A Black Spectre Adventure
IT HAD been a long day for Albert Johnson, but he wasn’t The least bit anxious to get home from his job as art editor for Thrilling Fables Magazine. He was a small, soft-spoken, bespectacled man – the exact opposite of the kind that were featured in the monthly “pulp” magazine for which he worked. They’d just sent the latest issue to press and it was time to take a well-deserved breather before starting the next issue first thing Monday morning.
The last place he wanted to go was home, However. His wife, Ruth, would be there waiting, though certainly not glad to see him. She had been an innocent, pretty young girl when they were married nearly twenty years Earlier. But the truth was that they had little in common and really didn’t much enjoy each other’s company.
Not that they ever did.
It was only a few Block’s walk to their apartment on the South Side of Terminal City. Albert took his time, enjoyed the night air, then stopped off at O’Doule’s Bar for a hearty drink. He’d only intended to stay for a short while, but the quiet solitude of the bar at that Late hour was too enticing. It was nearly two in the morning before the barkeep finally nudged him from his stool and made him face the uninviting prospect of completing his walk home. It was a warm June night And he found himself wishing that he had a hammock and a back yard (with trees) in which to string it.
After he stumbled up the long staircase inside their brownstone building and stopped more than once to Catch his breath and exhale a healthy belch, Albert finally opened the door and walked into the dim, modestly furnished apartment. It was comfortable enough and, other than the back yard, was all that he cared to have. He listened for a moment, then quietly called out for Ruth. There was no answer. Good, he thought, she’s already gone to bed. He wouldn’t have to answer for his late arrival.
Not until morning, anyway.
He stopped halfway to the bedroom to admire the portrait of his beautiful Jessalyn that hung over the fireplace. Even in the dim lamplight of the room, her youthful, innocent beauty shone like a beacon in the night. How he missed her. Ruth had asked him many times to take the portrait down, and had even done so herself on several occasions, but Albert had always insisted that that portrait remain. It was the one thing in his house on which he stood completely firm.
He walked on to the bedroom and slowly nudged the door so as not to wake Ruth. The last thing he wanted was to spoil the continued peacefulness. As he slowly creaked the door open, a dim shaft of light from the room behind him, broken only by his own shadow, fell across the bed.
It was empty and unmade.
“Ruth?” he asked again quietly. There was no answer. This was most puzzling. Not at all what he expected.
“Ruth?” he asked once more, just a bit louder. In that moment, his puzzlement shifted to worry.
As he stepped further through the doorway, he noticed her clothing on the floor. Then his mind raced in a different direction. He looked at the closet. He’d had suspicions about Ruth before, but he’d always dismissed them. Not his Ruth. Of course they had long been unhappy, but he was convinced that she was too much of a lady to do such a thing.
He only managed to take one step towards the closet before he was bashed in the back of the head with something heavy. Albert crumbled to the creaky wooden floor and watched his blood spill around his hands before the second blow made it impossible for him to react in any fashion. He lay as limp as a rag doll with only enough feeling to sense a string of wire loop around his neck from behind. The only sensation he felt in those last few moments was gasping for air as he choked to death.
AUBURN-HAIRED reporter Vicky Rose arrived at the Johnson’s apartment only minutes after the police did. Her editor, Frank Matson, had greased enough palms in City Hall to get the first scoop on major stories and, better still, quick access to crime scenes. On this very early morning, it had paid off royally.
She’d dashed out of her apartment right after Frank’s call, putting on her make-up as she drove. As determined as she was to equal any man on the job, she was just as determined to never to let them forget she was a woman.
Vicky managed a good back-row seat as the large, grizzled Detective Shayne consoled and questioned the victim’s wife. Mrs. Ruth Johnson was a bundle of tears as she attempted to describe the horrible situation. Vicky noticed that despite her growing years and waistline, Mrs. Johnson still maintained most of her youthful beauty.
This fact hadn’t escaped the police officers that surrounded her, either.
Nor did the fact that she was practically naked in her tattered corset (a rather fancy one at that).
“Please, Mrs. Johnson,” Detective Shayne pleaded, “just take your time and tell me what happened.”
“I came home late,” she sobbed, “Albert was working late, so I went out with the girls, you see? Anyway, I got home and saw that he still hadn’t come home. So, I went into the bedroom to get dressed for bed.”
Ruth broke down for another moment, then gathered her composure. Vicky dutifully jotted down every word as Ruth continued. “I heard someone come in the back door, through the kitchen. I just thought it was Albert, but couldn’t imagine why he would come in that way. I walked into the Kitchen to check and as soon as I went through the door, this dark, muscular hand covered my mouth. I tried to Scream, but he had me good. They drug me straight off to the spare bedroom, and that’s where they tied me up.”
She rubbed at the rope marks on her wrists as she choked up on the words.
“Did you say it was two men?” Det. Shayne asked.
She nodded, yes, unable to speak.
Vicky’s pencil hung in suspense over her pad.
“You said they were dark-skinned. Were they negroes?” Det. Shayne asked further.
No, Ruth shook her head, then managed to get out, “They looked Italian. Well-dressed.”
This didn’t surprise anyone in the room. Least of all Vicky, who perhaps knew more than anyone there about the Mob’s reach in Terminal City.
Ruth tried to continue, “That’s when they… they held me down and they…” She just couldn’t get the words out. She broke down again.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Johnson,” Det. Shayne consoled her. “You don’t have to go into that.”
Ruth Pleaded with them, “They took my jewelry! All of it. Even my wedding ring!” Then she fell into an inconsolable flood of tears.
Det. Shayne waited quietly as she sobbed some more, then finally managed to interject, “Why don’t you put something on and we’ll go down to the station.”
Ruth Johnson nodded in agreement, then proceeded to get dressed right then and there, with Det. Shayne and four Policemen still in the room. During her entire encounter with the police, she never asked for any privacy. For a modest housewife, she didn’t seem to have much shame. This struck Vicky as being rather peculiar.
As Det. Shayne and the police officers hustled Ruth out the front door, Vicky grabbed the opportunity to get a look at the other half of the Crime scene. Albert still lay on the bedroom floor where he’d been bludgeoned and strangled just a few hours Earlier, lying in a dark pool of his own blood. His skin was ash-grey and his wide-open eyes bulged at the sockets. It was a gruesome sight, but she’d seen worse and immediately snapped a few pictures, even though she knew Frank would never print Them.
VICKY mulled the experience over in her mind as she and her studious boyfriend Denny, who worked in the newspaper’s archives, sat in the Carousel Ice Cream Parlor later that evening, long after the afternoon edition had hit the streets. Denny could tell she was distracted by the way she pensively sipped at her usual double-chocolate malt and just let the chocolate taste settle in her mouth. Before he could ask what had distracted her, she gave out the answer with a question of her own.
“Do I always assume the worst in people?” she asked. “Or do I just always see them at their worst?”
Denny only answered with a puzzled expression. Before he could ask for clarification, she provided it.
“I just wonder sometimes if this job is getting to me. Take this Ruth Johnson story today. Here this poor woman was tied up and who knows what else, then her husband is murdered right in the next Room, and she’s left there all night until the landlady found her this morning. And all I can think about is if she’s not behind it in some way.”
“How on earth could you think that?” Denny asked.
Vicky rolled her soft Eyes. “This is going to sound loony, but the whole time she talked to the police, she was…” Vicky stumbled for the appropriate word. “Well, she wasn’t wearing much. I know she was distraught, but if it had been me, I still would have put something on.”
Vicky’s gaze immediately shifted from puzzlement to determination. Denny knew that look well. Before he could even react, she grabbed him by the hand and tugged him straight off the barstool.
“Come on,” she told him, “I’ve got to have another look at that crime scene.”
DENNY pleaded with her on the entire Drive over to the Johnson’s apartment building, but he knew it was futile. Vicky was determined and, as irregular as it may have been, she was going back for another look.
He barely managed to keep up with her as she charged up the three flights of stairs to the Johnson’s apartment. When he breathlessly reached the top, she was already Outside the Johnson’s door, waiting for him, and motioned for him to be quiet. He just nodded, too out of breath to speak, as he stepped up to the door next to her.
Vicky reached quietly for the doorknob, then stopped short as a sudden thought struck her. She looked up at Denny, her eyes wide.
“We may not be alone,” she told him.
“What?” Denny asked, then immediately got his answer as the door swung open – they were both pulled quickly inside and it closed straight behind Them.
Denny tried to blurt something out, but the black-gloved hand that covered his mouth prevented him from making a sound. He was unable to move as well. His entire body was held firm by much more than the dark, enveloping shadow of a figure that stood behind him. He almost felt numb from the sensation.
Suddenly thinking of Vicky, Denny looked up to see her standing in front of him, her arms Crossed, her expression even more so.
“Let him go,” she commanded their unseen attacker. “Sorry, Denny, I was just about to warn you.”
“Only if he promises not to scream,” The Black Spectre replied as he released his grip, both physical and mental.
Denny jerked away and quickly swung his gangly form around to get his very first look at The Black Spectre. He also tried to catch his breath without being noticed. Up until that moment, Denny hadn’t really believed that The Spectre was real, despite Vicky’s many encounters with him in the past. He just had to see for himself to be convinced.
The Spectre was exactly as Vicky had described him – the flowing black cloak, the wide-brimmed hat, the black mask that bore the glowing image of a skull with dark recesses for eyes. And for some strange reason, Denny suddenly felt that he’d encountered The Spectre before.
“So, what are you doing here?” Vicky shot back as Denny straightened up in an unsuccessful attempt to look formidable.
“You have to ask?” The Black Spectre replied as he moved around her like smoke in a soft breeze. As always, he was thankful for the mask that hid the joy in his eyes upon seeing her, especially under such circumstances. What gave him more satisfaction than the task of solving the crime at hand was the knowledge that she, too, would return to the scene to investigate further. She’d barely mentioned the undressed state of Mrs. Johnson in her article, but the doubt of Ruth’s innocence was clear in her few, well-chosen words. Their minds clearly thought alike and he treasured the time he had with her.
A similar thought had occurred to Vicky, as well, Only she didn’t find it nearly as comforting. I do assume the worst, she mused to herself. Just like The Black Spectre.
“Come here,” The Spectre continued, “I want to show you something.” He reached out a gloved hand for hers, but she took Denny’s instead.
“This is Denny, my boyfriend,” she said emphatically.
“I know,” The Spectre replied.
The Spectre led them into to the bedroom. Denny paused for a quick look at the portrait of the lovely young girl that hung over the fireplace. Something about that photo looked very familiar to him. A quick tug from Vicky propelled him to follow. He stopped short with a gasp as soon as he saw the blood-stained chalk outline on the dark wooden floor.
“I really don’t think we should be here,” Denny stuttered.
“I don’t leave footprints,” The Spectre assured him as he floated gracefully over to the bed. With a wave of his hand, the corner of the Mattress lifted just enough to reveal a small bundle tied in a handkerchief.
“What’s that?” Vicky asked, though her suspicions already told her the answer.
“Ruth Johnson’s missing jewels,” The Spectre replied. “I wonder how Albert was set up for insurance.”
“She murdered him?” Denny exclaimed, much too loud.
Vicky quickly shushed him to be quiet and Denny just as quickly apologized.
“But she was found tied up in the other room,” Vicky countered. “She must have had help.”
“Exactly,” The Spectre agreed as he moved silently over to the wardrobe and with another slight gesture, opened it up to reveal Ruth’s lingerie and several new, expensive corsets.
“I really don’t think we should be in there,” Denny stammered emphatically.
Vicky stepped forward for a closer look. “Lot of expensive corsets for a middle-class housewife. Wonder where she got these?”
“That, I believe, is the question,” The Spectre replied as he produced a business card just like a magician reveals a playing card for his audience. “Judd Gormon, Corset Salesman.”
Vicky quickly took the card from him and found a handwritten phone number and the name of a hotel scrawled at the bottom.
“I think this part is for me,” she told him.
“There’s just one thing that still puzzles me,” The Spectre stated as he moved back through the doorway and into the living room. Vicky and Denny quickly followed close behind. He stopped in front of the portrait that had moments earlier caught Denny’s attention.
“Who is this girl?” The Spectre asked. “Why put her photo in a place of such prominence? The only picture of Ruth is in that small frame over on the lamp table.”
“I don’t know,” Vicky replied. “The police were wondering about that, too.”
“Jessalyn Guilfoyle!” Denny blurted out. Both Vicky and The Spectre quickly turned around in surprise. Denny scratched the back of his head as he struggled to pull the thoughts out.
“It was, gosh… had to be fifteen years ago almost,” Denny added. “They were engaged, then she got sick and poor thing died before they were married.”
Vicky smiled at Denny, very impressed. He smiled back.
“Ran across that one back when we were looking for that Thomas Gregor story,” Denny explained. “That name just kind of sticks with you.”
That was when she and Denny first met. Vicky’s smile grew just a bit wider. His did, too.
The Black Spectre was glad that his mask hid the pain that was surely visible on his face at that moment.
Vicky pondered another thought. “Wait a minute, the police found a monogrammed pin on the floor, with the initials ‘J.G.’; Judd Gormon or Jessalyn Guilfoyle?”
“I’d say it’s time we found out,” chimed Denny, as his confidence got the better of him.
“Poor Ruth,” Vicky shook her head, looking back at the portrait as they left. “No wonder she killed him.”
JUDD GORMON quickly packed his suitcase and practically jumped out of his skin when there was a light knock at the door of his hotel room. He’d been waiting all day for a call and had become completely unnerved by that time. He quickly rushed to the door and leaned against it. He wondered if he should even answer, but the knock had been too soft to be the police.
He quickly bent down to the floor and looked through the thin gap between the door and the threshold. He could just make out a slender pair of women’s high-heeled shoes.
Certainly not the police.
“Yes?” he asked nervously, hoping to hear Ruth’s voice on the other side. But it wasn’t Ruth.
“Mr. Gormon,” a lovely female voice answered, “I’m so sorry to bother you at this late hour, but I was really hoping to catch you before you left town again.”
“Excuse me?” Judd asked and swallowed hard.
“This is Judd Gormon, the corset salesman, isn’t it?” the friendly young woman asked.
“Why yes, yes it is,” Judd answered as he collected his nerves, unlocked the door, and opened it just far enough to peer out. Through the crack he could see the shining, smiling face of a lovely auburn-haired young woman. What he couldn’t see was the lanky young man that watched from the far end of the hall.
“Oh, thank you!” she exclaimed. “I was afraid I had gotten the wrong room. Forgive me for being rude to barge in like this. I’m Mrs. Vicky Morris. Would it be possible for me to come in and see your selection?”
“Why, yes, please do,” Judd answered, relieved, and opened the door wider. He could have sworn he felt a light breeze as she walked smartly into his hotel room, as if something had brushed past him. He wasted no time in locking the door behind her.
As Judd got a better look at Vicky, he was surprised he didn’t recognize her as a prospect. As a traveling salesman, he gave out so many cards it was hard to keep track, but thought surely he would have remembered her.
As always, Vicky immediately took in the details of her quarry. He was a large strapping man, with sinewy hands that seemed to defy his profession. He was certainly strong enough to kill a man like Albert Johnson. And a woman like her all too easily. As soon as Vicky looked away from studying his form, she spied the open suitcase on the bed.
“Well, my heavens, it looks like I’ve come just in time,” she remarked.
“Yes, you just managed to catch me,” Judd confirmed as he went over to a large travel case in which he kept his sales models. Vicky fanned her face with embarrassment.
“Mercy!” Vicky exclaimed. “I never thought I’d see the day when I was alone with a man in a strange hotel room looking at ladies’ undergarments.”
“Please,” Judd reassured her with a calm voice as his gaze traveled the length of her slender waist, “don’t be embarrassed. Though I can’t imagine why you would need a corset.”
“I wanted to get something special for my husband, you understand,” she lied convincingly. “It’s our anniversary this week.”
As Judd’s gaze made its way down her legs, Vicky noted two small holes in the center of his tie. Just the size of a monogrammed pin. She then gave a quick glance through the bathroom doorway. She couldn’t see The Spectre, but she knew he was there.
The Black Spectre listened to their conversation as he searched the bathroom. He carefully scanned the edges of the sink and tub. Sure enough, there were traces of blood along the edge of the sink basin. Then he checked the garbage pail where he found a bus ticket that was stamped at 3:12 a.m. the previous night, just a short time after Albert Johnson was murdered.
Vicky gave another glance through the bathroom doorway as Judd showed her the last of his corsets. It wasn’t quite quick enough, however, because Judd noticed and paranoia quickly got the best of him.
“What’s going on here?” he asked. “Why do you keep looking in there?”
Vicky smiled back at him reassuringly, “No reason. Like I said before, I’m just a little nervous about being in a strange hotel room with a man I’ve just met. It’s not proper, you know.”
Judd grunted in acknowledgement as he casually moved towards his suitcase. His eyes were locked on hers, and hers on him. She knew The Spectre would protect her, but she didn’t know about Judd. He’d clubbed and strangled his lover’s husband just a few hours earlier. Most likely, he’d be willing to do most anything to escape the chair.
Vicky’s instincts were correct. As soon as Judd reached his suitcase, he quickly reached inside and grabbed a small pistol from under his shirts. Vicky let out a loud shriek that was immediately followed by Denny calling her name from out in the hall. Vicky knew right then and there that her life was in the hands of two men: Judd Gormon and The Black Spectre.
Judd aimed his pistol straight at Vicky and shouted to the door as Denny tried unsuccessfully to break it down. “Stop it right now, or the dame gets it!”
“Okay! Okay!” Denny shouted from outside and immediately ceased his attempts to enter.
Vicky watched nervously as Judd snapped his suitcase shut and never took his eyes off her. If The Spectre were going to act, she thought, this would be a good time.
“Who are you people?” Judd asked. “Where’s Ruth? Tell me!” he demanded, shaking his gun for emphasis.
“The police have her,” Vicky answered nervously. “We found the jewels under the mattress. We’re with the Daily Crusader. The police are on their way here, right now.”
“Well, they aren’t here yet, are they?” Judd asked as he moved quickly to the door, his eyes still locked on her.
“You, out in the hall!” He shouted to Denny again, “get down on the floor with your hands on your head if you want her to live.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” came a voice behind him.
“Who’s that?” Judd asked, whisking around to face the bathroom door. “I knew someone was in there!”
The Black Spectre stood before him, one of his gleaming .45s drawn and aimed straight at Judd.
Judd shook his head in confusion, not believing what he was seeing. “I never thought you were real!” he stammered.
It’s about time, Vicky thought, as she frantically looked for a place to duck. Behind the bed was the best that she could do. She finally let herself breathe just a small sigh of relief at the sight of him. And then just one more when she heard the sound of sirens approach in the distance.
“So, the dame wasn’t lying, was she?” Judd chuckled as he raised the gun to his own head. The Spectre thrust out his empty hand just as Judd pulled the trigger. Judd suddenly felt his arm move up involuntarily and the shot fired into the ceiling. The blast echoed through the room with Vicky’s accompanying scream.
It was only a brief moment before Judd felt himself being knocked face-first to the floor by an unseen force, his arms and hands held down by invisible weights. Then something equally unseen struck him across the back of the head. He had one last thought just before he blacked out: he was glad that he wasn’t being choked.
“SO, you found him just like this?” Det. Shayne asked as he stood with Vicky and Denny and examined the scene before him. Judd Gormon was sprawled out on the floor in much the same fashion as Albert Johnson had been, only he was unconscious and with a pistol in his hand.
As Det. Shayne looked over Judd, his officers searched the hotel room. In Judd’s suitcase, they found a bundle of love letters from Ruth. Love letters that spelled out their sordid plans and waxed rhapsodic about how much better their lives would be once Albert was out of the picture and they had collected his insurance.
“So,” Det. Shayne asked, “how’d you manage to put this all together?”
Vicky gave him a knowing smile as she took Denny’s arm and headed for the door.
“Sorry, Detective,” she told him, “you’ll just have to read all about it in tomorrow morning’s edition.”
Moments later, as Det. Shayne stood at the window and watched Vicky and Denny get in their car on the street below, another of his men found an important clue that had fallen under the bed.
“Sir, I found something else,” the officer told him as he handed it to the formidable Detective. It was a Judd Gormon’s card, with the name of the hotel and a phone number hand-written at the bottom. Det. Shayne then flipped it over to find something else on the reverse.
It was an “X.”