In which Sergeant Paxton nabs a Christmas killer.
Sergeant Paxton stared gloomily into space. Desk duty on Christmas Eve –how unfair! All across the city of Durham families would be decorating their trees, eating mince pies, or singing carols around the fire. And where was he? Stuck in his office with a steep pile of reports to finish before he could turn out the lamp and head home to his wife and children. With a sigh he reached for a file, and dipped his pen in the ink-well.
Twenty minutes later he was on his third file when the door burst open to admit a breathless Constable Tompkins.
“Calm down, lad, and take your time,” said Paxton looking up and laying down his pen.
“There’s been a murder, Sarge,” Tompkins blurted out.
“On Christmas Eve!” exclaimed Paxton in surprise. “Of all times! So much for the season of goodwill!”
He let out a deep sigh as the comforting image of a warm fire and his smiling wife handing him a cup of tea faded from his mind.
“Very well, constable,” he said resignedly. “You can tell me about it on the way.”
“It’s a chap, name of Cooper, Sarge,” said Tompkins. “Lives over on South Street. Twenty minute walk from here. His neighbor heard sounds of a struggle, rapped on the door, and got no reply. So then he saw me and Chapman walking up the street towards him, and he…er…requested our assistance.”
“Was the front door locked?” asked Paxton.
“Yes, Sarge,” answered the constable. “We ‘ad to force it. Chapman’s a big feller, plays rugby for the City. Used his shoulder. When we got in, we found this Mr. Cooper dead on the study floor. Looked like at least four stab wounds in the chest area. So I left Chapman in charge of the scene, and hot-footed it over to the station to fetch you.”
“You did right, son,” said Paxton approvingly. “Any sign of a weapon?”
“We didn’t see a knife anywhere,” replied Tompkins. “I checked in the kitchen. What I did see though, Sarge, was that the kitchen window had been forced. Must have been how the robber got in. There’s a large garden behind the house with a fence at the bottom with a narrow lane on t’other side.”
“Well done, lad!” declared Paxton warmly. “You’re using your eyes! And your brains!” he added.
By this time they had reached the house which was halfway up South Street, a cobbled road that led up a steep incline above the river bank. Paxton recalled that in the daytime, there was a spectacular view across the river to the majestic pile of Europe’s finest Norman cathedral.
The sergeant climbed the half dozen stairs that separated the house from the street, and pushed open the door.
“In the room to your left, Sarge,” said Constable Tompkins over the sergeant’s shoulder.
Paxton stepped into a book-lined patlor. There was a lamp burning on the desk in the corner. It illuminated a scene that clearly revealed signs of a struggle. Two chairs were overturned, and a small table lay in splinters in the center of the carpet. Next to the wreckage lay the body of a man. He was middle-aged with thinning grey hair. His face was contorted into a grimace of pain, and his hands were bleeding as if he had struggled to protect himself vainly from the knife attack. That he had not succeeded was evident from the deep wounds in his abdomen and chest. But the cuts and the scattered broken furniture bore witness to the fact that he had struggled desperately against the cruel assault on his person.
Paxton examined the scene with meticulous care, but could find nothing left behind by the killer that might provide a clue to his or her identity. He then walked back to the kitchen where he examined the window, and confirmed Constable Tompkins’ conclusions as to the means of entry. He then stepped out into the garden which was illuminated by a full moon high in the sky. Leaning over, he observed footmarks in the wet grass. He followed them carefully back to the fence where some scratches and chips indicated where the intruder had scrambled over. The match he struck to provide temporary illumination revealed to his sharp eyes several brown threads that had caught on a splinter. He dropped the match before it could burn his fingers, struck another and then carefully removed the threads, and placed them in an envelope he drew from his pocket. He returned to the house and re-entered the kitchen.
A timid-looking man was sitting at the table, glancing fearfully about him.
“This is Mr. Norris, Sarge,” said Tompkins. “He’s the neighbor I was telling you about.”
Norris shot the sergeant a plaintive glance.
“I don’t want any trouble, Sergeant,” he began in a thin whiny voice.
“Nothing to worry about, sir,” said Paxton in a soothing tone. “I just need to ask you a few questions.”
“Very well,” said the other in a resigned voice.
“Tell me what you know about Mr. Cooper,” said Paxton.
“Why, I really know very little. He moved into this house just three months ago, and I’ve hardly seen him. He rarely goes out. Keeps himself to himself. I’ve just exchanged a good morning with him a couple of times,” replied Norris.
“Any idea where he came from?” asked Paxton. “Or what he does for a living?”
“No idea at all!” answered Norris. “Although he did seem to have a foreign accent. French or German?” he added vaguely.
“Were there any servants or domestics?” asked Paxton.
“Only Mrs. Rooney, the cook,” said Norris. “I saw her leave earlier. He must have given her the night off. She probably went to see her son. He lives down on Moatside Lane.”
“I see, Mr. Norris,” ordered Paxton. “Now please would you tell me exactly what it was that disturbed you this evening?”
“Well,” began Norris, “it’s usually so quiet around here, so when I heard the banging and crashing from next door, I knew something must be wrong. So I dashed out, and knocked on his door.”
“That was rather brave of you, Mr. Norris,” said Paxton.
“Really,” said Norris doubtfully. “I just thought he might have fallen downstairs or something.”
“A lot of folks just ignore these kinds of things,” said Paxton. They just want to mind their own business. But go on!”
“Well, I pounded on the door,” said Norris. “Nobody answered, so I dashed out into the street, and I ran into these two officers. They broke down the door, and we found poor Mr. Cooper dead on the floor.”
“And you didn’t at any time see anybody,” said Paxton.
“I’m afraid not,” replied Norris with touch of regret.
“Thank you, sir, for your assistance,” said Paxton. “We’ll get in touch if we have any further questions.”
“Do you think it was a robbery, Sarge,” asked Constable Tompkins as the timid little man made his exit.
“If it was, constable, then our killer was looking for something specific,” answered Paxton, stroking his jaw. “There are several small items of value in the room such as the silver snuff box on the mantelpiece that he could have easily and swiftly put into his pockets before fleeing the scene. I think he was definitely after something that Mr. Cooper had hidden on the premises, and which he didn’t have time to find. Let’s take a quick look around the room, and see if we can discover anything.”
While Paxton carefully examined the contents of the desk in the corner, Tompkins walked around, lifting pictures to look behind and rapping on the walls for any hollow sounds that might indicate a hiding place.
Just as Paxton removed the contents of the last drawer, he heard a sharp intake of breath from Constable Tompkins who was crouching by the fireplace.
“Found something, lad?” queried Paxton.
“I’m not sure, Sarge, but some of these tiles on the fireplace seem a bit loose,” replied Tompkins.
Paxton walked over to the fireplace, and knelt down next to the constable.
“Hmm! I think you’re right,” he said with mounting excitement as he prized one of the tiles from the fireplace surround.
The sergeant let out a gasp of surprise as a small receptacle was revealed. Someone had scraped out the plaster behind the tile. A small leather bag had been placed inside. Paxton took out the bag, opened the drawstrings and shook out an object into the palm of his hand. The object was glittering and translucent.
“Well, my lad,” exclaimed Paxton, “what d’you think o’ that?”
“Blimey!” said Tompkins in amazement. “I’ve seen one or two diamonds in my time, but never one that big! It must be worth a flippin’ fortune!”
“I think it’s safe to say that this is what the murderer was looking for,” remarked Paxton, “and I fancy he’ll be back to look for it again when things quiet down. So, Tompkins, I want you and Constable Chapman to keep an eye on the place from the street until morning. Then I’ll send Williamson and Potts to relieve you. Tonight we’re going to set a trap for the murderer who I’m sure will be back for this.”
So saying, he carefully replaced the leather bag in the hole in the wall, and put back the tile.
Mrs. Dora Paxton glanced at the hastily scribbled note just delivered to her by Constable Williamson. A frown of annoyance spread over her face.
“Sorry, pet,” the note read, “won’t be back for Christmas dinner today. Important duty. Will try to be back for tomorrow morning. We can make Boxing Day a special celebration for the Paxtons. Love, Arthur.”
“Oh, bother!” sighed Dora, brushing a wisp of hair out of her eyes. “There goes our Christmas again!”
Just at that moment her son, Eddie, came into the kitchen, an eager expression on his face.
“Will Dad be back soon, Ma?” he asked. “I want to show him my new toy soldiers!”
“I’m sorry, dear,” said Dora sadly. “He has to work today.”
She saw her son’s face cloud with disappointment, so she put a comforting arm around his shoulder.
“Buck up, lad!” she said gently. “Your dad has a very important job to do, protecting people and arresting those who break the law.”
“I know, Mum,” said Eddie, “and I’m proud of him.”
Dora blinked back a tear that was forming in her eye, and patted her son on the shoulder.
“Go fetch your little sister,” she said, “and let’s have some of them delicious mince pies your grandma baked for us.”
“This gentleman wants to speak to you, Sarge,” said Tompkins, ushering a stranger into the living room of Mr. Cooper’s house.
A look of annoyance passed over Paxton’s face. Didn’t Tompkins realize that secrecy was of the utmost importance if they were to trap the killer?
The newcomer was a tall man with a narrow, high-cheek-boned face. He had wavy hair and a bushy black moustache drooped down to his jaw. He wore an elegant brown suit and a dark felt hat.
“I am Inspector Jansen of the Dutch Police,” said the newcomer, holding out his hand. “I have just arrived in Durham. I heard that there had been a murder here, and I thought it might involve a fugitive I am pursuing.”
He produced a sketch which Paxton immediately recognized as the murdered Mr. Cooper.
“Is this the dead man?” asked Jansen.
“First I will need to see your credentials,” said Paxton cautiously.
The newcomer reached into his coat pocket, and handed over some official-looking documents.
Paxton glanced at them. He was not overly familiar with the documentation of foreign police officers, and he didn’t read Dutch, but the papers looked genuine enough.
“The victim is indeed the man in your sketch,” he admitted.
“I was afraid of that,” said Jansen grimly. “Let me give you the facts of the case. Your murder victim is Hans Kuiper, a notorious jewel thief. He and his accomplice, Andreas de Jong, stole the valuable Bloemfontain diamond from the house of a private collector in Amsterdam. Kuiper escaped with the diamond while his accomplice, de Jong, was arrested. We allowed de Jong to escape from custody in the hope that he would lead us to Kuiper and the diamond. I was assigned to follow de Jong. I trailed him to London. When he took a train to Durham, I pursued him here, hoping to catch them both red-handed. It seems that I am too late!”
“Not entirely,” said Paxton. “Although de Jong probably killed Kuiper, he did not have time to find the diamond.”
“So, you have the diamond!” exclaimed Jansen excitedly.
“I know where it is,” replied Paxton guardedly.
“Wonderful!” continued Jensen. “Then I will be able to return it to its rightful owner in Holland!”
“In due course,” said Paxton carefully. “I have left it in its hiding place. I believe de Jong will return here for it, and we’ll have a chance to capture him.”
Paxton could have sworn that a fleeting expression of annoyance passed over Jensen’s sharp features.
“I must ask you to trust me, Inspector,” the sergeant continued. “A serious crime has been committed in my jurisdiction, and I am obligated to try every means at my disposal to apprehend the murderer. Believe me the diamond is perfectly safe, and I will watch it like a hawk until he is apprehended.”
“Then it must be here in this house,” insisted Jensen. “Surely you can tell me where it is hidden.”
“For the moment I prefer to keep that knowledge to myself,” said Paxton. “The fewer who know of its location, the safer it will be.”
Jensen’s expression was sour.
“You will at least allow me to rejoin you later this evening to watch out for de Jong,” he said.
“I will appreciate your company,” said Paxton. “If he should return tonight for the diamond two pairs of hands will be better than one!”
“Very well, until tonight,” said Jensen.
He turned, and stalked out of the room.
Paxton sat staring after him thoughtfully.
The living room of the late Mr. Cooper or Kuiper was growing dark and gloomy with only the feeble rays of the recently lit street lamps casting a faint glow through the lace curtains.
Sergeant Paxton and Inspector Jensen were crouched behind the sofa, listening intently for the slightest sound that might betray the return of an intruder. They had already been waiting for three hours, and the Dutchman was growing impatient. With an audible groan he shifted his cramped legs before murmuring:
“Perhaps he is not coming at all.”
“Oh, he’s coming alright,” replied Paxton softly but firmly. “I’m sure of it.”
“Well, surely you can have no objection to telling me where the diamond is hidden,” hissed Jensen. “As a police officer in pursuit of the robbers who stole it, I surely have a right to know.”
“I suppose it can do no harm,” acknowledged Paxton. “It is hidden behind one of the tiles on the left side of the fireplace.”
“Most ingenious,” said Jensen. “Do you suppose that de Jong knows this?”
“We will see,” said Paxton tersely. “Now we must be quiet.”
Silence returned to the room as each man crouching in the darkness was left with his own thoughts. There was little sound from the street outside, the neighbors having been warned to stay indoors. Paxton knew that Constables Williamson and Potts were concealed across the street within earshot of his whistle.
All of a sudden the silence was shattered by a loud crash as an object hurtled through the window, narrowly missing the hidden men and landing on the rug near the fireplace.
“Wait here!” hissed Paxton, rising to his feet, and heading for the door. He stepped into the hallway, walked to the front door, opened it and then closed it, but he remained inside the house.
Holding his breath, he tiptoed cautiously back to the parlor, and peered cautiously around the half-open door.
The inspector was kneeling on the rug by the fireplace, scrabbling at the tiles with his hands. All at once he found the tile covering the hiding place, withdrew the leather bag, and tipped the diamond into the palm of his hand. He froze as Paxton said:
“Inspector Jensen or should I say Andreas de Jong!”
The man by the fireplace turned. Even in the dim light Paxton could discern the other’s features contorted into a snarl of anger. As de Jong rose to his feet, Paxton caught the flash of moonlight on a long thin blade.
“I don’t know how you guessed,” hissed de Jong, “but it will do you …”
He leaped forward in mid-sentence, hoping to take Paxton by surprise with his desperate lunge, but the sergeant dodged adroitly aside, bringing his truncheon down sharply on de Jong’s wrist.
The Dutchman let out a yelp of pain, and the knife clattered to the floor. As he stooped to retrieve it with his left hand, Paxton struck him a couple of vigorous blows around the shoulder. De Jong sank to the floor, cursing and moaning. Paxton placed his foot firmly on the knife. Then he put his whistle to his lips, and blew three sharp blasts.
In less than a minute the parlor door burst open to admit the two burly constables. One of them had a raggedly-dressed young boy by the scruff of the neck.
“’Ere,” protested the boy pointing at Paxton. “That’s the bloke wot give me the tanner to throw a brick through the winder!”
“The only way to confirm my suspicions concerning the good inspector’s true identity was to reveal the location of the diamond, and then create a diversion convincing enough for me to leave the room. Then I was able to creep back in time to catch Mr. de Jong here helping himself to the diamond,” explained Paxton.
“Why didn’t you tell us what was going on, Sarge?” asked Tompkins.
“The success of my plan depended on complete secrecy,” replied Paxton simply. Then he turned to the boy and said, “Now you run along, son! Here’s another penny for your trouble!”
“Cor, thanks, mister,” said the boy. “If yer ever needs me again, the name’s Freddie.”
He turned, and scampered out of the room.
“Now,” said Paxton decisively. “Let’s get this fellow into handcuffs, and get him down to the station.”
“You can’t prove I’m de Jong,” protested the prisoner. “I demand you release me. I was only retrieving the diamond so I could return it to its owners.”
“And the knife?” asked Paxton tersely.
“I thought you’d gone mad,” said the captive. “I was defending myself,” he ended lamely.
Paxton’s expression was one of scorn.
“I will detain you for assaulting a police officer,” he said. “I think you will be in custody long enough for us to wire the authorities in Holland for a description of de Jong, a sketch, perhaps even fingerprints. Oh, you’re him alright, and we’ll have no trouble proving it.”
“Even if what you claim is true, you have no evidence linking me with Kuiyper’s murder,” persisted de Jong stubbornly.
“Perhaps not direct evidence,” admitted Paxton, “but you have a very strong motive – the diamond, and there are no other suspects. I believe that the brown fibres I collected from the back fence will match the small tear in the sleeve of your brown suit.”
De Jong could not prevent his glance darting guiltily to the sleeve of his jacket.
“I believe a smart barrister could secure a conviction, armed with these facts, and even if you dodged the murder charge, the authorities in Holland would certainly lock you away for a very long time for the diamond robbery,” concluded Paxton. “Now, constables, get him out of here!”
Paxton wearily mounted the front steps of his modest home, and put his key in the lock. Just as he entered, there were shrieks of delight, and two small children hurtled down the hallway into his arms.
“Whoa back, you two!” he exclaimed with a laugh. “You almost knocked me flying!”
“But we’re glad to see you, Dad,” said Eddie Paxton. “We’ve been waiting for hours to show you the toys we got for Christmas!”
“Why, that’s champion!” exclaimed Paxton, lapsing into the affectionate language he used with his children. “Now where’s your ma?”
“Here I am, Bert,” Dora replied, emerging from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.”
“Merry Christmas, pet,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.
“Well, better a day late than never,” she chided, nudging him playfully in the ribs. “Are you back for good?”
“For today, at least,” he conceded.
“Well, how about a nice cup of tea then?” she said.
“Why aye, pet,” he answered. “That’d be grand!”
“Well then, kick off your dirty boots,” said Dora, “and gan in the parlor with the bairns. Eddie’s dyin’ to show you his new toy soldiers, and little Sally’s got a nice dolly too.”
“Alright,” said Paxton. “Come on then, you’uns!”
Sergeant Paxton put his broad arms around the shoulders of each of his two children, and gently ushered them into his comfortable front parlor where he planned to make a thorough inspection of the gifts that Santa had lately brought them.
Copyright Michael Neat, 12-10-19.