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Title: The Vanishing Trick Author: Max Afford * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1401621h.html Language: English Date first posted: April 2014 Most recent update: April 2014 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Max Afford was Australia's most prolific radio dramatist. Before television, there was radio and it took a man of Afford's skill and professionalism to turn out as many hours of entertainment as he did right up until his death in 1954. Born in Parkside, Adelaide, in 1906, Afford was a journalist before turning to radio serials and stage plays.
From 1932 until his death, Afford wrote many of the most popular serials of the time including Digger Hale's Daughter, Hagen's Circus, and Danger Limited. It was said that in the 1930s Afford was one of the few people to make a living from writing drama. His radio success spilled over onto stage. He created Australian theatrical history by having two plays presented professionally—Lady in Danger in May 1944 and Mischief in the Air in August 1944 (both produced by J.C. Williamson at Sydney's Theatre Royal). Lady in Danger was also staged on Broadway.
Afford wrote five detective novels. These were: Blood On His Hands (London, J. Long, 1936; Sydney, Frank Johnson, 1945), Death Mannikins (London, J. Long, 1937; Sydney, Frank Johnson, 1945), The Dead Are Blind (London, J. Long, 1937; Sydney, Collins, 1949), Fly by Night (London, J. Long 1942; as Owl Of Darkness, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1945). In December 1948 the short story 'Vanishing Trick' appeared in Frank Johnson's new magazine, Detective Fiction. The magazine was short lived but an extremely worthy production which included the work of such writers as Frank Walford, Bob McKinnon, Audrey Francis, Richard and Alfreda Phillips, and Norman Way.
Following the first issue, Johnson received a letter from Arthur Upfield who said: 'I thought the range of stories very good and give best marks to Max Afford.' Johnson also reprinted some of Afford's novels in his Magpie paperback series, Afford receiving the munificent sum of £25 for every 10,000 copies sold.
Jeffrey and Elizabeth Blackburn, stars of a long-running Afford radio series as well as several novels, made a late curtain call in Detective Fiction. 'Vanishing Trick' typifies the mannered, slightly tongue in cheek, stories of the period—heavy on drawing rooms, witty dialogue and deductive brilliance.
'No ghost,' said Sally Rutland firmly. 'But we've got a kinda haunted room!'
She pronounced it 'hanted' since Sally Rutland hailed from Dallas, Texas.
Mr Jeffrey Blackburn, seated in the deep leather chair in the panelled room at Kettering Old House, looked across at Elizabeth and lowered his right eyelid an imperceptible fraction. The movement said plainly, 'Darling, I told you so!'
Mrs Blackburn, swathed in satin, her corn-yellow hair shining under the massive electric chandelier, caught the expression.
'But, darling! If you've got a haunted room, then you must have a ghost!'
'Then what happened in this room?'
Sally Rutland said calmly, 'People just vanish into thin air!'
'Oh-oh,' chuckled Mr Blackburn inwardly. His eyes slid around, taking in the expressions of the assembled guests.
There were six other people in the great reception room at Kettering. Almost opposite Blackburn, the thriller writer Evan Lambert hunched his thin body forward in an attitude curiously suggestive of a question mark.
On the square, ruddy face of the man next to him there was absolutely no expression at all. John Wilkins, of the Wilkins Trust and Finance Company, sat motionless, a statue to Mammon in well-cut tweeds, a business colossus whose self control was as rigid as the wall behind him.
Then there was Miss Rountree, an obscure relative of Jim Rutland's—middle-aged, greying and somehow pathetic, like the bedraggled artificial roses she wore at her flat bosom. Her sagging face was ringed in circles—round eyes behind rounded spectacles, the little mouth pursed into an O of wondering anticipation. With all the ardour of the very lonely, Miss Rountree grasped at the promise of a new sensation, as in the past she had grasped at Yogism, Mental Healing, Physical Perfection in Diet and Inner Truths through Controlled Breathing.
Jeffery's eyes came around to their hosts.
Strangers often wondered what Sally van Peters, daughter of the Dalls oil magnate, had ever seen in lanky, balding Jim Rutland, with his serious expression and quiet, almost stolid personality. Never were appearances more deceptive! For their intimates knew, by bitter experience, that one of the strongest bonds between these two was their wicked sense of humour. Jeffery mentally winced when he recalled the squeaking cushion, the leaking wineglass and trick cigarettes without which no Rutland party was complete.
'Well,' said Sally Rutland. 'Don't just sit there like dummies! Let's see some reactions.' She gave a quick, mischievous glance at her husband, standing tall by the heavy marble mantel. 'They reckon it's just another of our crazy gags, honey—'
Lambert's mouth twisted.
'At least it shows a little more originality than the electric matchbox—'
From the fireplace, Jim Rutland spoke.
'No fooling, Evan. What Sally says is quite true.' Was it Jeffery's imagination or had the deep tone the faintest undercurrent of mockery? 'She found an old book in the library with the craziest story about this room. Believe it or not, Satan himself is supposed to have come down here, breathed on a man—and he vanished! Just like that!' A snap of his fingers emphasised the problem.
'Now, really, Rutland—' It was Wilkins. In contrast to Lambert's frank ridicule, the financier's tone was sceptical but polite. 'He's not one of us,' thought Jeffery. 'He's an outsider. It isn't like the Rutland's to mix close friends and casual acquaintances like this.' Then he became aware that Miss Rountree was speaking to him from across the room.
'And just what is your opinion of this, Mr Blackburn?' she asked archly. 'You've been so quiet in your little corner I thought you were asleep.'
'Oh, no,' said Jeffery firmly. 'Definitely not! But before I commit myself, I'd like to hear something more about the story.'
Rutland said levelly, 'I'll give it you boiled down small. Back in the year seventeen hundred and something, there was a local parson—chap named the Reverend Gideon Perman. He was accused of witchcraft, brought along here and shoved into this room. The door was locked and barred. When they opened it, two hours later, Gideon had vanished—'
Rutland shrugged. 'That's all.'
'Stop me if you've heard this one,' crowed Elizabeth. 'But there was a secret passage—'
Sally Rutland shook her head, 'You get the gong darling.'
'No secret passage?'
'Not even a chink. Because Benson—that's the pale looking guy who just served the cocktails—Benson said the room was searched high and low for some outlet. That wasn't the original vanishing trick, of course. I'm talking now about the last one.'
Jeffery said quickly, 'The last one?'
Sally nodded. 'It happened about three years ago.'
Evan Lambert sat up, a movement like the opening of a jack-knife. 'As recent as that?'
'The Lattimers owned the place then,' Rutland told him. 'They were the people we bought it from. Benson says one of their servants was sent down to clean out the room. The door slammed shut on the poor devil. When they opened it again—hey presto! No servant!'
'Fantastic!' Wilkins spoke so softly Jeffery had the impression he was talking to himself. Then he looked up at his host. 'But surely the police were informed?'
'You bet.' It was Sally who replied. 'Benson says the police brought a couple of architect guys from London. They tapped and measured for weeks and all they got was housemaid's knee.'
An uncertain little silence fell, to be broken by Elizabeth. 'Aren't you relying quite a lot on what Benson says? How do we know that your butler, having found the old book with the legend, isn't having us all on toast?'
Jim Rutland stared at them. 'I never thought of that.'
But his wife waved the suggestion aside. 'Nonsense,' she said crisply, 'you've only got to look at Benson to see he's got less sense of humour than Jimmy has hair.' She paused, then added, 'Anyway, why should he make up such a crazy story?'
The sudden appearance of the man himself precluded further discussion. He stood just inside the entrance, pale, poised, punctilious, announcing that dinner was served.
'What those men really need,' said Sally Rutland, 'is a lesson.'
'But darling—' began Elizabeth, but her companion cut her short.
'You and I, Beth, we're going to give it to them.' Sally lowered her voice and glanced towards the dining room, still alive with the murmur of masculine voices and the clink of glasses. 'You see, I've got the most gorgeous idea for a laugh.'
The two women were in the reception room following dinner. Miss Rountree had sought her upstairs bedroom for a book. At her exit, Sally had motioned her friend to draw her chair closer to the fire. Elizabeth, watching the flames colour and darken Sally's thin, eager face, had fallen into the comfortable silence born of a good dinner, a cosy fireside and a deep chair. Now she gave a deep sigh of resignation.
'Overproduction of thyroid,' she murmured.
'All Americans have it,' said Mrs Blackburn sleepily. 'That's why they can't keep still. Look at Mrs Roosevelt.'
Sally tossed her half-smoked cigarette into the fireplace. 'It makes me boil,' she said. 'Here we buy one of the oldest houses in England, with a dandy legend, and instead of treating it with the respect it deserves, what do those men do? Laugh at it!'
'Have another cigarette,' advised Elizabeth soothingly.
'We have got a genuine mystery room where people just disappear! What's more, I'm going to prove it. And you, Elizabeth, you're going to help me!'
'How?' asked Mrs Blackburn cautiously.
'Just suppose Jeffery, Evan and Mr Wilkins went down to investigate that room—?'
'And found the body of the servant who was supposed to have disappeared three years ago!' As Elizabeth suddenly sat up, Sally hurried on. 'And don't tell me that there'll be no body to find. You leave that to me.'
'I'll borrow an old pair of overalls and a cap from Jim's cupboard. All I have to do is to rig myself out in these things and stand against the wall. Of course, admitted Sally, I can't hope to fool them for long, but the sight of their faces when they throw open that door and find me should be well worth the trouble of the gag.'
She paused, watching Elizabeth's patently dismayed face.
'You can,' said Mrs Blackburn, 'include me out.'
'Elizabeth, for Pete's sake.'
'No, darling, for mine. If Jeffery ever knew I'd had a hand in a thing like this, he'd have me certified.'
'Jeffery won't know,' Sally persisted. 'All you have to do is to bolt that door on the outside.'
Afterwards, reviewing the whole sinister business with Jeffery, Elizabeth could never actually explain how Sally talked her into this initial gambit. She could only confess that, despite her rooted disapproval of such an infantile scheme, ten minutes later found the two of them burdened with clothing and creeping down a winding stone staircase that threw back the sullen echoes of their footsteps.
'There it is,' announced Sally.
The steps flattened, widened abruptly into a passage which rose into a groined roof over their heads. This passage ended in a blank wall and in the centre, a stone door stood slightly ajar, an extremely massive portal, at least two feet thick, such rugged depth corresponding to the width of the wall in which it was slung. Heavy iron hinges laced one side, two sets of bolts, thicker than Elizabeth's wrist, were welded to the other. There was rust and dust and cobwebs.
Mrs Blackburn gave a little, unaccountable shiver and stopped in her tracks.
'Over to you, darling,' she announced.
'Nonsense,' said Sally briskly. 'There's nothing to be afraid of.'
'I'm not—' began Elizabeth, then she stopped. Not afraid, just—well—apprehensive. She wished it was Jeffery who walked by her side instead of this keen-faced young woman who had almost been expelled from Bryn Mawr for trying to land her plane on the lacrosse field. This business of people vanishing into thin air! Up stairs with the men it had seemed too ludicrous for a second thought. But down here in this world of stone and stillness—
Heavy as the door seemed, it swung back easily when Sally dragged at it. As Elizabeth took an unwilling step into the blackness, her companion's torch cut a swathe of light across the small room. And it was surprisingly tiny compared with the dimensions of the upper apartments; certainly no more than twelve feet square.
Sally flashed the torch around.
'You see? Nothing to raise even a solitary goosepimple—just a bare room. Now then—,' she thrust out the torch and grabbed at the bundled clothing. 'Hold the light while I slip into these things.'
In turn, Mrs Blackburn played the silver finger of light over the rough unbroken walls and up to the ceiling that seemed to press down on her neat head. Then she pronounced her judgment. 'I wouldn't stay alone in this place for a cartload of silver foxes.' She turned to where Sally was struggling with the stained overalls. 'Listen, darling. Be sensible. Call the whole thing off.'
'Get thee behind me, Satan!'
'Sally!' Elizabeth's voice was shrill. 'Don't say that, not down here!'
'Peanuts,' snapped Mrs Rutland inelegantly. She fumbled here and there, then pulled the cap over her dark curls. 'There, I'm ready. Now—bring those doubting Thomases down here fast as you can. And be sure to bolt that door on the outside.'
'Sally—' it was a final appeal.
'Outside, Infirm of Purpose! And bolt that door!'
For just a second. Elizabeth hesitated. Then she passed out into the dimly lit passage and strained at the door. It seemed to swing shut with almost sinister haste and she reached up and shot the bolts with none-too-steady fingers.
She was half way down the passage when she heard the first cry.
It was so faint, so muffled and so indistinct that Elizabeth wondered, at first, if it was merely her imagination stimulated by the hushed and sinister surroundings. Yet that curious echo had been so urgent and so arresting that, despite her eagerness to leave this place, she hesitated with one small foot on the lowest stair. In that moment, it came again and this time there was no mistaking the quality of terror which seeped through even walls of stone.
'Elizabeth—help! Come back!'
Some actions are purely automatic, made without conscious thought. Elizabeth only knew that she was back at that massive door, pounding on it, crying out, 'Sally—Sally, what is it?' Then as no answer came, she wrenched at the rusting bolts, tearing a nail. The door, seeming a dozen times as heavy in her panic, almost resisted her efforts to drag it open. It gave suddenly and swung wide with a sour grating of hinges. Elizabeth stood trembling in the entrance.
'Sally,' she called unsteadily.
The small black pit ahead threw back the echoes of her voice. Mrs Blackburn's uncertain fingers found the sliding catch on the torch and a spear of light shot forward, wavered, explored the full circle, while the girl stared, amazed and incredulous.
The room was empty!
'Oh, no,' whispered Elizabeth Blackburn. Then she swallowed, for there was an odd, sick feeling in her stomach. Nerving herself, she moved forward into the room and its cold dankness rose up around her, so that she swallowed again and put out one hand to the thick wall for support. Standing thus, she played the torch around again, grimly, doggedly, choking down the panic within her, covering every inch of those solid, unbroken walls enclosing that unbelievable, incredibly empty space.
'There's no one here,' she said huskily.
And then, right at her very side, something chuckled.
There was no amusement in it, nor was it a loud sound. It was, however, more than enough for Elizabeth. She swung around, played the light on the blank wall at her side, then with a little choking gasp, she bolted,—bolted frankly and unashamedly, taking the steps three at a time, running with outstretched hands through the long hall, across the armoury, past the stained glass windows with their heavy curtains, through the living quarters and into the sanctuary of the reception room, with its cheerful fire, its deep chairs and the comforting, though undeniably startled, faces of the assembled menfolk.
'Darling,' said Mr Blackburn.
'Another little sip of brandy,' advised Jim Rutland.
'Slip this cushion behind the lady's head,' suggested the financier Wilkins.
Mrs Blackburn, recumbent, panting, choked with brandy, glared up at the good Samaritans and strove to get her breath. Then she sat up and began to pat her hair into place.
'Listen to me, all of you—'
Jeffery placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. 'Take it easy sweetheart.'
'More brandy?' said Jim Rutland. Anyone with a hide less thick would have recoiled from Elizabeth's look. But Rutland merely replaced the decanter on the table.
'Now, what's all this about Sally?'
Elizabeth said breathlessly, 'I've told you. She had me lock her in that horrible little room downstairs—it was to be a joke on you men. Then I heard that cry. I rushed back, opened the door—and she'd vanished!' She paused, looking from face to face. 'Well! Say something!'
'She was obviously hiding behind the door,' explained Mr Blackburn and calmly lit a cigarette.
'The door opens outward,' replied his wife shortly. 'Besides, while I stood looking into that room—a room bare as the palm of my hand, mark you—something chuckled!'
Jim Rutland grinned. 'You bet it did!'
Elizabeth wheeled on him, but Evan Lambert cut in quickly. 'Tell me, Elizabeth—was there any special reason why you should accompany Sally down to that room?'
'Yes, I had to shoot the bolts on the door.'
'But,' persisted Lambert, 'if the object was to scare us, why bolt the door at all? That wasn't necessary.'
Jeffery nodded. 'Good point Lambert.' He turned to his wife. 'Is your face red?'
'Should it be?' asked Elizabeth acidly.
'Magenta,' Jeffery assured her. 'Don't you see, darling? Sally's real intention was not to scare us, but you! She concocted the other story just to get you down there.' He blew a smoke ring. 'No wonder she chuckled!'
'But—,' then Mrs Blackburn stopped. Her pretty face was such a study in conflicting emotions that Wilkins, watching her, spoke for the second time, spoke carefully, precisely, with a cold authority that stripped the discussion of all nonsense, reducing it to blueprint saneness.
'All this doesn't explain one very essential point.' His eyes, piercing blue, close set, moved from one face to another. 'Where, when Mrs Blackburn returned, was the lady hidden?'
Jeffery said 'It's possible, of course, that my wife had such a shock she didn't trouble to look very closely.'
'Perhaps,' Wilkins smiled. 'Yet Mrs Blackburn strikes me as being an extremely thorough young woman. Out of fairness to her, I suggest we four men should go down and search the room for ourselves.'
He paused. Elizabeth beamed on him. Jim Rutland shrugged. 'We're merely playing into Sally's hands by keeping the joke going like this,' he pointed out.
But Evan Lambert made the decision for them all. 'Does that matter?' he asked. 'You were going to show us this room, anyway.'
Five minutes later, the little party met at the head of the stone steps. Rutland had a lighted candle, Elizabeth clung to her torch. They started downward. Where the stairs began to widen into the passage, Jeffery stopped and gestured to a slit-like aperture in the wall.
Rutland explained it was a passage leading out to the summer-house in the garden. As they walked forward, his eye lighted on the stone door, still ajar. He turned to Elizabeth.
'Didn't you bolt that door after you?'
The girl shook her head. 'My one thought was to get back to sanity.'
'Then,' announced Rutland, 'we're wasting our time searching for Sally in that room. The moment your back was turned, she was out of that room and into the summerhouse passage. I'll wager we'll find her back in the library, helpless with mirth over all this fuss.'
'Let's see inside the room,' said Jeffery.
But even as their host had warned, they might have saved themselves the trouble. In the flickering light, the room looked just as bare and just as sinister. Lambert, his professional imagination piqued, moved around giving perfunctory taps on the walls, but their solidness precluded any suggestion of secret passages. Jeffery, who had taken the torch, was poking the light into shadowed corners, achieving nothing more than the startled rout of generations of spiders. Wilkins stood watching the other men, his face frowning and mouth petulant, as though, in his opinion at least, this absurd business had gone on long enough.
Mrs Blackburn suddenly gave an exclamation of disgust and irritation.
'Oh, for heaven's sake! Come on—let's get out of this.'
She made a movement towards the door and as if by mutual consent, all activity within that room stopped. They filed through, one after the other. Without a world, Rutland pushed home the stone door and thrust the bolts into place.
They began to walk towards the steps when:
It was Jeffery, bringing up the rear of the party, who spoke. The others—Elizabeth, Lambert, Rutland—halted and looked around in surprise.
The stifled scream and the muffled pounding came almost simultaneously. 'Oh, my stars,' cried Rutland. 'I've locked the poor blighter inside!' And in a body, they leapt for the door.
To Elizabeth, tired, slightly hazy from the brandy, shaken by her previous experience, what happened next was vague but terrifying like a nightmare which keeps recurring even after dawn. She remembered the bolts yielding under Rutland's scrabbling fingers, the door being heaved back violently, Lambert shouting out Wilkin's name. Jeffery taking a half-step forward, flashing his torch into the darkness—and then, clearly, more vividly than anything, the grotesque thunder-struck, stupefied expressions on the faces of the three men.
And standing there in that silent corridor, Mrs Blackburn knew it had happened again; that something had occurred that was against all natural, accepted laws; that within half an hour, a woman and a man, solid, matter-of-fact figures of flesh, bone and blood, had stepped into the haunted room at Kettering Old House and had disappeared—vanished—almost in the twinkling of an eye.
'Now are you satisfied?' asked Elizabeth.
'No,' replied Mr Blackburn, 'far from satisfied.'
'I should say not,' grunted his host. Jim Rutland's face was pale; on his upper lip were tiny beads of perspiration and Jeffery realised that of them all, this man seemed the most scared. Suddenly, as though conscious of Blackburn's eyes on him, Rutland turned toward the fireplace and made a little helpless gesture. 'What happens now? What should we do?'
'We must,' said Florence Rountree firmly, 'remain very calm.' A thin wisp of grey hair streaked across her forehead and she pushed it back, only to have it fall again. 'We must remain perfectly tranquil in mind. Thoughts are things—tangible things.' And she fixed her pale eyes on Elizabeth as if daring her to debate the point.
Half an hour had passed since the disappearance of John Wilkins and the return of the slightly dazed party to the reception room. But not before both Jeffery and Lambert had insisted on a thorough examination of that exasperating chamber. Each man, with the help of Rutland, had taken a section of the wall and sounded it with the thoroughness bred of savage bewilderment. This was no haphazard examination as before; now no single foot of wall escaped their scrutiny.
With absolutely no result!
Elizabeth rose abruptly. 'I'm going to 'phone the police.'
But Jeffery put out a restraining hand.
'What are you going to tell them?' he asked.
'That two people in this house walked into a certain room and faded like a dream?'
'At least they'd do something.'
'Something is right.' It was Evan Lambert. 'They'd probably cart us all off to the asylum!'
'That,' said Elizabeth firmly, 'would be a rest-cure compared to what's been happening here.' Evading Jeffery's hand, she crossed to the hall and they heard the flicking of the pages of a telephone book. Then came the whirr of a number being dialled.
Florence Rountree broke the silence. 'All this,' she announced, 'would be quite unnecessary if you'd only listen to me.'
'I know,' snapped Rutland, 'those people didn't really disappear. We just imagined it!'
Miss Rountree's small mouth set. 'There is no occasion to be rude, James—'
From where the lady sat, she could not perceive the mocking curve of Lambert's mouth as he said 'You mean. Miss Rountree, that our minds, conditioned by the legend of the room, were already expecting it to be empty?'
She beamed on him, nodding triumphantly. 'Exactly, Mr Lambert. You saw not with the eye, but with the brain.'
'Oh, fiddle-faddle,' snapped Rutland.
'James!' squeaked Miss Rountree.
There was tension in the air and nerves were stretched to breakingpoint. All the material for a first-class row was mounting. Then Lambert, with an almost sadistic satisfaction, chuckled in his corner.
'Then, madam, according to your reasoning, Mrs Rutland and Wilkins are still down in that room, playing handy-pandies! Just wait until the local police hear that!'
'The local police,' said Mrs Blackburn from the doorway, 'aren't going to hear anything, at least not on this phone!' She held up the hand-instrument and the useless flex coiled limply across the floor. 'It's been cut through with a pair of scissors, I'd say.'
'Now that,' said Mr Blackburn softly 'is most interesting.' He turned to Rutland. 'How far away is the police station?'
'Matter of five miles,' the other answered. 'We're pretty isolated down here.'
'That,' returned Jeffery, 'seems to have been the idea! Whoever is responsible for those vanishing tricks doesn't want a police investigation. So I suggest you hop in your car and bring over the local sergeant.'
'But—can he do any good?'
Jeffery regarded him thoughtfully. 'I may be quite wrong, Jim. But I have an idea that once the police are brought into this, the whole mystery will collapse like a house of cards.' Suddenly his manner became brisk. 'Now, jump to it, old man. Meanwhile, I've another little job on my hands.'
Rutland, halfway out of the room, paused and looked back. 'What's that?' he asked.
Mr Blackburn said complacently, 'Me—I'm a detective, so now I'm going to start to detect.'
Jeffery Blackburn held the flame of the candle to the cigarette between his lips, then bending, placed the light on the rough floor and surveyed his surroundings. He blew a thin fan of smoke that hung on the motionless air, then began to unfold and undulate slowly, reaching out grey tentacles to the grey walls that hemmed him in.
Two people had entered this room, and approximately fifteen seconds later, had vanished from it. There was, of course, the legend, but that sinister story made no mention of an amputated telephone wire. To prevent news of these fantastic happenings reaching outside of Kettering, someone had cut all communication. Obviously because a police investigation must reveal the means by which these disappearances had been contrived.
How the devil did one get out of a locked room? Not by any secret passage through the walls, of that he was convinced. By the door? But that massive, two foot thickness of stone had been shut and bolted on the outside.
Jeffery tossed his cigarette aside and crossed to the entrance. The heavy door hung half-open. He raised both hands in an effort to push it wider, but to his surprise the massive portal moved so easily that he suspected oil on the hinges. But the dry grinding in his ears dismissed such a suggestion.
Mr Blackburn frowned.
Something was wrong. Somewhere, at the back of his mind, two small details clashed and contradicted. Standing there in the entrance, one hand on the rough stonework of the door, Jeffery sent his mind racing back over the details of Wilkins's disappearance.
They had walked out of that room. With a thrust of his arm, Rutland had pushed the door shut and slid the bolts. But—and here Jeffery's eyes narrowed suddenly—when Wilkins's muffled cry had sent them racing back, it had taken the combined efforts of the three men to open this same door. This curious, grey, enigmatic door, which was light and easy to move at one time—and fifteen seconds later, so much heavier—
'Give!' said Mr Blackburn and tapped the door encouragingly. Next moment, his fingers snapped back as though the surface had become white-hot. Wonderingly, almost incredulously, he tapped again and this time there was no mistaking that hollow resonance.
The door was nothing more than a hollow shell!
'Oh, my aunt,' whispered Jeffery. He stared unbelievingly. But surely there was some mistake? They had sounded the four walls—Lambert, Rutland and himself. He even recalled Rutland thumping and bumping on the solid stonework surrounding the doorway. Then, surely, if the door had given up its secret so easily to Jeffery, Rutland must have known, too?
And if he did?
Mr Blackburn chuckled softly. One part of the tangle was already coming free in his mind, so that he could follow the loosening end to a logical conclusion. In time, he would deal with the second snarl. But first things first. Jeffery switched on his torch and moving closer to the door began running tentative fingers over the surface.
Ten minutes later, he walked into the reception room. Elizabeth, dozing in front of the dying fire, blinked at his dusty but patently triumphant expression.
'Hello,' she said vaguely, 'I must have fallen asleep.'
'We've all been asleep,' returned Jeffery. He sat down and lit a cigarette with cobwebby fingers. 'Tell me, Beth. When you ran to that door after Sally's scream, was it difficult to open?'
Mrs Blackburn frowned. 'Yes—' then quickly, 'yes, it was, Jeff! Somehow, it seemed much heavier.'
'Naturally,' agreed Jeffery, 'You see, Sally was inside that door.' He hesitated a moment, savouring the expression on his wife's face. 'I've solved the secret of the vanishing trick, darling. That door is literally a hollow cupboard—the inside opens like a panel. Sally and Wilkins waited until we had left the room, raised the alarm then stepped inside that door and closed the panel behind them. Just like that!'
Incredulity raised Elizabeth's voice a tone. 'Then how did they get out again?'
'In both cases, the door was left unbolted after the discovery. They stepped out, pushed open the door and just walked out of the room.'
'Oh, no,' said Mrs Blackburn.
'But you men sounded every inch of that room for cavities.'
'Except the door,' her husband pointed out. 'One doesn't expect cavities in doors. That was where Rutland was so clever.'
'He knew the panel was concealed in that door. That was why, when we sounded those walls, he chose the one with the door—to stop us discovering the trick for ourselves.'
Jeffery crossed to the ashtray on the mantel and crushed out his cigarette. Then he turned. 'Let's start at the beginning. The Rutlands knew of this trick door and saw an excellent opportunity for one of their crazy jokes. That's why we were asked down here. I have some small reputation as a solver of riddles—Lambert has a big name as a detective novelist. Can't you,' asked Mr Blackburn, 'see the Rutlands gloating over this opportunity—presenting us both with a first-class mystery, then chuckling up their sleeves at our attempts to solve it?'
But his wife shook a stubborn head. 'I still can't believe it.'
Jeffery said austerely, 'The type of mind that would sit me down on a squeaking cushion is capable of anything.'
'John Wilkins hasn't that type of mind.'
'Know anything more about him?'
'Only,' returned Elizabeth, 'what Sally told me. He's the merest acquaintance—a comparative stranger. Jim met him casually in the city and he came down a few days ago with his chauffeur—a tough looking gent named Tucker.' And here Mrs Blackburn ran off at a tangent. 'Besides, who cut the telephone wire?'
'Why not,' suggested Mr Blackburn, 'think something out for yourself?'
Elizabeth said sweetly, 'Meaning you haven't the faintest idea, darling?'
'Frankly, no! But I know this much. As I said, the Rutlands planned this as the joke of the season. But someone,' continued Jeffery, 'took it right smack out of their hands, someone who wanted Wilkins out of the way—and who cut the telephone wire to stop police interference.'
'But why John Wilkins?'
'Wilkins is a financier, darling. Financiers deal in large sums of money. And money, as the copybooks used to tell us, is the root of all evil. Everyone wants money. Even Miss Rountree, living in her cloud, cuckoo-land of metaphysics, couldn't exist without—', and suddenly Jeffery stopped, his mouth open on the word, staring at his wife as though she was some complete and surprising stranger.
'Darling,' cried Mrs Blackburn in sudden alarm.
Then Jeffery grinned. A wide grin in which enlightenment, relief and admiration were somehow blended. He walked across and bending, kissed Elizabeth on the tip of her pretty nose. It was a charming scene of domestic felicity, only slightly marred by the expression of complete bewilderment on Mrs Blackburn's face. Then a voice spoke harshly from the entrance.
They turned. Evan Lambert stood there, his thin figure hunched and suggestive of a spring tightly coiled. He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. They saw him swallow before he spoke again.
'Can I use your car?'
'Of course! But—?'
'I've got to get Doctor Preston,' Lambert cut in, 'and I'll bring back the police myself. There's been some more monkey business—some of the servants are carrying him inside—'
Elizabeth said sharply, 'Who?'
'Rutland! They found him unconscious in the grounds near the garage, bleeding from a nasty wound.' The novelist took a step forward into the room.
'You see, Blackburn, somebody round here coshed him over the head with the proverbial blunt instrument. Don't ask me who—because Rutland just isn't talking!'
Eleven-thirty p.m. at Kettering Old House.
Benson eased the traymobile, with its silver and snowy napery through the entrance to the reception room and brought it to rest opposite Mr and Mrs Blackburn.
He spoke apologetically. 'I trust tea and toast is sufficient, madam?' He whisked the lid from a salver. 'With the exception of William Darby, the servants are all in bed.'
'So they should be,' replied Jeffery. 'Er—this William Darby—he was the man who struggled with Mr Rutland's attacker?'
The butler nodded. From beneath the traymobile, he brought up a black leather bag. 'This, sir, was found on the ground near Mr Rutland. It's the property of Mr Wilkins, sir.'
As Jeffery took the bag and turned it over in his hands, Benson added, 'The master, sir—is he all right?'
'He will be,' Jeffery assured him. 'Miss Rountree is with him now. There's nothing much we can do except wait for Mr Lambert to return with the doctor.'
Sensing dismissal, Benson started for the door. But Jeffery's voice halted him. 'Oh, Benson—'
'What's this story you told about a servant who was supposed to have disappeared from that room downstairs when the last people owned this place?'
On features less wooden, the expression that crossed Benson's face might have been termed pained surprise. His pale eyes blinked.
'Some mistake, sir, surely? Nothing like that happened while I was in service with the Lattimer family.' He inclined his head as Jeffery dismissed him.
Blackburn turned to his wife. 'Just as I said—a pack of naughty fibs on Sally's part. And stop wolfing that toast. You'll put on pounds overnight!'
Mrs Blackburn's glance was withering. She reached for another buttered finger. 'What actually happened out there in the garden?'
'As far as we can make out, Rutland was walking toward the garage,' Jeffery explained. 'The Dark Invader leapt out of the shadows. William Darby, in the garage, came out just in time to see his employer tapped smartly on the head and the unknown disappearing into the darkness, leaving behind that bag.'
Elizabeth picked it up, and weighed it in her hand. 'It's locked,' she announced.
'Brilliant,' observed Mr Blackburn. 'For that you may have the last piece of toast.'
'Don't cavil. Now, how the devil does one open a locked bag?'
'I can lend you a bobby-pin—'
'Darling,' said Mr Blackburn with restraint, 'outside of a B-class quickie, have you ever seen a man open a lock with a bobby-pin? No—hand me that butterknife!'
'Jeff—now be careful!'
'Leave it to me.' He inserted the thin blade between the metal clasps and strained. Two things happened almost simultaneously. The blade broke and Mrs Blackburn gave a cry of alarm.
'The hell with it,' snarled Mr Blackburn, sucking an outraged finger. 'I'm wounded, and it's hurting like mad!'
'Oh, don't be a great boob,' snapped Elizabeth. 'Anyhow, according to Miss Rountree, there's just no such thing as physical pain!'
'Quite right, Mrs Blackburn!'
They wheeled. Florence Rountree stood in the entrance. That unruly wisp of grey hair snaked across a face correspondingly pale. Her thin fingers plucked and worried the artificial bouquet at her waist. She came forward, surveying the traymobile. Jeffery said hospitably.
'Have the last piece of toast, Miss Rountree?'
'No, thank you.'
'How wise,' murmured Jeffery. 'It's frightfully burnt underneath.'
Miss Rountree said coldly, 'I may be rather old-fashioned in such matters. But you both appear singularly unperturbed about the happenings here.'
Jeffery shrugged. 'Even a detective must keep body and soul together! Thank you, Beth. I'll have another cup of tea.'
'As a detective, Mr Blackburn, you seem to have made surprisingly little progress.' Acidity edged her words. 'Mr Wilkins—vanished! My poor nephew—brutally attacked! And Sally—where is she?'
Mr Blackburn smiled. 'Suppose you answer that one?'
Jeffery sipped his tea. 'She was to have taken the short cut to the summer house and then come up to your room. That was why you pretended to go upstairs after dinner for that book. But you went to your room, to wait for Sally and join in the grand laugh against my wife. But Sally didn't turn up. How worried you must have been! And how frantic you are right now!'
Miss Rountree sat down very suddenly. Her face seemed to shrivel and contract. She took off her glasses and dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief. But no tears came; only short, dry sobs so embarrassing to hear that Elizabeth turned her face away.
'I didn't want to do it.' Miss Rountree whispered. 'Sally said it would be all right. That it was only a party game—a joke.' The husky mutter ended abruptly in a quick, choked-off gasp. Elizabeth, looking up, saw she was staring at the french windows—windows which framed the figure of John Wilkins. A different Wilkins, no longer pink, immaculate and imperturbable, but flushed, and with the appearance of a man who had dressed in a great hurry.
'Hello,' he said and they noticed that he was breathless. 'I suppose you've wondered what on earth happened to me?'
'Mr Wilkins,' gasped Florence Rountree. 'What are you doing here?'
'I can tell you that,' replied Jeffery and he held up the black bag. 'Mr Wilkins has come back for this.'
Then things happened very quickly. Wilkins gave a little snort of anger and strode forward, snatching at the bag with greedy hands. At the same moment, Jeffery's fingers tightened like iron on the handle. For some seconds, this frenzied tug-of-war continued, both men swaying and straining. There came the sudden sound of ripping material and the antagonists staggered back each holding part of the dismembered bag—a bag that vomited forth packets of crisp new banknotes. Some of these packets burst the rubber bands which held them and notes fluttered wildly to the floor so that Elizabeth stood soles-deep in a fortune. Then, like a quick-motion film suddenly jammed in the projector, the tableau froze. The two men stared down at the littered floor and while Wilkin's face was angry and dismayed, Mr Blackburn's countenance was deeply reproachful.
He looked up at Wilkins and shook his head. 'Your shareholders are going to be very, very annoyed about this,' he announced. 'This is their money, you know.' And as the absconding financier stared at him, stonyfaced, Jeffery went on. 'You were staying with Jim and Sally Rutland, so you overheard them planning the disappearing trick on us. That's how you learned about the panel in the door. And you saw a heaven-sent opportunity to disappear yourself—and let the Rutland's face up to the police investigation that must follow.
'I rather suspect that the shifty-eyed chauffeur you employ is in this thing with you. Tonight he was waiting in the summerhouse for you, but Sally, taking the passage to the summerhouse following her vanishing trick, surprised him there. No doubt he trussed her up to prevent her talking too much.'
Wilkins had recovered some of that hard poise. Now he thrust his hands in his pockets and managed a twisted smile. 'Interesting. Blackburn,' he murmured, 'but go on.'
'Thank you,' said Mr Blackburn, 'I intend to. When Sally disappeared, Rutland didn't turn a hair. But when you presumably vanished, he was worried, for here was something he hadn't planned. And when he found you'd cut the telephone wire, he was dead scared. He knew then it was a ease for the police. But you had other ideas. Unfortunately for you, in the scuffle with Rutland, you dropped this bag and a servant brought it in here. And naturally, you weren't going to leave without this money!'
Wilkins said smoothly. 'Circumstances alter cases, Blackburn!' One hand shot from his pocket and it held a small black automatic. 'I regret this touch of melodrama, but it's essential that I'm out of this country by the morning.' Keeping that automatic ominously steady, he began to retreat toward the french windows. 'And I don't intend letting anyone stop me!'
Elizabeth turned her head slowly. Miss Rountree sat like someone paralysed, jaw dropping and codfish eyes wide and staring. Jeffery's face was dark and set. He made a half-movement and the automatic swung up level with his chest. Oh, my God, thought Elizabeth—he's going to charge! She gave an almost audible sigh of relief when Jeffery stiffened and was immobile. A coal fell in the fireplace and her spine prickled with the shock. Wilkins was almost to the french window and reaching out one stiff hand to push it wider.
And there was Evan Lambert. Evan Lambert and two stocky figures in blue uniforms who leapt forward almost simultaneously. There was a sharp crack and the acrid tang of gunpowder before Wilkins disappeared in a tangle of waving arms.
Midnight was chiming when Lambert returned. 'Seems I came back just in time,' he observed, then paused as the hum of a retreating car was heard. 'There go the Terrible Twins, alias Wilkins and Tucker.'
'And good riddance, too,' said Elizabeth shakily. 'Now, what about Sally?'
'She's in her room,' Lambert replied. 'They found her tied up in the summer-house. Poor kid—she's had the scare of her life—'
Mr Blackburn nodded with some satisfaction. 'The trouble with practical jokes,' he announced, 'is that they have the damndest way of kicking back!' He took his wife's hand. 'Come on, darling, let's go up and comfort Jim Rutland. Doctor Preston tells me he's going to have a very sore head tomorrow.'
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