Read CHAPTER 15. INSPECTOR WILLIS LISTENS IN of The Pit Prop Syndicate , free online book, by Freeman Wills Crofts, on ReadCentral.com.

Inspector Willis was a good deal exercised by the question of whether or not he should have Archer shadowed. If the managing director conceived the slightest suspicion of his danger he would undoubtedly disappear, and a man of his ability would not be likely to leave many traces. On the other hand Willis wondered whether even Scotland Yard men could shadow him sufficiently continuously to be a real safeguard, without giving themselves away. And if that happened he might indeed arrest Archer, but it would be good-bye to any chance of getting his confederates.

After anxious thought he decided to take the lesser risk. He would not bring assistants into the matter, but would trust to his own skill to carry on the investigation unnoticed by the distiller.

Though the discovery of Archer’s identity seemed greatly to strengthen the probability that the secret telephone led to him, Willis could not state this positively, and he felt it was the next point to be ascertained. The same argument that he had used before seemed to apply that owing to the difficulty of wiring, the point of connection must be close to the depot. Archer’s office was not more than three hundred yards away, while his house, The Elms, was over a mile. The chances were therefore in favor of the former.

It followed that he must begin by searching Archer’s office for the other receiver, and he turned his attention to the problem of how this could best be done.

And first, as to the lie of the offices. He called at the Electric Generating Station, and having introduced himself confidentially to the manager in his official capacity, asked to see the man whose business it was to inspect the lights of the distillery. From him he had no difficulty in obtaining a rough plan of the place.

It appeared that the offices were on the first floor, fronting along the line, Archer’s private office occupying the end of the suite and the corner of the building nearest to the syndicate’s wharf, and therefore to Ferriby. The supervisor believed that it had two windows looking to the front and side respectively, but was not sure.

That afternoon Inspector Willis returned to the distillery, and secreting himself in the same hiding place as before, watched until the staff had left the building. Then strolling casually along the lane, he observed that the two telephone wires which approached across the fields led to the third window from the Ferriby end of the first floor row.

“That’ll be the main office,” he said to himself, “but there will probably be an extension to Archer’s own room. Now I wonder

He looked about him. The hedge bounding the river side of the lane ran up to the corner of the building. After another hasty glance round Willis squeezed through and from immediately below scrutinized the side window of the managing director’s room. And then he saw something which made him chuckle with pleasure.

Within a few inches of the architrave of the window there was a down-spout, and from the top of the window to the spout he saw stretching what looked like a double cord. It was painted the same color as the walls, and had he not been looking out specially he would not have seen it. A moment’s glance at the foot of the spout showed him his surmise was correct. Pushed in behind it and normally concealed by it were two insulated wires, which ran down the wall from the window and disappeared into the ground with the spout.

“Got it first shot,” thought the inspector delightedly, as he moved away so as not to attract the attention of any chance onlooker.

Another idea suddenly occurred to him and, after estimating the height and position of the window, he turned and ran his eye once more over his surroundings. About fifty yards from the distillery, and behind the hedge fronting the lane, stood the cottage which Hilliard and Merriman had noticed. It was in a bad state of repair, having evidently been unoccupied for a long time. In the gable directly opposite the managing director’s office was a broken window. Willis moved round behind the house, and once again producing his bent wire, in a few moments had the back door open. Slipping inside, he passed through the damp-smelling rooms and up the decaying staircase until he reached the broken window. From it, as he had hoped, he found he had a good view into the office.

He glanced at his watch. It was ten minutes past seven.

“I’ll do it tonight,” he murmured, and quietly leaving the house, he hurried to Ferriby Station and so to Hull.

Some five hours later he left the city again, this time by motor. He stopped at the end of the lane which ran past the distillery, dismissed the vehicle, and passed down the lane. He was carrying a light, folding ladder, a spade, a field telephone, a coil of insulated wire, and some small tools.

The night was very dark. The crescent moon would not rise for another couple of hours, and a thick pall of cloud cut off all light from the stars. A faint wind stirred the branches of the few trees in the neighborhood and sighed across the wide spaces of open country. The inspector walked slowly, being barely able to see against the sky the tops of the hedges which bounded the lane. Except for himself no living creature seemed to be abroad.

Arrived at his destination, Willis felt his way to the gap in the hedge which he had used before, passed through, and with infinite care raised his ladder to the window of Archer’s office. He could not see the window, but he checked the position of the ladder by the measurements from the hedge. Then he slowly ascended.

He found he had gauged his situation correctly, and he was soon on the sill of the window, trying with his knife to push back the hasp. This he presently accomplished, and then, after an effort so great that he thought he would be beaten, he succeeded in raising the sash. A minute later he was in the room.

His first care was to pull down the thick blinds of blue holland with which the windows were fitted. Then tip-toeing to the door, he noiselessly shot the bolt in the lock.

Having thus provided against surprise, he began his investigation. There in the top corner of the side window were the wires. They followed the miter of the window architrave white-enameled to match and then, passing down for a few inches at the outside of the moldings, ran along the picture rail round the room, concealed in the groove behind it. Following in the same way the miter of the architrave, they disappeared though a door in the back wall of the office.

Willis softly opened the door, which was not locked, and peered into a small store, evidently used for filing. The wires were carried down the back of the architrave molding and along the top of the wainscoting, until finally they disappeared into the side of one of a series of cupboards which lined the wall opposite the door. The cupboard was locked, but with the help of the bent wire it soon stood open and Willis, flashing in a beam from his electric torch, saw with satisfaction that he had attained at least one of his objects. A telephone receiver similar to that at the syndicate’s depot was within.

He examined the remaining contents of the room, but found nothing of interest until he came to the door. This was solidly made and edged with rubber, and he felt sure that it would be almost completely sound-proof. It was, moreover, furnished with a well-oiled lock.

“Pretty complete arrangement,” Willis thought as he turned back to the outer office. Here he conducted another of his meticulous examinations, but unfortunately with a negative result.

Having silently unlocked the door and pulled up the blinds, he climbed out on the window sill and closed the window. He was unable to refasten the hasp, and had therefore to leave this evidence of his visit, though he hoped and believed it would not be noticed.

Lifting down the ladder, he carried it to the cottage and hid it therein. Part of his task was done, and he must wait for daylight to complete the remainder.

When some three hours later the coming dawn had made objects visible, he again emerged armed with his tools and coil of insulated wire. Digging a hole at the bottom of the down-pipe, he connected his wires just below the ground level to those of the telephone. Then inserting his spade along the face of the wall from the pipe to the hedge, he pushed back the adjoining soil, placed the wires in the narrow trench thus made, and trod the earth back into place. When the hole at the down-spout had been filled, practically no trace remained of the disturbance.

The ground along the inside of the hedge being thickly grown over with weeds and grass, he did not think it necessary to dig a trench for the wire, simply bedding it beneath the foliage. But he made a spade cut across the sward from the hedge to the cottage door, sank in the wire and trod out the cut. Once he had passed the tiny cable beneath the front door he no longer troubled to hide it but laid it across the floors and up the airs to the broken window. There he attached the field receiver, affixing it to his ear so as to be ready for eventualities.

It was by this time half past six and broad daylight, but Willis had seen no sign of life and he believed his actions had been unobserved. He ate a few sandwiches, then lighting his pipe, lay down on the floor and smoked contentedly.

His case at last was beginning to prosper. The finding of Coburn’s murderer was of course an event of outstanding importance, and now the discovery of the telephone was not only valuable for its own sake, but was likely to bring in a rich harvest of information from the messages he hoped to intercept. Indeed he believed he could hardly fail to obtain from this source a definite indication of the nature and scope of the conspiracy.

About eight o’clock he could see from his window a number of workmen arrive at the distillery, followed an hour later by a clerical staff. After them came Archer, passing from his car to the building with his purposeful stride. Almost immediately he appeared in his office, sat down at his desk, and began to work.

Until nearly midday Willis watched him going through papers, dictating letters, and receiving subordinates. Then about two minutes to the hour he saw him look at his watch, rise, and approach the door from the other office, which was in Willis’s line of vision behind the desk. He stooped over the lock as if turning the key, and then the watcher’s excitement rose as the other disappeared out of sight in the direction of the filing room.

Willis was not disappointed. Almost immediately he heard the faint call of the tiny buzzer, and then a voice Archer’s voice, he believed, from what he had heard in the hotel lounge called softly, “Are you there?”

There was an immediate answer. Willis had never heard Benson speak, but he presumed that the reply must be from him.

“Anything to report?” Archer queried.

“No. Everything going on as usual.”

“No strangers poking round and asking questions?”

“And no traces of a visitor while you were away?”

“None.”

“Good. It’s probably a false alarm. Beamish may have been mistaken.”

“I hope so, but he seemed very suspicious of that Scotland Yard man said he was sure he was out for more than he pretended. He thought he was too easily satisfied with the information he got, and that some of his questions were too foolish to be genuine.”

Inspector Willis sat up sharply. This was a blow to his dignity, and he felt not a little scandalized. But he had no time to consider his feelings. Archer was speaking again.

“I think we had better be on the safe side. If you have the slightest suspicion don’t wait to report to me. Wire at once to Henri at the clearing this message take it down so that there’ll be no mistake ’Six hundred four-foot props wanted. If possible send next cargo.’ Got that? He will understand. It is our code for ’Suspect danger. Send blank cargoes until further notice.’ Then if a search is made nothing will be found, because there won’t be anything there to find.”

“Very good. It’s a pity to lose the money, but I expect you’re right.”

“We can’t take avoidable risks. Now about yourself. I see you brought no stuff up last night?”

“Couldn’t. I had a rotten bilious attack. I started, but had to go back to bed again. Couldn’t stand.”

“Better?”

“Yes, all right now, thanks.”

“Then you’ll bring the usual up tonight?”

“Certainly.”

“Very well. Now, what about ten forty-five for tomorrow?”

“Right.”

The switch snapped, and in a few seconds the watcher saw Archer return to his office, bend for a moment over the lock of the door, then reseat himself at his desk.

“I’ve got them now,” he thought triumphantly. “I’ve got them at last. Tonight I’ll take them red-handed in whatever they’re doing.” He smiled in anticipation. “By Jove,” he went on, “it was lucky they sent nothing up last night, or they would have taken me red-handed, and that might have been the end of me!”

He was greatly impressed by the excellence of the telephone scheme. There was nothing anywhere about it to excite suspicion, and it kept Archer in touch with the illicit undertaking, while enabling him to hold himself absolutely aloof from all its members. If the rest of the organization was as good, it was not surprising that Hilliard, and Merriman had been baffled.

But the puzzle was now solved, the mystery at an end. That night, so Willis assured himself, the truth would be known.

He remained in his hiding place all day, until, indeed, he had watched the workers at the distillery leave and the gray shadows of evening had begun to descend. Then he hid the telephone and wire in a cupboard, stealthily left the house, and after a rapid glance round hurried along the lane towards Ferriby.

He caught the 6.57 train to Hull, and in a few minutes was at the police station. There he saw the superintendent, and after a little trouble got him to fall in with the plan which he had devised.

As a result of their conference a large car left the city shortly before nine, in which were seated Inspector Willis and eight picked constables in plain clothes. They drove to the end of the Ferriby Lane, where the men dismounted, and took cover behind some shrubs, while the car returned towards Hull.

It was almost, but not quite dark. There was no moon, but the sky was clear and the stars were showing brightly. A faint air, in which there was already a touch of chill, sighed gently through the leaves, rising at intervals almost to a breeze, then falling away again to nothing. Lights were showing here and there yellow gleams from unshaded windows, signal lamps from the railway, navigation lights from the river. Except for the sound of the retreating car and the dull roar of a distant train, the night was very still, a night, in fact, pre-eminently suitable for the inspector’s purpose.

The nine men moved silently down the lane at intervals of a few minutes, their rubber-shod feet making no sound on the hard surface. Willis went first, and as the others reached him he posted them in the positions on which he had previously decided. One man took cover behind the hedge of the lane, a short distance on the distillery side of the wharf, another behind a pile of old material on the railway at the same place, a third hid himself among some bushes on the open ground between the railway and the river, while a fourth crept as near to the end of the wharf as the tide would allow, so as to watch approaches from the water. When they were in position, Willis felt convinced no one could leave the syndicate’s depot for the distillery without being seen.

The other four men he led on to the distillery, placing them in a similar manner on its Ferriby side. If by some extraordinary chance the messenger with the “stuff” should pass the first cordon, the second, he was satisfied, would take him. He left himself free to move about as might appear desirable.

The country was extraordinarily deserted. Not one of the nine men had seen a living soul since they left their motor, and Willis felt certain that his dispositions had been carried out in absolute secrecy.

He crossed the fence on to the railway. By climbing half-way up the ladder of a signal he was able to see the windows of the shed over the galvanized fence. All were in darkness, and he wondered if Benson had gone on his customary expedition into Hull.

To satisfy himself on this point he hid beneath a wagon which was standing on the siding close to the gate in the fence. If the manager were returning by his usual train he would be due in a few minutes, and Willis intended to wait and see.

It was not long before a sharp footfall told that someone was coming along the lane. The unknown paused at the stile, climbed over; and, walking more carefully across the rails, approached the door. Willis, whose eyes were accustomed to the gloom, could make out the dim form of a man, showing like a smudge of intensified blackness against the obscurity beyond. He unlocked the door, passed through, slammed it behind him, and his retreating steps sounded from within. Finally another door closed in the distance and silence again reigned.

Willis crawled out from beneath his truck and once more climbed the signal ladder. The windows of Benson’s office were now lighted up, but the blinds being drawn, the inspector could see nothing within.

After about half an hour he observed the same phenomenon as Hilliard and Merriman had witnessed the light was carried from the office to the bedroom, and a few minutes later disappeared altogether.

The ladder on which he was standing appearing to Willis to offer as good an observation post as he could hope to get, he climbed to the little platform at the top, and seating himself, leaned back against the timber upright and continued his watch.

Though he was keenly interested by his adventure, time soon began to drag. It was cramped on the little seat, and he could not move freely for fear of falling off. Then to his dismay he began to grow sleepy. He had of course been up all the previous night, and though he had dozed a little during his vigil in the deserted house, he had not really rested. He yawned, stretched himself carefully, and made a determined effort to overcome his drowsiness.

He was suddenly and unexpectedly successful. He got the start of his life, and for a moment he thought an earthquake had come. The signal post trembled and swayed while with a heavy metallic clang objects moved through the darkness near his head. He gripped the rail, and then he laughed as he remembered that railway signals were movable. This one had just been lowered for a train.

Presently it roared past him, enveloping him in a cloud of steam, which for an instant was lit bright as day by the almost white beam that poured out of the open door of the engine firebox. Then, the steam clearing, there appeared a strip of faintly lit ground on either side of the flying carriage roofs; it promptly vanished; red tail Lamps appeared, leaping away; there was a rattle of wheels over siding connections, and with a rapidly decreasing roar the visitation was past. For a moment there remained the quickly moving spot of lighted steam, then it too vanished. Once again the signal post swayed as the heavy mechanism of the arm dropped back into the “on” position, and then all was once more still.

The train had effectually wakened Willis, and he set himself with a renewed vigor to this task. Sharply he watched the dark mass of the shed with its surrounding enclosure, keenly he listened for some sound of movement within. But all remained dark and silent.

Towards one in the morning he descended from his perch and went the round of his men. All were alert, and all were unanimous that no one had passed.

The time dragged slowly on. The wind had risen somewhat and clouds were banking towards the north-west. It grew colder, and Willis fancied there must be a touch of frost.

About four o’clock he went round his pickets for the second time. He was becoming more and more surprised that the attempt had been delayed so long, and when some two hours later the coming dawn began to brighten the eastern sky and still no sign had been observed, his chagrin waxed keen. As the light increased, he withdrew his men to cover, and about seven o’clock, when it was no longer possible that anything would be attempted, he sent them by ones and twos to await their car at the agreed rendezvous.

He was more disappointed at the failure of his trap than he would have believed possible. What, he wondered, could have happened? Why had the conspirators abandoned their purpose? Had he given himself away? He went over in his mind every step he had taken, and he did not see how any one of them could have become known to his enemies, or how any of his actions could have aroused their suspicions. No; it was not, he felt sure, that they had realized their danger. Some other quite accidental circumstance had intervened to cause them to postpone the transfer of the “stuff” for that night But what extraordinary hard luck for him! He had obtained his helpers from the superintendent only after considerable trouble, and the difficulty of getting them again would be much greater. And not the least annoying thing was that he, a London man, one, indeed, of the best men at the Yard, had been made to look ridiculous in the eyes of these provincial police!

Dog-tired and hungry though he was, he set his teeth and determined that he would return to the cottage in the hope of learning the reason of his failure from the conversation which he expected would take place between Archer and Benson at a quarter to eleven that day.

Repeating, therefore, his proceedings of the previous morning, he regained his point of vantage at the broken window. Again he watched the staff arrive, and again observed Archer enter and take his place at his desk. He was desperately sleepy, and it required all the power of his strong will to keep himself awake. But at last his perseverance was rewarded, and at 10.45 exactly he saw Archer bolt his door and disappear towards the filing room. A moment later the buzzer sounded.

“Are you there?” once again came in Archer’s voice, followed by the astounding phrase, “I see you brought up that stuff last night.”

“Yes, I brought up two hundred and fifty,” was Benson’s amazing reply.

Inspector Willis gasped. He could scarcely believe his ears. So he had been tricked after all! In spite of his carefully placed pickets, in spite of his own ceaseless watchfulness, he had been tricked. Two hundred and fifty of the illicit somethings had been conveyed, right under his and his men’s noses, from the depot to the distillery. Almost choking with rage and amazement he heard Archer continue:

“I had a lucky deal after our conversation yesterday, got seven hundred unexpectedly planted. You may send up a couple of hundred extra tonight if you like.”

“Right. I shall,” Benson answered, and the conversation ceased.

Inspector Willis swore bitterly as he lay back on the dusty floor and pillowed his head on his hands. And then while he still fumed and fretted, outraged nature asserted herself and he fell asleep.

He woke, ravenously hungry, as it was getting dusk, and he did not delay long in letting himself out of the house, regaining the lane, and walking to Ferriby Station. An hour later he was dining at his hotel in Hull.