The Door with Seven Locks

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Chapter 22

SNEED CAME up at his call, and together the men searched the room.

"Bloodstains on that door; did you notice them? Down there at the bottom," said Sneed, working his lamp along the panel. "Fingerprints, and pretty distinct! Whoever it was, he put his hand under the door and tried to lift it off its hinge - look at the size of the prints! This was the gentleman who visited you, Martin!"

Dick nodded.

"No other signs of violence. No blood on the floor," mused Sneed, and stared up at the open skylight. "I'm too fat to go up there. See what you can find."

There was a chair underneath the square aperture, and Dick, springing on to it, caught the edge of the skylight and drew himself up. He was on a level ledge of roof about three feet wide. A low parapet ran its full length on the one side, whilst on the other the roof rose steeply to the ridge pole. Dick sent his light ahead of him and saw two yellow projections overtopping the parapet. "A builder's ladder," he said, and made his way towards it. It was easy to see why the ladder had escaped attention when he made his first superficial survey of the house. At this point the outside wall of the house was thrown back at a right angle, and it was in this angle that the ladder had been planted, none too securely. "She must have had some sort of outside help," he said, returning to his companion to report his find. "It couldn't have been the servants, because there are no servants in the house."

"Help me up," said the inspector.

It seemed almost impossible to lift that huge man through the skylight, but in truth he was as strong as an ox, and to Dick's relief the only assistance he needed was approval of his ability. "What about friend Cawler?" suggested Sneed, breathing noisily.

He was peering down at the leaden roof, and suddenly:

"Here are your blood spots," he said, "and here they are again on the ladder. That smear is distinct enough."

Dick Martin turned cold with dread, and the hope that had suddenly revived in his heart vanished.

"I'll hold the ladder; get down and see what you can find," said Sneed, and braced himself against the parapet, gripping the top supports, while Dick descended to the dark ground, stopping now and again to examine the supports.

He found himself in what was evidently the beginning of a kitchen garden. It was hopeless to look for traces of feet upon the gravelled pathway, which followed a straight course through beds of growing vegetables to a small orchard.

"Hold the ladder," shouted Sneed; "I'll come down."

In spite of his anxiety, Martin could not repress a smile at the courage of the big man. He gripped the ladder whilst Sneed came down with a surprising agility, and together they made a brief reconnaissance of the ground.

"They couldn't have gone towards the house because that hedge shuts it off. There is only one exit, and that is through the orchard," Inspector Sneed scratched his head in perplexity. "We can't do any harm following the path to its end."

They had passed the first vegetable bed and had reached the beginning of the second.

"I think it wouldn't be a bad idea - - " began Sneed.

Bang! Bang!

From the darkness ahead of them leapt two pencils of flame; something whizzed past them with the noise of an angry wasp.

"Lights out and lie down," hissed the stout inspector, and in the fraction of a second they were lying side by side on the path.

And then, from ahead of them, broke a furious staccato fusillade of fire. The whine of the bullets seemed continuous. The smack and rustle of them as they passed through the foliage or struck against some solid billet was almost continuous. As suddenly as the shooting began, it ceased. The two men listened intently. There was no sound, until there came to Dick's ears a faint 'swish! swish!' as if the coat of their unknown assailant was brushing the edge of a bush. The pistol he held in his hand stiffly before him spat twice in the direction whence the noise had come. There was no other indication of human presence, no cry or proof of accelerated movement.

"What have they got there?" whispered Sneed, who was breathing heavily. "A regiment of soldiers or something?"

"One man with two automatic pistols," was the answer in the same tone. "I couldn't count 'em, but I guess twenty shots were fired."

A few more minutes passed, and then: "We can get up now, I think."

"I think not," said Dick.

Dick was already crawling forward on his hands and knees. It was a painful proceeding; his neck ached, the sharp gravel cut through the knees of his trousers, and his knuckles were bleeding - for it is not easy to crawl with a large calibre automatic in one's hand. In this fashion he came to the place where the gravel path ended and the earth track between the trees began.

He listened for a long time, then stood up.

"It's all right," he said. Hardly, were the words out of his mouth when a pistol exploded almost in his face.

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