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At about the time that this conversation was taking place in Ho- Pin's catacombs, Detective-Inspector Dunbar and Detective-Sergeant Sowerby were joined by a third representative of New Scotland Yard at the appointed spot by the dock gates. This was Stringer, the detective to whom was assigned the tracing of the missing Soames; and he loomed up through the rain-mist, a glistening but dejected figure.
"Any luck?" inquired Sowerby, sepulchrally.
Stringer, a dark and morose looking man, shook his head.
"I've beaten up every 'Chink' in Wapping and Limehouse, I should reckon," he said, plaintively. "They're all as innocent as babes unborn. You can take it from me: Chinatown hasn't got a murder on its conscience at present. Brr! it's a beastly night. Suppose we have one?"
Dunbar nodded, and the three wet investigators walked back for some little distance in silence, presently emerging via a narrow, dark, uninviting alleyway into West India Dock Road. A brilliantly lighted hostelry proved to be their objective, and there, in a quiet corner of the deserted billiard room, over their glasses, they discussed this mysterious case, which at first had looked so simple of solution if only because it offered so many unusual features, but which, the deeper they probed, merely revealed fresh complications.
"The business of those Fry people, in Scotland, was a rotten disappointment," said Dunbar, suddenly. "They were merely paid by the late Mrs. Vernon to re-address letters to a little newspaper shop in Knightsbridge, where an untraceable boy used to call for them! Martin has just reported this evening. Perth wires for instructions, but it's a dead-end, I'm afraid."
"You know," said Sowerby, fishing a piece of cork from the brown froth of a fine example by Guinness, "to my mind our hope's in Soames; and if we want to find Soames, to my mind we want to look, not east, but west."
"Hear, hear!" concorded Stringer, gloomily sipping hot rum.
"It seems to me," continued Sowerby, "that Limehouse is about the last place in the world a man like Soames would think of hiding in."
"It isn't where he'll be thinking of hiding," snapped Dunbar, turning his fierce eyes upon the last speaker. "You can't seem to get the idea out of your head, Sowerby, that Soames is an independent agent. He isn't an independent agent. He's only the servant; and through the servant we hope to find the master."
"But why in the east-end?" came the plaintive voice of Stringer; "for only one reason, that I can see--because Max says that there's a Chinaman in the case."
"There's opium in the case, isn't there?" said Dunbar, adding more water to his whisky, "and where there's opium there is pretty frequently a Chinaman."
"But to my mind," persisted Sowerby, his eyebrows drawn together in a frown of concentration, "the place where Mrs. Vernon used to get the opium was the place we raided in Gillingham Street."
"Nurse Proctor's!" cried Stringer, banging his fist on the table. "Exactly my idea! There may have been a Chinaman concerned in the management of the Gillingham Street stunt, or there may not, but I'll swear that was where the opium was supplied. In fact I don't think that there's any doubt about it. Medical evidence (opinions differed a bit, certainly) went to show that she had been addicted to opium for some years. Other evidence--you got it yourself, Inspector--went to show that she came from Gillingham Street on the night of the murder. Gillingham Street crowd vanished like a beautiful dream before we had time to nab them! What more do you want? What are we up to, messing about in Limehouse and Wapping?"
Sowerby partook of a long drink and turned his eyes upon Dunbar, awaiting the inspector's reply.
"You both have the wrong idea!" said Dunbar, deliberately; "you are all wrong! You seem to be under the impression that if we could lay our hands upon the missing staff of the so-called Nursing Home, we should find the assassin to be one of the crowd. It doesn't follow at all. For a long time, you, Sowerby,"--he turned his tawny eyes upon the sergeant--"had the idea that Soames was the murderer, and I'm not sure that you have got rid of it yet! You, Stringer, appear to think that Nurse Proctor is responsible. Upon my word, you are a hopeless pair! Suppose Soames had nothing whatever to do with the matter, but merely realized that he could not prove an alibi? Wouldn't you bolt? I put it to you."
Sowerby stared hard, and Stringer scratched his chin, reflectively.
"The same reasoning applies to the Gillingham Street people," continued Dunbar. "We haven't the slightest idea of their whereabouts because we don't even know who they were; but we do know something about Soames, and we're looking for him, not because we think he did the murder, but because we think he can tell us who did."
"Which brings us back to the old point," interrupted Stringer, softly beating his fist upon the table at every word; "why are we looking for Soames in the east-end?"
"Because," replied Dunbar, "we're working on the theory that Soames, though actually not accessory to the crime, was in the pay of those who were" . . .
"Well?"--Stringer spoke the word eagerly, his eyes upon the inspector's face.
"And those who were accessory,"--continued Dunbar, "were servants of Mr. King."
"Ah!" Stringer brought his fist down with a bang--"Mr. King! That's where I am in the dark, and where Sowerby, here, is in the dark." He bent forward over the table. "Who the devil is Mr. King?"
Dunbar twirled his whisky glass between his fingers.
"We don't know," he replied quietly, "but Soames does, in all probability; and that's why we're looking for Soames."
"Is it why we're looking in Limehouse?" persisted Stringer, the argumentative.
"It is," snapped Dunbar. "We have only got one Chinatown worthy of the name, in London, and that's not ten minutes' walk from here."
"Chinatown--yes," said Sowerby, his red face glistening with excitement; "but why look for Mr. King in Chinatown?"
"Because," replied Dunbar, lowering his voice, "Mr. King in all probability is a Chinaman."
"Who says so?" demanded Stringer.
"Max says so . . ."
"Max!"--again Stringer beat his fist upon the table. "Now we have got to it! We're working, then, not on our own theories, but on those of Max?"
Dunbar's sallow face flushed slightly, and his eyes seemed to grow brighter.
"Mr. Gaston Max obtained information in Paris," he said, "which he placed, unreservedly, at my disposal. We went into the matter thoroughly, with the result that our conclusions were identical. A certain Mr. King is at the bottom of this mystery, and, in all probability, Mr. King is a Chinaman. Do I make myself clear?"
Sowerby and Stringer looked at one another, perplexedly. Each man finished his drink in silence. Then:
"What took place in Paris?" began Sowerby.
There was an interruption. A stooping figure in a shabby, black frock-coat, the figure of a man who wore a dilapidated bowler pressed down upon his ears, who had a greasy, Semitic countenance, with a scrubby, curling, sandy colored beard, sparse as the vegetation of a desert, appeared at Sowerby's elbow.
He carried a brimming pewter pot. This he set down upon a corner of the table, depositing himself in a convenient chair and pulling out a very dirty looking letter from an inside pocket. He smoothed it carefully. He peered, little-eyed, from the frowning face of Dunbar to the surprised countenance of Sowerby, and smiled with native amiability at the dangerous-looking Stringer.
"Excuthe me," he said, and his propitiatory smile was expansive and dazzling, "excuthe me buttin' in like thith. It theemth rude, I know--it doth theem rude; but the fact of the matter ith I'm a tailor--thath's my pithneth, a tailor. When I thay a tailor, I really mean a breecheth-maker--tha'th what I mean, a breecheth- maker. Now thethe timeth ith very hard timeth for breecheth- makerth." . . .
Dunbar finished his whisky, and quietly replaced the glass upon the table, looking from Sowerby to Stringer with unmistakable significance. Stringer emptied his glass of rum, and Sowerby disposed of his stout.
"I got thith letter lath night," continued the breeches-maker, bending forward confidentially over the table. (The document looked at least twelve months old.) "I got thith letter latht night with thethe three fiverth in it; and not havin' no friendth in London--I'm an American thitithen, by birth,--Levinthky, my name ith--Abraham Levinthky--I'm a Noo Englander. Well, not havin' no friendth in London, and theein' you three gentlemen thittin' here, I took the liberty" . . .
Dunbar stood up, glared at Levinsky, and stalked out of the billiard-room, followed by his equally indignant satellites. Having gained the outer door:
"Of all the blasted impudence!" he said, turning to Sowerby and Stringer; but there was a glint of merriment in the fierce eyes. "Can you beat that? Did you tumble to his game?"
Sowerby stared at Stringer, and Stringer stared at Sowerby.
"Except," began the latter in a voice hushed with amazement, "that he's got the coolest cheek of any mortal being I ever met." . . .
Dunbar's grim face relaxed, and he laughed boyishly, his square shoulders shaking.
"He was leading up to the confidence trick!" he said, between laughs. "Damn it all, man, it was the old confidence trick! The idea of a confidence-merchant spreading out his wares before three C. I. D. men!"
He was choking with laughter again; and now, Sowerby and Stringer having looked at one another for a moment, the surprised pair joined him in his merriment. They turned up their collars and went out into the rain, still laughing.
"That man," said Sowerby, as they walked across to the stopping place of the electric trains, "is capable of calling on the Commissioner and asking him to 'find the lady'!"
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