Chapter XXI. Conflicting Clubs
 

"Any news, Wessex?" asked Innes, eagerly, starting up from his chair as the inspector entered the office.

Wessex shook his head, and sitting down took out and lighted a cigarette.

"News of a sort," he replied, slowly, "but nothing of any value, I am afraid. My assistant, Stokes, has distinguished himself."

"In what way?" asked Innes, dully, dropping back into his chair.

These were trying days for the indefatigable secretary. Believing that some clue of importance might come to light at any hour of the day or night he remained at the chambers in Chancery Lane, sleeping nightly in the spare room.

"Well," continued the inspector, "I had detailed him to watch Nicol Brinn, but my explicit instructions were that Nicol Brinn was not to be molested in any way."

"What happened?"

"To-night Nicol Brinn had a visitor--possibly a valuable witness. Stokes, like an idiot, allowed her to slip through his fingers and tried to arrest Brinn!"

"What? Arrest him!" cried Innes.

"Precisely. But I rather fancy," added the inspector, grimly, "that Mr. Stokes will think twice before taking leaps like that in the dark again."

"You say he tried to arrest him. What do you mean by that?"

"I mean that Nicol Brinn, leaving Stokes locked in his chambers, went out and has completely disappeared!"

"But the woman?"

"Ah, the woman! There's the rub. If he had lain low and followed the woman, all might have been well. But who she was, where she came from, and where she has gone, we have no idea."

"Nicol Brinn must have been desperate to adopt such measures?"

Detective Inspector Wessex nodded.

"I quite agree with you."

"He evidently had an appointment of such urgency that he could permit nothing to stand in his way."

"He is a very clever man, Mr. Innes. He removed the telephone from the room in which he had locked Stokes, so that my blundering assistant was detained for nearly fifteen minutes--detained, in fact, until his cries from the window attracted the attention of a passing constable!"

"Nicol Brinn's man did not release him?"

"No, he said he had no key."

"What happened?"

"Stokes wanted to detain the servant, whose name is Hoskins, but I simply wouldn't hear of it. I am a poor man, but I would cheerfully give fifty pounds to know where Nicol Brinn is at this moment."

Innes stood up restlessly and began to drum his fingers upon the table edge. Presently he looked up, and:

"There's a shadow of hope," he said. "Rector--you know Rector?--had been detailed by the chief to cover the activities of Nicol Brinn. He has not reported to me so far to-night."

"You mean that he may be following him?" cried Wessex.

"It is quite possible--following either Nicol Brinn or the woman."

"My God, I hope you're right!--even though it makes the Criminal Investigation Department look a bit silly."

"Then," continued Innes, "there is something else which you should know. I heard to-day from a garage, with which Mr. Harley does business, that he hired a racing car last night. He has often used it before. It met him half-way along Pall Mall at seven o'clock, and he drove away in it in the direction of Trafalgar Square."

"Alone?"

"Yes, unfortunately."

"Toward Trafalgar Square," murmured Wessex.

"Ah," said Innes, shaking his head, "that clue is of no importance. Under the circumstances the chief would be much more likely to head away from his objective than toward it."

"Quite," murmured Wessex. "I agree with you. But what's this?"

The telephone bell was ringing, and as Innes eagerly took up the receiver:

"Yes, yes, Mr. Innes speaking," he said, quickly. "Is that you, Rector?"

The voice of Rector, one of Paul Harley's assistants, answered him over the wire:

"I am speaking from Victoria Station, Mr. Innes."

"Yes!" said Innes. "Go ahead."

"A very odd-looking woman visited Mr. Nicol Brinn's chambers this evening. She was beautifully dressed, but wore the collar of her fur coat turned up about her face, so that it was difficult to see her. But somehow I think she was an Oriental."

"An Oriental!" exclaimed Innes.

"I waited for her to come out," Rector continued. "She had arrived in a cab, which was waiting, and I learned from the man that he had picked her up at Victoria Station."

"Yes?"

"She came out some time later in rather a hurry. In fact, I think there was no doubt that she was frightened. By this time I had another cab waiting."

"And where did she go?" asked Innes.

"Back to Victoria Station."

"Yes! Go on!"

"Unfortunately, Mr. Innes, my story does not go much further. I wasted very little time, you may be sure. But although no train had left from the South Eastern station, which she had entered, there was no sign of her anywhere. So that I can only suppose she ran through to the Brighton side, or possibly out to a car, which may have been waiting for her somewhere."

"Is that all?" asked Innes, gloomily.

"That's all, Mr. Innes. But I thought I would report it."

"Quite right, Rector; you could do no more. Did you see anything of Detective Sergeant Stokes before you left Piccadilly?"

"I did," replied the other. "He also was intensely interested in Nicol Brinn's visitor. And about five minutes before she came out he went upstairs."

"Oh, I see. She came out almost immediately after Stokes had gone up?"

"Yes."

"Very well, Rector. Return to Piccadilly, and report to me as soon as possible." Innes hung up the receiver.

"Did you follow, Wessex?" he said. "Stokes was on the right track, but made a bad blunder. You see, his appearance led to the woman's retreat."

"He explained that to me," returned the inspector, gloomily. "She got out by another door as he came in. Oh! a pretty mess he has made of it. If he and Rector had been cooperating, they could have covered her movements perfectly."

"There is no use crying over spilt milk," returned Innes. He glanced significantly in the inspector's direction. "Miss Abingdon has rung up practically every hour all day," he said.

Wessex nodded his head.

"I'm a married man myself," he replied, "and happily married, too. But if you had seen the look in her eyes when I told her that Mr. Harley had disappeared, I believe you would have envied him."

"Yes," murmured Innes. "They haven't known each other long, but I should say from what little I have seen of them that she cares too much for her peace of mind." He stared hard at the inspector. "I think it will break her heart if anything has happened to the chief. The sound of her voice over the telephone brings a lump into my throat, Wessex. She rang up an hour ago. She will ring up again."

"Yet I never thought he was a marrying man," muttered the inspector.

"Neither did I," returned Innes, smiling sadly. "But even he can be forgiven for changing his mind in the case of Phil Abingdon."

"Ah," said the inspector. "I am not sorry to know that he is human like the rest of us." His expression grew retrospective, and: "I can't make out how the garage you were speaking about didn't report that matter before," he added.

"Well, you see," explained Innes, "they were used to the chief making long journeys."

"Long journeys," muttered the inspector. "Did he make a long journey? I wonder--I wonder."