The Phantom Detective: The Dancing Doll Murders
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by Robert Wallace
Description: Ripped from the pages of the June, 1937 issue of "The Phantom Detective" magazine, here is the lead novel--THE DANCING DOLL MURDERS! Wax manikins leer vicious death threats at the command of a diabolical dealer in murder who employs all his evil arts to war against the keen-witted Phantom, Man of a Thousand Faces!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1937 USA
eBookwise Release Date: July 2008
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [215 KB]
Reading time: 134-188 min.
CHAPTER I KILLERS' MEMENTO
FOUR people stared in frozen fascination at the small dancing figure on the polished table in the century-old home of Esmond Caulder. The thing was a musical doll of German make. It shuffled, pirouetted, arms outstretched stiffly, while a tinkling, monotonous melody came from a music box inside it.
To one in particular of those watching there was something strangely disturbing about the doll. Don Winstead, Caulder's youngest nephew, saw his own features imprinted on that tiny waxen face. His own blond hair, his own petulant mouth, his own high cheek bones and straight nose. It was his very image--his effigy in brief!
And there was something else! Winstead's nostrils flared. An emotion close to horror darkened his eyes. For on the manikin's white shirt front was a lurid stain. A blotchy crimson oval, with hideous spreading tentacles--blood! The macabre effect was completed by a slender dagger no bigger than a broken toothpick that was thrust into the exact center of the spot.
"What's the idea?" his cousin, Eben Gray, asked sardonically. "Your loving sweetie send you this little keepsake of yourself?"
But Don Winstead wasn't smiling. The doll had come in the late mail in a package addressed to him. A premonition of approaching evil slid chill fingers along his back.
"I don't know!" he said thickly. "Stop it! Maybe it's somebody's idea of a joke--but that damn' thing with its bloody shirt front gives me the jitters. This isn't any time to get gay about death!"
The smile was erased from Eben Gray's saturnine face. He and the other heirs of Esmond Caulder stared at each other. Don and his brother, Reggie Winstead, were visibly frightened. The striking Mrs. Orville Tyler, society divorcee, lost her look of perpetual boredom.
Gray reached out and stopped the doll's movements with a swift encircling gesture.
Don Winstead was right! It wasn't any time to get gay about death. Upstairs, old Esmond Caulder lay on his bed in the last excruciating stages of angina pectoris, Each of those present expected to inherit a huge slice of the Caulder fortune; but propriety demanded that they assume long faces and pretend grief at their uncle's approaching end.
Winstead spoke suddenly, addressing Jason Squires, the family lawyer, who had entered from the library.
"Do me a favor, Squires," he muttered, touching the doll. "Wrap this damn' thing up and take it away. I don't even want it around."
Squires, a tall, gaunt-faced man with eyeglasses and thinning hair, nodded politely and picked up the doll. But, even before he could turn, a sudden sound at one of the big windows made him stiffen.
The others stiffened also. A hissing exclamation of terror came from Don Winstead's lips. For the window was sliding open, lifting mysteriously, inexorably, as though an unseen, unknown force outside were pushing it up. And, as they stared in rigid wonder, two men with white handkerchiefs across their faces stepped in out of the dusk.
Only their eyes showed, bright, glittering, alight now with some unholy purpose. They scanned the room quickly. Awkward, sinister weapons were cradled in their claw-like hands.
None of those watching recognized these as the new, deadly Colt Monitor rifles which could send a stream of cupro-nickel slugs screaming through flesh at a rate of many hundred per minute. But the meaning of the guns was plain. Death, terror, menace, had come like a thunderbolt swooping in out of the night!
The strangers moved away from each other. One on each side of the big window, they raised their guns and covered the cowering Caulder heirs. Then another man came in from the early evening darkness. He, too, wore a handkerchief mask; but he was smaller, wiry, apparently unarmed.
There was something mincingly precise about his entrance, like that of a parlor magician about to entertain his friends. He wore light-colored gloves. He reached up abruptly and drew something from one long sleeve of his overcoat, heightening the impression that a sleight-of-hand act was about to be performed.
But there was nothing of parlor magic about the cold steel that shimmered in his fingers. Don Winstead cried out again, cringing back, his face taking on the greyness of drying putty. Even the stunning Mrs. Tyler went as pale as death.
The man with the knife took two mincing steps forward. He raised his arm in a swift parabola, flung the steel so quickly that all the terrified watchers saw was a glittering, flashing streak in space. But they heard the ghostly whir of the bright blade as it fanned the air. Then another sound came--a sickening, hollow thud as a human body blocked its path.
There was a scream from Don Winstead, torn from his quivering throat as though by ripping fingers. The handle of the knife that had come to rest struck awkwardly out of his chest at the left side close to his heart. Red froth drooled from his lips. His eyes rolled wildly. He gave a bubbling gasp, clawed at the air for a moment, and fell forward, striking on his face and driving the knife still deeper.
The killer wiped his gloved hands in a gesture that was done for brutal effect. He turned and minced back to the window, stepped out with the other two armed men. In a moment they were swallowed up in the dim oblong of descending darkness.
The three remaining heirs looked at each other with livid faces. They glanced fearfully at the fallen body of Don Winstead, then at the small figure in Lawyer Squires's hands. They were stunned by the horror of the thing. Stunned--for the hideous, symbolic prophecy of the red-stained dancing doll had been fulfilled!
Squires was first to come to his senses. He flung the door from him as though it were something loathsome. In a half dozen frenzied steps he crossed to a phone on a wall table. An excited operator a mile away connected his trembling voice with Police Headquarters.
Fifteen minutes after the glittering shaft of murderous steel had sailed through the air to bury itself in Don Winstead's heart, black cars filled with plainclothes men and blue-coats were squalling into the Caulder drive. But there was no sign of the killers when mild-faced, bald-headed Inspector Farragut of the Homicide Bureau entered the house.
On the very heels of the police, a small battered coupé with a soiled card bearing the word "Press" stuck in the windshield roared into the drive. It whirled up, almost ripping a fender from the inspector's big sedan. Out of it leaped Steve Huston, small, black-haired, and seemingly omnipresent reporter for the Clarion. As a hell-bent news-hound he had a nose that would make a German police dog growl with envy.
But tonight, in spite of appearances, there was nothing clairvoyant about his arriving so soon. Things had been slow for the past twelve hours. He had paid off an old poker debt he owed the desk sergeant at Headquarters in return for a promise that the sergeant would tip him off if anything big broke. Something had, and Huston had a red-hot appetite for news. He had already got in touch with the city desk and phoned in the first bare details of the murder.
For once his presence was hardly noticed by Inspector Farragut as Huston slipped in through a back door and entered the spacious Caulder home.
For Farragut had picked up the dancing doll. Slowly he wound the key in the back, set it on the table, and let it dance again while the three Caulder heirs cowered back in bulging-eyed terror.
"Stop it, Inspector!" The choked words this time came from Eben Gray.
Against the background of stark, brutal murder there was something weirdly horrible about that spinet-like music. While Winstead lay on the floor dead, a thin crimson line running out from the edge of the knife handle, the small doll made in his likeness danced stiffly to the thin, monotonous melody. It seemed almost a dance of triumph for his murder. Even hard-boiled Steve Huston could feel something akin to horror crawling along his spine.
Mrs. Tyler lost her ultra-smart poise, turned away and gave a smothered sob. The spring in the doll grew slack. Its motions and the music slowed, stopped altogether. The doll gave one last jerky step, then fell forward on its face. The movement was so much like Don Winstead's dying plunge that Reggie, his brother, gave a harsh cry of fright and horror.
Farragut picked the doll up again cautiously, handed it to Detective-sergeant Nelson.
"Go over it for prints, find out where it was made and anything else you can. Sounds like a German music box to me. Contact every German import goods store in the city."
"But the face--"
"I know. It was made here, stuck on after the face that came on it was pulled off. That wig was stuck on, too. I'd think it was a joke, or that some nut had sent it, except for this killing."
Farragut turned on the people present. His notebook was in his hand, and his eyes were sharp as a bird's.
"Now folks," he said loudly, "I want you to describe those men who came in as well as you can. Tell me again exactly what they did."
One after another he got the stories from the three remaining heirs in the Caulder house and from Jason Squires, while Steve Huston listened. But they added little to what was already known.
A white-faced male nurse came tiptoeing into the room presently and said that the sick man upstairs would like to see the inspector. Death had already struck too close for those present to have consideration for the dying. But when Inspector Farragut finished his questioning of the witnesses he turned and followed Caulder's male nurse up the stairs.
Steve Huston, asking permission of no one, slyly slipped out and climbed the carpeted stairs after the inspector.
The door of the sick room was ajar. He got a good view of the man on the death bed.
Esmond Caulder was a ghastly sight under the shaded light. He had lantern jaws almost like those of a skeleton. His nose was hawk-like. The blueness of his thin lips and nostrils made Huston shudder. He had seen the marks of approaching death before.
Caulder half rose and pointed a bony finger at the inspector.
"Don--murdered! Where did those killers go? Why did you let them--"
A convulsive attack of pain twisted his pinched face horribly, made him double up and clasp his chest. The nurse stepped forward to try to make him lie back, but the sick man pushed him away. When he recovered his breath again he said blasphemously to Farragut:
"You stuffed-shirt detectives, damn every one of you! I'll use what strength I've got left to break you if you don't find the men who killed. Go along now--get them!"
Caulder lay back, eyes closed, his chest rising and falling so that it was painful to see. Farragut turned and came toward the door. Steve Huston backed away hastily and hurried downstairs so as not to be caught spying.
It was near the doorway into the murder room that Jason Squires the lawyer, nabbed him. There was a strangely haunted, strangely excited look in Squires's eyes.
"I've seen you in court," he said to Steve hoarsely. "You--you're a reporter." He licked his lips, brought his face closer. "I want to speak to you--I've got something vitally important to ask you right sway."
"Shoot," said Steve. "I'm a guy who's always ready to listen."
"Not here," whispered Squires. "We must talk privately. Come into the den."
He led Huston to a small room off to the left of the library, closed the door tightly. His face was working now. Steve noticed that there were gathering beads of sweat on the lawyer's forehead.
"This killing is horrible!' Squires muttered. "Horrible and mysterious. I'm afraid the police are stumped."
"They're not so dumb," said Huston quickly.
"No--but they haven't an idea what they're up against this time. Not an idea--do you understand? I don't know as any organized group of men can cope with it. It's black as Hell, and fiendishly unnatural." Squire's tongue ran over his thin lips again like a bird dog's. "I wish one man could be found to make investigations. I wish that man they call the Phantom could be called in on the case before--before there's another dreadful killing!"
Steve Husten said nothing. Squires caught hold of his coat with a viselike grip.
"I mean it! This won't be the only murder! There'll be others--others, do you hear? Others!" His grip on Steve's coat tightened. He pulled Steve toward him. "How does one make contact with the Phantom? You're a newspaper man. You get around, hear things, you ought to know."
There was desperate appeal in Squires's voice. The beads of sweat on his forehead had now become little rivulets. But still Steve Huston was silent. Only one man in the world knew who the Phantom was, or just how to get hold of him, and Steve didn't like to divulge that man's identity.
But Squires went on in a voice that almost cracked:
"I don't want my name mentioned to the police. I don't want to be brought into this any more than I am at the moment. I don't want any publicity. But if the Phantom can be located I'm prepared to turn over to him a possible clue to this horrible murder!"