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OWL OF DARKNESS
The Coming of the Owl
In giving evidence later, Andy Maxton swore it was the hoot of an owl that woke him. For some moments he lay motionless, his body relaxed, his mind on that vague borderland between sleeping and waking, conscious of nothing save the liquid whisper of water hissing softly in his ears.
The outlines of the room, dim in the light of a spent moon, were unfamiliar to him. Then his eyes moved to the long window framing the dark garden, and in that moment his mind cleared.
This was his bedroom in that riverside villa—Lady Evelyn Harnett’s villa at Richmond. In the murmurous silence the pattern of his thoughts spun smoothly.
Four weeks ago Andy Maxton had come to London from Australia. He had made Lady Evelyn’s acquaintance through the Victorian League when, homesick and lonely, he had run across Ted Bissinger in the British. Museum. Bissinger, a school friend of Maxton, was in the office of a film company and, taking pity on the solitary young man, had introduced him to the league. Over tea and buttered buns the league had arranged this weekend.
“You’ll find Lady Evelyn very interested in colonials,” the secretary explained, “and there’ll be other guests down there besides yourself.” And before the young man, whose mind was feverishly reviewing the condition of his laundry, had time to reply, the secretary continued: “Lady Evelyn suggests the fourteenth. I take it that’s quite convenient to you?”
Andy, his mouth full of buttered bun, nodded.
The house was cool and green and stood back in ground that sloped gently toward the river. Comparing it with the confined grubbiness of his Bayswater room, the young man offered up a silent prayer for the ultimate salvation of the league and his hostess.
Lady Evelyn was in the garden when he arrived. Wearing heavy gloves and armed with a pair of garden shears, she was trimming her roses. This plump pink cocoon of a woman smiled vaguely upon him, paused in her arboreal labours long enough to inquire his name and introduce him to the other guests—two Canadian girls and a lanky New Zealander named Insmith—and then, to his embarrassment, apparently forgot all about him.
A man-servant named Keaton took him in hand, showed him his room, explained the position of the bath, and left the visitor hopelessly marooned in a terrifying maze of doors and passages. He was finally rescued by Insmith, who had been through all this before. The two men descended to the garden where they found the Canadians wandering disconsolately. It was Insmith who suggested the walk, and the quartette spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring Richmond Old Church and examining the curious inscriptions on the tombstones.
Andy met his hostess again at dinner. Lady Evelyn’s manner was even more vague. Over the joint course she became politely curious and asked him a number of questions about Canada. The young man countered these inquiries as well as he could, ignoring the sly twinkle in the eyes of the dominion’s daughters. “And is it true,” continued Lady Evelyn, “that your mounted policemen wear those charming red coats only on dress parades?” Andy decided this false impression must be rectified and, on his halting explanation, the hostess excused herself with a shrug, and a smile that never reached her dark eyes.
“I feel,” she murmured, “that this is the right time to ask Keaton to turn on the wireless.” The awkward situation was carried off with an ease that was admirable, yet the young man could not help thinking that the charm, like the smile, was a little too mechanical. For the remainder of the meal he watched covertly. Andy Maxton was no fool and, while one part of his mind was alive to the small talk across the table, another was analysing the problem of Lady Evelyn Harnett. Before the meal was finished the young man was convinced that the pretty plump woman at the head of the table was hag-ridden by some dark anxiety she dared not face alone. Was it for this reason she had sought to fill her house with guests on this weekend?
Later, they danced to a programme of swing music broadcast from the B.B.C. Conversation consumed the interval before supper—conversation that centred around the “threat of war,” “what struck me most in London” and, inevitably, the “English climate.” They all retired eventually, at the respectable hour of eleven-fifteen. Except for one disturbing incident Andy Maxton’s first evening at Malden Villa had been pleasant, suburban and just a little disappointing.
The young man sat up in bed. A breeze from the open window chilled his bare chest where his buttonless pyjamas hung open. He pulled the garment about his broad shoulders and reached for the wristwatch lying on a small table. near by. The luminous hands pointed to three-thirty.
What had wakened him?
Certainly not discomfort. The bed was soft and warm under his body. Snuggling into the leather pillows, he had fallen asleep almost instantly, to dream of wide paddocks and fire scorched tree-trunks. And now, even as he sat staring into the darkness, scattered fragments of that vision returned. He had been bird’s-nesting in that blackened forest, and had spied a magpie’s nest tilting on a charred bough.
A lone bird guarded it but, as he climbed, it was not a magpie that waited there but a huge owl. It had screeched and swooped down on him with beating wings. An owl! He found himself listening for that screech again, and his mind flew back to that incident in the drawing-room before supper. The dance music had faded and, as the partners stood waiting, a voice apologized for the interruption and announced a police message. The concentrated sharpness that new impressions always make had etched phrases of that message on Andy Maxton’s brain.
One hundred pounds reward will be paid for information regarding the criminal known as “The Owl.” . . . He operates alone . . . takes his name from his habit of moving out after nightfall and giving a curious cry like the screech of an owl. . . . Lock your doors. . . . The Owl flies by night. . . .
And as those last ominous words had faded and the music had swelled again, lady Evelyn Harnett had uttered a sharp, bitten-off scream. When they turned, she had fainted to the floor. Servants hurried with restoratives. A few minutes later she recovered and permitted herself to be led, leaning heavily and with her face pale and twitching, to the bedroom. Twenty minutes later she was once more among them, armoured in that cold self-control, murmuring apologetically of a faulty heart. Nothing particularly sinister, perhaps, in the memory of a swooning woman, yet linked with her strange detached manner of the afternoon, the incident returned to the young man’s mind touched with dark significance.
Then he heard the footsteps.
Gentle, light, and somehow rustling, they were moving down the passage outside his room. Maxton swept back the bed-clothes and thrust out one leg, to pause in an agony of indecision. All the colonial’s horror of a breach of convention was on him, and his position as guest in this house made the situation even more uncertain. What would happen if he challenged this nocturnal prowler, to discover some member of the household bent on legitimate business?
He pulled the bedclothes about him and waited.
The footsteps had passed now, swallowed in the cease-less mutter of the river. The room was darker. Through the window he caught a glimpse of a sickle moon tangled in the trees. The luminous face of his watch glowed coldly. Somewhere in the room a beam cracked, and every nerve in Maxton’s body leapt, throbbed and tingled.
He found himself listening again, ears strained until the drumming of his blood merged with the river’s whisper. Sweat had sprung out on his body. He felt it oozing down his bare chest, but he made no move to wipe it away. The unbroken undercurrent of sound in the room was almost hypnotic.
That is why he did not move until the voice screamed a second time.
The screams followed each other so closely that only a sharp, indrawn breath of terror separated them. They tore at the drumming silence with the incisive sharpness of ripping silk. And almost immediately the house responded. The place became alive with scuttering, febrile movement. Voices were raised. Doors slammed. Lights flashed on. Footsteps—the heavy blundering footsteps of honest panic—ran and halted and ran again. Someone was hammering at a door.
Andy Maxton leapt from the bed, fought his way into his dressing-gown and, without waiting to switch on lights, tore open the door of his room and raced out into the corridor. The brightly lit, carpeted length was unfamiliar to him. He stood for a moment, trying to focus that rising tide of perturbation. At one end of the passage a long window looked out on the dark garden. Then the front of the house lay behind him. He was about to turn when his attention was attracted by the sudden appearance of a figure at the far end, near the window. In the same moment the newcomer saw him, stiffened and paused, motionless.
Andy stared. “Good God!” he whispered.
The creature at the far end of the passage was swathed from head to foot in a long black robe that swept the floor. But the face above it was the face of a bird of prey! Two pale, lidless eyes blazed above the cruel hooked beak of a nose.
Maxton felt the hair on his neck prickle, and he was conscious of a great wave of nausea that engulfed him. Fear was blotted out in the primitive urge to rend and destroy this inhuman thing. With a bellow of rage the young man charged down the passage.
What followed was more horrible still.
The creature in black raised its arms, sweeping the robe into two billowing, wing-like drapes. Maxton had a brief, nightmarish glimpse of fingers crooked like claws. Then, with a harsh scream, the figure sprang for the window. So powerful was the movement that Maxton had the impression of a great bird gliding through the air. There was a sudden splintering of glass, and it was gone.
Then he was aware that the passage was filled with faces. He wheeled and licked his dry lips. Minton the chauffeur was approaching, a heavy iron wrench in his hand. Insmith followed a pace behind, leaner than ever in a hastily-tied dressing-gown. The two Canadian girls clung to each other, eyes wide in shiny faces. A small knot of frightened domestics brought up the rear. It was the New Zealander a who spoke first, pushing his way forward.
“Maxton, are you all right?”
Andy nodded, gesturing toward the window. “Went that way—out into the garden. . . .” He moistened his lips again and his deep tone trembled. “My God, Insmith—what was it?”
The New Zealander’s thin face was dark. “You saw it?”
“My oath! I made a dive at it—and it flew through that window! Flew—like a bird!”
Minton gave a dry chuckle. “Pretty downy bird, then. ’Cause ’e’s jus’ got away with one o’ the finest necklaces in England! Lifted ’em right under ’er ladyship’s nose, calm as custard!”
As he spoke the chauffeur stared at that splintered hole in the window as though mesmerized.
Maxton looked at Insmith. “What’s this?” he snapped.
The other nodded. “The pearls were in the safe in Lady Evelyn’s bedroom,” he said quietly. “She woke up and caught him in the act. She screamed twice before he sprang on her—”
“Was she harmed?”
Insmith shook his head. “No. She fainted. The alarm was raised at once, thank heaven. That man-servant—” he wheeled on Minton— “what’s his name—?”
“Yes. He’s getting the police on the phone now. But the safe was open and the necklace had disappeared.”
One of the doors farther down the passage opened, and Keaton stepped out. His smooth face was waxen pale and wiped clean of all expression, but as he came closer Maxton noticed that the dark eyes were very bright and that he could not quite control his mouth. Keaton’s first words were addressed to the staff rather than the guests.
“There must be no panic. No panic at all. The police will be here in a few minutes.” His voice was soft, modulated, kept that way by the same iron control that ruled his face. He turned to Minton: “Take Ada and Jenny back to their rooms and wait there for me. I shall call you when the police arrive.”
The chauffeur nodded and, shepherding the servants before him, set out for the rear of the house. Keaton turned to Insmith.
“Might I suggest, sir, that you take the two young ladies into the drawing-room? I have poked up the fire.” And, like Minton, the New Zealander and his shivering companions moved off without a word.
Keaton watched them go. Standing there, Maxton felt a genuine admiration for this man’s icy repose. To break the awkward silence that had fallen he asked lamely: “You got on to the police all right?”
Keaton turned slowly. “Yes, sir.” His eyes flickered in the direction of the shattered window. “If Lady Evelyn had taken my advice,” he added, “they would have been in this house all day!”
“What do you mean?”
A movement, too indeterminate to be called a shrug, settled lightly on the other’s shoulders. “There is a reward of one hundred pounds for the capture of the Owl,” he said calmly.
Andy stared. “That’s it—an owl!”
Keaton said quietly: “Her ladyship knew he was coming. She had been warned. Three times in the past week those cards came.” He was speaking more naturally now, as though it was almost a relief to talk. “I begged her to go to the police, but she feared the publicity. Instead, she preferred to fill her house with guests.” The pause was subtly barbed.
But Andy Maxton’s mind was on other things. “You were the first in Lady Evelyn’s room after that scream?” And as Keaton nodded, “What did you see?”
“The small bowl lamp beside the bed was alight. Lady Evelyn was lying in the centre of the floor, between the bed and the wall safe.” The servant closed his eyes as if picturing the scene in his mind. “I noticed that the door of the safe was hanging open. I noticed two other things also—”
“One was the empty case of the necklace, tossed down on the floor. The other—” Keaton stopped and gave a quick glance over his shoulder. “The other was this—”
He reached in the pocket of his dressing-gown and produced a small square of white pasteboard. Maxton took the proffered card and turned it over. One side was blank. On the reverse three words were printed in ink:
Fly by night!
Andy looked up. “Where did you find this?” he asked.
“It was lying a few inches away from where Lady Evelyn lay,” Keaton replied.
A loud knocking sounded through the house. The servant started like a man springing to attention. With that summons, all the old subservience returned and Keaton inclined his head. “Excuse me, sir,” he murmured. “This, I think, will be the police.”
But Andy Maxton did not move. He was still staring at the card in his hand when Keaton opened the door to the officers of the law.
Thunder on his brow, three morning papers twisted in his right hand, Chief Inspector William Jamieson Read strode the corridors of New Scotland Yard. Manners, his private secretary, heard those heavy footsteps and gave a hopeless little shrug. When the door was flung open he was typing busily. He looked up and nodded.
“Good morning, sir.”
Read nodded curtly. “Mornin’. Mail in yet?”
“I’m expecting it any moment now, Mr. Read. But I’ve put all the morning papers on your desk.”
The big man’s mouth set like a trap. “Don’t talk to me about morning papers,” he snarled, and waved a tightly rolled baton over his secretary’s head. “What d’you think these are? Valentines?” He hunched his shoulders. “I’d like to take every single copy of this morning’s press and ram it down the throats of those lily-livered editors till their eyes popped out!”
Manners’s fingers reached for a typewritten slip among the papers on his desk. He cleared his throat preparatory to speaking, but Read cut in before him.
“What’s that?” he snapped.
His secretary’s voice was toneless.
“Memorandum from the assistant commissioner, sir. He’d like to see you at your earliest convenience.”
“You bet he would!” The chief inspector started in the direction of his private office.
“Got any other good news, eh?”
“Mr. Blackburn is waiting inside, sir.”
Read halted. He jerked his head towards his door and his tone was incredulous. “Jeff in there?” And as Manners nodded: “How long has he been waiting?”
“He came here shortly after nine o’clock,” the secretary explained.
The big man nodded and strode across the room. He halted with one hand on the door, and his clipped grey moustache lifted in the faintest semblance of a sour smile.
“Bring the mail in as soon as it comes, Manners.” His tone was curt. “And I’m not to be disturbed—understand? If any one wants me, I’ve gone roaming somewhere in Tibet—looking for a Shangri-la!” He swung the door open and walked inside.
Lounging loosely in his swivel chair, his shoes on the desk, a tall, powerfully-built young man lay back with his hands clasped behind his head, staring at the ceiling through the smoke of a cigarette. A lock of brown hair snaked down across his forehead. The cigarette between his lips ,quivered as he spoke without moving.
“Ah!” said Mr. Jeffery Blackburn. “Joy cometh with the morning! How are you, chief?”
Read closed the door and stood with his back against it. His tone was savagely genial. “Who—me? Oh, I’m all right. And you’re pretty comfortable yourself, I should say. If not, let me know, and I’ll send Manners out for a couple of cushions and a hot-water bottle!”
Jeffery took his feet off the desk, sat up and eyed the older man reproachfully. “Now, Mister Read . . . is that nice? Is that real old English courtesy? I tear myself away from my charming cottage at Thursby—”
The chief inspector crossed to the desk and leant over it, supporting himself on clenched fists. “Now, just a minute, my young cockerel,” he said measuredly. “Just because your respected father was my closest friend—just because I took you under my wing when he died—just because I’ve given you more or less the run of this place, and in return you’ve given me a hand in solving a few tricky cases—all this doesn’t give you permission to blow in here as though you owned the building, sit down in my chair and shove your number nines on my desk!” Read drummed with his fist. “So get out of that chair—tout suite!”
“Dammit,” protested Jeffery, rising, “it’s the only comfortable seat in the room!” He crushed out his cigarette in the ash-tray. “You know dashed well you use these others to torture confessions out of your suspects—”
“Jeff!” Read folded his arms and fixed the young man with a basilisk eye. “I’m in no mood for your cheerful badinage this morning.” He uncoiled one hand and waved a slip of paper in his companion’s face. “See that, my boy! It’s from the assistant commissioner. In half an hour I’m going to get enough hot air to last me for the rest of my life!”
The chief inspector turned on his heel and dumped himself in his chair with such force that every spring squeaked in violent protest. “Where the devil have you been all this time, anyway? You weren’t at your cottage, my boy. Parker told me you’d gone to the Riviera.”
“All right—all right!” Ignoring the other’s frown, Jeffery pushed a wire basket on one side and sat down on the corner of the desk. “I was at Antibes, if you must know. But what’s got you so rattled?”
“Seen the paper this morning?”
Jeffery shook his head. “Only the crossword puzzle. I started to do it while I was waiting for you.”
“Crossword puzzle, eh?” Read’s tone was heavy with contempt. “Well, my young professor, here’s another: crossword puzzle to occupy your mind—and if you work this one out I’m a monkey’s uncle!” A big paw thumped the half-dozen papers piled neatly on his desk. “You didn’t by any chance read the editorial in this morning’s Clarion?”
Jeffery was watching his friend curiously. Long association had inured him to the chief inspector’s crusty whims, but this present mood was something deeper. There were lines on Read’s bulldog face that told of sleepless nights and gnawing anxieties. The heavy wrinkle between the greying bushy eyebrows was newly formed: The young man stifled the flippant reply that rose to his lips. Instead, he said simply: “No, chief, I didn’t.”
The chief inspector rummaged through the pile of newspapers with ungentle hands, dragged one out and flicked through the pages. Coming upon what he sought, he folded the paper and leaned back in his chair. “Listen to this little journalistic classic,” he snarled, clearing his throat.
“ ‘For a number of years,’ ” he read, “ ‘Scotland Yard has been the Aunt Sally of the popular crime novelist. The great public have accepted this with the same good-natured tolerance with which they accept the mother-in-law gag or jokes about the English weather. But when the laugh is turned upon the public—when a single individual snaps his fingers at the resources of Scotland Yard and spreads terror and violence unhampered—it is quite time we re-adjusted our ideas concerning the so-called efficiency of an organization which spends thousands of pounds—taxpayers’ money—in what is laughingly called “protection” and “law and order” . . .’ ” The chief inspector raised his eyes and glared at his companion. “I don’t see you smiling, Mr. Blackburn,” he commented.
“I’m saving it till you get to the funny part,” Jeffery said quietly.
“That’s coming!” Read announced, burying his head again. “Listen. ‘Over the past two months, an individual, cloaking his true identity under the fantastic sobriquet of the Owl, has committed no fewer than four major robberies. We first learnt of this criminal’s existence when the strong room of the International and United Bank was blown open and an attempt made to make off with ten thousand pounds’ worth of bonds. We were told that the only clue obtained by the police was left by the criminal himself: a small piece of white pasteboard inscribed with three words— Fly by Night! We were to become familiar with that card, for its next appearance was pinned to the unconscious body of a caretaker when Sir Charles Mortlake’s famous Cellini Cup was stolen from his private museum. . . .’ ”
Again the chief inspector paused. Blackburn, in the act of lighting a cigarette, did not speak but nodded to him to continue. Read’s fingers tightened around the newspaper as he read on.
“ ‘The public had scarcely recovered from the shock of this audacious robbery when the newspapers were head-lining the theft of the Duchess of Doone’s diamond, snatched from her throat as she sat in her darkened box at Covent Garden. And the latest exploit of this daring criminal—the stealing of Lady Evelyn Harnett’s valuable necklace—is too fresh in the public mind for detailed description. Meanwhile, however, the public rightfully demands an explanation as to why this reign of terror is allowed to continue unchecked. Is it because incompetent officials, collecting huge salaries, are hiding behind a political smoke-screen of —’ ” The big man, whose voice had gradually gathered rage, broke off with a snarl like an enraged animal. Jumping to his feet, he hurled the newspaper far across the room.
“Blast and blister them!” he roared. Hands thrust in pockets, bull neck forward, he began to pace the floor. “By heaven, I’d like to get my hands on the scribbling scavenger who wrote that benediction! I’d show him how ‘incompetent’ I am!” The big man halted opposite his friend, his eyes glittering. “Son—do you realize I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since this misbegotten sneak-thief jumped into the headlines? Do you know what I’ve been living on? Black coffee, black looks and abuse!” He almost spat the words.
“Have a cigarette,” suggested Jeffery calmly.
Read swept the proffered case aside with an angry gesture and resumed his pacing. “And you! The one person I can look to for help—where are you? Tanning the body beautiful in some motheaten watering-place in the south of France!” The fire died out of the chief inspector’s eyes and his square shoulders slumped. “Son, I’m beginning to think I’m too old for the job. I’m just waiting for the A.C. to suggest that it’s time I retired and, so help me Bob, I’ll grab the chance with both hands!”
Blackburn edged himself off the desk and walked across to where Read stood plucking irritably at his grey clipped moustache. “So it’s as bad as that?” he asked quietly. “Then it’s just as well I came at once.”
“At once! Goddlemighty, boy—I sprayed telegrams all over the Continent after you!”
“One reached me only yesterday,” Jeffery told him. “I chartered a plane straight away. . . .”
Slightly mollified, the other returned to his desk and sat down. “But didn’t you know, Jeff? Every newspaper’s been carrying scareheads bigger than a theatrical poster!”
“Shunned ’em like a plague,” retorted Jeffery cheerfully. “Haven’t glanced at a newspaper or listened to a wireless in weeks!” He pulled one of the recently maligned chairs up to the desk and sat down. “Anyway, I’m here and that’s all that matters for the moment. How long since our night-flying friend swooped?”
“Five days ago. Paid an early morning call at Richmond. Got away with a pearl necklace valued at something like six thousand pounds, the property of some scatter-brained society woman down there.” The chief inspector pulled open a drawer and took out a small sheaf of papers, fastened together with a clip. “You’ll find the full report written here.” He pushed the file across.
There was a pause as Jeffery flicked through the typewritten sheets. Read opened a box on his desk, took out a cigar and lit it, watching the young man as he did so. Presently the other raised his eyes.
“I notice,” he observed, “that our mysterious friend is a stickler for the social amenities—always sends out his card before he calls.”
The cigar in Read’s mouth stuck out at a truculent angle. “That’s his way of thumbin’ his nose at us! I tell you, son, he’s got the cheek of the Devil himself!”
Jeffery pushed the report to one side and leaned his elbows on the desk. “You’ve explored every possible avenue, of course?”
“Been over the scene of every crime with a small toothcomb,” Read assured him. “A dozen of our best men have raked the underworld and we’ve had salt on the tail of every informer in the square mile! Nothing doin’! Mister Owl flies solo.”
“But surely there’s some lead somewhere . . .?”
The chief inspector shook his head: “Only those visiting cards he leaves round about. I tell you, boy, it’s almost uncanny the way this skunk covers his tracks! He’s getting away with it so often that it’s starting to give Mr. and Mrs. John Public the blue willies!”
The faintest undercurrent of anxiety in the other’s contemptuous observation made Blackburn glance at him sharply. “And just what do you mean by that, chief?” he asked.
“Some sensation sheet started it.” Read’s voice was a disgusted mutter. He avoided the young man’s eyes, being very interested in the burning tip of his cigar. “It suggested that this blighter might be superhuman—some arch-criminal who’d learnt the power of levitation—like a ruddy bird flying!” He thrust the cigar into his mouth and bit it savagely. “Lot of damn-fool nonsense, of course, but they say that’s why he doesn’t leave any tracks. And between you and me and a row of commissioners, son, it’s—well—it’s gripping the public mind. Lots of people are afraid to venture out after dark lately—’specially in isolated country areas.”
Jeffery made no comment. He gathered his big loose figure together and, rising, strolled across to the window. Outside, the river glittered under the fresh morning sun, dancing with a million spear-points of light. The Air Force monument towered into a sky flecked with tiny clouds. Abruptly the young man turned, and his voice was very quiet.
“All right, chief, I’m ready. To tell the truth, I’m hungry for it! We’ll work together again! Between us, we’ll spread the bird-lime all over England. And when the Owl settles on our own particular branch”—he dropped his smoking cigarette to the floor and set his foot on it—“we’ll crush him as easily as that!”
The chief inspector stood up and grasped his companion’s hand. “Son,” he said, “that’s done me more good than a month at Margate! Old Horseface can chew the paper off the walls for all I care now! I’ll just wait until he stops for breath, then I’ll stand back, look him squarely between those fishy eyes of his, and I’ll say—”
Exactly what the chief inspector meant to tell the assistant commissioner, Jeffery was fated never to learn. For at that moment a knock sounded at the door. It opened and Manners insinuated himself cautiously through the aperture, a movement that reminded Blackburn of a keeper entering the den of a fractious lion. The secretary carried a number of letters in his hand. He advanced to the desk, a wary eye on the inspector.
“Mail, sir,” he announced, depositing the letters in a wire basket. “And—Mr. Read . . .”
“Two people outside to see you—a young man and a girl.”
Read, shuffling through the letters, did not even glance up. “Tell ’em I’m busy—tell ’em I’m in quarantine. Tell ’em anything, but don’t let ’em in here.”
Manners nodded. He was almost to the door when Jeffery spoke. “Who are these people?” he asked.
“The young woman said she was connected with a newspaper—” the secretary began. A sudden detonation drowned the rest of his remark, for Read had thumped the desk with a force that made the metal inkpot jump from its stand. “God dammitall,” he roared, “you let any of those ink-fingered spies into this office and, so help me Moses, I’ll get you six months’ solitary confinement on bread and water!” The big man glared at his unfortunate subordinate from under drawn brows. “Don’t stand there gaping like an imbecile! Get rid of ’em—d’you hear me?”
“Yes, sir.” Manners swallowed and reached for the door. “I wouldn’t have mentioned it, but they said they had information about the Owl robberies—”
“Then tell ’em to write another editorial about it!”
The secretary shrugged. “As you like, sir. But this Miss Blaire seemed very anxious—”
Jeffery, watching this dialogue with faint amusement, looked up sharply. “What name did you say?”
Manners turned to him. “The young lady gave her name as Miss Blaire—Elizabeth Blaire—”
“Betty Blaire!” Jeffery’s face lit up and he took a half-step in the direction of the door. “Why, chief—surely you remember Miss Blaire? She was the newspaper woman connected with that murder at the B.B.C. Don’t you remember she gave us a most important suggestion regarding the locked studio?” Unconsciously, Jeffery pushed the lock of hair off his forehead. “You must recall the girl. Why, you were the one—”
Read interrupted sourly. “All right—yes—I remember her. But just because she’s given us some help in the past doesn’t mean we’ve got to put the welcome mat down whenever she appears!”
“But didn’t you hear what Manners said?” Jeffery demanded. “She wants to give us some information regarding these Owl robberies—”
“So you think! She wants an exclusive interview so that she can spread my bleeding carcass all over the front page of her scandal sheet—”
An urgent young voice spoke from the door. “No, no, Mr. Read! Please believe me—you’ve got it all wrong!” And as the three men wheeled, Elizabeth Blaire walked into the room.
She halted opposite the chief inspector, a slim, defiant figure, with cheeks pink at her own temerity and brown eyes very bright. A ridiculous hat resembling an inverted bowl of fruit clung perilously to her sleek brown head. Her hands, twined in each other, were pressed nervously against her breast. The chief inspector stared blankly at her and, taking advantage of his silence, the girl spoke again.
“Mr. Read,” her voice trembled slightly, “give me five minutes—that’s all I ask. If only you’ll listen to me. . . .” The words trailed off. The chief inspector, his face dark, stabbed a finger in the air.
“Young woman,” he said measuredly, “there’s a notice outside that door. It’s a single word—Private! P-R-I-V-A-T-E! And it s not written up there for the fun of the thing! Understand?”
Elizabeth Blaire nodded. “I know I haven’t any right to push my way in here, but I’ll promise to go in five min-utes—”
“In time to catch the first edition with your interview, eh?” Read growled. He gestured to Manners, who was still hovering uncertainly near the door. The girl saw the movement and turned toward Jeffery.
“Mr. Blackburn,” she said desperately. “You remember me, I know. Please help me convince the chief inspector that I don’t want an interview. I’m not even connected with newspapers now. I—I—” The brown eyes dropped for a moment. “I only said that because I—I thought it would get me in here.” She moved a step closer so that the brim of her hat was almost level with his chin. “It’s about this Owl—this criminal. I know when he’s going to strike again. My brother Edward has received the warning cards!”
She paused. Her breast rose and fell with her hurried breathing. With a gesture of his head, Jeffery sent Manners from the room and pulled up a chair. “Sit down, Miss Blaire,” he invited.
The girl turned for Read’s approval. That gentleman nodded curtly. “All right,” he growled, “but if this is a stunt—”
“Of course it isn’t,” Jeffery snapped. “Haven’t you heard what Miss Blaire said?” He turned to the girl, who had seated herself gingerly on the edge of other chair. “Now, what’s all this?” he asked gently.
Elizabeth Blaire glanced toward the door. “I have a friend waiting outside,” she told them. “If he could be present—” she ignored the chief inspector’s frowning features and addressed the young man. “He’s my—my fiancé—Robert Ashton. . . .”
Blackburn strode across the room and flung open the door. As he did so, a stocky, fair-haired young man, pacing the floor, turned sharply. He had strong, masculine features and a mouth that could be both obstinate and sulky. Jeffery beckoned him inside, and Elizabeth performed rather awkward introductions. Jeffery, ignoring the chief inspector’s frown, straddled a leg over the edge of Read’s desk.
“We’re all ready for your story, Miss Blaire,” he said genially. “Now, what’s all the trouble?”
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