A Bank Clerk
"Somehow, Mr. Hawke," confided young Robert Thorpe in his prison-cell, "this isn't so bad —
"Pretty odd thing to say," he went on after a pause, "when you're held on a murder charge, but it's still not so bad as that terrible feeling of apprehension I've been having in the last few months.
"Fear, Mr. Hawke. That's what really led up to all my trouble. Fear of something altogether vague, if you know what I mean; and although I didn't know what it was I feared, I felt all the time that I must keep on doing something about it.
"Bright company alleviated it — parties, hijinks. That meant getting into debt, of course. After which I tried to raise money by gambling — with the usual results.
"I hope that gives you some idea of what led up to my stealing sixty pounds from my bank, Mr. Hawke. I knew a way of juggling with the accounts that would enable me to replace the money later."
Dixon Hawke nodded.
"I became friendly with Captain Harcourt, of Daneford House, Chilhampton," Thorpe continued. "He had plenty of money, and attracted a Bohemian crowd about him.
"I met a bunch of them at a roadhouse in Chilhampton, and was carted up to Daneford House, almost, it seemed, as a matter of course. I was dazzled by it all. There was a good-looking girl there who seemed to take an interest in me, and — "
"And roulette was introduced," put in Hawke.
"Yes, and after I'd lost, some of the crowd made jokes about how easily I might get hold of money, being a bank clerk.
"Last Thursday, Harcourt was throwing a big all-night party to celebrate a shipping deal he'd brought off, and two of the crowd, Jack Silkin and Bill Rogers, undertook to pick me up in their car outside my bank at 10:30 p.m.
"I waited there until half-past eleven, but no car turned up, and so I phoned Harcourt's house. Silkin answered, and apologised for having forgotten the date. He told me to come on down by taxi, and then rang off.
"There were no taxis about the Milvale Road district, and, in any case, the trip would have been too expensive for me, so I went home.
"Next morning I was arrested, and I then learned that Mr. Wilson, the manager of my bank, had been murdered, and that Lady Clinton's jewelry had been stolen from the strong-room. It seems that the manager, who lived in the flat over the bank, had been awakened by some noise in the night, and had gone downstairs to investigate."
"Yes," said Hawke, "and they found your driving-license on his body. If it had been on the floor underneath his body it wouldn't have been quite such a strong clue, since you might have dropped it there during the day, but it was on top, resting on his hip, as though it had fallen there after you had bludgeoned him."
The detective sat abstractedly rubbing his hands for a moment.
"The fact of your having been seen loitering near the bank at the material time weighs against you," he went on.
"On the other hand, it's conceivable that the appointment outside the bank was part of a plan to lend strength to the implication provided by the driving-license — assuming that to have been planted there, and not dropped by you."
"I didn't know I'd lost it," said Thorpe, "not having had occasion to produce it for some time past."
"It may have been taken from you at one of those parties, when you were a trifle the worse for liquor. A pattern of your bank keys may have been obtained in the same way."
After a few further questions Hawke took his leave of Thorpe, and, with his assistant at the wheel of his car, was presently on his way to Captain Harcourt's house.
"All I have to tell you," said Harcourt, when the detective had stated his business, "is the same as I have told the police, namely, that I cannot give an account of my guests. I have been acting in a free-and-easy and undoubtedly foolish way, and invariably there have been almost as many gatecrashers as invited people at my parties.
"It has taught me a lesson," Harcourt added. "I'm quite prepared to believe that there were undesirables here who encouraged Thorpe to rob his bank, though I hope he doesn't suggest that I did so."
"No, he does not," said Hawke. "And your point is that these people who led Thorpe astray are strangers to you, although they may have met Thorpe here, under your roof."
"That's the way of it."
"Well, Tommy," said Hawke as they drove away from the house, "what d'you think of it? A place that's visited by all and sundry wants watching, don't you think?"
Before returning to town the detective had a long interview with the Chilhampton postmaster and general storekeeper.
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The Intercepted Messages
The next development came eight days later when Hawke, looking somewhat rueful, walked into the study and informed Tommy Burke that his inquiries had led him to an unfriendly and uncouth garage proprietor in an East End thoroughfare called Carson Street.
"I learned from a cafe that a young lady had been putting one of those shipping calls through to Daneford House. She had been seen to enter that garage, over which there is a house.
"Johnson's Garage, it is called. I approached a big man in dungarees, and asked him if he was Mr. Johnson. He said he was, and he became almost menacing when I mentioned the young lady. He denied all knowledge of her existence.
"The young lady, as described by the cafe proprietress, tallies with the description which Thorpe gave of the one he met at the party."
"Shipping messages, you said?" queried Tommy.
Hawke settled down at his desk, and dragged a sheaf of papers before him.
"I persuaded the Chilhampton postmaster to make a note of all telephone conversations with Daneford House, and also to note the postmarks and times of posting of all letters for delivery there," he explained.
After glancing thoughtfully over his documents, Hawke went on:
"He has sent me daily reports, and I find that a large proportion of the incoming phone calls relate to shipping matters, and come from different numbers in the East End.
"A couple of days ago I discovered something odd about the shipping messages. Listen to this one, for instance: 'Alvantara arrived berth fifteen, C dock, this morning. No tugboats now available. Cargo OK.'
"Looking over Lloyds' list, Tommy, I find that, on that day, the Alvantara was not in any dock at all, but was at sea, five hundred miles off Buenos Aires."
"That certainly is queer, sir."
"I found the same characteristic about all the other shipping messages. Also, there was this repeated reference to tugboats. How could they be of importance in shipping deals?
"Furthermore, I ascertained that none of the messages came from any shipping office, but from post offices, call-boxes, cafes, public-houses, and underground stations, all within a comparatively small area in the Bow Road district."
"Perhaps," suggested Tommy, "it's some kind of a code! "
"There's nothing illegal about using a code, of course. It could be a code relating to business. Anyhow, I set myself to trace the sender of those messages, and that line of inquiry has taken me to Johnson's Garage. I'd like you to put in as much time as you can watching that place, Tommy. There's a lodging-house opposite. You might get a front bed-sitting-room there."
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Hawke Shows His Hand
Tommy reported on his activities the following afternoon.
"I saw that girl, sir," he said. "Also an older woman and two fellows."
Tommy stopped talking and stared inquiringly at his employer, who was showing signs of suppressed excitement.
"This," said Hawke, holding up a sheet of notepaper, "is another report, from the Chilhampton postmaster. It concerns a message which was telephoned to Daneford House from Carson Street Post Office last night. The message was: 'A new tugboat arrived at C dock at 3.20 this afternoon. An inquiry was made about the Empress. I don't think it will come to anything.'"
"What's the street number of Johnson's Garage?" asked Hawke, after reading the message.
"Fifteen," said Tommy.
"That's it, then! You see, I called there at 3.20, and my visit is undoubtedly what the message refers to. Those ships aren't ships at all, but the code-names of people, the Empress, for instance, being that girl. ' C dock ' means Carson Street, and ' berth fifteen ' is Johnson's Garage. I've interpreted ' tugboat ' as meaning a police officer, and the obvious inference is that the garage is a criminals' hideout.
"Using those few key words," Hawke continued, "I've made considerable progress in deciphering those other messages. Assuming that 'cargo' means loot, the messages would seem to refer to a series of thefts and the comings and goings of various members of a gang."
Hawke decided to take a bold line.
"Our chief concern," he argued, "is to upset the evidence against Thorpe, and we start doing that the moment we can connect Harcourt with any kind of criminal activity. Once we've got him on the run, Thorpe is safe."
Later that afternoon Hawke and Tommy visited the East End garage and confronted Johnson.
"I'm acting for an insurance company interested in some jewels which were stolen from the Milvale Road branch of the Southern Joint Bank," said Hawke, "and, incidentally, I'm interested in the man Thorpe who's charged with the robbery and with the murder of his manager.
"Until a few hours ago," he proceeded, "the only serious weakness in the case against Thorpe was the fact that the jewels have not been recovered, but I've now managed to unearth some other important facts."
The big man in the dungarees was leaning on one stiffly outstretched arm, the palm of his large hand resting on the distempered wall.
"What's all this got to do with me?" he demanded in a hoarse, grating voice.
"I may as well tell you that I know you are connected with the gang responsible for that crime, and that their arrest is only a matter of hours. If you want to help yourself — "
But the man was shrewd.
"Here," he said. "What's the idea of putting up a proposition like that? If I want to help meself! Huh! I'm now supposed to spill out all the evidence you want, I s'pose? You ain't got a thing on me an' you're tryin' a bluff."
But he stiffened abruptly when Hawke quietly mentioned the Alvantara and the Empress.
"Our car ready?" inquired a voice from outside.
Tommy nudged his employer.
"Here come those two I told you about."
Two men had entered the garage and had pulled down the wooden sliding shutter which closed the entrance.
Hawke was a little too late in realising that the palm of Johnson's hand had been covering a bell push, connected with the house upstairs.
The inquiry about the car — a large saloon, which stood in the centre of the floor — was a pretext to allay the visitors' suspicions until they found themselves prisoners.
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The Deadly Fumes
The interior of the garage darkened as the shutter rolled down.
"Don't move, brother," said one of the men. He spoke with a nasal intonation, and advanced on Hawke, gripping an automatic pistol.
Johnson was murmuring earnestly to the other man.
"Anyway," he concluded, "they've got to stay hidden while we duck out of it.
"Tie 'em up," he instructed in a louder voice.
Under the threat of the automatic, Hawke and Tommy submitted to the tying-up, which was done with savage efficiency. They were flung on to the floor at the back of the garage.
The three men went out by a back door, and the prisoners heard feet pounding up the steps at the side of the garage which led to the living-quarters overhead.
Then Johnson returned, actuated by an afterthought — a most disagreeable afterthought.
He stepped into the saloon car and started the engine.
It ran almost silently, but Hawke and Tommy were made aware of it by the fumes from the exhaust.
As soon as Johnson had gone upstairs, Hawke was wriggling madly in an effort to escape from his bonds.
The ropes which bound his legs and arms cut into his flesh, and refused to give in the slightest degree. Nor were Tommy and he able to assist one another; and it seemed that the deadly fumes, which quickly pervaded the confined space, must soon overcome them.
The only movement the detective could make was to roll along the ground, and, in desperation, he did so.
Wriggling in this way to the door by the driver's seat, he twisted over on his shoulders and thrust his feet up the side of the car.
A length of cord running from his ankles to his neck prevented him from stretching his legs out full length, and he failed to reach the door-handle by several inches.
He hitched up a little closer, and, straining up on his shoulders, with his head bent almost at right angles to his body, he was able to grip the edge of the running-board with his fingers.
Exercising all his strength, he pulled himself up until he was literally standing on his head.
Then he managed to operate the door-handle with his toes, although the effort caused the cord to press painfully deep into his neck.
As the door swung open, he was forced off his balance and he turned a somersault, coming down with jarring force on his knees.
Once more he resumed his frantic wriggling, his objective being the hand-throttle on the wheel.
It was a rather less difficult matter to get into the car than to open the door. First getting in a sitting posture on the running-board, he managed to raise himself to the driving-seat, from which position he leaned forward in an attempt to close the throttle with his chin.
His eye caught the gear-lever and he paused.
Suddenly he heard footsteps descending the stairs, as the toe of his right foot came in contact with the clutch-pedal.
With the clutch depressed, he leaned forward and pressed his forehead against the ball top of the gear-lever, pushing it into bottom gear.
At this juncture the rear door opened.
"Where is he? Look! In the car. Quick! "
As someone came scrambling round the side of the car, Hawke was trying to reach the accelerator with his heel. To have released the clutch would have thrown a strain on the slowly-running engine, which would have stopped it, thus defeating his purpose.
A heavy hand descended on his shoulder just as he touched the accelerator with the very edge of his heel. The engine purred into vigorous life.
There was a shouted curse as the car jerked forward, and then a tremendous crash as the shutter gave way before the impact of the car.
Glass showered everywhere as, amid excited shouts, the vehicle wrenched the shutter from its frame, pulling out bricks and plaster, and finished its career against a lamp-post outside.
When a passing policeman saw the bound man inside the car, the game was up with the Johnson gang.
They turned and ran, but did not get far.
A subsequent search of their belongings brought to light letters and a code-book which incriminated the occupant of Daneford House as the head of a gang, of which a dozen members were duly arrested.
Harcourt had set himself up as a lavish host to strangers, both as a means of getting information, and in order to be able to disclaim any troublesome association with "undesirables" which might arise.
Loyalty was assured by means of terrorism, exercised by the gunman who had threatened Hawke and Tommy, and who, on the evidence of his former confederates, was convicted of the murder of the bank manager.
Thorpe, shrewdly judged for the fool he was at the time, had been carefully and elaborately "framed," and would very probably have gone to the gallows, but for Hawke's part in the case.
~ The End ~