(Thursday, October 11; 8.45 a. m.)
It was exactly three months after the startling termination of the Scarab murder case that Philo Vance was drawn into the subtlest and the most perplexing of all the criminal problems that came his way during the four years of John F.-X. Markham's incumbency as District Attorney of New York County.
Indeed, so mystifying was this case, so apparently inexplicable were its conflicting elements, that the police were for adding it to their list of unsolved murder mysteries. And they would have been justified in their decision; for rarely in the annals of modern crime has there been a case that seemed to reverse so completely the rational laws by which humanity lives and reasons. In the words of the doughty and practical Sergeant Ernest Heath of the Homicide Bureau, the case "didn't make sense." On the surface it smacked of strange and terrifying magic, of witch-doctors and miracle-workers; and every line of investigation ran into a blank wall.
In fact, the case had every outward appearance of being what arm-chair criminologists delight in calling the perfect crime. And, to make the plotting of the murderer even more mystifying, a diabolical concatenation of circumstances was superimposed upon the events by some whimsical and perverse god, which tended to strengthen every weak link in the culprit's chain of ratiocination, and to turn the entire bloody affair into a maze of incomprehensibility.
Curiously enough, however, it was the very excess of ardor on the part of the murderer when attempting to divert suspicion, that created a minute hole in the wall of mystery, through which Vance was able to see a glimmer of light. In the process of following that light to the truth, Vance did what I believe was the shrewdest and profoundest detective work of his career. It was his peculiar knowledge of special and out-of-the-way facts, combined with his almost uncanny perception of human nature, that made it possible for him to seize upon apparently unimportant clues and resolve them into a devastating syllogism.
Vance for years had been a breeder of Scottish terriers. His kennels were in New Jersey, an hour's ride from New York, and he spent much of his time there studying pedigrees, breeding for certain characteristics which he believed essential to the ideal terrier, and watching the results of his theories. Sometimes I think he manifested a greater enthusiasm in his dogs than in any other recreative phase of his life; and the only time I have seen evidences of a thrill in his eyes comparable to that when he had unearthed and acquired a magnificent Cézanne water-color or discovered a rare piece of Chinese ceremonial jade in a mass of opaque modern recuttings, was when one of his dogs went up to Winners.
I mention this fact—or idiosyncrasy, if you prefer—because it so happened that Vance's ability to look at a certain stray Scottish terrier and recognize its blood-lines and show qualities, was what led him to one phase of the truth in the remarkable case which I am now recording.
That which led Vance to another important phase of the truth was his knowledge of Chinese ceramics. He possessed, in his home in East 38th Street, a small but remarkable collection of Chinese antiquities—museum pieces he had acquired in his extensive travels—and had written various articles for Oriental and art journals on the subject of Sung and Ming monochrome porcelains.
Scotties and Chinese ceramics! A truly unusual combination. And yet, without a knowledge of these two antipodal interests, the mysterious murder of Archer Coe, in his old brownstone house in West 71st Street, would have remained a closed book for all time.
The opening of the case was rather tame: it promised little in the line of sensationalism. But within an hour of the telephone call Markham received from the Coe butler, the District Attorney's office and the New York Police Department were plunged into one of the most astounding and baffling murder mysteries of our day.
It was shortly after half-past eight on the morning of October 11, that Vance's door-bell rang; and Currie, his old English valet and majordomo, ushered Markham into the library. I was temporarily installed in Vance's duplex roof-garden apartment at the time. There was much legal and financial work to be done—an accumulation of months, for Vance had insisted that I accompany him on the Mediterranean cruise he took immediately after the solving of the Scarab murder. For years, almost since our Harvard days, I had been Vance's legal adviser and monetary steward (a post which included as much of friendship as of business) and his affairs kept me fairly busy—so busy, in fact, that a two months' interregnum meant much overtime labor afterwards.
On this particular autumn morning I had risen at seven and was busily engaged with a mass of cancelled checks and bank statements when Markham arrived.
"Go ahead with your chores, Van Dine," he said, with a perfunctory nod. "I'll rout out the sybarite myself." He seemed a trifle perturbed as he disappeared into Vance's bedroom, which was just off the library.
I heard him call Vance a bit peremptorily, and I heard Vance give a dramatic groan.
"A murder, I presume," Vance complained through a yawn. "Nothing less than gore would have led your footsteps to my boudoir at this ungodly hour."
"Not a murder—" Markham began.
"Oh, I say! What time might it be, then?"
"Eight forty-five," Markham told him.
"So early—and not a murder!" (I could hear Vance's feet hit the floor.) "You interest me strangely… . Your wedding morn perhaps?"
"Archer Coe has committed suicide," Markham announced, not without irritation.
"My word!" Vance was now moving about. "That's even stranger than a murder. I crave elucidation… . Come, let's sit down while I sip my coffee."
Markham re-entered the library, followed by Vance clad in sandals and an elaborate Mandarin robe. Vance rang for Currie and ordered Turkish coffee, at the same time settling himself in a large Queen Anne chair and lighting one of his favorite Régie cigarettes.
Markham did not sit down. He stood near the mantelpiece, regarding his host with narrowed, inquisitive eyes.
"What did you mean, Vance," he asked, "by Coe's suicide being stranger than murder?"
"Nothing esoteric, old thing," Vance drawled languidly. "Simply that there would be nothing particularly remarkable in any one's pushing old Archer into the Beyond. He's been inviting violence all his life. Not a sweet and love-inspiring chappie, don't y' know. But there's something deuced remarkable in the fact that he should push himself over the border. He's not the suicidal type—far too egocentric."
"I think you're right. And that idea was probably in the back of my head when I told the butler to hold everything till I got there."
Currie entered with the coffee, and Vance sipped the black, cloudy liquid for a moment. At length he said:
"Do tell me more. Why should you be notified at all? And what did the butler pour into your ear over the phone? And why are you here curtailing my slumbers? Why everything? Why anything? Just why? Can't you see I'm bursting with uncontrollable curiosity?" And Vance yawned and closed his eyes.
"I'm on my way to Coe's house." Markham was annoyed at the other's attitude of indifference. "Thought maybe you'd like to—what's your favorite word?—'toddle' along." This was said with sarcasm.
"Toddle," Vance repeated. "Quite. But why toddle blindly? Do be magnanimous and enlighten me. The corpse won't run away, even if we are a bit latish."
Markham hesitated, and shrugged. Obviously he was uneasy, and obviously he wanted Vance to accompany him. As he had admitted, something was in the back of his head.
"Very well," he acquiesced. "Shortly after eight this morning Coe's butler—the obsequious Gamble—phoned me at my home. He was in a state of nerves, and his voice was husky with fear. He informed me, with many hems and haws, that Archer Coe had shot himself, and asked me if I would come to the house at once. My first instinct was to tell him to notify the police; but, for some reason, I checked myself and asked him why he had called me. He said that Mr. Raymond Wrede had so advised him—"
"It seems he had first called Wrede—who, as you know, is an intimate family friend—and that Wrede had immediately come to the house."
"And Wrede said 'get Mr. Markham.'" Vance drew deep on his cigarette. "Something dodging about in the recesses of Wrede's brain, too, no doubt… . Well, any more?"
"Only that the body was bolted in Coe's bedroom."
"Bolted on the inside?"
"Gamble brought up Coe's breakfast at eight as usual, but received no answer to his knocking… ."
"So he peeped through the keyhole—yes, yes, butlers always do. Some day, Markham, I shall, in a moment of leisure, invent a keyhole that can't be seen through by butlers. Have you ever stopped to think how much of the world's disturbance is caused by butlers being able to see through keyholes?"
"No, Vance, I never have," returned Markham wearily. "My brain is inadequate—I'll leave that speculation to you… . Nevertheless, because of your dalliance in the matter of inventing opaque keyholes, Gamble saw Coe seated in his armchair, a revolver in his hand, and a bullet wound in his right temple… ."
"And, I'll warrant, Gamble added that his master's face was deathly pale—eh, what?"
"But what about Brisbane Coe? Why did Gamble call Wrede when Archer's brother was in the house?"
"Brisbane Coe didn't happen to be in the house. He's at present in Chicago."
"Ah! Most convenient… . So when Wrede arrived he advised Gamble to phone direct to you, knowing that you knew Coe. Is that it?"
"As far as I can make out."
"And you, knowing that I had visited Coe on various occasions, thought you'd pick me up and make it a conclave of acquaintances."
"Do you want to come?" demanded Markham, with a trace of anger.
"Oh, by all means," Vance replied dulcetly. "But, really, y' know, I can't go in these togs." He rose and started towards the bedroom. "I'll hop into appropriate integuments." As he reached the door he stopped. "And I'll tell you why your invitation enthralls me. I had an appointment with Archer Coe for three this afternoon to look at a pair of peach-bloom vases fourteen inches high he had recently acquired. And, Markham, a collector who has just acquired a pair of peach-bloom vases of that size doesn't commit suicide the next day."
With this remark Vance disappeared, and Markham stood, his hands behind him, looking at the bedroom door with a deep frown. Presently he lighted a cigar and began pacing back and forth.
"I shouldn't wonder if Vance were right," he mumbled, as if to himself. "He's put my subconscious thought into words."
A few minutes later Vance emerged, dressed for the street.
"Awfully thoughtful of you, and all that, to pick me up," he said, smiling jauntily at Markham. "There's something positively fascinatin' about the possibilities of this affair… . And by the by, Markham, it might be convenient to have the pugnacious Sergeant on hand."
"So it might," agreed Markham drily, putting on his hat. "Thanks for the suggestion. But I've already notified him. He's on his way uptown now."
Vance's eyebrows went up whimsically.
"Oh, pardon! … Well, let's grope our way hence."
We entered Markham's car, which was waiting outside, and were driven rapidly up Madison Avenue. We cut through Central Park to the West Side, came out at the 72nd-Street entrance, and went for a block against traffic on Central Park West. Turning into 71st Street, we drew up at No. 98.
The Coe house was an old brownstone mansion of double frontage occupying two city lots, built in a day when dignity and comfort were among the ideals of New York architects. The house was uniform with the other residences in the block, with the exception that most of the houses were single structures with only a twenty-foot frontage. The basements were three or four feet below the street level and opened on a sunken, paved areaway. Flights of stone stairs, with wide stone balustrades, led to the first floors, each house being entered through a conventional vestibule.
As we ascended the steps of the Coe house the door was opened for us before we had time to pull the old-fashioned brass bell-knob; and the flushed face of Gamble looked out at us cringingly. The butler made a series of suave bows as he pulled the heavy oak door ajar for us to enter.
"Thank you for coming, Mr. Markham." His voice reeked of oily subservience. "It's very terrible, sir. And I really didn't know just what I should do—"
Markham brushed the man aside and we stepped into the dimly lighted hallway. A heavy deep-napped carpet covered the entire hall, and several dingy oil paintings made enormous black squares against the dark tapestry on the walls. Ahead of us a broad flight of carpeted stairs led upward into a vault of darkness. On the right hung a pair of deep maroon portieres evidently veiling double sliding doors. To the left were other portieres; but these were drawn back, and we could look through the open doors into a stuffy drawing-room, filled with all manner of heavy ancient furniture.
Two men came forward from this room to greet us. The one in advance I recognized immediately as Raymond Wrede. I had met him several times at the Coe home when I had accompanied Vance there to inspect some particular "find" in Chinese pottery or bronzes, which Archer Coe had made. Wrede, I knew, was a close friend of the Coe family, and particularly of Hilda Lake, Archer Coe's niece. He was a studious man in his late thirties, slightly gray, with an ascetic, calm face of the chevaline type. He was mildly interested in Oriental ceramics—probably as a result of his long association with Coe—though his particular fancy was ancient oil lamps; and he owned a collection of rare specimens for which (I have been told) the Metropolitan Museum of Art had offered him a small fortune.
As he greeted us this morning, there was a look bordering on bewilderment in his wide-set, gray eyes.
He bowed formally to Markham, whom he knew slightly; nodded perfunctorily to me; and extended his hand to Vance. Then, as if suddenly remembering something, he turned toward the man behind him, and made a brief presentation, which in reality was an explanation.
"Signor Grassi. … Mr. Grassi has been a house guest of Mr. Coe's for several days. He represents an Italian museum of Oriental antiquities at Milan."
Grassi bowed very low, but said nothing. He was considerably shorter than Wrede, slim, immaculately dressed, with shiny black hair brushed straight back from his forehead, and a complexion whose unusual pallor was accentuated by large luminous eyes. His features were regular, and his lips full and shapely. His manicured hands moved with an almost feline grace. My first impression was that he was effeminate, but before many days had passed I radically changed my opinion.
Markham wasted no time on ceremony. He turned abruptly to Gamble.
"Just what is the situation? A police sergeant and the Medical Examiner will be here any moment."
"Only what I told you on the telephone, sir." The man, beneath his obsequious manner, was patently frightened. "When I saw the master through the keyhole I knew he was dead—it was quite unnerving, sir—and my first impulse was to break in the door. But I thought it best to seek advice before taking such a responsibility. And, as Mr. Brisbane Coe was in Chicago, I phoned to Mr. Wrede and begged him to come over immediately. Mr. Wrede was good enough to come, and after looking at the master he suggested that I call you, sir, before doing anything else—"
"It was obvious"—Wrede took up the story—"that poor Coe was dead, and I thought it best to leave everything intact for the authorities. I didn't want to insist on having the door broken in."
Vance was watching the man closely.
"But what harm could that have done?" he asked mildly. "Since the door was bolted on the inside, suicide was rather plainly indicated—eh, what?"
"Perhaps you are right, Mr. Vance." Wrede appeared ill at ease. "But—somehow—my instinct told me that it might be best—"
"Quite—quite." Vance took out his cigarette-case. "You, too, were sceptical—despite the appearances."
Wrede gave a start, and stared fixedly at Vance.
"Coe," Vance continued, "wasn't exactly the suicidal type—was he?"
"No-o." Wrede's eyes did not shift.
Vance lighted a cigarette.
"My own feeling is you acted quite wisely."
"Come!" Markham turned toward the stairs and made a peremptory gesture to Gamble. "Lead the way."
The butler turned and mounted the stairs. Markham, Vance and I followed, but Wrede and Grassi remained below. At the head of the stairs Gamble fumbled along the wall and pressed an electric switch-button. A light flooded the upper hallway. Directly ahead of us was a wide door, ivory enamelled. Gamble stood by the switch and, without a word, indicated the door.
Markham came forward, tried the knob, and shook it. Then he knelt down and looked through the keyhole. When he rose his face was grim.
"It looks as if our suspicions were unfounded," he said in a low voice. "Coe is sitting in his chair, a black hole in his right temple, and his hand is still clutching a revolver. The electric lights are on… . Look, Vance."
Vance was gazing at an etching on the wall at the head of the stairs.
"I'll take your word for it, Markham," he drawled. "Really, y' know, it doesn't sound like a pretty sight. And I'll see it infinitely better when we've forced an entry… . I say! Here's an early Marin. Rather sensitive. Same feeling for delicate composition we find in his later water-colors… ."
At this moment the front door bell rang violently, and Gamble hastened down the stairs. As he drew the door back, Sergeant Ernest Heath and Detective Hennessey burst into the lower hallway.
"This way, Sergeant," Markham called.
Heath and Hennessey came noisily up the stairs.
"Good morning, sir." The Sergeant waved a friendly hand to Markham. Then he cocked an eye at Vance. "I mighta known you'd be here. The world's champeen trouble-shooter!" He grinned good-naturedly, and there was genuine affection in his tone.
"Come, Sergeant," Markham ordered. "There's a dead man in this room, and the door's bolted on the inside. Break it open."
Heath, without a word, hurled himself against the crosspiece of the door just above the knob, but without result. A second time his shoulder crashed against the crosspiece.
"Give me a hand, Hennessey," he said. "That's a bolt—no foolin'. Hard wood."
The two men threw their combined weight against the door, and now there was a sound of tearing wood as the bolt's screws were loosened.
During the process of battering in the door, Wrede and Grassi mounted the stairs, followed by Gamble, and stood directly behind Markham and Vance.
Two more terrific thrusts by Heath and Hennessey, and the heavy door swung inward, revealing the death chamber.