|BURN, WITCH, BURN by A Merritt|
X—Nurse’s Cap and Witch’s Ladder
“She knows how to get rid of the evidence!”
Braile laughed—but there was no mirth in his laughter. I said nothing. It was the same thought I had held of McCann when the doll’s head had vanished. But McCann could not be suspected of this. Evading any further discussion of the matter, we went to the Annex to see Ricori.
There were two new guards on watch at his door. They arose politely and spoke to us pleasantly. We entered softly. Ricori had slipped out of the drug into a natural sleep. He was breathing easily, peacefully, in deep and healing slumber.
His room was a quiet one at the rear, overlooking a little enclosed garden. Both my houses are old-fashioned, dating back to a more peaceful New York; sturdy vines of Virginia creepers climb up them both at front and back. I cautioned the nurse to maintain utmost quiet, arranging her light so that it would cast only the slightest gleam upon Ricori. Going out, I similarly cautioned the guards, telling them that their chief’s speedy recovery might depend upon silence.
It was now after six. I asked Braile to stay for dinner, and afterward to drop in on my patients at the hospital and to call me up if he thought it worthwhile. I wanted to stay at home and await Ricori’s awakening, should it occur.
We had almost finished dinner when the telephone rang. Braile answered.
“McCann,” he said. I went to the instrument.
“Hello, McCann. This is Dr. Lowell.”
“How’s the boss?”
“Better, I’m expecting him to awaken any moment and to be able to talk,” I answered, and listened intently to catch whatever reaction he might betray to this news.
“That’s great, Doc!” I could detect nothing but deepest satisfaction in his tones. “Listen, Doc, I seen Mollie an’ I got some news. Dropped round on her right after I left you. Found Gilmore—that’s her husband—home, an’ that gave me a break. Said I’d come in to ask her how she’d like a little ride. She was tickled an’ we left Gil home with the kid-”
“Does she know of Peters’ death?” I interrupted.
“Nope. An’ I didn’t tell her. Now listen. I told you Horty—What? Why Missus Darnley, Jim Wilson’s gal. Yeah. Let me talk, will you? I told you Horty was nuts on Mollie’s kid. Early last month Horty comes in with a swell doll for the kid. Also she’s nursing a sore hand she says she gets at the same place she got the doll. The woman she gets the doll from gave it to her, she tells Mollie—What? No, gave her the doll, not the hand. Say, Doc, ain’t I speaking clear? Yeah, she gets her hand hurt where she got the doll. That’s what I said. The woman fixes it up for her. She gives her the doll for nothing, Horty tells Mollie, because she thought Horty was so pretty an’ for posing for her. Yeah, posing for her, making a statue of her or something. That makes a hit with Horty because she don’t hate herself an’ she thinks this doll woman a lallapaloozer. Yeah, a lallapaloozer, a corker! Yeah.
“About a week later Tom—that’s Peters—shows up while Horty’s there an’ sees the doll. Tom’s a mite jealous of Horty with the kid an’ asks her where she got it. She tells him a Madame Mandilip, an’ where, an’ Tom he says as this is a gal-doll she needs company, so he’ll go an’ get a boy-doll. About a week after this Tom turns up with a boy-doll the lick-an’-split of Horty’s. Mollie asks him if he pays as much for it as Horty. They ain’t told him about Horty not paying nothing for it or posing. Mollie says Tom looks sort of sheepish but all he says is, well, he ain’t gone broke on it. She’s going to kid him by asking if the doll woman thinks he’s so pretty she wants him to pose, but the kid sets up a whoop about the boy-doll an’ she forgets it. Tom don’t show up again till about the first of this month. He’s got a bandage on his hand an’ Mollie, kidding, asks him if he got it where he got the doll. He looks surprised an’ says ‘yes, but how the hell did you know that?’ Yeah-yeah, that’s what she says he told her. What’s that? Did the Mandilip woman bandage it for him? How the hell—I don’t know. I guess so, maybe. Mollie didn’t say an’ I didn’t ask. Listen, Doc, I told you Mollie’s no dummy. What I’m telling you took me two hours to get. Talking ‘bout this, talking ‘bout that an’ coming back casual like to what I’m trying to find out. I’m afraid to ask too many questions. What? Oh, that’s all right, Doc. No offense. Yeah, I think it pretty funny myself. But like I’m telling you I’m afraid to go too far. Mollie’s too wise.
“Well, when Ricori comes up yesterday he uses the same tactics as me, I guess. Anyway, he admires the dolls an’ asks her where she gets ‘em an’ how much they cost an’ so on. Remember, I told you I stay out in the car while he’s there. It’s after that he goes home an’ does the telephoning an’ then beats it to the Mandilip hag. Yeah, that’s all. Does it mean anything? Yeah? All right then.”
He was silent for a moment or two, but I had not heard the click of the receiver. I asked:
“Are you there, McCann?”
“Yeah. I was just thinking.” His voice held a wistful note. “I’d sure like to be with you when the boss comes to. But I’d best go down an’ see how the hands are getting along with them two Mandilip cows. Maybe I’ll call you up if it ain’t too late. G’by.”
I walked slowly back to Braile, trying to marshal my disjointed thoughts. I repeated McCann’s end of the conversation to him exactly. He did not interrupt me. When I had finished he said quietly:
“Hortense Darnley goes to the Mandilip woman, is given a doll, is asked to pose, is wounded there, is treated there. And dies. Peters goes to the Mandilip woman, gets a doll, is wounded there, is presumably treated there. And dies like Hortense. You see a doll for which, apparently, he has posed. Harriet goes through the same routine. And dies like Hortense and Peters. Now what?”
Suddenly I felt rather old and tired. It is not precisely stimulating to see crumbling what one has long believed to be a fairly well ordered world of recognized cause and effect. I said wearily:
“I don’t know.”
He arose, and patted my shoulder.
“Get some sleep. The nurse will call you if Ricori wakes. We’ll get to the bottom of this thing.”
“Even if we fall to it,” I said, and smiled.
“Even if we have to fall to it,” he repeated, and did not smile.
After Braile had gone I sat for long, thinking. Then, determined to dismiss my thoughts, I tried to read. I was too restless, and soon gave it up. Like the room in which Ricori lay, my study is at the rear, looking down upon the little garden. I walked to the window and stared out, unseeingly. More vivid than ever was that feeling of standing before a blank door which it was vitally important to open. I turned back into the study and was surprised to find it was close to ten o’clock. I dimmed my light and lay down upon the comfortable couch. Almost immediately I fell asleep.
I awoke from that sleep with a start, as though someone had spoken in my ear. I sat up, listening. There was utter silence around me. And suddenly I was aware that it was a strange silence, unfamiliar and oppressive. A thick, dead silence that filled the study and through which no sound from outside could penetrate. I jumped to my feet and turned on the lights, full. The silence retreated, seemed to pour out of the room like something tangible. But slowly. Now I could hear the ticking of my clock—ticking out abruptly, as though a silencing cover had been whisked from it. I shook my head impatiently, and walked to the window. I leaned out to breathe the cool night air. I leaned out still more, so that I could see the window of Ricori’s room, resting my hand on the trunk of the vine. I felt a tremor along it as though someone were gently shaking it—or as though some small animal were climbing it -
The window of Ricori’s room broke into a square of light. Behind me I heard the shrilling of the Annex alarm bell which meant the urgent need of haste. I raced out of the study, and up the stairs and over.
As I ran into the corridor I saw that the guards were not at the door. The door was open. I stood stock-still on its threshold, incredulous -
One guard crouched beside the window, automatic in hand. The other knelt beside a body on the floor, his pistol pointed toward me. At her table sat the nurse, head bent upon her breast—unconscious or asleep. The bed was empty. The body on the floor was Ricori!
The guard lowered his gun. I dropped at Ricori’s side. He was lying face down, stretched out a few feet from the bed. I turned him over. His face had the pallor of death, but his heart was beating.
“Help me lift him to the bed,” I said to the guard. “Then shut that door.”
He did so, silently. The man at the window asked from the side of his mouth, never relaxing his watch outward:
“Not quite,” I answered, then swore as I seldom do—”What the hell kind of guards are you?”
The man who had shut the door gave a mirthless chuckle.
“There’s more’n you goin’ to ask that, Doc.”
I gave a glance at the nurse. She still sat huddled in the limp attitude of unconsciousness or deep sleep. I stripped Ricori of his pyjamas and went over his body. There was no mark upon him. I sent for adrenalin, gave him an injection and went over to the nurse, and shook her. She did not awaken. I raised her eyelids. The pupils of her eyes were contracted. I flashed a light in them, without response. Her pulse and respiration were slow, but not dangerously so. I let her be for a moment and turned to the guards.
They looked at each other uneasily. The guard at the window waved his hand as though bidding the other do the talking. This guard said:
“We’re sitting out there. All at once the house gets damned still. I says to Jack there, ‘Sounds like they put a silencer on the dump.’ He says, ‘Yeah.’ We sit listening. Then all at once we hear a thump inside here. Like somebody falling out of bed. We crash the door. There’s the boss like you seen him on the floor. There’s the nurse asleep like you see her. We glim the alarm and pull it. Then we wait for somebody to come. That’s all, ain’t it, Jack?”
“Yeah,” answered the guard at the window, tonelessly. “Yeah, I guess that’s all.”
I looked at him, suspiciously.
“You guess that’s all? What do you mean—you guess?”
Again they looked at each other.
“Better come clean, Bill,” said the guard at the window.
“Hell, he won’t believe it,” said the other.
“And nobody else. Anyway, tell him.”
The guard Bill said:
“When we crash the door we seen something like a couple of cats fighting there beside the window. The boss is lying on the floor. We had our guns out but was afraid to shoot for what you told us. Then we heard a funny noise outside like somebody blowing a flute. The two things broke loose and jumped up on the window sill, and out. We jumped to the window. And we didn’t see nothing.”
“You saw the things at the window. What did they look like then?” I asked.
“You tell him, Jack.”
A shiver went down my back. It was the answer I had expected—and dreaded. Out the window! I recalled the tremor of the vine when I gripped it! The guard who had closed the door looked at me, and I saw his jaw drop.
“Jesus, Jack!” he gasped. “He believes it!”
I forced myself to speak.
“What kind of dolls?”
The guard at the window answered, more confidently.
“One we couldn’t see well. The other looked like one of your nurses if she’d shrunk to about two feet!”
One of my nurses... Walters... I felt a wave of weakness and sank down on the edge of Ricori’s bed.
Something white on the floor at the head of it caught my eye. I stared at it stupidly, then leaned and picked it up.
It was a nurse’s cap, a little copy of those my nurses wear. It was about large enough to fit the head of a two foot doll...
There was something else where it had been. I picked that up.
It was a knotted cord of hair pale ashen hair with nine curious knots spaced at irregular intervals along it...
The guard named Bill stood looking down at me anxiously. He asked:
“Want me to call any of your people, Doc?”
“Try to get hold of McCann,” I bade him; then spoke to the other guard: “Close the windows and fasten them and pull down the curtains. Then lock the door.”
Bill began to telephone. Stuffing the cap and knotted cord in my pocket, I walked over to the nurse. She was rapidly recovering and in a minute or two I had her awake. At first her eyes dwelt on me, puzzled; took in the lighted room and the two men, and the puzzlement changed to alarm. She sprang to her feet.
“I didn’t see you come in! Did I fall asleep... what’s happened?...” Her hand went to her throat.
“I’m hoping you can tell us,” I said, gently.
She stared at me uncomprehendingly. She said, confusedly:
“I don’t know... it became terribly still... I... thought I saw something moving at the window... then there was a queer fragrance and then I looked up to see you bending over me.”
I asked: “Can you remember anything of what you saw at the window? The least detail—the least impression. Please try.”
She answered, hesitantly: “There was something white... I thought someone... something... was watching me... then came the fragrance, like flowers... that’s all.”
Bill hung up the telephone: “All right, Doc. They’re after McCann. Now what?”
“Miss Butler,” I turned to the nurse. “I’m going to relieve you for the balance of the night. Go to bed. And I want you to sleep. I prescribe-” I told her what.
“You’re not angry—you don’t think I’ve been careless—”
“No, to both.” I smiled and patted her shoulder. “The case has taken an unexpected turn, that’s all. Now don’t ask any more questions.”
I walked with her to the door, opened it.
“Do exactly as I say.”
I closed and locked the door behind her.
I sat beside Ricori. The shock that he had experienced—whatever it might have been—should either cure or kill, I thought grimly. As I watched him, a tremor went through his body. Slowly an arm began to lift, fist clenched. His lips moved. He spoke, in Italian and so swiftly that I could get no word. His arm fell back. I stood up from the bed. The paralysis had gone. He could move and speak. But would he be able to do so when consciousness assumed sway? I left this for the next few hours to decide I could do nothing else.
“Now listen to me carefully,” I said to the two guards. “No matter how strange what I am going to say will seem, you must obey me in every detail! Ricori’s life depends upon your doing so. I want one of you to sit close beside me at the table here. I want the other to sit beside Ricori, at the head or the bed and between him and me. If I am asleep and he should awaken, arouse me. If you see any change in his condition, immediately awaken me. Is that clear?”
They said: “Okay.”
“Very well. Now here is the most important thing of all. You must watch me even more closely. Whichever of you sits beside me must not take his eyes off me. If I should go to your chief it would be to do one of three things only—listen to his heart and breathing—lift his eyelids—take his temperature. I mean, of course, if he should be as he now is. If I seem to awaken and attempt to do anything other than these three—stop me. If I resist, make me helpless—tie me up and gag me—no, don’t gag me—listen to me and remember what I say. Then telephone to Dr. Braile—here is his number.”
I wrote, and passed it to them.
“Don’t damage me any more than you can help,” I said, and laughed.
They stared at each other, plainly disconcerted. “If you say so, Doc-” began the guard Bill, doubtfully.
“I do say so. Do not hesitate. If you should be wrong, I’ll not hold it against you.”
“The Doc knows what he’s about, Bill,” said the guard Jack.
“Okay then,” said Bill.
I turned out all the lights except that beside the nurse’s table. I stretched myself in her chair and adjusted the lamp so my face could be plainly seen. That little white cap I had picked from the floor had shaken me—damnably! I drew it out and placed it in a drawer. The guard Jack took his station beside Ricori. Bill drew up a chair, and sat facing me. I thrust my hand into my pocket and clutched the knotted cord, closed my eyes, emptied my mind of all thought, and relaxed. In abandoning, at least temporarily, my conception of a sane universe I had determined to give that of Madame Mandilip’s every chance to operate.
Faintly, I heard a clock strike one. I slept.
Somewhere a vast wind was roaring. It circled and swept down upon me. It bore me away. I knew that I had no body, that indeed I had no form. Yet I was. A formless sentience whirling in that vast wind. It carried me into infinite distance. Bodiless, intangible as I knew myself to be, yet it poured into me an unearthly vitality. I roared with the wind in unhuman jubilance. The vast wind circled and raced me back from immeasurable space...
I seemed to awaken, that pulse of strange jubilance still surging through me... Ah! There was what I must destroy... there on the bed... must kill so that this pulse of jubilance would not cease... must kill so that the vast wind would sweep me up again and away and feed me with its life... but careful... careful... there—there in the throat just under the ear... there is where I must plunge it... then off with the wind again... there where the pulse beats... what is holding me back?... caution... caution, “I am going to take his temperature”... that’s it, careful, “I am going to take his temperature.”... Now—one quick spring, then into his throat where the pulse beats... “Not with that you don’t!”... Who said that?... still holding me... rage, consuming and ruthless blackness and the sound of a vast wind roaring away and away...
I heard a voice: “Slap him again, Bill, but not so hard. He’s coming around.” I felt a stinging blow on my face. The dancing mists cleared from before my eyes. I was standing halfway between the nurse’s table and Ricori’s bed. The guard Jack held my arms pinioned to my sides. The guard Bill’s hand was still raised. There was something clenched tightly in my own hand. I looked down. It was a strong scalpel, razor-edged!
I dropped the scalpel. I said, quietly: “It’s all right now, you can release me.”
The guard Bill said nothing. His comrade did not loose his grip. I twisted my head and I saw that both their faces were sallow white. I said:
“It was what I had expected. It was why I instructed you. It is over. You can keep your guns on me if you like.”
The guard who held me freed my arms. I touched my cheek gingerly. I said mildly:
“You must have hit me rather hard, Bill.”
He said: “If you could a seen your face, Doc, you’d wonder I didn’t smash it.”
I nodded, clearly sensible now of the demonic quality of that rage, I asked:
“What did I do?”
The guard Bill said: “You wake up and set there for a minute staring at the chief. Then you take something out of that drawer and get up. You say you’re going to take his temperature. You’re half to him before we see what you got. I shout, ‘Not with that you don’t!’ Jack grabs you. Then you went crazy. And I had to slam you. That’s all.”
I nodded again. I took out of my pocket the knotcord of woman’s pale hair, held it over a dish and touched a match to it. It began to burn, writhing like a tiny snake as it did so, the complex knots untying as the flame touched them. I dropped the last inch of it upon the plate and watched it turn to ash.
“I think there’ll be no more trouble tonight,” I said. “But keep up your watch just as before.”
I dropped back into the chair and closed my eyes...
Well, Braile had not shown me a soul, but—I believed in Madame Mandilip.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK