"Pull that light lower," ordered Inspector Wessex. "There you are, Mr. Harley; what do you make of it?"
Paul Harley and I bent gingerly over the ghastly exhibit to which the C.I.D. official had drawn our attention, and to view which we had journeyed from Chancery Lane to Wapping.
This was the body of a man dressed solely in ragged shirt and trousers. But the remarkable feature of his appearance lay in the fact that every scrap of hair from chin, lip, eyebrows and skull had been shaved off!
There was another facial disfigurement, peculiarly and horribly Eastern, which my pen may not describe.
"Impossible to identify!" murmured Harley. "Yes, you were right, Inspector; this is a victim of Oriental deviltry. Look here, too!"
He indicated three small wounds, one situated on the left shoulder and the others on the forearm of the dead man.
"The divisional surgeon cannot account for them," replied Wessex. "They are quite superficial, and he thinks they may be due to the fact that the body got entangled with something in the river."
"They are due to the fact that the man had a birthmark on his shoulder and something--probably a name or some device--tattooed on his arm," said Harley quietly. "Some few years ago, I met with a similar case in the neighbourhood of Stambul. A woman," he added, significantly.
Detective-Inspector Wessex listened to my companion with respect, for apart from his established reputation as a private inquiry- agent which had made his name familiar in nearly every capital of the civilized world, Paul Harley's work in Constantinople during the six months preceding war with Turkey had merited higher reward than it had ever received. Had his recommendations been adopted the course of history must have been materially changed.
"You think it's a Chinatown case, then, Mr. Harley?"
"Possibly," was the guarded answer.
Paul Harley nodded to the constable in charge, and the ghastly figure was promptly covered up again. My friend stood staring vacantly at Wessex, and presently:
"The chief actor, I think, will prove to be not Chinese," he said, turned, and walked out.
"If there's any development," remarked Wessex as the three of us entered Harley's car, which stood at the door, "I will, of course, report to you, Mr. Harley. But in the absence of any clue or mark of identification, I fear the verdict will be, 'Body of a man unknown,' etc., which has marked the finish of a good many in this cheerful quarter of London."
"Quite so," said Harley, absently. "It presents extraordinary features, though, and may not end as you suppose. However--where do you want me to drop you, Wessex, at the Yard?"
"Oh no," answered Wessex. "I made a special visit to Wapping just to get your opinion on the shaven man. I'm really going down to Deepbrow to look into that new disappearance case; the daughter of the gamekeeper. You'll have read of it?"
"I have," said Harley shortly.
Indeed, readers of the daily press were growing tired of seeing on the contents bills: "Another girl missing." The circumstance that three girls had disappeared within the last eight weeks leaving no trace behind, had stimulated the professional scribes to link the cases, although no visible link had been found, and to enliven a somewhat dull journalistic season with theories about "a new Mormon menace."
The vanishing of this fourth girl had inspired them to some startling headlines, and the case had interested me personally for the reason that I was acquainted with Sir Howard Hepwell, one of whose gamekeepers was the stepfather of the missing Molly Clayton. Moreover, it was hinted that she had gone away in the company of Captain Ronald Vane, at that time a guest of Sir Howard's at the Manor.
In fact, Sir Howard had 'phoned to ask me if I could induce Harley to run down, but my friend had expressed himself as disinterested in a common case of elopement. Now, as Wessex spoke, I glanced aside at Harley, wondering if the fact that so celebrated a member of the C.I.D. as Detective-Inspector Wessex had been put in charge would induce him to change his mind.
We were traversing a particularly noisy and unsavoury section of the Commercial Road, and although I could see that Wessex was anxious to impart particulars of the case to Harley, so loud was the din that I recognized the impossibility of conversing, and therefore:
"Have you time to call at my rooms, Wessex?" I asked.
"Well," he replied, "I have three-quarters of an hour."
"You can do it in the car," said Harley suddenly. "I have been asked to look into this case myself, and before I definitely decline I should like to hear your version of the matter."
Accordingly, we three presently gathered in my chambers, and Wessex, with one eye on the clock, outlined the few facts at that time in his possession respecting the missing girl.
Two days before the news of the disappearance had been published broadcast under such headings as I have already indicated, a significant scene had been enacted in the gamekeeper's cottage.
Molly Clayton, a girl whose remarkable beauty had made her a central figure in numerous scandalous stories, for such is the charity of rural neighbours, was detected by her stepfather, about eight in the evening, slipping out of the cottage.
"Where be ye goin', hussy?" he demanded, grasping her promptly by the arm.
"For a walk!" she replied defiantly.
"A walk wi' that fine soger from t' Manor!" roared Bramber furiously. "You'll be sorry yet, you barefaced gadabout! Must I tell you again that t' man's a villain?"
The girl wrenched her arm from Bramber's grasp, and blazed defiance from her beautiful eyes.
"He knows how to respect a woman--what you don't!" she retorted hotly.
"So I don't respect you, my angel?" shouted her stepfather. "Then you know what you can do! The door's open and there's few'll miss you!"
Snatching her hat, the girl, very white, made to go out. Whereat the gamekeeper, a brutal man with small love for Molly, and maddened by her taking him at his word, seized her suddenly by her abundant fair hair and hauled her back into the room.
A violent scene followed, at the end of which Molly fainted and Bramber came out and locked the door.
When he came back about half-past nine the girl was missing. She did not reappear that night, and the police were advised in the morning. Their most significant discovery was this:
Captain Ronald Vane, on the night of Molly's disappearance, had left the Manor House, after dining alone with his host, Sir Howard Hepwell, saying that he proposed to take a stroll as far as the Deep Wood.
He never returned!
From the moment that Gamekeeper Bramber left his cottage, and the moment when Sir Howard Hepwell parted from his guest after dinner, the world to which these two people, Molly Clayton and Captain Vane, were known, knew them no more!
I was about to say that they were never seen again. But to me has fallen the task of relating how and where Paul Harley and I met with Captain Vane and Molly Clayton.
At the end of the Inspector's account:
"H'm," said Harley, glancing under his thick brows in my direction, "could you spare the time, Knox?"
"To go to Deepbrow?" I asked with interest.
"Yes; we have ten minutes to catch the train."
"I'll come," said I. "Sir Howard will be delighted to see you, Harley."