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The Case of the Letters to the Editor by
Professional Sleuth

The Case of the Letters to the Editor

A Dixon Hawke Mystery

Dixon Hawke’s Casebook | Spring 1944 | No. 4 THE RED FILE | June 17, 2018 | Vol. 11 No. 39

When Dixon Hawke and his assistant Tommy find themselves spending the night at a small inn, can they decipher the clues and find who killed the jealous General?

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Bad Driving Conditions

Dixon Hawke and Tommy Burke, his young assistant, were motoring north to pay a brief visit to friends living near Inverness on the shores of the Moray Firth.

They had been delayed by one thing and another during the day, and darkness had caught them while they were crossing the sombre wastes of the Black Moor.

Driving conditions were bad, for a thin coating of snow over a layer of ice made the road exceedingly treacherous. Neither of them was greatly surprised when the Bentley refused to answer the wheel at a sharp comer, slithered sickeningly for a moment from side to side, bumped once on the grass verge, and came to rest with its two near-side wheels in the ditch.

Hawke and Tommy got out and made a quick examination with torches. The position was not as bad as it had seemed at first. By jacking up the car gradually and filling the ditch with large, fiat stones from a dyke that ran across the moor nearby, it would be possible to get the car back on to the road again.

They set to work without delay, for the night was bitterly cold. But, in spite of their hard work, it was a couple of hours before they were ready to start again, and Hawke decided that it was too late to continue their journey to their destination that night.

“There’s an inn I’ve stayed at once or twice, not far from here,” he said. “It’s an old coaching-place. And it’s clean and the food’s good. So we’ll put up there and carry on in the morning.”

Ten minutes later they saw the lights of the inn down in a hollow below them, and when they got down to it the moon showed for a few minutes between the storm clouds overhead, and Tommy saw that it was a three-storeyed, whitewashed building, with small windows set in even rows, and crow-stepped gables.

Apparently the car had been heard, for a big, grey-bearded man in plus-fours came out of the front door.

“Good-evening, Mr. MacDonald,” said Hawke. “You remember me!”

The other peered at him in the darkness for a moment.

“Yes, yes, of course I do,” he said. “It’s yourself, Mr. Hawke! Come away inside and I’ll have your luggage brought in for you. And what brings you north at this time of the year?”

As they entered the hall — a low-raftered place, warm and comfortable in the yellow light of paraffin lamps — Hawke explained that the Bentley had gone off the road, and that the delay had decided them to stop there for the night.

He had scarcely finished speaking when a voice barked from the shadows near the fireplace, where a log fire was burning:

“What’s that? Bentley car? Gone off the road, hey? Serves you damn well right, sir. Following me all over the countryside.”

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Chapter 2

A Jealous Husband

A Jealous Husband.

A MAN with a very red face and a white, bristling moustache strode across the hall and stopped in front of Hawke, with his feet planted wide apart. He was heavily built and fleshy, and he spoke in a barrack-square voice.

“Serves you damn well right, sir. That’s what I say. Sneaking all over the country at my heels. Good mind to write to the papers about it. I’ve a good idea what your game is, sir.”

He swung round suddenly.

“Emmy!” he bawled. “Emmy! Bedtime! Emmy! Where’s that ass of a woman got to now, hey?”

As he stamped across the hall and through a curtained doorway into another part of the inn, they could still hear his faint shout of “Emmy! Emmy!”

“I think he’s looking for someone,” said Hawke gravely.

MacDonald chuckled.

“It’s his wife, poor lady! The General’s a man with a hot temper, and he aye thinks there’s somebody running after his wife. And the one man that really has a fancy for his wife is right under his nose, and he doesna ken it. Come away into my sitting room, Mr. Hawke, and get warmed at the fire. I’ll have a meal for ye in ten minutes.”

“And who is this man who has a fancy for the lady?” Hawke asked as the sitting-room door closed behind them.

“The General’s secretary — young Mitchell. A nice lad, and more of an age with the lady than the General is. What he wants with a secretary is more than I ken. He’s been retired this past ten years, and all he does is write to the papers, exposing this and exposing that, and wanting to abolish this and abolish that.”

Ten minutes later Hawke and Tommy sat down to a meal in the dining room. In the opposite corner two hikers were finishing supper. They were rough looking customers; they watched Hawke and Tommy in silence, and after a few moments they rose and went out.

The General’s voice was heard in the hall, shouting for Emmy. Then a woman spoke, and the General answered her.

“Well, I’ve been looking for you all over the place. It’s bedtime. Come and have your hot milk.”

The General came into the dining room, scowled at Hawke and Tommy, and sat down at a table by the fire. He was followed by a pale woman of about thirty. A young man was with her, and Hawke surmised that this was Mitchell, the secretary.

The three of them sat in silence throughout the meal. Several times Hawke saw the woman and the young man glance at each other. There was no mistaking that glance, yet the General was too preoccupied with his newspaper to notice it.

“There’s going to be a blow-up there, guv’nor,” whispered Tommy.

“I think you’re right, my lad,” answered Hawke. “It has the makings of a nasty situation. And now let’s turn in. We’ll try to get away pretty early in the morning.”

MacDonald himself showed them up to their rooms. A warm fire and a paraffin lamp were burning in each of them. Hawke did not undress at once. He stretched himself out in an easy-chair and prepared to smoke a final pipe.

A few minutes later he heard a car draw up in front of the inn. He went to the window and peered out between the curtains into the darkness. He could see the car down below, with dark figures moving backwards and forwards in the light of the lamps.

He heard MacDonald welcoming the newcomers. Then he saw — in a flash of light from a torch — that the car was a Bentley. He let the curtains slide back into place and went thoughtfully back to his chair.

He was interested in the General, with his curious fear that someone was running after his wife.

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Chapter 3

Foul Play

Hawke sat musing until a slight sound outside his door roused him.

He went swiftly over to the door and opened softly. By the dim, reflected light of the lamp inside the room he saw a dark figure moving down the passage. He recognised the back of one of the hikers, and he fancied that the man was rather unsteady on his feet.

Hawke closed the door and went back to his chair.

He must have fallen into a doze again, for later he was awakened suddenly by a loud crash of breaking glass outside.

Hawke rose to his feet and stood listening intently. There was no sound at all for several seconds. Then someone hammered thunderously on the front door.

Hawke sprang towards the door. He reached the hall in a matter of seconds, and found MacDonald standing blinking, with a lamp in his hand. Hugh Mitchell was drawing the bolts on the front door, and both of them were fully dressed.

“Did ye hear it, then, Mr. Hawke?” asked MacDonald. “What can it be, I wonder?”

Mitchell got the door open at that moment, and in the dim light they saw the flat, peaked hat of a policeman in the opening.

“There’s been an accident out here,” he said urgently. “Gentleman’s fallen out of one of your upstairs windows and through the glass roof of the porch. Give us a hand to get him inside. It’s a good thing I was passing at the time.”

“It is indeed, Sergeant,” said the innkeeper

“Bring the poor man in here,” he added, as Hawke and Mitchell helped the policeman t o raise the limp, pyjama-clad body from the floor of the porch.

“God save us!” whispered MacDonald as the light from his lamp fell on it. “It’s the General! Bring him into the lounge just now.”

He went ahead and held the door open. When they had laid the General gently on a sofa, Hawke made a quick examination. Then he glanced up.

“Dead,” he said quietly.

He turned to the body again and examined it more carefully.

“An accident of this kind will no’ do your place any good, MacDonald,” said the policeman at length in a low voice.

“I’m not sure that it was an accident,” murmured Hawke without looking up.

“Suicide, then?” said the sergeant.

“No.”

“Ye don’t mean — Ye don’t mean it was murder?”

Hawke straightened himself.

“I rather think so,” he said briskly. “You don’t mind if I carry on just now. Sergeant? I’m Dixon Hawke.”

“I knew that fine, sir. Photographs in the papers, ye ken. That’s all right, sir.”

“Very well, then, I don’t think we’ll waken any of the others just yet. I’d like to have a look at the General’s room first. But you might call my — Wait, though. Here he is.”

Tommy had come into the room. An overcoat was thrown over his pyjamas.

“What’s up, guv’nor? I heard a crash. Somebody hurt?”

“The General’s dead, Tommy.”

Tommy whistled slowly through his teeth, glanced at Mitchell and said nothing.

“We’ll go up to his room,” said Hawke abruptly. “Sergeant, you’d better come. And you, MacDonald. Mr. Mitchell, you and my assistant will watch the body.”

Hawke went over to a writing-table and took a handful of envelopes from a rack. All but one of them he slipped into his jacket-pocket. Then he beckoned to the sergeant, leant over the body, and gently forced open the right hand. Lying in it was a piece of white tape, about three inches long. Hawke had noticed the end of it protruding from the clenched fist.

“That is what makes me think there was foul play,” he said quietly as he slipped the tape into the envelope and handed it to the sergeant. “You’d better take charge of that. And, by the way, if you look at his tongue, you’ll find that the under side of it has been bitten slightly. And now we’ll go upstairs.”

MacDonald, with a lamp, led the way up to the General’s room.

Just inside the doorway Hawke paused and looked round slowly. The bed was disturbed, as though its occupant had left it hurriedly. Otherwise, everything seemed to be normal. The window — a casement — was wide open. Hawke held the lamp down to the floor and gave a sharp exclamation.

“See that, Sergeant?”

Clearly showing on the pile carpet were the marks of nailed shoes. The dead man’s shoes, which were laid outside the door, were soled with rubber. Only one or two of the prints were visible. Hawke arranged a chair so that they would not be disturbed, and went into the room.

While the other two looked on, the detective made a quick but thorough inspection of the room. He picked up a burned match-end from the reading-table at the side of the bed, put it into an envelope, and gave it to the sergeant.

On the mantelpiece, in a glass of water, was an upper set of false teeth.

“H’m. That explains why the tongue was bitten on the under side only,” said Hawke.

Very carefully he lifted the false teeth out, slipped them into an envelope, and gave them to the sergeant.

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Chapter 4

The General’s Secretary

Hawke went over to the bed, folded back the clothes and turned over the pillows.

“Ah! That’s what I wanted,” he said suddenly.

On one of the pillowcases was a speck of blood. Hawke turned it up and examined the end of it.

“Notice anything?” he asked the sergeant.

“Can’t say I do, sir.”

“One of the tabs is missing. It’s been torn off.”

“Ay, you’re right, sir. So it has. One of the ribbons for tying it on. Now, where can it have got to, d’ye think?”

“You have it in an envelope in your pocket,” said Hawke quietly. “And I think that’s about all we’re likely to find.”

He was interrupted by the noise of the door opening. He swung round and saw a man peering into the room.

“I say,” said the newcomer. “Is anything wrong in here? We heard a noise.”

MacDonald glanced helplessly at Hawke.

“This is Mr. Skinner, sir,” he said. “He arrived with a friend late to-night. Will I tell him — “

“Come in,” said Hawke curtly.

The man came into the room. He was followed by another younger man. When Skinner came into the light of the lamp Hawke exclaimed:

“Good heavens! It’s you.”

The other peered at him.

“Dixon Hawke! Well, I’m blessed! You’re the last person I expected to see, Hawke. How are you?”

The two men shook hands, and Skinner introduced his companion as Allan Byars.

” Mr. Skinner’s an old friend of mine, Sergeant,” Hawke explained. “And a very useful man to have here to-night. He was one of the best men in Scotland Yard before he retired six months ago.”

He turned to Skinner.

“I’ll tell you what’s happened as we go downstairs, old man. MacDonald, you might waken these two hiker fellows and the General’s wife.”

Downstairs, Hawke, Skinner and the sergeant went into MacDonald’s sitting-room.

“I’ve told you, Sergeant,” said Hawke, “that this is murder. But perhaps you didn’t quite notice why I came to that conclusion. It’s very obvious. The General was smothered in his bed with a pillow. In his struggles he bit his tongue, and you saw the small bloodstain that resulted on the pillow. He also tore off one of the tapes from the pillowcase, and we found it clutched in his hand. He was then pushed out of the window in order to fake suicide or accident. By the way, I don’t think I ever heard his name.”

“Askew,” said Skinner. “I saw it in the hotel book when I was registering.”

“Thanks,” said Hawke. “Well, it’s clearly not an accident, because he’d have let go that tape as he fell. Instinctively he’d have used both hands to catch hold of something. And he’s the very last type in the world to commit suicide.”

“Can you suggest any motive, sir?” asked the sergeant.

Hawke shrugged. “There’s one very obvious motive. Mitchell — the secretary — and Mrs. Askew are in love with each other.”

“Then we’d better be having a word with Mr. Mitchell,” suggested the sergeant.

Hawke nodded, and the policeman went to the door and called for Mitchell.

The young man was ill at ease when he came into the room, but Hawke wasted no time.

“You are General Askew’s secretary?”

'’Yes.”

“What did your work entail?”

“Writing letters mostly,” said Mitchell. “The General sometimes wrote a dozen letters to the papers every day. It was a kind of passion with him.”

“I see,” said Hawke, nodding. “What were you doing downstairs tonight?”

“I had a dose of toothache. I came down to get some whisky from the General’s decanter in the sideboard. The — the accident happened just as I got into the hall.”

Hawke nodded again.

“I was there myself just a few seconds after the General fell, so that more or less confirms your story. There’s just one thing more. General Askew appeared to me to have been an exceedingly jealous man. Had his wife in the past given him any cause for this?”

Mitchell tinned an angry red.

“General Askew never had any cause to doubt her, though he thought so,” he replied curtly.

“Thank you,” said Hawke. “That will be all, I think. If these hiker fellows are down yet, you might send them in.”

Mitchell nodded and went out. The sergeant glanced suspiciously at Hawke.

“Do you think he and the lady were in it together, sir?” he asked.

“Impossible!” said Hawke definitely. “It would take two strong people to lift a heavy man like Askew through the window, and Mitchell was certainly downstairs when that was done.”

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Chapter 5

A Slip of the Tongue

There was a knock at the door, and the two hikers came sheepishly into the room. Hawke stared at them for a moment, and then said sharply:

“What business had you in General Askew’s room to-night?”

“Me?” said one of them indignantly.

“I wasn’t anywhere near — “

Hawke silenced him with a wave of the hand, and glanced at the other.

“Well?” he snapped. “What about you?”

The man shifted uncomfortably.

“Come along!” said Hawke. “Out with it! One or other of you left his footprints in the General’s room.”

“Well,” said the second man slowly, the General’s room is next to mine. I went in by mistake.”

“What happened?”

“The old man sat up in bed and started to curse me. Then he struck a match and started to light his lamp. But I didn’t wait. I just bolted.”

“Very wise,” said Hawke dryly. “He was a quick-tempered man. I believe you’re telling the truth.”

The sergeant broke in. “I wouldna let it go at that, sir. Ye see — “

Hawke interrupted him gently.

“It fits in quite well, Sergeant. You remember the burnt match that we picked up from the table at the bedside? That was used to relight the lamp. The General smokes cigars, as you may have noticed from the cigar-case that was lying on the dressing table. But there was no sign of his having smoked a cigar after he had gone to bed — no ash or anything.”

“He might have lit it at his bedside, sir,” said the sergeant slowly, “and gone over and smoked it by the window.”

Skinner chuckled.

“On a night as cold as this, Sergeant? Not on your life! If he smoked anywhere, it would be in bed. And you try smoking a cigar with your false teeth on the mantelpiece. It’s not very easy, Sergeant.”

The sergeant made no reply, and Hawke laughed.

“You’re still pretty sharp, even after six months’ retirement,” he said to Skinner.

Then he rose abruptly, paced once across the room, and stood looking down into the dying embers of the fire with a frown of concentration on his face. At length he turned very slowly and said in a hard voice:

“I know who committed this crime. Sergeant, come with me. I’ll not be five minutes, Skinner. There’s just one point.”

He went swiftly from the room, and the sergeant followed him through the hall to the lounge, where Tommy was waiting with MacDonald. For several minutes Hawke paced up and down the room without speaking. The others watched him curiously. Suddenly he stopped and turned to face them.

“Where are Askew’s false teeth?” he asked the sergeant.

The sergeant fumbled in his pocket and produced the envelope that Hawke had given him, with the teeth inside. “Here, sir.”

“Then how did Skinner know that they were on the mantelpiece? They were in that envelope and in your pocket before he came into the room. He must have been in the room before. And in it long enough to notice that the dental plate was on the mantelpiece. An innocent man wouldn’t have kept that dark, Sergeant.”

“You’re right!” said the sergeant in a hoarse whisper. “But you’re not going to tell me that the gentleman from Scotland Yard — “

He was interrupted by the roar of a high-powered car in the stillness outside. For an instant no one moved.

“And an innocent man wouldn’t try to escape,” Hawke said. “I expected to hear that car.”

As he spoke he went quickly to the door. A swift glance into MacDonald’s sitting room showed that it was empty. The window was standing open.

“Tommy!” shouted Hawke. “MacDonald! Come with me! Sergeant, you’d better stay here and take charge.”

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Chapter 6

A Lover’s Vengeance

It took them five minutes to get the Bentley started in the cold night air. But once it was started Hawke wasted no time.

They could see the lights of the other car far across the moor. Hawke edged the Bentley on a little harder, until even Tommy was moved to say something.

“Watch out, guv’nor!” he shouted. “We’ll be ditched again!”

Hawke said nothing. The lines of his face were hard and tense. The car swooped down into a hollow. There was a bend at the foot. The tyres screamed on the ice and began to slide. MacDonald shouted with horror, and the car lurched sickeningly into the ditch, slithered for a few yards, and came to a halt.

“I told you to watch what you were doing, guv’nor!” gasped Tommy breathlessly.

“I knew perfectly well what I was doing,” said Hawke calmly, and he sat back and pulled his pipe from his pocket.

Hawke pulled once or twice at his pipe until the tobacco was burning evenly. Then he turned to MacDonald.

“MacDonald,” he said, “I’m going to tell you a story. About three years ago General Askew had a secretary — a girl called Helena Barnes. Her mother was ill, desperately ill, and needed money for a special cure. But they had no money.

“The girl’s brother was struggling through the university. And the girl, as a last resort, stole from the General. He found out. She told him that her brother would pay it back when he was qualified, but it was no use. The General was a hard man. He prosecuted her, and she served eighteen months in prison.

“The detective in charge of the case was a brilliant man from Scotland Yard. Hyde was his name. You know him as Skinner. He felt that justice had gone astray. The law was satisfied, but not justice. When the girl came out he met her. They fell in love, and were going to be married. The newspapers made a great story of it.

“Then General Askew thought it his duty to write to certain public men, pointing out that it was wrong for an ex-jailbird to marry an officer of Scotland Yard. The result? The girl committed suicide, and Hyde was forced to retire.”

Hawke paused, and MacDonald said cautiously:

“How do you come to know all this, Mr. Hawke?”

“My work keeps me in touch with Scotland Yard. I knew Hyde, and I got most of the details from him. Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me that this was the same Askew until Hyde came into the room that time. Then everything fitted together like the parts of a jigsaw puzzle. I knew that Hyde had been following the General all over the country, waiting for an opportunity. The General himself told me this. Only he had drawn a wrong conclusion. He thought that it was someone with whom his wife was having a liaison. He was a man stupidly jealous of a very much younger wife.”

Hawke paused again.

“Hyde was never the same after his fiancée’s death,” he went on at length. “He went slightly mad, I think. But he was sane enough to commit what was nearly a perfect murder, with the help of the girl’s brother. And, if I’m not mistaken, he’ll have his plans well laid for just such an emergency as this. The pity is that I didn’t know he was here until after I had point out to the sergeant that it was not an accident. If I’d known he was here, I’d have fitted the jigsaw point in time and held my tongue. As it was, I had to clear the others by denouncing him.”

There was a brief silence.

“Ach, well,” said MacDonald after a time in a curiously husky voice, “I’ve nae doubt he’ll get away all right — him and the poor lassie’s brother. We might have caught up on them if we’d kept to the road, but the surface being that bad, there’s nobody could blame us for finishing up in the ditch. The sergeant will be sorry to hear about our — accident.”

“Thank you,” said Hawke quietly. “I thought you’d say something like that. And I believe justice has been done. Tommy, there’s some fine big stones in that dyke over there. And a couple of hours’ hard work ahead of us. Jump to it, my lad!”

~ The End ~

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