Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Into the Niger Bend: Barsac Mission, Part 1, Page 2

Jules Verne

  "Good evening," he said.

  "Evening!" the two men replied.

  The driver, after looking at the newcomer, seemed taken aback.

  "Hullo! ... It isn't Store!" he exclaimed.

  "It's his day off, and I'm acting for him.''

  Then, speaking to the man standing on the pavement, he said:

  "Well, old man, what about giving me a hand?"

  "What with?"

  "One of our bags. There's a lot of money come in today, and it's heavy."

  "Yes, but," replied the cashier, hesitating, "I'm not allowed to leave the vehicle."

  "Nonsense! It's only a minute! And, anyhow, I'll take your place. One of the clerks will give you a hand while I'm putting in the briefcase and the securities."

  The cashier went off without further protest and entered the door, which shut behind him.

  "Now, my friend," the man who had taken the place of Store said to the driver: "Open her up."

  "Right!" the driver agreed.

  The body of the van had no exit at the back or at its sides, its only opening being a double door consisting of two metal sheets, placed behind the coachman's box. Thus the risks of a robbery were reduced to a minimum.

  To gain access to the vehicle, the seat, half of which was movable, had to be swung up. But, as he only needed to put a few packets in one of the pigeonholes along the sides, the driver did not think it worth while taking so much trouble, and simply pushed back the flaps.

  "Let's have the briefcase," he said.

  Having received it, the driver, bending forward across his seat, vanished as far as the waist in the vehicle's interior, his legs acting as a counterpoise.

  Thus placed, he could not see his selfappointed colleague climbing on to the step and on to the seat, so as to come between him and the reins. Leaning over the driver, the sham cashier, as though curious to see what was inside the van, thrust the upper part of his body into it; and suddenly his arm gave a violent thrust into the darkness.

  If any of the numerous passersby had thought of looking at that moment, they would have seen the coachman's legs suddenly become strangely rigid, then fall inert on the floor of his seat while his torso sagged down on its far side.

  The man quickly seized this inert body by the belt, and thrust it into the midst of the bags and packets within the vehicle.

  This series of actions, carried out with precision and with marvellous audacity, took only a few moments. The passersby continued peacefully on their way, without the slightest suspicion of these unusual happenings taking place so near them in the crowd.

  The man again leaned forward into the vehicle, so as not to be dazzled by the street-lamps, and stared into its interior. On its floor, in the midst of a pool of blood which spread even as he watched it, lay the driver, a knife thrust into the base of his skull. He was no longer moving; he had been struck down as though by lightning.

  The murderer, fearing that the blood would end by overflowing on to the road, stepped over the bench and went bodily into the vehicle; taking off the driver's coat, he used it to staunch that terrible wound. Then, having pulled out the knife and carefully wiped its blade, and his own red-stained hands, he shut the doors, sure that the blood, if it kept on flowing, would soak into fabric as though into a sponge.

  Having taken this precaution, he got down from the vehicle, crossed the pavement and rapped in the agreed manner at the door of the Bank; it was opened at once, then it closed behind him.

  "That fellow?" he asked, on entering.

  Someone pointed to the counter.

  "With the others, trussed up."

  "Good! Off with his clothing! Quick!"

  While the others hastened to obey, he took off Store's uniform and replaced it by that of the other cashier.

  "Two of you will stay here," he commanded, while this transformation was being accomplished. "The others can come with me to get the swag."

  Without waiting for any reply he reopened the door, went out with his two acolytes following him, got back on to the driving seat and clambered into the interior of the vehicle to start pillaging it.

  One after the other, he gave the packages to his accomplices, who took them into the Agency. Its door, fastened wide open, threw a square of light on to the pavement. The passersby, coming out of the darkness of the street and then going back into it, crossed without even noticing that strip of brightness. Nothing could have kept them from going in. But that notion did not occur to anyone, and the crowd flowed on, regardless of a transaction which was no concern of theirs and of which they had no reason to be suspicious.

  In a few minutes the vehicle had been emptied. The door closed, the booty was sorted out. The documents went on one side, the specie on the other. The first, ruthlessly rejected, were scattered about the floor. The bank notes were divided into five portions, one taken by each of the men, who padded out his chest with them.

  "And the bags?" asked one of the bandits.

  "Stuff them into your pockets," the chief replied. "I'll look after what's left in the van."

  He was at once obeyed.

  "Just a minute," he exclaimed. "First let's get things settled. When I've gone, you'll come back here and finish lowering the shutter. Then," he continued, "you go out along the corridor. The last man will lock and double lock the door and chuck the key down the drain. The main hall's at the far end and you know the way out."

  With one finger he pointed to the Manager's office.

  "Don't forget that fellow. You know what we agreed?"

  "Yes, yes," they replied. "Leave that to us."

  Just as he was going off, he stopped again.

  "Hell!" he said. "I'd forgotten about the chief. He ought to have a list of the other Branches."

  One of them showed him a yellow notice, stuck on the inside of the glass. He scanned it rapidly.

  "As for the coats," he said, after he had found the address of S Branch, "throw them in a corner. It doesn't matter if they're found. The one thing is that they shouldn't be seen on our backs. You know where we meet. Now let's get on with it."

  The rest of the bags of gold and silver were carried out into the vehicle.

  "That all?" enquired one of the "porters."

  The other dashed off, to return almost at once with the clothes which had first been replaced by those of the cashier Store, and slung them inside the vehicle.

  "Is that everything this time?" he asked again.

  "Yes. And don't hang about!" was the answer.

  The man disappeared into the bank. The iron shutter closed right down.

  Then the improvised driver grasped the reins and aroused the horses with a cut of the whip. The vehicle went off, not stopping until it reached S Branch.

  The false driver entered boldly and went up to the counting house.

  "I think you've got a letter for me?"

  The cashier looked up to see who was speaking.

  "Well!" he exclaimed, "It isn't Baudruc."

  "No, it isn't!" replied the applicant with a coarse laugh.

  "I can't make the Management out," the cashier grumbled with annoyance, "sending people along whom we've never heard of."

  "It's because I don't usually do this round. I was at B Branch when I was told to call here; it was a telephone call from the central office. You seem to have had a big deposit after closing time."

  He made up this plausible reply on the spot.

  "Yes," the cashier agreed, his suspicions notwithstanding. "All the same, it's worrying that I can't recognize you."

  "What's that got to do with you?" replied the other, taken by surprise.

  "There's so many thieves about. Still, all the same, we can easily settle it. I suppose you've got your credentials?"

  If anything would be likely to disquiet the bandit, it was certainly such a question. How could he have his "credentials?" He didn't even know what they were. This did not, however, disquiet him. Anyone who embarks on such adventures must have certain qualities, nota
bly an absolute sangfroid. This was something which the false cashier of the Central Bank possessed in abundance. So, if he were perturbed at hearing such a question shot at him out of the blue, he did not show it. He simply replied in the most natural voice, "Of course! That goes without saying."

  A simple process of reasoning convinced him that these "credentials," which admittedly he ought to have on him, must consist of some material object which the employees of the Central Bank would always carry. By rummaging through the clothing he had taken, he could certainly come across them.

  "I'll show you," he added calmly, sitting down on a bench and turning out his pocket.

  He took out an assortment of documents, letters, notes of instruction and others, all badly folded and rubbed. Imitating the clumsiness of workmen when their broad fingers, more adept at coarser tasks, have to deal with paperwork, he unfolded them one after the other.

  Soon he found a printed document, its blank spaces filled in by hand, stating that the man named Baudruc was authorized to act as chief cashier at the Central Bank. This was plainly the one he was looking for, and yet the difficulty still remained. The name on the document might form the greatest of his dangers, for the cashier knew Baudruc and was surprised at not having to deal with him.

  Without losing any of his coolness, the audacious bandit at once thought of the necessary trick. While the cashiers attention was turned elsewhere, he tore the document in two; he let the upper half, which bore the name, get mixed with the other papers and held out the lower half.

  "No luck," he exclaimed as though annoyed, "I've got half of my credentials, but not the rest."

  "Half of them?" repeated the cashier.

  "Yes. They're old and they've got badly worn, always being in my pocket. They've come in two, and I've carelessly left half at home."

  The cashier grunted uneasily.

  "Oh well, that's enough," said the robber, getting up and moving towards the door. "I've been told to come and pick up your spondulics, well I've come. You'd rather not let me have them? Then keep them. You can settle it with the Head Office. It's none of my business."

  The indifference he showed was more effective than the best arguments and still more was the menacing phrase which he had fired, like a Parthian shot, as he went off. "No trouble!" that is the eternal watchword of every employee on earth.

  "Wait a minute!" exclaimed the cashier, calling him back. "Let me see your credentials."

  "Here they are!" replied the applicant.

  "There's the Chief s signature," the cashier agreed with satisfaction. Then, at last making up his mind, "Here's the money," he said, handing over a sealed packet. "If you'd just sign the receipt?"

  The applicant, having put down some name or other, went off, still looking annoyed.

  "Good night!" he said brusquely, as though irritated by the suspicion levelled against him.

  Once outside, he hurried to the vehicle, climbed on the seat and vanished into the night.

  Thus was the robbery completed which aroused so much excitement.

  As is well known, it was discovered that very evening, more quickly indeed than the culprits had expected. The branch locked up, the staff rendered helpless, the driver of the van put out of the way, they could reasonably have thought that nothing would be noticed until next morning. Then the caretaker, going to give the daily sweeping up, would be certain to give the alarm, but until then there was every chance that the incident would remain a secret.

  In actual fact, things turned out quite differently.

  At half past seven the van was discovered, in a lonely street behind Hyde Park, by one of the Central Office staff who was on his way home. The employee, surprised to see a vehicle belonging to the Bank standing in this obscure and deserted street, had pushed open the door, which was unfastened; and, lighting a match, he had found the driver's body, already cold. He had at once given the alarm.

  Then the telephone got busy in every direction. Before eight, a squad of police surrounded the empty van while a crowd gathered before the DK Branch, where another squad was having the doors forced open by a locksmith.

  The inquiry began at once. By good fortune none of the employees was dead, though to tell the truth they were not far from it. Three parts stifled by the gags, their mouths stuffed full of rags and cotton wool, they were lying unconscious when help arrived, and no doubt they would have passed away before morning.

  When, after an hour's treatment, they regained consciousness, the information which they could give was very vague. Five bearded men, some covered by long dustcoats, the others by ulsters, had assaulted and overcome them. They knew nothing else.

  There was no reason to doubt their sincerity. Right at the start of the enquiry, indeed, the five coats had been found, as if the malefactors had wanted to leave signs of their presence. But these garments, carefully examined by the keenest sleuths of Scotland Yard, disclosed nothing regarding those who had left them. Made of commonplace material, they bore no indication of tailor or dealer, and no doubt this was why they had been left.

  All this did not say very much, and yet the police inspector had to give up hopes of learning anything else. He vainly examined the witnesses from every point of view. Their stories did not vary, and he could get nothing further out of them.

  The last witness was the caretaker. The offices which he had to look after were too numerous for him to supervise them properly, and that day he had noticed nothing unusual. If the thieves had passed him, as was quite likely, he would have taken them for members of the staff.

  Urged to ransack his memory, he mentioned four men employed in the building who had passed him about the time of the robbery, or a little later. Enquiry showed that all four were above suspicion; they had simply been going home.

  The caretaker also mentioned a coalman who had called about half past seven, a little before the police arrived; the fellow was carrying a large sack, and the caretaker had noticed him simply because it was so unusual to deliver coal at such an hour. The coalman had enquired after an office on the fifth floor and had been so insistent that the caretaker had admitted him and shown him the service stairs.

  The coalman had gone up, only to descend a quarter of an hour later, still carrying his sack: he explained that he had mistaken the address. Panting, like someone who had just climbed with a heavy burden up several flights of stairs, he had gone slowly away.

  "Do you know," the inspector enquired, "what firm the coalman belonged to?"

  The caretaker replied that he didn't.

  The fifth floor tenant had confirmed that a man, saying he had some coal to deliver, had rung at the service door about half past seven. When the servant who answered the bell had told him he must be mistaken, he had simply gone away. The only clash between the two statements was that the servant maintained that, whatever the caretaker might say, the man was not carrying a sack.

  "He might have left it below while he went up," the inspector surmised.

  None the less, that supposition seemed inadequate when there were found, in the passage leading to the cellars, the contents of a bag of anthracite, which the caretaker said had not been there a few hours earlier. The evidence indicated that the mysterious coalman must have emptied the sack he was carrying in that corner. Then what was he carrying? Because - the caretaker was quite certain on this point - the sack seemed to be no less full, and no lighter, when he went out than when he arrived.

  "Never mind about that for the moment," the inspector decided, giving up trying to solve an insoluble problem. "That can be cleared up later."

  For the time being he had to follow a trail which he thought more important, and he was not going to swerve from it.

  Not all the personnel of the Branch had been found. The most important of all, the Manager, did not answer the rollcall. Mr. Lewis Robert Blazon had vanished.

  The employees could give no information about this. All they knew was that, shortly before five, a client, who had gone to see the Manager, h
ad called in the cashier Store, who had answered the summons and had not reappeared. A few minutes later came the attack. As for Mr. Blazon, nobody had seen him since.

  The conclusion was obvious. While it was beyond doubt that the Branch had been taken by assault by five brigands from outside, it was no less clear that they had an accomplice in the office and that this accomplice could be no other than its Manager.

  That was why, without waiting for the results of a more detailed inquiry, a warrant was at once made out against Lewis Robert Blazon, Manager of the DK Branch of the Central Bank, suspected of complicity in robbery and conspiracy to murder. That was why his description, which, unlike that of his accomplices, was wellknown, was telegraphed in all directions.

  As the culprit had not yet had time to leave England, he could surely be apprehended either in some inland town or seaport, an achievement on which the police soon hoped to pride themselves.

  With this agreeable prospect, inspector and detectives went back to their respective beds.

  Then, that very night, at two in the morning, five men, some cleanshaven and others with their bronzed faces partly concealed by a moustache, travelled to Southampton by the London train. After having collected from the guard's van several parcels and a large and heavy trunk, they went by cab to the docks; at the quay waited a steamer of about two thousand tons, whose funnel was vomiting smoke.

  On the four o'clock tide, when everybody at Southampton was asleep, the steamer cast off and made for the open sea.

  No attempt was made to interfere with her. And why, anyhow, should that honest vessel be suspected, openly loaded as it was with freight, miscellaneous but legitimate, consigned to Kotonou, the seaport of Dahomey?

  The steamer, therefore, went off quite peaceably, with her freight, her five passengers, their packages and their larger trunk. One of them, the strongest, had had it stowed in his cabin when the police, breaking off their enquiry, were seeking a wellearned rest.

  As is well known, the enquiry, which was resumed the following day and continued for some time, never reached the definite conclusion: the five malefactors remained unidentified, and Lewis Robert Blazon could not be traced. No gleam of light shone on the impenetrable mystery. No one so much as traced the firm that employed the coalman who for a moment had attracted the attention of the police. The business had to be classed among the unsolved mysteries.