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HENRY TREAT SPERRY

TWELVE BLUE CORPSES

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First published in Strange Detective Mysteries, Nov-Dec 1938

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Strange Detective Mysteries, Nov-Dec 1938,
with "Twelve Blue Corpses"


The bizzare case of death by design in a modern Metropolitan hospital.

Illustration

Then Thorne had his assailant's gun.


From the creaking canvas of a Seventeenth-Century work of art stared the faces of twelve doomed New York physicians.... One was already dead, with skin turned hideously blue, and one was dying—when the amazing case literally fell into the lap of Gregory Thorne, lover of the arts, who never could resist a masterpiece in murder.



TABLE OF CONTENTS


CHAPTER ONE
Death Has Two Heads

JHADA SINGH stood in the doorway of the studio and said, "One comes, Master, bearing a painting of twelve men with two heads. It is an omen of evil—"

"Good Lord!" exclaimed Gregory Thorne. "I should think so, Jhada. A picture of twelve men with only two heads between them could hardly be a good luck piece."

"It is not what you describe, Master," said Jhada Singh impassively. "The picture is of twelve men, each having two heads—or so it is interpreted to the eyes of my soul by that vision vouchsafed to us of the Atharva-Veda."

Thorne lay down his brushes and turned away from the canvas upon which he had been working. He stepped back a few paces to survey the model on the dais with narrowed analytical eyes.

"My friend," he said, still speaking to the Hindu, "I have often wondered whether your preternatural gravity wasn't just a cloak for a truly penetrating sense of humor. It seems that my suspicions were not unfounded. But I'm afraid you'll have to explain the joke."

"I jest not, Master," said the turbaned Brahman solemnly. "Even now the man who brings the painting descends from a taxi at the front door. It is Monsieur Marcel Renart, the art dealer."

Thorne did not even go to the window to verify his employee-companion's announcement. Through long association with the mystic Hindu he had learned to accept his predictions unquestioningly. He sighed a trifle regretfully and nodded to his model, a demure dark-haired girl, and the latter immediately gathered her kimono about her lissom form and descended from the dais to disappear through a door in the wall behind it.

A door bell tinkled softly below-stairs.

"All right," said Thorne, "show him up, painting and all. But I warn you, Jhada, if this turns out to be a detecting job, you'll have to do it. I've got to get this study done in time for the Professional Men's Exhibition and I've got only a week left."

Jhada Singh smiled inscrutably and left the room. To Jhada Singh, who had renounced his Far Eastern possessions to master the philosophies, and subsequently had attached himself to the young American. Gregory Thorne was the modern prototype of Sherlock Holmes, the Hindu's favorite character in fiction. They made a peculiarly effective team, and in the space of a few years Thorne had risen to a place of national prominence as an amateur sleuth.

Jhada Singh smiled, for he was well acquainted with his friend's reluctance to take any new investigation—and he was equally familiar with Thome's almost rabid energy and enthusiasm once he was fairly launched on a case....

A few moments later a fat little man in morning-coat, high collar, Ascot cravat, striped trousers and white spats came bustling into the room, carrying an oblong paper-wrapped parcel almost as long as he was tall. He stood the package just inside the door and leaned it carefully against the wall, then came forward with a pudgy hand outstretched to Thorne.

"My friend," he said, puffing a little from his ascent of the stairs, "I had to bring it. The most marvelous bargain —unheard of.... You will not breathe a word, of course—but I had to tell you about it."

"Ah, the fox is living up to his name once more," smiled Thorne. "You've been outwitting some poor devil of a millionaire again, Renart."

"Indeed—it must have been a species of a millionaire," agreed Renart, wagging his round head solemnly. "Who else could be in possession of Dublok's 'Consultation of the Surgeons'?"

Thorne gave a start and looked at the little art dealer in amazement. "You don't mean it?" he exclaimed. "But that painting's been lost for two centuries. There aren't even any prints of it in existence. It's only a myth."

Renart chuckled gleefully. "It may be that I have been—what you call?—stung," he said. "But for a hundred dollars, it is worth the chance. I bring it to you for you to decide. There is none other in the city I would trust."

He gave a wave of his hand to Jhada Singh, who had taken up his usual post near the door, and the Hindu began unwrapping the parcel Renart had brought with him. A few moments later the painting was resting on an easel, the three men gathered before it, examining it closely.

The canvas was unframed, tacked to a stretcher, and gave immediate evidence to Thome's expert eye of having been recently cleaned. It portrayed a group of twelve men gathered at the sides and foot of a huge canopied bed upon which lay a white-visaged apparently unconscious body. The men, in Flemish ruffs, satin pantaloons, silk hose and silver-buckled shoes, were grave of face, some looking speculatively at the patient on the bed, others gathered in groups, seeming to talk together in low tones. The colors were rich, mellow, overlaid with the priceless patina of age. The style of the painting, with its meticulous portrayal of detail and the high finish of the colors, gave unmistakable evidence of belonging to the greatest days of the Early Dutch Period.

Suddenly Thorne glanced up at Jhada Singh, his eyes glinting humorously. "Twelve men," he said, "and twelve heads—not counting the one on the bed. How do you account for that. Jhada?"

The Hindu was staring at the picture with a rapt, intent expression in his dark eyes. "No, Master." he said quietly, "not twelve. Twenty-four heads. And this one—" his slender, brown right forefinger reached out and touched the first of the group from the left—"is dead. This one—" he touched the next figure—"is dying. And all are marked with the shadow of doom."


RENART, who had been looking from Jhada Singh to Thorne during their strange colloquy, with ludicrous amazement stamped on his vandyked visage, suddenly broke the silence which had fallen between the two men.

"Au grand nom de bon dieu!" he muttered. "What is this talk of twenty-four heads? Who is dead? But of course they are dead, mon ami. The men who posed for this picture have been dead these three hundred years."

Suddenly, without replying to Renart, Thorne interrupted him by turning away and walking quickly to the door of the models' dressing room. After a preliminary tap which aroused no response from within, he opened the door and disappeared inside. He returned in a moment, catching up a large magnifying glass from a side table as he passed it. Then he stood in front of the picture, and with the pin he had obtained from the dressing room, he carefully punched a tiny hole in the painted jowl of the first figure from the left.

Renart gave vent to a startled exclamation, but Thorne paid no attention to him. He raised the magnifying glass and peered intently at the hole he had just made. Then, silently, he turned away from the painting and handed the glass to Renart.

The little Frenchman glanced questioningly at Thorne's uninformative face, turned a shade paler, and himself peered intently at the tiny pin-prick with the glass. After a moment he turned away, his face paler still and his whole attitude one of dejection and disappointment.

"So be it," he said with a sigh. "For this once the fox has been out-foxed. I hope le bon dieu will not let that barbarian, Liebnitz, hear of this. He will make of me the laughing stock—"

"Liebnitz would give his soul for that painting," interrupted Thorne quickly. "The hole is round, with smooth edges, showing the paint is new. But look at this...."

He bent and made another small hole near the lower right hand edge of the picture, glanced briefly at it through his glass and then handed the instrument to Renart with a nod.

Renart gave a Gallic cry of rapture as he looked through the glass. "Ah—around the edges of the hole are many small cracks!" he exclaimed. "This paint is very old. Then it is la chose veritable!"

"It's the real thing, all right," agreed Thorne, "although the faces, for some mysterious reason, have been repainted. However, the x-ray will show up the original faces—and it will be an easy job for an expert to restore the painting as it was executed by Dublok. You have a priceless treasure there, my friend."


JHADA SINGH, who had taken no part in the examination, stood gazing at the picture with the same expression of fixed intensity on his face which had been there ever since it had been first uncovered. But now he raised his hand and pointed to a figure, a bit taller than the rest, which stood alone beside the bed, gazing down thoughtfully at the body which reposed upon it.

"This man is known to you, Master," said Jhada Singh. "He has called here many times. His name is Dr. Theodore Collins."

Thorne, his taut, hawklike face quickening with interest, examined the figure the Hindu indicated.

"By George!" he exclaimed after a moment. "It is a striking likeness of the man. A mere coincidence, of course, but...."

Then suddenly he fixed his attention on another figure in the painting, that of a man standing near the right edge of the picture. This figure he studied for a long time, scanning the details of the face with his magnifying glass, and then returning to the first—the one Jhada Singh had pointed out—to subject it to a closer scrutiny.

"Damn queer," he muttered as he turned away, at last. "It can't be—and yet...."

Renart looked at him in helpless bewilderment. "Please do not be mysterious, my friend," he pleaded. "I cannot stand more suspense today. What is this that is queer?"

Unheeding of him, Thorne crossed quickly to a hand-set telephone stand near his working easel and silently dialed a number.

"Hello—Collins?" he said after a moment. "Gregory Thorne speaking. Are you too busy to pay me an unprofessional call right away?... No? Good. I'll be expecting you."

He hung up and turned back to the other two men. "I'm positive," he said, "that Collins was the model for the head of one of those figures in the painting. I'm almost equally certain that another one is a portrait of Dr. James Hale, whom I met at the Professional Men's Exhibition last year. There's something strange afoot here, my friends...."


DR. THEODORE COLLINS was a slender man in his late thirties. He had intensely black hair and small mustache. His skin was dark in complexion—so dark that Thorne, who had seen him only a few days before, almost commented on it as the physician was ushered into the studio.

After introducing Marcel Renart, Thorne led Collins over to the painting, paused with him in front of it.

"Ah," said Dr. Collins. "A new acquisition, eh? Very nice."

Obviously he was not greatly interested in the picture, and it was equally apparent from his manner that he was wondering why he had been summoned merely for the purpose of viewing it.

"I believe that I have discovered something rather strange about this painting," said Thorne after a moment. "I wish you would inspect it closely, Ted, with particular attention to the faces of the subjects."

Collins looked at him searchingly for a moment, then turned back to the painting with renewed interest. As he did so, Thorne again remarked to himself on the extreme darkness of his friend's complexion. He attempted to explain it with the theory that Collins had been a good deal of time in the open recently—but the trouble with the theory was that the weather during the past few days had been consistently overcast.

Then his half-formed questions on the subject were disspelled by a sudden exclamation from Collins. The physician, who had been minutely studying two or three of the faces in the painting, now was quickly inspecting all the rest, and his attitude showed a growing excitement.

"I'll be damned!" he exclaimed, straightening with a laugh and turning to Thorne. "This is quite a tour de force, Gregory. How you got such remarkable likenesses of us all is a mystery—for I know I didn't pose for this, and I suppose none of the other men did. You used photographs, of course. And you've even got poor old Goldmarck—did you know that he died yesterday under very mysterious circumstances? Looked like silver nitrate poisoning, at first, but—"

At Collins's last words Thorne had given a sudden start, and the physician broke off. Thorne reached forward and grasped his friend by the arm.

"Ted," he said in a low tense voice, "have you made a flying trip to Bermuda or Florida during the past few days? Or have you been using a sun lamp?"

"Why, no," said Collins, regarding him curiously. "Today's the first time, since I saw you last, that I've experienced any sunshine. When you called I took the opportunity to get out and soak a little of it into my hide. It's little enough we get of it in this damned town, even in spring—"

"Quick!" interrupted Thorne. "What's an antidote for nitrate of silver poisoning?"

Collins looked at him in amazement, but after only a moment's hesitation replied, "Why—saline solution, or soap and water in large quantities, milk, white of egg.... But what's up, Greg?"

Swiftly Thorne turned his head and nodded at Jhada Singh. The Hindu quickly disappeared out the door, and Thorne turned back to his friend.

"Tell me," said Thorne, removing his hand from the physician's arm and attempting to make his voice calm and impersonal, "what was this about the man whom you called Goldmarck? You mentioned silver nitrate poisoning. I was just wondering how there could be any doubt concerning what killed him. You sounded as though you weren't sure."

But Collins had ceased listening. His hand raised in a vaguely questioning manner to his cheek—and suddenly he turned and darted toward a mirror which hung on the east wall near the windows. Thorne tried to grab his arm and restrain him, but without success. Within the past few seconds Collins's face had turned to a deep shade of bluish-brown....

When Collins turned back from the mirror his eyes wore an expression of horror, but his voice, when he spoke, was as calm as ever. "I've got it, too, Gregory," he said. "The same thing that finished off Goldmarck—silver nitrate poisoning. Only they found nothing but minute quantities in his blood-vessels. Not a tenth of enough for a lethal dose. The stuff I told you about—the antidotes—won't do any good in this case. That's for a lethal amount taken orally—no good when it's in the blood...."

Suddenly he coughed and clutched himself. His face turned darker, and he staggered. Thorne caught him, and began to ease his friend into a chair—but a sudden spasm seized Collins, and he wrenched out of Thome's hands to fall to the floor, writhing there in agony, tearing at his collar with fingers which had become frantic while the great veins swelled in his temples and a bloody froth appeared on his lips.

He gasped out one word, as Gregory Thorne knelt above him. To the detective it sounded like, "Blue...."

Then he rolled over on his face. His body contracted in one last spasm. Just as Jhada Singh appeared in the doorway, his hands laden with a basin, towels and bottles, the physician's body relaxed and lay still on the floor of the studio.


CHAPTER TWO
Conference of the Condemned

GREGORY THORNE surveyed the assemblage gathered in his living room and cleared his throat.

"Gentlemen," he said, "it was at my request that the District Attorney's office summoned you here today. As you are all physicians, I feared that a lesser authority would be unavailing in keeping you from the professional duties which, I know, must in many cases be pressing."

A low murmur, decidedly irritable in tone, broke out as he paused. One man, a corpulent important looking personage who occupied most of a divan against the north wall, snorted.

"'Pressing'!" he echoed—his name, Thorne had learned, was Dr. Jerome Caraway. "I have an appendectomy to perform in the next fifteen minutes. If my substitute makes any mistakes, young man—"

"We will hope for the best," interrupted Thorne. "I shall be as brief as possible as to my reasons for having you summoned here. In a word, gentlemen, those reasons may be summed up as—murder!"

He paused again, and after a moment a broken chorus of exclamations and questions broke out among the men seated about the room. Thorne held up his hand, and after silence was restored, continued.

"Most of you are now aware of the mysterious death of Dr. Otto Goldmarck yesterday. None of you, excepting Dr. Hale, know that another colleague of yours, Dr. Theodore Collins, perished under identical circumstances upstairs in my studio some two hours ago. After I had summoned the police, I called Dr. Hale to examine a strange painting which came into my possession this morning. Dr. Hale identified your portraits in this painting."

He turned toward the painting which stood on an easel beside him, and the assembled doctors leaned forward with growing interest. Thorne went on to tell them about Renart's call that morning; how he had discovered that the original faces had been painted over; how he had called Dr. Collins first, and then Dr. Hale—the only two men he recognized—and how Dr. Hale had identified all the other faces as belonging to physicians on the staff of the Pasteur Hospital....

"How did your friend, Renart, come into possession of this painting?" asked a stooped, grey-haired man with pince-nez, looking up from a close scrutiny of the picture which showed him talking to the fat Dr. Caraway and a lean cadaverous physician Thorne knew as Dr. C. Lester English.

"It was one of those things which occasionally happens among even the most reputable art dealers, Dr. Rhine," explained Thorne, addressing the rest of the gathering, as well as his questioner. "A suspicious looking individual approached my friend, Renart, late in the evening, exhibited only a corner of the painting, and offered it for one hundred dollars. Renart new, of course, that the painting was probably stolen—but the ethics of the case are a little different than in the usual lines of merchandise.

"The practice among dealers is to buy up all such paintings—if circumstances are not favorable to calling the police— and then advertise the painting in catalogues and newspapers. The real owner inevitably comes forward, sooner or later, and is always able to prove his claim more satisfactorily than the owner of, say, an automobile would be able to. Really valuable paintings are comparatively scarce, and are universally known. One is never sold without a complete bill of sale dating back to the date of its first transfer. The owner then pays the price the dealer has paid to the thief—usually a sum less than the reward which has been offered—pays, also, the difference, and the dealer collects as much or more than he customarily makes on a sale commission."

"But what's all this got to do with murder?" put in Dr. Caraway testily. "And why are all our portraits in this painting?"

"I think," said Gregory Thorne, "if we are able to discover the answer to your second question, the first will be answered automatically. To be frank with you, gentlemen, I haven't the vaguest notion. I asked you here for the double purpose of warning you—and in the hope that you might be able to throw some light on the subject, yourselves."


"BUT confound it," interrupted Caraway. "what are you warning us about? Just because our pictures—"

"You're being a little dull, Caraway," broke in Dr. Hale irritably. "Don't you think it's rather ominous that two of the men in this painting—men who have been our colleagues for years—have died under identical circumstances? And isn't it reasonable to suppose that the rest of us may expect the same dose—since we're in the picture, too? Whoever painted that thing did it as a warning to us. Why he should warn us, I don't know—may want to make us squirm before he—"

"But why should anyone want to—er—do away with us?" put in a young red-haired man who, Thorne remembered, was the most recent addition to the Pasteur staff.

"Exactly," said Thorne. "Why—and who? Have you gentlemen any enemies that you know of? Would anyone be benefitted by killing you off?"

"Only our patients—probably," said Caraway sardonically. "But as to the perpetrator of these dastardly deeds—hadn't you better look, Mr. Thorne, for a man who is schooled in two arts?"

Thorne had an uneasy feeling that he knew what was coming, but he was forced to prompt this seemingly obtuse but— Thorne sensed—actually very keen fat man.

"Will you explain, Dr. Caraway?" he requested.

"Why," said the corpulent physician, "I understand that no one has been able to decide just how Goldmarck and Collins were killed. It seems to me that it would take a pretty smart physician to put it over on a man like Job Cochrane, the Medical Examiner. So our man must know something about materia medica— probably he's an expert in toxicology. On the other hand, this painting seems to indicate a man who is also clever with a brush.... Well, who answers both descriptions?" And with an amused but malicious gleam in his small flesh-imbedded eyes, he looked straight at Dr. James Hale.


A BABBLE of protests broke out, but under cover of it, Thorne was doing some intensive thinking. He knew that Hale was an excellent painter—good enough to have done those life-like portraits. He had captured the blue ribbon at the Professional Men's Exposition the year before, and had even talked some of giving up his practice to devote his whole time to art. But if Hale were guilty, he knew it was too early in the game to accuse him openly. There was no case, as yet—and if he felt genuine suspicion was being directed against him, Hale would, through being forewarned, be able to cover his trail all the more efficiently.

Again Thorne held up his hand for silence. "We must accept the possibility," he said, "that the person we are seeking is a physician and an artist. On the other hand, we must not overlook the chance that he is actually neither. The real murderer may only have availed himself of a special knowledge of poisons, on the one hand, and the services of an artist on the other. At any rate, it seems to me that your most logical route of inquiry, at present, lies in determining just how Doctors Goldmarck and Collins died. The Medical Examiner told me that the autopsy on Collins's body would be held tonight at eight o'clock, and suggested that you gentlemen might wish to be present. He will welcome your assistance in determining the cause of death."

Dr. Caraway rose ponderously to his feet. "Good," he said. "I, for one, shall be there." He spoke a little breathlessly, as though the labor of raising his body to an erect position had been almost too much for him. "It seems to me," he continued, "that Mr. Thorne has shown us the manner in which we are best equipped to help ourselves in this matter—if, as I am not yet quite convinced, someone is determined to kill us off, one by one. If the problem presented by a mere post mortem proves too much for us, we deserve to be knocked off—before our inefficiency as physicians takes too heavy a toll among our patients."

He laughed huskily, deep in his throat, his vast, heavy-jowled face darkening with a plethora of blood. For some reason Thorne began to feel a vague uneasiness as he watched him; but now the gathering was beginning to break up, the physicians strolling toward the doorway in groups, talking to each other gravely; marked, it seemed to Thorne, by a more serious air than they had worn when they had entered this room. He told himself that Dr. Cochrane's autopsy that evening would be well attended; he was confident that his warnings had not fallen on barren ground.

Hale, he noted, had already left, doubtless being unwilling to linger after the pointed manner in which Caraway had alluded to his dual abilities as physician and artist. Dr. Rhine, the aged, pince-nez'ed physician who had brought up the question of Renart's possession of the painting, approached Thorne and began some question about Collins's death, when the sound of sudden alarmed voices from the hallway outside interrupted him.

Thorne, in the wake of the men who were still in the room, rushed out. A group surrounded the huge struggling form of Dr. Caraway, who lay on the floor, throwing his great limbs about in a wild frenzied manner, his small fat-rimmed eyes starting out of a face which had turned the color of old deep-stained leather.

His brother physicians had loosened his collar and tie, when Thorne reached Caraway's side. Plainly the man was suffocating, his barrel Oi a chest working in rapid but ineffectual spasms, while his heavy lips turned dark blue and the sweat beaded out on his forehead.

Thorne heard someone cry, "Cyanide!" and saw the young red-haired Dr. Titus Colburn tearing open the bag which he, alone of all the physicians, had brought with him.

Colburn filled a hypodermic from one of the case bottles in his bag, quickly thrust the needle into Caraway's left forearm, while his colleagues held the fat man still. Then the others stepped back, as Caraway's now lax body was lowered to the floor.

Colburn produced a stethoscope and placed its transmitter above Caraway's heart. Then he moved it to that point high on the right side of the chest where, many times, the life beat will still register when it has completely disappeared from the cardiac region. In the meantime Thorne had dispatched one of his guests to telephone police headquarters and the nearest hospital, with directions for the latter to bring oxygen tanks. But as young Colburn rose to his feet and stood looking down at the moveless lump of flesh which Caraway had become, Thorne knew that it was all over. Caraway, as he had said, would be present at the autopsy tonight—but not as a spectator....


CHAPTER THREE
Death's Filing Cabinet

JHADA SINGH had not returned from an errand Thorne had sent him on earlier in the day. So the detective left directions with his housekeeper for the Hindu to follow him to the Universal X-ray Laboratories, where he had an appointment to meet Renart. Then, putting the picture beside him on the seat of his sleek black Standard Swallow, he set out for the laboratories. As he tooled his car through the midtown traffic he thought over the events of the day in detail, trying to make coherence out of the murder-maze in which he had so suddenly found himself wandering.

Everything about this business, he reflected, was a baffling riddle. Even the murder method was still as complete a mystery as ever. Confidently predicting silver nitrate poisoning, the physicians who had performed the autopsy on Goldmarck had been baffled by finding only a minute quantity in the cadaver's blood. Then Caraway, perishing in the very presence of his colleagues, some of whom were practitioners of nation-wide fame, had reacted like a victim of prussic acid, or cyanide—although his face, too, had shown the telltale pigmentation of silver nitrate.

Collins, in his death spasm, Thorne realized, had suspected cyanide. He had whispered. "... blue—" and Thorne knew, now, that he had been trying to say "methylene blue," which had lately been advanced as a specific antidote for cyanide poisoning. Yet Colburn had shot a strong dose of the dye into Caraway's blood without result.

The motivation for the murders, and the identity of the murderer, were if possible even more obscure. Why, out of a staff of a hundred and fifty men, should these twelve physicians attached to the Pasteur Hospital have been selected as victims? It was possible that Jhada Singh might be able to throw some light on this when he returned—but Thorne rather doubted it. He had sent the Hindu to the hospital with instructions to discover, if he could, whether these twelve men had ever been in consultation on a single case. Supposing that the motive were revenge for the failure of the twelve doctors to save a patient's life, a logical suspect would be the survivor of the patient. But it seemed highly unlikely that such a large number would be called in on a single case....

Lacking more circumstantial evidence, he did not consider that there was sufficient grounds for suspecting James Hale as the deus ex machina of the plot. It was true that Dr. Hale was both a painter and a physician—but somehow Thorne could not seriously regard him as being a criminal of the type he would have to be in this case.

At the X-ray laboratories Renart was waiting for him. An operator conducted them into a fluoroscope room and was in the act of mounting the painting behind the frosted glass screen of the instrument when there was a telephone call for Thorne. It was Dr. Hale.

"Your housekeeper told me you were down there," said the physician. "I thought I'd better call you. When I got back to the hospital I found a note waiting for me. I'll read it to you:

### Typewriter

"'Three of twelve have died. The nine survivors may purchase life. Have ten thousand dollars in small bills ready before you go to Bellevue Hospital tonight. Wrap them in newspapers and include a slip bearing your name. On the way to the hospital you will enter First Avenue at Seventy-second Street and proceed at twenty miles per hour to Forty-second, keeping well over to the right-hand side of the street. Somewhere along the route a man will jump on the running board of your car. Immediately hand him the package, without slowing down. If you are not alone in the car, if you have in the meantime made any attempt to get in touch with the police, you will have signed your death warrant. The enclosed sticker is for the purpose of identification, paste it on the lower right-hand side of your windshield.'

"That's all," finished Hale. "The note is unsigned, typewritten. English and Manx have received identical letters— they were waiting for us in our mail boxes when we got here. After I'd read mine I made it a point to check over the boxes of the six other men, and I found envelopes like the ones containing our notes in all of them. What do you advise us to do?"

Thorne considered the situation rapidly. "Get the money ready," he advised. "Get in touch with the other men and tell them to do the same. Don't try to call in the police, and don't permit them to. Someone is well aware of every move we're making. Arrange matters so that you will be in close touch with each other all the rest of the day. I'll have definite instructions for you later."

He hung up and turned to see Renart beckoning at him excitedly from the doorway. "Come—vite!" cried the little Frenchman. "It is la chose veritable—a genuine Dublok. One can see, now, the original faces through this marvelous machine. Ah, quel bonheur!"


THE fluoroscope showed clearly the broad checkerboard strokes of the under-painting beneath the new pigment—and faintly, under that, the faces of the original characters.

Renart was beside himself with joy.

"I shall advertise," he chortled slyly, "but it is in my mind that the former owner knew not the identity of this chef d'oeuvre. If so—why has he not told the police of its theft? Sans doute, my friend, it has lain neglected and unknown these many years in the garret of some ignorant American dealer—"

He broke off abruptly as Thorne continued studying the image of the painting with fixed intensity. "But you say nothing," went on Renart in a suddenly worried tone. "Is it that you doubt—"

Thorne straightened and looked at his friend with a wry smile. "I hate to be a wet blanket, Marcel," he said, "but this is not a Dublok. It is a very old painting—but it is not the 'Consultation of the Surgeons'. It may be a copy—by one of Dublok's pupils—but I'd stake my reputation that it is nothing more."

"But—but," stammered Renart, "can you be sure?"

"We will call in Cory and Count Corneille," said Thorne. "One can be guided only by hunches in cases like this—spiritual differences, a jarring note in an otherwise faultless imitation. Those faces, to me, lack the strength and ruggedness of Dublok's brushwork.... But we'll be able to tell with greater accuracy after the painting has been restored—and, as I say, Cory and Corneille will give you independent opinions."

The girl who had summoned Thorne to the telephone entered again and, in a rather surprised manner, announced that a tall dark gentleman wished to see Mr. Thorne.

Recognizing Jhada Singh from even this meager description, Thorne excused himself and went out to the ante-room. Singh delivered his message tersely.

"The twelve doctors, Master," he said, "all conferred on a single case only six months ago. It was an operation for Addison's disease. A mistake was made—I do not understand what it was. The woman died. It was Mrs. James Hale."

Thorne gave vent to an involuntary exclamation. "By George! Dr. Hale's wife! And Addison's disease—the skin turns brown, the patient dies in agonizing convulsions!"


HE was interrupted by Renart's petulant voice from the doorway. "Please, Gregory, mon ami, come back and look some more. It mus' be that you have made the mistake."

Thorne caught up his hat from the table and waved it vaguely at Renart. "Sorry, Marcel, I've got pressing business to attend to. We'll go into it later. Call me tomorrow." And he went out of the door, followed closely by Jhada Singh.

The two men emerged from the building at the street level, turned right toward Lexington Avenue, where Thorne had parked his car. It was late afternoon, but few people were on the narrow side street.

As they neared the corner, Jhada Singh suddenly looked over his shoulder—and an instant later plucked at Thome's sleeve. The detective twisted half about, his hand going beneath his coat lapel on the upper left-hand side. He was too late. A couple of brawny blue-chinned individuals had fallen into their wake as they left the building, immediately closed up on them.

"Leave your gat where it is, buddy— or we'll give it to you right here," snarled one of them at Thorne. "Keep walkin' straight ahead till you get to Lexington, then turn left till you get to Twenty-eight' Street. Then turn left ag'in. We'll tell you what to do after that."

Thorne glanced at the significant bulges in both men's right-hand jacket pockets, then up at the brown impervious face of Jhada Singh. He shrugged faintly, and walked on with the Hindu at his side.

There was a scattering of people on Twenty-eighth Street, but at their guides' direction, Thorne and Singh almost immediately turned off of it and went into an areaway between two houses near the corner.

Ahead of them, Thorne saw, was a hospital ambulance. The rear door stood open, apparently ready to receive a victim of sickness or accident. But Thorne had little time to speculate on the reason for the ambulance being in such an unlikely place. He saw Jhada Singh, at his side, suddenly lurch forward—and the next instant something crashed down on his cranium, bringing with it a flash of searing pain, and then—-quick oblivion....


THE vague sound of voices was the first thing to register on Thome's returning consciousness. He lay perfectly still with his eyes closed and listened.

"... got by, so far," said a voice which he had no difficulty in recognizing as belonging to one of his and Singh's captors, "with these white coats. But I wish she'd hurry. The coats ain't goin' to do us no good if one o' those croakers wanders in here."

He was interrupted by the sound of an opening door, and Thorne allowed his eyelids to part a mere trifle—only to close them promptly. He had seen a nurse standing in the doorway, a tall striking-looking brunette. He felt uneasily that she had been looking directly at him as she came in. Her first words confirmed his worst fears.

"Thorne has regained consciousness," she said. "What have you two been talking about?"

"Nothin', lady," said the man who had been speaking. "We was just wonderin' when you'd come, on account—"

The nurse interrupted him by addressing Thorne. "It will be best for you if you continue to lie quietly while the table you are on is wheeled into the next room, Mr. Thorne," she said. "You will be shot instantly if you attempt to cry out or escape.... I had to wait until the attendant was off duty, you fool," she went on, evidently addressing the thug now. "Hurry up. You take Thorne. Maxie, fall in behind him with the Hindu. Quickly, now!"

As the tables were wheeled from the room, Thorne felt the pressure of leather straps over his wrists and ankles and knew that he was helplessly bound. He realized that he was on an emergency operating table, and surmised that the room he and Singh had been occupying was one of the usually numerous "admitting rooms" of a large hospital. He debated the advisability of shouting for help, but decided against it. In this place, such cries must be all too frequent to attract attention.

Through slitted eyes he saw that they were being rapidly wheeled along a dark corridor. Presently the rolling table came to a stop, and his captor—Thorne saw now that he had a white coat over his flashy checked suit—opened a door which let into the left wall. Then the fellow disappeared from his view, and the next moment he felt the table being pushed into the room.

It was a long dimly-lighted place, about thirty feet wide by a hundred long. The longitudinal walls were lined with what appeared to be large drawers, like a huge filing cabinet—and a chill shot up Thome's spine as he realized that they were in a morgue.

Rapidly his table was wheeled down the line of those ominous squares, to come to a halt at the far end.

"Okay," came the nurse's voice. "In these last two. There won't be any use for these for at least a week—unless an epidemic breaks out."

And then, before Thorne fully realized what was happening, the last great drawer in the line had been pulled open, his table had been wheeled around flush with it—and with a violent shove the top of the table bearing his body had been shot off the wheels onto the slab bottom of the drawer, and the drawer, itself, slammed shut.

He cried out then—but the manner in which his voice battered back in his ears, in that airless closed-in place, proved to him how useless it was. He heard a dull clicking sound and a muffled slam nearby, and guessed that the noise had been caused as Jhada Singh's body was thrust into the vault adjoining his.

He struggled fruitlessly against the straps pinioning his arms and legs, but with no result other than to rub his wrists and ankles raw. And suddenly he ceased struggling. A faint almost imperceptible odor drifted in, stiffening his body into the rigidity of pure terror.

Instinctive fear had preceded even his identification of that faint but ominous odor—and when memory had brought its name into his brain, he knew that he and Jhada Singh were beyond help. It was cyanide gas!

Thorne renewed his struggles to get free—and again abruptly abandoned them. It was beginning to be difficult to breathe. He would last longer if he breathed as little as possible and refrained from any sort of muscular effort.

He took a deep breath of the still relatively uncontaminated air and held it. The stifling heat of the vault—apparently the refrigeration pipes connected with it had been turned off—was all but unbearable. The sweat stood out in great beads all over his body as the labor of retaining that last desperate inhalation became more intense. To keep his mind occupied Thorne counted off the seconds. He had reached a hundred and fifty before the convulsive movements of his chest warned him that he had only a few seconds left. His body, of its own accord, would soon break the bonds imposed by his will.

One hundred and sixty... seventy... seventy-five....

His teeth clenched so tightly together that they seemed to be grinding each other to powder, Thorne felt his control over his muscles deserting him. For almost three minutes he had held his breath—a feat he would not have believed possible. One hundred and eighty....

He had reached a full three minutes— and then with a rattling gasp the air rushed into his aching lungs ....

But that breath was no breath at all. So saturated had the air become, during those three minutes, it was now almost pure cyanide. To Thorne it seemed that his burning lungs abruptly collapsed in his chest cavity. He had a few moments of livid burning pain which extended the whole length of his body from crown to toe, while he writhed and twisted fruitlessly under his stout straps. Then, mercifully, darkness closed in on his senses—and he knew no more....


CHAPTER FOUR
Death Exits—Laughing

THROUGH a haze of stifling pain Thorne fought back to consciousness for the second time that afternoon. He felt pressure being exerted on his chest, followed by a quick release—then the pressure again.

There was something over his nose and mouth—and a cold stream of revivifying air poured into his lungs, while that rhythmically applied pressure and release continued. Suddenly strength flowed back into his limbs and he raised his hand to his face, only to encounter a rubber conelike thing over the lower part of it.

"He's comin' out! Now I gotta call an M.D. They'll raise hell with me—"

Only then did Thorne open his eyes. Over him stood a white-uniformed young man, and next to him was the turbaned form of Jhada Singh.

"No," said Jhada Singh. "This man is a detective—from the District Attorney's office. See—" Singh flipped back Thorne's lapel and exhibited his badge. "We are here for the police." The Hindu's left eye winked down at Thorne.

"Well—okay..." The fellow began removing the oxygen cone from Thome's face. "But you gotta back me up. It'll mean my job if—"

Dizzily Thorne raised himself from the table and got to his feet. "My assistant is right," he said, a trifle shakily. "You are not to report this until you receive orders from the police. Now—how can we get out of here without being seen?"

The morgue attendant swallowed convulsively, and then pointed to a door in the wall nearest them. "That'll let you right out on the street," he said, "but—"

Thorne gave him no time to make any further objections. "Come on, Jhada," he said, and the next minute they were walking down the street in the dusk.

"How did you do it, Jhada?" asked Thorne as they strode along.

"When I saw them place you in the vault, Master," explained Jhada Singh, "I knew that I would soon suffer the same fate. I foresaw that we should probably be suffocated, and I gave the message to my soul that I was to remain unconscious for five minutes. I had heard them refer to an attendant who, it seemed was temporarily off duty, and I took the chance that he would return within that time. I dared not make it longer, for fear that you would be beyond help."

"I gathered the same thing," said Thorne, "but, not being able to invoke the transcendental power of the Yogis, I was unable to hold out any longer."

"It was a near thing," went on Singh. "When my soul returned I was able to cry out but once. Then it seemed huge masses of cotton were thrust into my mouth and nose. However, the attendant had returned and he heard me. I did not entirely lose my senses and he quickly brought me back to the earth plane. Then, with his aid, I released you—and both of us, in time, were able to restore you. All praise to Brahma, the benevolent, the all-merciful—"

"Good," said Thorne. "The next step is to get in touch with the police. Dr. Hale must be put under arrest—and that nurse. She must be his accomplice."

"No, Master," interrupted Jhada Singh gravely. "I think this cannot be. That nurse is the one who gave me the information about the death of Mrs. Hale, and who showed me the records which gave the names of the twelve doctors on the case. I do not think she can be his accomplice—although I sense that there are bonds of both love and hatred between them. It comes to me that there is one—"

Thorne had come to a sudden stop in the middle of the sidewalk. "Say," he said abruptly, "who is this girl? What sort of a job has she got there at the hospital?"

"It appears that she is in charge of the records," replied the Hindu. "Her name is Miss Mary Fox."

Thorne stared at his friend for a long moment, there in the soft light of evening. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers.

"Fox!" he exclaimed in a sort of whispered shout. "Miss Mary Fox! Where the devil have my wits been all day?... Come on, Jhada!"

And he set off at a brisk pace toward his parked car, Jhada Singh striding along at his side, an expression of secret amusement on his ascetic bronzed face.


AS they reached Fifty-seventh Street, Thorne started to turn left off Fifth Avenue, but the pressure of Jhada Singh's hand on his arm deterred him. "It comes to me that we shall find him at his home," said Singh. "We must hurry, Master— the wings of flight tug at his soul."

Thorne grinned. "In other words, he's about to take it on the lam? But not before he's collected his ninety grand."

Nevertheless, he pressed down on the accelerator and sped up the avenue until they had reached the Upper Sixties. He pulled up in front of a narrow grey house with a modern stone fašade, and the two men got out of Thorne's car and approached the dark-panelled door. There was a considerable wait after Thorne had pressed the bell button, but at last the door opened and Marcel Renart's short rotund form appeared.

"Ah—Gregory!" exclaimed the little art dealer. "It is a happiness to see you. Come in—you, also, M'sieu' Jhada. I have let all my servants go since my daughter left this place. It is much better being alone. A philosopher like myself must have his place of refuge in the busy city."

He chattered on while he ushered them into a sparsely-furnished living room. He motioned Thorne and Singh to chairs near the doorway leading into the hall, then crossed to a small Louis Quinze table on which rested some glasses and a brandy decanter, and poured out three drinks.

"Please," said Thorne, "no liquor, Marcel. Sit down. 1 want to talk to you."

"Oh?" The little Frenchman seated himself in a straight-backed chair facing Thorne. "So, now, what does my friend, the celebrated detective, M'sieu Thorne, wish to say to me?"

Thorne stared at the art dealer for a long moment. Then he said quietly, "I didn't know you were so desperately hard up, Renart. Things must have been going very badly for you lately."

Renart gave a Gallic shrug. "You know how it is, in this business. I had hoped that the Dublok would prove my salvation. But, alas, Gregory—you have destroyed that dream. Not that I hold it against you, mon ami—"

Thorne shook his head. "No, Marcel. You knew perfectly well it was only a worthless copy. You made your first misstep when you brought it to me, pretending that you hadn't made the elementary tests, yourself. No dealer in his right mind would risk even a hundred dollars on a painting until he had at least determined the age of the pigments. But as the case developed I thought you were only being used as a tool. Someone wanted that painting to be brought to my attention—wanted me to recognize the two doctors who were known to me. It was only natural that I should get in touch with them, and that they, in turn, should recognize the other ten on the Pasteur's staff. After that, the stage was set. I played into your hands perfectly. I built up, in those doctor's minds, the very fear-psychology you were counting on."

Renart's face had gradually assumed an expression of injured amazement. "But what are you saying, Gregory?" he exclaimed. "Do you really think that I—"

"There were two things lacking," went on Thorne, blandly ignoring the interruption. "A link—and a motive. The motive—the real motive—became apparent after the doctors received their extortion notices. The link was provided by your daughter—the link which connected you with the hospital and placed the means of death in your hands. When I learned of Miss Fox I remembered that you told me, several years ago, that you had a daughter who was a nurse. She had anglicized her name when she entered the profession, but it was hardly a disguise."

Thorne heard a hissing breath at his ear and saw, from the corner of his eye, the body of Jhada Singh go tense.

With one movement, Thorne leaped from his chair, threw himself across Jhada Singh's body, sending the Hindu crashing to the floor, chair and all, and dove through the doorway to hit the man who had suddenly materialized there.

The man went down with Thorne on top of him. The automatic in the fellow's hand went off, the bullet imbedding itself harmlessly in the ceiling. Then Thorne whipped over on his back, pulling the man's body over his own just as a chattering roar broke out up the stairway.

The man on top of Thorne went limp, and one bullet from the sub-machinegun on the stairway pierced his body, to strike Thorne's left shoulder a stunning blow. Then Thorne had his assailant's gun. He fired a blast—and the shadowy form up there suddenly swayed, pitched forward and came tumbling and sprawling down the steps, preceded by the clattering fall of the automatic rifle.

Thorne pushed aside the dead body of the first thug and rose shakily to his feet. As he did so, the front door slammed open, and he saw Renart's coat-tails disappear through it. Before he could move in pursuit, he saw the hand of the man who had fired the machinegun dive into a jacket pocket and produce a pistol.

Thorne leaped for him. But before he could reach the fellow the gun went off.

"So he was goin' to run out on us, was he?" he croaked. Then he rolled over and lay still just as Thorne snatched the pistol from his hand.

The detective looked out of the door in the direction in which the man had shot. Renart's still form lay sprawled on the sidewalk just outside.


GREGORY THORNE nodded to his model. "You may rest, Miss Grayson," he said.

The girl, with the peculiar modesty of the profession, demurely drew a shawl about her lithe nude form and sank back on the settee.

Jhada Singh, at his post by the doorway, also relaxed. He always conscientiously kept his gaze as far from the model as possible.

"You see," said the detective, as he began cleaning his palette, "Mary Fox— or Marie Renart, as she was born—had been in love with Dr. Hale. Hale threw her over and married another girl. Then Mrs. Hale developed Addison's disease and, of course, was brought to Pasteur Hospital. Mary Fox arranged to be appointed her nurse—and that spelled finish for Mrs. Hale. She killed Hale's wife by giving her tiny doses of arsenic. Hale administered adrenalin-cortex derivative, but his wife continued to sink. He called in everybody on the staff who might be able to help. At one time twelve of them were in consultation.

"But even Mrs. Hale's death would not satisfy Mary Fox. Hale continued to repulse her—and when Renart became desperately involved financially and was casting about for any means to recoup—legitimate or otherwise—Mary Fox's clever brain hatched a complex scheme.

"Physicians and nurses, constantly in contact with contagious diseases, as they are, regularly submit to anti-toxic injections of various kinds. Mary Fox usually gave the typhoid injections to every man on the staff. They are given in three doses, at three-day intervals. Mary had made herself an expert on toxicology, and she knew that there was a way of combining certain elements of cyanide with nitrate of silver, to form a temporarily deadly gas. She included a very small amount of cyanide in the first innoculations she gave Goldmarck, Collins and Caraway.In the final innoculation she included nitrate of silver—and her victims generated a lethal gas in their veins. When the saturation point was reached they died—and within a half hour every vestige of evidence as to what killed them had disappeared. The gas simply dissolved and was absorbed in atomic form by the nitrate.

"It was, of course, Renart's fertile brain which concocted the idea of the painting as being the most dramatic—and therefore impressive—means of bringing home to the intended victims the fact of their peril. Of course, they were actually in no danger—since all but the three men who were already dead were not due for typhoid innoculations for some time. The trick was to use these three deaths to make it seem that if they did not cough up ten thousand apiece they would suffer the same mysterious fate."

"It would seem, Master," put in Jhada Singh, "that Renart was placing his head in the tiger's mouth to come to you."

Thorne smiled. "Thank you, Jhada," he said. "Actually, he was being very clever. He and Mary saw to it that there were plenty of signposts pointing along the path they were sure I would follow—and yet they were very careful not to make those signposts too obvious. Renart was watching me very closely, and fate played into his hands when I received Hale's call at the X-ray laboratories, after Hale had received his extortion note. Renart eavesdropped on the conversation and heard me tell Hale not to warn the police. But, knowing that I, in all probability would call the cops, myself, he took immediate steps to put us both out of the way. He had had us shadowed constantly, and the minute we left the laboratories he called two of his thugs, who were waiting downstairs in a drug store, and told them (o put on the heat.

"Mary Fox had procured interne's jackets for them, and they were able to get out with one of the Pasteur ambulances without being detected. When they carried our unconscious bodies into one of the receiving rooms, nobody thought to question it. We looked like just another couple of accident victims. She had us held there while she called the morgue attendant off duty for a few minutes— then had us filed away on a couple of cooling slabs, breaking an ampule of cyanide in our chambers."

Suddenly Thorne looked up quizzically at his dark-skinned friend. "It seems to me, Jhada," he said, "that your intuitive faculties were not working quite up to par on this case. Usually when crime's afoot, you get something buzzing in your head that sounds like a three-alarm fire—or so you have told me. How was it that you didn't react that way to Renart, when he brought up his painting?"

Singh smiled faintly. "I did, Master," he said. "But I sensed that you, too, suspected something beneath the surface. As you have just said, you immediately became suspicious of Renart when you found that he had not. seemingly, tested the picture before purchasing it."

"Ah," said Thorne. "And believing me to be on the right track, you kept discreetly silent—not wanting to rob me of any of the glory. Very thoughtful of you, Jhada. But hereafter, my friend, let me have the full benefit of your valuable cerebration. I would rather live to share my glory than die, a lonely hero."

"Very well. Master," said Jhada Singh; and Thorne nodded to his model and resumed work on his painting.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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