First Monday Free Fiction: Countdown to Death

Countdown to Death coverWelcome to the June 2021 edition of First Monday Free Fiction.

To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.

As you may know, I just published Tales of the Silencer, a collection of all Silencer stories to date. Therefore, it’s only fitting that this month’s free story is a Silencer story, namely the very first one, Countdown to Death.

So follow Richard Blakemore a.k.a. the Silencer as he faces his…

Countdown to Death

“SILENCER TO FACE HANGMAN” the headline screamed. Blood red letters, two inch high, running through a rotary press at a rate of five hundred pages per minute.

Jake Levonsky grabbed a paper from the press and scanned the opening paragraph:

Appeal denied — Vigilante to be executed on Tuesday

Today, the governor revoked the final appeal of Richard Blakemore, which means that Blakemore will die in the electric chair on Tuesday.

The local writer and playboy brought many a criminal to justice in the guise of the masked vigilante known as the Silencer, a pulp character of his own creation. Earlier this year, Blakemore was found guilty of murdering the mobster Antonio Tortelli…

“Bullshit,” Levonsky exclaimed and flung the paper into a corner. The fresh ink came off on his fingers and he rubbed them carelessly in his pants.

“Jake, I realize that you’re biased.” Randall Whitman bent down to rescue the paper Levonsky had so casually tossed. Even at a print run of five hundred thousand, he still hated to see even a single paper go to waste. “After all, the man used to work for you.”

“Richard Blakemore didn’t just work for me.” Levonsky puffed his omnipresent cigar. “He is my star author, damn it! The mainstay of my magazine line.”

“And a convicted murderer.”

“Bullshit,” Levonsky roared, loud enough to momentarily drown out the printing press, “I know Richard Blakemore and I know that he didn’t murder anybody.”

“But he was found guilty…”

“A gross miscarriage of justice.”

“There were witnesses…”

“Criminals. Mobsters. Liars, one and all.”

“There was also evidence. Even you can’t deny that, Jake.”

“False. Fabricated.” Puffs of cigar smoke punctuated every single word.

Randall Whitman drew on his pipe “They found Blakemore’s fingerprints all over Tortelli’s mansion,” he said, “They found Blakemore himself, unconscious, in Tortelli’s garden.”

“He was framed.” A perfectly formed smoke ring escaped from Levonsky’s mouth. “Richard Blakemore would never have been so stupid.”

“And what about the full Silencer costume found in Blakemore’s house. Coat, hat, mask, bulletproof steel vest, twin .45 automatics. Just as described in the magazines, to the last detail. What was Blakemore doing with that stuff?”

Levonsky shrugged. “He had all that stuff to try out how it would feel to be in the Silencer’s shoes, to wear that costume and all that equipment. Richard always researched his stories very thoroughly.”

“Come on, Jake. He had the costume and all that, because he was the Silencer. Maybe he really wanted to try out how it felt at first, but then something snapped and he started to believe that he was his own character.” Whitman took another draw of his pipe. “I mean, most of those pulp authors are more or less crazy. That’s probably what happens when you crank out a full-length novel per month. Blakemore just went too far and now he’s paying the price…”

Levonsky jabbed his cigar at Whitman, sprinkling ashes all over the floor. “And there we have it, Randall! Now you’re going to tell me how inferior my magazine line is to your newspaper. And next you’re going to blame me for all this, because I published the damn Silencer magazine in this first place.”

Whitman put a calming hand on the shoulder of his enraged colleague. “Jake, nobody’s blaming you. Hell, I’m not even blaming Blakemore. He did the right thing, if you ask me. Put away a lot of criminals that needed putting away. Plus, the Silencer sightings were always good for a story. But the law is the law, and the law says Blakemore is a murderer. There’s nothing you or I can do about it.”

Levonsky sighed. “I know. It’s just that I know the man. He’s been working for me for three years now. He’s been to my house, met my family. And I just cannot believe that he’s a murderer.”

Whitman gave him a sympathetic nod. “You look like you could use a drink, Jake,” he said, “Let’s go up to my office. I have a good bottle of Bourbon stashed away in my desk.”

***

It was late at night and so the usually busy offices of the New York Star were largely deserted. Whitman and Levonsky made their way through empty desks and abandoned typewriters towards Whitman’s corner office.

Randall Whitman pushed the door open and flipped the light switch on. But the office remained dark. There was a movement in a corner. Then suddenly, a figure stepped from the shadows into the dim light falling in from the bullpen. A sinister figure, dressed in a long black coat with gleaming silver buttons and a black wide-brimmed hat. The face was entirely covered by a mask of polished steel.

Levonsky gulped. He knew who the mysterious figure was. He knew only too well. After all, that very same figure appeared every month on the cover of Levonsky’s best-selling pulp magazine.

Whitman knew who the visitor was as well. “The Silencer,” he whispered, “the real one.”

“Good evening, gentlemen,” the masked man said. His voice sounded hoarse and tinny. “Sit down.” He pointed at the two empty chairs in front of Whitman’s desk with one of his silver-plated .45 automatics.

Both Levonsky and Whitman did as he said, never taking their eyes of the masked stranger. The Silencer himself sat down in Whitman’s swivel chair, leisurely, seemingly at ease. But the automatic always remained within reach.

He looked different than Levonsky had expected. Or rather, he looked different from the artist’s representations on the covers of Levonsky’s pulp magazines. Shorter, slighter, less muscular. But no less menacing. Though the righteous had nothing to fear from the Silencer, Levonsky reminded himself.

“You know who I am,” the masked man said, “You know what I do. You have both detailed my exploits in your publications. You know what I stand for. Justice.”

Now the Silencer looked directly at Whitman and Levonsky, an eerie red glow where his eyes should be. “There is an innocent man on death row in Sing Sing and I cannot allow that. I want you to write about it, to tell your readers about it. Good night, gentlemen.”

Without another word, the Silencer got up, spun around with a swish of his long coat and walked over to the window. He pushed the window up, climbed outside and vanished. For a few seconds, Whitman and Levonsky remained where they were, just starring after the vigilante. Them as if on cue, both men scrambled to their feet and rushed over to the open window. Sticking their heads out into the stifling city air, they looked left, right, down, even up. But the mysterious cloaked figure was nowhere to be seen.

“Vanished, just like that,” Whitman said, closing the window, “How does he do that?”

“Thin and extremely strong grappling cord,” Levonsky replied, “according to the novels at least.”

His mind still couldn’t quite accept what had just happened, what he had seen. For despite all the reports in the news, all the letters his magazine received, Jake Levonsky had never actually believed that there was a real Silencer. He had always dismissed the people who claimed to have seen him as crazy. Until today…

Whitman, on the other hand, seemed to have far fewer problems accepting their encounter with the masked vigilante. “Amazing,” he exclaimed, “We just met the Silencer. The real Silencer. I can already see the headline: ‘Eye to eye with death — My encounter with the Silencer’ By Randall J. Whitman.”

He rushed from the office into the bullpen. “Stop the presses,” he yelled, though it was doubtful that anybody heard him. “Maybe we can still get that story in the morning edition.”

“What’s your problem, Jake?” Whitman asked, noticing Levonsky’s sceptical look, “He explicitly asked us to write about it.”

“I know. It’s just… I have no one to write about this. Richard Blakemore wrote all the Silencer novels, and he…”

“Well, it’s still five days till Tuesday. Maybe you can get Blakemore to crank out one last Silencer story till then. Hell, it’s not as if he’s got anything better to do…”

***

It was 3:00 a.m. on Saturday morning and police captain Justin O’Grady had just returned to his home. He had spent most of the night listening to the statements of two hysterical newspapermen who claimed to have received a visit from the Silencer.

It was bullshit of course. A big load of bullshit. There were no witnesses except the two gentlemen of the press, no fingerprints, no evidence, no nothing. O’Grady was convinced that the two men had made the whole story up. Whitman owned the largest newspaper in town and Levonsky was a pulp publisher. They both made their living making up stories. And now they had made one up trying to help a mutual friend. It was only natural.

Only five days left. Or rather, four days and three hours. Weird things tended to happen so close to the execution date. Surprise witnesses coming out of the woodwork, people making false confessions. It happened every damned time.

If only it was Tuesday already… — No, that was wrong! O’Grady wished no man death, even if he deserved it. He would certainly not wish it upon a man he had once called friend.

But Richard Blakemore was guilty, there was no doubt about it. If there had been doubt, no matter how slight, O’Grady would have done everything in his power to save him. But Blakemore was guilty, damn it! All the evidence pointed to him. His fingerprints found in Tortelli’s house. Blakemore himself, found unconscious in Tortelli’s garden with Tortelli’s blood all over his clothes. Witnesses who claimed to have seen Blakemore with Tortelli. The fact that the Silencer had publicly sworn to bring down the mob, by all means necessary.

And Richard Blakemore wrote the Silencer tales for Levonsky’s magazine line. Allegedly inspired by the real life vigilante’s exploits. But the pulp stories were often way too close to the truth, as O’Grady had found out once he had actually forced himself to read one of the wretched things. To top it off, the Silencer’s costume and equipment were found in Blakemore’s house, neatly hidden behind a false wall. He was guilty, there was no other explanation. O’Grady had been right to arrest him, the judge and jury had been right to convict him.

It still didn’t make O’Grady feel any better, though. He had always held a grudging respect for the mysterious vigilante, even though they had been professional enemies. But the Silencer’s own brand of two gun justice had helped to put many a criminal behind lock and bar, to make the city a safer place. And Richard Blakemore, Richard Blakemore had been his friend, damn it. A man O’Grady had trusted, even though Blakemore had constantly betrayed that trust. How many times had he come to O’Grady. Just a friendly chat, he’d said, but in truth he’d been fishing for information. Research for his pulp stories, he had called it. Some research.

He needed a drink, O’Grady realized. There was a bottle of Malt in the cupboard. So he stumbled into the living room, weary to his bones. There was no light, but O’Grady didn’t need any. He knew his way around even in complete darkness. His fingers found the cupboard, opened it, took out the bottle and a glass. He twisted off the cap and began to pour.

“Got one for me, too, O’Grady?” a strange voice asked.

O’Grady spun around, spilling whiskey in the process. Every muscle, every sinew, every nerve in his body tensed. “Who are you?” he called out into the darkness.

“You know who I am, O’Grady,” the voice said. It was a peculiar voice, strangely hollow, with an almost metallic tinge.

In the middle of the darkened room, the outline of a figure appeared. A man, somewhat shorter than O’Grady, dressed in a long coat and a wide-brimmed hat. Stray beams of moonlight fell through the window, revealing gleaming metal where the stranger’s face should have been.

“The Silencer,” O’Grady whispered. Behind his back, he was frantically fumbling for his back-up gun in the open cupboard.

“Put your hands where I can see them,” the Silencer commanded. The moonlight struck a metallic object in his right hand. A gun, O’Grady realized.

“And don’t even think of grabbing the spare revolver you always keep in that cupboard,” the Silencer said. Damn, how could he know? “You would regret it.”

“I thought you didn’t shoot police officers,” O’Grady said.

“I don’t shoot anybody unless I’m threatened. And I wouldn’t even need to fire to put you out of commission. So play it cool and nobody gets hurt.”

“What do you want?” O’Grady demanded.

“You know what I want. The release of Richard Blakemore. He is innocent.”

“You know I can’t do that. Blakemore was legally tried and convicted. In the eyes of the law he’s guilty.”

“But you don’t believe he did it?”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe. Blakemore was found guilty. And there’s nothing you and I can do about it.” O’Grady took a deep breath. “What are you trying to accomplish anyway? Prove that Richard Blakemore is not the Silencer? It’s too late for that, damn it. If you really wanted to do something, you should’ve shown up at the trial. Hell, why didn’t you?”

“I believe in justice,” the Silencer said, “It’s only when justice fails that I take action. And justice has failed in the case of Richard Blakemore. You will help me to remedy that, Justin O’Grady. Good night.”

With that, the Silencer spun around, making a good show of swirling his long black coat, and walked towards the window.

“Wait,” O’Grady called after him, “Did you murder Antonio Tortelli?”

The Silencer stopped in front of the open window. “I did not,” he said, “Neither did Richard Blakemore.”

“Then who murdered Tortelli?”

“Isn’t it your job to find that out, Captain,” the Silencer said and jumped out of the window.

As soon as he was gone, O’Grady grabbed his gun and rushed after him. But when he reached the window, he could see nothing out there except his own backyard, peaceful in the moonlight.

Cursing, O’Grady put his gun away and switched on the light in the living room. So the two gentlemen of the press had told the truth after all. There really was somebody out there, masquerading as the Silencer. And he was very concerned about the fate of Richard Blakemore.

Could it be that they had been wrong after all, that Richard Blakemore was not the Silencer? That Blakemore was not the murderer of Antonio Tortelli? No, the evidence had been absolutely watertight. Blakemore was guilty, there was no doubt about that.

But then who… what was this Silencer? A last ditch attempt to save Blakemore, that’s what. Somebody dressing up in hat, coat and mask, hoping to convince everybody that he was the real Silencer, that Blakemore was innocent after all. Who though? Somebody close to Blakemore, that much was certain. The fake Silencer’s voice and appearance didn’t suggest anybody specific. Not that there were a whole lot of possibilities.

O’Grady picked up the phone. Maybe it wasn’t the best of ideas to ring up Judge Perkins at this time of the night. But he wanted to see an end put to this nonsense. As soon as possible.

***

Early the next morning, Justin O’Grady arrived in front of Richard Blakemore’s house, accompanied by eight police officers. It was a strange house. Large, a mansion almost, entirely built of grey granite. The architecture was decidedly modernist, but nevertheless the house had an archaic feel. Like a medieval fortress, forbidding, with a sinister air. A fitting residence for a masked vigilante, O’Grady thought. And the money to pay for all this certainly did not come from cranking out pulp novels for Jake Levonsky at two cents a word.

O’Grady took a deep breath, walked up to the massive oak door and rung the bell. The door opened and O’Grady experienced a slight shock. He had expected the butler to open, a fiercely loyal man named Cassidy. Or the housekeeper, one Mrs Travis, who claimed to know absolutely nothing of her employer’s nocturnal activities and quite possibly didn’t. He had not expected this.

For there in the doorway stood a young woman. She was tall, almost as tall as O’Grady. Under different circumstances, she would have been called beautiful. But her eyes were reddened and weary. Her skin had a ghostly pale tone, enhanced by the simple black dress she was wearing. Red hair fell down to her shoulders, slightly wavy, but otherwise unstyled.

O’Grady knew her. He knew her only too well, even though she was about the last person he wanted to see right now. Constance Allen, Richard Blakemore’s fiancée.

“What do you want, Justin?” she said brusquely. There was something cold and hard in her eyes. “If this is just a social call, I’d prefer if you left. Now.”

“I’m sorry, Constance, but I’m here on business,” O’Grady said and held the warrant up for her to see.

“Well then, come in,” she said and stepped aside, “I don’t have the power to stop you.”

O’Grady felt her eyes burning into him. If looks could kill… — well, he’d be a smoldering pile of ash right now. “She hates me,” he thought, “And with good reason, too.”

Most women wouldn’t take it well, if you sent their fiancé to the electric chair. And Constance Allen was not like most women. She was tougher, stronger. The kind of woman who knew how to ride a horse and how to operate an automobile. The kind of woman who was equally adept with a tennis racket and a hunting rifle. One of the strange androgynous creatures birthed by this modern age. Yet still utterly devoted to her fiancé. Not many women would have stood by Richard Blakemore throughout his trial and conviction. Not many women would have endured the publicity, the gossip, the shame. Constance Allen had.

O’Grady was certain that she had been privy to Blakemore’s secret. Not that he had ever been able to prove anything. But Constance Allen had had dealings with the Silencer, he knew that much. The vigilante had brought her father’s killer, the fiend known as the Scarlet Executioner, to justice. And saved Constance Allen from the villain’s guillotine. She had started dating Richard Blakemore at around the same time. Coincidence? Certainly not.

A thorough search of the house yielded nothing, except hostile looks from its occupants. Even the secret room, hidden behind a revolving bookshelf, was as empty as O’Grady had left it after his men had last searched the place.

“I don’t know what you hope to find,” Constance Allen said to him. She was standing in the middle of the library, flanked by the furious butler and upset housekeeper. “But it’s quite obviously not here. So I’d be very grateful if you and your men could leave now.”

Damn, O’Grady had been sure that he would find something. A second Silencer costume for example, hidden in the secret room behind the bookshelf. A long black coat, a slouch hat lying at the back of some wardrobe. The Silencer’s steel mask, hidden in that workshop/laboratory in the cellar. Two silver-plated .45 automatics, locked away in a drawer of Blakemore’s elaborately carved ebony writing desk. Any kind of evidence to justify what he was about to do. Not that he couldn’t do without.

O’Grady turned to the butler. “Neal Cassidy,” he said, “You’re under arrest.”

Protest arose at once, though strangely enough not from the butler.

“You can’t just arrest him, Justin,” Constance Allen exclaimed, “What is the charge?”

“Breaking and entering, threatening a police officer, and that’s just for starters. The Silencer paid me a visit last night. It seems he also harassed Jake Levonsky and Randall Whitman of the Star.”

“Then what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be out there, hunting the Silencer?”

“Come on, Constance, let’s forget all pretenses for once. Richard is the Silencer. You and I both know it. But Richard is locked away in Sing Sing. So the question is, who was wearing the Silencer costume last night. Regarding the circumstances, it’s safe to assume that it was someone close to Richard. And since I do not believe that you or Mrs Travis go roaming the streets by night, dressed in coat, mask and slouch hat, Mr. Cassidy is by far the most likely suspect.”

“You have no proof,” Constance Allen snapped, “These charges will never stick.”

O’Grady was well aware of that himself. But he had Judge Perkins’ support.

“I don’t need the charges to stick permanently. All I need is Mr Cassidy out of the way for a few days. And given his past record it shouldn’t be too hard to keep him behind lock and bar for some days, evidence or not.”

Neal Cassidy had been a smalltime crook in the years directly after the Great War. Involved in gambling, smuggling, probably worse. Then, in ’32 he’d gone straight all of a sudden and became Blakemore’s devoted butler.

O’Grady looked the man up and down. Light but muscular body, slightly shorter than O’Grady himself, the stature was like that of the man who had visited him. The voice was wrong, but maybe Blakemore had developed some means of distorting it. And the butler was a perfect fit otherwise. Athletic though no longer young, with a shady past that had taught him all the skills the Silencer might need, utterly devoted to Blakemore. There was no doubt. Neal Cassidy was the man who had posed as the Silencer last night.

“Johnson, Avery,” O’Grady called to two of his men, “Take him away. And see to it that he knows his rights, we don’t want any legal complications here.”

“You will hear from our lawyer,” Constance Allen hissed, as she watched the two policemen handcuff the butler, “I will not let this happen.”

“It’s okay, Miss Constance,” Cassidy said. Throughout the arrest, he had not offered the least bit of resistance. “I’ll be fine. You just look out for the boss.”

Then Johnson and Avery took him away, muttering the prisoner’s rights, mechanically, like a poem recited far too often. O’Grady turned around and followed them, all the while feeling Constance Allen’s green eyes burning into his back.

***

Fourteen very exhausting hours later, Justin O’Grady was finally returning to his home. He had spent most of the day trying to question Neal Cassidy. To no avail, because the butler just sat there with a defiant smile on his face, saying nothing.

Then he had to deal with the press who had magically shown up, even though the arrest had not been announced. There had been a lot of questions, of course. Questions that O’Grady neither could nor wanted to answer. Finally, he had grabbed Randall Whitman of the Star to confront him with the prisoner. He had hoped to get a positive identification, after all Whitman had been visited by the Silencer the night before. But as it was, Whitman could not tell the butler from a lamp post. “How should I know if that’s the man, Captain,” he said to O’Grady, “He was wearing a mask.”

The afternoon and most of the evening had been spent fencing with Blakemore’s lawyer over the release of Neal Cassidy. For of course the lawyer believed that the arrest was unlawful. And went on to claim that his client had only been arrested because of his association with the convicted murderer Richard Blakemore. Which was even true. Then the whole thing turned into a lecture on the Blakemore case and how the police and the justice system had failed his client. The lawyer finally ended his rant with “Damn you, O’Grady, the man was your friend!”

Was. As if the executioner had flicked that switch already. Even though Richard Blakemore still had a little over three days to live. This whole damned case was tearing at O’Grady’s nerves as much as at everybody else’s. He needed a drink, he realized. He had felt that need with alarming frequency lately.

O’Grady fumbled with the key and finally managed to push the door open. A stiff drink and a warm bed, that was all he wanted right now…

“You messed up, O’Grady,” a hollow voice said from somewhere within the house. Because of the darkness, O’Grady couldn’t see where it came from. But then he didn’t need to. He already knew who it was.

“You got the wrong man,” the voice said, its tone harsh and mocking, “Again.”

O’Grady flicked the light switch with his left hand, simultaneously reaching for his gun with the right. The lights flickered on, revealing a familiar figure in black standing in the middle of the hallway. But even in bright light, the figure’s appearance gave no clue to his identity. For that mask of polished steel revealed nothing.

Well, O’Grady would find out who was behind that mask. He would find out in a minute. Because he had absolutely had enough of this nonsense. “Hands up, Silencer,” he said, “You’re under arrest.” With that he aimed his gun straight at the mysterious figure.

“Don’t be ridiculous, O’Grady,” the Silencer said. In a movement almost too swift for human eyes to follow he drew one of his own guns and pointed it straight at O’Grady. “You don’t have what it takes to capture me. And anyway, I’m not your enemy.”

“You break into my house,” O’Grady said without lowering his gun, “Twice. You threaten me with your gun. Not exactly the behaviour of a friend.”

“But sadly necessary, since you insist on arresting me. And everybody you believe to be me. Neal Cassidy is innocent. As is Richard Blakemore. But there is a murderer out there, free. Antonio Tortelli’s murderer. Instead of wasting your time chasing phantoms, you should rather chase him.”

“Well, since you seem to know everything, who murdered Tortelli then? Can you answer that?”

“I’m sure you could answer that question yourself, O’Grady. If you’d only use your brain for once. Who profits from Tortelli’s demise? Who profits from having the Silencer out of the way? Those are the questions you should be asking yourself. Good night, O’Grady.”

The Silencer turned around, the black coat swirling behind him. “Stop,” O’Grady yelled. He brought up his pistol and aimed it at the black-clad figure. But the Silencer was faster. The silver-plated automatic flashed, as a shot was fired into the hallway. Glass shattered. O’Grady ducked. The lights went out.

Only now did O’Grady realize that he had never been the target. The Silencer did not fire on policemen, not even when cornered. However, he had no compunctions about firing at wall lamps. Cursing, O’Grady got up and stumbled through the darkened corridor after the fleeing vigilante.

He finally made it into the living room and fumbled for the switch beside the door. The lights came on, momentarily blinding O’Grady. He blinked once, twice, until his eyes had become accustomed to the light. The room was empty, and a soft night breeze was blowing in through the open window. Damn!

O’Grady was about to rush over to the window, even though he knew that it was in vain. But then he noticed a strange chiming sound. The telephone was ringing. It had been ringing for about half a minute, but O’Grady only became aware of it now. He took up the receiver and bellowed, “Yes, O’Grady here.”

“It’s Burton, sir,” the voice at the other end of the line said. O’Grady recognized it as the night shift sergeant. “We just got an emergency call from Judge Perkins. You won’t believe what happened, sir. The Silencer paid him a visit half an hour ago.”

“Yeah, me too,” O’Grady said and hung up.

He sighed. It would be another long night. But he would put an end to this nonsense once and for all. Even if it meant arresting every single person in the city who had ever had contact with Richard Blakemore.

***

Jake Levonsky was not at all happy about being arrested. His wife and teenaged daughter were watching in tears, as O’Grady’s men took him away, hands cuffed behind his back. The magazine publisher himself was yelling insults and did not shut up until he was locked in a cell at the police station.

The lawyer was even worse. He was ranting as well, though thankfully not quite as loud as Levonsky. However, he kept on threatening to sue the police in general and O’Grady in particular. O’Grady would even have taken that threat seriously, if he hadn’t had Judge Perkins’ full support. But the judge had been severely rattled by the unexpected visit the night before. His wife had even fainted in shock. So Perkins was willing to do whatever it took to stop the Silencer once and for all. Even if it meant arresting one of the city’s best known lawyers.

On the other hand, Blakemore’s gardener, an aged black man named Eugene, took his arrest surprisingly well. He did not resist, he did not complain. He only kept muttering “I don’t know nothing” over and over again.

Timmy Thompson, finally, a fourteen-year-old newsboy whom Blakemore had taken under his wing, just began to cry and did not stop until he finally fell asleep on the narrow cot in the holding cell.

O’Grady was about to go home, to finally get some sleep himself, when the phone on his desk rang.

“Maybe you should arrest yourself, O’Grady…,” a hollow metallic voice said. It was a voice that O’Grady knew only too well. “…considering that you used to be friends with Richard Blakemore. Word of advice though. Instead of harassing innocent citizens, you should rather hunt down the real murderers of Antonio Tortelli.”

“Damn it, who are you?” O’Grady yelled into the receiver but the Silencer had already hung up. And of course the technicians — damned useless lot that they were — didn’t manage to trace the call.

O’Grady was at the end of his wits now. He had arrested every possible and impossible suspect and still the Silencer roamed free. Had he been wrong after all? Was the Silencer someone else altogether, someone totally unconnected to Richard Blakemore? But that would mean that Richard Blakemore, the man who would die in the electric chair less than two days from now, might be innocent after all… Only one person knew for sure. And O’Grady would talk to that very person. Even though he was less than certain that he would get an answer.

***

In the grey dusk of a dreary November day, Sing Sing prison looked even more oppressive than usual. Justin O’Grady shivered as he passed the massive gates. Walking the path to the death house, he felt the cold gnaw down to his bones.

“Quite unusual that you’d want to see an inmate so shortly before the date,” the warden remarked.

“A new situation has come up,” O’Grady said.

“Well, I hope that it’s a good one for that poor guy. I always liked the Silencer, you know. If there were more of his kind, there’d be less to do for me and my kind. A very pleasant fellow, too, this Mr Blakemore. A true gentleman.”

Sing Sing death house was a like a maze. O’Grady followed the warden through seemingly endless corridors deep into the bowels of the withered brick building. In the distance, he could hear the low humming of high-voltage electricity. It must have been a trick of the mind, for O’Grady knew that the generators wouldn’t be powered up. Not yet.

Finally, they reached their destination and the warden unlocked a door. “Please wait in here, Captain,” he said, “I’ll get the prisoner.”

The room was small and virtually featureless. A wooden table, two wooden chairs, a barred window, that was all. O’Grady sat down in one of the chairs and waited. The lone lightbulb flickered from time to time and O’Grady could hear that humming again, somewhere in the building. It was not an illusion. O’Grady pressed his hands over his ears, but it would not go away.

After what seemed like an eternity, the door opened again. The warden entered, together with a colleague. A third man was walking between them. He was dressed in standard prisoner’s garb, and he could not walk properly, only hobble, because his feet as well as his hands were bound.

But despite all that, there was an air of dignity about him. His back was upright, his dark hair was immaculately cut, his chin was clean shaven, his grey eyes were alert and intelligent. The man was Richard Blakemore, pulp writer, vigilante and convicted murderer.

“Justin, what a pleasant surprise,” Blakemore called out as soon as he noticed O’Grady. He tried to sound cheerful, but his words only barely masked the strain in his voice. “Been awhile.”

“Yeah, sorry,” O’Grady said, not looking Blakemore. He hadn’t been able to visit his former friend, here on death row in Sing Sing. Just as he wasn’t able to look Blakemore in the eyes now. To look a man in the eyes who would die tomorrow morning. Who would die because O’Grady might have made a mistake.

Blakemore sat down on the second wooden chair, which took awhile because his shackles made it difficult to move. O’Grady wished that the two guards would help him to sit down, but they remained standing next to the door, as stiff and unmoving as statues. They were making him nervous, O’Grady realized. And anyway, he didn’t need them here. He couldn’t talk freely with those two listening in.

“You can leave now,” he said to the two men.

“Are you sure, Captain? The prisoner might…”

“The prisoner will do nothing. Now would you please leave us alone?”

One of the guards shrugged his shoulders. “If you wish, Captain? We’ll be outside if you need us.” They left, locking the door behind them.

“What brings you here anyway, Justin?” Blakemore asked as soon as they were gone, “I was expecting my lawyer to be honest.”

“Your lawyer is part of the reason why I’m here. I was forced to arrest him yesterday.”

Richard Blakemore raised an eyebrow. “You arrested my lawyer?”

“And Jake Levonsky, Neal Cassidy, your gardener, young Timmy Thompson… I’d have arrested Randall Whitman, too, but Judge Perkins chickened out of it.”

“And why did you arrest all these people? Were they conspiring to break me out or something? In that case you should have arrested Mrs. Travis, too. I’m sure she was supplying the conspirators with her famous pumpkin cookies.”

“Damn it, Richard, this is serious. The Silencer is back. He paid me a visit Friday night and the night before. He harassed Whitman and Levonsky, or so they claim. And finally, he climbed through Judge Perkins’ bedroom window. Perkins is up in arms. Seems he nearly had a heart attack. His wife fainted from shock.”

Richard Blakemore smiled. “Hmm, now it gets interesting. And you believe that Cassidy or Levonsky or even my lawyer…?”

“Look, Richard, if you know anything at all about this…”

“Ha, that’s a good one, Justin. I’ve been locked up here for eight months now. Every visit, every phone call, every letter is monitored. I’ve spent the last week or so in a windowless cell with someone checking on me every fifteen minutes, day or night, to make sure I don’t kill myself and spare the executioner the trouble. So how could I possibly know anything that the guards and therefore you don’t know about?”

“Sorry,” O’Grady mumbled. He was trying hard to stare at the wall, for he found that he still could not look his friend in the eyes.

“You’re going to release them again?” Blakemore asked, “Cassidy, Levonsky and the others.”

“Of course. Once…” O’Grady let the sentence trail. What should he say? Once all this is over? Once you’re dead? “We can’t hold them for long anyway, since we don’t have any solid evidence,” he added hastily, “We frisked your house yesterday, but didn’t find anything.”

“Again? I’d think there wasn’t any stone left that you hadn’t turned over twice already.”

“Look, Richard, I’m sorry, but I’m just doing my job here. And, hell, this situation is bad enough! Levonsky and that lawyer of yours are threatening to sue my ass off, if I don’t release them at once. Randall Whitman is calling for my blood in that newspaper rag of his, since I — as he puts it — frivolously arrest innocent people. Constance hates me.”

“Constance doesn’t hate you,” Blakemore said, “She’s just upset, that’s all.”

“You didn’t see the look in her eyes, when I had your house searched. She’d have killed me on the spot, if that’d changed anything.”

“About Constance…, I want you to take care of her, when… when…” Blakemore paused. Apparently, he wasn’t able to say it aloud either. “She will need someone to stand by her,” he finally said, “Promise me you’ll take care of her.”

“I promise,” O’Grady said solemnly. He’d have hated to refuse a doomed man’s final wish, even though he knew that Constance Allen would never speak a word with him again.

O’Grady took a deep breath. There was something else he had to ask, something he had to know. “Just between you and me, Richard,” he began, “Did you kill Tortelli?”

Blakemore’s answer was firm. “I did not.”

“Look, Richard, I’m sorry… about all this. If I had anything to say… — But I’m just doing my job, damn it! You’ve got to understand that. But I want you to know that I’m sorry…”

“It’s okay, old friend,” Blakemore said, “Be seeing you. Tomorrow.”

On his way back to the city, O’Grady stopped at some bar in Ossining. He ordered a glass of whiskey and downed it in a single gulp.

***

On a rooftop opposite of the police station, a strange figure stood. The cold November wind was tearing at its black coat, flapping it like the wings of a monstrous crow. The black-clad figure, however, did not seem to notice. Instead, the stranger was intently watching Justin O’Grady though a pair of high magnification binoculars.

This was no good. Harassing O’Grady, Whitman, Levonsky even Judge Perkins, was getting nowhere. Whitman and Levonsky didn’t have the power to do anything. The judge was too afraid of the Silencer to listen what he had to say. O’Grady was venting his frustration by randomly arresting people. And drinking of course. He didn’t listen. He didn’t go after the real killers. And time was running out for Richard Blakemore.

Something else would have to be done. Something more drastic. And a lot more risky. Something that might cost the life of the person beneath the Silencer’s mask. It didn’t matter. Want a job done right, do it yourself. And if the Silencer wanted the real killers of Antonio Tortelli brought to justice, he would have to capture them himself.

***

In the backroom of a small Trattoria in Little Italy, a private party was going on. Eddie “the Rat” Rizzo, a local Mafioso, and Armando Faggini, his trusted advisor, were enjoying a bottle of the best Chianti the cellar had to offer. Two guards, armed with automatics and Tommy guns, were flanking the door that led out into a dirty backalley.

Eddie Rizzo felt completely safe. The police and the Bureau of Investigation had not a clue about this place. His biggest rival, Tony Tortelli, had bit the dust eight months ago. And the Silencer — that mysterious stranger all clad in black who had been terrorizing Rizzo’s operation for months now — the Silencer would be history at sunrise tomorrow. Life was good.

Rizzo raised his glass. “To the future” he said, “to a future without Tony Tortelli or the Silencer meddling with our business. And to the Silencer, may God rest his soul.”

“Amen,” Faggini mumbled and lowered his head in a silent prayer for the soon to be dead. Then he raised his glass in turn and took a sip of wine.

Glass shattered. A metallic object, shaped somewhat like a baby’s rattle, was hurled through the window and landed on the floor.

“Grenade,” one of the bodyguards cried out. He threw himself over the object to shield his bosses from the deadly blast.

But when the grenade popped, there was no fire, no bang, no explosion. There was only a whitish vapour rising from the metal shell. The man who had thrown himself over the grenade was the first to inhale the vapour. Within seconds, he had lost consciousness.

“Gas,” the second bodyguard exclaimed. Already choking and coughing he grabbed his Tommy gun in an attempt to fire out of the window at whoever was behind this attack. But the gas had already messed with his sense of direction and so he ended up spraying bullets across the room instead. A stray shot hit Armando Faggini in the back, and his body fell forward straight into a full plate of pasta, quite dead.

“Stop, you idiot!” Rizzo yelled. He covered his nose and mouth with a napkin and tried to run for the door. But before he could ever reach it, he collapsed onto the floor, unconscious.

About a minute later, the door opened and a sinister figure, all dressed in black, walked into the room. Filters built into a mask of polished steel protected him from the gas, as he stepped across the fallen bodyguards. He paused briefly to check Armando Faggini for signs of life. Then he walked over to the door and bent down over the unconscious form of Eddie Rizzo.

A terrible laugh issued from somewhere beneath that mask.

***

It was 10:45 p.m. on Monday evening. Justin O’Grady had just taken the last sheet of paper from his typewriter and downed the last drop of coffee left in his mug. It would be a long drive up to Ossining.

“You’re going up to Sing Sing right away, Sir?” Sergeant Burton asked.

O’Grady nodded.

“Maybe you should go home first and catch a bit of sleep,” Burton suggested, “No offence, sir, but you look awful.”

Sleep. In the last four nights O’Grady hadn’t had more than three hours of sleep in a row, and it was beginning to show. He had to retype a report three times before it was finally free of typos. Go on like this and he would start hallucinating. In fact it was a wonder that he hadn’t already. But sleep? No, he couldn’t sleep. Not tonight. Not when Richard Blakemore had only seven hours left to live.

O’Grady shook his head. “No, I’d rather get to Sing Sing early. And there’ll be time enough to sleep when all this is over.”

“Nothing in the world could get me to go up there tonight,” Burton said, “I hate seeing people fry.”

“Me too,” O’Grady said quietly.

“Yeah. Makes this job so much easier if you don’t exactly know what’s gonna happen to them.”

O’Grady nodded. Because he knew exactly what was going to happen. He had seen it before, a few times even. And he knew exactly how it would be. When the switch was flicked, two thousand volts would shoot through the body of the condemned. The body would heave, go into convulsions, held back only by the leather straps that bound it to the chair. Two weaker shocks would follow and then a strong one again. Until the body finally stopped convulsing and lay in the chair as limp as a doll’s. They said that the prisoner lost consciousness after the first shock, that the brain was destroyed at once. But the heart sometimes kept on beating for minutes afterwards. Occasionally, smoke would rise from beneath the leather cap that covered the prisoner’s face. Not a pleasant sight. But the smell, that sweetish stench of burnt flesh, that was the worst.

Yes, O’Grady had witnessed a few executions in his time, and he had never exactly liked it. Even though he knew that the convicts were murderers, rapists, kidnappers, criminals of the worst kind. He knew that they deserved it, and even though watching them die in that chair always left him with a sick feeling in his stomach that would not vanish until he had had a drink. But this time it was different. This time it would be a friend sitting in that chair. And a man that O’Grady was not certain anymore deserved to die.

“I’ll be going now,” O’Grady said to the sergeant.

Suddenly, he became aware of some kind of commotion going on outside in the waiting area. Loud voices could be heard. They were arguing.

“I’m sorry, Sir, but you can’t…”

“Listen, I wanna talk to Captain O’Grady. Now. Capice?”

“I’m really sorry…”

“I’ve had it with your sorrys. You take me to your boss. At once.”

Burton sighed. “I’ll see what it is,” he said.

“Let me,” O’Grady offered, “I was leaving anyway. And whoever is making all that ruckuss out there obviously wants to see me.”

At that moment, the door was thrown wide open and a man came stomping in. A small fat man with oily black hair, a pencil-thin moustache and a really bad taste in clothes. O’Grady recognized him at once. It was Eddie “the Rat” Rizzo, a small-time gangster with big-time ambitions.

“Ah, there you are, O’Grady,” Rizzo exclaimed, “I’ve got to talk to you.”

The mobster looked even worse than usual, O’Grady noticed. His hair was dishevelled, his too flashy clothing showed stains of something red and he sported a black eye. O’Grady couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to him. A little skirmish between rival families most likely. Though why was Eddie complaining to the police? Usually, the mob dealt with this sort of thing among themselves.

But whatever had happened here, O’Grady had neither the time nor the energy to deal with it right now. “Look, Eddie, this is a very bad time,” he said, “But whatever your problem is, I’m sure one of my colleagues…”

“Damn it, O’Grady, I want to talk to you. Not with the hired help. With you. And I’ve got the right, this is what I pay taxes for…”

“Eddie, you’ve never paid taxes in your whole life.”

““But you’ve got to listen to me, O’Grady. I’ve got a confession to make, yes I do. But you’ve got to help me, you’ve got to protect me. Swear that you’ll protect me. By all the saints, protect me or he’ll kill me. He said he’d kill me.”

O’Grady sighed. “Who, Eddie? Who said he’d kill you?”

“The… the… the Silencer.”

O’Grady unbuttoned his coat again. This was getting interesting.

“He said he’d kill me if I didn’t tell you everything. And he’d do a lot worse than what’ll happen to that writer fellow up in Sing Sing.”

Without invitation, the mobster plopped down on the chair opposite O’Grady’s desk.

“I killed Tony Tortelli,” he said, “yes, I did. He started showing up on my turf, messing with my business and he needed a lesson. It was his own fault, yes, it was.”

“Burton,” O’Grady called to the sergeant, “You will protocol everything this gentleman here says. And now, Eddie, you’ll tell me and the sergeant here everything right from the beginning.”

“It was all Tortelli’s fault. He was too greedy, he was. Wanted more’n his share of the pie. And it was my turf he wanted. I had to kill him, don’t you see? It was only self-defence, yes, it was.”

“And what about Richard Blakemore? How does he fit into this?”

“The writer? Well, we’d been having trouble with this Silencer guy, you know. Kept interrupting our business, he did. And Armando — he’s real smart, you know — he knew that the Silencer was really a character from a magazine. So we wondered, how can a magazine character be interrupting our business, when he’s not even real? Except that he is real, you know. So Armando says, ‘Let’s find out who writes those magazines?’ Name on the cover was fake of course, but we found out anyway. Was a guy named Blakemore. We started watching Blakemore, and well, he goes out a lot at night. At nights when the Silencer strikes. So we figured Blakemore is the Silencer…”

Eddie paused, gasping for breath.

“And then Armando, he had a plan. He said, we kill Tony Tortelli — cause we had to, you know — and blame it on that Blakemore fellow. And then we’re rid of both. It’s — how do you say — two flies with one swat.” Eddie slammed his hand down on O’Grady’s desk to illustrate his point.

“Don’t know how we could’ve been wrong, but Blakemore isn’t the Silencer. The real Silencer is still out there and he said he’d kill me if I didn’t tell you everything.”

Eddie suddenly leant across the desk and grabbed O’Grady by the lapels of his coat. “Oh please, Captain, you’ve gotta protect me from him. He’s terrible, I tell you, really terrible. He’s got glowing eyes like the devil, and his face is of metal and his voice, his voice… — that’s no human voice I’m telling you…”

Eddie Rizzo’s head dropped onto the wooden desk and the mobster started to sob uncontrollably.

“Whatever the Silencer did to Eddie, it sure put the fear of God into him,” O’Grady said. He looked at his watch and shot a worried glance at Sergeant Burton. “You’d better call Judge Perkins, Burton. No, forget that! Give me the governor right away.”

***

It was 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and Richard Blakemore was taking the last walk of his life, accompanied by two guards and a priest named Father O’Rafferty. The endless corridors of Sing Sing death house were a maze, a labyrinth of despair. But Richard Blakemore walked it bravely, even though every step took him closer to death.

The witness benches in the execution chamber were surprisingly empty. The prison director and the district attorney were there, of course, as well as a bunch of journalists including Randall Whitman himself. However, the condemned’s lawyer could not attend the execution, since he was in prison himself. Constance Allen would have been there, to stand by her fiancé till the end, but Richard Blakemore did not want the woman he loved to see him die.

Justin O’Grady should have been there, but for some reason he wasn’t. “Probably been drinking again,” the district attorney whispered to the prison director.

“Hush,” the director replied. He disliked talking in the execution chamber. It was disrespectful. Besides, the condemned would be here any minute now.

The door opened and the two guards brought Blakemore in. He walked to the chair, upright, never faltering. A very brave man, the prison director noted. The guards unlocked the chains that bound Blakemore’s wrists and ankles, so he could sit down. Then they proceeded to strap him into the chair. Two straps for the legs, two for the arms, one across the chest. Next they connected the electrodes, one to the forehead, the other to the right leg. Somewhere in the distance, the humming of the generators could be heard.

“Do you have anything to say?” one of the guards asked.

Richard Blakemore seemed completely calm. “I am innocent,” he said.

The guards placed a leather cap over his head. The chamber was completely still except for the priest mumbling and praying in the corner. In the next room, separated from the chamber only by a curtain, stood the man who would flick the switch. He was waiting for his signal.

The prison director looked at the wall clock. Almost six. Just twenty seconds left. Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, fifteen…

The telephone rang.

***

“And then Eddie ‘the Rat’ Rizzo walked straight into the police station and confessed,” O’Grady said to a tired looking Richard Blakemore in front of Sing Sing prison.

“Tortelli had been a rival of Rizzo, we knew that, and in fact we had been investigating Rizzo after the murder. But Rizzo had an alibi, provided by his good friend Armando Faggini. And then he started being so damned helpful, telling us Tortelli had been threatened by the Silencer and all that. Everything supported by Faggini, of course. Turned out Faggini and Rizzo had planned it together. Wanted to get rid of Tortelli and the Silencer at the same time. They figured that you were the Silencer and so you got dragged into all this…”

Blakemore nodded and smiled, but the strain of the past eight months, not to mention the past few hours was all too plain on his face. In fact, he looked on the verge of collapse. Not that O’Grady could blame him. Still, he’d better make this quick.

“We immediately arrested Rizzo, of course. He’s gonna fry for this. Faggini is dead, by the way. We found him face down in a plate of spaghetti, with a bullet in his back. One of his own bodyguards shot him. An accident, he claims. Might even be true, but he’ll still stand trial for it. Too good an opportunity to pass up.”

O’Grady took a deep breath. “As for the Silencer, no idea who he really was. We already released all the people we arrested in connection with the Silencer case, of course. But should you see him, the Silencer I mean, tell him from me that he did well.”

“A very fascinating story,” Richard Blakemore said, “Would make a good pulp tale, I’m sure. But if you don’t mind, I’d really like to go home now. I’m tired and I need a shower and I want to see Constance. She knows, doesn’t she?”

“Of course,” O’Grady assured him, “We called her as soon as the governor had signed the papers.” He paused briefly, then he said, “And Richard, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Justin,” Blakemore said.

On a rooftop opposite the prison, a figure all dressed in black was watching. Beneath the steel mask, a pair of lips formed a smile.

***

When Richard Blakemore finally returned to his fortress-like home, he found a black-clad, masked figure standing in the middle of his living room. A figure he knew only too well.

But unlike most people who had been graced by a visit from the Silencer, Richard Blakemore was not the least bit afraid. Instead, he rushed towards the masked figure and embraced it wordlessly.

“You knew?” the Silencer asked in that eerie artificial voice.

“I could guess. There weren’t that many possibilities left after Justin’s arresting spree. And contrary to Justin, I know what you’re capable of.”

The Silencer nodded. “Much as I like him, Justin is a fool. And terribly old-fashioned.”

Gloved hands began to unbutton the black coat. “I will be glad to be out of those clothes, though. Damned uncomfortable. I wonder how you can stand it.”

The heavy coat was flung onto a nearby sofa, as the Silencer unstrapped the holster holding the twin .45 automatics. “And by the way, can’t you use smaller guns? These things alone weigh a ton fully loaded, and they’re not easy to fire accurately. Most of the time, showing them was sufficient, but once I had to shoot to put out a light when Justin was after me. The recoil nearly broke my wrist.”

“But you’re okay?”

The figure nodded, taking off the metal breastplate that protected the Silencer from bullets fired at him. Beneath the bulky costume, its body was very slender, slight even.

“You took a damned risk with what you did” Richard Blakemore remarked.

“I know. But I couldn’t just let them kill you. I love you too much for that. And after all legal means were exhausted, this was the only way.”

“Where did you hide the costume anyway that Justin and his men didn’t find it when they searched the house?”

The Silencer took the wide-brimmed hat off. “My place. And even if they’d searched that, men generally get embarrassed when rummaging through a woman’s clothes.” A few pins were removed, and long red hair fell down to the Silencer’s shoulders.

Slender fingers removed a strange box-like object which was tied to the Silencer’s throat. “The voice processor works like a charm by the way,” a female voice remarked. Finally, the mask of polished steel was removed, revealing the face of Constance Allen underneath.

“But this mask,” she said, “really ruins the complexion.”

The End

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.

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