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The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries

The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries

Аннотация

    From the likes of Robert Randisi, Peter Crowther, and Max Rittenberg, these 30 stories of bizarre and impossible crimes will fascinate and intrigue the reader who grapples with their intricate puzzles. A man alone in an all-glass phone booth, visible on CCTV and with no one near him, is killed by an ice pick. A man sitting alone in a room is shot by a bullet fired only once – over 200 years ago. A man enters a cable-car alone, and is visible for the entire journey, only to be found dead when he reaches the bottom. A man receives mail in response to letters apparently written by him – after his death. The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries is a stunning collection of brand new and previously unpublished stories, as well as many stories from rare mystery journals appearing for the first time in book form.


Mike Ashley, William F. Smith, Joseph Commings, Mary Reed, Eric Mayer, Gillian Linscott, Vincent Cornier, Peter Crowther, Douglas Newton, William Brittain, Laird Long, John Basye Price, Edward D. Hoch, Robert Randisi, Max Rittenberg, William Le Queux, Will Murray, J. A. Konrath, H. Edward Hunsburger, Lois Gresh, Robert Weinberg, Arthur Porges, Richard A. Lupoff, C. Daly King, William Krohn, Peter Tremayne, Peter Godfrey, Forrest Rosaire, Bill Pronzini, Barry Longyear, Bernard Knight The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries

    A book in the The Mammoth Book of… series, 2006

Copyright and Acknowledgments

    Every effort has been made to trace holders of copyright. In the event of any inadvertent infringement, please contact the editor via the publisher. I would like to thank Douglas G. Greene, Steve Lewis and John Herrington for their help in tracing authors or their estates.
    “The Impossible Footprint” © 1974 by William Brittain. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November 1974. Reprinted by permission of the author.
    “The X Street Murders” © 1962 by Joseph Commings. First published in Mystery Digest, March/April 1962. Reprinted by permission of the Diocese of St Petersburg, Florida, on behalf of the author’s estate.
    “Duel of Shadows” © 1934 by Vincent Cornier. First published in Pearson’s Magazine, April 1934. Reprinted by permission of the author’s estate.
    “The 45 Steps” © 2006 by Peter Crowther. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author and the author’s agent, John Jarrold.
    “The Flung-Back Lid” © 1979 by Peter Godfrey. First published in John Creasey’s Crime Collection 1979, edited by Herbert Harris (London: Gollancz, 1979). Reprinted by permission of the author’s estate.
    “Murder in Monkeyland” © 2006 by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the authors.
    “A Shower of Daggers” © 1997 by Edward D. Hoch. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1997. “The Problem of the Black Cloister” © 2004 by Edward D. Hoch. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 2004. Both reprinted by permission of the author.
    “Eternally Yours” © 1985 by H. Edward Hunsburger. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, September 1985. Reprinted by permission of the author.
    “The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem” © 1935 by C. Daly King. First published in Mystery, March 1935. Reprinted by permission of the author’s estate.
    “The Birdman of Tonypandy” © 2006 by Bernard Knight. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.
    “On the Rocks” © 2004 by J. A. Konrath. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 2004. Reprinted by permission of the author.
    “The Impossible Murder of Dr Satanus” © 1965 by William Krohn. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1965. Reprinted by permission of the author.
    “The Red Ring” by William Le Queux, first published in The Grand Magazine, January 1910. Copyright expired in 1978.
    “Wingless Pegasus” © 1996 by Gillian Linscott. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1996. Reprinted by permission of the author.
    “Three Blind Rats” © 2006 by Laird Long. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.
    “Slaughterhouse” © 1979 by Barry Longyear. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July 1979. Reprinted by permission of the author.
    “Benning’s School for Boys” © 2006 by Richard A. Lupoff. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.
    “Observable Justice” © 2006 by Will Murray. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.
    “Contrary to the Evidence” © 1935 by Douglas Newton. First published in Pearson’s Magazine, January 1936. Reprinted by permission of the author’s estate.
    “No Killer Has Wings” © 1960 by Arthur Porges. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, January 1961. Reprinted by permission of the author.
    “Death and the Rope Trick” © 1954 by John Basye Price. First published in London Mystery Magazine #21, 1954. Unable to trace the author’s estate.
    “Proof of Guilt” © 1973 by Bill Pronzini. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1973. Reprinted by permission of the author.
    “The Hook” © 2006 by Robert Randisi. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author.
    “Locked in Death” © 2006 by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the authors.
    “The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel” by Max Rittenberg, first published in The London Magazine, October 1913. Reprinted by permission of the author’s estate.
    “The Poisoned Bowl” © 1939 by Forrest Rosaire. First published in Clues, April 1939. No record of copyright renewal or of author’s estate.
    “An Almost Perfect Crime” © 1987 by William F. Smith. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, April 1987. Reprinted by permission of the author
    “The Stuart Sapphire” © 2006 by Peter Tremayne. First publication, original to this anthology. Printed by permission of the author and the author’s agent, A.M. Heath & Co.

Perfectly Impossible by Mike Ashley

    Welcome to my second anthology of impossible crimes and seemingly unsolvable mysteries. If you’ve read the first, The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, you’ll have some idea what to expect. There’s a fair amount of the same here – but this time there’s an extra twist. I’ve included some seemingly perfect crimes as well.
    Of course the true perfect crime would have been undetectable. There may have been many committed over the centuries, we’d just never know. They might have been regarded as accidents or disappearances or utterly unsolvable.
    It’s that unsolvable part where the perfect crime meets the impossible one and where I’ve had some fun in selecting the stories for this anthology. You’ll find some impossible crimes that were far from perfect, and you’ll find a few perfect crimes that weren’t really impossible, but you’ll also find plenty that are both – or as close as you’ll get. It’s not much fun if the police or detectives are completely baffled. The delight in these stories is unravelling the puzzle and trying to work out what on earth happened.
    Here are some of the puzzles you’ll encounter:
    a man alone in an all – glass phone booth, clearly visible and with no one near him, is killed by an ice pick.
    a man sitting alone in a room is shot by a bullet fired only once and that was over 200 years ago.
    a man enters a cable-car carriage alone and is visible the entire journey but is found dead when he reaches the bottom.
    a man vanishes at the top of the Indian rope trick and is found dead miles away.
    a dead man continues to receive mail in response to letters apparently written by him after he’d died.

    There are plenty more like those. We start the anthology with a crime so impossible that it’s damned near perfect, and end with one that is so perfect that it’s impossible to solve.
    As ever the anthology includes several brand new stories never previously published, plus a range of extremely rare stories, many never reprinted since their first appearance in increasingly rare magazines. This time I’ve avoided using any stories by the more obvious authors. Most of the works of John Dickson Carr (whose centenary coincides with the publication of this book), or Jacques Futrelle, for instance, are either in print or may easily be found on the second-hand market. The same applies to the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton, many of which fall into the “impossible mystery” field. Instead I’ve gone for the rare and ingenious.
    The task would have been far harder had it not been for Robert Adey’s invaluable reference work Locked Room Murders (second edition, 1991), which I would recommend to all devotees of the baffling and unsolvable. I must also thank Steve Lewis, whose additions to Adey’s compendium also proved invaluable. Generally, in both this volume and my earlier one, I have avoided stories previously included in anthologies. Anthologies of impossible mysteries are rare, so for those interested I would heartily recommend the following: The Art of the Impossible by Jack Adrian and Robert Adey (1990), Death Locked In by Douglas G. Greene and Robert Adey (1987), Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh and Martin Greenberg (1982), Whodunit? Houdini? by Otto Penzler (1976) Locked Room Puzzles by Martin Greenberg and Bill Pronzini (1986), and All But Impossible! by Edward D. Hoch (1981).
    That’s more than enough to set your brain reeling. So settle down, get your deductive powers honed and see if you can solve the perfectly impossible.
    Mike Ashley
    February 2006

An Almost Perfect Crime by William F. Smith

    We start with one of those utterly baffling mysteries that keeps you guessing right to the end. William Smith (b. 1922) is a long-time fan of crime and mystery fiction, but only got round to selling stories late in his career, having spent over forty years as a high-school teacher of French, German and English. He started by selling brief, clever little poems, called “Detectiverse” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1980 and then the occasional story, including “Letter Perfect”, which won a story competition in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1992. A methodical craftsman, William’s output is small – six stories in all – but each one perfectly formed, as this one demonstrates.

***

    “According to six eyewitnesses,” said Captain Jack Parker, handing a manila folder to Detective Sergeant Raymond Stone, “a man named Richard Townsend entered a telephone booth last night, closed the door, and toppled dead a few minutes later with an ice pick in his back. Crazy, huh?”
    Stone grunted a monosyllabic affirmative. “Are you sure it’s murder?”
    “A blade in the back usually is. Read the report Paul Decker turned in. You know him. Meticulous.”
    “Why don’t you keep him on it?” Stone suggested.
    “He prefers to stick to the night shift. Decker’s excellent at accumulating details, but he’s not keen on these brain busters. He thought you might be better suited to solve this one. So do I. I’ve notified Curtis and Lissner to report to you.”
    Parker returned to his office, leaving Stone to glean the salient facts from the report, which was a typical Decker job, complete with a detailed account of the crime, statements of eyewitnesses, photographs, charts showing the location of the booth, and its exact description and measurements. The works.
    Stone marveled at the thoroughness of the report. He skimmed through to familiarize himself with the details. A large number of fingerprints had been found both outside and inside the booth, but only Townsend’s were on the phone itself. Decker had noted that the usual litter – candy wrappers, cigarette butts, soda pop cans, and so on – was outside the booth. Each item found inside was listed separately. There were two crumpled Doublemint gum wrappers, a foot long piece of dirty string, a Dr Pepper bottle cap, a scrap of paper with a grocery list written on it, one Lucky Strike stub, and a two inch piece of shiny black electrical tape that had been found stuck to the glass at the bottom of the booth. Decker had made the notation that the tape probably had been left by the telephone repairman who serviced the booth just prior to Townsend’s using it.
    The death weapon was an ice pick with a blade four and three-quarter inches long, set in a round wooden handle a fraction over one half inch in diameter and four and a half inches long. The ice pick was in the folder, and Stone noted that although the handle was newly painted with shiny red enamel, the blade showed signs of years of use. It was an excellent homemade job, perhaps manufactured especially for the murder.
    The results of the post mortem were not in yet, but the medical examiner had speculated that death had probably been the result of a puncture wound through the heart. The pick had penetrated just below the left shoulder blade in a manner virtually impossible for it to have been self-inflicted. The photographs showed Townsend twisted in a heap on the floor, the handle of the weapon clearly visible in his back. The fold-in door was completely closed and held in place by the victim’s body. The door had had to be taken off so that Townsend could be removed.
    Nothing out of the ordinary had been found on the body, nor was anything conspicuous by its absence. Townsend had carried the normal items a man might be expected to have on his person.
    Stone sighed and leaned back. Although the report was a masterpiece of detail, it contained nothing to indicate who had put the ice pick into Townsend’s back or how the deed had been accomplished.
    At nine Harvey Curtis and Fred Lissner came in. Stone assigned the detectives to a check on Townsend’s background, personal and business, and told them to report back at noon. Having come to the conclusion that the scene of the crime was the most significant aspect of the investigation so far, Stone decided to visit Lew Hall’s Service Station at the corner of Halliday and Twenty-seventh Streets.
    Lew Hall was eager to tell Stone everything he had told the “other cops.”
    “This guy drives in about nine last night, tells me to fill it up, and gets change for a dollar to make a phone call. I see him go into the booth and dial.”
    Stone noted that the booth, except for its aluminum framework, was all glass, enabling him to see straight through to the concrete block wall beyond.
    “While I’m cleaning the windshield, I glance over, see him hang up, and turn to open the door. But before he gets it open, he staggers backwards, then falls on the floor. I get the hell over there quick. Some other customers seen it too and hurry over with me. We see through the glass how he’s slumped over with this dagger or whatever in his back. I don’t know whether he’s dead or not. He could still be breathing, but he doesn’t move none. We try to open the door, only his body wedges it shut. I call the cops. They have to take off the door. The whole thing takes half an hour. By then he’s already dead.”
    “You didn’t see anyone else by the booth?”
    “Nary a soul,” Lew replied. “I been thinking, though. There was one other person that might have seen it. The phone booth had an out-of-order sign on it last night. The service man fixed it just before the dead guy drives in. Matter of fact, he was still at the station when the guy was in the booth. Over there at the air hoses.” Lew indicated a small service island at the left of the station. “Probably didn’t see nothing, though, the way he was bent over his tires. Must’ve drove off just before I ran to the booth.”
    “Did you notice the truck’s number or get a good look at him?”
    “Naw, you know how it is. They all look alike. A repairman and his truck. Guess I should say repairperson. Could have been a gal under that uniform and cap. Just noticed the… Excuse me a minute.” He dashed out to collect from a self-service customer who appeared ready to drive off without paying.
    Stone studied the booth. It was a good thirty feet from any part of the station building and the same distance from the street. The door of the booth faced the station, so that anyone making a call would have his back to the pumps. On the right side of the booth were parking spaces for several cars. A small self-service air and water island was halfway between the booth and the service bay area, exactly twenty-eight feet, four inches from the booth, according to Decker’s precise measurements. The rear of the booth was no more than two feet from a seven foot concrete block wall, on the other side of which was a vacant lot.
    Stone walked over and examined the structure carefully. It had suffered no vandalism. There were no holes in any of the panes of glass and the aluminum framework was intact. When the door was closed, the booth was completely sealed with the exception of a two inch ventilation space around the bottom of the structure. Stone kneeled and tried to reach into the booth with his right hand. It wouldn’t go beyond the wrist. Impossible for anyone to get an ice pick into Townsend’s back that way.
    Inside the booth, Stone saw that the phone was attached to the right rear corner. To the left was a narrow shelf for the telephone directories, but both the yellow and white pages were hanging from it by their short lengths of chain. Even though it was daylight, Stone noticed that the booth light was not working. He recalled that Decker had stated in his report that the bulb was burned out. The telephone itself was in perfect working order.
    Shaking his head, Stone walked back to Lew, who was leaning against a pump watching him.
    “You said he opened the door and then staggered backwards?” Stone queried.
    “No,” Lew replied. “He didn’t get the door opened. Just touched the handle, near as I could tell. You think someone threw the ice pick at him and he fell back into the booth?”
    “It’s a logical conclusion.”
    “Well, it’s a good thing there were five other witnesses, or you might think I could’ve done it. The door was closed. It was like some invisible man pulled him backwards and shoved a shiv through his ribs. Only I’m tellin’ you there ain’t no one else in the booth or anywhere near it. And you can’t throw nothing through solid glass without breaking it. You got a tough case here, sergeant.”
    “I’m well aware of that,” Stone admitted. “Well, Mr Hall, thanks for your help. I may drop back for another visit.”
    A check with the other witnesses verified Lew’s version and gave Stone absolutely no new information. He returned to headquarters somewhat discouraged. He hadn’t a thing that wasn’t already in Decker’s fine report.
    The autopsy report was lying on his desk. It proved to be a bombshell. The coroner had discovered that the ice pick wound had not been the cause of death. The point of the pick had been coated with curare, and it was the poison that had caused Townsend’s death. The M.E. believed the wound alone would not have been fatal if the victim had received medical attention. He theorized that the poison had been used to make certain death would occur if the blade missed the heart.
    There were other surprises in the report. Traces of opiates had been found in Townsend’s blood and he had a malignant brain tumor. The M.E. didn’t speculate about the significance of these two facts, leaving that to Stone.
    Stone tossed the report into his out-basket just as Curtis and Lissner came in. “Well?” he said as the two detectives plopped onto straightbacked chairs by his desk.
    “It’s disappointing, Ray,” Curtis said. “Never saw a guy less likely to get murdered than Townsend. Happily married. Has two teenaged sons. Haven’t been able to dig up a ghost of a motive.”
    “Townsend himself?” Stone suggested gently.
    “Age forty-nine. Quiet type, almost shy. No known enemies. We talked with dozens of people. Everybody really liked him. Said he was the type who wouldn’t hurt a fly. No one could imagine him ever getting murdered.”
    “Business?”
    “Ran a bookstore with his wife. Not lucrative, but he earned a living.”
    “Will? Insurance?”
    “Haven’t had time to check on those,” Lissner put in.
    “Did you talk to his wife?”
    “No, not yet,” Curtis said. “Thought you’d prefer to do that. She’s still under her doctor’s care.”
    “All right. Go on out and do some more digging. Get a complete financial picture. Give the store a good going over, check on his insurance, and see if he left a will.”
    “Okay if we get some lunch first?” Lissner asked.
    “Certainly. But don’t make it a seven – course meal. I want some answers fast.”
    Helen Townsend was very attractive, even in her grief. Wearing a pink quilted bed jacket, she was propped up in bed with several pillows behind her when Dr Wagner ushered Stone into the room. Her dark, wavy hair framed a face made pale by her ordeal. To Stone, the whole story was in her eyes, dry but still glazed from shock and recent tears. Stone knew she would be devastatingly beautiful if her face were not devoid of color and if she were smiling.
    Dr Wagner, tall, ruggedly handsome, and just on the underside of fifty, stood by like a mother hen protecting her chicks. “You must realize, sergeant, that Mrs Townsend has suffered severe shock. I hope you’ll be discreet in your questioning.”
    “It’s all right, Kurt,” Helen Townsend said. “I want to do everything I can to help.” She looked at Stone and waited for him to begin.
    “I’ll try to be brief, Mrs Townsend,” Stone said gently. “I’m fully aware of the strain you’re under, but I’m certain you’re anxious to learn the reason for your husband’s death and who is responsible for it. I’ll have to ask you some forthright questions. Do you know of any reason why someone might want to murder your husband?”
    She swallowed, and spoke slowly in a way that tugged at Stone’s heart. “No. I just can’t understand. It’s utterly inconceivable. If he’d been the victim of an accident, I could reconcile myself to it. But that he could be murdered is beyond my comprehension.”
    “Could there be another woman? A jealous husband?”
    Dr Wagner spoke sharply to Stone. “Look here, I object to your asking Helen such questions at this time.”
    “It’s all right, Kurt. No, Mr. Stone, there was no other woman, no jealous husband, and I have no lover who would want to kill my husband. One of the things I’m very grateful for is my seventeen years with Rich. We were completely faithful to one another.”
    Stone hoped she was right. “You worked with your husband at the store, Mrs Townsend. Wasn’t it customary for you to come home together?”
    “No, I always left about two, in order to be here when the boys get home from school. A young college girl, Janice Carter, comes in shortly before I leave and also works on Saturday. Rich usually closed the store at six, but last night he stayed to check a shipment of books. I expected him about ten.”
    “The station he called from is at least three miles out of the way if he was driving here from the shop. I’m wondering if he went there for a particular purpose. He made a telephone call just before he was killed.”
    Helen Townsend bit her lips. “I know,” she said in a choked voice. “I know. He called me.” She buried her head in her arms and sobbed uncontrollably.
    Stone didn’t know what to say. He had never expected to find out whom Townsend had called. Why had he driven several miles out of his way to call his wife? Why not call her from the store?
    Dr Wagner had opened his medical bag and was preparing an injection. “I’ll have to ask you to leave now, sergeant. Helen is in no condition to continue.”
    “All right, doctor, but, please, just one more question. Mrs Townsend, what did your husband say to you?”
    Dr Wagner injected the sedative.
    “He said he was on his way home. Then he said goodbye in a strange way. It was,” she fought for control, “almost as if he knew he wouldn’t be seeing me or the boys again. ‘‘ She closed her eyes and lay back quietly. Stone couldn’t tell whether she was asleep or not.
    Closing the bedroom door behind him, Dr Wagner escorted Stone to the living room.
    “I’m sorry if I disturbed her,” he apologized. “Please let me know when I can talk to her again.”
    “Not for a day or two at least,” the doctor said. “Now I think you’d better go.”
    “Of course. But may I ask you one or two questions?”
    “What do you want to know?”
    “The autopsy showed traces of drugs in Townsend’s blood. I’d like that explained. Was he an addict or had you given him medication?”
    Wagner considered for a moment. “Rich Townsend was no drug addict. As a matter of fact he took the prescription only with reluctance. About four months ago, he came in for a checkup. He mentioned he’d been having headaches which aspirin didn’t help. I gave him a thorough exam and found he had a brain tumor. Inoperable. I told him he had six months to a year at the most. He took it better than I expected and asked me not to tell Helen or the boys. I probably will now that he’s gone. It might help.”
    “I see. Tell me, was he in much pain?”
    “He said no, but he could have been lying. A tumor like that can be relatively painless at first, but as the pressure increases, so does the pain. I gave him a prescription, and I suppose he had it filled. He wasn’t a great talker, you know. Preferred to suffer in silence.”
    “Would the end have come quickly, or would it have been a long, lingering one?”
    “Hard to say exactly,” Wagner said. “He might have had several months in severe agony, or he could have gone just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “The odds are for the longer period, but we’ll never know for certain now. I can’t see that it has anything to do with his murder. Or are you thinking it was suicide?”
    “We’re looking into all possibilities,” Stone said. “I need all the information I can get. Have you been his doctor long?”
    “For over sixteen years,” Wagner admitted. “I’ve been his friend even longer.”
    “Do you know if he took out an insurance policy recently?”
    “I don’t think so. I happen to give all the physicals for the agency that insures him. I couldn’t have signed a favorable exam report, which is required before a policy is issued. I suppose he could have gone to another company, but I don’t think he could have fooled the doctors. You might check with his agent, Hal Harris. I’m sure he’ll know more about it.”
    “I’ll do that,” Stone replied, moving toward the front door. He turned to face the physician. “By the way, doctor, do you happen to know anything about curare?” He noticed his question brought a slight smile from Dr Wagner.
    “I don’t wish to seem immodest, but I happen to be an expert in that field. Why do you ask?”
    “The coroner has attributed Mr. Townsend’s death to curare on the point of the ice pick.” Stone paused slightly to allow Wagner to make a comment, but the doctor betrayed no reaction to the news. “Now I’m wondering how easy it would be for a person to get his hands on some of that poison.”
    “Not too easy for a non-medical person unless he has friends along the Amazon,” Wagner replied. “Curare does have medicinal uses. Someone working for a pharmaceutical firm might be able to obtain it. Say, here’s a coincidence. Some crude curare I had in my office was stolen just a few weeks ago.”
    Stone’s eyebrows shot upward. “Oh?”
    “You can get complete details from your burglary department,” Wagner said. “When I reported the theft, I assumed the burglar was a drug addict, since my entire supply of drugs was taken. But it could have been the curare he was after, and he took the rest as a cover-up.”
    “Possibly. May I ask why you had such a bizarre poison in your office?”
    “It’s not so bizarre, sergeant,” Wagner explained. “It’s quite a natural hunting tool for South American Indians, and refined forms of it are often used in the medical field as a muscle relaxant. For the past several years I’ve been doing research to find additional uses for it. As an avocation I’ve made many canoe trips on the Amazon River, and I became interested there in curare. I was able to obtain a considerable quantity of it for research purposes.”
    “Is it always fatal?”
    “If the dose is large enough. In its crude form, curare is a deadly poison when injected into the victim’s bloodstream. Death occurs because, to put it simply, the respiratory muscles are paralyzed, and the victim dies because he is unable to breathe. If it’s injected into a vein, a man could die almost instantaneously. With a smaller dose, a person would live longer, depending on his size, and might even recover. There are antidotes which, if administered soon enough, can reverse the effect and save the victim’s life. If taken orally, the poison is ineffective. This is why the natives are able to eat the meat of poisoned animals.”
    “Who knew you had the poison in your office?”
    “Only several thousand local TV viewers, in addition to my office staff and a few patients.”
    Stone paused to let this startling news sink in. “Would you mind explaining?”
    “Not at all. It’s really very simple. I’ve taken movies of all my Amazon journeys and show them on TV. Channel 12 has a program called Adventurous Voyage, which I appeared on a few weeks ago. During the interview portion of the show, the host asked me questions about the poison the Indians in the film had used to kill game animals. I explained everything, even mentioning that I was doing research with the poison in my office lab. I didn’t know someone was going to steal it in order to kill Rich Townsend.”
    “We don’t know where the curare came from, but it’s a good bet it could have been yours. You don’t suppose Mr Townsend could have taken some from your office?”
    The doctor reflected a moment. “He had the opportunity. But for what purpose?”
    “Perhaps to bring a swift end to his painful headaches,” Stone suggested.
    “Not Rich. He wasn’t one to take his own life. Yet if the pain were unbearable…”
    Stone extended his hand. “Thank you, Dr Wagner. You’ve given me some very useful information. I’ll try not to disturb Mrs Townsend again unless it is absolutely necessary.” The front door was closed behind him, and Stone returned to headquarters.
    Curtis’s second report was in Stone’s in-basket. Lissner had yet to return from the bookstore. Curtis had been able to ascertain that all of Townsend’s property was held jointly with his wife. The big surprise was that Townsend had taken out life insurance for half a million dollars just three months previously. Stone whistled and gave Hal Harris a call.
    Harris was on edge. Stone could hear the worry in his voice as he explained the situation. “Mr Townsend had all of his business and personal insurance with my agency. Until about three months ago he had only twenty-five thousand in term on his life. Then he came in and wanted a policy for half a million. That’s not so uncommon nowadays. You know, when a man reaches his late forties he begins to be a little more concerned about what might happen to his family if he should suddenly die. He wants a lot more protection. I was only too happy to service his insurance needs. I sent him to Dr Kurt Wagner, who does all our insurance physicals. Townsend came back with a report stating he was in excellent health and fully insurable. However, he did seem somewhat concerned about making the monthly premiums.”
    “Did you try to talk him out of it?”
    “Of course not. My business is trying to talk people into buying insurance. He paid the first month’s premium right away, of course, but he was considerably late with the second, and missed the third completely. The policy is still in force because there’s a thirty-day grace period. Sergeant, the company that underwrote the policy is not going to like paying. Any chance it was suicide?”
    “You’re the second person to ask about that today,” Stone replied. “All I can say is that we are exploring all possibilities. Does his policy have a suicide clause?”
    “You bet. Standard two-year,” Harris said. “By the way, sergeant. I’ve got a very special policy for police officers. If you’re interested, I’ll send you a brochure.”
    “Well, thank you very much, Mr Harris. I’ll get in touch with you if I need any more information.”
    Stone hung up and mulled over the conversation. Dr Wagner had stated he could not have signed a favorable physical exam report for Townsend, yet Harris had just told him that Townsend had a clean bill of health from Dr Wagner. Why would Harris lie? Stone could think of no reason. Why would Wagner lie? Townsend was his friend, and he might do it for a friend, especially if he were in love with the friend’s wife. The doctor could have wanted to be certain the window would be well provided for after her husband’s death. Stone decided it would be interesting to see a copy of that report.
    Lissner’s rushing in caused Stone’s train of thought to run off the tracks. The young detective had a smile a mile wide across his face.
    “I see you’ve had some luck,” Stone remarked.
    Lissner could hardly contain himself, but he wanted to milk the suspense. “You call it luck. I call it hard digging.”
    “Well, let’s have it.”
    The burly detective took a crumpled slip of paper from his pocket and spread it out on the desk. “Found this in the wastebasket in Townsend’s office at the bookstore.”
    Stone read the note. Call from Lew’s station – 9 P.M.
    “Know who wrote it?”
    “Townsend himself,” Lissner replied. “The bookstore was closed today, of course, but Townsend’s salesclerk, Janice Carter, showed up while I was there and helped me search. She identified the handwriting. The paper’s from a pad by the telephone. Someone set him up for the kill.”
    “Could be,” Stone said. “On the other hand, he could have simply written himself a reminder. But it does show he knew where Lew’s is located. Didn’t even have to write down the address. Did you come up with anything else?” He noticed that Lissner was still grinning.
    “Not much. Everything was in good shape, especially Janice. Now there’s one bright chick. When I mentioned insurance, she dug these out of the files. I can’t see they have anything to do with the case.”
    He handed Stone two letters. The first one was from some insurance company’s main office, informing Townsend that the enclosed check for $3,482.87 was in full payment for his accident claim, policy number 987 756 32. The second letter was from Hal Harris, thanking Townsend for returning the insurance company’s check for $3,482.87, which had been sent to him inadvertently by the head office of one of the firms Harris represented. The letter went on to explain that such checks were normally sent to the local representative, who then presented them to the claimant. Through a computer error, the check had been erroneously sent directly to Townsend; moreover, it actually was intended for another Richard Townsend, a man who had been involved in an automobile accident. Harris thanked Townsend and commended him for his honesty in returning a check he could easily have cashed.
    “More evidence that Townsend was a real nice guy,” Lissner commented.
    Stone just hummed, not mentioning the matter of the spurious physical report. Or was it spurious? Dr Wagner might have lied about telling Townsend about his tumor. He had volunteered much confidential medical information. He could have given Townsend a favorable report for personal reasons. A beautiful widow with half a million could be sweet temptation.
    After Curtis returned, without much useful information, Stone sent him and Lissner out with instructions to check very carefully on Dr Wagner, Hal Harris, Lew Hall, Janice Carter, and any other close friends or business associates of Townsend. He specifically instructed them to be alert for any connections one might have with another.
    For a few minutes Stone sat thinking. The threads of evidence he had were now beginning to form a pattern in his mind. Then he called the telephone company. As he had expected, he was told that the phone booth at Lew’s station had not been out of order and that no service truck had been dispatched to repair it. Mr Larking, the manager, added that the truck seen at Lew’s was probably one that had been stolen and was later found abandoned a mile or so from the station. Larking was of the opinion the truck had been taken by a gang of coin box burglars. Numerous other trucks had been “borrowed” for a few hours during the past several days. It was the gang’s M.O. to place an out-of-order sign on a booth, then send a “service” man, who calmly emptied the coin box as he “repaired” the phone. The company had lost several thousands of dollars in the past few days.
    Although Larking said officers from Burglary had already checked the stolen truck, Stone insisted that it be kept out of service until he personally released it. He thanked Larking for his cooperation, hung up, and dialed Burglary. Sergeant Kendrick answered.
    “Kenny,” Stone asked, “what can you give me on the phone truck stolen last night?”
    “Not much. Wiped clean. Not a single usable print. We think it was used by the coin box looters. It’s their M.O. all the way, and they’re known to be working this area.”
    “How much was taken from the booth at Lew’s station?”
    “Funny you should ask,” Kendrick replied. “Nothing.”
    “How do you explain that?”
    “On that kind of job they use a key or pick the lock and put everything back in order. Ordinarily we don’t know a booth’s been hit until a company collector opens the box and finds only a few coins. We wouldn’t have checked the box at Lew’s station if Townsend hadn’t been killed there, but when we did, we found it nearly full. I figure Townsend’s coming scared the guy off. He was probably waiting around the water and air hoses until the coast was clear so he could have another try. When he sees all the commotion, he beats it.”
    “But the phony repairman was there almost ten minutes before Townsend arrived. Wouldn’t that have given him time to clean out the box?”
    “Normally more than enough. But he could have run into difficulties. The phone company’s been installing tougher locks recently.”
    “Sounds logical,” Stone conceded. “Okay, Kenny, thanks. Ring me if anything you find ties in with Townsend’s death.”
    Kendrick’s explanation fit Lew Hall’s story all the way, but Stone had an uneasy feeling that something wasn’t as logical as Kendrick’s version made it seem. The sudden arrival of Curtis and Lissner interrupted his thoughts.
    The subordinates dragged up chairs and plopped into them. It had been a tedious shift and Stone could tell from their demeanor that they were anxious to call it quits for the day and go home. Stone felt the same.
    “Okay, boys, let’s hear it.”
    “Hell, Ray,” Curtis complained, “we’re up a blind alley. We can’t find a motive for anyone to kill Townsend.”
    “Just tell me what you’ve learned.”
    “Wagner’s been a friend of Townsend for nearly twenty years. He’s been a widower for six. No children. Admittedly he’s fond of Helen Townsend, but we couldn’t come up with any evidence of hanky-panky. Wagner knew Townsend had only months to live. All he had to do was sit around and wait if he wanted the wife. He’s got a good practice. Makes great money. Several years ago he helped out Townsend financially.” Curtis unwrapped a stick of chewing gum and slid it into his mouth. He caught Stone looking at him. “You don’t mind, do you?”
    “Not if you keep it noiseless. Continue.”
    Curtis shifted the wad to the side of his mouth. “Hal Harris moves in an entirely different social circle than Townsend did. He’s the country club type. Young, dynamic. Hell, he’s only twenty-nine, but he has an extremely lucrative business. He has a gorgeous wife, no kids. His only connection with Townsend is that he happens to be his insurance agent.”
    “What about any others? Lew Hall, the bookstore girl?”
    Lissner stirred uneasily. “Nothing there, Ray. Janice Carter is just a college student who works part time at the bookstore. No romantic involvement with Townsend. She’s got a steady boyfriend. Townsend bought his gas regularly at a station downtown. Probably had never been to Lew’s before, but he could have driven past it many times because it’s near Dr Wagner’s office.”
    “It would be great to find a motive,” Curtis added. “A motive would lead to a suspect. Now we don’t have either.”
    “So where does that leave us?” Lissner answered his own question: “With an unsolvable murder. Cripes, let’s face it, this one’s impossible. No one could’ve killed Townsend from either inside or outside the booth.”
    Curtis was quick to agree. “Right. And even though Townsend had a motive for suicide, he couldn’t have stabbed himself in the back. Not even a well-trained contortionist could have done that. And even if he could have, he would have left prints on the ice pick handle. And there were no prints.”
    All three sat silent, thinking. After a few moments, Stone said, “Look, either it’s murder or suicide. There’s no way we can call it an accident. Now, Townsend did have a compelling motive for suicide. He had a brain tumor and could have been suffering unbearable pain. But why would he want his suicide to look like murder?”
    Curtis’s eyes widened with sudden understanding. “The insurance! His wife couldn’t collect if he took his own life.”
    “Right. But why such a bizarre death?” Stone wanted to know. “He could have ‘accidentally’ stepped in front of a vehicle moving at high speed or driven his car into a telephone pole, and there would have been no question of suicide or murder.”
    Lissner was right on it. “Townsend was a really nice, thoughtful guy. He never wanted to do anything to hurt anyone. He probably felt a car accident might involve others or that he might be horribly injured but not killed. I think he figured if he set up an impossible murder, no one could be charged with the crime, and his family would be certain to collect his insurance. He’d taken one of those pain-killing pills and put curare on the ice pick to make death quick and certain.”
    Curtis put a damper on this theory. “Yeah, but how?”
    Stone didn’t answer the question. “That’s what I want you two to think about. Go on home, get a good night’s rest, and we’ll talk it over in the morning.”
    After Curtis and Lissner had left, Stone sat meditating. He let his mind replay the conversation with Sergeant Kendrick and suddenly it was clear to him why Kendrick’s logical explanation was not so logical. Stone decided it would be very wise to visit the scene of the crime once more.
    Lew waved to him as he pulled into the station. It was nine p.m. – about the same time that Richard Townsend had died on the previous night.
    “Hi, sergeant! What can I do for you?”
    Stone nodded a greeting. “Mind keeping an eye on me the way you did on Townsend?” He walked over to the booth, stepped inside, closed the door, and performed a brief experiment. Then he went back to the pumps.
    “Well, Mr Hall?”
    Lew pushed back his cap and scratched his forehead. “Looked like you were reenacting the crime. You went through all the same motions the dead guy did, ’cept you didn’t fall down dead. How come?”
    “It helps me immensely in solving crimes if I don’t fall down dead,” Stone retorted with a suggestion of a smile. “Now pretend I’m the telephone repairman. Tell me if what I do is about what you saw last night.”
    Stone drove over to the booth. He got out of his car, entered the booth, closed the door, took the receiver off the hook, put it back, bent down, straightened up, then stepped outside to the back of the booth. He knelt for a moment, then moved slowly over to the air and water service island, returned to the booth, and drove his car to the island, where he checked the tires. He walked back to where Lew was standing.
    “Pretty good show, sergeant,” Lew laughed. “Like I said this morning, I didn’t see him all the time, but I’d say he did pretty much what you just went through.”
    “Thanks for your help, Mr Hall.” Stone extended his hand and got a firm return shake from the station operator.
    “Don’t mention it. Think it’ll help you find the killer?”
    “It wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Stone flung over his shoulder and he got into his car and drove off.
    Harvey Curtis was already in the squad room when Stone arrived at eight the following morning. Lissner came swinging in moments later with that mile-wide grin across his face.
    “Looks as if you have something to tell us,” Stone said.
    “Would you believe I’ve solved this one? I knew my TV watching would pay off.”
    “Well, don’t keep us in suspense,” Curtis said.
    “You know how we were talking about Townsend being the only one with a motive but we couldn’t figure out how he could have got that ice pick in his back? Well, I can tell you, thanks to a movie I saw last night. It’s called Rage in Heaven. Stars Ingrid Bergman and Robert Montgomery. Both dead now, but they live on in the movies. Maybe you saw it?”
    “Can’t say that I have,” Stone replied. “Well, get on with your story.”
    “The picture’s about this nutty millionaire who kills himself so it looks like murder, so the guy he thinks is his wife’s lover will get executed. The guy wedges a knife in the door jamb, then walks backwards into it. He falls on the floor and it looks like somebody has stabbed him in the back. That’s how Townsend did it. He wipes the handle of the ice pick clean, and holding it by the tip, puts it into the return coin slot, which held it at the right height and angle to penetrate his heart. Then all he had to do was to be sure someone was around to witness his murder and fall backward onto the blade. Sort of hara-kiri in reverse.”
    Curtis slapped his thigh. “Hot damn, Fred, that’s it! Suicide made to look like murder. That’s the only solution. Well, Ray, it looks like we can toss this one in the closed file.”
    “I don’t think so,” Stone said. “Townsend didn’t kill himself; he was murdered. A very clever murder, which was supposed to be termed suicide. Just as you two did.”
    “Come again,” Lissner blurted.
    “I don’t get it,” Curtis admitted.
    Stone sighed. The two detectives were good investigative officers, but without much imagination. “The murder of Townsend was well planned and executed. Incidentally, Fred, I thought of the ice-pick-in-the-coin-slot ploy yesterday and nearly came to the same conclusion you did. I let you go through the suicide theory to see if you would agree it was the only solution, and you did. That’s the conclusion the killer wanted. He knew we’d sooner or later figure out how Townsend could have put the ice pick into his own back. Once we thought of that, we’d call it suicide and close the case. I’ll admit I was almost ready to do it. But a few things didn’t fit.”
    “Such as?” queried Lissner.
    “First, the telephone booth was supposedly out of order and had been fixed just before Townsend used it. Logically the repairman’s fingerprints should have been all over the phone, yet only Townsend’s were found. That told me that the repairman must have wiped the phone clean. No legitimate repairman would have done that. He might have cleaned the phone, but his prints should have been on it. Also a genuine company employee would have replaced the burnt-out light bulb and swept out the booth before putting it back into service. This one didn’t. That tells me he was a phony.”
    “But,” Lissner interrupted, “the phone company told us he was a fake attempting to rifle the coin box. We know that.”
    “We know nothing of the kind,” Stone said gently. “Sure, he could have been one of the gang. Stranger coincidences have happened. But a couple of things told me he wasn’t. If he had been attempting to break into the coin box, he wouldn’t have taken down the out-of-order sign before successfully looting it and putting everything back in order. If he hadn’t opened the box in a few minutes, he would have run. He certainly wouldn’t have waited around for a second chance.”
    Both Curtis and Lissner were more than a little dubious. Lissner had come up with a perfectly good explanation of Townsend’s death, and they were reluctant to abandon it. However, they could see some logic to Stone’s reasoning. “What else?” Lissner asked.
    “That piece of electrical tape found in the booth. We assumed that the phone company’s serviceman left it there. But remember the phone company hadn’t sent out anyone to fix the phone, so that little piece of tape set me thinking. It convinced me that the fake repairman murdered Townsend and then drove off in the stolen truck while Lew and the other witnesses were discovering the body.”
    The two detectives looked at each other and shook their heads. Curtis spoke for both of them. “I can see how Townsend could have killed himself, Ray, but what you say is impossible. The booth was completely closed. How could anyone get the ice pick into the booth without breaking the glass?”
    “Very simply,” Stone explained. “He put it into the booth before Townsend entered.”
    Curtis seemed puzzled. “Okay, say the ice pick was in the booth when Townsend entered. Why didn’t he see it? How’d the fake repairman get it into his back when he was at least thirty feet away?”
    Stone hesitated. In his mind he had already worked out the solution to how the crime was committed and he was positive he was correct. “The ice pick wasn’t in the coin return slot. The killer used compressed air to project the ice pick into Townsend.”
    “Compressed air?” The puzzled look remained on Curtis’s face.
    “You know that Lew’s station has water and air hoses situated at a distance from the gas pumps, so drivers using those facilities don’t hold up the gas lines. It’s the only place in town with a setup like that. That’s why the murder occurred there. That’s why Townsend was lured to that telephone booth. It had been converted into a death chamber. The mechanics of the thing are simple. Dr Wagner’s mentioning South American Indians hunting with the poison started me thinking. The hunters use poison darts and blowguns. The killer used the ice pick as his dart and had his own version of a blowgun.”
    “Sounds complicated to me,” Lissner remarked.
    “Not really. This is the way I think it happened. The murderer, posing as a telephone repairman, arrives in the stolen truck ostensibly to fix the phone. Earlier he had put an out-of-order sign on the booth to keep it free for his use. He then attaches his blowgun – a light-weight cylinder of some kind, probably cardboard or plastic, and about five inches long – to the underside of the telephone book shelf with some electrical tape, so that it hangs just slightly below the shelf and points to a predetermined spot which he is sure will coincide with the victim’s heart. The shelf is just slightly lower than the shoulder blade of a man of Townsend’s height. The killer inserts the ice pick into the tube, which is just a fraction wider than the diameter of the handle. Hanging phone books effectively conceal the device from anyone entering or standing in the booth.”
    Stone paused to see if Curtis or Lissner wanted to make a comment. Neither did.
    “Attached to the closed end of the cylinder is a length of transparent flexible tubing – probably plastic – which the killer runs through the rear ventilation opening at the bottom of the booth. He uses a couple of short pieces of electrical tape to hold the thin hose against the framework, where it is virtually invisible. Then he goes over to the air and water island, connects his tubing to an air hose, and pretends to be checking his tires. A few seconds later Townsend enters the death chamber. The killer uses the free compressed air supplied by Lew to blow his ‘dart’ into Townsend’s back. He gives a hard tug on the tubing; the cylinder comes loose from the shelf and drops to the floor. The killer pulls it and the tubing over to his truck and drives off just as Lew and the other witnesses are rushing to the booth. Unfortunately for the murderer, one small piece of his tape remains in the booth. Any questions?”
    Lissner was dubious and blunt. “Well, it’s a helluva lot more complicated than my suicide theory, but I’ll have to admit, it does account for all those bothersome little details.”
    Curtis went further. “Okay, suppose we agree that the phony repairman is the killer. How do we find out who he is? He wasn’t recognized and left no fingerprints.”
    The reaction of the two officers to his splendid deductions was not as enthusiastic as Stone would have liked. To give them time to appreciate his mental efforts, he got up and walked to the window. The view wasn’t good – the police parking lot with a couple of billboards thrown in for good measure. He turned to face his subordinates.
    “I know,” he teased. “Don’t you?”
    Both shook their heads.
    “I take it we agree that Townsend was murdered. Okay, then we have to accept as fact that the murder was conceived to lead the police to label it suicide, just as you did, Fred. The murderer has to be someone who knew Townsend might have a reason to kill himself and make it appear to be murder.”
    Jumping to conclusions was one of Curtis’s weaknesses. “Dr Wagner! He was the only one who knew Townsend had a tumor. And he had possession of the poison. He could easily have faked that robbery. He could get his hands on the insurance money by marrying the widow.”
    “Wagner knew Townsend was going to die,” Stone said, “but I don’t believe he knew about the insurance, since he was aware Townsend was not insurable. And even if he did know about it, he had no motive to kill Townsend, since the man was going to die in a few months. Now, we know that Townsend didn’t tell his family about his illness, and Wagner says he told no one. I believe him. But Townsend himself may have told another person, and I’m certain he did.”
    Curtis and Lissner sat there with open mouths.
    “Fred, get a warrant and search for rubber or plastic tubing, red paint, and electrical tape. Also check the area where the telephone truck was abandoned. The blowgun device may have been discarded near there. I’d sure like to get a look at that thing. Harve, you bring in the suspect for questioning.”
    “Who?” both detectives asked.
    “Hall Harris.”
    By five in the afternoon proof that Stone’s deductions were amazingly accurate started coming in. A search of Harris’s garage yielded some plastic tubing, a can of paint that matched that on the ice pick handle, and a roll of tape like the piece found in the booth. Detective Lissner even managed to come up with the death device Harris had put together. It was found by neighborhood youngsters in a trash dumpster a few blocks from where the phone truck had been abandoned. Lissner had enlisted the kids in the search and it had paid off for both the detective and the children. It had cost him twenty dollars in rewards, but it was well worth the money, for Harris’s fingerprints were all over the gimmick. The device looked almost exactly as Stone had envisioned it – a five-inch piece of PVC sprinkler pipe on one end of a forty foot length of quarter-inch plastic tubing and a connecting tire valve on the other. The files at Harris’s office contained a copy of the medical report supposedly signed by Dr Wagner. It was an obvious forgery.
    The result of all this evidence was that Hal Harris, after having been questioned for more than two hours in the presence of his attorney, calmly dictated and signed a full confession. It was probably his best move, for by doing so he was certain to avoid the death penalty.
    At six in the evening Sergeant Ray Stone sat in an upholstered chair in front of Captain Jack Parker’s desk. Parker wanted some personal explanations. “I still don’t see how you knew it was Harris.”
    “It had to be Harris or Wagner. Those were the only two who knew of Townsend’s impending death. Wagner had no reason to murder Townsend. Harris was the only one with a motive. Townsend was blackmailing him.”
    Parker leaned forward eagerly. “How’d you figure that out?”
    “Townsend managed to get a whopping big insurance policy when he had only a short time to live. Dr Wagner said he didn’t give Townsend an insurance physical, yet Harris told me Townsend came in with a clean bill of health from Wagner. He was lying. No doctor lets the patient carry the exam report back to the company. He sends it. Harris had to have forged the examination report that was sent in with the policy application. It wasn’t worth the risk to do that unless someone forced him. That someone could only have been Townsend.”
    This explanation did not completely satisfy Parker. “What did Townsend know that enabled him to blackmail Harris?”
    “It’s not so much what he knew, but what he guessed,” Stone replied. “Those two letters we found in Townsend’s files put me onto it. Harris was filing false claims and pocketing the proceeds. Townsend threatened to tell Harris’s parent companies to examine his claims for fraud unless Harris got the policy approved. Townsend, normally a very nice and honest guy, was not concerned for himself when he learned of his terminal illness. He wanted his family to be without financial worries after he was gone. That’s why he felt forced to blackmail Harris.”
    Stone leaned back, lacing his fingers behind his head. “Any more questions, Jack, or have I completely satisfied your curiosity?”
    “Not quite,” Parker said. “How did Harris get Townsend to go to the telephone booth? After all, he was the blackmailer. You’d think he’d set up the meeting.”
    “We got the answer from Harris himself. Townsend wasn’t able to come up with the third month’s premium, so he asked Harris to give him a receipt stating the premium had been paid. Now Harris began to sweat. If Townsend didn’t die soon – and many who are given months hang on for years – he was afraid he would be paying all the future premiums for Townsend. He had to come up with a way to get rid of Townsend and have the policy canceled without an extensive investigation. ‘Suicide’ was the answer. It would appear as if Townsend were trying to bilk the insurance company by faking his own murder.”
    Stone’s pausing briefly caused Parker to blurt out, “So what did Harris do?”
    “He telephoned Townsend and suggested that for formality’s sake the premium should be sent to the main office. He persuaded Townsend to go to Lew’s station at nine o’clock that night and make a phone call from the booth there. Harris told Townsend that when he got back to his car he would find the necessary cash in an envelope on the front seat. Then all Townsend would have to do was to deposit the money in his account and send in a check for the premium.”
    “You know, Ray, Harris’s plan was ingenious,” Parker remarked. “It would have succeeded, too, if it hadn’t been for your keen observations.”
    “Could be,” Stone said. “It was an almost perfect crime.”

The X Street Murders by Joseph Commings

    Joseph Commings (1913-92) was one of the masters of the impossible crime story. He started his career in the old pulp magazines in the 1940s. He stockpiled stories written during the Second World War and some of these, possibly rewritten, did not appear in magazines until well into the 1950s. Most feature the larger-than-life and frequently over-bombastic character of Senator Brooks U. Banner. Banner has an uncanny knack of stumbling across baffling crimes of which the following is generally regarded as his masterpiece. Amazingly, although he later sold a number of erotic novels, Commings never published a collection of his stories. Fortunately for impossible-crime enthusiasts, Robert Adey assembled a collection called Banner Deadlines, published in 2004, which contains plenty more like the following.

***

    Carroll Lockyear came out of the attache’s private office at the New Zealand Legation on X Street, Washington, D.C. He was tall and skinny. The sallow skin of his gaunt face was drawn tight over his doorknob cheekbones like that of an Egyptian mummy. The resemblance to a mummy did not end with the tightness of his skin. Sticking out from his sharp chin, like a dejected paintbrush, was a russet-colored King Tut beard. He looked like a well-dressed beatnik. In his left hand he carried a brown cowhide briefcase, his long fingers curled under the bottom of it.
    The secretary in the reception room, Miss Gertrude Wagner, looked up at him. He approached her desk and laid his briefcase carefully down on it, then towered over it toward her.
    “Yes, Mr Lockyear?” she said.
    “I have another appointment with Mr Gosling on next Tuesday, Miss Wagner.”
    Gertrude penciled a line in an appointment pad.
    “Good day,” said Lockyear. He picked up his briefcase and walked out.
    Gertrude smiled thinly at the Army officer waiting on the lounge. He was reading a copy of the Ordnance Sergeant, but it wasn’t holding his attention as much as it should. He wore a green tunic with sharpshooter medals on the breast, and his legs, in pink slacks, were crossed. Gertrude stopped her professional smile and picked up the earpiece of the interphone and pressed a button.
    “Mr Gosling,” she said, “Captain Cozzens is waiting to see you.” She held the earpiece to her head for a moment, then lowered it. “Captain,” she said. Cozzens looked up with bright expectancy from his magazine. “Mr Gosling wants to know if you’d mind waiting a minute.”
    “Not at all,” said Cozzens, eager to agree with such a good-looking girl. No doubt, visions of dinners for two were dancing in his head.
    Gertrude stood up suddenly and tugged her skirt straight. She had black hair cut in a Dutch bob and dark blue eyes. The austere lines of her blotter-green suit could not entirely disguise her big-boned femininity. She gathered up a steno pad and a mechanical pencil and started to walk toward the closed door of Mr Gosling’s private office. Glancing at the slim bagette watch on her wrist, she stopped short. It was as if she had almost forgotten something. She went back to her desk. On it lay a sealed large bulky manila mailing envelope. A slip of paper had been pasted on its side. Typed in red on the paper was the Legation address and:
    Deliver to Mr Kermit Gosling at 11:30 a.m. sharp.
    Gertrude grasped the envelope by the top and proceeded into Gosling’s office, leaving the door open. This private office, it was carefully noted later, was on the third floor of the building. It had two windows and both these windows were protected by old-fashioned iron bars. It was a room in which an attaché might consider himself safe.
    Captain Cozzens had been following Gertrude’s flowing progress with admiring eyes. Those narrow skirts did a lot for a girl if she had the right kind of legs and hips. And Gertrude definitely had the right kind.
    Another man sitting near Cozzens was watching her too. He was red-haired and young, with a square face and a pug nose. The jacket of his black suit was tight across his shoulders. He was Alvin Odell and it was his job to watch what went on in the office. He was an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But he too was watching Gertrude with more interest than his job called for.
    From where Cozzens and Odell sat they could see the edge of Gosling’s desk. They saw the closely observed Gertrude stand before it, facing across it, and she held the bulky envelope up waist-high.
    There was a slight pause.
    Then three shots spat harshly.
    Cozzens and Odell, shocked at the sudden ripping apart of their daydreams by gunfire, saw Gertrude flinch before the desk. Then the two men sprang up together and rushed in to her side.
    Gosling, a heavy-featured man with limp blond hair, was tilted sideways in his desk chair. Blood stained his white shirt front, Odell stared at the three bullet holes under the left lapel of the grey business suit.
    Captain Cozzens’ voice was hoarse. “Those three shots – where did they come from?”
    Gertrude’s blue eyes, dazed, searched Cozzens’ face as if she had never seen him before. Dumbly she lifted up the heavy envelope.
    Before Cozzens could move, the FBI man was faster. Odell snatched the envelope out of her hand.
    It was still tightly sealed. There were no holes or tears in it. Odell started to rip it along the top. A wisp of bluish smoke curled up in the still air.
    Odell tore the envelope wide open and out of it onto the desktop spilled a freshly fired automatic pistol.
    Heavy blunt-tipped fingers on speckled hands turned over the brown State Department envelope. It was addressed to Honorable Brooks U. Banner, M. C, The Idle Hour Club, President Jefferson Avenue, Washington, D.C.
    The addressee was a big fat man with a mane of grizzled hair and a ruddy jowled face and the physique of a performing bear. He wore a moth-eaten frock coat with deep pockets bulging with junk and a greasy string tie and baggy-kneed grey britches. Under the open frock coat was a candy-striped shirt. On his feet were old house slippers whose frayed toes looked as if a pair of hungry field mice were trying to nibble their way out from inside. He was an overgrown Huck Finn. Physically he was more than one man – he was a gang. Socially and politically he didn’t have to answer to anybody, so he acted and spoke any way he damned pleased.
    He was sipping his eighth cup of black coffee as he read the letter.
    It was from the Assistant Secretary of State. In painful mechanical detail, it reported the murder on X Street with as much passion as there is in a recipe for an upside-down cake. Toward the end of the letter, the Assistant Secretary became a little less like an automaton and a little more human. He confessed to Banner that both the State Department and the FBI were snagged. They couldn’t find an answer. And considering the other harrowing murder cases that Banner had solved, perhaps he could be of some help in this extremity.
    Banner crumpled the letter up into a ball and stuck it into his deep pocket. Thoughtfully his little frosty blue eyes rested on the white ceiling. He had read about the case in the newspapers, but the account had not been as full as the State Department’s.
    He pulled the napkin from under his chin, swabbed his lips, and started to surge up to his feet. He looked like a surfacing whale.
    A waiter hurried up with a tray. On it were three more cups of black coffee, “Aren’t you going to drink the rest of your coffee, sir?” asked the waiter in an injured tone.
    “Huh?” said Banner absently. Already his mind was soaring out into space, grappling with the murder problem. “I never touch the stuff,” he said and went lumbering out.
    Jack McKitrick, who looked like a jockey trainer, was an FBI department chief. He stood near Captain Cozzens in the New Zealand Legation office. When Banner came trotting in the door McKitrick said sideways to Cozzens: “That’s Senator Banner. They don’t come much bigger.”
    Cozzens shook his head as he eyed the impressive hulk that rumbled forward.
    “Morning, Senator,” said McKitrick to Banner.
    Banner grunted an answer, mumbling words around a long Pittsburgh stogie clamped in his teeth.
    “Senator,” continued McKitrick, “this is Captain Cozzens of the Ordnance Division, U.S. Army.” The two men clasped hands. “Cozzens is a small firearms expert.”
    “Mighty fine,” said Banner.
    “You were an Army officer yourself, weren’t you, Senator?” said Cozzens.
    Banner truculently chewed on the stogie. “Yass. I never got above the rank of shavetail. We were the dogfaces who gave ’em hell at Chateau Thierry. But I’ll tell you all about my war experiences later, Cap’n. We’ll all work together on this. Not nice seeing our New Zealand friends getting bumped off. Not nice at all.”
    “No, certainly not,” said Cozzens.
    Banner struck an attitude of belligerent ease. “Waal, I’m listening, Cap’n. You were one of the witnesses to this murder. What were you doing at the Legation?”
    Cozzens frowned. “I was here by appointment, Senator. Mr Gosling wanted me to suggest a good handgun for his personal use and to give him instructions in how to handle it.”
    “Why?”
    “I think,” said Cozzens slowly, “he wanted to use it to protect himself.”
    “Against what?”
    “He never had a chance to tell me. But I think this might supply part of the answer.” He held up a wicked-looking pistol. “This is what did the trick, Senator. It’s all right to handle it. No fingerprints were found on it.”
    Scowling, Banner took it from him. “So that’s the Russian pop-pop.”
    “Right,” said Cozzens. “A Tokarev, a standard Russian automatic. It’s a 7.62-mm. with a Browning-Colt breech-locking system and it uses Nagant gas-check cartridges.”
    “This was the gun in the sealed envelope,” said Banner. “Are you sure it wasn’t some other gun you heard being fired?”
    Cozzens slowly shook his head. “I’ve spent a lifetime with guns, Senator. I’ve got to know their ‘voices’ just the way you know people’s. When you hear an accent, you know what part of the world the speaker comes from. That’s the way I am with pistols and revolvers. So I’ll stake my reputation that the shots we heard had a Russian accent, meaning they were fired from a Tokarev automatic, slightly muffled. Besides that, ballistics bears me out. The bullets found in Gosling’s body were indisputably from that gun.”
    Banner grunted. “And all the while the gun was sealed up tight in an envelope and you could see the secretary holding the envelope while the shots were fired?”
    “That’s right,” answered Cozzens.
    “How d’you explain it, Cap’n? What’s your theory?”
    “Theory? I haven’t any. I can’t explain it. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it.”
    “Anything else you have to offer?” asked Banner.
    “Nothing. That’s all.”
    The stogie in Banner’s mouth was burning fiercely. He looked around the office where the murder had been committed. It was a completely equipped modern office. Nothing had been disturbed. He mumbled: “Gosling knew his life was in danger!”
    Banner turned to McKitrick. “I’ll see Odell.”
    Cozzens left while Banner was being introduced to the FBI agent, Odell.
    “You heard Cozzens’ story about the shooting, Odell,” said Banner. “Have you anything to add to it?”
    Odell shook his red-haired head. “No, it happened just that way, Senator.” His frank boyish face was grave.
    “Why were you stationed here?”
    “At a request from Mr Gosling. He asked for our security.”
    “How long’ve you been hanging out here?”
    “About a week, Senator.”
    McKitrick interrupted to say: “Odell asked for this assignment.”
    Banner studied the young man with the rusty hair. “What’s the reason, Red?”
    Odell hesitated, growing crimson around the ears. “Well, Senator – a – Miss Wagner – Well, you’ll have to see her to appreciate her-”
    Banner suddenly chuckled. He was thinking of his own misspent youth chasing the dolls.
    Odell sobered. “She’s a hard girl to make friends with,” he admitted ruefully.
    “It’s tough, Red,” grinned Banner. “Fetch in the li’l chickie and we’ll see if I can’t make better time with her than you did.”
    Odell went out of the office and returned with Gertrude. She looked scared at Banner. Big men in authority seemed to have given her a sudden fright. Her shoulders were hunched up as if she were cold. Odell held her solicitously by the elbow.
    “Hello, Gertie,” boomed Banner as familiarly as if he had helped to christen her. “Siddown.”
    She dropped gratefully on the leather lounge as if relieved to get the strain off her shaky knees.
    “Gertie, there’s no reason why you should think I’m gonna panic you. I’m your big Dutch uncle, remember?”
    She smiled at him.
    “Now, Gertie,” he resumed, “you live with your people, don’t you?”
    “No,” she said hoarsely, then she cleared her throat. “No, Senator. I have no relatives in America. They’re all living in Germany.”
    “Germany?” Banner made a quick pounce. “What part of Germany?”
    “On a farm outside of Zerbst.”
    Banner’s little frosty blue eyes looked shrewd. “That’s in East Germany, ain’t it, Gertie?”
    “Yes.”
    “Tell me about ’em. And how you got out?”
    It wasn’t too complicated a story. Gertrude had been born just after the end of World War Two. She grew up in a Communist dominated land, where everybody was schooled in the Russian language. She learned to speak English too – from an ex-Berlitz professor who ran a black market in verboten linguistics. Farm life had been stern, as she grew big enough to help her father and crippled mother with the chores, but Gertrude had become sturdy on plenty of fresh milk and vegetables, and she used to walk back from the haying fields with her rakehandle across her back and shoulders and her arms draped over it. It made her walk straight and developed strong chest muscles.
    “Yass,” muttered Banner at this point. “Like those Balinese gals carrying loads on their heads.” He dwelt silently on Bali for a moment, then he said: “Go on. How’d you get outta East Germany?”
    She had, she explained, visited East Berlin several times, helping to bring farm products to market. Each time she came an urge grew stronger in her to see all the things she had heard rumors about, the free and wealthy people of the West, the shops and cinemas along the Kurfurstendamm, and the opportunities for a better life. One day, at the Brandenburg Gate, the urge overcame her. She made a wild, reckless dash, eluding Soviet soldier guards, and made it, panting, falling into the arms of sympathetic West Berliners in the American Sector. She had thought that she would surely find somebody who could help to get her crippled mother and her father free too, but so far there was nobody who could perform that miracle.
    Her good looks and quick learning ability eventually got her sponsored for a trip to the United States. Mr Gosling, of the New Zealand Legation, had proved kind to her and had got her the job.
    She stopped talking, her brunette head with the Dutch bob bent low.
    “Haaak!” Banner cleared his throat, making a sound like a sea lion. “Who’re you living with now?”
    “Nobody. I have a small apartment to myself. I have become an American citizen.”
    Banner sourly eyed the chewed wet end of the stogie in his hand. “Now about this envelope with the gun in it. When did it come to your desk?”
    “Sometime near 11:00 o’clock in the morning, Senator.”
    “Who brought it?”
    “A man from the special messenger service.”
    “Would you know him if you saw him again?”
    “I think I would.”
    “Was your boss, Mr Gosling, engaged at 11:00?”
    “Yes, Mr Lockyear was in there.”
    “What time did Cap’n Cozzens come into the reception room?”
    “Around 11:15.”
    “Did anyone tamper with that envelope once it reached your desk, Gertie?”
    “No, sir. No one.”
    “What time did Lockyear come outta the private office?”
    “It was nearly 11:30.”
    “When he came out,” said Banner carefully, “did he go straight out?”
    “Yes – he stopped only to make an appointment for next Tuesday. I jotted it in my pad.”
    “Then what’d you do?”
    “I spoke to Mr Gosling on the interphone,” she said in a low hushed voice. “I told him that Captain Cozzens was waiting to see him next. He told me to withhold him for a minute and for me to come in with my notebook. I started to go in, then remembered the envelope. The sticker on it had said: Deliver to Mr Kermit Gosling at 11:30 a.m. sharp. I went back to my desk for it.”
    “It was now just about 11:30, eh? When you went into the private office, what was Gosling doing?”
    “He was sitting at his desk.”
    “He was perfectly all right?”
    “Yes, Senator.”
    “Did he say anything to you?”
    She opened her mouth. She paused. “No, he didn’t actually say anything. He just smiled and motioned me toward the chair I usually take dictation in. I held up the envelope. I was just about to tell him about it when the gun went off.”
    “And you saw Gosling being hit with the bullets?”
    She nodded wretchedly. “He jerked back, then started to sag over. Then Captain Cozzens and Mr Odell rushed in.”
    “Is that all?” rasped Banner.
    She bowed her head again.
    McKitrick, the FBI departmental head, stirred uneasily by the wall. “Now,” he said, “you see what’s got the wits of two organizations stymied!”
    Banner was looking down at his stogie. It had gone out, but he wasn’t even thinking about it. He said: “I’ll tell you what I think about it.”
    McKitrick looked at him hopefully. “What?”
    “It couldn’t’ve happened! It’s too damned impossible!”
    Ramshaw must have been about forty-five. A cigarette dangled limply out of his slack lips as he sat on the bench at the special messenger service. He wore a weather-faded blue uniform with shrunken breeches and dusty leather leggings.
    Banner loomed over him, his enveloping black wraprascal increasing his already Gargantuan size. “You remember the envelope you delivered to the New Zealand Legation yesterday?”
    “That’s easy, mister. I never handled one like that before. A 10-year-old kid came into our agency about 10:00 in the morning and said somebody told him to leave the envelope with us to be delivered immediately. We didn’t ask too many questions, seeing as the kid had more than ample money to pay for the delivery.”
    “Did he say whether the someone was a man or a woman?”
    “Nope.”
    “Did anyone tamper with the envelope while it was here?”
    “Nope. I was assigned to do the job, mister. I kept the envelope right in front of me till I delivered it to the Legation at 11:00. It had written on it, Deliver to Mr Kermit Gosling at 11:30a.m. sharp, so I wanted to be sure it got there in plenty of time.”
    Banner glowered. “Didja know there was a gun in it?”
    Ramshaw squirmed as if his shrunken breeches chafed him. “I – I thought there was. That’s what it felt like through the heavy paper.”
    “Nobody stopped you on the way to the Legation? Tell me if someone even bumped into you.”
    “Nope, nope. Clear sailing all the way, mister.”
    Banner looked down at a pocket watch that must have been manufactured by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. He muttered: “I can still ketch Lockyear before lunch.”
    He went out of the agency, leaving behind him a grinning messenger. “Say, mister! Thanks for the tip!”
    Lockyear, in his office on Pittsylvania Avenue, played with his King Tut beard as Banner made himself known to him.
    “It’s the strangest thing I ever heard of, Senator,” said Lockyear. “But I’m afraid I can be of very little help. Gosling was far from dead when I left him.”
    “While you were in the office,” said Banner, “did you notice anything threatening?”
    “Threatening? No, not a thing, Senator.”
    “Perhaps you’d tell me what you were seeing Gosling about.”
    “Of course I have no objection, Senator. I’m an exporter-importer. I’ve been seeing Gosling about clearing some shipments that have been going in and out of New Zealand. Governments are touchy these days about cargoes.”
    “That’s all?”
    “That’s all, Senator.”
    In a few minutes Banner was on his way back to the Idle Hour Club. As he entered the convivial surroundings and lumbered into the dining room, he found McKitrick waiting for him.
    “The only thing about this case that’s plain,” said McKitrick abruptly, “is the motive. We know why Gosling was killed.”
    “Do you?” Banner squeezed in behind a table and told a waiter he wanted some straight whiskey.
    McKitrick said in a lower voice: “Gosling was collecting information on a spy who’s been selling all our secrets to the Russian Government. Gosling didn’t know exactly who it was, but he was getting dangerously close to that truth. Unfortunately the spy got to Gosling first. The Russian pistol is evidence of that.”
    McKitrick stopped talking long enough to allow the waiter to place Banner’s whiskey before him.
    “Yass?” Banner fired up another big stogie.
    McKitrick continued: “I’ve been thinking about Gertrude Wagner. She admits she’s from East Germany. Her sympathies might easily lie with the Commies. We have only her word that she’d broken with them. What’s more to the point, Banner, she was in the room with Gosling when he was killed. The only person in the room with him. And she was holding the gun that killed him!”
    “So?” muttered Banner. “Mebbe you can explain away the sealed envelope.” When McKitrick didn’t answer, Banner shrugged. “How was she able to shoot the gun through the envelope without making any holes in it?”
    McKitrick sighed. “Times are getting brutal for us investigators when all a murderer has to do is send his victim a gun by mail and it does the killing for him.”
    The wind coming across the Potomac River that afternoon had the icy sting of early winter on its breath.
    Gertrude Wagner, wrapped up in a cloth coat, walking on the park path, stopped suddenly. She stared nervously around her. A man in an oystercolored balmacaan, who had been following her, veered around a turn in the path. When he saw her looking straight at him he hesitated for a fraction of a second, then he kept on coming, his pace more deliberate. Under the slant brim of his hat Gertrude could see the bright red hair. The wide shoulders were familiar.
    She stood there until Odell came up to her. He grinned sheepishly. “Hello, Gertie. Mind if I walk the rest of the way with you?”
    She drew back a pace as if she was afraid he might contaminate her. Her face looked pale and scared. “You’ve been following me,” she accused him.
    Odell was sober. “To tell the truth, Gertie-”
    “Why do you have to hound me? Can’t you leave me alone?”
    “I’m not hounding you,” he said, disheartening to know that she had interpreted his actions that way.
    “You are, Mr Odell. I haven’t been able to make a move since you came to the Legation without having your eyes on me. You people are watching me all the time, waiting to pounce on me for the least slip I make. I thought America was a free country, but the police watch you here as much as they do over there… You think I killed Mr Gosling!”
    “Did it ever occur to you,” he said through clenched teeth, “that I might have other reasons for wanting to be near you?”
    “What?” she said, hardly believing her ears. “What did you say?”
    “You’re not hard to take, Gertie,” he said.
    “Take?” she said in confusion. “Oh but-”
    “You never gave me much encouragement. You always seemed to have so much on your mind, Gertie.”
    “If that’s really true, Mr Odell, I’m sorry I – if I offended you just now.”
    “If it’s really true! You don’t think I’m telling you the truth?”
    “I can’t be sure of anything any more.”
    “I was in that office to protect Mr Gosling – and you.” He looked at her steadily. “You believe me, Gertie.”
    She looked back at him for a long moment, and he thought her eyes were watering.
    She lowered her gaze. “Yes, Mr Odell, I do. I do believe you.”
    “Well, then,” smiled Odell, “I hope you’re not doing anything tonight, as I want-”
    “Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry. Not tonight. I have an appointment I can’t break. Shall we make it some other time?”
    “Sure, Gertie. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
    “Tomorrow.” She smiled. “So long then.” She had her right hand in her coat pocket. She took it out and held it toward him. He grasped her palm. And then he felt that she had something in her hand – a slip of paper. When she drew her hand away she left it in his palm. He felt, with a rush of intuition, that everything was wrong. He pretended not to notice what she’d left in his hand. As she turned on her high heels to walk swiftly away from him, he thrust his own hand into his pocket.
    He watched her go out of sight along the path, then he walked out of the park in the opposite direction. He was curious about what she was trying to convey to him. He went into the first street corner phone booth he came to and took the slip of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it.
    The wrinkles of perplexity increased on his forehead.
    The paper was blank except for two circles, a small one inside a much larger one, drawn on it in pencil.
    Gertrude, the cold night wind whipping the coat about her knees, went up the legation steps. All the windows were dark. X Street was dark. Fumbling in her handbag, she took out a key, unlocked the front door, and slipped into the vestibule. It was all cold marble, like a mausoleum. She left the front door unlocked behind her as she went in, as if she was expecting someone else to follow her.
    She flicked on a cigarette lighter to light her way up the plush carpeted stairway to the third floor. This was the floor on which the murder had been committed. She went into the office, tiptoeing past her desk in the reception room, going into the private office.
    She looked at Gosling’s empty chair behind the desk. Gosling’s bloodied ghost still seemed to occupy it. And she shuddered.
    She remembered a line from one of the newspapers … A nameless horror has stalked through the Legation…
    The watch on her wrist ticked away loudly. She was painfully conscious of time. Everything had depended on time.
    She did not know anyone was in the room with her until she heard the door between the offices click softly closed.
    She turned around with a violent start. The cigarette lighter flicked out when she released her thumb. A shadow moved against the closed door.
    “Is that you?” she gasped.
    A powerful flashlight blinded her.
    “Yes,” answered a voice. “Have you done all that was expected of you?”
    She nodded miserably.
    “Fine.” She heard a heartless chuckle.
    And that was all she heard, for it is doubtful if she heard the two quick coughs before the lead slugs tore into her breast.
    She was dead before she hit the floor.
    McKitrick was saying: “The patrolman on the X Street beat saw the door of the Legation swinging open in the wind. He thought something was up, so he took a prowl through the building. He was the one who found her.”
    Someberly Banner looked down at all that was left of Gertrude. “It’s a crying shame,” he muttered.
    Odell sat gloomily on the edge of the desk. He roused himself up enough to say: “Well, this isn’t as puzzling as the first shooting. I talked to Gertie in the park this afternoon, Senator. She said she was going to meet someone tonight. Whoever it was just followed her in here and shot her. If I had any inkling this would happen, I never would have left her alone.”
    Banner nodded. “It’s not your fault, Red.” He glared around. “What kinda gun this time? D’you know?”
    McKitrick answered: “The medical examiner thinks it’s a.38.”
    Banner snorted. “An American gun! This’s striking closer to home.”
    Odell said: “There’s something else I’ve got to tell you, Senator. It might help you. I confess it doesn’t mean a thing to me. In the park today Gertie slipped this into my hand. She acted mighty secretive about it.” He gave Banner the paper with the circles drawn on it.
    “Whatzit mean?” snapped Banner.
    “Circles within circles. Wheels within wheels. You tell me, Senator.”
    Banner looked at it front and back and held it up to the light to see if there were any pinpricks in it. Then, without saying anything, he crumpled it up and shoved it into his marsupial pocket. Plainly he could not make head or tail of it, but he wasn’t going to say so.
    Though they stayed there till dawn they found no other clue to point to Gertrude’s murderer.
    McKitrick woke up to find his phone ringing insistently and Banner on the other end of the wire.
    “You never sleep, do you?” snorted McKitrick.
    “Hardly ever, Mac. We ain’t got time for that now. It’s after breakfast. Come to the Legation and bring that small arms expert with you.”
    “Captain Cozzens?”
    “Yaas. Him. I’ve figgered out what everything means.”
    “What put you on it?”
    “Those circles.”
    “Suppose you quit being so damned mysterious, Banner, and-”
    “Get cracking to the Legation,” interrupted Banner. He hung up.
    Banner was sitting in a leather chair, comfortably waiting for them to arrive. He bobbed his big grizzled head at McKitrick and Cozzens. His grizzled mane looked like a fright wig this morning, as if he had been trying to comb it with an eggbeater.
    “Gennelmen,” he said, “this won’t take too much of your precious time. Lemme get on with it. First off, you will swear that there ain’t any Tokarev pistols hidden in that private office.”
    “Of course not,” responded McKitrick a little testily. His face bore the results of a very hasty shave. There was a nick on his chin. “There isn’t as much as a needle hidden in there that we don’t know of.”
    “And you can search me and find out I’m not packing a Russian pop-gun.”
    “We’ll take your word for it, Senator,” said McKitrick shortly.
    “We get on together,” chuckled Banner. He got up with a heave and a vast grunt. “You two sit here on the lounge, the way you were the other day with Odell, Cap’n.” He watched them sharply as they followed his suggestion. “I’m going in there.” He entered the private office, where Gosling and Gertrude had been killed, leaving the intervening door open. He was out of sight from the two watchers for about five minutes, then he reappeared and stood in the doorway, filling the frame with his bulk, his hands deep in the bulging frockcoat pockets. “Nothing up my sleeve, mates,” he announced.
    They both stared at him, not knowing what to expect. Then both of them leaped to their feet.
    Three loud shots had crashed out in the empty office behind Banner’s back!
    Banner did not even take his hands out of his pockets. “And there you have it,” he said.
    “But, great Godfrey!” yipped McKitrick, pushing past Banner to see who else was hidden in the private office. “Who fired that pistol?”
    “It was a Tokarev automatic!” said Cozzens. “I’ll swear to that!”
    “But there isn’t anyone here but you!” McKitrick glared helplessly around the room.
    “Neverthless-” began Banner. “But let it keep awhile. There’re more important things like searches and seizures to be made.”
    “Confound you, Banner!” said McKitrick, but he was in good humor about it.
    “You can begin by arresting-”
    The search was fruitless until Banner suggested that what they were after might be on microfilm and if they could not find microfilm in all the obvious places, it might be hidden in the electric light sockets.
    That was where they found it.
    They had all the proof they needed to arrest their man for espionage and murder.
    And Carroll Lockyear, the export-import man, almost pulled his King Tut beard out by the roots when they confronted him.
    McKitrick and the Assistant Secretary of State made impressive members of Banner’s small audience. Banner was prancing back and forth, gnawing a long stogie, as if he were holding a press conference. But he had not let the reporters in yet. They were all ganged up outside in the hall, waiting.
    The Assistant Secretary of State fingered his chin reflectively. “The riddle of the sealed envelope-”
    “Yaas, yaas!” Banner chuckled. “It’s simple when you know the sorta thimble – rigging that went on behind the scenes. I said in the beginning that I thought the murder was too damned impossible cuz one person alone couldn’t’ve accomplished it. Lockyear is the murderer and spy, all right, but he had forced poor Gertie to help him. Y’see, he was a Commie agent and Gertie told us that her crippled mother and her father are still stranded in East Germany. You can now see how easy it was for him to get her to agree to his scheme. He could tell her he’d get ’em outta East Germany if she played ball. If she still didn’t agree, he could easily threaten to turn the old folks over to the untender mercies of the MVD agents.”
    He paused a moment before going on. “Gosling was getting onto Lockyear’s trail. Some time before the murder, Lockyear used a standard tape recorder. Lockyear let the tape run silently for three minutes, then he fired his Tokarev pistol three times near the recorder. He now had a tape recording of three minutes of dead silence, followed by three quickly fired shots. He handed that roll of tape over to Gertie for her to put in Gosling’s private office where he could get his hands on it later on. When he went into Gosling’s office to commit the murder that morning he had in his briefcase the Tokarev pistol with silencer on it, and also in the briefcase was a large manila mailing envelope that was a duplicate of the one to be delivered to Gertie’s desk by the messenger service. The gun that was delivered to Gertie by the special messenger route was probably a toy pistol, so that if the envelope were opened prematurely the whole thing could be laughed off as a practical joke.
    “It was all timed to the split second. Lockyear stalled with Gosling till almost 11:30, talking business, then swiftly he pulled the silenced automatic outta the briefcase and shot Gosling in the chest three times with it before his victim could blink or cry out. Naturally the shots were not heard outside the room with the door closed. He whipped out the prepared envelope, snatched the silencer off the pistol – barrel, and shoved the pistol, still smoking, into the envelope, sealing it immediately. Next he set the prepared reel of tape on the recorder alongside Gosling’s desk – there’s one in every office and you’ve noticed that Gosling’s office had all the modern equipment – and then picked up the envelope and briefcase. It was now, according to his watch, 11:27. He flipped the tape recorder switch to on. Three minutes of dead silence, remember, then three shots. He put his arm around both the envelope and the briefcase so that the briefcase would entirely conceal the envelope to anyone waiting in the lounge. He came out of the private office and walked to Gertie’s desk on which the second envelope with the toy gun in it was lying, waiting to be delivered at 11:30 sharp. He put his briefcase down on her desk, so that it covered both envelopes. After getting Gertie to jot down his phony appointment for next Tuesday, Lockyear picked up his briefcase again – together with the envelope that had been lying on Gertie’s desk! In its place he left the one with the real murder weapon in it. He carried the other envelope out with him, still concealed behind his briefcase, and nobody was aware of the switch. So the gun that had just been used to commit the murder was now waiting for Gertie to carry it back in. She had been forced into it. She knew Gosling was already dead. She had to play out her part. She pretended to talk to Gosling on the interphone to give the illusion that Gosling was still alive after Lockyear left. Then she started to go into the private office, looked at her watch, knew the three minutes were almost up, then carried the sealed envelope in.”
    He stopped and glowered around the room. “The three shots that were heard by the two witnesses were the ones already on the tape recorder! Cozzens even remarked that they were somewhat muffled!… The tape recorder ran itself out silently again, till Gertie, in the excitement that followed the discovery of Gosling’s dead body, managed to flip the switch off.”
    “Good God!” muttered somebody in the room,
    Banner cleared his throat with a big sea lion noise. “Haaak! Although Gertie had been terrorized into helping Lockyear remove a threat to his existence as a spy, she wanted desperately for one of us to know the truth. She knew she was being watched by everybody, their side as well as ours, so she couldn’t come right out and tell us about it. She drew two circles, one inside the other, on a piece of paper. She didn’t dare hint further. She was trying to call our attention to the reel of the tape recorder – circular. Yunnerstand? And she was trying to help us, boys. If she had completely obeyed the instructions of the murderer, I never would’ve found the tape still on the recorder in that office – she would’ve destroyed it. Last night the murderer killed her as a safety measure, thinking that his trail on tape had been completely wiped out.”

Locked in Death by Mary Reed & Eric Mayer

    Those of you who have seen my anthologies of historical whodunits will know that Mary Reed and Eric Mayer are the authors of the stories featuring John the Eunuch, set in 6th-century Constantinople. One or two of those stories have been locked-room mysteries. John the Eunuch also features in a series of novels that began with One for Sorrow (1999). Besides John, they also have another continuing character, Inspector Dorj of the Mongolian Police, who first appeared in “Death on the Trans-Mongolian Railway” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (March 2000). The following is a brand new Inspector Dorj story involving a travelling circus and a puzzling corpse.

***

    During his years with the Mongolian police Inspector Dorj had witnessed crimes in sufficient variety to inspire several Shakespearean tragedies, but until the crowbar-wielding midget sent the locked door of the circus caravan flying open the inspector had never seen a man murdered by a corpse.
    Hercules the lion-tamer was, it is true, an exceptionally large and powerful corpse, but a corpse nevertheless. He lay wedged between the bed on which Dorj had last seen him and the blood-smeared door of the ancient caravan’s lavatory cubicle. His enormous hands were still reaching for his victim. Nikolai Zubov, sprawled partly under the table near the door, was now beyond Hercules’ reach, but the ugly welt ringing the circus owner’s neck made it clear what must have happened. Dorj said so.
    “Clear?” muttered Dima, the midget, peering around Dorj into the disordered caravan. Dima’s bone white clown makeup ran with sweat from his efforts with the crowbar, turning his face almost as ghastly as Zubov’s. “How can you say it is clear when it seems Zubov was strangled by a dead man?”
    “Of course the lion-tamer was dead,” said Batu, Dorj’s assistant. “The lion went berserk and practically disembowelled him. No one could have survived a gaping wound like that. You’re lucky you got bored and left the performance before the lion-taming act started.”
    Dorj now regretted dragging the young man to the circus, which had turned out to be a sorry affair even before the accident. “You kept an eye on the caravan while I returned to town to make arrangements?”
    “I would have seen anyone approaching.”
    “So only Zubov and Hercules were inside?”
    A cloud-like frown passed over Batu’s round, flat moon of a face, a typical Mongolian face in contrast to Dorj’s sharper-angled features. “The names of those deceased should not be spoken so soon after death. Souls linger. So many people, saying their names – they may call the dead back from the lower world.”
    Dorj had long since abandoned trying to talk Batu out of his native beliefs and instead had taken to occasionally exposing the young man to some culture – unfortunately, as it turned out, in the case of the circus. So now he simply instructed his assistant to begin the tedious collection of evidence and then, to be alone to consider the conundrum, walked away from the caravan and the abandoned Russian airplane hangar the circus had borrowed for its performances.
    A rutted track led into the desert where a cold September wind rolled small bits of gravel against his carefully polished shoes. Unlike Batu, who had grown up in a ger, the traditional movable tent of the Mongolian nomads, Dorj was city bred. Until the great earthquake that some called freedom had driven him to a posting in the Gobi, he had rarely strayed far from the relatively cosmopolitan world of Ulaanbaatar.
    He was not comfortable in his own country. He hated the Gobi, a featureless immensity beside which men and the culture Dorj valued so highly seemed small and insignificant. Out here Batu’s half-civilized ideas about returning souls seemed almost plausible. Or at least as good as any explanation the inspector had for a murderous corpse.
    Staring out to the far off horizon where mountains sat like clouds, Dorj tried to recall what he had witnessed earlier. It was possible those events might have something to tell him about Zubov’s mysterious death. But since the lion-tamer’s death had been a grisly accident, Dorj had not examined the scene as carefully as he would have if a crime had been committed, and he regretted it now.
    The inspector had arrived at the hangar door just as the lion-tamer’s corpse was being laid beside it, beneath a line of carelessly slapped on posters advertising that those who visited the circus would, among other delights, view a recreation of:
    “The First Labour of Hercules. See The Mighty Hercules Slay the Nemean Lion.”
    Dorj had been struck by the irony of Hercules’s death because, while some survived the vagaries and misfortunes of life by seeing dark humour in it all, he survived by noting the irony.
    And thinking back now, what else had he noticed, aside from distressed circus-goers edging past the corpse?
    Zubov was standing outside the hangar, still wearing his ringmaster’s top hat, speaking to a muscular young man decked out in spangled tights.
    “Perhaps if I go back and perform my act, it will distract the crowd,” the young man suggested.
    “Conceited fool!” the older man snapped back. “Go help direct them out the exits and make sure they don’t panic. Do you think anyone wants to see you preening and swinging like a monkey, with a man lying dead right outside?”
    Zubov was soft featured, chubby around the middle, but his voice was harsh. His magic tricks involving a red ball and three boxes with obviously false bottoms had driven Dorj outside.
    Dorj also remembered a woman standing beside the door, head bent. She was a tall, striking blonde, perhaps nearing middle age but it was difficult to be certain, given her heavy make-up. She was dressed in layers of diaphanous sequined material that billowed in the bitter wind, but she stood motionless, a great glittering icicle.
    Because he was a government official at the scene, Dorj introduced himself to Zubov. There were arrangements to be made.
    “We’ll put the fat man in my caravan where I can keep on eye on him for now,” the circus owner said brusquely. “Dima! Get the wheelbarrow!” He looked around for the clown.
    “Where’s that idiot runt?” Turning back to Dorj, he continued, “You can’t rely on anybody these days. But you must know how it is, Inspector. I suppose you deal with enough underlings yourself – and all of them slackers and idiots.”
    Dorj followed as the dead man was taken to the ringmaster’s caravan and laid on the bed. A few moments later, the blonde woman appeared at the caravan door. She resembled a ghost, icily composed, arms folded around herself as if she were trying to hold in a terrible storm of emotions. At last she was overwhelmed.
    “Ah, Cheslav! My poor husband, I am so sorry! So sorry!” Weeping, she threw herself onto the corpse.
    “Stop it, Ivana,” barked Zubov. “It’s too late to be sorry.”
    But Ivana continued to sob hysterically, embracing her dead husband, smoothing his hair and rearranging his blood-soaked clothing as if to somehow repair the damage the lion had inflicted.
    Dorj had hesitated, uncertain whether to intervene. He preferred the theatre where tumultuous emotions could be safely observed, caged upon the stage. He had been thankful when some of the other performers finally escorted Ivana away. The chilly wind no longer billowed out her robes; they had been soaked with her husband’s blood.
    And those few impressions seemed to tell Dorj nothing at all about how the dead man had committed a murder. Perhaps there was something in Batu’s theory of returning souls after all.
    “Watch out!”
    As he approached the back of the caravan, returning from his solitary walk, Dorj felt a hand on his shoulder and paused in midstep. There was a loud metallic snap. Glancing down, he saw a trap, rusty jaws now locked shut, sitting on the gravel a centimetre or two from his foot. Turning around, he saw he had been warned by a woman. It was difficult to tell her age because of her beard.
    “We catch marmots to feed to the animals,” she explained in Russian. Seeing Dorj understood, she added, “You’re lucky you didn’t step in one of these traps before. I saw you wandering around out here during the show, didn’t I? I’m sorry our performance drove you out into the cold.”
    Dorj tried to think of something polite to say while at the same time trying not to stare too obviously at the woman’s somewhat sparse but unmistakable dark beard.
    He had a soft spot for circuses. They had a certain magic, an otherworldly air, reminding him of Prospero’s island. Lights, sequins and distance transformed even the plainest of performers into fabulous creatures. But in truth, the Circus Chinggis had immediately struck him as the sort of seedy undertaking where the owners would be more likely than not to toss the main tent into the back of a 25-year-old Russian military lorry, herd the trained fleas onto a dusty lion and slip out of town under cover of darkness. Except, in a nation where thousands of people actually lived in tent-like gers, this forlorn circus apparently had no tents to call its own.
    “You sold a programme to my colleague earlier, didn’t you?” was all Dorj could think to say.
    “I suppose you’re one of those who never forgets a face! My name is Larisa Sergeyevna.”
    Her voice was soft, her skin fair. To his chagrin Dorj found his gaze, leaving her beard, caught by her eyes, as blue as the sky over the Gobi.
    Embarrassed, the inspector introduced himself. “I regret I will have to ask you some questions. For instance, I gather you haven’t been the Circus Chinggis for long.” He indicated the fresh and badly painted lettering on the side of the caravan.
    Larisa glanced quickly at the caravan and then looked away, perhaps mindful of the two dead men inside. “You’re right. A few weeks ago Zubov decided he would have a better chance of meeting expenses by charging tugriks rather than rubles, not that any of us have actually seen either since we crossed the Mongolian border.
    “But,” she continued, “Since you asked, let’s see, we were the Comrades’ Circus at one time, not to mention the Paris Troika. I even recall a time when we were just plain Buturlin’s. But I expect we’ll have to remain Mongolian for a while since we’re nearly out of paint, as well as running low on food. Perhaps you’ll give us another chance, and not want your admission money back?”
    “I’m sure you put on a fine show. Perhaps it is just that I am out of humour. Or more in the mood for Shakespeare. Not that a circus doesn’t have more than a touch of Shakespeare.”
    “You have a silver tongue, Inspector Dorj! I’ve never heard a circus compared to Shakespeare before. He wrote mostly about boring old kings killing each other, didn’t he?”
    “But even his historical plays have a lot of magic in them, really. All manner of ghosts and portents, witchcraft and unnatural creatures…” Realizing his gaffe, his voice trailed off, but the bearded lady just smiled quietly at him. Then, to his distress, her blue eyes pooled with tears.
    “Poor Cheslav,” she said. “He was always so afraid of the lion.”
    Dorj gave her a questioning look.
    “Cheslav – Hercules – was no lion-tamer. He was our strong man,” she explained. “Alexi, our real lion-tamer, he left us in Erdenet a few weeks ago. He thought he could find work in the copper mines. So Zubov ordered Cheslav to take over. Just like Zubov, that was!”
    She turned away and pitched forward suddenly. Dorj caught her arm to keep her from falling. In the instant her warm weight was on him, his breath caught in his chest.
    “My weak ankle,” she said. There was anger in her voice. “I used to be an acrobat. Imagine that. Then I got injured, but Zubov insisted I keep performing. He even forced me to keep training on the trapeze. My back is bad now, too. So I’m reduced to hawking programmes.” A tear ran down Larisa’s pale cheek and into her beard. “He was a hateful man. I could almost believe a corpse would rise up to kill one like him!”
    When Larisa had gone Dorj remained aware, uncomfortably so, of the pleasurable sensation of her warmth near to him. It occurred to him that she was not so much ugly as she was… exotic… magical.
    He checked around the caravan again. The murder had occurred, it seemed, just before Dorj returned from Dalandzadgad, where he had gone to arrange for an ambulance to take the dead man away. It would have been much easier to have been able to call one with the aid of a portable telephone, but nothing of the sort had been made available to him out here in the desert. Batu, whom he had left at the circus as an official guard, had heard strange noises from the caravan. When there was no reply to the young policeman’s shouted inquiry, he had finally tried the door. It had been securely locked from the inside.
    The small caravan was of vintage nineteen fifties design; no doubt it was towed behind one of the circus’s old lorries as the troupe moved from place to place. But now it stood alone, surrounded by flat, empty ground, some distance from both the hangar and the other circus vehicles. Dorj’s footsteps crunched on the gravel as he circled it. Batu would probably have heard, and surely seen, anyone trying to approach by stealth.
    The caravan was as decrepit as the rest of the circus, Dorj thought as he noted a couple of badly patched holes in its rusted walls, half hidden by the freshly applied paint. There was a tiny window in each side wall and a vent in the curved roof. Dorj paced back a short distance, to get a better look at the vent. The opening was far too small for anyone to squeeze through. Dorj, thin as he was, wouldn’t have got more than an arm through it. For a moment he wondered about Dima, the small clown, but decided that even Dima could never have managed to squeeze through the vent. As for the windows, he noticed on closer inspection that they were sealed shut by carelessly applied and obviously undisturbed paint.
    Glancing through the window, he saw the two dead men, Zubov now on the bed and his apparent murderer on the floor near him, were decently covered by a couple of pieces of canvas, perhaps the remains of the Circus Chinggis’s missing Big Top.
    “Ah, Cheslav, I wish you could speak,” muttered Dorj. Then he recalled what Batu had said about calling back the souls of the dead, and hurried away from the caravan.
    “Everyone hated Zubov,” Dima stated, confirming what Larisa had told Dorj. The midget, wiping dry, cracked make-up from his chin, was seated on a crate near the hangar door.
    The inspector inquired why Zubov had been so hated.
    “You saw the way he treated me! Do you doubt it?”
    “He treated everyone the same, then?”
    “Of course he did. Isn’t that always the way with people like him?” Dima climbed off the crate. He barely came up to Dorj’s waist. “He used to constantly criticize me for not being short enough,” he continued. “Can you imagine that? He’d laugh and shout at me that I couldn’t even manage to be small enough to be a proper midget.”
    “He kept you on, though,” the inspector reminded him.
    “He had no choice.”
    Dorj asked him what he thought would happen to the little circus once the investigation was closed.
    “I won’t be running it, that’s for certain!” Dima replied. “But as to that, Zubov didn’t confide in anyone. Who knows what his arrangements were?”
    As patches of Dima’s make-up were removed, wrinkles were revealed at the corners of his mouth. Dorj realized that the man was middle-aged. It was difficult not to think of him as a child.
    “Why was it that the others hated him?”
    “You mentioned Larisa’s story, how the beast turned her into a cripple, but all the women had reason to hate him, the old lecher.”
    “What about Ivana, Cheslav’s wife?”
    Dima nodded. “They all did, as I said. And then there’s Fabayan Viktorovich, our aerial artist. He was angry that Zubov refused to take the circus to Moscow to perform. And he – Fabayan, that is – thought he should be the headline act. Zubov did not agree. Now, if you don’t mind, there’s work to be done, whatever our future might be. If I were you, Inspector, I would look no further. A corpse can’t be punished and Zubov’s murderer deserves no punishment. So perhaps there’s justice for the downtrodden, after all.”
    “I’m glad you found me, Inspector,” Ivana said as she opened the door to let Dorj into the trailer. “For I have a confession to make. I’m afraid I am a murderer.”
    Dorj had had opportunity to keep his Russian polished, but still he was not certain he had understood her words correctly.
    “Yes, that’s right, Inspector. I’m a murderer,” she repeated calmly. She had changed from her bloodied clothing into a tight pink leotard. It did not conceal her body as had the diaphanous robes; it was hardly mourning apparel, Dorj thought.
    Dima had told Dorj that he would find the others in what he called “the back yard”, the area where the rest of the circus lorries, animal trailers and caravans were parked. Their age and condition caused the back yard to resemble a junk yard.
    Dorj had noticed a light on in a long trailer, and knocked on its door. Ivana had answered his summons.
    Illuminated by a single bare bulb, the trailer was a dim confusion of shadows. It had an exotic smell, a mixture of animal dung and something worse. Evidently it was used to haul circus animals around from place to place.
    “Take care you don’t step in that pile of marmots,” Ivana warned him after her astonishing confession. “They’ve been dead for quite some time.” Then she began to sob.
    Dorj had never cared much for Russian literature of the more melodramatic kind, and was beginning to think that it perhaps reflected national characteristics more accurately than he had hitherto imagined.
    Amid the stark shadows striping the trailer, he could distinguish a few empty cages and pens. The faded paintings on the trailer’s outside walls depicted lions and tigers, trained poodles, alligators and snakes and a trumpeting elephant. A quick look around the interior showed a ragged cockatoo perched sleepily in a bird cage. One of several aquariums held an iguana. A rumble from the darkness at the back of the trailer reminded him that there was, at least, a lion.
    “You’re understandably upset,” Dorj assured the woman softly.
    Under normal circumstances he would have dismissed Ivana as a suspect, simply because a normal woman could not have inflicted with her bare hands the damage he’d seen on Zubov’s neck. But, he had to keep reminding himself, circus people could not necessarily be judged by what some might call normal standards. After all, so far he had spoken to a man the size of a child and a woman with a beard. Nevertheless, it still seemed impossible that anyone except Cheslav and Zubov could had been locked inside the caravan.
    Ivana, who appeared to be unusually normal by circus standards, retreated toward the back of the trailer and Dorj followed her. In the deeper shadows at the far end, the lion’s holding cage was bolted securely to the floor. The lion, which looked scrawny and mangy when viewed at close hand, was asleep. Dorj hoped it would not have to be euthanized.
    “We don’t suspect you of anything. You surely could not have strangled Zubov,” Dorj reassured Ivana.
    “I’m not speaking of Zubov. It was my husband I murdered.” She quickly shoved something small between the bars of the lion’s cage – a marmot – and wiped her hands on her pink leotards before rummaging in a small cabinet near the cage. “Look here.”
    Dorj glanced over her shoulder and saw several glass bottles and a frighteningly large hypodermic on the shelf above them. He began to point out that in fact a dreadful injury had caused her husband’s death. Then another thought occurred to him.
    “Are you saying you drugged your husband before he went in the ring with his lion taming act?”
    “Not Cheslav. No, I drugged Raisa – the lion. Cheslav could never be a real lion-tamer. A timid man, he was. Raisa is not that fierce, but we always drugged her, for safety reasons, you know? We even drugged her for Alexi, to make her more manageable, or rather Alexi did that himself.
    “Since he left, I’ve taken over looking after the animals. Not that I can do much for them. We’re beginning to run out of tranquilizer, as well as their food. It is so sad. Perhaps hunger is what made Raisa so fierce.”
    She slammed the cabinet door shut and Raisa, disturbed by the noise, rumbled in her sleep. Dorj felt the raw power of the deep sound vibrating in his chest and through the thin soles of his shoes.
    “So Zubov ordered me to cut down on the dosage to make what we had last longer,” the woman continued. “I should have known better. But I was afraid of him, so I did what he said. And now my poor husband is dead. So you see, as I said, I’m guilty.”
    “If what you say is true, it was not murder, it was a terrible accident. But in any event, it is Zubov’s murderer I’m interested in finding.” He did not add that the more he found out about the man the less interested he was in the task. Yet, one did one’s duty.
    Ivana’s eyes glinted as they reflected the light of the bare bulb. “But the evidence is clear. Surely it shows that my husband got up off his death bed to take his revenge on the man who turned me into a murderer?”
    As he walked away from the trailer Dorj found himself looking for Larisa. There were things he had forgotten to ask her about, he told himself. Instead he ran into the young man in spangled tights whom he had seen earlier talking to Zubov.
    “I’m Fabayan Viktorovich, the aerialist,” the young man said, after Dorj had introduced himself. “In fact, I’m the Fabulous Flying Fabayan, as the posters say. Or would have said, if Zubov had ever got them printed.”
    Dorj, shivering in his thin coat as the wind picked up, suggested they talk somewhere more sheltered. Fabayan led the way back to the hangar, where the fluttering circus posters Zubov had handprinted in bold red letters, and that long ago from the crumpled looks of them, still promised a brave show with jugglers and clowns, fortune-tellers and snake-charmers, acrobats and contortionists, and of course, the mighty lion-taming Hercules.
    “I just want to check on my rigging, though I doubt we’ll be putting on another performance tonight. Accidents happen in threes, we always say. I’m sure you will have many questions.”
    As they entered the ill-lit, empty hangar, Dorj asked the muscular young man about the lion tamer.
    “Cheslav was a roustabout, not a performer,” replied Fabayan, contempt evident in his tone. “He was an out-of-work stonemason. Zubov spotted him leaving after a show in Chelyabinsk. We needed some muscle to set things up, to help move cages, to haul up the rigging.” He indicated the complicated arrangement of ropes, nets and trapezes half hidden above them. “I couldn’t trust him with the knots or getting the nets in the right places, or any of that. Eventually Zubov gave him the lion-taming act.”
    Nothing at the circus was what it seemed, thought Dorj. Its amazing and glittering wonders were nothing more than tawdry deceits. Yet what about a murderous corpse? What sort of deceit was that? Or was that real?
    Dim light outlined the web of ropes high up in the cavernous hangar. Certainly the distance between Fabayan’s trapeze, up near the ceiling, and the hard concrete floor far below was real enough.
    “It takes true skill to perform up there,” boasted Fabayan, following Dorj’s gaze. “Buturlin recognized talent. He was born to the circus. He was the one who engaged me. If he were still alive, it would be different.”
    “Buturlin was the former owner?”
    “Yes, and then Zubov and he became partners. Buturlin died a year or two ago. But Zubov, he was originally just the accountant; he knows nothing about talent or the circus.”
    “Zubov did perform some magic,” Dorj pointed out.
    “Anyone can buy a trick box. The only thing Zubov made disappear was our pay cheques. If he had headlined my aerial act rather than a fat, unemployed labourer and a drugged big cat, we would be the toast of Moscow by now.”
    Fabayan’s voice echoed around the empty hangar as he walked about, testing several thick ropes dangling from above. Dorj followed a few steps behind.
    “Why did Zubov imagine you would do better business in Mongolia?” he finally asked.
    “Because we would have no competition, or so he said. But, more importantly, as it turned out, he did not realize that you Mongolians don’t have enough tugriks to keep the traffic lights working, let alone pay for art.”
    Not put diplomatically, but true enough, reflected Dorj. It struck him that the deaths of both the owner and his favoured lion tamer had at once removed two impediments to Fabayan’s career. He wondered who else might have been angered by Zubov’s refusal to headline aerialists. “Do you perform alone?”
    “At the moment, yes. However, I have been training Ivana. Naturally, the audience wants thrills and artistry such as I provide, but I also needed a vision of beauty on the wires, to complement my performance.”
    The young man stared up into the shadows, a bird with its wings clipped.
    “Isn’t it dangerous, trying to learn something like that at her age?” Dorj ventured delicately.
    The other dismissed the suggestion. “Ivana is closer to my age than Cheslav’s,” he said, somewhat heatedly it seemed to Dorj. “Besides, she is an accomplished acrobat. She took over for Larisa when she could no longer continue her act. Her acrobatic act, at least. We no longer have a contortionist. Larisa was the only one of us with that talent.”
    Larisa had mentioned only her acrobatic skill. For a moment Dorj said nothing. He was thinking about her remarkable blue eyes. It was hard to imagine those blue eyes belonged to a woman who was, or had been, a contortionist, as well as… Dorj forced his thoughts back to more important matters.
    “Is it true that the women had reason to hate Zubov?” he asked, recalling Dima’s comment.
    “You mean because he was constantly propositioning them? Actually, the way he was always looking at Ivana, I am surprised poor Cheslav waited until he was dead to kill the old lecher. If I had been her husband, I would have strangled him long ago!”
    Dorj immediately recognized the possessive jealousy in Fabayan’s voice. How often had he encountered that fierce tone while investigating a crime? Perhaps that was why he so distrusted his own emotions. So often strong emotions led to disaster.
    He might have felt compelled to ask whether the young man had been having an affair with Cheslav’s wife, but the aerialist grabbed one of the hanging ropes and hauled himself up into the shadows. A few seconds later, Dorj heard the creak of the swinging trapeze.
    Dorj climbed into Zubov’s caravan. Having spoken to the last two or three members of the small troupe, he had discovered that, predictably, they all claimed that everyone else but themselves had good reason to hate the circus owner.
    It was hard to remember he had driven out here hoping that for a few hours the circus’s dazzling lights, nimble performers and sideshows would free him from the dreariness of the vast grey desert and cramped grey offices of his official life. In Ulaanbaatar he had had the consolation of the State Theatre. Out here in Dalandzadgad culture was a traveling circus.
    Dorj removed his wire-framed eyeglasses and carefully wiped their round lenses with his handkerchief. But when he put the spectacles back on, the scene remained unchanged and just as murky.
    He examined the interior of the caravan. It held no revelations. Its few cupboards contained only household necessaries, and in any event they were too small for purposes of concealment. Nor had anyone been hiding in the lavatory cubicle, waiting to escape in the general excitement. He would surely have been noticed.
    The blood smears on the floor and the imprint of a bloody hand on the lavatory door mutely reproached his lack of understanding.
    Dorj positioned himself beneath the closed roof vent and reached up to touch it. When he had noticed it earlier, while examining the outside of the caravan, he’d guessed it was too small to serve as an entrance. Now he was certain. His shoulders were much wider than the opening and Dima, although short, was at least as broad. Not a proper midget, as Zubov had said. In addition, the vent gave no evidence of having been opened recently. Indeed, a ropy bit of cobweb hung down from it.
    The cobweb made him think about Fabayan’s rigging. Didn’t aerialists fly through the air, in a manner of speaking? He would have had a motive, certainly, unless Dorj were mistaken about the aerialist’s relationship with Ivana. For that matter, Ivana was an acrobat. Dorj tried to imagine some way aerial or acrobatic skills might breach a locked caravan.
    After a moment’s thought, Dorj replaced Zubov’s wooden chair to the spot he had seen it while assisting Dima to lay Hercules’ body on the bed. He sat down where Zubov had sat. Why had the circus owner locked the door until the ambulance came? As a precaution, no doubt. People who were hated had reason to lock their doors.
    He glanced around again. By the disordered bed an empty vodka bottle had rolled into a corner.
    So, he reasoned, perhaps Zubov had felt the need for a drink, sitting in his cold caravan with the corpse of his headline act. It was not surprising. Dorj tried to imagine how it would have been, sitting there with the dead man, drinking, perhaps eventually dozing.
    And suddenly the dead man is rising from the bed. Impossible. It must be the vodka, or the tail end of a nightmare. Half awake, he is confused. He jumps to his feet. The chair topples over as the dead man advances. Convulsed with panic, the ringmaster backs away, but there is no escape. The corpse staggers against the lavatory door, steadies itself with a bloody hand. Then those huge hands fasten on Zubov’s throat. Trying to push the nightmare away, the ringmaster finds only a barrel chest gashed by a hideous wound.
    Dorj shuddered. Trying to imagine the scene he had felt himself being drawn into it, almost like the shaman he had once seen performing for some tourists. Certainly the masked man, beating a drum and dancing about, had known as well as his spectators that he was not descending into the lower world. But as his gyrations became wilder it seemed to Dorj that the man was convincing himself that he was actually taking the impossible journey and in so doing was also persuading the spectators – most of them, at least – of the fact.
    But what Dorj had imagined – a murderous corpse – was simply not possible.
    And yet, the lion-tamer had been dead. The wound had been so terrible, he must have gone into shock instantly and died within minutes.
    Dorj’s thoughtful gaze was drawn again to the bloody handprint on the door. Nor could he forget the welt around the strangled man’s neck.
    Again he tried to picture the performers, and how their skills might have contributed to Zubov’s death. All the exercise did was remind him of a snippet of his limited knowledge of native Mongolian culture. Along with masks, shamans-religious magicians, scoffers called them – wore mirrors on their clothing. Weren’t the sequins sewn into circus performers’ outfits tiny mirrors? Perhaps it was just as Batu said, the soul being called back, simple magic. Was it so dreadful to believe there might be magic in the world?
    Dorj finally found Larisa standing outside the cookhouse among the vehicles in the back yard.
    “Do you have a few spare moments?” he asked.
    The bearded lady shrugged. “We won’t be leaving until tomorrow.”
    “You’ll continue to tour?”
    “What else can we do? Eventually some legal person will let us know who owns the circus. Meanwhile we have to make a living.”
    Dorj paused, gauging the light. It would be more than an hour before it was completely dark. “I need to ask you a few more questions. And there’s something you might like to see. A local landmark.”
    “How mysterious. It’s been a long time since I’ve been asked out walking by a gentleman! I’d be pleased to accept.”
    “Well, it isn’t exactly, that is to say – there are questions…”
    “What? You aren’t shy about being seen with a girl who looks like me, are you?”
    As they followed faint tyre ruts up a small hill that rose almost imperceptibly several minutes’ walk from the abandoned hangar, Dorj had to admit to himself that although he might indeed be shy about being seen with a bearded woman, it was nevertheless a marked, almost welcome, change from his grey official life.
    “Here’s something you might want to know,” Larisa said, when they were well away from the back yard. “Dima is Buturlin’s son. Illegitimate. I understand when Buturlin made Zubov a partner, their agreement required the circus to keep Dima on, even in the event sole ownership passed to Zubov. The agreement apparently didn’t specify that Zubov had to treat him like a human being.”
    Dorj nodded, wondering why Larisa was offering the information. Perhaps it was just to be helpful. People did not always need ulterior motives, he reminded himself. “Perhaps Zubov hoped to force him to leave?”
    “It would be his way,” agreed Larisa.
    “Does Dima have any interest in the circus, now that his father’s partner is gone?”
    “I don’t know. You don’t suspect Dima, do you? Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything.”
    The wind was still cold, but walking made Dorj feel warmer. Perhaps it was his slight build that made him mind the chill. It was not a good trait for a Mongolian, even a city dweller as he had been, since in Ulaanbaatar in the winter it was not unknown for the temperature to reach 40 below.
    He asked his companion about Ivana and Fabayan. Larisa confirmed his suspicion. “She married Cheslav in a fit of pique shortly after Zubov hired him, because she’d just had a big quarrel with Fabayan. Ivana is impetuous and emotional, always has been. She and Fabayan quickly made it up. Poor Cheslav. I often wondered how he could not have known.”
    They had reached the windswept brow of the hill. From this vantage point, they could see the black bulk of the hangar. Beyond it lay a litter of abandoned Russian military equipment, left there to rust into oblivion in the Gobi’s vast emptiness.
    Here at the top of the hill was the much older landmark Dorj had wanted to show Larisa. It was a pile of rocks standing higher than his head, a sacred obo, built stone by stone by passing travellers over the span of hundreds of years. Up here, looking at such a thing, it was easy to believe the impossible.
    “So Cheslav avenged himself on the wrong man,” mused Dorj.
    “You don’t really believe a dead man got up and strangled someone, do you? You’re thinking like Shakespeare, with all those ghosts stamping about calling for bloody vengeance!”
    “You know Shakespeare?”
    “Circus people know everything.”
    “I really can’t make anything of it,” Dorj admitted. He related his conversation with the dead man’s wife.
    Larisa pondered for a few moments. “What if she somehow gave the tranquilizer to Cheslav?” she finally suggested. “Not to kill him outright. Just to make him slow, perhaps affect his reactions. Give the lion its chance, you know? He was frightened of the lion, and I think they can sense it. Well, she was too, especially having to feed it. Though she disliked the reptiles even more.”
    Dorj nodded. It almost seemed a reasonable theory, given the character of the widow. A tawdry triangle and a more than melodramatic way to get rid of an unwanted husband.
    Larisa continued. “But here is another idea. About that terrible wound Cheslav had – perhaps it didn’t kill him immediately because of the tranquilizer in him? And he came to in the caravan? He probably thought that Zubov had plotted with Ivana, and that would be enough. He would want revenge before he died.” She sighed and continued, “But it is all too fantastic, even for a circus, don’t you think?”
    Dorj shrugged without comment. Her theories made as much, or as little, sense as anything he had been able to think of up to that point.
    Sunset was a purpling bruise on the horizon. In its soft light, they stood looking at the pile of stones that formed the obo. It was not the sort of thing to which Dorj was usually drawn. But it was the only magic he could think to offer this strange woman.
    “This is an ancient place of power,” he explained.
    “A good spot to solve your mystery, then.”
    Dorj listened to the wind sighing around the obo. He thought of the unknown number of ancient hands, belonging to forgotten people all now turned to dust, this single action of their lost lives, the placing of a stone, now all that was left of them.
    “It is a good place to make one believe the dead might return,” he said, quietly. “We should go back before it gets dark.”
    He picked up a pebble and added it to the obo. As Larisa bent to do the same, she stumbled and, as he had earlier, Dorj caught her arm. This time he was not so quick to let go.
    “You would never guess I was an acrobat once,” she said.
    “And, so I am told, a contortionist. You didn’t mention that.”
    Larisa’s blue eyes widened slightly. “You don’t suspect me, do you? Do you suppose I managed to wriggle into the caravan somehow?” She looked away from him. “I’m sorry, Inspector. But in fact, I have indeed misled you about something else. You didn’t think this was real?”
    She grabbed the edge of her beard and pulled. Dorj stared for a second at the suddenly smooth face. “Now there is a magical transformation which the Bard himself would have been proud to preserve in his work,” he finally said.
    To his distress he saw that the unveiled face was set in a frown.
    “I have never suspected you, Larisa,” he quickly assured her. “In fact, right now I need your assistance.” He grabbed her hand – he could hardly believe he had done so – and hurried her back down the hill.
    “There may be another trap around here,” Larisa worried. “Be careful. Dima might have put some more out. I wish you’d tell me what you’re looking for.”
    So far she and the inspector, searching around the back of the hangar with the aid of a fading torch, had located perhaps a dozen traps, finding only one sprung, and that holding an unfortunate rat. Dorj merely insisted they continue looking. She swung the feeble yellow light across the ground until it lit upon a metal stake. The flickering beam slid down the stake’s attached chain to reveal another trap, and beside it a semi-comatose snake.
    “It belongs to the circus, doesn’t it?” said Dorj.
    “Yes. It’s Nikita. How do you know?”
    “I grew up in the city, but I don’t think boa constrictors are native to the Gobi. Not even ones as small as this.”
    “He’s just a baby,” Larisa pointed out. “Zubov traded our big python for it. He eats less. Ivana didn’t say anything about him being missing.”
    “There were pictures of snakes on the animal trailer, but I didn’t notice any inside. At least one aquarium was empty, though. When you wondered whether I suspected you’d managed to wriggle into the trailer caravan, it reminded me.”
    Sluggish from ingesting whatever it had found in the trap, the snake was quickly popped into the empty feed sack Dorj had brought with him. “We’ll need this for evidence,” he commented.
    “You’re saying the snake killed Zubov?”
    Dorj hefted the sack, hoping the snake would not emerge too quickly from its post-prandial lethargy.
    “I should have realized that manual strangulation would leave finger marks on Zubov’s neck, not a continuous welt all around it,” he explained. “If nothing else, the bloody handprint in the caravan should have reminded me.
    “It got there during the struggle. What I surmise happened is that Zubov, having drunk heavily, fell asleep.” Dorj continued quickly, wanting to finish without distressing the woman too much. “The snake, having escaped, got into the caravan. Snakes are attracted to warmth and the only warm thing in the cold caravan was the slumbering Zubov.”
    “The first and last time anything was attracted by Zubov’s warmth,” the woman said wryly.
    “Then he was suddenly woken up by the boa tightening around his neck. He couldn’t call for aid. Trying to get it off him, he crashed around, and in doing so knocked the corpse off the bed.”
    He paused momentarily. “That would explain the blood on the floor and the lavatory door.”
    Larisa shuddered. “It must be true. Boas that feel threatened instinctively tighten their coils, so I hear.”
    “Once Zubov was dead,” Dorj continued, “he was too big to ingest. Or perhaps the snake was scared away by Batu’s pounding on the door. It crawled off through one of those badly patched holes in the caravan wall, in search of other prey. It was probably hungry. In fact, I don’t doubt hunger also contributed to the lion attacking Cheslav.”
    “You don’t think it’s what Ivana said – not enough tranquilizer?”
    They had arrived at the unlocked animal trailer. Dorj looked around for the empty aquarium. The bag he was holding shifted alarmingly.
    “I’m not certain about the lion. Perhaps it was just as Ivana said, an accident with the tranquilizer. Or possibly she saw her chance.”
    “So both deaths were nothing more than accidents. How very strange.”
    “Yes. Strange indeed. Too strange. Unless…” Dorj frowned. He stared into the dimness. “What if Nikita didn’t escape? In the confusion, after her husband was killed, Ivana could have returned to this trailer and tranquilized the boa. It isn’t a large boa and easily concealed under that billowy outfit she was wearing. Under the circumstances we would never have noticed. And when she threw herself so dramatically onto the corpse-well, he was a big man and there was plenty of room inside that wound for a smallish boa. It would have awakened in a cooling corpse, in a cold caravan, and gone for Zubov.”
    Larisa blanched.
    The sack Dorj had all but forgotten jerked suddenly open. The head of the snake whipped into view. Another convulsive twist of its body and it had knocked the sack from Dorj’s hands. The freed boa slithered across the floor. But in the wrong direction. A leonine paw flashed out from between cage bars, and then Raisa was rumbling contentedly as she ate the unfortunate killer.
    So accidents did come in threes, as Fabayan had said, Dorj thought.
    Larisa and Dorj left the trailer and stood gazing up at the impossibly enormous moon sitting on the edge of the horizon. Its bright light, flooding down from the dark sky, painted the world silver. Ebony shadows pooled here and there. Inside the trailer the lion was devouring the only credible evidence for Dorj’s unlikely story.
    The strange bearded creature he had met only hours earlier, now transformed into a beautiful woman, leaned nearer to brush a magical kiss onto his cheek. Dorj felt certain he must have fallen into some Shakespearean enchantment.
    “I am sorry,” whispered Larisa. “But in a way I am not. We circus people stick together. And only Ivana knows what really happened. There is no proof of anything, really.”
    Dorj wondered what his superiors would say about the report he would be submitting in due course. His reputation would certainly suffer, and he suspected that over the next few months he would be finding rubber snakes hidden in his office desk with monotonous regularity.
    But at least he could state the murderer’s identity with certainty. How the boa had got into the caravan would be difficult to ascertain, and indeed he was beginning to doubt the fantastic tale he had spun. Perhaps the snake had arrived in the caravan by its own efforts, without anyone’s assistance. That part he would leave to his superior’s imagination.
    “Larisa,” he said softly, “Did you know Shakespeare mentions a snake around someone’s neck? A beautiful gold and green snake. And there’s a lioness in the same scene. In fact, now I think about it, the original Hercules strangled the Nemean lion. What happened here almost makes some sort of sense.”
    The woman smiled. “Though it is the wrong season, do you mean it almost makes sense in a dream-like midsummer night’s sort of way, Inspector Dorj?”

Wingless Pegasus by Gillian Linscott

    Gillian Linscott (b. 1944), a former reporter and Parliamentary journalist, is the author of the Nell Bray series of suffragette mysteries that began with Sister Beneath the Sheet (1991) and includes the award-winning Absent Friends (1999). Gillian has a fascination for intricate mysteries. She began a series set in the 19th century featuring journalist Thomas Ludlow and the less – than – reputable horse-dealer Harry Leather, but only completed two stories. I reprinted one of them, “Poisoned with Politeness” in The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits (Third New Collection). Here’s the other one.

***

    There was a terrace behind the house with swags of cream and apricot roses, steps leading down to a broad lawn with a cedar tree. The lawn sloped away to a deep ditch, separating the garden from a meadow where cattle grazed. At the boundary of lawn and meadowland was a small lake a couple of acres in extent. The island was not quite in the centre of the lake, nearer the shore on the meadow side, about the size of a large drawing room, with a marble statue of Venus, half-draped, rising from a tangle of rushes and meadowsweet. Nothing else to see at all except, early on that June morning, a horse. A white horse, standing up to the hocks in meadowsweet and early morning mist from the lake, looking itself like a statue, except when you got closer you’d have seen that it was shivering and its nostrils flaring, not being the sort of horse used to spending its nights in the open, even in an English summer. No ordinary horse either. If half-draped Venus had grown tired of English country life and summoned the gods’ horse Pegasus to carry her back up to Olympus, this was what might have arrived in answer. Only Venus couldn’t fly away after all because the instant his Olympian hooves touched the damp soil of Berkshire, Pegasus had lost his wings and became, like her, marooned in 1866 on a small island on the moderate-sized estate of a man who had made his fortune from railways.
    That, at any rate, is how it might have looked to a fanciful observer with a rudimentary knowledge of classical mythology who happened to be looking out from the terrace early that morning. In fact it was a housemaid glancing from her window in the attic who first saw it and she-knowing nothing of Pegasus or Venus-went downstairs and informed the undercook that one of the carriage horses must have got let out of its stable and there’d be the devil to pay when the head groom found out about it. From there the news went out to the stables where a hasty check of heads found that all six equine members of Sir Percy Whitton’s establishment were present and correct in their boxes. A delegation of stable staff, along with some of the gardeners picked up on the way, hurried across the lawn to the edge of the lake, and realised at once that this was no ordinary horse. Where it came from and how it had arrived overnight, saddled and bridled, on Sir Percy’s little island, was a cause of universal puzzlement overtaken by the necessity of getting it to more solid land. This presented problems because the small rowing boat that was usually kept on the lawn side of the lake for the amusement of Sir Percy’s guests had been reduced to splinters in an accident with a garden roller the week before and its replacement had not yet arrived. After some discussion several grooms and gardeners took off their boots, waistcoats, and jackets and waded into the lake. At its deepest it came up to chest height but they went on firmly, encouraged by shouts from their friends on the bank and, possibly, the prospect of some substantial sign of gratitude from whoever turned out to be the owner of the animal which was watching them apprehensively, showing every sign of wanting to bolt but, of course, with nowhere but the lake to go. I would guess that at this point, in spite of the difficulties, the rescuers were lighthearted. It was a diversion from the work of the morning and there was no reason to think that they were engaged in anything more sinister than the recovery of a fine animal. A groom was the first to step ashore. I suspect that the ardour of the gardeners decreased as they came closer to the dancing, snorting object of their quest. He put hand on the rein, made calming noises. Then he gave a shout and the horse reared up, almost dragging the rein from his hand.
    “There’s a man here, a man hurt. I think it’s Sir Percy.” But long before the swaddled form was carried on a hurdle up the lawn and under the cedar with silent gardeners and grooms around it, the whole household knew that the groom had been only half right. The man on the island was indeed their employer, Sir Percy, but he wasn’t hurt – he was dead.
    The bare outline of Sir Percy’s death reached me on a June evening in London. I read it on a damp galley proof in my place of work, a subeditors’ room in inky Fleet Street.
    We have received reports from Berkshire that the director of the South Western Shires Railway Company, Sir Percy Whitton, has been killed in a riding accident on his estate near Maybridge. An inquest is to take place tomorrow. Funeral arrangements will be notified.

    I hardly knew the man personally, having been in the same room as him on a couple of public occasions, and my first thought was what a sad loss this would be for the lawyers. Sir Percy and his neighbour Charles Clawson of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Railway were at daggers drawn. The Wiltshire and Berkshire had got an Act of Parliament to drive their new branch line along the hill opposite Sir Percy’s house. He said it was an abomination, and if a gentleman couldn’t live in his own home without steam engines scaring his cattle and blowing smuts all over his guests, it was all up with the rights and liberties of old England. This in spite of the fact that his own money came from railways. The resulting court case, due to open in a week’s time, had been anticipated as one of the great events of the legal season. Sir Percy was expected to win, if only because his purse was longer than Clawson’s and he’d take it all the way to the House of Lords if necessary. There was extra spice in the fact that the combatants were related by marriage. Clawson had given the hand of his only daughter, Emily, to Sir Percy at a time several years earlier when the two men were business partners, before they fell out.
    It’s an unfortunate fact of working for a newspaper that all the most interesting things you get to know are those that law or society won’t allow you to print. I collect such stories as other men collect ferns or butterflies. I sniffed one here and, by grace of those same railways that began the battle, I was in the little market town of Maybridge before lunchtime next morning. I already had a direct line into the gossip of the area through my old and disreputable friend, Harry Leather. Harry is a groom, jockey, livery keeper, dealer, in fact, in anything you please as long as it has a lot to do with horses and as little as possible to do with the law. He’s as small and agile as a street urchin but I suppose is a man in middle years, although from the wrinkles on his weatherbeaten face he looks old enough to have traded horses with the Pharaohs – probably to their disadvantage. At that time he was managing a livery stables at Maybridge, so when I got there I made straight for his establishment on one side of the market square, knowing that nothing that moved on four legs and precious little on two escaped his network. I found him in the saddle room, cleaning tack, and after an exchange of civilities asked him the time of the inquest.
    “You’ve missed it, Mr Ludlow. They opened it at nine o’clock and it was all over by eleven.”
    “What was the verdict?”
    “Misadventure.”
    “Much interest in it locally?”
    He hooked up a stirrup leather and ran a cloth slowly down it. The meaty smell of neat’s – foot oil hung in the warm air, along with whiffs of horse from the loose boxes.
    “What do you think?”
    “Was he well-liked?”
    “Well enough by those as liked him.”
    With Harry, this kind of game could go on all day. But I knew he was hugging information of some kind as closely as a child hugs a puppy. I watched while he oiled a few more leathers then asked him what he knew about the riding accident. It was then that I got most of the details about the island, the shivering white horse, and the man lying dead, with Harry going on with his work all the while, watching me sidelong to see what I was making of it.
    “Do you want to see him?”
    The sudden question jolted me. I thought at first that he was talking about Sir Percy’s corpse, surely now in the hands of the undertaker.
    “See who?”
    “The horse.”
    He got up unhurriedly and led the way across the yard. We went past the lines of worthy hacks and dependable carriage horses, round the corner to the few isolated boxes that he keeps for invalids or mares close to foaling. As we turned the corner a high whinnying came from one of the boxes. A head as white as new milk came over the half door, large wild eyes, wide pink nostrils.
    “An Arabian. A fine one, too.”
    We stood looking over the half door while the horse rolled his eyes and snorted at us. He wasn’t large, under sixteen hands, but every line of him, from his long back to his clean cannon bones, sang out speed and breeding.
    Harry ran a calming hand down the arched neck.
    “We have to keep him here because he’s entire. Cover every mare in the yard if he had his way.”
    A stallion, not gelded, therefore as wild as the wind and as unpredictable.
    “No wonder Sir Percy got thrown. I suppose he was out for a hack, got bolted with into the lake and onto the island, then the horse reared up and threw him.”
    Harry snorted, making a noise much like the horse.
    “And I’m the Queen of Fairyland.”
    I suppressed the picture of Harry in rosy wreaths and diaphanous draperies.
    “You don’t think it happened that way?”
    “No, I don’t, and if you think about it, neither do you.”
    “Oh, and why don’t I?”
    “For one thing, you know horses a touch better than that. Have you ever met an Arab in your life that was any use over water? Can’t stand it, coming from deserts like they do.”
    “If he was bolting…”
    “If he was bolting, he’d bolt away from water, not across it.”
    “But he was on the island. I gather nobody disputes that?”
    “Nobody’s likely to, given the trouble they had to get him off it.”
    “So how did he get there?” Harry turned towards me with the glint in his eye that usually means the other man is about to get the worse of a bargain.
    “That, Mr Ludlow, is the second most peculiar thing about this whole business.”
    “Oh? So, what’s the first, Harry?” He paused, enjoying his moment.
    “The most peculiar of the lot is what Sir Percy was doing with him in the first place.”
    “Hacking out on him, surely.”
    He gestured towards the horse, calmer now and watching us with interest, although still as ready to fly as a bird from a cage.
    “You look at that animal and tell me if he’d let a fat counting-house man like Sir Percy Whitton throw a leg over him. A racing lord might ride him, a tinker boy as wild as he is might ride him, but he wouldn’t let any ordinary hacking man as much as put a toe in his stirrup iron.”
    I looked at the horse and had to admit that I knew what he meant. Harry, seeing my face, nodded.
    “Sir Percy couldn’t have ridden a hair of his tail.”
    “But they were on the island together, and Sir Percy was dead.”
    “That’s it.”
    “So there must have been somebody else there?”
    “Not when they got there. The chief groom’s a friend of mine. I had it all from him direct.”
    “He can’t have dropped from the clouds. Was there any sign anybody else had been there?”
    “By the time they’d got Sir Percy off the island, then the horse, the whole lot was as trampled as if they’d fought a battle over it.”
    I thought of Charles Clawson and my mind went racing.
    “Supposing, for the sake of argument, that somebody had wanted to harm Sir Percy. If he managed to get him alone on a little island with a horse that might be dangerous…”
    “Be a damned sight easier to wait for him behind a bush with a brace of pistols, begging your pardon. Anyhow, you’ve still got to get the horse to the island.”
    And Charles Clawson, as I remembered, was a hacking sort of counting-house man too – no rider for the white horse.
    “It would be a complicated way to murder anybody.”
    At the word murder, Harry turned away. He said, under his breath: “Suppose a man’s got to have an interest in life, but yours seems a damned odd one to me.”
    We’d had this out before, but he’d keep worrying at it.
    “Why so? Doesn’t it interest you, thinking that a person may be killed by another person and nobody ever know how it happened, or why? You could write whole books about it.”
    “Funny sort of books they’d be. Who’d want to read them?”
    “Just about everybody who’s curious about his fellow men and women.”
    He shook his head. “What that doesn’t take into account is that there are what you might call public murders and there are private murders, and it doesn’t do to confuse the two of them.”
    “What do you mean?”
    We began walking slowly back across the yard. A dog dozed in the sun and a boy swept the already immaculate brick paving.
    “What I call a public murder, let’s say a poacher shoots a keeper, everybody knows who’s done it, he’s tried at the assizes, people go to see him hanged, and that’s an end of it. A private murder – somebody kills somebody for a good or a bad reason and doesn’t want the whys and wherefores of it known, and mostly you wouldn’t do any good to anybody making them known, only stir up more trouble. What you’re doing is intruding on private murder.”
    “You think it was murder then?”
    He didn’t answer. I asked him how the Arab had come to be in his yard.
    “Had to go somewhere until they find out who owns him, and he couldn’t have stopped at Sir Percy’s place, could he?”
    “Why not?”
    “The young widow. As soon as she hears about the white horse she faints clean away – thinking, I suppose, of her poor husband being trampled and so on. The doctor says he won’t be answerable if she sets eyes on the animal, so they call me in and I ride him over here.”
    “Ah yes, the widow. Charles Clawson’s daughter. She must have been a lot younger than her husband.”
    “About a quarter of a century younger. Down here they reckon her father gave her to Sir Percy in return for a parcel of railway shares.” Harry said it as matter-of-factly as you’d talk of trading one horse for another.
    “She’ll be a rich widow now, Mr Ludlow, and a nice-looking young lady at that. Good chance for somebody.” He laughed and looked at me sidelong.
    “I’m not bidding. Was she at the inquest?”
    “Yes. Had to answer questions from the coroner about when she’d last seen her husband.”
    “When had she?”
    “Dinner the night before. She went up to bed early, having a headache from the heat. First she knew about it was when her maid woke her up in the morning.”
    “Had he said anything to her about going out?”
    “Not a word, but then he wouldn’t, would he?”
    There was something odd about the way Harry said that, but I left that for later.
    “It must have been a sad ordeal for her.”
    “Very composed she was, while she was telling it. Afterwards, while she was walking out, she nearly collapsed on her brother’s arm. He’d come back from Oxford especially when he heard about it.”
    “Did they say at the inquest whether Sir Percy was trampled? Were there marks of horseshoes on him?”
    “Not one, just the back of his head caved in. The head groom said it looked as though he’d fallen and hit it on the base of the statue, the Venus.”
    He stopped in front of another loose box in the middle of the long row. There was a dark bay mare inside, cobby sort, sixteen hands, facing away from us and munching hay. She looked quiet and steady, as unlike the Arab as anything on four legs.
    “She’s Sir Percy’s.”
    “What’s she doing here in a livery yard? Did his wife send her away too?”
    He shook his head.
    “I got up early in the morning and there she was tied to the hitching ring outside the gates. She was covered in mud and tired fit to drop, but whoever left her there had knotted up the reins and run up the stirrups properly.”
    “When was this?”
    “The morning they found Sir Percy’s body.”
    “How far away from here is Sir Percy’s place?”
    “Four miles.”
    I could hardly take in what he was telling me, and I must have spluttered my questions. How did he know the mare was Sir Percy’s? Could the man have ridden her four miles in the night and walked back in time to be dead on his own island by sunrise, and if so, why? Had Harry told the coroner’s officer? The answer to that last question was no, as I should have guessed knowing his dislike for the law. As for how he’d known, it turned out that the mare was a frequent guest at his livery stables when Sir Percy rode into town.
    “But you told me that the head groom checked the stables that morning and all Sir Percy’s horses were there.”
    “So they were, all as were meant to be there. This mare was never in his stables. He kept her in his estate manager’s stable half a mile from the house and his wife never knew she existed.”
    There could only be one reason for that.
    “You’re telling me that Sir Percy kept a petite amie in the town here and used the mare to visit her?”
    No need, with Harry, to pretend to be shocked. He lives by the morals of the reign before Her Majesty’s, if he can be credited with any at all.
    “Tuesday and Thursday nights,” was all he said. Sir Percy’s body had been found early on Wednesday morning.
    “Didn’t any of this come out at the inquest?”
    “Wouldn’t have been decent, would it, with his body lying cold and his poor wife sitting there hearing it. I reckon half the jury knew about it and probably the coroner as well for that matter, but nobody was going to say so.”
    “But it was relevant, wasn’t it? Sir Percy has dinner with his wife. Some time after that he walks to his estate manager’s house, collects the mare, and starts riding into town. Either on the way there or on the way back he is diverted, for no good reason, onto an island in his lake along with an Arab stallion from God knows where that doesn’t like crossing water. His mare, meanwhile, somehow finds her way back to your livery stables and ties herself neatly to a hitching ring. Isn’t that a sequence a coroner should know about?”
    “Put that way, I’m not saying you’re wrong, Mr Ludlow, but I still don’t see what good it would do.”
    “This woman he visited – do you know her?”
    “Name of Lucy Dester. House with the green door, opposite the baker’s.”
    I stood making up my mind, staring at the back view of the cobby mare. Aware of eyes on her, she twitched her tail, shifted her hind legs.
    “Looks a touch short-tempered.”
    “Not her. Quiet as a cushion, only she’s in season at the moment. Anyway, if you’re set on finding out what happened, you’ve seen both of them that matter now.”
    He meant both horses in the case-horses being more important to Harry than people. He said just one thing more before we parted at the gate.
    “Now don’t you go making her miserable. She’s a decent enough party in her own way.”
    There was a man in bloodstained clothes hammering at Lucy Dester’s green front door. He looked as if he’d been there for some time, and a small crowd had gathered. I asked a loitering boy who the bloodstained man was and gathered he was the local butcher. I loitered with the rest of the crowd and when, after a few more minutes of beating, the door opened a crack I was able to get a glimpse of the person inside. At risk of being ungallant, she struck me as being ten years too old and a couple of stone too heavy to qualify as any sort of nymph. Her voice, when she told the butcher to go about his business, was not refined. He thrust a solidly booted foot into the door crack and pulled a paper from his pocket.
    “Two pounds, three shillings, and fourpence halfpenny.”
    That was the burden of his song, several times repeated. Mrs Dester owed him two pounds, three shillings, and fourpence halfpenny, and he wouldn’t budge from her doorstep until he got it. I fumbled in my pocket, approached the door.
    “This is most uncivil behaviour to a lady. Now take your money and be off with you.”
    He stared open-mouthed at me, then at the coins in his hand, and withdrew muttering. The crack in the doorway opened a little wider and I stepped inside. There were broken expressions of gratitude, explanations about money orders not arriving. I found myself sitting opposite her in a neat parlour, sipping a glass of Madeira.
    “I kept it for him,” she said. “He always enjoyed his Madeira.”
    There was no need to ask to whom she was referring. She’d taken me for a friend of his who knew about the relations between them and had come to offer sympathy. She was not an unpleasing woman in either person or conversation, with quantities of lustrous black hair, pink rounded cheeks, and a warmth of manner that compensated for her lack of refinement. She had been, by her account, employed as an actress in London until Sir Percy set her up in a small establishment in town. When he decided to spend more time on his estate, he moved her to the present lodgings.
    “And last Tuesday night…?”
    She sighed deeply. “There was a nice cold collation laid out for him, ham and fowl, and his claret decanted all ready. He never came.”
    “Did you think something had happened to him?”
    “Not that, oh no. Unexpected guests, I thought, or business that had kept him at home. Nothing like what happened.”
    “When did you know?”
    “It was all round the town. I went out to buy some ribbons for my bonnet and that b- I mean a customer at the haberdashers said she supposed I’d heard about the accident.” Two plump tears trembled on her cheeks, ran down.
    “I haven’t put a foot outside since, and it’s been nothing but people at the door with bills, bills, bills. When he was alive, you see, they all knew he’d meet them, but now he’s gone they don’t have any pity and there’s not so much money in the house as a third-class fare back to London.”
    She bent her head and wept in earnest. I tried to comfort her, although there was very little I could do or say. She looked up at last, eyes brimming with tears.
    “I was fond of him, you know. I really was fond of him.”
    Before I left I asked if she knew anybody who owned a white Arab stallion. No more than the man in the moon, she said.
    I borrowed a hack from Harry and spent the rest of the afternoon riding out to Sir Percy’s estate to look at the island, to no effect whatsoever. When I got back to the livery stables we had supper, chops and eggs cooked on the old stove in Harry’s den next to the saddle room. It seemed that my rescue of Lucy Dester from the butcher was the talk of the town and he made a few heavy-hooved jokes on the theme.
    “You’re right, though, she seems a decent enough woman in her way, and she has nothing to gain from his death – quite the reverse.”
    We’d already agreed that I should stay the night in the hayloft, and we were sorting out horse rugs when there was a knocking at the yard gate. Harry’s head came up.
    “Who the devil is it at this hour?”
    It was past ten o’clock, deep dusk, with no sound but the horses munching hay in their boxes. The big double gates to the yard were bolted, but there was a smaller door cut into them. Harry unlatched it and we both looked out. At first there was nothing to see, then a figure stepped out of the shadows and in at the door as quickly as a bat flying. It came in a swish of silk, black garments fluttering.
    “I want to buy a horse.”
    It was a woman’s voice, a young woman’s. There was a desperate determination in the way she spoke and moved. She had a black bonnet covering her hair, framing a small face as pale as a frost-struck white rose. Her sudden arrival and the unlikeliness of her words left me speechless, although she’d addressed them to me. But Harry, by nature and calling, couldn’t help responding to an opening like that, whether it came from man, woman, or hobgoblin.
    “What kind of a horse, ma’am?”
    “The white Arab.”
    I was on the point of explaining that he wasn’t ours to sell when Harry nudged my arm and drew me to one side. He whispered in my ear, “The widow.” Then, back to her: “He’s not a lady’s horse, ma’am.”
    “I don’t care about that. What’s your price?”
    If you listened very hard you could hear the tremor in her voice, like a high note on a violin, but to look at her she was snow and steel.
    “Fifty guineas, ma’am.”
    A black-gloved hand came out of her draperies, holding a small pouch.
    “Count them out.”
    Harry counted them on the edge of the mounting block, the coins gleaming in the last of the light, and gave the diminished pouch back to her.
    “Where shall I send him, ma’am?”
    “Don’t send him anywhere. Shoot him.”
    I’d never have thought to see Harry thunderstruck, but if the heavens had landed on him he couldn’t have been more amazed.
    “Sh… shoot him?”
    “Shoot him tonight and bury him.”
    “But…”
    Her black glove came up, signing him to be quiet.
    “He’s my horse now. I’ve bought him and paid for him, and I can have done as I like with him.”
    Then, as suddenly as she’d come, she stepped out through the little door and was gone. In the stunned silence I could hear her feet tapping away round the corner. Harry looked sick.
    “Well here’s a fine thing,” I said. “You’ve accepted money for another man’s horse and now you’re obliged to shoot him.”
    “I’d shoot my brother first. The sheer malice of it, to want a good horse shot just because she thinks it killed her husband.”
    Now she’d taken that frost-rose face away, my mind was moving again, faster than poor Harry’s.
    “I don’t think that’s the game.”
    “Then what is it? For pity’s sake, what is she at?”
    “I think I know. I really think I see it. Harry, you should see it too.”
    “I’ve got no time for guessing games. The thing is now, I’ve got to get that horse away before…”
    “Leave it where it is.”
    “I can’t do that. If she comes back in the morning and…”
    “She won’t do that. Now listen, you know this town. Is there a public house where all the grooms drink?”
    “’Course there is, The Three Tuns, but…”
    “Will it still be open this time of night?” He nodded. “Then get over there as quick as you can and tell everybody who’ll listen what’s just happened, only don’t let them know her name. Tell them you’re going to shoot the horse first thing in the morning, then come back here.”
    He looked at me, snatched up his hat from the tack room, and went at a run.
    There was an empty box next to the Arab. We spread rugs on the straw by the light of a candle lantern and lay down. Aware of our presence, the white horse snorted and fidgeted on the other side of the partition. Harry had got back from The Three Tuns at about midnight, with beer on his breath and a gleam in his eye.
    “Every household from here to Swindon will know about it by morning.”
    “Did anybody ask questions?”
    “Plenty, but I only answered what I wanted to.” He pressed something metallic against my hand. “Pistols, in case we need them. Is this person you’re expecting dangerous?”
    “I should say not to us. I don’t know.”
    Through the short night, between sleeping and waking, he was trying to make me tell him a name. Wait and see, I said, or guess. He knew all that I knew. By half-past three in the morning a pale light was coming in through the half door of the box. The horses in the main yard began to shuffle their straw and whinny. From the box beside us the Arab responded with gentle whickering sounds. I felt Harry’s pistol by my side and thought of that pale face.
    Then: “It’s the door latch.”
    I hadn’t heard it above the horse sounds, but Harry’s hearing is acute as an animal’s. He signed to me to be quiet and listen and I heard steps coming across the yard. To the horses at that time of the morning a human being signaled the first feed, and the whinnying became a fanfare. The steps hesitated at the onslaught then came on faster, almost running round the corner towards us. We were both on our feet and Harry was bounding for the door of the box, pistol in hand. I grabbed his arm and mouthed, “Wait.” The steps came past us and stopped at the box next-door. The white Arab had been whinnying along with the rest of the chorus but now his tone changed to a squeal of relief and recognition. Then there was a bolt being drawn, a man’s voice making wordless, soothing sounds, and the click of a buckle tongue on a head collar.
    “Now,” I said, and Harry and I burst out just as the white Arab was being led from his box. The man on the end of the leading rope looked at first as if he intended to make a run for it, taking the horse with him, but then he looked at our pistols and stood stock still. His face was as white as hers had been, emphasizing the likeness.
    “I think,” I said, “Your sister has bought the horse.”
    “You had no right to sell him. Talisman is mine.”
    He recovered his nerve and stood very upright at the stallion’s head. He was a good-looking young man, though a shade too fine and highly strung, like the horse itself. It struck me that he looked like a young knight from the works of the poet laureate, Mr Alfred Tennyson, and that he was possibly conscious of that fact.
    “He’s a horse that killed a man,” Harry said. I don’t know if he believed it or was trying to put young Clawson at a disadvantage. The young man practically came to attention.
    “Talisman isn’t guilty of killing him. I am.”
    “Suppose,” I said, “you come inside and tell us about it.”
    With Talisman back in his box and the three of us sitting in Harry’s cramped little den, it was hard for the young fellow to go on being noble. He told his story straightforwardly enough once he realised that I’d guessed it anyway. The point I had to help him over was the centre of it all – those twice-weekly visits by Sir Percy to my lady of the butcher’s bill. Young Clawson was ashamed of a father who’d married off his sister for money and that shame turned to raging disgust when news got to him that the brute couldn’t even be faithful to her. He was in his final term at Oxford when he heard (well provided with money and horses by that same mercenary father, but that’s by the by). He’d taken Talisman from his stable and ridden two days from Oxford to Maybridge to give his sister’s lecherous husband a piece of his virtuous young mind.
    “I knew he’d be going to that woman on the Tuesday evening. Talisman and I waited on the edge of his grounds, near the lake. All I meant to do was reason with him, make him turn back and beg Emily on his knees for forgiveness.”
    Harry made a noise that might have been a suppressed sneeze from the hay dust.
    “He came riding along in the dusk on that mare of his. I went through the gate and rode towards him. He must have panicked. He tried to gallop away from us, but there’s no speed in that mare and he rode like a sack of coals. When he heard us gaining on him he turned her into the lake, or perhaps she bolted that way, and up onto the island. We followed. The mare shied away from us. He fell and cracked his head against a statue. I took his mare and rode away. I thought Talisman would follow, but he didn’t.”
    He was panting a little, even from telling it. Then he took a long breath and looked at me.
    “So now you have it. I am guilty of the death of Sir Percy Whitton and you can’t shoot the horse for it. Now, sir, if you would be kind enough to give me the loan of your pistol for a few minutes…”
    I almost wished I had Excalibur to give him. Instead, I put on a very steely air.
    “That’s all very well, Mr Clawson, but you haven’t told us the truth. The point you’ve left out of your story is that you yourself were overcome by brute, animal lust.”
    Another explosive sneeze from Harry and a “Sir!” from Claw-son, equally explosive. He glared, and I think he’d have challenged me if duelling weren’t out of fashion, but he had to listen.
    “I’ve no doubt you’re a fine horseman, but even a fine horseman couldn’t have induced that Arab to swim into a lake. Only one power on earth could make him do that, and she’s standing in a loose box in this yard.”
    “By God,” said Harry, “Sir Percy’s mare. A mare in season.”
    “A case of man proposes but horse deposes. Oh, I believe you about the first part of your story, Mr Clawson. But both your horses had interests that were nothing to do with your concerns. The female fled, the male followed and had his way with her. In the grip of that force of nature there was nothing whatsoever that either of you could do about it. In short, you were bolted with too.”
    In confessing to murder, young Clawson had been a picture of dignity and control. Now he went as red as a schoolboy and hung his head. I went on more gently.
    “While your Talisman was having his way, Sir Percy fell off the mare and cracked his head on the plinth.” (Paying, with ghastly appropriateness, a final tribute to Venus, though I didn’t add that at the time.) “When you found he was dead, you panicked. Your own horse-once his appetite was sated – wouldn’t cross the water back again in cold blood even for you. You took the mare and swam her to land, hoping he’d follow, just as you said. I’m right, aren’t I?”
    He murmured yes without looking up. I put a hand on his shoulder.
    “You mustn’t blame your sister for wanting the horse killed. The moment they told her about him she knew he was yours. She was only trying to protect you. Now, I suggest you start on your way back to Oxford before people are up and about. You can write to her from there.”
    Harry led out Talisman and held the stirrup while young Clawson mounted. I said, standing close to the horse’s shoulder:
    “Forget it all now. You meant no harm, and nobody will know about it from me.”
    We opened the gates for him and stood watching while they rode away across the deserted market square, the rider motionless, the horse looking like something going back into a legend. When they were out of sight Harry went back across the yard and stood looking over the half door at Sir Percy’s cushion-quiet mare.
    “Wonder if she took. Could be a good foal with that Arab blood.” I suggested he might make an offer for her to the young widow when he took her fifty guineas back, but knowing Harry, thought it unlikely that the lady would ever see her money again or her husband’s mare at all.

Duel of Shadows by Vincent Cornier

    One of the great treasures of the world of baffling mysteries is the work of Vincent Cornier (1898-1976). A journalist, war reporter, and a much-travelled man, Cornier created some of the most bizarre and unusual crime and mystery stories to appear in the magazines from the late 1920s through to the 1960s. In all that time he never once sought to have them collected in book form and, although a few have been anthologized, most are now extremely rare and difficult to find. Cornier created a couple of continuing characters, of which the most popular proved to be Barnabas Hildreth, whose stories ran in Pearson’s Magazine in the mid-1930s. Cornier would announce in advance to the editor what the next story would be about and in each case the editor could not believe the author could pull it off. The following is generally regarded as the most ingenious of them all – the bullet that took over 200 years to find its target.

***

    In the calculation an allowance has to be made for the Gregorian Correction of the calendar in 1752. Then it becomes apparent that the time elapsed between the firing of that bullet and its plunge into Westmacott’s body was exactly two hundred and twenty-two years, two months, one week, five days, twelve hours and forty-seven minutes…
    The duelling pistol from which it was shot was fired by Ensign the Honourable Nigel Koffard. He was a young officer in one of Marlborough’s crack squadrons and had but recently homed to England after the decisive bloodiness of Malplaquet. The man whom his shot wounded two hundred odd years after was Mr Henry Leonard Westmacott, a branch-cashier of the London and Southern Counties Bank, Limited.
    Nigel Koffard pressed the trigger of that pistol, in the park of Ravenshaw Hall, Derbyshire, at precisely eight o’clock on the radiant morning of August the second, 1710.
    Henry Westmacott was sitting by his own hearthside in the drawing-room of The Nook, Bettington Avenue, Thornton Heath, Surrey, when Koffard’s bullet struck him and shattered his right shoulder. He had just settled down – on the dismal and rainy night of October the twenty-third, last year-intending to listen to a concert broadcast from the Queen’s Hall. The ball hit him as the B.B.C. announcer was concluding an apology for the programme being late by saying: “It is now eight forty-seven, and we are taking you straight over-”
    Thus was the second time most accurately determined.
    All the day long, young Mrs Westmacott had been anxious about their little boy, Brian. He was running a slight temperature.
    Hence she no sooner had dinner ended when she needs must go up to the nursery. In the swift way of tummy-troubled baby boys, Brian had contrived to lose his pains. He was sleeping serenely. Except for a slight flush and a dampness in his hair, he was normal.
    Pamela Westmacott smiled ruefully as she smoothed his rucked sleeping suit and re-arranged his cot clothes…
    The shot, the groan and the stumbling fall among the fireirons all sounded on that instant. With mechanical acumen Mrs Westmacott also noted that some china crashed to ruin in the kitchen, and that the opening chords of the Symphony Orchestra’s performance were lost to a thud and a sudden silence.
    She rushed down the stairs to collide with her maid-servant, who had burst with almost equal speed from her domain.
    “Oh, ma’am! Wh-what in the name o’ glory’s happened?”
    “Hush, Biddy, and stay there! I-I’ll go in myself and see what’s the matter.”
    Westmacott had raised himself to his knees and was delicately pawing at his right shoulder.
    “Henry! Henry-darling!” Pamela Westmacott was down beside him. “What’s gone wrong?” Then she saw the sodden red horror of his shoulder. “Oh, my poor old boy!… Biddy-phone Doctor Smithers and the police. Tell them to hurry. Say it’s serious: Mr Westmacott has been shot!”
    When doctor and police arrived Westmacott had been got to bed. He was fully conscious and calm, despite his excruciating pain. His wife had managed him in a way that won Doctor Smithers’ admiration. Her first-aid had stanched most of the bleeding.
    Smithers turned to her with a smile as he unscrewed the nozzle of the syringe with which he had administered an opiate.
    “Sensible woman, Mrs Westmacott! You made everything very easy… What’s that?… Dangerous? Oh no, not at all! Direct compound fracture of the scapula socket and a flake chipped off the head of the humerus. Abominably painful, but that’s about all.”
    Old Smithers patted her hands and definitely pressed her to the door. “Now run along and leave hubby to me. Go down and satisfy the curiosity of those exceedingly impatient policemen. Above all, don’t-you-worry.”
    Pamela Westmacott went in to see Brian before returning to the drawing-room. He had slept through all the hubbub.
    The police were certainly impatient. Their cross-examination had foundered poor Biddy. After their dismissal of her she had gone back to the kitchen to blubber among the neglected crockery.
    In Mrs Westmacott was discovered harder and less hysterical material. She told them all she knew. Essentially because it tallied so exactly with Biddy’s account, the officers became more and more confounded…
    “But are you absolutely sure, Mrs Westmacott, no one came out of this room as you rushed down the stairs? Or slipped out by the front door without your seeing ’em?”
    “Oh dear, how many more times must I tell you? No!” Wearily she smoothed her forehead. “Who could have done so?”
    “Whoever fired that shot,” grunted Inspector Ormesby, “there’s no weapon to be found. The windows are all properly secured. There isn’t any glass broken. Your husband wasn’t potted at by someone lurking in the garden, that’s self-evident. And he couldn’t possibly have shot himself.” The Inspector nodded toward the wireless cabinet which the bullet had struck. “The position of his wound and the subsequent flight of the missile settles that... Somebody shot him! Then who was it?”
    A plain-clothes officer turned from his inspection of the damaged cabinet. He had been pencilling notes referring to the tarnished ball of lead which showed itself, half embedded, in the seven-ply veneered woodwork. It had struck a spot directly in front of a valve, and the impact had been sufficient to shatter filaments, so stopping reception.
    This man’s talking was far less truculent than that of Inspector Ormesby. But it was deadlier.
    “You’ve told us that the front door was locked for the night. Have I got that right-hey?”
    “Yes; you have.”
    “I noticed that a little brass bolt is on the inner side of the door. Then there’s the main lock and a Yale latch. All of ’em secured?”
    “No. The key of the big lock wasn’t turned, but the bolt was pushed home. Naturally the latch held as well.”
    “Had you to open those to let us in?”
    “I had.”
    “Wasn’t it natural for your maid to open that door? Why yourself?”
    “Why not? Especially in-in such a crisis! As a matter of fact, Biddy was hopeless – helpless.”
    The plain-clothes man watched her through half-closed eyes.
    “Now, you remember, you also told us that you came helterskeltering down the stairs at such a rate that you bumped into this Bridget O’Hara woman at the bottom. And she’d just flown out of the kitchen – hey?
    “Perfectly correct. When the shot was fired, Biddy dropped a plate or something. Then she rushed here. We – we converged on the room like two mad things.”
    “No one went out of the door.” It seemed that the plain-clothes man was musing aloud. “No one, so you say, went up the stairs past you. No one could have doubled out by way of the kitchen, and no one could have doubled out of here back into the dining-room or into the cupboard under the stairs, without you or your servant seeing ’em… Um-m-m!” He paused, and ignored Mrs Westmacott completely, to smile past her at Inspector Ormesby. “And no weapon found,” he slowly murmured. “You carry on here, Inspector. Strikes me I’ll have to have another heart-to-heart talk with our faithful Bridget – our exceptionally clever and faithful Bridget. Perfect treasure of a maid, I’ll bet!”
    Pamela Westmacott flinched as though a viper had reared itself before her eyes as she watched the inimical C.I.D. man saunter from the room. Mad as it seemed; horrible, fantastic and unreal as it was, nevertheless she realised she was the suspect here.
    Now let interpolation be made of the somewhat astounding experience of an official police photographer, called Coghill.
    A genial little fellow, Egbert Coghill; a craftsman of infinite patience and capability. He was the man who went to The Nook the next day and, acting on police instructions, set about securing photographs of the drawing-room and, more especially, the bullet-splintered radio-set.
    Mr Coghill was highly gratified by all he saw. Plenty of light, artificial and otherwise; plenty of space, and most admirable contrasts of dark furnishings against pale matt walls.
    Cheerily, with an incessant whispering whistle, he moved about and made himself quite at home. He dumped his big camera on a table. The black leather case, which contained his plates in their mahogany slides, he placed in front of the wireless cabinet. Still softly whistling, he pottered around, making his notes and selecting his objects and angles.
    Thereafter he erected his camera and screened its peerless lens with a precisely-chosen colour-filter, designed to obtain for him the correct qualities and the infinitude of detail that the satisfaction of his craftsmanship demanded.
    He made various long exposures. He took photographs of the door, the windows, the blood-stained rug, the untidy hearth, and the arm-chair in which Westmacott was sitting when he was wounded. After these, Coghill concentrated on his most important work. He removed his plate carrier from its place in front of the wireless set and focused on the half-embedded bullet and the starry matrix wherein it lay. He expended his remaining four plates on this.
    When he came to the development of his material, Coghill was astonished and alarmed. Without exception, each dripping negative held-superimposed on its actual detail – a wee portrait of something that appeared to be an astronomical portrait view of the planet Saturn. These were ring-impounded orbs which had a quality of eerie brilliancy that had struck the plates with something amounting almost to halation. Yet they were mottled by shadows of an intensity and a delicacy Mr Egbert Coghill had never previously developed out of any sensitive emulsion.
    More than this phenomena, the four exposures of the wireless cabinet were useless. These, which should have been Coghill’s acme, not only bore the eerie imprint of the tiny incandescent “planet”, but a great maelstrom of fog about the place where the bullet should have been. The cabinet was clear enough. Only that area which should have been occupied by a representation of the leaden slug was at fault.
    Mr Coghill equipped himself with another camera and a new assortment of plates. Back he went to the drawing-room of The Nook. He duplicated his previous exposures and again developed them.
    None of this second group of negatives showed the Saturn-like globe. Equally, none of the seven plates he had, secondarily, exposed on the cabinet front was in any better state than the former four. Except for the non-appearance of the queer orb, there were the identical coils of fogginess about the splintered woodwork – and no sign of the bullet.
    Mr Egbert Coghill made a number of prints from all these negatives. Together with his notes and the plates themselves, he gave these into police keeping. This done, he fared forth and drank deeply.
    Without much loss of time those photographs went, by way of Scotland Yard, to a Home Office department in Whitehall: to Barnabas Hildreth. He studied them and puzzled over them, as he afterwards told me, until he was sick to death of the very sight of them. Disgruntled and bewildered, Barnabas then went out to Thornton Heath and interviewed the Westmacotts.
    The unfortunate Henry had nothing of much value to relate. He had been reading, he said, and had just put aside his evening paper to listen to the broadcast. As he leaned back in his chair, taking off his pince-nez and rubbing his closed eyes, he heard a curiously violent hissing as of air escaping from a pin-punctured tyre. Then there was a detonation and a fierily enormous blow at his shoulder. The next thing he realised was that he was wambling about the floor, suffering pain.
    He scouted the idea that anyone could have been in the room with him without his knowledge. And on the subject of the police theory – that his wife had shot him and, in collusion with Bridget O’Hara, had thereafter established incontestable alibi-he was sardonically and sulphurously vehement. When he discovered Hildreth so far agreed with him under that head as to veto further official brow-beating, Westmacott became a different man. He was so relieved, so pathetically relieved, that Hildreth was touched – actually was humanised sufficiently to accept an invitation to stay for tea!
    So it came about that the grim Intelligence Service officer and Master Brian Westmacott became friends. Hildreth chuckled over this.
    “There was no resisting the little beggar, Ingram. He’s a sturdy kid and as sensible as the deuce. No sooner had I finished examining the drawing-room than he lugged me off to build what he called a ‘weal twue king’s palace’-from bits of wood; wood such as I’ve never seen a child playing with before. He had a big box full of sawn-up chair legs and rails; ‘pillars’ for his palace. And he’d scores of miniature arches and so forth – all shaped out of carved walnut and mahogany and oak and elm-little blocks, battens and angle-pieces that had originally been parts of furniture. One glance at ’em showed they were scores of years old and had come from the workshops of masters like Hepplewhite and Chippendale.”
    I sensed something of extraordinary import here.
    “Oh, and where’d he got ’em from?”
    “Out of the family woodshed. Or, at least, his father had.” Hildreth grinned. “I looked it over-lots of the same stuff there. Y’see, Westmacott has a brother in the antique furniture trade: does restorations and repairs and so forth. Westmacott gets all the waste from his brother’s workshops. The likely bits he cuts up to add to Brian’s collection of blocks and pillars. The remainder is burnt.
    “While I was in the drawing-room, old man” – he deliberately went off at a tangent – “I poked that bullet out of the wireless set and took a pair of callipers to it. It’s a pistol ball right enough. But where in the name of glory did it come from? And, who cast it – when?”
    “‘Who cast it?’” I echoed. “What, isn’t it an ordinary revolver slug?”
    “Mass-produced?” Barnabas rubbed his hands together in glee. “Not on your life! It’s as big as a marble and perfectly spherical. And it has marks on it that only the closure of a beautifully accurate bullet-mould could have made. More than that. It’s of an unusual calibre-one so unusual that it opens up a tremendous field of conjecture, yet, at the same time, defines the narrowest of tracks. A track, indeed, that a fool could follow.”
    Silently I watched the peculiar fellow twiddle about with his smoking cigarette. He was looking through its writhing spirals at me with a glitter of satanical humour in his dark eyes.
    “Calibres of firearms,” he softly stated, “are not little matters left to individual discretion, Ingram. They’re registered and pedigreed better than bloodstock – at least, in this country. Ever since 1683 any armourer or gunsmith drilling a new size of bore has had to deposit a specimen barrel and exact measurements with the Tower authorities before he could fit it to a stock or sell or exploit it in any way.
    “Remembering that, I asked for records to be searched. The answer is, that ball was cast to be shot out of only two particular types of weapons. It’s of a size that’s quite obsolete to-day. Either it could have been shot from a long gun, registered in London by Adolph Levoisier, of Strasbourg, in 1826, or out of a duelling pistol fashioned by Gregory Gannion, a gunsmith who had an establishment in Pall Mall between the years 1702 and 1754.
    “The exact date of Gannion’s application for a licence to put on the market a weapon of a new type and calibre which he called ‘an excellently powerful small-arm, for the practise of the duel, or in other uses, for delicacy and swiftness of discharge in defence or offence’… was February the ninth, 1709. And, according to all accounts, the bloodthirsty young bucks of that day went daffy about it. Y’see, it was the first ‘hair-trigger’ pistol on the market: ugly, but useful.
    “I’m working up from that. I’ve a shrewd idea that good English lead wouldn’t come out of a continental long-gun. No, a Gannion duelling pistol seems indicated.”
    I am getting ever more used to Barnabas Hildreth’s tortuous tricks. The queerly precise ordination of those words, “good English lead”, made me curious.
    “How does one determine the nationality of-er-lead?” I suavely asked.
    “All as easily as one differentiates between a Chinaman and a Zulu,” he sourly grinned. “All as simply as one distinguishes Cleveland iron-ore from Castillian heematite; Poldruinn copper from Norwegian; Aberdeen granite from that of Messina – by looking at it first of all, ass, and studying it afterwards.
    “According to the assay-notes, furnished me this morning, the lead from which that ball was cast came from one particular area of Derbyshire, and nowhere else! What’s more, it’s almost pure native stuff” – his face shone with some inner ecstatic light – “and, as it chances, so absolutely unique… that it’s worth its weight, and more, in gold. In fact, if the fervours and excitements of the metallurgical chemists are anything to go by – and they’re simply frazzling over it – it’s the clue to a pretty fat fortune for someone!”
    He got up then, and growling something about my hospitality and his thirst, calmly stalked across to my tantalus and mixed whisky and sodas. Then he challenged me across the brim of his glass.
    “Well, old man, all the best! And here’s to the speedy solution of one of the neatest mysteries I’ve struck for months.”
    So far as I recollect, it was two days later that Hildreth descended on me. He wanted me to go to Thornton Heath with him, and I went. We visited the premises occupied by Westmacott’s brother Ralph – Westmacott and Company, Ltd.: “Antique Furniture Restored, Renovated, Repaired and Reproduced” – reproduced mainly, if my layman’s eye had any common sense behind it.
    Admittedly, Ralph Westmacott had certain specimen pieces in his workshops. These were the magnificent possessions of connoisseurs, to whom the factor of financial worth hardly counted. They were all undergoing tiny but incredibly painstaking forms of restoration, and guarded jealously for the treasures they were.
    However, as Hildreth said, these were not our meat. Westmacott took us to the larger, general workshop. Here we saw really valuable, but ordinary, examples of olden furniture in the processes of repair and “faking”.
    “We pride ourselves,” Westmacott told us, “on our ability to replace a faulty participle with a sound one, so meticulously reproduced and fitted – grafted on, one might say – that no one outside first-flight experts can detect the addition.”
    “That, of course, necessitates,” smoothly came Hildreth’s question, “your carrying an amazing stock of old cabinet-making woods, I presume?”
    Westmacott looked curiously at my friend.
    “Aye, amazing is the word,” he laughed. “Come and have a look in here!”
    He preceded us to a vast loft that was filled by racks and shelving – and all of them packed with broken parts of old-fashioned furniture.
    “Here you are,” he exulted, “from Tudor to Early Victorian; from linenfold panelling to pollard-oak sideboard doors… gathered together from the auction rooms of half the globe. We couldn’t carry on a day without ’em. Unless similar old stuff is used on replacement jobs-”
    “Stuff like this, for instance,” Hildreth interrupted to point at a great stack of dirty wood, looking to me like huge half-cylinders of amber-flecked bog oak: split tree trunks. “This lot seems to be pretty ancient.”
    Ralph Westmacott moved delicately to Hildreth’s side.
    “Aye,” he concurred, “it’s old enough! That wood’s been buried in the earth for a century and more.”
    Brightly, blandly, almost with the alert cockiness of a schoolboy, Barnabas Hildreth replied:
    “I don’t doubt that for a moment, Mr Westmacott! They’re elm-wood water conduits, aren’t they? And, judging from their boggish appearance, they’ve come out of moorland or country where there’s plenty of peat about.”
    Ralph Westmacott scratched his grizzled hair.
    “Yes, they are conduits, and they certainly came out of peaty loam – from Derbyshire, as a matter of fact. We’ve men on the job up there now. They came from Ravensham Park, near a place called Battersby Brow… we bought the whole line of wooden water-pipes that used to serve the hall and the village. Finest tackle in the world for reproduction purposes.”
    Grimly enough Hildreth chuckled.
    “What a game it is!” he drily stated. “Now, ‘Battersby Brow,’ in Derbyshire” – he was jotting down these particulars in a notebook – “and ‘Ravensham Park,’ you say?”
    “Yes, that’s all correct.” Westmacott seemed puzzled.
    “And this hall you mentioned? What d’you call it?”
    “Ravensham Hall, the residence of General Sir Arthur Koffard, you know.”
    Hildreth put away his book and began to fumble among the blackened elm-wood. He pointed to one or two big fragments which lay about.
    “Might I have a chunk to take away with me?” he inquired. “I want it for certain experiments that have to be made.” Westmacott nodded. “And will you ratify this? Certain lumps of this wood that you knew would be useless for your work you gave to your brother Henry, didn’t you?”
    “I – I did! What’s the-”
    “That’s right! I thought I recognised the stuff again. I saw some in his wood-shed.” Hildreth smiled. “Thanks!”
    With that we went away and back to London.
    From the “Black Bull,” at Battersby Brow in Derbyshire, a letter came to me on the twenty-ninth of October:
    My dear Ingram,
    If you can leave your mouldy rag to look after itself for the weekend, come over here and be interested. Of all the intricate bits of work I’ve ever struck, this is the trickiest! Don’t let me down, old chap. I promise you a really noble denouement for the mystery of the Westmacott bullet: an ending that, I suppose, you’ll stick on one of your scandalous chronicles of my cases and complacently claim as your own.
    Sincerely,
    B.H.
    So I set out for Battersby Brow and the “Black Bull” as soon as I put my paper to bed in the early hours of Friday, the thirty-first. At nine o’clock the next morning I was in a beautiful and brilliant country of whistling airs and mighty hills.
    Over breakfast, Barnabas crowed mightily.
    “Done a lot of work since I saw you, old man! Only one tiny coping-stone to be put on, and the job’s complete.
    “It was a Gannion duelling pistol that fired that ball. I’ve seen it. There’s a pair of ’em, and they’ve been laid away in a case since seventeen hundred and ten… One was discharged. The other was loaded, but I got permission to draw the charge. I drew it right enough!” He chuckled. “D’you know, it was a curious experience. There I had in hand another ball, similar to the one that wounded Westmacott. And there were tiny tattered fragments of a newspaper that had been used for a wad between bullet and powder – an issue of the Northern Intelligencer for August the first, seventeen-ten.
    “The Koffards of Ravensham Hall have been awfully decent about everything. At first they were inclined to be stand-offish, but when I told old General Koffard the story you know, he tucked into things like a good ‘un.”
    “Sorry to butt in, Barnabas – but, tell me, what story do I know? It occurs to me that I’ve only a few strikingly dissimilar and baffling incidents in mind, all hazily mixed up with lead that’s ‘worth its weight in gold’ and old elm logs which you proved had come from this district.”
    Hildreth finished eating and lit a cigarette.
    “Listen, old man, and follow me carefully… Go back in thought to the night of the twenty-third. You have Westmacott sitting in his chair. A bullet, apparently fired out of the void, strikes his shoulder and is deflected into the wireless set. Point the first to be made: direction of bullet’s flight proved it was shot from somewhere in the region of Westmacott’s feet. Got that?” I surveyed the scene in mind… I had to agree. “Now for point the second. Had a ball of that size possessed a high velocity, it’d have made the dickens of a mess of the humerus. It’d have caused a comminuted fracture, and, without much doubt, it would have glanced across and gone through his throat.
    “But no, it was a missile of low velocity – only a direct compound fracture of the scapula socket and a lazy glide off, to smack the front of the wireless set.
    “No one can say where the ball came from. The ineffable Egbert Coghill goes to photograph it… He puts his platecarrier dead in front of the set, incidentally in front of the bullet. For fully a quarter of an hour he footles about, then, when he comes to take his photographs, he carries on each plate he afterwards exposes a portrait of the ball, transmitted by its own power through the leather case, through the whole clutter of his mahogany slides and, in fact, through everything within eighteen inches of the radio cabinet!”
    I jumped at that.
    “D’you mean those Saturn-like globes were-”
    “Photographs of that ball! Precisely! It emitted a short, hard ray of far more intensity than the usual X-ray apparatus employs!”
    “But how on earth could that come about?”
    “Pitch-blende,” said Barnabas Hildreth, “that’s why! Apart from certain areas in Cornwall, only the Peak district of Derbyshire and some isolated caverns round about Ingleborough in Yorkshire have pitch-blende deposits. Usually, it’s in association with lead that has a high silver content… The assay of that ball not only showed lead and silver, but definite traces of pitch-blende striations, all melted together.
    “To clinch that part of the business, however” – Hildreth glanced at the time – “remember that the second batch of Coghill’s prints did not show the eerie little ‘planet’. That was because he did not bung his plate-carrier in front of the set on his second venture. The active emissions were powerless outside a small range.
    “But neither set of plates would betray anything except a fogginess where the bullet should have been. What could you reasonably expect?” Hildreth shrugged. “A long exposure, with powerful lens concentrating radium rays on a speedy photographic emulsion – nothing but fog could result!”
    In the end I realised that Hildreth was right. Radio-active properties in that leaden slug would explain everything. Incidentally I caught the drift of what he meant when he spoke about the value of the bullet and its potentiality as the clue to a fortune.
    “Do you mind” – Hildreth was on his feet and again looking at his watch – “if we hustle? We’ve a walk of a few miles if we’re to get that coping-stone set, y’know. And I want it done to-day.”
    That long tramp across the sage-green acres of the Derbyshire countryside terminated in the park of Ravensham Hall. A group of navvies, excavating a snakish trench, paused in their work and watched us curiously. And, from out of a near-by hut, a podgy and bespectacled man clad in a white coat, and an old iron-haired fellow with a face of claret, came to greet us. One was a chemist called Sowerby and the elder man was Major-General Sir Arthur Koffard, the owner of the estate.
    “Well, Sowerby,” Hildreth briskly questioned when introductions were completed, “had any luck? Tried my little experiment – eh?”
    Sowerby smiled unctuously and beckoned us back to the hut. In there, he pointed to a fire-clay retort that glowed above a fierce petrol-air lamp. Around the squat nozzle of the retort a big plume of intensely blue and brilliant flame was glowing. It made the popping sound of the burst of gorse-pods to August sun: an infinitesimal tattoo of whispering explosions.
    “Yes, Mr Hildreth, your surmise was right enough. It’s methyl hydride, without a doubt.” He pointed to the halcyon fire. “Almost pure, to burn like that.”
    “Most ’strordinary – most ’strordinary thing,” this was the crisp clacking of Koffard, “tha’ one can live a lifetime, ’mong things like these, an’ never know – never know. ’Course, this land’s been full o’ will-o’-th’-wisp lights for years, but one never stops to give ’em much thought – what?”
    Barnabas abstractedly nodded and walked out. We followed him to the side of the trench. For a long while he studied the enormous hollow trunks that the navvies had dug out of the black and oozy earth.
    “Magnificent trees,” he muttered. “Veritable giants! Took some labour, I should say, to gouge their innards out!”
    Then he turned to Koffard and asked him something about a map.
    “Aye, I’ve got it here.” The rattlevoiced old officer produced a tin cylinder and drew out of it a scroll inscribed by rusted lines of ink. “The avenue stood across there. Nigel Koffard fought his duel” – he pointed to a level sward forty yards away – “just on that patch. At the beginning of the avenue, exactly.”
    When we went to this place we could plainly see a series of little hummocks stretching, in parallel, for almost half a mile. It was explained to me that here had been a hundred and more elms making a great avenue that was felled in 1803 – under each knoll was a mighty stump. The trunks, hollowed out, had gone into the formation of that pipe-line (for conveying drinking water from a hillside spring) the navvies were excavating.
    Hildreth stopped exactly on the spot on which one Nigel Koffard had taken his stance to fight a duel on the morning of August the second, 1710.
    “Now Sir Arthur,” Hildreth murmured, “let’s work things out. Your ancestor challenged his cousin to a duel, primarily over the intentions of that cousin toward your ancestor’s sister. When the affair came to its head, Nigel Koffard was fully determined to put a ball through his cousin. But that doughty lad, conscious of honour and innocence, did not so much as lift his own pistol. Refused, point-blank, to defend himself.”
    “Tha’s right; quite right!” Koffard applauded. “He must ha’ had guts, y’know – simply stood there. Completely broke Nigel’s nerve.”
    “And the said Nigel,” Hildreth grinned, “thereupon did a bit of quick thinking. It dawned on him that he had misjudged his man. So, to show his regret and to extend an olive branch, he turned and fired his bullet straight into the nearest elm. Whereupon the youngsters shook hands. The cousin got permission to marry Nigel’s fair sister, and the Gannion duelling pistols – one discharged and the other loaded – were put back in their case and guarded thereafter, for the sake of the episode, as family heirlooms. And everyone lived happily ever afterwards.”
    “Precisely, sir!” said General Koffard. “Admirably put, sir! B’gad quite neat, I say – neat!”
    “Then, if that’s so” – Hildreth was already on the move – “we’ll trouble that invaluable plan of yours once again. Now we want to see this place called Skelter’s Pot, where lead was mined in those days.”
    … We tramped a full mile up a mountainous slope and were eventually rewarded by the view of a bite into a pinkish face of spar, which the old map told us was “Skelter’s Pot.”
    “Out of here,” Sir Arthur Koffard told us, “came all the lead used hereabouts. The hall is roofed by it. That pistol-ball was certainly cast from it. But it doesn’t pay to work it now.”
    Hildreth took a geologist’s hammer from his pocket and knocked away at a piece of semi-translucent quartz in which dull grey patches showed and on which strangely green filaments were netted.
    “I would like,” he softly returned as he put this specimen away, “to own your roof! At a modest estimate, it’ll be worth more than the hall and this estate put together.”
    “Now, you see, old chap” – Hildreth tapped the rough pencil sketch he had made – “this was the way of it.” I leaned across the table, and under the steady oil-lamp light of the old Black Bull, I looked at the drawing. “Here we’ve all we need.”
    I smoked my pipe and wondered.
    “When Nigel Koffard shot that ball, at closest range, into the living elm-tree it made a deep cavity, a tunnel, in which it stopped. In a few more years a ‘rind-gall’ was formed. The elm closed over the wound in its structure by a growth of annular rings. The cylindrical little tunnel remained and the ball remained, precisely as they were.
    “Then our elm showed signs of what is called ‘doatiness’ – incipient decay. It, together with all the others in the avenue, was felled, hollowed out, and used for an aqueduct. Y’see, old man, elm is the one wood which never changes if kept constantly wet. They’ve actually dug Roman elm-wood conduits out of the middle of Piccadilly, as sound as the day on which they were laid…
    “This is a queer countryside, Ingram. And the elm is a queer tree. Get those facts in mind.
    “That chamber which held the bullet also held the gases of the elm’s former disruption, and to these were added those similar gases which lurk in peaty land. ‘Similar,’ did I say? Identical would be a better word… You heard old Koffard talk about marsh-gas; natural gas, that is… Well, that’s what we’re considering. You saw that chemist fellow, Sowerby, with a retort full of elm-wood burning such gas at the mouth of the apparatus.
    “Methyl-hydride; methane; carburetted-hydrogen – call it what you will, and still you’re right – is marsh-gas. Also it’s the dreaded and terribly explosive thing which miners call fire-damp... when mixed with air.
    “You see it burning away in every fireside in the land. It’s the illuminating property of coal. And it always results when bodies of a peaty, woody or coaly constituent are subjected to great heat.”
    I began to have an inkling of what Hildreth was getting at.
    “However, to the mechanics of the situation.” He laughed and drank some beer. “Ralph Westmacott, the furniture man, buys some old weathered elm-wood from Derbyshire in order to fake his manufactures. What he has to spare – useless – he gives, as usual, to his brother, Henry Leonard. Our good Henry Leonard diligently saws it up into chunks and fills the family woodshed.
    “Now comes a rainy and dismal October night. Henry puts a log on the open-hearth fire, extends his slippered feet and prepares to enjoy the evening.
    “But the wild mystery of the ever-burgeoning earth comes into the simple household of The Nook and claims him… He hears a violent hiss. That was air rushing into the vascular tissue of that hot elm-log, combining with the incredible chemistry of Nature with the terrible potential of that hydro-carbon, methane, in the hollow where the bullet lay concealed.
    “Nigel Koffard’s powder had not half the fulminating property, in the steel barrel of his pistol, that fire-damp had in the smooth wound of the elm-log… Pressure increased, since the hollow was filling every second with more and more gas, and air was in combination with it. At last, the hungry fire, eating away the inner face of the log, reached the terribly explosive mixture. Then bang, up and outwards shot the ball into Henry’s shoulder.
    “So we’re back at our beginning – the very first point I made: that the ball was fired from somewhere about Westmacott’s feet. I recalled flying fragments of coal and co-related things… allowing, always, for the unusual.
    “But, instead of coal and cinders, the well of the grate was filled with half-burned fragments of wood – like fragments of furniture, surmounted by a big tricorne hunk of charred elm-wood. I wondered, vastly, about those fragments. Then, when I saw the little boy, Brian, playing with his home-made building blocks, I was definitely set on the second line which led me to solution.”
    He picked up his tankard and smiled.
    “That green network you saw on the surface of that spar was pitch-blende! I’m told it’s more than usually rich in radium and uranium salts.
    “The land on which Skelter’s Pot is situated belongs to the Commissioners. It’s an open common land. Anyone procuring the necessary faculty, and entering into serious negotiations, can mine it… So, with the joyous approval of Mr Henry Leonard Westmacott, I have entered my innocent ally Master Brian’s name on our list-”
    “‘Our list’?” I was puzzled by his most deliberate pause. “What list?”
    “Oh, the little company I’m forming: myself, yourself, Koffard, Westmacott and young Brian, to exploit the pitch-blende deposits of our property in Skelter’s Pot, Derbyshire.” He laughed and stretched his long arms. “It ought to provide for us in our old age, if nothing else!”
    … Judging by my latest returns from that adroitly-contrived concern, I am inclined, stoutly, to agree.

The 45 Steps by Peter Crowther

    Here’s another brand new story. It was written for the last locked-room anthology I compiled but arrived too late for me to squeeze in. I was thus delighted to find that the story was still available as it includes one of the most audacious methods of murder I have yet encountered – and in the smallest locked room of them all. Peter Crowther (b. 1949) is a highly respected author, editor and publisher primarily of science fiction and fantasy, but of all things unusual. He runs PS Publishing which has won many awards, and which includes books by Brian Aldiss, Ray Bradbury, Michael Swanwick and Ramsey Campbell. Amongst Peter’s own books are Escardy Gap (1996) with James Lovegrove and Songs of Leaving (2004) with Edward Miller, as well as the fascinating anthology sequence that began with Narrow Houses (1992). Several of Peter’s stories have common settings and amongst those is the northern town of Luddersedge, which will one day coalesce into another book. In the meantime, we can peer into part of the town’s strange life in the following disquieting tale.

***

    To say that hotels in Luddersedge were thin on the ground was an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Although there were countless guest houses, particularly along Honeydew Lane beside the notorious Bentley’s Tannery – whose ever-present noxious fumes seemed to be unnoticed by the guests – the Regal was the only full-blown hotel, and the only building other than the old town hall to stretch above the slate roofs of Luddersedge and scratch a sky oblivious to, and entirely disinterested in, its existence.
    The corridors of the Regal were lined with threadbare carpets, hemmed in by walls bearing a testimonial trinity of mildew, graffiti and spilled alcohol, and topped by ceilings whose anaglypta was peeling at the corners and whose streaky paint-covering had been dimmed long ago by cigarette smoke. The rooms themselves boasted little in the way of the creature comforts offered by the Regal’s big-town contemporaries in Halifax and Burnley.
    For most of the year, the Regal’s register – if such a thing were ever filled in, which it rarely was – boasted only couples by the name of Smith or Jones, and the catering staff had little to prepare other than the fabled Full English Breakfast – truly the most obscenely mountainous start-of-the-day plate of food outside of Dublin. Indeed, questions were frequently asked in bread-shop or bus-stop queues and around the beer-slopped pub tables at the Working Men’s Club, as to exactly how the Regal kept going.
    But there were far too many other things to occupy the attention and interest of Luddersedge’s townsfolk and, anyway, most of them recognized the important social part played by the Regal in the lives of their not-so-distant cousins living in the towns a few miles down the road in either direction. Not that awkward questions were not asked about other situations in which the Regal played a key role, one of which came to pass on a Saturday night in early December on the occasion of the Conservative Club’s Christmas Party, and which involved the one hotel feature that was truly magnificent – the Gentlemen’s toilet situated in the basement beneath the ballroom.
    To call such a sprawling display of elegance and creative indulgence a loo or a bog – or even a john or a head, to use the slang vernacular popular with the occasional Americans who visited the Calder Valley in the 1950s, the heyday of Luddersedge’s long-forgotten twinning with the mid-west town of Forest Plains – was tantamount to heresy.
    A row of shoulder-height marble urinals – complete with side panels that effectively rendered invisible anyone of modest height who happened to be availing themselves of their facility – was completed by a series of carefully angled glass panel splashguards set in aluminium side grips and a standing area inlaid with a mosaic of tiny slate and Yorkshire stone squares and rectangles of a multitude of colours. It was an area worn smooth by generations of men temporarily intent on emptying bladders filled with an excess of John Smith’s, Old Peculiar and Black Sheep bitter ales served in the bars above.
    Two wide steps down from the urinals was a row of generously sized washbasins, set back and mounted on ornate embellishments of curlicued brass fashioned to resemble a confusion of vines interlinked with snakes. They nested beneath individual facing panels split one-half mirror and the other reinforced glass, the glass halves looking through onto an identical set of basins on the other side of the partition, behind which stood the WCs.
    It was these wood-panelled floor-to-ceiling enclosed retreats – with their individual light switches, oak toilet seats and covers, matching tissue dispensers, and stained glass backings behind the pipe leading from the overhead cistern – that were, perhaps, the room’s crowning glory. They were even more impressive than the worn leather sofas and wing-backed chairs situated on their own dais at the far end of the toilet, book-ended by towering aspidistras and serviced by standing silver ashtrays and glass-topped tables bearing the latest issues of popular men’s magazines.
    But while these extravagant rooms – albeit small rooms, designed for but one purpose – had rightly gained some considerable fame (particularly as the town was not noted for anything even approaching artistic or historical significance) they had also achieved a certain notoriety that was not always welcome.
    Such notoriety came not merely from the time, in the late 1940s, when an exceptionally inebriated Jack Walker pitched forward rather unexpectedly – after failing to register the aforementioned double step leading to the urinals – and smashed his head into one of the glass-panelled splashguards. Nor did it come from that legendary night when Pete Dickinson was ceremoniously divested of all of his clothes on his stag night and reduced to escaping the Regal, staggering drunkenly through Luddersedge’s cold spring streets, wearing only one of the toilet’s continuous hand towels (those being the days before automatic hand dryers, of course), a 50-foot ribbon of linen that gave the quickly sobering Dickinson the appearance of a cross between Julius Caesar and Boris Karloff’s mummy.
    Rather, the toilet’s somewhat dubious reputation stemmed solely from the fact that, over the years, its lavish cubicles had seen a stream of Luddersedge’s finest and most virile young men venturing into their narrow enclosures with their latest female conquests for a little session of hi-jinks where, their minds (and, all too often, their prowess and sexual longevity) clouded by the effects of ale, a surfeit of testosterone and the threat of being discovered, they would perform loveless couplings to the muted strains of whatever music drifted down from the floor above.
    The practice was known, in the less salubrious circles of Calder Valley drinking establishments, as “The Forty Five Steps Club”. The name referred, in a version of the similar “honorary” appellation afforded those who carried out the same act on an in-flight aeroplane (“The Mile High Club”), to the toilet’s distance below ground – three perilously steep banks of fifteen steps leading down from the ballroom’s west entrance.
    And so it was that, at precisely 10 o’clock on the fateful night of the Conservative Club’s Christmas Party, it was to this bastion of opulence and renown that Arthur Clark retired midway through a plate of turkey, new potatoes, broccoli and carrots (having already seen off several pints of John Smith’s, an entire bowl of dry roasted peanuts and the Regal’s obligatory prawn cocktail first course) to evacuate both bladder and bowel. It was a clockwork thing with Arthur and, no matter where he was or whom he was with, he would leave whatever was going on to void himself – on this occasion, all the better to concentrate his full attention and gastric juices on the promised (though some might say “threatened”) Christmas Pudding and rum sauce plus a couple of coffees and a few glasses of Bells whisky. Arthur’s slightly weaving departure from the ballroom, its back end filled with a series of long dining tables leaving the area immediately in front of the stage free for the inevitable dancing that would follow coffee and liqueurs, was to be the last time that his fellow guests saw him alive.
    “Edna. Edna!” Betty Thorndike was leaning across the table trying to get Edna Clark’s attention, while one of the Merkinson twins – Betty thought it was Hilda but she couldn’t be sure, they both looked so alike – returned to her seat and dropped her handbag onto the floor beside her. Hilda – if it was Hilda – had been to the toilet more than fifteen minutes ago, while everyone else was still eating, her having bolted her food down in record time, and had spent the time since her return talking to Agnes Olroyd, as though she didn’t want to come back and join them: they were a funny pair, the Merkinsons.
    When Edna turned around, from listening – disinterestedly – to John and Mary Tullen’s conversation about conservatories with Barbara Ashley and her husband, she was frowning.
    “What?”
    “He’s been a long time, hasn’t he,” Betty said across the table, nodding to the watch on her wrist. “Your Arthur.”
    “He’s had a lot,” Edna said with a shrug. The disc jockey on the stage put on Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman.
    “Oh, I love this, me,” Mary Tullen announced to the table, droopy-eyed, and promptly began trying to join in with the words, cigarette smoke drifting out of her partially open mouth.
    “You’ve been a long time, Hilda,” said her sister Harriet, pushing her plate forward. Hilda noted that the food had been shuffled around on the plate but not much had been eaten.
    “Been talking to Agnes Olroyd.”
    “So I saw.”
    “She was asking me about the robbery,” Hilda said.
    “Robbery? I thought you said nothing had been taken.”
    Hilda shrugged. “Robbery, break-in-it’s all the same thing.”
    Hilda worked at the animal testing facility out on Aldershot Road where, two days earlier, she had come into work to discover someone had broken in during the night-animal rights protesters, her boss Ian Arbutt had told the police – and trashed the place.
    Not wanting to talk about the break-in again – it having been a source of conversation everywhere in the town the past 36 hours, particularly in the Merkinson twins’ small two-up, two-down in Belmont Drive – Hilda’s sister said, “How’s her Eric?”
    Hilda made a face. “His prostate’s not so good,” she said.
    “Oh.” Harriet’s attention seemed more concentrated on Edna Clark.
    As Mary elbowed her husband in the stomach, prising his attention away from a young woman returning to a nearby table with breasts that looked like they had been inflated, Betty Thorn-dike said to Edna, “D’you think he’s all right?”
    Edna said, “He’s fine. He always goes at this time. Regular as clockwork. Doesn’t matter where he is.” This last revelation was accompanied by a slight shake of her head that seemed to convey both amazement and despair.
    “I know,” Mary Tullen agreed. “It’s common knowledge, your Arthur’s regularity.”
    “But he’s been a long time.” Betty nodded to Arthur’s unfinished meal. “And he hasn’t even finished his dinner.”
    “He’ll finish it when he gets back,” Edna said with assurance.
    Behind her, somebody said, “There’s no bloody paper down there.”
    Hilda Merkinson knocked her glass over and a thin veil of lager spilled across the table and onto her sister’s lap. “Hilda! For goodness sake.”
    “Damn it,” Hilda said.
    Edna threw a spare serviette across the table and turned around. Billy Roberts was sliding into his seat on the next table.
    Sitting across from Billy, Jack Hanlon burst into a loud laugh. “You didn’t use your hands again, did you, Billy? You’ll never sell any meat on Monday-smell’ll be there for days.”
    Billy smiled broadly and held his hand out beneath his friend’s nose. Jack pulled back so quickly he nearly upturned his chair. He took a drink of Old Peculiar, swallowed and shook a B &H out of a pack lying on the table. “If you must know,” Billy said, lighting the cigarette and blowing a thick cloud up towards the ceiling, “I used my hanky.” He made a play of reaching into his pocket. “But I washed it out, see-” And he pretended to throw something across the table to his friend. This time, gravity took its toll and Jack went over backwards into the aisle.
    As Jack got to his feet and righted his chair, Billy said, “I flushed it, didn’t I, daft bugger. But I was worried for a few minutes when I saw there wasn’t any paper – course, by that time, I’d done the deed. They need to check the bloody things more regular.” He blew out more smoke.
    “Aren’t you going to tell somebody, Billy?” Helen Simpson asked, her eyes sparkling as they took in Billy Roberts’s quiffed hair.
    “Can’t be arsed,” Billy said. “There’s some poor sod down there now – probably still down there: he’ll have something to say about it when he gets out,” he added as he did a quick glance at the entrance to see if he could see anybody returning who looked either a little sheepish or blazing with annoyance.
    “That’ll be Arthur.” Edna looked over her shoulder at Betty. “I bet that’s my Arthur,” she said. She tapped Billy on the shoulder. “That’ll be my Arthur,” she said again.
    “What’s that, Mrs Clark?” Billy said, turning. “What’s your Arthur gone and done now?”
    “He went to the toilet ages ago. Billy says there might not be any paper. There’ll be hell to pay if there isn’t.”
    Harriet Merkinson shuffled around in her handbag, produced a thick bundle of Kleenex and she held them out. “Here, why don’t you take him these?”
    Edna nodded. “Thanks, er-”
    “Harriet,” said Harriet.
    “Thanks, Harry-good idea.” She passed the tissues back to Billy and gave a big smile. “Here, be an angel, Billy and go back down and push these under the door for me.”
    “You haven’t been down to the gents, have you, Mrs Clark?” There was a snigger at the last part from Jack Hanlon. “You can’t get sod all under them doors.”
    “Well, can’t you knock on his door or something?” She nodded to the table behind her. “He hasn’t even finished his meal.”
    Hilda looked across at Arthur’s plate and noted that it didn’t look much different to her sister’s – the only difference was that one meal was finished with and the other wasn’t.
    When he got back to the toilet, Billy saw one of the young waiters about to go into each cubicle to fasten a new roll of tissue into the dispenser. “Somebody tell you, did they? Was it Arthur Clark?”
    The boy shook his head, his cheeks colouring. “It was some bloke, don’t know what he’s called,” the waiter said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Said he’d come down and a lot of the-” The boy paused, searching for the word.
    “Traps?” Billy ventured.
    The boy smiled. “Said a lot of the traps didn’t have no paper.”
    “When was that?” Billy asked.
    “Well, when he was down here, I suppose,” he said, frowning and holding up an armful of toilet rolls. “I just said-”
    “No, when was it this other bloke mentioned about there been no paper.”
    “Oh,” the boy gasped. “I see.” He frowned and chewed his lip. “A while back. I had to get the key to the stock cupboard first and I was still collecting dishes.”
    Outside the entrance to the toilet there was a sudden burst of high-pitched giggling. “There’s a bloody waiter in there!” a girl’s voice said. Billy chuckled. Presumably only the waiter’s presence was preventing the girl from coming into the gents with her partner and not the fact that the toilet area was filled with men, young and old, either standing at the urinals or washing at the basins. Alcohol was a wonderful thing and no denying.
    The chuckling continued and was complemented by the sound of feet hurriedly ascending the 45 steps back to the ballroom. A man Billy didn’t know wafted through the doors, unzipping his flies and grinning like a Cheshire cat.
    Billy exchanged nods with the man and turned his attention back to the waiter. He was still smiling – until he saw that the door to the cubicle which had been occupied while he was down here was still firmly closed.
    “Has somebody just gone in there? I mean, while you’ve been down here.”
    The boy glanced at the closed door and shook his head. “Not while I’ve been down here.”
    Billy looked down at the Kleenex in his hand and felt the waiter look down at them at the same time. He jammed them into his jacket pocket, walked across and tapped gently on the door. “Hello?”
    There was no response.
    “He’ll be sleeping it off, lad, whoever he is,” a stocky bald man confided to Billy as he held his hands under the automatic drier. “You’ll need to knock louder than that.”
    Billy nodded slowly. He rapped the door three times and said, “Mister Clark-are you in there? We’ve got toilet paper out here if you’ve run out.”
    No answer.
    The bald man finished his hands off on the back of his trousers and moved across so that he was standing alongside Billy. Although he was short, a good six inches shorter than Billy and three or four beneath the lofty height of the young waiter, the bald man had a commanding air about him. The waiter shuffled to one side to give the man more room.
    The bald man hit the door several times with a closed fist and shouted, “Come on, mate, time to get up. You’ll be needing a hammer and chisel if you stay in there much longer, never mind bloody toilet paper.”
    Still no answer.
    “He must be a bloody heavy sleeper,” Billy said. “Either that or he’s pissed as a newt.”
    The bald man turned to the waiter. “Is there any way into these things? I mean, some way of getting in when they’re locked.”
    “I don’t know,” the waiter said.
    “Well, can you find somebody who does know? And can you do it bloody sharpish?”
    The waiter turned around and ran to the door and disappeared, his clumping feet echoing up the steps to the ballroom.
    The man lifted his hands and felt around the door. “Do you know this bloke, whoever he is?”
    Billy shook his head. “No. Well, I do; I know his name and that, but I don’t really know him. His wife asked me to come down.”
    The man nodded. “Why was that, then?” he said, turning around.
    “Well, there’s no paper in any of the toilets.”
    “How did his wife know that?”
    “She heard me telling them on my table. I’d just got back from, you know-”
    “Having a crap, I know, get on with it lad.”
    Billy straightened his shoulders. He would usually square up to anyone who spoke to him like that – after all, he wasn’t a lad: he was almost 25 – but there was something about the bald man that made him shrink back from confrontation. “That trap was closed when I came down here and it was still closed when I went back up.”
    The bald man reached into his inside pocket and removed a packet of Marlboro. While lighting a cigarette he said to Billy, “Did you hear anything while you were down here?”
    Billy shrugged. “Like what?”
    The man blew smoke out. “Groans, plops, farts, throwing up – the usual.”
    “No; no, I didn’t.”
    The man nodded. He hammered on the door again, louder this time. “What did you say his name was?”
    “Arthur Clark.”
    “Not the bloke who wrote 2001, I suppose? I loved that picture.”
    “I don’t think so,” Billy said with a chuckle.
    “No, me neither.” He hammered again. “Mister Clark, if you can hear me, open the door. It’s the police.”
    Billy was watching the door but when he heard that he turned to the man. “Are you really the police? I mean, are you a, a copper?”
    Before the man could answer, the waiter came back into the toilet. He was trailing behind a tall man with bushy eyebrows that met over his nose. His face, which was scowling, was a mask of excess, folds of skin lined with broken blood vessels. He said, “What’s going on?”
    “Who are you?” the bald man asked.
    “Sidney Poke. I’m the manager of the Regal.”
    The bald man nodded. “Any way into these things when they’re locked on the inside?”
    Sidney Poke said, “Who are you?”
    The bald man jammed his cigarette in the corner of his mouth, pulled a credit-card holder from his inside pocket and shuffled through the little plastic flaps. He found what he was looking for and held it out for inspection. “Detective Inspector Malcolm Broadhurst, Halifax CID,” he said.
    “What’s the problem, Inspector?” Sidney Poke said, his manner suddenly less aggressive.
    “Somebody’s in there and we can’t get them to open the door. Been there a while, this lad says,” Malcolm Broadhurst said nodding at Billy Roberts.
    “Who is it? Who’s in there?” Sidney Poke asked Billy.
    “Never mind who he is,” the policeman said. “How do we bloody well get in to him?”
    Sidney Poke shrugged. “I suppose we have to knock the door down.”
    Malcolm Broadhurst nodded. “Why did I know you were going to say that? Right-” He threw his cigarette on the floor and ground it with his foot. “One of you go upstairs and call for an ambulance – just to be on the safe side.”
    A blond-haired man said, “I’ll do it,” and disappeared at a run out of the toilet.
    The policeman took hold of Billy’s left arm and squeezed the biceps. “What do you do for a living, lad?”
    “I’m a butcher.”
    “Just the job,” he said, and he stepped back out of the way. “Right, break that bloody door down – and, daft as it sounds, try not to go mad: he could be on the floor at the other side.”
    As he squared up to the door, Billy said, “How the hell do I do that? Knock the door down but go steady, I mean.”
    “Just do your best. Now, you others stand back and give him room.”
    The door jamb splintered on the sixth try. It came away on the eighth, still fastened but only loosely.
    “Brilliant job, lad,” Broadhurst said taking Billy’s arm. He pulled him back and stepped close to the door, squinting through the small gap that had appeared. “It’s still fastened, but only just.”
    He stepped back and frowned. “No time to bugger about looking for something to prise it open. If the fella couldn’t hear all that din then he’s in a bad way.” He stepped back and nodded to Billy. “Break it down, lad.”
    Billy pulled himself back onto his left foot and hit the door with all his strength. The lock snapped and they heard something – a screw, maybe, or part of the actual lock-clatter inside the cubicle. The door stopped against something on the floor.
    Malcolm Broadhurst pushed Billy out of the way and, holding the door, squeezed his way into the cubicle. When he was inside, the policeman closed the door again.
    They heard shuffling.
    “Is he all right?” Sidney Poke asked. Billy thought it was a pretty stupid question.
    For a few seconds there was no answer and then the policeman said, “He’s dead.” Then, after a few seconds more of shuffling sounds and sounds of exertion, he said, “Bloody hell fire.”
    Billy said, “What is it?”
    When the door opened again the policeman was rubbing his face, looking down at the floor.
    Billy and Sidney Poke and the young waiter – whose name was Chris and for whom this was his first night working at the Regal-followed Malcolm Broadhurst’s stare.
    Arthur Clark was now sitting up against the side wall of the cubicle, the toilet paper dispenser-containing almost a full roll of paper – just above and to the side of his left ear. He was fully clothed but his shirt had been ripped apart at the stomach. Worse than that, the man’s flesh looked to have been flayed, with thick red welts and deep gashes covering the skin, and the top of his light grey trousers seemed to have been dyed black around the waistband: but they knew the original colour had been a deep red.
    Chris the waiter gagged and turned away, his hand clamped over his mouth as he made for the washbasins. He made it just in time. When he was through, he leaned his head on his hand to one side of the basin and, in a surprised voice, said, “Hey, that’s where they were.”
    The boy crouched down and reached his hands to the deep metal basket on the floor between his basin and the one next to it. When he stood up he was holding an armful of toilet rolls, some full and still thick and some partly used.
    “Bloody idiots,” said Sidney Poke. “Do anything for a laugh but they wouldn’t think it was so damned fun-”
    “Get everyone out, Mister Poke,” the policeman said. His voice sounded tired. “Get everyone back upstairs. But not you, butcher boy,” he said, turning to Billy. “You can give me a hand getting him out of here.”
    The toilet was completely empty when they finally struggled out with Arthur Clark and laid him on the floor beside the washbasins.
    “He looks like he’s been got at by a wild animal,” Billy said. “And scared to death, by the look on his face.”
    The policeman shook two Marlboros from his pack and handed one to Billy. “Give it up tomorrow,” he said as he held his lighter under Billy’s cigarette.
    Billy drew in the smoke and watched the bald man crouch down by the body. He turned over Arthur Clark’s hands one by one and said, “He was the wild animal. He did it to himself. See-” He held one of the hands up for Billy to see. The nails were caked with blood and skin – they looked like the hands of a butcher.
    “Why? What did he think he was doing, do you think?”
    “Looks to me like he was trying to get into his own stomach.”
    “Arthur?” a woman’s voice shouted from outside the toilet door.
    Then a man’s voice said, “You can’t go in there, madam.”
    “Arthur!” the woman’s voice screamed.
    There was a crash outside the door that sounded unquestionably like someone falling over.
    “Shit,” said Detective Inspector Malcolm Broadhurst.
    The ambulance arrived with siren wailing but it left silently.
    Malcolm Broadhurst sat with Edna Clark for a long time, initially with Betty Thorndike, Joan Cardew and Miriam Barrett by her side, offering consolation in the undoubtedly heartfelt but seemingly sycophantic way that people have when they feel there but for the grace of God. To the policeman from Halifax CID, the trio was doing more harm than good and he sent them packing. “Like the bloody witches from Hamlet,” he said to Billy Roberts over at the bar, ordering a couple of stiff Jamesons from Sidney Poke, who had assumed bar duties for the duration.
    The rest of the guests and all the staff had given their names to a couple of uniformed officers from Halifax and had gone home.
    “Macbeth,” Sidney Poke said quietly.
    Billy looked up from his Irish frowning. He would have been happier with a pint but the policeman had ordered. “What?”
    “The three witches. It was Macbeth, not Hamlet.
    “Oh.”
    “And what about Bill and Ben? That was a turn-up for the books.”
    “Who’s Bill and Ben?”
    “Oh, the Merkinsons. The two old women.”
    “Oh, the one who collapsed.”
    Billy nodded. “And her sister.”
    “Which one of them was it who collapsed?”
    Billy shrugged. “You can never tell. They both always look the same – dress the same, talk the same; it’s really weird.”
    The two “old” women, as Billy Roberts had called them, were 53 years old. Malcolm Broadhurst wouldn’t have been far out with his own estimate of 50-51. The same age, give or take a year – he always forgot his own age but he knew he’d had his fiftieth because of the stripper they’d bought for him down at the station – and he didn’t consider himself as old. But then again, maybe he was. “Twins, are they?” he said.
    Billy nodded.
    Broadhurst had noticed them, standing by while he was talking to Edna Clark, because they were identically dressed, right down to the two-string necklace of fake pearls hanging over the first half-inch of their maroon dresses. One of them was looking after the other, the one who had collapsed, feeding her sips of brandy brought over by Sidney Poke.
    “Like a couple of weirdos,” Billy Roberts said, remembering the scene in vivid detail. “Funny though, her keeling over like that.”
    Now it was the policeman’s turn to nod. “She the Hilda Merkinson who works at the animal rights centre? The one that was done in this week?”
    Billy frowned. “Don’t know. But she’s the only Hilda Merkinson in Luddersedge.”
    “Cheers!” said Malcolm Broadhurst. He lifted his glass and drained it, then set it back on the bar top. “How much do I owe you?” he said to the Regal’s manager.
    Poke shook his head. “On the house. Think I’ll have one myself.”
    It was one o’clock.
    “What was it, d’you think?” Billy asked. He lit a B &H from the packet he’d retrieved from the table and offered it to the other two. Poke waved a hand and the policeman simply produced his Marlboros and took one out.
    “We’ll know when the autopsy boys know,” Broadhurst said around a cloud of smoke. “His missus says he didn’t have a bad heart or anything, but it’s either that or something he ate.”
    “I thought that,” Billy offered, and then wished he hadn’t when he caught the glare from the Regal’s manager.
    “Or drunk,” Broadhurst said. “I’ve had his meal wrapped up for tests, along with the pint he was working his way through.”
    “Fancy,” Billy said, more to himself than to the others, “getting up for a crap halfway through your meal.”
    “His missus says he does it regular as clockwork,” Broadhurst said.
    “That’s right,” Billy said. “Doesn’t matter where he is or who he’s with. Come ten o’clock he has to disappear to do the deed. It’s legendary around town – everybody knows.”
    “Another?” Poke said, holding the bottle of Jamesons over the policeman’s glass.
    Broadhurst frowned over the answer to that and other questions that were already forming in his mind.
    It was almost two o’clock when Broadhurst made his way from the ballroom and along the corridor towards reception. At the steps leading down to the Gentlemen’s toilet he paused. The steps were well lit but only in stages, the main house lights of the hotel having been dimmed an hour earlier. Now only single bulbs, secured behind half shells equally spaced down the flights, lit the steps leaving a well of darkness at the bottom.
    The darkness seemed inviting and off-putting, both at the same time.
    The policeman shook a cigarette from his packet, lit it and breathed smoke around him. It felt good… felt normal somehow. For there was a lot about what had happened that was not normal.
    Before he even realized he was moving, Broadhurst had reached the landing at the foot of the first flight, his hand on the rail and his eyes squinting into the gloom. He took the next two flights two steps at a time but when he reached the bottom, with the ornate doors leading into the toilet right in front of him, he stopped and listened.
    What was he listening for, he wondered. Was he listening for the sounds of Arthur Clark, screaming in agony? For didn’t some folks say that no sound ever died but only grew faint, waiting to be heard once more by those with the most finely tuned sense of hearing? No, it was something more than that; something more than the late-night campfire thoughts of ghoulies and ghosties and things that went phrrp! in the night.
    He threw his cigarette stub to the floor and stepped on it hard, pushing open the doors and stepping inside.
    The toilet was silent. There was no sound save for the distant chuckle of water moving through ancient pipes, turning over in radiators and cisterns, and dlup dlupping down drain holes.
    He looked around.
    Someone else had been in here, someone who knew more about Arthur’s tragic death than he did. A lot more. Broadhurst felt it – felt it in his water, he thought, cringing at the unintentional pun. The death was neither natural nor unintentional. But he couldn’t understand how it could be anything else.
    He walked along the row of cubicles, their doors either fully open or ajar, and felt a sense of threat, as though someone was going to step out of them, perhaps someone recently dead come to exact his revenge, or someone who knew more about the death, come to prevent being caught. Broadhurst stepped away from the line of cubicles and stopped, staring at the open doors.
    What was he thinking of? How could the death be anything other than natural? The cubicle walls went from floor to ceiling, the door the same… save for barely an inch of space top and bottom-certainly far less than would be required to get into the cubicle if the door were locked from the inside. And, of course, the same went for getting out again when the deed was done.
    “What deed?” Broadhurst said softly. There was no answer, just a giggle of water over by the sofa at the far end of the room.
    He leaned on one of the basins and continued to look around. He moved from the basin, reluctantly turning his back on the cubicles until he was reassured by their reflection in the mirror over the basin in front of him, and looked some more. What are you looking for, Kojak? a small voice whispered in the back of his head, using the name granted to him long ago by his colleagues in Halifax CID. It’s an open and shit case, seems to me, it added with what might have been a wry chuckle.
    “Funny!” Broadhurst snapped, and he looked along the basin-tops, down to the floor and then along beneath them. There was a basket beside each one.
    Hey, that’s where they were.
    The young waiter’s voice sounded clear as a bell in his head. Broadhurst could half see him, stooping down to lift an armful of toilet rolls.
    Then Sidney Poke’s voice chimed in. Bloody idiots… Do anything for a laugh.
    Broadhurst frowned.
    The ghost of Billy’s voice said, That’s right, doesn’t matter where he is or who he’s with. Come ten o’clock he has to disappear to do the deed. It’s legendary around town – everybody knows.
    Broadhurst turned around to face the cubicles-
    everybody knows
    – and walked slowly towards them, his back straightening as they came nearer. He started at one end and walked slowly, pushing open each door and staring at the empty tissue holder-
    Hey, that’s where they were
    – attached to the wall of each cubicle, right next to where an arm would be resting on a straining knee, where so many arms had rested on so many straining knees-
    It’s legendary around town
    – until he reached-
    everybody knows
    – a cubicle with toilet paper. The cubicle.
    He stared down at the now empty floor and closed his eyes. He saw Arthur Clark writhing in agony, crying out for help; so much pain that he could not simply unlock the cubicle door and crawl for help.
    Broadhurst removed his handkerchief from his pocket and, stepping into the cubicle, wrapped it around the toilet roll.
    Seconds later he was going up the steps away from the Regal’s Gentlemen’s toilet, two steps at a time; and wishing he could move faster.
    Sundays in Luddersedge are traditionally quiet affairs but the events of the previous evening at the Conservative Club’s Christmas Party had permeated the town the same way smoke from an overcooked meal fills a kitchen.
    In the tiny houses that lined the old cobbled streets of the town, over cereals and toast and bacon butties, and around tables festooned with open newspapers-primarily copies of the News of the World, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Sport-voices were discussing Arthur Clark’s unexpected demise in hushed almost reverent tones.
    Conversations such as this one:
    “I’ll bet it was his heart,” Miriam Barrett said from her position at the gas stove in the small kitchen in 14 Montgomery Street.
    Her husband, Leonard grunted over the Mirror’s sports pages. “Edna said not,” he mumbled. “Said he hadn’t had no heart problems.”
    Miriam was unconvinced as she fried her bacon and sausages, and a few pieces of tomato that looked like sizzling blood-clots. “All that business with his-toilet,” she said, imbuing the word with a strange Calder Valley mysticism that might be more at home whispered in the gris gris atmosphere of a New Orleans speakeasy. “Can’t have been right.”
    Leonard said, “He was just regular, that’s all.”
    “Yes, well, there’s regular and there’s regular,” Miriam pointed out sagely. “But having to go in the middle of your meal like that, just ‘cos it’s ten o’clock, well, that’s not regular.”
    Leonard frowned. He wondered just what it was if it wasn’t regular, but decided against pursuing the point.
    But not everyone in Luddersedge was talking.
    In his bedroom over his father’s butcher’s shop at the corner of Lemon Road and Coronation Drive, Billy Roberts opened his eyes and stared at the watery sun glowing behind his closed curtains. His mouth was a mixture of kettle fur and sandpaper and using it to speak was the very last thing on his mind. It was all he could do to groan, and even then the sound of it sounded strange to him, like it wasn’t coming from him at all but maybe drifting from beneath the bed where something crouched, something big and unpleasant, waiting to see his foot appear in front of it.
    Billy turned to his side and breathed deeply into his cupped hand. Then he stuck his nose into the opening in his hand and sniffed. The smell was sour and vaguely alcoholic, almost perfumed. He slumped back onto the pillows. It was those bloody whiskies that did it. He should have stuck to the beer, the way he usually did. It didn’t do to go mixing drinks.
    Billy had had a bad night, even after all the booze. He supposed there was nothing like messing around with a dead body – particularly one that had smelt the way Arthur Clark’s had done, Arthur having so recently dumped into his trousers – to sober a person up. It had taken Billy more than an hour to drop off after getting in-despite the fact that it was three in the morning – and even then his dreams had been peppered with Arthur’s face… and the man’s ravaged stomach.
    Work had been underway in the ballroom of the less than palatial Regal Hotel for several hours when Billy Roberts was beginning to contemplate getting out of bed.
    The wreckage was far worse than usual somehow, even though the festivities had been cut short by the tragic events in the gentlemen’s toilet. But at least most of the explosive streamers were still intact and there were fewer stains than usual on the cloths and the chairs. The most surprising thing was the number of personal possessions that had been left in the cloakroom, particularly considering the very careful population of the town. But then the unceremonious way the guests had been dispatched for home after been questioned made a lot of things understandable.
    Chris Hackett had arrived after the clear-up had begun, clocking into the ancient machine mounted on the green tiled wall leading to the Regal’s back door at 7.13. He didn’t think anyone would object to the fact that he was almost quarter of an hour late, not after last night. He set to straight away, throwing his yellow and blue bubble jacket onto one of the chest freezers in the kitchen and emerging through the swing doors into the ballroom. It was a hive of activity.
    Elsewhere, various men and women were dismantling trestle tables, creating a mound of jumbled tablecloths, loading glasses and bottles and plates and cutlery onto rickety wooden trolleys, the sound of their labours dwarfed by the sound of similar items being loaded into the huge dishwashers in the kitchens.
    Wondering where he should start, Chris Hackett saw a table that had been untouched, over by the far wall. He went across to it, moving around to the wall side to begin stacking the plates. Halfway along the wall he caught his foot on something and went sprawling onto the floor, knocking over two chairs on the way.
    Somebody laughed and their was a faint burst of applause as Chris got to his feet and looked around for the culprit of his embarrassment.
    It was a lady’s handbag.
    Malcolm Broadhurst sat smoking a cigarette. He had been up since before dawn, having snatched a couple of hours’ fitful nap lying fully clothed on the eiderdown; unable to settle to anything, his mind full of the previous evening.
    The call came through at a little after ten o’clock.
    A man’s voice said, “You up?”
    “Yeah.”
    “Been to bed?”
    Broadhurst grunted. “Didn’t sleep though.”
    “Well, you were right not to,” the voice said. “We’ve been on this all night-well, all morning would be more accurate.”
    “And?”
    “We’ve not finished yet but we’ve got a pretty good idea.”
    The voice with the “pretty good idea” belonged to Jim Garnett, the doctor in charge of forensic science at Halifax Infirmary and who doubled as the medical guru for Halifax CID. He chuckled. “It’s a goodie. You were right to be suspicious.”
    The policeman shook another cigarette from his packet and settled himself against the bed headboard. “Go on.”
    “Okay. Two hours ago, I’d’ve been calling you to tell you he’d had a heart attack.”
    “And he didn’t.”
    “Well, that’s not exactly true: he did have a cardiac arrest, but it wasn’t brought on by natural causes.” Garnett paused and Broadhurst could hear the doctor shifting papers around. “What made me a little more cautious than usual-apart from your telephone call last night – was the list of symptoms, all classical.”
    Broadhurst didn’t speak but it was as though the doctor had read the question in his mind.
    “There were too many. Profuse salivation-”
    “Profuse – is that like, there was a lot of it?”
    “You could say that,” came the reply. “The poor chap’s shirt was soaked and he’d bitten through the back left side of his tongue; he’d vomited, messed his pants-diarrhoea: most unpleasant – and there were numerous contusions to the head, arms and legs.”
    “Suggesting what?”
    “The contusions?” Garnett smacked his lips. “Dizziness, auditory and visual disturbances, blurred vision, that kind of thing – and not what you’d want to experience when you’re stuck in a WC. It’s my bet he shambled about in there like a ping-pong ball, bouncing off every wall. And, of course, the pain would have been nothing to what he was having from his stomach – that’s why he’d clawed at himself so much. By then, he’d be having seizures-hence the tongue – and he’d be faint.”
    “Why didn’t he just come out, shout for help?”
    “Disorientation would be my guess. And panic. He’d be in a terrible state at this point, Mai.”
    Broadhurst waited. “And?”
    “And then he died. I’ve seen cases before-cardiac arrests-with two or three of the same symptoms, but never so many together… and never so intense. This chap suffered hell in his final minutes.”
    Garnett sighed before continuing. “So, we checked him out for all the usual bacteria-saliva, urine, stool samples; and there were plenty of those, right down to his ankles – and-”
    “So he hadn’t even been to the toilet?”
    “No, he had been. His large bowel was empty. This stuff came as the result of a sudden stimulation to the gut and that would release contents further up the bowel passage. Anyway, like I said, we checked everything but it was no go. Then I checked the meal-bland but harmless – and the beer… nothing there either.”
    Garnett moved away from the phone to cough. “God, and now I think I’m coming down with a cold.”
    “Take the rest of the day off.”
    “Thanks!” He cleared his throat and went on. “So, in absolute desperation, we started checking him for needle marks: thought he might be using something and that was why he always went to the toilet so regularly. But there was nothing, skin completely unbroken. And then…”
    “Ah, is this the good bit?”
    “Yes, indeedy – and this is the good bit.”
    Broadhurst could sense the doctor leaning further into the phone, preparing to deliver the coup de grâce.
    “Then we turned him over and we found the rash.”
    “The rash? All that and a rash too?”
    “On his backside, across his cheeks and up into the anus. A nasty little bastard, blotches turning to pustules even five hours after he died. At first I thought maybe it was thrush but it was too extreme for that. So we took a swab and tested it.”
    The pause was theatrical in its duration. “And… go on, Jim, for God’s sake,” Broadhurst snapped around a cloud of smoke.
    “Nicotine poisoning.”
    The policeman’s heart sank. For this he had allowed himself to get excited? “Nicotine poisoning?” he said in exasperation. “Nicotine, as in cigarettes?” He glanced down at the chaos of crumpled brown stubs in the ashtray next to him on the bed.
    Garnett grunted proudly. “Nicotine as in around eight million cigarettes smoked in the space of one drag.”
    “What?”
    “That was what killed him – not the heart attack, though that delivered the final blow-nicotine: one of the most lethal poisons known to man.”
    “And how did he get it, if it wasn’t in the drink or in the meal, and it wasn’t injected? And assuming he didn’t smoke eight million cigarettes while he was sitting contemplating.”
    Garnett cleared his throat. “He got it in the arse, Mal, though God only knows how.”
    Broadhurst glanced across at the solitary toilet roll sitting on his chest of drawers. “I know, too,” he said. “But the ‘why’, that’s the puzzler.”
    “And the ‘who’?”
    “Yeah, that too.”
    Edna Clark sat at her kitchen table, her hands wrapped around a mug of steaming tea. Sitting across from her was Betty Thorndike.
    When the knock came on the front door, Betty said, “You stay put, love – I’ll get it.”
    Hilda Merkinson had been in every room in the house but her sister was nowhere to be found.
    Worse still, she couldn’t find her handbag.
    “Harry?” She had already shouted her sister’s name a dozen times but, in the absence of a more useful course of action, she shouted it again. The silence seemed to mock her.
    Hilda knew why Harriet had gone out. She had gone out to clear her head, maybe to have a weep by herself. No problem. She would get over it. It might take a bit of time, but she would get over it – of that, Hilda was convinced.
    They had lived together, Hilda and Harriet Merkinson, in the same house for all of their 53 years; just the two of them since their mother had died in 1992.
    They had a routine, a routine that Hilda did not want to see altered in any way. It was a safe routine, a routine of eating together, cleaning together, watching the TV together, and occasionally slipping along to The Three Pennies public house for a couple of life-affirming medicinal glasses of Guinness stout. It was a routine of going to bed and kissing each other goodnight on the upstairs landing and of waking each morning and kissing each other hello, again in the same spot; a routine broken only by Harriet’s job in Jack Wilson’s General store, and Hilda’s work at the animal testing facility on Aldershot Road, where she’d been for almost seven years. The same length of time that Harriet had worked.
    During that time, the routine had persevered.
    It had been all and its disappearance was unthinkable.
    Not that there hadn’t been times when things looked a little shaky, namely the times when Ian Arbutt had cornered Hilda in the small back room against the photocopier and sworn his affection-despite Ian’s wife, Judith, and his two children. But basically, Ian’s affection had been for Hilda’s body and Hilda had recognized this pretty quickly into the relationship – if you could call the clumsy gropes and speedy ejaculations performed by her boss on the back room carpet a relationship.
    Hilda had had to think of how to put an end to it – thus maintaining her and Harriet’s beloved routine-while not having it affect her position at the testing centre.
    The solution had been simple, if a little Machiavellian. She had sent an anonymous letter to Judith Arbutt saying she should keep a tighter rein on her husband. “I’m not mentioning any names,” the carefully worded (and written) letter had continued, “but there are some folks around town who think your Ian’s affections might be being misplaced.” Hilda had liked that last bit.
    A very anxious and contrite Ian had suggested to Hilda, on the next occasion that they were both alone in the centre, that he felt he wasn’t being fair to her. “Trifling with her affections” is what Hilda imagined he was wanting to say but Ian’s pharmacological expertise did not extend to the poetic. “I hope you’re not leading up to suggesting I look for other work,” Hilda had said, feigning annoyance, brow furrowed, “because that would mean something along the lines of sexual harassment, wouldn’t it?”
    The answer had been emphatic and positive. “A job for life”, is how he worded it. “You’re here for as long as you want to be here, Hilda,” he said. And he had been true to his word, at least Hilda could give him that.
    No, Hilda would have nothing come between her and her sister. They were all either of them had and their separation was something she could not contemplate. She had thought that Harriet felt the same way.
    And then came the fateful day, almost a week ago – was it really only a week? it seemed so much longer – that had threatened to change all that.
    Every Thursday, without fail, Harriet always walked along to the fish-and-chip shop on the green-Thursday being Jack Wilson’s early closing day – and had the tea all ready for Hilda when she got in. But on this particular Thursday, following four days of solid rain, when Hilda – a little earlier than usual because Ian also had flooding and wanted to get off – had gone past the General Store, she had seen Harriet helping Jack with moving boxes around due to the leakage through the front windows. He had asked her to stay back and give him a hand, and Harriet couldn’t refuse, despite her other “commitments”.
    “We’ll just have some sandwiches,” Harriet had shouted through the locked door of Jack’s shop, looking terribly flustered. “You just put your feet up and I’ll make them when I get in,” she added.
    Hilda had nodded. Then she had gone home, put the kettle on and, at the usual time Harriet always left the house en route for the fish and chips, Hilda had embarked into the darkness on the very same journey. Imagine her surprise when, from behind the big oak tree on the green, a shadowy figure leapt out, grabbed her by the shoulders and planted a big kiss on her mouth.
    It was Arthur Clark.
    “Thought you weren’t coming,” Arthur had announced to a bewildered Hilda. “Been here bloody ages,” he had added. “Edna’ll be getting ideas – mind you,” Arthur had confided, “it won’t matter soon. Must dash.” Then he had given her another kiss and had scurried across the green bound for home, calling over his shoulder, “See you on Saturday anyway, at the Christmas do.”
    Hilda had stood and watched the figure disappear into the darkness, and she was so flabbergasted that she almost forgot all about the fish and chips and went home empty-handed. But already she was thinking that that would not do. That would not do at all.
    The “meeting” had given her advance knowledge of a potential threat to the beloved routine. And by the time she was leaving the fat-smelling warmth of the shop, Hilda had hatched a plan.
    She knew all about poisons from Ian’s explanations, long-drawn-out monologues that, despite their monotony, had registered in Hilda’s mind. Which was fortunate. She knew about nicotine, and about the way it was lethal and produced symptoms not unlike heart failure.
    Getting a small supply would not be a problem. There were constant threats against the centre – notably from animal rights groups based out in the wilderness of Hebden Bridge and Todmorden-so a small break-in, during which most of the contents of the centre could be strewn around and trashed, was an easy thing to arrange… particularly after administering a small dose of sleeping tablets to her sister, who obligingly nodded off in front of the TV.
    Hilda scooted along Luddersedge’s late night streets, let herself in with her own key-thanking God that he had seen fit to make Ian make her a joint key-holder with him-did what she considered to be an appropriate amount of damage, and removed a small amount of nicotine from the glass jar in Ian’s office cabinet, to which, again, she had a key. She left the cabinet untouched by “the vandals” who had destroyed the office. Then, after resetting the alarm, she had smashed in the windows with a large stick and returned home.
    It wasn’t until she was almost back at the house that she heard the siren. She had smiled then – it had been long enough for whoever had broken in to do all the damage and escape without challenge. The night air had smelled good then, good and alive with… not so much possibilities but with continuance. Back in the warmth, she had settled herself down in front of the TV and, after about half an hour, had dropped off herself. The icing on the cake had been the fact that it was Hilda’s sister who woke Hilda up. A wonderful alibi, even though none would be needed.
    Two days later, on the night of the Conservative Club’s Christmas Party, Hilda had bolted her meal and – though she knew she was risking things – had gone to the toilet at ten minutes to ten (Arthur Clark’s toilet habits being legendary). Once out of the ballroom, she had run down to the Gentlemen’s toilet, removed the tissue rolls from all but one WC, and had treated the first few sheets of the remaining roll with the special bottle in her handbag. It was four minutes to ten when she had finished.
    She had arrived back in the ballroom at 9:58 just in time to see Arthur get up from the table and set off for his date with his maker. She had not been able to go straight back and was grateful for Agnes Olroyd catching her to talk about the break-in and about her Eric’s prostate. By the time they had finished talking, Hilda’s composure was fully restored and she was able to rejoin the table.
    And now Harriet was nowhere to be seen. But that could wait.
    The main thing as far as Hilda was concerned was to find her bag.
    And she had a good idea as to where it was.
    Harriet’s revelations had hit Edna Clark harder even than her husband’s death less than twelve hours earlier.
    In Edna’s kitchen, with the sun washing through the window that looked out onto the back garden and with steam gently wafting from the freshly boiled kettle, Edna sat at the table feeling she had suddenly lost far more than her life partner: now she had lost her life itself. Everything she had believed in had been quickly and surely trounced by the blubbering Harriet Merkinson when she burst through the front door, ran along the hall-pursued by a confused Betty Thorndike – and emerged in the kitchen, tears streaming down her face. And now Edna’s 27 years with Arthur lay before her in tatters; every conversation, every endearment whispered to her in the private darkness of the their bedroom, every meal she had prepared and every holiday snapshot they had taken.
    While Harriet continued sniffling and Betty simply stood leaning against the kitchen cabinets (installed by Arthur, Edna recalled, one laughter-filled weekend in the early 1980s), her eyes seemingly permanently raised in a mask of disbelief, Edna looked around at the once-familiar ephemera and bric-a-brac of a life that now seemed completely alien. These were things from another life – another person’s life – and nothing to do with Edna Clark, newly bereaved widow of one Arthur Clark, late of this parish.
    The story had been a familiar one. Even as Harriet Merkinson had been burbling it out – the clandestine meetings, the whispered affections, the promise of a new life once Arthur had built up the nerve to leave his wife-Edna felt that she had heard it all before… or read it in a book someplace, maybe even watched it on television. The Arthur revealed by Harriet was not the Arthur she remembered, save for one thing: his toilet habits. At least something was constant in her husband’s two lives.
    And now, while Edna’s mind raced and backtracked and questioned and attempted – in the strange and endearing way of minds – to rationalize and make palatable the revelations, the “other” woman continued to burble a litany of regret and sorrow and pleas for absolution and forgiveness.
    “I can’t forgive you,” Edna said at last, her words cutting through the thick atmosphere like a knife through cheese. “Never,” she added with grim finality. “I can understand, because I know these things do happen, but I can never forgive you. You haven’t taken only my husband’s memory, you’ve completely removed my entire life.”
    It was the most articulate statement Edna had ever made, and the most articulate she would ever make in what remained of her life. Of course, she would come to terms with what had happened, but she would never get over it.
    “Edna, Edna, Edna, Ed-”
    “Now get out,” Edna said, cutting Harriet’s ramble off midword. Her voice was quieter now, more composed, gentle even. There was no animosity, no aggression, no threats of retribution: just a tiredness and, the still silent Betty was amazed to see, a newfound strength that was almost majesterial. “I never want to speak with you again.”
    Minutes later, Betty and Edna heard the distant click of the front door latch closing. It sounded for all the world like the closing of a tomb door or the first scattering of soil on a recently lowered coffin. Edna leaned forward and placed her face in her hands, and she began to sob, quietly and uncontrollably.
    While Malcolm Broadhurst was greeting the two uniformed policemen on the steps of the Regal’s ornate front door, two things were happening, both of them personally involving the Merkinson twins.
    For Harriet, the routine so cherished by her sister had been a chore. More than that, it had been the bane of her life.
    Harriet had long wanted to get out of the repetitive drudgery of the existence she shared with Hilda, and Arthur Clark-dear, sweet Arthur, with his strange toilet habits – had been her ticket to salvation. Love was a new experience to Harriet: for that matter, she did not know – not truly, down in those regions of the heart and the soul where such things reside – whether she really loved Arthur, for she had never experienced such feelings, even as a teenager and a young woman. But she did see in him the means whereby she could attain a new life, a life of relative importance. “Harriet and Arthur”, “Arthur and Harriet” – she couldn’t decide which she preferred, but she preferred either to “The Merkinson twins” or “Hilda and Harriet”.
    As she fished out the old clothesline from the kitchen cupboard, taking care to replace the various bottles and cartons of disinfectant and packets of soap powder, she felt a calmness come over her. Arthur’s death had effectively removed her last chance for salvation, and she had been destitute. But now, thanks to the clothesline, she saw a solution. It wasn’t the one she would have preferred but it was now the only one available. The only game in town. She could neither face life with Hilda nor life without the constant frisson of excitement she got prior to meeting Arthur, and she certainly could not face the comments and whispers around town when she walked down the high street or around the green. No, this way was best for all concerned. It was best for Edna – who might at least derive a little satisfaction when she heard – and it was best for Hilda, who would have to put up with her own share of her sister’s shame.
    She climbed the stairs wearily and attached one end of the clothesline to the upstairs banister rail. Then, after ensuring that the line’s drop was sufficiently short to do the job, she fashioned a noose of sorts and slipped it over her head. With one final look around the landing she climbed over the rail and sat on the banister, staring down at the floor far below. As she jumped, in that fleeting but seemingly endless second or two before the line pulled taut without her feet ever touching the hall floor, she wondered where Hilda was… and what she would say when she came home.
    “You’ve got something for forensics?”
    Broadhurst nodded. “It’s inside. I didn’t want to be seen with it outside.”
    They started to walk.
    “I came up last Wednesday,” Malcolm Broadhurst explained to the two uniforms. “To check into the break-in down at the animal testing centre.”
    “Oh, yeah?” one of the policemen observed. His name was James Proctor and he had perfected that same aggressive and questioning response to even the most innocent facts or snippets of information, seeming to require confirmation or substantiation to anything said to him.
    “Yeah,” Broadhurst confirmed. They were now walking up the Regal’s steps and approaching the wide, oak-panelled revolving door. “Your Inspector Mishkin asked me up because there were a few things he wasn’t too happy about. I take it you two aren’t working on that case?”
    “We didn’t know it was a case,” the second policeman said as they emerged from the revolving door into the hotel’s reception area. He said the word “case” with a heavy-handed touch of sarcasm. “Thought it was just a simple break-in.”
    “Yes, well,” Broadhurst continued. “That’s the way it looked, and Inspector Mishkin and I decided to keep it that way until things made a little more sense.”
    “And have they now?” the second policeman asked.
    Broadhurst hit the bell on the reception desk.
    “Look at it this way,” the policeman said, turning from the desk and looking the two uniforms in the eye. “Whoever broke in through the window managed to trash the place and then place all the broken glass on top of the wrecked office.” He nodded, smiling. “That’s a pretty good trick, don’t you think?”
    “So-”
    “So,” Broadhurst continued, watching the main staircase as a young man appeared and started down, “the ‘vandal’ clearly had access to the centre and wanted to cover up the fact that they had been there. Now that reason could be simply a matter of their wanting to fight the animal testing, kind of like a fifth columnist, or it could be another reason. I think we now have that reason-although the reason itself must have a reason – and that’s what I now bloody well intend to find out.”
    “Yes, sir?” the young man said as he reached the bottom of the stairs and approached the three men at the desk. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
    “Is Mister Poke around?” Broadhurst asked. “I gave him something to look after for me.”
    The man nodded and moved around the desk. “I’ll give him a call, sir,” he said.
    As Harriet Merkinson was swinging gently from side to side in the hallway of the house she shared with her sister, Hilda Merkinson slipped quietly into the back door of the Regal.
    “Hello, Miss Merkinson,” Sidney Poke said. His tone was quite reverential, a tone he would use when speaking with anyone who had been at the previous evening’s party, and particularly those who had been closely involved with the tragic death of Arthur Clark.
    Hilda nodded. “I wondered,” she said, “if you had found anything this morning. When you were cleaning up, I mean.”
    Sidney frowned attentively. “Have you-” The ring of his mobile phone interrupted him. “Excuse me just a minute,” he said, pulling his phone from his side pocket. He pressed a button and said, “Yes?”
    Hilda looked around as Poke listened on the phone.
    “Right,” he said. “I’ll get it and bring it through.” He waited another few seconds and then said, “Very well, I’ll meet them on the way.”
    “Now,” Poke said as he returned the phone to his pocket. “Where we were? Ah yes, have you lost something?”
    They started walking slowly through the ballroom, which was now cleared. Tables were folded and leaning against the far wall; chairs were stacked in towering piles in front of the stage; and an army of young men and woman were busy with vacuum cleaners, criss-crossing the floor, their attention fixed on the carpet.
    “My handbag,” Hilda shouted above the drone of the cleaners. “I think I must have left it last night.” Poke nodded and looked around absently. “In all the excitement,” Hilda added, suddenly wondering if “excitement” were the correct word to use under the circumstances.
    “Ah!” Sidney Poke motioned Hilda towards a small occasional table set up by the door leading out to the toilets. The table contained a few jackets plus an assortment of bags.
    “All those were left last night?” Hilda said in astonishment.
    Poke gave an approximation of a laugh sounding more like a snort. “No, these belong to the cleaners,” he said, “but your bag – if you did leave it, and if it has been found-is most likely here as anywhere.”
    As they reached the table, Hilda saw her bag. Her heart rose-or surfaced… or whatever it was that hearts did that was the opposite to sinking – and she reached out for it, careful not to appear too anxious. “That’s it,” she said triumphantly.
    She picked up the bag and unfastened the sneck. She removed her purse, noting with grim satisfaction that the small bottle was still there, nestled in the bottom amongst Kleenex tissues, lipstick, comb and all the other rudiments of a woman’s handbag, and flipped it open. “There,” she announced, proudly displaying her library card, “just to show it’s mine.”
    Hilda replaced the card and dropped the purse back into the depths of the handbag. Fastening the sneck, she said, “Well, I’ll get off then.”
    Sidney Poke nodded. He took her arm and gently led her towards the main door that went on to the toilets and out to the reception area.
    “How are you today? I mean, how are you feeling?”
    Hilda made a face. “Oh,” she said, “you mean after-”
    Poke nodded with the quietly attentive air of an undertaker.
    “It was my sister. It was Harriet who collapsed. Not me.”
    “Ah.” He pushed open the door and ushered her through ahead of him. “Well, I’ll leave you here, if that’s okay, Miss Merkinson.” Poke stopped at a desk in a small recess and shuffled in his pocket. He produced a set of keys and set about opening the desk’s deep drawer. “We’re running a little behind, what with-you know.”
    Hilda nodded, watching Poke reach around into the drawer.
    Somewhere far off, but coming closer, she could hear footsteps.
    “Ah, here it is,” Poke grunted. “Must have pushed it further back than I thought.” His back to Hilda, Poke pulled out a small bundle and closed the drawer.
    The footsteps were getting closer. Hilda tried to ignore the yawning staircase on her right, the fabled 45 steps that led down to the Gentlemen’s toilets. Deep in her mind, the footsteps belonged to Arthur Clark as he descended less than 12 hours earlier to empty his bowel and meet his end… except they seemed to be coming towards her rather than away from her. She shook her head and turned back to see the Hotel manager holding a toilet roll enclosed in a polythene bag.
    “Right then,” Poke was saying, though his words sounded like rushing water in Hilda’s ears. Rushing water and footsteps, now getting very close-echoing-as though there were more than just Arthur coming back.
    Poke moved the bag from one hand to the other as he returned the keys to his pocket. Hilda frowned at the bag, looked at Poke, smiled awkwardly, and turned around to face the toilet steps, half expecting to see Arthur climbing up to see her, to ask her why she had done what she had done, and bringing other people with him, friends of his, friends who-wanted toilet paper…
    – wanted to talk to her and smooth her troubled brow with grave-cold hands. She turned sharply, took a couple of steps in the direction of the reception area and then stopped. There were figures approaching, figures making footstep-sounds. Her initial relief at discovering that the footsteps didn’t belong to her sister’s fancy man quickly evaporated when Malcolm Broadhurst called out to her.
    “Ah, one of the Misses Merkinson.” Broadhurst’s tone was cheery. There were two policemen with him. “Now which one are you?”
    Hilda started to speak and then, clutching her bag tightly, she spun around. Behind her, Sidney Poke was still standing by the doors leading into the ballroom, the toilet roll in his hand.
    “Miss Merkinson?”
    Hilda looked all around, clutching the bag even tighter, willing it to disappear… willing it to be a week earlier, willing there to have been no rain so that Jack Wilson’s General Store had not been flooded and Harriet had not had to stay and so Hilda had not gone for the fish and chips and so met Arthur who believed that she was her own sister… willing herself, back seven years ago, not to take the job at the animal testing centre… so many things. So many opportunities for her to have avoided this single instant.
    But it was too late.
    The footsteps were growing louder and slightly faster, moving towards her along the polished floor.
    “Miss Merkinson?”
    Then it all became clear.
    She could escape through the toilets somehow. Escape and find Harriet and they could run off together, start a new routine… just the two of them.
    She turned and almost leapt forward.
    The piece of slanted ceiling that descended with the steps stayed straight for a second or two and then tilted.
    Just as she was wondering why that was, Hilda hit her head on the side railing. She felt something warm on her cheek, spun around, and smashed her shin on one of the steps. For a second, amidst the confusion and the pain, she thought she could see a figure standing at the foot of the 45 steps, a figure patiently waiting for her to come down. She heard a crack.
    Hilda slipped backwards and to the side somehow, hitting the back of her head on another step before turning over fully and ramming her face into one of the rail supports. More warmth…
    And then blackness.
    Another step broke her nose and her pelvis, another her third and fourth ribs-sending a splinter of bone into her left lung and scraping a sliver of tissue away from the second and third ventricles of her heart.
    Two more steps fractured her skull, broke her left collarbone and smashed the base of her spine. The final step on the first flight sent another piece of rib through her heart.
    She rolled onto the first landing and then proceeded down the second flight. And then onto the third.
    It was Betty Thorndike who found Harriet.
    She had called around on her way back from Edna Clark’s house, just to see if Harriet was all right. Of course, she wasn’t.
    By Monday afternoon, it was all over bar the shouting. And as far as Malcolm Broadhurst was concerned, there would be little of that. He had been to see Edna Clark on the Sunday afternoon, with both of the Merkinson sisters lying on metal trays in the cold and strangely-smelling basement of Halifax General.
    In the silent loneliness of Edna’s kitchen, the widow had told him everything that Harriet had told her. Broadhurst put the rest of it together himself.
    He had spoken with his boss at Halifax CID and they had agreed between the two of them that there was little to be achieved by releasing all of the gory details. They decided that Hilda had been a keen promoter of animal rights, using her position at the centre to obtain vital information of the testing Ian Arbutt was carrying out-hence the break-in.
    Harriet, meanwhile, had been unable to come to terms with her sister’s death and had hanged herself. Only a slight discrepancy in timing suggested that such might not be the case and nobody would hear about that discrepancy. Now the two of them were united again… in whatever routine they could arrange.
    Edna Clark cried when the policeman explained what he had organized. It meant that her life had been partially restored. To all intents and purposes, she was still the grieving widow of a fine and upstanding member of the Luddersedge community. Betty Thorndike, who had not said anything to anyone about Harriet Merkinson’s revelations – and had had no intention of doing so-consoled Edna and assured her that everything was all right.
    “He was a good man,” Edna whispered into her friend’s shoulder. “Deep down,” she added.
    “I know he was, love,” Betty agreed. “They all are-deep down.”
    Driving back to Halifax late afternoon on Monday, there was just one thing that niggled Malcolm Broadhurst. He could not understand why Ian Arbutt had seemed somehow relieved-albeit momentarily-when he was told of Hilda’s unfortunate accident.
    But the policeman did not believe Arbutt was in any way involved in either the break-in or Arthur Clark’s murder. There was another story there, somewhere, as, of course, there always is.

Contrary to the Evidence by Douglas Newton

    Douglas Newton (1885-1951) was a prolific writer of books, articles and stories for well over forty years. He achieved a certain fame when his novel War (1914), which pretty much predicted and depicted the First World War, appeared a few months before the real War broke out. He did it all again with The North Afire (1914), which looked at the future conflict in Northern Ireland. A journalist by profession, Newton was selected to accompany the future Edward VIII on his tour of Canada just after the War and wrote about it in Westward with the Prince of Wales (1920). Newton was immensely prolific, so much so that despite having some fifty books published, that represents scarcely a tenth of his total output for magazines during the 1920s and 1930s. One such series that never made it into book-form featured Paul Toft, an investigator who served as an unofficial consultant for the police, but who acted on intuition and instinct rather than hard facts and deduction. The series ran in Pearson’s Magazine during the mid-1930s and includes the following ingenious and near perfect crime.

***

    We sat in the room where old Stanley Park had died so suddenly that morning. As the witnesses unfolded the story, even Paul Toft seemed to grow a mere huddle of sharp knees and elbows in his arm-chair, while Inspector Grimes became a bouncing mass of irritation as he realised that he had been dragged out to Friars’ Vale on the mere reasonless suspicions of a headstrong young woman. The local police sergeant and I sympathised with him.
    This was no crime, but a sheer waste of time.
    Gerald Park was perfectly frank about the part he had played in the tragedy of his uncle’s death.
    He had come out from Stripe to old Stanley Park to borrow money. He hadn’t had much hope of getting it, he admitted, because there was bad blood between him and his uncle – who had kicked him out of this very house for stealing, less than a month ago. He was so desperately hard up, however, he had had to make the try.
    He had come out by train to Friars’ Vale Halt and had taken a taxi from there. He had timed himself to arrive about 10.30, because that was the time his uncle always read his papers in this sitting-room. He let himself in with the door-key he had kept when his uncle had turned him out. He did that because he knew that if he rang, Mrs Ferris, his uncle’s housekeeper and only servant, would not let him in. It would have been more than her place was worth, seeing how his uncle had come to hate him.
    Anyhow, his idea was to slip in quietly, getting into his uncle’s presence before anything could intervene. But “springing” himself on the old man like that had proved to be a horrible mistake. His uncle saw him even before he could get into the room, and rose from his arm-chair by the fire with such a snarl of rage that Gerald stopped dead in the very doorway.
    The old man made furious gestures at him to get out. Gerald spoke, attempting to placate him, but that only made matters worse. At the sound of his nephew’s voice, old Stanley Park took a step forward as though he meant to throw the weedy young man out with his own hands – and then, quite suddenly, he crumpled up and fell to the floor.
    Gerald, terrified, sure that the old man had had a stroke at the sight of him, called over his shoulder to Grass, the taxi-man – for the thing had happened so swiftly that he had never even moved inside the sitting-room door. Grass ran in and together they went to the old man. Or, rather, Gerald left that to Grass, who was more competent, while he himself ran back into the hall and called out to Mrs Ferris in the kitchen, before hurrying across the hall into the dining-room to get brandy from the cellarette.
    Mrs Ferris was coming up the hall as he came out with the brandy, and they went into the sitting-room together. By then Grass was sure that there was very little hope for old Stanley, though on Gerald’s instructions he drove at once for a doctor, there being no telephone in the house. Mrs Ferris had, meanwhile, taken charge of the old man, Gerald standing by doing anything she ordered. But it was plain there was nothing to be done, and indeed old Stanley was dead before the doctor arrived, about ten minutes later.
    Gerald Park, a weedy, rather slick fellow in the early twenties, was clad in smart clothes now gone to seed, rather shamefacedly “supposed” that the sight of him had given his uncle the shock that killed him. He admitted his uncle had good cause for anger against him – he’d behaved like a heartless young fool. Although his uncle had taken him into his home when his father died a few years ago, and had been as kind as his strict nature allowed, he, Gerald, had played fast and loose, got himself into bad company and ways and ended-well, by robbing his uncle on the sly.
    He hadn’t any excuse. Of course, he’d hoped to pay the money back sometime, and he probably would have if someone hadn’t sneaked to his uncle and so caused the final explosion. After that he hadn’t a chance. His uncle was terribly down on that sort of thing. He’d been absolutely beside himself with fury and had turned Gerald out of his house then and there. That was his way. Drove his own nephew right out of his life from that moment, warning him never on any account to show his face in Friars’ Vale again.
    Perhaps he oughtn’t to have risked coming back, seeing how bitterly the old man felt, but, as he’d said, he was absolutely on the rocks and had to get money somehow – and then, how was he to know that the sight of him would have such a fatal effect?
    A straightforward story. Grass, the taxi-driver, not only confirmed it, but strengthened it by several items Gerald Park had left unsaid.
    For instance, he had kept his taxi waiting beside the door because Gerald had given him the wink… Well, wink was a manner of speaking. Gerald had asked him to wait in a sheepish sort of way, and Grass, knowing how things were between old Stanley and that young blackg- this nephew of his, as all the village did, anticipated a quick return fare with Gerald being booted out.
    While Grass waited he watched Gerald. That was easy. Gerald left the front door wide open – for a quick run out, of course, should his uncle turn nasty. As the sitting-room door was just to the left of the hall, Grass naturally saw Gerald open that. Saw him all the time, in fact, for he never really went over the threshold of the sitting-room-never had the chance from the look of it.
    Yes, Gerald stopped dead in the doorway. He seemed scared to go in. Grass heard him call out loud something like, “But, Uncle, give me a chance…” After that there was a crash inside the room, and Gerald turned a frightened face over his shoulder, yelling that his uncle had had a fit or something.
    Gerald was so paralysed with surprise that Grass had to push him out of the sitting-room doorway to get at the old man. He found Stanley Park in a heap beside his arm-chair-yes, right across the room, by the fire – and, from the look of him, there wasn’t much chance. Oh, he was still alive, but it was plain his heart had burst or something, at the sight of Gerald, and it was all u.p.
    No, Gerald hadn’t gone near him. He stood hovering away off by the door like a frightened puppy, until, suddenly, he thought of the brandy and Mrs Ferris. Grass had heard him yelling for Mrs Ferris. She came in ahead of Gerald, who handed her the brandy and glass; he was still that scared and helpless. In fact, the only thing the feller did try to do was to take off his coat and hand it to him to put under his uncle’s head. Even then Mrs Ferris had stopped him and made him fetch a cushion instead.
    Mrs Ferris, a rabbit-mouthed, but plump and motherly sort of woman, bore all this out. She had been at the scullery sink washing the breakfast things when she heard Master Gerald call. She had come at once, after drying her hands. Master Gerald was coming from the dining-room with the brandy and glass in his hands as she reached the sitting-room door. He shouted that his uncle had been taken ill, and she ran into the sitting-room. She didn’t like the look of the old gentleman at all, and sent Grass for the doctor.
    No, it was she who gave that order; maybe Master Gerald repeated it to Grass, but the poor boy was so terribly upset he did not know what he was doing. Yes, he stood about helpless the other side of the room, so flummoxed at what had happened that he seemed terrified of coming near his uncle. Yes, he did take off his coat for his uncle’s head, which only showed how struck all-of-a-heap the poor boy was, seeing he could have reached for any of three cushions from the settee.
    Mrs Ferris’s manner made it plain that she had a warm corner in her heart for Gerald. She agreed that he’d been wild and reckless, and that his uncle had been terribly set against him because of his theft. But she held he’d been led away by his kind heart. Also, though she didn’t want to cast no aspersions, there was those who had worked against him, too. Yes, Miss Barbara Tabard, if they must have it. All she would say was that if Miss Barbara had only let well alone, poor old Mr Stanley would be alive and happy now.
    Miss Barbara Tabard was the reason why we were in the case. She was the daughter of Stanley Park’s sister, and she and Gerald were the only living relatives of the dead man. She lived in Stripe, where she taught in an elementary school, for she was an independent, pretty, and vehement girl in the middle twenties.
    For these reasons she had an enmity for Gerald, whom she considered a slimy, unscrupulous little sponger who had wormed his way into their uncle’s good graces solely to feather his own nest. She had already told us quite frankly that it was she who had discovered his thefts and so caused the break between him and his uncle.
    Barbara had made the twenty minutes’ journey from Stripe immediately on receiving the wire about her uncle’s death. Finding Gerald on the scene, she had become suspicious at once. Also she found Stanley Park’s doctor puzzled. He could not understand how the old man had come to die from heart failure-as it seemed. Only a few months before, he had given Stanley Park a thorough overhaul, and his heart had then been as sound as a bell. Of course, a shock might have made a difference, but he was perplexed.
    Barbara had seized on that (“She would,” Grimes had snarled). She at once became sure there had been foul play. She declared that Gerald would stop at nothing when it was a question of money. And there was a question of money. Stanley Park had been a rich man. He had meant the bulk of his fortune to go to Gerald, as his natural heir, with a smaller sum for her, Barbara. But after Gerald’s exposure and disgrace he had decided to make a fresh will, cutting Gerald out entirely and leaving everything to her.
    Gerald, Barbara insisted, must have learnt that he was altering his will and so taken a desperate step to prevent his own disinheritance. The doctor and even the local sergeant thought her suspicions too wild in the face of the evidence, but the impetuous girl promptly tackled the indulgent Mrs Ferris and forced from her an admission that, not only had she been in correspondence with Gerald, but that she had told him that his uncle had actually made an appointment with his lawyer for the next week in order do put the alteration of his will finally in hand.
    On learning that, Miss Barbara went off the deep end, as the local sergeant put it, telling him that if he did not move she herself would go to headquarters at Stripe and force the police to take action. As she was plainly the sort to keep her word-with interest – the harassed sergeant decided that the best way out would be to let Stripe hold the baby, so to speak; so he had ‘phoned headquarters. That was why Inspector Grimes and Paul Toft had picked me up at my consulting-room on the way to Friars’ Vale. As Medical Officer I might find something that Stanley Park’s doctor had missed. But they hadn’t much hope. As Grimes said when we’d finished with the witnesses.
    “Sheer waste of time an’ tissue. On the face of it, this Gerald Park never had a chance o’ doing anything to his uncle, even if he wanted to. There never was a case in it…”
    “I don’t know… I feel…” Paul Toft muttered, and at that ominous “Kill,” we swung on him – and gaped. He had not uncoiled his lank limbs, but his left hand was churning away at a soft piece of india-rubber, that unmistakable sign that his queer mind had sensed crime.
    “But – but you can’t feel,” Grimes protested. “Everything’s against foul play. There’s no hint of wound or bruise on the body, for instance, an’ there couldn’t be. Gerald never went within fifteen feet of his uncle. An’ that taxi-driver, who was watching him all the time, saw nothing suspicious.”
    “Yes, that taxi-odd,” Paul Toft’s great domed forehead frowned. “Less than ten minutes’ walk from the station – yet this youngster, though he’s financially on the rocks, took a taxi… Queer extravagance, eh?”
    “No! Just the sort o’ fool thing his sort does,” Grimes was curtly brushing the suggestion away, when I found myself blurting with that strange impulse that is so often helpful to Toft’s curious gift:
    “That driver made a very useful witness, though. Only one who could, with those trees screening the carriage-way. That might be a reason for taking a taxi… And doesn’t he seem to have made the most of it? I mean leaving the front door open and so forth.”
    “That’s been explained,” Grimes began, but Toft flashed at me the smile that always tells I have given him a lead, and nodded.
    “Ah, Doctor, you always touch the point… You’re right. There’s a certain overemphasis… His strange keeping away from his uncle, for instance… He let the taxi-driver and Mrs Ferris do everything while he stood afar off. Seems a bit over-done-pointed…”
    “Yes,” I agreed, “as though he was definitely trying to create the impression that he could not possibly have had anything to do with his uncle’s death.”
    “What – you mean you think he had?” Grimes cried.
    “I feel – yes, I feel that murder was done here,” Paul Toft said with his most dreamy conviction.
    We stared at him. When Paul Toft talked like that we no longer scoffed, he’d proved those extraordinary “feelings” of his too often. But even I could not feel quite convinced. If ever there was a case when the whole mass of the evidence made murder seem quite impossible, this was it. In fact, Grimes all but bellowed:
    “How in the name o’ Job did he do it then? Look, the old man was in this chair, by the fireplace. Gerald stood in the door there, fifteen feet away. He was under observation all the time. He simply couldn’t ha’ done a thing, or raised a hand without the taxi-man knowing all about it. How then? Did he mesmerise the old chap to death-or what?”
    Even Toft had no answer to that. On the face of it, it was quite impossible for Gerald Park to have struck his uncle down. Unless, as I said: “He shot him from the doorway.”
    Directly I spoke I knew I’d said a foolish thing. Though Toft looked at me sharply, Grimes let go a savage bark. “Funny how we’ve all overlooked the loud report of a pistol. A darn loud report, get me, seeing it was fired inside the house. I wonder why the taxi-driver forgot to mention hearing a little thing like that… aye, an’ seeing Gerald using his pistol.”
    I wanted to kick myself for blurting without thinking. Not only would it have been impossible for the taxi-man to miss such pistol play, Mrs Ferris must have heard the report too. Crestfallen, then, I was surprised when Toft unlimbered his reedy limbs, and, ignoring Grimes’ “What the devil -?” crossed to the door to call the taxi-man into the room again.
    But even the suggestion of hope that brought proved vain. The taxi-man was as contemptuous of the pistol idea as Grimes.
    “A pistol? Not a chance,” he said emphatically. “I tell you I had my eyes on Gerald all the time… Expecting fireworks when his uncle saw him, you see. He couldn’t ha’ used a pistol without my seeing-let alone me hearing.”
    “That’s sure-you heard nothing?” Grimes insisted.
    “Not a thing-an’ I know what pistols sound like, too.”
    “He might have been using one with a silencer,” I put in. “You say he called out loudly to his uncle…”
    “He did, sir. But that made no manner o’ difference. I mean, I’m ready to swear there wasn’t even the ghost of another noise.”
    “Your engine was still running though,” Toft put in.
    “Maybe,” the man shrugged. “But that wouldn’t make any difference. We get so used to it we hear other sounds agin it – and I’d have heard even a silencer… An’ then, as I say, I was watching him close. He didn’t make the motions like shooting. Just stood still an’ stiff all the time.”
    “How can you be so sure?” I objected. “Can you remember exactly how he stood?”
    “Well, I can then,” the man snapped. “He stood practically half out o’ that sitting-room door all the time. His hand was holding it open by the knob all the time… the nearest hand that’d be, the left. His right hand was in his pocket. His arm never lifted or moved or anything-no, not even up to when I shoved him aside to go in to his uncle.”
    “But that means his right hand was hidden from you by his body,” I fill muttered. “I’ve heard of people shooting from their pockets…”
    Grimes cut in: “You say Gerald took off his coat to put under his uncle’s head – were you able to see if there was a pistol in its pocket, or anywhere on him?”
    “There wasn’t, sir,” the taxi-man declared. “I’m certain of that. I’ll tell you why: I noticed how ragged the lining of that coat was, thinking what a come-down it was for a chap like him. It was so ragged that I couldn’t ha’ missed seeing a pistol poking out or bulging. Another thing. It was me he handed the coat to before Mrs Ferris told him to get a cushion-an’ from the weight o’ that coat, there couldn’t have been a pistol in it.”
    That seemed conclusive enough, yet Paul Toft muttered: “Odd bit of by-play, that coat business… as though it were part of a thought-up alibi…”
    We did not pay much attention to him. The pistol theory was destroyed, especially as the taxi-man went on:
    “An’ it’s all stuff, anyhow. As if I didn’t know what bullets do to people… I saw plenty enough in the War. An’ there was no sign o’ wound on poor old Mr Stanley.”
    That clinched the matter, as it were, but it also reminded me that it was about time I took a look at the dead man. The body had been taken into the sitting-room behind the one we were in, and as I examined it the thought of foul play receded farther and farther from my mind. There was simply no sign of wound or violence. I pointed this out to Paul Toft, who stood brooding over me as I worked.
    “Eh? Nothing there, Doctor?” he muttered, coming out of his medium’s trance… “Nothing that would show, no… I feel that’s it… Something that was sure not to show… How?” He examined the body. “Hair, maybe… Hair still thick and black…”
    “It couldn’t hide a bullet wound,” I said.
    “No… no, not a bullet wound, but… How would he have stood as Gerald came into the door? Left front to Gerald, eh…? Shave the head on the left side, please, Doctor…”
    I did this, not with much hope, but rather because I was always peculiarly under the spell of this strange, lank man’s strange powers. The more of the surface of the skull I uncovered the more pessimistic I became-until Toft’s bony finger prodded forward and he muttered:
    “What do you make of that, Doctor?”
    It was a tiny puncture in the skin well above the left ear, a little red speck so small that it might have been anything from a flea-bite to the prick of a needle-point. I said as much.
    “Needle-point!” he breathed. “Ah, we’re getting warmer.”
    “How?” barked Grimes, who had joined us after a routine search of the house. “You suggesting that Gerald jabbed a poisoned needle into the old fellow? Just when did he manage that-never having been near him?”
    “A dart might have done it”; I had taken fire at Toft’s suggestion. “A poisoned dart.”
    “Fine!” Inspector Grimes jeered. “An’ Gerald being a rackety one was no doubt a first-class darter from practice in pubs. Only you’re forgetting the taxi-man swears he never took his hand from his pocket. Also…”
    “An air-pistol fires darts,” I said excitedly. “And, by Jove, an air-pistol makes next to no noise, not enough to be heard above the sound of a taxi-engine, I’ll bet.”
    “Fine, Doctor,” Toft smiled at me, but the Inspector went on grimly:
    “As I was about to finish-also even air-pistol darts aren’t invisible to the naked eye. They’re quite solid bits of metal, with a point and a lead butt an’ tufts o’ silk to steady ’em. How is it the taxi-man missed such a dart sticking in the old man’s head? Remember Gerald never went near enough to pull it out.”
    “I feel… it fell out,” Toft said, but I could not support him there. From the nature of the wound it would have remained sticking into the head.
    “The doctor doesn’t think so,” Grimes said, reading my face. “Also, say it did fall out, it would have dropped close to the body. It’s a plain dark brown carpet in that room. Would the taxi-man, Mrs Ferris, and the other doctor have missed seeing it as they worked on the body? It’s a thousand to one against. There was no sign of it in the room then – no sign of it now. I’ve been over that room with a hand-brush. I’ll show you.”
    He called out, and the local sergeant brought in a dust-pan with the sweepings of the sitting-room. There was little more than a litter of fluff and scraps, tiny bits of coal, fragments of paper, a couple of wireless screws, a thin, capped pencil, also the little red cylinder of indiarubber that belonged to it though it had been trodden out, one or two buttons, the half of what looked like the elastic button strap of a pair of braces… stuff like that, but no sign of anything like a dart.
    “You’re going to say Gerald might have picked his dart up,” Grimes said. “Well, I don’t think he could have, not before it was seen. What’s more, I don’t think he’d risk his neck on anything so conspicuous… And then, there’s the pistol? What became of that? There’s no sign of it anywhere about or on Gerald… No, it won’t wash. You’re only making a case out o’ moonbeams, Toft.”
    It seemed so. I stood dejected. Paul Toft said in his dreamy calm:
    “There’s no getting over that.” He touched the tiny puncture on the skull. “That’s how he died… I feel that. And he was deliberately wounded under the hair so that we’d miss it.”
    “Oh, heck!” wailed Grimes; “an’ I’ve just been telling you that all the facts say no!”
    “Of course they would. The whole thing was carefully, brilliantly schemed to make facts say no,” the reedy man mused on. “From the careful employment of that taxi-driver as a witness, to the firing of an all but silent air-pistol from the pocket… a helpfully ragged pocket, remember… And you’ll probably find that Gerald Park is a first-rate marksman.”
    “I probably will,” the Inspector said bitterly. “That won’t be so hard as to find how he managed to make a dart and a pistol vanish into thin air under the noses of witnesses. Just crank up a really good feeling to explain that, my lad.”
    Toft only blinked and looked at me, and in trying to think of a way out I did remember something.
    “Just precisely when did Gerald offer his empty coat to his uncle?” I asked.
    “Didn’t you hear Mrs Ferris say it was after she came into the sitting-room,” Grimes said sourly.
    “After he’d fetched the brandy,” Toft put in swiftly. “Yes, that’s the loophole, Doctor. He was out of sight of witnesses, at least while he was in the dining-room getting the brandy.”
    “An’ a fat lot that’s going to help,” Grimes said as we went into the dining-room. It was, indeed, sparsely furnished; just a gate-table, six stiff chairs, and a side-board with two cupboards, one of which was the cellarette.
    “I’ve even searched behind the pictures; there’s nothing here,” Grimes began, and added as Toft walked straight towards a French window in the rear, that opened on to the garden. “An’ that’s no good, either. It’s been locked all winter, an’ the key’s not in it.”
    “That’s what makes it queer,” Paul Toft said. “The key’s usually left in this sort of window from year’s end to year’s end. Did someone want to create the impression that nobody could have got out through this window to-day?” He stood still, staring at the lock with his queer other – worldly gaze. Then he muttered:
    “Hum! Someone locking this window, snatching out the key, moving on the run to the room across the hall… where would he hide the key?” His eyes twinkled at me. “How’s this for real pukka police deduction, Doctor? There’s a hall stand full of umbrellas on the way… Wouldn’t he toss the key into them in passing?”
    I went to the hall stand. The third bulgy umbrella I upended and shook, shot a key to the hall floor. It fitted the French window.
    We stepped through it on to a small redtiled veranda overlooking the garden. This was without railing, but it had an inclined glass roof supported by pillars to keep off the rain. We stood and looked at half an acre of neat garden.
    “You think he might have nipped out here and chucked his pistol into one of them bushes, or hidden it in one of the flowerbeds?” Grimes asked in a voice not so assured as it had been. “A mug’s trick. He’d ha’ known bushes and flower-beds are the first things we think of.”
    “And being a smart fellow he would think of a cleverer place,” Toft said. “Cleverer but handy… easy to use in a hurry, handy to get at when suspicious people like ourselves had gone.”
    He stepped out into the garden and looked up at the roof of the veranda. A gutter ran along the edge of it, terminating in large, old-fashioned rain-water heads and down pipes at each end. With his left hand churning away at its indiarubber, Toft walked to the nearest down pipe, stretched his reedy arm up into the rain-water head, and, after a sharp tug, brought his hand away – with an air-pistol.
    It was a short, but obviously powerful weapon with a rather full bore, and looked of foreign make. Toft broke it, charging its air chamber, and fired. It made very little sound, and was plainly in perfect working order.
    “Job!” Grimes said in grudging admiration. “Your feelings do get you there, I fill… He’s a smart one, that Gerald, just fancy his thinking of locking the window after hiding this and then hiding the key to keep us from looking here… All the same, there’s the dart. He’s got everything so neatly alibi-ed that you’ll have to prove that dart before you can be sure of pinning it on him.”
    That was a fact. Paul Toft stood, his great head brooding as he churned away at his indiarubber. Grimes and I examined the pistol, talking quietly not to disturb him. It was an interesting pistol, and I pointed out some oddnesses about it to Grimes – the size of the bore, for instance.
    “Too big to carry any air-gun pellet I know,” I said. “Why, you could shoot a pencil from that.”
    “Pencil!” Toft’s voice came suddenly, alight with eagerness. “That’s it, Doctor… I wonder why I felt?… But I remember reading about it now.”
    “What?” both Grimes and I demanded in one voice, but his lank limbs were carrying him headlong into the house, and he was calling to the sergeant for the pan of sitting-room sweepings.
    He was in the sitting-room when they were brought. Toft picked from the mess the little cylinder of rubber that had dropped out of the cap of the pencil.
    “Clever,” he muttered. “Devilish clever… Dropping that pencil, too…”
    “What’s the pencil got to do with it?” Grimes frowned.
    “Nothing,” Toft grinned, “but you’d never suspect that, would you? This bit of rubber looks as if it belonged to that pencil, doesn’t it? Just an ordinary eraser off the top of a pencil. But look-” Toft broke the pistol, exposing the breech hole, and into that he shoved the rubber cylinder. “It fits the pistol as perfectly as any lead slug, you see. Doctor, will you put that big book on top of that arm-chair. Good, now put a sheet of clean notepaper against it… and stand clear. I’m not such a good shot as Gerald Park.”
    But he was good enough. He walked to the door, just where Gerald had stood, though instead of shooting from his pocket he took aim in the orthodox way, and fired.
    Again the pistol made only a slight sound; a much sharper rap came from the paper where the rubber pellet struck. It struck with such force, in fact, that it bounded right across the room, and only Toft’s sharp eyes followed it to a corner under the book-case some twelve feet away.
    “Your eyes show you the first advantage of such a bullet,” Paul Toft said. “Being rubber – having, in fact, a pneumatic tip – it bounces away with great violence from whatever it strikes. Bounces, you might say, right out of range of the victim, so that there is little chance of its being connected with him… and being innocent rubber, anyhow, it is likely to be over-looked. Only it’s not innocent rubber…”
    He walked across the room and lifted up the sheet of notepaper the bullet had struck. On that paper we saw a faint ring impression made by the head of the rubber, and in the centre of it a tiny puncture – just such a puncture as had pierced the skin of Stanley Park’s head. It was then that we realised that there must be a needle bedded in that rubber cylinder. Paul Toft proved it to us.
    Rescuing the bullet from under the book-case, he held it delicately by one end, and, taking a pair of tweezers from his pocket, pressed the outer edges of the circular top down. As he did that, a tiny needle-point emerged from an almost imperceptible hole in the nose, a needle-point no more than an eighth of an inch long, but, if that point was poisoned – deadly.
    “I read about this some time ago… but forgot it until Doctor Jaynes stirred my memory,” the dreamy fellow smiled. “They’ve been using this deadly weapon in several countries of Europe for safe and secret murder. You can see how horribly efficient it is. An assassin can shoot at his man anywhere, in the street, in a crowd, in a theatre. Nobody hears the report of the air-pistol, so nobody can trace the shooter. The victim falls dead, but nobody knows how he dies. There is only that tiny poison hole, hidden by the hair, no doubt, as in Stanley Park’s case. The bullet – that has already bounced off into the litter of the street… it automatically vanishes when it has done its work. Even if fired in a room it can be covered up, as Gerald Park so nearly covered it up, by dropping a pencil from which the rubber eraser is missing… so you would think the bullet merely part of that…”
    “Almost fool proof,” Grimes nodded. “When the murdered man tumbled down without wound, without any hint of anybody attacking him, it’d naturally be taken for heart failure or a stroke, as we thought Stanley Park’s death was; and all the murderer has to do is to walk away… Just as Gerald Park nearly did – but won’t.”
    But I am afraid Gerald Park did. When Grimes arrested him he was startled, but took it quietly. He simply couldn’t believe we had caught him until he heard the charge read over to him, and saw the pistol. Even then he went quietly to his cell – and committed suicide. He’d been searched, of course, very carefully, but the police had overlooked a further quality of that deadly little indiarubber bullet. It could be too easily hidden. He’d hidden another bullet in the turn-up of his trousers, we thought. But we could never be sure. He was found next morning with the rubber cylinder gripped tight in his fist. The point driven into his palm, so that the hydrocyanic compound on it had done its deadly work. Thus we never knew how he had come to plan his murder – even though Paul Toft had brought it home to him.

The Impossible Footprint by William Brittain

    William Brittain (b. 1930), a retired high-school teacher, is one of those authors who has consistently produced clever crime stories for the magazines for the last forty years and yet has had none collected in book form. That in itself is a mystery. He has written a long-running series featuring Leonard Strang, also a high-school teacher, who unravels unusual problems and whose adventures are long overdue for book publication. I reprinted one of the Strang stories in my earlier volume of locked-room mysteries. The following story does not feature Mr Strang, but is another baffling mystery. Just how can someone who has lost his foot leave a footprint?

***

    Matt Kehoe leaned his hunting rifle against one of the small pine trees that encircled his hiding place in the still woods and beat his mittened hands together to get some circulation stirring in his fingers. Even through the two sweaters and the thick parka he was wearing the icy cold crept up his spine and made him shiver uncontrollably. His snowshoes creaked loudly as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
    “Mister Kehoe, will ye hold still, if ye please? Oi’m a guide, sor, not a worker of miracles. If ye expect a deer to pass this way so’s ye kin get a shot at it, ye’ve got to stop soundin’ like a boiler factory at full production.”
    The whispered voice with its rich Irish brogue conjured up visions of the morning sun rising over the green fields of County Cork and the smoke of peat fires issuing from the chimneys of sod huts in Galway. Kehoe looked at his companion and shook his head in amazement.
    For the man who had spoken, crouched down on his snowshoes in a position Kehoe would have sworn it was impossible to achieve, had the swarthy skin, high cheekbones and thin, hawklike nose of a full-blooded Indian. His blue denim jacket could provide little in the way of warmth, while his wide-brimmed hat was perforated with several bullet holes as well as a few larger openings which looked suspiciously as if they had been made by human teeth. Yet the cold didn’t seem to affect him at all. The look of repose on his face might have been graven from stone.
    “Joshua, I’m going to freeze to death if we don’t start moving around,” Kehoe said through chattering teeth. “Wouldn’t it be better to go looking for deer instead of just waiting for them to come to us?”
    Joshua Red Wing shook his head slowly and looked up at Kehoe with reproachful eyes. “Yesterday when I agreed to guide ye in yer huntin’,” he said, “I understood ye wuz one o’ them detective chaps like oi’ve read about in the penny-dreadful magazines. Oi thought ye’d be used to a bit uv hardship, what with runnin’ down alleys an’ climbin’ fire escapes like I see on the tellyvision. It’s a sad disappointment to discover yer as soft as the rest uv the hunters from the city. Next oi’ll be findin’ out ye can’t shoot worth a damn, neither.”
    Joshua reached into a pocket and drew out a dented tin flask. “Here,” he said, passing it to Kehoe, “this’ll warm yer blood a bit.”
    Kehoe grasped the flask, removed the top and took a single long swallow, then suddenly jerked the flask from his lips. Strange gasping sounds came from his throat, and his face turned bright red as the liquid, which felt as if it had been produced from sulfuric acid liberally laced with ground glass and old razor blades, streaked down his gullet.
    “Luscious, ain’t it?” asked Joshua, retrieving the flask. “It’s from an old family recipe me sainted mother gave to me at the time of-”
    “Joshua,” Kehoe said, tears streaming from his eyes, “I’d pull you in right now for attempted poisoning if I hadn’t seen you drink that stuff yourself. Is it that brew that makes you sound like an Irish Geronimo?”
    “No,” replied Joshua with a twinkle in his eye. “Fact is, oi spoke nothin’ but Injun up to the age uv four. At that point oi began workin’ at a church in the village in exchange fer an eddication. Me English wuz learned from a Father McGrath and a cook named Bridget O’Toole. They wuz both first-generation Irish, which accounts fer me way uv speakin’. If it offends ye, why oi kin do ‘ugh’ and ‘how’ ez good ez any Injun ye’ll see in the movies.”
    Before Kehoe could reply, Joshua stood up, gripping his rifle in one hand and motioning for silence with the other. “Oi heard somethin’ off in the woods,” he whispered to Kehoe. “Comin’ this way, it wuz. Now ye sees the wisdom uv me ways. Let the other hunters drive the game ahead uv ’em. We’ll be here to greet it when it arrives.”
    Kehoe nodded, pumping a cartridge into the chamber of his own gun.
    “Wait fer a good shot, an’ try to drop the animal in its tracks,” Joshua breathed. “Old Karl Spearing’s land begins about two hundred yards over to the left. If a wounded deer makes it that far, no sense chasin’ it. Spearing’s a mean one an’ won’t have anybody comin’ on his land to hunt. The few who tried hev wound up with a rump full uv buckshot.”
    “I think I see something off there in the woods,” Kehoe said, pointing. “I’ll just-”
    “Don’t be too hasty,” Joshua warned. “It could be anything. Mebbe a black bear that got up too early from its winter nap.”
    A loud shout established the inaccuracy of the bear theory. “Help! Is anybody around? Help!”
    Through the trees Kehoe caught sight of a man headed toward them at a dead run. He envied the man’s ability to handle snow-shoes without tripping over them.
    “It’s Tip Spearing, Karl’s lad,” Joshua said. “Over this way, young fella.”
    Joshua stepped out of the grove of pines. As the running man approached he tripped and would have fallen if the Indian hadn’t caught him in his arms.
    “Take it easy, lad,” Joshua said to the gasping man. “Now then, Tip, what’s the trouble?”
    “Josh, I-I-” Tip Spearing was in his mid-twenties, at the peak of his manhood, but judging from the ghastly expression on his face, he had looked into the deepest pit of hell itself.
    “It’s terrible,” Tip went on. “I can’t believe-”
    “Calm down,” whispered Joshua soothingly. “What is it now?”
    “It’s Dad. He didn’t come back home last night. I’ve been out looking for him and-” He gulped convulsively. “I’ll take you to where he is.”
    Beckoning to them, Tip turned, and retraced his tracks. Joshua followed at an easy trot, while Kehoe stumblingly brought up the rear. They passed through a large clearing where the ground had been blown free of snow, and Kehoe almost tripped as twigs and leaves caught at the webbing of his snowshoes.
    Reentering the forest, the men finally reached a vertical mass of shale that jutted upward like some monstrous grave marker. Tip signaled for Joshua and Kehoe to stop. “Over… over there.”
    Leaning their rifles against a tree, the two men left Tip and moved off in the direction that he had indicated. The white snow on the ground caught the sunlight that filtered through the branches and threw it back into their eyes so they squinted from the glare. They burst out onto what appeared to be a game trail amid the trees – and suddenly the snow wasn’t white anymore.
    It was red. The bloody, frozen circle was almost six feet in diameter.
    Kehoe had seen dead men before, but he clamped his teeth together and swallowed loudly as he beheld the body of Karl Spearing spread-eagled in the snow, its lower part across the bloody stain. The body’s left foot was shod in a calked boot with the letter “S” worked into the sole – but all that was left of its right leg was a stump, ending in a raw, open wound.
    “Cut clean through the leg bones, just below the knee,” Kehoe said to Joshua. “Knife’s missing from the sheath at his hip, too. What do you suppose happened?”
    “Oi’ve got a fair idea,” replied the Indian. “Not too pretty, either. Oi’ve heard about such things often enough in this country, but this is the first time oi’ve seen it. Would ye mind followin’ me? An’ hev a care where ye step, if ye please, so’s not to destroy tracks. Eventually we’ll hev to call in the local law. No sense ruinin’ all such things fer ‘em.”
    They moved off down the trail, keeping well clear of the wide swath in the snow where Karl Spearing had evidently dragged his tortured body in a desperate attempt to seek help. The trail led past a thick stand of willow shoots. Joshua pulled aside the leafless branches.
    “Yonder’s the trap, Mr Kehoe. Hev a look.”
    Kehoe gaped at the shiny-toothed jaws of the bear trap in the midst of the white snow of the willows. They were clamped inexorably together on a bloody booted leg.
    His eyes riveted on the leg, Kehoe spoke to Joshua. “You said you knew what happened here. What was it?”
    Quickly the Indian sketched in the story. A lone man in midwinter, the chance misstep, and the heavy jaws of the trap, chained to a thick tree, leaping up out of the snow to grip the leg. In such a fix there was only one desperate chance, to be taken before cold seeped too deeply into the bones and blood.
    A tight tourniquet was applied, after which the imprisoned limb was packed with snow to numb it as much as possible. Then, in a grinding hell of shock and pain, the pinioned man performed an amputation – on himself. Finally, if cold and loss of blood did not take their toll, it might be possible to make one’s way to where help was available. A slim chance at best, but Karl Spearing knew what must be done. He had tried – and he had lost.
    “Spearing’s house is but a short ways beyond the trees there,” Joshua said, pointing. “Great big stone buildin’ it is, with a telephone line down to the village. If he’d been able to get to it, he might be alive now.”
    “Rotten business,” added Kehoe. He pointed to a bone-handled hunting knife lying on the flattened snow. “Must be what he did the operation with. The poor devil hardly had a chance, did he? Well, what now?”
    “We’d best get back to Tip and take him to the house. Oi’ll call Vern Lefner from there.”
    “Lefner? Who’s that?”
    “He’s our sheriff. When he’s done makin’ out his reports on this – that’ll take several hours, ez Vern loves to scribble on official papers – the two of ye kin talk about police work fer the rest uv the day. What with all our shoutin’ and hollerin’, oi doubt there’s a deer left in the whole county.”
    “Do you think it’ll be okay to leave the body unguarded? I mean, couldn’t it be mutilated by wild animals?”
    “Oi’d doubt it. There’s some bears ez travels this game trail during the summer, but they’re all hibernatin’ now. Besides, they’re not too partial to human flesh. And the body’s too cold and stiff to attract wolves.”
    The two men flanked the wide trail in the snow that led back to Karl Spearing’s body. Kehoe gave the corpse a wide berth, but Joshua seemed intent on examining it at close range. Suddenly he paused, peering quizzically at a spot on the ground.
    “There’s a queer thing,” he breathed softly.
    “What’s the matter?” called Kehoe, who had moved a few paces ahead.
    “Oi’ve found a bit uv an oddity here. Yer the detective. Come and tell me what you make uv it.”
    Kehoe padded closer on his snowshoes.
    “Hev a care,” Joshua said. “Ye’d not want to destroy evidence, would ye?”
    “Evidence? What evidence?”
    Joshua pointed to a spot near the toe of the left snowshoe. “What hev ye to say about that?”
    “Karl Spearing’s footprint, that’s all. There’s no mistaking that ‘S’ from the bottom of his boot. He probably tried to stand before he became too weak to do so, and-”
    “Mister Kehoe, would ye take note uv the fact that the print wuz made by the right foot? An’ the leg to which that foot’s attached is now caught fifty yards back down the trail in a bear trap.”
    “Why yes, that’s true, but-”
    “Then tell me, sor, how did the print get up here next to the body?”
    “Well, it… that is… Oh, there’s got to be some simple answer.”
    “Then would ye care to offer an explanation? Is it yer contention that the severed leg, takin’ on a life uv its own, somehow got out uv the trap an’ then hippety-hopped down here to the body like a Pogo stick? An’ then later returned and put itself back into the trap?”
    “No, of course not. But… well, maybe Karl Spearing left the print several days earlier. If there was no new snow since then…”
    “He just happened to be in the area, I suppose? An’ how would you suggest he arrived here that first time? There’s no second set of footprints. Just the ones that lead to the thicket where the trap is.”
    “Oh. Then perhaps Spearing walked ahead on the trail a little way and came to this spot. He went back for some reason, and that’s when he got himself caught. Dragging his body along, he’d have covered up the other tracks he made.”
    “Oi see.” Joshua’s voice dripped sarcasm. “He walks up to here. ‘Oh my!’ he sez, ‘oi’ve forgotten somethin’.’ So he turns about, walks back down the trail and thrusts his foot into a trap he’d set hisself. After cuttin’ off his own leg he crawls back, destroyin’ all tracks except this one by the body, which he leaves to confound us. No, Mr Kehoe. There’s more to Karl Spearing’s death than meets the eye.”
    “Josh, according to what you told me yourself, this whole thing is open and shut. Karl Spearing cut off his leg and then bled – or froze – to death. Stop trying to make such a big deal out of it. Why, if you hadn’t seen that footprint-”
    “Ah, but I did see it, Mr Kehoe. An’ so did you.”
    “Yes, and I’ll bet when this Lefner fellow gets here, he’ll have a dozen logical explanations for how it got there. Better leave detective work to the police, Josh.”
    “Very well. But oi’ll hev no part uv any explanation uv Karl Spearing’s death that doesn’t take that footprint – that damned impossible footprint – into account.”
    The two men returned to where the weeping Tip Spearing was waiting and half-led, half-carried him through the woods to his house. While Kehoe looked for the telephone to put in a call to the village, Joshua laid logs in the huge fireplace and soon had a roaring blaze going. From the liquor cabinet he took a bottle and administered a healthy tot of whiskey to Tip as well as taking a mammoth swig for himself. Then he laid Tip on the couch and repeated the dosage. Within half an hour the bottle was nearly empty, Tip was asleep, and Joshua was honoring Kehoe with a nasal rendition of “The Rose of Tralee”.
    It was almost noon when Sheriff Vernon Lefner’s jeep stopped at the edge of the dirt road that ran past the house. Matt Kehoe met him at the door.
    “Glad to know you,” Lefner said when Kehoe had introduced himself. “Always good to meet another cop. How’s the hunting been going?”
    “Got me a new guide this time,” Kehoe said. “His name’s Joshua Red Wing. He looks Indian but talks like he was mayor of Dublin. Do you know him?”
    “Know him?” was the reply. “I’ve run him in for hunting and fishing out of season more times than I can remember. He’s a good guide though, at least when he’s sober. By the way, what’s that sound? Is somebody using a chain saw out back?”
    In reply Kehoe opened the door to the livingroom. In front of the embers of a dying fire Joshua was sprawled out in a leather easy chair. His eyes were closed, but his open mouth resembled the entrance to a mine shaft. The gargantuan snores coming from his throat reverberated from the room’s beamed ceiling.
    Lefner, considering the empty bottle on the floor near the Indian’s right hand, said, “He’ll be out for quite a while, but it’s just as well. It’ll give the two of us a chance to examine Karl Spearing’s body.”
    “Fine.” Kehoe hauled his parka from the closet. “By the way, Josh found a footprint down there. A little strange, its being where it is, I guess. But he’s trying to make a big thing of it.”
    “Between his police magazines and what he sees on TV, Josh considers himself another Sherlock Holmes,” Lefner commented. “C’mon. Maybe we can get back before he wakes up and decides he’s being attacked by a herd of pink elephants.”
    It was almost sundown when Joshua woke. He got up from his chair, holding his head as if it were about to burst, and gingerly walked to the kitchen.
    “Cold lamb,” he groaned, looking from the two men at the table to the platter in front of them through bloodshot eyes. Within the Indian’s head a gang of tiny miners seemed to be excavating his brain with pickaxes and dynamite.
    “We found it in Karl’s refrigerator,” Lefner said. “I had some men come up and take the body to Dr Fanchion’s in town for a medical examination, but I wanted to be here to ask Tip a couple of questions when he wakes up. I thought we might as well eat while we’re waiting. Slice some off, Josh, and dig in.”
    “No sense me even tryin’ to eat,” moaned Joshua softly. “With a bit o’ luck, oi’ll be dead within the hour anyway.”
    He shuffled to the door, threw it open, and took several deep breaths of the cold, clear air. Slowly his eyes focused, and the mining operations within his head closed down. “An’ what, Vernon, is yer conclusion ez to Karl Spearing’s death?”
    “An accident, no question about it, Josh. Spearing did everything he could to save himself. If he hadn’t cut off his leg he’d have frozen to death right there in the trap. As it was, well, at least he went a lot more quickly his way.”
    “An’ the footprint? Ye did see it, didn’t ye?”
    Lefner nodded. “I saw it, Josh. It’s gone now, of course. When the men came for the body they scuffed up the area pretty badly.”
    “So it’s gone, eh? An’ with it, any embarrassin’ explanations ye’d hev to make about it.”
    Lefner gestured toward Kehoe. “We both saw it, Josh. We admit it was there. It’s just that we don’t think it’s that important.”
    “Oh.” Joshua slumped into a chair. “Oi see. Then how d’ye explain its presence by the body?”
    “I don’t know, Josh, but…” Lefner shook his head in annoyance. “Kehoe, talk to this knothead, will you? Tell him what police work is really like.”
    Joshua turned to Kehoe, a look of intense interest on his face. “Do that, Mr Kehoe,” he said. “Talk to me about how the police ignore clues that’s right in front of their noses.”
    Kehoe cut himself another slice of lamb, the knife grating on the bone of the roast. “What Lefner is trying to say,” he began, “is that real police cases aren’t like the shows on TV. On the crime shows everything’s neatly wrapped up at the finish. But in real-life criminal cases there are a lot of loose ends-”
    “Ez the police,” interrupted Joshua, “oi merely want yez to explain how that one footprint got up by the body, when the foot that made it wuz fifty yards away, caught tight in a bear trap. Is that too much fer a tax-payin’, law-abidin’ citizen to ask?”
    Lefner was taken with a sudden fit of coughing. “Josh, we’ve got to be getting back to town,” he said finally, getting control of himself. “Now we’re going to have to wake Tip, and when we do, I don’t want to hear anything more about that footprint. The boy’s been through enough for one day.”
    “Then ye wouldn’t be interested in me theory.”
    Kehoe and Lefner looked at one another and then both stared at Joshua. “What theory?” asked Kehoe.
    “About the footprint, uv course. But if you two detective gintlemen are too busy, why…”
    Lefner, red-faced, began rising from his chair. Kehoe restrained him. “Just a minute, Vern. How long will this take, Josh?”
    “P’rhaps thirty minutes. Oi’m sure Tip’ll sleep that much longer. He drank almost ez much ez oi did from that bottle, an’ he ain’t had near the practice.”
    “Okay!” Lefner pounded the table. “Okay, Josh. We’ll hear you out. But it had better make sense. And after this, no more talk about that blasted footprint. Agreed?”
    “Yer charmin’ manner puts me completely in yer power,” Joshua said. “Agreed.”
    The Indian stood up and dug a hand deep into a trousers pocket. Then he held the hand over the table and allowed three scraps of grimy paper to fall lightly in front of Lefner. “Oi’d ask yez to look at these,” he said. “Meanwhile oi’ll be outside, lookin’ about a bit.”
    As Joshua left the room, Lefner took one of the bits of paper and passed another to Kehoe. “Looks like an IOU,” Lefner said. “From Tip Spearing to Joshua. Seven dollars and eighteen cents.”
    “Mine’s the same,” Kehoe said. “But the amount’s different. A dollar and a quarter.”
    “Less than a week old, both of them. The third’s for five dollars even. Josh probably got ’em in one of those poker games they hold at the hotel. Everybody in town knows Tip gives IOU’s. But he always makes good on them.”
    “But what’s this got to do with the footprint?” Kehoe asked. “I still don’t see-”
    He was interrupted by the thump of something being deposited on the back porch. Then the outside door burst open, and amid a blast of frigid air, Joshua entered, smiling broadly at the two.
    “We saw the IOU’s, Josh,” Lefner said. “What’s the matter, don’t you think Tip will make good, now that his father’s dead?”
    “Oi’ll disregard yer remark ez unworthy uv ye,” Joshua said, grinning expansively. “Fer while yez two were sittin’ here stuffin’ yerselves, oi’ve been solvin’ the murder of Karl Spearing.”
    “Murder!” Lefner’s face turned a beet-red. “Josh, I’ve heard enough already. Nothing’s been said at all about Karl Spearing’s being murdered.”
    “Yes there has. Oi just said it meself. Now if ye’ll calm down a bit, oi’ll elucidate fer ye.”
    Lefner turned to Kehoe, shaking his head.
    “Ye see, Vernon,” Joshua began, “there wuz somethin’ about Karl Spearing lyin’ there in the snow that disturbed me from the first. In addition to the footprint, oi mean. A couple of things, in fact. In the first place, while the snow around the body itself wuz drenched with blood, there wuz none to speak uv back at the trap. What oi mean to say is, the leg wuz covered with it, but none at all on the snow. Even if Karl had wrapped his tourniquet to the tightest, seems ez if there’d be a drop or two, don’t it?”
    Kehoe was seeing the Indian through new eyes. “You know, you’re right,” he said. “But that’s still not conclusive, Josh.”
    “P’rhaps not. But try this. Karl Spearing had a sheath knife to do his cuttin’ with. The blade wuz mebbe six inches long. Oh, t’was sharp enough, and he could hev performed the amputation with it. But only if he’d cut off his leg at the knee where the joints come together. But no. The bones wuz sheared through cleanly, a few inches below the joint. An’ ye just can’t cut a bone like that with a knife without doin’ a good bit o’ hagglin’ at it. Ye kin experiment on the lamb roast right now, if ye’d like.”
    Both Kehoe and Lefner let their confusion show in their faces. Their preconceived notions were trickling out of their minds like sand through an hourglass.
    “Karl Spearing’s leg,” Joshua went on, “wuz cut off with the one weapon an outdoorsman might carry that could slice through bone with a single cut – a finely-honed ax.”
    “Wait a minute,” protested Lefner. “Karl Spearing didn’t have an ax with him.”
    “Ah.” Joshua held up a finger triumphantly. “So finally yer comin’ around to me way o’ thinkin’, eh? Ye’ll admit, then, the presence uv a second party?”
    “Well… yeah, I suppose so,” Lefner said. “But I still don’t see how the other person got there. I mean, there were no tracks around except Karl’s.”
    “But there wuz other tracks, don’t ye see? Don’t forget the trail Tip Spearing, Mr Kehoe an’ me made when we went to view the body.”
    “Why, sure we did,” Kehoe said. “But neither of us killed-” He stopped abruptly.
    “Yer beginnin’ to see what oi’m drivin’ at, ain’t ye?” Joshua said, smiling.
    Kehoe jerked a thumb in the direction of the livingroom. “Are you saying you think Tip killed his own father and then retraced his trail back to where we were?”
    “Somethin’ like that. O’ course the killin’ wuz probably done a day or so ago. But ez long ez Tip walked in the tracks he’d first made, there’d be just the single trail. When Tip located us in the woods an’ took us to the body, we figured the tracks had been made when he discovered his father. But they could just ez easy uv been put there a day or two before, when the killin’ wuz done.”
    “Josh,” Lefner said, “I don’t care when the trail to the body was made. I still can’t see that Tip’s guilty of murder. I mean, what motive did he have?”
    “Karl Spearing owns this house and a good deal uv the land around here. A man uv considerable means. An’ yet Tip, his own son, wasn’t allowed to have enough pocket money even to play a few hands uv penny-ante poker. He had to use IOU’s an’ then account to his father for every cent he lost. A most degradin’ situation fer Tip. Might it be that he went searchin’ fer his father to ask fer money to pay his debts? Tempers flared, an’ there wuz a fight, with Karl comin’ out the loser. Oi tried to point out this possible motive by presentin’ yez with them IOU’s uv mine, but I suspect ye wuz hard put to divine their true meanin’.”
    “So you think Tip killed his father, eh?” asked Lefner. “Well what about the foot in the trap? And that footprint by the body?”
    “All right, let’s sum up the whole operation. At some time yesterday-or p’rhaps the day before, I dunno, what with the body bein’ froze the way it wuz-Tip is out in the woods, carryin’ an ax. He sees his father on the game trail an’ decides to ask fer money. There’s an argument, ez I said, an’ a brief struggle. Tip loses his temper an’ swings the ax, takin’ off Karl’s leg. Karl falls to the ground, fast bleedin’ to death, right at the spot where we seen his body. Out there in the woods, who wuz to hear his cries of pain?
    “But Tip’s mind is on other things. He knows if the body is found in its present condition, he’ll be the number-one suspect.
    “Then, an inspiration. Tip’s heard stories, ez oi hev, about men bein’ caught in a trap an’ what they had to do to save themselves. He knows the bear trap’s nearby. So he picks up the bloody leg, and off he goes down the trail. Once in the willow thicket, he jabs around with that grisly member ‘til he hits the pan uv the bear trap under the snow. The jaws crunch together on the leg. Then Tip drops Karl’s sheath knife by the trap to complete his alibi and muckles up the trail between the trap an’ the body so it’ll look like a man’s dragged himself along it. All the footprints are destroyed, or so Tip thinks. But there’s still one uv Karl’s near the body that he overlooked an’ oi found.”
    Joshua leaned back in his chair and spread his hands expansively. “An’ that’s the way it wuz, ez they say on the tellyvision. This mornin’ Tip went lookin’ fer someone to be witness to Karl bein’ dead with one leg cut off an’ caught in the trap. He found Mr Kehoe an’ me. If we didn’t immediately assume what Tip wanted us to, oi’m sure he stood ready to point out what he wished us to believe. Ye must, uv course, give Tip credit fer his actin’ ability. He’d uv succeeded, too, if me sharp Injun eyes hadn’t spotted that footprint in the snow by the body.”
    “He could beat the rap yet,” Kehoe said. “You’ve got an interesting theory there, Josh, but no real proof.”
    “Would the murder weapon do?” Joshua asked. “Oi found an ax out in the shed. Somebody did a hurry-up job uv tryin’ to wipe it clean, but there’s still some reddish stains on the handle an’ blade. Oi dropped it off on the steps on me way in from outside. Could yer police chemists make somethin’ uv them stains, Vern?”
    “Yeah.” Lefner got up and peered into the livingroom to check on Tip Spearing. “If the stains are human blood, we’ll have a pretty tight case.”
    “Well,” Joshua said, “at least ye’ll hev it easy apprehendin’ yer suspect. Oh my, the hangover he’ll have when he wakes. Oi hope, Vern, that ye won’t be too severe with him.”
    “Hell, Josh, he killed a man – his own father.”
    “True. But what kind uv a man wuz the father? Seems to me the milk uv human kindness might uv turned to gall in the man’s veins.”
    “Look, just because he didn’t give Tip any money-”
    “No, oi wuz thinkin’ about how that bear trap wuz placed. It’s winter. No need fer a trap with the bears all hibernatin’. Besides, no bear’s about to hide in a thicket. That’d be the place where the hunters would lurk, waitin’ fer game to pass by on the trail. Like we wuz doin’ this mornin’, Mr Kehoe.”
    Kehoe stared wide-eyed at Joshua. “You mean…”
    Joshua nodded. “Karl Spearing couldn’t stand to hev people huntin’ his land. He’d do anythin’ to keep ’em away, even shoot at ’em. So I don’t believe he wuz after bear when he set that trap.
    “It wuz put there to catch a man.”

Three Blind Rats by Laird Long

    Laird Long (b. 1964) is a prolific Canadian writer whose stories have appeared in a wide range of print or on-line magazines, including Blue Murder, Handheldcrime, Futures Mysterious, Hardboiled, and Albedo One. His story “Sioux City Express” from Handheldcrime was included amongst the top 50 mystery stories of 2002 by Otto Penzler in the anthology The Best American Mystery Stories-2003. In this brand new story, he demonstrates how criminals can use the latest technology to commit the perfect crime – if only an impossible crime hadn’t got in the way!

***

    Pinero said, “Marciano or Lewis – who’d you take in that one?” He lowered his Ring Magazine and looked at McGrath, watched the little man down his fourth cup of coffee of the morning, rub his grey face.
    McGrath played around some more with his Blackberry, his right eyelid twitching as he stared at the glowing screen. “I told you, I don’t follow boxing. It’s too violent.” Thumbs flying like a twelve-year-old video-gamer chalking up kills on God of War, he added, “You should see all the great features on this thing.”
    Pinero raised his magazine again, recrossed his feet on top of his desk. “You’re gonna get radiation poisoning from all those gadgets of yours,” he warned, taking some satisfaction in his partner’s stricken expression.
    Pinero was young, liked to wear his clothes flashy, gel his jet-black hair into a subtle Mohawk. But despite all that, he considered himself old-school, less concerned with the geeky forensic fantasies of criminal investigation, than the pavement-pounding, door-dusting street solving of it. And he was good at it, like his father had taught him.
    “Pretty soon we’ll be able to break cases without ever even leaving the office,” McGrath stated. “Like fighting a war by remote control.” He tilted his empty mug against his lips, almost choked on the plastic stir straw.
    McGrath was well past the age when most cops were puttering around their Victoria condos, bald as a bagel and just as rubbery. But he’d carved out a niche for himself in the Department by becoming a tech-savvy guru, an indispensable computerized tool in the 21st-century assault on crime.
    The men’s mutual loathing went back to the first day they’d been paired together in Homicide. Pinero despised McGrath’s foul coffee breath and chronic health whining, his holier-than-Intel attitude. While McGrath didn’t envy Pinero his smooth good looks and muscular physique; he detested him for them, in fact. And the young detective’s apparent indifference to all things chip-driven earned him a special place of contempt in McGrath’s ebook.
    Pinero was two weeks away from transfer-bait for trolling John’s with the Vice Unit – and both men were counting the days, one on his Dukes of Hazzard wall calendar, the other on his Outlook software.
    Sergeant Bugler walked into the Squad Room, barked, “McGrath, Pinero!” They looked up. “Got a job for you two.” They waited. “Lenny ‘The Rat’ Laymon’s been found dead.”
    It was a skid row bungalow bordered by a boozecan on one side and a crack house on the other; smack-dab in the middle of the sour armpit of Vancouver – the downtown eastside. Inside: the nude body of Lenny Laymon, curled up in a fetal ball on the bottom of his bathtub, like a rat in its hole.
    Pinero stared at the hunk of limburger on the toilet lid, gestured. “That a joke?”
    McGrath slurped java out of a paper cup. “Air freshener, more likely.”
    Constable Mullings laughed. “The Rat did like his cheese.”
    The two detectives and the uniformed cop looked down at Lenny’s sunken body. The water had still been running from the showerhead when the girl had discovered him, both he and the water ice-cold by then. Even with the long soak, Lenny still looked dirty, the yellow skin on his hairless body going blue, backbone spined like a Stegosaurus. His eyes and mouth were wide-open, back of his blonde-fringed head a bloody mess.
    “When’d the girl find him?” Pinero asked Mullings.
    “’Bout an hour ago,” the Constable replied, wiping a big, red nose with a big, red hand. “She couldn’t reach him on the phone all of yesterday, so she decided to pay him a visit this morning.”
    “How old is she, anyway?”
    “Fourteen.”
    “How’d she get in?”
    “Had her own key.”
    Pinero mauled a hunk of bubblegum. They could hear the girl, Kristal, crying away in the next room, lamenting a life gone down the drain: a con artist, fraud artist, sneak thief, pickpocket and stool pigeon.
    “Look what I found when I made her empty her pockets,” Mullings added, pulling something out of his jacket. He held it up. It sparkled in the light of the bare bathroom bulb.
    “A diamond ring,” McGrath said, taking it from the Constable and examining it.
    “Rock’s gotta be at least one-carat,” Mullings guessed. “She claimed Lenny gave it to her – like anyone’d believe The Rat was gonna pop the question, eh – then finally admitted she’d found it on Lenny’s dresser and palmed it, after she found the guy soaking in the tub.”
    “It’s got ZJ stamped on the inside of the band,” McGrath stated.
    “Zammy Jewelers,” Pinero responded. “They’ve got a store in the Centre Mall-make their own rings. And right now I’m betting they’re at least one bauble short of a glitter palace.”
    He pulled a couple of Kleenex’s, a pair of latex gloves out of his pocket. He set the Kleenex carefully down on the grimy tile floor and knelt beside the tub, dressed his hands in the throwaway gloves. He ran a finger along the bottom of the tub, up to and around Lenny’s body. He poked the corpse.
    McGrath turned his head and spoke to the two guys from the Fire and Rescue Service who were lounging in the doorway, “Looks like an accident, huh?”
    They nodded.
    “If it was anyone but The Rat, we wouldn’t even be here,” he grumbled, fingering what he suspected was a cellphone tumor growing behind his right ear. “Hey, I heard you guys get Workers’ Comp now, if you develop lung cancer, or have a heart attack twenty-four hours after a fire. That right?”
    The guy with the Stalinesque mustache nodded, smiled a self-satisfied smile. “You’re darn right it is. The Union got the legislation passed a couple of months ago, eh.”
    “I just started smoking again myself,” the other firefighter joked.
    “Cops should have something like that,” McGrath groused. “I’m sure I’m getting cancer from using my computer and cellphone all day, in the line of duty. My doctor even said-” He halted his grievance when he saw his partner tilt Lenny’s stiffened body face-up, so he could check out The Rat’s other profile.
    Pinero dug around in Lenny’s right ear. “Gimme a pair of tweezers, someone.”
    He was handed a pair, and everyone watched as he pulled something out of Lenny’s oversized ear. He held the small, brown object up for inspection. “How many guys take a shower with their hearing aid still in?” he asked.
    McGrath was working his wireless keyboard like the Chicago Stadium organist when Pinero reemerged from Robbery. “There was a heist at the Zammy Jewelers store in the Centre Mall last night alright,” he informed his partner. “Estimated loss: four hundred grand.”
    McGrath whistled. “Lenny pulled a couple of jewel snatches back in the day, didn’t he?”
    “Yeah, with a little help from some friends-turned enemies.” Pinero glanced at the piece of paper in his hand. “The last one that we know of was the Big Rock Diamond Mountain store on Granville-five years ago. The Rat weaseled out of heavy jail time by squealing on all his partners, including the inside guy, the fence, a couple of US Customs slobs, and half the local Hell’s Angels starting line-up.”
    The phone on Pinero’s desk rang. He scooped it up, growled, “Yeah?”
    “Detective Pinero, Dr Rampersand, Coroners Office.”
    “Yeah, Doc?”
    “Yes, you wanted us to phone as soon as we had some preliminary results from our examination of Leonard Laymon.”
    “The Rat. Yeah, go, Doc.” Pinero snagged a pad and pencil.
    “Yes, well, cause of death appears to be a single blow to the back of the head-blunt force trauma-as you no doubt observed for yourself. Time of death was approximately two to four a.m., the morning of 16 November.”
    Pinero glanced at his watch, the comely picture of Daisy Duke: 2:10 p.m., Wednesday the 17th. “What else?”
    The doctor cleared his throat. “Well, not much, I’m afraid. There appear to be no other untoward signs of trauma on the body, other than the usual assortment of bruises, burns, cuts, scabs, pimples, and warts that come from a bad diet and a life lived close to the streets. We found soap scum, lime scale, and tile grains in the wound, consistent with someone knocking their head on the edge of a bathtub after losing their footing.”
    “Thanks, Doc.” Pinero hung up, thought for a moment, then reconnected. “Hey, Doc, forgot to ask – what about the hearing aid?”
    “It’s a completely-in-the-canal type of hearing aid, very small. It’s not waterproof, of course, but someone could well forget about it when taking a shower.”
    “Thanks, Doc.” Maybe The Rat had actually gone out the same way he’d come in-accidentally, Pinero thought. He relayed the information to his partner.
    McGrath’s cellphone chimed the alien greeting from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He plucked it off his belt. “Okay, we’ll be right down.” He stood up and reholstered his cell, swallowed dregs and said to Pinero, “The Lab’s got something for us to see.”
    The two men trotted on down to the basement.
    “The Zammy Jewelers’ cameras, all the mall cameras, went blank as a blacked-out Canucks game at midnight – for ten minutes,” Cordweider explained.
    “Covered up?” Pinero asked the lab technician.
    “Naw. Off-line,” Cordweider snorted, “along with the alarm system. Everything came back up like the new programming day at 12:10 a.m. But by the time the security company got there, the jewelry store was a whole lot less sparkly.”
    “Did the cameras see anything interesting before they blinked off?” McGrath asked, fondling the bag under his left eye and staring at the bank of monitors.
    “Indeed,” Cordweider teased. “We’ve been running the mug-shot file against the surveillance camera facial shots, looking for matches, and you wouldn’t believe who turned up.”
    “Who?” Pinero gritted impatiently. He and Cordweider had gone a few rounds during a late-night stakeout once, when bad food and conversation had turned decidedly personal.
    Cordweider grinned. “Take a look at this, hot-shot.” He pointed to a blank monitor, pressed a button. People started walking in and out of quadruple doors. “That’s the entrance to the mall on West Georgia. Note the date and time.”
    Pinero and McGrath noted: 16 Nov 2005, 2103:44 and counting.
    Cordweider pressed another button and the picture froze. A guy in a bulky jacket was coming through the door. Cordweider fingered a roller ball, locked on the guy’s face, clicked. The face jumped up and filled the screen, unmistakable.
    “Lenny ‘The Rat’ Laymon,” McGrath exhaled.
    Back in the Squad Room, the detectives went to work. What had been a simple slip-up in the tub-one more bad guy washed away – was now something strangely different. If the Coroner was right – and he had a lucrative book deal and speaking calendar to attest to his brilliance – then the unanswered question was: how could a Rat lying dead in a bathtub early Tuesday morning slink into a shopping mall late Tuesday night, with the intent, it seemed, of knocking over a jewelry store?
    It didn’t make sense. And when something doesn’t make sense, you work some sense into it. Pinero hooked up with Forensics, while McGrath mined Lenny’s computer for pertinent information.
    “Tolmeyer speaking?”
    “Pinero. What’d the boys in Forensics get off the crime scene?”
    Tolmeyer laughed. She had a soft spot for Pinero-right between the legs whenever he wanted it. “We ‘boys’ are still on scene. But so far, everything looks pretty clean – from a crime perspective, that is, not a housekeeping one. No signs of forced entry, lots of fingerprints-Lenny’s and the girl’s – nothing else unusual, so far.”
    “No Athabaska Terrier hairs? Albino herb roots native only to Cape Breton Island? Poisoned tea bags? Furry creature suits with DNA-identifiable sweat?”
    Tolmeyer laughed again. “You’ve been watching too many TV shows, Detective.”
    “What about the tub? Any evidence someone dusted it with a Zamboni-made it extra slippery for the bathing beauty?”
    “In my professional opinion, that bathtub hasn’t been cleaned since it was installed. And nobody greased the soles of Laymon’s feet, either, before you ask.”
    Pinero grunted, shelved the phone as Tolmeyer was enquiring about his dinner plans for the evening.
    He was chewing things and a wad of gum over when McGrath pointed at his computer screen. “Take a look at this,” he said.
    Pinero strolled over, looked at the listing up on the LCD flat screen.
    “This is Lenny’s email history,” McGrath explained, his hand stroking his optical mouse with caffeine jitters. He highlighted the first message listed after a backlog of porn and penis enlargement spam. It was dated Monday, 15 November, from meatman@yahoo.com, subject: “Ready to go to work?”
    McGrath looked at Pinero. Pinero looked back. They both knew The Rat didn’t work-honestly, anyway. McGrath clicked on the message. It read: “Job’s a go. Come prepared.”
    “Did The Rat respond?” Pinero asked.
    “Not by email, no.”
    “Who’s Meatman? J.M. Schneider?”
    “Don’t know.” McGrath admitted. “The account information’s as phony as a three-dollar coin. But I ran a trace on all Internet activity associated with the account, and found something fairly interesting.”
    “Give.”
    “Meatman is a ‘member’ of an adult dating site-kinkyluvers.com. The profile is of a thirtysomething guy with a peccadillo for morning toe jam, I kid you not. No picture, though. And the membership contact info is limited to the email address.”
    “Don’t you need a credit card or something to sign up to those sites?”
    “Not this one. It’s run free of charge by The Friends of Fetish – a government-subsidized think-tank operating right here in the downtown. Anyway, I already sent Meatman a message-with an attachment.” McGrath clicked, and Pinero ogled a busty brunette with black-stockinged, red-ribboned legs long enough to span Burrard Inlet, her silky feet close-up displayed in open-toed, patent-leather red pumps. Her hair covered up her face, if she had one.
    “Just call me Clarissa,” McGrath chuckled, coughed. He took his hand off the mouse long enough to pour himself a mouthful of mocha.
    The two detectives kept at it, logging frustration and overtime at time-and-a-half. Pinero ran a check on Lenny’s known associates; McGrath and the lab techs continued to pour over Lenny’s hard-drive and the mall surveillance video.
    Lenny’s “associates” were the scum de la scum of the Vancouver crime scene. “Rainy Day” Izzo: part-time drug dealer, full-time drug user; ratted out by Lenny on a heroin deal that went bust; parole records stated that he was currently weaving hemp into saleable product in Nelson, four hundred miles due east. Sylvia Wojawoski, aka “Skye Flowers”, so named because she was always on her back, looking up at the sky: Stanley Park prostitute and bit – player MILF in locally-lensed porn; cohabitated with Lenny for five years; currently suing the deceased rodent for child support-three kids that he denied were his despite their enormous overbites; busted on a low-track sweep Sunday night, now cooling her high heels in lock-up. John Jorossismo, aka “Jarhead”, aka “Jason” (of Friday the 13th movie fame): US Marines deserter and Hell’s Angels patch prospect, weapons smuggler, loansharker, goalie in an industrial beer league, and recent Vancouver Port Authority employee of the month; stiffed out of a grand and stooled on by Lenny – the Big Rock Diamond Mountain job; current whereabouts a gated subdivision in White Rock. And…
    “Matthew Kolvin,” Pinero and McGrath spoke as one.
    They looked at each other. “Why’d you say-” they both said.
    McGrath pointed a shaky digit at his computer screen. Pinero trucked on over, stared at a picture of a bare-chested Matthew Kolvin, shaved head gleaming, blue eyes glinting hard as diamonds, thick lips curled into a smirk, torso tanned and rugged as Desert Storm khaki.
    “Clarissa received a response to her email,” McGrath said, grinning triumphantly.
    Pinero recited the file he’d just been looking at: “Matthew Kolvin: strong-arm specialist, extortionist, cigarette, alcohol, and Lotto ticket smuggler – and sometime jewel thief; handed a ten-year sentence for his role in the Big Rock Diamond Mountain job; served half, release date: 10 November-one week ago today.”
    “Maybe you, me, and Clarissa should pay Matthew Kolvin a visit,” McGrath added unnecessarily.
    The detectives rousted Kolvin and an underage hooker out of bed at the fleabag rooming house address he’d given his parole officer. He was spitting mad. Pinero calmed him down only slightly with a shot to the groin.
    “I never robbed no goddamn jewelry store!” he gasped. “Don’t know nuthin’ about any dead Rat, neither!”
    “Listen, Meatman,” McGrath countered, knocking back a caffe latte and eyeballing a laptop, scanner, camcorder, and printer huddled together on a ratty couch, along with the hooker. “We’ve got an email that you sent Lenny talking about a ‘job’ – a day before Lenny did a back flip in his bathtub and a day-and-a-half before the Zammy Jewelers store was hit.”
    Kolvin glared at the men.
    “You hated Lenny’s guts, didn’t you – for ratting you out on the Big Rock Diamond Mountain job?” Pinero stated. “But not bad enough to turn your nose up at another good heist, team up with the guy again?”
    Kolvin’s incisors glinted silver. “I ain’t talked to that bum in five long years.”
    “How do you explain the email then?” McGrath asked.
    “I don’t,” Kolvin growled.
    Silence.
    “What’s your brother up to these days-Bertrand?” Pinero asked, changing tactics. “You talk to him since his release?”
    “I talk to that bum like I talk to Lenny and you bums!”
    The detectives exited the flophouse with the exact same thing they’d entered it with-one flimsy cyber link between Lenny Laymon and Matthew Kolvin that would vaporize in the ether of a court of law, without plenty more supporting evidence.
    “Maybe we should brace Bertrand?” Pinero suggested, as the two men sat in their unmarked and stared at the constant drizzle. “He knew and hated Lenny, was in on the BRDM job, too.”
    “Maybe…” McGrath mused.
    Matthew and Bertrand Kolvin were, in fact, identical twins, but that’s where the similarities ended. Matthew was a muscle boy, Bertrand a finesse man – an accountant gone bad, writing a ticket to the easy life through cheque kiting, money order doctoring, credit card fraud, and embezzlement. He wore his blond hair long, usually in a ponytail, build: slender.
    The two brothers hated each other with a passion reserved for only the overly intimate, since their teen years. They’d nonetheless worked together on a number of jobs since graduating from young offenders status, business being business – the last one the BRDM job. They’d demanded separate trials, then jails, and been granted both by the accommodating Canadian judicial system.
    “But how do we explain Lenny walking into a mall – presumably robbing a jewelry store, presumably with Matthew Kolvin’s help-eighteen hours after he’s supposed to be dead?” McGrath continued.
    “Reincarnation?” Pinero suggested. “He picked right up in the new life where he’d left off in the old? Or maybe it was a guy in a Lenny Halloween mask, like bank robbers wear Nixon masks and cheating husbands wear Clinton’s?” Pinero laughed.
    McGrath didn’t. “A mask…” he pondered, sucking the last drops of life out of his latte. “Did you happen to notice all that computer equipment in Kolvin’s apartment?”
    “I noticed. What about it?”
    “The mall surveillance system is digital-computer-controlled. I wonder…”
    “Wish upon a star while you’re at it,” Pinero growled. “I’m gonna grab me some gym time then sack out.”
    “Good idea,” McGrath said, eyeing a street-corner Sally Ann that served all-night joe. “I think I’ll log some sleep myself. Then first thing tomorrow morning, I think I’ll consult with a high-placed friend of mine. A friend who sees all, knows a thing or two about subterfuge.” He winked a pouchy eye at his partner.
    Pinero snorted.
    Early next morning, Pinero dropped McGrath off at the Defence Department Building downtown, then proceeded to Lenny’s bungalow for another look-see. He lifted the yellow tape, ducked inside the squalid digs.
    Everything was just as crummy as before, the dust settled back to where it had lain for the fifty years before Forensics had disturbed things. Pinero went into the bedroom, looked at the dirty clothes strewn on the floor, the unmade, sheet-soiled bed, the battered nightstand with the “barely legal” skin mags on top, the splintered garage sale card table where Lenny’s powerful stolen computer had sat.
    He walked over to the doorless closet, fingered through the tie-dyed and BC Bud T-shirts, the Manitoba Moose jerseys, getting nothing more out of it than a probable skin rash. Kristal had told the detectives that lover-boy Lenny was nutso over the Moose, a minor league hockey team playing in the frozen tundra of Winnipeg, Manitoba-Lenny’s birthplace.
    And as Pinero stared at the jerseys, something suddenly tumbled inside his skull. He retraced his steps, to the front door of the rathole, where a Manitoba Moose jacket hung on a hook. He examined the bulky jacket, fingered the sewn – on crest – a smug-looking cartoon moose holding a hockey stick, a frozen pond in the background. He plucked the jacket off the hook and took it with him.
    When Pinero entered the Squad Room he found Sergeant Bugler hanging over one of McGrath’s bony shoulders, their eyes glued to something on the computer screen. Pinero admired Bugler’s tight, round bottom for a moment, then said, “Found another good Jimmy Neutron site?” He flung his leather jacket over the back of his chair.
    Bugler glanced up, annoyed. McGrath’s pavement-hued face tinged slightly red.
    Pinero took up position behind an unoccupied shoulder.
    “The lab technicians have finished stripping Lenny’s computer equipment,” McGrath told his partner. “They found enough child porn to put the Thailand Bureau of Tourism out of business, but look what they found in his webcam history.” The detective took a long, suspenseful slurp of fresh-brewed coffee.
    “Why would a rat like Lenny even have a webcam?” Pinero asked no one in particular. “To see him is to hate him.”
    McGrath finally swallowed. “Lenny was technologically armed, like all professional criminals are getting these days.” He looked up at Sergeant Bugler meaningfully. “Like all law enforcement officials need to be to keep up with them.”
    Bugler nodded vaguely, squeezed his shoulder.
    McGrath stroked the keyboard, and Lenny’s ugly mug popped up on-screen, wispy whiskers framing a buck-toothed mouth. McGrath dragged the bar at the bottom, and Lenny went all fast and jerky. Then his jaundiced face suddenly turned mouse-white, his beady eyes registering panic. McGrath lifted his finger, returning the action to normal speed.
    Lenny leaped out of his chair and skittered to the bedroom door. Someone was yelling at him from the hallway: “You put me away and I’m going to put you away, Rat!”
    Lenny backed away, paws up and out in supplication, and a face briefly appeared in the shadowy doorway. McGrath froze the picture, cleared away some of the shadow, locked onto and enhanced the face: Bertrand Kolvin, delicate features twisted with rage, ponytail in a knot.
    “Hmmm,” Pinero commented. “So Bertrand Kolvin threatened Lenny’s life. Who hasn’t? I heard the Doukhobors even put out a contract on the guy once.”
    McGrath’s brown-toothed grin was a thing of triumph for everyone but the BC Dental Association. He restored the full picture, pointed to the timeline at the bottom of the screen. It read: 14 Nov 2005, 21:45:24. He said, “We know Bertrand Kolvin threatened Lenny Laymon on Sunday at 9:45 p.m. Now, let’s just see if he followed up on that threat. There’s nothing more of interest on the webcam, but remember that high-placed friend I was telling you about? Well, he CSIS’s all. Take a gander at this video, and note the time and date again.”
    Pinero cracked his knuckles. Bugler sighed. McGrath clicked. The computer revealed a black world inhabited by white images, a timeline reading: 16 Nov 2005, 01:47:38 PTZ. The view was from on-high, way high, the white figure emerging out of a parked car a thermal image. The figure crossed a street with the jerky movement of time lapse photography, paused at the door of a house, and then went inside.
    “Location?” Pinero asked.
    “Two hundred block of Alexander Street,” McGrath crowed. “That bungalow,” he pointed, “is Lenny’s place-right around the time of his death.”
    “Lenny coming home after a hard day’s night of working the back pockets of the bar crowd?” Pinero suggested.
    McGrath shook his head, replayed the sequence. “See how the figure dips to the right when he walks? Do you know what that is?”
    “A limp,” Bugler breathed.
    McGrath beamed. “A limp is right. A noticeable limp. Lenny didn’t limp. But-”
    “Bertrand Kolvin limps,” Pinero admitted.
    The three police officers watched some more, watched a figure come skulking down the sidewalk, pick something up out of the gutter along the way, slip into Lenny’s house at 02:15:52 PTZ-Lenny returning home? Watched the limper exit Lenny’s house at 02:30:21 PTZ, get in a car and drive away.
    “Like I said before, we should brace Bertrand Kolvin,” Pinero stated. Then added, “Too bad none of this is admissible in court, privacy laws and Charters of Rights and Freedoms being what they are.”
    “It’s all strictly on the qt,” McGrath agreed. “I have to delete everything in an hour. But… the show’s not over yet.” He pointed and clicked and dragged some more, seemed to replay the scene of the limper exiting a car and entering Lenny’s house. Only now the timeline read: 17 Nov 2005, 02:02:13 PTZ. A full day later.
    “What!? Why would Kolvin risk returning to the scene the next night?” Bugler asked.
    “Good question,” McGrath replied, as they watched the limper leave Lenny’s death trap at 02:06:37 PTZ.
    Bugler straightened up, her back cracking, head shaking. “But if Lenny was actually bumped off by Bertrand Kolvin early Tuesday morning, then how in heck did he participate in a jewelry store robbery Tuesday night?”
    “Another good question,” McGrath responded, browning his nose still further. He looked at his partner. “Did anyone think to bring in Lenny’s jacket, by any chance?”
    “Yeah,” Pinero replied, blowing a bubble. “I did – just now. It’s in the Lab, undergoing intense comparison with some surveillance video.”
    McGrath nodded, grinned, tried to wash back the rising tide of his excitement with a shot of coffee. “My friends at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service also provided me with some useful information about making faces-false faces.”
    Bugler glanced at Pinero as McGrath cackled, choked and coughed up some coffee. Pinero just shrugged.
    Search warrants were issued, served, and executed on Bertrand Kolvin’s swank Port Coquitlam condominium, Matthew Kolvin’s downtown dump, that afternoon. McGrath and Pinero happily split up so they could cover both searches, and two hours and ten phone calls later, they felt they had enough evidence to bring the Kolvins in for questioning.
    The twins were placed in Interrogation Room 104. It was the first time they’d met since they’d been busted five years earlier, and much like that time, it didn’t go well. They attacked one another on sight.
    “Sit down and behave yourself!” Pinero commanded, shoving Matthew into a wooden chair, sending him and it skidding into the wall.
    The brothers glared at each other, twin faces of hate.
    Pinero kicked off the proceedings, talking about Lenny “The Rat” Laymon’s fateful tumble in the tub. “It looks like an accident, it smells like an accident – a guy taking a shower makes a wrong step and one-and-one-half-gainer later, he’s cold as a Coho. Happens all the time, right? No signs of forced entry, violence, lube on the porcelain, nothing incriminating like rat poison lying around.” He paused. “But does it sound like an accident? You didn’t know Lenny had a hearing aid installed two years ago, did you, Bertrand? Because you were doing five for a crime Lenny stooled you on.”
    Bertrand folded thin arms across a bony chest, tilted his fine, blonde head up in a haughty manner that would’ve done the CEO of a Crown Corporation proud. “I didn’t know, and I don’t care. I’m glad the little rat’s dead, but I had nothing to do with it.”
    “Then how come your face shows up on Lenny’s webcam-your voice threatening to do him bodily harm-only a couple of days before the guy’s soft head met hard surface in a love embrace?”
    “What!? That’s preposterous!” Bertrand wailed.
    “What!? That’s preposterous!” Matthew mimicked, an octave or two higher.
    Bertrand lunged at him. Pinero, McGrath, and Bugler wrestled the two siblings apart, planted them firmly back in their chairs again.
    McGrath struggled to catch his breath, mop up and strain into a cup his spilled coffee. Then he said, “We have surveillance pictures of a man entering Lenny’s house-easily picking his lock-Lenny coming home, the man exiting, right around the time of Lenny’s death. A man limping rather badly. That puck to the knee back in junior hockey put a permanent crimp in your stride, didn’t it, Bertrand?”
    “Thanks to my brother, yes,” the man sniffed.
    “I was aiming for his balls,” Matthew gritted. “But they were too small a target.”
    Bertrand ignored him, said to McGrath, “I was home in bed when Lenny died, nowhere near his rat hole.”
    “And what about the mystery of a man caught on a surveillance camera, entering a mall, eighteen hours after he’s supposed to be dead?” Pinero intoned. “How’s that possible?”
    The Kolvins went stone-faced.
    Pinero leaned into Matthew. “You emailed Lenny about a ‘job’ – Meatman. Was it the Zammy Jewelers job at the Centre Mall? A diamond ring was found at Lenny’s place – a down payment maybe, before the loot was fenced?”
    Matthew snorted. “I told you dickheads already I had nuthin’ to do with that job.”
    “Funny thing about that surveillance video, though,” McGrath interjected, tonguing the rim of his coffee cup. “Detective Pinero noticed something strange about the jacket ‘Lenny’ was wearing in the video. It’s got a Manitoba Moose logo on it – the new logo, that is: a stylized angry moose baring its teeth, set against a background of trees.”
    Pinero held up Lenny’s jacket, fingers covering the logo.
    “But Lenny hadn’t bought the new one yet,” McGrath went on. “It only came out in September, just before the start of the season. The jacket we found at his house still has the old logo on it…”
    Pinero moved his fingers aside.
    “… a smug-looking cartoon moose holding a hockey stick, a frozen pond in the background.”
    Matthew glanced at Bertrand; Bertrand glanced at Matthew.
    “It’s like the man in the video knew Lenny wore a Moose jacket, but when he recently purchased one, he unknowingly got a slightly different moose than the one Lenny sported,” McGrath said. “It’s tough to keep track of all these marketing gimmicks, isn’t it?”
    “And while I was taking note of Mick E. Moose’s facial expression,” Pinero clocked in, “Detective McGrath was taking note of the zipper on the jacket – the zipper tongue, specifically. It looked wider, shinier than the narrow black one on Lenny’s jacket. Reason?” He plucked it out of McGrath’s shirt pocket, held it up.
    Everyone looked at the glinting tongue, waiting for it to speak.
    McGrath interpreted. “We ran it through the Lab. It can be used to mesh metal teeth together alright, but it’s also a device used for what’s called ‘facial provocation’. A device developed by a certain spy agency which shall remain nameless, that can be purchased on the black market or rigged up at home by a real tech expert. A device that when triggered throws up a preprogrammed, made-to-specs image-almost like a hologram, except more realistic. In this case, a preprogrammed image of Lenny Laymon’s face, masking the face of the real man who entered that mall and hid in it until after closing, then shut down the Zammy Jewelers security system and the mall security cameras just long enough to rob the store and make his escape.”
    Gum chewing. Foul, ragged breathing. Twin sets of teeth grinding.
    “Someone wanted to pin the robbery on Lenny; someone with technological expertise. Someone who didn’t know The Rat was already dead when he was supposedly knocking over a jewelry store.”
    Pinero said, “I talked to the warden at Stony Mountain, Matthew, asked how you spent your five years. He said you were a royal pain in the ass the first three, until you discovered the computer lab your last two. They had to almost drag you out of there when your sentence was up. Boning up for crime in the new millennium, eh, Matthew?”
    A single finger – the middle one – in the upright and locked position, was the Kolvin response.
    Pinero slapped it aside. “And guess who was doing exactly the same thing fourteen hundred miles away in the William Head pen? Your twin brother Bertrand. You guys might hate each other, but you still think alike, like identical twins will.”
    “You’re the one tried to frame me and Lenny for the jewel heist,” Matthew snarled at Bertrand, “hacking into his computer and planting that phony email, his ugly mug on your stinking face, that ring at his place!”
    “You’re the one tried to pin a murder rap on me,” Bertrand snarled back, “hacking into Lenny’s computer and planting my face in his webcam, your voice-our voice-threatening him, limping around like you were me!”
    They launched themselves at one another. Mutually assured destruction.
    Sergeant Bugler walked into the Squad Room. Detectives McGrath and Pinero were at their desks eating, yammering, the crumbs and insults flying. “Well, Bertrand Kolvin just signed his confession to the jewelry robbery,” she informed the pair, “admitting to trying to frame his brother and Lenny Laymon for the job. Apparently, he doesn’t want to face a possible murder charge.”
    Pinero stuck a pencil behind his ear, chewed corned beef and said, “Lucky we found that zipper tongue in his condo, along with enough computer equipment to stock a Radio Shack. He tossed the Moose jacket, but I guess the tongue was just too valuable – for other jobs and other frames.”
    “You think Matthew will confess to murdering Lenny?” Bugler asked, hands on her hips.
    “Maybe, once we break his alibi. We know where he was the morning Lenny was killed-faking a limp in front of Lenny’s house to implicate his brother, just to be on the safe side in case there were any witnesses around. Like ones in the sky that he may or may not know about.”
    “How do you think he killed Lenny?”
    McGrath fielded that one in a spray of coffee cake. “We’re guessing he just caught Lenny in the bathroom and overpowered him, slammed his head against the tub, killing him instantly. He worked it out to look like an accident, but he set his brother up to be the fall guy just in case it was ruled foul play. There’s no such thing as a perfect crime, after all, Sergeant.”
    Bugler nodded. “But it was actually Bertrand going into Lenny’s house the night after the murder, right? He says so, anyway.”
    “Right,” McGrath confirmed, picking his teeth. “He was planting that diamond ring to really tie Lenny into the jewelry heist. He never even saw the body – just heard the water running and assumed Lenny was taking a shower. That two man limping oddity, along with the ‘dead’ Lenny going shopping mystery, of course, is what made us realize there was a frame going on-in this case, a double frame.”
    Bugler gave her head a shake. “Instead of working together, like good twins should, they were working at cross-purposes – and didn’t even know it.”
    Pinero nodded, belched. He interlaced his fingers behind his head and propped his feet up on his desk, almost toppled over backwards. “Yup. They were going to fix The Rat for what he did to them-each in their own way – so why not kill two jailbirds with one stone by framing each other for their crimes at the same time?”
    Bugler let out a sigh. “Well, thank goodness that unlike the Kolvins, you two work so well together.”
    McGrath spluttered Java. Pinero untangled hands and feet and shot upright. “Huh!?” they gaped.
    “So well, in fact,” Bugler continued, smiling, “that I’ve canceled your transfer out of Homicide, Detective Pinero. This is one pairing that’s just too valuable to split up.”

Death and the Rope Trick by John Basye Price

    The legendary Indian Rope Trick is such an obvious choice for an impossible mystery that I’m surprised it hasn’t been used scores of times. In fact, I’m only aware of this one story which in itself has been tucked away in the pages of the London Mystery Magazine for over fifty years and never reprinted.
    I have been unable to trace much information about John Basye Price, who was born in 1906. He followed in his father’s footsteps in his interest in zoology and was for many years a biologist and science teacher at Leland Stanford University. He published several learned papers on his chosen subject, but just once or twice dabbled with mystery fiction, of which this is a particularly cunning example.

***

    On the plane en route to Central America my uncle and I paused for a moment, then lowering our voices we resumed our conversation.
    “But, Uncle Edward,” I asked, “what can this Dr Marlin hope to gain from all this? He must know he can’t do what he claims.”
    “He sounds like a monomaniac with delusions of grandeur, who may become violent when his demonstration fails,” my uncle replied. “That’s one reason I asked you to come with me.”
    “One reason?”
    “Yes, Jimmy, the other is I need someone I can trust-absolutely.”
    Filled with curiosity at the summons from my uncle, Mr Edward Dobbs, Chairman of Western University’s Board of Trustees, I had joined him at the airport, but we had no time for conversation until we were in the plane and on our way.
    Then at last I asked my uncle what it was all about. In reply he handed me a newspaper clipping, and I read:
    “CAN DO INDIAN ROPE
    TRICK,” SAYS SAVANT
    LAYS CLAIM TO $500,000
    REWARD
    San Francisco, July 6 – It was announced at Western University today that an attempt to claim the $500,000 reward offered by the late Richard Welton to anyone who can perform the Indian Rope Trick will be made in the Republic of Del Rio. The claimant is a Dr Clive Marlin, self-styled student of the occult, who has resided in Central America for a number of years.
    Richard Welton, who died three years ago, provided in his will that the reward could be claimed outside the United States in some country which had no income tax.
    Mr Welton, a life-long student of spiritualism, considered that a successful performance of the Indian Rope Trick under test conditions would be an absolute proof of the genuineness of psychic phenomena, as even Houdini-exposer of many fraudulent mediums-never attempted it.
    As often described, but never by an eye witness, the “Indian Rope Trick” is supposed to be a demonstration of mind over matter. The yogi causes a rope to rise in the air by supra-normal means; then a boy climbs to the top of the rope and vanishes, to be rematerialized a mile or more away.
    Harry Price, the English expert, once offered a similar reward for anyone who could perform the trick, but no one ever tried to claim it. But Mr Welton thought that a much larger reward might be more effective.

    I put the clipping down. “Welton must have been crazy,” I said.
    “The courts said not, Jimmy… He was eccentric-no doubt of that – but still legally sane.”
    “But how does this concern us?”
    “Directly, Jimmy. Mr Welton left two million dollars to Western University, but on the condition that we administer this $500,000 fund. I, myself, as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, have the sole discretion to grant or withold the reward to any claimant.”
    “So that’s why we’re going to Del Rio?” I said.
    “Yes. It’s all nonsense, of course, but under the terms of the trust I have to make this trip. Crazy or not, Dr Marlin has the right to attempt his demonstration.”
    A thought came to me. “This Dr Marlin may be sane but crooked,” I said. “Not knowing you, he may try to bribe you with part of the reward to give a false report on the test.”
    “No, Jimmy, if he had that in mind, he would have tried it before he put up the thousand-dollar forfeit. The will requires one to keep the University from being bothered by cranks.”
    I smiled to myself at the idea of anyone trying to offer my uncle a bribe. A slight man in early middle-age, partly bald with a fringe of dark curly hair, he had keen blue eyes that usually managed to see everything going on. By profession he was a geologist, who might have made a fortune in mining but who preferred to retire on a moderate income to devote himself to scientific studies and to his duties at Western University as Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
    “No doubt you’re right,” I said; “but why has Dr Marlin stipulated that only two persons watch his demonstration?”
    “He says that more might set up too many conflicting thought waves and make his success more difficult.”
    “I wonder,” I said. “He may be an expert magician who thinks he can deceive two persons easier than a crowd.”
    “I doubt it, Jimmy, If even Houdini couldn’t work the rope trick, I don’t think this Dr Marlin can.”
    The next morning my uncle and I left the American Consulate in Del Rio City, and in a hired car drove for half an hour along a desolate coast to Dr Marlin’s coffee finca (plantation). The house was on a slight rise near a secluded bay with a small island about two miles off-shore. At hand was a wharf with a motor-boat moored to it. Dr Marlin’s house, to my surprise, was a white two-storied mansion suggesting the Southern United States rather than Central America.
    As our car pulled up, we saw three figures awaiting us on the veranda. One, slightly in the lead, a European wearing a white linen suit, stepped forward and introduced himself as the claimant, Dr Clive Marlin. I looked at him with interest mixed with apprehension, but his manner was perfectly normal. He was a tall, distinguished-looking man of about fifty with thick iron-grey hair and a clipped moustache. A monocle was in his right eye, and his speech was apparently that of a cultured Englishman. But I thought I noticed just a trace of some foreign accent.
    After a few words to us, Dr Marlin beckoned the other two forward and presented them as his assistants, Mustapha and his son Ali. My uncle and I spoke to them in Spanish, but the two only bowed and Dr Marlin explained that they only understood Hindustani.
    Except that the two both seemed Hindus, I found it hard to believe that they were father and son. Mustapha was a big man, as tall as Dr Marlin but thicker. He wore a white Oriental costume with a turban, and most of his brown face was covered by a dark beard. His son Ali (seemingly about twenty) was shorter and very thin. I could see the ribs under his dark skin, for, unlike his father, he wore only a loin-cloth. He had no hair on his face, wore no turban, and his entire head was shaved so that his scalp glistened like rubber in the sun.
    “I suppose,” my uncle said, “Ali is the lad who will climb the rope?”
    “That is correct,” said Dr Marlin. “But not today. First you must witness the pouring of the concrete.”
    “Concrete?”
    “Yes, Mr Dobbs, we don’t want to leave any room for doubt. Today I am laying a concrete pavement over the testing-ground so that no one can claim later that Ali vanished into a trap-door under the rope.”
    We had been following Dr Marlin as he spoke, and a short distance from the house we came to a level field of about an acre, surrounded, except for two gaps, by a thick, six-foot hedge.
    In the centre were four iron poles, six feet high, set in the ground so as to form a twenty-foot square. The poles were connected at the tops by four wires designed to hold curtains.
    About a dozen native workmen surrounded a bin filled with a freshly mixed concrete. At Dr Marlin’s command they poured it on the ground, and smoothed it until the entire square between the poles was covered to a depth of two or three inches.
    “Now,” said Dr Marlin, “just as a check, will you gentlemen write your names in the concrete? It is very rapid setting, and will be hard to-morrow.”
    We did so. Before we left, my uncle managed to get a few words in private with Juan, the overseer; but Juan declared that he and all the rest of the workmen had only been there two weeks, and they knew nothing of Dr Marlin. We had already heard from the American Consul that Dr Marlin had bought his finca three years ago; he seemed to be an Englishman with plenty of money; but, aside from that, nothing was known of him.
    My uncle and I were up early the next morning, and drove to Dr Marlin’s after breakfast. I took my pistol and had a small but excellent camera hidden in my pocket. My uncle had accepted the offer of a loan of another camera from Dr Marlin the day before. But this was only misdirection. Secretly I was to take the pictures.
    We found everything ready for us. Dr Marlin escorted us to the field, after offering us cigarettes. We each took one, but when his back was turned we exchanged them for two of our own brand.
    The concrete was hard and we verified our signatures. At the sides of the poles were curtains ready to enclose the pavement. Now, however, they were open. On the pavement was Ali, clad only in a white loin-cloth.
    “Where’s the rope?” I asked.
    “Mustapha will bring it shortly,” Dr Marlin replied. “Here he comes now.”
    Through the gap in the hedge appeared a motor-tricycle. On it was Mustapha clad in his white robe and turban. He drove up on the pavement, dismounted, and from an open wire basket on the handlebars (the machine did not have a rear compartment of any kind) produced a coiled rope about twenty feet long, with a large knot on one end and a snaphook on the other. He uncoiled it and fastened the hook to an iron ring set in the centre of the concrete.
    “All ready?” asked Dr Marlin. “Oh, I forgot one thing. After the demonstration is over this morning, you may think that perhaps Ali had a twin brother who tricks you in some manner. So, Mr Dobbs, will you please take Ali’s finger-prints? As you know, even with identical twins the finger-prints are different.”
    My uncle agreed and Dr Marlin beckoned Ali forward and reached in his pocket. An expression of annoyance crossed his face. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I forgot to bring an inkpad. But never mind, I have one in my laboratory over this way. It will take only a few minutes.”
    We three, accompanied by Ali, started off towards the other gap in the hedge, away from the house. Mustapha, seated cross-legged on the pavement, started to arise to follow, but Dr Marlin motioned him to stay where he was.
    The laboratory turned out to be a hut filled with chemical apparatus. It took some time for Dr Marlin to find an ink-pad among the odds and ends that cluttered up the place, but finally one was located. My uncle inked Ali’s fingers; secured his prints on a sheet of paper, made a private mark below them; and, after drying, folded the paper and put it in an inside pocket.
    We four then returned to the field, where Dr Marlin and Ali rejoined Mustapha on the pavement. Suddenly, in spite of myself, I gave a tremendous sneeze. At the sound Dr Marlin barely started, and Mustapha, like a true yogi, never moved; but Ali jumped as if he had been stung. “He seems to be under a genuine nervous strain,” I thought. My uncle and I compared watches, both showed exactly 10.10 a.m.
    As directed, my uncle and I took separate stations. I was about twenty feet from the post at the eastern corner of the square, while my uncle had a similar position at the western corner. Dr Marlin then closed the curtains on all four sides, leaving the three demonstrators inside but shut off from view. My uncle and I could each see two sides of the square, and thus covered all four sides between us.
    Dr Marlin seemed so confident that in spite of myself I could not help a wondering excitement. But there was to be another interruption. A petrol motor started up behind the curtains, and Mustapha emerged and drove away on the cycle towards the house. I noticed that the rope was back on the handlebars. Dr Marlin called out from behind the curtains that the rope had proved defective and that Mustapha would soon be back with another one. But it was quite a while before Mustapha reappeared, on foot this time, with a coil of rope over his shoulder. Parting the curtains just enough to squeeze through, he rejoined Dr Marlin and Ali inside. All was ready.
    Mustapha’s voice was heard, shrill and eerie, in a loud chant or wailing. From behind the curtain came the sound of a blank cartridge. I gave a gasp of incredulity and my uncle shouted with amazement. As if by magic, the rope shot high into the air twenty feet or more above the curtains. I forgot to breathe, but still the rope was up there like a snake twisting and writhing in the air above us. It was like a trick on a movie screen, but there was no screen there-only the rope and the blue sky. A fantastic thought of mirrors came over me. I picked up a stone and threw it at the rope, and it went right past it and fell to the ground on the other side. My scalp contracted, my spine tingled as I kicked myself to make sure I was awake.
    Another shot from behind the curtains. Simultaneously all four curtains burst into flame, giving off a thick, black smoke. Through the smoke I could dimly see something ascending the rope. The fire died down an instant later and soon the air cleared. The curtains were gone. Dr Marlin and Mustapha were seen alone, at the base of the rope, staring up at Ali. With his white loin-cloth, shaved head, and brown skin clearly visible in the air, Ali was clinging to the top of the rope twenty feet above us.
    Raising my camera, I took picture after picture.
    Then – Dr Marlin raised his pistol and fired again. Instantly Ali vanished like a soap-bubble. All that was left was his white loincloth, which dropped to the pavement below. The rope still twisted and writhed above our heads for a few seconds more. Then it suddenly collapsed and fell to the concrete. Mustapha picked up the loin-cloth, turned and gave it to Dr Marlin, who handed it to my uncle. It was empty, and nowhere in the enclosed field was there any sign of the vanished Ali!
    My mind was in a turmoil; I wondered if I could be crazy. I turned to my uncle for reassurance, but did not get it. He was as flabbergasted as I.
    Dr Marlin suggested that we return to the house, and led the way, while my uncle and I followed with Mustapha. With an effort my uncle seemed to rouse himself as from a trance.
    “I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said, “but we both must have been hypnotized. Thank God, you had your own camera. If your film shows nothing up in the air, we’ll know it was only an hallucination.”
    “But suppose the film does show Ali at the top of the rope?”
    “Then,” my uncle said grimly, “under the terms of my trust. I’m afraid I will have no choice. I will have to give Dr Marlin a draft on the University for $500,000.”
    “It may have been a trick of some kind.” I suggested.
    “How could it be? There couldn’t have been any mirrors used, and, anyway, you and I were on opposite sides of the pavement. It’s appalling!”
    “Well, it isn’t your money,” I said.
    “It’s worse than that, Jimmy. Everyone will believe what you mentioned before – that I gave Dr Marlin a false certificate that he made the demonstration.”
    “But he did make it.” I said.
    “Yes, but no one will believe it. Everybody will think that Dr Marlin bribed me with part of the reward. And why shouldn’t they think I was bribed? I’m not a rich man. They’ll say that Dr Marlin and I conspired together to ‘fake the film and split the cash.’ I’ll be expelled from my scientific societies, and will have to resign from the Board of Trustees… Still, no doubt, when we develop your film we’ll see that the whole thing was only an hallucination – but, my God, what an hallucination!”
    Dr Marlin led us past the house and down a steep path to the wharf. He picked up a robe and tossed it into a motor-boat. “Ali will be needing that,” he remarked. “As you noticed, I could transport Ali, but he had to leave his loin-cloth behind. The subject has to co-operate to be dematerialized. The power doesn’t extend to inanimate objects such as clothes.”
    “Where is Ali now?” my uncle asked.
    Dr Marlin pointed to the island about two miles away. “He has rematerialized over there. I thought it would make the demonstration more dramatic to transport him over water. As you see, the only boat is on this side. Shall we start?”
    Mustapha took the wheel and we four set out for the Island. About half-way there, Mustapha gave a cry and pointed. Ahead was a dark figure struggling feebly in the water. As we almost reached it, it sank below the waves. Jerking off my coat and shoes I plunged in. Again and again I dived, but without success. I was almost exhausted when finally by luck. I reached the motionless figure. Grabbing an arm, I brought the body to the surface.
    “My God, it’s Ali,” exclaimed my uncle as he and Mustapha lifted the nude figure into the boat. My uncle tried artificial respiration as Dr Marlin took the wheel and we headed back to the wharf. On shore, my uncle continued his efforts, but it was useless. Ali was dead.
    Mustapha seemed stunned at the death of his son. Dr Marlin himself seemed shaken. “Poor Ali!” he said. “He must have made some error in concentration. He rematerialized too soon, before he reached the island, and fell in the water. I blame myself! But we never had any trouble before. If only he could have kept afloat a little longer…”
    Then, with an abrupt return to his old manner, Dr Marlin said, “But, Mr Dobbs, this tragic accident doesn’t affect the result of my demonstration. Here is an ink-pad and some paper. I suggest that you take the finger-prints of the corpse and compare them with those in your pocket.”
    My uncle seemed taken aback for a moment, but he complied, while Dr Marlin took me to the house for some dry clothes. On my return my uncle was putting his magnifying-glass back in his pocket. “There isn’t any doubt,” he said. “The two sets of prints are identical.”
    “Yes,” said Dr Marlin, “Now, I suggest that you two gentlemen retire to the dark-room in the house to develop your pictures, while I telephone the police about the accident. When you have examined the films, come out on the verandah. We will all have a drink together, and then, Mr Dobbs, I shall be most happy to receive your cheque for $500,000!”
    It would have been more decent, I thought to wait at least until Ali’s dead body had been taken away, but my uncle disagreed and we retired to the dark-room. My hands were shaking as I put my film in the developer.
    As the image appeared, I gave a shudder. In the dim red light we saw the rope extending twenty feet in the air with Ali clinging to the top. We printed enlargements, and when they were fixed my uncle turned on the light and examined them with his glass. “It’s Ali, all right,” he said. “What we saw, Jimmy, wasn’t any hallucination.”
    We went out to the veranda. I gave a loud cry and my stomach turned over. There at the top of the cliff in a pool of blood lay Dr Clive Marlin, stabbed to death and with a knife in his heart.
    I was nearly overcome with the succession of shocks. For an instant so was my uncle, but he drew himself together. Glancing at his watch, he took out a notebook. “One ten p.m.” he said. “I’d better write it down.”
    I looked at my own watch. “It’s 1.15,” I said; “your watch must have stopped.”
    “No, it’s still going. Didn’t the water affect your watch, Jimmy?”
    “No, it’s waterproof, and, anyway, water wouldn’t make a watch run faster.
    Just then a police car, followed by the hearse for Ali, drove up. Two police got out, stiffened as they saw the body of Dr Marlin, then turned to stare at us.
    An hour later, after the police had been reinforced by their superior officers, my uncle and I were summoned to a room in the house, where a police inspector and his sergeant were questioning Mustapha and Juan, the overseer. As we entered I gasped, for Mustapha, who supposedly spoke only Hindustani, was, in fluent Spanish, pouring out a flood of accusations against my uncle and me.
    According to him we were desperate criminals who had not hesitated to murder Dr Marlin when he demanded the reward for demonstrating the Indian rope trick. “They want the five hundred thousand dollars for themselves!” he shouted. “They didn’t know I understand English. I heard them talking about it on the way to the wharf!”
    With horror I remembered my uncle’s conversation. The police looked ominous, and I remembered stories of accused persons in Latin America who had not been held for trial, but who had been shot out-of-hand “while attempting to escape”.
    But my uncle remained cool, and said in Spanish. “Inspector, before we do anything else, let us find out the correct time.” The police, puzzled but courteous, compared watches, and we found that my uncle’s and mine were both fast – his by seven minutes and mine my twelve. “I thought so,” he said to me.
    Turning to the police he said, “My nephew and I were developing pictures when Dr Marlin was killed. Unless one of the workmen did it, the only person who could have killed him was this man – Mustapha!”
    Juan broke in, “But, Señor, I and all my men were working together, by Dr Marlin’s orders, at the far side of the house. We saw this man – Mustapha – the entire time seated in his upstairs room. We could see him through the window.”
    “I don’t doubt it,” my uncle said, “but Mustapha could have been in two places at the same time.”
    “Surely you don’t think he left his astral body upstairs for an alibi while he went down to the cliff to kill Dr Marlin?” I asked.
    “Something of the sort, Jimmy… Inspector, I suggest that we search this man’s room at once.”
    Mustapha objected vehemently, but was overruled. In the room my uncle’s eyes fell on a closed door. It was locked, and Mustapha insisted that he had lost the key; but the police soon forced the door open. I gasped, for seated on the floor of a small closet was Mustapha.
    My uncle gave a tug, and the figure collapsed like an over-sized doll. “A very fine dummy,” my uncle said as he parted the clothes at the back. “See, the figure is entirely hollow. Clever but not quite original. Walter Gibson reports that Houdini designed a similar hollow dummy for one of his illusions shortly before he died.”
    Turning to the dejected Mustapha, my uncle said with authority, “Your only chance is to tell the truth! Isn’t this what happened? You killed Dr Marlin in self-defence when he tried to kill you because you knew that he had murdered Ali!”
    Mustapha started and nodded vigorously, “As God is my witness, that is the truth!… But how did you know?”
    “I missed it at the time, but Dr Marlin made a slip when we were taking the finger-prints. He said, ‘You may think that Ali had a twin brother?’ Already, before the demonstration, Dr Marlin was thinking of Ali in the past tense.”
    “But, Señor Dobbs,” the police inspector objected, “how could Dr Marlin have murdered this Ali? Do you believe in magic?”
    “There was no magic at all, Inspector. The whole rope trick was only a ‘stage illusion,’ but quite an elaborate one. But Dr Marlin made one mistake. He forgot about the watches. When I learned that Jimmy’s watch and mine had suddenly become erratic, I guessed part of the truth.”
    “How so, Señor Dobbs?”
    “I’ll start at the beginning and describe what I think happened,” my uncle replied. “Mustapha can correct me if I go wrong on details. But let’s go and sit on the veranda, as this will take some time.”
    On the veranda my uncle resumed, “There are really two parts to the Indian Rope Trick-both universally considered impossible. The first is to make a rope rise miraculously in the air. The second is to make the boy suddenly disappear from the top and have him reappear at a distant spot.
    “There can be no doubt that this morning something like a rope really did rise in the air – the photographs prove it. Now, there is no way to make a rope do that, but this ‘rope’ must have had as a core either a wire or chain of magnetic metal. Isn’t that so Mustapha?”
    Receiving a nod, my uncle continued, “The fact that both Jimmy’s watch and mine behaved erratically could mean only one thing – that they had been exposed to a strong magnetic field and had become magnetized. This gave me the clue. As you know, while opposite poles of a magnet attract each other, similar poles repel each other with equal force. I remember at the exposition in San Francisco in 1939 seeing an exhibit where a metal bowl was made to float in the air by a powerful electro-magnetic field underneath. Later I read that mediums used this method to make metal tables rise from the floor during fake seances. Perhaps Dr Marlin first got his idea there.”
    Mustapha nodded again, as my uncle continued, “Dr Marlin made his ‘rope’ a chain or wire of highly magnetized metal covered with a thin layer of hemp. Under the ground in the field he had built a very large system of electro-magnets designed to project a cone of force. When the current was turned on magnetic repulsion raised the ‘rope’ above the ground as if by magic.”
    “But, Uncle Edward,” I objected, “if it’s as easy as that, why hasn’t someone done it before?”
    “It’s far from easy, Jimmy. As the ‘rope’ rises above the ground, the magnetic force diminishes very rapidly. To raise a ‘rope’ twenty feet takes something like a baby cyclotron. Making one would take years of work and cost a small fortune.”
    “Three years and fifty thousand dollars,” Mustapha broke in. “At least so Dr Marlin told me. But the reward was enormous.”
    “But what happened to Ali; how did he vanish from the top of the rope?” I asked.
    “Let’s take things in order,” my uncle said. “When we arrived yesterday, Dr Marlin took us to the field to watch the pouring of the concrete. The real reason for the pavement was to keep us from digging later and finding the electro-magnets. Dr Marlin also introduced us to his two assistants, supposedly from India. Where do you really come from, Mustapha?”
    “From Mexico City, Señor. Ali and I have had a Hindu act for some time.”
    “You might have chosen better names,” said my uncle.” ‘Mustapha’ and ‘Ali’ sound more like Mohammedans than Hindus… To come to this morning. At the start of the demonstration Mustapha, Ali, and Dr Marlin were all present on the pavement. But that was the last time the three were really together until we found Ali in the water.
    “Dr Marlin ‘forgot’ his ink-pad, and we three, with Ali, went to the laboratory to take the finger-prints. As soon as we had left, Mustapha produced the hollow dummy of himself from some hiding-place nearby (perhaps in the hedge) and arranged it in a sitting position on the pavement. Leaving it there, he, himself, ran up to the house.
    “When we came back from the laboratory we never doubted that the dummy was Mustapha. (But remember, Jimmy, ‘Mustapha never moved’ when you gave that loud sneeze.) Dr Marlin and Ali rejoined ‘him’ on the pavement and closed all four curtains.
    “Then Dr Marlin ‘discovered’ that the rope was ‘defective’ and sent ‘Mustapha’ for another one. What really happened was that the hollow dummy was placed on the cycle, and Ali crept inside it, came through the curtains and rode rapidly up to the house in the semblance of Mustapha. He had no trouble balancing on the tricycle; all he had to do was to sit still and steer. We never doubted that Ali was still behind the curtains, but, really, at that time Dr Marlin was there alone.
    “When Ali reached the house, out of our sight, he emerged from the dummy, took it upstairs and hid it; while the real Mustapha walked back to the field, to give Ali more time, and ‘returned’ to us with another rope.”
    “But,” I objected, “we saw Ali at the top of the rope.”
    “No, Jimmy, we only thought we did. After the real Mustapha rejoined Dr Marlin behind the curtains, he started a chanting wail while Dr Marlin pressed a concealed switch – probably in one of the iron rods. This turned on the electro-magnets underneath and, as if by magic, the ‘rope’ rose in the air.
    “Then either Dr Marlin or Mustapha brought from his pocket a collapsed rubber dummy which, when inflated, was an exact life-sized replica of Ali. Incidentally, that was why Ali had to shave his head. Hair would be hard to imitate, but the rubber looked just like dark skin.
    “Instead of using air, Dr Marlin inflated the rubber dummy with helium. I don’t know just how; did you have a small cylinder of it under your robe, Mustapha?”
    “No, Señor, the helium was under pressure in a tank beneath the concrete. One of the iron rods was really a pipe with a concealed nozzle. It took only an instant to inflate the dummy, which looked exactly like Ali. Dr Marlin paid three thousand dollars to have it made by an expert in magical supplies in Mexico City.”
    “Next,” continued my uncle, “Dr Marlin placed a loin-cloth on the figure to weigh it down in position, and attached the dummy with dark threads to the bottom of the ‘rope’. Then he fired a blank cartridge, set fire to the curtains, and under cover of the dense smoke the released dummy, filled with helium and exactly weighted with a light ballast, rose to the top of the ‘rope,’ where the large knot prevented it from going higher. You must have used a very light loin-cloth, Mustapha?”
    “Made of paper, Señor.”
    “I see. That instant must have been the trickiest part of the whole illusion. We might notice that ‘Ali’ was rising, not climbing. But the dense smoke and the thrashing about of the ‘rope’ – caused by slight magnetic variations-entirely deceived us. Then, too, our critical faculties had just been almost paralysed by the miraculous rising of the ‘rope.’ After that we were in a state to see and believe almost anything. I don’t say we would have been fooled a second time, but Dr Marlin only had to make the demonstration once.”
    “It certainly fooled me,” I said.
    “No more than me, Jimmy. Next the smoke cleared, and in the air above us we saw ‘Ali’ at the top of the rope – not for long, but long enough to take photographs. Then Dr Marlin raised his pistol; but this time, instead of a blank he fired a real bullet, which pierced the dummy. The dummy instantly collapsed, and the shrunken rubber was drawn back inside the loin-cloth where we couldn’t see it as it fell to the ground. Ali had vanished before our eyes! What happened to the paper loin-cloth, Mustapha?”
    “I picked it up, Señor, and by sleight-of-hand exchanged it for a real one I had under my robe. I gave the real one to Dr Marlin, who handed it to you.”
    The police inspector broke in, “All this is most interesting, Señor Dobbs, but what about the murder?”
    “We will come to that in a minute. The plan was that after the demonstration we should find Ali on the island-rematerialized there by magic-or rather by supra-normal powers. Apparently the only boat was still on this side, but there must have been another one hidden. Did it have a silent engine, Mustapha?”
    “Yes, Señor, it was a small aluminium canoe with a battery and electric motor. Dr Marlin had it hidden, hung above the water, under the floor of the wharf. Ali was supposed to discard his loincloth, launch the canoe, cross to the island, and then sink the boat to complete the illusion.”
    “Now we come to the first death,” my uncle said. “Just what happened, I don’t know. My guess would be that before the demonstration Ali demanded more money than Dr Marlin wished to pay him. Mustapha, do you know about it?”
    A look of misery crossed the bearded face. “I didn’t, but I do now. The boy was too ambitious. Dr Marlin told me just before he himself died that Ali demanded half of the entire reward, instead of the ten thousand dollars apiece that we had been promised. He threatened to give the whole thing away to you if Dr Marlin didn’t agree.”
    “So that was it,” my uncle said. “No doubt he promised Ali everything, and then killed him before he could try to collect. Dr Marlin must have tampered with the boat.”
    “He boasted of it to me!” Mustapha cried angrily. “He opened a seam in the bottom and filled it with a plastic that would dissolve soon after Ali launched the canoe. It must have sunk about halfway across. But Ali was a better swimmer than Dr Marlin thought. He nearly managed to keep up until we came.”
    “Surely you suspected something afterwards?” my uncle asked.
    “I did, Señor, but I wasn’t sure. So I put the dummy of myself at the window while you two were in the dark-room, and went outside to have it out with Dr Marlin. He was ready for me though, and pulled a gun with a silencer out of his pocket. He told me how Ali had died, and then forced me to the edge of the cliff and tried to push me off-apparently a grief-stricken suicide. But he didn’t know that I had a knife in my sleeve. I threw it and it pierced his heart. Then I lost my head, tossed his gun into the water, and ran back to my room to hide the dummy in the closet. I deeply regret, Señor, that I accused you, but I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”
    “Don’t worry, Mustapha,” my uncle said. “The police, no doubt, will recover Dr Marlin’s pistol and raise the canoe from the bay. That evidence will prove your story of self-defence. But it’s fortunate for me that I happened to notice the magnetized watches. I suppose that Dr Marlin never thought of them giving the show away.”
    “Yes, he did, Señor; he thought of that as a remote possibility just before he sent the wire to you. We considered hiring someone to steal your watches in California, and having him bribe a jeweller to sell you non-magnetic ones. But Dr Marlin decided that it would take too much time. He was always afraid that someone else would claim the reward.”
    “Why,” asked my uncle in surprise, “did he think some rival knew his secret?”
    “No, Señor, and, besides, very few mediums would have enough money. But it’s a strange thing – all his life Dr Marlin had been a charlatan and a fraud, but always he believed that some of the other mediums were genuine. All the time he was getting things ready, he was afraid that some yogi from India, with genuine psychic powers, would appear and claim the reward by really demonstrating the Indian Rope Trick.”

The Problem of The Black Cloister by Edward D. Hoch

    Let us bow to the Master. No, not John Dickson Carr. Carr may have set the rules for the impossible crime story and created most of the templates, but Edward Hoch (b. 1930) has now written considerably more stories than Carr and created far more variations on old ideas as well as plenty of new ones. I never cease to be amazed at Hoch’s output. He has now been selling short fiction for over fifty years and has had at least one story, sometimes more, in every issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine since May 1973. He’s steadily creeping towards having written and published one thousand stories, and precious few living writers can say that. Of the eighteen or so new stories that Ed produces each year, three or four of them are impossible crime stories-so he’s probably written around 200 of them by now. Many of his stories fall into one of a number of series, and almost all of his series characters have had to face an impossible crime now and then. One of them, Dr Sam Hawthorne, who narrates his stories to his anonymous guest about cases from his early years in practice, encounters nothing but impossible crimes. So far there have been two collections of Hawthorne’s cases, Diagnosis: Impossible (1996) and More Things Impossible (2006).
    I could clearly have filled this book solely with Ed’s baffling mysteries, and certainly felt that only one selection did not do justice to the Imp of the Impossible, especially as Ed has also written the occasional perfect-crime story. So here are two by the Master. The first is a Sam Hawthorne story, followed immediately by a non-series story containing one of Ed’s most creative crimes.

***

    Less than a week after the 1942 election that insured a seventh and final term for Sheriff Lens, the Allied invasion of French North Africa began. It was a joyous time for everyone, a sign that we had launched a major ground offensive at last. (Dr Sam Hawthorne paused to refill the glass of his listener.) It was also a time for war-bond rallies in the cities, when celebrities sometimes came to help raise money for the war effort.
    Towns like Northmont ordinarily would not have attracted a war-bond rally on any large scale, but as it turned out we had a local celebrity hardly anyone knew about. The November election brought us a new mayor, Cyril Bensmith, a slender, vigorous man of forty, a bit younger than me. I’d hardly known him before he ran for office, and I didn’t know him much better now. His family had a small farm over near the town line, almost into the adjoining township of Shinn Corners, which probably explains why I hadn’t heard about him or his boyhood chum Rusty Wagner.
    Rusty’d been George Snider at the time. He didn’t become Rusty till he moved to New York and landed the villain’s role in a mildly successful Broadway play. From there he went off to Hollywood and became Paramount’s answer to Humphrey Bogart. He was never as big a star as Bogart, but by April of 1943, with the Allies advancing in Tunisia and many of the younger male stars in the service, Rusty Wagner was doing his part by touring the country selling war bonds. Health problems and his age, just turning forty, had kept him out of the army. When Mayor Bensmith heard he’d be at a rally in Boston he invited his old friend to make a side trip to his hometown.
    “Did you hear the news?” my nurse April asked that morning. “Rusty Wagner is coming here for the war-bond drive.”
    “We don’t go to many movies,” I admitted, though the town boasted a pretty good theater. “I guess I’ve seen him once or twice.”
    “I’m going to help out on the drive,” she said. April’s husband Andre was away in the service and I could understand her urge to get involved.
    “That’s good. I’ll come and buy a bond from you,” I promised.
    That night at home I mentioned it to my wife Annabel, who showed a bit more excitement than I had. “That’s great news, Sam! Something’s finally happening in this town.”
    I smiled at her remark. “A lot of people think too much happens here already. Our murder rate-”
    “I wish you wouldn’t blame yourself whenever somebody gets killed in Northmont. I’m sure there were murders here before you ever came to town. I’ll have to ask Sheriff Lens when he and his wife come to dinner.”
    The sheriff had been elected to his first term in 1918, just days before the armistice that ended the war. I hadn’t moved to town and set up my practice until a few years later, in January of ’22, and for some reason we’d never really talked much about Northmont’s past crimes.
    We dined with Sheriff Lens and his wife Vera every couple of months, and it was their turn to come to our house two nights later. While Vera helped Annabel with dinner in the kitchen I engaged the sheriff in conversation. “Annabel and I were talking the other night about Northmont’s crime rate. How was it before I came here in ’twenty-two? Did you have just as many murders?”
    Sheriff Lens chuckled, resting his hand on the glass of sherry my wife had provided. “Can’t say that I remember any at all before you came to town, Doc. Guess you brought ’em with you.” He took a sip from the glass and added, “There was the fire over at the Black Cloister, of course, but no one ever suggested that was murder.”
    I’d driven past the burnt-out building several times during the past twenty years, wondering why the county didn’t just tear it down and sell the land at auction. “Exactly what happened there?” I asked.
    “Well, it was in the late summer of ’twenty-one. The place had been built late last century as a sort of farming commune for disenchanted monks and other religious men who’d left their various orders but weren’t ready to return to the secular world. Occasionally they took in one or two juvenile offenders if the courts asked them to, on the theory that a hard day’s work might set them straight. Nobody paid much attention to them out there, except about once a month when a couple of them came into town for supplies. They called it the Black Cloister, named for the Augustinian monastery in Germany where Martin Luther lived. After the Reformation the monks moved out but Luther continued to live there, offering shelter to former monks and travelers. Upon his marriage in fifteen twenty-five the building was given to him as a wedding gift.”
    “You know a good deal about it, Sheriff.”
    “Well, Vera’s a Lutheran even though we were married by a Baptist minister. We got talking about the Black Cloister one night and she filled me in on all that history.”
    “I heard my name mentioned,” Vera Lens said as she came in to join us. “Dinner will be ready in three minutes.”
    “Doc was just wondering about the Black Cloister,” the sheriff explained.
    “Funny you should mention that, Sam. We’re putting together an antique auction for the war-bond rally and someone donated the ornate oak front door from the Black Cloister. You can see it along with the other antiques down at the town hall.”
    “Maybe I’ll take a look. When is this all going to happen?”
    “Next Tuesday, the twentieth. That’s the day after the Boston rally. They’re tying it in with Patriots’ Day and the Boston Marathon.” Easter Sunday that year was not until April twenty-fifth, the latest it could be.
    We took our seats at the table as Annabel came in with our salads. “I was just talking to Vera about the rally,” she told me. “I told her I wanted to help out, too.”
    “A lot of people are. April at my office said she’d help. There’s nothing like a movie star to brighten things up.”
    “Rusty Wagner isn’t exactly a heartthrob,” Vera remarked, plunging her fork into the salad. “Sometimes his face looks like it went through a meat grinder.”
    “He makes a perfect villain, though,” Annabel said. “I saw a couple of his films before we were married.” Turning to me, she said, “Sam, we have to start going to the movies more.”
    Somehow the conversation never did get back to the fire at the Black Cloister. It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon, two days before the scheduled rally, when I accompanied Annabel to the town hall and stood before the fire-scorched door, that I remembered the burned building. The thick oak door was indeed a thing of beauty, leaning against the wall. Its front showed a bas-relief of a hooded monk kneeling in prayer, and this is what would have greeted visitors to the Cloister.
    “You can see the door was badly scorched in the fire,” Vera said as she came up to join us. We were in the ornate lobby of the town hall, where a score of items of all shapes and sizes had been assembled for the auction.
    I ran my fingers over the bas-relief, admiring the carving. “Looks as if there are a few little wormholes in it, though,” Annabel remarked.
    There were indeed, toward the sides and top of the door. I pulled it away from the wall, but the back was smooth and unmarked, without a trace of scorching. “What was the story about this fire?” I asked Vera. “It was before I moved here.”
    “I was pretty young then myself, but I remember the Cloister as some sort of religious community. There was a fire and one young man died. After that the rest of the community just scattered.”
    “Who owns the property?”
    “I have no idea. Felix Pond at the hardware store donated the door. He said it had been in the family for years, but I don’t know that they ever owned the place.”
    “How does this charity auction sell war bonds?” Annabel asked.
    Vera Lens explained. “People bid by purchasing the bonds, so it’s not really costing them anything. They get their money back when the bonds are redeemed. The items are all donated and I don’t imagine they have any great value. But something like this door could be cleaned up and painted and put to good use. Some church might even like it.”
    I ran my fingers over the wood once more, again impressed by the workmanship. “I wonder who carved this. Was it someone locally, or perhaps one of the residents at the Black Cloister?”
    “It’s possible Mayor Bensmith might know.”
    “I think I’ll ask him.”
    Cyril Bensmith had a dairy farm on the North Road. His tall, gaunt frame reminded some of Abraham Lincoln, though he’d never thought of entering politics until his wife died a few years earlier. They had no children, and perhaps in search of a new beginning he’d run for mayor and been elected handily. He still worked his farm every day. Being mayor of Northmont was not a time-consuming occupation.
    He had just arrived at the town hall and was greeting people with a handshake when I went up to him. “How are you, Sam? Good to see you here. I think the rally on Tuesday’s going to be a big success.”
    “It should be,” I agreed, “especially with Rusty Wagner’s appearance.”
    “Rusty’s an old friend. I haven’t seen him in years, but we’ve stayed in touch.”
    “I was admiring that door from the old Cloister,” I explained, gesturing toward it. “Know anything about it?”
    “No more than you. Felix Pond at the hardware store donated it.”
    “I was wondering if the carving was by a local person.”
    “I couldn’t tell you that. If there’s an opportunity you might ask Rusty when he’s here Tuesday.”
    “Rusty?”
    “He was living at the Black Cloister at the time of the fire.”
    “How old would he have been at that time?”
    “Eighteen, I think. Same age as me. He and another boy, Fritz, were caught stealing a car in Hartford. The judge suggested they could avoid jail by spending the summer doing farm work at the Cloister and they agreed quickly enough. That’s how I got to know Rusty. His name was George then, but he never liked it. We saw a lot of each other that one summer, before the fire.”
    He moved on to greet others, and I was left with unanswered questions.
    On Monday Sheriff Lens stopped by my office in a wing of Pilgrim Memorial Hospital. He was chatting with April as I finished seeing the morning’s last patient and I invited him into my examining room. “Everything set for the bond rally tomorrow, Sheriff?”
    “I guess so. Vera’s had me run ragged, picking up donations for the auction.”
    “I was talking to our mayor yesterday and he tells me Rusty Wagner was a resident of the Black Cloister. You never did finish about the fire.”
    “It was so long ago I can barely remember it now. Like I said, it was the summer of ’twenty-one. The Cloister was home to about a dozen men, some from a Trappist monastery that had closed, and others from various Protestant denominations. They were men with problems or at loose ends. There were also those two kids doing farm work to avoid prison. I guess Rusty Wagner was one of them. The other fellow was killed in the fire.”
    “Tell me about it.”
    Sheriff Lens sighed. “Don’t you have enough mysteries in the present to satisfy you, Doc? This was no impossible crime or anything. No crime at all, far as I know. The fire started in the kitchen somehow and spread to the rest of the house. It was in the afternoon and the other residents were out in the fields working. Wagner and this other young fellow, whose name I don’t recall-”
    “The mayor said it was Fritz.”
    “That’s right, Fritz Heck. Anyway, they were preparing the evening meal when it happened. Wagner managed to get out with a few bad burns, but the other boy didn’t make it. I suppose that little scarring on Wagner’s face didn’t hurt when he started playing villain roles.”
    That was pretty much all he remembered, but I was still interested in tracking down the origin of that door. I drove over to Felix Pond’s hardware store on my lunch hour and waited while he took care of a couple of customers. Pond was a bristling, bearded man who seemed strong as an ox, constantly carrying lumber and supplies out to waiting wagons. I was not one of his regular customers, but he knew me by sight. “Dr Hawthorne! What brings you here? Got a need for a hammer or screwdriver?”
    “Curiosity brings me,” I told him. “I was admiring that door from the old Cloister and they told me you’d donated it. I wondered how you came by it.”
    “That’s easy,” he said with a grin. “I stole it, years ago. The place seemed to be just rotting away after the fire. The residents had all scattered and no one was even sure who owned the property. It was a sin to see that fancy door just sit there and decay like that so I took it home with me. Stored it in my supply shed out back and forgot all about it till somebody asked me about it last year.”
    “It might be worth some money,” I speculated.
    “Sure might! It’s fine workmanship, made by one of the original residents of the Cloister. But I figured I couldn’t really sell it since it wasn’t mine to begin with. When someone suggested I donate it for the bond auction it seemed like a good idea.”
    “I’m sure people will bid on it. I might even do so myself.” But then something clicked in my mind. “Tell me, Felix. Did you decide to donate this to the bond auction after you heard Rusty Wagner was going to be here?”
    He frowned at my question. “Why would I do that?”
    “Someone told me he was living in the Cloister at the time of the fire.”
    “Really?” He thought about it. “I guess maybe it was after we heard he was coming. Can’t remember who suggested it, though.”
    I left the hardware store, wondering more than ever what was bringing Rusty Wagner back to Northmont.
    Tuesday was sunny and mild, a perfect spring day to greet the crowd that had turned out for the war-bond rally. It was nothing compared to the Boston crowd, of course, but I recognized several people from Shinn Corners and other towns who’d driven over for the event. We’d set up a stage in the town square, with a billowing flag bunting as a backdrop. The auction items were all on view, including the Cloister door standing upright against one of the backdrop supports.
    Just before the rally began, Mayor Bensmith made a point of introducing me to the star attraction, Rusty Wagner. He was shorter than I’d expected, and his features were a bit sharper. Close up I could see the scarring on the right side of his face. It appeared that the skin had been burnt, apparently during the Cloister fire. The damaged area was not large and could have been easily covered by make up if he wished. Accompanying him was his manager, a fellow named Jack Mitchell, looking uncomfortable in a suit already rumpled from their train trip.
    “I understand you lived here for a time,” I said, shaking Wagner’s hand.
    He smiled pleasantly. “A long time ago, one summer before I moved to New York City. The town has changed a lot since then.”
    The mayor rested a hand on his old friend’s shoulder. “We’re going to start in a few minutes. You’d better get in position on the stage.” He turned to me with a wink. “We want to open with a bang, like in Rusty’s movies.”
    For a moment I didn’t know what he meant. Then, as Wagner took the stage amidst an outburst of applause, a man in a German officer’s uniform suddenly appeared from behind the flag bunting and stood before the Cloister door, taking aim at him with a Luger pistol. There were screams from the spectators as a shot rang out and Rusty Wagner clutched his chest, falling to the floor.
    Immediately Mayor Bensmith sprang to the microphone, holding up his arms to calm the audience. “That, folks, is what could happen right here if not enough of us support our government with war bonds! Happily, the German officer is really our own Milt Stern, and Rusty Wagner is alive to fight another day.” He motioned to the downed star. “Time to greet your public, Rusty!”
    But Wagner remained sprawled on the floor of the stage without moving. I went quickly to his side. There was no blood, no sign of a wound, but I knew at once that he was dead.
    When a well-known movie star dies before hundreds of people at a bond rally, it makes news all over the country. Mayor Bensmith and Sheriff Lens both knew Northmont would be on the front pages the following day and they turned to me for help. I urged them to calm down, reminding them that we didn’t yet know the cause of Wagner’s death. “One thing we know for sure, whatever killed him, it wasn’t a bullet from Milt Stern’s gun.”
    Nevertheless, while the mayor tried to calm the crowd and get on with the war-bond auction, Milt was the first person the sheriff and I questioned. He was a ten-year resident of Northmont, in his mid thirties, married with two children. For the past several years he’d worked at the local feed store. “Is Wagner dead?” he asked us at once. “They took him away in the ambulance and somebody said he was breathing.”
    “He’s dead, son,” Sheriff Lens told him. “We just didn’t want to announce it right away and put a damper on things. After the bond rally’s over there’ll be an announcement.”
    Stern passed over the German Luger for our examination. “All I had was one blank cartridge in it.” I slid out the clip and confirmed that it was empty. “The mayor got the gun and uniform from a theatrical costume place in Boston.”
    “It was the mayor’s idea?” I asked.
    “Well, he was talking about something like that to start things with a bang. I volunteered to play a Nazi and fire a blank at him.”
    The facts were clear-cut and I would have been awfully surprised if the autopsy showed Rusty Wagner had been poisoned or choked to death. It didn’t. By the following morning we knew that he’d died of a heart attack. There was no wound anywhere on his body.
    Still, I stopped by the mayor’s office to have a talk with him. “Apparently the man had a weak heart,” I said. “Maybe that’s what kept him out of the army, that and his age.”
    “It’s just a tragedy it had to happen here,” Mayor Bensmith said. “He could have dropped dead in Boston just as well.”
    “Tell me something. Did you explain to Wagner exactly what you had planned, with the Nazi officer and all? Did he know someone would fire a blank cartridge at him?”
    “Certainly. I went over every bit of it with him as soon as he arrived. My secretary, Rita, was with us at the time.” He called her into the office. “Rita, what did I tell Rusty Wagner when we met him at the station?”
    Rita Innes was a prim middle-aged woman who’d worked in Bensmith’s office at the farm before his election as mayor. He’d taken her with him to the elective office and she’d settled in well. Now she answered, “You explained about the man dressed as a Nazi who’d fire a blank at him. He’d fall to the stage and you’d tell the audience to buy bonds. He wasn’t surprised. He said he’d acted out scenes for audiences in other cities, too.”
    “The heart attack was just a coincidence, happening when it did,” Bensmith decided.
    I had to agree with him. From both a medical and a legal viewpoint, there’d been no crime.
    Wagner’s death had completely overshadowed the war-bond auction, and it was a couple of days later before I saw Vera Lens and remembered to ask her about it. “We did well,” she reported, “considering everything.”
    “Who bought that door from the Black Cloister?”
    “Funny you should ask. It went to a man named Jack Mitchell. He was Rusty Wagner’s manager and was making the tour with him. The door’s still here. We’re supposed to ship it to him in California.”
    On the following Monday, the day after Easter, I was driving past the ruins of the old Cloister and decided to stop. Walking through the high grass to the gaping front entrance, I found a roof partly burned through, and weathered walls still showing scars from the fire. There was evidence of children playing there, and ground into the dirt out back I found a used shotgun shell. Every farm family kept a weapon close at hand. There were always varmints on the prowl.
    After lunch I stopped in to see Sheriff Lens at his office. “I drove by the Black Cloister this morning and took a look. Can you tell me any more about the fire and your investigation?”
    The sheriff gave one of his familiar sighs. “Doc, there’s no crime for you to solve, neither here nor back in nineteen twenty-one. That Rusty Wagner could be killed by a shot from a blank cartridge isn’t an impossible crime, it’s no crime at all!”
    “Let’s get back to the Cloister fire for the moment. Tell me about the young man who died there.”
    He went over to the file and opened the bottom drawer. “I haven’t looked at that folder myself in years. Probably should have discarded it after all this time.” Opening the slender file, he took out some papers and a few photographs. “The victim’s name was Fritz Heck. He was eighteen, same age as Wagner. Nice-looking fellow. That’s him on the right in this photo.”
    “Is this Wagner with him?”
    “No, it’s Heck’s younger brother.”
    I nodded. “I should have guessed that from the resemblance.”
    “We got the photo from the family in Hartford, for identification purposes. There was no doubt it was him, though. Heck’s finger-prints were on file with the Hartford police. Him and Wagner stole a car but didn’t know much about driving it.”
    “How did the fire start?”
    “Wagner told me they were preparing dinner, chatting about a girl they’d met in town, when Heck got careless and some hot grease caught fire. They tossed water on it but that just spread it around. The flames went up along the ceiling and into the living room.” He referred to his notes and Wagner’s statement. “Heck ran into the living room and tried to beat it out, but it was too late. He was trapped by the fire and smoke, and died inside the front door, trying to get it open.”
    “Why is the house still standing after all these years?”
    Sheriff Lens shrugged. “I heard tell Heck’s family bought it, wanted it as a memorial to their son. But they never did anything except pay the taxes.”
    “Did you ever meet any of them?”
    He shook his head. “If they came here I didn’t see them. Of course the body was shipped back to Hartford for burial.”
    “What about Rusty Wagner? What happened to him after the fire?”
    “They took him back to Hartford, too, for treatment of his burns. We heard later that he moved to New York and was in a play. Mayor Bensmith was a friend of his and stayed in touch over the years.” He squinted at me over the tops of his glasses. “You’re tryin’ to make something out of all this, aren’t you?”
    “I’m trying,” I agreed with a smile. I picked up the snapshot of Fritz Heck and studied it. “Do you have an autopsy report there?”
    “Well, not really. Back in 1921, Northmont’s coroner was just a local sawbones eager to make a few extra bucks. He just had to look at the body to know the fire killed Heck. The Hartford police furnished us with medical records on the two boys, though.”
    He passed them over to me and I glanced quickly through them. There were the usual childhood illnesses, plus a serious bout of influenza for Heck during the nineteen epidemic. Wagner had suffered from rheumatic fever twice as a child, but had escaped the flu. “What else do you have there?”
    “Just Wagner’s statement on the fire, which I’ve told you about. His face was burnt trying to save his friend.”
    I thought about that. “Do you have a phone number for this manager of his, Jack Mitchell?”
    “I think it’s here somewhere. Why do you want it?”
    “Vera says he was high bidder on that Cloister door. It seems an odd thing to bother about when your client has just died.”
    I phoned Mitchell’s West Coast office and after some delay was put through to him. “Mr Mitchell, this is Dr Hawthorne, back in Northmont. We’re still investigating Rusty Wagner’s unfortunate death.”
    “Yes,” he replied. “I just got in the office. I’ve been making arrangements for the memorial service. What can I do for you?”
    “I’m told that you were high bidder for the door from the Black Cloister, where Rusty lived for a time.”
    “That’s correct. He wanted me to bid on it for him. It seemed very important to him. When the ambulance took him away I was hoping he was still alive. I entered my bid on the door before following him to the hospital.”
    “What do you plan to do with the door?”
    “Do with it?” his voice rasped over the phone. “Nothing. Now that he’s dead you can keep the door, auction it off again.”
    “Did he have any reason for wanting it so badly?”
    “None that I know of. He’d lived at that Cloister for one whole summer. I suppose it brought back memories.”
    “I’m sure it did,” I agreed. “His friend died in the fire, and he was badly burned.”
    “He never went into detail about it. He just asked me to buy the door at the auction.”
    I thanked him and hung up. Sheriff Lens asked, “Did you learn anything?”
    “He doesn’t want the door now that Wagner’s dead. He said we should keep it and auction it off again.”
    “I’ll tell Vera.”
    “Where’s the door now?”
    “Still over at the town hall. In the mayor’s office, I think.”
    “Let’s go have another look at it,” I suggested.
    We walked across the square to the town hall. Mayor Bensmith hadn’t yet returned from lunch, but his secretary Rita showed us the door leaning against his office wall. “We’re waiting for shipping instructions,” she informed us.
    “He doesn’t want it,” I told her. “We’ll auction it again.”
    I moved over to examine the door more closely and asked Rita, “Do you have a pair of tweezers?”
    “I think so.” She went back to her desk and returned with them.
    “What are you after, Doc?” Sheriff Lens wanted to know.
    “I’m not sure, but I know Wagner wanted this door, and his statement to you at the time of the fire wasn’t completely accurate.”
    “How’s that?”
    “He said Fritz Heck died inside the front door, trying to get it open. But look at this door. The scorching is on the outside, while the inside is unmarked by flames. This door had to be open at the time of the fire, and if that was the case how could Heck have been trapped there by the fire and smoke? He could have simply run outside.”
    “I never thought of that,” the sheriff admitted.
    I took a penknife from my pocket. “I wish we’d had a more complete autopsy report.”
    “In those days-”
    “I know.” I concentrated on one of the wormholes Annabel had noticed earlier, enlarging it a bit with my knife. Then I went to work with the tweezers. After a moment I extracted what I was seeking.
    “What is it, Doc?”
    “Buckshot. Annabel thought they were wormholes, but I noticed the other side was unmarked. These were worms that went in but didn’t come out. Notice the unusual pattern they formed.” I pointed out a half-dozen small holes toward the sides and top of the door.
    “A buckshot pattern would be more circular,” he argued.
    “Not if something or someone had been in its way. Don’t you see, Sheriff? Fritz Heck was standing by this open door when someone fired a shotgun at him. I know they probably had one on the premises because I found an old shotgun shell in the dirt there. The missing pellets from the pattern are in Heck’s body, and judging by the close grouping of these other pellets that shotgun blast was probably enough to kill him.”
    “Rusty Wagner was the only one in the house at the time.”
    “Exactly,” I told him. “We’ll never know now what happened, but Wagner told you they’d been chatting about a girl they met. Maybe they argued about her, maybe Wagner picked up the shotgun that every farmhouse had in those days and tried to drive Heck from the Cloister. Maybe it went off accidentally by the front door.”
    “Then he started the fire deliberately?”
    I nodded. “To cover the crime. He probably made a special point of burning the body, to cover up the wounds from the shotgun pellets. When he got too close and burned his own face it added verisimilitude to his story.”
    “Any coroner today would have found those shotgun pellets.”
    “Probably. He certainly would have spotted the absence of smoke in the lungs, a sure sign that Heck was already dead when the fire started.”
    Sheriff Lens sighed. “With Wagner dead there’s not much point in exhuming the body now.”
    “None whatsoever.”
    “I only wish you’d been around here a year earlier, Doc, and I wouldn’t have missed all this. It was a perfect crime.”
    I shook my head. “No, Sheriff. The perfect crime was the murder of Rusty Wagner in front of this building last Tuesday. And there’s not a thing we can do about it.”
    As it happened, Annabel and I were dining at Max’s Steakhouse, our favorite restaurant, a few nights later when I spotted Milt Stern drinking at the bar. “Excuse me for a few minutes,” I told her. “I’m going to talk to him.”
    “Sam! You said you wouldn’t.”
    But I got up anyway and went over to him. “Got a few minutes, Milt?”
    “Sure. What’s up?”
    “I just want to chat. Over in that empty booth would be best.”
    He glanced toward Annabel at our table. “You shouldn’t leave her alone.”
    “This won’t take long.”
    He followed me to the booth and slid in the other side. “So what’s this all about?”
    “Rusty Wagner.”
    “God, I feel terrible about that! It’s as if I’d murdered him.”
    “You did.”
    He moistened his lips and gave a half laugh. “Well, not really. The gun had a blank cartridge in it.”
    “What was it that made you move here, Milt? Did you know your brother had been murdered that day up at the Cloister?”
    “He wasn’t-”
    “Yes he was, Milt. I saw the snapshot of the two of you and even then I noticed the resemblance. Ten years ago you left Hartford and moved here, changing your name from the German Heck to its English meaning, stern. You suspected all along that Wagner had killed your brother. Perhaps he hinted at trouble between them in one of his letters. Once here you settled down and married. Somewhere along the line you saw the Cloister door that Felix Pond had rescued from the place, and recognized those little ‘wormholes’ for what they were. When you heard that Wagner would be coming here to take part in a war-bond drive, the idea came to you.”
    “What idea?”
    “You would suggest to Pond that he donate that old door for the war-bond auction. Then, when the mayor was discussing a clever way to bring Wagner on stage, you volunteered to dress in a Nazi costume and fire a blank pistol at him. You knew, of course, that he’d had rheumatic fever twice as a child. Perhaps your brother mentioned it or you read it in a movie fan magazine. Such a medical history almost certainly would have left him with a weak heart, probably the reason for his draft deferral.”
    “He knew in advance I was going to fire a blank pistol at him,” Milt Stern said. “That wouldn’t have caused a heart attack.”
    “Perhaps not alone. But when he came onto that stage what he saw was the friend he’d killed twenty-two years ago, aged a bit but still recognizable, standing in front of that same door and pointing a gun at him. In the instant the gun went off, his weak heart failed.”
    “Do you really expect anyone to believe that?”
    “No,” I admitted. “Certainly not a jury.”
    Milt Stern smiled at me. “Then why are you telling me this? Who else have you told?”
    “Sheriff Lens knows, and the mayor soon will know. They can’t bring any charge against you, but it might be better if you left Northmont, moved back to Hartford.”
    He studied my face for a long time. “Don’t you understand it’s something I had to do? Whether he lived or died was out of my hands.”
    “Whether you stay or go is out of my hands, too,” I told him.
    “All right,” he said at last. “I’ll take your advice.”
    I left the booth and went back to join Annabel. I’d done all that I could.

A Shower of Daggers by Edward D. Hoch

    Susan Holt awoke with a start, wondering why her bed felt so hard. Then memory flooded back in a blinding instant of terror and she knew she was in a jail cell, accused of murder. She opened her eyes and saw a woman in the next holding cell staring at her through the bars. “You’re awake,” the woman said.
    “What? Yes. Yes, I’m awake. What time is it, please?”
    “Barely daylight. Quarter to seven.”
    Susan groaned. She’d slept less than three hours and her mouth felt as if it was full of cobwebs. She glanced at the lidless toilet in one corner of the cell. “Do they give you anything to eat here?”
    “Pretty soon now. They’ll bring something around seven o’clock. What you in for?”
    “Murder, I guess. I haven’t been charged yet.” The other woman gave a low whistle of appreciation and Susan hastened to add, “I didn’t do it.”
    “Have you called a lawyer?”
    “Not exactly. I called someone who’ll get me a lawyer.” She had called Mike Brentnor, her coworker in promotions at Mayfield’s, Manhattan’s largest department store. He was hardly a friend, but in the middle of the night in a strange city she was feeling desperate. Considering that she’d awakened him from a sound sleep, he’d been both concerned and reassuring, promising to be on the first morning plane out of LaGuardia, a flight that would take less than an hour.
    Presently a guard brought her a breakfast tray with some juice, coffee, and a hard roll. “You’ll be brought before the judge at ten o’clock,” he said, not unkindly. “Have you seen your lawyer yet?”
    “No. I think someone’s on the way.”
    Mike Brentnor arrived a few minutes before nine, looking just a bit flustered. He was slim and slyly handsome, around thirty, the sort of man Susan used to see by the dozen in Manhattan singles bars. She met with him now in one of the interrogation rooms. “I phoned Marx from the airport and he gave me the name of a good criminal lawyer up here,” he told her.
    For an instant she was dismayed that he’d reported to their superior, but of course Saul Marx would have to know about it. She wouldn’t be flying back as planned this afternoon. She’d be in a jail cell in upstate New York. “What did he say?”
    “That it must be a mistake. Who is this person you’re supposed to have killed?”
    “Betty Quint. It’s a long story. I’d rather just go over it once when the lawyer’s here.”
    “I left word at his office. They were going to try catching him at home so he could come directly here. Mayfield’s name carries some weight, I guess.”
    “I’m glad of that!” The coffee had revived her and she was feeling a little more human.
    “I’m pleased you phoned me, Susan. I heard you broke up with Russell and I can’t say I’m sorry about that. You know I’ve always had a fondness for you.”
    “Fondness? Is that what you call it?” She decided to make things clear from the beginning. A night in a jail cell had intensified the anger she sometimes felt toward Brentnor, though she knew none of what had happened was his fault. “I phoned you because I didn’t want to wake Saul in the middle of the night, and yours was the only other Mayfield’s home phone number I had with me. I do appreciate your flying up here, but let’s not get the wrong idea.”
    “All right,” he agreed, flushing at her harsh words. “Now tell me what-”
    A guard came to announce that her lawyer had arrived. He bustled in looking like an upstate version of Mike Brentnor, though with more style. She had a sudden vision of him in a courtroom defending her on the murder charge.
    “Hello, Miss Holt,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Irving Farber from the firm of Freeman and Farber. That’s my father in the firm name, not me.” A smile flashed across his face, then was gone. He was all business. “What happened here?”
    “I’ve been arrested for murder is what happened,” Susan said, her anger rising again.
    “Have you made a statement to the police?”
    “I told them what happened. They questioned me for hours until I demanded a lawyer.”
    “That’s good.” He took a yellow legal pad from his briefcase and started to make notes. “What about the assistant D.A.? Was he in to see you?”
    She nodded. “After they photographed and fingerprinted me. I told him I wanted to phone a coworker to get me a lawyer. By that time all I wanted was some sleep.”
    “All right, Susan. May I call you Susan? Suppose you tell me your story from the beginning.”
    He glanced questioningly at Mike Brentnor and Susan said, “It’s all right if he stays. I have nothing to hide.”
    “Let’s start at the beginning. What brought you to our city?”
    Susan took a deep breath, as if she was about to dive into a swimming pool. “I work for Mayfield’s, the Manhattan department store. We’re opening our first location in western New York at your new shopping mall in Pembroke and I flew up to work out the details of some special promotions. Betty Quint was my contact here.”
    More notes. “How long had you known Miss Quint?”
    “I’d met her once at our New York office about six months ago. She stayed overnight at my apartment. We’d been in constant touch by phone, fax, and E-mail since then. This is my first trip up here because there was no point in coming until the store was almost ready to open.”
    “When does it open?”
    “Next Tuesday. A week from today.”
    “Go on. Describe everything that happened.”
    I took the Monday afternoon flight up from LaGuardia (Susan continued), arriving at midafternoon. Betty met me at the airport and drove me to the new store. She was a friendly, uninhibited young woman of about my age, around thirty. Seeing her again confirmed my impression of her from our initial meeting at the New York store. She was a good worker, perfect for this store, but perhaps lacking the cool sophistication needed for the Manhattan retail scene. She liked jokes and didn’t mind attracting attention to herself. I wasn’t surprised when she mentioned she was active in a local theater group.
    We toured the completed Mayfield’s store, where clerks were busy unpacking merchandise for the shelves and racks. Betty consulted her notebook frequently as she led the way through the store, pointing out special features of interest. A small café was already open for the employees and we took advantage of it for coffee and a snack.
    “I’m so excited to be part of the Mayfield’s team!” Betty gushed. “Have you been with them long?”
    “About nine years. Ever since college.”
    “I thought Manhattan was very exciting when I was there in the spring.”
    “It is, but most of my excitement has come from traveling for the store. I’ve been to Tokyo, Iceland, Switzerland, London, and all over America.”
    “Do you meet lots of men on the job?”
    “Not too many,” I said. “I told you about Russell.”
    “Are you back living with him?”
    “No.” I felt like saying it was none of her business. Instead, I shifted the conversation back to the new store. “Do you have anyone helping you on promotions?”
    “Sadie Shepherd, she’s my secretary.” Her face brightened. “There she is now! I’ll introduce you.” She called out to a slender dark-haired woman in her twenties who was already headed in our direction. “Sadie, this is Susan Holt, the promotions coordinator at Mayfield’s flagship store in Manhattan.”
    The young woman had a pleasant smile and seemed eager to please. “So glad to meet you! Betty told me about the great time she had in New York.”
    “It was fun for me too. Perhaps you can come down and see our store sometime.”
    “I’d love that,” Sadie said, then turned her attention briefly to Betty. “I wanted to catch you before you left. Here are a couple of phone messages.”
    “Thanks, Sadie.” She glanced at them and slipped them into a pocket of her notebook. When we were alone again she turned back to me. “It would be great if you could stay and help me through next Tuesday’s opening.”
    “I’m afraid that’s impossible, Betty. I have to fly back tomorrow afternoon. But we can go over lots of things while I’m here. If you’re free we can have dinner tonight. My expense account is fairly generous.”
    “That would be great! We have a wonderful new French restaurant down by the harbor.”
    “I’ll have to check in at my hotel first. I don’t want to inconvenience you. I should rent a car.”
    “Why bother, for just one night? I’ll drive you to the hotel and then we can go to my place while I change.”
    It wasn’t quite as simple as it sounded. Just as we pulled up at my hotel Betty received a call on her cell phone. She seemed annoyed at the caller, someone named Roger, and tried to get rid of him. “Look, I’m working right now, Roger. Sadie gave me your messages, but I was too busy to get back to you. Can’t we talk about this later?” She listened for a moment and then said, “I’m with someone from the New York office and we’ll be going back to my apartment.” When he said something else she uttered an obscenity and pushed the Off button on the phone.
    I gave a grunt of approval. “Is Roger an old boyfriend?”
    “Worse than that,” she said, but explained no further.
    It took me a few minutes to check in and she accompanied me to my room.
    “I just want to slip into a dress and we can be on our way,” I told her.
    “It’s not a fancy place.”
    “I’ve gotten a bit rumpled from traveling. I’ll only be a minute.”
    She sat down on the bed. “Do you smoke?”
    “Tried it. Gave it up.”
    She’d opened her purse to take out a cigarette but then thought better of it. Meanwhile, I’d unzipped my overnight bag and removed this simple print dress I’d brought with me for early fall wear. I didn’t bother retreating to the bathroom for a modest change of clothes. We’d seen pretty much all of each other the night Betty stayed over at my Manhattan apartment. That was also the night she’d startled me by suggesting we stop for after-dinner drinks at the Plaza bar and then paying for them with a hundred-dollar bill.
    “Can I use your phone?” she asked as I was freshening my makeup.
    “Go ahead.” I motioned toward the nightstand.
    She got an outside line and punched in a local number. When the party answered she started right in. “Roger phoned me awhile ago.” A pause and then, “Well, I don’t like it.”
    I tried to keep busy with my make-up to avoid being too obvious about my eavesdropping. “I’m at the hotel now,” she said, “but I’ll be back to my apartment shortly. What’ll I do if he comes up and wants the money?”
    She listened intently after that, finally said, “All right,” and hung up with a sigh.
    “Is anything wrong?” I asked casually, finishing with my makeup.
    “No, no. Just man trouble. You know how it is.”
    We started out for her apartment but she was openly nervous, keeping an eye on the rearview mirror as if fearful of being followed. I wondered about that but asked no further questions, even when she seemed to double back on her route and take the long way through a number of narrow residential streets. “Less traffic this way,” she muttered, sensing my questioning gaze.
    Presently we entered a neighborhood of large older homes, many of which had been split into apartments and needed ugly second – and third-floor fire escapes to comply with housing codes for multiple dwellings. Betty Quint parked in front of one of these. “Come on up. I want to take a quick shower and then we’ll be on our way.”
    It was already after six and starting to get dark. Thick gray clouds had rolled in, threatening rain. She led the way to a side door which she quickly unlocked. I noticed there were two mailboxes, one with her name and the other with Mr & Mrs R. James Liction. “The landlord,” she said by way of explanation. “A retired couple. They live downstairs. Come on up.” She led the way to her second-floor apartment.
    “It’s so large!” I marveled.
    “I have the entire second floor,” she answered with pride. “These old houses are great bargains.” She dropped her things on the coffee table and walked to the front window, gazing down at the street. “Damn!”
    “What’s the matter?”
    “He’s down there in a car. I think we were followed.”
    “Roger?”
    “I’m going to shower,” she said, walking into the bedroom as she shed her outer garments. I hesitated to follow but then she called to me. “Here’s something you might like even if you did quit smoking.”
    I walked into the bedroom and found her holding out a cigarette with crimped ends. “What is it, pot?” I asked.
    “Sure! It’s good stuff. Helps you unwind after a day’s work.”
    “No thanks. But go ahead if you want one.”
    She shrugged and tossed the joint on the bedside table. “I don’t like to smoke alone.”
    Wearing only a bra and panties she went into the bathroom and turned on the shower, rummaging in a cabinet for a bath towel. “Come on in, Susan. Talk to me while I shower.” She handed me the towel to hold.
    I sat on the closed toilet seat, feeling uncomfortable as she shed her underwear and tossed it into a laundry hamper. Then she felt the spray of water with her hand and stepped into the shower, pulling the curtain closed behind her. “Tell me about the Manhattan store,” she called out over the rush of water. “Is it true a homeless man lived there for days before he was discovered?”
    “I’ve heard stories like that, but I-”
    Betty Quint screamed, just once, chilling my spine. Then there was a thump as her body went down in the tub. “Betty!” I yanked open the shower curtain and stared at her body, drenched in the pounding spray of hot water.
    She’d been stabbed once in the back with a slender dagger that still protruded from the bloody wound. A second, identical dagger lay in the tub near her foot. Otherwise the tub was empty.
    I was alone in the steamy bathroom with her body.
    Irving Farber scratched his nose and stared at Susan. “That story is impossible, you know. It couldn’t have happened the way you told it.”
    “But it did!” she insisted. “I called 911 and the police were there within minutes.”
    “And they arrested you.”
    “Not right away. They questioned me for hours, trying to make me change my story. They accused me of all sorts of wild things, especially after they found the pot. I told them neither of us had smoked it but they kept pounding at it. One of the detectives suggested we’d been high on pot and made love to each other, and then I killed her to hush it up. That’s when I demanded a lawyer.”
    Farber’s face was grim. “What was the detective’s name?”
    “Sergeant Razerwell.”
    He made a note of it. “Tell me, Susan, what’s your explanation for Betty Quint’s death?”
    “I have none. I agree it’s impossible.”
    “Did you touch anything in the apartment after you phoned the police?”
    “No. I didn’t even turn off the shower. I couldn’t go back in there and see her again. I just sat in the bedroom and shivered until I had to open the door for the police.”
    Farber glanced at Mike Brentnor. “Will the store go bail for her?”
    The question startled him. “I – I don’t know. Depends on how much it is, I suppose.” He wasn’t about to admit he had no authority in the matter.
    “Who’s your boss?”
    “Saul Marx.”
    Irving Farber glanced at his watch. “Is he in the office by now? It’s nearly ten.”
    “He should be.”
    “Get on the phone and ask him about bail. Meanwhile, I’ll talk to the assistant D.A. and find out how much they’ll be wanting.”
    “Is there a chance I’ll get out of here?” Susan asked, her hopes soaring at the thought of it.
    “Depends on the D.A. ‘s office. Don’t get your hopes up.” He put the yellow pad in his attaché case and snapped it shut.
    Susan glanced at her watch. “I’m supposed to be in court in ten minutes.”
    “They’ll come for you when they’re ready. Sometimes these things are a bit loose. If they don’t get you there, it’s their fault, not yours.”
    The attorney and Mike Brentnor departed, leaving Susan to wonder just where she stood. She’d investigated a few murders in the past, during her travels for Mayfield’s, but she’d never been accused of committing one herself. The killing of Betty Quint while she was alone in the shower seemed so impossible that, paradoxically, Susan felt the solution must be a simple thing she could easily discover once she was free.
    Presently one of the guards came for her. “Am I going before the judge?” she asked.
    “Not yet. They want to question you some more.”
    Susan was immediately on guard. “My attorney-”
    “He’s been notified.”
    She was ushered into one of the interrogation rooms, where she sat down at the bare table to wait. Presently the door opened and a stocky red-haired man she’d never seen before entered. He was carrying a briefcase and Irving Farber was right behind him. “Good morning, Miss Holt,” the redhead said, flashing a smile that was quickly gone. “I’m Adam Dullea, US Secret Service.” He flashed an ID that looked like miniature currency with its finely engraved borders.
    Susan panicked, imagining some labyrinthian plot against the president. What had she gotten herself into? “What do you want?”
    “I just have a few questions regarding your relationship with Betty Quint.” He opened his briefcase and took out a clear plastic envelope with a hundred-dollar bill inside. “Have you ever seen one of these?”
    “A hundred dollars? I guess I’ve seen a few.”
    “Did Betty Quint ever show you one?”
    “No.” Then she remembered something. “She came to New York for a meeting about six months ago. We went out for dinner and drinks later and I remember she paid for the drinks with a hundred-dollar bill. I was a bit startled, but some people like to use big bills when they travel.”
    “This one is counterfeit,” he said.
    Susan peered at it more closely. It looked fine to her. “What’s its connection with Betty?”
    “She passed it at a local restaurant. There’ve been a few other incidents too. We’ve had her under surveillance.”
    “Is it true you can do these on a good color copier?” she asked.
    “Not of this quality. We think it was printed overseas.”
    “How-”
    “I’m asking the questions, Miss Holt. Did Betty Quint ever show you or give you a hundred-dollar bill?”
    “Just that one time when she paid for the drinks. And she gave it to the waiter, not to me.”
    “I understand from your statement to the police that she received a phone call from someone named Roger while driving you to your hotel.”
    “That’s correct.”
    “Did she identify him further?”
    “Not to me, no.”
    “And she made a call from your hotel room?”
    “Yes. I’m sure you could trace that. Most hotels keep a record of phone charges for billing purposes.”
    Adam Dullea looked at her sadly. “The call was made to the local Mayfield’s store, Miss Holt.”
    That surprised Susan and she must have shown it. “We’d just left there. Why would she -?”
    He took a deep breath. “Look, Miss Holt, we’re inclined to accept your story for the moment, and so are the local police. If you had killed her, you would certainly have come up with a better story than you did – a burglar on the fire escape or a prowler under the bed, for example. Also, your coworker Mike Brentnor has informed the police that you’ve been helpful with other murder cases in the past. You’ll be released on your own recognizance, but you’re to remain in the city for at least forty-eight hours pending another court apperance on Thursday, when charges may be dismissed. Is that agreeable?”
    “I suppose it’ll have to be.” What were they doing, giving her two days to find the real killer?
    The Secret Service agent departed and Farber smiled encouragement. “Come on, Susan. You’re on your way out of here.”
    In the courtroom it went exactly as predicted. The preliminary hearing was adjourned until Thursday morning at ten and she was released on her own recognizance. Mike Brentnor was waiting in the back of the courtroom. “Let’s go celebrate!”
    “I’ve nothing to celebrate, Mike. A woman’s been murdered and I’m the only one who could have killed her.”
    That was when Adam Dullea reappeared, his smile a bit more sincere this time. “Now that you’re released from custody, I wonder if we could talk.”
    “About the murder?”
    He nodded. “If you’ll excuse us, Mr Brentnor-”
    Susan was happy to escape from Mike’s eager clutches. She allowed herself to be guided out of the courthouse and into Dullea’s car. “Where are we going?” she asked.
    “Back to the scene of the crime. Isn’t that how these things are done?”
    She laughed. “I’m no psychic, you know. I don’t pick up the killer’s thoughts or visions. Sometimes I notice things that others have missed.”
    “That’s what I’m hoping for.”
    This time as the car pulled up to the house a white-haired man came onto the front porch to greet them. He introduced himself as James Liction. “I own the place. You folks more police?”
    Dullea showed his identification. “Secret Service. The victim was part of an ongoing investigation into counterfeit currency. Could I ask you if she paid her rent in cash?”
    He shook his head. “Always a check, first of the month. My wife Mona was just saying what a nice tenant she was. Never any trouble. I can’t believe she was involved with counterfeiters.”
    His wife a stocky woman who moved slowly, came out to join them. “Tell ’em about that suspicious-looking guy across the street, James.”
    “Well, I already told Sergeant Razerwell.”
    “Tell me too,” Dullea requested.
    Liction shifted his gaze to Susan. “I happened to see the two of you drive in. After that a fellow parked across the street. He just sat there in his car for a long time. It was too dark to get a good look at him. When he heard the sirens coming he left quick.”
    Susan remembered that Betty Quint had glanced out the front window and become upset when she saw the car. “We’re going to take another look upstairs,” Dullea told him.
    James Liction shrugged. “Go ahead.” He and his wife went back inside.
    The apartment was much the same as the day before, except that the door was sealed by yellow police crime-scene tape. Dullea pulled it away and used a key to enter. Inside Susan noticed signs that the drawers and closets had been searched by the police or Dullea’s people. “What are you looking for?” she asked. “More counterfeit money?”
    He nodded. “A great deal of it. Before she went to work for your store, Quint was employed on the reservations desk of a major airline. Her boyfriend, a copilot on international flights, brought back several small packages of counterfeit money, all hundreds like this one. They’re often printed overseas and used as bulk payoffs for drugs.” He brought out the bill he’d shown her earlier, in its clear plastic envelope. He pointed to the lower right of the portrait where it read “Series 1996” in small print. “Notice anything wrong with it?”
    She shook her head. “There’s Ben Franklin, looking the same as ever.”
    “That’s what’s wrong. Beginning in 1996 the hundred-dollar bills changed significantly. The portrait is larger and off-center. There’s a new watermark and other safety features. Skillful as this job is, the counterfeiters made a fatal mistake in using the old design and dating it 1996. These bills couldn’t be passed in bulk overseas, where a suitcase full of drug money would be carefully examined by the seller, so they were smuggled into this country to be passed individually.”
    “You think Susan’s boyfriend hid them here?”
    “Yes.”
    “And then killed her?”
    Dullea shook his head. “His name was Lloyd Baker. He was found shot to death last week in the parking lot at Kennedy Airport.”
    Susan sat down on the couch. “You think the same person killed Betty?”
    “No, as a matter of fact, Baker’s killer is in custody. We were moving in on Betty Quint and obtaining a search warrant for this apartment. The easy answer is that she feared being caught with the counterfeit money and committed suicide.”
    “She stabbed herself in the back? And where did she get the knife? She didn’t take it with her when she stepped into the shower. I was right there.”
    “All right, then. If it wasn’t suicide, what happened?”
    Susan recalled the scene vividly. “I don’t know. It was almost as if a shower of daggers hit her, instead of water.”
    “Daggers? There was only one.”
    Susan had gotten up and gone into the bathroom. She opened the cabinet that held the towels, then turned her attention to the shower itself. It was made of molded plastic, recessed into the wall. The plastic was solid and there was no clear sight line to the room’s only window, which had been closed in any event. The ceiling was smooth and unmarked, with the room’s only lights arranged on the wall above the mirror. The showerhead was normal. It had not dispensed daggers. The shower curtain was ordinary white opaque vinyl. “There were two daggers,” she called out to Dullea. “One in her back and another in the bottom of the tub.”
    Susan turned on the water and couldn’t hear Dullea’s reply. Something caught her eye. She reached down and peeled it away from the bottom of the tub. It was a piece of Scotch tape, several inches long. Stuck fast near the drain, it had been all but invisible. “Look at this,” she called to him.
    He came into the bathroom. “Tape. Where was it?”
    “Stuck to the bottom of the bathtub. They could have overlooked it in their crime scene search.”
    “What does it tell us?”
    “I don’t know.” She stared around the bathroom. “You mentioned a search warrant. When were you planning to use it?”
    “Last evening.”
    Susan thought about it. “Someone named Roger phoned her in the car, before we arrived at my hotel.”
    “I read that in your statement.”
    “Maybe he was going to take the counterfeit money off her hands. With her boyfriend dead she’d need to do something.”
    “You don’t just get a friend to deal in counterfeit.”
    “Maybe it’s the same friend who was selling her pot. He might have been interested.”
    “Roger?”
    “Roger,” Susan agreed. “When she made the call from my hotel room she sounded a bit frightened of him. And she’d had other messages from him earlier. Maybe she was afraid he’d kill her for those counterfeit hundreds. Maybe he did kill her, but I’m damned if I know how.”
    Susan still didn’t have a car of her own, and after Dullea left her off at the hotel she asked the room clerk where she could rent one. He directed her to a place just a few blocks away. As she was turning from the desk another thought struck her. “Do you keep a record of guests’ outgoing phone calls, with the numbers called?”
    “Yes, ma’am, we do.”
    “Could I see mine, please? I’ve mislaid a local number that I need.”
    He brought it up on the computer and jotted it down for her. “This is the only call from your room.”
    Susan glanced at it, a bit puzzled. “Yes, that’s the one. Thank you.” Dullea had told her that Betty Quint phoned Mayfield’s from her room, but the number at Mayfield’s new store ended in 6700. This number ended in 6743. Susan went up to her room and dialed it.
    A woman’s voice answered with, “Store promotions.”
    “Whose office is this?” she asked.
    “I – it was Betty Quint’s office.”
    “Sadie? Is this Sadie Shepherd?”
    “Yes. Betty is-”
    “I know. This is Susan Holt.”
    “Oh! Miss Holt!”
    Susan made a snap decision. “I’d like to speak with you after work today. Could we have a drink together?”
    “I don’t know. I’m busy tonight.”
    “I have to rent a car. What time do you finish up?”
    “Usually five, but until the opening I can pretty much leave any time. Since Miss Quint’s death-”
    “I’ll pick you up at five, Sadie. If you don’t want to go anywhere we can talk in the car.”
    She was outside the store in a new Chevy when the young woman emerged, exactly on the hour. Sadie heard her beep the horn and headed over to join her in the front seat. “It’s good to see you again, Miss Holt. That was terrible news about poor Betty.”
    “How do you think I felt, being right on the scene?” Susan left the motor off since Sadie had indicated she had no time for a drink.
    “How did it happen?” the young woman asked.
    “I was hoping you could tell me.”
    Her face froze into a mask of ice. It could have been fright or defiance. “I don’t know what you mean.”
    “How was Betty Quint killed in that shower, Sadie? You know, don’t you?”
    “Why do you say that?”
    “Because I think you were responsible for her death.”
    Sadie Shepherd exploded into fury. “That’s a damned lie! I know nothing about it!”
    “Calm down and listen. This is what I know so far. Betty’s boyfriend was killed after smuggling a large quantity of counterfeit hundred-dollar bills into this country from overseas. They had a flaw in them that made it necessary to pass them individually rather than in bulk, where they’d be closely examined. After her boyfriend’s death, Betty tried to find a buyer for the money and she went to a man named Roger who was supplying her with pot and maybe other drugs. You two became friendly and she confided all of this to you. Somehow Roger frightened her, perhaps by demanding the counterfeit hundreds for less money than she wanted. He phoned her yesterday and made more threats. Back at my hotel, she phoned you at the store to tell you what was happening. She phoned her own direct number, but of course you answered. At the store yesterday you gave her some messages you’d taken in her absence, so I knew you answered her phone. Just as you did when I called that number earlier.”
    “You think you know everything, don’t you? We didn’t become friendly only recently, as you say. We’ve been friends for two years, since we were in a local theater production together. She got me the job as her assistant at Mayfield’s. I liked her. She was lots of fun, always joking and doing crazy things.”
    “What about her drug problem?”
    “She smoked a little pot, sure, but nothing more than that.”
    “Roger was her supplier?”
    She nodded. “I told her not to go to him about the money, but she had all these hundreds and she was afraid to pass them herself. She’d tried a few here and in New York, but it made her too nervous.”
    “Her boyfriend had hidden the counterfeit money with her?”
    “Sure. He thought it was the safest place, but it didn’t keep him from getting killed.”
    “Roger followed us back to her apartment last night. He was parked across the street.”
    Sadie turned away. “I told her what to do on the phone earlier.”
    “What was your advice?”
    “I said if he was at the apartment she should manage to make her escape somehow. If he went after her, I’d go up there and take the money before he got it. She’d given me a duplicate key.”
    “She made her escape all right, by getting killed. Did you go there last night?”
    “God, no! When I heard about her death on the news I knew there’d be cops all over the place.”
    “Where was the money hidden?” Susan asked.
    “Inside a folded towel in the bathroom cabinet.”
    “If it was still there, the police certainly found it. They were all over that bathroom.”
    She touched the door handle. “Look, I’ve got to go. I’ve told you everything I know.”
    “Not quite everything. Where can I find Roger?”
    “I don’t know. He was just a name to me. Betty never told me anything about him.”
    She left the car quickly, walking across the paved lot to her own little white Neon. Susan sat where she was until Sadie Shepherd had pulled out and vanished down the highway. She wanted to make certain she wasn’t being followed.
    Back at her hotel she found the Secret Service waiting for her. Adam Dullea intercepted her on the way to the elevator. “You’re a tough one to keep up with. I leave you alone for a few hours and you’re off on your own.”
    “I thought I had to clear myself by Thursday morning. I can’t do that sitting in a hotel room.”
    “Where did you go?”
    “You mean you didn’t have me followed?”
    He laughed. “That was my job.”
    Susan just stood there in the lobby, wondering how much she could safely tell him. Finally she said, “All right, come on up and I’ll tell you what I learned.”
    In the room she opened the minibar and offered him a drink which he declined. “Maybe a Coke, if you’re having something.” She joined him in one and he said, “Your friend Brentnor’s been worried about you.”
    “I should be so hard on Mike. He did fly right up here and help rescue me from a jail cell. I just always have the feeling he’s waiting for a chance to paw me.”
    “Has he tried it before?”
    “Once or twice. But he backs off when he sees I don’t like it.”
    He sipped his drink. “Where were you this afternoon?”
    “Out at the store. I still work for a living.”
    “So do I. Who did you see there?”
    “Betty’s assistant, a young woman named Sadie Shepherd.”
    “Does she know anything about the killing?”
    “Betty was an old friend. She told Sadie about the counterfeit money. She was afraid this Roger fellow wanted to take it without paying her price.”
    “That’s about what we figured.”
    “The money was hidden in the bathroom cabinet with her towels.”
    “It was?” The news seemed to startle Dullea. “Sergeant Razer-well told me he personally searched the entire bathroom, including the toilet tank.”
    Susan looked up. A sudden thought struck her. “What’s Razer-well’s first name?”
    “Eric. Don’t let your imagination run wild.”
    She brooded about it for a moment, then remembered something else. “While I was in her bathroom earlier, you said something about the dagger that killed her and I told you there were two daggers.”
    He shook his head. “Only one.”
    “There was a second dagger at the bottom of the tub.”
    “No, just the weapon that killed her. It was still in her back.” She held her breath, eyes closed, and asked one more question.
    “Were you parked across the street at the time of the murder, watching the apartment?”
    “Sure. I told you we were going to use the search warrant last night. I had to make sure she didn’t remove the money before my men arrived. When the police came I drove away until I could find out what was going on.”
    Susan opened her eyes and smiled. “Then I know how it was done.”
    It was back to Betty Quint’s apartment once more. Darkness had settled in and a strong breeze was blowing a few dead leaves down the center of the street. White-haired James Liction opened the door in answer to their ring and seemed more resigned than surprised at seeing them. “What is it? You want to examine the apartment again?”
    “I don’t think that’ll be necessary right now,” Susan told him. “I just want to ask you one question.”
    “Well, you might as well come in. You too, Mr Dullea. Now what’s the question?”
    The answer came before she had a chance to ask it. From the kitchen, his wife called out, “Who is it, Roger?”
    “It’s just-” Liction began. Then he must have seen the expression on Susan’s face and realized what had happened. He tried to twist away as Dullea reached out to grab him.
    When the Secret Service man had him under control, Mrs Liction came into the room. “Hey, what’s going on?”
    “We just have a few questions for your husband, that’s all.”
    She seemed resigned to it. “About the drugs, I suppose.”
    “That and other things.”
    Then Susan spoke. “I was going to ask you what the ‘R’ stood for in R. James Liction, the name on your mailbox. I thought maybe it was Roger. That’s what Betty Quint called you, wasn’t it?”
    “I guess so,” he mumbled. “I might have sold her a little pot. Nothing wrong with that.”
    “Are you growing it in the basement?” Dullea asked. “Some people do.”
    “Can I call you Roger?” Susan asked, then went on. “Roger, we know Betty offered to sell you a quantity of counterfeit hundred-dollar bills from overseas. She was frightened that you might try to steal them from her.”
    “I didn’t kill her,” Liction insisted. He could see where the conversation was leading. “I couldn’t have killed her. You were alone with her when it happened.”
    “How did you know that?” Susan asked. “By looking in the bathroom window from your perch on the fire escape? Yes, I know there’s a fire escape outside that window even though I didn’t actually look at it. I saw the fire escape to the second floor when I drove up with Betty yesterday, and Mr Dullea here even commented on the unlikely prospect of a burglar coming through the bathroom window from the fire escape.”
    Liction moistened his lips. “I think I want a lawyer.”
    “You’ll get one,” Adam Dullea said, formally stating his rights. “First thing, we’re going to get Sergeant Razerwell down here to make the formal arrest. The murder is his job. I’m just interested in the money.”
    Mrs Liction spoke from the doorway. “If we give you the money, will you forget about the killing?”
    “Shut up, Mona!” he nearly screamed.
    “You see,” Susan continued, “I made a big mistake. Betty had seen someone in a car across the street and that frightened her. I thought it was Roger, but she knew it was Mr Dullea here. She was caught between the two of them, with no way out. Maybe she’d even spotted you on the fire escape, Roger. Anyway, she decided to fake an attack on herself in the shower and escape by being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. She’d done some community theater work and had a fake dagger with one of those collapsible blades, the sort that ejects imitation blood when the blade retracts. It has adhesive to stick to the skin. While she was rummaging for a towel, she took the fake dagger and a real one and attached them to her body with Scotch tape, probably under her arm where I couldn’t see it. Her secretary Sadie said she was a great joker. Maybe she’d even pulled this stunt before.”
    Dullea was shaking his head. “Are you saying she accidentally killed herself?”
    “No, no! She meant to tell me she was wounded and to call an ambulance. Then she’d give herself a flesh wound with the real dagger before they arrived, and she’d be rushed to the hospital, escaping both Roger and the Secret Service. But after sticking the collapsing dagger to her back, she let herself fall in the shower and accidentally hit her head, knocking her out for a moment. The real dagger, still taped to her body, came loose and fell in the tub. I saw the daggers and thought she was dead. Roger here had heard her scream, and while I was phoning 911 he came in the window of the bathroom to get the package of money. He must have seen her hide it there earlier. She was beginning to stir in the tub and he stabbed her with the real dagger. He saw that the first one was a fake, so he pulled it off her back and took it with him, along with the money. He went back out the window and closed it behind him.”
    “How long would that have taken?”
    “Not more than thirty seconds, and any sounds would have been covered by the water from the shower, which I hadn’t turned off. I stayed out of the bathroom completely after I called the police.”
    “What would she have told you and the doctors after the hoax was discovered?” Dullea asked.
    Susan shrugged. “She’d have had a slight flesh wound to show the doctors, and she’d have thought up some story to explain the knife. She’d have told me it was meant to be a joke and it backfired. At least she’d be safe from both Roger and you. That was the important thing.”
    Dullea allowed a brief nod of agreement. “How did you know it was Liction? That first initial wasn’t much evidence to go on.”
    “There was something else. When Betty called Sadie from my hotel room, she said she was going back to her apartment and what should she do if Roger came up and demanded the money. She was saying that Roger lived downstairs, if I’d only known how to interpret her words. And once I knew Roger was so close, the method of murder wasn’t so hard to work out. One of the daggers had disappeared, and that meant someone had entered the bathroom before the police arrived. No one came through the door and the window was the only other entrance. If I hadn’t killed Betty, the person who entered through the window must have done it. Roger was too likely to be ignored.”
    It was Mona Liction who returned with the package of counterfeit money while they waited for the police. “Here! Take it! I told him not to get involved in this. Take it and leave us alone.”
    Adam Dullea reached out a hand as a police car pulled up in front. “I’ll take it, but I’m afraid we won’t be leaving you alone for quite some time.”

The Hook by Robert Randisi

    Robert Randisi (b. 1951) is a powerhouse of creative energy. Not only does he write scores of crime stories and westerns, some ghost written for others, he also founded the Private Eye Writers of America Association in 1981, inaugurated the Shamus Awards for the best P.I. fiction, and co-founded (with Ed Gorman) the news magazine of the field, Mystery Scene. Before writing full-time Randisi worked as an admin, assistant for the NYPD, which gave him plenty of material for his series featuring the New York police detective Joe Keough, whose adventures began in Alone with the Dead (1995). Amongst his many books is The Ham Reporter (1986) in which an ageing Bat Master son teams up with a young Damon Runyon in 1911. The following story, set a few years earlier, also features the legendary Bat Master son in a series of inexplicable murders.

1

    Denver, 1899
    George’s Weekly
    Normally, this is a sports column, but something has happened in this city and no one seems to be doing anything. Three women have been killed on the streets of Denver and the police department seems to be unable-or unwilling – to do anything about it. All citizens of Denver-decent and otherwise – have a right to be able to walk the streets in peace and safety. The old west – they keep telling me-is gone. The twentieth century is upon us, and yet these young women are dead and the killer is still at large. Shame on you, Chief Flaherty, and shame on the Mayor.
    The banging on the door woke Bat, who reached out for Emma only to find her gone. This was not unusual. She often rose before he did, as she often retired before him. If she was up, she would answer the door, and would not allow anyone to disturb him unless it was…
    “Bat?” she said, softly. “It’s the police.”
    When Bat entered Chief Flaherty’s office there was one other man there, seated in front of the Chief’s desk. Flaherty’s normally florid face was redder than ever as he told the police officer who had delivered Bat, “You can go.”
    “What’s this all about, Chief?” Bat asked. “I don’t usually get up this early in the-”
    “Masterson,” Flaherty said, cutting him off, “this is Inspector House. Inspector, Bat Masterson.”
    House stood up and turned to face Bat. He had a genial grin on his face as he extended his hand and said, “Quite a column in today’s paper.”
    “Oh,” Bat said, accepting the younger man’s extended hand, “so that’s what this is about.”
    “That’s right, Masterson,” Flaherty said. “Since you think the Denver police are so inept, I’m gonna accept your offer of help in this case.”
    “I didn’t offer-”
    “Or I’m gonna toss your ass in jail for obstructing the investigation.”
    “I didn’t obstruct-”
    “One or the other,” Flaherty said. “The choice is yours.”
    Bat could see that the Police Chief was deadly serious. It had been a few years since he’d seen the inside of a cell, and his recent spare of soft living had not left him in shape to handle the food.
    George’s Weekly was owned and edited by Herbert George, who was so thrilled to have the likes of Bat writing for his paper that he allowed the western legend to cover any subject he wanted. Ostensibly a sports columnist, on this morning Bat was berating the Denver police for their inability to track down and capture the man who had, in recent months, killed three women on the streets of Denver. Two were what polite society called “decent” women, and the third was what that same group referred to as “fallen”. To Bat Masterson, whether the women were somebody’s wife or a street whore didn’t matter.
    Actually, it did matter to Bat. The person it didn’t matter to was his wife, Emma. She was the one who was particularly upset about the murders, since she and her friends no longer felt safe on the streets.
    “It’s the job of the police to catch this maniac, isn’t it?” she’d asked him yesterday morning while he dressed.
    “Yes, dear.”
    “And they’re not doing their job, are they?”
    “No, dear.”
    “Well, then, somebody should light a fire under their asses, shouldn’t they?” she demanded.
    “Yes, dear.” Bat wasn’t surprised at his wife’s language. When they’d met she had been performing on stage at the Palace Theater, which at the time he’d owned (and had since sold). Stage people, he’d found, often “salted” their language.
    “Somebody with the public’s ear,” she finished, and stared at him.
    It suddenly became clear that she was talking about him, so he fixed his tie, turned to her, kissed her cheek and said, “Yes, dear.”
    He’d written the column, half expecting that Herbert George would not run it.
    But he did…
    Bat sighed. “I guess you got yourself a volunteer, Chief.”
    “Excellent,” Flaherty said. “House has been working on the case so far, so he will catch you up on what’s been going on. I think you two should work well together.”
    “Shall we go?” House asked, standing up.
    Bat stood and said, “Lead the way.”
    “Oh, and one more thing,” Flaherty said before they reached the door. “When this thing blows up it ain’t gonna be blowin’ up in my face. It’s gonna be your faces. You two got that?”
    “Got it,” Bat sad.
    “Yessir,” House said.
    The two men left the office.

2

    “I don’t get it,” House said, out in the hall.
    “What is there to get?”
    “You’re Bat Masterson,” House said. “Why would you agree to this just because of some threats from our blowhard police chief?”
    “Are you married, son?”
    “No, sir.”
    “Then you wouldn’t understand.”
    Inspector House led Bat to an office and closed the door behind them.
    “Have a seat.”
    The detective walked around and sat behind his desk. On it were three folders. He put his hand on them.
    “Want to read them, or do you want me to tell you what we have?” he asked.
    But sat across from the man. “Just tell me.”
    “How much do you know?”
    “Only what I read in the newspapers, like everyone else.”
    House sat back in his chair. “Well, forget everything you read,” he said. “It’s all false.”
    “Why?”
    “We’ve kept the truth to ourselves.”
    “And has that helped?”
    “No.”
    “All right, well,” Bat said, settling back in his chair, “tell me what you’ve got.”
    “We reported that the three women were robbed and murdered,” House said. “We deliberately left out the method that was used to kill them. Because of that, all these ‘Jack the Ripper’ rumors have started.”
    Bat had the good grace to experience some chagrin. He had, after all, mentioned Jack the Ripper to Herbert George only yesterday.
    “And were they killed the same way Jack the Ripper’s victims were?” he asked.
    “Not at all,” House said.
    “So how were they killed?”
    “We don’t know,” House said.
    “What does that mean?”
    “It means there was no sign of violence on them,” House said. “They were just… dead.”
    “Natural causes?” Bat asked. “All three?”
    “No,” House said. “They had to have been killed. They were dumped where they were found. Somebody killed them, we just don’t know how.”
    “It’s impossible to kill somebody and not leave a mark on them,” Bat said. “Where were they found?”
    “Different parts of the city,” House said, “but the odd thing is… the family of the third woman.”
    “What about them?”
    “Well… she was found down by the docks,” the Inspector said. “They claim she never would have gone down there.”
    “Why not?”
    “She wouldn’t have reason to,” House explained, “and she was afraid.”
    “So maybe a man took her there?”
    “They say no,” the inspector said. “She was married. Her husband can’t explain what she was doing down there.”
    “How old was she?”
    “Twenty-eight.”
    “Happily married?”
    “By all accounts.”
    “Where were the other women found, exactly?”
    “One was found in a Market Street alley, another at the train station.”
    “The train station? Where?”
    “Behind one of the buildings.”
    “It sounds like all these girls were… discarded.”
    “Yes.”
    Bat sat and thought a moment. It was actually a smart move for Flaherty to bring in someone with a fresh perspective. He was just sorry it had been him.
    House went on to expalin how he had conducted his investigation, and how he had come up with nothing concrete to point to the killer.
    “The women are all in their twenties,” he said, “but that’s the only similarity. The first was a whore, the second an old maid and the third happily married.”
    “Old maid? How old?”
    “Twenty-nine. Not attractive. No prospects.”
    “What about the other two and where they were found?” Bat asked.
    “Not unusual,” House said. “The whore was the one found behind the train station. She could have been doing some business there.”
    “And the second woman? Was she known to frequent the area where she was found?”
    “Not frequent, but friends didn’t find anything unusual about it.”
    “Where did she work?”
    “The other end of town,” House said, “near where she lived.”
    “So she was found a long way from either.”
    “Yes.”
    “I’m not a detective, but it still sounds like they were dumped, like human refuse. Were they killed where they were found?”
    “Hard to tell.”
    Bat rubbed his face. He hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet.
    “What else did the bodies tell you?”
    “The bodies?”
    “They were examined, weren’t they?”
    “Well, yes, but… I told you, they weren’t attacked.”
    “Was anything done to them after they were dead?”
    “What do you mean? Do you mean…” House looked horrified.
    “People have done things to bodies after they’re dead, Inspector. I’m sure you know that.”
    “Yes, well…”
    “How about autopsies?” Bat asked. “Were the bodies autopsied?”
    “Autopsied?”
    “You do know what an autopsy is, don’t you?”
    “Well, uh, yeah, I guess…”
    Bat knew that Doctor George E. Goodfellow had conducted autopsies during the time he spent as coroner in Tombstone, Arizona. He also knew until the 1860s autopsies were pretty much confined to execution victims. But this was 1899, the dawn of a new century. Autopsies were being used to find cures for disease, why not use them to find out other things?
    “Maybe an autopsy would tell us something we don’t know,” Bat said. “Where are the bodies?”
    “Well… the third is at the morgue. She was only killed a few days ago. The others are… I assume they’ve been buried.”
    “We might have to dig them up.”
    “What? Oh, no, the families… the Chief wouldn’t like-”
    “The Chief volunteered me for this and I’ve come up with an idea nobody else had. He’ll go along with it.”
    “But-”
    Bat stood up. “Let’s go ask him.”

3

    Chief Flaherty went along with it, but only to a point. He agreed that the third girl should be autopsied, but held off any decision about the other two until after that.
    Now they needed to find a doctor who would do it. At that time Denver had no coroner and would not have until 1902.
    “Get a doctor the same way you got me,” Bat told Flaherty. “Volunteer one.”
    “I got a better idea,” Flaherty said, and that’s how it became Bat’s job to come up with a doctor. But it was actually Emma Masterson who came up with a suggestion.
    After Bat returned home and told Emma what had happened she said, “I have just the woman for you.”
    “Woman?” Bat asked. “A female doctor?”
    She folded her arms across her bosom. “And what’s wrong with a female doctor?”
    “Emma, we’re going to be asking her to cut open these women-”
    “Justina is a doctor, Bat,” she said. “Cutting into a body is not going to frighten her.”
    “All right, all right,” he said. “How do you know her?”
    “I came across her delivering babies in my volunteer work,” she said.
    “Delivering babies? This is a long way from delivering babies-”
    “I told you, she’s a doctor.” Emma actually stamped her foot in frustration.
    “All right,” he said, again. “Since it’s your fault I’m involved, I’m going to go with your suggestion. Where does this Doctor… whatsername live?”
    “Doctor Justina Ford,” Emma said. “She moved here only a few months ago to practice. She graduated from medical school earlier this year-don’t you dare interrupt me again, Bat Masterson!”
    The buggy pulled up in front of 1880 Gaylord St and Bat and Inspector House stepped out.
    “A lady doctor,” House said to him, as they approached the door.
    “Yes.”
    “Women are supposed to be nurses,” the Inspector said, “not doctors.”
    “House, I’ve already gone through this with my wife,” Bat said, the exasperation clear in his voice. “We need a doctor, right?”
    “Right.”
    “I can’t keep calling you House. What’s your first name? Or do you want me to keep calling you Inspector?”
    “My name is Harry.”
    Bat looked at him.
    “Harry House?”
    “That’s right.”
    Bat waited a beat, then said, “I’ll call you House.”
    When the black woman answered the door Bat said, “We’re here to see Doctor Ford. Would you tell her that we’re here, please?”
    “I am Doctor Ford,” the woman said. “You must be Bat. Emma said you would be coming by to see me. Please, come in.”
    She turned and went inside, leaving them to follow her or not. Bat and House exchanged a glance. Both men were obviously even more taken aback by the fact that she was black, let alone a woman.
    They followed her inside, Bat first. They found her in a modestly furnished living room. She was in her late twenties, her hair pulled back tightly, her skin very dark and smooth.
    “My surgery is through there,” she said, inclining her head toward a door, “but we can talk in here. Would either of you like refreshments?”
    “No, uh, Ma’am,” Bat said. “We might as well just get to it. Did Emma tell you what we wanted?”
    “No,” the woman said, “she just told me that you needed a doctor and she recommended me. What is it you need done, gentlemen?”
    “An autopsy,” Bat said.
    “Just one?”
    “At first,” he said. “Maybe two more, but those victims are already buried.”
    She looked at House.
    “You’re a policeman?”
    “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Inspector House.”
    “Then this is about the three women who have been killed?”
    “Yes, ma’am.”
    “And autopsies have not yet been done?”
    “No, Ma’am,” House said. “We, uh, didn’t even think of it until Bat mentioned it.”
    “You would be paid by the city,” Bat said.
    “I’m not worried about that,” she said. “If I can help catch this maniac I’m happy to do it. May I perform the autopsy at the St Joseph’s Hospital, on Franklin Street?”
    “You can have it done anywhere you want, Doctor,” Bat said. “We’ll have the body brought there… when?”
    “As soon as possible,” she said. “Immediately, in fact. I’ll go there now.”
    “We’ll have the body brought right over,” Bat said, “and thank you, Doctor.”
    “Thank you for asking me, Mr Masterson,” she said. “I’m happy to help.”
    Bat and House left. The buggy they’d ridden there was waiting for them outside.
    “We’ll leave this one here to take her to the hospital. We can find a cab around the corner,” Bat said.
    “You really think she can do this, Bat?” House asked.
    “She’s a doctor, House,” Bat said. “Let’s just go and arrange for the body to be brought to her.”
    Bat headed for the corner and the Inspector followed him, still dubious.
    Bat Masterson and Inspector House were waiting outside the operating room while Doctor Ford performed the autopsy on the third dead woman, Jessica Williams. House kept nervously looking through the window of the closed door.
    “Relax,” Bat said. “She knows how to cut into a body.”
    “I hope so.”
    Bat hoped so, too. He wondered why Emma had not told him that Doctor Ford was black. He was careful not to mention it to Chief Flaherty. It was well known that the Chief hated black people.
    House backed away from the door quickly and seconds later Doctor Ford came through, wearing a white surgical gown that was now stained with blood and something else that Bat didn’t want to think about.
    “What did you find, Doctor?” Bat asked.
    “It was a very good idea to have an autopsy performed, Mr Masterson,” she told him. “It’s not what I found that’s interesting-astounding, actually – but what I didn’t find.”
    “And what’s that?”
    “There are no internal organs,” she said.
    “What?” House asked.
    “This woman’s internal organs have been removed.”
    “But… she wasn’t cut open,” Bat said, “the way the Jack the Ripper victims were.”
    “Exactly.”
    “And yet they’re… missing?” House asked.
    “Yes.”
    “But… that’s impossible,” House said.
    “Yes,” Doctor Ford said, “it is.”

4

    Flaherty was irate.
    “You allowed a black woman to cut open a white girl?” he demanded.
    “We allowed a doctor to cut open a dead girl, yes,” Bat said. “If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t know about the missing organs.”
    “Does she know what she’s doing?” the Chief demanded.
    “Yes, Chief, she does,” Bat said.
    Flaherty rubbed his face with both hands. “The Mayor’s gonna be livid.”
    “Come on, Chief,” Bat said. “We need to dig up the other two girls so Doctor Ford can examine them as well, see if the same thing is true.”
    “The families…” Flaherty said. “The Mayor… the newspapers…”
    “I work for a newspaper, Chief, remember?” Bat asked. “I can slant this in a way that will make you look very good.”
    That seemed to appeal to the Chief.
    “All right, Masterson. I’ll get an order from a judge to exhume both bodies so this… this doctor can examine them. But I’m warning you…” The man pointed a finger.”… this better result in us catching this maniac.” He looked directly at Inspector House. “Understand?”
    It took two days but eventually Bat and House were standing outside the operating room at St Joseph’s Hospital again, waiting.
    “If she finds the same thing,” House said, “what are we gonna do? We’ll have three impossible murders. Yet, how can it be impossible if it’s been done?”
    “That’s a very good question,” Bat said. “I guess we’ll have to wait for the doctor to answer that one. I’ll tell you one thing, I can’t wait for this to be over so I can go back to being a sportsman and nothing else.”
    “I’ve heard people refer to you that way,” House said. “As a sportsman? Is that how you prefer to be known, these days?”
    “It’s as good a way as any,” Bat said. “Especially since I now have my own club.”
    “I’m sure Mr Floto is not all that thrilled about that.”
    “Well,” Bat said, “that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”
    At that moment the door opened and Dr Ford came walking out, clad in her white spattered gown.
    “Well,” she said, “it’s the same.”
    “Damn it,” House said. “This is too strange.”
    “Doctor,” Bat said, “did you find anything at all that might explain what’s going on?”
    “I have found something,” she said. “It’s on all three women, but I don’t know that I can explain it.”
    “Anything would help,” Inspector House said.
    “There is an incision, a very small incision, on their left side.”
    “All three?” Bat asked.
    “Yes.”
    “And that’s all?”
    “Yes.”
    “Could the organs have been removed through that?” Bat asked.
    “It doesn’t seem possible, but…”
    “But what, Doctor?” Bat asked. “If you’ve got an idea, don’t hold back.”
    “That’s all it is,” she said, “an idea. Just something I remember from medical school. If I could have some time-”
    “Give us an idea of what you’re talking about,” Bat suggested, “and then take the time you need.”
    “Well, I’m thinking about… mummification.”
    “Mummi-what’s that?” House asked.
    “Mummies?” Bat asked. “You mean like, in ancient Egypt?”
    “Yes.”
    “Egypt?” House asked, still looking confused.
    “When they mummified their dead,” Dr Ford explained, “part of the ritual was to remove all the internal organs.”
    “But… through a small incision like the one you described?”
    “I seem to remember… something about a small incision, but I don’t recall how it was done. I can do some research at the museum, talk to the Egyptian expert there.”
    “Can that be done today?” Bat asked.
    “I don’t see why not?”
    “Then I’ll take you there, Doctor.”
    “I don’t need to be taken, Mr Masterson-”
    “Sorry, Ma’am,” Bat responded, “what I meant was, I’ll go with you, if you’ll allow me to.”
    “Well… why not?”
    “Just let me walk the Inspector out and I’ll have a cab waiting when you’re ready.”
    “Very well.”
    Outside the hospital Bat said to House, “You go and tell Flaherty what I’m doing. After the doctor and I go to the museum I’ll come and find you.”
    “What the hell, Bat-” House said. “I can’t go back to the Chief with this.”
    “This could be the only explanation we have for what seems to be impossible,” Bat said.
    “Ancient Egypt? Mummies? Do you believe all that?”
    “Don’t you ever do any reading, son,” Bat said. “We’re talking about history.”
    “Still,” House said, as they headed down the hall, “It’s hard to believe.”
    “Yes, it is.”

5

    “Who do we ask for?” Bat asked, as they entered the Denver Museum of History, located on Broadway.
    “The Egyptology expert,” Dr Ford said.
    “I’ll let you start to do the talking.”
    “Shouldn’t Inspector House be with us?” she asked. “After all, he’s the policeman.”
    “Inspector House had something else to do,” Bat said. “Don’t worry, we have official standing.”
    They walked down a long hall until they encountered a man standing at a desk.
    “Can I help you?”
    “My name is Doctor Ford,” she said, “and this is Bat Masterson, the, urn, columnist. We are hoping to speak to whoever is your expert on Egyptology?”
    “Bat Masterson?” the man asked. He was a small man roughly Bat’s age, but he stared at the frontier legend with a little boy’s enthusiasm. “Really?”
    “Yes,” Bat said, “I’m afraid so. Do you have an expert in, urn, Egyptology?”
    “Ooh, yes, we do,” the man said. “You want Mr Vartan. I’ll get him for you.”
    “Thank you,” Doctor Ford said.
    “Doctor, how many of these experts could there be in Denver?” Bat asked while they waited.
    “I would think only one.”
    “And would he know how to do this, how to… what? Mummify?”
    “I know what you mean, and I don’t know,” she said. “I suppose we’ll have to ask him.”
    They waited in silence, and after a few minutes had past the doctor looked at Bat curiously. “Did you mean that you… suspect this man, even though you haven’t met him yet?”
    “No,” he said, “of course not. I just thought if he’s the only expert that maybe the killer had come to see him, just like we have.”
    “Oh, I see.”
    But now that she mentioned it, why couldn’t the one man in Denver who had the know how be a suspect in the crime? Bat decided he would give this jasper a real close going over and watch him carefully.
    They heard footsteps coking towards them and saw the small man returning with a very tall, dark-skinned man wearing a suit and tie.
    “This is Mr Vartan,” the small man said.
    “I am Michael Vartan. I understand you were looking for me?” Vartan asked. “Sam said one of you is a doctor?”
    “I am Dr Ford,” Justina Ford said.
    Vartan looked at her in complete surprise.
    “I did not know we had any black doctors in Denver, let alone a woman. How fascinating.”
    “Mr Vartan?” Bat said. “My name is Bat Masterson. We would like to ask you some questions about-”
    “The famous killer?” Vartan asked.
    Bat closed his mouth and glared at the man.
    “I am a columnist for the newspaper George’s Weekly.”
    “Ah, but surely you are the famous Bat Masterson,” Vartan said. “There could not be two men with such a name.”
    “I am perhaps famous,” Bat said, “but not as a killer.”
    “I am so sorry,” Vartan said. “I have offended you.”
    “Mr Masterson has been many things, Mr Vartan,” Dr Ford said, “among them a lawman.”
    “And now a writer,” Vartan said. “How commendable. I apologize again. You have some questions concerning what?”
    “The process of mummification,” Dr Ford said.
    Vartan stared at them for a few moments, then said, “I have an office. Would you follow me, please?”
    He led them through hallways of the museum, so that they never saw any displays except through doorways as they passed. Eventually they came to a room with a desk and a few chairs. He invited them in to sit, and closed the door before circling his desk and seating himself.
    “Please, tell me your problem.”
    Dr Ford looked to Bat, who took up the tale. He told Vartan about the three women who had been killed and what had been found by Dr Ford during the autopsy.
    “What we need to know is,” Dr Ford said, “could the organs have been removed through this small incision?”
    “Interesting,” Vartan said. He paused to consider and while he did he picked up an instrument from the desk. It was a long copper needle with a small hook on the end. “Do you see this? It was used by the Egyptians to remove the brain through the nasal passage.”
    Bat remembered Dr Ford mentioning that earlier.
    “Could it be used for the organs, too?” Bat asked.
    Vartan didn’t reply to Bat’s direct question, but went on in his train of thought. Bat thought Vartan warmed to his gruesome subject too much.
    “No one knows how the brain was removed, but it must have been in pieces,” the man went on. “It could not have been removed this way as a whole.”
    “The organs couldn’t have been removed as a whole either,” Dr Ford said. “At least, not through that incision.”
    “The incision you refer to was indeed used to remove the organs,” Vartan said, “and then they were put into a jar and buried along with the body.”
    Bat didn’t like the way Vartan’s eyes shone during the telling.
    “But no one knows for sure how it was done,” Vartan continued, “just as we don’t quite know how the brain was removed.” He set the bronze tool down. “But we know that they were.”
    “So no one,” Bat said, “not even you, who is an expert, would be able to do such a thing now?”
    “I?” Vartan asked, looking shocked. “I would never-no, no, too bloody. I would be too… squeamish, I think.”
    Bat doubted that Vartan was squeamish about much of anything. The man seemed to be enjoying the spotlight and also – to Bat’s trained eye from years of not only gambling but sizing up men who may or may not try to kill him – he thought the man seemed amused.
    “Mr Vartan,” Dr Ford said, apparently unaware of these things, “has anyone else come to see you about these things in, say the past six months or so?”
    “Unfortunately, no,” Vartan said, making a steeple of his hands and fingers and regarding them above it. “I rarely get to speak of these things in this way.”
    Another thing Bat noticed about Vartan was that the man’s gaze never wavered from his own. Even when he speaking to the doctor, he was looking at Bat. Many men had looked at Bat that way over the years, as if they had or were getting his measure. They had all been disappointed.
    Oddly, the room seemed bare. There were no Egyptian objects of any kind on the walls, and the only one on his desk was that bronze tool sitting on the edge of his desk.
    “I am so sorry these women were killed – how were they killed?”
    “That’s still something of a mystery,” Dr Ford said, “but their organs were removed after death.”
    “Shocking… in this day and age, I mean.”
    “Yes,” Dr Ford said, “quite.”
    “They were peaceful in death, Mr Vartan,” Bat said. “What would make them die so peacefully?”
    “Well, certain poisons would have that effect,” Vartan said. “There are poisons which cause horrible, painful deaths, but there are several which could cause a person to simply… fall asleep… forever. Some of these were used in ancient Egypt.”
    Poison was not a common form of killing in the West – at least, not in what people were now calling the “old” West.
    “And you would know what kind of poisons those were, wouldn’t you?” Bat asked.
    Vartan looked embarrassed and said, “Well, I am an expert on things Egyptian.”
    “Yes, you are,” Bat said.
    “That’s fascinating,” Dr Ford said.
    “Well,” Bat said, “I think we’re done here, Doctor. Obviously, Mr Vartan won’t help us with anything more.”
    Bat got to his feet, stumbled and almost fell, righting himself by catching the edge of Vartan’s desk. He knew the man must have been thinking, “What an old fool.”
    “Can’t,” Vartan said.
    “Excuse me?” Bat asked, back on solid footing.
    “You said I won’t help you with anything more,” Vartan said. “You meant ‘can’t’.”
    Bat looked the man in the eyes and said, “Did I?”
    Outside the museum Dr Ford said, “What a rude man. He never looked at me the entire time.”
    “That’s because he was lookin’ at me,” Bat said. “He’s the one.”
    “I beg your pardon?”
    “He did it. He killed those women and removed their organs.”
    “How can you-”
    “He looked me in the eyes the whole time, challenging me. Believe me, Doctor, I know what that look means. He did it.”
    “Is that what you will tell the Chief? Would they arrest him on your word?”
    “No,” Bat said, “they wouldn’t, but I don’t think they’ll have to.”
    “Why not?”
    Bat put his hand in his pocket and came out with the bronze hook from Vartan’s desk. Carefully, he wrapped it in a handkerchief and handed it to the doctor.
    “How did you – you took that when you stumbled.”
    “Yes. Check it. I’m sure there’s some flecks of blood on it. He’s so arrogant that he still keeps it on his desk. And I’m sure there’ll be some rare poison in that museum somewhere-unless he’s destroyed it all now.”
    Dr Ford looked down at the hook in her hands. “You think he used this?”
    “I’d bet on it. But even if he didn’t, he knows I know,” Bat said. “He knows if he stays in Denver, I’ll have him.”
    “But… if he leaves, and goes somewhere else… is that good enough?”
    “It’ll have to be, Doctor,” Bat said. “It’ll have to be.”
    But it wasn’t, not for Bat Masterson. That evening, as Vartan came out of his apartment carrying a suitcase Bat was waiting, leaning against the building. He hadn’t been wearing his gun that afternoon in museum, but he was wearing it now. He chose one with a pearl handle, so that it gleamed in the moonlight.
    Vartan saw him and stopped. There was no slump to the man’s shoulder, no diminishment of his arrogance.
    “You stumbled on purpose,” he said. “I realized it afterward.”
    “I was going to let you go,” Bat said, “let you run, but I decided I had to know why. Why would you do that to those poor women?”
    “I am afraid my explanation will not give you much satisfaction.”
    “Try me.”
    The man shrugged.
    “To see if I could. I have studied the Egyptians for so long. I believe they were a master race. I wanted to see if I could do what they did. And after I did it once, I knew that if I kept trying, I would succeed.”
    “Did you do more than those three?”
    “No,” Vartan said, “Just those-so far.”
    “Just those, period, Mr Vartan.”
    “Now that you know the why, perhaps you would…?”
    “Put the suitcase down, Mr Vartan,” Bat said, pushing away from the wall so Vartan could see the pearl handle, “you won’t need it where you’re going.”

The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel by Max Rittenberg

    Time for a couple of really old classics. In my earlier volume I looked at the dawn of the impossible crime story and the flurry of interest following the success of The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill in 1892. Over the next couple of decades the locked-room mystery blossomed. Conan Doyle used it for at least one Sherlock Holmes story, and the American writer Jacques Futrelle, who alas went down with the Titanic, created the first great impossible-crime expert with the Thinking Machine, Professor S.F.X. van Dusen. His story “The Problem of Cell 13”, first published in 1905, remains one of the classics of the impossible.
    The years before the First World War saw many writers turning their hand to creating baffling crimes, but not all of these stories became as well known, and many are forgotten in old magazines. One of the most original writers of the years around the First World War was Australian-born (though of German descent) Max Rittenberg (1880-1965). He wrote a couple of popular series for the monthly magazines. One featured the strange cases of psychologist, Dr Xavier Wycherley, which were collected in book-form as The Mind Reader (1913). But the other series, which featured an early forensic scientist known as Magnum, and which ran in The London Magazine during 1913, never made it into book-form. Magnum is the prototype irascible scientist, far more interested in his research than in any social graces, but once presented with an unsolvable problem, nothing will deter him from seeking the truth.
    After the First World War Rittenberg became an advertising consultant, establishing his own firm, and stopped writing fiction all together.

***

    “What does it matter whether it were accident or suicide?” said Magnum into the telephone with decided irritation, because he was being interrupted in the midst of a highly complex calculation of a formula based on crystallographic angles and axes, requiring quaternions and perfect quiet.
    “It matters fifty thousand pounds,” replied the legal voice at the other end of the wire. “That’s the value of his insurance policy. The company contend it was a case of suicide, and therefore the policy is null and void.”
    “At the present moment,” snapped Magnum, “I don’t care if he were insured for the National Debt! Find a detective, and don’t bother me!
    Leaving the receiver off the hook, so that he could not be rung up further, Magnum plunged again into the world of sin ∝ and cos β.
    The interrupter was the junior partner in East, East, and Stacey, a young man of some pertinacity as well as legal ability. He happened to have a very special interest in the case of the deceased, because the next-of-kin was a particularly charming young lady; at least, particularly charming to himself. So he jumped into a taxi and drove from Clifford’s Inn to Upper Thames Street, where the scientific consultant had his office and laboratories.
    “The deuce!” was Magnum’s welcome for him.
    “Awfully sorry to interrupt. How long will you take to finish?” was the soft answer designed to turn away wrath.
    “Till midnight!” snapped Magnum, hunching his bushy reddish eyebrows, and thrusting out his straggly reddish beard belligerently.
    “I’ll wait,” decided Stacey. “I’ll go and talk scandal with Meredith.”
    Ivor Meredith was a young Welshman, an analytical genius and Magnum’s right-hand man. He was the very essence of shyness and modesty. Stacey went into the laboratories and began to chaff him in order to kill time.
    “What’s this I hear about you and a certain fascinating widow?” was his opening gambit.
    Young Meredith, blushing furiously, protested that he didn’t know any fascinating widow. Which was perfectly true, as he was mortally afraid of all the feminine sex.
    In an hour’s time Magnum appeared from his office. His crystallographic analysis had borne out his personal guess exactly, and the thundercloud temper had vanished from his skies. He found that his young Welsh protégé had scored off Stacey by challenging him to blow a glass bulb, which looks delightfully simple and in reality requires months of practice. Stacey, perspiring over the blow-lamp, was surrounded by a score of horrible bulbous monstrosities.
    “Better stick to the law,” smiled Magnum. “You can make a successful lawyer even if you have ten thumbs to your hands. Now what’s this trouble about the insurance policy?”
    Stacey answered him seriously with a résumé of the case. Abel Jonasson, a somewhat eccentric recluse, a man of fifty-four and a bachelor, had insured his life for fifty thousand pounds with the Empire Assurance Company six months previously. On a railway journey through the Sevenoaks tunnel he had been alone in a second-class compartment. In some way he had fallen out of the moving train; had been killed possibly by the fall; and had certainly been run over by a train passing on the other line of metals. A coroner’s jury had returned an open verdict. On the advice of their doctors and counsel, the Empire Company, a firm of first-class reputation, had decided to fight the claim up to the House of Lords if necessary.
    They contended that, for a man of his limited income, a fifty thousand pound policy was far too heavy, unless he deliberately intended to take his life in order to secure a large sum of money for his relatives. Such cases had cropped up before.
    “Then they shouldn’t have insured for such a heavy amount,” interrupted Magnum.
    “Well, they did,” answered Stacey. “They took his premium, and now they fight the claim. Miss Gerard, his niece and next-of-kin, has very slender means, and so-”
    Something in Stacey’s tone gave Magnum the clue to this unusual interest in a client of slender means.
    “Another wedding present to buy!” he interjected cynically.
    Stacey took the remark on the half-volley, and flicked it neatly over the net:
    “Help us, and we’ll consider it as the wedding-present.”
    “I don’t see that the case lies in my province. Try Scotland Yard.”
    “I have. No satisfaction. A scientist is wanted. Scotland Yard can’t tell me why the dead man carried in his pocket a phial of atoxyl.”
    “Specific against sleeping sickness.”
    “A Central African disease. It’s unknown in England. Why should he carry the antidote about with him?”
    “Have his serum examined.”
    “That’s been done. No trace of the disease has been found. But the Empire doctor claims that Jonasson must have thought he had the disease, and therefore committed suicide. A book on the subject was found at his country cottage. Our side will have to prove some other reason for his carrying that phial of atoxyl. That’s one point on which I want your help.”
    Magnum pulled out a disgracefully malodorous pipe from his baggy, shapeless working-jacket, and proceeded to stuff it with a smoking mixture of his own blending, strong to the point of rankness.
    Meredith hastened to their library above the office, and returned with one of the twenty bulky volumes of Watts’s Dictionary of Chemistry. His chief took it, and turned thoughtfully to the half-column description of the chemical properties of the drug, one of the arsenic derivatives. Presently he remarked:
    “Have you considered the possibility of foul play?”
    “That was one of our first thoughts,” returned Stacey. “But Jonasson was seen alone in the compartment at Tonbridge Junction, only five miles from the tunnel, and there were no traces on the footboard of anyone clambering along from one compartment to another.”
    “Windows?”
    “All shut.”
    “A man under the seat?”
    “No traces.”
    “When was the discovery made?”
    “As soon as the train came out of the tunnel into Sevenoaks Station. The door of Jonasson’s compartment was open, and banging to and fro… All the evidence goes to show that he was entirely alone in the compartment; that he opened the door himself – fingerprints on the handle – and fell out. We claim that he must have become suddenly frightened – he was a nervous old man – and that he lost his head, opened the door to call for help, and was thrown out by the rush of wind against the open door.”
    “Sounds very probable.”
    “The Empire Company say that if he wanted help he could have pulled the alarm-cord. There was no one else in the compartment – that’s certain from the footprints in the dust. He had nothing to be afraid of, they claim.”
    “Equally plausible.”
    “Can you tell me why he carried that atoxyl with him?”
    Magnum was not a man to confess openly to ignorance. He replied curtly:
    “I’m not a theorist. Ask me practical questions.”
    For reply, Stacey produced from his pocket a blank manuscript-size envelope, and from the envelope a much-creased sheet of folded paper – blank.
    “I found this in Jonasson’s study while hunting for his will. I have a strong feeling that it contains a message written in invisible ink. Miss Gerard tells me that he was the kind of eccentric who would do that. Will you try to get the message out?”
    “Suppose,” asked Magnum shrewdly, “it were to say that he intended to commit suicide?”
    “In that case,” laughed the lawyer, “I shouldn’t call you as a witness.”
    “You young scoundrel!”
    “But it won’t do that,” answered Stacey, returning to seriousness. “Miss Gerard knew him well – he was very fond of her in his queer, angular way – and she is perfectly certain that he had no intention of committing suicide.”
    “If you prove wrong,” warned Magnum, “don’t count on me to keep silent in a case of fraud.”
    He passed the sheet of paper to Meredith, who examined it eagerly, his eyes alight at the thought of pitting his chemical knowledge against the secret of the apparently blank paper.
    Meredith’s first move was to cut the sheet into four quarters, so as to avoid the risk of spoiling the whole of it in the course of experimenting.
    The heat test gave no result, nor did the iodide test, nor the sulphuretted hydrogen test.
    Magnum, suspecting that they were in for a long session, looked at his watch, found it marking seven o’clock and sent out for three porterhouse steaks, a Stilton cheese and bread, and lager beer.
    “I should prefer oysters, a fried sole, and a bottle of claret,” suggested Stacey.
    “You’ll have what’s good for you,” retorted Magnum, who had unæsthetic views on food.
    It was close on nine o’clock before Meredith at length triumphed. Fitting together three-quarters of the sheet of paper – the other quarter had become spoilt in the course of testing – the following wording stood out in roughly written capital letters:

    Magnum turned to Stacey.
    “There’s your wedding present,” said he grimly.
    All Stacey’s pose of flippancy had dropped from him. Staring at the paper, he asked, in a hushed voice:
    “What does it mean?”
    “A warning,” returned Magnum. “A warning that must have put Jonasson’s nerves on edge. In that railway compartment, alone, passing through the long Sevenoaks tunnel, something happened to terrify him into trying to escape.”
    “If we could prove it! But what exactly happened?”
    “The last words of the warning were, judging on the first two lines, ‘FROM THE SKY!’”
    “Yes, yes!” cried Stacey eagerly.
    “That railway-carriage – of course it’s been sealed and shunted into a siding?”
    “Naturally.”
    “Tomorrow morning we’ll go and examine it.”
    “Yes, but what’s your theory?”
    Magnum’s temperament included a strong dash of human vanity. He liked to have his achievements bulk large. He liked to display his results against an effective background. Having arrived at a simple explanation of a puzzling mystery, he preferred to keep silent about it until the morning should bring the glowing moment for the revelation.
    Stacey had to be content to wait.
    The railway-carriage – possible evidence in a fifty thousand pound law-case – had been shunted into a goods yard of the Chatham and South-Eastern, and housed in a shed under lock and key at the instigation of the insurance company.
    A legal representative of the company, as well as a district goods manager of the Chatham and South-Eastern, accompanied Stacey and Magnum to the fresh inspection of it. The insurance lawyer – dry, thin-lipped, pince-nezed, cynically critical, abundantly sure of himself – allowed a ghost of an acidulated smile to flicker around his eyes as he viewed Magnum’s air of expectant triumph. The goods manager preserved an attitude of strict neutrality. Stacey was on a hair-trigger of expectation, masked under a pose of legal dignity and self-restraint.
    The railway official broke the seals on the door of the compartment, and threw it open for Magnum’s inspection. The latter’s shrewd eyes darted about the interior, taking in every detail.
    To all appearance, it was an entirely ordinary, humdrum, commonplace, second-class compartment, carrying no hint of tragedy. The dead man’s ulster, umbrella, and travelling-bag, replaced on the rack in the position where they had first been found, merely suggested that some traveller had left them there while he went out to buy a journal at a book-stall. A small volume of Lamb’s Essays, lying on a corner seat, might have been put there to secure his place.
    Then Magnum asked to see the two adjoining compartments – one a smoker, one a general compartment. They were bare of extraneous objects and entirely unsuggestive.
    “Well?” challenged the opposing lawyer, with his thin and acid smile. “Have you discovered some point we all have been dense enough to miss?”
    “There are always two sides to every question,” returned Magnum.
    “Your side and my side?”
    “The inside and the outside,” amended Magnum, with a cutting edge to his words.
    “And the application of that very sound maxim?”
    “The application is that to view the outside one needs a ladder.”
    “And why a ladder, may I ask?”
    “I am not a ‘Child’s Guide to Knowledge,’ but if you are seriously anxious for an answer to your question, it is in order to climb.” Having delivered this snub, Magnum turned, and addressed himself to the goods manager: “Please send for a short ladder, so that I can examine the roof.”
    When it arrived, Magnum mounted briskly to the roof of the carriage, and looked for the footprints or traces of a man having crawled over the roof, which he confidently expected to find. A grievous disappointment awaited him. The roof was streaked with raindrops trickling over soot, now dried into the semblance of a map of some fantastic mountain range. There were no footprints.
    “Did it rain on the day of the accident?” he asked sharply.
    Stacey, after a moment’s thought, replied in the affirmative.
    “Unfortunate,” commented Magnum. “Rain would have obliterated footprints. Come up here.”
    At last Stacey understood what Magnum was driving at. “From the sky!” had been the concluding words of the warning to the dead man. Someone had crawled on the roof, pulled up the lamp over the compartment in which Jonasson was travelling, and then – In a flash he pictured the old man alone in the compartment, through the long tunnel, where a cry for help would be drowned in the roar of the rushing train, looking upwards to see a menacing face staring at him from the aperture of the lamp, a revolver at cock, and ready to shoot him down in any corner of the compartment. Trapped, helpless, terrified, Jonasson had tried to escape by the door, and had been thrown on to the line.
    Magnum, moving forward over the roof, in plain view of the others, went to pull up the lamp and demonstrate his point.
    But a sentence from the railway official checked him in mid-action.
    “You are thinking of the old type of lamp, sir. These ones are not removable. They’re fixtures.”
    Magnum, incredulous, went on; found the lamp screwed in tight, and the screws rusted in firmly.
    The insurance lawyer permitted himself a dry laugh of cynical amusement.
    “Facts,” said he, “have an unfortunate habit of contradicting the most ingenious and elegant theories.”
    Magnum was now thoroughly roused by the mocking mystery of the railway compartment. He had, in plain words, made a fool of himself in front of the insurance lawyer. That was unbearable. The only way to get back his self-respect was to wrest out the secret, and flourish it in the lawyer’s face.
    Before, Magnum had been only halfheartedly interested in a problem which was somewhat outside his professional line; now, he was resolutely determined to work at it with a red-hot concentration of energies.
    Hurrying to New Cross Station with Stacey, he took ticket to Paddock Wood, beyond Tonbridge, where Jonasson had lived his recluse life in a country cottage a couple of miles away from the railway line, alone save for a housekeeper-servant. On the way, Magnum plied Stacey with question after question regarding the life-history, the habits and eccentricities of the dead man. Stacey’s information was limited; the housekeeper could tell much more.
    On their arrival, they found the cottage bolted and barred. A hedger and ditcher, working in a neighbouring lane, expressed the thoughtful opinion that the housekeeper must have locked up and gone away. Where? demanded Magnum, assisting his cerebrations with a couple of half-crowns. He didn’t rightly know. Could he find out by asking neighbours? That struck the hedger as an idea of great brilliance, and, dropping his tools, he set off to make inquiries.
    Meanwhile, Magnum, impatient of obstacles, broke a window in the cottage, and secured unconventional entrance. With Stacey’s guidance, he went through the dead man’s books and papers and personal possessions in search of a fresh light on the mystery.
    Both were now firmly convinced that Jonasson had come to his death by foul play, or, more exactly, that he had been terrified out of the closed railway compartment by some human agency. Both were equally of the opinion that it was a matter of long-standing revenge, reaching back into the obscurities of Jonasson’s past life.
    But mere opinions would be poor weapons for a big law-case. They must have facts. They must find out whom, why, how. They must be prepared to prove in court how a man, indisputably alone in a railway-compartment, with closed doors, closed windows, and no aperture for human entrance, could be so terrified as to be driven out. In case of danger the first thought of any man would be to pull the alarm-chain running through from compartment to compartment. Why had Jonasson not done so?
    A long search through books, papers, and clothes proved annoyingly inconclusive. Jonasson’s tastes were evidently cultured and leisured. Whatever he might have been in his youth, in the immediate past he had been a trifler with books, garden, and fishing. That gave them no help.
    In the bedroom of the dead man, Magnum on a sudden impulse threw up the window. Outside it, he was surprised to find a screen of fine-meshed wire netting.
    “Why this?” he asked to Stacey.
    “To keep out summer insects, I should imagine.”
    Magnum suddenly became very thoughtful, hunching his bushy eyebrows and twisting at his straggly beard.
    The hedger and ditcher, beaming with pride at the success of his detective work, came to announce that the housekeeper had gone to visit a married daughter living at Tonbridge.
    “We’ll go there at once,” said Magnum; “and the first question to ask her is why Jonasson put up that wire netting.”
    Stacey looked at him questioningly.
    “The loaded revolver he kept in his bedroom,” pursued Magnum, “is nothing out of the ordinary for a nervous man living in a lonely country cottage. But the wire screen is highly unusual. The unusual is worth analysis.”
    An hour later, they were at Tonbridge. Mrs Pritchett was readily found in the parlour above her daughter’s confectionery shop in the High Street – a time-worn, grey-haired, grey-minded woman, resigned to the arrows of misfortune, dull of speech, with that love for irrelevant, side-track detail which goes so often with one of limited interests and narrow outlook. Magnum, with his impatience of slowness, found his temper distinctly tried during his endeavours to get relevant answers to his pointed questions. In essence, her information amounted to this:
    Mr Jonasson had had the wire screen fixed up six months previously. He was a very reserved man, liking to give orders without giving reasons. It was in wintertime, so that there was no reason to guard against wasps, gnats, or mosquitoes. No; she had no idea why he wanted it, but he was very concerned about having it put up at once.
    “At once?” questioned Magnum, seizing on the suggestiveness of the phrase.
    It was directly after he received a visit from the dark gentleman with the gold-rimmed spectacles. High words had passed between them. No; she had no idea who he was. Mr Jonasson was very reserved, keeping his affairs entirely to himself. The dark gentleman was a foreigner – he looked like a half-caste. He was seen in the neighbourhood of Paddock Wood three months later. She believed that this man must have tried to murder Mr Jonasson in the train. She was convinced that he was hiding under the seat of the compartment.
    “That has been proved impossible,” put in Stacey.
    Mrs Pritchett was of the opinion that nothing was impossible to a foreigner.
    Regarding the past life of the dead man, her information was mostly conjecture, embroidered fantastically after the fashion of country gossip. The only definite fact was that he had gone to Africa as a young man. The name “Uganda” persisted in her memory. At one time he had kept souvenirs of Africa in his study, but some years back he had made a clean sweep of them, burning them in a bonfire at the end of the garden.
    Letters? When Mr Jonasson received letters, he usually burnt them. No, indeed, she never pried into his private papers! She hoped she knew her place! No; she didn’t listen to the conversation between Mr Jonasson and the foreigner. She couldn’t help hearing that they were angry with one another, but to suggest that she would stoop to listen at a keyhole-
    “If you had,” retorted Magnum impatiently, “Mr Jonasson might be alive today.”
    Mrs Pritchett relapsed into the easy tears of old age, and it took all Stacey’s efforts to comfort her.
    “You’ll be saying next as it was me as murdered him!” she cried accusingly at Magnum.
    He offered a sovereign as consolation for wounded feelings, and the interview proceeded. But no further information of importance resulted.
    Magnum and Stacey returned to town. The scientist chose an empty second-class compartment of the same type as the mystery carriage, and asked Stacey to leave him there alone during the journey.
    At Cannon Street, when Stacey went to rejoin his friend, he found Magnum glowing with excitement.
    “I think we’ve got it!” he cried, slapping Stacey on the shoulder with a lusty thump. “First set your detectives on the hunt for that half-caste with the gold-rimmed spectacles.”
    “Yes, I’d settled to do that,” returned the young lawyer; “but even if we find him, it doesn’t help much for our side of the case. Assume that he threatened to murder Jonasson-assume that Jonasson was in deadly terror of him-assume that he travelled in the next compartment to Jonasson. Even then the Empire Company would claim that the deceased threw himself out of the train-suicide while temporarily insane, but still suicide. The fifty thousand pound policy money will never come to Miss Gerard unless we can show the court how Jonasson was terrified out of an empty compartment.”
    “I believe I can do it,” returned Magnum emphatically. “The phial of atoxyl he carried in his pocket, the book on sleeping sickness, the wire screen to his bedroom window, Uganda the home of the tsetse fly – they fit together like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. One more piece in place, and the whole pattern would stand out. To-morrow we’ll search that sealed compartment once again.”
    “In the presence of the Empire’s lawyer?”
    “Naturally. Arrange it for the afternoon. And if I can show him that Magnum is not quite the fool he imagines-”
    As mentioned before, Magnum was not without a dash of very human vanity.
    On the following afternoon, the same four were back in the shed where the mystery carriage stood mutely waiting to deliver up its secret. The insurance lawyer’s acidulated smile was now fattened out to a mellow tolerance. He was no longer afraid of any of Magnum’s theories. The goods manager, while still outwardly neutral, had transferred his sympathies to the side of the Empire Company.
    Although it was summer, Magnum wore a pair of thick gloves. In his side-pocket a packet bulged out noticeably.
    “I want every inch of the compartment swept out,” he said to the railway official. “Will you do it yourself, so as to avoid any suspicion that might arise if I were to do so?”
    Tolerantly, the goods manager called for a carriage-cleaner’s broom, and proceeded to the task, sweeping around the cornices, behind the cushions, and underneath the seats, and gathering the sweepings into a small pile, while the other three watched intently from outside.
    “Stop!” called Magnum suddenly, his eyes alight with unsuppressed triumph. From the sweepings he picked up a large insect, dead, and displayed it emphatically in his gloved hand in front of the insurance lawyer.
    “A tsetse fly!” he stated.
    “Well; and what if it is?”
    “The carrier of the sleeping sickness. Deadly. One sting from it, and a man would stand a poor chance.”
    “I don’t follow your argument,” objected the lawyer, with chilly impassiveness.
    “That’s what drove Jonasson to his death. That one, and perhaps a dozen others. The rest probably flew out of the open door in the Sevenoaks tunnel. This one was killed by him.”
    “Still, I don’t follow you. How could your dozen tsetse flies enter a closed compartment?”
    “Get inside, and I’ll demonstrate!” snapped Magnum.
    The lawyer, with a gesture of disbelief, entered the compartment, and the door was closed on him. Magnum immediately proceeded to the smoking compartment alongside, lit himself a cigar, and then produced from his pocket the box which was causing the bulge. It contained a dozen live wasps, angry at their long imprisonment. Magnum, standing on a seat, took out one of the buzzing insects with his heavily gloved fingers, and placed it in the tube of the alarm-chain passing from compartment to compartment. A few puffs from his cigar drove the insect to find escape through the further end of the tube. The other wasps quickly followed.
    What then took place in the insurance lawyer’s compartment would have been highly comic had it not been in demonstration of a tragedy.
    Fighting with the furious insects, ruffled, dishevelled, and wiped clear of cynical smiles, the lawyer made a hurried and undignified escape to the outside.
    “And that,” clinched Magnum, “was how Jonasson was sent to his death.”
    The murderer was never captured, and so the inner history of the tragic feud never came to light. But it became abundantly clear that the dead man had been fearing an attack by the tsetse fly; it was for that reason that he screened his bedroom window and carried in his pocket the drug which might counteract the terrible effects of the sting. No doubt the unknown murderer had threatened him with that particular form of revenge. Jonasson had insured his life heavily, either in the superstitious hope that it might avert death, or in order to leave his niece well provided for, or for both reasons.
    The fact of importance which Magnum had demonstrated was the method by which Jonasson had been driven out of the railway-carriage. On that, the Empire Company compromised out of court for forty thousand pounds.
    Magnum, who did not believe in hiding his light under a bushel, sent to Stacey’s wedding-present table a neatly framed sheet of writing-paper with the wording: “To Mr and Mrs Stacey, forty thousand pounds, from Magnum.”

    The Red Ring by William Le Queux

    William Le Queux (1864-1927) was considerably more prolific than Max Rittenberg and far better known. He is regarded as one of the progenitors of the spy novel, producing works of international intrigue just before John Buchan and E.P. Oppenheim. His early works, which rapidly established his reputation, include A Secret Service (1896), England’s Peril (1899) and the bestselling The Invasion of 1910 (1905). Le Queux was a dab hand at self-publicity, perhaps using some author’s licence to add to the mystery. But he was clearly a fascinating character, deeply involved with the secret service, and often acting on his own initiative – all manner of secrets are revealed in Things I Know (1923). The following story – first published in 1910 and which so far as I know escaped inclusion in any of his many collections-is presented in the first-person, giving an added verisimilitude to the mystery. Who knows but that something very like this might just have happened in Le Queux’s world.

***

    The Usborne affair, though very remarkable and presenting a number of curious features, was never made public, for reasons which will quickly become apparent.
    It occurred in this way.
    Just before eight o’clock one misty morning last autumn, Captain Richard Usborne, of the Royal Engineers, and myself were strolling together up and down the platform at Liverpool Street Station, awaiting the arrival of the Hook of Holland boat-train. We had our eyes well about us, for a man was coming to London in secret, and we, members of the Secret Service, were there to meet him, to examine his credentials, and to pass him on to the proper quarter to be questioned, and to receive payment-substantial payment – for his confidential information.
    I had arranged the visit of the stranger through one of our secret agents who lived in Berlin, but as I had never before met the man about to arrive, we had settled that I should hold a pale green envelope half concealed in my handkerchief raised to my nose, and that he should do the same.
    “By Jove, Jerningham,” Dick Usborne was saying, “this will be a splendid coup-the revelation of all the details of the new Boravian gun. The Department ought to make you a special grant for such a service. I hope, however,” he added, glancing about him with some suspicion – “I hope none of our foreign friends have wind of this visit. If so, it will fare badly with him when he gets back.”
    I had kept my eyes well about me and was satisfied that no other secret agent was present.
    A moment later the train drew into the station, and amid the crowd I quickly distinguished a short, stout, middle-aged man of essentially Teutonic appearance, with a handkerchief to his face, and in it an envelope exactly similar to my own.
    Our greeting was hasty. Swiftly we put him into the taxi we had in readiness, and as we drove along he produced certain credentials, including a letter of introduction from my friend in Berlin.
    Herr Günther – which was the name by which we knew him-appeared extremely nervous lest his presence in London should be known. True, he was to receive for his information and for certain documents which he carried in his breast-pocket two thousand pounds of Secret Service money; but he seemed well aware of the ruin which would befall him if his Argus-eyed Government became aware of his association with us.
    We had both witnessed such misgivings on the part of informants before. Therefore we repeated our assurances in German – for the stranger did not speak English – and at St Clement Dane’s Church, in the Strand, I stopped the taxi and alighted, for Dick Usborne was to conduct our friend to the house of our chief, General Kennedy, in Curzon Street, it not being considered judicious for Günther to be taken to the War Office.
    The German was to return by the Hook of Holland route at nine o’clock that same night, therefore he had brought no baggage. Secret visits of this character are always made swiftly. The British public are in blissful ignorance of how many foreigners come to our shores and tell us what we most desire to know – for a substantial consideration.
    The Secret Service never advertises itself. Yet it never sleeps, night or day. While pessimists declare that our authorities know nothing of what is progressing in other countries, a gallant little band of men – and women too-are ever watchful and ever travelling across the face of Europe, gathering information which is conveyed to London in secret and carefully docketed in a certain room of a certain Government Department that must, of necessity, be nameless.
    We, its agents, often live through exciting times, crises of which the public never dream.
    It is one of these which I am permitted to here relate.
    On the day in question I played golf at Sunningdale, for I had been some months abroad-living in a back street in Brest, as a matter of fact – and was now on leave at home. I dined at the golf-club, and about ten o’clock that night entered my rooms in Shaftesbury Avenue, where I found a telegram lying upon the table.
    It had been despatched from the Brighton station at Victoria at six-thirty, and read.
    Am at Webster’s. Come to me at once. Cannot come to you. – DICK.

    By this message I was greatly puzzled. Webster’s was a small private hotel in which I knew Usborne had sometimes hiden himself under the name of Mr Clarke, for we are often compelled to assume fictitious names, and also to keep queer company.
    Why had he so suddenly gone into hiding? What had occurred?
    At once I took a cab along Victoria Street and alighted before the house, which was to all intents and purposes a private one, save for the lamp outside which stated it to be an hotel.
    The black-bearded little manager, whom I had once met before, told me that my friend had arrived there at noon and taken a room, but at two o’clock he had gone out and had not returned.
    “And he left no message for me?” I asked.
    “None, sir.”
    “Did he bring any luggage?”
    “Mr Clarke seldom brings any luggage,” was the man’s reply. “He generally just sleeps here, and leaves his baggage in a railway cloakroom.”
    I was puzzled. If Dick wished to see me so urgently he would surely have remained at the hotel. He was aware I was going out to golf, although I had not told him where I intended playing.
    While we were speaking I saw a chambermaid pass, and then it occurred to me to suggest that my friend might have returned unobserved. He might even be awaiting me in his room. He had said that he was unable to come to me, which appeared that he feared to go forth lest he should be recognised.
    I knew that Dick Usborne, whose ingenuity and daring were unequalled by any in our service, was a marked man.
    Both the manager and the chambermaid expressed themselves confident that Mr Clarke had not returned, but at last I induced the girl to ascend to his room and ascertain.
    From where I stood in the hall I heard her knock and then try the door.
    She rattled it and called to him. By that I knew it was locked – on the inside.
    Instantly I ran up the stairs and, banging at the door called my comrade by name. But there was no response.
    The key was still in the lock on the other side, so a few minutes later we burst open the door by force and rushed into the dark room.
    The manager lit the gas-jet, and by its dim light a startling sight was presented. Lying near the fireplace, in a half-crouching position, face downwards, was Dick Usborne. Quickly I turned him over and touched his face. The contact thrilled me. He was stone dead!
    His eyes, still open, were glazed and stared horribly, his strong hands were clenched, his jaw had dropped, and it was plain, by the coutortion of the body, that he had expired in agony.
    Quickly suspicious of foul play, I made a rapid examination of the body. But I could find no wound or anything to account for death. A doctor, hastily summoned, was equally without any clue to the cause of death.
    “Suicide, I should think!” he exclaimed when he had finished his examination. “By poison, most probably; but there is no trace of it about the mouth.”
    Then, turning to the police-inspector who had just entered, he added:
    “The door was locked on the inside. It must, therefore, have been suicide.”
    “The gentleman was a friend of yours, I believe, sir?” asked the inspector, addressing me.
    I replied in the affirmative, but declared that he was certainly not the man to commit suicide.
    “There’s been foul play-of that I’m positive!” I declared emphatically.
    “But he locked himself in,” the hotel manager argued. “He must have re-entered unobserved.”
    “He was waiting here for me. He wished to speak to me,” I replied.
    The theory held by all present, however, was that it was suicide; therefore the inspector expressed his intention of having the body conveyed to the Pimlico mortuary to await the usual post-mortem.
    I then took him aside downstairs, and telling him in confidence who I was, and what office my dead friend held, I said:
    “I must ask you, inspector, to lock up the room and leave everything undisturbed until I have made a few inquiries myself. The public must be allowed to believe it a case of suicide; but before we take any action I must consult my Chief. You, on your part, will please inform Superintendent Hutchinson, of the C.I. Department at Scotland Yard, that I am making investigations. That will be sufficient. He will understand.”
    “Very well, sir,” replied the inspector; and a few moments later I left the house in a taxi. Each member of the Secret Service is a detective by instinct, and I suppose I was no exception.
    Half an hour later I was seated with General Kennedy in his cosy little library in Curzon Street explaining briefly my startling discovery.
    “That’s most remarkable!” he cried, greatly upset at hearing of our poor colleagues’s death. “Captain Usborne brought the man Günther here just after nine, and we had breakfast together. Then he left, promising to return at three to again take charge of the stranger. He arrived about a quarter past three, and both he and the German left in a four-wheeler. That is the last I saw of either of them.”
    “Günther was to leave to-night. Has he gone?” I asked.
    “Who knows?” exclaimed the shrewd, grey-headed little man, who, besides being a distinguished General, was Director of the British Secret Service.
    “We must find him,” I said. Then after a moment’s reflection I added: “I must go to Liverpool Street Station at once.”
    “I cannot see what you can discover,” replied the General. “If Günther has left he would not be noticed in a crowded train. If he left London he’s already on the North Sea by this time,” he added, glancing up at the clock.
    “Usborne has been assassinated, sir,” I declared with emphasis. “He was my best friend. We have often been in tight corners on the Continent together. May I be permitted to pursue the investigation myself?”
    “By all means, if you really believe it was not a case of suicide.”
    “It was not-of that I’m quite certain.”
    I was suspicious of Günther. The German might have been an impostor after all. Yet at Webster’s Dick had not been seen with any companion. He had simply gone there alone in order to wait for me.
    For what reason? Ay, that was the question.
    With all haste I drove down to Liverpool Street. On my way I took from my pocket a slip of paper – the receipt from a tourist-agency for the first-class return ticket between London and Berlin which I had sent to Günther. It bore the number of the German’s ticket. At the inspector’s office I was shown all the tickets collected of departing passengers by the boat-train, and among them found the German’s voucher for the journey from Liverpool Street to Parkeston Quay.
    I had at least cleared up one point. Herr Günther had left London.
    On returning to the dark little hotel just after midnight I found a man I knew awaiting me-Detective-Inspector Barker, who had been sent to me by Superintendent Hutchinson, the uniformed police having now been withdrawn from the house.
    Alone, in the small sitting-room, we took counsel. Barker I knew to be a very clever investigator of crime, his speciality being the tracing and arrest of alien criminals who seek asylum in London, and for whose extradition their own countries apply.
    “I’ve seen the body of the unfortunate gentleman,” he said. “But I can detect no suspicious circumstances. Indeed, for aught I can see, he might have locked himself in and died of natural causes. Have you any theory-of enemies, for example?”
    “Enemies!” I cried. “Why, Dick Usborne was the most daring agent in our service. It was he who discovered and exposed that clever German agent Schultz, who tried to secure the plan of the new Dreadnought. Only six months ago he cleared out a nest of foreign spies down at Beccles, and it was he who scented and discovered the secret store of rifles and ammunition near Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. But probably you know nothing of that. We’ve kept its discovery carefully to ourselves for fear of creating a panic. Dick, however, had a narrow escape. The night he broke into the cellars of the country inn where the depot had been established he was discovered by the landlord, a Belgian. The latter attempted to secure him, but Dick succeeded in snatching up the Belgian’s revolver, firing a shot which broke the blackguard’s arm, and so escaped. Such a man is bound to have enemies – and vengeful ones too,” I added.
    The mystery was full of puzzling features. The facts known were these. At noon Dick had arrived at that place and, under the name of Mr Clarke, had taken a room. Just after three o’clock he had been at Curzon Street, but after that hour nothing more had been seen of him until we had found him dead.
    The chief points were, first, the reason he had so suddenly gone into hiding; and, secondly, why he feared to come round to my rooms, although he desired to consult me.
    Sending Barker across to despatch a telegram, I ascended alone to the dead man’s room, and, turning up the gas, made a minute investigation. Some torn paper was in the fireplace – a telegraph form. This I pieced together, and, in surprise, found it to be a draft in pencil of the telegram I had received – but it was not in Dick’s handwriting.
    I searched my dead friend’s pockets, but there was nothing in them of any use as clue. Men of my profession are usually very careful never to carry anything which may reveal their identity. Travelling so much abroad as we do, we never know when we may find ourselves in an awkward situation, and compelled to give a fictitious account of ourselves to a foreign ponce bureau.
    That small, rather comfortless room was of the usual type to be found in any third-rate private hotel in London – the iron bedstead, the threadbare carpet, the wooden washstand, and lace curtains limp and yellow with smoke.
    While Barker was absent I carefully examined everything, even the body of Dick himself. But I confess that I could form no theory whatever as to how he had been done to death, or by what means the assassin had entered or left the room.
    While bending over my dead friend I thought I detected a sweet perfume, and taking out his handkerchief placed it to my nostrils. The scent was a subtle and delightful one that I never remembered having smelt before-like the fragrant odour of a cottage garden on a summer’s night. But Dick was something of a dandy; therefore it was not surprising that he should use the latest fashionable perfume.
    As I gazed again upon the poor white face I noticed, for the first time, that upon the cheek, just below the left eye, was a slight but curious mark upon the flesh, a faint but complete red circle, perhaps a little larger than a finger-ring, while outside it, at equal distances, showed four tiny spots. All was so very faint and indistinct that I had hitherto overlooked it. But now, as I struck a vesta and held it close to the dead white countenance, I realised the existence of something which considerably increased the mystery.
    When Barker returned I pointed it out, but he could form no theory as to why it showed there. So I took a piece of paper from my pocket and, carefully measuring the diameter of the curious mark, drew a diagram of it, together with the four spots.
    Barker and I remained there together the greater part of the night, but without gaining anything to assist towards a solution of the mystery. The servants could tell us absolutely nothing. Therefore we decided to wait until the postmortem had been made.
    This was done on the following day, and when we interviewed the two medical men who made it and Professor Sharpe, the analyst to the Home Office, who had been present, the latter said:
    “Well, gentlemen, the cause of death is still a complete mystery. Certain features induce us to suspect some vegetable poison, but whether self-administered we cannot tell. The greater number of vegetable poisons, when diffused through the body, are beyond the reach of chemical analysis. If an extract, or inspissated juice, be administered, or if the poison were in the form of infusion, tincture, or decoction, a chemical analysis would be of no avail. I am about to make an analysis, however, and will inform you of its result.”
    I made inquiry regarding the curious ring-like mark upon the cheek, but one of the doctors, in reply, answered:
    “It was not present today. It has disappeared.”
    So the enigma remained as complete as ever.
    Next day I travelled over to Berlin, and there met Herr Günther by appointment. From his manner I knew at once that he was innocent of any connection with the strange affair.
    When I told him of the strange occurrence in London he stood dumb-founded.
    “The Captain called for me at Curzon Street,” he said in German “and we drove in a cab to his club-in Pall Mall I think he said it was. We had a smoke there, and then, just at dusk, he said he had a call to make, so we took a taxi-cab and drove a long way, across a bridge-over the Thames, I suppose. Presently we pulled up at the corner of a narrow street in a poor quarter, and he alighted, telling me that he would be absent only ten minutes or so. I waited, but though one hour passed he did not return. For two whole hours I waited, then, as he did not come back, and I feared I should lose my train, I told the driver to go to Liverpool Street. He understood me, but he charged me eighteen marks for the fare.”
    “And you did not see the Captain again?”
    “No. I had something to eat at the buffet, and left for Germany.”
    “Nothing happened while you were with the Captain?” I asked. “I mean nothing which, in the light of what has occurred, might be considered suspicious?”
    “Nothing whatever,” was the German’s reply. “He met nobody while with me. The only curious fact was the appointment he kept and his non-return.”
    In vain I tried to learn into what suburb of London he had been taken; therefore that same night I again left for London, via Brussels and Ostend.
    Next day I called upon Professor Sharpe in Wimpole Street to ascertain the result of his analysis.
    “I’m sorry to say that I’ve been unable to detect anything: If the Captain really died of poison it may have been one of those alkaloids, some of which our chemical processes cannot discover in the body. It is a common fallacy that all poisons can be traced. Some of them admit of no known means of detection. A few slices of the root of the CEnanthe crocata, for instance, will destroy life in an hour, yet no poison of any kind has been separated from this plant. The same may be said of the African ordeal bean, and of the decoction and infusion of the bark of laburnum.”
    “Then you are without theory – eh?”
    “Entirely, Mr Jerningham. As regards poisoning, I may have been misled by appearances; yet my colleagues at the post-mortem could find nothing to cause death from natural causes. It is as extraordinary, in fact, as all the other circumstances.”
    I left the Professor’s house in despair. All Barker’s efforts to assist me had been without avail, and now that a week had passed, and my dead friend had been interred at Woking, I felt all further effort to be useless.
    Perhaps, after all, I had jumped to the conclusion of foul play too quickly. I knew that this theory I alone held. Our Chief was strongly of opinion that it was a case of suicide in a fit of depression, to which all of us who live at great pressure are frequently liable.
    Yet when I recollected the strong character of poor Dick Usborne, and the many threats he had received during his adventurous career, I doggedly adhered to my first opinion.
    Day after day, and with infinite care, I considered each secret agent of Germany likely to revenge himself upon the man who, more than anyone else, had been instrumental in combating the efforts of spies upon our eastern coast, There were several men I suspected, but against neither of them was there any shadow of evidence.
    That circular mark upon the cheek was, to say the least, a very peculiar feature. Besides, who had drafted that telegram?
    Of the manager at Webster’s I learned that Mr Clarke had for some months past been in the habit of meeting there a young Frenchman named Dupont, engaged in a merchant’s office in the City. At our headquarters I searched the file of names and addresses of our “friends”, but his was not amongst them. I therefore contrived, after several weeks of patient watching, to make the acquaintance of the young man – who lived in lodgings in Brook Green Road, Hammersmith – but after considerable observation my suspicions were dispelled. The reason of his meeting with Dick was, no doubt, to give information, but of what nature I could not surmise. From Dupont’s employers I learned that he was in Brussels on business for the firm on the day of the crime.
    There had apparently been some motive in trying to entice me to that hotel earlier in the evening of the tragedy. Personally I did not now believe that Dick had sent me that telegram. Its despatch had been part of the conspiracy which had terminated so fatally.
    Nearly nine months went by.
    On more than one occasion the Chief had referred to poor Dick’s mysterious end, expressing a strong belief that my suspicions were unfounded. Yet my opinion remained unchanged. Usborne had, I felt certain, been done to death by one who was a veritable artist in crime.
    The mystery would no doubt have remained a mystery until this day had it not been for an incident which occurred about three months ago.
    I had been sent to Paris to meet, on a certain evening, in the café of the Grand Hotel, a person who offered to sell us information which we were very anxious to obtain regarding military operations along the Franco-German frontier.
    The person in question turned out to be a chic and smartly-dressed Parisienne, the dark-haired wife of a French lieutenant of artillery stationed at Adun, close to the frontier. As we sat together at one of the little tables, she bent to me and, in confidence, whispered in French that at her apartment in the Rue de Nantes she had a number of important documents relating to German military operations which her husband had secured and was anxious to dispose of. If I cared to accompany her I might inspect them.
    Offers of such a character reach us sometimes, for the British Government are known to be excellent paymasters when occasion demands. Therefore, nothing loth, I accompanied her in an auto-cab out towards the Bois.
    The lady’s apartment, on the third floor of a large house, proved to be quite a luxurious little place, furnished with great taste, and when she had ushered me into her little salon she left me for a few moments. We were alone, she said, for it would not be wise for anyone to know that she had sold information of such vital importance to England. Her husband would get into serious trouble for not placing it at the disposal of the Ministry of War.
    A few moments later she returned, having taken off her hat and coat, bearing a small black portfolio such as is used by business men in France. Seating me at a table, and standing at my side, she placed the papers before me, and I began a careful perusal.
    I suppose I must have been thus occupied for some ten minutes, when slowly, very slowly, I felt her arm steal around my neck.
    In an instant I sprang to my feet. The truth that I had all along suspected was now plain. Facing her, I cried:
    “Woman, I know you! These documents are pure fabrications – prepared in order to entrap me here! I believed that I recognised you at first – now I am convinced.”
    “Why, monsieur!” she exclaimed in a voice of reproach. “What do you mean?”
    “I mean, mademoiselle, that it was you – you, Julie Bellanger – who killed my friend Dick Usborne, because he exposed you as a spy!” I cried.
    “Killed your friend!” she gasped, trying to laugh. “You are mad, m’sieur!”
    “Yes, you killed him! And shall I explain to you how you accomplished it?” I said, looking straight into her dark eyes. “Usborne had become friendly with you in Beccles, and you never suspected him in connection with the Secret Service. Among other things, he gave you a bottle of a new and extremely rare perfume which he had brought from Bucharest – that perfume which is now upon you. As soon as we met tonight I recognised its fragrance. Well, Usborne, having convinced himself that you were engaged with others in gathering information in Suffolk for the General Staff in Berlin, informed the police, and you were ordered away. You came to London and, determined upon a terrible revenge, took a room at the hotel where you knew he sometimes stayed. Then you sent him a telegram purporting to come from his friend Dupont, asking him to go to Webster’s and meet him there. In response to this poor Usborne went, but almost instantly on his arrival you paid your bill and left the hotel. You then watched my friend out again and, re-entering the hotel unseen, crept up to his room, the number of which you had already ascertained prior to leaving. There you concealed yourself until just before six. When he returned you emerged, and on pretence that you were ready to dispose of these self-same papers, you induced him to sit down and examine them, just as I have done. Suddenly you placed your arm about his neck, while with your right hand you stuck the needle of the little hypodermic syringe – the one you now hold in your hand there – into the nape of his neck where you knew that the puncture would be concealed by the hair. It contained a deadly vegetable poison – as it does now!”
    “It’s a lie!” she cried in French. “You can’t prove it!”
    “I can, for as you held him you pressed his left cheek against the breast of your blouse, against that little circular brooch you are now wearing – the ring with four diamonds set at equal distances around it. The mark was left there-upon his face!”
    She stood staring fixedly at me, unable to utter a word.
    “After you had emptied that syringe you held him until he lay dead. Then you removed all traces of your presence and, stealing from the room, turned the key from the outside by means of that tiny hand-vice which I notice lies in the small bowl upon the mantelshelf yonder. Afterwards you crept downstairs and sent me a telegram, as though from the man who had already died by your hand. And, mademoiselle,” I added severely, “I, too, should have shared the same fate had I not recollected the smell of the Roumanian perfume and seen upon your blouse the round brooch which produced the red ring upon my friend’s countenance.”
    Then, without further word, I crossed to the telephone and, taking up the receiver, called the police.
    The woman, suddenly aroused by my action, dashed towards me frantically to stay my hand, but she was too late. I had given warning.
    She turned to the door, but I barred her passage.
    For a moment she looked around in wild despair; then ere I could realise her intention or prevent her, she stuck the point of the deadly needle – the needle she intended to use upon me because I had assisted in clearing out those spies from Suffolk – deeply into her white, well-moulded arm.
    Five minutes later, when two policemen came up the stairs to arrest her, they found her lying lifeless.

    Observable Justice by Will Murray

    Will Murray (b. 1953) is not only one of the most prolific and knowledgeable people in the field of pulp fiction – the author of over 50 books including 40 novels in the Destroyer series and eight Doc Savage novels – he is also a professional psychic and instructor in remote viewing, the subject of the following story. Murray’s remote-viewing novel, Nick Fury Agent of Shield: Empyre (2000) predicted the operational details of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on America more than a year before they occurred.

***

    Two uniforms met Detective Raymond Murex at the door to Room 314 of Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel. “You won’t need that,” one told him.
    Murex pocketed the Vicks Vapo Rub and asked, “He doesn’t smell?”
    “No, sir. Must have died overnight. Housekeeping found him when she came to make the bed. Looks like natural causes.”
    Pulling on latex gloves, Murex stepped in. The dead man lay on the still-made bed in his street clothes, as if napping, hands neatly folded over his stomach. A black sleep mask covered his eyes. On the bedside table lay a calfskin wallet and an open binder-style notebook, both black.
    Murex took out his own notebook. “What time was he discovered?”
    “Maid said she had to come back several times because of the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door. When he wouldn’t respond, she used her key. That was 1:45.”
    Murex wrote it down and asked, “Name?”
    “Registered as John Doom.”
    Murex opened the wallet and confirmed that. Next he looked at the notebook. The page on the left was blank. On the right a set of numbers were centered in 30 point type:

    5688
    7854

    Murex leafed through the rest. Every right-hand page displayed a set of similar numbers. He copied down the exposed set. The binder contained no other writing.
    Murex called in the hotel manager, who was waiting outside.
    “John Doom, when did he check in?”
    “Last night. Reservations were made on Friday.”
    “Who saw him last?”
    “Not sure. It appears he checked in and went straight to bed.”
    “And never woke up,” said Murex. “It happens. Thank you. When can I talk to the desk clerk who checked him in?”
    “He comes on duty at 5:00. I’ll call him in early.”
    “Appreciate that.”
    The ME showed up. Acknowledging Murex, he asked, “What can you tell me about this one?”
    “Not much. Found this way in the last hour. Possible natural causes.”
    A crime scene photographer took several shots of the dead man.
    “Let’s take a look at the color of his eyes.” Carefully, the ME removed the sleep mask. “Hello,” he said.
    Murex leaned in. The man’s eyes were wide open, staring. They almost bugged out of his head. Their color was glassy green.
    The ME shone a penlight. “Pinpoint hemorrhages, indicating burst capillaries. Normal under certain conditions.”
    Murex said, “He looks scared.”
    “The eyes look scared. His face is another matter. Thyroid problems can give the eyeballs that protruding effect.”
    “So can manual strangulation,” Murex reminded.
    “Strangulation ivariably triggers bowel elimination, and I smell nothing of the kind.” The ME was examining Doom’s throat. “No ligature marks. No bruises.” He felt of the windpipe. “Larynx is unremarkable.”
    Taking one of the dead man’s hands, the ME started to separate them. “Two chipped fingernails. But no defensive – what’s this?”
    Murex extracted a thin microcassette recorder from between the man’s fingers. Rewinding, Murex played it back. A murmuring voice emanated from the tiny speaker: “5688 7854 January 23. 5688 7854.” There was a long pause in which measured breathing could be heard.
    “Respiration appears regular,” the ME remarked.
    The voice repeated “5688 7854.” Then: “My perceptions of the target are of a winding stone stairwell leading into the bowels of the Earth. It feels cold. Air stagnant. A sickly greenish light is emanating from far below…”
    Another pause came in which breathy exhalations were the only detectable sounds. After three minutes of disconnected murmurings, Murex paused the recorder. “Sounds like he just fell asleep.”
    The ME looked at him. “I wonder what he meant by ‘target’?”
    “Suddenly ‘natural causes’ doesn’t trip off the tongue so easily, does it?”
    Murex went to the window. Outside, afternoon traffic flowed by the hotel. This was the heart of Boston’s financial district. The blue glass blade of the Hancock Tower stood just a few blocks north, and beyond that the city’s second-largest office tower, the Prudential Building. Murex thought of the twin World Trade Center towers, and shivered.
    “I’d better check in with my commanding officer,” he told the ME. Using his cellphone, Murex spoke briefly, recounting his findings. He listened, then snapped the device shut.
    “Captain Hurley would like a priority on this autopsy.”
    “Okay. I’ll put a flag on it.”
    Minutes later, as the body was being removed out a side door, Detective Murex was talking to the desk clerk.
    “Do you remember a John Doom checking in?”
    “Sure. Hear he died.”
    “In his sleep. Anything unusual about him come to mind?”
    “No.”
    “Any distinguishing features?”
    “No. He wasn’t very tall, about five-four, medium brown hair. Paid by credit card. He reminded me of my cousin.”
    “Why is that?”
    “My cousin’s in the Air Force. This guy gave me that feeling, too.”
    Murex nodded. “Remember him well enough to identify him?”
    “I won’t have to go down to the morgue, will I?”
    “No. Follow me.”
    EMTs were rolling the body into the back of an ambulance. Murex called out, “Hold up.”
    Stripping the sheet off the corpse’s face, he asked, “This look like him?”
    “Yeah. No, wait. That’s not him.”
    Murex said, “No?”
    “No. His hair was browner and the eyebrows much thicker.”
    “Now take a deep breath,” Murex said. “People can appear different in death. Look again. Is this the man who checked in last evening under the name of John Doom?”
    “I – Yeah, it is.”
    “You are positive?”
    “Absolutely. Can I go now? I feel kinda ill.”
    “Stay handy.”
    A forensics team from the CSI Unit had taken control of Room 314. They dusted for prints, collected hair samples off the bedspread and said hardly a word.
    Murex was bagging John Doom’s personal effects when he noticed the black binder had a logo embossed into it: A human eye in a starburst over the letters TIRV. Uncolored, it was detectable only under direct light.
    Grabbing the sleep mask, Murex gave it a second look. Over the right eye, in modest white letters, were the same initials. Outlined on the mask’s brow gleamed a tiny white eye in a starburst.
    “What have we here?” he muttered.
    Reaching into his coat for his cellphone, Murex discovered the tape recorder. It felt warm. He realized he’d left it on pause. Hitting play, Murex sat and listened. The DOA’s breathing continued for a time. He seemed asleep, but came out of it. He began speaking:
    “I’m standing in a chamber hollowed out of solid stone. Instead of a floor, I see grates. Iron grates… it feels hot… the air reeks of sulfur… Below me it’s like a barbeque pit… black smoke… leaping flames… I perceive two burning eyes… like very hot coals. And a black face emerging… it’s-”
    Suddenly, the voice rose into a panicky strangled sound. The voice began gasping, struggling for air. It soon choked off. The tape hummed white noise. The absence of breathing noises was unmistakable.
    One of the CSI team said, “Sounds exactly like a heart attack.”
    Murex called his CO. “Looks like natural causes with a funny twist. Scratch that courtesy call to the FBI.”
    Back at District A-l headquarters, Murex Googled the initials TIRV. He got one hit: Technical Institute for Remote Viewing of Nashua, New Hampshire. Linking to the site, Murex was confronted by the eye-in-a-starburst motif, white against a black starfield.

    EXPLORE THE UNIVERSE!
    During the Cold War, the Pentagon and the Kremlin were locked in a desperate race. Not the space race, but a far more secret enterprise: the Psi Race! Dedicated to penetrating the deepest frontiers of human endeavour, the Department of Defence launched Project Stargate, where specially-selected candidates plucked from every service branch were trained to become true “spooks” – shadowy secret agents who could go anywhere, penetrate any nation’s security, all without leaving the confines of the ultra-secret Stargate training center at Fort Meade, Maryland!
    Now, you too can become a Stargate-level psychic explorer. Captain Trey Grandmaison, one of the Stargate unit’s top Remote Viewers, is now teaching qualified civilian candidates in the advanced 21st-century martial art formerly available only to the military elite!
    Hearing the knock, Captain Hurley barked, “Come in.”
    Murex entered. “Turned up something unusual on that hotel fatality, sir.”
    “What is it?”
    Instead of answering, Murex set down the black binder, the eye shade and a color printout of the TIRV site home page.
    “What the holy hell?” Hurley growled. “You have a nice flair for the dramatic, laying it out for me like this.”
    “I figure you can do the math faster than I could explain it.”
    “Much obliged,” Hurley said dryly. He read the TIRV mission statement aloud: “‘Remote Viewing is the acquisition and description, by mental means, of information blocked from ordinary perception by distance, shielding or time. TIRV is dedicated to placing this powerful mind technology in peaceful hands.’” He leaned back. “Is this for real?”
    “Your guess is as good as mine. According to this website, Captain Grandmaison is ex-Army Intelligence. He trains people to do this stuff. John Doom was apparently trying to remotely view whatever these numbers represent when he expired.”
    “Why don’t you take a run up to New Hampshire and see this guy, Grandmaison?”
    “I’ll do that.”
    As Murex started out, Hurley called after him, “I got a feeling about this one, Ray.”
    Former Captain Trey Grandmaison lived in a converted farmhouse just over the Massachusetts border. It was a sprawling structure painted Colonial white, edged with stark black trim. A big barn lay behind it, as colorless and weathered as a Cape Cod fishing shack. The drive leading back to the barn had been plowed clean of snow.
    A vaguely European woman with intensely black hair answered the door. Dark circles under her eyes marred a natural beauty.
    Murex flashed his shield. “Detective Ray Murex. Boston Homicide. Could I have a word with Mr Grandmaison?”
    “I’m sorry. But he’s in the gray room. He can’t be disturbed right now.”
    “Gray room?”
    “His private viewing room. He’s working a practice target.”
    “I should have called first, but I need to ask him about one of his students.”
    The door fell open. “Perhaps I can help you. I run the registration side of TIRV.”
    “Then I would like to talk with you, Mrs Grandmaison.”
    “Call me Effie, please.”
    The living room was decorated in the Mission style. Murex searched for signs of a military past and found none. No medals. Not even an American flag on display.
    Murex took a chair. “What can you tell me about a John Doom?”
    Effie Grandmaison looked blank. “I don’t place that name. Are you sure he was a TIRV student?”
    “He was found dead in bed last night wearing one of your sleep masks, a TIRV binder at his bedside. According to a microcassette recorder found on his person, he was actively remote viewing a number in your binder.”
    “We call them coordinates. Do you know the cause of death?”
    “Not as yet.”
    “What were the coordinates?”
    Murex recited the numbers from memory.
    Effie frowned. “I don’t recognize them, but of course we create new targets all the time. What were his perceptions?”
    “Excuse me?”
    “Of the target, I mean.”
    “I’d like to stick with John Doom for the moment,” Murex said impatiently. “Do you have a class registry?”
    “Why is this important? Do you think he was murdered?”
    “Right now, it looks like he died of fright.”
    Effie Grandmaison abruptly stood up. “I think this is important enough to disturb Trey. Please follow me.”
    Rising, Murex followed the woman outside to a cellar door.
    “The basement can’t be accessed from inside the house,” she said, throwing up the bulkhead door. She led him down into a work area, past an oil furnace, to the far end. It was very cold. Murex could see his breath. A cobwebby corner was paneled off in pine. The hard-carved sign on the door read:
    DO NOT DISTURB! SESSION IN PROGRESS!
    Effie Grandmaison pressed a white button. No sound came back.
    “Soundproof?” Murex asked, blowing into his hands.
    “And lightproof. A bell would freak him out if it went off in the middle of a session. This simply activates a green light. He’ll be a minute or so coming out of session.”
    It was two minutes before Trey Grandmaison emerged, looking upset.
    “What the hell, Effie?”
    “I’m sorry, Trey. But this is Detective Murex from Boston. He’s here about a man who died while working a target from one of our class binders.”
    Trey Grandmaison didn’t look very surprised. If anything he seemed spacey. He was a compact individual with hair so brown it verged on black. His smoke-gray eyes had trouble focusing.
    “Let’s take this upstairs,” he said at last.
    Trey Grandmaison looked up from the computer screen. “There’s no record of a John Doom ever taking one of my classes.”
    They were in the den. It too was Spartan. The only photos showed Grandmaison in civilian clothes.
    Murex asked, “How would he have gotten hold of one of your binders then?”
    Effie inserted, “They are part of our course package of materials. There’s nothing to stop one of our students from loaning or selling one to anyone they want.”
    Grandmaison added, “We put a copyright notice on all practice target packs, but many of our target feedback photos are things you can find in any encylopedia – Seattle’s Space Needle, Mount Rushmore, the Titanic-”
    Murex interrupted, “Is there anything about doing this work that might induce someone to have a heart attack?”
    “No!” Effie said suddenly.
    Trey Grandmaison said, “I teach two types of RV, detective. Coordinate Remote Viewing and Extended RV. If he was lying down with an eye shield, he was doing ERV. It’s pretty safe. Half the time, my students drift off into a Delta state.”
    Murex looked up from his notebook. “I don’t follow.”
    “We RV in different brainwave states, detective. Alpha for CRV. Theta for ERV. Theta is the gateway to the Delta sleep state. If you go too deep, you simply click off like a light.”
    “It’s perfectly safe,” Effie reiterated.
    “I did hear about a candidate viewer who died of fright while working a target,” Grandmaison said slowly.
    “Is that so?”
    “It was back in ’87, just after I joined the unit. In between working operational targets, they would run us against practice coordinates to keep us in our viewing zone. The duty monitor came in one day and claimed he had worked up a really challenging target. The viewer who worked that one was never seen again. Rumor was he’d had a heart attack. But there was talk he’d died of fright.”
    “Fright?”
    “Whatever he was viewing scared him so badly his heart gave out.”
    Effie said, “But, Trey, that was just a rumor.”
    “Well, we never saw that viewer again. So I suppose it’s possible whatever your guy was viewing scared him literally to death.”
    Murex asked, “Do you recognize this set of coordinates?”
    Grandmaison took the offered notebook. “I don’t know these. I use a date system of notation. That way, if another RV instructor steals my targets, I can tell just by looking at the coords.”
    “Is that a problem for you – theft?”
    “My students don’t pay upwards of two thousand dollars just to remotely experience the summit of Pike’s Peak. My specialty is non-validation targets – UFOS, other planets, historical mysteries. Most were first worked back in Project Stargate. I’ve developed others. Anyone taking my class can teach others using my target packs, so I have to protect my business.”
    “Is there any way of determining what these numbers mean?” asked Murex.
    “They don’t mean anything.”
    Murex looked his question.
    “These look like randomly-generated target coordinates,” Grandmaison explained. “That’s how we worked back in the Stargate era. A computer would spit out a set of these and a tasker would assign them to the target. We RV off the coords so we’re not frontloaded as to the nature of the target. Think of the numbers as a metaphysical longitude and latitude.”
    “Then how do-?”
    “How do they work? Monitor’s intention. Once I assign the number to a target, my intention drives the session.”
    Murex tried to keep his face straight.
    “Tell you what, detective,” Grandmaison offered. “I have a small ERV class coming in shortly. Why don’t we run the group against this one?”
    “I don’t see how that would-”
    “Otherwise, I’m afraid I can’t help you,” he said suddenly.
    Murex stood up. “I’ll keep your offer in mind.”
    On the way out, Trey Grandmaison handed Murex a business card.
    “In case TIRV can help in any way, all my contact numbers are on this card. Call me anytime.”
    “Thanks for your cooperation,” Murex told him.
    The ME’s preliminary report had come in by the time Ray Murex had returned to his desk. He skimmed it, then took it in to his CO.
    “According to this, John Doom hadn’t eaten in four days before he was found. No signs of poison or foul play. Cause of death appears to be heart failure. But the ME thinks the pinpoint eyeball hemorrhages strongly indicate he was lying face down when he died, and for a period of up to six hours afterward.”
    “But he was found lying face up, right?”
    “Right. With a microcassette recorder carefully nestled in his neatly folded hands.”
    “You mean, placed there,” Hurley said. “Looks like we have an attempt at a perfect crime with locked-room overtones. Let’s take it from the top, guy checks in about 9 p.m. Monday night. By which time according to the ME, he could have been dead three or four days. Anyone at the hotel ID the body?”
    “Desk clerk who checked him in, but he was a little shaky. However, the driver’s license photo fits the deceased.”
    “So if John Doom couldn’t have checked in Monday night, who did? And how did Doom’s corpse get there?”
    “There’s another problem,” Murex said. “The body showed no outward indications of decomposition.”
    “So he couldn’t have died in the hotel room.”
    “Not according to the ME. Wherever he was, Doom was on ice over the weekend. But someone had to flip the body over after those post-mortem pinpoint hemorrhages appeared.”
    “Hmmm. What did you get in New Hampshire?”
    “I found Grandmaison and his wife. They seem to take this Remote Viewing stuff dead serious. If they’re running a scam, I didn’t detect it in their manner. They claim never to have heard of John Doom. Otherwise, they made absolutely no sense to me. According to them, the coordinates the dead man were working when he died were randomly assigned. Common sense says if they’re random, they can’t possibly do what he claims they can.”
    “Go at this from the angle of Doom’s last four or five days. I’m going to put you with Knuckles on this.”
    “Why?”
    “You’ll see. He’s already been informed.”
    Detective First Grade Robert Knuckles had been on the job a dozen years longer than Ray Murex and acted it.
    “Another day, another stiff,” he sighed.
    “This one is complicated. Let me bring you up to speed.”
    Knuckles listened with head tilted back and his pale blue eyes gazing off into space, his expression bored. When Murex got to the part about Remote Viewing, Knuckles took his feet off his desk and began to look interested.
    “This is a new one,” he said. “I could get to like it. Let me see Grandmaison’s card.”
    Murex gave it up. Knuckles read it over, then flipped it. “Whoa. What is this?”
    Knuckles showed him the obverse side. Two sets of four digits were marked in blue ink: 2006/0075.
    “Look like remote coordinates to you?” Knuckles asked.
    “Pretty much,” Murex admitted. “Unless the first one is the year.”
    Knuckles frowned deeply. “You say Grandmaison takes this stuff pretty seriously. I wonder…”
    “Wonder what?”
    “Well, maybe he just happened to give you a card on which he scribbled some stray coordinates. But try this on for size: maybe these coordinates are you.”
    “Me?”
    “Could be he’s tagged you for remote surveillance.”
    Ray Murex exploded into uncontrolled laughter.
    “You ever work with psychics?” Knuckles asked.
    “Never!”
    “You know the unwritten rule.”
    “Sure. If you’re stuck, you can consult one, you just can’t use what they tell you in a court of law.”
    Bob Knuckles grinned wisely. “I’ve invoked that rule a time or two. Never mind the details. Take it from someone who’s been at this longer than you. Take this stuff seriously, but treat it skeptically.”
    “Always.” Murex pocketed the card and asked, “What’s your take on this?”
    “Obviously someone sneaked a corpse into the Park Plaza, pretending to be the deceased. I think we had better find out more about dead Mr Doom. I took the liberty of starting that ball rolling. He’s single, 44 and lived waaay out of town. Mission Hill.”
    Murex frowned darkly.
    “I know what you’re thinking,” Knuckles said. “Why would a single guy rent an expensive hotel room less than three miles from home?”
    “Maybe he needed a quiet place to do his thing?”
    “Let’s see how quiet the home front really is.”
    The house was a triple-decker, dark chocolate brown, at the top of Parker Hill. Murex and Knuckles had to climb nearly 100 cracked concrete steps to get to the front door. The black woman who answered was the landlady.
    “A few questions about John Doom, ma’am,” Murex said, showing his shield.
    “Come on in then.”
    They were let into the top-floor apartment.
    “Lived here five years,” the landlady was saying. “Quiet man. Kept to himself.”
    “What did he do for a living?” Murex asked.
    “Had different jobs. Didn’t talk much about it. Traveled a lot. I wouldn’t see him for a week or two at a time, and he was always saying as how he’d been to Baltimore or San Diego, or somesuch place. Never said why.”
    There were two bedrooms. One was a standard setup with a twin bed, and the usual furniture. The other was something else.
    “What the hell he done with this room!” the landlady burst out.
    The second bedroom room was all gray-ceiling, walls, even the inside of the door. The windows were hung with blackout shades. Gray, too. Even the rug was battleship gray. In the middle of the rug was a thin futon, gray as mold.
    Murex said, “It’s a gray room.”
    “I can see that!” the landlady sputtered. “But what-”
    “Could you excuse us, please?”
    “Fine. I need to call a painter anyway…” She bustled out.
    Murex huddled with Knuckles.
    “Grandmaison had one in his cellar. I didn’t see the inside. They remote view in gray rooms for some reason.”
    “Then why did Doom go to a hotel, if he had this setup handy?”
    “Good question.”
    They looked around. A bookcase was crammed with books and microcassettes in labeled boxes. Murex selected one, loaded it into a recorder from his pocket.
    A male voice began saying:”9746 0458 April 3rd 9746 0458 My perceptions of the target are…”
    Murex hit stop. He popped in the other cassette. The same voice recited different coordinates and a date.
    “Doom was really into this stuff,” Knuckles muttered. “I wonder if it’s any good for police work…”
    Murex shot him a dark look. They began looking for address books and cancelled checks with the deceased’s signature on it. It didn’t take long.
    “This look like the registration signature?” Knuckles asked.
    Murex frowned. “No. Not even close.”
    A commotion came from down below. Exiting, they found the landlady complaining to a UPS man who was hand-trucking a big burlap-covered box up the 100 steps.
    Knuckles demanded, “What’s this thing?”
    The landlady huffed, “A damned steamer trunk. Belonged to John. Fool hotel sent it over. What am I supposed to do with it?”
    They examined the trunk. It was empty.
    “We’ll take this off your hands, ma’am,” Murex said.
    Back at the Park Plaza, the hotel manager was saying, “Yes, we did ship the trunk back.”
    Knuckles demanded, “Didn’t you understand that it could be evidence?”
    “But it was stored outside the room. I was told not to remove anything from the room proper. We have a basement storage facility for large items.”
    “Did John Doom arrive with this trunk?” asked Murex.
    “The desk clerk will know.”
    The clerk didn’t look happy to see Ray Murex.
    “Did John Doom check in with a steamer trunk?”
    “No, it was delivered later. I don’t remember the company. He requested that it be sent up to his room, and then a few hours later, asked that it be placed in storage.”
    “What do you remember about this trunk?”
    “Well, the bellman complained that it was pretty heavy.”
    “I want to talk with that bellman.”
    The bell captain had a poor memory. He couldn’t describe John Doom, but he recalled one thing clearly: “That trunk was very heavy going up, and a lot lighter coming down.”
    Murex asked, “What color were Doom’s eyes?”
    “Grayish.”
    “Not greenish?”
    “No, grayish.”
    “Thank you.”
    Murex and Knuckles conferred. Murex growled, “Doom’s eyes were green as seawater.”
    “If it was Doom who checked in,” countered Knuckles.
    “My money says that it wasn’t.”
    “Your money’s no good in court, Ray.”
    “Here’s how I see it. The victim was delivered to the hotel in that steamer trunk. Bellman takes the trunk up to the hotel room, after which the unknown person who checked in under Doom’s name removes the victim from the trunk, lays him out on the bed, calls for the trunk to be removed, then exits quietly.”
    “You think he was dead going in?”
    “Exact time of death will establish that. But where was he for four days that he didn’t eat, and didn’t decompose if he was already dead?”
    “And what really killed him, and how?” said Knuckles.
    “I don’t buy death by remote viewing,” Murex muttered.
    “Let’s talk to the ME then.”
    The Medical Examiner was busy trisecting a human liver. He didn’t even look up from his work. “Heart failure. Your DOA expired of natural causes on or about last Friday, the 21st.”
    “Are you sure?” Murex pressed.
    “I’m never sure. But I am positive. A contributing factor appears to be malnourishment and dehydration.”
    “Could he have been scared to death?” asked Knuckles.
    “There’s no known medical test for that. But yes. Could have. It’s within the realm of possibility. But heart failure is what I will certify.”
    “Anything else?”
    “Under three fingernails I found gray deposits. Paint chips.”
    Murex and Knuckles examined these under a microscope.
    “Looks like scrapings,” decided Murex.
    Knuckles nodded. “Yeah. Probably from his gray room.”
    “Except for one thing. These scrapings are slate gray. Doom’s gray room was battleship gray. A lighter shade.”
    “Good catch.”
    On the drive up to New Hampshire the next morning, Bob Knuckles was saying, “The guy dies of a heart attack while doing his thing in a gray room. Whoever has charge of the gray room in question needed to cover it up for some reason. So he transports DOA Doom to the Plaza and stages it to look like the death happened there.”
    Behind the wheel, Murex growled. “It doesn’t fit.”
    “Sure it fits. What do you mean, it doesn’t fit?”
    “What are you covering up? Heart attacks happen.”
    “So do lawsuits. Guy doesn’t want to be sued for negligence by the fatality’s relatives.”
    “Trade a lawsuit for criminal mischief and felony transport of a body across state lines? I’ll take the lawsuit any day. It was staged. The date of the tape was Monday, not last Friday.”
    “If you’re going to stage a death by remote viewing, why use a TIRV folder?” Knuckles countered.
    “Because you’re not TIRV. You’re a rival RV school. Kill two birds with one stone. Dispose of inconvenient body and screw competition.”
    “Makes more sense to just dispose of the body, and hope for no traceback.”
    “I don’t see it,” Murex insisted.
    They were silent for a while. Fresh snowflakes were blowing in the backwash of vehicles ahead. Winter was settling in. After a time, Knuckles spoke. “Try this: it’s a murder.”
    “Murder how?”
    “Let’s say RV works like they say. No, follow me on this. Victim Doom wants to RV a really hot target. Perpetrator has a reason to want him off the planet. Maybe he knows Doom has a weak ticker. Figures one good scare might – just might – flatline him.”
    “Okay. It’s plausible so far as to motivation.”
    “Good. So he drops him into the scariest place possible.”
    “Which is?”
    “Hell.”
    “Hell!”
    “Hear me out now,” Knuckles said. “What did Doom describe on that first tape? Going down into the Earth and finding himself in a giant barbecue pit with blazing eyes looking up at him. What would that be except Hell?”
    “I don’t believe it.”
    “Listen to it again.” Knuckles replayed the tape.
    “5688 7854 January 23.5688 7854. My perceptions of the target are…”
    Murex suddenly pulled over. “Wait a minute. Stop! Give me that.”
    Ray Murex popped out the cassette and inserted one taken from John Doom’s apartment. He let it play for two full minutes.
    “Sound like the same guy to you?” Murex asked.
    “Not even remotely,” Knuckles returned.
    “Ouch.”
    They checked other tapes. All the voices matched. Except for the tape found on the body of John Doom.
    “Scratch the theory he died doing what he loved best,” Knuckles muttered as Murex got the car back into northbound traffic.
    “Suddenly I like Trey Grandmaison,” said Murex.
    “Doesn’t fit.”
    “What do you mean, doesn’t fit?”
    “Whoever staged Doom’s death scene wouldn’t use TIRV paraphernalia if he was connected to TIRV.”
    “I still like him. He bears a general resemblance to the mystery man who checked into room 314. And he has gray eyes. Let’s see how he takes our showing up unexpectedly.”
    “You still carrying his business card?”
    “Yeah.”
    Knuckles grinned. “Then maybe he’ll be expecting you.”
    “I’ve been expecting you,” said Trey Grandmaison at the door.
    Murex kept his voice flat. “You have?”
    “Well, either you were going to solve it, or return for more information. Either way, I expected another visit.”
    “I’m Bob Knuckles. We’d like to know more about RV.”
    “I’m on my way to teach a class. But follow me.”
    Grandmaison led them to the barn.
    “What is the purpose of a gray room?” asked Knuckles.
    “That started in the unit – Stargate. We needed a quiet sealed environment in which to do our work. Gray is a neutral color that won’t influence the viewer’s imagination.”
    “Uh-huh,” said Murex.
    Knuckles said, “We think John Doom died in a gray room. Could we see yours?”
    “Not much to see. But come on.”
    The gray room was a flat hue from floor to ceiling. Behind a drop ceiling hung a battery of indirect lights. A gray blanket covered a floor mattress. It was very cold.
    Murex asked, “No heat?”
    “Ceiling lights will warm it up enough. Most sessions last less than 50 minutes. And I’ve had survival training. Cold doesn’t bother me.”
    “What would you call this shade of gray?”
    “Slate.”
    “Doom had a room like this. But it was lighter in color.”
    Grandmaison cocked an eyebrow. “He had a gray room? Then what was he doing RVing in a hotel?”
    “That’s what we’d like to know. Where were you over the weekend, Mr Grandmaison?”
    Grandmaison didn’t blink. “I returned from teaching an Advanced Applications class in Richmond, Virginia on Sunday morning.”
    “How long were you there?”
    “All week. Class started that Monday morning.”
    “Witnesses?”
    “Over 60 people took my AARV class. I can give you their contact information.”
    “We may or may not need it,” Murex said glumly.
    Knuckles scratched at the inner door. Gray paint flaked off. “Ever lock yourself in by accident?”
    “Impossible. There’s no exterior lock.”
    Knuckles looked. “You’re right. My mistake.”
    “Where was Mrs Grandmaison last week?” asked Murex.
    A vein in Trey Grandmaison’s forehead began throbbing. “With me. She assists me on the road. Is there anything else? I have to begin my ERV class.”
    Knuckles asked, “Would you mind if we observe? I’m kinda curious about this RV stuff.”
    “Happy to. Come on.”
    The barn was insulated inside, and quartz space heaters radiated warmth from all four corners. It was barely enough. About a dozen people ranging in age from twentyish to fiftysomething sat on pine folding chairs facing a long table. Behind that stood a portable blackboard. Most shivered in their coats.
    Grandmaison announced, “We have two guests from the Boston police investigating a mysterious death in the RV community.”
    A woman raised a hand. “Are we going to work it?”
    “If we were, you know I wouldn’t frontload you first, would I?”
    The class laughed.
    “Detectives Murex and Knuckles are just here to satisfy their curiosity.”
    Murex stepped forward, showing a morgue photo. “Does anyone here know this man? John Doom?”
    No one stirred.
    “Does anyone here have a gray room, or knows someone who does?”
    Heads shook all around. Murex stepped back.
    Grandmaison said, “We’ll begin by debriefing on the overnight target. Who wants to start?”
    A man stood and began reciting from a black binder notebook. “My perceptions of the target were of a tall spidery latticelike structure situated in a wide flat area.”
    “Good. Next?”
    “My perceptions of the target suggest an oil derrick on a land platform-”
    Grandmaison interrupted, “Stop. How many times do I have to drill this into you guys? Describe, do not identify. Premature target identification will get you into trouble every time.”
    “Sorry. Target was metallic, vertical, man-made, and I got strong sensory impressions of cross-braces and oil smells.”
    “Probably associational noise from the derrick concept. Next!”
    As the class went around the room, they described structures ranging from a NASA shuttle on its launch pad to high-voltage power line transmission towers.
    Murex whispered to Knuckles, “They’re all over the map.”
    When the last student was done, Grandmaison rolled up a portable overhead projector.
    “Target 2004/0013 is very challenging because of the tendency of the viewer’s conscious mind to force a familiar identification. Hence, a class will bring back similar descriptions, dimensionals and other data, but will often lean toward different interpretations, usually biased by personal knowledge or analytic overlay.”
    Grandmaison clicked a switch. The Eiffel Tower appeared on the screen – a white sheet nailed to the wall behind him.
    A woman gasped, “No one got it!”
    “On the contrary. Most of you got it. The Eiffel Tower is structurally similar to an oil derrick or a electrical transmission tower, and because it also functions as a TV and radio broadcasting antenna, those of you who are sensitive to energetics will perceive it that way. Who described a Shuttle on its pad? You decoded the Eiffel Tower and its elevator as a gantry structure and its elevator. Good signal acquisition. Not so good decoding.”
    The class seemed impressed. Murex was not.
    “How do they know he’s not throwing up a picture to match what they get?” he whispered to Knuckles.
    “Why were they getting basically the same stuff?” Knuckles countered.
    “Okay!” Grandmaison announced. “Ten minute comfort break.”
    The class made for the house.
    A woman walked up to Murex and Knuckles, saying, “If you guys need help with your case, I’m a professional spirit communicator.”
    When Murex hesitated, Knuckles took the card. “We’ll keep you in mind, Miss… Carter.”
    “No problem!”
    Grandmaison drifted over, grinning. “Not bad for only three days’ training.”
    Murex asked, “Your class didn’t seem to react when I flashed Doom’s photo.”
    “The RV community is exploding. I teach people. My former Stargate colleagues teach other people. We don’t all keep track of each other.”
    Bob Knuckles asked, “Where were you the night John Doom checked into the Plaza?”
    “Here. Home. We were selecting targets for next week’s ERV class in LA.”
    Knuckles nodded. “You teach all over the country?”
    “And local classes in between.”
    “We’ve determined that Mr Doom was dead approximately four days before he checked in to the hotel,” Ray Murex said suddenly.
    Trey Grandmaison didn’t skip a beat, although a vein in his forehead suddenly leaped to life. “You have your work cut out for you. And so have I. Excuse me.”
    The class was filing back in. The break over, Grandmaison wrote a set of coordinates on the chalkboard and said, “Okay, this is your next target. Go to it.”
    The class gathered up sleeping bags, futons and the like and spread them out at scattered places on the floor.
    “Target is to be viewed in present time. You have one hour. View until the data starts to repeat or the signal line runs dark. Don’t interpret. And no snoring.”
    Grandmaison led them out, saying they needed absolute quiet.
    “Where’s Mrs G?” asked Knuckles.
    “Shopping.”
    “I have a hypothetical question.”
    “Shoot.”
    “Would it be possible, in your professional opinion, to remote view Hell? Assuming of course that there is such a place?”
    Grandmaison didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely.”
    Murex asked, “Are there any other RV instructors or schools in this area to your knowledge?”
    “No. I’m the only one in New England. There were only a dozen or so people in the unit, and those who are teaching civilians are scattered around the country.”
    “Would you know of any other gray room in the area other than yours or Doom’s?”
    “I thought mine was the only one. I would suggest you look into other schools. I didn’t train this guy, but if he built a gray room, he’s a very serious viewer.”
    “How do I go about that?”
    “Google,” smiled Trey Grandmaison.
    On the ride back to Boston, Murex was very quiet while Knuckles cleaned his fingernails with a nailfile, carefully placing the scrapings in a napkin.
    “Guy had survival training,” Knuckles said quietly.
    “So?”
    “So – he was ex-intelligence. Probably knows a lot of ways to kill a guy so that it looks like natural causes.”
    “It still doesn’t fit.”
    “No, it does not,” said Knuckles, looking at the business card that read Beverly Carter, Spirit Communicator. “If Grandmaison made that Hell tape, he’s a fabulous voice actor. Guy has a voice like a bullfrog.”
    The next two days were bleak. The weather was bleak. Progress of the case was bleaker. The weatherman kept promising snow, but all the skies mustered up were flurries.
    A forensic handwriting analysis of the hotel signature proved that John Doom had not checked himself into the Plaza. No known relatives or friends of John Doom could be found.
    Trey Grandmaison’s military records revealed that he received a dishonorable discharge for psychological reasons in 1993. The records were sealed. Otherwise he checked out clean. No record anywhere.
    On the third day, Bob Knuckles was trolling the net and came across a website advertising an on-line course called Tom Morrow’s Practical Remote Viewing. The instructor’s photo caused him to say, “What ho!”
    Ray Murex took a look and said, “That’s John Doom.”
    “Now we know what he does for a living. Time to give Miss Carter a buzz.”
    “Why?”
    Knuckles smiled broadly. “Why not?” He dialed a number.
    “Miss Carter, this is Detective Knuckles. How are you? Good, I’m calling you rather than bother Mr Grandmaison. Do you keep your class assignments? You do? Good. If I read you a set of coordinates, could you identify them for me? Sure, I’ll hold.” To Murex, he said, “She’s getting her class notes. Hand me that TIRV business card, will you?”
    Murex scaled it over.
    “The numbers are 2006/0027… You did! When? What did you get? Interesting. What did the class get? Really? Could you do me a big favor? Would it be possible to view those coordinates now? And call me back.”
    Knuckles hung up. “She’s calling back in twenty minutes.”
    “And?”
    “Let’s see what she comes up with.”
    Twenty minutes later. Knuckles took the call. He was on less than two minutes. “That’s very helpful. Thank you.”
    Murex looked his question.
    “She got a guy sitting at a desk. Dejected.”
    “So?”
    “So. You’re sitting at a desk looking pretty forlorn to me.”
    “Oh, come off it!”
    “She said the class worked those numbers Tuesday night. You interviewed Mr G. on Tuesday. They got the same thing then. A guy at a desk concentrating on something serious. Three students got a law-enforcement vibe. Looks like he tagged you. Why? Forget about whether RV really works or not. Just speculate with me: why would he do that?”
    “Because he’s dirty.”
    “Or knows more about Doom’s demise than he’ll let on,” Knuckles countered.
    Murex sat up in his chair. “Let’s go at this from another angle. Trey Grandmaison is out of town all last week. That checked out. No holes. He comes back and finds a dead guy in his gray room. He’s gotta do something.”
    “Wait a minute. What’s Doom doing there?”
    “We’ll figure that part out later. But maybe Mrs G – Effie – is moonlighting.”
    “So why does he stage the death with TIRV material?”
    “He figures his airtight alibi makes it a perfect crime. What has he got to lose? Also, this gives him a direct pipeline into any investigation.”
    “No. It points any investigation directly at him.”
    “Right, also. If things get hot, he sees it coming. He can take steps.”
    “How was Mrs G. when you talked to her?” asked Knuckles.
    “Nervous. Showed signs of being severely short on sleep too. Seemed worried about the impact of bad publicity on the business.”
    “But Mr G. isn’t, is he? Why not? Think motive.”
    Murex gave it some thought. “Maybe he wants the publicity.”
    “Why would he want bad publicity?”
    “Maybe in his business bad publicity is good publicity. Or any publicity is better than none.”
    “Student RV’s Hell and drops dead,” Knuckles shot back. “How is that good?”
    Murex made a face. “Maybe to the whackos who take these classes, it’ll sound like the ultimate thrill ride.”
    “Maybe his business is failing and he’s teaching Doom privately. Discovers he’s an incognito rival. Offs him somehow and sets it all up.”
    “Possible. But why is he so cooperative?”
    “He’s ex-Army Intelligence. Versed in psychological operations. Being cooperative and up front could be a way of deflecting suspicion.”
    “Which he actually wants in a perverted way.”
    “Sure. It’s basic reverse psychology – mind games.” Knuckles leaned back in his chair and gazed at the ceiling. “Try this: DOA Doom croaks. His teacher couldn’t find a way to get him back into his apartment – all those steps must have been too daunting – but checking him into a hotel was easier. Calls and makes reservations to boot.”
    “Why not a motel?”
    Knuckles shrugged. “Big hotel, easier to penetrate. Lot of people coming and going. No car directly involved. No license plate on record with the hotel. He fakes the tape because how else are the investigating parties going to know what Doom was supposedly RVing?”
    The phone rang. Knuckles took it. “Yes? Yep. Yep. Good.” He hung up. “That was the lab. The paint chips found under Doom’s fingernails match the ones I scraped off Grandmaison’s gray room. Postive match. No question.”
    Murex blinked, then remembered Knuckles cleaning his nails.
    “Can we use that in court?”
    “Won’t need to. We can get admissible paint samples later. The question is, did Doom die naturally, or was he snuffed?”
    “And if so, who did it?”
    “That’s easy. Mrs G.”
    “Too many unknowns to assume that.” Pressing a button on his desk, Murex picked up the telephone. He dialed the number off the TIRV card and said, “Mrs Grandmaison? This is detective Ray Murex down at Boston Homicide. Sorry to wake you. I have a few more questions, if you don’t mind. Were you in Richmond during the week your husband taught that class? You were? No reason. Except this: lab tests have proven conclusively that John Doom did not expire in his own gray room. We only know of one other in this area. That one belongs to your husband. Well, until we can rule something out, we have to consider it ruled in. So we’ll be in touch.” Murex hung up.
    Knuckles looked at him. “Why did you do that?”
    “Sometimes, you light a fuse. Other times you’re just setting fire to a string. Let’s see which it is.”
    The call came from Trey Grandmaison within the hour.
    “I’d love to help you guys close out this investigation,” he offered. His tone was fluttery.
    “Because we can’t rule your gray room out of the picture?” said Murex.
    “No. Because my wife is becoming upset with your questions. Look, I offered to help before. Why don’t I personally RV John Doom’s last hours and see what I come up with? Maybe that will give your investigation a fresh direction.”
    “It couldn’t hurt,” Murex said dryly.
    “I’ll assign the coords and get back to you with whatever data I get.”
    “Appreciate that.”
    Knuckles looked at Murex. “This could go either way.”
    Hours later, the promised pages came sliding out of the office fax machine. Knuckles read it first.
    “This is interesting. Seems dead Mr Doom liked to frequent bondage and domination rooms. According to this, he died in someone’s ‘dungeon’ and his mistress relocated his inconvenient remains, using his RV hobby as a cover-”
    “Forget it!” Murex snapped angrily. He slid the TIRV business card over.
    Knuckles took it, compared it to the coordinates recorded on the session report. “I’ll be damned! The same coordinates. He didn’t even try. No question now that he’s dirty.”
    “We’ll see what the lab says,” Murex said darkly.
    “About what?”
    “About the voice analysis of that call I recorded yesterday.”
    Knuckles cocked a questioning eyebrow. “Mrs G?”
    “I have a hunch her voice patterns will match up with the Doom tape.”
    “You illegally recorded an interstate telephone call. That’s not admissible evidence, either.”
    “We’ll worry about that if there’s a matchup,” muttered Ray Murex.
    The aural spectrography report was three days coming through. It arrived one day too late to do any good.
    Bob Knuckles was checking with the Richmond hotel that had hosted the TIRV class the week before. He thanked someone and hung up.
    “That’s the last staffer,” he said. “They all confirm that Mrs G. arrived with her husband and departed with him six days later. But no one can verify her whereabouts in between.”
    “So she could have flown home any time in that six-day period. Or taken a train.”
    “Very possible. Boston and Richmond are at opposite ends of the Northeast corridor.”
    “And the fingerprint bureau says that every print taken off that steamer trunk matches up with the people known to have handled it.”
    “So Mr G’s hands are clean, after all.”
    “Too clean. John Doom’s prints are not to be found, either. That old trunk was almost forensically pristine. All prints are post check-in.”
    “And so another perfect crime unravels owing to excessive prep.”
    “We’ll see,” Murex said.
    The first news reports of the Manchester to Los Angeles airliner making an emergency landing due to a passenger emergency made no immediate impression on either Detectives Murex or Knuckles. The followup, reporting that a female passenger had been taken off dead, also passed by unremarked on. The passenger’s name was being withheld pending notification of next of kin. But when the morning papers reported that Efthemia Grandmaison had been found dead in seat 23C on the overnight flight to Los Angeles, Bob Knuckles exploded out of his chair.
    “He did it! I know he did!”
    “Calm down. Let’s go at this the right way.”
    “Son of a bitch killed Doom, and then took out his wife because she knew he did it!”
    “Doesn’t fit.”
    “What do you mean, doesn’t fit? Of course it fits. It fits perfectly.”
    “A wife can’t be made to testify against her spouse. There’s more to it.”
    Murex reached out to Los Angeles police department and asked for the detective in charge of the case to contact him ASAP. A detective John Burks returned the call. After Murex explained his interest, Burks gave him what he had:
    “The deceased and her husband, this Grandmaison, take the red eye and upon their arrival at LAX, the husband attempts to awaken his wife. She was nonresponsive. EMT’s are called to the plane. Wife was pronounced dead at the scene. The husband is telling a crazy story.”
    “How crazy?”
    “Claims he was with some secret project during the Cold War that employed mental powers to spy on the Russians. He and the wife teach this Remote Viewing. The wife, he says, was remote viewing something while the husband slept in the adjoining seat. He says this is not the first time someone expired while doing these experiments
    “Is there an audio tape of the session?” Murex explained. “Usually, they record the experience.”
    “Yeah, we do have a cassette. But we haven’t listened to it yet.”
    “You might want to call me back after you do.”
    “Why don’t I just play it this minute and we’ll both listen?”
    Moments later, a hushed voice came over the line.
    “2004 8547 January 31st. 2004 8547… I am in a dark room. I can see a door, but it is closed. Something is stirring above the door, where the wall joins the ceiling. Ominous. Black. A cloud. I see eyes… It’s speaking, ‘Death is coming for you!’ It’s moving toward me. Trey! Trey! Wake up! Ahhhh…”
    “Sounds like she was having a nightmare,” Burks suggested.
    Murex snapped, “I don’t buy it.”
    “You say you’re investigating a death tied to the Grandmaisons,” Burks prompted.
    “Right.” Murex gave him the investigation thusfar.
    “Seems to me like these people were poking their noses into places human noses don’t belong,” Burks opined.
    “Can we get a copy of that tape for voiceprint comparison?”
    “Consider it done.”
    “Thanks. What are you going to do with Trey Grandmaison?”
    “Depends on what the ME says. But he’s being very cooperative.”
    “We’d like to be informed either way.”
    LAPD got back to them the next morning.
    “ME says natural causes,” Burks reported. “Heart failure. Probably as a result of night terrors, also known as sleep paralysis.”
    “I’m not familiar with that one,” Murex admitted.
    “It’s a documented medical condition. According to the ME, when you dream at night, your body shuts down so you don’t act out your dreams by kicking and flailing around. Sometimes nightmares wake people up in the middle of it, and they find that they can’t move for a minute or two. It’s apparently a frightening experience when it happens.”
    “So how does the ME know that’s what really happened?”
    “Because it happened to him once. Says he was having a nightmare just like the one the woman recorded. A black cloud came at him, threatening to kill him. It roosted on his chest and he discovered he couldn’t breathe. Shock woke him up. Found he couldn’t move a muscle. But the cloud was gone. The experience scared him so much he talked to his doctor about it. The doc told him about sleep paralysis. End of story.”
    “Are you satisfied with that explanation?” Murex asked.
    “Not especially. But the death technically took place over some other state’s jurisdiction. ME says she was dead before she reached California airpace. So we’re dropping the matter. The ME will release the body to the husband tomorrow.”
    “I’ll let you know what the voiceprint analysis says.”
    “Don’t run up too big a phone bill on our account,” Burks said dryly.
    The aural-spectrography report was succinct. Murex frowned as he read it.
    “Not the same voice, huh?” Knuckles said.
    “The contrary. Perfect match. Effie Grandmaison made Doom’s tape. But what good does that do us now? She’s dead and can’t be questioned.”
    “Okay. Let’s think this through. We’re not at rope’s end. Yet. Effie Grandmaison slips home during the time her hubby is teaching that RV class down in Virgina, probably by Amtrak.”
    “Right. While she’s home, she snuffs Doom. Leaves him in the cellar gray room where he’ll keep for a few days, and returns to Richmond. Later, she accompanies Grandmaison home, where he hatches an elaborate hoax to make it look like Doom died elsewhere. All seems well.”
    “Until we start digging and making Mrs G nervous. Mr G decides the wife is a growing inconvenience, and somehow snuffs her during the flight to LA while crew and passengers are sound asleep.”
    “This time, he concocts a more plausible version of the original perfect crime. One that will stand up in court, provided an expert in sleep paralysis is called in to testify.”
    “Obviously, he recorded the tape.”
    “Let’s see what the Effie tape tells us.”
    The FedEx package from LAPD arrived later that afternoon. Murex and Knuckles rushed it over to the lab, twisting arms until a technician agreed to look at it over his lunch break. He came back with a fast answer: “Not the same voice at all. Guaranteed.”
    Murex took Knuckles aside and said, “That leaves only one voice possible: Trey Grandmaison. After he takes out the wife, he makes the tape in the toilet of the plane. Plants it and he’s home free, thinking no one is going to see through to the truth.”
    “Thinking wrong. But how do we prove otherwise? He’s off the hook and walking free under the perfect alibi: asleep beside her the entire time.”
    Murex said, “I don’t buy this sleep paralysis stuff.”
    “It’s ironclad, according to that ME. It happened to him, didn’t it?”
    Murex went to an idle PC and and started a search. He found several websites devoted to sleep paralysis. One read: Sleep paralysis is an REM sleep parasomnia, and a symptom of narcolepsy, although it can affect about 40 per cent of the general population. It’s characterized by frighteningly vivid hypnogogic hallucinations and accompanied by acute respiratory distress. First-time sufferers often assume that they are dying.
    Murex snorted, “I don’t buy this at all.”
    “Says it’s a legit medical condition,” Knuckles pointed out.
    “Not that. The black clouds. Almost every account here says the same thing. Subject is sleeping and has the same nightmare. A malignant black cloud comes into the bedroom, starts threatening them, and lands on their chest. Subject can’t breathe. Panic sets in. Fear of death wakes them up. They find they’re paralyzed until their body goes back to normal. Ridiculous.”
    “Maybe it’s the opposite of the tunnel of light some people report during the near-death experience,” Knuckles suggested. “A trick of the brain.”
    “Show me where in mythology or literature there are legends of evil black clouds and I’ll-” Murex froze at the screen.
    “You what?”
    “I just found the hole in Trey Grandmaison’s alibi.”
    “Big?”
    “Big enough for a black cloud to come in through. Let’s find out when Mrs Grandmaison is coming home.”
    They called every Nashua New Hampshire funeral home until they found the one responsible for waking Effie Grandmaison.
    Knuckles hung up. “The body is coming in on a 7 p.m. flight. Odds are Mr G is accompanying said body.”
    “Let’s go meet the grieving spouse.”
    Trey Grandmaison looked appropriately startled to see Detectives Murex and Knuckles patiently waiting for him at his Manchester Airport gate.
    “We’re very sorry to hear about your wife,” said Ray Murex.
    “A true tragedy,” added Bob Knuckles.
    “We’d like to clear up a few things. The airport has allowed us to use one of their offices.”
    Trey Grandmaison followed them willingly, but pensively.
    “Let me start with what we know for certain,” Murex told him after they took seats. “We know that John Doom died in your gray room while you were in Richmond, and was left there for several days while you were presumably absent. We also know that your wife did not expire as a result of sleep paralysis.”
    Trey Grandmaison looked at both men by turns. “Sleep paralysis is a medical condition my wife had for years,” he said gravely. “This time, it killed her.”
    “It did not kill her. Therefore, you did.”
    “I did not! Look, Effie developed narcolepsy. Probably from too much RVing in altered brainwave states. Her doctor can produce the medical records proving it.”
    “The reason we know sleep paralysis did not kill your wife is that tape she made.”
    A vein pulsed in Grandmaison’s forehead. “Tape?”
    “The one recorded in-flight,” Knuckles put in. “You didn’t think we knew about that, did you?”
    “I discarded that tape in LA.” The vein continued pulsing.
    “Not surprising. Loving husband that you are. Of course you’d throw out your wife’s last recorded words-except she didn’t record them. You did.”
    Trey Grandmaison almost cracked a grin. He turned it into a grimace. “I wish now I had saved that tape. We could disprove your theory electronically.”
    “Yeah,” Murex went on. “Too bad. But let me continue. The reason we know your wife did not die of sleep paralysis any more than she or John Doom died while remote viewing something that frightened them to death is that if Mrs Grandmaison had been suffering sleep paralysis at the time, she would not have been able to record her experience. Sleep paralysis doesn’t just freeze the major muscles in the body, but the vocal cords as well. A person suffering from SP can’t speak. If they can’t speak, they can’t describe menacing black clouds threatening to murder them. Can they, Mr Grandmaison?”
    Trey Grandmaison said nothing. But that vein pulsed more strongly.
    “You didn’t think it through very thoroughly, did you?” Knuckles pressed. “You knew you couldn’t pull that remote viewing Hell smokescreen twice. So you had to top it. But plausibly. Maybe Mrs G. did suffer from SP. But we all know she didn’t die of it.”
    Gray eyes opaque, Grandmaison said, “No one knows that.”
    “I know what you’re thinking. If a person dies of fright as result of sleep paralysis, only they and God would know the truth.”
    Trey Grandmaison threw up his hands. “I wish I had saved that tape. It would resolve everything.”
    “Fortunately for us, but unfortunately for you, LAPD made a dupe. And here it is.” Knuckles slid a microcassette recorder across the table. He hit play.
    “2004 8547 January 31st. 2004 8547… I am in a dark room. I can see a door, but it is closed. Something is stirring above the door, where the wall joins the ceiling. Ominous. Black. A cloud…”
    Murex stopped the tape. “Fair job of masking your voice. How hard do you think it will be to match your voiceprint to that recording?”
    Trey Grandmaison turned pale and then flushed. He lunged for the recorder, fumbled it open and almost got the minicassette into his mouth before Murex and Knuckles fought it out of his hands.
    After they had cuffed him, and his rights were read, Bob Knuckles asked, “Would you say that we’ve got your number, or your coordinates?”
    Ray Murex said, “You can tell us about it, if you’d like.”
    Grandmaison surprised them. He did exactly that.
    “John Doom was a student of mine. One of my earliest students. He kept taking my courses and then he started teaching RV under another name. Using my coordinates. It was getting out of hand. He’d steal my students from my own classes. Charge half what I did. Between him and the sagging economy, I was having a hard time. Something had to be done.”
    “So you decided to do away with him?” Murex prompted.
    “That was Effie’s idea. She came home from Richmond on the pretext of giving Doom some private training and while he was insession, she sat on his chest, holding a pillow over his face until he suffocated. I showed her how to hold his arms down with padded knees so he wouldn’t bruise.”
    “In other words,” Knuckles said, “she burked him.”
    Murex looked blank. “Burked?”
    Grandmaison nodded sullenly. “An old assassination technique. Leaves no marks. Looks just like natural causes. Effie had him fast for four days beforehand, promising that it would improve his session work. That was so his bowels wouldn’t empty and create a sanitary problem while the body cooled in my gray room.”
    “Except the body was flipped over after telltale pinpoint haemorrhages appeared in the whites of the eyeballs,” said Murex. “Either his eye capillaries burst while he was smothered, or gravity did it. Either way, the position of the body gave the show away. You can skip the part about how you staged the death scene in the hotel room. We figured that out. Why did you do your wife?”
    “She was starting to become unglued. Guilt. Fear. I don’t know. But I knew she couldn’t hold it in forever. So while everyone was asleep on the plane, I did the same thing to her she did to Doom.”
    “What goes around, comes around,” clucked Knuckles.
    The throbbing vein in Trey Grandmaison’s forehead became still. “It was easy. I booked seats in the last row. There was no one for six or seven rows around of us. And they were dead to the world.”
    “You’re kind of a control freak, aren’t you?” Knuckles pressed. “That’s why you staged the death scene using TIRV class materials, isn’t it? To baffle us and provide you the opportunity to send us off on wild-goose chases?”
    Grandmaison shrugged. “It’s elementary psychological warfare. What kind of murderer would leave a trail leading directly to his front door?”
    “One who was drummed out of the Army for reasons of mental instability. You were so wound up in your Stargate razzle-dazzle, you didn’t think we’d look beyond it. You were dead wrong.”
    Murex frowned. “So you killed this rival Doom because he was stealing your coordinates.”
    “They’re worth thousands of dollars,” he said leadenly. “And they’re my livelihood.”
    “But they’re only numbers. You told me so yourself.”
    Trey Grandmaison’s composed face wavered, recovered, then fell completely apart. His voice broke.
    “It’s all I salvaged from my military career,” he sobbed. “My business was everything I had. You don’t know remote viewing, so you wouldn’t understand.”
    Ray Murex stood up.
    “Maybe not. But I understand observable justice. Let’s go.”

On the Rocks by J. A. Konrath

    J.A. (Joe) Konrath (b. 1970) is the author of Whiskey Sour (2004) and its sequels which feature forty-something Chicago police detective Jacqueline (“Jack”) Daniels. She also features in several short stories including the following. Although he has only been writing professionally for three years, Konrath has already been nominated for several awards and won the Derringer Award in 2005 for his short story “The Big Guys”. Konrath has also had stints as a stand-up improv comedian, and you can see some of that living-on-your-wits in the way Daniels has to think fast yet stay sane in this, her first locked-room mystery.

***

    “She sure bled a lot.”
    I ignored Officer Coursey, my attention focused on the dead woman’s arm. The cut had almost severed her left wrist, a flash of pink bone peeking through. Her right hand was curled around the handle of a utility knife.
    I’d been in Homicide for more than ten years, and still felt an emotional punch whenever I saw a body. The day I wasn’t affected was the day I hung up my badge.
    I wore disposable plastic booties over my flats because the shag carpet oozed blood like a sponge wherever I stepped. The apartment’s air conditioning was set on freeze, so the decomposition wasn’t as bad as it might have been after a week – but it was still pretty bad. I got down on my haunches and swatted away some blowflies.
    On her upper arm, six inches above the wound, was a bruise.
    “What’s so interesting, Lieut? It’s just a suicide.”
    In my blazer pocket I had some latex gloves. I snapped them on.
    The victim’s name was Janet Hellerman, a real estate lawyer with a private practice. She was brunette, mid thirties, Caucasian. Her satin slip was mottled with drying brown stains, and she wore nothing underneath. I put my hand on her chin, gently turned her head.
    There was another bruise on her cheek.
    “Johnson’s getting a statement from the super.”
    I stood up, smoothed down my skirt, and nodded at Herb, who had just entered the room. Detective First Class Herb Benedict was my partner. He had a gray mustache, Basset hound jowls, and a Santa Claus belly. Herb kept on the perimeter of the blood puddle; those little plastic booties were too hard for him to get on.
    “Johnson’s story corroborates?”
    Herb nodded. “Why? You see something?”
    I did, but wasn’t sure how it fit. Herb had questioned both Officer Coursey and Officer Johnson, and their stories were apparently identical.
    Forty minutes ago they’d arrived at apartment 3008 at the request of the victim’s mother, who lived out of state. She had been unable to get in touch with her daughter for more than a week. The building superintendent unlocked the door for them, but the safety chain was on, and a sofa had been pushed in front of the door to prevent anyone from getting inside. Coursey put his shoulder to it, broke in, and they discovered the body.
    Herb squinted at the corpse. “How many marks on the wrist?”
    “Just one cut, deep.”
    I took off the blood-soaked booties, put them in one of the many plastic baggies I keep in my pockets, and went over to the picture window, which covered most of the far wall. The view was expensive, overlooking Lake Shore Drive from forty stories up. Boaters swarmed over the surface of Lake Michigan like little white ants, and the street was a gridlock of toy cars. Summer was a busy time for Chicagoans-criminals included.
    I motioned for Coursey, and he heeled like a chastened puppy. Beat cops were getting younger every year; this one barely needed to shave. He had the cop stare, though – hard eyes and a perpetual scowl, always expecting to be lied to.
    “I need you to do a door-to-door. Get statements from everyone on this floor. Find out who knew the victim, who might have seen anything.”
    Coursey frowned. “But she killed herself. The only way in the apartment is the one door, and it was locked from the inside, with the safety chain on. Plus there was a sofa pushed in front of it.”
    “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that suicides are treated as homicides in this town, Officer.”
    He rolled his eyes. I could practically read his thoughts. How did this dumb broad get to be Homicide Lieutenant? She sleep with the PC?
    “Lieut, the weapon is still in her hand. Don’t you think…”
    I sighed. Time to school the rookie.
    “How many cuts are on her wrist, Coursey?”
    “One.”
    “Didn’t they teach you about hesitation cuts at the Academy? A suicidal person usually has to work up the courage. Where was she found?”
    “On the floor.”
    “Why not her bed? Or the bathtub? Or a comfy chair? If you were ending your life, would you do it standing in the middle of the living room?”
    He became visibly flustered, but I wasn’t through yet.
    “How would you describe the temperature in this room?”
    “It’s freezing.”
    “And all she’s wearing is a slip. Little cold for that, don’t you think? Did you read the suicide note?”
    “She didn’t leave a note.”
    “They all leave notes. I’ve worked these streets for twenty years, and never saw a suicide where the vic didn’t leave a note. But for some strange reason, there’s no note here. Which is a shame because maybe her note would explain how she got the multiple contusions on her face and arm.”
    Coursey was cowed, but he managed to mumble, “The door was-”
    “Speaking of doors,” I interrupted, “why are you still here when you were given an order to start the door-to-door? Move your ass.”
    Coursey looked at his shoes and then left the apartment. Herb raised an eyebrow.
    “Kinda hard on the newbie, Jack.”
    “He wouldn’t have questioned me if I had a penis.”
    “I think you have one now. You took his.”
    “If he does a good job, I’ll give it back.”
    Herb turned to look at the body. He rubbed his mustache.
    “It could still play as suicide,” he said. “If she was hit by a sudden urge to die. Maybe she got some terrible news. She gets out of the shower, puts on a slip, cranks up the air conditioning, gets a phone call, immediately grabs the knife and with one quick slice…”
    He made a cutting motion over his wrist.
    “Do you buy it?” I asked.
    Herb made a show of mulling it over.
    “No,” he consented. “I think someone knocked her out, sliced her wrist, turned up the air so the smell wouldn’t get too bad, and then…”
    “Managed to escape from a locked room.”
    I sighed, my shoulders sagging.
    Herb’s eyes scanned the view. “A window washer?”
    I checked the window, but as expected it didn’t open. Winds this high up weren’t friendly.
    “There’s no other way in?” Herb asked.
    “Just the one entryway.”
    I walked up to it. The safety chain hung on the door at eye level, its wall mounting and three screws dangling from it. The doorframe where it had been attached was splintered and cracked from Coursey’s entrance. There were three screw holes in the frame that matched the mounting, and a fourth screw still remained, sticking out of the frame about an inch.
    The hinges on the door were dusty and showed no signs of tampering. A black leather sofa was pushed off to the side, near the doorway. I followed the tracks that its feet had made in the carpet. The sofa had been placed in front of the door and then shoved aside.
    I opened the door, holding the knob with two fingers. It moved easily, even though it was heavy and solid. I closed it, stumped.
    “How did the killer get out?” I said, mostly to myself.
    “Maybe he didn’t get out. Maybe the killer is still in the apartment.” Herb’s eyes widened and his hand shot up, pointing over my shoulder. “Jack! Behind you!”
    I rolled my eyes.
    “Funny, Herb. I already searched the place.”
    I peeled off the gloves and stuck them back in my pocket.
    “Well, then there are only three possibilities.” Herb held up his hand, ticking off fingers. “One, Coursey and Johnson and the superintendent are all lying. Two, the killer was skinny enough to slip out of the apartment by going under the door. Or three, it was Houdini.”
    “Houdini’s dead.”
    “Did you check? Get an alibi?”
    “I’ll send a team to the cemetery.”
    While we waited for the ME to arrive, Herb and I busied ourselves with tossing the place. Bank statements told us Janet Hellerman made a comfortable living and paid her bills on time. She was financing a late model Lexus, which we confirmed was parked in the lot below. Her credit card debt was minimal, with a recent charge for plane tickets. A call to Delta confirmed two seats to Montana for next week, one in her name and one in the name of Glenn Hale.
    Herb called the precinct, requesting a sheet on Hale.
    I checked the answering machine and listened to thirty-eight messages. Twenty were from Janet’s distraught mother, wondering where she was. Two were telemarketers. One was from a friend named Sheila who wanted to get together for dinner, and the rest were real estate related.
    Nothing from Hale. He wasn’t on the caller ID either.
    I checked her cell phone next, and listened to forty more messages; ten from mom, and thirty from home buyers. Hale hadn’t left any messages, but there was a “Glenn” listed on speed dial. The phone’s call log showed that Glenn’s number had called over a dozen times, but not once since last week.
    “Look at this, Jack.”
    I glanced over at Herb. He set a pink plastic case on the kitchen counter and opened it up. It was a woman’s toolkit, the kind they sold at department stores for fifteen bucks. Each tool had a cute pink handle and a corresponding compartment that it snugged into. This kit contained a hammer, four screwdrivers, a measuring tape, and eight wrenches. There were also two empty slots; one for needle nose pliers, and one for something five inches long and rectangular.
    “The utility knife,” I said.
    Herb nodded. “She owned the weapon. It’s looking more and more like suicide, Jack. She has a fight with Hale. He dumps her. She kills herself.”
    “You find anything else?”
    “Nothing really. She liked to mountain climb, apparently. There’s about forty miles of rope in her closet, lots of spikes and beaners, and a picture of her clinging to a cliff. She also has an extraordinary amount of teddy bears. There were so many piled on her bed, I don’t know how she could sleep on it.”
    “Diary? Computer?”
    “Neither. Some photo albums, a few letters that we’ll have to look through.”
    Someone knocked. We glanced across the breakfast bar and saw the door ease open.
    Mortimer Hughes entered. Hughes was a medical examiner. He worked for the city, and his job was to visit crime scenes and declare people dead. You’d never guess his profession if you met him on the street – he had the smiling eyes and infectious enthusiasm of a television chef.
    “Hello Jack, Herb, beautiful day out.” He nodded at us and set down a large tackle box that housed the many particular tools of his trade. Hughes opened it up and snugged on some plastic gloves and booties. He also brandished knee pads.
    Herb and I paused in our search and watched him work. Hughes knelt beside the vic and spent ten minutes poking and prodding, humming tunelessly to himself. When he finally spoke, it was high-pitched and cheerful.
    “She’s dead,” Hughes said.
    We waited for more.
    “At least four days, probably longer. I’m guessing from hypovolemic shock. Blood loss is more than forty percent. Her right zygomatic bone is shattered, pre-mortem or early post.”
    “Could she have broken her cheek falling down?” Herb asked.
    “On this thick carpet? Possible-yes. Likely-no. Look at the blood pool. No arcs. No trails.”
    “So she wasn’t conscious when her wrist was cut?”
    “That would be my assumption, unless she laid down on the floor and stayed perfectly still while bleeding to death.”
    “Sexually assaulted?”
    “Can’t tell. I’ll do a swab.”
    I chose not to watch, and Herb and I went back into the kitchen. Herb pursed his lips.
    “It could still be suicide. She cuts her wrist, falls over, breaks her cheek bone, dies unconscious.”
    “You don’t sound convinced.”
    “I’m not. I like the boyfriend. They’re fighting, he bashes her one in the face. Maybe he can’t wake her up, or he thinks he’s killed her. Or he wants to kill her. He finds the toolbox, gets the utility knife, makes it look like a suicide.”
    “And then magically disappears.”
    Herb frowned. “That part I don’t like.”
    “Maybe he flushed himself down the toilet, escaped through the plumbing.”
    “You can send Coursey out to get a plunger.”
    “Lieutenant?”
    Officer Coursey had returned. He stood by the kitchen counter, his face ashen.
    “What is it, Officer?”
    “I was doing the door-to-door. No one answered at the apartment right across the hall. The superintendent thought that was strange – an old lady named Mrs Flagstone lives there, and she never leaves her home. She even sends out for groceries. So the super opens up her door and… you’d better come look.”
    Mrs Flagstone stared up at me with milky eyes. Her tongue protruded from her lips like a hunk of raw liver. She was naked in the bathtub, her face and upper body submerged in foul water, one chubby leg hanging over the edge. The bloating was extensive. Her white hair floated around her head like a halo.
    “Still think it’s a suicide?” I asked Herb.
    Mortimer Hughes rolled up his sleeve and put his hand into the water. He pressed her chest and bubbles exploded out of her mouth and nose.
    “Didn’t drown. Her lungs are full of air.”
    He moved his hand higher, prodding the wrinkled skin on her neck.
    “I can feel some damage to the trachea. There also appears to be a lesion around her neck. I want to get a sample of the water before I pull the drain plug.”
    Hughes dove into his box. Herb, Coursey, and I left him and went into the living room. Herb called in, requesting the forensics team.
    “Any hits from the other tenants?” I asked the rookie.
    He flipped open his pad. “One door over, at apartment 3010, the occupant, a Mr Stanley Mankowicz, remembers some yelling coming from the victim’s place about six days ago.”
    “Does he remember what time?”
    “It was late, he was in bed. Mr Mankowicz shares a wall with the vic, and has called her on several occasions to tell her to turn her television down.”
    “Did he call that night?”
    “He was about to, but the noise stopped.”
    “Where’s the super?”
    “Johnson hasn’t finished taking his statement.”
    “Call them both in here.”
    While waiting for them to arrive, I examined Mrs Flagstone’s door. Like Janet’s, it had a safety chain and, like Janet’s, it had been ripped from the wall and the mounting was hanging from the door. I found four screws and some splinters on the floor. There were no screws in the door frame.
    A knock, and I opened the door. Officer Johnson and the super. Johnson was older than his partner, bigger, with the same dead eyes. The superintendent was a Pakistani man named Majid Patel. Mr Patel had dark skin and red eyes and he clearly enjoyed all of this attention.
    “I moved to this country ten years ago, and I have never seen a dead body before. Now I have seen two in the same day. I must call and tell my mother. I call my mother when anything exciting happens.”
    “We’ll let you go in a moment, Mr Patel. I’m Lt Jack Daniels, this is Detective Herb Benedict. We just have a few…”
    “Your name is Jack Daniels? But you are not a man.”
    “You’re very observant,” I deadpanned. “Did you know Janet Hellerman?”
    Patel winked at me. Was he flirting?
    “It must be hard, Lt Jack Daniels, to be a pretty woman with a funny name in a profession so dominated by male chauvinist pigs.” Patel offered Herb a look. “No offense.”
    Herb returned a pleasant smile. “None taken. If you could please answer the Lieutenant’s question.”
    Patel grinned, crooked teeth and spinach remnants.
    “She was a real estate lawyer. Young and good looking. Always paid her rent on time. My brother gave her a deal on her apartment, because she had nice legs.” Patel had no reservations about openly checking out mine. “Yours are very nice too, Jack Daniels. For an older lady. Are you single?”
    “She’s single.” Herb winked at me, gave me an elbow. I made a mental note to fire him later.
    “Your brother?” I asked Patel.
    “He’s the building owner,” Officer Johnson chimed in. “It’s the family business.”
    “Did you know anything about Janet’s personal life?”
    “She had a shit for a boyfriend, a man named Glenn. He had an affair and she dumped him.”
    “When was this?”
    “About ten days ago. I know because she asked me to change the lock on her door. She had given him a key and he wouldn’t return it.”
    “Did you change the lock?”
    “I did not. Ms Hellerman just mentioned it to me in the elevator once. She never filled out the work order request.”
    “Does the building have a doorman?”
    “No. We have security cameras.”
    “I’ll need to see tapes going back two weeks. Can you get them for me?”
    “It will not be a problem.”
    Mortimer Hughes came out of the bathroom. He was holding a closed set of tweezers in one hand, his other hand cupped beneath it.
    “I dug a fiber out of the victim’s neck. Red, looks synthetic.”
    “From a rope?” I asked.
    Hughes nodded.
    “Mr Patel, we’ll be down shortly for those tapes. Coursey, Johnson, help Herb and I search the apartment. Let’s see if we can find the murder weapon.”
    We did a thorough toss, but couldn’t find any rope. Herb, however, found a pair of needle nose pliers in a closet. Pliers with pink handles.
    “They were neighbors,” Herb reasoned. “Janet could have lent them to her.”
    “Could have. But we both doubt it. Call base to see if they found anything on Hale.”
    Herb dialed, talked for a minute, then hung up.
    “Glenn Hale has been arrested three times, all assault charges. Did three months in Joliet.”
    I wasn’t surprised. All evidence pointed to the boyfriend, except for the damned locked room. Maybe Herb was right and the killer just slipped under the door and…
    Epiphany.
    “Call the lab team. I want the whole apartment dusted. Then get an address and a place of work on Hale and send cars. Tell them to wait for the warrant.”
    Herb raised an eyebrow. “A warrant? Shouldn’t we question the guy first?”
    “No need,” I said. “He did it, and I know how.”
    Feeling, a bit foolishly, like Sherlock Holmes, I took everyone back into Janet’s apartment. They began hurling questions at me, but I held up my hand for order.
    “Here’s how it went,” I began. “Janet finds out Glenn is cheating, dumps him. He comes over, wanting to get her back. She won’t let him in. He uses his key, but the safety chain is on. So he busts in and breaks the chain.”
    “But the chain was on when we came in the first time,” Coursey complained.
    Herb hushed him, saving me the trouble.
    “They argue,” I went on. “Glenn grabs her arm, hits her. She falls to the floor, unconscious. Who knows what’s going through his mind? Maybe he’s afraid she’ll call the police, and he’ll go to jail – he has a record and this state has zero tolerance for repeat offenders. Maybe he’s so mad at her he thinks she deserves to die. Whatever the case, he finds Janet’s toolkit and takes out the utility knife. He slits her wrist and puts the knife in her other hand.”
    Five inquisitive faces hung on my every word. It was a heady experience.
    “Glenn has to know he’d be a suspect,” I raised my voice, just a touch for dramatic effect. “He’s got a history with Janet, and a criminal record. The only way to throw off suspicion is to make it look like no one else could have been in the room – to show the police that it had to be a suicide.”
    “Jack,” Herb admonished. “You’re dragging it out.”
    “If you figured it out, then you’d have the right to drag it out too.”
    “Are you really single?” Patel asked. He grinned again, showing more spinach.
    “If she keeps stalling,” Herb told him, “I’ll personally give you her number.”
    I shot Herb with my eyes, then continued.
    “Okay, so Glenn goes into Janet’s closet and gets a length of climbing rope. He also grabs the needle nose pliers from her toolbox and heads back to the front door. The safety chain has been ripped out of the frame, and the mounting is dangling on the end. He takes a single screw,” I pointed at the screw sticking in the door frame, “and puts it back in the doorframe about halfway.”
    Herb nodded, getting it. “When the mounting ripped out, it had to pull out all four screws. So the only way one could still be in the doorframe is if someone put it there.”
    “Right. Then he takes the rope and loops it under a sofa leg. He goes out into the hall with the rope, and closes the door, still holding both ends of the rope. He tugs the rope through the crack under the door, and pulls the sofa right up to the door from the other side.”
    “Clever,” Johnson said.
    “I must insist you meet my mother,” Patel said.
    “But the chain…” Coursey whined.
    I smiled at Coursey. “He opens the door a few inches, and grabs the chain with the needle nose pliers. He swings the loose end over to the door frame, where it catches and rests on the screw he put in halfway.”
    I watched the light finally go on in Coursey’s eyes. “When Mr Patel opened the door, it looked like the chain was on, but it really wasn’t. It was just hanging on the screw. The thing that kept the door from opening was the sofa.”
    “Right. So when you burst into the room, you weren’t the one that broke the safety chain. It was already broken.”
    Coursey nodded rapidly. “The perp just lets go of one end of the rope and pulls in the other end, freeing it from the sofa leg. Then he locks the door with his own key.”
    “But poor Mrs Flagstone,” I continued, “must have seen him in the hallway. She has her safety chain on, maybe asks him what he’s doing. So he bursts into her room and strangles her with the climbing rope. The rope was red-right, Herb?”
    Herb grinned. “Naturally. How did you know that?”
    “I guessed. Then Glenn ditches the pliers in the closet, makes a half-assed attempt to stage Mrs Flagstone’s death like a drowning, and leaves with the rope. I bet the security tapes will concur.”
    “What if he isn’t seen carrying the rope?”
    No problem. I was on a roll.
    “Then he either ditched it in a hall, or wrapped it around his waist under his shirt before leaving.”
    “I’m gonna go check the tapes,” Johnson said, hurrying out.
    “I’m going to call my mother,” Patel said, hurrying out.
    Herb got on the phone to get a warrant, and Mortimer Hughes dropped to his hands and knees and began to search the carpeting, ostensibly for red fibers – even though that wasn’t his job.
    I was feeling pretty smug, something I rarely associated with my line of work, when I noticed Officer Coursey staring at me. His face was projecting such unabashed admiration that I almost blushed.
    “Lieutenant – that was just… amazing.”
    “Simple detective work. You could have figured it out if you thought about it.”
    “I never would have figured that out.” He glanced at his shoes, then back at me, and then he turned and left.
    Herb pocketed his cell and offered me a sly grin.
    “We can swing by the DA’s office, pick up the warrant in an hour. Tell me, Jack. How’d you put it all together?”
    “Actually, you gave me the idea. You said the only way the killer could have gotten out of the room was by slipping under the door. In a way, that’s what he did.”
    Herb clapped his hand on my shoulder.
    “Nice job, Lieutenant. Don’t get a big head. You wanna come over for supper tonight? Bernice is making pot roast. I’ll let you invite Mr Patel.”
    “He’d have to call his mother first. Speaking of mothers…”
    I glanced at the body of Janet Hellerman, and again felt the emotional punch. The Caller ID in the kitchen gave me the number for Janet’s mom. It took some time to tell the whole story, and she cried through most of it. By the end, she was crying so much that she couldn’t talk anymore.
    I gave her my home number so she could call me later.
    The lab team finally arrived, headed by a Detective named Perkins. Soon both apartments were swarming with tech heads – vacuuming fibers, taking samples, spraying chemicals, shining ALS, snapping pictures and shooting video.
    I filled in Detective Perkins on what went down, and left him in charge of the scene.
    Then Herb and I went off to get the warrant.

Eternally Yours by H. Edward Hunsburger

    Harry Edward Hunsburger (b. 1947) has written a variety of westerns and mystery novels, some under pen names, but he is probably best known for Death Signs (1987), about the murder of a deaf man who leaves a clue in sign language as he dies. It was adapted for the TV series Hunter in 1988. I only know of one short mystery story by Mr Hunsburger and fortunately for us it’s also a locked-room puzzle with an added impossibility.

***

    My name is Jeff Winsor and I’d like to say straight off and for the record that I don’t believe in ghosts. I never have believed in them. I never will. And I can’t think of one good reason why I should.
    The whole notion of restless, prowling spirits strikes me as a waste of time. Even in the afterlife there must be better things to do than wander around moaning and wailing, frightening poor mortals out of a good night’s sleep. Messages from the recently departed are an even sillier idea. Let’s face it, most people say far too much in one lifetime to have anything worthwhile left over for broadcasting from The Great Beyond. And as for things that go bump in the night, all I can say is that they never bump into me.
    I figure it’s over when it’s over. You total up a life’s credits and debits, rise quietly from the table, and cash in your chips. Maybe there’s an after-life. Maybe there isn’t. But either way, there are no such things as ghosts.
    Now what I do believe in is the scarcity of good apartments in New York City. The kind of elegant, spacious apartments you find in those old but beautifully maintained buildings surrounding Gramercy Park. The kind of apartment I finally got to move into when Admiral Miles Penny tripped on the carpet and fractured his skull.
    I’d like to be more sympathetic, but I never met the man. From everything I’ve heard, he’d led a long, full, if somewhat tempestuous life. Not to mention all the trouble he caused me after he died. But up until I moved in, the only connection between us was that I got his apartment. I’m not even going to go into what I had to do to get it or how much the rent is. Let’s just say that wretched excess pretty well covers it all.
    I moved into the place on October first, a week to the day after they moved Penny out to a less spacious but far more permanent address. I wanted to concentrate on unpacking, but I had an assignment due. I decided the cardboard carton obstacle course would have to wait for a while.
    As it turned out, both projects got sidetracked. Because that was the day the first postcard arrived.
    It was jammed in the apartment door mail slot along with some catalogues from a shoe company, a bookseller, and one of those Vermont cheese and smoked ham places. It was an old postcard, yellowed at the edges, with a view of a few ragged palms and a seedy looking pink stucco hotel. All that was on one side. The following brief message was on the other.
    Miles,
    You were right about that adaptation of the Krimsky book. It stank. I didn’t like the lizard scene either. Knight to C-3.
    Fraternally yours,
    Charles

    Nothing unsettling there, nothing ghostly. Right? Just a chess-by-mail crony of Penny’s who hadn’t yet heard of his demise. That’s what I thought too. The incongruity of it didn’t hit me until later that afternoon when I was hard at work at my easel.
    The adaptation that Charles had referred to was Cold Moon. It was a blockbuster novel that had recently been made into a TV movie. It was the recently part that bothered me. The film had had its world premiere just five days ago. So how in the world could Miles Penny have an opinion about a movie televised after his death? I felt something like a chill along my spine. Inside my head a tiny voice started humming the theme from The Twilight Zone. Was the late admiral carrying on a correspondence from beyond the grave? Was heaven a seedy resort hotel? And was I, Jeff Winsor, nonbeliever in ghosts, being haunted, indirectly, by means of the US mail?
    A ringing phone cut short my crazed speculations. For a wild moment I thought it might be Admiral Penny trying to reach me direct. But as it turned out it was the earthy, and earthly, voice of Karen Hunter, the lady in my life.
    “You sound a little flustered,” she said after the usual preliminaries. “Anything wrong?”
    I told her about the postcard. I heard a suppressed giggle, but at least she didn’t laugh out loud.
    “There has to be a rational explanation,” Karen insisted. “You should try to contact this Charles guy who sent the card. Is there a return address? What about the postmark?”
    I looked at the card again. “There’s no return address and the postmark’s too blurred to be legible.”
    “Well,” Karen sighed, “that’s all I can think of. You’ve roused my curiosity about Admiral Penny, though. I remember you told me he died of a fall. Is there any possibility of foul play?” Her rich, contralto voice gave the last two words a lot of dramatic emphasis.
    “Give me a break,” I said. “The authorities pronounced it accidental death. He was going to get his mail when he tripped on the little rug in front of the door, fell, and fractured his skull. The realtor told me Penny was in his eighties. The bones get thin and brittle at that age. Any kind of bad fall can be fatal. There’s no way it could be murder. The door was locked and bolted from the inside. They had a locksmith take the whole door off just to get into the apartment.”
    “He died on the way to get his mail,” Karen said thoughtfully. “Doesn’t that strike you as a strange coincidence? And now he’s sending you messages, messages that come to the exact spot where the crime occurred.”
    “What crime?” I practically shouted. “Penny’s death was accidental. And he isn’t sending me any messages. He’s writing to some guy named Charlie who’s sending his replies here. What the hell am I talking about? Penny isn’t writing anyone. Penny is dead.”
    There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line. “Forget about the locked door,” Karen said finally. “It doesn’t prove anything. People are always getting murdered behind locked doors in mysteries. All of this,” she said solemnly, “can only mean one thing.”
    “What?” I demanded irritably.
    “That Admiral Penny was murdered. His restless spirit is calling upon you to bring his killer to justice. The poor man won’t be able to rest in peace until you’ve solved this murder.”
    “I don’t believe in ghosts,” I shouted.
    “See you tonight at eight,” Karen cheerfully ignored me. “You’d better get busy on this. Painting book jacket illustrations for mysteries is one thing. Actually solving one might not be so easy.”
    Before I could get another word in, she hung up on me. I replaced the receiver and swore for a while. Karen’s a terrific lady with more than her share of intelligence, beauty, and charm. The only thing she has too much of is imagination. She not only believed that there was a murder and a ghost involved in this. She really did expect me to solve the mystery. And I knew I’d never hear the end of it if I didn’t at least go through the motions.
    Slightly dazed by my sudden elevation to amateur sleuth, I threaded my way through the cardboard-box jungle and went back to work. I make a comfortable living painting dust jacket illustrations for mystery and suspense books. I did all kinds of commercial art up until a few years ago when the cover I painted for Death Is My Interior Decorator won all the big awards in the field. Now I specialize in the crime stuff, which is fine with me because I like to read mysteries, too.
    I’d barely gotten back into the painting when the doorbell rang. If this was the late admiral calling in person, I wasn’t even going to bother unpacking. The apartment was nice but not that nice. As it turned out, it was only Tom Banks, the doorman.
    “Getting settled in?” he asked with a friendly smile. A tall, broad-shouldered man in his early sixties, he has one of those open, expressive faces, the kind that seem readymade for smiles and laughter. I figured him for one of those rare people, a man who actually enjoys his work.
    “Settled in,” I answered. “I’ll be lucky if I get everything unpacked before the two year lease is up.”
    Banks laughed and handed me a stack of mail. More catalogues, from the look of it, and perched on top of them, you guessed it… a neat little pile of postcards. “I’ve been holding them downstairs,” he explained. “Drayton, the postman, asked me to. He didn’t want the moving or cleaning people tampering with the mail.”
    Better them than me, I thought.
    “Very conscientious,” I said aloud. “I’ve never been in an apartment building before where they deliver the mail right to your door.”
    “That’s Drayton,” Banks nodded. “Very dedicated to the job, he is. Never taken a sick day in twenty years. The perfect postman, I call him. He told me just the other day that he was being considered for mail carrier of the year.”
    “How about that.” Just my luck. If he’d been a little less zealous, I might not have ever seen the damned postcard.
    “Do the rugs look okay?” Banks asked. “They spent all afternoon on them. I guess they got all the blood out of that one,” he added, peering down at the faded two by three Oriental I was standing on. It was the very same rug on which the admiral’s sea legs had a fatal loss of footing.
    “They look fine to me. When’s the relative due?”
    “Well now,” Banks was suddenly evasive. “A couple of weeks, I guess. Shouldn’t be more than a month or so.” He spread his hands in a gesture of futility. “There’s nothing I can do, Mr Winsor.”
    “I’m not blaming you,” I reassured him. Part of the deal for my getting the apartment was that I kept the admiral’s stuff there until his only living relative arrived from some distant port of call. Apparently there was no more storage space in the basement of the building. I’d managed to cram most of his furniture and personal stuff into the spare bedroom. But there was no way I could get all the rugs in there, too. As a compromise the management had agreed to have the rugs cleaned before I moved in.
    After wishing me well with the unpacking, Banks returned to his post in the lobby. I should have gone back to work myself, but I looked at the postcards instead. There were four of them in the pile of mail Banks had brought up, each with the same view of the rundown hotel. They were all from his friend Charles, with a chess move at the end of each message. Two of them seemed normal enough, but the other two carried obvious replies and comments to events that had taken place after Admiral Penny’s death.
    What the hell was going on here? Was there chess after death? Was the US Postal Service a whole lot more far reaching than I’d ever given it credit for? I hadn’t taken the one card all that seriously, but this was something else again. Charles had signed all of the cards “fraternally yours”. I wondered how Admiral Penny was signing the cards he sent to Charles? Eternally yours?
    I was too keyed up by then to go back to the painting. I grabbed my jacket instead and went downstairs. I needed a walk in the park, something to get my mind out of neutral. Maybe I could come up with a couple of notions that would clear the whole thing up. The worst part of it was that I was actually starting to believe what Karen had said. That Admiral Penny had been murdered and that it was up to me, if I wanted the “haunting” to stop, to bring his killer to justice.
    One of the advantages of living on Gramercy Park is the park itself. It’s a small, fenced-in square of immaculately maintained greenery, to the best of my knowledge the only private park in New York City. A neighborhood association handles the upkeep, and the park is strictly reserved for area residents only. Some people might find it a little on the snobbish side, but I wasn’t complaining. Since I now lived there, I intended to make the most of it.
    My new key fitted perfectly in the park’s wrought iron gate. I closed it firmly behind me and began to stroll the graveled paths, enjoying the autumn sunshine while I tried to think detective-like thoughts.
    I almost knocked the girl over before I saw her. She spun around and glared at me, a tall, willowy blonde with the face of a Botticelli angel. “I didn’t hear you coming,” she sputtered angrily. “You really ought to learn to walk louder.” Her wide blue eyes narrowed as she focused in on me. “You’re Winsor, aren’t you? The fellow who just moved into 3C.”
    “That’s right,” I smiled. “And you’re Tana Devin, the star of Maneuvers.
    The recognition and the way I’d phrased it brought on a full-wattage smile. She’d obviously mistaken me for a fan of the show. Maneuvers was a new and very popular daytime soap, and Tana Devin played the vixen, the one you love to hate. She couldn’t act worth a damn, but it didn’t matter. Nobody else on the show could, either.
    “We’re neighbors, you know,” she informed me. “I live right next door to you in 3B.”
    “You must have known Admiral Penny then?” If I was going to do some detecting, now was the time to start.
    Her smile did a fast fade, and I could almost see the smoke from the smoldering anger that backlit those bright blue eyes. “Penny,” she seethed. “Dropping dead was the only thing that man ever did that made me happy. He was the nosiest old crock in creation. Always looking through the peephole in his door to see who was coming in and going out of the other apartments on the floor. I could hear his raspy breathing every time I walked by. It was getting so I hated to invite anyone over. No privacy at all in my own damned building.” Her blue eyes narrowed a little more as she studied my face. “I hope you’re not going to be manning the peephole like Penny? I won’t stand for any more of that crap.” Her soft voice was suddenly as cold and merciless as an Arctic winter.
    “Not me,” I assured her. “I’m far too busy for that kind of nonsense.”
    “Glad to hear it,” she said. “Just keep it that way and we’ll get along fine.” On that cheerful note, she turned away and strode down the path without a word of goodbye.
    Well, I’d certainly learned one thing about the late admiral. Tana Devin hated him. Now, no one likes being spied on, but it’s basically a harmless pastime. What I couldn’t figure out was why Tana Devin loathed Penny with such intensity. There had to be more to it than that.
    After a couple more turns around the park, the answer came to me. The lovely Miss Devin’s name had been in the papers quite a lot these past few weeks. Not the real papers but those supermarket tabloids they sell at the checkout counters. I vaguely remembered the headlines on one of them, some kind of sex scandal that linked Tana Devin with a prominent but very married politician. I remembered somebody’s mentioning that the liaison had very nearly cost Tana her part in Maneuvers. While the show portrayed this kind of bedhopping all the time, the chairman of the company that sponsored it was an uncle of the politician’s wife. I guess rating points won out over family ties because Tana did manage to keep her job. But the way I heard it, it had been a very close thing.
    What I remembered best about the whole business were the pictures that appeared under the headline. Pictures of Miss Devin and the politico that had that slightly off, distorted quality that tends to catch an artist’s eye. Exactly the kind of pictures you’d get shooting through an old fashioned peephole… just like the one on the door of my new apartment.
    I was positive that that’s what Penny had been doing. A few candid snaps of the two lovers as they passed by the door might have fetched a good price. They would also make an obviously secret affair as public as the corner library. Was that motive enough for murder? As far as Tana Devin was concerned, I believed it was motive enough and then some.
    I told Karen all about it over dinner that night. After all, it’s no good being a detective if you don’t have a Watson around to bask in your reflected glory.
    “It’s a nice start,” Karen said, patting my arm. Not exactly the complimentary outpouring I’d been expecting. “But what you need is a few more suspects. Not to mention the how part of a locked room murder.”
    “Details,” I muttered.