The Fly
written by George Langelann and narrated by Edward E. French

 

I.

TELEPHONES AND telephone bells have always made me uneasy. Years ago, when they were mostly wall fixtures, I disliked them, but nowadays, when they are planted in every nook and corner, they are a downright intrusion. We have a saying in France that a coalman is master in his own house; with the telephone that is no longer true, and I suspect that even the Englishman is no longer king in his own castle.

At the office, the sudden ringing of the telephone annoys me. It means that, no matter what I am doing, in spite of the switchboard operator, in spite of my secretary, in spite of doors and walls, some unknown person is coming into the room and onto my desk to talk right into my very ear, confidentially – whether I like it or not. At home, the feeling is still more disagreeable, but the worst is when the telephone rings in the dead of night. If anyone could see me turn on the light and get up blinking to answer it, I suppose I would look like any other sleepy man annoyed at being disturbed. The truth in such a case, however, is that I am struggling against panic, fighting down a feeling that a stranger has broken into the house and is in my bedroom. By the time I manage to grab the receiver and say:”Ici Monsieur Delarnbre. Je vous ecoute,” Iam outwardly calm, but I only get back to a more normal state when I recognize the voice at the other end and when I know what is wanted of me.

This effort at dominating a purely animal reaction and fear had become so effective that when my sister-in-law called me at two in the morning, asking me to come over, but first to warn the police that she had just killed my brother, I quietly asked her how and why she had killed Andre.

“But, Francois! I can’t explain all that over the telephone. Please call the police and come quickly.”

“Maybe I had better see you first, Helene?”

“No, you’d better call the police first; otherwise they will start asking you all sorts of awkward questions. They’ll have enough trouble as it is to believe that I did it alone… And, by the way, I suppose you ought to tell them that Andre … Andre’s body, is down at the factory. They may want to go there first.”

“Did you say that Andre is at the factory?”

“Yes … under the steam-hammer.”

“Under the what!”

“The steam-hammer! But don’t ask so many questions. Please come quickly
Francois! Please understand that I’m afraid … that my nerves won’t stand it much longer!”

Have you ever tried to explain to a sleepy police officer that your sister-in-law has just phoned to say that she has killed your brother with a steam-hammer? I repeated my explanation, but he would not let me.

“Oui, monsieur, oui,I bear … but who are you? What is your name? Where do you live? I said, where do you live!”

It was then that Commissaire Charas took over the line and the whole business. He at least seemed to understand everything. Would I wait for him? Yes, he would pick me up and take me over to my brother’s house. When? In five or ten minutes.

I had just managed to pull on my trousers, wriggle into a sweater and grab a hat and coat, when a black Citroen, headlights blazing, pulled up at the door.

“I assume you have a night watchman at your factory, Monsieur Delarnbre. Has he called you?” asked Commissaire Charas, letting in the clutch as I sat down beside him and slammed the door of the car.

“No, he hasn’t. Though of course my brother could have entered the factory through his laboratory where he often works late at night … all night sometimes.”

“Is Professor Delambre’s work connected with your business?”

“No, my brother is, or was, doing research work for the Ministere de l’Air. As hewanted to be away from Paris and yet within reach of where skilled workmen could fix up or make gadgets big and small for his experiments, I offered him one of the old workshops of the factory and he came to live in the first house built by our grandfather on the top of the hill at the back of the factory.”

“Yes, I see. Did he talk about his work? What sort of research work?”

“He rarely talked about it, you know; I suppose the Air Ministry could tell you. I only know that be was about to carry out a number of experiments he had been preparing for some months, something to do with the disintegration of matter, he told me.”

Barely slowing down, the Commissaire swung the car off the road, slid it through the open factory gate and pulled up sharp by a policeman apparently expecting him.

I did not need to hear the policeman’s confirmation. I knew now that my brother was dead, it seemed that I had been told years ago. Shaking like a leaf, I scrambled out after the Commissaire.

Another policeman stepped out of a doorway and led us towards one of the shops where all the lights had been turned on. More policemen were standing by the hammer, watching two men setting up a camera. It was tilted downwards, and I made an effort to look.

It was far less horrid than I had expected. Though I had never seen my brother drunk, he looked just as if he were sleeping off a terrific binge, flat on his stomach across the narrow line on which the white-hot slabs of metal were rolled up to the hammer. I saw at a glance that his head and arm could only be a flattened mess, but that seemed quite impossible; it looked as if he had somehow pushed his head and arms right into the metallic mass of the hammer.

Having talked to his colleagues, the Commissaire turned towards me:

“How can we raise the hammer, Monsieur Delambre?”

“I’ll raise it for you.”

“Would you like us to get one of your men over?”

“No, I’ll be all right. Look, here is the switchboard. It was originally a steam-hammer, but everything is worked electrically here now. Look, Commissaire, the hammer has been set at fifty tons and its impact at zero.”

“At zero…?”

“Yes, level with the ground if you prefer. It is also set for single strokes, which means that it has to be raised after each blow. I don’t know what Helene, my sister-in-law, will have to say about all this, but one thing I am sure of: she certainly did not know how to set and operate the hammer.”

“Perhaps it was set that way last night when work stopped?”

“Certainly not. The drop is never set at zero, Monsieur le Commissaire.”

“I see. Can it be raised gently?”

“No. The speed of the upstroke cannot be regulated. But in any case it is not very fast when the hammer is set for single strokes.”

“Right. Will you show me what to do? It won’t be very nice to watch, you know.”

“No, no, Monsieur le Commissaire. I’ll be all right.”

“All set?” asked the Commissaire of the others. “All right then, Monsieur Delambre. Whenever you like.”

Watching my brother’s back, I slowly but firmly pushed the upstroke button.

The unusual silence of the factory was broken by the sigh of compressed air rushing into the cylinders, a sigh that always makes me think of a giant taking a deep breath before solemnly socking another giant, and the steel mass of the hammer shuddered and then rose swiftly. I also heard the sucking sound as it left the metal base and thought I was going to panic when I saw Andre’s body heave forward as a sickly gush of blood poured all over the ghastly mess bared by the hammer.

“No danger of it coming down again, Monsieur Delambre?”

“No, none whatever,” I mumbled as I threw the safety switch and, turning around, I was violently sick in front of a young green-faced policeman.

 

II.

For weeks after, Commissaire Charas worked on the case, listening, questioning, running all over the place, making out reports, telegraphing and telephoning right and left. Later, we became quite friendly and he owned that he had for a long time considered me as suspect number one, but had finally given up that idea because, not only was there no clue of any sort, but not even a motive.

Helene, my sister-in-law, was so calm throughout the whole business that the doctors finally confirmed what I had long considered the only possible solution: that she was mad. That being the case, there was of course no trial.

My brother’s wife never tried to defend herself in any way and even got quite annoyed when she realized that people thought her mad, and this of course was considered proof that she was indeed mad. She owned up to the murder of her husband and proved easily that she knew how to handle the hammer; but she would never say why, exactly how, or under what circumstances she had killed my brother. The great mystery was how and why had my brother so obligingly stuck his head under the hammer, the only possible explanation for his part in the drama.

The night watchman had heard the hammer all right; he had even heard it twice, he claimed. This was very strange, and the stroke-counter which was always set back to naught after a job, seemed to prove him right, since it marked the figure two. Also, the foreman in charge of the hammer confirmed that after cleaning up the day before the murder, he had as usual turned the stroke-counter back to naught. In spite of this, Helene maintained that she had only used the hammer once, and this seemed just another proof of her insanity.

Commissaire Charas, who had been put in charge of the case, at first wondered if the victim were really my brother. But of that there was no possible doubt, if only because of the great scar running from his knee to his thigh, the result of a shell that had landed within a few feet of him during the retreat in 1940; and there were also the fingerprints of his left hand which corresponded to those found all over his laboratory and his personal belongings up at the house.

A guard had been put on his laboratory and the next day half-a-dozen officials came down from the Air Ministry. They went through all his papers and took away some of his instruments, but before leaving, they told the Commissaire that the most interesting documents and instruments had been destroyed.

The Lyons police laboratory, one of the most famous in the world, reported that Andre’s head had been wrapped up in a piece of velvet when it was crushed by the hammer, and one day Commissaire Charas showed me a tattered drapery which I immediately recognized as the brown velvet cloth I had seen on a table in my brother’s laboratory, the one on which his meals were served when he could not leave his work.

After only a very few days in prison, Helene had been transferred to a nearby asylum, one of the three in France where insane criminals are taken care of. My nephew Henri, a boy of six, the very image of his father, was entrusted to me, and eventually all legal arrangements were made for me to become his guardian and tutor.

Helene, one of the quietest patients of the asylum, was allowed visitors and I went to see her on Sundays. Once or twice the Commissaire had accompanied me and, later, I learned that he had also visited Helene alone. But we were never able to obtain any
information from my sister-in-law, who seemed to have become utterly indifferent. She rarely answered my questions and hardly ever those of the Commissaire. She spent a lot of her time sewing, but her favorite pastime seemed to be catching flies, which she invariably released unharmed after having examined them carefully.

Helene only had one fit of raving – more like a nervous breakdown than a fit, said the doctor who had administered morphia to quieten her – the day she saw a nurse swatting flies.

The day after Helene’s one and only fit, Commissaire Charas came to see me.

“I have a strange feeling that there lies the key to the whole business, Monsieur Delambre,” he said.

I did not ask him how it was that he already knew all about Helene’s fit.

“I do not follow you, Commissaire. Poor Madame Delambre could have shown an exceptional interest for anything else, really. Don’t you think that flies just happen to be the border-subject of her tendency to raving?”

“Do you believe she is really mad?” be asked.

“My dear Commissaire, I don’t see how there can be any doubt. Do you doubt it?”

“I don’t know. In spite of all the doctors say, I have the impression that Madame Delambre has a very clear brain … even when catching flies.”

“Supposing you were right, how would you explain her attitude with regard to her little boy? She never seems to consider him as her own child.”

“You know, Monsieur Delambre, I have thought about that also. She may be trying to protect him. Perhaps she fears the boy or, for all we know, hates him?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand, my dear Commissaire.”

“Have you noticed, for instance, that she never catches flies when the boy is there?”

“No. But come to think of it, you are quite right. Yes, that is strange… Still, I fail to understand.”

“So do I, Monsieur Delambre. And I’m very much afraid that we shall never understand, unless perhaps your sister-in-law should get better.”

“The doctors seem to think that there is no hope of any sort you know.”

“Yes. Do you know if your brother ever experimented with flies?”

“I really don’t know, but I shouldn’t think so. Have you asked the Air Ministry people? They knew all about the work.”

“Yes, and they laughed at me.”

“I can understand that.”

“You are very fortunate to understand anything, Monsieur Delambre. I do not … but I hope to some day.”


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