SEXTON BLAKE AND THE WHITE FAIRY
by John Hall ©
Chou sighed, put aside the opium pipe, and stood up with something of an effort — an effort due more to his great age than to the drug. It was no use, he had delayed quite long enough as it was. There was no help for it, the master must be told the bad news. Chou pushed aside the bead curtain, went down the gloomy and grimy passage, and tapped on the door at the other end.
Chou entered the room, and bowed as low as his old, stiff back would allow. "Highness —"
The man seated cross-legged on the floor frowned, and Chou bowed again, in apology this time. The master was a prince, by rights, but he had abandoned the title when he abandoned his old life, his lands and wives and concubines and other possessions. The prince had offended the Imperial Son of Heaven, and been obliged to flee by night to Shanghai with Chou, his former tutor. Arrived in Shanghai, the prince had browbeaten an effete provincial governor, and taken passage on a boat owned by the foreign devils. A scant hour later, when the Imperial Censor had arrived together with the Imperial Executioner and a death warrant, the prince was outside Chinese waters. The Imperial Censor, anxious to avoid any blame that might attach to himself, amended the warrant slightly and beheaded the provincial governor; merely one of the risks of high office. The prince now called himself Dr Sen Lao — "Sen" being a low denomination coin, and "Lao" in tribute to Lao Tze, the Taoist sage; a tribute humorous or respectful, who could tell? Nobody dared to ask, in any event.
Sen's brow cleared. "No ceremony here, old friend. Sit down. I see from your face that you have bad news; tell me, and together we shall make a plan to deal with it."
"Master, I fear we may have a competitor, a rival."
Sen threw back his head and laughed. "That is bad news, indeed! For him, that is to say ..."
"Beautiful, guv'nor!" Tinker was not, as one might expect, referring to any of the young ladies who strolled down Baker Street wearing the daring fashions of spring, 1921, but rather to Sexton Blake's car — The Grey Panther — a magnificent Rolls, which had just been delivered after having a new engine fitted.
"Indeed she is. And I rather think that the modifications I ordered will prove quite interesting, should the situation ever arise." Blake was about to elaborate, but he paused and glanced up as a tall, elegant man approached. "Why, Sir Curtis!" Blake held out his hand. "You know my assistant, Tinker? But what brings you so far from Scotland Yard?"
Sir Curtis, an Assistant Commissioner with the Metropolitan Police, frowned at the famous detective. "May we talk inside, Blake? It is a rather painful subject."
Sir Curtis settled himself in Blake's best armchair. "It's my niece," he explained. "My sister's girl. Her father — good chap, I liked him — died on the Somme, and the girl has perhaps not had the paternal guidance which she should have had." He sighed. "I tried, of course — still, that's neither here nor there. The plain fact is, Blake, that the girl, Angelica Prentiss, has become involved with a very fast set of people. Crooks, to put the matter plainly. And worse."
"Dope," said Curtis, frowning. He produced an old briar pipe and waved it at Blake, seeking permission to light up. When Blake nodded, Sir Curtis put a match to the pipe, and said between puffs, "Cocaine. Filthy stuff. Sad thing is, these people don't realize the dangers, they even dream up silly names for it. La fee blanche, I ask you!"
Tinker, struggling to recall what he had learned during his irregular attendance at school, hazarded, "White something is it?"
"'The White Fairy'," said Blake crisply. "A term favoured by French addicts. Also 'coke' and 'snow', and similar euphemisms."
Sir Curtis nodded. "Been around half a century, of course. Much valued by Sherlock Holmes and other amateur reasoners," he added sourly. "Well the law's changed, and so has the official outlook, but there are still those willing to pay for their thrills. Must of it comes from the Continent, and we do what we can at ports and so on, but the scale is defeating us."
"Oh?" Blake looked a question. "We thought we were on top of it," said Sir Curtis, "but just lately there has been an upsurge. An organized gang, and a pretty big one, by the look of things, has set up in business within the last couple of weeks." He shook himself. "Still, that's a problem for the Yard, not for you. What I came to consult you about is this niece of mine."
"I sympathise with your difficulty, Sir Curtis, but I fail to see what you expect of me. Surely you, both as the girl's uncle, and as a high official in the police force, are far better placed than I to influence her?"
"That's the devil of it," said Sir Curtis. "Far from taking any advice I might offer, Angelica would do the very opposite, even if it were contrary to her previous wishes and behaviour! And by the same token, I don't want to involve any of my colleagues at the Yard, for fairly obvious reasons. No, I want you to have a quiet word with her, try to convince her of the error of her ways. I hope that will be enough — I rely on you, Blake, to be both discreet and persuasive! It'll come better from you, being closer in age and so on."
"You flatter me, Sir Curtis. I seem increasingly out of touch with today's youth with each passing day. Still, I shall do what I can."
"I'd be grateful. It isn't just the drugs, of course. One hears such dreadful tales about these people, white slavery and what have you." "What's that then?" asked Tinker, sitting up.
Sir Curtis coughed. "The kidnapping of young women, for — ah, purposes — that is —"
"Purposes which I shall discuss with you when you are older," Blake told Tinker firmly.
Tinker flushed and studied his boots, mumbling something of which Blake could catch only, " ...save yourself the trouble!"
Ignoring this, Blake asked Sir Curtis, "Do you have a photograph of your niece? And any names of the others in this fast set you mentioned?"
Sir Curtis produced a postcard sized picture. "There you are. Others? Well, the only one I know by name is young Ronny Frobisher. He and Angelica were good friends, still may be for all I know. Pestilential young rotter, Frobisher, but there may be some excuse for him; he was blown up at Wipers. Damned war! Anyway, if you could? I'll see myself out," and he was up and out of the room almost before Blake could rise from his chair.
Blake studied the photograph Sir Curtis had given him, then handed it to Tinker, who pursed his lips as if to whistle, then thought better of it.
"Handsome young lady," he ventured.
"Yes," Tinker went on, "you could see that some old whatsit would want her for his harem, can't you guv'nor?"
Blake smiled. "You're a jolly sight too knowing for your age, my lad. Throw me that pipe, would you? No," he added "the old one. I need to do some serious thinking."
"Sir Curtis seemed very worried?" Tinker made it a tentative question.
"He did. More so than one might at first suppose. Of course, in his official position —" Blake broke off, shook his head. "But then why not simply send a sergeant or something; frighten her with the thoughts of Holloway? Or pack her off to a finishing school in Switzerland?"
"Bit old hat, that, guv'."
Before Blake could put Tinker in his place, Pedro, Blake's bloodhound, emitted a low growl. Blake sat up straight in his chair, staring at the door. A moment later, someone tapped on it. "Come in!" cried Blake.
The door opened, to admit two Chinese.
"I am Sen Lao, and this is my servant, Chou." The speaker was not particularly tall, an inch or so above the average, his body muscular but not particularly lean. His age might have been anything from thirty to sixty, and he wore a western suit which bore the hallmarks of Savile Row. Chou was much older, short and stout, with a smiling round face. He wore Chinese dress, and bowed towards Blake.
Sen Lao went on, "I am here to offer my humble assistance with a problem which I believe Sir Curtis may have put before you."
Blake raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And what problem is that?"
"Drugs, Mr Blake. Specifically, cocaine."
"I see. May I ask what is your interest in this? And what the nature of 'assistance' you spoke of?"
Sen Lao bowed. "I have seen in my own country the ravages of opium. A bad habit introduced to us by the English," he added, his face clouding momentarily. Then he smiled blandly and said, "It is incumbent upon all good citizens, and especially those of us who have been so fortunate as to find refuge in your country, to assist the authorities in such matters. If you wish, I can tell you where to look."
"You seem better informed that Scotland Yard!" said Blake.
Sen bowed. "I have many business interests, and these sometimes take me to low quarters of the city. There was a man, a small man — what do you say? — A little cog in the great wheel of this drug-running gang. A messenger, nothing more. But where there is a messenger there must be a message, and sometimes a man can be persuaded to reveal that message." He gestured at Chou. "You would not think it to look at him, but Chou here has made a study of the most efficient way to loosen stubborn tongues. Over the last seventy years or so, he has become an expert."
Chou smiled and bowed, for all the world as if to indicate that the customer's order of chop suey would be ready in five minutes. Tinker shuddered, and even Blake's face showed horror for a short moment. Sen Lao went on, "The place you seek is "The Purple Pussycat", in Mayfair." He bowed. "Good day, sirs." And, like Sir Curtis before him, he had gone before Blake could make any response.
"What was that about?" asked Tinker, eyes fixed on the door. Blake laughed. "I'm not sure, but it certainly wasn't Sen Lao displaying any sense of civic duty!"
"You know him, then?"
"I know of him. He's a crook, Tinker. He controls the whole London opium trade!"
Tinker gasped. "But then why —"
"Why should he want to help us, or anyone else, crack this cocaine racket? It is an interesting question, is it not?" Blake filled his pipe, and took his time lighting it.
"And then why not go directly to Scotland Yard? Cut out the middle man?" Tinker wanted to know.
"Oh that is an easy one. Sen knows that if he went to the police, they would have some hard questions for him; whereas I am more or less a free agent, and thus less likely — as Sen sees it — to bother about his motives."
"And what are his motives?"
Blake frowned. "The opium trade in this country is currently confined to London, and more specifically to the Chinese population of the capital. Cocaine, on the other hand, is popular among young, rich, and foolish people of all races. And most major cities have been affected by it to some extent. Suppose that Sen wanted to branch out, to take over the cocaine trade? It would fit in well with his existing 'business', and it would considerably increase his income. Good commercial practice, in fact. As Sir Curtis explained, the cocaine trade is booming, and it is not confined to Britain. The Continent — perhaps even America! That is ambitious, I allow, but the potential is enormous, especially since the rather silly calls for prohibition of alcohol are sure to make people want to look for new diversions."
"So this Sen wants to muscle in on the cocaine racket?"
"Your phraseology leaves much to be desired, but that is how I read it. He uses us to eliminate his rivals, and then takes over their customers! How's that?"
Tinker nodded. "Clever! But do you think what he said was the truth? About this nightclub, I mean? It might be a trap."
Blake shook his head. "If I have read him right, he will not act against us — or at any rate not until these rivals have been disposed of — although we must watch out once that has happened! No, if Sen wanted us killed or kidnapped, he could have had it done easily enough without running the risk of visiting us here."
"And what will you do?" When Blake raised an eyebrow, Tinker went on, "I mean, even Sir Curtis said that the dope racket is a job for the Yard. We were supposed to have a quiet word with his niece, that was all."
Blake smiled. "You see two quite separate events, Tinker? Sir Curtis talking about this girl who is involved with drug pedlars, and Sen Lao offering to help stamp out the cocaine trade! I see either a monstrous coincidence, or some connection, however tenuous. Sen has a finger in many pies; he may know something we don't. In any event, if this nightclub is used by the drug crowd, we might as well start there as anywhere. We might be able to help Sir Curtis in more than one way." He glanced at his wristwatch and tapped out his pipe. "I don't imagine the patrons of 'The Purple Pussycat' keep very early hours, so we'd best get some sleep now. Set your alarm for eleven tonight, would you?"
The doorman was at first inclined to be censorious regarding Blake's lack of proof of membership of the club, but his rough exterior hid the soul of a musician, and the rustle of paper money was the tune that played upon his heartstrings.
Blake made his way down the narrow steps, for the club was situated in a cellar, pushed open the shabby door and shouldered his way through the noisy crowd that thronged the tiny room. He halted at the bar.
"Tell me," Blake asked the barman "is Miss Prentiss here tonight? Angelica Prentiss?"
The barman shrugged, indifferent, "I don't know the names of everyone who's a member here, sir."
Blake produced the photograph which Sir Curtis had given him, and held it out, together with another banknote. "That refresh your memory at all?"
The barman took photograph and note, pocketed one and returned the other. "That her, Is it? No, I haven't seen her tonight."
The barman, perhaps feeling that he had not rendered full value for money, volunteered, "But then she doesn't usually come in much before midnight."
"I see. How about Mr Frobisher? Ronnie Frobisher?"
Before the barman could deny all knowledge of Mr Frobisher, a tall young man, elegant but rather the worse for wear, turned round to face Blake. "Who wants Ronnie Frobisher, then? And, for Heaven's sake, why?"
"Mr Frobisher? My name is Sexton Blake, and this is my assistant, Tinker."
"Sexton Blake, as in, 'the sleuth of Baker Street'?" Frobisher lifted a cocktail glass containing a virulent blue liquid. "I'll drink to that!"
A young woman who had been standing behind Frobisher, though she was apparently not actually a friend of his, interjected, "Sexton Blake? But how thrilling! Are you here on business, as it were? And weren't you asking about Angelica? Is she —"
"You must excuse us, madam," said Blake, smiling politely but steering Frobisher aside firmly. The young lady shrugged, and wandered off towards the door.
Frobisher stared over the rim of his glass. "But are you? Here on business, I mean? Plenty of work for you if you were, in all conscience." He glanced round the room with a good deal of contempt. "Lord, what a crew! Half of them looking for some sort of cheap thrill, and the other half busy providing it — only it isn’t so cheap! When you think of the chaps who died in the war —" he stopped, shrugged. "I was at Ypres, you know, the Tommies were no great shakes at fancy foreign pronunciation; they called it 'Wipers', and Lord knows they were wiped out soon enough, the poor —" and he took a stiff pull at his drink.
"You were wounded yourself, I understand?" asked Blake gently.
Frobisher shrugged again. "I was about two feet from where a shell landed," he said at length. "The blast knocked me out, and when I woke up I was in a hold, literally, a crater made by a previous shell, with a shattered leg, a gash in my head, and about a ton of mud on top of me. Oh, they dug me out, eventually. But I spent three days there, with two of my best friends. Only the thing was, they weren't exactly alive." He put his glass on a table, took out a silver cigarette case, and lit a cigarette with a hand that shook violently. "Unsettles the nerves, rather."
"Have you taken medical advice?" asked Blake.
Frobisher smiled thinly. "Oh, they have lots of theories, of course. And lots of reassuring words. Palliative — is that it?" He tapped his glass. "I drink too much of this stuff, I know that. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it makes it worse."
"Ever tried cocaine?" asked Blake casually.
"I did, matter of fact. Someone told me it had done wonders for them, chap in the same boat as me, so I gave it a try." He shrugged again. "But it didn't, not for me, so I chucked it. Lots of these jokers dope, of course, though perhaps I shouldn't tell you that. I say, what did that girl mean about your asking about Angelica? Is that Angelica Prentiss at all?"
"You know her?"
Frobisher shrugged. "Matter of fact, we were all but engaged at one point. Not so very long ago, either. But then she — well, found other friends, so to speak." He nodded towards the door. "That's one of them there, matter of fact. The Baron himself."
"Oh, a real one, Almanach de Gotha and all that. Baron Otto von Seidlitz."
Blake gazed at the man Frobisher indicated. He was tall, dark, dressed in perfectly cut evening clothes. But there was a look in his eye that Blake did not entirely like. Nor did Blake entirely like the look of the Baron's companions, three or four burly men who seemed ill at ease in their dress clothes.
"Real old bruisers them, guv'nor," said Tinker, confirming Blake's evaluation.
"Indeed." As Blake watched, the young woman who had spoken to him a moment before went up to the Baron, and greeted him effusively, waving an elegant hand in Blake's general direction. Blake, not wishing to be identified at this early stage if he could avoid it, quickly turned his head away. "What do you know of von Seidlitz?" he asked Frobisher.
Frobisher shrugged. "I believe he has some sort of diplomatic pull, though he isn't attached to their Embassy or anything, as far as I know. Probably related to someone who is. Anyway, he comes and goes between London and Paris, much as ordinary folk commute from Uxbridge to the City."
"Interesting," said Blake.
"If you find that type interesting." Frobisher shrugged again, and turned to find another drink.
"Does a lot of shrugging, this bloke," Tinker ventured in a hoarse whisper to Blake.
Before Blake could make some witty reply, Frobisher turned back to him. "There! If you did want to see Angelica, she's just come in. Talking to the boyfriend now," and he waved towards the door.
Blake cautiously looked where Frobisher had indicated. Angelica Prentiss was more attractive than her photograph had suggested, but there was a pallor to her skin which spoke of an unhealthy way of life. She greeted von Seidlitz, who seemed inclined to want to leave the club, for he put an arm round the girl's shoulder, and made as if to go towards the door. Perhaps understandably, as she had just arrived, Angelica Prentiss seemed disinclined to accompany him outside again, and her voice, raised in protest, had somewhat of a shrill note in it. "A lovers' tiff?" mused Blake, aloud.
Frobisher shrugged one last time, a monumental shrug that eclipsed all those that had gone before in its display of indifference — and in its spuriousness. "None of my concern," he mumbled unconvincingly. And then, "I say!" For the Baron had gripped Angelica's arm tighter, while one of his henchmen moved round and took her other arm. Together they all but pulled her to the door. "That's enough!" said Frobisher, and started across the room.
Blake and Tinker followed him. At the door, their way was blocked by the three thugs who had accompanied von Seidlitz. "Excuse me —" Blake began, but the nearest of the three flung a punch at him. Blake ducked, struck back. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Frobisher attack another of the thugs, whilst Tinker closed with the third. Blake had little time to think, for his own adversary was advancing upon him. Blake side-stepped, threw a punch at the man's jaw. The thug grunted and slumped to the ground.
Blake turned to see Frobisher dispose of the second man with some very dirty techniques; then Blake glanced at Tinker, who was getting the worst of his encounter with a man much older and heavier than himself. Tinker's opponent, however, seeing both Blake and Frobisher advancing on him, their faces set, decided that discretion was the better part of valour and left the club unceremoniously. His two companions, having recovered their wits slightly, were not far behind him.
"Are you all right, Tinker?"
"Don't worry about me, guv'nor! Get after those crooks!"
Blake shook his head. "There is little point," he said crisply. "The Baron has a head start, and those three will know better than to lead us to him." He brushed his coat, which had sustained some surface damage, then his eye lit on the young woman who had addressed him earlier and spoken to the Baron more recently. "May I ask, madam — did you by any chance mention to Baron von Seidlitz that I was here this evening?"
"Why, yes! After all, it was quite the most exciting thing — until just now, of course." The young woman stared at a graze over Blake's left eye. "But — oh! Was it something I said?"
"I see." Sexton Blake replaced the telephone receiver, turned to Tinker, and shook his head.
"No go, guv'?"
"I tried the German Embassy first thing. They denied all knowledge of the Baron, said he was not an accredited member of the staff, and so forth, although they did give me what they thought was his private address in Mayfair. I passed it on to Scotland Yard, with a request that they make some discreet enquiry. You heard me just now — the place is deserted, with a 'To Let' sign outside."
"The bird's flown, then! If it was ever in the bush to start with," said Tinker cryptically.
Blake walked to the window and stared down into Baker Street. It was the morning after the little affray at 'The Purple Pussycat,' and Blake had been busy since the early hours, as he had just told Tinker. "You sum it up admirably,” Blake told his assistant. "Neither we, nor Scotland Yard, have the least idea as to where von Seidlitz might be; and that in turn means that we have no idea as to the whereabouts of Miss Prentiss." He turned to Frobisher, who was holding his head in his hands. "And how are you feeling, Mr Frobisher?"
Frobisher, who had spent a sleepless night on Blake's settee, looked up with a palpable effort. "Better than I look, probably," he said. "Look here, Blake, I put up a pretty poor show last night, but things are a bit different now. It may be over between me and Angelica — sorry, 'Angelica and I', I mean — or do I? But that doesn't mean that I want to sit back and let that so-and-so kidnap her and what have you. What d'you say? May I throw in my lot with you?"
Blake held out his hand. "You may. Welcome aboard!" He glanced at his watch. "We can't do very much — in fact, we can't do anything — until we know just what's going on, so I suggest we have some breakfast. Frobisher? Some coffee?"
"Thanks. And I might manage eggs and bacon, if you run to it. First time I've breakfasted before noon in the last few years," added Frobisher, with a weak grin.
"Tinker, would you ring for Mrs Bardell?"
"Sounds like her on the stairs, guv'nor. No," Tinker added, "it's a man's footstep. Wonder —" and further speculation was cut short as the door was flung open without preamble, and Sir Curtis stormed into the room.
"The devil!" he began. "Do you know — oh, hullo, Frobisher!" Sir Curtis turned to Blake, raised an eyebrow.
"Mr Frobisher has been kind enough to offer to help," said Blake. "An offer I have accepted."
"But you evidently have some news of Miss Prentiss?" said Blake eagerly.
"Ah. Yes." Sir Curtis looked again at Frobisher. "Bit awkward. Look here, Frobisher, are you in on this?"
Frobisher nodded. "Anything I can do, Sir Curtis."
"Good man!" Sir Curtis waved a sheet of notepaper at Blake. "This arrived first thing — it's been treated for fingerprints and what have you, without result. You can see it for yourself, but I'll sum it up. It says there will be a small boat landing at a certain place on the south coast tonight. I'm to make sure that neither the police nor the Customs are anywhere to be seen — not if I want to see Angelica alive! I'm to put a coded message in this evening's papers if I agree."
Tinker whistled; Frobisher swore.
"May I?" Blake glanced at the note, "Hmm. And what do you propose to do, Sir Curtis?"
"Do? What the devil can I do, Blake? I can hardly use my official position to influence the local police. And even if I could, I can hardly tell Customs and Excise what to do!" He ran a hand through his already ruffled hair. "I'm at my wits end, Blake. The only solution that suggested itself to me was to resign! To resign, and make sure the papers print that fact in their evening editions. That way, this fiend will know that I have no influence to bring to bear, and he'll let Angelica go! What do you think to that?"
Blake shook his head. "I fear it won't do, Sir Curtis. Scotland Yard will appoint a successor to you — and von Seidlitz may well kill Angelica anyway, to show your successor that he means business next time!"
"You mean —”
"I mean that he may try it with someone else, and if we call his bluff and he lets your niece go —"
"Lord, yes! But then —" and Sir Curtis gave it up, and threw himself into an armchair.
"If only we knew where von Seidlitz is keeping Angelica prisoner," said Blake. "But we haven't the least notion. And this 'delivery' is to be made tonight, you say, which leaves us very little time." He sat in his armchair opposite Sir Curtis, and took out his pipe. "Frobisher, you know these people better than any of us. Have you no clue as to where von Seidlitz might go to ground?"
"I haven't, I'm afraid. As I told you, everybody knows the fellow, but nobody knows anything much about him, if you follow me." Frobisher glanced at Sir Curtis, then at Blake. "You may think me heartless," he said sheepishly, "but there was talk of eggs and bacon?"
"I had quite forgotten," said Blake. "Sir Curtis, you have the appearance of a man who left his house without bothering about breakfast — will you join us?" And when Sir Curtis nodded, Blake rang for Mrs Bardell, and ordered breakfast for four.
They sat in silence, waiting for the landlady to reappear. Once, Blake looked up, said, "If only —" and stopped. Once, Tinker started to whistle tunelessly, and thought better of it. And more than once Sir Curtis groaned aloud, then apologised with a look and a shrug.
"Ah," said Blake, starting to his feet, glad of an interruption, "that is Mrs Bardell's tread on the stairs. Tinker?"
Tinker opened the door, and Mrs Bardell did indeed stand there. But instead of handing Tinker the expected breakfast tray, Mrs Bardell sniffed disapprovingly, and announced, "A — gentleman to see Mr Blake." She stood aside, and Tinker was astounded to see Sen's henchman, Chou.
"Come in, sir," said Blake, pushing Tinker aside.
Chou entered, bowed low. "The master has sent me with a message," he told Blake.
Chou held out a slip of paper. "The one you seek may be found here," he said. "There may be some danger; the enemy is strong. The master tells you that he will be there, to lend his assistance." He bowed again, and turned to go.
"Just a moment!" said Blake. "How did you obtain this?"
Chou smiled, without humour. "The master was aware of visit to the — how do you say it? — Ah ... 'opium den', last night. He saw the one you seek; he followed." He bowed again, and made to leave. This time Blake did not try to stop him.
When Chou had gone, Blake studied the note. "East End. Interesting — Sen's own home ground, of course."
"Well, however he obtained it, it's the only lead we have," said Sir Curtis. "And a jolly good one, too, if it's genuine. And, although one cannot entirely welcome Sen's 'assistance' and a general rule, it gets me out of a hole in this instance, for I did not want to ask the Yard for help if I could avoid it! Too embarrassing, if you follow me, to have policemen barging about where my niece is involved. Yes, I think we'll agree a truce with Sen — until Angelica is rescued, that is!" He stood up. "Come along, Blake! No time for breakfast now, man!"
"I'm not so sure," said Blake. When Sir Curtis started to speak, Blake went on, "Of course we must get your niece back. But would one day make that much difference? You said, I think, that you could not order the Customs people about — but I take it they would co-operate, if you asked them, and made out a good case?"
"Of course," said Sir Curtis, frowning. "But —"
Blake smiled. "We may be able to free your niece, and smash the dope ring at the same time."
Sir Curtis sat down.
"Not my chaps," said Sir Curtis. "They're in the next street with a van, under orders to do nothing until I call them in. Must be von Seidlitz — he's made good time."
Blake shook his head, unseen in the pitch darkness. "That surely isn't him — no! It's Sen."
Blake was right. Sen seemed to materialise from the darkness at his elbow, bowing. "My assistance is required?"
"It is," said Blake, adding, rather reluctantly, "Thank you."
Sen bowed again, and then faded into the shadows. Across the street, only one lighted window showed that the high old warehouse was not quite derelict and deserted. Blake had had some difficulty persuading Sir Curtis to wait outside and not go charging in like a bull at a gate; and Frobisher, who was shuffling his feet somewhere in the deeper shadows by Blake's car, had taken even more convincing. Blake could understand their irritation at the delay, but it was essential to be patient if they wanted to take von Seidlitz and his associates.
Blake's reflections were cut short by Sen, who laid a hand on Blake's shoulder. "They are here!" hissed the Chinaman.
Blake could hear nothing for a long moment, then his ears detected the purr of an expensive motor car — no, two cars. They turned into the street, pulled up by the door of the warehouse. Blake could recognise von Seidlitz, who was followed by half a dozen men. Sen had perhaps the same number, but how many were already inside the warehouse, Blake wondered.
Von Seidlitz had left a man on watch outside the door. As Blake was debating with himself what to do about this guard, one of the shadows seemed to move and flow towards the man. Blake had only time to spot the shape of old Chou before the guard emitted a strangled gasp — quite literally — and his inert form vanished into the darkness.
"Come on! said Blake, and led the way to the door. It was unlocked, and the ground floor of the warehouse was deserted. Blake cautiously led the way up a rickety staircase, halting before a closed door. He glanced round; checking that they were all prepared, then nodded and kicked the door open.
Von Seidlitz and his men were unprepared for the attack; they had, after all, expected the guard to give the alarm in case of emergency. None the less, they were all resourceful men, and quickly recovered from their initial surprise, so that Blake had his work cut out. From the corner of his eye he saw Frobisher venting his anger on a particularly villainous looking man; then Blake had to turn his attention to the man he himself was fighting. It took time to subdue his opponent, but he did it, and when he had done it Blake looked round to see what was what.
It looked as if Blake and his men had carried the day. Sen's allies were busy tying up such of von Seidlitz's men as were still alive and conscious; while Sir Curtis and Frobisher were untying a young woman whom Blake recognised from her photograph as Miss Angelica Prentiss. Miss Prentiss was not happy about the events of the past day or so, and was making that fact clear. Blake noted with interest that Frobisher seemed to be doing an excellent job of consoling her.
"Guv'nor?" It was Tinker, gesturing towards the door. Blake looked, to see two of Sen's men bundling von Seidlitz out, much against the Baron's will. "Here!" cried Blake, then had to throw himself to one side as Sen appeared in the doorway and fired a shot from an automatic pistol.
By the time Blake had scrambled back to his feet, Sen, his henchmen and von Seidlitz had all vanished. "Come on, Tinker!" Blake raced down the stairs and out into the street with Tinker at his heels.
Blake dashed into the roadway, then had to halt abruptly, causing Tinker to crash into him, as one of von Seidlitz' cars roared past. "Come on!" said Blake again, running towards his own car.
"Guv', the other car went the other way!"
"I know," said Blake grimly, starting the engine.
"Which one do we follow?"
"This one," said Blake pointing ahead as he drove. "Sen was in this one, Chou and von Seidlitz in the other."
"But Chou's heading back into the East End again," Tinker pointed out. "Sen has obviously taken this road to lead us away from their lair — if we follow Chou, we'll find their headquarters, and get the Baron to boot."
"Ah, but if Sen escapes, he can rebuild his empire anywhere," Blake pointed out, throwing the car round a bend. "If we catch the master, the minions will be no danger."
"And will we catch him?" asked Tinker, as they raced towards the City. "It's one of them big German cars."
"I fancy the Grey Panther will be a match for it," smiled Blake. "Especially with the modifications I ordered."
Modifications or no modifications, Blake, himself a superb driver, had a hard task to keep up with Sen as the two cars raced along Commercial Road, through Aldgate and into the City, through streets thronged by day but deserted at this time of night. Only one lone, falorn reveller, complete with top hat and silver-topped cane, was there to stare, open-mouthed, as they raced past.
Down Fenchurch Street they went, through a maze of alleys to the Bank, where, with a screeching of tires, Sen turned into Cheapside, Blake now gaining on him ever so slightly.
Then, with St. Paul's in sight, disaster struck. A brewery wagon, one of the old-fashioned steam driven sort, turned out of a side road into the path of Sen's car. The brewery driver was not expecting traffic at two o'clock in the morning; much less cars driven at speeds which would not be out of place at Brands Hatch. The brewery driver did his best, but he could neither stop nor turn aside in time. Sen's car swerved, leapt across the road, crashed into a lamp standard, and, as Blake himself swerved to avoid danger, Sen's car burst into flames.
Blake screeched to a halt and leaped out, minded to assist Sen if he could — no matter how great a villain the man was, he deserved better than this! But the flames were too much, even for Blake, and he turned away, sick with horror.
"'London Pride'," said Tinker, gesturing at the brewery van. "What they call 'poetic justice', as you might say."
"Charred beyond positive recognition," said Sir Curtis, shaking his head and grimacing involuntarily at the thought of what he had seen earlier that day. "But the clothing fragments and so forth were what one would expect — and in any event, you'll agree that there can be no doubt that it was Sen. Poor devil didn't have time to get out, from what you told me."
"Hmm," said Blake. He laughed. "Well, I expect you are right, Sir Curtis. After all, even Sen could hardly have forecast what would happen. The cleverest of men could not make plans for every contingency! Yes," he went on, lighting his pipe, "we have not done so badly. Your niece is safe and well, Sen is dead, and the cocaine importing ring smashed."
Sir Curtis nodded with a pardonable complacency. They had recovered a large quantity of the drug, two of von Seidlitz's men were dead and the rest in custody — and one of them had been persuaded to talk to the police about the Continental end of the operation. "No, not too bad a night's work," Sir Curtis agreed.
"And von Seidlitz himself?" Tinker wanted to know.
Blake grimaced. "Dead — or worse. You know, one could almost feel sorry for that poor devil." He shook himself. "Still, better this way than that he should continue with his poisonous trade. I for one don't feel inclined to put myself out to rescue him! Whisky, Sir Curtis?"
The room was tiny and dark; the atmosphere damp and fetid. Baron Otto von Seidlitz, his arms and legs tightly bound, lay on the slimy floor, cursing softly in German. He fell silent as Chou, a tiny knife in one hand, advanced towards him. "The master is dead," said Chou. "Would that the devil Blake were in his place, or in my hands here! But at least I can partially avenge —"
"Stop, old friend!"
Chou started at the voice from the shadows. He turned, and bowed. "Master? Is it you? They told me you were dead, and —"
"There will be time enough, I promise you, for vengeance, time to combine business with pleasure. But for now, we must suffer our reverses with dignity, reconsider our position." The speaker moved from the shadow, and addressed von Seidlitz. "Although I cannot admire you as a man, I have some small regard for your business acumen. My servant will untie you and make you presentable, and then we shall talk. I am going to make you what our esteemed colleagues in Chicago would call 'an offer you cannot refuse' ..."