murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

Laughing Death


by Charles Conger Stewart

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Detective Story Magazine | Oct. 22, 1918 | Vol. XVIII | No. 4

Est. Read Time: 28 mins

She warned him about the fat man, but Jim wouldn't listen. He was determined to know who the fat man was, and why Hester refused to tell him more!




The girl on the park bench moved restlessly. Every few seconds she would turn her head and stare away down the long gravel walk — that brown line along whose either side sat the wearied, the hopeless, the migratory. As the flame of a candle, caught by wandering airs, flickers up and down, so fear played in her eyes — deep, dark-brown eyes, a richness and warmth that told of emotions unplumbed. This was a girl of possibilities; she might be anything, might do anything. At this moment, however, she was openly nervous, abstracted, fearfully expectant — all this, while the young and exasperated man beside her was asking her to marry him!

To outward view, at least, he offered no reason why the brown-eyed girl should not listen most breathlessly to his tale. His body was normal and pleasing to the eye; his clothes were neat and well chosen; and his finely shaped head and high brow advertised intelligence and plenty of it. But his eyes were what first caught the interest of observers; and soon made good their promise of charming. Blue — blue they were — clear and true and pure; a blue that is the sign of power of thought and sanity of soul; a blue that dares and does.

Perhaps the depth of brown eyes shrank from the penetration of blue; but certainly the now peevish young man had no such thought.

“Oh, cut it out, will you?” he frowned. “Every time I coax you into the park you’re about as quiet and restful as a pinwheel. Sit still! Do you know I’m asking you to marry me?”

“But Jim,” she said, even then turning from him, and watching anxiously the long gravel path, “you don’t know anything about me — except my first name, and — “

“I’m getting so I’m not sure of that,” he muttered.

“And I — I wish you wouldn’t,” she ended; and the deeps of the brown eyes flashed to the blue a look of mingled yearning and terror.

For a fleeting moment Jim Dean felt a prickling fear and a strange wonder as he saw the terror and a thrill of surging longing as he sensed her yearning. Then it all passed and he remembered only his grievance.

“Great snakes, Hester,” he said childishly, “anybody’d think I was about as inviting a prospect for a husband as that poor bum over there!”

Hester hastily glanced at the wreck of a man on the bench opposite. From the listless heap of sunken body and tattered clothing glowed a pair of black eyes.

“I wish you did look like him,” she answered sincerely.

“What!” Dean sat up, amazed.

“I know you don’t understand. And I can’t explain. But if you did look like him I wouldn’t be so afraid that — “

She broke off, clutching him. Again Dean felt the stab of emotion — a sharp, formless warning of danger, he followed her straining glance. All that caught his eye were two persons coming up the walk, a young woman interested in getting somewhere quickly, and far back of her a short, fat man strolling leisurely up the middle of the gravel.

“What the — “ he began disgustedly.

Suddenly she swung full to him, and Dean saw that the smoldering fear in her eyes had shot to a pleading, flaming panic. Her fingers dug into his arm, and her voice dropped to a low, fierce whisper.

“Jim — let’s go! Anywhere but here!” She shook his arm, the while glancing over her shoulder. “Jim — it’s he! Oh, I knew it — I was a fool ever to come here! Jim — Jim — hurry! I can’t tell why, but there’s awful danger! He’ll spot you the first thing! Jim — you say you love me — then come!”

Dean crossed his legs comfortably, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and smiled invitingly toward the fat man, still far down the path. He was happier than he had been for weeks.

“My dear, my greatest hope in life is that he will spot me. If he doesn’t, I’ll introduce myself. Maybe he’ll let in some light on my darkened brain and — “

An ill-suppressed cry from her interrupted him.

“Don’t say that!” she exclaimed, rising, and pulling at him.

He grunted derisively and jerked his arm away.

“That howl of yours, without any sense or reason, is just a sample of what I’ve been up against for three months. Nothing from you but mystery and fidgets and an everlasting order for me to stay out of this park. I tell you I won’t go and I’m sick — “

“Jim,” she interrupted, “you’re a fool not to listen. But I’ve got to run. I don’t dare be seen with you. If you love me, do this — it’s your only chance. Don’t look at him — read your paper — pull your hat over your eyes — anything. I’ll be back after he’s gone. Remember — don’t look at him!”

She hurried off across the grass.



Dean didn’t even glance to see where she had gone. He took his hands out, but only to throw his paper away and take his hat off. Then, with keen, alert blue eyes, he watched the fat man.

The bum on the opposite bench stirred, and for the first time in half an hour seemed interested. The black eyes took on an added glow as the short, chunky figure waddled nearer.

Dean scanned the man closely. He guessed the fat person was about fifty, and that he had a surplus of flesh even on his tongue. The flabbiest, most jellied creature he had ever seen, he thought — until he noticed the hands. Enormous, gigantic in both length and breadth, with fingers long, narrow, a musician’s fingers; the hands were never still.

As the lower arms of a wooden toy are pulled by a string, his arms moved back and forth automatically, with the live, sensitive fingers restlessly feeling — feeling delicately, inquiringly, if they had eyes in the tips and searched endlessly for something they momentarily expected to touch and grasp.

The sight of them reminded Dean of crawling bugs and the feelers of insects; and he experienced a slight, but definite, aversion.

When the rotund being with the quivering antennae had rolled to within fifty feet, Dean forgot the fat and the fingers in the wonder of the face. Cut deep into the wabbly rolls of flesh was the widest and most fixed smile Dean had ever seen. And as he stared, and half wondered at and half despised the shrinking within himself he hoped he’d never see another like it.

The slit was as if one had taken a short, curved sword and slashed into a shapeless mass of dead face that lacked a mouth; and had given it a mouth and a smile — a smile that would have made a child run shrieking to its mother.

As the squat figure arrived on a line with Dean and the bum, he cut his ridiculously short steps to almost nothing. From one side black eyes glared at him under the brim of a veteran felt hat; from the other watched the clearest and finest of blue eyes, open, curious. The fat man handed the bum the merest speeding glance. He turned and gave Dean a direct, examining look — and came to a decisive halt.

Dean met the eyes — tiny eyes almost lost in the hanging, flapping flesh — pig’s eyes. Against his will his hair bristled and his fingers clenched. The dots of eyes seemed blue — maybe they were green — even a gray — Dean wasn’t sure which. He was more interested, with a sort of repellent fascination, in their expression — or was it a total absence of meaning that held him?

“A lovely day,” said the fat man, in cold, monotonous tones — and laughed. The face undulated; the body quivered. “Very jolly!”

“Right,” answered Dean, briefly, but not rudely. He didn’t like the smiling pile of flesh; but it undoubtedly was connected with the mystery of Hester, and so merited attention.

The man advanced toward him, shaking with ingratiating good nature. Dean wished the gimlet eyes would waver, if only for a restful second. And those snaky fingers!

“Wonderful eyes!” continued the dead voice. “Perfect! Yes, yes, most unusual! And a fine head!”

The waving fingers darted up toward Dean, and as suddenly down. Dean felt like dodging.

“Excuse me! Nervous, old man! Lovely day — beautiful eyes — clever young man — all fine! Oh, quite jolly!” And with another wide gesture expressive of apology, he slid away, his flesh fairly tumbling with laughter, and fingers feeling about with frantic rapidity.

Dean and the bum gazed after him, crawling up the path. Dean was glad, yet sorry to see him go. The man was a horror; but he meant something in Hester’s life, and should have been encouraged to sit down and talk. As he rebuked himself, the bum slouched to his feet and stepped toward Dean. Then he saw something behind the young man, and fell back.

The bum had seen Hester returning. She slid into the seat beside Dean, with a quick, panicky glance at the back of the slowly departing fat man.

“Jim,” she reprimanded him, “you stubborn — Oh, why didn’t you do as I told you? I saw him stop here. Tell me — what did he say?”

“Oh, he was a fine old chap,” said Dean, lying, still vexed with himself, and, of course, with her. “Good-natured, with a smile a mile wide. Said it was a jolly day, and made a fuss over my perfect blue — “

“I told you! Oh, I told you not to look at him!” exclaimed Hester, in an agony of reproach and fear. “Jim, there is just one way to be safe — promise me you’ll take it! Stay out of this park, Jim, that’s all — please!”

“More likely to move in here,” muttered Dean. “I’m not going to sit around any more and watch you jump. I’m going to find out what’s the matter with you, since you won’t trust me and tell — “

“I can’t!”

“Well, you can tell me what this man is to you!” he said angrily. “He isn’t your — “

He broke off.

“You wouldn’t play with me that way, would you, Hester?” he ended, his anger subsiding.

For a sweet moment the brown eyes filled with longing. Fear was forgotten.

“Oh, Jim boy, I wish I could ask you to help, for I’m in an awful place. But you’d only hurt. There, he’s reached the end of the path and is coming back! How I hate him! But I must get in before he does! Oh!”

She shot a look at Dean. He suspected she had said something impulsive, not meant for him.

“Good-by. And, for your life, stay out of the park, Jim,” adding, with a pleading smile, “dear!”

More baffled than ever, Dean watched the lithe, graceful girl cut diagonally across the park to the nearest street. Suddenly he became aware of the bum standing over him.



“Say, young feller,” drawled the battered owner of the piercing black eyes, “I dunno what that young lady was throwin’ into you, but I bet she was tippin’ you off on that fat slob. Now, I ain’t got nothin’ against him, an’ dunno nothin’ about him, but I’m plumb scared o’ him, an’ so are mah pals. Most of the park calls him ‘The Laughing Man,’ but us select gents of leisure — well, to us he’s ‘The Park Killer.’

“Of course we dunno,” he continued, with a sidelong glance up the path, “but we think he did for several of our bunch. Only yesterday my own pal vanished — a good old scout he was, with the reddest hair and the bluest eyes ever. Blue as yours, they were. The last I saw o’ him he was sittin’ on a bench, gabbin’ with that oily, chucklin’ corpse. He’s sneakin’ down on us now. So long, pard, and excuse — I just thought I’d back up the young lady.”

“Much obliged,” replied Dean, cordially, not knowing what else to say. “Guess I’ll wander out with you. I didn’t take to him, either.”

Down the gravel they walked — at a fair pace — the black-eyed bum, and the blue-eyed young man, both fleeing from a smile, though one frankly admitted it and the other did not. And most of Dean’s thinking concerned the fate of the red-head and the meaning of Hester’s “I must get in before he does!”

For three days Dean neither saw Hester nor heard from her. Her custom had been to telephone him that she would be at a certain corner or drug store at a certain time; all their meetings had been arranged that way. What he hated most was that she would never let him take her home; she always had stopped at one of several corners and had told him to be a nice boy and run along. And now, even of that silly dismissal, there was no more. All he knew was that he loved the most maddening, baffling girl that ever drew a man with, her dark eyes, and that apparently she had vanished from the earth.

Then, by chance, he glimpsed her walking fast through the twilight. His impulse was to run to her. Instead, he trailed her. In a little side street, one of a row of dark, secretive houses — all of a kind — swallowed her. Dean noted the street and number, and was turning away, when a thought stopped him.

Under cover of a deserted doorway, he watched a half hour — to have his patience rewarded by the sight of a man silently disappearing into the same house which hid Hester. It was the fat man!

“I must get in before he does,” rang again in Dean’s ears. And he knew there was but one thing to do — the only way to settle his doubts and fears; and that was to go into that house.



The very next day, therefore, a young man, whose clothes cried for extensive repairing and whose manner indicated that he had abandoned all hope, sat on a park bench and turned a nice blue eye, now and then, on the length of the gravel walk. He ceased even this mild interest as a fat, smiling man took a snail’s pace up the path. With body slumped, the young man stared dully into space. His only movement pushed his shapeless hat back from his eyes.

The fat man paused directly in line with the brooding eyes. Slowly the blue eves rose and m%t the bright, steely points of the other. The doughy, pendulous mass of the face wabbled with laughter.

“My young man with the beautiful eyes,” droned the hard voice. “Very jolly! May I?”

His seemingly boneless bulk melted onto the bench, bringing altogether too near the playing fingers and that inhuman grinning cut.

“Remember me?” The emotionless sound went on. “Name’s Rudah. Like you — liked you the other day. Wonderful eyes — oh, jolly! See you’re in hard luck. What’s the matter?”

“Same old tale,” muttered Dean, shuddering within at the close contact. “Gambled — was fired — sold even my clothes to pay my debts. And now I’m a bum — own all the time there is and nothing else.”

“That’s quite jolly — tough, I mean! Never mind — everything’ll be happy yet. Yes, yes! How about a job with me? I’m a scientist — want a man to keep my stuff in order. Everything lovely, eh?”

“Sure.” Dean agreed quickly. Then, fearing he might have been too eager: “Oh, I don’t know. I’m no good — what’s the use?”

“Be jolly — lots of use — very useful to me! Any relatives?” Rudah’s laughing question made Dean swallow — he knew not why.

“Not a soul,” he said brazenly. “Glad of it now.”

“Fine — fine! — Come right along!

“Perfect day,” was Rudah’s comment as the two rose, and Rudah started off with a celerity Dean had thought impossible for the ducklike waddle. “Warm sun, blue sky; blue as your eyes!”

The fat man’s speed and happiness increased as they approached their destination. Everything was lovely; even the hot sun, almost down now, was jolly. But Dean could not class his laughter as contagious; and kept his eyes from the flowing fatness beside him, and his thoughts on Hester.

Neither man ever looked behind him, and so did not see another following far in the rear — a man in ragged clothes and with smoldering fire in his black eyes.

“Here we are! No palace — just a jolly place to work!” Rudah, chuckling, turned in where Dean knew he would — the same silent sepulcher of a place in which yesterday Hester had disappeared. Would she be in there? Would she see him — and if so, what would happen? He went up the stone steps after Rudah, every nerve high-strung, expecting anything.

As the door closed on them, the black-eyed bum sauntered by the house — then paused as if in uncertainty. In a moment he shook his head and started off slowly. He had the air of one in doubt.

Within the house, Dean felt that he was in a place in which there never had been a sound. Not a warm human whisper ever had confronted the ear; here was only a strong smell of chemicals and of old, musty coolness — an odor which meant rats and rotten flooring.

He almost jumped as Rudah’s living fingers touched his head. An electric shock thrilled him. It was as if the fingers had pressed on the very brain!

“Pardon — just taking off your hat!” And Rudah dropped it on a dusty chair. Dean, still flooded with horror by the uncanny touch, felt that, oppressed though he was by this tomb, he must speak.

“That’s all right,” he began lamely — but was cut short by a fearful scream, a sharp cry that split the house.

Dean’s eyes shot toward the floor above, and, through the gray twilight of the interior saw a face, white and wide-eyed with terror, leaning over the railing. The face vanished — but not before he had recognized it. It was Hester!

With speed miraculous for his bulk, the fat man already was ascending the stairs.

“Just a minute,” he chanted over his shoulder calmly,” my wife — not well!”

Dean’s muscles had gathered to dart after him and to Hester, but at the words “my wife” a sickness clutched him, heart and throat, and he stared dumbly into the darkness above. His wife! So Hester had cheated him — made a jest of his manhood! The wife of this laughing fiend — this poisonous satyr!

The tension of the nerves snapped, and Dean dropped into the dusty chair. Not a sound in the house — though his cars still hurt and sang with that scream. A wave of recklessness and self-contempt swept over-him. Hester had tricked him; he was one more whom life and love had fooled; let the Park Killer —

He caught the sound of a key softly turning, and then the creaking of the old stairs as Rudah descended. The fat man advanced on him, bubbling with apology and cheerfulness.

“All jolly now — yes, yes! She’s resting — lying down! Nervous, like me! This way,” paddling off down the long, dusky hallway; “want to show you your job. Yes, indeed” — a hideous gurgle — “you’ll be very useful!”

Utterly careless of self, with scarcely a trace of curiosity as to what would befall him, Dean did as he was bid. At the end of the corridor, Rudah, with loathsome deference, ushered him into a totally dark room. Dean would have sworn that those long, writhing fingers — those grasping, sucking tentacles — played about his head. Instinctively he jerked away his head and put up his hands.

But only a light snapped on — and there was Rudah at the switch, a dozen feet away, laughing like a ghoul. Dean’s hands dropped and he sniffed at his childish fear of the dark.

“Your job,” Rudah began. “See! Hooks in a mess, tools in a mess, bottles, jars — all in a fearful, jolly mess! You pick ‘em up keep ‘em in order. Easy, lovely job, eh?”

Dean nodded, agreeing more with the mess than with the ease of the job. Everything was in disorder; books scattered about, shelves of tubes and bottles in disarray, gleaming knives, scissors and other instruments here and there, a heavy stationary table in the middle of the room, and, over in a corner, a sort of table or bed on wheels, on top of which lay something covered with a cloth. Dean noticed that the window’s had been boarded up and that all the light came from powerful hanging globes. So strong was their combined force as to pain his eyes.

Not knowing what else to do, and hoping that if anything were going to happen it would, hurry up, Dean began an investigatory stroll. With him went Rudah, explaining happily where everything belonged. Like incessant lightning the fingers vibrated, while the sickish, slashed face quavered like a disturbed quicksand.

“He looks like a swamp,” thought Dean, sensing danger and glad of it. “What in thunder does he want with me — the grinning devil!”



In his tour, Dean came to the cloth-covered table in the corner. Impelled by some perverse desire and half suspecting what he would see, he drew back the cloth. Just behind him he could feel Rudah spilling with laughter.

Under the sheet lay a man. The eyes that stared unwinking up at the glaring lights were blue and strikingly clear; and the mop of hair and coarse beard were a dusty red.

“Of course,” said Dean. Before him lay the black-eyed bum’s pal!

“Jolly fellow — that!” Rudah, unruffled, informed him. “Used to have your job. Good man — lovely eyes — heavier than I thought, too!”

Dean gave these enigmatic and perhaps startling phrases little attention, suddenly having become interested in something about the farther side of the man’s head. He leaned over to see more clearly. As his eyes gazed upon the mutilated skull, his nerves telegraphed a subtle but sharp alarm and both brain and body prepared instantaneously to turn and defend him.

But he was too late. Giant’s lingers — irresistible bands of steel — were about his neck; and he knew, with his first agonizing struggle, that he could not turn and that his spark of life lay wholly at the mercy of this laughing, living death.

“Easy! Easy! Everything’s jolly!” The cold, even, mirthless tones floated to Dean’s darkening consciousness. “Won’t hurt you — must have a bandage — glorious eyes — best I ever had! Oh, jolly!”

And with a sort of silly, formless thought that Hester surely couldn’t love a monster like this, Dean fell swiftly into a pit of blackness.

As his spirit took hold on life again, he dreamed that soft, warm lips had just been lifted from his. Weakly he hoped that the dream would return. Consciousness flowed back stronger. Once more came the kiss — sweet, cleansing, driving blackness before it; and he knew it was no dream. Some one in the darkness — but why was it so dark? — was kissing him tenderly.

Gentle, woman hands passed healingly over his cheeks and bruised throat. He heard a wordless, soothing whispering. He strained his eyes; but could make out nothing. And yet, when that giggling beast had throttled him, the room had blazed with light. Had that flabby horror — Was — oh, was he blind!

Of a sudden his lifted eyelashes shot a message to his brain, and a new tightness about his head confirmed his lightning suspicion. His eyes were bandaged. He remembered that, before darkness had swallowed him, Rudah had mentioned a bandage. Then he was not blind.

But — sickening reaction — if he were blind, surely he would be conscious of at least a faint glow from the flood of light, though the bandage were the thickest. With mind now painfully alert, he started to rise — and could not. For the first time, he realized his hands were bound!

As he moved, there floated to him a faint, thankful sigh. The next second, lips touched his ear and breathed low, trembing syllables.

“Jim — why did you — oh, no time for that now! He locked me in, but I crawled out the transom. I’m going for help now. He’ll be back any minute. If he should shoot you, hold perfectly still, and you’ll be safe!”

In the darkness, Dean sneered. If you are shot, hold still, and you are magically invulnerable! A genial household, indeed!

“Oh, don’t bother about me.” He spoke sullenly, not caring particularly whether Rudah heard him or not. “Let him shoot. Only — I’d like to flatten him out — the bloated, yellow thing — even if he is your — “

He broke off, suddenly feeling, as he shifted the position of his body, something strange.

“What’s this thing on my chest? Hands tied, eyes bandaged, probably blind, too — and now here’s something pressing on my lung! What the dickens does this all mean?”

“S — sh! I put it there!” He felt the tickle of her hair. “Good-by. Remember — if he shoots, don’t move!”

Gick! The lights flamed on, and Dean knew from the immediate rush of dimmed rays to his eyes that he was not blind!

Beside him Hester caught her breath. And he could positively feel that swollen animal, standing by the electric switch, slopping with laughter. A thin-edged silence — then —

“Ah! Sweethearts! Of course — your cry, my dear. Should have known it; brown-eyed women full of sentiment, but no brains. Still, you have been helpful. — must admit it. But no more — no more. Not so jolly now — bad, bad!”

Dean felt the floor shake as Rudah paced up and down, muttering to himself.

“Untie my hands, you fat devil,” burst out Dean, “and I’ll make things jolly for you!”

Hester put a hand over his mouth.

“Don’t,” she whispered. Then to Rudah, in tones hard, biting, with but the trace of a quiver: “You shall not have him — as you have the others!”

“So?” Rudah did not cease his heavy glide. “But I will! Hands itch to get at him now! Glorious eyes — splendid head! But you — you dark eyes! That’s the problem: — what — to — do — with — you. You love — and all love is foolish, useless; no love in the brain, just in the red heart. You are no good to me, now; can’t stay here, can’t go away. Meddlesome police here in no time. Dear, dear! And everything was so jolly!”

For a half minute there was quiet. Slowly an idea penetrated to Dean that Hester was in danger; and he tried to convince himself that he did not care. His test of self resulted in complete, admitted failure. He knew that always he would care.

Without warning, Hester made a rush for the door. Dean was fairly jolted as Rudah’s gigantic bulk moved to intercept her. He cursed his uselessness, and dragged himself to a sitting posture against the wall.

“No — no — dear lady,” came in cold, merciless tones, “don’t go! May be useful yet! Oh, yes, yes! Why, this is fine — all jolly again! Why didn’t I think of this before?”



“You fiend!” Hester’s voice was clear, furious. “If I hadn’t been such a fool as to scream, I’d have — “

“Never mind; all lovely now! You are lovers. Brown eyes and blue — wonderful chance for comparing opposing types, eyes, brains! Yes, yes! never had such an opportunity! Both very valuable. Must get right at it!”

“Go ahead,” Hester said coolly. “Only I warn you — twenty-four hours after you kill me, you yourself will be either dead or in prison!”

Hester to die! That foul, grinning death would kill his own wife just because she was mixed up in this silly rigmarole about blue eyes! He could die, he felt, almost carelessly, because love’s light for him had been darkened. But Hester — —!

Dean scrambled to his feet and stood, straight and strong, a defiant figure of young manhood, against the wall. He spoke — and his voice rose to an echoing crescendo of command and courage.

“Kill me, you scum, but let her go! If you have tricked me here to get my eyes, why, take them! I admit I love her, and you, her husband, should! If you have the shadow of a soul, be kind to her. And for Heaven’s sake,” he said, drawing a deep breath, and throwing his bandaged head high, “take off this thing and let me die like a man!”

“No — no.” Rudah chuckled. “Light would hurt beautiful eyes. But hold that position — please.”

A sharp cry from Hester.

“Makes a lovely shot!” “Jim — he’s going to shoot! Keep still — he always shoots the heart — you’re safe! Oh — Jim!”

With the flash of a thought that Hester must have gone, mad. Dean laughed wildly and rushed toward the spot whence had come the expressionless, evil voice. With hands tied, eyes darkened, and this puzzling weight on his chest, he felt helpless enough. His only desire before death should blast him was to hurl himself on that loathsome bulk and with drive of shoulder or kick of foot to hurt it. Oh, to flatten it — bury it — especially that laughing mask!

“A jolly shot,” said Rudah — and fired.

Dean felt an awful shock — a weakening nausea — knew dimly that he had been shot over the heart. And for the second time in an hour, he slipped away into nothingness, his last impression being a sound of crashing, ripping boards.

The nothingness became something. From miles away in the darkness came a confused murmur; then a sharper tone of command; a sound of heavy bodies moving off. A rest — a pause while his vital forces gathered — and life and understanding flowed back.

He opened his eyes, and looked up into sweet mirrors of deepest brown, from which all fear had fled. His head was in Hester’s lap; his eyes and hands were free, and that mysterious weight over his heart was gone. He smiled.

“You are safe, Hester?”

“Yes — and for all time, I hope,” she said tremulously, “with you!”

“With me!” The meaning in her words gave him strength to sit up. “What about Rudah, your husband?”

“Jim — Jim! As if — That liar and murderer is now on the way to iron bars, where he has belonged for many a day — thanks to this — ah — gentleman.”

Dean turned and saw an individual in not the best of clothes, gazing down at the body of the redhead. Shaking his head mournfully, he slouched over to the couple sitting on the floor. Dean recognized the black-eyed bum.

“Thanks, lady, for the kind word” — he said with the hint of a grin. “All right now, young feller? Yeah — me and the cops breezed in through that lumber,” indicating the smashed boarding over the windows. “I trailed you here; didn’t like the looks o’ you with that greasy, grinnin’ hog. When you disappeared in this black old dump, I didn’t know what to do — just wandered around. But my hunch that somethin’ was rotten kept botherin’ me, so I beat it for the station and gave ‘em an earful.”

“You saved both of us,” murmured Dean, rising, and extending a cordial hand to the bum. “A few minutes later — “

“I’m all right. I wanted to see if I was right about poor old ‘Red.’”

He looked sorrowfully toward the sheeted figure.

“Well — must be runnin’ along. Glad we pinched that laughin’ monster. So long!”

He turned at the doorway, his black eyes alight.

“Take it from me, young feller, whenever that young lady talks, you listen!”

They threw him a laughing farewell.

“Good advice,” murmured Dean. “Come on now — out with it all!”

“That’s easy,” replied Hester, happily. “I’ve been aching to tell you for months, but didn’t dare. First of all, Jim dear, you must know that I used to be a trained nurse, but for the last two years have been a detective. This Doctor Rudah, who was once a well-known surgeon and psychologist, had been suspected for some time of causing the disappearance of several poor chaps, hangers-on of the park. Because of my medical knowledge, I was put on the case, and managed to get a job as his assistant. I soon found out what was wrong.”

“Why, he’s crazy, isn’t he?” interrupted Dean. “Plain nutty!”

“Yes — nutty, but not plain! He was insane without a doubt, but so shrewd and apparently normal that I could never catch him with any damning proof. He told me that all these bodies he operated on were unidentified suicides and that sort. Perhaps you saw the hole in that poor fellow’s head over there.”

“That’s what I was looking at when he choked me.”

“Well, his particular style of mania connected itself with blue eyes. That’s why I was so afraid for you. Did you ever bear the theory that blue eyes indicate intellectuality, as opposed to dark eyes, which signify emotional temperament?”

“Sure — something like that.”

“There’s some truth in it. Well, when Rudah went mad, he was a brain specialist. In his craze he believed that blue eyes meant a greater weight of brain and complexity of gray matter — both of which are held to indicate great brain power. The bluer the eye, the greater the weight of brain — and of fascination for him. That’s why he was so pleased with you. And because he wanted the head to examine, he always shot his victims through the heart!”

“I see.” Dean grinned. “That’s the reason you hollered at me not to move. I thought you were batty. Still, I don’t see why I wasn’t — “

“This is the reason.” Hester picked up a thick flatiron without a handle, from a table. “Knowing his methods, when I found you bound here in the darkness, I stuffed this in your shirt pocket over your heart. I knew he was a crack shot, and anyway, Jim, I had to do something quick, and that was the best I could think of.”

“It did the business, sweetheart.” His arm slid around her. “But even now I am ignorant as to the most important bit of the mystery. What is your honest, un-detective name — the name I can kiss you by?”

“Why, Jim, you knew that long ago.” Brown eyes fled from blue, and a head of dark hair snuggled into his shoulder. “It’s Hester — Hester Dean!”