The Secret of the Syndicate

A night’s rest made Willis once more his own man, and next morning he found that his choking rage had evaporated, and that he was able to think calmly and collectedly over the failure of his plans.

As he reconsidered in detail the nature of the watch he had kept, he felt more than ever certain that his cordons had not been broken through. No one, he felt satisfied, could have passed unobserved between the depot and the distillery.

And in spite of this the stuff had been delivered. Archer and Benson were not bluffing to put him off the scent. They had no idea they were overheard, and therefore had no reason to say anything except the truth.

How then was the communication being made? Surely, he thought, if these people could devise a scheme, he should be able to guess it. He was not willing to admit his brain inferior to any man’s.

He lit his pipe and drew at it slowly as he turned the question over in his mind. And then a possible solution occurred to him. What about a subterranean connection? Had these men driven a tunnel?

Here undoubtedly was a possibility. To drive three hundred yards of a heading large enough for a stooping man to pass through, would be a simple matter to men who had shown the skill of these conspirators. The soil was light and sandy, and they could use without suspicion as much timber as they required to shore up their work. It was true they would have to pass under the railway, but that again was a matter of timbering.

Their greatest difficulty, he imagined, would be in the disposal of the surplus earth. He began to figure out what it would mean. The passageway could hardly be less than four feet by five, to allow for lining, and this would amount to about two yards of material to the yard run, or say six hundred or seven hundred cubic yards altogether. Could this have been absorbed in the filling of the wharf? He thought so. The wharf was a large structure, thirty yards by thirty at least and eight or nine feet high; more than two thousand cubic yards of filling would have been required for it. The disposal of the earth, therefore, would have presented no difficulty. All that came out of the tunnel could have gone into the wharf three times over.

A tunnel seemingly being a practical proposition, he turned his attention to his second problem. How could he find out whether or not it had been made?

Obviously only from examination at one or other end. If it existed it must connect with cellars at the depot and the distillery. And of these there could be no question of which he ought to search. The depot was not only smaller and more compact, but it was deserted at intervals. If he could not succeed at the syndicate’s enclosure he would have no chance at the larger building.

It was true he had already searched it without result, but he was not then specially looking for a cellar, and with a more definite objective he might have better luck. He decided that if Benson went up to Hull that night he would have another try.

He took an afternoon train to Ferriby, and walking back towards the depot, took cover in the same place that he had previously used. There, sheltered by a hedge, he watched for the manager’s appearance.

The weather had, from the inspector’s point of view, changed for the worse. The sunny days had gone, and the sky was overladen with clouds. A cold wind blew in gustily from the southeast, bringing a damp fog which threatened every minute to turn to rain, and flecking the lead-coloured waters of the estuary with spots of white. Willis shivered and drew up his collar higher round his ears as he crouched behind the wet bushes.

“Confound it,” he thought, “when I get into that shed I shall be dripping water all over the floor.”

But he remained at his post, and in due course he was rewarded by seeing Benson appear at the door in the fence, and after locking it behind him, start off down the railway towards Ferriby.

As before, Willis waited until the manager had got clear away, then slipping across the line, he produced his bent wire, opened the door, and five minutes later stood once more in the office.

From the nature of the case it seemed clear that the entrance to the cellar, if one existed, would be hidden. It was therefore for secret doors or moving panels that he must look.

He began by ascertaining the thickness of all the walls, noting the size of the rooms so as to calculate those he could not measure directly. He soon found that no wall was more than six inches thick, and none could therefore contain a concealed opening.

This narrowed his search. The exit from the building could only be through a trap-door in the floor.

Accordingly he set to work in the office, crawling torch in hand along the boards, scrutinizing the joints between them for any that were not closed with dust, feeling for any that might be loose. But all to no purpose. The boards ran in one length across the floor and were obviously firmly nailed down on fixed joists.

He went to the bedroom, rolling aside the mats which covered the floor and moving the furniture back and forwards. But here he had no better result.

The remainder of the shed was floored with concrete, and a less meticulous examination was sufficient to show that the surface was unbroken. Nor was there anything either on the wharf itself or in the enclosure behind the shed which could form a cover to a flight of steps.

Sorely disappointed, Willis returned once more to the office, and sitting down, went over once again in his mind what he had done, trying to think if there was a point on the whole area of the depot which he had overlooked. He could recall none except the space beneath a large wardrobe in the next room which, owing to its obvious weight, he had not moved.

“I suppose I had better make sure,” he said to himself, though he did not believe so massive a piece of furniture could have been pulled backwards and forwards without leaving scratches on the floor.

He returned to the bedroom. The wardrobe was divided into two portions, a single deep drawer along the bottom, and above it a kind of large cupboard with a central door. He seized its end. It was certainly very heavy; in fact, he found himself unable to move it.

He picked up his torch and examined the wooden base. And then his interest grew, for he found it was strongly stitch-nailed to the floor.

Considerably mystified, he tried to open the door. It was locked, and though with his wire he eventually shot back the bolt, the trouble he had, proved that the lock was one of first quality. Indeed, it was not a cupboard lock screwed to the inside of the door as might have been expected, but a small-sized mortice lock hidden in the thickness of the wood, and the keyhole came through to the inside; just the same arrangement as is usual in internal house doors.

The inside of the wardrobe revealed nothing of interest. Two coats and waistcoats, a sweater, and some other clothes were hanging from hooks at the back. Otherwise the space was empty.

“Why,” he wondered as he stood staring in, “should it be necessary to lock up clothes like these?”

His eyes turned to the drawer below, and he seized the handles and gave a sharp pull. The drawer was evidently locked. Once again he produced his wire, but for the first time it failed him. He flashed a beam from his lamp into the hole, and then he saw the reason.

The hole was a dummy. It entered the wood but did not go through it. It was not connected to a lock.

He passed the light round the edges of the drawer. If there was no lock to fasten it why had he been unable to open it? He took out his penknife and tried to push the blade into the surrounding space. It would not penetrate, and he saw that there was no space, but merely a cut half an inch deep in the wood. There was no drawer. What seemed a drawer was merely a blind panel.

Inspector Willis grew more and more interested. He could not see why all that space should be wasted, as it was clear from the way in which the wardrobe was finished that economy in construction had not been the motive.

Once again he opened the door of the upper portion, and putting his head inside passed the beam of the lamp over the floor. This time he gave a little snort of triumph. The floor did not fit tight to the sides. All round was a space of some eighth of an inch.

“The trap-door at last,” he muttered, as he began to feel about for some hidden spring. At last, pressing down on one end of the floor, he found that it sank and the other end rose in the air, revealing a square of inky blackness out of which poured a stream of cold, damp air, and through which he could hear, with the echoing sound peculiar to vaults, the splashing and churning of the sea.

His torch revealed a flight of steps leading down into the darkness. Having examined the pivoted floor to make sure there was no secret catch which could fasten and imprison him below, he stepped on to the ladder and began to descend. Then the significance of the mortice lock in the wardrobe door occurred to him, and he stopped, drew the door to behind him, and with his wire locked it. Descending farther he allowed the floor to drop gently into place above his head, thus leaving no trace of his passage.

He had by this time reached the ground, and he stood flashing his torch about on his surroundings. He was in a cellar, so low in the roof that except immediately beneath the stairs he could not stand upright. It was square, some twelve feet either way, and from it issued two passages, one apparently running down under the wharf, the other at right angles and some two feet lower in level, leading as if towards the distillery. Down the center of this latter ran a tiny tramway of about a foot gauge, on which stood three kegs on four-wheeled frames. In the upper side of each keg was fixed a tun-dish, to the under side a stopcock. Two insulated wires came down through the ceiling below the cupboard in which the telephone was installed, and ran down the tunnel towards the distillery.

The walls and ceiling of both cellar and passages were supported by pit-props, discoloured by the damp and marked by stains of earthy water which had oozed from the spaces between. They glistened with moisture, but the air, though cold and damp, was fresh. That and the noise of the waves which reverberated along the passage under the wharf seemed to show that there was an open connection to the river.

The cellar was empty except for a large wooden tun or cask which reached almost to the ceiling, and a gunmetal hand pump. Pipes led from the latter, one to the tun, the other along the passage under the wharf. On the side of the tun and connected to it at top and bottom was a vertical glass tube protected by a wooden casing, evidently a gauge, as beside it was a scale headed “gallons,” and reading from 0 at the bottom to 2,000 at the top. A dark-coloured liquid filled the tube up to the figure 1,250. There was a wooden spigot tap in the side of the tun at floor level, and the tramline ran beneath this so that the wheeled kegs could be pushed below it and filled.

The inspector gazed with an expression of almost awe on his face.

“Lord!” he muttered. “Is it brandy after all?”

He stooped and smelled the wooden tap, and the last doubt was removed from his mind.

He gave vent to a comprehensive oath. Right enough it was hard luck! Here he had been hoping to bring off a forged note coup which would have made his name, and the affair was a job for the Customs Department after all! Of course a pretty substantial reward would be due to him for his discovery, and there was his murder case all quite satisfactory, but forged notes were more in his line, and he felt cheated out of his due.

But now that he was so far he might as well learn all he could. The more complete the case he gave in, the larger the reward. Moreover, his own curiosity was keenly aroused.

The cellar being empty save for the tun, the pump, and the small tramway and trucks, he turned, and flashing his light before him, walked slowly along the passage down which ran the pipe. He was, he felt sure, passing under the wharf and heading towards the river.

Some sixty feet past the pump the floor of the passage came to an abrupt end, falling vertically as by an enormous step to churning waters of the river some six feet below. At first in the semidarkness Willis thought he had reached the front of the wharf, but he soon saw he was still in the cellar. The roof ran on at the same level for some twenty feet farther, and the side walls, here about five feet apart, went straight down from it into the water. Across the end was a wall, sloping outwards at the bottom and made of horizontal pit-props separated by spaces of two or three inches. Willis immediately realised that these props must be those placed behind the inner or raking row of piles which supported the front of the wharf.

Along one side wall for its whole length was nailed a series of horizontal laths twelve inches apart. What their purpose was he did not know, but he saw that they made a ladder twenty feet wide, by which a man could work his way from the passage to the end wall and reach the water at any height of the tide.

Above this ladder was an object which at first puzzled the inspector, then as he realised its object, it became highly illuminating. On a couple of brackets secured to the wall lay a pipe of thin steel covered with thick black baize, and some sixteen feet long by an inch in diameter. Through it ran the light copper pipe which was connected at its other end to the pump. At the end of the passage this pipe had several joints like those of a gas bracket, and was folded on itself concertina-wise.

The inspector stepped on to the ladder and worked his way across it to the other end of the steel pipe, close by the end wall. The copper pipe protruded and ended in a filling like the half of a union. As Willis gazed he suddenly grasped its significance.

The side of the Girondin, he thought, would lie not more than ten feet from where he was standing. If at night someone from within the cellar were to push the end of the steel tube out through one of the spaces between the horizontal timbers of the end wall, it could be inserted into a porthole, supposing one were just opposite. The concertina joints would make it flexible and allow it to extend, and the baize covering would prevent its being heard should it inadvertently strike the side of the ship. The union on the copper tube could then be fixed to some receptacle on board, the brandy being pumped from the ship to the tun.

And no outsider could possibly be any the wiser! Given a dark night and careful operators, the whole thing would be carried out invisibly and in absolute silence.

Now Willis saw the object of the peculiar construction of the front of the wharf. It was necessary to have two lines of piles, so that the deck between might overshadow and screen from view the openings between the horizontal beams at the front of the cellar. He stood marvelling at the ingenuity of the plan. No wonder Hilliard and Merriman had been baffled.

But if he were to finish his investigations, he must no longer delay. He worked back across the side of the cellar, regained the passage, and returned to the pump-room. Then turning into the other passage, he began to walk as quickly as possible along it.

The tunnel was barely four feet high by three wide, and he found progress very tiring. After a slight curve at the mouth it ran straight and almost dead level. Its construction was the same as that of the cellar, longitudinal timber lining supported behind verticals and lintels spaced about six feet apart. When he had gone about two hundred yards it curved sharply to the left, ran heavily timbered for some thirty yards in the new direction, and then swung round to the right again.

“I suppose the railway crosses here,” Willis thought, as he passed painfully round the bends.

The sweat stood in drops on his forehead when he reached the end, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he realised he could once more stand upright and stretch his cramped back. He found himself in another cellar, this time about six feet by twelve. The tramway ran along it, stopping at the end wall. The place was otherwise empty, save for a wooden grating or tun-dish with a hinged lid which was fixed between the rails near the entrance. The telephone wires, which had followed the tunnel all the way, here vanished into the roof.

Willis concluded he must be standing beneath some part of the distillery, and a very little thought was required to make clear to him the raison d’être of what he saw. He pictured the kegs being pushed under the tap of the large tun in the pump-room and filled with brandy pumped in from the Girondin. In imagination he saw Benson pushing his loaded trucks through the tunnel⁠—a much easier thing to do than to walk without something to step over⁠—stopping them one by one over the grating and emptying the contents therein. No doubt that grating was connected to some vat or tun buried still deeper beneath the distillery, in which the brandy mingled with the other brandy brought there by more legitimate means, and which was sold without documentary evidence of its surprising increase in bulk.

It was probable, thought Willis, that some secret door must connect the chamber in which he stood with the distillery, but a careful search revealed no trace of any opening, and he was forced to the conclusion that none existed. Accordingly, he turned and began to retrace his steps through the tunnel.

The walk back seemed even longer and more irksome than his first transit, and he stopped here and there and knelt down in order to straighten his aching back. As he advanced, the booming sound of the waves, which had died down to a faint murmur at the distillery, grew louder and louder. At last he reached the pump-cellar, and was just about to step out of the tunnel when his eye caught the flicker of a light at the top of the stepladder. Someone was coming down!

Willis instantly snapped off his own light, and for the fraction of a second he stood transfixed, while his heart thumped and his hand slid round to his revolver pocket. Breathlessly he watched a pair of legs step on to the ladder and begin to descend the steps.

Like a flash he realised what he must do. If this was Benson coming to “take up stuff,” to remain in the tunnel meant certain discovery. But if only he could reach the passage under the wharf he might be safe. There was nothing to bring Benson into it.

But to cross the cellar he must pass within two feet of the ladder, and the man was halfway down. For a moment it looked quite hopeless, then unexpectedly he got his chance. The man stopped to lock the wardrobe door. When he had finished, Willis was already across the cellar and hurrying down the other passage. Fortunately the noise of the waves drowned all other sounds.

By the time the unknown had reached the bottom of the ladder, Willis had stepped on to the cross laths and was descending by them. In a moment he was below the passage level. He intended, should the other approach, to hide beneath the water in the hope that in the darkness his head would not be seen.

But the light remained in the cellar, and Willis raised himself and cautiously peeped down the passage. Then he began to congratulate himself on what he had just been considering his misfortune. For, watching there in the darkness, he saw Benson carry out the very operations he had imagined were performed. The manager wheeled the kegs one by one beneath the great barrel, filled them from the tap, and then, setting his lamp on the last of the three, pushed them before him down the tunnel towards the distillery.

Inspector Willis waited until he judged the other would be out of sight, then left his hiding-place and cautiously returned to the pump-room. The gauge now showed 1,125 gallons, and he noted that 125 gallons was put up per trip. He rapidly ascended the steps, passed out through the wardrobe, and regained the bedroom. A few minutes later he was once more out on the railway.

He had glanced at his watch in the building and found that it was but little after ten. Benson must therefore have returned by an earlier train than usual. Again the inspector congratulated himself that events had turned out as they had, for though he would have had no fear of his personal safety had he been seen, premature discovery might have allowed the other members of the gang to escape.

The last train for Hull having left, he started to walk the six miles to the city. The weather had still further changed for the worse, and now half a gale of wind whirled round him in a pandemonium of sound and blew blinding squalls of rain into his eyes. In a few moments he was soaked to the skin, and the buffeting of the wind made his progress slow. But he struggled on, too well pleased by the success of his evening’s work to mind the discomfort.

And as he considered the affair on the following morning he felt even more satisfied. He had indeed done well! Not only had he completed what he set out to do⁠—to discover the murderer of Coburn⁠—but he had accomplished vastly more. He had brought to light one of the greatest smuggling conspiracies of modern times. It was true he had not followed up and completed the case against the syndicate, but this was not his business. Smuggling was not dealt with by Scotland Yard. It was a matter for the Customs Department. But if only it had been forged notes! He heaved a sigh as he thought of the kudos which might have been his.

But when he had gone so far, he thought he might as well make certain that the brandy was discharged as he imagined. He calculated that the Girondin would reach Ferriby on the following day, and he determined to see the operation carried out.

He followed the plan of Hilliard and Merriman to the extent of hiring a boat in Hull and sculling gently down towards the wharf as dusk fell. He had kept a watch on the river all day without seeing the motor ship go up, but now she passed him a couple of miles above the city. He turned inshore when he saw her coming, lest Captain Beamish’s binoculars might reveal to him a familiar countenance.

He pulled easily, timing himself to arrive at the wharf as soon as possible after dark. The evening was dry, but the southeasterly wind still blew cold and raw, though not nearly so strongly as on the night of his walk.

There were a couple of lights on the Girondin, and he steered by these till the dark mass of her counter, looming up out of the night, cut them off. Slipping round her stern, as Hilliard had done in the River Lesque, he unshipped his oars and guided the boat by his hands into the V-shaped space between the two rows of piles fronting the wharf. As he floated gently forward he felt between the horizontal props which held back the filling until he came to a vacant space, then knowing he was opposite the cellar, he slid the boat back a few feet, tied her up, and settled down to wait.

Though sheltered from the wind by the hull, it was cold and damp under the wharf. The waves were lapping among the timbers, and the boat moved uneasily at the end of her short painter. The darkness was absolute⁠—an inky blackness unrelieved by any point of light. Willis realised that waiting would soon become irksome.

But it was not so very long before the work began. He had been there, he estimated, a couple of hours when he saw, not ten feet away, a dim circle of light suddenly appear on the Girondin’s side. Someone had turned on a faint light in a cabin whose open porthole was immediately opposite the cellar. Presently Willis, watching breathlessly, saw what he believed was the steel pipe impinge on and enter the illuminated ring. It remained projecting into the porthole for some forty minutes, was as silently withdrawn, the porthole was closed, a curtain drawn across it, and the light turned up within. The brandy had been discharged.

The thing had been done inaudibly, and invisibly to anyone on either wharf or ship. Marvelling once more at the excellence and secrecy of the plan, Willis gently pushed his boat out from among the piles and rowed back down the river to Hull. There he tied the boat up, and returning to his hotel, was soon fast asleep.

In spite of his delight at the discovery, he could not but realise that much still remained to be done. Though he had learned how the syndicate was making its money, he had not obtained any evidence of the complicity of its members in the murder of Coburn.

Who, in addition to Archer, could be involved? There were, of course, Beamish, Bulla, Benson, and Henri. There was also a man, Morton, whose place in the scheme of things had not yet been ascertained. He, Willis realised, must be found and identified. But were these all? He doubted it. It seemed to him that the smuggling system required more helpers than these. He now understood how the brandy was got from the ship to the distillery, and he presumed it was loaded at the clearing in the same manner, being brought there in some unknown way by the motor lorries. But there were two parts of the plan of which nothing was yet known. Firstly, where was the brandy obtained from originally, and, secondly, how was it distributed from the distillery? It seemed to Willis that each of these operations would require additional accomplices. And if so, these persons might also have been implicated in Coburn’s death.

He thought over the thing for three solid hours before coming to a decision. At the end of that time he determined to return to London and, if his chief approved, lay the whole facts before the Customs Departments of both England and France, asking them to investigate the matter in their respective countries. In the meantime he would concentrate on the question of complicity in the murder.

He left Hull by an afternoon train, and that night was in London.