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Book of Murder
By Frederick Irving Anderson
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Frederick Irving Anderson
All rights reserved.
BEYOND ALL CONJECTURE
TO DIE at a ripe old age in the same house where you were born—on the Island of Manhattan—one must either be very, very rich or very, very poor. For a person in ordinary circumstances the wish is a good deal like reaching for the moon on a particularly bright night—it seems possible, but one gradually grows up and forgets about it. For the ground underfoot is like a precious palimpsest of many erasures. In other parts of the world it is humdrum enough.
For instance, Cornelius Vlemynck's remotest progenitors had made it a practice for uncounted generations to die in the same delft cottage they were born in, on the delft banks of the Schie; until that historic Vlemynck with a wandering foot put that fatal feather bed behind him and cast his lot with those adventurous souls within the stockade known as Nieuw Amsterdam at the confluence of the North and East rivers, in the New World. Later there was to emerge a Cornelius Vlemynck—through a constantly descending line of devisees—of Number — Fifth Avenue, which number, containing only one figure and that a very small one, would be south of the Brevoort and north of the Arch—a very desirable place indeed, located on the first page, near the top, of the old, old bluebooks.
On the evening Cornelius Vlemynck died he had occupied this house, a four-story brownstone from which the high stoop had been removed in later times, just sixty-five years lacking a few days, which was enough to insure him a good obituary even though he had not possessed other distinctions. People passed by in crowds when the fact was printed, many simply to see for themselves a New York house in which one man could live so elegantly for so many years.
There had always been a white-shirted manservant standing inside the vestibule door waiting for people to come up the steps, though the only callers Cornelius Vlemynck had, of later years, were real-estate brokers, to buy the ground lease. To each of them he related, with great dignity, his ambition in life—to die in the house he was born in—and since he had the means to indulge himself, and was so adamantine in his purpose, they all departed finally wishing him luck. No argument moved him. He was lonely in his old age; otherwise he wouldn't even have consented to see them.
"You can't stand in the path of a glacier," they would say. "The private house is too regal for one man in a democracy. It has to go. You dam progress."
"I do, indeed!" agreed the old gentleman fervently, with a final n.
"Look at So-and-So, who left a lumberyard in the middle of Broadway—he drove retail trade over to Fifth Avenue—and left his heirs whistling up a hollow tree!" The real-estate men said: "We are assemblers of parcels. If you won't sell we will build around you and use you for permanent light and air."
In the end that is what they had to do; and before its owner died this historic mansion of old New York was boxed in at the bottom of a well by skyscraping apartment hotels.
Mr. Vlemynck was very vain of his slender height. He was given to bright colors and outré effects, and his abundant hair—kept snowy by bluing—showed under his hat brim like lumps of freshly ginned cotton. He did his own marketing, taking with him his fat cook, Martha, who had teeth like pearls and a smooth skin as clear as skimmed chocolate.
At one in the morning on May twenty-first, having written with a bold hand that never quavered the last superscription of his correspondence and affixed the necessary stamps thereunto, he took his hat and his cloak and his stick and went softly down the padded hall and out, being careful, in the kindness of his heart, not to waken the manservant, who, as the hour waxed late, had finally fallen asleep at his empty post. Cornelius Vlemynck drew the vestibule door shut behind him and listened for the click of the spring lock. Crossing the broad sidewalk, he moved diagonally over the velvety asphalt, a safe enough procedure at this hour, for the buses had stopped running and the Avenue was deserted, and the only signs of life were porters of the tall apartment hotels, dusting out the interstices of the rubber hall strips at the edge of the sidewalk. A mail box stood on the corner below, but the night being fine, Cornelius Vlemynck squared his shoulders and passed it by. He walked to the east, then southerly through the park, passing some raucous pothouses on the southern rim, which still thrived in spite of—or maybe because of—the law at this ungodly hour of the morning.
Something led him into Sullivan Street, where the descent from polished door knockers is very rapid. There was a mail box at the first intersection, and he was in the act of counting his letters and wondering if he had cross-hitched any of his missives—that is, put any inclosure in a wrong envelope; that would be awkward, but it is an extremely human failing—when the languid footfall of a patrolling policeman, probably on his first tour through the side street to the river and back, attracted his attention. The policeman, a young fellow, crossing the street, noticed the very tall old gentleman standing there with a handful of letters he was holding up to the light of the street lamp; he noted with a smile the extravagant white hair hanging in cottony lumps under the broad-brimmed hat; he noted the florid face, the bright tie, the flowing cloak and the general carnival effect of the whole outfit.
And he said, nodding, "Where is the party tonight?" He thought Mr. Vlemynck was in costume. But he saw his mistake instantly in the surprised countenance of the old man. "It's beautiful tonight, isn't it, sir?" he added hastily.
"Indeed, yes, it is!" agreed Cornelius Vlemynck with grave courtesy. The policeman, amused, cast a last look over his shoulder at the old gentleman. Mr. Vlemynck had discovered one envelope to be unsealed. Summoning his courage—for he disliked the taste of dextrin, even when flavored with some essential oil—he liberally moistened the flap with the tip of his tongue and pressed it down, making a wry face over the thought of the millions of germs he must be ingesting. The policeman passed on.
"Seven," counted the old man, paying in the letters, "eight, nine---"
The mail box shut with a surly clang. He hung there for a moment. He turned himself toward home, as an old man will, before relinquishing his support. But he had scarcely crossed the first flag of the sidewalk when an odd surprised look shot across his face and he reached out quickly for a staircase balustrade. He tugged at his collar to loosen his gaudy cravat; his hand went to his heart and he tugged there, too, as if to loosen something inside. He tried to cry out, but his knees sagged and he sank gently to earth, clenching his fingers. He slipped down the single step into a little areaway and rested there in the shadow against the high stoop. A little later an unlucky nightbird came prowling along in his regular quest for some blind drunk out of the pothouses. Skilfully he went through Cornelius Vlemynck and took everything—his bill fold, his watch and his keys; there was nothing left but an empty hulk.
The night wore on, the stars moved to the other side of the little street; Antares blinked itself out against the ridgepole of a roof and Vega came to the zenith. Passersby who saw the reclining figure did not pause to inquire, but shaking their heads, gave it a wide berth; it is always best— these shadows that sleep in doorways.
A little after two there was a police whistle, some windows went up and heads came out; a small group accumulated about the high stoop and waited in silence. After an interminable delay an ambulance rolled into the street, its bell tapering off to nothing as the wheels stopped at the curb. A young interne pushed his way through the crowd, his white uniform glowing in the night light.
He said, after a single look, "Another thick cop! Do you think I'm a hearse?"
"Ain't you going to take him?" said the policeman.
"You know damned well I'm not!" returned the shaveling medico as he swung on his seat again, twisting a wrist through the safety loop. He lighted a cigarette; they wound up the bell and started back home.
It was not until daylight that the scuttled hulk that had been Cornelius Vlemynck found a temporary resting place on a marble slab that pulled in and out on rollers, his fine clothes hung in a bag. North of the Square everybody knew the gay old beau with his cottony white hair, his florid countenance, his lurid ties, his spats and the affected cut of his clothes. South of the Square nobody knew him.
"He is somebody," said the gatekeeper at the foot of East Twenty-sixth Street, the pier of outgoing souls. But that was as far as his curiosity went. His whole life, passed on the River Styx, made him keen in allotting caste to his guests.
The medical examiner, passing down the aisle after a look, said, out of his complex experience:
"That was either prussic acid or nitrobenzol. There is a very pretty differentiation under certain conditions, and it takes a good man, well grounded in his toxicology, to discover it. We'll do that the first thing in the morning."
Nobody, of course, would inquire at the police station for the absent Cornelius Vlemynck, much less at the morgue. It simply was not done in his circle. Toward noon Martha took off her gay bandanna and kerchief which he insisted she wear when she accompanied him to market. The second man brought word downstairs that neither the tepid bath that had been drawn for him nor the fresh things which had been laid out for his use had been touched.
The waitress, who was also the upstairs girl and more curious than the rest, peeped through the keyhole and brought word that his bed had not been slept in.
His lawyer telephoned at four, and the butler told him, with a twinkle, and the lawyer chuckled and cautiously hung up, as if withdrawing from an eavesdropping. There are thousands and thousands of missing people who never come to port. One step off the path, when everything is right for it, and they are gone like a breath—a consummation devoutly to be wished by many wretched souls, doubtless, but they never seem to achieve it by trying; it is achieved only by accident, the door of the unknown opening and closing and keeping its secret.
Note how fate intervened. If the manservant had not fallen asleep at his empty post he would have gone to the mail box—after Mr. Vlemynck had inspected each and every missive, as he always did to see if they were sealed properly—and come back to find his master dead or hopelessly involved in dying. They would have telephoned his physician, who would have said, "Ah, yes, I know all about it." He did, that physician. On his books he had a dozen florid old gentlemen like Cornelius Vlemynck, all carrying around livers they had misused in the tropics. He could write their death certificates without calling—especially in the middle of the night. There would have been an elite funeral and nothing more.
The next day at eleven the medical examiner came out, turning down his cuffs.
"There is something," he said to a central-office detective who had dropped in to see what he could pick up. "It will interest you—cyanide. The dose was a minimum. A slick case—murder. Too small for a suicide—they take too much. Before death," he said, getting into one sleeve of his coat, "we could very easily have confused it with apoplexie foudroyante in some of its forms. After death the effects are extremely fugacious. But mark the hard luck the murderer plays in. It comes to me! I happen to know! The mucous membrane is much congested and there's a dark cherry-colored liquid venous blood. There you are! Thank me." He got into the other sleeve.
By so narrow a margin did Cornelius Vlemynck, whose sole ambition was to die at a ripe old age in the house he was born in, and who died in a gutter, miss potter's field. A boat leaves the foot of East Twenty-sixth Street every morning. The next day he would have gone, for no one would come for him. At home, the servants were answering the telephone by saying he was out of town. He had been out of town in the same way before. Except for a little extra rigidity in his pose, as he lay there waiting for the eternal anonymity of a pauper's cross, even the medical examiner would have passed him by.
Parr himself, the deputy in charge, who had a trick of smelling out big game without any why or wherefore, got into his things and came uptown when he saw the police slip. The first thing he did was to go through the bag of clothes. There were no labels. Cornelius Vlemynck said to his tailors, "I don't carry around an advertisement for any tradesman. Leave your name off me." Some tailors sew a man's name inside a pocket, where he won't be apt to see it. But Cornelius Vlemynck did not want to be labeled that way, and saw to it that he was not. He had his own laundress, so he had no laundry mark. His shoes were custom-made.
"Ha-ha!" laughed Parr. "Here we are!" Inside the tongue of a shoe was a number, written in ink. Men went from shoemaker to shoemaker until they found the man who fitted the feet of Cornelius Vlemynck. "He was robbed," noted the deputy. "But that was merely incidental. Robbers do not use cyanide. I have an idea," said Parr, "that we are going to resort to the last refuge of a scoundrel—expert testimony—before we are through with this case. Make specific notes and have a good toxicologist check you up."
"The dose was so small it wouldn't have been fatal, except that the old man's arteries were prime for it. If I had taken my day off, as I had planned, this would have been a perfect crime," said the elated medical examiner.
Parr, too, had his moment of elation. Police business is drab at best. It is the same thing over and over again. There is something tragic about the new recruits advancing in waves to retribution. There is something pitifully stereotyped about the cerebral cortex. Thought travels in well-worn grooves; under the same stimuli a million people will do the same thing, with variations a, b and c. And every mother's son of them thinks he is original, especially the crook. The petty sneak who picked Cornelius Vlemynck's pockets when he lay dying, cunningly waited twenty-four, thirty-six hours, and then slipped into a pawnshop remote from the scene of his crime and pledged the watch. One of Parr's men stood there at the end of the show case smoking a cigar, waiting for him—not for this one man in particular, but for his type. There is a certain run of these shops through which petty sneaks come constantly trickling into the hands of the police. Here is one of the bottle necks of petty crime.
There is nothing so drab as police business ninety-nine times out of a hundred. This was the hundredth. The miserable creature who turned up in the right slot with the effects of the dead man—the watch, the keys, the pocket-book—obviously was not the person who had graduated a dose of prussic acid so nicely as to indicate death for Cornelius Vlemynck.
"This should interest you," said Parr to his friend and occasional collaborator, Oliver Armiston, the extinct author. "There is nothing to start from."
It was true—Oliver liked this type of case, with nothing to start from. "Do you recollect that lumberyard in Broadway?" asked he, pausing opposite Number — Fifth Avenue. "There were real-estate operators who would gladly have sent flowers if the owner had kindly consented to pass out."
"This is different," said Parr. "They are using Cornelius for permanent light and air here; they would have paid him to live forever."
They went in. The manservant on the door was at last exercising the functions for which he was intended. Countless people came and went, mostly Parr's scientificos, who went through the place from cellar to garret, as if old Cornelius Vlemynck, when he stepped off, must have left behind him some plasma in which to mold at least a working hypothesis. Experts questioned the servants to the end of their—the servants'—endurance, then went back and covered the same ground again and again. At two o'clock in the morning, when the household was bedraggled with the frightful ordeal of inquiry, a fresh batch of inquisitors started again, back at the beginning.
"He had gone out before and stayed—when? Someone telephoned during the time—who? Be careful! We check you up through Central's records. Don't lie again!"
The lawyer was called in, his physician; men haunted the sawdust aisles at Washington Market where Cornelius, with Martha waddling behind, bought fresh vegetables. They went through his check stubs, letter files, his address book.
"The old man," said Parr, "lived the life of a finicky old maid."
They probed with the eye of suspicion the record of telephone toll calls they found at Central Exchange; they watched, and set the servants to watching the crowds that flocked by the house next day—the murderer would be among them of course. Experts pawed over his investments, looked up the beneficiaries under the will.
"The man on the door was wide awake when the old boy went out," said Parr to Oliver. "He was playing possum."
Excerpted from Book of Murder by Frederick Irving Anderson. Copyright © 2015 Frederick Irving Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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