from Illustrated Detective Magazine
The Ace of Death
by Ellis Parker Butler
At one o'clock Saturday afternoon, just as had happened every Saturday afternoon for more than two years, a neat, dark maroon sedan of the $5,000 class stopped in Harbor Road before the clam boat of Oliver Spotts. At the wheel of the car was Silas, the chauffeur of old Mr. Tutham Brunch, who was also Mr. Brunch's housekeeper, cook, and general handy man. Beside Silas sat a small boy, George Washington Bimm, Silas' helper.
Mr. Tutham Brunch was an elderly and wealthy bachelor and in his youth he had been so miserably treated by a young lady that he thereafter hated all women. He would not even have a woman cook in his house and after a long series of other male cooks -- white, yellow, brown and black -- he had found Silas. Silas was indeed a find for he made the most delicious clam pies ever tasted by man, and very soon old Mr. Brunch was unable to be happy unless he had a clam pie every Saturday evening.
In some ways Mr. Brunch was eccentric. Before he fell in love with the young lady who treated him so miserably he had meant to be an Arctic explorer and had learned to sleep in the open even in -the coldest weather, using a regulation Arctic sleeping bag. It was because he had made a two-person sleeping bag and had told the young lady they would go to the North Pole together that she threw him down so hard. It happened, too, that he had sworn not to cut his beard until he found the North Pole, and the result was that his beard was now so long that when unwound it trailed three feet on the floor. He kept it in a waterproof bag, tucked in his shirt.
He was inordinately proud of his beard, which like his fine head of hair was snowy white.
As usual Silas got out of the sedan. He did not so much as glance at the sign above Oliver Spotts' door which said, "Oliver Spotts -- Clams -- Gardens Dug -- Janitoring Done -- Near-Detective." He shambled down the two or three steps and entered the clam boat.
"Howdy, Mistah Spotts," he said. "Ah wants clams like always fo' Mistah Brunch."
Mr. Spotts then selected a measure of the finest clams. He even opened two of them, giving one to Silas and eating one himself, knowing how particular Mr. Brunch was to have only the best clams. Silas took the clams and drove away.
At ten o'clock the next morning -- Sunday -- Oliver Spotts was arranging the peppers and salts and catsup bottles on the tables of the front room of the boat. On Sunday Mr. Spotts dug no clams, did no janitoring, dug no gardens and had no classes at the Cornelius Cuff School for Detectives where he was a student of detecting. On Sunday there was always an extra brisk business in clam chowder, clams on the half shell, and steamed clams, and he was preparing for the rush. In the kitchen his sister Lotta was steaming clams and making a huge kettle of chowder. Dressed in his best clothes and wearing a huge white apron Oliver Spotts looked more than ever like a bantam rooster. There was but one other person in the room.
This second person sat on a chair with his heels on a rung and his knees up near his face, crooning on a saxophone. He was Ethelbert Scummins, a recently admitted student in Old Cap Cuff's College for Detectives, and the only student Old Cap Cuff had ever considered too dumb to learn detecting. For this reason Old Cap Cuff had decided to make a Watson of Ethelbert Scummins, the job of a Watson being to utter ejaculations of amazement at the brilliance of the detectives as Dr. Watson uttered them to Sherlock Holmes, the only difference being that Old Cap Cuff considered Ethelbert Scummins so supremely dumb that he did not hope to make Ethelbert better than a third-grade Watson.
"And what would you do, Spotty, if someone came and said he had been threatened with death?" Ethelbert Scummins asked between croons.
"Into a case like that," said Spotts, pausing with a vinegar cruet in his hand, "at the present day and moment I would send the client back until he was murdered dead, because I finished up the murder course at college last month and I ain't took up threats of death yet. They don't begin until next week."
"Marvelous!" exclaimed Scummy and was about to begin his tooting again when Mr. Brunch's sedan again stopped at the door. Again Silas was driving but beside him on the front seat was Old Cap Cuff looking exceedingly stern, and in the back seat were Tutham Brunch himself, Captain Jed Hullins who was the Chief of Police of Mud Cove, and Mr. Bulwinzer who was a senior in the college and Old Cap Cuff's brightest student.
Hardly had the sedan stopped than the remaining forty-eight students of the college and the six professors arrived, marching two and two, all in full disguise. At a word of command from Old Cap Cuff they halted, dressed ranks, and stood at attention. Old Cap Cuff then opened the door of the sedan and got out and helped Tutham Brunch down. And, supported by Chief Hullins on one side and Old Cap Cuff on the other, the old man was helped down the steps into the clam boat. At the same time Mr. Bulwinzer slipped a pair of handcuffs on Silas and together they also entered the clam boat making an impressive showing.
"Spotts," said Captain Hullins, "consider yourself under arrest."
"Temporarily only, I hope," said Old Cap Cuff.
At these words Miss Lotta Spotts came out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind her.
"What's all this?" she demanded, shaking a chowder spoon at Old Cap Cuff. "What kind of fool nonsense is this, I'd like to know?"
"Now be calm, my good woman," said Old Cap Cuff. "I hope there is some mistake. Your brother is merely arrested for attempting to poison Mr. Tutham Brunch. Perhaps -- may I say no doubt? -- it can all be explained."
"Oh, cheese! ejaculated Ethelbert Scummins scornfully. "Double cheese and a portion of proofs; Spotty wouldn't poison a mouse."
At the mention of a mouse the elderly Tutham Brunch was heard to utter a groan and seen to grasp his chest. Mr. Brunch had been gently helped into a chair and he sat there in a bent and unhappy position. Around his neck was a muffler that covered even his nose, and his hat was pulled so far down that only his eyes were visible. He was in an extremely nervous state, trembling considerably and jumping at every unusual sound.
"Spotts," said Old Cap Cuff, "yesterday you sold this man, Silas, certain clams to be made into a pie for Mr. Tutham Brunch. Now, I want --"
He stopped short and stared at Mr. Brunch's head. The old gentleman had found the room rather hot -- the day was warm and dry -- and had taken off his hat. The sight this revealed was surprising for Mr. Brunch's hair had been dyed a bright sky-blue but, as if this was not enough, Mr. Brunch's hair now began to change color. From blue it turned to a lavender shade, and from lavender it changed to a bright pink. Miss Lotta Spotts, seeing this, uttered a cry of dismay and fled into the kitchen, slamming the door, and in a few moments Mr. Brunch's hair lost its bright pink hue, faded to lavender and then became sky blue again.
"Was it clam pie done that to your hair?" Oliver Spotts asked Mr. Brunch, but old Cap Cuff answered for him.
"That's one thing we'll have to find out," he said. "That's new to me. It didn't do that up at the college. Does your hair turn pink and blue like that right along, Mr. Brunch?" he asked.
"Pink?" said Mr. Brunch, his face as white as paper.
"Did it turn pink? It's never been pink. It was blue. It's that woman. I can't stand women. They affect me."
"Oh, Miss Spotts!" called Old Cap Cuff. "Here, one minute, please!" and Lotta Spotts opened the door of the kitchen. As she stood in the door Mr. Brunch's hair began to turn lavender and then became pink. Old Cap Cuff motioned to Miss Lotta to go and she closed the door behind her. The hair of Mr. Brunch changed slowly back from pink to lavender and from lavender to sky blue again.
"A dastardly plot, whoever the guilty person is," said Old Cap Cuff. "Spotts, someone is threatening the life of this kindly old gentleman and Old Cap Cuff and his College for Detectives mean to track down the miscreant and see that he gets his just deserts. Mr. Brunch appealed to the local police and they are baffled; he has now come to me. Old Cap Cuff will see justice done."
"Yes, sir," said Oliver Spotts meekly. "That's a good thing to see done in the circumstances, but I ain't guilty of it, whatever it is. What for am I arrested?"
"Suspected accessory before the fact," said Old Cap Cuff. "You sold clams to this man Silas. I ask you, Spotts, were those clams bitter?"
"No, sir, Cap'n Cuff," said Oliver Spotts. "They was first-class, fresh-dug clams, sweet as roses, and I ate one myself to be sure they was O. K. and so they was."
"Thass what Ah told 'em, Mistah Spotts," Silas said, raising his manacled hands. "Ah don't know what all this ruckus is about. Ah ain't done nothing nohow."
"You keep your mouth shut, Silas," ordered Old Cap Cuff. "Anything you say can be used against you. And you stop that noise!" he said roughly to Ethelbert Scummins who was crooning on his saxophone. Bulwinzer, tell the student body and the faculty to come inside."
When the forty-eight disguised students and professors were inside the room there was not much space left, and to make himself heard Old Cap Cuff stood on a chair. Now and then Lotta Spotts opened the kitchen door and when she did so Mr. Brunch's hair turned from blue to pink, turning back again to blue after Lotta closed the door again.
"Gentlemen," said Old Cap Cuff, "I will make this brief and Mr. Brunch can correct me if I make any misstatements. A few days ago -- let me have one of those cigars, Mr. Brunch."
The old man fumbled in his pocket and produced a cigar, and Old Cap Cuff handed it to Oliver Spotts.
"Light it, Spotts," he ordered and Mr. Spotts lit the cigar. He puffed once and the cigar exploded with the noise of a firecracker sending what appeared to be sawdust over Mr. Spotts' face and head.
"A few days ago," continued Old Cap Cuff, "Mr. Brunch went to his humidor for one of his cigars and it exploded just as this one did. All the cigars he tried exploded in just this way. He thought nothing of it -- except that his dealer had made a mistake -- but the next day he received this card by mail."
Old Cap Cuff here held up a playing card and read the words that were written on it. The card was the deuce or two-spot of spades and written on it was this:
"2 spot. Cigars. Kick Silas out. Ace means deth.
F. M. Smorg, Oner of Exserleor Clam-pie Bakery."
This was followed by a crude drawing of a skull and cross-bones. When the card had passed from hand to hand Old Cap Cuff continued.
"That day." he said, "Mr. Brunch went to his liquor cabinet to get a small nip of Scotch. He poured a little into a tumbler and squirted water into the glass -- Mr. Brunch, have you your flask with you?"
Mr. Brunch produced a flask and Oliver Spotts provided a tumbler. When the nervous old gentleman had poured a little of the whisky into the glass he put some water in it. Instantly the contents of the tumbler began to boil, a sickly green smoke arose from it, it burst into a flickering blue flame and suddenly exploded with a puff, sending a large smoke ring to the ceiling.
"You can bet he was disturbed by that," said Old Cap Cuff, "and the more so as he received, the next day, the three or trey of spades with the words on it '3 spot. Scotch. Kick Silus out. Ace means deth.' Again 'death' was spelled 'deth.' Again the warning was signed by F. M. Smorg, Owner of Excelsior Clam-pie Bakery, with the words wrongly spelled as before."
"What happened that day?" asked Oliver Spotts.
"You may well ask," said Old Cap Cuff. "That day he reached for the bottle containing the hair restorer he used and he anointed his snowy hair with it as usual and his hair turned sky-blue."
"And he got a card the next day," said Ethelbert Scummins, "saying 'hair', didn't he? I'll bet he did, and on the four of spades. An ascending sequence with ace high."
"Warnings," said Oliver Spotts, "like Pharaoh got to let the children of Israel go, only it said to kick Silas out, and the warnings come after the plagues instead of before."
"That day nothing happened," said Old Cap Cuff, "but that night --"
Mr. Brunch was removing his muffler. He now unbuttoned his collar and his shirt and drew forth the moisture-proof bag that held his beard. He opened the bag wide and held it forth and all who could get near enough peered into it. Instead of a roll of snowy beard what was seen was a mass of wisps of hair formed into a nest, and in the nest were two small creatures.
"Mice!" exclaimed Oliver Spotts.
"Yes, indeed, mice!" said Old Cap Cuff. "The wretched persecutor of this poor old gentleman, taking advantage of the fact that he sleeps outdoors in a sleeping bag with his beard outside the bag, put mice in his beard, and the next day Mr. Brunch received a five of spades with the usual message and the word 'beard'."
"Why don't he take them mice out before they chew up that beard worse than it is?" asked Oliver Spotts.
"I have advised him to keep them there as clues," said Old Cap Cuff. "We may be able to trace something from them."
"Is he feeding them?" asked Ethelbert Scummins. "There's a Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Society, you know."
"I give them corn," said Mr. Brunch. "Corn and oats."
"But not too much," warned Ethelbert Scummins. "Don't want to give them indigestion, you know."
"They wouldn't be much of a clue if they was dead," said Oliver Spotts, but Old Cap Cuff was frowning, ready to speak again.
"It was yesterday he received the four of spades," he said, "and yesterday, being Saturday, Silas bought clams and made a clam pie. Like all the clam pies made by Silas, as I understand it, this was a dream of beauty and an object to tempt the most jaded appetite. Mr. Brunch dished himself a large portion of the hot, steaming, fragrant pie and took a big bite. It was as bitter as gall. He choked. He gasped. He turned as blue as his hair -- bluer! And this morning, tucked under his door, was the five of spades, with the word 'Clam pie' on it, and as usual the words 'Kick Silas out. The ace means death,' and this was signed, also as usual, T. M. Smorg, Owner of Excelsior Clam-pie Bakery.'"
"And by the looks of that," said Oliver Spotts, who had been counting on his fingers, "he'll be a corpse along about a week from next Tuesday."
"Monday or Tuesday," said Old Cap Cuff. "I figure it will be Monday; the event happens before the warning, the warning comes the day after. On Monday he will receive the King of Spades telling what was done to him the day before, and Monday he will be murdered. Tuesday he will receive the ace of spades with 'Death' written on it."
"Well, you may be rightly correct, and I may be," said Oliver Spotts, "but anyways it ain't long to wait to find out."
At these words Mr. Brunch uttered a low moan and fell forward upon the table in a dead faint, upsetting an oil cruet. In spite of his manacled hands, Silas sprang forward to help his aged employer. The keen eyes of Ethelbert Scummins, the third-grade Watson, observed all this but he put his saxophone to his lips and played a dead march. It did not sound much like one. This was probably because he played it as a waltz.
When old Mr. Brunch had been revived Old Cap Cuff addressed his student detectives and told them how the case looked to him.
"Gentlemen and students," he said, "this is a difficult case. The substitution of cigars in the house and the alteration of the whisky made it look like an inside case. The putting of mice in the beard when Mr. Brunch was sleeping on his lawn made it look like an outside case. I'd call it an inside-out case."
At this the students cheered.
"Now, what have we to go on?" Old Cap Cuff continued. "A clam-pie bakery owned by a man named F. M. Smorg apparently wants Mr. Brunch to kick Silas out. Silas is the best clam-pie baker in the world. But Silas has a twenty-year contract with Mr. Brunch, who loves clam pie. The inference is that F. M. Smorg wants Mr. Brunch to kick Silas out so that Silas can bake clam pies for F. M. Smorg. Hence F. M. Smorg is threatening Mr. Brunch with death."
Again the students cheered.
"But wait!" said Old Cap Cuff. "We will hear from the Chief of Police of Mud Cove."
"When this case was placed in my hands," said Captain Jed Hullins, "I proceeded to investigate. The most complete investigation failed to reveal any party named Smorg anywhere in the eastern Atlantic states. Further investigation failed to disclose any concern called Excelsior Clam-pie Bakery. To give it to you straight, gents, there ain't no such animules. They're a fake."
"As I had guessed," said Old Cap Cuff.
"And. moreover," said Chief Hullins, "there ain't no clam-pie bakeries, neither."
"The inference from that being,' said Old Cap Cuff, "that some party or parties unknown want to start a clam-pie factory, building farm and fortune on Silas's clam pies. And the probability is," he said, fixing Silas with a piercing eye, "that such party or parties have made an offer to Silas, and that Silas is trying to frighten Mr. Brunch into breaking his contract with Silas."
"Boss," said Silas earnestly, "it ain't so. Ain't nobody made me no clam-pie offer. Ah's innocent, Ah tells you! Ah don't know what this am all about. No, sah!"
"Which is the usual statement of any criminal," said Old Cap Cuff. "And so, gentlemen," he said to the students, "your task is to follow such clues as we have or you may unearth, your aim being to connect Silas with this outrageous affair."
"Am I arrested like you said I was?" asked Oliver Spotts. "You ain't proved no poisoned clams onto me, far as I can see."
"Until this case is settled," said Chief Hullins, "everybody is suspected. I hereby unarrest you, but you ain't to go outside the village of Mud Cove, Long Island, without I give you a wrote-out permit."
"Well, I guess that won't hurt me none," said Oliver, "seeing as I ain't been outside the village for twenty years, more or less. Can I go along and detect with the rest of the college, Cap'n Cuff?"
"No!" said Cap Cuff with almost unnecessary emphasis. "No man under suspicion can detect under my trademark, Spotts."
The noise made by the departing students caused Lotta Spotts to open the kitchen door and look in, and again Mr. Brunch's hair turned lavender and then pink. Seeing that Oliver was not being led away to jail, Miss Spotts closed the kitchen door again and as Mr. Bulwinzer placed the old man's hat on his head his hair was slowly turning from pink to lavender again and as he was helped up the steps outside the clam boat his hair was quite sky-blue again.
"Well, Spotty," said Oliver's third-grade Watson when the room was clear of its visitors, "you certainly solved that one in a hurry."
Mr. Spotts looked at Mr. Scummins doubtfully. He suspected that Mr. Scummins was making fun of him, for there were times when Mr. Scummins really seemed to have enough sense to come in if the rain was especially damp. Now and then Mr. Spotts had caught Mr. Scummins looking at him with a look that might be called amused but Mr. Scummins had always changed this to a look of admiration so quickly that Mr. Spotts felt he must have been mistaken.
"I ain't always as big a fool as I look," said Mr. Spotts, feeling that this was a safe remark in any event.
"Just what I was about to say," said Ethelbert Scummins. "That's it exactly. I felt the same as you did about mice as a clue. You kept that to yourself cleverly, Spotts. Not a word did you say."
This was not exactly true. Mr. Spotts had said a word. He had asked why Mr. Brunch did not take the mice out of his beard, but Mr. Scummins ignored this unimportant fact.
"A detective oughtn't to state forth his theories until he is fully ready to do so," said Mr. Spotts.
"But you must learn to control your piercing eye, Spotts," said the third-grade Watson. "I saw the thought there. You thought 'Boy!' didn't you, Spotts. You thought 'Mice in a beard is a boy's trick,' didn't you?"
"If I had thought anything," said Oliver, "that is the thought I most likely would have thought."
"Now, please!" begged Ethelbert. "Don't try to deceive an old friend like me, Spotts. That is what you thought about the mice -- a boy's trick. But what boy were you thinking of, Spotts?"
"There ain't no boy could be into this crime but George Washington Bimm, not that I know of," said Mr. Spotts. "But a young boy like him --"
"Exactly! I knew it! I knew you would say that!" said Ethelbert enthusiastically. "A young boy would not think of threats of murder. He would put mice in beards but he would not write threats."
"He could be around everywheres, inside and out," said Mr. Spotts. "He could change cigars and change whisky and put -- say -- quinine in clam pie."
"Because he would want to get rid of Silas and have Silas's job?" asked Ethelbert soberly.
"He ain't old enough to want so to do," replied Mr. Spotts.
"Ah, I see! Amazing, Spotts! Marvelous! You mean he was the tool of some older person," exclaimed Ethelbert Scummins. "Someone, you mean, who wants Silas freed from his contract with Mr. Brunch? But who would use young George Washington Bimm for such a purpose?"
For a full minute Mr. Spotts stood staring above Mr. Scummins' head as if the whole scene of the crime and all those who might be concerned in it were pictured there. He looked, it may be confessed, like a bantam rooster that had swallowed something that stuck in its throat.
"Hair!" he said suddenly.
"What?" asked Mr. Scummins.
"Blue hair," said Mr. Spotts. "Blue hair and pink hair. Blue-lavender-pink hair. I got a clue, Scummy."
"Spotts, you amaze me!" cried Ethelbert Scummins. "That is the astounding thing about you, Spotts. One moment you talk of a colored boy and the next moment you talk of colored hair. One thing just leads to another when your marvelous brain gets to work."
"In the detective profession the brain has got to work," said Mr. Spotts seriously, and he raised his voice. "Lotty!" he called; "Fetch me my beard -- I'm going out detecting onto a case."
When Lotta Spotts had brought the false beard to her brother he hooked it over his ears and drew on his yellow slicker coat and put his nor'wester hat on his head, this being the disguise he wore when disguised as a clam-digger in accordance with the rules of the Cornelius Cuff College for Detectives. He then took a clam fork in one hand and a peck basket of clams in the other and departed with Ethelbert Scummins at his side. Ethelbert carried only his saxophone.
The thought that had come to Mr. Spotts assisted perhaps by his third-grade Watson -- was that in Mud Cove there was a small factory called the Mud Cove Hygrometric Novelty Company. In this factory was made a neat little semi-scientific toy. This was a card the size of a postcard, and on the card was pasted a paper doll. The doll had a dress of crepe paper which was impregnated with cobalt chloride. The result of using this chemical was that when the air was dry the doll's dress was sky blue, but as the air became damper the color changed to lavender and then to pink, the little toy thus being a cheap but effective hygrometer, foretelling rain or dry weather.
Clearly, then, Mr. Brunch's hair had been saturated with cobalt chloride, and it was not the fact that Lotta Spotts was a female that had changed the color of his hair so mysteriously, but the other fact that when Lotta opened the kitchen door she let out no little steam from the steaming clams and chowder.
"Where are we going?" asked Ethelbert Scummins although he knew quite well.
"A detective has got to put two and two together and see if they make four or six or what they do make, Ethelbert," said Oliver Spotts, "or he don't get nowhere into a case. Only yesterday a week ago Silas says to me how he wished Jessica Bimm would stop pestering him for twenty years to get married, because he can't so do whilst he's contracted up with Mr. Tutham Brunch."
"Spotts," said Ethelbert, "I begin to see! You mean that Silas -- because Mr. Brunch will have no married men around him -- has had to refuse Jessica Bimm's advances?"
"And she works into the hygrometer factory and young Wash Bimm is her brother," said Oliver Spotts.
"You knock me over!" exclaimed Mr. Scummins. "I am amazed. Spotts, let me stop and play a tune until I recover."
"Not on Sunday," said Mr. Spotts. "You'd fetch out the fire department. I ain't got time to do no explaining right now. I got to see George Washington Bimm right away."
"Yes, master," said Ethelbert Scummins meekly, and he tucked his saxophone under his arm and continued with Mr. Spotts to the home of Miss Jessica Bimm and her brother George Washington.
When he arrived there Mr. Spotts looked in at the open door and saw Miss Jessica, who was a very good-looking young woman, with her back to the door. Scattered on the table was a pack of cards, and on one of these Miss Bimm was writing with a fountain pen. She was taking great care in the work and when Mr. Spotts stepped inside the door she uttered a short scream and tried to hide the card on which she had been writing. Mr. Spotts seized it. On it was written "Six spot. Coffee. Kick Silus --" but she had had time to write no more.
Accused by Near-Detective Spotts she broke down and confessed.
On the way home Ethelbert Scummins complimented Mr. Spotts on the masterly handling of the case.
"It was one of the most difficultest cases I ever heard of or about," admitted Mr. Spotts gravely. "Old Cap Cuff says the rule is, mostly, 'Find the woman,' and into this case there wasn't no woman to find till I found out where to find her."
"Marvelous!" said Scummy. "Absolutely marvelous, Spotts! You astonish me twenty-four hours a day; yes, twenty-five hours a day."
"I guess I was born with genius into me," said Mr. Spotts modestly.