"Comus must have had some plan," mumbled Ellery.
"Sure," said the Inspector. "That old man disguise. And that purse-s.n.a.t.c.hing act."
"No, no, Dad. Something clever. He's always pulled something clever."
"Well, there's the diamond," said the lawyer comfortably. "He didn't."
"Disguise ..." muttered Ellery. "It's always been a disguise. Santa Claus costume-he used that once-this morning in front of the bank ... Did we see a Santa Claus around here today?"
"Just Velie," said the Inspector, grinning. "And I hardly think-"
"Wait a moment, please," said Attorney Bondling in a very odd voice. He was staring at the Dauphin's Doll.
"Wait for what, Mr. Bondling?"
"What's the matter?" said Ellery, also in a very odd voice.
"But ... not possible ..." stammered Bondling. He s.n.a.t.c.hed the doll from its black velvet repository. "No!" he howled. "This isn't the dauphin! It's a fake-a copy!"
Something happened in Mr. Queen's head-a little click! like the turn of a switch. And there was light.
"Some of you men!" he roared. "After Santa Claus!"
"Who, Mr. Queen?"
"What's he talkin' about?"
"After who, Ellery?" gasped Inspector Queen.
"What's the matter?"
"Don't stand here! Get him!" screamed Ellery, dancing up and down. "The man I just let out of here! The Santa who made for the men's room!"
Detectives started running, wildly.
"But, Ellery," said a small voice, and Nikki found that it was her own, "that was Sergeant Velie."
"It was not Velie, Nikki! When Velie ducked out just before two o'clock to relieve himself, Comus waylaid him! It was Comus who came back in Velie's Santa Claus rig, wearing Velie's whiskers and mask! Comus has been on this platform all afternoon!" He tore the dauphin from Attorney Bondling's grasp. "Copy ...! Somehow he did it, he did it."
"But, Mr. Queen," whispered Attorney Bondling, "his voice. He spoke to us ... in Sergeant Velie's voice."
"Yes, Ellery," Nikki heard herself saying.
"I told you yesterday Comus is a great mimic, Nikki. Lieutenant Farber! Is Farber still here?"
The jewelry expert, who had been gaping from a distance, shook his head as if to clear it and shuffled into the enclosure.
"Lieutenant," said Ellery in a strangled voice. "Examine this diamond ... I mean, is it a diamond?"
Inspector Queen removed his hands from his face and said froggily, "Well, Gerry?"
Lieutenant Farber squinted once through his loupe. "The h.e.l.l you say. It's stra.s.s-"
"It's what?" said the Inspector piteously.
"Stra.s.s, d.i.c.k-lead gla.s.s-paste. Beautiful job of imitation-as nice as I've ever seen."
"Lead me to that Santa Claus," whispered Inspector Queen.
But Santa Claus was being led to him. Struggling in the grip of a dozen detectives, his red coat ripped off, his red pants around his ankles, but his whiskery mask still on his face, came a large shouting man.
"But I tell you," he was roaring, "I'm Sergeant Tom Velie! Just take the mask off-that's all!"
"It's a pleasure," growled Detective Hagstrom, trying to break their prisoner's arm, "we're reservin' for the Inspector."
"Hold him, boys," whispered the Inspector. He struck like a cobra. His hand came away with Santa's face.
And there, indeed, was Sergeant Velie.
"Why it's Velie," said the Inspector wonderingly.
"I only told you that a thousand times," said the Sergeant, folding his great hairy arms across his great hairy chest. "Now who's the so-and-so who tried to bust my arm?" Then he said, "My pants!" and, as Miss Porter turned delicately away, Detective Hagstrom humbly stooped and raised Sergeant Velie's pants.
"Never mind that," said a cold, remote voice.
It was the master, himself.
"Yeah?" said Sergeant Velie, hostilely.
"Velie, weren't you attacked when you went to the men's room just before two?"
"Do I look like the attackable type?"
"You did go to lunch?-in person?"
"And a lousy lunch it was."
"It was you up here among the dolls all afternoon?"
"n.o.body else, Maestro. Now, my friends, I want action. Fast patter. What's this all about? Before," said Sergeant Velie softly, "I lose my temper."
While divers Headquarters orators delivered impromptu periods before the silent Sergeant, Inspector Richard Queen spoke.
"Ellery. Son. How in the name of the second sin did he do it?"
"Pa," replied the master, "you got me."
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Deck the hall with boughs of holly, but not if your name is Queen on the evening of a certain December twenty-fourth. If your name is Queen on that lamentable evening you are seated in the living room of a New York apartment uttering no falalas but staring miserably into a somber fire. And you have company. The guest list is short, but select. It numbers two, a Miss Porter and a Sergeant Velie, and they are no comfort.
"So Comus had a worthless copy of the dauphin all ready for the switch," he muttered. "It's a world-famous dollie, been ill.u.s.trated countless times, minutely described, photographed ... All ready for the switch, but how did he make it? How? How?"
"You said that," said the Sergeant, "once or forty-two times."
"The bells are tolling," sighed Nikki, "but for whom? Not for us." And indeed, while they slumped there, Time, which Seneca named father of truth, had crossed the threshold of Christmas; and Nikki looked alarmed, for as that glorious song of old came upon the midnight clear, a great light spread from Ellery's eyes and beatified the whole contorted countenance, so that peace sat there, the peace that approximateth understanding; and he threw back that n.o.ble head and laughed with the merriment of an innocent child.
"Hey," said Sergeant Velie, staring.
"Son," began Inspector Queen, half-rising from his armchair; when the telephone rang.
"Beautiful!" roared Ellery. "Oh, exquisite! How did Comus make the switch, eh? Nikki-"
"From somewhere," said Nikki, handing him the telephone receiver, "a voice is calling, and if you ask me it's saying 'Comus.' Why not ask him?"
"Comus," whispered the Inspector, shrinking.
"Comus," echoed the Sergeant, baffled.
"Comus?" said Ellery heartily. "How nice. h.e.l.lo there! Congratulations."
"Why, thank you," said the familiar deep and hollow voice. "I called to express my appreciation for a wonderful day's sport and to wish you the merriest kind of Yuletide."
"You antic.i.p.ate a rather merry Christmas yourself, I take it."
"Laeti triumphantes," said Comus jovially.
"And the orphans?"
"They have my best wishes. But I won't detain you, Ellery. If you'll look at the doormat outside your apartment door, you'll find on it-in the spirit of the season-a little gift, with the compliments of Comus. Will you remember me to Inspector Queen and Attorney Bondling?"
Ellery hung up, smiling.
On the doormat he found the true Dauphin's Doll, intact except for a contemptible detail. The jewel in the little golden crown was missing.
"It was," said Ellery later, over pastrami sandwiches, "a fundamentally simple problem. All great illusions are. A valuable object is placed in full view in the heart of an impenetrable enclosure, it is watched hawkishly by dozens of thoroughly screened and reliable trained persons, it is never out of their view, it is not once touched by human hand or any other agency, and yet, at the expiration of the danger period, it is gone-exchanged for a worthless copy. Wonderful. Amazing. It defies the imagination. Actually, it's susceptible-like all magical hocus-pocus-to immediate solution if only one is able-as I was not-to ignore the wonder and stick to the fact. But then, the wonder is there for precisely that purpose: to stand in the way of the fact.
"What is the fact?" continued Ellery, helping himself to a dill pickle. "The fact is that between the time the doll was placed on the exhibit platform and the time the theft was discovered no one and no thing touched it. Therefore between the time the doll was placed on the platform and the time the theft was discovered the dauphin could not have been stolen. It follows, simply and inevitably, that the dauphin must have been stolen outside that period.
"Before the period began? No. I placed the authentic dauphin inside the enclosure with my own hands; at or about the beginning of the period, then, no hand but mine had touched the doll-not even, you'll recall, Lieutenant Farber's.
"Then the dauphin must have been stolen after the period closed."
Ellery brandished half the pickle. "And who," he demanded solemnly, "is the only one besides myself who handled that doll after the period closed and before Lieutenant Farber p.r.o.nounced the diamond to be paste? The only one?"
The Inspector and the Sergeant exchanged puzzled glances, and Nikki looked blank.
"Why, Mr. Bondling," said Nikki, "and he doesn't count."
"He counts very much, Nikki," said Ellery, reaching for the mustard, "because the facts say Bondling stole the dauphin at that time."
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