The Phantom Detective in The Video Victims [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Robert Wallace
eBook Category: Mystery/Crime/Science Fiction
eBook Description: The girl was scared and wouldn't talk--but her fear tells the Phantom Detective--the world's greatest sleuth--more than words when he investigates a strange and baffling murder at a TV station! Ripped from the pages of the Spring, 1951 issue of "The Phantom Detective Magazine," here is the lead novel--The Video Victims!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, Published: USA, 1951
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2009
3 Reader Ratings:
It was not a pretty city through which the man in a light car was driving, making a brief inspection of the town before heading for his destination. Mill towns rarely are attractive, and the original buildings of this one, now falling in ruins, once had gone in for gaudiness. But soot from many tall smokestacks had faded their gilt to a drab gray.
Even the name of the city did nothing to add to its beauty. It was called Uncas, after one of its founders.
But it was an important city. Its markets catered to a wide rural population, besides two hundred thousand local inhabitants. It was bustling, up-to-date, and progressive.
The man who was looking it over from behind the wheel of his car was about thirty-five, a man so average in appearance that there was no single outstanding feature about him. And in his quiet, dark clothing he was not an individual to whom anybody would give particular notice.
But that mediocrity of appearance was not remarkable where this man was concerned, because it was distinctly manufactured. He was in disguise, yet there was no visible trace of the fact that in his rightful identity he didn't look like this at all.
It was an expert bit of work, but disguise was one of the assets to this man in his chosen profession, an art he had long and carefully studied.
He had reached such a peak of perfection that it was doubtful if any other expert in the art of makeup could achieve such results as he did. But then he was that legendary character so feared by the underworld that his very life often depended upon his ability to change his appearance quickly and efficiently--the Phantom Detective.
After making a tour of some of the city's main arteries, he finally pulled up before an imposing home in the exclusive residential section. It was an old-fashioned mansion of many rooms, with high ceilings, cupolas, and a porch around three sides of the house. The grounds surrounding it were fenced in, and neatly kept up. It looked like a good, solid, substantial and comfortable home. Beside the gate was a name plate which read:
The Phantom got out of his car, glanced at his watch and saw that it was exactly nine-thirty. He was right on time for his appointment. Opening the gate, he headed along the path that led to the house. At times trees and shrubs cut off the faint starlight to such an extent that he had to slow up for fear of wandering off the path and into some of the flower beds which were dotted at intervals between the shrubbery.
Finally he reached the porch and rang the door bell. There seemed to be rather a long wait before the door was opened by a strikingly pretty girl. She was in her early twenties, tall and willowy, with brown hair, and eyes that were a startling green. The tailored suit she wore, obviously expensive, enhanced a figure which was all that could be desired. "Good evening," the Phantom said. "I have an appointment with Mr. Chester McLean for nine-thirty."
The girl smiled, and he liked the way her lips parted. "Oh, I'm sorry, but Dad isn't home yet. If he made an appointment with you, though, he'll surely be here soon. Please come in."
The Phantom followed her down a wide, imposing old-fashioned hall and into a huge living room. It was big enough to hold two grand pianos, back to back, without their seeming enormous. Above the fireplace was an oil portrait of a handsome man. His features, and those of this girl, resembled each other.
The Phantom sat down, thanked the girl for a magazine she handed him, and sat back to wait. She didn't ask any questions but went over to a small ornamental desk and busied herself there.
A telephone rang somewhere in the house. The girl hurriedly excused herself and went out to answer it. The Phantom heard her voice clearly at first, then a door clicked shut and the voice was cut off. He shrugged, and settled back with the magazine in which he became so immersed that not until he glanced at his watch did he suddenly realize that it was after ten o'clock. The girl had gone to answer that call more than twenty minutes ago.
The Phantom placed the magazine on a table beside his chair and studied the room, appreciating its comfort and quiet elegance. Chester McLean, apparently, not only liked beautiful things, but could afford them.
Gradually, then, the Phantom became aware that the big house seemed deathly still. There wasn't a sound to be heard, not even a creak. No low murmur of the girl's voice, muffled by the door. And it should have been heard in such silence.
The Phantom arose, frowning thoughtfully. Moving over to the door, he took a few steps into the hall, went down it to the door the girl apparently had closed when she began telephoning. Even here he couldn't detect a sound. The Phantom grasped the knob, turned it slowly, and opened the door a crack. He realized that he was probably being presumptuous, but he didn't like that ghastly silence.
The room was illuminated--and nobody was there. The phone was in its cradle. The Phantom walked across the room to a window. It looked out toward the three-car garage, which was brightly lighted and the doors of two of the stalls were wide open.
The girl, then, must have gone off. But that seemed odd. It was neither polite nor safe to leave a stranger in that house alone. The Phantom returned to the hall. He raised his voice in a shout.
"Miss McLean," he called. "Miss McLean!"
His voice came back to him, but no other sound. Finally, he reached under his coat and touched a heavy automatic in a shoulder sling, reassuring himself that it was in proper working condition for action. Determinedly then, he began a search of the big house, instinctively sure he would find something radically wrong.
Every room on the first floor was empty. On the second, he found that four of the six bedrooms seemed to be little used. One of the other two was obviously the girl's, and the other was her father's. A masculine room, faintly smelling of expensive pipe tobacco.
Now thoroughly aroused, the Phantom even inspected the vastness of the attic and, at the last, the garage. Finished with his thorough search, it was quite plain to him that he was entirely alone in this big house, and that even the grounds and out-buildings were deserted. Then he remembered that he had forgotten to look in the cellar and rushed down there. No one was in the big cellar, either. But as he took a step toward the stairs, he saw a flash of light pass by one of the small windows.
He hurried over to the window, stood on tiptoe, and peered out. A light blue convertible was being jockeyed into the garage and at the wheel was the girl who had invited him in. The Phantom hurried upstairs to the living room and sat down in the chair he had been occupying. Picking up the magazine, he appeared to be deeply engrossed in some article.
A good ten minutes more went by, and still the girl didn't appear. The Phantom was getting restless again when she walked into the living room. There was a half-smoked cigarette between her fingers.
"I'm terribly sorry," she said. "That was one of my friends on the phone. You know--the kind who never hangs up. Why, I must have been on the wire for half an hour at least."
"I hadn't noticed," the Phantom told her politely.
"I must apologize again," she went on, "for telling you Dad would be home soon. I had completely forgotten he told me he wouldn't be home until late. There's some sort of a business meeting--"
"About the television station in which he is interested?" the Phantom asked.
"Yes." She nodded. "He must have forgotten his appointment with you here. I wish I could reach him, but--"
The Phantom arose. "It's quite all right, Miss McLean. I can see him tomorrow. Tell him the man he asked Frank Havens to send, was here. I'll hold myself available until he gets in touch with me."
"I'm so sorry," she repeated, still apologetic. "I'll certainly tell Dad when he--"
A door opened somewhere upstairs. The Phantom heard it clearly and so did the girl. All the color in her cheeks drained out of her face. As he pivoted quickly he noted that the back of her suit--both the coat and skirt--seemed to be smeared with a gritty, rust-colored substance which he knew had not been there when she let him into the house.
There were footsteps on the second floor. They started down the stairs. The original of the oil painting which hung over the fireplace appeared in the doorway. His hair was rumpled, he wore slippers and a lounging robe, and he was blinking sleepily.
"Hello, Lisa," he said, and smiled at the girl.
"Why--Dad!" she exclaimed. "What on earth--"
He laughed. "You were out in back somewhere when I came home late this afternoon. I was exhausted so I lay down. I guess I must have been more tired than I realized. Only woke up this moment." He looked at the Phantom. "I'm sorry if I kept you waiting, sir. Is there anything special--"
The Phantom gave no indication that he knew both these people were liars. Neither had been in this house fifteen minutes ago.
"Quite all right, Mr. McLean," he said. "I had an appointment with you at nine-thirty, but if--"
McLean stiffened slightly, as if preparing himself for a shock.
"You are--Frank Havens' friend?"
"I am the Phantom Detective, Mr. McLean."
Lisa gave a startled gasp--and in it was more of fear than surprise.
McLean nodded heavily. "Please sit down again," he said. "I'm afraid I brought you all the way to this city for nothing."
The Phantom sat down. "But Mr. Havens particularly emphasized the fact," he murmured, "that you needed help. Badly and quickly."
"I thought I did," McLean said. "There were--well, certain factors I felt sure were operating against me. I was completely mistaken. I'm certain of that now. I'm deeply sorry I troubled you and Frank Havens. He's an old friend of mine. I knew, as everyone does, that not only is he also a good friend of yours, but your only personal contact, so when I mistakenly believed I needed help, I thought he might provide me with the best. Meaning, of course, you."
The Phantom arose slowly.
"All right, Mr. McLean. I'm glad whatever troubled you had cleared up. If anything happens to make you change your mind, I'll be at the Windmere Hotel for a time. I'm registered there under the name of Arnold King."
"Yes--yes, of course," McLean said. He seemed anxious for his visitor to leave. "You'll excuse me now. I missed dinner and I'm famished. If you'd care to stay--"
"No, thank you," the Phantom said. "Good night, Mr. McLean, and remember, I shall be glad to give you whatever help I can."
Lisa McLean hurried off, apparently to see about food for her father. McLean went with the Phantom to the front door and bade him good night. The Phantom drove slowly away, sorely perplexed as to what this was all about.
He reviewed what had happened. Lisa had received a phone call. Whoever had called must have told her something which made her slip out of the house, drive somewhere and return promptly. But why had she lied about it?
Her father just as surely had slipped into the house by a back door, used a rear stairway to reach his room and quickly changed into slippers and robe, then pretended he had been there all the time. Something had happened to make those two lie.
The Phantom had no suspicions that they had slipped away to commit any crime. Frank Havens had vouched for McLean, had asked the Phantom as a personal favor to come here and help the man. Havens picked his friends well. He wouldn't have been wrong about McLean.
* * * *
The Mark of Murder
As the Phantom reached the busier sections of town, he heard the wail of sirens, several of them. Soon two radio cars whined toward him from the opposite direction. These were followed by a black sedan, unmarked, but its siren raised an unholy din in the night. Following this came a sleek ambulance, red blinker lights flashing.
More on a hunch than anything else, the Phantom tramped on the brakes, turned around and began following the procession. The speeding cars roared around McLean's neighborhood and on for about two more miles.
Then, just ahead, the Phantom saw crimson lights, apparently suspended in the sky. But he recalled that during the day he had seen the steel skeleton of a television tower at this spot. Those crimson blinkers were simply warnings to planes.
The sirens started to moan down. By the time the Phantom reached the spot, headlights were flooding the base of the mammoth television tower. A dozen or more policemen were there, and an equal number of men in civilian clothes. They seemed to be gathered about something that lay on the ground.
The Phantom got out of his car and approached the group. A uniformed police sergeant suddenly grabbed his arm.
"Okay, mister," he said. "We can't have people tramping around here. Run along, like a good guy."
"What's happened?" the Phantom asked.
"If it'll ease your curiosity," the sergeant said, "somebody fell off that television tower and landed on the rocks. Believe me, you wouldn't like to see what's left."
"I think I would," the Phantom said.
Digging a hand under his coat, he took a small leather case from a secret pocket. He slipped this open and suddenly that small portion of the night around them was illuminated by a million flashing lights. For in that leather case was a platinum and diamond badge in the form of a domino mask. The badge of the Phantom Detective! And police officers, not only throughout this country but in many foreign lands, recognized and respected the significance of that emblem.
"The Phantom!" the sergeant said. "I'm mighty glad I've had a chance to meet you, sir--been hearing about you for many a long day. But it's like I told you--this is nothing for you. Far as we know now it's just some old bum who climbed up on the tower when nobody was looking and fell off it."
They walked toward the body and the sergeant broke through the crowd. The Phantom looked down at a grisly sight. There wasn't any question that this man had fallen from a great height. He lay face down, but his features would have been unrecognizable anyway. He had landed against large rocks which had been piled up during the excavation work necessary to install the base of the tower.
The man wore old, much-worn clothing. His shoes were scuffed and down at the heels. His hat, on the ground a dozen feet away, was battered and had a greasy ring beneath and above the frayed ribbon.
The Phantom sighed. Death was never something he could easily take. But this obviously was exactly what the sergeant had said--some bum who had fallen off the television tower. Why he had ever wanted to climb it was something for the police to determine. It had nothing to do with the Phantom.
An orderly from the ambulance was leaning against one of the tower girders and smoking a cigarette. He flipped the butt away, straightened up and started toward the ambulance. As he turned, headlights brought him into bold relief. The Phantom barely restrained a swift exclamation. For the back of the orderly's white coat was smeared with a gritty, rust-colored substance. Obviously it had come from the girder against which he had been leaning.
And--the back of Lisa McLean's coat and skirt had been covered with an identical substance!
Plainly, thought the Phantom, there was considerably more here than met the eye. Even if he heard no further word from Lisa's father, he decided he would not be in any great hurry to leave the city of Uncas--not until a few puzzling matters were explained to his satisfaction.
* * * *
Often the Phantom, in one or another of the roles he created, admitted to being the world-famous detective, as he had in this town, but his real identity was known only to one man in the world. That man was Frank Havens, publisher of a string of newspapers from coast to coast, and the man who had been the closest friend of the Phantom's father, now dead. The single living human being who knew that the Phantom was, in fact, Richard Curtis Van Loan, supposed society playboy and wealthy idler, was Havens.
Van's choice of a life profession had not, however, come about through deliberate selection, but had been more or less a matter of chance. Born to wealth and a life of ease, he had been definitely bored with a do-nothing existence when Frank Havens, who had always watched over him with a father's care, had come up with a solution. He had suggested that Van try his hand at helping out his New York paper, the Clarion, in some routine work connected with a puzzling murder case. Van Loan had agreed, since Havens had put it rather as a favor to him.
Surprisingly--even to himself--Van had solved the case quickly. It had clearly come to him then--what to do with his life. For in that short time he had discovered a natural flair for detective work. With the usual energy he possessed in high degree, but which never before had been displayed except on the polo field or the tennis court, he had entered into his life-work with zest and determination.
Frank Havens had been almost as enthusiastic as Van himself. But when they plotted the bizarre career of the man who soon was to become known as the "Phantom Detective"--the name given to him by reporters on his first successful try, men who had no idea he was the wealthy and socially prominent Richard Curtis Van Loan--they had realized that as a measure of personal safety it would be better if Van continued his pose as a somewhat bored and ineffectual member of the idle rich.
Van immediately went into a strenuous training, and a thorough study of his new profession. One of his first chores was to master the difficult art of disguise. He resorted to no tricks like false whiskers, or the better known mechanical devices to change his appearance. Rather, he used simple dyes, different ways of combing his hair, different postures, methods of walking, and various changes in the slant of his eyes. He quickly reached a point where he actually lived the ro1es he created.
It was not long, once he considered himself sufficiently prepared and had started out on his crime-hunting anonymously, before he became a well-known figure both to police and crooks. Criminals of all types hated and feared him. The minions of the law admired his work, helping him in every way possible, and always recognizing the gem-studded badge he carried. Because of its great intrinsic value there was little likelihood of that badge being duplicated.
It was to Van Loan's penthouse suite atop a tall apartment dwelling of the wealthy that the Phantom unobtrusively retired after his sorties, to again become the lackadaisical Van Loan. In that penthouse, which could be reached by a private entrance and a private elevator, he kept, in a hidden compartment, his makeup materials and other "tools of trade." He had a small lab there also, but maintained an elaborate one in New York's Bronx where he was known as "Dr. Bendix," a somewhat cranky stoop-shouldered old scientist. Dr. Bendix was supposed to have some sort of Government connections, and since he showed inclinations of preferring a hermit's life, he and his laboratory were left strictly alone by the none too curious few who lived near his somewhat dilapidated converted warehouse.
In keeping with his determination to learn everything connected with his profession, the Phantom had trained himself to mimic voices, to act his various roles to the hilt. He became a deep student of all forms of criminology, spending long hours in his Bronx crime library, which had no equal outside that of the F.B.I. in Washington. In fact, if his talents had bent in that direction, he would have made a formidable crook, because he knew all their tricks.
Sometimes, when the Phantom needed the aid of a clever woman in some case, he would call on Muriel Havens, the lovely daughter of the publisher. Muriel was always eager to help--and without the slightest suspicion that she was really helping Richard Curtis Van Loan, one of her best friends since childhood.
Another who eagerly aided the Phantom when called upon was a red-headed dynamo named Steve Huston, ace crime reporter for Frank Havens' New York Clarion. Huston was equally in the dark as to the Phantom's real identity, and never sought to ferret it out, being content that he could help the great anonymous detective.
Now, here in Uncas, on something that had been beginning to look like a wild goose chase, the Phantom was wondering if he would not have use for one or both of those loyal aides of his before long.
He had encountered all manner of crooks and criminals in his exciting career, but never before had he suspected the people he was supposed to help. Not when they were friends of Frank Havens. But now he was forced to doubt Chester McLean and his beautiful daughter, Lisa.
Havens might be able to explain some of this puzzle. Van's old friend had promised to come down and meet him here. So Van was not surprised when he let himself into his hotel room and found Havens already waiting for him.
Havens, white-haired, handsome, and a powerfully built man for his age, gave no indication that he knew the man who came into the room. Havens never recognized the Phantom while he was in disguise, until the Phantom gave the first recognition. In that manner Havens couldn't make a mistake and greet the wrong man. But he knew this man instantly now when Van touched an ear lobe, the given sign.
"I'm glad you're here, Mr. Havens." Van closed and locked the door. He threw his hat on the bed and sat down. "Things have happened and I can't begin to explain them."
Havens looked startled "But, Dick, what did McLean have to say?"
"Nothing. He told me he'd made a mistake and apologized for having you send me to him ... Mr. Havens, have you any idea what this is all about?"
"Well, yes. Not too well, but I do know that McLean owns half of a television station here in town. He bought into it about three years ago."
Van Loan told Havens about how he had searched the McLean house, knew nobody was in it, and that therefore both McLean and his daughter had lied.
"I simply can't understand it," Havens commented ruefully. "In fact, I was surprised when McLean asked me to bring you into the case. McLean is the rough and tough type who likes to fight his own battles. When he called for help, I knew things must be in serious condition."
"Didn't he give you the slightest intimation as to what this was all about, Mr. Havens?"
"Well, he did say that the television station was running into some bad luck. Two men were killed while the tower was being built. Another was killed in the studio. Broadcasts have gone sour, actors up and quit without notice so that broadcasts have had to be called off. Name bands have been unaccountably delayed, missing their dates on this station. And a few hundred more minor mishaps, from broken wires and cables to missing props." Van nodded slowly. "So that's it. Tell me more about this TV station, Mr. Havens."
The publisher did not have a great deal of information, but he gave it.
"Well," he said, "it was started three years ago by a man named Alonzo Woodward. He began in a small way, purely local stuff. But television had been getting stronger and this station grew with it. McLean bought a half interest--cost him a lot of money, too."
"And all these difficulties began after McLean bought in?" Van asked.
"I think so, Dick. Though this intimidation has grown ever since it was learned the coaxial cable--that's the television network cable--was unexpectedly routed this way. This station will become one of the biggest after tomorrow night."
"What happens then?" Van Loan inquired.
"The station officially is welcomed into the big network. You recall how it was done in radio, a big program in honor of the new station."
"Mr. Havens," Van said, "I'm sure something is decidedly wrong at the McLean home. Mr. McLean, of course, would hardly confide in me. But you're one of his best friends."
Havens nodded. "You want me to see him, find out what this is all about and tell him again that you are ready to help?"
"You're the man to do it," Van said.
"All right." Havens arose. "I'll go see him right away. But I won't tell him about that rusty mark you spotted on Lisa's suit. The way McLean is acting, he must have enough worry on his mind without that.
"Good," Van Loan said. "I'll meet you back here. I'm going to have a talk with the local police authorities, then pay a little visit to the morgue."
"McLean wouldn't have gone to the police with his troubles," Havens reminded him.
"Perhaps not, but maybe they know about it. Or possibly this Alonzo Woodward filed some sort of a complaint. After all, it was his television station that it seems is being sabotaged."
"All right," Havens said. "Probably McLean was mistaken and there's nothing in this for you, Van. I'll try to find out."