The Ghouls by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: Literature

“H-M,” mused Kennedy, weighing the contents of the note carefully, “one of the family, I’ll be bound–unless the whole thing is a hoax. By the way, who else is there in the immediate family?”

“Only a brother, Dana Phelps, younger and somewhat inclined to wildness, I believe. At least, his father did not trust him with a large inheritance, but left most of his money in trust. But before we go any further, read that.”

Andrews pulled from the papers a newspaper cutting on which he had drawn a circle about the following item. As we read, he eyed us sharply.

PHELPS TOMB DESECRATED

Last night, John Shaughnessy, a night watchman employed by the town of Woodbine, while on his rounds, was attracted by noises as of a violent struggle near the back road in the Woodbine Cemetery, on the outskirts of the town. He had varied his regular rounds because of the recent depredations of motor-car yeggmen who had timed him in pulling off several jobs lately. As he hurried toward the large mausoleum of the Phelps family, he saw two figures slink away in opposite directions in the darkness. One of them, he asserts positively, seemed to be a woman in black, the other a man whom he could not see clearly. They readily eluded pursuit in the shadows, and a moment later he heard the whir of a high-powered car, apparently bearing them away.

At the tomb there was every evidence of a struggle. Things had been thrown about; the casket had been broken open, but the body of Montague Phelps, Jr., which had been interred there about ten days ago, was not touched or mutilated.

It was a shocking and extraordinary violation. Shaughnessy believes that some personal jewels may have been buried with Phelps and that the thieves were after them, that they fought over the loot, and in the midst of the fight were scared away.

The vault is of peculiar construction, a costly tomb in which repose the bodies of the late Montague Phelps, Sr., of his wife, and now of his eldest son. The raid had evidently been carefully planned to coincide with a time when Shaughnessy would ordinarily have been on the other side of the town. The entrance to the tomb had been barred, but during the commotion the ghouls were surprised and managed to escape without accomplishing their object and leaving no trace.

Mrs. Phelps, when informed of the vandalism, was shocked, and has been in a very nervous state since the tomb was forced open. The local authorities seem extremely anxious that every precaution should be taken to prevent a repetition of the ghoulish visit to the tomb, but as yet the Phelps family has taken no steps.

“Are you aware of any scandal, any skeleton in the closet in the family?” asked Craig, looking up.

“No–not yet,” considered Andrews. “As soon as I heard of the vandalism, I began to wonder what could have happened in the Phelps tomb, as far as our company’s interests were concerned. You see, that was yesterday. To-day this letter came along,” he added, laying down a second very dirty and wrinkled note beside the first. It was quite patently written by a different person from the first; its purport was different, indeed quite the opposite of the other. “It was sent to Mrs. Phelps,” explained Andrews, “and she gave it out herself to the police.”

Do not show this to the police. Unless you leave $5000 in gold in the old stump in the swamp across from the cemetery, you will have reason to regret it. If you respect the memory of the dead, do this, and do it quietly.

BLACK HAND.

“Well,” I ejaculated, “that’s cool. What threat would be used to back this demand on the Phelpses?”

“Here’s the situation,” resumed Andrews, puffing violently on his inevitable cigar and toying with the letters and clippings. “We have already held up payment of the half-million dollars of insurance to the widow as long as we can consistently do so. But we must pay soon, scandal or not, unless we can get something more than mere conjecture.”

“You are already holding it up?” queried Craig.

“Yes. You see, we investigate thoroughly every suspicious death. In most cases, no body is found. This case is different in that respect. There is a body, and it is the body of the insured, apparently. But a death like this, involving the least mystery, receives careful examination, especially if, as in this case, it has recently been covered by heavy policies. My work has often served to reverse the decision of doctors and coroners’ juries.

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“An insurance detective, as you can readily appreciate, Kennedy, soon comes to recognise the characteristics in the crimes with which he deals. For example, writing of the insurance plotted for rarely precedes the conspiracy to defraud. That is, I know of few cases in which a policy originally taken out in good faith has subsequently become the means of a swindle.

“In outright-murder cases, the assassin induces the victim to take out insurance in his favour. In suicide cases, the insured does so himself. Just after his return home, young Phelps, who carried fifty thousand dollars already, applied for and was granted one of the largest policies we have ever written–half a million.”

“Was it incontestible without the suicide clause?” asked Kennedy.

“Yes,” replied Andrews, “and suicide is the first and easiest theory. Why, you have no idea how common the crime of suicide for the sake of the life insurance is becoming. Nowadays, we insurance men almost believe that every one who contemplates ending his existence takes out a policy so as to make his life, which is useless to him, a benefit, at least, to some one–and a nightmare to the insurance detective.”

“I know,” I cut in, for I recalled having been rather interested in the Phelps case at the time, “but I thought the doctors said finally that death was due to heart failure.”

“Doctor Forden who signed the papers said so,” corrected Andrews. “Heart failure–what does that mean? As well say breath failure, or nerve failure. I’ll tell you what kind of failure I think it was. It was money failure. Hard times and poor investments struck Phelps before he really knew how to handle his small fortune. It called him home and–pouf!–he is off–to leave to his family a cool half-million by his death. But did he do it himself or did some one else do it? That’s the question.”

“What is your theory,” inquired Kennedy absently, “assuming there is no scandal hidden in the life of Phelps before or after he married the Russian dancer?”

“I don’t know, Kennedy,” confessed Andrews. “I have had so many theories and have changed them so rapidly that all I lay claim to believing, outside of the bald facts that I have stated, is that there must have been some poison. I rather sense it, feel that there is no doubt of it, in fact. That is why I have come to you. I want you to clear it up, one way or another. The company has no interest except in getting at the truth.”

“The body is really there?” asked Kennedy. “You saw it?”

“It was there no later than this afternoon, and in an almost perfect state of preservation, too.”

Kennedy seemed to be looking at and through Andrews as if he would hypnotise the truth out of him. “Let me see,” he said quickly. “It is not very late now. Can we visit the mausoleum to-night?”

“Easily. My car is down-stairs. Woodbine is not far, and you’ll find it a very attractive suburb, aside from this mystery.”

Andrews lost no time in getting us out to Woodbine, and on the fringe of the little town, one of the wealthiest around the city, he deposited us at the least likely place of all, the cemetery. A visit to a cemetery is none too enjoyable even on a bright day. In the early night it is positively uncanny. What was gruesome in the daylight became doubly so under the shroud of darkness.

We made our way into the grounds through a gate, and I, at least, even with all the enlightenment of modern science, could not restrain a weird and creepy sensation.

“Here is the Phelps tomb,” directed Andrews, pausing beside a marble structure of Grecian lines and pulling out a duplicate key of a new lock which had been placed on the heavy door of grated iron. As we entered, it was with a shudder at the damp odour of decay. Kennedy had brought his little electric bull’s-eye, and, as he flashed it about, we could see at a glance that the reports had not been exaggerated. Everything showed marks of a struggle. Some of the ornaments had been broken, and the coffin itself had been forced open.

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“I have had things kept just as we found them,” explained Andrews.

Kennedy peered into the broken coffin long and attentively. With a little effort I, too, followed the course of the circle of light. The body was, as Andrews had said, in an excellent, indeed a perfect, state of preservation. There were, strange to say, no marks of decay.

“Strange, very strange,” muttered Kennedy to himself.

“Could it have been some medical students, body-snatchers?” I asked musingly. “Or was it simply a piece of vandalism? I wonder if there could have been any jewels buried with him, as Shaughnessy said? That would make the motive plain robbery.”

“There were no jewels,” said Andrews, his mind not on the first part of my question, but watching Kennedy intently.

Craig had dropped on his knees on the damp, mildewed floor, and bringing his bull’s-eye close to the stones, was examining some spots here and there.

“There could not have been any substitution?” I whispered, with, my mind still on the broken coffin. “That would cover up the evidence of a poisoning, you know.”

“No,” replied Andrews positively, “although bodies can be obtained cheaply enough from a morgue, ostensibly for medical purposes. No, that is Phelps, all right.”

“Well, then,” I persisted, “body-snatchers, medical students?”

“Not likely, for the same reason,” he rejected.

We bent over closer to watch Kennedy. Apparently he had found a number of round, flat spots with little spatters beside them. He was carefully trying to scrape them up with as little of the surrounding mould as possible.

Suddenly, without warning, there was a noise outside, as if a person were moving through the underbrush. It was fearsome in its suddenness. Was it human or wraith? Kennedy darted to the door in time to see a shadow glide silently away, lost in the darkness of the fine old willows. Some one had approached the mausoleum for a second time, not knowing we were there, and had escaped. Down the road we could hear the purr of an almost silent motor.

“Somebody is trying to get in to conceal something here,” muttered Kennedy, stifling his disappointment at not getting a closer view of the intruder.

“Then it was not a suicide,” I exclaimed. “It was a murder!”

Craig shook his head sententiously. Evidently he not prepared yet to talk.

With another look at the body in the broken casket he remarked: “To-morrow I want to call on Mrs. Phelps and Doctor Forden, and, if it is possible to find him, Dana Phelps. Meanwhile, Andrews, if you and Walter will stand guard here, there is an apparatus which I should like to get from my laboratory and set up here before it is too late.”

It was far past the witching hour of midnight, when graveyards proverbially yawn, before Craig returned in the car. Nothing had happened in the meantime except those usual eery noises that one may hear in the country at night anywhere. Our visitor of the early evening seemed to have been scared away for good.

Inside the mausoleum, Kennedy set up a peculiar machine which he attached to the electric-light circuit in the street by a long wire which he ran loosely over the ground. Part of the apparatus consisted of an elongated box lined with lead, to which were several other attachments, the nature of which I did not understand, and a crank-handle.

“What’s that?” asked Andrews curiously, as Craig set up a screen between the apparatus and the body.

“This is a calcium-tungsten screen,” remarked Kennedy, adjusting now what I know to be a Crookes’ tube on the other side of the body itself, so that the order was: the tube, the body, the screen, and the oblong box. Without a further word we continued to watch him.

At last, the apparatus adjusted apparently to his satisfaction, he brought out a jar of thick white liquid and a bottle of powder.

“Buttermilk and a couple of ounces of bismuth sub-carbonate,” he remarked, as he mixed some in a glass, and with a pump forced it down the throat of the body, now lying so that the abdomen was almost flat against the screen.

He turned a switch and the peculiar bluish effulgence, which always appears when a Crookes’ tube is being used, burst forth, accompanied by the droning of his induction-coil and the welcome smell of ozone produced by the electrical discharge in the almost fetid air of the tomb. Meanwhile, he was gradually turning the handle of the crank attached to the oblong box. He seemed so engrossed in the delicateness of the operation that we did not question him, in fact did not move. For Andrews, at least, it was enough to know that he had succeeded in enlisting Kennedy’s services.

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Well along toward morning it was before Kennedy had concluded his tests, whatever they were, and had packed away his paraphernalia.

“I’m afraid it will take me two or three days to get at this evidence, even now,” he remarked, impatient at even the limitations science put on his activity. We had started back for a quick run to the city and rest. “But, anyhow, it will give us a chance to do some investigating along other lines.”

Early the next day, in spite of the late session of the night before, Kennedy started me with him on a second visit to Woodbine. This time he was armed with a letter of introduction from Andrews to Mrs. Phelps.

She proved to be a young woman of most extraordinary grace and beauty, with a superb carriage such as only years of closest training under the best dancers of the world could give. There was a peculiar velvety softness about her flesh and skin, a witching stoop to her shoulders that was decidedly continental, and in her deep, soulful eyes a half-wistful look that was most alluring. In fact, she was as attractive a widow as the best Fifth Avenue dealers in mourning goods could have produced.

I knew that ‘Ginette Phelps had been, both as dancer and wife, always the centre of a group of actors, artists, and men of letters as well as of the world and affairs. The Phelpses had lived well, although they were not extremely wealthy, as fortunes go. When the blow fell, I could well fancy that the loss of his money had been most serious to young Montague, who had showered everything as lavishly as he was able upon his captivating bride.

Mrs. Phelps did not seem to be overjoyed at receiving us, yet made no open effort to refuse.

“How long ago did the coma first show itself?” asked Kennedy, after our introductions were completed. “Was your husband a man of neurotic tendency, as far as you could judge?”

“Oh, I couldn’t say when it began,” she answered, in a voice that was soft and musical and under perfect control. “The doctor would know that better. No, he was not neurotic, I think.”

“Did you ever see Mr. Phelps take any drugs–not habitually, but just before this sleep came on?”

Kennedy was seeking his information in a manner and tone that would cause as little offence as possible “Oh, no,” she hastened. “No, never–absolutely.”

“You called in Dr. Forden the last night?”

“Yes, he had been Montague’s physician many years ago, you know.”

“I see,” remarked Kennedy, who was thrusting about aimlessly to get her off her guard. “By the way, you know there is a great deal of gossip about the almost perfect state of preservation of the body, Mrs. Phelps. I see it was not embalmed.”

She bit her lip and looked at Kennedy sharply.

“Why, why do you and Mr. Andrews worry me? Can’t you see Doctor Forden?”

In her annoyance I fancied that there was a surprising lack of sorrow. She seemed preoccupied. I could not escape the feeling that she was putting some obstacle in our way, or that from the day of the discovery of the vandalism, some one had been making an effort to keep the real facts concealed. Was she shielding some one? It flashed over me that perhaps, after all, she had submitted to the blackmail and had buried the money at the appointed place. There seemed to be little use in pursuing the inquiry, so we excused ourselves, much, I thought, to her relief.

We found Doctor Forden, who lived on the same street as the Phelpses several squares away, most fortunately at home. Forden was an extremely interesting man, as is, indeed, the rule with physicians. I could not but fancy, however, that his hearty assurance that he would be glad to talk freely on the case was somewhat forced.

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“You were sent for by Mrs. Phelps, that last night, I believe, while Phelps was still alive?” asked Kennedy.

“Yes. During the day it had been impossible to arouse him, and that night, when Mrs. Phelps and the nurse found him sinking even deeper into the comatose state, I was summoned again. He was beyond hope then. I did everything I could, but he died a few moments after I arrived.”

“Did you try artificial respiration?” asked Kennedy.

“N-no,” replied Forden. “I telephoned here for my respirator, but by the time it arrived at the house it was too late. Nothing had been omitted while he was still struggling with the spark of life. When that went out what was the use?”

“You were his personal physician?”

“Yes.”

“Had you ever noticed that he took any drug?”

Doctor Forden shot a quick glance at Kennedy. “Of course not. He was not a drug fiend.”

“I didn’t mean that he was addicted to any drug. But had he taken anything lately, either of his own volition or with the advice or knowledge of any one else?”

“Of course not.”

“There’s another strange thing I wish to ask your opinion about,” pursued Kennedy, not to be rebuffed. “I have seen his body. It is in an excellent state of preservation, almost lifelike. And yet I understand, or at least it seems, that it was not embalmed.”

“You’ll have to ask the undertaker about that,” answered the doctor brusquely.

It was evident that he was getting more and more constrained in his answers. Kennedy did not seem to mind it, but to me it seemed that he must be hiding something. Was there some secret which medical ethics kept locked in his breast? Kennedy had risen and excused himself.

The interviews had not resulted in much, I felt, yet Kennedy did not seem to care. Back in the city again, he buried himself in his laboratory for the rest of the day, most of the time in his dark room, where he was developing photographic plates or films, I did not know which.

During the afternoon Andrews dropped in for a few moments to report that he had nothing to add to what had already developed. He was not much impressed by the interviews.

“There’s just one thing I want to speak about, though,” he said at length, unburdening his mind. “That tomb and the swamp, too, ought to be watched. Last night showed me that there seems to be a regular nocturnal visitor and that we cannot depend on that town night watchman to scare him off. Yet if we watch up there, he will be warned and will lie low. How can we watch both places at once and yet remain hidden?”

Kennedy nodded approval of the suggestion. “I’ll fix that,” he replied, anxious to return to his photographic labours. “Meet me, both of you, on the road from the station at Woodbine, just as it is getting dusk.” Without another word he disappeared into the dark room.

We met him that night as he had requested. He had come up to Woodbine in the baggage-car of the train with a powerful dog, for all the world like a huge, grey wolf.

“Down, Schaef,” he ordered, as the dog began to show an uncanny interest in me. “Let me introduce my new dog-detective,” he chuckled. “She has a wonderful record as a police-dog.”

We were making our way now through the thickening shadows of the town to the outskirts. “She’s a German sheep-dog, a Schaferhund,” he explained. “For my part, it is the English bloodhound in the open country and the sheep-dog in the city and the suburbs.”

Schaef seemed to have many of the characteristics of the wild, prehistoric animal, among them the full, upright ears of the wild dog which are such a great help to it. She was a fine, alert, upstanding dog, hardy, fierce, and literally untiring, of a tawny light brown like a lioness, about the same size and somewhat of the type of the smooth-coated collie, broad of chest and with a full brush of tail.

Untamed though she seemed, she was perfectly under Kennedy’s control, and rendered him absolute and unreasoning obedience.

At the cemetery we established a strict watch about the Phelps mausoleum and the swamp which lay across the road, not a difficult thing to do as far as concealment went, owing to the foliage. Still, for the same reason, it was hard to cover the whole ground. In the shadow of a thicket we waited. Now and then we could hear Schaef scouting about in the underbrush, crouching and hiding, watching and guarding.

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As the hours of waiting in the heavily laden night air wore on, I wondered whether our vigil in this weird place would be rewarded. The soughing of the night wind in the evergreens, mournful at best, was doubly so now. Hour after hour we waited patiently.

At last there was a slight noise from the direction opposite the mausoleum and toward the swamp next to the cemetery.

Kennedy reached out and drew us back into the shadow deeper. “Some one is prowling about, approaching the mausoleum on that side, I think,” he whispered.

Instantly there recurred to me the thought I had had earlier in the day that perhaps, after all, the five thousand dollars of hush money, for whatever purpose it might be extorted, had been buried in the swamp by Mrs. Phelps in her anxiety. Had that been what she was concealing? Perhaps the blackmailer had come to reconnoitre, and, if the money was there, to take it away.

Schaef, who had been near us, was sniffing eagerly. From our hiding-place we could just see her. She had heard the sounds, too, even before we had, and for an instant stood with every muscle tense.

Then, like an arrow, she darted into the underbrush. An instant later, the sharp crack of a revolver rang out. Schaef kept right on, never stopping a second, except, perhaps, for surprise.

“Crack!” almost in her face came a second spit of fire in the darkness, and a bullet crashed through the leaves and buried itself in a tree with a ping. The intruder’s marksmanship was poor, but the dog paid no attention to it.

“One of the few animals that show no fear of gunfire,” muttered Kennedy, in undisguised admiration.

“G-R-R-R,” we heard from the police-dog.

“She has made a leap at the hand that holds the gun,” cried Kennedy, now rising and moving rapidly in the same direction. “She has been taught that a man once badly bitten in the hand is nearly out of the fight.”

We followed, too. As we approached we were just in time to see Schaef running in and out between the legs of a man who had heard us approach and was hastily making tracks for the road. As he tripped, she lunged for his back.

Kennedy blew shrilly on a police whistle. Reluctantly, Schaef let go. One could see that with all her canine instinct she wanted to “get” that man. Her jaws were open, as, with longing eyes, she stood over the prostrate form in the grass. The whistle was a signal, and she had been taught to obey unquestioningly.

“Don’t move until we get to you, or you are a dead man,” shouted Kennedy, pulling an automatic as he ran. “Are you hurt?”

There was no answer, but as we approached, the man moved, ever so little, through curiosity to see his pursuers.

Schaef shot forward. Again the whistle sounded and she dropped back. We bent over to seize him as Kennedy secured the dog.

“She’s a devil,” ground out the prone figure on the grass.

“Dana Phelps!” exclaimed Andrews, as the man turned his face toward us. “What are you doing, mixed up in this?”

Suddenly there was a movement in the rear, toward the mausoleum itself. We turned, but it was too late. Two dark figures slunk through the gloom, bearing something between them. Kennedy slipped the leash off Schaef and she shot out like a unchained bolt of lightning.

There was the whir of a high-powered machine which must have sneaked up with the muffler on during the excitement. They had taken a desperate chance and had succeeded. They were gone!

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