Authors: John Russell Fearn
Tags: #traditional British mystery, #police procedural, #crime, #horror, #murder
BORGO PRESS BOOKS BY JOHN RUSSELL FEARN
1,000-Year Voyage: A Science Fiction Novel
The Crimson Rambler: A Crime Novel
Don't Touch Me: A Crime Novel
The Empty Coffins: A Mystery of Horror
The Fourth Door: A Mystery Novel
From Afar: A Science Fiction Mystery
The G-Bomb: A Science Fiction Novel
Here and Now: A Science Fiction Novel
Into the Unknown: A Science Fiction Tale
The Man Who Was Not: A Crime Novel
One Way Out: A Crime Novel
(with Philip Harbottle)
Reflected Glory: A Dr. Castle Classic Crime Novel
Robbery Without Violence: Two Science Fiction Crime Stories
Shattering Glass: A Crime Novel
The Silvered Cage: A Scientific Murder Mystery
Slaves of Ijax: A Science Fiction Novel
The Space Warp: A Science Fiction Novel
Vision Sinister: A Scientific Detective Thriller
What Happened to Hammond? A Scientific Mystery
Within That Room!: A Mystery of Horror
Copyright Â© 1946 by John Russell Fearn
Copyright Â© 1992, 2005 by Philip Harbottle
Published by Wildside Press LLC
For Bob Adey
There was nothing else for it but to get on the moveâto reach London as quickly as possible and there devote what remained of meager savings to a last effort to find suitable employment. Vera Grantham had come to this conclusion slowly, had fought against its inevitability, though she had known all the time that it would finally be forced upon her.
She had emerged from the A.T.S. full of hopes and plans, only to discover that she was one of millions with similar hopes and plans. Her gratuity and savings could not last indefinitely, soâ
“Nothing else offers so I'll have to do it!” she decided, sighing, and she pushed away the piece of paper upon which she had been making figures. Whichever way she had added them up, they had still shown a total of Â£25 on the wrong side and a balance of Â£15 in the bank.
“Which isn't much for a bouncing girl full of health, hope and ambition,” she muttered.
She tried to smile at her misfortune as she sat at the little table in her small room, but just the same it was worry which impelled her hand through her thick blonde hair; it was worry which had brought little lines of strain round the clear blue eyes and puckers to her firm mouth. Vera Grantham, aged twenty-four, blessed with a courage that had defied shells and bombs, now faced a problem that had so far defeated her.
As she sat thinking, gazing absently through the window on to a huddle of gray, dreary rooftops in the hot June sunshine, there came a light tap on the door.
“Are you there, love?”
It was Mrs. Hallam, Vera's landladyâvery generous, very ample, very Lancashire.
“Yes, Mrs. Hallam. Come in.”
Ponderous, gray-haired, enveloped in a large check apron, Mrs. Hallam entered.
“There's a gent downstairs, love,” she said, her manner confidential. “'E says he wants to see you.”
“Oh?” Then Vera's moody expression changed. “Oh! Does he? What does he look like?”
“Well, 'e's smart like, with a dark suit. 'E's got a flat leather case with 'im. Hoff 'and I'd say 'e's a lawyer or somethin'.”
Vera got up and closed the door. Then she came back with a thoughtful frown to the surprised Mrs. Hallam.
“Mrs. Hallam,” she said, “You've been a very good friend to me, so I think it is only fair that you should know how I stand. I'mâwell, about broke. A lot of unpaid bills have mounted up since I was demobbed, and I can't pay them. That little man down below has probably come with a summons. In other words, I've got to get out. I was just thinking it over when you knocked on the door.”
Mrs. Hallam looked at the girl's serious face. “But, Vera, where'll you go?”
“Where everybody goes when they're down on their luck,” Vera smiled. “London. Manchester is no good to me, even though I was born and raised here. There don't seem to be any openings for a commercial artist, and nothing else will do for me. So I'll pay what rent I owe and then be on my way. I know a man in London who might be able to help me, if bombs and rockets haven't blasted him out of business.”
“Butâwhat do I do with that there man down below?” Mrs. Hallam asked.
“Well, it depends on what you told him. What did you say about me?” Mrs. Hallam smiled complacently.
“I told 'im I'd see if you was in. 'E said to tell you 'is name is Thwaite, of Morgan, Thwaite and 'Endricks.”
“Then he is a solicitor!” Vera exclaimed, snapping her fingers. “That means a writ! Tell him I'm out. Get rid of him. I'm going to start packing.”
Mrs. Hallam nodded and left the room. The instant the door was shut, Vera turned quickly and dragged her suitcase from under the bed, began to pack it with her modest belongings and leftovers from the A.T.S.âincluding a gas mask which she had forgotten to turn in at the depot.
She hummed softly to herself, happy now that she had a plan in mind. The fact that its success was not assured was of no consequence; she was on the move and that was the main thing.
It did not take her more than ten minutes to complete her packing. She was just putting on her hat and coat when Mrs. Hallam knocked and re-entered.
“I got rid of 'im, love,” she said, beaming. “Mind yer, I don't think 'e believed what I told 'im, but 'e went just the same and said 'e'd come back tonight.”
Vera smiled in relief. “I'll be in London by then, and since I don't know where I'm going to settle you can't give a forwarding address. Now, how much do I owe you?”
“It'll be twelve and six up today, loveâbut if you're 'ard pressed just leave it. Call it square until you get started fair and proper likeâ”
“No, no. I must be independent if I can, Mrs. Hallamâit's part of my nature. That's why I feel so awful at having piled up these bills which I can't pay; at least not yet.” Vera rummaged in her handbag. “There you areâtwelve and six, and thanks for being so good to me.”
“It's been a pleasure I'm sure. I only 'opes you do all right among them Londoners. You ought to, with your face and figure.”
“I'm afraid they haven't much selling value to a commercial artist,” Vera sighedâthen she looked momentarily surprised as Mrs. Hallam threw her arms about her and gave her a warm kiss.
“Just for luck, love,” she explained, and insisted on seeing the girl down to the street.
As she left the house and waved back, Vera felt as though she were leaving behind a very generous soul. She knew she could never hope to find a kinder landlady than Mrs. Hallam; but in another sense the prospect of change, of fighting for opportunity in London, stirred her young and spirited soul to the challenge.
At the bus stop she set down her case beside her and wondered whether she ought to take off her coat in the warm sunshine. She was still trying to make up her mind when she caught sight of two things one after the other. The bus she wanted was speeding toward her, while from out of the street she had just left, a small man in bowler hat was emerging. He was dressed in dark clothes and carrying a briefcase. It did not have to be Mr. Thwaite, of course, but all the same....
Vera hastily boarded the bus, and found a seat on the lower deck. The legal-looking man also boarded and went upstairs. Vera sat wondering and frowning, so much so that she vaguely resented the presence of the conductor asking for her fare.
At London Road station she took up her case and alighted. Glancing back, she saw that the annoying little man with the briefcase was walking swiftly after herâso she put on speed, mingled with the crowd inside the station, and as far as she could tell managed to lose her pursuer. Unless, of course, there was always the chance he was not Mr. Thwaite at all.
Vera bought her ticket to London and to her relief found the 10:50 already waiting at platform 1. Complimenting herself on her evasive action in face of the enemy she selected a compartment, heaved her case up on the rack, then settled down in a corner seat furthest from the corridor.
When the train had been an hour on its way, however, her complacency was shattered. As she sat reading in her corner she happened to glance up to behold a bowler-hatted figure in dark clothes moving along the corridor. He peered into her compartment, looking straight at her, then at her four traveling companions. Inwardly she began to quiver with indignation, was right on the verge of jumping up and demanding to know what he wantedâthen remembering it could only be a summons, she remained still and waited. The little man moved onâbut Vera had not the least doubt that he was hovering in the corridor just out of her line of vision.
When she left the compartment in search of the dining car, she glanced casually over her shoulder. Sure enough, there he was. He seemed about to raise a hand at her in signal but she turned away so quickly she could not be sure of it. When she entered the dining car she whipped up a menu quickly and sat peeping over it.
Presently the little man came drifting in. He was forestalled in his approach, however, by the waiter. Vera gave her order and then sat back and looked icily through the pursuer as he dodged in the background. Quite undeterred, though, he came forward, taking off his bowler hat to reveal a bald head fringed with gray fluff.
“Excuse me, butâare you Miss Vera Grantham?” he asked.
His voice was quiet enough, Vera decided, and quite culturedâbut she remained coldly uncompromising.
“I am. And if you don't stop following me, I intend to inform the guard! I strongly object to it!”
“You are quite within your rights, Miss Grantham, and I really must apologise. If it were not so important a matter Iâ”
“It must be!” Vera interrupted. “You have never stopped chasing me since I left my room in Manchester!”
The little man put his hat down on one of the chairs, and then seated himself beside it.
“Forgive me, Miss Grantham, but this is something which cannot waitâYou don't mind my sitting at your table?”
“I don't own the train, do I?”
“Hmmmâno, of course not. Erâ Here is my card.” Vera took it though she knew what was comingâ
Morgan, Thwaite & Hendricks
Brazennose St., Manchester
“Very interesting,” Vera said. “But it's no surprise....”
She looked at him steadily and read puzzlement in his eyes. It was as though he could not understand her distant manner.
“You go to quite a lot of trouble to serve a summons, don't you?” Vera asked.
“Summons?” Jonathan Thwaite looked as though the word were in a foreign language. “Summons?” he repeated. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“I can hardly conceive of any other, being up to my neck in debt and with little prospect of paying offâ”
“So that's it!” Thwaite laughed so much the gold in his back teeth became revealed. Then he seemed to remember the sobriety of his calling and became serious again. “No wonder you resented my following you.”
He leaned forward confidentially, but before he could get started the waiter returned with Vera's lunch.
“I'll take the same,” Thwaite said, surveying it: then as the waiter hurried off, he added: “I'm here to bring you good news, Miss Grantham, and if it is all the same to you, you can transact the business here instead of returning to Manchester. I can get a train back from Crewe.”
“Good news?” Vera was suspicious. “But you don't even resemble Santa Claus, Mr. Thwaite.”
He coughed away his inner thoughts and laid his briefcase on the table beside him. Then he leaned forward again and asked a question in a hushed voice.
“Do you remember your Uncle Cyrus? Cyrus Merriforth?”
Vera frowned and tried to remember. It required some effort, too.
“Why, yes, I believe I do,” Vera assented. “Only vaguely, though. I met him once when I was a girl at school. I seem to remember that he was a world traveler, always hopping about collecting butterflies and plants or something, then coming home and writing books about them.”
“Your uncle was a very famous entomologist and botanist, Miss Grantham.”
“Knew his bugs?” Vera suggested calmly.
“Hum! Ha! Yes, indeed!”
Thwaite paused as his lunch was set before him. He looked at it and then cleared his throat.
“We are his solicitors,” he resumed. “He learned during the war of your gallantry in the A.T.S.âof which there was some mention in the newspapersâand decided on that account to add a codicil to his will. Now that he is dead weâ”
“Oh, he's dead!” Vera said.
“Yes, yes, of course.” Thwaite looked irritable. “He died a little while ago and was cremated.”
“I'm sorry, Mr. Thwaite, but you hadn't told me he was dead. He added a codicil, a codicil because of me?” Vera wrestled with the unexpected.
“Butâbut why me?” she asked blankly. “Didn't he remember my mother, his own sister? Though she died in the blitz along with my father, my uncle did not know that....”
“The codicil refers entirely to you,” Thwaite stated, brushing away the side issues.
“And he left me a huge fortune, I suppose?” Vera shook her blonde head. “I just don't believe it! Remote uncles only leave fortunes to half forgotten nieces in novels.”
Thwaite coughed and looked at his lunch.
“No, Miss Grantham,” he admitted, “he did not leave you a fortune.”
Vera sighed, and picked up her knife and fork again. “I knew it! What then? A butterfly net and an old magnifying glass?”
“He left you Sunny Acres and Â£100. The bulk of his fortune went to the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Flora and Fauna; that is except for an annuity to his two servants, Mr. and Mrs. Falworth.”
Vera smiled sadly. Then her blue eyes began to take on a new light. “What do you mean by Sunny Acres?”
“It is the residence which Mr. Merriforth owned. It is far more than a mere residence. It is a one-time feudal castle. It has extensive grounds, and, should you wish to sell, could probably realize Â£15,000 for it. Such an offer is indeed already in existence. Do you know Surrey at all? The little hamlet of Waylock Dean?”
“Fifteen thouâWaylock Dean?” Vera shook her head absently. “Fifteen thousand! Great Scott!”
“The residence,” Thwaite proceeded, “has the two servants already installedâMr. and Mrs. Falworth. They are a middle-aged couple, the woman being housekeeper, cook and so forth; while the man does the gardening and odd jobs. They've been at Sunny Acres for the past ten years.”
“And the old boy left it all to me?” Vera asked incredulously. “All because of some trifling act I performed which was considered brave enough to merit mention in the newspapers! Good heavens! I always knew the old chap was a bit eccentric and now I'm sure of it. Incidentally, what is the Â£100 for?”
“I have not the least idea, Miss Granthamâunless it is intended as incidental expenses. The moment your uncle died and his will had been proved, it became our duty, of course, to trace you. We managed it through the ministry of labor, who had a record of you seeking employment as a commercial artist. I reached your rooming house this morning and was turned away. I felt somehow that things were not quite as they should be, so I decided to wait.”
“And I'm thankful that you did,” Vera declared. “To think that I might have turned my back on Sunny Acres and Â£100 if you hadn't been so persistent! I'm sorry if I seemed rude.”
“Considering the circumstances I can quite understand your attitude,” Thwaite said gallantly. Then for a while they continued their lunches as they thought things out. It was Thwaite who finally broke the silence.
“I feel that I should mention one condition,” he said, and Vera gave him a sharp look.
“Condition? So there are strings to it after all.”
“Hardly that, Miss Grantham: it is just a matter of a legend. I have mentioned that Sunny Acres was once a feudal castle. Well, it is considered to be haunted, so much so that no resident of Waylock Dean will go near the place. Your uncle, I believe, had quite a distressing experience with the phantom about a year ago, and the servants swear that haunting does take place.”
“Old-fashioned bogey stories don't frighten me,” Vera replied. “Thanks for telling me, though.”
“Am I to understand, then, that you will take Sunny Acres and the hundred pounds?”
“I most certainly will! I had decided this morning to try my luck at getting a job in Londonâbut now I have really got something to travel to! What do I have to do?”
Thwaite opened his briefcase with meticulous care and drew forth a number of legal papers.
“I have everything here, Miss Grantham, to make the business legal. All you have to do is sign. Later on the deed will be forwarded to you....”
“I see. Andâerâdon't think I'm grasping, Mr. Thwaite, but what about that hundred pounds? I'm extremely short of cash at the moment.”
Thwaite smiled, drew forth a sealed envelope, handed it over. Vera opened it and peered inside at fifty one-pound notes and five ten-pound ones. Then she took her right arm between her left finger and thumb and pinched hard.
“Mmmâmust be true! I'm still here!”
“If you will sign here....” Thwaite traced a finger along the bottom of one of the papers and then proffered his fountain pen.
Vera signed, and the scant scattering of diners looked on in polite interest.
She signed the documents that Thwaite replaced in his case. Then he sat back with the air of a man who has done a ticklish job well.
“And you think you will reside at Sunny Acres, Miss Grantham?” he asked.
Vera ate in silence for a while.
“Offhand, I can't say. I don't really see what use an old feudal castle and a couple of servants will be to me. I'm only twenty-four, unattached, and anxious to make my mark in the artistic world. I'll probably sell the place after spending a few days in it as a sort of holiday. I'd sooner have Â£15,000 than a pile of old bricks and a ghost. Anyway, I'll see.”
“Until you make up your mind I will address the mail to Sunny Acres,” Thwaite decided. “Mr. and Mrs. Falworth will be informed by telegram of your coming. I'll send it from Crewe.”
“By telegram? Don't tell me the moated castle hasn't even got a telephone?”
“I'm afraid it hasn't. Your uncle had a decided dislike for modern amenities.”
“I think,” Vera decided, “that my uncle was a queer old duck whichever way you look at it!”