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The Gong of Doom (dr. alan twist)


  The Gong of Doom

  ( Dr. Alan Twist )

  Paul Halter

  We’ve just received word that the British journal Book and Magazine Collector has selected Paul Halter’s story “The Night of the Wolf,” first published in English in EQMM (see our May 2006 issue), for its list of the 50 Top Locked Room Stories of All Time! As regular EQMM readers know by now, Frenchman Paul Halter (who hails from Alsace-Lorraine) most often writes about an English detective, Dr. Alan Twist. Here Twist is again with another superb locked-room puzzle.

  Paul Halter

  The Gong of Doom

  It was a normal evening in the Hades Club and the members were, as usual, enjoying the peace and quiet of their surroundings. In the great oak-panelled room, the gentle hum of discreet conversation could barely be heard above the crackling of the flames in the hearth. Crossed swords hung above the imposing black marble mantelpiece, on which stood a bust of the Greek god who had given his name to the club: the meeting-place of a select circle of prosperous Londoners devoted to the discussion of puzzling mysteries, criminal and otherwise. But the peace was suddenly shattered by a strange noise…

  * * *

  As one, the members turned to stare reproachfully at Horace, the servant who had had the misfortune to drop a large silver tray and was frantically trying to gather up its contents.

  “That’s strange,” said Superintendent Charles Cullen. The senior Scotland Yard official, a straight-backed man clearly in the prime of life despite graying hair combed carefully back, was sitting close to the fire in the company of his old friend, the eminent criminologist Dr. Alan Twist. The learned doctor, advanced in years but still sporting a splendid ginger moustache beneath a pair of gentle but shrewd eyes, behind a pince-nez, had frequently helped the Yard over the course of his career.

  “And what a noise,” continued Cullen. “It sounded just like an oriental gong. For a moment I thought I was back in India and we were being called to dinner.”

  “Strange? Why do you say that?” replied Twist. “Horace had just served Professor Felton his customary port, but then, unfortunately, he must have slipped on the freshly polished floor and dropped the tray while he was trying to retain his balance. When it hit the floor the tray produced a deep, resonant sound — a powerful vibration not unlike a gong, as you have correctly observed. The train of events seems perfectly logical to me. I really don’t see what’s odd about it.”

  The policeman shrugged his shoulders:

  “What I meant to say was, that’s not the kind of sound one hears every day, you must admit.”

  Comfortably ensconced in his armchair, Twist slowly took off his pince-nez and appeared to contemplate the collection of swords and daggers above the mantelpiece.

  “What would have been strange was if the tray had made no sound at all. Or if a great gong, having been struck, reverberated on its stand but remained silent.”

  “That’s clearly impossible,” scoffed Cullen. “But, knowing you, it’s obvious that you’ve been reminded of one of your famous imbroglios: those seemingly impossible problems that you seem to attract like flies. Wait! Let me guess… it’s something to do with those weapons, I’ll bet. Perhaps that oriental dagger you’ve been staring at so intently?”

  The criminologist nodded smilingly.

  “You’re very observant, Charles. But in fact, it’s more like the opposite.”

  “The opposite?” echoed the superintendent, frowning. “I don’t understand.”

  “It was not about a silent gong—”

  “Thank goodness for that.”

  “—but a gong that sounded without being struck.”

  “Is this some kind of joke?”

  “Not at all. The object in question had the reputation of sounding by itself. And in this case, it wasn’t to announce dinner but something altogether more sinister. I should really tell you the whole story, Charles, so you can appreciate why the detectives in charge of the investigation were at their wits’ end. After all, not only was there the Gong of Doom, there was also a murderer who could walk on snow without leaving a trace!”

  Charles Cullen’s reaction was to take a quick gulp of whisky and stare hard at the grim statue of Hades. After a moment of silent contemplation, he observed:

  “You don’t really look like him, but there’s something, nevertheless… “

  “What? Are you comparing me with the Prince of Darkness?”

  “Yes, my dear fellow. You’re every bit as diabolical in your manipulation of people.”

  A mischievous gleam appeared in the eminent detective’s eyes.

  “But you still want to hear the story, it seems. I thought you’d planned a hand of bridge.”

  “It can wait. Once again, you’ve aroused my curiosity.”

  After taking his time to light his pipe, Dr. Twist replied:

  “So be it. It’s a story that goes all the way back to the end of the Great War, in other words the early twenties, but fortunately I have a memory which, as regards criminal matters, is positively elephantine. I can remember the smallest detail.”

  “I know that from all the times you’ve been of assistance to us.”

  “It does help that Miss Rose Strange had magnificent chestnut hair, emerald green eyes, and a slender, graceful figure… “

  “No story worth its salt is complete without a pretty girl. I suppose that Miss Rose was the heroine?”

  “In a manner of speaking. She was twenty at the time and was going out with Philip, a young man of relatively humble origins, but honest and hardworking. His employer had thought highly enough of him to promote him to foreman at the bicycle factory where he worked, which offered the couple the prospect of financial security. But there was one formidable obstacle to their happiness: Rose’s uncle and guardian Colonel Henry Strange. The colonel, a confirmed bachelor, may well have had a heart of gold but, if so, he went to great lengths to conceal it. A strict disciplinarian, he treated her after the death of her parents as if she were his own daughter, but watched over her with a gimlet eye far sharper than any father’s.

  “He had been a medical officer in the army, but had left to take up an important post in the Ministry of Defence. He lived a strictly regimented life and expected others to do the same. If his niece was going to be married, it would have to be to a young man of his choosing, such as an army officer; it goes without saying that he was less than enchanted with his niece’s choice. He didn’t dislike the young man personally, but there was no question of him becoming Rose’s husband. For his part, Philip was fully aware of the colonel’s views and had decided to confront him that very evening, to inform him that, once his niece reached her majority, only death could prevent the marriage from taking place.”

  “And death is precisely what happened, I imagine,” commented the superintendent wryly, taking another swig of whisky.

  “Yes, death intervened brutally and in an almost supernatural manner, as if a deity had intervened. The study, where Colonel Strange had received Philip, was the scene of a senseless and inexplicable murder which defied the most elementary laws of logic — at least for those who believed in the innocence of the accused, like Rose. She was the only one who did at the time, and frankly the charges appeared to be pretty damning. Philip appeared to be the only one who could have committed the crime. To make matters worse, his explanation seemed scarcely credible… and he was also the only one with a motive for the murder.”

  Charles Cullen rubbed his chin thoughtfully:

  “Let me guess. They were closeted together in the study and quarrelled, after which Philip was found alone with the colonel’s body.”

  “Exactly.”

  “And he denied ha
ving killed him.”

  “Precisely.”

  “A classic detective-story situation.”

  “Perhaps, but this wasn’t a story.”

  “Where was the murderer, then?” asked Cullen, obviously intrigued.

  “Nowhere.”

  “Nowhere? I’m afraid I don’t follow. Colonel Strange was killed in front of his visitor, who didn’t see anything? Is that what you’re saying?”

  Dr. Twist nodded in agreement.

  “Yes.”

  “A phantom assassin, in other words?”

  “That was certainly the only plausible explanation if one assumed Philip was innocent. But let me begin at the beginning… It happened in London, on an evening a few days before Christmas. It had been snowing all day and the city lay under a thick blanket of snow. Rose and her uncle lived in Bloomsbury, in a house at the end of a dead-end street. A high wall ran the length of the opposite side of the street, behind which stood an abandoned warehouse. Philip arrived around eight o’clock, while it was still snowing. Rose was in a state of agitation, not only because of what Philip was planning to say to her uncle, but also because he had found her in the company of an officer, John Buresford, whom Strange had invited. The fair-haired young man was pleasant enough and rather shy, but what had struck Rose immediately was the stiffness of his gloved right hand. With a smile, he explained to her that it was a souvenir of the battle of Ypres: ‘Don’t worry, I’m used to it. People seem embarrassed by it but, to be absolutely frank, I’ve almost forgotten about it. Over the last five years, I’ve become accustomed to the thing. All I have to do is to think about the friends that didn’t make it back to realise how lucky I was to get out of there at all. And anyway, I’ve still got one left.’

  “So saying, he held out his good hand and Rose naturally held out hers. And at that moment Philip came into the room.

  “He was covered in snow and had forgotten to ring the doorbell in his haste to escape the weather. With his collar turned up and his hat jammed down on his head, his eyes were barely visible, but he nevertheless shot a furious glance at the couple and looked Buresford up and down as if he were an intruder. At that point Henry Strange arrived and, no doubt sensing the tense atmosphere, proffered some drinks and proposed a game of bridge, which lasted two hours. At half-past ten John Buresford excused himself and left, at which point Philip asked to speak privately to the colonel and they went into the study together and shut the door.

  “Henry Strange knew very well what it was all about. During the bridge session, Rose had observed him looking out of the corner of his eye at Philip and herself, but had been too flustered to dwell upon it. Despite Philip’s insistence, she had never plucked up the courage to confront her uncle about her marriage intentions and so, knowing the characters of both men, she now feared the worst. Her uncle was inflexible, and Philip was as stubborn as a mule. Things did not bode well…

  “She went into the kitchen to await events and in less than five minutes could hear voices raised in anger; hardly a surprise, but disturbing nevertheless. Even though two doors separated her from the two men — the kitchen door opening onto the corridor with the study door opposite — she could still hear them, as could Jasper, her uncle’s manservant, who lived on the floor above. As the quarrel showed no signs of abating, Jasper came down to join Rose in the kitchen. She explained what she knew of the situation and together they went into the corridor to stand outside the study door. Suddenly there was a booming, resonant sound and the voices stopped abruptly. Jasper and Rose looked at each other and stood there, straining to hear if the dispute was about to start again. But to no avail: There was not the slightest sound…

  “Now, before I go any further, I need to tell you about the gong and the dagger.”

  * * *

  Dr. Twist turned towards the mantelpiece and, indicating one of the oriental arms, asked his friend:

  “You guessed quite correctly a few minutes ago: That was one of the objects that reminded me of this business. You know what it is, I suppose?”

  “Of course,” replied Cullen. “It’s a kandjar, a traditional Indian dagger.”

  “Well, as it happened, there was a kandjar in Colonel Strange’s study, and there was also a gong. A very remarkable gong. Superficially, there was nothing to distinguish it from any other, but the Indian who sold it to him claimed that it possessed supernatural powers.

  “Let me guess,” exclaimed Cullen. “A gong which would sound without anyone having struck it!”

  “Precisely. And whenever that occurred, it was best not to listen, for it was an ill omen. It announced someone’s imminent death, or so it was said. Colonel Strange used to talk frequently about the legend, although nobody in the house had ever heard it emit a sound. Or, at least, without human intervention: for Rose, as a child, loved to give it a little tap from time to time. Its very sound emphasized the oriental nature of the room, with the thick Persian carpet and exotic weaponry, and the shelves full of trinkets, miniature elephants and other statuettes in ivory. But until that moment, at least since the colonel’s return from India, it had never sounded by itself.

  “Back to Jasper and Rose: Following the booming sound, they had heard nothing, even though they had been listening attentively. Now, worried about the prolonged silence, they made their way to the study, knocked gently, and tried the door. It was locked from the inside, but Philip unlocked and opened it immediately. He looked very pale as he let them in. Once inside, they could see that the window opposite the door was wide open. On the wall to their right, near the window, hung the gong and the kandjar. The body of the colonel lay on the floor almost beneath the kandjar. There was an arrow piercing the colonel’s neck and Philip told them there was nothing they could do, for the colonel was quite dead. Rose stood there in stunned silence while Jasper, who had kept his head, asked Philip to describe what had happened. Unfortunately, the young man’s explanation seemed so preposterous they feared he had lost his reason and might even have killed Colonel Strange himself in a fit of uncontrollable anger.

  “Needless to say, the question of marriage was at the root of the quarrel. As the colonel rejected his arguments with a cold authority, Philip had tried to keep his composure while pacing to and fro. Eventually he couldn’t take any more of the biting comments and, reconciled to defeat but shaking with anger, was about to leave the study when it happened. He was facing the door and the colonel was standing at the other end of the room with his back to the window, seemingly studying the kandjar and the fateful gong on the side wall. Suddenly Philip heard a curious sound, like a booming vibration. He thought immediately of the gong because of the legend Rose had recently told him about. He turned around and saw Henry Strange staggering and trying to clutch at the wall for support, in a vain attempt to remain upright. But, before Philip could reach him, he collapsed on the carpet. It was only then that Philip noticed the arrow in Henry’s neck. Because the window was open, he immediately thought that the shot had come from outside and went over to take a look. There was nothing, not so much as a cat. The street was silent and deserted. A solitary bronze street lamp illuminated the scene and created a sheen on the surface of the snow, which he could see was unmarred by footprints or marks of any kind. Opposite him was an unbroken brick wall without a single nook or cranny. Where could any mysterious archer have hidden to fire the deadly shot? There was nowhere. It slowly dawned on Philip that all the evidence pointed to him being the only one who could have committed the murder.”

  The eminent criminologist paused for dramatic effect. After favouring him with a rather cynical look, the superintendent commented:

  “An intriguing problem, I must say. If Philip was indeed innocent, which you seem to be implying, there are a couple of unexplained phenomena. First, obviously, there’s the gong that reverberated all of its own accord by way of announcing an imminent death. Secondly, there’s Colonel Strange’s abrupt demise in seemingly impossible circumstances. Perhaps you could elaborate on the
latter?”

  “Of course,” agreed Twist with an ironic smile. “And I’ll try to be objective even though I already know the solution. First, I must tell you about the snowman at the end of the cul-de-sac, made by some schoolboys during that same afternoon. They had decorated it with whatever had come to hand: an old broom; the traditional carrot for its nose; a battered old hat on its head; and an orange on top of the hat. With regard to the layout of the street: Starting from the T junction formed by the cul-de-sac and the main road to the south, it was a good thirty yards north to the wall at the end where the snowman stood guard. The high wall ran the full length of the west side and on the east there were three houses next to one another side by side, that of the Stranges being the last. Its front door was therefore some twenty yards from the T junction, with the street lamp almost opposite providing bright illumination for the whole street. There were three windows looking onto the cul-de-sac: that of the study, adjacent to the front door, and two others belonging to a larger room — the dining room, I believe. If you leant out of the study window you would see, slightly to the left, the street lamp and, five or six yards to the right, the wall at the end of the cul-de-sac. Are you with me so far?”

  “Absolutely,” replied Charles Cullen, who had been concentrating with his eyes closed.

  “Jasper had had the presence of mind to call the police and they arrived quickly. At first they concentrated on the virgin snow in the street, hoping to find incriminating footprints. Philip’s statements were so absurd that they believed he must be innocent — at least at first. The only footprints they could find were made by John Buresford, which went from the front door of the house to the T junction. They were very clear because the snow had stopped around the time he had left. There was nothing suspicious about them: Their general direction, depth, and — above all — their angle relative to the study window ruled out the possibility of a shot from that particular path. When the colonel’s body had been found, it was several feet from the window. Furthermore, Philip — who had nothing to gain by pointing it out — insisted that Colonel Strange was not at the window at the fatal moment. He was standing by the gong just before Philip briefly turned his back on him.

 
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