Chapter XXVII. Penetrating a Mystery
 

About an hour after Mademoiselle Idiale's departure a note marked "Urgent" was brought in and handed to Laverick. He tore it open. It was dated from the address of a firm of stockbrokers, with two of the partners of which he was on friendly terms. It ran thus:

MY DEAR LAVERICK, - I want a chat with you, if you can spare five minutes at lunch time. Come to Lyons' a little earlier than usual, if you don't mind, - say at a quarter to one.
J.HENSHAW.

Laverick read the typewritten note carelessly enough at first. He had even laid it down and glanced at the clock, with the intention of starting out, when a thought struck him. He took it up and read it though again. Then he turned to the telephone.

"Put me on to the office of Henshaw & Allen. I want to speak to Mr. Henshaw particularly."

Two minutes passed. Laverick, meanwhile, had been washing his hands ready to go out. Then the telephone bell rang. He took up the receiver.

"Hullo! Is that Henshaw?"

"I'm Henshaw," was the answer. "That's Laverick, isn't it? How are you, old fellow?"

"I'm all right," Laverick replied. "What is it that you want to see me about?"

"Nothing particular that I know of. Who told you that I wanted to?"

Laverick, who had been standing with the instrument in his hand, sat down in his chair.

"Look here," he said, "Didn't you send me a note a few minutes ago, asking me to come out to lunch at a quarter to one and meet you at Lyons'?"

Henshaw's laugh was sufficient response.

"Delighted to lunch with you there or anywhere, old chap, - you know that," was the answer, "but some one 's been putting up a practical joke on you."

"You did not send me a note round this morning, then?" Laverick insisted.

"I'll swear I didn't," came the reply. "Do you seriously mean that you've had one purporting to come from me?"

Laverick pulled himself together.

"Well, the signature's such a scrawl," he said, "that no one could tell what the name really was. I guessed at you but I seem to have guessed wrong. Good-bye!"

He set down the receiver and rang off to escape further questioning. Now indeed the plot was commencing to thicken. This was a deliberate effort on the part of some one to secure his absence from his offices at a quarter to one.

With the document in his pocket and the safe securely locked, Laverick felt at ease as to the result of any attempted burglary of his premises. At the same time his curiosity was excited. Here, perhaps, was a chance of finding some clue to this impenetrable mystery.

There were thee clerks in the outer office. He put on his hat and despatched two of them on errands in different directions. The last he was obliged to take into his confidence.

"Halsey," he said, "I am going out to lunch. At least, I wish it to be thought that I am going out to lunch. As a matter of fact, I shall return in about ten minutes by the back way. I do not wish you, however, to know this. I want you to have it in your mind that I have gone to lunch and shall not be back until a quarter past two. If there are visitors for me - Inquirers of any sort - act exactly as you would have done if you really believed that I was not in the building."

Halsey appeared a good deal mystified. Laverick took him even further into his confidence.

"To tell you the truth, Halsey," he said, "I have just received a bogus letter from Mr. Henshaw, asking me to lunch with him. Some one was evidently anxious to get me out of my office for an hour or so. I want to find out for myself what this means, if possible. You understand?"

"I think so, sir," the man replied doubtfully. "I am not to be aware that you have returned, then?"

"Certainly not," Laverick answered. "Please be quite clear about that. If you hear any commotion in the office, you can come in, but do not send for the police unless I tell you to. I wish to look into this affair for myself."

Halsey, who had started life as a lawyer's clerk, and was distinctly formal in his ideas, was a little shocked.

"Would it not be better, sir," he suggested, "for me to communicate with the police in the first case? If this should really turn out to be an attempt at burglary, it would surely be best to leave the matter to them."

Laverick frowned.

"For certain reasons, Halsey, which I do not think it necessary to tell you, I have a strong desire to investigate this matter personally. Please do exactly as I say."

He left the office and strolled up the street in the direction of the restaurant which he chiefly frequented. He reached it in a moment or two, but left it at once by another entrance. Within ten minutes he was back at his office.

"Has any one been, Halsey?"

"No one, sir," the clerk answered.

"You will be so good," Laverick continued, "as to forget that I have returned."

He passed on quickly into his own room and made his way into the small closet where he kept his coat and washed his hands. He had scarcely been there a minute when he heard voices in the outside hall. The door of his office was opened.

"Mr. Laverick said nothing about an appointment at this hour," he heard Halsey protest in a somewhat deprecating tone.

"He had, perhaps, forgotten," was the answer, in a totally unfamiliar voice. "At any rate, I am not in a great hurry. The matter is of some importance, however, and I will wait for Mr. Laverick."

The visitor was shown in. Laverick investigated his appearance through a crack in the door. He was a man of medium height, well-dressed, clean-shaven, and wore gold-rimmed spectacles. He made himself comfortable in Laverick's easy-chair, and accepted the paper which Halsey offered him.

"I shall be quite glad of a rest," he remarked genially. "I have been running about all the morning."

"Mr. Laverick is never very long out for lunch, sir," Halsey said. "I daresay he will not keep you more than a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes."

The clerk withdrew and closed the door. The man in the chair waited for a moment. Then he laid down his newspaper and looked cautiously around the room. Satisfied apparently that he was alone, he rose to his feet and walked swiftly to Laverick's writing-table. With fingers which seemed gifted with a lightning-like capacity for movement, he swung open the drawers, one by one, and turned over the papers. His eyes were everywhere. Every document seemed to be scanned and as rapidly discarded. At last he found something which interested him. He held it up and paused in his search. Laverick heard a little breath come though his teeth, and with a thrill he recognized the paper as one which he had torn from a memorandum tablet and upon which he had written down the address which Mademoiselle Idiale had given him. The man with the gold-rimmed glasses replaced the paper where he had found it. Evidently he had done with the writing-table. He moved swiftly over to the safe and stood there listening for a few seconds. Then from his pocket he drew a bunch of keys. To Laverick's surprise, at the stranger's first effort the great door of the safe swung open. He saw the man lean forward, saw his hand reappear almost directly with the pocket-book clenched in his fingers. Then he stood once more quite still, listening. Satisfied that no one was disturbed, he closed the door of the safe softly and moved once more to the writing-table. With marvelous swiftness the notes were laid upon the table, the pocket-book was turned upside down, the secret place disclosed - the secret place which was empty. It seemed to Laverick that from his hiding-place he could hear the little oath of disappointment which broke from the thin red lips. The man replaced the notes and, with the pocket-book in his hand, hesitated. Laverick, who thought that things had gone far enough, stepped lightly out from his hiding-place and stood between his unbidden visitor and the door.

"You had better put down that pocket-book," he ordered quietly.

The man was upon him with a single spring, but Laverick, without the slightest hesitation, knocked him prone upon the floor, where he lay, for a moment, motionless. Then he slowly picked himself up. His spectacles were broken - he blinked as he stood there.

"Sorry to be so rough," Laverick said. "Perhaps if you will kindly realize that of the two I am much the stronger man, you will be so good as to sit in that chair and tell me the meaning of your intrusion."

The man obeyed. He covered his eyes with his hand, for a moment, as though in pain.

"I imagine," he said - and it seemed to Laverick that his voice had a slight foreign accent - "I imagine that the motive for my paying you this visit is fairly clear to you. People who have compromising possessions may always expect visits of this sort. You see, one runs so little risk."

"So little risk!" Laverick repeated.

"Exactly," the other answered. "Confess that you are not in the least inclined to ring your bell and send for a constable to give me in charge for being in possession of a pocket-book abstracted from your safe, containing twenty thousand pounds in Bank of England notes."

"It wouldn't do at all," Laverick admitted.

"You are a man of common sense," declared the other. "It would not do. Now comes the time when I have a question to ask you. There was a sealed document in this pocket-book. Where is it ? What have you done with it?"

"Can you tell me," Laverick asked, "why I should answer questions from a person whom I discover apparently engaged in a nefarious attempt at burglary?"

The man's hand shot out from his trouser-pocket, and Laverick looked into the gleaming muzzle of a revolver.

"Because if you don't, you die," was the quick reply. "Whether you've read that document or not, I want it. If you've read it, you know the sort of men you've got to deal with. If you haven't, take my word for it that we waste no time. The document! Will you give it me?"

"Do I understand that you are threatening me?" Laverick asked, retreating a few steps.

"You may understand that this is a repeating revolver, and that I seldom miss a half-crown at twenty paces," his visitor answered. "If you put out your hand toward that bell, it will be the last movement you'll ever make on earth."

"London isn't really the place for this sort of thing," Laverick said. "If you discharge that revolver, you haven't a dog's chance of getting clear of the building. My clerks would rush out after you into the street. You'd find yourself surrounded by a crowd of business men. You couldn't make your way through anywhere. You'd be held up before you'd gone a dozen yards. Put down your revolver. We can perhaps settle this little matter without it."

"The document!" the man ordered. "You've got it! You must have it! You took that pocket-book from a dead man, and in that pocket-book was the document. We must have it. We intend to have it."

"And who, may I ask, are we?" Laverick inquired.

"If you do not know, what does it matter? Will you give it to me?"

Laverick shook his head.

"I have no document."

The man in the chair leaned forward. The muzzle of his revolver was very bright, and he held it in fingers which were firm as a rock.

"Give it to me!" he repeated. "You ought to know that you are not dealing with men who are unaccustomed to death. You have it about you. Produce it, and I've done with you. Deny me, and you have not time to say your prayers!"

Laverick was leaning against a small table which stood near the door. His fingers suddenly gripped the ledger which lay upon it. He held it in front of his face for a single moment, and then dashed it at his visitor. He followed behind with one desperate spring. Once, twice, the revolver barked out. Laverick felt the skin of his temple burn and a flick on the ear which reminded him of his school-days. Then his hand was upon the other man's throat and the revolver lay upon the carpet.

"We 'll see about that. By the Lord, I've a good mind to wring the life out of you. That bullet of yours might have been in my temple."

"It was meant to be there," the man gasped. "Hand over the document, you pig-headed fool! It'll cost you your life - if not to-day, to-morrow."

"I'll be hanged if you get it, anyway!" Laverick answered fiercely. "You assassin! Scoundrel! To come here and make a cold-blooded effort at murder! You shall see what you think of the inside of an English prison."

The man laughed contemptuously.

"And what about the pocket-book?" he asked.

Laverick was silent. His assailant smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

"Come," he said, "I have made my effort and failed. You have twenty thousand pounds. That's a fair price, but I'll add another twenty thousand for that document unopened."

"It is possible that we might deal," Laverick remarked, kicking the revolver a little further away. "Unfortunately, I am too much in the dark. Tell me the real position of the murdered man? Tell me why he was murdered? Tell me the contents of this document and why it was in his possession? Perhaps I may then be inclined to treat with you."

"You are either an astonishingly ingenuous person, Mr. Laverick," his visitor declared, "or you're too subtle for me. You do not expect me to believe that you are in this with your eyes blindfolded? You do not expect me to believe that you do not know what is in that sealed envelope? Bah! It is a child's game, that, and we play as men with men."

Laverick shook his head.

"Your offer," he asked, "what is it exactly?"

"Twenty thousand pounds," the man answered. "The document is worth no more than that to you. How you came into this thing is a mystery, but you are in and, what is more, you have possession. Twenty thousand pounds, Mr. Laverick. It is a large sum of money. You find it interesting?"

"I find it interesting," Laverick answered dryly, "but I am not a seller."

The intruder moved his hand away from his eyes. His expression was full of wonder.

"Consider for a moment," he said. "While that document remains in your possession, you walk the narrow way, your life hangs upon a thread. Better surrender it and attend to your stocks and shares. Heaven knows how you first came into our affairs, but the sooner you are out of them the better. What do you say now to my offer?"

"It is refused," Laverick declared. "I regret; to add," he continued, "that I have already spared you all the time I have at my disposal. Forgive me."

He pressed a button with his finger. His visitor rose up in anger.

"You are not such a fool!" he exclaimed. "You are not going to send me away without it? Why, I tell you that there won't be a safe corner in the World for you!"

Halsey opened the door. Laverick nodded toward his visitor.

"Show this gentleman out, Halsey," he ordered.

Halsey started. The noise of the revolver shot had evidently been muffled by the heavy connecting doors, but there was a smell of gunpowder in the room, and a little wreath of smoke. The man rose slowly to his feet, still blinking.

"It must be as you will, of course. I wonder if you would be so good as to let your clerk direct me to an oculist? I am, unfortunately, a helpless man in this condition."

"There is one a few yards off," Laverick answered. "Put on your hat, Halsey, and show this gentleman where he can get some glasses."

His visitor leaned towards Laverick.

"It is your life which is in question, not my eyesight," he muttered. "Do you accept my offer? Will you give me the document?"

"I do not and I will not," Laverick replied. "I shall not part with anything until I know more than I know at present."

The man stood motionless for a moment. His fingers seemed to be twitching. Laverick had a fancy that he was about to spring, but if ever he had had any thoughts of the kind, Halsey's reappearance checked them.

"I am much obliged to you, Mr. Laverick," he said quietly. "We shall, perhaps, resume this discussion at some future date."

With that he turned and followed Halsey out of the room. Laverick went to the window and threw it wide open. The smoke floated out, the smell of gunpowder was gradually dispersed. Then he walked back to his seat. Once more he locked up the notes. The document was safe in his pocket. There was a slight mark by the side of his temple, and his ear, he discovered, was bleeding. He rang the bell and Halsey entered.

"Has our friend gone, Halsey?"

"I left him in the optician's, sir," the clerk answered. "He was buying some spectacles."

Laverick glanced at the floor, where the remains of those gold-rimmed glasses were scattered.

"You had better send for a locksmith at once," he said. "The gentleman who has been here had a skeleton key to my safe. We'll have a combination put on."

"Very good, sir," Halsey answered.

"And, Halsey," his master continued, "be careful about one thing, for your own sake as well as mine. If that man presents himself again, don't let him come into my room unannounced. If you can help it, don't let him come in at all. I have an idea that he might be dangerous."

The clerk's face was a study.

"If he presents himself here, sir," he announced stiffly, "I shall take the liberty of sending for the police."

Laverick made no reply.