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Death by Telephone

James W. Marvin

Doomed to die at ten o'clock! What awful form would the grim reaper take to answer this ghastly summons?

I

RED headlights bored macabre holes through the rain-drenched night as the official coupe of District Attorney Halloran roared forward. In the twin crimson glares the slanting raindrops seemed like sinister globules of blood. The car's siren shrieked its tortured wail above the storm. District Attorney Halloran crouched over the wheel, his lean face a tense mask.

By his side sat Detective Sergeant Ben Wade, grim- lipped and taut. The detective spoke a question over the roar of the motor. "When did Judge Jeffries get this threatening phone call?"

District Attorney Halloran answered in clipped sentences. "Fifteen minutes ago. He notified me at once. Judge Jeffries is the one who sentenced Joe Durkin to hang. Yesterday Durkin escaped from the train that was taking him to Folsom's condemned row ? got away clean. And now Durkin has phoned Judge Jeffries to tell him that he intends to kill him at ten o'clock tonight. And it's past nine now!"

Halloran stepped down savagely on the gas. Wade said, "What's been done?"

"I've had the Jeffries home surrounded by plain- clothes men," the district attorney answered. "You're to be on the inside. You'll stick with the judge every minute. Don't let him get out of your sight!"

Wade nodded. His heavy jaw moved forward pugnaciously.

Abruptly Halloran said, "Here we are!" and slewed the heavy coupe into the driveway of an old-fashioned two-story residence. The car's weighted rear end cracked down against the springs as the back wheels took the bump. The machine came to a skidding stop on the wet gravel in front of the garage behind the house.

Halloran and Wade leaped out. At the front door of Judge Jeffries' home, the district attorney punched the bell. A woman, white-faced and fearful, admitted them.

Halloran said, "Mrs. Jeffries, this is Detective Sergeant Wade. He'll be your husband's bodyguard tonight."

Wade studied tie woman. She was not over thirty. Her hair was the color of dull gold, and her red mouth was warm and potentially passionate. Her tight-fitting dress revealed the swelling curves of her svelte hips and full erect breasts. She moved with an easy, lithe grace, like a tamed tigress.

SHE favored the detective with a slow, searching smile. "You look capable and—and dependable, sergeant." Her voice was a rich, husky contralto. She gave the detective her slim hand.

To Ben Wade there was something electrifying in the touch of her cool fingers in his broad palm. Wade suddenly understood why Judge Jeffries, sixty and a widower, had come to marry this voluptuous creature less than a year before. She aroused primitive desires in a man!

They followed her inside the house into a small study lined with bookshelves. Judge Jeffries, an elderly man with leonine white hair, rose from an easy chair. He smiled at the district attorney. "You didn't waste much time getting here, Hal," he said quizzically.

Halloran grunted. "This is Sergeant Wade, Judge. He's to stay with you until we think all danger is over. The house is surrounded by detectives. Did you dismiss the servants as I suggested?"

Jeffries nodded his white head.

The district attorney turned to Ben Wade. "Sergeant, you'd better make a search of the house. Be sure nobody's hiding anywhere."

Wade nodded and left. Ten minutes later he returned. "No sign of anyone," he reported succinctly. Then he smiled and added, "I'm afraid I messed up that little patch of new cement in one corner of the cellar. I stepped into it before I realized it was still soft."

Gilda Jeffries, the judge's yellow-haired wife, looked contrite "I should have warned you. We had some trouble with the plumbing this morning. Some pipes had to be torn up. New cement was laid when they were repaired."

Wade sat down. In that tense, crackling atmosphere the four remained in strained silence: Judge Jeffries, dignified and aloof; the golden-haired Gilda Jeffries, nervously twisting a handkerchief; District Attorney Halloran, his lean face flushed with excitement; and Ben Wade, broad-shouldered, quiet, capable.

Somewhere in the depths of the big old house a clock chimed ten times, like measured strokes of doom. Gilda Jeffries whitened under her heavy make-up. "It—it's the hour——!" she whispered ominously.

Wade loosened his service .32 in its shoulder holster. Nothing happened.



Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty. The tension had noticeably relaxed. Judge Jeffries yawned ostentatiously.

District Attorney Halloran rose. He was smiling a bit shame-facedly, "Looks as though Durkin's threat was a false alarm," he admitted. "I think I'll move along." He turned to Ben Wade. "You'd better stay here the rest of the night, sergeant. Keep your eyes open."

Wade nodded. "Okay."

GILDA JEFFRIES went with Halloran to the front door. After a moment Wade heard the door open and close again. Gilda Jeffries returned to the study.

And then the telephone rang.

In the stillness of the little room, its harsh jangle sounded like a warning tocsin. Judge Jeffries' yellow- haired wife picked up the instrument. And then her face turned a sickly gray. She looked fearfully at her husband.

"It's? for you! It—it sounds like the voice that—that called you earlier tonight!"

Judge Jeffries got up and took the telephone from his wife's trembling hands. "Hello?" he spoke sharply into the transmitter.

He seemed to listen for a brief instant. Then abruptly his whole body contorted in a sudden spasm of agony. His face became a grimacing mask of horror. The knuckles of the hand that gripped the telephone suddenly whitened. A thin wisp of steam-like smoke issued from his ear when the receiver was pressed!

Ben Wade leaped to his feet. The odor of burning flesh reached his widened nostrils, nauseating, acrid. Abruptly the telephone clattered from Judge Jeffries' nerveless, relaxed fingers. The jurist toppled forward to the floor and lay very still.

"God Almighty!" Wade cried. He knelt over the prone form of the white-haired judge. He fumbled for the fallen man's pulse. Then he looked up. "He—he's dead! Killed before our very eyes!"

Gilda Jeffries screamed once. Then she swayed forward. Wade caught her in his arms. He slapped her across the face. His fingers left a stinging print on her cheek. "Snap out of it!" he snarled. "Quick—go to the front door and yell like hell! This house is surrounded by detectives. Get 'em in here!"

II

THE police surgeon looked up from Judge Jeffries' body just as District Attorney Halloran, summoned from his own home, strode into the room. " Death by electrocution!" the medical man said succinctly. "He got a shot of juice as strong as if he'd been sitting in the electric chair!"

Thirty minutes had passed since the jurist's death. The whole house buzzed with somber, subdued activity as detectives moved about through the various rooms.

Gilda Jeffries drew a sharp, agonized breath. Her dress drew tight with the sudden stiffening of her breasts. "God in heaven!" she moaned suddenly. "There was a telephone repairman here in this house this afternoon!"

District Attorney Halloran said, "What?" in a sharp voice.

"Yes! I let him in myself. He said there was trouble on our line. He worked on the wiring a long while. He even installed a new telephone!"

Halloran looked significantly toward Detective Sergeant Ben Wade. "Joe Dunkin was a telephone repairman before he was convicted of murder!" he said grimly.

Wade nodded. "We've been over his wiring job, Mr. Halloran. He replaced the regular telephone instrument with one whose receiver was made of black- painted metal instead of hard rubber. The metal receiver made a perfect electrical conductor—an electrode. Then he installed a new phone cord heavy enough to carry high voltage."

"But—but how??" Gilda Jeffries cried out. Wade explained tersely. "We've discovered a throw-switch outside, behind the garage. When the judge took the telephone, Durkin threw that switch. It disconnected the phone line and hooked it up to the power wire. The regular house current was stepped up to about twenty thousand volts through a transformer, and shot straight into the telephone!"

A detective stepped into the room. He saluted. "We've just had a report from the fingerprint bureau. The prints on that switch behind the garage are the prints of Joe Durkin!"

Wade nodded. "That cinches it!" He looked questioningly toward the district attorney. "The dragnet's out for Durkin?"

Halloran nodded. "Every avenue of escape is plugged. He can't get away. We'll have him before morning."

Two white-jacketed police-ambulance men entered with a stretcher. They covered the stiffening body of Judge Jeffries with a white cloth and placed it on the stretcher. They went out with their gruesome burden.

Ben Wade followed them out of the house. He walked through the pelting rain, back along the wet gravel driveway to the garage. Grimly his mind reviewed the details of the case. He flashed his electric torch on the fatal throw-switch the murderer had used to disconnect the telephone line and hook it up to the high-voltage current. One thing puzzled him. For Joe Dunkin to have stepped up the house-current to a voltage strong enough to kill Judge Jeffries, a heavy transformer would have been necessary. Such a transformer would be too weighty for one man to carry alone. Durkin must have had some means of transporting the transformer to this spot behind the garage; yet there was no trace of wheel-marks behind the garage building.



The detective sergeant flashed his light in a circle. Then he frowned. Something small and ghostly-white gleamed beneath some shrubbery to his left.

Wade leaned forward and delved into the shrubbery. His fingers encountered the small white object It was cold and clammy to his touch. He pulled it out. Then he said, "Good God!" in a strangled voice.

The object was a hand—a man's severed hand! A hand bloodless and pallid and gruesome, hacked off at the joint of the wrist!

Ben Wade turned to run back toward the house. And as he turned, something hard and metallic crashed down against his head with sickening force. Brilliant lights flashed before the detective's eyes. Then an overpowering blanket of blackness descended upon his numbed senses. He sank to the muddy earth, unconscious.

III

WHEN Ben Wade opened his eyes he found himself in a hospital bed He struggled weakly to a sitting posture. "What? where??" he mumbled thickly.

A white-clad nurse forced him back to the pillow. "It's all right, sergeant. Just lie back and relax."

"What happened! How long have I been here?" The nurse looked at her wrist watch. "You've been here about an hour. You were found behind the Jeffries garage, unconscious. Someone had slugged you on the head. Your felt hat saved you from getting a fractured skull."

Wade cursed softly. "What time is it?"

"It's a little after one o'clock in the morning."

"And—and that hand—that severed hand—was it on me?"

The nurse looked at him uneasily. "A hand? You? you must have been dreaming, sergeant. Maybe I'd better send for the doctor." It was evident that she thought the detective's mind wandering from the effects of that blow on his skull.

He looked at her calculatingly. So the severed hand hadn't been found! Then whoever had hit him on the head had also made away with that gruesome clue. Wade widened his eyes in well-simulated delirium. "Stand back!" he roared suddenly. "Look out for that machine- gun!"

The nurse gasped. Then she turned and ran out of the room.

Ben Wade grinned. She'd gone for a doctor. That was just what he'd wanted. He leaped from the bed, unmindful of the throbbing in his head. He found his clothes and flung himself into them. He leaped out of the room and ran loping down the dimly-lighted, deserted hospital corridor. He reached the street door and launched himself out into the pelting rain.

The heavy wet drops stung his face. He breathed great, unsteady gasps of the cool night air into his lungs. His head throbbed less sharply now. He saw a passing night-owl cab and hailed it. "Police headquarters ? and step on it!" he barked, flashing his badge.

Five minutes later the cab skidded on the wet paving and came to a halt before the forbidding gray- stone Headquarters building. "Wait for me!" Wade grunted. Then he ran into the gray-stone structure.

In a brief interval he dashed out again. There was a pick and a sharp-bladed spade under his arm. He tossed them clatteringly into the tonneau of the cab and leaped in after them. "Get going!" he panted to the driver. "Corner of Adams and Crenshaw!"

The cab lurched forward through the splattering rain.

AT THE corner of Adams and Crenshaw, on the outskirts of the residential district, the taxi slewed the curb. It was less than a block around the corner to the house where Judge Jeffries had been murdered a few hours before. Wade tossed a crumpled bill to the cabby. Then he grabbed the pick and spade from the interior of the cab and started silently through the rain.

He rounded the corner and slowed to a silent, cat- footed walk. He came to the dark, foreboding pile that was the Jeffries house. Silence brooded heavily over the two-story structure, punctuated only by the pattering raindrops that fell in a steady downpour from the lowering black clouds overhead.

Wade crept to the Jeffries front porch and tried the door. It was locked. He went to a window. He inserted the thin, sharp blade of his spade between the bottom sill of the window and the wooden frame. Then he pressed his weight against the spade-handle, levering it gently. There was a single, sharp creak as the window- lock gave way. The detective raised the window and climbed in.



He snapped on his flashlight and took an instantaneous mental snap-shot of the positions of the various articles of furniture. Then he clicked off his light and moved forward through the utter darkness, avoiding a table and two chairs by instinct.

He reached the hallway and went silently toward the rear of the house. He found the kitchen and walked unerringly to the door leading to the cellar. He opened it and threw the beam of his electric torch down into the pitch-black abyss below.

There was no sound, either from the cellar or the house proper. Wade's jaws clenched grimly as he descended the cellar stairs.

He reached the bottom. Noiselessly, he came to that patch of soft cement into which he had unwarily stepped earlier that evening when he had searched the house, before Judge Jeffries had died. His footprint was still outlined in the half-dry concrete. The detective sergeant smiled softly and set to work with his spade.

There was no need to use the pick. The cement was still damp enough to come away in doughy chunks under the manipulations of the spade. At last he had completely removed the layer of still-plastic stuff, disclosing soft earth below. Wade dug into the ground with his spade, spooning away the earth with furious yet soundless energy. And then the blade met something gruesomely soft and resisting. Sweat stood out on the detective's forehead as he redoubled his efforts. There was a look of grim horror in his eyes.

Again his spade struck that softly resisting impediment. It was a man's leg! Wade shoveled desperately. And at last he gazed down upon his harrowing, macabre find. It was the body of a dead man—a body from which the right hand had been brutally hacked away at the wrist—a body with a bullet- hole through the heart?the body of Joe Durkin, the condemned murderer who had escaped from the train en route to Folsom Penitentiary!

BEN WADE looked at the stiffened corpse with its mutilated right wrist He touched it. It was stiff and unyielding—the body of a man who had been dead at least thirty-six hours, rigid with rigor mortis.

The detective smiled harshly. "I thought so!" he whispered to himself with grim satisfaction. He grabbed up his pick and spade and tiptoed back to the steps leading to the kitchen. He snapped off his flashlight and ascended in solid blackness. He crept through the kitchen and out into the first-floor hallway. He tensed suddenly.

There was a dim, indistinct white blur before him at the foot of the staircase leading to the second floor. Silently he backed away. A harsh feminine voice said, "Stand where you are! If you move I'll shoot!"

A light-switch clicked. The hall's blackness was changed to soft illumination from a wall fixture. Ben Wade stared into the unwavering black muzzle of a tiny automatic in the hand of Gilda Jeffries!

The yellow-haired woman was clad in a sheer nightgown of peach-colored silk and lace. Her golden hair fell in waves over soft white shoulders. Wade could see the intimate curves of her voluptuous body through the clinging silk of her gossamer gown. Her bare feet were thrust in high-heeled, feathered mules. He could discern the curving sweep of flesh where rounded legs melted into firm, milky thighs and feminine, almost Oriental hips. Her breasts were high and full and prominent, their every detail plainly apparent through the gauzy lace of the nightgown. Her eyes widened when she recognized Detective Sergeant Ben Wade. She lowered the automatic.

"Oh ?Sergeant Wade!" she breathed unevenly. "You—you frightened me so! I—I thought Joe Durkin? had come back?" Then she noticed the pick and spade he carried, and her eyes narrowed. "What are those for?"

Wade smiled wryly. "I had an idea that the transformer Durkin used to step up the current to kill your husband might be buried somewhere behind the garage," he lied. "I came back to do some digging. I noticed your front window open, and decided to sneak in and investigate."

Gilda Jeffries took a deep breath and exhaled as though in relief. "Then you—haven't started to dig yet?"

"No," he lied again. He watched her. She came toward'him. "I—I'm so nervous and upset," she said plaintively. "Can't you—postpone your digging until morning? Please stay here in the house with me until daylight. I—I'm afraid to be alone!"

He looked at her. A heavy perfume seemed to emanate from her scantily-clad body. Her lovely breasts rose and fell seductively. Her eyes were dark and languorous and pleading. He grinned. "All right. I'll stay with you."

SHE went into the comfortably furnished living room and switched on a single low lamp. He followed her. From somewhere in the hallway of the old house a board creaked. Gilda Jeffries gasped, "What was that?" and suddenly clung to the detective, her warm, pulsating body quivering against him.



Automatically his arm went around her softly-pliant waist. "Just a creaking board," he reassured her. She sank weakly to a studio couch, her sensuous body trembling as she caught at his arm and drew him down alongside of her. One shoulder strap of her thin silken nightgown had fallen over her arm. He caught a generous glimpse of her full, sweetly rounded breast, infinitely alluring now without its gossamer covering.

She saw his eye resting on her exposed charms, yet made no move to shield her body from his appreciative gaze. Instead, she favored him with a sidelong, provocative glance and edged closer to him on the couch. "Hold me—hold me tight!" she whispered. "I—I'm not afraid when you're close to me!"

His arm encircled her body. She leaned against him, breathing in staccato gasps. She opened her passionate red mouth and drew his head down. "Kiss me...." she murmured.

He kissed her. Somehow her negligee had slipped down over her swelling bosoms, baring them to his caress. Gently he pressed his hot hand over one warm, creamy hemisphere of flesh and felt its firm, jutting mound grow hard against his palm. She stretched out side-wise on the studio couch, arms up-flung over her head to reveal the satiny smooth white curves of her delicious armpits. The lower hem of the peach-colored silk night-grown was drawn up above her knees. Wade could see the honey-smooth whiteness of her thighs.

She undulated in a sudden access of passionate desire. Wade rolled over the top of her, pinning her down. He grabbed at her wrists and imprisoned them. Then he grinned into her face, reached into his pocket, extracted clinking handcuffs and snapped them on her struggling arms. He got up.

Her eyes were dilated and wild with rage. "You? you??" she screamed.

Wade said, "Where is your lover—the man who killed your husband?"

She paled to a sickly gray. "What-?"

"You get me!" Wade snarled. "You know damned well what I'm talking about! You were in love with another man. You wanted to be rid of your husband, Judge Jeffries. So you plotted to kill him. Somebody bribed the guard who was taking Joe Durkin, a convicted murderer, to the penitentiary; and the guard allowed Durkin to escape. Then your lover, who was waiting at the prearranged spot, captured Durkin and killed him in cold blood. Durkin's body was buried right here in your cellar? that was the least likely place in the world to secrete the body!"

WADE lighted a cigarette and inhaled deeply. "Before Durkin was buried in the cellar, your sweetheart cut off the dead man's hand. Then the telephone set-up was arranged. Tonight your husband got a phone call. Ostensibly it was from Durkin, threatening to kill the judge. But Durkin didn't make that call—Durkin was dead! It was your paramour who phoned! And later your lover used Durkin's severed hand to throw the switch—so that Durkin's fingerprints would be found and Durkin accused of murdering Judge Jeffries! Now, will you confess—or shall I burn the word 'Murderess' right across your beautiful beasts?"

Wade brought the glowing tip of his cigarette close to the shrinking flesh of Gilda Jeffries' bare breasts. She opened her mouth to scream, and as suddenly gasped into silence. Her eyes sought a point beyond Ben Wade.

The detective saw that glance. He whirled—just in time to duck a murderous blow from an upraised chair in the hands of a man whose face was contorted in maniacal fury. Wade's hand whipped to his shoulder-holster. His service 32 leaped out. It spat fire.

The chair dropped to the floor. The man who had wielded it looked stupidly at Ben Wade. He swayed, caught at his chest with clawing fingers, and slumped awkwardly downward.

Wade said, "Well, Mr. District Attorney Halloran, I guess that settles your hash for a while!"

Halloran groaned and doubled up on the floor. "You—you—how did you guess??" he gasped weakly.

Ben Wade shrugged. "Whoever murdered Judge Jeffries had a heavy transformer to step up the current The transformer was nowhere in evidence after the murder. Yet there was no trace of any vehicle that might have brought such equipment to the garage and taken it away again—no trace, that is, unless I considered your official coupe, Halloran! You'd brought me here in it; you'd parked it directly at the garage door. And I remembered that its rear end had been so heavily weighted down that it bumped on its back springs when we turned into the driveway!" The detective grinned. "A heavy transformer in the rumble seat would have caused those rear springs to sag that way."



District Attorney Halloran's face took on a greenish hue. The man was suddenly very sick. He retched, spilling blood on the carpet.

Wade went on relentlessly. " You left this house, telling me to stay here and keep my eyes open. You went back to your coupe. But before you drove away, you connected the transformer in the back end of your car to the switch on the side of the garage. And then you used a dead man's hand—Joe Durkin's hand—to throw that switch and electrocute Judge Jeffries! Then in your haste to get away, you dropped that hand. You didn't discover its loss until some time later. Then you came out to the garage—just in time to see me finding the hand. You cracked me on the skull and took it away from me. The whole thing was very clever, Halloran. Joe Durkin would have been accused of the murder ?and Joe Durkin would never have been found by the police, because he was dead and buried in this very cellar! That's the way of it, isn't it?"

There was no answer.

"It's all true, isn't it, Halloran?" Wade repeated savagely.

Halloran didn't answer. Halloran would never answer anything again. The district attorney was dead.

Wade turned to the manacled, half-nude form of Gilda Jeffries. He pulled up the shoulder-straps of her peach-colored silk nightgown and covered her creamy breasts disinterestedly. "I'd advise you to confess the whole thing and plead guilty," he said grimly. "Then you'll get off with a life sentence. That's better than hanging."

She looked at him with her weary, defeated, harlot's eyes. "I'll plead guilty," she answered dully.