Arthur Witles sat across from me, his plastic pipe bubbling on occasion. He was speaking to me quite freely about something so absurd that I do not care to mention it here. He emptied bowl after bowl of bubble stuff all the while sharing with me ideas that made no sense, yet even less sense as he tried to explain them.
Witles was in an abnormally good mood this morning, probably due to the payment that he had received from his last case -which was no more complex than walking to a woman’s house, then telling her that her glasses had not been stolen, but, that they were, in fact, resting upon the top of her head.-
We spoke for several hours that morning, Witles trying to explain to me all the intricacies of the universe, while I tried to explain to him that if he had ever had any vestige of a clue he had lost it long ago. Witles didn’t seem to be listening, not that he ever listens to me.
Witles received a telephone call, or as he likes to call it, a wire. It was from an Inspector at the local station, informing him of a recent crime. Though he spoke not a word to me, I knew that the case must be serious, that or Witles was losing a bout with constipation.
He sat silently across from me, his brow furrowed, staring blankly at the wall behind me. I made several attempts to disturb his concentration, but he was far too absorbed to notice any sort of stimulation. When I finally forced myself to realize that he would not speak a word to me of the crime, I suggested that I should leave him alone to think. Witles quickly interrupted my speech to say that he would like for me to stay.
“What is the case about?” I asked the question a bit reluctantly.
“Well,” Witles said, “It is not so much what the case is about, it is more the way that the act was performed.”
“And to what act are you referring?”
“Well, the crime, of course.”
“Which is?..” I said, while gesturing for him to continue.
“Which is an act performed that is outside the boundaries of the law. Really, I would think that by now you would know what a crime is.
“Of course I know what a crime is! I want to know what, exactly, the Inspector called you about.
Though it may seem hard to believe, it actually took me almost an hour to convince Witles to confide in me the secret of the call that he had received from the Inspector.
It seemed that there had been some sort of foul play at the Brickenbaker estate -though when I used the term ‘foul play’ all that Witles would say is that baseball had nothing to do with the case.-
It was a full six hours after the call had been received that we actually arrived at the scene of the crime.
Inspector Bestrade welcomed us with open arms, which usually meant that he had not found a single trace of a clue to go on.
The Inspector took on a rather morose look before speaking, “Well, Witless..”
“Indeed. The crime scene is exactly how we found it. If there are any clues to be found here, they are very well concealed.”
Witles tried to shoot the Inspector a sly grin, but it looked a bit more like the grin of a defiant infant who had just made a doody, “You two go on inside, I will be there directly.”
The Inspector and I stood just inside the front door, all the while watching Witles crawiling along the path to the house, and into the grass beside it. Eventually circumscribing the house, and examing all the doors and windows. A couple of times he lifted his head long enough to let out a chuckle, but with Witles that could mean anything.
A few minutes later, magnifying glass still in hand, Witles joined us inside the house.
“So let us have a look at the room in question then.” He spoke.
Inspector Bestrade did as Witles asked and led us down the long hallway to the crime scene. Witles was looking through his glass, examining everything on the way.
Upon finally reaching the crime scene -which looked more like a servant’s quarters than anything else- Witles voiced his disgust, “Well, it’s good to see that you took absolutely no care in trying to preserve the crime scene.”
The Inspector looked quizzically at Witles, “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, come now, I’ve seen tornadoes blow through homes and do less damage than your detectives did.”
“Indeed. I am the only person that has set foot in this room. I assure you that nothing has been disturbed.”
“We shall see about that. But, you say that you did have to force the door?”
“Yes, it is quite strange, there are three dead-bolts on every door, one needs a key to get in, one needs a key to get out, while the third needs a key either way. It would have taken two keys to get into or out of that room, and the only key for the double-keyed dead-bolt has been found under the tongue of the deceased.”
“Curious, curious indeed.”
“Is the body just as you found it?”
“No, actually we took down and played a game of twister with her, chopped off her hands and then hung her back up on the coat rack.”
“I pray that was sarcasm, Inspector Bestrade. You had better mind yourself, I have not yet ruled you out as a suspect.”
“Come on, I am investigating it.”
“And a fine cover it would make, investigating your own murders, botching the jobs on purpose.”
“Oh, and what about you Mr. Witless?”
“Wit’Uls. And, I have not yet ruled myself out as a suspect either. Not until I have provided a proper alibi.”
The Inspector merely rolled his eyes. His hatred for Witles was apparent and for obvious reasons. It may be true that Witles had an uncanny knack for solving such crimes, some had even used the word genius to describe him, some also had used the moron, and there were pretty solid examples of each from which to form an opinion. Bestrade was convinced that moron was a more likely description, yet he did have to concede that there were many times when Witles had succeeded where he had failed.
“Would you like to take a look at the body?” The inpsector asked, while stepping into the room.
“Wait!” Witles shouted, “I would like to take a look at the floor before it gets trampled again.”
“Oh, very well.”
Witles crawled along the floor, his glass in hand. He investigated from the door to either wall in small sections, possibly two feet at a time. It was after his third pass when he abrubtly stopped. “Apparently, Inspector, you do not know what a clue looks like.”
“Well, in fact, I do know what a clue looks like. I can assure you that there are no clues here.”
“Yes, so it would seem, but take a closer look, through the glass.”
The Inspector spent several minutes staring at the floor through the glass that Witles had provided him.
“Don’t you see it?”
“Nothing? Do I see nothing? Yes, I see nothing.”
“Nothing, absolutely nothing, less than nothing, zip, zilch, do you see it?”
“Yes, I see absolutely nothing.”
“So that solves half of the problem.
“I don’t understand.”
“And how could you. I should be thankful that you are not even smart enough to comprehend the concept of it all, otherwise I would be out of a job, wouldn’t I.”
Witles walked straight across the room to the rack that the woman’s body was suspended by. He lifted each of her arms, then her head. “Well, She certainly is dead.”
“We know that, the question is how did it happen?”
“Well, the door is triple bolted and the key was found on the body, the windows are nailed shut, there doesn’t appear to be any other way in or out.”
“Yes,” The Inspector interjected, “And you are a consulting detective, so that rules out the idea of a dumb-waiter.”
I could not help but laugh.
“You know Inspector, that is just the type of witless..”
“Wit’Uls,” The Inspector shot back.
“Indeed. That is just the type of Wit’Uls humor that I would expect from you.”
“So are you going to finish telling us what happened?”
“Indeed. There is no means of escape, the door triple-bolted, the windows nailed shut, I see no break in the wall, no crack to imply a hidden passage, so the answer is rather obvious.”
“And the answer is?” The Inspector said, looking as if he couldn’t believe how quickly Witles had solved the complex crime.
“The answer, my ignorant friend, is…Aliens.” The response was very matter of fact.
“Yes, Aliens…Beings from another planet, perhaps you have heard of them?”
“Are you quite serious?”
“Well, just look at it. The door is locked, the window is nailed, there is no other break in the wall, there is no way that anyone could have gotten in and out of the room.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Oh, come now, the government has been hiding it for years. Haven’t you heard about ‘hangar 18’, haven’t you seen the lights in the sky that you just can’t explain? It happens all the time.”
“What happens all the time? Aliens kill people?”
“Well, no. Normally they just abduct people, it’s the cattle that they slaughter…But, come now, this woman is not what you would call petite, I could have made the same mistake.”
The Inspector spent a few minutes trying to control his rage. Before he could speak, though, Witles was going on again.
“It is like the great Maybelock Houses always said, ‘rule out the impossible and whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
“Wit’Uls,” The Inspector said, controlling his rage, “would you please come over here for just a second?” The Inspector used his thumb to pop each of the knuckles on his right hand while he was saying this.
Honestly, about two-thirds of me wanted to close my eyes, to not see the serious thrasing that Witles was about to receive, but, the other third really wanted to see someone do what I have wanted to do for so long. I only left one eye open.
Mysteriously, though, as Witles crossed the persian rug in the center of the room he began to get shorter, at an alarming rate. That is to say that in less than a second he disappeared completely, as well as the carpet, and a three square foot section of the floor.
I looked over to see the Inspector trying hard to contol his laughter. Despite myself, I found that I was laughing every bit as hard as he was.
“So,” the Inspector shouted, “Does this mean that your alien theory might have been inaccurate?”
I couldn’t see Witles, but I could still tell that his eyes were darting back and forth as he said, “Oh, come now, I knew all along that it wasn’t aliens, what do you take me for, a moron?”
“Oh, no? Then what was that speech about government conspiracies and the such?”
“Well, obviously,” Witles said sarcastically, “I was using that in a joking sense. You could not find a single trace of a clue here, I thought you might believe it.”
After that last statement, I could swear that I heard Witles mumble, “yeah, that’s it.”
“Uhhhh-huhhh.” The Inspector said, “So you knew about the floor all along?”
“Well of course I did, I just didn’t want to tell you, hurt your feelings and the such. Something like that could have seriously undermined your self esteem.”
Witles eyes sounded like gun shots as the darted back and forth. I think that even the Inspector could hear it, but he did not speak a word. The Inspector had worked with Witles enough to know that if he had a story he would stick to it, no matter how ridiculous it was.
“Do you need a hand out of there?” I asked.
“No, why don’t you two get a couple of lanterns, I want to follow the tunnel through, even though I know where it is going to come out.”
“Ohh, sure you do Witless.”
“And for your information this tunnel will come out in the center of the barn in the neighbors field.”
I exchanged a shrug with the Inspector then found a couple of flashlights and joined Witles in the tunnel -in a much less dramatic (if not traumatic) way-.
No one said a word as we half walked, half crawled through the tunnel. Witles stopped periodically to examine things on the floor and walls of the cavern, but never alluded to his findings. We covered an indeterminate distance, and after about ten minutes we came to a trap door at the end of the tunnel.
Witles was the first to climb through, he then gave us a hand after him. The Inspector and I were both dumbfounded to see that we were in what appeared to be a barn. Witles seemed to sense this.
“That’s not the half of it, take a look out the door, tell me what you see.”
We did as Witles asked and to our amazement what stood before us was the fence that separated the barn from the home we had been in at the Brickenbaker estate. I was just happy that Witles was a big enough man that he never said I told you so.
“I told you so!”
“Indeed.” Came our simultaneous reply.
Never once had either myself or the Inspector actually had even the slightest notion to think about the possibility that Witles might have been right. Imagine our surprise at finding out that he was exactly right.
“How? In the name of God, tell me how did you know that?”
“Elemetary, my dear Ampere. If you were to become my understudy rather than simply writing my chronicles, you, too, would be able to see something that is so painfully obvious.”
“So you know how they escaped. Now can you tell us who and why?” The Inspector asked.
“Both shall be answered in a matter of only twenty and four hours. You may take care of the body and the such. Be at my home at this time tomorrow, there will be a man there that you seem to be pursuing. I am sure he will offer a confession.”
The Inspector didn’t say a word, only offered a hand to Witles, then returned to the scene of the crime. Witles and I departed at the same time and went straight back to his home.
Upon arriving at home, Witles scribbled a note and asked me to have it wired to every paper in the city, which I did, though by telephone not telegraph.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“We eat a good meal and we wait. There is nothing else that can be done for now.”
“Do you care to give me any of the details of what you discovered?”
“After I have eaten a good meal I will tell you all that I saw, all that the Inspector and yourself missed.”
True to his word, after a hearty bowl of stew, Witles sat in front of the fire and began telling me about what he had seen.
“At first, Dr. Ampere, I believed that my alien/government cover-up theory seemed plausible. It was not until I turned away from the body that I found the clue.”
“What was the clue?”
“Did you notice anything strange about the persian rug on the floor?”
“Maybe I had better show you.”
Here Witles made a crude sketch, by crude I mean that it looked like a square that had been drawn by a two year old. On heroin. I examined the sketch but concluded nothing.
“Either you are a poor artist, or I have missed what I am looking for.”
“Possibly both, but no matter how crude, the clue is still there. As you will recall I focused my search around the door and windows. I found nothing. I then started concentrating on the floor near the edges of the walls hoping to find scratch marks that would have indicated a secret opening in the panels. I found nothing, nothing at all.”
“It was after I had examined the body and began approaching you that I saw it. The rug, it seemed odd. The two corners of it that were on the same side of the room as the door were taut, beyond taut. They were pulled tightly enough to make the sides look as though they were concave. One of the corners on the side of the room near the body was the same way.”
“Okay, still though I do not see how that told you all that you know.”
“It is quite simple. You see, with three of the corners being pulled so tightly, it was obvious that those corners must be nailed down. If you have ever stretched a piece of plastic wrap you would have seen the same thing. It’s natural shape has square corners, if you stretch it across the bias it will make the sides bow in, but the second you release the pressure it returns to its natural shape. The rug on the floor had three of the corners stretched in this manner, but not the fourth. There was also a small wrinkle, the only wrinkle in the entire rug, near that fourth corner. I then knew that there must be a void under the carpet, and that this was how the escape had been made.
“Excellent! But, why did you try to walk across it?”
Witles looked like he had just gotten caught peeing in his mom’s coffee, so I decided to let that matter go.
“How did you know that the other end of the passage would be in the barn. It would seem much more likely that it would come out in an area with less traffic.”
“Yes, it would be very cunning to have the tunnel come out in a very desolate place, but even more cunning to have it come out where everyone thinks it will come out, because no one will ever search for something where they think it is.”
If you can make a bit of sense out of that you are doing a lot better than I did with it. I just kind of stared at him until he started to speak again.
“It was only after I jumped..”
“You mean fell.”
“Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Once I was in the tunnel I found some pieces of straw lying on the floor. They had obviously come from the other end of the tunnel, for the Brickenbaker Estate does not use hay for their horses, but grain.”
“And the note that you had me send to the papers, how did you know?”
“We will leave that, and the rest of the mystery, to be solved tomorrow. Our friend should be able to shed a bit more light on the subject than I myself can.”
Inspector Bestrade arrived at Witles’ home almost exactly twenty-four hours after the last time that we had seen him. He seemed to be anxious for resolve, but Witles seemed to be content to make him wait.
“I am determined to make you wait.” Witles said.
“But, I am anxious for resolve.” The Inspector replied.
“Wait a minute! Did you two read my notes while I was in the can?!”
“Sorry, Dr. Ampere, we just couldn’t resist.”
The two of them sat across from each other, Bestrade’s pipe glowing as he let out puff after puff of tobacco smoke, Witles pipe letting forth a stream of bubbles each time Bestrade’s smoke came too close. This was perhaps the strangest form of competition I have ever seen. After about thirty minutes, the game was ceased as we heard someone coming up the stairs. Witles opened the door.
“Mr. Witless, I presume.”
“Wit’Uls!” The three of us shot back in unison.
“Indeed…I am here because of the note that I saw in the paper this morning.”
“Please, have a seat Mr. Barnes.” Witles said, while gesturing to a chair.
The man took a seat, but eyes us suspiciously, “What is this all about?”
“The game is up, Mr. Barnes. I know what you have done. This gentleman is from Scotland Yard..”
“Actually, I’m from NYPD.”
“Like it matters.” Witles said.
“Well, by law I have to tell him that I am an officer of the law. Also, I need to inform him of his rights.”
“Fine!” Witles shouted, “This gentleman is in some way affiliated with a law enforcement agency, which happens to be even shoddier than Scotland Yard. He is going to take you into detention in a few moments. You don’t have to say anything, but what you do say here could only help to soften your sentence.”
The man seemed to weigh his options. He didn’t look to be the type to know his rights, even if he did he would have cracked under the pressure of a stiff wind.
“You know it all?!” He asked frantically.
“Yes, every bit. As I said, though, speaking now could only help you.”
The man let out a sigh, “I am poor, Mr. Witles, painfully poor. Surely you could see how a man in my position could get greedy. It was not that they weren’t paying me enough, but, I was in debt gambling. I needed something to get me out of it. I had often seen the huge diamond ring on her finger, heard her brag that it was worth more than her property. I knew that if I could just get that ring I could get out of debt. That was all I needed just some cash, a springboard, to get me above water again.”
The man sat and sobbed for a few moments before continuing, “It took me months to dig the tunnel. I worked it out so perfectly, I waited so long. I had taken care to make sure that there would be no way to link it back to me. It was all so perfect.”
“Two days ago I completed the tunnel. I went into the house in the early morning to cut the hole in the floor. To hide the missing planks I nailed the corners of the rug down, so it wouldn’t sag in the center.”
“So it wouldn’t sag, not so that you could walk across it. It seems so clear now.”
“Of course, Mr. Witless..”
“Indeed… There is no way that four nails and a flimsy rug could support the weight of a man, I strictly wanted to hide the hole from the Madame.”
“It was a Thursday, so I knew that she would be alone. Her servants go to the city on Thursday. I waited until sunset, then crossed over in the tunnel. I came out in the servant’s break room, just as I had planned. You see the Madame doesn’t trust anyone, the only reason that she gave the servants Thursday off was so that she could search their quarters. I just had to wait.
“Unfortunately, I nodded off just before she came in. When I awakened, it was by her holding a knife to my throat. She threatened to kill me if I didn’t tell her what I was doing there. I told her that I had decided that I didn’t want to go out, that I just wanted a little rest, she would hear none of it.”
“She took several slashes at me, it was after four or five slashes that I finally got the knife away from her. Once I had the knife she calmed down. I took the ring from her finger and began to leave the room. As I did, though, she came after me. So I used her robe to suspend her from the coat rack.”
“You say that she was alive when you hung her from the coat rack? With both hands?” Witles eyed the Inspector as he asked the question.
“Yes, but you see, she got down and came after me again. She wrestled me to the floor. Once I was back in control, I did what I had to do, I hung her back on the coat rack and cut off her hands, so she would not be able to get back down.”
“Okay wait,” I interjected, “You cut off her hands so that she couldn’t get back down from the coat rack? Why didn’t you just tie them behind her back?”
“Well, I didn’t have any rope.”
“She had a belt on her robe, you could have used that.”
“That belt may have been the only thing preventing me from seeing the Madame in the buff, and that, sir would have been a fate far worse than whatever awaits me now… Anyway, I then slipped into the passage in the floor to make my escape. It was all so perfect how did you know?”
“But,” I said, “why didn’t you leave through the door? She had to unlock it to get in.”
“Yes, but there are three bolts on every door. Servants have a key to unlock the door from either the inside or the outside, but only the Madame has a key to open the third. And, after I had the knife and went for the door, she swallowed it.”
“Well,” Witles said, “First of all, Inspector, I believe that every word this man has spoken is the truth. You will likely never see that ring again, not that the Madame really needs it any more. And, judging by the story he has told I doubt you can make a charge against him other than pre-meditated murder in self-defense.”
The Inspector and I were both shaking our heads and sighing with that last statement.
“As for you, Mr. Barnes. You see, when you are dealing with an elite detective, such as myself, someone extensively schooled in forensics and pathology, even the slightest trace of a clue can turn into something so monumental that the fate of thousands could hang in the balance. That is part of the mystique, the admiration or fear that people feel for a detective so rare..So Amazing, if you will.. like myself.”
Inspector Bestrade walked over to Mr. Barnes, put him in hand cuffs, and started to lead him to the door.
“Mr. Barnes”, Witles said, “If you ever try this type of thing again, make sure that you don’t leave your wallet in the tunnel you use to make your escape.” Witles tossed the wallet at the man, it bounced off of his chest and landed near his feet. He began to sob, realizing that his words alone had sealed his fate.
I don’t know if the great Maybelock Houses ever said it, but Arthur Witles sure knows that a lot of detective work is nothing more than blind luck.