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The Angel of Terror
Edgar Wallace (1922) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
"Who were the haughty individuals interviewing Jean in the saloon?" asked Jack Glover, as Lydia's car panted and groaned on the stiff ascent to La Turbie.
Lydia was concerned, and he had already noted her seriousness.
"Poor Jean is rather worried," she said. "It appears that she had a love affair with a man three or four years ago, and recently he has been bombarding her with threatening letters."
"Poor soul," said Jack dryly, "but I should imagine she could have dealt with that matter without calling in the police. I suppose they were detectives. Has she had a letter recently?"
"She had one this morning--posted in Monte Carlo last night."
"By the way, Jean went into Monte Carlo last night, didn't she?" asked Jack.
She looked at him reproachfully.
"We all went into Monte Carlo," she said severely. "Now, please don't be horrid, Mr. Glover, you aren't suggesting that Jean wrote this awful letter to herself, are you?"
"Was it an awful letter?" asked Jack.
"A terrible letter, threatening to kill her. Do you know that Mr. Briggerland thinks that the person who nearly killed me was really shooting at Jean."
"You don't say," said Jack politely. "I haven't heard about people shooting at you--but it sounds rather alarming."
She told him the story, and he offered no comment.
"Go on with your thrilling story of Jean's mortal enemy. Who is he?"
"She doesn't know his name," said Lydia. "She met him in Egypt--an elderly man who positively dogged her footsteps wherever she went, and made himself a nuisance."
"Doesn't know his name, eh?" said Jack with a sniff. "Well, that's convenient."
"I think you're almost spiteful," said Lydia hotly. "Poor girl, she was so distressed this morning; I have never seen her so upset."
"And are the police going to keep guard and follow her wherever she goes? And is that impossible person, Mr. Marcus Stepney, also in the vendetta? I saw him wandering about this morning like a wounded hero, with his arm in a sling."
"He hurt his hand gathering wild flowers for me on the--"
But Jack's outburst of laughter checked her, and she glared at him.
"I think you're boorish," she snapped angrily. "I'm sorry I came out with you."
"And I'm sorry I've been such a fool," apologised the penitent Jack, "but the vision of the immaculate Mr. Stepney gathering wild flowers in a top hat and a morning suit certainly did appeal to me as being comical!"
"He doesn't wear a top hat or a morning suit in Monte Carlo," she said, furious at his banter. "Let us talk about somebody else than my friends."
"I haven't started to talk about your friends yet," he said. "And please don't try to tell your chauffeur to turn round--the road is too narrow, and he'd have the car over the cliff before you knew where you were, if he were stupid enough to try. I'm sorry, deeply sorry, Mrs. Meredith, but I think that Jean was right when she said that the southern air had got into my blood. I'm a little hysterical--yes, put it down to that. It runs in the family," he babbled on. "I have an aunt who faints at the sight of strawberries, and an uncle who swoons whenever a cat walks into the room."
"I hope you don't visit him very much," she said coldly.
"Two points to you," said Jack, "but I must warn Jaggs, in case he is mistaken for the elderly Lothario. Obviously Jean is preparing the way for an unpleasant end to poor old Jaggs."
"Why do you think these things about Jean?" she asked, as they were running into La Turbie.
"Because I have a criminal mind," he replied promptly. "I have the same type of mind as Jean Briggerland's, wedded to a wholesome respect for the law, and a healthy sense of right and wrong. Some people couldn't be happy if they owned a cent that had been earned dishonestly; other people are happy so long as they have the money--so long as it is real money. I belong to the former category. Jean--well, I don't know what would make Jean happy."
"And what would make you happy--Jean?" she asked.
He did not answer this question until they were sitting on the stoep of the National, where a light luncheon was awaiting them.
"Jean?" he said, as though the question had just been asked. "No, I don't want Jean. She is wonderful, really, Mrs. Meredith, wonderful! I find myself thinking about her at odd moments, and the more I think the more I am amazed. Lucretia Borgia was a child in arms compared with Jean--poor old Lucretia has been maligned, anyway. There was a woman in the sixteenth century rather like her, and another girl in the early days of New England, who used to denounce witches for the pleasure of seeing them burn, but I can't think of an exact parallel, because Jean gets no pleasure out of hurting people any more than you will get out of cutting that cantaloup. It has just got to be cut, and the fact that you are finally destroying the life of the melon doesn't worry you."
"Have cantaloups life?" She paused, knife in hand, eyeing the fruit with a frown. "No, I don't think I want it. So Jean is a murderess at heart?"
She asked the question in solemn mockery, but Jack was not smiling.
"Oh yes--in intention, at any rate. I don't know whether she has ever killed anybody, but she has certainly planned murders."
Lydia sighed and sat back in her chair patiently.
"Do you still suggest that she harbours designs against my young life?"
"I not only suggest it, but I state positively that there have been four attempts on your life in the past fortnight," he said calmly.
"Let us have this out," she said recklessly. "Number one?"
"The nearly-a-fatal accident in Berkeley Street," said Jack.
"Will you explain by what miracle the car arrived at the psychological moment?" she asked.
"That's easy," he said with a smile. "Old man Briggerland lit his cigar standing on the steps of the house. That light was a brilliant one, Jaggs tells me. It was the signal for the car to come on. The next attempt was made with the assistance of a lunatic doctor who was helped to escape by Briggerland, and brought to your house by him. In some way he got hold of a key--probably Jean manoeuvred it. Did she ever talk to you about keys?"
"No," said the girl, "she----" She stopped suddenly, remembering that Jean had discussed keys with her.
"Are you sure she didn't?" asked Jack, watching her.
"I think she may have done," said the girl defiantly; "what was the third attempt?"
"The third attempt," said Jack slowly, "was to infect your bed with a malignant fever."
"Jean did it?" said the girl incredulously. "Oh no, that would be impossible."
"The child was in your bed. Jaggs saw it and threw two buckets of water over the bed, so that you should not sleep in it."
She was silent.
"And I suppose the next attempt was the shooting?"
"Now do you believe?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"No, I don't believe," she said quietly. "I think you have worked up a very strong case against poor Jean, and I am sure you think you're justified."
"You are quite right there," he said.
He lifted a pair of field glasses which he had put on the table, and surveyed the road from the sea. "Mrs. Meredith, I want you to do something and tell Jean Briggerland when you have done it."
"What is that?" she asked.
"I want you to make a will. I don't care where you leave your property, so long as it is not to somebody you love."
"I don't like making wills. It's so gruesome."
"It will be more gruesome for you if you don't," he said significantly. "The Briggerlands are your heirs at law."
She looked at him quickly.
"So that is what you are aiming at? You think that all these plots are designed to put me out of the way so that they can enjoy my money?"
He nodded, and she looked at him wonderingly.
"If you weren't a hard-headed lawyer, I should think you were a writer of romantic fiction," she said. "But if it will please you I will make a will. I haven't the slightest idea who I could leave the money to. I've got rather a lot of money, haven't I?"
"You have exactly £160,000 in hard cash. I want to talk to you about that," said Jack. "It is lying at your bankers in your current account. It represents property which has been sold or was in process of being sold when you inherited the money, and anybody who can get your signature and can satisfy the bankers that they are bona fide payees, can draw every cent you have of ready money. I might say in passing that we are prepared for that contingency, and any large cheque will be referred to me or to my partner."
He raised his field glasses for a second time and looked steadily down along the hill road up which they had come.
"Are you expecting anybody?" she asked.
"I'm expecting Jean," he said grimly.
"But we left her----"
"The fact that we left her talking to the police doesn't mean that she will not be coming up here, to watch us. Jean doesn't like me, you know, and she will be scared to death of this tête-à-tête."
The conversation had been arrested by the arrival of the soup and now there was a further interruption whilst the table was being cleared. When the maître d'hôtel had gone the girl asked:
"What am I to do with the money? Reinvest it?"
"Exactly," said Jack, "but the most important thing is to make your will."
He looked along the deserted veranda. They were the only guests present who had come early. From the veranda two curtained doors led into the salon of the hotel and it struck him that one of these had not been ajar when he looked at it before, and it was the door opposite to the table where they were sitting.
He noted this idly without attaching any great importance to the fact.
"Suppose somebody were to present a cheque to the bank in my name?" she asked. "What would happen?"
"If it were for a large sum? The manager would call us up and one of us would probably go round to your bank. It is only a block from our office. If Rennett or I said it was all right the cheque would be honoured. You may be sure that I should make very drastic inquiries as to the origin of the signature."
And then she saw him stiffen and his eyes go to the door. He waited a second, then rising noiselessly, crossed the wooden floor of the veranda quickly and pushed open the door, to find himself face to face with the smiling Jean Briggerland.