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THE GIRL AND THE GUN
My first reaction was cynical—an ad like that must be a publicity stunt; it was far too good to be true. I turned to the theatrical section and began reading. But it was no go; the haunted house won out. I turned back and read the ad again:
WANTED TO RENT: Haunted House, preferably in rundown condition. Must be adequately supplied with interesting ghost. Write details, location, history, price. K492 World-Telegram.
There just might be a story in it. So I phoned a friend on the Telegram city desk.
"Could you use a drink after work, Ted?" I asked. "It's on me."
"Sounds fair enough, Ross. My trick's over at eleven. See you at Joe's. And now go away; I'm busy. There's a four-alarm fire, a love nest, and two wars."
But quickly before he could hang up, I said, "In the meantime ask your Classified Department who Box K492 is."
He took time out to think it over. Then he said slowly, "Uh-huh. I get it. Bribery. Just for that I've a good notion not to tell you. You mean the haunted house with the hot and cold running ghosts, don't you?"
"Oh." Disappointment sneaked up on me from behind. "You're on to it then?"
"Well, we don't sleep all the time; this is a newspaper office. I thought about putting a man on it, but when I found out who'd inserted it I didn't bother. Looks like publicity. Though, if you're interested, maybe—"
"What do you mean, 'if I'm interested, maybe—'?"
"Well, you should know. K492 is a friend of yours. The Great Merlini."
I quickly brought the shock absorbers into play; then, flatly as possible, answered, "Too bad. I thought if it was on the up-and-up it might be interesting. See you at eleven."
But I knew if Merlini was advertising for a haunted house, it wasn't a gag and it would be interesting. Ted, however, didn't give my acting a passing mark. A half hour later the reporter he had sent was leaving Merlini's shop just as I arrived.
The lettering on the frosted glass panel of the door read: THE MAGIC SHOP—Miracles for Sale—A. Merlini, Prop. The Great Merlini can supply you with "hosts of ghosts" of any desired description and to fit any occasion. The only cabalistic ritual necessary consists in crossing his palm with the specified catalogue price, which covers the cost of luminous paint, cheesecloth, mailing, overhead, and allows for a fair margin of profit.
Merlini is the black sheep of the famous family of Riding Merlinis, ace circus equestrians for five generations. Spending all his practice time as a boy in the company of the sideshow magician, he dealt a nearly mortal blow to the family pride when he failed to master the back somersault from horse to horse. From the first the acrobatics that fascinated him were the subtler nimble-fingered ones of sleight-of-hand.
A year or two ago, after a farewell world tour, he retired from active professional magic and, using his inventive ability to contrive new and ever more practical means for shattering all the immutable laws of physics, he devoted himself to supplying magicians with miracles to order. If you desired to levitate a lady in mid-air, pierce her through and through with swords, bisect her visibly with a buzz saw, stretch her to twice her length, burn her alive, or make her instantly vanish, all without harm, he would quote you prices, either for blueprints or for the finished apparatus in tested working order. His own personal methods for producing bowls of goldfish from thin air, baking cakes in borrowed hats, walking through brick walls, causing mentally selected cards to rise from a deck, escaping from bolted coffins, and growing fully matured rosebushes in three minutes were used by many of the magicians for whom his shop served as a meeting place and unofficial clubroom. Entering Merlini's shop on a day when his conjuring customers had foregathered there was like stepping into some Arabian Nights Never-Never Land where, at the slightest provocation, anything might happen—and did.
There were none of them there this afternoon—only Burt Fawkes, Merlini's shop assistant—but things happened just the same. Merlini, I half suspect, had hired Burt partly because of the prestige of having on the premises a possible descendant of the Bartholomew's Fair conjurer, the illustrious Isaac Fawkes. Burt is a magician in his own way, an odd little Believe-it-or-Not sort of man with a long face, a wide grin, and a remarkable body made of some special substance having about twice the elasticity of rubber. In his younger days as a carnival contortionist he was billed as TWISTO, The Man Who Turns Himself Inside Out.
He was surrounded now by all the brightly colored and oddly assorted paraphernalia of illusion. Skulls and opera hats, balls and ribbons and gaily painted boxes, silk handkerchiefs, steel rings and giant playing cards—everything a magician's heart could desire short of a genuine wishing ring or the original Aladdin's Lamp. The shop's mascot, Peter Rabbit, eyed me suspiciously as I entered and then resumed his excited nibbling on a carrot.
"Where's the boss, Burt?" I asked. "And how's the haunted real estate business?"
Burt beamed at me. "Maybe there is something in telepathy," he said. "I've been phoning you all day. Don't you ever go home?"
"Not lately, no," I explained. "That damned revue opens Monday. The apartment's only five minutes walk from the theater, and they make me stay at a hotel so I'll be handy if someone wants a blackout rewritten at four in the morning. I manage a nap now and then in two seats on the aisle, fifth row center. Ever try to sleep curled around a chair arm?"
"Nothing to it," he said, grinning. "You're free now?"
"No. Wish I were. I'm just out on probation. They may want a brand new second curtain before night. This is positively the last time—why did you ask that?"
"Merlini," Burt began in a conspirational tone of voice that sounded promising, "wants you—" He stopped.
The door opened and let in an unusual customer—if that's what she was. A magic shop's clientele is almost exclusively male; the few customers of the other sex are mostly shifty-eyed, sometimes seedy-looking, middle-aged dames who want to see crystal-gazing balls and the latest thing in trick slates.
But this was a trim, streamlined model with an enticing blond color scheme and a figure that was tops even for Broadway. The deep blue of the eyes held a thoroughly deceptive innocence, betrayed by the alert knowing way she used them and by the faintly cynical twist of the full mouth. Gold lights glinted softly in the trickily upswept hair that was topped by a gay lunatic hat, an upside down contraption that couldn't possibly have remained where it was but for the ribbon which descended and tied neatly beneath a small determined chin. A definite hint of nervous strain in her expression and in the quick way he moved only added to the total effect. My reaction was definitely yes.
She addressed Burt and her voice, though easy to listen to, was intent and anxious. "Is Merlini in?"
Nearly undone by this unheralded apparition, Burt blinked. "Yes—" he said, "I mean no. I'm sorry. He's not here."
She frowned impatiently. "I'm Miss Sigrid Verrill. I phoned earlier. When do you expect him?"
"Oh, yes. I've been trying to get him for you. I left word one or two places, but he hasn't called back yet."
"But won't he stop in again before evening? I thought he was usually here."
"He is, but this week's an exception. He might be back but I wouldn't guarantee it. He didn't say he would."
She looked down at the glass counter top, but without seeing the curious objects displayed there. "I must reach him," she said earnestly. "I must talk to him—before tonight. Can you try again? Please. It's very important."
"Well—yes. But he's hard to track down. He should be at Madison Square Garden. He's practically been living there all week. But—"
"Oh. The circus. I might have guessed." She thought a moment. "I'll go over. I must find him. But will you try, too? If I miss him I'll come back."
"Hadn't you better wait here?" Burt suggested. "That's a lot of circus. And if he is there, he might be anywhere—backstage, up on a catwalk, sitting on the 'blues' with a bag of peanuts, or making friends with a lion."
Merlini, with all that pink lemonade running in his veins and the circus performers swinging from every branch of his family tree, reverts to type every spring.
Miss Verrill produced half a smile. It was nice, what there was of it. "I know my way around a circus," she said. "And I know Merlini. He's probably with the elephants. But phone, too, and try hard. We must get him."
Burt took the phone, his masculine defenses obliterated by that half-smile.
"I'll do my best."
"Good. And thanks. If I can't find him, and if you do get him, hang on to him. I'll be back. Five-thirty."
I was busy watching the way she walked toward the door, and I didn't start up until it had closed behind her.
"You might have introduced me, Burt," I said, leaving. "It would have made it simpler."
"Hey!" he shouted. "Where are you going?"
"Circus. The lady needs an escort. Lions and tigers and things, you know. Dangerous. Besides, I want to see Merlini myself."
"Oh, no, you don't!" He leaned quickly out over the counter and caught my arm. "One more move and I turn on the jujitsu. Merlini told me to get you; and, after all the phoning I did, you don't escape like that."
I started to object and then heard the clang of the elevator door down the hall.
"Besides," he went on mysteriously, "I think you'll see her again. Tonight."
He turned back to the phone.
"Never a dull moment," I said. "And I get glimpses of wheels within wheels. What is going on around here? Talk."
"I wish I knew. Hello. Men's dressing-room, please.... Hello. Oh, it's you, Frank. Good. Burt speaking. Haven't you seen Merlini around there yet? ... Well, try and round him up for me, will you? I'm pretty sure he's there somewhere. It's important. Have him call back right away.... I don't know. Page him or something. But get him. And hurry."
Burt replaced the receiver, scowled thoughtfully at the wall a moment, and then turned to me.
"Skelton Island," he muttered. "Everyone wants him out there. There's more in this haunted house than meets the eye."
"Probably why it's haunted," I cracked. "Who wants him out there? What is this haunted house motif anyway? Who is the gal? What do you mean by—"
"I don't know. Nothing, except that Merlini's been nosing through Skelton Island history at the library all this last week. Then, because the big show hits town, he dropped everything like he does every year. And now—when he was in here for a few minutes this morning, long enough to look at the mail and dictate a letter to that amateur magician in El Paso who couldn't escape from the milk can we sent him—Colonel Watrous blows in. Remember him?"
"Sure. The eminent spook authority. But—"
"They went into a huddle and I overheard stray words like 'haunted house' and 'Skelton Island.' Ten minutes after Merlini and the Colonel go out Miss Verrill phones. She gives me her number—East River exchange. That's Skelton Island again. I wish I were going out there tonight with you."
"You. Merlini left orders to locate you, and tell you to meet him at nine sharp, East River, foot of 44th Street. You're to wear dark clothes, bring your camera loaded with infra-red film and this." He took a suitcase from the floor behind the counter and pushed it at me. "You'll find some of those extra high-powered flash bulbs in there—the ones Merlini uses for séance work. You're to fit your flash gun with the Wratten 82-A filter and—" The phone rang, and Burt jumped for it.
"Maybe that's him now."
"If it is," I said, "I want to talk to him. I can't put a foot off Broadway until after that show opens. About as much chance as this rabbit has of pulling Merlini out of a top hat. It can't be done!"
Burt, at the phone, smiled and glanced up at Merlini's business slogan tacked on the wall: Nothing Is Impossible. Then, listening, he scowled and after a moment spoke into the phone. "Yes. He was here, but he may have gone. Just a minute. I'll see. Who's calling?" He put a hand over the mouthpiece, hesitated a fraction of a second, and then turned to me slowly. "It's for you. The theater. But—before you take it—Merlini said you were to bring this, too."
From beneath the counter near the cash register he brought out a shiny black object and slid it toward me across the counter.
It was a .32 automatic.
"And be careful," he added. "It's loaded."
I blinked at it and then at Burt. "Dammit, I can't—"
Burt cut me off. "Miss Verrill," he said slyly. "Haunted houses are lots more dangerous than circuses. Lions and tigers aren't in it."
I hesitated and was lost.
Burt spoke into the phone again, one eye on me. "Mr. Harte's gone. I tried to catch him at the elevators but just missed him.... No, he didn't say.... Yes. I'll tell him if he should come back."
I put the gun in my pocket.CHAPTER 2
I tried hard to pump more information from Burt, but he insisted he had told me all he knew. "Merlini," he said, "likes to spring his own surprises, you know that."
He had me there; so I gave up. Besides the whole affair had rather the flavor of my favorite shocker plot, the one that begins when the mysterious, shapely, heavily veiled damsel slips the Rajah's rubies or maybe the Coast Defense plans into the hero's hand, whispers throatily, "Tonight. The password is Caviar"—and promptly vanishes. In such cases it doesn't do to know too much at the start; it might spoil the story.
I stopped at a photographic supply store on 42nd Street and got a roll of Infra-D film and the filter Burt had specified. These two uncanny examples of modern black magic make possible the paradox of photography in complete darkness. The filter absorbs all the visible light, allowing only that from the invisible infra-red band of the spectrum to pass through. The film, sensitized for that special purpose, registers this "black light" that the human eye cannot see.
I wondered if Merlini expected to meet an infra-red ghost.
When I reached my apartment on East 40th Street, I tested out my flash gun, loaded the film into my Contax, and added them, with a roll or two of Super XX and some ordinary No. 2 flash bulbs, to the contents of the suitcase. I found that Merlini's other contributions consisted of flashlights, lampblack, a ball of twine, thumbtacks—ghost-laying equipment evidently—a quart of Scotch, soda siphon, a nested set of cups, and a box lunch. It looked as if he intended to make a night of it, and I realized that a few hours of shut-eye would be a smart opening gambit on my part.
The phone rang as I was undressing and continued to do so for nearly five minutes. When it had stopped, I removed the receiver from the hook and got into bed. There were only four hours until nine o'clock, instead of the 14 I needed. I made the most of them.
The alarm did its level best and almost failed. I heard the last tired ring just as it gave up. With a Napoleonic effort of will I crawled out and, eyes still closed, steered a blind course for the bathroom. I got under the shower, took a deep breath, and turned the cold water on full.
Twenty minutes later I left the house, hesitated at a lunch bar long enough for a quick bite, and then walked over to 42nd Street. I was about to hail a cab when I remembered my date with Ted. The phone booths in the drugstore on the corner were all in use. I went on into Grand Central Station and toward the booths at the end of the Lexington Avenue arcade. Since I couldn't get both myself and the rather bulky suitcase into a booth simultaneously, I left it just outside. I dropped my nickel in the slot and dialed.
Excerpted from Footprints on the Ceiling by Clayton Rawson. Copyright © 1939 Clayton Rawson. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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