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No Coffin for the Corpse
A Great Merlini Mystery
By Clayton Rawson
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1942 Clayton Rawson
All rights reserved.
I Meet a Dragon
I was on duty the first time I tangled with Dudley T. Wolff. The New York Evening Press city editor had given me a special assignment to do a series of feature stories on the defense program. My investigation into the subject of bottlenecks and their causes led me to the Wolff Chemical Corporation, makers of smokeless powder and the various other unstable commodities that are used as filling for bombs and shells. I soon discovered that I had a headline yarn in my lap—and a bull by the tail.
Dudley Wolff was the bull. When my copy hit the front pages from here to the coast and back again he took one quick look and exploded with the same dull thunderous roar his factory would have made had I touched a match to it.
This was no surprise to anyone who knew him. I could have rattled off a column or two of descriptive copy on his reaction well in advance. I had interviewed the lion in his den and I knew very well that tagging him in print as a crusty, blustering old industrial pirate with a whim of armor plate—which he was—would get repercussions. But that was no skin off my hide.
The Evening Press didn't mind. If Vesuvius was for sale, they'd buy it, set it up in the composing-room, and object if it didn't perform daily. Their publishing theory was simple: Explosions build circulation.
Dudley Wolff, however, was something special in the volcano line. He had a long and devastating record of eruptions. More than one of them had, on occasion, rocked the Stock Exchange to its foundations and reduced the opposition of some very hard-boiled Wall Street financiers to crisp black ashes. Dudley was a self-made man who didn't know when to stop.
His boyhood years had been spent in the Chicago stockyard district where poverty had caused him to formulate the general rule: Cut the other guy's throat before he cuts yours. And, though this system had lately hit a few snags, in the pre-New Deal era when business had gone its own merry way, it had worked successfully enough for Wolff. It had also resulted in making him as domineering, ruthless, and dictatorial as a twenty-ton tank. And twice as flattening.
The second time I met him, however, the battle was fought on my home grounds. The city editor certainly hadn't sent me out to date Kathryn Wolff. That was my own idea. The only story in it was a very old one, headline news with me, but not with our readers. I wasn't the Duke of Windsor.
The defense-program story would have blown over eventually and Wolff would have forgotten all about a reporter whose by-line read: Ross Harte. But what had happened to Kathryn and myself showed no sign of blowing over. On the contrary it had reached the point of window shopping for a ring. Dudley Wolff wanted to forget me though. He began by trying to get rid of me.
Kay and I had both heard that old one about the course of true love being rocky and replete with hairpin turns. Neither of us believed that any such whiskered adage could possibly apply to us. But when Wolff discovered what was going on we found out differently. He promptly supplied so many bumps that the course of our affections seemed to have been laid out by a hard-drinking rollercoaster designer.
Dudley, it developed, had a rigid set of specifications that must be met by any suitor for his daughter's hand. On my first test run I checked in with a score of zero minus.
"That young scandalmonger," Wolff had roared in his best howitzer manner, "certainly has his nerve! He libels me in print and then thinks it would be nice if he married my daughter! Is he crazy? Or does he think I am? Can't you see what his game is, Kathryn? He has the social background of a flea and a reporter's salary. He wants to marry money. But he won't. Not this trip! I don't want to hear him mentioned again! Do you understand?"
Kathryn, having inherited her due share of the Wolff temper, very nearly did some blowing up of her own. Nearly, but not quite. She knew from past experience that this was an instance where a more subtle strategy was needed. Open opposition would only intensify his determination. Quickly, before she should burst out and tell him what she thought of such medieval, highhanded behavior, she turned and walked out on him.
He got what he asked for, too. He heard nothing more from her about me for the time being. But Kay was as stubborn as her father. We saw each other just as much as ever, in fact, rather more. And we discussed, though without much success, ways and means of undermining the Wolff dictatorship. What we really needed was a mechanized division or two, complete with antitank guns and flame throwers.
The odds against us, in the meantime, climbed steadily. As a direct result of my all-out reportorial attack on the Wolff Chemical Corporation and its methods, the Senate Munitions Committee had summoned Dudley to Washington and laid down a barrage of embarrassing questions. Our Capitol correspondent reported that he hadn't had so much fun since the Louis-Schmeling fight. But neither Kay nor I was amused. And the evening of the day on which her father returned from this fracas was definitely not one of the moments we had discussed as being favorable to a reopening of the matter of our engagement. Unluckily, that is just when it came up.
I had gone out to the Wolff estate, some twenty-five miles from New York near Mamaroneck, to get Kay. Theater passes, wangled from the drama editor, were in my pocket. The house was built close by the edge of Long Island Sound at the end of a long drive that curved sinuously up from the gatehouse on the Post Road. It pretended to be an English Gothic manor though it was not to the manner born, but had, instead, been built in the 20's according to one of the standard sets of blueprints that the more conservative architectural firms of the day dusted off whenever a self-made millionaire walked in and said, "I want a house."
The landscape architect had likewise used a common or garden-variety planting design. He had placed a tight girdle of conical evergreens about the house which, in the course of time, had grown until they now resembled a horde of fat-bellied elves in high, pointed hats who crowded close about and peered in at the lower-floor windows.
The Wolff house did not have the usual swimming pools both upstairs and down. It was the medium size for millionaires with families of three, plus servants; but it was still, at least for my taste, too big to look hospitable. The inky starless sky and the biting February wind that swirled thin, icy flakes of snow around it were no help either. Nor was Phillips, the butler.
When he opened the door and found me on the stoop, an undercurrent of doubt disturbed the smooth, pink surface of his professional poker face. He hesitated perceptibly before he said, "I'll tell Miss Kathryn that you are here."
I didn't blame him much. He was in a spot too. Dudley Wolff had obviously ordered him to put out the smallpox sign when I showed, while Kathryn had insisted that he let me in.
Then she came down the stairs. I forgot Phillips, Dudley Wolff, the weather, and the expensively interior-decorated gloom that filled the house. The shining welcome in her eyes and the quick, glad way she came to greet me made me forget a lot of things, including, as we turned to go, my hat. It wasn't February any more; it was spring. And when, just outside the door, away from Phillips's eagle eye, she put her face up to be kissed, it was June.
Kay, as far as I was concerned, was just what the doctor ordered. She was blond with deep sea-blue eyes that sparkled like Long Island Sound in yachting season. Unaffected by a too close association with an almost criminal amount of wealth, she actively disliked the social whirl that was supposed to go with it. Horses, café society, Philadelphia weddings bored her. She much preferred maneuvering an Atlantic-class sailboat with an expert touch that had netted her a shiny collection of racing cups. She was also a pushover for anything that went on behind footlights.
Her father had discovered these variations from the norm when he had tried to apply the customary coat of finishing-school education at the Misses Taylor's Select School for Girls. Kay, allergic to anything resembling a pink tea, had nearly finished the Taylor sisters instead. The breaking point came during a rehearsal for the Dramatic Society's year-end show when, for the private amusement of the cast, she substituted for her scheduled Ruth Draper sketch, "Bon Voyage," an original impersonation of her own titled "It Takes Nine Taylors to Make a Man." This Thespian broadside, directed at a couple of stuffed shirtwaists, with an utter lack of Daisy Chain decorum and all the subtlety of a custard pie, landed in the midst of a hush like the one that comes just before an executioner throws the switch. The Taylor sisters themselves had unexpectedly entered, as they so often did, at precisely the wrong moment.
Kay, who recognized a climax when she saw it, beat her victims to the draw by catching the next train out of town. It was two weeks before her father's private detectives found her up to her neck in grease paint at a Connecticut summer theater. Dudley, on that occasion, had for once given in and permitted her enrollment at a dramatic school. But she still didn't have him tamed quite as thoroughly as we could have wished. The subject of marriage was one on which he had decided to stand no nonsense—meaning me.
As we went out and down the wide steps toward the Drive-It-Yourself jalopy I had waiting, a long gleaming Rolls floated up the drive. We didn't notice until too late.
When Kay saw it, her hand tightened on mine and her voice had a faintly hollow sound. "Hold your hat, darling. Here it comes!"
I saw the car's occupant get out. I groaned. "I thought it was in Washington!"
"He was," Kay replied. "But the Inquisition recessed for the week-end. I thought we'd get away before he came."
"He'll be in a lovely mood after the going over Senator Budge gave him this morning. Do you have a bomb shelter?"
Mood was no word for it. Why the snow did not melt for a radius of thirty feet around when Wolff saw me don't know. I halt expected jonquils and tulips to pop up at any moment. It was just as well that they stayed put. They were safer underground.
Wolff's scowl as he moved toward us was sulphurous. He was short, stocky, as dynamic as high-voltage current and harder to handle. What he lacked in stature he made up in thunder. He started talking ten feet away, rather like the first act of Aïda, elephants and all.
"I thought I told you, Kathryn, that I did not want to see this—this young man again?"
Kay's small square chin stuck out defiantly. She wasn't walking out on him this time. It was the pay-off.
"No." She shook her head. "That wasn't what you said. You didn't want to hear any more about him. You haven't."
"And I don't intend to!" The glance Wolff turned on me felt as if it had been reflected, en route, from an iceberg. His voice had dropped to fifty or sixty below zero too. "I want to see you a moment, Mr. Harte. In my study. Now!"
It was an imperial command issued with just as much assurance as though there were an official executioner on duty to compel obedience. Wolff turned and started up the steps.
Kay's voice, taut and just as determined, stopped him. "Ross is taking me to the theater. We're late. It will be much more convenient if you ask him for an appointment tomorrow."
This was a frank declaration of war. The thought of Dudley T. Wolff requesting an appointment of anyone short of a Supreme Court justice was so fantastic as to be heretical. From now on no quarter would be asked, or expected. Hell was going to pop.
Wolff gave his daughter a long steady look. The bulldog line of his jaw was grim. His black, jutting eyebrows bristled ominously.
"You sound serious about this," he said.
Kay stood her ground. "I am."
Wolff turned to me. "Unfortunately she's of age. She thinks she knows what she wants. She's wrong, and if I have anything to say about it—"
"But, since I am of age," Kay cut in, "do you have anything to say about it?"
He ignored that. "Are you stubborn too, Harte?"
I nodded. "I can be."
"All right. We know where we stand. In those articles of yours, you said I was stubborn. I'll show you what the word means. Kathryn inherits a few million dollars at my death. Tomorrow morning I'll change that. She'll get it only provided she sees nothing more of you. Still stubborn?"
When Dudley Wolff rolled up his sleeves, he didn't fool. I tried to throw a little oil on the waters.
"It's Kay I happen to be interested in, Mr. Wolff. Not her inheritance."
He wasn't having any. "You'd say that, of course. But with your salary and prospects you can't avoid being interested in—"
Kay was mad now. "Father," she said quickly. "You might as well face it. You're stopped this time—cold. You can leave the money to Anne, or to a home for cats. But I've taken all the orders I can stand. In case you haven't noticed, I don't wear pigtails and short dresses now. Come on, Ross. We'll miss the first curtain."
This did stop Wolff—for nearly two seconds. He realized now, for the first time I think, that Kay really was serious. Then he led trumps.
"Kathryn, if you leave here now, with him, you won't be coming back."
It was a line straight out of a bad play. But it sounded real enough when he said it. I really think he meant it.
Kay's eyes, even in that dim light, flashed. Her white face, framed by the bright scarf tied around her blond hair and the high collar of the mink coat, was as grimly determined in its own way as her father's had ever been. Bluff or not she called it.
"That's plain enough, Ross," she said. "I seem to be on my own from here. Does your offer still hold?"
"License in the morning at nine," I said, "if you're quite sure—"
"I'm sure," she smiled, taking my hand.
But Dudley Wolff wouldn't admit he was licked. "And then what?" he asked. "Perhaps I had better tell you something you don't know about yourself, Harte. That salary I mentioned a moment ago. You don't have it any more. You've been fired!"
This was so unexpected that I blinked at him for a moment, uncomprehending. Then, suddenly, a mental skyrocket zoomed up and burst in my head. The lights it made were not pretty ones.
"So that's it," I said. "You're J. H. Wilson?"
He nodded. "Yes."
Kay, bewildered, asked, "Ross, what—"
I told her. "Your father does things in a big way. The editorial policy of the Press seems to have got under his skin. A mysterious Mr. Wilson, the little man nobody seems to know, has been busy as a bee the last week or so buying up stock in the Press Publishing Company. He's been trying hard to get control, money no object. Apparently he has succeeded."
Wolff's reply was twice as confident as an old time oilstock prospectus. "I always succeed," he said.
"You mean you nearly always have," Kay contradicted. "But this time—Come on, Ross. We're going to be busy." She started for the car.
I made my mistake then. I stopped her. "Wait, Kay. Take it slow. I'm not so sure you realize just what goes on here. The Harte bank account would go blue in the face and collapse under the strain without that weekly check to relieve the pressure. Somehow I don't seem to have done any long-range financial planning for this sort of an emergency. And you're used to eating regularly—"
Excerpted from No Coffin for the Corpse by Clayton Rawson. Copyright © 1942 Clayton Rawson. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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