The Vacuum Bottle by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: LiteratureFortunately, Dean Allison was at the Club, as we hoped, having just arrived by the train that left New York at the close of the banking day. Someone …

Story type: Literature

Fortunately, Dean Allison was at the Club, as we hoped, having just arrived by the train that left New York at the close of the banking day. Someone told us, however, that Wyndham had probably decided to remain in town over night.

Allison was perhaps a little older than I had imagined, rather a grave young man who seemed to take his club responsibilities on the Council very seriously.

“I’d like to talk to you about this Evans case,” began Craig when we had been introduced.

“Glad to tell you all I know,” he responded cordially. “It isn’t much, I’m afraid. It’s terrible–terrible. We don’t know what to think. My sister is all broken up by it, poor girl.”

He led the way over to a corner, in a sort of bow window, and we sat down on the hard leather cushions.

“No, there isn’t much I can say,” he resumed. “You see, one of the recreations of the younger set at the Club is boxing–that’s about all there was to it–not the amateurish thing one usually sees, but real scientific boxing.

“Fraser had adopted the so-called Fitzsimmons shift–you know, the right foot forward, while the left hand shoots out from somewhere near the hip, plunging at close range into the pit of the stomach.”

Allison rose to illustrate it. “Irving, on the other hand, had been advocating the Jeffries crouch as the only safeguard to meet it,–like that.”

He threw himself into position and went on, “The bout had been arranged, accordingly, and it was some bout, too. Most of us here are fond of boxing to keep fit.

“Well, at last Fraser got under his guard, I suppose you’d call it. He landed. For an instant, Irving stood up straight, his hands helplessly extended. Most of us thought he was fooling and Fraser jumped back, laughing at the way his contention had worked out. Then, slowly, struggling as if against the inevitable, Irving bent forward and toppled over on his face.

“That’s where we woke up. We rushed forward and picked him up, apparently unconscious, and carried him to the locker-room. There was a good deal of excitement. Someone telephoned for a doctor, but couldn’t seem to find one at home.”

“Did you see anything peculiar take place in the locker-room?” asked Kennedy, following keenly.

“Anything peculiar?”

“Yes–anyone near him, perhaps–another blow–while he was unconscious.”

“No–and I think I would have seen anything that was out of the way. I was there almost all the time–until someone told me my sister was upstairs and suggested that I was the best one to break the news to her.”

“I’d like to look over the gymnasium and locker-room,” suggested Craig.

Dean Allison led the way downstairs quickly. Craig did not spend more than a minute in the gymnasium, but the locker-room he examined carefully.

It was a long room. Each locker bore the name of its owner and he hastily ran his eye over them, getting their location.

I don’t know that even he had, yet, any idea that he would find anything, but it was just his habit to go over the ground of a tragedy, in hope of picking up some clew.

He looked over the floor very carefully, now and then bending down as if to discover spots. Once he paused a moment, then continued his measured tread down the long row of lockers until he came to a door at the other end of the room. We went out and Kennedy looked about closely.

“Oh,–about Benson, the steward,” he said, looking up quickly and stroking his chin as if an idea had occurred to him. “Is there anyone here who might know something about him–his habits, associates,–that sort of thing?”

“Why–yes,” considered Allison slowly, “the chef might know. Wait, I’ll call him.”

As Allison disappeared in the direction of what was evidently the kitchen, we stood outside by the door, waiting.

Kennedy’s eye traveled back and forth about us and finally fell on a row of rubbish barrels a few feet away. He moved over to them.

He had half turned away, retracing his steps back to me thoughtfully, when his eye must have been attracted by something gleaming. He turned back and poked at it with his stick. Peeping from the rubbish was a dented thermos bottle, the lining of which was cracked and broken.

He was about to turn away again when his eye fell on something else. It was the top of the bottle, the little metal cap that screws over it, or rather it was what was left of the cap.

“That’s strange,” he muttered to himself, picking it up.

The cap, which might have been used as a cup, was broken in the most peculiar manner, in spite of the fact that it was metal. If it had been of glass I should have said that someone had dropped it.

Kennedy frowned and dropped the pieces into his pocket, turning to wait for Allison to return with the chef.

“I can’t seem to find him,” reported Allison a moment later. “But he’ll be here soon. He’ll have to be–or lose his job. How would after dinner do? I’ll have him and all the other employes, then.”

“Good!” agreed Kennedy. “That will give me time to go into the town first and get back.”

“I’d be glad to have you dine with me,” invited Allison.

“Thank you,” smiled Kennedy. “I’m afraid I won’t have time for dining tonight. I’ll be back after dinner, though.”

Mrs. Ferris’s car had returned and Craig’s next step was to go on into the town of Briar Lake.

On the way he decided first to stop at the Evans house, which took us only a little bit out of our way. There he made a minute examination of the body of the young man.

Irving Evans had been a handsome fellow and the tragedy of his death had been a sad blow to his family. However, I shall not dwell on that, as it is no part of my story.

Kennedy was eager to see the red spot in the pit of the stomach of the dead man of which everyone had spoken.

He looked at it closely, as I did also, although I could make nothing of it. Evans had complained of a burning, stinging sensation, during his moments of consciousness and the mark had had a flushed, angry look. It seemed as though a sort of crust had formed over it, which now was ashen white.

Craig did not spend as long as I had anticipated at the Evans house, but, although he said nothing, I could tell by the expression of his face that he was satisfied with the conclusions which he drew from the examination. Yet I could not see that the combination of circumstances looked much better for Fraser Ferris.

We went on now to the town and there we had no trouble in meeting the authorities and getting them to talk. In fact, they seemed quite eager to justify themselves.

As we passed down the main street, Mrs. Ferris’s chauffeur mentioned the fact that a local physician, Dr. Welch, was also the Coroner of the county. Kennedy asked him to stop at the doctor’s office, and we entered.

“A most unfortunate occurrence,” prefaced the doctor as we seated ourselves.

“You assume, then, that it was the blow that killed Evans?” asked Kennedy pointedly.

The doctor looked at him a moment. “Of course–why not?” he demanded argumentatively, as though we had come all the way from the city for the sole purpose of impugning his medical integrity. “I suppose you know the classical case of the young man who was coming out of the theater, when some of the party began indulging in rather boisterous horse play? One bent another quietly over his arm and tapped him a sharp blow with the disengaged hand on the stretched abdomen. The blow fell right over the solar plexus and, to the surprise of everyone, the young man died.”

The Coroner had risen and was pacing the room slowly. “I could cite innumerable cases. Everyone understands that a blow may be fatal because of shock to the solar plexus. In such a case no post-mortem trace might be found and the blow could even be a light one.

“For instance, in a fight a blow might be struck and the recipient fall dead. If the medical examiner should find nothing on holding the autopsy which would have caused sudden death, he can testify that a shock to the solar plexus will cause death and that the post-mortem examination will give no evidence to support or disprove the statement. The absolute absence, however, of any reason or of injury to the other organs will add weight to his testimony, evidence of the blow being present.”

“And you think this was such a case?” asked Kennedy, with just a trace of a challenge in his tone.

“Certainly,” replied the Coroner. “Certainly. We know that a blow was struck–in all probability hard enough to affect the solar plexus.”

It was evident, in his mind at least, that young Ferris was guilty and Kennedy rose to go, refraining from antagonizing him by further questions.

We next visited the county court house, which was not far from the doctor’s office. There, the sheriff, a young man, met us and seemed willing to talk over the evidence which so far had been unearthed in the case.

In his office was a trunk, a cheap brown affair, in which the body of the unfortunate steward, Benson, had been found.

“Quite likely the trunk had been carried to the spot in a car and thrown off,” the sheriff explained. “A couple of boys happened to find it. They told of their find and one of the constables opened the trunk, then called us up here. In the trunk was the body of a man, crouched, the head forced back between the knees.”

“I’d like to see Benson’s body,” remarked Kennedy.

“Very well, I’ll go with you,” returned the sheriff. “It’s at the undertaker’s–our only local morgue.”

As we walked slowly up the street, the sheriff went on, just to show that country as well as city detectives knew a thing or two. “There are just two things in which this differs from the ordinary barrel or trunk murder you read about.”

“What are they?” encouraged Craig.

“Well, we know the victim. There wasn’t any difficulty about identifying him. We know it wasn’t really a Black Hand crime, although everything seems to have been done to make it look like one, and the body was left in the most lonely part of the country.

“And then the trunk. We have traced it easily to the Club House. It was Benson’s own trunk–had been up in his own room, which was locked.”

“His own trunk?” repeated Craig, suddenly becoming interested. “How could anyone take it out, without being seen? Didn’t anyone hear anything?”

“No. Apparently not. None of the other servants seem to have heard a thing. I don’t know how it could have been got out, especially as his door was locked and we found the keys on him. But–well, it was. That’s all.”

We had reached the undertaker’s.

The body of Benson was horribly mangled about the head and chest, particularly the mouth. It seemed as if a great hole had been torn in him, and he must have died instantly. Kennedy examined the grewsome remains most carefully.

What had done it, I wondered? Could the man have been drugged, perhaps, and then shot?

“Maybe it was a dum-dum bullet,” I suggested, “one of those that mushrooms out and produces such frightful wounds.”

“But assuming it entered the front, there is no exit in the back,” the sheriff put in quickly, “and no bullet has been found.”

“Well, if he wasn’t shot,” I persisted, “it must have been a blow, and it seems impossible that a blow could have produced such an effect.”

The sheriff said nothing, evidently preferring to gain with silence a reputation for superior wisdom. Kennedy had nothing better than silence to offer, either, though he continued for a long time examining the wounds on the body.

Our last visit in town was to Fraser Ferris himself, to whom the sheriff agreed to conduct us. Ferris was confined in the grim, dark, stone, vine-clad county jail.

We had scarcely entered the forbidding door of the place when we heard a step behind us. We turned to see Mrs. Ferris again. She seemed very much excited, and together we four, with a keeper, mounted the steps.

As she caught sight of her son, behind the bars, she seemed to gasp, then nerve herself up to face the ordeal of seeing a Ferris in such a place.

“Fraser,” she cried, running forward.

He was tall, sunburned, and looked like a good sportsman, a clean-cut fellow. It was hard to think of him as a murderer, especially after the affecting meeting of the mother and son.

“Do you know what I’ve just heard?” she asked at length, then scarcely pausing for a word of encouragement from him, she went on. “Why, they say that Benson was in town early that evening, drinking heavily and that that might account–“

“There–there you are,” he cried earnestly. “I don’t know what happened. But why should I do anything to him? Perhaps someone waylaid him. That’s plausible.”

“Of course,” warned Kennedy a few minutes later, “you know that anything you say may be used against you. But–“

“I will talk,” interrupted the young man passionately, “although my lawyer tells me not to. Why, it’s all so silly. As for Irving Evans, I can’t see how I could have hit him hard enough, while, as for poor Benson,–well, that’s even sillier yet. How should I know anything of that? Besides, they were all at the Club late that night, all except me, talking over the–the accident. Why don’t they suspect Wyndham? He was there. Why don’t they suspect–some of the others?”

Mrs. Ferris was trying to keep a brave face and her son was more eager to encourage her than to do anything else.

“Keep up a good heart, Mother,” he called, as we finally left, after his thanking Kennedy most heartily. “They haven’t indicted me yet, and the grand jury won’t meet for a couple of weeks. Lots of things may turn up before then.”

It was evident that, next to the disgrace of the arrest, his mother feared even more the shame of an indictment and trial, even though it might end in an acquittal. Yet so far we had found no one, as far as I knew, who had been able to give us a fact that contradicted the deductions of the authorities in the case.

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