murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

The Case of the Tell-Tale Corpse


A Dixon Hawke Mystery

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Dixon Hawke Casebook | Spring 1940 | No. 4

Est. Read Time: 20 mins

When a dead body is found in the hold of the coaster Trojan, can Hawke prove that it's not murder?




Loch Erradale is a sea loch on a remote part of the West Coast of Scotland. For five miles it winds, deep and narrow, back into a welter of high mountains. On its southern shore, where it opens out into the broad Atlantic, lies the little village of Erradale.

In spite of the fact that one of the main roads between the North of Scotland and the South creeps round its tortuous shores, Loch Erradale had been one of the loneliest places in the country.

But when plans were passed for a great chemical factory to be built at the head of the loch, things began to change. Power was to be obtained from a reservoir to be built four miles back in the hills behind; the water from this, led through pipe-lines and tunnels, was to drive a great turbo-electric plant beside the factory.

In a very short time Loch Erradale was no longer lonely. A wharf was built, and a light railway laid from this to the site of the reservoir. Soon a contractor's camp grew up — long wooden huts for the men and galvanised iron sheds for the air compressors and the forges.

Down on the loch itself small coasters arrived with materials, and lay at anchor in mid-loch for a few hours, awaiting their turn at the wharf.

Past the wharf, on a dull afternoon in January, crept a long black car. Dixon Hawke was at the wheel. He and Tommy Burke, his young assistant, had been spending a fortnight climbing farther north, and while planning their return journey Hawke had decided to make a detour and call on a very old friend of his, Colonel Bilington, chief constable of the county, of Glen Erradale House.

They arrived at the house late in the afternoon, and the Colonel was delighted to meet his old friend again. Almost before they had crossed his threshold, he had invited the travellers to stay for the night.

Hawke had no hesitation in accepting, for there was no particular need for them to be back in London before the beginning of the week.

So that night the three of them sat down to dinner, and as the meal wore on Hawke and the Colonel drifted into reminiscence. The two men were obviously enjoying themselves enormously, and they made no attempt to hide their annoyance when a servant announced that the Colonel was required on the telephone.



Colonel Bilington returned to the room a few minutes later, and he was frowning.

"Very annoying, Hawke. I'm afraid I'll have to break up the evening. There's been a man killed on one of the coasters at the head of the loch. The circumstances appear to be rather peculiar."

"That's a bad business," said Hawke. "Look here, we'll come with you."

"Splendid," said the Colonel. "It may interest you."

They travelled up in the Colonel's car. After a time they saw bright lights ahead of them, the arc lamps under which the coasters were unloaded at night. A few minutes later the car drew up at the side of the road.

A man in seafaring clothes waiting on the wharf tipped his cap to them.

"I've to take you out to the Trojan," he said. "She's lying at anchor in the loch."

The seaman led the way down a ladder at the side of the wharf into a rowing boat. They scrambled aboard, and with the skill of long practice he rowed them out to the coaster.

A young constable met them as they climbed on deck.

"Evening, Robertson," said the Colonel. "What's happened?"

"There's a dead man down in the hold, sir. He's not one of the crew, and no one seems to know anything about him."'

"H'm. Where's the skipper?"

"Here, sir," boomed a deep voice, and a great hulk of a man moved forward out of the shadows.

"Name?" asked the Colonel.

"Caterick, sir."

"Tell us what you know."

The skipper scratched his head.

"Well, that's not very much, sir. We got in here yesterday afternoon. As we were unloading, my engineman reported that a cracked cylinder-head which had been giving trouble for some time would have to be replaced before we could sail. So we dropped anchor out here after unloading and sent to Glasgow for a replacement.

"I knew fine it would take two or three days to arrive, so I let my crew — engineman and deckhand, sir — away to a dance that was on in the evening down in the village. As for myself, I went up to see a friend of mine that's working up at the reservoir. An engineer. Name of Skene. He was off duty, so we went into the canteen at the camp."

The skipper paused and scratched his head ruefully.

"Ye ken what it's like when old friends meet, sir. I had a drop too much, and I couldn't rightly say how I got back here. But I woke up today about tea-time, fully dressed, in my own bunk. I have a wee box of a cabin aft there in the stern. Well, I was no' feeling very like food. So I went ashore and walked down to the village. I met my crew there. They'd stayed in the village overnight, and had been in no hurry to return to the ship, as they knew we wouldn't sail for a few days yet. We all came back together. My engineman, Campbell, happened to look down into the hold and saw the body."

After the skipper had made his statement, the Colonel stepped forward and peered down into the hold. Directly below him a wooden ladder led downwards, and lying at the foot of it, was the body of a man. Near the body stood a lighted storm lantern. The Colonel stepped over the hatch-coaming and climbed down into the hold, followed by Hawke and Tommy and the constable, who carried another lantern.

The dead man was middle-aged and shabbily dressed, with tanned features which were still fixed in an expression of astonishment. He was lying on his face, and, when Colonel Bilington knelt and turned him carefully over, the lantern light showed an ugly wound on one temple.

The Colonel straightened himself.

"How long has this ladder been here?" he asked the constable.

"According to Caterick, sir, it was put here to let the men out of the hold after unloading. And it's been here ever since."

"Seems to me," said the Colonel, "that it's pretty obvious what's happened. This poor devil's been climbing down into the hold for some reason or another. He's slipped, fallen, and landed on his head."

"I think you're wrong," said Hawke quietly.

The Colonel glanced at him with raised eyebrows.

"How did you come down the ladder?" Hawke asked him.

"The same way as everyone else," said the Colonel a little impatiently. "Backwards, of course."

"Exactly!" stripped Hawke. "Yet this man has fallen on his face and was struck on the front of his head. I'm afraid your explanation won't do, Colonel."

"You mean you think that — " began the Colonel.

"That it looks like murder!" said Hawke bluntly.



The detective bent down and began to make a methodical examination of the dead man, emptying each of his pockets in turn.

After a while he rose to his feet with a grunt of satisfaction.

"Interesting," he murmured. "This man was either a soldier, a sailor, a clergyman, a chauffeur, or a postman. He was murdered — probably on shore and two or three days ago — by a left-handed man."

"Good heavens!" exclaimed the Colonel. "How on earth — "

"Very simple," said Hawke. "You see his wrist-watch?"

The Colonel bent forward. "It's on upside down," he said sharply. "The winding-knob points up the arm instead of down."

Hawke nodded.

"It was hurriedly put on by someone else. In fact, this man was actually dressed in these clothes after he had been killed. If you look at his fingernails you'll see that those on his right hand are not so well kept as those on his left. He used the right hand more than the left. He was right-handed. Yet all the important things that came out of his pockets — handkerchief, cigarette-lighter, loose change — came out of the pockets on his left side. Taking that into consideration with the watch, I think it's reasonable to assume that he was dressed after he was killed. And dressed by a man who was left-handed."

"Quite, quite," said the Colonel quickly. "But why change his clothes at all, Hawke?"

"Obviously because he was wearing some distinctive uniform — something by which he would be more easily traced. There aren't so many postmen, chauffeurs, fishermen, or clergymen as there are men in shabby, nondescript suits."

The Colonel laughed unsteadily.

"You're a little too quick for me, Hawke. Although it does seem quite obvious now that you've pointed it out."

Hawke looked grim.

"Well, having proved to you that it's a case of murder," he said, "I hope to be able to prove to you in a day or two that it isn't — with the help of that little mark on the outside of the knuckle of the index linger of the dead man's right hand."

The Colonel bent forward and noticed for the first time a small, red weal where Hawke indicated.

"Can't make head or tail of that," said the Colonel.

"It's rather interesting, all the same," said Hawke thoughtfully. "There are one or two lines of inquiry which I should like to try out tomorrow," he added. "With your permission, of course."

"I'd be very glad if you would," said the Colonel, with obvious relief. "In the meantime, I'll get Inspector Ramsey up from the county headquarters. He'll carry on with the routine inquiries during the night."

Shortly afterwards they went ashore and drove back to Glen Erradale House. Hawke rose early the following morning, and found Tommy already at breakfast. A few moments later the Colonel appeared with a sheaf of papers in his hand.

"Morning, Hawke," he said. "I've a disappointing report here from Ramsey. He's followed up every thread in the case, and they all lead to a dead end. No one seems to know anything about the dead man. There was no brawling of any kind up at the camp. Caterick's story has been confirmed, and the two members of the crew spent the night down at Erradale all right."

"How did Caterick get back to his ship the night before last?" Hawke asked.

Colonel Bilington glanced through his papers. "Ramsey doesn't say," he said.

"That seems to me to be the key to the whole business," Hawke said. "I think when we discover that, we'll discover how the body was taken on board. Tommy and I will go up to the camp now to see if we can trace Caterick's movements after he set out on his return to the ship."



Hawke and Tommy drove up as far as the wharf, where they left the car and continued the journey on foot. A rough and newly-made road wound up the glen close to the light railway that carried supplies up to the camp from the loch.

A little apart from the workings was a cluster of low wooden houses; one, a little larger than the others, stood in the centre.

"I think that's the place we're looking for," said Hawke. "Come along, my lad."

Hawke strode eagerly down the road, and ten minutes brought them to the camp. As Hawke had surmised, the large wooden building was the canteen.

A fat man in a once-white overall was standing behind a counter at the far end. Hawke crossed over and gave him good-morning.

"Know anything about a man called Caterick?" he asked.

The cook thought for a minute or two, and then shook his head.

"Can't say that I do, sir. There's fifteen hundred men in the camp, and you can't know them all by name."

"He's a friend of Mr. Skene," said Hawke.

A light of comprehension dawned in the fat man's eyes.

"I know who you mean. A seafaring man? He was in here the night before last, and Skene was pumping him full of liquor most of the evening. They had a bet on or something to see which of them could hold the most."

"Any idea how this man Caterick got back to his ship?"

"As a matter of fact, I can tell you that, sir. He lost the bet, and Skene got me to help him out into the fresh air. As I was leaving them to come inside again, I heard Skene saying, ' Don't worry, old chap. I'll take you down in my car.' And that's the last I saw of him."

"Where does Skene stay? In the camp here?"

"No. The engineers don't need to. And he's a married man with a couple of kids. He lives in a bungalow on the other side of the hill there. Wait and I'll show you."

He came out from behind the counter and walked over to the door of the canteen. From there he pointed out a road that came down the glen.

"That's an old road that goes down to Erradale village. Skene's place is a mile up the road."

Hawke thanked him, and they set off for the engineer's house.

"This chap Skene may not be in just now, guv'nor," Tommy said.

"So much the better," said Hawke.

"I've an idea that his wife's the person we want to see first."



Twenty minutes walking brought them to the bungalow. It was a converted shepherd's cottage, commanding a fine vista of moorland.

The door was opened to them by a young woman. She was tall and dark, and her clear eyes and skin spoke of youth and health.

"Mrs. Skene?" the detective asked.

"Yes." She had a pleasant, deep voice.

"May I speak to you for a moment?"

"Surely. Please come in."

Mrs. Skene showed them into a bright little sitting-room. Hawke and Tommy took the seats that she indicated, and she waited curiously.

"Your husband, I believe," began Hawke, "knows a man called Caterick."

She nodded.

"Archie Caterick. He's the skipper of one of the coasters carrying materials here."

"That's right. A man was found dead on his boat last night, Mrs. Skene, and I'd like to ask you a few questions about Caterick. There's nothing against him, so you needn't be afraid of talking. My name is Hawke — Dixon Hawke."

Mrs. Skene gave one or two disjointed facts — how Caterick and her husband had met somewhere in South America, and how the friendship had developed.

"Were you in South America with your husband?" Hawke asked.

"No. I first met him shortly after his return. As a matter of fact, he knew my brother out there — was rather kind to him — and came home with a letter of introduction from my brother to me."

"Is your brother still out there?" asked Hawke.

A shadow seemed to cross her face. "I don't know," she said slowly.

Hawke rose to his feet.

"That's all right, Mrs. Skene," he said gently. "We all have things that we don't like to talk about, don't we?"

Mrs. Skene looked up at him and smiled.

"He turned out rather a waster," she said frankly. "He went out as a missionary. But he had a terrible weakness — gambling. He went from bad to worse. My husband helped him for a time. But for a couple of years now we haven't heard anything from him, in fact."

"Was he — in Holy Orders?" Hawke asked.

She nodded, and said very softly: "He was unfrocked."

"We'll not distress you any further, Mrs. Skene," Hawke said, after a moment's silence. "You have helped me considerably."

Outside in the hall, as though to relieve the emotional strain, Hawke asked: "You play golf, Mrs. Skene?" She shook her head.

"No. My husband does, though. He goes down to the county town. There's quite a pleasant little course there. He was playing quite recently — not yesterday but the day before."

Hawke's eyes were on a bag of clubs in the hallstand.

"Not a very pleasant day for golf, Mrs. Skene. If I remember rightly, it was quite stormy."

She laughed. "Oh, I expect he spent most of the time in the clubhouse. You know what men are!"

"I have a fair idea," said Hawke, and they all laughed together as they said good-bye.

Once outside, Hawke's manner changed abruptly.

"Tommy," he said crisply, "go back and get the car. Find Skene's golf course, and find out from the starter if Skene was playing there the day before yesterday. I'm going to take a short cut down to Glen Erradale House. I've an urgent telephone call to put through."

"Right, guv'nor!" said Tommy, and he turned and went back up the road.

Hawke cut across the moors, and half an hour brought him to the back of Colonel Bilington's house. The Colonel was in the study, and he was looking worried.

"I'm glad to see you back, Hawke," he said. "This case has got me rattled. Ramsey's absolutely at a dead end. No hint of the dead man's identity, no motive, no weapon, none of the things that usually give us a start in these cases — "

"May I use your telephone?" said Hawke curtly.

The Colonel waved him to the instrument, and five minutes later Hawke was talking to an old friend of his at Scotland Yard. He was brief and to the point.

"I want to know everything you can find out about one, John Skene, engineer, during the time he was in South America two years ago. I'm particularly interested in anything that might lead to blackmail. And I want to know by five this evening at the latest. You can manage that? Yes, you can phone it through. I'm with Colonel Bilington, Glen Erradale House."

He hung up the receiver, and as he turned from it the Colonel opened his mouth as if to speak. Hawke held up his hand.

"Not till five o'clock," said the detective with a smile.

The Colonel grinned. "Hawke," he said, "there are times when I positively dislike you!"



Tommy returned late in the afternoon with the information that Skene had not been seen at his golf course for a fortnight. He had just made his report when the telephone rang. Hawke reached forward and picked up the receiver.

"Yes, Hawke speaking. You have? Yes." There was a long pause. "Thank you," said Hawke at length. "That's all I wanted to know."

He hung up the receiver, and turned back to the others.

"That's that," he said quietly. "I can name your murderer, and I can name his victim."

He sat down and began to fill a pipe, and as he did so he told Colonel Bilington of their interview with Mrs. Skene.

"And this is your case," he said, when he had done so. "It was the changing of the clothes that started me off. I knew from that fact that the murdered man wore a distinguishing uniform. And when I heard that Mrs. Skene's brother had once been in Holy Orders I began to wonder. Now, Skene is left handed. You noticed his golf clubs, Tommy? And Skene and Mrs. Skene's brother were in South America together. The thing's beginning to take shape, you see."

Hawke pondered for a moment.

"Could it be possible, I wondered, if this brother — who was a bit of a waster — could have come home, knowing something to Skene's detriment, and tried to blackmail him? It would have to be something serious; something that would cost Skene his job or smash his happy married life. I had the answer over the telephone just now. Mrs. Skene's brother married Skene to a half-caste woman in a mining camp in the backwoods of South America four years ago. This woman ran off with another man shortly afterwards, and the story got into the papers there at the time. I don't suppose Skene has seen her since.

"The rest is surmise, but it's fairly obvious what happened. The brother returned and tried to blackmail Skene, threatening to break up his home. Skene killed him and hid the body temporarily. He couldn't afford to have it found in the neighbourhood in case, by some mischance, his wife should recognise it. So he hit on the idea of dumping it on board Caterick's ship.

"If it hadn't been for the cracked cylinder-head that delayed her sailing, the body probably wouldn't have been discovered until the boat reached Glasgow. There would be no chance of it being recognised by Mrs. Skene there. And as an extra precaution Skene changed the clerical clothes — it's quite reasonable that the brother should wear them, even though he had no longer any right to them — for a nondescript suit which he bought second hand in the county town the day before yesterday, when he was supposed to be playing golf.

"It was a very foolish thing to do, and it's what gave him away. Anyhow, he made Caterick so drunk that the poor fellow had to be motored down to his boat. And all the way back to the boat Caterick travelled with a corpse, though he was too drunk to know it."



We'll go up and pull in this man Skene at once," said Colonel Bilington. "Hawke, you've made a marvellous job of this." They drove in the Colonel's car again. At the wharf they picked up Inspector Ramsey, and during the remainder of the run the Colonel told his subordinate details of the case.

Inquiry at the power scheme revealed that Skene was at work in the tunnel. An overseer offered to guide them.

The tunnel was damp and filled with a thin mist that soon had their coats drenched. Most of the time they were splashing through six inches of water or trying to find a footing on the sleepers of the railway track.

At length they came to a gang of men at work with pneumatic hammers. The noise in the confined space was frightful.

Ramsey signalled to the men to stop their machines, and in the heavy silence that followed Colonel Bilington

"Where is Mr. Skene?"

A tall, brown-faced man in an oilskin and rubber thigh boots stepped forward.

"My name is Skene," he said quietly.

"A man has been found dead on board the coaster Trojan," said the Colonel. "Can you give us any information in connection with his death?" As Skene was about to speak, Inspector Ramsey formally cautioned him.

"That's all right," said Skene. "I'll tell you the whole story. But supposing you come to my shack? It'll be more comfortable for you."

They went back down the tunnel, and in a little wooden hut near the entrance Skene told the story that Hawke had deduced from little more than an inverted wrist-watch. But there was one important difference.

"I don't suppose you'll believe me," he said. "But it happens to be true. I did it in self-defence. Tom Allan, my brother-in-law — though I don't suppose I've any right to call him that — came back to this country with the intention of making a considerable amount of money out of me. I've private means as well, you see. I refused point-blank. Told him to do his damnedest. He was furious. He knew as well as I did that my — my wife would stick by me. He took out a revolver and started to threaten me. I closed with him. It went off. I tore it from his hand and struck him. You won't believe me, I know, but — "

"But it's true, all the same," said Hawke quietly. "It was an old-fashioned revolver. A good deal of the gas generated by the explosion escaped out of the side of the chamber, and left a small burn on the knuckle of Allan's right hand. That does happen with the older type of revolver."

Hawke laughed softly, and glanced at Colonel Bilington.

"I told you I'd prove that it wasn't murder," he said.