Friday, August 15, 2014

Pietro De Palma's short story : Senator Banner's Death

Exceptionally, today, I don't post on my blog an article critical about a novel, but a short story I wrote several years ago, translated into american language a few years ago, at the request of an acquaintance of mine, because it could have been inserted in an anthology of pastiches dedicated to Ellery Queen. The anthology has not been realized, and then today I publish my short tribute: it is an  Ellery Queen apocryphal adventure , with a variation of "Locked Room". I think it's quite enjoyable. Happy reading.

Senator Banner’s Death


Pietro De Palma

Ellery was still sleeping when the doorbell rang. Sergeant Velie and Policeman O’Rourke were there, looking for his father.
-          “Inspector Queen is here?”
-          “Heck, what’s the matter on this Sunday morning?”
-          “Inspector, the D.A. wishes to see you in a hurry.”
-          “But what’s so pressing to knock me out of the bed at 8:30 of a Sunday morning?”
-          “Murder! Senator Banner was killed.”
-          “Listen to this!”
Half an hour later the Inspector said to the filipino servant:
-          “When Ellery wakes up, send him to…”
-          “I’m ready, Pa’.”
Ellery fully dressed and with the usual fisherman’s cap on his head, was already at the door.
-          “I heard the conversation and I dressed immediately. Let’s go.”
Together the fours went to Senator Banner’s.
The house was built on the 6th Avenue and was more a villa then a mansion, with Palladian features like Jefferson’s home: in fact it was built at the beginning of the 19th century.
Inside a crowd of policemen, people of the forensic department and homicide squad where waiting for their arrival. Someone was checking the fingerprints and others were questioning the witness.
A policeman with a mop of blond hairs stopped them.
- “Where are you going?”
- “I’m Inspector Queen. The D.A. Fallagan sent for me.”
- “Sorry. You are awaited there”, and pointed out to an open door. No, the door was really flung open or better was thrown away on the side.
Ellery asked:
-          “Did you break the door down to enter, didn’t you?”
-          “Yes, indeed. But who are you, Mister? Asked the D.A.”
-          “He’s my son”, answered Inspector Queen. – “He solved the case of the “Dancing Dead”, do you remember?”
-          “Ah…that’s him”, he mumbled, looking Ellery up and down.
-          “Don’t take offence, Inspector, but your son doesn’t seem to me a smart one.”
-          “Yes, I agree. But at the right moment nobody can stop him.”
-          “Speaking of the door, why did you break it?”, asked Ellery.
-          “It was closed from inside!”, said another guy with a trench coat and a fedora on his head in Bogart’s style.
-          “I wonder why people wish to dress that way…”.
-          “Listen to who’s talking!”, replied the guy with the Bogart’s attire. “You seem to me like a fisherman who forgot his rod and wading boots.”
-          “But who are you?”
-          “I’m Commissioner Brady.”
-          “Mmm, the famous Commissioner Brady. Haven’t you retired?”
-          “I won’t let you use this tone, young man!”
-          “Ok, Ok, don’t get angry!”
Inspector Queen gave him a nod to let the matter go.
-          “Where is the Senator?”
They pointed out to a body lying under a sheet. A stout man in a purple dressing - gown, lay lifeless on the floor, a little bullet hole on the right temple.
-          “He shot himself in the head” – said one of the presents,
pointing out to a .22.
Ellery sniffed the barrel: the gun had undoubtedly fired shortly before.
-          “Case solved”, exclaimed Richard Queen.
-          “Why did you summon us?”
-          “Well, actually there’s something…”, said the Commissioner.
-          “The Senator was left-handed, so he would have shot himself on the left temple. Besides, some months ago he had suffered from a hemi paresis on the right side, so…he would have used the left hand.”
     The Inspector objected:
-          “But if he had half turned the trunk, he would have been able to shot himself on the right temple!”
-          “You are in the right, Dad, but the bullet would’ve followed a different trajectory, hadn’t it?”
-          “Yes, son, but what does it mean?”
-         “The Senator was killed in a room closed from the inside, and him alone could close or open it. Naturally you did not found some kind of a hideout where someone could have lie in wait…”.
-         “No, in this room there aren’t hiding-places. But the earth place in the hall has a secret door that goes nowhere; the ceiling has crumbled long time ago, judging by cobwebs.”
Ellery looked around. It was a studio with two great windows with bars on. He tried them ascertaining that they were made in solid wrought iron. No signs that they had been removed and then cemented back in place.
-         “So the room was locked from inside?”
-         “Sure. Double-locked. No chance that it was locked from outside. There are no scratches on the key, and the lock is in the right place.”
-         “But are you really sure that it wasn’t locked from outside?”
-         “Yes, of course. You see, if you insert the key from the outside it doesn’t turn. You can use it only from inside.”
-         “Odd!”
-         “Not for me. The lock is defective on the outside. However this settle things one and for all, doesn’t it? You can open that door only from inside.”
-         “Who were at home at the moment of the murder?”
-         “The wife, two sons, the secretary, the butler. And the cook of course.”
-         “Why of course?”
-         “Because the Senator loved the good food. Particularly chocolate. We found him with the mouth and the fingers dirty of chocolate. There was a chocolate paper on his side.”
-         “A chocolate?”
-         “Probably. There is a big packet of assorted chocolates on the desk, full of discarded papers.”
-         “Inspector, there is another one on that bureau. Much more assorted.”
Ellery got near the furniture and saw that the packet was full of Avalanche chocolates, the best of all. He unwrapped one of the chocolates to take it to his mouth when he noticed a little hole on the paper. Rapidly he examined the other ones and ascertained that all of them had the same infinitesimal hole. He broke the chocolate and immediately smelt the characteristic scent of bitter almonds.”
-         “But what the hell…”, said the Commissioner.
-         “Cyanide!”
-         “Whoever has committed this murder wished to be sure he were plumb dead!”
-         “Yeah. But why shoot him if…?”
-         “Who can say? Now I wish to talk to the butler, said Inspector Queen.”
Velie came back accompanied by a loose-limbed guy with an impassive face and a look more proper to a gravedigger than to a butler.
-         “I hope your name isn’t Jarvis, doesn’t it?”
-         “That’s my name. What’s the matter?”
-         “Really your name is…?”
-         “Jarvis, at your service, Sir.”
-         “Of all the queer things…”
-         “Have you ever seen this packet?”, asked Ellery pointing out to the poisoned one.
-         “Oh, yes Sir. I’m sure that it was delivered last evening.”
-         “By whom?”
-         “I can’t say. The doorbell rang, I opened the door and the packet was there, on the ground.  A beautiful chocolate box, with a note of thanks. The Senator read it, frowned and observed that he didn’t know the sender.”
-         “That was…?”
-         “Let me think, Sir. M.M. Mulligan, I’d say. Yes, Vera Mulligan. He said he didn’t know that lady, or maybe he didn’t remember her. In any case she must know him very well, seeing that the chocolates are the Senator favourites. Cherry brandy, walnut, strawberry and orange.”
-         “Show me where you find it.”  
They went out.
-         “Here”. The point was near one of the column of the
open gallery. Ellery saw a sudden glare; he leaned and picked up something, setting it in his pocket. It seemed a metallic object.
-         “You were alone when you found that box?”
-         “Meaning at home? No, no. They were all here.”
-         “Where precisely?”
-         “Mrs Rita, the wife and the two sons in the dining room on the other side of the house; the secretary on the second floor, the cook in the kitchen. He pointed out to a door not far from the doorway.”
-         “However yesterday the Senator had come back with a box of cinnamon chocolates. You know, he was crazy about them.”
-         “Thanks, Jarvis. Ah, wait a moment. Do you recognize this key?”
Jarvis examined it.
-         “Where was it, Sir?”
-         “In the lock, of course.”
-         “That’s strange, Sir. The key of this door were lost long time ago. It’s strange that it reappeared just now.”
-         “Are You sure?”
-         “I swear it on my son’s head…he died in the war!”
-         “Why this key can lock the door only from the inside?”
-         “I don’t know, Sir.”
-         “Well, you can leave.”
-         “The wife and the sons since when they do live here, Jarvis?”, asked Commissioner Brady while the butler was going away.
-         “They don’t live here, Sir. They live in Richmond.”
-         “Then why they are here?”
-         “Senator Banner summoned them yesterday. He wished to change his will and today he would have read to them the new arrangements.”
-         “Here we go with the motive. But what was the content?”
-         “How could I know, Sir? Better that you ask to the D.A.”
-         “I don’t understand.”
-         “Inspector, the Senator was a friend of mine. He wished that I rode the will to his relatives. But I don’t know the content. It is a holographic will, you know.”
-         “Where is it?”
-         “In that safe, he said pointing out to a massive cupboard.”
-         “You know the combination?”
-         “No.”
-         “Velie, we must open this safe. Check if someone of the relatives knows the combination, otherwise find me a guy that could open it.”
-         “That’s me, butted in Policeman O’Rourke.”
-         “That’s fine.”
Half an hour later, O’Rourke had opened it with a vial of sulphuric acid that he had poured in a row of holes he had opened all around the combination. The fumes were so suffocating that they had to open the windows in the dead of winter while the snow was falling copiously on the ground. Unfortunately inside there was nothing that seemed to a will.
-         “Stolen, I’m sure”, exclaimed Ellery smoothing some scraps of paper that he had found in the ashes of the fireplace placed on the opposite side of the windows.
-         “Probably this was the will.”
-         “A last question, Jarvis. When you picked up the chocolates box did you notice something odd?”
-         “I don’t know. It has snowed a lot, but there were no tracks in the snow.”
-         “Thanks, Jarvis.”
-         “Who knocked down the door?”
-         “Jarvis and the Senator’s son, John.”
-         “Jarvis, when you entered in the room, how was it?”
-         “Dark.”
-         “Thanks, Jarvis you can go. Oh, please, sent the others in.”
After some minutes Ellery posed the same question to John Banner, a tall and slim youngster that was about the same age of Ellery.
-         “You and Jarvis alone knocked down the door?”
-         “Yeah. My mother, my sister and the cook arrived after a couple of minutes.”
-         “The old will, what does it say?”
-         “Why do you say “old”? There is only one will!”
-         “Now there is only one, yesterday there was another. You see…the second one was burned. I found some scraps in the fireplace.”
-         “Dad disposed that all his properties were to be divided in equal parts between me, mama and sis, plus a 150.000 dollars legacy to his half-sister Geena.”
-         “Where is she?”
-         “We have no notice of her from the moment she went to Amazonian jungle three years ago.”
-         “So the properties were to be divided in about four parts, didn’t they?”
An hour later the investigators, without Ellery that had gone out for some mysterious errand were discussing the case sipping an aged bourbon.
-         “A complicated case, don’t you think?”, asked the State Attorney.
-         “He is one of the heirs, added the Inspector.”
-         “The butler and the cook, do they inherit something?”
-         “Nothing at all.”
-         “Meanwhile Ellery, after a leave of about half an hour, was entering in the room.”
-         “Here you are, Ellery, where did you go?”
-         “Oh. I was looking around for clues.”
-         “Did You found something?”
-         “A little particular, maybe. But Jarvis said to me that he wishes to tell us something of great importance. Must be here in a couple of minutes.”.
They waited patiently, but the butler didn’t show. They went out looking for the man, but it seemed that he was vanished into thin air.
They found him outside, the body outstretched in the snow. The snow was red. There was an axe driven into the head and the corpse was near the garage. No tracks in the snow.
-         “Two murders in so a little time.”
-         “It’s horrible, isn’t it? But who is the murderer?”
The Senator’s wife and daughter were weeping.
-         “We will die, all of us…you must protect us!”
-         “Have you something to say to us to catch the culprit?”
They didn’t answer.
-         “Did the Senator be afraid of someone in particular?”
-         “He did fear nobody. He was afraid of the dark, really.”
-         “What an interesting thing.”

     The Inspector invited all the people in the study and said that Ellery would resolve the case soon. At six o’clock in the afternoon they all were I the room, and ten policemen were guarding the doors, while other officer were outside guarding the house.
     Ellery was allowed to speak.
     -“A very interesting case, nothing to say. The best clues were hidden. The Senator was afraid of the dark, but why he switched off the light before killing himself? On the contrary if he was killed, why the murderer operated in the dark when he well knew the Senator’s phobia? Maybe the dark was of significance. And why Jarvis telling about the chocolate box said that the package was beautiful and perfect? Why did he choose that adjective? Why perfect? And why the key we found in the lock inside the room showed itself after so much time and turning blocked the mechanism? Last but not least what was the use of this thing?”.
He showed a little metallic device to the onlookers.
  -  “I found it in the snow near the arcade.”
It was a hook.
-          “Let me explain the succession of the facts.. Yesterday Jarvis opened the door after hearing the knock and found the chocolate box. He said the package was beautiful, perfect, probably he thought why there weren’t tracks in the snow and why the box was clean.”
-          “It was put there before it snowed.”
-          “Maybe. But in that case the snow would have cover the box and damp the package. On the contrary it was in order, tight and clean. Why? Simply because it was put there at that hour.”
-          “It’s not possible! There would be tracks, there was not snowing at that time.”
-          “You say so? Well, why did they knock at the door and didn’t ring the bell?”
Nobody answered.
-          “The only reason is that no one deposited there that box coming from outside, otherwise they would have rang the bell. No, gentlemen…the box was put there by someone coming from inside and using this.”
He showed the hook.
-          “This was used to hook the perfect knot and with a fishing rod or a long cane the box was let down from a window. Unfortunately the hook came off, while someone knocked at the door and Jarvis opened. However the poisoned chocolates didn’t kill the Senator. Why? Because he loved the cinnamon ones and ate only those, sparing the others. The murderer must have seen the scene and took his measures. He killed the Senator by means of this.”
He showed the key to the bewildered onlookers.
-          “This was found in the inside lock of the study door and Jarvis said that is has been lost a long time ago. Yesterday after my inspection in the house I noticed that the keys of different doors could open other doors and this in particular could open the second floor bathroom that nobody uses at the moment, due to the fact that the second floor is reserved to the guests. Who could possibly notice that the bathroom had not a key in the lock? This key is perfectly functioning from the inside but of no use if you intend to close the study room from outside. So the person who has let down the chocolate box from the window, used this key to close the room from inside.”
-          “And how could you explain the fact that if the murderer really closed the door from inside, after he had shot the Senator with a silenced .22, could not go out the room?”
-          “Remember the dark, Mister State Attorney. The dark could explain all. The murderer, after killing the victim, stayed in the room and switched off the light, so the people who would break down the door could not possibly see him and he could feign to be arrived after them.  Who presented himself soon after you and Jarvis broke down the door, John? And who could possibly know, living here, that some of the keys could open different doors? Who induced Jarvis to think that someone had knocked at the main entrance? Only one person could. The same person that was hiding in the room near the entrance. The same that knocked from inside after having let down the box from the window with the bars using a fish rod or a long cane with a hook attached. The cook.”
All the onlookers turned their eyes on Helen. They saw her dimming look while she took her hands at the throat and collapsed on the floor with the fingers dirtied by chocolate. At last her poisoned chocolates had been useful even tough not for the appointed victim.
-          “She was not a real cook. She was Geena, the Senator’s half sister. She vanished in the Amazonian jungle some years ago, after his brother had nominated her in his will. Then she reappeared in disguise and she had changed so much that his brother didn’t recognize her. Her wish is clear. To wait the right occasion, kill him and escape the punishment. Then he decided to change his will because he thought she was dead. That was the moment when she decided to accelerate her murderous plan. It’s possible that the poisoned chocolates would have served to eliminate one or all the other heirs also. Then she killed Jarvis. At the beginning my suspect were diverted by the fact that in the will there weren’t legacies for the butler and the cook; then when all the cards were put in the right order the puzzle was perfectly reconstructed.”
-          “Well Done, Ellery, you could be a real investigator.”
-          “In my family that place his already taken,” said the youngster.
                                          The End

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