The Casebook of Rupert Swann
Chapter 9: 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?”