A Knife Doesn’t Go Off With A Bang!
Detective-inspector Gray sat in his Scotland Yard office facing a small group of very odd people, who were recounting an equally odd story.
Roland Malo, bearded Bloomsbury poet, was the chief narrator, and he told of the bewildering tragedy in Kew Gardens with such an eye for effect that the hard-boiled officer was left wondering just where fact ended and the imaginations of these artist people became the dominant influence.
“Now, look here,” said Gray, thumping his desk. “A man is killed by a knife thrust, and you people were all within twenty yards of him at the time, though none of you actually saw what happened. So far, so good. That’s straightforward enough. But, confound it,” he went on, “when you all tell me you heard a report like a pistol shot, you introduce a crazy element. A knife doesn’t go off with a bang!”
“Nevertheless,” said Malo suavely, “there was a bang. Wasn’t there?”
The question was addressed to his four companions — three men and a woman — who were seated around Gray’s desk.
Gray stared at the visitors, as though despairing of understanding them.
Two of them were tall lean fellows, with slightly stooping shoulders and pale faces, and the other was a medium-sized man, rather older than the others, noteworthy for a pair of large, dark eyes, which surveyed Gray with sympathetic concern.
The inspector felt an urge to shout at this man, whose name was Ivor Vilnikoff, and who was understood to be the husband of the extremely attractive woman who sat by his side.
Then he regained his self-control and surveyed the company almost apologetically.
“There is no knife,” he said quietly. “Keepers and police were on the spot immediately, and you all submitted to a search. Moreover, nobody could possibly have got away, nor remained in hiding, and the ground was searched very carefully. But there was no knife. Just think of it! What on earth is it all about? There’s the sound of a pistol shot, and the victim receives a gash in the neck such as could only have been inflicted with a large, razor-edged knife. The surgeon says the wound is such that the blade must have been at least ten or twelve inches long. Well, where is it?”
“You’ve had the ground dug over?” asked Malo.
“Yes. I’m quite satisfied in my mind that there is no knife there.”
“It’s very queer,” said Malo, “particularly in view of that strange phobia which poor Mather had about gardens.”
Gray showed signs of returning impatience.
“That,” he said, “may be intriguing to a literary man like yourself, Mr. Malo, but it isn’t very interesting to a police officer. Most of us have a mild phobia of some kind. But perhaps it is rather remarkable that this man should have had a life-long dread of quiet gardens. I dare say a psychologist could easily explain it, but that wouldn’t help me to solve the mystery of his death.” This last remark seemed to set him off on a new line of reflection.
“Perhaps,” he said presently, “it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I think I can get hold of a gentleman right away who has devoted much time to the study of the psychological aspect of crime — Mr. Dixon Hawke. No doubt you’ve heard of him. He’s a friend of mine, and I’d like him to hear your story.”
He picked up the telephone from his desk and dialled a number.
“Hawke,” he announced, after a brief conversation, “is coming over here right away.”
Ten minutes later Malo was repeating his story to the visitor from Dover Street, who had arrived in company with his young assistant, Tommy Burke.
“This man, Wilson Mather,” said the poet, “was a playwright.
“He had repeatedly told us about a constantly recurring dream, in which he found himself walking in a vast garden filled with ornamental trees. He was alone in this dream of his, and the silence was absolute. Some horrible menace seemed always to be waiting him behind the next group of shrubbery, or the next tree.”
“So somebody suggested that the best way of ridding himself of this troublesome obsession was to visit some such place as was depicted in the dream — preferably in congenial company.”
“And you straight away thought of Kew Gardens?”
“Naturally. That was the place that seemed to fit the bill.”
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A Quarrelsome Couple
Gray passed the criminologist a photograph of an arborial group, which included two poplars and an ash tree.
“This is where Mather fell,” he remarked, indicating a pencilled cross near the ash.
“And,” said Malo, “that’s exactly the sort of spot that Mather described as dominating his dream. Strange, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Hawke. “Very.”
“I don’t know whether you’d care to go to Kew and have a look at the scene for yourself,” put in Gray.
Hawke answered quickly.
“I think not. You’ve had the place searched since the crime was committed last night?”
“Yes. It happened just before dusk, and when they were about to close the gardens. These people were the only members of the public anywhere near that spot. They — er — understand their position in the matter.”
“Of course,” said Vilnikoff, “we are suspect. I take it that we can expect to be under observation until this is cleared up?”
“I’m sure Mr. Gray won’t find that necessary,” said Hawke. “There are a great many crimes which, unfortunately, have to go unsolved. Everything has been done that can be done, and there is nothing for it but to pigeonhole the matter until there is some further development. Isn’t that so, Gray?”
The Dover Street man spoke genially and lightly, but the inspector sensed that there was subtlety in this, and promptly gave the answer that seemed to be expected of him.
“Yes, you’re right there. I don’t see what more we can do in the matter. I have a couple of plain-clothes men at Kew Gardens now, but they’ll have to be taken off, I’m afraid.”
“Do you mean,” asked Malo in surprise, “that you are content to leave it as an unsolved crime?”
“We are decidedly not content,” answered Gray, “and if there is any further little detail which occurs to any of you people, at any time, please get in touch with us.”
When the little company left a few minutes later, they looked as though they were far from impressed with the efficiency and intelligence of the police.
“Well, Hawke,” said Gray, after they had gone. “What next?”
“Have you got to know all about those people?”
“Malo’s a poet; the two tall ones, Drewitt and Smith, are artists; Vilnikoff does a little bit of sculpture, and Mrs. Vilnikoff’s an actress.”
“And their relations with the dead man?”
“That I don’t know a great deal about. I believe Wilson Mather was very friendly with Vilnikoff’s wife, but, then, so are the rest of them. You never know where you are with a bohemian crowd like that.”
Hawke paced the carpet with his hands interlocked behind Ills back.
“Those two fellows Drewitt and Smith didn’t have very much to say for themselves, did they?” he remarked.
“Nor did the lady. She’s English, isn’t she?”
“Yes. Norah Daley is her stage name. Also her maiden name.”
“Married to a Russian! A sculptor! Has he always been a sculptor?”
“I understand he’s been all sorts of things. He was in a circus at one time, though I don’t know what his line was.
After Hawke had copied a list of the names and addresses of the five people who had just left, he and Tommy returned to Dover Street.
“More data is required,” he said, after they had arrived back at the flat. “See what you can do about it, will you? Here are the addresses. You might glean something from people in the vicinity.
“Keep the Vilnikoffs in mind for a start. Follow up any line of inquiry that suggests itself as you go along. Use your initiative. I can’t give the matter any more of my attention at the moment. There’s a lot of correspondence to be attended to.”
“OK, sir. I’ll do my best. See you later.”
Hawke had cleared up the correspondence and set his typist to work when Tommy returned.
The youth did not consider that he had discovered anything of startling importance, but, nevertheless, the message he brought was sufficient to increase his employer’s interest in the Vilnikoffs.
“I can’t help feeling that there is something to be learned from those two,” said the detective. “You say they are known to quarrel at times — violently?”
“Yes. They live on the third floor of a big block of flats just off Tottenham Court Road. There is a newspaper man living in the adjoining flat whom I know slightly, and he told me that Vilnikoff had been known to set about her with a whip. At other tunes they are like a couple of love-birds.”
“They sound an interesting couple,” said Hawke. “I think I’ll go and call on them.”
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In Cossack Costume
It was after dark when Hawke arrived outside the block of flats, and standing near a street lamp where he had a clear view of the entrance was a Scotland Yard man whom he recognised.
“I take it,” he said, “you’re watching for the Vilnikoffs?”
“Yes, Mr. Hawke. Tedious job it is, too. They’re both in. Came home about an hour ago.”
This chance conversation proved of considerable importance, for when Hawke presented himself at the flat he found Mrs. Vilnikoff alone.
“I don’t know where Ivor’s gone,” she said, “nor how long he’ll be, and I don’t care.”
Hawke found this interesting.
“Has he been gone long?”
“About ten minutes. He’s got one of his fits of bad temper. Does this black eye show much?”
“No,” reassured Hawke.
“I usually find that face-powder turns a black eye green.”
In these disconcerting circumstances Hawke would normally have excused himself and departed immediately, but he was curious to get a look at the contents of the flat, and so he accepted the woman’s invitation to a glass of wine.
The main living apartment seemed to reflect the clashing of temperaments, and the pictures on the wall showed similar violent contrasts of taste. Etchings clashed with photographic groups and tinted portraits.
One of the latter depicted Vilnikoff attired in Cossack dress and holding a leather whip.
The woman saw Hawke looking at it. “Sometimes he seems to think he’s still a circus performer,” she said, “and that I’m an unbroken horse.”
During the ensuing conversation, Hawke’s mind was busy.
The chance talk with the detective outside had disclosed the fact that Vilnikoff had not left by the front entrance. Why not? How had he left? By the back way, of course. And for a building in this particular situation, that was decidedly unusual.
“We’ve been talking about Mather,” said the woman presently, “and Drewitt says he thinks the wound may have been caused by a vulture or an eagle or something. You do hear of these things escaping from aviaries, he says. He thinks the bird could have swooped down and up again amongst the trees without our noticing it. And he thinks that report might have been caused by one of the bird’s wings smacking Mather across the back.”
“It’s an ingenious explanation,” he said. “Mr. Drewitt appears to be a very considerable thinker. Are there any other interesting things he’s been thinking?”
“Yes. He thinks the police are a lot of fools. And he thinks the same about you. My husband doesn’t, though. My husband thinks you could unravel the mystery if you gave your mind to it.”
“And perhaps,” replied Hawke, “I will give my mind to it. Meanwhile, I must be off.”
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The Concealed Knout
Outside the building Hawke hailed a taxi.
“Drive me to Kew Gardens,” he instructed the driver.
It was whilst inspecting that picture of Vilnikoff in his Cossack uniform that the detective had suddenly recalled the photograph which Gray had shown him, and now, in his mind’s eye, he had a vivid picture of the ash, with its thin branches trailing down to the ground.
Hawke dismissed the taxi at Kew Bridge and walked for about twenty minutes until he came to a secluded spot where it was possible for him to scale the high railings unobserved.
This accomplished, he made his way in the direction of the spot where Mather had met his death. The newspaper accounts of the affair had given him a fairly accurate idea of its location, for he knew the gardens quite well.
In a few minutes Hawke reached the ash, around which was an extensive area of newly-dug and sifted soil, covered with footprints, and, after a cautious look round, he plunged in amongst its curtain of drooping branches.
The ground at the base of the tree had been carefully turned over, and possible hiding-places for a knife had been sought for in this and other nearby trees, but Hawke was not looking for a knife. He was examining the branches, one by one.
He gripped them and tugged at them gently, and presently his fingers closed round one which yielded to his pull.
He uttered an involuntary grunt of satisfaction as he tugged this smooth, rope-like “branch “ down from the tree.
It was not a branch at all, for it was made of leather and was an object which achieved notoriety as an instrument of torture in Russia many years ago. It was known as a knout.
This particular knout was representative of its kind, being some twenty feet in length. It was smooth, pliable, gradually-tapering leather for the greater part of its length, but about eighteen inches from its tip, it was hardened and flattened, having been pressed out to form two knife-like edges.
Hawke was examining his find, partly concealed beneath the branches, when, for some reason, which he could not accurately define, he found himself suddenly, startlingly alert.
He sensed some other presence.
The stock end of the knout was lying on the ground, and the detective was holding the tip of it in his hands, when suddenly it was wrenched away, cutting his fingers.
Someone who had been standing very close to him had seized the stock, and taken possession of the knout.
Hawke thrust aside the branches and came out into the open.
A most fortunate thing occurred as he did so.
A stray branch swung back and pushed his felt hat over his eyes, and an instant later he received a terrible, stinging blow across the forehead.
He felt the sting of it even through the felt and the leather hand inside the hat. Hawke knew he had received a blow from the knout.
Pushing the hat back to its proper position, he beheld a crouching figure a few yards distant, actually in the process of raising his arm to take another crack at him.
Hawke turned and ran. He knew by this time, exactly in what capacity Vilnikoff had earned his living in the circus.
Vilnikoff was running, too.
His secret was out — unless he could manage to give Kew Gardens one more mysterious tragedy.
Hawke realised that his only chance was to get into a confined space where the Russian would not have a chance of wielding the knout. Then he might find an opportunity of getting him at close quarters.
Accordingly, he sprinted in the direction of one of the vast hot-houses, and reaching it, ran in between one of its sides and a brick wall.
Here Vilnikoff made a mistake. He rushed in after the detective, and was met with a punch on the jaw which sent him reeling, and he crashed to the ground unconscious.
A few moments later a uniformed night watchman was on the scene.
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A Jealous Husband
Vilnikoff afterwards became resigned to his fate and admitted that it was jealousy of Mather’s attachment for his wife that had caused him to kill Mather.
“It was the one way in which I was really competent to kill him,” ho told the police, “and it was such an unusual way that I stood every chance of escaping detection. But I wanted the right opportunity, and space in which to wield the knout.
“The opportunity came when the visit to Kew Gardens was suggested. It was I who suggested it, though nobody seemed to recall that fact when the inquiries were being made.
“There was something about the idea of justifying Mather’s tree phobia for him which appealed to my sense of the dramatic. The knout was one which I used in my circus days. I coiled it round my waist, and took it to Kew concealed beneath my waistcoat. We spread out as we strolled aimlessly along. I dropped behind Mather, and the others went ahead.
“My opportunity came at an excellent moment. We were just passing that ash, and after I had made effective use of the knout I stepped in among the branches and threw the stock end over a high fork, so that the lash draped down on either side, unnoticeable, except as one of the branches.
“The police, of course, were looking for a knife. I didn’t think it would occur to them to look for a whip — and I was very nearly right.”