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TWO LOCKED ROOM MYSTERIES
AND A RIPPING YARN
by Max Afford
‘Poison Can Be Puzzling’
First published in The Australian Women’s Weekly
12 February 1944
‘The Vanishing Trick’
First published in Detective Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 1
‘The Gland Men of the Island’
First published in Wonder Stories, Vol. 2, No. 8
POISON CAN BE PUZZLING
The hero gathered the heroine hungrily into his arms—and in the warm darkness of Odeon cinema a thousand women leaned forward in their padded seats, a thousand pairs of lips parted expectantly, and Elizabeth Blackburn gave a little sigh and said to her husband:
“Isn’t he marvellous!”
Mr. Blackburn had been dragged away from his fireside to witness “The Laughing Lover,” and, unmoved by the epic being unfolded before him on the screen, was dozing peacefully. He awoke as his wife’s hand tightened about his own. At that moment a bilious yellow slide b1otted out the screen.
On it, scrawled hurriedly in ink, were the curt words, “Mr. Blackburn—Manager’s Office—Please!”
“Oh, bother!” exclaimed Elizabeth. She dragged her hand away, and began fumbling for her gloves and bag. “What’s the idea?”
Jeffery was already on his feet. With a firm hand on her arm, he piloted her stumblingly down the row of annoyed patrons, beaming apologies right and left.
A uniformed usherette held aside heavy curtains, a page-boy swung open gilded doors, and as they stood blinking in the lighted foyer, a plump young man hastened up to them.
“Would you be Mr. Blackburn?” And as Jeffery nodded, he explained: “My name is Mason—I’m the assistant manager here. Inspector Read is waiting for you in my office.”
Elizabeth’s eyes glinted like the crystal chandelier above their heads. “So!” she snapped. “It’s that man again!”
In the manager’s office, Chief Inspector William Read was waiting impatiently.
“What in Noah’s name are you doin’ in a place like this, son?” he said Jeffery.
“What’s the trouble, Chief?”
Read waited only until the manager had left the room. “Ever heard of a chap named Ferdinand Cass?” he barked.
Jeffery nodded. “Financier of sorts—and almost obscenely rich?”
“That’s the pigeon!” The Inspector puffed at his cigar. “And so crooked he could hide behind a circular staircase! That’s why he’s got more enemies than a monkey has fleas. Know what?” He cocked an eyebrow at the younger man. “Someone’s threatened to rub him out to-night.”
“Need we worry?”
Read grunted. “The Government pays me a salary to look after people—even rats like Cass. You see, Ferdie’s got a hunch that he’ll be dead before morning.”
“Can’t this Cass man protect himself?” Elizabeth broke in rather impatiently.
“Sure! That’s why he’s built himself that stronghold half-way up Carnarvon Towers.” The Inspector chewed on his cigar. “Lives in a flat eight floors from the ground and six from the roof. Air conditioned because the windows are fixtures. Reinforced steel floors and ceiling, and only one entrance—from the main corridor.”
Jeffery said: “And in spite of all this, Mr. Cass still has the breeze up about to-night?”
“Rang through to the Assistant Commissioner himself and demanded protection. I’m going round there now.” Read’s glance at the younger man was quizzical. “Thought you might like to be on any fun that’s offering, son.”
Mr. Blackburn rose. “Anything,” he announced, “is preferable to ‘The Laughing Lover’! I’m ready, Chief.”
Jeffery asked: “If, as you say, Cass has been threatened before, why the sudden trepidation about this particular night?”
They were purring along in a hastily summoned taxi. The city was going home from its night’s pleasure. “You know Cass’ record, son—blackmailer, receiver, big-scale confidence man. He’s looked upon earthly sin and suffering without batting an eyelid. But this time it looks as though he’s come up against something quite different.”
Read’s tone was soft, cautious. “It’s all so outlandish that it’s got me to thinking that maybe Cass going the same way as his wife. She was a neurotic piece of goods who got mixed up in some black magic hocus-pocus and finished by throwing herself out of a window six months after they were married.”
Elizabeth sat up sharply. “So Cass is a sorrowing widower?”
“Don’t you know the story?” grunted the Inspector. He leaned forward.
“A year ago Cass married the sister of Arthur Harkness, an explorer chap who carries out expeditions for some geographic society here. Eleanor Harkness—I think that was her name—was filthy with money and a mighty queer petticoat to boot! She got about with a rummy set that went in for all sorts of fancy religions and that jiggery-pokery. She owned a very big house in the country—and what went on there late at night scared fits out of the neighborhood.
“It was said they used to hold some ceremony during which they’d attempt to change their form into that of animals—wolves, horses and snakes.” Read’s voice expressed contempt. “Lot of eyewash, naturally, but it was after one of these affairs that Mrs. Cass cracked up and threw herself from a window in the house.
“Naturally there was a fuss,” the Inspector went on, “but before we could get down to facts, Harkness whisked Cass away on some expedition with him. Although we didn’t know it at the time, it now appears that this expedition finished up at some place in Venezuela.” Read paused, and added slowly:
“And there something happened that put the unholy breeze up Ferdinand Cass!”
Jeffery glanced up quickly.
“How do you know?”
“Because when Cass returned he was a changed man. A few weeks ago we dragged him down to headquarters for a quiet little probe on some of his shady transactions—and I’ve never seen a man more altered!
“That’s the whole story, son,” the Inspector continued. “Cass threw out some dark hints about his life being in danger—and that this mysterious avenger had timed to strike on the first night of the full moon, but about an hour ago the A.C. phoned me. Cass had been on to him in a terrific slew. He demanded police protection until after midnight.”
“Why?” inquired Mr. Blackburn.
The taxi had slackened speed some minutes before. Now it drew into a side-street off the main artery of traffic. As it stopped, the Inspector reached out and swung open the door.
“Here we are,” he announced. “You can ask Cass for yourself.”
Although by no means new, Carnarvon Towers is still pointed out as one of the show places of the city. It is a man-made cliff, with not even a balcony to relieve the monotony of cream brick and stucco. Jeffery, Elizabeth, and Read stepped into the brightly lit foyer as distant clocks were striking eleven. A page ushered them in the direction of the lift.
The steel cage purred downward, the sliding doors were thrust apart, and the Inspector, in front, retreated a step to allow an emerging passenger to pass. This was a podgy, middle-aged man who measured them for an instant with shrewd eyes, then, turning, walked quickly out of the foyer.
As the lift slid upwards Jeffery murmured: “I wonder where he came from?”
“Cass’ floor,” Elizabeth said briskly.
“How do you know?”
The girl gestured to the floor indicator on the wall of the lift. “Use your head, my boy. Two floors are illuminated on this board—the ground which lit up when we rung the bell—and the eighth. Only one man got out of this lift—ergo, he rang the hell on the eighth floor!”
“Astounding!” murmured Mr. Blackburn. Then the lift stopped and they filed out into the corridor.
Read knocked with unconscious authority at the door of Cass’ flat. There was an immediate and significant response—a key turned and there came the metallic clink of a chain. Jeffery turned to the older man with raised brows, but before he had time to comment the door opened an inch. A voice cried sharply: “Who’s that?”
It was scarcely a friendly greeting, but Read answered civilly: “The Inspector. Sorry I’m late.”
The door swung wide and Cass stood revealed, a massive shape dark against the brightly lit room beyond. He beckoned them inside and closed the door with a bang, pausing to fiddle with a short length of chain. As he turned, Jeffery had his first close look at the man.
Ferdinand Cass was middle-aged, with the build of a wrestler gone to seed. Yet there was more than a suggestion of strength in those massive shoulders, and deep in their puffy pits the black eyes were hard and challenging. There was something wrong with his mouth, too; it seemed shrunken, unformed. When he spoke, Jeffery noticed, it was with a slight lisp.
“Where on earth have you been, man?” He addressed Read, and without waiting for a reply, jerked his head in the direction of the others. “And who are these people?”
The inspector explained. At the mention of Blackburn’s name, Cass started ever so slightly and raked the couple with a quick, suspicious glance. A moment later it vanished; the big man lumbered over and shook Jeffery’s hand, nodding to Elizabeth. “Nice of you to come,” he muttered. “Better have something to keep the cold out . . . ” Without waiting for assent, he crossed to the cabinet at one side of the room.
Jeffery was taking stock of the apartment. It was large, almost square, devoid of hangings and broken on the outside wall by the long, fixed window Reid had spoken about. A single half-open door gave a glimpse into what appeared to be the bedroom, and in here, as in the living-room, lights blazed.
“I can’t see anything happening to you in here,” Read said dryly.
Cass was crossing to Elizabeth, glass in hand. Now he halted, his eyes wary as though listening.
“You’d say that this room was screwed tighter than a coffin eh, Inspector? But it’d take more than an oaken casket to keep Eleanor under the earth . . . ”
“My wife.” The glass in Cass’ hand trembled so that the liquid rocked dangerously. “She’s escaped. She’s been here. That filthy scent she used—nuit noire—the place reeked of it the other night!”
“What’s this foolery, Cass? Your wife is dead!” Read said sharply.
Cass shook his head slowly. “I thought that black-magic stuff Eleanor studied was just so much piffle. Then out there in the clearing of the rain forest, I saw her—plain as I can see you. She was coming to-night, she said—”
“Nonsense,” said a crisp voice from the bedroom.
As if tugged by a string, the three newcomers swung round. Advancing into the room was a small dry stick of a man, with wrinkled good-natured face tanned by foreign sun.
“How do you do? My name is Harkness,” he said, nodding to the visitors. Deftly he intercepted Cass and took the glass from him.
“I’ll look after our guests, Ferd. You slip inside and make yourself presentable.”
They saw Cass blink. Then, for the first time, he seemed to become conscious of his tousled hair, his unshaven cheek, and the crumpled dressing-gown tied loosely about his big frame. He hesitated only a moment, then, with a muttered apology, moved into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
Jeffery said quietly, “So you think it was nonsense Mr. Cass was talking just now?”
Harkness came forward, his dark eyes twinkling. “Of course it’s nonsense,” he said briskly. “Why, if I’d known Ferd was going to take it so seriously, I’d never have allowed that confounded pi-ai man to try his tricks. But it was probably the setting. Out there in that forest you get the feeling almost anything might happen—even the conjuring up of a dead woman from her grave on the other side of the world.”
Harkness paused, obviously expecting comment. But as his eyes met only blank-bewilderment in each face, he shrugged.
“Sorry. I keep forgetting you people know only half the story.” He sat down with a stiff little movement and reached for a cigarette. “You see, it happened when I took Ferd on that last expedition. I had to do some mapping and photography in a little-known part of Brazil—the great plateau land lying beyond the Towashing Pinnacle in Venezuela. We picked up thirty Indian porters, and with these in tow we started out for the great rain forest directly under the pinnacle.
“We were deep into the rain forest two days later, and camped waiting for the fog to lift before we could approach the pinnacle itself. I’ve never encountered a stranger, weirder place.
“Imagine a forest so thick that the matted growth shuts out all sunlight. The only light that filters down is a dim greenish yellow radiance. It is always damp, and this moisture contributes to the death-mould that lies thickly over everything.
“Day after day we lived in a world surrounded by the eternal forest. More experienced men than Ferd have cracked under such a strain, and it was only to relieve the monotony that I suggested he might like to see some of the tricks that Jan-Eri, our pi-ai man, could perform.”
Harkness paused to blow a wreath of smoke. “I should have explained that every village we passed through had its pi-ai man—or witch doctor. No native could be persuaded to set foot in the forest unless the pi-ai man came along to protect them from evil.
“That night the native porters gathered in a ring. Ferd and I were inside, and the pi-ai man sat cross-legged on a boulder about ten feet away. He had lit a small fire in front of him. Then he began to rock backwards and forwards contorting his face and gibbering. I wasn’t very impressed—I’d seen such showmanship many times before. But Ferd was drinking it in like a child at a circus. The pi-ai man delved unto his loincloth and threw something in the fire.
“There was a burst of flame that almost blinded us. The natives set up a 1oud wailing. Then there arose a great cloud of smoke that sent us all coughing and choking. . . . and when it began to clear away . . . ”
For the first time those pleasant even tones faltered.
Harkness added slowly: “When I looked at the rock the smoke had coalesced into something that might have been a human figure. Ferd, on the other hand, swears it was my sister, feature for feature, line for line. It is true that I heard a voice speak, but those confounded niggers were wailing so shrilly that I couldn’t catch a syllable. But Ferd believes my sister warned him that she could see him lying dead. But after the smoke had cleared away and the porters had quietened down, there occurred one curious and inexplicable incident for which I can personally vouch.”
It was Jeffery who spoke. “What was that?”
Harkness rose. “In the ashes left by the pi-ai man’s fire, as though traced by a finger, was a date and a month.” His keen eyes lingered for a moment on the bedroom door. “This month . . . and to-day’s date.”
It was at that moment they heard the sound of a glass dropped in the next room. Then, like a long, thin sigh that troubled the stillness, they heard Cass’ horrified whisper.
“Eleanor . . .you . . . !”
Inspector Read clenched his fists. “What’s all this?” he snapped. But Harkness had leapt past him.
“Ferd!” Harkness flung open the door. On the threshold he halted abruptly. The others crowded behind him, pushing over his low shoulder for a glimpse of the room beyond. From an overhead globe light flooded the comfortable apartment and glinted among the fragments of a cut-glass tumbler which lay shattered on the floor.
A small pool of water had formed on the polished boards and a fluffy Persian kitten lapped inquiringly at the oozing liquid. . .
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