murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

Death Trail


by Ray Cummings

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Crack Detective | May 1949 | Vol. 10 | No. 2

Est. Read Time: 15 mins

It was a beautiful metal, so ductile it could be spun out thin as a spider-web. And it became the web for a killer.




George Barrington sat in the stern of the small, green canvas canoe, paddling swiftly with sweeping, skillful strokes. The moonlight had faded from the lake. Out to the south, over the line of wooded hills, summer storm clouds had risen to obscure the moon and make the placid lake surface a dim expanse of purple. Now as Barrington rounded the point, the lights of the summer hotel in the cove beyond the cottage where he lived with Bruce Arton, were vaguely visible through the trees. It was nearly midnight and there were only a few lights. Some of them winked out as Barrington stared at them. He was following the shore now. In a moment the lights were obscured. No one would notice the tiny blob of his canoe, merging with the shadows of the shoreline.

It occured to Barrington as a thing very strange that he should care whether or not anyone saw him returning home from the dance at Woodhaven across the lake. George Barrington liked dancing. He was fond of all the lighter, gay things of life. At twenty-seven now he was a tall, dark, sleek and handsome fellow.

Always well dressed, perfectly groomed. His manner was suave, sophisticated; his personality charming, especially to women. He knew all that, but it didn't make him conceited. From a business point of view, he had to be personable. His looks, his manner, his soft cultivated voice were all part of his stock in trade.

Because some day George Barrington would be recognized as one of the country's great actors. Recognition had been a little slow coming — but it would come. Underneath his light gayety, there was the real Barrington; a cool, calm, perhaps ruthless sort of fellow who knew what he wanted, and was determined to have it. You had to be that way, or life would side-track you … .

Now he was tense, and he hoped that his canoe wouldn't be seen. More than that, he was making sure that it wouldn't be seen. He tried to tell himself that there would be no trouble with his cousin, Bruce Arton. He had determined to have the showdown now, tonight — because he and Arton would be alone tonight; and tomorrow Arton's fiance was coming and the housekeeper would be back and there would be other friends in, the next day. After tonight it would be too late. Too late for what? Barrington didn't face the question. He set his handsome mouth more grimly, put more power into his strokes of the paddle, as though suddenly there was a tense urgency in what lay ahead.

The lake darkened. Overhead the clouds were spreading. Now there was only one light visible at the ragged, wooded shoreline — the light in Arton's cottage, one of his windows of the chemical laboratory where he was undoubtedly working.

Barrington silently swept his frail little craft up to the small dock; he pulled the canoe up on the incline and put on his jacket. Quietly he ascended the little trail that led up through the trees and along the edge of a ragged gully, from the dock to the house.

The Death Trail. The name, from a hundred years ago, still clung to it — this little trail that led from the lake up into the hills where once an Indian brave had met his young betrothed here in the summer moonlight and killed her and then himself. Barrington knew little of the legendary story and cared less. But he thought of the name now as he followed the trail up to Arton's cottage. He thought of it with a queer, vague feeling like a shudder.



Arton had built a south wing on the house last summer, equipped it as his private laboratory so that he could continue his experiments in research chemistry during the months he was up here from the city. Barrington entered through the little side door. He closed it after him.

"Oh, you George?'' Arton greeted. "You're back early. Have a nice time?"

"Yes, thanks."

Barrington sat down on a little stool, here by the door, midway of the room. It was a narrow, oblong room, with bench tables and shelves littered with bottles and what to Barrington was a meaningless maze of chemical apparatus. The place glowed with dim eerie light; it was redolent with queer smells. A place of mystery. Interesting maybe, if you liked that sort of thing. Barrington didn't. The realm of chemistry was worse than Greek to him, a thing for the fussy type of mind like Arton's.

Certainly no two men could have been more wholly different than the handsome, fun-loving, suave George Barrington and his older cousin. Arton who was busily at work now. He was standing in the narrow glare of a hooded light at a table across the room.

The steady droning hum of an electric motor came from there. Two tiny spindles a few feet apart were whirring, with a big metal arm very slowly oscillating between them. Arton, in his shirt sleeves and baggy trousers, with his thin sandy hair rumpled, had turned briefly to greet Barrington; now he was back, intent on his work. Bruce Arton was thirty-five — a smallish, slim, wirey fellow with a grave and solemnly intellectual face. He was in business for himself, what he called a research chemist with several big manufacturing concerns for his clients.

"You look busy," Barrington said into the moment of silence.

Arton turned around again. He certainly seemed in a good mood; there was an air of quiet triumph about him.

"I solved it," Arton said, "and by Jove I believe it's the most important thing I've ever done in my life."

He added something about the great Bell Telephone Company, and what his client, some National Wire Company, would have to say to them when this new Arton Process was patented. A lot of Greek to Barrington. He hardly listened to it; he was thinking of Marjorie. He had telephoned down to the city tonight, but hadn't gotten her.

"Oh," Barrington said. "Well, that's fine, Bruce."

It sounded as though there might be a lot of money in it for Arton. Good enough. The prospect of that would have him in a receptive frame of mind. Now was the time to cinch the thing.

"Fine?" Arton echoed. "Yes, I'm very gratified, of course. I've certainly worked hard enough on it this summer." The electric hum had suddenly stopped. The little spindles were motionless. Arton looked at a dial, nodded to himself and smiled. He was full of quiet enthusiasm, just in the right mood.

"You'd say I've just discovered the real secret of ductility,'' he added. "The ability to draw metal out, into an infinitely fine wire. I've got it, George. A more perfect ductility than has ever been achieved before. A gossamer metallic thread, yet so strong you couldn't snap it with your fingers. Can you imagine how nice that will be for the intricacies of telephone switchboards? For — '' "Sure, that's grand," Barrington said abstractedly. How was the best way to broach the thing? Arton had been stalling these past weeks, of course.



Arton now had one of the tiny spindles in his hand. He was saying, "A metallic alloy, quite the usual thing, and then I added a totally new compound. And that did it! You'd never believe — "

Barrington managed a grin. "I sure wouldn't, whatever it is. Bruce, listen — "

"I could put thousands of yards of it in a thimble," Arton went on. "And it's so strong — I've just been measuring its length and strength. You — "

"Bruce listen, that little matter we were discussing — "

"Eh? Oh, what's that, George?"

Barrington tensed. The thing suddenly seemed more important to him than ever before. A turning point in his life, with his future stretching ahead — a future that could be drab, full of frustrations like his past; or flushed with victory, expanding like a snowball, rolling up into the success of fame and riches.

"My new show, Bruce," Barrington was saying. "You can't lose backing it, there's no possible way."

The enthusiasm faded out of Arton's thin, studious face. "Oh, that again."

"Yes, that again." Barrington tried to talk quietly. "We've been all over it, and I had you convinced — "

"Did you?"

"To be frank, Bruce, we need the first five thousand, well, tomorrow. And another in a month should see us through. You said — you see, we've been relying on — "

"Have you?" Arton's thin lips went grim. He was getting angry — a queer fellow, like a little chimney, to be heated in a moment.

"I never said a damn thing, just listened to you talk," Arton said. "And now I realize you didn't give it to me straight, George. Crooked, like all your thinking, like everything you do as a matter of fact. You didn't tell me about this Marjorie LaMotte — is that what she calls herself?"

Marjorie! How in the devil did he know about —

"I've heard of her, naturally," Arton was saying. "She was doing fine in burlesque until the Mayor closed down all that sort of stuff. So now you want me to angel a show that's going to put my cousin over as a great actor! Some day you'll be another E. H. Southern or like Maurice Evans, maybe? That's what you tell me! So I'm supposed to risk ten or fifteen thousand in a honky-tonk for you and this LaMotte woman! Don't make me laugh!"

It wasn't going to work … ! Arton had never any idea of helping, just a damn little double-crosser … . The thoughts, with no process of thinking back of them, stabbed at George Barrington. Arton was engaged to marry a damn snobbish society girl. He'd discussed the thing with her, of course. And she'd queered it! She'd queer everything, once he married her — for instance, the present arrangement of Arton's staking his cousin to three thousand a year allowance until he got started in business. And any chance at big money —



Barrington was on his feet. Arton was angry and sarcastic. Well, two could play at that! "I don't like to hear that kind of stuff," Barrington heard himself saying. "When you talk about Marjorie LaMotte — anyway, how did you — "

"She phoned me today," Arton snapped back. "You told her everything was fixed, I suppose? And when she found it wasn't — "

Arton smiled wryly.

"She — what you'd call turned the heat on a little. You're my cousin, see? And I'm going to be married, get the idea? You're my closest relative — I wouldn't want any scandal. Seems it isn't all just business between you and LaMotte, George. And if you don't come across now, she's liable to turn on you, and on me!"

What a fool thing for Marjorie to do, jumping in like this! Barrington stood speechless. He was across the room now, leaning against a work table a few feet from Arton.

He gasped, "Marjorie didn't mean — "

"Oh yes she did!" Arton retorted. "A refined sort of blackmail. That's what you'd call it! My closest relative, well thank Heaven you're no closer than a cousin. I had a talk with Alice about it last night. We're going to wash our hands of you, George. You go right ahead — "

"Why you — you rotten — "

"Sure! And now you're showing your true colors, aren't you? Alice warned me! You go ahead, George — do your worst — "

Prophetic words! Arton couldn't guess. It was only a vague blurred thought in the tumult of Barrington's mind. He was beyond reason, with the eerie laboratory room swaying before him and his right hand reaching for a little globular object on the table beside him. Then Barrington's cold fingers closed over it — a heavy retort, like a jug. Barrington hardly knew that he had flung it. Then he saw it strike Arton on the side of the head, and as it crashed to the floor Arton was tottering on his feet.

But he wasn't dead. He screamed when Barrington leaped upon him. It was a horrible, piercing scream. It filled the laboratory room. It surged out the open window, echoed out through the trees into the darkness of the sullen night … .

Shut him up! You've got to shut him up! Silence him now forever!Barrington's thought blurred. Everything seemed dim and far away. But he knew that his fingers were gripping Arton's throat, his fingers strangling so that the scream died … .

Barrington panted through an eternity, holding his grip tighter, with the lunging body under him, the flailing arms and legs gradually weakening; until at last the crumpled thing which had been Bruce Arton lay motionless.

Barrington jumped to his feet. That scream still seemed echoing, though it was long since a memory. Somebody would have heard it! Somebodv might be coming from the nearby hotel across the wooded promontory! Worse than that! They were coming already! The terrified Barrington could hear them — the shouts of men out on the shortcut path down the hill!



In that instant, Barrington had only the wits to snatch up the retort and wipe it off. Then he turned and ran, ducking out the side door the way he had entered. Now the laboratory wing was between him and the path down to the hotel. It shielded him; and then the darkness enveloped him as he fled down the trail, under the trees to the lake. Barrington was winded, breathless and covered with sweat as he crouched in the darkness of the little dock with his canoe on the incline beside him.

The shouts were up by the laboratory now. Then in the night silence he could hear that the men had discovered Arton's body … . Barrington fought for calmness. After all, he was in no danger. No one had seen him arrive from Woodhaven in the canoe. He could take it now and paddle away. No! He would be seen, out there on the lake. But suppose he had just arrived now? He would have heard the scream, just as the other men did, down at the hotel. He'd hear it, and he'd shout and run up to the house, just as they had!

Everything was all right! Queerly a sort of calm triumph began enveloping Barrington. His heritage from Arton was ten or fifteen thousand at the least; Arton had been making a lot of money lately.

Barrington realized that subconsciously he had been thinking of that all evening. His ace in the hole. It had been in his mind when he wanted not to be seen arriving. Money to put over the show and fix things up with Marjorie. And that chemical invention of Arton's — there would be his notes on it, of course. Barrington could get them, hold them dark for a couple of years, and then tackle those big companies himself. Maybe there'd be a fortune in it for him. What luck!

Barrington stood up on the dock. And then he saw that the time had come for him to shout his arrival. Two or three of the men suddenly appeared up on the trail. Their voices floated down. And then Barrington shouted back, ran up the trail a few feet, stopped and called … . It was so simple! Breathless, confused exchanges.

"I was just paddling up to the dock!" Barrington was shouting. "Heard somebody screaming! What is it? What happened!"

"Bruce Arton! He's dead — "

"Dead! Bruce dead — "

"Somebody got in there and killed him!"

These men were four or five of the hotel guests. Barrington knew some of them. He met them a little way up the trail, where Barrington had stopped and was standing speechless, breathless, shocked by the news.

"Why — why that's horrible — !" he gasped. "I thought it was his voice screaming — I paddled hard as I could — then I heard you people — "

Overhead pallid moonlight was straggling down through the rifted clouds now. It struck on the frightened faces of the men, and on the trees and on the naked rocks here along the gully brink.



And now here was big Johnson, the hotel detective. He was coming down the trail with one of the men. But they weren't walking or running. They came slowly, bending down, and Johnson was holding his flashlight.

"Where the devil you suppose it goes?" the man with Johnson muttered.

"Here it still is," Johnson said. "Quicker if we lift it up."

Lift what up? What the devil was this?

"Oh, hello Barrington," the hotel detective said. The man with him muttered something, and Johnson turned. "Shut up! Maybe so. We'll soon see, come on, keep going."

Barrington and the men with him blankly stared as the detective and his companion went past them. Slowly they went down to the dock and then began coming back.

"Well I'm damned!" the man said. "It's him — "

"Shut up! Make sure!"

Cold with puzzled apprehension, Barrington stood silent. And now he saw that the stooping detective was holding his light to follow something that lay along the ground.

Then Johnson pounced. "There's the end of it! Take a look everybody! Got him like we found him chained to the corpse!" He was gripping Barrington now, pointing. "Here is the killer, we got him!"

Barrington's mind swept back … . Arton in the laboratory, binding his new gossamer wire from one spindle to another, measuring its length and its strength.. Then Arton with one of the tiny spindles, much smaller than a thimble, in his hand … . And then Arton down on the floor, hands flailing as Barrington crouched over him … .

Now Barrington saw the tiny spindle with the gleaming gossamer thread trailing from it, where it had caught in one of the big ornate leather buttons of his summer sport jacket! It was the empty spindle; and its tiny thread of wire stretched from here back to the laboratory where the other spindle had been unwinding as Barrington ran!

Like a death trail — damnable little gossamer that you couldn't break, connecting this murderer with his victim!