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An Open Door in Lincoln's Inn Fields
Odd crimes?" said Dr. Fell, while we were discussing that case of the hats and the crossbows, and afterwards the still more curious problem of the inverted room at Waterfall Manor. "Not at all. Those things only seem odd because a fact is stated out of its proper context. For instance," he rumbled, wheezing argumentatively, "consider this. A thief gets into a clockmaker's shop and steals the hands off a clock. Nothing else is taken or even touched; only the hands from a clock of no especial value ... Well? What would you make of that if you were the policeman to whom it had been reported? As a matter of fact, what sort of crime would you consider it?"
I thought he was merely indulging in fancies, as is the doctor's habit when the tankards are filled and the chairs comfortable. So I said weakly that I should probably consider it killing time, and waited for the snort. None came. Dr. Fell sighted along his cigar; the beaming expression of his vast red face and many chins became as thoughtful as a chin can conveniently be; and the little eyes narrowed behind their glasses on the broad black ribbon. For a time he wheezed in silence, stroking his bandit's moustache. Then he nodded suddenly.
"You've hit it!" he declared. "Harrumph, yes. You've hit it exactly." He pointed the cigar. "That's what made the murder so horrible when it happened—there was a murder, you know. The idea of Boscombe's intending to pull that trigger merely to kill time! ..."
"Boscombe? The murderer?"
"Only the man who admitted he intended to commit murder. As for the real murderer—it was rather a nasty case. I'm not much given to nerves," said Dr. Fell, a long sniff rumbling in his nose. "Heh. No. Too much padding—here. But I give you my word the damned case frightened me, and I seem to recollect that it's the only one that ever did. Remind me to tell you about it one day."
I never did hear about it from him, for he and Mrs. Fell and I went to the theatre that night, and I had already arranged to leave London the next day. But it is doubtful whether he would have ever gone fully into the matter of how he saved the face of the C. I. D. in the most curious manner on record. However, anybody who knows Dr. Fell would be alert to discover the facts of a case which could make him uneasy. I finally got the story from Professor Melson, who had followed him through it. It took place during the autumn of the year before Dr. Fell moved to London in his advisory capacity to Scotland Yard (the reasons for which move will be understood at the conclusion of this narrative), and was the last to be officially handled by Chief Inspector David Hadley before his scheduled retirement. He did not retire; he is Superintendent Hadley now, and this also will be understood. Since a certain person prominent in the story died just four months ago, there is now no reason for silence. Here, then, are the facts. When Melson had finished telling his story I understood why Melson, not himself a nervous man, will always have an aversion to skylights and gilt paint; why the motive was so diabolical and the weapon unique; why Hadley says it might be called, "The Case of the Flying Glove"; why, in short, a number of us will always consider the clock-face problem as being Dr. Fell's greatest case.
It was on the night of September 4th, as Melson well remembers, because he was to sail for home exactly a week later for the opening of the autumn term on the 15th. He was tired. It is not a vacation when you attempt that vague extra-faculty necessity known as "publishing something" to uphold your academic standing. An Abridgement of Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Times, Edited and Annotated by Walter S. Melson, Ph.D., had been dragging on for so long, and he disagreed with the old he-gossip so violently on every point, that not even the frequent pleasure of catching him in a lie could stimulate enthusiasm now. But he found himself grinning, nevertheless. There was the presence of his old friend, stumping along beside him in his usual shovel hat, his vast bulk and his billowing black cloak silhouetted against the street lamps; fierily argumentative as usual, his two canes clicking by emphasis on a deserted pavement.
They were walking back along Holborn towards twelve o'clock on a cool and breezy night. Bloomsbury being unexpectedly full, the best lodging Melson had been able to find was an uncomfortable bed-sitting-room up four flights of stairs in Lincoln's Inn Fields. They were late in returning from the theatre; Dr. Fell, a slave to the charms of Miss Miriam Hopkins, had insisted on sitting through the picture twice. But Melson had that afternoon picked up at Foyle's a genuine find, a dictionary of mediaeval Latin script, and the doctor sternly refused to go home without seeing it.
"Besides," he rumbled, "you don't mean to say you actually want to go to bed at this hour? Hey? Man, it's discouraging. If I were as young and spry as you—"
"I'm forty-two," said Melson.
"The man," said Dr. Fell, fiercely, "the man past thirty who mentions his age at all is already beginning to sprout moss. I survey you"—he bunked through his eyeglasses—"and what do you look like? You look like a sort of incurious Sherlock Holmes. Where's your sense of adventure and eager human curiosity?"
"'Great Turnstile,'" said Melson, seeing the familiar sign. "To the right here. I intended," he went on, taking out his pipe and tapping it on his palm, "to ask you about your sense of eager human curiosity. Any new criminal cases?"
Dr. Fell grunted. "Possibly. I don't know yet. They may make something out of that shop-walker murder, but I doubt it."
"Well, I had dinner with Hadley last night, but he didn't seem to know the details himself. Said he hadn't read the report; he's got a good man on it. It seems to have started in an epidemic of shoplifting through the big department stores by one woman they can't identify—"
"Shoplifting doesn't appear to be very ..."
"Yes, I know. But there seems to have been something devilish odd about those robberies. And the sequel is bad. Blast it! Melson, it bothers me!" He wheezed and rumbled for a moment, the eyeglasses coming askew on his nose. "The sequel happened about a week ago at Gamridge's. Don't you ever read the papers? There was a special sale, or something of the sort, in the jewellery department, and the place was crowded. Along came a shop-walker, inoffensive chap with the usual morning coat and plastered hair. Shop-walker suddenly grabs somebody's arm; turmoil, milling about, cries, a tray of paste jewels spilled all over the floor; then, in the middle of the rumpus and before anybody knows what's happened, shop-walker collapses in a heap. Shrieks. Somebody notices blood under him. They turn him over and discover his abdomen's been ripped wide with some sort of knife. He died not long afterwards."
It was uncomfortably cool and damp in the narrow passage called Great Turnstile. Their footfalls echoed on the flagstones, between rows of shuttered shops. Signs creaked uneasily, with a gleam or two where an anaemic gas-lamp caught their gilt lettering. Something in the bald recital, or the night noises stirring under the mutter of London, made Melson look over his shoulder.
"Good Lord!" he said. "You mean to tell me somebody committed murder just to avoid being nabbed for shoplifting?"
"Yes. And in that manner, my boy. Humph. I told you it was nasty. No clue, no description, nothing except that it was a woman. Five dozen people must have seen her, and every description was different. She vanished; that's all. There's the worst of it, d'ye see. Nothing to work on."
"Was anything valuable taken?"
"A watch. It was out of a tray of curiosities they were using for display purposes; models used to show the progress of watchmaking from Peter Hele down." A curious note came into Dr. Fell's voice. "I say, Melson, what's the number of that place you're staying at in Lincoln's Inn Fields?"
Without conscious intent Melson had stopped, partly to light his pipe, but also because of some memory that stirred and startled him like a touch on the shoulder. The match rasped across sandpaper on the box. What brought back the memory may have been the expression in Dr. Fell's small bright eyes, turned down on him unwinkingly as the match-flame rose; or it may have been the fact that a muffled clock from the direction of Lincoln's Inn began to strike midnight. To Melson's rather fanciful brain there was something almost goblinlike in the doctor's big figure in its cloak, with the breeze blowing the ribbon on his eyeglasses, peering down at him in the narrow passage. The clock striking—superstition ... He shook out the match. Their footsteps went on echoing in the gloom.
"Number fifteen," he said. "Why?"
"Then look here. You must be next door to a man in whom I'm rather interested. Queer old chap, by all accounts; name of Carver. He's a clockmaker, and a very famous one. Harrumph, yes. Do you know anything about clock-making, by the way? It's a fascinating subject. Carver loaned the department store several of his less valuable pieces—one of his was the stolen watch—and I believe they even coaxed a few out of the Guildhall Museum. I was only wondering ..."
"You damned charlatan!" said Melson, explosively. Then he grinned, and it was reflected in a broad beam across Dr. Fell's moon face. "I suppose you didn't want to see that dictionary at all? But I—" He hesitated. "As a matter of fact I'd forgotten it, but a queer thing happened there today."
"What sort of queer thing?"
Melson stared ahead between the dark walls, to where street lamps showed the pale green of trees in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
"A joke," he answered, slowly. "A joke of some sort. I didn't follow all of it. It was this morning. I'd come out for the after-breakfast smoke and constitutional; it was not quite nine o'clock, anyway. All those houses have a high stoop, with a cramped little porch under a couple of white pillars, and a bench along each side. There were very few people around, but a policeman was coming along our side of the street. I was sitting there smoking and feeling lazy ... well, yes, I was looking at the house next door. It interested me because your clockmaker has a plate in his window that reads 'Johannus Carver.' I was curious about anybody who would have the nerve to turn his name into 'Johannus' in this day and age."
"Well—this is where it gets ridiculous," Melson said, uncomfortably. "All of a sudden the door popped open and out came a hard-faced old party (woman), who ducked down the steps and ran for the constable. First I gathered she wanted to report a burglary, and then that she wanted several kids in the neighbourhood sent to the reform school; she was in a devil of a stew, and shouting. Then out after her came another woman, youngish, quite a girl; good-looking blonde ..."
(Very good-looking, he reflected, with the sun on her hair, and not too thoroughly dressed.)
"Naturally I didn't like to be seen sitting on the porch gaping at 'em; but I pretended not to be listening and just sat there. So far as I could understand it, the hard-faced lady was Johannus Carver's housekeeper. Johannus Carver had spent weeks building a big clock which was to go in the tower of Sir Somebody-or-other's country house; and that wasn't his type of work, and he only did it to oblige Sir Somebody-or-other, who was his personal friend ... that was how she went on. So the clock was finished only last night, and Johannus painted it and left it in the back room to dry. Then somebody got in, mutilated the clock, and stole the hands off it. Joke?"
"I don't like it," said Dr. Fell, after a pause. "I don't like it." He flourished one cane. "What did the law do?"
"Seemed pretty flustered, and took a lot of notes, but not much happened. The blonde girl was trying to quiet the other woman down. She said it was probably just a prank; pretty mean one, though, because the clock was ruined. They went inside then. I didn't get a glimpse of Johannus."
"Humph. Girl belong to Johannus's family?"
"I should imagine so."
Dr. Fell growled: "Hang it, Melson, I wish I'd questioned Hadley more closely. Does anybody else live in the house, or haven't you been observing?"
"Not closely, but it's a big place and there seem to be several people. I did notice a solicitor's plate on the door as well. Look here. Do you think it has any connection with ... ?"
They emerged on the northern side of Lincoln's Inn Fields. The square itself seemed more vast than by daylight; house fronts swept and sedate with only a few cracks of light showing behind drawn curtains, and even the trees a sort of orderly forest. There was a watery moon, as pale as the street lamps.
"We turn to the right," said Melson. "That's the Soane Museum there. Two doors farther on ..." He ran his hand along the damp iron of the area railings, looking up at flat-chested houses. "There's where I live. Next door is Johannus's place. I don't know exactly what good we can do standing and looking at the house ..."
"I'm not so sure," said Dr. Fell. "The front door is open."
They both stopped. The words came to Melson with a sort of shock, especially as No. 16 showed no lights. Moon and street lamp showed it mistily, like a blurred drawing—a heavy, tall, narrow house in red brick that looked almost black, its window-frames etched out in white, and a flight of stone steps going up to round stone pillars that supported a porch roof nearly as small as the hood of a clock. The big door was wide open. Melson thought that it creaked.
"What do you suppose—?" he asked, and found his whisper rising. He stopped, because he noticed a darker shadow under a tree just before the house, where there was somebody watching. But the house was no longer quite silent. A voice there had begun to moan and cry, and there were indistinguishable fragments of words that sounded like accusation. Then the shadow under the tree detached itself. Moving across the pavement, Melson saw with a jerk of relief the silhouette of a policeman's helmet; he heard the steady tread, and saw the beam of a bull's-eye lantern strike up ahead as the policeman mounted the steps to No. 16.CHAPTER 2
Death on the Clock
Dr. Fell was already wheezing as he lumbered across the pavement. He reached up with one cane and touched the policeman's arm. The beam flashed down.
"Is anything wrong?" asked Dr. Fell. "Take that light out of my eyes, can't you?"
"Now, then!" grunted the law, noncommittal and vaguely annoyed. "Now, then, sir—!"
"Keep it in my eyes a second, then. What's the matter, Pierce? Don't you recognize me? I recognize you. They used to have you on station duty. Heh. Hum. You were outside Hadley's office—"
The law erred, and assumed that Dr. Fell's presence here was intentional. He said, "I don't know, sir, but come along." Beckoning to a reluctant Melson, Dr. Fell followed Pierce up the steps.
Once you were past the door, it was not altogether dark in the long hallway. At the rear was a flight of stairs, and a glow showed down them from the floor above. The eerie voice had stopped, as though somebody were waiting and listening. From somewhere on his left, behind one of the closed doors, Melson could hear what he at first took for a nervous, insistent whispering, before he identified it as the confused ticking of many clocks. At the same time a woman's voice from upstairs cried:
"Who's there?" A stirring and rustling; then the voice cried: "I can't go past him. I can't go past him, I tell you! He's all over blood." And it whimpered.
The words brought a harsh sound from Pierce before he ran forward. His light preceded him to the staircase, his two companions following closely. It was a prim stairway, with heavy banisters, dull-flowered carpet underfoot, and brass stair-rods; it was a symbol of solid English homes, where no violence can come, and did not creak as they mounted it. Facing its top, double doors were opened at the back of the upper hall. The dull light came from beyond them—from a room where two people were staring at the threshold, and a third person sat in a chair with his head in his hands.
Excerpted from Death-Watch by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1963 John Dickson Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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