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Darning His Socks
When the two men passed him in Clayhanger Lane, heading towards Hanford on the Great West Road, Mr. Wilcox was sitting in the ditch darning his socks.
The tall, laughing one threw Mr. Wilcox sixpence, and the short one was fired to imitate this act of generosity. He tossed over some coppers.
Mr. Wilcox's weather-beaten face crinkled into a smile of pleasure.
"Thank 'ee, gentlemen," he said. "Best o' luck to 'ee, sirs."
He raised a soiled forefinger to his brimless, bandless old straw hat.
"Same to you, old man," returned the tall one.
"As I was saying, Henderson," he went on, resuming his evidently high-spirited conversation, "that life you and I were leading was small-town stuff. But it's different now. You were my boss, and I was the underling. We've both suffered since then. Both been through the hoop. And now that we're Londoners, we both see things from a different angle."
"Your right there, Jones," agreed the other with a sigh. "Time and the big city are the great levellers."
The tall one laughed at this, and, watching them as they turned the hedge-flanked bend in the lane, which was situated between allotments, Mr. Wilcox's eyes registered contempt.
"Great levellers!" he grinned to himself. "If ye don't git above yerself, like a stuck-up blarsted chump, ye don't 'ave to be levelled down."
The other two had evidently paused by a stile round the bend to study the landscape.
Whilst hanging an old driving-mirror on the hedge, and producing his shaving tackle, Mr. Wilcox was able to hear their conversation.
"As a matter of fact, Henderson," said Jones, "I'm doing a little levelling myself. There's an old house up on Hanford Heath which is to be experimentally bombed from the air next Thursday. And as leader of the A.R.P. rescue squad it will be my job to organise the fire fighting and the rescue of dummies. It will be a good show. Small explosive and incendiary bombs will be dropped from R.A.F. planes."
As Mr. Wilcox lathered his face with soap and ditch water, a further piece of good luck came his way boisterous group of young men and girls came along.
"What a picture for the papers," said one of the young men. He produced a camera from a leather case which was slung over his shoulder, and offered Mr. Wilcox a shilling to pose in the act of shaving.
The tramp demanded five shillings, and a bargain was struck at half-a-crown.
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A Tramp in Trouble
The party proceeded along the lane towards Hanford, and, as he packed up his kit preparatory to following them, Mr. Wilcox heard them shouting excitedly. It sounded like trouble. One of them was telling someone else to run for the police.
Mr. Wilcox hesitated in his stride.
He did not want to be near any kind of bother which involved police intervention, for he generally got the blame for it, whatever it was.
Mr. Wilcox turned and went the other way.
This was a terrible mistake, for it only needed a furtive move of this kind to condemn him, in the public mind, as the undoubted perpetrator of the murder with which he was subsequently charged.
Henderson — the short one — had been killed in such a peculiarly horrible way that people assured one another that only a creature of the lowest type — meaning Mr. Wilcox — could conceivably have done the deed.
Mr. Wilcox had to answer a lot of crazy questions. He was visited in his cell by a mental specialist, a lawyer, and a gentleman who seemed a little more human than the others, despite a somewhat morbid interest in freak crime.
The gentleman s name was Dixon Hawke, and he came accompanied by a youth, whom he addressed as Tommy.
"A doctor friend of mine has been telling me about you, Wilcox," he said, "and when that photograph of you was published, I became very interested in the case. I may be able to help you."
"And pigs might fly," moaned the prisoner, "but not them pigs in blue uniforms! They won't never 'ave wings."
Hawke smiled, and studied the face of the tramp intently for a moment.
"You seem a very intelligent chap," he remarked after a pause. "The doctor — a mental specialist — examined you because it was thought that you were mad. He considers you perfectly sane."
"Very decent of 'im, I'm sure."
"It seems incredible that a sane man would stop within a hundred yards of where he'd committed a murder and draw attention to himself by shaving in public."
"Would be a bit peculiar, wouldn't it?"
"Yes. But not more so than the crime itself. That is the most peculiar affair that I have ever come across. This man Henderson was found lying on his back with a cabbage on his chest. The cabbage had been pulled from an adjoining allotment, and it was pinned to him by a pointed wooden stake, taken from a hurdle fence. The stake had been rammed with terrific force so that it went through the heart of the cabbage and through that of the man as well."
The prisoner shuddered.
"I wouldn't do no such thing as that," he declared. "'Sides, what should I want to do it for?"
"He hadn't been robbed," agreed Hawke. "The prosecution might argue that you were disturbed before you had a chance to take his wallet, but I'm hanged if I can see how they are going to account for the fantastic nature of the murder, unless you are proved insane."
"Why don't you try an' find the man who really did it? What about 'is pal, Jones?"
"Alfred Jones," said Hawke, "who is manager of a new grocery store in Hanford, had just met Henderson, who was formerly his boss in a Midland town. They separated at the fork in the lane, Henderson being bound for a point a couple of miles higher up the road from Hanford. His body was found a few yards away from the fork.
"Jones appears to have been in the highest spirits about the meeting," went on the detective. "As soon as he reached Hanford he told three friends about it, for it was the first time since his arrival in London that he had met anyone connected with a past chapter of his life, and he expressed himself as looking forward keenly to another meeting with his old acquaintance."
Hawke leaned forward and tapped the prisoner on the knee.
"Did you hear any of their conversation?"
Wilcox scratched his head and frowned.
"Yes," he said, "but they wasn't quarrellin'. There certainly didn't seem to be no row on between 'em. Matey as could be, they was. Laughin' and jokin', an' Jones was slappin' 'Enderson on the back like an old school chum."
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A Symbol of Revenge
Hawke and Tommy Burke went and interviewed Alfred Jones. He seemed to be both perplexed and troubled by what had happened to Henderson.
"When I walked up the lane on to the main road after leaving him," he said, "I was rather preoccupied, and I don't recall seeing anybody pass me. I can't understand it at all. A cabbage impaled to his body with a stake! Incredible!
"Like," he went on, after a pause and passing his hand wearily over his forehead, "like a — like a buttonhole?" Hawke's brows rose slightly.
"Why, yes," he said. "Now you come to put it like that. It certainly was in approximately the position of a buttonhole. What made you think of it in that way?"
"Oh, I dunno. Association of ideas, I suppose. I automatically associate Henderson with a buttonhole. He always wore one in the old days. He was noted for it in the district where we used to work. A different one every day he wore. Always a big one that made him a bit conspicuous. Something of a swaggerer he was in those days."
"Indeed. Then he had a few enemies?"
"Plenty. Though, mind you, that was over ten years ago. He'd altered since then, and nobody would have borne a grudge that long."
"Did – did you ever have a grudge against him?"
"I see your drift," he said, nodding. "Well, I must admit that I did have a grudge against him — at one time. He was my boss. I mapped out my career, and, after I'd slaved for years to get promotion, he stepped in above me and kicked me out. For a long time after that it seemed that everything I touched was bound to go wrong. All my savings went, and the worry of years of unemployment and uncertainty killed my wife. I really believe I could have done for him then."
"But you don't feel that way now?" Jones shrugged.
"Life," he replied, "is too big and too complex for petty hates."
He pointed through the window to a trek-cart in the backyard. It was loaded with hosepipes and poison-gas decontamination apparatus.
"The A.R.P. truck reflects my outlook," he said. "I'm concerned with saving life, not destroying it."
Jones thus expressed himself with a certain dramatic force which did much to win the visitors to a belief in his sincerity.
"The elimination of Jones," said Hawke on their return to Dover Street, "makes the case more puzzling than ever. Since he gave me that buttonhole idea, however. I've been inclined to look on the cabbage as a symbol characteristic of a vendetta."
"A symbol! Something to signalise revenge. It's the only possible explanation."
"It makes it a personal matter. The perpetrator has a close personal interest in the victim's life and death, and he may, therefore, be found amongst the victim's circle of acquaintances. The funeral is at Chiswick tomorrow. We'll attend it, and see if any lines of inquiry suggest themselves."
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"Air Raid" Danger
The funeral was a quiet affair, with only half a dozen mourners or so, and it seemed as though this approach to the case was yet another blind alley.
After the people had dispersed, Hawke was moodily looking over the few wreaths which were stacked at the side of the open grave, when he suddenly stopped and pointed to one of the cards.
"'In memory of an old friend,'" read Tommy over his shoulder. "From well-wisher.'"
He looked inquiringly at his employer.
"An anonymous wreath," he remarked. "But what does it signify?"
Hawke pointed to a tiny imprint at the top of the card. This was the name of the florist who had supplied the wreath — Hector Robinson, of Hanford. At the side of the name was a pencilled date, thus — 17/6/39.
"The date!" breathed Hawke. "What do you think of it?"
"The seventeenth," said Tommy, frowning.
"That was the day the man was murdered! He was murdered at six o'clock at night, and, unless the assistant made a mistake, that wreath was ordered the same evening."
"Then the sender didn't lose much time –"
"The sender knew of the death before the general public did. The florist's shop would close at seven or eight, and the affair wasn't reported until the third wireless bulletin at ten." Their inquiry at the florist's sent them up to Hanford Heath, where a scattered crowd had assembled about an ugly three-storied house, long deserted and scheduled for demolition. Hawke learned that it was to be bombed, and that dummies were to be "rescued " from the building after the "raid " by A.R.P. workers.
"You'll find Mr. Jones somewhere about the house," said an inspector. "When the red flag goes up on the roof, the planes will start bombing the place. Keep a lookout for it."
It was some time before they located Jones. Each member of the A.R.P. party was occupied with his own duties, and had not time to keep track of everybody's whereabouts.
Moreover, the house was surrounded by tall undergrowth, and it was approached by way of tortuous, concealed paths.
Finally Hawke entered the dark, decaying old building and shouted for Jones.
Jones answered from an upstairs room, and the two visitors mounted the stairs.
Jones, covered with dust and plaster, had just lowered himself from a trapdoor in the ceiling on the top floor, and he did not seem able to comprehend the nature of Hawke's question:
"When did you first hear of Henderson's death?"
"Why," said Jones, after a pause, during which he dusted his clothes with his hands, "the following morning."
"Then how did you come to order a wreath from the florist's in Hanford on the same evening?"
"The same evening?"
Jones stared blankly, and it struck the other two that he genuinely did not understand.
"The florist knows you. And he remembers the time you called. It was within half an hour of the time when Henderson was killed."
Jones repeated that weary gesture which the others had noticed before, drawing his hand up over his forehead as though in an effort to smooth out his thoughts.
"The wreath," he said, moving into one of the back rooms. "Yes, I did order a wreath. I remember ordering it. But I can't remember when. It all seems kind of blurred in my memory." He stared frowningly out of the window across the fields.
"Wreath," he said. "Florists. Yes, that's right. But — when? What's it matter — when?"
"It matters a great deal, I'm afraid."
As Jones turned his vacant eye towards him the truth about him became apparent to Hawke. The man was insane.
The detective was about to speak when his attention was distracted by the droning of planes, and, looking out of the window, he saw three of them bank over in the distance and then head towards the house.
"I say! " exclaimed Tommy. "They're not going to start bombing yet, are they?"
Jones looked round slowly, stupidly. "Yes," he said, and then started violently, as though suddenly coming out of a reverie into harsh reality.
"I've hoisted the flag," he said. "We must get out of here."
But it was much too late.
The planes had been approaching the house at two hundred miles an hour, and, as they turned and looked impotently out of the window, the three could see a cluster of tiny black dots in the air, descending from the undercarriage of the leading machine.
Hawke had dragged the other two back from the window on to the landing, when there was a tremendous crash, and the whole house seemed to tilt to one side, while an avalanche of masonry tumbled about their ears.
There was a quick succession of explosions, and then a blast of fierce heat from below.
Shining white globules from the incendiary bombs seemed to have been scattered to all parts of the house. They burnt with almost incredible intensity, and shrivelled and consumed the dry woodwork at amazing speed.
Pungent fumes and smoke belched up the stairway, and then came great blinding sheets of flame.
The rescue squad proved their efficiency much more convincingly than they could have done by rescuing dummies.
The begoggled, steel-helmeted men in asbestos suits who invaded the place almost immediately after the outbreak of fire were astounded at finding the three trapped victims, one of whom appeared badly injured, but they carried through their operations with commendable presence of mind.
Singed, bruised, and half-suffocated, the three were carried down the ladders to safety, and presently lay on the grass, surrounded by a circle of police and firemen. Hawke and Tommy were sufficiently revived by the fresh air to be able to pay attention to Jones's last words.
Jones's face was blackened and blood was trickling from his mouth as he raised himself on an elbow from the stretcher on which he had been placed, and shouted — at no one in particular:
He laughed hysterically.
"I pulled it out of the allotment after I'd knocked the dirty swine down. Ha, ha! What a card you were, Henderson, old pal! What a gay spark! Lemme get something to pin it on with. Ha! This stake. There!"
There came another hysterical burst of laughter as the demented man made a savage downward thrust with his fist.
"There. Have a buttonhole!" he gasped. "Have a buttonhole, Henderson, old boy."
~ The End ~