BIGGLES AND THE PIRATE TREASURE
by Captain W. E. Johns
V. BIGGLES BUYS A WATCH (Pages 80 – 92)
This story was originally published in THE EAGLE ANNUAL – NUMBER 2 – published in 1952 by Hulton Press Ltd.
“Detective Air-Inspector Bigglesworth, walking briskly down the Strand towards his office at Scotland Yard, (Scotland Yard used to be a 4 Whitehall Place, London until 1967), pulled up as a hand fell on his arm”. The person stopping him is Flight-Sergeant Crane. They chat and Crane says “Seems a long while since we sweated together under those bloomin’ palms in North Africa” (presumably a reference to ‘Biggles Sweeps the Desert’ although the character of Crane is not specifically named in that book). Crane is now a doorkeeper at “a big store down the road”. Crane asks Biggles if he wants to buy a watch. Crane explains that he has been the victim of a con. “I was on my job when who should come along but McDew – you remember, that flashy, red-headed corporal rigger at Karga Oasis (the setting for ‘Biggles Sweeps the Desert’) in the war? You had him posted as a no-use scrounger”. Biggles nodded. “I remember the fellow. Bad type”. Crane continues “Well, he told me the tale. Just got to London and had his pocket picked, he said. The banks were shut of course, and there he was, no pals and nothing to live on till Monday morning. Would I lend him a fiver? I ses not likely. So he ses I’ll leave you my watch for security. It cost ten pounds so you’re safe. I’ll be back for it on Monday, don’t you worry. I ses fair enough. I give him the fiver and he gives me the watch. Did he come back for it on Monday? No. Nor any other day. After about a week I ses to myself, you fool, you let him sell you a watch. It’s a good watch, mind you, but I don’t happen to want it”. Biggles laughed. “He took you to the cleaners all right. Still, I won’t see you stuck with it. I’ll have it”. Biggles gives Crane five pounds and takes the watch. As Biggles passes a jeweller’s shop he goes in and asks “What you mind telling me how much that watch would cost, new?” The surprising answer is between ten and twelve pounds. Biggles asks how much the jeweller would give him for it. The man takes the watch in a back room and when he returns, he says he wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. Biggles is then grabbed by Inspector Gaskin of C Division. Gaskin had been tipped off by the jeweller. Biggles and Gaskin both return to the Yard in Gaskin’s car. Gaskins says the watch can be bought wholesale in the country where it is made for “about thirty bob” (30 shillings. There were 20 shillings to the pound prior to decimalisation on Monday 15th February 1971. So that would be £1.50 in modern money). “By the time it had paid export duty, transport, import duty and purchase tax, wholesaler’s and retailer’s profits, it would cost, over here, not less than ten pounds. So if all those expenses could be avoided a fellow handling the watch could make a nice profit on it. By making three or four pounds a time on them, a thousand watches of that sort would net a lot of money”. Biggles nodded. “I get it. So that watch was smuggled in?” Gaskin confirms that is the case. But you couldn’t sell it to a respectable shop as all watches imported under licence have a special mark; no mark means it was smuggled in. Biggles returns to his colleagues in the Operations Room. Ginger asks him what he has been doing. “Buying a watch” Biggles replies, showing Ginger his purchase. Biggles tells Ginger to take some money from the safe, go round the big stores, clubs and hotels and speak to hall porters to see if any have a watch to sell. (A new paragraph starts after a break). “In an hour Ginger was back. With exaggerated deliberation he laid five watches on Biggles’s desk, in each case naming the hotel where it had been bought”. Biggles gets Ginger to get Marcel Brissac on the phone and Biggles and Marcel discuss watches. “Poor old Marcel is in a flap,” he told Ginger. “He says there are enough smuggled watches in France for everyone to wear one round each wrist and ankle and still leave plenty over. He says they’re being flown into the country at night”. Ginger has a description of the man dealing with the watches. “A slick-looking type with red hair, who speaks with a slight Scotch accent”. Biggles nodded. “That’s the man. Do you remember a tricky corporal rigger in North Africa named McDew – Roderick McDew? I have a clear recollection of him because he’s that rare thing, a dishonest Scot”. Ginger remembers him. Biggles sends Ginger to get McDew’s home address from R.A.F. Records and also to get information from Doyle of Air Intelligence about unidentified aircraft crossing the coast. Two hours later, Ginger returns with the information. The address was Balburnie, near Forres, Scotland (Forres is about 25 miles northeast of Inverness). There had been several scattered crossings of the coast, except at one point. For three consecutive months south of Moray Firth, on the occasion of the full moon. Ginger is then told to ring the Ops room and tell Algy to get the Proctor topped up. They will fly to Inverness Airport as the moon will be full on Thursday. (A new paragraph starts after a break). “And so it came about that Thursday morning found Ginger, with Biggles at the wheel of a hired car, cruising along one of the few, narrow roads, that wind for many lonely miles across the rolling heather-clad hills between the Moray Firth and Speyside. On this particularly road was the croft known as Balburnie”. (W. E. Johns lived in this area, when he lived at Pitchroy Lodge in Scotland). Visiting the address of McDew, Biggles speaks to his father and says he served with his son and happened to be passing. The father says his son comes home once a month and will be home tonight. He says his son loves walking in the heather, especially at night, when he often goes to Dubh Chtais. They leave and later see McDew driving past in a racy-looking sports car. (A new paragraph starts after a break). “At ten o’clock the moon crept up over the distant hills to reveal a scene that was heart-chilling in its utter loneliness”. Biggles and Ginger are hidden and waiting. In due course a shadowy figure appears and, later, “softly through the still air came the sound that told Ginger that their vigil had not been in vain. It was the drone of an aircraft”. (“Their vigil had not been in vain” is the illustration opposite page 76). A light appeared on the ground and three times a torch flashed upwards. A helicopter lands. Biggles and Ginger approach quietly and when they are seen, McDew runs off carrying a bag. Ginger has to shoot the rotor blades to stop the helicopter pilot trying to escape. The pilot is handcuffed. The man claims to have done nothing and knows nothing about any watches. “In that case they must be in the bag your friend was carrying,” said Biggles evenly. “He will, no doubt, try to get to London with them. Well, he won’t get far. The number of his car is known, and police are waiting for it on every road leading south. It looks as if they’ll catch him with more watches than he will need for some time - the sort of watches that aren’t easy to explain”. “As a matter of fact, this is just what happened.”