The League of Five - Aidan de Brune - ebook

The League of Five ebook

Aidan de Brune

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Opis

Aidan de Brune was a big name in Australian literature but is forgotten today. He was a prolific author who wrote in a variety of genres. Lots of novels by De Brune were reputedly published in the USA under various pseudonyms, but these have not been traced. A new story by this popular author entitled „The League of Five.” The plot is laid mostly in Sydney, and centers round a mysterious band which goes under the name from which the tale takes its name. A love interest threads through the most sensational happenings, and it is one of the best stories we are offering readers. Highly recommended.

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Liczba stron: 341

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Contents

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER XXVII

CHAPTER XXVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XXX

CHAPTER XXXI

CHAPTER XXXII

CHAPTER XXXIII

CHAPTER XXXIV

PROLOGUE

“GAME and rubber.” Frank Carslake, a tall, dark, well-built man, carrying the winds of open spaces on his face pushed back his chair and strolled to the window. “Jove, it’s hot in here!”

“Should be, when Andrew Roche is playing bridge.” Slender and fair-haired, with boyish, clean-shaven features. Maurice Ottly swung round from the player-piano to face the group around the green-table. “What few cheques I get in the future I shall give to my bankers. To hazard them at the green cloth where our friend reigns supreme is–no, it isn’t hazard–it’s a certainty.”

“Contributions thankfully received!” The stout, dark youth at the table swept the cards together and shuffled them. “Now I know where to come when I’m down and out. Say, Lynnex, quite a nice little place you have here. First time I’ve dared to enter the portals of Tower Square. Just the place for a rising young man about town.”

“Queer show.” Carslake turned at the window. “Built round a square court, like four houses joined round the village duck-pond! Still, it looks comfortable. Best place I’ve come across for the man who has to live in the heart of Sydney–and can afford it.”

“Quiet enough.” Roche left the table and joined Carslake at the window. “Say, Lynnex, who lives over there?”

“Where?” Murray Lynnex, the owner of the chambers, strolled to where Roche and Carslake stood. “Behind those lit windows? Oh, they’re Anton Sinclair’s rooms.”

“Anton Sinclair!” Carslake glanced furtively at his companions. “Whew! That’s broke it! Don’t think I could be comfortable so close to that brute.”

“The damned cur!” Godfrey Stephen, the fifth member of the party, went to the sideboard and poured himself a stiff drink. “Why–?”

A silence fell on the five men. Carslake left the window and threw himself in a chair. Lynnex remained at the window, furtively scanning his companions, a slight, smile curving his lips.

“I may have a reason for living here,” he said, after a considerable pause.

“A reason for living near Anton Sinclair?” Roche turned suddenly.

“Queer sort of taste! Faugh! It make me sick to even see the place where the scoundrel lives.”

“I’m not one of you.” The big man in the chair spoke abruptly. “Say Lynnex, why did you invite me here tonight? When I came I thought it was for a mild gamble–but we haven’t gambled. We’ve played some sort of bridge, carelessly. I’m out half a note. I don’t thing one of us is in or out more. What’s your game? Did you invite us here to have a look at that brute’s–”

“There was a girl, Carslake.” Lynnex spoke quietly, his keen grey eyes fixed on the other’s face. “There was a girl who–”

“Damn you! Hold your tongue!”

“Sit around the table.” Lynnex strode to his seat, his voice tense. “Carslake’s quite correct. I didn’t invite you here for a gamble, There’s a tale I have to tell. First, I must ask your pardon for a small deception.” He turned to Godfrey Stephen. “Gentlemen, may I make you known to Mr. Godfrey Stephen Parsons. I think you have all heard of him.”

“Godfrey Parsons!” Ottly sprang from his seat, “God, I–”

“Godfrey Parsons.” Lynnex interrupted. “Three years ago Godfrey Parsons was warned off all racecourses in Australia for practices he denied, but could not refute. Have you thought to connect Godfrey Parsons with the–the man behind the lights in the window across the square?”

“You mean Anton Sinclair?” Carslake learned forward, his eyes searching his host’s face.

“I mean Anton Sinclair.” Lynnex’s voice was even. “Mr. Parsons will pardon me and understand, when I tell you that three days ago he was in Pitt-street, begging a few coins for a meal. He spoke to me. I recognised him and brought him here. He told me his story and I believed him. He is here, my guest. I have asked you to meet him. No, not to listen to his account of how Anton Sinclair schemed to use and betray him. You can guess that. Carslake, I spoke of a girl. Is it necessary for me to tell the story to convince you?”

A silence came over the men. Murray Lynnex glanced round. He read the tenseness of overdrawn nerves; the flicking hope of some intangible good coming out of this probing of the past–and smiled.

“Maurice Ottly.” His voice came, as a whisper; yet clearly audible to every man in the room. “Once you were the son of a rich man. Stephen Ottly was known and respected in the business world of Australia. He was a stock and share broker; keen, ambitious and successful. He had a friend he trusted, one Anton Sinclair. How and in what manner Sinclair persuaded your father to undertake a gigantic gamble with him without the usual security against personal loss will perhaps never be known. Possibly one might guess. Your father trusted Sinclair. The speculation failed. Sinclair disclaimed all knowledge of it and your father had not a line of writing to show that he was only an agent. He was declared bankrupt. A charge of fraud was spoken of–and he took the only one way open to him.”

“Lynnex! How did you know this?”

“Albert Roche.” Murray ignored Ottly’s exclamation. “Two years ago you were high in the service of the Commonwealth of Australia. New cruisers were being designed for the Australian navy. The plans were in your charge and contained some, very important and unusual inventions. The authorities found that a naval power had copies of those plans. You acknowledged that it was impossible for anyone to gain access to them. You were allowed to resign from the Government and for months walked the streets of Melbourne, starving–fearing every day to hear that you had been proclaimed a traitor to your country and race.”

“God. You know that?”

“Lynnex!” Carslake was on his feet, his eyes growing angrily. “Why lave you brought us here? Why have you laid bare the secrets we thought were hidden in the past? You are not a blackmailer; a scoundrel like the man whose light shines in at your window. What is your object? Where do we come in on this?”

“What has Anton Sinclair done to you, Murray Lynnex?” The dark, secretive face of Albert Roche peered across the table at his host.

“What has Anton Sinclair done to me?” A look of watchful defiance came over the keen, clever face of the young man. “For the moment, nothing. A month ago he wrote to me, a strange, insidious letter. I became suspicious and sought out his history. I came on your stories. I believed I was fated to join my ruined life with yours, to bolster up the inordinate greed of this man. I determined to fight back. Throughout Australia I found agents. Day by day, as the tale amounted against this blackmailer, I recognised that I must surrender to his demands, or fight, successfully. I–”

He rose abruptly and went to the window. For moments he stood, staring out, his eyes straining to the lights high up on the opposite building. At length he turned and walked back to the table.

“From the day I received that letter I have strived to piece together the history of Anton Sinclair–and his victims. In my desk is a book recording the histories of more than a score of men and women Anton Sinclair, in his lust for money, has driven to despair and death. From those injured persons I have sought out you–men, young and vilely injured. Tonight I have invited you here. Why?” He bent forward searching the faces upturned to his. “Why? Because I believed I could read behind the masks you wore–the thoughts that clamoured night and day in my brain.”

“You mean–murder?” Ottly spoke the last word in a whisper.

“I mean–justice.” Lynnex swung savagely on the man. “Is it murder to shoot down a mad dog biting and poisoning all who chance in his way? Is it murder to kill a snake, lurking on the path with bared, poison fangs? Is it murder, to hang the taker of life? That man has taken more than life from hundreds!”

“By God, I’m with you!” Carslake sprang to his feet, his fist crashing on the table. “But, how? I’m game, but I don’t fancy the rope for scrunching that skunk.”

“Perhaps there will not be a rope–I think not.” A light shone in Murray’s, eyes. “I believe I have a plan that means safety for the one chosen as–executor. It has meant money Thank heaven, I have that.” He strode to the desk and took from a drawer five pocket-books, placing them on the table. “There is money. A thousand pounds in each book. In the drawer in the hall-stand there is another book. That book contains the necessary directions and instructions for gaining entrance to Anton Sinclair’s rooms, for opening the safes where he keeps the information on which he battens. The scheme is complete; it only needs the hand. One thing remains–to shelter the man who strikes. I believe I have safeguarded him. I will act, if you–”

“One moment, Lynnex.” Roche spoke carelessly. “I am not going to disagree with what you said. I’m with you, all through. You’ve hinted that your scheme is a one-man job. You infer that you would like to elect yourself, but my claim is, I believe, paramount.”

“We must all have a hand in it.” Carslake spoke abruptly. “I–”

“May I take it that we are agreed on the basic fact,” Lynnex interrupted. “That there is a mad dog to be exterminated. If I am correct then I ask you to allow me to finish by proposal.”

“A protection that involves all of us.” Ottly spoke quietly. “If not, my claim–”

“Will you listen to me, one moment.” Lynnex took from the desk a pack of cards. “I believe I have anticipated your objections. If you will examine these cards you will notice that while the backs are printed similar to playing-cards, the fronts lack the distinguishing pips.”

He threw the cards on the table, face upwards. Roche leaned forward, spreading them out. A moment, and each man’s eyes turned again to Murray.

“You will notice that five cards are needed to make a complete pack.” Lynnex spoke unemotionally. “These five cards I have here. Four of them bear instructions relating to four different journeys the drawers will take–immediately. I am going to ask you not to examine these cards–to take my word that they are what I state. I assure you that I have no knowledge of what is written on them. They have been prepared for me by four persons who have no knowledge of my plans, yet know Australia well enough to indicate four routes so complex that it would be difficult to trace the travellers obeying these orders.”

He looked around the table. No man dissented and he continued.

“The fifth card bears the words ‘Anton Sinclair.’ You will appreciate the significance of that name. Whoever draws that card will take from the hall-stand the pocket book I spoke of some while ago. I ask you when you leave this room to do so singly at such intervals that will give the man who draws the lot the opportunity to obtain it, unobserved.”

Again he paused; no one spoke. He shuffled the five cards into the pack. Placing the deck before Roche, he continued:

“The drawers of the four cards will start their journeys at midday tomorrow. Until they learn that ‘Anton Sinclair’ is–is not likely to disturb us again–they will follow the instructions on their cards. The object sought is, from this moment until sometime after Sinclair’s sometime after Sinclair’s death there shall be four men who will not be able to provide an alibi. Mr. Roche will you please shuffle those cards and pass them on. It is necessary that each of us shall he satisfied that the cards are properly mixed.”

He turned from the table while Roche picked up the cards, sliding them rapidly through his fingers. From the desk he brought a new unbroken pack. Waiting until the blank cards came to him again, he placed them in the centre of the table.

“The rules of the game are, I believe, understood.” Murray spoke quietly. “One man will receive a certain card from that pack. He will find the way made smooth for him. To protect him and share in his dangers, the remaining players will assume the position of suspects. Immediately each of the four men have memorised the instructions on the cards they draw, the cards are to be destroyed.”

He paused. His eyes sought each man in turn, receiving a nod of assent. He shuffled the new pack of cards and placed them before Roche.

“Mr. Roche is shuffling a new pack of cards. Will you each shuffle in turn. When they come round to me I will deal them. To whom falls the ace of spades belongs the honour of dealing–the other pack.”

The cards fell, face upwards, on the green cloth. Three times Murray dealt the circle. The first of the fourth round showed the ace of spades before Albert Roche. With a jerky laugh the young man reached for the deck of blanks.

“Wait!” Carslake rose to his feet. He crossed to the window and stared out on the silent court. Instinctively, his eyes raised to the windows of the room occupied by the man whose death they were planning.

“What’s that?” His voice broke the growing tension. His companions crowded to the window, following the line of his pointing finger.

Framed in the window of Anton Sinclair’s room was the form of a young girl. With an exclamation of anger, mingled with surprise, Lynnex sprang to his desk and caught up a pair of field-glasses. He took one look at the girl then passed the glasses from hand to hand. Carslake was the last man to hold them. At sight of the girl he threw them down with a cry of rage.

“God! That she should be there!” He turned and strode to the table. “Come on, you fellows! It’s getting late!”

Again at the table, Roche picked up the blanks and looked around the watchful circle. As he slid forward the top card, Lynnex spoke again.

“One moment, there is a matter I have forgotten. We have yet to protect the drawer of the card.”

“Do you infer that one of us is likely to turn traitor?” Ottly spoke icily.

“No.” Murray’s voice was cold. “We have agreed that the task belongs to one man; that the other four shall be in positions where equal suspicions shall fall on them. We have yet to pledge that the drawer of each card shall, in no circumstances, reveal what is written on the card he draws. Further, as each man draws a written card he shall place it in his pocket, unread, withdrawing from all further participation in the deal. Is that satisfactory?”

“Why not?” Carslake spoke, recklessly. “Get oh with the deal, Roche, damn you!”

Again Roche rose from his scat, leaning against the table. He dealt the cards slowly, face down. At the completion of the first round he waited while each man examined the card before him. No one moved. Again he dealt, and waited. This time Parsons placed a card in his pocket, stepping back from the table.

“One!” Carslake’s staccato laugh thrilled the group. Again the cards fell with a slight slither. Again and again Roche dealt until only a few cards remained in his hand. Then Ottly moved away and Roche handed the remaining cards to Carslake, resuming his seat with a little, careless laugh.

“You and I, Lynnex.” The big man almost flung the cards on the table. “We’ll soon come to the end of this.”

Six cards fell and Lynnex raised his hand. Carslake turned the remaining cards face upwards and sought one, placing it in his pocket. Sweeping the cards into a heap, he brought decanters and glasses to the table. When each man was served he raised his glass.

“Gentlemen! A toast! To the success of the holder of the ‘Anton Sinclair’ card!” Draining his glass he turned and threw it out of the window. “Good-night, boys! Goodnight, Lynnex! To our next meeting! Remember, two minutes between each man leaving this room!”.

CHAPTER I

THE heavy shade of the lighted lamp on the big desk was tilted at a strange angle, throwing the light on the door. In the padded swivel chair sat a stout, florid man, bending forward, his head resting on his hands, clasped on the blotting-pad. A few inches before his head stood a small, brass Buddha; the passive, carven face looking down in benign satisfaction on the partially bald head.

The room was handsomely furnished. Costly rugs littered the polished boards. Around the room ran a line of dark wood bookcases, well-filled and standing about five feet from the floor. On the book-cases were rare specimens of china and bronze. The walls held half-a-dozen paintings, each an unique example of Australian art.

Immediately opposite the seated man was the door of the room, leading through a short passage to the outer door of the chambers. On the right of the desk were big windows, screened by heavy, velvet curtains. Opposite the windows was another door, and, between it and the interior corner of the room stood two stacks of steel-filing cabinets–the one incongruous note.

A slight “tap-tap” on the panel of the door opposite the desk. The seated man did not move. Again came the tapping. A long pause and the handle turned. The door opened and a head was thrust into the room. The newcomer surveyed the scene inquisitively, his eyes resting for a time on the bowed head of the man at the desk.

“Mr. Sinclair.” There was no answer. Again the man called: “Mr. Sinclair!”

The seated man did not stir. The door was pushed open and a short, slight man with thin, furtive face, stole into the room. In spite of the warmth of the night he was dressed in a long, shabby ulster coming almost to his ankles. His hat was pulled low over his eyes.

For moments he stood watching the motionless man at the desk; a puzzled frown on his face. Apparently making up his mind he closed the door. Looking it, he crept to the desk and lightly touched the head of the man. Something in the feel of the punk skin strained over the partially bald skull startled him. He moved round the desk until he stood beside the swivel chair. Again he touched the seated figure, this time on the cheek, withdrawing his hand as if bitten. He caught the man by the shoulders, shaking him roughly. The head, resting on the blotting-pad, rolled grotesquely.

“Gawd!” The man learned forward and grasped the lolling head, drawing it back. The wide-open eyes stared at him, unseeingly. The full-fleshed face was strangely pale. Under the skin a queer greyness showed.

As he pulled the head back the body rose with it; the coarse hands sliding across the blotting-pad. Between them was clasped a quaintly-embossed silver box. The lid was open and on a wisp of cotton-wool rested a large broken capsule. The intruder looked down on it, curiously.

“Struth! ‘e never did that?” With a rough movement the crook dragged the corpse back until it rested in the chair. He swung the chair round and bent over the silver box, sniffing at the capsule. There was no smell. With nervous fingers he stirred it. The thing was empty. For moments he stood undecided.

At length he made up his mind. He moved the chair round so that the body faced the desk. From his pocket he took a pair of rubber gloves and drew them on. With the gloves he rubbed the chair and the desk where his hands had rested. Taking the dead man by the shoulders, he forced him forwards towards the blotting-pad, clasping the hands in their former position under the face. He went to the door and unlocked it, rubbing both handles with the gloves.

“May as well get on wi’ it.”

He glanced questioningly round the room.

“One, two–five sets from the book-cases from the winder, ‘e sed. Then, this is it. Well, I’m not stayin’ ‘ere wi’ that longer’n I can ‘elp. Wonder wot made him say as Anton wouldn’t be ‘ome ternight? Looks as if sumthin’s slipped.”

The man bent to the bookcases. A few moments and he found the secret of the spring. He swung the cases back on their silent castors, revealing a row of three small, circular safes let into the wall. From his pockets he took a collection of tools, placing them on a chair he set handy for his work. Tentatively he fingered the knob of the middle safe–to draw back with a cry of astonishment.

“Strewth! The thin’s open!” He thrust his hand into the safe, to withdraw it empty. “Nuthn’ there! S’pose I must try th’ others. But ‘e sed th’ middle safe.”

The doors of the other safes were also unfastened. For minutes the crook searched vainly. The three safes were empty. With a gesture of impatience he closed the doors and pushed the stack of book-cases back into position.

“Safe’s empty!” The man stood biting his glove-fingers. “Now, wot th’ ‘ell’s that mean? ‘e told he I’d find th’ papers there. Well, they ain’t. Now, wo’t a chap ter do?”

Again beside the dead man, Duggan hesitated. At length he commenced to search the dead man’s pockets. There was little in them. His eyes darted around the room, searching eagerly. Suddenly he moved around the seated figure. A small bunch of keys were hanging from a lock of the desk.

He opened a drawer and searched, unsuccessfully. Rapidly he worked through the desk, finding nothing to attract him. The top drawer on the right-hand side refused to open to any key on the bunch. Immediately the crook turned and picked up a jemmy.

The drawer yielded under pressure. He drew it open and exclaimed with delight. In it lay a small handful of silver and a big bundle of banknotes. He took out the notes and counted them.

“Two ‘undred an’ thirty-four of th’ best, all small.” The crook chuckled. “Well, that ain’t had fer a ‘our’s work. Still, there’s that.” He nodded to the corpse. “Wot’s more ‘ere?”

His quick eyes swept the room questioningly, coming to rest on the closed door of the inner room. He waked to it and flung it open. The interior was in darkness. His searching fingers found the switch and threw it over. It was a bedroom, cosy and well-furnished. Duggan’s eyes sped around the room until they came to the bed. He jumped back with a low cry of alarm. Outside the room his hand went to his hip-pocket, coming forward carrying an automatic. Holding the weapon before him he again advanced into the room.

On the bed lay a young girl, slender, fair and with a mass of corn-coloured hair. Her deep blue eyes, wide open, stared up at the crook. Duggan crept nearer. The girl was lying on the bed–not in it. His eyes swept her slender figure, coming to rest on flesh-coloured stockings. But he was not looking at the girl’s legs; his eyes were on the dark cords binding her ankles. He looked at her face. Around it was a thick silk scarf.

With a quick gesture, he pulled his hat low over his eyes. “Wot’s th’ matter, sister?” His voice changed tone.

“Gr-r-r-r.”

“No. S’pose yer can’t talk wi’ that in yer mouth. Jest as well, I’m thinkin’. Yer might wanter squeal an’ then where’d I be? Now, wot’s a bloke ter do ‘ere?” As if fascinated, he moved closer to the bed, looking down into her wide, frightened eyes..

“Well, I’m damned! No, it ain’t no good yer squirmin’ like that. Whoever tied yer did a good job.” The crook scratched the back of his neck. “Say, miss. What’ll yer do if I takes that gag outer yer mouth? Squeal, or just say ‘thank yer’? Can’t say, of course. Well, jest nod yer ‘ead. Will yer act sensible? Good!”

He untied the scarf and dropped it on the floor. Catching her by the feet he swung her round, then lifted her to a sitting position on the side of the bed.

“Wot’s yer name?”

“Myrtle Wayne.”

“Wot yer doin’ ‘ere?”

“I came to see Mr. Sinclair.”

“Ugh!” The man snorted. “Nice sorter pal t’ave. Wot did yer want wi’ ‘im? Say, did ye–?”

“Did I what?” The girl looked up, a little smile on her lips.

“Wot did yer come t’ see Mr. Anton about?”

The girl did not answer. “Nuffin’ ter say, eh? Well, wot’ll yer do if I leaved yer tied?”

“Scream.” The girl answered promptly. “But you wouldn’t do that.”

“Wouldn’t pay yer t’shout.” A smile flecked the crook’s lips. “Gawd! Wouldn’t yer cop it ‘ot.”

“Why?”

“Cos. Anton’s croaked it–dead, if yer understands that best.”

“Mr. Sinclair dead! Oh!”

“An’ you ‘ere in th’ rooms wi’ ‘im, ‘an tied up.” Duggan chuckled. “Wot a mess! Say, Myrtle, ‘adn’t yer better spill it?”

“Hadn’t you better untie my hands?”

“Ain’t decided that, yet. Better get yer tale orf yer chest. Then I’ll know wot ter do.”

“Hadn’t you better take off your hat when you speak to me, Mr. Peter Duggan? Then–”

“Yer knows me?” The crook was startled. “Say, who’re you?”

“Untie my hands!”

Much puzzled, the crock advanced and untied the girl’s hands. She bent and released the cords binding her ankles. Ignoring the man she shook out her skirts and went to the dressing-table. Switching on the lights she examined her features, then returned to the bed and found her hand-bag. With it she returned tot the mirror, to powder her face and neck. At length, satisfied with her appearance, she seated herself on the edge of the bed, facing the crook.

“How do you come to be here, Peter? Tell me your story,” she commanded.

“Wot about yours?” The man spoke roughly. “Wot d’yer think yer doin’? Runnin’ th’ bloomin’ show?”

“If I don’t run this show–as you call it–Mr. Peter Duggan may have, a series of sensational adventures, ending in Long Bay goal at an early hour of the morning.” The girl laughed lightly, in spite of the serious undertone to her words. “Still, you’ve been useful, so I’ll satisfy your curiosity. Mr. Sinclair was good enough to order me to call on him this evening with–with–No matter. Sufficient for you to know I could not resist him.”

“With what?” Duggan was inquisitive. “Say, yer brought ‘im that silver box?”

“The silver box! Yes, but–”

“An’ the capsule? My, you’ve got pluck!”

“The capsule?”

“Th’ capsule in th’ box.” The crook spoke impatiently.

“There was no capsule in the silver box when I handed it to Mr. Sinclair. There was a–a–“ she hesitated.

“A wot?”

“A very fine ruby ring.” With sudden temper the girl sprang to her feet. “I know you, Mr. Peter Duggan. What have you done with that ring?” She bent suddenly, and from underneath her short dress produced a miniature automatic. “If you’ve stolen it, I’ll–”

“I ain’t touched it.” The man protested. “If I ‘ad it I’d give it back ter yer. You’re one ov us, ain’t yer?”

“One of you?” The girl nodded her head, gravely. “Perhaps I am. Listen, Peter. That man made me bring the ring here. I arrived soon after ten o’clock and gave him the silver box with the ring in it. He kept me talking. Then he said he had to go out for a few minutes–that he had to meet someone. I was to stay and guard the ring. When he came back he would–Oh, I can’t tell you what. Anyway, he placed the box on the desk, leaving me in the room. I sat beside the desk, waiting for his return. Suddenly I was seized from behind, tied and gagged. He, or they, carried me in here and threw me on the bed, face downwards. I managed to wriggle on my back but by that time they had left the room. I never saw them. Now, you?”

“I didn’t bring ‘im anythin’.” Duggan chuckled. “I came ter get sumthin’ from ‘im. When I came inter the room Anton was sitttin’ at the desk wi’ the silver box in ‘is ‘ands ‘an ‘is face in it. I lifted ‘im up an’ saw th’ box. There was a broken capsule in it. That’s all, ‘cept Anton’s dead.”

“Dead!” The girl repeated, musingly. “No, that’s no good, Peter. You’ll have to do better than that. Come, out with it!”

“It’s the truth I’m tellin’ yer,” the crook protested. For a long moment the girl stared at the man; then she passed him and ran to the study room; to start back with a cry of wonder. The crook followed her into the room, to stare at the desk in blank amazement.

The chair before the desk was empty; there was not a sign of the dead man in the room. On the centre of the blotting-pad stood the little silver box, the lid open, showing the cotton-wool and the broken capsule.

“Well, I’m–“ With a gesture of warning the girl turned and ran back to the bedroom, beckoning Duggan to follow her. Heavy footsteps sounded in the passage.

CHAPTER II

JUDD CHAMBERS, a narrow, three-storied building, with low, oblong windows set in dingy red bricks, stands within one hundred yards of the juncture of Pitt-street and Barton-street, fronting Circular Quay. The ground floor is occupied by a feed-merchant. There is no entrance hall; visitors to the upper stories having to pass through the shop and climb the narrow, squeaking stairs. The house extends far in the rear, towards George-street.

A tenants’ board, on the wall of the seed man’s shop, bears the name of Jabul Ardt. The numbers of the rooms allocated are 32 and 33. To the name no business designation is attached, not even the general term ‘agent’ following nearly every other firm on the indicator.

Jabul Ardt’s visitors do not complain of the lack of an elevator in the building. They prefer to slink in, as if seeking some rare but unobtrusive plant. They watch an opportunity to climb the rickety stairway unobserved, casting furtive glances over their shoulders. On the third floor they turn to their left and walk the length of the corridor. Jabul Ardt’s offices are the last two rooms on the right-hand side. Their dirty windows, seldom cleaned, seldom opened, overlook a narrow alley-way.

Half-past eight was chiming at irregular intervals from city clocks when Charlie Budd, a sandy-headed youth of nineteen years arrived at Judd Chambers and sauntered up the stairs, pulling a large door-key from his pocket.

For more than two years he had climbed those stairs, daily hating them more and more. He hated his work; facetiously declaring himself watch-dog to the worst money-lender in Sydney. He had ambitions. Bitten by the wireless craze, he spent most of his leisure writing letters for employment, to radio companies.

He had just turned the key in the lock of room 32 when the smart, tapping of high-heels on the uncovered boards of the stairs caused him to look round. He lifted his hat with an elegant sweep and waited for the girl.

“Morning, Bessie. Bright an’ early an’ all that.” He grinned as the girl swept past him with a dignified how. “What was it, last night? The pictures, or ‘la dance’? And, more important, what was ‘he’ like?”

“Good morning, Mr. Budd.” The girl, smart, pert and dark, crossed to a cracked mirror on the wall. From her handbag she produced various articles. For some minutes she worked over her fresh, young face, repairing the ravages of travel from her suburban home.

“Boss not in yet?”

“No trumpets ‘ave sounded.” Charlie cupped his ear with his hand. “No horns of the well-known Rolls-Royce in the street. No, Miss Trent. ‘Is ‘ighness still lingers over the matutinal chop and hegg.”

“Chop and egg, indeed!” The girl tossed her head. Seating herself, she uncovered a battered typewriter. “Jabul’s too mean for ‘chop and egg’. More’n likely he’s dunning some poor goat for interest–and a cup of tea and toast with it.”

“Hard heart!” Charlie sighed lugubriously. “Not even for our kind boss has she a soft word. Oh, woman! Woman!”

“Chuck it, Charlie! You make me tired.” Bessie took some papers from a drawer. “Damn! Charlie, shove another piece of card under the leg of this desk. It’s rocking again. Got the borers in it–like some people I know.”

The youth grinned, and, finding a piece of cardboard, stuffed it under the rickety leg. He rose to his feet with a grunt: “There!”

“You really are a darling, sometimes.” The girl spoke judicially.

“My duty, m’am,” Charlie’s grin broadened. “Am I to take that for a proposal? It’s leap-year, y’know.”

“Marry you!” Bessie’s bright eyes-swept the youth. “No-o, I don’t think so, Charlie; but don’t die of a broken heart. You’re not my style–wouldn’t be if you had all Jabul’s money.”

“Which ain’t such a–“ He broke off as a well-known step sounded in the corridor. “Setting your cap at the boss? Oh, my!”

The girl started to move, to dive down to one of the drawers as a red-faced, portly man loomed in the door-way. With a curt “Good morning,” Charlie crossed to the other desk and dropped the door-key in a drawer.

Jabul Ardt stood in the door-way surveying his staff with small, rat-like eyes. He was slightly over medium height, and gross in build. His head was small and set far back on his shoulders. His eyes were close-set and well above the line of his ears. He was dressed in a greasy frock-coat and wore a “hard-hitter” hat many sizes too small for him.

“Good morning, Charlie! Good morning Bessie! Ha! Ha! It’s the early bird that catches the worm.”

“Damn-fool worm.” The girl muttered. “If he’d stayed in bed he wouldn’t have provided ‘chop and egg’ for the hungry bird.”

“Anything for me, Charlie?” Jabul grinned at the few words of the girl’s aside he had caught. “Expecting a parcel–parcel of papers–not too big. No? You look bright and happy this fine morning, Bessie.”

“Miss Trent, to you, please, Mr. Ardt.”

The rattle of the keys of the typewriter increased, viciously. “I leave the ‘Bessie’ under the hall-mat at home.”

“No parcels, Mr. Ardt.” Charlie spoke carelessly. He opened the letter-box behind the door and produced half a dozen letters. “Small mail! That means journeys to Liverpool-street for me, I guess.”

“No parcels?” The big man’s face blanched. He recovered his composure with an effort. “Liverpool-street, Charlie? Oh, you mean the Summons Court! Think I’m as hard-hearted as that?”

“Don’t have to think! Only ‘ardt’ in name, so far as I knows,” the youth muttered as the man turned to the next office. “Of all the glorified–”

A bell rang shrilly. Charlie slid from his stool and went out of the door. He returned quickly. “Got to ring up Anton Sinclair, at Tower Square,” he muttered, “Why the blazes couldn’t he have told me that before he left the room. Making me run after him.”

“Anton Sinclair!” Bessie looked up. “Say, Charlie, Jabul’s mighty fond of Sinclair these past few weeks.”

“Lent him money, I suppose.”

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