Before he met his frightful but not entirely unfitting death, Maurice Pollitt had had some life infused into him.
He was a young provincial who had had difficulty in making up his mind about himself, and he had become frightened of the ruthlessness of London life even while he was determined to overcome it and to satisfy the craving for adventure which had brought him from the comfortable, if modest, environment of his home town.
Prior to his meeting a certain Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Vesey, he was not sufficiently bold to sit on top of the world, nor quite sufficiently abject to allow it to sit on him.
Dr. Smith, a professional psychologist, who made a point of dining in a certain licensed cafe every day and studying the people about him, had overheard much of the conversation that had passed between the three, who were likewise frequenters of the place.
Dr. Smith, in consequence, was able to supply his friend, Dixon Hawke, with an intriguing human story about them at a time when the world-famous criminologist and private detective chanced to be in need of some information about them, in connection with a case of national importance on which he was working, as he sometimes did, in conjunction with Scotland Yard.
Vesey, it appeared, was a powerful, well-dressed man of forty, as savagely alive as a human “live-wire ” can be.
Mrs. Vesey, Dr. Smith declared, in the course of a visit to Hawke’s comfortable rooms in Dover Street, was the type of young woman who likes that type of man. She was prepared to subjugate her personality to the stronger one of her husband.
At first she had been patently contemptuous of young Pollitt, and then, gradually, as he absorbed Vesey’s teaching and began to develop more character, she became interested in him.
“I studied them for a fortnight,” said Dr. Smith, “and it appeared to me that Pollitt was a type of half-successful commercial traveller ambitious to give up doing things by halves. I also gathered that the Veseys had encouraged him to take part in some kind of dubious racket, though I had no idea, of course, that it was professional bomb-throwing.”
THE DOABLE EXPLOSION
Having told what he knew of the strange trio, Dr. Smith leaned forward and invited Hawke to tell him the rest of the story.
“Not all these recent bomb explosions have been the work of the I.R.A.,” said Hawke. “Some of them have been the work of criminals in the pay of a hostile power interested in stopping our progress in defence work.
“Mr. Herbert Rawson, the inventor of the Rawson Rangefinder, was obviously one of their chosen victims.
“As you know, a bomb was placed in a basement room of his house at Marsdale. It exploded at half-past nine on Wednesday night and wrecked his laboratory, which was situated upstairs.
“But it was another explosion that gave the affair its really queer aspect. It occurred near the back garden wall of an adjoining empty house some three-quarters of an hour before the explosion at Rawson S place, killing a man and a woman, afterwards identified as Maurice Pollitt and Mrs. Vesey.
“A mongrel dog, of the terrier type, was found running about close to the scene of this fatality, and I believe you were one of the several patrons of that cafe who were able to identify the animal as Mrs. Vesey’s property.”
Dr. Smith nodded.
“A nondescript little brute of the type of which women will make a fuss,” he said. “Her husband detested the creature, and gave it many a sly prod with his boot. Pollitt seemed to see in it an opportunity of getting in Mrs. Vesey’s good books, and he patted it and made a fuss of it, much as she did.”
INSPECTOR GRAY’S THEORY
Hawke considered this information thoughtfully for a moment. He had a regard for apparently trivial detail which his friends the police occasionally found irritating, but which had proved of the greatest value in the solution of many of his most famous cases.
“H’m. That’s very interesting. It suggests a possibility different from that which my friend, Detective-Inspector Gray, is entertaining.”
“And what, if I may ask, is his idea of it?”
“That the Veseys and Pollitt had two bombs in their possession, and had a further call to make, after placing that one at Rawson’s house.”
“That the second bomb, which was in the possession of Pollitt, or Mrs. Vesey, exploded while they were keeping watch—while Vesey was actually planting the first bomb in Rawson’s house.”
“Inspector Gray’s idea, of course, is that it exploded accidentally,” said Dr. Smith.
“Whilst the crowd was gathering round, of course, Vesey, who would have heard the explosion, would be leaving Rawson’s house, having planted his bomb. He would, one presumes, clear out of Marsdale as quickly as possible. I have undertaken to assist the police in tracing him.”
“Any clues as to his possible whereabouts?”
“No. Not yet. The three were living in London flats, and they frequently changed their address. They were careful not to carry any papers with them, and it is thought they did their business at different provincial centres from time to time.”
THE TIME-TABLE CLUE
Detective-Inspector Gray called later, and informed Hawke a trifle wearily that he had been making inquiries at every restaurant and public-house in Mars- dale.
“I’ve been inquiring if anybody saw two men, a woman and a dog on Wednesday evening. You’d think that a sufficiently unusual combination for one particular Wednesday evening in a small town, wouldn’t you? Well, the entire blessed populace of Marsdale seems to have resolved itself into cliques consisting of two men, a woman and a dog on this very special Wednesday evening.”
Hawke smiled and offered the disgruntled police officer a cigarette.
“And you weren’t able to pick up any clues?”
“There was one such group that called at ‘The Brown Bear’ at about half-past eight, and inquired for a timetable. They were strangers, and the landlord was able to agree to the description I gave him. But they dropped no hint of where they were meaning to go, and nobody at either the railway station or the bus depot is able to recall seeing anybody like Vesey leaving. It was a market day, and the town was a bit crowded.” Hawke had other work to dispose of, but half an hour after Gray’s departure he gave himself up to speculation about the affair, and after a few minutes’ thought and the study of a railway time-table he left the Hat and boarded a train to Marsdale.
Some two hours later his assistant, Tommy Burke, received a phone message from him.
“Risden, Tommy. Do you know it? That’s the name of the place where I am now. A small town, twenty miles beyond Marsdale. Come on down here, will you? Bring the Bentley. Something rather queer has happened. May prove significant.”
Tommy met his employer by arrangement, outside Risden Post Office, by the side of which was a car-park.
Hawke, who had been keeping an unobtrusive vigil on a public-house called “The Spread Eagle,” opposite, got in the car by Tommy’s side.
“We’ll hang on here for a while,” he murmured.
“What’s happened, sir? What’s doing in this place?”
Hawke repeated Gray’s information concerning the people who had borrowed the time-table.
“It occurred to me that there might be a clue there,” he said, “because the print in those things is so small, and so difficult for the eye to follow, that mast people trace the figures with their fingernails.
“The idea would have been brighter had the time-table been brand new, however, for this one was full of fingernail indentations.
“Anyway, there was a finger-nail indentation under the line of outgoing trains from Marsdale ending under the time 9.20—ten minutes before the explosion at Rawson’s house. That was just about the one train the Veseys and Pollitt would be likely to aim at catching—so as to be well on their way by the time the explosion occurred.
“I looked down the column for any marks which might indicate the destination, and there were three fingernail marks in that particular column. They were opposite Woodford, Bramley, and Risden; and I went to Woodford, and then Bramley. They were both small villages, and the ticket-collectors, who know everybody using the stations, had seen no one answering to the description of Vesey.
It then occurred to me to see if I. could make some use of that mongrel. The beast had had a plain collar with no name on it, and was in the care of the Marsdale police. 1 returned and persuaded the superintendent there to lend it to me, and came on to Risden with it.”
A PROMISING BITE!
It was certainly an idea, sir,” approved Tommy, “but the mongrel’s hardly in the bloodhound class, is it?”
“Hardly,” said Hawke, “though it has some of the attributes of most classes. Anyhow, I brought it to Risden, and the first thing that happened as we were leaving Risden station was that it tried to bite the ticket-collector. ’ ’
“And what did the ticket-collector say?”
“He said: ‘Lumme! That blessed tripehound again.’”
Tommy grinned, and nodded appreciatively.
“Ha! A useful bite that!”
“I questioned the man, and he vaguely recalled the three people I described, though he chiefly remembered the dog, winch had tried to remove a piece of his trouser-leg.”
“Well, it was a start. What happened then?”
“I decided to let the animal go its own way, and it led me on a tiresome jaunt half round the town. Then it went into that public - house over there.
“It trotted right across the bar, and went through closely-drawn curtains covering a doorway at the far end of the bar.
“I was about to follow it when the barman stopped me, remarking that the inner room was private. I said nothing to him about the dog, and it was apparent that he had not noticed it. I was in there for about ten minutes, expecting that the dog would be chased out, but it wasn’t.
“I then watched the place from outside,” went on Hawke, “and, presently, the dog was brought out by a man who had it on a lead. No, he wasn’t Vesey. He was a small, slim man. I followed him for a short distance, and then stopped him and said that the dog looked like one that had been lost by an acquaintance of mine.”
Tommy nodded eagerly.
“What did he say to that?”
“He claimed that it was his own, but he seemed uneasy all the time he was talking to me, and was mighty glad to get away. Of course, it may only have been a case of common theft on his part, but— Look!”
Hawke gripped Tommy’s arm, and, looking through the open doorway of the tavern, the youth could see a man of slight build talking to the barman. There was a dog by his side, and the man was gesticulating—pointing to the animal and to the curtains at the far end of the room, and then jerking his thumb over his shoulder.
“That’s the fellow I was speaking about. It looks as though he’s inquiring who came in with the dog,” remarked Hawke.
“Then it looks as though he’s in the business,” remarked Tommy.
“If he is,” answered Hawke, “I imagine that he has already got in touch with Vesey, who may have sent him back to the pub to find out how the dog got there. He will naturally have concluded by now that the dog has been the means of putting the police on his track.”
TOMMY “STEPS ON IT”
A few minutes later the small man came out of the Spread Eagle and hurried down a lane by the side of it, carrying the dog under his arm. At the far end of the lane, which did not admit vehicular traffic, was a road.
Hawke slipped out of the car.
“Mustn’t lose sight of him,” ho said. “Find a way round to that road and pick me up there.”
The turns proved to be tricky, and Tommy had to back out of a blind road before he finally found the way.
When lie reached the other road he found Hawke waiting anxiously.
“What’s delayed you?” he snapped, jumping in by Tommy’s side. “Head towards the main London road. A fellow who looked like Vesey joined the small man, and they got a saloon ear out of that little lock-up garage. They’re moving out—and going like the very dickens.”
“Sorry, guv’nor; not my fault,” apologised Tommy. “Watch me step on it now, though!”
The Bentley left Risden at a speed which left the townsfolk staring, and when he was out on the main road Tommy increased speed until the tyre treads were giving out a high-pitched, screaming note.
The speedometer had passed the eighty mark for a second when Hawke touched Tommy’s arm.
“That’s their bus. That blue saloon right ahead.”
“It’s travelling all right,” answered Tommy, “but there’s no chance of its getting away from us.”
He eased up for a moment, but the blue saloon put on such pace that he had to accelerate again to keep it in sight.
“Get up a little closer,” urged Hawke. “I fancy they’ve been testing us to see whether we’re on their track, and they’re likely to dodge away off the main road.”
Which course the fugitives adopted about live miles farther along; and, as soon as the saloon disappeared from view around a concealed turning, Tommy stepped heavily on the accelerator again.
The turning proved to be a narrow lane with overhanging hedgerows, and its tortuous character kept the other car from view for several minutes. Then, on topping the brow of a hill, Tommy suddenly applied the brakes and uttered a surprised exclamation.
At the foot of the hill ran a stream, spanned by a somewhat decrepit stone bridge. The saloon car had stopped on the farther side of this, and was drawn in to the side of the narrow road which wound away up over another rise beyond.
Tommy glanced at his employer, and it was evident that both had become acutely mindful of the desperate character of the people they were chasing.
“Well, what is it, sir?” asked Tommy, drawing the Bentley almost to a standstill. “A showdown?”
“A breakdown, perhaps. I wonder if they’ve taken to the fields. No. Look, there’s someone sitting at the wheel.”
He suddenly sat upright and gripped Tommy’s arm, and, following the direction of his intent gaze, the youth saw the other man scrambling up the bank on the other side of the stream, and clambering over the parapet of the bridge as though in a desperate hurry.
He was running at full speed towards the saloon when Tommy accelerated once more.
“Stop!” exclaimed Hawke, and the Bentley pulled up with a screech of brakes.
Tommy understood the significance of the order as soon as it was uttered.
“The bridge!” he gasped. “I suppose lie’s put an explosive under it. We shall lose ’em if we don’t get across, guv’nor. We’d hotter risk it.”
WHEN MURDER MISFIRED
The youth had scarcely finished speaking when lie found himself being bundled bodily out of the car.
“Out you go,” growled Hawke, taking charge of the wheel. “The risk is all mine.”
The Bentley was more than three hundred yards from the bridge when, after depositing Tommy in the road, Hawke sent it shooting forward.
His chance lay in the fact of their having made extraordinarily good time in reaching the turning. The fugitives bad only had a narrow margin of time in which to act, and they had to allow a sufficient number of seconds to ensure their own safety.
The powerful car bounced crazily over the uneven road, and almost tipped into the hedge before roaring away on the last fifty-yard stretch.
The explosion seemed to take place when the Bentley was actually in the middle of the bridge, but such was its speed that its precise position remained a matter of uncertainty.
Its effect on Hawke approximated to the shock of a nearby flash of lightning, and the earth seemed to rock so as to tip the vehicle on to its nearside wheels.
At the same time there was a loud bang, and the air became clouded with flying objects, ranging from nuts and bolts to portions of concrete posts and granite blocks, which had constituted the fabric of the bridge.
There was a rattling and drumming on the car, and the sound of shattering glass as the windscreen split into pieces.
Hawke received a dazing blow on the head and stinging cuts on the cheek and hands as flying fragments struck him.
By some miracle he, kept the car on the road and sent it whipping away up the hill.
The experience made him momentary callous, so that he was indifferent to such a minor matter as a collision.
At the top of the hill he caught up with the saloon, swerved, and jammed the smaller car against a low stone wall, buckling in its side and knocking the driver senseless.
The detective pitched half over the broken windscreen, recovered, and then jumped out of the car, prepared to engage in a struggle, for which, however, there was no need.
The driver was unconscious, and his passenger, who proved to be Vesey, was dazed from a blow- on the side of the head.
The dog, which was barking excitedly in the back of the saloon, appeared to have had yet another lucky escape from injury.
By the time Tommy arrived on the scene, having waded across the shallow stream, a villager had fetched a local police constable, to whom Hawke quickly explained matters.
The head of the organisation for which Vesey, his wife and Pollitt had been working was arrested the following day by officers of the Special Branch at Scotland Yard, and Vesey then told the story of the Marsdale business.
“I’d seen what was going on between my wife and Pollitt,” he said, “and we were just about due for a bust- up. Anyway, to get on with the story. The three of us were sent to do that Rawson job, and after we’d reconnoitred I went to telephone to the boss to make sure there was no last-minute cancellation.
“I’d left my wife and Pollitt waiting by that empty house when I went to telephone, and when I entered the grounds of Rawson’s house I was surprised to find Pollitt coming out, followed, a few yards in the rear, by the dog.
“‘It’s all clear,’ Pollitt whispered. ‘I’ve just had a final look round.’
“I then went round to the back and got in that basement window and placed the bomb where it would l>e most effective. Whilst I was doing so 1 hoard an explosion nearby. I rushed out, and, when 1 saw what had happened, 1 beat it for the station.
“It dawned on me then that the dog had been carrying something in its mouth when it was following Pollitt out of the grounds, and 1 was able to recall that that something was oblong and brown. It was, in fact, one of our little high-explosive packets, though, being intent on the job in hand; I hadn’t connected it with that at the time.
“You see the little plot which Pollitt and my wife had hatched? Pollitt had set that time-bomb at the last minute when he saw me approaching, and slipped it into the basement.
“It was calculated to go off when I was there, thus killing two birds with one stone.
“But Pollitt hadn’t noticed that the dog was on hand. I always thought that animal had a bit of the retriever in him.”
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