A Strange Encounter
June and Jean peered out of the window. There was nothing interesting, and so they resumed their rocking on the arm chairs.
“It’s so dull,” said Jean to his twin sister.
“Life, somehow, isn’t quite the same when Mom and Dad are not home,” agreed June.
“I don’t think they’ll be back before night,” shot back the depressed boy.
“Yes, Dad’s out of town and his train won’t be in before seven. And Mom’s gone to visit the sick aunt – she’s likely to stay with her till late evening,” reasoned June.
Suddenly, June had an idea. “Jean,” she said in a bit of excitement, “why don’t we go out for a stroll along the main lane? The circus is beginning the day after, and we might see the men pitching their tents, feeding the animals, and other interesting things.”
“That’s an idea – not a bad one,” agreed the somber boy. “At least we can pass an hour or two in a less boring way. I’ve finished all my school work, and I haven’t a thing to do.”
“The same story here too, Jean,” said his sister. “And I don’t even have a new book or a new game! So, hurry up – we may as well amuse ourselves watching elephants and tigers and clowns!”
In less than ten minutes, the fourteen-year-old twins were on the road. They turned at the corner and were going to cross the by-lane that led to the main path leading to the open ground.
“It’s a bit dark and lonely here,” said June.
“No one passes this way,” explained Jean. “They prefer the parallel road – it’s broader and cleaner.”
“Well, the short-cut suits us admirably,” quipped his sister.
Very unexpectedly, they heard low whispers. At first, they paid no notice, but the faint voices got clearer – If not louder – as they proceeded.
They did not particularly want to listen to what the unseen men were saying in hushed tones, but they could not help overhearing a few words that wafted into their ears.
“Where? How shall I know?” said a somewhat deep and grown-up voice.
“Read the writing on the wall.” replied a younger voice. Then he added, even more softly, what sounded like ‘HQ’.
Suddenly, the men hurried off in the direction of Jean and June, nearly bumping into them.
“Er – sorry,“ said the younger man, who was a bit shabbily dressed.
“It’s all right, Sir,” said the twins politely.
Suddenly they saw what looked like a flash of alarm in the other man’s eyes. He was older, and better in his dress and appearance.
But the fear in his eyes was momentary; the next moment he had changed into a pleasant, smiling and amiable ‘elderly uncle’.
“Did you hear anything?” he asked sweetly.
“I don’t get your meaning, Sir,” said June, a bit surprised at the sudden question.
“I was having a chit-chat with my uncle,” said the youth. “About painting the walls…”
A warning blaze shot from the other’s eyes, and the young man sank into a fearful silence.
“Did you paint the walls? It’s nice, very nice,” said Jean, looking at the neatly painted walls that ran along the boundary of the lane.
“Well, yes – and I just wanted to tell you to keep it clean,” said the old one.
“We certainly will. We don’t spit on it or write with crayons on it – as some silly people do,” promised the siblings. They were horrified at the thought of someone dirtying the beautiful walls.
“That’s all,” said the man. “Bye. Where are you going, if I may ask?”
“Just to see the circus tents being pitched on the ground. This is a short-cut from our house,” said Jean.
“Well, good bye…,” said the two and disappeared in a trice.
The children sauntered along. “What did they mean – whether we heard something?” wondered Jean.
“It baffles me. All that I heard was reading something on the wall and HQ,” said June.
“Probably, he meant the head-quarters of the company that has employed them to paint the walls.”
“Very likely. And there’s nothing to read…”
They had come to the vast stretch of open ground. For the next hour or two, they amused themselves, enjoying the busy circus people shouting to one another, running to-and-fro and feeding the animals. Jean and June became engrossed completely in the hustle and bustle of the hectic activity.
They returned home, had a shower and finished their dinner. They could have retired to bed, for they felt a bit tired after all the excitement, but they wanted to meet their parents and at least kiss them good night.
Dad returned first, and they had some fun discussing about his journey. The checker had caught a ticketless tripper, and Dad was describing how he was taken to the railway police.
After about half-an-hour came Mom, and June politely enquired about the condition of the ailing aunt. Then Mom broke the big news:
“I heard some strange news. It seems that a bank was robbed, and the loot hidden somewhere. The police did catch two men near the circus-ground, but nothing was found on them. The booty had already been passed on to some accomplice of theirs – and, despite tough interrogation, they are not talking.”
“When was the robbery committed, Mom?” asked the children.
“I don’t exactly know. Perhaps the TV may help us,” replied Mom.
They switched on the TV. While the parents were listening intently to the news of the great robbery, the twins were only half interested – for their eyes were riveted upon the pictures of the two men whom the police had apprehended. It was unmistakable – they were the two men whom they had met earlier that day on their way to the open ground where circus people were pitching their tents. They had talked to them about keeping the walls clean, and had earlier been whispering to each other about reading the walls and HQ – or something of the sort.
The mystery enthralled the children and stirred their imagination!
The Mystery Begins
They went to bed and soon fell sleep. They were too tired to think of the mystery. And anyway – they thought – what could they do except tell their parents? Even if they told the police, it would be no good. It would just prove that the two men were together at the spot at that particular hour, and the police already knew that. It was from there that they had been arrested.
The next day, the newspaper brought more details. It seemed that once the police recovered the loot – stacks of currency notes and bars of gold – everything would be fine, and the men could be hauled to the court. The only problem was to find out where they had hidden the booty, for all other details of the crime were as clear as daylight!
The children discussed the matter over after breakfast.
“We could have just raised an alarm and got them arrested,” said Jean.
“Only if we had known that they were robbers at that time, which we didn’t,” pointed out June reasonably.
“Anyway, I did find them a bit weird – talking about painting walls and HQ.”
“I did find that a bit odd, too. Anyway, they were caught soon after,” said June.
“Let’s see how soon after we met the duo did the police catch them,” said Jean.
They once again immersed themselves in the newspaper, and then June spoke up, a bit astonished:
“Guess what? They were arrested more than three hours after we brushed against them.”
“But they hurried away after they spoke to us – did they again come back?” Jean wondered aloud.
“But why? Was it because they had left some task unfinished?” asked an amazed June.
“Maybe we interrupted them, and they wanted to do something after we went away,” suggested Jean.
”But we moved away right then. They could have easily done whatever they wanted to. That would have been less risky…,” said June.
“Instead, they choose to come back and, like fools, they get caught. No, it doesn’t make sense, June. They are no fools – simply cannot be,” said Jean, shaking his head slowly.
”Yes, criminals are usually very clever. It is really unbelievable that they would take any risk unless it was absolutely essential. There must be some good reason for their return to the place.”
After a brainstorming session, they got an idea.
“Can we find out what they were exactly doing when they were arrested?” mused Jean.
“Oh, that’s easy,” said June. “The inspector’s son takes music lessons under Miss Skein with me. I’ll ask him.”
“Could you phone him right now?” asked Jean.
“If that’s important and urgent, yes,” June said and went to the phone. She returned within five minutes.
“Good luck, Jean” she said. “Apparently, he too is interested in the affair, and his father has been telling him everything about it. Can you even guess what the men were doing when they were caught?”
“I can’t think…,” Jean gave up.
“Well, they were painting. At least, the young man was, and the older man was arrested from some nearby hideout.”
“Painting? Painting! After they had done it so nicely a few hours before?” wondered Jean in disbelief.
“And that reminds me of something I wanted to tell you. I’d been thinking about it. I don’t think it was they who painted the wall. Criminals don’t do such civic services,” June said.
“Yes, I remember,” said Jean. “The young man accidentally blurted out about painting, and the older man saw red.”
“Yes, I saw fear leap into his eyes. But yet they were found painting – it’s a fact, June.”
“They were talking of the second painting –that’s what they were doing when they were arrested. The young man made a bad slip when he told us the truth, and the older man – being wiser – just told us some rigmarole to cover it up.”
“Then who did the first painting?” demanded Jean.
“Use your common sense, Jean,” said June with a laugh. “Who could do it but the municipal people?”
“We don’t usually go that way except when there’s a fair or circus or something. Someone who uses the path regularly may tell us something,” mused Jean aloud.
“I can do better than that,” reassured June. “You know Sid, the boy who always runs about the open ground. He’s sure to have noticed when it was painted. It would have taken a whole day or even two days to do the entire wall.”
“Let’s go and ask him. And a bonus point in that is – his father is in the town municipality,” remarked Jean with delight.
“But I think he’s ill – laid down with flu or something,” said June. “But that’s all the more reason for visiting him. We don’t need to appear to be prying into this matter. We will just call on him to wish him recovery!”
They asked their Mother, and were provided with a bunch of apples and a bouquet of flowers as get-well gifts for the boy.
Sid’s mother was delighted when she saw June and Jean. Sid had been feeling a bit low, getting bored in bed all day. It would do him good to forget fretting and talk to someone for a while.
She left the three of them gossiping together, and went into the kitchen to make some hot cocoa for them. In the course of talk, June casually brought up the subject of the wall.
“We noticed yesterday that it was freshly painted. Do you know when it was done, Sid?”
“Oh, yes. It was done just three days ago. And my Dad was in charge of it!” he said proudly.
After some more sweet nothings, they took leave.
“So, the wall was painted by the municipality three days ago, not by the thieves yesterday. Why should they think they can read something on the wall, and why should they think of painting it a second time?” wondered Jean.
“I don’t think they wanted to paint the whole wall. Probably they were just pretending to paint it so that people wouldn’t take notice. If you saw two men loitering, you may get suspicious – but if they’re painting a wall or repairing the road or something, you would naturally assume they were municipal people,” said June.
“But what can you read on a freshly painted wall? And what headquarters, if they meant headquarters by HQ?” asked Jean.
“I’m not sure they said HQ. It sounded something like HQ, but we were not really listening. As for reading the writing on the wall – I believe there’s an idiom or phrase or whatever in English, read the writing on the wall.”
June frowned and knitted her eyebrows, trying to think hard where she had heard the idiom read the writing on the wall. At last she said:
“I got it. It means clear signs or hints that something is likely to happen.”
And they wondered whether the men meant they knew they would be arrested!
The Secret Clue
In the afternoon, June had an idea. She said to her twin-brother:
”Jean, why don’t we go and examine the wall? Perhaps it’ll suggest some idea – though I don’t think it’s likely!”
They went and examined the stretch of the freshly painted white wall. As usual, very few people passed that way.
Suddenly, Jean called out to his sister, “Look here, June. While the rest of the wall is done neatly, this looks like a bit of clumsy work done in haste!”
They carefully examined that patch. There was a small area of the wall, where painting was definitely amateurish. They stood and wondered why the men had painted that again. Was it some kind of hint or code or message?
Suddenly, June had an idea.
“I think the repainting may have been to hide something underneath,” said June.
“Then I’ll scrape it a bit,” said Jean.
“Be very careful, lest you scrape the writing underneath – not that I’m sure there would be any,” said June.
Jean nodded and proceeded to carefully scrape a bit of the area.
He noticed something black in contrast to the surrounding area. He scraped more and more – even more cautiously.
At last they saw a faint black H. But there wasn’t anything else.
“Is that H related to HQ they were talking about” wondered the boy.
Suddenly, June had a brainwave. “Jean, I’ve a smashing idea. It may or may not be the right solution – but it’s worth considering. We have got H. Now, as to the Q, I think they meant CUE, that is, a hint.”
“But what cue or hint do you get here, June?” asked Jean.
“Scrape round a little more – we may get something,” said June. But even after scraping for more than ten minutes, they could get nothing.
They stood, looking into vacant space and thinking.
Suddenly Jean said, “I think H is a code or symbol. What could H possibly stand for?”
They could not for the world think what could H stand for. Then June had another brainwave.
“Jean, if my assumption is correct – it was H-cue, and not HQ – then I wonder if there’s anything under that black H?”
She ran her finger over that black letter on the wall, and noticed with horror that her finger was slightly blackened with soot.
“It would be easy to remove the H with some damp cloth,” said the girl.
They proceeded to work with their hankies soaked in water from the nearby tube-well, and soon found an interesting message below the veneer of the black H. It said, at 1 – 3 rt.
The kids were now really thrilled. They had laid their hands on some concrete and tangible clue to the robbery. It was a precious find, even though they were in the dark as to what it meant.
“So, the story of the dark deed unfolds. They commit the robbery, and pass on the gold and cash to an accomplice. They fear they may be arrested, and want the booty to be safe. The accomplice cleverly hides the plundered wealth somewhere and it is arranged that he will leave a clue of its whereabouts in a coded message on this wall hidden beneath a layer of soot.”
And Jean enthusiastically continued, “They remove the soot, read the message, apply black soot again, and repaint with white as planned earlier. But why soot? It is strange idea!”
“Not at all, Jean. If someone happened to pass that way before the two arrived, they would see the soot – not the message. And the soot would also tell them exactly where the message is etched. Gosh, Jean – what idiots we are!”
Jean was taken back. “Is it some new self-realization?” he asked in a bemused tone.
June spoke rapidly, “It was not HQ. It was ETCH CUE or ETCHED CUE. It’s probably an agreed method of communication among the gang members.”
“But why soot, June? They could have painted it over and their gang members could have just scraped it off – as we did,” persisted Jean, totally flummoxed by the gang members’ awkward choice of soot.
June smiled with weary patience.
“No, Jean, there would be problems. First, these men would have to scour the whole wall in order to identify the exact spot where the code is etched. Secondly, they would have to scrape it very, very slowly and carefully – as you yourself did just now.”
“And they were in haste, already anticipating their arrest any time,” said an enlightened Jean.
“Yes, the men were on the run, and would naturally want to do the job as quickly as possible and scoot off. As we saw, it just required a damp cloth to remove the soot and look underneath.”
“It was while repainting to cover up the soot that they were caught!” said Jean.
“But then they had to repaint it – just in case someone happened to observe it or accidentally wipe it off – or in case it was washed off in a shower,” explained the bright girl.
“Yes, we’ve rains almost every alternate day now-a-days, don’t we? But still it took time,” said Jean.
“That was a risk they had to take. Anyway, dabbing a coat of paint wouldn’t take nearly so much time as carefully and meticulously scraping off the surface layer, not to mention the time wasted in locating the exact spot on the wall. But luck was against them, and they were held. These clever devils had anticipated the possibility…,” said June.
“Well, June, even now we’re none the wiser. We don’t know what that coded message means,” pointed out the realistic Jean.
“That’s true,” agreed June. “Let’s go home and brood over it. If we fail, we can just tell the police what we’ve found.”
They went home and racked their brains in their study room.
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