Again The Ringer/X

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IX Again The Ringer
X
written by Edgar Wallace
XI




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There was a broad streak of altruism in the composition of Henry Arthur Milton, whose other name was The Ringer. There was, perhaps, as big a streak of sheer impishness. At Scotland Yard they banked on his vanity as being the most likely cause to bring him to ruin, and they pointed out how often he had shown his instant readiness to resent some slight to himself. But Inspector Bliss, who had made a study of the man, could not be prevailed upon to endorse this view.

"He chooses the jobs where his name has been used in vain because they give him a personal interest," he said; "but the personal interest is subsidiary."

It was never quite clear whether the Travelling Circus offended through the careless talk of "Doc" Morane or whether there was an unknown and more vital reason for the events at Arcy-sur-Rhône.

Now, as a rule, systematic breakers of the law are so busy with their own affairs that they do not bother their heads about the operation, much less speak slightingly of their own kind. But the Travelling Circus were kings in their sphere, and were superior to the rules which govern lesser crooks. There were three of them: Lijah Hollander, Grab Sitford, and Lee Morane. Li was little and old, a wizened man. Grab was tall and hearty, a bluff, white-haired man, who was, according to his own account, a farmer from Alberta. "Doc" Morane was a tough looker, broad and unprepossessing, ill-mannered. Whether he had ever been anything but a doctor of cards nobody knew or cared.

The Doc was the leader of the gang and had a definite part to play. Little Li Hollander supplied one gentle element, Grab the other; it was the Doc who got rough at the first suggestion of a victim that the game was not straight. Mr. Bliss had expressed the view before that The Ringer controlled the best intelligence department in Europe; apparently he should have included the Western Ocean.

    

The s.s. Romantic was sixteen hours from Southampton and the smoke-room was almost empty, for the hour was midnight and wise passengers had gone early to bed, knowing that they would be awakened at dawn by the donkey engines hoisting passengers' baggage into the tender at Cherbourg. A few of the unwise had spent the evening playing poker, and among these was a newspaper man who had been to New York to study the methods of Transatlantic criminals—he was the crime reporter of an important London newspaper. He was a loser of forty pounds before he realised exactly what he was up against, and then he sat out and watched. When the last flushed victim had gone to bed, he had a few words to say to the terrifying Doc and his pained associates.

"Forty pounds, and you can give it back to-night. I don't mind paying for my experience, but I hate paying in money."

"See here,"—began the Doc overpoweringly.

"I'm seeing here all right," said the imperturbable scribe: "that's been my occupation all the evening. I saw you palm four decks and it was cleverly done. Now do you mind doing a bit of see—here? There's a Yard man comes on board at daybreak. I'm the crime reporter of the Megaphone, and I can give you more trouble than a menagerie of performing fleas. Forty hard-earned pounds—thanks."

The Doc passed the notes across and, dropping for the moment his rôle of bully-in-chief, ordered the drinks.

"You've got a wrong idea about us, but we bear no malice," he said when the drinks came. "The way you were going on I thought you might be that Ringer guy!" he chuckled amiably. "Listen—if The Ringer worked in the State of New York he'd have been framed years ago. He tried to put a bluff on me once, but I called him. That's a fact—am I right, Grab?"

Grab nodded.

"Surely," he said.

The report of this conversation was the only evidence Bliss had that there was any old grudge between The Ringer and the Circus. Very naturally he could not know of the subsequent conversation on the Col de Midi.

"No, I never met him—we had a sort of 'phone talk. I was staying at the Astoria in London," the Doc went on, his dead-looking face puckered in a smile. "If I'd met him I don't think there would have been any doubt about what'd have happened—eh, Grab?"

The white-haired Grab agreed. He was a living confirmation of all that the Doc asserted, guessed, believed, or theorised.

That was about the whole of the conversation. The Circus left the boat at Cherbourg and travelled south, for this was the season when rich Englishmen leave their native land and go forth in search of the sun. Doc and his friends lingered awhile in Paris, then took separate trains for Nice. Here they stayed in different hotels, packed up a parcel of money which had once been the exclusive property of a bloated Brazilian, missed Monte Carlo—Monte does not countenance competition—and went, by way of Cannes and San Remo, to Milan. Milan drew blank, but there are four easy routes into Switzerland.

"There's a new place up the Rhône Valley full of money," said Doc. "They threw up two new hotels last fall, and they've opened a new bob run that's dangerous to life and limb. The Anglo-Saxon race are sleeping on billiard tables and parking their cash in their pockets."

       

A week later …

"Mr. Pilking" came into the Hotel Ristol, stamping his boots to rid them of the snow, for a blizzard was sweeping down the Rhône Valley and the one street of the little village of Arcy-sur-Rhone was a white chasm through which even the sleighs came with difficulty.

He was a big, florid man, red-faced, white-haired, and he wore a ski-ing suit of blue water-proofed cloth. He had left his skis leaning against the porch of the hotel, but he still carried his long ash sticks.

Mr. Pilking stopped at the desk of the concierge to collect his post, and clumped through the wide lounge to his room. His post was not a heavy one; the guests at the hotel knew him as a business man with large Midland and Northern interests; not even on his holidays could he spare himself, he often said—but his post was very light.

Arcy-sur-Rhône is not a fashionable winter resort. It lies on a shelf of rock, a few thousand feet above the Rhône Valley, and is not sufficiently high to ensure snow, but at an elevation which appeals to people whose hearts are affected by higher altitudes. There is generally a big and select party at the Ristol in January, for Arcy has qualities which not even St. Moritz can rival. The view across the Lake of Geneva is superb, the hotel is so comfortable that its high charges are tolerable, and it can add to its attractions the fact that in all its history it had never consciously harboured an undesirable in the more serious sense of the word. The ski-ing was good, the bob run one of the best in Switzerland; it enjoyed more than its share of snow, and the hotel notice-boards were never disfigured with that hateful notice Template:Tooltip.

       

As to whether or not Mr. Sam Welks was altogether desirable, there were several opinions. He was a stoutish man who wore plus-fours all day, never dressed for dinner, talked loudly on all occasions, and was oracular to an offensive degree. Mr. Pilking saw him out of the corner of his eye as he passed. He was standing with his back to a pillar, his waving hands glittering in the light of the electroliers—for Mr. Welks wore diamond rings without shame.

"… Gimme London! You can say what you like about scenery and that sort of muck, but where's a better scene than the Embankment on a spring day, eh? You can 'ave your Parises an' Berlins an' Viennas; you can 'ave Venice an' Rome. Take it from me, London's got 'em skinned to death, as the Yankees say. An' New York …! Why, I've made more money in London in a week than some of them so-called millionaires have made in a month o' Sundays! There's more money to be made in dear old London …"

He always talked about money. The dark-haired head waiter, who spoke all languages, used to listen and smile quietly to himself, for he knew London as well as any man. The head waiter was new to Arcy-sur-Rhône; he had only been a week in the place, but he knew every guest in the hotel. He had arrived the same day as Mr. Pilking and his two friends who were waiting for him in his ornate sitting-room.

Doc Morane looked up as Grab came clumping into the room.

"Look at Grab!" he said admiringly. "Gee! I've got to go play that she-ing game—I was a whale at it when I was a kid. Maybe, I'll take Sam out and give him a lesson!"

Old Li Hollander, nodding over an out-of-date visitors' list, woke up and poured himself a glass of ice water.

"We're dining with that Sam Welks man tonight, Grab," he said. "I roped him into a game of bowls after lunch, and he wanted to bet a hundred dollars a game. I could have beaten him fifty, but thought I'd give him a sweetener. That man's clever!"

The Doc was helping himself to whisky.

"I like a clever guy," he said, "but I don't like head waiters who remind me of somebody I've seen before."

Grab looked at his leader sharply.

"All head waiters look that way," he said. "Maybe we've seen him somewhere. These birds travel from hotel to hotel according to the season. Do you remember that guy in Seattle, Doc, the feller you had a fight with when you were running around with Louise Poudalski?"

       

The Doc made a little face. The one person in the world he never wished to be reminded about was Louise Poudalski, and if there was a memory in that episode which grated on him, it was the night in a little Seattle hotel when a German floor waiter had intervened to save Louise from the chastisement which, by the Doc's code—even his drunken code, for he was considerably pickled on that occasion—she deserved. He often used to wonder what had happened to Louise. He had heard about her years ago when he was in New York—she was keeping house for a Chinaman in New Jersey, or was it New Orleans?

"Louise," said Li reminiscently, "was one of the prettiest girls——"

"Shut up about Louise," snarled the Doc. "Are we sweetening this Welks man tonight or are we giving him the axe?"

Grab was for sweetening; but then, in matters of strategy, Grab was always wrong. Li thought that Sam Welks was a "oncer".

"These clever fellows always are. Let 'em win, and they stuff the money into their wallet and tell you they know just when to stop, and that the time to give up playing is when you are on the right side. Soak him tonight and maybe you'll get him tomorrow. The right time to watch a weasel is the first time."

Doc Morane agreed, and Li, dusting the cigar ash from his waistcoat and brushing his thin locks, went down in search of the sacrifice.

Mr. Welks was talking. There seldom was a moment when he was not talking; and Li saw, hovering in the background, the new head waiter, a tall, dark man with a heavy black moustache.

Mr. Welks was in a truculent mood. The manager of the hotel, in the politest possible terms and with infinite tact, had suggested that it would be a graceful compliment to the other guests if he conformed to the ridiculous habit of dressing for dinner.

"Swank!" Mr. Welks was saying to his small and youthful audience—the young people of the hotel got quite a lot of amusement out of studying Mr. Welks at first hand in preparation for giving lifelike imitations of him after supper.

"It's what the Socialists call being class-conscious. It's the only thing I have ever agreed with the Socialists about. I have lived in Leytonstone for twenty-three years man and boy, and I have never dressed for dinner expect when I have been going out to swell parties—why should I here, when I am out on an 'oliday? It's preposterous! I pay twenty shillings in the pound wherever I go. I am paying seventy-five francs a day for my soot, and if I can't dress as I like I'll find another hotel. I told this manager—I'm John Blunt. What's the idea of it? Why should I get myself up like a blooming waiter?"

Mr. Hollander thought he saw a faint smile on the face of the head waiter, though apparently he was not listening to the conversation.

"That's my view entirely," said Li. "If I want to dress I dress; if I don't want to dress, I don't dress."

"Exactly," said Mr. Welks, kindling towards his supporter.

       

Li took him by the arm and led him to the bar.

"If there's going to be any fuss I'm with you," he said. "And that gentleman, Mr. Pilking, a very nice man indeed, although an American" (Li was born in Cincinatti) "he holds the same opinion."

They drank together, and Mr. Welks gratefully accepted the invitation, extemporised on the spur of the moment, that he should dine in Mr. Pilking's private room that night.

The Doc and Pilking strolled providentially into the bar to confirm this arrangement, and for an hour the conversation was mainly about Mr. Welks, his building and contractor's business, the money he made during the war, the terrible things that happened to competitors who did not profit by Mr. Welks's example, his distaste of all snobbery and swank, his clever controversies with the Board of Trade, and such other subjects as were, to Mr. Welks, of national interest.

It was after he had drifted off that a curious thing happened which was a little disquieting. The three shared in common a sitting-room, out of which opened on the one side Grab's bedroom and on the other side the Doc's. Li had his bedroom a little farther removed. The Doc went up to his room to make a few necessary preparations for the dinner and the little game which was to follow. He pushed down the lever handle of the sitting-room door, but it did not yield, and at that moment he heard the sound of a chair being overturned. There should have been a light in the sitting- room, but when he stooped to look through the keyhole there was complete darkness.

He went along to the door of his own bedroom and tried that. This, too, was bolted on the inside. The Doc retraced his footsteps to Pilking's room. Here he had better luck. The door was unfastened, and he entered, switching on the light. The door communicating between the bedroom and the sitting-room was wide open. He went in, turned the switch, and walked to the door, which, to his surprise, he found unbolted. He passed through the door leading to his own bedroom, and here he had a similar experience, the door opening readily.

There was no sign of an intruder, no evidence that anything had been disturbed. If the chair had been overturned it had been set on its feet again. He opened the door of the long cupboard, which might conceal an intruder, but, save for his clothes suspended on hangers, it was empty.

Returning through the sitting-room, he went out into the corridor. As he did so he saw a man come, apparently from the stairs, stand for a moment as if in doubt, and then, catching sight of the Doc, turn swiftly and disappear—not, however, before Doc Morane had recognised the dark-haired head waiter.

       

Very thoughtfully he returned to his apartment and made another search. Nothing, so far as he could see, had been disturbed. He locked the doors and opened a suitcase which stood on a small pedestal. There must have been over a hundred packs of cards in that case, each fastened with a rubber band and each representing half an hour's intensive arrangement. These had no appearance of having been disturbed. He relocked the grip and went slowly back to his companions, and at the earliest opportunity told them what had happened.

"Somebody was in the room," he said, "and I pretty well know who that somebody was."

Elijah was obviously worried.

"Maybe that waiter is an hotel 'tec," he said. "Up at St. Moritz the Federal people sent a couple of 'tecs into one of the hotels and pinched the Mosser crowd."

Mr. Sam Welks did not go to his host's room that night unprepared for the little game that was to follow. It was Li who had suggested it. "Mr. Pilking was not particularly keen," he said. He didn't like playing for money; one wasn't sure if the people who lost could really afford to lose.

The talkative Sam had bridled at the suggestion—this was over cocktails before dinner.

"Speakin' for meself," he said, "I don't worry about people losin'. If they can't afford to lose they shouldn't play. That foreign-lookin' waiter feller had the nerve to tell me not to play cards with strangers. I told him to mind his own business. I never heard such cheek in my life! If anybody can catch me, good luck to 'em! But they couldn't. I've met some of the cleverest crooks in London, an' they've all had a cut at me."

He chuckled at the thought.

"Bless your life! When a man's knocked about in the world as I have it takes a clever feller to best him. See what I mean? It's an instinct with me, knowin' the wrong 'uns. I remember once when I was stayin' at Margate …"

They let him talk, but each of the three was thinking furiously. It was Doc Morane who put their thoughts into words.

"That waiter was frisking the apartment," he said, "and that means no good to anybody. We'll skin this rabbit and get away tomorrow if he looks like squealing——"

"He'll not squeal," said the saintly Li, who was the psychologist of the party. "He wouldn't admit he'd been had. The most he'll do is to ask for a No. 2 séance, but I'm all for getting while the road's good. This is going to be one large killing!"

       

The dinner in the little salon was a great success. Grab, who was something of a gourmet, had ordered it with every care.

Under the mellowing influence of '15 Steinberger Cabinet, Mr. Welks grew expansive. He wore his noisiest plus-fours, and, as a further gesture of defiance against the conventions, a soft-collared shirt of purple silk.

"You've got to take me as I am," he said, "as other people have done before. I don't put on side and I don't expect other people to. My 'ome in Leytonstone is Liberty 'All-I don't ask people who their fathers was—were. I could have been a knight if I'd wanted to be, but that kind of thing doesn't appeal to me. Titles—bah!"

The time came when the dinner table was wheeled out into the corridor and a green-covered table was brought into the centre of the room. Again Mr. Pilking made his conventional protest.

"I don't like playing for money. Although I know you two gentlemen, I don't know Mr. Welks, and I've always made a rule never to play with strangers."

He said this probably a hundred times a year, and it never failed to provoke the marked victim.

"Look here, mister," said Welks hotly, "if my money's not good enough for you, you needn't play! If it comes to that, I don't know you. Money talks—hear mine!"

He thrust his hands into his pockets and took out a thick roll of Swiss bills, and from a pocket cunningly placed on the inside of his plus- fours, a thicker wad of Bank of England notes.

"The Swiss are milles-which means a thousand-an' these good old English notes are for a hundred. Now let's see yours!"

With a perfect assumption of hesitancy, Mr. Puking produced a goodly pile and his companions followed suit.

For the first quarter of an hour the luck went in the direction of Mr. Welks-which was the usual method of the Travelling Circus.

Unseen by any. Doc Morane "palmed" a new pack. The substitution was made all the easier by the fact that Welks was separating the larger from the smaller notes which represented his inconsiderable winnings.

"Cut," said the Doc, offering the pack.

"Run 'em," replied Mr. Welks, professionally.

       

Something went wrong with the hand. Welks should have held four queens and the Doc four kings. These latter appeared in Doc Morane's hand all right, and the betting began.

Li threw in his hand when the bidding reached six hundred pounds. Grab retired at eight hundred. The Doc brought the bidding to a thousand.

"And two hundred," said Mr. Welks recklessly.

Doc Morane made a rapid calculation. This man was good for a few thousands if he was gentled.

"I'll see you," he said, and nearly collapsed when the triumphant Mr. Welks laid down four aces.

Li took the pack from the table, and with a lightning movement dropped it to his lap as he slipped a new pack into its place. Li was the cleverest of all broad-men at this trick.

"Run 'em," said the Doc as the pack was offered to him.

This time there could be no mistake. The four knaves came to him, and he knew by Li's nod and Grab's yawn that they each held one ace, king and queen. Mr. Welks drew two cards-which was exactly the number he should have drawn. The Doc knew that he now held two kings and three tens.

They bid up to eight hundred, which was more than any sane man would bet on a "full house."

"I'll see you," growled Doc Morane.

Mr. Welks laid down a small straight flush.

"You'll have to take a cheque," said the Doc when he recovered.

"I'll take the cash you've got and a cheque for the rest," said Welks. He was a picture of fatuous joy. "I'm a business man, old boy, but I know something about poker, eh?"

That ended the party; they were too clever not to accept his invitation to the bar for a celebration. The three went upstairs together and Doc Morane locked the salon door.

"Somebody was in here before dinner, planting new decks of cards," he said. "Did you lamp that head waiter? I'll fix that bird!"

"What are we going to do?" asked Li fretfully. "Do we get or stay?"

"We're not leaving till we get that money and more," said Grab savagely. "What do you say, Doc?"

Doc Morane nodded. "Me an' Welks are like brothers," he said, significantly. "We're going she-ing on the Midi slopes to-morrow morning, and I'll hook him for tonight. You fellows stay home and fix those cards."

       

A little railway carried a small and cold party to the ski-ing fields early the next morning. Because the upper stretches of the line were snowed under the party descended on the Col de Midi, which is a razor-backed ridge which mounts steeply up to the precipice face of the Midi Massif.

Mr. Welks was no mean exponent of the art, and led his companion up the snowy slopes. And all the time he sang loudly and untunefully the vulgar song of the moment.

The head waiter had not been in the train. Once or twice the Doc looked round to make sure. He saw a Swiss guide signalling frantically, but nobody seemed coming their way, and when Mr. Welks pulled up after an hour's laborious climb they were alone.

"You're not a good skier, my friend," he said pleasantly.

The Doc wiped his perspiring forehead and growled something.

"A little farther," said Mr. Welks, and went on.

The Doc noticed that he went tenderly along the crest of a snowy cornice, but did not understand why until he had passed and, looking back, saw that they had passed a snowy bridge over a deep chasm.

"Dangerous, eh?" Mr. Welks smiled gleefully. "You can take off your skis."

"Why?" asked the Doc, frowning.

"Because I ask you."

The Doc took off his skis: he invariably did what he was told to when the teller covered him with a Browning pistol.

Mr. Welks lifted the skis and threw them into the chasm.

"On the other side of this ridge is Italy," he said pleasantly. "That is where I am going. What will happen to you I don't know. It is impossible to walk back. Perhaps the head waiter—who is the best detective in Switzerland—will rescue you. He was going to arrest you, anyway. By the way, it was I who planted the cards last night."

"Who are you?" The Doc's white face was whiter yet.

Mr. Welks smiled.

"My wife had a little friend in Seattle-one Louise Poudalski. Remember her?"

Before Doc Morane could reply, The Ringer was flying down the Italian slope, his skis raising snow like steam….


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