Authors: Edmund Crispin
Tags: #Gervase Fen
“Like formication,” said Fen. “Which, although you might not believe it, has no connection whatever with—”
“Quite so.” Humbleby was firm. “Exactly so. And now let us get something to eat.”
Detective-Inspector Humbleby, of New Scotland Yard, sipped his coffee, glanced at his watch, and sighed. In part, the sigh expressed contentment with the lunch he had just eaten; but it was also perceptibly tinged with the exasperation of a man faced with some tedious but inescapable duty, such as weeding a lawn or composing a letter of thanks. Humbleby, his moon-face aggrieved beneath his neatly-dressed greying hair, sipped his coffee and sighed. And Gervase Fen, whose guest he was at the United University Club, was moved by this plaintive noise to enquire what was wrong.
“It’s the Bolsover case,” said Humbleby dolefully. “A person named Bolsover has been murdered, and I can’t make out how it was done.”
Fen was interested. “Do you, on the other hand, know who did it?”
“No, I don’t know that, either.” Humbleby’s gloom grew. “There are three possibilities, and suspicion’s divided between them in that horrid ounce-for-ounce fashion which one associates with detective fiction… May I smoke in here?”
“You mayn’t, I’m afraid. We’ll go downstairs in a minute. In the meantime, have some more cheese and tell me about Bolsover. Has he been in the papers?”
“A paragraph or two this morning, but nothing detailed. The thing only happened last night. One of his heirs killed him by putting a dose of atropine in his beer.”
“Enterprising,” said Fen with misplaced approval. “How did it happen?”
“I’ll start at the beginning.” This fatuous assurance was so far below Humbleby’s normal conversational level that Fen surveyed him in some alarm; clearly he was finding the Bolsover case more than usually oppressive. “In the beginning there’s Bolsover,” he proceeded scripturally. “And Bolsover is —was, I mean—a Birmingham business man. Soap-flakes and other such—um—detergents. Fairly wealthy, as such people go. But he married—in the opinion of his wife—above him. She was a bossy sort of woman, it seems, who kept him well under her thumb and refused to have any truck with his few relatives, on the grounds that they were her natural inferiors. But about a month ago she died—I think of pneumonia—and for the first time since his early marriage, Bolsover, at fifty, found himself able to live his life as he pleased. This novel situation went to his head rather. He was apparently one of those men to whom family ties are hugely important, and as soon as his wife was safely under ground he set about making contact with such of his near relations as still survived. There weren’t many of them. Not to be tedious about it, there were only three, and none of them, it turned out, had ever met any of the others, let alone met Bolsover himself. To Bolsover this seemed a very shocking and unnatural situation; he decided that he must remedy it without delay, and his first step was to make a will leaving his entire fortune divided equally between these three relatives.”
“He had no children of his own?”
“None… Having taken this ill-considered action, then, with regard to the will, Bolsover idiotically wrote to each of the beneficiaries to inform them of their agreeable prospects and to suggest a family reunion. There were difficulties about holding this in his own home in Birmingham, so eventually it was arranged that Bolsover should visit London and there combine family piety with a—a binge. He travelled up yesterday by the morning train, settled in at the Mosque Hotel, and after dinner—one of his guests wasn’t able to get away in time for the meal itself—the family reunion did in fact take place.
“Now, Bolsover’s three heirs, whom I spent half last night questioning, are as follows. First, there’s George Laurie, his sister’s husband’s brother, a withered, vacant, failed-looking man who works in an eyewash factory at Westminster.”
“You’re not referring—”
“No, I’m not. Now, most eyewashes contain atropine, and the sort manufactured by Laurie’s firm isn’t any exception. Access, you see,” explained Humbleby kindly. “Laurie is colourless, fiftyish, a bachelor and a backer of horses. At the present moment he owes his bookie close on two hundred pounds.”
“Motive,” said Fen intelligently.
“They all have that, you’ll find. They all have access, too… The second of the three is Gillian Bolsover, the murdered man’s niece. A frippet.” And Humbleby looked furtively about him, apparently in doubt as to the propriety of using such a word in his present urbane surroundings. “Age twenty-seven, pretty, unmarried, and employed as dispenser to a Wimpole Street doctor. The third suspect, Bolsover’s nephew and Gillian’s cousin, is a youth called Fred Bolsover, who works as a kind of lab-boy at a wholesale chemist’s near Watford. Very earnest and science-minded, is young Fred: the sort,” said Humbleby with all the savagery of a cornered humanist, “that reads books in his spare time about how motor-cycles work, with a widow’s peak and dotty-looking eyes behind his glasses and a brash, cocky way with him. I hope it was he who did it, but I don’t see how it can have been—I don’t see how it can have been any of them.”
“Do get on,” said Fen restively. “The man isn’t even dead yet.”
“He’ll be dead in a minute, don’t you fret. Well, at eight-thirty last evening these three turned up at the Mosque Hotel, and there were introductions and politenesses and—by the way, do you know the Mosque Hotel?”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s one of those great rambling places with dozens of dreary little semi-private lounges all over the ground floor, and it was to one of these that Bolsover took his relations for a drink. By the time they arrived, Bolsover himself was fairly exalted, having already had a few—but in case you’re thinking Bolsover might have been poisoned before the party began, I can assure you we’ve been into all that, and it’s quite out of the question.
“Figure to yourself, then”—here Fen dutifully adopted an introspective, imagining look—“a dull, dusty room in the bowels of this awful hotel, too high for its furniture, too narrow for its height, and too gloomy for anything; with moulded cornices, inadequate lighting, and a blacked-out window, unopened in years, giving on a well. At the right of the empty fireplace,” said Humbleby dramatically, “sits young Fred Bolsover, at a table of his own. At the table to the left of the fireplace sit the other three—Gillian (nearest the fireplace, and facing out into the room), Bolsover (opposite Gillian) and Laurie (away from the fireplace, between Bolsover and Gillian).”
Fen shifted restlessly in his chair. “Do these positions matter?” he demanded. “Do I have to remember them?”
“As far as I can see,” said Humbleby annoyingly, “they don’t matter in the slightest. I was just filling in the picture, that’s all… Gillian is drinking gin and lime (she’s the sort of girl who does), Bolsover has a pint pewter tankard of bitter, Laurie has Guinness, and Fred, odious young prig, has refused alcohol and is rotting his guts with grapefruit squash. There’s only one other person in the room, but she’s important—a spinster named Lucy Gamble, who’s on her own, drinking coffee, and who being temperamentally inquisitive sees, hears and remembers everything that goes on during the whole of the relevant period. She’s thoroughly reliable, in my opinion, and her evidence agrees with the evidence of the Bolsover heirs in every possible respect. She’s got no connection with any of them, either, so we really can be
what happened—which isn’t often the way.
“Well, the Bolsover party talked of this and that, and Gillian showed her legs, and teetotal Fred was jocosely persuaded to try a sip of his uncle’s beer, and Laurie did imitations—”
“Yes. He rather fancies himself at imitations. Did one for me, at half past two this morning. Churchill.” Humbleby shook his head. “Not good. It seems to have amused Bolsover, though—as you’ll have gathered, he was rather a simpleminded man, and in any case, he was half tight. They’d not been together much more than half an hour before it began to appear that he was completely tight, and whichever two of them were innocent don’t seem to have had the wit to realise that an unfinished pint of bitter couldn’t possibly, of itself, have produced the sudden deterioration they witnessed. In actual fact, of course, Bolsover’s apparent drunkenness was the atropine working. Eventually he fell into a coma which they mistook for sleep; and though at that stage a stomach pump would probably have saved him, they let him stay slumped in his chair while they went on talking and drinking among themselves for an hour or more. Then Gillian said it was time for her to leave; and on their attempting to rouse Bolsover, they found he was dead.
“About midnight, the Divisional Superintendent rang up the Yard, and that was how I became involved in the affair. By the time I arrived, most of the spade-work was done—the story elicited in outline, poison diagnosed. and the remnants of Bolsover’s beer impounded. From the look of the body, I was able to suggest atropine straight away to the night staff of our analytical laboratory, and it didn’t take them more than half an hour to test the beer for it and find it there in quantity. In liquid form, they said—and obviously if you shook a powder into a man’s drink, he’d be only too likely to notice it before it was all dissolved.
“Well, liquid has to have a container of some sort; you can’t carry it about loose in your pocket, or in the palm of your hand. And that looked like a promising line, because, by a combination of circumstances which I needn’t trouble you with in detail, no one in that room—not even Lucy Gamble—had any chance to dispose of such a container, elsewhere than
the room, up to the time they were all searched. But could we find anything? We most certainly could not. I had a theory about cigarette-lighters or scent-bottles, but there weren’t any cigarette-lighters or scent-bottles. There wasn’t, in fact,
on these people capable of containing liquid atropine, and I can assure you that between us we scrutinised their clothes and their belongings pretty thoroughly.
“Having failed there, we went on to search the room—and to be brief about it, I’m ready to swear that there wasn’t a single thing in it, of any description, which could possibly have held atropine; we made quite certain, too, that nothing had been thrown out of the one window, or in some fashion palmed off on the waiter who sewed the drinks.”
“Glasses?” Fen enquired. “Couldn’t an extra glass have been brought in, emptied of its poison, and then removed by the waiter under the natural impression that it belonged to the hotel?”
But Humbleby shook his head. “I thought of that—and there isn’t a chance of it. The waiter was able to account for every glass he carried back or forth that evening—and like Lucy Gamble, he’s a reliable, and innocent, witness. By the way, we did, early on in the proceedings, think we’d made a find. One of the first places we searched was the grate. It was full of rubbish—pipe-dottle, cigarette-stubs and cigarette-packets mostly—and obviously it hadn’t been cleared out for weeks. And among that rubbish we found a lot of splinters of thin glass, which we happily and quite prematurely concluded were the remains of a phial. Well, they weren’t; we fitted them together, and they were the remains of a broken watch-glass. None of the suspects’ watch-glasses were broken, none of their watches had been used to carry atropine—and so that was that: probably the broken glass had been in the grate for days.
“The next thing, obviously, was to discover which of our three suspects had opportunity to drop atropine into Bolsover’s tankard. And for our sins, we found that they’d all had opportunity. Taking them one by one:
“Gillian could have poisoned the beer at almost any stage in the evening: when Bolsover wasn’t actually drinking, his tankard stood on the table next to her glass. So at some moment when attention was distracted in another direction,
could have done it.
“The same consideration applies to Laurie—except that he was sitting further away from the tankard than Gillian was. On the other hand, his half-witted imitations apparently involved his getting up and striding about and waving his hands—on several occasions waving them immediately above Bolsover’s beer.
“Young Fred had one chance, and one only, the moment when the beer was handed across for him to taste. But of course, everyone was watching him closely—they were waiting to see what his reaction would be—and moreover, Laurie, Gillian and Lucy Gamble are all agreed that his left hand was stuck firmly in his coat pocket from before he received the tankard till after he handed it back, while with his
hand, naturally, he was
the thing. And that, I’m afraid, lets him out—the others are unanimous that he wasn’t anywhere near the tankard on any other occasion. It seems that he took only the tiniest sip, so if the atropine was already in the beer it wouldn’t have harmed him. No lead there.”
Fen considered. “He couldn’t,” he suggested, “have been holding the poison in his mouth? And have spat it into the tankard while pretending to drink?”
“No, he couldn’t. Not only was he
, immediately before he put the tankard to his lips; he was speaking with a pipe in his mouth—and it’s quite impossible to do that and keep liquid under your tongue at the same time. He’s out of it, I’m sorry to say.
“And that’s really all. Three suspects, all of them with motive—the will—all of them with access to atropine (and if either Gillian or Fred did the murder, she or he obviously chose atropine because that was the
poison to which Laurie had access), and all of them with more or less of opportunity. No container discoverable on them, or in the room; no means by which they could possibly have rid themselves of such a container—unless you count swallowing it, which would have been so dangerous that it’s out of the question. No collusion—I’m as sure of that as one can be of anything… So how in heaven’s name was it done?”
“Three questions,” said Fen pensively. “Or rather, three statements, which you can confirm or deny. The watch-glass you found was a lady’s watch-glass—that’s to say a small one.”