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Robert Wallace

The Black Ball Of Death

A book in the Phantom Detective series, 2008

CHAPTER I

FATAL SLEEP

STEVE HUSTON, ace reporter for the Clarion, heard the Cadillac’s powerful engine choke and miss. Twice, on the way back from the newspaper convention in Baltimore, the car had acted up. Now, close to midnight, again it sounded as if about ready to stop entirely.

Frank Havens, wealthy owner of the Clarion and a string of coast-to coast newspapers, roused himself. His gray eyes turned in Steve’s direction. “Same thing?”

Huston, small, redheaded, and wiry, nodded. “I guess so. I’m no mechanic, but I’ve got a hunch the timing’s wrong, or the generator isn’t working.”

“Where are we?”

Steve glanced out of the open window beside him. The road they were on was some alternate route back to New York. Havens, who didn’t like traffic, had told him to take it. In the moonlight it stretched away between open farm fields, woods, and general desertion.

“We’re somewhere in lower Jersey.”

The motor caught, pulsing rhythmically, and Havens relaxed on the upholstered seat. But Steve wasn’t deceived. Twice since they bad left Baltimore the car had performed in that same manner.

Figuratively he kept his fingers crossed while he glanced at the electric clock on the dash.

In fifteen minutes it would be midnight. Havens wanted to get back to Manhattan in a hurry. The two-day convention in Maryland had kept him from his desk in the Clarion Building. Steve knew a terrific amount of work demanding his attention had piled up there.

Under the gas pedal his foot rested on, the reporter felt the power begin to drop off again. They were near a crossroad. In the moonlight he had, a glimpse of signposts, white against the dark. He coaxed the engine, which had begun to miss and sputter, as far as the intersection.

He stopped there, Frank Havens sitting erect again.

“I don’t think we’re going to make it,” Steve said. “It’s getting worse instead of better. We haven’t passed a garage or a gas station for miles.”

“What do the road signs say?” The publisher opened the glove compartment and took out the flashlight he always carried there.

Huston opened the door, stepped to the signs. He used the flash briefly.

“Lake Candle is three miles straight ahead. Morristown is thirty-eight, and Bear Hill is twenty-five.”

“Lake Candle?” Havens fingered his close-cropped gray mustache. “That sounds familiar.”

He seemed to ponder while the reporter gingerly tried the gas treadle to see what would happen. The engine. was still running, but only on two or three of its eight cylinders. He let it idle, waiting for further instructions from the man beside him.

“Of course!” Havens spoke suddenly. “Lake Candle – that’s where Matthew Arden has his lodge! I knew it had a familiar sound. I’ve been there several times. Arden is one of my oldest and best friends.”

Steve Huston nodded silently. The name rang a bell in his memory. Matthew Arden, he recalled, had once been an important person in the legislative affairs of the country. He had held several diplomatic posts before becoming Attorney General in an administration two decades ago.

While he was linking Matthew Arden’s name with the man’s background, Havens had an inspiration.

“We’ll try to make Lake Candle, Steve. If I remember correctly, Matt Arden spends a lot of time at the lodge at this time of the year. He may be there now. Even if he isn’t, there’ll be someone around who’ll telephone a garage, see that we get fixed up.”

Huston let the brake off and started again. The Cadillac rolled, protesting violently. The engine backfired and rattled, but the wheels went around. Limping along, they covered the distance at a pace that made three miles seem like a hundred.

Ahead, Steve caught the glimmer of a lake in the distance. A road to the left curved down to it. Havens supplied directions while Steve followed them, not sure which minute the big car would call it a night and quit cold.

Another road, going in between thick woods, crunched under their tires. For a quarter of a mile the Cadillac nosed along through walls of darkness. Frank Havens, peering through the windshield, said: “This is Arden’s private road. The lodge can’t be too far now.”

Another few minutes and Huston heard the crackle of gravel. They were on a driveway lined with high banks of rhododendron. What little moonlight sifted through the interlaced branches of the trees gave the reporter a glimpse of the slate roof and tall chimneys of a building set sharply to the left of them.

He stopped the car, cutting the motor with a turn of the key and a sigh of relief. Havens switched on the flash and got out.

“Let’s see what luck we have, Steve.”

Beside him, Huston skirted the rhododendrons. In the faint glow of the moon they gave the place a sort of funereal touch. Coupled with the dense tree growth and thick underbrush, they gave Arden’s lodge all the seclusion anyone could ask for. The trouble was, Steve told himself, a kind of melancholy gloom hung over the surroundings.

He could feel it settle over him like a pall. He didn’t know why but his nerves seemed to react oddly. Usually, nothing somber affected him in his reportorial career he had become accustomed to varied settings and situations, some of which were not conducive to mirth and cheer.

But this place, Steve told himself, did things to his imagination. Or maybe the strain of keeping the Cadillac alive had jarred his nerves to a tension that had left him tightened up to an unusual pitch. But whatever it was, the sprawl of the lightless building he and Havens faced when they penetrated the green shrubbery’s barrier, did nothing to ease his feelings.

It was a stoutly timbered, casement-windowed, two-storey affair. A terrace paralleled the south side, dropping away at its west end to allow a view of Lake Candle below the cliff on which the lodge had been built. Down there Steve saw a white boathouse, a dock jutting out into the water.

He moved his glance back to the lodge. Havens went briskly up the flagged walk that led to its beamed front door. The publisher used his flash to find the bell. He put his thumb over it; and, far inside, Steve heard its shrill, insistent ringing.

A MINUTE or more passed. No one came to open the door. Havens pressed the bell again. Still there was no reply. He reached for a heavy iron knocker. That awoke thunderous echoes, but failed to bring anyone to open the door.

With a shrug Havens stepped back from the broad, low step. “How are you at housebreaking, Steve?” he asked.

Huston stared. “I’ve never done any, but I’ve covered plenty of cases where it was accomplished. You mean – we’re going in?”

“Exactly. There’s nothing else to do. I’ll explain to Matt when I see him. How about the windows?”

“Casement, metal frames.” The reporter shook his head. “Too tough. I’ll look around and see if there is an easier way.”

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