Authors: The Broken Vase
Tags: #Traditional British, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #National Socialism, #Fiction
He frowned down at the last, emitted a grunt, and stooped and picked it up. Leafing through it, he found that it was merely what its cover indicated: a catalogue of old and rare coins, with pictures of some and prices of many. Coenwulf of Britain, 9th century. Byzantine coin of Andronicus II. The Great Mogul Jahangir.…
When Sergeant Craig arrived with men and equipment thirty minutes later, Fox was still learning things about old and rare coins. He greeted the sergeant and wished him luck, told him that his fingerprints would be found on the coin catalogue but on nothing else except the telephone, and left him to his laborious and probably fruitless task. He had it in mind to stop downstairs for some queries regarding recent visitors to the Dunham apartment, but found that he had been forestalled by two plain-clothes men who had the acidulous hallman in a corner and were thrusting their jaws out at him, so he departed, walked six blocks to the Sherman Hotel, got a room, and went to bed.
In the morning he had his choice of several moves, all obvious and uninspired, and none promising. He settled, not wholly by contrariety, on the least obvious.
The weakest link in the official chain of negatives, judging from Damon’s sketchy report the previous afternoon, was that dealing with the ménage of Adolph Koch, with particular reference to visitors resembling Garda Tusar; and Fox, having spoken with the maid on the telephone and appraised her from her voice, decided to test that link. It would of course be desirable not to arrive until after Koch had left for his office, so he went uptown first for a brief call on Mrs. Pomfret, where he learned nothing new except that her son Perry, as far as she was aware, had not collected old and rare coins or displayed any interest in them.
But though it was after ten o’clock when he arrived at the Koch house on 12th Street, it was still too early. He never got to see the maid at all. The large and dignified colored man who opened the door informed him, to his chagrin, that Mr. Koch was at home; and, after asking him to wait, returned shortly and conducted him to a door in the rear and bowed him through.
Koch, putting something down on a table, came toward him to shake hands. As Fox met him and they exchanged greetings, a buzzer sounded.
“Damn it,” Koch said, “I might as well be the office boy. Excuse me.”
He went to a telephone the other side of the table and answered it, waving Fox to a chair. Fox sat down and looked around, as one does during a phone conversation that is none of one’s business. It was a solid and attractive room, subdued as to color, with comfortable chairs, handsome rugs, a large cabinet of pottery at one end and the walls of two sides lined with books.…
It was as Fox’s eyes were traveling to the other wall that they stopped and fastened themselves to one
spot. It was occupied by the object which Koch had been depositing on the table when he entered; and the object—yes, his eyes told him, indubitably—was the Wan Li black rectangular vase which he had last seen behind a pile of washcloths in Diego’s bathroom closet.
ox looked in another direction, with, he hoped, no gleam in his eye.
Koch finished with the phone, pushed it away, and dropped into a chair.
“You would suppose,” he observed testily, “that a man’s business might run itself for an hour or two. It’s my own fault, letting them depend on me for everything, so when I don’t get there sharp at nine thirty as usual …” He shrugged. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m out fishing.” Fox smiled at him. “Mrs. Pomfret got impatient and hired me to find out who killed her son.”
“Ah.” Koch smiled back. “She would.”
“And I’m trying to get a rise somewhere.”
Koch’s brows went up. “From me?”
“From anyone. I’m not particular.”
“Then the police haven’t made much progress?”
“Nothing very notable.” Fox threw one knee over the other. “By the way, you were speaking of your business—I know you make women’s clothes—do you make fabrics too? I have a note here from Mrs. Pomfret, if you’d care to see it, requesting co-operation—”
“That’s all right.” Koch waved it away. “You
couldn’t be as objectionable as the police have been even if you tried. Nor as clumsy, I hope. They’ve been pumping my servants about the guests I invite to my house.” He smiled. “Yes, we manufacture some of our own fabrics. Does that have some sinister significance?” His eyes looked amused.
“I wouldn’t say sinister. Do you dye your fabrics?”
“Of course. Everybody does.” Koch’s brow showed a crease. “I guess I’m up with you, but I don’t see the point. If you’re delicately leading up to nitrobenzene, we have gallons of it, and it smells like hydrocyanic, but after all it was hydrocyanic that was put in Perry’s whisky. Wasn’t it?”
“Sure. I told you I’m just fishing. Do you happen to know that nitrobenzene spilled on a man, even on his clothing, can kill him?”
“I don’t ‘happen’ to know it. I do know it. Anyone does who makes aniline dyes.” Koch was frowning. “What the devil is this, anyhow?”
“Nothing. Probably nothing important. A nosey detective asking mysterious questions. That is, it naturally seems mysterious to you.…”
“It certainly does.” Koch, still frowning, got up and stepped to the side of the table. “And speaking of mysteries, here’s another one.” He picked up the vase. “Look at that!”
Fox did so, without excessive interest. “It’s pretty,” he conceded. “What about it?”
“Pretty?” Koch stared at him, snorted, and passed caressing finger tips around the lip of the vase. “But I presume there are intelligent people who might call it ‘pretty.’ Do you remember, the other day at Mrs. Pomfret’s, there was talk of a vase, a Wan Li rectangular,
that had been stolen from Henry’s collection? This is it!”
“Really?” Fox gawked at it. “That’s interesting. Where did you get it?”
Koch replaced it gently on the table and grunted, “That’s the mystery. It was delivered here this morning, by parcel post. Just as I was about to leave for the office. That’s why you found me still here. I coveted that thing every time I saw it at Pomfret’s, and you can imagine—when Williams brought it and showed it to me—he had already opened the package—”
Fox nodded. “Yes, I can imagine. Especially in view of the peculiar circumstances. What are you going to do with it?”
“Return it to its owner, damn it! I phoned him just before you came, and I’m going to take it up there now. If I kept it here twenty-four hours, the temptation—but you wouldn’t understand. You called it ‘pretty.’ ”
“I apologize,” Fox said mildly, and added in the same tone, “This parcel post gambit is getting a little monotonous. Since you say it’s a mystery, I suppose you don’t know who sent it?”
“Was it addressed to you?”
“Certainly. This is my house.” Koch pointed to articles on a chair by the wall: brown wrapping paper, and a sturdy little fiber carton which had started its career as a container of Dixie Brand Canned Tomatoes. “It came in that.”
“May I take a look at it?” Fox went to the chair. He found it was unnecessary to spread the paper out to inspect the address, for it had been neatly folded so that a small printed label was in the center of the visible surface, as well as the postmark. Picking it up to examine the label more closely, he saw that it wasn’t
printed, but expensively and elegantly engraved, with Koch’s name and address. He turned, his raised brows putting a question.
Koch nodded. “The beggar has a nerve, hasn’t he?” He was suave and amused. “That was clipped from the corner of an envelope of my personal stationery and pasted on there. But it doesn’t help much, because I’m pretty lavish with my stationery. Only last week I sent out a thousand invitations to a show of Frank Mitchell’s—a young painter I’m interested in.” He glanced at his watch. “You know, I must be at my office before noon, and I do want to see the look on Pomfret’s face when I hand him this thing. If you want to ask me some more mysterious questions, why don’t you ride up there with me? Unless you’d rather stay and try to get more out of my servants than the police did?”
Was his smile banter, or a challenge, or merely the polite urbanity of a civilized man tolerating unmerited harassment? Fox couldn’t tell; but in any case, it seemed doubtful that the maid was saving any helpful revelation for him. He accepted the invitation to accompany Koch uptown.
It appeared, during the twenty minute ride, that Koch had no revelations either. He could add nothing to what he had told the police and the district attorney. He had regarded Perry Dunham as a bumptious young scatterbrain, but he sympathized with Mrs. Pomfret and would be willing, he said, to undergo serious inconvenience if by doing so he could be of any help in the situation. He would like to know why the devil Fox had asked about nitrobenzene; he would also like to know who had sent him that vase, and why to him; he was in fact, he said, in a vastly better position for asking questions than for answering them.
The effect he produced at Pomfret’s, as registered
not only on the husband’s face but also on the wife’s, must have met his extreme expectations, when, after a brief and rather stilted exchange of amenities, he suddenly produced the vase. Pomfret stared at it for five seconds in dazed incredulity, then stretched his mouth from ear to ear in a grin of unalloyed delight, and reached with an eager hand. Mrs. Pomfret, whose lids were even redder and more swollen, and skin more leaden, and shoulders less erect, than before, darted a sharp and suspicious glance at Koch, and one just as sharp, though not as suspicious, at Fox.
“That’s the Wan Li, isn’t it?” Koch inquired.
Pomfret gurgled an ecstatic affirmative.
Koch bowed to Mrs. Pomfret. “I couldn’t resist giving myself the pleasure of delivering it in person. Now I have to rush to my office. Mr. Fox will explain to you.”
He bowed again and was gone. Pomfret didn’t even see him go; he was carefully and lovingly inspecting all sides of his treasure so miraculously returned; and though he presumably listened to Fox’s recital of the circumstances of the vase’s return, he didn’t halt the examination for it. Mrs. Pomfret gave Fox both her ears and her eyes, and when he finished asked bluntly:
“Well, what do you think?”
Fox shrugged and turned up his palms.
“Fish,” she said in weary derision. “There’s no question that the Heath creature took it and he got it from her and mailed it to himself. Or else he took it in the first place and got frightened.…” She fluttered a flabby hand. “It doesn’t matter now.” She pointed at the vase in her husband’s hands. “I hate that thing now. I hate everything here. I hate everything. I hate life.”
Pomfret hastily put the vase down and passed an
arm around her shoulders. “Now, Irene,” he expostulated gently, “you know very well that’s morbid.…”
Her lips tightened to a thin line, she reached for his hand and gripped the fingers till he winced. Fox arose, said he would communicate anything that was worth communicating, and took his departure.
The thing was as chaotic and senseless as a nightmare. As a nightmare, he thought, marching south on the avenue like a man knowing his destination, which he didn’t—as the sort of nightmare Hebe Heath would have. Nothing led anywhere; nothing had any apparent relation to anything else. Take for instance that coin catalogue in Dunham’s apartment. Or Dunham’s going for the violin that day. Why? Granted that he knew the varnish was there, he couldn’t very well have expected to scrape it out. Or take that damned vase; was it connected with the death of Perry Dunham or wasn’t it, and if so, how? It would have been reasonable to suppose that Mrs. Pomfret’s suspicion was sound, that the vase-lifting had been another exploit of the wondrous and unimaginable Hebe—but in that case, how in heaven’s name had it got into Diego’s closet, and why should Diego?…
He swerved abruptly into a cigar store, sought the phone booth and called the MBC studios, and after an inquiry and a short wait heard Diego’s bass rumble in his ear.
“Diego? Tec Fox.”
“Oh. Hello. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Will you have lunch with me?”
“Uh—I’m sorry. Uh—an engagement.”
“Then later, five o’clock, whenever you say, for a drink? And have dinner with me?”
“What do you want?”
“I want to talk with you.”
“Yes. That and other—”
“No.” Diego was curt. “I won’t talk about it, now or any other time. That’s definite and final.”
“But Diego. I don’t think you realize—”
The line was dead.
Fox stared at the soundless receiver in amazed disbelief. Diego the courteous Spaniard, Diego of the quaint and engaging punctilio, had hung up on him! He could almost as soon have believed him capable of putting poison in a man’s whisky.… With slow reluctance he replaced the phone, sat there a moment frowning thoughtfully at it, arose abruptly with an air of decision, strode out to the sidewalk, and turned west at the next corner toward Madison Avenue.
On Madison he went half a block downtown, entered the somewhat gaudy lobby of an apartment hotel, crossed to the elevator and stepped within, met the inquiring glance of the operator and told him casually, “Ninth, please.” But it was not as simple as that. The operator asked him politely but pointedly whom he was calling on; and it turned out that his attempt to cut a corner had been unnecessary, for when the young man at the desk phoned Miss Tusar’s apartment that Mr. Fox was calling he was instructed to send him up. Unobtrusively Fox was observing faces, knowing that all members of the staff from the manager down, questioned by the police regarding Miss Tusar, had displayed either a loyal reticence regarding their tenant’s habits and movements and friends, or a surprising ignorance of them.