Easy To Kill - Hulbert Footner - ebook

Easy To Kill ebook

Hulbert Footner



The pioneering creator of the inverted detective story, R. Austin Freeman was a popular Edwardian author of novels and short stories featuring Dr. Thorndyke, a pathologist-detective. Freeman’s detective and mystery tales offered an innovative approach to the genre, selling thousands of copies on both sides of the Atlantic. Robert Hawke is a man on the run. After returning from business in London, he finds that a sworn enemy, Will Colville, has been shot dead and the murder weapon belongs to Hawke. But Hawke protests his innocence and is persuaded to go on the run until enough evidence is found to prevent his arrest and conviction. So begins an unwilling adventure where Hawke finds himself setting sail with a vibrant cast of men, casting off for unknown waters and strange islands. And as Hawke embarks on his exotic voyage, enemies abound in the most unlikely of places.

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Mme. Storey drove her own car up to Newport. According to instructions, we left it standing at the front door of the Van Tassel mansion, and made our way by a path around to the rear. This was to avoid coming in contact with the house servants.

In the darkness under the side windows our way was suddenly blocked by an armed guard. The unexpectedness of his appearance almost fetched a scream out of me. In a husky whisper he demanded to know our business. Mme. Storey gave him the password that had been furnished us–“Redwood”–and he drew back. I had the feeling that other men were watching us from the shadows of the shrubbery. Who would want to be rich, I thought, if you had to live in a state of siege like this.

At the back of the mansion, looking over the cliffs toward the sea, there was a wide outdoors room that would have been called a porch in any ordinary house, but at the Van Tassels’, we learned, it was dignified with the name of terrace. It was glassed in all around for bad weather, and though now the June night was warm and sweet smelling, all the sliding panels were closed. Here Mr. and Mrs. Van Tassel had arranged to be waiting for us.

I glanced with strong curiosity at the bearers of so famous a name. Neither was very impressive.

Howard Van Tassel was an old man suffering from some form of heart trouble that forced him to keep his mouth always hanging open and to breathe with difficulty. You were always uneasy in his presence because he seemed likely to have a stroke at any moment. His wife had been a beauty. Her faded hair was tricked out in the puffs and whorls and kinks that went out of fashion years ago, and her faded cheeks were bright with rouge. They showed little of the dignity you would expect from people of their position.

But nobody appears to advantage, of course; when he is frightened. Both old people were trembling. Indeed, the whole place seemed to be held in a spell of fear. It infected me in spite of myself, and I kept glancing around at the glass sides of the terrace, half expecting to see a murderous face peering in from the dark.

Of the two, Mrs. Van Tassel had herself better in hand. “You are Madame Storey, the detective?” she said.

“I prefer to call myself psychologist,” said Mme. Storey, with a smile; “but it doesn’t matter.”

Mrs. Van Tassel stared rudely. She was a stupid sort of woman in all her finery. “And who is this person?” she asked, with a nod in my direction.

“My secretary, Miss Brickley.”

“Can’t she wait in the car?”

“She is my principal assistant,” said Mme. Storey, politely and firmly. “I depend on her for everything.”

Nothing further was said about bouncing me.

Mrs. Van Tassel was so frightened and suspicious, it was difficult to bring her to the point. Several times she seemed about to send us away without telling us why we had been summoned. Finally she blurted out, “My husband has been getting letters demanding large sums of money.”

“For how long?” asked Mme. Storey, coolly. By her calm air she sought to put them at their ease.

“The first one came last summer. It asked for twenty five thousand dollars. During the fall and winter there were two more, each demanding forty thousand…”

“These sums were paid?”

Mrs. Van Tassel nodded. “And now a fourth letter has come, demanding fifty thousand dollars.” Her voice scaled up hysterically. “This can’t go on!”

“Certainly not,” said Mme. Storey. “You never should have paid anything!”

“I never wanted to pay,” said Mrs. Van Tassel, with a glance at her husband, “but Mr. Van Tassel was afraid.”

That shocking old wreck suddenly roused himself. “I have a bad heart condition,” he said, whiningly. “My doctor told me a shock would kill me. I would rather pay than live in terror of my life!”

“What good does it do you?” snapped his wife. “You live in terror, anyhow. And the demands are constantly increasing. It’s got to stop somewhere.” She turned to Mme. Storey. “We are not as rich as people suppose. And our expenses are enormous.”

“Did these letters come through the mail?” asked Mme. Storey.

A shudder went through Mrs. Van Tassel’s frame, causing her earrings to tinkle. “No,” she said, very low. “That is the worst of it. Somehow, a way was found to introduce them into the house. In each case Mr. Van Tassel found them on the desk in his study…Oh, it is awful, not to feel safe even in your own house!”

“Surely,” said Mme. Storey, sympathetically. “Have you saved the letters?”

“Only the last one.”

“May I see it?”

Mrs. Van Tassel glanced around her with haggard eyes. “I…I am afraid,” she stammered. “How do we know who may be spying on us from the outside?”

“There are guards stationed in the grounds,” muttered the old man.

“Where did you obtain these guards?” asked Mme. Storey.

“From the –– Detective Agency.”

Not wishing to increase their fears, Mme. Storey did not tell them that this protection was little better than none. Such men are nearly always to be bought. I knew it, and it did not make me feel any more comfortable. We were making entirely too good a target sitting there in the brightly lighted terrace.

“Let us go inside,” suggested Mme. Storey.

“The servants…” objected the old man.

“We can go in through the French windows,” said his wife, “and lock the room door.”

The upshot was that we adjourned to a room opening on the terrace that they called the breakfast room. After carefully pulling the curtains shut and locking the door, Mrs. Van Tassel produced a letter from the little bag she carried. It was a brief typewritten letter on a single plain white sheet. Mme. Storey read it, and afterward examined it through the magnifying glass she always carries.

She finally said: “From the style of the type I see that this was written on an Underwood. It was written by one who was not expert in using the typewriter, because the keys were struck with varying degrees of force. The machine has not been used very much, and the ribbon was a new one.”

She handed the letter to me to read. It began abruptly, without any form of address:

Get fifty thousand dollars from the bank in bills: 100s, 50s, 20s, no higher, and keep it in the house until I send you instructions how to hand it to me. If my instructions are not followed out to the letter, or if you try to entrap me in any way, you will suffer the same fate that lately overtook your old friend Kip Havemeyer. He was said to have died of heart disease, but nobody saw him die. When I wish to strike, no locks can keep me out of your house or guards keep me from your side. Remember, old men are easy to kill!’

This was signed, “The Leveler.”

I handed the letter back.

“Written by a man accustomed to the forms of good speech,” said Mme. Storey. Mr. and Mrs. Van Tassel exchanged a startled glance. “How did Mr. Havemeyer die?”

“He was found dead in his garden,” muttered Mr. Van Tassel. “They said heart disease…but he had a terrible look on his face.”

“You are prepared then, to hand over the money when a demand is made for it?”

“I wouldn’t,” said Mrs. Van Tassel, with an ugly look at her husband.

“Certainly I am!” cried the old man, shrilly. “I’m not going to be shocked to death like Havemeyer!”

“If you’re going to pay, what can I do for you?” asked Mme. Storey.

“We want you to undertake a quiet investigation,” said Mrs. Van Tassel. “Find out where the money goes. It can be marked. Get evidence against this scoundrel so that we can confront him with it, and make him stop!”

“Confront him with it?” echoed Mme. Storey, struck by this phrase.

Mrs. Van Tassel said nothing.

After a little thought my employer said: “I am willing to take the case. But I ought to point out to you that if anything happens, I should not be in as good a position to protect you as the police. The men you have now are worthless. I advise you to consult the police.”

Both became wildly agitated. “No! No! No!” they cried together.

“Why not?” asked Mme. Storey.

“Never mind,” said Mrs. Van Tassel sharply. “You have your instructions.”

Nobody can talk to Mme. Storey like that and get away with it. Her smile was like polished glassware. “I cannot serve you,” she said, “unless you furnish me with complete information.”

“We have no information.”

“You suspect somebody.”

“No! No!” they muttered, wretchedly. “It is too terrible!”

“Then you had better let me retire,” said Mme. Storey, gently. She was sorry for the old pair, with all their wealth.

Mrs. Van Tassel weakened. “Why not tell her?” she said to her husband. “It’s her business to keep her mouth shut.”

“All right,” he mumbled, turning away his head.

Mrs. Van Tassel put her handkerchief to her lips.

I wondered what was coming. “We have no evidence,” she stammered, “but…but we suspect that Nicholas Van Tassel, my husband’s nephew, is behind it all.”

Mme. Storey was surprised into an exclamation. “Good God! Nicholas Van Tassel! I thought he was the head of the family and the richest of you all.’”

Mrs. Van Tassel shook her head. “He was left a pauper,” she murmured.

Some moments passed before we could get a coherent explanation out of her. She finally said: “It is forgotten now, but my husband’s father, who was the fourth Nicholas Van Tassel, cut off his eldest son, Nicholas, with six million dollars, and left the bulk of his fortune to my husband. His eldest son had displeased him by marrying an actress. This one, the fifth Nicholas, caused the story to be circulated that his brothers had equalized their shares with him. This was untrue, but it did not seem worth while to deny it. Later it was reported that he had made a great fortune in Wall Street, but this was also untrue. As a matter of fact, he spent every cent he possessed and committed suicide.”

“Suicide?” said Mme. Storey. “I never heard of it.”

“It was supposed to be an accident. When his money was all spent, he and his wife drove their car over a cliff in Switzerland. Nobody outside the family knows it, but the present Nicholas, the sixth of the name, was left nothing but two big houses that were mortgaged to the limit…Yet he is reputed to live at the rate of a million a year. It must come from somewhere.”

“Quite! It must come from somewhere!” murmured Mme. Storey.

There was a silence. My employer turned her brilliant eyes on me. Good God! What a case! her expression said. As for me, I was staggered by the prospect.

As we were leaving, Mrs. Van Tassel said, patronizingly–even in her distress of mind she could not overcome the habit of arrogance: “Of course expense is no object. We think you should live here in Newport incognito, and conduct a quiet investigation.”

Mme. Storey declined to be patronized. “Sorry,” she said, smiling, “but that would be impossible. I have a hundred acquaintances here in Newport. I should be recognized the first time I went out…My arrival must be publicly announced. I can let it be supposed that I am here for the social season. My friend, Mrs. Lysaght, will sponsor me.”

Mrs. Van Tassel ran up her aristocratic eyebrows at the notion of a mere detective (as she thought) crashing the exclusive gates of Newport. She had a lot to learn. She was not accustomed to having her wishes opposed, and for a moment the two pairs of eyes contended; Mrs. Van Tassel’s haughty, Mme. Storey’s smiling. It was the haughty eyes that bolted first.

“Oh, very well,” said Mrs. Van Tassel, with assumed indifference. “You may communicate with me here by telephone at any time. I will see to it that there can be no listening in at this end.”

As Mme. Storey was starting her car, the guard who had stopped us on the way in showed his brutal face at the window beside her.

“Say, sister,” he said, with crude insolence, “if you enjoy life, you better steer clear of this burg, see? I happen to know it’s damned unhealthy for you.”

We drove away with the sound of his ugly chuckle in our ears. Mme. Storey’s answer to the threat was to stop in at the central telephone office and summon six of her best men to Newport; the two Criders, Stephens, Morrison, Scarfe, and Benny Abell. We then left a social note at the office of the local newspaper stating that Madame Rosika Storey was the guest of Mrs. George Lysaght at her cottage on Catherine Street, and drove on to that lady’s.

My brain was still spinning with what had happened. “It is scarcely worth a hundred and fifty thousand a year to keep that old hulk alive,” I remarked.

“Apparently Mrs. Van Tassel agrees with you,” replied Mme. Storey, dryly, “but he does not.”


There were half a dozen separate conversations going on around Mrs. Lysaght’s luncheon table–the usual things that women talk about–clothes, tennis scores, the new play at the Casino, the latest divorce–when Mrs. Beekman Alston was heard to say:

“Nick Van Tassel told me so himself.”

The name seemed to lay a spell on all the women present. They stopped talking, and every eye was turned toward the speaker. I looked, too, you may be sure, and pricked up my ears for what might be coming. Mrs. Alston, a very pretty woman, had to submit to a kind of cross examination.

“Where did you see Nick’?”

“At the Chowder Club.”

“Was he alone?”

“He was at that moment.”

“Do you mean to say he danced with you?”

“We sat out one of the encores.”

This was received with open expressions of disbelief by Mrs. Alston’s dear friends.

“You’re only jealous!” she retorted.

The conversation became general and excited, and within a few minutes I had received more information about the famous Nick than I could possibly remember without a notebook. He could win the men’s singles in a walk over if he would stop drinking. He had contributed fifty thousand to the building of the new cup defender. He could always be depended to put his hand in his pocket for sport.

He had bought a trimotored Sikorski seating six.

He had brought a girl nobody knew to the Goadby dance. Mrs. Goadby was furious, but what could she do? Nobody dared say anything to Nick.

A good deal of it I didn’t get, because the places and the people referred to were strange to me, but it was clear that their Nick was a very high flyer indeed. There was a lot of talk about a place called “the Dump,” which I gathered must be Nick’s own house. It was evident that there were gay doings there, and it was equally evident that any woman present would have given her best earrings for an invitation.

Mme. Storey finally cut in with a smile. “What is there about this young man that excites you all so much?”

“Don’t you know Nick Van Tassel?” they cried.

“Well, of course I know who he is. Nick the son of Nick, the son of Nick, and so on back almost to the Flood. There has always been a Nick Van Tassel at Newport. I should think it would be an old story.”

“There never was a Nick like this Nick,” said Evelyn Suydam. “He’s unique!”

“How?” asked Mme. Storey. “What is the secret of his fascination for the ladies?”

“The men are just as bad,” retorted Evelyn. “Haven’t you noticed how they’re all wearing the collars of their coats turned up, and their hats bashed in in funny ways? Nick started it because he doesn’t give a darn how he looks, and now they’re all doing it. If Nick came down Bellevue Avenue walking on his hands, they’d all be following suit the next day.”

“Is he handsome?” asked Mme. Storey.

They went into a huddle over this. The final verdict was, “No, not exactly handsome.”


This was received with a laugh which spoke for itself.


“No, not ardent,” they admitted with sighs. “Cool as headcheese” one girl said, raising a laugh. “Hardboiled,” said another.

“Then what is it?”

“It isn’t anything in particular,” said Evelyn helplessly. She was a little person, blonde, with a smart tongue and over size, wistful blue eyes. “It’s just because he’s Nick.”

There was a handsome tall girl called Ann Livingston sitting next me, and she said, with a gleam in her dark eyes: “I’ll tell you the secret. Nick Van Tassel grins and does just what he damn pleases always. And Newport can take it or leave it.”

“And Newport takes it?” said Mme. Storey.

“Of course!”

After the ladies had gone, Mrs. Lysaght, Mme. Storey, and I settled ourselves for a comfortable gossip in our hostess’s sitting room on the second floor. You couldn’t possibly find anybody better equipped than Mrs. Lysaght to give you the lowdown on Newport. So secure was her position, that when she was left a widow with very little money, she was able to go into business without losing caste.

She was an interior decorator. She had no shop, but merely “consulted” with her clients, and collected fees from both sides.

“I must meet Nick Van Tassel,” said Mme. Storey.

Mrs. Lysaght threw up her hands. She is an ample woman, clever and good natured. “My dear, I might as well ask the Prince of Wales to dinner!”

“Surely he would come here.”

Mrs. Lysaght, since she has been on her own, has acquired such a reputation for doing the smart and unusual that invitations to her little house are greatly prized. Her own circle is considered one of the most inner in Newport. But she shook her head.

“He wouldn’t come,” she said. “He won’t go anywhere unless the fancy happens to take him. He will tell you so to your face. He’s the rudest young man of them all…and the most attractive.”

“Mercy!” murmured Mme. Storey, lazily. “We must have him over.”

“He’s a strange person,” Mrs. Lysaght went on.

“Nobody can understand how the respectable run-of-the-mine Van Tassels happened to produce such a one. Van Tassels are noted for their dullness. That’s how they’ve kept their money so long. But Nick…”

She was interrupted by the entrance of the parlormaid, who said, “Mr. Nicholas Van Tassel is calling, madam.”

“Well!” drawled Mme. Storey. “Here’s a miracle!” But she had a good idea what had brought him, and so had I.

Mrs. Lysaght was stunned for a moment. After thinking it over, she said: “He must have come to see you, Rosika. You are a famous woman, my dear, and your arrival was chronicled in the morning paper. Even the young eagle stoops to give you the once over.”

“Let’s have him up,” said Mme. Storey.

When I heard the heavier tread on the stairs my heart began to beat fast. If what we had heard was true, this was one of the most remarkable criminals of modern times.

Well, I saw a tall, energetic young man with miscellaneous American features, not handsome, it is true, but with an electric quality about him that instantly made you sit up and take notice. He had a bold nose and a compelling glance that caused you to feel a little helpless when it was turned on you. I learned later that he affected most women in the same way. He subdued them in spite of themselves.

“Hello, Leonie!” he said, offhand, and marched up to my employer without waiting for an introduction. “You must be Rosika Storey,” he said, with a mixture of boldness and deference that was very flattering. “It’s great to meet you. I have followed all your cases. It isn’t often that anybody like you comes to roost in the Newport hennery.”

“Well!” said Mrs. Lysaght.

“Oh, I wasn’t including you, Leonie,” he said, with his impudent grin. “You don’t fly with these birds; you prey on them!”

Like you! I thought.

As a quite insignificant person he was prepared to overlook me entirely, but Mme. Storey made him acknowledge an introduction. He made a perfunctory bow, and immediately turned away. I should have liked to slap his face, but if I had I should undoubtedly have burst into tears. That was what he did to you.

Apparently he was completely outspoken. Such a person always creates havoc in company. I say apparently because I never doubted but that there were many secrets hidden behind his hard black eyes. He made no bones of the fact that he had come to see my employer, and he devoted himself exclusively to her. Mrs. Lysaght and I had to be content with an occasional half cynical, half flattering remark flung to us like a bone to a dog. Mrs. Lysaght was no better than the other women; she almost fawned on him. As for me, I sat silently fuming, but I had a sinking feeling that if he ever held up a finger to me I should have to go.

“How long are you going to stay?” he asked.

“As long as Leonie will have me.”

“Whatever brought you to Newport?”

“Can’t I have my little fling?”

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