Death out of Thin Air

Death out of Thin Air

by Clayton Rawson

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Two tall tales of mystery, the occult, and death-defying escapes

The women of London have taken to wearing thin black bands around their necks. Is it a fashion accessory—or a stylish way of hiding bite marks? A string of strange deaths has struck the town, and witnesses claim to have seen a vampire bat fleeing the scene. The London police can rest easy, for the vampire has left for New York. He makes his first appearance in a Broadway dressing room, piercing the neck of a woman who had come to speak to Don Diavolo, magician and escape artist. The police suspect Diavolo of killing her, forcing him to catch the vampire or face the chair. For his next trick, Diavolo confronts the murder of a police detective who is found shot to death in a locked office, where the sole trace of the killer is a mocking voice on the telephone. Only Don Diavolo, the Scarlet Wizard, can prove how the gunman made his escape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453256909
Publisher: Road
Publication date: 05/22/2012
Series: The Don Diavolo Mysteries , #1
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 3 MB

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Death Out of Thin Air

Don Diavolo Mysteries

By Clayton Rawson

Copyright © 1941 Clayton Rawson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-5690-9


The Bat and the Elephant

The sooty London fog swirled beyond the windows of the dimly lit room. The street lights on the dark thoroughfare far below were haloed with a greenish haze. Big Ben, in the distance, tolled twice.

The woman sat stiffly in the deep chair, her dark eyes staring fixedly before her at a tall man who leaned forward speaking in a tense hypnotic voice. Then her gaze shifted, moved beyond him, and she saw a black-cloaked figure materialize outside the open window as if from the fog itself.

It slid in silently across the sill that was four stories above the street. The fog came with it.

A scream tore at the woman's throat. The man before her whirled — too late. The cloaked figure made a hasty pointing motion with a long black-gloved forefinger. The woman's companion slumped to the floor as if sleep, swift and all embracing, had suddenly, inexplicably enveloped him!

The woman's horror-stricken cry stopped abruptly, and then, as the shadowy figure glided swiftly toward her, began again, hysterically. Two hands sought her throat and found it. Two thumbs pressed gently, expertly into the hollows of her neck just beneath the ears.

Her body lost its stiff rigidity and grew limp. Her final scream stopped, half uttered. Her head dropped loosely against the chair back, its chin tilted.

The head and shoulders of the attacker bent toward the white curve of the woman's neck. The shadow that the dark thing threw, high on the wall, was monstrous and evil....

Later, when the great clock beyond the fog was tolling three slow strokes, the silent figure once more crossed the window-sill. Beyond it there was no support but empty air!

It looked back once and the lamplight shone for a moment on its face. The face, if it could be called that, was black, and its features were unutterably grotesque and hideous. White pointed teeth gleamed between the bestial lips. The Thing had the face of a bat!

And on the woman's neck, on the blue vein that throbbed there faintly now, were two small red incisions....

In America, several weeks later, the Haines Newspaper Syndicate sent to all its subscribing papers a Sunday-magazine feature story titled: Is Vampirism a Superstition? It was written by Dr. Lynn De Kolta, the famous scholar and authority on the occult.

When it turned up in the paper that Inspector Church read each Sunday morning — provided there had been no axe murders during the night to keep him at work — he scoffed.

"If we could lick the dope traffic," he told his wife, "then these newspaper hopheads couldn't get their daily jolt of hashish and I wouldn't have to face stuff and balderdash like this at breakfast!"

Had the Inspector only had the gift of prophecy, he would have dropped this attitude at once. And he would have read the article through, paying particular attention to those paragraphs which read:

Terror of Middle-Ages
Stalks London Streets

Numerous well authenticated reports have reached this writer in the past year concerning a mysterious phantom figure that is at large in London. Two persons have seen it climbing the sheer side of a house in Leicester Square. One man, in Mayfair, who saw its face, will not speak about it. He will only say that he has seen the same face before — on the bloodsucking vampire bat of South America.

The style magazines say that the current fashion of wearing a narrow black silk band around the throat, which was started by several of the smartest, wealthiest Mayfair women, is only the return of a Victorian style.

This writer is not so sure.

The Inspector would have been even better forearmed if he could have also seen the cablegram that J. Haywood Haines, Jr., columnist on the New York Press received shortly after the article's publication.

It read:

London Police Finally Decide to Take Action. Too Late. Vampire Rumored on Its Way to New York City.

The signature was that of Dr. Lynn De Kolta.

The great curtain on the stage of the Manhattan Music Hall rose slowly and majestically. The orchestra supplied music that had in it all the mystery and barbaric color of the East — the exotic, Oriental Scheherezade. The Manhattan Girls in the trousered, veiled costumes of Old Baghdad swarmed onto the broad stage, moving sinuously in a voluptuous harem dance before the towering backdrop of silhouetted minarets and mosques.

Somewhat apart, at one side of the stage, bathed in the soft glow of an amber spot, sat a snake-charmer piping shrill notes on a strangely-shaped flute. Before him, the flickering-tongued head of an enormous cobra arose from a wicker basket and swayed gently back and forth in hypnotic time to the music.

In the center of the stage, well away from the wings or the scenery at the back, was a great five-foot-high platform some twenty feet square. The dancers moved around and beneath it. A long stilted ramp led up to it from the wings. Moving out and upward on the ramp came a gorgeously caparisoned elephant bearing a golden howdah.

There was a trumpeting of horns and the multitude of dancers became quiet; the music dimmed until only the low melodious tinkle of the bronze bells that adorned the elephant's gilt-encrusted trappings and the thin piping of the street conjurer's flute were heard.

A girl reclined on silken pillows within the howdah and a negro slave stirred the air above her with an enormous peacock fan. The girl was blonde, beautiful and fair-skinned though dressed in the flowing diaphanous garments of the East. Her arms were covered with jeweled bracelets that made music when she moved. Her dark-rimmed eyes above the harem veil were round and frightened.

Then, her glance saw the snake charmer and she spoke quickly to the small-turbaned boy who perched in front of the howdah astride the elephant's head. The boy kicked the elephant behind the ears sharply with his bare heels.

The great beast halted, raised his trunk, curled it about the boy's waist, lifted him and set him on the ground. As the boy ran quickly toward the conjurer the elephant continued on up the ramp and stopped atop the platform. The thickness of the platform — four or five inches at the most — and the four slender poles that supported it at the corners seemed inadequate.

The boy spoke to the magician with rapid, excited gestures, pointing first toward the princess and the elephant and then, fearfully, back in the direction from which they had come.

The magician listened to him, then nodded and stood up. Quickly he reached and pulled a large silken many-colored banner down from where it hung over the nearby edge of a balcony. He gathered the cloth in his hands and, carrying it, moved hurriedly to a position directly before the raised platform. Suddenly he cried "Allah Bismallah!" and tossed the banner high in the air.

And the banner —

Magically it spread out before the elephant and the lady, hiding them. It remained suspended in midair.

The stage figures muttered in uneasy wonder, and then in fright, and the bearded, dark-faced figure of a sultan rushed in. He carried in his hand a drawn sword whose Damascene steel curve flashed menacingly in the light. A dozen tall Nubian slaves, jet black and powerfully muscled, came close behind him, their swords also drawn and ready.

The crowd broke and scattered before them, running panic-stricken across to the left where they huddled in the shadows of the bazaar and watched with apprehension.

The magician alone remained to face the sultan. He bowed, smiling. The sultan's black eyes flashed with anger as he pointed with his scimitar toward the mysteriously floating banner and the concealed top of the platform behind it. The magician shook his head in answer, his white teeth gleaming.

Then he raised his hands and clapped them once. The great cloth instantly collapsed and fluttered to the ground.

The platform's top was completely bare. The elephant, the princess and the two slaves all had vanished into thin air! The music swelled.

The magician bowed again toward the defeated sultan, turned and came forward toward the audience. Slowly the curtains closed behind him.

Removing his turban, Don Diavolo, the Scarlet Wizard, took his bow to prolonged applause.


Death Comes to Call

The first performance of his newest illusion, "The Princess and the Elephant" was a success. A few of the spectators in the front rows noticed that the gratified smile on his face was also a tired one. They wondered, not knowing that he and his assistants had worked unceasingly all night long, polishing the final details and testing the mysterious apparatus that could, as the audience had just seen, vanish an elephant into nothingness.

Chan, the bland, brown-skinned Eurasian boy (his father had been a high caste Indian, his mother a Manchu princess) met Diavolo as he stepped from the backstage elevator and hurried toward his dressing room on the fifth floor of the great Manhattan Theater building. Chan, usually solemn-faced, was grinning now as he spoke in the prim, almost too correct accent he had acquired when Diavolo, touring Europe, had left him to be educated at Eton.

"May I congratulate you, master. India's great magician, the famous fakir of Potala, could have done no better."

Diavolo smiled, "Thanks, Chan," he said. "I think we've got something there. We'll have to take Pat and Mickey and Karl and throw a dinner party tonight. We'll see what we can do about vanishing some of your favorite Kabab and Turkari."

Diavolo and Chan turned from the corridor and entered the door above which were lettered the words, Don Diavolo along with the insignia of a small red mask. They crossed the anteroom and went together into the dressing room proper where the magician, with Chan's help, began to divest himself of his Oriental costume.

Diavolo's record breaking six-month run at the Manhattan Music Hall had the whole town talking. The short twenty minutes of streamlined sorcery in his own distinctive style together with the presentation every two weeks of a new big illusion in company with the Music Hall's entire cast of actors and dancers, had, almost overnight, made Don Diavolo a name to conjure with along Broadway.

As he removed the dark stain from his lean but firmly modeled face, the expected Latin countenance did not appear. It was, instead, a puzzling face, handsome, and mysteriously engaging. It was American rather than Latin but there was something more there — an illusive something that was difficult to name.

Don Diavolo had taken the name along with the scarlet evening clothes and the neat red mask which put the final flash on his smoothly bewildering routine of prestidigitation. Offstage, though they called him Don a few close friends knew he had another name — Nicolas Alexander Houdin. But some of them suspected that this too was assumed, once they had noticed that it was a combination of the names of some very famous old-time conjurers.

No one knew whether this strange reticence was due to his ever-present love of mystery, or if there was some deeper, perhaps darker, reason.

Diavolo's age was also something to guess at — he was young, but that was as much as anyone would say. He had, due perhaps to the rigid training which his remarkable straitjacket and underwater escapes necessitated, the lithe, muscled figure of an athlete and the iron-willed endurance of six men.

His constant devil-may-care flirting with sudden death, made necessary in upholding his challenge that no man could invent a method of restraint that would hold him, had given him nerves of steel and the habit of lightning thought and action in the presence of danger.

It was doubtlessly this death-defying attitude along with his smooth sleek appearance that caused the fluttering in so many feminine hearts. The backstage door of the Manhattan Music Hall was almost constantly besieged by a ravenous horde of women with autograph books outstretched. One heartstruck but golddigging damsel had made eyes at the doorkeeper and insinuated her way past him to Diavolo's dressing room where she created a scene that had nearly resulted in a breach of promise suit.

Don had then instructed Chan that, on no account, must he ever again let anything in skirts get past that threshold — except, of course, Pat and Mickey Collins, Don's two girl assistants.

But today this rule was shattered. Diavolo, in his dressing-gown, was just making up for the remainder of his act when Chan went to answer a knock at the door.

A young woman in a silver-fox cape and with a high perky Lily Daché creation on her velvet-black hair, stood outside. Her dark mascared eyes cast a frightened glance back over her shoulder, and she started in as the door opened, fearfully.

Chan stood in her way. "Don Diavolo is dressing," he said politely but firmly. "You cannot come in."

That was when Chan noticed the blunt, blue-steel muzzle of the small automatic she held in her gloved hand. It was pointing directly at him.

She stepped through the door. Chan retreated. He knew only too well that a loaded gun in a frightened woman's hand is a most unpredictable thing.

"I must see Don Diavolo immediately," she said. Her words were urging, insistent, shaky.

Chan gauged the distance to the gun with a glance and decided that her grip on it was too uncertain. He bowed politely, turned and left her.

He reported to the magician that the visitor had forced her way in demanding to see him at once.

Diavolo, who was pulling on the trousers of his scarlet stage costume replied calmly, "No, she doesn't. Not until I'm dressed. And we won't hurry too much. Perhaps she'll cool off a bit."

"I am sorry that the lowly Chan was taken unaware," Chan said, snapping gold cuff-links into a dress shirt. "I did not expect that the young lady would be armed. In India —"

"Forget it, Chan," Diavolo grinned. "Think what a nice story it will make for Woody's column. Female admirer gets magician's autograph at the point of a gun. Don Diavolo is considering the purchase of an armor-plated Hispano-Suiza. His servant, the Honorable Chan Chandara Manchu, has laid in a winter's supply of hand grenades and —"

Diavolo stopped short.

There was a small curious disturbance just outside the dressing room door. It was an odd, scratching, flapping noise as if some winged creature was fluttering and beating against the door.

Chan, puzzled, pushed the door half open. The dark shape of a foot-long, brown-furred bat, swooped in. It darted with an irregular, uncertain motion across the room near the ceiling and came to rest, hanging upside down from a coat hanger in the open wardrobe.

Diavolo looked at Chan. "That's funny," he said. "I thought those things only came out at night."

Chan started. "In India—"

But Diavolo had gone. He wondered why the woman in the other room had not cried out at the sight of the animal.

He came to a sliding stop just beyond the door, the expression on his face as astounded as the audience had been who had just witnessed his remarkable vanish of The Princess and The Elephant.

The woman seemed to have disappeared, impossibly.

The door to the corridor was one that Diavolo's technical assistant, Karl Hartz, had installed. It locked automatically whenever it closed; it had no keyhole whatever and the trick of opening it was known only to three people, Diavolo, Chan and Karl.

The window that had been closed was now open wide. But it was five sheer stories above 51st Street. Then Diavolo saw the arm lying on the floor and protruding from behind the divan. He moved swiftly toward it.

The girl lay there, her hands clenched, her body arching in a rigid, spasmodic convulsion; her breath came rapidly in great gasps. But, even as Diavolo knelt at her side, the breathing slowed and the dilated stare of her pupils began to lose the quality of life.

Her scarlet lips moved slightly and he barely caught the words that issued on her last breath.

"The bat's! ... aviary....?"

On her throat, Diavolo saw two red marks from each of which a single drop of blood oozed slowly. The razor-sharp teeth of a bat would have left just such marks as these.


Excerpted from Death Out of Thin Air by Clayton Rawson. Copyright © 1941 Clayton Rawson. Excerpted by permission of
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