THE SÉANCE AT STILLWATER MANSION
by Mark Hodder (2006)
Things That Go Bump in the Night
Thunder grumbled in the distance like a restless god. But though deities might be agitated, the dead were staying put. It was just past midnight and the heat was stifling — best to stay in the cool earth; resolutely silent and immobile.
The séance had been an unqualified failure.
One of the four participants in the big library at Stillwater Mansion rose from the table and opened the windows overlooking St. James Park. He stepped out onto the balcony and tugged at his collar. His skin prickled in the humid air.
At the table, Sir Roderick Stillwater shrugged his narrow shoulders.
"Well, so much for that," he said, with a rueful grin. "I said it was nonsense, didn’t I?"
Sir Roderick was one of those strange individuals whose air of authority far outweighed his physical appearance. He was a small man, thin and sharp-faced with a gleaming bald head. Yet, somehow, he commanded respect and was a great success in government circles. This was in sharp contrast to the man sitting on his left, Barnaby Crisp, who was tall, fat and florid with a shocking mop of marmalade-coloured hair. He fidgeting incessantly and habitually cleared his throat before every utterance.
The gentleman on the baronet's right found Crisp immensley irritating. He was also large, though in a lean and athletic fashion. His name was Frank Slaytor, a rather swarthy and hatchet-faced individual, and the instigator of their attempt to summon a visitor from beyond.
The fourth man, who now turned from the balcony and re-entered the room with a large cigar glowing in his mouth, was Captain Hibbard. Every inch a military man, he was immaculately attired, with close cropped hair and a neat moustache. But he was not a handsome fellow— his mouth had a cruel twist and his eyes were too deep-set and too black. He had left the Army and was now a gentleman of leisure. Or to put it more plainly, a habitual gambler. Sir Roderick didn't know him well, having been introduced to him that night by Slaytor.
"It’s like a steam bath tonight!" muttered Hibbard. "Reminds me of Calcutta."
Sir Roderick took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead.
"I won’t sleep tonight. Why don’t we play a rubber of bridge before we turn in? I'll call down Mainwaring; he’s sure to join us now the spook show has ended. Really, Slaytor, I don't know why you dabble in such things! There wasn't a single trace of ectoplasm!"
"I'd hardly qualify it as 'dabbling', old boy," objected Slaytor. "Besides, you asked for a demonstration. I can't help it if conditions aren't condusive!"
"Balderdash!" exclaimed Sir Roderick. "I did no such thing! It was Crisp here who insisted that you display your mystic powers!"
"Not that they amounted to much," interjected Captain Hibbard. "I say chaps, Sir Roderick is right, we'll none of us sleep tonight. Let's get Mainwaring down and the jolly old cards out. What's he doing up there, anyway?"
"Reading, I suspect," muttered Sir Roderick. "The man has become an absolute bookworm. Why, he's burrowed his way through half this library these past couple of days. Unnatural, I call it — his nose between book covers like a horse wearing blinkers! I could almost believe he's trying to hide. It's about time he—"
He broke off in mid-sentence as a loud thump sounded from the room above.
"Ahem... what was that?" inquired the fat man, Crisp.
"Evidence of heavy reading, I should say," quipped Hibbard. "You don't think Mainwaring’s taken a tumble, do you?" he added, seeing the startled expression on Sir Roderick's face. "That's his room, isn't it?"
"Yes," nodded the baronet, rising abruptly. "I didn’t like the sound of that. We should take a look. Maybe he’s been taken ill."
He hurried across to the door. The others looked uneasily at one another and followed him out into the hall, up the broad staircase, and to the door of the room above. Sir Roderick rapped upon it.
"Hello! Mainwaring! Are you alright in there?"
There was no reply.
"Mainwaring! Hello? Answer me, man!"
He pushed at the door and found it to be locked.
"Ahem... that's rather strange, don’t you think!" muttered Crisp, shooting an odd look at the others.
"I don't like this at all!" said Sir Roderick. "Mainwaring! Mainwaring! Why doesn't he answer? Do you think we should break the door down?"
"Maybe he's not in there at all. He could have left the room and locked it behind him," observed Hibbard. "No need to go ruining a perfectly good door."
But Sir Roderick, who was deeply unsettled, couldn't rest until he found out what was on the other side. So he called for a footman to bring tools and before many minutes had passed the servant had splintered the lock and the door swung open. In the center of the room lay the crumpled figure of Edward Mainwaring.
"Great heavens!" exclaimed Crisp and pushed past the others, who stood rooted to the spot. The fat man rushed to the collapsed Mainwaring and knelt at his side. Suddenly he let loose a frightened cry, which brought the rest of them running into the room.
"A dagger!" said Crisp with a quavering voice. "A dagger has been driven straight into his heart! The beggar’s killed himself!"
Captain Hibbard shook his head. "Impossible! Look at him. He’s on his back with his arms folded beneath him. How could he fall like that if he’d stabbed himself?"
"But the door was locked!" cried Crisp. "And look, so is the window! Anyway, no one could get out that way, it's too high!"
"I say!" exclaimed Frank Slaytor. "Do you think the man who did this is still in the room?"
They all looked around nervously but quickly realized that there was simply nowhere a man could hide apart from beneath the bed or in the wardrobe and there was no one in either place.
"But... but... this doesn’t... " stammered Sir Roderick Stillwater. Like his companions, he couldn’t make sense of it. Mainwaring had been killed just minutes before. They had all heard the thump of his falling body. But the door had been locked on the inside, escape from the window was impossible, and the room was empty!
It was baffling! They stood helpless, breathing heavily with the shock of it.
It was Crisp who eventually broke the silence:
"Oh dear Lord!" he quavered, "We did it! We summoned a spirit after all!"
His voice rose to a terrified screech.
"Mainwaring has been killed by a ghost!"
Sexton Blake Solves It
Tinker, the youthful assistant to Sexton Blake, the great detective, whistled to himself cheerily as he slipped into his striped pyjamas. He was glad to get to bed. He felt deliciously tired.
It had been a busy day. He and Blake had driven the Grey Panther down to Portsmouth and back, had trudged through half the East End of London, and, in a grimy alley in the Limehouse district, had engaged in a fierce fist fight with a vicious gang of Chinamen — four stray members of the Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle, an insidious organisation led by an evil mastermind named Wu Ling... and an organisation which, recently, the great detective had driven out of the country, hopefully for good.
Leaving the Orientals tightly bound and guarded by two police constables, Sexton Blake and his assistant had gone to Scotland Yard to give Detective-Inspector Lennard details of the opium smuggling operation the men had been running. They had then returned to their Baker Street home with a sense of a job well done and weary to their bones.
"Now for some serious snoring," Tinker told himself. He lifted the corner of his bed sheets, freshly laundered that morning by the inestimable Mrs Bardell. Nothing smells as good as fresh sheets to a tired boy — and to the boy who is about to slide between them, nothing is more irritating than a knock at his bedroom door. But the knock came and Tinker turned to find Sexton Blake framed in the doorway.
"Awfully sorry, young ’un," said the detective. "Something’s come up! Into your clobber again!"
Tinker groaned. "My hat! Talk about a full day's work! I'll be ready in half a tick, guv'nor. What's the game?"
"Bit of a mystery at Stillwater Manor," said Blake quietly. He took a pipe from his jacket pocket and started to pack tobacco into it, careless of the strands that fell onto Tinker’s bedroom floor. "They've just telephoned. It’s one of those ‘man killed in locked room’ affairs. You know the sort of thing; the murderer spiriting himself into thin air leaving no clue as to how he committed the crime."
"Ha! No clue anyone can find but you that is!" exclaimed Tinker. "Are you sure you need me?"
"Prefer it if you came along, old son. The more you see the more you learn, you know."
Tinker, snapping on his braces, glanced up and said, "I bet you there’s a secret panel!"
"My first thought too. I asked Sir Roderick over the 'phone whether there was any possibility but he seems pretty certain that there's not. Still, we shall see."
A few minutes later they were back in the Grey Panther and speeding through the humid night towards Stillwater Manor. Upon their arrival, Sir Roderick's footman, still pale, ushered them into the spacious hall where they were greeted by the baronet.
"It's awful... awful! That this should happen in my own home! Poor Mainwaring!" he moaned.
"Has anything been stolen?" inquired Sexton Blake, as he hurried up the stairs with Tinker and Sir Roderick to the room of the mysterious murder.
"Not a thing! Not a single thing! That's what's so completely baffling, Mr. Blake. Why kill poor Mainwaring? What possible motive could there be?"
The baronet went on to describe the evening's tragic events and, when he had finished, Blake began an inch-by-inch examination of the room where Mainwaring's body lay. It was while he was thus engaged that Detective-Inspector Coutts of the C.I.D. arrived.
He was a solid, thick-set man with a bristling moustache and quick, observant eyes which darted hither and thither from beneath the brim of his tightly-worn bowler hat, taking in the scene in a matter of seconds. He shook hands warmly with Blake, for they had become fast friends these past few years and had worked on many a case together. Though he couldn't match Blake's genius, Coutts was a dogged and determined investigator who would never give up when on the trail of a crook. He possessed many admirable qualities and was one of the bravest men the Baker Street detective had ever met; definitely worth having at one's side in a tight corner!
Inspector Coutts, for his part, was Sexton Blake’s staunchest supporter and had worked tirelessly to have the detective accepted as a valuable ally by the officials at Scotland Yard. Years ago, his predecessor, Inspector Will Spearing, now retired, had tried the same and only managed to ruffle feathers. But Coutts was a far less abrasive personality than Spearing. He was admired and sometimes even envied by his colleagues. His many successful cases, together with his hearty good cheer and bluff honesty, had smoothed the way for Blake, who was now regarded with great respect by most men at the Yard.
Coutts nodded a greeting to Tinker then turned to Sir Roderick. "So you’ve employed extra help," he observed. "It’s alright, I'm not complaining. Mr. Blake and I are old colleagues. Now, sir, perhaps you would tell me exactly what has happened here?"
Meanwhile, Sexton Blake was rapping his knuckles against the panelling on the walls, searching for a secret opening, in case Sir Roderick was mistaken and one did actually exist.
Before long, Coutts joined him and soon the whole room had been checked with no results. They were both convinced that nothing of the kind was present, either in the walls, floor or ceiling.
"The room's secure," grumbled Coutts. "If it weren't so obvious from Mainwaring’s position on the floor that the blow was not self-inflicted, I should say that suicide was the only possible solution. As it is, we must find some other answer."
"Indeed," agreed Sexton Blake. "Well, I've finished up here. How about you? Shall we go down and question the servants?"
Sir Roderick quickly interjected: "But, I say! Really! All my staff are absolutely trustworthy. They've been with me for years. There's not a new servant in the house."
"Nevertheless, I should like to see them, please," murmured Blake politely.
Coutts was more brusque:
"Heard that tale before," he snapped. "Trusted servants are often the worst. That's my experience. The more you trust, the bigger their chances."
Tinker quietly observed as the various men and women who worked for the baronet were brought before the investigators and questioned. As far as he could tell, their answers cast no light on the mysterious murder.
Afterwards, the detectives and Sir Roderick went into the library, where Frank Slaytor, Barnaby Crisp, and Captain Hibbard were smoking, sipping at brandy, and talking in tense, low tones.
Hibbard looked up. "Who did it?" he demanded, almost aggressively. "Did he escape through some secret trapdoor?"
"I can assure you that there is no trapdoor or panel of any kind in that room," growled Coutts irritably.
"Nonsense. There must be," countered Hibbard. "There's no other possible solution."
"Ahem... ahem... except one," offered Crisp, nervously. "The door was locked. The window was locked. So what’s left? Ahem... only that whoever — or whatever — killed Mainwaring... wasn’t a man!"
"Oh don't start that nonsense again!" groaned Slaytor. "Really, you can’t seriously expect us to believe that a ghost stabbed Mainwaring!"
"A ghost? What's this? What are you babbling about?" demanded Coutts.
"We held a little séance earlier on, Inspector. But what with Mainwaring objecting to it and hiding away in his room, the abominable heat, and my colleagues' terrible lack of concentration, it was rather less impressive than I had hoped."
"It was a confounded waste of time," interjected Hibbard.
"But the imaginative Mr. Crisp, here," continued Slaytor, "has decided that maybe we were more successful than we thought. He's of the opinion that we raised an evil spirit which stabbed Edward Mainwaring through the heart!"
"Hogwash!" snorted Detective-Inspector Coutts. "Absolute drivel!"
Blake tapped Tinker on the shoulder.
"Come along, young 'un! We're off. Good-night, gentlemen!"
They all stared after him as he left the room with Tinker in tow, as if surprised at his abrupt departure. Sir Roderick hurried out and caught up with them on the porch.
"This is a frightful business, Mr. Blake," he said. "Mainwaring was a very old friend of mine. I can hardly believe it even now. Please don’t tell me you’ve given up the case as hopeless?"
Blake stopped in his tracks, as if taken aback.
"Given it up?" he echoed. "Hopeless? My dear sir," and he gripped the baronet's arm suddenly, "That is absolutely not the case! I know perfectly well who killed your friend. I am going off now to prepare a trap to catch him!"
A startled gasp had broken from Sir Roderick at the words. Even Tinker had uttered a small cry of astonishment. Blake motioned them to silence.
"Quiet now! Say nothing. He mustn’t find out he’s discovered. We have to furnish the proof to capture this fiendish villain!"
Blake and Tinker left Stillwater Manor and headed back to Baker Street. All the way there, Tinker wondered what his master had seen or heard that solved the seemingly impossible murder.
He could think of nothing.
Sexton Blake Explains
From his chair beside the crackling fire, Sexton Blake glanced down at Tinker. His assistant was sitting on the floor, idly fondling the right ear of their big bloodhound, Pedro. A line of intense thought creased the youngster's forehead. Pedro heaved a deep sigh and gave the rug a couple of thumps with his tail.
"Well, young 'un, when one looks deeper, the whole thing is as clear as daylight. What do you make of it?"
"Clear as daylight, guv'nor? Clear as a pea-souper, more like!"
"You’ve no ideas to offer?"
"Well, you and old Couttsy tapped every square inch of that bally room and say there's no secret panel, so I suppose there isn't. But as I see it, there has to be!"
"As Captain Hibbard tried to persuade us," murmured Blake.
"But you said there in the hall that you know who did it!" exclaimed Tinker in sheer bewilderment. "It beats me, guv'nor! Who was it then? One of the servants?"
"No, not one of the servants."
"And not a ghost?"
"Most definitely not!"
"And no one broke into the house, stabbed Mainwaring, then fled?"
"Through a locked door? No, my boy, there was no intruder."
"So..." Tinker drew a startled breath. "It was one of those four, guv'nor! Slaytor, Hibbard, Crisp or Stillwater? Even though they were sitting in the room below when it happened!"
Tinker leaped to his feet, causing Pedro to let loose a surprised yelp which the giant dog immediately looked embarrassed about.
"Which?" Tinker demanded.
Blake knocked the ash out of his pipe into the hearth.
"Come on, old son — stretch the grey matter! You heard the details of what happened, just as I did. You saw the men themselves. It is just as easy for you to answer this riddle as it was for me; all the material is at hand for providing the solution."
"I never spotted a single clue," admitted Tinker dolefully.
"There's no question of a clue this time, if you're thinking of fingerprints, or cigar ash, or a fragment of torn clothing, or that kind of thing," explained the detective. "It's simply a matter of reasoning."
Blake slipped his pipe into the pocket of his tatty red dressing gown, leaned back in his chair and, with his elbows on its arms, steepled his fingers together.
"Consider this — Five men gather for a social evening in the library at Stillwater Manor. The suggestion is raised that they hold a séance. One man, Mainwaring, objects and retreats upstairs to lock himself in his bedroom, which happens to be directly above the library. The séance goes ahead but appears to be a complete failure; no tables are rapped, no apparitions materialise, no phantom voices whisper from the shadows. But soon after it ends, a loud thump is heard overhead; the sound of a falling body. Sir Roderick senses that something is wrong and they rush upstairs. They find the door locked. Captain Hibbard thinks it rather ridiculous to knock it down but, with assistance from a footman, they break in anyway. Edward Mainwaring is on the floor. Crisp rushes in while the others hesitate in the doorway and announces that a dagger has been thrust into Mainwaring’s heart. They look around and realise that there was no way the murderer could have left the room and he his certainly not hiding within it. Sir Roderick then telephones Scotland Yard and myself.
"That, Tinker, in a nutshell, is what happened at Stillwater Manor tonight. The solution to the problem is staring you in the face!"
Tinker rubbed his unruly mop of blonde hair. He shrugged.
"It’s no good, sir. I can’t make head nor tail of it! I guess I'm a bit slow!"
"Oh, I don’t know about that. I suspect old Coutts is having the same problem, and he can be quite an astute fellow at times. Well then, let me explain."
Barely two minutes had passed since the detective had put out his pipe but he now pulled it from his pocket and forced his young assistant to endure an infuriating silence while he went through the ritual of refilling and lighting it. Tinker was virtually hopping up and down by the time his master puffed out a dense cloud of smoke and, after watching it curl towards the ceiling, finally spoke again:
"An ugly business, Tinker. A very ugly business indeed. Our murderer is clever, in a fiendish way. The man who killed Mainwaring must have planned it all very carefully. The man, incidentally, is, of course, that fat fellow, Crisp.
"This is how he did it. As a fellow guest staying in the house, he had little difficulty in slipping something into Mainwaring’s drink. A few moments later, he suggested to Slaytor, who is an enthusiast for such things, that they should hold a séance. He did this knowing full well that Mainwaring would disapprove and refuse to participate. Sure enough, his intended victim left them to it and retreated to his room, locking the door behind him. Possibly spiritualism is a subject that frightened him and he felt safer with the door secured. A little while later, the drug Crisp had dropped into his drink took affect and he collapsed. The thump of his fall is heard in the room below.
"So upstairs they race. They break through the door and find the poor fellow lying in a heap, unconscious. Unconscious, mind you! — Not dead!
"Now for the planned moment. Taking advantage of the others’ momentary shock, Crisp pushes past them and kneels beside the stricken man. With his fat back covering his actions, he slips the knife out of his jacket’s inner pocket and pushes it into Mainwaring’s heart while all the time appearing to be examining him. It's cold-blooded murder and it takes but an instant. By the time the others gather around the body, the foul deed is done."
Tinker drew a shuddering breath. His face had gone a little white.
"Crikey! I should never have worked that out! What a monstrous..."
"Indeed. Crisp is a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. And since there are no secret exits in the room, there is no possible alternative. He is a murderer."
"And his motive?" asked Tinker.
"Ah, there’s the rub. That’s what we need to find out. And we shall, my boy. We shall!"
He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece.
"Half past one. Time you indulged in that long-delayed kip. Off you go, Tinker. I shall sit here a while and weave a web to catch our fly."
One in the Eye for Tinker
"Final ‘dition! Final ‘dition!"
The grubby figure of a newsboy hurried through the dusk of Hamilton Gardens in St. John’s Wood. He carried a bundle of newspapers beneath his arm. A couple of cats were screeching like untuned violins behind the railings which surrounded the patch of shrubs and trees facing the row of tall houses. The newsboy paused to watch them scrap. Perhaps he hadn’t been in such a hurry after all.
"You there, boy!"
The youngster turned and saw a man, dressed in the clothes of a footman, beckoning from the door of No. 14. The lad crossed the road and thrust out a copy of the final edition.
"Paper, mister?" he asked eagerly.
The servant nodded and took the paper, placing a penny in the boy’s dirty palm.
"Thanks!" mumbled the newsboy, and moved on. He walked to the end of the road and around the corner. There he stopped, opened his palm and took out a twisted scrap of paper which had been surreptitiously passed to him by the footman. He read it with an enthusiastic gleam in his eyes.
"Bring Coutts, two plain-clothes men and Pedro. Tonight, 4a.m. Meet me at the north corner of the road."
"Right-ho!" muttered Tinker. "Gosh, but who'd have recognised Sexton Blake in that manservant get up? I didn’t even spot him myself ‘neath that blessed wig. And I ought to have, seeing as I did the newsboy stunt at his direction."
He thrust the note into his pocket and hurried off to telephone Detective-Inspector Coutts. He'd taken only a few steps when a weight slammed into his back, bowling him over.
"Gotcha! Yer rotter!" shouted a squeaky voice, and fists pounded into the back of Tinker's head.
"Cor!" he cried, "What's the game?" and struggling to sit up beneath the battering he found himself holding a ragged young urchin at arm's length. Small fists whirled in front of him, just inches from his face.
"Let go o' me, yer rotter!" yelled the little boy, "I bin waitin' fer you! I'm gonna smash yer!"
"What's all this?" demanded Tinker.
"You stole me patch, yer big bully!" wailed his assailant and kicked his shin.
"Ouch! Stop it! What do you mean? I didn't steal anything!"
"Yer did too! This is me own patch! Not yours nor no one's! I ain't sold a single noospaper an' it's your fault! Get out of it! Go on, 'oppit or I'll smash yer!" And with a sudden twist, the boy wriggled out of Tinker's grasp and threw his small body behind one enormous punch which landed square on Tinker's left eye.
"Yarrooh!" yelled Sexton Blake's assistant and rolled over backwards, bumping his head on the pavement.
"That'll learn ya!" shouted the urchin, and delivered another kick to Tinker's shin. "Yer bully!"
"Ow! Ow! Leave off you little blighter!"
The lad from Baker Street had, in his long association with the great detective, fought with some of the most fiendish villains ever faced by the forces of law and order but, beneath the onslaught of the little boy's flailing fists and savage kicks, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour and, jumping to his feet, he took to his heels.
"Keep your rotten patch!" he shouted over his shoulder.
"Yeah, go on, scarper an' don't come back!" yelled the triumphant urchin. "Yer rotter!"
The Grip of the Mantis
"Three police hofficers what wants to insult you in Mr. Blake’s abstinence, Master Tinker," proclaimed Mrs. Bardell, as she opened the door of Sexton Blake's consulting room, where Tinker was seated.
Tinker, who had-been dozing by the fire, rubbed his eyes and let out a yelp as the left one smarted under the punishment. Holding one hand over the swelling, he took a moment to interpret his housekeeper’s mangled English. Mrs. Bardell was a good sort and a wizard cook but she had a very strange way of confusing her words.
"It’s that there defective Coutts and a couple o’ great clod 'oppers what’ll muss up me carpits when they comes a clumpin’ hup the stairs!" she added.
"Never mind the bally carpets! Bring them in, please, Mrs Bardell!" Tinker cried eagerly.
The old lady huffed and, placing her hands on her ample hips, announced, "Respite your unrespeckful langwidge and your hippopompous friends, young man, I'll be in the kitchen cuttin' a slice o' beefsteak for that there eye o' yours. So there!" With which she turned and stomped down the stairs.
Tinker smiled as, halfway down, he heard her screech, "Pick up yer feets yer big clod 'oppers! Mind me carpits!" And thumping up the stairs and into the consulting room came Detective-Inspector Coutts, followed by two enormous plain-clothes men.
"Nice shiner, laddie!" observed the Yard man, "Forget to duck?"
Tinker laughed. "Nope. I was thinking of you, Couttsy, and I walked into a door!" He attempted a wink but it turned into a squint then a grimace. "Ouch!"
"Serves you right! now then, I got your message," said Coutts, and he slammed his bowler hat onto a table. "This is splendid! Tonight's the night, eh? Blake promised to give me proof of Crisp's guilt one night this week, and to deliver the bounder into my hands. But what I want to know is this: how the devil has he managed to work it?"
Tinker liked it when Coutts was in high spirits.
"Take the weight off," he grinned, and the three men seated themselves. "It's like this, Couttsy old chap..."
The Yard man frowned at this over-familiarity and his two companions tried to hide their smirks.
"The guv'nor, having deduced that Mr. Crisp is our man, disguised himself and managed to get a job as footman in his house. He's been there a fortnight now, finding out things."
"A footman!" cried Coutts. "By Jove, how’d he manage that?"
"He had a word with Crisp’s man, a chap by name of Harry Postlethwaite, and discovered that he was a respectable sort. So he risked telling him that his employer was being investigated for murder. With the encouragement of a few quid, Postlethwaite was happy to make himself scarce. The guv’nor then turned up pretending to be his brother, Thomas. He told Crisp that Harry had had a funny turn and he offered his services as a replacement while his brother recovered. Simple as that!" said Tinker cheerfully.
"Great heavens!" grunted Coutts enviously. "That was smart work! So what’s he found? Anything interesting?"
"I should say so!" exclaimed Tinker. "Ever heard of the Preying Mantis?"
"Yes. He’s the most merciless blackmailer I’ve ever encountered! He’s brought scores of men to their knees. But we’ve never been able to track him down... a blackmailer is the hardest criminal of all to get. His victims are tight-lipped, of course. Daren't talk for fear of exposing their own indescretions."
"Well Crisp is the Mantis," said Tinker calmly, enjoying Coutts’s startled expression.
"What!" Coutts leaped up. "Is that a fact?"
He paced the room, picked up his bowler, jammed it onto his head, then whipped it off again and threw it at a chair. It missed and bounced perilously close to the crackling fire. Then he turned to his companions with shining eyes.
"By Jove lads, but this will be a big thing for the Yard! Finally, running the Mantis to earth!"
"I should have thought it would have been a big thing for Mr. Blake," murmured Tinker to himself. But he did not voice the thought. On many an occasion Sexton Blake had been content to let Scotland Yard take the credit for his own good work.
"Yes," Tinker went on, "And the guv'nor has discovered his motive for killing Mainwaring. Crisp has been blackmailing him these past few weeks but Mainwaring was getting rather too jumpy. It looked like he might blab to the police. So the Mantis decided that it’d be safer to get him out of the way."
"How’d you know all this?" demanded Coutts. "Has Blake been back here?"
"Not likely!" exclaimed Tinker. "He's living his footman role down to the last button. He won't risk coming home. But I've been doing the rounds as a newsboy. I sell a paper to him every night and he slips me a note.
"It was all serene," he added ruefully, "until the real newsboy turned up!"
He looked at the clock. "What about getting a move on?"
"Right!" exclaimed Coutts.
Tinker opened the door to the landing and whistled.
"Pedro! Up here boy!"
There came a crash from below and a shriek from Mrs. Bardell in her kitchen.
"Compounded hound! That was me best carasol dish!"
Great feet padded up the stairs and the giant bloodhound bounded into the room with a slice of raw steak hanging from one side of his mouth.
"Good old Pedro!" laughed the youngster, patting the shaggy head. "We've a job of work on to-night. Then I suspect we’ll have to go shopping for kitchenware, you clumsy brute!"
The Tunnel of Terror
They reached Hamilton Gardens with five minutes to spare but already Sexton Blake was waiting for them. His tall, spare figure loomed out of the dark. He was now in his usual attire.
"All here?" he said incisively. "Good show! Hello Pedro! Good lord, Tinker! What's happened to your eye?"
"Nothing much," mumbled his assistant.
Blake turned to his friend from Scotland Yard.
"Coutts, old chap, I warn you, this won’t be easy. The Mantis shelters in a deadly nest!"
"What do you mean?" asked Coutts.
Blake laughed grimly.
"He’s blackmailed so many men that he’s in constant fear for his life. The building’s full of booby-traps designed to prevent any of them getting to him. You’ll see. Come on, we can slip in unnoticed. There are no servants present at this time of night, unless you count the footman, and that's me!"
Noiselessly, the little group moved along the pavement. Tinker held Pedro tightly by the collar. They arrived at No. 14 and Blake led the way up the steps. A key scraped in the lock and the door was quietly opened. One by one the five of them and the dog passed inside. Blake closed the door. The beam of his electric torch cut through the gloom.
"Now," he whispered, "follow me and tread carefully. I know some of the traps, but by no means all."
Along the dark hall they crept, Blake at their head. They passed through a door, through a short passage, and to another door which opened onto a flight of steps. They silently descended until they found themselves in a spacious cellar. Blake shone the torch into a corner, revealing a wrought iron spiral staircase which twisted into a hole in the hard floor.
"This is where it gets dangerous," advised Blake, leading the way down. Before they reached the base, he halted.
"Don't tread on the fourth step from the bottom," he said quietly. "See the rubber blocks separating the step from the frame? If I hadn't spotted them the first time I came down, I'd have never come up again. It's electrified. To touch it means instant death! Let’s carry Pedro across."
They obeyed his instructions. Tinker felt his heart hammering in his chest. He suddenly realised just how dangerous this house was. The lair of the Mantis would not be easily penetrated!
It took three of them to manhandle Pedro in the narrow space. The bloodhound was used to this kind of treatment and, though he disliked it, he was too well trained to utter a sound.
They proceeded along the narrow passage beyond the stairs. It had been dug through hard clay and shored up with timber. But a few yards along it suddenly made a sharp turn to the left and Tinker saw that the walls were now of closely-fitted bricks which curved overhead in a low arch.
"This looks like a sewer tunnel!" he whispered.
"It is," confirmed Blake. "At some point in the past it was abandoned and became cut off from the main system. Crisp had the tunnel we just passed through dug to join up with it. I've been some way along. Wherever it leads, that's where the Mantis spends his nights. He lives in mortal fear of being killed in his sleep. He—"
Blake suddenly stopped dead. "Wait! Ah yes, here we are. Look at these joins in the floor!"
One of the plain clothes men leaned forward, until Blake pushed him back, hissing, "Be careful, you fool! Do you want to die? Look!"
And putting all his weight on his right leg, the Baker Street detective reached forward with his left and pressed his toe against the floor just beyond the join. Beneath his foot, the floor suddenly disappeared, swinging open to reveal a yawning pit.
"Gad!" exclaimed Inspector Coutts. "A trap!"
"And a lethal one," added Blake, pointing his torch into the hole. The group peered down and saw, some twenty feet below, a number of closely-set, needle-sharp spikes pointing upwards.
"That, gentlemen," whispered Sexton Blake, "is a demonstration of how twisted the mind of our opponent is. So tread carefully!"
The outer edges of the pit were set about eighteen inches in from the walls of the sewer tunnel, giving the group a very narrow space upon which to edge past the fiendish drop. Tinker breathed a sigh of relief when they had all made it to the other side. But his throat tightened when he heard Blake's next words:
"This is as far as I've been. Beyond this point, it's uncharted territory, so keep your eyes peeled."
For the next few minutes, they stole through the darkness with their hearts in their mouths, until, once again, their leader stopped and held up a silencing hand.
A faint sound had come out of the darkness — a soft, sibilant scuttling. Tinker felt the hair on Pedro’s neck rise up. He was certain that his was doing the same. Blake pointed the torch’s beam ahead. The floor lowered by two steps and, beyond them, the passage carried on. They could see nothing in it, and so moved cautiously forward.
The detective suddenly uttered a low exclamation of surprise:
"Great Scott, look!"
The floor of the passage in front of them seemed to writhe as dark, glistening shapes ran across it.
"Scorpions!" jerked Blake. "For pity’s sake don’t go near them. Their sting will kill you in seconds!"
He flashed the torchlight back and forth.
"I've counted twelve. They're big, aren't they? Coutts, hand me your bowler."
"My bowler? What do you—?"
"Quickly man!" snapped Blake. "Your hat!"
Detective-Inspector Coutts removed his headwear and passed it over to the detective. Blake turned it and held it by the brim, so that the crown was pointing downwards. With the torch in one hand and the hat in the other, he crouched down and slowly eased ahead.
"Stay back!" he rasped. "I'll deal with this!"
On he crept, towards the deadly creatures.
Crack! He suddenly slammed the bowler down, crushing a scorpion with its hard crown. Crack! Crack! Crack! To his right, to his left, and with a sudden twist behind him, he slapped the hat against the floor over and over.
Tinker counted. Six... seven... eight... nine... ten.
But where were the last two?
His guv’nor swept the torch around. There on the wall beside him! Crack!
One to go. Blake turned on the spot sweeping the light across the floor and walls. Where was it?
Suddenly Tinker caught a shadowy movement.
"Guv’nor!" he hissed. "on your left trouser leg! Look out!"
The detective leaped backwards, swatting down at his leg, then — crack! — the last remaining scorpion was flattened into a gory mess.
Coutts and his two men let their breaths out all at once. It felt like many minutes since they'd breathed.
"By thunder, that was plucky work!" muttered the Yard man as the detective returned to them.
"Thanks, old chap!" said Blake, holding out the battered bowler, "That was just the job!"
Coutts gingerly accepted it and looked distastefully down at the stained crown. He shuddered, thankful that in the gloom he could not see in too much detail the remains clinging to the black felt.
"Actually, I think I’ll just leave this here. Time I bought a new one, anyway!" he mumbled, and lay the hat on the floor.
"Come on!" said Blake tersely. "Let's keep moving."
"By heavens, this is a chamber of horrors!" whispered one of the plain cothes men, who, for all his training and courage, felt jumpy and unsettled.
They ascended a short flight of steps out of the lowered part of the passage in which the scorpions had scuttled. In front of them, the tunnel continued, dark and narrow and threatening. They hadn't gone far before Blake stopped again.
"What now?" hissed Coutts.
"I don't like the look of that," came the response, and Blake pointed to a square plate of metal set in the floor ahead.
"Some further devilment, I'll warrant!" growled Coutts fiercely. "Tread on it, and I dare say a barrel of snakes will be emptied over your head!"
"We could step over it," suggested Tinker, but Blake shook his head.
"We won't proceed until we’ve discovered what this trap is," he answered. "Stand clear! I'm going to set it off!"
He reached down and rolled the torch forward across the floor. It came to rest on the plate and there came a soft click. Two gleaming blades whipped out from slots in either wall and sliced across the passage at neck height above the metal square. They came to rest, quivering before the group, razor sharp and deadly.
Blake bent and retrieved the torch. Then, crouching, he slipped under the glittering blades and edged around the plate to the other side. His companions followed.
Behind them, with a whirr, the blades slid back into the walls.
"Worked by a spring mechanism, of course," muttered Coutts. "I don't mind admitting that I'm scared half to death!"
But his face belied his words. It was set hard, with a determined light shining in his eyes. There was no trace of fear.
One of the other Yard men, however, was badly shaken.
"My nerve's gone! I... I can’t..." he stammered.
"Cut that out, man!" snapped Coutts fiercely. "Pull yourself together! It’s not you running the risk; it’s Blake, there in front!" He pushed forward until he was beside the great detective.
"I say Blake. Let me lead the way now. You’ve done your share."
Blake smiled in the gloom.
"Thank you, my friend. But leave it to me, there’s a good chap."
They crept on, step by step, groping their way through that tunnel of terror until the torchlight eventually revealed a door not so far ahead. Without wasting time they stole towards it. It was locked, but Blake produced a small tool from his pocket and noiselessly manipulated it in the keyhole until a faint click marked his success. He turned the handle and pushed the door open. They passed through into the room beyond. The detective's questing hand felt over the wall, and found an electric light switch which he snapped on, flooding the room with light. It was furnished as a study, but with no fireplace and no window; just a ventilation shaft at one corner of the ceiling. Across the room was a second door.
"Coutts, old man, look at this!" breathed Sexton Blake.
Detective-Inspector Coutts moved over to a desk where Blake was standing examining a large leather-bound book. He looked down at the pages and muttered, "Looks like a ledger of some sort!"
"Precisely. This, my friend," replied Blake, "is a record of every person our fat criminal has blackmailed; every payment he's received and every date those payments were made!"
"By golly! That's just the evidence we need!"
"Indeed. And now for the man himself!"
They crossed to the far door. Pedro’s lips were drawn back over his sharp teeth in a silent growl, as though he sensed the evil presence of the man in the room beyond.
After a moment, the second door also submitted to the lock-pick and Blake flung it open. There was a loud report and a spurt of flame, and one of the Yard men gave a cry and staggered back, a bullet in his thigh.
"Get out!" screamed Crisp. "Get out, curse you! Leave me alone!"
The fat, florid man was standing within, in front of a bed, and he was holding a smoking revolver which was pointing straight at Blake.
"Get out of my house!" he snarled. "One more step and you’re a dead man!"
The detective spoke in the voice he had adopted when disguised as Crisp’s footman: "Why, sir! Is this any way to treat your servant?"
"You!" cried the man known to Scotland Yard as the Preying Mantis. "Blake and the footman, one and the same! Fool that I am!"
His eyes were fixed on the Baker Street sleuth, glittering with a terrible, wild light. It was plain that his long-held fear of revenge had taken over his mind and pushed him to the brink of madness.
The skin of his forefinger slowly turned white as it tightened on the trigger.
Then, suddenly, Pedro broke away from Tinker’s grasp and went tearing between Coutts and Blake, leaping straight for Crisp’s throat.
The man screamed, shrilly. The revolver barked but the bullet buried itself in the ceiling as he was flung back on to the bed under Pedro’s weight.
Blake shouted, "Back Pedro!"
The great bloodhound turned to look at his master and, at that moment, Crisp threw a sheet over the dog's head and rolled sideways. Pedro fell in a tangle and the villain bounded past him and, with his head down, charged straight into Detective-Inspector Coutts.
"Oof!" gasped Coutts as the big man's head ploughed into his stomach, and he fell backwards right on top of his two colleagues.
With a loud scream Crisp jerked the pistol towards Blake and pulled the trigger at almost point-blank range. But the detective was already leaping aside, stumbling over Coutts's outstretched legs. Crisp barged past and, as Tinker dived in to tackle him, swung a meaty fist into the lad's face. More by luck than by judgment, his knuckles crashed into the Tinker's one good eye. The youngster groaned as he was sent reeling across the room. Crisp flew past him like a thundering train. By this time Pedro had struggled free of the entangling sheet and with a loud bay he went hurtling after the blackmailer.
Screaming at the top of his voice, the Mantis raced through the study and disappeared into the tunnel. Coutts staggered to his feet and made to follow but a sharp command from Blake brought him up short.
"Stop!" cried the detective. "Listen!"
Crisp's insane wail retreated into the distance then, quite suddenly, it stopped. They heard a thud, as of a falling body.
"The dog's got the fiend!" gasped Coutts, with his hands pressed to his middle.
"I don't think so," said Blake, quietly. "Wait here."
He walked into the dark passageway.
Tinker moaned, miserably, "What's happening? My bally eye is watering so hard I can't see!"
A minute ticked by before Sexton Blake returned with Pedro in tow. The detective's face was ashen.
"We needn't worry about the Mantis," he murmered.
"What's happened, guv'nor? Did Pedro get him?"
"No, lad," said Blake. "Fear of retribution got him. He became so obsessed with the idea that his victims would hunt him down that our appearance quite unhinged him. I'm afraid he literally lost his head."
For a moment there was silence, as the detective's words sunk in. Then Coutts whispered, "Good lord. He ran into his own trap!"
Half an hour later, out in Hamilton Gardens, where dawn was breaking, Tinker drew in a deep draught of clean air. Both his eyes were thin slits, the flesh around them swollen and bruised.
"Crikey, guv’nor," he exclaimed, "I've been in the wars these past few days! But it's good to be alive! There was a moment back in that tunnel when I wondered whether we’d ever get out!"
Sexton Blake laid a hand on the youngster’s shoulder.
"Tinker," he said slowly, "the same thought had occurred to me. There was more than a touch of madness about that place. It was a house built after the mind of its owner! But here we are, alive and kicking!"
Tinker grunted. In the distance he heard a small voice yelling "Mornin' paper! Getcha mornin' paper!"
He clutched his guv'nor's arm and said, "You'll have to guide me home, sir, I can barely see a thing. Shall we start walking?"
"Yes, let's go. Come on Pedro! Your young master is going to sit with a couple of steaks over his eyes and when he's done you can eat 'em! By the way, Tinker, you never did tell me how you got that first shiner."
"Well," mumbled Tinker, "I was thinking of old Couttsy—"
"—And you walked into a door," finished Sexton Blake.
They strolled out of Hamilton Gardens and Tinker breathed a sigh of relief as the shouts of the little newsboy dwindled behind him.
After a moment's silence, he said quietly, "I think I'd have preferred it if we could have put Crisp in front of a judge."
"Oh, don't worry, old son," answered Blake, "he's in front of a judge alright. And once he's sentenced... well, I doubt even one of Mr. Slaytor’s séances will be able to reach him."