Chapter Thirty-Six. Pilmansey's Tea Rooms

Two hours later, it being then a quarter-to-one o'clock, Purdie and Lauriston got out of a taxi-cab at the north-end of Tottenham Court Road and walked down the right-hand side of that busy thoroughfare, keeping apparently careless but really vigilant eyes open for a first glimpse of the appointed rendezvous. But Pilmansey's Tea Rooms required little searching out. In the midst of the big modern warehouses, chiefly given up to furniture and upholstery, there stood at that time a block of old property which was ancient even for London. The buildings were plainly early eighteenth century: old redbrick erections with narrow windows in the fronts and dormer windows in the high, sloping roofs. Some of them were already doomed to immediate dismantlement; the tenants had cleared out, there were hoardings raised to protect passers-by from falling masonry, and bills and posters on the threatened walls announced that during the rebuilding, business would be carried on as usual at some other specified address. But Pilmansey's, so far, remained untouched, and the two searchers saw that customers were going in and out, all unaware that before evening their favourite resort for a light mid-day meal would attain a fame and notoriety not at all promised by its very ordinary and commonplace exterior.

"An excellent example of the truth of the old saying that you should never judge by appearances, Andie, my man!" remarked Purdie, as they took a quick view of the place. "Who'd imagine that crime, dark secrets, and all the rest of it lies concealed behind this?--behind the promise of tea and muffins, milk and buns! It's a queer world, this London!--you never know what lies behind any single bit of the whole microcosm. But let's see what's to be seen inside."

The first thing to be seen inside the ground floor room into which they stepped was the man from New Scotland Yard, who, in company with another very ordinary-looking individual was seated at a little table just inside the entrance, leisurely consuming coffee and beef sandwiches. He glanced at the two men as if he had never seen them in his life, and they, preserving equally stolid expressions with credit if not with the detective's ready and trained ability, passed further on--only to recognize Levendale and Stephen Purvis, who had found accommodation in a quiet corner half-way down the room. They, too, showed no signs of recognition, and Purdie, passing by them, steered his companion to an unoccupied table and bade him be seated.

"Let's get our bearings," he whispered as they dropped into their seats. "Looks as innocent and commonplace within as it appeared without, Andie. But use your eyes--it ought to make good copy for you, this."

Lauriston glanced about him. The room in which they sat was a long, low- ceiling apartment, extending from the street door to a sort of bar-counter at the rear, beyond which was a smaller room that was evidently given up to store and serving purposes. On the counter were set out provisions-- rounds of beef, hams, tongues, bread, cakes, confectionery; behind it stood two men whom the watchers at once set down as the proprietors. Young women, neatly gowned in black and wearing white caps and aprons, flitted to and fro between the counter and the customers. As for the customers they were of both sexes, and the larger proportion of them young. There was apparently no objection to smoking at Pilmansey's--a huge cloud of blue smoke ascended from many cigarettes, and the scent of Turkish tobacco mingled with the fragrance of freshly-ground coffee. It was plain that Pilmansey's was the sort of place wherein you could get a good sandwich, good tea or coffee, smoke a cigarette or two, and idle away an hour in light chatter with your friends between your morning and afternoon labours.

But Lauriston's attention was mainly directed to the two men who stood behind the bar-counter, superintending and directing their neat assistants. Sly, smooth, crafty men--so they had been described by Mr. Mori Yada: Lauriston's opinion coincided with that of the Japanese, on first, outer evidence and impression. They were middle-aged, plump men who might be, and probably were, twins, favouring mutton chop whiskers, and good linen and black neckcloths--they might have been strong, highly- respectable butlers. Each had his coat off; each wore a spotless linen apron; each wielded carving knives and forks; each was busy in carving plates of ham or tongue or beef; each contrived, while thus engaged, to keep his sharp, beady eyes on the doings in the room in front of the counter. Evidently a well-to-do, old-established business, this, and highly prosperous men who owned it: Lauriston wondered that they should run any risks by hiding away a secret opium den somewhere on their ancient premises.

In the midst of their reflections one of the waitresses came to the table at which the two friends sat: Lauriston quicker of wit than Purdie in such matters immediately ordered coffee and sandwiches and until they came, lighted a cigarette and pretended to be at ease, though he was inwardly highly excited.

"It's as if one were waiting for an explosion to take place!" he muttered to Purdie. "Even now I don't know what's going to happen."

"Here's Ayscough, anyway," said Purdie. "He looks as if nothing was about to happen."

Ayscough, another man with him, was making his way unconcernedly down the shop. He passed the man from New Scotland Yard without so much as a wink: he ignored Levendale and Stephen Purvis; he stared blankly at Purdie and Lauriston, and led his companion to two vacant seats near the counter. And they had only just dropped into them when in came Mr. Killick, with John Purvis and Guyler and slipped quietly into seats in the middle of the room. Here then, said Lauriston to himself, were eleven men, all in a secret--and there were doubtless others amongst the company whom he did not know.

"But where's Melky Rubinstein?" he whispered suddenly. "I should have thought he'd have turned up--he's been so keen on finding things out."

"There's time enough yet," answered Purdie. "It's not one. I don't see the Jap, either. But--here's the Inspector--done up in plain clothes."

The Inspector came in with a man whom neither Purdie nor Lauriston had ever seen before--a quietly but well-dressed man about whom there was a distinct air of authority. They walked down the room to a table near the counter, ordered coffee and lighted cigarettes--and the two young Scotsmen, watching them closely, saw that they took a careful look round as if to ascertain the strength of their forces. And suddenly, as Lauriston was eating his second sandwich, the Inspector rose, quietly walked to the counter and bending over it, spoke to one of the white- aproned men behind.

"The game's begun!" whispered Lauriston. "Look!"

But Purdie's eyes were already fixed on the Pilmanseys, whom he recognized as important actors in the drama about to be played. One of them slightly taller, slightly greyer than the other, was leaning forward to the Inspector, and was evidently amazed at what was being said to him, for he started, glanced questioningly at his visitor, exchanged a hurried word or two with him and then turned to his brother. A second later, both men laid down their great knives and forks, left their counter, and beckoned the Inspector to follow them into a room at the rear of the shop. And the Inspector in his turn, beckoned Ayscough with a mere glance, and Ayscough in his, made an inviting movement to the rest of the party.

"Come on!" said Purdie. "Let's hear what's happening."

The proprietors of the tea-rooms had led the Inspector and the man who was with him into what was evidently a private room--and when Lauriston and Purdie reached the door they were standing on the hearth rug, side by side, each in a very evident state of amazement, staring at a document which the Inspector was displaying to them. They looked up from it to glance with annoyance, at the other men who came quietly and expectantly crowding into the room.

"More of your people?" asked the elder man, querulously. "Look here, you know!--we don't see the need for all this fuss, not for your interrupting our business in this way! One or two of you, surely, would have been enough without bringing a troop of people on to our premises--all this is unnecessary!"

"You'll allow us to be the best judge of what's necessary and what isn't, Mr. Pilmansey," retorted the Inspector. "There'll be no fuss, no bother-- needn't be, anyway, if you tell us what we want to know, and don't oppose us in what we've got power to do. Here's a warrant--granted on certain information--to search your premises. If you'll let us do that quietly."

"But for what reason?" demanded the younger man. "Our premises, indeed! Been established here a good hundred years, and never a word against us. What do you want to search for?"

"I'll tell you that at once," answered the Inspector. "We want a young Chinaman, one Chang Li, who, we are informed, is concealed here, and has valuable stolen property on him. Now, then, do you know anything about him? Is he here?"

The two men exchanged glances. For a moment they remained silent--then the elder man spoke, running his eye over the expectant faces watching him.

"Before I say any more," he answered, "I should just like to know where you got your information from?"

"No!" replied the Inspector, firmly. "I shan't tell you. But I'll tell you this much--this Chang Li is wanted on a very serious charge as it is, and we may charge him with something much more serious. We've positive information that he's here--and I'm only giving you sound advice when I say that if he is here, you'll do well to show us where he is. Now, come, Mr. Pilmansey, is he here?"

The elder Pilmansey shook his head--but the shake was more one of doubt than of denial.

"I can't say," he answered. "He might be."

"What's that mean?" demanded the Inspector. "Might be? Surely you know who's in your own house!"

"No!" said the elder man, "I can't say. It's this way--we've a certain number of foreigners come here. There are few--just a few--Chinese and Japanese--medical students, you know. Now, some time ago--a couple of years ago--some of them asked us if we couldn't let them have three or four rooms at the top of the house in which to start a sort of little club of their own, so that they could have a place for their meetings, you understand. They were all quiet, very respectable young fellows--so we did. They have the top floor of this house. They furnished and fitted it up themselves. There's a separate entrance--at the side of the shop. Each of them has a latch-key of his own. So they can go in and out as they like--they never bother us. But, as a matter of fact, there are only four or five of them who are members now--the others have all left. That's the real truth--and I tell you I don't know if Mr. Chang Li might be up there or not. We know nothing about what they do in their rooms--they're only our tenants."

"Let me ask you one question," said the Inspector, "Have either of you ever been in those rooms since you let them to these people!"

"No!" answered the elder man. "Neither of us--at anytime!"

"Then," commanded the Inspector, "I'll thank you to come up with us to them--now!"