Nicholas Brundy was just settling down to a frugal lunch in his secluded weekend cabin before trying his luck with the fish, when to his surprise his partner, James Killian, appeared at the door.
“What the devil are you doing here?” Brundy asked gruffly. Their relationship had always been a cool one, and for many months they had been quarreling bitterly, so that now it was a case of intense mutual detestation. The cause of their present battle, one of several in recent years, was Brundy’s desire to sell the business and retire. He was only fifty-eight, but not too well. Being a bachelor, he could easily live on his half of them proceeds. Tri-CP, a big outfit, had made them a reasonable offer; at least, Brundy thought so, and since he held a slight edge in stock, he could have his way.
Killian was against the whole idea. He felt that the components they were beginning to make could send their profits zooming in the next few years. He was too young to retire, but too old for a fresh start. Tri-CP had made it clear that they were not interested in keeping him on in any executive capacity. Any day now Brundy would stop listening to his partner’s objections, and accept the offer. The only reason he hadn’t done so already, Killian knew, was that by pointing to him as an obstacle, Brundy hoped to squeeze a little more out of the buyer.
“I drove thirty miles to see you,” Killian said in answer to Brundy’s rasping question. “That’s sixty miles round trip; ninety miles on these roads.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?’ Brundy growled, gulping some coffee. He didn’t offer Killian any. “That you came all this way out of love for me? I should live so long!”
“Matter of business,” James said, his heart beginning to race. “Got something you’d better see–a new patent that infringes on our top seller.”
“Wha-a-t!” Brundy exclaimed. “Lemme see that. Give it to me.”
Killian spread a paper on the table; Brundy bent his head down to look, then the bigger man, putting his muscular right shoulder into the blow, struck his partner on the back of the neck with his clubbed fist. Brandy collapsed over the plates of food, grotesquely smearing his face. He was out cold.
Killian looked at his watch: ten-forty. Had to keep a tight schedule; that was vital if he were to get away with this. Now came the messy part; too bad the punch hadn’t been fatal, but it wasn’t so easy to kill a man with one blow of your fist, no matter what the fiction writers dished out on the subject.
He got Brundy’s pillow from the bunk, returned to the table, raised the smaller man’s soiled face, and clamped the soft cushion over nose and mouth. When he removed it, minutes later, Brundy was unmistakenably dead. It was now ten forty-five.
The next step was to waste time; the job done here had to be the sort that would take any man at least fifty minutes. Killian set about wrecking the cabin; he worked hard and fast, but kept at it for fifty-three minutes. He was big and strong; the dumbest cop would know that this job had taken a man nearly an hour. It was now eleven thirty-eight.
Killian went back to his car parked a few yards away from the cabin and started back to his “zero punt.” thirty miles to go, and then the next phase. Brudy was dead; according to their partnership papers, the business would now be completely Killian’s. besides doubling his wealth, he was now free to carry on without selling. That is, he told himself grimly, if I get away with this small mater of a cold-blooded murder.
Back at his zero point, where he had ostensibly stopped to do some photography, Killian made a last mental check before beginning an irreversible sequence that was supposed to end with his proved innocence of any crime, but that might, if he bungled, end up with him being executed.
He looked at the odometer. When he’d picked the car up at the agency at ten in the morning the meter had shown exactly 1048; now it had increased to 1112, showing that he had gone sixty-four miles since then. It was figure that could kill him. He had made sure the agency had noted the morning’s reading. All the cops would need was a peek at the gauge now. It was a sixty-mile round trip to the murdered man’s cabin: your car shows just such a trip; you had a motive; ergo. Come along with us to the death house.
Well, it wasn’t going to be like that; he would outfox them good.
Killian got out, crawled under the car, and with a suitable wrench drained all the oil from the crankcase into an old can brought for that purpose. He carried the oil several hundred feet away, and poured it into an old brushy gully. He covered the pool with dirt and leaves, and returned to the car. Then he started the engine, and with the car in neutral, gave it plenty of gas for about ten minutes, at which time, naturally, the abused mechanism, with a shriek of dry metal, froze tightly. Nobody could say he’d driven another foot on this car.
Now came a critical step, the first of two. Killian hung a rag carelessly over the dashboard until it covered the mileage gauge. This was tricky, but even the most nosy cop would have no reason–now–to examine the reading. And a cop there must be: one of those nice clean-cut highway patrol boys to act as his witness and alibi.
Killian went half a mile to the highway and after fifteen minutes flagged down a cruiser. The patrolman wasn’t young, but he was vigorous and alert, which was all that mattered.
“My car’s conked out,” Killian told him apologetically. “I don’t know a thing about motors. D’you suppose you could have a look?”
He knew how to make a pitch: just the right amount of helpless pleading without appearing too sissy about it. The cop was willing, if not exactly enthusiastic. He made a cryptic report over his radio and drove Killian to the scene. It took him only thirty seconds to diagnose the obvious.
“This engine’s froze solid,” he said in disgust. “You’ve been driving without oil. How come?”
When Killian looked blank, the officer, pursing his lips, moved gingerly under the car, careful of his immaculate uniform. “Drain plug’s out,” he called. “No wonder she froze.”
“Those jokers at the agency,” Killian said. They must have forgotten to tighten it.”
The patrolman stood up, brushed himself off, and said, “You’re not going anywhere in that baby, I’ll guarantee you that. Want a lift to town?”
Killian shook his head. “I’d just as soon stay here and do some photography as I planned. But if you’d call the T.C. Garage and tell ‘em that Mr. Killian’s out here and wants a tow, I’d be much obliged.”
“Suit yourself,” the officer said brusquely. “It’ll take a couple hours, I’d say.”
“Well, it’s only twelve-eighteen–or is my watch out, too?”
The patrolman looked at his own watch.
“That’s right,” he said. “Twelve-eighteen, about.”
Killian could have hugged himself. No interest in the odometer and the time firmly fixed; things were going like clockwork.
The officer left. It would be at least ninety minutes before Luke Iverson came with the tow truck. That was the second critical period. This was a good spot; it was a million to one against anybody seeing him at his shenanigans. Just give him about sixty or seventy minutes alone, and after that the cops could grill him brown; he’d be in the clear. Killian unlocked the trunk and got busy.
Ordinarily, Sheriff James O’Neal spoke very little, but was in no way unfriendly, allowing his eyes and warm smile to communicate his obvious good will. But when he was working on a difficult case, the sheriff became oddly garrulous, using one of his two deputies as a sounding board for one fleeting notion after another. If neither deputy was unavailable, O’Neal was not above talking to a comic figurine he kept hidden at the back of a file drawer.
At present, however, both deputies were on hand, and, by command of their boss, all ears. Not that they minded; even if they did all the legwork, it was O’Neal’s guidance and experience that so often led to cracking the case.
“As things look now,” the sheriff was saying, “the best, and only, suspect seems to be in the clear.”
“Seems, nothing,” George Heller said. He was small, dark, good-looking, and cheerful, in contrast to Tobias Erickson, blond and mournful of mien, not because he was actually gloomy, but merely because a melancholy expression is easy on the face muscles and interesting to women.
“If ever a guy had a solid alibi, it’s Killian,” Heller continued. Even if he hadn’t thought so, he knew it was his business to challenge anything O’Neal said. The old boy wanted it that way; it helped him to clear a path to the solution. “When he left the agency, he had ten hundred and forty-eight miles on the car; the garage vouches for that. All right; when picked up for questioning, the gauge showed a hundred and fifteen more–at least two hour’s driving. We figure the killer had to spend almost an hour in Brundy’s cabin to tear the place up the way he did. So are you going to tell me that Killian drove over a hundred miles in about an hour–on our roads!”
“I agree with George,” Erickson said. “James Killian couldn’t do it.”
“You seem to forget,” O’Neal said mildly. “Those gauges can be doctored.”
“Not without leaving traces; this was practically a new car, and the gauge is sealed tight. Nobody messed with it. I know cars and I stake my life on it. The garage backs me up.”
“Suppose he jacked her up and ran the engine to add miles without moving the car at all?” the sheriff suggested.
Heller whistled softly. “Say–” he began, but Erickson interrupted him. He spotted the twinkle in O’Neal’s eyes.
“Oh no you don’t, Sheriff!” he said. “Foul–foul! It would take just as long that way as actually running on a road, or close enough, anyhow. When did Killian have the time?”
“Not so fast,” Heller came back again. “What about after the highway patrol left, when Killian was doing his camera work and waiting for a tow. He jacked it up then, and this knocks out his alibi, right?”
“How about that, Tobias?” O’Neal asked, smiling at Erickson.
For a moment the deputy looked blank, then he shook his head firmly.
“You forget, ot think I do, that when the patrolman left, Killian’s engine was done for: frozen solid. He could jack up the rear end all day, but he’d have no engine to spin the wheels.”
“By hand?” George suggested halfheartedly.
“Come off it!” Erickson said. “Run off sixty miles by hand? Ever try turning the rear wheels of a big car, or any car, that way? “
“Still,” the sheriff said softly, “it comes to this. The only reason we can’t nail Killian for the murder is a small matter of sixty miles on that gauge. On every other count he’s our boy for sure. Motive, everything else is there.”
“Sure,” Erickson agreed. “But there’s only one way to put mileage on the odometer–by running the car. He has the cop to prove that at twelve-eighteen, two hours and eighteen minutes after leaving the garage with ten hundred and forty-eight miles on the car, no more driving was possible. Since the gauge shows roughly one hundred and twenty more miles, Killian simply couldn’t have had time to ransack the cabin and tear it up that way.”
“You absolutely sure not by hand–in neutral, remember?” Heller persisted.
“Impossible,” Erickson snapped. “He wasn’t dirty and exhausted when the tow truck came, either. But let me try the calculator.” looking rather sheepish, he took it out of his desk, along with a pencil and paper. “Let’s see how many turns, okay? I’ll simplify by calling the diameter of the tire two feet; all we need is an idea. Then the circumference is about–” he worked quickly, “six point three feet. Turns per mile, five thousand two hundred and eighty divided by six point three, about eight hundred and forty. For sixty miles, over fifty thousand.” He grinned at them. “Can you see Killian spinning those wheels fifty thousand times, and coming up looking fresh as a daisy?”
“He’s got us, Sheriff.”
“Got you,” O’Neal said, his lips twitching. “I never said anything about how they were turned, now did I?”
“He had almost two hours before the truck came,” George said.
“If he had six, it would still be one helluva job.” Erickson replied. “His hands would be a mess; he’d be soaked in sweat. I just don’t think you can turn heavy tires that many times by hand. You’d cramp up in no time, neutral or not. You’d have to keep pushing, even if they spun pretty well for each shove.”
“Well,” the sheriff said quietly, “if he didn’t do it by hand, then he fooled us some other way. Better go over the figures again, both of you. I’ll do the same and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
The next morning Sheriff O’Neal was in the full tide of his occasional garrulity. Seated across from his two deputies, feet on his desk, he talked in a seemingly aimless manner.
“Can we put Killian in that cabin?” he asked. “Sure we can, but it’s his partner’s, and both men were there before, so that’s no help. If we could put him there the day of the killing, that would do it.”
He crossed his ankles the other way, cleared hid throat, and continued.
“Where does he claim he spent those extra miles? Driving around looking for something to take pictures of, he says. We can’t find anybody that saw him, though; but that’s not much help either; it’s a quiet section up there. And he’s got pictures, but he could’ve taken those days before.”
“Maybe we can tell they weren’t taken that day, byn the sun or something.”
“If hem took ’em that week, the difference’d be pretty slight,” Heller pointed out, and O’Neal nodded agreement.
“Too tricky-technical,” the sheriff said. “No jury’s gonna convict a man just on that. If we had that, and more, lots more, then maybe.”
“What if some one else drove then car, while he did the killing?” Knight asked.
“Not likely,” the sheriff answered. “Killian’s separated from his wife; has no kids. A man would need a mighty close friend to make himself an accessory to murder. Remember, the other guy would have little to gain. Killian isn’t likely to have that kind of friend. He’s a pretty cold fish, I’d say.”
“Another thing,” O’Neal added after a short pause. “Why was that cabin taken apart? Anybody would know a man doesn’t take a lot of money to a weekend fishing cabin. What was the killer looking for? Any ideas?”
“Something to do with the business, some paper that incriminated Killian?” Heller suggested.
“Maybe. Maybe,” the sheriff said moodily. “I think it was done to kill time, to show that Killian couldn’t drive sixty miles more than the round trip to the cabin and do all that damage.”
“And that frozen motor, such a good proof that he didn’t jack up the car and spin the wheels while waiting for the tow truck; it’s too darn handy. The garage doesn’t like the idea that one of their men forgot to tighten the drain plug. They say that’s an important thing evn the greenest mechanic watches for. It ruins an engine completely; too expensive a goof to permit.”
“You still think he turned those wheels himself,” Erickson said. “How can I convince you?”
“I’m convinced it wasn’t by hand; he’d have to do more than one turn a second for most of the two hours.” O’Neal smiled his warmest, eyes twinkling. “I can figure a little, too.” Then, more seriously, “You noticed that he lied to the highway patrol.”
Both deputies looked bewildered and exchanged glances.
“He said he didn’t know beans about cars. Why? We see the man’s technically trained, partner in an electronics manufacturing business. People at the garage say he knows more than most about engines; not like a pro mechanic, of course, but no dunderhead like he made out.” He took his feet off the desk and, sighing, stretched them out to the edge of Heller’s chair. “Circulation ain’t what it used to be,” he grumbled. “Once I could keep ’em up there all day.” He paused, eyed each of them critically, and asked, “What about that dry engine? Doesn’t that car have an oil pressure gauge?”
“It’s a warning light,” Erickson said. “Flickers when the pressure drops too far.”
“Thought so,” O’Neal said complacently. “And Killian just ignored it, a man with his background; drove right along until he messed up the engine. Well, if he did, it was deliberate.”
“Why are you so all-fired certain he’s guilty?” Heller asked, his face wooden.
“All too neat: car breaking down to give him an alibi; his fights with Brundy about selling; all those lies. Pity the ground was so hard at the cabin; we might have got his tire tracks where he pulled off the highway.”
“If he pulled off,” Erickson said. Then, as O’Neal scowled at him, he added quickly, “Too bad yesterday’s rain didn’t come earlier.”
“It’ll be too bad if Killian does get away with his,” the sheriff said. “And the way things are going he will. Tobias,” he said briskly, “I want you to go to that spot where his car broke down. Make a thorough search.”
“How would you make an engine freeze that way, right when and where you wanted it to?” O’Neal countered with another question.
“Drain out the oil and just run her dry for a spell.”
“Right. And you’d dump the oil somewhere–not too close.”
“Guess I would.”
“And what about the plug? You’d claim it fell out, remember.”
“Hmm,” Erickson said thoughtfully. “I’d fling that into the brush; or maybe carry it home in my pocket, to hide later.”
“It would be hard to find,” the sheriff said. “But the oil–that’s a chance. Be a couple quarts, maybe, and messy stuff. You look for it.”
“Gonna be muddy out there.”
“Too bad,” O’Neal said with genuine sympathy. “But we can’t overlook any bets, can we?”
“Guess we can’t,” was the reply, delivered dryly. “See you later.”
Hettinger squirmed in his seat, wondering what the old boy had in mind for him. Nothing good.
“George, you go out to Killian’s place and snoop. Don’t ask me what for, but just get a peek into his garage and his house, too; but nothing illegal, mind.”
“Practically anything I do is illegal without a warrant; you know that.”
“Sure, I know it,” O’Neal said,” O’Neal said blandly, “but officially I don’t know what you’re going to do when you get there. My orders are to stay strictly within the law,” he added, one eyelid drooping.
“I’m on the way,” Heller said, grinning. “If they lift my badge, you can write a ;letter of recommendation.”
“Know just the words,” the sheriff said pleasantly. ” ‘This young man enjoys a good appetite and a good opion of himself. Sincerely yours–‘ ” They exchanged broad smiles as George left.
Alone O’Neal mused for a while, but to no effect. Then red-faced, he brought out the comic figurine and set it on tyhe edge of his desk. “Ariel,” he said gravely, “those boys are on the wildest goose chase since Widow McGrath’s gander ate the brandy-spiked grain. But if one of ’em gets lucky, we might still nail this guy. Not that Brundy was any great shakes, a sourball; but murder just isn’t nice, is it, Ariel girl?”
He rambled 0on, rehashing the case, for almost an hour, but without any fresh insight. If Killian had made those wheels spin to add sixty miles to the gauge, his method was still too much for the sheriff and both deputies; and the knowledge rankled. Finally, his mind like a drained reservoir, O’Neal put the doll away and, feet on the desk, dozed.
When Erickson returned several hours later, however, the old man was busy with paperwork, which he detested. The deputy was happy to see this; ordinarily the chore would have been his, but the sheriff was compensating for the mud.
“Well?” O’Neal asked without marked enthusiasm. He hadn’t really hoped for anything.
“Got lucky,” Erickson said ti the sheriff’s surprise. “He could have dumped that oil anywhere in ten scrubby acres full of nettles, but I spotted rainbow colors by a gully.”
“Hah!” the sheriff said gustily.
“Hah is right; oil slick colors. Traced ’em back and found a pool of oil, or what was left of one after the rain washed through it.”
“Without that rain, there wouldn’t have been any colors in the open.”
“Don’t I know it? That’s why I said ‘lucky.’ ”
“Well,” the sheriff said with satisfaction, “we can be pretty sure now that he did it, and damaged the car, but we still don’t have enough for a jury.”
“Unless George comes up with his own luck,” Erickson said.
“George didn’t,” Heller said from the doorway. “I didn’t find anything suspicious at his house. Here’s a list of what’s there, and in the garage, too.” He tossed his notebook to the sheriff.
“I’ll plough through this,” O’Neal said. “You boys might as well call it a day.”
“I don’t believe it!” Erickson said. “He’s freeing us at four-fifty-two, a whole eight minutes early.!”
“Let’s get out of here,” Heller said, “before he changes his mind.”
With exaggerated haste, they went out on tiptoes. Chuckling, the sheriff began to study the notebook.
After fifteen minutes he came to an item that made him stiffen in his chair. Could this be the gimmick? Certainly there was a possibility. But he’d have to know more about it. One of the deputies could get the information tomorrow. Killian wasn’t likely to dispose of the thing; that would be a bad mistake. He’d just let it stand there so innocently in his garage. Almost every household in the country had one.
“George,” O’Neal asked Heller the next morning, “what about this power mower in the garage? Gas or electric?”
“Gee, I’m not sure. Wait, it was gas: no cord.”
“Holy smoke!” Erickson exclaimed. “You don’t think–?”
“Why not?” the sheriff asked. “He could have had it in the trunk. Now, don’t the wheels of some such mowers turn along with the blades?”
“Sure, but much slower; they just amble over the grass, as fast as a man walks.”
“Lazy generation,” the old man said reprovingly. “I mowed a million acres as a kid, for about a dollar a yard!”
“Those wheels could be changed,” Heller said. “Once you have a good gas engine, it isn’t hard to fiddle with the gearing. And it isn’t like asking for a lot of horsepower, just turning loose car wheels. The Boss could be right.”
“Pick up that mower,” O’Neal ordered them. “Go over it bolt by bolt and see if it’s been fooled with. You know. The motor pulled out of the frame recently, or the gear ratio changed. even if he put everything back, things will be scratched or loose or too bright.” He peered at Erickson. “You get a sample of that oil out there?”
“Of course. You think I’m an idiot? Figured you’d want some.”
“Only with women,” the sheriff replied evenly. “Well, it can be matched with some from then car; there must be traces left, even after draining. No matter, I suppose, if it’s burnt or gooey.”
“With AES, auger electron spectroscopy. Erickson said rather pompously, “you can match any damned thing to nine decimal places.”
“And that oil wasn’t on any road, I take it.”
“Heck, no,” the deputy assured him. “In a gully where not even a jeep or Land Rover could go.”
“I still don’t see how he did it,” Heller muttered.
“Do you?” Newton asked Erickson.
“More or less. He’d jack up the car and use just friction–let the tire press against a mower wheel. He’d have the mower up on something; a simple wooden frame would do, with a wheel against the rubber tight enough to take hold. He’d have the mower geared up to turn faster; that wouldn’t be hard. Or take power directly off the shaft, since the load would be very light once the car wheels got moving. Either method would work.”
“If anybody came along, he’d be dead,” Heller said darkly.
“He picked a safe spot,” Erickson reminded him. “Pretty isolated; it wasn’t much of a risk; not compared with the rest of the deal, anyhow.”
“All right,” O’Neal said. “I think we’ve got Mr. Killian. If you boys can show a court how that mower’s engine can spin a car’s wheels fifty thousand times in a couple of hours, and the oil matches, he won’t be able to wiggle oput.”
“It was a mighty slick idea,” Heller said. “Gotta give the guy credit.”
O’Neal’s feet were back on the desk. He closed his eyes. “You both know what to do,” he said, yawning cavernously. “Get at it.”
At the door, the two deputies looked back. The sheriff was breathing heavily.
“Asleep?” Heller murmured. “Or just faking?’
“How do I know?” Tobias grinned. “Am I a detective?”