VICTOR GUNN

 

 

THE NEXT ONE TO DIE

 

 

 

 

 

A novel

 

 

 

Apex-Verlag

Content

The Book 

 

THE NEXT ONE TO DIE 

Chapter I 

Chapter II 

Chapter III 

Chapter IV 

Chapter V 

Chapter VI 

Chapter VII 

Chapter VIII 

Chapter IX 

Chapter X 

Chapter XI 

Chapter XII 

Chapter XIII 

Chapter XIV 

Chapter XV 

Chapter XVI 

Chapter XVII 

 

 

The Book

 

Murder in the quiet, dignified precincts of the Inner Temple, and Cromwell and Lister quickly follow a trail which leads to the ancestral home of the Earl of Ellsworth. They arrived to find the household in a state of panic... a phantom figure which heralds the death of an Ellsworth heir. A further death is swiftly followed by another attempt as murder... 

THE NEXT ONE TO DIE

 

 

 

 

  

 

  Chapter I

 

 

THE LIGHT in the window of Mr. Henderson’s private office was so unusual that Jobling, the night porter, paused hesitatingly. True, it was only just seven o’clock, and the precincts of the Inner Temple were not entirely deserted; but old Mr. Henderson was so precise in his ways and habits that a light in his window at such a time was something that needed looking into.

»Queer,« muttered Jobling, frowning. Not once in years had he known the law firm of Henderson, Sayers and Henderson to work after hours. Nowadays, the firm consisted solely of Mr. Mark Henderson, his father having died thirty years ago. Mr. Sayers, the other partner, had been dead since the bomb incident of 1941. Although other fine buildings of the Inner Temple had been blasted during the war, Mr. Henderson’s chambers in No. 6a King’s Bench Walk, had escaped. They had remained virtually unchanged over two generations.

Mr. Henderson’s private office was typical of the man himself; austere, almost sombre, but redolent of the law in every crevice and cranny. Only the desk light was switched on, and the elderly lawyer sat there, writing busily. Outside, the distant rumble of London’s traffic was hardly noticeable; inside, the faint scratch of Mr. Henderson’s pen, and his slightly asthmatic breathing, were the only sounds that disturbed the silence.

Jobling, entering the fine old building, found the »oak« of Mr. Henderson’s chambers standing open. He knocked discreetly on the inner door, which was slightly ajar. There was no reply. Frowning, Jobling pushed the door open and peered into the room.

It was the outer office, deep in gloom, for no light was switched on. Ordinarily, the evening glow would have come through the windows, for it was far from being dark. Heavy clouds were in the sky, however, producing a premature dusk.

The door of the inner office was also ajar, and light streamed from it. Jobling moved heavily across and tapped on the door.

»Well? Who is it?« came a sharp, petulant voice. »Come in. Oh! It’s you, Jobling. Well, what is it?«

»Begging your pardon, Mr. Henderson...«

»Never mind begging my pardon,« said the old lawyer, gazing at the intruder over the top of his glasses. »You’re interrupting me. I’m very busy.«

»Yes, sir. I just wanted to be certain that everything was all right,« said the porter. »It ain’t dark yet, and when I see a light glowing in your window, I thinks maybe somebody has forgotten to switch off the light.«

»Nonsense,« said the old lawyer impatiently. »Whom would you expect to find here at this hour? You know perfectly well that Mr. Spenlowe always leaves at five-thirty.«

»Yes, sir, and you always leave at six.«

»Well, I haven’t left at six this evening,« said Mr. Henderson, waving a hand in dismissal. »Go away! Some very important work kept me at my desk, and you have to come interrupting when I’ve nearly finished. Be so good as to leave me in peace.«

Jobling felt surprised. As a rule, Mr. Henderson was benevolent and friendly. His present irritability was something quite exceptional.

»Didn’t mean to interrupt, sir,« said the porter, turning to leave. »But when I see your door standing ajar, I don’t like the look of it...«

»For heaven’s sake, Jobling, stop chattering and get out of here,« broke in the old lawyer. »Good heavens! Look at the time! I’d no idea it was so late.«

Having consulted his watch, he bent over his work again.

»If there’s anything I can do, sir...«

»Are you still here?« Mr. Henderson almost shouted. »I distinctly told you to go away...« He paused. »Wait. Yes, there is something you can do. Excellent, Jobling. Go to the nearest taxi rank and get me a cab. Make sure that you get a man who will be willing to make a fairly long journey. That’s important.«

»A long journey, sir?« asked Jobling, mystified.

»Good gracious, man, must I go into details?« snapped Mr. Henderson. »A long journey – twenty miles, at least. Some of these infernal cabbies object to long journeys.«

»Very good, sir.«

Jobling was an excellent man in every way, but he was not a very rapid thinker. He paused when he reached the door.

»A long journey, sir?« he repeated. »Wouldn’t it be better if you was to go by train? Taxis are expensive...«

»What?« Mr. Henderson looked up. »What did you say? Be a good fellow, Jobling, and go about your business. Oh, yes, of course, I asked you to get me a taxi, didn’t I? Well, have it here within ten minutes, if possible.«

Jobling shrugged and took his leave. He had never seen Mr. Henderson in this disturbed state of mind. The old gentleman was usually calm and placid, the very picture of a lawyer of the old school. This work which was keeping him late at the office must be something of exceptional importance.

Jobling emerged from the gracious old building and made his way across the open space in the direction of Crown Office Row. He had his own ideas as to the best way to reach a cab rank. The wide space across which he walked was practically bare of parked cars now. Most of the day it was packed with cars – a condition of affairs which Jobling deplored. In the old days, he reflected, these quiet precincts were never marred by such noisy intruders.

Reaching Crown Office Row, he glanced disparagingly at the new buildings – erected to replace those destroyed in the blitz. Jobling disapproved of them. In his opinion, they ruined the old-world atmosphere – and he was undoubtedly right. Passing into Middle Temple Lane he mounted the steps into Fountain Court, and made his way into Devereux Court, beyond. Instead of going straight through into Essex Street, he turned right up the alleyway, emerging in a couple of minutes into Fleet Street. An abrupt and dramatic change. The quiet and peace of the Inner Temple one moment, and the bustle and noise of traffic the next.

There was a cab rank near St. Clement Dane’s Church, and Jobling, waiting for a break in the traffic, moved heavily across to it. He was quite unaware of the fact that a figure, standing near the entrance to Figtree Court, had watched him as he had crossed from King’s Bench Walk – had continued to watch him until he had disappeared round the angle of Crown Office Row.

The watcher, once Jobling had passed out of sight, became active. He walked quickly across the open ground in the direction of Mr. Henderson’s chambers. He had been on the point of entering the old building, earlier, but had changed his plan on the approach of Jobling; he had seen Jobling enter and leave. Whatever the stranger’s business was, it was obviously something which demanded complete privacy.

He was tall, lithe, a nondescript figure in the gloom. He wore a long blue raincoat and a soft hat which came low over his forehead. Reaching No. 6a, King’s Bench Walk, he melted into the blackness of the entrance. At this hour of the evening there were few people about to observe the stranger’s movements – and at this particular minute, nobody at all.

In the entrance hall the man performed a peculiar act. He withdrew a pair of felt-soled slippers from his raincoat pocket, and slipped them over his walking shoes.

They had been especially selected for the purpose, and they fitted snugly.

Now, as silent as a shadow, his footsteps rapid, he mounted the stairs to Mr. Henderson’s chambers, which were on the first floor. He paused as though in surprise when he observed that the heavy oaken outer door was standing ajar. Apparently, he had been prepared to knock, in order to gain admittance. But this was much better. He entered, and closed the door after him. This was a direct hint to anybody who knew anything about lawyer’s offices, that the inmate did not wish to be disturbed.

The inner door was ajar, too, just as Jobling had left it. Chance seemed to be playing into the hands of the intruder – for it was not customary that both these doors should be left slightly open. The stranger paused for a moment to divest himself of the raincoat and the hat. He quickly donned headgear of another kind. Then he strode silently across the outer office and walked into Mr. Henderson’s sanctum. In spite of his felt-soled slippers, he made a slight sound – very noticeable in that quiet haven. The old lawyer, who was still writing, looked up with annoyance.

»Back already, Jobling?« he said. »What is it now? You can’t have found a taxi in this little time.«

The intruder remained silent. His eyes were fixed upon the legal-looking documents in the desk, upon which Mr. Henderson had been working.

»Well, Jobling?« said the lawyer, peering over the tops of his spectacles. »Why don’t you answer? Why...«

He broke off. There was a figure in the shadows beyond the desk, but it was not the stout, sturdy figure of the night porter. The only light in the room was cast by the table lamp – a little pool of brilliance, beyond which all was gloom. Mr. Henderson blinked in astonishment.

»Well? Who are you?« he asked sharply. »How did you get in here?«

Still the intruder remained silent. But he moved forward a couple of paces, a grim and frightening figure, like something out of a nightmare. Mr. Henderson made a queer choking sound as though the muscles of his throat had become paralysed. He started violently, every trace of colour draining from his kindly old face.

»Good God!« he whispered, in a strangled voice. »The Executioner!«

There was a note of incredulity, of stupefaction, in his voice, too. Obviously, the black figure in the shadows beyond the desk meant something to him. He appeared to recognise it, and the way in which he spoke the words, »The Executioner,« seemed to hint that he was familiar with the apparition.

And apparition it certainly was. The intruder stood there still frighteningly silent and now motionless. Black from head to foot. Even his hands were encased in black gloves. His face was concealed by a black mask, through which his eyes gazed upon Mr. Henderson with alert intensity. The figure was that of an executioner of the sixteenth or seventeenth century. He might have materialised straight out of the Tower of London.

Mr. Mark Henderson was a quiet, placid, benevolent man, but an expression of savage anger now came over his face. The first shock was over.

»In God’s name, what is the meaning of this buffoonery?« he demanded. »Who are you? Don’t imagine, for one moment, that I am deceived by this nonsense.«

While speaking, he pulled open the top drawer of his desk, and thrust a hand inside...

It was a fatal action. The black figure, almost motionless until this moment, acted. There was a flash of something in the lamplight, a thud, and the old lawyer fell back in his chair without a sound, except for a faint, gasping sob. Protruding from his waistcoat, in the region of the heart, was the hilt of a queer-looking dagger. The blade was invisible. It had buried itself in the unfortunate man’s body. With such force had the dagger been flung, and with such deadly accuracy, that Mr. Henderson had died in the split of a second.

With a muttered curse, the Executioner moved round to the other side of the desk and finished the motion which Mr. Henderson had started; he pulled open the drawer. Within, lay a heavy ebony ruler.

»Hell! I might have known!«

The dreadful crime he had just committed had no apparent effect on his nerves. If anything, he seemed pleased with his grim handiwork, for his eyes glowed approvingly as he viewed the still twitching corpse.

Then he busied himself on the task which was the object of his visit. He gathered up the documents from the desk – those legal papers on which Mr. Henderson had been working. A very brief examination told the intruder precisely what they were. A black deed-box, with its lid open, stood on the desk. A name was neatly painted on its front – now shabby with age. It contained more documents, and the grim intruder examined them hurriedly. He selected, and removed, only two. Then he closed the box, and placed it on a shelf with many others of a similar character.

From the moment of the stranger’s entry until now, only three and a quarter minutes had elapsed. His work was done. He left the inner office, and paused in the little lobby. Here, he quickly removed his mask and headgear, and wriggled into his raincoat, which completely concealed his strange garb. Pausing only to remove the felt slippers, he then walked calmly and leisurely down to the main exit, and made off in the direction of Mitre Court, emerging a minute later into Fleet Street.

Five more minutes elapsed before a taxi drew up in front of No. 6a, King’s Bench Walk. Jobling climbed out of it with his characteristically heavy movements.

»Wait here, mate,« he said to the driver. »I’ll go and tell Mr. Henderson.«

»While you’re about it,« said the cabby, »tell him that I shall expect a bit extra if it ain’t going to be a double journey. Twenty miles, or more, out into the country, ain’t any good to me. How do I get a fare on the way back?«

Jobling made no answer. He understood why Mr. Henderson had been so particular about selecting an amenable cabby. Even this man, after accepting the commission, now seemed doubtful. However, the porter climbed the stairs slowly and laboriously, and found the doors of Mr. Henderson’s chambers exactly as he had left them. He passed through to the inner office.

»Cab’s here, sir,« he announced puffily. »Wasn’t too easy to find a driver who’d agree... Hey! Mr. Henderson! Good God!«

The last two words were uttered in a shout of consternation and horror. Jobling had addressed his opening remarks to the figure which sat behind the desk, and it was not until he had moved closer that he saw that there was something unnatural and fearful in the old lawyer’s expression. Even without verifying the fact, Jobling knew that he was looking on a dead face. Then he saw the haft of the dagger...

He stumbled out of the room, trembling in every limb. He had not waited to make an examination. The sight of the dagger had been enough. Nearly falling down the stairs in his agitation, he reached the exit and lumbered across to the taxi.

»He’s dead – murdered!« he panted hoarsely.

»Come off it!« said the taximan. »What’s the matter with you, dad – gone barmy? Blimey! You look bad.«

»Mr. Henderson – up there – lying back in his chair with a dagger in his chest,« faltered Jobling. »Look, mate, go and fetch a copper – quick. You can find one quicker than I can. I’ll phone while you’re away.«

He did not wait for the startled cabby to make any reply, but hurried away to his own domain. Here he dialled 999, and huskily gave the dreadful information. Having hung up, he paused only to wipe the sweat from his brow before dialling another number in the Fulham area. In a very few moments he heard the voice of Mr. Horace Spenlowe, who was Mr. Henderson’s chief clerk.

»Yes, sir,« said Jobling, after he had given the facts. »He’s dead, sir. Can you come at once?«

»But... but this is perfectly appalling, Jobling,« came the agitated voice of the chief clerk. »Are you sure you’re right? Mr. Henderson dead? Did you say murdered?«

»Look, sir, it won’t do no good to talk on the telephone,« said Jobling, who was still very distressed. »All I want you to do is to get here as quick as you can.«

Meanwhile, the machinery of the law was getting into rapid motion. The cabbie returned to King’s Bench Walk with an officer of the City Police; the 999-call resulted in immediate activity at New Scotland Yard. The information, passed from one quarter to another, finally resulted in orders being given to Chief Inspector William Cromwell, of the Murder Squad, who had been on the point of going home after a hard day.

»Hell,« said the chief inspector, »and blast! Why does it always have to be me?

This means no supper and no ruddy sleep!«

»Hard luck, Old Iron,« said Detective Sergeant John Lister, who was his assistant. »Hard luck on both of us. I was going to introduce you to a particularly ripe supper joint down Chelsea way...«

»Were you, indeed?« interrupted Cromwell. »I seem to have had a merciful escape. You and your ripe supper joints! Ring down for a car to be ready.«

»No need. We can go in mine.«

The immaculate Johnny Lister, who had entered the police force as a career, was the fortunate possessor of a handsome private income from his father, and he was able to indulge in expensive cars. His latest acquisition was a lively Aston Martin saloon.

The man known to his colleagues as »Ironsides« strode out of his office with a malevolent expression on his forbidding face, for he hated being roped in on a lastminute investigation. That expression of his was something of a fraud, for he was not nearly so malignant as he looked. He was a fraud in other ways. He appeared to be much older than his actual years, and when it came to stamina and agility, he was fully the equal of his young assistant. That long, lean frame of his was composed of muscles like whipcord, and his keen brain was concealed behind the mask of sour indifference he habitually adopted.

After certain orders had been given, the Scotland Yard pair went down to Johnny’s parked car, and set off for the Temple. It was a brief ride along the Embankment. Leaving the car, they walked, and just inside the Tudor Street Gate they were overtaken by a tubby little man who was apparently in a great hurry.

»I think I know you, sir,« said Cromwell, falling into step beside the other. »You’re Mr. Spenlowe, aren’t you?«

»Why, yes – that’s so,« said the tubby little man. »I’m afraid you have the advantage...«

»Cromwell, sir – Chief Inspector,« interrupted Ironsides. »I’ve seen you in court occasionally. Aren’t you Mr. Mark Henderson’s chief clerk?«

»To be sure – Inspector Cromwell,« said the other, in a breathless voice. »We don’t often have dealings with the criminal courts, Mr. Cromwell. That’s why I didn’t recognise you at first. It must be three years since that dreadful Platt case... This is an appalling business,« he went on, interrupting himself. »I can hardly believe it’s true. They tell me that Mr. Henderson is dead – murdered. Jobling rang me up, and I got here as quickly as I could.« He gazed at Cromwell apprehensively. »Your presence here is proof enough, I’m afraid, that Jobling told me the truth.«

»The only information in my possession, sir, is that Mr. Henderson is dead – presumably murdered,« said Ironsides gruffly. »We’d better go in and make certain.«

There was much activity at No. 6a. A uniformed constable stood at the door; two squad cars were parked nearby. Upstairs, in Mr. Henderson’s chambers, Inspector Griffiths, of the City Police, was in temporary charge.

»Glad you’re here, Mr. Cromwell,« said the inspector, as they shook hands. »I take it that the rest of the boys will be along presently? The poor old gentleman is dead, right enough – stabbed to the heart. Nothing seems to have been disturbed, or taken.«

»Mr. Spenlowe, here, will be able to enlighten us on that point, I expect,« said Cromwell.

»I?« said the chief clerk. »I may be able to tell you if anything is missing, yes.« His anxious eyes roved round the outer office, in which they were standing. »Mr. Henderson is – in there?« He looked at the inner door. »Perhaps I’d better go in.«

»Don’t, if you’d rather not, sir,« said Inspector Griffiths.

»No,« said Spenlowe, controlling his voice. »I must go.«

All the lights in Mr. Henderson’s private office had been switched on, and the desk standard had been turned round so that its light played fully upon the figure in the chair behind the desk. One look at it, and the unfortunate Spenlowe uttered a sobbing gulp and had to be helped out of the room.

»Horrible!« he muttered shakily.

»Sorry you had to undergo this ordeal, Mr. Spenlowe,« said Ironsides gruffly. »Sit here for a while. I may have to question you later.«

Without waiting for Spenlowe to reply, he returned to the inner office. He stood gazing at the body, and at the dagger protruding from the body.

»Anything been disturbed?« he asked.

»No,« said Griffiths. »Dr. Groves, here, has ascertained that death was probably instantaneous, but he hasn’t moved the body. The poor old chap was stabbed to the heart.«

»How?« asked Ironsides bluntly.

The doctor gave him a shrewd glance. »Funny you should ask that,« he said. »I’m puzzled about it myself. I take it that Mr. Henderson was sitting at his desk – probably writing. You can see the pen there, and the ink still wet. But how could he have been stabbed so that he fell back in his chair in such an attitude? The murderer couldn’t have leaned across the desk to strike the blow, because the desk’s too big. He’d never have been able to apply the necessary force.«

»Couldn’t the blow have come from behind?« asked Griffiths.

»Quite out of the question,« replied the police surgeon. »In any case, would Henderson have allowed anybody to approach him from behind, and strike in such a way? No, the blow was delivered from the front...«

»Nothing puzzling about it,« interrupted Bill Cromwell, with a shrug. »The dagger was thrown. Either that, or Henderson knew his murderer so well, and trusted him so completely, that he never had any suspicion of foul play. And I don’t believe that. The evidence is all to the contrary.«

»Thrown!« repeated Griffiths, as though he had only heard that one word.

»I can remember two similar cases,« replied Ironsides, in a tired voice. »An expert knife-thrower, standing just here« – he placed himself midway between the door and the desk – »would have thrown the weapon with sufficient accuracy and force to kill. That’s a queer-looking dagger, by the way,« he added, moving nearer, and examining the weapon at close quarters. »A genuine antique, I should say. Sixteenth or seventeenth century, and probably Italian. H’m! Might have been used by Henderson himself as a paper-knife. We shall have to ask Spenlowe about it.«

They did so at once.

»No, Mr. Henderson never had a dagger like that,« said the chief clerk, who had now partially recovered. »He never opened his own letters, in any case. Letters always come to me. A dagger? The murderer must have brought it with him. But why should he want to kill Mr. Henderson?« he added helplessly. »Such a kind, generous man.«

»I don’t think the dagger will help us much, Mr. Cromwell,« said Griffiths, shaking his head. »A modern flick-knife, with the maker’s name on it, would be easier to trace. There must be any amount of these antique weapons up and down the country, in pawnbroker’s shops, and museums, and such like. You even see ’em in shops that deal with old lumber. Unless we can find a direct clue to the ownership of this particular dagger, we’re not likely to get anywhere.«

»Yes, it looks as though the killer acted shrewdly in using such a weapon,« agreed Cromwell. »No good expecting fingerprints, of course. Criminals are too fly, these days, to work without gloves. And the hilt of the dagger, in any case, is too ornamented to take fingerprints. Who was the first man to discover the crime?«

»Jobling, the night porter,« replied Griffiths.

»Bring him here,« said Ironsides briefly.

 

 

 

 

  Chapter II

 

 

JOBLING CARRIED an air of mingled importance and apprehension as he was escorted into the outer office by the police constable who had been sent to fetch him.

»Beats me, gents,« he said, looking from one to the other of the men who faced him. »Mr. Henderson was all right when I left him – and I couldn’t have been gone more than ten minutes. When I goes into the office again, there he is, lying dead in his chair.«

»When you left him?« repeated Bill Cromwell sharply. »Then you saw Mr. Henderson twice?«

»About seven o’clock it was, sir. Pretty dark, too, because of all the heavy clouds,« replied the porter. »That’s why I saw the light in the office. Queer, I thought. So I went in to see if everything was all right.«

»Why should a light in Mr. Henderson’s office strike you as being queer?«

»Because there hasn’t been one, at such a time, for as long as I can remember – and I’ve been here a few years,« said Jobling. »A gentleman of regular habits, Mr. Henderson. People could set their watches by him. Six o’clock was his time for leaving. Ask Mr. Spenlowe. Mr. Spenlowe always leaves at five-thirty, and he’s just as regular as Mr. Henderson himself. Five-thirty Mr. Spenlowe, six o’clock Mr. Henderson. So when I saw a light in the window at seven o’clock...«

»All right – all right,« interrupted Ironsides. »I understand. You went in to make inquiries?«

»Yes, sir, and blow me if Mr. Henderson’s oak wasn’t standing wide open,« replied the porter. »That was funny enough, but the inner door was on the jar. Looked careless to me. I went in, and the door of Mr. Henderson’s private office was ajar, too. Fair knocked me over, that did. I went in, and found Mr. Henderson writing at his desk.«

»Alone?«

»Oh, yes, sir. Sharp-tongued he was, too. Said he was busy on some documents – something special. Told me to get out. Then he called me back. ‘Get me a taxi, Jobling,’ he says. ‘Make sure the driver will be willing to make a long journey.’ Never known the old gentleman to be so flustered. I went to the cab rank, and fetched a taxi, and when I got back there he was in his chair – dead. Gave me an awful shock, sir. I wasn’t gone more than ten minutes.«

»When you went on this errand did you leave the two doors ajar?« asked Cromwell sharply.

»Why, yes, sir – just as I’d found them,« replied the porter. »Nothing wrong in that, was there? How was I to know that somebody would come in and kill the poor old gentleman? Things like that don’t happen in the Temple.«

»Unfortunately, a thing like that has happened in the Temple,« said Ironsides grimly. »But don’t upset yourself, Jobling. Nobody’s blaming you. I take it that you saw nobody near or in these premises at the time?«

»Not a soul, sir.«

»You say Mr. Henderson was busy with some documents?«

»That’s what he said, sir, and he had papers on the desk, in front of him.«

»There are no papers now,« said Cromwell, indicating the barren desk. »What about it, Inspector? Did you see any papers? Has anybody seen any papers?«

Nobody had. The constable and the taxi driver, who had entered the office while Jobling had been telephoning, both stated that they had seen no documents on the desk.

»Pretty clear, then, that the murderer took them away with him,« said Cromwell. »Which seems to indicate that the theft of the documents was the object of his visit. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Henderson was working on a very special commission – what you might call a rush job. We’d better talk to Spenlowe.«

Mr. Spenlowe was nervous and ill.

»An appalling business,« he muttered. »Poor Mr. Henderson. He must have been killed by some miserable sneak-thief – one of these teenage hoodlums who are so prevalent these days. Not that Mr. Henderson kept much money in the safe...«

»As far as we can gather, Mr. Spenlowe, the safe wasn’t touched,« interrupted Inspector Griffiths. »It’s still locked, and, presumably, the keys are in Mr. Henderson’s pocket. But some documents on which Mr. Henderson was engaged have disappeared. We think you might know something about them.«

»You mean it wasn’t a case of robbery?«

»Not the kind of robbery you imagine, sir.«

»I’d better look in the safe,« said Spenlowe shakily. »I have a key, too. There was money in the safe – not much, as I said – about a hundred and twenty pounds, as far as I can remember. I’d better see if it’s still there.«

Cromwell took the key from him, and the old-fashioned safe was opened. The money was intact. Spenlowe stated that nothing had been disturbed.

»As I thought,« said Ironsides. »The man who killed Henderson was interested only in the documents which were engaging Henderson’s attention. Mr. Spenlowe. You left this office at five-thirty. Surely you know the nature of the work on which Mr. Henderson was employed?«

The chief clerk, who was still suffering from shock, and who seemed in a partial daze, started violently.

»Good heavens, of course!« he ejaculated, as though the thought had only just struck him. »Lord Ellsworth!«

»What about Lord Ellsworth?«

»Wait – wait,« said Spenlowe huskily.

He hurried to the shelves on which the rows of deed-boxes were neatly placed. He selected the one which had the words »Earl of Ellsworth« painted on its front. He gave a little cry when he found that the deed-box was unlocked.

»My God, I was right!« he said. »The box is half empty. Every document connected with the Ellsworth Estate has been taken. I knew, of course, that Mr. Henderson was engaged on some important work for Lord Ellsworth...«

»You knew this?« interrupted Cromwell quickly. »It’s the first time you’ve mentioned the fact.«

»I’m sorry. I have been very confused,« said the other, passing a hand over his brow. »The shock of finding Mr. Henderson dead drove everything else out of my mind.«

»But you are remembering now?« said Ironsides. »This is a matter of the utmost urgency, Mr. Spenlowe. What do you know of Lord Ellsworth’s affairs?«

»I? Mr. Henderson was dealing with them. I know nothing,« replied the chief clerk helplessly. »At least... All I can tell you is that the old man paid us a visit this afternoon – Lord Ellsworth, I mean. He arrived quite unexpectedly, and alone, at about a quarter to five, and he immediately went into Mr. Henderson’s office. Mr. Henderson was very angry. I might even say that he was flabbergasted.«

»Do you know why?«

»I heard him protesting with his lordship. ‘It was madness, Lord Ellsworth, for you to come up to London like this, unescorted,’ I heard Mr. Henderson saying,« continued Spenlowe. »He told his lordship that he was in no condition to travel. I can vouch for that myself. Lord Ellsworth was looking very ill, indeed. Naturally, his lordship told Mr. Henderson not to be a silly old woman...«

»Why naturally?«

»It was his lordship’s way,« explained the other. »Mr. Henderson could never do anything with him. I honestly believe that Lord Ellsworth is the most obstinate man I have ever known. I ventured to remonstrate with him when he first arrived, but he shut me up and told me not to be a fool. He’s like that. One of the old school. A stiff-backed aristocrat, and I sometimes think that he ought to have lived in the eighteenth century.«

»How long did Lord Ellsworth stay?«

»I really don’t know. He was with Mr. Henderson when I left. That was at half past five.« Spenlowe hesitated. »I ventured to look into Mr. Henderson’s office before leaving, offering to wait, and see his lordship to his car. All I received for my pains was a bark from his lordship, accompanied by language which I did not know he understood. Mr. Henderson told me that I’d better go, and that he was engaged on a very special task for his lordship. He said he would be at work for some hours.«

»H’m! And at seven o’clock he sends the porter to get a taxi,« said the chief inspector thoughtfully. »He specifically states that he wants a taximan who will be willing to make a long journey. How long?«

»Jobling said twenty miles,« put in Griffiths.

»Where does Lord Ellsworth live?« asked Cromwell.

»At Ellsworth Court, not far from Redhill, in Surrey,« replied Spenlowe.

»That would be it,« agreed Ironsides. »He was intending to ride down to Ellsworth Court by taxi – obviously for the purpose of delivering the documents he had prepared.«

»Lord Ellsworth will know what those documents were, Old Iron,« said Johnny Lister, looking up from his notebook. »They seem to be the crux. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to get on the phone to him?«

»Yes, yes, indeed,« said Spenlowe eagerly.

»I think not,« demurred Cromwell. »Too vital a matter to be discussed over the telephone. In any case, this unfortunate business of the family lawyer being murdered is one that should be broken gently – particularly to a man in ill-health. What’s wrong with Lord Ellsworth, anyhow?«

»He had a partial stroke about a month ago – thrombosis, I think they call it,« replied Spenlowe. »He made a good recovery, but he’s never been the same. Old, too. Used to have periods of gout a few years ago, before his doctor advised him to be more careful with the port.«

»I’ll leave you to look after things this end, Inspector,« said Cromwell, addressing Griffiths, and coming to a quick decision. ‘Til run out to Redhill, and have a talk with Lord Ellsworth. He’ll be able to throw more light on this case than we’re likely to get here. It’s not late.«

He motioned to Johnny, and they left. Their departure coincided with the arrival of the boys – in other words, draughtsmen, photographers, and fingerprint experts of the Murder Squad. Cromwell was content to leave the preliminary investigation in their hands. He was convinced that the murderer’s trail would be picked up at Ellsworth Court, rather than at No. 6a King’s Bench Walk.

Except for the presence of the police cars, and one or two idlers, the precincts of the Inner Temple were quiet and calm. Johnny Lister led the way to the spot where he had parked his Aston Martin.

»Sure this is the best thing, Old Iron?« he asked. »Going down to Ellsworth Court, I mean?«

»I want to see the effect on Lord Ellsworth when I tell him that certain important documents, which Mr. Henderson was preparing, have been stolen,« replied Cromwell grimly. »I shan’t tell him that Henderson is dead – not at first. Those documents must be something of a very special nature – and a vital urgency – for Henderson to have given them his immediate attention.«

They were soon on their way out of London, going by way of Chelsea Bridge, Battersea, Clapham Common, and then on through Balham to Streatham and the main Brighton road.

»We ought to do it in about forty minutes,« said Johnny, as they passed through Norbury. »Probably less. Roads are nice and clear. Has anybody contacted Henderson’s family, by the way?«

»I had a word with Spenlowe about that, son. It seems Henderson hasn’t any family. A bachelor. No close relatives, either. Just as well. Relatives can be a ruddy nuisance in a murder case. Amazing how they can hinder an investigation.«

Johnny was able to send the Aston Martin at high speed after they had passed the old Croydon Aerodrome on Purley Way. The road was delimited as far as Purley, and then limited again until Coulsdon was reached. High speed after that, and it was not long before Redhill was reached. Ellsworth Court lay to the east of the town, five miles away.

It was still well short of nine o’clock by the time Johnny brought the car to a standstill on the open gravel space in front of the wide frontage of the fine old mansion. Ellsworth Court was an early Georgian structure, with a suggestion of Queen Anne. There were many lights in the windows, and the new arrivals were somewhat surprised to find the great front door standing wide open. The hall was full of light, and a portly man, presumably the butler, was standing just inside the doorway talking to another man in a chauffeur’s uniform, and three maids. They were talking animatedly, and were so engrossed in their conversation that they had not noticed the arrival of Johnny’s car. Neither of the Scotland Yard pair needed any particular perception to sense that something unusual was disturbing the peace of this old country house.

It was while Ironsides and Johnny were getting out of the car, and closing the doors, that the butler became aware of their presence. He immediately sent the maids scurrying away, and the chauffeur ran down the steps and hurried off round the side of the house. The butler himself advanced on the newcomers, and it was clear that he was in an agitated state of mind.

»Something wrong here?« asked Cromwell sharply.

The butler regarded him suspiciously.

»If you are newspaper men...« he began.

»We’re not newspaper men,« interrupted Ironsides. »We’re police officers. I want to see Lord Ellsworth at once.«