The Adventure of the Twice-Dead Man
The Adventure of the Twice-Dead Man
Perhaps one of the strangest cases ever laid before Hector Vail was the mysterious death of Geoffrey Addington. Certainly it was one of the most horrifying.
It was late on a Tuesday evening that the affair got its start. Vail had been busily engaged in another of his cases for several days, a curious affair involving a missing figurine, and had spent the balance of the evening performing tests in his laboratory on a shard of pottery which he had discovered during his investigation.
While I am always eager to help Vail in his work, in matters of chemical analysis I fear I am useless. Consequently I had spent the evening in some boredom, watching him rush about performing his experiments.
Experience has taught me that when Vail is absorbed in his work he is best left alone. He is uncommunicative and irritable at such times, and can be ill-tempered if disturbed. In light of this, I decided to go to bed early. After offering a polite 'good evening' (to which he did not reply), I retired to my room.
I was jolted awake a few hours later by the sharp clatter of someone banging on the heavy oaken door which guards our flat.
"For God's sake, open up!" cried a young man's voice, quavering with horror. "Open up, I say! I must see Mr. Vail at once!"
I shook the sleep from my eyes and rushed to the window, looking down. I could not see much more of the fellow than the top of his hat, but the brougham he had arrived in waited in the street, the two horses prancing in place, huffing and snorting. Even by the dim light of the streetlamp I could plainly see that it was well appointed and of excellent quality, not at all like the usual Mordentshire cab.
The man resumed his pounding. "Hallo!" he cried. "For God's sake, open up!"
Hastily I threw on a robe and started for the sitting room. I was not surprised to find the lamps still lit. Vail has been known to work the night through when confronted with a challenging puzzle, forfeiting sleep altogether.
It was not at his lab that I found him, though, but at the window. He stood gazing down at the street, hands clasped behind his back.
"Well, Pendleton," he said, not turning, "it appears we have a late caller."
"But who the devil can it be at this hour?" I asked, somewhat agitated. According the clock above the mantle it was seventeen minutes past one, and I was irritated at this unwanted intrusion on our privacy.
"I know nothing of him whatever," said Vail, "aside from the obvious facts that he is a young country gentleman who is somewhat wealthy, carries a cane, walks with a limp, and has just come in some haste from a family estate some miles east of the city - probably within the Sedgewick or Blackhurst district, I should imagine."
I moved to the window, surprised that Vail had been able to surmise so much merely from the man's appearance, especially in the uncertain light of the streetlamp. I was astonished to discover that the caller was entirely invisible from this angle.
"You were able to tell all that from the man's carriage?" I asked.
"Hmmm." Vail nodded distractedly. "That and the use of my hearing."
The knocking abruptly subsided, to be replaced by the faint murmur of voices in the hall below.
"Ah, Miss Sherington has answered the door," said Vail. "I expect she'll have a few unkind words for him before she brings him up."
"And well-deserved, too," I added angrily. "Calling at such an hour, and in such a manner!"
Vail went to his armchair. "We shall see. I have a feeling that the intrusion may well be warranted. In any case, it will make a welcome distraction." He gestured towards his lab with disgust. "I've run into a wall with that Clayton-Adderman business. That damnable pottery shard has put my former theories to rest, and left me confounded. Perhaps by focusing my attention on another problem I may gain a fresh perspective when I return to it."
He shook his head, musing. "After several weeks of monotony during which I have had no cases at all, it now appears that I am swamped in them." He gave a half smile. "Ah well, Pendleton. Feast or famine, eh?"
I returned my gaze the carriage below. I am familiar with my friend's methods, and usually I can trace his conclusions.
The brougham was well-appointed, indicating that its master must be somewhat wealthy. The horses were well-lathered and panting, evidence of a rushed journey. But how Vail had determined the man had come from either Sedgewick or Blackhurst was a mystery to me, unless it had something to do with the mud spattered on the wheels and sides of the vehicle. Vail is an expert on soils of all kinds, but it seemed impossible that he could have identified this mud so precisely from this distance. Still, I reflected that the mud was at least proof that the brougham had come from outside Mordentshire, as the city's streets are cobbled.
"But Vail," I said, mystefied, "how on earth can you know that he has a limp?"
"He has a cane, hasn't he? The one implies the other."
"But how do you know he has a cane?"
Vail laughed. "You don't suppose he was banging that forcefully on our stout door with his bare knuckles, do you? He would never have raised such a clatter."
"But why should that mean he has a limp?" I persisted doggedly. "I have a cane, and so have you, and neither of us has a limp. It could be merely a matter of style."
Vail shook his head. "Pendleton, you surprise me. The man has obviously come in haste, on a matter of urgency. A stylish gentleman may indeed keep a cane, but he is hardly likely to snatch it up when racing out in the middle of the night on some emergency. No, the cane's purpose must be practical rather than ornamental." His eyes flickered to the door and he came to his feet. "Ah, but here is the gentleman now."
Miss Sherington stood there, scowling. "A man to see you, Mr. Vail," she said coldly. "He did not give his name."
Vail nodded. "Yes, yes. Very good of you to show him up, Miss Sherington. I appreciate your patience with the late hour."
"I hope in future, Mr. Vail," she said frostily, "that you will refrain from entertaining guests at such hours."
But our visitor had already pushed past her. He was a tall man, with a ruddy complexion and fair hair. His right leg was slightly twisted, and he leaned heavily upon a cane. He fixed his intense blue eyes on me. "Mr.Vail?" he asked.
"Certainly not," I said, annoyed.
"I am Hector Vail," said my friend. "My companion is Colonel Oliver Pendleton."
"Yes," said the visitor, "yes, of course. I should have known you by your description, Colonel. I have followed your remarkable accounts for some time. I apologize for disturbing you, but I have come on a matter of grave urgency."
"It is no matter," Vail assured him. "Please take a seat, Mr. Addington, and tell us all."
The man gave a start. "You know me, sir?" he asked. "I was not aware we had met."
"We have not," said Vail sitting.
"But how do you know my name?"
"It is inscribed on your cane," said Vail, gesturing. "'B. Addington' The 'B' stands for Brandon?"
The man shook his head. "Beverly."
"Ah!" said Vail. "But have a seat, Mr. Addington, and tell us how we may be of assistance.
The man shook his head. "There is no time, sir. My father has been murdered this very night, and I have come to beg your help."
Vail shot to his feet. "This is serious news indeed! You are right, we must go at once." He looked to me. "You will be good enough to come, Pendleton? I realize the hour is late-"
"Of course," I assured him. "I am wide awake and would like nothing better."
"Excellent. There is no time to lose. Mr. Addington may tell us the particulars once we are underway. If we are lucky, we may even arrive before the local authorities hae a chance to trample everything."
* * *
I threw on some clothing, and in minutes we were in Addington's carriage, darting through the deserted streets. Vail and I sat across from him as he related the facts of the case.
"Our manor house is quite large," he began, "and also quite old. My father's room is located on the second floor, and my own chamber is just down the hall and opposite. We are the only ones who stay in the main part of the house, the servant's quarters being in the west wing. I tell you this in passing, as it may prove to have some bearing."
Addington paused. "Perhaps I should begin by telling you a little of my father, Lord Geoffrey Addington."
"He made his fortune in tobacco, I believe?"
Addington nodded, a little taken back. "I had no idea you were aware of our family, Mr. Vail."
"I assure you I am not. Forgive me for interrupting; I was merely giving voice to my thoughts."
Addington was bewildered. "Then how could you-"
Vail waved it away. "To the trained eye, the signs are there to see. Your boots, for example, are indicative. But let us not be side-tracked by trivialties. Please continue."
"Well," said Addington, resuming," it is just as you say. My family did indeed make its fortune in tobacco. Father inherited the estate and the title in his forty-third year. He was always a capable man, respected by those who knew him, and the estate prospered under his guidance.
"On Friday last, and unsigned letter for him arrived by post. I thought nothing of it, but when he opened it he gasped in startlement and his face whitened in shock. I was alarmed, naturally, for I have never seen him so shaken, and I asked what was wrong.
"'Nothing,' he said, drawing away from me. 'Some damn practical joke.'
"But when I asked to see the letter, he crumpled it and thrust it into his coat pocket. 'I said it was nothing,' he snapped at me, 'now leave me be.'
"Though he would say nothing more on the subject, over the following days my fears continued to grow. He became sullen and irritable, and took to stalking about the house at odd hours, checking to see that all the windows and doors were locked, and always armed with a small pistol.
"At last, I decided that I must see that letter. I searched his room, but found nothing, and I was on the verge of giving up when my eyes fell upon his coat, which was thrown over the back of his chair. It struck me that the letter might still be in the pocked where he had thrust it two days before."
"And was it?" I asked.
Addington nodded. "It was, though not crumpled but rather folded neatly, showing that he had removed it and re-read it in private, perhaps several times."
Vail leaned forward. "Have you the letter?"
The young man nodded somberly. A moment later he produced a scrap of paper and handed it to Vail.
"I don't know what I expected to find," said Addington as Vail scanned it. "A threat of blackmail or violence, perhaps. But I never expected anything so bizarre as that."
"Interesting," said Vail. "Most interesting indeed." He handed it to me. "What do you make of it, Pendleton?"
I took the paper and looked it over.
Seldon have the winsom days departed so darkly. Three the hours wich have been counted, as you see it. Sanguine order now rains supreme in the often ridicilous affairs of men. Therefore your trust should be put in those sublime unanswered questions. And then go boldly but do not falter when we shall meet at the mother of all hollyness. Hated silence hated darkness the very pristeen signs of peace and not betrayal.
"Why, it is a stream of nonsense!"
Vail shook his head. "On the contrary, it is of compelling importance."
Addington frowned. "Then you are able to make something of it, Mr. Vail?" he asked. "I confess that it makes no sense to me, though it has a sinister ring."
"It is a message, and a very clear one," said Vail, "though in code. Try reading it backwards, Pendleton, starting with 'betrayal' and omitting the following three words each time."
"'Betrayal... of... the... hated mother... shall... not go... unanswered'," I read haltingly. "'Put... your... affairs... in order... You have... three days... seldom.'" I finished lamely, uncertain how the last word squared with the rest.
"Not seldom, Colonel," corrected Vail. "Seldon. You misstakenly assume it is misspelled."
"Seldon?" I echoed. "But what can it mean?"
"Obviously it is a signature. But there is more to the letter than its hidden message. Does nothing else strike you?"
I looked it over again. "Aside from the errors in spelling, I see nothing."
"Ah, but you see everything, Pendleton. As you say, it is filled with errors, and there are two places where the word has been crossed out and started again - here, at 'sanguine', and again at 'betrayal'. The handwriting is rough and barely legible. The writer is clearly not a man of letters. And yet it is filled with words like 'wisome', 'sanguine', 'sublime', 'falter', and 'pristine'."
"It was dictated!" I said, understanding.
Vail nodded. "Precisely. So we see that we are dealing in a conspiracy; some secret society to which Lord Addington must once have belonged, for he was able to read the code."
"But this is terrible!" said Addington in quiet grief. "I had determined to bring the letter to you tomorrow, Mr. Vail. Had I brought it today, the tragedy might have been prevented!"
"Calm yourself," said Vail in tones of sympathy. "You did not realize the seriousness of the letter. But we have not yet heard how your father died."
Addington composed himself. "Forgive me. It has been an evening of shocks and I am afraid the strain is beginning to tell.
"I keep strange hours, Mr. Vail. I have done so since a fall from a horse left me with this weak leg. The injury restricts my movements somewhat, but I am an active man and often find myself with nervous energy at odd hours.
"Ths evening I was up late, reading in the library. I had thought I was the only person awake in the house, but at a quarter to twelve-"
"One moment," interjected Vail. "Where does the library lay, in relation to the rest of the house?"
"On the first floor, just at the foot of the main stairwell and to the right, immediately below my father's room."
"And you are certain of the time?"
"Yes," replied Addington. "I remember glancing at the clock when father stalked in, carrying his pistol. I was surprised to find him still awake.
"His manner was distracted, and I do not believe he realized I was present until I spoke to him. When I did, he whirled on me, raising his weapon!"
Addington gave us both a sober look. "My father has never been a violent man, Mr. Vail, but I believe he would have fired on me, had I not cried out in alarm. As it was, he was furious at my presence. He demanded to know for 'what fool reason' I was 'lurking about in shadows'.
"Incensed, I told him that I had seen the mysterious letter and wanted an explanation. An argument erupted between us. He was furious that I had invaded his privacy, and I was angered by his bizarre behavior. 'I need no wetnurse, boy,' he snapped at me towards the end, 'and I have no time for your foolishness. Gods above, the very sword hangs over my head!'
"So saying, he stormed out. It was the last time I saw him alive."
Addington lapsed into silence, momentarily overcome with grief.
"He was dressed for bed?" Vail asked gently.
"Oh yes," said Addington, surprised by the question. "That is, slippers and robe."
"Indeed," murmured Vail. "Please, continue."
Addington took a moment to compose himself. "He was... he was gone for no more than five minutes when there came a jarring thump from overhead, as if a heavy chair had been violently overturned in the room above."
"You were still in the library?"
"Yes. I was... angry after he left, and though I tried to return to my reading, I was still fuming."
Vail nodded. "Go on."
"The thump was accompanied by an unnerving cry of horror. I sprang instantly to my feet and raced to the stairwell, for it was my father's voice!
"I scrambled up the stairs and rushed to his door, calling out to him as I came. From inside the room came the sounds of a terrible struggle, as if he were locked in mortal combat.
"'The Hand!' he cried. 'My God! The Withered Hand!' And then there was a choking sound, as if he had been seized by the throat."
"You are certain of the words?" asked Vail.
Addington nodded. "They were spoken clearly, though I do not know their meaning. The sounds of struggle continued, now coupled with the terrible gasping of a man fighting for breath. There was a crash as the lamp was overturned, and a muffled sound like that of a body falling to the floor.
"I seized the doorhandle, but found it locked. I wrestled with it impotently, calling out to my father, when suddenly it shifted in my hands and I realized it had been grasped from the other side. It trembled for a moment, then went still. The sounds of struggle subsided. Fearing the worst, I turned for the stairs and met Hoskins coming up."
"Hoskins?" asked Vail.
"Our manservant. He told me he had been wakened by the furious ringing of father's bell-pull. 'Hoskins!' I cried, 'have you a key to father's room?' He nodded, and together we hastened to the door.
"We were both horrified by what we found once the door was opened. There on the floor lay my father, tongue protruding grotesquely and eyes staring sightlessly. His face was contorted into a mask of fear that was terrible to behold, and there were purplish bruises at his throat.
"The room was a mess; the papers on his desk had been scattered on the floor and the lamp overturned, but of the attacker there was no sign. My first thought was that he had fled through the window, but it was latched shut from the inside.
"But if he had not fled by the window, then where could he be? The room was empty and there were no other exits.
"I found it unfathomable, and struck with grief and horror. I did not know what I should do. I sent Brandon, our houseboy, to fetch the local constabulary, but I had little confidence in their ability to throw any light on the matter.
"Then I recalled you, Mr. Vail. I have followed with interest the remarkable exploits your friend Col. Pendleton has penned, and had planned, as I said before, to bring the letter to you. I realized the only course was to fetch you immediately. So I had Jonathan, the driver, ready the carriage, and flew to Mordentshire. You know the rest."
Vail leaned back, a troubled look on his face. "I fear we tread in deep waters." He lifted the letter. "May I keep this?"
Addington nodded. "If you wish. But tell me, Mr. Vail - can you make anything of this awful business?"
"It is very interesting," said Vail. "But I fear it is too soon to offer any theories. I shall want to examine your father's room first. But I see we have arrived."
So absorbed had I been in Addington's story that I had hardly noticed the journey. Now I peered out and caught my first look at the manor and surrounding area. Tendrils of mist lay scattered about the grounds, making everything seem indistinct. The house was large and blocky; a square building constructed of aging stone. The windows were darkened, lending it a desolate air.
"Ah!" said Vail in disappointment as we pulled up. "It appears the local authorities have already arrived."
There was another carriage in front of the house, the sort of police wagon one is likely to encounter in the country, and a young-looking constable was stationed at the front door.
We were met on the cobbled path by a trio of men leaving the house. The first was a uniformed constable, a young man much like the one at the door. Beside him stood a portly older man, short of stature, and also in uniform. The third man was already known to us.
"Ah, it is Inspector Lambert," said Vail as we approached. "The man is not altogether a fool; perhaps not all is lost."
"Mr. Vail!" cried Lambert, catching sight of us, "and Col. Pendleton too! Well, I'm surprised to find you here, and yet I shouldn't be. A queer business, to be sure."
The older constable ignored us and adressed our companion. "You are Beverly Addington?" He had a nasal voice which grated upon the ears.
The portly man gestured, and the two younger policemen stepped forward, taking hold of Addington by the arms.
"What is the meaning of this?" cried Addington, too surprised to struggle.
"You are under arrest for the murder of your father, Lord Geoffrey Addington," said the older man.
"But this is absurd!"
"You are certain," asked Vail mildly, "that you aren't being premature, Detective?"
The stout little man looked down his nose at us. "And who might you be, sir, to tell me my business?"
"I am Hector Vail," said my friend politely, "and this is my associate, Col. Pendleton."
"Mr. Vail has helped us over in Mordentshire in a great many cases," put in Inspector Lambert.
The little man sniffed. "Ah yes," he sneered, "the fellow you're always blathering about, Lambert. The 'amateur of crime'. Always sticking your nose where it isn't wanted and getting underfoot."
Vail gave a bow. "I see my reputation precedes me."
"This is Detective Claughton," said Lambert apologetically, "head of the local constabulary."
"What, sir, have you to do with this gruesome affair?" demanded the detective sharply, ignoring Lambert's introduction.
Vail was unruffled. "Mr. Addington came to me desiring help in solving his father's murder. I am here on his behalf."
"Indeed? Then you arrive too late, for I havle already solved the crime. They may be foolish enough in the city to allow your interference, but I assure you that here in the province of Sedgewick we are astute enough to handle our own crimes." He motioned to the two men who held Addington. "Take him away."
Addington struggled against their grip. "Mr. Vail, I implore you! I am an innocent man!"
"I do not yet know that you are innocent," said Vail, "but if you are, rest assured I will do all in my power to free you."
Addington relaxed his struggles and allowed himself to be put into the police-wagon. "Very well, sir. I leave the matter in your capable hands."
The detective snorted derisively. "I cannot blame you for believing the young man, Mr. Vail, seeing as you are and amateur. But a real detective relies upon facts to steer his course, and does not allow fondness for the criminal to bline him."
Vail smiled politely. "I appreciate the advice, Detective. We have heard of your exacting methods even in Mordentshire, and I have no doubt that you have solved the crime in short order."
Claughton was startled by Vail's praise. For a moment he peered suspiciously at us as if fearing a trap. Then he swelled with pride. "Well, then, I shouldn't wonder if it was so. I have solved my share of crimes, and am well-respected in the field."
"Indeed," said Vail, "I would not pass up the opportunity to see your genius at work. I wonder if you would instruct me on your deductions in this case?"
"Deductions?" asked the stout man. "What sort of nonsense are you talking? The case is simple. Lord Geoffrey was strangled, and there was only one other man present - his son, Beverly."
"Then you do not credit the young man's story?"
"Pure rot. If you ever want to become a true professional, Mr. Vail, you'll learn to tell when someone's lying to you. The case is simple: the boy murdered his father, locked the door behind him as he left, and stumbled across the manservant on the stair. He then concocted a pack of lies to cover his trail. It's the only explanation. All that remains is to wring a confession from him, and that, I warrant, we will accomplish well before dawn."
"I'm sure you are right," said Vail. "Nevertheless, may we prevail upon you to show us the room where the body was found?"
The detective sniffed. "I haven't the time or the patience for such nonsense."
"Perhaps one of your men, then?"
Claughton gave a simpering smile. "I cannot spare them. I'm sorry sir. You have come all this distance for nothing. My advice is this: go back to your city and leave police work to those who are qualified to do it."
"If you please, Detective Claughton," said Inspector Lambert. "I would be happy to guide Mr. Vail through the house."
Claughton shot him a nasty look. "You, Lambert? Well, I suppose it's your time to waste, though I warn you, I won't have the scene tampered with."
"It is no trouble," assured Lambert.
"It's a complete waste of time is what it is, Inspector, and I assure you that if you were one of my men you would never be allowed to be so lax in your duty. But you may do what you like."
He turned to Vail again. "It seems Inspector Lambert has decided to stay on as a tourist guide for amateurs. You will try to keep from destroying evidence, I trust?"
"I assure you we will do our best," said Vail.
"See that you do."
* * *
"That man is an arrogant ass," I said to Vail as the police-wagon trundled away. "I don't know how you kept civil. Had he spoken to me so, I fear I would have lost my temper."
"Not at all, Pendleton," Vail said with an enigmatic smile. "Detective Claughton has been an excellent ally, and if my suspicions prove true he has made our work very much easier."
I stared at him in disbelief.
"Well, Mr. Vail," said Lambert after a moment, "I suppose you'll be wanting to see the house."
"Not just yet, Inspector," said Vail. "I think I shall have a look around the grounds first. May I borrow your lantern?"
"Surely," said Lambert, handing it over, "but Claughton and I already looked and neither of us found anything."
"Still, there are one or two things I would like to see. If you wouldn't mind waiting here? I'll only be a moment."
We watched the lantern disappear around the corner of the house.
"Think he's on to something?" asked Lambert.
I shrugged. "Perhaps. But why did you stand by and let that pompous detective put Addington under lock and key?"
"Sorry, Colonel," he said. "It wasn't my decision to make. This area is beyond my jurisdiction. Claughton is insufferable, but he is king of his bailiwick."
"The man is plainly an imbecile," I stated warmly, "and has the manners of a Borcan. I hope Vail puts him in his place."
"Here he comes again now," said Lambert a moment later, as the lantern reappeared around the far side of the house.
We waited a few minutes more. In the darkness it was difficult to see Vail himself, but we watched the progress of the lantern as it jerked and dipped, halted for a moment as Vail inspected something, and moved on. Eventually Vail's face appeared beneath it, looking slightly unearthly in the flickering light. He seemed pleased.
"Just as I thought," he said, approaching. "Interesting, very interesting."
"What have you found?" I asked.
"Why," he answered, "nothing whatever. That is what is so interesting. But I have not yet examined the roadway."
Lambert and I watched as he moved onto the muddy road.
"Hmm," he murmured, stooping. "Yes. Here are the tracks of Addington's brougham, departing. Two horses. And here we see Claughton's wagon, arriving - see how it overlays the tracks of Addington's brougham here, and here." He spoke with certainty, but all I could make out were ruts in the thick mud. "And here, the brougham returns - two horses again - this time with you and I in it, Pendleton. And here, Claughton departs." He scanned the surrounding roadway. "No other fresh tracks. I think we may state with certainty that no other vehicles or horses have passed this way."
"But surely that proves nothing," protested Lambert.
"On the contrary, it is telling." Vail straightened. "And now, I believe it is time we saw the house."
* * *
We were met just inside the door by a tall man with a high forehead and youthful face. He had been sitting, but rose as we entered.
"This is Hoskins, the manservant," said Lambert.
"Ah," said Vail, "you are the man Addinton left in charge when he left to fetch us."
The man nodded. "Yes, sir. Master Addington gave strict orders that nothing was to be disturbed."
"And you saw that nothing was?"
He nodded again.
"And where is the rest of the household staff?"
"I sent them back to their quarters, sir, thinking that the night's interviews were over. Shall I summon them?"
"No," said Vail, "I don't think that will be necessary. Their quarters are all in the west wing?"
"As are yours?"
Vail nodded. "Good enough. If we are fortunate there will be no need to disturb them. Should I have further questions, where may I find you?"
The man seemed surprised. "Why, right here, sir. They will return in an hour or so for the body, and I was to wait in the hall to let them in."
"Very good," said Vail, stepping past him.
* * *
The main hall was dominated by a wide set of carpeted stairs which curved gracefully upwards. The walls and floor were wood-paneled, and a single flickering gaslight provided illumination.
"If you'll just follow me," said Lambert, heading for the stairs.
"One moment inspector," said Vail. "Let us first see the library."
Vail led the way, still holding the lantern Lambert had given him. The library was just where Addington had said it was, the door half-open. Darkness lay beyond.
"The lamps have been extinguished?" asked Vail.
"Oh, no sir," said Lambert. "This room was dark when we arrived."
"Hmm!" said Vail. "Things begin to look grim for Addington's story then. He said he had been reading in the library when he heard his father's cry. It is very difficult to read in the dark."
"Perhaps he extinguished the lamp," I ventured.
"Ah yes, as he was charging up the stairs he paused to turn off the light," Vail hefted the lantern and entered the darkned room. "An interesting theory, colonel, but I think we may find some better explanation."
The library was a large room, lined on two walls with bookshelves. There was a sturdy oak table in the corner, surrounded by chairs, with a lamp and several books scattered across its surface. A pair of cushioned armchairs were stationed nearby, with a smaller table and second lamp between them.
I remained at the door while Lambert followed Vail in.
"Please don't touch that, inspector," snapped Vail as Lambert started to light the lamp on the table. Vail brushed past him, leaning forward to examine it. He sniffed the wick first, then touched it gingerly with his fingers. "Cold," he muttered. "Hasn't been lit for some time. But... yes, of course. He would have been in the armchair..."
Swiftly he crossed the room to the second lamp and bent over it. "Yes," he said a moment later, "recently lit, not less than an hour... Hallo, what's this?"
He stooped to lift something from behind one of the armchairs. When he straightened, he was holding a book. "Vasli's Journeys in a Desolate Land," he said. "A little light reading for young Addington, tossed aside at the sound of his father's cry. It seems his story has some weight after all."
"It could have been planted afterwards to support his story," said Lambert.
"Oh, yes, there is that possibility," said Vail. "But it is strange that he should take care to plant a book in just the right place to support his story, and then turn off the light, ruining the effect."
"If Addington didn't extinguish the light, who did?"
"Perhaps someone who wanted to make Addington's account appear false." Vail strode toward the door. "I think we have seen everything of interest here. Let us proceed."
Vail went to the stairs. He crouched and examined the steps, peering at them. Painstakingly he inspected each one, then gave equal attention to each of the railings.
"Useless," he muttered when he had finished. "The carpet is covered with mud from the boots of Claughton's men." He shook his head. "Very well, it was too much to hope for more. Let us go to the room."
One of the gas lamps set into the wall had been lighted earlier, but the rest of the upper hall was left in darkness. It was cold and silent as we walked towards the murdered man's room, and none of us spoke, which added to the unease. Even Vail seemed somber.
He led the way, still holding the lantern. Twice he halted, peering down at some scuff marks on the carpet, then just as quickly moved on.
The door to Lord Addington's room stood open, a flickering light coming from within.
Vail looked back at Lambert. "The door was open when you arrived?"
The Inspector nodded, and Vail stepped to it, hardly glancing at the room. "A standard handle, with keyholes on both sides. And here is the key that Hoskins used to open the door, still in the outside hole. Mark that, gentlemen. It may prove of importance." He started into the room.
I shall never forget the awful sight that greeted us as we entered. The room was large and well appointed. There was a solid-looking window set into the far wall, and a good-sized bed dominating the right side of the room. A writing desk lay to the left, with a study chair shoved a few feet to one side. A single lighted candle stood atop it, flickering weirdly and giving the room and unearthly aspect.
Everywhere there were signs of some violent struggle. The papers atop the desk had been scattered, and several of them lay on the floor. In the far corner, a standing lamp had been toppled onto its side, smashed. The only place which appeared undisturbed was the corner on the far side of the bed, where an ornate bell pull hung down over a small bedside table.
But what arrested our attention was the horrifying sight of Lord Addington's body. It lay stretched out on the floor in the center of the room. The arms and legs were sprawled akimbo and contorted in their final death throes, and the eyes were fixed horribly on where we stood.
His face caused a thrill of horror to shoot through me. It was fixed in an attitude of dreadful fear which was most unsettling. But fearsome as the expression was, it was made more gruesome still by the coloration, for the entire face was mottled purple and black, as if the blood had pooled just beneath the surface of the skin. It gave the dead man a ghastly and unnatural aspect, and I confess I was shaken by the sight.
Lambert gasped and started violently. "Great abyss!" he cried, "the man's face has gone black!"
"I take it from your remark, Inspector, that this is a recent development?" asked Vail.
Lambert nodded. "There was bruising about the neck, but nothing like this! I have seen nothing like it!"
Vail bent over the corpse. "Mmmm," he said. "Have you not, Inspector? You are forgetting that business involving the Arden corpse. Before your time, Pendleton," he explained, seeing my confused look. "A body was discovered floating in the Arden, and Inspector Lambert called me in to help."
"Yes," said Lambert, "I remember. We had some trouble identifying the victim, owing to the unnatural blackening of the face. It turned out to be due to some exotic poison."
"Aura Ichyschalus, to be exact," said Vail, removing his gloves from his coat pocket and slipping them on, "a poison extracted from certain tropical plants in Valachan."
"But Lord Addington was strangled, not poisoned," I said.
"Oh, he was definitely poisoned." Vail sniffed at the dead man's lips and drew back. "Though not with Aura Ichyschalus. Would you be good enough to put on your gloves, Colonel? I have found something which might interest you."
Quickly I obeyed.
"Put your hand here, on his arm," instructed Vail.
The flesh beneath my fingers was hard as stone. "Why, he's stiff as a board!"
Vail nodded. "The muscles are in a state of extreme contraction. The other limbs are equally rigid. It is suggestive of some alkaloid poison, though I confess it is something I am unfamiliar with."
"Then he wasn't strangled?"
"On the contrary, Colonel, he was undoubtably strangled." Vail pulled back the collar and pointed to the markings on the neck. "Observe the discolored bruises. Do they suggest nothing to you?"
There were five marks in all, four narrow blackened lines on the left side of the throat and a shorter, thicker mark on the right side. "Why, they look like the marks of fingers and a thumb. A handprint?"
"Precisely," said Vail. "Is there nothing peculiar about it, though?"
I confessed I could see nothing.
Vail shook his head. "There are two very telling clues. Would you mind placing your own hand on the victim's throat, gently, and cover the bruises?"
I did so, but no matter how I stretched my fingers, I could not cover them. "I cannot. The attacker must have had very large hands, with long fingers."
"Precisely," said Vail. "The attacker leaves a large handprint. Incidentally, that would disqualify Beverly as a suspect; his hands are not nearly large enough. Now we come to the second point of interest: where are the marks from the attacker's other hand?"
"There are no other marks," I answered, a little confused.
"Exactly! Does that not strike you as peculiar? If you intended to strangle someone, would you use only one hand? And yet apparently that is what our attacker did. Why?"
"Perhaps he clapped the other over Lord Addington's mouth to prevent him crying out," I suggested.
"Ah, but we know from Beverly's account that his father did cry out, quite clearly and distinctly. And there are no bruises around the mouth, which there should be if your theory held true. What then could account for this?"
"I have no idea," I said, "unless perhaps his attacker was a one-armed man, but that hardly seems likely."
"Ah!" cried Vail, pleased, "a much better theory, Colonel! Likely or not, it is certainly plausible, so let us not discard it so quickly."
I was confused. "I don't understand, Vail. Was he strangled or was he poisoned?"
Vail gave me a strange look. "Why do you assume one outrules the other? He was strangled and he was poisoned, likely in that order."
"Why would anyone want to kill a man twice?" mused Lambert, mystefied. "Poison a dead body? It makes no sense."
I was as puzzled as he, but Vail seemed to have already dismissed the matter. He searched through the dead man's clothing, then stood. "Interesting."
He looked at me. "Now Colonel, if you would just stand in the corner there for a moment so that your footprints will not complicate matters while I examine the rest of the room. Claughton and his men have already made my task difficult enough. Inspector, please keep your place outside the door."
Lambert and I looked on as Vail continued his examination. He started first at the area surrounding the overturned lamp. "Here's a bit of luck!" he cried. "A puddle of oil has spilled, and somehow Claughton and his men have avoided trudging through it. Ah! Here is the footprint of Lord Addington. He stumbled through the spill in the struggle, and has left us all sorts of prints so that we may follow his progress through the room. But this is more interesting still..." His voice trailed off.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Nothing," replied Vail triumphantly. "There are no footprints in the spill other than Lord Addington's"
"But why is that signifigant?" asked Lambert.
"Where are the marks of his attacker?" Vail shot back pointedly. "We can see clearly that he was struggling, but with who?"
Neither of us could answer. Vail seemed more and more sure of himself, but with each new revelation the mystery only became darker to me.
Vail retraced the steps of the dead man. "Here he staggers back, after overturning the lamp. Ah, here he collides with the bed, then stumbles into the chair, which you can see has skidded several feet from the desk. Now he makes for the door... he stands here a moment - grasping at the handle, no doubt. He could hear his son calling on the other side, of course, and did not expect it to be locked. He then staggers back, falling to the ground. You can see plainly tat he flailed about and then lay still."
Vail turned back toward the desk. "But there are no tracks here. And yet the papers have been disturbed, dashed to the floor. Therefore-"
"He must have been there before he knocked over the lamp," I put in, following his reasoning.
"Excellent, Pendleton, excellent! But wait..." Suddenly he crouched on hands and knees, studying the hardwood floor around the desk. "Ah! Just as I expected! Come and look!"
"What is it?" I asked, peering over his shoulder.
"Look here," he said, pointing to a small gash in the floor. "Observe the splinters."
"What of it?" I asked, confused.
"Why, it is of singular importance," exclaimed Vail. "Something heavy and wooden has fallen here - there, you see some of the splinters are of a darker hue than the floor beams. Addington said that the commotion started with a dull thud, as if a heavy chair had overturned, immediately followed by his father's cry. Notice that the chair is not overturned. No other object in the room suggests itself to make such a noise. Observe the cleared section on the desk. Something was swept off the edge and down to the floor, scattering the papers. But where is it?"
"It must have been moved," I said.
"Yes, but by who? And why?" He shook his head. "But this shows that Lord Addington was at his desk when he was first attacked.
Vail next moved to the window. "Locked from the inside," he murmured, studying the mechanism. A moment later he unlatched it, opening it to examine the outer part. "Shows no signs of being forced. No marks on the upper or lower sills, and a drop of twenty feet to the ground." He leaned out and peered upwards. "No sign that anyone has climbed up toward the roof either." He closed the window. "It seems clear the attacker neither entered nor exited through here."
He strode towards us, then halted. "Hello," he murmured in surprise, glancing upwards, "what's this? A skylight? I had not anticipated this."
I followed his gaze. There was an empty well set into the ceiling which extended upwards to a skylight.
"We checked that," said Lambert. "It's latched closed from the inside."
"Nevertheless I think we should have a look," said Vail. "Pendleton, would you help me move the desk? We shall slide it beneath, in order to reach it better."
Together we managed to do so, though not without effort. After getting the desk into place, Vail placed the chair atop. Then, climbing up and balancing precariously on the it, he was able to reach the skylight.
He examined the mechanism for a moment, then opened it, propping up the glass using the little metal arm.
"What was it you said, Lambert?" he asked. "That it was latched from the inside?" He disengaged the arm and let the skylight fall shut. The latch clicked into place as the glass came down. "I think your objection is easily answered."
He propped it open again and caught hold of the edges of the hole with his fingers. A moment later his legs swung free of the chair as he hoisted himself up onto the roof.
"Vail!" I said. "What are you doing?"
"Be down in a moment, Pendleton. I just want to check something."
His face vanished into the darkness, and for several moments Lambert and I were left alone.
Suddenly his legs reappeared. Nimbly he swung down, landing lightly on the seat of the chair.
"Well, that gave me quite a turn!" he said with a laugh.
"Why, what did you discover?" asked Lambert.
"Nothing," replied Vail, "but for a moment I feared I had been on the wrong track. It was as well to be certain. Now Inspector, what of the key?"
"Yes, the key to this room."
Lambert was confused. "Why, it is in the lock, as you yourself pointed out."
"No, no," said Vail, "that is Hoskin's key. I speak of the one which Addington must have possessed. I have searched the body and the room, but have not found it."
"Why, I know nothing of it," said Lambert. "We found no such key. But if he locked himself in, he must have had one."
"Exactly," said Vail enigmatically. "I think you will both agree that this is a strange business. We have a corpse which was both strangled and poisoned. His attacker leaves no sign that he was ever here, and there is no apparent way he could have left. What do you think, Pendleton?"
I was about to reply that I was baffled, when suddenly an idea hit me. "Vail!" I said, "what if there never was an attacker? Suppose Lord Addington was poisoned in some way, and the intense pain and muscle contractions caused him to grasp at his own neck? Might not he have strangeld himself?"
"Wonderful, Pendleton!" cried Vail in delight. "A very worthy theory! It was, in fact, the first possibility that occurred to me. Unfortunately, Lord Addington's hands are no larger than his son's, and he could not possibly have left the bruises."
My spirits sank. "Then the matter is still dark to me."
"Do not be downcast, Pendleton. It is really very simple, if a bit disappointing." He sighed. "I fear that I have wasted your time, gentlemen. I think our work here is finished."
"Finished?" I asked. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," said Vail, leading us out of the room and down the hall, "that the mystery has been solved." He started down the stairs. Lambert and I exchanged puzzled glances.
"Come along gentlemen," said Vail. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time so appallingly. It appears that Claughton was quite correct: Beveryly Addington was indeed the man responsible for his father's death. There is no other explanation."
"But Vail," I protested, shocked at the sudden announcement, "are you saying he murdered his father after all. How can that be?"
"Oh, it is very simple," he said bitterly. "It was I who tried to make it complicated. But now I see that the detective was quite correct. I shall explain it all once we are underway."
By this time we had reached the bottom of the stairwell. Hoskins rose as we approached. "Please have the brougham brought around immediately," instructed Vail, "I wish to depart this place at once."
The man nodded. "I'll fetch Jonathan at once, sir," he said smoothly, turning away.
"Oh, yes, one thing more," said Vail, catching the man's sleeve. "Detective Claughton has decided that a thorough search shall be made of the house tomorrow. Addington mentioned seeing a wooden box in his father's room that isn't there now, and insists that someone must have taken it." He snorted. "Utter nonsense, of course, but Claughton is determined to leave no stone unturned. He asked me to inform the staff that he would be sending some constables over in the morning."
Something flickered in the man's eyes at this news, but he nodded politely. "I will inform the rest of the staff."
* * *
Minutes later, we boarded the carriage.
"Now will you tell us what this infernal case is all about?" asked Lambert once we were underway. He was irritated with Vail's suddenly petulant attitude, and I felt much the same.
Vail smiled. "Patience, gentlemen. There is very dangerous work ahead of us." A moment later he called up to the driver to halt.
"Come, gentlemen," he said, exiting the carriage, "we have work yet to do."
Lambert and I exchanged glances again, then followed him out. We were not far from the manor house.
"Drive on to the constabulary and fetch Detective Claughton," Vail instructed the driver. "He should just be starting out to fetch the body. Tell him to come with all speed."
The man nodded and drove on, and Vail turned to us. "I'm afraid we have a short walk ahead of us."
"But where are we going?" asked Lambert.
"Back to the manor house, of course," replied Vail, "though we shall approach it from the rear. I must ask you first, Inspector, to put your gloves on. I see that you still have yours on, Pendlton. If all goes well, we have little to fear, but we shall be running a grave risk, and must be prepared."
It was a short walk through the field, and in short order we found ourselves standing beside a scraggly tree which stood twenty yards or so from the rear of the house.
"Good," said Vail. "This will serve. From here we have a clear view. There is the rear door to the kitchens, and over there is the garden. I should think that the most likely spot. We should not have long to wait."
The house was dark. There was no sign of activity.
Several minutes passed in silence. It was cool enough out that I was glad I had taken my coat. The tendrils of mis which floated like a dim haze above the ground gave the night air a clammy dampness.
"What exactly is it we're waiting for?" asked the Inspector at length.
"Why, the end of our little adventure," said Vail. "Thanks to our friend Claughton, the man should be off his guard, thinking that Beverly will take the blame... but quietly!" he hissed. "He comes!"
A light had flared to life behind the rear door. A shadow passed into the flickering light for a moment, then vanished.
Breathless, we watched as the rear door slowly opened, and a man stepped out. It was Hoskins, bearing a small lantern.
He paused for a moment just outside the door, holding the lantern aloft and peerig out into the darkness. Then, satisfying himself that he was alone, he hung the lantern from a hook beside the door, turned, and re-entered the house.
"Quickly!" hissed Vail, stepping from behind the tree, "we must surprise him when he returns. Lambert, you approach from the left; Pendleton and I will take the right. But use stealth! He must not have time to open the box!"
I followed immediately, making my way as stealthily as I could. Lambert melted off into the night, moving in the opposite direction.
We had not taken five steps before Hoskins reappeared.
We both froze, but he did not look up. He was carrying a shovel in one hand and a small box in the other. He stalked towards the garden.
Vail slipped forward. I followed as best I could.
Hoskins had halted. Setting the box down, he took up the shovel and began digging in the soft soil.
We were only a few yards from him when, alerted by some sound, he whirled and spotted us.
Sputtering an oath, he flung down his shovel and snatched up the box.
Vail gave an inarticulate cry and charged.
Turning the box towards us, the man lifted the lid. Something dark erupted from it; it looked in the dim light like some sort of misshapen bird. It leaped into the air, hovered for an instant, and darted towards us.
"Its touch is death!" cried Vail in warning.
Hoskins flung the empty box at Vail, then reached down and seized the shovel again. Brandishing it, he lunged at Vail with a wild cry, swinging it like an axe.
Vail nimbly doged the box, ducked under the swing of the shovel, and slammed into Hoskin's midriff.
The thing that had been in the box flew towards my throat like an arrow.
Instinctively I threw my hands up to protect myself. The thing slammed into me, knocking me off my feet. I landed hard on my back, the force of the fall driving the breath from my lungs.
Somehow I had caught hold of the thing as I fell, and though it pressed forward, I was able to keep it from my throat. For the first time I saw it clearly, and my flesh crawled in horror and revulsion.
It was a disembodied human hand. The skin was blackened and withered, and the fingernails were long and curved. The fingers writhed in my grip as it strove towards my throat.
I cried out in horror, fighting with all my might. The thing was inhumanly strong; the flesh felt like iron beneath my fingers.
"I have him!" I heard Vail cry out. "Help Pendleton, he is in greater peril!"
An instant later Lambert came running to me. I rolled about on the ground, trying to keep the horrid thing at bay.
For a moment the Inspector simply stared in abhorrence and disbelief. But Lambert is a good man, and quickly overcame his shock. He seized the thing, and together we forced it back, inch by inch, until suddenly it jerked to the side, shifting the force of its motion so suddenly that we lost our grip.
It flew into the air, racing away from us and toward where Vail and Hoskins struggled.
"Vail!" I cried in warning, for his back was toward us.
At that moment, hover, Hoskins flung him to the ground and raised his shovel, preparing to strike Vail where he lay.
The loathsome hand shot straight into him, latching onto his throat and pitchiing him backwards. The shovel tumbled from his fingers and his eyes when wide with terror and panic.
"For God's sake!" cried Vail, regaining his feet, "get the box!"
For a moment, neither of us could find it. Then Lambert snatched it up from where it had fallen beside a small hedge. He leaped towards Vail, who was struggling to remove the disembodied hand from Hoskin's throat.
I joined them an instant later and together we managed to pry the unearthly thing from its hold.
It seemed to know our intent, for it fought us terribly, twisting and turning in our hands. But our grip remained firm, and a moment later we had put it in. Once in the box, it became inert, and breathing a sigh of relief, Vail closed the lid and secured the clasp.
"Gods above, Vail," I said, when I had recovered breath enough to speak. "What was that thing?"
"A Druj, Pendleton," he answered, "a type of undead spirit so rare that it is thought to be only legend. But what of Hoskins?" He turned to Lambert, who was crouched over the stricken man.
"I fear it is too late," said the Inspector. "The damned thing has already crushed the life from him."
Eyes staring sightlessly, the manservant lay slumped against the wall, his head canted unnaturally to one side.
* * *
"It was simple enough," said Vail. "Hoskins put the box on Addington's desk, knowing that he would open it. He waited until the man retired, then locked the door from the outside so that Addington should have no chance of escape. He then waited until the struggle was over before opening the door, knowing that the Druj would have returned to its box."
"But how did you know to suspect Hoskins?" I asked.
"The bell pull," said Vail. "Hoskins maintained he had been summoned from his chambers by the furious ringing of it. But when we retraced Lord Addington's footsteps, it was apparent that he never ventured near it."
"The only question was finding where Hoskins had hidden the box. The simplest solution seemed to have him bring it to us. So I mentioned Claughton intended to search the house. I was certain he would wait until we had departed, then bury it outside."
"But the disembodied hand, Vail! How on earth could you have known to expect that?"
"I had the advantage of knowledge which you did not possess. This is a strange land we dwell in, Pendleton, filled with all manner of horrifying and supernatural forces. Ghosts and vampires are very real, and there are worse creatures which prey upon man. As you know, I have studied everything which would help me to better understand the fearsome nature of these creatures and have established contact with experts on the supernatural."
"You refer, I assume, to your communications with Dr. Van Richten?"
Vail nodded. "He is the authority on the subject. But even his writings mention little about the Druj, so rare is it. It is an undead spirit bound by some awful rite to a piece of human felsh, usually and eye or a hand. Formidable in combat, it also secretes a powerful poison. The means of creating them are unknown. It is rendered harmless enough in its box, but we must find some way of permanently destroying it. I will contact Dr. Van Richten in hopes that he may be able to shed some light. In the meantime, Lambert will keep it safe."
"Well," I said. "Everything seems to be resolved. Beverly Addington is free again, and the murderer, if not brought to justice, at least met his final reward."
"Resolved, Pendleton?" asked Vail bitterly. "I think not. Have you forgotten the letter? Do you think it was Hoskins who animated the Druj? No it would have never have turned on its master. He was the agent of some larger group. Yet I have no way to track them."
"There is the letter," I said, trying to cheer him. "You have tracked men down by the cletters before."
"Of course, of course," he murmured wearily. "But I have little hope that it will yield real results. There is too little data. Still, our paths will certainly cross again. They will not escape me long."