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First episode taken from The Wizard issue: 1102 May 11th 1946.

Death On The Common.

The great city of Rodingham was silent. It was three o’clock in the morning, and even the latest night reveler had gone to bed. The early morning shifts of workers had not yet been roused by the clamour of their alarm clocks. No trains or buses ran. It was true that, out to the eastern boundary of the city, the glare from blast furnaces still caused a red glow of light on the low clouds every now and again, but the noise from the furnaces did not carry to the Burfield Common region, where the leading citizens of Rodingham slumbered behind drawn blinds. P.C. Chambers leaned against the gatepost of the Mayor’s residence and yawned. He had not stopped there for any special reason during his round, but just because it happened to be a comfortable gatepost against which to lean, and he felt bored. It was a warm night, and there was a soft breeze across the common. Out there it was possible to imagine oneself in the country, where Chambers had been only two months earlier. He yawned again. “There was more excitement down at Loughbury,” he mused. “At least we had a scrap with the poachers now and again, and – hullo!” The exclamation came from him at the sudden flash of light in the middle of the common; it was just as though someone had switched on an electric torch for a moment. What would anyone be wanting out in the middle of Burfield Common at such an early hour? It was not a short cut to anywhere. The common was one of the prides of the city. A great open space, right in the centre of built-up areas, it occupied nearly a square mile. There were high railings round it, and the main gates were closed at ten o’clock, but there was a right-of-way from the north to the south side, and wicket gates of the swing type allowed citizens to pass through on their way home after dark. “That was a light sure enough,” said the constable, moving away from the gatepost. “There’s someone out there. Queer!” Several times he glanced through the railings as he walked down Acacia Crescent, but he saw no more lights, nor signs of movement. At the corner he was due to meet Sergeant Venning at ten past three. He got there on time, and the sergeant, a bulky figure, was waiting for him. “Evening, Chambers!” said Venning. “Everything going well? Nothing to report?” “Nothing much, sergeant. I found a window at No. 17 open, and rang them up. The maid had forgotten to close it. Then just now I saw a light out there in the middle of the common. It hasn’t shown since.” Venning turned and stared into the dark space beyond the railings. “That’s queer. The path’s easy to see if anyone was going straight through. Why should they want a light?” The constable shook his head. “I was near the south side entrance all the time, an’ no one either went in or came out there,” he replied. “Whoever it was hasn’t passed right through the common. Must’ve come in by the north gate and gone out that way again. Sergeant Venning stroked his chin. “I think I’ll get you to walk through there with me,” he said. “You never know.” They entered the southern gate and stepped on to the turf at the side of the pathway. Their footsteps made no sound. “Would you say the light was to the right or left of the path?” asked Venning, after they had gone a couple of hundred yards. “It was just about over there,” said the constable. “I saw that clump of bushes outlined in the light.” “Then let’s have a look – just in case,” said his companion, and they left the pathway. They had gone about a hundred yards from the path, and sergeant Venning was thinking of turning back, when an extra bright glare from the distant furnaces threw some light ahead, and P.C. Chambers grunted. “What’s that” Something dark on the ground over there!” Slowly they approached the spot. The dark patch was too low to be a bush. It looked like a heap of sacking, until they got right up to it, and saw it was a man sprawling on his back, his face to the sky. “Hi, you can’t sleep there!” challenged Sergeant Venning. The next moment he shone his torch on the still form, and a grunt of amazement escaped him. “Glory be, it – it’s Mr Playfair, the chairman of the Watch Committee!” Grant Playfair was one of the busiest busybodies in the city. There was scarcely a section of life in Rodingham into which he did not poke his nose at some time or other. His criticism of the local police force had been constant for more than ten years. He was a most prominent citizen, a chartered accountant by profession, and heartily disliked by most people. “His clothes are all wet, yet There’s been no rain!” exclaimed P.C. Chambers. “And look at his hair!” “Not only that, look at his face!” gasped the sergeant. “Hey Mr Playfair, what’s the matter?” He shook the still form. It seemed heavy and leaden. Venning felt for the pulse. The wrist was still warm, but there was no pulse beat. “He’s dead, and if you ask me he’s been drowned!” he said slowly. “That’s impossible!” gasped the constable. “There’s no water in the park, no water nearer than the canal on the other side of the square.” On impulse both of them shone their lights on the surrounding grass. There had been no rain for some days, but since midnight there had been a heavy fall of dew. Their own footsteps had made a clearly defined line through the wet grass, but in addition there were two parallel tracks from the north side, with a third going back in the same direction, slightly to the left. Two tracks coming and only one going away,” said the sergeant. “Mr Playfair came here with some unknown person, but only the unknown person went back to the north gate. It must have been his torch you saw shining. Perhaps he was looking to see if he’d done his job properly.” P.C. Chambers eased his tunic collar with two fingers. “But it can’t be murder!” he said hoarsely. “You said yourself Mr Playfair had been drowned somewhere else, and carried here, there would only be one set of footsteps coming and one going.” “That’s right,” agreed Sergeant Venning, and eased his helmet. “I’ll stay by the body. You’ll better slip back to the nearest phone box and summon the doctor, the superintendent, and whoever he wants to bring along. Tell the superintendent what’s happened.” Away went P.C. Chambers, and Sergeant Venning was left alone with the murdered man. But was it murder? Every indication showed that Grant Playfair had been drowned. Venning had seen too many bodies hauled out of the canal to make a mistake about that. Yet if Playfair had been drowned he could not have walked to the centre of the common. There was no water out there. A man could not drown in a few drops of dew. “It’s crazy!” he muttered, and saw lights coming across from the north gate. “Here they are. The Super’s been quick.” Superintendent Clive Hardy was not an easy man to deal with. He was efficient, nobody denied that, but he was rather like a volcano always on the verge of eruption, and not a comfortable man to live with. “What’s this?” he demanded as he strode rapidly towards Venning. “What’s this nonsense about Mr Playfair having been drowned in the middle of the common? Don’t you know there’s no water within a mile and a half of here?”

The Unknown Adviser.

That was one of the remarks which people made the next morning when they read the story of the death on Burfield Common. Dr Ritchie, the police surgeon, had vouched for the fact that Playfair had been drowned. Every trace of death by drowning had been found, and the lungs had been full of water. Death had occurred within the hour previous to the body being found. Dr Ritchie was certain of that. Nothing would shake his opinion. Grant Playfair had died from drowning! “The whole thing’s crazy!” Superintendent Hardy was muttering, as he paced the surgeon’s room about four the following afternoon. “How could he be drowned out there in the middle of the common? There’s no water. There are indications on the grass that two men had walked there, and only one had gone back, so that rules out the possibility that he was drowned somewhere else and his corpse carried there. He couldn’t have been drowned.” “He was drowned!” said the surgeon emphatically. “In addition there was a slight bruise on the back of his skull, but that might have been caused by a fall. It was nothing severe and did not cause death. He was drowned!” At that moment the desk phone rang. Hardy picked up the receiver and heard the voice of Sergeant Venning in his own room. “A phone call for you from Paris, sir. Shall I plug it through to you?” “Paris? But we’ve no case connected with Paris,” he replied. “Are you sure there’s no mistake?” “None. It’s for the superintendent of police at Rodingham. The caller says it’s urgent. “Well, I don’t suppose anyone would ring all the way from Paris just to ask the time of day. Put him through, Venning.” Hardy sat on the edge of his desk and listened to the buzzing and clicking that followed. Suddenly the line cleared, and a quiet, rather husky voice demanded – “Am I speaking to the superintendent of police in charge of the mysterious affair that happened on Burfield Common last night?” “Yes, my name’s Hardy – but who are you?” “Never mind that now. It is of no importance. I take it you have inquired into Mr Playfair’s movements the night of his death, and checked up who was with him?” “Yes, his elderly woman servant left him attending to some work in his library at eleven-thirty, and told her not to wait up for him. There was nobody with him then, and she did not know if he admitted anyone afterwards. She’s rather deaf, and – why am I telling you this? Who are you?” “All right, don’t get excited,” was the reply. “I’m trying to help you. If you want a name for me call me The Voice on the Wire. I’ve had a good deal of experience in crime, superintendent, and I though maybe you’d be pleased to have some assistance.” “Assistance in what? What the dickens do you mean? I’m busy, and –” “Exactly! I notice there is a theory that the dead man was drowned in the canal and afterwards carried to the spot where he was found. I suggest you test this. There must be enough water in his clothes to allow you to take a sample and analyse it. It might be worth while doing that. You could then be certain whether he was drowned in the canal or in the sea.” “The sea! Confound it, but the sea’s thirty miles away!” snapped the superintendent. “Exactly! But there are such things as motor cars, superintendent. It’s just an idea.” There was a click, and the superintendent realised that his unknown caller in Paris had rung off. “Of all the crazy cranks!” he exploded. “He wanted us to -, Tell me, doctor, is it possible to analyse some of the water found in Playfair’s lungs or sodden into his clothes?” “Yes, certainly, but –” “Then do so!” snapped Clive Hardy, and hurried down to see what Venning had discovered during the past few hours. That phone call had shaken Hardy. If it had come from a nearby town he would have set someone to work tracing it, but it was likely to be too big a job to trace it to Paris. His irritation caused him to be shorter than usual with the sergeant. Venning and his subordinates had not been idle. They had searched the common from end to end without finding any clue. Nobody had seen Grant Playfair leave his home after midnight, or seen him cross the road which separated his home from the common. His house stood on it’s own, and late callers would have been unnoticed by anyone. “One thing is that a cigarette end was found in his fireplace,” continued Venning. “His servant says he never smoked, and the cigarette butt wasn’t there yesterday morning when she cleaned up.” “Huh! Looks as though someone called on him after she’d gone to bed, and decoyed him across to the common,” said Hardy. “Seems likely. But why should he go out with anyone at that hour of the night? It was asking for trouble.” “Grant Playfair was the sort of man who looked for trouble,” replied the superintendent. “If he could work up a grouse against anyone, or pick holes in somebody’s behaviour, by going out at three in the morning, he’d do it. With any other person I should say it must have been a close friend who called to get him out at that hour, but Playfair was a nosey-parker. If anyone called and told him there was something to be seen by coming into the middle of the common at three in the morning he’d grab his hat and go!” “But he couldn’t have gone to the middle of the common right away,” objected Sergeant Venning. “He must have been taken somewhere and drowned first.” “Then how do we account for the two sets of footprints going there and only one going back?” demanded the superintendent, and passed a hand over his forehead. “This case is going to drive me crackers. I -. Yes doc?” The surgeon had just come in. “I’ve carried out that water analysis that you suggested, and Playfair was certainly not drowned in the canal, nor in the sea,” he said. “The water in his lungs, and soaked into his clothing was absolutely fresh and pure water, such as might have come out of a tap. That rules out the possibility of any canal, river, or pond being used.” Superintendent Hardy sank down in a chair. “Go on, make it more difficult!” he groaned. “You’ll tell me next he was drowned in his bath, and then carried out there. Let me tell you, his bathroom is next to the room where that servant of his sleeps, and he couldn’t have been in there without her hearing.” Dr Ritchie raised his eyebrows. “I said nothing about bath-water. I merely reported my findings. He was drowned in clean, pure tap-water.” He went out and slammed the door angrily. The sound of the telephone made the superintendent jump; Sergeant Venning took the call, and then handed the receiver to his chief. “That caller from Paris again, sir,” he said. “What the –” growled the superintendent, then snapped into the phone, “Yes, yes, what is it now? Why are you wasting money ringing me up?” “Because I am interested,” replied the voice. “Have you had that analysis made? Was the water from the canal?” “No, it was pure tap-water, and I’d like to know –” “I though as much,” interrupted the mysterious caller. “This proves conclusively you’ve got a stiff job ahead of you, superintendent. You had better consult me at every opportunity. You’re too close to the forest to see it for the trees, as the saying goes. I’m well away from things, and can view them in their proper light. I seriously fear you will have more murders in the town soon.” “See here!” gasped Clive Hardy, rising from his seat. “What do you mean? Exactly what is you game?” “Calm yourself, superintendent, and look at it this way. The man who murdered Mr Playfair went to considerable pains to develop a very clever method of doing so. I don’t think he would have taken all that trouble just to kill one man. That’s why I say you must anticipate having further trouble on your hands before long. I would suggest that –” “Go to blazes!” roared the superintendent, banging down the receiver. “Haven’t I got enough to do without listening to the ravings of a lunatic? More murders! We’ve got our hands full with this one. Even the national papers have taken it up, and are labeling it ‘The Water-less Drowning Case.’ What in heck do they mean by water-less drowning? There was plenty of water inside his lungs, and over his clothes, and -” “Yes, sir, but there was one strange thing I noticed at the time, but didn’t realise until now,” broke in Sergeant Venning. “I don’t think his boots were wet. How can a man be drowned without getting his boots wet?” The superintendent looked as though he was going to choke, then lit a cigarette to calm himself down. When he had taken one or two draws he sent for Dr Ritchie. It was in milder tones that he asked- “Sorry to worry you again, doc, but you carried out the first examination of Playfair. You say he had drowned. Was his general condition consistent with that? I mean, had he been totally immersed in water? Were his boots full of water?” “No, that’s one of the queer things about this, superintendent. He was wet to the knees, and no further. There was no water in his boots. Neither was his back wet.” “What?” gasped Hardy. “You try to tell me he was wet in the front, down to his knees, and not at all at the back, but his lungs were filled with water?” “Precisely that,” said Dr Ritchie. Before Hardy could say any more Sergeant Thomas, another member of the local force, hurried into the room. He looked flustered. “Sorry to interrupt, superintendent,” he said, “but you’re wanted down at Roper’s Stores. Mr Roper has been found dead on the roof of his building. One of the assistants found him ten minutes ago. A civilian doctor who happened to be on the premises says he was drowned.”

More And More Impossible.

The new concrete building known as Roper’s Stores was the most modern building in the city. Some people said it spoilt the High Street. Others said it was the only decent erection in the street, and that the rest ought to be built to conform to it. Charles Roper was one of Rodingham’s most successful citizens, and he had put all his money in order to build this semi-skyscraper, which was fitted out luxuriously as the finest general store for a hundred miles around. He was so immersed in his building that he had a special roof-garden laid out on top of it, and had there built himself a house of five rooms in which he lived with his wife and daughter. Both mother and daughter were away at the seaside on holiday when the tragedy had occurred. Charles Roper had been in conference with his managers at four o’clock, and had then gone up to his apartment on the roof to rest. He had gone up in the special lift which served his private quarters, and had been alone. At five o’clock someone had phoned him about an important point of business, and there had been no reply. When there had been the same result at five thirty, an assistant was sent to see if his phone was out of order. The man had found the owner of the store lying on his back in the middle of one of the roof garden pathways. He was dead. All this Clive Hardy gathered on the way to the scene of the tragedy. With him he had brought Dr Ritchie, finger-print experts, and photographers, as well as Sergeant Venning. Nothing had been touched, but the civilian doctor and half a dozen senior members of the staff were standing nearby. Superintendent Hardy drew a deep breath when he saw the condition of the wealthy shop owner. Charles Roper’s clothes were soaked, and water glistened on his face. Dr Ritchie knelt and made his examination, then nodded to the civilian doctor, whom he knew. “You were right, Burns. No doubt about it. He was drowned.” “Drowned! But – but where -?” exploded the superintendent. “This is worse than the other case. What water is there up here? Is there a roof-tank?” “Yes, that’s it,” declared one of the staff pointing to a large tank. It supplies the entire building and is entirely closed in. No one could be drowned in there. The manhole is only eighteen inches across.” :Then the roof garden? How is the garden watered?” demanded Hardy. “By a hose fitted to either of the standards that you see at various points. There are no ponds or ornamental pools on this roof. The only water is in that bird-bath.” He indicated a concrete bowl about six inches across and one inch deep. The superintendent snorted. “But two doctors say he’s been drowned, so there must be water,” he snapped. “It wasn’t accidental that’s certain. It looks to me as though it was done by the same person who murdered Playfair and –” He broke off as he remembered the warning of the Voice on the Wire. “What about the house? He might have been drowned in his own bath and carried out here. They entered the small but luxurious quarters of the dead man, and made for the bathroom. The bath was bone dry, and obviously had not been used since that morning. A sponge, which had fallen in from the rack alongside, was stiff and hard. The manservant who had looked after Roper, whilst his wife was away, had been “off” for the afternoon, and returned as they were looking through the rooms. He could not help them in any way. He confirmed there were no tanks or large receptacles containing water on the roof. “Then this one’s got us licked,” muttered Sergeant Venning. “He couldn’t have been drowned elsewhere and then carried here unless he was brought up through the store in full view of hundreds of people. Shall I question the lift boys?” “Yes, find out if anyone was brought up here after Mr Roper came up. Get them to describe every passenger they brought above the tenth floor.” Away went Venning, and Clive Hardy looked into the ash-tray on the table near the window. All the cigarette-ends except one were of the same variety. The manservant said Mr Roper invariably smoked the same brand. “Then this one can’t be his?” demanded the superintendent holding out the stray butt. “It must have been left by someone who called on him. Was it here this morning?” “None of those was here this morning,” said the servant. “I cleaned out all the ash-trays before going off duty. Mr Roper must have been smoking here since then, and had a visitor who smoked one of his own cigarettes.” Hardy put the odd cigarette-end away carefully to be examined. There was no maker’s name on it. The cigarette had burned down beyond it, but it would be simple to discover the make and to check up with one found in Playfair’s house. There was no other clue, no sign of a struggle, no footprints on the polished floor. Charles Roper seemed to have been talking to his visitor and smoking a cigarette with him at one minute and lying drowned in his roof-garden the next. Hardy had started to question the manservant about those people who usually visited the dead man in his quarters, when the telephone rang. The servant lifted the receiver and handed it to the superintendent. “For you, sir, from the police station.” “Hullo, hullo, yes, what is it?” demanded Clive Hardy, and heard the operator plug him through. “Who is it?” “The Voice on the Wire!” came the mocking tone, as from a great distance. “Don’t ring off before I’ve had my say this time. It may be to your advantage to listen. Has anything else exciting happened since last we talked?” Hardy swallowed hard, resisting the impulse to hang up. “Yes, another man’s been murdered!” “And by the same means. I presume?” “Yes, by the same means, this time on the roof of a ten-storey skyscraper. You don’t seem surprised!” His tone was suspicious. He heard his unknown caller chuckle, then reply – “It’s no use trying to pin the crime on me. I’m still in Paris, and it would have been difficult to get to Rodingham, commit a murder, and get back here, all within an hour. Who is the victim?” The superintendent gave the name of the murdered man. He hardly knew why he answered the questions put by the mysterious Voice. “Is there any connection between them, superintendent?” was the Voice’s next question. “I mean were they distant relations or great friends?” “They were certainly not relations, and they only knew each other well enough to nod to. Their walks of life were entirely different. It must have been a madman who killed them both, but how in the name of Solomon did he drown them where there was no water available?” “All in good time, superintendent,” said the Voice on the Wire “I’m glad this second murder has taken place.” “Glad! You cold-blooded scoundrel!” “I’m sorry for Mr Roper, but this will enable us to get a cross-bearing on the case,” said the Voice smoothly. “Find out how these two were connected, locate their mutual acquaintances, and you will have gone a long way towards finding the murderer. Go back further into their lives. Maybe before they came to Rodingham, and I’ll guarantee you’ll find some connection between them. If not, you’re dealing with a maniac and - ” “See here, I’ve stood enough of this!” interrupted Superintendent Hardy. “Who’s running this case, me or you? I know what to do. I’m quite capable of handling this without your help, whoever you are. Don’t ring me up any more, for I won’t reply. I consider it an impertinence, and -” “For instance, find out if they belong to the same club in London or elsewhere, whether they’ve been connected in any business deals, whether they’ve travelled to the same places abroad, whether they have the same hobbies or mutual interests.” Broke in the Voice calmly. “Do all these things methodically, and I’ve a feeling you’ll hit on some contact somewhere. By doing this you’ll -” “Bah!” growled Superintendent Hardy, and banged the receiver. “Don’t put that lunatic through to me again, and that goes for everyone. I won’t listen to his ravings.” As he looked up his eye was caught by a big picture on the wall above the phone. It was a group picture of a football eleven. It was labeled as the First Eleven of Farrow’s School – 1909, and one of the names underneath was that of Charles Roper. “Was that Mr Roper’s school – Farrow’s?” he asked. “Yes, sir,” replied the manservant. Mr Roper was an old Farrovian, and proud of it.” “Huh!” Clive Hardy was about to turn away when his eye caught another name. It was the name of G. L. Playfair, the goalkeeper, and when he looked more closely at the youth on the photo he saw it was indeed Grant Playfair, the first victim of the water-less drowning mysteries. He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Here is one connection between them,” he murmured. “They both went to the same school. They both went to Farrow’s. I wonder if there’s anything behind that?” A new respect for the Voice on the Wire began to dawn on him. Twice it had put him on to significant points!.

So ended the first installment of the Voice on the Wire. The story ran for 10 weeks. The Wizard issues 1102 – 1111

A repeat of the story ran in The Wizard issues 1682 - 1691

A further story under the title It’s The Voice on the Wire. Ran for 12 weeks in The Wizard issues 1166 – 1177. With a repeat in The Wizard issues 1816 – 1827 under the title The Telephone Terror.


© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2003