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Title: Poison Can Be Puzzling
Author: Max Afford
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eBook No.: 1501151h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  November 2015
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Poison Can Be Puzzling

by

Max Afford

First published in The Australian Women's Weekly, 12 February 1944


"Four pairs of eyes were riveted to the floor."


THE HERO gathered the heroine hungrily into his arms—and in the warm darkness of Odeon cinema a thousand women leaned forward in their padded seats, a thousand pairs of lips parted expectantly, and Elizabeth Blackburn gave a little sigh and said to her husband:

"Isn't he marvellous!"

Mr. Blackburn had been dragged away from his fireside to witness "The Laughing Lover," and, unmoved by the epic being unfolded before him on the screen, was dozing peacefully. He awoke as his wife's hand tightened about his own. At that moment a bilious yellow slide blotted out the screen.

On it, scrawled hurriedly in ink, were the curt words, "Mr. Blackburn—Manager's Office—Please!"

"Oh, bother!" exclaimed Elizabeth. She dragged her hand away, and began fumbling for her gloves and bag. "What's the idea?"

Jeffery was already on his feet. With a firm hand on her arm, he piloted her stumblingly down the row of annoyed patrons, beaming apologies right and left.

A uniformed usherette held aside heavy curtains, a page-boy swung open gilded doors, and as they stood blinking in the lighted foyer, a plump young man hastened up to them.

"Would you be Mr. Blackburn?" And as Jeffery nodded, he explained: "My name is Mason—I'm the assistant manager here. Inspector Read is waiting for you in my office."

Elizabeth's eyes glinted like the crystal chandelier above their heads. "So!" she snapped. "It's that man again!"

In the manager's office, Chief Inspector William Read was waiting impatiently.

"What in Noah's name are you doin' in a place like this, son?" he said Jeffery.

"What's the trouble, Chief?"

Read waited only until the manager had left the room. "Ever heard of a chap named Ferdinand Cass?" he barked.

Jeffery nodded. "Financier of sorts—and almost obscenely rich?"

"That's the pigeon!" The Inspector puffed at his cigar. "And so crooked he could hide behind a circular staircase! That's why he's got more enemies than a monkey has fleas. Know what?" He cocked an eyebrow at the younger man. "Someone's threatened to rub him out to-night."

"Need we worry?"

Read grunted. "The Government pays me a salary to look after people—even rats like Cass. You see, Ferdie's got a hunch that he'll be dead before morning."

"Can't this Cass man protect himself?" Elizabeth broke in rather impatiently.

"Sure! That's why he's built himself that stronghold half-way up Carnarvon Towers." The Inspector chewed on his cigar. "Lives in a flat eight floors from the ground and six from the roof. Air conditioned because the windows are fixtures. Reinforced steel floors and ceiling, and only one entrance—from the main corridor."

Jeffery said: "And in spite of all this, Mr. Cass still has the breeze up about to-night?"

"Rang through to the Assistant Commissioner himself and demanded protection. I'm going round there now." Read's glance at the younger man was quizzical. "Thought you might like to be on any fun that's offering, son."

Mr. Blackburn rose. "Anything," he announced, "is preferable to 'The Laughing Lover'! I'm ready, Chief."

Jeffery asked: "If, as you say, Cass has been threatened before, why the sudden trepidation about this particular night?"

They were purring along in a hastily summoned taxi. The city was going home from its night's pleasure. "You know Cass' record, son—blackmailer, receiver, big-scale confidence man. He's looked upon earthly sin and suffering without batting an eyelid. But this time it looks as though he's come up against something quite different."

"Something unearthly?"

Read's tone was soft, cautious. "It's all so outlandish that it's got me to thinking that maybe Cass going the same way as his wife. She was a neurotic piece of goods who got mixed up in some black magic hocus-pocus and finished by throwing herself out of a window six months after they were married."

Elizabeth sat up sharply. "So Cass is a sorrowing widower?"

"Don't you know the story?" grunted the Inspector. He leaned forward.

"A year ago Cass married the sister of Arthur Harkness, an explorer chap who carries out expeditions for some geographic society here. Eleanor Harkness—I think that was her name—was filthy with money and a mighty queer petticoat to boot! She got about with a rummy set that went in for all sorts of fancy religions and that jiggery-pokery. She owned a very big house in the country—and what went on there late at night scared fits out of the neighborhood.

"It was said they used to hold some ceremony during which they'd attempt to change their form into that of animals—wolves, horses and snakes." Read's voice expressed contempt. "Lot of eyewash, naturally, but it was after one of these affairs that Mrs. Cass cracked up and threw herself from a window in the house.

"Naturally there was a fuss," the Inspector went on, "but before we could get down to facts, Harkness whisked Cass away on some expedition with him. Although we didn't know it at the time, it now appears that this expedition finished up at some place in Venezuela." Read paused, and added slowly:

"And there something happened that put the unholy breeze up Ferdinand Cass!"

Jeffery glanced up quickly.

"How do you know?"

"Because when Cass returned he was a changed man. A few weeks ago we dragged him down to headquarters for a quiet little probe on some of his shady transactions—and I've never seen a man more altered!

"That's the whole story, son," the Inspector continued. "Cass threw out some dark hints about his life being in danger—and that this mysterious avenger had timed to strike on the first night of the full moon, but about an hour ago the A.C. phoned me. Cass had been on to him in a terrific slew. He demanded police protection until after midnight."

"Why?" inquired Mr. Blackburn.

The taxi had slackened speed some minutes before. Now it drew into a side-street off the main artery of traffic. As it stopped, the Inspector reached out and swung open the door.

"Here we are," he announced. "You can ask Cass for yourself."

Although by no means new, Carnarvon Towers is still pointed out as one of the show places of the city. It is a man-made cliff, with not even a balcony to relieve the monotony of cream brick and stucco. Jeffery, Elizabeth, and Read stepped into the brightly lit foyer as distant clocks were striking eleven. A page ushered them in the direction of the lift.

The steel cage purred downward, the sliding doors were thrust apart, and the Inspector, in front, retreated a step to allow an emerging passenger to pass. This was a podgy, middle-aged man who measured them for an instant with shrewd eyes, then, turning, walked quickly out of the foyer.

As the lift slid upwards Jeffery murmured: "I wonder where he came from?"

"Cass' floor," Elizabeth said briskly.

"How do you know?"

The girl gestured to the floor indicator on the wall of the lift. "Use your head, my boy. Two floors are illuminated on this board—the ground which lit up when we rung the bell—and the eighth. Only one man got out of this lift—ergo, he rang the hell on the eighth floor!"

"Astounding!" murmured Mr. Blackburn. Then the lift stopped and they filed out into the corridor.

Read knocked with unconscious authority at the door of Cass' flat. There was an immediate and significant response—a key turned and there came the metallic clink of a chain. Jeffery turned to the older man with raised brows, but before he had time to comment the door opened an inch. A voice cried sharply: "Who's that?"

It was scarcely a friendly greeting, but Read answered civilly: "The Inspector. Sorry I'm late."

The door swung wide and Cass stood revealed, a massive shape dark against the brightly lit room beyond. He beckoned them inside and closed the door with a bang, pausing to fiddle with a short length of chain. As he turned, Jeffery had his first close look at the man.

Ferdinand Cass was middle-aged, with the build of a wrestler gone to seed. Yet there was more than a suggestion of strength in those massive shoulders, and deep in their puffy pits the black eyes were hard and challenging. There was something wrong with his mouth, too; it seemed shrunken, unformed. When he spoke, Jeffery noticed, it was with a slight lisp.

"Where on earth have you been, man?" He addressed Read, and without waiting for a reply, jerked his head in the direction of the others. "And who are these people?"

The inspector explained. At the mention of Blackburn's name, Cass started ever so slightly and raked the couple with a quick, suspicious glance. A moment later it vanished; the big man lumbered over and shook Jeffery's hand, nodding to Elizabeth. "Nice of you to come," he muttered. "Better have something to keep the cold out..." Without waiting for assent, he crossed to the cabinet at one side of the room.

Jeffery was taking stock of the apartment. It was large, almost square, devoid of hangings and broken on the outside wall by the long, fixed window Reid had spoken about. A single half-open door gave a glimpse into what appeared to be the bedroom, and in here, as in the living-room, lights blazed.

"I can't see anything happening to you in here," Read said dryly.

Cass was crossing to Elizabeth, glass in hand. Now he halted, his eyes wary as though listening.

"You'd say that this room was screwed tighter than a coffin eh, Inspector? But it'd take more than an oaken casket to keep Eleanor under the earth..."

"Eleanor?"

"My wife." The glass in Cass' hand trembled so that the liquid rocked dangerously. "She's escaped. She's been here. That filthy scent she used—nuit noire—the place reeked of it the other night!"

"What's this foolery, Cass? Your wife is dead!" Read said sharply.

Cass shook his head slowly. "I thought that black-magic stuff Eleanor studied was just so much piffle. Then out there in the clearing of the rain forest, I saw her—plain as I can see you. She was coming to-night, she said—"

"Nonsense," said a crisp voice from the bedroom.

As if tugged by a string, the three newcomers swung round. Advancing into the room was a small dry stick of a man, with wrinkled good-natured face tanned by foreign sun.

"How do you do? My name is Harkness," he said, nodding to the visitors. Deftly he intercepted Cass and took the glass from him.

"I'll look after our guests, Ferd. You slip inside and make yourself presentable."

They saw Cass blink. Then, for the first time, he seemed to become conscious of his tousled hair, his unshaven cheek, and the crumpled dressing-gown tied loosely about his big frame. He hesitated only a moment, then, with a muttered apology, moved into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.

Jeffery said quietly, "So you think it was nonsense Mr. Cass was talking just now?"

Harkness came forward, his dark eyes twinkling. "Of course it's nonsense," he said briskly. "Why, if I'd known Ferd was going to take it so seriously, I'd never have allowed that confounded pi-ai man to try his tricks. But it was probably the setting. Out there in that forest you get the feeling almost anything might happen—even the conjuring up of a dead woman from her grave on the other side of the world."

Harkness paused, obviously expecting comment. But as his eyes met only blank-bewilderment in each face, he shrugged.

"Sorry. I keep forgetting you people know only half the story." He sat down with a stiff little movement and reached for a cigarette. "You see, it happened when I took Ferd on that last expedition. I had to do some mapping and photography in a little-known part of Brazil—the great plateau land lying beyond the Towashing Pinnacle in Venezuela. We picked up thirty Indian porters, and with these in tow we started out for the great rain forest directly under the pinnacle.

"We were deep into the rain forest two days later, and camped waiting for the fog to lift before we could approach the pinnacle itself. I've never encountered a stranger, weirder place.

"Imagine a forest so thick that the matted growth shuts out all sunlight. The only light that filters down is a dim greenish yellow radiance. It is always damp, and this moisture contributes to the death-mould that lies thickly over everything.

"Day after day we lived in a world surrounded by the eternal forest. More experienced men than Ferd have cracked under such a strain, and it was only to relieve the monotony that I suggested he might like to see some of the tricks that Jan-Eri, our pi-ai man, could perform."

Harkness paused to blow a wreath of smoke. "I should have explained that every village we passed through had its pi-ai man—or witch doctor. No native could be persuaded to set foot in the forest unless the pi-ai man came along to protect them from evil.

"That night the native porters gathered in a ring. Ferd and I were inside, and the pi-ai man sat cross-legged on a boulder about ten feet away. He had lit a small fire in front of him. Then he began to rock backwards and forwards contorting his face and gibbering. I wasn't very impressed—I'd seen such showmanship many times before. But Ferd was drinking it in like a child at a circus. The pi-ai man delved unto his loincloth and threw something in the fire.

"There was a burst of flame that almost blinded us. The natives set up a loud wailing. Then there arose a great cloud of smoke that sent us all coughing and choking...and when it began to clear away..."

For the first time those pleasant even tones faltered.

Harkness added slowly: "When I looked at the rock the smoke had coalesced into something that might have been a human figure. Ferd, on the other hand, swears it was my sister, feature for feature, line for line. It is true that I heard a voice speak, but those confounded niggers were wailing so shrilly that I couldn't catch a syllable. But Ferd believes my sister warned him that she could see him lying dead. But after the smoke had cleared away and the porters had quietened down, there occurred one curious and inexplicable incident for which I can personally vouch."

It was Jeffery who spoke. "What was that?"

Harkness rose. "In the ashes left by the pi-ai man's fire, as though traced by a finger, was a date and a month." His keen eyes lingered for a moment on the bedroom door. "This month...and to-day's date."

It was at that moment they heard the sound of a glass dropped in the next room. Then, like a long, thin sigh that troubled the stillness, they heard Cass' horrified whisper.

"Eleanor...you...!"

Inspector Read clenched his fists. "What's all this?" he snapped. But Harkness had leapt past him.

"Ferd!" Harkness flung open the door. On the threshold he halted abruptly. The others crowded behind him, pushing over his low shoulder for a glimpse of the room beyond. From an overhead globe light flooded the comfortable apartment and glinted among the fragments of a cut-glass tumbler which lay shattered on the floor.

A small pool of water had formed on the polished boards and a fluffy Persian kitten lapped inquiringly at the oozing liquid...

"WHAT the deuce?" snarled Read, and strode into the room, almost shouldering Harkness aside in his impatience. Those people waiting by the door saw his big frame suddenly stiffen as he halted, staring down beyond the low bed.

"Come here, son," he said softly. Then: "No, not you, Lisbeth!" But it was too late. Four pairs of eyes were riveted to the floor.

The body of Ferdinand Cass lay with his head propped against the bed. They knew in a moment that Cass was dead.

Jeffery spoke the word almost before he was conscious of it. "Poison!"

"Not this time, son!" Read's eyes were on the kitten. It had lapped the last of the spilt water and was now marching perkily across the floor, licking its lips with evident enjoyment. "Whatever killed Cass did the job in two minutes. If it were poison in that glass, the cat would be stiff as mutton by now!"

"Then," said Jeffery, stooping suddenly, "where does this fit in?" From the bed coverlet he picked up a square of crumpled cambric initialled F.C. and spotted with scarlet stains. "A pretty problem, Chief! If Cass wasn't poisoned, this may be valuable evidence." A soft exclamation from his wife made him turn. The girl stood sniffing the air; eyes wide in a pale face.

"Jeff," she whispered. "That perfume—nuit noire—the room reeks with it. I noticed it when we first came in, but here by the bed—it's stronger..."

Inspector Read's eyes moved past Jeffery's lean face to the kitten rubbing contentedly against Harkness' leg. "I want a telephone," he snapped, and strode for the living room, the explorer at his heels.

* * *

The morning following the extraordinary death of Ferdinand Cass found the Blackburn ménage in anything but a happy mood.

The shock had affected Elizabeth's nerves, and, after a troubled sleep, she awoke with a nagging tooth-ache. Her husband had scarcely slept at all.

Now they sat late over a barely tasted breakfast.

"It's crazy!" Jeffery said savagely. "Now, let us sum up! There was no poison in that glass, since the cat was not affected—yet obviously Cass died of poisoning. Evidence of the handkerchief shows that it is possible that the poison was injected through the skin—yet Doctor Conroy examined his skin closely and found no wound. Then how in the name of Satan did Cass die?"

"Suicide!" returned Elizabeth.

"Not only irrelevant, but quite wrong," snapped Jeffery. "If Cass had committed suicide, he would have chosen a simple, straightforward manner. Why should he confuse the issue like this?"

"No reason at all."

"You see where this brings us?" Jeffery was toying with the crumbs on the tablecloth. "It means that someone engineered Cass' death to look like magic. And an engineered death is merely a polite euphemism for murder! That's what kept me awake last night, Beth. Cass was murdered—murdered while dressing alone in a hermetically-sealed room, with four witnesses standing not a dozen yards away!"

Elizabeth was about to speak when a buzz on the doorbell interrupted her. They waited in silence until the maid opened the breakfast-room door to announce:

"Inspector Read is outside, Mr. Blackburn. Shall I ask him to come in?"

Read's opening remark was deeply disgruntled.

"Why is it that rats like Cass make more trouble over dying than twenty law-abiding citizens? If it wasn't for two things, I'd be inclined to save the taxpayers' money by writing the whole thing off as heart failure through sheer funk!"

"Two things?" the younger man sat forward, "What are they, Chief?"

Read twisted, felt in his pocket and produced an envelope. Tipping it, he emptied the contents into the palm of his hand. Rising, he crossed and thrust under Jeffery's nose a number of tiny glass fragments. "Sniff that!" he demanded.

"Perfume!" exclaimed Blackburn instantly. "Nuit noire!"

"Sure thing!" The Inspector returned the glass to the envelope and lumbered back to his chair. "When we searched the flat last night we discovered those fragments between the counterpane and the sheet. Someone had shoved a phial of the perfume there. When Cass sat on the bed, his weight broke the glass and released the odor..."

"Ho-ha!" said Mr. Blackburn triumphantly "And it wasn't Eleanor's ghost! Nice work, Chief! And what's the second thing?"

"The contents of that glass Cass dropped. Diluted with the water was a virulent Indian arrow poison—stuff called cassava. Kills within two minutes—"

"But that kitten," interrupted Elizabeth.

Read grunted. "Here's the snag. Cassava must enter the bloodstream to cause death. You could drink a gallon of the stuff every day—and never even have a headache That's how pussy got away with it."

"Then even if Cass had drunk that water—"

"Which he didn't," snapped the Inspector. "Examination of the contents of the stomach reveals no trace of poison. Yet there's no doubt that he died of cassava poison introduced through the blood-stream. The headache is—how was it introduced?"

"Wait a moment." Blackburn rose to his feet and began to pace the floor. "There's something missing, Chief—a break in the continuity. Whoever arranged this death must have known, that the poison was harmless if taken internally—therefore, why put it in the water at all?"

"I've got it!" It was Elizabeth, her bright eyes flashing from face to face. "Cass must have had some injury to his stomach. Some kind of ulcer, perhaps. When he drank the water the poison entered his bloodstream through this weakness in the stomach wall!"

The Inspector sighed heavily. "I've just told you, Elizabeth. Cass didn't swallow as much as a drop of that water. Stomach examination proves it."

"Then," said Jeffery, "what was he doing with the glass in his hand when he died?"

Silence. The heavy silence of frustration and bewilderment. It was broken by Elizabeth who made a little grimace of pain, and rose to her feet. "My tooth's playing up again," she explained. "I'm going to ring the dentist." As the door closed behind her, Jeffery remarked:

"You've seen Harkness, Chief?"

"About the poison?" Read nodded. "First thing I did—he told me that Cass brought back several Indian arrow-poisons from that expedition. Oh, yes, he was telling the truth. A cabinet in the bedroom had a mighty queer collection of the stuff."

"You've checked upon Cass' movements yesterday?" Jeffery asked.

"Sure thing! The desk clerks gave us all we wanted to know. Cass was alone all the morning. After lunch Harkness arrived. There was only one other visitor." The Inspector paused, eyeing the younger man quizzically. "Remember that foxy-faced little squirt who got out of the lift?"

Jeffery nodded.

"He arrived about ten minutes before. Harkness was there, but he says he knows nothing. Man was a complete stranger to him."

"What did Cass want with the man?"

Read shrugged. "Harkness says Cass admitted the stranger, and the couple went into the bedroom, Cass closing the door. Harkness could hear only the murmur of voices. When they came out, the little man looked pretty fierce, according to Harkness. As they crossed to the door, Harkness heard him say, 'You'll do exactly as I say, or I won't be responsible for what happens to you. And don't say you haven't been warned."

"H'm—sounds bad. Any idea who this stranger might be?"

"He's clean as far as our records are concerned. No trace of his mug in our files. But we've circulated his description. We'll lay our hands on him pretty soon, don't you fear!" The big man rose and stretched. "Looks like our man, don't you think, son?"

But Jeffery's thoughts were elsewhere. "There's that confounded handkerchief. Those blood spots must have come from somewhere!"

"Not from Cass' carcase," returned the Inspector. "Conroy went over the body again this morning."

But the other was barely listening. "That's the snag, Chief. Find out where those bloodstains came from and I've a feeling that the whole puzzle will slot together perfectly!"

* * *

After lunch when Elizabeth departed for the appointment she had made with her dentist, Jeffery flung himself down in a chair and attempted to read. But the vision of a blood-stained handkerchief kept obtruding between the printed lines. Desperately he tried to concentrate, only to find his mind growing woolly. Gradually, his taut body relaxed, and at length, the book slipping from his fingers, Jeffery slept...

He awoke with a start as the door opened and Elizabeth came in.

Jeffery grunted and struggled to his feet. "How are you?"

She tossed her bag on the couch and she took off her hat. "All right now. But it was pretty sticky while it lasted. There was an abscess on the side of the wretched tooth. Dr. Morris had to lance it."

"Painful?"

Elizabeth nodded. "The anaesthetic's beginning to wear off. I feel a cigarette might help now. They're in my bag. Jeff—dig them out for me, would you?"

Jeffery walked across and, picking up the handbag, fumbled inside. Elizabeth, examining her sorely tried mouth in the mirror, heard him give a sudden ejaculation. Wheeling, she saw her husband waving aloft a tiny slip of embroidered cambric.

"Beth!" His tone almost trembled with eagerness. "Where did this come from?"

She stared at him. "That's my handkerchief."

"But the blood-spots—?"

"Darling, you can't have an abscess lanced without bleeding—"

But Jeffery, his face alight, had turned away, handkerchief crumpled in a determined fist. "So that's it, at last! The missing piece of the jig-saw puzzle!" He was pacing the floor again, muttering to himself. "It slots into place perfectly—the whole picture's complete! The picture of the man—the only man who could have planned and carried out such a crime!" He swung around on his wife.

"Beth—when we met Cass last night at the door of his flat, did you notice anything wrong with him?"

"He looked awfully untidy—"

"No, no, no!" Impatience quickened her husband's voice. "I mean—anything wrong with his mouth?"

"Of course. He'd forgotten to put his false teeth in—"

"Good heavens! You knew!"

Elizabeth Blackburn said calmly: "Darling, there's no need to bawl like a mad bull. I should have thought it was obvious to everyone. Anyhow, what does it matter?"

"You'll find out!" snapped Jeffery. He almost sprang for the telephone and dialled a number. "Blackburn here—put me through to the Chief!" He drummed impatient fingers as the wire crackled and hummed in his ear. Then Read's familiar bark sounded at the other end. "What's on your mind now, son?"

"Listen, Chief! Don't ask any questions, but get through to Conroy at once. Tell him to look under Cass' false teeth for a tiny incision in the gum made by a dentist's lancet—"

"But, Jeff—"

"And now I'll give you a tip! Contact every dentist to this city. Find out the one who lanced an abscess in Cass' mouth the day before yesterday When it didn't heal, Cass called him in again last night. Find this dentist and you'll find the man we met coming out of the lift. Better than that—you'll find the real murderer of Ferdinand Cass! And ring me back, Chief—I'll be waiting!"

* * *

Arthur Harkness laid down his magazine, yawned slightly, and glanced at his wrist-watch. The tiny hands pointed to eleven-fifteen. He rose, and, walking across to the clock on the mantel, was about to wind it, when a knock sounded through the flat. Harkness frowned, hesitated a moment as though to ignore the summons, then changing his mind crossed and opened the door. Blackburn and the Chief Inspector stood on the threshold.

"Good night, gentlemen." The explorer's tone mirrored his surprise. "Won't you come in?"

"Thanks," grunted Read, as the door closed behind them. "Won't keep you up long, Mr. Harkness. Thought you might be interested to know we'd caught the Cass murderer."

"Murderer?" The man's black eyes moved quickly from face to face. "But I had no idea...won't you sit down?" He gestured to a comfortable lounge. Jeffery nodded and stretched himself out on the cushions.

"You had no idea that it was murder, Mr. Harkness?"

"Indeed no." He hesitated a moment, then: "Brilliantly executed, I should say?"

"Undoubtedly!" Jeffery was lighting a cigarette. "With the exception of the inevitable mistake. Extraordinary how criminals will never learn!" Abruptly he produced a spotted handkerchief. "You see, our murderer counted on getting into that bedroom first, and removing this."

From his position against the door the Inspector said abruptly: "You're confusing Mr. Harkness, son. Start at the beginning."

"Quite right, too." Jeffery leaned back. "You see, Harkness, when our murderer planned Cass' death, he wanted to make it look as inexplicable as possible. Frankly, he wanted to make it appear almost like black magic. Because there he was, sitting talking with three witnesses while Cass was done to death in the next room. Because he had set a brilliant trap for Cass, and that gentleman walked straight into it."

Harkness, his lithe body taut, sat watching Blackburn as a show dog watches its master. He ran a pink tongue swiftly over his lips. "I—I don't understand..."

"About the trap?" inquired Jeffery. "Well, that was based on the fact that the previous day Cass had an abscess on his gum lanced. When the incision refused to heal, Cass sent for his dentist. More important to the murderer, it meant that Cass could not wear his dentures without considerable pain. Therefore, he kept the plates in a glass of water on a table by his bed—"

"Sit down!" barked Read sharply. Harkness had half-risen, and was glancing to and fro like a trapped animal. As he relaxed in his chair, Blackburn continued.

"So our murderer dilutes the water with cassava poison, knowing full well that the moment Cass removed the plates and put them in his mouth the poison would enter the bloodstream through the lanced portion of the gum!"

Jeffery smiled, a cold, grim smile.

Something glistened wetly on the explorer's forehead. He raised an unsteady hand and wiped it away. "You've no proof," he said huskily.

"Proof enough, Harkness. You were the only person besides Cass who had knowledge of that poison. You spun us that eyewash about black magic. You lied when you said you had no knowledge of Cass' visitor's business. We've found the dentist, and he says you were present in that bedroom while he treated Cass' abscess. His parting remark was anger because Cass refused to obey his instructions regarding the treatment of the abscess. You lied about that—and you lied about this handkerchief!"

Harkness gave a thin sigh. "Yes, gentlemen—I lied. I murdered Cass. I could have done it weeks before out in Venezuela, but I wanted him to suffer something of the tortures which he inflicted on my sister."

He glanced at both men in turn. When neither spoke, he went on in a voice weary with resignation.

"Cass married Eleanor for her money. If she got into a queer crowd, it was through her husband's introduction. He forced her to act as hostess to those decadents, his friends. He inflicted upon her other mental and physical degradations I care not to speak of now. In the end he reduced my sister to such a pitiable state of mind that she took her own life. Thus he was left to enjoy the fortune her marriage brought him.

"Eleanor's death was always on that man's conscience. That was why a judicious sprinkling of her favourite perfume in his bedroom was sufficient to start him sweating with fear. I think—and hope—that Cass suffered acute mental agony before he died. You heard the naked panic in his voice as he whispered her name in those last few moments." Harkness' voice, animated by his recital, slowed again. "That's all, gentleman."

Read gave a short official cough. "You'll have to come with us, Harkness, and make an official statement at headquarters."

"I am ready." The sun-wrinkled face was pale, but there was no unsteadiness in his movements as the explorer rose. "I should like to get my hat and coat from the bedroom." Without waiting for permission, he walked inside and closed the door.

Two minutes ticked away. Suddenly the inspector sprang towards the door. "What's keeping him?" he barked.

He had some difficulty in opening the bedroom door, for the body lay sprawled across the entrance. Down one side of the face a deep wavering scratch showed plainly. Clenched so tightly in the chilling hand that he had to force the fingers apart to retrieve it, Read found a small wooden arrowhead.


THE END

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