I had just returned home from a long day of visiting patients, each of whom suffered from ailments that, in my professional judgment, did not require the services of a visiting physician. Their opinions, as usual, were otherwise. "Why," I wondered aloud as I dropped my kit on my desk, "do non-experts not simply leave professional decisions to those with the appropriate qualifications and training?"
Holmes, who had been studying the Diplomacy board before him, turned his face toward me at this point and smiled. "My dear Watson! That's exactly what the police inspectors have been saying to me for years." He then looked back at the board -- which I now saw only had thirteen units in four colors on it. (But we will leave that for another narrative.)
Just then a knock on the door interrupted us. "A caller for you, Watson," said Holmes without looking up. I opened the door and saw the valet of the Honourable General Masters breathing with some difficulty before me.
"Why James!" I exclaimed, "What brings you here at this hour?"
"The General has asked me to deliver this urgent letter to you." He caught his breath while I tore open the cheap administration envelope and read the contents.
"Holmes! Listen to this! General Masters has been arrested for murder!" Holmes continued to study his game board. "A murder, Holmes! This is most terrible."
"It is indeed, Doctor Watson," James interjected excitedly. "A dastardly act! The police have evidence that it was the act of a single person. They are holding the general on suspicion of being the perpetrator!"
I continued summarizing the message for Holmes. "The general proclaims his innocence and insists that he could not have have committed the heinous crime even had he wanted to. It seems he was serving as Game Master for a Diplomacy game earlier this evening at his residence, and Mr Whipple, one of the players, was poisoned. A vial with trace amounts of belladonna was found in the pantry, which the players had been using for one of their conference rooms. The police arrested General Masters as the most likely suspect, since he had access to all rooms of the house. But any of the players could have slipped it into Whipple's drink. You know the confusion during diplomatic negotiations!"
At this point Holmes looked up again. "Confusion, my dear Watson? There is only the appearance of confusion, which the skilled diplomat uses to his advantage." He turned now to the valet. "What were you serving the gentlemen during play?"
"White wine, sir. Surely you don't think that I…"
"Of course not. What time did play end?"
"About 8.35, sir. Orders had just been resolved when play was interrupted for dining. This was when Mr Whipple complained of severe abdominal cramping. I remember hearing the half-hourly bell from Big Ben just shortly before that." James was beginning to become short of breath again.
"Of course, none of the players will remember precisely who was with whom during the preceding hour. Do you have the order sheets?"
"No sir, those would have been taken by the police as evidence. However, the board was left undisturbed."
Holmes began to look excited. "When did play begin?"
"Precisely at six o'clock sir. The General was always quite strict about punctuality."
"Indeed, that is what may enable us to solve this case. Watson! How long a period would belladonna need between ingestion and initial gastric symptoms?"
I ran to my medical journals. After a moment's scanning, I found the relevant section. "Forty-five to fifty minutes for an adult with an empty stomache (as Whipple must have had before dinner)," I reported. "And belladonna is far too bitter in lethal doses to be administered via white wine. The murderer must have tricked Whipple into drinking something else when they were in conference. Perhaps a villanous toast to their private conspiracy!"
Holmes sucked thoughtfully at his pipe. "Quite right, Watson. You are beginning to understand. I believe we can safely theorize that Whipple and his murderer were together without company for a rather lengthy timespan, certainly for the greater part of the time General Masters allows his Diplomacy-playing guests for negotiation. After all, the time necessary for the fatal drink to be properly decanted, offered, and enjoyed -- as would of course be obligatory during a formal game of Diplomacy -- would not be inconsiderable."
My enthusiasm was quickly replaced by the memory of how little information we could acquire. "Holmes, this is hopeless. No one will remember with any certainty who was with poor Whipple fifty minutes before he took ill!"
"Presumably that is what the murderer was counting on. However, we may have him yet! As you know, General Masters always conducted his games with strict military timing: thirty minutes for the initial negotiation period, fifteen minutes for all subsequent negotiation sessions. If any retreat or adjustment phase was unnecessary, the general's games moved immediately, without pause, to the next phase. He enforced a strict five minutes for order writing for any and every separate phase, ten minutes for movement order resolution and silent strategizing, and five minutes each for retreat and adjustment order resolutions. If any activity ended earlier, the remaining time was used for personal conveniences and the like, but players were forbidden to meet with one another during this time. Masters was as famous for this as for his house rule refusing to allow waived build orders." Holmes stared into space for a long minute and then turned to us. "What power was Mr Whipple playing, James?"
The manservant looked embarrassed. "I do not know, sir. I regret to say I was not following the game. I was preparing for supper with the rest of the household staff and had just called the players to dine when Mr Whipple collapsed. I'm afraid the only thing I do recall is one of the players remarking as they rose that he had just become the only player to have issued orders in every game-phase that had taken place."
Even Holmes looked somewhat concerned this time. "Well, perhaps it will not be necessary to know which power Whipple was playing. James, would you be so kind as to return to the General's residence and bring me a complete report of the positions of all of the units on the board? Watson, in the meantime perhaps you could go to the jail and provide some comfort to the old General?"
I didn't much want to be left out of the next development. However, I agreed that someone should return to General Masters, so I hurriedly put on my overcoat and exited with James.
For several hours at the jail, Masters' lawyers and I unsuccessfully argued for his immediate release on bail. The night judge argued that as Masters was in control of the food and beverage for the evening, he would need to be held until at least after the autopsy.
Weary and concerned, I returned to our domicile hours later to find Holmes asleep in his armchair, a syringe on the end-table by his side. My attempts to rouse him were futile. The board before him displayed what must have been the final position of the interrupted game. Could Holmes have finally been stumped by a case? How could he just go to sleep with the murder unsolved?
I began to look at the board. It was obviously an interesting game. Russia had seen all his units eliminated; Austria was under severe attack. England had scarcely moved. Italy and Turkey were locked in naval conflict with one another. However, there was nothing I could see in the positions which indicated who had killed poor Mr Whipple!
The notebook that Holmes used for his casework lay open on the table. He had
written in his usual scrawl:
Valet returned Baker Street with board position and other information from which I deduce...
I spent the better part of the evening considering the plight of General Masters, and staring at the board position reproduced below, while Holmes snored softly in his reading chair. Eventually I retired, completely bereft of hope for the accused.
What do you think? Did Holmes fall asleep without determining who had committed the murder? (If you think so, you don't know Holmes.) Can you follow in Holmes' footsteps? Mail your answer to The Pouch. In support of your hypothesis, be certain to explain which power Whipple was playing and how you know that. If you are really stumped, some hints are available, but try to solve the puzzle before resorting to them.
-- Dr. John H. Watson
via Eric Pederson
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