Dangerous Cargo - Hulbert Footner - ebook

Dangerous Cargo ebook

Hulbert Footner



Richard Austin Freeman, the doyen of the scientific division of detective writing is best known for his character Dr. John Thorndyke. A close and careful investigator and the outstanding medical authority in the field of detective fiction, R. Austin Freeman not only tested the wits of the reader but also inspired many modern detective forensic methods. „Shuttlebury Cobb” is a completely different sort of book. In it Freeman demonstrates his sense of humor and whimsy as he follows the strange and always comic adventures of the hero of the title who finds himself caught up by chance in the quest for a mysterious treasure. Charting a series of adventures set in many strange scenarios, Mr. Shuttlebury Cobb is led through the dark and twisted streets of London where he meets a highly gifted stranger, enters secret chambers, and finds a magic mirror. Cobb engages with a secret code and a castaway in a delightful collection designed to while away the hours.

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WHEN hard times were at their hardest, it was customary for the newspapers to say that Horace Laghet had all the money in the country. His name was on every lip; the least of his doings and sayings constituted front page stuff.

He first came into prominence during the panic of 1929 when it transpired that he had sold short. Of course he made millions. And after that, when everybody else was desperately trying to revive confidence, Laghet continued to sell America short, and America, unfortunately, justified his disbelief. He raked in more and more millions.

He spent lavishly. At a time when the building trades were almost at a standstill he commenced the construction of a huge marble palace on upper Fifth Avenue and another at Newport. He ordered a yacht that was to exceed any yacht ever built. When these extravagances were criticised he retorted: “Well, I’m keeping the money in circulation, am I not?” And there was no come-back.

To do him justice, I must say that he subscribed great sums to the unemployment funds, and to every form of relief. It did not do him any good. People felt that he ought have given more. In the gay old days millionaires used to be respected–or at least admired, but not now. People felt in a dim way that Laghet had profited out of the country’s misfortunes, and he was hated.

Lord! how he was hated. His name was never mentioned without a covert sneer. It was said that his life had been attempted several times, and that he never ventured out without an armed guard.

This being the situation, my excitement can be understood when one morning a crisp voice said over the ‘phone: “This is Horace Laghet speaking.” Just like that. No hireling or secretary, but the great man himself. At first I thought it was a hoax.

“Is Madame Storey in her office?” he asked.

“I’ll see,” I said cautiously.

“Oh, don’t give me that bunk!” he said. “I’m Horace Laghet. Connect me with her.”

“If I were sure that it was Mr. Laghet speaking…” I began.

“Connect me! Connect me!” he shouted. “She can hang up if she’s not satisfied, can’t she?”

I thought it best to switch the call to my employer’s desk. She was cool and off-hand. He asked if he could see her. “I can give you half an hour at noon,” she said. She politely declined an invitation to lunch. He said, “Very well, I’ll be there at twelve.”

When she had hung up I went in. She was helping herself to a cigarette with an amused smile. “Well, Bella, business is picking up,” she said.

“Fancy! Horace Laghet coming here!” I said, all agog.

“Well, there’s no occasion to strew roses in his path,” she said.

When he entered my office I got a shock. I suppose I had read that he was only thirty-five years old, but it was hard to believe that the man everybody was talking about could be so young. A tall stalwart figure at the top-notch of a man’s vigour, with a deeply tanned skin, though the month was February. He had a dark, passionate face that could be brutal, I suspected, but at present was masked by a courteous smile. He had the air of assurance that great riches give to a man, but I discovered that he was easily upset.

I opened the door of Mme. Storey’s office, and followed him in. He stopped short at the sight of her. “I didn’t think that you would be like this,” he said. His black eyes fired up with admiration. He was a disturbing man to women.

Mme. Storey is used to this sort of thing. “That can be taken in two ways,” she murmured.

“You know what I mean,” he said. “Of course, I have often seen your photograph and admired it. But the published photographs of prominent women are so touched up that you never believe in them.”

She smiled ironically.

“Sit down,” she said. “Have a cigarette?”

He glanced at me deprecatingly. “I wished to see you alone.”

“Miss Brickley is present at all interviews,” said Mme. Storey. “It is a rule I have made.”

He stood up, and his face flushed darkly. “I am not just an ordinary caller!” he said angrily. “This is important.”

It was the wrong line to take with my employer. “It is my rule,” she repeated, with deceitful mildness. I thought he was going to walk right out of the door again, and my heart sank. The richest man in town walking out of the door! However, he thought better of it. He sat down again, and after a moment succeeded in smoothing his ruffed plumage. I went to my desk in the corner.

“I suppose you know who I am,” he began.

“I read the newspapers,” said Mme. Storey, smiling.

A spasm of anger crossed his face. “Yes, damn it!” he muttered, “and a nice sort of scoundrel they make me out to be!…Have you noticed that I have had a yacht built, and am starting on a cruise with a party of guests to-morrow?”

“I had seen a later date mentioned.”

“I know. But the President-elect sent for me yesterday, and from what I learned from him I can see that there is a bad time ahead of us. Worse than anything we have been through. Well, I mean to be out of the way of it. They blame me for everything that happens. I’m going for a six months’ cruise to the West Indies and to South America.”

“How pleasant,” said Mme. Storey. “What can I do for you?”

“Two weeks ago,” he went on, “I was called up at my office by a woman’s voice. A superior sort of voice, soft-spoken, educated. She warned me not to go on this voyage. When I pressed her for particulars she hung up. Well, I am frequently called up or addressed through the mail by triflers, so I thought no more about it.

“But to-day she called up again. There was a ring of earnestness in her voice. You can’t mistake that sort of thing. She was crying; she seemed scarcely able to speak for terror. All she said was that if I went on this voyage I should never come back alive. That they were laying for me. When I tried to get more out of her she hung up.”

“How did she reach your ear on both occasions?” asked Mme. Storey.

“I have a private ‘phone on my desk that is connected directly with the exchange. She called up on that.”

“She knew the private number?”

“Oh, well, many do. There’s no clue in that.”

“It is impossible to trace ‘phone calls in these days of dial ‘phones,” said Mme. Storey.

“I don’t want you to trace the call,” he said. “I want you to come with me on the voyage…And your secretary, if you want her. Ostensibly you will be my guests, but in reality you will be working for me.”

I was so astonished my jaw dropped as if the spring had broken. I expect I gaped at the man like a clown.

Mme. Storey was not at all put about. “If you think there is anything in this warning,” she said, “my honest advice to you is to give up the voyage.”

“Never!” he said, setting his jaw. “This yacht has cost me three millions. I’m going to sea in her.

“You don’t want anybody like me,” she said. “You need men who can guard you all the time.”

“I’ll have them if I need them. I want you to lay bare the plot, if there is a plot. Nobody can do that so well as you. What’s more, you will be a delightful addition to the party. I wouldn’t like to impose an ordinary detective on my guests.”

“Thanks,” said Mme. Storey dryly. “Frankly, it doesn’t appeal to me.”

“Why not?”

“Have you ever taken a long voyage in a yacht?”


“Well, I have. In such close quarters the guests get rather badly on each other’s nerves.” She looked at him in a dry way that suggested he himself was a bit too passionate and domineering to make the ideal fellow voyager.

He laughed it off. “You won’t find the quarters on the Buccaneer too close.”

“Buccaneer?” said Mme. Storey. “Well named!”

He was ready to get sore at that, but decided to laugh again. “Just a small party,” he said. “The ladies include my fiancée, Celia Dare, and her mother, and Mrs. Holder.”

“Who is Mrs. Holder?”

“Just a dear friend,” he said carelessly.

“A widow?”

“No. She’s got a perfectly good husband somewhere. He’s in business and can’t get away…The men will be my brother Adrian, young Emil Herbert, the celebrated pianist, and my secretary, Martin Coade. Martin is a host in himself. He’s in Holland just now, but will join the ship when we touch at Curaçao.”

“Such a ship must carry a big crew,” suggested Mme. Storey.

“Yes. Nearly a hundred men.”

“Easy to plant an assassin amongst them,” she murmured.

Laghet showed his teeth unpleasantly. “I assure you they have been hand-picked,” he said grimly.

Mme. Storey debated with herself.

“Five thousand dollars a week,” said Laghet seductively.

“Good pay,” she said.

“Will you take it?”

“Yes.” But as his hand shot out she held hers up. “…Under certain conditions.”

“Name them, Lady!”

“I cannot undertake any responsibility for your safety.”

“That’s understood.”

“Secondly, I must be free to terminate the agreement and leave the ship at any time.”

“Right! We’ll make it so pleasant for you, you won’t want to leave.”

“Thirdly, you must tell me the whole truth.”

He stared. “Why on earth shouldn’t I tell you the truth?”

“My dear man,” she said, “you haven’t reached your present position without–how can I put it inoffensively?–without being mixed up in things you don’t want to talk about. When I come to you for necessary information you must tell me the whole truth or I can do nothing.”

He appeared to like her frankness. “Agreed,” he said, grinning.

“Lastly, anybody can see that you have a dominating personality and do not take kindly to direction. But you must understand that in such situations as may arise out of this investigation, if you do not act as I advise you I will be useless to you.”

“That’s the hardest one,” he said ruefully. “It will be a novelty to take orders from a woman. However, I agree.”

They shook hands on it.

“Have you any idea who it is that may want to murder you?” asked Mme. Storey.

He shrugged. “It might be one of twenty men.”

“And is probably none of them,” she put in. “It is always the unexpected enemy who has murder in his heart.”

“Will you be ready to go aboard at noon tomorrow?” he asked eagerly.

“It would be wiser to put off the sailing until I can make a preliminary investigation.”

“Not an hour!” he said, with a darkening face.

“Very well,” she said, “in my business one has to be prepared for anything.”

“You’re a wonderful woman!” he cried. “I’m glad I came to you! I’ll make out a cheque to bind the bargain.” He did so then and there. When he got up to go, he said: “Perhaps it’s all a stall, anyhow. In that case we’ll have a swell time on the seven seas and forget the depression!”

Mme. Storey had half turned in her chair and was looking out of the window behind her. “It is not a stall,” she said quietly.

Laghet’s face sharpened. He showed his teeth. “What makes you so sure of that?” he demanded.

“Look out of the window,” she said. “Do not come close enough to show yourself. That man standing against the park railings opposite. The one with a greenish Fedora pulled over his eyes. Is he in your employ?”

“I never saw him before,” said Laghet.

“Then he’s a spy. He followed you here, and he will follow you when you leave.”

“But I came in my car!”

“No doubt he has a car waiting too.”

Laghet caught up his stick. “By God! I’ll soon settle his business!” he cried.

“What good will that do you?” said Mme. Storey. “He’s only a paid spy. If you assault him you’ll be arrested. You won’t be able to prove anything. It will only delay your sailing.”

“Damn it, I suppose you’re right!” he said, groaning with baulked rage. He jammed on his hat and strode out.


I STAYED that night with Mme. Storey at her place on East Sixty-Third Street. This had been arranged so that we could work late in clearing up all the odds and ends of business that demanded attention before she sailed. We had spent the afternoon in doing necessary shopping for the voyage. All our things were packed and ready.

I have had occasion before to describe my employer’s original little establishment. She and her friend, Mrs. Lysaght, bought an old brownstone house and transformed it into two maisonnettes in the French style. Mme. Storey occupies the two lower floors. The kitchen faces the street with a barred window that is left open at night for ventilation, and the dining-room opens on a tiny garden in the rear. Upstairs her bedroom is over the kitchen and her delightful living-room looks down on the garden.

As there is only one bedroom, I had to share it with her. Her maid, Grace, made up a bed on the sofa. Grace and the cook sleep up on the top floor of the house with Mrs. Lysaght’s maids. But the Lysaght establishment was closed at this time.

We had just gone to bed and were lying there talking about this and that. It was very late. The windows were open and the street was wrapped in stillness. Only a distant hum reminded us that we were part of a great city. The thought of danger to ourselves was farthest from our minds. In fact, for the moment we were occupied with the details of our own business, and had forgotten Horace Laghet.

I can remember hearing some clock strike two and Mme. Storey saying: “We must go to sleep!”

Suddenly we heard a hard object fall to the floor of the kitchen underneath us. We both jumped up and instinctively ran to the window. We were in time to see a man running away down the street towards Third Avenue. He ran awkwardly, with hunched shoulders and a sideways movement.

I would have shouted to stop him, but Mme. Storey clapped a hand over my mouth. “Too late to catch him now,” she said.

As she spoke there was an explosion, not very loud, in the room beneath us. And a moment afterwards that most awful sound of all at night; the rushing and snapping of fire. I stood in the middle of the bedroom, half stupefied. Mme. Storey gave me a shake.

“Put on your dressing-gown and slippers and follow me!”

It brought me to myself.

“Shall I telephone?” I asked.

“No!” she said, in a tone that surprised me.

Standing in the corner of the stair landing was a copper fire extinguisher. Mme. Storey snatched it up and ran down. On the lower landing was another extinguisher that she mutely pointed out to me. We could hear the flames roaring like devils behind the kitchen door. The difficulty was to get the door open. Fortunately it opened towards us, and Mme. Storey was able to shield herself behind it. Flame leaped out of the kitchen like a red ravening beast, shrivelling us with its hot breath.

The whole room was blazing at once and little runnels of fire crept over the sill into the hall. It burned with that special speed and fury that only gasoline can induce. Mme. Storey, backing away out of reach of the flames into the dining-room, turned her extinguisher upon them. The thin hissing stream was swallowed up and lost. The fire only roared louder. Suffocating black smoke billowed into our faces. Mme. Storey was driven back foot by foot.

“We must get out of here!” I cried.

She paid no attention. After a moment, she muttered: “Open the window at my back. The wind is on that side.”

I obeyed, and a current of air was created that held the flames and smoke in check. On the other side of that wall of flame I could hear cries from the street. Mme. Storey began to regain the lost ground, driving the flames back with an unerring eye whenever they tried to flank her. I stood with the second extinguisher ready to hand to her when the first was exhausted.

We crossed the hall again. The two maids came running down the stairs. They stood on the bottom step, fascinated with horror but perfectly silent. They had confidence in their mistress’ ability to handle any thing. The fire was forced back, snarling, into the kitchen. We heard the fire trucks coming from afar.

Once the chemical mixture got the upper hand, the fire soon gave up. All around the walls Mme. Storey drove it back towards the window. Suddenly it was out and the kitchen was just a black charred hole. Through the window I had a glimpse of the crowd hanging over the railings. The lights had not been burned out, and I got them turned on. After all, not much had suffered but paint, varnish and plaster. But what an escape!

In the middle of the floor lay a tell-tale jagged piece of tin. We found another behind the stove. Meanwhile, the trucks had drawn up outside and the firemen were banging on the ornamental iron gate that gives entrance to the house alongside the kitchen. I started to let them in, but my employer laid a hand on my arm.

“We don’t want any investigation, Bella.”

Opening the cellar door, she kicked the two pieces of tin downstairs.

The firemen swarmed in, nosed all around as they always do, and asked the usual questions. Mme. Storey’s explanation was ingenious.

“I came downstairs to heat some water on the gas stove, and went up again. I suppose the curtain at the window blew across the flame and caught fire. Unfortunately, my maid had left a can of cleaning fluid on the window sill and that exploded.”

“Very careless to leave an explosive so near the stove, Madam,” said the fire captain.

“You are absolutely right, Chief,” she replied with a perfectly straight face. “I shall scold the girl severely, and I can promise you it won’t happen again.”

She led them into the dining-room for a little refreshment, and they presently departed with loud praises for her presence of mind. The trucks roared away down the street, and a great quiet descended on the street. Mme. Storey and I went back to bed, but not, to sleep.

At eleven o’clock next morning we were seated in the living-room with Latham Rowe, Mme. Storey’s attorney. A horrible stale smell of wet burnt stuff filled the house. Our baggage had been sent on ahead to the yacht landing, and we were all set to go in hats and gloves.

Latham is a nice man, the chubby, sweet-tempered type that is predestined to be the friend of every woman and the husband of none. Mme. Storey was saying:

“I’ll have to leave it to you to see that the insurance is collected and the repairs properly done.”

“Sure!” he said, “but tell me, Rosika, on the level, what caused this fire. You can’t expect me to believe that bunk about Grace’s carelessness.”

Mme. Storey smiled. “It cost me a new dress to square Grace for that lie,” she said. “The truth is, somebody shoved an open can of gasoline between the bars of the kitchen window last night, and threw a lighted match or something of that sort after it.”

Latham’s rosy face paled. “Good God! what a fiendish thing to do!” he cried. “And you’re not going to say anything about it!”

“If there was an investigation it would prevent me from going on this voyage. And nothing would come of it. I prefer to deal with my enemies myself.”

“Have you any idea who did it?” he asked.

“It was obviously somebody who didn’t want me aboard the yacht.”

“And you’re still determined to go!”

She smiled at his simple earnestness.

“I cannot take a dare, my dear. It is a weakness of my character. Yesterday I wasn’t at all keen, but to-day I’m mad to.”

He was terribly distressed.

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