James Lexington Morlake, gentleman of leisure, Lord of the Manor of Wold and divers other titles which he rarely employed, unlocked the drawer of his elaborate Empire writing-table and gazed abstractedly into its depths. It was lined with steel and there were four distinct bolts. Slowly he put in his hand and took out first a folded square of black silk, then a businesslike automatic pistol, then a roll of fine leather. He unfastened a string that was tied about the middle and unrolled the leather on the writing-table. It was a hold-all of finely-grained sealskin, and in its innumerable pockets and loops was a bewildering variety of tools, grips, ratchets--each small, each of the finest tempered steel.
He examined the diamond-studded edge of a bore, no larger than a cheese tester, then replacing the tool, he rolled up the hold-all and sat back in his chair, his eyes fixed meditatively upon the articles he had exposed.
James Morlake's flat in Bond Street was, perhaps, the most luxurious apartment in that very exclusive thoroughfare. The room in which he sat, with its high ceiling fantastically carved into scrolls and arabesques by the most cunning of Moorish workmen, was wide and long and singular. The walls were of marble, the floor an amazing mosaic covered with the silky rugs of Ispahan. Four hanging lamps, delicate fabrics of silver and silk, shed a subdued light.
With the exception of the desk, incongruously gaudy in the severe and beautiful setting, there was little furniture. A low divan under the curtained window, a small stool, lacquered a vivid green, and another chair was all.
The man who sat at the writing-table might have been forty--he was four years less--or fifty. His was the face of a savant, eager, alive, mobile. There was a hint of laughter in his eyes, more than a hint of sadness. A picturesque and most presentable person was James Lexington Morlake, reputedly of New York City (though some doubted this) and now of 823 New Bond Street in the County of London and of Wold House in the County of Sussex. His evening coat fitted the broad shoulders perfectly; the white bow at his collar was valet-tied.
He looked up from the table and its sinister display and clapped his hands once. Through the silken curtain that veiled the far end of the room came a soft-footed little Moor, his spotless white fellap and crimson tarboosh giving him a certain vividness against the soft background.
"Mahmet, I shall be going away to-night--I will let you know when I am returning." He spoke in Moorish, which is the purest of the three Arabics. "When, by the favour of God, I return, I shall have work for you."
Mahmet raised his hand in salute, then, stepping forward lightly, kissed each lapel of James Morlake's dress coat before he kissed his own thumb, for Morlake was, by certain standards, holy to the little slave man he had bought
in the marketplace of Rahbut.
"I am your servant, haj," he said. "You will wish to talk with your secretary?"
Morlake nodded, and, with a quick flutter of salaaming hands, Mahmet disappeared. He had never ceased to be amused by this description of Binger. "Secretary" was the delicate euphemism of the Moor who would not say "servant" of any white man.
Mr. Binger appeared, a short, stout man with a very red face and a very flaxen moustache, which he rapidly twirled in moments of embarrassment. Without the evidence of the neatly parted hair and the curl plastered over his forehead, he was obviously "old soldier."
He looked at his employer and then at the kit of tools on the table, and sighed.
"Goin' hout, sir?" he asked dolefully.
He was that unusual type of Cockney, the man who put aspirates where none were intended. Not one Londoner in ten thousand has this trick, ninety per cent. may drop an "h"--only the very few find it.
"I'm going out; I may be away for some days. You know where to find me."
"I hope so, sir," said the gloomy Binger. "I hope I shan't find you where I'm always expectin' to find you--in a hawful prison cell."
James Morlake laughed softly.
"You were never designed by providence to be a burglar's valet, Binger," he said, and Mr. Binger shivered.
"Don't use that word, sir, please! It makes me tremble with horrer! It's not for the likes of me to criticise, which I've never done. An' if you hadn't been a burglar I'd have been a corpse. You ran a risk for me and I'm not likely to forget it!"
Which was true. For one night, James Lexington Morlake, in the course of business, had broken into a warehouse of which Binger was caretaker. Morlake took the warehouse en route to a bigger objective--there was a bank at the end of the warehouse block--and he had found an almost lifeless Binger who had fallen through a trap and had broken a leg in the most complicated manner it is possible to break a leg. And Morlake had stopped and tended him; carried him to the hospital, though Binger guessed him for what he was, "The Black"--the terror of every bank manager in the kingdom. In this way both men, taking the most amazing risks, came into acquaintance. Not that it was, perhaps, any great risk for James Morlake, for he understood men.
He selected a cigarette from the gold case he took from his pocket, and lit it.
"One of these days, perhaps I'll become a respectable member of society, Binger," he said, a chuckle in his voice.
"I 'ope so, sir, I do most sincerely pray you will," said Binger earnestly. "It's not a nice profession--you're hout all hours of the night ... it's not healthy! Speaking as a hold soldier, sir, I tell you that honesty is the best policy."
"How the devil did you know that there was an 'h' in 'honesty?'" asked James Morlake admiringly.
"I pronounced it, sir," said Binger.
"That is what I mean--now, Binger, listen to me. I want the car at the corner of Albemarle Street at two o'clock. It is raining a little, so have the hood up. Don't be within a dozen yards of the car when I arrive. Have an Oxford number-plate behind and the Sussex plate under the seat. A vacuum flask with hot coffee and a packet of sandwiches--and that's all."
Binger, at the parting of the curtains, struggled to express what he felt was improper and even sinful to say.
"Good luck, sir," he said faintly.
"I wish you meant it," said James Morlake as he rose and, catching up the long black coat from the divan, slipped pistol and tools into his pocket....
At the Burlington Street Safe Deposit, the night watchman had a stool on which he might sit in the lone long watches. It was a stool with one leg in the centre, and had this great advantage, that, if its occupant dozed, he fell. Nature, however, evolves qualities to meet every human emergency, and in the course of the years the night watchman, by leaning his elbow on a projecting ledge and stiffening his body against the wall, could enjoy a comfortable condition of coma that approximated to sleep....
"Sorry!" said a gentle voice.
The watchman woke with a start and stumbled to his feet, reaching for the revolver that should have been on the little wooden ledge.
"Your gun is in my pocket and the alarm is disconnected," said the man in black, and the eyes that showed through the taut silk mask that covered his face twinkled humorously. "March!"
The night man, dazed and already searching his mind for excuses that would relieve him of the charge of sleeping on duty, obeyed.
The vaults of the Burlington Street Safe Deposit are underground, and for the use of the watchman there is a small concrete apartment fitted with an electric stove and a folding table. There is also a small safe built into the wall.
"In here," said the man in black. "Face the wall and save my soul from the hideous crime of murder."
Standing with his nose to concrete, the watchman heard the snap of a lock and the jingle of keys. In the safe were kept the pass keys and duplicates, and normally it could not be opened except by the President or Secretary of the company. The stranger seemed to experience no difficulty in dispensing with the help of these officers.
There came the thud of the room door closing, and then the turn of the key. After that, silence, except for the shrill whistle of air through the overhead ventilator. In ten minutes the visitor was back again, and the watchman saw him replace the keys he had taken, close and lock the safe.
"That is all, I think," said the stranger. "I have stolen very little--just enough to pay for my vacation and a new car. One must live."
"I'll get fired over this!" groaned the watchman.
"It depends on the lie you tell," said the mask, standing in the doorway, twirling his automatic alarmingly. "If you say that you were drugged, as the night patrol at the Home Counties Bank said, you may find people sceptical...."
"What about the hall-man?" asked the watchman hopefully.
"He is in his box, asleep ... veritably doped by an ingenious method of my own," said the intruder.
He slammed the door, and again the key turned. It seemed to turn twice, and so it proved, for when the custodian tried the door it opened readily. But The Black had gone.
Three headquarters men were at the safe deposit within a few minutes of the alarm sounding. They found the hall-keeper slowly recovering his senses and the night watchman voluble and imaginative.
"Don't tell me that stuff about drugs," said Chief Inspector Wall irritably. "It may go in the case of the hall-man, but you were asleep, and as soon as he turned a gun on you, you played rabbit. That's your story, and I won't listen to any other."
The hall-man could offer no explanation. He was sitting in his little office drinking coffee that he had made, and that was all he remembered.
"Keep that coffee-cup for analysis," said Wall. "The man must have been on the premises--it was easy once he doped the hall-keeper."
The upper part of the safe deposit was let out in office suites, the ground floor and basement being the premises of the deposit. A broad passage led from the street to the vault entrance, and was barred half-way down with a heavy steel gate to which the hall-man sitting in his office on the inside alone had the key.
"The thing was simple," said Wall, when he had finished his cross-examination. "Peters left his office and went down to see the night man. In some manner The Black got through--he'll open any lock. After that he had only to watch and wait."
In the early hours of the morning the secretary of the Safe Deposit arrived, and accompanied the police in a more thorough search through the inner vaults.
One little safe was unlocked. It was that which stood in the name of James Morlake, and the safe was entirely empty.