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The Impossible «Impossible» Crime




 

after Edward D. Hoch

 

I'm no detective. But when you are living all alone with one other man, 200 miles from the nearest settlement, and one day that only other man is murdered – well, that's enough to make a detective out of anybody.

His name was Charles Fuller, and my name is Henry Bowfort. Charlie was a full professor at Boston University when I met him, teaching an advanced course in geology while he worked on a volume concerning the effects of permafrost on mineral deposits. I was an assistant in his department, and we became friends at once. Perhaps our friendship was helped along by the fact that I was newly married to a very beautiful blonde named Grace who caught his eye from the very beginning.

Charlie's own wife divorced him some ten years earlier, and he was at the stage of his life when any sort of charming feminine companionship aroused his basic maleness.

Fuller was at his early forties at the time, a good ten years older than Grace and me, and he often talked about the project closest to his heart.

– Before I'm too old for it, he said, I want to spend a year above the permafrost line.

And one day he announced that he would be spending his sabbatical at a research post in northern Canada, near the western shore of Hudson Bay.

– I've been given a grant for eight months' study, he said. It's a great opportunity. I'll never have another like it.

– You're going up there alone? Grace asked.

– Actually, I expect your husband to accompany me. I must have looked a bit startled.

– Eight months in the wilds of nowhere with nothing but snow?

And Charlie Fuller smiled.

– Nothing but snow. How about it, Grace? Could you give him up for eight months?

– If he wants to go, she answered loyally. She had never tried to stand in the way of anything I'd wanted to do.

We talked about it for a long time that night, but I already knew I was hooked. I was on my way to northern Canada with Charlie Fuller.

The cabin – when we reached it by plane and boat and snowmobile – was a surprisingly comfortable place, well stocked with enough provisions for a year's stay. We had two-way radio contact with the outside world, plus necessary medical supplies and a bookcase full of reading material, all provided by the foundation that was financing the permafrost study.

The cabin consisted of three large rooms – a laboratory for our study, a combination living-room-and-kitchen, and a bedroom with a bath in one corner. We'd brought our own clothes, and Fuller had brought a rifle, too, to discourage animals.

The daily routine with Charlie Fuller was great fun at first. He was surely a dedicated man, and one of the most intelligent I'd ever known. We rose early in the morning, had breakfast together and then went off in search of ore samples. And the best of all in those early days, there was the constant radio communication with Grace. Her almost nightly messages brought a touch of Boston to the Northwest Territory.

But after a time Grace's messages thinned to one or two a week, and finally to one every other week. Fuller and I began to get on each other's nerves, and often in the mornings I was awakened by the sound of rifle fire as he stood outside the cabin door taking random shots at the occasional owl or ground squirrel that wandered near. We still had the snowmobile, but it was 200 miles to the nearest settlement at Caribou, making a trip into town out of the question.

Once, during the evening meal, Fuller said,

– Bet, you miss her, don't you, Hank?

– Grace? Sure I miss her. It's been a long time.

– Think she's sitting home nights waiting for us – for you? I put down my fork.

– What's that supposed to mean, Charlie?

– Nothing – nothing at all.

But the rest of the evening passed under a cloud. By this time we had been up there nearly five months, and it was just too long.

It was fantastic, it was unreasonable, but there began to develope between us a sort of rivalry for my wife. An unspoken rivalry, to be sure, a rivalry for a woman nearly 2,000 miles away – but still a rivalry.

– What do you think she's doing now, Hank? or

- I wish Grace were here tonight. Warm the place up a bit. Right, Hank?

Finally one evening in January, when a heavy snow had made us stay in the cabin for two long days and nights, the rivalry came to a head. Charlie Fuller was seated at the wooden table we used for meals and paperwork, and I was in my usual chair facing one of the windows.

– We're losing a lot of heat out of this place, I said. Look at those icicles.

– I'll go out later and knock them down, he said.

I could tell he was in a bad mood and suspected he'd been drinking from our supply of Scotch.

- We might make the best of each other, I said. We're stuck here for another few months together.

– Worried, Hank? Anxious to be back in bed with Grace?

– Let's cut out the cracks about Grace, huh? I'm getting sick of it, Charlie.

– And I'm sick of you, sick of this place!

– Then let's go back.

– In this storm?

– We've got the snowmobile.

– No. This is one project I can't walk out on.

– Why not? Is it worth this torture day after day?

– You don't understand. I didn't start out life being a geologist. My field was biology, and I had great plans for being a research scientist at some major pharmaceutical house. They pay very well, you know.

– What happened?

– The damnedest thing, Hank. 1 couldn't work with animals. I couldn't experiment on them, kill them. I don't think I could ever kill a living thing.

– What about the animals and birds you shoot at?

– That's just the point, Hank. I never hit them! I try to, but I purposely miss! That's why I went into geology. That was the only field in which I wouldn't make a fool of myself.

– You couldn't make a fool of yourself, Charlie. Even if we went back today, the university would still welcome you. You'd still have your professorship.

– I've got to succeed at something, Hank. Don't you understand? It's too late for another failure – too late in life to start over again!

He didn't mention Grace the rest of that day, but I had the sensation that he hadn't just been talking about his work. His first marriage had been a failure, too. Was he trying to tell me he had to succeed with Grace?

I slept poorly that night, first because Charlie had decided to walk around the cabin at midnight knocking icicles from the roof, and then because the wind had changed direction and howled in the chimney. I got up once after Charlie was in bed, to look outside, but the windows were frosted over by the wind-driven snow, and I could see nothing.

Toward morning I drifted into an uneasy sleep, broken now and then by the bird sounds which told me that the storm had ended. I heard Charlie preparing breakfast, though I paid little attention, trying to get a bit more sleep.

Then, sometime later, I sprang awake, knowing I had heard it. A shot! Could Charlie be outside again, firing at the animals? I waited for some other sound, but nothing reached my ears except the perking of the coffee pot on the gas stove. Finally I got out of bed and went into the other room.



Charlie Fuller was seated in my chair at the table, staring at the wall. A tiny stream of blood was running down his forehead and into one eye. He was dead.

It took me some moments to comprehend the fact of his death, and even after I had located the bullet wound just above his hairline, I still could not accept the reality of it. My first thought had been suicide, but then I saw this was impossible. The bullet had obviously killed him instantly, and there was no gun anywhere in sight – in fact. Fuller's rifle was missing from its usual place in the corner near the door.

But if not suicide, what?

There was no other explanation. Somehow he had killed himself. I switched on the radio and sent a message to the effect, telling them I'd bring in the body by snowmobile as soon as I could.

Then, as I was starting to pack my things, I remembered the coffee. Do men about to commit suicide start making breakfast? Do they put a pot of coffee on the stove?

And then I had to face it. Charlie Fuller had not killed himself. It seemed impossible – but there it was. I sat down opposite the body, then got up to cover it with a blanket, and then sat down again.

What were all the possibilities? Suicide, accident, murder – as simple as that. Not suicide. Not accident. He certainly hadn't been cleaning his gun at the time.

That left only one possibility.

Murder.

I walked over and crouched behind his chair, trying to see what he must have been seeing in that final moment.

And then I saw it. Directly opposite, in the center of a frosted window, there was a tiny hole. 1 hadn't noticed it before – the frost had effectively camouflaged the hole. A few cracks ran from it, but the snow had somehow kept the window from shattering completely.

The bullet had come from outside – the mystery was solved!

But as soon as I put on my coat and went outdoors, I realized that a greater mystery had taken its place. Though the drifting snow had left a narrow walkway under the roof of the cabin, drifts higher than my head surrouned us on all sides. No one could have approached the cabin through that snow without leaving a visible trail.

I made my way to the window and saw the butt of Fuller's rifle protruding from the snow. I pulled it out and stared at it, wondering what it could tell me. It had been recently fired, it was the murder weapon, but there was nothing more it could say.

I took it back into the cabin and sat down. Just the two of us, no one else, and somebody had murdered Charlie Fuller.

As the day passed into noon, I knew I would have to be moving soon. But could I go back under the circumstances? Charlie Fuller was dead, and I had to discover how it had happened.

Pacing the cabin, I knew that the answer must lurk here somewhere, within the walls of our temporary home. I went back in my mind over our conversations about Grace. He had loved her, he had wanted her – of that much I was certain. Could he have committed suicide in such a manner that I would be accused of his murder?

No, there were two things against that theory – it wouldn't get him Grace, and it wouldn't get me convicted of the crime. Because even now I could change the scene any way I wanted, invent any story I liked. The police would never even make the trip to the cabin to check my story. I had already called it suicide in my radio report, but I could change it to accident. And there was no one to call it murder. No one but myself.

I went outside again and started sifting through the snow where I'd found the rifle. But there was nothing – a few bits of icicle, but nothing more. Here and there Fuller's footprints remained undrifted, from his icicle-breaking expedition, but I could identify no other prints. If someone had stood at that window to kill Charlie Fuller - ...

But no one could have! The snow and crystallized frost had made the window completely opaque. Even if an invisible murderer had dropped from the sky, and somehow got Charlie's rifle out of the cabin, he could not have fired at Charlie through that window because he could not have seen him through it!

So I went back inside to the rifle, emptied it, and tried the trigger. It had been adjusted to a hair trigger – the slightest pressure of my finger was enough to click the hammer on the empty chamber.

Suddenly I felt that I almost had an answer. I stood staring at the blanket-covered figure in the chair, then went outside and looked through the bullet hole at it again. Lined up perfectly, even through an opaque window.

And then I knew who had murdered Charlie Fuller.

I was staring at his body in the chair, but it was my chair! Twenty minutes later, and I would have been sitting in that very chair, eating breakfast. Charlie would have called me when the coffee was ready, and I would have come out to sit in that chair, as I did every morning.

And Charlie Fuller would have killed me.

It took me five minutes of sorting through the bits of icicle in the snow under the window to find the one that was something more. It was ice, but ice encased in a tiny heat-sealed plastic pouch. We used pouches of all sizes in the lab for the rock specimens we collected. This one had served a different purpose.

Charlie had driven one of the icicles into the snow and balanced the rifle on top of it – probably freezing it to the icicle with a few drops of water. Then he had wiped away a tiny speck of frost on the window to line the gun barrel with the chair in which I would be sitting. He'd fixed the rifle with a hair trigger, and then jammed the tiny plastic pouch of water between the front of the trigger and the guard.

When the water in the pouch froze, the ice expanded against the trigger, and the rifle fired through the window at the chair. The recoil had thrown the rifle free of its icicle support, and the frozen pouch of water had dropped into the snow like a simple piece of ice.

And what had gone wrong? Charlie Fuller must have timed the freezing of the water filled pouch, but he probably hadn't timed it in subzero cold with a wind blowing. The water had simply frozen sooner than he'd planned – while he was sitting in my chair for a moment, adjusting it to the precise position facing the window.

But why had he gone to all that trouble to kill me, when we were alone? I thought about that all the way back to Caribou in the snowmobile. He'd probably feared that it would be like the animals he'd told me about, that at the final moment he wouldn't have been able to squeeze the trigger. Perhaps in the night he'd even stood over my bed with his rifle, unable to go through with it. This way had made it impersonal, like a lab experiment to be set up and observed.

So Charlie Fuller had murdered himself. But for the authorities, and for Grace, I decided to stick to the suicide story. I didn't think they'd bother too much about things like the absence of powder burns. Under the circumstances, they were stuck with my story, and I wanted to keep it simple. As I said in the beginning, I'm no detective.

 

  Note:  
  permafrost вечная мерзлота
  mineral deposit месторождение минералов
  to catch smb's eye привлечь чье-либо внимание
  He was at the stage of his life when any sort of charming feminine companionship aroused his basic maleness. Он находился на том этапе своей жизни, когда общество любой очаровательной женщины пробуждало его мужские инстинкты.
  sabbatical годичный отпуск (для научной работы)
  ore sample образец руды
  to get on each other's nerves действовать друг другу на нервы
  to come to a head достигнуть критической точки
  icicle сосулька
  We might make the best of each other. Давай-ка потерпим друг друга.
  Let's cut out the cracks about Grace. Давай прекратим этот треп насчет Грейс.
  chimney дымовая труба
  perking шум (издаваемый водой при прохождении через фильтр кофейника)
  It had been adjusted to a hair trigger. Он был отрегулирован таким образом, что требовал лишь легкого нажатия.
hammer ударник (затвора)  
chamber патронник  
heat-sealed теплонепроницаемый  
pouch мешочек  
speck пятнышко  
barrel ствол, дуло  
to jam зажимать  
guard предохранитель  
recoil отдача  
to slick to smth придерживаться чего-либо  
powder порох  
         

 

Suggested activities

 

aChoose the correct answers:

 

In what field of science did Fuller and Bowfort work? They worked in the field of biology. They worked in the field of medicine.  
    They worked in the field of geology.  
Where was their research post situated? It was in Alaska.  
    It was situated in northern Canada.  
    It was located in the Antarctic.  
Who was the cause of the rivalry between the two men? It was Fuller's wife.  
    It was Bowfort's wife.  
    It was Bowfort's girl-friend.  
Why didn't Fuller become a biologist? He was not interested in biology at all.  
    His parents were against that.  
    He could not experiment on animals and kill them.  
What facts made Bowfort think that Fuller hadn't There was no weapon beside the dead body.  
  committed suicide? Fuller had started making breakfast.  
    The above two above facts made him think so.
Where did Bowfort find Fuller's rifle? He found it in the laboratory. He found it in its usual place in the corner near the door.
    He found it outside in the snow.
Whose footprints did Bowfort find by the cabin? They were Fuller's footprints. He found a stranger's footprints. He discovered both Fuller's and a stranger's footprints.
What did Bowfort say in his radio report? He said that Fuller had been murdered. He said that Fuller had committed suicide.
    He said that his death had been an accident.
         

 

b Say if you agree or dasagree and support your viewpoint:

 

1 Grace caught Fuller's eye from the very beginning.

2 Fuller's dream was to spend a year above the permafrost line.

3 Fuller and Bowfort began to get on each other's nerves from the very beginning of their stay at the research post.

4 Bowfort suggested that they should go back, but Fuller refused to do so.

5 Fuller sometimes shot at animals, and he often hit them.

6 One day Bowfort found Fuller dead in the laboratory.

7 There was a lot of snow around the cabin, and nobody could approach it without leaving a visible trail.

8 Though Bowfort was his rival. Fuller had no intention to kill him.

9 The pouch filled with ice was the last clue to reveal the «impossible» crime.

10 Fuller's death was an accident.

 

с Paraphrase the following sentences in English:

 

1 We began to get on each other's nerves.

2 Let's cut out the cracks about Grace.

3 We might make the best of each other.

4 This is one project I can't walk out on.

5 That's just the point.

6 I sent a message to the effect.

 

d Translate the sentences using these verbs: to catch, to stock, to thin, to face, to miss.

 

Грейс привлекла его внимание с самого начала. В хижине имелся запас продовольствия на год. Послания от Грейс сократились до одного-двух в неделю. Я сидел на своем обычном месте лицом к окну. Ружья на его обычном месте не-было.

 

е Translate the sentences using these nouns and adjectives: early, question, head, failure, uneasy.

 

Фуллеру в то время было сорок с небольшим. О поездке в город не могло быть и речи. Соперничество достигло критической точки. Его женитьба была неудачной. Я погрузился в беспокойный сон.

f Translate the sentences into Russian paying attention to the verb to make:

 

1 That's enough to make a detective out of anybody.

2 It was 200 miles to the nearest settlement, making a trip into town out of the question.

3 We might make the best of each other.

4 That was the only field in which I wouldn't make a fool of myself.

5 Do men about to commit suicide start making breakfast?

6 I made my way to the window.

7 The police would never even make the trip to the cabin to check my story.

8 The frost had made the window completely opaque.

 

g Write out all the words related to guns and rifles, from the text. Compare your list with those of your group-mates.

 

h Think and answer:

 





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