"I've been expecting this," said Chief Inspector Kerry. He tilted his bowler hat farther forward over his brow and contemplated the ghastly exhibit which lay upon the slab of the mortuary. Two other police officers--one in uniform--were present, and they treated the celebrated Chief Inspector with the deference which he had not only earned but had always demanded from his subordinates.
Earmarked for important promotion, he was an interesting figure as he stood there in the gloomy, ill-lighted place, his pose that of an athlete about to perform a long jump, or perhaps, as it might have appeared to some, that of a dancing-master about to demonstrate a new step.
His close-cropped hair was brilliantly red, and so was his short, wiry, aggressive moustache. He was ruddy of complexion, and he looked out unblinkingly upon the world with a pair of steel-blue eyes. Neat he was to spruceness, and while of no more than medium height he had the shoulders of an acrobat.
The detective who stood beside him, by name John Durham, had one trait in common with his celebrated superior. This was a quick keenness, a sort of alert vitality, which showed in his eyes, and indeed in every line of his thin, clean-shaven face. Kerry had picked him out as the most promising junior in his department.
"Give me the particulars," said the Chief Inspector. "It isn't robbery. He's wearing a diamond ring worth two hundred pounds."
His diction was rapid and terse--so rapid as to create the impression that he bit off the ends of the longer words. He turned his fierce blue eyes upon the uniformed officer who stood at the end of the slab.
"They are very few, Chief Inspector," was the reply. "He was hauled out by the river police shortly after midnight, at the lower end of Limehouse Reach. He was alive then--they heard his cry--but he died while they were hauling him into the boat."
"Any statement?" rapped Kerry.
"He was past it, Chief Inspector. According to the report of the officer in charge, he mumbled something which sounded like: 'It has bitten me,' just before he became unconscious."
"'It has bitten me,'" murmured Kerry. "The divisional surgeon has seen him?"
"Yes, Chief Inspector. And in his opinion the man did not die from drowning, but from some form of virulent poisoning."
"That's the idea. There will be a further examination, of course. Either a hypodermic injection or a bite."
"A bite?" said Kerry. "The bite of what?"
"That I cannot say, Chief Inspector. A venomous reptile, I suppose."
Kerry stared down critically at the swollen face of the victim, and then glanced sharply aside at Durham.
"Accounts for his appearance, I suppose," he murmured.
"Yes," said Durham quietly. "He hadn't been in the water long enough to look like that." He turned to the local officer. "Is there any theory as to the point at which he went in?"
"Well, an arrest has been made."
"By whom? of whom?" rapped Kerry.
"Two constables patrolling the Chinatown area arrested a man for suspicious loitering. He turned out to be a well-known criminal--Jim Poland, with a whole list of convictions against him. They're holding him at Limehouse Station, and the theory is that he was operating with------" He nodded in the direction of the body.
"Then who's the smart with the swollen face?" inquired Kerry. "He's a new one on me."
"Yes, but he's been identified by one of the K Division men. He is an American crook with a clean slate, so far as this side is concerned. Cohen is his name. And the idea seems to be that he went in at some point between where he was found by the river police and the point at which Jim Poland was arrested."
Kerry snapped his teeth together audibly, and:
"I'm open to learn," he said, "that the house of Huang Chow is within that area."
"I thought so. He died the same way the Chinaman died awhile ago," snapped Kerry savagely.
"It looks very queer." He glanced aside at the local officer. "Cover him up," he ordered, and, turning, he walked briskly out of the mortuary, followed by Detective Durham.
Although dawn was not far off, this was the darkest hour of the night, so that even the sounds of dockland were muted and the riverside slept as deeply as the great port of London ever sleeps. Vague murmurings there were and distant clankings, with the hum of machinery which is never still.
Few of London's millions were awake at that hour, yet Scotland Yard was awake in the person of the fierce-eyed Chief Inspector and his subordinate. Perhaps those who lightly criticize the Metropolitan Force might have learned a new respect for the tireless vigilance which keeps London clean and wholesome, had they witnessed this scene on the borders of Limehouse, as Kerry, stepping into a waiting taxi-cab accompanied by Durham, proceeded to Limehouse Police Station in that still hour when the City slept.
The arrival of Kerry created something of a stir amongst the officials on duty. His reputation in these days was at least as great as that of the most garrulous Labour member.
The prisoner was in cells, but the Chief Inspector elected to interview him in the office; and accordingly, while the officer in charge sat at an extremely tidy writing-table, tapping the blotting-pad with a pencil, and Detective John Durham stood beside him, Kerry paced up and down the little room, deep in reflection, until the door opened and the prisoner was brought in.
One swift glance the Chief Inspector gave at the battle-scarred face, and recognized instantly that this was a badly frightened man. Crossing to the table he took up a typewritten slip which lay there, and:
"Your name is James Poland?" he said. "Four convictions; one, robbery with violence."
Jim Poland nodded sullenly.
"You were arrested at the corner of Pekin Street about midnight. What were you doing there?"
"Taking a walk."
"I'll say it again," rapped Kerry, fixing his fierce eyes upon the man's face. "What were you doing there?"
"I've told you."
"And I tell you you're a liar. Where did you leave the man Cohen?"
Poland blinked his small eyes, cleared his throat, and looked down at the floor uneasily. Then:
"Who's Cohen?" he grunted.
"You mean, who was Cohen?" cried Kerry.
The shot went home. The man clenched his fists and looked about the room from face to face.
"You don't tell me------" he began huskily.
"I've told you," said Kerry. "He's on the slab. Spit out the truth; it'll be good for your health."
The man hesitated, then looked up, his eyes half closed and a cunning expression upon his face.
"Make out your own case," he said. "You've got nothing against me."
Kerry snapped his teeth together viciously.
"I've told you what happened to your pal," he warned. "If you're a wise man you'll come in on our side, before the same thing happens to you."
"I don't know what you're talking about," growled Poland.
Kerry nodded to the constable at the doorway.
"Take him back," he ordered.
Jim Poland being returned to his cell, Kerry, as the door closed behind the prisoner and his guard, stared across at Durham where he stood beside the table.
"An old hand," he said. "But there's another way." He glanced at the officer in charge. "Hold him till the morning. He'll prove useful."
From his waistcoat pocket he took out a slip of chewing gum, unwrapped it, and placed the mint-flavoured wafer between his large white teeth. He bit upon it savagely, settled his hat upon his head, and, turning, walked toward the door. In the doorway he paused.
"Come with me, Durham," he said. "I am leaving the conduct of the case entirely in your hands from now onward."
Detective Durham looked surprised and not a little anxious.
"I am doing so for two reasons," continued the Chief Inspector. "These two reasons I shall now explain."