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Death from Nowhere
Don Diavolo Mysteries
By Clayton Rawson
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1943 Stuart Towne
All rights reserved.
Gentleman Under Water
The working dress of the professional gambler is carefully calculated to present an innocent appearance of prosperous but sedate conservatism. The wolf, on duty, wears the camouflage of sheep's clothing.
But Melvin C. Skinner alias John B. Crooks alias R. Wiley Draper alias The Horseshoe Kid was taking the day off. He was, consequently, arrayed in all the glory that is a native Broadwayite's natural plumage. The wolf wore his wolf's clothing, a slickly tailored creation whose bright green checks were so loud they nearly drowned the merry, carefree whistle that issued from their wearer's lips.
The tune was that oldtime circus calliope favorite, It Takes a Long, Tall, Brown-Skinned Gal to Make a Preacher Put His Bible Down and it was rendered with feeling. But suddenly, as Horseshoe turned from Sheridan Square into Fox Street, the melody faded like a phonograph running down.
The Kid's jaunty step lost ninety percent of its spring, and the glad look in his eye was replaced by a wary, suspicious one. The Horseshoe Kid had never cared much for dead-end blind alleys like Fox Street. He felt at ease in direct proportion to the number of available exits. And now, when he lamped the two men who stood idly on the corner in a position to block Fox Street's sole exit, he was quite certain that he didn't like the layout viewed from any angle.
The men were neatly and inconspicuously dressed, broad-shouldered and somewhat flatfooted. They appeared to be deeply engrossed in a Racing Form. But the Horseshoe Kid would have covered all bets at even money that the green sheet was upside down. Whatever interest those two had in horses wasn't quite the sort that would net the bookies any folding scratch.
The Kid had seen both men before — on one of his infrequent and never willing visits to a place called Headquarters in Centre Street.
"Dicks," he said to himself. "And up to no good."
His frown deepened still more when he saw a third detective leaning lazily against the iron rail of the brown stone front just opposite Number 77, his own destination.
Ordinarily under such circumstances, The Kid would have walked on past, detoured, backtracked and faded. But the occupant of 77 was a pal of Horseshoe's, and if he hadn't yet discovered that a pack of bloodhounds was sniffing about his door it was time he was told.
The Horseshoe Kid resumed his whistling again and marched nonchalantly up the steps and let himself in. The house was still and quiet.
"Hey!" Horseshoe called. "Where is everybody?"
Chan Chandar Manchu's slant-eyed Oriental head emerged from the kitchen. "Workshop downstairs," he said. "See if you can get them out. They went down a week ago and they've hardly been up since."
The Horseshoe Kid sailed his hat at Chan who reached out and caught it deftly. Then he went to the rear of the hallway, stood facing a blank wall and clapped his hands three times. A section of the floor beneath his feet dropped rapidly and carried him down out of sight.
"Bargain basement," his voice announced in a bored elevator operator's monotone. "Men's shoes, ladies' underwear, canned goods."
This was Horseshoe's standing joke and it came out each time he used the apparatus as automatically and unfailingly as Karl Hartz' trick gadgets always worked.
But the basement held none of those things. Horseshoe's announcement would have been more accurate had he called, "Machine shop. Bench lathes. Power drills. Magic tricks and illusions made to order." This was Karl's underworld domain, the inner sanctum from which the Mysteries of Diavolo issued. One was being tested now.
At the far end of the room a large glass case some eight feet square stood on a small stage, glittering in the hot glow of a white spot. Its heavy plate glass sides were bound along the edges by thick strips of polished rivet-studded brass. Inside the glass enclosure was a second similar but smaller crystal casket, raised on four slender legs so that it was exactly centered within the outer box. Its top was tightly closed and locked on the outside with a giant padlock and hasp.
And in the very center, within this double cocoon of glass and metal, Horseshoe saw a man manacled with leg irons and handcuffs — Don Diavolo, the Scarlet Wizard. A Don Diavolo who grinned as Horseshoe entered and waved a soundless greeting.
The white-haired Karl Hartz peered through his thick-lensed glasses and turned a valve on the wall at the right. The firehose that curled up and over the edge of the outer casket gurgled and then gushed a steady rushing stream of water. It foamed and bubbled and rose around the inner casket.
When the latter was completely submerged, Karl quickly spun the valve again, hauled the firehose down, and swung the heavy hinged cover of the outer casket into place. He affixed another large padlock. It closed with a decisive, irrevocable snap.
"I hope that inside box is watertight," The Horseshoe Kid said.
"Oh yes," Karl answered. "Watertight — and airtight. Time this for us, will you? We're testing to see if he can get out before his air is gone."
As The Horseshoe Kid glanced at his watch, Karl drew a curtain quickly across the room's end, picked up a fire axe and stood half within the curtained enclosure watching what went on behind it.
"Some people think of the screwiest ways to make a living," the Kid said. "Can I look too?"
"Not unless you want to tangle with this axe," Karl warned. "I've spent six weeks working this stunt out, and for all I know you talk in your sleep."
The Horseshoe Kid waited silently as the minutes ticked by. He watched Karl's face though he knew that was no use. Karl always stood before the curtains holding that axe with a carefully adjusted, worried expression on his face for the benefit of the audience. Horseshoe had seen Diavolo extricate himself from many impossible situations, but this time he thought they were laying it on a bit thick.
The best-laid plans of mice and men have a nasty habit of going haywire. The Kid had heard Don and Karl tell about two or three instances in which, through some unforeseen hitch, Don Diavolo had come within a sliced section of a hair's breadth of having made his last escape.
That brewery challenge escape, for instance, when they had enclosed him in a barrel of bock beer and the alcoholic fumes had nearly overcome Don before he got out. And that other time when a wise guy from the audience had, after Don had gotten into the milkcan full of water, linked its top to one of the handles with a pair of handcuffs whose mechanism had been purposely jammed.
The Horseshoe Kid wasn't a nervous type — gamblers can't be that — but he always breathed easier when these underwater escapes were over.
Six minutes of suspense without an orchestra to fill in seemed twice that long. The Horseshoe Kid finally gave in. "Karl," he said, "you might at least broadcast a ringside description. You could leave out the technical secrets. How's he doing?"
Don Diavolo answered that himself as he flung the curtain aside and stepped forward free of the leg irons, handcuffs, boxes and water. "I'm doing all right," he said. "But we'll have to cut the time a minute or so. Whew! That's hot work."
Horseshoe scowled at the two glass cabinets. They were both still locked, in every respect exactly as they had been — except that the magician was now outside instead of in. What bothered Horseshoe most, however, was the completely jarring fact that the inner casket was still as dry inside as the Sahara Desert. It held nothing at all but the still locked handcuffs and leg irons.
What was more Don Diavolo, except for a forehead that sparkled with perspiration, was also perfectly dry when he should have been soaking wet.
"This is too much," Horseshoe objected. "I wouldn't wonder if Karl here could build a trapdoor even in a sheet of glass, but how the devil do you train that water to stay where it's put and how do you slide through it without even getting damp?"
"That's easy." Don grinned, the dark eyes in his handsome bronzed face shining with an impish twinkle. "Karl has invented a way to build a trapdoor in water too. The Famous Hartz Liquid Trapdoor. He's going to put a home model on the market for people who lose track of their soap in the bath. Place your order now."
"Couldn't use one," Horseshoe said, "I take showers. When are you unveiling this super super escape?"
"Next Monday." Don seated himself on a workbench and lit a cigarette. "Now that the Music Hall engagement is finished for the season we're taking the act out on the road. The Escape From the Double Crystal Water Casket is going to be the feature number. Our elephant vanish is too big to lug around the country. Freight charges would eat half our profits and the elephant would eat the rest."
Thoughtfully, The Horseshoe Kid looked at a deck of cards that lay on the workbench. He picked it up and dealt himself four aces. Then he asked, "Sure about that, are you? Going on the road Monday, I mean?"
Don gave him a quick glance. "Contract's signed. Why did you ask that?"
"Well." Horseshoe dealt himself a flush in Spades. "I was just thinking that you might have to do an escape that isn't booked before you get away. The street outside is lousy with detectives. One in front, two more at the corner. Do you have a Flit-gun handy?"
"Detectives?" Don lifted an eyebrow. "I don't get that. Karl and I have been holed up in this workshop for the last week, ever since we finished at the Music Hall. We haven't even had a chance to violate as much as a traffic ordinance. I—"
Behind them the elevator descended. Don's dresser, chef, and general handyman, Chan, hurried toward them. "The bank just phoned," he reported. "That Hagenbaugh check for the guillotine illusion. He stopped payment on it."
Don turned quickly to Karl. "Did the crates go out?"
Karl nodded. "Yeah, sure. Day before yesterday, after Chan had deposited the check."
"Did I hear you say Hagenbaugh?" The Horseshoe Kid wanted to know. "Would you mean R.J. by any chance?"
"We would," Don replied, his face dark. "R.J. Hagenbaugh, owner of Whitetops, Inc. The blank, blankety, blank-blank —"
"How much did he take you for?"
"He didn't take me. He took Karl. It was Karl's gadget. Blast the man! He could double for the boy in the Indian Basket Trick with no practice at all. He's so crooked the swords would go through the basket right past him and he wouldn't even get a close shave. He phoned the other day and ordered this guillotine illusion he'd heard Karl had worked up. Knowing him, I told Karl to ask for spot cash. And we didn't send out the goods until the check was in the bank. But he times it just right and stops payment. Damn the—"
"What's all the excitement about?" Horseshoe asked. "You can get the illusion back, can't you?"
"Sure," Karl said glumly. "It's probably on its way now. But in the meantime Hagenbaugh has had a draughtsman make working drawings. He'll shoot those to the Outdoor Amusement Supply House which he owns and they'll make up half a dozen of the illusions for what he would have paid me for one. And they'll probably list it in their next catalog too."
"But you've got it patented, haven't you?" Horseshoe asked.
"No." Don indicated the Crystal Water Casket. "Look at that," he said. "Suppose I patented it. Know what would happen? Any newspaper reporter or magazine writer who wanted to write an exposé could send his ten cents to the patent department and get himself a complete description of the secret. Magic doesn't get patented because, it if did, it wouldn't stay mysterious." He turned to Karl. "I've been in this workshop too long. I need exercise and I'm spoiling for a good scrap. I'm going down and pick one with Hagenbaugh."
He started for the elevator, an angry glint in his eye.
Karl said, "That won't do any good."
"I know," Don threw back, "but I'm going to enjoy it."
"Then I'm coming," Karl insisted, starting after him.
Don stopped. He shook his head.
"Oh no, you aren't. You need sleep and there's still a good twenty-four hours of final adjustment work on that escape. It's got to be ready for last-minute rehearsals Sunday and packed to go Sunday night. I can't afford to have you step into any left hooks at a time like this. You go get some sleep. Those are orders."
"And how," Karl inquired, "can a show go on if the star performer picks up a black eye or a cracked rib? Hagenbaugh'll probably holler, 'Hey, Rube' and his whole office force will land on you."
But Don didn't answer. The elevator had whisked him up out of sight before Karl had half finished. Chan and Horseshoe brought it down again and followed after him.
"At your age," The Horseshoe Kid called after Don who had gone on to the second floor to wash up, "you should know better. R.J. spent twenty years on circus and carnie grift. A two-way store's the only kind he knows how to run. He could always get more return out of a lousy creeper than any lucky boy I ever met. Back in '32 on the old Anneman show he took three grand off a chump out in Beaver Falls, Pa. Then he put him on the send for another five G's. The mark 'borrowed' that from his firm hoping to use it to win back his original stake. He took a ten-year rap for embezzlement. When you do business with R. J. you should know enough to look for the gaff."
Chan Chandar Manchu's classical Oxford education had its weak points. It failed him now, completely. "Two-way store?" he murmured in a perplexed tone. "Creeper? Gaff?"
"A gambling concession, my boy," Horseshoe explained, "is a store — a store that sells excitement. But that's all. When the store's gaffed, it's fixed so you can't win. A two-way store works both ways, gaffed and fair, in case the operator might have to take a chance and be on the up and up for a few plays when the fuzz is in the tip. A creeper is a gaffed spindle — the old arrow game. So simple it doesn't look as if it could be gimmicked, but it can always stop on the numbers that'll do the most damage to the chumps — unless, of course, the operator is letting the sticks make a play for the come on. Understand?"
Chan's slanted eyes blinked. "Every now and then light of understanding penetrates dimly. Especially when you remember to speak English language."
Don Diavolo came down the stairs two at a time, grabbed his hat and took a squint out the front window at the dick who still loitered across the street. He threw a puzzled look at The Horseshoe Kid.
"I seem to remember that face," he said. "I think he's from Inspector Church's office. And that would seem to indicate nothing less than murder."
"Don't look at me," the Kid responded. "Mother always told me never to do anything the homicide squad would get excited about. I've always remembered that."
"So have I," Don said. "Oh well, maybe it's the old maid with the chow that lives next door. Are you coming? I'm going up and bite Hagenbaugh."
Horseshoe shook his head. "Uh-uh. I'm not that hungry." He looked at Chan. "But I am thirsty. I'll stay long enough for one of those East Indian what-you-ma-callems that Chan serves up and then, if the cops have run off after you, I'll cop a lam. I don't like the neighborhood around here. My rheumatism tells me that hell of some sort is going to pop."
"Okay then," Don said. "See you later. With R.J.'s scalp — what there is of it."
Outwardly, Don was his usual lighthearted, carefree self. But the way he slammed the door behind him indicated that inwardly he was madder than a hive of wet hornets. As he hurried down the steps he was mentally trying to compose a few sentences whose edges would be sharp enough to penetrate the thick hide of R.J. Hagenbaugh.
He might not have hurried so fast, however, could he have foreseen that the situation into which he was plunging was going to prove even more difficult of escape than the Double Crystal Water Casket itself — and far more dangerous.
But Don Diavolo could hardly have suspected that then. Another ten minutes was to elapse before something more deadly than words had penetrated quite thoroughly into the circus owner's thick hide — something whose edge was very sharp indeed.
Excerpted from Death from Nowhere by Clayton Rawson. Copyright © 1943 Stuart Towne. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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