Sunday, June 30, 2019
Saturday, June 29, 2019
THE POISON-PEN PUZZLE - from ON SECRET SERVICE Detective-Mystery Stories Based on Real Cases Solved by Government Agents by William Nelson Taft
Beside the bookcase in the room which Bill Quinn likes to dignify by the name of "library" though it's only a den, ornamented with relics of scores of cases in which members of the different government detective services have figured, hangs a frame containing four letters, each in a different handwriting.
Beyond the fact that these letters obviously refer to some secret in the lives of the persons to whom they are addressed, there is little about them that is out of the ordinary. A close observer, however, would note that in none of the four is the secret openly stated. It is only hinted at, suggested, but by that very fact it becomes more mysterious and alarming.
It was upon this that I commented one evening as I sat, discussing things in general, with Quinn.
"Yes," he agreed, "the writer of those letters was certainly a genius. As an author or as an advertising writer or in almost any other profession where a mastery of words and the ability to leave much to the imagination is a distinct asset, they would have made a big success."
"They ?" I inquired. "Did more than one person write the letters ?"
"Don't look like the writing of the same person, do they ?" countered Quinn. "Besides, that was one of the many phases of the matter which puzzled Elmer Allison, and raised the case above the dead level of ordinary blackmailing schemes."
Allison [Quinn went on, settling comfortably back in his big armchair] was, as you probably remember, one of the star men of the Postal Inspection Service, the chap who solved the mystery of the lost one hundred thousand dollars in Columbus. In fact, he had barely cleared up the tangle connected with the letters when assigned to look into the affair of the missing money, with what results you already know.
The poison-pen puzzle, as it came to be known in the department, first bobbed up some six months before Allison tackled it. At least, that was when it came to the attention of the Postal Inspection Service. It's more than likely that the letters had been arriving for some time previous to that, because one of the beauties of any blackmailing scheme, such as this one appeared to be, is that 90 per cent of the victims fear to bring the matter to the attention of the law. They much prefer to suffer in silence, kicking in with the amounts demanded, than to risk the exposure of their family skeletons by appealing to the proper authorities.
A man by the name of Tyson, who lived in Madison, Wisconsin, was the first to complain. He informed the postmaster in his city that his wife had received two letters, apparently in a feminine handwriting, which he considered to be very thinly veiled attempts at blackmailing.
Neither of the letters was long. Just a sentence or two. But their ingenuity lay in what they suggested rather than in their actual threats.
The first one read:
Does your husband know the details of that trip to Fond du Lac ? He might be interested in what Hastings has to tell him.
The second, which arrived some ten days later, announced:
The photograph of the register of a certain hotel in Fond du Lac for June 8 might be of interest to your husband who can tell ?
That was all there was to them, but it doesn't take an expert in plot building to think of a dozen stories that could lie back of that supposedly clandestine trip on the eighth of June.
Tyson didn't go into particulars at the time. He contented himself with turning the letters over to the department, with the request that the matter be looked into at once. Said that his wife had handed them to him and that he knew nothing more about the matter.
All that the postal authorities could do at the time was to instruct him to bring in any subsequent communications. But, as the letters stopped suddenly and Tyson absolutely refused to state whether he knew of anyone who might be interested in causing trouble between his wife and himself, there was nothing further to be done. Tracing a single letter, or even two of them, is like looking for a certain star on a clear night you've got to know where to look before you have a chance of finding it, and the postmark on the letters wasn't of the least assistance.
Some three or four weeks later a similar case cropped up. This time it was a woman who brought in the letters, a woman who was red-eyed from lack of sleep and worry. Again the communications referred to a definite escapade, but still they made no open demand for money.
By the time the third case cropped up the postal authorities in Madison were appealing to Washington for assistance. Before Bolton and Clarke, the two inspectors originally assigned to the case, could reach the Wisconsin capital another set of the mysterious communications had been received and called to the attention of the department.
During the three months which followed no less than six complaints were filed, all of them alleging the receipt of veiled threats, and neither the local authorities nor the men from Washington could find a single nail on which to hang a theory. Finally affairs reached such a stage that the chief sent for Allison, who had already made something of a name for himself, and told him to get on the job.
"Better make the first train for Madison," were the directions which Elmer received. "So far as we can tell, this appears to be the scheme of some crazy woman, intent upon causing domestic disturbances, rather than a well-laid blackmailing plot. There's no report of any actual demand for money. Just threats or suggestions of revelations which would cause family dissension. I don't have to tell you that it's wise to keep the whole business away from the papers as long as you can. They'll get next to it some time, of course, but if we can keep it quiet until we've landed the author of the notes it'll be a whole lot better for the reputation of the department.
"Bolton and Clarke are in Madison now, but their reports are far from satisfactory, so you better do a little investigating of your own. You'll have full authority to handle the case any way that you see fit. All we ask is action before somebody stirs up a real row about the inefficiency of the Service and all that rot."
Elmer smiled grimly, knowing the difficulties under which the department worked, difficulties which make it hard for any bureau to obtain the full facts in a case without being pestered by politicians and harried by local interests which are far from friendly. For this reason you seldom know that Uncle Sam is conducting an investigation until the whole thing is over and done with and the results are ready to be presented to the grand jury. Premature publicity has ruined many cases and prevented many a detective from landing the men he's after, which was the reason that Allison slipped into town on rubber heels, and his appearance at the office of the postmaster was the first indication that official had of his arrival.
"Mr. Gordon," said Allison, after they had completed the usual preliminaries connected with credentials and so forth, "I want to tackle this case just as if I were the first man who had been called in. I understand that comparatively little progress has been made"
"'Comparatively little' is good," chuckled the postmaster.
"And I don't wish to be hindered by any erroneous theories which may have been built up. So if you don't mind we'll run over the whole thing from the beginning."
"Well," replied the postmaster, "you know about the Tyson letters and..."
"I don't know about a thing," Elmer cut in. "Or at least we'll work on the assumption that I don't. Then I'll be sure not to miss any points and at the same time I'll get a fresh outline of the entire situation."
Some two hours later Postmaster Gordon finished his résumé of the various cases which were puzzling the police and the postal officials, for a number of the best men on the police force had been quietly at work trying to trace the poison-pen letters.
"Are these all the letters that have been received?" Allison inquired, indicating some thirty communications which lay before him on the desk.
"All that have been called to the attention of this office. Of course, there's no telling how many more have been written, about which no complaint has been made. Knowing human nature, I should say that at least three times that number have been received and possibly paid for. But the recipients didn't report the matter for reasons best known to themselves. As a matter of fact....but you're not interested in gossip."
"I most certainly am!" declared Allison. "When you're handling a matter of this kind, where back-stairs intrigue and servants-hall talk is likely to play a large part, gossip forms a most important factor. What does Dame Rumor say in this case?"
"So far as these letters are concerned, nothing at all. Certain influences, which it's hardly necessary to explain in detail, have kept this affair out of the papers, but gossip has it that at least three divorces within as many months have been caused by the receipt of anonymous letters, and that there are a number of other homes which are on the verge of being broken up for a similar reason."
"That would appear to bear out your contention that other people have received letters like these, but preferred to take private action upon them. Also that, if blackmail were attempted, it sometimes failed, otherwise the matter wouldn't have gotten as far as the divorce court."
Then, after a careful study of several of the sample letters on the desk, Allison continued, "I suppose you have noted the fact that no two of these appear to have been written by the same person ?"
"Yes, but that is a point upon which handwriting experts fail to agree. Some of them claim that each was written by a different person. Others maintain that one woman was responsible for all of them, and a third school holds that either two or three people wrote them. What're you going to do when experts disagree ?"
"Don't worry about any of 'em," retorted Allison. "If we're successful at all we won't have much trouble in proving our case without the assistance of a bunch of so-called experts who only gum up the testimony with long words that a jury can't understand. Where are the envelopes in which these letters were mailed ?"
"Most of the people who brought them in failed to keep the envelopes. But we did manage to dig up a few. Here they are," and the postmaster tossed over a packet of about half a dozen, of various shapes and sizes.
"Hum !" mused the postal operative, "all comparatively inexpensive stationery. Might have been bought at nearly any corner drug store. Any clue in the postmarks ?"
"Not the slightest. As you will note, they were mailed either at the central post office or at the railroad station places so public that it's impossible to keep a strict watch for the person who mailed 'em. In one case, that of the Osgoods, we cautioned the wife to say nothing whatever about the matter, and then ordered every clerk in the post office to look out for letters in that handwriting which might be slipped through the slot. In fact, we closed all the slots save one and placed a man on guard inside night and day."
"Well, what happened?" inquired Allison, a trifle impatiently, as the postmaster paused.
"The joke was on us. Some two days later a letter which looked suspiciously like these was mailed. Our man caught it in time to dart outside and nail the person who posted it. Fortunately we discovered that she was Mrs. Osgood's sister-in-law and that the letter was a perfectly innocent one."
"No chance of her being mixed up in the affair?"
"No. Her husband is a prominent lawyer here, and, besides, we've watched every move she's made since that time. She's one of the few people in town that we're certain of."
"Yet, you say her handwriting was similar to that which appears on these letters?"
"Yes, that's one of the many puzzling phases of the whole matter. Every single letter is written in a hand which closely resembles that of a relative of the person to whom it is addressed! So much so, in fact, that at least four of the complainants have insisted upon the arrest of these relatives, and have been distinctly displeased at our refusal to place them in jail merely because their handwriting is similar to that of a blackmailer."
"Why do you say blackmailer? Do you know of any demand for money which has been made?"
"Not directly but what other purpose could a person have than to extract money? They'd hardly run the risk of going to the pen in order to gratify a whim for causing trouble."
"How about the Tysons and the Osgoods and the other people who brought these letters in, didn't they receive subsequent demands for money?"
"They received nothing, not another single letter of any kind."
"You mean that the simple fact of making a report to your office appeared to stop the receipt of the threats."
"Precisely. Now that you put it that way, it does look odd. But that's what happened."
Allison whistled. This was the first ray of light that had penetrated a very dark and mysterious case, and, with its aid, he felt that he might, after all, be successful.
Contenting himself with a few more questions, including the names of the couples whom gossip stated had been separated through the receipt of anonymous communications, Allison bundled the letters together and slipped them into his pocket.
"It's quite possible," he stated, as he opened the door leading out of the postmaster's private office, "that you won't hear anything more from me for some time. I hardly think it would be wise to report here too often, or that if you happen to run into me on the street that you would register recognition. I won't be using the name of Allison, anyhow, but that of Gregg - Alvin Gregg, who has made a fortune in the operation of chain stores and is looking over the field with a view to establishing connections here. Gregg, by the way, is stopping at the Majestic Hotel, if you care to reach him," and with that he was gone.
Allison's first move after establishing his identity at the hotel, was to send a wire to a certain Alice Norcross in Chicago, a wire which informed her that "My sister, Mrs. Mabel Kennedy, requests your presence in Madison, Wisconsin. Urgent and immediate." The signature was "Alvin Gregg, E. A.," and to an inquisitive telegraph operator who inquired the meaning of the initials, Allison replied: "Electrical Assistant, of course," and walked away before the matter could be further discussed.
The next evening Mrs. Mabel Kennedy registered at the Majestic Hotel, and went up to the room which Mr. Gregg had reserved for her the one next to his.
"It's all right, Alice," he informed her a few moments later, after a careful survey had satisfied him that the hall was clear of prying ears. "I told them all about you, that you were my sister 'n' everything. So it's quite respectable."
"Mrs. Kennedy," or Alice Norcross, as she was known to the members of the Postal Service whom she had assisted on more than one occasion when the services of a woman with brains were demanded, merely smiled and continued to fix her hair before the mirror.
"I'm not worrying about that," she replied. "You boys can always be trusted to arrange the details but traveling always did play the dickens with my hair! What's the idea, anyhow ? Why am I Mrs. Mabel Kennedy, and what's she supposed to do ?"
In a few words Allison outlined what he was up against evidently the operation of a very skillful gang of blackmailers who were not only perfectly sure of their facts, but who didn't run any risks until their victims were too thoroughly cowed to offer any resistance.
"The only weak spot in the whole plan," concluded the operative, "is that the letters invariably cease when the prospective victims lay their case before the postmaster."
"You mean that you think he's implicated?"
"No—but some one in his office is!" snapped Allison. "Else how would they know when to lay off? That's the only lead we have, and I don't want to work from it, but up to it. Do you know anyone who's socially prominent in Madison?"
"Not a soul, but it's no trick to get letters of introduction, even for Mrs. Mabel Kennedy."
"Fine! Go to it! The minute you get 'em start a social campaign here. Stage several luncheons, bridge parties, and the like. Be sure to create the impression of a woman of means—and if you can drop a few hints about your none too spotless past, so much the better."
"You want to draw their fire, eh?"
"Precisely. It's unfortunate that we can't rig up a husband for you—that would make things easier, but when it's known that I, Alvin Gregg, am your brother, I think it's more than likely that they'll risk a couple of shots."
It was about a month later that Mrs. Kennedy called up her brother at the Hotel Majestic and asked him to come over to her apartment at once.
"Something stirring?" inquired Allison as he entered the drawing-room of the suite which his assistant had rented in order to bolster up her social campaign.
"The first nibble," replied the girl, holding out a sheet of violet-tinted paper, on which appeared the words:
Of course your brother and your friends know all about the night you spent alone with a certain man in a cabin in the Sierras?
"Great Scott!" ejaculated Allison. "Do you mean to say it worked?"
"Like clockwork," was the girl's reply. "Acting on your instructions, I made a special play for Snaith, the postmaster's confidential secretary and general assistant. I invited him to several of my parties and paid particular attention to what I said when he was around. The first night I got off some clever little remark about conventions, laughing at the fact that it was all right for a woman to spend a day with a man, but hardly respectable for her to spend the evening. The next time he was there and he was the only one in the party who had been present on the previous occasion I turned the conversation to snowstorms and admitted that I had once been trapped in a storm in the Sierra Nevadas and had been forced to spend the night in a cabin. But I didn't say anything then about any companion. The third evening when an entirely different crowd, with the exception of Snaith, was present some one brought up the subject of what constitutes a gentleman, and my contribution was a speech to the effect that 'one never knows what a man is until he is placed in a position where his brute instincts would naturally come to the front.'
"Not a single one of those remarks was incriminating or even suspicious but it didn't take a master mind to add them together and make this note! Snaith was the only man who could add them, because he was the only one who was present when they were all made!"
"Fine work!" applauded Allison. "But there's one point you've overlooked. This letter, unlike the rest of its kind, is postmarked Kansas City, while Snaith was here day before yesterday when this was mailed. I know, because Clarke's been camping on his trail for the past three weeks."
"Then that means...."
"That Snaith is only one of the gang the stool-pigeon or, in this case, the lounge-lizard—who collects the information and passes it on to his chief? Exactly. Now, having Mr. Snaith where I want him and knowing pretty well how to deal with his breed, I think the rest will be easy. I knew that somebody in the postmaster's office must be mixed up in the affair and your very astute friend was the most likely prospect. Congratulations on landing him so neatly!"
"Thanks," said the girl, "but what next?"
"For you, not a thing. You've handled your part to perfection. The rest is likely to entail a considerable amount of strong-arm work, and I'd rather not have you around. Might cramp my style."
That night—or, rather, about three o'clock on the following morning Sylvester Snaith, confidential secretary to the postmaster of Madison, was awakened by the sound of some one moving stealthily about the bedroom of his bachelor apartment. Before he could utter a sound the beam of light from an electric torch blazed in his eyes and a curt voice from the darkness ordered him to put up his hands. Then:
"What do you know about the anonymous letters which have been sent to a number of persons in this city?" demanded the voice.
"Not—not a thing," stammered the clerk, trying to collect his badly scattered senses.
"That's a lie! We know that you supplied the information upon which those letters were based! Now come through with the whole dope or, by hell I'll—" the blue-steel muzzle of an automatic which was visible just outside the path of light from the torch completed the threat. Snaith, thoroughly cowed, "came through" told more than even Allison had hoped for when he had planned the night raid on a man whom he had sized up as a physical coward.
Less than an hour after the secretary had finished, Elmer was on his way to Kansas City, armed with information which he proceeded to lay before the chief of police.
"'Spencerian Peter,' eh?" grunted the chief. "Sure, I know where to lay my hands on him been watching him more or less ever since he got out of Leavenworth a couple of years back. But I never connected him with this case."
"What do you mean this case?" demanded Allison. "Did you know anything about the poison-pen letters in Madison?"
"Madison? No, but I know about the ones that have set certain people here by the ears for the past month. I thought that was what you wanted him for. Evidently the game isn't new."
"Far from it," Elmer replied. "I don't know how much he cleaned up in Wisconsin, but I'll bet he got away with a nice pile. Had a social pet there, who happened to be the postmaster's right-hand man, collect the scandal for him and then he'd fix up the letters, faking some relative's handwriting with that infernal skill of his. Then his Man Friday would tip him off when they made a holler to headquarters and he'd look for other suckers rather than run the risk of getting the department on his trail by playing the same fish too long. That's what finally gave him away, that and the fact that his assistant was bluffed by an electric torch and an empty gun."
"Well, I'll be hanged," muttered the chief. "You might have been explaining the situation here, except that we don't know who his society informant is. I think we better drop in for a call on 'Spencerian' this evening."
"The call was made on scheduled time," Quinn concluded, "but it was hardly of a social nature. You wouldn't expect a post-office operative, a chief of police, and half a dozen cops to stage a pink tea. Their methods are inclined to be a trifle more abrupt—though Pete, as it happened, didn't attempt to pull any rough stuff. He dropped his gun the moment he saw how many guests were present, and it wasn't very long before they presented him with a formal invitation to resume his none too comfortable but extremely exclusive apartment in Leavenworth. Snaith, being only an accomplice, got off with two years. The man who wrote the letters and who was the principal beneficiary of the money which they produced, drew ten."
"And who got the credit for solving the puzzle?" I inquired. "Allison or the Norcross girl?"
"Allison," replied Quinn. "Alice Norcross only worked on condition that her connection with the Service be kept quite as much of a secret as the fact that her real name was Mrs. Elmer Allison."
"What? She was Allison's wife?" I demanded.
"Quite so," said the former operative. "If you don't believe me, there's a piece of her wedding dress draped over that picture up there," and he pointed to a strip of white silk that hung over one of the framed photographs on the wall.
"But I thought you said..."
"That that was part of the famous thirty thousand yards which was nailed just after it had been smuggled across the Canadian border? I did. But Allison got hold of a piece of it and had it made up into a dress for Alice. So that bit up there has a double story. You know one of them. Remind me to tell you the other sometime."