The case of the mystery gardener
A short story by Ryan Cartwright - CC:By-SASkip to content
Published 18 Oct 2021
This short story is one of the adventures of the Roboteers. It is written as a blog by one of the gang. You can read more of their adventures on the Roboteers page.
One of the strangest cases the Roboteers had to solve recently wasn’t even a real case. What I mean is that nobody asked us to help out and nobody had anything for us to do. The main reason for that is because it involved nothing wrong at all. No missing cat, no problem computers and to be honest no inconvenience for anyone. In fact it all started with what seemed like somebody doing their neighbours a favour.
We were sitting in our headquarters - which you may remember is half of Martin’s shed - and doing a bit of robotics and building. We had no homework, for a change, and because we had no cases we were taking the time to do some of other hobby - building cool robots.
I was doing a bit of research and opened the web browser on my laptop. It opened to a local news page I had been looking at a few days before and one of the new items caught my eye.
“Hey, look at this.” I said to the others, “Someone has been doing other people’s gardening for them - in the middle of the night.”
The others didn’t even look up so I continued.
“People go to bed and wake up to find their flower beds have been weeded and new plants put in. Listen:” I started to read from the article “‘Mrs Kettlepit was actually very pleased with the result of the mystery gardener. Her rose bush was pruned and replanted better than before.’ One of the people even found their wobbly paving was relaid.”
The others still didn’t look up.
“Isn’t that weird?” I asked
“What do you mean?” Tim muttered without stopping the wiring he was doing.
“Well, it’s weird that people’s gardens are being made better without them knowing.”
“So, somebody is doing other people a favour? It’s rare but it’s not that odd. People can be kind to each other.” Martin said.
“Yes, they can Martin.” I was getting a little impatient now, “but usually those favours are reasonably small: buying some flowers, walking a dog, picking up a bit of shopping. The larger stuff is usually done with both sides knowing about. It’s like me painting the shed without asking your Dad.”
“He’d probably thank you – as long as it wasn’t in a colour he didn’t like.” Martin scoffed.
“But he would expect to know about it before hand!” I was getting nowhere so I changed the focus. “The other thing I found interesting is that not all of the garden is done. It’s just one part of each garden.”
Tim finally looked up and said “That is a bit weird. A bit like painting only half the shed. Maybe the mystery gardener is only doing part of each garden so they can get to more gardens?”
“Maybe,” I said, still reading, “but I find it a bit of a mystery really… what?” the two boys had both stopped what they were doing and were staring at each other with a roll of the eyes.
“Oh dear.” Martin sighed
“What?!” I repeated.
“You’ve found a mystery.” He said.
“You tell her,” Martin looked at Tim.
“Priya,” Tim said calmly, putting down his screwdriver, “you know that you love a mystery. You love solving them, you seem to get a kick out of them.”
“Well I like helping people, if that’s what you mean?”
“Yep and that’s great,” Tim continued and I waited for the ‘but’, “but,” there it was, “you can get a little, well focussed on them.”
“Obsessed.” Martin chipped in. I think he was trying to be helpful. He failed.
“Maybe not quite that much,” Tim shot Martin a glance, “but they do take up a lot of your energy when you get one.”
“And our energy too.” sighed Martin, smirking.
“Hello? “ I threw open my arms and gestured around the headquarters, “We’re a detective agency. Solving mysteries is what we do.”
“Yeah, we know and we love it.” Martin smiled, “I just think you enjoy it a little bit more than we do.” At this they both laughed. I didn’t see what was funny and I think it showed.
“Relax Priya,” Tim smiled, “we’re fine with a mystery and we do enjoy it. We just noticed that when you get your teeth into one, it creates a lot more trouble for us than you think it will. But, really it’s fine, it can be quite exciting.”
“So you’re saying we shouldn’t be involved in this mystery?”, I asked.
“Hang on, I didn’t think this was leading to us getting involved!”, Martin replied.
“Well why not? It’s interesting. Why are these gardens being improved? Why is it happening in secret? How is it happening in secret? Who is doing it?”
“Why should it be us who finds out?” Tim asked.
“Well, nobody else is going to.” I retorted. I couldn’t see why they had a problem with this. I gave up and asked them outright. “Why do you two have a problem with us looking into this?”
“Well, nobody seems to be very upset about it.” Tim said. ”It’s not like anyone is going to be very grateful if we find out who is doing this and stop them.”
“We don’t have to stop them, we just need to find out who is doing it and why.” I said.
“I think there’s a reason they are doing it in secret!” Martin said, “They clearly don’t want anyone to know who they are. I don’t know why that would be but they might not be happy if we reveal them to the world.”
“OK, so we find out but don’t publicise it. We don’t even have to let the person who is doing know that we know who they are.” I said. I was not going to be moved on this. I was beginning to think they might be right about the obsession thing.
Tim threw his hands up. “Okay, okay, you win Priya!” he grinned, “We can look into it and see where it goes. It’s not like we have anything better to do right now anyway.”
“Yeah, I suppose I was just enjoying the rest while it lasted.” Martin grinned. “Go on then, what do you think we can do about this mystery gardener?”
“Well we could find out who it is and why they are doing it, for a start.” I said.
++I SUSPECT I AM GOING TO BE DOING SOME LATE-NIGHT SPYING AGAIN++
The voice that spoke was Sugar, the robot. He is the fourth member of our gang and the reason why we exist in the first place. Although he started as Tim’s toy robot, he came alive and became very much his own person. No really, he did – go read the other stories about him and our adventures. They will also tell you why he’s called Sugar.
He was right as well, in a lot of our cases we had relied on evidence gathered by Sugar. Usually we would put him somewhere hidden and have him report to us later on what he saw. He’d found out about things as varied as planet-threatening aliens and mice invading someone’s home. All of which helped us solve the cases. Of course we didn’t tell anyone it was him. As a living robot, let alone as a piece of alien technology, if people found out about him, he’d be in a lot of danger. Come to think of it, so would we all.
“Now that you mention it, Sugar,” I smiled, “I think that’s a good idea. The only way we can find out who is doing all this is to see them in action.”
“And so you want to hide Sugar somewhere to record it all?” Tim said and I nodded. “You know,” he continued, “I do wonder if we shouldn’t just buy some spy-cameras or a drone. Just to give poor old Sugar a rest.”
“That’s a great idea,” I smiled, “who’s going to pay for them?”
“Yeah, good point.” Tim said.
++I DO NOT OBJECT. IT IS EASY AND I LIKE BEING OUTDOORS++ Sugar said.
“You didn’t say that when it rained last time.” Martin laughed.
++NO, I DO NOT LIKE THE RAIN,++ Sugar replied, ++BUT I DO ENJOY ESPIONAGE++
“Hang on,” Martin interrupted, “Have any of the gardens been done twice?”
I checked the article and said “No, why?”
“Well we’d need to know where to place Sugar and there’s no point him being at one of the gardens that’s been done already if the gardener is not coming back.”
“Hmm, you’re right.” I said, “Perhaps we should do a little more research first.” I saw the other two exchange a grin, “Okay, I’ll do it then.” I sighed.
The gardener strikes again
A few days later there had been another garden incident and we chatted about it in the shed.
“As far as I can see there’s no real connection between the gardens apart from that they are all part of the same development.” I explained.
++WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?++ Sugar asked.
“A development is when a builder puts up a bunch of houses as part of the same project. So, in this, case it means all the houses were built at the same time.” I checked my notes, “Which was six years ago.”
“I don’t think that helps us really, does it?” Tim said, “I mean unless the builder had a contract to come and re-do everyone’s garden.”
I laughed, “No, you’re right. I’m not sure it’s relevant. It’s just the only thing they have in common.”
“So what was there before then?” Martin asked. Sometimes I forget he only moved here recently. He seems like such a solid member of the team that it feels like he’s always been here.
“Allotments.” Tim said. I remember because my uncle’s friend had one and there was a bunch of protests about building houses on them. In the end, they put some new allotments a few streets away and gave the people one of those.”
“Maybe the gardens are being done in the order they were built.” Martin asked. “I mean if we knew that, we’d know which one they would do next.”
I shook my head. “There’s no way for us to tell which order they were built anyway.”
“Are you sure there is no other connection?” Tim asked and I shook my head.
++THERE IS A CONNECTION++
We all looked at Sugar.
“Why do you say that, Sugar?” Time asked.
++THE AREAS THAT ARE IMPROVED ALL INVOLVING DIGGING OF SOME KIND++
“I don’t follow.” I said.
++THERE MAY BE A PATTERN IN THE AREAS CHOSEN TO BE WORKED ON++
“So how does that help us?” Martin looked as puzzled as I felt.
++IF THERE IS A PATTERN WE MAY BE ABLE TO PREDICT THE NEXT GARDEN++
We all shrugged. It was worth a try. I laid out a street map of the area I had printed. I had marked the gardens that had been improved.
“These are the gardens that have been done,” I pointed to the markings, “and I’ve put a number in each to indicate the order they were done in. As you can see it’s pretty random.”
++WHICH AREAS WERE DUG IN EACH?++ Sugar asked. I took out my pen and drew some circles around the parts of each garden. ++THERE IS ANOTHER PATTERN++ He said, ++THEY ARE IN A LINE++
“There are gaps though,” I said pointing, “Some of the gardens in between have been missed out. The line carries on outside the back fence here as well.” I drew the line connecting each plot and it stretched out beyond the back fences at an angle.
++WHAT IS IN THAT AREA?++ Sugar asked.
“Nothing now,” Tim said, “It used to be a factory though. Now it’s just waste ground.”
“What are you thinking Sugar?” I asked.
++THE LAYOUT SUGGESTS THAT SOMEBODY IS LOOKING FOR SOMETHING++ He replied.
We all just sat there, not knowing what to say. Eventually Martin spoke up.
“Why do you think that?”
++BECAUSE THEY ARE DIGGING ALONG A STRAIGHT LINE. THERE IS NO NEED TO DO THAT UNLESS THEY HAVE A PARTICULAR INTEREST IN THAT LINE.++
“Oh!” I exclaimed, “I see what you mean. If somebody knew something was in the group along that line but not exactly where they might dig up each garden along the line. But then, why have they missed these gardens?”
”Maybe they are hiding what they are doing.” I suggested, “Maybe they know exactly where to look but doing the other gardens just makes it part of a bigger mystery.”
“That all sounds a bit suspicious Priya.” Martin said, “Isn’t this just someone helping out their neighbours?”
“I don’t know.” I said, “The pattern is interesting though. Why that particular line?”
++THEY MAY BE LOOKING FOR AN UNDERGROUND PIPE THAT FOLLOWS THAT LINE++ Sugar said
Tim shook his head, “No, if they were looking for a pipe they’d be doing it officially. They must looking for something else. Something that might be somewhere along that line.“
“Was there anything along that line before the houses?” Martin said.
“Well, the factory wall was pretty much there.” Tim said, he had looked up some old maps and showed us the layout.
“So, somebody could be looking for something that was next to the wall?” I said.
“I suppose,” Tim said, “but what and why wait until now?” He sat back and sighed, “I still think this is a wild goose chase.”
++I THINK WE CAN WORK OUT THE NEXT GARDEN++ Sugar said, looking at Tim's plans. We all looked at him, expectantly.
“How?” I said. I couldn’t see anything predictable in the pattern.
++THE ORDER OF THE GARDENS BEING DUG IS TO DO ONE AT ONE END OF THE LINE AND THEN ONE AT THE OTHER++ Sugar said ++IF THE ORDER FOLLOWS THEN THE NEXT HOUSE WILL BE ONE OF THESE TWO AT THE SOUTH END OF THE ROAD++ He pointed at two houses on the map.
We all sat back as we saw what he had seen and said “Ohhh” in unison at the realisation.
“It won’t be that one.” said Martin pointing to one of the two houses, “It’s right next to the one done last week and they seem to leave gaps between the house they do”
“Which means it must be this one.” Tim and I said together pointing to the other house.
Suddenly we had a plan and we sat together for a while sorting the details. If we were right the next garden would be done that night and we were going to have to move fast to get Sugar into place. We couldn’t get him into the garden in time and besides he might be spotted. The fence was too thin for him to balance on and, again, he’d be seen. We needed somewhere he could see everything and yet not be seen.
“Can’t we disguise you as a postbox or something?” Martin said to Sugar.
Sugar looked blankly back at him. He didn’t show emotions but he experienced them and I was guessing he was a little worried that Martin was going to paint him red!
“No, but we could disguise him as a lamppost!” Tim exclaimed.
“A lamppost?!” I said.
“Bear with me.” Tim said calmly, “This lamppost is in the best place. If we put Sugar onto the lamppost, he will be able to see everything!”
++BUT, I WILL BE SEEN++
“No you won’t.” Tim smiled, “If you are above the light, then anyone looking up will only see the light and not you behind it. Hmm, we need to be careful how we do this though. As interesting as it is we don’t have permission so we don’t want to invade people’s privacy.”
“Good point.” I said, “Every other time, we’ve had permission from at least someone in the house. If we use the lamppost we need to make sure Sugar is only looking down the public footpath. He mustn’t look into any gardens. Even if the gardener turns up, we should have enough just to see who they are and which garden they go into. Beyond that I’m not sure we’d find out much more unless they find what they are looking for anyway. Do you reckon you can do it, Sugar?”
++I WOULD NEED A WAY TO MAKE SURE I STAYED ATTACHED TO THE LAMPPOST BUT, YES IT CAN BE DONE AND I CAN MAKE SURE TO ONLY LOOK DOWN THE PATH++ He replied
And, just like that, we had a plan. A plan to catch a gardener who was helping people but didn’t want anyone to know who they were or why they were doing it. Like I said, this was one of strangest cases.
Sugar the lampost
The next day we spent devising a way to keep Sugar attached to a lamp post.
We thought about using magnets but Tim was concerned that the strength of Sugar’s magnets might no hold him if it gets windy.
We considered fixing him to the post by tape or something but then realised none of us could get up there. So we realised that Sugar was going to have to climb up and fix himself to it somehow.
Martin suggested we make a clamp for him to use and within a few minutes had made one of out Meccano. It was light but strong and we got Sugar to test it on a nearby lamp. It worked a treat and best of all you could hardly see Sugar or the clamp at all when he was up there.
So that night Sugar set off and the rest of us waited. It took two days but finally Sugar came back with something.
He had recorded the alley right behind the garden we thought might be one of the ones to be done next and sure enough, once it had been dark for some time, we saw a figure walking along the alley. It looked like a man but to be fair it could have been anyone. The figure walked slowly and carefully and was pushing something as they went. It was thin and about one metre tall with a single, large wheel on one end which rolled along the ground.
“What is that thing?” said Martin, squinting and moving closer to the screen.
++ I DO NOT KNOW BUT WATCH THE PERSON WALKS SLOWER WHEN THE WHEEL IS ON THE GROUND ++ said Sugar.
Sure enough the figure got slower and was looking right at the wheel as they walked. Suddenly Tim sat up with a smile. “I know what that is!” he exclaimed, “It’s used for measuring distances as you walk.”
We all looked at him blankly so he continued. “I’ve seen grounds keepers use them on sports pitches. The wheel is exactly say a half metre around the edge - “
“Circumference” I corrected
“- yep that, “ said Tim, “and you count how many rotations it does and that tells you how far you’ve walked. This person is measuring the distance from somewhere.” he looked at me as I was nearest the laptop, “Rewind to where they first put the wheel down.”
I did and we saw that the figure put the wheel down next to a brick placed alongside the fence further back along the path.
“Odd place for a brick to be” said Martin
“I think that’s outside the garden that was done last week.” I said. “This person is clearly measuring from where they left off last time.”
++ SO THEY ARE LOOKING FOR SOMETHING RATHER THAN JUST DIGGING++ said Sugar
It certainly looked that way. I let the video play and eventually we saw the figure stop, right outside the garden we thought might be next. Then they looked around and climbed over the fence, first putting a shovel over the fence. When they looked around we got a look at their face. They were a man about the same age as Martin’s Dad and just before they jumped the fence they put a mask over the bottom of their face.
“That’s probably so they don’t want to be caught on CCTV that the house owner may have.” said Tim, smiling as we had caught the man’s face before he covered it.
We watched a bit more as we saw some movement over the fence but we couldn’t see what the man was doing. Tim complained that he wished Sugar had pointed at the garden too but Sugar reminded him that we did not want to film somebody’s garden without their permission. Tim agreed. Privacy is such a pain at times but it is important to respect it.
I sped the video up as it was a bit boring watching a fence. Eventually the man came back over the fence with just the shovel.
“Whatever he was looking for he didn’t find it.” I said.
The man picked up the measuring wheel thing and walked back the way he came. It took a few days but eventually we found out that the garden we saw him go over was the latest to be done by the mystery gardener. The owner wasn’t happy this time either as apparently a rose bush had been disturbed and they were worried it wouldn’t grow any roses this year. People worry about weird things.
* * *
We spent a good while trying to work out what to do next and eventually we realised that unless we could film inside the garden there was nothing else we could do here.
So we were going to give up and do something else.
Then, a few days later, Sugar said something odd.
++ I THINK I KNOW WHAT THE MAN WAS LOOKING FOR++
“Really?” I said, “What?”
++ JEWELLERY ++
“Buried in someone’s garden?” asked Tim.
++ YES BUT IT WASN’T A GARDEN WHEN HE BURIED IT. LOOK ++
Sugar pointed to the laptop and showed us an old news story. It seems there had been a burglary of a local jeweller some years ago. They had caught the man who did through his fingerprints.
“I don’t see the connection with the gardens.” said Martin. To be honest neither did I.
++ THEY DID NOT RECOVER THE STOLEN JEWELS ++ Sugar said ++ THE MAN WAS SENT TO PRISON BUT THEY NEVER RECOVERED THE JEWELS ++
“So you think the man we saw is the man from the robbery?” I said.
++ YES, LOOK ++ Sugar showed us a photo from the new story. It did look quite a bit like the man we saw in the video but younger.
“But he’s in prison isn’t he?” asked Martin.
“Not if he got released.” I said, “The burglary was about eight years ago. He might be out of prison now.”
++ AND LOOKING FOR HIS TREASURE ++ said Sugar
“Why do you think they are buried in a garden?” Tim repeated his question.
++ PERHAPS THEY WERE BURIED IN THE ALLOTMENTS. YOU SAID THAT THE HOUSES WERE NEW. WHEN THE ROBBERY TOOK PLACE, THAT AREA WAS ALLOTMENTS ++ Sugar said
“Oh!” I exclaimed, “I see. The burglar buried the jewels in an allotment but now he doesn’t know where because the allotments have been replaced by the gardens.”
++ YES ++ said Sugar
“So he is using the measuring wheel to measure out each allotment space and see which garden it falls into.” said Martin, just as excited.
Tim also caught onto what we were saying. “So he knew it was alongside the factory wall but that’s gone. He also knew it was in one of the allotments, probably on the edge, but they’ve gone too. So he has to systematically check each garden to find his treasure.”
++ EXACTLY ++ said Sugar. ++ WE CAN SEE THAT ONLY THE GARDENS ON THIS SIDE OF THE SIDE ROAD HAVE BEEN DUG UP. WHATEVER HE IS LOOKING FOR HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE GARDEN AND EVERYTHING TO DO WITH WHAT WAS THERE BEFORE++
“OK,” I said, “how do we prove it?”
“We need to video the next garden.” Tim said.
“No that won’t prove anything other than he is digging in it.” Martin said. “We need to connect the jewellery with the garden.”
“We can’t do that.” said Priya. “We have to pass this onto the Police.”
“They won’t listen to us” said Tim. “I don’t mean to be rude but to them, we’re just a bunch of kids.”
I nodded, “That’s true but if we convince the owner of the next house to let us we could try and find the jewels.”
“How do you know which one they are in?” Martin said. “We could be digging in loads of gardens.”
++ THERE IS ONLY ONE LEFT TO TRY ++ Sugar said, point to the map we had from earlier. ++ OF THE TWO LEFT, THIS ONE IS NOT COVERED BY THE AREA OF THE ALLOTMENTS ONLY THE OTHER ONE IS. IF THE MAN HAS NOT FOUND THE JEWELS YET THEN IT MUST BE IN THIS ONE. ++
“Huh,” Martin smiled, “My Dad always says that if you’ve lost something it always in the last place you look.”
++ ISN’T THAT BECAUSE AFTER YOU FIND IT, YOU STOP LOOKING? ++ asked Sugar. Martin stopped smiling because he realised his Dad had been making a joke all along.
“But, “ said Tim, “even we know which garden is next, how do we convince the owner to let us dig there?”
“Reward.” I said. “Look there was a reward offered for the return of the jewels. If we tell the owner they can have the reward, they might let us dig there.”
“Why can’t we have the reward?” Tim asked.
“Because, we’re kids.” I retorted, “They don’t let us keep rewards. Besides we could get something better – publicity.”
All three of them looked at me like I was speaking another language.
“If the Roboteers get in the news about this, we’ll get more clients. Ones with proper mysteries to solve.”
“Proper?” smirked Tim.
“Well, ones like this.” I said, “Look I like finding lost dogs and stuff but it would be good to get into another adventure like the one when Sugar first came alive and the one with Martin’s troll.”
“That wasn’t my troll” Martin said, “He just camped out in my garden.”
I laughed, “True, but don’t you miss that kind of thing?”
The two boys nodded and Sugar said he did. He can’t really nod – his head doesn’t move that way.
“What about the thief.” Martin said. “Won’t he be annoyed if we stop him?”
“He’ll be in jail won’t he?” Tim wondered.
“No.” I shook my head. “He’s already been in jail for the burglary. I don’t think they can put him in jail for digging up gardens.”
“The publicity will draw attention to us though. Suppose he comes after us!” Tim sounded very worried.
“Do you think we shouldn’t do it then?” I asked. If there was real concern about our safety then I didn’t want to go ahead.
“Maybe we can do it without making it seem like we were looking for the jewels.” Martin said.
“You mean like we are earning some extra money or something?” I said.
“Yes but it would have to be a good reason for us to just turn up and do the gardening.”
We sat and thought for a bit and then Tim yelled out “Neighbour week!”. We looked at him blankly so he went on. “Next week is Neighbour week. They were talking about it at school. It’s to encourage the community to help each other other and they asked us to think of ideas that we could do that.”
“So we could do this person’s gardening as part of that?” I asked.
“Yes, maybe. I mean it might work.”
“Worth a try.” I said. “So the first thing we do is contact the people offering the reward and see if it is still available. Then we speak to the house owner.”
A good deed
So that’s what we did. The reward was still available and so we spoke to the house owner. I lovely man called Mr Datta who took a little convincing that we weren’t trying to trick him but once we showed him the flyers for Neighbour week he said ok.
We worked out from the map where the allotment would have been and then the three of us did some weeding in the garden, making sure we covered that area too. We also mowed his grass. It took a while and it was very hard work but eventually we found something. Buried a little below the surface we found a metal box. Inside was holdall type bag with plastic inside and inside the plastic – we were careful to keep our gardening gloves on – there were lots and lots of jewels.
So next we told Mr Datta what we had found and suggested he phoned the police. They took the box and the bag for forensics. They were looking for anything that showed who put the bag there. They also kept the garden under better surveillance. Eventually they caught the mystery gardener.
He was the burglar from the jewellers and he had been released from prison some months ago. He had been looking for his jewels but he thought by making the gardens better nobody would pay an attention. He clearly hadn’t bargained on the Roboteers!
They couldn’t charge him with the burglary again but they did charge him with trespassing and this was something called a “breach of his parole”. We didn’t know what that meant but my Dad explained it’s where somebody is let out of prison early on the condition they behave themselves. Trespassing isn’t what they considered behaving yourself. So the man went back to prison.
Mr Datta did get his reward and he was kind enough to give us some of it. Tim said he should have given us all of it as we did all the work but we got enough for a Roboteers laptop which was great as it meant I could get mine back.
We also got the publicity, the headline said “Local children’s good deed uncovers hoard”. There was a great photo of us with Mr Datta and it even mentioned we were called the Roboteers but not about the mystery solving we do. Tim insisted that Sugar was in the photo, even if it was just as the team “mascot” rather than a fully functioning robot. We got some attention at school because of it. Partly because of doing something for Neighbour’s week and partly because of the jewels. Not all of the attention was good as people can be cruel at times. But we’ve learned not to let mean people affect us as much as they want to.
All in all it was a real puzzler and one of the weirdest cases we’ve had but also the only one that involved a real crime.
The publicity did bring in some new mysteries to solve which was good. That photo ended up causing us and especially Sugar a lot of trouble but I’ll save that story for another time.