The Scarlet Runner
Some of these Air Ministry jobs have turned out mighty queer,” said Tommy Burke, “but this about crowns everything. Why, dash it all, guv’nor, how on earth can an aerodrome disappear?”
Dixon Hawke and his young assistant were sitting at a large, flat-topped desk examining a package of diagrams and reports which had just been brought in.
Hawke, having read through the reports, now proceeded to give a concise account of how matters stood in regard to the mystery of the aerodrome which had vanished.
“Most forms of air smuggling are profitable,” said the detective, “and the most profitable of all is undoubtedly the smuggling of aliens in and out of the country.
“It is in that dangerous department of the game that a red cabin biplane, which has come to be known as the Scarlet Runner, is suspected of being involved.”
The detective paused to study one of the diagrams.
“A machine which answered to the description of the Scarlet Runner,” Hawke went on, “was forced down through lack of petrol at Burfort Aerodrome the evening before last.
“It bore a Dutch registration number, and the pilot, who wore heavy goggles, spoke with a faint foreign accent.
“One of the mechanics at the petrol pumps hurried into the aerodrome hotel and informed Flight-Lieutenant Blake, the manager of the aerodrome.
“Blake came out and requested the pilot of the red plane to give an account of himself. The pilot assured him that he was on perfectly legitimate private work, but was not in a position to give details without consulting his employer.
“When Blake talked about detaining him, he protested that he was overdue and urgently expected. He had not much farther to go, and offered to take Blake with him for an interview with his employer.
“Blake remained obdurate for a while, but the mystery pilot persisted. He would fly Blake back to Burfort within a short space of time. His errand, he pleaded, was one of life and death.
“At this,” continued Hawke, “the aerodrome manager gave way and consented to travel in the red plane, which a few minutes later, when darkness was falling, took off and bore him westwards.”
Once more the criminologist abstractedly flicked over the papers before him.
“Yes?” queried Tommy. “What then?”
“That was the last time Flight-Lieutenant Blake was seen alive. His body, with the skull fractured, was found at Bristol in a lorry.”
“In a lorry?”
“Yes; the lorry had returned half laden from London through Burfort, and in the general direction taken by the red plane. The driver had stopped at a village called Nestol, about fifteen miles west of Burfort, to take a nap. He pulled on to a grass verge on a lonely road for the purpose, and it was evidently whilst he was sleeping that the body was put on the lorry.”
“Then,” said Tommy, “the red plane must have landed somewhere near Nestol?”
“Indeed it must. The lorry driver awoke from his nap and proceeded on his way shortly after dark. According to the time he gave, he left Nestol about half an hour after the red plane took off from Burfort.
“Within that half hour, Tommy, the plane landed, Blake was murdered, and his body carried or driven to the lorry, which presumably the murderer or murderers made use of on impulse.” “It’s pretty obvious, then, guv’nor, that the landing-ground must be somewhere pretty close to where that lorry was?”
“Now we come to that part of the case which strikes me as really remarkable,” he said. “I mean the matter of the disappearing flying field.”
“That part of the country,” he continued, “is very rugged. Grassy knolls and ancient earthworks abound. There aren’t more than half a dozen level fields within a radius of five miles of Nestol, and those are almost too small to warrant the name of fields. Not one of them is a practicable landing-place.”
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A Pilot’s Perplexity
TOMMY pointed to the plan which Hawke had spread before him. “What about this small flying field that one of the Burfort pilots says he located?”
“Exactly, Tommy! What about it? Flying-Officer Thurlow has come forward to say that he was heading east towards Burfort a week before this affair when he saw a square field, just big enough for a landing and takeoff, which was, apparently, in use as a private flying field, for there was a wind indicator flying in one corner of it.
“He was able to memorise its locality roughly from the position of a water-tower and that of the village of Nestol. When he took a flight to try to locate it yesterday, however, he failed. Not only was there not a field large enough, but there wasn’t one bearing the slightest resemblance to the one he had seen—or thought he had seen.”
“Why do you admit that bit, sir? D’you think he might have dreamt of that flying field?”
“His superiors seem inclined to think that. He himself is quite bewildered about it. Claims to be rather good at spotting and memorising landmarks.”
“What about the district inquiries? Have the local police been able to collect any information?”
Hawke shook his head.
“There are only one or two scattered houses in the vicinity, and the range of vision of their occupants is restricted by the hilly nature of the ground. The house nearest to the spot where Thurlow thought the flying field was is occupied by the brothers Fred and Walter Morton, small farmers, who are assisted by a deaf-and-dumb cowman and a couple of plough hands.
“The farmer brothers are not helpful towards the local police, who have apparently pulled them up for minor breaches of agricultural regulations. The ploughmen live, with their wives, in two small cottages at the back of the farmhouse, and they are also a bit on the sullen side where the police are concerned. Nobody has troubled to interrogate the deaf-and-dumb cowhand, who sleeps in an attic bedroom in the farmhouse.”
Having thus outlined the story he had gleaned from the reports, Hawke sat musing for a while, and then, becoming suddenly brisk, instructed Tommy to pack his suitcase and get the car out.
“We’ll go to Burfort Aerodrome and start from there,” he said. “We’ll go over the ground that’s been covered, and see if we can spot anything that the local police may have missed.”
Twenty minutes later they were on their way out of London, and in a little under two hours were at Burfort, one of the smaller of the provincial aerodromes.
Having booked rooms at the aerodrome hotel, Hawke introduced himself to Flying-Officer Thurlow.
“I’ve heard of you, of course, Mr. Hawke,” said Thurlow. “D’you know, it’s occurred to me that they ought to get someone like you on this job.”
“What about this flying field that vanished?” asked Hawke, coming straight to the point.
Thurlow frowned slightly.
“There’s only one possible explanation,” he said, “and that isn’t what some people think. I’m not romancing, and I didn’t dream it. I definitely saw the aerodrome, but it’s possible that I miscalculated the locality. It’s easy for an inexperienced flyer to be thirty miles out in his map reading.
“But,” added the young pilot in emphatic tones. “I don’t admit that I am all that inexperienced. Furthermore, I positively made a mental note of the position of the field relative to that water tower and the village of Nestol.
“If,” added Thurlow, “ it transpires that there’s another water-tower and another village some miles west of Nestol, I suppose I shall have to accept it that I have made an error. But it will be the first time I ever have made such an error.”
“Supposing you take us for a flight over this district?” suggested Hawke.
“Good idea,” assented Thurlow energetically. “Come on. I can get a cabin monoplane right away.”
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A Fruitless Flight
Hawke and Tommy were presently sitting behind Thurlow in a low-winged, five-seater monoplane with twin engines.
From the cabin windows an almost unrestricted view was obtainable of the mosaic pattern of the landscape below.
A few minutes’ flying brought them within sight of a cylindrical steel structure which Thurlow pointed out as the water-tower to which he had alluded, and of a cluster of houses constituting the village of Nestol.
Hawke, an amateur airman of considerable experience, turned a discerning eye on the fields immediately beneath them. They showed the contours of earthworks, indicating their hopeless unevenness as potential landing-grounds. Many had trees in the middle.
Thurlow presently pointed to a cluster of half a dozen fields, two of which were ploughed.
“That’s Morton’s farm,” he said. “You can just see the farmhouse through the trees there.”
Hawke perceived at a glance that none of the fields here, though level enough, were of the size or shape suitable for a flying field. The two fields nearest the house were long and narrow, divided by a hedge.
A landing down either of these strips of land, across which the prevailing winds blew, would have been disastrous.
“I could have sworn it was round about there that I saw that flying field,” declared Thurlow’. “Can’t make it out.”
At Hawke’s suggestion, they flew’ on for another twenty-five miles or so.
Still having failed to find any landmarks corresponding to those around Nestol—or anything resembling a flying field—they turned and flew back to Burfort.
“Well?” demanded Thurlow, “what are you going to do next?”
“Nothing very brilliant,” answered Hawke. “Repeat the police inquiries, and just hope that someone will be able to put us on the track of the Scarlet Runner. Come on, Tommy. Get the car. We’ll drive over to Nestol.”
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An Amiable Reception
Half an hour later the detective’s car drew to a standstill outside the white -washed, thatched-roofed village inn at Nestol, and Hawke got out to inquire the way to the Morton’s farm.
He paused for a moment at the doorway of the inn and listened.
Then he beckoned to Tommy.
“Judging by the conversation,” he said, “one of the Morton brothers is in here.”
The two went into the bar parlour, from where they could hear voices in the taproom.
“‘Don’t Mister Morton me,’ I says,” remarked one of the voices. “‘I knows my rights,’ I says, ‘ and I ain’t ’avin’ you snoopin’ round my farm looking for airplanes, an’ frightenin’ my pigs, Mister P.C. bloomin’ Coombes.’ ” Which statement was greeted with hearty guffaws, and the red-faced landlord was wiping away tears of mirth from his eyes when he came through to attend to the new callers’ requirements.
“I came to inquire my way to the Morton farm,” said Hawke. “Is that one of the Mortons in there?”
“Yes—ee-hee!—’e’s a lad. You ain’t after that airyplane, too, are ye, sir?” Hawke handed over his card, and requested that it should be passed on to the Mr. Morton in the taproom.
“I suppose you haven’t seen anything of this red aeroplane?” inquired the detective.
The landlord shook his head.
“Everybody’s talkin’ about it, but, bless you, with all they airplanes goin’, over Burfort nowadays we never takes no notice of ’em.”
“Yes, quite,” commented Hawke impatiently. “Ask Mr. Morton if I might have a word with him, will you?”
The landlord waddled through the stone-floored passage to the taproom, staring down at the visiting card which he held before him.
“If Morton won’t help the local police, guv’nor,” murmured Tommy, “I don’t suppose we’ll get much change out of him. These fellows don’t like Londoners at the best of times.”
“We’ll try tact,” he whispered.
“Yes, sir. Buy him a quart of it!” Both were surprised to discover that they had wrongly estimated the situation.
Mr. Fred Morton, a big, powerful, iron-jawed man, came through and introduced himself. He looked capable of being awkward—extremely awkward. But he didn’t choose to be.
“No, sir,” he said, holding up his palm at Hawke’s invitation. “I’ll be host. Only too pleased. Do all I can to help you, sir. Take you right up to my place, I will, and show you the lay of the land. ’Fraid you won’t find no trace of this missin’ plane, though, but, as I say, I’ll be pleased to help.”
The farmer requested the landlord to supply everyone in the taproom with refreshment at his expense, and Hawke sipped at a tankard of ale for the sake of politeness. He was on the alert, and anxious not to allow the convivial atmosphere of the inn to take the edge off his powers of perception.
At the first opportunity, therefore, he hurried Mr. Morton outside, and they were presently driving towards the farm.
On arrival, Morton introduced the visitors to his brother, who had been trying out a powerful motor-tractor in one of the fields.
Walter was equally amiable, but the sharp-eyed Hawke noticed that he first exchanged significant glances with his brother.
The brothers led the visitors along the side of the hedge dividing the two narrow, slightly misshapen fields to the stockyard, near which was a large, open granary—a framework of steel girders supporting a corrugated iron roof, and housing a large haystack.
“These fields ain’t large enough for a machine to land,” remarked Fred.
Hawke murmured his agreement, and as he did so there was a cry from Tommy.
Turning, Hawke perceived that the youth had gone sprawling over a small trolley, which he had not noticed in the fading light.
It was a small platform on rollers, handleless, and no more than six inches high and a couple of feet square—the kind of thing used in goods stations for slipping under heavy packing-casts.
After the youth had picked himself up and brushed his soiled clothes with his hands, the party proceeded on their tour of inspection, the incident temporarily forgotten.
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Hawke Thinks It Over
THE visit to the farm, which proved quite unfruitful, lasted about half an hour, after which Hawke and Tommy returned to the car and drove out of the village towards the main road.
“Stop the car, Tommy,” said Hawke before they reached the latter. “I want to sit back and do a little quiet thinking.”
The youngster drew the car in to the side of the road and stopped the engine. Silence reigned for three or four minutes.
“Why,” asked the detective presently, “should the Mortons refuse the country constable access to their farm, and yet welcome a London detective with open arms?”
“Because they had a grudge against the local police.”
“That is one explanation. Are there other possible explanations? Our job is to examine them all.”
“Assume for a moment,” proceeded Hawke, “that the Mortons did have some guilty secret to hide.”
“That would explain their being awkward to the local police,” said Tommy, “but it wouldn’t explain their being so helpful to the London detective, who, presumably, has a more highly-trained eye.”
“Ah! Now, wait a minute, young man,” said Hawke, with a sudden show of enthusiasm for the discussion. “You’ve touched on an interesting point there. Isn’t it possible that these fellows have a supreme contempt for the intelligence of townsmen?”
“H’m! I’ve often noticed that country fellows are that way inclined.”
“Aid with justice, Tommy.”
There was a gleam in the detective’s eye as he continued:
“Out of his own element, the townsman is not such a smart fellow. He doesn’t know the difference between a heifer and a steer, or between – By Jove! ”
Hawke broke off abruptly and lapsed into another thoughtful silence.
“Or between what, guv’nor?”
“Between a hawthorn hedge and a blackthorn hedge.”
“Listen, Tommy! A few facts are beginning to line up. Was Fred Morton afraid of P.C. Coombes, the country policeman, spotting something which he was confident we would not spot?”
“I can’t think of anything which would have any bearing on the missing aerodrome.”
Hawke gripped Tommy’s arm.
“It’s only a very small, very poor, sort of farm, and there are two of them sharing it. Yet you noticed how free Fred Morton was with his money?”
“That’s one fact, certainly,’’ agreed Tommy. “Any others?”
“Yes. You are bearing a reminder of one of them on your shin.”
“The trolley affair? But what connection could that have with the aeroplane?”
“What connection could it have with anything? What was it doing there? Come on, turn the car round. I want to make a little investigation.”
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The Artificial Hedge
Hawke and Tommy left the car some distance from the entrance to the farm, and proceeded across the fields on foot.
Very cautiously they approached the hedge near which the trolley had stood, and, kneeling down, Hawke flashed on his pocket torch.
The yellow beam revealed the bases of two light hurdle fences, into which were interwoven the twigs and small branches constituting the hedge.
“That’s what the countryman would have noticed, Tommy. It’s hedged but not ditched.”
Hawke stood up and leaned his weight on the hedge, which yielded slightly along a length of about five yards on either side of him.
“It’s in sections,” whispered the detective. “Untie the sections, and, with a couple of those trolleys and that tractor, they can be towed away to the side of the field in no time, leaving the square field that Thurlow saw. Just large enough for a flying field.” Tommy gasped at this revelation.
“What an inspiration, guv’nor! But where would the plane be hidden?”
“I have a theory about that. Let’s test it.”
They hurried on to the granary, where Hawke, after searching about for a moment, found a pitchfork.
“That one stroke of ingenuity suggests another,” he said, thrusting the pitchfork into the end of the huge hayrick. “Seeing that their thoughts run in the direction of camouflage, it’s possible that this rick isn’t all that it appears to be.”
The bullet, which went past their ears with a sound like the crack of a whip, caused both to drop to the ground and scramble for cover behind the rick.
A second and a third shot, coming from the other side of the stockyard, provoked the worried lowing of cattle, the clucking of fowl, and the whole repertoire of farmyard noises.
The two detectives also heard the sound of running feet, and excited voices in stage-whisper debate.
One of the voices, that of Fred Morton, said: “We never bargained for all this ’ere, I tell you.”
“Perhaps, my friend,” answered a guttural voice, “you are bargaining for prison all your life? Or the firing squad, hein? Do what you are told. Round that way. They must not escape!”
With their attackers approaching them from either side of the rick, it seemed that their only course was to break for the open—and that would almost certainly be fatal. They would be shot down before they had gone a dozen paces.
Hawke grabbed Tommy by both arms, and half-lifted him on to the lower rungs of a ladder which leaned against the rick.
The youth was quick to appreciate the position, and he was on top of the rick in a flash.
Hawke was not far behind him, heaving his body over just as another shot rang out from below.
There was a low murmur of indistinguishable conversation for a moment, and then the rustle of hay.
A cautious glimpse over the edge revealed three shadowy figures engaged in hauling bales of hay from the end of the rick.
In a very short space Hawke’s suspicions about the rick were proved to have been well founded. The rick was built up like a house, rough cubes of hay being used instead of bricks, or blocks of stone.
The two could feel the hollow rick sag slightly as the major part of its end wall was removed, and presently a plane, with wings folded back against its sides, was wheeled out into the yard.
The wings were swung out into position and the engine started.
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Escape from the Flames
Two of the figures rushed across to the rick, and in a few seconds there was a loud crackling sound below, distinguishable even above the splutter of the ticking engine.
Great volumes of smoke rose up, almost choking Hawke and Tommy.
“We can’t get down. They’ve taken the ladder,” shouted Tommy.
The rick took fire with such rapidity that they were in the midst of an inferno before any plan of action occurred to them.
Indeed, there seemed no alternative between being burned alive or jumping to the ground and being shot, if they didn’t break their necks. Following a swift glance about him in the light of the flames, Hawke shouted to Tommy: “Jump for that crossbar.”
Both reached the bar which spanned the underside of the roof, and swung their legs over it, but the move was very much like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The roof was a trap for the clouds of smoke, and terrific waves of heat were thrown at them both from below and above.
Instinctively they moved towards the ends of the crossbar.
Tommy reached one of the upright girders.
It was almost unbearably hot, but, shutting his eyes and holding his breath, he slid down through a solid wall of flame, fell the last few feet, and rolled out into the open, his flesh blistered and his clothes burning.
Hawke, who had made a desperate jump for it and luckily landed on a heap of loose hay which had not yet caught fire, ran to his assistant’s aid, and dragged him to a water-pump a few yards away.
The fire brigade, which presently arrived, found, in addition to a burning haystack, the wreckage of the Scarlet Runner in one of the narrow fields. There were three men inside it, two dead and one mortally injured.
Before he died in the local hospital, Fred Morton told how he had been approached by the foreigner, who had introduced himself as Dr. Albrecht Birt, and offered more money per week than the farm had ever yielded per year.
It was a matter of giving facilities for a secret aerodrome, and the brothers agreed to the foreigner’s proposition, tempted by the money and because they “didn’t see much harm in it.” They bribed the hands to keep quiet about the portable hedge.
Dr. Birt, head of a band of foreign spies, had killed Blake on arrival at the farm, and had forced them to help in the disposal of the body by playing on their fears of punishment for high treason.
The foreigner was going to fly off, leaving the brothers to explain the firing of the rick and the deaths of Hawke and Tommy as an accident.
They were scared, however, and forced their way into the plane with Dr. Birt.
There had been no time to remove the fake hedge, and the heavy load frustrated Birt’s attempt at a trick takeoff across the air current.
The ending of the mystery of the disappearing aerodrome proved the beginning of a new and very successful spy cleanup.
~ The End ~