Three Mysteries

Donal Buchanan

© Copyright 2015 by Donal Buchanan 


Photo of man's nose with an alien space ship inside.


Danny died hard.

His back arched against the restraints, every muscle twisted. His face contorted as he wept and shrieked his way to oblivion.

Steve sat through it all, then stood and pried his dead young son's fingers from his right hand.

The nurse looked at Steve, expecting grief and offering pity, but was repelled by the stony mask his face had become—and by the terrible purpose she could see growing in his eyes.

I'll send someone for the body, Nurse,” his voice grated harshly, “Thank you. You've been very kind."

Outside the room, Steve all but collided with Detective Lieutenant Park. He made a move to pass, but Park grabbed his arm.

Is he—?”

Dead?” growled Steve. “Don't be afraid of the word, Lieutenant. Yes, he's dead—and it was a mercy to him! What's going to happen to the bastards responsible? Tell me that! What's going to happen to them?”

Mr. Keller,” the Lieutenant's face reflected his frustrations. “We're doing all we can. Those two have a cast-iron alibi so far. But don't worry, we'll get them eventually. Did Danny say anything?”

He said a lot,” Steve replied, “but nothing made sense. They must have pumped him full of LSD or something before they cut his stomach open. He was higher than a kite and on a real trip.”

So, we're left with only your word that Danny planned to brace those mugs for hooking his girlfriend. Not much of a case, I'm afraid, unless we come up with some witnesses! But we'll get 'em —if not for this job, for something else!”

Sure, Lieutenant,” Steve's voice was bitter. “You'll get 'em. But when” How many other kids will have to die before you do? Everyone knows they're pushing junk all over the neighborhood. They've ruined half the kids around here!”

What 'everyone knows' isn't proof, Keller,” the Lieutenant said patiently. Right now I think you'd better go home and get some rest.”

Steve hated the pity he saw stark in the other man's eyes. He knew that further speech was useless and felt a renewal of the purpose that had formed in the death room. It was up to him and to him alone; no one could help. He made a short barking sound that was strangely between a sob and a laugh and, with a queer shrug of his shoulders as if settling a burden more easily on his back, walked away from Park.

Outside the hospital, Steve drew in great gasps of fresh air. His body shuddered. Still there were no tears, though his eyes felt swollen and numb and his heart was a constricted lump. All his tears for Danny were frozen by an icy hatred for his son's murderers. He decided to walk home. The cooling breeze might cleanse away some of the evil miasma that still clung from Danny's death.

As he walked, Steve reviewed his information about the two men he knew were responsible: Rocco, a dark-haired, yellow-complected, small-time hood. A buyer and a pusher, but not a user. Vicious—known to carry a knife.

And Pug, a straw-topped follower-type. Not as intelligent as Rocco, but just as vicious. Ex-golden gloves, it was said that he usually went unarmed because he liked to use his fists on people. Both a pusher and a user, he worked the fringes of the local high school for Rocco.

Steve knew that Rocco had other cronies, but Pug was the one who counted. He could feel the anger building up again. Sure, this was a democracy, but to let those —those walking cancers— continue to infect society was a travesty of justice! He had to do something! He wanted to attack them physically. He could feel the desire coiled like a spring within him and cursed his size. They both topped him by several inches.

He remembered his father's instructions when he was a child: “Steve, you are small and always will be. You've got to use your brain to save your back. Never fight if you can possibly avoid it; but if you have to fight, get in your licks first, fast and furious. And don't let up, because if you give the other guy any chance to catch his breath, he'll murder you!”

The first time Steve had put the “brains over brawn” advice into action, he'd been in intermediate school. A local bully used to lay for him and beat him every day. Steve made certain preparations. One day. When he saw the bully after school, he ran from him and hid behind a large oak. As the hulking clod came lumbering up, Steve stepped out and swung a baseball bat towards his tormentor's skull. The bully partially blocked it, but went down anyway, out cold. Fortunately he wasn't dead, but he never gave Steve any trouble again. In fact, nobody did.

Thus Steve matured into mild-mannered manhood with the knowledge that, just below his calm, studious exterior there bubbled a molten vat of violence—that, should a need arise, he was perfectly capable of drastic action. Caught between wars, he never had the outlet of condoned killing so useful to others. After his early retirement from a minor government post, he suffered the loss of his wife to a vagrant and exotic virus and wrapped himself up in his personal linguistic researches. He tried to raise Danny properly, but the boy grew away from him and refused to share the dreams of his solitary father. They had lived together, in a quiet, laissez-faire existence. Steve could see that, while Danny wasn't taking the road he would have chosen, nevertheless he was reaching out to life with strong, clean hands.

Now that was over.

It struck Steve hardest as he let himself into the silent apartment. He knew that he would have to move soon. The place was going to get on his nerves now.

As he prepared the first of what promised to be many lonely meals, Steve stared distractedly out his kitchen window at the passersby two stories below. Although it was early in the evening by the clocks, the summer sun was still high. Old Amos was staggering home from the corner bar to his flat in the five-story tenement next door. It was said that Amos from time to time was a user, but only when the pain of his old war injury grew unbearable. Mostly he stuck to liquor and the cop on the beat kept a neighborly eye on him to see that he made it home alright. So far as Steve knew, Amos didn't use a pusher. It was believed that he had a private deal with a local druggist for a little extra morphine now and then.

Then it struck him. A way to halve his opposition and to hit the weakest link first. His hand shook as he poured his soup. He considered his plan of action as he hurried through the meal. It looked good. Just an improved version of the trick he'd used before, but it ought to work. Everyone in the neighborhood knew about Amos.

Steve decided to act. He put in a call to the Ace Pool and Snooker Parlor where Pug was known to hang out. Pug was there and came to the phone.

Okay, hurry it up,” snapped Pug in a surly voice. “I'm in the middle of a game!”

Pug, this is Amos,” quavered Steve in as close an approximation of Amos's voice as he could manage. “I got lots of pain... You gotta help me out!”

Ya old wino, I ain't your connection!” growled Pug.

My man's outa town, Pug. I'll make a big buy, honest I will. I'll lay bread on you, don't worry; but I gotta have it now!” Steve's voice verged on tears. “Not my flat. Too damn many nosy parkers. How about the roof of my building in half an hour?”

Make it forty minutes. I wanna finish this game,” said Pug. “And it'll cost ya a C-note. And bum,” he added menacingly, “If anything is queer about this deal— you'll never have to worry about getting drunk again!” He hung up. Steve mopped the perspiration from his face. The die was cast. He had to follow through now and do it right, or Amos was going to suffer.

He called Amos and invited him over for a drink. Amos accepted readily. By the time he and Amos were well settled down with a full bottle and two glasses, almost twenty minutes had gone by. Remarking that what they needed were some snacks to go with the liquid refreshment, Steve excused himself to make a trip to the grocery, leaving Amos in happy possession of the bottle. Amos didn't notice that Steve picked up a heavy walking stick before he left. If he had, he wouldn't have commented, for he'd seen Steve use it before (it was a relic of recovery from a broken leg).

Steve made it to the rendezvous ten minutes early, his main problem, getting Amos out of the way in case Pug checked his flat anyway, solved. He placed himself beside the door to the roof and waited.

The time of assignation arrived. No Pug.

Steve began to worry. He hoped Amos wouldn't take it into his head to return home and spoil everything. He was getting tired of standing and his legs were threatening to cramp. The light was dimming and this worried him too,for he might miss his aim in the dark.

Ten minutes later he heard a sound on the stairs and braced himself. The door creaked open and Pug stepped through.

Amos,” Pug whispered hoarsely, “Where are ya, Amos?”

Steve stepped forward and swung the heavy cane with all of his might against Pug's temple. There was a double crack as the cane snapped in two and Pug's skull fractured. Pug fell like a tree. There was no doubt that he was dead.

As Steve bent to check the body, he heard a gasp behind him and whirled, the useless stump of cane raised. Rocco stood in the doorway, his knife in his hand. Steve felt terror swoop through his bones like an icy wind.

For a second he couldn't move.

Ya crumb!” screamed Rocco, “Oh, I'm gonna slice you good!”

This had the effect of unfreezing Steve and he backed instinctively away. Rocco moved towards him and slightly sideways, away from Pug's body, to gain room for action. As he moved, he continued to mouth obscenities, never taking his eyes from Steve. Steve could see beyond Rocco the low parapet of the roof.

There was nowhere to run to. No one to help.

Then he knew what he had to do. And it felt right.

Steve threw away the broken cane and rushed at Rocco, embracing him. He felt the knife slide into his body, then he and Rocco were both over the parapet and falling five stories to the ground.

As he fell, Steve wept.

And the tears were not for Danny, but for himself, for all that he had left undone.

Now there would be no tears for Danny —ever.



Mortimer Peeples awoke grumpy side up. He sat on the edge of his bed finger-combing his thinning gray hair out of his eyes, and tried not to listen to the carping voice of his wife.

That was when the inter-dimensional warp-ship became entangled in one of the follicular hairs of his left nostril.

The commander of the tiny alien vessel frantically called his chief engineer. “Farfax! What in squag has happened? You know we have a schedule to keep!”

We suffered a temporary loss of power in one of the zil-tubes, Highness,” replied Farfax, remembering to use his politest lower octaves, “stranding us in the macro-universe. We seem to be inside the body of a giant living organism... ”

Well, for the sake of Yiggle, keep up our force-fields! Broaden them if you have to —and get us out of here!” Farfax had seldom heard the Commander so upset. His almost ultra-sonic screeching pained the engineer's ears.

Yes, Highness, but we don't know what effect these psionic fields might have on the organism trapping us,” said Farfax. “If its brain is within the radius of their emanations ...”

The Commander waved all but his ambulatory tentacles and turned an angry blue. “I care not for some ogreish monster! I care only for the safety of my ship and my schedule. Get those screens up and repairs underway — NOW!”

Farfax obeyed. Mortimer noticed a very slight tickle in his nose and his head began to feel a bit warm.

Can't you do something about the heat in this place?” he snapped pettishly. “You know I don't like it over 65 degrees.” By now he was into his favorite bathrobe and stumbling sleepily into the breakfast nook.

His wife interrupted her morning diatribe long enough to peer at the thermometer on the wall. She announced triumphantly: “It's only 62 in here now. You ought to get your own thermostat adjusted. Now, sit down and eat or you're going to be late for work. And for God's sake don't forget to stop by the shoe store today. I told you yesterday ...”

Mortimer closed his ears to the rest. Maybe Martha was going through her change-of-life. All she seemed to do lately was carp, criticize, complain, or cry. He realized that he was no jewel of a husband, but he fervently wished that if she couldn't say something pleasant, she would just keep quiet.

The silence was deafening. After a minute or two even Mortimer noticed it. He looked up from his porridge. His wife's mouth was opening and closing like a fish, but no words came out. She was a picture of distress. Immediately, Mortimer was solicitous for, despite their occasional acrimonies, he loved her very much.

It must be laryngitis like you said.” Her eyes fell on the frayed cuffs of his robe. “Why do you wear that old thing! You know you've got better …!” Her voice died, although her mouth kept moving.

Better not talk, dear,” said Mortimer. “Save your voice.”

Their 17-year old son chose that moment to stagger sleepily in from his room. Lurching into his chair, he wrapped a loutish hand around a spoon and began to slurp porridge into his petulant mouth.

What's the matter with Mom?” he mumbled as he fished a greasy strand of hair out of his bowl.”

I'm not sure, son, but I expect she'll get over it,” Mortimer answered. “What are you doing today?”

Oh, I'll go over to Tom's and work on that old chevy. Maybe I can get it running. Say, can I borrow five bucks for parts? I'll pay you back on Saturday out of my last check.”

Mortimer looked at his son with distaste. A school drop-out, recently fired from his job—all his son seemed to want to do was work on cars. What he needed was discipline —something Mortimer and his wife had never been able to manage. A good stint in the service wold do. The Navy for instance— they'd make a man of him!

Silently, he handed over a five-dollar bill. Then stared.

His son had a peculiar look on his face—as if an idea were struggling to be born. When he spoke, he stuttered a bit.

S-say, Dad. If you don't mind, I've changed my plans. I'd like to use the five to go downtown and see the Navy recruiter. Would you give me a parental permission slip?”

Mortimer could hardly believe his ears. In two minutes flat he had the permission slip filled out and passed it on to his son. “Great, George!” he exclaimed as his son got up to leave, good luck!”

For just a brief moment, Mortimer was a happy man. His wife, apparently resigned to her affliction, was eating quietly. He picked up the morning paper and settled back to read. God! The news was even worse than usual. People were making an absolute mess of the world. Sometimes he wished he could spit in everyone's eyes.”

Instantly, billions of Mortimers appeared—one next to every other human in existence—and spat. At the same moment Mortimer sneezed, dislodging the alien vessel which disappeared into a universe next door.

And, in the next second all the Mortimers were pummeled, kicked, bitten, shot, stabbed and otherwise given their just desserts. Even the babies managed to soak him one.

The world never recovered from the deluge of Mortimers. The instant doubling of its population caused breakdowns in every facility. Only the final holocaust as nations fought for a dwindling food supply solved the problem by sterilizing the planet.

As for the aliens, you'll be glad to know that the Commander met his schedule.


An Old-Fashioned Murder

The Manor Part Literary Society met informally in extraordinary session in the ground-floor apartment of its late member and leading figure, Lloyd George Atlee. Detective Lieutenant Homer Jacobs of Homicide was in attendance.

Georgia Graham, unquestionably one of the best writers in the group, presided. She waited until the half-dozen persons in the room had settled down then turned to Jacobs.

Lieutenant,” she said, I would appreciate it if you would set the scene.”

Very well, Miss Graham,” said Jacobs. “As you all know, Atlee was found two days ago seated at his desk in this study, shot in the right temple, his own revolver by his hand. The doors and windows were locked from the inside and an unsigned note implying despondency over a long writing slump was in his typewriter. Atlee died sometime in the small hours of the previous night shortly after hosting a meeting of this society which all of you attended. Our tentative hypothesis at this moment is suicide, but we'd like to have a little information from you folks on just what went on that night and what Atlee's state of mind seemed to be.”

Dink Hobbit, whose forte was man-about-town descriptive bits, spoke up. “It was a normal meeting, Lieutenant. We had a bite to eat and then settled down for a few readings. Atlee seemed his usual self—”

You mean his usual carpingly critical self!” interrupted Jerry Hammer. Jerry claimed to be working on a sex novel, but everyone suspected he was really only interested in the research involved. “He ripped us apart. He always did!”

Dink pawed the air as if pushing away an unpleasantness. “You shouldn't speak ill. . .”

Aw, come off it, Dink!” said Marty McCammon, a listener, not a writer. “He tore into you the other night. You were so mad you turned purple!”

Yes,” said Jody Baker, who was poetically inclined. “We all felt his claws from time to time. He called my last effort 'insipid drivel. I cried all night.”

As you can see, Lieutenant,” Jemmy Butler chuckled, “it was a normal meeting. He slammed Dink's article, Jody's poem, Georgia's play and my mystery. He claimed Georgia's writing lacked 'decisiveness'—whatever that is—and he said that I was cliche-ridden; that all my gimmicks had been used before by Doyle, Carr, Sayers, and Christie. But we really didn't mind, you know. After all, that's what we meet for: constructive criticism . . .”

Bull!” cried Marty. “We minded alright. I saw your face the other night too, Jem. It made Dink's look pale!”

Georgia asked for attention. “I-I think I'd better say something here.” She got up nervously and walked to the casement window and stood staring out, fiddling with the catch, obviously distressed. “It wasn't suicide, Lieutenant”

Jacobs shot out of his chair, “What do you mean? What's that you're saying?”

An initial hubbub died to silence and all eyes were on Georgia. She wrung her hands, then straightened up, turned, and swept the room with one comprehensive glance—finally resting her gaze on one person.

It was murder, Lieutenant,” she said quietly. “I knew Lloyd better than most of us. He's always been left-handed. And the murderer is here with us now—aren't you, Jemmy!”

There was a cry of rage and a brief struggle. After Jemmy had been subdued and removed from the room, Jacobs turned to Georgia.

How did you know?” he asked.

It was simple,” Georgia replied. “The whole business was so cliche-ridden—just like his writing: the locked room (incidentally, that window-catch is loose—if you slam the window just right it locks itself. The wrong hand, the phony note, and, of course, he managed the biggest cliché of all!”

What was that?”

A Butler did it.”

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