murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

Deuces Dealt for Death


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Est. Read Time: 24 mins

Slitting the throat of the fourth of Clinsey's quartet quarry should be as easy as falling off a log, that vengeance stayer figured. But Clinsey should have known that when success goes to a kilter's head, it may be even easier for him to fall from a gallows first.




So old Joe Marmaduke was blind! Clinsey smiled grimly. Ten years he’d waited for Marmaduke to die, but this was better. Now the old man would soon know the black knife had struck again.

Clinsey eased his foot off the gas, letting the red coupé drift to a stop in front of the Lake City post office. He slipped his fit lie body from under the wheel, stretched, smoothed the wrinkles from his clothing, looked around.

Here he was again, for the fourth and final time, to strike the last blow for Happy Charley. He. whom they called the Black Butcher, three times a killer in their midst, the phantom who had faded away leaving three black knives in three white throats, back again!

He could not forego a twinge of apprehension as he recalled his last visit here, when he had struck down the gambler, Simon LeFrage. They had nearly trapped him then. One of them had seen his face — old Joe Marmaduke. But now he was safe, for the old man — the only person in the world who could identify him as the Black Butcher — was blind.

With Marmaduke blind Clinsey could operate freely, safe to wait a right opportunity for leaving black knife number four in Saul Dickson’s throat.

“I’m living at the local hotel,” Clinsey told the postmaster, “but I’d like to rent a private postbox.”

The postmaster produced a postbox rental contract, asked Clinsey his name.

“Percy Clinsey. Occupation, engineer. I’m employed by the Browne Construction Company who is doing the highway resurfacing just north of town.”

Clinsey was telling the truth. He was an engineer, though he hadn’t followed the profession for years. He was employed by the Browne Construction Company on the highway project. He’d entered the company’s employment that morning, and was to begin active work a week hence when the regular engineer was to enter military service.

The postmaster said, “First class outfit, the Browne Company. Saul Dickson knows how to manage an outfit like that, but he’s been at it for twenty years. Long enough to learn the ropes, eh?”

“I met Mr. Dickson only yesterday,” said Clinsey, “but he impressed me as being an able construction man.”

“None better in this man’s country,” complimented the postmaster. “Everybody thought he went a little too far when he accused Happy Charley Tage of murdering Henry Browne, but it turned out Dickson knew what he was doing. Happy Charley was guilty, all right enough.” He assigned Clinsey a box number, handing him a slip of paper containing the box combination.

“I’m a stranger to this state,” lied Clinsey. “I never heard of Happy Charley Tage and Henry Browne. Did this murder occur recently?”

“Nope,” said the postmaster. “It happened ten years ago. The story’s too old for telling.”

“Not if it’s a good one,” said Clinsey, his tone slightly urgent.

“A good one? Well, I guess’ it’s a good one, if you mean by that, is it interesting? The three leading citizens of this town had their throats cut in the space of three nights, because they had testified in court against Happy Charley Tage. Judge Henry Brebaker, Ralph Kuttering, a wealthy merchant, and Simon LeFrage, a broker, all murdered in their homes in the dead of night. Dickson was to be the fourth victim, but I guess marrying Lona Tage, Happy Charley’s widow, saved him. But Lona died last month. Now there’s nothing to stand in the way of the Black Butcher, and — ”

“The who?” questioned Clinsey.

“The Black Butcher,” said the postmaster, his eyes widening in surprise that Clinsey should ask such a question. “But, of course, you’re a stranger here. . He shook his head gravely. “We called him the Black Butcher because be used a black butcher knife in each of his murders. Nobody ever learned his true name. But old Joe Marmaduke saw his face.”

His eyes, troubled and tinged with fear, held Clinsey’s a moment. “They .say the Black Butcher will return for Dickson, now that Lona is dead and Joe Marmaduke is blind and can’t identify him.”

Clinsey laughed lightly. “Nonsense,” he said. “The Black Butcher, as you call him, is probably dead or in prison by now.”

The postmaster shook his head doubtfully. “I guess he’s still alive and loose, all right,” he said. “He wouldn’t return as long as Lona lived and Marmaduke could see, because he isn’t truly a killer. An ordinary killer would have returned long ago, killed the man who could identify him, ignoring the woman who had been the wife of his dead friend, then waited his chance to cut Dickson’s throat. But the Black Butcher wants only the Wood of four men — Brebaker’s, Kuttering’s, LeFrage’s, and Dickson’s. And he’ll have Dickson’s yet. You mark it well, he’ll slit Dickson’s throat from ear to ear, like the other three.”

“I hope it doesn’t happen soon,” Clinsey said lightly. “I’m to go to work for Dickson, you know. He promises to be a mighty swell boss.”



Clinsey was in his room at the hotel sitting at a desk writing letters when somebody rapped.

“Come in,” he said, watching the door.

The man who entered was one of the most comical looking persons Clinsey had ever seen. He was small, thinnish, duck-legged, skinny-necked, with a large head that was completely bald. He was smiling a smile that split his face wide open. It was a merry smile, warm and clean.

“Hello,” he said. “My name is Baldy Clark.” He suddenly produced a package of gum from his coat pocket and held it toward Clinsey.

“Have some,” he said easily, abandoning his entire face to the smile. He winked at Clinsey. “The stuff’s tough to get now. It ought to be. The guy that does the scrapping ought to have first right to do the chewing.”

Clinsey took a stick of gum, bent it into a perfect roll and put it in his mouth. “Thank you,” he said amiably. “May I be of some service to you, Mr. Clark? Won’t you sit down?”

“No time for sitting down now,” said Clark. He continued to smile. Besides being one of the most comical persons he’d ever seen, Clinsey thought him the most friendly. “I just dropped in to welcome you to Lake City,” Clark went on. “You see, I’m chief of police around here, and for years it’s been customary for me to welcome newcomers. The town council chose me as a — a welcoming committee of one, sort of.”

Clark’s smile narrowed as he became a little self-conscious. “I was at the post office awhile ago and heard you talking with the postmaster. I — well, I hope you give the Browne Construction Company all you’ve got in the way of engineering ability, and find it pleasant and convenient to remain with us for a long, long time to come.” Clark showed relief at having delivered his little speech. It was evident that he smiled better than he talked.

“Well, thank you!” said Clinsey. “You mean you make it a practice to welcome all strangers in this manner?”

“I don’t give them all gum,” said Clark. “Some I give cigars. I give handkerchiefs and candy to the ladies. I gave you the gum because the hotel clerk said you used it.”

“I’m very fond of gum,” admitted Clinsey, smiling lightly, showing interest and amusement.

“Glad to give you some then.” Clark was still embarrassed from the effects of what to him had been a long speech and showed signs of wanting to get away.

“Well, make yourself at home in Lake City, Mr. — what was the name?” His smile quit suddenly; and it was as if he lifted a false face. Minus the smile his face was solid and a bit bleak, his eyes steady and sad. The smile was absent only a moment, but in that moment Clinsey saw many things. One of them was danger.

“My name is Percy Clinsey,” he said coolly.

“Well, welcome to our metropolis,” said Clark. The smile was working full time again, the eyes as roguish as an Irish barber’s. “Now I’ll be letting you alone with your correspondence, Mr. Clinsey,” he said. “Good night.”

“Cute fellow,” Clinsey told himself, making an effort to return to his letter writing. But it was no use. In a minute he gave it up, rose and began pacing the floor. “That fellow Clark is too smart,” he muttered. After about ten minutes he put on his coat and hat and went out,

He passed Clark in the lobby, nodding to him. Clark said, “Finished with your letter writing so soon, Mr. Clinsey ? Making them short but sweet, eh ? Well, that’s a good method. Many a man has been hanged for writing too much,”

Clark, Clinsey decided, was going to prove troublesome. As he walked through the town, enjoying the coolness of the night after what had been a remarkably hot day for early summer, Clinsey decided to make quick work of Dickson and get out of town.

When Baldy Clark wasn’t smiling there was something annoyingly familiar about his face.



Somebody had moved Clinsey’s letters. He knew how he’d left them because he always left them precisely the same way, stacked neatly, edges even, with the four corners pointing north, south, east and west. It was an old method of his, and now the letters on his desk were out of position. He shrugged lightly.

Oh, well, nothing there, nothing anywhere. He didn’t leave clues. But he must be on his guard. For some reason, and it worried him not to know why, he was under suspicion.

Before going to sleep Clinsey repledged himself to the destruction of Saul Dickson.

“A little longer wait, then you can rest in peace, Charley,” Clinsey said. “I’m back now, near Dickson. The last knife is still sharp.”

That night Clinsey dreamed that he was cornered, trapped, and that a number of men, swinging clubs, was closing in on him. Leading them was old Joe Marmaduke, not blind at all, pointing a gnarled finger at him, saying, “His is the face! He is the Black Butcher!”

The next day Clinsey spent in his room reading. He went out for lunch and called at the post office for his mail. Renting a box and calling for mail was a sham. He had used it before to create amongst townspeople the feeling that he considered himself a permanent resident.

To his surprise there was a letter in his post box. He worked the combination quickly, without consulting the slip of paper the postmaster had given him with directions for working the box lock. The letter was from the postmaster, telling him when his box rent would be due, stating the fee for a year’s rental.

He met Baldy Clark as he left the post office. The chief of police was smiling, his eyes merry. Clinsey had the thought that if Clark was taller and a little more stoutish he’d make a first rate department store Santa Claus come Christmas.

“Hello, Mr. Clinsey,” Clark said. “Did you have a good night’s rest?”

“Very good,” said Clinsey stiffly.

“Glad to hear it,” said Clark. “There’s an old superstition, you know, concerning first night in a strange bed. All dreams are supposed to come true. I hope you had nice dreams, Mr. Clinsey.” lie laughed gaily and passed inside the post office.

Clinsey’s heart missed a beat as he recalled his dream of the past night. He, in a corner … old Joe Marmaduke putting the finger on him … naming him the Black Butcher …

That evening after a light meal Clinsey took a short walk, directing his steps toward the little house where Joe Marmaduke lived alone. He slowed down as he walked past the unshuttered windows. He could see into the room. There, beneath a reading lamp, a book opened on his knees, sat Marmaduke. Clinsey stood staring into the room for. a long minute before he noticed how Marmaduke was tracing the pages with his finger.

“Braille!” whispered Clinsey, relieved. For a minute he’d believed the newspaper account of Marmaduke’s blindness was faked, a lie told in public print for the eyes of the Black Butcher, bait to bring the murderer to the hook.

But Marmaduke was certainly blind. His lingers moving back and forth across the Braille proved it. Clinsey walked on, easier in his mind. Two blocks away Baldy Clark suddenly stepped out of a dark alley in front of him.

“Nice evening, isn’t it, Mr. Clinsey?” he said, smiling broadly.

“Yes, so it is,” agreed Clinsey, hiding as best he could his surprise at seeing Clark.

Clark walked back to the hotel with him. As they parted in the lobby Clinsey was convinced of one thing. He was beginning to be afraid of Clark. This living replica of something out of a comic valentine was smart and dangerous. There was a smug sureness about him that fought to undermine one’s self-confidence.



For over an hour Clinsey sat in his room without turning on the lights, trying to recall his every act since his arrival in Lake City. Had he made a slip somewhere? Had any of his actions been such as to arouse suspicion? Since Joe Marmaduke’s blindness and Lona Dickson’s death the town was Black Butcher conscious. Everyone was talking about the ten year old murders, speculating on the possibility of the killer’s return.

Clinsey didn’t like the prevailing atmosphere. Still, if he worked wisely, it was the very atmosphere to be desired. The people were expecting an attempt to be made on Dickson’s life. All right, give them what they expected at the time they expected it, and it would come as a complete surprise. He’d always had most success when he applied the principles of this reasoning, besides he couldn’t afford to stay idle too long. Nerves would stand only so much, even the nerves of the Black Butcher.

He paced back and forth in the dark, his pulse quickening as he traced every step in his plan for cutting Saul Dickson’s throat. Somewhere in the outside stillness he heard, a clock strike midnight. He stopped pacing, broke open a fresh pack of gum, bent a stick of it into a roil and put it between his teeth. While he massaged it, letting its delicate sweetness flood his mouth, his hand – drew the black butcher knife from the sheath at his armpit. He let his thumb move lightly down its blade, sensing the razorlike keenness of the cutting edge, examining the needlelike sharpness of the point.

“Tomorrow night, then,” he whispered as if speaking to somebody. “Dickson, I’ll get you this time!”

Standing in the darkness his thoughts went back to those last few minutes in the death cell during his last visit with Happy Charley. His words were strong in his memory. “I’ll never rest, Charley, until I get the last one of them — Brebaker, Kuttering, LeFrage, and Dickson. Four for one, Charley, and you worth a million of them!”

Happy Charley’s words came back to him, “Get them for me, fellow. The dirty rats! Cut their virtuous throats for them. While you’re doing it, I’ll be with you, in spirit. I’ll never let you down.”

Clinsey smiled grimly. Well, the blood hunt was about over. Just one of them left, Saul Dickson, businesslike, matter-of-fact, so deeply engrossed in constructing a turnpike that he would not be thinking of death, not until the black knife was at his throat.

The postmaster had said that Charley Tage was guilty. And so they all said, and so he had been. But Brebaker, Kuttering, LeFrage. and Dickson had been equally guilty. They’d all bargained to cut the cards. If any other of them had cut low and gone out and shot down their common enemy, the man who was set to expose their criminal work in doctored concrete, would the others have squealed? Not by a long shot they wouldn’t have. The deal had been fixed; the deck had been a deck of deuces.

He knew, didn’t he? Happy Charley had stayed free long enough to get possession of the deck. He’d broken into Judge Brebaker’s house and taken it from Brebaker’s desk. If they’d been smart they’d have destroyed that deck. But they’d felt safe, thinking that Happy Charley was alone, a man without friends. Well, so far, three of them knew better than that. Clinsey turned on the light and took the deck of deuces from a secret pocket inside his coat. He riffled the deck, ran out the cards one by one, letting them fall on the writing desk. Three of the deuces were marked with the three names, Brebaker, Kuttering, LeFrage.

He was returning the deck to his coat when somebody rapped on his door. He gritted his teeth, glancing at the clock. It was after midnight. Who?

“Come in,” he said lightly.

Baldy Clark entered, smiling cheerily. “Hello, Mr. Clinsey,” he said. “I saw your light come on and thought maybe you were lonesome. Thought maybe you’d like a little game of cards ?”

“Do you ever sleep?” asked Clinsey.

“Yes, when things are noisy. When things are quiet I stay awake. Noise is safe; silence is dangerous.” He stopped smiling for a moment, his face going solid. His merry eyes hardened, and a haggard look stuck in them.

Clark’s face without its smile was amazingly familiar to Clinsey. He’d known a face like it somewhere.

“Well,” said Clark, “how about the little game? Will it be casino or rummy?”

“Casino,” said Clinsey.

They sat down at the writing desk. Clark produced a deck from his coat pocket, handed it to Clinsey for the deal. Clinsey shuffled the cards quickly, began flicking them off the deck with his thumbnail. It was not an economical way to deal, because after so long it scarred the cards, his thumbnail cutting little ridges in the end edges.

They played for three hours, winning an even number of games. Finally Clark took his leave, saying that traffic was beginning to move in the streets again, which cured his insomnia. Clinsey invited him back for another game sometime.

Clinsey slept until noon the next day. When he awoke it was raining. A grim satisfaction welled within him. The nights the other three had died it was raining.

After breakfast he went to the post office for his mail. There was no mail for him, but he met Saul Dickson outside the post office.

Dickson greeted him warmly. “There are some details concerning the work you are to do that need discussing, Mr. Clinsey,” he said. “The engineer is leaving day after tomorrow. We three should get together and talk things over before that time.”

Clinsey nodded, “How about tonight? I’m free anytime.”

“Tonight will do nicely,” said Dickson. “Suppose you come to my apartment at nine. Willets, the engineer, will be there. We’ll cover all aspects of your work. Willets will give you all the necessary information.”

“Very well. Expect me at nine,” Clinsey said.



At a few minutes of seven, after eating a light meal, Clinsey went to the garage and drove out the red coupe. The suitcases he’d taken to his hotel room were fakes, packed with bundles of waste paper. His clothing had never been removed from the turtleback trunk of his car. He drove into the country a short distance, driving slowly to conserve gasoline and pass the time. He was ringing Dickson’s doorbell at nine sharp.

Two and a half hours were taken up with Willets explaining details of the work, then the engineer took his leave. Dickson and Clinsey were alone in the apartment. Dickson brought out a bottle of old wine and two glasses. He poured Clinsey a drink, then himself one. Outside the little town grew quiet as its citizens went off to bed. At midnight Clinsey rose as if to take his leave. Dickson went with him as far as the reception hall.

“I’m alone here most of the time, Mr. Clinsey,” Dickson said. “Any evening you feel like stopping in for a visit, do so.”

“Thank you,” said Clinsey. He was thinking of Baldy Clark then, glad that it was raining. The wet weather would probably keep Clark off the prowl. He reached for the doorknob, then turned quickly to face Dickson. A snub-nosed automatic was in his hand, its snout leveled at Dickson’s face,

Dickson paled, his mouth sagged. “Why, Mr. Clinsey, I — ”

Clinsey’s face was changing to an evil thing. Sight of its transformation clogged the words in Dickson’s throat.

“We’re going to have a little game of cards, Dickson,” Clinsey said. The deck of deuces was in his left hand. “You’re to have the honor of first cut, low man loses. Loses his life, Dickson!”

Dickson stared at the cards, his face paper white. He made no effort to speak.

“You stood the expense of arranging this deck, Dickson,” Clinsey said. “You bought thirteen packs to get fifty-two deuces, because you and your slimy friends couldn’t take a chance on anybody else having to kill Henry Browne, president of the Browne Construction Company, except Happy Charley Tage.”

Dickson said nothing, but his lips began trembling as if he wanted to speak. He looked Clinsey straight in the eyes, stark fear filling his own.

“Browne found out about the rotten concrete you and the directors, Brebaker, Kuttering, and LeFrage, meant to put into the university job. He knew it was loaded with sand. He knew if it went into the university stadium that someday it would crumble, mash out maybe thousands of lives. So you brought in your greenhorn engineer, a boy named Charley Tage, who wasn’t too nice to turn a crooked dollar, and who had more guts than brains. You five cut cards, low man to kill President Browne.”

Clinsey paused to lick his drying lips. He was smiling grimly. “So you fixed a deck of deuces. LeFrage thought of it. You prepared the deck. Then you four rats extended Happy Charley the honor of first cut. After he turned up a deuce, what need was there for anybody else to cut for a lower card ? Then when Happy Charley killed Browne you four double-crossers thought him too dangerous to your safety to be left alive. So you framed him, and the state hanged him.

Clinsey drew a quick breath, licked his lips again. He was holding out the deck of deuces toward Dickson, inching them closer and closer.

“But you slipped up twice, you four wise men! Once when you didn’t destroy this deck. Again when you figured Happy Charley to be a man without friends. Because I was Happy Charley’s friend. We went to the same engineering school together. We were like brothers.”

For a moment Clinsey’s eyes clouded over, then a fiendish expression struck in them.

“Cut, you coward!” he said. “Cut a deuce, you dog! And take what has been coming to you for ten years. Your pretty lies won Happy Charley’s widow for you, but you don’t have her to shield you now. Cut, Dickson, and lose your life!” Words came from Dickson at last. He whispered, “You are the Black Butcher. I thought Clark was — ”

Clinsey pushed the cards close, touching Dickson’s chest with them. “Cut. Dickson!” he hissed.

But Dickson didn’t touch them. He went into lightning action, smashing out with his right fist.

He missed Clinsey’s chin, but crashed his shoulder. The gun flew from the Black Butcher’s hand. The cards went scattering. Dickson smashed out again and missed. Clinsey caught him with a well-aimed right, his knuckles crunching the jawbone. Dickson’s eyes blanked.

In a flash Clinsey was on him, the black butcher knife in his hand.

“Wait a minute, Mr. Clinsey!” said Baldy Clark from the hall door. “Wait! Drop that knife or I’ll have to blow your brains out!” He was smiling his cherubic smile, his eyes sparkling merrily.



Clinsey dropped the knife and stood up from Dickson’s prone body, glancing at the police positive in Clark’s right hand — a hand that was solid and businesslike.

“You do get around, don’t you, Mr. Clark?” he said.

“Everything was too quiet. I couldn’t sleep,” said Clark.

Clinsey was tense, alert, as he said, “For the fool you look, you’re quite an efficient policeman.”

“Not so efficient as you might think,” said Clark. “I’ve been almost nine years working to find out what you just told me in a couple of minutes. I knew all along Charley Tage didn’t work solo in the Browne killing, but I couldn’t prove a thing. Now with what you just told me the county prosecuting attorney and I will hang Dickson.”

“Hang — Dickson?” Clinsey wasn’t believing what he heard. He stared his doubt at Clark.

“That’s what I said. What do yon think I came to this town for — my health? Listen, Clinsey, I’ve got the sweetest little private sleuthing business built up in Kansas City you ever heard of. I came here and worked like sixty to get to be a policeman just for one reason. Happy Charley Tage was my brother.” The smile left Clark’s face. For a minute it was sad and a little tired.

“You — Happy Charley’s brother!” Clinsey was surprised, but he knew now that something familiar about Clark’s face when he wasn’t smiling.

“I knew you were the Black Butcher the minute I saw you at the post office opening your box so easily,” said Clark, the smile returning to lighten his face,

“How?” Then he had slipped up … then there had been direction behind Clark’s annoying interferences …

“The postmaster rented you Mr. Kuttering’s old box. He didn’t notice doing it, but I took account of it. The first time you worked its combination, you did it without a hitch, just like you’d worked it a hundred times. And you had, remember? When you were over here before, collecting the dope on Dickson and his friends, you used to rifle Kuttering’s post box? It was in the records that you did, anyway.”

Clinsey nodded. Yes, he had learned the combination of Kuttering’s box ten years ago. But —

Clark answered his puzzled frown. “They’ve made some changes in the furniture down at the post office. The tiers of boxes have been moved. That’s why you didn’t recognize the box as the one Kuttering used to rent.” Clark’s smile broadened as he continued, “Then the way you roll your gum before chewing it. A roll of gum like that was found near Brebaker’s corpse. It’s in the records.” “That’s why you gave me gum as a token of welcome?” asked Clinsey.

“Yes. I wanted to see what you’d do with it. I let you ruin a deck of cards for me for the same reason.”

“Ruin a deck of cards for you?”

“Yes. You have an ugly way of scarring the ends of cards when you deal. You’ve no doubt noticed yourself doing it. You do it with your thumbnail — like the Black Butcher did with the deck the night he played cards with Simon LeFrage before killing him.”

“You’re smart, Clark,” admitted Clinsey. “But having the same blood in your veins as Happy Charley you’d have to be. So, I hate to — ” He flung himself at Clark, ducking under the gun, butting his head into thd3 police chief’s chest. Clark went down.

Clinsey was on him like a tiger, tearing the gun from his hand. “I can’t kill you — not Happy Charley’s brother, but — ” He picked up the black butcher knife, keeping Clark covered with the police positive. “You can see a demonstration of how I — ”

Suddenly Dickson rolled over, snatched a gun from his coat pocket, and shot Clinsey in the back of the head. It was evident by his ability to act so quickly and accurately that he had been playing possum. He swung the snout of the gun, still smoking, in line with Clark’s heart “I’m going to kill you, you little meddler,” he said hoarsely.

Clinsey used the last of his ebbing strength to kick the gun from Dickson’s hand just as it went off. In the next instant, Clark leaped forward and his fist crashed Dickson’s face. The construction boss went out for the second time.

Clark used the telephone on the hallstand to summon, a doctor, but Clinsey died before the medico arrived. He died in the arms of Happy Charley’s brother, Clark “Baldy” Tage, Kansas City detective.

His last words were said with a smile, “You’ve got plenty of evidence to hang Saul Dickson, Clark, and I know you will.” Then, weakly, “You’re smart, Baldy. But not as smart as your brother, Happy Charley. The difference is you’re honest-smart, and that’s not being just smart. That’s being truly wise.”