THE fog, which was later to descend upon London, blotting out every landmark, was as yet a grey, misty threat. The light had gone from the sky, and the street-lamps made a blurred showing when the man from the South came unsteadily into Portman Square. In spite of the raw cold he wore no overcoat; his shirt was open at his throat. He walked along, peering up at the doors, and presently he stopped before No. 551 and made a survey of the darkened windows. The corner of his scarred mouth lifted in a sardonic smile.
Strong drink magnifies all dominant emotions. The genial man grows more fond of his fellows, the quarrelsome more bitter. But in the man who harbours a sober grievance, booze brings the red haze that enshrouds murder. And Laker had both the grievance and the medium of magnification.
He would teach this old devil that he couldn't rob men without a come-back. The dirty skinflint who lived on the risk which his betters were taking. Here was Laker, almost penniless, with a long and painful voyage behind him, and the memory of the close call that had come in Cape Town, when his room had been searched by the police. A dog's life—that was what he was living. Why should old Malpas, who had not so long to exist, anyway, live in luxury whilst his best agent roughed it? Laker always felt like this when he was drunk.
He was hardly the type that might be expected to walk boldly up to the front door of 551 Portman Square. His long, unshaven face, the old knife wound that ran diagonally from cheek to point of chin, the low forehead, covered with a ragged fringe of hair, taken in conjunction with his outfit, suggested abject poverty.
He stood for a moment, looking down at his awkward-looking boots, and then, mounting the steps, he tapped slowly at the door. Instantly a voice asked: "Who is that?"
"Laker—that's who!" he said loudly.
A little pause, and the door opened noiselessly and he passed through. There was nobody to receive him, nor did he expect to see a servant. Crossing the bare hall, he walked up the stairs, through an open door and a small lobby into a darkened room. The only light was from a green-shaded lamp on the writing-table, at which an old man sat. Laker stood just inside the room and heard the door close behind him. "Sit down," said the man at the far end of the room. The visitor had no need for guidance: he knew exactly where the chair and table were, three paces from where he stood, and without a word he seated himself. Again that grin of his twisted his face, but his repulsive-looking host could not see this. "When did you come?"
"I came in the Buluwayo. We docked this morning," said Laker. "I want some money, and I want it quick, Malpas!"
"Put down what you have brought, on the table," said the old man harshly. "Return in a quarter of an hour and the money will be waiting for you."
"I want it now," said the other with drunken obstinacy. Malpas turned his hideous face towards the visitor. "There's only one method in this shop," he said gratingly, "and that's mine! Leave it or take it away. You're drunk, Laker, and when you're drunk you're a fool."
"Maybe I am. But I'm not such a fool that I'm going to take the risks I've been taking any more! And you're taking some too, Malpas. You don't know who's living next door to you."
He remembered this item of information, discovered by accident that very morning.
The man he called Malpas drew his padded dressing-gown a little closer around his shoulders, and chuckled.
"I don't know, eh? Don't know that Lacy Marshalt is living next door? Why do you think I'm living here, you fool, if it is not to be next to him?"
The drunkard stared open-mouthed. "Next to him … what for? He's one of the men you're robbing—he's a crook, but you're robbing him! What do you want to get next to him for?"
"That's my business," said the other curtly. "Leave the stuff and go."
"Leave nothing," said Laker, and rose awkwardly to his feet. "And I'm not leaving this place either, till I know all about you, Malpas. I've been thinking things out. You're not what you look. You don't sit at one end of this dark room and keep the likes of me at the other end for nothing. I'm going to have a good look at you, son. And don't move. You can't see the gun in my hand, but you've got my word it's there!"
He took two steps forward, and then something checked him and threw him back. It was a wire, invisible in the darkness, stretched breast-high from wall to wall. Before he could recover his balance, the light went out.
And then there came upon the man a fit of insane fury. With a roar he leaped forward, snapping the wire. A second obstruction, this time a foot from the ground, caught his legs and brought him sprawling.
"Show a light, you old thief!" he screamed as he staggered lo his feet, stool in hand. "You've been robbing me for years—living on me, you old devil! I'm going to squeal, Malpas! You pay or I'll squeal!"
"That's the third time you've threatened me."
The voice was behind him, and he spun round and, in a frenzy of fury, fired. The draped walls muffled the explosion, but in the instant's flash of flame he saw a figue creeping towards the door, and, stark mad with anger, fired again. The reek of burnt cordite hung in that airless room like a veil. "Put on the light; put on the light!" he screamed. And then the door opened and he saw the figure slip through. In a second he was out on the landing, but the old man had disappeared. Where had he gone? There was another door, and he flung himself against it.
"Come out!" he roared. "Come out and face me, you Judas!"
He heard a click behind him. The door of the room whence he had come had closed. A flight of stairs led to another story, and he put one foot on the lower stair and stopped. He was conscious that he was still holding the little leather bag that lie had taken from his pocket when he came into the room, and, realizing that he was going away empty-handed, with his linsiness incomplete, he hammered at the door behind which he guessed his employer was sheltering.
"Aw, come out, Malpas! There'll be no trouble. I'm a bit drunk, I guess."
There was no answer.
"I'm sorry, Malpas." He saw something at his feet, and, stooping, picked it up. It was a waxen chin, perfectly modelled and coloured, and it had evidently been held in position by two elastic bands, one of which was broken. The sight of this tickled him and he burst into a yell of laughter.
"Say, Malpas! I've got a part of your face!" he said. "Come out, or I'll take this funny chin of yours to the police. Maybe they'll want to recover the rest of you."
No answer came, and, still chuckling, he went down the stairs and sought to open the front door. There was no handle, and the keyhole was tiny, and, squinting through, he could see nothing.
His big voice came echoing down from the empty rooms above, and with a curse he flew up the stairs again. He was half-way to the first landing when something dropped. Looking up, he saw the hateful face above, saw the black weight falling, and strove to avoid it. Another second and he was sliding down the stairs, an inert mass.