Reluctantly Tickler turned. He had been quick to identify the silent watcher. By straightening his shoulders and adding something of jauntiness to his stride he hoped to prevent the recognition from becoming mutual.
Surefoot Smith was one of the few people in the world who have minds like a well-organized card index. Not the smallest and least important offender who had passed through his hands could hope to reach a blissful oblivion.
'What are you doing now, Tickler? Burglary, or just fetching the beer for the con. men? Two a.m.! Got a home?'
'Ah, somewhere in the West End! Gone scientific, maybe. Science is the ruin of the country!'
Rights or no rights, he passed his hands swiftly over Tickler's person; the little man stretched out his arms obediently and sm
The Clue of the Silver Key
by Edgar Wallace
1930, copyright un-renewed.
They were all in this business—Dick Allenby, inventor and heir-at-law;
Jerry Dornford, man about town and wastrel; Mike Hennessey, theatrical
adventurer; Mary Lane, small part actress; Leo Moran, banker and
speculator; Horace Tom Tickler—alas, for him!—was very much in it,
though he knew nothing about it.
Mr Washington Wirth, who gave parties and loved flattery; old Hervey Lyne
and the patient Binny, who pushed his invalid chair and made his
breakfast and wrote his letters—and Surefoot Smith.
There came a day when Binny, who was an assiduous reader of newspapers
that dealt with the more picturesque aspects of crime, was to find
himself the focal point of attention and his evidence read by millions
who had never before heard of him—a wonderful experience.
Mr Washington Wirth’s parties were most exclusive affairs and, in a
sense, select. The guests were chosen with care, and might not, in the
manner of the age, invite the uninvited to accompany them; but they were,
as Mary Lane said, ‘an odd lot’. She went because Mike Hennessey asked
her, and she rather liked the stout and lethargic Mike. People called him
‘poor old Mike’ because of his bankruptcies, but just now sympathy would
be wasted on him. He had found Mr Washington Wirth, a patron of the
theatre and things theatrical, and Mr Washington Wirth was a very rich
He was also a mysterious man. He was generally believed to live in the
Midlands and to be associated with industry.
His London address was the Kellner Hotel, but he never slept there. His
secretary would telephone in advance for the Imperial suite on a certain
day, and on the evening of that day, when supper was laid for his twenty
or thirty guests, and the specially hired orchestra was tuning up, he
would appear, a stout, flaxen-haired man in horn-rimmed glasses. The
uncharitable said his flaxen hair was a wig, which may or may not have
He was perfectly tailored. He spoke in a high, falsetto voice, had a
trick of clicking his heels and kissing the hands of his lady guests
which was very Continental.
His guests were hand-picked. He chose—or Mike chose for him—the smaller
theatrical fry; members of the chorus, small part actresses, an obscure
singer or two.
Once Mike had suggested a brighter kind of party. Mr Wirth was shocked.
‘I want nothing fast,’ he said.
He loved adulation—and had his fill of it. He was a generous spender, a
giver of expensive presents; people living on the verge of poverty might
be excused a little flattering.
You could not gate-crash one of Mr Washington Wirth’s parties,
invitations to which came in the shape of a small oblong badge, not
unlike the badge worn by the ladies in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, on
which the name of the invited guest was written. This the recipient wore;
it served a double purpose, for it enabled Mr Wirth to read and address
each of his guests by her name.
Mary Lane was well aware that the invitation was no tribute to her own
‘I suppose if I had been a really important guest I shouldn’t have been
invited?’ she said.
Mike smiled good-naturedly.
‘You are important, Mary—the most important person here. The old boy
wanted to know you.’
‘Who is he?’
Mike shook his head. ‘He’s got all the money in the world,’ he said.
She laughed. Mary Lane was very lovely when she laughed.
She was conscious that Washington Wirth, albeit occupied with the cooing
attention of two blonde lovelies, was watching her out of the side of his
‘He gives lots of parties, doesn’t he?’ she asked. ‘Dick Allenby told me
today that they are monthly affairs. He must be rich, of course, or he
wouldn’t keep our play running. Honestly, Mike, we must be losing a
fortune at the Sheridan.’
Mike Hennessey took his cigar from his mouth and looked at the ash. ‘I’m
not losing a fortune,’ he said. Then, most unexpectedly: ‘Old Hervey Lyne
a friend of yours, Mary?’
She denied the friendship with some vigour. ‘No, he’s my guardian. Why?’
Mike put back his cigar deliberately.
The orchestra had struck up a waltz. Mr Wirth was gyrating awkwardly,
holding at arm’s length a lady who was used to being held more tightly.
‘I had an idea you were connected,’ he said. ‘Money-lender, wasn’t he?
That’s how he made his stuff. Is Mr Allenby related to him?’
There was a certain significance in the question, and she flushed.
‘Yes—his nephew.’ She was a little disconcerted. ‘Why?’
Mike looked past her at the dancers.
‘Trying to pretend they enjoy it,’ he said.’ They’re all getting
gold-mounted handbags tonight—you’ll get yours.’
‘But why do you ask about Mr Lyne?’ she persisted.
‘Just wondering how well you knew the old man. No, he’s never lent me
money. He wants gilt-edged security and I’ve never had it. Moran’s his
Mike was one of those disconcerting men whose speech followed the
eccentric course of their thoughts.
‘Funny, that, Mary. Moran’s his banker. You don’t see the joke, but I
She knew Leo Moran slightly. He was by way of being a friend of Dick
Allenby’s, and he was, she knew, a frequent visitor to the theatre,
though he never came ‘back stage’.
When Mike was being cryptic it was a waste of time trying to catch up
with him. She looked at her watch.
‘Will he be very annoyed if I leave soon? I’ve promised to go on to the
He shook his head, took her gently by the arm, and led her up to where Mr
Wirth was being delightfully entertained by three pretty girls who were
trying to guess his age.
‘My little friend has to go, Mr Wirth,’ he said. ‘She’s got a rehearsal
in the morning.’
‘Perfectly understood!’ said the host.
When he smiled he had white, even teeth, for which no thanks were due to
‘Perfectly understood. Come again, Miss Mary Lane. I’ll be back from
abroad in three weeks.’
She took his big, limp hand and shook it. Mike escorted her out and
helped her into her coat.
‘Another hour for me and then I pack up,’ he said,’ He never stays after
one. By the way, I’ll bring on your gift to the theatre.’
She liked Mike—everybody liked Mike. There was hardly an actor or an
actress in London who had not agreed to take half-salary from him. He
could cry very convincingly when he was ruined, and he was always ruined
when hard-hearted people expected him to pay what he owed them.
A lovable soul, entirely dishonest. Nobody knew what he did with the
money which he had lost for so many people, but the probability is that
it was usefully employed.
‘I don’t know what’s the matter with our play,’ he said, as he walked
with her along the corridor to the elevator. ‘Maybe it’s the
title—Cliffs of Fate—what does it mean? I’ve seen the darn’ thing forty
times and still I don’t know what it’s about.’
She stared at him, aghast.’ But you chose it!’ she protested.
He shook his head. ‘He did.’ He jerked his thumb back to Mr Wirth’s
suite. ‘He said it made him feel a better man when he read it. It’s never
made me want to go more regularly to the synagogue!’
He saw Mary depart, fussed over her like a broody hen. He liked Mary
because she was real in a world of unreality. The first time he had taken
her out to supper he had offered her a few suggestions on the quickest
method by which a young actress might reach stardom, and her name in
lights, and she had answered him sanely and yet in a way that did not
entirely wound his vanity—and the vanity of a fat man is prodigious.
Thereafter she went into a new category: he had many; she was the only
woman in the world he really liked, though, it is said, he loved many. He
strolled back to the hectic atmosphere of the supper-room—Mr Wirth was
presenting the bags.
He was unusually gay: usually he drank very little, but tonight…Well,
he had promised to drink a whole bottle of champagne if anybody guessed
his age, and one of the three pretty girls had guessed thirty-two.
‘Good God!’ said Mike, when they told him.
As soon as was expedient he took his patron aside.
‘About time these people went, Mr Wirth,’ he said.
Mr Wirth smiled foolishly; spoke with the refeenment which wine brings to
some. ‘My deah, deah fellah! I’m quate ceepable of draving myself to deah
Certainly this was a new Mr Wirth. Mike Hennessey was troubled. He felt
he was in danger of losing a priceless possession. It was as though the
owner of a secret gold mine, from which he was drawing a rich dividend,
were hoisting a great napping flag to mark its site.
‘What you want,’ he said agitatedly, ‘is something cooling. Just wait
here, will you?’
He ran out, saw the head waiter, and came back very soon with a little
blue bottle. He measured a tablespoonful of white granules into a
wine-glass and filled it with water; then he handed this fizzling,
hissing potion to the giver of the feast.
‘Drink,’ he said.
Mr Wirth obeyed. He stopped and gasped between the gulps.
By now the last guest had gone.
‘All right?’ asked Mike anxiously.
‘Quite all right,’ snapped the other.
He seemed suddenly sober. Mike, at any rate, was deceived.
He did not see his friend to his car, because that was against the rules.
Mr Wirth, wrapped in a heavy coat, the collar of which was turned up, his
hat at a rakish angle over his eyes, made his way to the garage near the
hotel, had his car brought out, and was getting into it when the watcher
sidled up to him.
‘Can I have a word with you, mister?’
Mr Wirth surveyed him glassily, climbed into his seat and shifted his
‘Can I have a word—’
The car jerked forward. The little interviewer, who had one foot on the
running board, was sent sprawling. He got up and began to run after the
car, to the amusement of the garage workers; car and pursuer vanished in
The trailer lost his quarry in Oxford Street and wandered disconsolately
onward. A sort of homing instinct led him towards Regent’s Park. Naylors
Crescent was a magnificent little side street leading from the outer
circle. It was very silent, its small, but stately, houses were in
Mr Tickler—such was his peculiar name—stopped before No. 17 and looked
up at the window. The white blinds were drawn down and the house was
lifeless. He stood, with his hands thrust into his pockets, blinking at
the green door that he knew so well, at the three worn steps