Again The Ringer/XIV

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XIII Again The Ringer
XIV
written by Edgar Wallace
XV




CHAPTER XIV   THE SINISTER DR. LUTTEUR


Inspector Mander had a great friend—at least, Miss Carberry was not as great a friend as he could have wished her to be.

He thought Scotland Yard was the most interesting place in the world and talked about it all the time. She had a weakness for musical comedy, and the more respectable kind of night clubs, where the orangeade sold after licensed hours really is orangeade. When he talked of crime she was bored. When she told him of the perfectly marvellous dance records that had recently been issued he tried to bring the subject back to crime.

She frequently met a distinguished stranger, who would have taken her to musical comedies and night clubs, but was afraid he would get her a bad name, so they dined at nice little restaurants instead. She called him Ernest, which was not his name, though she was unaware of the fact. As to her apathy in the matter of Scotland Yard's activities, she was not to be blamed.

There is nothing romantic about crime. To be a successful detective does not require a super-intelligence, but the power of reducing your mind to the lowest possible level of intelligence. The great detectives are those who are able to lower their mentality to the level of the men whose ill-work they are endeavouring to counteract.

This was the thesis of an impromptu lecture which Superintendent Bliss delivered to his crestfallen subordinate.

"The trouble with you, Mander," he said, "is that you try to be clever. Instead of being your natural self and establishing contact with the normal criminal mind you waste the time you should devote to sleeping in working out theories based, as far as I can gather, upon those sensational detective novels which were so popular twenty years ago. I have a feeling that you are writing a monograph on cigar ash."

Mr. Mander writhed under the accusation.

"A criminal of the type I am looking for," Bliss continued remorselessly, "does not wear evening dress or frequent the more fashionable restaurants of the West End. You are more likely to find him in a public-house near the Elephant and Castle, and there is no need for you to employ logic or deduction. All you have to be is a good listener, for Libby is the type of man who makes a serial story of his adventures."

"I wasn't exactly looking for Libby," said Mr. Mander, stung to defence. "I had a theory about The Ringer——"

Superintendent Bliss groaned.

"Libby is a common and a cheap maker of counterfeit coins," he said. "He is a sordid, ten-conviction criminal. If you are under the impression that The Ringer has the slightest association with that type of individual you are greatly mistaken."

But here Mr. Bliss was to some extent wrong.

The incidence of the underworld, the real cheap, hard-labour men, never failed to interest Henry Arthur Milton. His view of the lower strata of law-breakers was no more flattering than were those of Superintendent Bliss; but, as it happened, he was at that moment especially absorbed in the career of quite a number of very poor people, most of whom gained their livelihood by illicit means.

    

The Ringer was lodging at a house in Enther Street, Lambeth—rather larger than the ordinary type of poor house—a place kept scrupulously clean, where the scrubbing brush sounded most of the day. His landlady was Mrs. Kilford, a widow. She had two daughters, one of whom, Nelly, was both pretty and curious. The prettiness he recognised; her curiosity he discovered when she went up to his room one morning with a cup of unpalatable tea and lingered at the door to discuss her affairs.

"… Of course, he's much older than me, but quite refined. Mother says he ought to come to the house, but he won't. He's terribly shy."

"Blushing lad," said Henry Arthur Milton, who was in a cheerful mood.

He had no particular business in London at the moment except to avoid the attentions of people who wished to see him very badly. He was certainly not passionately interested in the love affairs of his landlady's daughter. More exhilarating was the knowledge that right opposite him lived one called Libby, who was a maker of counterfeit coins; for The Ringer had an especial grudge against manufacturers of half-crowns, who rob little tradesmen and other people to whom half a crown is quite an enormous sum of money.

He was returning home rather late one night when he saw Nelly at the corner of the mean street in which he lived. She was talking to a man who was a head taller than she and who, when he came abreast, turned his face so that Henry Arthur Milton could not see it very distinctly. As he passed he heard Nelly say: "But I have never been a lady's maid."

He expected her the next morning to offer her confidence, but she was remarkably silent. A week later her mother told him tearfully that Nelly had run away and married Mr. Hackitt. The only consolation so far as The Ringer could gather was that the marriage had been most properly performed at a registrar's office and a copy of the marriage certificate had been forwarded to the landlady.

More amazingly, the bride announced that she and her husband were going to Paris for their honeymoon.

"Which is in France," explained the landlady unnecessarily.

    

The Ringer could not spare a corner of his mind to be occupied by Nelly's love affair. He dismissed the matter and devoted his entire attention to the undoing of Libby.

He himself never attempted to usurp the functions of the law. If a criminal committed an offence for which the law could punish him he was satisfied that the machinery of Scotland Yard should be put in motion.

One night, on information received, the Flying Squad descended on Mr. Libby and removed him with a hundredweight of metal, a number of excellent dies and electro-plating apparatus, and when the affair was cleared up Superintendent Bliss decided to comb the neighbourhood for the informant, who, he knew, was The Ringer. But that gentleman had anticipated some such move and had disappeared.

It was in the Strand between eleven and twelve one night when the theatre crowds were turning out and the roadway was a confusion of cars, taxicabs, and omnibuses that he saw and recognised Nelly's mysterious lover. There was no need to see his face; The Ringer remembered people by their backs, their walk, the movement of their hands, and he was as well satisfied that this man was Hackitt as though he were identifying him from a studio portrait.

Mr. Hackitt had no right to be in London; he should have been in Paris on his honeymoon. He certainly had no right whatever to be wearing a top hat and a coat obviously made by a good tailor. He was alone, moving in the leisured manner of one who was walking by preference. And by his side was a lady who was not Nelly.

Since it was the business of The Ringer to know the affairs of his enemies, he recognised the lady as a Miss Carberry, who was friendly with Inspector Mander. If she had not been "attached" to Inspector Mander he would not have known her at all.

"But how perfectly fascinating!" said The Ringer.

    

It was a few days after this that the centre of his interest changed to Esher.

The nursing home of Dr. Lutteur in that village was a beautiful if modest house situated in ample grounds, and if the doctor's clientele was not large it was exclusive. He was an extremely agreeable gentleman, who went out of his way to make his clients comfortable and happy, and there were few establishments which could equal it in point of comfort and up-to-date equipment. He was a fairly wealthy man, unmarried, had no hobbies but his work, and was beloved by his patients and the few people who were admitted into the limited circle of friendship.

He could afford to pick and choose his patients, and if he showed a preference for those who promised to give him the least trouble he could hardly be blamed.

Mr. Roos, his new patient, was hardly the kind he would have chosen, for Mr. Roos was rather hearty, not to say boastful—a noisy man, and the doctor disliked noisy men.

"An aunt of mine came to you, doctor, about four or five years ago. She wrote out to me in South Africa and said you'd looked after her better than any other doctor she'd ever had, and you're the man for my money!"

He had had a nervous breakdown on the ship; in fact his condition was such that he was nearly landed at Madeira, he said.

"Cash is no object to me. I can promise you this—that if you take me in you're not going to be bothered with visitors, because I don't know anybody in this damned country and don't want to!"

He exhibited certain signs of nervousness; his hands shook, his face twitched at odd intervals; the shrewd Dr. Lutteur diagnosed the case as the after-effects of heavy drinking. But he did not like noisy people, or hearty people, or people who talked loudly of their vast possessions.

Nevertheless, he gave a bed and a room to his new patient, prescribed a diet, and was agreeably surprised to discover that Mr. Roos was content to lie in bed and read newspapers and showed no inclination to disturb his other patients.

There were three, the most interesting of whom was an elderly lady who had been under his care for two years. Mr. Roos saw her once in the garden being wheeled about in a bath-chair, a pale, severe woman who regarded him with the greatest suspicion. A surly gardener, who had been rude to her for picking his spring flowers and had been given a week's notice by the doctor, said her name was Timms—Miss Alicia Timms.

Roos had been there the greater part of the week when a visitor called. It was the afternoon, when the patients were resting in various parts of the grounds, and when Mr. Roos found it rather difficult to prevent himself from falling asleep, for the weather was warm, the silence, the fragrance of the fresh spring air, all things combined to induce that pleasant state of coma which attends a good luncheon.

The doctor's study was under his bedroom, and the shrill voice of the woman pierced with startling distinctness the quiet of the house. He heard her angry protestations, heard the doctor's frantic request for silence, and then the voices sank to an indistinguishable rumble of sound, which only occasionally rose to audibility.

Mr. Roos had risen that day and was lying fully dressed upon his bed. He gathered up his book and his spectacles and went into the grounds, whence he saw the station fly carrying the visitor down the drive towards the main road. Dr. Lutteur's three prize patients were dozing; the disgruntled gardener was very wide awake.

"I shan't be sorry to leave here, anyway," he said. "You never see anybody but a lot of old people, and you don't see them long before one of 'em pops off! We've only had one patient here that didn't peg out."

"Thank you, my cheery soul," said Mr. Roos.

But the gardener insisted, with a certain gloomy satisfaction, on the high mortality of patients at Dr. Lutteur's house.

"Naturally, they die because they're old. I suppose he's a pretty good doctor but you can't make old people young, can you? The only one that didn't die here was an old gentleman who was taken away by his relations. And they know they're going to die—they're always making their wills.

"That old lady over there. Miss Timms—she's worth pots of money! Mind you, I respect her; she's left every penny to a lady's maid who used to look after her. I know because I witnessed the will and I had a good look at it because the old lady had a sort of fainting fit after she'd signed."

"Do you remember the name of the lady's maid?" asked Mr. Roos, carelessly.

The gardener looked up at the sky for inspiration.

"Yes, Hachett or Hackitt, or some such name. The last old lady that died here left all her money to a woman called—I forget her name; the only thing I do remember about her is that she fell in the river and was drowned about six months after she'd drawn the money. And then there was an old gentleman named—I don't remember his name—who left fifty thousand pounds to a girl whose father he knew when he was a boy.

"I was telling this to the young lady who came down here yesterday when the doctor was at Bagshot; a nice-looking girl she was, very much like that young lady who came in the cab to see the doctor about an hour ago."

Late that night, when the patients were asleep, or should have been asleep, the girl who had called earlier in the day came to the house. Mr. Roos, lying full length on the floor, with a small microphone fixed to his ear, listened with the greatest interest to the more or less confused conversation.

"… Well, I may be curious, but I've found you out! … followed you to Waterloo Station…. What is the meaning of it? …"

Later she became less truculent, agreed to something or other. Mr. Roos heard the words "little house."

He could not have heard it all, because when he learned, two or three days later, that the doctor was called away on business to Paris and had left a locum tenons to look after the inmates of the home he was taken by surprise.

The patient left the nursing home within an hour of receiving this information; but it took a long time for him to locate the doctor.

The quietness of Enther Street, Lambeth, was disturbed by a loud scream. The hour was 2 a.m. and in this drab neighbourhood a midnight scream was not an unusual phenomenon. At the corner of the street two policemen had met at the limit of their respective beats, and they were, contrary to regulations, smoking. One turned his head in the direction of the sound and remarked casually that somebody was "getting a lacing." They waited expectantly for the second and the successive cries, but they did not come.

Now a succession of such screams is normal. One shrill cry of horror that has no companion has a sinister significance. The two officers walked slowly down the street. They saw a window open and a tousled head stuck out.

"Next door," said the owner of the head—a man. "That's the first noise the new people have made since they've been here. Half a tick. I'll come down."

These police officers were not unused to the ways of the officious informant: they were rather amused. The man came out from his front door wearing an overcoat.

"There's a man and a woman live there; they moved in last Monday. Nobody's seen either of 'em. My missus, though, saw 'em move in—brought their furniture in a motor-van one night when it was raining. Nobody's ever seen 'em go out."

One of the police looked up at the mean face of the house. It consisted of two floors, the ground and the upper. A tall man with a fishing rod could reach the guttering of the slate roof. There were two windows above, a door and a window below—the kind of brick box you can have for a few shillings a week.

"Well," said the officer of the law, with the profundity of his kind, "you can't do anything to people because they don't come out of their houses."

The neighbour agreed, and there the party might have dispersed, the policemen to their interrupted smoke, the householder to his bed, only the second policeman saw a light in the upper window. It flickered up and down, grew to yellow brightness, and sank to a dull red.

"That room's on fire!" he said, and whipped out his truncheon.

The hammering on the door awakened the street. A panel smashed and a gloved hand went in, groping for the lock. As the door was flung open a great cloud of smoke rolled forth.

"Get the people out of the other houses, Harry!" spluttered the officer. "Mr. What's-your-name, run to the fire alarm at the corner."

He blundered into the house, felt his way up the stairs and threw open the door of the front room. The heat of the blazing floor drove him back, but he saw the woman lying half on and half off the smouldering bed. Bracing one foot upon a burning rafter, he reached out and dragged her through the flames.

It was a superhuman task to carry the weight down those narrow stairs that sagged under him. He blundered once on the landing and nearly fell. Presently he staggered out into the open. The fire engines arrived at that moment. The ambulance arrived a few minutes later, and they laid the woman on a stretcher and rushed her to the nearest hospital.

She was still living, in spite of the knife wound in her side, but died after admission. She was young and rather pretty.

The policeman telephoned to his superior and went back to pursue his inquiries, the affair having occurred on his beat.

Inspector Mander reported to his chief the following morning.

"It's a very ordinary case. A man named Brown knifed his wife, and in the struggle the lamp must have overturned. We haven't got Brown yet, but I've circulated his description."

Bliss had read the official report furnished by the divisional inspector.

"Apart from the fact that nobody knows that his name is Brown, and nobody has ever seen him, and that the floor was sprinkled with petrol, and that the house was deliberately set on fire, your account and prognostications seem fairly accurate. The case had better go to Lindon. It is in his area."

All day long detectives and firemen searched amid the blackened débris for the missing man. But he was some distance away and very much alive.

Dr. Lutteur sat in his study, a medical work propped up on the table before him, a long cigar between his even white teeth. He closed the book, put it away on a shelf, and drew from a drawer of his desk a sheet of foolscap paper. He read this carefully, then he rang the bell. A nursing sister answered it within a few minutes.

"Oh, sister, about Miss Timms; she's been bothering me all day about making a new will."

"She only made one a month or so ago," said the nursing sister. "Didn't she leave all her money to a woman called Hackitt?"

The doctor nodded.

"Apparently she's changed her mind," he said. "She wishes now to leave it to the daughter of an old friend of hers, a Miss Carberry. I've got the name in the will." He pointed to the document. "Will you come along and witness it?"

The nursing sister looked dubious.

"She doesn't seem to be in a condition to make a will. Do you think it's wise——" she began.

"It amuses her. She'll probably change her mind again in the course of a few days," said the doctor calmly. "Let us go up and get her signature while she's still awake. The night sister can witness it as well as you."

The clock was striking one; the doctor had locked away the new will in his safe, had risen and was preparing for bed when a perfect stranger rang the bell of the nursing home. He had come in a car and had three companions. Lutteur looked at the bearded face and wondered where he had seen it before.

"My name is Superintendent Bliss, of Scotland Yard," said the caller in cold and even tones. "I am inquiring into the death of a woman called Brown, who was murdered in Enther Street, Lambeth. I am also inquiring into the death of two other women who were legatees of estates left by former patients of yours. I shall ask you to accompany me to the Kingston Police Station."

It was all very formal and meaningless. Weeks after, when Dr. Lutteur was awaiting execution, he could not quite understand what had happened.

    

"Lutteur's system," explained Mr. Bliss to Inspector Mander, "was a very simple one. He ran a nursing home, and there is no suggestion that any of the patients who died in his charge were the victims of foul play. They died natural deaths, but he chose his patients rather well. He scoured the country, looking for wealthy women without any near relations.

"By some means he persuaded them to go into his home—we found the most marvellous collection of literature, with expensive photographs of the grounds, and the treatment rooms—and, once there, the rest was a fairly simple matter.

"He first of all chose the legatee. Then, either by the administration of a drug which destroyed their will power or by his personal magnetism he induced them to make a will in favour of his nominee. Whether he married the nominee in every case I do not know. He certainly married Mrs. Kilford's daughter and killed her when he discovered that she knew who he was. He would have done the same with the girl Carberry——"

"Carberry?" said Mander. "I know a girl called Carberry. By the way, how did you get on to this story, chief?"

"Information received," said Bliss diplomatically. "And don't call me chief!"


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