Assistant Commissioner of Police T. X. Meredith did not occupy offices in New Scotland Yard. It is the peculiarity of public offices that they are planned with the idea of supplying the margin of space above all requirements and that on their completion they are found wholly inadequate to house the various departments which mysteriously come into progress coincident with the building operations.
"T. X.," as he was known by the police forces of the world, had a big suite of offices in Whitehall. The house was an old one facing the Board of Trade and the inscription on the ancient door told passers-by that this was the "Public Prosecutor, Special Branch."
The duties of T. X. were multifarious. People said of him - and like most public gossip, this was probably untrue - that he was the head of the "illegal" department of Scotland Yard. If by chance you lost the keys of your safe, T. X. could supply you (so popular rumour ran) with a burglar who would open that safe in half an hour.
If there dwelt in England a notorious individual against whom the police could collect no scintilla of evidence to justify a prosecution, and if it was necessary for the good of the community that that person should be deported, it was T. X. who arrested the obnoxious person, hustled him into a cab and did not loose his hold upon his victim until he had landed him on the indignant shores of an otherwise friendly power.
It is very certain that when the minister of a tiny power which shall be nameless was suddenly recalled by his government and brought to trial in his native land for putting into circulation spurious bonds, it was somebody from the department which T. X. controlled, who burgled His Excellency's house, burnt the locks from his safe and secured the necessary incriminating evidence.
I say it is fairly certain and here I am merely voicing the opinion of very knowledgeable people indeed, heads of public departments who speak behind their hands, mysterious under-secretaries of state who discuss things in whispers in the remote corners of their clubrooms and the more frank views of American correspondents who had no hesitation in putting those views into print for the benefit of their readers.
That T. X. had a more legitimate occupation we know, for it was that flippant man whose outrageous comment on the Home Office Administration is popularly supposed to have sent one Home Secretary to his grave, who traced the Deptford murderers through a labyrinth of perjury and who brought to book Sir Julius Waglite though he had covered his trail of defalcation through the balance sheets of thirty-four companies.
On the night of March 3rd, T. X. sat in his inner office interviewing a disconsolate inspector of metropolitan police, named Mansus.
In appearance T. X. conveyed the impression of extreme youth, for his face was almost boyish and it was only when you looked at him closely and saw the little creases about his eyes, the setting of his straight mouth, that you guessed he was on the way to forty. In his early days he had been something of a poet, and had written a slight volume of "Woodland Lyrics," the mention of which at this later stage was sufficient to make him feel violently unhappy.
In manner he was tactful but persistent, his language was at times marked by a violent extravagance and he had had the distinction of having provoked, by certain correspondence which had seen the light, the comment of a former Home Secretary that "it was unfortunate that Mr. Meredith did not take his position with the seriousness which was expected from a public official."
His language was, as I say, under great provocation, violent and unusual. He had a trick of using words which never were on land or sea, and illustrating his instruction or his admonition with the quaintest phraseology.
Now he was tilted back in his office chair at an alarming angle, scowling at his distressed subordinate who sat on the edge of a chair at the other side of his desk.
"But, T. X.," protested the Inspector, "there was nothing to be found."
It was the outrageous practice of Mr. Meredith to insist upon his associates calling him by his initials, a practice which had earnt disapproval in the highest quarters.
"Nothing is to be found!" he repeated wrathfully. "Curious Mike!"
He sat up with a suddenness which caused the police officer to start back in alarm.
"Listen," said T. X., grasping an ivory paperknife savagely in his hand and tapping his blotting-pad to emphasize his words, "you're a pie!"
"I'm a policeman," said the other patiently.
"A policeman!" exclaimed the exasperated T. X. "You're worse than a pie, you're a slud! I'm afraid I shall never make a detective of you," he shook his head sorrowfully at the smiling Mansus who had been in the police force when T. X. was a small boy at school, "you are neither Wise nor Wily; you combine the innocence of a Baby with the grubbiness of a County Parson - you ought to be in the choir."
At this outrageous insult Mr. Mansus was silent; what he might have said, or what further provocation he might have received may be never known, for at that moment, the Chief himself walked in.
The Chief of the Police in these days was a grey man, rather tired, with a hawk nose and deep eyes that glared under shaggy eyebrows and he was a terror to all men of his department save to T. X. who respected nothing on earth and very little elsewhere. He nodded curtly to Mansus.
"Well, T. X.," he said, "what have you discovered about our friend Kara?"
He turned from T. X. to the discomforted inspector.
"Very little," said T. X. "I've had Mansus on the job."
"And you've found nothing, eh?" growled the Chief.
"He has found all that it is possible to find," said T. X. "We do not perform miracles in this department, Sir George, nor can we pick up the threads of a case at five minutes' notice."
Sir George Haley grunted.
"Mansus has done his best," the other went on easily, "but it is rather absurd to talk about one's best when you know so little of what you want."
Sir George dropped heavily into the arm-chair, and stretched out his long thin legs.
"What I want," he said, looking up at the ceiling and putting his hands together, "is to discover something about one Remington Kara, a wealthy Greek who has taken a house in Cadogan Square, who has no particular position in London society and therefore has no reason for coming here, who openly expresses his detestation of the climate, who has a magnificent estate in some wild place in the Balkans, who is an excellent horseman, a magnificent shot and a passable aviator."
T. X. nodded to Mansus and with something of gratitude in his eyes the inspector took his leave.
"Now Mansus has departed," said T. X., sitting himself on the edge of his desk and selecting with great care a cigarette from the case he took from his pocket, "let me know something of the reason for this sudden interest in the great ones of the earth."
Sir George smiled grimly.
"I have the interest which is the interest of my department," he said. "That is to say I want to know a great deal about abnormal people. We have had an application from him," he went on, "which is rather unusual. Apparently he is in fear of his life from some cause or other and wants to know if he can have a private telephone connection between his house and the central office. We told him that he could always get the nearest Police Station on the 'phone, but that doesn't satisfy him. He has made bad friends with some gentleman of his own country who sooner or later, he thinks, will cut his throat."
T. X. nodded.
"All this I know," he said patiently, "if you will further unfold the secret dossier, Sir George, I am prepared to be thrilled."
"There is nothing thrilling about it," growled the older man, rising, "but I remember the Macedonian shooting case in South London and I don't want a repetition of that sort of thing. If people want to have blood feuds, let them take them outside the metropolitan area."
"By all means," said T. X., "let them. Personally, I don't care where they go. But if that is the extent of your information I can supplement it. He has had extensive alterations made to the house he bought in Cadogan Square; the room in which he lives is practically a safe."
Sir George raised his eyebrows.
"A safe," he repeated.
T. X. nodded.
"A safe," he said; "its walls are burglar proof, floor and roof are reinforced concrete, there is one door which in addition to its ordinary lock is closed by a sort of steel latch which he lets fall when he retires for the night and which he opens himself personally in the morning. The window is unreachable, there are no communicating doors, and altogether the room is planned to stand a siege."
The Chief Commissioner was interested.
"Any more?" he asked.
"Let me think," said T. X., looking up at the ceiling. "Yes, the interior of his room is plainly furnished, there is a big fireplace, rather an ornate bed, a steel safe built into the wall and visible from its outer side to the policeman whose beat is in that neighborhood."
"How do you know all this?" asked the Chief Commissioner.
"Because I've been in the room," said T. X. simply, "having by an underhand trick succeeded in gaining the misplaced confidence of Kara's housekeeper, who by the way" - he turned round to his desk and scribbled a name on the blotting-pad - "will be discharged to-morrow and must be found a place."
"Is there any -er -?" began the Chief.
"Funny business?" interrupted T. X., "not a bit. House and man are quite normal save for these eccentricities. He has announced his intention of spending three months of the year in England and nine months abroad. He is very rich, has no relations, and has a passion for power."
"Then he'll be hung," said the Chief, rising.
"I doubt it," said the other, "people with lots of money seldom get hung. You only get hung for wanting money."
"Then you're in some danger, T. X.," smiled the Chief, "for according to my account you're always more or less broke."
"A genial libel," said T. X., "but talking about people being broke, I saw John Lexman to-day - you know him!"
The Chief Commissioner nodded.
"I've an idea he's rather hit for money. He was in that Roumanian gold swindle, and by his general gloom, which only comes to a man when he's in love (and he can't possibly be in love since he's married) or when he's in debt, I fear that he is still feeling the effect of that rosy adventure."
A telephone bell in the corner of the room rang sharply, and T. X. picked up the receiver. He listened intently.
"A trunk call," he said over his shoulder to the departing commissioner, "it may be something interesting."
A little pause; then a hoarse voice spoke to him. "Is that you, T. X.?"
"That's me," said the Assistant Commissioner, commonly.
"It's John Lexman speaking."
"I shouldn't have recognized your voice," said T. X., "what is wrong with you, John, can't you get your plot to went?"
"I want you to come down here at once," said the voice urgently, and even over the telephone T. X. recognized the distress. "I have shot a man, killed him!"
T. X. gasped.
"Good Lord," he said, "you are a silly ass!"