Illustration to accompany The Wager. Copyright(c) 2018 by Tim Soekkah. Used under license

The Wager

Story by Tom Mead

Illustration by Tim Soekkha

‘Killing a man in a locked room is easier than you think.’

As soon as the words left my mouth I knew Gilbrook would smile and smile he did. His face glowed in the dancing firelight of the study. ‘Oh really?’ he said.

I nodded. ‘Mystery writers make too much of it. Really it’s a very simple thing.’

‘Well, Kirby,’ he said, ‘this conversation has taken an interesting turn. Shall we wager?’

I returned his smile. ‘I hoped you’d say that. Yes, I’d like to very much. Let’s say this: I will bet you that I can devise a completely insoluble locked-room murder.’

Gilbrook did not know then about the key in my pocket or the little spool of string.

It was late- close to one o’ clock. Upstairs, the household slept. Gilbrook struggled from his chair and shuffled to the desk in the far corner.

‘Let me show you something,’ he said. He pulled open the top drawer and took out a squat, snub-nosed revolver. ‘I will bet that, within the hour, I can not only devise but also commit a locked-room murder.’

He offered the revolver and I took it, turning it over in my hands. ‘Excellent proposition,’ I said, ‘but let me tell you about my own murder plot.’

I stood and strode over to the door. I twisted the key in the lock. Then I headed for the window. It was already latched on the inside. Everything was in position.

‘What’ll it be?’ Gilbrook pressed, ‘the old “fake suicide” gambit?’

I nodded. ‘It will be hanging.’

‘And your weapon?’

‘This.’ I produced from up my right sleeve a yellow necktie.

‘Why that’s one of mine,’ said Gilbrook absently.

‘I know,’ I said, ‘you’re going to kill yourself with it.’

‘And they’ll find me swinging from one of those beams up there, presumably?’

‘Correct.’ I began to outline my method. ‘First: strangulation. A single, swift motion, snapping the neck.’ I ambled toward him. ‘Then… a noose.’ I demonstrated by carefully knotting the necktie.

‘Don’t forget to leave an upturned chair of appropriate height beneath my dangling feet.’

‘Of course. But now comes the magic. How do I leave you alone in a locked room? The answer is simple. With these.’ I slipped my left hand into my pocket and withdrew it clutching the small metal key, and a spool of string.

‘That looks like the key to this room,’ Gilbrook said.

‘It’s well known that there is only one key to this room. My magic trick rests on a simple misdirection from the fact that there are now two: the original, and this copy.

‘I place this fresh key in the lock on the outside. Tied to it is this length of string, which I thread through the keyhole. To the loose end of the string, I tie the original key. From the outside, I pull the door shut and lock it- the action of the metal bar sliding across is sufficient to seal the room. But there remains enough space within the lock mechanism for a thin length of string to be pulled through. By pulling the string, I pull the original key into position, in the keyhole on the inside of the room. Then, with my penknife, I sever the string so that only the knot around the original key remains. Thus: a dead man in a locked room.’

Gilbrook looked at me and sighed. ‘Prosaic, Kirby.’

‘Well, the solution is never as satisfying as the mystery.’ I stepped towards him, the necktie tight between my knuckles.

‘But wait!’ he said, struggling to his feet. ‘You haven’t heard my murder plot. Before I begin, do me one favor. Check the door is locked.’

Slipping the necktie back up my sleeve, I walked over and tried the handle. It rattled but did not give.

‘We are completely sealed in? Good. Then let me demonstrate my magic.’

From the desk, he produced a manila folder, which he handed to me. I flipped it open and scanned the first document. It was a facsimile of a codicil to the old man’s will. The document was dated last week. In it, he, being of sound mind and body (a malicious little joke, I thought) bequeathed the entirety of his estate to Joseph William Kirby.

I looked at him. He was still smiling.

I turned the page and found myself confronted with a blurred image on a translucent card.

‘What’s this?’ I said.

‘An x-ray,’ he said. ‘My right lung. What is that quote from Eliot? “Between the essence and the descent falls the shadow.” Kirby- observe my shadow.’

He snatched back the folder.

‘What does it mean?’

‘It means I’ve already had my death sentence.’

He flung the folder into the fireplace. I watched it curl and blacken to nothing.

Then, very slowly and carefully, he made his way back to the desk, where the revolver lay. He seized it with stumpy fingers and held it to his temple.

‘My only regret,’ he went on, ‘is that I won’t see you hang.’

I opened my mouth to speak. He squeezed the trigger.

No sooner had the muzzle flared and the bullet punctured Gilbrook’s eggshell skull than it was over. The air hung with blood-tinged smoke and Gilbrook himself lay crumpled at my feet. The revolver was no longer in his hand; it too lay on the rug. Smoke twisted up from its muzzle in a malevolent spire.

I could not move. Could not think. My face and clothes were speckled with the old man’s blood. I wanted to seize the gun, to wipe it clean. To unlock the door and try to run.

You cannot estimate the impact of a gunshot in a quiet, desolate house. I’d barely caught my breath when I heard the bustle of footsteps in the hallway, the sound of rapping on a locked door. And, above it all, the shrill peal of the clock chiming the hour.

— ♦♦♦ —


Next Week: 

Songbird.  By Jay Seate, Art by L.A. Spooner

Under soft moonlight in a dusty village by a river, a place hardly fit for prairie chickens, Smiley Red and Katie fell in love.  “I’ll make you happy, Red,” Katie told him. “No need for any more killing.”  Months later, a dime-novel writer who got wind of their story whimsically labeled them the Romeo and Juliet of the West.

Leave a Reply