Once every autumn, Sherman Holmes went home to Alabama. There he would spend the better part of a week visiting his childhood friends and then, for another few days, go off by himself and rent a cabin in the woods. This was his annual attempt to forget crime and return to nature, although he did spend hours doing surveillance work on possums or trying to discover who or what murdered a particular squirrel.
It was on the last day of Sherman’s latest trip that he found himself the victim of a robbery.
The time was early evening, and the rotund little detective was about to unwrap a sandwich when there was a knock on the cabin door. Without thinking twice, he opened it and was suddenly facing a masked man in a baseball cap, medium height, medium build, aiming a gun at his head. “Give me your wallet,” whispered the robber.
For a man who had helped incarcerate dozens of thieves and killers, Sherman did not react well. “Please don’t hurt me,” he whispered back and immediately reached over to the nearby dresser where his wallet lay open and bulging.
Two minutes later, he was tied to a chair, a gag in his mouth, with all his valuables stolen from the small single-room cabin.
Sherman was just working the gag loose from his mouth when there came another knock. “Mr. Holmes? Are you okay? Mr. Holmes?” The door opened and Sherman was relieved to see Frank Lower, the young manager of Criminy Woods Rental Cabins.
“He got you, too,” Frank said and ran to untie Sherman from the chair.
Frank, it seems, had been alone in his office/cabin when he was attacked by the same masked robber. The only difference was that Frank had put up a struggle and had been knocked unconscious for his effort.
“He got the cash box.” Frank said, nursing a bump on the back of his skull. “And he took my wallet and my ring.”
“Let’s check the other cabins,” Sherman said as he hurried out the door.
From the cars in the parking area, they could see that only two other cabins were currently occupied. Their first stop was the cabin right beside Sherman’s. Like the others, it was a one-room structure plus a bathroom, with three tiny windows and a single door. The door was partially open and Sherman didn’t bother to knock.
“Hello? Are you all right?”
Lola and Jim Grimm, a middle-aged couple, were on the floor in the middle of the room, Lola tied to a chair and gagged, and Jim recovering from a blow to the head. “He knocked Jim out with his gun,” said Lola when Frank removed the gag. “Then he tied me up and ransacked the room.” Sherman could see the turned-out drawers and the opened suitcases on the bed.
The last cabin was perhaps fifty yards away, by the riverbank. The other three victims stood behind Sherman as he turned the knob and pushed the door. It opened a few inches before hitting something. That something moaned.
“Mr. Boatman?” Sherman called through the crack.
“Help,” a disoriented voice replied. “I’ve been mugged.”
Jonas Boatman soon recovered enough to get up off the floor. “He had a gun and…” He stumbled to his jacket on a hook by the bathroom. “Drat! He got my wallet, my money.”
“He robbed all of us,” said Lola Grimm. “Did anyone get a good look?”
“Not me,” said Frank, the manager. “He had on a cap, but… Maybe his hair was brown.”
“I thought it was black,” said Jim.
“I barely saw him,” said Jonas, nursing the same kind of bruise that graced the heads of Jim and Frank. “He asked for my wallet. I pointed to my jacket. Then he hit me with his gun. I was out cold until one of you hit me with the door.”
Sherman gave him a sheepish grin. “Sorry.”
“We should call the police,” said Frank. “The robber’s probably miles away by now, but maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“Yes,” Lola agreed. “Maybe he hasn’t gone too far.”
“He hasn’t gone far at all,” Sherman thought. “But I think I’ll wait until the police arrive to make an accusation.”
Who was the robber?
What clue revealed the robber’s identity?
The deputy sheriff who arrived had been skeptical about Sherman Holmes’s credentials, but a call to Capital City was very persuasive. “Sergeant Wilson says I’m to arrest the person you point out. He’s got a lot of faith in you.”
“That’s very nice of him,” Sherman said with as much modesty as he could muster. “Don’t worry. I’m right. In fact, if you’ll look in the trunk of Jonas Boatman’s car, I imagine you’ll find everything he stole.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s logical. No one would think of searching the cars of the victims.”
“But Boatman was hit, like the other two.”
“Self-inflicted, my dear man. There is no way his story happened the way he said.”
“But his story’s the same as the others’. A demand for money, a hit on the head.”
“Yes,” Sherman said. “But he also said he was knocked cold until I hit him with the door. That couldn’t be. I mean, if his body was blocking the door, how did the robber get out?”
Sherman and the deputy were in one of the cabins, an exact duplicate of the others. “The windows are small,” Sherman said. “The only way to explain how the robber got out without pushing Boatman out of the way is simple. There was no robber.”