The Winner of the 2007 Eleventh Annual Imitate Keeler Competition:
The Box from Nowhere!
by William Poundstone
Huffnagel Kittenplan, the world's stingiest hillbilly, was dead--dead, moreover, in a place where London's smart set wouldn't be caught dead!--namely the bordello run by Madame Yeardleigh Wieczorekiatrwalczakryzclokowiczldchmielewski--an establishment notorious for the fact that all of its women of easy virtue were also trained stenographers--allowing their fees to be deducted--legally!--on the visitor's income taxes--assuming said visitor itemized! This fact was of commanding importance for Boyce Pettaway, a bright-faced American of about 27-3/4, for unless Pettaway could solve what Scotland Yard was calling the "Kittenplan Enigma"--or the "Conundrum of the Pneumatic Strangler Whore"--posthaste and pronto!--Pettaway's chances for connubial happiness would be as dead as that skinflint bumpkin!
"The facts are these, Boyce," began Inspector Livingston Watrous, K.B.E. "On May 17, Huffnagel Kittenplan was seen entering Madame Wieczorekiatrwalczakryzclokowiczldchmielewski's establishment. The Madame remarked that there was a package for Kittenplan, and had a girl fetch it for him--after he assured himself that no 'tip' was expected! This package was a wooden box about 30 inches by 30 inches by 10 inches, with a handwritten label addressed to 'H. Kittenplan'--but no return address of any kind! He took it into a private room--alone!--and locked the door behind him."
"Unt dot iss de lasd anyvun efer saw uf dat yillbilly Yuffnagel Kiddenblan--vile alive, dat iss!" interjected Detective Adolfo Bioy Messerschmidt--a consultant on homicides of the uncouth who had autogyro'd in from Buenos Aires. "De next day, two Bridish bolice chimmied de door oben unt fount him strankled!"
"That's the puzzlement, Boyce!--Kittenplan was strangled--while alone!--in a room locked from inside! There are no other entrances to the room, not even windows. It seems they're barmy about privacy there because the place adjoins the editorial offices of that gossip rag, The Prynose--and Madame's clients tend to be loud! The room Kittenplan was in--a simple bedroom and bathroom of miserly proportions--was therefore supplied with velvet drapes, but only a solid expanse of brick wall behind them. After the police broke in, they searched the entire place. There was no one else in that room."
"You're saying Kittenplan strangled himself?"
"Nein, nein, dot iss imbossible!" objected Messerschmidt. "In der first blace, de yillbillies ub de Abbalachian region--from vere dis man Kiddenblan iss from!--haf a congenidal quirk, amblified drough inbreeding, dat makes dem combledely unable to taste butterscotch! A zo-called 'butterscotch idiot'--as id iss known technically!--vill, as a heredidary zide effect, be lacking in ubber-body strength. Id iss a debatable boint vether anyvun coot strankle himself vit his own mitts--bud in Kiddenblan's case, iss medigally imbossible!"
The Teutonic Argentine then opened a portfolio and produced a newspaper clipping that he shoved over the table to Boyce:
'Pneumatic Strangler Whore' Strikes?
Police theorize that Kittenplan was provided not with a woman but with a blow-up doll of infernal design--the substitution facilitated by the dim lighting in the Wieczorekiatrwalczakryzclokowiczldchmielewski establishment and the myopic victim's refusal to bear the expense of prescription lenses. A police source suggested that the 'doll' was designed so that the slightest pressure would cause its arms to lock around the victim's neck in a death grip, strangling him. The device was presumably supplied with a miniature clockwork mechanism that punctured the doll after a time interval, allowing it to deflate. The flattened doll could then be retrieved by pulling an attached nylon line and drawing it under the 1/4th-inch crack at the bottom of the one door to Kittenplan's room. Police suspect this 'pneumatic strangler whore' was deployed by Madame W. in a retribution killing for Kittenplan's long-delinquent 'tab.'
"We found the 'box from nowhere' in the room," Inspector Watrous explained. "It had been opened and was completely empty. Which is queer because the Cockney wench who fetched it swears it was heavy. So whatever was in that box is missing, gone, scrammed, AWOL, vamoosed! That's why we suspect a self-inflating--and self-deflating--pneumatic device concealed in the box--something that popped up like a Jack-in-the-box!--or a Jezebel-in-the-box!"
At this peculiar suggestion, Pettaway made a moue--though remained silent!
"Anyway, Boyce, there's another case where you might be able to help us--a most curious series of thefts."
"De Birade uf B's!" Messerschmidt said.
"Er--'The Pirate of P's,' that is, Boyce--as the Fleet Street paper-blackeners call him!"
"You mean the guy--or gal!--who's been stealing all manner of objects whose names start with the letter 'P'?" Pettaway asked. "Pork and pickles and petunias? It's been all over the news."
"The news hasn't reported the half of it, I'm afraid. In the week ending May 19, just in Greater London, we've had thefts of pots, Pekinese pups, petrified wood, perukes, planchettes, polyester placemats, Picasso prints, prairie dogs, pinking shears."
"Unt bitchforks!" added the Argentine.
"Now why would someone be stealing things beginning with the letter 'P'--and only with the letter 'P'? We have one lead. It's a poem that ran in the Daily Mail some two years ago.
Poem--With a Capital 'P'!
By Condoleezza Van Pryne
A yegg there was, who hatch'd a scheme,
Of wealth beyond his wildest dream!
He'd snatch all loot, whate'er it be--
As long as what's swiped, started with 'P.'
Including the heart of a Poetess--Me!
"Naturally, we checked out this poetess lady--and she's as clean as a whistle--left in a shirt sent to a Chinese laundry--for French drycleaning! So there you have it, Boyce. Explain the thefts--or the murder!--and I may be able to offer you a job--with a salary that will allow you to save enough money to marry that fiancée of yours!"
"I'm afraid money is only half the jam I'm in, sir. My fiancée has her heart set on a June wedding. And of course, next year, the whole world adopts the Universal Scientific Metric Calendar--in which June, and part of July, are replaced with the month of 'Einstein'! Which means that after this year, June is officially--"
"And so is my prospect of getting hitched! Because my fiancée has such a strong revulsion to all things metric, that rather than consent to an 'Einstein wedding,' she's vowed to become a missionary nun--and suffragette!--in the cannibal islands of the Torres Strait!"
Boyce Pettaway, having cudgeled his brains five long nights, once again found himself seated across a table from the two detectives. "In my experience, sirs," he began, "the smart criminals use the 'webwork kinematic' method of crime construction. They clip articles of unusual news stories and file them until they need to plot a new atrocity. Then they weave random clippings together into a crime defying the Yard's Sherlock Holmes style of cogitation! I believe that is precisely what Madame W. did, when she decided to murder her deadbeat customer, Huffnagel Kittenplan!
"Madame must have seen that Condoleezza Van Pryne poem in the paper. As to the rest of it, I believe we all have seen those occasional newspaper accounts of pet pythons being found in the toilet--or 'W.C.' in your Limey argot! I found this one at the Daily Mail morgue:
NYC Woman Finds Python in the Toilet
New York Woman Screams After Seeing
7-Foot Python Peeking Out From Her Toilet
NEW YORK (AP) -- There was no Halloween bogeyman in the closet for one Brooklyn woman, just a 7-foot-long python in her toilet. Nadege Brunacci was washing her hands in her bathroom before dawn Monday when she glanced back and saw the slithering serpent peeking out from her toilet, most of its body hidden in the pipes...
"Pythons dislike being confined. When kept as a pet in a small apartment, they are prone to escape through the toilet! The snake turns up in a nearby apartment's bathroom, producing one very surprised neighbor and a few column-inches of grade-A journalistic filler!
"You see, the 'box from nowhere' contained 'Mitzi,' the reticulated python recently stolen from the London Zoo. Under more normal circumstances, Scotland Yard would have paid more attention to the fact that a dangerous constrictor was loose in the city--in this case, however, you were also puzzling over the simultaneous thefts of pandas and pangolins and Przewalski horses--all rarer and more valuable species!--which were themselves just part of a lexigraphic crime wave of missing protractors, power drills, and plagiarized publications of Platonic philosophizing! All of it, I say, engineered by Madame W. as a smoke screen to cover the only theft that mattered to her, the python.
"Kittenplan opened the box, and--being raised in a part of the Bible Belt where snake handling is routinely practiced in church services!--he was less alarmed by its contents than you or I might have been--especially since his dime-store reading glasses would have made the snake look smaller than it actually was! Also, that old miser was doubtless aware that a python can be sold for quite a bit of money to snake fanciers! But this snake easily overpowered him. You realize that no constricting snake crushes--they suffocate their prey by tightening their grip each time it exhales--producing the same forensic signs as in throttling by a human assailant. The snake was of course too small to consume Kittenplan's body. Finding itself without proper food, it escaped by the only means of egress possible--the toilet!"
"Brilliant!" said the Inspector. "We arrest Madame W. straight off!"
"There's one more thing," Boyce said. "Kittenplan left a most peculiar will. Thanks to his lifelong pennypinching--and the miracle of compound interest!--Kittenplan accumulated an estate of some $23 million. His will bequeaths all that mazuma to 'whatever person is with me to the end, and in whose arms I die.' Madame's establishment is located in Southwark, a district of London that is technically part of France, going back to the Norman Conquest. Did you know that, under medieval French law, a reptile is considered to be a 'person'?--and the clause about dying in someone's arms would be unenforceable in a French court of law because a snake's arms are decidedly non-est!--the upshot is that all those simoleons go to Mitzi, the python!
"Unfortunately, I'm certain that Mitzi is now deceased--Madame W. would have killed it--or her!--to destroy the evidence. If my deduction is correct, the moola actually goes to Mitzi's next of kin."
"Vich vould be--anudder bython!" concluded Messerschmidt. "Gott Verdammt!"
"Not necessarily! This python was legally adopted by a human being--namely, the snake dancer, Livia Darkbloom!--known to the world of burlesque as the Amazon of Asps!--who donated the python to the London Zoo after it got too big to use in her act! She's still legally the creature's mother--and sole heir! I might add that Darkbloom happens to be featured in Volume III of Reamsnyder's 1000 Lady Poets Whose Words Make Living a Joy--under her penname, Condoleezza Van Pryne!--and also happens to be--my fiancée! Which means, from the timing of things, that we can invite both of you to--"
"Ach du lieber! A Chune vedding--by Gott!!!"
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