Mr. J. C. Bingler picked up the death mask, his flesh creeping a bit at the coolness of the wax. He coughed sheepishly, glanced guiltily toward the bathroom.
He examined the mask, his roily mind trying to make sense out of the things that had happened to him in the past hour. He was not in the best of condition for coherent thinking, but gradually his blood pressure eased, and his bookkeeper’s mind began grasping the fringes of the mystery.
He knew that a murder was to be committed that evening or night; who the victim was to be had been clearly stated by the villain in the restaurant booth.
The thought brought a cold sweat to Mr. Bingler. Maybe the villain was a sadistic monster who kept a visual record of his victims?
Mr. Bingler laughed shakily, forced the thought from his mind. He stuffed several peppermints into his mouth. The simple explanation did not make sense, even to him.
But what was the meaning and purpose of the smiling death mask?
Mr. Bingler acted.
He shoved a chair into the closet, lifted the bulky envelope from the dim recess of the high shelf. He returned to the bed, emptied the contents of the envelope onto the clean spread.
He beamed a bit in pride at the tangible portions of the Home Detective Course, and he was suddenly no more the humble bookkeeper the world knew, but Mr. J. C. Bingler, First Class Detective.
He ratcheted the slightly rusty handcuffs with gentle fingers, ruefully considering the fact that never had they closed on the frantic wrists of a public enemy. He fondled the fountain-pen tear-gas gun for a moment, practiced whipping it from an imaginary pocket at an imaginary villain.
At last, satisfied that his reflexes and timing were good, he laid the pen aside, fumbled among the dog-eared booklets until he found one of a bilious blue.
Settling himself on the bed, the death mask smiling sardonically in his intent face, he flipped thin pages with a wetted forefinger.
“Masks,” he read aloud from a sub-chapter, “have but one purpose in crime; they are used to shield the identities of criminals perpetrating a crime.”
Mr. Bingler clucked in disappointment; for it was only too obvious that his type of mask was not the style preferred by gun-wielding crooks.
He flipped through the pages of the booklet, reading a snatch of print here and there. And as the seconds passed, shocked incredulity mirrored itself on Mr. Bingler’s rabbity features.
It couldn’t be! Such a thing was impossible! And yet the fact spoke for itself. There was absolutely nothing in his cherished Home-Detective Course to beacon-light his way to a clear understanding of why a master-villain should possess a death mask!
Mr. Bingler lit and puffed savagely at his seventh cigarette of the day, utterly reckless of the effect of too much nicotine on his heart.
He shook his head slowly, began the distasteful task of dressing. He admitted, discouragedly, to himself that he was licked. For if the Home Detective Course could not explain a death mask — then there was no explanation for it in criminal tactics.
Mr., Bingler scowled truculently into the mirror, went slowly to the closet. He removed his Sunday suit, tossed it carelessly on the bed, covering the booklets and paraphernalia. There was a bitter twist to his mouth, because of the disillusionment that filled his mind.
Then he brightened a bit. Anyway, even without the mask, he still had a mystery that was just begging to be solved. He would trot down to the police station, tell Captain Donovan of the conversation he had overheard, and watch the ponderous machinery of the Law bring the would-be murderers to Justice.
It was a very satisfying thought.
He knotted his string tie around his celluloid collar, went slowly toward the hall door, at the muffled burr of the buzzer.
“Yes?” he said inquiringly, poked his head through the door crack.
The hall light was out, and his myopic gaze could make nothing of the indistinct features of the man whose finger still pressed the buzzer.
“Mr. Bingler?” a muffled voice asked casually.
“I’m Mr. Bingler.” Mr. Bingler agreed. “What can I do …”
The roof collapsed without warning onto Mr. Bingler’s small and inadequately haired head. He passed out without a sound.
* * * * *
Mr. Bingler tried to run from the six-headed monster that was snuffling ferociously at his heels, but strain as he might, he could not lift his rooted feet out of their tracks. He tried to yell, and his voice came out in a tenuous whisper that hung in the air before his face. He groaned in terror, and the sound brought him back to consciousness.
He was lying on the divan, a wet towel tucked carefully around his aching head. He groaned again, lifted himself to a sitting position, wincing at the stab of pain that skidded around the inside of his skull.
“Oh, dear!” he said miserably.
· END OF PART 3 ·
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