Mr. Maverick Narkom, Superintendent of Scotland Yard, sat before the litter of papers upon his desk. His brow was puckered, his fat face red with anxiety, and there was about him the air of one who has reached the end of his tether.
He faced the man opposite, and fairly ground his teeth upon his lower lip.
"Dash it, Cleek!" he said for the thirty-third time, "I don't know what to make of it, I don't, indeed! The thing's at a deadlock. Hammond reports to me this morning that another bank in Hendon—a little one-horse affair—has been broken into. That makes the third this week, and as usual every piece of gold is gone. Not a bank note touched, not a bond even fingered. And the thief—or thieves—made as clean a get-away as you ever laid your eyes on! I tell you, man, it's enough to send an average person daft! The whole of Scotland Yard's been on the thing, and we haven't traced 'em yet! What do you make of it, old chap?"
"As pretty a kettle of fish as I ever came across," responded Cleek, with an enigmatic smile. "And I can't help having a sneaking admiration for the person who's engineering the whole thing. How he must laugh at the state of the old Yard, with never a clue to settle down upon, never a thread to pick up and unravel! All of which is unbusinesslike of me, I've no doubt. But, cheer up, man, I've a piece of news which ought to help matters on a bit. Just came from the War Office, you know."
Mr. Narkom mopped his forehead eagerly. The action was one which Cleek knew showed that every nerve was tense.
"Well, out with it, old chap! Anything to cast some light on the inexplicable thing. What did you learn at the War Office?"
"A good many things—after I had unravelled several hundred yards of red tape to get at 'em," said Cleek, still smiling. "Chief among them was this: Much English gold has been discovered in Belgium, Mr. Narkom, in connection with several big electrical firms engaged upon work out there. The Secret Service wired over that fact, and I got it first hand. Now it strikes me there must be some connection between the two things. These bank robberies point in one direction, and that is, that the gold is not for use in this country. Now let's hear the full account of this latest outrage. I'm all ears, as the donkey said to the ostrich. Fire away."
Mr. Narkom "fired away" forthwith. He was a bland, round little man, rather too fat for one's conceptions of what a policeman ought to be, yet with that lightness of foot that so many stout people seem to possess.
Cleek presented a keen contrast to him. His broad-shouldered, well-groomed person would have adorned any company. His head was well-set upon his neck, and his features at this moment were small and inclined to be aquiline. He had closely set ears that lay well back against his head, and his hands were slim and exceedingly well-kept. Of his age—well that, like himself, was an enigma. To-day he might have been anything between thirty-five and forty—to-morrow probably he would be looking nineteen. That was part of the peculiar birthright of the man, that and a mobility of feature which enabled him to alter his face completely in the passing of a second, a gift which at least one notorious criminal of history also possessed.
He sat now, playing with the silver-topped cane between his knees, his head slightly to one side, his whole manner one of polite and tolerant interest. But Mr. Narkom knew that this same manner marked an intensity of concentration which was positively unique. Without more ado he plunged into the details of his story.
"It happened in this wise, Cleek," he said, tapping his fountain-pen against his blotter until little spouts of ink fell out like jet beads. "This is at least the ninth case of the kind we've had reported to us within the space of the last fortnight. The first robbery was at a tiny branch bank in Purley, and the bag amounted to a matter of a couple of hundred or so sovereigns; the second was at Peckham—on the outskirts, you understand; the third at Harrow; the fourth somewhere near Forest Hill, and the fifth in Croydon. Other places on the South East side of London have come in for their share, too, as for instance Anerley and Sutton. This last affair took place at Hendon, during the evening of Saturday last—the sixteenth, wasn't it? No one observed anything untoward in the least, that is except one witness who relates how he saw a motor car standing outside the bank's premises at half past nine at night. He gave no thought to this, as he probably imagined, if he thought of the coincidence at all, that the manager had called there for something he had forgotten in his office."
"And where, then, does the manager live, if not over the bank itself?" put in Cleek at this juncture.
"With his wife and family, in a house some distance away. A couple of old bank people—a porter and his wife who are both thoroughly trustworthy in every way, so Mr. Barker tells me—act as caretakers. But they positively assert that they heard no one in the place that night, and no untoward happening occurred to their knowledge."
"And yet the bank was broken into, and the gold taken," supplemented Cleek quietly. "And what then, Mr. Narkom? How was the deed done?"
"Oh, the usual methods. The skeleton keys of a master crook obviously opened the door to the premises themselves, and soup was used to crack the safe. Everything was left perfectly neat and tidy and only the bags of gold—amounting to seven hundred and fifty pounds—were gone. And not a trace of a clue to give one a notion of who did the confounded thing, or where they came from!"
"Hmm. Any finger-prints?"
Mr. Narkom shook his head.
"None. The thief or thieves used rubber gloves to handle the thing. And that was the only leg given us to stand upon, so to speak. For rubber gloves, when they are new, particularly, possess a very strong smell, and this still clung to the door-knob of the safe, and to several objects near it. That was how we deduced the rubber-glove theory of no finger-prints at all, Cleek."
"And a very worthy deduction too, my friend," responded that gentleman, with something of tolerance in his smile. "And so you have absolutely nothing to go by. Poor Mr. Narkom! The path of Law and Justice is by no means an easy one to tread, is it? Of course you can count upon me to help you in every way. That goes without saying. But I can't help thinking that this news from the War Office with regard to English gold in Belgium has something to do with these bank robberies, my friend. The two things seem to hang together in my mind, and a dollar to a ducat that in the long run they identify themselves thus… . Hello! Who's that?" as a tap sounded at the door. "I'll be off if you're expecting visitors. I want to look into this thing a little closer. Some time or other the thieves are bound to leave a clue behind. Success breeds carelessness, you know, and if they think that Scotland Yard is giving the business up as a bad job, they won't be so deuced particular as to clearing up afterward. We'll unravel the thing between us, never fear."
"I wish I could think so, old chap!" said Mr. Narkom, a trifle gloomily, as he called "Come in!" The door opened to admit Petrie, very straight and business-like. "But you're no end of a help. It does me good just to see you. What is it, Petrie?"
"A gentleman to see you, sir," responded the constable in crisp tones. "A gentleman by name of Merriton, Sir Nigel Merriton he said his name was. Bit of a toff I should say by the look of 'im. And wants to see you partikler. He mentioned Mr. Cleek's name, sir, but I told 'im he wasn't in at the moment. Shall I show him up?"
"Quite right, Petrie," laughed Cleek, in recognition of this act of one of the Yard's subordinates; for everyone was to do everything in his power to shield Cleek's identity. "I'll stay if you don't mind, Mr. Narkom. I happen to know something of this Merriton. A fine upstanding young man, who, once upon a time was very great friends with Miss Lorne. That was in the old Hawksley days. Chap's lately come into his inheritance, I believe. Uncle disappeared some five or six years ago and legal time being up, young Merriton has come over to claim his own. The thing made a newspaper story for a week when it happened, but they never found any trace of the old man. And now the young one is over here, bearing the title, and I suppose living as master of the Towers—spooklike spot that it is! Needn't say who I am, old chap, until I hear a bit. I'll just shift over there by the window and read the news, if you don't mind."
"Right you are." Mr. Narkom struggled into his coat—which he generally disposed of during private office hours. Then he gave the order for the gentleman to be shown in and Petrie disappeared forthwith.
But during the time which intervened before Merriton's arrival, Cleek did a little "altering" in face and general get-up, and when he did appear certainly no one would have recognized the aristocratic looking individual of a moment or two before, in an ordinary-appearing, stoop-shouldered, rather racy-looking tout.
"Ready," said Cleek at last, and Mr. Narkom touched the bell upon his table. Immediately the door opened and Petrie appeared followed closely by young Sir Nigel Merriton, whose clean-cut face was grim and whose mouth was set forbiddingly.
And in this fashion was Cleek introduced to the chief character of a case which was to prove one of the strangest of his whole career. There was nothing about Sir Nigel, a well-dressed man about town, to indicate that he was to be the centre of an extraordinary drama, yet such was to be the case.
He was obviously perturbed, but those who sought Mr. Narkom's counsel were frequently agitated; for no one can be even remotely connected with crime in one form or another without showing excitement to a greater or lesser degree. And so his manner by no means set Sir Nigel apart from many another visitor to the Superintendent's sanctum.
Mr. Narkom's cordial nod brought from the young man a demand to see "Mr. Cleek," of whom he had heard such wonderful tales. Mr. Narkom, with one eye on that very gentleman's back, announced gravely that Cleek was absent on a government case, and asked what he could do. He waved a hand in Cleek's direction and said that here was one of his men who would doubtless be able to help Sir Nigel in any difficulty he might happen to be in at the moment.
Now, as Sir Nigel's story was a long one, and as the young man was too agitated to tell it altogether coherently, we will go back for a certain space of time, and tell the very remarkable story, the details of which were told to Mr. Narkom and his nameless associate in the Superintendent's office, and which was to involve Cleek of Scotland Yard in a case which was later to receive the title of the Riddle of the Frozen Flame.
Much that he told them of his family history was already known to Cleek, whose uncanny knowledge of men and affairs was a by-word, but as that part of the story itself was not without romance, it must be told too, and to do so takes the reader back to a few months before his present visit to the precincts of the Law, when Sir Nigel Merriton returned to England after twelve years of army life in India. A few days he had spent in London, renewing acquaintances, revisiting places he knew—to find them wonderfully little changed—and then had journeyed to Merriton Towers, the place which was to be his, due to the extraordinary disappearance of his uncle—a disappearance which was yet to be explained.
Ill luck had often seemed to dog the footsteps of his house and even his journey home was not without a mishap; nothing serious, as things turned out, but still something that might have been vastly so. His train was in a wreck, rather a nasty one, but Nigel himself had come out unscathed, and much to be congratulated, he thought, since through that wreck he has become acquainted with what he firmly believed to be the most beautiful girl in the world. Better yet, he had learned that she was a neighbour of his at Merriton Towers. That fact helped him through what he felt was going to be somewhat of an ordeal—his entrance into the gloomy and ghost-ridden old house of his inheritance.