DICK DROVE a six - cylinder coupe whose bodywork had seen better days, though he claimed for its engine that the world had not seen its equal. With his screen - wiper wiping furiously, he came cautiously along the Portsmouth Road, his big headlamps staring whitely ahead. The rain was pelting down, and since he must have a window open, and that window was on the weather side, one arm and part of the shoulder of his rainproof coat were soon black and shining.
'107, Coram Street,' said his subconscious mind; and he wondered why he had connected this satisfactory visit of his to Mr Bertram Cody with that trim girl who was so seldom absent from his thoughts.
From time to time his hand sought his pocket and the flat leather book that reposed at the bottom. There was something hard inside that purse; he thought it was money at first; and then, in a flash, he realized that it was the touch of this notebook which recalled Sybil Lansdown. He pulled the car up so quickly that it skidded across the road and only missed a ditch by a matter of inches. Straightening the machine, he switched on the interior light and examined his 'find'. Before he unfastened the thin flap of the purse he knew what it contained. But he was unprepared for the shape and size of the key that lay in his palm. It was an almost exact replica, in point of size, of that which Sybil Lansdown had shown him in the train, and which was now in the strongroom of his bank.
Dick whistled softly to himself, replaced the book in his pocket, but slipped the key under the rubber mat beneath his feet. The enterprising gentlemen who had made such strenuous efforts, and gone to such expense, to secure Sybil Lansdown's key would not hesitate to hold up a car.
Dick was beginning to have a respect for the brethren of the keys, and had found for himself an adventure which surpassed in interest the chasing of peregrinating noblemen. He turned off the interior light and sent his car forward along the rainswept road, meditating upon the weird character of his discovery Cody had denied he was in communication with this strange Lord Selford - why? And what was the meaning of the key Dick had seen the oily man push the book under the papers as he entered, and, out of sheer devilment and his love for discovery, had seized the first opportunity of extracting the case? He would compare the two keys in the morning.
In the meantime it would be well for him to keep his mind concentrated upon the road ahead. Once a lumbering lorry had almost driven him into the ditch, and now, with twenty miles to go, he saw ahead of him three red lights, and slowed his engine till he came within a dozen yards of them. They were red lamps, placed in a line on the road, and if they meant anything it was that the road was under repair and closed. And yet - he had passed the lorry going at full speed only a mile away. That must have come along the forbidden stretch of road.
He peered through the open window and saw on his right a dilapidated wall, the top of which was hidden under a blanket of wild ivy. He saw, by the lights of the headlamps, a gap, where there was evidently a gate. All this he took in at a glance, and he turned to the scrutiny of the road and the three red lights.
"Yes, yes,' said Slick to himself, switched out all the lights of the car, and, taking something from his hip pocket, he opened the door quietly and stepped into the rain, standing for a while listening.
There was no sound, except the swish and patter of the storm. Keeping to the centre of the road, he advanced slowly towards the red lamps, picked up the middle of these and looked at it. It was very old; the red had been hastily painted on the glass. The second lamp was more new, but of an entirely different pattern, and here also the glass pane had been covered by some red, transparent paint. And this was the case with the third lamp.
He threw the middle light into the ditch, and found a satisfaction in hearing the crash of the glass. Then he came back to his car, got inside, slammed the door, and put his foot on the starter. The little motor whined round, but the engine did not move. There must be some reason for this, he thought, for the car was hot, and never before had it failed. Again he tried, without success; then, getting down from the machine, he walked to the back to examine the petrol tank. There was no need, for the little indicator dial said 'Empty'.
'Yes, yes,' said Slick again, staring down at this evidence of his embarrassment.
He had filled up before he reached Mr Cody's house, but, be that as it may, here was a trustworthy indicator pointing starkly to 'E', and when he tapped the tank it gave forth a hollow sound in confirmation.
He sniffed: the place reeked. Flashing his pocket - lamp on the ground, he saw a metal cap and picked it up, and then understood what had happened. The wet roadway was streaked opalescently. Somebody had taken out the cap and emptied his tank whilst he was examining the lights.
He refastened the cap, which was both airproof, waterproof and foolproof, and which could only have been turned by the aid of a spanner; and he had heard no chink of metal against metal. He carried no reserve, so that he was stranded beyond hope of succour, unless - -
He sent his lamp in the direction of the gateway. One of the hinges of the gate was broken, and the rotting structure leaned drunkenly against a laurel bush. Until then he had not dreamed that he was anywhere near Gallows Cottage. But now he recognized the place.
Keeping his light on, he went up the long avenue quickly. On either side was a tangle of thick bush, which had grown at its will, unattended by a gardener. Overhead the tall poplars met in an arch. Keeping the light glowing from side to side, he passed up the gloomy avenue. Suddenly he stopped. Under the shadow of the hedge he saw a long, narrow hole. It had been recently dug and was, he judged, six feet deep.
"That looks like a home from home," he shuddered, and passed on to the square, ugly house, which had once been covered by plaster, broken now in a dozen places, showing the bare brick beneath.
Never had it seemed so mean looking as when the broad beam of his lamp picked out the patches and fissures in its walls. The entrance was a high, narrow doorway, above which was a little wooden canopy, supported by two iron bars let into the brickwork - he noted these most carefully now. There was no sign of life; no dog barked. The place was dead - rotting.
He waited a second before he mounted the two steps that brought the knocker within reach. As the clapper fell, he heard the sound echoing hollowly through the hall. Had he been a stranger he might easily have imagined that the place was empty, he thought, when no reply came. He knocked again. In a few minutes he heard a sound of feet in the hall, the rusty crackle of a key being turned, and the jingling of chains. The door opened a foot, and there appeared in the light of Dick's lamp the long, sallow face and the black beard.
The apparition was so startling that Dick, expectant as he was, nearly dropped his lamp.
"Who is this? What is this?" asked a voice pettishly. "Petrol? You have lost your petrol? Ach! that is foolish. Yes, I can give you some, if you pay for it. I cannot afford to give anything away."
He gave no sign of recognition, but opened the door wider, and Dick walked into the hall, turning as he did so to face the man who had let him in. Dr Stalletti wore a black overall, belted at the waist, and indescribably stained. On his feet were a pair of long, Russian boots, worn and cracked and amateurishly patched. He had no collar. What Dick noticed first was that this strange person had not apparently washed since they last met. His big, powerful hands were grimy, his nails were almost like talons. By the light of the small oil - lamp he carried, Martin saw that the hall was expensively furnished; the carpet was thick and almost new, the hangings of velvet, the chairs and settees of gilt and damask, must have cost a lot of money. A silver chandelier hung from the plastered ceiling, and the dozen or so electric candles it held supplied a brilliant light to the room. But here, as in the passage, everything was inches thick in dust. It rose in a small cloud as he walked across the thick carpet.
"You wait here, please. I will get you petrol - one shilling and tenpence a gallon."
Dick waited, heard the feet of his host sound hollowly, and presently grow faint. He made a careful inspection of the room. There was nothing here to indicate either the character or the calling of this strange, uncleanly man.
Presently he heard the man returning and the thud of two petrol tins as they were put down in the hall, and then his strange benefactor appeared, dusting his hands.
"Four gallons of petrol of the highest grade."
The visitor might have been a stranger for all the signs he made of recognition, and yet Dick was sure that the man knew him; and as though he guessed his visitor's thoughts, the bearded man announced, with a certain amount of pomposity:
"I am the Professor Stalletti. We have, I think, met. It was because of a book you came."
"That is so, professor." Dick was alert, somewhere inside him a warning voice was speaking insistently.
"You have heard of me - yes? It is known in science. Come, come, my friend, pay your money and be gone."
"I am much obliged to you, professor," drawled Dick. "Here's ten shillings - we won't quarrel about the change."
To his surprise, the bearded man pocketed the note with a smirk of satisfaction. Evidently he was not too proud to make a profit on the transaction.
Walking to the front door, he opened it, and Dick followed him, making his exit sideways and keeping his face to this queer - looking man. The professor opened his mouth as though he were going to speak, but changed his mind and slammed the door in his visitor's face, and as he did so, there came, from somewhere in the house, behind those blind windows, such a scream of fear and agony as made the detective's blood run cold. It was a wail that rose to a shriek and died sobbingly to silence.
Perspiration stood on Dick Martin's face, and for a second he had the mind to force his way back into the house and demand an explanation. And then he saw the senselessness of that move, and, carrying a petrol tin in either hand, made his way down the drive. He was wearing rubber - soled shoes that caused little or no noise, and he was glad, for now his ears must serve where his eyes failed. By reason of his burden he had to dispense with the use of his lamp.
He had passed that section of the hedge where he had seen the hole, when his quick ears detected something moving behind him. It was the faintest sound, and only one with his keen sense of hearing could have detected it above the noise of the falling rain. It was not a rustle; it was something impossible to describe. Dick turned round and began to walk backwards, staring into the pitch black darkness before him. The noise grew more distinct. A twig snapped in the bushes to his right. then suddenly he saw his danger and dropped the tins. Before he could reach his gun he was at grips with a something, naked, hairless, bestial.
Huge bare arms were encircling his shoulders; a great hand was groping for his face, and he struck blindly at a bare torso, so muscled that, even as he struck, he realized that he was wasting his strength. Suddenly, with a mighty effort, he jerked round, gripped the huge arm with both his hands, and, stooping, jerked his assailant over his head. There was a thud, a groan, a ghastly sobbing, blubbering sound that was not human, and in the next fraction of a second Dick's automatic was in his hand and the safety catch pushed down.
"Stay where you are, my friend," he breathed. "I'd like to have a look at you."
He picked up the torch he had dropped and turned the light on the ground. Nobody was there. He flashed the lamp left and right without discovering a trace of his assailant. Was he behind him? Turning, he sent the rays in the direction of the house, and in that second caught sight of a great figure, naked except for a loincloth, disappearing into the bushes.
"Jumping snakes!" breathed Dick Martin, and lost not a second in reaching the road, refilled the empty tank and started the engine.
In a little while he was following the road to London, absorbed in the problem of Dr Stalletti, and the big hole in the ground, recently dug, and intended, he did not doubt, for the reception of his own body.