S16

S16

He shrank farther back into the bushes. A man--The Man--was approaching, accompanied by his female associate. They passed so close to him that he could have stretched out a hand and touched them.

The female associate was speaking, and her first words set all Mr Pickering's suspicions dancing a dance of triumph. The girl gave herself away with her opening sentence.

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'You can't think how nervous I was this afternoon,' he heard her say. She had a soft pleasant voice; but soft, pleasant voices may be the vehicles for conveying criminal thoughts. 'I thought every moment one of those newspaper men would look in here.'

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Where was here? Ah, that outhouse! Mr Pickering had had his suspicions of that outhouse already. It was one of those structures that look at you furtively as if something were hiding in them.

'James! James! I thought I heard James in those bushes.'

The girl was looking straight at the spot occupied by Mr Pickering, and it had been the start caused by her first words and the resultant rustle of branches that had directed her attention to him. He froze. The danger passed. She went on speaking. Mr Pickering pondered on James. Who was James? Another of the gang, of course. How many of them were there?

'Once I thought it was all up. One of them was about a yard from the window, just going to look in.'

Mr Pickering thrilled. There was something hidden in the outhouse, then! Swag?

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'Thank goodness, a bee stung him at the psychological moment, and--oh!'

She stopped, and The Man spoke:

'What's the matter?'

It interested Mr Pickering that The Man retained his English accent even when talking privately with his associates. For practice, no doubt.

'Come and get a banana,' said the girl. And they went off together in the direction of the house, leaving Mr Pickering bewildered. Why a banana? Was it a slang term of the underworld for a pistol? It must be that.

But he had no time for speculation. Now was his chance, the only chance he would ever get of looking into that outhouse and finding out its mysterious contents. He had seen the girl unlock the door. A few steps would take him there. All it needed was nerve. With a strong effort Mr Pickering succeeded in obtaining the nerve. He burst from his bush and trotted to the outhouse door, opened it, and looked in. And at that moment something touched his leg.

At the right time and in the right frame of mind man is capable of stoic endurances that excite wonder and admiration. Mr Pickering was no weakling. He had once upset his automobile in a ditch, and had waited for twenty minutes until help came to relieve a broken arm, and he had done it without a murmur. But on the present occasion there was a difference. His mind was not adjusted for the occurrence. There are times when it is unseasonable to touch a man on the leg. This was a moment when it was unseasonable in the case of Mr Pickering. He bounded silently into the air, his whole being rent asunder as by a cataclysm.