Almost exactly fifteen hours before Merriman’s call at Scotland Yard, to wit, about eight o’clock on the previous evening, Inspector Willis of the Criminal Investigation Department was smoking in the sitting-room of his tiny house in Brixton. George Willis was a tall, somewhat burly man of five-and-forty, with heavy, clean-shaven, expressionless features which would have made his face almost stupid, had it not been redeemed by a pair of the keenest of blue eyes. He was what is commonly known as a safe man, not exactly brilliant, but plodding and tenacious to an extraordinary degree. His forte was slight clues, and he possessed that infinite capacity for taking pains which made his following up of them approximate to genius. In short, though a trifle slow, he was already looked on as one of the most efficient and reliable inspectors of the Yard.

He had had a heavy day, and it was with a sigh of relief that he picked up the evening paper and stretched himself luxuriously in his easy-chair. But he was not destined to enjoy a long rest. Hardly had he settled himself to his satisfaction when the telephone bell rang. He was wanted back at the Yard immediately.

He swore under his breath, then, calling the news to his wife, he slipped on his waterproof and left the house. The long spell of fine weather had at last broken, and the evening was unpleasant, indeed unusually inclement for mid-September. All day the wind had been gusty and boisterous, and now a fine drizzle of rain had set in, which was driven in sheets against the grimy buildings and whirled in eddies round the street corners. Willis walked quickly along the shining pavements, and in a few minutes reached his destination. His chief was waiting for him.

“Ah, Willis,” the great man greeted him, “I’m glad you weren’t out. A case has been reported which I want you to take over; a suspected murder; man found dead in a taxi at King’s Cross.”

“Yes, sir,” Willis answered unemotionally. “Any details forward?”

“None, except that the man is dead and that they’re holding the taxi at the station. I have asked Dr. Horton to come round, and you had both better get over there as quickly as possible.”

“Yes, sir,” Willis replied again, and quickly left the room.

His preparations were simple. He had only to arrange for a couple of plain clothes men and a photographer with a flashlight apparatus to accompany him, and to bring from his room a handbag containing his notebook and a few other necessary articles. He met the police doctor in the corridor and, the others being already in waiting, the five men immediately left the great building and took a car to the station.

“What’s the case, inspector, do you know?” Dr. Horton inquired as they slipped deftly through the traffic.

“The Chief said suspected murder; man found dead in a taxi at King’s Cross. He had no details.”

“How was it done?”

“Don’t know, sir. Chief didn’t say.”

After a few brief observations on the inclemency of the weather, conversation waned between the two men, and they followed the example of their companions, and sat watching with a depressed air the rain-swept streets and the hurrying foot passengers on the wet pavements. All five were annoyed at being called out, as all were tired and had been looking forward to an evening of relaxation at their homes.

They made a quick run, reaching the station in a very few minutes. There a constable identified the inspector.

“They’ve taken the taxi round to the carrier’s yard at the west side of the station, sir,” he said to Willis. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you the way.”

The officer led them to an enclosed and partially roofed area at the back of the parcels office, where the vans from the shops unloaded their traffic. In a corner under the roof and surrounded by a little knot of men stood a taxicab. As Willis and his companions approached, a sergeant of police separated himself from the others and came forward.

“We have touched nothing, sir,” he announced. “When we found the man was dead we didn’t even move the body.”

Willis nodded.

“Quite right, sergeant. It’s murder, I suppose?”

“Looks like it, sir. The man was shot.”

“Shot? Anything known of the murderer?”

“Not much, I’m afraid, sir. He got clear away in Tottenham Court Road, as far as I can understand it. But you’ll hear what the driver has to say.”

Again the Inspector nodded, as he stepped up to the vehicle.

“Here’s Dr. Newman,” the sergeant continued, indicating an exceedingly dapper and well-groomed little man with medico written all over him. “He was the nearest medical man we could get.”

Willis turned courteously to the other.

“An unpleasant evening to be called out, doctor,” he remarked. “The man’s dead, I understand? Was he dead when you arrived?”

“Yes, but only a very little time. The body was quite warm.”

“And the cause of death?”

“Seeing that I could do nothing, I did not move the body until you Scotland Yard gentlemen had seen it, and therefore I cannot say professionally. But there is a small hole in the side of the coat over the heart.” The doctor spoke with a slightly consequential air.

“A bullet wound?”

“A bullet wound unquestionably.”

Inspector Willis picked up an acetylene bicycle lamp which one of the men had procured and directed its beam into the cab.

The corpse lay in the back corner seat on the driver’s side, the head lolling back sideways against the cushions and crushing into a shapeless mass the grey Homburg hat. The mouth and eyes were open and the features twisted as if from sudden pain. The face was long and oval, the hair and eyes dark, and there was a tiny black mustache with waxed ends. A khaki coloured waterproof, open in front, revealed a grey tweed suit, across the waistcoat of which shone a gold watch chain. Tan shoes covered the feet. On the left side of the body just over the heart was a little round hole in the waterproof coat. Willis stooped and smelled the cloth.

“No blackening and no smell of burned powder,” he thought. “He must have been shot from outside the cab.” But he found it hard to understand how such a shot could have been fired from the populous streets of London. The hole also seemed too far round towards the back of the body to suggest that the bullet had come in through the open window. The point was puzzling, but Willis pulled himself up sharply with the reminder that he must not begin theorizing until he had learned all the facts.

Having gazed at the gruesome sight until he had impressed its every detail on his memory, he turned to his assistant. “Get ahead with your flashlight, Kirby,” he ordered. “Take views from all the angles you can. The constable will give you a hand. Meantime, sergeant, give me an idea of the case. What does the driver say?”

“He’s here, sir,” the officer returned, pointing to a small, slight individual in a leather coat and cap, with a sallow, frightened face and pathetic, doglike eyes which fixed themselves questioningly on Willis’s face as the sergeant led their owner forward.

“You might tell me what you know, driver.”

The man shifted nervously from one foot to the other.

“It was this way, sir,” he began. He spoke earnestly, and to Willis, who was accustomed to sizing up rapidly those with whom he dealt, he seemed a sincere and honest man. “I was driving down Piccadilly from Hyde Park Corner looking out for a fare, and when I gets just by the end of Bond Street two men hails me. One was this here man what’s dead, the other was a big, tall gent. I pulls in to the curb, and they gets in, and the tall gent he says ‘King’s Cross.’ I starts off by Piccadilly Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue, but when I gets into Tottenham Court Road about the corner of Great Russell Street, one of them says through the tube, ‘Let me down here at the corner of Great Russell Street,’ he sez. I pulls over to the curb, and the tall gent he gets out and stands on the curb and speaks in to the other one. ‘Then I shall follow by the three o’clock tomorrow,’ he sez, and he shuts the door and gives me a bob and sez, ‘That’s for yourself,’ he sez, ‘and my friend will square up at the station,’ he sez. I came on here, and when this here man opens the door,” he indicated a porter standing by, “why, the man’s dead. And that’s all I knows about it.”

The statement was made directly and convincingly, and Willis frowned as he thought that such apparently simple cases proved frequently to be the most baffling in the end. In his slow, careful way he went over in his mind what he had heard, and then began to try for further details.

“At what time did you pick up the men?” he inquired.

“About half past seven, or maybe twenty to eight.”

“Did you see where they were coming from?”

“No, sir. They were standing on the curb, and the tall one he holds up his hand for me to pull over.”

“Would you know the tall man again?”

The driver shook his head.

“I don’t know as I should, sir. You see, it was raining, and he had his collar up round his neck and his hat pulled down over his eyes, so as I couldn’t right see his face.”

“Describe him as best you can.”

“He was a tall man, longer than what you are, and broad too. A big man, I should call him.”

“How was he dressed?”

“He had a waterproof, khaki colour⁠—about the colour of your own⁠—with the collar up round his neck.”

“His hat?”

“His hat was a soft felt, dark, either brown or green, I couldn’t rightly say, with the brim turned down in front.”

“And his face? Man alive, you must have seen his face when he gave you the shilling.”

The driver stared helplessly. Then he answered:

“I couldn’t be sure about his face, not with the way he had his collar up and his hat pulled down. It was raining and blowing something crool.”

“Did the other man reply when the tall one spoke into the cab?”

“Didn’t hear no reply at all, sir.”

Inspector Willis thought for a moment and then started on another tack.

“Did you hear a shot?” he asked sharply.

“I heard it, sir, right enough, but I didn’t think it was a shot at the time, and I didn’t think it was in my cab. It was just when we were passing the Apollo Theater, and there was a big block of cars setting people down, and I thought it was a burst tire. ‘There’s somebody’s tire gone to glory,’ I sez to myself, but I give it no more thought, for it takes you to be awake to drive up Shaftesbury Avenue when the theaters are starting.”

“You said you didn’t think the shot was in your cab; why do you think so now?”

“It was the only sound like a shot, sir, and if the man has been shot, it would have been then.”

Willis nodded shortly. There was something puzzling here. If the shot had been fired by the other occupant of the cab, as the man’s evidence seemed to indicate, there would certainly have been powder blackening on the coat. If not, and if the bullet had entered from without, the other passenger would surely have stopped the car and called a policeman. Presently he saw that some corroborative evidence might exist. If the bullet came from without the left-hand window must have been down, as there was no hole in the glass. In this case the wind, which was blowing from the northwest, would infallibly have driven in the rain, and drops would still show on the cushions. He must look for them without delay.

He paused to ask the driver one more question, whether he could identify the voice which told him through the speaking tube to stop with that of the man who had given him the shilling. The man answering affirmatively, Willis turned to one of the plain clothes men.

“You have heard this driver’s statement, Jones,” he said. “You might get away at once and see the men who were on point duty both at the corner of Great Russell Street where the tall man got out, and in Piccadilly, where both got in. Try the hotels thereabouts, the Albemarle and any others you can think of. If you can get any information follow it up and keep me advised at the Yard of your movements.”

The man hurried away and Willis moved over once more to the taxi. The assistant had by this time finished his flashlight photographs, and the inspector, picking up the bicycle lamp, looked again into the interior. A moment’s examination showed him there were no raindrops on the cushions, but his search nevertheless was not unproductive. Looking more carefully this time than previously, he noticed on the floor of the cab a dark object almost hidden beneath the seat. He drew it out. It was a piece of thick black cloth about a yard square.

Considerably mystified, he held it up by two corners, and then his puzzle became solved. In the cloth were two small holes, and round one of them the fabric was charred and bore the characteristic smell of burned powder. It was clear what had been done. With the object doubtless of hiding the flash as well as of muffling the report, the murderer had covered his weapon with a double thickness of heavy cloth. No doubt it had admirably achieved its purpose, and Willis seized it eagerly in the hope that it might furnish him with a clue as to its owner.

He folded it and set it aside for further examination, turning back to the body. Under his direction it was lifted out, placed on an ambulance stretcher provided by the railwaymen, and taken to a disused office close by. There the clothes were removed and, while the doctors busied themselves with the remains, Willis went through the pockets and arranged their contents on one of the desks.

The clothes themselves revealed but little information. The waterproof and shoes, it is true, bore the makers’ labels, but both these articles were the ready-made products of large firms, and inquiry at their premises would be unlikely to lead to any result. None of the garments bore any name or identifiable mark.

Willis then occupied himself the contents of the pockets. Besides the gold watch and chain, bunch of keys, knife, cigarette case, loose coins and other small objects which a man such as the deceased might reasonably be expected to carry, there were two to which the inspector turned with some hope of help.

The first was a folded sheet of paper which proved to be a receipted hotel bill. It showed that a Mr. Coburn and another had stayed in the Peveril Hotel in Russell Square during the previous four days. When Willis saw it he gave a grunt of satisfaction. It would doubtless offer a ready means to learn the identity of the deceased, as well possibly as of the other, in whom Willis was already even more interested. Moreover, so good a clue must be worked without delay. He called over the second plain clothes man.

“Take this bill to the Peveril, Matthews,” he ordered. “Find out if the dead man is this Coburn, and if possible get on the track of his companion. If I don’t get anything better here I shall follow you round, but keep the Yard advised of your movements in any case.”

Before the man left Willis examined the second object. It was a pocketbook, but it proved rather disappointing. It contained two five pound Bank of England notes, nine one pound and three ten shilling Treasury notes, the return half of a third-class railway ticket from Hull to King’s Cross, a Great Northern cloakroom ticket, a few visiting cards inscribed “Mr. Francis Coburn,” and lastly, the photograph by Cramer of Regent Sweet of a pretty girl of about twenty.

Willis mentally noted the three possible clues these articles seemed to suggest; inquiries in Hull, the discovery of the girl through Messrs. Cramer, and third and most important, luggage or a parcel in some Great Northern cloakroom, which on recovery might afford him help. The presence of the money also seemed important, as this showed that the motive for the murder had not been robbery.

Having made a parcel of the clothes for transport to the Yard, reduced to writing the statements of the driver and of the porter who had made the discovery, and arranged with the doctors as to the disposal of the body, Willis closed and locked the taxi, and sent it in charge of a constable to Scotland Yard. Then with the cloakroom ticket he went round to see if he could find the office which had issued it.

The rooms were all shut for the night, but an official from the stationmaster’s office went round with him, and after a brief search they found the article for which the ticket was a voucher. It was a small suitcase, locked, and Willis brought it away with him, intending to open it at his leisure.

His work at the station being by this time complete, he returned to the Yard, carrying the suitcase. There, though it was growing late, he forced the lock, and sat down to examine the contents. But from them he received no help. The bag contained just the articles which a man in middle-class circumstances would naturally carry on a week or a fortnight’s trip⁠—a suit of clothes, clean linen, toilet appliances, and suchlike. Nowhere could Willis find anything of interest.

Telephone messages, meanwhile, had come in from the two plain clothes men. Jones reported that he had interviewed all the constables who had been on point duty at the places in question, but without result. Nor could any of the staffs of the neighbouring hotels or restaurants assist him.

The call from the Peveril conveyed slightly more information. The manageress, so Matthews said, had been most courteous and had sent for several members of her staff in the hope that some of them might be able to answer his questions. But the sum total of the knowledge he had gained was not great. In the first place, it was evident that the deceased was Mr. Coburn himself. It appeared that he was accompanied by a Miss Coburn, whom the manageress believed to be his daughter. He had been heard addressing her as Madeleine. The two had arrived in time for dinner five days previously, registering “F. Coburn and Miss Coburn,” and had left about eleven on the morning of the murder. On each of the four days of their stay they had been out a good deal, but they had left and returned at different hours, and, therefore, appeared not to have spent their time together. They seemed, however, on very affectionate terms. No address had been left to which letters might be forwarded, and it was not known where the two visitors had intended to go when they left. Neither the manageress nor any of the staff had seen anyone resembling the tall man.

Inspector Willis was considerably disappointed by the news. He had hoped that Mr. Coburn’s fellow-guest would have been the murderer, and that he would have left some trace from which his identity could have been ascertained. However, the daughter’s information would no doubt be valuable, and his next care must be to find her and learn her story.

She might of course save him the trouble by herself coming forward. She would be almost certain to see an account of the murder in the papers, and even if not, her father’s disappearance would inevitably lead her to communicate with the police.

But Willis could not depend on this. She might, for example, have left the previous day on a voyage, and a considerable time might elapse before she learned of the tragedy. No; he would have to trace her as if she herself were the assassin.

He looked at his watch and was surprised to learn that it was after one o’clock. Nothing more could be done that night, and with a sigh of relief he turned his steps homewards.

Next morning he was back at the Yard by eight o’clock. His first care was to reexamine the taxi by daylight for some mark or article left by its recent occupants. He was extraordinarily thorough and painstaking, scrutinizing every inch of the floor and cushions, and trying the door handles and window straps for finger marks, but without success. He went over once again the clothes the dead man was wearing as well as those in the suitcase, took prints from the dead man’s fingers, and began to get things in order for the inquest. Next, he saw Dr. Horton, and learned that Mr. Coburn had been killed by a bullet from an exceedingly small automatic pistol, one evidently selected to make the minimum of noise and flash, and from which a long carry was not required.

When the details were complete he thought it would not be too early to call at the Peveril and begin the search for Miss Coburn. He therefore sent for a taxi, and a few minutes later was seated in the office of the manageress. She repeated what Matthews had already told him, and he personally interviewed the various servants with whom the Coburns had come in contact. He also searched the rooms they had occupied, examined with a mirror the blotting paper on a table at which the young lady had been seen to write, and interrogated an elderly lady visitor with whom she had made acquaintance.

But he learned nothing. The girl had vanished completely, and he could see no way in which he might be able to trace her.

He sat down in the lounge and gave himself up to thought. And then suddenly an idea flashed into his mind. He started, sat for a moment rigid, then gave a little gasp.

“Lord!” he muttered. “But I’m a blamed idiot. How in Hades did I miss that?”

He sprang to his feet and hurried out of the lounge.