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Vanishing Star

Vanishing Star

By Scriptorius


Vanishing Star

Shortly after he had a breakfasted on a sunny August morning, Rupert Swann was about to light a pipe when he was disturbed by the sound of clumping steps in the hall, followed by three very loud knocks at his door, which opened before he had time to call out his customary invitation. He found himself looking at a hefty man of medium height, about thirty years of age and seemingly clad in what he had found nearest to hand. “Please come in,” said Swann, with a sarcasm that appeared to fall on deaf ears.

“Are you Rupert Swann?” said the man, near-breathless from his obviously rapid ascent of the stairs and possibly some other hurry his journey had entailed.

“Yes. It would seem that you rushed here, so I assume you have something pressing on your mind.”

“What? Oh, yes, pressing is the word. I am desperate, Mr Swann. I must locate Jack Rawnsley, quickly.”

“Indeed? Who are you and who is Jack Rawnsley?”

The man inhaled deeply. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m making a hash of introducing myself, but possibly you will not be surprised when I tell you why. My name is George Prentiss. I’m captain of the Lawnswood Cricket Club. Jack Rawnsley is my star player and he has vanished. We play the Clothworkers in our last match of the season on Saturday and without Jack we may well lose it, and a loss would deny us the championship.”

“Dear me, that would be unfortunate,” Swann replied. “Please take a seat here by the hearth and give me your story. Would you care for a drop of sherry?”

“No thank you. I make it a habit not to take alcohol during the cricket season.”

The instant the two men were seated, Prentiss launched into his tale. “It’s this way, Mr Swann,” he said. “We play in the Leeds and district cricket league and have our matches on Saturdays. We would prefer Sunday games but some of the churches don’t like that idea and two of them are in our competition, so we accommodate them, even though this causes problems for a number of players.”

“I can well understand that,” said Swann. “Most people work on Saturdays at least until until midday and some all day.”

“Exactly. However, each team plays every other twice in the season, once at home and once away. We get two points for a win, one for a draw or tie and nothing for a loss. My team is lying second in the table, one point behind Fox Engineering, but they have already played their last match, so if we win, we take the title and if we lose, we don’t. I’m sure there will not be a draw, as that normally occurs only when the weather ruins things, and the forecasters say this fine spell will last for a week or more. As for a tie, that has never happened. We are all confident that with Jack in the team, we shall beat the Clothworkers. Lord knows what has become of the man. To give you an idea of how important he is to us, he was sent to Holland by his firm a short while ago and missed three of our games. One was rained off, so we got a point. The other two we lost, and I have no doubt that our setbacks were attributable to Jack’s absence.”

Swann nodded. “I see. From those three matches, you got only one point, whereas with your star man present, you would most likely have picked up five and would now be in first position, well ahead of Fox Engineering. Can you tell me anything about Rawnsley’s disappearance?”

“Not really. He played in last Saturday’s match and there was no indication of anything untoward when we parted that evening. All we know is that he went to see a friend on Sunday and half an hour or so before midnight he started on the walk home but didn’t arrive there. His wife is frantic.”

“So he vanished on Sunday night and it’s now Wednesday morning. Apart from coming to me, have you taken any other steps?”

“I’ve reported the matter to the police but it’s hard to see what they can do, other than search every building for miles around here, and that is out of the question. I realise also that this is a big city and there are always lots of people about on foot, so if Jack had fallen somewhere, I feel sure he must have been seen. He has a happy home and social life, a good job and no financial troubles, so there’s no obvious reason why he would disappear of his own accord. I’m completely at a loss.”

Swann scratched his jaw. “I understand your problem, Mr Prentiss,” he said. “I don’t normally deal with cases of this kind because experience has taught me that many people who drop out of society have their own reasons for doing so. I have known that happen when the parties concerned have to all appearances been well balanced and happy. However, what you say intrigues me. I can’t help wondering about the fact that Rawnsley’s disappearance is detrimental to you and perhaps beneficial to some other party. Now, if you have given me all the information you can, please tell me where I can locate you and I will think about this affair.”

Prentiss handed over a visiting card and said he could be contacted at home, his workplace - a vinegar brewery close to the city centre - or at the Lawnswood cricket club office. He was seldom anywhere else, and wherever he happened to be, his wife would be able to get a message to him within half an hour at most. He left, and Swann sank into a spell of thought, in which he continued to be immersed throughout an hour-long walk and a leisurely lunch at his usual early afternoon haunt, Whitelock’s Tavern.

Swann had often found that after pondering unsuccessfully on a problem for a while, his best course was to consign it to the back of his mind and concentrate on other things. That was easy to do on this day in particular because he had an afternoon of entertainment ahead of him. He was an opera lover and had arranged to accompany his younger sister to a performance of Rigoletto. The two met in the Queen’s Arcade shortly before two o’clock, walked the short distance to the Grand Theatre and for three hours Swann gave no further thought to George Prentiss.

Following a splendid presentation of Verdi’s great work, Swann escorted his sister to her home, then returned to his rooms, where he smoked a pipe and read a novel for while before going out for dinner at Powolny’s restaurant on Bond Street. While there, he was struck by the thought that he had not been to his club for over a week, so he decided to call there and spend a little time in the library-cum-reading room.

At the club, Swann collected a drink from the barman and went to select one of his beloved chess books. The only other occupant of the reading room was Harry Hargreaves, a lonely, affluent widower in his sixties. He was poring over the sports pages of a newspaper. After the two men exchanged greetings, Hargreaves read on for moment, then grunted and tossed aside the paper. “Are you displeased?” asked Swann.

Hargreaves shrugged. “Mildly. I was thinking of getting one or two horses to make me rich,” he replied, “but I see nothing likely to do that in the next few days.”

Swann did not share Hargreaves’s passion for horse racing, but he was always willing to indulge in almost any conversation, on the principle that he might learn something from it. He continued this one by expressing the first thought came into his mind. “You’re a man of the turf,” he said. “Tell me, what proportion of races are won by the favourites?”
“Overall, about thirty-five per cent. That’s very variable of course. Over a short period it can be a most unreliable guide, but it works out in the long run. I place quite a lot of bets and always on the most fancied horses. You might call it my system.”

Swann nodded. “I see. Do you mind telling me how you fare, or is that something you would rather not disclose?”

Hargreaves smiled. “It’s no secret. I’ve been dabbling for many years, but I don’t wager enormous sums. I even keep a record of my triumphs and disasters and so far I have lost money, but not enough to cause me any concern. I use the doubling up method of betting.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Hargreaves was pleased to find an attentive listener. “The idea is to place a bet on the favourite in each race. If the first fails, one doubles one’s bet for the second race and if that doesn’t succeed, one doubles again, and so on until one gets a win.”

As one of Swann’s pastimes was mathematics, he immediately saw the reasoning, and the flaw in it. “I follow you,” he said, “but surely that would work only if the horses concerned started at even money, or longer odds.”

“Correct,” Hargreaves answered. “For example, if the favourite really did invariably start at evens, one would need to simply keep on doubling one’s stake until a winner turned up. However, if the losing streak were a long one and the initial stake high, a deep pocket might be required.”

Swann chuckled. “I’m happy to say that I do not indulge,” he said. “My feeling is that life itself is a big enough gamble, without artificial additions.”

“You may be right. However, if one bets within reasonable limits, not much harm can be done. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I staked one pound on the first race of a meeting. My horse did not win, so I tried two pounds on the second race and lost that money too. I went for four pounds in the third race and my choice failed again.”

“So you were then seven pounds out of pocket.”

“Yes, and that level of betting is higher than normal for me. My last throw of the dice was eight pounds on the fourth race, in which the favourite did win. Unfortunately, the best price I could get was two to one, odds on, so of course I got back my eight-pound stake, but won only four pounds. Still, that reduced my loss to three pounds, and at that point I finished for the day, at least with the horses.”

Swann looked puzzled. “Do you mean you bet on other things?” he asked.

“Sometimes I put a little money on a football match, if there’s no horse that takes my fancy.”

“You mean you bet on football at the race track? I thought that was illegal.”

Hargreaves grinned and tapped his nose. “There are ways,” he said, “especially if one knows the bookmakers well enough, and I’m acquainted with a couple of the most prominent ones in Leeds.”

Swann was intrigued. “Tell me more,” he said. Hargreaves obliged, and as he did so, something clicked in Swann’s mind. The jumble of thoughts that had been floating around inchoate there for several hours began to take shape. Finally, the talk wandered to other subjects, and at eleven o’clock, Hargreaves excused himself and left for home. Swann stayed on to play through a couple of his favourite old chess games, then returned to his lodgings are midnight.

Not willing to disturb his normal daily round more than necessary, Swann breakfasted as usual on the Thursday, smoked his first pipe of the day, then got in a spell of piano practice before taking his customary walk, followed by lunch, again at Whitelock’s Tavern. He had in mind solving the Prentiss problem, or satisfying himself that he could not do so. That would depend on the calls he intended to make. There would be either two or three and he did not propose to start until after business hours.

At six-thirty that evening, Swann paid his first visit, which did not help his cause. The second gave him what he wanted and led him to the third, which proved decisive. On his way back to Park Square, he sent a wire to George Prentiss, indicating that he was working on the case and would be in touch again soon.

The Lawnswood cricket captain spent Friday on tenterhooks, wondering when he would hear more. He was still highly agitated on Saturday morning. At shortly before ten o’clock he received another wire from Swann. It read: ‘Essential you call here before noon.’

Forty minutes after after receiving the message, George Prentiss knocked on Swann’s door. Responding to a shouted invitation, he entered the living room and gasped as he saw Swann seated at one side of the hearth and, in the facing chair, the familiar figure of Jack Rawnsley. “Good heavens,” he bawled. “I don’t believe it.”

The star cricketer grinned and Swann waved Prentiss to a third chair which he had pulled up so that the trio could form a semi-circle. Swann pointed to a bottle of brandy and an empty glass between the two he and Rawnsley were using. “If you wish to change your rule about drinking in the cricket season, help yourself, Mr Prentiss,” he said.

“Thank you,” the astounded visitor replied. “I believe I will make an exception.” He leaned over to shake hands with his leading player, then poured a stiff drink for himself and gulped down half of it. “I don’t know what to say, Mr Swann,” he said, shaking his head. “However did you perform this feat?”

This was the part Swann savoured when he had succeeded against what seemed like almost impossible odds. He sat back with a broad smile. “I must admit that the case did not look promising at the the outset,” he said. “As I remarked when you first called here, there could be no question of a search for Mr Rawnsley. You said enough to convince me that he would hardly have disappeared of his own accord, and since it did not seem likely that some kind of accident had befallen him, I was left thinking of possible foul play. You may recall that I mentioned the idea that what was a negative development for you might have been a positive one for some other party or parties.”

Prentiss nodded. “Yes, I remember your remark but I must say that I gave no further thought to it.”

That brought a chuckle from Swann. “That is quite understandable,” he said. “Therein lies the difference between our two worlds. In my trade, one tends to acquire a suspicious turn of mind. With respect to Mr Rawnsley’s disappearance, I asked myself the old question, cui bono? Who benefits? Of course it was possible that someone stood to gain in terms of prestige, but we are dealing with a local cricket league and I found it difficult to accept that anyone would have caused a man to disappear merely for parochial renown. That led me to wonder whether somebody might have had a financial interest in the affair.”

Prentiss looked startled. “That’s not easy to believe,” he said. “I mean, there would have to be quite a sum involved to induce anyone to carry out a kidnapping, if that is what you mean.”

“Quite true,” Swann replied, “but having, rightly or wrongly, discarded other possibilities, I had to deal with what was left. Frankly, I was none too optimistic about the result, but I made some inquiries and did a little research. Among other things. I gathered information about the position with regard to gambling in this country. As you may know, it is largely illegal. The only really outstanding exception is horse racing, where betting has been allowed for a very long time.”

“I see,” said Prentiss. “Where did all this get you?”

“Well, I felt that if my notion about monetary involvement was correct, someone had probably placed a large bet on the match you are to play tomorrow. If that had been done, and done privately between two individuals, there would have been no way for me to discover it. However, my probing had revealed that a few of the larger bookmakers who operate at the race tracks are not above taking bets on other sporting propositions, though one must assume that they do not enter a true record of those transactions in their books. They may take a wager and find some way of passing it off as being on a horse, but I think it more likely that they limit themselves to word of mouth deals and that if they lose, they pay the winnings from their own cash reserves rather than from their official businesses.”

Swann refreshed himself with a sip of brandy and went on: “I learned that there had been a race meeting at York last Saturday and that, as usual, some of the Leeds bookmakers had been present. I had already established that the two largest operators were among them.” This was one of the things Swann had gathered from Harry Hargreaves. “I realised that it would not have been necessary for either of them to be at the track in order for a bet to be taken, for they could just as well have accepted it elsewhere. Still, I must emphasise that I had no other lead, so I decided to confront one or both of the two men. Success with the first one would of course obviate the need needed to visit the second.

“I had to ensure that I was well prepared for any attempt at obstruction. When I called at the home of the first man, Tom Broadbent, I was posing as a police officer. I was not asked to prove the point, though I had fake documentation to support the deception. I told Broadbent that he need have no concern about his own position, as I was merely trying to snare whoever had made the bet I had in mind. To encourage him further, I told him that if he had indeed accepted the wager, he might find himself in a fortunate position, as if the gamble succeeded, he would not be required to pay out because I would have my quarry, whereas if it failed, the question of payment would not arise.

“I must say that Broadbent impressed me as a straightforward, right-thinking fellow. He seemed disposed to be helpful but unfortunately was unable to oblige me. I have interrogated many people over the years and am always alert to pick up signs whenever someone is not telling the truth. There was no doubt in my mind that Broadbent had nothing to reveal. so I was left with my last hope, a call on the other bookmaker, Jim Stanhope. Maintaining my impersonation, I visited him immediately after leaving Broadbent.

“Notwithstanding my supposedly official position, Stanhope was at first reluctant to cooperate. He changed his tune only when I pointed out to him, as I had to Broadbent, that if he had accepted the bet I was seeking to uncover, he would be able to keep the money he had taken, regardless of how the event in question concluded. I added that he need have no qualms about telling me what I wanted to know because we, the police, would turn a blind eye to any unlawful bet-taking in this case. He immediately asked how we were to conduct legal proceedings without implicating him. That was a tricky one, but I managed to convince him that we did not intend to prosecute the bettor, but simply to give him a warning and tell him that he had lost his stake money, no matter what happened. Finally, I said that I was thinking of a local cricket match.

“Stanhope’s facial expression alone was sufficient to show me that I had hit the mark. Without further ado he said that while he was at the York races last Saturday, he was asked to accept a bet of five hundred pounds on Fox Engineering to win your league’s title.”

Prentiss gasped. “My goodness,” he said. “That’s a huge sum of money in such circumstances. Who placed the bet?”

Swann smiled. “None other than Mr David Gill, head of the Fox Engineering Company, who is also president of the firm’s cricket club.”

“I am astounded,” said Prentiss. Are you now going to tell me that Gill had a hand in Jack’s disappearance?”

“I am coming to that,” Swann replied. “As it happened, Jim Stanhope was something of a cricket enthusiast. He knew a lot about the scene in Leeds, but not surprisingly he was unaware of the position regarding your star player. For that reason, he assumed there was a high probability that your team would win today’s match. He therefore offered what he considered quite good odds to Mr Gill because he was fairly confident that he would not have to pay anything. Even then, Gill had the audacity to express disappointment at not being offered better terms, but he handed over the five hundred pounds. It was agreed that if he won his bet, he would call at Stanhope’s home after the match and collect his winnings.”

Prentiss shook his head. “The gall of it,” he muttered. “What did you do next?”

“I had to take the bull by the horns,” Swann answered. “On leaving Stanhope, I went straight to Gill’s home. Fortunately he was there. I dropped my police persona, disclosed my true identity and confronted him with the facts I had garnered. For a while, he was the very essence of outrage and wounded dignity, but I am accustomed to that and soon quelled it. I was conscious of the fact that my first duty was to you and to recovering Mr Rawnsley in time for him to play in the match today. That presented me with an awkward choice.”

Prentiss looked puzzled. “How so?” he asked.

“Because of the element of urgency,” Swann replied. “I could have told Gill that I intended to refer his illegal bet to the police. However, I promised him that if he could somehow be instrumental in Mr Rawnsley’s timely reappearance, I would refrain from exposing him, though he would lose his five hundred pounds. If he would not help, or even if he could not, I would turn the matter over to the authorities. He continued to deny that he had anything to do with what I suggested to him was an abduction or worse, but facing the threat of public disgrace, he said that if he could think of any way to help, he would do his best. To me, that was tantamount to an admission that he knew what had occurred and that he was in a position to take some action.

“I gave Gill an ultimatum. If Jack Rawnsley were to present himself to me here by nine this morning, sound in wind and limb and ready to play in the vital match, I would consider the affair settled. Your man arrived half an hour before the time I stipulated, and here we are.”

Prentiss beamed. “I can’t congratulate you enough, Mr Swann,” he said. “You have performed an astounding feat.” Please let me know what I owe you.”

“I will send you a note of my fee in due course. Meanwhile, I believe I will have a look at a cricket match. What time do you start play today?”

“Two o’clock, and it is a home match, so you won’t have far to go. I’m sure Jack will wish to give a good account of himself, so you are likely to get some fine entertainment.”

Prentiss was right. Swann watched the match and saw Rawnsley justify his captain’s assessment of his value to the team. He tore the opposition apart with a devastating spell of fast bowling, followed by a short but spectacular batting performance, which he ended with a mighty blow that sent the ball far out of the ground and scored the winning runs.

* * *

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24 Oct, 2018
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