Chapter 39 Some Late Difficulties
On the evening of May 21st, just a few hours before the robbery, Pierce dined with his mistress, Miriam, in his house in Mayfair.
Shortly before nine-thirty that night, their meal was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Agar, who looked very distraught. He came storming into the dining room, making no apologies for his abrupt entrance.
"What is it?" Pierce said calmly.
"Burgess," Agar said, in a breathless voice. "Burgess: he's downstairs."
Pierce frowned. "You brought him here?"
"I had to do," Agar said. "Wait until you hear."
Pierce left the table and went downstairs to the smoking room. Burgess was standing there, twitching his blue guard's cap in his hands. He was obviously, as nervous as Agar.
"What's the trouble?" Pierce said.
"It's the line," Burgess said. "They've changed it all, and just today--- changed everything."
"What have they changed?" Pierce said
Burgess spoke in a headlong torrent: "I first came to know this morning, you see, I come to work proper at seven sharp, and there's a cooper working on me van, hammering and pounding. And there's a smith as well, and some gentlemen standing about to watch the work. And that's how I find they've changed all manner of things, and just today, changed it all. I mean the running of the car the way that we do, all changed, and I didn't know-"
"What, exactly, have they changed?" Pierce said.
Burgess took a breath. "The line," he said. "The manner of things, the way we do, all fresh changed."
Pierce frowned impatiently. "Tell me what is changed," he said.
Burgess squeezed his hat in his hands until his knuckles were pale. "For one, they have a new jack the line's put on, started today--- a new bloke, young one."
"He rides with you in the baggage van?"
"No, sir," Burgess said. "He only works the platform at the station. Stays at the station, he does."
Pierce shot a glance at Agar. It didn't matter if there were more guards at the platform. There could be a dozen guards, for all Pierce cared "What of it?" he said.
"Well, it's the new rule, you see."
"What new rule?"
"Nobody rides in the baggage car, save me as guard," Burgess said. "That's the new rule, and there's this new jack to keep it proper."
"I see," Pierce said. That was indeed a change.
"There's more," Agar said gloomily.
Burgess nodded. "They've gone and fitted a lock to the luggage-van door. Outside lock, it is. Now they lock up in London Bridge, and unlock in Folkestone."
"Damn," Pierce said. He began to pace back and forth in the room. "What about the other stops? That train stops in Redhill, and at---"
"They've changed the rules," Burgess said. "That van is never unlocked till Folkestone."
Pierce continued to pace. "Why have they changed the routine?"
"It's on account of the afternoon fast train," Burgess explained. "There's two fast trains, morning train and afternoon train. Seems the afternoon van was robbed last week. Gentleman was robbed of a valuable parcel somehow--- collection of rare wine, I hear it to be. Anyhow, he puts a claim to the line or some such. The other guard's been fired, and there's all bloody hell to pay. Dispatcher his very self called me in this morning and dressed me down proper, warning me of this and that. Near cuffed me, he did. And the new jack at the platform's the station dispatcher's nephew. He's the one locks up in London Bridge, just before the train pulls out."
"Rare wines," Pierce said. "God in heaven, rare wines. Can we get Agar aboard in a trunk?"
Burgess shook his head "Not if they do like today. Today, this nephew, his name's McPherson, he's a Scotsman and eager--- badly wanting a job, as I look at it--- this McPherson makes the passengers open every trunk or parcel large enough to hold a man. Caused a considerable fray, I'll say. This nephew is a stickler. New to the work, you see, and wanting to do it all proper, and that's the way it is."
"Can we distract him and slip Agar in while he's not looking---"
"Not looking? Never's he not looking. He looks like a starved rat after a flake of cheese, looks here and there and everywhere. And when all the baggage's loaded, he climbs in, pokes about in all the corners seeing there's no lurkers. Then he climbs off and lock up."
Pierce plucked his pocket watch from his waistcoat. It was now ten o'clock at night. They had ten hours before the Folkestone train left the next morning. Pierce could think of a dozen clever ways to get Agar past a watchful Scotsman, but nothing that could be quickly arranged.
Agar, whose face was the very picture of gloom, must have been thinking the same thing. "Shall we put off until next month, then?"
"No," Pierce said. He immediately shifted to his next problem. "Now, this lock they've installed on the luggage-van door. Can it be worked from inside?"
Burgess shook his head. "It's a padlock--- hooks through a bolt and iron latch, outside."
Pierce was still pacing. "Could it be unlocked during one of the stops--- say, Redhill--- and then locked again at Tonbridge, further down the line?"
"Be a risk," Burgess said. "She's a fat lock, big as, your fist, and it might be noticed."
Pierce continued to pace. For a long time, his footsteps on the carpet and the ticking of the clock on the mantel were the only sounds in the room. Agar and Burgess watched him. Finally Pierce said, "If the van door is locked, how do you get ventilation?"
Burgess, looking a little confused, said, "Oh, there's air enough. That van's shoddy made, and when the train gets to speed, the breeze whistles through the cracks and chinks loud enough to pain your ears."
"I meant," Pierce said, "is there any apparatus for ventilation of the van?"
"Well, there's the slappers in the roof..."
"What're they?" Pierce said.
"Slappers? Slappers--- well, to speak true, they're not your proper slappers, on account of the lack of hinging. Many's the time I was wishing they were true slappers, I mean a slapper fit with hinging, and all the more when it rains--- then it's a cold puddle inside, I can tell you---"
"What is a slapper?" Pierce interrupted. "Time is short."
"A slapper? A slapper's what your railway folks call a manner of trap. She's a hinged door up in the roof, mounted center, and inside you've a rod to open or shut the slapper. Some of your slappers--- I mean proper slappers--- they fit two to a coach, facing opposite ways. That's so's one is always away from the wind. Now, other coaches, they've their slappers mounted both the same, but it's a bother in the yards, you see, for it means the coach must be clamped with the slappers backward, and---"
"And you have two of these slappers in the luggage van?"
"Aye, that's true," Burgess said, "but they're not proper, because they're fixed open, you see, no hinging on the van slappers, and so when it rains there I be, soaked through---"
"The slappers give access directly to the interior of the luggage van?"
"They do, direct down." Burgess paused. "But if you're thinking of slipping a bloke through, it can't be done. They're no more than a hand's breadth square, and---"
"I'm not," Pierce said. "Now, you say you have two slappers? Where are they located?"
"On the roof, like I said, center of the roof, and---"
"Where in relation to the length of the car?" Pierce said. His pacing back and forth, and his brusque, irritable manner left Burgess, who was nervous and trying to be helpful, at a complete loss.
"Where... in relation..." His voice trailed off.
Agar said, "I don't know what you're thinking, but my knee pains me--- my left knee here--- and that's always a bad sign. I say, quit the lay for a deadly flummut, and be done."
"Shut up," Pierce said, with a sudden flaring anger that made Agar take a step backward. Pierce turned to Burgess. "Now I am asking," he said, "if you look at the van from the side, you see it as a kind of box, a large box. And on the top of this box are the slappers. Now, where are they?"
"Not proper set, and that's God's truth," Burgess said. "A proper slapper's near the ends of the coach, one at each end, so's to allow air to pass end to end, one slapper to the next. That's the way to arrange it ,for the best---"
"Where are the slappers on the luggage van?" Pierce laid, glancing again at his watch. "I care only about the van."
"That's the hell of it,". Burgess said. "They're near center, and no more than three paces separate. And they've no hinge. Now when it rains, down comes the water, direct to the center of the van, and there's one great puddle, straightaway in the center."
"You say the slappers are separated by three paces?"
"Three, four, thereabouts," Burgess said. "I never cared to know for certain, but it's certain I hate the damn things, and that's"
"All right," Pierce said, "you've told me what I need to know."
"I'm glad of that," Burgess said, with a sort of confused relief, "but I swear, there's no way a man or even a chavy can slip down that hole, and once they lock me in---"
Pierce cut him off with a wave of his hand and turned to Agar. "This padlock on the outside. Is it hard to pick?"
"I don't know it," Agar said, "but a padlock's no trick. They're made strong, but they have fat tumblers, on account of their size. Some a man can use his little finger for the betty, and tickle her broke open in a flash."
"Could I?" Pierce said.
Agar stared at him. "Easy enough, but you might take a minute or two." He frowned. "But you heard what he said, you don't dare break her at the station stops, so why---"
Pierce turned back to Burgess. "How many second-class coaches are there on the morning train?"
"I don't know exact. Six, as often as not. Seven near the weekend. Sometimes, midweek they run five, but lately there's six. Now, first class, that's---"
"I don't care about first class," Pierce said.
Burgess fell silent, hopelessly confused. Pierce looked at Agar: Agar had figured it out. The screwsman shook his head. "Mother of God," Agar said, "you've lost your mind, you've gone flat debeno, sure as I stand here. What do you think, you're Mr. Coolidge?" Coolidge was a well-known mountaineer.
"I know who I am," Pierce said tersely. He turned back to Burgess, whose confusion had steadily increased during the last few minutes until he was now nearly immobilized, his face blank and expressionless, having lost even the quality of bewilderment.
"Is your name Coolidge, then?" Burgess asked. "You Said Simms...."
"It's Simms," Pierce said. "Our friend here is only making a joke. I want you to go home now, and sleep, and get up tomorrow and go to work as usual. Just carry on as usual, no matter what happens. Just do your regular day of work, and don't worry about anything."
Burgess glanced at Agar, then back to Pierce. "Will you pull tomorrow, then?"
"Yes," Pierce said. "Now go home and sleep."
When the two men were alone, Agar exploded in anxious fury. "Damn me if I'll voker flams at this dead hour. This is no simple kynchin lay tomorrow. Is that not plain?" Agar threw up hands. "Make an end to it, I say. Next month, I say."
Pierce remained quiet for a moment. "I've waited a year," he said finally, "and it will be tomorrow."
"You're puckering," Agar said, "just talk, with no dense."
"It can be done," Pierce insisted.
"Done?" Agar exploded again. "Done how? Look here, I know you for a clever one, but I'm no flat, and there's no gammoning me. That lay is coopered. It's too damn sad the wine was snaffled, but so it was, and we must know it." Agar was red-faced and frantic; he swung his arms through the air in agitation.
In contrast, Pierce was almost unnaturally still. His eyes surveyed Agar steadily. "There is a bone lay," Pierce said.
"As God is my witness, how?" Agar watched as Pierce calmly went to a sideboard and poured two glasses of brandy. "You'll not put enough of that in me to cloud my eyes," he said. "Now, look plain."
Agar held up his hand, and ticked the points off on his fingers. "I am to ride in the van, you say. But I cannot get in--- an eager jack of a Scotsman stands sharp at the door. You heard as much yourself. But fair enough: I trust you to get me in. Now."
He ticked off another forger. "Now, there I be in the van. The Scotsman locks up from the outside. I've no way to touch that lock, so even if I make the switch, I can't open the door and toss out the pogue. I'm locked in proper, all the way to Folkestone."
"Unless I open the door for you," Pierce said. He gave Agar a snifter of brandy.
Agar swallowed it in a single gulp. "Aye, and there's a likely turn. You come back over all those coaches, tripping light over the rooftops, and swing down like Mr. Coolidge over the side of the van to pick the lock and break the drum. I'll see God in heaven first, no mistake."
Pierce said, "I know Mr. Coolidge."
Agar blinked. "No gull?"
"I met him on the Continent last year. I climbed with him in Switzerland--- three peaks in all--- and I learned what he knows."
Agar was speechless. He stared at Pierce for any sign of deception, scanning the cracksman's face. Mountaineering was a new sport, only three or four years old, but it had captured the popular attention, and the most notable of the English practitioners, such as A. E. Coolidge, had become famous.
"No gull?" Agar said again.
"I have the ropes and tackle up in the closet," Pierce said. "No gull."
"I'll have another daffy," Agar said, holding out his empty glass. Pierce immediately filled it, and Agar immediately gulped it down.
"Well then," he said. "Let's say you can betty the lock, hanging on a rope, and break the drum, and then lock up again, with nobody the wiser. How do I get on in the first place, past the Scots jack, with his sharp cool?"
"There is a way," Pierce said. "It's not pleasant, but there is a way."
Agar appeared unconvinced. "Say you put me on in some trunk. He's bound he'll open it and have a see, and there I am. What then?"
"I intend for him to open it and see you," Pierce said.
"I think so, and it will go smoothly enough, if you can take a bit of odor."
"What manner of odor?"
"The smell of a dead dog, or cat," Pierce said. "Dead some days. Do you think you can manage that?"
Agar said, "I swear, I don't get the lay. Let's settle the down with another daffy or two," and he extended his glass.
"That's enough," Pierce said. "There are things for you to do. Go to your lodgings, and come back with your best dunnage, the finest you have, and quickly."
"Go now," Pierce said. "And trust me."
When Agar had departed, he sent for Barlow, his cabby.
"Do we have any rope?" Pierce said.
"Rope, sir? You mean hempen rope?"
"Precisely. Do we have any in the house?"
"No, sir. Could you make do with bridle leather?
"No," Pierce said He considered a moment. "Hitch up the horse to the flat carriage and get ready for a night's work. We have a few items to obtain."
Barlow nodded and left. Pierce returned to the dining room, where Miriam was still sitting, patient and calm.
"There's trouble?" she said.
"Nothing beyond repair," Pierce said. "Do you have a black dress? I am thinking of a frock of cheap quality, such as a maid might wear."
"I think so, yes."
"Good," he said. "Set it out, you will wear it tomorrow morning."
"Whatever for?" she asked.
Pierce smiled. "To show your respect for the dead," he said.