The Headless Lady

The Headless Lady

by Clayton Rawson

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A circus owner’s murder produces a roster of bizarre suspects

Summer heat is choking New York, and the Great Merlini—conjurer, sleuth, and godson of P. T. Barnum—offers his friend Ross Harte a chance to get out of town. Before they can depart for the annual convention of the Society of American Magicians, a nervous woman enters


A circus owner’s murder produces a roster of bizarre suspects

Summer heat is choking New York, and the Great Merlini—conjurer, sleuth, and godson of P. T. Barnum—offers his friend Ross Harte a chance to get out of town. Before they can depart for the annual convention of the Society of American Magicians, a nervous woman enters Merlini’s shop, begging to purchase his most popular illusion: the headless lady. When the magician refuses to sell his last copy, she steals it. She is the daughter of Major Hannum, a recently deceased circus magnate whose death may not have been an accident. Somewhere among the carnies, barkers, and freaks lurks a killer, and only Merlini can save the carnival from further bloodshed. The killer’s plot is as sly as a funhouse mirror, but no detective is more at home in a world where nothing is what it seems.

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Great Merlini Mysteries
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The Headless Lady

A Great Merlini Mystery

By Clayton Rawson

Copyright © 1940 Clayton Rawson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-5685-5


Two-Headed Girl

"Ladeez And Gentulmen: In just about sixty minutes or one hour tickets to the big show will go on sale in the red ticket wagon directly across the show grounds. In the meantime, the management presents for your edification, mystification and amusement ..."

During the night Manhattan Island had apparently slipped its moorings, drifted southward with incredible speed, and come to rest somewhere off the coast of Equatorial Africa. The great city lay submerged like a lost Atlantis beneath the heavy waves of hot moist atmosphere that all day had moved slowly in from the steaming ocean. The blazing tropical sun was nearer. Even the tall solidity of the buildings seemed limp and jelly-like as their outlines wavered in the damp haze. The nervous and excited rumble of the traffic had slowed to a fitful murmur of protest. Policemen growled; truck drivers cursed languidly; pedestrians mopped hot faces. New York was enduring the first heat wave of summer.

I called up a final spark of energy and pushed at the door of The Magic Shop, that curious commercial establishment in which the Great Merlini carries on his darkly nefarious business of supplying miracles for sale.

"If you really were a magician," I announced, "you'd do something about the weather. You'd make a pass or contrive a spell and—"

I stopped. My only audience was the shop's mascot and living trademark, the white rabbit that stretched lazily on the counter, a look of vast boredom in his round pink eye. Even his ears drooped disconsolately; and he paid no attention at all to my complaint.

Neatly lettered on the wall above the cash register was Merlini's business slogan: Nothing is Impossible. The annoying confidence of that statement had aroused my skepticism before. I decided now to give it the acid test. I closed my eyes and intoned loudly.

"Hocus-pocus. Abracadabra. Fe-fi-fo-fum. I want a long cool drink, an ice-cold shower, an electric fan, a lot of air conditioning, a—" My eyes jerked open.

This really was fast work! I looked around apprehensively, still hearing the sound of ice clinking in a glass and the rushing siphon-swish of soda. But the wishful thinking together with my fevered temperature had apparently combined to produce an auditory hallucination—an empty, hollow illusion of a piece with the rest of Merlini's deceptive stock in trade. There was no drink, and the cool sound had only accentuated my discomfort.

Then Merlini's voice came from beyond the doorway that connected the outer salesroom with the workshop and office in the rear. "Come and get it!"

For the first time that day I moved with some degree of haste. There was a Santa Claus after all; the age of sorcery was not yet dead. In the back room, Burt Fawkes, Merlini's shop assistant and general factotum, reclined at full length on a long, low box that had the sinister shape of a coffin. Beside him on the floor stood a container of ice cubes from the corner drugstore, a soda siphon, and a none-too-full bottle of Scotch. In one hand Burt held his own half-finished drink; in the other, a nice fresh one that he held extended listlessly in my direction. His remarkable lack of animation was so complete that I was about to diagnose a seriously advanced state of cataleptic trance when he spoke.

"Hurry, Ross. It's slipping."

I rescued the glass from his limp, wavering grasp and turned to find two more bodies laid out on the surface of the long workbench. Merlini's lank frame, in an undignified half-lying, half-sitting sprawl against the wall, had, like Burt's apparently settled there for the summer. He was in his shirt sleeves, tieless, his collar open. The keen, forcefully cut lines of his face were utterly relaxed; the interested curiosity that is ever present in the sharp glance of his black eyes was concealed behind closed lids. The buoyant vitality that bubbled in his personality seemed to be almost completely turned off—but not quite. It appeared in the voice he used—though the voice was not his. It was, instead, the youthful alto of a brash, irrepressible child; and it came not from Merlini, but from the grinning, red-haired ventriloquial dummy that lay beside him trying vainly to match the superior example of immobility that Merlini had set.

The dummy's hinged lower jaw moved slowly. "Simple as that," he said. "Just name it and there you are. We stock only the best grade of witchcraft, every item fully guaranteed or your money back."

On a raised dais near by was a great thronelike chair whose curving design and brightly gilded, grimacing dragons bespoke an Oriental and ancient origin. Carefully I tested the seat for trap doors, and, finding none, sat down. I gave some attention to my drink and inquired, "What about that shower, the fan, and the air conditioning?"

"Be reasonable and settle for the drink," the dummy retorted lazily. "The Djinn-of-all-work hereabouts has had a hard day. We were just about to let him knock off and go home."

"That's a new excuse," I said. "What kept the Djinn so busy, and why do your boss and Burt look as if the referee had just counted ten? I thought that all the Great Mysterioso had to do was wave his hand—simple as that—and the Djinn did all the work? Big husky fellow like that didn't need help, did he?"

"Those cases and cartons over there"—the dummy's head inclined toward a stock of boxes in one corner—"had to be packed. It took a great many mystic passes."

I eyed them, noticed a suitcase or two in the lot, and sat up suspiciously. I ignored the dummy and addressed Merlini. "You're not leaving town again?"

Merlini tilted his glass and drank long and deep, a procedure that did not prevent the dummy from answering, "Give me just one good reason for not leaving a place that has weather like this."

I banged my glass down on the chair arm. "I'll do exactly that! Where do you think you're going?"

"Albany. New York State Convention. Society of American Magicians. Driving up tonight through the cool countryside. Won't you come along?"

I had my hands full; I saw that. "Merlini," I said heatedly, "stop fiddling with that dummy and be reasonable." I held up the roll of galley proofs I'd brought, along. "This is the second set of galleys on your last case. You were so involved in constructing a new levitation you couldn't check the final typescript. You chased out to Chicago to attend a National Convention of Witches, Warlocks, and Banshees or something when the first proofs came through. And now, if you think—"

Merlini spoke for himself this time. "But it's business, Ross. I've planned a mouth-watering display of the very latest conjuring—"

"What do you think this is?" I waved the proofs feebly. "You signed a contract. Our publishers, to put it very mildly, are beginning to fret. They'll begin making passes themselves shortly—but not at the empty air."

"I thought they published books, not a weekly magazine. No one reads in weather like this. It's too hot—"

"They answered that one," I replied. "Said we seemed to have the erroneous impression that they published bicentennially. I know what's eating them. They'd sort of like to get back those advance royalties we've already spent. Ever think of that?"

The sound of a buzzer indicated that a customer had entered the shop outside.

The dummy said, "Take it, will you, Burt? We're in conference."

Burt finished off his drink, pulled himself up onto his feet, and went out, moving at about half the speed of a sleepy snail who hasn't made up his mind.

"And," I continued dyspeptically, "when I try to tell them how busy you are, they always counter with, 'Well, he's a magician, isn't he? Have him wave his wand or something.' I'm sick and tired of that crack. I don't know an answer for it, if any. Why haven't you done something about a science of practical and applied magic? I'd take a course myself if I could say Presto and have something useful happen. Rabbits from top hats, ladies sawed in half, ducks that vanish! Why? Who cares?"

"Not so fast," Merlini rebutted. "You got the drink, didn't you? Have another. Some liver pills, too. But, seriously, I will make a deal with you. Drive up with me tonight. Burt has to stay on the job here, and I'd love company. After the convention is out of the way, we'll vanish into the Adirondacks beside a mountain stream for a day or two—I know just the spot. We'll cool off, and I'll give some attention to those proofs. Honest Injun, cross my heart."

"Well," I said, "I would like to see a tree again for a change. But if you cross me up—"

Burt returned from the shop, walking a shade faster. We couldn't know it then, but this slight change of tempo was the cue that dimmed the house lights and sent the curtain rolling up on Act I.

"Customer outside," he announced. "Wants to see a headless lady. Looks like a sale. You'd better see her."

"Headless lady?" I asked. "Now what? Has the firm added a body-snatching department?"

Merlini said, "Who is it, Burt?"

The latter shook his head. "Don't know. Girl who won't take no for an answer. In a hurry, too."

He was right about that. The door from the shop swung inward abruptly, and she came toward us moving with a graceful but determined stride and a display of energy which in that temperature was almost foolhardy. She was as interesting and—as we were about to discover—as tantalizing a young woman as had ever set foot on the premises. She was in her middle twenties, tall, dark-haired, undeniably good-looking—and as nervous as a cat. Nervous in the same way—outwardly poised, self-assured, sleek—but jumpy. Beneath the dark outdoor tan of her complexion there was a hard, taut quality, also present in the deep-throated masculine voice.

She gave me a glance whose briefness was no compliment, decided I wasn't it, and turned to face Merlini as that gentleman, finally coming into action, swung down from the workbench.

"Mr. Merlini?" Her tone was polite but businesslike.

"Yes." He nodded, taking her in.

"I need a headless lady," she said. "I have to have it at once. This gentleman says—"

"That at once is too soon," Merlini finished. "I know. That particular item has been selling faster than twenty-dollar bills wrapped around cakes of soap at two for a quarter. It's a good pitch. Everyone wants a headless lady."

"Except me," I corrected quietly but firmly.

The girl went on, "He says you have one here. A demonstrator."

Merlini nodded. "Yes. But I can't display it for you at the moment. The Merlini Super-Improved Model with the visible, circulating blood feature and the respiratory light attachment, built to last a lifetime, takes down quickly, easily, and packs for carrying in two suitcases. Those." He pointed toward two squat squarish cases that were with the others in the corner. "It's there now. I'm taking it to a magician's convention in Albany tonight."

"I don't need a demonstration," the girl said. "I know what it's like. The price is three hundred dollars, isn't it?"

"Yes. Discount of two percent for cash."

"We'll skip that," she said, flipping open her purse. She took out a folded packet of perhaps a dozen bills, dealt off three, and handed them to Burt. They were hundred-dollar bills. Burt's response was automatic and prompt. He procured a receipt pad in about the same length of time it takes Merlini to produce a coin from thin air.

"Name?" he asked, pencil poised.

She scowled at him. "Is that necessary?"

Burt nodded, "Yes."

She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment longer, then said suddenly. "Christine—Mildred Christine."


"Wait," she said. "You don't understand. I'm taking it with me."

Burt looked at his boss. Merlini absently took a playing card from the workbench and balanced it impossibly on one edge on the back of his hand. "I'm sorry, Miss"—he paused noticeably—"Christine. I can't let you have this one. The factory is a week behind on orders. I couldn't possibly make delivery before—well, I might get them to rush an assembly by Monday. Today's Thursday. Will that—"

"No." Miss Christine was quite certain. "I'm leaving town tonight. I have to have it now."

"I'm sorry." Merlini was equally definite. "Perhaps an Asrah Levitation, a 'Burning a Woman Alive,' or a nice fast trunk-escape at one-half off, or—"

The girl took a step or two toward Merlini, restlessly. "Look," she said. "You'd sell the demonstrator at a price, wouldn't you?"

Merlini considered that for a moment, frowning. His dark eyes met hers intently. "I might," he said finally. "It would be more, of course." He drawled his words, slowly, as if puzzling over something.

"I realize that," she said.

Merlini still hesitated, his frown deeper. Then he said quickly and flatly, "It would be three hundred more."

Burt gave a surprised start that was almost a jump, but Mildred didn't as much as blink. The corners of her mouth even curled upward slightly. She promptly repeated her production trick with the purse, and three more hundred-dollar bills passed across to Burt.

"My car is down the street," she said. "I'll be back in half an hour. Will you have the cases taken down for me, please?" She turned on her heel, and started for the door.

"Just a minute," Merlini said hastily. "This has gone far enough."

She stopped in the doorway. "What do you mean?" Her eyes snapped. "You named your price. You got it. You can't—"

"I know." Merlini took a cigarette from his pocket and hunted thoughtfully for a match. "I wanted to see just how badly you did want it. You surprised me. But I'm not a shake-down artist. You may have it at the regular list price—on one condition."

"Yes?" she scowled.

Merlini lit his cigarette, leaned back against his workbench, and observed calmly, as if he were thinking aloud, "You don't need the apparatus so quickly because it means a job. You've got too many of those century notes. Possession and exhibition of the illusion four days sooner than I can supply one from regular stock will hardly net you the extra three hundred you're willing to pay. If you'll explain this curious haste and tell me why the monogram on your purse is an H rather than a C—you can have it."

Merlini's business is mystery and the mystification of others, yet the one thing he can't abide is to have someone drop anything even faintly baffling into his own lap. Everything Mildred did and said bristled like a hedgehog with question marks—big curly ones. Merlini was puzzled, and he didn't like it. He apparently didn't like it three hundred dollars worth.

Mildred wasn't exactly overjoyed. "You mean that?" she asked, frowning.

Merlini nodded.

She unsnapped her purse again. "I'll make it seven hundred."

Merlini shook his head decisively. "No."

The girl looked at Burt. "Is he always like this?"

Burt glanced at the money he held. "You can expect anything, Miss. He's stubborn, too."

"So am I." She took the bills. "But if I should change my mind—how much longer will you be here?"

Merlini consulted his watch. "Not long. But you can reach me at my home until about eight o'clock."

"Thanks." She put the bills in her purse, turned and strode through the door into the shop. We heard her footsteps cross the floor beyond, heard the buzzer as the outer door began to open, and then heard it gently close again. She came back at once. Merlini smiled—but only temporarily.

Miss Christine was agitated. "Is there a rear exit here?" she asked. "I'd rather not—"

Then she saw the open window and the fire escape beyond. She took half a dozen steps, put one hand on the window sill, and went through the opening with the fluid grace of an acrobat. Before any of us had recovered enough to speak, she had gone. It was rather like one of Merlini's tricks.

Merlini raised an eyebrow at me and then moved quickly to his desk in the corner, picked an envelope from a pigeonhole; sealed it, and scaled it at Burt. "Take this out and drop it in the mail chute. Keep both eyes open. And report back as to the nature of the menace that seems to be lurking in our corridor."


Excerpted from The Headless Lady by Clayton Rawson. Copyright © 1940 Clayton Rawson. Excerpted by permission of
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Clayton Rawson (1906–1971) was a novelist, editor, and magician. He is best known for creating the Great Merlini, an illusionist and amateur sleuth introduced in Death from a Top Hat (1938), a rollicking crime novel which has been called one of the best locked-room mysteries of all time. Rawson followed the character through three more adventures, concluding the series with No Coffin for the Corpse (1942). In 1941 and 1943 he published the short-story collections Death out of Thin Air and Death from Nowhere, starring Don Diavolo, an escape artist introduced in the Merlini series. In 1945 Rawson was among the founders of the Mystery Writers of America. He served as the first editor for the group’s newsletter, The Third Degree, and coined its famous slogan: “Crime Doesn’t Pay—Enough.” Rawson continued writing and editing for the rest of his life.

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