From the Files of Mush Marlow, Private Investigator.

Continuing the story that began here.


In spite of my misgivings, I walked into my office, expecting either some very unpleasant shouting or one of those fits of sarcasm society dames can throw that are a whole lot worse than good old-fashioned shouting. I didn’t get either. Nobody was in there.

“I thought you said Mrs. Pifler was in here,” I said to Betty as she came in behind me.

“Well, she… This is—I mean, she was just in here, and there’s only one door.

“Right,” said Billy. “You look in the closet and I’ll look under the desk.”

I felt pretty silly doing it, but this time I did look in the closet. Nothing but Necco wafers and slide whistles left there by the previous tenant.

“Nobody under here, boss,” Billy reported from under the desk. “Except me, I guess.”

Betty looked nonplussed. I’d never seen her look nonplussed before. I had to ask her what kind of look that was on her face, and she said “nonplussed,” and then I had to look up that word in Funk and Wagnall’s, so there was a bit of a delay.

“She was right here,” Betty said when I was through flipping pages. “Maybe I’m losing it. This is the second time—I mean, first Mr. Pifler gets in without my seeing it, and then Mrs. Pifler gets out.”

“Hey, it’s a mystery!” said Kosciuszko, who had been watching from the doorway, munching an oatmeal cookie. “Maybe you should call a detective or somethin’.”

“Well,” I said, “if she’s not here, where would she be? Did she say anything about why she came here?”

“Just ‘Nothing is right at the house,’ ” Betty recalled. “She said that two or three times.”

“Okay, sidekick,” I said to Billy. “You’ve heard everything I’ve heard. Where would you go next?”

“The Registrar of Deeds,” Billy replied definitely.

“The Re— Why would you go there?”

“Well,” said Billy, “I figure, if something’s wrong with a house, it’s probably cause it’s built on an old Indian burial ground. That’s always what it turns out to be in magazine stories. So we go to the Registrar of Deeds and trace the history of the property, and we find out who’s haunting it.”

Kosciuszko broke in here: “Gotta be Guyasuta.”

“Oh, yeah?” Billy asked with keen interest. “Why do you say that?”

“Cause he’s the only Indian whose name I remember,” Kosciuszko explained.

There was a certain logic to that, but I wasn’t convinced yet. “I think we should go to the house and see what we find there. Then if it looks like an Indian haunting, Billy, you can tell us what the magazine stories recommend.”

“We could try sacrificing a virgin,” Billy suggested. He looked over at Betty.

“If you even ask that question that’s in your head right now,” she said, “you’ll be lucky if a black eye is all you get.”

“I don’t think sacrificing virgins is legal in this state,” I said.

“We got a First Amendment right to freedom of religion,” Kosciuszko pointed out.

“It’s not in the plan, anyway,” I said. “Betty, call a cab. We’re going to the Pifler house, Billy and I, and we’ll see what’s up.”

“Right, boss,” said Betty, heading to her desk.

“Okay,” said Billy. “But just remember these words: ‘Unga braka unga barka anga banga brink.’ ”

“Unga— What? What are you talking about?”

“That’s the ancient Lenape spell that laid the spirit to rest in ‘Mystery of the Mysterious Old House.’ ”

“I don’t think that’s a real Lenape spell, Billy,” I said.

“Yeah,” added Kosciuszko. “Sounds more Italian to me.”

“Cab’s on its way,” said Betty from behind Kosciuszko. “And while you’re visiting the Pifler place, I’ll be trying to plug the hole your clients keep slipping through.”

“Look for a secret trap door,” said Billy. “That was how the masked maniac kept getting into the house in ‘Dark Doings in the Old Dark House.’ ”

“I’ll remember that,” said Betty, but I think she was using her sarcastic voice.

The taxi driver let us off at the Pifler house with a sense of foreboding. I mean the driver had a sense of foreboding. He was afraid he wasn’t going to get paid. I told him to wait, and I’d be out in fifteen minutes. He said, “Yeah, right,” but he didn’t sound like he meant it. I think he was using his sarcastic voice, too.

“Sir was not expected,” said the butler when he opened the door.

“I didn’t expect to be here myself,” I replied. “But the lady of the house was in my office telling my secretary that nothing was right and it was life or death, and then she wasn’t, and she couldn’t get past Betty, but she did. So that’s why I’m here.”

The butler thought for a moment and then spoke. “Would sir care to repeat—”

“Look,” I said, “sir is just as mixed up as you are, okay? So if you’ll just let sir and sir’s sidekick come in and have a look around, maybe we can all get a better idea of what’s going on around here.”

The butler hesitated just a moment. Then he said, “Very good, sir,” and opened the door all the way.

Billy and I stepped into the hall, which was about the size of Union Station but better decorated.

“Some place they got here,” said Billy. “Say, this would be perfect for jousting.”

“Jousting?” I repeated.

“Yeah. I’m a member of the Bloomfield Jousting Association, you know.”

“Well, no, I didn’t know that.”

“Huh. I guess there’s a lot of things you don’t know about me yet.”

“Yeah, that’s probably true.”

“You shoulda seen us beat the pants off Stanton Heights last week.”

The butler cleared his throat in a way that conveyed whole paragraphs of polite impatience.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said. “Back to business. First of all, have you or any of the upstairs maids or the downstairs maids or the mezzanine maids noticed anything unusual going on?”

“That would be hard to say, sir. In a manner of speaking, the unusual is usual in this house. Queer things happen quite often, sir. The house is built over an old Indian burial ground, you know.”

I didn’t look at Billy, but I could hear the smugness behind me. “Well, then, I guess what I should ask is, has there been anything unusually unusual going on, as opposed to the usual unusual stuff?”

“One would hesitate to say that anything unusually unusual had been going on, sir,” said the butler. “In fact, if one were to characterize the day so far, one might almost say that it had been unusually usual.”

“I see. Well, maybe we should just have a look around the house. How about we start down this way?”

“Not that way,” the butler said with some show of alarm. “The south wing is closed, sir.”

“Yeah, I remember Mrs. Pifler saying there wasn’t a south wing. But what’s down there?”

“Nothing, as far as one knows, sir.”

“But I see a hallway with doors and all,” I insisted.

“Mrs. Pifler assured the staff that it was an optical illusion.”

I thought about that for a moment. “Well, if it’s an optical illusion, is there any reason I shouldn’t go down there?”

“It might be a precipice,” said the butler.

“Or a pit of vipers,” said Billy. “You know, like in ‘Adventure of the House with the Pit of Vipers.’ ”

By this time I was too curious to hold back. “I’ll walk carefully,” I said, and I started down the hall toward the south wing.

The floor seemed pretty solid all the way.

The hall ended at a double door. I turned the knob on the right-hand door. It was locked.

“You have a key to this?” I asked, looking back at the butler, who had followed me at what he considered a safe distance.

“One is not aware of having such a key,” he said. “Unless it might possibly be this one.”

He produced a key from his coat pocket. It was attached to a very large round fob on which were engraved the words “DO NOT USE THIS KEY UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.”

“That could be the one,” I said, taking it.

I tried it. It worked.

Just in case there were vipers, I opened the door very slowly.

On the other side was what looked like a gentlemen’s club. There were a dozen or so men reading newspapers, playing cards, and so on.

They looked up at me.

“I say,” said one of the card-players, “are you one of the husbands?”

I looked back at Billy and the butler, but they looked just as confused as I felt.

“One of the husbands?” I repeated.

The same man spoke again. “I’m number nine, don’t you know.”

“Eight,” said one of the other card-players at the same table.

“Really?” said the first man. “I could have sworn I was nine.”

“You were, but the marriage to the Brenneman chap was annulled,” said the other. “That bumped you down to eight.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I do tend to forget these things. I suppose that would make the new man, what, number fourteen?”

“Thirteen,” said the other.

“Are you quite sure?”

“Quite. I’m number ten, and Davis over there is number eleven, and the last to come in was Capelli over there. Isn’t that right, Capelli?”

“Si, signor,” said a man in a chair without looking up from his newspaper.

“Well, at any rate,” said the first man to me, “we’re always ready to welcome a new member. You’ll find your accommodations a bit spartan, but comfortable.”

“What is this place?” I demanded.

“She hasn’t told you?”

“Who hasn’t told me what?”

The two card-players looked at each other, and then back at me.

“Sorry to tell you this, old chap,” said the first, “but Emmaline is through with you. This is where her husbands end up when she’s found a new one.”

“Emmaline? You mean, Mrs. Pifler?”

“Pifler? Capelli, was the chap who replaced you—”

“Si,” said the man behind the newspaper.

“Well, then, Mr. Pifler,” said the card-player who had been talking to me, “welcome to Emmaline’s little club of rejected husbands.”