A MANHUNT CHILLER
RED LETTER DAY
by Gardner F. Fox
Originally written for MANHUNT #4 (1948) and published by Magazine Enterprises
THE envelope came first, brought by the mailman. It bore a stamp and the familiar seal of the local post office. After the envelope—came death!
Karen Larsen crumpled to the floor of her big desert home when she saw it. In the upper left-hand corner were the words: Death, Inc. and beneath them, the odd imprint of the weird skull-face with the hollow haunting eye-sockets A shaft of sunlight played across it, touched the quivering mouth of the frightened girl, shadowed the sahuaro cactus in the tiled courtyard.
Lee San, her Chinese cook, came running on padded feet "Missy sick? Me help Missy her room?"
"No, Lee. Just tell Edouard to get the car out. I'm going into town—to the F.B.I.!"
* * *
Special agent Jim Fallon was at Karen Larsen's side that night as she reentered the patio of the sprawling desert hacienda. A big yellow moon flooded the splashing waters of the statued fountain. In the distance a horse whinnied. A lizard slithered over tile.
"One hour to go," the girl whispered. "One hour ... before I die!"
"Miss Larsen, you will not die. I promise you that!"
She whirled on him. The moonbeams fell on her quivering lips, on the red-nailed fingers she clasped on her handbag. "How can you tell me that? You know what Death, Inc. can do! Eleven killings in the past year. Bought and paid for by—whom? Men who'll kill an other man for fifty dollars! For someone who is never seen!
“They always send those death's-head letters. And on the day those letters are delivered. the person for whom they are meant—dies! Every time! They've never failed! Why will I be the exception?"
Her fingernails dug deep into Jim Fallon's arm as she bit off a scream with her white teeth. Seemingly all around them, from fountain and tiles and roof—rose the haunting laughter of a madman! It mocked them, taunted their puny efforts.
"You see?" the girl cried wildly, eyes searching his. “They're all around us. They can kill me whenever they want. They aren't human. They're devils ... or ghosts...!"
Jim Fallon held her up with hands under her elbows. He snapped his speech short, hoping to jab her into courage. "You agreed to this. You said you'd help me catch them. I could have kept you overnight in safety, with a dozen guards. But you agreed that I couldn't let you stay there forever. That some day they'd get you ... alone... unprotected!"
"Yes," she whimpered, shuddering. "Yes..."
"All right, then. Keep your chin up, and let's go get 'em!"
Fallon spoke with an assurance he was far from feeling. The strangely quiet hacienda, the glowing moon, the eerie silence after that wild laughter, ran cold ripples of tension down his back. He put his hand on his service revolver under his coat and felt better.
Karen Larsen said, "They want to kill me because my newspaper scoop sent Rat Marley to the chair. And they're afraid that I'll stumble onto their own murder ring ... and have them sent up!"
Footsteps sounded in the darkness, then faded. Karen cried out. "Lee San, is that you? Lee! Oh, Lee!"
There was only the moonlight and the stillness to answer her. Fallon lifted his gun out of the holster and held it in front of him as he walked forward into a little tiled alleyway between two of the hacienda buildings. Karen followed him.
He could hear her footsteps, tap-tap-tap-tapping...
She choked, gurgled ...
Fallon whirled. A noose had dropped silently from the sloping roof ... was tight about her throat ... was lifting her upwards into the air!
The Federal agent leaped. His gun dropped as he jumped for the rope above the girl's head. He caught it, swung about on it, tugging down. The girl crumpled on the tile as he dragged the noose downward, slowly, inexorably. She clawed at the noose, loosening it. He could hear her gulping in air through lips that were bright red in a suddenly bloodless face.
The rope came away from its anchor. Fallon looked up. A man was falling from a flat roof. one end of the rope still in his right hand. His left hand held an automatic. The gun spit red flame and lead at Fallon.
Jim dropped the rope, jumped for his gun! His hunting hand found it, lifted it. Bent at the knees, body leaning forward as he had been trained. He sent bullet after bullet through the night—into the man who had hit the ground less than ten feet from him!
A bullet ricocheted from the stucco wall behind him. Another ripped the sleeve of his coat.
And then the man in front of him tumbled forward. His chest a red smear where the G-man's bullets had etched a pattern. He made a sodden sound on the tile as he fell, his automatic clanged.
Jim went forward, turned him over. He glanced at his face and muttered. "Tiny Taccio, one of Red Febler's mob. That ties in to what we already know about Death, Inc."
Karen was breathing easier, her head leaning back against the wall. She smiled bravely. "If you hadn't been here—" she closed her eyes and shivered.
"We've beaten them, at any rate," the G-man smiled, looking down at his wristwatch. "Ten minutes to midnight, and their killer's dead."
Fallon did not see the hard eyes that gazed at them from a little window. He did not hear the man as he moved away on rubber-soled shoes, nor did he hear the slither of the long-bladed knife slipping from its sheath. For a moment the man stood in a beam of moonlight, his finger touching the tip of the stiletto, his hard lips curving in a cruel smile.
He murmured, "I'll have to kill them both, now. The G-man knows too much, already."
The man slid around a corner of the room and crept silently down the long flight of stairs.
* * *
Karen was on her feet, now. She breathed slowly, forcing herself to be calm by sheer will-power. She whispered, "There isn't any thing more to be afraid of. Nothing more. You killed the man they sent."
Fallon patted her hand. "I killed him ... but it's you that I'm thanking for the chance. Without your help, I couldn't have brought Tiny down. We—the F. B. I.—know he's a member of the Febler gang. I've a hunch we can make Red sing when we track him down."
Karen shuddered. "That awful Death, Inc. '... every time I think of them, I see red!"
"Red letter day," said Fallon grimly. "A letter ... then creeping death ... then red blood ..."
It had been that way since the beginning when Death, Inc. had made their first killing. A mailman brought a letter to a wealthy man, and after that the killer came, slipping through a cordon of police as though he were invisible. Two more deaths followed in that first year. There were four the second year.
Death, Inc. grew bolder. Eleven was their total in their third year. Now they were starting again...,
Fallon had an arm under her elbow, walking with her to the hacienda gateway. He was saying. "—but all that's over, now. With this new information we have a chance to grab Febler and question him."
Something heavy flew through the air. It hit Karen on the back of her skull, toppling her forward.
From the corner of his eye, just before the arm tightened on his neck and the naked knife glittered in the air above his throat. Fallon saw the huge stone that had dropped the girl. Blood on it and hair... a red letter day...
The knife came down and stabbed—
Fallon twisted in the mugging grip, frenziedly arching his back, driving down with his legs. He turned his body, got the knife in the shoulder-lapel of his coat. The knife drove through and cut into his shoulder. The man with the arm about his neck was panting, sobbing with effort.
The G-man dropped. He fell straight down and hit the tiled patio floor. But the mugger was off-balance, and fell over him.
Fallon whirled and leaped. He parried the darting dagger with a wrist, slammed a left fist into the man's face. A beam of moonlight showed the other's features to the battling Federal agent. He grinned, "Mugger Marcotti!"
The Mugger cursed hotly and slammed a knee at Fallon's jaw.
Fallon rolled free. He brought his right fist up in a short arc. It hit the Mugger under the jaw, snapped his head back until it touched his spine. The Mugger tried to scream but only a choked gurgle came out of his battered mouth. He went back and out.
Fallon whirled and knelt beside Karen. His hand touched the blood on her yellow hair. “Just a scratch." he breathed with relief. "But I'll take her to a doctor, to make sure."
Her eyes fluttered open, stared up at him. She whispered. "What . . . was it?'
He told her and gestured at the unconscious Mugger. She murmured, "The Mugger, yes. I've seen pictures of him in Rogue's Gallery!"
Fallon nodded, "This breaks the case for us. The Mugger is Red Febler's right-hand man, but he'll spill if we offer him immunity to turn State's evidence!"
Karen's eyes shone brightly. "It's after midnight, Fallon! Death, Inc. has failed for the first time."
And the last time!" Fallon added grimly "From this night on there won't be any Death, Inc. Like all crime and criminals, it will fold up—because crime never pays !"