The Door with Seven Locks

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Chapter 13

A FEW minutes later Dick took his leave, and walked down towards Bedford Square. Once or twice he looked back. On the opposite side of the road a man was keeping pace with him about twenty yards to his rear. Immediately behind him was another saunterer. At the corner of Bedford Square a taxi - cab was waiting, and the driver hailed him urgently. But Dick ignored the invitation. He was taking no risks tonight. The two men he might deal with, but trouble awaiting him in a strange taxicab might be more difficult to overcome.

Presently he saw a taxi coming towards him, and, stopping the driver, got in and was driven to the Station Hotel. Through the glass at the back of the car he saw another taxi following him. When he paid off his own at the entrance of the hotel, he observed, out of the corner of his eye, the second taxi pull up some distance away and two men get out. Dick booked a room, gave the cloakroom ticket to a porter, and slipped through the side entrance which opens directly on to the station platform. A train was on the move as he emerged, and, sprinting along, he pulled open a carriage door and jumped in.

For all he knew, he might be in the Scottish express, whose first stop would be in the early hours of the morning somewhere in the neighbourhood of Crewe. But, fortunately for him, the train was a local one, and at Willesden he was able to alight and pay his fare to the ticket - collector. Diving down to the electric station, he arrived on the Embankment an hour after he had left the Lansdowns' flat.

Two hundred yards from the station is a grim building, approached under a covered arch, and this was Dick's destination. The constable on duty at the door recognized him.

"Inspector Sneed is upstairs if you want him, Mr Martin," he said.

"I want nobody else," said Dick, and went up the stone stairs two at a time.

Sneed was in his chair, an uninspiring man. The chief commissioner once said of him that he combined the imagination of a schoolgirl with the physical initiative of a bedridden octogenarian.

He sat as usual in a big armchair behind his large desk; a fire burned on the tiled hearth; a dead cigar was between his teeth and he was nodding. He was at Scotland Yard at this hour because he had not had sufficient energy to rise from his chair and go home at seven o'clock. This happened on an average five nights a week.

He opened his eyes and surveyed the newcomer without any particular favour.

"I'm very busy," he murmured. "Can't give you more than a minute."

Dick sat down at the opposite side of the table and grinned.

"Ask Morpheus to put you down on your feet, and listen to this." And then be began to talk, and almost at the first sentence the chief inspector's eyes opened wide. Before Dick Martin had been talking for ten minutes there was not a man in New Scotland Yard more wide awake than this stout, bald, thief - taker.

"You've got this out of a story - book," he accused, when Dick paused for breath. "You're passing across the latest mystery story by the celebrated Mr Doyle."

And then Dick went on with his narrative, and at the end Sneed pressed a bell. After a long time his sergeant came into the room.

"Sergeant," said Sneed, "I want one man at the front and one man at the back of 107 Coram Street. I want your best shadow to follow Mr Martin from tomorrow, and that man must sleep at Mr Martin's flat every night. Got that?"

The officer was jotting down his instructions in a notebook.

"Tomorrow morning get through to the Chief Constable of Sussex, and tell him I want to raid Gallows Cottage, Gallows Hill, at eleven - fifteen pip - emma. I'll bring my own men and he can have a couple of his handy to see fair play. That's about the lot, sergeant."

When he had gone, Sneed rose with a groan from his chair.

"I suppose I had better be getting along. I'll walk back with you to your flat."

"You'll do nothing of the kind," said Dick ungraciously. "To be seen out with you is like wearing my name and licence. I'll get back into the flat - don't worry."

"Wait a bit. Before you go - the fellow who attacked you in the drive at Gallows Cottage was a naked man, you say?"

"Nearly naked."

"Stalletti," mused the inspector. "I wonder if he's been up to his old tricks. I got him three months for that."

"What were his old tricks?" demanded Slick.

Sneed was lighting his cigar with slow, noisy puffs.

"Rearranging the human race," he said.

"A little thing like that?" said Dick sardonically.

"Just that." Sneed inspected the ragged end of his cigar with disfavour. "Got that weed from a man who ought to know better than try to poison the metropolitan constabulary," he said. "Yes, that was Stalletti's kink. His theory was that, if you took a baby of two or three years old, and brought it up wild, same as you'd bring up any other animal, you'd get something that didn't want clothes, didn't want to talk, but a perfect specimen of human. He reckoned that men ought to be ten feet high, and his general theory was that all the life - energy - that's the expression - that flows into human brains and human thought, ought to be directed to making muscle and bone. I guess you've come upon one of his experiments - I'll put him away for life if I find anybody in his house, dressed or undressed, who can't spell c - a - t, cat."

Dick left Scotland Yard by the Whitehall entrance, a cab having been brought from the Embankment, and he was set down at the loneliest part of the Outer Circle which encircles Regent's Park. By this time he knew that the janitor would be off duty and the entrance doors of the flats closed. The little street was deserted when he turned in, making a circuitous way through the mews at the back of the buildings. He opened the outer door, passed quickly up the stairs and into his apartment. He stopped long enough to shoot the bolts in the door, then, switching on the lights, he went from room to room and made a close inspection. Everything was as he had left it.

Before he had gone out that evening, he had drawn the heavy curtains over the windows of the room he intended using. He had lowered even the kitchen blind, so that, on his return (as he intended to return), no light could be seen by a watcher on the outside.

As he changed his coat for the old shooting jacket, he remembered, with a little grimace of disgust, the morning when he had found poor Lew. What had Lew seen in the tomb of the Selfords? What vault had he been asked to unlock in that 'great hole dugge in the earth'?

He brewed himself a pot of coffee, and, putting on the table one of the six stout volumes that had come that afternoon, he began his search. The London Gazette is not exactly as amusing as a Moliere comedy, but Dick found these pages, filled with records of bankruptcies and judgments, of enthralling interest. It was past two o'clock when he gathered his notes together, put them in a small safe, went into his bedroom and undressed.

Turning out the light, he pulled aside the curtains and, opening his window, looked out. A waning moon rode in a cloudless sky; a gentle wind was blowing, as he discovered when he got into bed, for it moved the dark blind so that a perpendicular streak of moonlight, which changed its shape with every movement of the blind, lay down the bedroom wall. Within a few minutes of punching his pillow into shape, Dick had fallen into a dreamless slumber.

He was the lightest of sleepers, and it seemed to him that he had hardly closed his eyes before he was wide awake again.

What had disturbed him he could not remember. It might have been the flapping of the blind, but he decided that that was a noise which he had already discounted before he had gone to sleep. He lay on his left side, facing the door, which was flush with the wall against which the head of the bed rested. He must have been asleep for some considerable time, he decided, for the moonlight streak that had been over the bureau bad now reached to within a foot of his bed, and lay exactly along the edge of the doorway. Even as he looked, he saw the door moving, slowly but certainly; and then there came into view, hideously clear in the moonlight, a hand. A hand, but such a hand as he had never seen before. The great thick fingers were like the tentacles of an octopus; blunt at their points, the skin about the knuckles wrinkled, the fat thumb squat. It was holding the edge of the door, pushing it slowly inward.

In a second he had rolled out of bed on the opposite side and dropped to the floor, as something big and heavy leapt on to the bed with a guttural inhuman cry that was terrible to hear.

As Dick dropped, his left hand thrust upward under the pillow and gripped the Browning that was there. So doing, his bare forearm touched for a second the back of a swollen hand, and he had for a moment a sense of physical sickness. Facing his unseen enemy, he reached back for the blind, and with one jerk tore it down. Instantly the room was flooded with moonlight. Save for himself, it was empty!

The door was wide open, and, changing his pistol hand, he reached round for the switch of the light that lit the hall. At a glance he saw that the front door was still locked and bolted, but that the door of the kitchenette was wide open. So also was the window when he got there, and, bending over the iron rail of the balcony, he saw a shape scuttling down a rope ladder fastened to the balcony rail. As he searched the yard with his eyes, the figure vanished into the shadows.

He waited, listening, looking down into the mews, hoping to get another glimpse of his assailant. Then he heard the soft purr of a motor - car, that grew fainter and fainter, and presently passed from hearing.

Dick went into his study. The clock pointed to four, and in the east the sky was already paling. Who was this unknown murderer? He was satisfied that it was the same man who had attacked him at Gallows House.

He pulled up the rope ladder. It was an amateur affair, evidently home - made, for the rungs were of rough, unshaven wood, and the supporting rope hand - plaited. How they got on to the little balcony outside the kitchen door was a mystery, though he suspected that a stone attached to twine had been thrown over the projecting rail, and that first a cord and then a ladder had been pulled up. That this surmise was not far from the truth, he discovered when daylight came and he was able to search the courtyard below. Here he found cord and string, and to the latter was attached a small iron bolt. It was easy enough, now he came to examine the crime in the light of knowledge. By this way had come the murderer of Lew Pheeney. The back of Clargate Gardens looks on to a mews, from which there were two egresses, and only a wall need be surmounted to reach the paved courtyard immediately behind the flats; possibly not ten minutes had elapsed between the arrival of the assassin and that moonlight vision of his hideous hand.

Day had come now, and Dick was reeling with weariness. He threw himself down on the bed, half dressed as he was, pulled the coverlet over him, and was immediately asleep.

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