The House in Gloom
From the road, the house, surrounded by vast gardens and lawns, had the appearance of possessing all those things which make for human happiness.
People looked at Highlands with envy as they went by.
But in the house itself there was gloom. The servants talked in whispers as they went about their duties. Mistress had kept to her room for two days now, and in the garden the master was in conference with a couple of strangers who had just arrived.
Nobody knew for certain what had happened, but the rumour went round that Jimmy, the three-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Graham, had disappeared.
“You’re my last hope, Mr. Hawke,” Dwight Graham was saying to his visitor. “I’ve done my best to hide the truth even from the servants. Jimmy’s gone. He’s been kidnapped!”
“How long ago did this happen, Mr. Graham!”
“Two days ago. I got the message from the gang this morning.”
“You prefer I should handle it instead of Scotland Yard?”
“They threaten to kill the boy if I call in the police!”
Mr. and Mrs. Graham were wealthy Americans. Since birth their son had been threatened with kidnapping, and it was because of this they had come to live in England.
“We expected peace here,” Dwight Graham said.
“There were attempts before you left America?” asked Hawke.
“Yes. A gang operating from Detroit tried to snatch the lad. It’s the same crowd, Mr. Hawke. Here’s the note I received.”
He took a crumpled envelope from his pocket. The envelope bore a London postmark.
Hawke opened the letter.
“We have your kid!” it read. “If you want him back, the price is!00,000 dollars. Tell the police, and he dies. Contact us through personal column of the Tribune. Hurry up, for we don’t like this country!”
A lock of fair hair from the boy’s head was clipped to the paper. There could be no doubt that it was genuine.
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An Inside Job
I’ll take care of this,” the criminologist said, pocketing the envelope and its contents. “Now, will you please show me where the boy was when he disappeared?”
Mr. Graham walked down a winding path to a lake at the back of the estate. On the far side were trees which shaded the high wall. He pointed to an open piece of ground which was fitted up as a child’s playground.
“The nurse left him there,” he said.
” She was only gone fifteen minutes.”
“Left him alone?” Hawke’s eyebrows shot up. “Surely—” he began.
“The dog was with the boy. You haven’t seen it yet, but when you do you’ll understand there was no reason why she should not have gone away. Rex is devoted to Jimmy, and would have attacked any stranger who tried to molest him.”
“And the animal was here when she came back!”
“Just wandering about! It didn’t appear to be disturbed.”
“Curious! I’d like to see the dog.”
“There he is, Mr. Hawke.”
An enormous Airedale bounded down the path to the playground. At the sight of Hawke, its hair bristled. There was a growl as the creature ran forward with the obvious intention of attacking, and Mr. Graham caught it by the collar just in time. He held it back with difficulty.
“As gentle as a lamb with Jimmy,” the millionaire said. “He tolerates Mrs. Graham and myself, and seems to understand that the nurse and some of the other servants have the right to go near the boy. But strangers! Well—”
“He treats them as he treated me!” said the criminologist. “Certainly it is mysterious that the kidnappers could have taken the boy away without causing the dog to bark, at least!”
Hawke stopped speaking as a man came down the path after the dog. He was neatly dressed in chauffeur’s uniform, and the Airedale’s tail wagged as he approached. He slipped a leash into the loop of the collar, and patted the dog as it licked his hands.
The chauffeur apologised for having released it. His voice was pleasant, but he darted quick glances at the criminologist.
“Rex is a bit upset, sir,” he said to his employer. “He misses his little friend. Will Master Jimmy soon be coming back?”
“In a few days, Harris,” Mr. Graham said cheerfully. “You’d better shut the dog up in the stable.”
Harris went away, with another backward glance at Hawke.
“You have kept the servants ignorant of the truth?” Hawke asked.
“I’ve told them Jimmy’s gone to a nursing-home, but I think they guess what has happened.”
“The dog seems to like Harris.”
“Yes, he seems to have a remarkable control over it. Ah! I understand what you mean, but, although he’s only been with me three months, there can be no doubt about his honesty. He used to be chauffeur to one of my very best friends in the States. Due to financial troubles, my friend had to let most of his servants go. I took this one over and I must say I’ve found him entirely trustworthy.”
Hawke nodded. He put several questions, and finally suggested that Mr. Graham should return to the house to comfort his wife. There was nothing to be gained by rehashing the details of the tragedy, and the criminologist was anxious to make a tour of the grounds before deciding what should be done.
Accompanied by his assistant, Tommy Burke, he walked along a path by the side of the lake. It led to the wall surrounding the estate. Hawke stopped and looked at it.
“It would have been easy to hoist the boy over that wall,” he mused. “I’m certain of one thing, Tommy— this is an inside job!”
“Graham is sure of his servants, chief.”
“Too sure. One of them has failed him, so we’ll set a trap and see who we can catch!”
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An Unsuspected Passenger
Dixon Hawke took a magnifying glass from his pocket and began a careful examination of the wall at the spot where he believed the kidnapped boy had been passed up to accomplices. He made a great show of his work, and Tommy knelt by his side, busy with a tape measure. Although they appeared to be engrossed, they were alert for anybody who might come along.
Five minutes later Tommy moved closer to his employer.
“Somebody’s watching us!” he whispered. “I saw the bushes move a moment ago!”
He sat back on his heels and pretended to scribble some measurements in a book.
“Yes,” Hawke said loudly. “They went this way. We’ll make inquiries of the police if any strange cars were seen around.”
Out of the corner of his eye Tommy saw the bushes move again. Somebody was crawling away, and after waiting a few minutes, Hawke and Tommy moved in the same direction. They found another path which led to the stables at the back of the house.
A car was in the yard, and a hosepipe with water spurting from the nozzle lay nearby. As they stood looking at the car the chauffeur Harris came on the scene. He appeared to have been running, and there was dirt on the knees of his whipcord breeches.
Picking up the hose, he continued to wash the car. Hawke turned his back on the man and faced Tommy. His lips framed words which the young fellow was able to read.
“Watch him,” Hawke was saying. “If he leaves the premises, follow him. I’m going up to the house.”
He then made some remark about seeing Mr. Graham, and went off, with Tommy at his side. Outside the gate leading from the yard Burke doubled back, while his employer continued towards the house, talking loudly, as if his assistant was still with him.
Tommy pressed himself flat to the wall and peeped through the gate. Harris had turned off the hose and was drying the car hurriedly. Presently he dropped the cloth and lit a cigarette, puffing at it nervously. Finally he walked into one of the converted stables which were now used as the chauffeur’s office, and Tommy heard him using the telephone which communicated with the house.
“Hullo, Jason,” came the man’s voice. “Look, I’m taking the car out to make some running adjustments. I’ll only be gone half an hour. Will you tell the master if he should ask for me?”
He reappeared a moment later and entered another door, climbing a flight of steps leading to his private quarters.
Tommy hesitated for a second, and then darted across the yard and got into the car. For a two-seater it was extremely roomy, and there was a wide space at the back of the seats where luggage could be carried. He squeezed into the gap and pressed himself flat to the floor.
Shortly afterwards Harris jumped into the machine, pulling over his eyes the soft hat he had gone to fetch. He drove out of the main gates to the road, and increased the speed until the car was touching sixty miles an hour.
At this reckless pace he raced along the winding lanes, and from the fact that the journey seemed to be mainly downhill, Tommy guessed he was making for the Thames valley, which was within easy reach of Highlands. Finally the car bumped over rough ground and came to a halt. Harris got out.
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A Message Is “Launched”
Lifting his head, Tommy risked a peep. They had left the road, and the car was parked in a copse on a hill above the river. Far away on the right were the roofs of the riverside village of Parbram, but the chauffeur turned in the opposite direction and vanished down the slope.
It was easy to follow him, for bracken and gorse covered the hillside and gave excellent cover. Some distance away a man was sitting on a small stool, canvas and easel before him. He was busy painting the view, and Harris paused when he reached him.
The artist was a little hunchbacked fellow. A hat with a wide brim covered his head, and Tommy could not easily see Ills face because of it.
“Well? “ muttered the hunchback, as he carefully squeezed paint on to his palette.
“There’s something funny, boss—”
“Worse. A couple of strangers have just arrived at the house, and they’ve been snooping round. I got the name of one of them. He’s Dixon Hawke— whoever that may be!”
“Hawke!” burst out the painter.
“You fool, don’t you know who he is? One of the smartest detectives in this country! Get back to the house and stay there. Don’t try to contact us again! It’s every man for himself now that Hawke’s on the trail. As for the kid—a sack and into the river with him!”
The hunchback snarled as he snatched the canvas from the easel and flung it on the ground. He packed the rest of his kit and, without another word to his accomplice, walked rapidly away along the bank of the river. Harris turned and ran back up the slope to the place where he had left the car.
Tommy had to make a quick decision. Hawke’s plan had worked perfectly and they were now definitely on the trail of the kidnappers, but there were complications which left the young fellow in a serious position.
The hunchback had said he would get rid of the boy, and Tommy was sure he would carry out the threat. There was no time to report back to Dixon Hawke.
Keeping to what cover he could find. Tommy followed the man and watched him disappear among some trees which shaded a quiet backwater of the Thames. A small houseboat was moored near the bank, and a couple of men were sitting on the deck. When the hunchback arrived, all three went below after pulling in the gangplank.
“That’s where they’ve got the kid!” Tommy muttered. “How the dickens can I get a message through to the chief?”
Suddenly he had an idea, and went back some distance until he reached the main channel of the river. There were no boats about, but he had not expected to be lucky enough to see one, and he searched about until he found a heavy piece of wood. With his knife he cut a hole in it and fitted a stout twig to make a mast. To this he fastened a strip torn from his handkerchief.
Tommy worked quickly. He pushed the blade of the knife into the under part of his crude boat to act as a keel. Then he took a page from his notebook and scribbled a message to Hawke, adding the telephone number of Highlands and promising a reward if the finder called Hawke at once. He fastened the paper to the mast.
Wading into the water he pushed his clumsy craft out from the bank. He knew the river well, and nodded with satisfaction when the strong current carried the boat away rapidly in the direction of Parbram. It would, he thought, be seen by the keeper of the first locks, which were about two miles away.
“That’s the best I can do,” he muttered. “Now I’ve got to get on board the houseboat and try to save the kid.”
He slipped out of his clothes and entered the water. The hunchback and his gang would be watching the approach from the shore, and he hoped to climb aboard from the other side.
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The Scuttled Houseboat
At the entrance to the backwater Tommy dived and swam under water. He kept his eyes open, and looked up, presently seeing the black shadow of the boat, and rising beneath its bulging side. For a few minutes he rested, getting his breath, and as he clung to the side he listened to voices coming from an open porthole nearby.
The men wore arguing. One of them declared that it was unnecessary to abandon their scheme because of Hawke, but the hunchback interrupted fiercely:
“You’re a fool! This Hawke isn’t like the cops at home. I tell you, the kid must be dumped.”
“I don’t like killing kids!”
“You’ll do what I say, Spike— unless you want to go in the river with him. Go and get him!”
Tommy waited for nothing else and, gripping the mooring-chain, he hauled himself up to the deck. There was just time to dodge behind the angle of the raised portion of the main cabin before Spike came up from below.
After glancing around, the kidnapper went forward and unlocked the padlock of a small hatch in the bow. He stretched himself flat and reached down.
“Come up, brat!” he growled. Tommy was unarmed, but he slipped a heavy brass pin from the rail and weighed it in his hand. On tiptoe he crept up behind the man.
Some instinct warned Spike of the danger. He rolled sideways and flashed his hand to his pocket, but before he could draw the gun Tommy struck him on the head. There was enough force behind the blow to knock the man senseless, but just before the impact he let out a shout.
Burke snatched the man’s gun and dropped feet first down the open hatch. He slammed the cover down after him, and found bolts on the underside which he quickly slipped into place. Just as he did so, he heard men running along the deck.
His hands touched a pile of dirty blankets, and something moved under them. A muffled whimper reached his ears, and he felt around until he found a small boy whose hands and feet were cruelly tied. Strips of adhesive tape were over the youngster’s lips to stop his cries.
Tommy rolled the boy to the far side of the narrow locker and crouched above him, looking up at the hatch. An excited conversation was going on above.
“They’re after us, boss! The guy who did that to Spike must have gone ashore to get the police!”
“Get the brat out!” commanded the leader of the kidnappers.
Somebody pulled at the hatch and then jumped back with a gasp of alarm.
“Locked on the other side! He’s down there!”
Suddenly there was the muffled report of a revolver fitted with a silencer. A bullet tore through the hatch-cover and missed Tommy by a few inches. He lifted the gun he had taken from Spike and fired in return. Somebody swore on deck, and there was a hasty retreat from the hatch.
“No chance of getting him out, boss! He’s got Spike’s gun!”
“Then we’ll drown him like a rat! Whoever it is, he knows enough to land us in jail! Go and take the plugs out of the bilge, and then get the launch ready. We must move!”
There was silence for a short time, and then a faint gurgling reached Tommy’s ears. Water was pouring into the bilges and would soon flood the craft. Minutes passed, and the boat lurched heavily to one side. Tommy got up and slipped the catches of the hatch. He had already freed the boy of the ropes and adhesive tape, and he put an arm around him and spoke quietly.
“Look, kid. I’m going up, and I want you to follow. Jump into the water—understand? Try and paddle yourself to the shore, and when you get there, run!”
The youngster nodded understanding, and Tommy prepared to make a dash for the deck, hoping that his shooting would drive the kidnappers to cover and give Jimmy a chance to get over the side. It was, he knew, a slender hope.
As he placed his hand on the hatch there was the sound of a speeding launch. A moment later guns began to bang on deck, and the shrill voice of the hunchback rang out in a scream of rage.
“The police! They’re all around us! Get the gun!”
The boat was now rolling slowly as the water poured in. Tommy threw back the hatch and hauled himself up. He saw the hunchback crouched behind a weapon of the light machine- gun type. The man was just pressing the trigger when Hawke’s assistant fired at him.
And then the houseboat rolled over, and Tommy just had time to snatch Jimmy from the locker and dive into the water. A launch crowded with police sailed up. Dixon Hawke, who was also aboard, reached down and took the boy from his assistant.
“Good work!” he said. “You did a fine job, Tommy!”
“So my message arrived, chief!”
“Yes, it was picked up by the lock-keeper below Parbram!”
The hunchback gangster and his companions were taken in charge by the police, who had already arrested Harris. The latter confessed, that he had been bribed to play his part in the kidnapping before leaving America. It had been his job to make friends with the dog so that it would be possible to walk off with Jimmy without causing any commotion.
“And that was the weak point in their plans,” Hawke said later. “The silence of the dog when Jimmy disappeared was obviously curious, and it made me certain from the beginning that it was an inside job. I set a trap, and Harris fell into it.”
He looked at Tommy Burke.
“But all the credit should go to my assistant. If it had not been for his quick-witted action, there would have been a terrible tragedy!”