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Chapter Two
The Skull Killer

SKULL'S EYES TRAVELED from Borden's face to those of the three internes who held him; to the nurses who stood about, almost hysterically tense, and the white-jacketed orderlies who bent over that body on the floor.

In the eyes of his accusers he read a completely unreasoning hatred—and something more! Behind the irises of everyone of them, with the exception of Borden, he saw flickering specks of color. . . . And he recognized in that color the mark of insanity! He had seen it before in human eyes. . . .

Again he looked at the face of the man he had shot. Even in death, the gaping unseeing eyes had that unearthly purplish glint. . . . Dr. Skull remembered that even Mrs. Purvins had warned him of her husband's "oddness." Oddness? Most damnable oddness! Murderousness, rather. . . . How close Skull had been to suspecting that Henry Purvins might have been his wife's attacker when she had been found wandering by the East River!

Then Borden stooped sanctimoniously over the corpse, and suddenly the beginning of an incredible conviction snapped into Dr. Skull's mind. The hospital chief's watch fob dangled from his waist. It was of gold, heavy and carefully wrought, and repulsive as artistry could make it. A golden octopus, with one jewelled purple eye gleaming in its head. . . . In her terrified delirium, Mrs. Purvins had babbled about an octopus—and now Mrs. Purvins was hideously, unhumanly dead!

The internes holding Skull were not prepared for the strength and fury of his attack. He bent over swiftly, and the man directly behind him doubled up with his breath knocked out. With an ease that belied his years, Skull ripped his arms free and sent another colleague spinning with a hook to the jaw. As Borden was leaping for him, Dr. Skull side-stepped and swung. Then he jumped for the elevator.

The man at the controls tried to rush him, and Skull grasped his arm, and with a jiu-jitsu hold, threw him into the melee in the hall. He slammed the doors, and his fingers were cold on the control lever as he started the car downward.

His shoulder ached agonizingly, and after that brief desperate spurt of energy, he was again dizzy and weak . . . twice the car bounced jerkily against its basement springs before Skull remembered to release the controls. Blindly, he levered the doors open, and staggered into the cellar's cool dusk.

Into the darkness behind the huge heating unit he delved, leaning heavily against a dusty, jutting plank. There was a brief whir of chains, and a section of the wall gave way. Skull lurched into the opening, and sank to his knees, completely exhausted. Behind him, he dimly heard again the soft whir of the chains, and then he was alone in the cool darkness of an unsuspected hollow in the wall.

 

Silent seconds passed, bringing with them some return of strength to the old doctor's nerves and muscles. And with the strength, a fiery determination-glinted again in his eyes.

Sparing the torn shoulder as best he could, he slowly removed his white surgeon's jacket, and began briskly to rub his face with it. Then it seemed as if a miracle occurred, for the sunken wrinkles disappeared completely from his jaws, cheeks and forehead. . . . He tore off the strips which secured the grey wig, revealing a head of lustrous dark hair beneath. The removal of two padded wire hooks from his lower jaw altered the shape of his face considerably. It was a far younger Dr. Skull who finally turned on his back, and lay motionless, staring upward into the darkness with alertly thoughtful brown eyes.

A half-naked young man, his were an athletes' trained and rippling muscles. . . . Weary as he was, with the bloody shoulder bandage, there was an aura of health, strength and competence about him. Hospital authorities would have recognized him as Jeffrey Fairchild, son of the late Dr. Henry Fairchild, who had achieved medical fame and a sizable fortune before his death.

Jeffrey, as administrator of his father's estate, had been instrumental in the erection of the Mid-City Hospital, and from that estate, large sums were still available to the hospital on request. That much he had done for humanity in his father's name and his own. There were people who said he might have done more, for Jeffrey, a brilliant student, had graduated at the head if his class from the best medical school in the country, and was not known ever to have started practice.

But people did not know about Dr. Skull. . . .

It was as Dr. Skull, the kindly philanthropic little East Side surgeon, that Jeffrey Fairchild had been able to fight more battles for humanity than confining his skill solely to the struggle against disease. He had been born with a love of adventure and a genius for compassion, and inevitably he had allied himself against those who have no compassion, and who prey upon the defenseless and helpless. In the slums, breeding-place of crime, Dr. Skull had been the unyielding adversary of all criminals.

No Park Avenue surgeon could have done what Dr. Skull had done, known what Dr. Skull knew. They came to him in the slums, the victims of poverty and ignorance and fear, and they trusted him to heal more than their bodies. For behind Dr. Skull himself, unknown even to his patients, there was the almost phantom figure of the Skull Killer, known only by the corpses he left behind him.

It was typical of Dr. Skull that he should have tried to find a reason for that unholy glint of purple madness in the eyes of Henry Purvins when he first began to treat the man's wife. Another doctor would have either disregarded it entirely, or considered it a phenomenon he had not been called upon to delve.

He'd labored through months and years of untiring research, research that was also adventure—and then, in the half-factual, half-superstitious chronicles of forgotten medieval savants, Dr. Skull had found the reference he sought.

He had been excited, moved—and at the same time wondered if he were allowing his credulity to be conditioned by the inevitable superstitions of the patients with whom he worked. He remembered the article he had actually written, intending it for the American Medical Journal, and which he had then decided not to send, as too fantastic for men of science to accept:

 

During every great social catastrophe in ancient history, purple eyes have made their appearance as eternal harbingers of destruction. They have been either the cause or effect of terror among a people already ravaged by war or pestilence, inducing an unaccountable mass hysteria, often leading to wholesale atrocities.

This mass hysteria reduced the population in some cases as high as seventy percent in certain districts of Central Europe, after barbaric invasions, and ruined entire sections of civilized society. By dint of incredible and impoverishing taxes, terrorized peoples have sometimes bought off self-claimed leaders of the purple eyes, whom many insist to have been the same person, living through centuries.

 

Superstition? Certainly. And yet, there was the undeniable fact of those purple eyes in modern, up-to-date New York. But whereas the medieval leaders of the purple-eyed ones had been able to operate openly in a superstitious civilization separated by the thinnest of veneers from chaos, their modern counterpart would be driven to operate through the weak-minded and credulous. He would be forced to use some startling and fear-invoking disguise. . . .

The Octopus! Mrs. Purvins, who had been marked for a sentence worse than death, had babbled its name. . . . Again, Jeffrey Fairchild remembered Borden's watch-fob of the purple-eyed octopus. Did Borden know its implications, or was he an unwitting tool in a more sinister hand, as Henry Purvins undoubtedly had been?

Jeffrey trembled slightly, as he rested in the coolness of his basement chamber, which was the terminus of an abandoned water main reaching far under the city's streets. He came to his feet, steadied himself, and moved deeper into the subterranean passage. From a wall niche, he took a concealed gun, to replace the weapon he had lost in the scuffle upstairs, and thus armed, re-entered the basement of the Mid-City Hospital.

Through the shadows he skulked, a pale moving figure in the darkness, toward a little white-washed door. For a moment, he listened behind it, and then Jeffrey Fairchild slipped into the cool, sterile-smelling interior of the hospital morgue.

One by one, he drew the sheets from cold white faces, with some innate reverence in him asking forgiveness of the helpless dead for this intrusion. One by one, among those silent speechless people who had passed beyond earthly help or harm, he sought the man he wanted—the man he himself had killed.

Jeffrey stared with growing concentration into the wide eyes of Henry Purvins' corpse, and his mouth went grim. Was his imagination running riot, or did he actually see even in the darkness, those inhuman jewel-like eyes glowing purple . . . ? No; someone had been behind that series of concerted and unrelated incidents which he had just experienced, a series too concerted not to be directed by some purposeful malevolent agency. In life, Henry Purvins had been the tool of the most malignant personality ever spewed out of hell, and in death, the devil would claim his own!

There was just a chance—more than a chance—that the evidence he needed was here, in the form of Purvins' body, with those ghastly, purplish luminescent eyes. . . . Did it point to a hospital whose staff would not bear investigation, to someone unknown who must, for some evil purpose, soon commune with this body?

He uncovered the corpse, placed it on another stretcher. Then he took its place, and pulled the sheet over him. Quiet as the dead he lay, and the only sound in that half-way station to the tomb was his own whispered breath.

 

Old Angus Burke, the morgue-keeper of the hospital, didn't like the tone they'd used when they brought down the latest corpse.

"Shot?" grunted Angus. "Now that's the damndest yet! You've brought me some funny stiffs lately, lads, but for a man to die of hot lead in a hospital . . . !"

"You're not being paid for your opinions," the young interne had answered tartly, and old Angus didn't like that. He'd been handling stiffs before that whipper-snapper was born, and he knew how people died in a hospital, and how they didn't.

They didn't die, for instance, of diabetes and lockjaw at the same time. Not in a proper hospital, that is. Maybe in some beleaguered army ward where the enemy had cut off surgical supplies—but even in war, old Angus remembered, you didn't get much blood-poisoning.

He thought uneasily of the sort of cases they'd been bringing down there recently. Tetanus, elephantiasis, and other things he couldn't even name, and didn't like to think about—sure, they'd been bringing him mighty strange stiffs lately!

And now this one, with a bullet between the eyes. . . . The doctors must be crazy, he thought; like as if they didn't know their business, and the poor folks who trust 'em might better have saved their money and die peaceful.

Well, he was glad to know about it, old Angus thought, as he played double solitaire against himself in his cubby-hole of an office. He'd been thinking of asking one of the doctors for something for his rheumatism. He wouldn't now, no-sirree! Except he'd been sure of that nice old Dr. Skull. A real gentleman, he was, who didn't treat a man any different because he kept dead stiffs instead of dying ones.

But it was Dr. Skull, so they said, who'd made the latest stiff, the oddest one of all. Shot him dead, they said. Old Angus shook his head. A mighty peculiar business, and he didn't like any of it. Shouldn't be surprised if they all lost their jobs of it, either. . . .

"Can't you hear anything?"

Old Angus stood up, looking at his visitors, two of them, dressed in civilian clothes. "I ain't so deaf that you have to yell loud enough to wake these poor peaceful dead folks down here," he said with asperity. And he added, "I'm the keeper here. I suppose you're looking for that Purvins fellow?"

One of the men nodded. "I'm his brother. Where is he?"

A pretty strange sort of a brother, old Angus thought. Usually folks came down here with their eyes red and sniffling, not caring what you said to them. . . . It's the world these days, he considered, as he led the unfeeling brother and his companion into the morgue itself.

Old Angus hobbled up to the latest stiff, and lifted the sheet from its face. . . .

And then the corpse yelled at him, "Duck, they'll kill you!" And a bullet sang above the old man's head! . . .

He hadn't really ducked, it had been more like his knees gave way. And then, in the darkness, the corpse and his brother started firing at one another. . . .

Angus tried to whine for help, but nothing audible was coming out of his windpipe.

Like nothing dead, the stiff was letting them have it with the revolver. . . . Old Angus shut his eyes, and his brain busied itself with a prayer.

When the shots stopped, he peered dazedly about. The two visitors were dead, and the corpse was doing something to their faces.

"A-aah!" managed old Angus.

The corpse glanced at him briefly, and then it darted out of the room.

Minutes later, the old man looked at his visitors. Red and plain on their foreheads, the corpse had branded the mark of a human skull!

Later, when he told the newspapermen about it, old Angus realized that he had been a hero.

"So that was the Skull Killer?" he mused aloud. "Him as always leaves his mark, and never gets caught?"

"That's right, Mr. Burke," said the reporter. "You're the only man alive who's ever seen him make a kill. It's a wonder you're here to tell the tale. If you're not afraid—and I don't think you're the type of man who scares easy, Mr. Burke—suppose you try to tell us what you noticed about him. It would be a great help to the police, and a big story for us."

Old Angus peered importantly at the reporter. No, he wasn't afraid. He leaned over close. "They brought him down here dead," whispered old Angus solemnly. "One o' my regular stiffs, with a bullet between the eyes. And mister, they don't come deader than that!"

 

Newspapers didn't print it quite as old Angus gave it to them. They didn't swallow that bullet between the eyes, although they did ask if the Skull Killer were vulnerable at all.

For six years, that phantom image had preyed on the population of New York's underworld, sporadically and without detection. No one had ever seen him, but everyone had seen pictures, on the front pages, of the corpses he left in various parts of the city, with that red brand burned into their foreheads as if by acid.

His motive? The newspapers guessed him to be some lone fanatic, crusading against crime. Or, as one newspaper guessed, he might be a higher-up in the Police Department, for he knew so much about criminals and where to find them. He must be a gangster, said another, for it's the gangsters who kill their own kind. A prominent psychologist, when interviewed, explained technically and at great length, that a killer who left his mark was an incurable exhibitionist. He had probably had a thwarted childhood, said the prominent psychologist, quoting effectively from Freud and Jung.

In the end, people knew as much about the Skull Killer as they had known before, which was nothing. There was a momentary connection between the fact that a certain Dr. Skull had left the third floor of the Mid-City Hospital under hurried circumstances, only twenty minutes before the Skull Killer appeared in its basement.

But old Angus Burke, whose opinion had to be respected, since there was no one to contradict him, swore that the Skull Killer was a young man, a good thirty years younger than Dr. Skull, whom old Angus would have known if he'd met him in hell. This seemed to tally with the facts, for it was ridiculous to suspect an old man who has spent his life in study and medical practice, of murdering the toughest gangsters in the city single-handed, over a period of six years.

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Framed