Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer
Chapter XIV. Wessex Gets Busy
Innes rose from the chair usually occupied by Paul Harley as Detective Inspector Wessex, with a very blank face, walked into the office. Innes looked haggard and exhibited unmistakable signs of anxiety. Since he had received that dramatic telephone message from his chief he had not spared himself for a moment. The official machinery of Scotland Yard was at work endeavouring to trace the missing man, but since it had proved impossible to find out from where the message had been sent, the investigation was handicapped at the very outset. Close inquiries at the Savoy Hotel had shown that Harley had not been there. Wessex, who was a thorough artist within his limitations, had satisfied himself that none of the callers who had asked for Ormuz Khan, and no one who had loitered about the lobbies, could possibly have been even a disguised Paul Harley.
To Inspector Wessex the lines along which Paul Harley was operating remained a matter of profound amazement and mystification. His interview with Mr. Nicol Brinn had only served to baffle him more hopelessly than ever. The nature of Paul Harley's inquiries--inquiries which, presumably from the death of Sir Charles Abingdon, had led him to investigate the movements of two persons of international repute, neither apparently having even the most remote connection with anything crooked--was a conundrum for the answer to which the detectlve inspector sought in vain.
"I can see you have no news," said Innes, dully.
"To be perfectly honest," replied Wessex, "I feel like a man who is walking in his sleep. Except for the extraordinary words uttered by the late Sir Charles Abingdon, I fail to see that there is any possible connection between his death and Mr. Nicol Brinn. I simply can't fathom what Mr. Harley was working upon. To my mind there is not the slightest evidence of foul play in the case. There is no motive; apart from which, there is absolutely no link."
"Nevertheless," replied Innes, slowly, "you know the chief, and therefore you know as well as I do that he would not have instructed me to communicate with you unless he had definite evidence in his possession. It is perfectly clear that he was interrupted in the act of telephoning. He was literally dragged away from the instrument."
"I agree," said Wessex. "He had got into a tight corner somewhere right enough. But where does Nicol Brinn come in?"
"How did he receive your communication?"
"Oh, it took him fairly between the eyes. There is no denying that. He knows something."
"What he knows," said Innes, slowly, "is what Mr. Harley learned last night, and what he fears is what has actually befallen the chief."
Detective Inspector Wessex stood beside the Burmese cabinet, restlessly drumming his fingers upon its lacquered surface. "I am grateful for one thing," he said. "The press has not got hold of this story."
"They need never get hold of it if you are moderately careful."
"For several reasons I am going to be more than moderately careful. Whatever Fire-Tongue may be, its other name is sudden death! It's a devil of a business; a perfect nightmare. But--" he paused--
"I am wondering what on earth induced Mr. Harley to send that parcel of linen to the analyst."
"The result of the analysis may prove that the chief was not engaged upon any wild-goose chase."
"By heavens!" Wessex sprang up, his eyes brightened, and he reached for his hat, "that gives me an idea!"
"The message with the parcel was written upon paper bearing the letterhead of the late Sir Charles Abingdon. So Mr. Harley evidently made his first call there! I'm off, sir! The trail starts from that house!"
Leaving Innes seated at the big table with an expression of despair upon his face, Detective Inspector Wessex set out. He blamed himself for wasting time upon the obvious, for concentrating too closely upon the clue given by Harley's last words to Innes before leaving the office in Chancery Lane. It was poor workmanship. He had hoped to take a short cut, and it had proved, as usual, to be a long one. Now, as he sat in a laggard cab feeling that every minute wasted might be a matter of life and death, he suddenly became conscious of personal anxiety. He was a courageous, indeed a fearless, man, and he was subconsciously surprised to find himself repeating the words of Nicol Brinn: "Be careful--be very careful!" With all the ardour of the professional, he longed to find a clue which should lead him to the heart of the mystery.
Innes had frankly outlined the whole of Paul Harley's case to date, and Detective Inspector Wessex, although he had not admitted the fact, had nevertheless recognized that from start to finish the thing did not offer one single line of inquiry which he would have been capable of following up. That Paul Harley had found material to work upon, had somehow picked up a definite clue from this cloudy maze, earned the envious admiration of the Scotland Yard man.
Arrived at his destination, he asked to see Miss Abingdon, and was shown by the butler into a charmingly furnished little sitting room which was deeply impressed with the personality of its dainty owner. It was essentially and delightfully feminine. Yet in the decorations and in the arrangement of the furniture there was a note of independence which was almost a note of defiance. Phyllis Abingdon, an appealingly pathetic figure in her black dress, rose to greet the inspector.
"Don't be alarmed, Miss Abingdon," he said, kindly. "My visit does not concern you personally in any way, but I thought perhaps you might be able to help me trace Mr. Paul Harley."
Wessex had thus expressed himself with the best intentions, but even before the words were fully spoken he realized with a sort of shock that he could not well have made a worse opening. Phil Abingdon's eyes seemed to grow alarmingly large. She stood quite still, twisting his card between her supple fingers.
"Mr. Harley!" she whispered.
"I did not want to alarm you," said the detective, guiltily, "but--" He stopped, at a loss for words.
"Has something happened to him?"
"I am sorry if I have alarmed you," he assured her, "but there is some doubt respecting Mr. Harley's present whereabouts. Have you any idea where he went when he left this house yesterday?"
"Yes, yes. I know where he went, quite well."
"Benson, the butler, told me all about it when I came in." Phil Abingdon spoke excitedly, and took a step nearer Wessex. "He went to call upon Jones, our late parlourmaid."
"Late parlourmaid?" echoed Wessex, uncomprehendingly.
"Yes. He seemed to think he had made a discovery of importance."
"Something to do with a parcel which he sent away from here to the analyst?"
"Yes! I have been wondering whatever it could be. In fact, I rang up his office this morning, but learned that he was out. It was a serviette which he took away. Did you know that?"
"I did know it, Miss Abingdon. I called upon the analyst. I understand you were out when Mr. Harley came. May I ask who interviewed him?"
"He saw Benson and Mrs. Howett, the housekeeper."
"May I also see them?"
"Yes, with pleasure. But please tell me"--Phil Abingdon looked up at him pleadingly--"do you thmk something--something dreadful has happened to Mr. Harley?"
"Don't alarm yourself unduly," said Wessex. "I hope before the day is over to be in touch with him."
As a matter of fact, he had no such hope. It was a lie intended to console the girl, to whom the news of Harley's disappearance seemed to have come as a terrible blow. More and more Wessex found himself to be groping in the dark. And when, in response to the ringing of the bell, Benson came in and repeated what had taken place on the previous day, the detective's state of mystification grew even more profound. As a matter of routine rather than with any hope of learning anything useful, he interviewed Mrs. Howett; but the statement of the voluble old lady gave no clue which Wessex could perceive to possess the slightest value.
Both witnesses having been dismissed, he turned again to Phil Abingdon, who had been sitting watching him with a pathetic light of hope in her eyes throughout his examination of the butler and Mrs. Howett.
"The next step is clear enough," he said, brightly. "I am off to South Lambeth Road. The woman Jones is the link we are looking for."
"But the link with what, Mr. Wessex?" asked Phil Abingdon. "What is it all about?--what does it all mean?"
"The link with Mr. Paul Harley," replied Wessex. He moved toward the door.
"But won't you tell me something more before you go?" said the girl, beseechingly. "I--I--feel responsible if anything has happened to Mr. Harley. Please be frank with me. Are you afraid he is--in danger?"
"Well, miss," replied the detective, haltingly, "he rang up his secretary, Mr. Innes, last night--we don't know where from--and admitted that he was in a rather tight corner. I don't believe for a moment that he is in actual danger, but he probably has--" again he hesitated--"good reasons of his own for remaining absent at present."
Phil Abingdon looked at him doubtingly. "I am almost afraid to ask you," she said in a low voice, "but--if you hear anything, will you ring me up?"
"I promise to do so."
Chartering a more promising-looking cab than that in which he had come, Detective Inspector Wessex proceeded to 236 South Lambeth Road. He had knocked several times before the door was opened by the woman to whom the girl Jones had called on the occasion of Harley's visit.
"I am a police officer," said the detective inspector, "and I have called to see a woman named Jones, formerly in the employ of Sir Charles Abingdon."
"Polly's gone," was the toneless reply.
"Gone? Gone where?"
"She went away last night to a job in the country."
"What time last night?"
"I can't remember the time. Just after a gentleman had called here to see her."
"Someone from the police?"
"I don't know. She seemed to be very frightened."
"Were you present when he interviewed her?"
"After he had gone, what did Polly do?"
"Sat and cried for about half an hour, then Sidney came for her."
"Her boy--the latest one."
"A dark fellow, foreign."
"No. A sort of Indian, like."
"Indian?" snapped Wessex. "What do you mean by Indian?"
"Very dark," replied the woman without emotion, swinging a baby she held to and fro in a methodical way which the detective found highly irritating.
"You mean a native of India?"
"Yes, I should think so. I never noticed him much. Polly has so many."
"How long has she known this man?"
"Only a month or so, but she is crazy about him."
"And when he came last night she went away with him?"
"Yes. She was all ready to go before the other gentleman called. He must have told her something which made her think it was all off, and she was crazy with joy when Sidney turned up. She had all her things packed, and off she went."
Experience had taught Detective Inspector Wessex to recognize the truth when he met it, and he did not doubt the statement of the woman with the baby. "Can you give me any idea where this man Sidney came from?" he asked.
"I am afraid I can't," replied the listless voice. "He was in the service of some gentleman in the country; that's all I know about him."
"Did Polly leave no address to which letters were to be forwarded?"
"No; she said she would write."
"One other point," said Wessex, and he looked hard into the woman's face: "What do you know about Fire-Tongue?"
He was answered by a stare of blank stupidity.
"You heard me?"
"Yes, I heard you, but I don't know what you are talking about."
Quick decisions are required from every member of the Criminal Investigation Department, and Detective Inspector Wessex came to one now.
"That will do for the present," he said, turned, and ran down the steps to the waiting cab.