Burn Witch Burn: The Fantasy Classic
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by A. Merritt
Category: Dark Fantasy/Horror
Description: Mafia Versus Witchcraft! "With such consummate skill," wrote the New York Times, "has Mr. Merritt told his story in Burn Witch Burn that one is almost ready to believe that such things can be, even in this twentieth century of ours." Not available in paperback, here is the fabled novel of an eminent physician who agrees to work along side one of the city's most notorious gangsters to put an end to a strange and mysterious series of deaths that have claimed a child, a millionaire, one of the don's men and the doctor's nurse. Investigation leads the pair to the uncanny Madame Mandilip, proprietress of a most unusual doll shop, and her apparently mute and terrified daughter. Soon the Mafia don lies on the verge of death and the doctor finds himself the victim of strange hallucinations--or are they? From page to page the nightmare figure of Madame Mandilip grows more horrible and deadly until she spreads like a menacing shadow across the lives of the doctor and his friends. Long out of print, this novel, which inspired the legendary 1930s horror film, Devil Doll with Lionel Barymore, is considered one of the supreme masterpieces of dark fantasy. "There is no individual writing today," wrote Donald A. Wollheim, author of Mimic, "that can torture his reader by way of the suspense element as much as Merritt and know at which point to stop; to save him perhaps for future tortures." Or, as the New York Times said, "You'll find here a collection of horrors that really horrify, most skillfully blended into a tale of mounting hellishness, the whole flavored with that peculiar quality that Merritt readers know about."
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/Pageturner, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: September 2005
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [241 KB]
Reading time: 166-233 min.
CHAPTER I: THE UNKNOWN DEATH
I heard the clock strike one as I walked up the hospital steps. Ordinarily I would have been in bed and asleep, but there was a case in which I was much interested, and Braile, my assistant, had telephoned me of certain developments which I wished to observe. It was a night in early November. I paused for a moment at the top of the steps to look at the brilliancy of the stars. As I did so an automobile drew up at the entrance to the hospital.
As I stood, wondering what its arrival at that hour meant, a man slipped out of it. He looked sharply up and down the deserted street, then threw the door wide open. Another man emerged. The two of them stooped and seemed to be fumbling around inside. They straightened and then I saw that they had locked their arms around the shoulders of a third. They moved forward, not supporting but carrying this other man. His head hung upon his breast and his body swung limply.
A fourth man stepped from the automobile.
I recognized him. He was Julian Ricori, a notorious underworld chieftain, one of the finished products of the Prohibition Law. He had been pointed out to me several times. Even if he had not been, the newspapers would have made me familiar with his features and figure. Lean and long, with silvery white hair, always immaculately dressed, a leisured type from outward seeming, rather than leader of such activities as those of which he was accused.
I had been standing in the shadow, unnoticed. I stepped out of the shadow. Instantly the burdened pair halted, swiftly as hunting hounds. Their free hands dropped into the pockets of their coats. Menace was in that movement.
"I am Dr. Lowell," I said, hastily. "Connected with the hospital. Come right along."
They did not answer me. Nor did their gaze waver from me; nor did they move. Ricori stepped in front of them. His hands were also in his pockets. He looked me over, then nodded to the others; I felt the tension relax.
"I know you, Doctor," he said pleasantly, in oddly precise English. "But that was quite a chance you took. If I might advise you, it is not well to move so quickly when those come whom you do not know, and at night--not in this town."
"But," I said, "I do know you, Mr. Ricori."
"Then," he smiled, faintly, "your judgment was doubly at fault. And my advice doubly pertinent."
There was an awkward moment of silence. He broke it.
"And being who I am, I shall feel much better inside your doors than outside."
I opened the doors. The two men passed through with their burden, and after them Ricori and I. Once within, I gave way to my professional instincts and stepped up to the man the two were carrying. They shot a quick glance at Ricori. He nodded. I raised the man's head.
A little shock went through me. The man's eyes were wide open. He was neither dead nor unconscious. But upon his face was the most extraordinary expression of terror I had ever seen in a long experience with sane, insane and borderland cases. It was not undiluted fear. It was mixed with an equally disturbing horror. The eyes, blue and with distended pupils, were like exclamation points to the emotions printed upon that face. They stared up at me, through me and beyond me. And still they seemed to be looking inward--as though whatever nightmare vision they were seeing was both behind and in front of them.
"Exactly!" Ricori had been watching me closely. "Exactly, Dr. Lowell, what could it be that my friend has seen--or has been given--that could make him appear so? I am most anxious to learn. I am willing to spend much money to learn. I wish him cured, yes--but I shall be frank with you, Dr. Lowell. I would give my last penny for the certainty that those who did this to him could not do the same thing to me--could not make me as he is, could not make me see what he is seeing, could not make feel what he is feeling."
At my signal, orderlies had come up. They took the patient and laid him on a stretcher. By this time the resident physician had appeared. Ricori touched my elbow.
"I know a great deal about you, Dr. Lowell," he said. "I would like you to take full charge of this case."
He continued, earnestly: "Could you drop everything else? Spend all your time upon it? Bring in any others you wish to consult--don't think of expense--"
"A moment, Mr. Ricori," I broke in. "I have patients who cannot be neglected. I will give all the time I can spare, and so will my assistant, Dr. Braile. Your friend will be constantly under observation here by people who have my complete confidence. Do you wish me to take the case under those conditions?"
He acquiesced, though I could see he was not entirely satisfied. I had the patient taken to an isolated private room, and went through the necessary hospital formalities. Ricori gave the man's name as Thomas Peters, asserted that he knew of no close relations, had himself recorded at Peters' nearest friend, assumed all responsibility, and taking out a roll of currency, skimmed a thousand dollar bill from it, passing it to the desk as "preliminary costs."
I asked Ricori if he would like to be present at my examination. He said that he would. He spoke to his two men, and they took positions at each side of the hospital doors--on guard. Ricori and I went to the room assigned to the patient. The orderlies had stripped him, and he lay upon the adjustable cot, covered by a sheet. Braile, for whom I had sent, was bending over Peters, intent upon his face, and plainly puzzled. I saw with satisfaction that Nurse Walters, an unusually capable and conscientious young woman, had been assigned to the case. Braile looked up at me. He said: "Obviously some drug."
"Maybe," I answered. "But if so then a drug I have never encountered. Look at his eyes--"
I closed Peters' lids. As soon as I had lifted my fingers they began to rise, slowly, until they were again wide open. Several times I tried to shut them. Always they opened: the terror, the horror in them, undiminished.
I began my examination. The entire body was limp, muscles and joints. It was as flaccid, the simile came to me, as a doll. It was as though every motor nerve had gone out of business. Yet there was none of the familiar symptoms of paralysis. Nor did the body respond to any sensory stimulus, although I struck down into the nerve trunks. The only reaction I could obtain was a slight contraction of the dilated pupils under strongest light.
Hoskins, the pathologist, came in to take his samples for blood tests. When he had drawn what he wanted, I went over the body minutely. I could find not a single puncture, wound, bruise or abrasion. Peters was hairy. With Ricori's permission, I had him shaved clean-chest, shoulders, legs, even the head. I found nothing to indicate that a drug might have been given him by hypodermic. I had the stomach emptied and took specimens from the excretory organs, including the skin. I examined the membranes of nose and throat: they seemed healthy and normal; nevertheless, I had smears taken from them. The blood pressure was low, the temperature slightly subnormal; but that might mean nothing. I gave an injection of adrenaline. There was absolutely no reaction from it. That might mean much.
"Poor devil," I said to myself. "I'm going to try to kill that nightmare for you, at any rate."
I gave him a minimum hypo of morphine. It might have been water for all the good it did. Then I gave him all I dared. His eyes remained open, terror and horror undiminished. And pulse and respiration unchanged.
Ricori had watched all these operations with intense interest. I had done all I could for the time, and told him so.
"I can do no more," I said, "until I receive the reports of the specimens. Frankly, I am all at sea. I know of no disease nor drug which would produce these conditions."
"But Dr. Braile," he said, "mentioned a drug--"
"A suggestion only," interposed Braile hastily. "Like Dr. Lowell, I know of no drug which would cause such symptoms."
Ricori glanced at Peters' face and shivered.
"Now," I said, "I must ask you some questions. Has this man been ill? If so, has he been under medical care? If he has not actually been ill, has he spoken of any discomfort? Or have you noticed anything unusual in his manner or behavior?"
"No, to all questions," he answered. "Peters has been in closest touch with me for the past week. He has not been ailing in the least. Tonight we were talking in my apartments, eating a late and light dinner. He was in high spirits. In the middle of a word, he stopped, half-turned his head as though listening; then slipped from his chair to the floor. When I bent over him he was as you see him now. That was precisely half after midnight. I brought him here at once."
"Well," I said, "that at least gives us the exact time of the seizure. There is no use of your remaining, Mr. Ricori, unless you wish."
He studied his hands a few moments, rubbing the carefully manicured nails.
"Dr. Lowell," he said at last, "if this man dies without your discovering what killed him, I will pay you the customary fees and the hospital the customary charges and no more. If he dies and you make this discovery after his death, I will give a hundred thousand dollars to any charity you name. But if you make the discovery before he dies, and restore him to health--I will give you the same sum."
We stared at him, and then as the significance of this remarkable offer sank in, I found it hard to curb my anger.
"Ricori," I said, "you and I live in different worlds, therefore I answer you politely, although I find it difficult. I will do all in my power to find out what is the matter with your friend and to cure him. I would do that if he and you were paupers. I am interested in him only as a problem which challenges me as a physician. But I am not interested in you in the slightest. Nor in your money. Nor in your offer. Consider it definitely rejected. Do you thoroughly understand that?"
He betrayed no resentment.
"So much so that more than ever do I wish you to take full charge," he said.
"Very well. Now where can I get you if I want to bring you here quickly?"
"With your permission," he answered, "I should like to have--well, representatives--in this room at all times. There will be two of them. If you want me, tell them--and I will soon be here."
I smiled at that, but he did not.
"You have reminded me," he said, "that we live in different worlds. You take your precautions to go safely in your world--and I order my life to minimize the perils of mine. Not for a moment would I presume to advise you how to walk among the dangers of your laboratory, Dr. Lowell. I have the counterparts of those dangers. Bene--I guard against them as best I can."
It was a most irregular request, of course. But I found myself close to liking Ricori just then, and saw clearly his point of view. He knew that and pressed the advantage.
"My men will be no bother," he said. "They will not interfere in any way with you. If what I suspect to be true is true they will be a protection for you and your aids as well. But they, and those who relieve them, must stay in the room night and day. If Peters is taken from the room, they must accompany him--no matter where it is that he is taken."
"I can arrange it," I said. Then, at his request, I sent an orderly down to the doors. He returned with one of the men Ricori had left on guard. Ricori whispered to him, and he went out. In a little while two other men came up. In the meantime I had explained the peculiar situation to the resident and the superintendent and secured the necessary permission for their stay.
The two men were well-dressed, polite, of a singularly tight-lipped and cold-eyed alertness. One of them shot a glance at Peters.
"Christ!" he muttered.
The room was a corner one with two windows, one opening out on the Drive, the other on the side street. Besides these, there were no outer openings except the door to the hall; the private bathroom being enclosed and having no windows. Ricori and the two inspected the room minutely, keeping away, I noticed, from the windows. He asked me then if the room could be darkened. Much interested, I nodded. The lights were turned off, the three went to the windows, opened them and carefully scrutinized the six-story sheer drop to both streets. On the side of the Drive there is nothing but the open space above the park. Opposite the other side is a church.
"It is at this side you must watch," I heard Ricori say; he pointed to the church. "You can turn the lights on now, Doctor."
He started toward the door, then turned.
"I have many enemies, Dr. Lowell. Peters was my right hand. If it was one of these enemies who struck him, he did it to weaken me. Or, perhaps, because he had not the opportunity to strike at me. I look at Peters, and for the first time in my life I, Ricori--am afraid. I have no wish to be the next, I have no wish to look into hell!"
I grunted at that! He had put so aptly what I had felt and had not formulated into words.
He started to open the door. He hesitated.
"One thing more. If there should be any telephone calls inquiring as to Peters' condition let one of these men, or their reliefs, answer. If any should come in person making inquiry, allow them to come up--but if they are more than one, let only one come at a time. If any should appear, asserting that they are relations, again let these men meet and question them."
He gripped my hand, then opened the door of the room. Another pair of the efficient-appearing retainers were awaiting him at the threshold. They swung in before and behind him. As he walked away, I saw that he was crossing himself vigorously.
I closed the door and went back into the room. I looked down on Peters.
If I had been religious, I too would have been doing some crossing. The expression on Peters' face had changed. The terror and horror were gone. He still seemed to be looking both beyond me and into himself, but it was a look of evil expectancy--so evil that involuntarily I shot a glance over my shoulder to see what ugly thing might be creeping upon me.
There was nothing. One of Ricori's gunmen sat in the corner of the window, in the shadow, watching the parapet of the church roof opposite; the other sat stolidly at the door.
Braile and Nurse Walters were at the other side of the bed. Their eyes were fixed with horrified fascination on Peters' face. And then I saw Braile turn his head and stare about the room as I had.
Suddenly Peters' eyes seemed to focus, to become aware of the three of us, to become aware of the entire room. They flashed with an unholy glee. That glee was not maniacal--it was diabolical. It was the look of a devil long exiled from his well-beloved hell, and suddenly summoned to return.
Or was it like the glee of some devil sent hurtling out of his hell to work his will upon whom he might?
Very well do I know how fantastic, how utterly unscientific, are such comparisons. Yet not otherwise can I describe that strange change.
Then, abruptly as the closing of a camera shutter, that expression fled and the old terror and horror came back. I gave an involuntary gasp of relief, for it was precisely as though some evil presence had withdrawn. The nurse was trembling; Braile asked, in a strained voice: "How about another hypodermic?"
"No," I said. "I want you to watch the progress of this--whatever it is--without drugs. I'm going down to the laboratory. Watch him closely until I return."
I went down to the laboratory. Hoskins looked up at me.
"Nothing wrong, so far. Remarkable health, I'd say. Of course all I've results on are the simpler tests."
I nodded. I had an uncomfortable feeling that the other tests also would show nothing. And I had been more shaken than I would have cared to confess by those alternations of hellish fear, hellish expectancy and hellish glee in Peters' face and eyes. The whole case troubled me, gave me a nightmarish feeling of standing outside some door which it was vitally important to open, and to which not only did I have no key but couldn't find the keyhole. I have found that concentration upon microscopic work often permits me to think more freely upon problems. So I took a few smears of Peters' blood and began to study them, not with any expectation of finding anything, but to slip the brakes from another part of my brain.
I was on my fourth slide when I suddenly realized that I was looking at the incredible. As I had perfunctorily moved the slide, a white corpuscle had slid into the field of vision. Only a simple white corpuscle--but within it was a spark of phosphorescence, shining out like a tiny lamp!
I thought at first that it was some effect of the light, but no manipulation of the illumination changed that spark. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. I called Hoskins.
"Tell me if you see something peculiar in there."
He peered into the microscope. He started, then shifted the light as I had.
"What do you see, Hoskins?"
He said, still staring through the lens:
"A leucocyte inside of which is a globe of phosphorescence. Its glow is neither dimmed when I turn on the full illumination, nor is it increased when I lessen it. In all except the ingested globe the corpuscle seems normal."
"And all of which," I said, "is quite impossible."
"Quite," he agreed, straightening. "Yet there it is!"
I transferred the slide to the micro-manipulator, hoping to isolate the corpuscle, and touched it with the tip of the manipulating needle. At the instant of contact the corpuscle seemed to burst. The globe of phosphorescence appeared to flatten, and something like a miniature flash of heat-lightning ran over the visible portion of the slide.
And that was all--the phosphorescence was gone.
We prepared and examined slide after slide. Twice more we found a tiny shining globe, and each time with the same result, the bursting corpuscle, the strange flicker of faint luminosity--then nothing.
The laboratory 'phone rang. Hoskins answered.
"It's Braile. He wants you--quick."
"Keep after it, Hoskins," I said, and hastened to Peters' room. Entering, I saw Nurse Walters, face chalk white, eyes closed, standing with her back turned to the bed. Braile was leaning over the patient, stethoscope to his heart. I looked at Peters; and stood stock still, something like a touch of unreasoning panic at my own heart. Upon his face was that look of devilish expectancy, but intensified. As I looked, it gave way to the diabolic joy, and that, too, was intensified. The face held it for not many seconds. Back came the expectancy then on its heels the unholy glee. The two expressions alternated, rapidly. They flickered over Peters' face like--like the flickers of the tiny lights within the corpuscles of his blood. Braile spoke to me through stiff lips:
"His heart stopped three minutes ago! He ought to be dead--yet listen--"
The body of Peters stretched and stiffened. A sound came from his lips--a chuckling sound; low yet singularly penetrating, inhuman, the chattering laughter of a devil. The gunman at the window leaped to his feet, his chair going over with a crash. The laughter choked and died away, and the body of Peters lay limp.
I heard the door open, and Ricori's voice: "How is he, Dr. Lowell? I could not sleep--" He saw Peters' face.
"Mother of Christ!" I heard him whisper. He dropped to his knees.
I saw him dimly for I could not take my eyes from Peters' face. It was the face of a grinning, triumphant fiend--all humanity wiped from it--the face of a demon straight out of some mad medieval painter's hell. The blue eyes, now utterly malignant, glared at Ricori.
And as I looked, the dead hands moved; slowly the arms bent up from the elbows, the fingers contracting like claws; the dead body began to stir beneath the covers--
At that the spell of nightmare dropped from me; for the first time in hours I was on ground that I knew. It was the rigor mortis, the stiffening of death--but setting in more quickly and proceeding at a rate I had never known.
I stepped forward and drew the lids down over the glaring eyes. I covered the dreadful face.
I looked at Ricori. He was still on his knees, crossing himself and praying. And kneeling beside him, arm around his shoulders, was Nurse Walters, and she, too, was praying.
Somewhere a clock struck five. * * * * CHAPTER II: THE QUESTIONNAIRE
I offered to go home with Ricori, and somewhat to my surprise he accepted with alacrity. The man was pitiably shaken. We rode silently, the tight-lipped gunmen alert. Peters' face kept floating before me.
I gave Ricori a strong sedative, and left him sleeping, his men on guard. I had told him that I meant to make a complete autopsy.
Returning to the hospital in his car, I found the body of Peters had been taken to the mortuary. Rigor mortis, Braile told me, had been complete in less than an hour--an astonishingly short time. I made the necessary arrangements for the autopsy, and took Braile home with me to snatch a few hours sleep. It is difficult to convey by words the peculiarly unpleasant impression the whole occurrence had made upon me. I can only say that I was as grateful for Braile's company as he seemed to be for mine.
When I awoke, the nightmarish oppression still lingered, though not so strongly. It was about two when we began the autopsy. I lifted the sheet from Peters' body with noticeable hesitation. I stared at his face with amazement. All diabolism had been wiped away. It was serene, unlined--the face of a man who had died peacefully, with no agony either of body or mind. I lifted his hand, it was limp, the whole body flaccid, the rigor gone.
It was then, I think, that I first felt full conviction I was dealing with an entirely new, or at least unknown, agency of death, whether microbic or otherwise. As a rule, rigor does not set in for sixteen to twenty-four hours, depending upon the condition of the patient before death, temperature and a dozen other things. Normally, it does not disappear for forty-eight to seventy-two hours. Usually a rapid setting-in of the stiffening means as rapid a disappearance, and vice versa. Diabetics stiffen quicker than others. A sudden brain injury, like shooting, is even swifter. In this case, the rigor had begun instantaneously with death, and must have completed its cycle in the astonishingly short time of less than five hours--for the attendant told me that he had examined the body about ten o'clock and he had thought that stiffening had not yet set in. As a matter of fact, it had come and gone.
The results of the autopsy can be told in two sentences. There was no ascertainable reason why Peters should not be alive. And he was dead!
Later, when Hoskins made his reports, both of these utterly conflicting statements continued to be true. There was no reason why Peters should be dead. Yet dead he was. If the enigmatic lights we had observed had anything to do with his death, they left no traces. His organs were perfect, all else as it should have been; he was, indeed, an extraordinarily healthy specimen. Nor had Hoskins been able to capture any more of the light-carrying corpuscles after I had left him.
That night I framed a short letter describing briefly the symptoms observed in Peters' case, not dwelling upon the changes in expression but referring cautiously to "unusual grimaces" and a "look of intense fear." Braile and I had this manifold and mailed to every physician in Greater New York. I personally attended to a quiet inquiry to the same effect among the hospitals. The letters asked if the physicians had treated any patients with similar symptoms, and if so to give particulars, names, addresses, occupations and any characteristic interest under seal, of course, of professional confidence. I flattered myself that my reputation was such that none of those who received the questionnaires would think the request actuated either by idle curiosity or slightest unethical motive.
I received in response seven letters and a personal visit from the writer of one of them. Each letter, except one, gave me in various degrees of medical conservatism, the information I had asked. After reading them, there was no question that within six months seven persons of oddly dissimilar characteristics and stations in life had died as had Peters.
Chronologically, the cases were as follows:
May 25: Ruth Bailey, spinster; fifty years old; moderately wealthy; Social Registerite and best of reputation; charitable and devoted to children. June 20: Patrick McIlraine; bricklayer; wife and two children. August 1: Anita Green; child of eleven; parents in moderate circumstances and well educated. August 15: Steve Standish; acrobat; thirty; wife and three children. August 30: John J. Marshall; banker; sixty interested in child welfare. September 10: Phineas Dimott; thirty-five; trapeze performer; wife and small child. October 12: Hortense Darnley; about thirty; no occupation.
Their addresses, except two, were widely scattered throughout the city.
Each of the letters noted the sudden onset of rigor mortis and its rapid passing. Each of them gave the time of death following the initial seizure as approximately five hours. Five of them referred to the changing expressions which had so troubled me; in the guarded way they did it I read the bewilderment of the writers.
"Patient's eyes remained open," recorded the physician in charge of the spinster Bailey. "Staring, but gave no sign of recognition of surroundings and failed to focus upon or present any evidence of seeing objects held before them. Expression one of intense terror, giving away toward death to others peculiarly disquieting to observer. The latter intensified after death ensued. Rigor mortis complete and dissipated within five hours."
The physician in charge of McIlraine, the bricklayer, had nothing to say about the ante-mortem phenomena, but wrote at some length about the expression of his patient's face after death.
"It had," he reported, "nothing in common with the muscular contraction of the so-called 'Hippocratic countenance,' nor was it in any way the staring eyes and contorted mouth familiarly known as the death grin. There was no suggestion of agony, after the death--rather the opposite. I would term the expression one of unusual malice."
The report of the physician who had attended Standish, the acrobat, was perfunctory, but it mentioned that "after patient had apparently died, singularly disagreeable sounds emanated from his throat." I wondered whether these had been the same demonic machinations that had come from Peters, and, if so, I could not wonder at all at my correspondent's reticence concerning them.
I knew the physician who had attended the banker--opinionated, pompous, a perfect doctor of the very rich.
"There can be no mystery as to the cause of death," he wrote. "It was certainly thrombosis, a clot somewhere in the brain. I attach no importance whatever to the facial grimaces, nor to the time element involved in the rigor. You know, my dear Lowell," he added, patronizingly, "it is an axiom in forensic medicine that one can prove anything by rigor mortis."
I would have liked to have replied that when in doubt thrombosis as a diagnosis is equally as useful in covering the ignorance of practitioners, but it would not have punctured his complacency.
The Dimott report was a simple record with no comment whatever upon grimaces or sounds.
But the doctor who had attended little Anita had not been so reticent.
"The child," he wrote, "had been beautiful. She seemed to suffer no pain, but at the onset of the illness I was shocked by the intensity of terror in her fixed gaze. It was like a waking nightmare--for unquestionably she was conscious until death. Morphine in almost lethal dosage produced no change in this symptom, nor did it seem to have any effect upon heart or respiration. Later the terror disappeared, giving way to other emotions which I hesitate to describe in this report, but will do so in person if you so desire. The aspect of the child after death was peculiarly disturbing, but again I would rather speak than write of that."
There was a hastily scrawled postscript; I could see him hesitating, then giving way at last to the necessity of unburdening his mind, dashing off that postscript and rushing the letter away before he could reconsider--
"I have written that the child was conscious until death. What haunts me is the conviction that she was conscious after physical death! Let me talk to you."
I nodded with satisfaction. I had not dared to put that observation down in my questionnaire. And if it has been true of the other cases, as I now believed it must have been, all the doctors except Standish's had shared my conservatism--or timidity. I called little Anita's physician upon the 'phone at once. He was strongly perturbed. In every detail his case had paralleled that of Peters. He kept repeating over and over:
"The child was sweet and good as an angel, and she changed into a devil!"
I promised to keep him apprised of any discoveries I might make, and shortly after our conversation I was visited by the young physician who had attended Hortense Darnley. Doctor Y, as I shall call him, had nothing to add to the medical aspect other than what I already knew, but his talk suggested the first practical line of approach toward the problem.
His office, he said, was in the apartment house which had been Hortense Darnley's home. He had been working late, and had been summoned to her apartment about ten o'clock by the woman's maid, a colored girl. He had found the patient lying upon her bed, and had at once been struck by the expression of terror on her face and the extraordinary limpness of her body. He described her as blonde, blue-eyed--"the doll type."
A man was in the apartment. He had at first evaded giving his name, saying that he was merely a friend. At first glance, Dr. Y had thought the woman had been subjected to some violence, but examination revealed no bruises or other injuries. The "friend" had told him they had been eating dinner when "Miss Darnley flopped right down on the floor as though all her bones had gone soft, and we couldn't get anything out of her." The maid confirmed this. There was a half-eaten dinner on the table, and both man and servant declared Hortense had been in the best of spirits. There had been no quarrel. Reluctantly, the "friend" had admitted that the seizure had occurred three hours before, and that they had tried to "bring her about" themselves, calling upon him only when the alternating expressions which I have referred to in the case of Peters began to appear.
As the seizure progressed, the maid had become hysterical with fright and fled. The man was of tougher timber and had remained until the end. He had been much shaken, as had Dr. Y, by the after-death phenomena. Upon the physician declaring that the case was one for the coroner, he had lost his reticence, volunteering his name as James Martin, and expressing himself as eager for a complete autopsy. He was quite frank as to his reasons. The Darnley woman had been his mistress, and he "had enough trouble without her death pinned to me."
There had been a thorough autopsy. No trace of disease or poison had been found. Beyond a slight valvular trouble of the heart, Hortense Darnley had been perfectly healthy. The verdict had been death by heart disease. But Dr. Y was perfectly convinced the heart had nothing to do with it.
It was, of course, quite obvious that Hortense Darnley had died from the same cause or agency as had all the others. But to me the outstanding fact was that her apartment had been within a stone's throw of the address Ricori had given me as that of Peters. Furthermore, Martin was of the same world, if Dr. Y's impressions were correct. Here was conceivably a link between two of the cases--missing in the others. I determined to call in Ricori, to lay all the cards before him, and enlist his aid if possible.
My investigation had consumed about two weeks. During that time I had become well acquainted with Ricori. For one thing he interested me immensely as a product of present-day conditions; for another I liked him, despite his reputation. He was remarkably well read, of a high grade of totally unmoral intelligence, subtle and superstitious--in olden time he would probably have been a Captain of Condettieri, his wits and sword for hire. I wondered what were his antecedents. He had paid me several visits since the death of Peters, and quite plainly my liking was reciprocated. On these visits he was guarded by the tight-lipped man who had watched by the hospital window. This man's name, I learned, was McCann. He was Ricori's most trusted bodyguard, apparently wholly devoted to his white-haired chief. He was an interesting character too, and quite approved of me. He was a drawling Southerner who had been, as he put it, "a cow-nurse down Arizona way, and then got too popular on the Border."
"I'm for you, Doc," he told me. "You're sure good for the boss. Sort of take his mind off business. An' when I come here I can keep my hands outa my pockets. Any time anybody's cutting in on your cattle, let me know. I'll ask for a day off."
Then he remarked casually that he "could ring a quarter with six holes at a hundred foot range."
I did not know whether this was meant humorously or seriously. At any rate, Ricori never went anywhere without him; and it showed me how much he had thought of Peters that he had left McCann to guard him.
I got in touch with Ricori and asked him to take dinner with Braile and me that night at my house. At seven he arrived, telling his chauffeur to return at ten. We sat at the table with McCann, as usual, on watch in my hall, thrilling, I knew, my two night nurses--I have a small private hospital adjunct--by playing the part of a gunman as conceived by the motion pictures.
Dinner over, I dismissed the butler and came to the point. I told Ricori of my questionnaire, remarking that by it I had unearthed seven cases similar to that of Peters.
"You can dismiss from your mind any idea that Peters' death was due to his connection with you, including the tiny globes of radiance in the blood of Peters."
At that his face grew white. He crossed himself.
"La strega!" he muttered. "The Witch! The Witch-fire!"
"Nonsense, man!" I said. "Forget your damned superstitions. I want help."
"You are scientifically ignorant! There are some things, Dr. Lowell--" he began, hotly; then controlled himself.
"What is it you want me to do?"
"First," I said, "let's go over these eight cases, analyze them. Braile, have you come to any conclusions?"
"Yes," Braile answered. "I think all eight were murdered!"