Invisible Death

by Anthony Pelcher

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: On Lees' quick and clever action depended the life of "Old Perk" Ferguson, the millionaire manufacturer threatened by the uncanny, invisible killer.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The inquest into the mysterious death of Darius Darrow, savant, inventor, recluse and eccentric, resembled a scientific convention. Men and women of high scientific attainment, and, in some instances, world fame, attended to hear first hand the strange, uncanny, unbelievable circumstances as hinted by the newspapers.

Mrs. Susan Darrow, the widow, was the paramount witness. She appeared a quaint figure as she took the stand. Tearful, yet alert, this little woman betrayed the intelligence that had made her one of the world’s foremost chemists. She gave her age as fifty-eight, but if it had not been for her snowy hair she would have looked much younger. She was small but not frail, and had expressive blue eyes. She had a firm little nose and chin, and was garbed in black silk garments of a fashion evidently dating back a decade.

Although not modern in dress, her answers to questions regarding scientific and business affairs involved in the mysterious case, proved she was thoroughly abreast of the times in all other particulars.

“You believe your husband was murdered?” bluntly asked the examiner at one stage.

“That is my opinion,” she said, then added: “It might have been some scientific accident, the nature of which I cannot fathom. We were confidential in all matters except my husband’s work. He reserved the right to be secretive about the scientific problems on which he was working.”

“Can you throw any light on a motive for such a crime?”

“The motive seems self-evident. He was working on an invention that he said would do away with war and would make the owner of the device a practical world dictator, should he choose to exercise such power. The device was completed. The murderer killed him to secure his device. That all seems plain enough.”

“Was anything else of value taken?”

“We had nothing else of value about the place. I was never given to jewelry. The furnishings and equipment were undisturbed. It is quite evident, I think, that the thief was no ordinary petty burglar.”

The attorney interposed: “I believe we had better let Mrs. Darrow tell this story from the beginning in her own way. There are only two really important witnesses. Whatever she can remember to recite might be of value to the authorities. Now, Mrs. Darrow, how long had you lived at Brooknook? Begin there and just let your story unfold. Try to control your nerves and emotions.”

“I am not emotional. I am not nervous,” said the quaint little woman, bravely. “My heart hurts, that is all.

“The place was named by my father. We inherited it at his death, thirty years ago, and moved in. My two children were born and died there. At first we kept the servants and maintained all of the thirty-two rooms. But after the children were gone, we both gave ourselves over to study and we began to close one room after another, releasing the servants one by one.”

“How many rooms do you occupy now?”

“We lived in three, a living-room, kitchen and bedroom. The two big parlors were turned into a laboratory. We both worked there. It was there my husband met his death at his work. Sometimes we worked together, sometimes independently. I did all my own housework, except the laundry, which I sent out. We had no visitors. We lived for each other and our work.”

“Tell us about the rooms that were not occupied.”

“We left them just as they always had been. I have not been in any of these rooms for twenty years. Once I looked into the little girl’s room--my daughter’s room. It was dusty and cobwebby, but undisturbed by human hand. My husband peered in over my shoulder. I closed the door. We turned away in each other’s arms.”

Here the little old woman fell to weeping softly into her lace handkerchief. Minutes lapsed as the court waited, respecting her grief.

“Were these rooms locked?” asked the attorney finally.

“No,” said the widow, recovering, as she dabbed at her eyes. “We feared no one. All the rooms were closed, but not locked. The outside doors were seldom locked. We lived in our own world. For appearance sake we kept up the grounds. Peck, the gardener, kept the grounds, as you know. He called in outside help when necessary. This was his affair. We never bothered him. He lived probably a half mile up the road. The first of each month he would come for his pay. He was practically our only visitor.

“When it was necessary to see our attorney or other connections, Peck would drive us. At first he used to drive our horses. Ten years ago we pastured the horses for life and bought the small car. We seldom went out. We have no close friends and no relatives nearer than the Pacific coast. They are distant cousins. You see, we were rather alone in the world since the children went away--we never spoke of them as being dead.”

Again the court was hushed. The coroner and the attorney took occasion to blow their noses rather violently.

“On May 27th, the day your husband died, what happened, as you re-remember it?” asked the attorney.

“We arose and had breakfast as usual. I was puttering about the rooms. My husband kissed me and started for the laboratory. I was in the kitchen. It was about ten o’clock when I finished in the kitchen and went into the living room which adjoins the laboratory. I had been rather fretted, something unusual for me. It seemed I dimly sensed the presence of someone near me, someone I did not know, an outsider. I thought it was foolish of me and buckled up.

“But when I went into the living room, it seemed as if some invisible presence were following me. I could hear the low hum of my husband’s device. The door of the laboratory was open. He called to me and said:

“‘Sue dear, it seems strange, but I made two models of this set and now I can find only one. You could not have misplaced the other by any chance, could you?’

“I assured him I knew nothing of it and he said, ‘Hum-m, that’s funny.’ Then he went back into the library and closed the door. The humming continued. I was more annoyed than ever, but I did not want to bother my husband. Then a queer thing happened. I saw the door of the laboratory open and close, but I did not see anyone. The next instant, I heard my husband’s outcry. It was more a groan than a scream.

“I rushed into the laboratory. My husband was lying by his slate-topped table. The device, I noticed, was gone. It was no bigger than a coffee-mill, I thought, as I bent over my husband. Strange how such a thought could have crowded in at such a time.

“My husband’s head was bleeding. It was cut, a long gash over the ear, just below the bald spot. It must have been a frightful blow. I looked in his eyes. My nurse’s and pharmaceutical course gave me knowledge which sent a chill to my heart. He was dead. I must have fainted.

“When I recovered I ran for Peck. I found him near the house, coming my way and holding his right eye.

“‘Something struck me, ‘ he said. Then, seeing me so pale, he said, ‘My God! Mrs. Darrow, what has happened?’

“‘Run for the doctor, ‘ I said. When the doctor came he called the police and coroner. They told me not to disturb the body. Later they took it away, and the gardener told me--”

“Never mind what Peck told you,” interrupted the attorney. “We will let him tell it. Is that all you can tell us about the death itself?”

But the widow was weeping now, so violently that the court ordered her excused.

The gardener was called and took the stand displaying a big, black eye, which offered comedy relief to a pathetic situation.

“On the main road to the east,” he began after preliminary questioning, “was a small car which had been parked there all morning. I noticed it because it had no license plates. It was visible from the inside of the grounds, but was hidden from the road by a hedge. It made me wonder because it was just inside our grounds.

“I had some very special red flags which I planted as a border back of pink geraniums. They were doing fine. I got them from the Fabrish seed house. There are no plants like Fabrish’s--I wouldn’t give a snap of my finger for all the other--”

“Just a minute,” interrupted the attorney. He told the gardener to never mind the geraniums and flags, but to tell just what happened.

“Well, I was bending over the border bed when I heard sounds like someone running along the gravel path towards me. I heard a humming like a bumble bee and I jumped to my feet. Just then something hit me in the eye and knocked me down. Yes sir, knocked me plumb down, and--”

“Then what happened? Never mind the asides, the extras--tell us just the simple facts,” instructed the attorney.

“Well, you won’t believe it, but I heard the footsteps leave the road. The geraniums were badly trampled. I looked at the parked automobile and could hear the hum coming from there.

“The machine started and turned into the road--”

“Did you notice anyone at the wheel?”

“That’s what you’re not going to believe. There wasn’t anybody in that auto at all. I didn’t see anyone at any time. The auto started itself, and what is more, that auto only went about a hundred yards when it disappeared altogether--like that--like a flash.”

“Did it turn off the road?”

“I didn’t turn anywhere. It was in the middle of the road. It just disappeared right in the middle of the road. It started without a driver, it turned north without a driver, and went on by itself for about a hundred yards. Then it vanished in the middle of the road. Just dropped out of sight.”

The court-room was hushed. The audience and court attaches were awe stricken and looked their incredulity.

“Do you mean to tell us that auto drove itself?” asked the court sternly.

The witness was completely confused. The attorney came to his rescue, looked at the court, and said:

“He has told that same story a hundred times, and he will stick to it. It seems impossible, but has not Mrs. Darrow told us she heard this humming and saw nothing? With the purely perfunctory recitals of the doctor and the constabulary this court and the jury have heard all there is to hear. We have no more witnesses. That is all there is.

“The jury will have to decide from the evidence whether this case is accident or murder. The doctor and two experts have reported that the wound appeared to have been made by some blunt instrument, swung powerfully. The skull under the wound and back of the ear was simply crushed. Death was instantaneous. It all happened in broad daylight.”

After an hour’s deliberation the jury decided the savant came to his death in his laboratory from a blow on the skull received in some manner unknown.

The crowd filed out, spiritedly discussing the unusual crime. In the crowd was Perkins Ferguson, known as “Old Perk,” head of the Schefert Engineering Corporation, who paid royalty on some of the Darrow patents. With him was Damon Farnsworth, his first vice-president.

“Well, what do you think of it?” asked Farnsworth, biting into a black cigar.

“Damned weird, isn’t it?” replied “Old Perk.” “I have my own theory, however,” he added, “but I am going to know a whole lot more about this case before I venture it.” The pair climbed into Ferguson’s car discussing the Darrow death case with furrowed brows.

What might be termed an extraordinary meeting of the directors of the Schefert Engineering Corporation, was held a few days later in a big building in the financial district.

The rich furnishings of the directors’ room indicated, better than Bradstreet’s, the great wealth of the corporation. Uniformed pages stood at attention at each end of the long, mahogany table at which were seated the fourteen directors of the company. All were men of wealth, standing and engineering knowledge. The departed Darrow often had been summoned to such meetings, and at this one there was a hush because of his recent demise.

After a batch of preliminary business had been transacted, Ferguson arose and cleared his throat. The directors leaned forward in their chairs expectantly. The page boys lost their mechanical attitude for the instant and fairly craned their necks around the bulks of the forms in front of them.

“The Darrow case has taken a sudden and sinister turn,” said the president. “I have a letter. I will read it:

“Old Perk: Get wise to yourself. We are in a position to destroy

you and all the pot-bellies in the Wall Street crowd. If you want

to die of old age, remember what happened to Darrow and begin

declaring us in on Wall Street dividends. If you do not you will

follow Darrow in the same way.

“Our first demand is for $100,000. Leave this amount in hundreds

and fifties in the rubbish can at the corner of 50th Street and

Broadway at 10 A. M. next Thursday. If you fail we will break your

damned neck. Bring the police with you if you like.

Invisible Death.

Ferguson passed the letter around for inspection. It was painstakingly printed, evidently from the type in a rubber stamp set such as is sold in toy stores.

“I have decided,” said Perkins at length, “to give this case to Walter Lees. He has never failed us in mechanical, chemical, or any form of scientific problem. I hope he will not fail in this. He will work independently of the police, who have requested that we keep the appointment at 50th Street and Broadway at the hour named. We will deposit a roll of newspapers, around which has been wrapped a fifty dollar bill and then we will stand by while the awaiting detectives do their duty.”

“You do not think anyone is going to call for any supposed package of money at one of the most congested corners in the world in broad daylight?” asked a director at the end of the table.

“Why not?” asked Ferguson. “A seedy individual could pick a package from a rubbish bin at that corner without attracting the least attention.”

“I guess you’re right,” agreed the doubting one.

“I know I’m right,” said the president. And he usually was.

“I have already arranged to have Lees instructed in his work,” Ferguson volunteered as a pause came in the buzz of conversation about the table. “Lees is young, but he is capable.” There was general discussion of the strange case of Darius Darrow; the room filled with the blue haze of many cigars.

Suddenly a low, humming sound was heard in the room.

Papers on the directors’ table were bunched as if by unseen hands, and thrown to the ceiling, from which they descended like flakes of snow and scattered about the room.

A book of minutes was torn from the hands of a secretary. It was raised and brought down on vice-president Farnsworth’s head. A chair was pulled out from under another direction and he was deposited in an undignified heap on the floor.

Another director acted as though he had been tripped, and he fell on top of Farnsworth. Two big vases crashed to the floor in bits. Other decorative objects were scattered about.

The directors who had been hurtled to the floor stood up with expressions of comical surprise on their features. Their chairs catapulted into a far corner of the room, one after the other.

Startled expressions resounded from the group.

A small bookcase fell on its front with a crash of glass. Ferguson’s cane jumped in the air and crashed a window pane.

The humming ceased suddenly.

The room was a wreck. The assembled men stood aghast. They were simply nonplussed. Finally they phoned for the police.

After hearing the strange recital from so many highly reputable witnesses, a detective sergeant, who had responded to the call with others, reported to headquarters.

A uniformed police guard was sent to the place with instructions to remain on duty until relieved.

Ferguson sent for Walter Lees, the young engineer of whom he had spoken to the directorate. Assigned to the task of unraveling the Darrow death mystery, Lees ran true to form by getting busy at once. This was at midnight of the day of the surprising directors’ meeting. Lees owned a big car; he piled into it and started for the scene of the crime.

Daybreak found him examining every inch of the road around the Darrow estate. Then he searched the hedge along the east road, where the phantom auto had disappeared after the crime. The brush along the opposite side of the thoroughfare was also gone over.

Passing autos had stopped to ask the meaning of his flashlight. Lees explained he had lost a pocketbook. It was as good an excuse as any and served to keep him from drawing a crowd. He found nothing to reward his long and painstaking efforts.

At seven A. M. he decided to interview the Darrow widow, and found her already up and about her kitchen, weeping softly as she worked.

She bade him be seated in the living room.

“No, I am not afraid to stay here alone,” she said in reply to Lees’ first question. “Whoever killed my husband did so to get possession of his second model. They had already stolen the first. I have thought since that they were afraid that the finding of the second model after his death would aid in their detection. For some reason they had to have both models.”

She agreed to tell all she knew of the case. Lees listened to the long recital as already recorded at the coroner’s inquest. By adroit questioning Lees gained just one new fact. Mrs. Darrow remembered that she had called her husband, just before he retired to his laboratory, to fix a towel hanger in the kitchen. “He found the pivot needed oiling,” explained the widow. “That was all. He oiled it and went into the laboratory.”

The idea of one of the world’s greatest mechanical engineers stopping his work to oil a towel hanger caused Lees to smile, but Mrs. Darrow did not smile.

“My husband was a genius at repairing about the house,” she said, in all seriousness.

“I can imagine so,” agreed Lees.

The conversation ceased. Lees sat for a few minutes with his head in his hands, thinking deeply. Finally he said:

“I am convinced that someone who was well aware of your husband’s habits committed this crime. Do you believe, positively, that the gardener is above suspicion?”

“Oh, it couldn’t have been Peck,” insisted Mrs. Darrow. “I had seen him down near the gate from the window. He was too far from the house, and besides, he was devoted to us both.”

“Then it was somebody from the neighborhood,” said Lees.

“Maybe so,” replied Mrs. Darrow, noncommittally.

“Who lives in the next house south?”

“That is towards the city,” mused the widow. “There are no houses south on either side of the road for a little further than a mile, when you reach the town limits of Farsdale. The town line is about half-way between, and marks the southern end of this estate.”

“Who lives in the first house to the north?”

“That is the cottage of Peck, the gardener.”

“How near is the next house?”

“That was the parcel my father sold. It is about three acres, and in the center, or about the center, is the house built by Adolph Jouret, who bought the land. He lives there with his daughter. They built a magnificent place. The brook that traverses our grounds rises at a spring back of his house. Save for two West Indian servants, they are alone. The servants live in Farsdale and motor back and forth.”

“What do you know of this--what’s his name?” queried Lees, who had assumed the role of examiner.

“Jouret? Very little. He is some sort of a circus man or showman, or was before he retired. He once had wealth, but my husband, some weeks ago, said that because of ill-advised investments he was not so well rated as formerly. I had the feeling that he might be forced to give up the place. I just felt that. I never heard it. I am so sorry because of the daughter. She is a beautiful girl, and seemed kindly, the one time I saw her. She was about twelve then. I do not like to say it, but she seemed a little dazed or slow witted, but really beautiful.” Mrs. Darrow fell to smoothing out the folds in her house apron as Lees asked:

“When was the only time you saw her?”

“Ten years ago, about. Just after my father’s death. They called on us. We did not care to continue the friendship, as Jouret seemed a little flamboyant--his circus nature, I suppose. Anyway, we were quiet folks, and there was no need of close association with neighbors.

“I remember,” continued the widow, after a pause, “that Jouret, when he heard my husband was a scientist, simulated an interest in science. He did have a smattering knowledge of science, but he was plainly affected, so we decided to just let him drop. No ill-feeling. We just--well, we were not interested.”

“You do not approve of circus people?”

“It is not that. Any honest work is honorable. It seems commendable to furnish amusement for the public. I know little about people of his profession but I am sure they are perfectly all right. It was Jouret, personally. He seemed noisy and insincere. The girl was nice. I loved her.”

“That is all you know of the Jourets?”

“That is all.”

“Mrs. Darrow, I wish to go through this house from attic to basement. Have you any objections?”

“None whatever. Make yourself free, but do not attach any significance to what appears to be a secret passageway and cave. My father was a biological chemist. He used to experiment much with small animals. He had a cave where he stored chemicals, and I believe you will find old chemicals stored down there now. I disturbed nothing.”

The widow forced a smile to her lips. “Will you excuse me?” she concluded. “I am trying to carry on.”

Lees, carrying a flashlight, began a systematic search of the premises. He made his way up a winding staircase, through dust and cobwebs to the attic. He found the top story filled with trunks and bits of furniture of a previous generation. All was in order, but dust-covered and cobwebby.

“Someone has been here before me,” he said to himself, brushing a mist of cobwebs from his coat sleeves. “There is a path brushed through the spiderwebs.” Turning his flashlight on the floor, he exclaimed:

“And here are footprints in the dust. Well I’ll be--!”

Then, after some study, he mused:

“Of course there has been someone here. The killer of Darrow probably has been here to see what he could see. It was no great task. The doors were never locked. The footprints are of no value except to give me the size of his shoes.”

He measured the footprints carefully. Then he went downstairs and phoned the measurements to a local shoe dealer, asking him to give him the trade size of shoes which would make such prints.

“They are number nines,” decided the shoe dealer.

Lees then returned to resume his search in the rooms and corridors.

“Wonder if Jouret wears nines,” he questioned himself. “But what if he does? I couldn’t convict him on that score. However, it might help.”

Then he fell to searching through the old trunks. He found old photographs, articles of apparel, knicknacks--grandmother’s and grandfather’s belongings all of them, and some children’s clothes of the days when little boys wore ruffles about their necks and little girls’ pantalettes reached to their ankles.

Carefully each article was replaced. He made his way down to the third and then the second floor. Through cobwebby corridors and bedchambers he searched, but found nothing further to aid his case.

In the unused rooms on the first floor he found an old spinning-wheel, candle moulds and utensils used in cooking in the days when housewives cooked over an open fire.

He did not find the “secret” passageway until Mrs. Darrow came to his aid. Leading from the basement was a coal chute. This shoot was formed in a triangle with the point under a trap. It was man-high at the cellar opening and its floor was a slide for fuel. It had been in use, evidently, quite recently.

At the cellar wall of this chute, Mrs. Darrow pressed what appeared to be a knot in the old timber and pushed open a door.

A dank odor issued forth as the door was opened. Lees entered the passage and Mrs. Darrow returned upstairs.

Following the underground passageway, Lees came onto a cave about 14 by 14 feet in size with a ceiling and walls of arched brick. It had evidently been built before the days of cement construction.

A long bench and shelves with carboys and jars of chemicals were the only furnishings. Lees sounded all the walls, but found nothing further to interest him.

Lees returned to town at the urgent call of “Old Perk,” who had arranged with great care to keep the appointment at 50th street and Broadway, where the decoy package was to be left. He had snipers in nearby windows. He had detectives, dressed in the gay garb of the habitues of the neighborhood, patrolling the corner, and he and his own guard parked an automobile, against all traffic rule, at the curb near the rubbish can.

An office boy sauntered up to the rubbish can, threw in the decoy package, and sauntered away.

A second later there was a low humming sound. The decoy package fairly jumped out of the rubbish can and disappeared in thin air.

The humming sound seemed to round the corner into 50th Street. Detectives followed on the jump. The humming approached an auto at the curb and the auto’s self starter began to function. As the police stood near by, enough to have jumped into the auto, the whole machine, a big touring car, actually disappeared before their eyes.

Consternation is a mild word when used to describe the result.

All forces set to trap the extortionists gathered in a group, and in their surprise and disappointment began discussing the queer case in loud tones. A crowd was gathering which was blocking traffic.

“Old Perk” was the first to recover from his surprise.

“Get the hell out of this neighborhood,” he yelled to his working forces. “All of you get down to my office!”

The working force dissolved and “Old Perk” drove away.

At “Old Perk’s” office shortly afterward a conference of the defeated forces of the law and of science was held.

“Old Perk” stormed and raged and the detective captain in charge fumed and fussed, but nothing came of it all. One was as powerless as another. Finally the conference adjourned.

The next morning in the mail, Perkins Ferguson, president of Schefert Engineering Corporation, received a letter carefully printed in rubber type. It read:

Thanks for the $50 bill. You cheated us by $99,950. This will never

do. Don’t be like that. You poor fools, you make us increase our

demand. We double it. Leave $200,000 for us on your desk and leave

the desk unlocked. We will get it. Every time you ignore one of our

demands, one of your number will die. Better take this matter

seriously. Last warning.

Invisible Death.

“Not another dime will they get out of me,” mused Ferguson.

He started opening the rest of his mail.

A clerk entered and handed him a telegram. It read:

“Damon Farnsworth struck down at breakfast table. Family heard

humming sound as he fell from his chair. Removed to Medical Center.

Skull reported fractured. May die.

“William Devins, Chief of Police, Larchmont.”

Ferguson wildly seized the telephone. “Get me Farnsworth’s house at Larchmont!” he shouted to his operator.

The phone was answered by Jones, the butler.

“This is Ferguson.”

An agitated voice replied:

“‘Ow sir, yes sir. It’s true, sir. ‘E was bleeding at the ‘ead, sir. Something ‘it ‘im.”

“Let me talk to Mrs. Farnsworth.”

“They are at the ‘ospital, sir.”

“One of the boys.”

“Both are at the ‘ospital, sir.”

“Do you think he will live?”

“An’ ‘ow could I say, sir?”

Ferguson called the Medical Center. They permitted him to talk to a doctor and a nurse. The nurse referred him to the doctor, who said:

“He is unconscious. There is a wicked fracture at the base of the brain. He was struck from the back--a club, I believe. He may die without regaining consciousness. I am hoping he will rally and that he will be all right.”

Ferguson ordered his car and, with Lees at his heels, jumped in the tonneau. He heard a humming sound back of him. He looked back and saw nothing. Both he and Lees were too impressed for words.

“Step on it,” Ferguson ordered the chauffeur. “Drive us to the Medical Center.”

At the world’s largest group of hospitals, Ferguson’s worst fears were confirmed. The patient was reported sinking.

Ferguson, giant of Wall Street, was a low spirited man as he drove back down town to his office. With Lees he passed through the outer offices, buzzing with business and the click of typewriters. Not a head was raised from a desk or machine. It was a well-drilled force.

Into his private sanctum he walked or rather dragged himself, and wearily he sat down. He pushed a pile of papers from him and ran his hand over his hot brow.

Blood pounded at his temples.

For the first time in his life he faced a situation which was too deep for his understanding.

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