CAPTAIN MIKE BRIXAN had certain mild and innocent superstitions. He believed, for example, that if he saw a green crow in a field he would certainly see another green crow before the day was out. And when, at the bookstand on Aix-la-Chapelle station, he saw and purchased a dime novel that was comprehensively entitled "Only an Extra, or the Pride of Hollywood", he was less concerned as to how this thrilling and dog-eared romance came to be on offer at half a million marks (this was in the days when marks were worth money) than as to the circumstances in which he would again hear or read the word "extras" in the sense of a supernumerary and unimportant screen actress.
The novel did not interest him at all. He read one page of superlatives and, turned for relief to the study of a Belgian time-table. He was bored, but not so bored that he could interest himself in the sensational rise of the fictitious Rosa Love from modest obscurity to a press agent and wealth.
But "extra" was a new one on Michael, and he waited for the day to bring its inevitable companion.
To say that he was uninterested in crime, that burglars were less thrilling than golf scores, and the record of murders hardly worth the reading, might convey a wrong impression to those who knew him as the cleverest agent in the Foreign Office Intelligence Department.
His official life was spent in meeting queer Continentals in obscure restaurants and, in divers roles, to learn of the undercurrents that were drifting the barques of diplomacy to unsuspected ports. He had twice roamed through Europe in the guise of an open-mouthed tourist; had canoed many hundred miles through the gorges of the Danube to discover, in little riverside beer-houses, the inward meanings of secret mobilizations. These were tasks wholly to his liking.
Therefore he was not unnaturally annoyed when he was withdrawn from Berlin at a moment when, as it seemed, the mystery of the Slovak Treaty was in a way to being solved, for he had secured, at a cost, a rough but accurate draft.
"I should have had a photograph of the actual document if you had left me another twenty-four hours," he reproached his chief, Major George Staines, when he reported himself at Whitehall next morning.
"Sony," replied that unrepentant man, "but the truth is, we've had a heart-to-heart talk with the Slovakian Prime Minister, and he has promised to behave and practically given us the text of the treaty—it was only a commercial affair. Mike, did you know Elmer?"
The Foreign Office detective sat down on the edge of the table.
"Have you brought me from Berlin to ask me that?" he demanded bitterly. "Have you taken me from my favourite café on Unter den Linden—by the way, the Germans are making small-arm ammunition by the million at a converted pencil factory in Bavaria—to discuss Elmer? He's a clerk, isn't he?"
Major Staines nodded.
"He was," he said, "in the Accountancy Department. He disappeared from view three weeks ago, and an examination of his books showed that he had been systematically stealing funds which were under his control."
Mike Brixan made a little face.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "He seemed to be a fairly quiet and inoffensive man. But surely you don't want me to go after him? That is a job for Scotland Yard."
"I don't want you to go after him," said Staines slowly, "because—well, he has been found."
There was something very significant and sinister in his tone, and, before he could take the little slip of paper from the portfolio on the desk, Michael Brixan knew what was coming.
"Not the Head-Hunter?" he gasped. Even Michael knew about the Head-Hunter.
Staines nodded. "Here's the note."
He handed the typewritten slip across to his sub ordinate, and Michael read:
"You will find a box in the hedge by the railway arch at Esher. The Head-Hunter."
"The Head-Hunter!" repeated Michael mechanically, and whistled.
"We found the box, and, of course, we found the unfortunate Elmer's head, sliced neatly from his body," said Staines. "This is the twelfth head in seven years," Staines went on, "and in almost every case—in fact, in every case except two—the victim has been a fugitive from justice. Even if the treaty question had not been settled, Mike, I should have brought you back."
"But this is a police job," said the young man, troubled.
"Technically you're a policeman," interrupted his chief, "and the Foreign Secretary wishes you to take this case in hand, and he does this with the full approval of the Secretary of State, who of course controls Scotland Yard. So far, the death of Francis Elmer and the discovery of his gruesome remains have not been given out to the Press. There was such a fuss last time that the police want to keep this quiet. They have had an inquest—I guess the jury was picked, but it would be high treason to say so—and the usual verdict has been returned. The only information I can give you is that Elmer was seen by his niece a week ago in Chichester. We discovered this before the man's fate was known. The girl, Adele Leamington, is working for the Knebworth Film Corporation, which has its studio in Chichester. Old Knebworth is an American and a very good sort. The girl is a sort of super-chorus-extra, that's the word—"
"Extra! I knew that infernal word would turn up again! Go on, sir—what do you wish me to do?"
"Go along and see her," said the chief. "Here is the address."
"Is there a Mrs. Elmer?" asked Michael as he put the slip into his pocket. The other nodded.
"Yes, but she can throw no light upon the murder. She, by the way, is the only person who knows he is dead. She had not seen her husband for a month, and apparently they had been more or less separated for years. She benefits considerably by his death, for he was well insured in her favour."
Michael read again the gruesome note from the Head-Hunter.
"What is your theory about this?" he asked curiously.
"The general idea is that he is a lunatic who feels called upon to mete out punishment to defaulters. But the two exceptions disturb that theory pretty considerably."
Staines lay back in his chair, a puzzled frown on his face.
"Take the case of Willitt. His head was found on Clapham Common two years ago. Willitt was a well off man, the soul of honesty; well liked, and he had a very big balance at his bank. Crewling, the second exception, who was one of the first of the Hunter's victims, was also above suspicion, though in his case there is no doubt he was mentally unbalanced a few weeks before his death.
"The typewritten notification has invariably been typed out on the same machine. In every case you have the half-obliterated 'u', the faint 'g', and the extra ordinary alignment which the experts are unanimous in ascribing to a very old and out-of-date Kost machine. Find the man who uses that typewriter and you have probably found the murderer. But it is very unlikely that he will ever be found that way, for the police have published photographs pointing out the peculiarities of type, and I should imagine that Mr. Hunter does not use this machine except to announce the demise of his victims."
Michael Brixan went back to his flat, a little more puzzled and a little more worried by his unusual commission. He moved and had his being in the world of high politics. The finesses of diplomacy were his peculiar study, and the normal abnormalities of humanity, the thefts and murders and larcencies which occupied the attention of the constabulary, did not come into his purview.
"Bill," said he, addressing the small terrier that lay on the hearth-rug before the fireless grate of his sitting-room, "this is where I fall down. But whether I do or not, I'm going to meet an extra—ain't that grand?"
Bill wagged his tail agreeably.