The Kennel Murder Case - S. S. Van Dine - ebook
Kategoria: Sensacja, thriller, horror Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1933

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S. S. Van Dine

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About
Chapter 1 - THE BOLTED BEDROOM
Chapter 2 - THE DEAD MAN

About Van Dine:

S. S. Van Dine was the pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright (October 15, 1888 - April 11, 1939), a U.S. art critic and author. He created the once immensely popular fictional detective Philo Vance, who first appeared in books in the 1920s, then in movies and on the radio. Willard Huntington Wright was born to Archibald Davenport Wright and Annie Van Vranken Wright on October 15, 1888, in Charlottesville, Virginia. He attended St. Vincent College, Pomona College, and Harvard University. He also studied art in Munich and Paris, an apprenticeship that led to a job as literary and art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Wright's early career in literature (1910 - 1919) was taken up by two causes. One was literary Naturalism. He wrote a novel, The Man of Promise, and some short stories in this mode; as editor of the magazine The Smart Set he also published similar fiction by others. In 1917, he published Misinforming a Nation, a scathing critique of the inaccuracies and English biases of the Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition. In 1907, Wright married Katharine Belle Boynton of Seattle, Washington. He married for a second time in October 1930. His wife was Eleanor Rulapaugh, known professionally as Claire De Lisle, a portrait painter. From 1912 to 1914 he edited The Smart Set, a New York literary magazine. He published What Nietzsche Taught in 1915. In this book, he provided information and comments on all of Nietzsche's books, as well as quotations from each book. Wright continued writing as a critic and journalist until 1923, when he became ill from what was given out as overwork, but was in reality a secret drug addiction, according to John Loughery's biography Alias S.S. Van Dine. His doctor confined him to bed (supposedly because of a heart ailment, but actually because of a cocaine addiction) for more than two years. In frustration and boredom, he began collecting and studying thousands of volumes of crime and detection. In 1926 this paid off with the publication of his first S. S. Van Dine novel, The Benson Murder Case. Wright took his pseudonym from the abbreviation of "steamship" and from Van Dine, which he claimed was an old family name. According to Loughery, however, "there are no Van Dines evident in the family tree" (p. 176). He went on to write 11 more mysteries, and the first few books about his upper-class amateur sleuth, Philo Vance (who shared a love of aesthetics like Wright), were so popular that Wright became wealthy for the first time in his life, "but the pleasure was not unalloyed. His fate is curiously foreshadowed in that of Stanford West, the hero of his only novel, who sells out by abandoning the unpopular work in which he searched for "a sound foundation of culture and aristocracy" and becoming a successful novelist. The title of an article he wrote at the height of his fame, "I used to be a Highbrow and Look at Me Now", reflects both his pleasure, and his regret that he was no longer regarded seriously as a writer." His later books declined in popularity as the reading public’s tastes in mystery fiction changed. "Wright, who was much like Vance … was a poseur and a dilettante, dabbling in art, music and criticism. He lived in an expensive penthouse, was fond of costly clothes and food, and collected art." Wright died April 11, 1939, in New York City, a year after the publication of an unpopular experimental novel that incorporated one of the biggest stars in radio comedy, The Gracie Allen Murder Case, and leaving a complete novelette-length story that was intended as a film vehicle for Sonja Henje, and was published posthumously as The Winter Murder Case. In addition to his success as a fiction writer, Wright's lengthy introduction and notes to the anthology The World's Great Detective Stories (1928) are important in the history of the critical study of detective fiction. Although dated by the passage of time, this essay is still a core around which many others have been constructed. He also wrote an article titled Twenty rules for writing detective stories in 1928 for The American Magazine which was reprinted a number of times. Wright also wrote a series of short stories for Warner Brothers film studio in the early 1930s. These stories were used as the basis for a series of 12 short films, each around 20 minutes long, that were released in 1930 - 1931. Of these, The Skull Murder Mystery (1931) shows Wright's vigorous plot construction. It is also notable for its non-racist treatment of Chinese characters, something quite unusual in its day. As far as it is known, none of Van Dine's screen treatments have been published in book form and it seems as if none of the manuscripts survive today. Short films were extremely popular at one point and Hollywood made hundreds of them during the studio era. Except for a handful of comedy silents, however, most of these films are forgotten today and are not even listed in film reference books. Source: Wikipedia

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Chapter 1 THE BOLTED BEDROOM

(Thursday, October 11; 8.45 a. m.)

 

It was exactly three months after the startling termination of the Scarab murder case[1] 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—"

"Ah!"

"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?"

"Exactly."

"Amazin'!"

"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?"

"He did."

"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[2] 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.[3] … 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.


Chapter 2 THE DEAD MAN

(Thursday, October 11; 9.15 a. m.)

 

The room, which was at the extreme rear of the house, was long and narrow, with windows on two sides. There was a bay window opposite the door, and a wide double window at the left, facing east. The dark green shades were all drawn, excluding the daylight. But the room was brilliantly lighted by an enormous crystal chandelier in the centre of the ceiling.

At the rear of the room stood an enormous canopied bed, which, I noticed, had not been slept in. The covers were turned back with meticulous precision. The bedroom, like the drawing-room, contained far too much furniture. On the right was a large embayed book-case filled with octavo and quarto volumes, and, facing the door was a mahogany kidney-shaped desk covered with books, pamphlets and papers—the desk of a man who spends many hours at literary labor. To the left of this desk, in the east wall, was a large fireplace with an Empire mantel of bronze and Venetian marble, supported by two ugly caryatides. Gas logs were in the grate. About the walls hung at least a dozen Chinese scroll paintings. Had there not been a bed and a dressing-table in the room, one would have taken it for a collector's sanctum.

These details of the room, however, protruded themselves upon us later. What first focused our attention was the inert body of Archer Coe, with its quiet pallid face and the black grisly spot on the right temple. The body was slumped down in a velour upholstered armchair beside the desk. The head seemed to lie almost on the left shoulder, as if the impact of the bullet had forced it into an unnatural angle.

There was an expression of peace on the thin aquiline features of the dead man; and his eyes were closed as though in sleep. His right hand—the one nearest the fireplace—lay on the end of the desk clutching a carved, ivory-inlaid revolver of fairly large calibre. His left hand hung at his side over the tufted arm of the chair.

There was a straight Windsor chair behind the desk, and I could not help wondering why Coe had selected the armchair at the side of the desk, facing the door. Was it because he had considered it more comfortable for his last resting place in this life? The answer to this passing speculation of mine did not come for many hours; and when it did come, as a result of Vance's deductions, it constituted one of the vital links in the evidential chain of this strange and perplexing case.

Coe's body was clothed in a green silk-wool dressing-gown which came nearly to his ankles; but on his feet, which were extended straight in front of him, was a pair of high, heavy street shoes, laced and tied. Again a question flashed through my mind: Why did Coe not wear bedroom slippers with his dressing-gown? The answer to this question also was to prove a vital point in the solution of the tragedy.

Vance went immediately to the body, touched the dead man's hand, and bent forward over the wound in the forehead. Then he walked back to the door with its hanging bolt, scrutinized it for a moment, ran his eye around the heavy oak framework and lintel, and turned slowly back to the room. A frown wrinkled his brow. Very deliberately he reached in his pocket and took out another cigarette. When he had lighted it, he strolled to the west wall of the room and stood gazing at a faded ninth-century Chinese painting of Ucchushma.[4]

In the meantime the rest of us had pressed round the body of Coe, and stood inspecting it in silence. Wrede and Grassi seemed appalled in the actual presence of death. Wrede spoke to Markham.

"I trust I did right in advising Gamble to call you before breaking in the door. I realize now that if there had remained a spark of life—"

"Oh, he was quite dead hours ago," Vance interrupted, without turning from the painting. "Your decision has worked out perfectly."

Markham swung about.

"What do you mean by that, Vance?"

"Merely that, if the door had been broken in, and the room overrun with solicitous friends, and the body handled for signs of life, and all the locked-in evidence probably destroyed, we would have had a deuced difficult time arrivin' at any sensible solution of what really went on here last night."

"Well, it's pretty plain to me what went on here last night." It was Heath who projected himself, a bit belligerently, into the talk. "This guy locked himself in, and blew his brains out. And even you, Mr. Vance, can't make anything original outa that."

Vance turned slowly and shook his head.

"Tut, tut, Sergeant," he said pleasantly. "It's not I who am going to spoil your simple and beautiful theory."

"No?" Heath was still belligerent. "Then who is?"

"The corpse," answered Vance mildly.

Before Heath could reply, Markham, who had been watching Vance closely, turned quickly to Wrede and Grassi.

"I will ask you gentlemen to wait downstairs… . Hennessey, please go to the drawing-room and see that these gentlemen do not leave it until I give them permission… . You understand," he added to Wrede and Grassi, "that it will be necessary to question you about this affair after we have had the verdict of the Medical Examiner."

Wrede showed his resentment at Markham's peremptory manner; but Grassi, with a polite smile, merely bowed; and the two, followed by Hennessey, passed out of the room and down the stairs.

"And you," said Markham to Gamble, "wait at the front door and bring Doctor Doremus here the moment he arrives."

Gamble shot a haunted look at the body, and went out.

Markham closed the door, and then wheeled about, facing Vance, who now stood behind Coe's desk gazing down moodily at the dead man's hand clutching the revolver.

"What's the meaning of all these mysterious innuendos?" he demanded testily.

"Not innuendos, Markham," Vance returned quietly, keeping his eyes on Coe's hand. "Merely speculations. I'm rather interested in certain aspects of this fascinatin' crime."

"Crime?" Markham gave a mirthless smile. "It was all very well for us to theorize before we got here—and I was inclined to agree with you that suicide seemed incompatible with Coe's temperament—but facts, after all, form the only reasonable basis for a decision. And the facts here seem pretty clean-cut. That door was bolted on the inside; there's no other means of entrance or exit to this room; Coe is sitting here with the lethal weapon—"

"Oh, call it a revolver," interrupted Vance. "Silly phrase, 'lethal weapon.'"

Markham snorted.

"Very well… . With a revolver in his hand, and a hole in his right temple. There are no signs of a struggle; the windows and shades are down, and the lights burning… . How, in Heaven's name, could it have been anything but suicide?"

"I'm sure I don't know." Vance shrugged wearily. "But it wasn't suicide—really, don't y' know." He frowned again. "And that's the weird part of it. Y' see, Markham, it should have been suicide—and it wasn't. There's something diabolical—and humorous—about this case. Humorous in a grim, satirical sense. Some one miscalculated somewhere—the murderer was sitting in a game with the cards stacked against him… . Positively amazin'!"

"But the facts," protested Markham.

"Oh, your facts are quite correct. As you lawyers say, they're irresistible. But you have overlooked additional facts."

"For instance?"

"Regard yon bedroom slippers." Vance pointed to the foot of the bed where a pair of soft red Mephisto slippers were neatly arranged. "And then regard these heavy blucher boots which the corpse is wearing. And yet he has on his dressing-gown, and is sitting in his easy chair. A bit incongruous, what? Why did the hedonistic and luxury-loving Coe not change his footwear to something more relaxing for this great moment in his life. And note that haste was not a factor. His robe—an execrable color, by the by—is neatly buttoned; and the girdle is tied in an admirable bow-knot. We can hardly assume that he suddenly decided on suicide half-way through his changing from street clothes to negligée. And yet, Markham, something must have stopped him—something must have compelled him to sit down, stretch his legs out, and close his eyes before he had finished the operation of making himself sartorially comfortable."

"Your reasoning is not altogether convincing," Markham countered. "A man might conceivably wear heavy shoes with a dressing-gown."

"Perhaps." Vance nodded. "I sha'n't be narrow-minded in these matters. But, assuming Coe is a suicide, why should he have chosen this chair facing the door? A man bent on doing a workmanlike job of shooting himself would instinctively sit up straight, where he could perhaps brace his arms and steady his hand. If he were going to sit by the desk at all he would, I think, have chosen the straight chair where he could rest both elbows on the top and thus insure a steady, accurate aim."

"His arm is on the end of the desk," put in Heath.

"Oh, quite—and in a rather awkward position—eh, what? Considering how low the easy chair is, Coe could not possibly have had his elbow on the desk when he pulled the trigger. If so, the shot would have gone over his head. His arm was necessarily lower than the desk when the gun was fired—if he fired it. Therefore, we must assume that after the bullet had entered his brain, he lifted his right arm to the desk and arranged it neatly in its present position."

"Maybe yes and maybe no," muttered Heath, after a pause during which he studied the body and raised his own right hand to his forehead. Then he added aggressively: "But you can't get away from that bolted door."

Vance sighed.

"I wish I could get away from it. It bothers me horribly. If it wasn't for the fact that the door was bolted on the inside, I'd be more inclined to agree that it was suicide."

"What's that!" Markham looked at Vance in amazement. "Now you're talking in paradoxes."

"Oh, no." Vance shook his head slightly. "A man of Coe's intelligence wouldn't plan suicide and then deliberately make it difficult for any one to reach his body. What could he have gained by securely bolting the door on the inside so that it would have to be broken in? The act of shooting would have been over in a second; and there was no danger of his being disturbed in his own bedroom. Had he killed himself he would have wanted Gamble—or some one else—to find him at the earliest possible moment. He would certainly not have placed deliberate difficulties in their way."

"But," argued Markham, "your very theory contradicts itself. Who but Coe could have bolted the door on the inside?"

"No one, apparently," answered Vance with a dispirited sigh. "And that's what makes the affair so dashed appealin'. The situation reads thus: A man is murdered; then he rises and bolts the door after the slayer has departed; and later he arranges himself in an easy chair so as to make it appear like suicide."

"That's a swell theory!" grunted Heath disgustedly. "Anyway, we'll know more about it when Doc Doremus gets here. And my bet is he's going to wash the whole case up by calling it suicide."

"And my bet is, Sergeant," Vance replied mildly, "that he's going to do nothing of the sort. I have an irresistible feelin' that Doctor Doremus will inform us that it is not suicide."

Heath screwed his face into a questioning frown and studied Vance. Then he snorted.

"Well, we'll see," he mumbled.

Vance paid scant attention. His eyes were moving over the desk. At one side of the blotter lay a quarto volume of "Li Tai Ming Ts'u T'ou P'u," by Hsiang Yuan-p'ien.[5] A pair of gold library shears were inserted between the pages, and Vance opened the book at this point, revealing a large colored plate of an amphora-shaped P'in Kuo Hung vase of a slightly neutralized red glaze shading into a liver color, and broken by patches of olive green and spots of russet brown.

"You see, Markham," he said, "Coe was apparently dreaming of his latest acquisition in peach-bloom shortly before he departed this life. And it is rather safe to assume that a man contemplating suicide does not indulge his acquisitiveness and investigate the history of his ceramic wares just before sending a bullet into his brain."

Markham waited without answering.

"And here's something else rather significant." Vance pointed to a small pile of blank note paper in the middle of the blotter. "This paper is lying a little on the bias, in the position that a right-handed man would place it if he contemplated writing on it. And, also, note that at the head of the first page is yesterday's date—Wednesday, October 10—"

"Ain't that natural?" put in Heath. "All these birds who commit suicide write letters first."

"But, Sergeant," smiled Vance, "the letter isn't written. Coe got no farther than the date."

"Can't a guy change his mind?" Heath persisted.

Vance nodded.

"Oh, quite. But, in that case, the pen would, in all probability, be in the holder set. And you will observe that the pen container is empty, and that there is no pen visible on the desk."

"Maybe it's in his pocket."

"Maybe." Vance stepped back and, bending over, ran his gaze over the floor round the desk. Then he knelt down and looked under the desk. Presently he reached out his arm and, from beneath the right-hand tier of drawers, drew forth a fountain-pen. Rising, he held the pen out.

"Coe dropped the pen, and it rolled under the desk." He placed it beside the note paper. "Men don't ordinarily drop fountain-pens in the middle of writing something and then fail to pick them up."

Heath glowered in silence, and Markham asked:

"You think Coe was interrupted in the midst of writing something?"

"Interrupted? … In a way perhaps." Vance himself seemed puzzled. "Still there are no signs of a struggle, and he is reclining in an easy chair at the end of the desk. Furthermore, his features are quite serene; his eyes are closed peacefully—and the door was bolted on the inside… . Very strange, Markham."

He walked to the shaded window and back, smoking leisurely. Suddenly he stopped and lifted his head, looking Markham straight in the eyes.

"Interrupted—yes! That's it! But not by any outside agency—not by an intruder. He was interrupted by something more subtle—more deadly. He was interrupted while he was alone. Something happened—something sinister intruded—and he stopped writing, dropped the pen, forgot it, rose, and seated himself in that easy chair. Then came the end, swift and unexpected—before he could change his shoes… . Don't you see? Those shoes are another indication of that terrible interruption."

"And the gun?" asked Heath contemptuously.

"I doubt if Coe even saw the gun, Sergeant."