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Chapter 30

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« on: March 15, 2023, 08:14:22 am »

THERE was a tense and momentous silence in the Chestow Square drawing-room of faded splendours. Sir Humphrey was the first to recover himself. He snatched at an evening paper and, adjusting his eyeglass, read rapidly for a few moments.

“Tell us about it,” Katherine begged nervously.

“Beastly affair,” he pronounced with a shiver. “Two men, one elderly and the other younger, very well dressed and of superior appearance, called upon the manager of Grimmetts’ and asked to see some of the steel cabinets they let out. Most invulnerable safes in the world, they are supposed to be, I believe. The manager seems to have been rather impressed by his visitors and took them himself down in the lift to the underground quarters. As soon as they were round the corner of the first corridor, one of the two men pushed a revolver into the manager’s ribs and demanded either his pass-key or a key which would open a certain cabinet. The lift man tried to give the alarm and was at once shot. He only lived long enough to give these few particulars to the police. The manager was a weakly man and fainted on the spot. He collapsed on to the floor and they actually shot him whilst he lay there unconscious.”

“But they didn’t get the pass-key?” Matterson observed.

“Apparently not. The account here says that the only key the manager had with him was for an empty cabinet which had just been built and which he was going to show to his prospective clients. Whoever they were, they seem to have made their search without having been disturbed, worked the lift themselves and left the place before the alarm was raised.”

“Horrible!” Katherine exclaimed, trembling.

Some instinct besides his official interest in the crime was aroused in the Subcommissioner’s mind.

“What can that man Brandt have left behind him of such enormous value?” he speculated.

“Money, I should think,” Sir Humphrey pronounced. “He was probably the treasurer of the gang.”

“I think there must be something else concerned besides just money,” Plank ventured. “There’s no sense in keeping a huge sum like that locked away where no one could get it. I don’t know whether you knew it, Madam,” he went on, turning to Katherine, “but your husband booked his passage for Australia a few days before the tragedy happened.”

“Yes, I knew it,” she admitted. “He had been in a highly nervous state for weeks. He thought the sea voyage might do him good.”

“Evidently these extraordinary people had come over to take him to task about something or other,” Sir Humphrey observed. “A blood-thirsty crew they must be. Even the sacred body of a Cabinet Minister doesn’t seem to be immune!”

The Subcommissioner glanced at his watch.

“May I ring up the Yard?” he begged.

Sir Humphrey leaned towards the bell.

“No telephone up here, I’m afraid. You’d better use my private line in the library.”

“Shall I go, sir?” Pank suggested.

“You may as well,” Matterson agreed. “Bring up the news as soon as you have it and then we’ll decide upon the next step. We are getting face to face with realities now, at any rate. The three things we have to solve are—firstly, who are these men? Secondly, what is Lord Edward Keynsham’s position with regard to them? And thirdly, what are the contents of the safe? I shall never believe that money alone would account for the almost frantic desperation of these men.”

“There is a simple way of finding out,” Sir Humphrey reminded him, “and that is by using the key and opening the cabinet. That clearly forms one of my duties as executor, and it seems to me the sooner I get to work, the better.”

“Under our surveillance,” Matterson said hastily.

Sir Humphrey smiled.

“I am by nature bland and ingenuous,” he observed, with faint sarcasm, “but if you think you will see me strolling up Lombard Street, twiddling the key upon my finger and loitering on the doorstep of the Grimmett building to look at the time, well---you’re wrong, my dear fellow, that’s all! I admit I seem to have walked into trouble pretty easily up to now, but it is not my custom. We will talk about opening the cabinet later on. I have one suggestion to make to you first, and that is that you take the obvious course and put Lord Edward Keynsham through it.”

“I shall send for him to-morrow morning,” Matterson promised. “Apart from Keynsham, however, there is another aspect of the matter which gives me to think. Cecil Brandt deliberately, on the morning of his death, sent the key to you, Sir Humphrey, after having appointed you his executor.”

“He certainly did.”

“Well, of course, if the cabinet contains a few million dollars belonging to his estate, that’s all right. If it contains something entirely different, and I cannot think that the most avaricious company of men in the world would be taking these risks for money alone, then there seems something very sinister to me in the thought of that man, on his way to the scaffold, imposing a charge upon you which he must have believed would cost you your life.”

Katherine shivered in her place.

“Has that only just occurred to you?” she exclaimed. “It has been in my mind all the time.”

“Had your husband any feeling against Sir Humphrey?” Matterson asked.

“I believe that he hated him,” she replied passionately. “I believe that is why he made him his executor, and why he sent him the key. I believe it was firmly in his mind that the possession of that key by any outside person meant certain death.”

Detective Inspector Pank followed the stately Parkins down the broad staircase with its delightful little curve at the end, across the square hall and into the library. The latter turned on the lights from the single controlling switch, soft and radiant lights which sprang out from unexpected places, all shaded but nevertheless amply illuminating.

“The telephone instrument is there, sir,” the man announced, indicating the writing table. “That is Sir Humphrey’s private line. The telephone on the other side of the room can be used for general purposes. The one you have in your hand there is always through to Scotland Yard.”

“I quite understand,” was the brief reply. “I have often answered it from the other end.”

Parkins bowed a little stiffly and withdrew. Personally he had had quite enough of these detective people around the place. He knew of one other upon the back staircase, he had come upon one a few minutes ago in the little cloak closet, leading from the hall, there were two parading the streets, and he had an idea there was still another mislaid somewhere. This mystery business was getting on his nerves. A Cabinet Minister, of course, was a Cabinet Minister, but after all, it seemed to him that there was no occasion for Sir Humphrey, in his position, to get mixed up in these murdering affairs. He made off to air his sentiments to the cook and to inquire about dinner. . . .

Pank unhooked the telephone receiver, murmured a word to the exchange, and found himself connected with the department he desired.

“Pank speaking,” he announced, “speaking for the Subcommissioner. Any one brought in for the Grimmett affair?”

“Not a soul,” was the disconsolate reply.

“Anything doing at all?”

“Nothing. There was a great crowd in Lombard Street just at the time the affair took place. Two respectably dressed men would have no difficulty whatever in slipping away, so long as they got a start. Smithers has just come in, tired out.”

“Ring up if there’s anything within the next ten minutes or a quarter of an hour,” Pank directed. “The Home Secretary’s line to Chestow Square. The Chief is here.”

“Very good, Inspector.”

Then there was silence. Pank hung up the telephone a little wearily. He himself had plodded on steadily enough, but the case was full of disappointments. Suddenly there was darkness. Every light in the room went out. There was just sufficient illumination for him to see a tall, shapeless figure who, in some mysterious fashion, had glided between him and the door.

“You’re covered, young fellow, and I’m not particular how soon I shoot. Put up your hands!” a savage voice ordered.

Pank obeyed. He had felt one little stab at the heart when the darkness had come, otherwise he was cool enough. They did not mean to kill him or they would have shot first.

“You’ve been upstairs with the Subcommissioner of Scotland Yard, the Home Secretary and Mrs. Brandt,” the unfamiliar voice continued. “You have been talking about a certain key. Sir Humphrey has probably told you where it is. You had better tell me.”

“If we are to discuss that key,” Pank remarked coolly, “you know much more about it than we do. Why not satisfy our curiosity? What is it that it opens? And what is inside when we get there?”

There was the sound of a chuckle through the darkness.

“You’re a cool customer, aren’t you? You’re not by any chance that little terror Pank, who has been barking around our heels, are you?”

“That is my name,” was the bold reply.

“What a nerve! You know what I’m holding, don’t you?”

“So far as I can see, it looks like some sort of a firearm.”

“It’s an automatic. I never carry a revolver now. I feel hampered with only six cartridges. I like to make sure of a job---shoot straight and shoot often, you know. We’re like that where I come from.”

“Where do you come from?” Pank enquired. “We’re getting rather curious about you fellows up at Scotland Yard.”

“What a nerve!” the other repeated admiringly. “So you’re Pank, eh, and they’re getting curious about us up at Scotland Yard?”

“Go on talking,” Pank begged. “I like to hear you. Criminals have been identified before now by their voices.”

“Have they? Well, you won’t hear many more words from me or any one else in this world,” was the sneering retort. “If you tell the truth, and it sounds like the truth, and I’m sure of getting away comfortably, well---I shan’t promise anything, but I might let you go. Otherwise you’re for the narrow box and the white flowers.”

“You’re very generous.”

“I’m not. I’m proposing a deal but you’ll have to be darn slick about it. I came here to find out where that key is and I guessed I should find one of you hanging around the telephone. You know where it is. Cough it up.”

“Know where what is?”

“The key. You may think these stupid questions save time, but they make no difference. If I hear a step on the stairs, the turning of the handle of a door, if that curtain rustles, or there is the slightest suspicious sound, I shall make sure of you, Pank. There’s nothing can save you but the key. Where is it?”

“Where you can’t get at it,” Pank assured his unseen cross-examiner.

“There’s no place in the world we can’t get at,” was the scornful reply. “You don’t know who you’re talking to. Listen, you have three chances. This is the first one. Where is the key?”

There was a brief, pulsating silence. Pank thought of many things. He wondered whether the report of a gun would be heard upstairs. He wondered whether the plain-clothes policeman, whose steady footsteps he could hear every now and then upon the pavement, would notice that the lights had been turned down. He wondered----

“For the second time---where is the key?” the voice barked out.

“How the devil should I know?” Pank protested. “And what would you think of me, I wonder, if I told you? Shoot if you want to and get it over. There are plenty more dangerous men at the Yard than I.”

“For the third time, Pank---where is the key? Remember Grimmett this afternoon. We keep our word.”

There was menace, steel-like and convincing, in that deep voice, Pank thought. He sprang desperately forward at the immovable, mocking figure. There was a sheet of flame, a muffled report, a sharp pain in his shoulder. Who said the room was dark? There were lights all round him, flaming lights. No, that was fancy. His brain had lit the lamps. His fancy had triumphed for a moment. He was going down, sinking somewhere. The shapeless body a few feet away was moving towards him. His brain was working in earnest now. Softly he relaxed his limbs. He crumpled up face downward upon the floor. He heard the quick breathing of the man leaning over him. He knew, as surely as though he could read the thoughts forming in the brain of that stooping figure, that he was hesitating whether to shoot again or not. Pank choked the groan which nearly escaped from his lips. He lay motionless. In a few seconds he heard the other’s retreating footsteps. He heard the door open. A moment later the front door opened and closed. . . .

“What was that?” Colonel Matterson asked in the drawing-room upstairs.

“It was either a door slamming or a gun,” Sir Humphrey replied, springing to his feet.

“Worse than that,” Matterson groaned, leading the way towards the door. “It was one of those new automatics with a silencer. They were testing them for us last week. Keep back, Sir Humphrey; this is my job, not yours.”

Nevertheless, they both reached the library about the same moment. It was Sir Humphrey’s fingers which found the switch first and turned on the lights. Pank was lying there, all doubled up, a motionless, pathetic figure. Otherwise the room was empty.
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