A MANHUNT CHILLER
DINNER DATE WITH DEATH by Gardner F. Fox
Originally written for MANHUNT #2 (1947) and published by Magazine Enterprises
THE night was dark as Starr Flagg left her roadster and went up the gravel path toward the house of Iken Roomney. The tap-tap of her high heels drowned out the sound of nearby bushes brushing together as a man slid into them. She did not feel the eyes fastened on her back as she ascended the wide wooden steps of the old mansion.
The door opened and a stolid-faced butler bowed low. "The doctor will see you in the parlor, ma'am.”
Starr clutched at the handbag that held her tiny .32 automatic, and went after the butler. She wondered whether she would have to use the gun to get away from the house. Dr. Iken Roomney was a European who had taken up residence on the north shore of Long Island; he was rarely seen in public, and then always gloved and masked.
Starr caught her breath sharply. Was that a man seated in the chair facing her—or an ape?
His face was hairy, and his long pointed teeth jutted out over a wide mouth. His eyes were clear, hard as agates. The hand with which he gestured toward a divan was covered with thick brown hair that looked almost like fur.
"You will forgive my poor hospitality," he smiled. "And my appearance. I see you are somewhat—startled.”
Starr touched her lips with a tongue; murmured hastily, "No, oh no. I—"
Roomney smiled gently and bent toward a heavy silver cigarette case. "No need of hiding it, my dear young lady. My face ... arms ... all covered with furry hair. You might say I am a martyr to ... science."
He smiled again, inserting the cigarette in to a green jade cigarette holder. His movements were in sharp contrast to his bestial appearance, and his speech was smooth and soft and cultured.
"I promised you an interview for your paper, the Herald," he nodded, watching blue cigarette smoke filter upward from his mouth. "Well, you shall have it. The entire story. The manner in which I—Iken Roomney!—will make this truly one world! And the manner in which I alone shall rule it!”
Mad, thought Starr. He's a stark, raving maniac. And I'm all alone in the house with him and his servants! The touch of her fingers on the hard outline of the automatic in her pocketbook gave her some reassurance.
She laughed. "Rather a large order, doctor. I understand that you were considered a genius, but—"
“Genius? I daresay. My researches into neurophysiology and psychomatic medicine are considered to be a hundred years ahead of my time. What would you say if I were to tell you I can—remake the human body?”
"You are overwhelmed," the doctor went on, relaxing and crossing his short, bowed legs in their faultless evening trousers. “But look at me. I am a beast in body. But I have more physical strength than any five men. I have the strength of the gorilla!”
He reached for a solid, wrought-iron and—iron that stood in front of the big stone fire place. He took it in his hands and the muscles stood out under the tight fit of his evening jacket.
The andiron snapped in two and Roomney flung it aside.
“That strength I can duplicate in anyone. I can also weaken a person. I can make a man cowardly or brave. My years of research—"
He stood erect, waving his cigarette holder. "But come, let me show you!"
They went from the living room down a metal staircase into the cellar. A vast array of glistening machines and glass vials and test-tubes were spread out under an arching stone ceiling.
Roomney laughed softly, “Twenty years of research in machines and chemicals are here! And the final perfection of all my work is this!"
His hairy hand touched what looked like a small moving picture projector. Its glass lens was red, coated with chemicals. Roomney said softly, "By varying the pitch and frequency of the beam this ray-gun shoots, I can alter the cell-structure of the body. Armed with small hand ray-guns, a picked army could smash the world."
Starr drew a deep breath. She whispered, "You would need many armies to conquer the world, doctor."
"I would strike at the high places, at the rulers! Without rulers, men are helpless. They are unorganized. No, no, Miss Flagg. It will be very simple.”
Starr laughed nervously. “My editor will throw me out of the office when I hand in my interview."
"Please, do not let that worry you. You will never see your editor again!"
"Wha—what's that, doctor?"
"You are an intelligent girl, Miss Flagg. You must have realized by this time that you cannot leave my mansion alive! However, you are a condemned person and condemned persons are allowed a final, excellent meal. Believe me when I say that I have spared no expense or trouble to bring you the best meal you ever ate!”
Starr's hands worked swiftly. She unlatched her handbag, thrust a hand inside it, brought out the .32 automatic.
But Doctor Roomney had worked even faster. His left hand swept out to the ray projector and swung it around. A fingertip depressed a stud. A beam of yellow light lanced out—caught Starr Flagg full in the face!
She was numb, dazed. It felt as though all her body was turning to wax, melting away. She tried to open her mouth; could not. She tried to tighten her finger on the trigger of the gun, and it was frozen.
Roomney laughed softly, "You see. Miss Flagg? You are powerless." He clapped his hands sharply. Two hard-faced men in butler's livery clattered down the steps.
"Take her upstairs, to the dining room," ordered the scientist, snapping off the switch on the ray-machine.
They brought her into a room whose oak paneled walls and thick maroon drapes were set off by a deep Kurdistan carpet and a huge glass chandelier. In the center of the rug was a table, covered with snowy tablecloth, shining glassware and silver, glistening china An ice-bucket with a magnum of champagne in it was at the left of an armchair.
Her chair—opposite the armchair where Roomney was to sit—was an electric chair!
The girl tried to drag her eyes away from the metal cap, the wrist and ankle-straps The plain dark wood, the empty seat ...
"No!" she cried, fighting with sobbing voice, lashing out with arm and leg.
Ruthless hands strapped her into the chair. A butler knelt and fastened her wrists and ankles.
"Since you cannot hold a menu card, permit me to read the list of delicacies arranged for the delectation of your palate." smiled the furry scientist.
He lifted a slip of paper, read, "We will commence with purèe Andalouse, then a touch of broiled smelts, and our main course should be chicken marengo. Hmmm... and a bit of white wine, Burgundy and champagne For dessert? Fruit rafrachais And coffee!"
Roomney slipped a new cigarette into his holder, turned to one of the stolid-faced servants and gestured to him.
"Havid, post yourself at the wall. Some time during the meal, while our guest Miss Flagg is enjoying one of our many delicious courses—throw the switch!"
Iken Roomney smiled across the glistening china and glasses. "It is kinder, that way. You will never know what happened. Who knows? You might be sipping a rare chablis or a '28 vintage port, eh? Then—pouf! You have left us!”
He cackled laughter. Starr stared at him, whispering, "You're a fiend. A fiend! But you can't get away with this. The police—"
A servant placed steaming soup before the girl, bowing. Starr barely glanced at his cold white face, saw him smile...
Iken Roomney was saying, "You must serve her, Danvers. Miss Flagg is—ah—temporarily disabled."
A shadow fell across the table as Havid passed them, going to the wall. Starr watched him stretch out a hand and place it on the big electrical switch inset in the oaken wall panel. Roomney cackled, "Do not be precipitate, Havid. Permit Miss Flagg to enjoy the dinner. After all, I did spend a bit of time on it. And Danvers is being so solicitous. . .
It was a maniacal scream, bursting from the hairy throat of Iken Roomney. He came up out of his chair, knocking it backwards, stretching out a shaking hand, a hairy finger pointing.
"You aren't Danvers! Who are you?"
The man bowing before Starr Flagg whirled and lifted the glass of wine in front of them and hurled it. It splashed and cracked against Iken Roomney's face. Blood and wine spattered on his mouth and forehead.
Then “Danvers" was whirling and leaping for Havid, who stared in amazement, forgetting to throw the switch. "Danvers" brought his left fist around sharply. Havid's head went back, slamming against the wall. "Danvers" whirled and his right hand darted to a coat pocket. He drew a snub-nosed automatic in his right hand.
"Don't move. Roomney, or I pull trigger!
"Danvers" put a whistle to his mouth and sent a sharp note through the house. A window burst open, glass shattering. The kitchen door came down. Men ran and shouted in the halls.
"Danvers" came toward a wide-eyed Starr Flagg. He grinned. I'm Jim Fallon, Miss Flagg ... F.B.I. field operator. Tonight I was hiding in the bushes as you passed. I tried to warn you but was afraid I might be seen from the house."
"You mean the F.B.I. was 'on' to Roomney, too?"
Jim Fallon held out a hand to Starr Flagg as another man cut her free. "Yes. I managed to waylay Danvers who looked a little like me—to take his place to be sure you'd be safe—and so capture Iken Roomney."
Starr smiled, "Central Intelligence sent me here. Now I see why. I was the bait to spring the trap so that the United States could capture the most dangerous man alive. I was the guest at this dinner to disaster!"
"A dinner with disaster all right—for Iken Roomney!" agreed Jim Fallon, as he led Starr Flagg out into the cool night.
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