Fiction

The Human Factor

The professor’s absent-mindedness was merely amusing — until someone murdered his wife

PHYLLIS LEE PETERSON August 1 1948
Fiction

The Human Factor

The professor’s absent-mindedness was merely amusing — until someone murdered his wife

PHYLLIS LEE PETERSON August 1 1948

The Human Factor

The professor’s absent-mindedness was merely amusing — until someone murdered his wife

PHYLLIS LEE PETERSON

PROFESSOR Willoughby made his uncertain way through the library and stood diffidently before Miss Thomas’ desk. He fumbled in his vest pocket for the fountain pen that never had any ink in it and waited with a vague, preoccupied air for the librarian to notice him. But behind the pale blue eyes his mind was clear, alert, calculating. For Professor Willoughby knew exactly what he was doing. He was establishing an alibi and in it Miss Thomas was a prominent figure.

The librarian smiled up at him and pushed the ink bottle in his direction. He heard her voice rise in shrill warning as the glass slid across the polished surface of the desk, teetered crazily on the edge for a moment and then crashed at his feet.

“Oh dear! I’m so sorry! All over your shoes, too! Really, I don’t know how that happened.” Miss Thomas rose red-faced from her exertions with a handful of blotters, while his mind reached out, amoebalike, to assimilate the incident and put it in its proper place.

“That’s all right, Miss Thomas. Quite all right.” He sounded almost cheerful as he turned and ]>eered nearsightedly at the clock over the front entrance. “By the way, would you mind telling me the time? My eyes, you know ...”

“It’s exactly three-thirty.” He checked his wrist watch carefully and the librarian returned briskly to the accident that had upset her. “I’m afraid your shoes are a mess, professor.”

“Not at all!” He chuckled as he stuffed an ink-stained handkerchief into, his pocket and thrust out his foot for her inspection. “That black ink rea'lly gives them a shine. Saves me the priçe of one!”

“Well, if you’re sure it’s all right—•” Miss Thomas hesitated and then rushed on, anxious to make amends. “Would you like to go into the stacks? The book you ordered on calculus came in yesterday and I put it on the reference table you always use. I’m sure no one will disturb you. The track meet at the stadium, you know!”

“Dear me, I’d forgotten.” Professor Willoughby was lying. He knew all about the track meet. In fact, he had counted on it. A track meet on a sunny spring afternoon meant an empty library and a deserted campus, both important components of the alibi which he was so carefully establishing. He was pleased with himself as he entered the reference stacks and made his way through the book-lined passages. Really, it couldn’t have worked out better. That ink episode had been perfect and then checking the time with Miss Thomas . . . she wasn’t likely to forget when he had come in.

He seated himself at the table in his favorite alcove close to the fire door and looked at the time again. Twenty-three minutes to four. Less than 15 minutes since he had left his home across the campus with Martha, who was on her way to do the week-end shopping. His wife’s querulous instructions to the maid had followed them out of the front door and the girl would swear that Mrs. Willoughby had been very much alive when he left home.

He leaned back in his chair with a sigh of satisfaction and reviewed the problem that absorbed him and the solution which was even now being worked out. It was brilliant. There were only three factors involved in the equation. X, Y and Z. They added up to sudden death. Only he knew that it was murder.

Take the factor X, for instance. X was Harriet, a wealthy woman full of nagging petty cruelties, like that business of the shoes.

(“Hennery! Henry Willoughby! You change those shoes before you come through the front porch. You know I’m allergic to dust. Don’t you dare bring any dirt in this house ! You put on those red house slippers right away. Do you want to kill me?”)

He smiled grimly. He had been trying to eliminate X for months.

Then the factor Y had entered the problem. Y was opportunity. He remembered Harriet’s rage as she flounced in from a visit to Dr. Martin’s office.

(“The old quack! Wanted to charge me five dollars every time he gave me a ragweed inoculation and there’s fifteen of them. I just told him nothing doing and to give me the stuff so I could do it myself. He didn’t want to . . . but I just told him!”)

Poor Harriet, he thought unsympathetically. All that money in the bank and she wouldn’t spend seventyfive dollars to save her life.

The telephone call from Dr. Martin had helped.

(“You understand, Professor Willoughby, the risk involved in your wife’s decision. Her reaction to the ragweed scratch test was very severe and there is always the danger of anaphylactic shock. Should there be any unusual symptoms after the first self-injection, call me at once. I’ll bring over adrenalin. I’m not in favor of this, you understand, not at all in favor of it!”)

X plus Y ! Harriet and her decision to give herself ragweed inoculations. A simple set of circumstances to which he had added Z. That was the factor which he would complete today.

Z was a set of vials filled with amber-colored fluid and identical with the set Harriet had brought home from the doctor’s office. He had bought it himself a week ago in a drugstore from a clerk who never looked up at his face as he made the purchase.

It had been simple to substitute the fifteenth vial in his package for the first in Harriet’s and to steam off and reverse the labels with cottongloved hands. It had been equally simple then to dispose of the kit he had purchased in such a way that it would never be fbund, retaining only the No. 1 vial abstracted from Harriet’s box. His fingers played gently with that cotton-wrapped vial as it now lay in his pocket, the vial that contained five units of ragweed pollen.

He wondered if Harriet had suffered much from the injection she was preparing as he left the house. He didn’t think so. Three thousand

units should kill quickly and her reaction to the scratch test had been severe!

(Continued on page 41)

The Human Factor

Continued from page 12

Abruptly he rose and, with swift sure movements, put on the cotton gloves that he carried in his coat pocket. It was time to complete Z. He turned the handle of the adjoining fire door and let himself out upon the deserted campus.

It took him the exact five minutes he had counted on to reach home and, from habit, he hesitated automatically in the front porch. No whining complaint floated down to him from upstairs and he tiptoed up to the second floor and waited for a moment outside the closed door of Harriet’s bedroom. The house was quiet.

He opened the door and glanced briefly at the bed. His eyes avoided the swollen face and inert figure sprawling on the floor. Instead, he looked for the syringe and picked it up from the carpet where it lay beside the body. With a rapidity born of long planning, he stepped into the adjoining bathroom and rinsed it out, flushing the remainder of its contents down the sink. Then he carefully refilled it from the vial which he took out of his pocket and again ejected amber fluid down the drain. But this time he left a little in the bottom of the syringe, just enough for analysis to establish the fact that Harriet had given herself only a five-unit dose of ragweed pollen.

He returned to the bedroom and replaced the syringe where he had found it. Then, stepping over to the medicine-littered table by the window, he picked the empty three-thousand unit vial out of its bed of cotton wool and slipped it into his pocket. In its place he carefully put its empty twin which he had just used to fill the syringe.

He stepped back and surveyed his handwork critically. Everything was as it should be. There had been no slip-up. There was nothing, no fingerprint, no clue of any sort to mark his presence in the house since he had left it with Martha. Now all that remained was the maid’s return and her discovery of the body.

Suddenly he wanted to get out of the place. He hurried down the stairs and out through the porch, shutting the front door carefully after him. On his way back to the library he threw the vial that had contained three thousand units of pollen into a trash can and took off his cotton gloves. He was stuffing these into his pocket as he let himself in by the fire door and he drew a sigh of relief as he settled down again at his table. His watch told him that the whole procedure had taken less than twenty minutes. No one had seen him and Miss Thomas would swear to his presence in the reference stacks. He smiled as he took up the book in front of him. His equation and its solution were complete.

IT WAS after five o’clock when Miss Thomas disturbed his studies. “Professor,” she said. “Dr. Martin has just called from your house. Your wife . . .”

Professor Willoughby slowly turned and faced the girl.

“Yes, Miss Thomas, my wife?” he asked. Why did the girl stare at him, why didn’t she tell him that his wife was dead?

The girl’s gaze had dropped to his feet. Professor Willoughby looked down.

“Doctor Martin called to say your wife died suddenly, Professor,” said Miss Thomas. Her voice seemed to come from a great distance. Professor Willoughby could scarcely hear her for he was looking down. He should have been wearing ink-stained black oxfords. He stared at his red house slippers and he could hear Harriet’s voice saying, “You change your shoes when you come into this house!” ★