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THE DEAD ARE BLIND
by Max Afford
GENERAL NEWS SESSION
“What if it be a poison, which the friar
Subtly hath minister’d to have me dead?”
Romeo and Juliet. Act IV.
TO JEFFERY BLACKBURN, it is the case.
Knowing Blackburn so well, I have the unshakable conviction that no matter what future adventures the Fates may have in store for him, the Extraordinary Case of Sound without Sight and Sight without Sound will always remain very close to his heart. Long after he brought to a successful close this dark misalliance of inspired cunning and ruthless ambition, he would dwell lovingly over the remarkable details that even now cause it to be discussed as a criminological tour de force wherever the subject of murder sets tongues babbling.
“The criminal anticipated everything—with one exception,” Jeffery remarked once in speaking of this case. “He weighed, measured, and calculated in all laws, forgetting only the Law of Possibility.” And if that statement is sententious, it is none the less true. Blackburn’s entry into the queer business of the broadcasting studio was so indeterminately casual as to arouse a plethora of suppositions. If the Chief Inspector had not received that invitation . . .? If Jeffery had refused to accompany him to the opening . . .? If Miles Conroy had not remembered a certain association of ideas . . .? But why continue when a separate volume might be written on the subject of the postulative and the hypothetical as applied to this astonishing case.
Recalling the abrupt manner in which Blackburn was pitchforked into the murder of Judge Sheldon, and the foreboding events that preceded the raising of the curtain on the frightful business of the Dolls of Death, there is a certain irony in the fact that his chances of being connected with the case under discussion were, in the ordinary course of events, exceptionally remote. He stepped into the business merely as a spectator, a rather reluctant witness who paused momentarily to scoff and remained to ensnare his hands in a net of crime that was to enmesh innocent and guilty alike.
Spring came early to London that year. But the city was not caught unaware. There was entertainment and amusement for all classes in the varied programme of attractions that spread through a thawing muddy March and well into leafy June. The Royal Automobile Club held an international rally at Eastbourne; the Daily Mail Ideal Homes Exhibition attracted an army of admiring provincials to Olympia, while the British Industries Fair brought the home counties to shoulder each other in the Manchester streets. The opening of the Shakespeare Dramatic Festival season, the Royal Academy and the Russian Art Exhibitions, drew the artistic; the Derby, the Grand National, and the Cup Final at Wembley gathered in the sporting multitudes. Yet with these and a hundred other diversions to capture his wandering fancy, William Jamieson Read, Chief Detective-Inspector of the Criminal Investigation Department, Scotland Yard, must turn his inquisitive mind to the business of broadcasting.
Jeffery Blackburn, however, shared none of his companion’s enthusiasm for the science. The young man considered radio a wholly inadequate means of recreation, and his chief objection, apart from a vilification of the quality of the programmes presented, was to the medium’s lack of depth. He compared it to a surrealist one-dimensional portrait which may hold the eye for a few minutes out of curiosity and then inspire nothing save a sense of absurdity. Perhaps this was unfair, but Jeffery, whose love of the dramatic caused him to translate everything into terms of movement and colour, would grow very restless over the “mechanical anaemia” of the reproduction. He openly scoffed at the idea that the radio could possibly replace the manifest emotion of the stage or the concentrated arresting melodrama of the newspaper headline. It was true that a large and expensive wireless set augmented the furnishings of the service flat in Victoria which he shared with the Chief Inspector. Jeffery, however, never lost an opportunity to point out that the inclusion of the polished cabinet was merely another indication of his good-natured tolerance toward the eccentricities of his friend.
“A well-drawing pipe, a good brand of whisky, and the voice of the ether are the Chief’s only vices,” Blackburn would explain deprecatingly when he ushered his friends into the flat, to find the Chief Inspector slippered before the fire and the radio bellowing triumphantly. “There are times when I suspect that it is really nothing more than an affectation—like Holmes and the cocaine, you know.”
Whereupon Read would cock a fierce eyebrow at the visitors and, reaching forward, twist the ebonite knobs of the machine until the clamour reverberated through the rooms.
Radio plays—“execrations of the ether” to Jeffery—had an unfailing fascination for Read. He insisted upon entering wholeheartedly into the spirit of the entertainment, turning out the lights and sitting back with closed eyes during their recital. Meanwhile, an unsympathetic Jeffery fumbled his way about the room, bruising himself on protuberances which made surprising appearance in the gloom or throwing himself down in a chair and holding martyred peace until the drama had run its course. Occasionally these intervals would be enlivened by the young man’s sense of humour and he would contribute remarks that turned serious dialogue into facetious burlesque, in spite of Read’s irritable plea to “give the players a chance, son!” It was at such times as these that the radio might easily have become an instrument of disruption, but Jeffery had long since realized the truth of the adage regarding one man’s meat and another’s poison. Thus he compromised, and at length the bare announcement of a radio play was sufficient to send him hurrying to another room and shutting the door tightly behind him.
On this particular Monday night an early dinner had been served at the flat. The two men sat with coffee and cigarettes over the faint sternutation of the gas-fire. The conversation had turned to radio plays in general. A commercial station at Luxembourg had made a feature of the broadcasting of “dinner-hour thrillers”, presented to the listening world by courtesy of the Widdis Wonder Wash-cloth, and, as far as the Chief Inspector was concerned, no evening meal was complete without this accompaniment of mystery and mayhem. Since Mr. Blackburn’s appetite was stronger than his prejudices, he was forced to lend an unwilling ear to these presentations and so their post-prandial conversation centred about the theme of the play heard on that evening.
“A very fair production,” announced Read, pushing back his coffee-cup and reaching for his pipe. In the background, tuned down to a barely audible whisper, the radio hissed in a defeated monotone.
“A very stupid production,” commented Jeffery. “Wash-cloths and obscure toxicology! O tempora! O mores!”
Read cocked a bushy eyebrow over his half-lit pipe. His tone was acid. “The trouble with you, lad, is that you’re too damned highbrow!”
“Possibly,” Jeffery agreed amiably. “Yet even the lowest of brows may be excused for sneering at a play with the theme built around a mysterious Indian poison, unknown to modern science, which kills instantly, is tasteless and odourless, and impossible to detect in the victim’s body! ’Pon my suffering soul, Chief, there ought to be a law against foisting that kind of nonsense on the public!”
The Chief Inspector shrugged. “Of course—if you’re going to pick holes . . .” He paused and levelled an accusing pipe-stem at the young man. “Anyway, son—how d’you know that there isn’t such a poison?”
“And that remark,” said Jeffery reproachfully, “comes from a Chief Detective-Inspector of Scotland Yard!”
“Well?” barked Read.
Blackburn hitched his chair forward. “What a question! My dear Chief, how do I know that the earth is round? If such a poison does exist, why didn’t Dr. Pritchard use it instead of antimony? Why didn’t Thomas Wainwright discover it? Take all the notorious poisoners! William Palmer used strychnine, Henry Seddon was suspected of having used arsenic. Hawley Crippen sought to fool the police when he poisoned his wife with hyoscin hydrobromide. And in every case, an autopsy of the bodies revealed the poison! If an undetectable toxin does exist, wouldn’t those monsters have tried it? Particularly criminals like Neil Cream and Dr. Lamson, who made a living out of poisoning until they were arrested!”
“You’re talking about twenty-year-old crimes,” Read objected. “What about the modern developments in chemistry?”
Jeffery flicked an ash from his cigarette. “I’ll grant you that chemists are discovering new poisons every month,” he admitted. “But that fact only serves to weaken your argument, Chief. Once a poison is discovered and tabulated, obviously it can no longer be termed undetectable!” He leaned back in his chair. “As for methods of poisoning—well, you know that there’s nothing new under the sun. Take the example of the Thompson-Bywaters case in 1922. Mrs. Thompson is believed to have used powdered glass in an attempt to poison her husband. Lucrezia Borgia used the same little trick somewhere around 1540.”
“What about this new stuff Conroy was telling us of— tetra ethyl lead, the basis of motor spirit?”
“My dear Chief, that’s no argument! The foolish can poison with practically anything from disinfectant to weed-killer. Drinking virgin petrol is merely a modernized version of the hemlock of Socrates. And might I point out that tetra ethyl is a known poison—”
The big man snapped like a baited terrier. “Of course it’s known! But there may be others of a similar nature as yet undiscovered!”
Jeffery yawned. “Outside of those bedtime stories for adults that constitute your present mental pabulum, have you ever heard of such a poison?”
“Talk sense, son!” Thunder rumbled in the Chief Inspector’s tone. “Of course we haven’t heard of it! If it’s undiscovered, naturally it’s unknown!” He quietened and hunched his broad shoulders uncomfortably. “I only hope that you’re right, lad. If such a poison did exist, it could become a terrible instrument in the hands of the wrong person!”
The young man grinned. “Not in radio plays, Chief. Veritas omnia vincit is the simple motto emblazoned across the typewriter of every radio dramatist. Truth always comes out, no matter how obscure the circumstances. That’s just why they’re all so illogical!”
Read gave a dry chuckle. He was teasing the tobacco in his pipe with a match-end. “You can save your breath by addressing such constructive criticism to the fountainhead,” he announced. As Jeffery stared at him, he continued: “D’you remember Nickerson, the young man who was programme director at the B.B.C.? He approached you a few months ago to do a series of talks over the air on the subject of criminology—”
“Which I refused,” interrupted Blackburn. “Yes, I remember George Nickerson. What about him?”
“He’s appointed manager of the new subsidiary station built near Portland Place—somewhere in Wigmore Street, I understand. It’s the official opening tonight.” Read paused and bent to fiddle with the tap of the gas-fire. “He’s sent along an invitation for two,” he concluded rather lamely.
“Oh . . .!” Jeffery wrinkled his face mischievously. “So that’s the reason for the early dinner tonight! Alice wants to climb through the looking-glass?”
Read straightened. Like a cornered squid emitting its inky screen, he enveloped himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. “Of course I’m going,” he snapped. “There’s a radio play Darkness is Danger going on at ten-thirty and I want to see it!” And as the other regarded him in amused silence, Read literally thrust his head through the smoke coils. “Any objections?” he grated.
Jeffery crushed out his cigarette. “None at all,” he returned mildly. “You can have your busman’s holiday with my complete sanction.”
“I suppose”—each word was smeared with a sneer—“I suppose that you would consider it quite beneath your dignity to come with me?”
Jeffery clasped his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. “Touch gently upon a man’s hobby-horse as you would upon his vices, for are they not one and the same?” he murmured. “How well Alexander knew—” He broke off and sat up as Read’s chair rasped on the floor. The big man was on his feet.
“I’ve more to do than sit and listen to your blasted quotations,” he snarled. Jeffery leaned forward and pushed him gently back into his chair. He shook a reproachful head. “Where’s the iron self-control, Chief? Where is the old poker face, the masterly restraint? I declare that idleness is playing havoc with your inhibitions—”
“As a matter of fact,” continued Jeffery calmly, “I’d rather like to come with you. Since criminology has completely absorbed my time and talents, I have relinquished all ambitions regarding that epochal treatise on the binomial theorem.” He sighed. “Consequently I find the evenings rather dull since all the super-criminals appear to have turned their nefarious attentions to dinner-hour radio thrillers. Yes, Chief, I’ll come along with you.”
The sudden buzz of the house telephone cut into Read’s sour rejoinder. He heaved himself from the low chair and moved across to the instrument. Jeffery heard him bark a gruff “hello” into the mouthpiece and there were curious guttural sounds. The grimness faded from the Chief Inspector’s face as he listened. Then he nodded. “That’s very good of you,” he said with surprising amiability. “Yes— come right up.” He replaced the receiver and turned.
“Is the Commissioner calling on us?” queried Jeffery brightly.
Read’s lips tightened, then he decided to ignore the remark. “It’s Nickerson.” His voice was controlled. “He’s calling on his way to the studio—wants to know if we’re going. He’ll be up here in a moment. And,” said the Chief Inspector heavily, “if you frighten him off with any of that Oxford-and-Cambridge stuff, I’ll break your damn’ neck!
At that moment the door-bell shrilled, announcing the new arrival. Jeffery rose to meet the guest.
George Nickerson was not unlike an electrical impulse himself. He spoke in short staccato barks and such was his energy that he was rarely in the same position for more than a few minutes at a time. Jeffery, however, was interested and not a little amused by the attitude of Read. The Chief Inspector had pulled a third chair to the fire and was busy with the whisky tantalus. Blackburn, who knew from experience how rarely it was that his companion troubled to be even amiable to strangers, speculated wonderingly on the change. Having greeted the newcomer, he sat back to listen. The first remark, however, was addressed to him. Nickerson leaned over the back of his chair.
“About those talks, Mr. Blackburn—haven’t changed your mind? Good opportunity! Wonderful publicity! Imagine it—your voice reaching tens of thousands of listeners!”
“I’d rather not imagine it, thanks,” Jeffery said dryly. He smiled. “It’s very good of you to offer, but honestly, I had enough publicity over the Mannikin Murders to last me for the rest of my life.”
Nickerson shrugged his shoulders. “As you like.” He turned to take a glass from the Chief Inspector. “I suppose we couldn’t interest you, sir?”
Read’s expression was wistful. “Couldn’t do it—official capacity—never allow it,” he mumbled. “But there’s nothing to stop the young chap from doing it, except silly prejudice.”
Jeffery looked hurt. “At least I’ve sunk my prejudices to the point of accompanying you to this opening tonight, Chief. You might give me credit—”
“Sssh—!” Read silenced him fiercely. He was standing with one ear cocked alertly, then his eyes dropped to his wristwatch. Abruptly he turned. “The news session,” he announced, jerking his head toward the radio. “We’ve already missed half of it! Never miss the general news session,” he explained to Nickerson as he crossed and twisted the tuning dials.
A cheerful disinterested voice floated into the room, retailing tabloid descriptions of the outstanding news events. The three men listened in silence. There came a rustle of paper as the voice paused. A few moments later, the precise clipped tones were heard again:
“We are in receipt of the latest news concerning the condition of Miss Agatha Boycott-Smith, well-known philanthropist, who lies seriously ill at her home at Royston Towers, Hertfordshire. We are pleased to announce that her condition has improved slightly. She has been forbidden to see friends and her sole relative, a nephew, has been recalled to the Towers. . . .
“That completes our first news bul—”
The voice was choked into silence as the Chief Inspector clicked the master-switch and returned to the fireplace. “Who is this woman?” he demanded. “They’ve been giving out bulletins regarding her illness over the past week! I’ve never heard of her.”
Jeffery grinned. “Shows your laudable single-mindedness of purpose, Chief. Certainly the lady has never appeared in your Illustrated Circular or been featured in Informations. But if you took the trouble to emerge from your official shell occasionally, you couldn’t help but encounter the name!”
Read was settling in his chair. He glanced up. “Why is that?”
“There’s a Boycott-Smith wing in half a dozen country hospitals, a Boycott-Smith Free Library in the East End, and a Boycott-Smith scholarship in at least three of our universities. Only last year, the lady gave an immense sum to the unemployment relief.” Jeffery smoked for a moment. “And they say she is still worth a cool million!”
The Chief Inspector grunted. “She must have bought a half-interest in the wireless stations by the way they keep harping on her condition!”
George Nickerson, who had been following this conversation with nervous birdlike movements, shook his head. He grinned. “I don’t think you’ll find Miss Boycott-Smith putting any more money into entertainment. Not since her disastrous venture with that film company!”
“What was that?” asked Jeffery.
“Didn’t you hear about it?” asked Nickerson. “It happened about six months ago. Andrew Newland, her nephew, was partly to blame. He’s a friend of mine and a good sort of chap—but a perfect bonehead when it comes to business—”
“Newland?” repeated the Chief Inspector. “There was an Andrew Newland played rugger for England against Australia—”
“That’s the lad,” their guest cut in. “It was following his success in that game this film company offered him a contract. Of course, his aunt’s money was the attraction, but the novelty of the stunt appealed to Andrew. They were going to make a series of sporting films, wild and woolly adventures that would appeal to the kiddies, with Newland as a kind of sporting Buffalo Bill! Newland persuaded his aunt to sink a packet of money in the company and I believe they made about three films with Andy playing lead.”
“And what happened?”
Nickerson grinned. “They were so bad that they were never shown. Then the aunt’s attorney got to hear of the business and told her that she’d been stung. She stopped paying out money and the company went broke the following week. It seems that she hadn’t been too favourably impressed with the business from the start. She’d only considered it for Newland’s sake. Miss Boycott-Smith is rather proud of the family name and considers the public eye definitely infra dignitatum. There was the very deuce of a row about two years ago when Newland tried for the middle-weight championship of England. He did it on a bet and was, incidentally, battered to blazes! His aunt came to hear of it and almost disinherited him on the spot!”
“Mr. Newland must be a singularly foolish young man to quarrel with a million pounds,” remarked Jeffery.
“Oh, the trouble soon blew over,” the manager assured him. “They’re terribly fond of each other, really. Newland’s a decent, straight-shooting sort, not particularly brainy, perhaps, but thoroughly genuine. He realizes that Miss Boycott-Smith has been a mother to him since he was ten years old. I understand that his father was an invalid and died in a hospital. The shock of it killed his mother some months afterwards. His aunt adopted him and gave him everything. He thinks the world of her”—and here Mr. Nickerson’s grin flashed out again—“that is, next to a certain young lady playing in the show tonight.”
“Ah!” exclaimed Jeffery. “Romance in radio-land?”
The manager nodded. “I don’t know much about the girl—her name’s Marlowe. Mary Marlowe. But she seems a nice quiet type of young lady. It’s generally understood that their engagement will be announced as soon as his aunt’s illness clears one way or the other.” Somewhat irrelevantly, Nickerson added: “I hope that girl makes good tonight. I put her in the cast at Newland’s request and there was some unpleasantness at the change.”
“Yes.” A slight uneasiness crept into the manager’s tone. He finished his drink and sat down. “Originally, it was arranged that the author should play Marlowe’s part. Tonight’s production of Darkness is Danger was written by Katharine Knowles.”
“The detective novelist?” asked Blackburn interestedly,
“That’s right.” George Nickerson grinned. “She’s a queer stick. Wears extraordinary hats perched on mounds of hair. Favours gold ornaments on long chains, and high collars. I always think of Knowles as a cross between the popular conception of Mrs. Pankhurst and Charlie’s Aunt! But there’s no doubt that Knowles is supreme in her particular line. Her plots are ingenious to the point of brilliance! You’ll realize that when you hear Darkness is Danger.”
“And she was to play a part in her own drama?”
Nickerson nodded. “I understand that she’s working on a new novel that has a background of a radio station,” he explained. “She was keen to get actual experience. She asked me if she could play this part in her show. I told her yes—provided she pleased the producer.” The manager shrugged. “She didn’t! We put her through two rehearsals and she was terrible! The producer came to me and protested—said she’d ruin the play! Newland happened to be in my office at the time and he pleaded with me to give Marlowe a trial.”
He paused and glanced at each man in turn. “Naturally I was chary about the proposition. Marlowe had never appeared before a microphone—her sole experience was in amateur theatricals. It seemed like taking too great a chance. But Newland was so insistent that she could do the part that I decided to speak to the producer. Anyhow, to cut the story short, Marlowe got the part and she seems to be making quite a presentable job of it.”
Read stroked his moustache. “And how did the Knowles woman take the change?”
Nickerson rubbed his jaw. His tone was rueful. “Not very well, I’m afraid. She bounced out of the studio and declared she was finished with radio work for ever! She’d never set foot in a studio again!” The manager gave a wry smile. “Still, we get used to scenes like that. They’re more or less part of our day’s work.”
“Did you hear from Miss Knowles again?”
“We received a curt note from the lady about two days later. It demanded that we omit all reference to her name in connection with the play—that she wished to have nothing whatever to do with the production. So you can guess how she feels about the business.”
Jeffery’s tone was amused. “Then I take it the lady won’t be among those present tonight?”
Nickerson shook his head. “I very much doubt it. I sent her an invitation, merely as a polite gesture. I hear she was most incensed over what she called my unwarranted impudence! Apparently the old dear is still riding the high horse and the opening will have to stagger along without her patronage.”
Blackburn clicked his tongue. “How disappointing! I’ve always wanted to meet a radio playwright.” His grey eyes twinkled. “Until this moment, I was inclined to consider them to be of the genus illusionary—rather like the unicorn or the manticora.”
“Jeffery . . .!” rumbled the Chief Inspector warningly. His switching of the subject was obvious. “I suppose young Newland will be on board tonight to witness the debut of his lady-love?”
The manager shook his head. “I understand he’s gone up to the Towers to be with his aunt in case the end comes. She was very low this morning. Of course, he’ll listen in at the Towers. But I don’t anticipate that the girl will flop. She’s being produced by our best man—Carl von Bethke. He’s a former talkie director who came to us from the Kinofilm people. Apart from that, Newland’s attended some of the rehearsals with the girl and she’s shown up quite well.”
He paused, and on his last words the clock on the mantel chimed seven-thirty. Nickerson glanced at his wrist-watch and rose with a quick movement. “I must fly,” he announced. “By the way, I’d like to show you over the studio before the play commences, so it would be as well to be early on the scene.”
Read knocked the ashes from his pipe into the tray. “Black or white tie?” he asked.
“Black,” returned Nickerson. “It’s a semi-formal turn-out. Don’t trouble to come down,” he added as the Chief Inspector straightened. “I can let myself out. I’ll see you both at the studio.” With a wave of his hand, he was gone.
The Chief Inspector glanced down at the recumbent Jeffery and rubbed his hands briskly. His brick-red face glowed. “Come along, son! Stir yourself from that fire. Can’t keep the B.B.C. waiting!”
Jeffery stretched himself and yawned prodigiously. “Vast pity we haven’t perfected television,” he murmured as he rose. “I always appear so extremely distingue in a black tie.”
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