The Solar Plexus by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: Literature

It was after the dinner hour that we found ourselves at the Country Club again. Wyndham had not come back from the city, but Allison was there and had gathered together all the Club help so that Kennedy might question them.

He did question them down in the locker-room, I thought perhaps for the moral effect. The chef, whom I had suspected of knowing something, was there, but proved to be unenlightening. In fact, no one seemed to have anything to contribute. Quite the contrary. They could not even suggest a way in which the trunk might have been taken from the steward’s room.

“That’s not very difficult,” smiled Kennedy, as one after another the servants asserted that it would be impossible to get it around the turns in the stairs without making a noise. “Where was Benson’s room?”

The chef led the way to the door, that by which we had gone out before when we had seen the rubbish barrels.

“Up there,” he pointed, “on the third floor.”

There was no fire escape, nor were there any outside balconies, and I wondered how Craig would account for it.

“Someone might have lowered the trunk from the window by a rope, might they not?” he asked simply.

“Yes,” returned the chef, unconvinced. “But his door was locked and he had his keys in his pocket. How about that?”

“It doesn’t follow that he was killed in his room, does it?” asked Craig. “In fact it is altogether impossible that he could have been. Suppose he was killed outside. Might not someone have taken the keys from his pocket, gone up to the room without making any noise and let the trunk down here by a rope? Then if he had dropped the rope, locked the door, and returned the keys to Benson’s pockets–how about that?”

It was so simple and feasible that no one could deny it. Yet I could not see that it furthered us in solving the greater mystery.

We went up to the steward’s room and searched his belongings, without finding anything that merited even that expenditure of time.

However, Craig was confident now, although he did not say much, and by a late train we returned to the city in preference to using Mrs. Ferris’s car.

All the next day, Kennedy was engaged, either in his laboratory or on an errand that took him downtown during most of the middle of the day.

When he returned, I could tell by the look on his face that his quest, whatever it had been, had been successful.

“I found Wyndham–had a long talk with him,” was all he would say in answer to my questions, before he went back to whatever he was studying at the laboratory.

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I had made some inquiries myself in the meantime, especially about Wyndham. As nearly as I could make out, the young men at Briar Lake were afflicted with a disease which is very prevalent–the desire to get rich quick. In that respect Fraser Ferris was no better than the rest. Nor was Irving Evans. Allan Wyndham had been a plunger almost from boyhood, and only the tight rein that his conservative father held over him had checked him. Sometimes the young men succeeded, and that had served only to whet their appetites for more easy money. But more often they had failed. In most cases, it seemed, Dean Allison’s firm had been the brokers through whom they dealt, particularly Wyndham.

In fact, with more time on my hands during the day than I knew what to do with, in the absence of Kennedy I had evolved several very pretty little theories of the case which involved the recouping of dissipated fortunes by marriage with the popular young heiress.

It was late in the afternoon that the telephone rang, and, as Craig was busy, I answered it.

“Oh, Mr. Jameson,” I heard Mrs. Ferris’s voice calling over long distance from Briar Lake anxiously, “is Mr. Kennedy there? Please let me speak to him.”

I hastened to hand over the receiver to Kennedy and waited impatiently until he finished.

“A special grand jury has been empanelled for ten o’clock tomorrow morning,” he said as he turned from the wire and faced me, “and unless we can do something immediately, they are sure to find an indictment.”

Kennedy scowled and shook his head. “It looks to me as if someone were mighty anxious to railroad young Ferris along,” he remarked, hurrying across to the laboratory table, where he had been at work, and flinging off his stained smock.

“Well, are you ready for them?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied quickly. “Call up and find out about the trains to Briar Lake, Walter.”

I found that we could easily get a train that would have us at the Country Club not later than eight o’clock, and as I turned to tell Kennedy, I saw him carefully packing into a case a peculiar shaped flask which he had been using in some of his experiments. Outside it had a felt jacket, and as we hurried over to the station Kennedy carried it carefully in the case by a handle.

The ride out to Briar Lake seemed interminable, but it was better than going up in a car at night, and Mrs. Ferris met us anxiously at the station.

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Thus, early in the evening, in the little reception room of the Country Club, there gathered a large party, not the largest it had seen, but certainly the most interested. In fact no one, except young Ferris, had any legitimate reason for staying away.

“Dead men tell no tales,” remarked Kennedy sententiously, as he faced us, having whispered to me that he wanted me to take a position near the door and stay there, no matter what happened. “But,” he added, “science opens their mute mouths. Science has become the greatest detective in the world.

“Once upon a time, it is true, many a murderer was acquitted and perhaps many an innocent man hanged because of appearances. But today the assassin has to reckon with the chemist, the physicist, the X-ray expert, and a host of others. They start on his track and force him to face damning, dispassionate scientific facts.

“And,” he went on, raising his voice a trifle, “science, with equal zeal, brings facts to clear an innocent man protesting his innocence, but condemned by circumstantial evidence.”

For a moment he paused, and when he began again it was evident that he was going straight to the point at issue in the case.

“Various theories have been confidently proposed in this unfortunate affair which resulted in the death of Irving Evans,” he proceeded. “One thing I want clear at the start. The fact is, and I am not running counter to it, that we have what might very well be called two brains. One is in the head, does the thinking. The other is a sort of abdominal brain, controls nutrition and a host of other functions, automatically. It is the solar plexus–the epigastric, sympathetic nervous system.

“It is true that the knot of life is situated at the base of the cranial brain. One jab of a needle and it might be quickly extinguished. Yet derangement of the so-called abdominal brain destroys life as effectually, though perhaps not so quickly. A shock to the abdominal brain of young Evans has been administered–in a most remarkable manner.”

I could see Mrs. Ferris watching him with staring eyes, for Kennedy was doing just what many a lawyer does–stating first the bad side of one’s case, and seeming to establish the contention of the opposite side.

“It was an unfortunate blow,” he admitted, “perhaps even dangerous. But it was not deadly. What happened downstairs in the gymnasium must be taken into account with what happened afterwards in the locker and both considered in the light of the death of the steward, Benson, later.

“The mark on the stomach of Irving Evans was due to something else than the blow. Everyone has noticed that. It was a peculiar mark and no mere blow could have produced it.

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“Weird in conception, horribly cunning in its execution was this attempt at murder,” he added, taking from the case the peculiar flask which I had seen him pack up.

He held it up so that we could see. It was evidently composed of two flasks, one inside the other, the outer encased in felt, as I had seen, the inner coated with quicksilver and a space between the two. Inside was a peculiar liquid which had a bluish tinge, but was odorless. From the surface a thin vapor seemed to rise.

It was not corked, but from the neck he pulled out a light cotton stopper. As he agitated the liquid slightly, it had the appearance of boiling. He turned over the bottle and spilled some of it on the floor. It evaporated instantly, like water on a hot stove.

Then he took from his pocket a small tin cup and poured out into it some of the liquid, letting it stand a few moments, smoking.

He poured back the liquid into the flask and dropped the cup on the hardwood floor. It shattered as if it had been composed of glass.

One of the men in the front row moved forward to pick up the pieces.

“Just a minute,” interfered Kennedy. “If you think anything of your fingers, let that be. In the rubbish, just outside the locker-room, yesterday, I discovered the remains of a thermos bottle and of a metal cup like this which I have dropped on the floor. I have examined the cup, or rather the pieces.

“These two murders were committed by one of the least known agencies–freezing, by liquid air.”

I could hear a gasp from the auditors and I knew that someone’s heart must be icy at the discovery of the portentous secret.

“I have some liquid air in this Dewar flask,” continued Kennedy. “That is what liquid air is usually kept in. But it may be kept in an ordinary thermos bottle quite well, also.

“If I should drop just a minute bit on my hand, it would probably boil away without hurting me, for it evaporates so quickly that it forms a layer or film of air which prevents contact of the terribly cold liquid air and the skin. I might thrust my finger in it for a few seconds and it would not hurt me. But if I kept it there my finger would become brittle and actually break off, so terrible is the cold of one hundred and ninety degrees below zero, Centigrade. It produces an instantaneous frost bite, numbing so quickly that it often is hardly felt. Placed on the surface of flesh this way, it changes it to a pearly-white, solid surface. The thawing, however, is intensely painful, giving first a burning sensation, then a stinging, flushed feeling, exactly as Irving Evans described what he felt. The part affected swells and a crust forms which it takes weeks to heal, supposing the part affected is small.

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“Someone, in that locker-room,” continued Craig, “placed a piece of cotton soaked in liquid air on the stomach of the unconscious boy. Instantly, before anyone noticed it, it froze through to the solar plexus. Ultimately that was bound to kill him. And who would bear the blame? Why, Fraser Ferris, of course. The accident in the bout afforded an opportunity to use the stuff which the criminal in his wildest dreams could not have bettered.”

“How about Benson, the steward?” spoke up a voice.

We turned. It was the Coroner, loath even yet to give up the official theory.

“That was a pure accident,” returned Kennedy. “The club, as you know, is a temperance club. But the members, or at least some of them, keep drinks in their lockers. The steward, Benson, knew this. It has been shown that Benson had been in town that evening, had imbibed considerably.

“He had observed one of the members of the club take from his locker something which he thought was to revive young Evans. What more natural, then, than for him to visit that locker when he returned from town, open it?

“He found a thermos bottle. Instead of the regular cork, it had a light cotton stopper. In his muddled state, the steward did not stop to think–even if he had, he would have seen no reason for carefully corking something that was not designed to keep in a thermos bottle.

“But instead of whiskey, the bottle contained what had not yet evaporated of the liquid air. You may not know it, but liquid air can be easily preserved in open vessels with a stopper which allows the passage of the evaporated air. However paradoxical it may seem, it cannot be kept in closed vessels, for enormous pressures are at once brought into play.

“Benson opened the bottle and poured out some of the contents in the metal cup-cap of the bottle. He raised it to his lips–swallowed it–or that much of it that did not paralyze him. It expanded, boiled, exploded–producing the ghastly wound by almost literally blowing him up.

“The owner of the liquid air, who must have had it there waiting a chance to use it, was probably waiting up in the club rooms now, for a chance to get rid of it as evidence. He must have heard a noise down in the locker-room. What if he had been observed and someone were down there investigating?

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“He hurried down there. To his horror, in the darkness, he found Benson, already dead, the locker open, the thermos bottle broken and the cup smashed.

“It was a terrible clew. He must get that body away from the locker-room. He could throw the bottle out; no one could suspect anything when the air had evaporated, as it soon would, now. But the body–that was different. The method he employed in getting rid of the body, I think you all must already know.”

I had been watching Wyndham’s face keenly. As Craig proceeded, I fancied that I saw in it a look of startled surprise.

Was it one of Anita Allison’s many admirers who did this thing?” Craig asked suddenly.

I turned from Wyndham to Craig, wondering. What did he mean? Everyone had accepted that theory of the case so far. No one had questioned it. But, with his words, it suddenly dawned on me that it was by no means the only theory.

Before Craig could go on, there came a startled cry from one of the ladies.

“Oh–he did it–he did it!”

Anita Allison had fainted.

Dean Allison was at his sister’s side in a moment.

“Here–let me get her out into the fresh air,” he cried.

Wyndham had started up at the words and the two men were facing each other over the girl who had already discovered the secret, but had kept it locked in her breast.

“Walter–lock that door,” rang out Craig’s voice mercilessly.

I backed up, my whole weight against it, and turned the key.

“I know the gossip of Wall Street now,” shot out Kennedy hurriedly, facing the crowd who were all on their feet. “Today I have visited a number of speculative young gentlemen of Briar Lake, including Mr. Wyndham.

“The truth is that Miss Allison’s fortune was gone–dissipated in an unsuccessful bear raid on the market in which others have shared–and lost.

“If she had married, it meant an accounting and surrendering of her full control of her fortune. You have done this dastardly crime, Dean Allison, to keep your sister in ignorance of the loss and to save your own miserable reputation!”

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