Again The Ringer/VI

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V Again The Ringer
VI
written by Edgar Wallace
VII




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There was a man who had an office in Chancery Lane, who described himself as The Exsome Domestic Agency. His ostensible business was the placing of domestic servants in new situations, and he specialised in that type of servant who had reason for not applying to his or her late employer for the indispensable "character".

He did not advertise this fact, either in the newspapers or on his nice note-heading, but it was pretty well known that he would supply necessary credentials for a consideration.


This man (or woman) we know to have been employed, by Mr. Hackitt, who is now in India. Mr. Hackitt left England in a hurry, but in a letter to us he spoke in the highest possible terms of …


Mr. Exsome was very friendly with his clients. He would talk to them, drink with them, and sometimes learn important facts. Mr. Exsome had another Agency which called itself the Secret Service Bureau. In this capacity he was a private detective, and, as such, would call upon the late employers of his servant clients.

Was it true that Mrs. Z— had once entertained Mr. Y— in the absence of her husband? Was she aware that there was a blackmailer trying to make capital out of the knowledge? And would she leave everything in the hands of the Secret Service Bureau—at a fee to be settled later?

Mrs. Z—, in a panic would agree, and from time to time would pay the exorbitant fees of her "protector". In this way "Skid" Exsome made a very large income.

His intimate associates called him "Skid" because he had the knack of side-slipping most of the dangers that came his way.

He had a lovely house near Egham, a flat in Maida Vale, and ran the most expensive of cars. For these luxuries two people had paid with their lives (Mrs. Albany's suicide will be remembered), and hundreds had paid in cash. To build his own house he had broken many; to provide for the jewels with which his phlegmatic wife bedecked herself many jewels had been sold and many little properties mortgaged.

Mr. Exsome had never been convicted—he had "skidded" most effectively.

Mrs. Leadale Verriner once employed a butler who vanished one morning with the contents of her jewel-case. She was out hunting at the time, and returned to find her flimsy safe ripped open and property to the value of £3,000 gone. It was not until after she had communicated with the police that she remembered that there were other things in the case besides jewellery.

She did not go grey or haggard. She was a sane and wise as well as a pretty woman. She went to Scotland Yard and interviewed Bliss and told him all about Bobbie, who was now in India, and about her grumbling, difficult and jealous husband. She did not tell Mr. Bliss very much about the letters that Bobbie had written; but the superintendent was a man of the world and a good guesser.

When the butler was arrested he was interviewed at Scotland Yard. Most of the jewellery had been disposed of; the letters, he said glibly, he had destroyed. "Threw them into the fire," was his explanation.

"I hope you did, Cully," said Bliss, who knew the butler's record rather well. "You'll get five for this job; but if, when you come out, you put the black on this lady I'll undertake to get you another fourteen."

"If I drop dead this minute," said Cully virtuously, "I burnt them letters."

He did not drop dead that minute, proving beyond any doubt whatever that Providence gives a miss to the most tempting invitations.

Cully got a three, and, coming out, looked for another job. The Exsome Agency was pretty well known in Dartmoor, and to Mr. Exsome he went. That gentleman also knew Cully's record and treated him most kindly. In the course of a couple of lunches, and an evening spent at a music-hall and worse, Cully made mysterious references to letters.

The next day he brought them to the office and "Skid" read them very carefully. He checked up Mrs. Leadale Verriner's social and financial position, discovered that she had an income of her own of two thousand a year, and that her husband was even better off.

He bought the letters, after some bargaining, for £320, and they immediately came within the operations of the Secret Service Bureau …

Mrs. Verriner listened without comment to the apologetic "detective" who called upon her.

"No, it isn't your late butler," said Mr. Exsome. "I've taken a great deal of trouble to seek out that unfortunate man. He told me he threw them away, at a spot where the man who has approached me found them."

She was a little haggard now, possibly because Bobbie was married, and had written long, incoherent, rather foolish letters explaining his treachery and how everything was for the best.

Mr. Exsome waited for her to speak and then went on: "This man wishes to get to Australia and start life afresh——"

"It is a very common excuse, isn't it?" she asked coldly, and Mr. Exsome knew that she was going to be very difficult—the kind of woman who would go to the police if she was not handled rightly. He proceeded to handle her rightly.

He rose from his chair with a certain brusqueness.

"Well, madam, I've done all I possibly can, and there the matter ends so far as I am concerned. This blundering fool of a man may very well approach your husband, though why he should I don't know. But, as I say, these people are perfect fools——"

She signalled him to sit down again, and thenceforward she began to pay and pay, and one by one the letters were returned to her—all except the only one that counted.

On the loneliest comer of her pretty little Berkshire estate was a small cottage, rented by a French artist, who spent occasional week-ends at the place. He kept no servants, for the simple reason that his language could not be understood.

Mrs. Verriner had had one or two talks with this long-haired gentleman with the twirling black moustache, and in his florid, extravagant way, he had placed his demesne—which cost him a pound a week—at her disposal.

Soon after Mr. Exsome began to draw on his new source of revenue she took the Frenchman at his word—to his undisguised amazement.

"I have people coming to see me whom I don't wish to receive at the house," she said. "It would be very convenient, Monsieur Vaux, if I could tell them to come here. Naturally, I would arrange these meetings while you were away."

"Why, certainement!" smiled her tenant. "When I am in residence I will elevate to this little flagpole a small tricolour. Madam, I place in your hands the key of my little château!"

When the flagstaff was bare she strolled across to the cottage, unlocked the back door, and in the very plain sitting-room furnished with sketches, finished and unfinished, she listened to Mr. Exsome's newest explanation.

    

On a balmy spring evening Mr. Exsome was smoking a fragrant cigar in his Maida Vale flat. The letter came by hand, which puzzled him. It was typewritten and bore a typewritten signature:


I have discovered that you are a professional blackmailer. I do not like blackmailers, professional or amateur. Find another occupation. I shall not warn you again.


The typewritten signature was "The Ringer," and Mr. Exsome's jaw dropped, for just then the newspapers were full of the recent exploits of that criminal.

His complacent wife came in soon after.

"Why, Ernie, you're looking very pale. What's the matter?"' she asked. "Got your income tax assessment——"

She could be heavily jocular.

"Shut up!" he snarled.

Now, even he knew that it would take a big skid to avoid The Ringer; but he was on a good thing in Mrs. Leadale Verriner, had indeed only touched the edge of her resources. In a foolish moment of confidence, she had told him she would be very rich when her uncle died, and her uncle, as Mr. Exsome had already discovered, was nearer to eighty than seventy. This time he was out for big money, and it looked reasonable odds on his getting what he wished. As for The Ringer——

Going out that evening to the car that waited at the door, he saw a newspaper boy who carried an amazingly cheering poster: "The Ringer Located."

He bought a paper, his hand so trembling that he could hardly see the print; presently he found the item and learnt little except what he had discovered on the poster.

    

Once upon a time a certain unpleasant gentleman was consigned by The Ringer to a hot little town set in the wastes of the Arabian desert, for offences which need not be particularised. And there for three months he performed the office of hairdresser and head shingler to the women of one Ibn el Masjik.

One day he conceived the idea of setting forth the story of his wrongs in a long, long letter to the Foreign Minister of Great Britain, and, by bribery and corruption, persuaded a camel-driver named The Accursed (for some ancient sin of his forefathers) to carry the letter to a civilised place. He also wrote to his mother, but that letter was lost the night our accursed camel-driver got drunk in Benarim and the unveiled women with whom he was spending the evening went through his turban in the hope of finding money to pay them for the trouble .of throwing him out of the window.

The letter reached Whitehall and was sent across to Scotland Yard. Inspector Bliss was hardly stirred by the fate of Mr. Julian Graddle, but he was tremendously interested in certain sequences of cause and effect. Somebody had been indiscreet; a wronged father (who was also a seagoing captain and Mr. Graddle's custodian) had spoken highly of his neighbour who had engineered the kidnapping.

Bliss had something to go on. A police tender raided a house in Norbury. The Ringer escaped by the back door of a tiny garage as the tender halted at the corner of the street. He was in his respectable car with a heavy red moustache and a heavier pipe; he passed Bliss, and the superintendent did not give him more than a glance.

That evening every private police wire radiating from the instrument room at Scotland Yard carried the duplication of this message:


Very urgent: very urgent. Hold brown Buick two-seater T.D. 7418. Seen ten minutes ago Great West Road stop Staines report Slough report Maidenhead report Beading report stop Arrest and detain driver of car stop Dangerous carries firearms stop Report Bliss Scotland Yard.


"I think," said Inspector Mander, fingering his fair moustache, "that this is where we get him."

A buoyant soul was Inspector Mander. Failure was so normal a condition that a very recent and flagrant misfire of his, which would have crushed most men, had not more than momentarily depressed him.

Superintendent Bliss regarded him with an unfriendly eye.

"You will be interested to learn that the car has been discovered in Epping Forest, which is exactly opposite the direction to that in which he was seen moving. And if you want an afternoon's occupation you will probably work out the route he followed. I have already done so, but you are so much cleverer than I that you may be able to show me a point."

    

The next clue Scotland Yard received was from the Berkshire police. There was, apparently, living on the estate of Mrs. Leadale Verriner, a French artist who occupied his bungalow only during the week-end. In his absence, as he learnt when he returned rather earlier than usual, some unauthorised person had been living in the bungalow and had been sleeping in a room which the artist did not use. He left behind a small map on which two routes were traced in red ink one leading to the south of England and one—and this explained the disposition of the car—through Hounslow, Hampton, and by a circuitous route to North London.

"I'd better go down and see this Frenchman and have a look at the cottage," suggested Mander.

"Do you speak French?" asked his chief, coldly.

"No, sir, but I can make myself understood——"

"The question is whether he'll make himself understood. Leave him to the Berkshire police."

Mrs. Leadale Verriner got to know of the burglary from her tenant, and at first she was a little alarmed.

"I will tell you the truth, my dear madam. At first I said nothing because I thought it was your friend! You are a lady; I have placed my house at your disposition. What is more likely than that you should say: 'Very good, you shall sleep here tonight. I am sure my friend Mr. Vaux would not object.' And would I object, madam? Most assuredly I would not!

"But when I hear of this Ringer, I say, 'Ha, ha!' I do not fear this Ringer—I snap my fingers at him and say 'Pff!' I search the little room and what do I discover? The map. This, I think, is strange. And then I find a revolver—I do not tell the police about that! I think I will keep that revolver for myself, though I am not nervous truly! But it is a souvenir. And then I find you have been away in London, so your friend could not have been here, and I speak to the police."

She bit her lip thoughtfully. She was growing rather peaked; there were dark shadows under her eyes. She had been to London to negotiate a mortgage on a house she owned in Wiltshire. And her husband was growing suspicious—an easy process—of the real cause for her clandestine meetings with Mr. Exsome in the artist's cottage.

"You don't think he came—while my friend was here, that he was in the house all the time?"

He shook his head and smiled.

"He would not be so ungallant," he said, so archly that she stiffened.

    

Exsome was growing more and more requiring. The few hundreds that were to send the unknown owner of the letters to Australia had been succeeded by a demand for a thousand. Her husband's present suspicion was but a foretaste of the attitude he would adopt if the letters ever came to his notice. She had got to the point where she could not sleep; she was making her last desperate effort to satisfy the rapacity which Mr. Exsome interpreted in terms more suave.

Exsome waited patiently. He knew to the minute when to put on the screw and when to release it. Frantic letters were coming to him from his victim telling him the progress she was making in the rather protracted negotiations which were going on between herself and a lawyer. Early one afternoon he received a wire:


Meet cottage eight o'clock. Bring letters. Cash ready.


It was a large sum he had demanded—the ultimate squeeze. Thereafter any further demands would drive her to Scotland Yard, and Mr. Exsome knew just where to stop.

He got the letter out of his safe, put it in his pocket, and was on the point of going to the little club in Soho, where one can bet race by race, when an urgent telephone call came through for him.

    

There are more than eighteen thousand constables in the Metropolitan Police Force, and it would be very remarkable if there were not one or two crooks among them. One of these had been fired out of Scotland Yard for malpractice, but had kept in touch, through a friend, with a great deal that was happening at police headquarters, and he was a very useful servant to Mr. Exsome.

"It's Joe," said the voice, and when Joe spoke in a tone so urgent that his voice was almost unrecognisable, Mr. Exsome sat up and took notice.

"Anything wrong?" he asked quickly.

"I've just had it straight," said the speaker rapidly. "Bliss has got information against you. Somebody's raised a squeak—name of Lynn."

Mr. Exsome nodded. He remembered the Lynn case—the son of a wealthy member of the Stock Exchange who had got himself into very serious trouble and had, in consequence, enriched Mr. Exsome's treasury to an incredible amount.

"Is there a warrant?" he asked.

"There will be tomorrow. You'll be under observation from tonight."

"Thank you, Joe," said Mr. Exsome gratefully.

He was prepared for such a crisis. His bank was only a few doors from the flat in which he lived. He arrived there twenty minutes before closing time, and drew so substantially upon his balance that the manager had to be sent for to make delivery from the private vault.

He went back and saw his wife. She had a private account of her own and needed no provision.

"I shall be away for a few months," he said, and she accepted his hasty departure philosophically.

He read the telegram again. He would go by train to Windsor, taking his bicycle, would cross Windsor Great Park, and reach the cottage in the twilight. The bicycle would get him to Slough and the main Western line … there was a boat leaving Plymouth for a French port that night. By the time the warrant was issued he would be well away.

Everything worked according to plan. He rode at his leisure through the deserted park, and came to the cottage a quarter of an hour before the time of his appointment. There was nobody in sight on the road. He passed through the garden gate and made a circuit of the house. Near the hedge which separated the artist's little garden from the park somebody had been digging. A deep trench had been cut—he was only faintly interested in this.

He pushed at the back door—it was open. So the lady had arrived! He left his bicycle against the wall and entered, closing the door softly behind him. The door of the sitting-room was ajar, and a light was burning.

"Well, madam——" he began cheerfully as he entered.

"Shut the door," said the pleasant-faced man who was sitting at the other side of the table.

    

Mr. Exsome stopped and stared.

"You don't know me?" The stranger smiled. "You'll be interested to learn that you're one of the few people who have ever seen The Ringer without his make-up."

"The Ringer?" croaked Exsome, and his face went green.

"Don't run—I can shoot quicker than you can move."

His right hand was caressing a Browning.

"Won't you sit down?"

The blackmailer sank back into a chair. He was speechless, could only gape at Judgment.

"You've had a fair warning, I think?" He asked the question in a pleasant, conversational tone. "I've been on your trail for quite a long time, but you've been so clever that it's been a little difficult to identify you, and I've been rather busy myself lately," He smiled. "And then I happened to be staying here. I've got one or two little bolt-holes, you know—they're rather necessary.

"When Mrs. Verriner said she had a friend to meet I feared the worst; but, then, I'm not a censor of morals. Curiosity and interest induced me to stay in the house one day when you came—you never know what you may learn of value if you listen hard enough. Of course, I am so much of a gentleman that if it had been a vulgar love affair I shouldn't have listened at all. But it wasn't a vulgar love affair; it was a vulgar blackmailing affair. Did you bring the letter?"

Exsome nodded dumbly.

"Put it on the table. Throw on to the table also the money you drew from the bank. I phoned you this afternoon and got you on the run—oh yes! I know all about Joe; that was only natural, for I made a very thorough inquiry about you and your connections."

He waited a little while, and then said sharply: "The letter and the money!"

Exsome obeyed; and then he found his voice.

"Is that all you want?" he asked huskily.

The Ringer shook his head.

"I want something more. I've been looking up your cases. I don't suppose you ever think of them—they're not nice, are they? Do you remember that unfortunate lady who was found with her head in a gas oven? And the girl who walked into a pond and stayed there? And that elderly clergyman who went a little wrong in his head after you'd taken sixteen hundred pounds out of him? Now, take only those few cases."

Mr. Exsome remembered them rather well. The memory of them was very vivid at that moment. Perhaps for the first time he was seeing another point of view.

"That's all," said the Ringer, and rose. "Let's go outside."

    

The morning mail brought Mrs. Leadale Verriner two letters—one from the lawyer regretting his inability to arrange the mortgage; the other (and this was registered) a letter three years old, and she nearly fainted.

With it was a slip of paper which said:


I shall not trouble you again. All the money I received from you I have paid into your London account.


Bewildered, yet half-swooning with joy, she pushed the letter into the grate.

Ten minutes later her banker rang her. The money had arrived by post.

"Only your name written on a postcard was with the banknotes."

Her husband was in town. That afternoon she saw the tricolour flying and strolled across to the cottage. The Frenchman was in his garden, a long cheroot between his teeth, and he greeted her volubly.

"Here is your key, Monsieur Vaux," she said in her excellent French. And then, with a smile: "You were very busy yesterday afternoon. One of my gardeners told me he saw you digging frantically!"

She looked round the garden; there was no sign of the trench the gamekeeper had reported, but the earth had been turned and a new oval garden-bed had appeared amid the rank grass.

"There I shall plant forget-me-nots," said Mr. Vaux, "which shall remind of one small service which I was able to render you, madam."

She thought he was referring to the key. He was, in point of fact, thinking of something quite different.


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