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DARK NIGHT OF THE LEAPER
The Devil Strikes!
Dennis Holbrook lounged in an antique bed roughly the size of Ebbets Field reading through a stack of financial records. At over 250 pounds, the seams of his silk pajamas stretched to their breaking point, barely able to contain his gluttonous frame. His swanky, three-floor penthouse on West 58th Street was a testament to his conspicuous consumption. The finest furnishings and artwork filled the place as he filled his wardrobe. Holbrook earned his fortune--and his cutthroat reputation--on Wall Street. Acquiring wealth in all its forms was his sole purpose in life, a purpose that he pursued relentlessly. He possessed amazing foresight when it came to his money. Many of his friends and colleagues had lost massive fortunes back when the Twenties had stopped roaring, but he'd seen the crash coming and protected his assets. While many of his fellow financiers were now standing in soup lines and wearing rags, Holbrook sipped champagne while being measured for his tailored suits.
It was this defensiveness of his wealth which got Dennis Holbrook killed.While reading through a prospectus from one of his business contacts, Holbrook's keen ear detected a faint noise from the study next to his bedroom. Anyone else would have put it down as a slight shifting in the building or maybe one of the purebred, champion show dogs which Holbrook owned, but the tycoon couldn't ignore the noise. Like the rest of New York's wealthy and elite, he knew of the spectacular robberies that hadoccurred during the last month, and he'd be damned if some malicious freebooter got any of his hard-earned possessions.
Rising from his bed and wrapping his girth in a plush robe, Holbrook stomped over to the study door and flung it open. The room beyond was dark, but there was just enough light coming through the open patio doors to make out a figure behind the rosewood desk. Holbrook's already bugged eyes nearly sprouted out of his skull as the hunched, dark shape ripped open the door to his safe with a single, massive wrenching. Holbrook barked in amazement, clicked on the Tiffany lamp at his left and nearly died of fright.
The would-be thief might have just jumped off the page of a Penny Dreadful. Clothed in black and enveloped in a bat-like cloak, it looked more animal than human. A horrifying face with glowing eyes turned on Holbrook, and it snarled. Its claw-like hands ended in gleaming, razor-sharp nails. At Holbrook's sudden entrance, the bizarre thing leapt over the desk at the terrified tycoon, crossing the twelve-foot distance in a single bound. One of the claws closed on Holbrook's fleshy throat.
With the vicious ease of a boy abusing his sister's Shirley Temple doll, the horror tossed Holbrook completely across the room. Holbrook hit the floor like an earthquake. Amazingly, he managed to pick himself up and turned on the evil thing again.
"I'll teach you to not to steal from decent people," he growled as he charged.
Surprised by the tycoon's tenacity, the black thing dodged to the left and raked its claws across Holbrook's chest, shredding the rich pajama silk and Holbrook's flesh like a cheese grater. Dennis Holbrook dropped to the floor clutching his chest, his life's blood spilling out between his fingers and onto the Persian rug.
Knowing the noise of the brief struggle must have aroused the rest of the household, the devil thief rushed back to the torn open safe. It quickly snatched out three packets of cash that Holbrook always kept there and a black velvet pouch containing an assortment of diamonds. As Holbrook's butler burst through the study door, he caught sight of a demon-like form leaping out the patio doors to the roof of the next building nearly thirty feet beyond!
An hour later at New York's famed Park Avenue Club, the city's bluebloods rubbed elbows over martinis. The main topic of discussion--as it had been for the last three weeks--was the exploits of the thief that had Manhattan's peerage in a minor state of panic. After the first break-in, the papers speculated the villain might be The Scarlet Shroud, the mysterious figure who'd been wreaking havoc on New York's underworld for the last year. After all, who else could break in and escape from a tenth-floor penthouse without leaving a trace of evidence? That changed with the second attack when Councilman Adams, who had a pedigree stretching back to the Revolution, caught sight of the burglar. His description of a demonic creature didn't match the scattered reports of The Scarlet Shroud.
Picking up on his portrayal of a black figure with glowing red eyes and bat-like cape, the papers began calling the thief Spring-Heeled Jack after the mythic figure that had England in an uproar almost a century before. Since then, Jack had been sighted several times, and had gotten away with almost a million in loot. One thing was clear: this was no ordinary thief. His supernatural strength and ability to leap amazing distances was becoming the stuff of legend, and the cops had no clues as to who or what he was.
Sitting in a high-backed leather chair, Alexander Holt listened to the rumors swirling around him with feigned disinterest. To his left, a tipsy Thaddeus Roberts was weaving a wild conspiracy theory in his annoyingly nasal voice. His fellow patrician Simon Mantooth hung on Roberts' every word, but Edward Manley, sitting to the right of Holt, continuously rolled his eyes at Roberts' drunken ramblings.
As one of the city's toughest prosecutors, Holt knew as much about the case as the police. He received constant updates on the progress of the investigation, and he was personally dissatisfied with the police department's progress. One thing was clear: this criminal would not be caught by standard procedures.
"What's the lowdown, Holt?" Thaddeus Roberts asked him. "You gotta know more than you're letting on."
"Now, Thaddeus, you know I can't share that kind of info with you," Holt answered. "We have to protect some of our information if we're ever going to prosecute this man."
"What information? From what I hear, you guys got bupkes," responded Mantooth. "A buddy of mine in the two-seven told me--"
"Is this the same buddy who got you off that drunk and disorderly?" laughed Roberts.
"Hey, the guy knows a thing or two."
"Hah!" barked Alexander Holt. "I can tell you confidentially, Mr. Mantooth, that your friend in the two-seven doesn't know anything but rumor. If he knew any of the facts, he'd be keeping his mouth shut."
Edward Manley, looking like a dashing leading man in his fine tuxedo, shifted nervously in his chair. Draining his martini, he motioned for one of the club waiters for another drink. "I sure hope you catch this guy soon, Holt. I wouldn't want him robbing me."
"As little as you got left after the Crash, I can see why," Roberts said wryly. "The way you spend it, it's a wonder you have any of your family's money left."
"I'm doing just fine," grated Manley. "And my fortune is none of your business, thank you very much."
"Relax, Edward," said Alexander Holt, clasping his friend's shoulder. "He's drunk and trying to get a rise out of you. Don't let him get under your skin."
"That's easy for you to say. He isn't demeaning you."
From across the room, Alexander Holt's keen gray eyes caught sight of a uniformed police officer entering through the salon archway and speak to one of the waiters. That worthy nodded and took a note from the officer. Threading his way past the billiard table, the waiter approached Holt with practiced formality and handed him the paper. "The gentleman asked me to give this to you, sir," he said in a snooty voice.
Holt quickly read the message, then set his glass down on the table. Rising from his chair, he said, "Excuse me, gentleman, but I'm afraid duty calls."
"What's up?" asked Manley.
"Spring-Heeled Jack has struck again. Only this time, someone's dead."
Alexander Holt buttoned his tuxedo jacket and worked his way across the room through a blue cloud of cigar smoke. "We have a car waiting, sir. Detective Alphonse thinks you need to be on the scene," the patrolman said when Holt reached him.
"My own driver is out front, thank you."
Outside, a tall, whisper-thin Japanese anticipated Holt's emergence from the club, the cop close at his heels. Dressed in a crisp gray uniform, the chauffeur opened the back door of Holt's sleek Duesenberg as soon as his boss came out of the building. He'd known trouble was afoot the moment he'd seen the police car pull up.
"West 58th Street as fast as you can, Takeshi," Holt said as he climbed into the car.
"Right away, Holt-san." In a flash, the Japanese was behind the wheel, and the Duesenberg roared away from the curb.
Tableau of Death
The scene outside the luxury building on West 58th was already an anthill of activity when Holt's car arrived. Half a dozen police cruisers and the morgue wagon created a mini-traffic jam in the street, and a crowd of the morbidly curious craned their necks hoping to see a body being carried out. A cordon of police kept the doorway clear, struggling to keep out the onlookers and ravenous reporters looking for juicy details to print in tomorrow's early edition. Takeshi bowed politely when he opened the car door for Holt, who crossed the street and marched stoically through the crowd, ignoring the questions barked at him by the anxious press.
When Holt stepped off the elevator into the late Dennis Holbrook's penthouse, an officer was already waiting for him. "Upstairs, sir," the cop said directing the prosecutor up a wide, curving staircase. Passing the second floor, Holt saw a pair of maids huddled together crying. At the top of the stairs, a young patrolman directed him to the end of the hall where a pair of paneled oak doors were thrown open. Just outside, Det. Lester Cheevers towered over the hunched, shaking figure of the elderly butler, trying to get every last detail of what the old coot saw.
Alexander Holt strode past the pair and into the wrecked study. Dennis Holbrook's fat corpse still lay face down on the floor, the dark stain of his blood soaking into the Persian rug. The medical examiner looked coolly over the cadaver, smoking a cigarette as he jotted notes on a small pad. The twisted remains of a safe door huddled in a corner. Behind the carved desk stood a Giovanni Bellini masterpiece that once hid the safe. Mick Alphonse, a cigar jammed between his sharp white teeth, looked up from examining the safe door when Holt entered.
Alphonse was a seasoned pro, never the type to take shortcuts or jump to unwarranted conclusions. Cautious and methodical, the police brass admired him for his resolve and his keen mind. Years working the ugly streets of the city had aged Alphonse, leaving him looking tired, grizzled, and worn out. He wouldn't be broken, though, and continued to slug away at whatever case was dropped in his lap until he solved it, and his record for cleared cases was impressive even to Alexander Holt.
"Thought you outta see this," Alphonse growled.
Stepping carefully to avoid the remains of a shattered vase, the prosecutor crossed and shook the detective's hand. "What's the story?"
"Old Jeeves out there talking with my partner heard a commotion and came rushing as fast as those stick legs of his could carry him. Got through the doors here just as the guy was escaping out the patio over there."
Holt stepped out onto the terrace and gazed across to the nearest rooftop. No normal man could have jumped the distance. "What do you make that as? Twenty feet?"
"Closer to twenty-five," mumbled Alphonse behind his cigar. "Definitely another Spring-Heeled Jack type incident."
"I assume he came in this same way?"
"Mm-hmm. We got smudges on the outside handles, but nothin' usable. They wasn't locked. The fat bastard in there must'a thought he was impregnable up here on the tenth floor."
"Tsk tsk," Holt said cynically. "That's no way to talk about one of our leading citizens."
"Yeah, leading so far ahead he can't bother to leave a trail of crumbs behind for others," the detective answered. "Any one of these masterpieces he's got here would feed half the folks in this town, but he couldn't be bothered with sharing it."
Alexander Holt didn't even bother disagreeing. He knew Holbrook's reputation as well as the rest of Manhattan, and he knew it was well deserved. Holbrook had been a stingy, money-hoarding bastard in life, and the prosecutor doubted that he'd left any of his vast fortune to the poor souls suffering from the Depression.
"So, how do you think it plays, Mick?"
"From the looks of things in the bedroom next door, I'd guess Holbrook was in bed goin' over some papers," Alphonse pondered. "Hears a noise out here. Probably the safe getting ripped open, which couldn'ta been quiet. Comes out to see what's happening and finds our friend Jack in here doing his tricks. Being the miser he is, Holbrook tries to fight him off and ends up on the losing end. He's making his escape just as the butler comes in."
As Alphonse finished his explanation, Cheevers sauntered in, taking care not to step into the pooling blood. "Good to see ya, Alex. You knew this guy?" he asked, indicating the corpse with a nod of his head.
"More by reputation," answered Holt. "We pressed flesh once at a campaign fundraiser for my boss. Beyond that, we never spoke. Didn't exactly fit in his circle."
"Hmmph! Well, I didn't get much more outta the butler than what he already told us," Cheevers explained, consulting his notepad.
"Same thing we get from all of 'em. Some kind of bat-looking thing. Glowing eyes, all in black. He only saw it as it was getting away."
"It?" asked Holt, a slight smile lightening his stern features. "You're not saying you believe it's some kind of monster, are you?"
Cheevers shrugged. "Not really, I guess. But what do you call a guy who can pull a safe door off its hinges and jump thirty feet?"
"Lucky that he hasn't got himself killed yet," Alphonse answered smartly.
Alexander Holt turned his attention to the large body at his feet. How many people had wanted this man dead over the years? Uptight stockholders, angry union members, crusading newspaper editors, and jilted business partners had all called for Dennis Holbrook's head over the years. His brutal tactics thirty years ago to prevent the formation of a union in one of his Ohio steel mills were infamous and had left a seething rage against him by hundreds of workers who got their heads broken. Holt would have liked to put him in jail, too, but even his most despicable acts of greed weren't against the law.
"We have got to catch this maniac," he said to no one in particular.
"It's not like we're not trying," said Alphonse, "but we don't have much to go on. We've got lots of clues, but nothing to tell us who he is. We know what he can do, but not much else."
The medical examiner, who had just finished turning over the dead tycoon, looked up at that moment and said, "Actually, this might be something." He pointed to something clutched in the dead man's left hand.
"What is it?" Alphonse asked, kneeling down to look.
"Paper of some kind. Couldn't see it before because it was hidden under the body."
With his usual caution, Alphonse loosened the dead man's grip on the paper and pulled the two rumpled pages free. He moved to the desk and carefully laid them out. The two pages were small, not much larger than a man's hand. Both had some of Holbrook's bloody fingerprints on them. The larger piece had a series of interconnecting lines, which looked almost like a diagram or floorplan. The other was a photostatic copy of a picture, maybe from a book, of a large gem. The caption of the picture was torn and impossible to read.
"What do you make of this?"
"This one could be a map," said Holt, pointing to the first page. "It looks like a diagram of a room or building. But there's nothing to indicate where it might be, though. No reference points, no address. Could be anywhere."
"This gem could be his next target," suggested Alphonse. "Hard to say, though. He's stolen quite a few jewels since he started. Then again, this could also be one he took from Holbrook here."
Cheevers glanced back at the dead Dennis Holbrook. "You think he managed to snatch these scraps during the struggle?"
"Makes sense," said Alphonse. "Spring-Heeled Jack might not even know they're gone. They don't give us much to go on, though."
Alexander Holt turned and started for the door. "Well, I'll leave it to you gentlemen to figure it out. Looks like you finally got the clue you've been wanting. Just let me know what you come up with."
Holt managed to maintain his nonchalant composure until he went down the elevator and got outside the building. Inside, anticipation buzzed through his nerves. Only a maximum effort kept him from whooping for joy as he left Holbrook's penthouse. When he'd seen the diagram and the photostat of the jewel, he had bitten the inside of his lip so hard, he thought it would shred.
Because even though he didn't tell Alphonse and Cheevers, Alexander Holt recognized both the jewel and the diagram of the house.
He rushed through the people still gathered out on the street and made for his car. Takeshi was ready for him and had the rear door waiting open for him. An instant later, the chauffeur was behind the wheel and pulling away from the curb.
"Get to the Refuge!" Holt ordered his driver.
Reaching into a hidden compartment between the seats, Holt pulled out a microphone for a two-way radio. "Miles, you there?"
The radio crackled a moment before a tinny voice responded, "I gotchya boss. Wassup?"
"We're in a hurry," barked Alexander Holt. "Get everything ready. I know his next target."
Outside, the small, 19th-Century warehouse looked like many of the other deserted structures located along the Bowery's waterfront. Its brick façade was soot-blackened and most of the arched windows were boarded over. The Manhattan Bridge loomed nearby, keeping the warehouse in perpetual gloom day and night. The neighborhood urchins thought the place was haunted and avoided it, while the grown-ups couldn't gather enough interest to care one way or the other about it. The locals might have taken a greater interest in it had they known it was the secret refuge of The Scarlet Shroud.
Alexander Holt's Duesenberg had slipped quietly inside and now sat parked at one darkened end of the building. Parked beside it was a second black sedan, its engine housing open and the space around it littered with tools. At the opposite end of the warehouse, a makeshift lab had been set up. Vials and tubes burbled with chemical concoctions, electrical devices lay half finished, and a blackboard stood covered with obscure formulae. A series of rooms nearby had once been offices but had since been converted into living quarters for Miles Palais, the man behind The Scarlet Shroud's array of astonishing weapons.
Thinning brown hair, an unkempt moustache, and a generally scruffy appearance made Miles Palais look like a down-on-his-luck professor. His eyes, however, were alert and intense, seemingly capable of slicing through steel with a look. Grease and chemicals stained his gray coveralls.
Miles had also built the amazing machine in the center of the Refuge, a two-seat machine with stubby wings and a large propeller overhead--a state-of-the-art autogyro. He had spent years perfecting its design, increasing its speed and maneuverability, but its most unique feature was the incredible engine. In flight, the machine was virtually silent thanks to the efficient muffling devices Miles had incorporated into the engine.
"I got that new stuff ready for you," Miles said.
"Perfect." Alexander Holt rushed out of a side room, sliding a pair of .45 automatics into a fancy, two-gun shoulder holster. He'd switched out of his tux into a dark gray suit and long black coat. At his hip was slung another gun, an odd-looking art deco affair reminiscent of a Saturday matinee serial.
Miles handed him several odd bits from the nearby workbench. "You sure about this?"
"Of course," answered Holt hurriedly. "I've seen her wearing that necklace before, and I recognized the layout of the room in the diagram."
In the center of the warehouse, Takeshi had also changed into dark clothing and was climbing into the autogyro. The propeller blades began to whirl as he switched on the quietly humming engine.
Holt donned a wide-brimmed black hat. Sewn to the inside band was a red leather mask which completely concealed Alexander Holt's face. Only his steely gray eyes remained visible. The Scarlet Shroud was ready for battle!
He ran across the room and jumped into the seat beside Takeshi. "Let's fly," he said to the chauffeur-turned-pilot, his voice muffled by the concealing leather. Miles pulled a lever and a section of the roof slid open. Takeshi pulled back on the stick, and the machine lifted up into the night.
"Try not to get shot at! I spent a week trying to fix that engine after the last time!" Miles yelled after them, but the duo was already too far away to hear.
The autogyro swooped through the night skies of the city en route to the mansion of Esther Feldon-Wilson. Esther was the grand old dame of Manhattan's high society. No party, no gallery or theater opening was complete without the old gal's presence. The money she'd been left by her robber-baron father and her late husband could fill the Empire State Building. Esther preferred her wealth sparkly and portable enough to fit around her milky throat. The prize of her jewelry collection was the Flame of Araby, a rock the size of Gibraltar that had once been in a maharajah's crown. Now, it was in Esther's mansion, and Spring-Heeled Jack wanted it.
As they approached the massive stone edifice between Madison Ave. and Central Park, Takeshi slowed the autogyro and circled the house. A high stone wall surrounded the Victorian mansion. The Scarlet Shroud withdrew a pair of goggles and scanned the scene. The goggles were yet another of Miles' amazing gadgets. The lenses were treated with a chemical compound which amplified the available light, making darkness almost as bright as day. Through the goggles, Holt could see that a pair of French doors on the second floor were thrown open wide.
"Looks like we might be too late," Holt said. Then a piercing scream ripped through the night.
"Perhaps you have spoken too soon, Shroud-Master."
The Scarlet Shroud was already moving, releasing a long rope ladder below the autogyro. He swung out onto the ladder and began to climb down. "Drop me on the porch there and stay on station!" With cat-like speed, he descended to the bottom of the rope ladder as the autogyro dropped down.
Inside the opulent drawing room, Spring-Heeled Jack was in the midst of his latest theft. He'd smashed open a glass case which held many of Esther's prized necklaces and gems. It seemed a ridiculous way to keep such precious items, hardly likely to stop even the feeblest thief, but it was meant more to display than to protect. Esther liked to admire her shiny prizes. He didn't try to be quiet when he'd smashed the display, and the sound had attracted the wealthy heiress. As he was digging through the shattered remains of the case for the famed Flame of Araby, Esther had burst into the room and seen him, resulting in her nails-on-a-blackboard shriek.
Spring-Heeled Jack completely ignored Esther as he found the precious necklace. Just as he snatched it up, he heard a whump behind him and spun around. A roiling, reddish cloud completely filled the open French doors. From the smoky, faintly luminescent depths of the mist, emerged a black form--The Scarlet Shroud! Jack managed to snarl before one of the automatics that The Shroud held in his gloved hands thundered.
The bullet struck the demon thief square in the chest and knocked him backwards. Holt was thoroughly surprised, however, when Jack failed to fall. He staggered slightly before preparing to leap at his attacker. The .45 roared again, and the shot hit Jack again with a metallic ping! The elderly heiress screamed again and fled down the hallway, away from the scene of danger.
Spring-Heeled Jack launched himself across the room and plowed into The Scarlet Shroud, taking him to the floor and knocking both automatics out of his hands. Now that Jack was atop him, The Shroud understood the witnesses' horrific descriptions of Jack. The fiend had designed for himself a frightening mask with an evil, impossibly wide smile and pointed ears. Just above where his eyes ought to be burned a pair of red lights, making it seem as if the eyes were glowing. The claws were actually a pair of gloves tipped with steel fashioned to look like nails, and the bat-like cloak made it seem as if he had wings.
He also perceived why the bullets had failed to stop the thief. Through two holes in Spring-Heeled Jack's black clothing he glimpsed the glint of steel. His chest was encased in metal!
Jack drew back his fist, prepared to strike. When the claws slashed down at his masked face, The Shroud managed to roll his head away. The metallic claws dug into the wood beside his left ear. Twisting savagely, Holt thrust both feet up as hard as he could, driving Spring-Heeled Jack back. With the space provided, he managed to roll out from under the thief and get to his feet.
Unfortunately, the break gave Spring-Heeled Jack just the opening he needed to escape. With a maniacal laugh, he rushed out the French doors and leapt straight up, catching a projecting ledge just below the roof, swinging his body out of sight. Rapidly retrieving his automatics, The Scarlet Shroud ran out and looked up just in time to see the inky form disappear onto the roof.
The Scarlet Shroud let out a single, piercing whistle as sharp as a knife. Instantly the autogyro's rope ladder dropped at his side, and he leapt onto it. Without waiting for instructions, Takeshi lifted him off the patio. As he rose over the mansion, the masked avenger saw Jack leap to the roof of the next building.
With The Scarlet Shroud still dangling from the ladder, Takeshi sent the autogyro across the night sky. Spring-Heeled Jack continued his flight, running across the rooftops and leaping from building to building. Even though the autogyro was fast, Takeshi had a hard time keeping up with the villain. The rooftops were an obstacle course of pipes, vents, and watertowers, and he couldn't risk smashing Holt into any of the obstructions.
"He's making for the park!" Holt yelled.
When Spring-Heeled Jack reached the buildings facing onto 5th Avenue, he dropped off the roof onto a fire escape between two of the structures. For several moments, he disappeared into darkness as he rapidly ran down from landing to landing. Sensing an opening, Takeshi passed over the roof and sent the autogyro in a sharp descent. When Jack emerged from the alley between the two buildings, his master was only twelve feet above.
The Scarlet Shroud timed his drop perfectly. Releasing his grip on the ladder, he dropped onto the fleeing Jack just as he reached the sidewalk. The impact sent both men to the pavement like cannon shots. Holt rolled, trying to lessen the impact, but he was moving too fast and struck the side of a Packard parked at the curb. The collision stunned him, and lights spiraled across his eyes.
Groaning with a pain that lanced up from his bruised shoulder, The Scarlet Shroud staggered slowly to his feet. Supporting himself with the side of the car, he turned to see Jack rising from the pavement. He tried to reach for one of his automatics, but fiery pain ripped through his arm.
Jack dashed into the street just as a bus was roaring up the wide avenue. With a single, remarkable vault, the villain cleared the roof of the approaching bus, landing on the far side of 5th Avenue. Tires squealed as the surprised bus driver stomped on his breaks and careened into an oncoming taxi. With the rushing traffic, The Scarlet Shroud was unable to follow as Jack sprang over the wall and disappeared into the trees and midnight of Central Park.