Natural Unspoiled Modesty
Cleverly placed floodlights silhouetted the girl’s slim body through the filmy robe draped in graceful folds about her. Without the ultra modern bathroom background, she might have been some shy nymph poised beside a pool in a hidden forest glade.
“Hold it, now!” Reece said with quiet urgency from where he stood beside the big camera. He watched her tensely, conscious that the shutter release bulb was dangerously slippery in his hand. It was stiflingly hot in the studio, and Reece had already taken three shots of the girl, rearranging the lights and setting each time in the effort to be certain that he got one picture which would be exactly right.
Leila Nesbitt held the pose, though with an evidence of strain, fortunately concealed by the shadows, which showed that she had still to gain the statue-like immobility necessary in a professional photographer’s model. Reece hesitated a moment in the act of squeezing the shutter release bulb, looking at her. He felt the strange feeling of aching tightness well up into his throat. He’d taken pictures of scores of beautiful women, but be couldn’t recall having felt this way before. This was the first time any girl had ever been more than a common object of photographic composition, a mere problem in lights and shadows, and he was afraid. Afraid because what he felt was so new and rare he could not bear the thought of disappointment.
Reece swallowed hard and pressed the bulb. “That’s all,” he told Leila.
The girl slipped at once into the comparative darkness to one side of the softly floodlighted bathroom scene and began quickly to pull on a more substantial robe. Reece was careful not to watch her. He busied himself with the camera, sharply aware of the small rustling sounds she made.
He liked her shyness, her natural unspoiled modesty. It was this, even more than her refreshing vivacious beauty, which had attracted him, for it had set her apart from the women he knew. Photographer’s models usually become quite unconcerned and base after a time about displaying their physical charms, and in this respect Reece found Leila different. She was a newcomer to the modelling game. He had met her a little over a month before, a short time after she had arrived in the city, looking for work. Fascinated at once by the novelty of her reserve, Reece had hired her. And all too soon he had found himself thinking in terms of wedding rings and apartments for two.
“Do you think the pictures will turn out all right, Floyd?” Leila asked anxiously as Reece turned off the floodlights. She was barefooted, looking almost child-like in the long green robe. Her chestnut hair, the hue of polished mahogany, had been piled atop her small head for the picture, and now she began deftly to rearrange it, searching Reece’s face questioningly.
Reece flashed her a grin of reassurance. “Don’t worry, Leila. With you in them, the pictures are certain to be perfect.”
“I didn’t mean that,” Leila said quickly, her delicate features reddening. “I was thinking about Mr. Kendall. You know how important these pictures are to him.”
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Reece glanced at the girl sharply, feeling a sudden wrench of dismay. He wondered why she should be so concerned about Jerry Kendall. Could it be that she was interested in him? Reece went cold at the thought. He had not considered Kendall as a rival, but now the possibility came to him with the shock of an electric current.
He said slowly, “The pictures are important to me, too, Leila. Jerry Kendall and I are running this advertising agency on a partnership basis, with Jerry taking care of the business end while I handle the artwork. We’re both in the same boat. Naturally, I’m hoping the pictures turn out well. Getting that contract from the Dahlia Cosmetic Company would establish us among the big firms and bring in more business.”
Leila smiled ruefully. “You look too much like an artist, Floyd. I keep forgetting that you’re a businessman, too.”
Unintentionally, the girl had touched Reece in a sensitive spot. To hide the sudden bitterness which twisted his face, he turned quickly to a nearby table and picked up the photographic plates which he had just exposed. He resented his appearance—a resentment which had grown entirely out of his association with Kendall.
Short and thin and with a sedentary pallor, Reece was all too aware that he cut a poor figure beside Kendall, who was tall and athletic. He did not like to have the contrast referred to, no matter how indirectly, and coming from Leila, the hurt was especially keen.
“Are you going to develop the pictures yourself, Floyd?” Leila asked, indicating the plates.
Forcing an expression of calmness, Reece nodded. “This is a rush job, and with everything depending on the results. I wouldn’t care to trust any of the assistants with them.”
“I’m going to get dressed, then,” Leila said. She smiled at Reece and started toward the dressing room adjoining the studio.
“Oh, just a minute, Leila!” Reece called.
“Yes?” She turned back to him questioningly.
“I … I hope you won’t think I’m rushing matters, but I’d like to know if I could take you out again tonight.”
“I’m sorry, Floyd. Mr. Kendall has already asked me.”
Reece had an abruptly sick feeling. “Jerry? You … you’re going out with Jerry?”
Leila stared at Reece wonderingly. As though frightened by what she saw in his face, she turned quickly away.
For some seconds, Reece stood there as though in a daze. Finally he roused himself into motion, started leadenly toward the darkroom. He walked as though through the shards of broken hopes. He knew that there was no longer any hope for him, if Jerry Kendall were interested in Leila. His envy of Kendall suddenly became cold relentless hatred.
In the darkroom, going mechanically through the process of developing the plates, Reece found himself toying with the though of murder. If Kendall were out of the way, he would have a clear field where Leila was concerned. And the agency would belong to him entirely. Kendall had organized and advanced it to the point where Reece felt he could easily carry on.
But the stumbling block in Kendall’s elimination was how to do it safely. Reece knew he had to avoid suspicion not only from the police, but from Leila also. Especially from Leila, since the girl had already guessed his feelings. With vengeful determination, Reece began to ponder ways and means.
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Chocked Back Anger
Jerry Kendall was in his office, talking to Leila, when Reece entered with the finished prints. Kendall rose eagerly to his feet.
“How did the pictures turn out, Floyd?”
Reece had already decided on the attitude he would assume for the duration of his relations with Kendall—relations to be terminated as soon as a foolproof plan for murder presented itself. He would be completely friendly and ingratiating, as though nothing at all were going to happen. Now he grinned with an expression of exaggerated boasting and waved a hand of which the thumb and forefinger formed a circle, the remaining three fingers stiffly erect.
Kendall seized the pictures impatiently and spread them out on his desk. He and Leila scrutinized them with exclamations of delight.
“They’re great!” Kendall said. “You did a swell job, Floyd. As soon as the copy is ready, we’ll ship the layout to the Dahlia Cosmetics people. The pictures alone are sure to win us the contract?”
Sliding the pictures together, Kendall placed them carefully in his desk. “This calls for a celebration. Get your coat on, Floyd, and we’ll all go downstairs for a few drinks.”
“Right with you!”
Reece assented lightly. He was relieved to see Leila’s face clear up at his ready acceptance of the invitation. He knew she had dismissed as unimportant his chagrin earlier at the news that she was going out with Kendall. Soon she would forget about it entirely. Thus when Kendall died, she would have no reason to suspect Reece.
Slipping into his coat, Reece rejoined Leila and Kendall, and together they rode the elevator down to the combination restaurant and cocktail lounge on the main floor of the building. Kendall’s elation at the certainty of the deal with the cosmetic company filled him with small-boy mischief. He pointed at Reece teasingly.
“Look at that coat, Leila. Have you ever seen anything like it? Why, it’s stuffed more full of junk than a kid’s pockets. Floyd is a regular perambulating junk shop!”
Reece chuckled good-naturally, though inwardly he ached with rage. “Going through trash cans is an old habit of mine,” he returned easily. “I manage to pick up a few things here and there. Every little bit helps, business being the way it is.”
Kendall and Leila laughed appreciatively. Leila said, sobering:
“I’ve often noticed the way your pockets bulge, Floyd. Just what do you carry in them anyway?”
“Photographic equipment, mostly. A miniature camera, spare film, photometers, reference books, and things like that. Good pictures are all around you, and it pays to be prepared.”
Kendall slapped Reece’s back.
“That’s the proper attitude, Floyd. But going around in a coat with so many suspicious bulges, I should think you’d scare the pictures away.”
Reece choked back his anger, keeping the smile fixed rigidly on his face. He was painfully aware that Kendall was making him look like a fool—and in front of Leila. His determination to kill Kendall became a thing of burning intensity.
In the cocktail lounge, they found a table and ordered drinks. Kendall exuberantly proposed a toast.
“Here’s to Dahlia Cosmetics. May their lipstick never smear and their mascara never run!”
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A Certain Miniature
They laughed and drank. Kendall began to discuss plans for expansion of the agency as if the Dahlia Cosmetic contract was a foregone conclusion. Reece forced a pretense of interest, fuming as he noticed how Leila hung on Kendall’s every word.
Reece was pleased when Dominick Vallo appeared beside the table. The presence of the moody Italian art dealer would serve excellently to divert Leila’s attention from Kendall.
“Ah, my friends, how are you?” Vallo greeted effusively. He seemed to have had a few drinks too many.
As always, his expensively tailored suit was wrinkled and mussed. His great shock of curly black hair, streaked with white, stood on end as though from repeated nervous combing with his fingers. He had sad liquid eyes and a long melancholy face.
Reece knew Vallo quite well, as did Kendall also, since Vallo’s art gallery and curio shop was on the same floor as the agency offices. Leila had already met him, having been introduced by Reece a few weeks before.
At Reece’s gesture of invitation, Vallo pulled up a chair and sat down. He proceeded at once to fix Leila with a devouring gaze.
“Madonna!” he exclaimed at last. “It cannot be, but my eyes, they do not lie. Each time I look at you, Signorina, I am reminded of a certain miniature in my collection.”
“You’ve mentioned that before,” Leila said. “Just what is this certain miniature you’re always talking about?”
Vallo leaned toward her confidingly, but watching him, Reece thought he detected in the other’s attitude a strange hint of contradiction. Vallo’s eyes, for some reason, seemed to become lidded, guarded, as though he were hiding as much as what he intended to reveal.
“The miniature is a little painted portrait, just so big.” Vallo held out a thumb and a forefinger, separated by a space of some two inches. “It was made in Venice around the time of the Borgia’s. It is old, very old, and valuable. But most important, Signorina, the face of the girl in the miniature is almost the same as your own!”
Vallo leaned forward still further, to the amusement of Reece and Kendall and the dismay of Leila. “Ah, you must see this miniature, Signorina. I will show you other things. Famous paintings—”
Kendall chuckled. “Come up and see my etchings, said the spider to the fly.”
Vallo drew back with an injured expression. “What! You suggest that I, Dominick Vallo, might have what you call dishonorable intentions? It is an insult!”
Vallo promptly forgot his honor as a bar hostess appeared with a tray of drinks. He buried his long nose in a glass eagerly. When he finally set it down, his mournful expression had returned.
“Ah, no, the Vallo’s have long been known as men of integrity and virtue. The little Signorina would be quite safe in my hands. Why … why, gladly would I lay down my life to protect her! There is nothing I would not do. She has only to say the word, and I would gladly end my life.”
Vallo thumped the table and looked at Leila with a kind of mournful determination.
“Don’t believe him,” Kendall told • the girl. “Dominick tells that to all the ladies. In fact, lie has quite a reputation around here as a potential suicide. The only reason why he isn’t dead already is because he always passes out from too much bottled courage before he can commit the bloody deed.”
“Ah, but this time it is different,” Vallo insisted. He seemed determined that Leila should not take his threat lightly. “This time I mean it. Long I have been in love with the girl in the miniature. And now to find her in the flesh, alive …”
Vallo released a doleful sigh.
“Ah, if I were only young again; But, Signorina, perhaps you do not mind?” Vallo asked, leaning suddenly toward Leila again. “Meglio tardi che mat. Better late than never, eh?”
She drew back, startled, then laughed. “I think you’re very nice, Mr. Vallo. But if you don’t mind, I’d rather have a boy friend my age.”
Vallo shook his head bitterly. “So it must be il campo santo—the cemetery —after all.”
Kendall glanced at his watch and stood up. “We’d better be going, Leila, if we’re to have enough time to climb into our formals.”
She nodded quickly and picked up her purse and gloves. Reece seethed at her evident eagerness. He managed an airy wave of the hand as she and Kendall left. Reece was almost glad to have them go. If they had remained another minute, he felt as though he’d have burst with the volcanic fury inside him.
Reece remained for a while at the table with Vallo. The mournful-looking art dealer kept exclaiming at intervals over the marvel of Leila’s resemblance to the lady in the miniature. Reece was only dimly aware of what Vallo was saying. He was grappling once more with the problem of his intended murder of Kendall.
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Plan For Murder
A week passed. The Dahlia Cosmetic Company approved of the pictures and layout, and the contract was duly signed. Reece found himself suddenly overwhelmed with an influx of new business. He saw little or nothing of Leila, but from occasional remarks dropped by Kendall, he knew Kendall was seeing the girl frequently—all too frequently.
Reece’s problem was still unsolved. No safe plan for murder had yet suggested itself. And with the element of time now introduced by the growing intimacy between Kendall and Leila, the whole thing was beginning to look hopeless.
During a lull in his work, one afternoon, Reece seized the opportunity to visit the cocktail lounge on the main floor of the building. He had, in fact, became of late a steady customer.
Dominick Vallo was seated at one of the tables, staring moodily into the depths of an old fashioned. Reece joined the other and signalled the bar hostess.
“You have heard the news?” Vallo asked.
Reece shook his head. “What do you mean?”
“Jerry Kendall has not told you?”
“I haven’t seen much of him lately—- or of anyone, for that matter,” Reece said bitterly.
“The beautiful Leila, she is going to marry,” Vallo explained.
Reece’s heart climbed a mountain and jumped off. “Marry!” he gasped.
Vallo nodded solemnly. “Jerry was in a great hurry, but he told me this. Just a few minutes ago. He went upstairs to look for you.”
“I must have gone down just as he came up,” Reece decided dully. Abruptly he stood up. “I don’t want to see him. Come on, let’s go. There’s another bar around the corner.” Reece tossed a bill on the table to pay for the drinks, as yet unarrived, and grasping a reluctant Vallo by the arm, hastily left.
In the other taproom, Reece and Vallo settled down to serious drinking. The alcohol was a key that unlocked the door of Reece’s reserve. He began pouring out to Vallo the story of his hopes and frustrations. Highly emotional by nature, Vallo’s usual melancholy deepened to a boundless sympathy for Reece.
“That Jerry Kendall, he is a rat!” Vallo declared thickly. He hunched toward Reece secretively. “My friend, what you need in this crisis is one of the little toys the Italians like the Borgia’s used long ago. Clever little gadgets—like the miniature.”
“The miniature?” Reece grunted. “What’s the miniature got to do with helping me?”
Vallo leaned forward closer, and his voice dropped to a hoarse whisper.
“The miniature was made small to be worn close to one’s heart. Not your heart, my friend, but the heart of your enemy. For inside the miniature is a device which throws out a poisoned needle when the heat of the body melts a little wax stop. A nice gift, no? Your enemy wears it close to his heart, and—phf-f-t!. No more enemy.”
Something clicked in Reece’s mind, like the pieces of a long, perplexing puzzle falling finally together. A ray of cunning penetrated the alcoholic fog which filled him. He told Vallo, “It’s impossible. I don’t believe a word of it. Such a thing just can’t be done.”
Vallo’s back became stiffly perpendicular. “Impossible, eh? Well, I’ll show you the miniature! You shall see for yourself.”
“Ail right, but you’re going to have a hard time convincing me.” Reece rose in belligerent acceptance of the other’s challenge. This was exactly what he had been hoping for. Vallo had played right into his hands.
The fog inside Reece was swiftly evaporating. He glanced at his watch. It was almost evening, which meant that most of the tenants of Reece’s and Vallo’s office building would be gone. This suited Reece fine, since it meant that there was now little chance of his running into Kendall.
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It Is Not Loaded
Only one elevator operator was now on duty in the building and his cage was rising to the upper floors. Fuming at Reece’s irritating disbelief, Vallo plunged up the stairs. With a shrug, Reece followed. They met nobody on the way to their floor. The hall itself was empty.
Muttering hotly under his breath, Vallo fumblingly fitted his key in the lock and led the way into his shop. From a drawer of the old-fashioned roll-top desk in his office, he pulled a Small flat metal box.
“Here it is!” he announced triumphantly. “Now I shall show you.”
Vallo opened the box and into the palm of his hand shook a tiny framed painting which looked curiously thick.
“Handle it carefully,” he warned as Reece impulsively reached for it. “The last owner of the miniature kept poison on the needle, and it is still deadly.”
Reece gazed at the miniature with fascinated interest. The painting was of a young girl. The resemblance to Leila seemed slight at first, but strangely the longer Reece looked at the painting, the closer the similarity became. He realized finally that the alikeness was due more to spiritual than physical characteristics. The girl in the miniature had the same quality of demure shyness as Leila.
“But where is the needle?” Reece asked Vallo.
“It is inside,” the other explained. He pointed to a barely discernible spot on the surface of the painting. “See? She wears a red dress. This is red wax, covering the hole where the needle comes out. It is hard to tell the difference, no?”
Reece nodded slowly, his thoughts scurrying like hungry mice. “You wouldn’t know it was there unless you looked for it.” Reece abruptly grasped Vallo’s arm, and his eyes narrowed.
“Listen, Dominick, you agreed that Kendall played us a dirty trick by taking Leila away from us like that. Are we going to let him get away with it? No, we won’t! I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll send him the miniature for a wedding present—tell him to wear it close to his heart. There’s our revenge, Dominick. How’s that?”
“Madonna, no!” Vallo snatched the miniature from Reece’s hand. “The little Leila, she knows. She will tell the police who sent the miniature. I will go to jail.”
“That’s right, of course,” Reece muttered. He bit his lip, frowning thoughtfully. In his mind, the completed puzzle shifted, rearranged itself, clicked into place. Exultation coursed through him like the glow of vintage wine. His plans had changed a little. But now they were perfect—utterly foolproof. He was going to murder Kendall—and get away with it beyond any slightest suspicion from either Leila or the police.
Reece had earlier noticed a brace of antique duelling pistols on the wall over Vallo’s desk. Now he pointed to them, pretending a sudden interest.
“Say, Dominick, do those old guns work?”
“Work? Certainly! They are genuine, these, and not just for show.” Vallo placed the miniature on his desk and took down one of the pistols.
Reece drew back in mock alarm. “Careful with that thing, Dominick!”
“Don’t worry, it is not loaded.”
“But can you load it, Dominick?” “Sure. I have powder and shot in the case that goes with the pistols. I know the method.”
“Let’s load it, then,” Reese suggested in sudden eagerness.
Vallo shook his head dubiously. “It is too much trouble.”
“Come on, Dominick, we’ll have some fun.”
“No, it would be just a waste.
Reece gauged the other’s state of inebriety carefully. He decided to try a ruse which had worked successfully once before.
“I don’t believe that gun will work, Dominick. You’re just trying to impress me.”
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As before, Vallo bit. His dark eyes lighted with indignation.
“Again you refuse to believe,” he accused. “All right, all right, I shall load it. You shall see for yourself.”
He sat down at the desk, removing from one of the drawers a large leather- covered case. It was lined with red velvet inside. There were depressions for the pistols, and compartments which held powder, shot, and wadding. With quick though unsteady hands, Vallo loaded the weapon. When he had finished, Vallo extended the pistol with a flourish to Reece.
“There! Now it is loaded.” He carelessly indicated an old leather couch across the room which was covered with pillows. “Go ahead, prove it for me. I have loaded the gun so that there will not be much noise.”
With a smile of anticipated triumph, Vallo produced a half-filled bottle of whiskey from the desk and drank deeply. Putting the bottle down, he swiveled in his chair to watch the couch.
Reece’s lips thinned in a hard grin. He placed the muzzle of the pistol against Vallo’s right temple, and before the other could realize what was going to happen, he pulled the trigger. There was a dull muffled roar. Vallo slumped limply in the chair.
Reece felt as though on fire with elation. The set-up was beautiful—just beautiful. In his mind’s eye, he could visualize just the way it would look to the police, to everyone. Grief-stricken at the news that Leila was going to be married, Vallo had committed suicide. The art dealer’s brooding melancholy temperament, and the numerous threats which he had made to kill himself would support the theory.
This, however, was just a part of Reece’s plan. He chuckled with satisfaction as he rounded out the rest of it. Forging Vallo’s hand-writing, he intended to send the miniature to Kendall, with the explanation that it was a wedding present, and the sentimental request that Kendall wear it close to his heart. The job of forgery need not be done with exactness, since any noticeable differences would be explained on the basis that the writing had been done while Vallo was drunk.
Since the miniature bore a resemblance to Leila, Kendall would carry it around as a keepsake. The needle would do its lethal work—and Reece would have a clear road both with Leila and the agency, with nobody the wiser. Kendall’s death would be accepted as due to an act of revenge on the part of Vallo.
Reece got to work. Wiping the pistol clean of his fingerprints he placed it in Vallo’s hand. Then he assembled all the necessary materials—pen, ink, twine, writing and wrapping paper, and various records from which to copy Vallo’s handwriting.
He first wrapped the miniature carefully and addressed it to Kendall. That done, he wrote a short note, explaining the miniature as a wedding gift and adding the request that Kendall wear it close to his heart. With stamps he found in one of the desk drawers, Reece finally had the package and note ready for mailing.
He departed by way of the stairs, leaving the lobby of the building only when he was sure he would not be noticed. The package and its accompanying note he dropped in a mailbox on the corner.
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A Sudden Sharp Pain
That night—and for a good part of the next morning—Reece celebrated what he felt certain was the complete solution of his problems. How he managed to reach his apartment afterward was a mystery which he couldn’t explain. When he awoke, it was early afternoon. Feeling too sick to go down to the agency, he remained in bed.
On his way to work, the following day, Reece collided with the mailman. His bus was due to arrive within a few minutes, and he was anxious not to miss it.
“A registered for you,” the mailman called out, as Reece muttered hasty apologies and started once more for the door.
It was a thick envelope. Reece signed hurriedly and dashed for the bus stop. His coat pockets were filled as usual. After a futile search for space, Reece stuffed the envelope into the pocket of his shirt.
At the agency, Reece found matters proceeding as though nothing had happened. The Vallo part of his plan had gone through without complications, as he had learned from a garrulous elevator operator. Vallo’s body had been discovered by an assistant, and the police had dismissed the art dealer’s death as suicide—just as Reece had intended they should.
The only remaining uncertainty was Kendall. Something which gave Reece hope was the significant fact that Kendall was not in his office. Reece knew Kendall was always the first person to arrive at the downtown agency in the morning.
Entering his own office, Reece found a letter on his desk. He tensed with sudden alarm as he recognized Kendall’s handwriting. Reece tore the letter open quickly, his thoughts spinning in wondering anxiety.
Wrote you two letters, sending one to the agency and one to your apartment so there wouldn’t be any delay. Was called out of town on business which I’ll explain fully when I get back. That Dahlia Cosmetics deal has been bringing in customers!
Vallo sent me as a wedding present that miniature he was always talking about. I’m not keeping it, as it isn’t me Leila’s going to marry, but a fellow she’d been engaged to and quarreled with, which was why she came to the city. The guy came after her, and they made up.
I was in a hurry that afternoon— this business had popped up—and Vallo must have misunderstood me.
I know how you felt about Leila, and so I’m sending you the miniature. I’m not sentimental enough—
There were just a few lines more, but Reece abruptly stopped reading. With a thrill of unutterable horror, he recalled the registered envelope which had arrived as he was hurrying from his apartment. The bulky envelope which he had stuffed—of all places— in his shirt pocket … over his heart!
Fear flashing and roaring inside him, Reece frantically reached to tear the envelope away. He was too late. He knew it as he felt a sudden sharp pain over his heart—in his heart. He tried to scream in terror and frustration, but the poison acted before he could get his paralyzed throat muscles to operate. Blackness closed in around him— the ultimate blackness of death.
~ The End ~
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By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
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