Joel Brill slapped shut the book he had been scanning, and gave vent to his dissatisfaction in language more appropriate for the deck of a whaling ship than for the library of the exclusive Corinthian Club. Buckley, seated in an alcove nearby, grinned quietly. Buckley looked more like a college professor than a detective, and perhaps it was less because of a studious nature than a desire to play the part he looked, that caused him to loaf around the library of the Corinthian.
"It must be something unusual to drag you out of your lair at this time of the day," he remarked. "This is the first time I ever saw you in the evening. I thought you spent your evenings secluded in your rooms, pouring over musty tomes in the interests of that museum you're connected with."
"I do, ordinarily." Brill looked as little like a scientist as Buckley looked like a dick. He was squarely built, with thick shoulders and the jaw and fists of a prizefighter; low browed, with a mane of tousled black hair contrasting with his cold blue eyes.
"You've been shoving your nose into books here since six o'clock," asserted Buckley.
"I've been trying to get some information for the directors of the museum," answered Brill. "Look!" He pointed an accusing finger at the rows of lavishly bound volumes. "Books till it would sicken a dog -- and not a blasted one can tell me the reason for a certain ceremonial dance practiced by a certain tribe on the West African Coast."
"A lot of the members have knocked around a bit," suggested Buckley. "Why not ask them?"
"I'm going to." Brill took down a phone from its hook.
"There's John Galt--" began Buckley.
"Too hard to locate. He flits about like a mosquito with the St. Vitus. I'll try Jim Reynolds." He twirled the dial.
"Thought you'd done some exploring in the tropics yourself," remarked Buckley.
"Not worthy of the name. I hung around that God-forsaken Hell hole of the West African Coast for a few months until I came down with malaria -- Hello!"
A suave voice, too perfectly accented, came along the wire.
"Oh, is that you, Yut Wuen? I want to speak to Mr. Reynolds."
Polite surprise tinged the meticulous tone.
"Why, Mr. Reynolds went out in response to your call an hour ago, Mr. Brill."
"What's that?" demanded Brill. "Went where?"
"Why, surely you remember, Mr. Brill." A faint uneasiness seemed to edge the Chinaman's voice. "At about nine o'clock you called, and I answered the phone. You said you wished to speak to Mr. Reynolds. Mr. Reynolds talked to you, then told me to have his car brought around to the side entrance. He said that you had requested him to meet you at the cottage on White Lake shore."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Brill. "This is the first time I've phoned Reynolds for weeks! You've mistaken somebody else for me."
There was no reply, but a polite stubbornness seemed to flow over the wire. Brill replaced the phone and turned to Buckley, who was leaning forward with aroused interest.
"Something fishy here," scowled Brill. "Yut Wuen, Jim's Chinese servant, said I called, an hour ago, and Jim went out to meet me. Buckley, you've been here all evening. Did I call up anybody? I'm so infernally absent-minded--"
"No, you didn't," emphatically answered the detective. "I've been sitting right here close to the phone ever since six o'clock. Nobody's used it. And you haven't left the library during that time. I'm so accustomed to spying on people, I do it unconsciously."
"Well, say," said Brill, uneasily, "suppose you and I drive over to White Lake. If this is a joke, Jim may be over there waiting for me to show up."
As the city lights fell behind them, and houses gave way to clumps of trees and bushes, velvet black in the star-light, Buckley said: "Do you think Yut Wuen made a mistake?"
"What else could it be?" answered Brill, irritably.
"Somebody might have been playing a joke, as you suggested. Why should anybody impersonate you to Reynolds?"
"How should I know? But I'm about the only acquaintance he'd bestir himself for, at this time of night. He's reserved, suspicious of people. Hasn't many friends. I happen to be one of the few."
"Something of a traveler, isn't he?"
"There's no corner of the world with which he isn't familiar."
"How'd he make his money?" Buckley asked, abruptly.
"I've never asked him. But he has plenty of it."
The clumps on each side of the road grew denser, and scattered pinpoints of light that marked isolated farm houses faded out behind them. The road tilted gradually as they climbed higher and higher into the wild hill region which, an hour's drive from the city, locked the broad crystalline sheet of silver that men called White Lake. Now ahead of them a glint shivered among the trees, and topping a wooded crest, they saw the lake spread out below them, reflecting the stars in myriad flecks of silver. The road meandered along the curving shore.
"Where's Reynolds' lodge?" inquired Buckley.
Brill pointed. "See that thick clump of shadows, within a few yards of the water's edge? It's the only cottage on this side of the lake. The others are three or four miles away. None of them occupied, this time of the year. There's a car drawn up in front of the cottage."
"No light in the shack," grunted Buckley, pulling up beside the long low roadster that stood before the narrow stoop. The building reared dark and silent before them, blocked against the rippling silver sheen behind it.
"Hey, Jim!" called Brill. "Jim Reynolds!"
No answer. Only a vague echo shuddering down from the blackly wooded hills.
"Devil of a place at night," muttered Buckley, peering at the dense shadows that bordered the lake. "We might be a thousand miles from civilization."
Brill slid out of the car. "Reynolds must be here -- unless he's gone for a midnight boat ride."
Their steps echoed loudly and emptily on the tiny stoop. Brill banged the door and shouted. Somewhere back in the woods a night bird lifted a drowsy note. There was no other answer.
Buckley shook the door. It was locked from the inside.
"I don't like this," he growled. "Car in front of the cottage -- door locked on the inside -- nobody answering it. I believe I'll break the door in--"
"No need." Brill fumbled in his pocket. "I'll use my key."
"How comes it you have a key to Reynolds' shack?" demanded Buckley.
"It was his own idea. I spent some time with him up here last summer, and he insisted on giving me a key, so I could use the cottage any time I wanted to. Turn on your flash, will you? I can't find the lock. All right, I've got it. Hey, Jim! Are you here?"
Buckley's flash played over chairs and card tables, coming to rest on a closed door in the opposite wall. They entered and Buckley heard Brill fumbling about with an arm elevated. A faint click followed and Brill swore.
"The juice is off. There's a line running out from town to supply the cottage owners with electricity, but it must be dead. As long as we're in here, let's go through the house. Reynolds may be sleeping somewhere--"
He broke off with a sharp intake of breath. Buckley had opened the door that led to the bedroom. His flash played on the interior -- on a broken chair, a smashed table -- a crumpled shape that lay in the midst of a dark widening pool.
"Good God, it's Reynolds!"
Buckley's gun glinted in his hand as he played the flash around the room, sifting the shadows for lurking shapes of menace; it rested on a bolted rear door; rested longer on an open window, the screen of which hung in tatters.
"We've got to have more light," he grunted. "Where's the switch? Maybe a fuse has blown."
"Outside, near that window." Stumblingly Brill led the way out of the house and around to the window. Buckley flashed his light, grunted.
"The switch has been pulled!" He pushed it back in place, and light flooded the cottage. The light streaming through the windows seemed to emphasize the blackness of the whispering woods around them. Buckley glared into the shadows, seemed to shiver. Brill had not spoken; he shook as with ague.
Back in the house they bent over the man who lay in the middle of the red-splashed floor.
Jim Reynolds had been a stocky, strongly built man of middle age. His skin was brown and weather-beaten, hinting of tropic suns. His features were masked with blood; his head lolled back, disclosing an awful wound beneath his chin.
"His throat's been cut!" stammered Brill. Buckley shook his head.
"Not cut -- torn. Good God, it looks like a big cat had ripped him."
The whole throat had literally been torn out; muscles, arteries, windpipe and the great jugular vein had been severed; the bones of the vertebrae showed beneath.
"He's so bloody I wouldn't have recognized him," muttered the detective. "How did you know him so quickly? The instant we saw him, you cried out that it was Reynolds."
"I recognized his garments and his build," answered the other. "But what in God's name killed him?"
Buckley straightened and looked about. "Where does that door lead to?"
"To the kitchen; but it's locked on this side."
"And the outer door of the front room was locked on the inside," muttered Buckley. "Doesn't take a genius to see how the murderer got in -- and he -- or it -- went out the same way."
"What do you mean, it?"
"Does that look like the work of a human being?" Buckley pointed to the dead man's mangled throat. Brill winced.
"I've seen black boys mauled by the big cats on the West Coast--"
"And whatever tore Reynolds' gullet out, tore that window screen. It wasn't cut with a knife."
"Do you suppose a panther from the hills--" began Brill.
"A panther smart enough to throw the electric switch before he slid through the window?" scoffed Buckley.
"We don't know the killer threw the switch."
"Was Reynolds fooling around in the dark, then? No; when I pushed the switch back in place, the light came on in here. That shows it had been on; the button hadn't been pushed back. Whoever killed Reynolds had a reason for wanting to work in the dark. Maybe this was it!" The detective indicated, with a square-shod toe, a stubby chunk of blue steel that lay not far from the body.
"From what I hear about Reynolds, he was quick enough on the trigger." Buckley slipped on a glove, carefully lifted the revolver, and scanned the chamber. His gaze, roving about the room again, halted at the window, and with a single long stride, he reached it and bent over the sill.
"One shot's been fired from this gun. The bullet's in the window sill. At least, one bullet is, and it's logical to suppose it's the one from the empty chamber of Reynolds' gun. Here's the way I reconstruct the crime: something sneaked up to the shack, threw the switch, and came busting through the window. Reynolds shot once in the dark and missed, and then the killer got in his work. I'll take this gun to headquarters; don't expect to find any fingerprints except Reynolds', however. We'll examine the light switch, too, though maybe my dumb pawing erased any fingerprints that might have been there. Say, it's a good thing you have an iron-clad alibi."
Brill started violently. "What the Hell do you mean?"
"Why, there's the Chinaman to swear you called Reynolds to his death."
"Why the devil should I do such a thing?" hotly demanded the scientist.
"Well," answered Buckley, "I know you were in the library of the club all evening. That's an unshakable alibi -- I suppose."
Brill was tired as he locked the door of his garage and turned toward the house which rose dark and silent among the trees. He found himself wishing that his sister, with whom be was staying, had not left town for the weekend with her husband and children. Dark empty houses were vaguely repellent to him after the happenings of the night before.
He sighed wearily as he trudged toward the house, under the dense shadows of the trees that lined the driveway. It had been a morbid, and harrying day. Tag ends of thoughts and worries flitted through his mind. Uneasily he remembered Buckley's cryptic remark: "Either Yut Wuen is lying about that telephone call, or--" The detective had left the sentence unfinished, casting a glance at Brill that was as inscrutable as his speech. Nobody believed the Chinaman was deliberately lying. His devotion to his master was well known -- a devotion shared by the other servants of the dead man. Police suspicion had failed to connect them in any way with the crime. Apparently none of them had left Reynolds' town house during the day or the night of the murder. Nor had the murder-cottage given up any clues. No tracks had been found on the hard earth, no fingerprints on the gun other than the dead man's nor any except Buckley's on the light switch. If Buckley had had any luck in trying to trace the mysterious phone call, he had not divulged anything.
Brill remembered, with a twinge of nervousness, the way in which they had looked at him, those inscrutable Orientals. Their features had been immobile, but in their dark eyes had gleamed suspicion and a threat. He had seen it in the eyes of Yut Wuen, the stocky yellow man; of Ali, the Egyptian, a lean, sinewy statue of bronze; of Jugra Singh, the tall, broad shouldered, turbaned Sikh. They had not spoken their thoughts; but their eyes had followed him, hot and burning, like beasts of prey.
Brill turned from the meandering driveway to cut across the lawn. As he passed under the black shadow of the trees, something sudden, clinging and smothering, enveloped his head, and steely arms locked fiercely about him. His reaction was as instinctive and violent as that of a trapped leopard. He exploded into a galvanized burst of frantic action, a bucking heave that tore the stifling cloak from his head, and freed his arms from the arms that pinioned him. But another pair of arms hung like grim Fate to his legs, and figures surged in on him from the darkness. He could not tell the nature of his assailants; they were like denser, moving shadows in the blackness.
Staggering, fighting for balance, he lashed out blindly, felt the jolt of a solid hit shoot up his arm, and saw one of the shadows sway and pitch backward. His other arm was caught in a savage grasp and twisted up behind his back so violently that he felt as if the tendons were being ripped from their roots. Hot breath hissed in his ear, and bending his head forward, he jerked it backward again with all the power of his thick neck muscles. He felt the back of his skull crash into something softer -- a man's face. There was a groan, and the crippling grip on his imprisoned arm relaxed. With a desperate wrench he tore away, but the arms that clung to his legs tripped him. He pitched headlong, spreading his arms to break his fall, and even before his fingers touched the ground, something exploded in his brain, showering a suddenly starless night of blackness with red sparks that were engulfed abruptly in formless oblivion.
Joel Brill's first conscious thought was that be was being tossed about in an open boat on a stormy sea. Then as his dazed mind cleared, be realized that he was lying in an automobile which was speeding along an uneven road. His head throbbed; he was bound hand and foot, and blanketed in some kind of a cloak. He could see nothing; could hear nothing but the purr of the racing motor. Bewilderment clouded his mind as be sought for a clue to the identity of the kidnappers. Then a sudden suspicion brought out the cold sweat on his skin.
Copyright © 2003 by Paul Herman