"Can't you be a bit more steady, the way you hold that torch?"
Danny Prescott spoke irritably, for he was working in an uncomfortable position, on top of a ladder with his hands above his head. The oilcan had slipped once, spilling some of its contents on his hand. It felt slimy, thick and unpleasant, almost like blood.
"Sorry," said Arthur Lloyd humbly.
He was always humble, the balding, middle-aged man at the foot of the ladder, which was one of the reasons why Danny despised him.
Danny himself was never humble, he was arrogant, sure of himself. Some people, the saying goes, can get away with murder, and Danny reckoned himself one of them, not that murder was in his line, nor crime of any sort. Danny could get all the things he wanted out of life without that.
Why not? He had good looks, the sort of good looks that women like, and a quick brain and a smooth-talking tongue. He had talked his way in and out of a lot of beds in his time, had Danny, and in the right company he was inclined to boast of it.
Not with an old fellow like Arthur Lloyd, of course. With Arthur he was always the serious-minded, respectful young man, and no doubt that was why the old boy had taken a liking to him, ever since that first day he had walked into his pub. Arthur was the landlord of the Rose and Crown, and Danny had made himself pleasant to him on principle ... the principle of always getting on the right side of the governor.
That was even before he had spotted Jennifer, Arthur's daughter. But the old man knew nothing at all about that. If he did, if he had the slightest suspicion, he would never have invited Danny into the private part of his house, down here, in the queer-smelling cellar.
Queer, Danny thought to himself, to find himself back here in the Rose and Crown, doing an odd job for the old man in his beer cellar, deep in the damp ground below the pub.
Danny had been flattered when he had been asked to help. In a way, it was a tribute to his youth; also to his lithe, strong body, the body which Jennifer had admired so much. He recalled the admiring way Lloyd had looked at him before he leaned confidentially across the bar.
"I've got a job for a young fellow like you," he said. "I wonder if you'd stay on after we close and give me a hand in the cellar?"
"Sure," Danny responded. "Anything for you, Mr. Lloyd. What do you want ... someone to broach a cask?"
Mr. Lloyd shook his head.
"It's the trapdoor," he explained. "Them old hinges stick a bit. They're a bit awkward to get at for an old fellow like me. I wondered if you'd climb up and oil them for me? I'll hold the ladder."
Danny had readily agreed, although he had found the reference to the ladder a bit mysterious. He had still been mystified after they were left alone in the house, and Lloyd had led him down two creaking flights of steps into utter darkness and the odour of decay.
Of course, the old man led the way with his torch, but it did not reveal much, for he shone it on the step immediately below his feet. Then they had reached the cellar, and the light had shone on the steps for a moment before it travelled upwards to the stained and dirty ceiling.
"There's the trapdoor," Lloyd said.
And there it was, in the ceiling over their heads, secured on one side by a pair of large hinges which Danny was asked to oil.
"I've never seen a trapdoor that opens downwards before," Danny said.
"Oh, they have them in some places," Arthur Lloyd replied absently. "I reckon they're handier that way."
Danny had taken the torch and studied the trapdoor above him before he mounted the steps to oil it.
"How's it fastened?" he asked. "Some kind of bolt in the floor above?"
"That's right," said Arthur Lloyd. "Some kind of bolt."
Then he had fixed the steps and Danny had ascended them, oilcan in hand, and applied himself to the job of making sure those hinges worked freely, while the old man held the ladder steady and directed the light of the torch.
"I couldn't have done it without you, son," he said gratefully.
Son? Danny's lips twitched with amusement at the word. If things had worked out the way Jennifer had expected he might have been the old boy's son-in-law. Not that that was very likely, for Danny was not the marrying kind. He had never found that necessary. For a travelling salesman like himself there were always pretty and obliging girls about, girls like Jennifer, sweet, innocent, and trusting. He favoured them innocent, and Jennifer was innocent all right. A little darling, if ever there was one, and Danny reckoned himself a judge.
Funny, after what had happened, to find himself back in the Rose and Crown, a trusted friend of the house. But of course, old man Lloyd hadn't known a thing about the link between Danny and Jennifer, they had been too careful for that. At least, Danny had been careful, and Jennifer had been trusting. Right from the first time he had persuaded her to slip out of the back of the house and meet him.
"If your old man knows I'm stuck on you he won't let me inside the place again," Danny told her. "We'd better keep it quiet until it's too late for him to do anything about it."
Jennifer had agreed, of course. She always agreed to anything Danny said. That was what was so delightful about her, at first. Later, it had been a source of irritation. Who wants a girl around who is always falling over herself to agree with every word a bloke said?
"Yes, Danny," she would say. Or "Of course not, Danny darling." Or, when he complained about her, "I'm sorry, Danny. I won't do it again."
That was after he had persuaded her to run away with him. It had been tricky work, with a girl like Jennifer, and Danny had taken pride in the way he had managed it. Marriage had, of course, been in her mind, but he had never promised her anything definite. At least, not in writing, and not before any witness.
"Sooner or later," he told her. "We'll get hitched up, but we can't do it without your old man's permission, not until you're over age. And if I breathed a word about taking his precious daughter away from him I reckon he'd have that old blunderbuss down from over the fireplace and shoot me. It's just as well he doesn't know a thing about you meeting me."
That was true, old Lloyd suspected nothing, for that was the way Danny played it. In public, in the bar, he practically ignored Jennifer, and when he had occasion to speak to her he treated her like the child her father thought she still was.
It was different after dark, on the common behind the house. Jennifer was no child then, at least not after Danny had taken a hand in her education. That was the best about innocence such as Jennifer's. Once you had won her confidence anything was possible, because knowing nothing, anything you said was right, once you had made her love you.
Danny licked his rather thick lips at the memory. Yes, Jennifer had been delightful, a wonderful companion, after he had taken her away. He had dragged her around with him all over Lancashire and Yorkshire, and most of it was a wonderful memory. Until the last week or so, until the relationship ended abruptly, in Liverpool.
It had been so easy to arrange, too, once he had encouraged Jennifer to become accustomed to the idea. It was Jennifer who had planned it so that they could give her father the slip and get a clear three days' start before the search for her began.
In a way, Danny reflected, it had been the old man's fault, making it so easy. A widower with a pretty daughter should not leave her alone for days and nights at a time, the way old man Lloyd did with Jennifer. If it hadn't been for the fellow's mysterious trips, two or three times a year, they would never have had the chance to hop the twig the way they did.
It had puzzled Danny, those journeys of Arthur Lloyd's, although he had found them convenient. Something shady about them, no doubt, or the old cock wouldn't have been so reluctant to discuss his little holidays. Had he a girl tucked away some place, or did he just take his chance in the streets of the big city, Danny asked himself?
Anyhow, off the old man went, and on one memorable occasion Jennifer had gone too, to join up with Danny almost as soon as her father was out of the house. In a way it served the old man right. It didn't seem decent, carrying on like that, when you were the age of Arthur Lloyd and you looked so blooming meek and respectable.
It was his shifty ways, or whatever it was that called him away so regularly at intervals of months, that had given Jennifer and Danny their chance. Out Jennifer had walked to where Danny was waiting, and that was the last her father could have heard of her, for Danny had made her swear she wouldn't go writing letters or trying to get in touch behind his back.
That was why Danny had dared to come back to the Rose and Crown when he found himself in that part of the country again, to walk with confidence into the bar after the lapse of a year and greet old man Lloyd and some of the other regulars with a smile and a wave of his hand.
It had taken a bit of nerve, of course, and a good many fellows wouldn't have dared to do it. But Danny had walked right in, assured of his welcome, and it had worked out just the way he had reckoned on. For of course, there wasn't a soul knew that the friendly, amusing young salesman had anything at all to do with the disappearance of the landlord's daughter.
Danny remembered that moment when he had stepped back into the lighted bar. He had looked across at Arthur Lloyd where he stood behind his beer pumps, and just for a second he might have been scared, a little.
Then, as Arthur Lloyd looked back towards him, he knew it was all right, as he had counted on. For old Lloyd had met his eyes and smiled in recognition, just as though he had been expecting Danny. A positive sight for sore eyes, Danny had turned out to be. At first the old man had looked a sight older, his narrow shoulders rounded, his expression listless and depressed.
But he brightened up at once as soon as he saw Danny, and he beckoned him over and shook him warmly by the hand.
"So you remember me, Mr. Lloyd?" Danny said.
"Danny Prescott!" Lloyd said with unaccustomed heartiness. "Of course I remember you, Danny. We don't often get lively company like yours in a place like this. Them stories of yours, it still makes me chuckle to recall them. I knew you'd come back, sooner or later."
"I was in this part of the country, and I just couldn't keep away from the old Rose and Crown."
He wondered if he dare ask about Jennifer, but he decided that that would be pushing his luck. After all, he had hardly taken any notice of the girlin public, at any rate. Once, just once, he had left her a bag of sweets.
He ordered a scotch and old Lloyd poured him out a double, very carefully, and added tonic water, remembering the way Danny took his scotch, even after a year. He pushed back Danny's money.
"That's on the house, Danny," he said. "It's been waiting a long time for you to come back."
A year, Danny noted inwardly, since he had first set foot in this house and cast his measuring eyes upon Jenny.
It was nine months now since he had seen the last of her, in that frowzy lodging house behind Scotland Road in Liverpool.
Danny had, of course, known for a week or two that the parting was coming, although he didn't believe at the time that Jennifer suspected. The girl was so dumb, as even the brightest girl seems to be when the time comes a man has made up his mind he is through with her.
Oh, she knew it was all over for sure, although she tried to pretend she didn't. She never complained about hard words, or even a blow, and when Danny started to go out and leave her alone at night she played the brave, cheerful little wife, which she wasn't. Certainly not a wife, although that was the way she played it.
It was funny, really, that when the break finally came it was Jennifer who made it, and in a way that made sure there was no turning back. That was the very first time that Danny had stayed away from her all night, and he admitted that he had said some hard things to her before he went out. Hard, but necessary.
Necessary because it was time to let the girl know where she stood, and Jennifer had got the message all right. You wouldn't think she was capable of giving a man a shock like that, a man who had treated her decently for at least two-thirds of the time they had been together.
When Danny came back the next morning she was out cold on the bed, and there was the empty aspirin bottle beside her. Danny knew he had done his best for her; he had felt in vain for her pulse before he started to think of his own position.
Then, of course, he had walked out. There was no more he could do for Jennifer, and he had to look out for himself. Luckily he had never stayed at that house before, and he hadn't used his own name, so within the hour he was speeding out of Liverpool and he had never gone back.
Never heard of Jennifer again, either, but of course, a familiar bit of unpleasantness like that didn't get much space in the newspapers.
He had never returned to Liverpool, and until today he had never gone back to the Rose and Crown either. He didn't usually go back to places, but something had drawn him here, and he had never forgotten Arthur Lloyd.
There was something odd in that, for nothing was very memorable about Lloyd: an elderly old boy running to flabby fat, with no brains, no personality at all. All he was fit for was running a little country pub like this. He hadn't even the guts to do his own odd jobs, like oiling the hinges of the trapdoor in the ceiling of his cellar.
Danny stepped from the ladder and set the oilcan down on the floor. He wished the old boy would divert the beam of the torch from his face, so that he could look around him in this dank, forbidding cellar. Now he wanted to get out of here and clear off as soon as he could. There was a woman where he was lodging, not very inviting, but her husband was on the night shift ...
He sniffed. "Your bitter smells a bit off to me," he said. "There's something getting up my nose, something sharp."
"That's under the floorboards," Lloyd said. "Take a look."
The wooden floor rocked beneath them, and he stooped with surprising quickness and tossed one of the planks aside, revealing a dark pit from which the acrid scent rose more strongly.
"Bend down and smell it and see if you can guess what I keep in the pit," he said.
Danny bent down and went sprawling onto the loose boards as Lloyd hit him over the head with the heavy torch.
Before he could move the older man was on him, twisting his hands behind his back, knotting them together as he knelt heavily upon him. He drew Danny back and tossed more boards aside, clearing the surface of the pit below the trapdoor above.
"Quicklime, that's what it is," he said. "Come upstairs and I'll show you why I keep it there."
"For God's sake!" Danny gasped. And then he screamed.
Arthur Lloyd had jerked him to his feet, forcing his hands high up on his back, almost running him towards the staircase in the corner that led to the room above.
"This," Lloyd said grimly, "is what I've been waiting for, what I've been getting ready for since Jennifer died in my arms in that Liverpool hospital. You didn't know, did you, that she lived for twenty-four hours, long enough to send for me, long enough to tell us your name?"
Danny found himself stumbling up the staircase before the thrusting, savage hands of the older man. They emerged in the room above. When Lloyd switched on the light Danny gasped at what he saw: the great machine that took all the space in the high little room above the trapdoor.
"Real professional, isn't it?" Lloyd said. "I built it myself, for you. You see, although the folk around here don't know it, I'm the public hangman, and that was the reason for all the little trips I took.
"The extra money was useful, for Jennifer, but I won't be needing it any more. Tonight, it's my last job, and I might say it's a real pleasure to do it."
Danny stared at the tall gallows, the dangling noose, and opened his mouth to cry out again. But the gag was rammed between his teeth, choking him, and he saw no more as the black hood was drawn down expertly over his head.
Copyright © 1964 Walter Tyrer, copyright © 2014 the estate of Walter Tyrer.
Used with the kind permission of Jennifer De Fries.
westerns, mysteries. His parents came from Liverpool and he was raised as a Merseysider. The family struggled when his mother was widowed, but Walter was an acute scholar and became a 16-year-old midshipman in the Royal Navy in World War I. His writing career began in 1921 and by 1939 he was able to move to The Grove, a Georgian house right on the Thames. His daughters remember, as children, spending the nights of the World War II Blitz in the large wine cellar in the garden, complete with electricity and tiny cooker. Tyrer did Air Raid Precautions and fire-watching duty, but worked in Fleet Street most days, "not forgetting the Press Club."
Tyrer was a contemporary of, and on first-name terms with, the more famous Edgar Wallace who died in Hollywood in 1932. Many of Wallace's famous thrillers were first published or serialized in the US pulps (Short Stories, Argosy, Adventure, the Popular Magazine, Complete Detective Novel Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, etc). Tyrer went on in the 1940s to become a respected contributor to the venerable UK detective series featuring Sexton Blake. His novels were notable for capturing the grimness of life in wartime and post-war Britain. His austere settings captured the mean streets, the pubs, the factories, the tawdry amusement arcades, the rubble-strewn bomb sites, and so on. His subsidiary characters were often brilliantly drawn "little" men and women. Eventually, this fell out of favor as the public sought stories that celebrated the coming glamor and glitter of the 1960s.
Tyrer turned to writing stories for the women's romance magazines and novels for Robert Hale. He also wrote the novel Such Friends Are Dangerous (Harper & Row) which is still considered a minor crime classic and was optioned by 20th Century Fox. In 1964 young author-editor Keith Chapman persuaded Tyrer to contribute to the Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine, which he suggested, founded, and edited while working for Micron Publications, a small, rival concern to the mighty Fleetway Publications (formerly the Amalgamated Press), who were Tyrer's major long-term publishers. This previously unpublished story is from that period.
Walter Tyrer (1900-1978) was a British writer of all manner of genre fiction into his early seventies: school stories, romances,