There was a note of finality in the clicking of the latch as the door shut. It said more plainly than anything else that he was shut off from the rest of the house. Locked in, although no lock had been turned. Alone, although there was someone in every room. Animated protoplasm, known to a small world as Frank Bruce, turned into a mechanical receiving set for thoughts.
The house reeked of thoughts. Frank Bruce was unimpressed. He was impressed by the fact that the house was-the property of Martin Joyce--the Number One Wolf of Broadway--a man who had money and was careless enough to back shows with it, and foolish enough to want no publicity to arise from the fact.
Frank Bruce was a writer of plays.
No one had ever compared him to Sherwood, O'Neill, or Coward, but he was on his way. His first play, produced the year before, had been an artistic if not a financial success. It had been good enough to cause an aging ingenue to make passes at him in the hope that he would write a play for her in return for her few remaining favors.
His newest play promised, if he could depend on the producer's reactions, to be the hit the other one had not been. That would probably mean Hollywood, but Frank had no objections to tainting himself with a little money. He was practical. He was looking ahead.
He was in love.
He walked across the room and gazed out on the endless expanse of lawn, now artificially lighted. The Joyce estate in White Plains was a further argument for a commercial approach. The gods of finance might be tainted but they also had a hell of a lot of fun.
Frank Bruce sat down at the desk and picked up the pencil that lay beside a neat stack of paper. He scrawled his name at the top of the first sheet. Davall had said he was to write down every thought, either picture or words. He wrote the name Kalli Walker.
She was red-headed. She was beautiful. She had promised to marry him. She was also Davall's secretary.
ROBERT DAVALL, MASTER OF MAGICAL
MYSTERIES OFFERS $10,000 TO ANYONE
PRODUCING PSYCHIC PHENOMENA
WHICH HE CANNOT DUPLICATE!
That was the way he had met her. He had dropped in one night at the hotel where regularly Robert Davall tested those who wanted a crack at the ten thousand. He remained to fall in love.
He wanted her to quit her job and marry him, but she was making him wait until they had more security. A successful play would furnish it, whereas his job of adapting old mystery novels for radio wouldn't. She had a good job with Davall.
Davall had continued his exposure of mediums until he had enough for a book, Unmasking the Ghosts; then he turned his attention to the field of extra-sensory perception. Martin Joyce was also interested in the subject, perhaps because he saw some way of making money from it, and had agreed to finance a series of tests. For the past week, Davall and his subjects had been staying at the Joyce estate. That morning Kalli had called and invited him out for the weekend.
Frank could take extra-sensory perception or leave it alone. But he had come to see Kalli. Davall had talked him into taking part in one test.
Trying to catch the thoughts of a stranger downstairs! The man who sends a telepathic message is known as an agent. Those who receive the message are percipients. He, Frank Bruce, had ceased to be Frank Bruce and was now a percipient. It sounded like the number of inches of water that had fallen on a given area in a given time. Or the hero of a novel by William Saroyan.
A new man was in the study downstairs concentrating on some subject known only to himself and Davall. No one else in the house had more than glimpsed him. Davall had gone into New York late in the afternoon and returned with the man who was whisked into the study without being introduced to anyone. Davall had said his name was Sax Britt but had refused all other information.
Frank scrawled an X on the sheet of paper and wished he was downstairs with a book. He had no desire to be part of a telepathic experiment. Or any other kind of experiment.
X marks the spot, he thought. Murder cliche number one. Some day, when he stopped murdering for the radio, he would list all of the murder cliches. Such as the idea that a murder victim was always the one man in a group who most deserved to be killed. That would nominate Joyce in this group.
Or the idea that dark and stormy nights were the time for murder and violence. Stormy nights were for planning murder, but never for committing it. Murder should be committed on clear, moonlit nights when a man's passions could race along, unhampered by the elements.
Did such thoughts mean that the telepathic message was about murder? Maybe the new agent was an undiscovered murderer. Or a potential one. But then they were all potential murderers.
This last thought interested Frank far more than the prospect of reading someone's mind. It had possibilities. He drew the sheet of paper to him and jotted down each of the potential murderers.
Martin Joyce. Ruthless. Dominant. He would kill anyone who stood in his way or who threatened his way of life. He would kill quickly and with violence.
Kalli Walker. She couldn't kill anyone... But she might, if someone or something she loved were menaced. But she would do it blindly and with the first thing that came to hand.
Robert Davall. A searcher. One-track mind. He might kill if his integrity were attacked. He would do it cleverly, probably inventing a locked room and giving the whole thing an air of pulling a rabbit from a hat.
Philip Langdon. Another single track mind. An expert on extrasensory perception. A logical mind. He might kill if the pattern of his life were upset. But he'd do it neatly and with precision.
Sidney Wilson. Another expert, but a yes-man. A rabbit man. But even rabbits will kill. He would kill only if it were the course of least resistance--when it would be easier to kill than to face something else.
Renee Lee. A blonde chorus girl, interested in very little besides sex. If she killed, it would be emotionally--and bloodily.
Helen Peterson. Cool and calculating. A bitch with culture. A debutante. She would do anything to achieve her ends. Murder too. But it would be done coolly and with finesse.
Sax Britt. An unknown quantity.
The servants. Also unknown. But they might kill someone like Joyce, who probably mistreats them.
Frank Bruce. Might commit murder if--
He stopped writing and laughed. Then he tore the sheet of paper into tiny pieces and dropped them one by one into the waste-basket. He wrote his name at the top of another sheet.
How did one concentrate on receiving the thoughts of a man who was concentrating on sending them? He gazed at the blank sheet of paper but it remained blank.
Funny how Sax Britt had looked surprised when he entered the house--as though he had glimpsed someone he knew, but hadn't expected to see, in the few seconds he could see into the other room. And someone had gasped. But who? Or should he say whom? A hell of a note when a writer didn't know whether to say who or whom. Or was it? Anyway, there was somebody who knew Sax Britt and had been recognized by him. But, so what? Britt was interested in extra-sensory perception and so were most of these people. Not so strange if they had met before. Maybe they had read minds together.
It was silly. There was a war on, with thousands upon thousands of men--and women and children--spewing their guts out on forgotten soil while here a group of people played at a game of reading minds.
War, too, was silly despite all of its gargantuan tragedy. When he wrote a play, he had to be careful that his hero wasn't a draft dodger. The hero had to have a bunch of bedridden old grandmothers to support or else be dashing about with a bad heart or ulcers. How could a hero be heroic with gastric ulcers? "I love you, darling. Will you marry me and my ulcers?"
War's silly in other ways. Men use it to get away from nagging wives and make new conquests; women use it to smear themselves with grease or to try to go to London or China where they could collect lice and crawl into strange beds. Like the red-headed editor he'd met. Jane. That was her name. Men use war to make more money or get more power. Politicians use it to get rid of young opponents. "My worthy opponent is a draft dodger. Don't vote for him!" A mad scramble over a towering mound of bodies. The things back of war are serious, but war is silly.
Sometimes--most times--people were silly. Like all these people sitting downstairs before the test started and competing with their silly little egos. Discussing all the technical sides of telepathy, arguing which was the right way to read minds, babbling about the new agent.
Maybe it was Helen Peterson who gasped when Britt entered. Maybe he was an old lover. Or maybe it had merely been someone with indigestion.
How long did it take for a telepathic message to get through? War Communications couldn't exert priorities on the lanes of telepathic communications.
He was bored with telepathy. There were only two bright spots in the weekend prospects. One was Kalli, she with the flame hair.
The other was a guest who was expected. Kalli had told him about the guest earlier. Chariman Fosdick Van Dyke, known to his hundreds of intimates as Fuzzy, was coming later that night. Chariman Fosdick "Fuzzy" Van Dyke, critic, lecturer, raconteur and expert on historical murders, who broadcast weekly as The Village Gossip.
Known from Calcutta to Hollywood and on to New York and the barren plains of Boston for his dicta on literary and dramatic tastes, Van Dyke was equally known for hurling insults to the left and right as he strode on his Olympian way.
He was coming to meet Davall, and Frank was looking forward to meeting him.
Frank crumpled up another sheet of paper, covered with meaningless doodles, and tossed it into the wastebasket. He threw the pencil on the desk and stared moodily out through the window. An owl hesitated in its flight to stare insolently back at him and then fluttered on its way.
He was so bored by the whole idea of mental telepathy that he was almost glad to hear the piercing shriek that suddenly knifed its way up from the floor below. It was a scream of mortal terror! It was the scream of a woman!