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When James Beardmore receives a letter demanding ?100,000 he refuses to pay - even though it is his last warning. It is his son Jack who finds him dead. Can the amazing powers of Derrick Yale, combined with the methodical patience of Inspector Parr, discover the secret of the Crimson Circle? Who is its all-powerful head and who is the stranger who lies in wait? Twice in a lifetime a ruthless criminal faces the executioner.
When James Beardmore receives a letter demanding œ100,000 he refuses to pay - even though it is his last warning. It is his son Jack who finds him dead. Can the amazing powers of Derrick Yale, combined with the methodical patience of Inspector Parr, discover the secret of the Crimson Circle? Who is its all-powerful head and who is the stranger who lies in wait? Twice in a lifetime a ruthless criminal faces the executioner.
IT was an hour when most respectable citizens were preparing for bed, and the upper windows of the big, old-fashioned houses in the square showed patches of light, against which the outlines of the leafless trees, bending and swaying under the urge of the gale, were silhouetted. A cold wind was sweeping up the river, and its outriders penetrated icily into the remotest and most sheltered places.
The man who paced slowly by the high iron railings shivered, though he was warmly clad, for the unknown had chosen a rendezvous which seemed exposed to the full blast of the storm.
The debris of the dead autumn whirled in fantastic circles about his feet, the twigs and leaves came rattling down from the trees which threw their long gaunt arms above him, and he looked enviously at the cheerful glow in the windows of a house where, did he but knock, he would be received as a welcome guest.
The hour of eleven boomed out from a nearby clock, and the last stroke was reverberating when a car came swiftly and noiselessly into the square and halted abreast of him. The two head-lamps burned dimly. Within the closed body there was no spark of light. After a moment's hesitation the waiting man stepped to the car, opened the door, and got in. He could only guess the outline of the driver's figure in the seat ahead, and he felt a curious thumping of heart as he realised the terrific importance of the step he had taken. The car did not move, and the man in the driver's seat remained motionless. For a little time there was a dead silence, which was broken by the passenger.
"Well?" he asked nervously, almost irritably.
"Have you decided?" asked the driver.
"Should I be here if I hadn't?" demanded the passenger. "Do you think I've come out of curiosity? What do you want of me? Tell me that, and I will tell you what I want of you."
"I know what you want of me," said the driver. His voice was muffled and indistinct, as one who spoke behind a veil.
When the newcomer's eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, he detected the vague outline of the black silk cowl which covered the driver's head.
"You are on the verge of bankruptcy," the driver went on. "You have used money which was not yours to use, and you are contemplating suicide. And it is not your insolvency which makes you consider this way out. You have an enemy who has discovered something to your discredit, something which would bring you into the hands of the police. Three days ago you obtained from a firm of manufacturing chemists, a member of which is a friend of yours, a particularly deadly drug, which cannot be obtained from a retail chemist. You have spent a week reading up poisons and their effects, and it is your intention, unless something turns up which will save you from ruin, to end your life either on Saturday or Sunday. I think it will be Sunday." He heard the man behind him gasp, and laughed softly. "Now, sir," said the driver, "are you prepared for a consideration to act for me?"
"What do you want me to do?" demanded the man behind him shakily.
"I ask no more than that you should carry out my instructions. I will take care that you run no risks and that you are well paid. I am prepared at this moment to place in your hands a very large sum of money, which will enable you to meet your more pressing obligations. In return for this I shall want you to put into circulation all the money I send you, to make the necessary exchanges, to cover up the trail of bills and bank-notes, the numbers of which are known to the police; to dispose of bonds, which I cannot dispose of, and generally to act as my agent—" he paused, adding significantly, "and to pay on demand what I ask."
The man behind him did not reply for some time, and then he asked with a hint of petulance; "What is the Crimson Circle?"
"You," was the startling reply.
"I?" gasped the man.
"You are of the Crimson Circle," said the other carefully. "You have a hundred comrades, none of whom will ever be known to you, none of whom will ever know you."
"I know them all," said the driver. "You agree?"
"I agree," said the other after a pause. The driver half-turned in his seat and held out his hand.
"Take this," he said. "This" was a large, bulky envelope, and the newly initiated member of the Crimson Circle thrust it into his pocket.
"And now get out," said the driver curtly, and the man obeyed without question.
He slammed the door behind him and walked abreast of the driver. He was still curious as to his identity, and for his own salvation it was necessary that he should know the man who drove.
"Don't light your cigar here," said the driver, "or I shall think that your smoking is really an excuse to strike a match. And remember this, my friend, that the man who knows me, carries his knowledge to hell."
Before the other could reply the car moved on and the man with the envelope stood watching its red tail light until it disappeared from view.
He was shaking from head to foot, and when he did light the cigar which his chattering teeth gripped, the flame of the match quivered tremulously.
"That is that," he said huskily, and crossed the road, to disappear in one of the side-turnings. He was scarcely out of sight before a figure moved stealthily from the doorway of a dark house and followed. It was the figure of a man tall and broad, and he walked with difficulty, for he was naturally short of breath. He had gone a hundred paces in his pursuit before he realised that he still held in his hand the ship's binoculars through which he had been watching.
When he reached the main street his quarry had vanished.
He had expected as much and was not perturbed. He knew where to find him. But who was in the car? He had read the number and could trace its owner in the morning. Mr. Felix Marl grinned. Had he so much as guessed the character of the interview he had overlooked, he would not have been amused. Stronger men than he had grown stiff with fear at the menace of the Crimson Circle.CHAPTER 2
THE MAN WHO DID NOT PAY
PHILIP BASSARD paid, and lived, for apparently the Crimson Circle kept faith; Jacques Rizzi, the banker, also paid, but in a panic. He died from natural causes a month later, having a weak heart. Benson, the railway lawyer, pooh-poohed the threat and was found dead by the side of his private saloon.
Mr. Derrick Yale, with his amazing gifts, ran down the coloured man who had crept into Benson's private car and killed him before he threw the body from the window, and the coloured man was hanged, without, however, revealing the identity of his employer. The police might sneer at Yale's psychometrical powers—as they did—but within forty-eight hours he had led the police to the criminal's house at Yareside and the dazed murderer had confessed.
Following this tragedy many men must have paid without reporting the matter to the police, for there was a long period during which no reference to the Crimson Circle found its way into the newspapers. And then one morning there came to the breakfast table of James Beardmore, a square envelope containing a card, on which was stamped a Crimson Circle.
"You are interested in the melodrama of life, Jack—read that."
James Stamford Beardmore tossed the message across the table to his son and proceeded to open the next letter in the pile which stood beside his plate.
Jack retrieved the message from the floor, where it had fallen, and examined it with a little frown. It was a very ordinary letter-card, save that it bore no address. A big circle of crimson touched its four edges, and had the appearance of having been printed with a rubber stamp, for the ink was unevenly distributed. In the centre of the circle, written in printed characters, were the words:
"One hundred thousand represents only a small portion of your possessions. You will pay this in notes to a messenger I will send in response to an advertisement in the Tribune within the next twenty-four hours, stating the exact hour convenient to you. This is the final warning."
There was no signature.
"Well?" Old Jim Beardmore looked up over his spectacles and his eyes were smiling.
"The Crimson Circle!" gasped his son.
Jim Beardmore laughed aloud at the concern in the boy's voice.
"Yes, the Crimson Circle—I have had four of 'em!"
The young man stared at him. "Four?" he repeated. "Good heavens! Is that why Yale has been staying with us?"
Jim Beardmore smiled.
"That is a reason," he said.
"Of course, I knew that he was a detective, but I hadn't the slightest idea—"
"Don't worry about this infernal circle," interrupted his father a little impatiently. "I'm not scared of them. Froyant is in terror of his life that he will be marked down. And I don't wonder. He and I have made a few enemies in our time."
James Beardmore, with his hard, lined face and his stubbly grey beard, might have been mistaken for the grandfather of the good-looking young man who sat opposite to him. The Beardmore fortune had been painfully won. It had materialised from the wreckage of dreams and had its beginnings in the privations, the dangers and the heartaches of a prospector's life. This man whom Death had stalked on the waterless plains of the Kalahari, who had scraped in the mud of the Vale River for illusory diamonds, and thawed out his claim in the Klondyke, had faced too many real dangers to be greatly disturbed by the threat of the Crimson Circle. For the moment his perturbation was based on a more tangible peril, not to himself, but to his son.
"I've got a whole lot of faith in your good sense, Jack," he said, "so don't be hurt by anything I'm going to say. I've never interfered in your amusements or questioned your judgment—but—do you think that you're being wise just now?" Jack understood. "You mean about Miss Drummond, father?" The older man nodded.
"She's Froyant's secretary," began the youth.
"I know she is Froyant's secretary," said the other, "and she's none the worse for that. But the point is, Jack, do you know anything more about her?"
The young man rolled his napkin deliberately. His face was red and there was a queer set look about his jaw which secretly amused Jim.
"I like her. She is a friend of mine. I've never made love to her, if that is what you mean, dad, and I rather think our friendship would be at an end if I did."
Jim nodded. He had said all that was necessary and now he took up a more bulky envelope and looked at it curiously. Jack saw that it bore French postage stamps and wondered who was the correspondent.
Tearing open the flap, the old man took out a pad of correspondence, which included yet another envelope heavily sealed. He read the superscription and his nose wrinkled.
"Ugh!" he said, and put the envelope down unopened. He glanced through the remainder of the correspondence, then looked across at his son.
"Never trust a man or woman until you know the worst of them," he said. "I've got a man coming to see me to-day who is a respectable member of society. He has a record as black as my hat and yet I'm going to do business with him—I know the worst!"
Jack laughed. Further conversation was interrupted by the arrival of their guest.
"Good morning, Yale—did you sleep well?" asked the old man. "Ring for some more coffee, Jack."
Derrick Yale's visit had been an unmixed pleasure to Jack Beardmore. He was at the age when romance had its full appeal and the companionship of the most commonplace detective would have brought him a peculiar joy. But the glamour which surrounded Yale was the glamour of the supernatural. This man had unusual and peculiar qualities which made him unique. The delicate aesthetic face, the grave mystery of his eyes, the very gesture of his long, sensitive hands, were part of his uniqueness.
"I never sleep," he said good-humouredly as he unrolled his serviette. He held the silver napkin ring for a second between his two fingers, and James Beardmore watched him with amusement. As for Jack, his eager admiration was unconcealed.
"Well?" asked the old man.
"Who handled this last has had very bad news—some near relation is desperately ill."
"Jane Higgins was the servant who laid the table," he said. "She had a letter this morning saying that her mother was dying."
"And you felt that in the serviette ring?" he asked in amazement. "How do you get that impression, Mr. Yale?"
Derrick Yale shook his head.
"I don't attempt to explain," he said quietly. "All that I know is that the moment I took up my serviette I had a sensation of profound and poignant sorrow. It is weird, isn't it?"
"But how did you know about her mother?"
"I traced it somehow," said the other almost brusquely; "it is a matter of deduction. Have you any news, Mr. Beardmore?"
For answer Jim handed him the card he had received that morning. Yale read the message, then weighed the card on the palm of his white hand.
"Posted by a sailor," he said, "a man who has been in prison and has recently lost a great deal of money."
Jim Beardmore laughed.
"Which I shall certainly not replace," he said, rising from the table. "Do you take these warnings seriously?"
"I take them very seriously," said Derrick in his quiet way. "So seriously that I do not advise you to leave this house except in my company. The Crimson Circle," he went on, arresting Beardmore's indignant protest with a characteristic gesture, "is, I admit, vulgarly melodramatic in its operations, but it will be no solace to your heirs to learn that you have died theatrically."
Jim Beardmore was silent for a time, and his son regarded him anxiously.
"Why don't you go abroad, father?" he asked, and the old man snapped round on him.
"Go abroad be damned!" he roared. "Run away from a cheap Black Hand gang? I'll see them—!"
He did not mention their destination, but they could guess.CHAPTER 3
THE GIRL WHO WAS INDIFFERENT
A HEAVY weight lay on Jack Beardmore's mind as he walked slowly across the meadows that morning. His feet carried him instinctively in the direction of the little valley which lay a mile from the house, and in the exact centre of which ran the hedge which marked the division between the Beardmore and Froyant estates. It was a glorious morning. The storm of wind and rain which had swept the country the night before had blown itself out, and the world lay bathed in yellow sunlight. Far away, beyond the olive-green covens that crowned Penton Hill, he caught a glimpse of Harvey Froyant's big white mansion. Would she venture out with the ground so sodden and the grasses soaked with rain, he wondered?
He stopped by a big elm tree on the lip of the valley and cast an anxious glance along the untidy hedge, until his eyes rested on a tiny summer house which the former owners of Tower House had erected—Harvey Froyant, who loathed solitude, would never have been guilty of such extravagance.
There was nobody in sight, and his heart sank. Ten minutes walking brought him to the gap he had made in the fence, and he stepped through. The girl who sat in the tiny house might have heard his sigh of relief.
She looked round, then rose with some evidence of reluctance.
She was remarkably pretty, with her fair hair and flawless skin, but there was no welcome in her eyes as she came slowly toward him. "Good morning," she said coolly.
"Good morning, Thalia," he ventured, and her frown returned.
"I wish you wouldn't," she said, and he knew that she meant what she said. Her attitude toward him puzzled and worried him. For she was a thing of laughter and bubbling life. He had once surprised her chasing a hare, and had watched, spellbound, the figure of this laughing Diana as her little feet flew across the field in pursuit of the scared beast. He had heard her singing, too, and the very joy of life was vibrant in her voice—but he had seen her so depressed and gloomy that he had feared she was ill.
"Why are you always so stiff and formal with me?" he grumbled.
For a second a ghost of a smile showed at the comer of her mouth.
"Because I've read books," she said solemnly, "and poor girl secretaries who aren't stiff and formal with millionaire's sons usually come to a bad end!"
She had a trick of directness which was very disconcerting.
"Besides," she said, "there is no reason why I shouldn't be stiff and formal. It is the conventional attitude which people adopt toward their fellow creatures, unless they are very fond of them, and I'm not very fond of you."
She said this calmly and deliberately, and the young man's face went red. He felt a fool, and cursed himself for provoking this act of cruelty.
"I will tell you something, Mr. Beardmore," she went on in her even tone. "Something which you haven't realised. When a boy and girl are thrown together on a desert island, it is only natural that the boy gets the idea that the girl is the only girl in the world. All his wayward fancies are concentrated on one woman and as the days pass she grows more and more wonderful in his eyes. I've read a lot of these desert island stories, and I've seen a lot of pictures that deal with that interesting situation, and that is how it strikes me. You are on a desert island here—you spend too much time on your estate, and the only things you see are rabbits and birds and Thalia Drummond. You should go into the city and into the society of people of your own station."
Excerpted from The Crimson Circle by Edgar Wallace. Copyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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