CW Survivor – Challenge 20: Machine of Death

If you know the premise of the Machine of Death story anthology, then you know what this week’s challenge was.  If not, those words look different because they are a link to a page that explains everything.  Click on them.

HAPAX LEGOMENON

Melbourne Swinson ducked out of his carriage and hurried across the busy street. The message had requested the utmost haste and discretion, and he felt a cold premonition of dread as he moved up the stairs toward the apartment of the recently deceased Mr. McJeffries. His assistant, Mr. Close, met him at the top of the stairs. How that man beat him to every crime scene was an ongoing frustration in Detective Swinson’s career, but he brushed it aside as he listened to Mr. Close relate the situation as he understood it.

“It’s another locked room murder, sir. There were three people in the house, none of whom have an airtight alibi, and none of whom will admit to witnessing the killing.”

“Are we sure it was one of the three of them? Could someone have come in off the street?”

Mr. Close tugged nervously at his collar, “The window was open, so I guess it’s possible that the killer could be someone no longer in the house…”
———-
Melbourne Swinson ducked out of his carriage and hurried across the mud of the country lane. The message had requested the utmost haste and discretion, and he felt a cold premonition of dread as he moved up the drive toward the country manor of the recently deceased Mr. McJeffries. His assistant, Mr. Close, met him at the top of the stairs. How that man beat him to every crime scene was an ongoing frustration in Detective Swinson’s career, but he brushed it aside as he listened to Mr. Close relate the situation as he understood it.

“It’s another locked room murder, sir. There were three people in the house, none of whom have an airtight alibi, and none of whom will admit to witnessing the killing.”

“Are we sure it was one of the three of them? Could the killer no longer be in the house?”

“It doesn’t seem so, every window is shut and locked from the inside.”

Mr. Greene appeared to show the two men inside, to the room where the others waited while the investigation was ongoing. Upon admitting them to the room, he turned to take his leave, but Mr. Close motioned for him to stay. “I’ve read too many mystery novels to let the butler escape notice.”

Swinson gave Close a hard look. “What are you talking about? Mystery novels?”

“Yes, you know, Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart, “the butler did it” and all that?”

“The butler did it?” Swinson asked incredulously, “How do you know?”

“I’m not saying this butler did it, I’m just saying if this were a mystery novel, he would be an obvious suspect.”

“There you go with these mystery novels again, I don’t know what you mean, but I guess your hunch gives us a place to get started.” Swinson eyed the butler accusingly. “Mr. Greene, empty your pockets and tell us how long you’ve been in the service of the victim.”
The butler began to empty his pockets, protesting, “I’m not really Mr. McJeffries butler, I swear.”

“Why were you pretending to be a butler?”

“I … I … I was just trying to get out of here before you started asking too many questions. I didn’t kill him, but I do have things in my life that I’d rather not discuss with the police.”

Close held up his hands, “Wait, wait. You wanted to escape notice in a murder investigation, so you pretended to be the butler? What were you thinking?”

Swinson turned to his partner, “Honestly, what do you have against butlers?”

“It’s not me! I told you, it’s the –”

“Mystery novels. Yes, yes, I know. Written by Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart, people that none of us have ever heard of, in which butlers seem to perpetrate every crime imaginable.”

“You have never heard of Agatha Christie?”

“No. I haven’t. Who is she?”

“Only one of the most famous mystery writers ever. Her books were published back in the 1920’s and 30’s.”

“Published in the 1920’s and 30’s? Close, have you lost your mind? It’s 1834!”

The butler (who only pretended to be a butler) interjected, “May I leave now?”

Casting one last glance at his partner, Swinson turned his attention back to the suspect. “No, I haven’t finished with you.” The contents of the man’s pockets lay on the table between them. Swinson noticed a small vial, labelled only with an ‘X’. “What is this?”

Greene nervously tugged at his collar. “That is … it is …” with a sigh, he finished, “rat poison.”

“That seals it. Lock this man in the library, Close. Turns out you were right about the butler.”

“No! I told you I had no hand in killing him! You can ask Ophelia, she can tell you.” The accused man’s cries followed him out of the room.

————-

“You are Mr. McJeffries’ secretary?” The man across from Swinson sat stiffly, his scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. At his feet a coil of rope balanced precariously atop his case.

“That is correct, I’ve been in his employ for nearly ten years now.”

“Have you ever seen the other man, Mr. Greene around the house before today.”

“Oh, yes. He was always around. He was chasing after the missis. From what I have seen, he caught her as well.”

“They were having an affair? Was Mr. McJeffries aware of that?”

“I can’t say for sure, but it wouldn’t have been hard for him to find out.”

“Did you see anything suspicious or out of the ordinary today?”

“Yes. The missis, Ophelia, was carrying around a knife earlier in the day, I did not see what she did with it before you arrived though.”

————-

“Ophelia, can you think of a motive for Mr. Greene to kill your husband?”

“No, sir. Mr. Greene had never met my husband.”

“Were the two of you involved?” Swinson was beginning to see his open and shut case against the butler who wasn’t a butler crumbling. The new widow nodded. He made one last effort to salvage his theory. “That seems like a possible motive. With your husband out of the picture, you inherit his fortune and the two of you can finally be together. Is that what happened? What were you doing with a knife earlier today?”

“No, you must believe me. We were never planning anything like that. Besides, there was hardly any money left at this point. My husband had nearly lost it all. It wasn’t his fault though, that lousy secretary of his was stealing money right out from underneath his nose.”

“Mr. Bump was embezzling? Do you have any proof?”

“No, my husband had it, he confronted his secretary about it last week. Apparently, the man told my husband that if he was fired, he would strangle him before the words left his lips.”

————–

Swinson turned to Close in the empty room, once the interviews were completed. “We have three motives and three weapons. What we don’t have is cause of death.”

“If we could match the cause to the weapon, we could easily identify the murderer. Have you heard about the newest invention they brought in for exactly this type of situation? If you need to establish how someone is going to die (or how they have already died) you just need a blood sample – apparently, it’s sometimes pretty cryptic, but it’s always accurate. Maybe we would get lucky in this case?”

“It’s worth a go, did you get the blood sample?”

“Yes I did. And I brought the machine.”

The two men rushed outside, Close handed the blood sample from the recently deceased McJeffries to his partner who fed it to the machine. Written on the small piece of paper produced by the Machine were two words.

HAPAX LEGOMENON

Close read it, and shrugged, “That seems awfully cryptic.”

Swinson thought for a moment, “I’ve got it. This is it, Close, think about it. The whole premise is wrong. Remember that I originally came to you in a city apartment, then, without explanation, we found ourselves here completely removed from any other possible suspects. It is too convenient. Then, our butler discussion is completely reliant upon your having read books written by authors who do not yet exist. Why is that?”

Close had no response.

“Finally to cap this entirely unreasonable investigation, the final reveal is perpetrated by this cryptic Machine of Death. It has no place here in 1834, we don’t even have electricity yet.”

“Electricity?”

“Exactly. This device isn’t practical, but it is perfectly suited to our needs to solve this murder. It is a purely literary device!”
“I don’t follow you, sir.”

“A literary device, Close. Anachronisms, plot holes, and literary devices – I’m thinking this sounds like a detective story.”
Close perked up, “If that’s the case, and if things go as they usually do, at this point, all the clues have been laid out, and the reader must be wondering ‘who is the culprit?’. Do you know who the murderer is?”

“No. and I can’t know. This is one story where the readers will always solve the mystery before we do.”

K: Wow, what a ride this one was. It’s up to the reader to learn what “Hapax Legomenon” means (“a word which occurs only once in either the written record of a language, the works of an author, or in a single text”). From there I had to see which character’s name was only mentioned once. It’s very meta, but in such a clever way that I don’t feel robbed of the story. Very satisfying, in a different way from the norm.

In the end, the amount of work I did to get there and the ridiculously creative attack taken by the last one puts it over the edge. Well, look at that; I chose a meta entry! Play with meta and you play with fire, but play with words and I’ll let you get into my pants.

Immunity!

B: Had I come back to this a few times over several days, I may have figured this out on my own. Once I learned what the literary device really is, I got a lot closer to solving it, and Spook gave me the final clue to tip me over. I love me some logic puzzles, and this truly is one. However, solving it required me to Google, and I’m not the biggest fan of those. Of course, it’s not the author’s fault I’m ignorant.

My original idea was to have the culprit’s name as the only words which appeared once in the entire story (every other word would appear twice).  That turned out to be a colossal mistake that could have taken weeks to get right.  So, with this immunity, I have returned to the Spookymilk Survivor Final Challenge.  Last time I got into the final three, it took some shocking turns of events for me to win.  This time, there are going to be two other great writers there, who are going to make winning this version even harder.

See you next week for the thrilling conclusion!

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2 thoughts on “CW Survivor – Challenge 20: Machine of Death

  1. My original idea was to have the culprit’s name as the only words which appeared once in the entire story (every other word would appear twice).

    I wondered if that had been done at first, but after researching hapax legomena, I realized it was unlikely since in any given work something like 44% of words fit that description. So I started with character names, and as I read through the first paragraph about the secretary that never once mentioned his name, I realized I’d found it. The final clue I had to give Beau was because he was searching for a murder weapon or the explanation of the character rather than the character name itself, by the way.

    This one was great fun, and I can’t believe I had to pass over Matt Novak’s brilliant entry. Of course, Beau picked it, so no harm, no foul.

    • Hey, I’m glad you thought it was fun. I was going for meta in a different way than some of the previous meta entries in the game.

      I really like this concept, and I have had it in my mind for a while. I have a note from myself dated 4/27/10 with the definition of hapax legomenon and the words “story idea?”, it took me this long to find the right vehicle for it. I hope that I find the time to brush this up and make it a little tighter (as Matt put it) before the MOD deadline, but we’ll see.

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