Tracks in the Snow
H. Turnbull Smith
"There's an identical set exiting the house by the rear door and leading to the next village. Find the owner of those footprints, my friend, and the murder is solved." Fortis squared his manly shoulders and blew foul-smelling pipe smoke my direction.
"Or so it would seem," I said, noticing that in his haste to solve the murder, Inspector Fortis had once again forgotten to zip his pants. It is never a good thing to be guided by haste. For example, in this case the Inspector had apparently not observed the unusual nature of the prints in the snow, the soft grooves in the print which marked it an unconventional shoe.
"Do I detect a note of condescension, DuFarge? " Inspector Fortis cast a withering glance in my direction. "The house was deserted except for the victim and the deaf housekeeper, a feeble woman of eighty who had neither the means nor the motive to push a three hundred pound brute in a wheelchair to his death down two flights of steps. If she murdered him, why should she, be the very one to notify the police?"
In his ardor to advance his theory of the crime, tiny white flecks of unbecoming foam formed on Inspector Fortis' lips, evidence that he was, as I had suspected, again taking tranquilizers. It is my feeling that in the detection game, observation is as least as important as deduction, and a tranquilized detective can only be a second-rate observer.
However, not wishing to offend Inspector Fortis, I said, "It has been my experience that instant solutions are often premature, Inspector. If you should not be offended, I would like to speak with the housekeeper." "Offended, DuFarge, why should I be offended by your well-meaning bumbling, but I shall tell you this; you are wasting your time on this case. Save yourself for the big ones. This is open and shut murder. No fancy concoctions needed."
"No the concoctions are for the writers of cheap fiction," I said. "Murder is much too serious of business for that."
Madame Wrench was the very picture of an elderly woman frightened out of her wits to have been in a house where murder was committed. She was accompanied by her son, a natty dwarf dressed in a bowtie and a yellow suit befitting a racetrack tout. He excused himself before I could get a careful look at his manicured nails, but I did catch a glance of his tobacco-yellowed fingers.
"Can I make you some tea, Mr. DuFarge?"
"I should like that, but please none of the wretched English lemon," I said.
Madame Wrench returned shortly, bearing a pallid cup of weak British tea of the type which makes me often pity these island people of such pitiful taste. However, observing her trembling hands, I asked. "What is it that leads you to think Monsieur Walston's death was not accidental?"
"Very simple, Mr.DuFarge. The master always slept in his wheelchair facing the telly. This morning when I awakened the television was on, and the door to the basement stood open. I shouted for the master, but there was no answer so I investigated the cellar. There he sprawled at the foot of the steps, his head bleeding where he had hit the concrete floor."
"Then it was perhaps the suicide, Madame Wrench?"
"Oh my, no. You see the master's hand was clutched about the brake on his wheelchair."
"And you heard nothing in the night."
At that point we were interrupted by a sharp knock at the back door. A huge blind man, escorted by a guide dog, felt his way into the kitchen.
"Is that you, Mother Wrench?" the blind man with a livid scar down his left cheek said.
"Certainly it is, Jim, and I suppose you are in search of my son."
"Well the luck of the matter is you just missed him; he's gone off on the twelve-o-clock train."
"Then would you be so kind as to call me a cab? I need to speak with him."
Mrs. Wrench summoned a taxi for the blind man and then resumed her narrative. "The horrifying part for me, Mr. DuFarge, was to think a murderer gained entry to the locked house in the middle of the night, and I heard nothing. I could have been dispatched as well."
Mrs. Wrench's arthritic hands trembled as she sipped her tea. Finally she glanced at me insistently and said. "I don't know if I dare say this, Mr. DuFarge, but the truth is there were those who despised the master. A month ago he fired Stanley the butler when he caught him drinking. Stanley, I assure, you was very vengeful."
"And then may I ask you one other thing, Mrs. Wrench?":
"On the night in question where was your son?"
"Oh, Edward? Edward lives in Lower Scumbridge near his friend Jim. Tuesday nights he plays darts and drinks himself blind."
"Then you do not approve, Madame Wrench?"
"No, certainly I do not. A man his age should have a job. The only good thing in Edward's life is Jim. Jim is a big man, but he's polite, and he's kind, and he knows the value of money."
Inspector Fortis burst in on our little teaparty at that very same moment, marching with that flat-footed confidence characteristic of men enslaved by their own vanity.
"I hope you and Mrs. Wrench have had a good visit, Du Farge, but don't trouble yourself further. This case is closed. The footprints are size ten, and the sole beneficiary of Herbert Walston's will and insurance policies is Lomax Chase. My men have measured Chase's foot and it is exactly size ten. His only alibi is that he had been in Uxton with an unspecified friend, and was home sleeping. Thus we have the motive, the means, the opportunity, and absence of a substantial alibi."
"But, Inspector, is it not true that forty percent of the men in England wear that same size shoe? And isn't it reasonable that ninety-five percent of those would be sleeping in the middle of the night?"
"Stop yammering about reasonability like some damned defense French barrister, Du Farge. It's sometimes useful going through those mental gymnastics you're so fond of, but an open and shut case is simply that -- open and shut. We'll soon be arresting Lomax Chase for the murder of Herbert Walston."
"In that case I should say, Inspector Fortis, that your department has fired before it has had the opportunity to see the whites in the eyes of the invader. Murder often defies reason."
"Well sir, this is a free country, DuFarge, much freer than that swamp of a nation of truffle eaters you're from, and so you're entitled to your opinions, but in this case I'm sorry to say you are simply wrong."
"I should hope not, Inspector." I said, taking leave of my colleague.
I caught up with Stanley, the discharged butler, in the sparsely furnished hotel room he holed up in after his frequent pub debaucheries. Greased hair parted down the middle, he looked more like a roustabout than a servant with his wide blue suspenders, huge black shoes, and black, cunning eyes. Drinking from a hotel glass, he worked on a nearly-empty bottle of Seagrams beside him on the table.
"So, you say the old bastard Walston's been pushed down the stairs in his chair, eh? Damn fine news. In fact I'd say a service to humanity. The old lecher had it coming to him. Let me guess the murderer. Lomax Chase took him out for his money? Chase is a species of the human disease even lower than Walston."
"Exactly what was the relationship between the deceased and this Mr. Chase?"
"Well, DuFarge, you won't like hearing this, but seeing as you're French I suppose you can handle it. Mr.Chase -- and I use the term Mr. loosely in connection with that man -- was Walston's procurer of teenage prostitutes. Sickening business if you ask me."
"Yes far from wholesome, but Mr. Stanley you have not hidden your animosity towards the deceased; are you not aware that the finger of suspicion may in your direction point?"
"Point away dammit! I've nothing to hide, DuFarge. Besides I was in attendance at my new employer's bedside the entire night in question."
"Thank you very much, Mr. Stanley, but other than for Monsieur Chase did the deceased have any others who might have desired him dead? "
"Only forty or fifty rational beings. Of course there was Big Jim Corbitt?"
"And who is this Mr. Big Jim Corbitt?"
"I can see you're no sports fan, DuFarge, but it happened like this. Thirty-five years ago Gentleman Jim Corbitt was the European challenger to Herbert Walston's wrestling crown, and then one day Corbitt mysteriously went blind, bit of acid in the eyes and all that. The master was a prime suspect, but the police never pinned it on him, nor was the case solved."
"I thank you very much, Mr. Stanley, you have been most helpful, but, perhaps, you will give the address of your new employer."
After a brief chat with Stanley's current employer, I rode the bus to the residence of Lomax Chase. Mr. Chase resided in a Victorian mansion protected by a substantial steel fence. All visitors had to run a gauntlet of hungry-looking mastiffs that roamed the palatial grounds.
It was only by the firm use of hypnotic stare that I had been taught as interrogator for French counter-intelligence in Joffre's army that I was able to reach the front porch and confront Lomax Chase III. Mr. Chase was the kind of odious species one instinctively wants to depart from swiftly for fear that his brand of moral blight will infect you. His huge eyes bulged, and his cheeks had split into a series of red crevasses like a man addicted to gin. He continued firing at targets in an inner room as I introduced myself.
"Private Detective, eh, Du Farge? Well what makes you think you can outdo the police?"
"I should not put it that way, Monsieur. I am simply one who searches for truth,"I said.
"Pigshit! Truth and justice no more exist than heaven does." Chase fired a shot into the heart of the target, which was the face of the Queen, and as the smoke curled back from the pistol, offered me a shot.
"No thank you; violence is not part of my method, Monsieur Chase.. My method is the mind."
Chase winked at me knowingly. "Well if you use the mind, I suppose you've discovered that the police are hounding me because I stand to gain millions by Walston's death?"
"Then perhaps you also know that I haven't yet told the police, but in fact I was in a brothel in Uxton on the night in question. There must be ten plump sluts who will testify to that in court."
"Yes, I see that in your position as a bank officer such an admission is not wise. However, Mr. Chase, suppose that it was you in search of the murderer of Mr. Walston, whom would you suspect?"
"Well, why not that housekeeper of his? Anybody that had to deal with Beef Walston day in and day out was bound to hate him. I should have a damn hard look at her. Besides you know, I'm sure, she's got a shady midget son who's done his share of time locked up. Slippery character he is, who might help her out in a pinch."
"Thank you very much, Mr. Chase, but there is one other thing. Might I, perchance, have a look in your shoe closet."
"Why not, Du Farge, and if there are any of my old bowel movements lying around, you're welcome to them as well."
"That I think will not be necessary, Mr. Chase," I said.
His shoe closet held six pairs of identical ankle-high boots with silver toeplates and artifically elevated heels. Having observed the shoes in question, I said, "And may you have excellent luck with the shooting, Mr. Chase, and may England never have occasion to stretch your neck, Sir. And please tell me just one other thing. What mode of transportation did you use to visit your ladies of the night on the night of the murder?"
"Train, of course. Always the ten twenty-two to Uxton."
"Yes, I see," I replied. "Thank you."
There are times when one wishes that he had learned to drive, and transit to the domicile of Gentleman Jim Corbitt was one such time. It was fifty miles by local bus to his lodging at Lower Scumbridge on Swan in a rickety railroad flat that rattled as the trains passed. That livid scar on his cheek giving him the appearance of a hangman, he sat buried deep in a colorless chair from which stuffings escaped. His large, yellow retriever dozing beside him, and his huge, dry hand swallowed mine in greeting. I recognized him at once as the man I'd seen stumbling to the door of Madame Wrench's apartment. He had gone bald, but his thick wrists and huge shoulders were reminders of his wrestling career.
In a tiny chair opposite sat the midget in elevator heels, I recognized him as Mrs. Wrench's son. He was introduced to me as Eddie.
"The flat's less than elegant, Mr. DuFarge," Corbitt said, his big voice filling up the room, "but when a man's blind, a little dirt is no problem, and money's not easy to come by. What brings you here?"
I explained about the murder, and how I always made murder my business.
"Damn gruesome business it is," Corbitt said.
"Mais oui, but significant.."
The midget said," So what's your theory, Dufie?"
"That is exactly the problem, monsieur," I said. "I have as yet no theory to explain a murder in a locked house where a single set of footprints in the snow lead from the station to the murder residence."
"Well, I'll tell you this," Corbitt said."I'm not heartbroken over Walston's demise. No doubt you know how I went blind."
"Then you believe that Mr. Walston caused your blindness?"
His tone became impassioned. "What would you say? I'd licked every comer from Shannon to Johannesburg. I was certain to be the next champion of the world. Only Walston stood in my way. Then one night I came around the corner, and from the darkness someone hurled acid in my face. Who else wanted me blind other than Beef Walston, the man I was about to challenge for the championship of the United Kingdom?"
"You must have then been consumed by thought of revenge over these many years, Mr. Corbitt," I said, watching his face suddenly become as impassive as an Arctic landscape.
"I'm not a vengeful man, Du Farge. And besides a thought mean nothing without a means. And no doubt you've noticed I'm totally and irrevocably blind."
At that point the midget stood up and pointed a manicured finger at me. "Hey, why don't you leave Big Jim alone, buddy. He's suffered enough without someone like you throwing out accusations. You want a murderer, go see Walton's whoremaster -- Chase. There's your man."
"Yes, yes," I said. "I am very sorry to have bothered you gentlemen. But tell me, Monsieur Eddie, do you drive a car?"
"Yeah sure," the midget said, "and I can write my name and brush my teeth too. What's it to you?"
"Essentially nothing. But tell me, please, one other thing."
"What exactly is the size of Mr. Corbitt's shoe?"
"Now how in the hell would I know the size of Big Jim's shoe?" The midget looked at me scornfully.
"Ten D," Big Jim Corbitt said as I exited his flat."I've got nothing to hide."
The conductor on the night train from Uxton to Carriage Hill stared intently at the photos I showed him and assured me he had already done his best to tell the police everything he could, and yes he had seen Lomax Chase on the train in first class, and the blind man on the same train in second class, and he was sure of the night because of the strange snow and ice storms that blasted one village, but not the next. He remembered seeing Chase smoking cigars and conversing with a large, florid lady who reminded him of Hitler's whore. And he'd, also, seen the blind man feel his way onto the train at Lower Scumbridge and then seen him again sleeping much later near Carriage Hill. He was certain of that because of the puddle of water beneath his feet.
Inspector Fortis had the look of a pitbull that's just been denied dinner.
"Can you believe this, Du Farge?" he said. "Chase has suddenly come up with every known prostitute in Uxton to vouch for him the night of the murder. You know what that does to our case?"
"Damages it I should assume, Inspector." I tried not to look superior, but it is difficult to conceal the truth.
"Damages it? Torpedoes it, dammit, Du Farge. I tell you I'm royally ripped..."
"There is no need to be, Inspector," I said. "You can arrest Gentleman Jim Corbitt."
"Now isn't that a cute theory, Du Farge. Thirty-five year old revenge motive. A blind man who can't get around without the aid of his dog takes the train from Scumbridge, gets out at Uxton, walks a mile and a half uphill on icy twisting paths to a residence he's never been to before, leaves a single set of tracks in the snow because he's without his dog, then enters a locked house, locates his victim, and pushes him down steps, finds his way out, and reappears on the Carriage Hill train in time to be observed by the conductor. A prosecutor will be crazy about that cockamamie theory, DuFarge."
"But, Inspector, the prosecutor must accept that theory because on the night in question the murderer was not blind."
"Oh please, Du Farge. Not the old temporary blindness theory, but don't you see, even if true, that ruins Corbitt's motive?"
"By no means, Inspector, permanently blind, but not on the night in question. On that night the murderer had an accomplice. Suppose that the accomplice is a friend, a midget, who hides in the water closet of the train, and then leaving Uxton station, the blind man lifts the midget to his shoulders, using the midget's eyes to guide him uphill to the mansion. And then he hoists the midget to a second storey window the midget knows is unlocked because he is the son of the victim's maid."
"Now the midget, in rubber gloves, admits Gentleman Jim to the house and together they push the dead man to his death, exiting the house by the back door this time. The midget then guides Corbitt to the next station where their car is waiting, thus enabling Corbitt to intercept the train and feign sleep. The conductor completing his rounds sees Corbitt asleep in the car to secure his alibi."
"Ingenious as hell, Du Farge, but no jury will ever believe it."
"Then perhaps this sworn statement in regard to Corbitt's size ten wrestling shoes will carry some weight," I said, handing Inspector Fortis my trump card, "particularly when it is pointed out to the jury that the conductor saw Corbitt asleep in wet wrestling shoes at Carriage Hill, but it had not yet begun to snow when he was seen boarding the train at Lower Scumbridge."
Turnip Smith spends his day illuminating minds in a community college in lower Ohio. By night he cranks out lies and yearns for women who have not known our President. Proud possessor of a thousand rejection slips, Smith has on two occasions received checks for $1,100 from airline publications.
Recently crossing over from literary magzines, Smith has found the conversion approximately as easy as learning to use a Japanese typewriter. When he finds time, the Turnipman is a 90% free throw shooter in the Wonderly Park Amateur Basketball Union of Greater Dayton and is not a vegetarian.