The Kidnap Murder Case - S.S. Van Dine - ebook

The Kidnap Murder Case ebook

S. S. Van Dine



Casper Kenting disappeared from the family home and a ransom note was found. Tips indicate Kenting’s involvement in his own abduction, but Vance sees this false trail. The abduction case is full of ordinary cliches: a ransom note consisting of words cut out from a newspaper and a demand to leave the ransom on an empty tree at midnight.

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CHAPTER VI. $50,000















Philo Vance

John F.-X. Markham

District Attorney of New York County.

Ernest Heath

Sergeant of the Homicide Bureau.

Kaspar Kenting

A play-boy and gambler, who mysteriously disappears from his home.

Kenyon Kenting

A broker; brother of Kaspar and technical head of the Kenting family.

Madelaine Kenting

Kaspar Kenting’s wife.

Eldridge Fleel

A lawyer; a friend of the Kenting family and their attorney.

Mrs. Andrews Falloway

Madelaine Kenting’s mother.

Fraim Falloway

Madelaine Kenting’s brother.

Porter Quaggy

Another friend of the Kentings.


The Kenting butler and houseman.


The Kenting cook and maid; wife of Weem.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.


Detective of the Homicide Bureau.

Captain Dubois

Finger-print expert.

Detective Bellamy

Finger-print expert.

William McLaughlin

Patrolman on night duty on West 86th Street.


Vance’s valet.


(Wednesday, July 20; 9:30 a.m.)

Philo Vance, as you may remember, took a solitary trip to Egypt immediately after the termination of the Garden murder case. He did not to New York until the middle of July. He was considerably tanned, and there was a tired look in his wide-set grey eyes. I suspected, the moment I greeted him on the dock, that during his absence he had thrown himself into Egyptological research, which was an old passion of his.

“I’m fagged out, Van,” he complained good-naturedly, as we settled ourselves in a taxicab and started uptown to his apartment. “I need a rest. We’re not leavin’ New York this summer–you won’t mind, I hope. I’ve brought back a couple of boxes of archæological specimens. See about them tomorrow, will you?–there’s a good fellow.”

Even his voice sounded weary. His words carried a curious undertone of distraction; and the idea flashed through my mind that he had not altogether succeeded in eliminating from his thoughts the romantic memory of a certain young woman he had met during the strange and fateful occurrences in the penthouse of Professor Ephraim Garden. My surmise must have been correct, for it was that very evening, when he was relaxing in his roof-garden, that Vance remarked to me, apropos of nothing that had gone before: “A man’s affections involve a great responsibility. The things a man wants most must often be sacrificed because of this exacting responsibility.” I felt quite certain then that his sudden and prolonged trip to Egypt had not been an unqualified success as far as his personal objective was concerned.

For the next few days Vance busied himself in arranging, classifying and cataloging the rare pieces he had brought back with him. He threw himself into the work with more than his wonted interest and enthusiasm. His mental and physical condition showed improvement immediately, and it was but a short time before I recognized the old vital Vance that I had always known, keen for sports, for various impersonal activities, and for the constant milling of the undercurrents of human psychology.

It was just a week after his from Cairo that the famous Kidnap murder case broke. It was an atrocious and clever crime, and more than the usual publicity was given to it in the newspapers because of the wave of kidnapping cases that had been sweeping over the country at that time. But this particular crime of which I am writing from my voluminous notes was very different in many respects from the familiar “snatch”; and it was illumined by many sinister high lights. To be sure, the motive for the crime, or, I should say, crimes, was the sordid one of monetary gain; and superficially the technique was similar to that of the numerous cases in the same category. But through Vance’s determination and fearlessness, through his keen insight into human nature, and his amazing flair for the ramifications of human psychology, he was able to penetrate beyond the seemingly conclusive manifestations of the case.

In the course of this investigation Vance took no thought of any personal risk. At one time he was in the gravest danger, and it was only through his boldness, his lack of physical fear, and his deadly aim and quick action when it was a matter of his life or another’s–partly the result, perhaps, of his World-War experience which won him the Croix de Guerre–that he saved the lives of several innocent persons as well as his own, and eventually put his finger on the criminal in a scene of startling tragedy.

There was a certain righteous indignation in his attitude during this terrible episode–an attitude quite alien to his customarily aloof and cynical and purely academic point of view–for the crime itself was one of the type he particularly abhorred.

As I have said, it was just a week after his to New York that Vance was unexpectedly, and somewhat against his wishes, drawn into the investigation. He had resumed his habit of working late at night and rising late; but, to my surprise, when I entered the library at nine o’clock on that morning of July 20, he was already up and dressed and had just finished the Turkish coffee and the Régie cigarette that constituted his daily breakfast. He had on his patch-pocket grey tweed suit and a pair of heavy walking boots, which almost invariably indicated a contemplated trip into the country.

Before I could express my astonishment (I believe it was the first time in the course of our relationship that he had risen and started the day before I had) he smilingly explained to me with his antemeridian drawl:

“Don’t be shocked by my burst of energy, Van. It really can’t be helped, don’t y’ know. I’m driving out to Dumont, to the dog show. I’ve a little chap entered in the puppy and American-bred classes, and I want to take him into the ring myself. He’s a grand little fellow, and this is his début. I’ll for dinner.”

I was rather pleased at the prospect of being left alone for the day, for there was much work for me to do. I admit that, as Vance’s legal advisor, monetary steward and general overseer of his affairs, I had allowed a great deal of routine work to accumulate during his absence, and the assurance of an entire day, without any immediate or current chores, was most welcome to me.

As Vance spoke he rang for Currie, his old English butler and majordomo, and asked for his hat and chamois gloves. Filling his cigarette case, he waved a friendly good-bye to me and started toward the door. But just before he reached it, the front door-bell sounded, and a moment later Currie ushered in John F.-X. Markham, District Attorney of New York County.

“Good heavens, Vance!” exclaimed Markham. “Going out at such an early hour? Or have you just come in?” Despite the jocularity of his words, there was an unwonted sombreness in his face and a worried look in his eyes, which belied the manner of his greeting.

Vance smiled with a puzzled frown.

“I don’t like the expression on your Hellenic features this morning, old dear. It bodes ill for one who craves freedom and surcease from earthly miseries. I was just about to escape by hieing me to a dog show in the country. My little Sandy–”

“Damn your dogs and your dog shows, Vance!” Markham growled. “I’ve serious news for you.”

Vance shrugged his shoulders with resignation and heaved an exaggerated sigh.

“Markham–my very dear Markham! How did you time your visit so accurately? Thirty seconds later and I would have been on my way and free from your clutches.” Vance threw his hat and gloves aside. “But since you have captured me so neatly, I suppose I must listen, although I am sure I shall not like the tidin’s. I know I’m going to hate you and wish you had never been born. I can tell from the doleful look on your face that you’re in for something messy and desire spiritual support.” He stepped a little to one side. “Enter, and pour forth your woes.”

“I haven’t time–”

“Tut, tut.” Vance moved nonchalantly to the centre-table and pointed to a large comfortable upholstered chair. “There’s always time. There always has been time–there always will be time. Represented by n, don’t y’ know. Quite meaningless–without beginning and without end, and utterly indivisible. In fact, there’s no such thing as time–unless you’re dabblin’ in the fourth dimension....”

He walked back to Markham, took him gently by the arm and, ignoring his protests, led him to the chair by the table.

“Really, y’ know, Markham, you need a cigar and a drink. Let calm be your watchword, my dear fellow,–always calm. Serenity. Consider the ancient oaks. Or, better yet, the eternal hills–or is it the everlasting hills? It’s been so long since I penned poesy. Anyway, Swinburne did it much better.... Eheu, eheu!...”

As he babbled along, with seeming aimlessness, he went to a small side-table and, taking up a crystal decanter, poured some of its contents into a tulip-shaped glass, and set it down before the District Attorney.

“Try that old Amontillado.” He then moved the humidor forward. “And these panetelas are infinitely better than the cigars you carry around to dole out to your constituents.”

Markham made a restless, annoyed gesture, lighted one of the cigars, and sipped the old syrupy sherry.

Vance seated himself in a near-by chair and carefully lighted a Régie.

“Now try me,” he said. “But don’t make the tale too sad. My heart is already at the breaking-point.”

“What I have to tell you is damned serious.” Markham frowned and looked sharply at Vance. “Do you like kidnappings?”

“Not passionately,” Vance answered, his face darkening. “Beastly crimes, kidnappings. Worse than poisonings. About as low as a criminal can sink.” His eyebrows went up. “Why?”

“There’s been a kidnapping during the night. I learned about it half an hour ago. I’m on my way–”

“Who and where?” Vance’s face had now become sombre too.

“Kaspar Kenting. Heath and a couple of his men are at the Kenting house in 86th Street now. They’re waiting for me.”

“Kaspar Kenting...” Vance repeated the name several times, as if trying to recall some former association with it. “In 86th Street, you say?”

He rose suddenly and went to the telephone stand in the anteroom where he opened the directory and ran his eye down the page.

“Is it number 86 West 86th Street, perhaps?”

Markham nodded. “That’s right. Easy to remember.”

“Yes–quite.” Vance came strolling back into the library, but instead of resuming his chair he stood leaning against the end of the table. “Quite,” he repeated. “I seemed to remember it when you mentioned Kenting’s name.... The domicile’s an interestin’ old landmark. I’ve never seen it, however. Had a fascinatin’ reputation once. Still called the Purple House.”

“Purple house?” Markham looked up. “What do you mean?”

“My dear fellow! Are you entirely ignorant of the history of the city which you adorn as District Attorney? The Purple House was built by Karl K. Kenting back in 1880, and he had the bricks and slabs of stone painted purple, in order to distinguish his abode from all others in the neighborhood, and to flaunt it as a challenge to his numerous enemies. “With a house that color,’ he used to say, “they won’t have any trouble finding me, if they want me.’ The place became known as the Purple House. And every time the house was repainted, the original color was retained. Sort of family tradition, don’t y’ know.... But what about your Kaspar Kenting?”

“He disappeared some time last night,” Markham explained impatiently. “From his bedroom. Open window, ladder, ransom note thumbtacked to the window-sill. No doubt about it.”

“Details familiar–eh, what?” mused Vance. “And I presume the ransom note was concocted with words cut from a newspaper and pasted on a sheet of paper?”

Markham looked astonished.

“Exactly! How did you guess it?”

“Nothing new or original about it–what? Highly conventional. Bookish, in fact. But not being done this season in the best kidnapping circles.... Curious case.... How did you learn about it?”

“Eldridge Fleel was waiting at my office when I arrived this morning. He’s the lawyer for the Kenting family. One of the executors for the old man’s estate. Kaspar Kenting’s wife naturally notified him at once at his home–called him before he was up. He went to the house, looked over the situation, and then came directly to me.”

“Level-headed chap, this Fleel?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve known the man for years. Good lawyer. He was wealthy and influential once, but was badly hit by the depression. We were both members of the Lawyers’ Club, and we had offices in the same building on lower Broadway before I was cursed with the District Attorneyship.... I got in touch with Sergeant Heath immediately, and he went up to the house with Fleel. I told them I’d be there as soon as I could. I dropped off here, thinking–”

“Sad... very sad,” interrupted Vance with a sigh, drawing deeply on his cigarette. “I still wish you had made it a few minutes later. I’d have been safely away. You’re positively ineluctable.”

“Come, come, Vance. You know damned well I may need your help.” Markham sat up with a show of anger. “A kidnapping isn’t a pleasant thing, and the city’s not going to like it. I’m having enough trouble as it is. I can’t very well pass the buck to the federal boys. I’d rather clean up the mess from local headquarters.... By the way, do you know this young Kaspar Kenting?”

“Slightly,” Vance answered abstractedly. “I’ve run into the johnnie here and there, especially at old Kinkaid’s Casino and at the race-tracks. Kaspar’s a gambler and pretty much a ne’er-do-well. Full of the spirit of frivolity and not much else. Ardent play-boy, as it were. Always hard up. And trusted by no one. Can’t imagine why any one would want to pay a ransom for him.”

Vance slowly exhaled his cigarette smoke, watching the long blue ribbons rise and disperse against the ceiling.

“Queer background,” he murmured, almost as if to himself. “Can’t really blame the chappie for being such a blighter. Old Karl K., the author of his being, was a bit queer himself. Had more than enough money, and left it all to the older son, Kenyon K., to dole out to Kaspar as he saw fit. I imagine he hasn’t seen fit very often or very much. Kenyon is the solid-citizen type, in the worst possible meaning of the phrase. Came to the Belmont track in the highest of dudgeons one afternoon and led Kaspar righteously home. Probably goes to church regularly. Marches in parades. Applauds the high notes of sopranos. Feels positively nude without a badge of some kind. That sort of johnnie. Enough to drive any younger brother to hell.... The old man, as you must know, wasn’t a block from which you could expect anything in the way of fancy chips. A rabid and fanatical Ku-Klux-Klanner....”

“You mean his initials?” asked Markham.

“No. Oh, no. His convictions.” Vance looked at Markham inquiringly. “Don’t you know the story?”

Markham shook his head despondently.

“Old K. K. Kenting originally came from Virginia and was a King Kleagle in that sheeted Order. So rabid was he that he changed the C in his name, Carl, to a K, and gave himself a middle initial, another K, so that his monogram would be the symbol of his fanatical passion. And he went even further. He had two sons and a daughter, and he gave them all names beginning with K, and added for each one a middle initial K–Kenyon K. Kenting, Kaspar K. Kenting, and Karen K. Kenting. The girl died shortly after Karl himself was gathered to Abraham’s bosom. The two sons remaining, being of a new generation and less violent, dropped the middle K–which never stood for anything, by the by.”

“But why a purple house?”

“No symbolism there,” returned Vance. “When Karl Kenting came to New York and went into politics he became boss of his district. And he had an idea his sub-Potomac enemies were going to persecute him; so, as I say, he wanted to make it easy for ’em to find him. He was an aggressive and fearless old codger.”

“I seem to remember they eventually found him, and with a vengeance,” Markham mumbled impatiently.

“Quite.” Vance nodded indifferently. “But it took two machine-guns to translate him to the Elysian Fields. Quite a scandal at the time. Anyway, the two sons, while wholly different from each other, are both unlike their father.”

Markham stood up with deliberation.

“That may all be very interesting,” he grumbled; “but I’ve got to get to 86th Street. This may prove a crucial case, and I can’t afford to ignore it.” He looked somewhat appealingly at Vance.

Vance rose likewise and crushed out his cigarette.

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