Chapter XVI. The Waiter at the "Black Post"
 

Laverick, notwithstanding that the hour was becoming late, found an outfitter's shop in the Strand still open, and made such purchases as he could on Morrison's behalf. Then, with the bag ready packed, he returned to his rooms. Time had passed quickly during the last three hours. It was nearly nine o'clock when he stepped out of the lift and opened the door of his small suite of rooms with the latchkey which hung from his chain. He began to change his clothes mechanically, and he had nearly finished when the telephone bell upon his table rang.

"Who's that?" he asked, taking up the receiver.

"Hall-porter, sir," was the answer. "Person here wishes to see you particularly."

"A person!" Laverick repeated. "Man or woman?"

"Man, sir.

"Better send him up," Laverick ordered.

"He's a seedy-looking lot, sir," the porter explained "I told him that I scarcely thought you'd see him."

"Never mind," Laverick answered. "I can soon get rid of the fellow if he's cadging."

He went back to his room and finished fastening his tie. His own affairs had sunk a little into the background lately, but the announcement of this unusual visitor brought them back into his mind with a rush. Notwithstanding his iron nerves, his fingers shook as he drew on his dinner-jacket and walked out to the passageway to answer the bell which rang a few seconds later. A man stood outside, dressed in shabby black clothes, whose face somehow was familiar to him, although he could not, for the moment, place it.

"Do you want to see me?" Laverick asked.

"If you please, Mr. Laverick," the man replied, "if you could spare me just a moment."

"You had better come inside, then," Laverick said, closing the door and preceding the way into the sitting-room. At any rate, there was nothing threatening about the appearance of this visitor - nor anything official.

"I have taken the liberty of coming, sir," the man announced, "to ask you if you can tell me where I can find Mr. Arthur Morrison."

Laverick's face showed no sign of his relief. What he felt he succeeded in keeping to himself.

"You mean Morrison - my partner, I suppose?" he answered.

"If you please, sir," the man admitted. "I wanted a word or two with him most particular. I found out his address from the caretaker of your office, but he don't seem to have been home to his rooms at all last night, and they know nothing about him there."

"Your face seems familiar to me," Laverick remarked. "Where do you come from?"

The man hesitated.

"I am the waiter, sir, at the 'Black Post,' - little bar and restaurant, you know," he added, "just behind your offices, sir, at the end of Crooked Friars' Alley. You've been in once or twice, Mr. Laverick, I think. Mr. Morrison 's a regular customer. He comes in for a drink most mornings."

Laverick nodded.

"I knew I'd seen your face somewhere," he said. "What do you want with Mr. Morrison?"

The man was silent. He twirled his hat and looked embarrassed.

"It's a matter I shouldn't like to mention to any one except Mr. Morrison himself, sir," he declared finally. "If you could put me in the way of seeing him, I'd be glad. I may say that it would be to his advantage, too."

Laverick was thoughtful for a moment.

"As it happens, that's a little difficult," he explained. "Mr. Morrison and I disagreed on a matter of business last night. I undertook certain responsibilities which he should have shared, and he arranged to leave the firm and the country at once. We parted - well, not exactly the best of friends. I am afraid I cannot give you any information."

"You haven't seen him since then, sir?" the man asked.

Laverick lied promptly but he lied badly. His visitor was not in the least convinced.

"I am afraid I haven't made myself quite plain, sir," he said. "It's to do him a bit o' good that I'm here. I'm not wishing him any harm at all. On the contrary, it's a great deal more to his advantage to see me than it will be mine to find him."

"I think," Laverick suggested, "that you had better be frank with me. Supposing I knew where to catch Morrison before he left the country, I could easily deal with you on his behalf."

The man looked doubtful.

"You see, sir," he replied awkwardly, "it's a matter I wouldn't like to breathe a word about to any one but Mr. Morrison himself. It's - it's a bit serious."

The man's face gave weight to his words. Curiously enough, the gleam of terror which Laverick caught in his white face reminded him of a similar look which he had seen in Morrison's eyes barely an hour ago. To gain time, Laverick moved across the room, took a cigarette from a box and lit it. A conviction was forming itself in his mind. There was something definite behind these hysterical paroxysms of his late partner, something of which this man had an inkling.

"Look here," he said, throwing himself into an easychair, "I think you had better be frank with me. I must know more than I know at present before I help you to find Morrison, even if he is to be found. We didn't part very good friends, but I'm his friend enough - for the sake of others," he added, after a moment's hesitation, "to do all that I could to help him out of any difficulty he may have stumbled into. So you see that so far as anything you may have to say to him is concerned, I think you might as well say it to me."

"You couldn't see your way, then, sir," the man continued doggedly, "to tell me where I could find Mr. Morrison himself?"

"No, I couldn't," Laverick decided. "Even if I knew exactly where he was - and I'm not admitting that - I couldn't put you in touch with him unless I knew what your business was.

The man's eyes gleamed. He was a typical waiter - pasty-faced, unwholesome-looking - but he had small eyes of a greenish cast, and they were expressive.

"I think, sir," he said, "you've some idea yourself, then, that Mr. Morrison has been getting into a bit of trouble."

"We won't discuss that," Laverick answered. "You must either go away - it's past nine o'clock and I haven't had my dinner yet - or you must treat me as you would Mr. Morrison."

The man looked upon the carpet for several moments.

"Very well, sir," he said, "there's no great reason why I should put myself out about this at all. The only thing is - "

He hesitated.

"Well, go on," Laverick said encouragingly.

"I think," the man continued, "that Mr. Morrison - knowing, as I well do, sir, the sort of gent he is - would be more likely to talk common sense with me about this matter than you, sir."

"I'll imagine I'm Morrison, for the moment," Laverick said smiling, "especially as I'm acting for him."

The man looked around the room. The door behind had been left ajar. He stepped backward and closed it.

"You'll pardon the liberty, sir," he said, "but this is a serious matter I'm going to speak about. I'll just tell you a little thing and you can form your own conclusions. Last night we was open late at the 'Black Post.' We keep open, sir, as you know, when you gentlemen at the Stock Exchange are busy. About nine o'clock there was a strange customer came in. He had two drinks and he sat as though he were waiting. In about 'arf-an-hour another gent came in, and they went into a corner together and seemed to be doing some sort of business. Anyways, there was papers passed between them. I was fairly busy about then, as there were one or two more customers in the place, but I noticed these two talking together, and I noticed the dark gentleman leave. The others went out a few minutes afterwards, and the gent who had come first was alone in the place. He sat in the corner and he had a pocket-book on the table before him. I had a sort of casual glance at it when I brought him a drink, and it seemed to me that it was full of bank-notes. He sat there just like a man extra deep in thought. Just after eleven, in came Mr. Morrison. I could see he was rare and put out, for he was white, and shaking all over. 'Give me a drink, Jim,' he said, - 'a big brandy and soda, big as you make 'em."'

The man paused for a moment as though to collect himself. Laverick was suddenly conscious of a strange thrill creeping through his pulses.

"Go on," he said. "That was after he left me. Go on."

"He was quite close to the other gent, Mr. Morrison was," the waiter continued, "but they didn't say nowt to each other. All of a sudden I see Mr. Morrison set down his glass and stare at the other chap as though he'd seen something that had given him a turn. I leaned over the counter and had a look, too. There he sat - this tall, fair chap who had been in the place so long - with his big pocket-book on the table in front of him, and even from where I was I could see that there was a great pile of bank-notes sticking out from it. All of a sudden he looks up and sees Mr. Morrison a-watching him and me from behind the counter. Back he whisks the pocket-book into his pocket, calls me for my bill, gives me two mouldy pennies for a tip, buttons up his coat and walks out."

"You know who he was?" Laverick inquired.

Again the waiter paused for a moment before he answered - paused and looked nervously around the room. His voice shook.

"He was the man as was murdered about a hundred yards off the 'Black Post' last night, sir," he said.

"How do you know?" Laverick asked.

"I got an hour off to-day," the waiter continued, "and went down to the Mortuary. There was no doubt about it. There he was - same chap, same clothes. I could swear to him anywhere, and I reckon I '11 have to at the inquest."

Laverick's cigarette burned away between his fingers. It seemed to him that he was no longer in the room. He was listening to Big Ben striking the hour, he was back again in that tiny little bedroom with its spotless sheets and lace curtains. The man on the bed was looking at him. Laverick remembered the look and shivered.

"What has this to do with Morrison?" he demanded.

Once more the waiter looked around in that half mysterious, half terrified way.

"Mr. Morrison, sir," he said, dropping his voice to a hoarse whisper, "he followed the other chap out within thirty seconds. A sort of queer look he'd got in his face too, and he went out without paying me. I've read the papers pretty careful, sir," the man went on, "but I ain't seen no word of that pocket-book of bank-notes being found on the man as was murdered."

Laverick threw the end of his burning cigarette away. He walked to the window, keeping his back deliberately turned on his visitor. His eyes followed the glittering arc of lights which fringed the Thames Embankment, were caught by the flaring sky-sign on the other side of the river. He felt his heart beating with unaccustomed vigor. Was this, then, the secret of Morrison's terror? He wondered no longer at his collapse. The terror was upon him, too. He felt his forehead, and his hand, when he drew it away, was wet. It was not Morrison alone but he himself who might be implicated in this man's knowledge. The thoughts flitted through his brain like parts of a nightmare. He saw Morrison arrested, he saw the whole story of the missing pocket-book in the papers, he imagined his bank manager reading it and thinking of that parcel of mysterious bank-notes deposited in his keeping on the morning after the tragedy. . . Laverick was a strong man, and his moment of weakness, poignant though it had been, passed. This was no new thing with which he was confronted. All the time he had known that the probabilities were in favor of such a discovery. He set his teeth and turned to face his visitor.

"This is a very serious thing which you have told me," he said. "Have you spoken about it to any one else?"

"Not a soul, sir," the man answered. "I thought it best to have a word or two first with Mr. Morrison."

"You were thinking of attending the inquest," Laverick said thoughtfully. "The police would thank you for your evidence, and there, I suppose, the matter would end."

"You've hit it precisely, sir," the man admitted. "There the matter would end."

"On the other hand," Laverick continued, speaking as though he were reasoning this matter out to himself, "supposing you decided not to meddle in an affair which does not concern you, supposing you were not sure as to the identity of your customer last night, and being a little tired you could not rightly remember whether Mr. Morrison called in for a drink or not, and so, to cut the matter short, you dismissed the whole matter from your mind and let the inquest take its own course, - Laverick paused. His visitor scratched the side of his chin and nodded.

"You've put this matter plainly, sir," he said, "in what I call an understandable, straightforward way. I'm a poor man - I've been a poor man all my life - and I've never seed a chance before of getting away from it. I see one now."

"You want to do the best you can for yourself?"

"So 'elp me God, sir, I do!" the man agreed.

Laverick nodded.

"You have done a remarkably wise thing," he said, "in coming to me and in telling me about this affair. The idea of connecting Mr. Morrison with the murder would, of course, be ridiculous, but, on the other hand, it would be very disagreeable to him to have his name mentioned in connection with it. You have behaved discreetly, and you have done Mr. Morrison a service in trying to find him out. You will do him a further service by adopting the second course I suggested with regard to the inquest. What do you consider that service is worth?"

"It depends, sir," the man answered quietly, "at what price Mr. Morrison values his life!"