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by Walter S. Masterman
THE MAN WITHOUT A HEAD
INSPECTOR JACKSON beckoned to the constable.
“That car has stood there long enough,” he said, pointing to a smart Daimler saloon. “Of course people in Bond Street make big purchases—we know that—still, it’s too long. Just give the chauffeur a hint—you understand?”
The constable said he did. Dusk was coming down, and the lights of the car had not been switched on—that alone was a good excuse.
A man was sitting at the wheel—dozing, it seemed. The constable tapped at the glass door, but there was no response. He tapped louder—impatiently; the man was evidently asleep. Then he opened the door and spoke “ ’Ere, wake up!”
The constable shook him gently, and the man’s head fell off, and landed on the floor with a bump.
For a moment the constable was shaken, though his nerves were tough; then he laughed. “Some damn-fool joke, I suppose,” he muttered. Stooping down, he lifted the object from the floor, and then dropped it with a justifiable oath. It was a real head, after all—and cold and clammy to the touch.
What the constable did then earned him promotion, but does not concern this story, for he appears no more.
He quietly closed the door of the car, and walked over to the inspector. In a whisper he imparted the information.
“You are quite sure?” Jackson asked.
“Quite, sir. ’Is ’ead fell right off—must have been put on roughly like. I shut the door.”
“That’s right—we don’t want a scene here. Now the question is—let’s see. Can you drive a car?”
“Yes, sir. Transport-driver in the War.” The constable was proud of his record.
“Then get in and drive to Scotland Yard—not to Vine Street. This is something special. Mind how you move the body because of finger-prints. Leave everything just as it is till I come. I’ll make some enquiries here—see what I can find out, and then come along. Tell them I’ll be there as soon as I can: the less fuss the better till we know more. You understand?”
“Very good, sir,” said the constable in his usual formula.
Inspector Jackson knew this was a big thing, quite the biggest thing that had come his way. He set about his work at once, while the constable drove off. Yes, it was quite a big thing; he was sure of that.
Chief Constable Hendon, and his friend and colleague Watkins were having tea at their club when a messenger brought the news from Scotland Yard.
They were surrounded by the usual circle of sycophants, who sought their acquaintance, either because they thought they might be useful—these two members of the Big Five—when legitimate business merged into something not legitimate, or from the reflected glory they acquired by telling their friends that they were on speaking terms with the celebrated two.
“Do you know, old man,” they would say afterwards, “I was having a yarn today with Hendon and Watkins—great friends of mine, you know!”
No one glancing casually at these two men would have guessed their identity—two quiet men sipping tea at their club.
Hendon might have been taken for a professor of Theology or some learned cult. His ascetic, deeply-lined face, sunken, keen eyes and fine forehead gave him that appearance. His soft voice and gentle manner hardly suggested the man who carried his life in his hands every day, and who had run more dangerous criminals to earth than any man in Europe.
His companion formed a striking contrast, and was, in appearance, as unlike the detective of fiction as a man could be. He might have posed for Mr. Pickwick.
A genial, round, smiling face, large glasses and a cheery laugh hardly indicated the terror of the blackmailer and the lowest forms of human being which prey on society. Yet these two stood as a rampart between the peaceful citizens of England and the vampires who lurk in the dark.
The note was brought to Hendon, who read it through casually, without a flicker of the eyes, and passed it on to Watkins, with the remark, “I think we might accept, don’t you?”
Watkins was telling a funny story—he was celebrated as a raconteur; he wiped his glasses, and apologized to the company.
“Oh, yes, I think so,” he said, handing back the note.
“No answer,” Hendon told the messenger.
Watkins finished his story—mirth-provoking as usual—and they sat on quietly for some minutes. Then Hendon looked at the clock.
“Well, I suppose we must get back to work,” he said.
“Anything important?” the Inquisitive Man asked, always agape for sensation to retail to his friends. Watkins laughed. “Just the usual routine of office work; we’re not always arresting people, you know.”
“You fellows have a pretty exciting time,” the very young man hazarded.
“At times,” Hendon cooed in his soft voice.
Outside, Hendon beckoned a taxi lazily, and they jumped in.
“What do you make of it?” Watkins asked incisively, in the privacy of the car.
“Damnable. No sooner have we cleared the Hoxton crime, now this crops up. Just the sort of sensation the Press loves—Headless Man—Bond Street—can’t you see it? Let’s hope it’s some ordinary lunatic.”
Watkins was no longer smiling. He knew what these cases meant in dreary, searching enquiries perhaps stretching into months, while the Press lashed itself into fury over the incompetence of the Force.
“Wait till we get some details. Perhaps it’ll straighten itself out. But we’ve got enough on our hands with these wretched burglaries already.”
He was referring to a strange series of daring robberies at country houses which had recently taken place—baffling crimes which were causing a lot of trouble. They were destined to assume a more sinister aspect in the near future.
Inspector Jackson was waiting at the Yard, with a doctor on the staff. Jackson had been very busy, and was effervescing with his news.
“Well?” Hendon asked, sitting at his desk, and handing round cigarettes. “Please sit down.”
Jackson took out his pocket-book, and detailed the finding of the car in a business-like manner.
“There’s no doubt about the identity of the murdered man, that’s one thing. Name of Barran—George Barran—14 Percival Mansions, Hyde Park, W.” He was very precise, this inspector.
“One moment,” said Watkins blandly. “How did you find that?”
“Easy, sir. His clothing was all marked, and his name was on his driving-license. There were letters in his pocket and visiting-cards.”
“Right. Go on.”
“I went to the flat, sir. One of those new expensive flats. There was no one there but a butler of the name of Wilkins. Mr. Barran had been out since eight this morning. He slept there last night, having come up from his place in Sussex the night before. Wilkins says he knows nothing of the car, which he expected to arrive from Sussex today. We’ve brought Wilkins along here to identify the body, and to make a statement. That’s as far as we’ve gone.”
“What about finger-prints?”
“Oh, yes, sir. Mr. Tewson has taken them. All over the face and neck they were. He’s taking the prints of the murdered man, too.”
“Very good. We shall want a description—the usual procedure. You say the head was cut off?”
“Yes, sir; cleanly; just as though he had been guillotined. There are no bruises or marks that we can see.”
“What do you say, Dr. Hanson?” asked Hendon.
“I’ve only made a rough examination. There is no doubt the head was severed with some sharp instrument—an axe would not have done it, nor a sword. And there is something else—”
“It’s difficult.” The doctor smoked in silence, his eyes half closed. “It’s about the time. It’s hard to say . . . still, if he was alive at eight this morning. . . . It’s always hard. No, I don’t understand.”
“What’s the trouble?” Watkins leant forward, interested.
“Well, you see,” Hanson said thoughtfully, “in cases of—this sort—though I can’t say I have had much experience—there’s a shrinkage . . . it’s not nice. The vertebrae stick out, and the flesh recedes. Only this happens after about twenty-four hours. That’s what makes it queer—it’s happened in this case. I must consult our French friends; they know more about severed heads.”
He lapsed into silence, and Inspector Jackson took up his tale. “There was no blood about, sir, and he was wearing a very high collar and a muffler—evidently to keep the head on.”
“And so you think, Inspector,” Hendon said, “that the murdered man was brought there in the car, and propped up at the wheel, while the murderer, or an accomplice, slipped away? Did you find out anything on the spot? Anyone seen leaving the car?”
“Nothing, sir; I made every effort to enquire, but you can understand Bond Street was crowded at that time, and it was getting dark. It would be easy for anyone to slip out, and into a shop, or to join the crowd, and no one would notice anything suspicious. That’s where it’s clever, if I may say so.”
There was a sudden knock at the door.
“Come in,” said Hendon, annoyed. He was not used to being disturbed at a private conference.
A clerk entered. “There’s a man, sir, wants to speak to you very particularly. I’m sorry, sir. I think it’s about this murder. He’s in a terrible rage, and says he won’t see anyone else. I’m sorry, sir, but he’s making a terrible fuss.”
Wide experience had taught Chief Constable Hendon not to neglect any chance, however remote it might appear.
“Send him in,” he said shortly.
A being projected himself violently into the room. He was a powerfully-built man between thirty and forty, of splendid physique and swarthy complexion. His dress was in perfect taste, and had it not been for the state of ferocity that was gripping him he would have passed for an ordinary member of a first-class West End club.
But his eyes were bloodshot, and his hand was clenched on a huge silver-mounted stick; he was shaking with anger.
“Which of you is Chief Constable Hendon?” he asked, looking round.
“That is my name,” said Hendon quietly.
“Well, what the hell do you mean by sending your dirty police round to my flat, turning the place upside down, kidnapping my wretched butler, and holding a sort of inquisition? Damn it, man, Wilkins had to wire to my wife, bringing her up from Sussex on some tomfool tale of murder. Burglars couldn’t have done worse. I’ll see the Home Secretary . . . it’s a damned scandal. Even one’s home isn’t safe from your cursed police. What’s the meaning, I say? Answer! Don’t stare at me, man!”
He brought his stick down with a crash on the desk which made the inkstand jump.
“May I ask who you are?” Watkins said suavely, beaming at the angry man.
He turned to Watkins as though he would have struck him. He saw a red, smiling face—Pickwickian in its beaming rotundity.
“My name is George Barran, of Roverfield Hall, Sussex, and my London address is No. l4 Percival Mansions,” he rasped out.
There was a pause which was lasting too long. Barran looked from one to the other. “Well?” he asked. “What have you got to say?”
“So you are Mr. George Barran? That is very interesting.” It was Watkins who spoke, his face a smiling moon.
“I’ve told you so—do you want me to repeat it? Now I want an explanation. . . . What the hell . . .”
Watkins put up a deprecating hand. “My dear sir, we are really very sorry you have been put to any inconvenience. Believe me, when you have heard what has happened you will be so interested that you will forgive any apparent rudeness. The police were only acting in accordance with the information they had. You will be of the greatest help to us. Please sit down.”
Mr. Barran seated himself churlishly, grasping his stick with both hands, but when Watkins unfolded the story, his anger seemed to melt away, and a look of utter astonishment came to his face.
“But this is extraordinary,” he commented vaguely. “You say he was in my car, dressed up in my clothes? How the devil did he get them? I must see Wilkins about this.”
“Wilkins is here—we are going to have a word with him,” Hendon said. “Now, Mr. Barran, can you throw any light on the subject at all?”
“None whatever. Oh, I see what you mean”—his fierce anger returned. “You want me to give an account of myself—to prove I didn’t wrap him up in my own car after murdering him. Well, there’s no difficulty in that, thank goodness, or you’d be arresting me or something foolish. I can tell you exactly where I was the whole day, and the day before for that matter. I left my car at my Sussex place, and came up by train. I can account for every minute since. How the car got here I haven’t the least idea. That’s for you to find out.”
“We’ll go into all that, Mr. Barran. Meantime, Inspector, you’d better give us a description of the murdered man. Perhaps Mr. Barran may be able to help us there.”
Barran glanced in anger at the speaker, and was about to make some strong remark, but Jackson had taken out his book, and reeled off his notes.
“No. 34 P. C. Williams, I Division, states that when he went to the car, he noticed in the half-light that the driver had a peculiar waxy look about the face—a bluish, unnatural look. It’s not easy to describe the face—it’s swollen and distorted. Still, he must have been of a swarthy complexion, with dark brown eyes and black hair. Height about six feet, very powerfully-built, with a black moustache.”
“Stop, stop!” The doctor had half-risen from his seat and was pointing.
The others looked at him in surprise; the doctor sat back. “Don’t you see what you are doing?” he asked in a strained voice.
“What do you mean?” Hendon cast a lightning glance at the doctor.
“You are describing Mr. Barran, exactly,—in every detail.”
It was true; each particular might have been a true picture of the man who sat living before them—the man with the large stick and the fiery temper.
Watkins relieved the situation: he laughed.
“But this is absurd—a man can’t cut off his own head, you know—I mean, still go on living afterwards.”
“Am I mad, or what?” Barran wiped his forehead. “You say the man was in my car, wearing my clothes, and carrying my correspondence and cards, and now you say it was I—or someone so like me that the description is precisely the same!”
“That appears to be the position,” said Hendon dryly. “We had better see the body—perhaps we may know more then. Jackson, go and fetch Wilkins along.”
“I’ll go and tell him, sir.” Jackson closed his notebook in a dazed fashion: this was something beyond him.
“One moment.” Hendon looked meaningly at Watkins, and touched the bell. A clerk entered promptly. “Ask Mr. Tewson for his report, please,” Hendon ordered.
“Mr. Tewson is waiting outside to see you, sir. He’s got something important to tell you.”
The finger-print expert entered briskly—his hands full of papers. He was an enthusiast at his work, and would have kept one for hours explaining the loops and whorls of the human hand, affirming—and experience proved this to be true—that no two hands ever show the same combination.
Many a crook has cursed the inventor of this method of identification.
“Well?” Hendon asked.
Tewson adjusted his glasses, and bent over his papers which he had laid on the desk. There were smudges in neat rows, indicating the finger-prints of both hands.
“I have had them photographed and indexed,” he said. The other men gathered round him, and scanned the weird marks.
“I found, in the first place,” Tewson continued, as though at a lecture, “that we have no record of these impressions—they are quite new. We have been through the library. The murderer is a newcomer, but that is not strange—they generally are. But I have something to tell you that is strange—one might say unique.”
He took up another paper, and showed it.
“These are the impressions of the dead man. You will notice both hands. They are identical with those of the murderer. There is no doubt at all. You understand?—the same fingers which belong to the murdered man committed the murder.”
“But this is—” the doctor began, and stopped, he had caught a gleam in Hendon’s eye which arrested him.
“You remember in ‘The Mikado,’ ” said Watkins contemplatively, “that a man cannot cut off another’s head, until he’s cut his own off.”
“I give it up,” said Barran, seizing his stick. “I came here to protest—but, as a matter of fact, I should have come here for an entirely different reason. I find myself involved in this nightmare —it’s worse than a mystery. Good God!”
“You were coming to see me?” asked Hendon, his eyes narrowing.
“Oh, that can wait now—it’s important, though, in its way.”
“What was it?” Hendon persisted.
“It’s about those damned burglaries—all round my place they are happening. We’re getting pretty well fed up with the slackness of the police. Nothing seems to be done. There have been four—”
“Five, to be exact,” Watkins interjected.
“I don’t care how many. All I know is that it’s a scandal. What the devil do we pay the police for? They seem as much good as—as—”
“As what, Mr. Barran?” Watkins smiled at the angry inan.
“Oh, as a lot of damned asses.”
“Well, well, let’s get this other matter in order first; then we can discuss the burglaries,” said Hendon.
He led the way to the door, and then paused. “Perhaps,” he said gravely, “when we are investigating the one, we may get some light thrown on the others. Who knows?”
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