Constable Smith had taken this case very seriously. The War may have been over for a couple of years now, but when it came to any form of threats, it’s like a mini-war on its own. Herbert never left anything out in his statements and in the end, there had been four policemen stationed in areas most likely where the perpetrator may linger. There were additional policemen patrolling the areas, making Herbert rather uncomfortable, as his story eventually became public, the very thing he strived to keep a secret.
One story that popped up every now and then was a strange, hooded man, with only one leg, leaning heavily on a crutch, hiding in the dark alleys. But every time he’d been seen, or claimed to have been seen, he was gone. It started becoming an urban legend; how a one-legged man was able to evade anyone with two legs.
However, the story persisted, and Constable Smith noticed that when this supposed mysterious figure was sighted, it had always been during late evenings and night times. When Herbert first heard about it, he dismissed it entirely, believing that people were only making it up to have their own kind of Jack the Ripper case; a man who evaded the police for the last few years before the turn of the new century.
One evening, Herbert was invited to spend an evening with a couple of friends and so closed his shop earlier than usual. He told the police officer that it was not necessary for him to be there and kindly thanked him for his service. The policeman was uncomfortable to leave him, but Herbert insisted. After being dismissed, Herbert went to visit his friends and for the first time in months, he thoroughly enjoyed himself and forgot all his troubles.
The clock struck 10pm and thanking his host, took his coat and hat and started walking home. Halfway on his journey he heard the ominous sound of wood tapping on the pavement. He turned, but saw nothing. After a while, straining his eyes, he could just make out a shape in the shadows of an alley. All those years watching for the enemy were engraved into his mind and he called out to the figure.
“I know you’re there! Come out and face me!” At first he thought it was just his mind playing tricks on him, until he heard a match strike and to his horror, saw a figure lighting a cigarette.
“Just look at you,” said the figure in a cold tone. His voice was rather raspy, as if his vocal cords were burnt and had just learnt to speak again. “You have a wife who loves you, children who adore you and a country who honours you for your service and bravery.”
Herbert went ice cold. He felt his legs would give way and stumble to the floor. “Philip?” He whispered. A harsh laugh came and the tapping on the cobblestone echoed in the alley. Stepping into the light, Philip emerged. Herbert fell to his knees, unable to control his emotions. For so long, he had thought this man dead, yet in the meantime he had been alive. But how?
“Yes, it’s me, my friend!” Herbert slowly got up, but did not dare walk towards him. “I see you are so happy and content, though it must be such a bore cutting hair all day when you came home a hero. A loving husband and, oh yes, a bunch of friends to share your happy life with, all in the while forgetting the one who always had your back.” Philip was trying his best to control his anger, but he couldn’t.
“I never forgot you!” Herbert stammered. “When our compound was struck, I searched for you; I called for you and asked everyone I came across if they had any news of your whereabouts. I searched all the lists for your name, but no-one was able to give me any satisfying answers. You were reported either missing or dead.”
“Yes,” whispered Philip, “I suppose your minor injury was tinnitus, you know, from all those bombs constantly going off around us. But I suppose you forgot all about that, didn’t you?”
“I NEVER forgot about that!” Herbert shouted, now angry; not just because of Philip’s tone, but the fact that he had been alive all this time and never made himself known.
“How did you make it back to South Africa?” Philip looked up at the moon for a while, took a puff from his cigarette before answering. “I came by ship that left two months after you departed. It took the doctors a long time to ‘get me right’. A landmine cost me my right leg, rendered part of my arm useless and to my wife Susan, impotent.” His tears were glistening in the moonlight.
Herbert could only stare. “Wait. Susan knew you were alive?”
“Only when I got back and went to our flat to surprise her did she know I was alive. I asked her not to tell anyone, as there were ’issues’ I needed to work through. But as the days went by, my son James didn’t see me as a hero like your precious Amanda and Adrian did. I was a one-legged sympathetic monster in his eyes. He never let me near him.
“When Susan and I wanted to start over again, I made a horrible discovery that I couldn’t give her another child. In the end, in the eyes of both my wife and son, I was just a weight they couldn’t lift, or care to carry. She threw me out and went to live with her parents, driving an already wedge between my son and I further to a point where it could never be fixed.”
So that’s why Susan left so abruptly. “I honoured my pledge to Susan,” Herbert said cautiously, trying to keep the peace. “I did it out of love and memory for you.”
Philip cocked his head slightly and said, “Oh, how heroic of you to do that! Where would the world be without the honourable Herbert Matthews?”
Taking a deep breath and trying to control his now rising anger Herbert retorted, “I didn’t ask for this and neither did you. We went to war and it wasn’t roses and poems as any youngster thought it would be! We faced extreme challenges, but we lived to tell the tale. Only you kept yourself at bay because you didn’t want anyone to think less of you? What happened to the Philip I knew and loved? You were the one who always took risks and laughed in the face of danger!”
“That Philip is DEAD!” Philip shouted, tears now running down his cheeks. “I lost EVERYTHING. The hotel was my father’s legacy, but this war took it from me. It’s now in the hands of the bank and let’s be honest. Who would want a manager who doesn’t have two legs and can’t use his arm? Did you know that I am also blind in my left eye? The blast sent shards that struck me in the face, leaving me unable to see out of it. My beloved wife only loved me for the money the hotel had brought in and the minute it dwindled, she left!”
Herbert thought for a moment. “Then why the notes? Why smash my window and threaten my wife? What were you hoping to gain?”
Philip smiled wryly. “To cause the man who left me behind to always watch over his shoulder. Who made me look the way I do,” gesturing to his eye, arm and lastly, his leg.
“But I couldn’t find you!” Herbert pleaded.
“Well you didn’t try hard enough, did you? I was stuck under debris and being closer to the bomb; the smoke I inhaled caused me to have chronic complications of the larynx. Oh yes, that’s something else I should thank you for, by the way. Not being able to speak to people without being looked at in a funny way.” Philip was now fuming.
“What about the drawing of the gun in your notes that you sent to me?” Herbert asked.
Philip sneered. “That’s just a rendition of the gun you so heroically used to save many prisoners of war in Italy. “The Colt 45 pistol.”
Herbert thought back. “I thought I lost it after the bomb destroyed our compound.”
Philip looked almost manic now. “No you didn’t. I found it and here it is!” Before Herbert could react, Philip raised the Colt towards Herbert and fired.
As Herbert lay on the ground, he heard a policeman’s whistle blowing and was fighting the blackness that began to overwhelm him. He heard shouts and running feet racing towards him and then another shot was fired. He tried to look up, but the world went black.