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It’s Christmas in Chicago, and Inspector Richard Queen is enjoying a busman’s holiday at a conference on gangland violence—but his son, amateur sleuth Ellery, isbored silly. Until, that is, Ellery reads of an unusual killing in rural Arroyo, West Virginia: A schoolmaster has been found beheaded and crucified. Ellery hustles his father into his roadster and heads east, since there is nothing he’d like ...
It’s Christmas in Chicago, and Inspector Richard Queen is enjoying a busman’s holiday at a conference on gangland violence—but his son, amateur sleuth Ellery, isbored silly. Until, that is, Ellery reads of an unusual killing in rural Arroyo, West Virginia: A schoolmaster has been found beheaded and crucified. Ellery hustles his father into his roadster and heads east, since there is nothing he’d like better for Christmas than a juicy, gruesome puzzle. When the Queens arrive in Arroyo, they learn that the victim was an eccentric atheist, but not the sort to make enemies. What initially looks to be the work of a sadistic cult turns out to be something far more sinister. In the months ahead, more victims will turn up all over the world—all killed in the same horrifying manner. It will take several bodies before Queen divines the clue that unlocks the mystery of the Christmas crucifixion.
Christmas in Arroyo
It began in West Virginia, at the junction of two roads half a mile out of the little village of Arroyo. One was the main road from New Cumberland to Pughtown, the other a branch leading to Arroyo.
The geography, Ellery Queen saw at once, was important. He saw many other things in that first glance, too, and felt only confusion at the contradictory nature of the evidence. Nothing matched. It was necessary to stand off and think.
How Ellery Queen, a cosmopolite, happened to be standing beside a battered old Duesenberg racing car in the muddy cold of the West Virginia panhandle at two o'clock post meridiem of a late December day requires explanation. So many factors contrived to bring about this extraordinary phenomenon! One—the primary one—was a busman's holiday instigated by Inspector Queen, Ellery's father. The old man was knee-deep in what might be termed a policemen's convention; affairs in Chicago as usual were wretched, and the Commissioner had invited prominent police officials from major cities to lament with him the deplorable lawlessness in his bailiwick.
It was while the Inspector, in rare fettle, was scurrying from his hotel to Chicago's police headquarters that Ellery, who had accompanied him, learned of the puzzling crime near Arroyo—a crime which the United Press piquantly dubbed "The T Murder." There were so many elements of the newspaper accounts which titillated Ellery—the fact, for example, that Andrew Van had been beheaded and crucified on Christmas morning!—that he peremptorily yanked his father from the smoky Chicago conferences and headed the Duesenberg—a second-hand relic capable of incredible speed—eastwards.
The Inspector, although a dutiful father, immediately surrendered his good humor, as might have been expected; and all the way from Chicago—through Toledo, through Sandusky, through Cleveland, Ravenna, Lisbon, a host of Illinois and Ohio towns, until they came to Chester, West Virginia—the old man maintained a threatening silence, punctuated by Ellery's sly monologues and the roar of the Duesenberg's exhaust.
They were through Arroyo before they realized they had been in it; a tiny place of some two hundred souls. And ... the junction.
The signpost with its crossbar at the top was visible in stark silhouette for some distance before the car rolled to a stop. For the Arroyo road ended there, meeting the New Cumberland-Pughtown highway at right angles. The signpost therefore faced the exit of the Arroyo pike, one arm pointing northeast to Pughtown, the other southwest to New Cumberland.
The Inspector growled: "Go on. Make a fool of yourself. Of all the dumb poppycock! Hauling me down here ... just another crazy murder ... I won't be—"
Ellery switched off the ignition key and strode forward. The road was deserted. Touching the steel sky above posed the mountains of West Virginia. Underfoot the dirt was cracked and stiff. It was sharply cold, and a keen wind blew the tails of Ellery's overcoat about. And ahead stood the signpost upon which Andrew Van, eccentric schoolmaster of Arroyo, had been crucified.
The signpost had once been white; it was now a filthy gray, and it was streaked with encrusted mud. It stood six feet high—its top was on a level with Ellery's head—and its arms were stout and long. It looked for all the world, as Ellery paused several feet away, like a gigantic letter T. He understood now why the U.P. man had christened the crime "The T Murder"—first this signpost in the form of a T, then the T-shaped crossroads at the head of which the signpost stood, and finally the fantastic T swabbed in blood on the door of the dead man's house, which Ellery's car had passed a few hundred feet from the junction of the roads.
Ellery sighed, and took off his hat. It was not necessarily a gesture of reverence; he was, despite the cold and the wind, perspiring. He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and wondered what madman had committed this atrocious, illogical, and completely puzzling crime. Even the body ... He recollected vividly one of the newspaper accounts of the discovery of the corpse, a special piece written by a famous Chicago reporter who was practiced enough in the description of violence:
The most pitiful Christmas story of the year was revealed today when the beheaded body of Andrew Van, 46-year-old schoolmaster of the little West Virginia hamlet of Arroyo, was discovered crucified to the signpost on a lonely crossroads near the village early Christmas morning.
Four-inch iron spikes had been driven into the upturned palms of the victim, impaling them to the tips of the signpost's weatherbeaten arms. Two other spikes transfixed the dead man's ankles, which were set close together at the foot of the upright. Under the armpits two more spikes had been driven, supporting the weight of the dead man in such a way that, his head having been hacked off, the corpse resembled nothing so much as a great letter T.
The signpost formed a T. The crossroads formed a T. On the door of Van's house, not far from the crossroads, the murderer had scrawled a T in his victim's blood. And on the signpost the maniac's conception of a human T ...
Why Christmas? Why had the murderer dragged his victim three hundred feet from the house to the signpost and crucified the dead body there? What is the significance of the T's?
Local police are baffled. Van was an eccentric but quiet and inoffensive figure. He had no enemies—and no friends. His only intimate was a simple soul named Kling, who acted as his servant. Kling is missing, and it is said that District Attorney Crumit of Hancock County believes from suppressed evidence that Kling, too, may have been a victim of the most bloodthirsty madman in the annals of modern American crime....
There had been much more in the same vein, including details of the unfortunate schoolmaster's bucolic life in Arroyo, the meager tidbits of information gleaned by police about the last-known movements of Van and Kling, and the pompous declarations of the District Attorney.
Ellery took off his pince-nez eyeglasses, polished them, put them on again, and let his sharp eyes sweep over the gruesome relic.
In both arms, near the tips of the crossbar, were jagged holes in the wood where the police had torn out the spikes. Each hole was surrounded by a ragged stain of a rusty brown color. Little brown tendrils trickled from the holes, where Andrew Van's blood had dripped from his mutilated hands. Where the arms protruded from the upright were two other holes, unrimmed; the spikes which had been wrenched from these holes had supported the armpits of the corpse. The entire length of the signpost was streaked, smeared, runneled with dried blood, the drippings emanating from the head of the post, where the raw, gaping wound at the base of the victim's neck had rested. Near the bottom of the centerpost there were two holes not more than four inches apart, also ringed in brown blood; and these holes, where Van's ankles had been nailed to the wood, had dribbled blood to the earth in which the signpost was staked.
Ellery walked soberly back to the car, where the Inspector waited in a familiar attitude of dejection and irritation, slumped against the leather next to the driver's seat. The old man was bundled to the neck in an ancient woolen muffler, and his sharp red nose stuck out like a danger signal. "Well," he snapped, "come on. I'm frozen."
"Not the least bit curious?" asked Ellery, slipping into the driver's seat.
"You're another." Ellery started the engine. He grinned and the car leaped forward like a greyhound, turned on two wheels, plowed and bumped about in a circle, and shot off the way it had come, toward Arroyo.
The Inspector clutched the edge of his seat in mortal terror.
"Quaint idea," shouted Ellery above the thunder of the motor. "Crucifixion on Christmas Day!"
"Huh," said the Inspector.
"I think," shouted Ellery, "I'm going to like this case!"
"Drive, darn you!" screamed the old man suddenly. The car straightened out. "You'll like nothing," he added with a scowl. "You're coming back to New York with me."
They raced into Arroyo.
"Ye know," muttered the Inspector as Ellery jerked the Duesenberg to a stop before a small frame building, "it's a shame the way they do things down here. Leaving that signpost at the scene of the crime!" He shook his head. "Where you going now?" he demanded, his birdlike little gray head cocked on a side.
"I thought you weren't interested," said Ellery, jumping to the sidewalk. "Hi, there!" he cried to a muffled countryman in blue denim who was sweeping the sidewalk with a tattered old besom, "is this the Law in Arroyo?" The man gaped stupidly. "Superfluous question. There's the sign for all the world to see.... Come along, you fraud."
It was a sleepy little settlement, a handful of clustered buildings. The frame structure at which the Duesenberg had stopped looked like one of the false-front mushroom boxes of the old West. Next door there was a general store, with a single decrepit gasoline pump before it and a small garage adjoining. The frame building bore a proudly hand-lettered sign:
ARROYO MUNICIPAL HALL
They found the gentleman they sought asleep at his desk in the rear of the building, behind a door which announced him as CONSTABLE. He was a fat, red-faced countryman with yellow buck teeth.
The Inspector snorted, and the Constable raised heavy lids. He scratched his head and said in a rusty bass: "Ef ye're lookin' fer Matt Hollis, he's out."
Ellery smiled. "We're looking for Constable Luden of Arroyo."
"Oh! I'm him. What d'ye want?"
"Constable," said Ellery impressively, "let me introduce you to Inspector Richard Queen, head of the Homicide Squad of the New York Police Department—in the merry flesh."
"Who?" Constable Luden stared. "N'Yawk?"
"As I live and breathe," said Ellery, stepping on his father's toe. "Now, Constable, we want—"
"Set," said Constable Luden, kicking a chair toward the Inspector, who sniffed and rather delicately sat down. "This Van business, hey? Didn't know you N'Yawkers was int'rested. What's eatin' ye?"
Ellery produced his cigarette case and offered it to the Constable, who grunted and bit a mouthful off a huge plug of tobacco. "Tell us all about it, Constable."
"Nothin' to tell. Lots o' Chicago an' Pittsburgh men been snoopin' round town. Sort o' sick of it, m'self."
The Inspector sneered. "Can't say I blame you, Constable."
Ellery took a wallet from his breast pocket, flipped it open, and stared speculatively at the greenbacks inside. Constable Luden's drowsy eyes brightened. "Well," he said hastily, "maybe I ain't so sick of it. I can't tell it jest once ag'in."
"Who found the body?"
"Ol' Pete. Ye wouldn't know'm. Got a shack up in th' hills some'eres."
"Yes, I know that. Wasn't a farmer involved, also?"
"Mike Orkins. Got a coupla acres down off th' Pughtown pike. Seems like Orkins was drivin' his Ford into Arroyo—let's see; this is Mond'y—yep, Frid'y mornin', 'twas ... Christmas mornin', pretty early. Ol' Pete, he was headed fer Arroyo, too—come down offen th' mountain. Orkins give Pete a hitch. Well, sir, they git to th' crossroads where Orkins has to turn in t'wards Arroyo, an' there it was. On th' signpost. Hangin' stiff as a cold-storage yearlin'—Andrew Van's body."
"We saw the post," said Ellery encouragingly.
"Guess most a hundred city people druv out in th' past few days to see it," grumbled Constable Luden. "Reg'lar traffic problem I had. Anyways, Orkins an' Ol' Pete, they was both pretty much scared. Both of 'em like to've fainted...."
"Hmph," said the Inspector.
"They didn't touch the body, of course?" remarked Ellery.
Constable Luden wagged his gray head emphatically. "Not them! They druv into Arroyo like th' devil hisself was after 'em, an' roused me outa bed."
"What time was this, Constable?"
Constable Luden blushed. "Eight o'clock, but I'd had a big night b'fore over to Matt Hollis's house, an' I sorta overslept—"
"You and Mr. Hollis, I think, went immediately to the crossroads?"
"Yep. Matt—he's our Mayor, ye know—Matt an' me, we got four o' th' boys out an' druv down. Some mess, he was—Van, I mean." The Constable shook his head. "Never seen nothin' like it in all my born days. An' on Christmas Day, too. Blasph'my, I calls it. An' Van an atheist, too."
"Eh?" said the Inspector swiftly. His red nose shot out of the folds of the muffler like a dart. "An atheist? What d'ye mean?"
"Well, maybe not an atheist exac'ly," muttered the Constable, looking uncomfortable. "I'm not much of a churchgoer m'self, but Van, he never went. Parson—well, mebbe I better not talk about that no more."
"Remarkable," said Ellery, turning to his father. "Really remarkable, Dad. It certainly looks like the work of a religious maniac."
"Yep, that's what they're all sayin'," said Constable Luden. "Me—I dunno. I'm jest a country constable. I don't know nothin', see? Ain't had more'n a tramp in th' lock-up fer three years. But I tell ye, gentlem'n," he said darkly, "there's more to it than jest religion."
"No one in town, I suppose," asserted Ellery, frowning, "is a suspect."
"Nob'dy that loony, mister. I tell ye—it's someb'dy connected with Van's past."
"Have there been strangers in town recently?"
"Nary a one.... So Matt an' me an' th' boys, we identified th' body from th' size, gen'ral build, clothin' an' papers an' sech, an' we took 'im down. On th' way back to town we stopped in at Van's house...."
"Yes," said Ellery eagerly. "And what did you find?"
"Hell let loose," said Constable Luden, chewing savagely on his cud. "Signs of a ter'ble struggle, all th' chairs upset, blood on most everythin', that big T in blood on th' front door th' papers been makin' so much about, an' poor ol' Kling gone."
"Ah," said the Inspector. "The servant. Just gone, hey? Take his duds, did he?"
"Well," replied the Constable, scratching his head, "I don't rightly know. Coroner's sort o' taken things out o' my hands. I know they're lookin' fer Kling—an' I think," he closed one eye slowly, "I think fer someb'dy else, too. But I can't say nothin' about that," he added hastily.
"Any trace of Kling yet?" asked Ellery.
"Not's I know of. Gen'ral alarm's out. Body was taken to th' county seat, Weirton—that's eleven-twelve mile away, in charge o' th' Coroner. Coroner sealed up Van's house, too. State police are on th' job, an' the District Attorney o' Hancock County."
Ellery mused, and the Inspector stirred restlessly in his chair. Constable Luden stared with fascination at Ellery's pince-nez.
"And the head was hacked off," murmured Ellery, at last "Queer. By an ax, I believe?"
"Yep, we found th' ax in th' house. Was Kling's. No finger marks."
"And the head itself?"
Constable Luden shook his head. "No sign of it. Guess th' crazy murd'rer jest took it along as a sort o' souvenir. Haw!"
"I think," said Ellery, putting on his hat, "that we'll go, Dad. Thank you, Constable." He offered his hand, and the Constable took it flabbily. A grin came over his face as he felt something pressed into his palm. He was so delighted that he forwent his siesta and walked them to the street.
Excerpted from The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen. Copyright © 1960 Ellery Queen. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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Posted June 26, 2013
Posted March 3, 2010
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