Back | Next

The Problem Solver and the Killer

The dead man lay face down on the polished board floor beside the bunk, the stag-handled hilt of a hunting knife jutting from his back. Blood had soaked his blue woolen bathrobe, and spread out in a dark pool on the bare floor. His arms were stretched forward so that he lay almost in a straight line, his hands near the night-table by the head of the bunk, his feet pointed to a window whose panes were heaped with snow.

Low on his left wrist, just above the place where the hand broadens out, was a stainless-steel watch with the face cracked; but the hands were pointing to the correct time—8:01. Nearby, glinting dully in the morning light, lay a pair of bent, broken rimless glasses.

Richard Verner rose from a crouch beside the body and glanced around the room. He had come to this isolated hunting resort on the advice of his friend, Bartlett, who assured him that a week-end in the fresh air would be a healthy change from the city, and from the clients who, having never heard of a heuristician when Verner desperately needed clients, now swamped him when he already had too many.

“The fresh air,” Bartlett had insisted, “will do you good, Dick. It’s a beautiful place, easy to reach, with detached cabins, and a central Lodge. You can cook your own meals, or eat at the Lodge if you like. The hunting is good, the atmosphere relaxed, and there isn’t a problem or a client for miles around. The weather now would be just perfect—fresh and crisp, but not cold.”

Late the night before, Verner had slid, spun, and shoveled his way into this vacation paradise through a record-breaking snowstorm. This morning, he had been jarred awake by Bartlett’s urgent, “Wake up, Dick! Lew Phipps has been murdered!”

Now Bartlett stood, square-built and stocky, by the night-table, and set the phone back in its cradle.

“No use,” he said. “The line’s down between here and the village. We can call the other cabins or the Lodge, but that’s all.”

At the window, where more and more snow drifted steadily down, a powerfully built man in the uniform of a brigadier general turned to look worriedly at Bartlett.

“Can anyone get through on foot?”

“Not for hours. The snow is too deep.”

“Damn it, this is the fifth of these killings. And this is the only one we can prove is an actual murder. We’ve got to get the police here before the killer has a chance to escape.”

Bartlett shook his head. “I don’t know how. Once the snowplow opens up that road, everyone here is going to want to leave. This deep snow has ruined the hunting.”

The General gnawed his lip, and his face took on the intent look that Verner had seen many times in his career. It was the look of a man who has a problem that has to be solved, but who is baffled as to how to solve it. Abruptly the General turned to Verner, and a speculative, faintly hopeful expression crossed his face.

“Bart here tells me you’re a heuristician—a professional problem solver. Could you track down the killer?”

“I’m not a detective.”

“I don’t ask you to take fingerprints or question suspects. Mr. Verner, Lew Phipps was one of our best men in the field of submarine detection. We can’t let the killer get away. When a key scientist is killed, thousands of other men may die later because of the scientist’s unfinished work.”

Verner looked at the General with sudden interest. “You’re saying Phipps was killed because he was a key scientist?”

“Let me give you the facts, and see what you think. A couple of months ago an immigrant German specialist named Kupfer went out in his sailboat on a nice fall day, after telling his wife he’d be back in an hour. A week later he was washed ashore on Long Island, drowned. He’d been working in our submarine detection project. Last month Horn and Gabert, two of the best electronics men in this field, went out on a camping trip, and wound up under a rock slide, both dead. About two weeks ago Commander Jack Howells, one of the Navy’s top antisubmarine men, took a few days off, and managed to electrocute himself in the bathroom of a motel where he was staying overnight.”

The General glanced at the body on the floor. “And now we have this.”

“The other four deaths were considered accidental?”

“There was no proof that they weren’t. Whoever did it covered his tracks neatly, until now. This time we’ve got a clear-cut murder.”

“And the problem—” said Verner.

“Is to get this killer before the snowplow comes through. Otherwise he’ll get away—and more good men will die.”

“How do we know the killer is still here? Why couldn’t he have left last night?”

The General glanced out the window at the falling snow. “Bart talked to Lew on the phone about eleven last night. So Lew was still alive then. At about eleven fifteen I was turning onto the ridge road that leads in here. I think you’ll agree that in the fifteen minutes between Bart’s phone call and my turning onto that road, the killer couldn’t have murdered Lew and gotten away down that road.”

Verner nodded. “Not last night. I turned onto it around ten, and all across the ridge there was a blizzard of flying snow, and deep drifts. It took me over an hour to get through.”

The General nodded. “Later on it was even worse. I started into it at eleven fifteen, and shoveled my way out around two in the morning. I didn’t meet anyone on the way, so if a car left here, it must have been after two. But with the snow that heavy, and that wind on the ridge, the road was solidly drifted in by two. No one could have gotten through there. And there’s no other way out.”

Verner nodded. “Then the killer must be trapped here. And as you say, he can leave in the exodus before the police learn about this. But couldn’t we stop everyone from leaving?”

The General shrugged. “A lot of these people are from out of state. They won’t want to be tied up in the investigation. We could try to keep them here, but I don’t think it would work. One or two would pull out, and the rest would follow.”

Verner nodded. “All right,” he said. “I’ll try to get your man for you. But bear in mind, I’m not a detective. I don’t have a detective’s special skills. I’ll have to work at it my own way.”

The General nodded. “I don’t care how you do it—just get him.”


Verner spent the next half hour carefully looking over the cabin. There was a lot to see. The cracks in the floor, several yards from the body, showed distinct traces of blood. Next to the kerosene heater, its sheet-metal side dented, lay a white chip of tooth. The floor near the sink, in the tiny bathroom, looked clean, but smelled of vomit. There was a scattered trail of blood droplets from near the outside door to the small compact kitchen, where a single strip of cloth damp with kerosene lay in an opened wooden storage cabinet that was filled with empty cardboard cereal and dried-milk boxes. Beside the cloth was a drop of wax.

There was another trail of blood droplets from the outer door almost to the body of the dead man. Near the outer door was a small pool of blood. Most of the furniture in the main room of the cabin was overturned, and the leg of one of the chairs was broken. The dead man’s deer gun was in the closet, and his hunting knife was in his suitcase, but his .22 target pistol was missing from its holster in the suitcase.

The three men considered this mass of information in silence. Bartlett looked up from examining the body, and said apologetically, “The left lens of these glasses of Lew’s isn’t broken quite as you’d expect. Part of the lens is crushed in a semicircle. What does that mean?”

Verner said exasperatedly, “I suppose there are some murders without a single clue, but in this one we have too many.”

The General said, “But what the devil does it all add up to?”

“With a thing like this,” said Verner, “the idea is to get hold of a loose end somewhere and pull.” He frowned for a moment, then said, “For instance, that rag smelling of kerosene is suggestive, and so is the drop of wax.”

Bartlett said, “That’s right. There could have been a pile of kerosene-soaked rags in that cupboard, and a lighted candle. The killer could have planned to have Lew die in an ‘accidental fire’.”

Verner nodded, and glanced around. “There’s that small pool of blood near the outer door, and the trail of scattered droplets that leads from there into the kitchen. For the blood to accumulate in a pool suggests that someone lay motionless there, bleeding. Then this person apparently came to, perhaps saw the flickering glow of the candle, and as the droplets show, went out to the kitchen. Since the rags and candle aren’t there now, he evidently threw them outside.”

The General nodded. “That makes sense. But who was this third person?”

Verner frowned, and glanced at the body, with the stag-handled knife jutting from its back. “That knife didn’t belong to Phipps, did it?”

The General shook his head. “Lew’s hunting knife is in the suitcase. He never carried a knife like that one.”

Bartlett looked puzzled. “Wouldn’t that be the killer’s knife?”

Verner said, “The difficulty with that is, why should a cold-blooded killer leave his knife, which could possibly be traced?”

The General massaged his jaw. “That brings us back to this third person who was lying near the door, and came to, and put out the candle.”

Verner said, “Perhaps we can check this line of reasoning. Bart, would you call the Lodge and see if anyone’s missing.”

Bartlett picked up the phone on the night-table. As he made the call, Verner crouched to study the body. He was still looking at it when Bartlett set down the phone and said, “A guide named Gordon Lecour hasn’t been seen since he went out for a walk before turning in last night. He was a big man, wearing a hunting jacket, boots, heavy trousers, and he carried a stag-handled hunting knife in a sheath on his belt.”

Verner stood up. “That explains it. Suppose that while the guide was out on his walk, he overheard the struggle in this cabin, and came in. At that precise instant he’d find three men pinning a fourth to the floor.”

The General looked at Verner in surprise. “How can you know that?”

“Look at Phipps’s body. Arms stretched straight out, his watch far down on his wrist, his legs straight back, and his socks shoved down around the ankles. Body face down and flat on the floor. How did he get into this position? How did his watch get almost down onto his hand unless it was shoved there, and how could that come about unless someone held him by the wrists? A second person, lying or kneeling across his legs and gripping Phipps’s ankles, would account for the socks shoved so far down. Now, neither of those men would have a hand free. So it would take a third man to use the knife.”

The General stared at the body. “And yet stabbing him was a fool’s play. It completely ended the chain of ‘accidental deaths’.”

“Yes. But there’s one situation in which they might have to kill him quickly. Suppose the guide did burst in on the killers as they were holding Phipps pinned to the floor with, say, his head shoved in a pillow?”

The General swallowed, turned, walked across the room, and then came back again. “That’s what must have happened! And then all hell broke loose.”

Verner’s gray eyes glinted. “The guide was a big man, and we can roughly gauge his physical condition from the fact that he walked out into a record-breaking snowstorm on a frigid night just to get a little fresh air before turning in. And from the violence that’s been done to this room, and the vomit and blood that have evidently been wiped up, he must have exacted quite a toll before they finally overpowered him.”

The General said, “What of Lew, meanwhile?”

“When the guide first came in, the killers would have had no way of knowing if he had anyone else with him. They couldn’t take the chance of letting Phipps revive and either getting away or joining in a finish fight. They must have stabbed him right then.”

The General nodded slowly. “After they had the guide down, they could have put his knife in Lew’s wound, to try to make it appear as if the guide had killed Lew. There’d have been little enough evidence to disprove it once the cabin had burned down.”

Verner nodded. “And here we come to one last fact. The killers left Lecour here, with his knife in Phipps’s back. The faint traces of blood and vomit suggest that they cleaned up most signs of their own presence, perhaps with the thought that, for instance, some remnant of the blood might be analyzed and prove that someone beside Phipps and Lecour had been here. They did that much, but by the time they’d hunted through the cabin and located a suitable weapon—Phipps’s target pistol—they’d apparently run out of steam.”

The General frowned. “How do you figure that?”

“It would have been natural to pose the body to suggest a fight. But it wasn’t done. These droplets from the door to near the body suggest that after the killers shot Lecour, they just threw the gun on the floor near Phipps, and went out. Lecour, recovering consciousness later, prevented the fire, then apparently looked around for some weapon, saw the gun, picked it up, and went out with it.”

“Yes,” said the General, “it all fits. But why—” He paused. “Yes, now I see why they ran out of steam. A knife wound can be a lot more serious than it seems at first. There’s internal bleeding.”

Verner nodded. “One or more of them very suddenly had to be gotten back to their cabin.”

“If only we could follow them!” said the General. “The guide may have been able to follow them, because of their tracks through the snow. But it’s too late for us to do that.”

Bartlett nodded. “There wasn’t a track in the snow anywhere when I came over to call Lew. Any tracks have long since been covered up.”

Verner said, “If we could think as they thought, we might have a chance. Let’s see, now. We know they did this late at night, because Phipps talked to Bart on the phone at eleven, and so Phipps was still alive then. Yet they didn’t do it too close to daylight, since it must have taken time for the snow to fill up their tracks.”

Frowning in thought Verner went on, “Now, let’s see. The simple and obvious way to get here would be down the walk from the Lodge. But that walk is kept lighted at night. By coming that way, any chance meeting on the walk would mean that someone had seen them. And that could make trouble the next day, if they came by the walk.”

The General said, “Okay, so they didn’t come by the walk. But the way these cabins are set, with random spacing, it would be hard enough to get from one to another cross-country on an ordinary night. Last night you couldn’t see a cabin ten feet away. If they’d tried to come cross-country, these killers would have floundered around half the night, and probably ended up in a ravine.”

“Nevertheless,” said Verner, “there’s just a chance that they were very clever.” He glanced at Bartlett. “When you talked to Phipps on the phone, did he seem worried?”

Bartlett shook his head. “He was just afraid that the General might have trouble getting in along the ridge road, because of the snow. By then the forecasters were predicting a record snowfall.”

Verner nodded. “He didn’t mention any unusual sound?”


“Of course,” said Verner, “they might have done it while he was out.” He shrugged on his heavy, fur-lined coat. “We’ll have to go out and see.”

“What are we looking for?” said the General.

“A nail,” said Verner, “or a hook, driven or screwed into the outside wall of this cabin.”


Outside, the snow was still falling steadily as they separated to examine the back and the two side walls of the cabin. A little under five minutes had passed when the General’s voice carried around the corner of the cabin. “Now, what in the Sam Hill is this?”

Verner and Bartlett joined him to study two tiny holes, less than half an inch apart, high up at the back wall of the cabin.

Bartlett said, “A fence staple, driven in and later pulled out, would leave just that kind of mark. But why would a staple be driven in here?”

Verner said dryly, “To hold the other end of the string.”

Bartlett looked at him with a blank expression.

The General swore.

Verner said, “Where they have frequent blizzards, the farmers run a rope from the house to the barn, so they can go from one place to the other without getting lost in the snow.”

Bartlett straightened up slowly. “Good Lord! They could have put that there while Lew was over at the Lodge eating dinner. It was dark enough by then, and no one would have had any reason to come back here and find it.”

The General said grimly, “With a length of cord passed through that staple they could come straight through the snow and darkness without anyone seeing them. And they could leave the same way.”

Verner nodded. “But,” he said, “by doing that, they left tracks.”

“Under the snow,” said the General ruefully.

Verner peered around and saw the slender slip of a seedling that grew straight up out of the snow. He reached down with his knife, cut the seedling off at the base, trimmed it, then passed the small end down through the light deep snow. He then pulled it out, and pressed it in his own footprints. He spilled snow over the footprint, and tried again. Then he put the seedling down through the snow where none of them had stepped.

Bartlett and the General watched blankly.

“Yes,” said Verner. “The bare grass and weeds, under the snow, feel springy, resilient. But when you press down on a place where the snow has been walked on, compacted, there’s a sticky sensation.”

He handed the seedling to Bartlett, who thrust it down through the light snow, and felt, out of sight, the springy vegetation. He pressed the tip into his own footprint, and felt it stick in the heavy compacted snow. He looked at Verner with respect, returning the seedling.

Verner probed down through the snow again and again, then slowly moved out in almost a straight line, away from the cabin. When he turned to look back, his gray eyes glinted.

“Before we go any farther, we’d better get our guns.”

Several minutes later, probing carefully to find the trail of hidden, compacted footprints, they were moving slowly out through the snow till there was nothing in sight before or behind them, on either side, overhead or underfoot, but snow—snow lying on the ground or falling, seemingly endlessly . . .


When the cabin loomed into view ahead of them Verner turned to the General.

“There we are. They went straight from their cabin to Phipps’s cabin.”

The General studied the cabin. “We want to be sure we’ve got the right people.”

“We can be sure by their physical condition. The killers have been through a tough fight.”

Bartlett said, “Suppose I knock on the door. I can say a guide is missing, and the management wants to know if anyone has seen him. When they first come to the door, I’ll say it’s cold, and shove my way inside. If I’m not out in three minutes, you’ll know we have the right cabin.”

Verner nodded. “If you think they’re not the ones, call out loud and clear when you come out. Otherwise, we’re coming in.”

Bartlett nodded and started out.

The General looked at the cabin. “That window in back looks good. Boost me up, and I can smash in the glass when we go through.”

“You boost me up. I think I can work the latch from the outside.”

“Good. That won’t warn them.”

They moved close to the cabin.

A loud knock, followed by a mingling of voices, came from the front. There was the sound of the door closing.

Verner glanced at his watch, slipped off his heavy coat, and leaned his gun against the cabin wall. The General boosted him up to the window. Verner glanced into the small empty kitchen, then worked intently at the catch.

When the third minute had just ticked past, with no sound from Bartlett, he eased the catch loose with a faint snap, and pulled the window open. Carefully he climbed through into a room with a sink, a small refrigerator, a bottled-gas stove, and a door, slightly ajar.

From beyond the door came a male voice. “You better make up a better lie than that, and fast.”

Verner reached down. The General handed up the guns. Verner helped the General through the window.

Bartlett’s voice came through the door. “What the devil is this?”

“I think you know what it is. Babs, check the back.”

Verner flattened himself against the wall as the kitchen door swung abruptly open.

A blonde girl, a livid bruise across the side of her face, stepped in carrying a machine pistol.

The General slammed her across the head with his gun barrel. Verner stepped through the door.

On the other side Bartlett stood with hands raised before a man with his right arm in an improvised sling, and a small black pistol held awkwardly in his left hand. As Verner’s fingers tightened on the trigger, the man shut his eyes in weary disgust, and dropped his gun.

Across the room a heavily bandaged man in an armchair raised an automatic.

There was a deafening roar as the General fired. The bandaged man jerked violently, then slid forward onto the floor.

In the ringing silence Verner, Bartlett, and the General looked around.

There were two cots in the room, and on each cot a motionless figure was covered with blankets.

Bartlett picked up the automatic, checked the bathroom, then the closet, and found nothing.

The General leaned his captive against the wall, feet far out. Verner pulled back the blankets on the cots and found the badly mauled bodies of the guide and one of the killers.

The General looked around with grim satisfaction, then gripped Verner by the hand. “The next time we have an insoluble problem we’ll know where to take it.”

A few moments later, with their prisoners securely tied in strips of sheet, the General was searching through the kitchen while Verner and Bartlett stood guard in the main room of the cabin.

Verner looked around at the bodies, the snow-heaped windows, and the bound captives. He glanced quizzically at Bartlett.

Bartlett shook his head apologetically.

“Well,” he said, “I thought it would be a vacation.”

Back | Next