The Crimes Club. A Record of Secret Investigations Into Some Amazing Crimes, Mostly Withheld From the Public - William Le Queux - ebook
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I sometimes despair of the country ever becoming alive to the danger of the unpreparedness of our present position until too late to prevent some fatal catastrophe. This was the keynote of a solemn warning made in the House of Lords by Earl Roberts. His lordship, whilst drawing attention to our present inadequate forces, strongly urged that action should be taken in accordance with the recommendations of the Elgin Commission that „no military system could be considered satisfactory which did not contain powers of expansion outside the limit of the regular forces of the Crown.”

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Contents

CASE NUMBER ONE THE GOLDEN GRASSHOPPER

CASE NUMBER TWO THE PURPLE DEATH

CASE NUMBER THREE THE MAN WITH THE SQUINT

CASE NUMBER FOUR THE ROGUE OF THE RUE ROYALE

CASE NUMBER FIVE THE CROOKED SOU

CASE NUMBER SIX THE CLOCHE HAT

CASE NUMBER SEVEN THE AFFAIR OF THE ORANGE

CASE NUMBER EIGHT THE HOUSE OF EVIL

CASE NUMBER NINE A SECRET OF THE UNDERWORLD

CASE NUMBER TEN THE ELUSIVE CLUE

CASE NUMBER ELEVEN THE GUINEA PIG'S TAIL

CASE NUMBER TWELVE THE GREAT THAMES MYSTERY

CASE NUMBER ONE

THE GOLDEN GRASSHOPPER

“SO the affair as it stands is a complete enigma!”

It was the Baron who spoke. The elegant, brown-bearded, rather sallow-faced Frenchman glanced around at the nine persons sitting at a large, round table in a private room with locked doors at the Café de L’Univers, an unpretentious little place, in the Rue St. Antoine, in Paris.

Upon the table were coffee and liqueurs, for the usual monthly dinner of the Crimes Club was being held, and one of its members, Monsieur Lucien Dubosq, a slim, dark-eyed, bearded, elegant man, who was Chef de la Sûreté, had just related an extraordinary story.

The others had listened intently, and the Baron had made the remark when Dubosq had finished.

The assembly was a curious one.

The membership of the club, formed for the study of the psychology of crime, was confined to ten, and that night all were present. They were Professor Ernest Lemelletier, grave, lantern-jawed, with iron-grey hair and moustache, who was the most eminent medico-legist in France, and who, it will be recollected, distinguished himself in the Landru case; Dr. Henri Plaud, an upright, sparse man of seventy with white hair and beard, who was a well-known toxicologist and Senator of Vaucluse; Maître Jean Tessier, a dark-eyed, round-faced man, who, though not yet of middle-age, had already distinguished himself as a lawyer and Deputy for the Yonne; Maurice Jacquinot, a slim, rather effeminate, fair-haired journalist, whose speciality was the investigation of crime mysteries for the great Paris newspaper Le Journal; the Baron Edouard d’Antenac, a podgy, over-fed man-about-town, who had spoken; M. Gustave Delcros, a wizened little man, who had been Minister of Marine in the Briand Cabinet; a fair-haired, clean-shaven English inventor of wireless television, named Gordon Latimer; and two ladies, one a pretty, dark-haired Parisienne of twenty-two, Mademoiselle Fernande Buysse, who followed the profession of lady journalist; and a stout, rather handsome woman of forty-five, Madame Léontine Van Hecke, who acted as secretary to the club which, however, had no president–all members being equal.

The Crimes Club was a secret organization to which no outsider was ever admitted under any pretext, while its proceedings were never mentioned in the newspapers.

Besides studying crime, its unique purpose was to assist the police of France, or of any other country, to unravel the mysteries that baffled them. In certain bewildering cases the club had met with marked success, but the one which the Chief of the Paris detective police had placed before them for their consideration was, as the Baron had remarked, a complete enigma, which they began at once to discuss in detail.

Briefly put, the French police had been approached by the Swiss police at Berne for help in a mysterious case that had occurred in the Bernese Oberland, near the foot of the Jungfrau. A young clerk named Frank MacBean, engaged in the Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh, had gone to Switzerland for his summer holiday and had stayed at Interlaken, where his fiancée, a Swiss girl, Mariette Raeber, lived. Naturally, they went for excursions together up to Grindelwald, along by the lakes to Brienz, Thun, and other places, when one day they went off together by train up the dark, magnificent valley to Lauterbrunnen. There they changed trains, and ascended to the Jungfrau, where they spent the day. According to the Swiss girl’s story, when they descended again in the evening to take the train back to Interlaken, he left her in the train at Scheidegg to go and take a photograph, saying that he would return in a few moments.

She waited until, without warning, the train went off. She tried to get out, but dare not jump, so she was taken down to Lauterbrunnen. There she awaited her fiancé until the last train; but he did not arrive. So she returned to Interlaken alone. She never saw him again, for he vanished, and every effort to trace him had failed.

“What about the books at the bank?” asked the lawyer Tessier.

“Examination has been made, and all accounts are in order,” replied the Chief of Police. “He was known to have upon him only two fifty-franc Swiss notes, a few centimes, and a gold signet-ring. That was all. His camera was found in a wood near the road, about a mile down the Lütschine, a broad and swift mountain torrent.”

“Deep?” asked the shrewd journalist, Jacquinot, greatly interested.

“No; shallow, but very swift. It runs over small boulders–glacier water from the Eiger Mountain,” was Dubosq’s reply.

A discussion followed, in which each of the ten gave his or her opinion, the general feeling being that the young man, having grown tired of the girl, had simply disappeared. The police of Europe daily receive hundreds of reports of friends who have disappeared, but in most cases the effacement is intentional, husbands leaving wives, and vice versa.

The Baron’s views differed from those of the others.

“If the pair were in love with each other, why should the young fellow disappear?” he queried. “It might be accident, or foul play. I suspect the latter; and I, for one, will go to Switzerland,” said the stout, over-fed man, who was an expert in criminal investigation.

“I will go with you,” volunteered Jacquinot, who, as a journalist, saw a great story in the affair.

“I also will go,” said the pretty young lady journalist, Fernande Buysse. “I want to question the Swiss girl, for I have a theory.”

When an investigation was undertaken by the Crimes Club it was left to the two or three volunteers to carry it out, while the others were at all times ready to assist, either in making inquiries or watching suspected persons.

Therefore a week later the adventurous trio arrived at the Hôtel du Lac, in Interlaken, as ordinary visitors, without disclosing to anybody the object of their visit. They found the local police and newspaper correspondents busy and intense excitement in the town regarding the young Scotsman’s disappearance. He had been staying at the Hôtel du Lac, the most popular hotel in the Bernese Oberland, therefore on the day following their arrival, the Baron made some casual inquiries of the genial proprietor, Mr. Walter Haller–Herr Walter as he is called by his English guests.

“It was simply an accident,” said the latter. “When he did not return I telephoned to the Jungfraujoch, the upper end of the mountain railway, and with the aid of the railway officials we traced him down as far as Wengen. He had left the train at Scheidegg and started to walk down the Wengernalp, and to those in a small inn which he passed his manner seemed very peculiar. The theory held by our police and by the lawyer engaged in the affair is that in crossing a little bridge over the Lütschine, not far from Lauterbrunnen, he stumbled in the dark and fell into the roaring torrent. Among the boulders he soon became battered, and his body was carried down to the Lake of Brienz, where among the boulders at the estuary–which are ever shifting on account of the strong currents–his remains are still held down in the bed of the lake. The same thing happened to a peasant of Lauterbrunnen a few years ago.”

“Then you think that it was an accident?” asked the Baron.

“Everyone is agreed,” replied the courtly hôtelier. “Of course, I know nothing about the investigation of crime, but that is the general opinion.”

After dinner the stout, bullet-headed Baron d’Antenac, with the alert Jacquinot and Mademoiselle, strolled out along the principal boulevard, the Höheweg, where one side is lined by colossal hotels, while the other lies open to the giant snow-capped mountain, the Jungfrau, which raised its lofty, white crest in the bright moonlight.

As they walked towards the gay Kursaal all three were agreed that accident was out of the question. It was either a case of self-effacement or of foul play. Mademoiselle was certain of the latter. As usual they were working independently of the police and, concealing their identity, worked upon novel and entirely different lines.

On that day, as a matter of fact, the English inventor, Gordon Latimer, whose services the Baron had invoked, was in Edinburgh making secret inquiries regarding the missing man.

Mademoiselle Fernande, ever chic and dressed in the latest mode, kept her theory to herself, and resorted to a clever ruse. She discovered that MacBean’s fiancée had been a governess in a family living in Findhorn Place, in Edinburgh, where he had met her. Therefore, she called at the house of the girl’s mother in the Bahnhof Strasse, and under pretext of having also been a governess in Edinburgh, had an interview with her.

As they sat together in the small, but cosily-furnished room which looked out over the broad, fertile meadows of the valley towards the Lake of Thun, she apologised for calling, and said in French, which Fräulein Raeber understood:

“I have read in the papers of the unfortunate disappearance of your friend, Mr. MacBean. He was my own friend, as well as yours. I often saw him before you met him, and I knew afterwards that he loved you.”

The girl looked straight at her visitor. At first she waxed indignant, but next moment the tone of Mademoiselle’s voice softened her.

“Yes,” she said. “He told me he loved me–and I believed him.”

“And you still believe that what he told you was really true?” asked Mademoiselle with a strange look.

“Yes,” she said, after a slight hesitation.

“Ah! You are not quite sure,” exclaimed the young French girl. “It is well that it is so, because–well, now that he is dead I will reveal the truth to you–much as it must pain you. He was engaged to marry me!„

“You?” shrieked the fair-haired Swiss girl excitedly. “You? You lie! He loved me–and was to marry me in October.”

“And he was to marry me in that same month,” Mademoiselle said, quite calmly.

“But he will not. He’ll marry––” and she broke off short. “I mean he cannot, because he is dead.”

Mademoiselle Fernande fixed her dark eyes upon the girl. Her ruse was succeeding.

“Are you quite certain that poor Frank is dead?” she asked.

“Absolutely. It is now twelve days since he left me at Scheidegg. No doubt he fell into the torrent and his body was carried away to the lake during the night,” she replied brokenly. “If he lived, he would certainly return to me.”

“There is a suspicion that you had quarrelled,” Mademoiselle said.

The girl gave her a swift look of antagonism.

“We did not–we have never quarrelled,” she protested strongly.

“Why are you so certain that Mr. MacBean met with an accident?” asked Mademoiselle Fernande. “Might not his death be due to foul play?”

“He had no enemies. Besides, he had nothing upon him of value.”

“His camera was found in the wood quite a long way from the torrent,” Fernande pointed out, a fact which the Swiss police had not overlooked, even though they had arrived at the conclusion that the young Scotsman had met with an accident.

“He may have passed through the wood before he reached the torrent,” the girl Raeber replied.

“It is hardly likely he would discard it–eh?” Mademoiselle argued.

Half an hour later, when she rejoined her companions at the Hôtel du Lac, she described her interview with the bereaved fiancée, and added:

“That girl knows more about the affair than she will admit. She made a slip which she quickly corrected. The missing man is alive. Whether he has disappeared intentionally, or whether he is held in the hands of his enemies is a point we must investigate and establish.”

“In that case we will continue to carry out the inquiry independently, and in our own way,” said Jacquinot. “Let us begin by going over the same ground as the missing man, and continue to the spot where he was last seen.”

“Excellent,” said the Baron. “We’ll go to-morrow by rail to the Jungfraujoch and follow the way he took.”

Early next morning the three left Interlaken, the train taking them beside the roaring torrent up the wild, dark valley to Lauterbrunnen, where they changed carriages into the mountain railway, which climbed up the Wengernalp through the little Alpine resort of Wengen, up to Scheidegg on the plateau, and thence by the most wonderful railway in the world, that which runs to the region of eternal snow two thousand feet below the summit of the Jungfrau.

The experience of looking out upon the wide snowy slopes, the great green glaciers with their yawning crevasses in the ice, and the stupendous view of the mountain peaks beyond was most enjoyable. But it carried them no further towards the solution of the problem.

The conclusion formed by Fernande was not, however, shared by the others. The Baron now accepted the theory of the police, that the disappearance had been accidental, while Jacquinot, a thin-faced young man with a keen sense of humour, was of opinion that he and the girl had quarrelled, and that he had simply returned to Scotland.

On leaving the train at Scheidegg the three walked down the steep mountain path to Wengen with wonderful views on either side, and then, still down, to Lauterbrunnen, where they took the winding road beside the foaming waters of the Lütschine torrent to the dark pine-wood where the camera had been found.

They spent nearly two hours searching that part of the wood, but discovered nothing which might lead to any clue except that not far from where the camera had been found the Baron picked up the end of a cigarette. Upon it was the mark of a well-known English brand, from which it would appear that young MacBean had halted there and smoked, and then, when moving on, forgot his camera. But, as Maurice Jacquinot pointed out, that particular brand of English cigarette was sold in a number of shops in Interlaken, therefore it was no proof that an Englishman had been there.

They walked back to the road which led to Interlaken, past a little inn where, late at night, the young man was said to have been seen to pass, and came to the narrow bridge where it was believed that he had slipped over in the darkness into the boiling torrent below.

“Nothing will convince me that he is dead!” declared Mademoiselle, as she walked between the two men.

“Then you will have to prove that he is alive,” remarked the Baron. “But how?”

“We must first establish a motive for his disappearance,” replied the shrewd young Frenchwoman. “Having done that, we must follow it up by close investigation. The police at first suspected murder, but now believe it to be accidental. I don’t agree with either theory.”

“Well, what can the motive have been, except, perhaps, he and the girl had words, and in order to punish her he has pretended suicide?”

“Not at all,” declared Jacquinot. “If he had pretended suicide he would have left his hat and coat, or something, on the river bank. But nothing was found except his camera. It certainly is not a case of pretended suicide.”

“Then what is it?” demanded the girl.

“It is for us to unravel the mystery.”

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