|BURN, WITCH, BURN by A Merritt|
VII.—The Peters Doll
SHEVLIN watched me as I stared at the doll. He was satisfied by its effect upon me.
“A hell of a lookin’ thing, ain’t it?” he asked. “The doctor sees it, McCann. I told you he had brains!” He jounced the doll down upon his knee, and sat there like a red-faced ventriloquist with a peculiarly malevolent dummy—certainly it would not have surprised me to have heard the diabolic laughter issue from its faintly grinning mouth.
“Now, I’ll tell you, Dr. Lowell,” Shevlin went on. “I stands there lookin’ at this doll, an’ I picks it up. ‘There’s more in this than meets the eye, Tim Shevlin,’ I says to myself. An’ I looks to see what’s become of the drunk. He’s standin’ where I left him, an’ I walk over to him an’ he says: ‘Was it a doll like I told you? Hah! I told you it was a doll! Hah! That’s him!’ he says, gettin’ a peek at what I’m carryin’. So I says to him, ‘Young fellow, me lad, there’s somethin’ wrong here. You’re goin’ to the station wit’ me an’ tell the lootenant what you told me an’ show him your legs an’ all,’ I says. An’ the drunk says, ‘Fair enough, but keep that thing on the other side of me.’ So we go to the station.
“The lootenant’s there an’ the sergeant an’ a coupla flatties. I marches up an’ sticks the doll on the top of the desk in front of the lootenant.
“‘What’s this?’ he says, grinnin’. ‘Another kidnapin’?’
“Show him your legs,” I tells the drunk. ‘Not unless they’re better than the Follies,’ grins this potato-brained ape. But the drunk’s rolled up his pants an’ down his socks an’ shows ‘em.
“‘What t’hell done that?’ says the lootenant, standin’ up.
“‘The doll,’ says the drunk. The lootenant looks at him, and sits back blinkin’. An’ I tells him about answerin’ the drunk’s yells, an’ what he tells me, an’ what I see. The sergeant laughs an’ the flatties laugh but the lootenant gets red in the face an’ says, ‘Are you tryin’ to kid me, Shevlin?’ An’ I says, ‘I’m tellin’ you what he tells me an’ what I seen, an’ there’s the doll.’ An’ he says, ‘This bootleg is fierce but I never knew it was catchin’.’ An’ he crooks his finger at me an’ says, ‘Come up here, I want t’ smell your breath.’ An’ then I knows it’s all up, because t’ tell the truth the drunk had a flask an’ I’d took one wit’ him. Only one an’ the only one I’d had. But there it was on me breath. An’ the lootenant says, ‘I thought so. Get down.”
“An’ then he starts bellerin’ an’ hollerin’ at the drunk, ‘You wit’ your soup-an’-nuts an’ your silk hat, you ought to be a credit to your city an’ what t’ hell you think you can do, corrupt a good officer an’ kid me? You done the first but you ain’t doin’ the second,’ he yelps. ‘Put him in the cooler,’ he yelps. ‘An’ throw his damned doll in wit’ him t’ keep him company!’ An’ at that the drunk lets out a screech an’ drops t’ the floor. He’ out good an’ plenty. An’ the lootenant says, ‘The poor damned fool by God he believes his own lie! Bring him around an’ let him go.’ An’ he says t’ me, ‘If you weren’t such a good man, Tim, I’d have you up for this. Take your degen’ret doll an’ go home,’ he says, ‘I’ll send a relief t’ your beat. An’ take t- morrow off an’ sober up,’ says he. An’ I says t’ him, ‘All right, but I seen what I seen. An’ t’ hell wit’ you all,” I says t’ the flatties. An’ everybody’s laughin’ fit t’ split. An’ I says t’ the lootenant, ‘If you break me for it or not, t’ hell wit’ you too.’ But they keep on laughin’, so I take the doll an’ walk out.”
“I take the doll home,” he resumed. “I tell it all t’ Maggie, me wife. An’ what does she tell me? ‘T’ think you’ve been off the hard stuff or near off so long,’ she says, ‘an’ now look at you!’ she says, ‘wit’ this talk of stabbin’ dolls, an’ insultin’ the lootenant, an’ maybe gettin’ sent t’ Staten Island,’ she says. ‘An’ Jenny just gettin’ in high school! Go t’ bed,’ she says, ‘an’ sleep it off, an’ throw the doll in the garbage,’ she says. But by now I am gettin’ good an’ mad, an’ I do not throw it in the garbage but I take it with me. An’ a while ago I meet McCann, an’ somehow he knows somethin’, I tell him an’ he brings me here. An’ just fer what, I don’t know.”
“Do you want me to speak to the lieutenant?” I asked.
“What could you say?” he replied, reasonably enough. “If you tell him the drunk was right, an’ that I’m right an’ I did see the doll run, what’ll he think? He’ll think you’re as crazy as I must be. An’ if you explain maybe I was a little off me nut just for the minute, it’s to the hospital they’ll be sendin’ me. No, Doctor. I’m much obliged, but all I can do is say nothin’ more an’ be dignified an’ maybe hand out a shiner or two if they get too rough. It’s grateful I am fer the kindly way you’ve listened. It makes me feel better.”
Shevlin got to his feet, sighing heavily.
“An’ what do you think? I mean about what the drunk said he seen, an’ what I seen?” he asked somewhat nervously.
“I cannot speak for the inebriate,” I answered cautiously. “As for yourself—well, it might be that the doll had been lying out there in the street, and that a cat or dog ran across just as the automobile went by. Dog or cat escaped, but the action directed your attention to the doll and you thought-”
He interrupted me with a wave of his hand.
“All right. All right. ‘Tis enough. I’ll just leave the doll wit’ you to pay for the diagnosis, sir.”
With considerable dignity and perceptibly heightened colour Shevlin stalked from the room. McCann was shaking with silent laughter. I picked up the doll and laid it on my table. I looked at the subtly malignant little face and I did not feel much like laughing.
For some obscure reason I took the Walters doll out of the drawer and placed it beside the other, took out the strangely knotted cord and set it between them. McCann was standing at my side, watching. I heard him give a low whistle.
“Where did you get that, Doc?” he pointed to the cord. I told him. He whistled again.
“The boss never knew he had it, that’s sure,” he said. “Wonder who slipped it over on him? The hag, of course. But how?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Why, the witch’s ladder,” he pointed again to the cord. “That’s what they call it down Mexico way. It’s bad medicine. The witch slips it to you and then she has power over you.” He bent over the cord... “Yep, it’s the witch’s ladder—the nine knots an’ woman’s hair... an’ in the boss’s pocket!”
He stood staring at the cord. I noticed he made no attempt to pick it up.
“Take it up and look at it closer, McCann,” I said.
“Not me!” He stepped back. “I’m telling you it’s bad medicine, Doc.”
I had been steadily growing more and more irritated against the fog of superstition gathering ever heavier around me, and now I lost my patience.
“See here, McCann,” I said, hotly, “are you, to use Shevlin’s expression, trying to kid me? Every time I see you I am brought face to face with some fresh outrage against credibility. First it is your doll in the car. Then Shevlin. And now your witch’s ladder. What’s your idea?”
He looked at me with narrowed eyes, a faint flush reddening the high check-bones.
“The only idea I got,” he drawled more slowly than usual, “is to see the boss on his feet. An’ to get whoever got him. As for Shevlin—you don’t think he was faking, do you?”
“I do not,” I answered. “But I am reminded that you were beside Ricori in the car when he was stabbed. And I cannot help wondering how it was that you discovered Shevlin so quickly today.”
“Meaning by that?” he asked.
“Meaning,” I answered, “that your drunken man has disappeared. Meaning that it would be entirely possible for him to have been your confederate. Meaning that the episode which so impressed the worthy Shevlin could very well have been merely a clever bit of acting, and the doll in the street and the opportunely speeding automobile a carefully planned manoeuvre to bring about the exact result it had accomplished. After all, I have only your word and the chauffeur’s word that the doll was not down in the car the whole time you were here last night. Meaning that-”
I stopped, realizing that, essentially, I was only venting upon him the bad temper aroused by my perplexity.
“I’ll finish for you,” he said. “Meaning that I’m the one behind the whole thing.”
His face was white, and his muscles tense.
“It’s a good thing for you that I like you, Doc,” he continued. “It’s a better thing for you that I know you’re on the level with the boss. Best of all, maybe that you’re the only one who can help him, if he can be helped. That’s all.”
“McCann,” I said, “I’m sorry, deeply sorry. Not for what I said, but for having to say it. After all, the doubt is there. And it is a reasonable doubt. You must admit that. Better to spread it before you than keep it hidden.”
“What might be my motive?”
“Ricori has powerful enemies. He also has powerful friends. How convenient to his enemies if he could be wiped out without suspicion, and a physician of highest repute and unquestionable integrity be inveigled into giving the death a clean bill of health. It is my professional pride, not personal egotism, that I am that kind of a physician, McCann.”
He nodded. His face softened and I saw the dangerous tenseness relax.
“I’ve no argument, Doc. Not on that or nothing else you’ve said. But I’m thanking you for your high opinion of my brains. It’d certainly take a pretty clever man to work all this out this-a-way. Sort of like one of them cartoons that shows seventy- five gimcracks set up to drop a brick on a man’s head at exactly twenty minutes, sixteen seconds after two in the afternoon. Yeah, I must be clever!”
I winced at this broad sarcasm, but did not answer. McCann took up the Peters doll and began to examine it. I went to the ‘phone to ask Ricori’s condition. I was halted by an exclamation from the gunman. He beckoned me, and handing me the doll, pointed to the collar of its coat. I felt about it. My fingers touched what seemed to be the round head of a large pin. I pulled out as though from a dagger sheath a slender piece of metal nine inches long. It was thinner than an average hat-pin, rigid and needle- pointed.
Instantly I knew that I was looking upon the instrument that had pierced Ricori’s heart!
“Another outrage!” McCann drawled. “Maybe I put it there, Doc!”
“You could have, McCann.”
He laughed. I studied the queer blade—for blade it surely was. It appeared to be of finest steel, although I was not sure it was that metal. Its rigidity was like none I knew. The little knob at the head was half an inch in diameter and less like a pinhead than the haft of a poniard. Under the magnifying glass it showed small grooves upon it... as though to make sure the grip of a hand... a doll’s hand a doll’s dagger! There were stains upon it.
I shook my head impatiently, and put the thing aside, determining to test those stains later. They were bloodstains, I knew that, but I must make sure. And yet, if they were, it would not be certain proof of the incredible—that a doll’s hand had used this deadly thing.
I picked up the Peters doll and began to study it minutely. I could not determine of what it was made. It was not of wood, like the other doll. More than anything else, the material resembled a fusion of gum and wax. I knew of no such composition. I stripped it of the clothing. The undamaged part of the doll was anatomically perfect. The hair was human hair, carefully planted in the scalp. The eyes were blue crystals of some kind. The clothing showed the same extraordinary skill in the making as the clothes of Diana’s doll.
I saw now that the dangling leg was not held by a thread. It was held by a wire. Evidently the doll had been moulded upon a wire frame-work. I walked over to my instrument cabinet, and selected a surgical saw and knives.
“Wait a minute, Doc.” McCann had been following my movements. “You going to cut this thing apart?”
I nodded. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a heavy hunting knife. Before I could stop him, he had brought its blade down like an axe across the neck of the Peters doll. It cut through it cleanly. He took the head and twisted it. A wire snapped. He dropped the head on the table, and tossed the body to me. The head rolled. It came to rest against the cord he had called the witch’s ladder.
The head seemed to twist and to look up at us. I thought for an instant the eyes flared redly, the features to contort, the malignancy intensify—as I had seen it intensify upon Peters’ living face... I caught myself up, angrily a trick of the light, of course.
I turned to McCann and swore.
“Why did you do that?”
“You’re worth more to the boss than I am,” he said, cryptically.
I did not answer. I cut open the decapitated body of the doll. As I had suspected, it had been built upon a wire framework. As I cut away the encasing material, I found this framework was a single wire, or a single metal strand, and that as cunningly as the doll’s body had been shaped, just as cunningly had this wire been twisted into an outline of the human skeleton!
Not, of course, with minute fidelity, but still with amazing accuracy... there were no joints nor articulations... the substance of which the doll was made was astonishingly pliant... the little hands flexible... it was more like dissecting some living manikin than a doll... And it was rather dreadful...
I glanced toward the severed head.
McCann was bending over it, staring down into its eyes, his own not more than a few inches away from the glinting blue crystals. His hands clutched the table edge and I saw that they were strained and tense as though he were making a violent effort to push himself away. When he had tossed the head upon the table it had come to rest against the knotted cord—but now that cord was twisted around the doll’s severed neck and around its forehead as though it were a small serpent!
And distinctly I saw that McCann’s face was moving closer... slowly closer... to that tiny one... as though it were being drawn to it... and that in the little face a living evil was concentrated and that McCann’s face was a mask of horror.
“McCann!” I cried, and thrust an arm under his chin, jerking back his head. And as I did this I could have sworn the doll’s eyes turned to me, and that its lips writhed.
McCann staggered back. He stared at me for a moment, and then leaped to the table. He picked up the doll’s head, dashed it to the floor and brought his heel down upon it again and again, like one stamping out the life of a venomous spider. Before he ceased, the head was a shapeless blotch, all semblance of humanity or anything else crushed out of it—but within it the two blue crystals that had been its eyes still glinted, and the knotted cord of the witch’s ladder still wound through it.
“God! It was... was drawing me down to it...”
McCann lighted a cigarette with shaking hand, tossed the match away. The match fell upon what had been the doll’s head.
There followed, simultaneously, a brilliant flash, a disconcerting sobbing sound and a wave of intense heat. Where the crushed head had been there was now only an irregularly charred spot upon the polished wood. Within it lay the blue crystals that had been the eyes of the doll—lustreless and blackened. The knotted cord had vanished.
And the body of the doll had disappeared. Upon the table was a nauseous puddle of black waxy liquid out of which lifted the ribs of the wire skeleton!
The Annex ‘phone rang; mechanically I answered it.
“Yes,” I said. “What is it?”
“Mr. Ricori, sir. He’s out of the coma. He’s awake!”
I turned to McCann.
“Ricori’s come through!”
He gripped my shoulders—then drew a step away, a touch of awe on his face.
“Yeah?” whispered McCann. “Yeah—he came through when the knots burned! It freed him! It’s you an’ me that’s got to watch our step now!”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK