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Title: The Unlawul Adventure Author: Aidan de Brune * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1701261h.html Language: English Date first posted: November 2017 Most recent update: July 2023 This eBook was produced by Terry Walker, Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Proofread by Gordon Hobley. 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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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.
"SORRY, Miss Allerson, 'fraid I can't make use of you. Now, if you had only come here a couple of days ago. Mr. Montague Butte's secretary would have filled our job well. As it is, well you know, we've engaged a young lady, and—"
Matthew Chalmers, managing director, of the States Finance Company Limited, looked across his desk at the young girl. Quickly he added:
"If you'll leave your address, Miss Allerson—"
"Will that be of any use, Mr. Chalmers?" Ray Allerson's voice was low and pleasant. It was one of her greatest assets.
"Can't say," the stout, good-humoured managing director grinned. "We don't like to chop and change here. Our assistants are old friends, as well as old servants. They stay with us and we find that suits our business. Now, this young lady we've just engaged. Must give her a fair show. Say, three months. If then—"
"I may not be here in three months." Ray spoke dejectedly. She was thinking of the remaining few shillings in her purse.
"Sorry, Miss Allerson. We'd have liked to have had you. Excellent references—and all that—"
"Thanks, Mr. Chalmers." Ray turned to the door. "At present I am staying at the Occidental Private Hotel. If I change I will advise you."
"Do." Chalmers strode around the big desk. "And—and Miss Allerson, come and see me again, some time. I may hear of something that will suit you. See?"
Ray nodded, blinking back the tears that burned her eyes. She went quickly through the big offices to the street, longing for the open air.
How many times had she heard Montague Butte speak in that manner to applicants for positions when she sat secure in her position, at her desk? The words were kind; they were meant kindly, but they carried nothing tangible.
Now she was an applicant for work; she who had felt herself so secure in her position as personal secretary to the managing director of the Rayonon Hosiery Company. Montague Butte had died suddenly. A new man had occupied his chair—a man who wanted to bring in with him new people.
Ray had resigned under pressure, confident that her savings, would carry her through until she obtained new work. But Melbourne had proved barren, and she had come to Sydney.
Days had passed and she had grown desperate. Now her last hope had failed. She doubted if she had the pluck to try again—she had not the money to wait.
Ray turned down the long street towards the harbour, careless where she went. It was late afternoon. Soon she would have to turn towards the private hotel where she lodged. She feared to go there. Hints would be thrown out that she had not paid her last week's bill. Perhaps there would be more than hints—plain speaking. She might be asked for the money, and she did not have It.
Oscar Beringer! He stayed at the private hotel. A little shiver shook the girl when she thought of the man. He was suave, polite, subservient. But, under that manner, she sensed the predatory animal. At first she had rather liked him. Incautiously, she had let him know her position. He had offered her help—but with the offer had come a change of manner. He had tried to be possessive; hinting at arrangements that brought the hot colour to her cheeks.
She quickened her pace. What was she to do? She was young, strong and healthy. She could work, and work well. She wanted work—and there was no work for her.
Unconsciously she halted, abruptly, and looked about her. She had wandered into Macquarie Street and stood before Taunton House. Oscar Beringer had his rooms in that building. Why had she come there? The rich colour flooded her face and neck. She turned away, then hesitated.
Oscar had offered to lend her money. Could she accept his offer?
Why was she allowing sex to intervene? For all she knew the man had spoken in good faith. Had she wronged him, reading into his words and manner a meaning he had not intended? Something drew her to the building. She could not go home without money or work. If Oscar would lend her enough to settle her hotel bill, she knew she could get work soon. Then she could repay him; thank him for his friendship. She climbed the stairs, fearing to face the questioning eyes of the lift attendant.
Oscar Beringer's dental parlours were on the fifth floor. Ray was tired and distrait, when she stood before the closed door. She hesitated a moment, then summoned her courage and knocked gently. Then she knocked louder.
There was no answer to her summons. She knocked again, still louder; then tried the door-handle. The door was locked. With almost a sigh of relief she turned away. He must have gone home.
Again the distaste to return to the private hotel seized her. On the stairs she paused and counted her money. Could she remain in the city, seeking a modest meal at some cheap restaurant? She could not make up her mind.
Now she feared the streets, rapidly emptying of the homeward hurrying crowds of workers. To delay leaving the building she took to walking the corridors on each floor, scanning the names of the tenants painted on the frosted glass of the doors.
Half-way down a corridor on the third floor she halted suddenly before a door. On it was only a name—"R. S. Allerson." Ray chuckled.
Who was R. S. Allerson? Herself? That might be. She was Ray Sara Allerson—R. S. Allerson.
Some little quirk of devilment held her before the door. Who was this R. S. Allerson? Male or female? A strong curiosity possessed her. Before she left that building she must know.
Ray tapped lightly at the door. No one answered. She tried the handle, pushing gently. The door gave to her touch. Beyond it she gazed on a handsomely fitted lounge-room.
What was R. S. Allerson? Taunton House was mainly occupied by doctors and dentists. Which profession did this person follow? Ray looked around her, inquisitively. Nothing in the room gave a needed clue. She crossed the room, her steps deadened by the thick-pile carpet, to a door on the right. The door was ajar. Ray pushed it open and stepped into the adjoining room. She gave a little gasp on finding herself in a bedroom.
Now Ray found clues to answer one of her questions. "R. S. Allerson" was a woman. No one but a woman would fit a bedroom in that manner. The girl looked around her, appreciatively. She felt akin to her unknown namesake. R. S. Allerson was a woman of remarkably good taste.
A door on the opposite side of the room stood partly open. Ray went to it and peeped beyond. She looked on a room peculiarly feminine—the exclusive boudoir of the unknown. The zest of exploration overcame Ray's scruples. Beyond the boudoir she found a bathroom and a beautifully appointed kitchenette.
The girl sighed enviously. Who was this R. S. Allerson who could occupy so wonderful a suite in the city's most exclusive quarter? The rent of the place must be enormous. The furnishings represented many years' income for the business girl. A strange curiosity to see and study her namesake came over Ray. She passed quickly through boudoir and bedroom to the first floor. She named it the reception room.
Reception room, to what? There were no signs of trade or profession in the suite. Certainly "R. S. Allerson" could not be a dentist. Nowhere were there signs of the multitudinous instruments and machines peculiar to that industry. The room had not the atmosphere of a surgery or consulting room.
Ray dropped, tiredly, into a comfortable chair and leaned back restfully. Her cloche hat irritated and she plucked it off, throwing it and her bag and gloves on a nearby table.
A quirk of mischief seized Ray. She would wait there until "R. S. Allerson" came, and introduce herself. She wanted to see the woman who bore her name. Did she do so in full? Were there two Ray Sara Allersons. In the world?
For some time Ray sat, cosily relaxed. The humour of the situation had faded—now only curiosity remained. She kicked off her shoes and wriggled her toes lazily. It was good to be there—to allow that restful chair to possess and comfort her tired body—to close her eyes, knowing that around her were beautiful, soothing things, comforting to her rather material soul—to close her mind—and—
Ray slept, while the long shadows of the afternoon blended into the grey of dusk. She slept, serene and confident, gradually falling into that deeper slumber where dreams and imaginings cease to exist.
"MISS ALLERSON! Miss Allerson!" A woman's voice lifted Ray again into this world. She opened her eyes and drew her stockinged feet under the chair. By her side was standing a woman, tall, fair and buxomly built.
"Yes," Ray answered, vaguely. She sat up. "Have I been asleep?"
"I should say so." The woman laughed. "We found the door open and—"
"I found the door open," Ray interrupted. "I came in and sat down for a moment and—"
"And went to sleep." Again the woman laughed. "S'pose I must introduce myself. I am Maude Penlop—Miss Maude Penlop, y'know."
Ray nodded. The name meant nothing to her. She wondered how the woman had come to call her by name.
"I knew you by your photograph—cute to send it to us so that we should recognise you." There was subservience in Maude Penlop's voice that Ray disliked intensely. "Oh, by the way! Mr. Frederick Dutton, one of our—er—assistants. You know him?"
Ray nodded, although she had not even heard the name before. The woman and man intrigued her; she wanted to know more before she revealed herself.
"It's fine to meet our chief, at last." Dutton, a short stubby man with a florid face decorated with a tooth-brush moustache, spoke easily. "We have long admired your brains, Miss Allerson. It is a compliment to be allowed to work under you. In the short space of time in which you have built up your organisation—"
"We've found it damned profitable, eh, Freddie?" Maude laughed hardly. "Don't take any notice of Freddie's talk, Miss Allerson. He can spin on like that by the hour. The worst is that he can't snap out of it. Keeps it flowing, even when he's among friends. Just fancy you coming in and dropping down in the first chair asleep. My, but you must be tired."
"I was." Ray stifled her bewilderment. Organisation! Compliment to be allowed to work under you! She wanted to laugh. She, who that day had been refused a chance to work!
"All talk, Maudie." Dutton sauntered across the room. "You talk and forget what you came here for. Remember, Miss Allerson has came off the long train journey from Melbourne, has no doubt had a busy afternoon and drops asleep directly she gets into her rooms. Now I suggest that you help her to a bath and a change. I'll amuse myself for half-an-hour."
With a gesture he opened the door leading into the bedroom and waited for the girls to pass him. Maude nodded.
"Bright idea! Come on, Miss Allerson. I'm lady's maid for this occasion. I unpacked your things, as you requested and put everything in order. My, your frocks are 'IT!'"
Thoroughly bewildered, Ray allowed herself to be led into the bedroom. As she passed Maude the woman closed the door, at the same time touching her on the arm.
"See this, Miss Allerson?" She touched a button on the wall. Immediately another door slid across the opening. "Gives you all the privacy you want. You shut yourself in your private rooms, leaving the reception room apart. Great idea. Isn't it? I thought of it and Freddie designed the works. There's other doors to the corridor you can use when you don't want to go through that room. See!"
Ray nodded. She was looking for a door to the corridor to the bedroom. There was not one. Quickly she passed into the boudoir. There were doors to the bathroom and the kitchenette, but not one to the corridor.
"But these rooms were designed as offices?" she commenced. "Why is there no door—"
"Oh, you mean the corridor there," Maude laughed. "Come and look—"
She went to a section of the wall in the boudoir and touched a spring. Two panels slid aside. The woman opened a door then revealed, swinging it back. On the glass was painted "J. Tomlinson."
"Each door has a different name on it," the woman explained. "All the rooms have been taken in the names of different tenants. Now watch!"
She pulled Ray into the corridor and shut the door.
"The panels slid across directly the door was shut." Maude explained. "Here are the keys. When you put the key in the lock a spring rolls back the panels and you can open the door. Get it? Now come in and tidy up."
In half an hour Ray followed her companion into the reception room, bathed, refreshed and clad in a dress that was a dream in green. As she entered Dutton sprang to his feet, admiration glowing in his eyes.
"Miss Allerson!" he murmured. "Jove I never thought—"
"You never do, Freddie," laughed Maude, as if she had scored a personal triumph. "You'll soon forget the little Maude you profess to love when you view the resplendent Miss Allerson. S'pose I must fall in line—a mere mistress of the ceremonies. Ah!"
A knock sounded at the door Maude went and opened It.
"Now I commence my duties," she announced, dramatically. "Miss Allerson, allow me to announce and present our local chief."
Ray turned, a premonition tugging at her heart—to look into the keen, suspicious eyes of Oscar Beringer.
FOR some moments Beringer stood just within the doorway staring at Ray with narrowed eyes. The girl's heart missed a beat. Would he identify, denounce her or, as the others had done, accept her as the owner of the apartment?
Ray hardly dared to move her eyes from the man. Oscar Beringer a crook! She had been introduced to him as one of the leading men of his profession in the city. She had thought him wealthy, influential. Yet, there had always been a doubt. He had money she knew that. He was generous, in some ways, but—
"Miss Allerson!" The man advanced until he stood before her. "Jove, the likeness is wonderful!'
"You mean—" Ray varied the tones of her voice slightly.
"There is a girl where I live," The crook spoke slowly, "who is your very double. For the moment I thought you were her."
"Your voices are not alike," Beringer declared finally. "You have—What shall I say—an accent—no, an intonation, that is far different."
"Thank you." Ray laughed, slightly accentuating the nasal twang she had assumed. "Perhaps I acquired that during the years I spent in the States."
"Well, Oscar?" Maude broke in, impatiently. "That's all you've got to say to our new chief?"
A slight flush of anger came on the man's cheeks. Ray suddenly remembered that Maude had spoken of him as the head of the Sydney gang. With a light laugh she turned to the girl.
"Still head, Maude. I am only a visitor in this city."
"Very pretty," Dutton broke in. "Miss Allerson abdicates her authority. But—there are others who may have something to say to that."
Maude turned, suddenly. Ray looked up at the two men and caught the challenge that silently passed between them. For a brief moment she saw the truth looking out of Maude's eyes.
Her heart bounded gaily. Beringer might be chief of this city's gang of crooks, but his authority was not unquestioned. Dutton was jealous of him. And Dutton held Maude. The woman would follow his lead. Ray was elated she hardly knew why. She knew that she had usurped the place and authority of some woman who bore her name and a remarkable physical resemblance to her. She knew that this unknown woman—this R. S. Allerson—who like herself had come from Melbourne, was a crook. She knew that Maude Penlop and Freddie Dutton were crooks.
What would they say when they knew that she was an imposter? A shiver shook her. She had read much fiction. She knew that these men and woman who stood without the pale of the law, had no mercy for those who trespassed on their secrets.
She had drifted into an impossible position. Soon the real R. S. Allerson, the owner of the apartment, would arrive and denounce her. What would happen then? She looked up at Beringer, suddenly. His eyes were on her face; a slight cruel smile curving his lips. Did he truly suspect her?
"Well?" she challenged.
"That's right, Miss Allerson," Maude applauded. "These men will talk all night, if you let them. Freddie can't help it—it's his stock in trade. Oscar, well, he's so used to telling his patients that it won't hurt that he thinks he can put it over everyone."
Beringer laughed, lightly. His eyes were still on the girl, as if trying to pierce down to her soul. Ray knew that he still harboured doubts; that back of his mind lingered suspicions waiting for an incautious word from her to bring into open hostility.
She wanted to get way, out into the clean open air. Why had she allowed herself to become mixed up in this riddle of crime? A word would have saved her, when the man and woman had discovered her asleep.
But their acceptance of her as their leader; their knowledge that line for line, feature for feature, she was the living image of the woman who reigned over this gang of crooks, had intrigued her. She had waited, to learn more—and had allowed herself to become too far entangled to withdraw in safety. For the present she must go on, penetrating their secrets, until she found an opportunity to escape—or denounce them.
And, somewhere near at hand—to be discovered or discover at any moment—lurked the woman she was impersonating.
"This leads nowhere," Ray spoke impatiently, daringly. "I wanted to see you tonight, for a certain purpose; I am tired, very weary, after my journey. Mr. Beringer, won't you sit down?"
Her assumption of leadership tensed her companions. Seated, they leaned towards her, expectantly.
"I have not been satisfied." The girl continued, coldly. "Affairs in Sydney have not progressed as I expected, wished." She paused. So far she had spoken of what she had learned from the woman crook! Now she must venture.
"Will Mr. Beringer explain?"
"Is explanation necessary?" The man spoke cynically. "We know why Miss—er—Allerson is here. She says that she is not satisfied. What does she expect?"
"Action," Ray retorted, quickly. She saw the trap into which the man was trying to lead her to expose her ignorance. "Mr. Beringer, I ask you to explain."
The man bowed. For a full minute he was silent. "So far we have failed in our endeavours." His lips straightened as he spoke. "Of course, we have not had much time. Perhaps in a few days—"
"What have you done?"
"Amy Warren has been removed from her position," he answered tersely. "That leaves the way open."
"I beg your pardon. I forgot." Beringer laughed. "Miss Warren was personal secretary to Matthew Chalmers, managing director of the States Finance Company."
Ray tensed. What was the man leading to?
"That leaves the way open to placing one of our operators in a confidential position with the company."
"You have a plan?" A slight smile parted Ray's lips.
"We have distinct hopes—in fact, I may say we are assured of success."
"Have you seen your operator lately?"
"I left her but an hour ago. She is very confident."
"Unwisely so." Ray laughed. "Mr. Beringer, I am afraid you have missed badly. Mr. Chalmers engaged a personal secretary some days ago."
"What?" The exclamation came from Maude.
"I know." Again Ray laughed. "The position is filled. What now, Mr. Beringer?"
The man bit his lip.
"Who is the woman?"
"That is for you to discover."
The girl's derision stung the crook to anger.
"She must be removed." Beringer sprang to his feet and paced the room. "As for that little fool—"
"Another—fool, Mr. Beringer?" Ray's voice was dangerously sweet. Maude giggled.
"There will be no strong-arm business." The girl stated, emphatically. "You have failed, Mr. Beringer, on that point. Have you more to report?"
The man shook his head.
"We awaited your arrival before taking further steps," he added.
"And your instructions?"
"You know them." Beringer answered defiantly. "Why ask me to go through them again? I must have time to consider what steps I can take to carry out our plans."
"Our plans, Mr. Beringer?" Ray was daring much; "Will you inform me what part you had in framing those plans?"
"Miss Allerson's right." Dutton struck his hand, heavily, on the arm of his chair. "The scheme comes from Melbourne. All we've got to do is carry out our instructions. That's the agreement."'
"Freddie's right!" Maude laughed. "Fact is, Miss Allerson, Oscar's too fond of his own way. All we've—"
"That's enough." Beringer spoke angrily. "I'll answer Miss Penlop and Dutton in another place."
"With your strong arm bunch to support you," Maude sneered. "No, Oscar, now Miss Allerson's here we can do without you and your Chi methods."'
Beringer turned on his heel and strode to the door. "That's enough from you," he snarled. "We'll see what the gang has to say. Listen, there's a meeting tomorrow night. I'll answer then. The crowd'll decide if we run our own show or are we to be run from Melbourne?"
"Sit down." Ray spoke softly. To her surprise the man obeyed. "You have fallen down on your instructions, Mr. Beringer." She paraphrased the information she had gathered. "Melbourne frames a scheme and calls on Sydney for help, under our definite agreement. You want time to revise the scheme to meet your own particular ideas. Is that in our agreement?"
"No." Dutton answered. "Melbourne leads, we obey orders and get one-third of the loot. If Sydney had framed the scheme then Melbourne would have followed our instructions and taken one-third of the proceeds."
"And because our instructions have not been followed I have had to come here?"
"That's so." Maude nodded. "Tough isn't it? Oscar's messed it up, considerably."
"Do you know the full scheme?" Ray turned to Dutton.
"No." The crook glanced, uneasily, at Beringer. "Y'see, your letter was addressed to Beringer. He told us of it and gave us instructions."
"But not the full details?"
"Have you my letter, Mr. Beringer?"
"What's the use of it, when you are here and can explain?" The man's bold eyes were full of suspicion.
For the moment Ray was nonplussed. She could not explain the details of a scheme of which she was almost entirely ignorant.
"Cut it out, Oscar!" Unconsciously, Maude came to the girl's aid. "Look here, Miss Allerson, I'll tell you what I know. If Freddie knows more he'll add his bit. That'll be better than you giving us a lot of old stuff."
She waited a few seconds, frowning thoughtfully; then continued:
"About a week ago your letter came. Asked us to get someone placed with the States Finance Company. You wrote there was a good thing on. Something between half and a whole million of good honest-to-God sovereigns—"
Ray was startled. She flashed a glance at Beringer. He was sitting back in his chair, his eyes fixed on her face, questioningly.
"Well?" she asked, breathlessly.
"Oscar said the States Finance Company had to remit that sum to London. Melbourne was planning to intercept the shipment," Maude continued. "You claimed our aid and we agreed to give it to you."
"Anything to add, Mr. Dutton?" Ray turned to the crook.
"Not a bean." Freddy waved an airy hand.
"There was more than that in my letter, Mr. Beringer," The girl spoke confidently.
"You know that." The master crook spoke gruffly. "I don't know what you do in Melbourne, but I don't trust my crowd with all the details."
"No?" Ray laughed. "Perhaps I am more confiding than you. Let it pass. Now, what have you done?"
"I told you. I got that girl, Warren, away from her job. Planned to put my girl in her place.
Beringer sat up, leaning forward, intently.
"Failed in a queer way," he replied after a pause. "There's a girl where I live who's the living image of you, Miss Allerson. Comes from Melbourne too. Was personal secretary to the managing director of the Rayonon Hosiery Company. Out of a job, and I thought she might fill the bill—"
"And did she? No, you told me that she did not get the position."
"She never even heard of it. I tested her out and found that she was goody-goody—even though damned hard-up. Tried to bring her to heel and—"
"Offered to lend her money."
A dull flush mounted to the man's brow, He glowered at the girl angrily.
"What's that to do with anyone but myself?" He raised his voice "She was attractive—"
"To you; not you to her." Ray laughed. "Will your crowd, Mr. Beringer, stand for your placing your amours before your business?"
"That's one for you old sport." Dutton chortled. "I'll answer that: we don't, Miss Allerson. Now you're here, you give the orders. See?"
"I'm tired," she said. "Will you please excuse me, Mr. Beringer, I will see you tomorrow. Mr. Dutton, I am going to keep Miss Penlop—Maude—with me for half-an-hour. I hope I am not intruding on any plans you have made?"
The crook rose and picked up his hat.
"See you at the old place, Maude, in half-an-hour," he remarked gaily. "Good-night, Miss Allerson. Good of you to see us so soon after your journey. Come on, Oscar, old sport."
He took the man's arm and urged him out of the room. As soon as the door closed, Ray sprang to her feet and went into the bed-room, followed by Maude. As the door closed she touched the spring working the panel, then turned and placed her hands on the woman's shoulders.
"Maude, can I trust you?"
"Course, old dear." The woman flushed.
"I must get away from here without that—without anyone knowing." Ray spoke quickly. "Will you wait here for half-an-hour and then join Mr. Dutton? Tell him I am tired and have gone to bed." She hesitated. "Must I go out at the front door?"
"There's another exit." The woman laughed. "I see the joke. You're going to watch Oscar."
Ray nodded. "Another exit?" she questioned. "How do I find it?"
"In the corridor go to the right. At the end of the corridor is an automatic elevator. On the ground floor you'll see a door opening into a court. From there, is a way into a passage, leading into Phillip Street. That do?"
"Excellent." Ray was changing rapidly into her own clothes. As she picked up her hand-bag, she paused. "Maude have you any money? Someone picked my bag in a store today!"
"Lifted your sugar!" The woman laughed. "Twenty do? Good! I haven't much on me, tonight. Ta-ta, dearie. See you tomorrow."
"As early as you like." Ray's finger was on the button working the panel concealing the door. "Alone, please, Maude."
Ray closed the door behind her and heard the panel slide into place. She sped down the corridor to the elevator. In Phillip Street she jumped into a cruising taxi, giving, the name of her hotel.
HALF-AN-HOUR later Oscar Beringer entered the lounge of the Occidental Hotel. For a brief moment he stood in the doorway then sauntered over to where Ray sat.
"Evening, Miss Allerson. Any luck today?"
"Yes." The girl looked up smiling. "My luck has turned. I have a job."
"Good." Beringer held out his hand and Ray shivered, slightly, as she placed hers on his palm, "Congratulations! Do you know, Miss Allerson, I met a girl today, who is the very image of you."
"Really! How embarrassing!" Ray laughed. "I hope she will have better luck in Sydney than I have had, up to today."
And while she was speaking Ray was wondering at her own words. What had induced her to tell him she had work? Had it been the strange, glinting challenge in his eyes that had suddenly decided her to go on with the unlawful adventure into which Fate had plunged her?
WITH a light laugh, Ray rose and left the room. At the door she hesitated and looked back. Beringer was staring after her, a puzzled frown on his face. She ran up to her room and, the door closed behind her, thought quickly. What should she do?
She had told Beringer that she had obtained work. That was a lie unless—She paused in her thoughts. Had she meant that she intended to go on with the game she had commenced that evening, the impersonation of the mysterious R. S. Allerson, mistress-crook?
Could she do it? Could she penetrate the secrets of this band of crooks chance had thrown across her path? Could she penetrate their schemes and bring them to failure? She might do it, if—
She had impersonated the master-mind of the gang. But, in her favour had been the fact that not one of the three crooks she had dealt with knew R. S. Allerson, personally. They recognised her only from a photograph.
In Ray's mind was the thought to go back to the Macquarie Street apartment and continue her impersonation. But, for how long could she sustain it? At any moment the true R. S. Allerson might return; then—
Ray harboured no delusions with regard to her safety. She had already penetrated too far into the crooks' secrets to be allowed to escape unscathed. She knew R. S. Allerson for a crook; leader of a dangerous gang of criminals. Then, there was Oscar Beringer.
The man held a good reputation in the city and in his profession. He was a dentist with an excellent and profitable practice. Men who knew him, believed in his integrity and honour. She could expose him—destroy his carefully built up reputation and set the police on his track.
Whatever view of her action the woman crook took, Ray knew that she could expect no mercy from Beringer. Before she had penetrated behind his mask of honesty she had wounded his vanity. In the Macquarie Street apartment that night she had struck again at his self-conceit, berating him—belittling him in the eyes of the gangsters he tried to arbitrarily rule.
Dare she return to Macquarie Street? She had told Maude Penlop to come there early the next morning. She had intended to be there to meet her; nay more, she had proposed to return to the apartment that night.
Dare she carry out her project? If she went there she would find the real owner in occupation? Involuntarily, she took the keys Maude had given her out of her bag. A ripple of laughter escaped her lips. Maude had mistaken her for the owner of the apartment and had handed over the keys. Now the woman, for whom the apartment had been prepared, could not enter, unless—
Unless she had gone to the apartment within half-an-hour of Ray's departure. Maude would be there during that time; then she would leave to join Freddie Dutton, at their rendezvous.
That short half-hour was the shoal on which the scheme slowly forming in Ray's mind might founder. If R. S. Allerson had met Maude—
A cold shiver ran down Ray's back. She dared not think of what revenge the crooks might take on her if they discovered her impersonation of their leader, if she fell into their hands. Ray knew that no pleading, no vows of secrecy, would save her. They would act ruthlessly, to safeguard themselves and their secrets.
Ray knew that her intention to return to Macquarie Street was not based on idle curiosity. That evening she had discovered a criminal plot to steal a very large amount of bullion from a financial house. She had, at present, but a hazy idea of the means by which the theft was to be accomplished—although the crooks believed the plan to be of her making. With a gay little chuckle she picked up her hat from the bed and went to the mirror. She would go back to the apartment. For the moment she held the advantage over the woman who so closely resembled herself in face, figure and name. She had the entry to the apartment—and her unknown double had not. If "Sara"—Ray had by this time come to think of the other girl by her own second name—if Sara came, well, she would be the woman in possession; and that was reputed to be nine out of a possible ten points.
As she opened her bag to replace the keys Ray saw the bank-notes she had borrowed from Maude. Here was another problem. What madness had caused her to ask the woman for money? How could she pay it back?
Staring at her reflection in the mirror, Ray suddenly laughed. "I must have penetrated far under skin of her double that evening. I had borrowed from the gang!"
Why? Because she was almost penniless? Had there been, through a whole adventure, an unexpressed thought to fight the crooks using their own money against them.
She ran down the stairs and was on the street, watchful not to come within sight of Beringer. He was a problem she wanted to avoid for the present; yet she knew that she would have to face it some time. For the present she must be Ray Allerson, late secretary to the managing director of the Rayonon Hosiery Company at the Occidental Hotel and R. S. Allerson at the Macquarie Street apartment. Could she sustain the double role?
It would be terribly dangerous. One slip and—a cold shiver ran down her spine. She knew she could expect little mercy from the man. Almost she could vision his eyes lighting up with passion and greed of vengeance when he knew that she was safely in his power.
Out of sight of the Hotel she hailed a taxi, directing the driver to Taunton House. She had determined she must return openly to the apartment. By driving up to the door of the house, she would learn from the hall-porter and lift attendant if her double had been about the place.
The night porter was lounging on the steps when Ray's taxi drew up at the curb. He hastened to open the door. Ray looked frankly into his face, letting him scan her features, yet watching to discover if he gave any sign of recognition. With a little gasp of relief she saw his face remain immovable.
"Anyone call for me?" she asked, abruptly,
"Miss—Mrs—?" The man hesitated.
"Miss Allerson. Miss R. S. Allerson," Ray amended.
"Certainly, Miss Allerson. No. No inquiries or messages, Miss Allerson."
Ray nodded, and passed into the house. If Sara had been to Taunton House she had not made herself known to the porters. So far, so good.
She waited while the man swung open the gates of the elevators.
"Automatic, at nights, Miss Allerson." The man followed her into the cage. "Shall I take you up, Miss?"
Ray nodded. It would be wise to let the man see her enter the apartment. If Sara—Ray chuckled quietly—if Sara had managed to gain access to the apartment—well, fur might fly, and it might be well to have the man with her. Ray well knew the power of her deep, grey eyes and Titian red hair. The short elevator journey to the third floor was long enough to make the man her bond-servant. As she stepped into the corridor she handed him her keys.
The reception room was empty. A flashing smile, while hand touched hand in financial exchange and Ray closed the door. So far, she had succeeded. She was back again—once more R. S. Allerson, mistress-crook.
Ray passed into the bedroom and looked around her. A glance showed the room exactly as she had left it. She crossed to the further door and opened it. The room was in darkness. Ray gave a sigh of relief. Every moment she remained in undisputed possession strengthened her position.
The bathroom and kitchenette were unoccupied. Ray explored the cupboards of the latter. She found a box of confectionery—and made a cup of tea. Carrying the tray into the boudoir she went to the bedroom door and slid the panels shut.
Now she was undisputed mistress of the apartment. Lazily she established herself, picking out one of the latest novels from the bijou bookcase. If—if—why did it always happen that the honest and virtuous always sought work in vain; while—
Ray roused herself with a start. She had nearly fallen asleep. Well, what of that? She was at home! She stretched herself sensuously, then wandered into the bedroom.
Maude had accepted the office of temporary lady's maid. The covers were turned down and on the white silken sheets lay a suit of fancifully embroidered pyjamas—garments spun from fairy silk; dreams of sheer delight to the girl. Hardly had her head touched the pillow before she was fast asleep.
A SHRILL bell trilled through Ray's dreams. She sat up in bed, perplexed. Again the bell rang. Ray looked around, then understood. A concealed telephone was on the bedside table.
"Will you please open the door, miss?" a girl's voice answered.
"Who are you?" Ray asked quickly
"Marie, your maid, miss."
For a moment the girl lay undecided, then slipped out of bed and flung on a robe. In the reception room she found a pleasant-looking young woman waiting.
"Who gave you the key to that door?" Ray pointed to the door to the corridor.
"Miss Penlop, miss."
"Oh!" Ray hesitated. "Miss Penlop engaged you for me, then?"
Ray nodded and yawned. The maid slipped by her and Ray returned to bed. As she passed the dressing-table a thick packet caught her eyes. Had it been there the previous evening? Ray thought not. For a moment she hesitated, then picked it up and took it to bed with her.
She waited, while Marie brought in her morning tea and returned to the kitchenette, then opened the packet—to gasp with amazement. A number of bank-notes—red ones—fell on the coverlet. The girl stared at them, perplexedly. Where had they come from? She turned over the envelope on her hand. Now she saw, on the envelope, written beside her name, a few words:
"I admire your pluck.—Sara."
Ray gurgled, delightedly. Sara! Who could Sara be save R. S. Allerson, the owner of the apartment?
But, why the bank-notes? Ray counted them. Ten, and of ten pounds each. One hundred pounds! And but a bare twelve hours before she had not a hundred pence!
Were these notes for her? Again she studied the envelope. It was addressed to her—and to the real owner of the apartment. But, the message was signed "Sara." Ray was determined that her double was named R. Sara Allerson. In that case—
Now she could repay Maude the twenty pounds she had borrowed the previous evening. That was one difficulty solved. She could not have continued to owe the money without creating suspicion. R. S. Allerson, no doubt, had a checking account in Sydney. Sara certainly had.
"Your bath, miss." Marie stood in the doorway.
Ray went into the bathroom. With the advent of the money she felt happier. Now Sara knew of her impersonation—and by the gift of funds to sustain it, had acquiesced. For what reason?
Splashing in the warm, scented water, Ray tried to reason out the situation—but it baffled her. There were too many improbabilities; too many inconsistencies for mere logic to act as solvent. She had to believe that Sara had discovered the impersonation and had accepted it—because it fitted in with some hidden scheme she was working.
"Miss Penlop, miss." Marie was speaking from the door.
"One minute." Ray came suddenly out of her dreams and conjectures. Maude Penlop had kept her appointment. Now Ray had to face her second test. Would Maude accept her as she had but a few hours before?
In the bedroom, Maude was awaiting her, an array of frocks spread for her selection. Ray chose carefully. The apartment, the dresses and incidentals she had seen, gave her an understanding of the owner.
She tried to subordinate her own tastes to what might he expected of her.
"Lor'!" Maude sprang to her feet as Ray came into the reception room. "Why, you're beautiful!" She hesitated and blushed. "Excuse me, Miss Allerson, it just came out; but it's true. Did you get what you wanted last night?"
"Every little bit of it." Ray laughed. "Thank you for holding the fort."
"Can't stand that fellow, Oscar," Maude rattled on. "You put him in his place, sure—and he asked for it." She paused. "Look here, Miss Allerson, now you're over here you're our leader, see. Well, I'm going to have my say, even if you don't like it."
"But I shall." Ray laughed lightly. "I promise you that you shall say what is in your mind, always."
The woman heaved a deep sigh of relief.
"That's good. It will be quite a treat. Oscar sits on us so. One mustn't have opinions. His lord-most-highest tells one what to do, and, if one doesn't obey orders—phut!"
"Am I supposed to obey orders?" Ray asked lightly.
"If you do you'll be swallowed up!" Maude spoke dramatically. "Oscar told us—that's Freddie and me—all about you when your first letter arrived. I didn't think much about it then. Then I met you last night and—well, I was sorry!"
Ray stared. "Sorry about what?" she asked.
"About your engagement."
"Your engagement to Oscar." Maude stared blankly. "Don't tell me it isn't true. Why, he said it was all settled and that when we'd pulled off this stunt you and he were going to match up."
Ray gasped. So far as she could gather, Oscar Beringer had not seen R. S. Allerson before the previous evening. Yet he was announcing their forthcoming marriage! She wondered what the real Sara would have said, and done, had she been there that moment.
"I don't think that Mr. Beringer is quite—exact." The girl hesitated. "I may say, between, ourselves, that this is the first I have heard of such an arrangement."
"I thought he was a liar." Maude spoke directly. "Before I knew you I didn't worry, of course. But I'd hate it for you, now, m'dear. Oscar's a brute—a big, dirty brute. Any girl who married him—"
"I certainly shall not," Ray interrupted decidedly. "You heard what I said to him last night? About that typist where he is staying—"
"She's some goods and as like you as two peas in a pod." The woman crook spoke animatedly.
"You've seen her?" Ray's heart missed a beat. She knew that in the future her main problem would be to prevent her two identities becoming mixed.
"Not me. Freddie has, though," Maude rattled on. "And I'll take Freddie's word for anything. He's no fool, Miss Allerson. He tracked his lordship last night. Saw him meet the girl in the lounge of the Occidental. He was quite startled at the likeness. Says you must be something alike in the brainwheels, too, for you both dress alike. He really thought it was you, at first. But then he knew you were with me."
Ray flushed. Another escape. If she had not asked Maude to remain at the apartment she would have been with Dutton. A woman's trained eyes would have seen exactitude, not similarity, in the dress. Discovery would have been inevitable The girl hesitated. What could she say to disarm any suspicions that might arise later out of this incident? She must leave the Occidental. With Beringer living there it was too dangerous to stay.
"Miss Allerson." Ray turned quickly to the maid. "The telephone, please."
Beckoning Maude to follow, Ray went to the instrument in the bedroom.
"Oscar Beringer, here. Miss Allerson speaking? Good. I thought I recognised your voice. May I trouble you to come up to my office?"
"You certainly may not," Ray answered coldly. "I do not imagine this telephone is tapped. It is automatic and there are no operators to listen in."
"Yet dangerous." The suave voice laughed lightly. "Now a visit to your dentist. Much can be said between dentist and patient—while the patient is seated in the operating chair."
Ray started. If she had fallen into the trap and gone up to the man's rooms! But a few days before one of her teeth had troubled her. Beringer had insisted on examining it and rectifying the trouble, at the hotel. He would recognise his handiwork—and her secret would be revealed.
"I don't like dentists'—chairs." Ray made a lengthy pause between the last two words. "If the matter is so secret you may perhaps be able to spare the time to descend two flights of stairs."
"That's the stuff!" Maude applauded. "Wants you to run after him, does he? Treat him rough, Miss Allerson, and he'll crawl to you."
"Oh, well!" Beringer's voice showed he was disconcerted by her attitude. "The private part will have to wait—then. May I remind you that there is a general meeting of our—organisation, tonight? In my office, up here. We shall be delighted to welcome you."
"I don't think my presence will be necessary." Ray spoke quickly. "And consultations between you and your—your friends are of little concern to me."
"But—but our mutual adventure! We must talk over our plans." The crook's voice was full of surprise.
"Is it necessary?" Yet, in speaking Ray know that she was closing the door on much valuable information. "You are aware of what Melbourne expects from you."
"Of course." Beringer laughed to conceal his embarrassment. "There are difficulties, however—"
"If there are difficulties and your—er—consultations do not solve them, then I shall be glad to advise you." Ray paused. "I think that is all, Mr. Beringer."
Without waiting for the man's reply, Ray hung up the receiver. She turned to face Maude's ecstasic admiration.
"Treat 'em rough!" the woman crook murmured. "I'll say it! Lor'! Oscar'll crawl on his hands and knees if you go on like that. Treat 'em rough! My!"
Ray laughed, almost hysterically.
Again she had avoided a pitfall. How many more lay before her on this path she had chosen to tread?
"If you please, miss." Marie spoke from the reception-room door. "A lady to see you."
"Did she give a name, Marie?" Ray was suspicious.
"Well, miss, no." The girl hesitated. "Leastways, not a proper name. She said you would see her if I told you 'Sara'."
RAY faced the maid with cheeks flaming with colour. Almost she refused to believe her ears. Sara had called, having herself announced like an ordinary visitor. Sara, who owned the apartment; who was the organising head, of the gang of crooks who planned to steal the States Finance Company's bullion. For a moment the room spun round Ray. She took a step forward and faltered—to find a firm arm around her waist.
"Who's Sara?" Maude spoke angrily. "What's the matter, Miss Allerson? Shall I see this woman and send her packing?"
"No, no!" Ray spoke quickly. "No, I must see her, but—" She hesitated, "I did not expect her so soon."
Maude wanted to ask further questions, but Ray dragged her into the boudoir. There, for a moment the girl hesitated, then made a quick decision and turned to her companion.
"Stay here, Maude," she commanded. "I'm going out there." She pointed to the door to the corridor. "No, I am not going to avoid seeing this woman, but—well, you know, there is always a point to be scored, even with the unexpected."
She went to the mirror and pulled on the little hat she had picked up as she left the bedroom. A final glance in the mirror assured her that her colour had returned. Steeling herself to meet what fate had in store for her, she pressed the button, sliding the panels from the door.
"Don't leave, here, Maude," the girl commanded. "I shall not return this way. Do nothing, whatever happens. Do you understand?"
Maude nodded and Ray closed the door. She heard the panels slide into place—and waited.
Sara had come to the apartment. For what reason? Why had she had herself announced by the maid? She had keys of the rooms—she must have, or how had she managed to leave the packet of bank-notes in the bedroom the previous night?
At the door of the reception-room Ray again paused, to gather her courage. She pushed open the door and entered. At sight of the woman seated in the room she gave a little gasp.
This woman bore no possible resemblance to herself, except in height. She was plump, not stout, but remarkably well-developed. Her cheeks were full and rounded, yet there were dark hollows under her eyes. On her upper lip grew a few dark hairs, forming an insignificant moustache. Her clothes were of good quality, yet a shade gaudy.
The woman looked up curiously as Ray entered, then bent her eyes again to the magazine she held. Ray seated herself, watching the woman closely.
Was she indifferent to her coming, or had she failed to recognise her? If the latter, then this woman was not Sara. For Sara had been in her bedroom the previous night.
She would certainly have found means to examine her while she slept.
"You'll have to ring the bell, if you want anyone to know you are here." The woman spoke without raising her eyes.
"But the person I want to know that I am here, already knows it." Ray spoke ambiguously.
"Really?" The woman turned a page.
"Yes. Peculiarly, I thought she would recognise me, immediately." Ray continued, breezily. "Sara would know me anywhere."
"Sara?" The visitor dropped her magazine and stared at Ray, amazedly. "Did you say Sara?"
"You said Sara first," Ray chuckled. Her little surprise plan had succeeded. "In fact unless you had mentioned that word I might not have chosen to see you."
"Who are you?" The woman went to where Ray sat, staring down at her.
"Don't you know?" An impish grin came on Ray's lips. "You asked for Miss Allerson."
"And you came." The woman paused. "Take off your hat."
Ray obeyed. Carefully and lengthily the stranger scanned Ray's face, feature by feature. Suddenly she turned and pressed the bell-button.
"I think you are her," she muttered. "But I've got to be sure." When the door opened and Marie entered the woman turned to her, abruptly. "Tell me, girl, who this is?"
"Miss Allerson." The maid looked astonished.
"Thank you, Marie, you may go."
Ray spoke quickly. When the door was closed she turned to her visitor.
"Are you satisfied? Yes? Good! Now who are you? You are not Sara."
"How do you know that?" The woman parried.
"I should not be here but for that knowledge. Now, your name, please?"
"You may call me Sara."
Ray rose and walked to the corridor door.
"Good-morning, and good-bye. Please don't hurry away—but, I am busy."
Quickly as Ray moved the woman was quicker. Hardly had the girl's hand touched the door-knob when her wrists were seized.
"Be still; you little fool!" the woman hissed when Ray commenced to struggle, "Listen, you've got to obey orders."
"And if I will not?"
"Then—" The woman broke off abruptly. "Oh, well, call me Rose, if you want a name. It's mine anyway—one of them."
"Well Rose?" Ray went back to her chair, rubbing her wrists. "I can answer that you are very strong."
"Sara sent me to you." Rose spoke abruptly.
"Why do you call her Sara?" asked the girl.
"It's her name—one of them," the strange visitor replied.
"One of your names is Rose. One of hers Sara." Ray laughed. "Do you know that one of my names is Sara? Are you going to do as you are told?"
"I don't know." The girl answered truthfully. "You see, for a long time I was personal secretary to a most arbitrary man. I had to do as I was told. It became wearisome. Now, I am free."
"Are you?" Rose spoke quickly. She smiled. "If you asked me I'd answer that you were in a net where you'd have to do as you were told or—"
"Sara left you a packet, last night placed it on your the dressing table, while you slept. She could well have—"
The suggestion, though unspoken made Ray shiver.
"Well?" she questioned, shortly. "You didn't come here to bully me, did you."
"I brought a message. More, I'm to get information from you."
"Exactly. Now the message please?"
"You are to get in touch with the Miss Allerson who lives at the Occidental Hotel. Oscar Beringer will introduce you."
"Quite unnecessary." Ray smiled at the suggestion. "I don't think it advisable to trust Mr. Beringer too far."
The woman stared. "You're not such a fool as you look," she muttered.
"Yet, yesterday someone remarked how complete was my likeness to Miss Sara."
"All right. Have it your own way." Ray decided that Rose would always break under mild chaff. "Sara wants you to get hold of Amy Warren."
"Amy Warren?" Ray was perplexed for a moment. "Oh, I know—She was Mr. Chalmers personal secretary at the States Finance Company. Yes, I want to do that. What next?"
"You must find her a job."
"As my personal secretary." Ray tried to be sarcastic.
"That will do," Rose nodded.
"I am afraid that my means will not permit of private secretaries," Ray laughed. "Then, I should not know what work I could give her."
"You have a hundred pounds."
The girl was puzzled. This woman knew much; she spoke with an air of authority. Suddenly Ray leaned towards her, scanning her features closely.
"Sara, what is the game?" she asked, suddenly.
The woman started slightly. Ray was about to follow up her advantage when a tap came at the door. Ray did not answer. Her fingers found the bell-push, but she hesitated to press it.
Rose looked at the girl with some surprise. At length, Ray rose and sauntered over to the door. She believed that the woman would not betray her if she chose to conceal her identity. She drew open the door, slowly.
Oscar Beringer was standing on the threshold. Ray paused, irresolute, then swung the door wide open.
"You see I have accepted your invitation, Miss Allerson." A thin smile came on the straight lips. "Perhaps a few minutes' talk will save a lot of misunderstanding—" He caught sight of the woman seated slightly behind the door, and paused.
"I did not know you had a visitor. Perhaps I had better return later," he added.
"Not because of Miss—er, Miss Rose Smith." Ray gave the name with a quick glance at the woman. "Miss—er—Smith has my full confidence. In fact we were speaking of you but a few minutes ago. I should have telephoned you later."
"Miss Smith—of—" Beringer paused, inquiringly.
"Not of the Sydney Smiths," assured Ray. "Of the Melbourne family."
The crook bowed. Ray thought she caught a flash of approval in the quick upward glance the woman flashed at her.
"You were about to telephone me—at Miss Smith's instigation?" Beringer spoke easily. "May I—"
"I would have asked you for Miss—Miss Amy Warren's address."
"Amy Warren?" Beringer was plainly startled. "What do you want that girl for?"
The man flushed, angrily. "I do not know where to find the girl," he said.
"So much for the Sydney organisation." Ray laughed, cruelly. "I am afraid I shall have to interfere—largely, Mr. Beringer."
"I believe you have already." The crook was fast losing his temper.
"Miss Warren is necessary." Rose spoke for the first time.
"Miss—er—Smith speaks with authority."
Beringer sneered. "Perhaps it is well to have someone here who can influence Miss Allerson."
"I am waiting, Mr. Beringer," Ray insisted.
"Miss Warren's address."
For a half-minute they crook hesitated, then taking a card from his pocket he scribbled on it a few lines and flung it on the table.
"Now, may I ask the meaning of this?" he questioned, savagely.
"Certainly, and receive an answer." The woman spoke. "Miss Warren will act as personal secretary to Miss Allerson."
"But—but that is suicide to our plans." The man stood aghast. "Don't you realise that she is straight—dead straight? I tested her but—"
"That will be an advantage, Mr. Beringer," Rose interrupted. "Now you have kindly provided the address we required there is no need to detain you."
"One moment." Ray interposed as the crook moved sullenly towards the door. "You obtained Miss Warren's discharge from the States Finance Company; whom did you place there in her stead?"
"I had two girls in mind." Beringer spoke after a pause. "Either of them would work as I dictated."
"As you dictated, Mr. Beringer?"
"What more do you want?" the man flared, angrily.
"Only the truth." Ray spoke tranquilly. "You speak of placing one of two girls as personal secretary to Mr. Matthew Chalmers. Yet you know that he had already engaged a young lady to replace Miss Warren."
"Does that matter?"
"A Miss Henderson," Rose interposed. "You will understand, Mr. Beringer, that Miss Henderson retains that position."
"Then good-bye to a million." Beringer laughed harshly. "Now I have learned what a fool I have been to take on business with a woman." He paused and turned savagely on Ray. "Take this warning. You Melbourne folks can run your own stunts in your own way. You won't get any help from Sydney. Understand?"
"Perfectly." Ray was elated, Had she broken the plot to loot the States Finance Company of over half-a-million sovereigns?
"You speak for the men and women who work with you?" Rose was curious.
"They will follow my instructions, or—"
"More threats." The woman glanced down at her watch. "May I trouble you to open the door, Mr. Beringer?"
The man stared, and obeyed. Immediately the door was unlatched it was thrust fully open and two men came into the room, pushing Beringer before them. One of them stepped back and closed the door.
"What the hell—" Beringer's fury broke all bounds. He turned savagely on Ray. "Look here, I'm fed up with this. In future you run your own game your own way, but don't expect help from me. I'm through."
"Search him." Rose took no notice of the man's remarks.
Without hesitation the two men seized Beringer and rapidly cleaned out his pockets. In a few moments their contents lay on the table before the strange woman. She went through the papers methodically, separating a few notes and letters from the pile.
"No more?" she asked at length. She placed the papers she had selected in her handbag. "Put the rest of this stuff back in his pockets. I have what I want here."
She rose from her seat, glancing sharply from the master-crook to Ray, a quizzical smile hovering about her lips.
"Thanks awfully, Oscar Beringer," she continued. "I was wondering how I was to get what I wanted from you—and you gave me the opportunity to have you searched. Again thanks." She turned to Ray. "I don't think he will make any outcry over our somewhat arbitrary action. One or two of these papers would be of special interest to the police of this State."
She went to the door, one of the men escorting her. Ray sat watching Beringer and the other man. She wondered in which direction all this led.
In a moment the man who had departed with Rose returned and released Beringer from his bonds.
"Take him up to his office, Bob," he ordered the second man, shortly. "Stay with him ten minutes then come away. Get me?"
The man nodded. A rough shove sent Beringer to the door. When they had passed through the first man turned to Ray.
"You know I am not Miss Allerson," Ray flashed back, angrily.
"I know you are Miss Allerson—Miss Ray S. Allerson." The man's voice was coldly level. "I know you come from Melbourne. Do you want me to repeat your history to you?"
Ray was silent. Did this man know of the fraud she was practising—a fraud even when worked on crooks? If he did, then why was he leaving her In that apartment—to pose as his chief, R. S. Allerson, mistress-crook?
"You will receive a message." The man's level tones broke on Ray's meditations and perplexities.
"From Sara." A slight smile parted the man's lips.
"Rose is Sara?" challenged the girl.
"Rose speaks for Sara." The man paused. "Miss Allerson, you must realise that in this city you are alone. You have not your friends around you. You will have difficulty in getting your instructions obeyed. Take a word of advice. Accept what help is offered you."
He drew back, half-opening the door, and slipped through into the corridor. The door closed, leaving Ray staring at it.
The girl drew a deep breath as she turned to her maid.
"What is it, Marie?"
"A Miss Ruth Henderson to see you. She came to the boudoir door."
"Henderson?" Ray stared. Who was Ruth Henderson? Then she remembered. She glanced quickly at the corridor door, but it was now shut.
"Tell Miss Henderson that I will be with her in a moment," Ray decided quickly.
For some minutes Ray sat in the reception room, staring before her. What did the events of the past half-hour mean? How could she fit them into the scheme of things? She could not. Again all was chaos. Her mind was bewildered. She felt herself groping towards some unknown end, through black darkness.
But, above the maze of perplexities into which Rose and her attendant crooks had plunged her, stood one fact. That morning her maid, Marie, had summoned her to roll back the panel dividing the reception room from the bedroom. Now she had swung back the panels concealing the doors from the boudoir to the corridor. What did that mean? Was Marie to be trusted?
RAY went to the door of the bedroom, following the maid. There she hesitated. Maude Penlop was in the boudoir. Was she talking to this girl—Ruth Henderson—who had obtained the position of personal secretary to the managing director of the States Finance Company? Ray braced herself. What if she was? Neither the girl nor Maude dared confide in each other.
She sighed, feeling that she was falling into a maze of perplexities from which she might not be able to extricate herself. Almost she regretted that she had quarrelled with Oscar Beringer, beyond hope of reconciliation.
Why had she quarrelled with the man? She recognised that she had always held an antipathy to the man, even before she discovered his real character. But, in her assumed character of R. S. Allerson she had never intended to cause a serious break; although from the first she had chosen to baffle and infuriate him. But, the quarrel had caused the closing of one of the doors to information. Neither Maude nor Dutton could tell her much. There remained only Sara—and Ray had little hope of obtaining information in that quarter. She feared the woman would be content to issue and enforce orders.
There remained Rose, the woman who had brought orders to her from the mysterious Sara. Were Rose and Sara the same person? Ray had more than a suspicion that such was the case; yet, if that assumption was correct, then how had she and the woman come to be mistaken one for the other? They were totally unalike.
If Rose was Sara, and Sara was R. S. Allerson, why had she acquiesced in Ray assuming her name and standing? Why had she come to the apartment that morning and tried to bend her to her will? Ray realised that she had half-promised to carry out the instructions she had received.
She was to get in touch with the girl living at the Occidental—herself. Ray laughed. She had never been able to lose touch with herself, although, like many others, she would have given much, at times, to do so. She was to get hold of Amy Warren and engage her as her personal secretary. That would not be difficult. She wanted to see the girl. Perhaps if she succeeded in breaking the plot which this gang of crooks were framing against the States Finance Company she might, in the end, get the girl reinstated in her former position.
Suddenly Ray laughed. She had forgotten that she had, herself, applied for Amy Warren's job.
With a shrug, Ray put the many problems crowding her brain from her. So far she had failed. She had undertaken to penetrate the secrets of this gang of crooks—and had failed. And that, while the plan they were pursuing was supposed to have originated with her.
One thing she knew that she had gained. She had a knowledge of the people interested in the plot and could gauge, to some extent, their potentialities. With a quick, almost impatient movement she pushed open the boudoir door and entered.
Maude Penlop and a tall blonde girl were engaged in animated conversation. For a moment Ray stood and considered her visitor. What did the girl want with her? Then Maude caught sight of her, exclaiming under her breath. Ruth Henderson sprang to her feet.
"Miss Allerson!" The girl came forward slowly, as if not sure of her welcome.
"I am R. S. Allerson," Ray replied, in her clear, decisive voice. To this girl she would be neither Miss Allerson nor Ray Allerson.
"I am Ruth Henderson." The girl smiled slowly. "I received a message that you would like to see me."
"A message from me? That I wanted to see you?" Ray stared. "I sent no message. Can you tell me how the message came to you?"
"You do not know of it, then?" A slow tantalising smile came on the blonde's lips. "That's not fair! Mr. Beringer said that you would be most pleased to see me. In fact—" the girl paused again. "—in fact, I understood that you had an—an offer to make me."
"An offer." Ray felt she could dislike this girl intensely. "Of what nature, may, I ask?"
"I have been engaged as personal secretary to Mr. Matthew Chalmers of the States Finance Company."
Ray did not answer. She looked at the girl, curiously. Why had Oscar Beringer sent this girl to her? She remembered that the man had distinctly said that he did not know this girl. Yet the girl assumed that she knew that he had been in touch with her. Had he made the girl proposals, to relinquish her job? From her presence in that room Ray thought that possible; most probable in view of what the girl had said. But, why send the girl to her? Why not have carried through the negotiations himself? That would be far more in keeping with his character.
"Have you known Mr. Beringer long?" Ray asked casually.
"A few days, perhaps a week." The blonde girl showed a little more animation. "A most charming man. I met him at the Empire Halls."
Ray knew the place, although she had not been long in Sydney. Oscar Beringer had wanted to take her to supper-dance in that place, but a girl at the Occidental had warned her. The Halls had an evil reputation.
"That was before you obtained your appointment with Mr. Chalmers?" Ray suggested. "Did Mr. Beringer know of that?"
"I met Mr. Beringer on the evening of the day I received notice of my appointment." Ruth Henderson corrected. "In fact, I had Mr. Chalmers' letter in my bag at the time I was talking to Mr. Beringer."
"And then Mr. Beringer suggested that you came and saw me?" Ray added. "Did Mr. Beringer suggest any reason for your call on me? Let me put it another way; did Mr. Beringer suggest any reason why I should be interested in Mr. Chalmers' personal secretary?"
"He said that he thought you might be able to put some . . some money in my way." The slow, languid tones hesitated. Ray smiled secretly. "I'm terribly in debt."
"Oh, clothes, board—er, oh everything!" For the moment the girl forgot her pose.
"And gambling," Kay added. "Who induced you to gamble?"
"Mr. Beringer." The girl's lips quivered. "But it isn't only cards, believe me."
Ray glanced past the girl, to where Maude sat, very interested in the conversation. To her surprise the crook shook her head negatively.
"Miss Henderson—" Ray paused. "Do you know what proposals Mr. Beringer thought I would make to you?"
"Yes." The girl answered immediately. "He said you were a very rich Melbourne business woman and that you required a private secretary."
Ray was startled. Twice within the hour, she had been asked to engage definite people as her private secretary. Sara had suggested that she engaged Amy Warren; now Beringer had sent this girl to her.
If she engaged the girl, what then? Certainly, it would clear the ground for establishing one of the gang in the office of the managing director of the States Finance Company. Had the master crook had such a plan in mind when he sought the acquaintanceship of this girl? That might be a reasonable supposition—but for his misbehaviour that morning.
"When did you last see Mr. Beringer? When did he tell you to come to me?" Ray asked quickly.
"I—I have just come from his office." Ruth looked surprised. "He was out when I arrived there and I had to wait for him. He—"
"What?" Ray asked curiously, for the girl had paused, showing some embarrassment. "He seemed terribly upset over something."
"But, Miss Henderson." Ray returned to her original point. "You tell me that you have been engaged as personal secretary to Mr. Chalmers, that you were only engaged a few days ago. Now you are applying for another job. Aren't you somewhat inconsistent? Mr. Chalmers can afford to pay a higher salary than I can. Why then come to me?"
"Mr. Beringer told me to come." The girl's lips set mutinously
"But, for what reason?" Ray persisted. "Why are you prepared to relinquish a good job—for one not so good?"
"Oh—" The girl coloured heavily. "Well—if you must know, Mr. Beringer made me come. He said—he said, that you would advance me money, on my salary."
"To pay your gambling debts?" Before Ruth could answer Ray saw a light in the situation. "To pay your debt to him. Is that not so?"
"Yes." The girl threw back her head defiantly. "I thought he was straight, but—but he says I must pay him at once—before noon tomorrow, or—"
Maude laughed suddenly.
"The poor sap!" The woman's voice was full of contempt. "What's Oscar Beringer thinking of? My dear, tell him you can't pay, and let it go at that."
"Then he will go to Mr. Chalmers." The girl spoke with more animation than she had shown before. "Do you think that a finance company can afford to keep an employee who is heavily in debt—and for gambling too?"
"Oh, tell him to go to Hades!" Maude shrugged.
"No!" Ray interrupted. "Wait."
She went to the writing table in the corner and scribbled a few lines. Placing them in an envelope, she sealed it and handed it to the girl.
"Take that to Mr. Beringer," she said coldly. "Give it to him when you and he are alone. Remember!"
She touched the knob moving the panels and opened the door to the corridor. For a moment Ruth hesitated then, with a bow that was almost a nod, she went on to the corridor. Ray closed the door.
"My!" Ray turned to find Maude standing close behind her. "That was some visit!"
"Miss Ruth Henderson?" Ray laughed. "What do you think of her, Maude?"
"And she came from Oscar!" The woman evaded the girl's question. "Say, what's his game?"
"To get me to commit myself—by interfering in work that properly belongs to the Sydney crowd." Ray answered promptly. "You haven't answered my question, Maude?"
"Ruth Henderson—some chicken." Maude chuckled. "I rather think that man, Chalmers, would be grateful to you if you had accepted Ruth's offer."
"To come here as my secretary." Ray made a moue. "I thought you were sharper than that, Maude."
"What do you mean?" The woman turned quickly.
"The girl's bag was initialled 'V.K.'—and she gave her name as Ruth Henderson. She came from Oscar Beringer—and but a few minutes before she arrived that gentleman had definitely vowed that neither he nor any member of his crowd would have anything more to do with—with the reason for my being in Sydney." Ray laughed. "If I had fallen into his trap!"
Again she had escaped a snare placed on her path by this master rogue. Would she continue to do so? She shrugged. Sooner or later something would happen, and then—
It was impossible to believe that Oscar Beringer would entirely fall out of the scheme to annex the bullion to be shipped abroad by the States Finance Company. Ruth Henderson's visit had shown Ray that Beringer was still scheming for the gold, but now he was planning to get it without the assistance of R. S. Allerson and the Melbourne gang.
That theory would explain much that had happened that morning. If she had guessed right then Ray knew that Beringer's anger had been largely assumed. He had forced the quarrel—and Rose, or Sara, had accepted the challenge. The first round of the fight had resulted in favour of Sara. Her quick action in having the crook searched had placed valuable weapons in her hand. Beringer had attempted to retaliate—on Ray—and had again been foiled.
"Maude, I want you to do something for me." Ray turned suddenly to the woman. "I know you don't like Mr. Beringer: you have told me that several of your associates dislike his arbitrary manner. Now, listen."
Briefly she related the incidents of the morning, concealing only the fact that Rose had come to her from the real owner of the apartment. Maude listened, greedily.
"That's how matters stand," Ray concluded. "You have to make up your mind which side you will take in the fight, now. If you side with me you will be up against your own crowd and I believe that Oscar Beringer will prove a bitter enemy."
Maude snorted contemptuously.
"If you choose to throw in with Beringer, well, I shall be sorry. One thing I am determined on. Under no circumstances shall he lay hands on that gold."
"Now you're talking!" Maude sprang to her feet, enthusiastically "I'm for you, first and last. And, let me tell you this. Where I go—who I pal in with—Freddie Dutton follows. That's a fact I'm telling you."
Ray, laughed in sheer relief. Now she had two allies. True, she could not trust them with the whole truth. To do so she would bring disaster on herself. She knew that Maude had pledged herself and her man to R. S. Allerson, not to Ray Allerson. In that she had two reasons. Hatred of Beringer's arbitrary rule and greed for the gold she supposed the Melbourne gang would annex.
"Good, Maude." Ray clasped the hand outstretched to her, almost with affection. "Now, there's something that has to be done; I don't like to ask it of you, but—but—well, there's no one else, so far as I can see."
"Jump to it, girlie—.oh, I beg pardon, Miss Allerson." Maude flushed. "I didn't mean that."
"And I didn't mind that," she laughed. "Here's my plan. Beringer has called a meeting tonight of his associates."
"He told me that," the girl continued. "Invited me to attend; but I dare not. I don't know how you and your friends conduct your business, but, well, you know, I'm bound in loyalty to my friends and I can't alter what they have planned. So I can't go to your meeting. I can't accept suggestions to alter my plans, and I can't argue about them."
Again the woman nodded. Ray continued, almost desperately.
"In some things I have to do as I'm told. I'm bound by definite plans formed by my associates. There I have no freedom. Now," she hesitated, "Mr. Beringer wants me to alter my plans to meet his wishes. That's impossible."
"You want me to attend this meeting and report to you what happens." Maude laughed. "Course. That's easy. The worst is that Oscar mayn't tell us much. He doesn't, y'know."
"You must make him produce and my letters." Ray was urgent.
"Might." The woman pursed her lips doubtfully, then brightened.
"I'll tell you what. I'll put Fred up to talk. Poor boy, I haven't given him a free hand with his mouth for quite a time—except in the way of business."
"Do you think—"
"If Freddie gets talking." Maude shivered. "Say, Miss Allerson, you haven't heard him. Talk's worse than drink in a man. Freddie, with his lips free, will bring disorder on that meeting quicker than a ballet of Anita Loos's blondes. Oscar will have to satisfy Freddie—if he wants to get on to business—or break up the gang. I'll help Oscar—when he's satisfied Freddie." She sighed. "Poor Freddie!"
Ray laughed, although she had not the faith in Freddie's powers of persuasion Maude seemed to possess.
"Just one other point." The girl stayed Maude at the door. "Don't forget that you and I had a tremendous row today over—over my attitude to Oscar Beringer this morning. Yes, yes! It will do. He will believe that."
Ray closed the door after the woman crook with a little sigh of relief. Now she could sit down and think. Much had occurred that morning that required careful consideration.
"'Twixt two stools!" Ray laughed as the quotation came in her mind. Surely she was between two stools—two bands of crooks. Could she maintain her position—keep her grip on essentials?
On the one hand was Beringer and his band of Sydney crooks. For the moment she had dealt with them. She had sown dissension in their midst. For the time Beringer would have to devote his energies to restoring amity—and he was not a character to whom such work would come easy. Again, in the many cases where he had sought to trap her she had escaped with comparative ease.
But with Sara—or rather, the real R. S. Allerson—she had a much more difficult problem. Sara was working from behind a shield held by the woman Rose. Or were Sara and Rose identical persons? Ray had a belief that they wore.
Sara had with her, in Sydney, men devoted to her cause. Where had she obtained them from? Had they come with her from Melbourne? Ray believed they had. In that case she was facing a much more formidable foe than Oscar Beringer could ever be.
Sara would work from behind Rose—whoever Rose was. By those means she would not give any secrets away. She would issue her orders and Ray would have to obey them. The girl frowned. If only she could unmask the woman—come face to face with her.
Again her thoughts went to the woman crook. Why had Sara allowed her to usurp the apartment and her name? It was the one question that puzzled her. Bid the woman suppose that she could force her to her will or, if she refused to obey, destroy her?
Ray set her lips determinedly. She was in the game now, right up to the neck. If Sara or Beringer thought she would be a pliant tool they were due for a surprise. An impish grin came on the girl's lips. In some manner, she must meet these crooks, defeat and unmask them. Somehow she would protect the bullion that the States Finance Company was shipping to England. In some manner—for the time she could not guess how—she would deliver these crooks to the law they were defying.
It was her work—a self-imposed task, true—but work she had accepted and now had set her heart on. By some means she would accomplish it.
The shrill ring of the telephone bell broke on her meditations. Ray went to the instrument.
"Sara." The voice on the wire was but a whisper.
"Sara—or Rose—or both?" Ray laughed gaily. "How is Sara, Rose, or both, this afternoon?"
"Listen, girl." The voice was imperative. "You are in danger. Beringer—no, I cannot tell you on the telephone. Listen! You must be out of that apartment within the hour."
"Why?" Ray's lips set stubbornly.
"Go out, now. Go to the Café Romaine. Go there for afternoon tea. Dress your part well; there's plenty of frocks and undies in the apartment. When you get to the café give your name to the porter. A table has been reserved for you."
"And, then?" Ray questioned.
"You will learn all that is necessary for you to know at the café. Someone will come to you during the afternoon, mentioning my name—"
"Someone?" Ray laughed lightly. "A man? If so, let him be presentable, please. A gentleman, now—even if he is a—well, you know."
Ray heard the click of the receiver placed on the instrument at the other end of the line. With a little moue she disconnected.
She had received orders and—quite unexpectedly, even to herself—was prepared to obey them.
FOUR o'clock was striking on the city clocks when Ray descended the long flight of stairs to the Café Romaine. She was elated, not only by the adventure before her, but because she felt that she was looking her best; the equal to any woman she might chance on that afternoon.
The mood of despondence succeeding her interview with Rose had disappeared. She realised that she was caught in a net and knew the futility of struggling. She knew that no efforts she could make would free her. She had to allow matters to drift, awaiting some opportunity to gain an advantage on her opponents.
So far she had been unable to cast a balance for the day. Had she gained or lost? She could not decide. She had acquired knowledge, but that knowledge was only of the personalities of the crooks. She still knew little of the plan she was supposed to have originated, to raid the State Finance Company's gold.
If she could discover that! If she could get a knowledge of the crooks' plans! She could not now hope for information from Oscar Beringer. He had definitely decided to fight against her and the Melbourne crooks she was supposed to lead.
She knew that he was planning to raid the gold on his own account.
That night he would take his gang into his confidence; inflame them with visions of enormous wealth. She knew that the majority of the crooks he headed would back him. Only through Maude Penlop and her boy-friend, Freddie Dutton, could she hope to gain any knowledge of their plans.
R. S. Allerson, in the personality of Rose, had shown her hand. Now Ray knew that she had not been allowed to occupy the Macquarie Street apartment by chance. Fate might have drawn her to the apartment—to a knowledge of the crooks—but from that point Sara had ordered things.
She was to take orders—obeying blindly and without question. At first, she had thought of rebelling; but that would have meant the end of her adventure and she had determined to see the game through. She wanted to discover the crooks' secrets and wreck their plans. Only through blind obedience and constant watchfulness could she do that.
Had she gained or lost? Again she asked herself this question, but could not answer it. She knew that the door between herself and Oscar Beringer had finally closed. But, the door of the mysteries controlled by Sara was gradually opening. Sara had bid her go to the Café Romaine that afternoon, promising her escort and protection.
Protection against what? The woman had said that her life was in danger, if she remained in the apartment. In danger from whom? Ray's mind could find only one conclusion. The danger must be from Oscar Beringer. In what way could he harm her?
A waiter bowed before her as she reached the doors of the café. Ray spoke her name—and thought that the man's answering bow was more obsequious. He turned and led across the dancing floor to a far corner. There, sheltered from the rest of the room by banks of palms and flowers, she found a table set for two.
Ray sank into one of the tempting chairs, relaxing gratefully. Until that moment she had not realised the tension she had imposed on herself. A few moments' rest and she leaned forward. People were dancing and she searched the gliding, whirling throng. Was the unknown cavalier Sara had promised her already in the room? In idle curiosity she scanned the men. Dark and fair, tall and short, stout and lean! Which of these men had been appointed to squire and guard her that afternoon?
Her foot tapped the soft rug, impatiently, to the time of the lilting music. The waiter hovered about her, hinting at tea, but she waved him away. Who, where was the man?
"Mam'selle is alone?" Ray looked up quickly. She had not heard the man approach. She looked at him questioningly. Yes, if this was he, then he was quite presentable, only just a little on the stout side.
"Mam'selle was." Ray spoke hesitatingly.
"Then it is permitted?" The man moved towards the second chair.
"Mam'selle expects a friend?"
The girl frowned. If this was the man she had been told to expect then why, did he not give her the password?
Again Ray frowned. This could not be the man.
"I expect Sara," She said, clearly.
"Is," corrected Ray.
"An ancestress." The man laughed. "She bore the promised race."
"And—of certain of her children is ashamed," a pleasant male voice interjected from behind the man. He turned swiftly.
"Miss Ray—". The newcomer hesitated over her name. "I regret my tardiness. A thousand apologies."
Ray smiled. The man was young, under thirty. Clean-shaven and clear skinned, with his hair brushed well back from a broad forehead. And, it was not too short, Ray had an antipathy to hair that was too closely cropped. It reminded her of men in drab—of grey walls and clanking chains.
No, this man was straight, the girl thought, swiftly. Yet he came from Sara—and Sara was a crook. Could he be other than a criminal if the woman trusted him? Ray looked up, into the clear, honest brown eyes, and winced. Surely there must be some mistake. Could a thief, a gangster, look at her so directly, honestly?
The first man—the stout one—had disappeared. Silently, in his place had come the waiter with the tea-equipage. Ray welcomed him. With the small services of the table before her, she would have time to think—to plan what to say and how to say it, to gain the information she coveted.
"Sara is well?" she murmured, hesitatingly.
"Quite well." The man smiled. "Well—and pleased."
"Pleased?" The girl looked up, startled.
"Pleased that you are no longer in danger."
"Oh!" A lengthy pause. "Sugar?"
"Two lumps, please. My figure is still to be lost."
"Nameless and figureless." A hint of a smile dawned at the corners of Ray's lips.
"Surely—Miss Allerson, I shall begin to think you have no heart."
"A 'Rose' by any other name—"
"Is Sara." The repartee came quickly.
"—who imposed vows of silence on you."
"My godfathers and godmother—"
"—at your baptism named you—?"
"Sam." Ray turned the name on her tongue and found it savoury.
"Sam, son of—"
"John Tresgold and Martha, his wife. Are we now properly introduced?"
"I might venture to think so, if—"
"If you would take your tea and hand me the toast before it gets cold."
Sam laughed—a low, chuckling laugh that brought sympathetic smiles to Ray's lips. Almost against her will she liked the man. That he should be a crook—the intimate accomplice of a woman who was planning one of the most gigantic robberies of the century—
The pulse-quickening music throbbed through the darkened café.
Almost before she knew it, Ray was on her feet, gliding over the well-polished floor, bewildered but happy. It seemed ages since, she had last danced. The world had wandered far through space since her feet had stepped to that quaint melody, so full of meaning in music but inept in words. For more than a round of the floor she was content to dance. Sam was a divine partner, anticipating her wishes yet never surrendering the initiative.
At the pause Ray led back to their nook and dropped into her chair with a sigh. She accepted a cigarette from Sam's case and leaned forward to breath light into the tobacco.
"Well?" She asked abruptly.
"Is there anything to say?" The man asked lazily.
"I am to be kept in ignorance, then?"
"And bliss!" Sam blew circles towards the ceiling.
"Yet Sara said my life was in danger; from whom?"
"Tinker, tailor." The man hesitated. "Does he fit into the doggerel?"
"On the last count—yes."
"Surely, Miss Allerson—"
"Why bandy words?" The girl suddenly became serious. "You know who I am?"
"Yes. Miss Ray Sara Allerson."
"R. S. Allerson." The girl supplied quickly. "There is a strange coincidence."
"A coincidence? Miss Allerson, why did you go into that room?"
"I wastired—and curious."
"There was once a mythical lady who opened a cupboard door."
"Bluebeard's chamber—was she so mythical? And did I find my cupboard?"
"What did you find?"
"Yes." The girl spoke seriously. "Trouble—and sin. Mr. Tresgold, why—" She hesitated.
"Why did you open that door?"
"You opened your door."
The man frowned and did not answer.
"You do not know?" Ray pressed her point. "Can you not—shut that door?"
"Do you want me to?"
"Can anyone want—wrong?"
He nodded. "Doors are difficult to close—sometimes. Quién sabe?"
He frowned, thoughtfully. "Miss Allerson, I have a message for you."
"Another?" Ray made a slight moue. "I get nothing but messages and orders, these days."
"For your own good."
"And—other people's advantage."
"Is R. S. Allerson, of Taunton House, to become Ray Allerson, of the Occidental Hotel, again?"
"She is both." Ray looked down at her wrist-watch. "In an hour Cinderella will lose her magic coach—and become—"
"The out-of-work little typist."
"Miss Ray." Sam leaned forward, eagerly. "If I found you a job, a—a good one—"
"I have my work," Ray answered, involuntarily.
"Trying to throw a spanner among the wheels of one of the most intricate plots evolved by a wonder brain?"
"You mean Sara?"
The man nodded. "You don't know her," he said.
"I have seen her?"
Sam's face was immobile. He was staring across the dancing-floor, a slight frown on his face. Ray's eyes followed the direction in which he was looking. With a slight start she recognised Oscar Beringer standing in the doorway. She drew back into her chair.
"He hasn't seen you." Sam's voice was low. With a jerk he drew his chair forward, shielding the girl from observation.
"Did—did he follow me here?" Ray faltered.
"No." The man spoke decisively. "But—"
"What? Has he seen me?" Ray looked at her companion, anxiously.
"He will, if he sees you dancing—or if he dances. Oh, damn!" He turned quickly, "Sorry. Miss Allerson, the word slipped out."
"With my most grateful thanks." Ray laughed. "I wanted to say it myself."
Sam grinned. "The trouble will be to get you away unseen by him. Oscar loves the dance." He leaned forward watching the man. "Who is the girl he has with him?"
"A Miss Henderson—lately engaged as personal secretary by Mr. Matthew Chalmers, managing-director of the States Finance Company."
"Whew!" The man drew his breath sharply. "But—" He turned quickly to Ray. "You know the young lady?"
"She visited me, today."
"For what purpose?"
"She thought I required a private secretary. Oscar Beringer told her he thought I might pay her debts to him."
"Interesting!" Sam nodded. "I thought so."
"And, you turned her down?"
Ray shrugged, and looked at her watch.
"Who gave you that?" The man spoke sharply. His finger tapped the watch-glass.
"It is my own."
"So! You wore that at the Occidental?"
"And today—at the apartment?" Ray thought a moment, then shook her head. She had left her watch on the dressing-table when she went to the reception-room to meet Rose. It was only when she was dressing that afternoon that she strapped the watch on her wrist.
"Thank the powers that be." The man spoke whole-heartedly. "Miss Allerson, you must be more careful, Oscar would have recognised that watch, immediately. Remember, in future when you change characters you must change everything—everything. Ray Allerson must possess nothing that R. S. Allerson has."
"I understand." Ray slipped the watch into her bag. "Mr. Tresgold—"
"Sam. What are we going to do? We can't stay here. He might see us any minute."
The man nodded, yet continued to sit back, slowly drawing on his cigarette. For some time be scanned the room and people with half-shut eyes.
As if from some distance the music sounded, very faintly, yet continually increasing in strength until, as instrument after instrument took up the melody, the hall became full of sound. Still Sam Tresgold sat silent, only his restless eyes betraying the rush of thoughts through his brain. Suddenly he roused.
"Could you find your way out of this hall—in the dark?" he asked under his, breath.
"Then watch. I will see you have the opportunity."
Again Ray nodded. Impulsively, she spoke: "You said you had a message for me?"
"Yes. Come, we must dance."
He drew her to her feet, drawing her out on the floor. They were just in time. Ray bent her head, almost burying her face on Sam's shoulder, as Oscar Beringer and his partner passed.
"Close, that!" Sam laughed. "Wait until I give the word."
Furtively, Ray watched Oscar Beringer and his partner circle the floor. Above the dancers glowed the lights dimmed and continually changing in colour and forms. Presently the hair was shrouded in darkness, except for one red lamp, shining high in the dome above the floor.
"See Matthew Chalmers. Find out on what ship the bullion is to be forwarded. Now!"
He almost flung the girl from him. Turning towards the centre of the room be raised his hand. A dulled, muffled "phut" sounded strangely amid the dance music—and the centre light disappeared amid a tinkling of falling glass.
Ray did not wait. In a moment she was through the big swing doors, speeding up the street. She flung herself at a cruising taxi, wrenching open the door.
"Taunton House, quick!" she exclaimed as she fell back on the cushions. Then she laughed. "The clock chimed twelve and Cinderella's coach became a yellow taxi."
RAY looked at the little gem-studded wrist-watch in the jewellers' box on her hand. On the table beside her bed lay the postal wrappings in which it had come to her that morning. The box had contained neither note nor card, yet she immediately guessed the sender. The previous afternoon Sam Tresgold had told her she must not wear her old watch while posing as R. S. Allerson.
Mingled with delight at the gift was regret. The watch had been sent to R. S. Allerson—not to Ray Allerson, herself. The girl checked the thought, her face and neck flaming red. Sam Tresgold was a thief, the associate of criminals, the right hand man of the woman who had come to Sydney to steal the bullion the States Finance Company was sending overseas.
Sam was a thief! Ray repeated the fact to herself again and again—as if trying to make herself believe it. Sam had acknowledged that he was an associate of the woman Rose, who was R. S. Allerson, a Melbourne crook. But—Sam was nice.
Ray placed the watch on the bed table. She would wear it when she was R. S. Allerson. That would be correct—what Sam had sent it to her for. But—deep in her heart she wished he had sent it to Ray Allerson, herself.
She laughed as she revisioned the scene that had followed her parting with the man the previous afternoon. Again she heard the muffled "phut" followed by the tinkling of the falling glass, in the darkness. Sam had acted quickly, decisively, and no one suspected that anything but an accident had happened to the electric globe. Someone, one of the dancers, had laughed, shrilly, but the band had continued to play. Other lights had been switched on—she had seen them when she looked back from the head of the stairs.
From the café she had gone to the Macquarie Street apartment—to halt in the doorway, in dismay. The place was in disorder. Someone had been there—she could guess who. Nothing had been touched, except the dress she had worn as Ray Allerson, at the Occidental Private Hotel.
Why? There was only one answer.
Someone had noticed the dress. Ray remembered that Freddie Dutton had spoken to Maudie of the similarity of the dresses the girl at the Occidental and R. S. Allerson had worn on her arrival at the Macquarie Street apartment.
Very carefully she had examined the dress. Just under the right arm she had found a thread of dark-blue silk. From a casual glance it appeared as if the thread had caught on the dress fabric. But, under closer scrutiny Ray saw that it had been threaded through the fabric with a needle.
Oscar Beringer! Then he suspected her. Why? Had Dutton spoken to him of the resemblance of the two dresses? No, Beringer had seen her in that dress in both her characters. Had he placed the thread on R. S. Allerson's dress in the hope he would find it on Ray Allerson? That was possible, probable—
Ray's fingers had gone to the thread, to remove it; then she had hesitated. She would leave it there for a time. She went to the spacious wardrobe and placed the dress in it, choosing from R. S. Allerson's frocks a quiet, plain costume. She robed hastily.
Beringer had been in the Occidental lounge when she returned home the previous evening. He had been solicitous for her apparent fatigue. Ray thought she had noticed a tinge of disappointment in his eyes when he surveyed her. She had made an excuse to get to her room and change. Before leaving her room she had carefully marked the dress with her name.
The incident had given her food forethought. Living at the Occidental she was balancing on a slender thread. At any moment discovery might come. Beringer might take it into his head to search her room at the hotel, any night. She would not be there, but he would find the bed disordered, as if it had been slept in. He would then guess the truth. What action would he take?
She would have to get away from the Occidental. But, where could she go? She could not disappear, merging her identity entirely in R. S. Allerson. Beringer was suspicious. He was still watching her. He would want to know where she was living and he would place the whole of his organisation on her trail.
The problem appeared insoluble—Wherever she went she would be in danger from Beringer's espionage. If she took a small flat. That could only be done if she had some girl with her whom she could trust: Maude? No, she was impossible. Then, who?
On returning to the Macquarie Street apartment she had spent some time tidying up the disorder the searchers had made. She had retired to bed, troubled and wondering. She believed that Beringer had decided that she, Ray Allerson, was the R. S. Allerson of Taunton House. If so, then—
Her thoughts had travelled from the sinister image of Oscar Beringer to Sam Tresgold. He had brought her a message from Sara. Sara wanted her to get in touch with Matthew Chalmers, she was to find out when the shipment of gold was to take place; she was to discover every particular relating to the shipment that was possible.
What did that mean? That she was to play the vamp with the managing director of the States Finance Company. Her honesty revolted at the thought. Whatever the consequences, she could not do that. But, in what other manner could she carry out the orders she had received?
She could refuse to obey—but then she would be shutting the door on much information. She guessed that Sara was testing her; letting her see some small part of the secret plot revolving around the shipment of gold; noting how she would react to the information gained. If she made herself entirely subservient to this mistress-crook, then she might learn more—perhaps enough to defeat the thieves and land them in gaol.
Again, if she went to Matthew Chalmers and wormed the information required from him, then she would have one of the definite facts she needed in her hands. If she was to counter-plot against the crooks she could not have too much information. She must know when the gold was to be moved; who was to move it; and how the shipment was to be accomplished.
With that information in her hands, dealing it out to the crooks as necessity demanded, she might be able be get a line on the plans they had formed to seize the bullion. Even if she failed, if Sara and Oscar Beringer would not let her into their secret plans, she could go to the authorities and tell them what she knew. The plans of the State Finance Company could be altered—even at the last moment. The shipment might be delayed, or advanced. Either method would result in the crooks being foiled.
How was she to win the confidence of Matthew Chalmers? He had known her as a girl seeking employment. How would he receive her as a young lady of fashion, with apparent wealth? Would he not be suspicious? And his suspicions once aroused, his lips would be sealed.
THE morning brought no comfort or solution to her problems. She awoke with her brain humming with thoughts and plans. For some time she lay thinking. Strangely now, she had no repulsion against the orders she had received from Sara—as she had had the previous night.
Marie had brought in the post when she arrived. Now Ray lay and watched the deft maid moving through the rooms. Presently the girl came to the bed with the morning tea-tray. Barely a quarter of an hour later she came to tell Ray that her bath was ready. Instead of rising, Ray stretched out her hand for the wrist-watch, holding it close between her palms. With a sigh she placed it on the bed-table. Sam was—nice; but he was a crook.
"A Miss Warren to see you, miss," Marie announced, when Ray came from the bathroom.
"Miss Warren?" Ray paused, suddenly. She had forgotten the girl in the whirl of happenings through the previous night and day. What was she to do with her?
Sara had told her to engage her as her private secretary. Well, why not? Perhaps in this girl she would find the "someone" she wanted by her side—the "someone" in whom, she could confide—who would help her cover her difficult double identity.
A slight, dark girl, below the average height, rose to her feet as Ray entered the reception-room. The girl looked at her visitor, closely. Amy Warren was deceptive as regards her looks. She had the appearance of a doll—a toy—that might, in years, develop into a languid, empty-headed housewife to some middle-class clerk. Yet, before she had spoken half-a-dozen words Ray knew that she was facing a keen, well-trained intellect—a woman who, under the guise of apparent shyness and diffidence, concealed an honesty and straightness of purpose equal to her own.
"Who told you to come and see me?" Ray asked, without preamble.
"I received a telephone message." Amy Warren showed surprise. "I thought it was from you. Your name was mentioned."
"Who spoke, a man or a woman?"
"A man spoke. He said he was telephoning on behalf of Miss R. S. Allerson."
Ray nodded. That was Sara's work. For a brief moment she gazed steadily at the girl before her. She decided that she liked her—that she could trust this girl implicitly.
"Was I abrupt, Miss Warren?" Ray laughed slightly. "If so, please forgive me. I wanted you to come and see me, but I had forgotten I had sent for you."
Amy Warren nodded; she was looking at Ray inquisitively.
"You are looking for a new position, I believe." Ray motioned the girl to seat herself again. "I want a secretary; someone I can thoroughly trust, and she must be able to hold her tongue. I believe you were personal secretary to Mr. Matthew Chalmers?"
"Why did you leave him?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know!" For the moment Ray looked at the girl in amazement. Amy appeared distressed.
"I am telling you the truth. Miss Allerson," she continued. "I really don't know why I left the States Finance Company! I had a good job. I was quite happy there. Then, one morning I went to work—"
"Yes?" Ray questioned when the girl paused.
"Oh, it is all too absurd. You can't possibly believe me."
"I may—I believe I shall."
"I can't believe it myself." The girl was embarrassed. "Can you imagine my writing a letter and forgetting all about it, immediately?"
Ray smiled. She knew that with Oscar Beringer framing the girl, much stranger things might well happen.
"You wrote and resigned your position, abruptly?"
"That is what my letter said." Amy hesitated, then continued: "Miss Allerson, one night when I went home I was taken ill. I was staying at a boarding house, and when I found I could not go to work the next morning I wrote a letter to Mr. Chalmers. One of the girls took it to him on her way to work. I was too ill for the next couple of days to go to the office—and—and I rather wondered why no-one had rang up to inquire how I was."
Ray nodded. She could see how Beringer had worked the plant.
"The third day I felt better, and I knew that Mr. Chalmers had some important work on hand. I went down to the Office late in the morning. Mr. Chalmers was cold, very cold. He said he was surprised to see me. I asked him for an explanation and he showed me my—what he said was my letter."
"Was it your letter?" asked Ray.
"It was my 'handwriting.'" Amy Warren hesitated. "But I'll swear I never wrote it."
"What did the letter state?"
"That I wished to resign my position at once—as I was going to be married, immediately, and go with my husband to the Islands. Oh it was absurd. I had never thought of getting married—and I don't know anyone going to the Islands."
"I couldn't believe my eyes. The letter was certainly in my writing, but I knew that I had never written it. I don't know what Mr. Chalmers must have thought. He was very nice, tried to console me; but he had obtained another secretary and there was no room for me. I—I think he thought I must have gone mad!"
Ray nodded. She could realise how the girl's apparent actions would affect the hard-headed business man.
"You are willing to come to me?" she asked, quickly. "I will pay you what you were receiving from the States finance Company."
"I should like to come." Amy spoke quietly, but Ray recognised the relief in her voice. She had her own experiences to base her reading of the girl on. She knew what it was to be out of work in that city.
Deftly she led the girl to speak of her work at the States Finance Company's offices. As she had suspected, the girl could tell her much. In half-an-hour Ray had a complete knowledge of the system used by the company in the shipment of bullion; a fairly complete outline of the managing director and his methods of work. Tentatively, she spoke of the shipment of gold to England, as a matter of gossip.
"How did you know that?" Amy asked wonderingly. "I thought that was to be kept a dead secret."
"Secrets have a habit of becoming known," Ray laughed. "I happened to hear of it and the thought of so great a sum leaving the country intrigued me. Just imagine, half-a-million sovereigns packed in little wooden boxes and sent all that way, overseas."
"Half-a-million!" The girl laughed gently. "Why, Miss Allerson, the shipment will be well over three-quarters of a million pounds. Of course, the States Finance Company has nothing to do with the actual shipment. That will be a matter of arrangement between the shipping company and the Commonwealth Bank."
"Yet the money belongs to the States Finance Company?"
"Of course. It is a payment that has to be made to English financial companies in reference to certain municipal loans."
"And all the details are arranged now?"
"Practically everything was arranged before I lost—before I left the company's employment. The money is to be shipped by the Triantic. Yes, all details were arranged more than a month ago."
Ray was elated. Now she had the information she required. Making some excuse to the girl she went into the boudoir and telephoned the shipping company, she was informed that the Triantic was to sail in eight days' time.
She had less than a week to make her preparations to defeat the two gangs of crooks. Could she succeed? She wondered. Pondering the question, she returned to the reception room. Almost as she stepped into the room a knock came at the outer door and Maude entered. The woman crook halted, abruptly, in the doorway, staring at Amy Warren. With a few words, Ray dismissed the girl, making an appointment for the following day. As the door closed behind her new secretary Ray turned to Maude.
"Who's that?" The woman crook spoke abruptly.
"The girl who held the job at the States Finance Company?"
"Thought I recognised her. What's she doing here?" Maude hesitated, then suddenly changed her tone.
"Sorry, Miss Allerson, I shouldn't have questioned you like that."
Ray laughed. She went to where the woman sat and kissed her. In spite of her abruptness—in spite of the fact that she was a crook—Ray had come to have a warm spot in her heart for the straight-speaking, loyal woman.
"Say what you like, Maude. I don't mind. Amy Warren is coming here to be my private secretary."
"But—good lor'! She's straight!"
"Does that matter?" Again Ray laughed. "Perhaps she will be of greater service to me 'straight' than if she was—was like me."
For a moment Maude stared: then laughed, heartily.
"You're deep." Admiration glowed In here eyes. "I see the game, now. With that girl, with her straight eyes and straight ways to see people, you can fool everyone. Gee, that's good."
Ray nodded. If that explanation satisfied Maude, then well and good. She turned the conversation to Oscar Beringer and the meeting of the gang that had been held the previous evening.
"Lor', that was fun!" Maude laughed. "I gave Freddie the tip to tie in with some of his stuff—and he did. Oscar hadn't more than opened his mouth to explain some plan he formed when Freddie chipped in. From there on Oscar hadn't a chance. Freddie wanted everything explained—and he wouldn't give anyone a chance to say a word. He wanted your letters read and when Oscar said he hadn't got them with him then Freddie stirred up the mud to a tune. At the end, I got the best laugh of my life. Freddie took Oscar to task for—for honesty. Gave him a sermon and—and you should have seen Oscar's face."
"What happened, at the end?" asked Ray.
"What could happen, with Freddie let loose? Oscar made a light for it, but he had almost gone under for the third, and fatal, time, before someone proposed that the business be postponed until tonight. Oscar seized the saving rope and clung to it with both hands. Then I applied the muzzle to Freddie—but it hurt to do it. He'd been splendid!"
"There's to be another meeting tonight." The woman spoke carelessly. "That's all I could do—and I don't see that it's much use."
"What do you mean?"
"The crowd's got the eye-dazzler." Maude shrugged. "They can't see passing up half-a-million sovereigns—whatever I let Freddie say."
Ray agreed. Beringer and his gang would not forego the chance of laying their hands on the bullion, even if it meant having to fight the Melbourne gang of crooks under R. S. Allerson. Yet she did not feel downhearted. Beringer's cupidity could be made to serve her purpose. With the two gangs fighting over the loot she had a possibility of being able to defeat both. In a few words, she told Maude what she had learned regarding the shipment of gold.
"That's straight?" asked the woman.
"Tell Oscar Beringer, if you like," Ray answered with apparent indifference.
"So that's it." A cunning look came in the woman's eyes. "You want me to pass him the office. Then he'll make his preparations for a week tomorrow, and find himself in the soup. Is that right? Well, where do I come in?"
"Where do you want to come in?" asked Ray quickly.
"With you." Maude spoke very promptly. "You know, Miss Allerson, I've—I've become awfully fond of you."
Sudden remorse came to Ray. The woman was a crook, but towards anyone she cared for she would always be straight—dead straight. Ray asked herself if he was acting honestly with her? What she had told her was true. The gold would leave Australia on the day named; but it was her business to see that neither the Sydney nor the Melbourne crooks laid hands on it. If she accepted Maude's offer to stand in with her, than she would be deceiving the woman. Maude was greedy for money. Was her offer due to the fact that she believed that Ray was more likely to succeed in annexing the bullion than Oscar Beringer and his crowd? That was likely; yet Ray believed that the feeling Maude held for her was a true personal liking.
For the moment she did not know how to act. Trying to think out the problem, immediately, she allowed her eyes to wander around the room. One of the pictures on the wall was hanging crooked. Ray rose and went over to it.
Pushing up the picture she flattened it against the wall. It would not lie flat; there was something behind it. Ray swung the picture to one side, revealing a little round, black disc.
For a moment she stared at it in astonishment; then she realised what it meant. The disorder in her apartment the previous afternoon was explained. Here, before her, was one end of a Dictaphone. Where did the slender wires leading from this receiver go to? She believed to Oscar Beringer's office, two stories up.
"WHAT'S the matter?" Maude was beside Ray, staring at the picture on the wall. Now it hung straight, concealing the Dictaphone.
"Why?" The girl made an effort to appear unconcerned. She wanted time to think.
"You look as if you had seen a ghost." The woman stared at the girl for a moment, then nonchalantly strolled back to her chair. "Of course, if you don't want to—
"I do," Kay interrupted. "Maude, I was a beast. It wasn't that I didn't want to tell you, but that I was thunderstruck at what I had discovered."
"Behind the picture." Maude guessed shrewdly. She went to the wall and moved the picture aside, exposing the little black disc. "Whew! I'll be damned!"
"I feel like that." Ray laughed. "Do you think he has overheard us?"
Maude did not answer. She stared at the Dictaphone for a moment, in amazement, then went from the room in a whirl of super-short skirts. In about ten minutes she returned.
"Best of luck, old dear. Oscar has a patient. Nursie told me that she had been there for quite a time."
Long enough to cover Amy Warren's visit? Ray asked herself the question. She believed that she could answer it in the affirmative. If Beringer had been at the Dictaphone when the patient arrived he certainly would not have gone from it. No, so far she was safe.
Now she knew the explanation of the search of her apartment the previous afternoon. Beringer had gone there to install the Dictaphone. The search had been supplementary, the thread on the dress an afterthought.
Had Beringer been content with installing one Dictaphone. More than likely he had known the layout of the apartment. He might guess that if Ray desired absolute privacy for an interview she would hold it in the boudoir. If he had thought that, then anywhere in the apartment she might come across another of the instruments.
"Come, Maude." A few words explained her thoughts. Maude blanched to the lips. If Beringer had overheard her talking to Ray—The woman knew that she was not trusted by her chief. She guessed that the master-crook knew that she often spoke against him. But, so far he had never been able to bring any definite charge against her. Had she, that morning, said anything on which he could lay hold? But, had he overheard them talking? She believed not.
Carefully, they searched the rooms, moving the furniture and examining walls and carpets. Ray took the lead in the search and Maude, her face still pale, lent efficient aid. At length they came back to the reception-room, confident that the Dictaphone they had discovered was the only one installed.
Ray wondered how the master crook had known that she was to be out of the apartment the previous afternoon. He might have come down to the apartment and found the place shut. But then, how could he know how long she would be absent? Would he take the chance that she would walk in on him in the middle of the work? No, the girl was forced to the conclusion that Beringer had a very efficient intelligence service.
Sara had warned her, the previous afternoon, that her life was in danger—that she was to vacate the apartment for the afternoon. Had Sara known, what was in Beringer's mind? But, if so, then why had she said nothing to her of the Dictaphone? Surely she knew that if Beringer overheard the conversations in that room he would be able to thwart her plans? If she could get in touch with Sara—
A quick blush rose to Ray's face. Was it Sara she wanted to speak to, or the man she had been with the previous afternoon? Ray dealt honestly with herself. She knew that Sam Tresgold interested her—that she wanted to see him again.
For what reason? He was a crook, an associate of crooks—and she was sorry for him. Angrily, she asked herself if she was sorry that Maude and Freddie were crooks? She knew that with them she was almost indifferent. Then—
With a shake of her shoulders she put thoughts of the man from her. She had to think of the peril in which she now stood—of the potentialities of the little round, black disc on the wall behind the picture.
"Damn it!" She shook her fist at the picture. Maude laughed.
"What on earth are we to do? If I tear it down—"
"Be careful." The woman crook spoke almost in a whisper. "I don't know how long that patient is going to stay."
"That's all right." Ray laughed. "The thing's out of action for the time. Beringer has to hear something or he'll suspect. What—what the—old gentleman—are we to do?"
"I'll get hold of Freddie, if you like." Maude spoke doubtfully.
"Is Freddie an electrician?"
"He knows how to press a button—when he wants a fresh drink." Maude laughed.
"Then he's out." Ray dropped into a chair, a grim little smile flecking the corners of her lips. "No, Maudie, dear. We want an electrician; not a boy-friend."
"Why the electrician?" Maude asked, doubtfully.
"Because we don't like friend Oscar's ways." Ray's eyes became secretive. "You say there is to be a meeting of the crowd tonight?"
"Sure." The woman's eyes grew round with wonder. "What's the connection, old dear? Dictaphone, electrician, the crowd, and—"
"You love!" Ray sprang to her feet. "I've got it!"
"The electrician? Where?"
"The genie of the lamp. He'll come."
"Hope he's good-looking. Now, there's the trouble. Freddie's not jealous, try as I will to teach him. That cramps a girl's style, awfully."
Ray laughed. But, behind the laughter was a there of wistfulness. Maude had her Freddie. If she could get in touch with—with—She mentally shook herself. Why was she continually thinking of that—crook?
"Get in touch with Freddie," she commanded, inconsequently.
Maude picked up the telephone and dialled a number. Ray lay back in her chair, watching. Freddie would have to get her an electrician—someone they could trust. She wanted that Dictaphone tapped—something like a switch put on that wire so that she could control it, letting Beringer hear exactly what she wanted him to know.
There was more she wanted from the man, when Freddie brought him. What was good for the gander was good for madam goose, in some way she must obtain the installation of a Dictaphone in Beringer's office—and that must be done at once.
She must have a Dictaphone installed in Beringer's office during that day. She could not wait until nightfall. Maude had said there was to be a meeting of the gang in Beringer's rooms that night. With the Dictaphone she could overhear everything. She would be in a better position than if she was present in person.
"Freddie's coming." Maude put down the instrument. "What's the game, old dear?"
"I want an electrician," repeated Ray.
"You've said that before." Maude laughed. "Good-looking one?"
"Looks don't count." Yet Ray could not prevent herself blushing. "I want a man who knows how to erect Dictaphones."
"What? You mean—"
"Just that!" thee girl nodded.
"What a scream!" Maude lay back In her chair and gave way to uncontrolled laughter. "You're planting one on Oscar?"
"It's up to you to get him out of the way for the afternoon," Ray said soberly. "We've got to get the nurse away, too."
"Sure." Maude suddenly became serious. "That's some talk."
For some time they sat, pondering the problem. Ray suddenly looked up.
"Who's watching the girl at the Occidental?" she asked.
"Don't know, unless Oscar's keeping tabs himself." Maude frowned. "He said last night that he had a safe line on her."
"Let Oscar know she's moving today." Ray smiled and nodded at Maude's wide stare. "I can manage that."
"Good." The woman moved towards the telephone.
"Not here." Ray clamped her hand over the mouthpiece of the instrument: "You forget. He can trace the call. Get out to a call box and ring him up from there."
Maude nodded, understanding, and left the room. Hardly had she departed when the telephone bell rang.
"Sara," came over the wire, when Ray gave her name; but it was a man, not a woman, who spoke. The girl recognised the voice.
"You got home all right. Anything happened?" The man was plainly anxious.
"Only that someone had searched the apartment, very thoroughly." Ray smiled secretly. Sam appeared very anxious to know that she was safe. "Do you know anything about electricity?"
"Can you rig up a bell—a Dictaphone?"
"I can push a bell." Sam's voice suddenly became grave. "Say, Ray, what's up?"
"Only that a—friend left a little souvenir in my rooms, last night."
"Just that," Ray interrupted, quickly. "Well?"
"I'm coming up."
"All right—No," Ray corrected, "Maude Penlop and her boy friend will be here."
"They don't know me. All serene!" Ray heard the receiver placed on the hook. She suddenly felt relieved of a burden. Sam would find a way out of the muddle for her.
She waited for the man to arrive, feeling singularly inadequate. Sam was coming to help her. She had a great belief in his ability, remembering the scene in the café. There he had snatched her from almost certain discovery by Beringer, without hardly an effort.
But, Maude and Freddie would be in the apartment when Sam arrived. She must be very careful. She laughed; for what reason? It would be best to act boldly—to introduce him as a friend. Yes, that would be safest. If by any chance, at any time, Maude and Freddie uncovered his connection with Sara—well, she was that delectable person, to them.
A knock came at the door. Ray opened it, to admit Maude and Freddie.
"The electrician," Maude announced, dramatically.
Freddie smiled, striking a pose. "The woman speaks!"
"Quite a change, old dear." Maude patted him on the back. "Now, get to it!" She pointed to the picture on the wall behind which hung the Dictaphone.
The man became serious. He took down the picture. At sight of the little round, black disc, he frowned.
"How long's that been there?" he asked.
"Does that matter?" Maude asked, tartly.
"Only since yesterday afternoon," interposed Ray.
"And I suppose you girls have been talking freely here?"
"I talked before it to Amy Warren." The girl thought best to be frank. "Maude says that Beringer had a patient in with him all the morning. If so, then he could not have been at the Dictaphone."
"Thank your little stars for that." Freddie pretended to dash the perspiration from his forehead. "I shudder to think what would have happened if Oscar had overheard you."
Again came a tap at the door. Ray's colour heightened as she went to admit Sam Tresgold. She introduced him to the others.
"An electrician?" Maude had not missed the sudden accession of colour to Ray's face.
"Of the same calibre as Freddie, dear," she answered, rather maliciously. She turned to Sam and explained what had happened and her proposed counter-stroke.
"Good." Sam nodded. "The thing is to get the girl at the Occidental to move." He turned to Ray. "Can you do that, Miss—Allerson?"
"I think so." Ray spoke doubtfully, ignoring the twinkle in Sam's eyes. "I'll do my best."
"Can't do more," Freddie approved. "Now, who's in command of these operations?"
"Mr. Tresgold," replied Ray quickly.
"Right-o! What's the orders?"
"Mr. Dutton will buy the things I want." Sam spoke quickly. "Miss Allerson will go to her work at the Occidental. Miss Penlop deals with Beringer and his staff. That right?"
Ray went to the bedroom door, then turned back to Maude.
"Do you understand, dear?" she asked anxiously. "You've got to get Beringer to go to the girl at the Occidental. Get him to offer her his help—and put it to him that he has to know where she goes to. I'll deal with him there."
"I mean that if I can get the girl out of the way I'll be her." Ray spoke with confidence, trying to ignore the fun in Sam's eyes. "Understand?"
Maude nodded. Ray ran into the bedroom and changed, quickly. Within five minutes she was out of Taunton House, speeding for the Occidental. At the hotel she paid her bill, making the excuse that she had found a job that necessitated her moving into the country. Then she went upstairs to pack.
Suddenly she sat down on the edge of the bed and laughed. She was moving—and allowing Beringer to track her to her new home. But, she hadn't one! So much for her scheming!
Did it matter where she went? Whatever place she found she would move out of it almost immediately. She had no intention of allowing the master crook to keep her under observation. Ray Allerson was to disappear—and R. S. Allerson—become free from suspicion. That was the only safe thing she could do.
Where was she to go for the time? For long moments she sat, thinking hard. Wherever she established, herself Beringer would, in time, track her down. In some manner had to disappear quickly, completely. How could she accomplish that? She had to wreck her present identity—her true self—to preserve the one she had borrowed.
Plan after plan chased through her mind. If she located at another private hotel, Beringer would follow and have her spied upon. Despair almost seized her. How could she escape from the man?
She sat up and laughed, almost hysterically. There was a way.
Fantastic and unreal, true, but it might work. Pulling on her hat, she touched the bell, summoning the porter. In the hall, her luggage at her feet, watching for the man to return with the taxi, she found Oscar Beringer standing by her side.
"Moving, Miss Allerson?'
"Going home," she retorted, briefly. "I'm tired of your wonderful city, Mr. Beringer."
"But, I understood you had work."
"Only temporary work," Ray lied. "It finished this morning. There's no other work here and—and really, a girl cannot live on your harbour view."
"There are those in Sydney who might help." Beringer spoke in a low intimate voice.
"I don't believe in employment agencies, Mr. Beringer. Their commissions are far too high."
"I spoke of individuals—an individual, not for me.
"I always pay in hard cash, Mr. Beringer." The look the girl flashed on the man was insolent.
For the moment the man was nonplussed. With an effort he regained his composure.
"You are going back to Melbourne, then?'
"But, there is no train until tonight."
"Then I shall book my luggage at the station, get some lunch and wander about until the train leaves."
"May I have the honour."
Ray looked at him, directly. What was passing behind those cold, inscrutable eyes. Gravely, she nodded. She might as well have him with her, instead of following on her tracks. That would be safer He might take it into his head to return to his offices; and Sam might be up there, rigging the Dictaphone.
If she could keep him by her? Yet, she had little fear of failure. She must hold him until train-time; then in some way she must give him the slip.
"Good." The man spoke quickly. "My car is outside. Never mind the taxi. We'll drive to the station and store your things; then to the Embassy for lunch."
Again Ray contented herself with a brief nod. She allowed herself to be placed in the car and watched her cases stored in the back. A few minutes later they were speeding through the busy city traffic. Ray watched the man, covertly. He had a little smile on his lips—a smile she could not understand. What was he planning?
From his manner she had nothing to complain. Almost she was sorry she had snubbed him so harshly in the hall of the Occidental. All she had to worry over was how to slip him sometime during the late afternoon.
A table had been reserved for them at the Embassy. Ray felt entirely guilty. At the station Beringer had insisted on obtaining her berth on the train. He had made rather a fuss over the matter, insisting on the very best accommodation. It had been embarrassing, for he had refused to let her pay for her fares; and she had not the slightest intention of leaving Sydney.
Beringer chose the meal, carefully. Ray was hungry and began to enjoy herself. She looked at him across the table. Why was it she hated him so much? But did she hate him? No, she knew that it was a strange, queer, physical repulsion. To what? If he could be bullied, chaffed, out of that too intimate manner of speaking—his too intimate glances that made her feel naked, ashamed.
Ray sipped her coffee, slowly. It was rather thick and almost too sweet. Beringer had told her it was a new coffee, only served at the Embassy, and to a favoured few. She liked it—almost. Yet it was strange, nearly fascinating. She looked up suddenly, to see the man's eyes fastened on her face, eagerly, watchfully, greedily.
She got to her feet, and her limbs seemed strangely weak. Her head was heavy, tired and whirling. Muttering an excuse, she went to the retiring room. There she sank into a chair, striving to fight off the heaviness that had settled on her. A maid came and stood beside her, in puzzled bewilderment.
Then Ray understood. She tried to stand and sank back, frightened and bewildered.
"Please—I—I'm drugged. That man—the man I came with—Don't let him touch me—keep him, away—I—I'm going—going to—"
The girl caught her as she slid from the chair and lowered her to the floor. For one fleeting second Ray saw the girl bending over her, looking down with a strange questioning look in her eyes, a queer smile on her hard lips.
RAY came to her senses, to feel herself being carried away swiftly through the cool, night-air. She tried to move, to find her limbs helpless. She lay back, staring up at the roof of the sedan car.
By straining upwards she could just see the back of the head of the man seated behind the steering wheel. Beyond him was grey bush, occasionally lit by the lights from the lamps. Nowhere could the girl see signs of habitation.
Where was she and where were they taking her? Who was taking her away? Gradually memory returned. She remembered the lunch with Beringer; she remembered the girl in the retiring-room looking down on her as she lay on the floor with that strange, mocking smile.
Then Oscar Beringer had beaten her, after all. She had tried to play the game against him—and he had fooled her, as if she had been a child. She tried to cry out, then recognised that she was securely gagged.
Bound and gagged, and carried "somewhere" into the bush! Ray felt the hot tears spring to her eyes. Here was the end of her adventure. What a fool she had been; a vain, empty-headed fool, to imagine herself a match for the crooks. In what a simple manner the master-crook had baffled and captured her; at the moment she thought she had him beaten and fooled.
Now he would quickly learn the truth—that Ray Allerson of the Occidental Hotel was R. S. Allerson, of Taunton House. He would be able to counter-plot against Sara—and beat her. Well, what did that matter to her? Ray remembered that she had stood between two gangs of crooks, caring for neither; caring nothing but to bring their evil plots to failure.
On sped the car through the country night. Ray strained upwards again trying to get a good look at the driver. She thought him suspiciously like Oscar Beringer. She glanced at the interior of the car. She believed it to be the car in which Beringer had driven her from, the Occidental Hotel to the Central Station.
Now fear for herself possessed the girl. She was in the power of the man she feared and disliked. She remembered the strange looks he had given her since she had known him the strange glint of sensual gloating in his eyes that had repulsed and frightened her.
She was in his power. Far in the bushlands, he could do what he liked with her. No one in Sydney knew where she had gone. She had told Maude and the two men that she would induce Ray Allerson herself to leave the Occidental. They would not trouble about her any further. Only Sam Tresgold would connect Ray Allerson with R. S. Allerson.
And, if they inquired—if they had tried to trace her? They would find that she had left the Occidental with Oscar Beringer. He would state that he had taken her to the Central Station and had obtained transportation for her to Melbourne. He would only have to keep silence regarding the incidents at the Embassy. Who would guess what had happened there?
Yet, someone might have seen her at the Embassy, or between the railway station and the restaurant. That was possible, but amid the teeming multitudes in Sydney would it be possible that one of the few people she knew, or who knew her, had been there to see her?
She was lost. Only the man she feared and hated would know of her fate—and that fate she would hate worse than death. For a frantic moment she struggled at her bonds, but they were fastened too securely. She lay back, exhausted. For the time she was helpless.
The car sped on through the night. If the driver had known of her struggles against her bonds, he had taken no notice. He sat square to the road before him, peering along the rays of light from the lamps.
Where was she being taken? Almost immediately the question was answered for her. The car slowed as it mounted a long, steep hill. At the top it turned from the smooth main road on to a bush track. A short half mile and it swung into a private roadway. It came to a halt in a yard attached to a rather large cottage. Ray could only see the top of the house and the tall wire-netting surrounding the yard.
For what seemed to her to be a long time she was left undisturbed. Then a man—she believed him to have been the car-driver—came to the back of the car and opened the door. He dragged her out roughly, standing her on her feet. Yet he had to support her or she would have fallen.
Now she saw the man was Oscar Beringer. He leant close to her, thrusting his face almost against hers. In the darkness she could see his eyes glowering at her. A moment and he picked her up in his arms and carried her through a narrow gate.
She let her head fall back over his arms, twisting so that she could see the darkness of the low shingled roofed cottage they were approaching. Beringer swore as she moved, and clutched her so tight that it hurt.
"Lie still, you little fool!" he muttered, under his breath. He came to the door of the house and again stood her on her feet. Thrusting the door open he carried her into the darkness, depositing her on a couch.
For some time she lay helpless, struggling against the bonds that held her. She knew the man was not in the room, in spite of the darkness. She wondered where he had gone to. Had he gone back to the car and driven off, leaving her alone in that dark, silent house?
As if in answer to her thoughts she heard the muffled roar of the car engine. It tempered to a regular beat and then she heard the grind of gears and the scrunch of rubber tyres on the rough earth. A moment and she knew that Beringer was backing the car into some shed.
Suddenly light came. Ray, from where she lay on the couch, could see into another room. That, also, was lit. She thought that Beringer, from some shed outside the house, had switched on some lighting plant. Now she could examine her surroundings.
The room was low-ceilinged, wide and long. It was comfortably furnished. Along one of the long walls were french windows, opening on to a spacious balcony. Beyond the balcony she could dimly see tall trees and open spaces, on the background of a dark night.
For what seemed like hours she waited, bracing herself for the battle of wits to come. She tried to marshal—know—her forces; understand the weapons with which she had to fight, and conquer. What had she to offer this man for her freedom? Nothing he would take—nothing she could give.
She was beaten. Beringer had only to go back to the city and try to get in touch with R. S. Allerson, to discover the imposture she had played on him. He would find that the mistress-crook had disappeared as completely as had Ray Allerson, the out-of-work secretary.
A slight sound at the door brought her to realise that her time of preparation had expired. She glanced quickly round. Oscar Beringer was standing just within the door, a quiet smile on his thin, straight lips.
"Welcome, Miss Allerson." He came into the room with a soft, cat-like tread. "Welcome to my country home."
"Where?" Ray spoke quickly, as he removed the gag from her mouth.
"Now, really—" The man laughed quietly. "Perhaps I may choose to tell you later. It depends—on how you behave."
"What do you mean?" Ray sat up as Beringer unbound her arms and legs. "Do you think I shall not be missed and a search made for me?"
"By whom? Miss Ray Allerson left the Occidental Hotel at midday accompanied by a well-known business man. He will say he took her, at her request, to the Central Station, where she booked for Melbourne."
"And, when Miss Ray Allerson does not arrive in Melbourne?" Ray faced the master-crook, quietly. "What then?"
The man shrugged. "Who is to know for days. Then, who will care?"
Ray's heart sank. The man spoke the truth. Not one of her friends in the southern capital knew that she intended to return there. She had not intended to go to Melbourne. Her announcement to Beringer, that she was leaving Sydney, had been purely bluff.
"Who, in Sydney, will know, or care?" Beringer repeated himself; a hint of irony accompanying his words.
What could she say or do? Maude and Freddie Dutton would not connect her with the Ray Allerson of the Occidental Hotel. If they learned that Ray Allerson had gone to Melbourne they would suppose that she, R. S. Allerson, had frightened Ray Allerson—herself—away. She almost laughed at the bizarre situation she had created.
But Sara and Sam Tresgold knew the truth. What would they think of her disappearance? Would they think that she had become frightened of the situation she had fallen into, and fled? Would Sara think that she had found the situation too difficult—and had run away?
Ray did not worry as to what the mistress-crook would think regarding her disappearance; she was more concerned with the thoughts of the man with whom she had spent the previous afternoon. Surely he would not think that she had run away just at the time when they had become acquainted?
"What do you want?" Ray asked. Almost a tremor in her voice.
Beringer did not immediately reply. He came closer, looking down into her eyes with an evil, strange glance. His lips were smiling, showing rows of very even, white teeth.
"What do I want?" He seemed to ponder the question. "I want the truth—and one other thing."
"What other thing?" Ray forced her lips to frame the question.
"You," The word came from his lips with explosive force. "You—and now I have you."
The girl shrank back, a deadly fear in her heart. She looked around her, wildly, for a weapon with which to defend herself.
"You." The man came a step nearer. "Do you think I don't know? Hah! I knew from the first."
"What?" Ray looked at the man, bewildered.
"I knew when you first came to Sydney." Beringer spoke easily, now. "I knew when first I saw you at the Occidental Hotel. Have you forgotten you sent me your photograph?" For the moment Ray's bewilderment increased. Then came the light and she understood the man.
"You came to Sydney to spy." Beringer accused. "You came to Sydney in the guise of an out-of-work typist, snooping about the offices of the States Finance Company. Do you think I don't know? I was trailing you all the time. You told me you were out of work—that you wanted a job—that you were hard up. You thought I took all you told me in—but I didn't. I was waiting, watching, laughing.
"I let you think you had me fooled," the master-crook continued after a pause. "I offered you money—a job—and you declined both. Why? Because you didn't want your activities hampered, of course. I waited, knowing that soon you would make a mistake that would reveal your secret. You did." He laughed harshly. "You damned fool, to think that you could fight and beat me."
Ray stared at the man in sheer amazement. Surely he had fooled himself. Now she was beginning to understand much that had puzzled her. Almost she laughed.
"Then you framed those silly fools, Maude Penlop and Freddie Dutton. Quite clever that, getting into the apartment prepared for you and letting them find you there, asleep. Yes, I'll grant that was clever—you tricked them beautifully. R. S. Allerson had arrived. But, Ray Allerson had been in Sydney for many days."
"So you told Maude and Freddie that you were going to marry me." The girl laughed, scornfully.
"Why not? You are." He made the statement, simply. "For what other reason did I bring you here?"
Ray did not answer.
"When you and I are married we will hold the underworld of Australia in the palms of our hands." The man continued, without trace of emotion. "We will rule the continent. Has that prospect no appeal to you?"
"To rule with you—no." The girl spoke emphatically.
A quick scowl darkened the man's face.
"Then what?" Again his face was thrust close to hers, but she did not flinch.
"You forget Melbourne."
"What of it?"
"My people there will miss me."
"They will believe you are in Sydney."
"Even when I do not communicate with them?" Ray laughed, scornfully. "They will want to know the truth—and they will take means to find that out."
"But not for many days. By then—"
"What?" Ray asked, when the man paused.
"You and I will have come to an agreement. We will be married."
"You will be my wife. I shall communicate that fact to your people in Melbourne and give them my orders."
"I decline to marry you," Ray flashed, heatedly "The idea is too absurd."
"Then you will remain here, until you alter your mind." He laughed. "Or until I alter it for you."
"You would use force?" Instinctively Ray shrank from him.
"Why not? Surely you see the justice of what I say?" The man's tones had altered. His eyes had become dreamy; he spoke as a visionary. "Think, girl, think of what an alliance between us must mean? You, with your splendid brain; a brain that has a wonderful organising ability. I, with my aptitude for detail. Together we shall be perfect. You will plan. I shall take your plans and carry them out. Together, what cannot we do? We shall become rich—supreme in this land. We will rule states, make governments obey our will. Together—"
"Never." The girl turned and ran to the window. "You're mad—mad! I never heard of such a crazy thing! You're—you're impossible!"
With a bound he was at her side, encircling her with his arms. She wrenched at the fastenings of the windows, but they held against her.
He dragged her again into the room, flinging her on to the couch. Without a word or look he left the room.
For some minutes Ray lay where she had fallen. Then she shrugged herself into a more comfortable position, trying to rest—and think.
She believed that Beringer had become insane. If that was so, what could she do? Rising from the couch she went to the windows and tried the latches. They were locked in some way she could not understand. She studied the panes of glass. They were small and the woodwork between them too stout to be broken without considerable noise—and noise would bring Beringer again to her.
With hasty, uneven steps she paced the room. The doors, there were two of them, were fastened outside. Ray knew that she was trapped. She could not hope for help from outside. Only by her native wit could she hope to win free from the man.
What argument could she use? What force? The man was mad—obsessed with his own importance; intrigued with a vision of a nation ruled from the underworld. The idea was fantastic; Ray could have laughed, had it not been for her very serious situation.
She must do something. In some way she must escape from that house; or get in touch with people of the outside world. She went to the window, pressing her face against the glass. All she could see were the waving trees and the clearings between. Not a light shone in the far expanse of darkness.
She turned to the room, carefully searching it. Nowhere could she find anything likely to help her. She was a close prisoner—and her gaoler was mad!
There must he a way of escape. She studied the room again. The chairs were impossible—soft lounge chairs, heavy and unwieldy, utterly unsuitable as weapons. Two small tables stood in corners, both flimsy and insecure. Against the wall opposite the windows were bookshelves, filled to overflowing. A large desk stood in one corner. There was a fireplace, but neither dogs nor fire-irons.
Again she went to the window, peering out into the night. She passed from window to window, trying to see something in the darkness that would assist her, but the night was almost impenetrable.
Where was Beringer? The thought of the man sent cold shivers down her back. What was he doing? Would he come to her again that night?
For long minutes she paced the room, trying to form some plan. She had never thought she could be as helpless as she was then. She had no knowledge of her surroundings, except the room in which she was imprisoned. She did not know in what district the house was situated. She did not know that Beringer had drugged her early in the afternoon and that when she came to consciousness in the car it was long after sunset. How long had he been driving her into the country?
Again she went to the windows. Her heart sank at the hopelessness of her position. Would she be able to escape? Never before had freedom meant so much to her.
Like a caged animal she paced from window to window, stopping frequently to peer out into the night. She came to the last window on the right and looked out. Something was dangling against the wall to her right. It looked like a wire.
A sudden hope sprang in her heart. A wire. What was the wire doing there? In her room she examined the wall carefully. Yes, at some time a telephone had been installed there. Was the wire she had seen outside the window connected with the local post-office?
What if the wire led to the post office? The telephone had been disconnected and taken away. Only that fragment of wire remained. How would that serve her?
First she must break the glass, and that without too much noise. A cushion on the couch caught her eyes. She placed it against one of the panes of glass and drove her fist into the yielding bulk. At the third blow the glass broke, falling on the veranda in a musical tinkle.
Had Beringer heard the glass break? What if he had? She seized a book and cleared away the jagged pieces of glass still adhering to the window frame.
She thrust her hand through the opening and caught the wire. It was fastened somewhere. She tugged, until it came away, bringing with it two long lengths of wire. They fell inside the room, together. Immediately there was a blinding flash and the lights in the house were extinguished.
WHAT had she done? Ray lay shivering on the couch. For some minutes there was silence; then she heard someone moving outside the door. That must be Oscar Beringer. She waited, with bated breath, to know if he would unfasten the door and enter the room. Almost she could see him, standing with his ear against the panel of the door, listening. Then she heard his footsteps, receding down the passage.
Ray laughed, hysterically. She realised now what she had done. In some manner she had dragged down part of the house lighting-system, short-circuiting it and leaving the place in darkness.
For what appeared to be hours, she lay, face downwards, on the couch. She heard nothing more of Beringer. Apparently he was working in the power-house, trying to replace the lighting system in working order.
She became aware that something was burning. Curious, she rolled over and looked round the room. In the far corner, just under the broken window, there was a dull glow on the carpet. While she was staring at it the glow burst into flames, spreading rapidly.
Ray shrieked: rushing to the door and battering on it with her fists. She called for Beringer—the man she feared and hated—to come and save her. Now the flames had caught on to the woodwork and were mounting fast. Had the end of her adventure come? When the rescuers came would they find only her charred remains, under the ruins of the burned cottage?
The flames spread rapidly, keeping along the line of windows. Ray watched, with terror in her heart. Presently, as the flame did not appear to advance into the room, she took courage. With back to the door she watched the growing fire, shivering in spite of the increasing heat.
She noticed that the fire clung closely to the dried wood of the building. One after the other the french windows burned and collapsed, leaving little lines of glowing charcoal along the inner edge of the veranda, which was now on fire. A sudden thought sprang to her mind. Cautiously she advanced into the room, to the couch on which she had laid.
Across it was spread a vividly coloured rug. She snatched it up, and waited, watching the flames. Presently she saw her chance. Wrapping the rug about her head and shoulders, and leaving only a minute space through which to see, she gathered her skirts about her and dashed for the veranda.
On the lawns she turned and watched the burning house. Now she could see the progress the flames were making. They had spread to the roof, which flung long spirals of smoke into the sky. Ray shuddered, running across the lawns to the shelter of the hushes.
Where was Oscar Beringer? From the moment he had turned from the door Ray had heard nothing of him. She wondered what had happened to the man? Had he escaped, leaving her to perish in the flames? She could not believe that. Beringer was not a coward, in spite of the fact that he was a crook; mad with an insane lust for power.
Then, where was the man? Ray crept closer to the burning cottage. The roof was now well alight and threatened to collapse any minute. She turned and searched the grounds with her eyes. He was nowhere in sight. What had become of him? Had he gone to call the neighbours to assist in fighting the flames?
Keeping in the shelter of the bushes, Ray went to the rear side of the house. There she found the motor-car had been taken out of the garage and brought to face the power-house. The head-lights of the car illuminated the interior of the power-house, but Beringer was not there.
For some minutes she stood undecided. Where had the man gone? Then in sudden impulse, she jumped into the car and started the engine. A little manoeuvring and she drove the car down to the road.
Outside of the gates of the little estate she brought the car to a halt. She could not leave the place without making one more effort to locate the master-crook. What if he had gone back to the house, when he saw the flames, intent on rescuing her? What if the flames and smoke had overcome him? With sudden re-solution, she sprang from the car and ran to the house.
She called Beringer, softly at first, then more loudly; but received no reply. In despair, she returned to the car. Just as she was about to start, she saw an electric torch thrust into one of the door pockets.
With the torch lighting her way, Ray returned to the house. Now she could see that what appeared to her to be a rather wide passage was a greenery, of some width and depth. It extended back to a short passage that led to the room in which she had been confined. That part of the house was now blazing, furiously.
Something dark lay across the threshold of the short passage. Ray approached it, cautiously. It was Beringer, insensible. A large bruise, broken and bleeding, ran across the top of his head. With an effort, Ray rolled him over and examined the wound. Something heavy had struck him down, but nowhere could the girl find anything that might have caused the wound.
Beringer was a heavy man and it took all the girl's strength to drag him into the yard. Then she returned to the car and backed it into the yard, until it stood beside the master crook's unconscious body. Now the girl entered on a struggle that taxed all her powers. It was some time before she was able to got the man into the car. At last she succeeded and drove carefully out on to the highway.
Again Ray stopped and listened. She could hear voices in the distance, quickly drawing nearer. The flames from the burning house had attracted attention from distant neighbours. They were hurrying to fight the flames. The girl hesitated. Should she wait for them and hand the wounded man over to their care? She decided not. She did not want anyone to know that she had been at the cottage that night. With a shrug she started the car.
The road sloped sharply down. Ray let the machine coast to the bottom of the hill. Then she threw in the gears, steering in the direction in which she believed Sydney lay.
Some distance on she found a mile-post. Here she obtained direction. She let the car out, racing along the smooth high road. Once she stopped the car and went to look at the man on the back seat. He had not moved. The wound on his head had ceased to bleed and he was breathing stertorously. She tried to straighten him but only partly succeeded.
Again she drove on in the car. The sky was greying in the east, promise of the coming day. Ray sighed. She felt old—very old and worn. The past hours had drawn heavily on her strength and vitality.
Skimming over the smooth road she let her mind wander over the events of the past day and night. When she had recovered consciousness in the car she thought that she had been unmasked—that her secret had been penetrated. But, Beringer had been mistaken. He had believed that she, Ray was R. S. Allerson, in disguise.
Could he be made to continue to think so?
To obtain that she would have to disappear—as Ray Allerson. That she had long determined on. Then here was her opportunity. Beringer had taken her to the cottage in the hills and had confined her in a room that must, by this time, be a scatter of ashes. He had tried to rescue her and had been struck down in some indefinable way.
Need he know that she was alive? Would it not be possible for her to so order things that, when he recovered consciousness he would believe that she had perished in the flames. Then, when he came face to face with R. S. Allerson, and that person disclaimed any knowledge of the cottage and the fire, he would be disturbed and perplexed. He would have to acknowledge that there had been two girls almost exactly similar. One, Ray Allerson, the out-of-work secretary, the other R. S. Allerson, the super-crook, from Melbourne.
A quirk of mischief flecked Ray's mouth as the scheme sprang almost full fledged into her mind. She would have to abandon Beringer and the car, but that could be done in a manner that would attract almost immediate attention and relief for the suffering man.
On a quiet stretch of road Ray halted the car and pulled open the rear door. Beringer had shifted his position. Now he lay, stretched almost at full length, on the floor of the car. His breathing had lightened. Ray believed he could see signs of returning consciousness.
Now she had to plan to leave the car and the man. She must be in a position to gain immediate transportation for herself. That meant that she had to act near a town where she could get a train or hire a car.
She came to a small railway siding. Leaving the car she went to the shed and searched the timetable. She found that a train left Penrith within an hour—and she was but a few miles from that town.
Ray drove into Penrith and parked the car in a conspicuous place. Then she went to the railway-station and to the ladies' room. She found an early attendant engaged in cleaning up. A moderate tip obtained for her hot water and the necessities for a brief toilet. She loitered in the room until the train drew up at the station, then found an inconspicuous seat.
As the train slid out of the station Ray looked to where she had left the car. Already a crowd surrounded it and beside it stood an ambulance. She felt relieved. Beringer was receiving proper attention. She began to believe that she did not hate the man now so much as she had done before her abduction.
At the central station Ray took a taxi to Taunton House. She managed to slip up the stairs without attracting the attention of the attendants. Her heart was in her mouth when she slipped the key in the lock of her apartment. Was anyone waiting there for her?
The reception was empty and in good order. Ray went to the wall where the Dictaphone hung behind the picture. It was still there, but on one of the twin wires was attached a switch. The girl nodded. Now Beringer, when he returned to his offices, would hear exactly what she wanted him to hear. She looked around the room, seeking to locate the Dictaphone that Sam had promised to establish with Beringer's offices. She could not find it.
Perhaps he had placed it in another room. She opened the door of the bedroom and passed in, swinging the secret panels into place behind her. She could not find the instrument in that room. Again she passed on, into the boudoir—to halt in the doorway with an exclamation of astonishment.
Seated in a chair, engaged with a book, was Rose—or Sara.
"Well, Miss Allerson, so you have come home."
"It appears so." Ray slipped into a chair opposite the woman, sighing airily. "May I ask to what I an indebted for the honour of this early visit?"
"Stilted, but plain." Rose smiled. "I suppose you want the truth?"
"Am I likely to get it?" Ray simulated surprise.
The woman laughed. "Sam Tresgold is very concerned over your lengthy absence." Again the woman laughed at the embarrassment the girl failed wholly to conceal. Especially as that absence coincided with the disappearance of Oscar Beringer.
"Then you know?"
"What happened." Then, in answer to the woman's undoubted curiosity, Ray continued. "Didn't you know that Oscar Beringer drugged and abducted me?"
Rose sprang to her feet with a muttered exclamation. She went quickly to the girl's side, taking her firmly by the shoulders.
"What's that? Beringer had the audacity to try and abduct you?"
"He did it." Ray laughed. "Perhaps tomorrow he will take a vow against abducting lonely out-of-work secretaries."'
"Where is Oscar Beringer?" Rose's lips set in a straight line.
"I believe in hospital, at Penrith."
Then Ray, without further prompting, told the woman of her adventures after she left the Occidental Hotel in Oscar Beringer's car. Rose listened in silence. At the conclusion of the narrative she nodded, smiling congratulations.
"You certainly are a pretty handful for an abductor." The woman thought a moment, then went to the door. "Wait for me."
Ray was content to wait. She lay back in her chair, aching in every limb, watching the woman pass from one room to the other, yet not trying not to place any construction on her movements. Almost before she revised it Rose was again by her side, lifting her to her feet; almost carrying her into the bedroom.
Without a word the woman stripped the girl and wrapped her in a bath-robe, then took her to the bath, now full of hot, scented water.
Leaving her there, Rose returned to the boudoir. When Ray went to the bedroom she found everything prepared for her. She slipped into bed with a little sigh of relief and contentment. In a few minutes Rose again came to her, carrying a dainty breakfast.
"Eat that, girl, and sleep." She stood watching, while Ray satisfied her hunger. Then she removed the tray and darkened the room.
For some moments the strange woman stood with her hand on the door-handle. Then, from some sudden impulse she returned to the bed and bent over the sleeping girl.
"I'm not much good at expressing my feelings, Ray Allerson," she said, huskily. "But—I'm sorry."
"Sorry, for what?" Ray asked drowsily.
"For what happened yesterday and today." The old determined lines re-appeared on the woman's face. "Take this, you've done a lot for—Sara—" A whimsical smile came on her lips. "—and I'll take it from me to say that she won't be ungrateful."
"Sara?" asked the girl. Rose's voice appeared to come from a far distance.
Rose made no answer. Instead, her cool, masterful hand swept the girl's hair from her forehead. Ray sighed and settled herself, comfortably. Sleep closed down on her weary body and brain; but before she lost consciousness she thought something moist and sweet touched her forehead, very gently.
"HEY, LAZY! Going to sleep there all day?" Maude's well-known voice brought Ray from the land of dreams. She looked up to see the woman standing beside the bed. Behind her was Marie, holding a tray of morning tea.
"Maude!" Ray sat up in bed, with a light laugh. She stretched herself to find that she was stiff and sore. But her brain had cleared. Again she was alert, herself.
"Yes, Maude." The woman tried to look severe. "A fine time you've given me, I must say. Where have you been?"
"Surveying Oscar Beringer's country estate." Ray laughed; then noticing the woman's incredulous look, hastened to explain.
"That's a mouthful!" Maude was excited. "Say Oscar's the limit! Now we know why he didn't turn up last night. Say girlie, there's been a boy enquiring quite a lot for you, this morning."
"Sam?" Ray could not prevent the colour rising to her face. "Was he worried when I didn't return yesterday afternoon?"
"I'll say he was." Maude laughed. "Same as we were over Oscar, I don't think. Miss Allerson, what are you going to do about that man?"
"Nothing; and you've not to say a word, Maude." Ray had to descend to evasions. "You see, Beringer didn't know that Ray Allerson had left the hotel before he got there. He abducted me in mistake for her."
"Lor! What a tale!" The woman crook laughed. "I'd give a lot to tell it."
"That's impossible." The girl was about to say more when the telephone bell rang.
"Sara," came in response to Ray's answer. "How are you? Rested? Good! Please get ready to sail by the Triantic this day week."
RAY was puzzled. How had Sara come to know the date of the shipment of the States finance Company's gold to England? Amy Warren had told her that the date had been a strict secret, shared only by the head officials of the company.
Yet Sara knew it and had told her to be prepared to sail on the same vessel. Why? What plans had the crime-mistress formed that necessitated her presence on board the Triantic. Ray was certain that she would have no hand in the theft of the bullion.
Would Sara be on board the vessel? Ray believed that if the robbery was to take place on the high seas then Sara would be in direct command of the raiders. But, how could she accomplish so daring and seemingly impossible a task. Given that she was able to steal the gold from the strong-room of the ship; then everyone on board would be suspect. It would be impossible to land the plunder either in London or at any intermediate port.
Yet Ray was certain that Sara would not move in the matter unless she had formed some scheme that promised full success. Ray had never come in contact with the woman. She knew nothing about her, except that she and Sara were supposed to strongly resemble each other.
Of that she had excellent proof. Sara had sent her photograph to Oscar Beringer some time before she left Melbourne for Sydney. That photograph had been sent so that the Sydney crooks could immediately recognise the Melbourne crime-mistress. Chance had then taken a hand. She, Ray Allerson, wearing the same initials as the woman crook, had come from Melbourne to Sydney in search of work. That had been soon after the photograph had reached Beringer. Chance had decreed that she stayed at the same hotel as Beringer. He had thought he had recognised her as the woman he had been warned to expect, but had said nothing. Then, again, Chance, or Fate had sent her to the door bearing her name.
Sara had been in some difficulty. Ray's appearance at the apartment had promised to solve it. Maude and Freddie had been honestly mistaken. Sara had accepted the mistake, turning it to account. From then on she had remained in the background, shielding herself and her plans behind the girl Fate had thrown into her hands.
The events of the past few hours had thrown an added responsibility on Ray, in her self-imposed task. She had undertaken, in the guise of R. S. Allerson, to meet and defeat the crook's attack on the shipment of gold.
Now accident, and his own greed, had removed Oscar Beringer from plot and counter-plot. Ray had learned that it was possible that he would be detained in hospital until some time after the Triantic had left Australian shores. Beringer's illness put the Sydney crooks out of the chase for the gold-incidentally, it had added to the difficulties of Ray's task, for it had left the field entirely open to the Melbourne crooks.
The absence of Beringer had thoroughly disorganised what plans he had revealed to his followers. A meeting had been held the previous evening, so Maude had reported to Ray, at which nothing had been settled, nothing decided. The gang were at loggerheads. Beringer had always held all the main threads of their schemes in his own hands. He had demanded implicit obedience, not initiative, from his followers. Now he was incapacitated there was no one to take his place.
Maude had reported that the meeting of the crooks had been very stormy. The gang had seen enormous wealth slipping from their grasp, just at the moment that their leader had inflamed them with thoughts of obtaining it for themselves alone.
Ray paced her rooms, thoughtfully; passing from room to room in a maze of troubled perplexities. What should she do? Obey, and go on board the Triantic and trust to her luck to baffle the crooks, when they acted? Or should she refuse to go, appealing to the authorities with what little information she possessed.
She knew that if she went to the police with the information she now had they would laugh at her. She had not one iota of evidence. All she had were surmises. In point of fact, she knew more of Oscar Beringer's abortive plans than she did of those of the woman she was supposed to be impersonating.
Was there a way to unmask Sara—to make her a real personality in the struggle for the gold? At present she was only a dim shadow, flitting across a shadow screen.
She must obtain proof; proof that would prevent the gigantic robbery; projected proof that would place the criminals responsible behind prison bars. But, how was she to get that proof? Every step she had taken so far had been anticipated and countered.
A knock came at the door of the reception-room, just as Ray was passing into her bedroom. She turned and went to the door, opening it. Amy Warren stood on the threshold.
"Come in." Ray spoke almost mechanically. The girl had come to fulfil her engagement. What could she give her to do?
She took the girl through her apartment to the boudoir and told her to be seated. For some time Ray paced the room. Suddenly she turned and faced the girl.
"Can you keep a still tongue, Miss Warren—Amy?" she said, impulsively. "Can you keep silence, whatever happens?" She smiled at the grave gaze the girl turned on her. "No, I am not joking. If you breathe a word of what I am about to tell you I may—die."
"Miss Allerson?" The girl was startled. She looked as if she thought Ray had forsaken her wits.
"You left the States Finance Company employment through a—a mistake. No." Ray interposed as the girl went to speak. "It was no mistake, I know. But, have you any animosity against the firm?"
"None whatever." The girl spoke quickly.
"Yet you told me of the shipment of gold that was to be sent to England."
"Yes." Amy faltered. "Perhaps I should not have spoken so freely, but—"
"You thought I could be trusted."
The girl nodded. "I thought I could trust you," she said, simply.
"Well. I am going to trust you." Ray spoke decisively.
In brief, terse words she recounted everything that had happened since she had walked into that apartment but a few days before. Amy listened in open-mouthed surprise.
"What do you want me to do?" She asked, when Ray paused.
"Help me to track down these crooks. Help me to get the evidence that will prevent them stealing the gold and place them in prison."
Amy nodded enthusiastically. "What am I to do?" she asked.
Ray was nonplussed. It was easy to enlist an earnest and sympathetic assistant. But what could she give her to do, other than what she was doing herself—waiting ready to take advantage of the first slip the crooks made.
Yet, with Amy Warren for her assistant, Ray knew that she had trebled her chances of success. But where were they to start? If only they could obtain some clue they could follow up—
Ray suddenly remembered that Rose had said that she would call at the apartment that afternoon. At any moment the woman might appear. It would be unwise for Amy to be in the apartment at the time Rose made her visit. It was possible the woman did not know her by sight. If so then when Rose left Amy might be able to track her to her abode. Perhaps that house might also contain Sara.
Some of this Ray explained to her new and very enthusiastic assistant. For some time they sat discussing plans, but in all their suggestions they always found a flaw. They had not a starting-point.
And, any moment Rose might call. Ray became desperate. She must find out immediately the woman arrived whether she knew Amy Warren by sight, or not. She must find some way to communicate with the girl while Rose was in the apartment.
"A lady to see you, miss." Marie came to the door of the boudoir. "She said I was to tell you 'Sara.'"
"Rose," she whispered to Amy under her breath. She went to the door, glancing significantly at the girl.
"Still tired?" Rose was more sympathetic and natural than on former meetings. She smiled up at the girl. "You received a message from Sara, this morning?"
"Here are the tickets." Rose placed a thick envelope on the table. "I think you will like the accommodation Sara has retained for you."
"Am I to go?" Ray asked desperately.
"Yes." For a brief moment a steely look came in the woman's direct glance.
"I shall have nothing to do with any crook work." The girl exclaimed, emphatically.
"You will obey orders."
"Yes. Orders, always orders!" Ray spoke bitterly. "You expect me to do all the dirty work, blindly and without reasons given me. I am the tool. How do I know but that if anything goes wrong—and if your plans fail—I shall be the one to be sacrificed?"
"You don't." The woman's answer was uncompromising.
"You take the profits—I have the loss. Is that fair?" Ray spoke angrily.
"That is so." The calm dispassionate replies of the strange woman infuriated Ray.
"Then—I shall refuse to sail on the Triantic."
Rose smiled. She leaned back in her chair us if the discussion was on the correction of a refractory child.
"Pick up those tickets," she said, at length. "One thing I can promise you. When you are aboard the Triantic you will meet Sara and—"
Ray turned swiftly. "And—" she repeated.
"And Sam Tresgold."
"Oh," Ray turned away. "Mr. Tresgold is associated with Sara?"
"You want to know if there is a bond between them? There is!"
"And yet you ask me to go on that ship?" Ray flamed scarlet. "Do you people use every emotion—love, hatred, passion—for your base purposes?"
"Then you love Sam Tresgold?"
"I have not said so."
"Yet you do?"
"Love." Ray laughed bitterly. "Love is—oh. I don't understand. Can one love a person whom one despises—who one knows to be a cheat and a swindler? Or is that passion? Perhaps. Can one conceive a passion for a man; love him and hate his actions?"
"You dare not say you hate him." Rose laughed, lowly. "Ray Allerson, you are a very child."
"I am twenty-five."
"And act as if you were five."
"You are insulting."
Again Rose laughed. "I am not going to quarrel with you. Pick up that envelope and put it in a safe place."
Then Ray remembered the girl waiting for her in the boudoir. She took the packet of tickets from the table and went to the door. Swiftly she crossed to the boudoir and thrust the envelope into a drawer of the writing desk. She nodded to Amy without speaking; then led her to the panels concealing the door to the corridor and showed her how it worked.
Amy went into the corridor and Ray closed the door. For a moment she stood alone in the boudoir, striving to master her emotions. Rose had played with her as a cat plays with a mouse. It was intolerable! She would not stand for it!
What was the tie that bound Sam Tresgold to Sara. Bitterly, Ray remembered that R. S. Allerson—Sara—was said to be her very image. She went to the mirror and scanned her features narrowly. She knew that she was good-looking; some people had called her beautiful. Was Sara pretty, or beautiful? Was Sam her lover?
She rated herself again for her thoughts of the man. Sam was a crook. But a few moments ago Rose had told her that he was the intimate of the crime-mistress. What had she to do with crooks, save to baffle their schemes and deliver them to justice?
Stifling all emotions from her face, Ray turned to the reception room. Rose was still there, idly scanning a magazine. She looked up as the door opened.
"Well?" Ray replied, haughtily.
"You will sail on the Triantic?"
"I shall do what I think best."
"That means that you will sail." The woman nodded. "You will be wise to do so."
Rose strolled to the door and opened it. For a moment she hesitated.
"There is no need for us to quarrel, Ray." For the first time she used the girl's given name. "I—I like you. Sara—likes you and—well, I can say that we are not going to let you run into danger."'
"Thank you." Ray spoke without turning to face the woman.
Immediately the door closed Ray sped to the window and dropped an empty cigarette tin into the passage running down the side of the house. Amy would be awaiting that signal. She would see Rose leave the building and follow her. Ray had given the girl an accurate description of the woman, sufficient to make recognition a certainty.
Alone in her apartment again, except for the constant presence of the maid, Ray commenced a thorough search of the rooms. She knew that Sara had not come on the news that the gold was to be shipped on the Triantic by chance. Very few people knew of the shipment. Then, Sara had found some means to obtain the information. That was not strange nor unexpected. What was strange was that Sara should have the information immediately it had reached her, Ray.
Had Sara obtained that information by listening in to what had taken place in that apartment between herself and Amy? That would mean that Sara had a Dictaphone in the room. Beringer had been seized with a similar idea. Ray had found his Dictaphone and had taken means to render it inoperative, when necessary.
For long minutes the girl worked over the room. At length, she found what she sought, concealed in a large vase. Still she searched on.
There was a third instrument to be discovered; the one that Sam Tresgold had installed at her request, so that she could listen in to everything that was said in Beringer's offices.
That instrument would now be useless, to a great extent. Beringer was in hospital and his gang disorganised! Yet, it might be convenient to overhear conversations that took place in the offices, two storeys up. At any moment Maude might tell her that the gang had decided to hold another meeting, without Beringer. Possibly decide to elect a new leader.
A new leader to Beringer's gang! A sparkle came in Ray's eyes at the thought. Beringer was not popular. More than one member of the gang had eyes on the leadership. If she could stir up resentment against his arbitrary rule—his secretiveness. That was possible. A word from her to Maude—a promise of her personal support, if the woman could tell her how it could be applied, and disunion would nullify the gang's activities.
Almost accidentally, Ray came on the third Dictaphone. She found that Sam had installed it with a switch which had to be depressed to overhear conversations in the room above. For some minutes she listened at the instrument. There was no one in Beringer's office, but she could hear indistinct noises, as if people were talking in the room adjoining. With a laugh of triumph she went back to the second Dictaphone.
This instrument was certainly connected with some place where Sara could listen in. Ray was coming to believe that the woman, or one of her associates, had an office in Taunton House. If she could discover that office! Still, she could render Sara's Dictaphone inoperative, as she had rendered Beringer's. Neither of them should listen to anything in her apartment without her permission.
She went to the Dictaphone connecting with Beringer's office—the one the master crook had installed and on which he proposed to listen to all that went on in her apartment; examining the switch Sam had spliced on the wire. The work looked simple. Ray made a note of the switch, determined that next time she was in the business quarter of the city she would obtain one like it, and splice it on the wire leading to Sara's retreat.
Ray became anxious for the return of Amy Warren. The girl had been absent for some time. She wondered if anything unforeseen had happened. She had taken great care that Rose had not caught sight of the girl. Yet, the woman was cunning, certainly the most astute of her sex Ray had come across.
Marie wheeled the tea-wagon into the reception room—to be told to take it into the boudoir. Ray had come to loathe the reception-room with its ghastly array of mechanical ears. She would not talk there to anyone—except when she wanted to convey false information to the persons who chose to spy on her.
She went to the boudoir and slid shut the panels. Now only three persons could get at her. No, four; for she remembered that first night when Sara passing the guarding panels, had come to her bedroom and left on her dressing table the packet of bank-notes.
Hardly had she seated herself when the door opened and Maude entered. She waited on the threshold until Ray looked up and smiled a welcome, beckoning her to a chair.
"Awful cheek of me, walking in on you like this." Maude showed embarrassment. "But you told me to, y'know."
"Of course." Ray passed Maude her tea. "Where is Freddie?"
"With the boys, holding an indignation meeting. Freddie's talking so he's all right." Maude hesitated, then continued: "Miss Allerson, there's something doing. There's certain of our mob who don't fancy dropping the chase of the English sovereigns, just because Oscar's out of it. They're—they're calling a meeting for tonight—above. They want you to attend."
"They want you to join in with them—or let them stand in with you and your crowd—on the loot."
"Can they help me now?"
Maude shook her head slowly.
"They don't know what you're doing," she said. "You haven't called on them to do anything."
Again the panel slid back from before the door of the bedroom and Amy entered. On seeing Maude, she hesitated.
"Come in, Amy." Ray held out a welcoming hand. "Maude, this is Amy Warren, my secretary and late personal secretary to Mr. Matthew Chalmers, managing director of the State Finance Company. I can assure you that Amy has already made herself very useful."
Under cover of the two girls acknowledging the introduction Ray glanced down at the slip of paper Amy had dropped in her lap. It contained but five words:
"Rose never left Taunton House."
ROSE had stayed in Taunton House after she left Kay's apartment. Ray was astounded. Then Rose had some place in that building where she lived, or had an office. Ray had rather suspected that, when she found the third Dictaphone.
Taunton House was a very large block of buildings. There was plenty of room for Sara to hide there and not come in contact with Ray. The girl felt that, with the crime-mistress on the premises, she was more or less under espionage.
Amy had failed to track Rose that day, but she had gained knowledge. She had located Sara within a small compass. Now, in that wilderness of brick and mortar she would track her down to her home.
She had one clue—the Dictaphone wires that led through the building from the reception room. If she could trace them she might come on Sara. That was possible, but when she had uncovered the woman—what then?
A little quirk of curiosity lurked in Ray's head. She wanted to see Sara—to understand the likeness between them; to see if it was as remarkable as others had made out. She wanted to stand face to face with her double; to match physical and mental attributes. That would be an experience worth working for. For the moment—well, she must give her attention to Maude.
"Sorry, dear, I was dreaming. You were saying that some of Beringer's crowd were growing discontented. Do they want to join with me?"
"Yes," The woman glanced questioningly from Ray to Amy.
"What have they to offer?"
"Nothing." Maude threw up her hands. "Oscar's illness has left things in a terrible mess."
"Has it?" Ray laughed. "That would be 'dear Oscar'. But, Maude, you know you're in with me—if I gain anything. Why should I take in the others?"
"That's what I told Freddie. But he likes to talk and this is a swell opportunity. He's at it now—and heaven knows when he and the others will end."
"Or where." Ray laughed. "Never mind Maude. You say there is a meeting tonight. I shall not be there in person but you can bet anything you like that I shall be at the end of that Dictaphone wire."
"Oh, my!" The woman sprang to her feet. "And I forgot all about it! Mr. Tresgold told me to show you where he had hidden the Dictaphone."
"I found it myself." Ray laughed, in triumph.
"Good-o!" Maude showed relief. "Well, I've got to toddle, now. Freddie's waiting for me. That's if he and the others have got through their talk-feast."
She went to the door, nodding to the two girls. As she passed through and the panels closed behind her. Amy leaned forward.
"I did my best, Miss Allerson."
"I know you did, dear. And, you gained one thing. You narrowed the search considerably. Sara is in this building; either living here, or she has an office here. That's certain.
"And the next move?"
"There's two. Both before us, tonight. We've got to locate Sara—and got a report of the meeting in Beringer's office."
Sensing the girl's curiosity. Ray led to the reception-room and pointed out the three Dictaphones, first warning the girl to speak as little as possible and then only in a whisper. When they had returned to the boudoir, Ray laid her plans for the night. Amy was to be at the Dictaphone and take a report of the meeting. Particularly Ray wanted to know what Maude and Freddie had to say to their comrades.
Ray kept Amy to dine with her that evening. It was a relief to her to dine in the apartment, the two girls serving up one of those chaotic meals, feminine-beloved. Then they idled away the time until the meeting in Beringer's office was due to start when they adjourned to the reception room.
"Think they can smell smoke through the Dictaphone?" Ray asked as they settled themselves for a long session. "If we have to be here listening, while those people upstairs argue themselves silly, then I must smoke."
Amy laughed. "I vote for the cigarettes and to take a chance on the Dictaphone betraying us. How are we going to work this?"
Something of a discussion followed. Ray did not want a verbatim report of the proceedings. That would make a long and probably very tedious document. She wanted to know anything important that was decided upon and especially how Beringer's defection and her attitude toward the Sydney crowd was viewed. In the end, Ray postponed her own adventure in search of Sara and took the Dictaphone receivers. Amy sat down by her, with pencil and note-book, to take down what her employer wished recorded.
The meeting started late. It opened with somewhat inconsequent conversations between groups. Then someone called the meeting to order. Immediately Freddie's voice came over the wire. Ray laughed, silently. She knew what Maude, in the room upstairs, was thinking. For a time she listened casually, speaking the few words she wanted recorded. Then she became interested. Freddie was a good forceful speaker. He made his points well; and that in spite of his somewhat effeminate appearance. Ray decided that he got his point over the wire better than when he spoke directly to his audience.
Beringer came in for quite a lot of criticism. The correspondence between Beringer and R. S. Allerson was demanded—and could not found. The sick chief was roundly rated for keeping no proper record the gang's activities.
On the whole Ray was disappointed. She had hoped that something tangible would result from the meeting; something that would make for opposition to Sara's plans. In the end Freddie and Maude were appointed a delegation to attempt some arrangement with R. S. Allerson which would benefit the gang left in the lurch by their leader.
Ray laughed. The position was absurd. The Sydney crooks were obsessed by the vision of the shower of unlimited gold their leader had fed to them—when they could out-manoeuvre and double-cross their Melbourne friends. With him, they would have fought for what they considered their rights—the whole of the plunder; without him they were content to beg from the woman they considered hold a stronger hand than they did.
If only Maude and Freddie had acted as she had wanted them to! She had visioned Freddie elevated to the leadership of the Sydney crooks, putting up a big fight against R. S. Allerson for the gold they considered should belong to them by reason of State rights. She had tried to obtain war between the two sets of crooks—and found that one gang, at least, only desired peace.
She saw now that there was a reason for that desire for peace and negotiation. Freddie and Maude considered that they stood on the best terms with R. S. Allerson—herself. They thought that, with the Sydney gang quiescent, they would be allowed to share in the flood of gold with their Melbourne confrères. Peace would give R. S. Allerson a greater chance of taking the plunder; negotiations would certainly fail—and Maude and Freddie would be considerably richer.
At length, Ray put the earphones from her. A nod told Amy that the session had ended.
"Go home, dear. Your work's ended for tonight."
"And you?" Amy looked up quickly. "I thought you were going to try and uncover Sara?"
Ray nodded. That was the work that lay before her, but she could not commence it yet. She must wait until the house had settled to slumber for the night. That meant that she had to wait until the early hours of the morning.
She sent the girl home with injunctions not to hurry to the apartment in the morning. Ray openly spoke of sleeping late the next day. She knew that was probable, for unless luck came to her aid she might not go to bed until her usual time for rising.
Ray had no illusions regarding the task she had undertaken. It might take several nights to thoroughly search Taunton House. She had to work quickly, for only a week remained before the gold was to be shipped and leave Australia—before she would have to go aboard the Triantic herself. If she had not uncovered Sara before the ship sailed she would have lost every point in the game she was playing.
When Amy had left the apartment, Ray lay down on the bed. She had to rest, for there were hours of hard, tiring work before her. Very early in the morning the house would be invaded by a small army of cleaners. With their coming her activities would end for the time.
Ray forced herself to lay absolutely quiescent. She counted the strokes of the bells of the city clocks, as the hours went slowly by. Midnight came, and she was still resting. At the single stroke of the first hour of morning, she roused. Her time for adventure had come.
She went to her dressing table and found a little piece of flexible steel, lying amid her toilet things. Freddie had given it to her. A bare six inches in length, it was beautifully tempered. Few doors could stand against it, and it left behind but few signs of its use. Freddie, expert in most branches of criminal science, had taught her how to use it. She had watched the little piece of flexible steel in his hand. With a dexterous twist of his wrist locks had opened, allowing doors to swing freely. He had placed the tool in her hands and she had been astonished at the ease, with which it had been manipulated. Freddie had been delighted and amused at the rapidity with which she had acquired expertness with the tool. He had proclaimed her mistress of the art.
Now she was to use the tool in real earnest, and alone. She went to the wardrobe and found the costume she had prepared for the adventure. It was of dull black silk and extended right to her chin. A high black collar confined the neck of the dress, meeting the lower edge of the dulled black-silk mask she had manufactured. Dulled black stockings and the softest rubber shoes completed her costume. She was certain that in gloom or very dim light she could blend into the shadows.
For the next few hours she would be a phantom, flitting about the corridors of Taunton House. She might have luck and chance on Sara quickly; on the other hand daylight might dawn and her task still to be accomplished. She went to one of the drawers and from it took a small holster containing a miniature automatic. This she strapped above her right knee. On her left hand she slipped the thong of an electric torch.
It was half-past one in the morning when Ray was ready to venture forth. She stepped into the corridor, to find it shrouded in gloom. She tested herself, gliding from shadow to shadow, and smiled with satisfaction. Her costume was perfect for her needs; her shoes made not the slightest sound on the granite floors of the corridors. Methodically she passed up and down the corridors on that floor, familiarising herself with the general plan of the building.
Swiftly and silently she mounted the stairs to the top storey of the building. There she identified the house superintendent's quarters. She passed them, unattacked. He would know little of Sara and her gang. Methodically she started to open the locks and explore the rooms.
Half-a-dozen rooms entered and examined and Ray discovered that she was wasting time. To examine every room in the vast building would be an exhausting and monotonous task. She had overlooked the fact that she possessed a clue that should infallibly lead her to the crime-mistress. She left the floor and went down to her own apartment.
In the reception-room, she went directly to the Dictaphone concealed in the vase. Ray went to lift the vase to the floor and found that it was immovable. She examined it carefully and found that it and the stand on which it stood were fixed to the floor.
She passed her hand around the vase, and found that two wires led from it to the wall behind. Throwing the light of her torch on the interior of the vase, she found that a hole had been bored in the china and the wires passed through, to attach to the Dictaphone. She turned the light on to the wall directly behind the vase and found the slender wires passed into the wall through a small aperture.
Where did the wires lead? For the moment Ray was puzzled. However, it was more important to know how the vase could have stood there so long without the purpose it was being used for discovered.
Marie, her maid. Ray liked the girl, but had her under suspicion. She had been suspicious of the girl from the day she had entered the apartment. She remembered that Marie had been able to roll back the panels from the boudoir to the corridor, but had called her to open the panels shielding the door between the reception-room and the bedroom. There the girl had slipped.
But, Maude had engaged the girl for her—and Maude and Sara were antagonistic. The girl was now serving Sara. Here was a problem. Had Maude acted freely when she engaged the girl—or had Sara proved too cunning for her?
Again the girl turned her attention to the Dictaphone wires. She did not want to dig the piping out of the wall—only to know in which direction it ran. She did not want to leave the smallest clue for anyone to know that she had found the Dictaphones.
In her hand-bag, on her dressing-table, was a small, very sharp penknife. Ray went and fetched it to the reception-room. She carefully slit the wall-paper along the line she imagined the wires ran. Then she made two cross-cuts and peeled the paper gently back. A short search and she found the wires, close under the wall-paper. A groove had been cut in the plaster and they had been embedded in fine putty.
The wires led to the nearest window. Ray opened the window and looked out. A fairly long search and she discovered how the wires left the apartment. She leaned over the window-sill, flashing the light of her powerful torch along the outer wall.
The wire was there—only one wire now, of double thickness and protected by rubber casing. It ran along the wall under the windowsill, along the line of her apartment. Ray ran into the bathroom and flung up the window. Again she found the wire. It was tracing towards the rear of the building.
Where did the wire end? She tried to illuminate it with the light from her torch, keeping the light well below the window level. So far as she could see the wire ran parallel with the windows on that aide of the building.
How should she proceed? Should she wait until morning and then trace the wire to the end? That would mean twenty-four hours' delay, and her time was rapidly dwindling. She must act quickly—even if she ran risks in doing so.
For some brief moments she paced her room, in deep consideration. Then she passed into the corridor. The long passage was only lit by one frosted globe, high in the ceiling. The light barely made the darkness visible. She turned towards the rear of the building, tracing the doors on her side of the corridor.
She came to a door with the name "J. Tomlinson" painted on the glass. She knew that door opened into her boudoir, the next door did not bear a name, but Ray knew that it opened into her kitchenette. The next door opened into an office, or into another suite.
Slowly Ray paced down the corridor, peering at each door, reading the names painted on them. She laughed slightly. What would this long sequence of names tell her—names without trades, titles or professions?
Ray started slightly. This house was a warren of doctors and dentists. Yet, after leaving the doors of her own suite she had not passed a door bearing the title "doctor," nor any door bearing the name and styles of a dentist on it. That was strange.
She went back to the door next to her kitchenette. For a few seconds she listened, with her ear pressed against the glass panel. There were no sounds from within the room. Gently, she applied the little steel instrument to the lock. A slight click, the bolt of the latch pressed back and the door opened to a push.
The room was in darkness. Ray pressed the button of her electric torch, allowing the light to swing around the place. It was an office and well-furnished. A large roll-top desk stood in a corner. For the moment Ray ignored the furniture. She flung open the window and felt under the sill. The wire was there, still continuing to the back of the house.
Ray closed and locked the door. She went to the next room. The glass panel showed that there was no light in the room. Again the little tool came into action. She pushed open the door, noiselessly, and entered the room, to draw back with a slight exclamation.
A man was seated at a desk in the corner of the room, the light from a well-shaded lamp shining down on his work. At the sound of Ray's exclamation he looked up, and around.
"Sam!" Involuntarily, the girl took a pace into the room.
"RAY!" The man sprang to his feet. "What are you doing here?"
The girl laughed.
"I did not know you lived at Taunton House, Mr. Tresgold."
He smiled at he came across the thick carpet to her side.
"Shall we agree that I came here to protect you?" he asked.
"Or to spy on me, Mr. Tresgold."
He turned away with a little shrug.
"If you choose to think that."
"Can I think anything else?" Ray spoke with spirit. "I know that you are one of R. S. Allerson's servants. Have you forgotten that she sent you to me?"
"To protect you," he interrupted.
"And you have been here, in this office, all the time that I have been but two doors away, along this corridor?"
"Longer, much longer. I was here before you came to Taunton House."
"So you are spying on me, for Sara."
"If you choose to think so."
Ray was silent. She glanced around the room. It was an office, but, as in the room she had previously visited, there were no signs of the owner's occupation. It was more study than office.
"What are you doing here?" Sam look up the role of questioner.
"I have been looking for Sara." Ray spoke before she thought.
"And you thought to find her in this building?"
"I had reason to think so."
"Will you tell me your reasons?"
For a moment the girl hesitated. Then she decided to speak, freely.
"Sara told me that the States Finance Company's gold was to be shipped on the Triantic next week." she replied.
"The previous day she had instructed me to get in touch with Mr. Matthew Chalmers and get information from him regarding the shipping of the gold."
"Perhaps she obtained that information herself." Sam spoke casually.
"Between her two sets of instructions Amy Warren came to me and I obtained that information from her in my reception room."
"Tonight, in that room I found a Dictaphone."
"I know." Sam laughed. "One leads from Beringer's office to your room; the other leads from your room to Beringer's office. I placed the latter one for you."
"There is a third." The girl spoke gravely. "It is hidden in a big vase in the corner. The wires lead out of the window and pass under the window-sills of the rooms along this corridor."
The man turned suddenly, went to the window and flung it open. He felt under the sill, then turned and nodded at the girl. Ray went to him and flashed the light of her torch along the wall outside. She saw the wire led past the room in which she stood.
She turned and surveyed the room in which she stood. There was a door in the wall on the left of the entrance door. She went to it and pulled it open. She stepped into a typical man's den.
"You have a suite of rooms here?" she asked quickly.
Sam passed her and crossed the room. He opened another door, leading into a bedroom. Beyond was still another door. He pointed.
"The bathroom and a small kitchenette."
"Why, that's the same as in my apartment." Ray explained.
"Why not?" he laughed. "Can there not be two suites alike in this building?"
"I haven't a beautifully appointed boudoir here," he mocked, with fun in his eyes. "I've been wondering when I'm to have an invitation to enter one I have heard very well spoken of."
"Miss Penlop showed me over your apartment yesterday afternoon, when I fixed the Dictaphone for you. I hope you don't mind but—I was interested."
Interested! Ray could not prevent the swift colour mounting to her face. That had always been one of her disabilities—she blushed too easily. Sam laughed lightly.
"Won't you sit down?" he asked.
"At this time of the morning?" Ray tried to be scandalised.
"I always ask callers, whatever time they choose for their visits, to sit down," he remarked.
"Even at—" She glanced at the clock on his desk, "—even at half past two o'clock in the morning?"
"At all, and any times."
With a little moue, Ray dropped into a cosy lounge chair. She looked up at him, expectantly.
"Is that right?"
"Quite right." He hesitated. "Male callers are regaled with cigars, cigarettes, whisky—or even common beer. Ladies—"
"Do ladies call at two-thirty a.m.?" Ray asked with great innocence.
"Touché!" He laughed. "First blood to you, Miss—Ray. Have I to confess that you are my first lady caller at two-thirty a.m.—a conventional hour?"
"It should be for us."
"I should have said for me. Crooks hours."
Again Ray flushed.
"I don't like to bear you say that, Mr.—"
"Sara seems to be a good school-mistress," he observed, after a pause.
"She is teaching you to obey requests."
"I am glad you did not say orders."
"That would have been an impertinence."
"Sara is not so polite. She calls them orders."
"And—do you always obey?"
"You told me that you—you followed Sara."
"At the Café Romaine?"
Sam turned away. From a cabinet he brought out an electric percolator.
"Yes, please—Sam." She laughed delightedly. "Black, strong and sweet. I think I can trust your coffee."
"But not Beringer's?" He glanced at her with a swift smile.
"Now you have spoiled it."
"No. Bringing back memories—unpleasant ones."
"I'm sorry. I wanted you to enjoy your first visit here."
"Then I am to come again?" Now Ray became conscious of her very abbreviated skirt. She pulled it down, trying to cover her knees.
"At two forty-five a.m.?" She asked inconsequently.
"You will always be welcome. So long as you do not come masked. I have a weak heart."
"Dear me. When did you discover that?" Her fingers were searching her belt for the mask she had stuck there. She must have dropped it.
"Three days ago—at the Café Romaine." Ray coloured deeply. He added quickly. "I had found it failing me, previously."
"Ah, you like your coffee—blonde."
"Certainly not." He brought a small silver tray and placed it on a low table beside her chair. From a cabinet he produced dainty cakes and biscuits. Ray surveyed his preparations with open suspicion.
"I hope I am not intruding?" she observed.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Afternoon tea, or midnight coffee?"
"At three a.m.?"
"Is it as late as that?" Ray sprang to her feet. "I must go."
"Have I anything to explain, Mr—"
"Sam." Ray giggled. "Well?"
"There is something to explain?"
"This." He held out his hand. On it rested a scrap of black silk fashioned into a mask.
"Oh," She paused a moment, then took the mask. With a sudden movement she half-turned from him, bending. She straightened, the mask on her face, her automatic in her hand.
"Hands up." Her voice was hard and tight.
For the moment the man was startled, then, with a little grin he elevated his hands.
"Now, Mr. Tresgold—"
"Well—Sam. Explanations are required."
"That would be an advantage."
"Then I confess."
Ray saw the man's eyes widen. She went to swing round to face the door but her arms were held as if in a vice. She was thrust forward and dropped into a chair.
"Take that gun." A woman spoke. Ray twisted and looked up into Rose's face.
Ray ceased to struggle. Through the comedy with Sam she had forgotten he was a crook. Now, with the realisation of his connection with Sara—through Rose—she remembered.
The man made no attempt to obey the woman's orders. Rose muttered under her breath. Suddenly, she released Ray's arms and snatched at her gun. Gaining that she tore the mask from the girl's face.
"Ray Allerson!" The woman started back, in astonishment. "What are you doing here?"
"Miss Allerson was thirsty. She had heard that I make good coffee—and sought relief." Sam laughed, embarrassedly. "Sit down, Rose. I know you like my coffee. Let me got you a cup."
"I want to know what this means?" Rose sat down, stiffly. "Now, Mr. Tresgold, I find you held up at the point of this girl's automatic—and she masked."
"She was certainly holding you up. What did she want?"
"And you were going to give it to her?"
"I don't care to trifle with the business end of an automatic."
"You were going to confess?"
"Yes." Sam caught Ray's eyes and winked, solemnly.
"To what? Your connection with me?"
"Then you are Sara?" Ray could not help the exclamation.
"I have told you before—I act for Sara, as you call her."
"You are Sara." Ray spoke doggedly. "And you've had a Dictaphone in my rooms, listening to all I have said."
"So you found that." the woman smiled. "You are sharper than I thought."
"Or you wouldn't have let me occupy the apartment in your place."
"Sara's place," The woman corrected.
"Oh, why all this pretence?" Ray leaned forward. "I know you are Sara, now."
"Then you are satisfied?"
"Ladies, please." Sam came from the sideboard, bearing fresh coffee. "Miss Allerson, may I offer you another cup? It is freshly made. Rose is particular about her coffee."
Carelessly, Rose placed the small automatic on the table, as she took the cup of coffee from Sam's hands. Ray had been watching the woman closely. She sprang forward, over-turning the table and coffee on to the woman. She snatched up the automatic and backed to the door.
"My turn now." She laughed shortly. "Keep still, both of you."
For a moment she watched her opponents warily. They made no move. Her left hand sought behind her for the door-handle. She found it after a minute's fumbling. Flinging the door open she jumped back into the corridor.
There she turned and ran for the elevators. She knew that at that time of night they were working automatically. She had to get away from Rose—the woman was dangerous.
At the corner she looked back. Rose was in the corridor, just outside Sam's door. She was running down the long passage after Ray. The girl laughed lightly. She knew that she could out-distance the woman at any time.
She wanted to know what Sam was doing. For a long moment she waited, trying to peer past the woman. No, Sam was not joining in the chase after her—he had not left his rooms. With a light laugh, Ray turned and ran for the elevators. She could hear the woman's wooden heels click-clacking down the corridor.
The elevator was at a lower floor and Ray had to wait while it ascended. Keeping her finger pressed on the button she waited for it, facing the direction the woman would come. She could hear the heel sounds coming closer. Then the cage slid up to the floor. She wrenched the door open.
She jumped in, flung the door shut, and pressed against the automatic buttons. The cage shot upwards—not downwards, as she had intended. But, what did that matter? Anywhere in the building, or street—until she had time to think.
Rose had caught her with Sam. That she had been playing, fooling with the man when she held him up at the point of the gun, the woman would not believe. The scene had been too real for her. She was pursuing, vengefully.
The elevator stopped, three floors up—a floor above the dental parlours of Oscar Beringer. But, she had nothing to fear from him, now. He was at Penrith—at the hospital.
What could she do? Where could she go? If she went back to the apartment Rose might follow her there. But, where else could she go? She had not a friend In the city; only Sam and he would side with this woman.
She listened some moments. The elevator was where she had left it, when she alighted. So Rose was not following her, unless she was climbing the stairs.
Ray remembered that when first she had come to the apartment. Maude had directed her to the back of the building when she wanted to race Beringer to the Occidental Hotel. Again the girl sped down the corridor to the service lift. It was working. She descended to the third floor and crept to the end of the corridor on which her apartment was situated—and listened.
She peeped round the corner, down the long line of doors. The corridor was deserted. She waited a moment and then sped down to her apartment.
When she came to the door of the room in which she had found Sam she hesitated, bending to the door and listening. Suddenly the door opened and, Sam faced her. His hand gripped her arm, drawing her into the room.
"Keep still!" he whispered urgently. "Rose had gone down to your apartment. If you go there she will find you—and she's in a beast of a temper."
"What if she is?" Ray released herself from the man's grasp. "She can't hurt me, can she?"
"I don't know about that." The man laughed slightly. "You've put her in a devil of a temper. She snapped my head off when I tried to explain matters."
"Are you afraid of her?" Ray taunted. At the look of surprise on his fact she laughed. "No, I didn't mean that. Sam. I'm sorry."
He caught her by the arm again, shaking her gently. His arm slipped around her and his face came very close to hers.
"You little devil!" he whispered. For a moment she lay passive, responsive to his mood. Then, she laughed, embarrassedly. Why did this man always make her feel weak and silly? She shrugged. He was nice—but he was a crook. That would always be a barrier between them: one that could not be surmounted.
"Where's Sara?" she asked abruptly, turning to the door. When he did not answer she flashed round at him again. "Sam can't you tell me that? Can't you tell me if Rose is Sara?"
"She's not." A light, cool voice—a voice that Ray remembered—spoke from the doorway. "Rose is not Sara."
The girl turned swiftly. In the doorway stood a girl, exquisitely dressed and wonderfully self-possessed. Ray stared at her, in amazement.
"Who are you?" She asked imperiously. "You are not Sara."
"Are you quite sure of that?" The girl laughed. "Perhaps your boyfriend can answer that. Is he afraid to speak?"
"No." Ray now remembered the girl. "It is not necessary to ask him. I know you. You are Ruth Henderson. You came to see me, from Oscar Beringer."
The girl laughed, acknowledging the truth of Ray's guess by a little bow.
"And yet I might be Sara—also." she said.
RAY stared at the girl. What did she mean? She claimed to be Sara, yet Ray knew that she was not.
The girl had been sent to her by Oscar Beringer to borrow money. That was the pretext. Then she had been angry and worried. She had claimed that she was in Beringer's debt; that he was pressing her for repayment. She had inferred that she might soil(?) her job with the States Finance Company, for a consideration.
Now she was well-dressed and confident; apparently assured that she had command of the situation. She claimed to be Sara—the crime mistress of the Melbourne underworld. Ray knew that she was not speaking the truth. But, for what reason?
What was the girl doing in Taunton House at that hour of the night? Her presence there perplexed Ray. More, she was disturbed at the attitude Sam Tresgold assumed towards the girl. She had challenged him to state whether she was, or was not, R. S. Allerson—and he had not replied.
The girl continued to face Ray, a little mocking smile on her lips. Was she as assured of her position as her manner indicated? Ray wondered if it might not be possible to give her a shock, disturbing her very evident self-possession.
She looked at Sam. He was leaning against the desk, watching the two girls with a little smile on his lips. Again Ray wondered. Why had he not spoken and declared that the girl had not told the truth? But a few minutes before Ray had seen him with Rose. Then he had shown that he possessed the confidence of the mysterious crime-mistress Rose had denied him nothing. When then, was he silent now—apparently awaiting some lead.
"Is there any necessity to carry on this discussion with the door open?" Sam strolled forward, slowly. "If you ladies will be seated there will be less chance of arousing the sleeping inmates of this house. You know, two ladies in my apartment, at this hour of the morning—"
Ray flushed at the implication: then she smiled. She believed that Sam was trying to irritate the newcomer.
"Why not?" Ruth sauntered into the room and dropped into a chair. "If there is to be any discussion."
Ray laughed. "I can't see why? Rose was here but a few minutes ago. She—she had an appointment in this building." Ray wanted to giggle at the expression that flashed into Sam's eyes. "When she returns, which will be quite soon, she will be able to tell us—" she hesitated. "Rose knows Sara quite well."
Ruth did not answer. Ray was waiting keenly.
"A cup of coffee, ladies." Sam moved towards the sideboard. "I believe Miss Allerson will recommend my coffee."
"Except for carpets," Ray made a little moue, glancing down at the stain by the chair where Rose sat.
"That was not the coffee's fault," objected Sam. He turned to Ruth Henderson. "Do you know I have done quite a lot of work for Sara, during the past two months and am quite anxious to be introduced to her."
"You don't knew her?" Ray fancied there was relief in the girl's tones.
"I have not yet had the pleasure of an introduction." The man evaded. "Perhaps later, when things are not so busy—By the bye, Miss—Henderson, wasn't it Miss Allerson called you? Yes, Miss Henderson. I wonder if we shall have a good voyage."
The blank look on the visitor's face showed that Sam had scored a point. He glanced at Ray, who nodded. Ruth Henderson had lied—lied when she claimed to be R. S. Allerson—Sara.
If she was not Sara, If she did not know the plans Sara was forming; then why was she trying to pose as the woman? Again the question recurred to Ray: why was the girl in that building at that hour of the morning?
When first she had not Ruth Henderson the girl had come with a verbal introduction from Oscar Beringer. Then she had tried, in some way, to trap or defraud Ray. Had she again come from Beringer? But Beringer was in hospital, at Penrith. If he had been well; if he had even been in the city, then Ray would have been inclined to believe that the master criminal was again hatching some subtle plot, and that this girl was his tool.
Suddenly she remembered the letters that had, for a brief moment stared at her from the girl's handbag in her boudoir. What were they? Yes, she remembered: "V. K."
What did "V.K." stand for? Certainly not Ruth Henderson. "V" for Vera, Violet, Veronica—Vera appeared the most probable The haughty air, the deliberate swagger, was not in keeping with the traditional modest Violet. Veronica? Ray tried to remember. Had she ever known anyone named Veronica?
Sam kept industriously to the side-board, busying himself with the percolator. Ruth was watching him with pursed, angry lips. She knew she had been trapped and exposed, yet she faced them with a glare. Ray smiled. The girl had devoted most of her attention to her when she first entered. Now, apparently, she recognised the man as her most formidable opponent. Ray yawned and strolled across the room. Casually, she drew near the desk.
Before it, she bent to examine the desk-top. Turning so that her back was to the girl. Almost under her hand lay a scribbling pad and pen. Sam had apparently been engaged in drafting something when she first entered. Several sheets from the pad lay, face downwards, on the desk. On the top sheet on the first pad were only two words. Keeping her shoulders as motionless as possible, Ray caught up the pen and scribbled a few lines on the paper. She tore the sheet from the pad and crumpled it in her hand.
Again she resumed her aimless wanderings about the room, gradually drawing near the man, still busy with the percolator. She glanced at Ruth. The girl was still watching her. Well, what of that?
"A silence impenetrable!" Sam suddenly laughed. "We started with quite a burst of conversation. Now—" He waved his hand airily. Ray laughed; Ruth suddenly giggled. For a moment her eyes left Ray; just long enough for the girl to drop the crumpled note before the man.
"Sweet and strong?" Sam turned to Ruth. "Good! I know how you like yours, Miss Allerson."
"How is Mr. Beringer?" Ray asked the girl, suddenly. She had to give Sam a chance to read her message.
"I believe he is quite well." Ruth spoke indifferently.
A swift glance passed between Ray and the man. Was the girl unaware that Beringer was in hospital? They know that she had not come from Sara and that she had lied in claiming to be that person. Now they knew that she had lied in claiming ignorance of the crime master's condition. What came was she playing?
Ray was trying to co-ordinate facts. In spite of her professed ignorance of Beringer, Ray could not but believe that the girl was in close connection with the man. But, what was that connection? Ruth had come to her, in the first instance, as the agent of the man. The story she had told had been obviously false. Ray, in sudden repulsion of the lies had turned her away, her story only partly told.
"I heard today that Mr. Beringer had met with an accident." Ray spoke carelessly. She turned to the girl. "Have you seen him lately?"
"Not for a couple of days."
"You had an engagement with him here, tonight?" Sam sounded brutal.
The girl flushed. Before she could reply, Ray interposed.
"How are you getting on with your work at the States Finance Company, Miss Henderson?"
"So-so!" The girl yawned. She had quickly recovered from the shock Sam's words had caused. "Work is always boring."
"I agree with you. Coffee to your liking, Miss—Vera?" Sam spoke
The man flashed a quick glance at Ray. She nodded. The girl had not noticed the change of name.
Ray put down her cup. She strolled over to the desk again and lifted the receiver of the telephone. She gave a number—a trunk call—and waited, watching the man and girl now engaged in animated conversation. She frowned, while waiting for the answer to her call. When the line opened she wanted the girl's undivided attention. Then the connection was made.
"Penrith Hospital?" Ray repeated the words. "Yes, I want Penrith Hospital. Oh, that is it. Thanks. No, I rang up to get some information about a friend in the hospital—one of your patients."
Ray glanced at the couple at the other end of the room. She knew now that she had their attention.
"His name? Oh, Mr. Oscar Beringer. Yes, I was told he had met with a motor-car accident and had been taken to Penrith Hospital. That so? Yes. Oh, not a motor-car accident—the machine was uninjured. Assault? Why, that's bad."
Again Ray glanced at the couple. She saw that Ruth was tensed.
"So sorry!" Ray spoke Into the telephone. "Suppose he will be confined to the hospital for some time. Eh? What's that? Oh, thanks!"
She hung up the receiver quickly. For the moment she was nonplussed. Oscar Beringer had left the hospital the previous afternoon. What did that mean? Maude had told her that he would be there for some days; that he was seriously injured.
Again the question came in her mind-and with added force, in view of the information she had just acquired. Ruth had owed Beringer money. Ray thought she could understand what it must be like to be financially indebted to the man. He would want much in repayment more than any decent girl could give.
"Just heard from the hospital." Ray spoke casually. "I thought I would ring up and find out how Mr. Beringer was progressing. I was surprised when they told me that he had left the hospital yesterday afternoon."
"Sudden, wasn't that?" Sam spoke.
"Very, I should say." Ray agreed. "Why, one of Mr. Beringer's most intimate friends told me yesterday that he would not be out of hospital for a week."
She waited a few moments and then turned to Ruth.
"You will be pleased to see him again, Miss Henderson. I remember how you spoke of him when you first called on me."
A flash from Ruth's eyes answered Ray. Her hostility made the girl want to laugh. But what was the connection between this girl and Oscar Beringer?
"So you're working at your job at the States Finance Company?" Ray spoke pleasantly. "Do you like it? Fancy dealing with huge sums of money. Why, I was told the other day that soon they will be shipping a vast amount of bullion to England."
"So I have heard." Ruth spoke carelessly.
"You are cautious." Ray laughed. "And you in the intimate secrets of Mr. Matthew Chalmers, the managing director. Wouldn't it be fine if all employees were as discreet as you? Oh, by the way, Miss—er—Henderson, did you get out of your difficulties? I was so sorry I could not help you, when you called on me."
For the moment the girl was startled out of her composure. She flushed and rose to her feet.
"Delighted to meet you again, Miss Allerson." she drawled. "Sorry if I broke up a tête-à-tête. But, at this hour! Naughty, y'know. Yes, Miss Allerson, I found Mr. Beringer most reasonable regarding the little debt I owed him."
She turned to the door with a little laugh. Almost her hand was touching the handle when the door was flung open and Rose entered.
She glanced at the girl at the door, then let her eyes wander to Ray's face. A little smile came on her hard lips.
"Still drinking coffee, my dear." Rose went to a chair. "Sam, have you another cup for me. I've been busy and am terribly thirsty." She turned to Ruth, who was standing at the door, her face white and strained. "Say, Vera, what are you doing here?"
"Why, Rose, you must be mistaken This is Miss Ruth Henderson, private secretary to Mr. Matthew Chalmers, managing director of the States Finance Company."
"Miss Ruth Henderson?" Rose turned in her seat to face the girl. "Well, when first I met this lady she was named Vera Kemble. Didn't know it was usual to change given names—only on marriage."
"Miss Henderson, Rose," corrected Ray. "I believe she is a friend of Mr. Oscar Beringer."
The woman nodded. "All right, Vera. You know me and I know you." She turned to Sam. "What does she want here?"
The man did not reply. He passed Rose and went to the door. Opening it he stood aside for the girl to pass.
"Goodbye, Ruth," he said under his breath. "You've had a closer escape than you will ever realise."
"Really?" Ruth looked up at him, indolently. "No that is strange? Why?"
"Ladies are not fond of their names being taken in vain."
"No?" she laughed. "There is still such a thing as gossip."
"Better suppressed." Sam grinned, easily. "There is one fair dame who will not stand for her name to be linked in gossip, or scandal."
"And who is that?"
"Sara." With a deft motion he manoeuvred the girl out of the room and closed the door.
"Sam." Rose spoke quickly. "What did you tell that girl?'
"And you?" The woman turned to Ray.
"I told her that Beringer had met with an accident and was in hospital. Then out of devilment, I suppose, I rang up the hospital and found out that he had been discharged at his own request the previous afternoon."
"Oscar Beringer about again." Rose hesitated. "You are certain you are not mistaken.
"I have told you what the hospital told me. I told Ruth and asked her how she liked her job with the States Finance Company. She didn't appear to be certain whether she liked it or not."
Rose laughed. "I should think not. Vera Kemble would have a hard job to get on the staff of a tea-shop. And you thought she was private secretary to Matthew Chalmers? Girl! Girl!"
"Vera Kemble." Sam spoke meditatively. "I think I remember that name."
"Should I?'" He rose to his feet, lazily. "May I venture to remind you ladles that the day is—er—is yet young. Barely five hours old."
"Heavens!" Ray sprang to her feet. "What beauty sleep yesterday owes me!"
Sam met her at the door. His fingers closed over hers on the handle.
"You know where to come for your coffee, now." he whispered.
"At four a.m.?"
"At any time. You are not going to desert me?"'
"I might—unless you promise reformation." A hint of seriousness underlay the girl's words.
"I might do much."
"—and faithfully—if the reward is great enough."
"And is it?"
Before he could reply, Ray passed out into the corridor and walked down towards her apartment. A few steps from the door of her reception room she drew back. The door was opening.
Ray slid against the wall and along it until she stood in one of the doorways. She crouched back, hoping that the dim lighting of the corridor would shield her.
A moment, and a man stepped into the corridor. Ray saw that he wore no hat and that his head was bandaged. She did not need to see his face to know that he was Oscar Beringer. What had he been doing in her apartment? She was glad that she had been stopped by Sam, when she was running away from Rose. If Sam had not stopped her she might have gone into her apartment—to face Beringer.
The man was strolling down the corridor to the elevators. Ray watched him. Then, she saw the door of the reception room open again. A hand came through the opening, holding a revolver. In sudden terror Ray watched the gun levelled at the back of the unconscious man. She stooped quickly and drew her automatic from under her skirt.
The hand through the doorway steadied. Beringer was strolling on, unconscious of the peril behind him. Ray watched, fascinated. She had crept along the wall until she was only a few feet from the door. Now she saw the bare arm tense, the hand grow rigid. She sprang forward, striking at the levelled revolver with her own gun. She heard the shot fired and saw the spurt of dust kicked up from the granite floor. A sharp cry of pain came from the hidden assassin and the door was closed.
Ray sprang forward, flinging herself at the closed door. To her astonishment it was locked.
RAY stood at the closed and locked door of her reception-room, strained and trembling. The shot had struck the corridor floor almost at Beringer's feet. It had sounded like the report of a cannon in the stillness of the big house.
She must get into her rooms at once. Someone was there—someone who had tried to shoot Oscar Beringer in the back. What had taken Beringer to her rooms at that hour of the morning?
The man had turned and was running up the corridor to her; his face flaming with anger. Ray crouched in the doorway, too frightened to move. If only the shot had attracted the attention of Rose and Sam! If only they would come to her assistance!
"So! You!" Beringer stood over her, looking down into her face with blood shot eyes. "You're not content with smashing me over the head at the cottage and burning the place, but you've got to shoot me in the back, eh?"
Ray could not answer. The man was wilfully perverting facts. True, she had accidentally set light to the cottage, but she had been a prisoner there. Surely she had a right to do anything to secure her release. But, now he was accusing her of shooting him.
"What's the matter Ray?" A cool voice spoke from her side. She looked up in sudden gratitude. Sam, cool and collected, was with her, staring at the master-criminal.
"The matter?" Beringer flamed angrily. "This woman shot me."
"I've often wondered why some woman hasn't shot you, Beringer." Sam's voice was insolent. "You've deserved it often enough."
"She's got a gun in her hand, now." Sam's steady hand came down over Ray's removing the automatic from her grasp. He opened the magazine and emptied it on to the palm of his hand, showing the cartridges to the man.
"Not an exploded one in the lot. Just the right number to fill the gun. Looks as if you've made a mistake, Beringer."
"But, you must have heard the shot." The man looked down the corridor, now filling with people roused from their sleep. "All these people must have heard it. That's why they've come here."
"A free show, staged by Mr. Oscar Beringer, eh?" Sam laughed! "Well what are you growling at. You're not shot, although I can see that someone's clouted you over the head."
"She did that." Beringer could hardly speak for anger.
"So!" Again Sam laughed. "First broke your head and then shot at you. Anything more?"
"What's the matter, here." A man pressed through the growing throng to Ray's side. "What's happened?"
Beringer repeated his accusation against Ray.
"I want a policeman sent for," he concluded. "She's dangerous. I'll give her in charge."
"Miss Allerson was with another lady and myself in my sitting room two minutes before the shooting." Sam explained, carefully. "I watched her run down the corridor to the door of her apartment. Then I turned back into my own rooms. I'll guarantee that she had no time to exchange more than a single sentence with this—er—gentleman. That she shot at him was absurd."
"He accused her also of assault." The house-superintendent spoke doubtfully.
"Where?" asked Sam, quietly.
Beringer was silent. A moment and he repeated his request that a constable be sent for.
"Good enough!" Sam acquiesced. "Send for the constable—and clear these people from this corridor. You know me, Mr. Somerset." He turned and beckoned Rose who was standing a little way up the corridor. "Auntie, take Miss Allerson to my rooms. I'll settle this matter."
The throng parted before Rose's determined advance. She slipped her arm around the girl and tried to lead her up the corridor. Ray resisted. She caught at Sam's arm, pulling him towards her.
"Listen, Sam. There's someone in my rooms—a woman, it was she who fired at Beringer. I saw her and knocked her hand down with my gun."
Sam whistled under his breath,
"You're certain, Ray?" Rose spoke in a whisper.
"Of course." The girl had regained much of her poise.
"You saw the shot fired? Did you see the man?"
"I tell you it was a woman. I saw her bare arm."
Sam strode to the reception-room door and tried the handle. The door opened freely. Followed by the house superintendent, Ray and Rose, he strode into the apartment. He turned quickly and locked the door, keeping out in the corridor Beringer and the spectators.
A quick search of the rooms revealed no one. Sam paused, in the boudoir, doubtfully.
"Now tell me again what really happened?" he said standing over Ray who had sunk into a chair. "Take your time, dear. Beringer can't get away with this. Why, this," he held out her automatic and the cartridges, "This alone clears you."
"What do you mean?' asked Somerset.
"Look for yourself." Sam gave the automatic and ammunition to the man. "In fact you'd better take charge of them. Put the cartridges in the gun again."
The man obeyed, loading the gun fully. First, he held the barrel to the light, smelt it and shook his head.
"This gun hasn't been fired tonight—I doubt if it has ever been fired." He said emphatically. "Perhaps Miss Allerson will tell me what really happened."
Ray recounted her movements from the moment she parted from Rose and Sam, in the latter's rooms. She stressed the apparition of the woman's arm extended through the partly opened door, pointing the gun at Beringer's back.
The house-superintendent shook his head.
"Strange." He turned to Ray. "There's another matter. Mr. Beringer claims that you struck him over the head. He's certainly got a nasty wound. Do you know anything about it?"
"Not a thing." And Ray spoke truthfully. She had no knowledge of how Beringer had been struck down in the country cottage. She determined to say nothing of her abduction by the master-criminal unless she was taken to court. She thought that Beringer, when he had recovered his temper, would hesitate to go on with his accusation. "I think he must be mad."
"Still, this matter has to be looked into." Somerset decided. "I think I had better send for the police." He turned to Sam. "You see, Mr. Tresgold, in spite of what Miss Allerson says she saw, there isn't a soul in these rooms beside ourselves."
Ray gasped. Sam silenced her with a look.
"Quite the right idea, Mr. Somerset." He assented. "There's the telephone. Get to it."
The house-superintendent looked around the room. "Where's Mr. Beringer?" he asked.
"Outside the door, in the corridor." Sam grinned. "I wasn't going to have him upsetting Miss Allerson."
"We can hardly keep him out there."
"Not when the police arrive." Sam spoke cheerfully. "Until then he stays where he is."
"But, Mr. Beringer is a responsible party." The man protested.
"Is he? Well, he can be mighty responsible if he brings any unwarranted accusation against Miss Allerson."
A loud knocking at the door of the reception-room followed Sam's statement. The house-superintendent strode through the rooms and unlocked the door. He returned to the boudoir accompanied by a constable and Oscar Beringer.
"There's the woman who shot me." Beringer exclaimed, loudly. "I give her in charge."
The constable advanced, ponderously, towards Ray. She shrank closer to Rose. Sam stepped before the policeman.
"What's the trouble, sergeant?"
"Let me pass, sir. I have my duty to perform."
"Duty before everything." Sam grinned. "And your duty, at present, is to—"
"You heard what this gentleman said. He accused this woman of shooting him."
"Gentleman! Woman!" Sam's eyes slowly swept the length of the master-crook. "I can see something that resembles a man—and a lady, certainly. Is that what you mean?"
"I shall arrest you, if you interfere with me in the execution of my duty." The constable spoke severely.
"Your duty, man." Sam's laugh contained a sneer that stung. The policeman flushed. "Well, I'll show you your duty. That man is one of the most notorious crooks in Australia." He pointed a steady finger at Beringer.
"Come, come! Enough of that!" The constable placed a heavy hand on Sam's shoulder. "I'm going to do my duty and if you interfere it'll be the worse for you."
Again he made to get at Ray, but Sam was too quick for him. He slid from under the man's grasp and again interposed.
"You say you have a warrant for this young lady's arrest? As her only male friend here, I want to see it."
"I have a charge against her," the constable, corrected. "We'll talk about warrants when we get to the station."
"She is accused of shooting that man?"
"Yes. Now, come sir. I can't—"
"Have you the weapon?"
"This gentleman says he has it."
"Indeed!" Sam laughed. "Now I was beside Miss Allerson when the shot was fired. Beringer was away down the corridor. Miss Allerson certainly had a gun in her hand, but it was not fired and Mr. Somerset will tell you that in his opinion it has never been fired. I took the gun from Miss Allerson and handed it to Mr. Somerset, as a proper person to take charge of it. Mr. Beringer says he has the gun from which the bullet discharged at him was fired. How did he get it? Certainly not from Miss Allerson. Again, may I suggest that you, and not Mr. Beringer, are the proper person to have charge of the weapon."
"I'll have Miss Allerson's automatic."
Somerset spoke abruptly. "Here it is, constable. If you will examine it you will see that it is in the condition Mr. Tresgold claims."
"Who disarmed the lady?" The constable asked, doubtfully.
"I did." Sam spoke quickly.
"And you're the lady's friend." The man looked at Beringer. "You say you have the revolver from which the bullet was fired at you. Will you give it me, sir."
Beringer placed his hand in his pocket and produced a small lady's revolver. The constable broke it and showed that one of the cartridges had been fired. He smelt the barrel and held it towards Sam.
"There's one shot been fired from this gun, sir, and that recently. 'Fraid I'll have to take the lady to headquarters."
"But that is not Miss Allerson's gun." Sam was exasperated. "I want to know how that man got hold of that?"
"I was only a few yards from her when she fired at me." Beringer spoke with a sneer. "The bullet struck the flooring at my feet. I turned quickly and jumped for her. If I hadn't she would have fired again."
"And you disarmed her?" Somerset asked the question.
"And that is the gun she had in her hand?"
"You damned liar! You weren't within a dozen paces of Miss Allerson." Sam faced Beringer, angrily.
"That's enough of that." The constable spoke from beside Ray. "Come, miss. I've got to take you."
Ray stood up, dazedly. She knew that Beringer was lying. Now she saw the trap he had prepared for her. The woman, Ruth Henderson, had been watching her, for Beringer. She had traced her to Sam's rooms and had followed her there, She had found the door of the reception room unlatched and had waited there, with Beringer, for her return.
The interval between Ruth leaving Sam's apartment and Ray's leaving had been sufficient to prepare for the staging of the drama. In some way they had watched Ray come down the corridor. At the right moment Beringer had opened the door and walked towards the lift. Then Ruth had thrust her arm and the revolver through the partly opened door. The firing at the man had been a pretence.
One thing in the dastardly plot satisfied Ray. That she had had her automatic with her and had struck down the girl's hand. Ruth would have a very sore wrist for a long time, even if bones had not been broken.
What had followed the firing of the shot? Ray thought she could reconstruct the girl's actions. She had run into the boudoir and waited until a crowd had collected. Then she had worked the panels and slipped into the corridor. Marie, when she had let the girl into the boudoir, when she called, had unconsciously showed her how the panels worked.
In the corridor Ruth had only to edge secretly towards Beringer and slip the revolver into his jacket pocket. Then the stage was set.
The plot had been simple and effective. It had worked with magical smoothness. Now she was faced with a frame-up that it would be hard to expose.
Fingerprints? They would be hard to find. Sam and the house Superintendent had handled her gun and must have completely obliterated her fingerprints. Beringer would not have forgotten to obliterate all fingerprints but his own on the revolver he produced.
She would have to face the charge—possibly a trial, and that in spite of what Sam and Rose could do for her. She might be convicted and sent to prison.
She had no friends in the city of Sydney but Sam, Rose—and Sara. And they were crooks, possibly with records in the hands of the police. She turned, listlessly, to the constable.
Sam was at her side in a moment. "Courage, girl," he whispered. "We'll get you out of this, somehow."
She smiled up at him, wistfully. "May I be allowed to change to something-something warmer?" She had been going to say: "To something more appropriate."
"Of course." He turned to the constable. "Have a look at this apartment, sergeant. There's only one door. Now, the bedroom. There's this door and the one to the reception-room. If you're in the reception room Miss Allerson can't get out. Understand? Now, with your permission I suggest that we all adjourn to the reception room and let Miss Allerson, in charge of my aunt, prepare herself for the very unpleasant trip you and Beringer propose for her. Satisfied?"
Beringer started to speak but a look from Sam stopped him. The man was in a quandary. If he told of the secret doors he would give Ray the advantage to prove her story that a woman had been in the apartment—and that woman had fired at him.
The constable herded the men out of the bedroom, turning at the door.
"Ten minutes, miss. I can't give you longer."
Sam stepped back and pressed the girl's hand. He glanced significantly at Rose, who nodded. Then he followed the others into the reception room. He went to the door and glanced into the corridor.
"Awful lot of rubber-necks," he said to the house-superintendent. "Look at them, out there, waiting to see a poor girl taken to gaol."
He grinned as Somerset turned impulsively to the door. Ray Allerson was a valued client of the house. Even if she had shot Beringer, and the man had a feeling that she would be proved innocent, she had a right to pass out of the house without humiliation. In a few minutes he re-entered the room. The corridor was now deserted.
Almost as he re-entered the room Ray came out from the bedroom. She turned in the doorway and went back, leaving the door partly open.
"Can't wait any longer," said the constable, when another five minutes had passed. He went to the door and knocked. There was no answer. He pushed the door further open and glanced in. Neither Rose nor Ray were in the bedroom. He went through to the door of the boudoir. It was closed and he knocked. He waited a few seconds and then entered. He came out, running. His prisoner had disappeared.
"She's gone!" The man stood scratching his head in perplexity. "Now, how the devil—"
He raced through the room to the corridor. It lay silent and deserted under the soft, dim glow of the solitary light.
RAY had dressed to accompany the constable to the police station, dazed and distressed. She hardly realised the ordeal before her. She knew that now she was no longer a free agent: that for days, weeks, perhaps months and years, she might be but a lay-figure, obedient to the absolute rule of others.
Beringer had lied. He had been guilty of the basest ingratitude. He must have known that only she could have dragged him from the burning cottage in the mountains; that only she could have taken him to the town to have his wounds dressed. More, he must have known that in the corridor that night she had acted in good faith. She had seen an assassin planning to shoot him down—and had again saved his life.
Rose had been magnificent. She had done all she could to cheer the girl, with assurances that Sam Tresgold and she would find some way to counter Beringer's charges and secure her release. She had stated, in the most emphatic manner, that Ray should not be in the police station more than a few hours. While the girl had been dressing Rose had remained beside her, going over the points of Beringer's story; pointing out the many inconsistencies.
Yet Ray now knew that her unlawful adventure had ended in failure. She did not want it to end otherwise. Her old animosity against law-breakers had vanished. Possibly, unless something intervened within the next few days she would, herself, be classed as a criminal; a woman who had tried to shoot a man in the back because of some fancied injury.
More than that. In the last few hours she had conceived a keen regard for Rose, the mysterious woman who had tried to plan her life on a basis of crime. Now she knew that Sam Tresgold was more to her than all the laws that Parliaments had ever made. It was well to read—to preach—that one should not covet one's neighbour's goods, but love took no account of goods, it dealt with people, attractions. Love was the magnet of the world, attracting and repulsing without known scientific laws.
She looked at herself in the glass; perhaps for the last time in that apartment which had grown wonderfully dear in so few days. She turned from the mirror, to Rose's arms. There, for the first time the frozen composure that had wrapped her from the moment when Beringer openly accused her, dissolved. She felt that she could rest her head or the woman's breast and cry, cry until the salt tears had washed away the memory of the past few days. No, not all the memory. Only that pertaining to the theft of the gold; the knowledge that those who had grown so dear to her were criminals—the hunted animals of the law.
She turned from Rose and went to the door, to surrender herself to the law that exacted retribution; yet was so capable of making mistakes. She heard herself tell the constable that she was ready to accompany him.
Then Rose called her.
Instinctively, she turned back to the room to face a Rose who had changed. The woman appeared to have grown taller, more imposing. Her eyes flashed with a decision that had not been in them when she had kissed Ray good-bye.
Again Rose took her in her arms: but those arms were not now soft and comforting. They were iron bands, holding her close. In bewilderment she saw the woman's hand coming up to her face. Something soft was pressed over her nose and lips. She struggled and tried to call out. Other hands caught at her arms and legs. She felt her mind falling—falling through illimitable space—into fathomless oblivion. Her body lightened. She felt herself lifted and carried through the darkness. Where?
SHE CAME to consciousness to find herself in bed. Seated beside her was a woman she dimly recognised. She tried to turn, to put out a hand, and the woman faced her.
"Yes, Maude, old dear!" The woman crook bent over her and Ray felt a tear strike her face. "Maude, your old Maude, Miss Allerson—Ray. Say, what have they been doing to you?"
"I don't know." Ray tried to think. "Have they done anything very dreadful? Where am I?'
"I don't know, and that's a fact." The woman laughed in a strained manner. "All I know is that I was telephoned for. Someone said you wanted me. Of course I came. Who wouldn't?"
"And you don't know where we are?" Ray looked around the pretty room.
Maude laughed. "I should say not. Lor', dear, I hadn't hardly got outside my flat when a chauffeur stood before me and asked if I was Miss Penlop. I said I was, and would be until I became Mrs. Freddie Dutton. Then he bowed me to a car and brought me here."
"Where's here?" Ray felt she was growing stronger every minute.
"That's what I'd like to know."
Maude was becoming voluble. "The car put me down before a grand house. The man told me to go up to the door, it opened before I had time to knock and—and who do you think I saw then?"
"Who?" Ray was interested. She raised herself on her arm. Then she noticed that she had been undressed and that she wore a nightdress fashioned of the most wonderful materials.
"No one else but Rose—and such a Rose." Maude expressed her astonishment with uplifted hands. "A grand dame I don't think. Took my breath away, quite. She told me that you were not well and that she had had you brought to this house. When I asked, where 'this house' was, she snubbed me. Told me plainly that was none of my business—that what I had been brought there for was to nurse you."
"Then I have been ill?" Ray was puzzled. She did not feel ill. So far as she could tell the only thing that was wrong with her was that she was terribly tired. "How long have I been ill?" she asked.
"I don't know. Can't be long for you and I had afternoon tea together yesterday. Lor' there I go again. Rose told me that you were to believe that you had been ill for some days."
Ray was beginning to remember. If Maude was speaking the truth then that awful night of happenings had just passed. She turned again to the woman.
"What is the time, Maude?"
"Just turned two in the afternoon, dear."
"When did you come here—when did the car call for you?"
"Just after six this morning."
Just after six! Then Rose had acted quickly. It had been near six when she had dressed to accompany the constable to the police station. It had been just before six when Rose had taken her in her arms, drugging her to insensibility, to save her from the frame-up Beringer had tried to engulf her in.
Rose had saved her. Now Ray remembered the strange look that had passed between Sam and the woman he had called "auntie." That look had been almost a command—and Rose had accepted it with a nod.
They—Sam and Rose—had saved her from the hands of the law, but where had they taken her? Again she had to go back to Maude's story to find the connecting link. The woman had spoken of Rose as a "grand dame."
She remembered that, as she sank into unconsciousness under the drug Rose had forcibly administered, other hands had lifted her; carrying her from the apartment. Where had they taken her?
Rose was a crook. Was she also Sara? Ray laughed. Did that matter? She could guess where Rose had brought her.
For days before that awful night she had planned to trace down Sara—to discover where that mysterious woman had her abode. She had thought she had failed—and that all her plans had gone astray. She had thought that she had come to the end of her unlawful adventure—that Sara and her gang would abandon her to the spread meshes of the law—to find herself hidden away. Where? There was only one answer.
In Sara's secret home.
"What would Sara and Rose do with her? They had taken her from the law Beringer had charged her with offending. They had hidden her. For what purpose? What demands would they now make on her? And Oscar Beringer? Ray turned to Maude.
"What of Beringer? What does he know? What is he doing?"
Maude laughed. "That nice boy-friend of yours told me the tale. He says that Oscar went nearly raving mad when the cop found that you had flown. He raved and cursed and wanted to fight your boy. I won't say that he wasn't more eager than Oscar for a scrap. But the police chap offered to run them both in if he had any trouble—and Oscar thought better of it. Sam said if it meant twelve months he'd do it for the fun of handling Oscar. Perhaps that had something to do with our chief's discretion. Maybe."
Ray laughed. She sat up in bed and tested her limbs. She was stiff and her head whirled. But, she was all right. She wanted to stand on her feet—to feel herself again her own mistress.
"I suppose we're prisoners, Maude?" she said at length.
"Then it isn't skilly they feed their prisoners on in this dump," the woman grinned. "Lor' If you saw the lunch I ate. It's bread and water for me for a week now, or I'll take to bulging out of my clothes. Now you thin women—Say, girl, what's the joke?"
Ray had slipped from the bed, and stood holding on to one of the bedposts. Her head was weak, rocking and unstable; but every moment she felt better.
"Where's my clothes, Maude?"
"You go back to bed."
"Don't be ridiculous! Get me my clothes, or I'll go downstairs as I am."
"Sight for sore eyes!" Maude laughed. "Have a look at yourself in the glass, dearie. If that young man of yours saw you, well—"
Maude fled to the adjacent room, under the urge of a well-aimed pillow. Ray was already feeling better. The talk of illness had been camouflage put up by Rose to shelter her from pursuit. She was certain that she had never felt better in her life. Now she wanted to find Rose—to force some explanation from her of all the trouble, mysteries and lies that had surrounded her for days.
"Got those clothes, Maude?" Ray was emphatic.
"Clothes! Well, there's stores of them here. What'll you wear?"
Ray sped into the dressing room.
Maude had spoken the truth. Dresses, undies, hats and stockings; everything possible for her decoration and comfort. On the dressing table, under the great swing mirror, were her favourite powders and accessories of the toilet.
Ray mentally bowed before the genius of Sara. Who was she to think of fighting and exposing a woman who could engineer such a situation. The woman was a genius, possessing wonderful organising skill—even though she was a crook.
Ray dressed rapidly, Maude keeping up a voluble fire of questions, explanations and comments. At length Ray was satisfied. A final look in the mirror and she turned to the door.
She paused, hesitatingly. Now she was to face Sara, perhaps Rose. What was she to say to them? For the time she could not plan; events must show her how to act. She squared her shoulders and walked into the bedroom.
"Well, dear?" Seated on the big lounge within the bay-window recess was Rose. But a Rose so different to the woman who had come to the apartment at Taunton House that Ray could only gasp. Hesitatingly she crossed to the woman. Rose caught her hand in her masterful grasp and pulled her down on the seat beside her.
"You saved me from prison." Ray turned to face the woman. "And I was striving to discover and betray you."
"Well, you didn't—so don't let that worry you."
"But, you've done so much, for me—and then, there's that money—that hundred pounds—"
"You can accept that gift, girl."
"Money that I proposed to use against you?" Ray's face was troubled. "I'm finished, Rose. I shall not go back to Taunton House, even if Mr. Beringer withdraws his accusations against me."
The woman shook her head. "There is no necessity for you to go back there, now. The apartment has been abandoned. The dresses, the fallalahs you wore, are in the rooms you now occupy. They are yours. When you—when you have a home of your own, then the furnishings of the apartment—everything is contained will be delivered to you."
"I can't take them."
"Why? Because they were bought with crooks' money?"
"Crooks use the same sort of money as other people. They have banking accounts and draw their money across the counter like honest people."
"And those pretty dresses?"
Again Ray shook her head.
"You will take nothing?''
"And—Sara? You have spent a lot of time and money trying to trace her?"
"I shall forget Sara." Ray spoke in troubled tones. "Oh, I know that I am wrong there. I should be strong and do my duty—"
"What is your duty?"
"I must not allow crime to succeed."
"Then, why not trace down Sara?"
"Because you are Sara." Ray spoke passionately. "Rose, what is the good of continuing this pretence. You are Sara. A thousand things tell me that. You are Sara. Rose, is the game worth all the trouble."
"The game of crime?"
"Have you thought of the question you ask me?" Rose spoke gravely. "Think, girl! You have wit and ingenuity. Think of using that wit, ingenuity and all the enterprise you possess against the old, worn-out organisations of the world we call society—the establishment of things which gives much to one and nothing to many others? Think of yourself—you, alone in this world, with the gifts born in you. Alone, facing and defeating your opponents—the people who organise and say 'thou shalt' or 'thou shalt not' without asking 'yea' or 'nay' from you. Doesn't the thought of the fight, the countless matching of wits against force, make your blood race in your veins?"
"I know," Ray laughed gently, "The call of adventure! And, I think that call is stronger to the woman than to the man. Women crave excitement—and adventure. They continually want the unusual, the unexperienced. They—they are more unmoral than men. They look on the unknown with kindling eyes. Perhaps God made them like that. But—he made men different."
"Man born of woman!" Rose chuckled. "Woman the adventurer! Where does that strain in their blood come from? Think, Ray, think of the countless millions of women who have lived. Woman closely confined in, and without harems and homes. Women who, at one time were little above men's chattels; without rights or even allowed beliefs. Yet, from them descend modern woman, with her blood tingling with life. The Adventurer of Today—and, tomorrow."
"I understand." Ray paused. "Is there no adventure but in the unlawful?"
The colour swept richly to Ray's face and neck.
"Is marriage an adventure?" she asked.
"Always." Rose was emphatic. "Only the adventurers succeed. They make marriage a success. They are continually probing, discovering new secrets and beliefs: testing new joy and pains. Exploring each other, finding new delights and disappointments. The unadventurous, in matrimony drone on in decent, or indecent monotony; and monotony never makes for happiness. They are continually sliding down the hill of existence, neither knowing or caring where they go. Yet, their final end is certain indecency, by exposure of their mental sores, or indecency by living lives that are repulsive."
Ray laughed. "Rose," she exclaimed "How many times have you been married?"
"Not once." A grim smile flecked the woman's lips. "Perhaps I am not adventurous enough—or too adventurous."
"Have you thought of him?"
Ray nodded. "Perhaps more than I should."
"Have you realised that if you give up—if you abandon your pursuit of Sara—you give up—Sam?"
"I must do what I think right."
"Even to sacrifice." Rose paused. "Ray, Sam is my nephew, the son of my sister."
"You brought him into—this?"
"He brought me."
Rose smiled. The lines about her mouth and eyes softened. "Ray, he is a great boy. Take him, dear. You can make what you will of him."
"Make him—honest?" Again she blushed, remembering the words Sam had used at the door of his apartment, the previous night. "Dare I?"
"It would be an adventure," the woman tempted. "An unlawful adventure!"
The little quirk of mischief ever lurking around Ray's lips came to sight. "Rose, are you trying to tempt me?"
"Do you want tempting?"
"I cannot tell you. Sam—must know—first."
The girl rose to her feet and crossed the room. At the door she hesitated, then turned back to the woman.
"Forgive me, Rose."
"What have I to forgive?" As Ray turned away she called her back. "Where are you going, child?"
"To seek work."
"The drudgery of the secretary. The petty scribbling of meaningless lines and circles that when transcribed are still more meaningless words?"
"You can go back—to that?"
"I must." Ray turned listlessly, away. She had ended her adventure—the thrilling episode that was to mean so much to her—and others.
"He has his own adventure. He must seek for himself. That is his part—mine the waiting. The Adventure of Waiting."
The girl's hand was on the door knob when the woman spoke. The girl waited, but did not turn.
"Ray, if you go through that door—"
"I must." The girl turned desperate eyes on the woman. "Rose, don't tempt me. Please! I—I daren't come back."
"Then go." The strong even voice was harsh; yet it seemed to hold a promise of hope. "Go!"
Ray opened the door; hot, salt tears blinding her eyes. For a moment she could not move. She knew that she stood on her fatal threshold—her parting of the ways. Behind her was adventure—the great adventure she had embarked on with high hopes and confidence. There she had made friends—friends she loved, though they were only crooks. Before her—
"Ray!" She looked up at the man waiting on the other side of the threshold, his hands outstretched. "Ray, have you chosen?"
"Yes." Rose was behind the girl; her hands on her shoulders, gently urging her towards her man. "Say, boy; she has chosen and—and wisely. The Good God bless you both as He never blessed me."
The door closed, the woman within the room. Sam drew the girl to him. For another moment she hesitated, then stepped forward willingly into the arms of Adventure. Now she knew.
THREE hours later! The dull rumblings of the dinner gong through the house brought Ray and Sam from the land of adventure back to this prosaic world. Had Ray been asked how those hours had been spent she could not have offered even the weakest explanation.
She had been in the land of adventure—supremely, impossibly happy. For three hours she had lived only for the passing moment; grudging the swift passage of seconds; longing that Time might stand still, perhaps for ever.
"Dinner!" Sam laughed. "Do you know, Ray, that it was nearly four o'clock when you came out of your room to me? Now it is after seven and—"
"And I undertook to explain everything to you. Lor'! What a fool I was to make that promise. I might have known."
"There are no explanations in the land of adventure." The girl laughed gaily. "No, not one explanation. That would spoil it."
"Not one." Sam grinned. "And I thought I had been saturated with explanations this afternoon. For instance, you—"
"That was an adventure, not an explanation." Ray could not keep from blushing.
"Then adventures are solely in order." The young man paused, staring across the room, shrouded in the late evening shadows. "Come, dear. Dad will raise the house if we keep him waiting for his dinner."
He led her from the old-fashioned smoking room into which he had drawn her when she emerged from her bedroom, down the stairs to the great hall. Ray passed through the house, wondering. It was very large and she knew that around her were rare and exquisite furnishings and ornaments—things only to be found in the homes of the very wealthy. Then, Sam and his father were wealthy—and crooks. She shivered. Had she the courage to go on with the task she had set herself—to draw her man from the slough of crime in which he lived?
She thought it would be hard to give up that wonderful home and start life anew. Ray had clear vision. Instinctively, she realised that her man had been brought up in an atmosphere of luxury; that he had never known the want of money; that always he had received everything he craved; that he had been taught to gain without effort. In the new life into which she wanted to lead him there would be real sacrifices for him to face. Could she—giving herself—compensate him for all he would lose?
Slowly, as if loath to leave those three precious hours in the store-house of the past, they paced down the wide shallow stairs to the great hall where a man and a woman awaited them. Ray looked down on the waiting pair. She knew the woman to be Rose. Again the perplexing thought came to her. Who was Rose? Was Rose—Sara?
What did that matter? The gates of the past were closed. Rose and Sara belonged to the other world, the world of unlawful adventure Ray and her man would never again tread. For Sam had sworn faith and honesty to her.
Rose came to the foot of the stairs to meet them. One look into the girl's star-shining eyes and the woman took her in her arms.
"You know?" She asked in a whisper, her lips on the girl's cheek.
"Nothing." Ray laughed. "Auntie we—we were too engrossed with other things. Time slipped by so—so quickly."
"Sam!" Rose turned to the young man. "And you promised."
"Guilty, m'lady," Sam produced a tolerable imitation of a blush. "As Ray has told you, we were very otherwise engaged. Pleasure before business, always."
"In that case I am neglected for the rest of the evening." A pleasant voice spoke from behind Ray.
She turned swiftly—and gasped.
"Now the cat's out of the bag!" Sam laughed ruefully. "Ray, may I introduce my uncle, Mr. Matthew Chalmers—the only 'dad' that I can remember."
"But what does it mean?" Ray found difficulty in expressing her amazement.
"My dear." Rose pressed the girl's hand. "Can you trust us until—until these men have had their dinner. Before then—" she shrugged. "—we know that a man is never happy and comfortable until he is fed."
"But, Mr. Chalmers!"
"Will have the pleasure of escorting Miss Ray Allerson to dinner." The old man offered his arm with old world grace. "I warn you. That's the last time I shall call you 'Miss Allerson.' From now onward it is 'Ray' and—as Sam calls me—'dad.'"
The meal had the unreality of a dream to the girl. She ate and drank without knowing what was placed before her. She answered the questions addressed to her and tried to bear her part in general conversation.
And, all the time questions were buzzing in her head. Rose and Sam were crooks. Somewhere behind them lurked the sinister figure of the mistress-crook, R. S. Allerson—the woman she had named "Sara." And, Sara was in some intimate way connected with Sam.
But, Sam was the nephew of Matthew Chalmers, the managing director of the States Financial Company, and one of the richest and most important men in Australia. Again, Rose was Sam's aunt—therefore she must have some relationship to Matthew Chalmers. Her brain reeled at the maze of conjectures through which she was trying to penetrate.
Why—and how? Had Matthew Chalmers turned crook? Had he planned to steal the gold the States Finance Company were shipping to England. The idea was ridiculous. Chalmers was very rich man He was the biggest stockholder in the Company. Would he plan to rob himself?
At last the meal ended. Rose caught the girl's eyes, and nodded. She took Ray into a small snuggery opening from the long drawing rooms. In a few minutes the men were to join them there.
"Poor girl! And, you have been so patient." Rose impulsively kissed Ray. "But, dear, I have had to enjoy your amazement. Have you guessed? No? Well when you know you must try and forgive us."
"You will have much to try and forgive." Rose laughed, gently. "I am afraid we have made rather a tool of you. Perhaps—perhaps Sam can make it up to you."
"I think I have my reward, already." Ray's eyes had passed the woman to meet the glance of the tall man entering the room.
Matthew came slowly across the room and sat down on the couch beside the girl.
"Have you told Ray?" The old man looked at his sister, who shook her head. "No? Well, well! It appears that I am elected."
He paused, turning his cigar between his fingers.
"Ray," he turned to face the girl. "Do you know what money means? Few people do. They think only of the pleasure that it can provide for them and little of the trouble and disability that it brings."
"My house has dealt in money for many years. It owns money, much of it. It is the richest financial house in Australia, more wealthy than most banks. But—while it is rich itself, it handles many times its own wealth for others. From all parts of this continent it draws gold and securities to distribute throughout the world.
"We have to guard what belongs to ourselves and others. Thus, part of the duty of our officers is to be conversant with all the sources of danger to our credit and our bullion."
Matthew Chalmers paused. For a long time he sat gazing before him. At length, he continued:
"We have to know criminals, as well as honest men. And of one of these criminals, perhaps the greatest and boldest of all, I have to tell you."
"You mean Oscar Beringer?" The girl spoke softly.
"Yes. Oscar Beringer, or—as we knew him up to a few days ago—the master-criminal 'X.'"
"It is a difficult story to tell." Matthew Chalmers frowned. "Difficult to get in order so that you can follow the many ramifications easily. First, for some time we knew of this man, 'X', as a dangerous criminal, specialising in the biggest coups. We made many attempts to discover him, to expose him, so that if he tried to attack us we would be in a position to quickly trace him down and place him behind prison bars. But, all our endeavours were in vain. 'X' had covered his tracks too well."
"About two months ago we received a strange report from our agents in London. They wrote us that certain structural alterations had been on the mail boat Triantic. While these alterations were in progress it was discovered that deliberate attempts had been made to tamper with the locks of the ship's strong-room. In fact, there had been more than attempts. It was possible for anyone with certain tools to open and shut the strong-room door and to leave the door in such condition that without close examination it was impossible to know that it had been tampered with. Another fact that our agents thought fit to notify us. That was, that in the ship had been installed many yards of large copper tubing, apparently connected with the engines but really isolated from any serviceable purpose on board the ship.
"This report was of grave interest to my Company. Although it was not generally known, even to the higher officials, the Board of Directors had decided that a very large shipment of gold was to be sent to England on the Triantic's next voyage. We were concerned because we realised that there had been a leakage of information, and that leakage could only have occurred in our offices.
"It was reasonable to suppose that the secret alterations made on board the Triantic could only be coupled with our knowledge of the mysterious criminal we had named 'X.' We had to believe that he had gained knowledge of our proposed shipment of gold and was planning to steal it. This made it imperative that we immediately traced down 'X' and kept him under close observation. But, in spite of our officers' most strenuous efforts we could not uncover the man. We appealed to all the police departments of the Commonwealth, but without result.
"My Board decided that the matter was so serious that some responsible officer of our Company should be placed in control of the investigation, and also the protection of our proposed shipment. The choice of the officer was left to me and I appointed my nephew, Samuel Tresgold.
"Let me digress for a moment." Matthew Chalmers patted the girl's hands. "I am trying to make the rather complex matter simple for you. I hope I shall, but even to me it is very involved. If I, at any time, fail to explain thoroughly, please stop me and ask questions. Let me continue:
"The States Finance Company is very proud and careful of its employees. I think I told you, the day you came to see me, that our employees are friends as well as employees of the Company. We select them with the greatest care and want them to be so comfortable that they will not look past our employment at any time. To obtain this status, we do not advertise any position that falls vacant in our offices. Our head officers, throughout Australia, are always on the watch for persons who may be necessary to us. As far as possible we do not try and attract them away from the positions they already hold. We usually wait until they are disengaged and then send for them. If they pass our tests they are offered a position suitable to their ability.
"So much for explanation. Now let me continue with the main story:
"Sam undertook a great deal of investigation work in Sydney. He obtained evidence that 'X' was located in this city, but nothing more definite. Then he chanced on a line of investigation that brought him in contact with a Melbourne woman. Without breaking confidence I may say that at one time she had worked with 'X,' but being convinced of the very real dangers of a criminal life, had reformed. She had engaged in commercial life and had made a success of it.
"Sam got in touch with this woman and she agreed to assist us to protect our property, even if that necessitated her helping us to uncover 'X.' I may say here that she did not know the real identity of 'X,' but had means of communicating with him.
"For some time my nephew and this woman consulted on the best line to take to protect our bullion and baffle 'X.' Mrs. W.—I think it best to only indicate her by an initial—had stipulated that, if possible, 'X' should not be tracked down and imprisoned through her help. She was interested only in helping us safeguard our property.
"Sam and Mrs. W. decided that, with their knowledge of 'X's' psychology, their first step would be to play on his known vanity and self-opinion. Mrs. W. was able to assure Sam that 'X' was behind the scheme to rob us of the shipment of gold. She told Sam that he was usually what is known as a 'lone worker' and that if he could be persuaded that some organisation of crooks were seeking to raid the gold shipment, he would be, to a certain extent, thrown off his balance. Thus, Sam and Mrs. W. invented a mythical band of Melbourne crooks who had eyes on the treasure.
"Some evidence of this mythical band of crooks had to be supplied to 'X.' It was decided that the ostensible leader of the gang was to appear in Sydney and enter into negotiations for mutual work with 'X.'
"Mrs. W. supplied Sam with a photograph of a woman who had been fairly conspicuous in the Melbourne underworld, but who had recently died. Sam was to write a letter informing 'X' of this woman's advent in Sydney.
"I think that my nephew was somewhat enamoured of the plot he and Mrs. W. had evolved. Anyway, he went into it very thoroughly. The letters which were sent to 'X' through the underground post-office were very detailed and contained a large sum of money to provide a safe and convenient lodging for the Melbourne leader. Peculiarly, the boy never thought that he would want a real identity, later on. It would be impossible to fool 'X' unless he saw the supposed Melbourne crook in the flesh.
"Again I have to digress from the strict line of my story." Matthew Chalmers smiled at the girl, who was frowning perplexedly, as she tried to follow the threads of the complex story.
"Sam had other matters to attend to on behalf of the Company, in Melbourne. It was while he was engaged on those matters that he learned of a Miss Ray Sara Allerson, who had recently been personal secretary to Mr. Montague Butte, managing director of the Rayonon Hosiery Company. Very high reports of this young lady's abilities were brought to Sam. He thought that I would be interested, especially when he learned that Miss Allerson was out of a situation through the death of her chief. He obtained references, a fair description of the lady and her signed photograph. These he proposed to send to me."
For a moment Matthew Chalmers paused, to laugh gently.
"Sam made a mistake—I will say this for him that he is usually very careful. But, in this matter he made a mistake. Perhaps that mistake was of the utmost use to our Company—I believe so. You shall tell me your opinion when my story is ended.
"Sam had the letters and the photograph of the dead woman crook ready to forward to 'X.' He had also his letter to me, referring to Miss Allerson. Somehow, he placed Miss Allerson's photograph in the letter addressed to 'X'—and the dead woman's photograph in the letter to me. The photograph of the dead woman was not autographed so, when I received it, I took the letter and enclosure to be genuine. I took the photograph to be that of Miss R. S. Allerson.
"Evidently 'X' accepted the photograph sent to him as genuine. He placed the money and particulars for an apartment in the hands of two members of his gang—"
"Maude Penlop and Freddie Dutton," Ray murmured.
The old man nodded.
"The apartment was prepared, waiting for the mythical owner—and yet my nephew had not realised the necessity of obtaining a real person to play the part. He had, apparently, left that to Fate—and he had the luck that Fate was on his side.
"In the meantime I had become interested in the Miss R. S. Allerson whose testimonials Sam had sent me, but attached to another woman's photograph. I wired to Sam to get in touch with the lady and send her to Sydney. She appeared to me to be a find of real worth—"
"Hear, hear!" Came from Sam, stretched in a lounge chair close by Ray.
"—and disengaged. I had a position for her—awaiting her. But, she had left Melbourne. Peculiarly, Sam could not trace her. She had told friends that she was coming to Sydney, but she did not arrive to time."
"I stopped a couple of days at Wallangatta, to see if a position I had heard of was still vacant," exclaimed Ray.
"So I found out afterwards," Matthew Chalmers acknowledged. "That break in your journey was another strange incident, engineered by Fate. It left, time for 'X's' preparations for your reception to be completed. You arrived in Sydney at the psychological moment for everyone. Again, on arriving in Sydney, you stayed at the Occidental Hotel, where 'X' was living. Of course, he recognised you from your photograph and, I believe, tried to become very friendly."
Ray made a moue, that made Sam laugh, but only nodded her head.
"You could not obtain work and Sam was in difficulties. He had just realised that he had an apartment belonging to a woman crook—but no woman crook." The old man grinned, affectionately at his nephew. "I had foreseen his difficulty but had held silence. It is good for the young to rectify their mistakes—they do not make them again, the same way. Then you stepped into the breach to unconsciously help Sam out of his difficulties—"
"Bravo, Ray!" From her cavalier. "Call it coincidence, or Fate, which you will. Something led you to Taunton House and—"
"I think you should call Fate 'hard-uppishness' in this case," put in Ray with a laugh. "I went there to borrow money from Oscar Beringer. He had said—"
"Thank God you didn't succeed." Sam spoke fervently. "Of all the vile beasts—"
"A perverted human." Matthew Chalmers spoke gently. "We can only pity him. Anyway, Ray wandered through the building and found her name painted on the door of an apartment. Fate urged her to enter and—"
"Tiredness led me to the most comfortable chair, in which I went to sleep," laughed the girl.
"Fate, or tiredness, you became R. S. Allerson, the Melbourne crook."
"But why my name on the door?" Ray asked, perplexedly.
"Because your name was on the photograph 'X' received," explained Chalmers.
"Oh, I forgot that." She turned to the old man with pretty penitence. "I won't interrupt again—if I can help it."
"You became R. S. Allerson." Chalmers took her hand and pressed it warmly. "You helped us, in your real, straight honesty, better than any actress Sam could have engaged for the part. You know what happened from the moment you entered the apartment. I don't think it is necessary for me to recount that part of the story."
"But—Rose—Where does Aunt Rose come into the story?" questioned the girl.
"Aunt Rose comes in with me," stated Sam. "I found that I had inadvertently led you into an awful muddle. It was up to me to protect you. Then you had to be provided with funds and warned and—"
"Ordered," interjected Ray.
"You'll get used to that in time," Sam grinned. "Anyway, I'm too shy to get wandering about a lady's bedroom, while she is in bed—"
"You'll get used to that in time," Rose interposed, quickly, to have her remark drowned in shouts of laughter.
"Well, anyway, Ray had to be protected and—and Aunt Rose is a sport." Sam's colour took time to die down. "Fact, I'm guessing she quite enjoyed playing the crook. Didn't you, auntie?"
Rose shook her head. "It paid," she said, soberly. "I found something of—of value." Her quick glance at Ray was eloquent.
"What of Maude and Freddie?" Ray spoke quickly to cover her embarrassment. "Can't we do something for them dad?"
"I'll leave Maude to you, Ray," the old man smiled. "As for Dutton, I think I'll take him into the Company's service. He should make good there."
"But—Dad—" Ray looked startled.
"I've learned one thing in my life, my dear." The old man smiled kindly at the girl. "There's no more honest man than the trusted crook. I shall have a little talk with Freddie. He'll be told that he will have a lot of responsibility and trust—that quite a lot of easy money will pass through his hands and that he won't be watched or suspected. I'll stake quite a lot that from that moment Freddie Dutton will be so honest with his trust that I shall suffer severe doubts as to my own rectitude. No, my dear, there's no one so honest as a trusted crook."
"Aunt Rose and myself included." A sly smile at Ray reminded her of her thoughts regarding Rose and her man.
"There's Amy Warren to be considered," Ray said, at length.
"Miss Warren obeyed orders." Chalmers chuckled. "I'm well satisfied with that young lady."
"And Sara—" suggested Rose. "For quite a time Ray was on the track of Sara. I don't think she is quite sure, yet. Can you help her to discover that person, brother?"
Matthew Chalmers rose to his feet and gave his hand to Ray. He led her before a wonderful Venetian mirror on the wall. With mock solemnity he bowed to the girl's reflection.
"Sara," he said, very seriously, "May I present to you—Sara herself."
"And so the kitten chased its own tail!" commented the irrepressible Sam.
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