Again The Ringer/XVII
|XVI|| Again The Ringer
written by Edgar Wallace
Government Departments keep a sharp eye on post-prandial oratory. They do not like their servants, high or low, to talk shop in their leisure hours. Certainly they strongly discount anything that has the appearance of being criticism of superiors; and Inspector Mander overstepped the bounds when, at a police banquet, and in the course of proposing such an innocuous toast as "The Ladies," he made a reference to The Ringer.
"People sometimes criticise us because notorious criminals remain at large," he said. (The quotation is from the Outer London News and Suburban Record.) "I am not so sure that we have done all we might have done, or that the right methods have been employed to bring him under arrest. This man is not only a menace to society, but a mark of reproach against our administration."
If Bliss had not disliked him so intensely, he would have broken Inspector Mander. It was the knowledge that he actively loathed this cocksure officer that induced him to excuse his error. Nevertheless, Inspector Mander stepped upon the carpet before a very high official and spent a most uncomfortable ten minutes, during which he did most of the listening.
It was three days after the publication of Mander's speech in a weekly newspaper that Bliss received a letter from The Ringer.
Bliss sent for his subordinate.
"Read this," he said.
Mander read and forced a smile, but the superintendent knew that he was none too happy.
"He has never threatened you before, has he?" asked Bliss.
Mander laughed, but there was no real mirth in it.
"That kind of bunk doesn't scare me," he said. "I've been threatened by——"
"By The Ringer?" asked Bliss maliciously, enjoying the officer's discomfiture.
Mander moved uneasily in his chair.
"Well, no, not by The Ringer, but—er—I don't take very much notice of that."
And then he brightened visibly.
"You can see, chief, that this fellow's scared of me, and——"
"Excuse me a moment while I laugh," said Bliss sardonically. "Scared of you! What job are you on now?"
Mr. Mander was dealing with a case of car-stealing. He had got on the track of a fairly important organisation which, if it did not actually steal, certainly played the part of a receiver. Bliss listened and nodded.
"You ought to be safe," he said. "You've got Sergeant Crampton working with you; he's a pretty intelligent man."
"The Duke of Kyle——" he began, and the nose of Mr. Bliss wrinkled.
"The Duke of Kyle is a great authority on the breeding of pigs and nothing else—oh, yes, I read his letter in the Monitor, praising your speech. That nearly got you hung. But he's no authority on The Ringer."
The Duke of Kyle was one of those peers who had very little occupation in life other than the breeding of pigs and the inditing of letters to newspapers. He had written his unqualified approval of Mr. Mander's speech, and had, moreover, suggested fantastical and not even novel methods for bringing The Ringer to justice. Bliss had read and had feared for his Grace.
That night Mander was at Notting Dale Police Station, pursuing his inquiries, and was coming down the steps when a beautiful limousine drew up at the door and a lady in evening dress stepped down. She was fair-haired and very beautiful; her hands sparkled with diamonds; from her ears hung two glittering stones.
"Can you tell me where I can find Inspector Mander?" she asked, and Mander, susceptible to feminine charms, lifted his hat. "You're he? Mr. Bliss said I should find you here."
"Is anything wrong, madam?"
The lady nodded; she seemed a little breathless, considerably agitated.
"It is about my car," she said, lowering her voice, "a coupé. It was stolen this afternoon while I was shopping in Bond Street. Somebody enticed the chauffeur away…. It isn't the loss of the car. I wonder if I could speak to you alone? Could you come back to Berkeley Square with me?"
Mander gave instructions to his men and followed the lady into the luxurious, delicately-perfumed interior. She was silent for a while.
"It isn't the loss of the car," she said again, "but I foolishly left my handbag in the pocket. There are letters that—it's very difficult to tell you this—that I—I wish to recover. I can speak to you confidentially?"
"Certainly, madam," said Mander.
His proximity to such a fragrant, lovely being was a little intoxicating.
"The Duke and I are not on very good terms, but there has never been a question of—divorce. These letters will make a tremendous difference to me. Is it true that such things can be recovered through the—the underworld?"
Mander smiled. "They say so in books, and it has happened in real life," he said, "but it has never been my experience."
If Inspector Mander had been a little more experienced he would have returned a different answer.
"They're compromising letters, I suppose?"
"Compromising? Yes—well, I suppose they are. They're from a boy—my cousin. Oh dear, oh dear!" She wrung her hands in despair.
"I'll try to get them for your grace," said Mander gallantly.
He did not know which duchess this was. His acquaintance with the peerage was slight and sketchy, and the only member he knew was an impoverished lord who occasionally found himself on the verge of prosecution.
She opened a little flap in the car before her and took out a jewelled cigarette case—in that half-light the diamond monogram sparkled brilliantly.
He took a cigarette and politely offered her a light to the cigarette she put between her red lips. There was a little microphone attachment at the side of the car, and she pressed a button. Mander saw the chauffeur bend his head towards the earpiece.
"Drive round the park for a little while before you go to Berkeley Square," she commanded.
In the light of his match Mander had seen the ducal coronet and a "K". The Duchess of——? Kyle, of course!
"The trouble with Bertie is that he's very indiscreet," she said. "He writes letters …"
Mander, who had settled himself more comfortably in the corner of the car, most unaccountably fell asleep at this juncture.
The ringing of the telephone bell brought Bliss from his bed and into the cold room where the instrument was. Detectives are human, and they never quite get accustomed to being awakened at half-past three in the morning.
"Mander? What do I know about Mander? Why? Ring him up, my dear man," he said testily.
"He's not in his house, sir. We haven't seen him since he went away with the lady."
Bliss was instantly wide awake.
The man at the other end of the 'phone told him of the car that called at Notting Dale.
"It's the Duke of Kyle's car," said that same Sergeant Crampton in whose intelligence Bliss had expressed his unbounded faith. "We found it abandoned on Hamsptead Heath. It had been stolen from his Grace's garage."
"Have you searched it?"
"Yes, sir. We found rather an important clue—a lady's card, with a few words scribbled in pencil."
"Bring the car round and pick me up," said Bliss, and was waiting in the street before the police tender came in sight.
By the light of the headlamps he examined the card. In a woman's hand was written:
The Leek. First left, first right—Stillman.
"Now, look at this, sir," said the sergeant.
He switched on the lights inside the car, which was upholstered in fawn. The tiny carpet on the floor was of the same colour, but near the left-hand door was a large red patch, and on the padded upholstery on the near side of the car a larger patch level with a man's head.
"It's blood," said the sergeant. "I saw him go off, and that's the seat he occupied."
The local inspector of police was present at the examination.
"What is The Leek? Is there such a place near here?"
The inspector shook his head.
"No, but Stillman is the name of a house agent. He lives in Shardeloes Road. I've sent one of my men to wake him. He ought to be up by now: will you come round?"
They drove round to Shardeloes Road and found a sleepy, middle-aged man.
"The Leek is a cottage—I always call it The Leek; that was the former name of it. It's an empty house on the edge of the heath."
He took the card, examined it, and nodded.
"That's right. A lady asked to see it and I gave her the directions. That's the handwriting of my clerk."
"Have you the keys of this place?"
"Yes, at my office. If you wait, I'll dress."
They waited while he dressed, accompanied him to his office in the steep hill street, and, crossing the heath, dipped into a depression. The road ran for some distance through an avenue of trees, at the end of which were three or four houses. Mr. Stillman stopped the car at the first of these, and the detectives jumped out.
It was a gloomy-looking little house with a forecourt behind the high wall. They passed into the garden through a wicket gate, and Sergeant Crampton, using his lamp, led the way. Presently he stopped.
"Look at this," he said.
On the stone flags were certain red stains, which were still wet. A little farther along were others. When they reached the door they found it half open.
Bliss went ahead with Crampton into the musty-smelling house, his lamp searching the walls carefully. There was blood on the floor, blood on the walls; the trail led him upward to the front room.
Here the evidence of tragedy was almost complete. There were bloodstains everywhere, but if there was no sign of the body there was evidence of a struggle, for one of the walls was spattered red, and near the door he found the sanguinary print of a gloved hand.
He made a careful scrutiny of every room, but apparently only the front room had been visited by Mander and his captor.
At four o'clock they were coming out of the house, when a car drove up and a man stopped out. Crampton went to interview him, and returned with the information that it was the Duke of Kyle's secretary.
"I had to telegraph to his Grace about the car being stolen," he said. "His Grace is very much upset. The Ringer visited him last night."
"Where?" asked Bliss quickly.
"At Clane Farm—it is near Sevenoaks. His lordship has a large pig-breeding establishment there," said this middle-aged gentleman.
Apparently the Duke had been retiring for the night, when somebody had tapped on the window of his study; he had drawn up the window, and seen a strange and to him, a terrifying face.
"He was armed," said the secretary, his voice quaking. "He made the most terrible threats to his Grace. He said he was bringing a Mr. Mander to stay with him that night, and that they would both be found in the same condition in the morning."
"Did he notify the police?" asked Bliss.
"No, sir," The secretary shook his head. "His Grace is a very courageous man. It was very curious that I should have been getting on to him at the moment that he was trying to get into communication with me. He told me he was sitting up all night, and that he would be heavily armed."
Bliss noted down the exact location of the pig farm.
"Can you get on to his Grace and tell him that we're coming down almost immediately?" he asked. "I want to make an examination of this road."
After Mr. Whistle—for such was his peculiar name—had departed the detective began a systematic search for further clues.
The path outside was of gravel, and, although there were stains which had the appearance of blood, they were not sufficiently definite or informative to help very much. Fifty yards along the road, however, Bliss made a discovery. It was a large piece of bloodstained satin, rolled up and thrown on one side. From here the evidences of tragedy were clear to the naked eye. They followed the track of the tell-tale spots across the Heath until they came to the edge of a pond, where they had ceased.
Bliss observed that the pond was within easy walking distance of the place where the car had been found, and this puzzled him. If Mander had been killed, why had not the body been immediately disposed of? Why had it been taken to the house?
This was not the only thing that puzzled him. The detectives probed into the water with their sticks, but at the place where the track ceased the water was deep. Bliss gave instructions that the pond was to be dragged, but did not wait to see the result.
Ten minutes later the police car was speeding across Westminster Bridge on its southward journey.
Daylight broke before they reached Clane Farm. It was rather a difficult place to locate, and Bliss regretted that he had not brought the secretary with him. They found it at last and saw that there were strange activities, for in the narrow lane they met three men beating the hedges and obviously searching for something. Bliss stopped the car and was addressed by the red-faced leader:
"Are you the police?" he demanded. "That's quick work. I only telephoned you a quarter of an hour ago."
"I'm from Scotland Yard," said Bliss. "What's the trouble?"
"Trouble?" roared the man, going red in the face. "Pride of Kent's been stolen. He couldn't have got out of his pen——"
"Who's Pride of Kent?"
"The finest hog in the country," said the man. "He's taken every first prize, and I wouldn't have lost him for a thousand pounds. When his Grace hears about it there's going to be trouble."
"When was he lost?"
"Last night. He was in his sty, and he couldn't have got out by himself," said the man. "One of these villagers must have come up and stolen him. If we catch him there's going to be trouble. I wouldn't be surprised if he'd been killed. You found blood, didn't you, Harry?"
"Yes, sir, I found blood," said the man he addressed. "It were near the old building."
"Where is his Grace?" asked Bliss.
The man stared at him.
"His Grace? Why, he's in Scotland."
The eyes of Mr. Bliss opened.
"In Scotland? Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure," said the man impatiently. "I had a letter from his Grace yesterday. At least, not from his Grace, but from his secretary, Miss Erford."
Superintendent Bliss did not so much as wince. "Is there a Mr. Whistle?"
The man had never heard of Mr. Whistle.
Bliss regretted even more that he had not brought the "secretary" with him, though he had no doubt that that gentleman would have found a very excellent excuse for remaining in London.
"There are lots of people who didn't like Pride of Kent," the man proceeded. "Some of these pigmen had a grudge against him because he was a bit savage; but he was the best hog in the county, and I don't know what his Grace will say if I can't find him."
"Where was this pig kept?" asked Bliss.
The Pride of Kent lived in a handsome mansion which many of his Grace's tenants might have envied. It was a low building, before which was an ample yard, where the joy of the piggery could rest at his well-fed ease. A steel grating was unfastened and the pigman explained just how impossible it was for anybody but an educated porker to let himself out.
"My theory is that it happened last night," said the man. "There was a van seen in the lane——"
"What is this?" said Bliss, and, stooping, picked up a round tin. It was half-filled with a brown, treacly substance. "Have you seen this before?"
The foreman shook his head. There was a small label on the tin, a wafer of paper, and on this was written the word "Poison."
"The Ringer is about the most thoughtful man I have ever met with," said Bliss bitterly, for he recognised the queer "n" that Henry Arthur Milton invariably made. "We'll have that for analysis," he said. "I suppose the Pride of Kent was rather fond of sweet things? I thought so. This looks to me like golden syrup—and something else! I can well understand why he didn't put up a squeak."
The pigman did not see the grim jest.
"What is that over there?" asked Bliss. He pointed to a range of buildings, each with its little front forecourt.
"We keep the young pigs there. They are his last litter," said the pigman proudly. "You won't find a better lot in Kent or anywhere else."
The forecourts were filled with little porkers, all engaged at that moment in their morning meal. At the second pen Mr. Bliss paused. In one corner was a round felt hat sadly battered and slightly gnawed.
"I think I'd like to go in here," said Bliss, and stepped in among the terrified little pigs, who scampered in all directions save one—this was significant. They did not go into the dark little house where they slept at night. Olio or two did approach the entrance, but turned and fled instantly.
Bliss stooped low and passed through the door. The man who sat propped up in one corner bound hand and foot and scientifically gagged stared pathetically into the eyes of his chief.
"Come in here," called Bliss, and the two detectives who were with him followed.
It took them some little time to unfasten his bonds, but presently Mr. Mander staggered out into the light and was stimulated with brandy.
He had nothing to say; he could only babble about a beautiful lady, and somebody who carried him on his back. His most distinct recollection was facing the tiny eyes of a dozen little pigs, who resented his intrusion into their sleeping-quarters.
"Queer, isn't it?" said Bliss absently. "He said he'd put you where you belonged. I won't be so uncomplimentary as to say that he did."
"This woman was one of the prettiest——"
"I have met Cora Ann Milton before, but I didn't know she was in England," said Bliss; "and I don't suppose she is this morning."
One of the servants of the house came hurrying towards him.
"There's a telephone message for you, sir——"
Bliss waved him aside.
"I know all about it. They've found the body of the Pride of Kent in the pond at Hampstead. I know exactly where the bloodstains came from. I'm pretty sure I know where that unfortunate hog was killed."
|Works by this author are in the public domain in countries where the copyright term is the author's life plus 84 years or less.|