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Final episode taken from The Hotspur issue: 899 January 30th 1954.


The Mystery Box.

Going for a walk round the grounds before breakfast, Bill? In this weather?” asked Dr Leslie Fane, Headmaster of Ashbridge Abbey School, as he met his brother in the hall at the foot of the oak staircase. Bill Fane nodded towards the open doorway, where white plumes of mist were trying to thrust their way in. “Looks pretty thick,” he agreed. “I’ve seen London fogs a lot worse, though. Are you coming with me?” Above their heads, the footsteps of many schoolboys could be heard running to and from the bathrooms. It was still half an hour till the breakfast bell. Both men were early risers. The Headmaster laughed. “Well, you’ve talked me into it. Come on, we’ll get the cobwebs out of our heads!” They went down the steps together. They were brothers, and there were only two years between them, but they were unlike in many ways. Leslie Fane was tall, lean, nervously quick, with the long head of the intellectual, while Bill Fane was short, thickset, sure in his movements, and never rattled. Leslie had become the youngest Headmaster that Ashridge Abbey had ever had, and Bill was the youngest superintendent of the C.I.D. ever appointed at Scotland Yard. Superintendent Fane was down at Ashridge for a purpose. It was not only a welcome chance for him to get some fresh air, away from the smoke of London, but he was to lecture to the school on criminal detection and the modern scientific approach the police used nowadays. Both Bill and his Headmaster brother realised the tremendous scope offered in the C.I.D. as a career, and had it in mind that some of the older boys might be encouraged to join the police force.

The lecture was to take place that afternoon. The brothers talked of it as they went down the drive and turned aside over the lawns which led to the main playing field. “They’ll lap up some of the stories of your experiences,” the Headmaster was saying. “They will go down well. Tell them of the time when you captured the man who was after the Crown Jewels.” “Aw, now, I’m saving that for my reminiscences when the Yard chucks me out!” objected Bill Fane, with a grin. “Well, do something like that,” said his brother. “They—what’s that?” Bill glanced up sharply. They had just passed through the gate on to the playing field. Here the mist was thicker, but the well worn path made it impossible for them to lose their way. It seemed that a large shadow had just passed over their heads. “Something big flew over our heads,” Bill murmured. “Yes, something passed, almost in a flash,” agreed Leslie. “See where the mist is whirling? That’s funny! What could it have been—a giant bird of some kind? It can’t have been a plane, because there was no sound, and—” Thud! They both heard it away on their right, the dull impact of a hard object on the turf. Something had dropped from the sky. “Let’s have a look,” suggested the superintendent, and he went cautiously forward over the grass. “Any holes or fences here to trip over?” “No, it’s the football field, entirely open, and—There! There’s something, Bill!” Dr Fane’s voice shrilled with excitement as he pointed. It lay almost at his brother’s feet—a box of some black, shiny material, about a foot square on top, but shallower in depth. The Scotland Yard man picked it up, noting how one corner had bedded itself in the turf, proof that it had fallen from a considerable height. He judged it to weigh about seven pounds. “Made of ebony, or some black plastic material,” Bill Fane observed, turning it over and over in his hands. “What is it? Recognise it as from the school?” “No. I’ve never seen it before,” declared the Headmaster, thinking of the mysterious shadow that had flashed overhead through the mist. “Does it open?” Bill Fane ran his fingers around the edge, pressing where he could see a faint join. He must have touched the right spot, for there was a click, and the lid lifted on a spring. They looked inside to find what appeared to be a sheet of frosted glass. “Now what do you make of that?” demanded Bill. Leslie Fane swallowed hard. “It reminds me of some kind of television screen. This must have been dropped from a passing plane. It is a wonder it was not smashed. We’ll have to turn it over to the local police, although it will be hard to explain that we heard no plane passing,” he pointed out. “Wait!” The superintendent’s tone was sharp. He was standing very straight, holding the open box rigidly before him. “Something’s happening. There’s a faint whirring noise, and the screen is lighting up. Yes, look!”

He held the box so that they could both see inside. “By jove!” A human face appeared on the yellow screen, misty at first, then more and more clearly. It was almost life-size, filling the shining screen, and it looked like the face of a desperate man. They noted the deep-set eyes, the hollow cheeks, the well shaped nose, and the man’s lips moved. “Whoever you are—take this box to Scotland Yard!” he gasped. “I—” His eyes jerked to the right as though he was about to turn to look at someone beside him, then the humming stopped, the screen ceased to be illuminated, and the face vanished. The two brothers were left staring at a blank, shiny surface. “Well—” began the Headmaster. “Some kind of portable television—you’re right!” came the superintendent’s calm voice. But from what station? Where is this man? Why does he want this box taken to the police? Why was he suddenly cut off?” Leslie Fane shook his head. Through the mist they could hear the breakfast bell ringing. “The man looked frightened,” muttered the headmaster. “This—this is extraordinary! There must be some explanation.” “There’s an explanation for everything—if one can only find it.” Snapped his brother, and he turned the mysterious box over to peer at the underside. “No sign where this was made. No trade mark, no maker’s name. Something passed over us, and someone dropped this box. We’ll make inquiries about planes in the vicinity—although I’ve never heard of a perfectly silent plane yet—Anyway, let’s get back to breakfast. This has given me an appetite.”

Beware The Alsians!

By the time breakfast was over, and the boys had gone to their classrooms, the sun was breaking through. The two brothers went to the Headmaster’s study, and took the black box with them. They locked the door and examined the box thoroughly, and when it produced no clue, they left it open on the desk while Dr Fane phoned the local aerodrome and asked what planes had been up at 8.15 that morning. When he hung up he said—“None from there. They say nobody has taken off yet this morning. They were waiting for the mist to clear. Yet I am convicted a plane passed over our heads.” “I’m convinced that something passed over us, but I can’t be sure it was a plane,” said Superintendent Fane. “There was a distinct rush of air, and the mist was moved, then this thing dropped!” He stared into the depths of the black box and rubbed his chin. “What are you going to do with it—take it up to Scotland Yard right away?” asked his brother. “No, time enough this evening, when I go back after the lecture. Besides, there may be more developments. We may find out more about that mysterious thing in the mist. Where can I put it for the time being to be secure—in your safe?” He looked at the large, old-fashioned safe in the corner. Dr Fane hurriedly shook his head. “That is packed with exam papers at the moment. Here is a safe spot.” He went to one of the shelves of books that lined the room, pulled out about a dozen volumes, pointed to a deep recess in the wall at the back, and said, “It’ll be well hidden in there. It was only by chance I came upon that hide-hole. I can’t imagine what it was for.” The black box fitted into the recess, and when the books were replaced it was hidden from view. “An expert would note that these dozen volumes have less dust on them than the others beside them, and would guess they had been taken out recently,” grinned the C.I.D. man. “But I don’t suppose we shall be bothered by experts looking for it. It’s the first purely portable television set I’ve seen. I didn’t know they existed, and—” There was a knock on the door, and a maid entered to say that a policeman wished to speak with the Headmaster. “A what?” asked Dr Fane raising his eyebrows. “A policeman, sir, an inspector I think he is. He came in a car with half a dozen constables, sir. He says it’s important,” declared the girl. “Well, show him up, Agnes, show him up.” Leslie Fane turned to his brother. “They wouldn’t have come with a message for you, I suppose?” Bill Fane shook his head. He was looking out of the window, where in front of the school entrance stood a large, black saloon.

A number of uniformed figures were getting out. “County constabulary,” he muttered. “No, it can not be nothing to do with me. Some of your boys been getting into trouble, I suppose, although why they have sent so many men, I can’t imagine. Don’t tell them who I am, Leslie.” Dr Fane only had time to nod when the maid showed in a tall, red faced inspector, who carried his peaked hat in his hand. His neat moustache had touches of grey in it. “Sorry to bother you, Dr Fane, but this is urgent. I’m Inspector Seward, from Minton. You may have heard recently that there have been a lot of country house burglaries in these parts,” he said. “Yes, indeed. People are afraid to go away for a few hours and leave their homes unattended,” said Dr Fane. “But what—” “Last night, sir, we nearly apprehended a man who decamped from Lamford Manor with jewellery worth £20,000,” the inspector told them. “He escaped by car, and we followed. He abandoned his car over at the crossroads and climbed into your grounds. We surrounded the school and caught him trying to leave on the other side half an hour later. That was at 3 a.m. The jewels were not with him. We suspect he hid them in the grounds or in the school building itself.” “Bless my soul!” exclaimed Dr Fane. “Do you mean to say we had the scoundrel prowling around here while we were asleep?” “I’m afraid so, sir. But he won’t prowl again. We’ve got him at Minton, but he won’t say what he did with the loot. That is why I am here to ask if you would mind us searching the school and the grounds for the missing jewels. We feel sure they are here. Of course, I have no search warrant, but we thought you would see the importance of getting this stuff off your premises. You would not want any sensation connected with the school. If once the newspapers hear of this you will have reporters swarming all over the place to find the hidden treasure!” said Inspector Seward, with a smile. “By all means search wherever you wish, but take the wretched jewels away with you as quickly as you can,” insisted the Headmaster. “The less disturbance we have the better. Already this morning my brother and I had—” “Did I understand you to say the jewels might be hidden in either the school building or the grounds?” put in Bill Fane hurriedly. “How could the man have got into the school?” The inspector shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve never found the building yet that Mike Cosford couldn’t enter. I’ve no doubt we shall find a window unfastened somewhere. Anyway, it is very kind of you to give permission, Dr Fane, and my men will cause as little trouble as possible.” He saluted, then hurried away. From the window the brothers in the Headmaster’s study saw the six constables enter the school. “Why didn’t you want me to mention about that box?” asked Dr Fane. “Because our inspector friend would only have connected it with the missing jewellery and got muddled. Besides, we were asked to take it to the Yard, not anywhere else.” Bill Fane looked thoughtfully footsteps sounded on the stairs. “Have you met Inspector Seward before?” “N-no, I’ve had no need to contact the police,” replied his brother. Bill Fane nodded, and went out into the corridor.

He could see some of the police below in the hall. They were nosing into every corner, lifting the books out of lockers, prodding the earth in some window boxes, even looking behind the pictures. They were going about their search in a methodical and thorough manner. Yet the C.I.D. man felt sure they were wasting their time. He did not believe for a moment that the thief had broken into the school to hide his loot, when he could have found plenty of suitable places in the grounds. He noticed that one of the constables had tried the door of the oak cupboard in the hall recess. The constable turned and said something to a sergeant, who produced a pair of spectacles from his pocket and put them on. Going over to the locked cupboard the sergeant stared intently at the closed door, shook his head, bent lower, peered at the door, then straightened up, saying—“Nothing there!” He took off the glasses, returned them to his case, and joined the others who were working along the corridor and searching some unused classrooms. Bill Fane stood by the rail at the top of the staircase and rubbed his chin. How had the sergeant known there was nothing they sought in that locked cupboard merely by looking at the outside of the door through his spectacles? It seemed crazy. He studied the policemen more intently. For some reason he got the feeling that their uniforms were not correct. He did not know exactly what uniform the Midshire police wore, but there was something out of place somewhere. Then there was a matter of their boots. They were all highly polished, without a speck of mud or dust on them, yet these men must have come on duty some hours earlier, and it was still damp outside from the mist. How had they kept their boots so immaculate? Bill dodged back as the inspector and another sergeant came up the stairs. There was a sharp bend in the corridor, and the shadows were deep at that point. Bill Fane stood there silently watching. Inspector Seward motioned towards one of the closed doors, but the sergeant, who also wore glasses, shook his head, and muttered—“That’s only an empty bedroom.” They passed the bedroom, Bill Fane wondered how the sergeant had been able to tell what the room was through a closed door! The pair had now stopped outside the door to the laboratory where chemistry was taught. Dr Fane always kept the door locked to prevent mischievous lads raiding for chemicals. The door was locked now, and the key was in the Headmaster’s pocket, Bill knew. Yet Inspector Seward merely touched the lock and the door swung open. Whether there had been anything in his hand the C.I.D. man could not see, for the inspector’s body screened his movements. But the two went inside to look in all the cupboards. “How in the world do they imagine this Mike Cosford got up here last night to hide anything?” thought Bill Fane, and his suspicions began to grow. “I don’t believe they are Minton police!” He turned on his heel and entered his brother’s study. Dr Fane had been called to one of the classrooms. Bill Fane closed the door and picked up the telephone receiver. “Give me the Minton police station,” he said, then he realised he was speaking to a dead line. Intending to try the phone in the main hall, Bill stepped across the room towards the door, and was suddenly conscious of a low, whirring sound from the direction of the bookshelves. He hesitated. There was a brass bolt on the inside of the study door, and he shot it home before making for the shelf and pulling out the books which screened the hidden recess. The next moment the black box was in his hands, for he knew that the whirring came from this. Swiftly he pressed the catch and the lid sprang open. Once again he saw that the shining screen was luminous. The same face was staring out at him, but the expression was now frantic. With eyes fairly bulging, the man said—“Get away from here at once! Get this to Scotland Yard. Don’t let this box fall into the hands of the Alsians. Go!” There came a knock at the study door. The face in the box vanished and the screen became dark.

Someone knocked and tried the handle of the door. “Yes?” called Bill Fane, closing the box sharply. “Inspector Seward, sir. I would like to search the room now, if it is convenient,” came the voice from outside. There was something of command in the tone. “Please open the door!” Superintendent Fane stared from the door to the box on the desk, then to the window, which gave on to the roof of the gymnasium. “Just a moment!” he said loudly, and he quietly opened the window. He knew now, with certainty, that these “police” were false, and that they were not seeking any jewel thief’s loot. They were looking for the black box which had dropped so mysteriously from the sky. The face in the box had asked him twice to get the black box to Scotland Yard. This time he was going to try to carry out that appeal. He tucked the box under one arm, and got a leg over the window sill. He looked back at the door for a moment, and saw a remarkable thing. The lock seemed to be losing shape. It was melting! The metal bubbled for a moment, then dropped to the carpet. Someone outside threw his weight against the door, trying to open it. But in spite of the fact that the lock had been destroyed by what appeared to be miraculous means, the brass bolt still held. The door did not give. In the corridor Inspector Seward snarled something. Superintendent Bill Fane swung his other leg over the sill and dropped on to the gymnasium roof.

A Desperate Break.

In spite of his heavy build. Bill Fane was light on his feet and agile. He ran down the sloping roof, sat on the extreme edge, lowered his legs into space, and dropped. It was no more than ten feet, and he landed lightly without dropping the precious box. He heard a shout behind him, and looked back to see his brother at one of the classroom windows with a teacher at his side. Both men looked startled. Bill Fane pointed to the box under his arm, then to the window through which he had climbed. “Those police—fakes!” he shouted. “Beware of them! I’ll get help.” Then he ran for the police car, wondering if at the moment some blue-clad figures might come down the steps. Somewhere back in the school he heard a crash as though a door had gone back on its hinges, and a whistle shrilled a strange, piercing note that hurt his ears. It was not an ordinary police whistle. Then Bill Fane was in the car, had switched on and pressed the starter. Being still warm, the engine started at once, and a moment later he had let in the clutch and was speeding down the drive. The mist had vanished. The school gates were wide open, and he shot past the astonished lodge keeper on to the road that joined the main London road at Minton. Just what it all meant, Bill Fane did not try to fathom at the moment. There was something very odd about these men. They could do things that no ordinary men could do. They could see through doors, and could melt locks with a touch of their fingers. And the man in the black box? His face had been vaguely familiar, come to think of it. Bill Fane believed he had seen the face before, or a photograph of it. Where was the man speaking from? Where was this amazing television station which was linked with the black box? Why did the man want to get in touch with Scotland Yard? What urgent message had he to give? How had he known the black box was in danger of falling into the hands of those bogus police, and, above all, who were the Alsians? “Alsians!” muttered Bill Fane. “There’s no such race. There’s a planet called Alsus, and—strike me pink, but surely he can’t mean—”

At that moment the engine coughed, spluttered, and became silent. The car coasted to a standstill about two miles from Minton. Bill Fane pressed the starter, but got no answering whine. The starter did not work. The light behind the instruments had gone out. When he switched on the headlights as a test there was no response. Nothing electrical worked on the car. Being a practical motorist of many years experience. Bill felt startled, for he knew this sort of thing should not happen on a modern car. There was no manner of fault or breakdown which could bring about this result. There must have been some outside influence. “During the war scientists were working on a ray which would stop aeroplanes in flight or cars on the road,” he muttered. “They never found it, but if they had, the effect would have been something like this!” Bill jumped out, taking the box with him, and looked back the way he had come. He had recently come down a hill, and he could see all the way to the top of it. Cyclists were coming over the brow of the hill, pedalling hard, cyclists in police uniforms. There were five—six—seven of them. It was Inspector Seward and his men from the school. There had been dozens of boys’ bicycles in the rack alongside the gymnasium wall. The mysterious visitors had not waited to find another car. They had commandeered cycles and taken up the pursuit on those. “This means they knew I was going to stop. This means they stopped me!” flashed through Bill Fane’s mind, and he crossed the road, jumped the ditch, and made for a patch of woodland on the other side of a meadow. He did not pause until he was amongst the trees. By that time the seven cyclists were lost to sight between the hedges. If he could only reach Minton he believed he could enlist the aid of the real police, but would that do him any good? Would men who could see through doors, melt locks with their finger tips, and stop cars two miles away, would such men trouble about the police? Bill Fane began to doubt it. “Alsians!” he muttered. “Alsians! I wish I could speak to this man in the box, and ask him a few questions.” Hearing nothing of his pursuers, Bill Leaned against a tree and opened the black box. The screen was dull and no face appeared. Fane ran his fingers along the edge to find some hidden switch. He even put his mouth down close to the screen and said slowly and distinctly—“Where are you? Speak to me again! I am a Scotland Yard man. What do you want to tell me?” There was no response. Somewhere in the wood Bill heard voices and the sound of heavy bodies crashing through the bushes. The men had left their bicycles and were forcing their way into the woods in search of him. Bill wondered how it would be if he climbed a tree and hid amongst the thick foliage. He had a feeling that this simple ruse would not fool these gifted strangers. Again he put his head almost inside the box, and spoke clearly and earnestly, hoping there was some kind of transmitter fitted to the apparatus.

The crashing in the wood drew nearer. Bill had left obvious tracks behind him. He started to close the box, then he noticed that the screen was getting brighter. It was becoming illuminated again. Crack! A branch snapped off only thirty yards away. The uniformed men were moving towards him. They believed they had him trapped. The face was gradually getting brighter and clearer. The man’s lips were moving but the sound had not yet come. Bill Fane glanced behind him, caught the glitter of buttons, and knew he dared delay no longer. “Sorry!” he gasped into the box. “Got to go!” He snapped the lid down and sprang forward to smash his way through a screen of hazel bushes. Head down, he charged through all obstacles, ripping his clothing, bruising his face. Then abruptly he emerged from the woods into the ploughed field on the other side. He heard a shout, and saw two of the blue-clad men charging from the right.

THE FACE IN THE BOX 14 Episodes appeared in The Hotspur issues 899 – 912 (1954)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007