Again The Ringer/XI

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X Again The Ringer
XI
written by Edgar Wallace
XII




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There was an incident on the Oxford and Henley Road, which may be recorded as a matter of interest, since it marked the introduction of Superintendent Bliss to Silas Maginnis.

Mr. Bliss, who was (despite certain poetical tendencies) a great realist, always believed that the name "Silas" was the imagining of story-writers. All his life he had never met a human being who bore such a name; never once had he written "Silas" on any charge sheet.

Naturally, he knew that Silas Maginnis had arrived in the neighbourhood. The ruined chapel of Chapel-Stanstead, a veritable Norman relic which, to the discredit of the county, had been allowed to fall into decay, was now made whole, thanks to the generosity of an American philanthropist—and to a variety of other causes.

It had stood in a swampy marsh, but when the Wollingford Brick Company had begun operations on an adjoining property, and the Wollingford District Council had made certain improvements to the banking of a little river which ran through the shallow valley of Wollingford, the land became automatically drained, and there stood high and dry the four walls of the chapel, a couple of arches intact and eight little pillars.

Said the vicar of Wollingford: "You should see the chapel, Mr. Bliss: it is rather beautiful, and I don't suppose that it cost more than a thousand to restore. Mr. Mountford—he's the American who paid for the restoration—has fixed up a caretaker who is almost as interesting as the chapel! My curate is holding a service there next Sunday. Go along and see the chapel—and Silas!"

But Superintendent Bliss was not a churchman. He went to Wollingford at week-ends solely for the purpose of recreation.

He liked to spend his week-ends out of town. He had a cottage between Oxford and Newbury and some forty-five acres of indifferent land which he inherited from an aunt. In addition, he had the shooting rights over a couple of hundred acres. This latter cost him no more than a gun licence, for the owner of the shoot was a wealthy and grateful man to whom Bliss had once rendered a very important service.

On Saturday mornings the detective could be seen, with a gun under his arm and a lurcher at his heels, loafing along likely hedges, a pipe between his bearded lips and an ancient and battered hat on the back of his head. Here he touched a new life and found new interests which helped to dispel the cobwebs with which his drab work at Scotland Yard encumbered his brain.

Sometimes he met the vicar of Wollingford, an elderly man but a deadly shot, and occasionally he foregathered with Mr. Selby-Grout, a middle-aged man who had recently acquired Wollingford Hall and the lordship of the manor. He was a taciturn man of fifty, grey-haired and heavy-moustached, whose principal occupation in life was shooting.

Sometimes, as they sat in the pale spring sunlight discussing lunch, Bliss would talk of his work, and if the question of Mr. X arose it was because a foreign bank in which Mr. Selby-Grout had an interest had been victimised.

The lord of the manor was rather scornful on the subject of restored chapels.

"It's a pity these damned Americans haven't something better to do with their money," he growled. "I haven't seen the church, but the other day I saw the half-witted verger, or sexton, or whatever he is…. He has Church Cottage—the Yankee bought that, too. Silas something. Have a look at him. He's madder than the Yankee who put him there."

A week after this Mr. Bliss met Silas Maginnis.

       

Mr. Mander strolled into his chief's office on the following Friday afternoon, and he took with him an elaborately drawn map of England and a brand new theory about The Ringer.

The day being what it was, Mr. Bliss had no desire to read maps or examine theories; his little car was waiting in the courtyard, and, in addition to a suitcase in which he had packed the newest book that a subscription library could supply, the car carried a market basket in which was packed a weekend's supply of provisions.

Being independent of trains and time-tables, he settled down with resignation to listen.

"Fire ahead, but keep it short," he said.

Inspector Mander spread the map.

"Tor three months nothing has been heard or seen of The Ringer," he said impressively. "My view is that he is still in England——"

"Your view is probably supported by the fact that I had a letter from him yesterday. I seem to remember that I told you," said Bliss wearily. "I presume that all these crosses in black ink are intended to show the scenes of his activities, and the crosses in red ink where he is most likely to appear next."

"They are all near a railway station——" began Mr. Mander, anxious to avert the demolition of his "theory."

"Everything is near a railway station in England," said his superior coldly.

He glanced at the map, and was irritably amused to note that a certain village in Oxfordshire bore an extra large red cross.

"Why Wollingford?" he asked.

Here Mr. Mander could elaborate his theory.

"You have had three letters from him recently," he said, with the deliberation of one who is revealing a great discovery. "One was posted in the Paddington district, one was posted at Reading, one was posted at Cheltenham. I have been studying these postmarks very carefully, and I have compared them with a time-table. They all coincide with the theory that this man is operating from somewhere near Oxford."

Bliss glanced at the figures on the sheet of paper which his subordinate placed before him. It was true that he had received three letters written by the portable typewriter which was part of The Ringer's baggage.

One had warned him about the impending departure of a gentleman who had swindled a very large number of shareholders, and who was packing his bag to catch the Air Mail when Bliss descended on him; another was a sympathetic inquiry after the health of the superintendent, who had been knocked over in Whitehall by a motor-lorry without any serious damage; and the third bore reference to some statement attributed to Bliss in connection with one of The Ringer's most daring exploits—"a statement which I am sure that a man with your peculiar sense of fairness could not have made," said the writer politely.

And, since all the documents in the case of The Ringer went automatically to Inspector Mander, he had seen these three letters, and, less from their contents than their superscription, had evolved his great idea.

Bliss pushed the note back and shook his head.

"Your time-table tells me nothing except that you are most industrious when you are pursuing dud clues," he said crushingly. But it took a lot to crush Mr. Mander.

       

At the moment Scotland Yard was less interested in The Ringer than in a gang which was engaged in the forging and uttering of letters of credit on an extensive scale.

The master criminal is supposed to be a figment of the novelist's imagination-and usually he is; but somewhere in England was a brilliant criminal who, with the aid of a small printing press, was literally coining money.

Complaints had flowed into Scotland Yard for eighteen months: they came from places as far apart as Constantinople and Stockholm. Twice, the agents of Mr. X. had been caught, but the police were unable to trace the head of the business, except that all the evidence pointed to the fact that he operated from England and worked through a super-agent in Paris.

Bliss was thinking of Mr. X. as his little car sped down the Great West Road. There had come to him that week the faintest hint of a whisper that one Elizabeth Hineshaft might lead him to the forger; but Elizabeth, when she was interviewed at Holloway Prison, had shown no enthusiastic desire to offer information. She was rather a pretty woman, and he knew no more of her friendships than that she had many.

She ran with Bossy Clewsher, a great organiser of spieling clubs, who had made more than a fortune out of high-class gambling hells in Mayfair and Regent's Park, and would have made another when he opened a similar club in the very heart of the West End if it had not been for the activities of Bliss.

He arrested Bossy one unpleasant night and took Elizabeth in the same net. Unfortunately for this lady, she was in possession of a small portfolio—it was between overlay and mattress.

It is rather difficult to explain what that portfolio contained, or how she came to possess it. One does not wish to cast reflections upon the character of under-secretaries of State, especially middle-aged under-secretaries who ought to have known better. She was a very attractive girl, and even budding statesmen do incomprehensively stupid things.

There would have been no harm in it if the papers in the portfolio were plans of a new submarine fleet or a scheme for attacking the Russian fleet, or such things as are usually stolen in stories.

The documents actually contained in that flat leather wallet were letters written by the leaders of two parties dealing with a possible fusion of party interests. Mr. Z was the intermediary and had been promised Cabinet rank if he pulled off the deal, so that when he discovered his loss he was not unnaturally agitated. His advertisement:


LOST: Probably in a taxicab between Birdcage Walk and Maida Vale, a red leather portfolio containing papers of no value to anybody but the owner, etc.

appeared in every newspaper.

       

Mr. Bliss found the portfolio and unwittingly became involved in the highest kind of politics.

Lawbreakers are not severely punished for stealing Cabinet secrets, and it is quite possible that Elizabeth might never have had that particular piece of stealing brought up against her. Only, with the portfolio was found a flat case containing a large number of small phials containing a narcotic favoured by drug addicts, and, with this evidence that she had a fairly large clientele.

She was an old offender, though young in years. There were seven distinct counts to her indictment, and when these were supported by a record of five convictions her sentence was inevitable. She was sent down for the term of five years, and when somebody in the public gallery heard the Judge deliver judgment he burst into tears.

"Find the weeper," said Bliss after this had been reported to him; but the quest was unsuccessful.

The whisperers of the underworld hinted in their vague way that Elizabeth was well beloved. She certainly lived in the style of one who had unlimited sources of income; her jewels were worth thousands, and her flat was furnished regardless of cost.

If you ask why, in these circumstances, she bothered her head to peddle dope, there is this reply: that criminals are all a little mad. Did not the notorious Al Finney, with twenty thousand in the bank, go down to the shades for a cheap swindle that could not have netted him more than fifty pounds?

       

Bliss was musing on these queer inconsistencies when his car drew up at a small garage on the outskirts of Colnbrook. He invariably stopped here for a week-end supply of petrol. The garage keeper knew him and came out with a letter in his hand.

"It was left here an hour ago," he said.

"For me?" demanded Bliss in surprise, and then, when he saw the typewritten envelope: "Who left this?"

The man did not know. He had found the note stuck to the door with a glass-headed pin, such as photographers use to hang up films.

He tore open the letter. It consisted of six typewritten lines:


Take the Reading road. It is a long way round, but safer. I don't know exactly what they are preparing for you, but it is something unpleasant. And I don't want you to die.


The Ringer! There was no doubt about that typewriting. Bliss smiled grimly. So Mander had been more or less right. The Ringer's headquarters were somewhere in this neighbourhood.

When his petrol tank was filled and three extra tins loaded into the back he resumed his journey. West of Maidenhead he had two alternative routes: he could pass through Henley; he could follow the main road to Reading, as The Ringer advised. He chose Henley and whatever danger lay beyond.

It was quite dark now, and, clear of Henley town, he switched on his headlights, stopped the car, and, taking an automatic from his handbag, laid it on the seat beside him.

Wollingford lies off the main road. He came to the place where he had to turn and slowed down. Invariably he came this way. The road was narrow and for a mile was between high hedges. Presently his headlamps revealed the little Norman chapel, and in its shadow the tiny cottage where the "crazy" caretaker lived. He passed this, followed the sharp turn of the lane, and then suddenly his foot went down on the brake.

Standing in the middle of the road, and in the glare of the headlamps, was a figure with outstretched arms. Bliss stared at the twisted face, the wide eyes, the foolishly-smiling mouth, and his hand dropped to his gun. For a second he experienced a little thrill of apprehension, but the man was unarmed.

"What do you want?" he demanded, and stepped down from the car.

The stupid face contorted into a leering smile. "He told me to stop you, master … the big man on the bicycle. He took me from my cottage and said, 'Stand there and stop him.'"

His voice was uncannily shrill, and when he chuckled Bliss felt a cold shiver run down his spine.

"He came on a bicycle … it made noises like a devil … bing-bang! And he said, 'Stay there—I cannot cut the wire!'"

"The wire?"

The strange figure turned, and, pointing into the darkness, chuckled again.

Bliss found an electric torch and walked down the road. He had not far to go. A stout wire had been fastened across the road a few feet from the ground. It was just high enough to miss the little windscreen and catch the driver.

When he walked back to the car the mad-looking caretaker had vanished. Getting into the car, he backed it until he came to the caretaker's cottage, and, getting down, he knocked at the door. There was no answer. Bliss was puzzled and more than a little perturbed.

He drove on to where the wire was stretched, stopped long enough to cut it and throw the loose end over the hedge, and reached his own cottage a very thoughtful man.

He locked all the doors carefully before he retired and slept till late the following morning. Almost the first person he saw after breakfast was Mr. Selby-Grout. He was leaning over the cottage gate, a big pipe between his strong teeth, his gun resting against the gate.

"Hullo!" he boomed. "What about Henfield Wood?"

It was only then that Bliss remembered that he had accepted an invitation to shoot over the man's land.

On the way across the fields he related what had happened the previous night, and Mr. Selby-Grout listened with a frown.

"I should think the crazy brute put the wire there himself," he said. "I saw him this morning snooping round my house—in fact, he was in my library when I came down. How on earth he got there I don't know. He said he'd made a mistake and came through the wrong door. He often comes up to the house to beg food from the servants. By gad, there he is!"

Bliss turned his head and looked. They were nearing the plantation which was known as Henfield Wood, and he caught a glimpse of a figure disappearing behind a belt of bush.

"There he goes!"

A man was running across the open towards a cut road which formed a boundary to the property. Bliss saw him leap a low hedge and disappear, apparently into the earth.

"I'd like to take a shot at the devil!" growled the owner of the land.

It was some time before he recovered his equanimity. They walked a little way into the wood, and then both men loaded.

"I'll bet he's frightened away every feather of game," said Mr. Selby-Grout; and then, most unexpectedly: "Did you ever hear of a woman called Elizabeth Hineshaft?"

"Yes-I see you've been reading the newspapers," smiled Bliss. "I got her a term of penal servitude this week."

"Oh, you did, did you?"

Click!

It was the sound of a gun-hammer falling, but Bliss did not look round.

Click!

"What's wrong?"

Selby-Grout was staring at the gun in his hand. His face was white and streaming with perspiration; the hand that held the gun was shaking.

"I don't know … that fellow rattled me," he said hoarsely.

He was trembling from head to foot.

"For God's sake, what is wrong with you?"

The man shook his head. "Let's go back."

They walked for a long time in complete silence.

"I'd give a lot of money to know if he is working with The Ringer," said Bliss, speaking his thoughts aloud.

The gun dropped from the nerveless hand of his companion. For a second he swayed as though he were about to fall, and Bliss gripped him by the arm.

"The Ringer!" His breath came in gasps, "… my library—he was there—cheque-book on my table——!"

At eleven-thirty that morning a handsome-looking limousine drew up before the Leadenhall Street branch of the Western Counties Bank, and a man in the livery of a chauffeur interviewed the manager. He had a letter bearing the note-heading of Wollingford Hall.

The letter was written in Mr. Selby-Grout's characteristic handwriting. He needed thirty-three thousand pounds in cash. It was not unusual that Mr. Selby-Grout should make large withdrawals. The cheque which accompanied the letter was duly honoured.

The manager of the Western Counties afterwards remarked to his assistant that Mr. Selby-Grout's account was hardly worth keeping. No sooner did big sums come in than they were withdrawn. Subsequently he repeated this to Superintendent Bliss, and showed him some significant figures, but this was after Bliss returned to Scotland Yard and found a long typewritten letter awaiting him.


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Mr. Bliss was not as flattered by these gracious references to his life as he might have been. On the other hand, he agreed about Mander.


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