Again The Ringer/III

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II Again The Ringer
III
written by Edgar Wallace
IV




CHAPTER III   THE MURDERER OF MANY NAMES


I

Mr. Ellroyd arrived in England six months after the Meister murder, when the police of the world were searching for one Henry Arthur Milton, "otherwise" (as the police bills stated in eighteen languages) "known as 'The Ringer.'"

They translated "The Ringer" variously and sometimes oddly, but, whether he saw it in Czecho-Slovakian or in the Arabic of Egypt, the reader knew that this Henry Arthur Milton was a man who could change his appearance with the greatest rapidity.

Perhaps not quite so readily as Mr. Ellroyd could and did change his name.

In Australia, which was his home, he was Li Baran; in Chicago he was Bud Fraser, Al Crewson, Jo Lemarque, Hop Stringer, and plain Jock. Under these pseudonyms he was wanted for murder in the first degree, for he was a notorious gunman and bank robber.

In New York he bore none of these names, but several others. Canada knew him as a bigamist who had married under three different names, one of which was the Hon. John Templar-Statherby.

He came to England from Malta (of all places in the world), and he came handicapped with a Ringer complex. Now the vanity of the criminal is a matter which has formed the subject of many monographs, and Joseph Ellroyd, in spite of his poise, his middle age, and his undoubted philosophy, was vain to a degree.

He wanted the publicity of The Ringer, and in his first unlawful act (which was the daylight hold-up of the Streatham Bank) he publicly identified himself with The Ringer.

If you think it extraordinary in a man whose one desire in life should have been to preserve a modest anonymity and pursue his own peculiar graft, attracting as little attention to himself as possible, you make no allowance for his complex, or, as Superintendent Bliss said, for his desire to put the police on the wrong track. Bliss was wrong. Joe's chief urge was vanity.

He derived immense satisfaction from the sensation which resulted. "Again The Ringer!" said a flaming headline. The phrase tickled Mr. Ellroyd. His second coup was a little less spectacular—the smashing of an hotel safe. But what it lacked in news value as a piece of craftsmanship (though the haul subsequently proved to be a large one) was compensated by the three words scrawled across the safe door: "Again The Ringer!"

A month later Mr. Joe Ellroyd went to his bedroom to change for dinner. He was staying at the Piccadilly Plaza Hotel, for he was a gentlemanly man and a classy dresser. He entered the room switching on the light and closing the door.

When he turned he looked first into the muzzle of a large Browning pistol and then into the completely masked face of the man who held it.

"Ellroyd your name is, isn't it?"

Joe blinked at the gun, and his hand dropped carelessly to his pocket.

"Keep 'em up!" said the stranger. "This gun doesn't make much noise, and I could catch you before you fell. My name is Henry Arthur Milton—I am wanted by the police for killing a gentleman who deserved to die."

"My God—'The Ringer'!" gasped Joe.

"The Ringer—exactly. You are using my name to cover certain vulgar robberies—you are wanted for other and worse offences in various parts of the world. I object to my name being used by a cheap skate of a gunman. I have a greater objection to its use by a thief. I have taken a lot of trouble to find you, and my original intention was to hand you over to the mortuary keeper. I am giving you a chance."

"Listen, Milton——" began Joe.

"I am warning you. I shall not warn you again. If you are a wise man you will not need a second warning. That is all. Step over here—and step quickly!"

Joe obeyed. The man moved to the door, and the lights went out.

"Don't move—you're against the window and I can see you."

A second later the door opened and closed. There was the sound of a snapping lock.

Joe, breathing heavily, went cautiously forward, turned on the lights and tried the door. It was, as he suspected, locked. But there was a telephone….

Before he picked up the instrument he saw the cut of trailing wires.

"The Ringer!" he breathed, and sat down heavily on his bed, wiping the cold perspiration from his face. It was remarkable that there was perspiration to wipe, for Joe was the coolest man that ever shot a policeman.

For two years after Joe lived without offence, as he could well afford to do, for he was a comparatively rich man.

And then one day in Berlin….

    

"Auf wiedersehen!"

The perfect stranger, with the elaborate friendliness which is too often the attribute of his kind, flourished his hat extravagantly.

"So long!" said Henry Arthur Milton, coldly indifferent.

Why this sudden activity? he wondered. He passed out on to the Friedrichstrasse and nobody would imagine that he was in the slightest degree concerned with the big fat man he had left at the entrance to the bahnhof. His fingers said "snap!" to a watchful taxi-driver.

"Kutscher! Do you see that gentleman in the black coat with the fur collar?"

"Most certainly: the Jew!"

Arthur Milton nodded approvingly and opened and closed the door of the taxi once or twice in an absent-minded manner.

"Is that insight or eyesight?" he asked.

"I know him," said the kutscher complacently. "He is from Frankfort and his name is Sahl—a dealer in sausages."

Mr. Milton inclined his head.

"A local industry," he said lightly. "Now, my friend, drive me to the Hôtel Zweinerman und Spiez."

It was a very comfortable taxi: Berlin is famous for the luxury of these public vehicles, but it was a taxi. There was nothing remarkable about it except that its driver had ignored the summons of half a dozen of the passengers who had arrived by the Hamburg express, and had instantly responded to the signal of Henry Arthur Milton. But there was no spring lock on the door—he had tried that before he got in. And the driver was following the conventional route.

Mr. Milton stroked his dark toothbrush moustache. His colouring gave him a somewhat saturnine appearance. His black glossy hair, his heavy black eyebrows, a marked lugubriousness of expression, corrected the attractions of good features and rather nice eyes.

Before the barrack facade of the hotel the cab stopped. Milton gripped his suitcase and alighted.

"Wait for me, I shall be five minutes."

The hotel porter stood at the open door of the cab, his face set in the hospitable smile for which he was engaged. He sought to secure the suitcase, but was frustrated.

"Is Mr. Pffiefer in the hotel?"

The porter would see—immediately. Arthur Milton followed him into the hotel; but when the porter, having inquired, discovered that Mr. Pffiefer's name did not appear in the guest list, and turned to inform the elegant Englishman, he had vanished. There was an elevator opening from the vestibule, and into this Arthur Milton had stepped.

Truthfully speaking, quite a number of so-called coincidences are interpretable into inevitable effects of quite logical causes. The Hôtel Zweinerman, for example: one gravitated there naturally. Englishmen were swept into the Zweinerman as by some mystic force.

As to the second floor—Mr. Milton chose the second floor because thereon were large and often unoccupied suites. He knew the hotel this way and that way, as the saying goes, and he knew that the largest, the most expensive suite usually reserved for plutocrats in a hurry was that which was to the right front of the elevator. So that, if there had been any English plutocrat rushing through the capital in mad haste, No. 9 would be his suite.

He tried the door of No. 9, opened it boldly, as a man might who had made a genuine mistake. It was a large bedroom, floridly decorated, furnished heavily. The room was empty; obviously it had not been occupied for some days—obviously, at any rate, to Henry Arthur Milton, who had the gift of observation.

There was a small calendar on the mantelpiece, an oxidised silver frame with a day in large letters. The day was "Mittwoch," 7th, which was Wednesday—it was now Friday, the 9th, but the chambermaid had not turned the little knob which would bring the calendar up to date.

Between the bed and the bathroom door was a writing-table—an unusual position, for the writer would sit in his or her own light. And on the table was a pale pink blotting-pad, which Milton would not have favoured with a second glance—only the writing was in English.

He reconnoitred the bathroom before he made any other inspection of the pad. From the bathroom a second door gave access to a sitting-room. Escape was a simple matter.

Detaching the top sheet of blotting-paper, he carried it to the bathroom and bolted the door. There was no mistaking the "B" or the firm, masculine "M"—they were not in German or Latin handwriting.

Milton read slowly.

"Suffering snakes!" he breathed.

It was the name of the man to whom the letter was addressed which excited his profanity. The significance of the florid preamble did not come home to him until he read, later, the London telegram in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung.

"Bless my soul!" said Mr. Milton, and, going into the bathroom, locked the door. A hot, wet towel wiped his eyebrows from existence (they had taken him an hour to fix before he left Hamburg); the toothbrush moustache yielded instantly to the same treatment. Opening his suitcase, he took out a light fawn coat and a shapeless hat….

    

There went down the lift a man with a somewhat vacuous expression. He wore large rimless glasses and a vivid necktie. His face was hairless, his head so closely cropped that it might have been shaved. In the vestibule he saw the big sausage-maker from Frankfort interviewing the manager. With him was another detective.

Milton shuffled up to the reception clerk, grief in his voice and tone.

"I have brought for the gentleman of No. 9 an account. But he is gone."

"Account!"

A reception clerk dealing with nobodies is altogether a different person from a reception clerk dealing with somebodies.

"You should have brought it when the gentleman was here," he grumbled. Nevertheless he turned the pages of a book. "Mr. Smith, 249, Doughty Street." he said in English.

"Do not give addresses!"

His companion was obviously in authority. The book closed with a bang.

"Write!" he barked.

Mr. Milton shuffled forth humbly.

The cab-driver who had brought him to the Zweinerman stood guard in the doorway.

"I want a cab—" began the hairless man, peering short-sightedly through his glasses.

"Engaged!"

The new Mr. Milton passed into the street. Near the Tiergarten he bought the Government newspaper, and then he understood what all the bother was about:


THE RINGER IN BERLIN! The So-Infamous English Criminal Traced, to Germany….


("Good Lord!" said Henry Arthur Milton, and read on):


"Henry Arthur Milton, an English criminal, is believed to be in hiding in Berlin. Following an atrocious robbery and murder near London, the miscreant escaped to Germany, and has had the audacity to address a letter to Chief-Central Superintendent of Police Bliss …"


("They never get our titles right," he murmured):


"… deriding the police efforts to capture him. That letter was posted in Berlin! The Ringer, as he is called, is a master of the art of disguise and owes his name (Ringer of Changes) to that fact. The crime for which he is now sought by the Berlin police is …"


(The Ringer read on and on, a set grin on his face):


"… Hitherto The Ringer has killed, but has never robbed. Man after man he has slain for some wrong done either to himself or to humanity. But robbery has never before been his object..."


"Dear me!" said Henry Arthur Milton, still smiling mirthlessly. "That is certainly amusing! Joe has forgotten something!"

He left Berlin by the night train on a passport which described him as Eric Ressermans, a native of Munchen. He went on board the English boat as Joseph Sampson, of Leeds. But that was not the name that he wrote in the guest book at the Craven Street Hotel.

He spent the whole of the next day examining the files of a newspaper for particulars of the interesting crime with which his name had been associated.


II

It was half-past two o'clock on a wet, cold morning when the mail van from London came out of the Great West Road and turned towards Colnbrook and Slough. A motor scout on duty at the juncture of the roads saw from his shelter the red-painted motor-van pass. It skidded as it turned (he afterwards stated), and he thought he heard the driver laugh.

The mail van was late, but once out of the West Road, speeding would be impossible until Slough was passed. The road winds and turns abruptly and is rather narrow. Moreover, ahead of the driver was the narrower street of Colnbrook.

The van had travelled to within a mile of that village when the driver saw a red lamp in the road and jammed on his brakes. Ahead of him, in the light of his headlamps, he saw a man in shining oilskins, who was pointing to the side of the road.

He stopped the car, and, as he did so, the solitary wayfarer came out of the glare of the lamps into the patch of darkness level with the driver's seat.

"What is the matter?" It was the guard inside the van.

"Get down!"

The driver saw the automatic in the stranger's hand-saw it was pointed at him, and gripped the lever….

It was the sound of the shot which brought the guard leaping to the road, revolver in hand. He was alive when the police found him two hours later. The van had been driven into a field near the end of the Colnbrook by-pass. He told his fragment of tale, but was dead before the magistrate arrived to take his statement.

There were two clues, so attenuated that Superintendent Bliss rejected the one and was baffled by the other.

A motor-cycle with sidecar had passed through Colnbrook at five minutes after three. It had been driven by a man in a brown leather coat who was talking to somebody in the sidecar—evidently a woman—for he addressed her as "my dear girl." To the police officer who saw him he shouted "Good night." Ten minutes later he should have been in Slough, but was not seen in that town. There was, however, an explanation for this: he might have turned off on to the Windsor Road.

The second piece of evidence was on the mail van itself. Scrawled in chalk along the side were the words: "Again The Ringer!"

Mr. Bliss read this and his bearded lips curled derisively. He might sneer at this piece of bravado, but the country had for the moment lost its sense of humour. Newspaper columns protested at the "immunity of this arch-assassin." None the less, Mr. Bliss maintained his opinion.

    

Colonel Walford, Assistant Commissioner of Police, leaned back in his padded chair, a wandering quill toothpick between his teeth, and listened.

"If it is The Ringer, then he has changed his method," said Superintendent Bliss. "You know, sir, that he has never killed except to fulfil some crazy vendetta of his—he's a man of means … why, you've told me the same thing a score of times!"

Colonel Walford shifted uneasily in his chair.

"Well … yes. But you can't get over the fact that the words 'Again the Ringer' were written in chalk on the mail van, that they were found scribbled on the safe door of the Rugeley Hotel—and you remember that Streatham robbery…. Still …"

He was of two minds: Mr. Bliss had one.

"'Again The Ringer'!" he scoffed. "As if Milton would descend to that kind of tomfoolery! He has killed people—but there has been a reason behind it. He is a self-appointed executioner of nasty men."

The colonel shook his grey head.

"I don't know—this letter from Berlin in which he confesses he was the murderer … giving details which only he could know …" He shook his head again.

But Bliss was not convinced.

"One always gets these sham confessions—there was enough published the morning after the murder to supply a mischievous busybody with all the information he required. The problem to me is: how did the murderer know that there was a registered package containing 160,000 American dollars in the van? I only found that out yesterday."

"Dollars? Why on earth?"

"The package was from the London Textile Bank to a Mr. Elliott, of Long Hall, near Slough. It was insured with underwriters, so that only the insurance people will be the losers."

"But why dollars?"

Bliss could supply an explanation. Mr. Elliott, a wealthy and a self- made man, dabbled in the fine arts. There was in the country at that moment the newly-discovered Maltby Velasquez. It was the property of a French dealer, who had stipulated, in view of the erratic behaviour of his native currency and an ingrained suspicion of sterling, that payment should be made in dollars.

"The picture has been bought to all intents and purposes, and was to have been delivered yesterday. I am seeing Mr. Elliott tonight."

"And if you see The Ringer——" began Walford.

"The Ringer? Huh!"

As he walked down the corridor a messenger handed him a telegram. Bliss read and nodded. On the whole, he was not sorry to get the intimation this telegram contained.

Mr. Forsythe Elliott, being a public-spirited man, might well have complained that none of the theories so ingeniously advanced by him in letter, even by telegram, had been accepted. Or, if the police had acted upon them, certainly there had been no acknowledgment of the inspiration.

He had seen Bliss for a few minutes.

"He treated the matter quite casually," he reported to his saturnine young secretary. "You might imagine that a double murder and robbery was an everyday occurrence! I have no wish to be hard on the police, but I do think …"

What Mr. Elliott did think he related at length.

And then, to his annoyance, coming back from a brisk country walk, his servant informed him that Mr. Bliss had not only arrived, but had been in the house for the greater part of an hour. Later he saw the bearded figure strolling aimlessly across the lawn, and wagged his finger in playful admonition, though in truth Mr. Elliott was very annoyed indeed.

"You said six," he said reproachfully. "Well, have you a clue? You look tremendously mysterious."

"I cannot afford to be mysterious," said the man from London quietly. "I have just been having a chat with your secretary."

"An extremely able young man," said Elliott.

"Young?" The bearded man shook his head. "He's not so young as he appears. Would you call him reliable?"

The eyebrows of Mr. Forsythe Elliott rose in amazement.

"Reliable? Well, I have had him for the greater part of six months."

"Then he must be reliable."

There was a touch of irony in the tone.

Mr. Elliott was all for dropping such unimportant matters as his secretary; was, indeed, ready to repeat and amplify the theories that he had already propounded.

"Obviously it is The Ringer," he said. "I have made a very careful study of this man. In fact, I have read every scrap of information I can beg, borrow, or buy."

"My view is," continued the undaunted master of Long Hall, "that he escaped from this country after the last affair, went to Germany—you, of course, know all about the letter, because it was addressed to you, according to the newspapers—and, being hard up—these fellows are invariably gamblers—he has returned and is living somewhere in this neighbourhood."

But his hearer gave him no encouragement. Not that Mr. Elliott required such a stimulus.

"My secretary says—and Leslie is something of a motor- cyclist—that this wretched assassin probably never uses the roads at all, but takes to the field paths."

"You surprise me," said his audience politely.

    

In the few minutes he had alone with his secretary later Mr. Elliott expressed his utter lack of faith in the official police. The young man did not answer. Mr. Elliott thought he looked a little nervous. He had never known him so jumpy before. That night at dinner:

"You know The Ringer?"

"Very well indeed."

"He interests me tremendously" (Mr. Elliott was almost enthusiastic). "Although I cannot afford to lose so large a sum—as a matter of fact, I don't lose it at all, but if I did the fact that The Ringer was responsible gives the crime a certain cachet. Now, my theory …"

It was difficult even to contend against theories, for surely there was no atmosphere better calculated to put a man in good humour, even with the crankiest of cranks, than the raftered dining-room of Long Hall.

The cloth had been removed, the super-polished surface of the dark table reflected the long-stemmed port glasses. Mr. Elliott reached out and helped himself to another cigarette from the silver box and lit it with the glowing end of the first.

He was tall and broad-shouldered; good-looking in his rugged way. The untidy hair was streaked with grey; he looked all that he confessed himself to be—a man of the people who had come to fortune by his own industry. In every sense he was a contrast to the young man who sat on his left, gloomily absorbed in his own dark thoughts.

Leslie Carter's voice said "public school." His face was moulded more finely than his employer's, his hands were more shapely, his movements had something of an athletic grace. The sombre man sitting opposite, twisting the end of his little beard to a point, noticed that from time to time Mr. Elliott shot a puzzled glance at his secretary. And Leslie Carter's attitude throughout the meal had been a little puzzling. He had scarcely spoken a word, hardly raised his eyes from the plate, though his vis-à-vis had been the second prettiest girl Mr. Bliss had ever seen.

Sullen—sulking about something—worried? The visitor was not sure.

" …the third crime of the character committed during the past three months," Forsythe Elliott was saying; "and all occurring within a radius of twenty—say thirty—miles. That can only mean that our friend The Ringer has his headquarters in Berkshire."

"It was not The Ringer."

The other man shook his head emphatically, was about to say something else, but stopped himself. Instead, he looked swiftly from his host to the secretary, and Mr. Elliott understood. Presently: "You might tell them to have the car ready for Mr. Bliss."

The young man looked up with a start.

"All right," he said, and rose.

When he had gone the visitor drew his chair nearer to where Elliott sat.

"What is his financial position?" asked Bliss.

Elliott shrugged his broad shoulders.

"He's always broke—that kind of kid always is."

"Have you asked him whether he told anybody about the money coming to you?"

His host shook his head. "No; I have had no opportunity. He had to go to Germany—his brother, who is in Hamburg, sent for him."

"He went to Germany—when?"

Elliott considered. "The day after the robbery. In any event, I should have let him go, but it happened that I went off to Paris to fix up about the picture. I should, in the ordinary course of events, have taken the money with me."

His guest tugged at his little beard.

"In Berlin, eh? The murder was committed on Monday night—he could have reached Berlin by Wednesday—the date the letter was posted—he could have been back here on Thursday. When did your secretary return?"

Mr. Elliott was obviously uncomfortable.

"Yesterday—Friday. But, good heavens! You don't suggest …?"

"I'm not suggesting anything," said the other. "I am merely following the avenues of possibility. The fact is that I have already spoken to your secretary … do you mind if I talk to you outside? I have a strong objection to talking in a room."

Elliott went to the door.

"I hate wasting good wine, but I suppose you don't mind."

Elliott turned to see him looking admiringly at the ruby glass.

"Here's destruction to The Spurious Ringer!"

The host came back to the table and poured wine into his half-empty glass.

"That, Mr. Bliss, is a toast I can drink. At the same time, I'm not so sure that you're right."

He carried his argument into the night and past the waiting car. At the far end of the lawn were three high firs, and it was not until they reached these that Elliott stopped. He might not have stopped even then, but he stumbled over a coiled rope that lay on the grass.

"What the devil——" he checked himself and asked: "Now, what do you want to say about Leslie?"

"His brother was not ill—the telephone message which you passed on to him was a hoax. And a blundering hoax. Did you notice how worried he was at dinner?"

"I did notice," admitted Elliott, and the other laughed.

"He's worried because he found a small cottage on your estate that is supposedly empty, but which contains the motorcycle and side-car that the robber and murderer has been using. He put these two facts together—the fake phone message from London which took him to Germany in order that he might be incriminated, and the discovery of the cycle. Probably he has found out something else. I hadn't time to ask him."

"He told you this?"

"Yes, Joe, he told me this."

Joe Ellroyd (Forsythe Elliott was almost the toniest alias he had ever used) turned to fly, but a hand gripped his arm, and he felt curiously weak.

"You're doped, Joe—that last toast was my mercy! You went to Berlin and wrote a letter to Bliss. I found the blot of it—that was a coincidence. But I should have found you anyway. I think I warned you once before …"

    

In the house a telephone bell rang, and the secretary answered it.

"Mr. Bliss? But Mr. Bliss is here, in the grounds with Elliot …!"

Bliss, at the other end of the wire, spoke quickly.

"I had a wire telling me not to come tonight. 'Phone the local police and have them up as quickly as you can … got a gun? Take it, arm the servants and search the grounds."

He himself arrived an hour later, but neither Elliott nor his visitor was found. It was not until the dawn came and showed the still figure swinging on a branch of the highest fir that Elliott's absence was explained.

When they got him down they found a half-sheet of paper and a ten- pound note pinned to the dead man's sleeve.


Please give the bank-note to the public hangman and offer him my apologies for this invasion of his province.


There was no signature—but Inspector Bliss knew the writing.


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