TABLE OF CONTENTS
- A MAN OF SECRETS
- TOMMY'S STRANGE ADVENTURE
- SHOTS IN THE NIGHT
- THE KILLER RETURNS
- SUSPICIONS CONFIRMED
- DILLION'S CASH CUSTOMER
- THE PASSPORT FACTORY
- THE END OF THE CIRCLE
A MAN OF SECRETS
Marks Tey, although an important road and railway junction, is a bit off the map. But the “Night of Terror,” as the newspapers called it, had accustomed the inhabitants to visits from police officers, A Man of Secrets, journalists, and even sightseers.
Four men and one woman, respectable, commonplace people, had been foully done to death within a few hours. The murderer had been seen by several people, but owing to the black-out none was able to furnish a reliable description. In these days, unfortunately, sudden death is not infrequent, but nevertheless the affair had caused widespread horror and indignation.
Thus when two strangers — a distinguished-looking man and his companion, a cheery-looking lad — came into the Beehive public-house at midday, the barman was neither unprepared nor unwilling to talk about the recent tragedies.
He was, however, somewhat astonished and impressed to learn the identity of his customers.
“I am Dixon Hawke,” said the big man with a friendly smile. “I am, as you may know, a private detective, and I am investigating the murder of Mr. Naird. I have already found out that Mr. Naird was here on the night of his death. What I should now like to know is the time he came in, the time he left, and also to whom he talked. I wonder if you can help me?”
The barman scratched his head in perplexity. He was willing and able to gossip about the recent happenings at some length, but this famous investigator did not want gossip — he wanted facts, and facts were just what the barman could not supply.
“Well, sir, it’s like this,” he began at last. “I wasn’t in the bar on that night. It was the boss, poor Mr. Maxton, who was serving. I looked in once or twice, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you who was here and who wasn’t.”
“You don’t remember seeing Mr. Naird?” prompted Hawke.
“Can’t rightly say that I do. He was often in of an evening, was Mr. Naird. Come in about eight, he would, and stay till closing time, pretty regular. They was the usual lot, I should say, all except Mr. Church.”
“Who’s Mr. Church?”
“He’s the gentleman who lives at Hodder — that’s a little place about two miles away. I wouldn’t have remembered him, only he looked upset. I thought he might have had a drop too much, if you take my meaning.”
“D’you think Mr. Church might be able to help me?”
“No, sir, I wouldn’t say that. He don’t know nobody hereabouts I wouldn’t know him myself, only I’ve had to go up there once or twice when he’s wanted a bottle of whisky. We’re the only off-licence around here, and … “
That was as far as he got, for Hawke, with an interested gleam in his eyes, was leaning over the bar, eagerly rapping out a question.
“How do you get to Hodder?”
“Oh, that’s easy enough. You’ve got a car, haven’t you? Well, you drive towards Colchester for about a mile and a half, then turn left. Mr. Church’s house is called Fir-Trees. You’ll easily find it, but he won’t be able to tell you much!”
Ignoring that last remark, and thanking the barman for his information, Hawke and Tommy went out to their car. Tommy took the wheel, and in a matter of seconds they were on their way.
It was a short drive, and, as the barman had predicted, they found the house without any difficulty. It was, in fact, the only large house in the village.
They drove through the gates and up to the front. Hawke rang the bell, and a woman answered the door. She was oldish, with greying hair and a strong, mannish face. About fifty, Hawke guessed.
When Hawke asked whether Mr. Church was at home, she gave them both a long glance. Her eyes took in the car outside.
“I don’t know, sir. I’ll see, sir.”
With that she shut the door.
“H’m, she doesn’t know,” said Hawke musingly.
Afterwards he said to Church — “I suppose you are often out during the day?”
And Church’s reply — “I never go out,” was Hawke’s first certain clue that all at Fir-Trees was not as it should be.
The woman came back, and this time she threw the door wide open.
“Oh, yes, sir; he is in. If you’ll excuse me. He’ll be down in a minute. This way, sir. It’s a nice day; oh, yes, it’s a nice day. There you are, sir; he’s coming now, this very minute.”
Up to the moment of Hawke’s ring on the bell, and for a few seconds after, there had been a faint burring sound as if of machinery. Both he and Tommy had noticed this. Now it had ceased.
As they followed the woman into a sitting-room her employer descended the stairs. He was a thin, bent man, unshaven and ill-kept, with watery eyes and a tight, mean mouth. He came into the room with quick, suspicious glances which recalled those of the woman herself.
“Good-morning,” he said, “Or is it afternoon? Ha, ha, yes, it’s afternoon, isn’t it? We haven’t had lunch, have we, Mrs. Priam? We have very little; just a snack. Don’t believe in over-eating. Well, what can I do for you? Mr. Hawke — was that the name?”
Hawke said that it was. He explained that he was a private detective, and that he had been asked by Mr. Jabez Naird to investigate the death of Christopher Naird, one of the victims of the Night of Terror.
“I should be greatly obliged to you,” he went Oh, “if you would give me a little information. You were, I believe, at the Beehive public-house on the night when Naird and the others met their deaths.”
Church looked at his feet, he looked at the door just closing behind Mrs. Prism, he looked everywhere but into the face of his questioner.
“Was I?” he replied. “I don’t know. I may have been. Dreadful memory. But … “
He suddenly became angry.
“I don’t know what right you’ve got to come here asking questions. I don’t know anything. Why should I? If I did, why should I tell it to you? What next? People coming into a man’s house and asking a lot of questions! Rubbish. Fiddlesticks. That’s what I say to you. I wish you good-day, sir.”
“Now, Mr. Church,” smiled the detective, “I am only asking a question which should have been asked by the police.”
“Police!” Church turned white with rage. He snatched up the poker. “You get out, see? Or, by Jiminy, I’ll put you out. Go on; out you go!”
Church swung the poker; his eyes were glittering now, and flecks of foam appeared on his mouth. He sprang like a wild cat.
Hawke neatly took the improvised weapon out of his grasp, and pushed him into a chair.
“Don’t be a fool, man,” he advised as he put the poker back into the fireplace.
“Now, tell me, was Naird at the Beehive?”
Church was livid with rage.
“I don’t know. How should I know? I don’t know Naird.”
Hawke showed him a photograph.
Church waved it away.
“No use. Shouldn’t remember.”
“Will you oblige me by trying?”
“Why should I? I don’t have to. Really, sir — “
“Why are you so certain that you would not recognise the man?”
“Well, because I am. I never remember anybody; no, not anybody. I’m absent-minded. Yes, that’s what I am — absent-minded. “
“It’s no use, Mr. Church; you’re in for it now.”
“In for what? My goodness, I feel one of my attacks coming on. Mrs. Priam, my drops at once! In for what, Mr. Hawke?”
“Questions. Would you rather answer me or the police.”
“Police! I don’t have anything to do with the police.”
Mrs. Priam bustled in with a phial and a glass.
“Oh, excuse me, sir, I’m sure. Mr. Church is not himself, not himself at all.”
The detective watched while the man measured a dose from the phial.
“This job of work that you’re doing,” said Hawke unexpectedly, “perhaps … “
Church jerked in astonishment.
“What job of work? I’m doing no job of work. Who told you I was doing a job of work?”
“Rubbish! I told you no such thing,’’ he snapped.
“When you came downstairs you were putting your coat on, and one can see that, under your coat, your sleeves are rolled up,” he said calmly. “The top part of your waistcoat is faded, while the lower part is not; from that I imagine you frequently wear an apron. We heard sounds which might have come from a lathe. Very simple you see.”
“It may be very simple, but it’s all wrong. You heard Mrs. Priam’s sewing-machine. Then, turning to Mrs. Priam, “That’s what he heard, didn’t he, Mrs. Priam?”
“Oh, yes, sir. That’s what it was, sir.”
“There now,” said Hawke in pretended astonishment, “I never thought of that.”
He turned to his assistant.
“A sewing-machine, my lad. Isn’t that amazing?” Church perked up at once, evidently thinking that he had scored a point. Hawke offered him a cigarette.
“No,” he refused, “no, I don’t think I will smoke just now, thank you.”
“Well, have a look at the case; it’s worth looking at. Feel the weight of it. Platinum.”
For a moment Tommy was at a loss to understand this. It was not like Hawke to boast of his possessions. But he noticed that his employer, as if to bring out the full beauty of the cigarette-case, polished it carefully on his handkerchief before giving it to Church. Finger-prints! Of course, that’s what the guv’nor was after.
But Church wasn’t having any. He took the case by its edges.
“It isn’t platinum,” he said, unable to resist displaying knowledge. “It’s a very rich alloy, but it’s not pure platinum.”
Hawke had known this; he was interested to find that Church knew it, too.
“That’s disappointing,” he said, returning the case to his pocket.
He talked aimlessly, as it seemed, for a little while longer, apparently forgetting the questions he had threatened to ask, then abruptly he and Tommy took their leave.
“We’re getting somewhere, my lad,” he said, as soon as they were outside. “I don’t know where, but somewhere. What do you make of this fellow Church?”
Tommy answered without hesitation.
“Firstly, he has been finger-printed; secondly, he is doing a job that he wants to keep a secret, and, thirdly, he knows something about the murders.”
“Good enough. I can’t add anything to that. We will have to cultivate his acquaintance.”
“I don’t know. To-night perhaps. For the time being we will go back to our hotel at Colchester. Too late for lunch, but we’ll get something from the grill.”
“What couldn’t I do to a fine, thick, underdone steak?”
“You forget there’s a war on, my lad. However, we’ll see.”
On the way back Hawke talked about the case.
“Did you realise what an astonishing thing it was to say that Church knew something about the murders? It implies that he is in grave danger.”
“You don’t think he is the murderer?”
“I don’t know what to think. He is a weak man, but weak men can be dangerous. You saw him enraged. If the killings had been purposeless I should suspect him more than I do; but they were cold-blooded and calculated.”
“What makes you think that?”
“No alternative. The popular theory that the killings were the result of homicidal impulse won’t stand investigation. The murderer was seen, don’t forget that. He could easily have killed one at least of the people who saw him. Take the case of Maxton, the landlord of the Beehive. The murderer knocked him up. It was the barman who answered the door; but he was not attacked; the killer wanted Maxton. He said, if you remember, ‘ Are you Maxton? I want Mr. Maxton.’ See what I’m getting at? It was Maxton who for some reason had to die, and that, no doubt, applies to Naird and the others. These unfortunates — four men and one woman — stood in the killer’s way.”
“But — “
“I know what you’re going to say. They had nothing in common. It is not even clear that they knew each other. How could they — each and all of them — have become such a danger to a desperate man that he was brought to plan his atrocious crime? I don’t know the answer, but I will know.”
The time was at hand, and Dixon Hawke himself already foresaw it, when he should become as great a danger to the killer as those who had died. Greater indeed, for while Maxton, Naird, and the others were easy victims, Hawke was by no means as easy.
That evening they returned to the Beehive public house.
It was the case of Christopher Naird which primarily interested the detective, and he was engaged in tracing Naird’s movements during his last day of life. The unfortunate man had gone out at eight o’clock, and it was believed that he had gone as usual to the Beehive, but this was not good enough for Hawke; he wanted proof, somebody who had actually seen him there.
And now he obtained it. Although there was an alert on, the bar was fairly full, and the customers, already warned as to the detective’s identity, were only too willing to tell everything they knew.
Naird had come in, they said, at eight or soon after, but nobody could say when he had left. Had anybody seen Church? No one had, but the barman was definite that Church had been there, and now remembered that it was nine o’clock when he looked in and saw the man.
Who had been there at nine? Nobody. Had the place been empty, then, at that hour? No, the barman’s impression had been of half a dozen people; besides, it was never empty at nine, black-out or no black-out.
Hawke went on with his patient questioning, and found out who of all the company had been last to leave the house on that fateful evening. Learned, too, that Naird had definitely been left there.
“Good heavens, yes;” the man remembered now. “There was Naird and poor old Bill Stepney — yes, Stepney had been there. William Stepney had been yet another victim of the Night of Terror. So, leaving Church out of it, three of the victims had been there together — Maxton, Naird, and Stepney.
Hawke inquired about the others, Mrs. Peebles and Horton. The man remembered with great excitement that he had spoken to Mrs. Peebles outside, wishing her goodnight. It had been a very dark night, but probably she had caught sight of him as he came out. He had recognised her voice.
Here was a clue which could hardly be explained by coincidence. Four of the five victims had been there at one time; these four, and — except for Church — nobody else. Was it too fanciful to suppose that in the Beehive on that evening something had happened which had brought their doom upon them? Hawke thought not. But who knew what this something had been? Church. Church, who had been there and had survived.
But how to make Church tell what he knew? Well, there was a way. Church was a man of secrets, but it was quite possible he could not stand up to third degree.
Having extracted the last item of information that they seemed likely to get, Hawke and Tommy took their leave.
“We’ll pay another visit to Hodder,” said Hawke grimly.
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