An Adventure of the Phantom Sleuth

The Weatherby Theatre was once a bastion of cultural entertainment. Some of the greatest actors had graced its stage; some of the finest conductors had commanded concerts in its great hall. How saddening it was to some of the upper-crust citizens that the Weatherby had fallen on such hard times that it now hosted what they discounted as low-class fare. They rode past in chauffeured limousines and raised their noses at the marquee, which boasted the current show: The Spuldor Follies.

But the common man and woman of Stockport flocked to the Weatherby, anxious to see Emile Spuldor’s talented vaudevillians. Patrons gasped with pleasant surprise, laughed and joked, and pointed out to their children the collection of posters depicting the featured acts.

The haunting voice of Marybell Miller! The jazz music of Benjamin Bland and his Bugle Band! The amusing antics of Jack Mulligan’s Trained Dogs! The sensational tumbling team of the Spinelli Brothers! The dancing duo called the Hot Steppers! Yes, Emile Spuldor boasted all of these acts and more, for he knew how to draw a crowd. Still, he would gladly have given up half of their contracts to keep his star attraction: Maldrake the Magician.

Patrons crowded the lobby, eager to secure seats in the great hall. Off to one side, loitering in the shadows of the telephone booths, a lone man stood watching. The collar of his grey trench coat was turned up, and the wide brim of his hat was pulled conspicuously down, effectively covering his face so well that one couldn’t see the cloth mask that surrounded his eyes. The Phantom Sleuth found the patron he was looking for, caught the man’s eye, and gave the signal by running his fingers along the brim of his hat. Without awaiting any response, the Sleuth slipped into the end booth and waited.

He raised the receiver to his ear and fished a nickel from his pocket even as his accomplice entered the booth at the other end of the row. The Sleuth did not hesitate to insert the coin and dial the number of the booth his cohort occupied.

The first ring was cut prematurely short. “Hello?”

“Hello, Byron.”

“Hello,” said the voice on the phone. “So, you’re here. I take it you intend to lurk about and try to prove your little theory?”

“But, of course,” the Sleuth coolly replied. “You heard what Jane said about the case her father was working on. Eye witnesses gave a very good description of the thief who looted Lattimore’s Jewels.”

The voice on the phone sighed. “Maldrake the Magician,” it said in a defeated tone. “Yes, but I was lurking backstage during last week’s performance and he never left the stage. You saw that for yourself, you were sitting right there, in the third row. Even Commissioner Wayland has dropped the theory.”

“Oh, come now, Byron,” the Sleuth gloated, “Jane’s father has no imagination, but surely you can see how it’s done? It’s actually a common magician’s trick, as I understand.”

“What is?”

The Sleuth sighed. “Isn’t it obvious? Maldrake is actually a pair of identical twins, just as we are. While one of them is onstage, before an audience of witnesses who can confirm his alibi, the twin breaks into nearby jewelry stores. And Jamison’s Fine Jewels is just across the street…”

“No, I don’t like it, Brian!” growled the voice on the phone. “I’ve heard your theory before, and it just doesn’t feel right!”

The Sleuth chuckled. “Perhaps it will feel different to you after I’ve caught him tonight. When does his act go on?”

“Er, let me check the program…He’s the finale, just like last time.” There was a heartbeat of thoughtful silence. “You’re going to regret it when you find you’re wrong.”

“No,” the Sleuth replied, “I’m only going to regret that I won’t see Jane’s face when Benjamin Bland plays. She does so enjoy his music. When is he on?”

“Er,” the voice paused, “Right after Wotan the Mesmerist. He’s the last act before the intermission.”

The Sleuth grunted in moody acknowledgement.

“I could trade places with you,” Byron said at last. “Just leave the hat, the coat, and the mask. You can spend the evening with her.”

“No, that wouldn’t be fair to you,” the Sleuth said into the receiver, filtering all the pain out of his tone. “When we started this, we agreed to alternate.” He didn’t mention how it stung when Jane called him by his brother’s name. The Sleuth blanched slightly at the thought, and for a moment regretted that Brian Twain was legally dead. “Well,” he said at last, “You’d best get back to Jane, and I’d best find an inconspicuous spot backstage…” After their short goodbyes, the Phantom Sleuth skulked out of the telephone booth.

The Phantom Sleuth stood in the wings, in a place where deep shadows pooled thanks to the configuration of the stage lights. He was all but invisible there, and he watched the performers with sharp, predatory eyes. Emile Spuldor took the stage first, with his trade-marked air of self-importance. With heaping amounts of pomp and formality, he bade his audience welcome and offered his show to them, “for your discerning enjoyment.”

The show began in earnest when Marybell Miller took the stage and belted out her impressive rendition of This Time It’s Real. Jugglers, comedians, dancing girls, and a steady stream of other performers paraded on and off of the stage. The only one who acknowledged the presence of the Phantom Sleuth was Spot, one of Jack Mulligan’s star beagles, who sniffed at him with idle curiosity.

The Sleuth watched them all with wary eyes, wondering how many of them might be some accomplice of the magician and his secret twin. He paid little heed to the performances themselves, and scarcely noticed the impressive dancing of the Hot Steppers or the seemingly supernatural tricks of Wotan the Mesmerist and his turbaned black assistant.

Then the bald, bespectacled mesmerist took his final bow to the disturbed but fascinated applause of the audience, and quit the stage. Once in the wings, Wotan’s smile was replaced with a scowl, and he strode purposefully past the Sleuth even as Benjamin Bland and his musicians took the stage and erupted with their signature number, Bourbon Street Boogie.

With small reluctance, the Sleuth crept out of his concealing shadows. With caution, he parted the curtains just enough to peer out at the audience. He scanned the congregation and soon found Jane Wayland. She moved to the music, almost dancing in her seat, and clapped along with an unconcealable smile brightening her pretty features.

The Sleuth allowed himself a brief, sad smile. But it instantly vanished from his face when she turned to Byron, who sat at her side, and kissed him on the cheek. At this heart-wrenching sight, the Sleuth closed the curtain once more, and left the wings of the stage to embark on his business in other parts of the theater.

He had just passed through a doorway into a rear hall, when he was instantly assailed by the bald mesmerist’s unhappy grumblings.

“I tell you, Emile, that I am a far superior conjuror than that knave, Maldrake!” he spat the words at the show’s host. “There is no illusion in his act which Umbota and I cannot perform! Better! And this is in addition to the mind-reading, the psychokinesis…”

Emile Spuldor held up one hand in a calming gesture which thus far had proved futile. “I told you quite plainly when you signed on with me, Cornell,” the owner announced with unveiled aplomb, “that I already had an existing contract with Maldrake, and was not in need of another magician! Fortunately, you had your mesmerism to fall back on…”

Mentalism!” the bald man growled. “I have told you time and again, I am a mentalist! Mentalism includes so much more than mere mesmerism!”

“And I have told you time and again that the public dislikes such a word!” Spuldor fired back. “The unlearned masses provide the bulk of our income, and they are ignorant of its meaning! The average audience-member thinks it is connected to diseases of the brain! Whilst mesmerism sounds more exotic…mysterious…forbidding!”

The bald man clenched his hands into futile fists and shook with fury. “I ask you one final time! Will you rid yourself of that…that rank amateur and give me his spot in the show?”

Spuldor drew back in surprise, his eyes widened. “I will do no such thing!”

Wotan grunted with unbridled frustration. “How can you stand by him with such loyalty? Him, who was sought out by the police for clumsy, tasteless crimes?”

The owner fixed him sharply with a frown. “You know as well as I that Maldrake committed no such crimes! The police declared the robberies were executed in the very minutes he was performing onstage!”

The bald man gritted his teeth, adjusted his thick glasses. “You mark my words, Emile,” he rasped, “By this time next week; Maldrake will not be a part of your show!” Then he spun on his heel and pushed his way down the hall, past dancing girls, tumblers, and whoever else happened to be in his way.

Spuldor watched him go and sniffed haughtily. “Well, one of you won’t, I daresay.”

The Phantom Sleuth took it all in with great interest, then blended into the crowd even as Spuldor barked a reminder that there was a show going on.

Complete story available in the print edition of Big Pulp Winter 2010



Timothy Sayell has been published in magazines such as Flashing Swords, Ray Gun Revival, and Abandoned Towers, where he also has a monthly serial and a review column.

For more of Timothy's work,
visit his Big Pulp author page


This feature and more great
fiction & poetry are available in
Big Pulp Winter 2010:
Ted Bundy's Beetle

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