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Chapter 27

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« on: March 15, 2023, 07:04:48 am »

SIR Humphrey liked the warm clasp of the young man’s hand, and he liked too his frank expression. He had rather a weakness for Americans and this one seemed to be of a pleasant type. He welcomed him affably and pointed to a chair.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Van Pleyden?” he enquired.

“I have come on rather a curious errand, sir,” the young man announced bluntly. “I want something you have in your possession.”

Sir Humphrey felt a sudden chill. Vaguely the voice seemed to him to be familiar. He was conscious too of a vague odour, pleasant enough in itself, but reminiscent of throbbing moments of agony, the odour of aromatic soap or toilet water. His mind drifted back to those awful moments of his ordeal in Norfolk. He was oppressed with a sense of danger.

“First tell me who you are and then what you want,” he suggested.

“That is simple enough,” the other replied. “You know my name---Richard Van Pleyden. My people are well known in Washington and New York. I served for a time during the war and was afterwards in the Intelligence Department of Washington. When the war was over, they wanted me to become a bond salesman, but I couldn’t stick it, so I became instead a secret service agent.”

“What does that mean in America?” Sir Humphrey asked.

“Oh, we have secret service work of a sort there, and plenty of it,” the young man confided. “I’ve been to Ecuador, for instance, twice, and to Mexico once. There wasn’t excitement enough about it, though. Now I’m working for a syndicate---a very different matter. You have been away for some days, have you not, Sir Humphrey?”

“I have,” the latter admitted. “Came back yesterday.”

“Noticed nothing about your belongings?”

“My belongings? No. What should I notice?”

“Haven’t looked in your safe, I suppose?”

“Good God, no! I don’t open that once a month.”

“Open it and have a look,” Van Pleyden suggested.

Sir Humphrey rose to his feet and every instinct he possessed warned him to ring the bell and summon Carthew. He resisted, however, out of sheer obstinacy, crossed the floor of the room and opened the safe.

“Everything as you left it?” the young man enquired.

Sir Humphrey, who was genuinely startled, made no reply for a moment. He stared in dismay at the disordered chaos of papers.

“Rather an untidy mess, I’m afraid,” Van Pleyden continued. “We left the safe till the last and fancied we heard some one coming. Try your desk.”

Sir Humphrey unlocked his desk and looked through its contents, usually a miracle of neatness, now in obvious disorder. In a very few minutes he returned to his place.

“My papers, both in the safe and the desk, appear to have been disturbed and the contents of both thoroughly ransacked. Have you had anything to do with this?” he asked sternly.

“Certainly I have,” the young man assented. “You’re up against a pretty difficult proposition, you know, Sir Humphrey. Whilst you’ve been away, there is scarcely an inch of this house that has not been searched, and yet I’ll take a bet that your servants are as honest as the day. Well, I’ll own up, sir. You’ve put one over all of us. You’ve been too clever for us.”

“I’m glad of that,” Sir Humphrey remarked. “Quite reassuring.”

“So was the lady. There isn’t one of her boxes that has not been gone through, and the rooms she has been occupying have been searched just as thoroughly as yours. No luck. However, the situation at the present moment is slightly improved. We are here alone together, under favourable circumstances, and you have to sit there and face the question which I am going to ask you. Where is it, Sir Humphrey?”

“So you’re a secret service agent,” Sir Humphrey meditated, leaning back in his chair. “Forgive me for taking rather a professional interest in this matter.”

“Not in these days,” the young man replied. “That was what we used to call ourselves when we were in government employ. I quit Washington some years ago.”

“For whom are you working now, then?” Sir Humphrey enquired.

“Myself,” was the cool reply. “I am one of the syndicate.”

“What syndicate?”

“It’s just a little too early to ask that question,” Van Pleyden regretted. “We want something that either you or Mrs. Brandt must have. We have had a pretty good search for it and failed. During the last few hours, we’ve had absolutely definite information. We know now that we need not bother about the lady. It is you, sir, who have what we want. I am here to get it.”

“Your manner is good,” Sir Humphrey acknowledged; “original too. You might make yourself more comprehensible, though. For instance---what is it that you want?”

“You know that perfectly well, sir.”

“I can assure you that I do not.”

Van Pleyden smiled incredulously.

“We want the key,” he confided.

Sir Humphrey drew his bunch of keys from his pocket.

“Any particular one?” he asked.

“Cheap bluff,” the young man scoffed, shaking his head. “Cut that out. We want the key. We were inclined to think that Madam had it. We know now that you have. You’ve got us beaten as to where your hiding place may be, but it doesn’t matter. We want the key and you’ll have to produce it.”

The Home Secretary was beginning to feel that he liked this young man less and less. The gaiety and bonhomie of youth had left his face. Something more menacing and formidable had taken its place. After all, it would have been much wiser to have rung for Carthew when he was on his feet.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I have no key that belongs to anybody else except myself.”

“Sir Humphrey,” his visitor said, “I came here hoping for a peaceful interview and that you would have sense enough not to make trouble. You see, the key is not yours. It did not belong personally even to the man who sent it to you. It belongs to us all and we are going to have it.”

“You could not tell me what it is the key of, I suppose?” Sir Humphrey enquired. “I am beginning to believe that if you would only be a little more confidential with me----”

“You lawyers are great word-makers,” the young man interrupted ruthlessly. “I am a doer and that is why I was chosen to come and see you to-night. I have no more time to waste. You are supposed to be an honest man, English Cabinet Minister and all that sort of thing. Give me that key and I’ll guarantee that the whole matter shall be dealt with fairly.”

Sir Humphrey leaned towards the bell and in a few seconds he knew what the Harvard tackle was like. He was back in his chair and his wrists were held in a grip such as he had never before experienced. He would have shouted for help but he was too late. His assailant had his fingers upon his throat. He was no longer such a nice-looking young man. He looked more like a murderer.

“Sir Humphrey, I’m a getter, I tell you. I’m going to choke you if you don’t give me that key. I mean it!”

The grip upon his throat was becoming a torture. Once more it seemed to Rossiter that he was looking death in the face. He could neither speak nor hear distinctly. The rumble of traffic seemed farther and farther away, the honk of a passing taxicab a faint muffled sound. He made a desperate effort at speech. The young man slackened his grip.

“Are you going to give it me?” he demanded.

“All that I want to know is---what the hell key you are talking about?” Rossiter gasped.

“You’ll be able to guess in a minute,” was the brutal reply. “You’re in the way, anyhow. We might square things with the key---without it you are going.”

The brief respite was over. The fingers were back upon his throat and waves were beginning to flow before his eyes. Then, as once before the telephone had saved him, came another even more dramatic interruption. A brief command was snapped out from only a few feet away.

“Put your hands up. Quick!”

The young man stepped back. He was taken wholly by surprise. From between the curtains behind Sir Humphrey’s chair a man in dark clothes and a peaked cap had stepped out, and, although he was considered some gunman himself, Mr. Van Pleyden realised that he had never seen a revolver held by steadier fingers. His hands went up to the limit.

“Keep them there,” was the brisk command. “Don’t move an inch forward. Now take a pace backwards---one pace. Don’t let your hands even twitch.”

Van Pleyden obeyed. He recognised the voice of authority, and this was no fool who had seen the bending and twitching of his knee, who had seen him getting on the balls of his feet for a spring. Detective Pank thrust his left hand into his pocket and drew out a whistle. He blew it loudly and insistently. In less than ten seconds there was a thunderous knocking at the outside door and the pealing of the bell. The Home Secretary sat up in his chair.

“Who’s that?” he asked. “My neck is so stiff I can scarcely look around.”

“Inspector Pank, in charge of your night shift, Sir Humphrey. Just come on duty. The Commissioner’s strict orders were that we were to keep out of sight unless we were wanted. Seems to me we’re needed pretty badly just now.”

There was the sound of the front door being opened, of heavy footsteps in the hall. An eager light shone in Rossiter’s eyes. He felt his heart beating quickly. With the arrest of this young man must come the answer to that terrible query which had been making havoc of his life for the last two months. But the young man had not the slightest idea of being arrested. His backward step taken at Pank’s command had brought him almost into line with Rossiter. He suddenly ducked. In less than a second Sir Humphrey was exactly between his rescuer and his assailant. The latter, stooping low, pushed the easy-chair before him, and Pank, leaning forward, met the chair full in his stomach. He gasped for a moment. Still he dared not shoot.

“Crouch down, sir,” he shouted to Sir Humphrey. “Crouch down in the chair!”

It was too late. With one spring Van Pleyden, shielding himself to the last moment with the easy-chair, was through the window with a crashing and splintering of glass into the street. Crouching on his knee, Pank fired two low shots at the figure crossing the square and watched him stumble. The door of the room had been thrown open. Two plain-clothes men were by Pank’s side. He waved them on through the debris of the window.

“He’ll take the south side of the square for certain,” Pank shouted. “He cut his face and hands going through, and I got him in the calf of the left leg. If he turns to the left, one of you follow him directly and the other take the next turn and double back. You’ll get him between you then.”

The men were already out of hearing. Sir Humphrey staggered to his feet.

“Where on earth did you come from, officer?” he gasped.

“I was on duty, watching the house, sir,” Pank replied. “As soon as the young gentleman called, I opened this window softly from the outside, and I clambered through when I thought I was wanted. I should have been on hand before, but the orders at the Yard were very strict about keeping out of sight.”

“God bless my soul!” Rossiter muttered thickly, his fingers still lingering about his throat. “Parkins,” he added to the butler, who had hurried in, “whisky and soda for the Inspector and for me. . . . And I thought that young man was one of the nicest young fellows I had ever spoken to!”

Pank was busy tying up his finger, which had been cut by a piece of the flying glass.

“If he was one of the gang we have news of, sir, you’ve been lucky,” he remarked drily. “They’re killers, every one of them. What was he after?”

“A key,” Sir Humphrey replied. “The whole wretched business seems to centre now around a key. He would not believe that I didn’t know anything about it. My safe and my desk have apparently both been gone through whilst I was away.”

There was a startled exclamation from the background. Parkins had disappeared. Presently he came in again. He was carrying a silver salver and upon it, side by side with the whisky and syphon, was a soiled square envelope of cheap quality. It obviously contained something heavy.

“Sir Humphrey,” he said in great agitation, “I’m truly and deeply sorry. What with the excitement of the last few days and your coming back and everything being so upset, things seem to slip out of one’s mind. It was early one afternoon some two months ago---it was the day Mr. Brandt was hung down at Wandsworth---a warder from Wandsworth Prison brought across this envelope and left it for you. I put it on the kitchen dresser and there it has been ever since.”

Sir Humphrey opened the envelope. It contained no word or message of any sort, only a medium-sized key, fashioned out of what seemed to be oxidised silver, of strange shape and with an inscription down the shaft. Sir Humphrey and Pank both bent over it.

“Grimmett 1431,” Pank spelt out.

Parkins was pouring out the whisky. His hand trembled with agitation. Sir Humphrey patted him on the shoulder.

“Thank God, Parkins, you didn’t give me the key before,” he said fervently. “I don’t know whose it is or to what it belongs, but that young fellow’s fingers were so infernally strong I really believe that I would have parted with it.”

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