Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish.
Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish.
(Saturday, August 11; 11.45 p. m.)
That sinister and terrifying crime, which came to be known as the dragon murder case, will always be associated in my mind with one of the hottest summers I have ever experienced in New York.
Philo Vance, who stood aloof from the eschatological and supernatural implications of the case, and was therefore able to solve the problem on a purely rationalistic basis, had planned a fishing trip to Norway that August, but an intellectual whim had caused him to cancel his arrangements and to remain in America. Since the influx of post-war, nouveau-riche Americans along the French and Italian Rivieras, he had forgone his custom of spending his summers on the Mediterranean, and had gone after salmon and trout in the streams of North Bergenhus. But late in July of this particular year his interest in the Menander fragments found in Egypt during the early years of this century, had revived, and he set himself to complete their translation—a work which, you may recall, had been interrupted by that amazing series of Mother-Goose murders in West 75th Street.
However, once again this task of research and love was rudely intruded upon by one of the most baffling murder mysteries in which Vance ever participated; and the lost comedies of Menander were again pigeon-holed for the intricate ratiocination of crime. Personally I think Vance's criminal investigations were closer to his heart than the scholastic enterprises on which he was constantly embarking, for though his mind was ever seeking out abstruse facts in the realm of cultural lore, he found his greatest mental recreation in intricate problems wholly unrelated to pure learning. Criminology satisfied this yearning in his nature, for it not only stimulated his analytical processes but brought into play his knowledge of recondite facts and his uncanny instinct for the subtleties of human nature.
Shortly after his student days at Harvard he asked me to officiate as his legal adviser and monetary steward; and my liking and admiration for him were such that I resigned from my father's firm of Van Dine, Davis and Van Dine to take up the duties he had outlined. I have never regretted that decision; and it is because of the resultant association with him that I have been able to set down an accurate and semi-official account of the various criminal investigations in which he participated. He was drawn into these investigations as a result of his friendship with John F.-X. Markham during the latter's four years' incumbency as District Attorney of New York County.
Of all the cases I have thus far recorded none was as exciting, as weird, as apparently unrelated to all rational thinking, as the dragon murder. Here was a crime that seemed to transcend all the ordinary scientific knowledge of man and to carry the police and the investigators into an obfuscous and unreal realm of demonology and folk-lore—a realm fraught with dim racial memories of legendary terrors.
The dragon has ever entered into the emotional imaginings of primitive religions, throwing over its conceivers a spell of sinister and terrifying superstition. And here in the city of New York, in the twentieth century, the police were plunged into a criminal investigation which resuscitated all the dark passages in those dim forgotten times when the superstitious children of the earth believed in malignant monsters and the retributive horrors which these monsters visited upon man.
The darkest chapters in the ethnological records of the human race were reviewed within sight of the skyscrapers of modern Manhattan; and so powerful was the effect of these resuscitations that even scientists searched for some biological explanation of the grotesque phenomena that held the country enthralled during the days following the uncanny and incomprehensible death of Sanford Montague. The survival of prehistoric monsters—the development of subterranean Ichthyopsida—the unclean and darksome matings of earth and sea creatures—were advanced as possible scientific explanations of the extraordinary and hideous facts with which the police and the District Attorney's office were faced.
Even the practical and hard-headed Sergeant Ernest Heath of the Homicide Bureau was affected by the mysterious and incalculable elements of the case. During the preliminary investigation—when there was no actual evidence of murder—the unim aginative Sergeant sensed hidden and ominous things, as if a miasmatic emanation had arisen from the seemingly commonplace circumstances surrounding the situation. In fact, had it not been for the fears that arose in him when he was first called to take charge of the tragic episode, the dragon murder might never have come to the attention of the authorities. It would, in all probability, have been recorded conventionally in the archives of the New York Police Department as another "disappearance," accounted for along various obvious lines and with a cynical wink.
This hypothetical eventuality was, no doubt, what the murderer intended; but the perpetrator of that extraordinary crime—a crime, as far as I know, unparalleled in the annals of violent homicide—had failed to count on the effect of the sinister atmosphere which enveloped his unholy act. The fact that the imaginative aboriginal fears of man have largely developed from the inherent mysteries enshrouded in the dark hidden depths of water, was overlooked by the murderer. And it was this oversight that roused the Sergeant's vague misgivings and turned a superficially commonplace episode into one of the most spectacular and diabolical murder cases of modern times.
Sergeant Heath was the first official to go to the scene of the crime—although, at the time, he was not aware that a crime had been committed; and it was he who stammered out his unidentifiable fears to Markham and Vance.
It was nearly midnight on August 11. Markham had dined with Vance at the latter's roof-garden apartment in East 38th Street, and the three of us had spent the evening in a desultory discussion of various topics. There had been a lackadaisical atmosphere over our gathering, and the periods of silence had increased as the night wore on, for the weather was both hot and sultry, and the leaves of the tree-tops which rose from the rear yard were as still as those on a painted canvas. Moreover, it had rained for hours, the downpour ceasing only at ten o'clock, and a heavy breathless pall seemed to have settled over the city.
Vance had just mixed a second champagne cup for us when Currie, Vance's butler and major-domo, appeared at the door to the roof-garden carrying a portable telephone.
"There is an urgent call for Mr. Markham," he announced; "and I took the liberty of bringing the telephone… . It's Sergeant Heath, sir."
Markham looked nettled and a bit surprised, but he nodded and took the instrument. His conversation with the Sergeant was a brief one, and when he replaced the receiver he was frowning.
"That's queer," he commented. "Unlike the Sergeant. He's worried about something—wants to see me. He didn't give any hint of the matter, and I didn't press the point. Said he found out at my home that I was here… . I didn't like the suppressed tone of his voice, and told him he might come here. I hope you don't mind, Vance."
"Delighted," Vance drawled, settling deeper into his wicker chair. "I haven't seen the doughty Sergeant for months… . Currie," he called, "bring the Scotch and soda. Sergeant Heath is joining us." Then he turned back to Markham. "I hope there's nothing amiss… . Maybe the heat has hallucinated the Sergeant."
Markham, still troubled, shook his head.
"It would take more than hot weather to upset Heath's equilibrium." He shrugged. "Oh, well, we'll know the worst soon enough."
It was about twenty minutes later when the Sergeant was announced. He came out on the terrace garden, wiping his brow with an enormous handkerchief. After he had greeted us somewhat abstractedly he dropped into a chair by the glass-topped table and helped himself to a long drink of the Scotch whisky which Vance moved toward him.
"I've just come from Inwood, Chief," he explained to Markham. "A guy has disappeared. And to tell you the truth, I don't like it. There's something phony somewhere."
"Anything unusual about the case?"
"No—nothing." The Sergeant appeared embarrassed. "That's the hell of it. Everything in order—the usual sort of thing. Routine. And yet … " His voice trailed off, and he lifted the glass to his lips.
Vance gave an amused smile.
"I fear, Markham," he observed, "the Sergeant has become intuitive."
Heath set down his glass with a bang.
"If you mean, Mr. Vance, that I've got a hunch about this case, you're right!" And he thrust his jaw forward.
Vance raised his eyebrows whimsically.
"What case, Sergeant?"
Heath gave him a dour look and then grinned.
"I'm going to tell you—and you can laugh all you want to… . Listen, Chief." He turned back to Markham. "Along about ten forty-five tonight a telephone call comes to the Homicide Bureau. A fellow, who says his name is Leland, tells me there's been a tragedy out at the old Stamm estate in Inwood and that, if I have any sense, I better hop out… ."
"A perfect spot for a crime," Vance interrupted musingly. "It's one of the oldest estates in the city—built nearly a hundred years ago. It's an anachronism today, but—my word!—it's full of criminal possibilities. Legend'ry, in fact, with an amazin' history."
Heath contemplated Vance shrewdly.
"You got the idea, sir. I felt just that way when I got out there… . Well, anyway, I naturally asked this fellow Leland what had happened and why I should come. And it seems that a bird named Montague had dived into the swimming pool on the estate, and hadn't come up—"
"Was it, by any chance, the old Dragon Pool?" inquired Vance, raising himself and reaching for his beloved Régie cigarettes.
"That's the one," Heath told him; "though I never knew the name of it till I got there tonight… . Well, I told him that wasn't in my line, but he got persistent and said that the matter oughta be looked into, and the sooner I came the better. He talked in a funny tone—it sorta got to me. His English was all right—he didn't have any foreign accent—but I got the idea he wasn't an American. I asked him why he was calling up about something that had happened on the Stamm estate; and he said he was an old friend of the family and had witnessed the tragedy. He also said Stamm wasn't able to telephone, and that he had temporarily taken charge of the situation… . I couldn't get any more out of him; but there was something about the way the fellow talked that made me leery."
"I see," Markham murmured non-committally. "So you went out?"
"Yeah, I went out." Heath nodded sheepishly. "I got Hennessey and Burke and Snitkin, and we hopped a police car."
"What did you find?"
"I didn't find anything, sir," Heath returned aggressively, "except what that guy told me over the phone. There was a week-end house-party on the estate, and one of the guests—this bird named Montague—had suggested they all go swimming in the pool. There'd probably been considerable drinking, so they all went down to the pool and put on bathing suits… ."
"Just a moment, Sergeant," Vance interrupted. "Was Leland drunk, by any chance?"
"Not him." The Sergeant shook his head. "He was the coolest member of the lot. But there was something queer about him. He seemed greatly relieved when I got there; and he took me aside and told me to keep my eyes open. I naturally asked him what he meant, but right away he got casual, so to speak, and merely said that a lot of peculiar things had happened around those parts in the old days, and that maybe something peculiar had happened tonight."
"I think I know what he meant," Vance said with a slight nod. "That part of the city has given rise to many strange and grotesque legends—old wives' tales and superstitions that have come down from the Indians and early settlers."
"Well, anyway,"—Heath dismissed Vance's comments as irrelevant—"after the party had gone down to the pool, this fellow Montague walked out on the spring-board and took a fancy dive. And he never came up… ."
"How could the others be so sure he didn't come up?" asked Markham. "It must have been pretty dark after the rain: it's cloudy now."
"There was plenty of light at the pool," Heath explained. "They've got a dozen flood-lights on the place."
"Very well. Go on." Markham reached impatiently for his champagne. "What happened then?"
Heath shifted uneasily.
"Nothing much," he admitted. "The other men dove after him and tried to find him, but after ten minutes or so they gave up. Leland, it seems, told 'em that they'd all better go back to the house and that he'd notify the authorities. Then he called the Homicide Bureau and spilled the story."
"Queer he should do that," ruminated Markham. "It doesn't sound like a criminal case."
"Sure it's queer," agreed Heath eagerly. "But what I found was a whole lot queerer."
"Ah!" Vance blew a ribbon of smoke upward. "That romantic section of old New York is at last living up to its reputation. What were these queer things you found, Sergeant?"
Heath moved again with uneasy embarrassment.
"To begin with, Stamm himself was cock-eyed drunk, and there was a doctor from the neighborhood trying to get him to function. Stamm's young sister—a good-looker of about twenty-five—was having hysterics and going off into faints every few minutes. The rest of 'em—there was four or five—were trying to duck and making excuses why they had to get away pronto. And all the time this fellow Leland, who looks like a hawk or something, was going round as cool as a cucumber with lifted eyebrows and a satisfied grin on his brown face, as if he knew a lot more than he was telling.—Then there was one of those sleezy, pasty-faced butlers, who acted like a ghost and didn't make any noise when he moved… ."
"Yes, yes," Vance nodded whimsically. "Everything most mystifyin'… . And the wind moaned through the pines; and an owl hooted in the distance; and a lattice rattled in the attic; and a door creaked; and there came a tapping—eh, what, Sergeant? … I say, do have another spot of Scotch. You're positively jittery." (He spoke humorously, but there was a shrewd, interested look in his half-closed eyes and an undercurrent of tension in his voice that made me realize that he was taking the Sergeant far more seriously than his manner indicated.)
I expected the Sergeant to resent Vance's frivolous attitude, but instead he wagged his head soberly.
"You got the idea, Mr. Vance. Nothing seemed on the level. It wasn't normal, as you might say."
Markham's annoyance was mounting.
"The case doesn't strike me as peculiar, Sergeant," he protested. "A man dives into a swimming pool, hits his head on the bottom, and drowns. And you've related nothing else that can't be explained on the most commonplace grounds. It's not unusual for a man to get drunk, and after a tragedy of this kind a hysterical woman is not to be regarded as unique. Naturally, too, the other members of the party wanted to get away after an episode like this. As for the man Leland: he may be just a peculiar officious character who wished to dramatize a fundamentally simple affair. And you always had an antipathy for butlers. However you look at the case, it doesn't warrant anything more than the usual procedure. It's certainly not in the province of the Homicide Bureau. The idea of murder is precluded by the very mechanism of Montague's disappearance. He himself suggested a swim in the pool—a rational enough suggestion on a night like this—and his plunge into the pool and his failure to come to the surface could hardly be indicative of any other person's criminal intent."
Heath shrugged and lighted a long black cigar.
"I've been telling myself the same things for the past hour," he returned stubbornly; "but that situation at the Stamm house ain't right."
Markham pursed his lips and regarded the Sergeant meditatively.
"Was there anything else that upset you?" he asked, after a pause.
Heath did not answer at once. Obviously there was something else on his mind, and it seemed to me that he was weighing the advisability of mentioning it. But suddenly he lifted himself in his chair and took his cigar deliberately from his mouth.
"I don't like those fish!" he blurted.
"Fish?" repeated Markham in astonishment. "What fish?"
Heath hesitated and contemplated the end of his cigar sheepishly.
"I think I can answer that question, Markham," Vance put in. "Rudolph Stamm is one of the foremost aquarists in America. He has a most amazin' collection of tropical fish—strange and little-known varieties which he has succeeded in breeding. It's been his hobby for twenty years, and he is constantly going on expeditions to the Amazon, Siam, India, the Paraguay basin, Brazil and Bermuda. He has also made trips to China and has scoured the Orinoco. Only a year or so ago the papers were full of his trip from Liberia to the Congo… ."
"They're queer-looking things," Heath supplemented. "Some of 'em look like sea-monsters that haven't grown up."
"Their shapes and their colorings are very beautiful, however," commented Vance with a faint smile.
"But that wasn't all," the Sergeant went on, ignoring Vance's asthetic observation. "This fellow Stamm had lizards and baby alligators—"
"And probably turtles and frogs and snakes—"
"I'll say he has snakes!" The Sergeant made a grimace of disgust. "Plenty of 'em—crawling in and out of big flat tanks of water… ."
"Yes." Vance nodded and looked toward Markham. "Stamm, I understand, has a terrarium along with his fish. The two often go together, don't y' know."
Markham grunted and studied the Sergeant for a moment.
"Perhaps," he remarked at length, in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, "Montague was merely playing a practical joke on the other guests. How do you know he didn't swim under water to the other side of the pool and disappear up the opposite bank? Was it dark enough there so the others couldn't have seen him?"
"Sure it was dark enough," the Sergeant told him. "The flood-lights don't reach all across the water. But that explanation is out. I myself thought something of the kind might have happened, seeing as how there had been a lot of liquor going round, and I took a look over the place. But the opposite side of the pool is almost a straight precipice of rock, nearly a hundred feet high. Across the upper end of the pool, where the creek runs in, there's a big filter, and not only would it be hard for a man to climb it, but the lights reach that far and any one of the party could have seen him there. Then, at the lower end of the pool, where the water has been dammed up with a big cement wall, there's a drop of twenty feet or so, with plenty of rocks down below. No guy's going to take a chance dropping over the dam in order to create a little excitement. On the side of the pool nearest the house, where the spring-board is, there's a concrete retaining wall which a swimmer might climb over; but there again the floodlights would give him dead away."
"And there's no other possible way Montague could have got out of the pool without being seen?"
"Yes, there's one way he might have done it—but he didn't. Between the end of the filter and the steep cliff that comes down on the opposite side of the pool, there's a low open space of about fifteen feet which leads off to the lower part of the estate. And this flat opening is plenty dark so that the people on the house side of the pool couldn't have seen anything there."
"Well, there's probably your explanation."
"No, it isn't, Mr. Markham," Heath asserted emphatically. "The minute I went down to the pool and got the lay of the land, I took Hennessey with me across the top of the big filter and looked for footprints on this fifteen-foot low bank. You know it had been raining all evening, and the ground over there is damp anyway, so that if there had been any kind of footprints they would have stuck out plain. But the whole area was perfectly smooth. Moreover, Hennessey and I went back into the grass a little distance from the bank, thinking that maybe the guy might have climbed up on a ledge of the rock and jumped over the muddy edge of the water. But there wasn't a sign of anything there either."
"That being the case," said Markham, "they'll probably find his body when the pool is dragged… . Did you order that done?"
"Not tonight I didn't. It would take two or three hours to get a boat and hooks up there, and you couldn't do anything much at night anyway. But that'll all be taken care of the first thing in the morning."
"Well," decided Markham impatiently, "I can't see that there's anything more for you to do tonight. As soon as the body is found the Medical Examiner will be notified, and he'll probably say that Montague has a fractured skull and will put the whole thing down as accidental death."
There was a tone of dismissal in his voice, but Heath refused to be moved by it. I had never seen the Sergeant so stubborn.
"You may be right, Chief," he conceded reluctantly. "But I got other ideas. And I came all the way down here to ask you if you wouldn't come up and give the situation the once-over."
Something in the Sergeant's voice must have affected Markham, for instead of replying at once he again studied the other quizzically. Finally he asked:
"Just what have you done so far in connection with the case?"
"To tell the truth, I haven't done much of anything," the Sergeant admitted. "I haven't had time. I naturally got the names and addresses of everybody in the house and questioned each one of 'em in a routine way. I couldn't talk to Stamm because he was out of the picture and the doctor was working over him. Most of my time was spent in going around the pool, seeing what I could learn. But, as I told you, I didn't find out anything except that Montague didn't play any joke on his friends. Then I went back to the house and telephoned to you. I left things up there in charge of the three men I took along with me. And after I told everybody that they couldn't go home until I got back, I beat it down here… . That's my story, and I'm probably stuck with it."
Despite the forced levity of his last remark, he looked up at Markham with, I thought, an appealing insistence.
Once more Markham hesitated and returned the Sergeant's gaze.
"You are convinced there was foul play?" he queried.
"I'm not convinced of anything," Heath retorted. "I'm just not satisfied with the way things stack up. Furthermore, there's a lot of funny relationships in that crowd up there. Everybody seems jealous of everybody else. A couple of guys are dotty on the same girl, and nobody seemed to care a hoot—except Stamm's young sister—that Montague didn't come up from his dive. The fact is, they all seemed damn pleased about it—which didn't set right with me. And even Miss Stamm didn't seem to be worrying particularly about Montague. I can't explain exactly what I mean, but she seemed to be all upset about something else connected with his disappearance."
"I still can't see," returned Markham, "that you have any tangible explanation for your attitude. The best thing, I think, is to wait and see what tomorrow brings."
"Maybe yes." But instead of accepting Markham's obvious dismissal Heath poured himself another drink and relighted his cigar.
During this conversation between the Sergeant and the District Attorney, Vance had lain back in his chair contemplating the two dreamily, sipping his champagne cup and smoking languidly. But a certain deliberate tenseness in the way he moved his hand to and from his lips, convinced me that he was deeply interested in everything that was being said.
At this point he crushed out his cigarette, set down his glass, and rose to his feet.
"Really, y' know, Markham old dear," he said in a drawling voice, "I think we should toddle along with the Sergeant to the site of the mystery. It can't do the slightest harm, and it's a beastly night anyway. A bit of excitement, however tame the ending, might help us forget the weather. And we may be affected by the same sinister atmospheres which have so inflamed the Sergeant's hormones."
Markham looked up at him in mild astonishment.
"Why in the name of Heaven, should you want to go to the Stamm estate?"
"For one thing," Vance returned, stifling a yawn, "I am tremendously interested, d' ye see, in looking over Stamm's collection of toy fish. I bred them myself in an amateur way once, but because of lack of space, I concentrated on the color-breeding of the Betta splendens and cambodia—Siamese Fighting Fish, don't y' know."
Markham studied him for a few moments without replying. He knew Vance well enough to realize that his desire to accede to the Sergeant's request was inspired by a much deeper reason than the patently frivolous one he gave. And he also knew that no amount of questioning would make Vance elucidate his true attitude just then.
After a minute Markham also rose. He glanced at his watch and shrugged.
"Past midnight," he commented disgustedly. "The perfect hour, of course, to inspect fish! … Shall we drive out in the Sergeant's car or take yours?"
"Oh, mine, by all means. We'll follow the Sergeant." And Vance rang for Currie to bring him his hat and stick.