Read French Powder Mystery Online
Authors: Ellery Queen
The Inspector spoke for a long time in a voice fluctuating between despair and excitement. District Attorney Henry Sampson listened carefully.
“And that,” concluded the Inspector, “is where it stands at this moment. Something tells me Ellery is up to one of his familiar tricks. He was up half the night poring over those infernal books. … Yes, certainly, I’ll keep you posted. May need you soon at that, Henry. Ellery performs miracles at times, although I’d wager my next year’s pay that—Oh, go on back to your work, you ferret!”
He hung up the receiver in time to greet a prodigiously yawning Ellery who fumbled with his necktie and endeavored to keep the folds of his dressing-gown together simultaneously.
“So!” growled the Inspector, plumping into his chair. “What time did you get to bed, young man?”
Ellery finished the delicately dual operation and reached for a chair, digging Djuna surreptitiously in the ribs.
“No scolding now,” he said, reaching for a piece of toast. “Have breakfast yet? No? Waiting for the sluggard? Regale yourself with this Olympian coffee—we can talk as we eat.”
“What time?” repeated the Inspector inexorably, sitting down at the table.
“To be temporal,” said Ellery, his mouth full of coffee, “It was three-twenty
The old man’s eyes softened. “Shouldn’t do that,” he mumbled, reaching for the percolator. “It’ll fag you.”
“Essential.” Ellery drained his cup. “There are things to do, Sire. … Have you heard anything this morning?”
“Plenty that means nothing,” said the Inspector. “I’ve been at that ’phone since seven. … Got a preliminary autopsy report from Sam Prouty. Nothing to add to what he said yesterday except that there was absolutely no signs of drug poisoning or addiction. The woman was certainly not a ‘dope.’”
“Interesting, and not necessarily uninformative,” smiled Ellery. “What else?”
“Knowles, the firearms man, was vague enough to make it unexciting. He claims that he couldn’t place the distance the bullets traveled before they entered the body, exactly to the foot. The angles are easily determined, but from his calculations the murderer might be anywhere from five to six feet in height. Not very illuminating, eh?”
“Hardly. We’ll never convict anybody on that kind of evidence. But I can scarcely blame Knowles. These things are rarely absolute. How about the absentees from the store yesterday?”
The inspector scowled. “Had one of the boys checking up with MacKenzie all yesterday evening. Just had MacKenzie on the wire. Everybody accounted for, not a thing suspicious or unexplained. And as for this Carmody girl, poor Thomas had his strings out all night. Combed the neighborhood. Contacted the Missing Persons Bureau. I tipped him off on the drug business, and the Narcotic Squad’s been busy checking up on known dives. Nothing doing. Not a trace of her.”
“Just dropped out of existence. …” Ellery frowned, poured himself another cup of coffee. “I’ll confess the girl has me worried. As I said yesterday, all signs point to her having been done away with. If not done away with, then certainly held very securely in a remote hide-out. If I were the murderer, I think I’d add her to my list of victims. … There’s just a bare chance that she may be alive, dad. Velie must redouble his efforts.”
“Don’t worry about Thomas,” said the Inspector grimly. “If she’s alive, he’ll find her in time. If she’s dead—Well! He’s doing all he can.”
The telephone bell rang again. The Inspector answered.
“Yes, this is Inspector Queen talking. …” His tone changed magically. It dripped formality. “Good morning, Commissioner. What can I do for you? … Well, sir, we’re getting along very nicely. We’ve gathered together a heap of threads, and it’s not twenty-four hours since we found the body. … Oh, no! Mr. French has been a bit upset about the whole affair. We’ve gone quite easy on him—nothing to worry about there, sir. … Yes, I know. We’re making it as comfortable for him as we can under the circumstances. … No, Commissioner. Lavery has an absolutely unimpeachable reputation. A foreigner, of course. … What’s that? Absolutely no! … We have a perfectly natural explanation for that scarf of Miss Marion French’s, sir. Well, I’m relieved too, to tell the truth, Commissioner. … Quick solution? Commissioner, it will be quicker than that! … Yes, sir, I know. … Thank you, Commissioner. I’ll keep you posted.”
“And that,” said the Inspector in a deadly voice, as he hung up the receiver carefully and turned a livid face toward Ellery, “is a sample of the blank-dangest, extra-soft-boiled, unmitigated blatherskite of a mud-hen of a police commissioner that this or any city ever had!”
Ellery laughed aloud. “You’ll be frothing at the mouth if you don’t control yourself. Every time I hear you rave about Welles I’m reminded of that sage Germanic dictum: ‘Who fills an office must learn to bear reproach and blame.’”
“On the contrary, I’m getting soft words from Welles,” said the Inspector, in a calmer tone. “He’s frightened out of his wits about this French affair. French wields a lot of power for a harmless old reformer, and Welles doesn’t like the possibilities. Did you hear the absolute nonsense I salved him with over the ’phone? Sometimes I think I’ve lost my self-respect.”
But Ellery was suddenly plunged in thought. His eyes had spied the five books from French’s desk, which now lay on an end-table nearby. With an indistinct murmur of sympathy, he rose and sauntered over to the table, fingering the books affectionately. The old man’s eyes narrowed.
“Out with it!” he said. “You’ve discovered something in those books!” He hopped out of his chair suspiciously.
“Yes, I think I have,” replied Ellery slowly. He picked up the five books and carried them to the breakfast-table. “Sit down, dad. My work last night wasn’t entirely wasted.”
They sat down. The Inspector’s eyes were bright and curious as he chose one of the books at random and riffled its pages aimlessly. Ellery watched him.
“Suppose, dad,” said Ellery, “you take up these five books and go through them. Here’s the situation. You have five volumes, the only fact to go on being that they’re queer books for a certain person to possess. You’re looking for a reason to explain why those five books are where they are. Go to it.”
He lit a cigaret thoughtfully and leaned back in his chair, blowing smoke at the paneled ceiling. The Inspector seized on the volumes and attacked them singly. When he had finished with one, he took up the next, and so on until he had examined all five. The wrinkles on his forehead deepened. He looked up at Ellery out of very puzzled eyes.
“Danged if I can see anything remarkable in these books, Ellery. There doesn’t seem to be a point of similarity among them.”
Ellery smiled, drew his body forward abruptly. He tapped the books with a long forefinger for emphasis. “That’s exactly why they
remarkable,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a point of similarity. And in fact, except for one little link, they
any points of similarity.”
“You’re talking Greek,” said the Inspector. “Elucidate.”
For answer Ellery rose and disappeared into the bedroom. He reappeared in a moment with a long slip of paper on which were copiously inscribed in a weird series of scrawled characters a body of notes.
“This,” he announced, reseating himself at the table, “is the result of last night’s séance with the ghosts of five authors’ brain-children. … Lend ear, Father Queen.
“The books, by title and author, are as follows—just to make the analysis entirely clear:
New Developments in Philately,
by Hugo Salisbury.
Fourteenth Century Trade and Commerce,
by Stani Wedjowski.
A Child’s History of Music,
by Ramon Freyberg.
An Outline of Paleontology,
by John Morrison. And finally,
by A. I. Throckmorton.
“Let’s analyze these five books.
“Number one. The titles have not the slightest connection with each other. Because of this fact, we can discard any thought that the
of the books is relevant to our investigation.
“Number two. The dissimilarity is further heightened by a number of small points. For example, all the covers are of different colors. True, there are two blues, but they are of distinct hues. The sizes are different: three of the books are oversize, and all of these oversizes have differing dimensions: one of the books is a pocket edition; the last book is of average size. The bindings are different: three of them are of cloth, but of different grain; one of them is a de luxe leather binding; one of them is bound in linen. The inner format is different. In two cases the paper is light India in shade; in the other three white is used. Of the white different weights are apparent. The type-style, on examination, although I know little enough about such technical matters, is in each instance different. The number of pages differs also—and their actual enumeration elicits no intelligible message. They mean nothing. … Even in price they show dissimilarity. The leather-covered book is listed at ten dollars; two others are five; the fourth is three-fifty, and the pocket edition is a dollar and a half. The publishers are different. The dates of issue and number of editions are different. …”
“But Ellery—of course—they’re more or less obvious …” objected the Inspector. “Where does this lead you?”
“In an analysis,” returned Ellery, “nothing is too trivial to be overlooked. They may mean nothing and they may mean a heap. In any case, they are definite facts about these five books. And if they point to nothing else, they certainly indicate that physically the books differ in practically every respect.
“Number three—and this is the first exciting development—the right-hand top corner of the back inside leaf—let me repeat that: the right-hand top corner of the back inside leaf—has the notation in hard pencil of a date!”
“A date?” The Inspector snatched one of the books from the table and turned to the back inside leaf. There, in the upper right-hand corner, was a tiny penciled date. He examined the other four books and they exhibited in exactly the same places similar penciled dates.
“If,” continued Ellery calmly, “you arrange these dates arbitrarily in their chronological order this is the result:
“By consulting the calendar I discovered that these dates represent, progressively as I have given them: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Monday.”
“That’s interesting,” muttered the Inspector. “Why is Sunday omitted?”
“A valuable little point,” said Ellery. “In four cases we have consecutive days of the week, one week apart. In one case a day—Sunday—is skipped. That this is an oversight on the part of the dater is not likely; that a book is missing is impossible, because the number of days between the first four dates is eight, and the fifth is increased only to nine. Plainly, then, Sunday was omitted for the reason that Sunday is generally omitted—it is a non-working day. What the work is I haven’t at the moment an answer for. But we may take the irregularity in the case of the Sunday omission as a logical irregularity which you will find in any part of the business world.”
“Follows,” commented the Inspector.
“Very well. We now come to point number four. And this is of considerable interest. Dad, take up the five books and read the titles in the chronological order of their dates.”
The old man obeyed.
“Fourteenth Century Trade and Commerce,
by Stani Wedjowski. The—”
“One moment,” interrupted Ellery. “What’s the date on the back inside leaf?”
“What day is April thirteenth?”
Ellery’s face lit up triumphantly. “Well?” he cried. “Don’t you see the connection?”
The Inspector looked slightly nettled. “Darned if I do. … The second one is
by A. I. Throckmorton.”
“Date and day?”
“Thursday, April twenty-first. … The next is
A Child’s History of Music,
by Ramon Freyberg—Friday, April twenty—By jinks, Ellery! Friday, April twenty-ninth!”
“Yes, go on,” said Ellery approvingly.
The Inspector concluded rapidly.
“New Developments in Philately,
by Hugo Salisbury—and that’s
May seventh. … And the last one is
An Outline of Paleontology,
by John Morrison—
of course. … Ellery, this is really amazing! In every case the
coincides with the first two letters of the author’s last name!”
“And that’s one of the major results of my all-night session,” smiled Ellery. “Pretty, isn’t it? Wedjowski—Wednesday. Throckmorton—Thursday. Freyberg—Friday. Salisbury—Saturday. And Morrison Monday, with Sunday obligingly omitted. Coincidence? Hardly, hardly, dad!”
“There’s dirty work at the crossroads, all right, my son,” said the Inspector with a sudden grin. “This doesn’t make any impression on me as far as the murder is concerned, but it’s mighty interesting nevertheless. Code, by George!”
“If the murder is worrying you,” retorted Ellery, “harken to my point number five. … We have five dates so far. April thirteenth, April twenty-first, April twenty-ninth, May seventh, and May sixteenth. Let us suppose, for the sake of blessed argument, that there is a sixth book somewhere in limbo. Then, by all the laws of probability, that sixth book, if it exists, should bear a date eight days from Monday the sixteenth of May, which is—”
The Inspector leaped to his feet. “Why, this is extraordinary, Ellery,” he cried. “Tuesday, May twenty-fourth—the day of …” His voice fell flatly in a curious disappointment. “No, that’s not the day of the murder; it’s the day
“Now, dad,” laughed Ellery, “don’t go moping so soon because of a little thing like that. It
extraordinary, as you say. If a sixth book is extant, then it bears the date of May twenty-fourth. If we can do nothing else at this time, we can certainly suppose the existence of that sixth book. The continuity is too compelling. Things don’t merely happen that way. … This problematical sixth book gives us our first definite link between the books and the crime. … Dad, has it occurred to you that our criminal had to
something on Tuesday morning, the twenty-fourth of May?”