Authors: Ellery Queen
The Madman Theory
At nine o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, June 16, three men arrived at the Fresno airport: Dr Albert Koster, assistant to the Fresno County Coroner; and Sergeant Easley and Detective Inspector Collins of the Sheriff's office. Koster, a small oval sort of man with a waxen scalp and horn-rimmed glasses, carried a black case. Sergeant Easley was almost as bald, but he was rectangular, with the patient look of a butcher's block. Inspector Omar Collins, the tallest of the three, was spare in the flanks, with coarse black hair, a broken nose, gloomy eyes, and a quality of unpredictability that made people shy away.
The three men walked out on the field to a waiting helicopter and climbed into the cab.
Collins spoke to the pilot with a studied politeness which suggested that his natural tendency was less social. “How much did they tell you?”
“I gather we're flying into the back country to pick up a corpse.”
“Right. You've got gear for the job?”
“A tarp. Rope.”
“That should do it. We'll stop at a place called Cedar Grove to pick up a ranger. He'll take us into the mountains.”
“I know where Cedar Grove is. No problem there, we just follow Kings Canyon. What happened? Somebody fall off a cliff?”
“Somebody had his head blown off,” Sergeant Easley said. “The rangers think there's a maniac loose.” Inspector Collins looked at him, and the sergeant grinned uneasily.
“That's rough country behind Kings Canyon. I've been in there before.” The pilot looked over his shoulder. “Everybody tied down? Here we go.” He started the engine, set the blades whirling, and the airport fell away. The city of Fresno spread below, a thing of white and tawny blocks and slabs. It dissolved into the heat-haze. The Sierra Nevada was a blur along the eastern skyline, more felt than seen.
Orchards, vineyards, housing developments tailed off into alfalfa fields, which turned into dry pasture. The foothills began to swell and loom, until they became the spurs of the Sierra Nevada. Eucalyptus and live oak gave way to manzanita and pine, then to fir and redwood. Kings Canyon opened before them: a glacial trough a mile wide and a mile high, with the Kings River a silver trickle on its floor. The helicopter flew east, between granite crags.
Presently the pilot pointed to a sprinkle of flecks, just visible beneath the trees. “Cedar Grove.” He swung the helicopter in a semicircle and descended. The wheels touched ground. The motor died, leaving a throbbing silence.
A pair of park rangers hurried toward them. The older one, a man of forty with a ginger mustache, wearing a whipcord jacket over his Forest Service uniform, introduced himself. “You're the police? I'm Roy Phelps, Park Superintendent. This is Head Ranger Joe Johnson. You arrived quicker than I expected.”
“Once in a while we stir ourselves,” said Inspector Collins. “Anything new since you called in?”
“Nothing. I've sent out an alert to fire lookouts and such, but I can't imagaine what good it will do. We have two or three thousand square miles of mountain back in there if anyone wants to hide.”
“No one saw the killer, I take it.”
Superintendent Phelps shook his head. “The shot seems to have been fired from ambush, from a distance of maybe fifty feet.”
“The rest of the party,” said Head Ranger Johnson with a dry smile, “did not exactly rush forward to capture the guy who fired the shot.”
“Where are they now?” asked Collins.
The park superintendent jerked his head toward a long cabin with walls of simulated brown logs. “They're in the station, not saying much. Still in shock, I guess. They've had a rough time.”
Collins considered for a moment. “I'd better talk to them before we go in after the body.”
Phelps squinted up at the sun. “I suppose another few minutes won't make much difference. Still, I'd like to get the dirty work over with as soon as possible.”
“The body won't go off by itself,” said Collins. “And if I know what's happened I'll know better what to look for.”
Phelps acceded, a bit ungraciously, and led the march to the ranger station along a neat gravel path between whitewashed rocks. They climbed three steps to a porch and entered a waiting room separated from an office by a counter.
Here sat four men. Inspector Collins looked them over, reflecting that this was hardly a typical group of outdoors men. He said, in the polite voice that so contradicted his broken nose and moody look, “I'm Omar Collins, from the Sheriff's office. Sergeant Easley, Dr Koster. We're on our way in for the body, but before we go I'd like some idea of what happened.”
There was a moment's silence. Then one of the four men straightened in his chair, sighed, and in a weary voice began to speak.
Myron Retwig was research director of Pacific Chemicals; Earl Genneman owned most of Genneman Laboratories, Incorporated. They were the oldest members of the party and the only two who professed a previous acquaintance with the sport of back-packing. Together they had conceived and planned the trip, which was to have taken them on a loop of approximately fifty miles through some of the wildest and most beautiful mountain scenery in California. The other three men involved were Bob Vega, manager of Westco Pharmaceutical Supply, a subsidiary of Genneman Laboratories; Buck James, a Westco salesman; and Red Kershaw, Earl Genneman's brother-in-law. At noon on Saturday, June 13, the five had made rendezvous in the bar of the lodge at General Grant National Park, a few hundred yards from the General Grant redwood, the tallest tree in the world.
Myron Retwig had arrived at the lodge the evening before and had taken a cabin for the night. He was about 55, short, thick through the chest and shoulders, with owl-eyes in a weathered face. His hair was gray and cropped; with a monocle Retwig could have attended a masquerade as an old-time Prussian army officer.
At ten minutes before noon Saturday, Retwig entered the lodge and seated himself in the cocktail lounge. He was the only patron. The bartender served him a bottle of beer, and Retwig sat motionless except for raising and lowering the glass, acts he performed with military precision.
At noon Buck James appearedâthe youngest man in the party, and certainly the most engaging in appearance. His eyes were lake blue, his hair was a curly light brown; he had the lanky muscularity of a basketball player, a clear skin, an artless manner. Young James obviously found life pleasant, with no problems that wit and charm could not dissolve. He greeted Myron Retwig with an airy wave of the hand; Retwig nodded with restraint. It was all the same to Buck James. He seated himself and signaled the bartender. “On time to the second,” he said in a complacent voice. “Hard to do better than that, eh?”
Retwig inspected him with a scientist's detachment. “What time did you leave?”
“About nine. Kept up a brisk pace, of course. Do you know, when you take down the top of these old Thunderbirds, you wring out another five miles per hour? Something to do with wing-span ratio, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Einstein would know. Too bad he's dead.”
Retwig considered the proposition. “I should think,” he said, “that you'd run into precisely the opposite effect.”
The bartender brought Buck James a bottle of beer. Dismissing the aerodynamic properties of the Thunderbird, Buck filled his glass with a flourish. “Here's to a memorable tripâif I survive it!”
Myron Retwig joined the toast with the merest quiver of a smile.
“You're healthy as a colt.” He appeared to enjoy the figure of speech. “Young and healthy as a colt. You'll breeze right through it. You brought all your gear?”
“I brought just what Earl told me to bring: sleeping bag, air mattress, etcetera, to the letter. Except boots. It's like swimming in an overcoat. I can't see walking in boots.”
Retwig shrugged. “Boots have prevented many a sprained ankle.”
“My ankles are great. They'll be going years after the rest of me gives out. Apropos of ankles, here's my boss. I speak in loose terms, of course.”
Bob Vega peered rather tentatively into the bar, saw Retwig and James, and came forward with a wide grin of relief. He settled gratefully into the padded chair, as if here was an environment with which he knew he could cope. With his black hair, sallow skin, long face, and fragile bone structure he had the look of an aging Castilian dancer. He ordered a martini, leaned back, shot his cuffs. “Here we are. What's the next step?”
“We wait for the others,” said Retwig.
“Certainly, certainly,” said Bob Vega. “I'm in no hurry.”
Buck James chuckled. “Red was drunk when he agreed to make the trip; he may have forgotten all about it.”
Bob Vega nodded seriously. “He isn't the sort of fellow you'd expect to find walking fifty miles into the mountains.”
“Nor I,” said Buck. “I'd drive if I could.”
“Luckily impossible,” Myron Retwig remarked. “No motorised vehicles are allowed on the back trails.”
“That seems unreasonable,” said Vega.
“It's the lure of the primitive,” mused Buck James. “The call of Mother Nature â¦ That sounds Freudian. I retract it.”
Vega looked puzzled, Retwig stolidly sipped his beer. “I'm sure it's beautiful scenery,” said Vega. “And it certainly does one good to get away from business!”
“You make everything so complicated,” said Buck. “I'm going because Earl ordained it. It's as simple as that. The only way to score points with the boss.”
“There must be cheaper ways. I've already spent a hundred dollars, and we haven't even paid for our food.”
“A hundred dollars?” asked Buck. “For what?”
“My pack-frame cost forty-two dollars. Sleeping bag, twenty-five. Boots, twenty-eight. Thermal underwear, ten. Air mattressâ”
“You could have rented the frame,” said Retwig. “Sleeping bags sell from five dollars up.”
Vega made a grandiose gesture. “What's money? I always spend more than I make.” He looked at his watch. “Five minutes after twelve. Earl is bringing Kershaw, which is probably why they're late.”
“Is Kershaw really coming?” Retwig asked. “I thought it was all a drunken joke.”
“It takes two to joke,” said Buck. “Red told Earl he could out-walk, out-run, out-climb him. He was going to fell trees with a blow of his fist, chase bears, stare down rattlesnakes. Earl didn't laugh.”
Retwig gave his head a disapproving shake. “It's not the best approach to a pack trip. For either of them.”
“Red doesn't know what he's let himself in for.”
“It's not as bad as all that,” growled Retwig, “provided we don't try to be heroes. I plan to take it easy, and I'm sure Earl does also.”
“Here they are now,” said Vega.
Two men had entered the bar. Earl Genneman was big and large-featured, with brown-blond hair so crisply glistening it seemed almost to crackle. Red Kershaw, a step or two behind, walked with a slight limp and a droop to his shoulders; he was tall and loose-jointed, with a moony Celtic face and mouse-colored hair. Genneman wore whipcord breeches, a red and green plaid shirt, well-used boots. Kershaw, as if to show his disdain for the proceedings, wore cigar-colored slacks, shiny with long use, a tan sports shirt, and a two-tone jacket. Genneman radiated ponderous strength; Kershaw carried himself with the cautious bravado of a man determined to be surprised by nothing.