Again The Ringer/VIII

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VII Again The Ringer
VIII
written by Edgar Wallace
IX




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"Bash" was really clever. He stood out from all other criminals in this respect. For the ranks of wrongdoers are made up of mental deficients—stupid men who invent nothing but lies. They are what the brilliant Mr. Coe calls in American "jail bugs". The English criminal, because he does not dope, becomes a pitiable and whining creature who demands charity, and the American criminal develops into a potential homicide.

Bash was a constant, but not, in the eyes of the law, an habitual criminal. He had never been charged because he had never been caught. He was an expert safe-breaker and worked alone.

He might have been forgiven, and, indeed, admired by scientific and disinterested students of criminology for his burglaries, for he had none of the nasty habits of part-time burglars, which means that he was never in the blue funk that they were. But Bash earned his name of infamy from a practice which neither police nor public ever forgave. He was never content to work with the knowledge that there was a watchman sleeping peaceably on the premises he was supposed to guard.

He would first seek out the unfortunate man, and, with a short and flexible life-preserver, beat him to insensibility. The same happened to several unhappy servants. He spared neither man nor woman. He had suspected of doing worse than bludgeon, but no complaint had been made public.

It was Inspector Mander who suggested that Bash was a name by which one Henry Arthur Milton might be identified. He developed his thesis with great skill but little logic, and Mr. Bliss, on whom the interesting theories were tried, listened with a face that betrayed none of the emotions he felt.

"He has got the same methods as The Ringer; in many ways he has the same identity—nobody knows him——"

"He may be Count Pujoski," suggested Bliss.

"Who is he?" asked Mander, interested.

"I don't know—nobody knows. There isn't such a person," said Bliss calmly. "If the fact that you don't know two people proves that you know one means anything, how much easier it is not to know three!"

Mander pondered this, having no sense of humour.

"I don't see how——" he began.

"Get on with your funny story," said Bliss.

But Mr. Mander had run short of arguments.

"I often wonder why you don't write a pantomime" (Bliss could be foully offensive) "or a children's play! The Ringer! Good God!" All his contempt was comprehended in that pious ejaculation.

"The only connection I see," said Bliss, "is the possible connection between The Ringer and our bashing friend. The newspapers have got hold of the story of what happened to Colonel Milden's parlourmaid, and that is the sort of thing that will make The Ringer see red. If he isn't too busy putting the world right in other directions and he gives his mind to Mr. Bash, we shall be saved a lot of trouble."

Bliss had discovered by painful experience that The Ringer had extraordinary sources of information; it was pretty certain that he was, in some role or other, in the closest touch with the great underworld of London. It was equally certain that none of the men he employed had the least idea of his identity.

There was a reward offered for his capture, and the average criminal would sell his own brother at a price—especially if he were certain that no kick was coming from the associates of the man betrayed.

Who was Bash? At least a dozen men in London must know—the receivers who fenced his stolen property, close confidants who had at some time or other worked with him. But these would never tell.

There were times when Superintendent Bliss sighed for the good old days of the rack and the thumb-screw. What they would not squeak to the police, however, they might very well tell to a "sure-man".

    

In Penbury Road, Hampstead, was a small detached house with a tiny garden forecourt and a narrow strip of garden behind. Here dwelt Mr. Sanford Hickler, a man of thirty-five, athletic, sandy-haired, slightly bald. He was both arty and crafty, and his house in Hampstead was full of arty and crafty objects—ancient dower chests that might have dated back to the Middle Ages and certainly came from the Midlands.

Mr. Hickler had greeny wallpaper and yellowy candlesticks, and his study was littered with junk that he called "pieces". Some of these pieces he had picked up in Italy, and some he had picked up in Greece; most of them would hardly be picked up at all. And there were a few maternity homes for the lepidoptera family hanging on the wall, which were distinguished by the name of tapestry.

Mr. Hickler's hobby was literature. He was a graduate of a famous university, and he knew literature to be something that was no longer manufactured. He studied literature as one studies a dead language or the ruins of Ur. It did not belong to to-day. With the passing of the years his mind had broadened. He had come to the place where the works of the late Mr. Anthony Trollope were literature.

He was sitting one evening reading the sonnets of Shakespeare when there was a knock at the door, and his maid, who was also his cook, came in. She had just put on the brown uniform and the coffee-coloured cap and apron which were the visible evidence of her transition.

"A Mrs. Something or other to see you, sir. She came in a car."

Mr. Hickler put down his sonnets. "Mrs. Something or other came in a car? What does she want?"

"I don't know, sir—she said it's about books."

"Show her into the drawing-room," he said. A great many boring people went to see Mr. Hickler about books. He had a local reputation as a poetaster.

"Very good."

He put a slip of paper to mark his place in the volume he had been reading, and went up the short, narrow passage to the tiny room, more arty and crafty than any of the others, since it was furnished with one settle, a spinet, two Medici prints, and a rush carpet. And there he saw a figure that was out of all harmony with the æsthetic surroundings.

The lady was big, squat, and old-fashioned; a more revolting figure he never hoped to see. Her hair was obviously dyed; a large and fashionable hat sat at a large and unfashionable angle over her spurious locks. Her face was powdered a dead white, and she exhaled a perfume that made Mr. Hickler shudder.

The modishness of her headgear was discounted somewhat by the length of her skirt and the antiquity of her fur coat.

"No, thank you, I won't sit down," she said in a shrill voice. "You're Mr. Hickler? Will you see this for me, please?"

He took the book she offered to him in her large, gloved hand, and saw at a glance that it was a veritable treasure—the very rare Commentaries of Messer Aglapino, the Venetian. Turning the leaves reverently, he peered down at the print, for the lights in his house were so shaded that it hardly seemed worth while to have lights at all.

"Yes, madam, this is a very rare book—probably worth three or four hundred pounds. I envy you our possession."

He handed the book back with a courteous little bow.

"Mrs.——?"

"Mrs. Hubert Verity. You probably know our family. They are Shropshire people. I only wish my nephew was Shropshire in spirit as well as in birth."

She raised her black eyebrows and closed her eyes. Evidently her nephew was not especially popular.

"Won't you sit down?" he asked.

She shook her head.

"I prefer to stand."

Her high-pitched voice was very painful to the sensitive ears of Mr. Hickler.

"I don't know why I should trouble you with my affairs; but I never could stand a miser, and Gordon is a miser. My dear husband was thoroughly deceived by him or he would never have left him thirty thousand pounds, which was quite as much as, if not more than, he left me.

"I've had a lot of misfortune owing to these terrible Stock Exchange people who tell you shares are going up when they're really going down—and well they know it! And when I went to my nephew today to ask him for a trifling loan—I must put The Cedars in a state of repair, with dear Alfred coming back from South Africa in the spring—he showed me his pass-book!

"I could have laughed if I wasn't so enraged. I said to him: 'My dear boy, do you imagine that I am a fool? Do you think I don't know you well enough to know that you keep your money fluid, like the miser that you are!' It was a dreadful thing to call one's own nephew, but Gordon Stourven deserves every word. I could tell the Income Tax Commissioners a few things about Gordon."

She tossed her grotesque head and simpered meaningly. And then she looked at the book.

"Three hundred pounds … and I want the money very badly. I suppose you wouldn't like to buy it?"

The book was worth five hundred at least, but Mr. Hickler hesitated. His inclination was to buy; his sense of discretion told him to temporise.

"I am not in a position now to buy the book," he said, "but if you would give me the first offer, perhaps I could take your name and address."

She gave the name of her house in Kensington.

"I shall be out of town until next Wednesday week. I go to Paris for my dresses."

She said this importantly, and Mr. Hickler did not laugh.

"I like you: you're businesslike. If Gordon Stourven had half your straightforwardness life would be ever so much more enjoyable. That man is so mean that he will not have a telephone in his office. I said to him: 'My dear boy, do you imagine I'm coming through this horrible city to Bucklersbury and climbing to the top floor of a wretched office building just to see you?' In fact, I offered to pay for the telephone myself …"

    

Mr. Hickler listened, apparently without interest; and later accompanied the lady as she waddled to her car. She insisted upon leaving the book behind, and for this concession he was grateful.

He waited till the car had disappeared and then he went back to the house, closed the door, and took the volume into his sitting-room, turning the pages idly. Somebody had been looking through it that very day: there was a bookmark—a credit slip from the Guaranty Trust, of that day's date, and it showed the exchange of a draft for 180,000 dollars into English currency.

Mr. Hickler turned the slip over and over. The book had been in the possession of Mr. Gordon Stourven; and here was Mr. Gordon Stourven's name scribbled in pencil on the top of the slip. A man who dabbled in cash finance, obviously, and a wealthy man. It was all very interesting, all very foreign to the art and the craft and the æstheticism in which Mr. Hickler lived his normal life.

The next day business took him to the City, and he drove down in the cheap little car that he permitted himself—the car that has its hundred-thousand duplicates up and down the land. There were two blocks of offices in Bucklersbury, but the first he entered was the one he sought.

Mr. Gordon Stourven's name was painted in black on one of the many opalescent slides that filled an indicator. He lived on the fifth floor and his number was 979. Mr. Hickler took the elevator, toiled down the long corridor, and after a while stopped before a door on the glass panel of which was "Gordon Stourven", and, in smaller characters at the bottom left-hand corner:


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Since the panel also announced that this was the general office, he turned the handle and stepped in.

An L-shaped counter formed a sort of lobby, in which he waited until his tapping on its surface brought a bespectacled and unprepossessing young lady.

"Mr. Stourven's out," she said promptly and hoarsely. "He's gone to lunch with his aunt."

Mr. Hickler smiled faintly.

"I had better wait and see him," he said, and held up a little parcel. "This book is the property of the lady and I wish to return it."

She looked at him for a long time before she decided to lift the flap of the counter and invite him across the linoleum-covered floor to a small inner office. She pulled a chair from the wall.

"You'd better sit down," she said jerkily. "I don't know whether I'm doing right—I've only been at this place for two days. The young lady before me got sacked for pinching—I mean stealing—I mean taking a penny-halfpenny stamp. You wouldn't think anybody would be so mean, would you? But she was—he told me himself! And he's worth thousands. I'm going myself today."

"I'm sorry to hear that," smiled Mr. Hickler.

"I'm only staying to oblige him," explained the bespectacled girl. "He mislaid his keys this morning and the way he went on to me about it was a positive disgrace. Why should I pinch anything out of his old safe?"

    

Hickler did not encourage conversation. He very badly wished to be left alone. Presently his desire was gratified.

There was the safe, embedded in the wall. Curious, he mused, what faith even intelligent people have in five sides of masonry! It was an American safe that grew unfashionable, except among the burglaring classes, twenty years before. He examined it thoughtfully. Two holes drilled, one below and one above the lock … even that wasn't necessary. A three-way key adjustment would open that in a quarter of an hour.

He stepped to the door softly and looked through a glass-panelled circle in the opaque glass. The girl was at her desk, writing laboriously, her mouth moving up and down with every figure she wrote. He put his hand in his hip pocket and took out his little cosh—a leather-plaited life-preserver.

The girl could be dealt with very expeditiously; but the danger was too great. Stourven might return at any moment. He took another and a closer scrutiny of the safe and smiled. Then he went to the desk and examined the memoranda and the papers.

The only thing that really interested him was the carbon sheet of a type-written letter—and a letter so badly typewritten that he guessed it was the work of the disgruntled young lady with spectacles. It was addressed to a Broad Street Trust Company and bore that day's date.


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Mr. Hickler replaced the letter carefully where he had found it. He had not removed his gloves since he left his house. It was a peculiarity of Mr. Hickler that he never removed his gloves except in his own home. People thought it was because he had been nicely brought up, but that was not the reason.

He went into the outer office, still carrying the book.

"By the way, I don't think you should have invited me into Mr. Stourven's private office. If I were you, I shouldn't say you took me there." He smiled benignantly at her.

Yes, he was glad he didn't have to tackle this bespectacled imbecile. She looked like one of those thin-skulled people with whom one might easily have an accident; and she was wiry and vital—the sort of shrimp who, if one didn't get her at the first crack, would scream and raise hell.

On his way downstairs he stopped to inquire at the janitor's office whether there were any offices to let and what were the services. The janitor told him.

"By the way, what time do the cleaners start their operations?" he asked.

This was rather an important matter. The hours the office cleaners arrived and left very often determined an operation.

They came on at midnight, explained the porter. So many of the offices were let to stockbrokers, who in the busy season worked very late. There were two entrances to the building; the other was an automatic lift, which tenants could operate themselves, the general elevator going out of action at 9 p.m.

All this Mr. Hickler learned, and more. There were two offices to let in the basement. The porter very kindly took him down and flattered them to their face.

"No, sir, I go off at six, but we've got a night man on duty. We have to do that because we've a great deal of property and money in this building. One of our tenants, Mr. Stourven, was asking me that very question this morning. He's only been here a fortnight himself—he came from somewhere down in Moorgate. A very nervous gentleman he is too." The porter smiled at the recollection.

Mr. Hickler, who was paying the closest attention to the accommodation of the offices, explained that he thought of founding a small literary society in the City for clerks who, in the hours so crudely devoted to the mastication of beef-steak pudding, might enrich their souls with an acquaintance with the soufflés of Keats.

The porter thought it was a very good idea. He did not know who Keats was, but had a dim notion that he was the gentleman who had found a method of destroying beetles and other noxious friends of the pestologist.

    

The little car went back to Hampstead at a slow rate, was garaged in the tiny shed at the end of the garden before Mr. Hickler went into his house, stripped his gloves and gave his mind to the evening's occupation.

He was clever, very clever, because he devoted thought to his trade. He applied to a "transaction" such as tonight's the same minute care, the same thought, the same close analysis as he gave to a disputed and obscure line of one of the earlier English poets.

Nobody knew very much about him; nobody guessed why he had called his tiny cottage "The Plume of Feathers". Even the bronze ornament above the knocker on his door, representing, as it did, such a feathery plume, did not explain his eccentricity.

Yet the name of his house was one of the most careless mistakes he ever committed, and if there had been the remotest suspicion attached to him, if Scotland Yard had been even aware of his existence, the Plume of Feathers would have been illuminating—for it is the name of an inn immediately facing Dartmoor Prison, an inn towards which Mr. Hickler had often cast wistful eyes on his way to the prison fields.

He was not Mr. Hickler then; he was just plain James Connor, doing seven years' penal servitude for robbery with assault, to which sentence had been added a flogging, which he never forgot.

He was prison librarian for some time; cultivated his fine taste in belles lettres with the grey-backed volumes of the prison library. Only two men in London knew of his connection with that dreadful period of inaction. One of them, as Bliss rightly surmised, was the greatest of the fences—great because he had never betrayed a client and had never been arrested by the police.

Mr. Hickler expected a telephone call concerning the book, but it did not come. At half-past seven he put a small suitcase and a rough, heavy overcoat in the back of his car, and drove by way of Holloway to the Epping Forest road. Here, in seclusion, he made a rapid change of clothes; drove back to Whitechapel, where he garaged the car, and made his way to Bucklersbury on foot.

The only evidence that the activity of the human hive was slackening was discoverable in the fact that one of the two doors which closed each entrance was already shut. He awaited his opportunity, stepped briskly into the deserted passage, found the automatic lift, and went up to the top floor. The corridor here was, except for one lamp, in darkness. There was no light in any of the offices, and that was a great relief.

Mr. Stourven's outer door was, of course, locked, but only for about three minutes. By that time Mr. Hickler was inside and had shot the bolt. He did not attempt to put on the lights, preferring the use of his own hand-lamp.

Both the outer office and the inner office were empty. He made a quick examination of the cupboards, tried the windows—he was free from all possibility of interruption.

Setting his lamp on the floor, he took the remainder of his tools from his pocket and set to work on the safe—the easiest thing he had ever attempted. In twenty-five minutes the key he had inserted some thirty times gripped the wards of the lock. It went back with a snap. He turned the brass handle and pulled open the heavy door of the safe.

He was on his knees, peering into the interior. He had scarcely time to realise that the safe was empty except for thousands of fragments of thin glass before he fell forward, striking his head on the edge of the safe.

    

Bliss had a letter. It was delivered by a district messenger, and he knew it was from The Ringer before he opened it. It came to him at his private residence.


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There was no signature but a postscript.


Or why not send Mander without a gas mask?


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