're a modern girl and don't want instruction in that from an old 'has-been' like me. Just tip the gentleman off that you're taking care of these offices until the Delaney estate is settled up—and may be alone here to-morrow afternoon. That'll fetch him."
Maude Anstey laughed and nodded.
"Thought so." Paull joined in her laughter. "He'd be deaf, dumb, blind and plumb silly if he didn't—and you play your cards right. Now, remember. Three o'clock, to-morrow afternoon and—and if things go right—well, you can wear it again."
"Wear what?" The girl looked up startled, and the smile banished from her lips.
"The ring that you used to wear on the third finger of your left hand." Paull only breathed the words. "No need to be frightened, m'dear. Shall I guess more?"
"Know what? That David Delaney put that ring there? Yes."
"WHAT the hell do you want here?" The man seated at the other end of the room, facing Anstey, looked up angrily as Inspector Paull entered the offices and lifted the counter-flap. "Get out, can't you?"
"Mr. Persus—Robert Persus, isn't it?"
"Yes. Who are you?" The short, slight, foppishly dressed man stroked a small slightly-twisted moustache; of straw-coloured hairs.
"Inspector Paull. Investigating the Delaney murder." The detective spoke distinctly, watching the man closely. He wondered if he had noticed a slight start from the man when he mentioned his name.
"Paull." The man frowned. "Well, what do you want here? Don't think the murderer's going to hang about these offices, waiting for you to pick him up, do you? Pah! You detectives make me sick. But, who can wonder—" His coarse, bold eyes swept Paull's rotund figure with contempt. "No one but a fool would set a fat man to catch a murderer."
"Yet a tortoise once raced a hare." In spite of the humility with which Paull spoke he was enjoying himself. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Persus."
"Might be glad to meet you elsewhere, Inspector." The man winked lewdly, bringing a swift, blush to the girl's cheeks. She looked, at Paull helplessly. He dared not signal to her, for the man was watching him keenly. "Had any luck yet?"
"Not until today."
The fatuous look on Paull's good-humoured face deepened and he strolled forward with an air of eager confidence. "Fact is, I've had a most astonishing piece of luck.. All but got my hands on the party I want."
"That so?" Persus hardly bothered to conceal his contempt. "Well, why not go the whole hog. I'll entertain Miss Anstey while you're completing your job. Good-day Paull; see you; later." A slight wave of the over-manicured, bejewelled fingers was intended to sweep the detective from the visible map; but Paull stood his ground. A short nod and a wink, when the man turned towards the girl, reassured her.
"But that's—" Paull commenced.
"What?" Persus swung round, almost a menace in his manner. "I told you to get out. Now get."
"But—I've arranged to meet him here." The lazy, sleepy look had crept into the detective's face.
"Here?" The man glanced from the detective to the girl, sudden suspicion in his eyes. "You mean to say, you—"
"Just that." Much of the fatuity had gone from Paull's voice. "Like to meet him, Mr. Persus?"
"The man who murdered David Delaney."
The man paused, quickly.
"What?" The detective, questioned.
"I was going to say that the man who murdered Delaney would not be such a fool as to come here. Why—"
"Rather a remarkable theory." Paull drew up a chair, placing it so that he could interpose instantly between the girl and the man, if necessary. "You theorise that a murderer smells blood, and won't come near it, unless forced. Something, like the theory that prevailed in the middle-ages when suspects were forced into the presence of the murdered persons. Our forefathers had the idea that the victims would sprout blood when the real murderer came, near. Perhaps they had it wrong—and you are right! That the murderer on the scene of his crime can't help confessing."
Persus nodded. A puzzled look came in his eyes. "May be something in that," he acknowledged.
"What do you think, Miss Anstey?" For the first time the Inspector addressed the girl. "But, there! Not a very pleasant subject to argue before a lady, is it? Still, I'm interested. S'pose you committed a murder, Mr. Persus—"
"What!" The man was on his feet in an instant. Immediately he recovered his composure and resumed his chair. "You have queer ideas, Mr. Paull."
"So the missus says." The detective stroked his triple chins, thoughtfully. "Still, I try to reason them out while, so far as I can see women trust to what they call intuition and that's a form of guessing. Still, I'll say this for her; she often guesses right."
"When are you going to catch your murderer?" The man fidgeted, uneasily; his eyes flashing banefully at the detective. "You say he's coming here? Well, I'd like to meet him, but—" He looked at his watch. "Half-past three! I say, Miss Anstey, what about afternoon-tea and a dance."
"Oh, but I can't spare her." Paull spoke quickly. "You see, I engaged Miss Anstey as my assistant yesterday."
"Your assistant?" The keen, black, eyes flashed from the man to the girl. A dark flush mounted to the man's face. "May I know when?"
"Of course. Yesterday, midday, wasn't it, Miss Anstey. Of course I remember, just before lunch. She's a member of the New South Wales Police Department, now."
"Is she?" Persus swung round on the girl so quickly that she started back in her chair. "So that's why you were so pleasant all of a sudden. You little—"
Paull laughed throatily; yet he moved forward between the man and the girl. "Nice girl, Miss Anstey, isn't she?" The detective's face was inexpressive. "What's the matter, Mr. Persus? Going to leave us?"
"Damned little double-crosser!" The man turned on the detective, with a snarl. "Well, I'm going to congratulate you on your assistant. You might ask her what she knows of David Delaney's murder."
"S'pose I ask you." Again Paull's bulk interposed before the man, this time barring his way to the door. "At the same time you might explain how you come to know the facts you suggest? You weren't here when David Delaney—er—died?"
"Find out!" Persus snarled. "I'll tell you this; she was."
"I guessed that." The detective's quaint silent laughter shook his portly frame. "Thought that directly I came in here. A girl doesn't come to her office in the morning and find a dead man there without showing a lot more emotion than Miss Anstey let me see."
"So you're not as dumb as you look!" Persus laughed. "If you keep on like that you'll discover something more—with luck."
"I'll chance the luck," Paull grinned. "Going, Mr. Persus! Now, do you know I've got so fond of you that—"
"What?" the man asked, as the detective paused. "What's on your mind? Going to arrest me?"
"Now, what made you think that?" The inspector hooked a chair towards him, kicking it into a position that commanded the door. "Ever been in the United States, Mr. Persus?"
"Yes. What of it?"
"Then you know their police have an excellent facility. They get out a 'John Doe' warrant and detain anyone they think would make a material witness of the prosecution."
"You think I know something?"
"Sure of it." Paull nodded, in satisfaction. "You've just told me so."
"I told you?" The man sneered, openly.
"'Course! Didn't you tell me that Miss Anstey was here when—er—David Delaney died? What's that but a hint that you were here, yourself?"
For a full minute Persus looked at the Inspector, the colour fading from his face. Then, without warning; he struck at the police officer. Paull had expected something of the kind to happen and was on the alert. The man found himself caught in a grip of iron and forced back into a chair. For a moment he struggled against the detective, then became passive.
"That's right, little man," Paull smiled genially. "Now we'll get along." He glanced at his watch.
"Nearly four o'clock. The others will be here, soon."
"Mr. Paull!" Maude Anstey looked up at the detective with wide, frightened eyes. "You don't—don't believe what he said?"
"But I do, my dear girl." The Inspector's, smile was reassuring. "You puzzled me at first, but when I had time to reason things out I began to—Well, what shall I, say? I can't say, suspect—I don't want to say, doubt. No, neither of them will do. I'll just remark that if you'd come in this office without knowing what to expect, you'd have shown a lot more agitation. There's others in the same: boat. Perhaps we'll get at the root of the business this afternoon."
"Wait and see."
The detective turned at the opening of the door. "Ah, there you are, Mrs. Weston. And Mr. Sinclair, as well. Sorry to have had to leave you that note this morning, Mr. Sinclair—but if you people call in the police and then try to keep them in the dark—well—"
Bill Sinclair opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it and coloured slightly. The Inspector placed a chair for Mrs. Weston.
"Sorry I had to cancel your journey home." He chatted easily to Mrs. Weston. "Oh, I should have introduced Miss Anstey. Miss Maude Anstey, a fellow artist of Mr. Delaney and—No, we'll leave that for a time—just till we see how things work out. Then there's Mr. Persus, traveller for a firm who makes metal plates used by etchers. Good plates, too. I've got one in my pocket and a real fine etching on it. Not going to leave us, Mr. Persus. I thought I had persuaded you to stay, and see the drama—er—comedy, I should say, worked out."
"Aw get on with it and less talk." The man turned his back on the detective.
"Why not?" Paull went to his seat. "There's three more people to come and I'd have liked to have waited for at least one of them. A Mr. Delaney—no, not David Delaney, but his brother, Ernest. He's a—Ah, here he is."
The detective broke off as the door opened. "Know Mrs. Weston, Mr. Delaney? Of course, she's your aunt. And, Mr. Sinclair—going to be your brother-in-law. Then there's Mr. Persus. Ah, I thought you knew him. If you hadn't—" His voice died away in a little rumble.
"What's this gathering for?" Sinclair swung sharply on the detective. "And where's Dora? You rang me up, midday, and told me she'd be here this afternoon."
"T'isn't over yet." Paull grinned and crossed his stout legs, comfortably. "The ladies object to a little smoking? Thanks. Now we'll get along."
For a considerable time he was silent, busy lighting one of the rank stogies he favoured. The cigar drawing freely, he looked: up, glancing around the little circle, inquisitively.
"Time we made a start." He glanced at his watch. "I'm going back to when Miss Anstey rang up the Police Department and reported that she had come here to find Mr. Delaney at his desk—dead." Again he paused, meditatively. "There was one thing I noticed and thought queer."
Paull resumed, after a satisfying puff or two at his cigar. "A girl who comes to her office in the morning to find a dead man there, is usually much disturbed. Miss Anstey appeared, to me, to take it as a matter of course." He paused and smiled at the girl. "All right, m'dear! It does sound tough that way, but I'm speaking of things as they struck me.
"I asked Miss Anstey what time she usually left the office and she told me, about five o'clock. At the same time I noticed that she had, for some considerable time, been wearing an engagement ring—and that that morning it was missing. By the way, Miss Anstey, got that ring here?"
Without replying, the girl opened her hand-bag and produced a half-hoop of diamonds. At the detective's nod she slipped it on her finger.
"That's better." Paull turned to the others. "Lad—no, lady and gentlemen. May I introduce Mr. David Delaney's fiancée?"
"But David Delaney is dead," exclaimed Sinclair.
"So he is." Paull bent a peculiar look at the young author. "Now, if you'll let me continue my report? Thanks. I found Mr.—er—Delaney seated at his office table in rather peculiar surroundings. I am not going to mention them for you are all well acquainted with the facts. I made just one mistake there. Perhaps it has caused some confusion. If so, I'm sorry. After all, I'm only a fat policeman and not supposed to possess brains.
"Before I left this office," continued Paull, after a pause, "I came to the conclusion that David Delaney was mixed up with a gang of forgers—that he was making the etching plates from which the notes were printed. That's right, Mr. Sinclair, isn't it?"
The young man nodded, miserably.
"And you, Miss Anstey?"
"He was tempted." The girl answered spiritedly. "But—he didn't."
"No," Paull interposed. "Here's the first and last plate David Delaney etched. A darned good one, I'll say that, but he hid it so effectively that the crooks had it in their hands and didn't know it. Now, why was David Delaney tempted to break the law?"
"May I?" Maude Anstey spoke slowly. At the detective's nod she faltered then continued bravely. "David and I have been engaged for some time. We wanted to get married, but—"
"Natural." Paull smiled cheerfully. He turned to the metal plate traveller. "Now, Mr. Persus, I'll have those notes."
"What notes?" The man gasped.
"Not bank-notes." There was real enjoyment in Paull's laugh. "Just those P.N.'s that David Delaney signed for money borrowed from you to pay his debts in the speculations you led him into."
"I'll see you damned!"
"Not a bit." The detective held out his hand and after a few seconds hesitation Persus took from his pocket a bundle of papers and handed them over.
"That's good." He tossed the papers to the girl. "You'd better take charge of them, Miss Anstey—at least for, the time. Now—"
"Mr. Persus came to David Delaney and pressed for payment of the notes." The girl continued rapidly. "David couldn't pay. He had not the money. Then, that man insisted that David worked the notes out David was willing to do that in legitimate work, but refused to make plates for bank-note printing." The girl hesitated. "I was away for a time and during my absence Mr. Persus induced David to try his hand on a plate—that one." She pointed to the plate Paull had placed on the desk.
"When I returned I was able to convince David that he was making a mistake. He wouldn't destroy the plate, but he covered it with a sheet of copper, concealing the etching."
"Good!" Paull interrupted. "Now, m'dear. Get on to the night of the murder.
"I left the office at five o'clock, I as I said." The girl spoke dully. "David came with me and we had dinner, together. I had to make a call and we arranged that he was to come back here and finish the illustration for Bill's story. I was to call for him soon after half-past seven and we intended to go to the pictures."
"You did come back here?" Paull questioned.
"Yes." Maude Anstey hesitated. "To find—"
"A man seated in the chair before David Delaney's desk—dead?"
The quick opening of the office door prevented the girl answering. Two men and a woman entered the office. Immediately the woman passed the counter she ran to Bill Sinclair.
"Where, have you been to?" the young author questioned, anxiously. Before she could answer Maude Anstey had run to one of the men passing the counter.
"Davy! Oh, Davy, I've been so frightened for you!"
The man glared round the office, over the girl's head. Paull stepped forward, a warning in his eyes.
"Glad to meet you, Mr. David Delaney." The smile on his lips broadened. "Should I say I'm glad to welcome you back to life?"
"QUITE a queer case." Inspector Paull was seated in Superintendent Manner's office, pulling steadily on one of the rank stogies he offended his fellow-mortals by smoking. "Rather enjoyed it, towards the end, though they had me beat, at first."
"Can't quite make head or tail of it, yet." Manners frowned perplexedly. "David Delaney's strangled, then turns up full of life to marry a pretty girl."
"And I'm to give away the bride," Paull grinned. "Don't know what my missus'll say. She's always declaring you give me the cases where I get mixed up with a lot of girls."
"Get that out of your head." The Superintendent spoke quickly. "I've a great respect for Mrs. Paull and I'm not going to quarrel with her just because she's got a lying, tricky, good-for-nothing, girl-chasing husband. No, sir! Get that, straight!
But Manners drowned Paull's defence.
"You came here to tell me the true story of the Delaney case. Now, get on with it."
Paull sighed, trying to pose as the much misunderstood man. He rolled the stogie between his lips, and a broad grin spread over his fat, good-humoured face.
"A real strange tale!" He laughed, in anticipation. "Now, if you'll let me do some of the talking, I'll make it plain to you."
He waited a few seconds, then continued.
"First thing I noticed when I got I down to Random Buildings was that Miss Anstey did not appear so greatly distressed at finding a dead man in her office when she arrived, yesterday morning. I wondered a bit, but not so much as when I found that she had been in the habit of wearing an engagement ring, and wasn't wearing it then. An hour or so later I came across another lady who seemed to think that the murder of a brother was a casual happening of life.
"The two things set me thinking. It wasn't long before the few brains I'm credited with put me on the right trail. Here it is!
"David Delaney managed to get in the toils of a man named Robert Persus. Persus is a scoundrel who doesn't care where the money comes from so long as there is plenty of it. He saw that Delaney's ability as an artist could be turned to fruitful account in the bank-note industry. But first, he had to get him in the right frame of mind."
Again Paull paused, to critically examine his stogie. "David Delaney was engaged to his assistant, Maude Anstey, and wanted to get married. That was Persus' opportunity. He induced Delaney to enter into a series of speculations, lending him the money for the purpose and acting as financial adviser. Naturally, the speculations failed. Now Persus had Delaney where he wanted him. He offered to hand back his Promissory Notes to Delaney if he would make a series of bank-note etchings. Delaney half-fell for the trick and Persus sent the plates to his office."
"I don't think Delaney is a very strong character—one of those inferiority complexes that seem to be all the rage now-a-days." Paull continued after a pause. "I'm guessing that he confided his predicament to his sweetheart and that she opposed the proposition bitterly. That enraged Persus and he brought into the game a printer from North Sydney, named Chalmers."
"The dead man!" exclaimed Manners, interestedly. "Now how did Delaney come to kill Chalmers?"
"He didn't, or he'd be in the Central Police Station cells now." Paull spoke imperturbably. "I'm going to draw your attention to the afternoon before the murder took place.
"Maude Anstey knew something of her lover's irresponsible, or should I say, artistic, character. She worked on him to break with Persus and tell him to do his worst regarding the P.N.'s. But, in the meantime Delaney had commenced to make one of the etchings. Maud Anstey found him at work on it and persuaded him to telephone Persus that he wouldn't go on with the scheme. Persus was furious and wanted to meet Delaney and argue the matter out. Backed by the girl, Delaney refused to meet the man."
"Yet he kept the plate he had made," suggested the Superintendent.
"That's so." Paull drew strongly on his cigar. A few seconds and he continued. "He kept the plate, but to hide it covered it with a thin plate of copper. That happened the afternoon before the murder."
"Well?" Manners questioned, as Paull hesitated. "About six o'clock Delaney and Miss Anstey went out to dinner. During the meal they came to a complete agreement—that Delaney was to cut Persus, absolutely. Then they parted for a time. Miss Anstey to call on some girl; Delaney to return to his offices and complete the illustrations he was making for Sinclair's story. He had only an hour or so of work before him. Then the girl was to call at the offices for him and they planned the pictures for the rest of the evening."
"What happened during Miss Anstey's absence I don't quite understand—perhaps we shall never know. Anyway, Delaney met a friend and yarned with him for some time. He only got back to his offices a few minutes before the girl arrived. She entered his room to find him standing beside the desk, staring down on a man seated in his chair, strangled."
"Persus confessed to the deed." Paull spoke slowly. "He says he had arranged to take Chalmers to Delaney's offices to arrange there the printing of the notes. When Chalmers heard that Delaney refused to go on with the scheme, he, also tried to draw out. I think," added Paull, "that Persus held him by similar means to those he tried to bind Delaney with."
"And Persus killed Chalmers in Delaney's offices? Why?"
"To incriminate Delaney." The detective answered quickly. "Printers are plentiful—there are dozens of little printers whom Persus could use. But etchers of Delaney's quality are few and rare."
"Well!" Again Manners showed impatience.
"There's little more." Paull laughed gently. "The plan to leave Chalmers in Delaney's offices and bring in the police, claiming that the murdered man was Delaney, can be credited to Miss Anstey. She evolved it to puzzle and frighten Persus. It did. The man couldn't understand That set him improving on his original plan—an always fatal thing for a crook wanted by the police to do. To straighten matters to his liking again, Persus tried out another scheme."
"He planned to get Dora Delaney in his power and through her bring Delaney under his thumb again. Strange, he planned to use the house next door to the Delaney cottage, where David Delaney was hiding. He was watching the cottage when Dora left to accompany Sinclair to the tram-stop. He caught the girl while she was returning home alone and carried her into the house, confining her in one of the rooms. Of course David Delaney was on the watch and when Persus left released his sister. They arranged to stay in the house, hiding, until I had got on the scoundrel's, track. They had plenty of provisions and could jump the fence to their home, next door, for clothing and things. Fact, Miss Delaney told me that if I hadn't tumbled to Persus's game so soon she would have come to Police Headquarters in search of me, and confessed the whole thing."
"But the raid on your house? How could Persus get away with that while he was abducting Dora Delaney at North Sydney?" objected the Superintendent.
"I worked that out." The Inspector showed interest. "It was a neatly planned game. Persus had a fast a car awaiting him at Dale Park. Immediately he had secured Miss Delaney, he jumped in the car and came to Ashfield. The times are close, but he was specially favoured with a wet night and little traffic on the road. Then he managed to run a punt across the harbour, without waiting. A real genius scheme!"
"Then Persus was 'The Three Snails?'" Manners laughed.
"He planned to make Delaney, Chalmers and himself 'The Three Snails.'" A broad smile illuminated the Inspector's cheerful countenance. "At the end he carried the triple load himself, and it broke his back—or shall we say, neck?"
"While the rest of the characters in the story live happy ever after." Manners turned to his desk.
"Including the investigating detective," suggested Paull meekly.
"Him?" The Superintendent swung round on his chair, in stimulated amazement. "Him? Why, when he wakes up from this latest pipe dream of his I'm going to give him a real mystery to investigate."
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