The Wringford Worm

by ElsieMcC [Reviews - 0]

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  • All Ages
  • None
  • Mystery

The Wringford Worm

A Hawthorne and Benton mystery


Sergeant Benton settled himself in his folding chair and sighed. This was more like it. The sun sparkled off the river and a gentle breeze stirred the leaves on the trees. Benton checked the position of his fishing rod, pulled his hat further down over his eyes and sat back to watch the float bob gently in the current. He wasn’t expecting to catch anything much, but fishing provided the perfect excuse to sit quietly by the river and do absolutely nothing. His BOAC flight bag, holding sandwiches and a flask of tea, stood to one side of the chair and a well-thumbed copy of an Alistair McLean novel lay open on the grass. Benton sighed again. He was set for the day and not a Cyberman, Axon, Daemon or wyvern in sight. As he watched the float riding the sparkling wavelets, his eyelids drooped and he dozed.

Suddenly, he sat up with a jerk and looked around, bewildered. He was sure he must have heard something to wake him up, but all seemed peaceful and whatever the sound had been was already fading from his memory. Benton shrugged. Whatever it was, it had stopped, so it couldn’t have been anything much. Benton reached for his flask and poured himself some tea. The sun had gone behind a cloud and the breeze had strengthened and turned chilly. Sipping his tea, the Sergeant turned his gaze back to the river. The next moment, his cup was thrown aside as he jumped to his feet and plunged into the water. A figure was floating downstream, face down, arms spread wide. As Benton waded into the river, he called out;

“Hang on, mate! Hang on!”

The centre of the river was unexpectedly deep and Benton floundered for a moment, but found his feet again and came alongside the man. He turned him over onto his back and towed him to the far shore, dragging him up onto the bank. Pausing for a moment to get his breath back, the Sergeant got up on his knees and began to administer artificial respiration. At first there was no reaction, but, at the fifth attempt, the man began to cough, then sat up, retching. Benton shifted quickly to avoid being vomited on. He put a hand on the man’s back, supporting him as he got his breath back. Eventually the man spoke:

“Thank. You.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“It. It pulled me in.”

“Hooked a big one, did you?” asked Benton, half joking, but the man appeared not to hear him.

“It pulled me in. The worm pulled me in.”

“Come again?”

The man turned to face Benton, his eyes wide with fear.

“The worm pulled me in!”

It had been a quiet evening at UNIT headquarters. Corporal Scott chewed the end of her pencil as she considered her crossword puzzle. A buzz from the telephone brought her back to her duties.

“UNIT HQ, Corporal Scott speaking. Aren’t you supposed to be on leave? What? Yes, he’s in his office, yes, half a mo.”

She flicked a switch on the board and waited until the familiar voice answered;

“Lethbridge Stewart.”

“Corporal Scott here, Sir, I’ve got Sergeant Benton on the line.”

“Benton? Isn’t he on leave?”

“Yes Sir, but he says it’s important.”

“Oh very well, put him through, Scott.”

“Will do Sir.”

The Brigadier waited while the phone buzzed, then heard the voice of his Sergeant.

“Sir, Sergeant Benton here.”

“Yes, so I hear. You’re supposed to be on leave, Benton.”

At the bed and breakfast, Sergeant Benton, clad in a dressing gown, adjusted the towel round his neck and maneuvered a mug of hot soup into a more accessible position.

“I know, Sir, but something really strange has just happened ...”

In her sitting room at Devil’s End, Miss Hawthorne was finishing her morning coffee with the newspapers. She sighed as she turned the pages, and shook her head at the international news stories, which seemed to her to be full of war and despair. The news from home was hardly more cheering, and Miss Hawthorne was about to close the paper in disgust when a picture caught her eye. Under the headline “River monster strikes again? Wringford tragedy averted” was a photograph of three men by a river. One was in police uniform and appeared to be questioning the other two, who were seated on the riverbank and wrapped in blankets. Miss Hawthorne gasped;

“But, surely … Sergeant Benton?”

She began to read the story.

“The so-called Wringford Worm has struck again, according to fisherman Bert Hobbes. Mr Hobbes (54) was fishing on the banks of the Wring, when, he says, a giant worm came out of the river and dragged him into the water. He was knocked unconscious and floated downstream, where he was rescued by Sergeant John Benton of UNIT, who is on leave and was also fishing that afternoon. The Wringford Worm has been a figure of local legend from as early as the 16th Century and…”

Miss Hawthorne stopped reading and set the paper aside.

“Really, Sergeant, what have you got mixed up in this time?”

She went to one of her many bookshelves and took down a large and ancient volume, marked “Bestiary”. Setting it down with care, she turned the crackling leaves. There, amid the basilisks, unicorns and mermaids, was an engraving of what looked like an overgrown earthworm emerging from a river, a furious expression in its boggling eyes and a large, fanged mouth open to devour its victim, who stood, aghast, on the bank.

“The worme of Wryngford lurks beneathe the waters of the river Wryng and devoureth the unwary withoute mercie.”

Miss Hawthorne looked thoughtful. Not much information there, but at least the existence of the legend could be proved. She put a scrap of paper in the book to mark the page and returned the volume to the shelf. She was about to take another book down when the telephone rang.

“Hello? Devil’s End 7895?”

“Miss Hawthorne? Lethbridge Stewart here.”

“Oh! Brigadier! I’ve just been reading about Sergeant Benton’s adventures in the paper!”

“Harrumph. Yes, journalists get everywhere. Look here, Miss Hawthorne, there may not be anything in this story, for all we know the fellow could have been drunk, but it seems there have been two or three of these incidents, so ...”

“You wish me to join the Sergeant and investigate?”

“Yes. The local police know about Benton from yesterday, I’ll ring the Chief Constable myself today and get things sorted out for him to liaise with them. There isn’t a police station in Wringford itself, the case is being handled from the nearest town… (there was a pause as the Brigadier consulted his notes) Wringwold. Will you need transport?”

“Ah, no, thank you. I have a car and Wringford is not so very far from here. I must just speak to my neighbour (the Brigadier’s mind silently filled in the words “about my cat”) and pack a bag. Will you let Sergeant Benton know I am coming? It would be a bit of a shock if I turned up out of the blue, so to speak!”

The Brigadier smothered a chuckle.

“That’s alright, Miss Hawthorne, I’ll let him know. He can arrange accommodation for you at the bed and breakfast.”

“Oh, thank you, yes, that would be most helpful. Well, I had better start packing.”

“Indeed. Thank you, Miss Hawthorne. I’ll send a courier with some equipment for Sergeant Benton if you wouldn’t mind taking that along with you?”

“Certainly, I’d be happy to. Goodbye Brigadier.”

“Goodbye Miss Hawthorne.”

The Brigadier hung up, then picked up the receiver again and dialed the number of the bed and breakfast. He hoped that the Sergeant had recovered sufficiently from his unexpected bath to be ready for the news he was about to deliver. Miss Hawthorne replaced the receiver and stood up. She went back to the bookshelf and took down a smaller bestiary, tucking it under her arm with her notebook. Her cat regarded her suspiciously from the window seat.

“It’s no use looking like that, Gabriel, you’ll be fed and I’ll be back before you know it.”

It was late afternoon when Miss Hawthorne’s Austin pulled up outside the bed and breakfast in Wringford. Sergeant Benton was waiting for her on a bench in the garden.

“Hello Aunt Olive!”

“John, dear, there you are!” (It had been decided that to avoid drawing attention to the investigation, the Sergeant and Miss Hawthorne would assume the roles of nephew and aunt that they had used at Addershall. Sergeant Benton took Miss Hawthorne’s bag from her and offered his arm.
“Now John, you must tell me all about your adventures. What a surprise it was to see you in the paper! Oh and I’ve got the fishing gear you asked me to bring.”

“Thank you, Auntie, let’s get you settled in and then I’ll tell you all about it.”

They entered the house, looking for all the world like an affectionate and concerned aunt and her large, capable nephew.

In a rented cottage on the outskirts of Wringford, a tense conversation was taking place. A man paced around the small sitting room, the morning paper in his hand. Eventually he stopped pacing and threw the paper down on the sofa next to his companion, who flinched.

“UNIT? Bloody UNIT? That’s all we need.”

The speaker was a tall, with dark hair that flopped over his forehead from a side parting. His face, otherwise good looking, was distorted with anger into an almost devilish expression.

“We are this close (he held up one hand, finger and thumb parted) this close and that berk has to get pulled out of the river by UNIT?”

His companion, a small, wiry man with short grey hair and a hunted expression, looked up at him.

“But it says he’s on leave. And he’s only a Sergeant, he won’t have any stroke with the local coppers, will he?”

“We’ll have to hope not. As it is, you’d better keep an eye on him for the next few days. If he shows any sign of poking his nose in, put him away.”

The smaller man shivered inwardly at his boss’s tone, but said “Yes, Guv.”

“Good. Now get that map out and let’s get on with it.”

Having unpacked her valise, Miss Hawthorne picked up her handbag and a curiously shaped bundle that had been in the top of her case and left her bedroom. Sergeant Benton was waiting for her on the landing.

“Here you are, John. I hope this is what you wanted, such a shame your things got damaged in the accident.”

“Thank you, Aunt Olive,” Benton glanced inside the bundle, “Yes, that’s quite OK, I’ll just put these away and we’ll go and get some tea.”

The Sergeant went back into his bedroom and closed the door carefully behind him, turning the key in the lock. He put the bundle down on the bed and unwrapped it. Inside were his gun, silencer, shoulder holster and ammunition. He loaded the gun, removed his jacket and put on the holster, then inserted the gun and put his jacket back on, checking in the mirror to make sure the gun wasn’t visible. He then locked the silencer and remaining ammo in his suitcase and picked up his hat from the bedside table and left the room.
As Benton and Miss Hawthorne walked the short distance to the tea rooms, he gave her an account of what had happened the previous day, and what he had learned from the police later in the evening.

“So the newspaper wasn’t exaggerating? This isn’t the first incident?”

“No, the Inspector said there have been three. In the others, the blokes pulled themselves out, this was the first one to be knocked out.”

“I see. And they all said they had seen the worm?”

“Yes, they were all fishing, along the same stretch of river – I’ll show you where tomorrow, it’s a bit late today, anyway, they were all fishing, when their floats disappeared, then this worm thing came up to the surface and the next thing they knew they were in the water.”

Miss Hawthorne looked thoughtful.

“And does the inspector have any explanation?”

Sergeant Benton grinned.

“Anything but a giant worm! He reckons they were either drunk or half asleep and fell in trying to get their lines in, and made up the worm story to cover up.”

“And what do you think?”

It was the Sergeant’s turn to look thoughtful.

“Honestly? I don’t know. Giant worms seem unlikely, but we know that kind of thing is possible (Miss Hawthorne nodded) and that chap I pulled out of the river was properly scared by whatever it was. So I suppose we are where we usually are. Either there IS a giant worm or…”

“Or someone is using the legend for their own purposes. Quite. Well, we must gather all the evidence we can and try to find the answer. Oh! (as they approached a cottage with picnic tables in the front garden) is this the place? But how charming?”

“Yes this is it, they do a decent spread here.”

Miss Hawthorne raised her voice slightly as a couple of hikers passed on the other side of the lane.

“Well, John I know I can trust you as a good judge of scones!”

Sergeant Benton grinned again as he ushered her through the gate.

The tea was, indeed, excellent. Miss Hawthorne and the Sergeant enjoyed a high tea of thickly sliced ham and eggs, followed by fruit cake. While Benton settled the bill, Miss Hawthorne looked at a map of the area, to see if anything about the position of the incidents sparked any ideas. She sighed as the Sergeant came back to the table.

“Anything?”

“No, I’m afraid not. We must wait for the morning and see what we can find at the place. I take it the police have been over it with their usual fine tooth comb?”

“Oh yes, but it’s not the easiest place to find clues, the ground near the bank is either bone dry or thick grass, so not much chance of footprints.”

“I see.”

Miss Hawthorne stood up and Benton helped her on with her jacket. Catching sight of the waitress in the doorway, Miss Hawthorne reverted to her maiden aunt persona.

“Thank you, John. That was a delightful meal (she waved her hand to the waitress), but if you don’t mind, I’d like to get back to the bed and breakfast. Driving is tiring and I’d like to get an early night.”

“Of course, I’ll walk you back, then I might go down to the pub for a bit.”

“Oh? Well don’t stay out too late, you’ve had enough excitement yourself!”

“No Auntie, I won’t,” replied Benton, smothering a smile.

The waitress giggled to herself as she cleared the table, at the sight of the big man being scolded (however gently) by his aunt.


Sergeant Benton escorted Miss Hawthorne back to the bed and breakfast and left her in her room poring over the map and a copy of the police report, with her bestiary to hand. In his own room, he took off his holster and gun and locked them away. He was loath to leave them behind, but the pub was small and likely to be crowded and he didn’t want to risk being spotted with a firearm. He tapped on Miss Hawthorne’s door to let her know he was on his way out and left, picking up the latch-key that the landlady had left out for him. There were a few people out and about, mostly tourists, and Benton nodded and said “Good evening” as he went along. The Rose and Crown pub was on the main road through Wringford. A truly ancient inn with white walls and a low roof, it seemed to hug the ground for safety. Benton opened the door and went down two steps to the bar area, ducking to avoid a low beam. The barman looked up at his entrance and grunted “Evening” then turned back to the regular he had been talking to. One of the customers, who had also turned round, nudged his fellow drinker and then called out;

“Hey, it’s the lad that pulled Bert out of the river! Come in lad, what’ll you have?”

There was a general hubbub at this, a pint was poured, and Benton was steered to a stool near the bar, clearly a place of honour. He looked around with genuine embarrassment. He hadn’t expected a hero’s welcome and this public recognition would seriously cramp his attempts at quiet investigation. But it was too late for that now, so he accepted the seat and the pint gratefully and bashfully muttered his thanks to the assembled locals. As he sipped his beer, the other customers retreated back to their tables, leaving Benton at the bar with the regulars and a few people who were waiting to order. The man who had hailed him spoke first.

“Young Bert was lucky you came along, Mister. Damn fool to let ‘imself fall in like that, he’d a been in real trouble if you ‘adn’t been there.”

Benton muttered something to the effect that he was sure anyone else would have done the same.

“That’s as maybe,” said another man, “but you was the one ‘oo was there.”

Another voice spoke, from behind Benton.

“Do they know what pulled him in?”

The two regulars laughed.

“Pulled ‘im in? Ha! ‘Ee says it was that worm (this said with deep scorn). I reckon ‘ee tripped over ‘is own feet, clumsy ‘aporth!”

The new voice spoke again, this time to Benton.

“Did you see anything?”

Benton turned to look at the owner of the voice. A small, thin man with greying hair and a look about him that the Sergeant didn’t much like. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something about the way the man had asked that question that made it seem like more than a casual enquiry. Luckily, Benton thought, he could simply tell the truth. So he did.

“No, nothing. Not till he came along in front of me. That made me jump, I can tell you!”

“And you didn’t hear anything?”

This time there was no mistaking it. The question was asked in a casual tone, but there was an urgency underneath.

“No, nothing at all. If you must know, I’d nodded off and I’d only just woken up when he came by.”

“Oh.” The man turned away at this, but stayed close to the bar. The elder of the two regulars piped up again.

“I tell ‘ee, Bert fell in by ‘imself!”

“But what about the others then?”

“’Ow should I know? None of my business. I’ll leave it up to the Polis.”

Having settled the argument to his satisfaction, he banged his glass down on the bar to attract the barman’s attention. Had the evening gone differently, Benton might have asked a few questions, but being in the public eye as he was, he thought it wiser to keep his mouth shut and his ears open, at least for the time being. The other regular, who was holding a crumpled copy of the day’s paper, looked up.

“I s’pose your lot won’t be coming ‘ere?”

“My lot?” asked Benton in careful surprise, “Oh, you mean UNIT. No, why would they? It’s a police case. Anyway (raising his voice slightly) I’m on leave and I can’t see the police thanking me for mucking about in their business. Besides, Sergeants don’t do investigating, as a rule anyway.”

He glanced at the back of the grey haired man as he spoke and saw his shoulders, which had tensed at the mention of UNIT, relax slightly. Interesting. Benton finished his pint and walked to the door.

“Won’t you stay for another, lad?”

“No thanks, I’ve got to get an early night. Thanks for the drink though, night all!”

The regulars chorused farewells and Benton left the pub. He paused outside the door and checked his watch by the church clock, then strolled in the direction of the bed and breakfast. The road was deserted now, everyone either at home or at dinner. After he had gone about a hundred yards, he stopped, suddenly and bent down as if to tie his shoelaces. As he bent down he heard, faintly, the sound of footsteps coming to a sudden stop. So. Very interesting. Benton grinned. Whoever his follower was, and he had his suspicions, they would be disappointed this evening. He stood up again and carried on strolling, his ears alert for sounds of his “shadow”. Having reached the bed and breakfast Benton fumbled for the key, using the shadow cast by the porch to turn slightly so he could see the road. A lone figure walked past on the opposite side of the road and, even in the low light, Benton recognised the grey-haired man from the pub. The Sergeant unlocked the door and went in. In the upstairs corridor, he tapped gently on Miss Hawthorne’s door to let her know he was back safely, then went along to his own room to think and take stock of the evening’s events. Someone was up to something, that much was clear. And whoever they were, they didn’t want UNIT paying attention to it. Benton smiled, grimly.

“It’s a bit too late for that, sunshine.”

Feeling that he couldn’t really get any further, the Sergeant got ready for bed and picked up Ice Station Zebra. A bit of a distraction might help him think better and it was nice to read about other people being hit on the head for a change…

For her part, Miss Hawthorne had spent the evening studying the map, the police reports and various accounts of the mythical worm. Eventually, she sat back in her chair and sighed, and then got up to put the kettle on for another cup of tea. Sitting back down again with her cup, she looked over her notes. It didn’t really make sense, she thought. In the Addershall case, the wyverns had been summoned to delay building works and to drive people away. In this case, surely the appearance of the worm would have the opposite effect? Knowing what she did of human nature, Miss Hawthorne could imagine visitors descending on the village, much in the same way as they did on Devil’s end all agog to see signs of the mythical beast. So, while pulling people into the river might deter them from fishing in that particular spot (Miss Hawthorne had started from the position that human agency was the most likely explanation for the duckings, for the rather grisly reason that the worm would surely have eaten its prey) surely it would attract more attention from tourists and the police? Unless…. Ah! Miss Hawthorne looked at her watch. That was enough for one evening, she would save her hypotheses to share with Sergeant Benton the next day. At that moment, there came a quiet tap on the door. Good, he was safely back. Miss Hawthorne folded up the map, put away her notebook and got a pack of cards from her bag. A nice game of patience would be just the thing. Silence settled over the house and over the village.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny. After breakfast, Miss Hawthorne and Sergeant Benton returned to their rooms to gather their belongings for what they had told the landlady was going to be a day of sightseeing with a picnic by the river.

“Got everything, Aunt Olive?”

“Yes, thank you, John. Did you pick up the sandwiches?”

“Yep! Got them here.”

“Good, well, we had better be off then.”

Benton closed the garden gate behind them and they set off. In keeping with their explanation, they first walked to the village. A small group of tourists had gathered at the church and were listening to a guide who was drawing their attention to carvings and other points of interest. Miss Hawthorne and Benton stood a short distance away and listened as the guide described the history of the church building and then began to talk about the local myths and legends.

“And here you can see our local monster, the Wringford Worm.”

The guide pointed out a serpentine carving, winding its way up one of the pillars of the doorway. The visitors crowded round, cameras ready. This was clearly what they had come for. The Sergeant and Miss Hawthorne watched for a few moments, then moved on, passing the baker’s shop, where worm-themed Swiss rolls were prominently displayed in the window. Miss Hawthorne smiled wryly.

“I can see that some of the locals are making the most of the worm’s return.”

“Yes. You don’t think someone’s doing all this to boost local business?”

“It seems rather extreme, but I suppose we cannot rule it out entirely.”

“Right.”

They left the village and headed towards the river. From a distance, the conversation appeared to be of two relatives catching up and Miss Hawthorne and Benton were careful to keep an eye out for passers-by so as not to be overheard. Sergeant Benton recounted his experiences from the previous evening. Miss Hawthorne looked worried.

“I see. So there is something going on.”

“Yes, it certainly looks that way. We’ll have to be careful.”

“Yes. I hope you managed to allay his suspicions, but we must be on our guard, I’m afraid.”

“Yes. Did you get any further with the report?”

The path they were taking had risen by this point, bench had been placed at the highest point giving a view over the river and some of the surrounding area. In one direction, the church steeple could just be made out beyond the trees, and in another, the roof of Wringford Grange, the local manor house, rose in the distance. The river wound between the hillside and the village, sometimes visible, sometimes concealed by undergrowth. Miss Hawthorne seated herself on the bench.

“Ah, this will do admirably for our lunch. Yes, well, I do have some ideas.”

As Sergeant Benton sat down and unpacked their sandwiches, Miss Hawthorne took her notebook and the map from her handbag. Benton placed the lunch between them on the bench and started on his sandwich as he listened.

“Thank you. Where was I? Ah, yes.” Miss Hawthorne spread the map out over her lap. “I began with the assumption that, as with Addershall, the legend of the worm was being used by some human agency to deter others from that particular stretch of river, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that that simply wouldn’t work.”

“Oh?” Benton poured a cup of tea from his flask and passed it over.

“Thank you. Yes, well, as we saw, the slightest hint of the worm attracts all kinds of attention. And then, there’s the police. Even if it turns out to be a practical joke, pulling people into the river could be very dangerous and the police are likely, if not obliged to become involved at some point.” Miss Hawthorne took a sip of tea and tried not to wince, Sergeant Benton’s preference was for very strong tea with a lot of sugar. “So the idea that anyone would use the worm to drive people away from the river seemed unlikely. I started to look at the question from the other way around. Was the worm being used to attract attention to that part of the river? Or to Wringford as a whole? Given the popularity of the worm with visitors, this seemed to be a possibility. But then I considered the unknown person’s methods. Would anyone really be prepared to risk drowning others to bring in more visitors to their village? It’s possible, I suppose, but it seems to me a dangerous and ruthless approach.”

Benton opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again and Miss Hawthorne looked down at her cup.

“Yes, you are right, of course, there is no shortage of ruthless people, however much one might wish otherwise” She sighed. “That left a third possibility. Supposing some person or persons wished to distract the police, and the local population from some illicit activity taking place near the river? Not at the place where the incidents have taken place, but somewhere else?”

Sergeant Benton looked puzzled for a moment, then the penny dropped.

“Oh, you mean misdirection?”

“Yes. The police and the tourists will all be getting in each other’s way, while the criminals, or whoever they are, are free to get on with their work elsewhere.”

“I see what you mean. But how do we find out where they don’t want us to look, if you see what I mean?”

“That is the question. I’m afraid it gives us rather a large area to cover.”

“And what is it they want to do?”

“Again, that is the question. And I do not have an answer, at present anyway.”

“No.”

There was silence as they thought and finished their lunch. Eventually the Sergeant spoke:

“Right. Let’s try and narrow it down a bit.” Miss Hawthorne took up her notebook and pencil “We think the people doing this want everybody’s attention on this bit of the river (he pointed at the map) so we can take that bit out. “ Taking a pen from his pocket, Benton cross-hatched the area where the attacks had taken place. “so what do they want to do and where?”

Miss Hawthorne considered.

“I think we can rule out interference by a corporation. The river Wring is hardly strong enough to be of use for energy production and, as far as I am aware, there is no mining activity in the area.”

“I can check with HQ, but I’m sure you’re right. We’d have seen it if there had been.”

“Yes. So that leaves either a gang or individual. But it is hard to see what they would want.”

There was another silence, again broken by Benton.

“No, unless, supposing they were looking for something hidden, something they’d left, or someone else had left here?”

Miss Hawthorne looked up from her notes, excitement in her eyes.

“Sergeant! I believe that’s it! It must be something sizeable, or they would be able to remove it quickly and have no need of the diversion. I wonder, Sergeant, would UNIT be able to find out if any large thefts or burglaries had taken place near here, say in the last five or ten years?”

“I expect so. Ten years though, oh, are you thinking that a gang might have dumped the swag, done time and are coming back for it now?”

“Perhaps not in so many words,” Benton grinned at this reply, “but yes.”

“Right.” The Sergeant packed away the sandwich wrappers, flask and cups and stood up. “There’s a public phone near the church, I can call from there and check back later for an answer, or they could call the B&B.”

“That might be better, making more than one call from a public phone might arouse suspicion.”

“Right, we can stop off on our way back through the village, on our way to tea.”

Miss Hawthorne smiled “That sounds like an excellent plan. And now you had better show me where you had your adventure, in case any interested parties are watching by the river.”

They followed the path down to the riverbank and Benton pointed out where he had been sitting when the incident occurred, with Miss Hawthorne showing an excited interest that was only partly feigned.

“I see! And where did he fall in?”

“Just along here, he hadn’t come very far.”

Benton led the way along the bank, brushing through the patches of long grass and holding back the occasional branch for Miss Hawthorne to pass.

“My word!” remarked Miss Hawthorne, pausing to disentangle herself from a twig, “it certainly is overgrown.”

“It is here, but it clears up a bit further on. Here we are.”

The path cleared and they emerged to a patch of short grass shaded by trees, similar to where Benton had been sitting. For a moment Miss Hawthorne stood and looked at the river in silence. Suddenly, close at hand, there came a rustling noise. Without having given any sign of having heard the sound, Benton joined Miss Hawthorne at the water’s edge.

“This is the place, Aunt Olive”

“Goodness!” taking her cue, Miss Hawthorne held Benton’s arm as she looked. “how very alarming! And does the poor man still say he was pulled in by the worm?”

“That’s what he says.” Benton ushered his pseudo-aunt away from the edge of the bank. “Well the police will find anything there is to be found, I should think.”

“I certainly hope so. Now, John, if you want to call your mother, I think we had better get back to the village.”

“Oh yes,” Benton smothered a smile at the thought of UNIT HQ and, therefore, the Brigadier, in a maternal role, “yes, we better had.”

They walked in silence, still arm in arm until they had reached the main path, then Benton said in a low voice “you heard?”

“Yes. And did you see in the river?”

“Yes. Pity we couldn’t get it out, but I’ll let HQ know and they can get on to the police.”

They walked on, both thinking of the river. A piece of wood with two rusting nails had become wedged between stones, a short distance from the bank. Snagged on one of the nails and trapped by pebbles, had been a piece of dark material, thick and with a visible textured pattern.
When they reached the church, Benton went to the phone box to call UNIT and Miss Hawthorne went into the churchyard, appearing to examine the carvings on the church exterior, but actually watching for anyone who might have followed them. The call didn’t take long and she came back through the gate to the road as Benton emerged from the phone box.

“All sorted out?”

“Yes, records are onto it and they’ll call this evening.”

“Good,” as a couple of sightseers approached, “and how is dear Muriel?”

Benton coughed loudly and then replied “Fine, she’s very well.”

“I’m so glad to hear it. Do come and look at this carving of the worm, it’s fascinating”

Miss Hawthorne went back through the gate and Benton followed her to the church. Once they had reached the door, he gave her some more details of the phone call.

“I spoke to Scott, she is going to get Records going on the crimes and let the police know about the river. She’ll call back this evening about seven and hopefully we will have a bit more to go on then.”

“Good. In the meantime, then, we had better settle on where we will eat this evening, in case we need a reservation.”

“Yes, good idea.”

Having considered the options, they decided to try a small restaurant near the church. The menu was small, but the food was good and Benton thoroughly enjoyed his steak and chips, while Miss Hawthorne found her helping of Dover sole very much to her taste. After the meal, they strolled back to the bed and breakfast, chatting about the scenery and the weather. Having let their hostess know about the phone call, which would be, Benton had said, from his sister, he and Miss Hawthorne took their books into the garden and sat on a bench overlooking the road. At just before seven Mrs. Wilmott, the owner of the bed and breakfast, came and called the Sergeant to the telephone.
He returned after about 15 minutes, tucking his notebook back in his pocket. Miss Hawthorne looked up and raised her eyebrows as he approached. Benton looked round quickly, then sat down.

“Anything?”

“Yes, they’ve come up trumps. It turns out there was a burglary at the big house six years ago. The police caught some of the gang, but they never found the loot. The gang members didn’t talk, and the ringleader got away.”

“What did they take?”

Some silver, but mostly china. The owner collects porcelain and lost some Japanese vases and (Benton drew out his notebook)a Meissen statuette?”

“Ah. Well, the silver might be damaged, but porcelain would survive being buried in the ground, provided it was protected, or even immersed in water.”

“You think they might have hidden it actually in the river?”

“I think we must consider the possibility. Provided it wasn’t too much in the current, porcelain would be safe under water. Think of the plates recovered from shipwrecks after hundreds of years. Oh and that reminds me, was there any news from the police?”

“Yes, they checked. It was a bit of wet suit material.”

“Ah, then our suspicions were correct.”

“Yes.”

Silence fell as they both considered the evidence. Miss Hawthorne spoke first.

“In a way, that might point to the, ah, loot being underwater. Would the gang have gone to the trouble of getting diving equipment just for a decoy?”

“I suppose so, but the worm?”

“Yes,” she sighed, “there is that too. The police will have a record of the robbery of course.”

“Yes, but I asked Scott to, er, give them a nudge, just in case.”

“Good. Now,” Miss Hawthorne unfolded the map on bench between herself and Benton, “where might they have hidden their swag?”

Benton leaned forward, smiling at the description. They considered the map, then Benton pointed to a section where the river broadened and curved towards the manor house.

“How about here? It’s pretty close to the house, and it looks like there’s almost a pool here on the left side.”

“Out of the main current, yes, that could be the place. But would the police not have searched there at the time of the robbery?”

“I’d have thought so, unless some of the gang led them the wrong way while the others dumped the stuff. The question is, how long have we got before they finish the job?”

“Yes, I see what you mean. They have already used their decoy three times, that we know of, the police have become involved, which they may or may not have intended, and one of the gang has been watching you. It seems to me they may be preparing to act, if they have not started already.”

It was still light outside, but the evening had grown chilly. Miss Hawthorne shivered and drew her cloak around her.

“It’s a difficult problem, but I don’t see what more we can do tonight, we have informed the police of our suspicions and ...”

She was interrupted by the return of Mrs. Wilmott.

“I’m sorry, Mr Benton, your sister is on the phone for you again.”

Benton stood up.

“Right, sorry to trouble you, Mrs. Wilmott, my father’s a bit under the weather at the moment, my sister was going over to visit him and she said she might call when she got back.”

“No trouble at all, Mr Benton, better than you walking all the way down to the call box.”

“Thank you.”

Miss Hawthorne followed the Sergeant and their hostess back to the house. Once inside, Benton picked up the receiver. As she passed him to go upstairs, she heard him say “Hello, Millie? How’s the old man?” and wondered briefly if Corporal Scott’s name really was Millicent. In her room, she took off her cloak and jacket and plugged in the kettle for an evening cup of tea, then opened her handbag and began to organise the contents. The kettle had just boiled when there was a tap at the door. Miss Hawthorne opened it to find Sergeant Benton outside, a worried expression on his face. She moved aside to let him in and closed the door quietly, turning the key in the lock.

“What is it, Sergeant?”

“That was Scott again, she called the police station to try and talk to the Inspector, but there was nobody there.”

“Nobody at all?”

“Well, only the desk Sergeant. He said they’ve all been called to a suspicious fire at a cottage not far from here, and he’d take a note to give the Inspector as soon as he got back.”

“I see. Could it be the gang?”

“Well, it seems likely doesn’t it? It could be a coincidence but it’s a bit convenient that all the coppers are suddenly busy away from the village after everything else.”

Miss Hawthorne bit her lower lip in thought.

“Yes, that does sound unlikely. But what can we do, there are only two of us and we don’t know how many members this gang has.”

“No, but I could go to the river and keep an eye on the place. If nothing happens, I’ll come back, and if they do turn up I can keep an eye on them until the police get there.”

“Are you sure? But what if they see you?”

“I’ll just have to try and stay out of sight, there’s plenty of bushes and long grass near the bank and I won’t need to be that close.”

Miss Hawthorne forbore to mention that the grass would have to be very long indeed to hide a man of Benton’s dimensions. She could see that his mind was made up.

“Very well, but if you aren’t back here by,” she looked at her watch, “ half past ten, I shall call the police.”

“Right. It might be a good idea to do that anyway, in case the message doesn’t get to the Inspector.”

“Yes, if I haven’t heard from either you, or the police I shall telephone.”

Sergeant Benton unlocked and opened the door. Miss Hawthorne returned her attention to her handbag, but looked up to say,

“Be careful, John.”

Benton was about to reply cheerfully, but, instead, something in her expression made him say;

“I will.”

Miss Hawthorne locked the door after him, then poured water from the kettle into the teapot. While the tea was brewing, she sat in an armchair near the window and took up her crochet. She was accustomed to waiting, but, as she watched the swifts loop and swirl in the twilight in search of their insect prey, Miss Hawthorne felt that this might be a very long night.

After he left Miss Hawthorne, Sergeant Benton went to his room and changed into dark coloured trousers and jumper. He fastened his shoulder holster and checked his gun, then put on a jacket, slipping some spare ammunition into his jacket pocket. He didn’t take a torch, although dusk was falling, there was still enough light to see by, and he didn’t want to draw attention to himself by the river. Closing and locking his room door, he went downstairs quietly and left the house. Even away from the streetlamps of the village, there was enough light in the summer sky to see by. The trees cast shadows on the road from the bright, full moon. Benton kept to the side of the road, moving as quickly and quietly as possible. Leaving the road, he followed the river path, before moving away from the bank to approach the part where the river widened from a less direct route, in case the gang should already be at work. He paused every now and then to listen, but he couldn’t hear any noise of human activity, only the birds calling and the occasional rustle of an animal moving through the grass. Benton neared the river bank again and looked around for a place to conceal himself. A large tree, surrounded by long grass seemed the ideal choice, so he settled himself, trying to get as good a view as possible of the river, while avoiding cramp or pins and needles. He might need to move quickly later on.

Miss Hawthorne nodded, then sat upright in her chair. Goodness! How long had she been dozing? She looked at her watch. Half past ten. She was sure that the Sergeant would at least have knocked, if not tried to wake her, had he returned. Miss Hawthorne opened the door and looked along the corridor to Benton’s room. No light under the door. He hadn’t come back. Miss Hawthorne moved quickly. She put on her cloak, then picked up her handbag and went downstairs. She lifted the telephone receiver and dialed.

“Hello, Wringwold Police Station.”

“Hello, my name is Olive Hawthorne, I am, ah, a colleague of Sergeant Benton of UNIT. Is Inspector Roper there?”

“Er, yes Ma’am, he’s not long come in, one moment.”

The line crackled and a different voice answered,

“Roper here, what’s happening there, Miss Hawthorne?”

Miss Hawthorne told the Inspector what she and Sergeant Benton suspected, and where Benton had gone. She could hear the scratch of a pen as the Inspector took notes. Finally he said

“Ok, Miss Hawthorne, we’ll get over there as quick as we can. I had to leave some of the men at the cottage fire, but the lads here have had a few minutes rest, so we’ll be on our way.”

“Thank you Inspector, goodbye.”

“Goodbye Miss Hawthorne.”

Miss Hawthorne replaced the receiver carefully and listened. The house seemed to be quiet still, it seemed she hadn’t woken anyone. Good. Miss Hawthorne pulled up the hood of her cloak, picked up her handbag and slipped quietly out of the front door.

At the river, Benton glanced at the luminous dial of his watch. Quarter to ten. Would they come, or were he and Miss Hawthorne barking up the wrong tree? He shifted his position slightly and wiggled his toes inside his boots, trying to keep his circulation going. A sudden noise close at hand made him freeze. Approaching along the bank was a group of figures. The tallest, at the front, was clad in dark clothing. He had a coil of rope over one shoulder and a tool bag in his hand. He was followed by three other men, all in diving gear and carrying air tanks. The group stopped a few feet away from Benton’s hiding place. He crouched as low as he could, hardly daring to breathe, but the men didn’t seem to suspect that they had been followed. The leader gave instructions in a low voice and the others put on tanks and goggles and slid into the river from the bank. They resurfaced almost immediately, and he passed two of them tools of some kind, while the third took one end of the rope, the other having been made fast to a tree. Benton watched as the leader sat on the bank and unfolded two larger bags that had been stored in the tool bag. Eventually, the divers began to pass objects out of the water, using the rope to steady the larger items, which the leader then hauled out. It was too dark to see the details, but Benton could see shapes that looked like vases. The leader wrapped the smaller items and packed them into the bags, leaving the largest vases to one side. Benton assumed there would be a van somewhere nearby and that the vases would be carried. As the divers surfaced again, he considered the situation. He had his gun and the element of surprise, but he had seen the moonlight glinting off a gun at the leader’s hip and he was sure the other gangsters would be armed, if only with knives. Sergeant Benton was no coward, but he didn’t much fancy his chances with four against one. At that moment, the decision was taken out of his hands. Lights appeared on both sides of the river, and voices shouted;

“POLICE! Stay where you are!”

The divers clung to the bank, though one of them disappeared beneath the surface, presumably in an attempt to swim away, but Benton could hear splashing from the shallower part of the river, that suggested that the police were making their way across to cut him off. The leader dropped the rope he had been using to haul up a vase and fled. Benton got to his feet and gave chase, as the police closed in on the divers and secured the stolen goods. It was very dark, but he could hear the man crashing through the bushes ahead of him and just see where he had forced a path. About a hundred yards on, Benton stopped. He couldn’t hear his quarry and the path forked, one part leading away from the river, while the other followed the bank. He strained his eyes to try and make out which way the man had gone. Suddenly there was a rustle of grasses behind him. Before he could turn round, a pistol was jammed against his back and a voice hissed;

“Keep still and don’t make a sound.”

Sergeant Benton obeyed, and a hand reached inside his jacket and removed his gun.

“Good” the voice spoke again, “hands behind your head and walk, that’s it. Nice and near the edge”

Benton was now standing right on the edge of the river bank. He tried to guess how close the man was to him, but it was impossible to tell. Then, from behind, came an odd, but oddly familiar sound, followed by a gasp. Benton was suddenly hit with a large and heavy weight and fell forwards into the water. He shoved his way out from under the weight, which he realised, was the unconscious body of the gang leader. As he pushed the body out of the way, a voice came from the bank

“Oh! Sergeant! I am so sorry! I didn’t intend ... here, over here.”

Miss Hawthorne crouched on the bank, one hand held out. Benton took it and, with her assistance, heaved himself out of the water. He sat on the bank, breathing heavily, then looked at the gangster, who was beginning to float towards the middle of the river.

“I’ll have to get him out,”

he began, but then there came more noises behind them and the voice of the Inspector said,

“We’ll see to that Sergeant, you two, bring those hooks and tow him in.”

Two police officers, clad in waders and wielding boat hooks, climbed into the water and set about trying to steer the unconscious man back into shallower water. The inspector and another of his men shone torches onto the surface to guide them. Suddenly, Miss Hawthorne gasped and pointed.

“Inspector! Look, there!”

The Inspector moved his torch to the patch of water she had indicated. The surface bubbled and heaved and then something burst through. A creature, snake like but bigger than any snake they had ever seen, fully five feet round, reared up out of the water, its scaly body glistening like wet pebbles in the torchlight. Frozen for a moment in horror, the Inspector suddenly awoke

“Get out! Get out of there!”

The policemen abandoned their hooks and scrambled for the bank. Sergeant Benton and the Inspector heaved them out of the water and then the whole party beat a hasty retreat from the river’s edge. They watched, in fascinated horror as the creature caught the gangster in its mouth and swallowed him in a series of audible gulps, then disappeared beneath the surface again. Characteristically, Benton was the first to speak. “Blimey!”
The Inspector turned to Miss Hawthorne.

“I gather I have you to thank for apprehending him. May I ask how you did it?”

“Certainly, Inspector,” replied Miss Hawthorne, “I hit him with my reticule.”

She indicated her handbag, which lay on the ground a short distance away.

“I see, well, I’d rather have taken him alive, but that was rather out of our hands.”

“Quite.”

Miss Hawthorne went over and picked up her bag. Sergeant Benton hoped that the Inspector wouldn’t enquire too closely into the contents. He had a shrewd idea that Miss Hawthorne was still in the habit of carrying her crystal ball in case of emergencies. But she was speaking again.

“And now, if you don’t need us here, I think Sergeant Benton would benefit from some dry clothes and a hot drink.”

“Oh, certainly. Smith (to a constable who had appeared to report from the crime scene), run Miss Hawthorne and Sergeant Benton back to their accommodation.”

“Yes, Sir, this way Ma’am, Sir.”

An hour later, and Sergeant Benton and Miss Hawthorne were in Mrs. Wilmott’s sitting room. The bar heater was on and the Sergeant, in dressing gown and alarmingly patterned pyjamas, was sipping a cup of cocoa. The Inspector had arrived and Mrs. Wilmott, having made sure that her guest’s needs had been provided for, had retired to bed again. After hearing the news that the gang was safely behind bars and their loot under lock and key, Miss Hawthorne turned to the Inspector.

“And was it a member of the gang who was pulling those unfortunate men into the river?”

“Yes, when they saw their boss split on them, they started to talk straight away. It was as you’d suspected. They used the worm to attract attention further down the river and keep us busy. One of them had some kind of mask, and they picked on people who looked like they were dozing off a bit, so they wouldn’t see too much if they suddenly got pulled in. Even without them talking, we matched the bit of wetsuit you found to a suit in their van. Of course they are blaming everything on the boss, I doubt we’ll ever know who had the idea to begin with, but they won’t get out of it.”

“No. And the fire at the cottage?”

“Yes, that was them too. They had rented it under assumed names, then torched the place when they left.”

“I see.” Miss Hawthorne picked up her cocoa mug, “and the worm?”

“I don’t know what we’re going to do about that. We’ll have to get some scientists in to look into it I suppose, unless (he looked at his listeners hopefully) you could give us any advice?”
Sergeant Benton took a sip of cocoa to hide his smile as Miss Hawthorne said firmly,

“Oh no, Inspector, our work here is finished. The gang has been apprehended and the legend of the worm has been proved to be true. What happens next is your responsibility!”


THE END