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Secret Agent X, March, 1935
Satan Sisk hated all men hated them to the point of wanting to kill. Alive, he hadn't the nerve to indulge his murder lust, but before he died, he left a strange legacy of murder.
CHAPTER I. TATTOOED DEVILS
AT two o'clock in the morning, Hilltop House, surrounded by trees and guarded by high stone walls, had a sinister look. It reflected the character of its builder. Satan Sisk had been sinister, too.
On the previous afternoon Satan Sisk had been buried from the house. He had died a natural death, survived by no known kin, leaving none to mourn his passing.
Although the master of Hilltop House had gone out of it forever, something sinister remained within its walls. It moved along a dark corridor in the south wing of the big pile, as soft-footed as a prowling lynx, needing no light to guide its steps. It was just a shapeless bulk that moved through darkness not quite so complete as itself.
At a door on the left of the corridor, the sinister shape stopped in a listening attitude. Then a hinge squeaked with a scarcely perceptible sound, the door swung slowly open and the intruder vanished within the room. The guarded ray of a flashlight cut through the darkness and revealed the wrinkled face of a man lying asleep in bed. It barely touched the face, then shifted to bathe the chest in a yellow flood. A soft blob of sound, scarcely distinguishable, yet a positive disturbance for all that, followed instantly. Then the flash went dark.
The sinister figure slipped into the corridor, pulled the door shut with infinite careand vanished in the darkness.
Ten minutes passed, deep silence possessing the house, and then a small incandescent against the corridor's ceiling winked on. A door at the farther end opened and a woman came out. A dressing robe about her ample figure attested the fact that she had just risen from bed. She walked on quiet feet to the door which the stealthy prowler had so carefully closed, and went inside.
Three minutes after the woman had entered the room, she was at the phone in the lower hall, frantically calling Police Headquarters. After what must have seemed to her an interminable time, the night desk-sergeant answered.
Send the police out hereto Hilltop House, the Sisk place! she cried excitedly. There's been a murder here! Send them quick, for the murderer can't be far away! The body is still warm!
The sergeant was barking orders even as he hung up, and the woman went swiftly back upstairs. Directly thereafter, lights began to appear in various rooms in the house. Frightened, uneasy voices called in the corridors. Somewhere above a woman screamed.
The occupants of Hilltop House had been informed that tragedy had come upon them while they slept. That Thomas Graybill, the elderly butler, had been murdered in his bed.
Dean Durant, Kaw Valley's Commissioner of Police, drove his car through the stone-pillared gateway and parked in front of Hilltop House. The homicide squad was not more than ten minutes ahead of him. He was greeted by Sergeant Cole, who waited for him in the deep, somber hall.
They are all in the library waiting, sir, the sergeant informed Durant. The housekeeper and the maid. Four young men who moved in last night and claim to be heirs of the estate. Steele Macklin is there, too. Mrs. Breedon called him first off.
Durant started toward the library just as the door opened and a heavy set young man dashed out. His hair was disheveled, bulbous eyes wild. Behind him, clutching at his arm in an effort to stop him, was a tall, thin man of about the same age. Both men were known by name to Durant.
I'm leaving here now, I tell you! the heavy-set man screeched in a panic. I won't stay another hour in this hellish house! There's something wrong here, something awful going to happenand I know it. Let me go. Priebdamn you
Get back in the library, Durant interrupted, barring the frightened man's passage. You're not going anywhere just now.
Butbut Commissioner, he pleaded, I gotta hunch that something awful is about to happen! Graybill won't be the last. This was Old Satan Sisk's house, and it's cursed
Nonsense, Durant interrupted, pushing the man through the library doorway. You're just overwrought. Sit down. Get a grip on yourself.
THE heavy-set young man obeyed, muttering his fears, and the commissioner let his gaze take in the occupants of the room.
Of the persons assembled there, Steele Macklin was by far the most striking. He was a dwarf. Standing a bare five feet above his shoe soles, he had a broad, powerful frame, long arms and hairy hands. His eyes were black, head massive and covered with a mop of crisp black hair. What dwarfed Macklin was the fact that his head sat directly upon his broad shoulders, with hardly enough neck to knot a tie around. Aged thirty-five, he was a distinguished criminal lawyer. Sisk had named him executor of his will.
The four other strangely assorted men in the room had been named in Satan Sisk's will as his heirs, each sharing equally in his estate.
Carl Prieb, who had restrained the man in the hall, was tall, emaciated, and tired looking. At one time regarded as one of the city's most brilliant young attorneys, he had lately lost stature because of his many long sprees, and the unsavory escapades which grew out of them. That night, however, he was noticeably sober.
Ronald Bowles, whose moon face looked frightened and his fat body weary, whose bulbous eyes were unswervingly on the door as though in momentary expectation of a specter entering there, was a bad-debt collector, himself greatly tormented by his creditors. It was Bowles who had tried to leave the house as Durant came hi.
Oscar Ruliff was big, awkward, simpleminded and seemingly harmless. He owned a taxicab and had enough intelligence to drive it. Unlike Bowles, his manner showed no signs of nervousness. If he expected something tragic or terrifying to happen that night, he successfully concealed the fact.
Hal Lane, dapper, stony of face and insolent in manner, was a professional gambler. Generally in funds, he was always dressed in clothes that were flashy and passed among his kind as stylish. So far as the records showed, there had never been anything criminal against him.
Satan Sisk's selection of these men as heirs was in itself a mystery, since not one of the four had been known to him in the past, nor had they been acquainted with each other. Yet Satan had named them to inherit.
Why? Satan Sisk had not had one spark of philanthropy or human kindness in him. Durant, looking at the four heirs, could not escape the thought that in some manner Satan Sisk's seeming benefaction would inevitably turn out to be a curse. Little wonder that Ronnie Bowles wanted to escape the premisesor was it possible that Bowles possessed knowledge, sinister knowledge, which the others did not?
Durant, while considering the conduct of Bowles, was giving attention to two others in the room. One was a woman past middle-age but still attractive, the other about twenty-five, brunette, pretty, and possessed of the most frightened pair of eyes Durant had ever seen. One was Mrs. Breedon, the housekeeper, the other Lotta Mears, a maid. The two women and Graybill had made up Satan's household.
I, having the affairs of the estate in hand, Mrs. Breedon called me immediately after she notified Headquarters, Macklin explained. A nasty mess, Durant. Graybill was harmless, and hadn't an enemy. Poor chap!
Durant nodded, then spoke to Mrs. Breedon.
You discovered Graybill, the butler, dead in his bed, I am told. How came you to do so? he asked.
I went to give the old man some medicine and found him dead. There was a smell of burned powder in the room, and the door was unlocked. Graybill never locked his door at night, for that matter. What had he to fear? There is nothing more I can tell you.
Miss Mears, Durant turned to the maid, have you anything that might throw light on this murder?
The girl shivered at the sinister word murder. When she spoke, her voice was almost a whisper.
I was asleep, she managed. Mrs. Breedon woke me and told me hehe was dead.
The four heirs had been quartered in a different wing, each in a room to himself, and none had heard a shot or other disturbance during the night. Not one of them had known there was trouble until informed of it by the housekeeper.
No other known persons had been in the house.
Now, Bowles, the commissioner said, turning to the fat bill collector, just why are you so frightened of the house? What do you know, or what have you seen, to cause you to go to pieces?
Nothing! Bowles cried, his face quivering. I don't know anythingonly that I'm leaving this place right now! He got up on legs which would hardly support him, and started again for the door. There's something awful going on here
Sit down! Prieb, the young lawyer, snapped. Pull yourself together. You don't like this house, and I don't either, but our share of it is all well get out of the legacy
Damn the legacy! Bowles screeched. I don't want it. I'd be afraid to touch it. It's a black legacy, with the mark of Satan on it
He ceased speaking, choked, and fell to the floor in a faint.
DURANT stood motionless, face without expression, while Ruliff and Prieb lifted the fat collector and placed him on the divan. Lotta brought some brandy and water, and Bowles was presently revived.
It's his heart, Prieb explained. Too damned fat.
Suppose you put him in bed, Durant suggested quietly. And I should like to see the bottle of medicine, Mrs. Breedon, from which you were dosing Graybill. Will you get it?
She shivered violently. II hate to go through this house alone! she exclaimed, a plea in her voice. Send someone with me, please!
I'll go, Macklin offered. I don't blame you, Mrs. Breedon, for being timid about it.
Prieb and Patrolman Simms, the officer on duty at the library door, led Bowles off between them, and Steele Macklin went out with the housekeeper.
Durant sat silent for a while, then spoke again to Lotta. How long have you been in this house, Miss Mears? he asked.
Since I was a kid. Fifteen.
How came you to be taken on so young?
Mr. Sisk knew my mother. Mother died. He took me in and kept me from becoming an alley-cat. Give me a cigarette, will you?
Durant passed her his case and held a lighted match for her. The girl bent toward him. As the end of her cigarette touched the flame, she shot the commissioner a glance which held fear, pleadingstark terror.
Pleaselet me go away from here! came from her blue lips in a tense whisper. Will you?
Why? Durant queried. What's going on here? You, Bowles and Mrs. Breedon seem afraid of something. Even Prieb and Macklin are ill at ease. What is it?
The girl sighed hopelessly and dropped back in her chair. Itit isn't anything I could put a finger on! she exclaimed. It's just something I feel. Something cold, grislysomething like that. It's as plainas plain to me as Satan Sisk's hatred for human beings. A hatred you couldn't actually see, but could feel
The girl's pitiful attempt to tell Durant what it was that so terribly unnerved her was cut short by a sound that drained the last drop of blood from her face, and sent the commissioner himself in a leap for the door.
It was a shrill cry of fright, a cry that ended on a high note, utter silence ensuing.
Durant was in the corridor instantly and running for the stairs. He mounted to the second floor, where he encountered Officer Simms, who had accompanied Prieb and Bowles.
What is it, Simms? he demanded. I'm not knowing, sir! Simms exclaimed. He seemed dazed. It sounded like it came from that way.
He pointed down the corridor, and Durant hastened along. He came to a door that was partly openand halted stiffly.
Powder smoke! he exclaimedand pushed into the room.
On the bed lay the fat collector, Ronnie Bowles. He was dead.
There was a bullet hole in his forehead.
OFFICER Simms came into the room. He had his helmet in his left hand, and with his right he gingerly felt the back of his head.
I hadn't time to tell you, sir, he said plaintively, but I was hit on the head in the corridor
Wait! Durant snapped. Now, begin at the beginning. You and the lawyer, Prieb, were sent to put Bowles in bed. Begin there.
Others came into the room, but no attention was paid to them. Simms told his story.
Prieb and me brung Bowles here, undressed him and put him in bed, he related. Prieb said he needed a drink, and went to his room to get it. I made sure that Bowles was all right, and went down the corridor towards the stairway. I got nearly thereand bam! Something hit me from behind, busted my helmet and cracked me down unconscious. Pretty soon I began to come out of it, heard somebody yell like everything, and then you came up, sir. That's all I know.
See anybody in the hall as you took Bowles here or after you came to yourself? Durant asked.
Not a soul, sir, so help me!
Sergeant Cole and the medical examiner pushed into the room.
Take charge here, Cole, Durant ordered. All the rest of you go down to the library. Cole, sit in the hall outside the door, and watch both ends of the corridor. There's a killer loose on the premisesso watch everything.
Durant went back to the library. Lotta Mears was sobbing on the divan, while Mrs. Breedon, stony-faced and tight of lip, sat staring straight before her. Prieb was pacing the floor, Ruliff was looking at a movie magazine which had been on the table. Hal Lane sat where he had been from the first, his face inscrutable. Steele Macklin had resumed his lounging posture in the deep chair.
Is there another room I can use, Mrs. Breedon? the commissioner asked.
Yes, sir. Right across the hall. It was Mr. Sisk's study.
Durant crossed the hall and threw open a door. He turned a switch and dim lights sprang up. It was a queer room.
Satan Sisk had been a little of everything during his seventy-five years of life. He had, among other things, dabbled with paints, done some creditable sculpturing, written books on various scientific subjects. Inventing, however, had been his passion. The Sisk Pick-Proof Lock had been his invention, but his rights to it had been stolen. Rights to other valuable patents had also been taken away from him unfairly. But he had finally become rich, the Sisk inventions being numerous and valuable.
In this big study were examples of his art, models of the many things he had invented, and cases full of books. Durant found another switch and got more lightto stop in his tracks, glance fixed upon something hanging on the west wall across the room.
It was a full length oil painting. Sisk's own work. And what a subject he had chosen! What a satanic sense of humor that painting betrayed!
The figure was that popularly attributed to the Devil, tail, hoofs, hornsbut the face was a caricature of Joab Sisk's own!
Durant sat down, shivered a bit, and began his inquiry. Prieb had seen Bowles in bed, then gone to his room for a drink of whiskey. He had seen nobody in the corridor but Officer Simms.
Macklin stated that he and Mrs. Breedon had gone down the corridor directly behind Simms, Prieb and Bowles. While getting the bottle of medicine from Mrs. Breedon's room in the south wing, they had heard the scream. They had seen nobody. Mrs. Breedon told the same tale.
None of the others were queried, since all had been in the library with the commissioner when the murder occurred.
Day had come, and Durant requested the housekeeper to provide breakfast for those who felt hungry. She nodded stony assent, and departed. She had just left the room, Macklin accompanying her, when the medical examiner, Dr. Rooks, came in. His face wore a puzzled look.
Durant, he said, I've just found something queer
He broke off, jaw dropping, eyes glued to the picture of Satan on the wall back of the commissioner's chair. Then his jaw snapped back, and words came.
By God, it's uncanny! he exclaimed. That picture and what I found upstairs!
What did you find, Doc? Durant asked curiously.
Tattooed devils, Durant! Rooks exploded. Tiny ones, freshly doneone on the left breast of the butler, Graybill, and one on the left breast of Ronnie Bowles. They're reproductions in miniature, I'm telling you, of that damned devil on the wall!
Durant got up and led the way up-stairs. He turned in at the room where Bowles lay. The dead man's pajama jacket had been pulled aside, and there on his left breast, tattooed in the white skin, was a tiny figure of Satan.
Durant looked closely at the thing, and discovered that, as nearly as it could have been done with a tattooing needle, the face of the figure was the same as that in the oil painting in Satan Sisk's study.
He had a look at the butler and found exactly the same thing. While the skin had healed in both instances, it was clear that the work did not date very far back. It had a look of freshness, and had been done by a skilled hand.
Whose hand? Why?
DURANT returned to the study, deeply puzzled. He recalled that Ronnie Bowles had cried out that the legacy had the mark of Satan on it. Had there been any significance in those words? Had Ronnie referred to the mark of Satan on himself? Was there a connection?
Durant's jaws set grimly, and he sent for the gambler, Hal Lane.
Sit down, Lane, he ordered. You're a tough bird. I'm admitting that to start with. So don't go to the trouble of showing me how tough you are. Just answer my questions, directly and fullyelse, tough though you are, this town is going to be too tough for you. Understand that, PokerFace?
Ya hold the best hand, Commish, Lane spilled between his stiff lips. Take the pot.
I'm going to take it! Durant snapped. How did you happen to become one of Satan Sisk's heirs?
Ya got me there. I don't savvy no more'n you do. All I know is that Satan flies me a kite. That's a month ago. Tells me to show up here the next Friday, and I'll hear something to my benefit. I takes a chance, see, and answers the bid in person. The old boy tells me that he has no kin-folks, and that he means to leave his jack to four young men of Kaw City. I have been selected as one. Then he tells me to beat it. When he kicks out, which won't be long, the executor will get in touch with me. He kicks out, the executor does his stuff, and I'm here, Commish. Cards on the table, seeface up.
Not all of them, Lane. Face the others. What about a certain tattoo? Little figure of Satan on the left breast? Tell me about that.
Hal Lane used one of his rare grins. He nodded, and said, Ya know a lot, Commish. Ya see, it's like this. The old boy tells me he's interested in the art of tattooing. Kind of a hobby. The only condition is that I let him put a little figure on me, which won't hurt and will be a fine ornament, too. Well, what the hell? He has a little machine there, everything ready, and I tells him to go ahead. He doesand I beats it, taking my little Devil with me.
Why didn't you mention that, when you were supposed to be telling it all?
Didn't think you'd be interested in it, Commish. Honest I didn't.
Anything else you have been thinking I might not be interested in? Durant asked sarcastically.
That's all, Commish. Honest it is. Not another thing, so help me.
Durant dismissed him and called Prieb in. Prieb told the same story Durant had heard from Laneomitting, as had the gambler, mention of the tattooed figure. Pinned down, he told about it. He, too, had humored the old man in his fancyseeing that the old man stood in the nature of a benefactor, and all that. He had attached no significance to the business at all.
The taxi driver, Ruliff, told it all at one telling. His experience had been exactly the same as that of Lane and Prieb. He had been sent for by letter, and had gone to the house on a Thursday. When Macklin notified him that Satan was dead, he had come to the house at the time he was told to come. That was all Ruliff could tell the commissioner.
Disgusted, completely at sea, Durant sent the lout away and sat for a while in thought. There was a deep significance in those tattooed satans. There had to be. Sinister old Satan Sisk had never in his life done anything without a definite reason for it.
What vicious purpose had produced those sinister little tattooed figures?
Little horned devilseach with the caricatured face of Satan Sisk.
There was something else which puzzled Durant. Who and where was the woman who had screamed, giving the alarm that led to the discovery of Ronnie Bowles dead in his bed?
Whether anybody else had noticed it or not, Durant knew that the scream had come from the throat of a woman.
Who was she, and where was she hiding? Lotta Mears had been in the library, right under the commissioner's eyes. Mrs. Breedon was with Steele Macklin in her room, where they had gone to get a bottle of medicine. So far as Durant was informed, no other woman was in the house. But a third woman, as yet unknown to him, was in the house. Of that Durant was certain.
He turned his attention to finding that woman.
CHAPTER II. A TROUBLESOME PICTURE
WHEN the two detectives on Sergeant Cole's squad had been sent to search the remote rooms of the big mansion, and Durant had eaten the breakfast Mrs. Breedon sent him from the kitchen, he lighted a cigar and reviewed each incident of the night carefully. He got nowhere. Something else would have to break before he could hope to get so much as a lead. It was likely that Prieb, Ruliff and Lane knew nothing more than they had told. Prieb, out of sight at the time, might have done the killing, it was true, but Durant could not see that he had a motive. According to the will of Satan Sisk, with which the commissioner was familiar, each of the four heirs was to receive an equal share in the estate, but the will did not provide that in the event of the death of one or more of the heirs, the shares of those dying should revert to the survivors. Nothing like that. If an heir should die, then his share would go to his heirs, actual or designate. Prieb would not profit one dime should all three of his co-heirs die.
Also, what motive could Prieb have for killing Graybill?
The door opened and Steele Macklin came in.
It's probably your intention, Durant, to lay an embargo on this house today, he said. Anybody can come in that wants to, but nobody can go out unless you want him to. That it?
Durant smiled. Something like that, he admitted.
You've doubtless heard of the Ryer murder case? Macklin queried humorously, knowing very well the commissioner had.
Yes. It comes up for trial today, and I had hoped to be present. That's out now. And I know that the eminent criminal lawyer, Steele Macklin, is chief of Ryer's counsel. Therefore the embargo doesn't apply to you. Go when you like, Mack. You didn't think I'd keep you here, surely?
Both men laughed, and after Durant had scribbled a pass that would get the lawyer by the cordon of cops he had by telephone thrown around the premises, Steele Macklin started to leave the room.
Before you go, Mack, Durant requested, halting him, I'd like some information. You were Sisk's legal adviser. Do you know why he left his property to four men, all strangers to him?
Macklin came back to the desk, sat down and said, Oddly enough, Durant, I was never legal adviser to Satan Sisk. Ketchum and Hale had that difficult job for years. Why I was asked to act as executor is more than I know.
Durant was surprised and showed it. Suppose you explain, so far as you can, he suggested.
Something over a month ago, Macklin related, Sisk phoned me to come out here on a matter of business. When I arrived, he handed me a will. The will with which you are of course familiar. It named me as sole executor, fixing my bond at fifty thousand dollars. The fee offered was ample, and I agreed. Why Satan desired me to act is as much your secret as mine.
How much is the estate worth?
Because of the valuable objects of art, antiques and the like, as well as the fact that the three-acre tract comprising the property is the finest homesite in town, I'd say one hundred thousand at least.
Is that all the heirs will get?
Do you know by what method Satan chose the men he did?
Mrs. Breedon told me that he kept selecting names out of the city directory, having each person investigated, and finally chose the men named in the willand one hell of an assortment of humanity it is, I'll swear! Well, luck to you, Durantand take care of yourself.
Durant sat in thought for fully five minutes after Macklin left, his only movement being an occasional glance over his shoulder at the picture on the wall. The face of Satan, caricatured though it was, embodied everything vicious the commissioner could think ofand it was as disturbing, there in the room, as though it lived, and could at any moment step out of the frame and execute whatever villainy had been in the mind of the man who painted it.
Durant could not get his fingers on anything even faintly resembling a lead. He arose, having it in mind to explore the mansion in every nook and corner, the grounds as well. As he got up, however, the door openedand from that moment Durant's attention was focused elsewhere.
THE two detectives detailed to search the mansion had not had their trouble for nothing. Between them, head high, scorn and defiance in her face, was a young woman.
An extremely pretty young woman. Her corn-colored hair, bobbed and curly, was a natural hue. Her eyes were large, silk-fringed, and only a few shades darker than her hair. Her nose had a charming, though saucy tilt upward, her mouth was generously wide and perfectly formed. Add to that a skin as smooth as satin and as fresh as a sixteen-year-old's. Her slender, five-foot-two figure was clothed in lounging pajamas of delicately figured blue silk, with a robe to match. Her small, high-arched feet were in mules.
Durant raised surprised eyes to Detective Rice. Where did you dig her out from? he queried.
Dig her out, sir, is right! Rice exclaimed A little robin under the eaves of the west wing attic. Hid by a lot of plunder until you wouldn't know it was there. Just a cot, chair, stand-table, this young lady and a handbag in it, sir.
Durant nodded toward a chair in front of the desk, and the girl walked to it and sat down. She was unhurried in her movements, as nonchalant as you please.
Who are you? the commissioner asked. My name, if that is what you mean, she said in a throaty, musical voice, is Susanne Barrie.
What right have you to be in this house?
More right than anybody else in it, came promptly. If you will leave off trying to probe me with questions, I'll explain everything to your satisfaction.
Nice of you, Durant told her. Go right ahead.
I am Satan Sisk's granddaughter, and sole legal heir to his estate, came the astonishing statement. I got into the house early last night, and hid where those men found me. It was my purpose to appear voluntarily this morningand take charge of my property. But I heard a commotion early this morning, listened and learned of the murder of the butler, Graybill, so I decided to wait. My attorneys expect a telephone call from me at ten o'clock. If they do not hear from me, they will investigate. So I was waiting for them to come.
Who are your attorneys? Durant asked skeptically.
Lattimore and Finn. Know them? Durant's face became grave. The firm of Lattimore and Finn stood so high in Kaw City that the very mention of the name was enough to get immediate and respectful attention. A client of Lattimore and Finn's rated very careful consideration.
Was it by that firm's advice that you came here? the commissioner asked.
Yes. Nine points of the law, you know.
How did you manage it?
I refer you to counsel, Susanne said, and gave Durant a dazzling, though impudent, smile.
I'll get to your counsel presently, Durant told her gravely. And I warn you, your story had better stand up. Why did you scream in the second floor corridor this morning? he asked abruptly.
Miss Barrie gave him a blank look. She shook her head slowly in a negative motion. I never did, she said positively. Did someone scream?
Someone did, Durant told her. Another man was murdered in his bed. Did you know that?
Susanne's breath came in a little gasp; and for a brief instant there was horror in her eyes. Then she recovered.
I had not heard of it, she said.
Durant searched her young face seriously. The girl was wholly sophisticated, he knew. No trusting child was she. Able to take care of herself, and determined to do so. He could not tell whether she was acting or in earnest.
Would you mind screaming for me? he asked, a smile twitching his lips. A good, lusty yelland make it as high as possible.
She stared in astonishment, recovered her poise, and answered indifferently, If it will cheer this solemn-faced group any, I'll do more than that. I'll stand on my head, walk on my hands, do the split
We require only a scream, Durant broke in, amusement deep in his eyes, Let it out to the last notch, please.
Then and there Susanne screamed. It was a long drawn and terrifying vocal achievement.
She looked at the commissioner expectantly, and he nodded his satisfaction. As he had suspected, that soft and throaty contralto of Susanne's could no more have achieved the shrill pitch of the scream heard that morning than Durant's own deep baritone could have managed it.
THE mysterious lady from under the eaves had not screamed in the upper corridor that morning. Of that Durant was certain.
Who, then, had it been? Was there still another woman hiding out in Satan Sisk's red-brick mansion?
The door opened and Sergeant Cole hurried in. His face wore a scowl, and there was anger in his eyes. He carried a rolled bundle under an arm.
Beg your pardon, Commissioner, he rasped, but I have something of importance to report. When it came time to remove the bodies to the morgue, we discovered that Ronnie Bowles' pants was missing. They was clean gone, sir, from the room! I had not moved from in front of the door, mind you, yet them pants was gone!
Durant fixed his glance on the bundle under Cole's arm, and asked, Where did you recover them?
In that same little room under the eaves, sir, where Rice and McFadden found that brazen little dame right there! Cole exploded, poking a stiff forefinger almost against Susanne Barrie's pert nose.
The girl did not even flinch. She fixed her tawny eyes upon the sergeant's congested face, and said serenely, You must be mistaken, officer, for I've never seen those pants before!
Durant looked at the girl steadily for a moment, then reached for the trousers. He searched the pockets and piled up what he found. A handkerchief, pen-knife, bill-fold that contained no money, and some small change. That was all.
He studied the objects on the desk with puckered brow, and presently grasped what had been nudging his mind.
Bowles was a collector, he remarked to Cole. He surely must have had a car. He would need it in his business, Sergeant.
Cole nodded. It's a flivver, sir, he offered. Parked out in front, right now. We checked the cars out there, of course.
Did you notice whether the key was in the lock?
It was not, sir.
Durant said nothing more on that subject. He returned the trousers to Cole.
Miss Barrie, he said abruptly, you have let yourself in for trouble. Possibly trouble of a serious character. I am very near, at this moment, to ordering your arrest. That may come at any time. After I have talked with your attorneys, if they are your attorneys, I shall know exactly what to do about you. In the meantime, I am going to assign you to a room on the second floor and if I catch you out of it, or hear of your leaving it without my permission, it's a cell in the can for you. What's it going to be?
I much prefer the nice room, sir, if you please, Susanne told him, not in the least disturbed. And you'll find that my attorneys are just who I have said they are. May I have my bag from the little hideaway?
You may. Get it for her, Sergeant. Then put her in one of the vacant rooms on the second floor, this wing, make sure she can't get out by way of a window, and lock her in.
Not without breakfast, I hope? Susanne said plaintively. Even if I am a criminal, surely I don't rate starvation?
Get her what she wants to eat, Sergeant, Durant further instructed.
Right, sir, Cole said. Come along, youand don't try any tricks. I'm watching you clostand why? Because I've never yet saw a pug-nosed blonde that could be trusted!
A package of cigarettes and some matches, along with the breakfast tray, Sergeant, Susanne ordered, wrinkling her pug nose at him as she passed through the door.
DURANT called the law firm of Lattimore and Finn. Mr. Lattimore spoke briefly and to the point. Miss Susanne Barrie was the firm's client, and the firm was back of her in everything she did. Was the commissioner satisfied with that? The commissioner was.
The young woman would have to be added to the rest of his worries, for there was no help for it. She was in possession, and ejecting her would prove a tough procedure, granting Durant wished to eject herwhich he distinctly did not.
Go back to the little room under the eaves, McFadden, he instructed, and search carefully. What I want is a bunch of keys. Ignition, car-door, and probably others. The keys may have fallen out of Bowles' trouser pocket there. May be in the room where he was killed. Search everywhere they might possibly be.
Durant was thorough, and for that reason he ordered the search. But he did not expect McFadden to find the keys. Nothing at hand had so far supplied him with a clue. It was, he hunched, something missing that he would have to rely on.
The collector's missing keys. Accompanied by Detective Rice, the commissioner made a tour of the entire house. Then he went down into the garden by way of the private entrance used by Mrs. Breedon and the maid. He prowled the big garage, which had been made over from a roomy stable, and finally brought up before a small gate in the rear wall at the south of the premises. The wall was of heavy stone, and formidable in height. It had barbed-wire along the top, and had been designed to keep prowlers out. The door was narrow, painted green, and the lock was massive.
Mrs. Breedon, interviewed a few minutes later, stated that there had never been but two keys to the door. One was kept in the butler's room, the other always in possession of Satan Sisk. Both keys were then in Mrs. Breedon's apartment, and she exhibited them. Durant put both in his pocket and went downstairs.
There were matters demanding his attention at his office. He would clear them up, then give quiet thought to the problem of Hilltop House. With two detectives and a patrolman on guard inside the house and in the grounds, he felt safe in leaving the place. He drove to his office at once.
At about four o'clock in the afternoon, he was taken back in his mind to Hilltop House by a telephone call. It was Lotta Mears, the girl with the frightened eyes, who called him.
Commissioner, she said, her voice low and brittle with fear, there are things I must tell you! I can't over the phone, because I may be interrupted or overheard. But, God in Heaven, I must tell you! There's a terrible doom hanging over this awful house, and those in it
Be quiet! Durant ordered sternly. I'll come out now
For God's sake don't! she pleaded. I must not be seen talking with you! I shall go to my room and write what I want you to know. I'll put the note in the bosom of my dress and slip it to you when you come tonight. You are coming, surely?
Then I'll give it to you tonight. I'm afraidterribly afraid!
She hung up, leaving Durant swearing softly under his breath.
He got reports at regular intervals from Hilltop House. Everything was quiet during the day. Everybody keeping to their rooms. No disturbance of any kind.
A calm before a storm?
Durant was firmly of the opinion that it was.
CHAPTER III. THEY ARE TO BLAME!
ON his way out to Hilltop House at eight o'clock that night, Durant once again tried to piece together the puzzle. He found that he hadn't enough pieces to even begin to make a picture.
Why had Satan Sisk tattooed the little Satans on the bodies of Graybill and the four young men?
Why had Bowles' keys been stolen?
The killer had done his work, snatched up the trousers and run. He had killed for those keys. Why?
When the commissioner came up to the big gate to the grounds, he observed that Ruliff's taxicab and Prieb's coupe, parked there when he left that day, were no longer at the curb. That occasioned speculation.
Officer Cobb was on duty on the front veranda.
Where's Prieb's car and the taxi? he asked, as the officer saluted.
Sergeant Blake had them drive the cars inside and put them in the garage, sir, he was informed. They did it under guard.
That was perfectly all right. The cars should be inside. Sergeant Blake reported everything, quiet, and all hands finishing supper in the dining room. The commissioner went there at once.
A survey of those seated around the table revealed only one person missing. That person was Lotta Mears. Durant, not wishing to single her out as a person he desired to confer with, beckoned to Mrs. Breedon, who arose and followed him into the hall.
Where is Miss Hears? he inquired. In her room, Mr. Durant. I took her some food earlier in the evening, as she did not want to join the rest of us at the table. The poor child is on the verge of a breakdown, what with the excitement and all.
Thank you, Mrs. Breedon. I will not keep you from your supper.
She returned to the dining room, and Durant went swiftly up the stairs. He hurried to the wing occupied by the housekeeper and the maid, located the door of the latter and turned the knob. It was unlocked. He entered, switched on the lightand stood with his back against the closed door, getting his breath in a sharp gasp.
The body of Lotta Mears was hanging from the chandelier! A pair of silk stockings had been used. She was dead.
Durant hurriedly searched the bosom of her dress, but the promised note was not there. On a table lay a single sheet of paper with a few lines penciled on it. Durant read:
I can stand it no longer. Fear is driving me mad. I have thought of other ways out, of running away and hiding, but there have been obstacles in the way. If I have done wrong, then they are to blame for it.
(Signed) LOTTA MEARS.
Lotta, the girl with the frightened eyes, had fallen a victim to that fright. Had died rather than longer endure that which she feared.
Durant read the note againand sat down slowly on the bed. Into his eyes a cold light had come, and his teeth clamped together with a click that made them ache.
By God! he exclaimed under his breath. That poor kid may have taken her own life, but it will take a lot of proving to make me believe it!
Another thought struck him, and he acted on it promptly. He went to the body of the girl, opened the bosom of her dress.
On Lotta's left shoulder was a tiny tattooed image of Satan!
Now, Durant said grimly, I know it was murder!
Durant switched off the lights, locked the door on the outside and went downstairs. He must act swiftly if he were to save the others in that house who were marked for death.
But how act? He had no clue. No inkling as to the identity of the killer, or the motive actuating him.
Again, he asked himself, what possible motive could he have? It was true that Prieb could have killed the butler and later killed Bowles. He was the only one of the heirs not present in the library when the collector died. Certainly Ruliff and Lane could not have had a hand in that murder. Prieb was above stairs. He could have done it.
Durant couldn't answer thatthen. But he meant to have an answer before morning dawned.
He met Sergeant Blake in the lower hall. Lotta Mears appears to have committed suicide, he informed the stoical Blake. In her room, hanging to the chandelier. Go up there and lock yourself in. Here's the key. Open only to meand keep your gun ready for use. A devil is loose in this house, Blake, and no man or woman in it is safe. Watch yourself!
I'll do just that, the sergeant snapped wrathfully. And if I'm lucky enough to draw a bead on him, there'll be one devil less in this world!
AT the dining room door Durant met the taxi driver, Oscar Ruliff. The big chap looked happy, and a grin spread his thick lips.
Howdy, Commissioner, he said smugly. Miss Breedon ordered me a special dish for supper. Tripe! By gollies, tripe cooked in milk! That's something I shore do love!
Durant drew him aside. Ruliff, he said seriously, go to your room, lock yourself in and don't come out until I say for you to. Don't open the door for anybody but me. There's deadly danger about, and you are under the gun. Don't ask questions, but do as I tell you.
The big fellow's jaw dropped, and his cow-eyes stared bewilderedly at Durant.
Wha-what have I done, Commissioner? he asked plaintively.
Absolutely nothingexcept to allow a little devil to be tattooed on your body, Durant told him. Get up to your room, and stay there!
I'll do it, sir. Shore I will!
He lumbered up the stairs, and Durant went to the drawing room. Most of the others had left the dining room and gathered there. Miss Susanne Barrie, attired in slacks and a pongee shirt, was smoking a cigarette while she tried in vain to get a response from the radio. The gambler, Hal Lane, was trying to make up a party for bridge. Prieb moped in a corner. Durant beckoned Prieb into the hall.
Go into the study, Prieb, he ordered. I want to have a talk with you later.
Glad to, Durant, Prieb said courteously, and went across the hall.
The commissioner next caught Lane's eye, and beckoned him out.
Lane, he said, I want you to go to your room, lock yourself in and stay there until I come. Don't open except to me, if you want to live. That's straight. There's hell to payand tonight may be pay-day. Understand?
I'm taking orders from you, Commish, Lane told him. Even if it does mean I play sol, instead of collecting a few dimes from the chumps.
Lane went up the stairs, and Durant entered the drawing room. He drew Susanne into a far corner, sat down beside her on a divan and asked, Have you, by any chance, got a little Satan tattooed on your left shoulder?
Commissioner, she chided, her eyes glinting with amusement, you wouldn't get that way about a simple little maiden like me? Oh, tell me it isn't true!
You little fool! Durant rapped at her. Answer my question! I'm not trying to make you. I'm trying to make a murder case. Are you tattooed?
Not little Susannenow or ever, she told him, face serious as she perceived the gravity of Durant's features. Why do you ask?
Never mind why. I wish to hell I knew what to do with you!
Why do anything? And who invited you to?
I don't need to be invited. I can throw you in the can and keep yousafe. Perhaps I'd better.
Commissioner, Susanne asked, what is wrong? There must be something terrible impending. I'll do whatever you askexcept leave Hilltop House. It is mine, and here I mean to stay. Do you want me to scream for you again? she ended, her eyes laughing.
Somber faced, Durant got up. You're a pretty nut, Susannebut pretty nuts have the market glutted just now, he said. If there's any sense at all in your head, use it. Do this: stay right here in this room and don't go out of it, even into the hall, until I come for you. Will you do that?
The squirrel will come back for the pretty nut? she asked him, a quizzical look on her upturned face. Cross your heart and point to . . . .
Officer Murphy appeared in the doorway, and Durant beckoned him in.
Murphy, he directed, sit down by his foot, and stay by her. I'll kick you far into the sticks if you let her out of arm's length, or out of this room!
DURANT went across the hall and into the study. Prieb was staring at the picture of Satan on the wall. He turned when the door opened.
A hellish thing, that, he commented, indicating the picture, but I can't keep my eyes off it when I'm in the room. Looks like he's ready to step out and start helling around.
Prieb, Durant said quietly but with force, you're a drunken beast of a fellow, but you've got intelligence. You could be high up in your profession, if only you would not get in your own way. Tonight, don't get in your own way. As one man to another, tell me something I want to know.
Thanks for the kind words, Durant, Prieb said easily. And what is it you wish to know?
I'll outline the case. Graybill was murdered last night. He had a tiny Satan tattooed on his left breast. Bowles was slain a few hours laterand he had the same mark. Lotta Mears met her death only two or three hours agoand she had the same little devil. The mark of Satan.
No! The negative came from Prieb in the form of a protest.
Yes! snapped Durant. You are marked, and so are Ruliff and Lane. God knows how many more. All of you bearing the mark of Satan are doomed to die. See it? You must. Now, tell me what lies back of all this. It is for your safety and the safety of the others that I ask. And remember, I merely ask, when I have ways at my disposal to compel.
Durant. said Prieb earnestly, I have told you all I know
Why would anybody want to steal Bowles' keys? Durant shot over in interruption. He thought he saw the lawyer flinch, but could not be sure. Any idea about that?
Not the slightest.
Durant studied his face for a moment. Then, You don't want to go to the can, do you? he demanded. Not at all.
Then go to your room, lock yourself in, open to nobody but meand stay there until I come. Going to do it?
Surely. I know as well as you that hell is popping in this hellish house, and I'll take whatever precautions you recommend. I will not, however, leave the placeunless you have me dragged out.
It may come to that. Get up to your room. Prieband stay there.
Prieb left the study. Durant sat down for a few minutes. He took out the note Lotta had left and read it again.
It is not addressed, he reflected. At the end she does not say farewell to anybody or ask anybody's forgiveness. Most suicide notes do all of that. I have no doubt Lotta wrote itand I'm betting it was written to me.
That phase cleared up quickly. There had been another page of the letter. In it Lotta had told him what she had to tell. Then she had ended by crying her fear and desperation on paper. That was Durant's conclusion. The poor girl had been watched, caught in the act of betraying somebodythe they whom she accused as being responsibleand had been hung to the chandelier.
More than one, then, figured in the black business.
Theythe executioners of the persons Satan Sisk had marked for death!
By God, I'm going to find 'they,' and break their collective necks, Durant gritted, getting up.
The study door was slapped open abruptly, and Prieb, putty-faced and eyes wild, rushed into the room.
Durant, he croaked, come with me quick! Oscar Ruliff is dead on the floor in my room!
DURANT went up the stairway in three leaps, ran down the corridor and slammed back the door, of Prieb's room. He stopped on the threshold, eyes taking in the scene before him.
Ruliff lay on the floor across the room. His body was drawn, knees almost under his chin. His face was contorted as nothing short of death in the agony of poison-induced spasms could have contorted it. On the floor, the apex of a damp triangular smear, lay a quart whiskey bottle.
Mine! Prieb mouthed over Durant's shoulder. My whiskey! It was poisoned by somebody! God, it was meant to kill me! Ruliff sneaked in here to steal a drinkand died. Durant, you saved my life! I was on my way up here for an after-dinner drink, and you sent me into the study! Durant, by God, I owe you my life
Pull yourself together! Durant ordered tersely. Don't go to pieces now!
Togetherhell! Prieb screamed, turned, and ran swiftly down the corridor.
Durant let him go. He couldn't have stopped him had he wished. Prieb was utterly demoralized. The cops would corral him.
The commissioner went to the body, picked up the empty bottle and smelled of it gingerly.
Cyanide! he exclaimed, replacing the bottle on the floor.
He searched the dead man's pockets swiftlyand stood erect, a baffled look on his face.
The taxi driver's keys were gone!
That Ruliff had had the keys that day Durant knew. He had driven his taxi into the garage at Hilltop, and he had to use his keys for that. It was possible they were in the room, or had been left in the car. But Durant knew without looking for them that the keys would not be found.
Once again the killer had struckand for a bunch of keys!
Then a thought struck him hard. It was Prieb's bottle that had been poisoned, hence it was Prieb's death that had been desired, Prieb's keys the object. Yet Ruliff's keys had been taken.
Durant swore a scorching oath. Daylight was coming through at last.
The keys of each of the heirs are important to the killer, and those of one no more important than those of another!
It was an inescapable conclusion. Sergeant Blake came puffing into the room. He stared, but asked no questions.
You were stationed in Lotta's room, Durant said. Why leave it?
A fellow went running by, Commissioner, screaming like a madman, the sergeant explained. He ran down the back stairs and out. I locked the girl's door and come to see what the trouble was, and saw you in here. Another one killed, sir?
Cyanide, briefly. Prieb was the man who ran screamingand damned, if I blame him. Telephone the homicide boys, both cases. Lotta and Ruliff. Then hustle back here.
Durant searched the room, found nothing, and sat down. He was weary with a sense of defeat. One by one they were dying, being murdered, and he helpless to prevent it. Then anger superseded all other emotions. He was pacing the floor like a caged lion when Sergeant Blake returned.
They're coming, sir, he reported. Stay here, Blake, Durant ordered, and hurried down the corridor. He stopped at the door of a room near the stair head, turned the knob and found it locked. Lane! he called. Open up. It's Durant!
There was no answer.
Durant backed across the hall, hurled himself forward against the door and crashed into the room.
Hal Lane sat in a chair before a table. His head was down on it, his arms hanging loosely beside him. He was dead.
On the floor lay a number of playing cards, and a solitaire layout was on the table under his head.
A broken key chain dangled from the gambler's belt. The keys were gone.
The room was suddenly crowded with people. Two officers and Mrs. Breedon and Miss Barrie came in while Durant stood there with his cold eyes surveying the scene.
Why, the poor chap was playing sol! Officer Smith exclaimed, stooping to pick up the cards.
Durant's right foot shot out, connected with the officer's hand, and he snapped, Don't touch them, fool! It's the cards that killed him!
The cards, sir? Smith queried, nursing his hand.
Yes! They were treated with cyanide. Lane wet his thumb in dealing them off and died!
Threethree of Satan Sisk's heirs dead, and the fourththe fourth gone mad! It was Mrs. Breedon who cried out. She fell in a swoon before the words had hardly crossed her lips.
CHAPTER IV. SATAN EXPLAINS
DURANT sat in Satan Sisk's study, hands folded in his lap, eyes intent on nothing, mind concentrating. Officers were searching the house, grounds, neighboring territory. The net was out for Prieb, the last designate heir of Satan.
Susanne Barrie came to him there. Her tawny eyes were serious, face white, small hands nervous. She sat down before the commissioner.
I want to tell you about myself, she said quietly. It may help. My mother was Satan Sisk's only child. She married against his will. They lived in Cincinnati then. He threw her out of his house and put her out of his heart. My mother later came to hate him. She would never admit that his blood was in her veins. She died, and I was reared by adopted parents. They are now dead.
I was taught by my mother to hate Satan, and instructed never to claim kin with him. Satan had never known of my birth, but he had been informed of my mother's death. Graybill knew all about me. When Satan was nearing death, Graybill got in touch with me. He persuaded me to come forward at the proper time and claim the estate. He got Lattimore and Finn to act for me, and I came on a week ago. Had Satan known of me, he would have made a new will, cutting me off with a dollar, so he was allowed to die without knowing he had a grandchild.
It was Graybill who smuggled me into the house and hid me away. Then, poor chap, he was slain. Whether or not the killer suspected him of what he had done, I do not know. Probably not. My relationship was known to Graybill and my attorneys, and to no one else. That is all there is to it, Mr. Durantand forgive me for being pert?
A smile crossed Durant's grim face. Of course I do, he assured her. And I want to put you out of harm's way. I am going to send you to the safest place in Kaw City the matron's quarters at the City Hall. Will you do that for me?
I'll do anything you say, commissioner, she said. And I thank you for being so nice to me.
It was a relief to Durant when two detectives took the young woman away. At least she would not fall a victim to the blood-lust of the killer.
The night passed without a trace of Prieb, and without turning up a clue to the killer's identity. When morning came, the deluge came with it. A newspaper onslaught, the ferocity of which had never been approached in Kaw City. Every paper in town demanded in plain words the heads of the police departmentand Dean Durant's was wanted on any kind of platter!
Durant read the papers and smiled grimly. He was ready to give up his office, but not until he had landed the Hilltop House monster behind the bars. Let them rave and demand his head. That made no difference to him. The only thing in life that counted was the job in handand he'd wash it up, sooner or later, or spend the rest of his life trying.
At ten o'clock, Steele Macklin came to the commissioner's office in response to a telephone call. The dwarf looked weary, his eyes red from lack of sleep. He had just won a murder case, and his interest had been so ken his nerves had suffered.
Durant poured him a drink, then began talking.
Joab Sisk hated humanity, he said. All of us know that. His cruelty earned for him the sobriquet of Satan. That must have cut deep. It became an obsession with him. He was Satan. Very well, he'd be Satan. He even painted Satan, and gave the body his caricatured face He had, or thought he had, no kin. Yet he had money. I have investigated the matter, Macklin, Satan Sisk possessed a fortune of approximately one million dollars in currency and negotiable bondsand no more than three months before he died. What became of that fortune?
Satan hid it away. It was to serve a satanic purpose. It was to incite murder. It has done so, as we have seen. That is the meaning of the missing key rings. The murderer killed for those keys. Of that I am certain. Beyond that I am not so certain. So I have called on you, Macklin. In your conversations with Mrs. Breedon, who is ill at Hilltop House today, you may have heard something that she said without realizing the significance of it herself, that might have given you an idea as to what was in Satan's mind when he made that will. Can you help me at all?
Macklin's broad face was very still and solemn. He was concentrating so long that Durant thought he would never speak at all. Finally he said, Mrs. Breedon once said to me that Satan had killed many people vicariously. He had a terrible blood-lust, hating humanity as he did. But he hadn't the guts to carry out his murderous urges. He lacked the nerve to kill. One day he came to her, his mouth full of froth. As best I can remember, these were his words to her:
'I can kill! I have solved the problem of how to kill! I can do it even from the grave! Watch, you, for the mark of Satanafter I am in my tomb! When you see them lying dead, with the mark of Satan upon them, you will know that I killed them.'
Mrs. Breedon thought he was losing his mind. But you may have a different notion about that, Durant. Maybe the old devil did have some way to kill after he had gone. Who knows? I am not superstitious, but what other out is there?
I think you are right, but not in the way your mind is running, Durant told him. Satan understood people, for all that he hated them. He knew how to set a murder-cauldron brewingand he did. Thanks, Mack, you have clarified things a lot. I think I have at last some threads in hand which will lead me out of the maze.
Prieb? Macklin queried shrewdly. You are in a position to know whether or not he could have done the killing. Could he?
He could. Durant said grimly. He was always unaccounted for, except by his own words, when the murders were committed.
And he escaped with a pretense of madness? Macklin broke in.
Yes. Climbed the back wall in spite of the barbed wire. He must be badly cut up, wherever he is. It will not take long to find himand then we'll have this case in the bag?
And Satan's million? What about it?
Prieb probably knows where it is. The million is of minor importance. What we want is the killerand we'll get him.
Macklin went out, and Durant sat in thought for a while. It was the matter of the keys that troubled him. If Satan had given each man a key to the supposed cache and set them hunting it, why should the killer want all four keys so badly he would kill for them?
Like a flash it came to Durant that he could find the answer to that. Find it somewhere in that queer study of Satan Sisk's. Was it something he had seen in the study, and marked subconsciously, which was now trying to show him the way?
Durant didn't know, but he did intend to follow the thought to the end. Hilltop House was closely guarded. Only Mrs. Breedon, ill in bed, was there, with the exception of the police. Durant would go there that night and he would stay until his problem was solved.
Or else he said to himself grimly.
WHEN Durant reached Hilltop House he made sure his men were all placed as he had directed. One was at the entrance gate, another in the reception hall. The door in the wall at the back was guarded. Sergeant Blake was in charge.
Informed by the sergeant that everything had been quiet and that Mrs. Breedon was recovering, the commissioner entered Satan Sisk's study and closed the door. He switched on all the lights and stood looking at the sinister picture on the wall.
Nothing so usual as a hiding place back of the picture, he reflected. Satan was too wily for that. But just for luck
He walked to the picture, took hold of the lower part of the frame and tried to move it to the left, then to the right. The picture was fixed fast to the wall. He took hold of the lower frame again, pulled outward
There was a click, the frame came away from the wall at the bottom, but came only with considerable tugging. The reason for that was immediately clear.
Beneath the picture a panel had moved aside. Back of the panel was the metal door of a small vaultlike safe. A key was in the lock. Durant pulled the door open.
Save for a slip of paper with penciling on it, the vault was empty.
Durant took the slip of paper out, and read:
There is another vault on the premises. It is much larger than this. Hunt for a tiny Satan, and press.
The signature was a small sketch of Satan! Durant pushed the picture back in place, and the panel slid over the door of the vault. Had anybody been before him at the vault? He had no means of knowing.
One thing that he knew for certain, however, was thisif the second vault was much larger than the one beneath the picture, then it must be somewhere in the basement. The walls of the upper part of the house were not thick enough to accommodate a hidden vault of large proportions, and the commissioner had prowled all the closets and obscure nooks there were.
Hunt for a tiny Satan, and press, he grunted. The old scoundrel wanted that vault found.
In the lower hall he was turning back to find the basement entrance, when Sergeant Blake came clumping rapidly toward him. Blake's heavy face was wrathful.
Durant! he exclaimed at sight of the commissioner. Somebody is in the grounds that ain't got no business here! Andand Stovall is lying out by the green door, with his head bashed in. By God, Du
Come with me, Durant broke in, opening the basement door. And have your gun ready, Blake!
They followed a corridor and came into the section of basement under the south wing. Durant went to the south wall and played his flash over it. A low exclamation indicated that he had found something.
Look, he said to Blake, and pointed to an impression in the concrete. The mark of Satan. He wanted this spot to be found, and marked it so. Look out for anything, Blake and be surprised at nothing. He uses a silenced gun.
Durant pushed with his thumb against the tiny impression of Satanand leaped aside as a section of what appeared to be solid concrete wall swung outward. It disclosed a passage about six and one-half feet high, and five feet wide, vaulted, and lined with concrete. The air smelled dead. All was dark inside.
But the darkness did not obtain for long. A shaft of light appeared in the distance. Durant shot his flash off. The light, a flash in someone's hand, came nearerand became stationary about one hundred feet away. It switched around and focused on the west wall.
Durant waited. Then, down the passage, an electric bulb from overhead shed its light down. A stooping figure was revealed, back toward Durant and Blake. It was doing something with its hands.
At sight of that, Durant suddenly leaped forward. Hold it, Macklin! he cried. Don't open that door!
He leaped for the dwarf just as the latter, having used the necessary four keys, turned the handle of a door set in the wall. The door swung open....
A terrific report filled the narrow passage and seemed to rock the house above. Acrid smoke spurted out of the vault, and a hail of slugs literally deluged the opposite wall.
But Durant had been in time. Steele Macklin had been snatched, from in front of the doorand from his doom.
ONE for the gallows! Durant snapped, as he and Blake pushed Macklin out of the passage and into the cellar. Watch the devil, Blakehe's tricky as hell!
He snapped handcuffs around the dwarf's wrists, and hurried back into the passage. He followed it on past the vault set in the wall, and discovered, as he had suspected, that there was an exit into a cellar under the stables.
In the cellar lay the body of Carl Prieb. He had been killed by a blow on the head.
Anybody knowing of the passage could enter Hilltop House and leave it secretly and at will, using the little door in the rear wall. Macklin had known about itbut how?
Durant went back and stopped in front of the vault in which Satan Sisk had so cunningly contrived a spring-gun to greet the finder. The vault was about five feet high, five feet wide and four in depth. On shelves in the burglar-proof vault were several tin boxes.
The tin boxes contained Satan Sisk's fortune. Negotiable bonds, currency, gold to the amount of a million dollars. On top of one of the boxes lay an unsealed envelope. Durant took the envelope, and returned to the basement where Blake and his captive were. He took a sheet of paper from the envelope and read what Satan Sisk had written:
First they robbed me, then they called me Satan. Is it any wonder that I hate humanity? I doand most venomously. So, not able to kill with my own hand. I have devised a means of killing by proxyafter I am gone. I have equipped the underground vault with four locks, all of them different. I have given each of my 'heirs' a key, and told them what to hunt for. All four keys must be used to open the door. But one man will use all four keys. Of that I am certain. He will kill the four heirs to get them. He will kill Graybill, because Graybill is honest and can't be bought. Graybill alive would be a hazard to him. He will kill the girl, Lotta, in whose veins runs the same blood as in his. But he will kill her, because she is decent. She knows just enough to be dangerous and she will weaken. He will spare the old one, because such love as he is capable of feeling is for her.
Graybill, Lotta, Prieb, Bowles, Ruliff, Laneall dead! All marked with the sign of Satan! But the happiest thought of all is this:
This proxy of mine; this villain whose black heart and terrible tendencies I know so well, will himself join those whom he has slain! He will die when he opens the vault door! I have told the old one about the keys, and the vault's location, under seal of secrecy, knowing very well that she will tell the one to whom I wish the information to go. My plans are so well laid. I know they cannot go wrong!
When he finished, Macklin laughed. You win, Durant, he said. My only regret is that I didn't kill Satan Sisk long ago, instead of playing a waiting game for his money. I had a right to it, as it happens.
Yes? Durant queried. Sure. I'm his illegitimate son. His and the woman you know as Althea Breedon. Lotta was their offspring too. My mother was Satan's mistress back East. We followed him, and he took his former mistress and her daughter into his house as servants. As for me, I hated him from the start, and meant to have his money. Satan, he grimaced, knew that.
And proved himself smarter than you, Durant pointed out. He arranged for you to learn of his plans through your mother, and thus play into his hands. Why did she scream after Bowles was killed?
We wanted the murder discovered at once. Wanted to throw fright into the situation. When people are demoralized they are easy.
And you did all the killing?
I did. It was easy, having secret access to the house as I did. I'm not holding anything back, you see. I've lost and know it.
And Mrs. Breedon has lost, also. Durant said grimly. Let's get her.
They found Althea Breedon in her roomdead. There was an empty bottle on the floor beside her bed.
What stumps me, Durant, said Macklin as he was locked in a cell, is how the hell they're going to hang me, when I can't even get a tie around my neck!
Commissioner Durant was very sure that the hangman would find a way.