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Authors: John Dickson Carr

Death-Watch

BOOK: Death-Watch
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PRAISE FOR THE WRITING OF JOHN DICKSON CARR

“Very few detective stories baffle me, but Mr. Carr’s always do.” —Agatha Christie

“No one is so consistently successful as Carr, who combines genuine understanding of and relish for the past with a comparable understanding and relish in matters of detectival trickery.” —
The New York Times Book Review

“An excellent novel of crime and puzzlement.” —
The New York Times
on
To Wake the Dead

“A superb story written by an expert.” —
The New Yorker
on
The Emperor’s Snuff-Box

“Mystery fiction at its finest—an enthralling story such as only Carr can conjure up.” —
Newsday
on
The Demoniacs

“One of the best … Read it for the story or puzzle or period color— but by all means read it.” —
The New York Times Book Review
on
Scandal at High Chimneys

Death-Watch
A Dr. Gideon Fell Mystery
John Dickson Carr

Contents

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

About the Author

1
An Open Door in Lincoln’s Inn Fields

O
DD CRIMES?” SAID DR. FELL,
while we were discussing that case of the hats and the crossbows, and afterwards the still more curious problem of the inverted room at Waterfall Manor. “Not at all. Those things only seem odd because a fact is stated out of its proper context. For instance,” he rumbled, wheezing argumentatively, “consider this. A thief gets into a clockmaker’s shop and steals the hands off a clock. Nothing else is taken or even touched; only the hands from a clock of no especial value … Well? What would you make of that if you were the policeman to whom it had been reported? As a matter of fact, what sort of crime would you consider it?”

I thought he was merely indulging in fancies, as is the doctor’s habit when the tankards are filled and the chairs comfortable. So I said weakly that I should probably consider it killing time, and waited for the snort. None came. Dr. Fell sighted along his cigar; the beaming expression of his vast red face and many chins became as thoughtful as a chin can conveniently be; and the little eyes narrowed behind their glasses on the broad black ribbon. For a time he wheezed in silence, stroking his bandit’s moustache. Then he nodded suddenly.

“You’ve hit it!” he declared. “Harrumph, yes. You’ve hit it exactly.” He pointed the cigar. “That’s what made the murder so horrible when it happened—there was a murder, you know. The idea of Boscombe’s intending to pull that trigger merely to kill time! …”

“Boscombe? The murderer?”

“Only the man who admitted he intended to commit murder. As for the real murderer—it was rather a nasty case. I’m not much given to nerves,” said Dr. Fell, a long sniff rumbling in his nose. “Heh. No. Too much padding—here. But I give you my word the damned case frightened me, and I seem to recollect that it’s the only one that ever did. Remind me to tell you about it one day.”

I never did hear about it from him, for he and Mrs. Fell and I went to the theatre that night, and I had already arranged to leave London the next day. But it is doubtful whether he would have ever gone fully into the matter of how he saved the face of the C. I. D. in the most curious manner on record. However, anybody who knows Dr. Fell would be alert to discover the facts of a case which could make him uneasy. I finally got the story from Professor Melson, who had followed him through it. It took place during the autumn of the year before Dr. Fell moved to London in his advisory capacity to Scotland Yard (the reasons for which move will be understood at the conclusion of this narrative), and was the last to be officially handled by Chief Inspector David Hadley before his scheduled retirement. He did not retire; he is Superintendent Hadley now, and this also will be understood. Since a certain person prominent in the story died just four months ago, there is now no reason for silence. Here, then, are the facts. When Melson had finished telling his story I understood why Melson, not himself a nervous man, will always have an aversion to skylights and gilt paint; why the motive was so diabolical and the weapon unique; why Hadley says it might be called, “The Case of the Flying Glove”; why, in short, a number of us will always consider the clock-face problem as being Dr. Fell’s greatest case.

It was on the night of September 4th, as Melson well remembers, because he was to sail for home exactly a week later for the opening of the autumn term on the 15th. He was tired. It is not a vacation when you attempt that vague extra-faculty necessity known as “publishing something” to uphold your academic standing.
An Abridgement of Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Times, Edited and Annotated by Walter S. Melson, Ph.D.
, had been dragging on for so long, and he disagreed with the old he-gossip so violently on every point, that not even the frequent pleasure of catching him in a lie could stimulate enthusiasm now. But he found himself grinning, nevertheless. There was the presence of his old friend, stumping along beside him in his usual shovel hat, his vast bulk and his billowing black cloak silhouetted against the street lamps; fierily argumentative as usual, his two canes clicking by emphasis on a deserted pavement.

They were walking back along Holborn towards twelve o’clock on a cool and breezy night. Bloomsbury being unexpectedly full, the best lodging Melson had been able to find was an uncomfortable bed-sitting-room up four flights of stairs in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. They were late in returning from the theatre; Dr. Fell, a slave to the charms of Miss Miriam Hopkins, had insisted on sitting through the picture twice. But Melson had that afternoon picked up at Foyle’s a genuine find, a dictionary of mediaeval Latin script, and the doctor sternly refused to go home without seeing it.

“Besides,” he rumbled, “you don’t mean to say you actually want to go to bed at this hour? Hey? Man, it’s discouraging. If I were as young and spry as you—”

“I’m forty-two,” said Melson.

“The man,” said Dr. Fell, fiercely, “the man past thirty who mentions his age at all is already beginning to sprout moss. I survey you”—he bunked through his eyeglasses—“and what do you look like? You look like a sort of incurious Sherlock Holmes. Where’s your sense of adventure and eager human curiosity?”

“‘Great Turnstile,’” said Melson, seeing the familiar sign. “To the right here. I intended,” he went on, taking out his pipe and tapping it on his palm, “to ask you about your sense of eager human curiosity. Any new criminal cases?”

Dr. Fell grunted. “Possibly. I don’t know yet. They may make something out of that shop-walker murder, but I doubt it.”

“What happened?”

“Well, I had dinner with Hadley last night, but he didn’t seem to know the details himself. Said he hadn’t read the report; he’s got a good man on it. It seems to have started in an epidemic of shoplifting through the big department stores by one woman they can’t identify—”

“Shoplifting doesn’t appear to be very …”

“Yes, I know. But there seems to have been something devilish odd about those robberies. And the sequel is bad. Blast it! Melson, it bothers me!” He wheezed and rumbled for a moment, the eyeglasses coming askew on his nose. “The sequel happened about a week ago at Gamridge’s. Don’t you ever read the papers? There was a special sale, or something of the sort, in the jewellery department, and the place was crowded. Along came a shop-walker, inoffensive chap with the usual morning coat and plastered hair. Shop-walker suddenly grabs somebody’s arm; turmoil, milling about, cries, a tray of paste jewels spilled all over the floor; then, in the middle of the rumpus and before anybody knows what’s happened, shop-walker collapses in a heap. Shrieks. Somebody notices blood under him. They turn him over and discover his abdomen’s been ripped wide with some sort of knife. He died not long afterwards.”

It was uncomfortably cool and damp in the narrow passage called Great Turnstile. Their footfalls echoed on the flagstones, between rows of shuttered shops. Signs creaked uneasily, with a gleam or two where an anaemic gas-lamp caught their gilt lettering. Something in the bald recital, or the night noises stirring under the mutter of London, made Melson look over his shoulder.

“Good Lord!” he said. “You mean to tell me somebody committed murder just to avoid being nabbed for shoplifting?”

“Yes.
And in that manner
, my boy. Humph. I told you it was nasty. No clue, no description, nothing except that it was a woman. Five dozen people must have seen her, and every description was different. She vanished; that’s all. There’s the worst of it, d’ye see. Nothing to work on.”

“Was anything valuable taken?”

“A watch. It was out of a tray of curiosities they were using for display purposes; models used to show the progress of watchmaking from Peter Hele down.” A curious note came into Dr. Fell’s voice. “I say, Melson, what’s the number of that place you’re staying at in Lincoln’s Inn Fields?”

Without conscious intent Melson had stopped, partly to light his pipe, but also because of some memory that stirred and startled him like a touch on the shoulder. The match rasped across sandpaper on the box. What brought back the memory may have been the expression in Dr. Fell’s small bright eyes, turned down on him unwinkingly as the match-flame rose; or it may have been the fact that a muffled clock from the direction of Lincoln’s Inn began to strike midnight. To Melson’s rather fanciful brain there was something almost goblinlike in the doctor’s big figure in its cloak, with the breeze blowing the ribbon on his eyeglasses, peering down at him in the narrow passage. The clock striking—superstition … He shook out the match. Their footsteps went on echoing in the gloom.

“Number fifteen,” he said. “Why?”

“Then look here. You must be next door to a man in whom I’m rather interested. Queer old chap, by all accounts; name of Carver. He’s a clockmaker, and a very famous one. Harrumph, yes. Do you know anything about clock-making, by the way? It’s a fascinating subject. Carver loaned the department store several of his less valuable pieces—one of his was the stolen watch—and I believe they even coaxed a few out of the Guildhall Museum. I was only wondering …”

“You damned charlatan!” said Melson, explosively. Then he grinned, and it was reflected in a broad beam across Dr. Fell’s moon face. “I suppose you didn’t want to see that dictionary at all? But I—” He hesitated. “As a matter of fact I’d forgotten it, but a queer thing happened there today.”

“What sort of queer thing?”

Melson stared ahead between the dark walls, to where street lamps showed the pale green of trees in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

“A joke,” he answered, slowly. “A joke of some sort. I didn’t follow all of it. It was this morning. I’d come out for the after-breakfast smoke and constitutional; it was not quite nine o’clock, anyway. All those houses have a high stoop, with a cramped little porch under a couple of white pillars, and a bench along each side. There were very few people around, but a policeman was coming along our side of the street. I was sitting there smoking and feeling lazy … well, yes, I was looking at the house next door. It interested me because your clockmaker has a plate in his window that reads ‘Johannus Carver.’ I was curious about anybody who would have the nerve to turn his name into ‘Johannus’ in this day and age.”

“Well?”

“Well—this is where it gets ridiculous,” Melson said, uncomfortably. “All of a sudden the door popped open and out came a hard-faced old party (woman), who ducked down the steps and ran for the constable. First I gathered she wanted to report a burglary, and then that she wanted several kids in the neighbourhood sent to the reform school; she was in a devil of a stew, and shouting. Then out after her came another woman, youngish, quite a girl; good-looking blonde …”

BOOK: Death-Watch
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