JOHNNY was the first of the guests to arrive, and Stevens helped him to take off his raincoat. As he did so, he asked in a low voice: "Got a gun, Captain?"
"Never carry one, Stevens. It is a bad habit to get into."
"I never thought you were a mug," said Stevens in the same voice.
"Any man who has been in prison is, ex officio, one of the Ancient Order of Muggery," said Johnny, adjusting his bow in the mirror by the porter's desk. "What's going?"
"I don't know," said the other, bending down to wipe the mud from Johnny's boots. "But curious things have happened in No. 13; and don't sit with your back to the buffet. Do you get that?"
He had reached the end of the corridor when he heard the whine of the ascending lift, and stopped. It was Peter Kane, and to him in a low voice, Johnny passed on the porter's advice.
"I don't think they'll start anything," said Peter under his breath. "But if they do, there's a nurse at Charing Cross Hospital who's going to say: 'What, you here again?"
As Johnny had expected, his two hosts were waiting in Room 13. The silence which followed their arrival was, for one member of the party, an awkward one.
"Glad to see you, Peter," said Emanuel at last, though he made no pretence of shaking hands. "Old friends ought to keep up acquaintances. There's my boy, Jeffrey. I think you've met him," he said with a grin.
"I've met him," said Peter, his face a mask.
Jeffrey Legge had apparently recovered fully from his unpleasant experience.
"Now sit down, everybody," said Emanuel, bustling around, pulling out the chairs. "You sit here, Johnny."
"I'd rather face the buffet; I like to see myself eat," said Johnny, and, without invitation, sat down in the position he had selected.
Not waiting, Peter seated himself on Johnny's left, and it was Emanuel himself, a little ruffled by this preliminary upset to his plans, who sat with his back to the buffet. Johnny noticed the quick exchange of glances between father and son; he noticed, too, that the buffet carried none of the side dishes for which it was designed, and wondered what particular danger threatened from that end of the room.
By the side of the sideboard, in one corner, hung a long, blue curtain, which, he guessed, hid a door leading to No. 12. Peter, who was better acquainted with the club, knew that No. 12 was the sitting-room, and that the two made one of those suites which were very much in request when a lamb was brought to the killing.
"Now, boys," said Emanuel with spurious joviality, "there is to be no bickering and quarrelling. We're all met round the festive board, and we've nothing to do but find a way out that leaves my boy's good name unsullied, if I may use that word."
"You can use any word you like," said Peter. "It'll take more than a dinner party to restore his tarnished reputation."
"What long words you use, Peter!" said Emanuel admiringly. "It's my own fault that I don't know them, because I had plenty of time to study when I was away 'over the Alps'. Never been over the Alps, have you, Peter? Well, when they call it 'time,' they use the right word. The one thing you've got there is time!"
Peter did not answer, and it was Jeffrey who took up the conversation.
"See here, Peter," he said, "I'm not going to make a song about this business of mine. I'm going to put all my cards on the table. I want my wife."
"You know where Lila is better than I," said Peter. "She's not in my employment now."
"Lila nothing!" retorted Jeffrey. "If you fall for that stuff, you're getting soft. I certainly married Lila, but she was married already, and I can give you proof of it."
The conversation flagged here, for the waiter came in to serve the soup.
"What wine will you have, sir?"
"The same as Mr. Emanuel," said Peter.
Emanuel Legge chuckled softly.
"Think I'm going to 'knock you out,' eh, Peter? What a suspicious old man you are!"
"Water," said Johnny softly when the waiter came to him.
"On the water-wagon, Johnny? That's good. A young man in your business has got to keep his wits about him. I'll have champagne, Fernando, and so will Major Floyd. Nothing like champagne to keep your heart up," he said.
Peter watched, all his senses alert, as the wine came, bubbling and frothing, into the long glasses.
"That will do, Fernando," said Emanuel, watching the proceedings closely.
As the door closed, Johnny could have sworn he heard an extra click.
"Locking us in?" he asked pleasantly, and Emanuel's eyebrows rose.
"Locking you in, Johnny? Why, do you think I'm afraid of losing you, like you're afraid of losing Marney?"
Johnny sipped the glass of water, his eyes fixed on the old man's face. What was behind that buffet? That was the thought which puzzled him. It was a very ordinary piece of furniture, of heavy mahogany, a little shallow, but this was accounted for by the fact that the room was not large, and, in furnishing, the proprietors of the club had of necessity to economise space.
There were two cupboard doors beneath the ledge on which the side dishes should have been standing. Was it his imagination that he thought he saw one move the fraction of an inch?
"Ever been in 'bird' before, Johnny?"
It was Emanuel who did most of the talking.
"I know they gave you three years, but was that your first conviction?"
"That was my first conviction," said Johnny.
The old man looked up at the ceiling, pulling at his chin.
"Ever been in Keytown?" he demanded. "No good asking you, Peter, I know. You've never been in Keytown or any bad boob, have you? Clever old Peter!"
"Let us talk about something else," said Peter. "I don't believe for one moment the story you told me about Lila having been married before. You've told me a fresh lie every time the matter has been discussed. I'm going to give you a show, Emanuel, for old times' sake. You've been a swine, and you've been nearer to death than you know, for, if your plan had come off as you expected it would, I'd have killed you."
Emanuel chuckled derisively.
"Old Peter's going to be a gunman," he said. "And after all the lectures you've given me! I'm surprised at you, Peter. Now I'll tell you what I'm going to do." He rested his elbows on the table and cupped his chin in his hands, his keen eyes, all the keener for the magnification of his spectacles, fixed hardly upon his sometime friend. "By my reckoning, you owe me forty thousand pounds, and I know I'm not going to get it without a struggle. Weigh in with that money, and I'll make things easy for my son's wife." He emphasised the last word.
"You can cut that out!"
It was Jeffrey whose rough interruption checked his father's words.
"There's no money in the world that's going to get Marney from me. Understand that." He brought his hand down with a crash upon the table. "She belongs to me, and I want her, Peter. Do you get it? And what is more, I'm going to take her."
Johnny edged a little farther from the table, and folding his arms across his chest, his lips parted in a smile. His right hand reached for the gun that he carried under his armpit: a little Browning, but a favourite one of Johnny's in such crises as these. For the cupboard door had moved again, and the door of the room was locked: of that he was certain. All this talk of Marney was sheer blind to keep them occupied.
It had long passed the time when the plates should have been cleared and the second course make its appearance. But there was to be no second course, at that dinner. Emanuel was speaking chidingly, reproachfully.
"Jeffrey, my boy, you mustn't spoil a good deal," he said. "The truth is—"
And then all the lights of the room went out. Instantly Johnny was on his feet, his back to the wall, his gun fanning the dark.
"What's the game?" asked Peter's voice sharply. "There'll be a real dead man here if you start fooling."
"I don't know," said Emanuel, speaking from the place where he had been. "Ring the bell, Jeff. I expect the switch has gone."
There was somebody else in the room: Johnny felt the presence instinctively—a stealthy somebody who was moving toward him. Holding out one hand, ready to pounce the moment it touched, he waited. A second passed—five seconds—ten seconds—and then the lights went on again.
Peter was also standing with his back to the wall, and in his hand a murderous looking Webley. Jeffrey and his father were side by side in the places they had been when the lights went out. There was no fifth man in the room.
"What's the game?" asked Peter suspiciously.
"The game, my dear Peter? What a question to ask! You don't make me responsible for the fuses, do you? I'm not an electrician. I'm a poor old crook who has done time that other people should have done—that's all," said Emanuel pleasantly. "And look at the hardware! Bad idea, carrying guns. Let an old crook give you a word of advice, Peter," he bantered. "I'm not surprised at Johnny, because he might be anything. Sit down, you damned fools," he said jocularly. "Let's talk."
"I'll talk when you open that door," said Johnny quietly. "And I'll put away my gun on the same condition."
In three strides, Emanuel was at the door. There was a jerk of his wrist, and it flew open.
"Have the door open if you're frightened," he said contemptuously. "I guess it's being in boob that makes you scared of the dark. I got that way myself."
As he had turned the handle, Johnny had heard a second click. He was confident that somebody stood outside the door, and that the words Legge had uttered were intended for the unknown sentry. What was the idea?
Peter Kane was sipping his champagne, with an eye on his host. Had he heard the noise, too? Johnny judged that he had. The extinguishing of the lights had not been an accident. Some secret signal had been given, and the lights cut off from the controlling switchboard. The doors of the buffet cupboard were still. Turning his head, Johnny saw that Jeffrey's eyes were fixed on his with a hard concentration which was significant. What was he expecting?
The climax, whatever it might be, was at hand.
"It's a wonder to me, Gray, that you've never gone in for slush." Jeffrey was speaking slowly and deliberately. "It's a good profession, and you can make money that you couldn't dream of getting by faking racehorses."
"Perhaps you will tell me how to start in that interesting profession," said Johnny coolly.
"I'll put it on paper for you, if you like. It'll be easier to make a squeak about. Or, better still, I'll show you how it's done. You'd like that?"
"I don't know that I'm particularly interested, but I'm sure my friend Mr. Reeder—"
"Your friend Mr. Reeder!" sneered the other. "He's a pal of yours too, is he?"
"All law-abiding citizens are pals of mine," said Johnny gravely.
He had put his pistol back in his jacket pocket, and his hand was on it.
"Well, how's this for a start?"
Jeffrey rose from the table and went to the buffet. He bent down and must have touched some piece of mechanism; for, without any visible assistance, the lid of the buffet turned over on some invisible axis, revealing a small but highly complicated piece of machinery, which Johnny recognised instantly as one of those little presses employed by banknote printers when a limited series of notes, generally of a high denomination, were being made.
The audacity of this revelation momentarily took his breath away.
"You could pull that buffet to pieces," continued Jeffrey, "and then not find it."
He pressed a switch, and the largest of the wheels began to spin, and with it a dozen tiny platens and cylinders. Only for a few minutes, and then he cut off the current, pressed the hidden mechanism again, and the machine turned over out of sight, and the two astonished men stared at the very ordinary looking surface of a very ordinary buffet.
"Easy money, eh, Gray?" said Emanuel, with an admiring smirk at his son. "Now listen, boys," His tone grew suddenly practical and businesslike as he came back to his chair. "I want to tell you something that's going to be a lot of good to both of you, and we'll leave Marney out of it for the time being."
Johnny raised his glass of water, still watchful and suspicious.
"The point is—" said Emanuel, and at that moment Johnny took a long sip from the glass.
The liquid had hardly reached his throat when he strove vainly to reject it. The harsh tang of it he recognised, and, flinging the glass to the floor, jerked out his gun.
And then some tremendous force within him jerked at his brain, and the pistol dropped from his paralysed hand.
Peter was on his feet, staring from one to the other.
"What have you done?"
He leapt forward, but before he could make a move, Emanuel sprang at him like a cat. He tried to fight clear, but he was curiously lethargic and weak. A vicious fist struck him on the jaw, and he went down like a log.
"Got you!" hissed Emanuel, glaring down at his enemy. "Got you, Peter, my boy! Never been in boob, have you? I'll give you a taste of it!"
Jeffrey Legge stooped and jerked open the door of the cupboard, and a man came stooping into the light. It was a catlike Pietro, grinning from ear to ear in sheer enjoyment of the part he had played. Emanuel dropped his hand on his shoulder.
"Good boy," he said. "The right stuff for the right man, eh? To every man his dope, Jeff. I knew that this Johnny Gray was going to be the hardest, and if I'd taken your advice and given them both a knock-out, we'd have only knocked out one. Now they know why the lights went out. Pick 'em up."
The little half-caste must have been enormously strong, for he lifted Peter without an effort and propped him into an armchair. This done, he picked up the younger man and laid him on the sofa, took a little tin box from his pocket, and, filling a hypodermic syringe from a tiny phial, looked round for instructions.
Jeffrey nodded, and the needle was driven into the unfeeling flesh. This done, he lifted the eyelid of the drugged man and grinned again.
"He'll be ready to move in half an hour," he said. "My knock-out doesn't last longer."
"Could you get him down the fire-escape into the yard?" asked Emanuel anxiously. "He's a pretty heavy fellow, that Peter. You'll have to help him, Jeff boy. The car's in the yard. And, Jeff, don't forget you've an engagement at two o'clock."
His son nodded.
Again the half-caste swung up Peter Kane, and Jeffrey, holding the door wide, helped him to carry the unconscious man through the open window and down the steel stairway, though he needed very little help, for the strength of the man was enormous.
He came back, apparently unmoved by his effort, and hoisted Johnny on to his back. Again unassisted, he carried the young man to the waiting car below, and flung him into the car.
He was followed this time by Jeffrey, wrapped from head to foot in a long waterproof, a chauffeur's cap pulled down over his eyes. They locked both doors of the machine, and Peitro opened the gate and glanced out. There were few people about, and the car swung out and sped at full speed toward Oxford Street.
Closing and locking the gate, the half-caste went up the stairs of the fire-escape two at a time and reported to his gratified master.
Emanuel was gathering the coats and hats of his two guests into a bundle. This done, he opened a cupboard and flung them in, and they immediately disappeared.
"Go down and burn them," he said laconically. "You've done well, Pietro. There's fifty for you to-night."
"Good?" asked the other laconically.
Emanuel favoured him with his benevolent smile. He took the two glasses from which the men had drunk, and these followed the clothes. A careful search of the room brought to light no further evidence of their presence. Satisfied, Emanuel sat down and lit a long, thin cigar. His night's work was not finished. Jeff had left to him what might prove the hardest of all the tasks.
From a small cupboard he took a telephone, and pushed in the plug at the end of a long flex. He had some time to wait for the number, but presently he heard a voice which he knew was Marney's.
"Is that you, Marney?" he asked softly, disguising his voice so cleverly that the girl was deceived.
"Yes, daddy. Are you all right? I've been so worried about you."
"Quite all right, darling. Johnny and I have made a very interesting discovery. Will you tell Barney to go to bed, and will you wait up for me—open the door yourself?"
"Is Johnny coming back with you?"
"No, no, darling; I'm coming alone."
"Are you sure everything is all right?" asked the anxious voice.
"Now, don't worry, my pet. I shall be with you at two o'clock. When you hear the car stop at the gate, come out. I don't want to come into the house. I'll explain everything to you."
"Do as I ask you, darling," he said, and before she could reply had rung off.
But could Jeff make it? He would like to go himself, but that would mean the employment of a chauffeur, and he did not know one he could trust. He himself was not strong enough to deal with the girl, and, crowning impossibility, motor-car driving was a mystery—that was one of the accomplishments which a long stay in Dartmoor had denied to him.
But could Jeff make it? He took a pencil from his pocket and worked out the times on the white tablecloth. Satisfied, he put away his pencil, and was pouring out a glass of champagne when there was a gentle tap-tap-tap at the door. He looked up in surprise. The man had orders not under any circumstances to come near Room 13, and it was his duty to keep the whole passage clear until he received orders to the contrary.
"Come in," he said.
The door opened. A man stood in the doorway. He was dressed in shabby evening clothes; his bow was clumsily tied one stud was missing from his white shirt-front.
"Am I intruding upon your little party?" he asked timidly.
Emanuel said nothing. For a long time he sat staring at this strange apparition. As if unconscious of the amazement and terror he had caused, the visitor sought to read just his frayed shirt-cuffs, which hung almost to the knuckles of his hands. And then:
"Come in, Mr. Reeder," said Emanuel Legge a little breathlessly.