Weight And See
by Cyril Hare
Detective-Inspector Mallett of the C.I.D. was a very large man. He was not only tall above the average, but also broad in more than just proportion to his height, while his weight was at least proportionate to his breadth. Whether, as his colleagues at New Scotland Yard used to assert, his bulk was due to the enormous meals which he habitually consumed, or whether, as the inspector maintained, the reason for his large appetite was that so big a frame needed more than a normal man's supply for its sustenance, was an open question. What was not open to doubt was Mallett's success in his calling. But if anybody was ever bold enough to suggest that his success might have been even greater but for the handicap of his size he would merely smile sweetly and remark that there had been occasions when on the contrary he had found it a positive advantage. Pressed for further and better particulars, he might, if in an expansive mood, go so far as to say that he could recall at least one case in which he had succeeded where a twelve-stone man would have failed.
This is the story of that case. It is not, strictly speaking, a case of detection at all, since the solution depended ultimately on the chance application of avoirdupois rather than the deliberate application of intelligence. None the less, it was a case which Mallett himself was fond of recollecting, if only because of the way in which that recollection served to salve his conscience whenever thereafter he fell to the temptation of a second helping of suet pudding.
The story begins, so far as the police are concerned, at about seven o'clock on a fine morning in early summer, when a milkman on his round came out of the entrance of Clarence Mansions, S.W.11, just as a police constable happened to be passing.
"Morning," said the constable.
"Morning," said the milkman.
The constable moved on. The milkman stood watching him, two powerful questions conflicting in his breast. On the one hand, it was an article of faith with him that one whose work takes him to other people's houses at a time when most of the world is only beginning to wake up should never poke his nose into other people's business; on the other, he felt just now a craving, new-born but immensely powerful, not to be left out of the adventure which some sixth sense told him was afoot. The constable was almost out of earshot before the issue was decided.
"Oy!" shouted the milkman.
The officer turned round majestically.
"What is it?" he asked.
The milkman jerked his thumb in the direction of the block of flats behind him.
"I don't know," he said, "but I think there's something queer up there."
"Number 32, top floor."
"How d'you mean, queer?"
"The dog up there is carrying on something awful - barking and scratching at the door."
"Well, what of it?"
"Oh, nothing, but it's a bit queer, that's all. It's a quiet dog as a rule."
"They've gone out and left him in, I suppose."
"Well, if they 'ave, they've left a light on as well."
The constable looked up at the windows of the top storey.
"There is a light on in one of the rooms," he observed. "Seems funny, a fine morning like this." He considered the matter slowly. "Might as well go up and see, I suppose. They'll be having the neighbours complaining about that dog. I can hear it from here."
With the milkman in attendance he tramped heavily up the stairs - Clarence Mansions boast no lift - to the top floor. Outside No. 32 stood the pint bottle of milk which had just been left there. He rang the bell. There was no reply, except a renewed outburst of barks from the dog within.
"Are they at home, d'you know?" he asked.
"'S far as I know. I 'ad me orders to deliver, same as usual."
"Who are the people?"
"Wellman, the name is. A little fair chap with a squint. There's just the two of them and the dog."
"I know him," said the policeman. "Seen him about often. Passed the time of day with him. Didn't know he was married, though."
"She never goes out," the milkman explained. "He told me about her once. Used to be a trapeze artist in a circus. 'Ad a fall, and crippled for good. Can't even get in or out of bed by 'erself, so he says."
"Oh?" said the constable. "Well, if that's so, perhaps - - " He sucked his cheeks and frowned perplexedly. "All the same, you can't go and break into a place just because the dog's howling and someone's left the light on. I think I'd best go and report this before I do anything."
The milkman was looking down the staircase.
"Someone coming up," he announced. "It's Mr. Wellman all right," he added, as a rather flushed, unshaven face appeared on the landing below.
The constable put on his official manner at once.
"Mr. Wellman, sir?" he said. "There have been complaints of your dog creating a disturbance here this morning. Also I observe that there is a light on in one of your rooms. Would you be good enough to - - "
"That's all right, officer," Wellman interrupted him. "I was kept out last night. Quite unexpected. Sorry about the dog and all that."
He fished a latchkey from his pocket, opened the door, and went in, shutting it behind him. The other two, left outside with the milk bottle for company, heard him speak softly to the dog, which immediately became quiet. In the silence they could hear his footsteps down the passage which evidently led away from the front door. They looked at each other blankly. The policeman said "Well!", the milkman was already preparing to go back to his round, when the steps were heard returning, there was the sound of the door of a room nearby being opened, and then Mr. Wellman was out of the flat, his face white, his eyes staring, crying, "Come here, quick! Something awful has happened!"
"But this," said Mallett, "is odd. Very odd indeed."
He sat in the office of the Divisional Detective-Inspector, meditatively turning over a sheaf of reports.
"Odd is the word for it," the D.D.I. replied. "You see, on the one hand there seems no doubt that the lady was alive at nine o'clock - - "
"Let me see if I've got the story straight," said Mallett. "Mrs. Wellman is found dead in her bed at about seven o'clock in the morning by her husband, in the presence, very nearly, of a police officer and another man. She has been killed by a blow on the back of the head from a blunt instrument. The doctor thinks that death occurred about seven to eleven hours previously - say between eight o'clock and midnight the night before. He thinks also - in fact he's pretty sure - that the blow would produce instantaneous death, or at all events instantaneous unconsciousness. There are no signs of forcible entry into the flat, and Mrs. Wellman was a cripple, so the possibility of her getting out of bed to let anybody in is out of the question. Am I right so far?"
"In these circumstances the husband quite naturally falls under suspicion. He is asked to account for his movements over night, and up to a point he seems quite willing to do so. He says that he put his wife to bed at about a quarter to nine, took the dog out for a short run - - What sort of a dog is it, by the way?"
"An Alsatian. It seems to be a good-tempered, intelligent sort of beast."
"He takes the Alsatian out for a short run, returns it to the flat without going into his wife's room, and then goes out again. That's his story. He says most positively that he never came back to the place until next morning when the constable and the milkman saw him going in. Asked whether he has any witnesses to prove his story, he says that he spoke to the constable on night duty, whom he met just outside Clarence Mansions on his way out, and he further gives the names of two friends whom he met at the Green Dragon public-house, half a mile from Clarence Mansions - - "
"Seven hundred and fifty yards from Clarence Mansions."
"I'm much obliged. He met his two pals there at about a quarter-past nine, and stayed there till closing time. He went from the public-house with one of them to the nearest tram stop, and took a No. 31 tram going east, or away from Clarence Mansions. His friend went with him on the tram as far as the next fare stage, where he got off, leaving Wellman on the tram, still going away from home. Is that all clear so far?"
"Further than that Wellman wouldn't help us. He said he'd spent the rest of the night in a little hotel somewhere down Hackney way. Why he should have done so he didn't explain, and when asked for the name of the place he couldn't give it. He thought it had a red and green carpet in the hall, but that's all he could remember about it. The suggestion was, I gather, that he was too drunk to notice things properly when he got to the hotel, and was suffering from a bit of a hang-over next morning."
"He certainly was when I saw him."
"Things begin to look rather bad for Master Wellman. They look even worse when we find out a few things about him. It seems that he hasn't a job, and hasn't had one for a very long time. He married his wife when she was travelling the country as a trapeze artist in a small circus, in which he was employed as electrician and odd-job man. When a rope broke and she was put out of the circus business for good, her employers paid her a lump sum in compensation. He has been living on that ever since. His accounts show that he has got through it pretty quickly, and it's odds on that she had been wanting to know where it had gone to. It's not very hard to see a motive for getting rid of her."
"The motive's there all right," said the divisional inspector, "but - - "
"But," Mallett went on. "Here's where our troubles begin. - Wellman is detained for enquiries, and the enquiries show that his story, so far as it goes, is perfectly true. He did meet his pals at the Green Dragon. They and the publican are positive on that point, and they bear out his story in every particular. Therefore if he killed his wife it must have been before a quarter-past nine or after half-past ten, which was approximately the time when he was last seen on the No. 31 tram. But Mrs. Wellman was alive when he left Clarence Mansions, because - - "
He pulled out one of the statements before him.
"Statement of Police Constable Denny," he read. "At approximately nine o'clock p.m. I was on duty in Imperial Avenue opposite Clarence Mansions when I saw Wellman. He had his dog with him. We had a short conversation. He said, 'I've just been giving my dog a run.' I said, 'It's a nice dog.' He said, 'I bought it for my wife's protection, but it's too good-natured for a watch-dog.' He went into Clarence Mansions and came out again almost at once. He had a small bag in his hand. I said, 'Going out again, Mr. Wellman?' He said, 'Yes. Have you seen my pals about anywhere?' I informed him that I did not know his pals, and he replied, 'I expect they're gone on ahead.' He then said, 'I'm waiting to see if the wife has turned in yet.' I looked up at the windows of Clarence Mansions, and there was a light in one of the windows on the top storey - the window to the left of the staircase as you look at it. I have since learned that that is the window of the bedroom of No. 32. As I was looking, the light was extinguished. Wellman said to me, 'That's all right, I can get along now.' We had a bit of a joke about it. He then went away, and I proceeded on my beat. At approximately ten-thirty p.m. I had occasion to pass Clarence Mansions again. There were then no lights visible in the top storey. I did not pass the Mansions again until on my way back from duty at approximately six-fifteen a.m. I then observed that the same light was on, but I gave the matter no thought at the time."
Mallett put down the statement with a sigh.
"What sort of a man is Denny?" he asked.
"Very intelligent and observant," was the reply. "One of the best uniformed men I have. And not too blooming educated, if you follow me."
"Very well. We have it then on his evidence that Mrs. Wellman, or somebody else in the flat, extinguished the light at a little after nine o'clock, and that somebody turned it on again between ten-thirty and six-fifteen. I suppose Mrs. Wellman could turn it off and on herself, by the way?"
"Undoubtedly. It was a bedside lamp, and she had the full use of her arms."
"Therefore," Mallett went on, "we are now driven to this - that Wellman killed his wife - if he killed her - after ten-thirty, when he was last seen on the tram, and before midnight, which is the latest time which the doctor thinks reasonably possible. Then comes the blow. To test Wellman's story, for what it is worth, we have made enquiries in Hackney to see if we can find a hotel of the kind that wouldn't mind taking in a gentleman the worse for liquor, with a red and green carpet in the hall, and handy to the No. 31 tram route. And the very first place we try, we not only find that they remember Mr. Wellman there but are extremely anxious to see him again. They tell us that he came to their place about half-past eleven - which is the time you would expect if he left the neighbourhood of the Green Dragon by tram an hour before - persuaded whoever it was who was still up at that hour to give him a room, and next morning was seen going out at six o'clock remarking that he was going to get a shave. He never came back - - "
"And he never got that shave," interjected the D.D.I.
"True enough. And when the hotel people opened his bag - which Police Constable Denny has identified, incidentally - it contained precisely nothing. So - - "
"So we packed him off to the Hackney police to answer a charge of obtaining credit by fraud and asked the Yard to tell us what to do next."
"In other words, you want me to fix this crime on to somebody who has to all appearances a perfect alibi for it."
"That's just it," said the divisional inspector in all seriousness. "If only the blighter had had anything on him that could have been used as a weapon!"
"'On Wellman'," said Mallett, reading from another sheet of the reports, "'were found a pencil, a small piece of cork, a pocket-knife, two shillings silver and sixpence halfpenny bronze.' Why," he continued, "do we have to go on saying 'bronze' when all the rest of the world says 'copper', by the way? But the weapon - he could have taken that away in his bag and disposed of it anywhere between here and Hackney easily enough. We shall be lucky if we ever lay our hands on that. The alibi is our trouble. From nine o'clock onwards it seems unbeatable. Therefore he must have killed his wife before nine. But if he did, who was it that turned the light off in her room? I suppose the dog might have done it - knocked the lamp over, or something."
"There's no trace of the dog having been in the room all night," said the other. "His footprints are quite plain on the carpet in the corridor, and I've been over the bedroom carpet carefully without any result. Also, there seems no doubt that the bedroom door was shut next morning. Wellman was heard to unlatch it. Besides, if the dog turned the light off, how did he turn it on again?"
"Have you tested the fuses!" he asked.
"Yes, and they are in perfect order. There's no chance of a temporary fault causing the light to go off and on again. And Wellman was waiting for the light to go off when he was talking to Denny."
"Then," said Mallett, "we've got to work on the assumption that someone else got into the flat that night."
"Without disturbing the dog?"
"A good-natured dog," Mallett pointed out.
"But there are no signs of any entry whatever. I've looked myself, and some of my best men have been on the job."
"But I haven't looked yet," said Mallett.
No. 32 Clarence Mansions was exactly like all the other flats in the block, and indeed in Imperial Avenue, so far as its internal arrangements were concerned. Three very small rooms, looking on to the Avenue, opened out of the corridor which ran from the front door. Three still smaller rooms opened out of another corridor at right angles to the first, and enjoyed a view of the back of the Mansions in the next block. At the junction of the two corridors the gloom of the interior was mitigated by a skylight, the one privilege possessed by the top-storey flats and denied to the rest of the block. The bedroom in which Mrs. Wellman had died was the room nearest the entrance.
Mallett did not go into this room until he had first carefully examined the door and the tiny hall immediately inside it.
"There are certainly no marks on the lock," he said at last. Then, looking at the floor, he asked, "What is this powdery stuff down here?"
"Dog biscuit," was the reply. "The animal seems to have had his supper here. There's his water-bowl in the corner, too, by the umbrella-stand."
"But he slept over there," said Mallett, nodding to the farther end of the corridor, where underneath the skylight was a large circular basket, lined with an old rug.
They went into the bedroom. The body had been removed, but otherwise nothing in it had been touched since the discovery of the tragedy. On its dingy walls hung photographs of acrobats, dancers and clowns, and the framed programme of a Command Variety performance - memorials of the trapeze artist's vanished career. The crumpled pillow bore a single shapeless stain of darkened blood. On a bedside table was a cheap electric lamp. Mallett snapped it on and off.
"That doesn't look as if it had been knocked over," he remarked. "Did you notice the scratches on the bottom panel of the door, by the way? It seems as though the dog had been trying to get in from the passage."
He went over to the sash window and subjected it to a prolonged scrutiny.
"No," he said. "Definitely, no. Now let's look at the rest of the place."
He walked down the corridor until he reached the skylight.
"I suppose somebody could have got through here," he observed.
"But he would have come down right on top of the dog," the D.D.I. objected.
"True. That would have been a bit of a strain for even the quietest animal. Still, there's no harm in looking."
He kicked aside the sleeping-basket and stood immediately beneath the skylight.
"The light's in my eyes, and I can't see the underside of the frame properly," he complained, standing on tiptoe and peering upwards. "Just turn on the electric light, will you? I said, turn on the light," he repeated in a louder tone.
"It is on," was the reply, "but nothing's happened. The bulb must have gone."
"Has it?" said Mallett, stepping across to the hanging light that swung within a foot of his head. As he did so, the lamp came on.
"Curiouser and curiouser! Switch it off again. Now come and stand where I was."
They changed places, and Mallett depressed the switch. The light was turned on at once.
"Are you sure you're standing in the same place?"
"Jump. As high as you can, and come down as hard as you can."
The inspector sprang into the air, and his heels hit the floor with a crash. At that instant, the light flickered, went out and then came on once more.
"Splendid!" said Mallett. "Now look between your feet. Do you see anything?"
"There's a little round hole in the floorboard here. That's all."
"Does the board seem at all loose to you?"
"Yes, it does. Quite a bit. But that's not surprising after what I've done to it."
"Let me see it."
Mallett went down on hands and knees and found the hole of which the other had spoken. It was quite small - hardly more than a fault in the wood, but its edges were sharp and clear. It was near to one end of the board. That end was completely unsecured, the other was lightly nailed down. He produced a knife and inserted the blade into the hole. Then, using his knife as a lever, he found that he could pull the board up on its end, as though upon a hinge.
"Look!" he said, and pointed down into the cavity beneath.
On the joist on which the loose end of the board had rested was a small, stiff coiled spring, just large enough to keep that end a fraction above the level of the surrounding floor. But what chiefly attracted the attention of the two men was not on the joist itself but a few inches to one side. It was an ordinary electric bell-push, such as might be seen on any front door in Imperial Avenue.
"Do you recollect what Wellman's job was, when he had a job?" asked Mallett.
"He worked in the circus as odd-job man, and - - Good Lord, yes! - electrician."
"Just so. Now watch!"
He put his finger on the bell push. The light above their heads went out. He released it, and the light came on again.
"Turn on another light," said Mallett. "Any light, I don't care which. In the sitting-room, if you like. Now . . ." He depressed the button once more. "Does it work?"
"Of course it does," he cried triumphantly, rising to his feet and dusting the knees of his trousers. "The whole thing's too simple for words. The main electric lead of the flat runs under this floor. All Wellman has done is to fit a simple attachment to it, so that when the bell-push is pressed down the circuit is broken and the current turned off. The dog's basket was on this board. That meant that when the dog lay down out went the light in the bedroom - and any other light that happened to be on, only he took care to see that there wasn't any other light on. When the dog begins to get restless in the morning and goes down the passage to see what's the matter - you said he was an intelligent dog, didn't you? - on comes the light again. And anybody in the street outside, seeing the lamp extinguished and lighted again, would be prepared to swear that there was somebody alive in the room to manipulate the lamp. Oh, it really is ingenious!"
"But - - " the divisional inspector objected.
"But the light didn't go off when I was standing there."
"How much do you weigh?"
"Eleven stone seven."
"And I'm - well, quite a bit more than that. That's why. You see, there's a fraction of space between the board and the bell-push, and you couldn't quite force the board far enough down to make it work, except when you jumped. I had the advantage over you there," he concluded modestly.
"But hang it all," protested the other, "I may not be a heavy-weight, but I do weigh more than a dog. If I couldn't do the trick, how on earth could he? It doesn't make sense."
"On Wellman," said Mallett reflectively, "were found a pencil, a small piece of cork, a pocket-knife, two shillings silver and sixpence halfpenny bronze. Have you observed that the little hole in the board is directly above the button of the bell-push?"
"Yes. I see now that it is."
"Very well. If the small piece of cork doesn't fit into that hole, I'll eat your station sergeant's helmet. That's all."
"So that when the cork is in the hole - - "
"When the hole is plugged the end of the cork is resting on the bull-push. It then needs only the weight of the basket, plus the weight of the dog, to depress the spring, which keeps the end of the board up, and the cork automatically works the bell-push. Now we can see what happened. Wellman rigged up this contraption in advance - an easy matter for an experienced electrician. Then, on the evening which he had chosen for the crime, he put his wife to bed, killed her, with the coal hammer most probably - if you search the flat I expect you will find it missing - and shut the door of the bedroom, leaving the bedside lamp alight. He next inserted the cork in the hole of the board and replaced the dog's basket on top. With a couple of dog biscuits in his pocket, he then took the dog out for a run. He kept it out until he saw Police Constable Denny outside the flats. Probably he had informed himself of the times when the officer on duty could be expected to appear there, and made his arrangements accordingly. Having had a word with Denny, he slipped upstairs and let the dog into the flat. But before he came downstairs again he took care to give the dog his biscuits in the hall. It would never have done if the light had been put out before he was out of the building, and he left the dog something to keep him the other end of the passage for a moment or two. He knew that the dog, as soon as he had eaten his supper and had a drink of water, would go and lie down in his basket. I expect he had been trained to do it. Alsatians are teachable animals, they tell me. Down in the street he waited until the dog had put the light out for him, and called Denny's attention to the fact. His alibi established, off he went. But he had to get back next morning to remove that bit of cork. Otherwise the next person who trod on the board might give his secret away. So we find that when he came to the flat the first thing he did was to go down the corridor - before ever he went into the bedroom. That little bit of evidence always puzzled me. Now we know what he was doing. He was a fool not to throw the cork away, of course, but I suppose he thought that nobody would think of looking at that particular place. So far as he knew, nothing could work the lights if the cork wasn't in place. He thought he was safe."
"And," Mallett concluded, "he would have been safe too, if there hadn't been that little extra bit of weight put on the board. He couldn't be expected to foresee me."
Which explains, if it does not excuse, the slight but unmistakable touch of condescension with which Inspector Mallett thereafter used to treat his slimmer and slighter brethren.
End of Weight And See by Cyril Hare