The Big Fall

The Big Fall is the second adventure of the Grey Ghost, aka Johnny Diamonds, and was slated for publication, but as I haven’t heard anything on that score in a very long time, I’m presenting it to you here. I rounded out the narrator’s story from The Specter of Justice, gave him a name and a background, and included the classic (and now public domain) pulp character the Phantom Detective. I’m happy with the result and I’m hoping one of these days to do more with the Grey Ghost, possibly combining these tales into a longer work. Enjoy it, ya mugs!

1: Framed

Waking up next to a corpse can ruin a guy’s whole evening. Especially when the corpse has two slugs in its chest and you’re holding a still-warm .38.

It seemed to take hours for me to figure out where I was and what had happened. The last thing I remembered was following that swanky blonde into her apartment. After that… nothing, save for a lingering ache in my neck and the grand-daddy of all hangovers.

Now I was sprawled on the rug in a dingy room, with a dead body lying face up beside me. Getting to my knees took almost all of my energy, but when I looked into the man’s dead, staring eyes, I felt a shock as if someone had just put 10,000 volts through me.

It was Rico S. His real name was Enrico Suarez, and he was one of my best fences. Like me, he specialized in hot gemstones, and always managed to get me top dollar. Now he was dead, and I was holding the gun that probably killed him. My brain was moving about as fast as a man drowning in oatmeal, but I knew a frame-up when I saw one.

I shook my head, desperate to clear the fog that hung over me, slowing movement and thought. I looked stupidly at the .38, still instinctively clutched in one hand. It wasn’t my piece, but I didn’t expect John Law to believe it.

I sniffed the barrel. Of course it had been fired, and when I snapped it open I saw two empty chambers. The Delta City cops knew their stuff when they weren’t shaking down crooks for pay-offs or rousting bums, and they’d be able to match the slugs in poor Rico’s chest to the weapon in a New York minute. I pocketed it, and tried to figure out what to do. Instinct told me to take it on the lam — run, run as fast and as far as I could before the bulls arrived.

The apartment’s window had a spectacular view of the alley outside. As I stepped out onto the fire escape I heard the faint wailing of police sirens echoing in the distance. They grew to full-throated screams as I climbed unsteadily down the metal steps and dropped into the reeking, trash-strewn alley.

“Hey, Johnny!” A hunched, tattered shape emerged from behind a pair of trash cans, staring at me with bleary, booze-reddened eyes. “I thought that was you goin’ in earlier. With a dame on your arm… Rowf! Why’d she have to leave, Johnny? Did you get fresh with her? Heh.”

We called him Sterno Joe. No one knew his real name.

I fumbled in my coat pocket and pulled out my roll, peeled off a sawbuck and handed it to him.

“I wasn’t here, Joe,” I said. “You never saw me. Got it?”

Joe winked and flashed a grin. “Got it, boss. Never saw no-one. Spent the whole night asleep in the alley, til those damn cops woke me up with their damn sirens.”

I nodded. “Thanks, Joe. I owe you one.”

I was a block away by the time the bull-wagons had rolled up to the apartment building, their lights throwing blood-red shadows up and down the streets. My neck ached, my head pounded, and my limbs were almost as stiff as Rico, but for the moment I was free. And if the cops were busy looking for me, the best thing I could do was to become someone else for a while.

That was something that I was real good at.


They call me Johnny Diamonds — Johnny D’s for short. I guess it’s because I’m a jewel thief and I specialize in ice — crooks are like that. They love nicknames.

I was born John Callahan, to a widow who came stateside to get away from the Potato Famine, to a country where the only work she could get was washing other people’s clothes. I grew up on the streets, served my time overseas fighting the Kaiser, and started calling myself John Clay after discovering that an Irish name is a one-way ticket to the poor house, unless you wanted to be a cop or a priest.

I didn’t want to be either, and hauling bricks for a dollar a day wasn’t exactly my cup of joe. I like to think that I turned to a life of crime because I had no other choice, but the truth is that I did it because it was an easy way to use my brain, and to live comfortably while doing it. Income from jewel heists kept ma fed and clothed ‘til she finally passed away, bless her soul, never knowing that her son was a crook.

But that’s all water under the bridge, because even though the underworld knew me as Johnny Diamonds, I had another name that no one knew – a name that would drop the average hood dead in his tracks if he heard it.

That’s because my other name is the Grey Ghost, Specter of Justice. You know — one of those masked guys who lurks in alleys and fights crime, usually because the cops are so bad at it.

How I got to be the Grey Ghost is a long story. Let’s just say that the old Grey Ghost took a slug between the eyes, and well… he and I both wore a size 44.

Being a crook while moonlighting as a crime-fighter turned out to be a pretty sweet deal. Armed with twin .45s and driving around town in the Silver Bullet – the Ghost’s custom Cadillac – I took down cheap hoods, crime bosses, and even an odd mad genius or two, all the while keeping the streets safe for me and my friends. The bulls loved me, the papers raved and the civilians ate it up with a fork then asked for seconds.

No one suspected that the Grey Ghost was really jewel thief Johnny Diamonds. And now, since the heat was on Johnny, I’d have to become the Grey Ghost again for a while.

And maybe, just maybe, the Grey Ghost could figure out who set Johnny Diamonds up for the big fall and why.


I spent the next hour sneaking from alley to alley until I made it to my car, still parked near Blackie’s speak-easy where I’d met the blonde. I had a head start — the bulls only had a couple of radio cars, so word that I was a wanted man wouldn’t get out for a while. Still, I wasn’t taking any chances, and rolled away with my lights out.

Driving through the darkened city gave me plenty of time to think. It took a while, but the cold air helped to clear my head. The leaden sensation that had deadened my mind and slowed my movements began to lift. My neck still hurt to beat the band, but and by the time I stopped briefly to ditch the .38 off the Jefferson Street Bridge I was thinking pretty clear.

It had been a typical night at Blackie’s — smoky air, dimly lit booths with Roscoe the barkeep slinging booze and keeping to himself. Blackie’s was a quiet little speakeasy, with few patrons, polite conversation and never a raised voice to be heard. The flatfoots left us alone, since Blackie let them drink for free.

She glided into the bar like fog on an autumn evening, cool and silent. She was wrapped in a fur-lined coat, her lustrous hair spilling out from beneath a fancy broad-brimmed hat. Her body was a collection of serpentine curves accentuated by her shimmering black silken gown. Her skin was the color of carved marble, and her eyes… Well, her eyes…

I’ve always found it’s best not to stare for too long at women lest they get the wrong idea or — worse — turn out to be some mobbed-up goon’s date for the evening. But in the instant that her eyes met mine I felt a jolt as if I’d just been hooked up to Old Smokey at the state pen. Her eyes reminded me of the last batch of emeralds I’d lifted — deep sea-green, glowing with an inner light that was as cold as the rest of her.

Her red lips curled up into a smile, and she began to walk toward me, moving with the grace of a dancer, as if she was walking with her feet a few inches above the grimy floor.

Roscoe didn’t even look up — he was paid to serve hooch and keep quiet. A couple of other patrons slouched over their drinks — they didn’t seem to notice her either. For the time being I guess I had her all to myself.

As she swayed toward me she opened a silver case, took out a slender cigarette and held it to her lips.

“Would a gentleman care to give a lady a light, mister?” she asked in a voice that was at once commanding and vulnerable.

I took my lighter out of my pocket and flicked it open. “Who says I’m a gentleman?”

She accepted the light and took a short, delicate drag. “Who says I’m a lady?”

With an opening like that I could tell where the evening was headed. I don’t normally have gorgeous blondes give me the eye in near-empty gin-joints, but if that was her game, I was willing to play.

I gestured at the chair opposite mine. “Have a seat. Take a load off. Name’s Johnny, by the way.”

She slithered into the chair. “Johnny Diamonds. I know. I’ve heard of you.”

I smiled a thin smile. “Have I heard of you?”

“I doubt it. I’m Charlotte.”

No last names. No real ones, anyway. It’s how we hoods do business.

I won’t bore you with the details; suffice to say that one thing led to another, and she invited me over to her place for a nightcap. I offered to drive her, but she said it was only a few blocks away, so I escorted her through quiet streets, her arm resting on mine.

The building was pretty seedy — one of those run-down places that doesn’t even have a name out front, and as we rode up two floors in the cramped, smoke-scented elevator I looked at her curiously.

“So what’s a swank girl like you doing living in a dump like this?” I asked. “Fancy furs and silk stick out like a sore thumb here.”

She smiled at that. “Oh, I don’t live here, Mister Diamonds. At least not all the time. I have a number of places around town. Just like you do.”

Yeah, I know. I should have realized that something was up, but you know men — we don’t always think clearly, especially when there’s a beautiful woman in the picture.

She opened the door and gestured for me to go inside. It was dark, and I turned, expecting her to switch on the light, but a sudden stab of pain shot through my neck, and a thick fog rolled over me… I felt the room spin as I fell to the floor, and then…

…Well, you know what happened next.

It was past four in the morning by the time I got to the Ghost’s Lair, and I was kicking myself for being a big, dumb jackass, so blinded by lust that I didn’t see the warning signs, even when they were right under my nose.

Sure she’d set me up. She — or whoever she was working for — knew that Johnny Diamonds was no fool, except when it came to dames. I’ve got no sense dealing with women — just ask my ex-wife, if you can find her. And if you do, tell her to return my half of the ten g’s she ran off with.

My Ghost’s Lair — headquarters of the Grey Ghost’s crime-fighting operation — was carefully concealed in the underground storage space of an abandoned steel mill. The property’s surrounded by fences and marked “NO TRESPASSING.” I owned it, but no one knew that.

After a quick drive-by to check unwanted visitors, I unchained a couple of gates and guided my Mercer down a ramp concealed behind a rusting coke oven and into the harshly-lit concrete-floored garage. I had a few cars there — including the Grey Ghost’s famous Silver Bullet Cadillac and a couple of nondescript sedans.

I staggered inside, shedding my coat, loosening my tie and casting my shirt aside. My neck still throbbed — had I dislocated something in the fall?

No — I remembered now. That’s where the stabbing pain had erupted when I entered the blonde’s apartment. Even though I just wanted to sleep, I slouched into the little washroom, flipping on the light and staring at myself in the mirror.

An ugly purple bruise bloomed on my skin, centered on my neck and spreading down to my arm. Looking close, I saw a tiny angry-red lesion the size of a pinprick. I’d seen marks just like it on the arms of morphine addicts and patients in field hospitals during the war. I’d gotten a shot once when a Bosh bullet had gone through my calf, and I could see how someone could become a junkie real easy.

I swore. The dame hadn’t just set me up — she’d drugged me. That explained the headache and fogged thinking.

Hell, I thought as I stumbled into the shower. Had I just gotten lucky? Had she really been trying to kill me?

No. Hot water pounded my muscles like a brutal masseuse. She’d only wanted to knock me out, to leave me all blurry-headed and confused when the cops showed up. An easy collar. And with the murder gun in my hand, and the dead body of a known criminal associate on the floor, it was all but certain that I’d wind up in the chair.

I toweled off and threw myself down on the cot. Overburdened springs squeaked angrily.

Why? Why had she done it? And why me? Why a two-bit jewel thief like Johnny Diamonds?

I’d find out, I thought as sleep came. I’d find out.

Or rather, the Grey Ghost would find out.

He had to.

 

2: The Phantom Detective

By the next day my story was all over the radio, and surely the papers as well. Johnny Diamonds was a wanted man, and showing my face during the day was a one-way ticket to death row. So I sat tight, lived on coffee and sandwiches from the icebox, and chewed my fingernails to the bone ‘til the Grey Ghost could emerge.

I changed clothes around sunset. My outfit for the Ghost wasn’t all that different from the original — sharp suit, leather doublebreasted coat, broad-brimmed fedora, moleskin gloves and a full-face mask, all in grey. I was armed with twin matte black Colt M1911 automatics in identical side holsters under my coat.

It was a stormy night as I guided the Mercer cautiously from the garage, locking the gates behind me. Wind gusted, rain drummed on the windshield, and the headlights barely pierced the gloom. I smiled. It was just the kind of weather I liked.

I wasn’t taking the Bullet — that was for when I wanted the Ghost to make waves, be noticed, and get good press. Tonight I was the Ghost, but I’d be staying in the shadows.

Instinct drew me to the dame’s apartment building — I wanted to see if it really was hers, or — as was more likely — rented in someone else’s name. I parked in a nearby alley and made my way toward the place, moving cautiously and staying hidden. The streets were all but deserted because of the rain, and I’d learned to move like the ghost I was named after, a silent specter as grey as the leaden sky overhead.

When I reached the apartment building I was surprised to see a bull-wagon parked out front. And this wasn’t one of the force’s Model T clunkers — it was a spanking-new Lincoln Phaeton radio car, dark blue and as clean as if it’d just rolled off the Highland Park assembly line. And parked behind it was a gleaming white Benz 10-30 Torpedo, the kind of car you’d mortgage your soul for — in this neighborhood it stuck out like a high-society babe wearing a diamond tiara in a hobo jungle.

On the fourth floor, the lights were on in the murder apartment, and through the curtains I saw dim shapes moving. This looked interesting.

Moments later I was on the fire escape, moving up the metal steps like a creeping fog.

The window was open a crack. I listened carefully to the voices that echoed from inside.

“Seems like a pretty simple gang killing to me.” The voice was dim and muffled, but I recognized the gruff, impatient tone of Captain Clancy Douglas. I’d dealt with him before, as both Johnny Diamonds and the Grey Ghost. Neither one of us liked him very much.

“There’s more here than it seems, Captain,” replied a second voice that I didn’t recognize. It was clipped and sophisticated, reeking of calm self-assurance. “You say Rico and Diamonds were good friends. What would his motive be in murdering the man?”

Douglas uttered a bark of laughter. “They’re a couple of hoods. Friendship means nothing to them. They’d murder each other over trolley fare.”

I gritted my teeth. Rico and me had been pals — there was no way that I’d bump him off. Not unless he double-crossed me, anyway.

“There’s no sign of a struggle,” said Mister Fancy-talk. “And is anything missing?”

“Hard to say. For all we know they were going to trade diamonds for cash, and Clay decided that he’d just keep both.”

“A plausible theory, given their respective criminal histories and violent tendencies. But Suarez was shot in the chest at close range. If Clay was planning on assassination, wouldn’t it have made more sense to shoot Suarez in the back?”

“Oh, come on!” Douglas sounded peeved. That was fine with me. “Johnny drew down on the guy, took the loot and shot him. Simple as that.”

“The question remains, Captain. Why not simply shoot Suarez in the back?”

I had to admit that I was starting to like how Mister Fancy’s mind worked.

Douglas made a sound like a flivver with a bad gearbox. “Two hoods have a beef, and one of ‘em kills the other. Why do you have to make it so damned complicated?”

“Because it is damned complicated, Captain. Sufficiently complicated to catch my interest.” There was a pause. “And the interest of others, as well. I perceive that someone is listening in on our conversation, Captain.”

Before I could move and dive down the fire escape, he spoke again, louder this time.

“Come in and join us, Grey Ghost. I’ve been wondering whether I’d get to make your acquaintance.”

With an invitation like that, how was I going to refuse? I pushed the window open and clambered inside, once more seeing the place where Rico S breathed his last.

It hadn’t changed much, other than the fact that Rico was gone, replaced by a chalk outline on the floor. Blood had dried black on the cheap rug.

Captain Douglas was there of course. When he saw me, he looked as if he’d eaten something sour. Two big bulls in crisp blue uniforms stood silently near the door, but they at least seemed happy to see me. I pride myself in getting along with the uniforms, at least when I’m the Grey Ghost.

The last man in the room was tall, clad in a black silk suit, watching me with dark, smart eyes that gleamed behind a black domino mask. I realized who I was dealing with.

“Glad to see you could make it, Ghost,” Douglas said insincerely. “Please let me introduce…”

“The Phantom Detective,” I said quietly.

He nodded. “You’ve heard of me. I’m flattered.”

The Phantom was what they call a household name in crimefighting. He worked for some big newspaper syndicate in New York, solving crimes and pinching crooks. He had honorary cop status in cities around the world — status that crooked johns like Douglas resented, just like they resented me. I’d even been compared to him, at least when I was the Grey Ghost.

“Sure I’ve heard of you. Who hasn’t?” I asked. “Don’t you usually wear a top hat?”

His eyes twinkled with amusement. “That’s only in the publicity photos, Ghost. Top hats aren’t practical for men in our line of work. Your fedora seems much more sensible.”

I allowed myself a smile. “I understand that you carry a… calling card?”

The Phantom reached into his pocket and withdrew a badge — platinum with a domino mask made from diamond chips. I whistled silently — what Johnny Diamonds wouldn’t have given for that little treasure. Whoever the Phantom really was, he was loaded.

“You noticed my eavesdropping,” I said. “That was impressive, I must admit.”

It took me a while to learn how to talk fancy, but now it was a big part of my act. Nothing would wreck things quicker than having the Grey Ghost start bumping gums like a street hood.

“I tend to notice things that others don’t,” the Phantom explained. “A faint sound on the fire escape, a brief flash of grey… I know you as well, Ghost and I’m wondering what brings Delta City’s best-known crimefighter to the scene of a common gangland murder.”

“I heard the Phantom Detective was interested,” I said, thinking quickly. “And I wondered the same thing about you, so here I am. So what brings you to our fair city?”

“When I heard about Suarez’s death I contacted Chief Franklin and asked if I could be of assistance. It just so happens that this murder fits in with a crime wave that’s been spreading across the entire east coast.”

Now that got my attention. I usually only read the Delta City papers.

It was news to Douglas, too. “Crime wave? What kind of crime wave?”

“The worst kind, Captain — murder. Men who deal in stolen gems and jewelry are dying, usually in ways that won’t raise undue suspicion — accidents, car wrecks, heart attacks, random shootings… Individually, nothing noteworthy. But taken together, a pattern emerges, and it’s one that I find troubling.”

The Phantom’s eyes sparkled like the diamond chips on his fancy calling card, “Maybe Captain Douglas is correct. Maybe this case is nothing out of the ordinary — just two hoods who had a disagreement. Or maybe, just maybe… Johnny Diamonds is part of some bigger picture, one which we have yet to see clearly.”

None of this went down very well with Captain Douglas. He didn’t like civilians telling him his job, especially civilians wearing masks, flashing diamond-and-platinum badges and strutting around like the King of Araby. I could have told the Phantom as much, but he hadn’t asked.

“Look, Mister Phantom,” he said, trying to sound patient and reasonable but failing, “I know you get a lot of respect from cops. That badge of yours opens a lot of doors around the world. But as far as I’m concerned, Johnny Diamonds iced Rico S, and that’s that. He’s our number one suspect, and my boys’ll be turning the town upside-down looking for him.”

The Phantom kept his cool. I could tell he’d sized up Captain Douglas and thought about as much of him as I did. “Of course, Captain. You and your men must do your jobs. And we both want the same thing — Johnny Diamonds in custody.”

Douglas snorted. “I don’t know how it is in New York, Phantom, but the crooks in Delta City don’t like being in custody. They usually end up in the morgue, but I’ll tell the boys to do their best to take him alive.”

Douglas was so full of baloney he could have opened a meat market. The Delta City bulls preferred to shoot first and ask questions later. It saved on meals at the jail and kept the court calendars clear, so the judges didn’t miss their tennis games.

“All I see is a dead diamond fence, Captain,” I said. “Rico S had lots of customers — how do you know Johnny Diamonds is the killer?”

“We’ve received information,” Douglas said. “An eyewitness saw Clay coming here with Suarez.”

That was a lie, and I knew it. Johnny Diamonds had come here with a woman who’d walked straight off the cover of Photoplay. But how the hell could I prove it?

“Who was the witness?” I asked, as nonchalantly as I could manage. “I may want to talk to him.”

Douglas looked as if I’d just spit in his coffee. “Listen, Ghost — I’ve got orders to cooperate, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to endanger witnesses by turning them over to the first slob who asks. You want to talk to my informants, talk to the chief first.”

And by the time I did, I was pretty sure the witness — if he even existed — would be on ice, beyond either me or the Phantom Detective. No, good old Clancy Douglas had decided that Johnny Diamonds was his man, and now he was like a terrier with a rat.

I swallowed my growing panic and nodded at the Phantom. Of the two men in the room he seemed to be the least inclined to plug me. “All I can say is welcome to Delta City, Phantom. I’d like to think that I know a lot of her secrets, and if there’s anything I can do to assist your investigation, let me know.”

“Now hold on a second.” Douglas held up a hand as if he was directing traffic, “this is still a police case, and I’m not going to have either of you butting in and interfering with our investigation, chief or no chief.”

The Phantom’s voice was still calm and reassuring. “We’ll stay out of your way, captain, I assure you. No one respects the job that the police do as much as I do.”

That didn’t satisfy Douglas — nothing short of both of us dropping dead right then and there would have — but he didn’t say anything. Near the door I saw one of the bulls hide a smile. Good — they didn’t like the guy either.

“What do we know so far?” I felt hinky and self-conscious, as if the fact that we were both wearing masks meant we both had something to hide, but I couldn’t let on.

“Captain Douglas has told me that the police received an anonymous tip at about eleven o’clock last night,” the Phantom said.

Douglas nodded. “Dispatcher said it was a man’s voice, maybe with something over the receiver, saying that he’d seen Rico and Diamonds going into the apartment, and that he’d heard shots fired. We sent two patrolmen and when they knocked down the door they found Rico lying right where there. No sign of Diamonds, but the window was open and it looked as if he’d gone down the fire escape. There was a bum sleeping in the alley, but he hadn’t seen anything.”

I suppressed a smile. Good old Joe.

“Who rented the apartment?” I asked.

“Someone by the name of ‘Walter Jones’ rented it about six weeks ago. Probably one of Rico’s aliases. He liked to do business out of seedy hotels and changed locations every couple of months.”

That was true — I knew Rico. I also knew that “Walter Jones” wasn’t one of his normal aliases. Rico was Mexican, and all of his fake names were Spanish. I let Douglas keep spinning his yarn.

“Rico had one slug in his heart. The other went right through his shoulder and lodged in the floor under him.” Douglas made his fingers into a gun and pointed down at the silhouette on the floor. “We figure that the first slug took him down, then Clay stood over him and gave him one more for insurance.”

Something about the theory didn’t sound kosher, but I let it slide. “You had a fingerprint team in here?”

“Yeah,” Douglas replied. “Found Johnny Diamonds’ prints right on the doorknob, and in a couple of places inside.”

Now that was bushwa — I hadn’t touched a damned thing before the dame had coshed me. Either Douglas was lying, or they’d pressed my hands against the door while I was in slumberland.

“No weapon?” I asked.

“Nope. Diamonds must have kept it. He was shot with a .38 and Diamonds is known to carry one.”

So were most of the hoods in town, I thought. “What about this crime wave of yours, Phantom? You say icemen like Suarez have been dropping dead?”

“So it seems, Ghost.” The Phantom was on his haunches, staring hard at the outline of Rico’s body. “Over the past three months, four major jewel fences in New York City have died or disappeared. In Newark, two ice brokers named Lou Jablonski and Red Meyer murdered each other, but the authorities haven’t been able to find out why. Fredrick Domano, head of the Seventh Avenue Cartel in Philadelphia fell dead in a restaurant, apparently of a heart attack, even though he was known to be in good health. And in Boston, three known dealers in stolen merchandise died, all in car crashes.”

I had to admit it sounded weird. Freddy Dominos was no palooka — he’d been an amateur boxer and steered clear of booze and smokes. He was the last guy I’d have expected to keel over with a bad ticker.

“Intriguing, eh?” the Phantom said. “Yes, I thought so too.”

Douglas looked about as happy as a kid learning that there’s no Santa Claus, but he held his piece.

The Phantom pulled a small leather case out of his inner pocket and opened it up. It was full of glass tubes, a small silver knife and a pair of tweezers.

“Mind if I take a small sample here, Captain?” he asked. “I’d like to take a closer look at these blood stains.”

Douglas shrugged like it was nothing to him. “Go ahead. We’ve already been over this place with a fine-toothed comb.”

The Phantom pulled a few threads from the rug and dropped them into one of the glass tubes. “So Captain, I don’t suppose they checked this rug for shoe prints or impressions before walking on it?”

The captain’s face reddened. “Why the hell would we worry about something like that?”

The Phantom didn’t answer him directly. “Did you find any other fingerprints in the room?”

Now Douglas looked confused. “Yes. A few from Rico. Some others, but they were all too smeared…”

“So you clearly haven’t considered the possibility that there was a third person in the room with Clay and Suarez?”

Douglas’ mouth flapped like a hooked fish. “What are you talking about?”

The Phantom pointed at the rug. “I’m talking about a woman in spike-heel shoes, I’d say around size nine, who stood right here, and whose footprints your men failed to erase, despite their admirable enthusiasm, Captain.”

I looked at where the Phantom was pointing, relief washing over me. Damn. This mug and his fancy mask had actually done something useful.

The print was faint, but when the Phantom pointed it out, it was clear as crystal. There it was — the sole, and a single heel spike. Standing right where she could shoot Rico as he lay face-up on the carpet, bleeding his life out.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Douglas protested. “If this was Rico’s place, there’d be women in and out of here all the time.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” The Phantom cleared his throat. “I’d like copies of any photographs your men have taken here, Captain.”

“I don’t know what good they’ll do you, but you’ll have them in the morning,” Douglas grunted. He still looked unhappy.

The Phantom stood. “I think we’ve got all we need here, eh, Ghost?”

“Yeah,” I said, then quickly corrected myself. “Yes. I agree.”

He slipped the case back into his pocket. “I’ve got these samples to keep me busy for a while. As for you, Ghost, I think we have something for you to follow up on.”

“Okay,” I replied. “What’s your angle, Phantom?”

“Well, Ghost, as the French would say, I’d urge you to cherchez la femme.”

“Sorry, I don’t speak French. What’s that mean?”

He smiled, and up close I could tell that his skin was covered in pale powder — yup, he was wearing a disguise underneath that stupid mask.

“Look for the woman, Ghost. Look for the woman.”

 

3: Cherchez la Femme

I don’t normally like mugs yapping in French just to show me how smart they are, but the Phantom — whoever he was — seemed to be on the same track as me. And that footprint he’d found proved I wasn’t cracked — there really had been a woman in the room, one who wore size nine heels.

I sat in my car, planning my next move. If I was going to cherchez la femme, I’d start at Blackie’s, and in that case I couldn’t go as the Grey Ghost. That strong and silent barkeep would get even more silent if he caught a glimpse of a grey coat and mask. Johnny Diamonds might be hot right now, but at least he was a regular Joe.

There was a set of street clothes stashed under the seat, and changing in the car was about as easy as doing the mambo in a coffin, but by the time I pulled up near Blackie’s joint I was plain old John Clay again. I kept one of the Ghost’s black automatics in a shoulder holster for emergencies, but I hoped I wouldn’t need it.

Blackie’s was about as lively as it had been the night before, which is to say that an old lady’s sewing circle was a thrill a minute in comparison. A couple of guys nursed their drinks in silence, while Roscoe the barkeep wiped down the counter and straightened out bottles.

Roscoe shot me a quick glance when I came in, then returned to his duties. He didn’t care who came in, or who the cops were looking for. His job was to sling booze and keep quiet, and he was damned good at it.

I sat on a stool and laid a fin on the bar. “Gimme a shot of Brown Plaid. And keep the change.”

“Thanks.” Roscoe set a shot glass in front of me, then turned away.

“Say, Ros,” I said as casually as I could, “you remember that sheba who came in here last night? The one I left with?”

He turned back with a bottle of scoth and filled my glass. “Maybe.”

“That doesn’t tell me much.” I peeled off another Abe Lincoln. “This improve your memory?”

Roscoe’s expression didn’t change as he pocketed the cash.

“She was in here asking for you two nights ago. Except she was a brunette, dressed different. Different makeup and lipstick too. Those eyes, though. She couldn’t hide those green eyes.”

He continued to wipe the table even though it was already clean as a hound’s tooth. “Tommy the Cat was here, and he made a play for her. Said ‘Hey, what’s Johnny D’s got that I ain’t?’ and grabbed her arm.”

“What happened?”

“He fell over, flat on his face. She looked at me and said, ‘This man is drunk,’ and left.”

“Was he drunk?”

“He sure seemed like it. I called him a cab and told him to go sleep it off.”

I mulled this over. I was willing to bet that if this really was the same lady, she’d drugged Tommy the Cat the same as she had me. I smiled — the SOB was a real make-out man. If she’d slipped him a mickey, he’d gotten what he deserved.

“Then she showed up right after you did,” Roscoe said. “She looked real different, but I could tell it was the same dame. Those eyes, you know.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Those damned eyes.”

“Don’t know her name, never seen her before.” Roscoe held out the bottle. “Refill?”

I nodded. “One for the road, Roscoe.”

He complied and I knocked it back, then slipped him one more tip.

“I was never here, okay?”

He gave me a single nod and turned away.

I was just getting into my coat when I got a sudden gut feeling that something was wrong.

Call it instinct, call it gangster’s intuition, call it fate — if you want to be a crook and you don’t have it, you won’t live long. Whatever it was, the second I saw the door opening I knew we were in for trouble.

The first one through the door was Officer Mike Grimes — we called him “Greasy Grimes,” since he’d do just about anything if he got his palm greased. He was in his blue coat, all buttoned up the front, his hat pulled low over his beady little eyes. Behind him was a thick-set cop I didn’t recognize — his coat was thrown across his shoulders, and he was obviously hiding some special surprise under it. My guess was that the surprise was for me.

Greasy aimed his gat straight at my forehead. He’d already had it drawn — almost as if he’d been expecting to see me.

“Hold it, Johnny!” he barked. “You’re under arrest!”

Of course, he had no intention of taking me in — that much was obvious when his burly friend shrugged off his wool coat, revealing a big, ugly weapon clutched in his meaty paws.

Instantly, I threw myself to the side, putting Greasy between me and the big gun. It was no police weapon — it was a Browning Assault Rifle, its barrel and stock chopped down so it could be concealed under a coat. I’d fired one during the war — it packed enough firepower to cut down a platoon of Huns without reloading.

They’d been expecting to take me by surprise. When I dodged, they hesitated for just an instant, long enough for me to pull my .45 free and squeeze off a wild shot.

All hell broke loose as the normally quiet patrons dived for the floor and Greasy fired off a few rounds in my direction. Roscoe vanished behind the bar.

The bull-neck had to move to get a shot at me, so I had a second or two before he opened up. The BAR was loud, mean and scary, but it was a bear to control — trail of .30-06 rounds followed me as I dodged, blasting tables and chairs, cratering the wood floor, huge muzzle flashes bursting like ack-ack shells with a deafening roar.

I rolled and fired again, aiming toward the big man. I don’t know if I hit him, but I got his head down and he ducked back, the big rifle spewing smoke.

Then Roscoe popped up with a sawed-off shotgun. He wasn’t so dumb as to tell them to surrender — he just fired, cutting down Greasy in a burst of red. The big cop yelped, turning the Browning toward the bar and spraying his last few rounds at Roscoe. Two rounds caught the barkeep in the chest and he fell.

I rose up into a crouch, sheltering behind a fallen table — it wouldn’t have done spit against the BAR, but it made me feel better. I squeezed off my last three rounds at the gunman and got him in the temple, spattering his brains out the other side of his head, sending him straight to the floor.

In a second I was out the door, those gangster instincts still at the wheel. Even though my brain was racing like a deer being chased by a pack of hunters, there was one thought that pretty much screamed louder than any others. I’d killed a cop. Sure, it had been self-defense, but try telling that to someone like Clancy Douglas.

That was at least two murders they could pin on me now. If I didn’t find some way out, Johnny Diamonds had an express ticket to death row, and the cops would make sure that I cut straight to the head of the line.

Maybe Johnny Diamonds needed to disappear permanently.


By the time I got back to the lair I was shaking like a leaf. I dumped some ground java into the percolator and set it on the stove. I needed to steady my nerves.

Roscoe was dead — he’d been a good man, and I’d liked him. But I didn’t have time to cry over it right now. Greasy Grimes and his pal were gone too, but now that I was starting to think straight again, the whole deal seemed as crooked as a three-dollar bill.

I thought I knew every cop in town on sight — I’d never seen that big lug with the BAR before, and the weapon wasn’t standard police issue. The Delta City cops had a few Tommy guns that they used when the going got rough, but the chief would never let his boys carry a BAR, let alone a sawed-off one.

So bull-neck was a cop working on the outside or…

Or, I thought as the coffee pot began to bubble and perk, he wasn’t a cop at all.

So maybe I wasn’t a cop-killer. Not that it made a lick of difference now, of course. They’d pin Grimes’ murder on me instead.

Greasy was as dirty as the day was long — every hood knew that. Was it possible that he and the BAR-wielding goon with a BAR had been hired to bump me off?

Hell. Was the pope Catholic?

But if they — whoever they were — wanted me clipped, why had they even bothered to frame me for offing Rico?

In my head I could almost hear the Phantom muttering to himself in his posh accent.

“The plot thickens, eh Ghost?”

Yeah, the plot was getting pretty thick, and Johnny Ds was about to drown in it.


“Quite a mess last night, wouldn’t you say?” The Phantom waved his hand at the morning Chronicle and its screaming headline, Gangster John Clay Sought in Cop’s Murder!

Damn, it was swell it was to be famous.

To hear the paper tell it, I’d ambushed poor officer Grimes and mercilessly gunned him down, along with several innocent bystanders. There was no mention of the fake cop with the chopped-down BAR of course, and the location was listed vaguely as “a notorious speak-easy.”

I shrugged. “Seems fishy to me. Clay’s no cop killer. He’s too smart for that.”

“You may have a point.” The Phantom reached for a carafe on the table in front of him. “Coffee?”

“Wouldn’t say no.” I accepted a cup of steaming java and wondered how the hell I was going to get out of this jam.

We were at a fancy office downtown, one that the Phantom assured me was secure, and owned by his friend, the newspaper mogul Frank Havens.

I knew something about Havens — he was rich, owned a string of newspapers (none in Delta City, though there was a rumor he wanted to buy the Register), was a real do-gooder type. So good in fact that I’d once suspected him of being the Phantom, until I’d found out he was in his sixties.

The Phantom took a bite of pecan Danish. “I’m afraid our mutual friend Captain Douglas was in charge of the crime scene. He said I couldn’t see anything until his ‘investigation’ had concluded.”

He sounded annoyed, kind of like a man who realized that his fancy platinum badge didn’t always get him what he wanted.

“Don’t worry,” I replied. “I’ve got friends on the force. They told me that the place was a regular shooting gallery. In addition to a shotgun and a couple of .38’s, it seems that someone also fired off a couple dozen rounds of 30.06 ammo.”

I pretended to be surprised. “Is that a fact? Like from a rifle?”

I shook my head. “Not just any rifle, Phantom. They found a Browning Assault Rifle amid the wreckage.”

Something dark passed across the Phantom’s eyes and he stared at me, his mouth forming a thin line. “I know those things. Saw them in the war.”

So he’d been a doughboy, too. Probably a sheltered rich kid who’d seen death for the first time in the trenches, then came home determined to change the world.

“It was lying on the floor near a man in a police uniform,” I said. “Unfortunately, the man in the police uniform wasn’t actually a policeman. The patrolmen on the scene told me that they didn’t recognize him. It seems like Douglas is hushing it all up and telling the papers that Clay had killed all those people himself.”

The Phantom’s voice turned ugly. “So what do you think happened?” He seemed really brassed off by the idea that a cop like Clancy Douglas had the stones to lie to him.

I went on, telling the truth but spinning it like a fancy detective theory. “It looks as if our mysterious false policeman came into the speakeasy and started shooting. I’m willing to bet that his target was Clay, but Clay was too fast for him, and he took a slug through the skull.”

“What about the cop — Grimes? Douglas says Clay gunned him down.”

I bit back my own rising anger and forced a cool smile. “Unfortunately for Douglas, Officer Grimes died from a shotgun blast, and the bartender was holding a 12-gauge in his dead hands when the police found him. Another inconvenient fact that Clancy Douglas kept out of the papers. It may look bad for Johnny D’s right now, but I’m beginning to suspect that the man is innocent.”

“’Innocent’ is a very big word for a thug like Clay,” the Phantom cautioned in a know-it-all tone that made me want to punch him. “There are serious questions about last night’s speakeasy shootout, but then we’ve still got the Suarez murder. I have a gut feeling that we’re witnessing only one skirmish in a larger war.”

“How so?”

“Clearly someone is out to get John Clay, but it looks as if Clay’s out to get someone as well. I’ve taken the liberty of doing a little research into our Johnny D’s, and what I’ve found is quite interesting.”

My heart almost jumped out of my chest. I wasn’t exactly keen on the idea of having detectives pry into my background, especially this particular detective.

The Phantom looked at me curiously, then went on. “It seems that Mister Clay — or should I say ‘Callahan’ — has quite a little operation going in your city. He controls several dummy corporations, some of which have extensive real estate holdings, with a value well over six figures. Behind the guise of a simple jewel thief, Johnny D’s, alias John Clay, alias John Callahan, is quite the tycoon.”

“So? How does that tie him to Suarez’s murder? It seems to me that that throws Clancy’s theory out the window — if Johnny D’s is loaded, why bump off Rico S for a lousy bag of gemstones?”

“I don’t think that’s why he did it, Ghost. Remember that string of suspicious deaths? I think Rico S was just the latest.” He paused, then turned his attention to the window. Outside, steam was rising from buildings and the sound of traffic had begun to echo from below as the city woke up.

“No, Ghost. I find myself wondering whether Johnny D’s isn’t actually at the center of everything. Whether maybe, just maybe, John Callahan isn’t making a play to become the only major gem broker on the east coast.”

The Phantom’s theory hit me like a ton of bricks. It was almost impossible to believe anyone would think simple jewel thief Johnny D’s was capable of such a scheme, but here he was, spouting his ridiculous theory like it was truth handed down from on high.

Those wheels in my head were spinning all the while. I’ve stayed alive so long by keeping my head clear when the roof’s falling in, and right now I needed to stay calm more than ever.

Of course the Phantom’s theory was a load of horse-hockey, but if it meant he’d be turning all of his attention on me, I was finished. My crimes, my hideouts, my secret life as the Grey Ghost — they were all dead as McKinley. The best I could do was run for it, and hope that the Phantom never caught up with me.

But from what I knew of the Phantom I knew I’d never outrun him. He was rich, he was relentless, and he was at least as smart as me.

I had to change the game, and change it quick.

“Phantom,” I said, carefully keeping the tremor out of my voice, “I need to tell you something.”

Behind the domino mask his eyes sparked with interest. “Yes?”

“It’s like this…” I struggled to put it into words. “Fact is, I think… No, I know that Johnny Diamonds is innocent. He didn’t kill Suarez and he didn’t kill Grimes. He killed the guy with the BAR, but it was self-defense.”

The Phantom’s entire body stiffened as if crouching to spring. “How do you know this, Ghost?”

Did he know? I wondered. Or did he just suspect me? Either way my next words would make or break the whole deal.

“Phantom, John Clay is my best informant. He’s a crook, yes. But with his help and information I’ve caught some of the biggest fish around.”

There was a moment of silence as the Phantom took this in. Then he smiled a quiet smile, nodding his head slightly.

“Of course,” he said. “Why didn’t I see it? That explains why you’ve been so reluctant to believe Clay is the killer. I understand, Ghost. I don’t approve — criminals are criminals and they all must be brought to justice for their actions. But I can already see that Delta City is very different from New York, and maybe the rules are different here. I won’t berate you for it, Ghost. Are you sure that Clay is telling the truth?”

“He’s never played me wrong before. He says it’s a frame-job and I believe him.”

There was another long pause. “All right, Ghost. I’ll give Clay the benefit of the doubt for now. And if he truly is innocent of this crime, it may explain a couple of other odd facts that I’ve uncovered.”

That got my attention. “What kind of facts?” I grinned. “You holding out on me, Phantom?”

“Only inasmuch as I’m somewhat puzzled by the information and was keeping it to myself until I knew more. But now that you’ve told me about Clay, I’ll tell you.”

He shifted in his seat and continued. “The gunshots, Ghost. The blood. You remember Douglas’ theory is that Clay shot Suarez in the chest, then stood over him and shot him a second time to finish the job?”

“Mm-hm. Shot him in the shoulder first, You thought it seemed a little fishy if I recall.”

“It is fishy, Ghost. So fishy that I called in a friend of mine. An eccentric scientist named Dr. Bendix who works in a seedy tenement on the Lower East Side. His offices are one of the finest privately-owned crime labs in the world.”

“I see.” It came as no surprise that the Phantom had associates who were as off-kilter as he was.

“I showed Bendix those police photos from the scene. He came to the very interesting conclusion that Suarez was lying on the floor before he was shot. The first round went right through him and into the floor, and the second — the one that killed him, took him square in the heart.”

I frowned. “What the hell?”

“What the hell indeed, Ghost. If Dr.Bendix is correct — and in my experience he always is — then Clay must have incapacitated Suarez, then shot him twice as he lay on the floor. But there’s no sign of struggle and no indication that Suarez was struck. What else could have rendered him helpless, face up and helpless like a lamb led to slaughter?”

I felt a faint twinge in my neck, and pieces began to fit together.

“He must have been drugged,” I said. “Check the body. See if he’s got a needle mark anywhere.”

“Too late,” the Phantom said regretfully. “The body was interred in a pauper’s grave yesterday. It would take a court order to have him exhumed, and that might take weeks.”

I shook my head angrily. Damnation — to be so close only to have the door slammed in my face.

“Listen,” I said, “I can set up a meeting with Johnny D’s if he has your word that you won’t bring any cops, you won’t arrest him, and he can get away clean after. Would you do that?”

It was an all-in move for me. If the Phantom played me wrong, I’d be in the electric chair. I was counting on him being a man of his word.

He thought about it for a long time.

“All right, Ghost. You can make the arrangements. I assume you’ll be there as well?”

I shook my head. “He never wants to be seen with me, not by the cops, not by other hoods — no one. If you meet him you’ll be on your own. I’ll make sure to tell him no funny stuff. You can trust him.”

The Phantom didn’t seem to want to buy what I was selling. “I’ve never met a thug who could be trusted yet. You have my word that I won’t have him arrested or followed. But if he tries anything stupid he’ll find himself on the receiving end of a couple of .45 slugs.”

I nodded. “Fair enough. I’ll be in touch soon.”

The wheels in my head were spinning to beat the band as I drove the Silver Bullet from downtown. I was taking a huge chance with the Phantom, but a face-to-face meeting seemed like the only way I could tell my side of the story without looking guilty. As it was, the Phantom Detective and every cop in the city had it in for me, and now he seemed like my best chance.

I’d see whether I was playing the sap or not. I’d see very soon.

 

4: The Lady in Black

Rain fell in sheets, dimpling the black water of the harbor. I stood at the end of Pier 16, my coat pulled tight around me, my hat low on my head, wondering when the Phantom would make his appearance. The moon was all but invisible behind the clouds, and the only light came from a couple of feeble streetlamps down on the wharf.

I was just about to give up when I saw the Phantom’s fancy white Benz roll up and come to a halt. Its headlights went out and a small figure emerged, switching on an electric torch. I watched as the little circle of light came closer and the sound of his footsteps grew louder.

“Clay?” The Phantom’s voice echoed. “Clay, are you here?”

I swallowed. My heart was going like a steam hammer — I’d faced any number of killers and crazies since taking the Grey Ghost’s mask, but I’d never been this scared. If the Phantom double-crossed me, I was done for. My life depended on a mug I barely knew keeping his word.

I stepped out of the shadows.

“I’m here Phantom. You alone?”

“Just as I promised, Clay,” came the reply. “I’m a man of my word.”

“Try to be a little more enthusiastic, Phantom. You sound like you’re talking to an undertaker or something.”

“I won’t pretend to be happy about this, Clay. If it was up to me, you’d be behind bars right now.”

I barked a laugh. “Maybe I should be, Phantom. You think I’m a crook? You’re right. But I didn’t kill Rico S. And you talked to the Grey Ghost, so you know I didn’t kill Greasy Grimes either.”

The Phantom Detective was a dim shadow beside the small pool of torchlight, but somehow I knew his eyes were narrowing behind that domino mask.

“You’d like me to believe that, wouldn’t you, Clay?”

“Call me Johnny. All my friends do.”

“I’m not your friend.”

“My enemies call me that too.”

At least I got a chuckle out of the guy. “Okay, Johnny. You got me out here on a very cold, very wet night. Now say your piece so I can get back indoors.”

I told him the whole story — the blonde at the speakeasy, the seedy apartment, the jab in my neck, waking up with the body… Everything. I admit that I fudged a little — I told him that the Ghost sent me to Blackie’s to find out about the dame, but the rest was the truth.

I finished up by telling him about the gunfight and the fake cop, then stopped to let it sink in as the rain softly fell and black water lapped at the pier.

“Interesting.” The Phantom’s voice was so quiet I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. “Care to explain how the eyewitness didn’t mention the blonde?”

“What? You mean the witness that Clancy Douglas won’t let you talk to?” I laughed. “Don’t worry — the Grey Ghost hasn’t been talking. I don’t have a fancy diamond police badge like you, but I got friends down at police HQ anyway. They told me Clancy’s lying. He doesn’t even have a witness.”

I didn’t know that for sure, but it seemed like a pretty good guess. The Phantom didn’t sound as if he liked it much.

“Are you saying that Captain Douglas is…”

“I don’t know what Clancy Douglas’ racket is, but I do know he’s playing you for a sucker. Maybe you’re just to used to cops asking ‘How high?’ every time you say ‘Jump.’ Maybe they aren’t as impressed by fancy badges and expensive cars as you like to think.”

The Phantom turned away and looked out across the water. I’d definitely hit a nerve.

“You don’t like to hear that do you, Phantom? You think you’re doing good, fighting crime, chasing down the bad guys, making the streets safe for all the law-abiding citizens? They say you’re a rich guy, fighting crime like some kind of sick hobby. Look around you, Phantom. It’s no hobby for people like me. You know my real name — you know I’m Mrs. Callahan’s little boy. But I wasn’t born with a damned silver spoon in my mouth, I never had money, I didn’t have choices like you.”

He turned on me and spoke angrily. “Everyone has a choice, Clay! Don’t try to soften me up with some sob story about your grey-haired old mother and what a sad life you’ve had! You’re a criminal just like all the rest.”

I grunted. Sure I was a crook. Sure I’d killed guys, but so had this mug. When I’d shot Stitch after he’d killed the original Grey Ghost all I’d done was save the state a little on its electricity bill.

“Maybe that’s true.” I felt calm, as if by getting under the Phantom’s skin I’d already won the argument. “But guys like you — guys who’ve never lived on the streets, never been poor, never had to care for a sick mother, never gone hungry — you guys think all the choices are simple. You got it easy, with your fancy cars and swanky dames and buddies who publish newspapers. You think everything is black and white, that there’s no middle ground. Life’s a hell of a lot more complicated for the rest of us. You ever stop to think how many guys like me you could help out for the price of that diamond badge you flash around?”

The Phantom started to reply, then bit his words off and was quiet for a moment.

“Listen, Johnny.” At least he didn’t sound like he was talking to the scum of the earth anymore. “You’re right. I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t think about the men I put in jail or why they’re criminals. I was wrong — you aren’t like them. I can see that now. I’m willing to let you have your say, and frankly your story makes a hell of a lot more sense than Douglas’ theorizing. But it doesn’t hold any more weight than his unless I see some evidence. Is there anything else you can tell me? Anything you remember?”

I’ll be damned if the bastard didn’t sound like he wanted to believe me. “I don’t know. I think that stuff the dame shot me up with scrambled my brain. That whole night’s mostly a big blur right now.”

“Damnation.” He pounded a fist into his palm. “There has to be more to it, Johnny. Did anyone see you with the woman?”

I shook my head. “Roscoe the bartender, but he’s dead now. I don’t even know who else was there, and they weren’t paying attention. I can’t think of anyone…”

Then I remembered. Words swam up out of the dark and the jumbled memories of that night.

I thought that was you goin’ in earlier. With a dame on your arm… Rowf! Why’d she have to leave, Johnny?

“Wait a minute. There was someone.”

“Who?” His voice was serious as a heart attack.

“Hell.” If it was a snake, it’d have bit me. “A wino named Sterno Joe. He was sleeping in the alley when I climbed down the fire escape. He said he saw me with the dame. Wanted to know why she left. I gave him a ten-spot to clam up and not tell the cops I was there.”

“Good lord! We’ve got to find him, Johnny. If anyone finds out that he saw you, his life could be in danger.” Now the Phantom was talking the same way he had that night at the apartment, when he was hot on the case and wondering how all the pieces fit.

“I’ll find him,” I said. “You do your detective shtick. Joe’ll talk to me.”

It was a while before the Phantom said anything.

“I’m going to give you a pass this time, Diamonds. You know I’ve spent most of my life putting your kind in prison. But this time, Diamonds. This time…”

I didn’t say anything, but just let the rain drip off my hat.

“I’m not going to assume that someone is lying just because he’s a criminal. I’m going to get to the bottom of things.” His voice dropped down low. “If Clancy Douglas is playing me for a fool, I’m going to see him behind bars. But if it’s you, Clay, then pray to God that I never see you again, because if I do only one of us is going to walk away. Is that clear?”

“Yeah. Yeah, clear as crystal, Phantom.” I felt myself getting angry, though I didn’t know why. “Now I think we’re done here. Time for you to take a nice long walk down that pier, get in your fancy car and blow. Is that clear?”

He didn’t answer, but turned and stomped off down the pier. A minute or so later his tail lights had disappeared into the darkness and I was alone with the rain and black water.


I spent the next couple of days haunting the bowery, exploring hobo jungles and sitting in soup kitchens, dressed in dirty and ragged clothes, my face caked with grime, a bottle of cheap rye stuck in one pocket, looking for any sign of Sterno Joe.

I finally found Joe at Saint Mary’s Mission for the Poor and Indigent. He’d busted a couple of ribs when another wino had stolen his bottle, and now he was on the mend, sitting at one of the mission’s long tables, sipping soup and flashing gap-toothed grins at the sisters.

I waited until the nuns had finished fussing over him, then I sidled up to him. He threw me a cockeyed glare, as if I was about to snatch his bowl of chicken noodle.

“It’s me, Joe,” I whispered. “Johnny Diamonds.”

A look of recognition spread over Joe’s ugly mug. “Johnny. Johnny D’s. Whatcha been up to, Johnny? I heard the cops –”

“Keep it down, huh?” I put a hand on his arm. For all I knew, one of the sisters was a flatfoot in drag. “I need your help.”

He looked confused. I guess he wasn’t used to other people asking him for help.

“Me? Hey, Johnny, I don’t know nothin’… I told the cops I hadn’t seen you, Johnny. I told ‘em I didn’t…”

“Sh.” I glanced over at a penguin who was giving us a harsh once-over. I waited until she looked away.

“Don’t worry,” I whispered. “Everything’s jake.That blonde I went into the apartment with, Joe. Remember her?”

His eyes brightened. “Oh yeah, Johnny. Yeah. That blonde in the black dress. Yeah, I remember. What a dish… Oh yeah, Johnny.”

I looked at him hard. “You saw here leave, Joe? Did you see her leave the apartment?”

Joe’s eyes went unfocused for a second. “She left? Why’d she leave, Johnny?”

I gritted my teeth and tried to stay cool. Another nun wandered by, collecting empty bowls.

“You said she left, Joe. You asked me why.”

Joe’s eyes snapped back into focus. “Yeah. She did, didn’t she? You and her went into the apartment. Then she came out a little while later, got in a car and drove away.”

“What kind of car, Joe? What color was it?”

“White. Real fancy, too. Lady with wings on the radiator. It was open in front, where the driver sat.”

“Driver?”

“Big Chinese guy in a uniform. Musta been loaded, that dame. What a dish, Johnny. How do you do it?”

“Loads of natural charm,” I said, standing up and slipping him my bottle of rye under the table. “Take this. Don’t drink it when the sisters are looking.”

Joe grinned brightly. “Gee, thanks Johnny. You’re a good egg.”

“Thanks. Don’t take any wooden nickels, huh?”

“For sure, Johnny. For sure.”

I was out of the mission in a heartbeat, hoofing it to the nearest streetcar station. Sterno Joe had earned his bottle.

My filing cabinets at the Ghost lair contained Photostatic copies of every driver’s license and automobile registration in Delta City for the last five years. I had a sneaking hunch that I’d find what I needed right there.


It didn’t take long. A silver lady with wings on the radiator said Rolls-Royce, and an open chauffer’s seat meant it was a Phantom limo. Yeah, a Phantom. That, I guess, is what the eggheads call irony, huh?

There were four Phantom limos in town, and only one of them was white.

I sat at my desk for nearly five minutes, just staring at the file on my desk.

They’d taking photographs of car owners a few years ago. And now there she was, staring at me from the Photostat copy. It was a negative image, and the woman in it had black hair not blonde, but those eyes… They were unmistakable, even if they weren’t the same deep and burning green that I remembered from that night at Blackie’s.

Lady Leonora St. Croix, 1720 Larrabee Drive, Clinton Heights.

The ritziest street in all of Ritzville, and my mysterious lady in black lived right there.

It was just past sunset. The perfect time for the Grey Ghost to drop in for a visit.

Something stopped me as I was reaching for my grey topcoat.

No. Leonora St. Croix — or whatever her name was — hadn’t framed the Grey Ghost for murder. She’d framed me. John Michael Callahan.

I wouldn’t be visiting her as the Grey Ghost. And not as Johnny Diamonds or John Clay either.

I’d hidden behind other names and faces too long. I’d become John Clay because I was ashamed of being Irish. I’d been Johnny Diamonds because it helped me fit in with the other crooks. And I’d become the Grey Ghost to get out of a murder rap and take down other crooks who cramped my style.

Well that was all over now. It was about time I took some pride in who I was and stopped hiding in the dark, scared of my own shadow.

I’d go see Lady Leonora. But I’d do it as Mrs. Callahan’s little boy.

As I drove my Mercer toward the mansions and tree-lined streets of Clinton Heights, I was John Callahan again.

And it had never felt better.

 

5: Fangs of the Asp

Chateau St. Croix was lit up like a Christmas tree with a bunch of posh-looking cars parked outside. Just my luck — the dame had picked this night to throw a party.

Not just any party, either. The cars were all parked on the circular driveway and their drivers were hanging out nearby, smoking and chatting. As I crept closer, crouched low behind a hedge that looked as if it had its own personal barber, I recognized a few of them.

These weren’t just drivers for rich swells, no sir. Most were muscle for some very important men. There was Hamish McGurn — a leg-breaker for the Ferguson Syndicate. Standing next to him, stamping a dead cig into the gravel was Weasel Warren from the Chicago Outfit, while Whitie LaBonza from Philly was throwing dice with Angelo Manzarri from the Camorra. The way things normally went down between those two mobs, they should be shooting bullets instead of craps.

There were others, too — I saw torpedoes and thugs from at least a half dozen other organizations. Why they were all together in one place without a war breaking out was anybody’s guess. If nothing else it was suspicious as hell — my girlfriend Lady Leonora had drugged me, then framed me for murder and now she was hosting a get-together for some of the biggest mobs on the east coast.

A few more thick-necks with heaters guarded the doors, but they didn’t seem too bright or interested in what they were doing. It was darker around back — I sneaked through the sculptured bushes and found a window near the corner that was open a crack. Inside was a small bath, the floor and walls tiled in checkerboards. The hall beyond was dark, but light shone from the front of the house, and I heard the sound of voices.

I made my way down the hall, sticking to the shadows. I ducked into a doorway just in time to avoid a shapely redhead in a maid’s uniform, all ruffles and black stockings, who sashayed past with a tray of drinks as nimble as a ballet dancer on spike heels. I followed, leapfrogging from hallway to hallway until she finally went through a door and I caught a glimpse of a big dining room, crowded with figures in fancy suits.

I took a position behind a huge potted palm to listen. I’d done this kind of thing enough as the Grey Ghost — this was the first time I was doing it as plain old John Callahan.

“Ah, the refreshments are here!” echoed a female voice that I recognized from that night at the speak-easy. “Drink up, gentlemen! To profit! Yours and mine!”

There was a clink of glasses and murmurs of approval, mixed with some guffaws and rude remarks about the maid. It didn’t surprise me — if my guess was right the room was crowded with mob big-wigs.

“Nice booze,” declared one voice, rough as a cobblestone street. “But I’m sick of waiting! Give us the straight dope! Why are we all here, and why shouldn’t we all be slitting each other’s throats?”

“Now, now Mister Metranga, you know you’ve all agreed to a truce long enough to hear my proposal.” The voice had been deeper that night, huskier and more seductive. Now it was stronger, ringing like a hammer against a steel rail-tie — not the kind of voice you wanted to argue with. “I’ll be happy to share it with you, but I thought that we should socialize first. Get to know one another.”

“I know these bastards already, lady,” came the reply. “And I don’t violate no truces. But I’m running out of patience, so you better start spilling the beans.”

I could almost see her shrugging her shapely shoulders.

“All right then, Mister Metranga. Or may I call you Tony?”

There was no reply.

“Very well,” she continued, then spoke softly. “Rose, be a dear and bring another tray of drinks won’t you?”

The maid hustled past my hiding place as the woman spoke again. “You all may know me as Lady Leonora La Croix, but in certain circles I have another name. Have you heard of the Asp?”

There were gasps and hushed conversations in the room.

Hell. The Asp, huh? Yeah, I’d heard of her, but I’d thought she was a myth. The Asp was one of those crooks that other crooks love to talk about — operations around the world, controlling booze and drugs, smuggling weapons, sponsoring revolutions in Central America, stealing gold and gems, slave camps, secret armies… Most of those people who believed the stories thought the Asp was a man.

I had no idea how much to believe, but if even one tenth of all the stories were true, and Lady St. Croix really was the Asp, then she was a dangerous, dangerous woman.

And right then I remembered one little tidbit about her — that she disposed of her enemies with injections of snake venom.

Involuntarily my hand went to my neck. Snake venom? Hell, it made sense.

“You may find it hard to believe, gentlemen,” St. Croix went on, “but I truly am the individual known as the Asp. And for the past eighteen months I’ve been engaged in a very elaborate, very secret operation, ridding the entire east coast of those who traffic in stolen gemstones — fences, thieves, buyers, everyone. You may have heard some rumors to that effect as well.”

“Yeah, we heard,” said a voice. “You saying you did all that? I lost a bundle when Lou Jablonski bought the farm.”

“And if everything goes according to plan, you’ll make back double what you lost or more,” replied St. Croix. “You see, I propose taking control of all diamond and gem traffic in and out of the eastern seaboard. With your kind assistance, of course.”

There was another babble of voices, some of them angry.

“What the hell are you getting at, lady?” demanded the rough-voiced gangster. “We were doing great on our own! Why should we help you?”

Her answer would blow everything wide open. But just as she started to speak I caught a glimpse of movement. Turning, I saw Rose, the redheaded doll in the little maid’s outfit. She still held her tray of drinks balanced in one hand, but in the other she held a mean-looking derringer. The look in her eye told me she knew damn well how to use it.

I felt disappointed. “You sure you want to do that, Rosie? I’m a real nice guy once you get to know me.”

“Sorry, mac.” To her credit she did look a tiny bit sorry. “You’re kinda cute, but I got a job to do. Hey, boss! Looks like we got a spy!”

I tried to run, but I was too late. The door to the dining room burst open and a horde of ugly goons rushed out, guns drawn. A couple of them grabbed my arms as a third reversed a .38 in his hand and slammed me across the face with it.

Rose stepped back, returning the derringer to her garter, and the tray of drinks didn’t move a whisker. I was impressed.

A bunch more thugs piled in, punching and hitting and kicking. At least, I thought as a wave of pitch black rolled over me, I was dying as John Callahan.


Some days it just doesn’t pay to wake up. This was one of those days.

Bright light glared in my eyes. My arms were bent behind me and I felt the bite of steel handcuffs. Then something blocked the light, and I realized it was Little Nicky Spinelli, all sharp and neat in a double-breasted pinstripe.

“Well if it ain’t Johnny Diamonds,” he growled, looking at me like I was something he found on the sole of his shoe. “I don’t think you were invited to our little shindig, was he boys?”

Maurie McGill crowded in next to him, glaring from under his fedora with his one good eye. “I don’t think he was. Waddya say we show him how we treat gatecrashers?”

Behind them, another half-dozen or so of the biggest mob bosses in ten states grinned and guffawed.

We were in a swanky dining room, with a big crystal chandelier, a long table set with plates full of food, and a big picture window that looked out over the lamp-lit grounds beyond.

Joey Cohen reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of brass knuckles. “You’re right, Maury. Time to liven up this party a little.”

I flashed him a nasty grin. “Hey, C-Note. Takin’ a break from shakin’ down hookers?”

“Yeah, laugh it up, ya mutt.” Joey slipped on the knuckles. “Lessee how you laugh with a mouth fulla broken teeth.”

I braced myself. This wasn’t the way I wanted to go, but in the end it wasn’t a real surprise.

“Easy gentlemen,” came a husky feminine voice. “I’ll deal with this one.”

The crowd of gangsters parted and she glided toward me.

Yeah, it was her all right. Pale skin, red lips, the face of a wicked angel. Only now she had long, shining black hair and a green gown that showed off all her curves in perfect detail.

And then there were the eyes — no matter what else she changed, she wouldn’t ever be able to disguise those shimmering emerald orbs that flashed even brighter than her gown.

“Hi, toots,” I said. “Long time, no see.”

She gave me a cold stare. “You’re a very resourceful man, John Callahan. Not bright, but resourceful.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

She nodded then spoke to the gangsters again.

“Since Mister Callahan isn’t going anywhere, I can finish my presentation for you gentlemen.”

“Don’t we get to have no fun with him?” demanded Joey C-Note. “Me an’ the boys were gonna…”

She cut him off. “No, I have plans for this one.”

Joey looked unhappy. “Look, lady, I dunno who the hell you think you are but –”

“There, there, Mister Cohen,” she purred. “All good things come to those who wait.”

Joey stared at her for a second, then shrugged. “That’s what my ma always said,” he grumbled. “But nothin’ good ever did.”

“That’s better, Mister Cohen.” She smiled. “Now please. Everyone have a seat and we’ll continue.”

The gangsters all shuffled back to the dining table like a crowd of schoolboys coming in from recess. Then Rosie came back and started serving drinks. I caught her eye and winked. She smiled prettily and shrugged, as if she was saying “Sorry I got you killed, Johnny.”

I sighed. Too bad. She seemed like the kind of girl I could really get to like.

Lady Leonora cleared her throat. “As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, all of the major illegal gem dealers on the east coast are out of business, leaving the market wide open. What I haven’t told you yet is that, through a number of my own business holdings, I have obtained a controlling interest in every major legitimate gem wholesaler east of the Mississippi.”

The room went quiet as the gangsters all realized what the dame was saying.

“Gentlemen, you’re looking at the woman who controls all gem and jewel traffic along the eastern seaboard, and with it the majority of the gem market in the entire United States.”

“So you’re loaded. Big deal. What do you need us for?” Fats Manning demanded from the end of the table opposite Leonora. He was so big he was sitting in an armchair and still overflowed it.

“Good question, Mister Manning.” She smiled, eyes flashing green. “It’s simply the law of supply and demand — when you control the supply you can demand anything you want. I own almost every legal gem business, so I can set the price. Whenever anyone buys a wedding ring, a diamond tiara or a pearl stick-pin, they buy it from me.”

“I repeat myself.” Fats was starting to get impatient. Maybe she hadn’t served dinner yet. “If you’re so rich now, what do you want with a bunch of gangsters like us?”

“That was why I went to all the trouble to dispose of the illegal gem merchants, Mister Manning. With no illegal source of gems, people will have no choice but to buy from me. And in order to maintain my monopoly, I need someone to control the illegal trade. That’s where you men come in. In exchange for keeping illegal gems off the market, I will give you a generous percentage of my legitimate income. If you happen to obtain gems illegally, I will buy them from you. All I ask is that you sell them to no one but me.”

The boys at the table all started babbling, but I turned my eye on her majesty.

I spoke over the hubbub, staring with every ounce of malice I could muster. “You killed Rico, then you framed me for it. If you wanted me out of the way, why didn’t you just bump me off like the others?”

She looked at me with all the compassion that the guy with the sledgehammer looks at a cow in the slaughterhouse.

“Why give the police two murders to solve when I could just give them one, and hand the murderer over to them? It’s much neater that way.” She sneered. “You proved more resourceful than I expected, Mister Callahan. You were supposed to be just recovering from my venom when the police arrived.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, sweetheart. So when I slipped out of your noose you sent Greasy Grimes and his friend to finish me off?”

“A crude solution, I admit. It’s what I get for trusting men like Clancy Douglas.”

I wanted to put my hands around her pale throat and squeeze, but the cuffs held fast. I knew Douglas was crooked but I’d had no idea he was that crooked.

“Oh, don’t look so unhappy, Mister Callahan.” Her voice was almost friendly. “You of all people should know it’s only business.”

I could barely believe what I was hearing. All my life I’d heard men talk like this — violent men who’d kill you for your shoes or cut their own mothers’ throats for a nickel, but I’d never once thought a woman could be so cruel, so cold-blooded, so…

…So plain, damned evil.

I guess you learn something new every day, huh?

Fats Manning spoke up again.

“I’m discussing your proposal with my associates. If you really are who you say you are, I find it quite intriguing.”

“Thank you,” Lady Leonora replied. “Perhaps after dinner we can all sit down and discuss the particulars…”

“Yeah, but how do we know we can trust you?” demanded Joey C-Note. “For all we know you’re just some uppity dame spinnin’ some yarn and expecting us to swallow it. You say you’re the Asp? Prove it!”

“Hm.” She looked thoughtful. “You want some proof that I’m the Asp? Very well.”

She gestured at the maid. “Rose dear, please go get the needle, would you?”

Rose curtsied, flashed me another sympathetic glance and disappeared.

“I was going to provide you with a demonstration of my capabilities later on tonight,” Leonora continued, “and since Mister Callahan so graciously joined the party, I was going to make him my subject. Perhaps as after-dinner entertainment.”

“What the hell are you gonna do to me?” I strained at the cuffs, feeling the metal dig into the flesh of my wrists. “At least give me a fighting chance!”

She ignored me. “I’ll change my plans somewhat to accommodate you, Mister Cohen. Now you can see how the Asp deals with her enemies.”

Rosie returned, bearing a tray upon which was a flat black case. St. Croix accepted it and opened the case, pulling out a gleaming silver hypodermic syringe with a needle that looked at least three inches long.

“This syringe contains concentrated king cobra venom,” she said, holding it up for all the gangsters to see. “It kills, swiftly and painfully. I reserve it for use on my most dangerous enemies.”

“Then why use it on Johnny Ds?” Nicky Spinelli guffawed. “He couldn’t hurt a fly!”

That got a big laugh. If only they knew.

As for me I was busy making mental notes on what gang leaders I’d be taking down if I ever got away from this mess and got to be the Grey Ghost again.

It all seemed like a real pipe dream though, since death was gliding toward me, as smooth and deadly as the snake she was named after, the syringe held tight in one hand.

“I’m afraid this won’t be pleasant, Mister Callahan,” she hissed. “But please rest assured… It’s not personal.”

I spat. “Oh yeah? Go to hell, lady.”

It was a weak comeback, but when you’re staring death in the face it’s hard to be witty.

She pressed the syringe against my neck and I felt the needle prick my skin.

“Goodbye, Mister Callahan,” she said. “It was nice knowing you.”

I braced myself for the searing flood of venom in my veins, but before it hit, all hell suddenly broke loose.

Without warning the big picture window exploded inward, shattering into a million glittering pieces. An instant later a pair of bright flashes exploded with a deafening boom, sending thick clouds of black smoke into the air.

The Asp swore and drew away. Amid gangsters and their torpedoes shouting in alarm I heard a voice rising up, loud and unmistakable.

It was my voice, but I wasn’t speaking.

“Cease this criminal activity! The Specter of Justice is upon you!”

Then, amid billowing clouds of smoke I saw something that made my mind fall apart like a dropped jigsaw puzzle.

Leaping through the broken remnants of the shattered picture window was a cloaked grey figure, a fedora pulled low over its head, its face hidden beneath a mask. A nickel-plated .45 was clutched in one grey-gloved hand.

“It’s the Grey Ghost!” shouted Joey C-Note, a blurry shadow in the rolling smoke. “Get him!”

The smoke cloud erupted with flashes and the bang of gunfire.

The Grey Ghost?

What the hell?

I was the damned Grey Ghost!

 

6: The Big Finish

The smoke from the two flash bombs spread through the entire room, lit up by gunfire as the gangsters fired wildly. As I watched as Nicky Spinelli staggered out of the cloud, clutching his chest, then fell to the ground, dark red staining the front of his nice pinstripe.

Then someone was beside me. It was my twin, a tall man dressed sharp as a tack, all in grey.

“Nice costume,” I said over a chorus of panicked shouts and gunfire. “Where’d you pick it up, Phantom? Dimestore?”

“Always the wiseacre, eh Callahan?” He crouched behind me and I felt him fumbling at the handcuffs. “How do you know it’s me?”

“The real Ghost’s .45s are black. Yours are silver. Just like the Phantom’s.”

“Very observant,” he replied as the cuffs clicked open. “You should go into detective work, Callahan.”

“Call me Johnny.” I rubbed my wrists, trying to get my circulation back. “You’ve earned it.”

Behind the mask I saw him smile. “I’d rather call you the Grey Ghost. You think I’ve earned that?”

I bit off my reply. There was no sense pretending.

“How’d you know?”

“Later.” He helped me to my feet. “Right now we’ve got a snake to catch, so let’s get out of here and let these fools keep shooting themselves.”

We rushed away while the gangsters in the dining room continued to use each other for target practice.

As we went, the Phantom spoke quickly. “I… That is, Dr. Bendix… analyzed that sample of Suarez’s blood that I took from the apartment. It turns out that it contained the venom of the Echis carinatus or saw-scaled Indian viper, sufficiently diluted to cause unconsciousness, but not death. She dosed Suarez then shot him while he lay helpless on the floor, then injected you with the same poison and left you for the police to find.”

I grunted. “Dames. You think you have ‘em figured out, then…”

“The venom caused the last piece of the puzzle to finally fall into place. I’d crossed paths with the Asp before — clearly the frame-up and the murders of gem brokers were her work. When I searched for any activity by one of her many aliases, I found that she’d purchased this mansion. I just happened to show up in time for that presentation to her would-be gangland accomplices!”

“Smart man, Phantom,” I admitted. “And thanks for getting me out of that. Where do you think she went?”

“Anywhere away from here, I assure you. Her little scheme has blown up in her face so she’ll be making for the nearest bolt-hole. In fact…”

We were near the back of the mansion and the sounds of gunfire had faded behind us. Ahead of us however I heard the sound of a car engine sputtering to life.

“The garage!” The Phantom barked. He handed me a second automatic. “I guess I trust you enough not to shoot me in the back, Callahan. Now come on!”

I racked the slide and fell in step behind him.

Shoot him in the back? No way… This mug had saved my life and now seemed to be treating me like a human being instead of a gutless crook.

Maybe the Phantom wasn’t such a bad egg after all.

I followed him, watching was his grey cloak flowed behind him. Damn. I’d never seen myself in action. If that’s what the Grey Ghost looked like, no wonder the dames fell for him so hard and ignored poor Johnny Diamonds.

We burst into the garage in time to see that white Rolls limo all fired up and ready to go, with Little Miss Asp herself bundled up in the back seat, and her thick-necked Chinese driver opening the doors in a big hurry.

“Don’t move!” the Phantom shouted, aiming his automatic. “You’re both under arrest!”

The Asp turned, her green eyes flashing with hate and pointed a single thin white finger at us.

“Get them, Chiang! I’ll take the wheel!”

Chiang moved, scooping a big Tommy gun off the floor and aiming it in our direction.

The Phantom fired, but his shot went wild, hitting the door beside Chiang just as the big man cocked his weapon and his finger tightened on the trigger.

“Look out!” I threw myself at the Phantom as Chiang’s chopper spoke, belting out a storm of .45 rounds, blasting wood, pinging off metal and shattering glass.

The Phantom yelled and I saw a streak of blood staining the grey at his shoulder. I rolled to my feet, aiming my automatic straight at Chiang, firing and firing and firing until the slide locked back, filling the entire garage with noise and smoke and flying brass.

The chopper fell from Chiang’s fingers and the big man tumbled face-first onto the concrete pad, blood splashing.

In an eyeblink the Phantom had shaken off his injury and was on his feet, pistol steady.

“Hold it right there, Asp!” he shouted. “Don’t move or I’ll…”

He didn’t get to finish. The Asp had moved to the driver’s seat. Leaning down she popped out the clutch and floored it. The big Rolls plowed forward like a battleship, rolling over poor Chaing’s body, then barreling its way through the half-open garage door, smashing it to bits and rushing out into the night.

The Phantom fired again and again, and I heard the bullets ricochet off the Rolls’ body, but she never even slowed down. I ran after her but she was gone — she’d doused the lights and was driving blind, heading away for who the hell knew where.

“There’s a radio in my car,” the Phantom said, hurrying up beside me, panting hard. “I’ll alert the police. They’ll find her.”

“Not if she’s as sharp as I think she is,” I said. “She hasn’t made it this far by being stupid.”

The Phantom’s shoulders slumped. He wasn’t used to the bad guys getting away.

“I’ll get her,” he said softly. “I’ll see her brought to justice if it’s the last thing I do.”

Back at the front of the house car engines were roaring and lights were coming on as the party broke up and the gangsters fled. I heard a few gunshots and shouts as they went.

“I guess the truce is off, huh?” I laughed. “Some guys’ll do anything for a pretty face.”

The Phantom smiled. “You should know, Callahan.”

We stood in silence for a moment.

“So what now?” I asked. “You gonna arrest me? Tell the world who I really am?”

He shook his head. “What would Mother Callahan think?” He drew a deep breath. “You were right. I don’t know what it’s like. I’ve spent so much time obsessing on crime and criminals I’ve forgotten that they’re human beings just like me.”

I must have looked surprised.

“Don’t give me that look, Callahan. It’s not often I admit I’m wrong. And I haven’t witnessed you committing any crimes. As far as I and the law are concerned you’re an innocent man framed for a crime you didn’t commit and it’s in the interest of justice to clear your name. Rest assured, I’ll see to it. And I’ll see to Clancy Douglas as well.”

I felt a strange sensation wash over me. It was relief, sure… But now there was something else. What to call it? Pride? Admiration? Friendship, even? It was strange.

“So how did you know?” I asked. “How did you figure out that I’m the Grey Ghost?”

He looked at me. I didn’t see any makeup behind the mask, and I thought that if I pulled it off I’d know for sure who the Phantom Detective really was.

For some reason, I really didn’t want to know. And besides, I already had a pretty good idea that at least one of his identities was a scientist named Dr. Bendix.

“The eyes, Callahan.” He nodded. “The eyes are the windows of the soul, and they’re the one thing you can’t disguise. Neither could the Asp.”

“That’s all? My eyes?”

“As I said, I’m a very observant man, Callahan. Sometimes it’s a curse.”

The last of the gangsters had fled. We began to walk back toward the house.

“Well, for what it’s worth, I owe you one, Phantom.”

“I appreciate it.” His voice took on a note of steel. “Mind you, if I ever catch you committing a crime, I’ll see you prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, Old Mother Callahan or no.”

“Fair enough,” I replied. “Fair enough.”

I didn’t tell him that I was beginning to wonder whether the whole criminal thing was worth the trouble. Maybe someday I’d go into crime-fighting full-time.

Maybe.

As we approached the house I saw a lone figure silhouetted in a doorway — a petite feminine shape in a maid’s outfit.

“You okay, mister?” echoed a voice. “I’m sorry I did that, but I was just…”

“Just doing your job. Don’t sweat it, sister.” I stepped closer. “They call me Johnny Diamonds. You’re Rosie, right?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Rose. They call me Rose.”

“Sure. Rose it is.”

I took a deep breath. Johnny Ds is a crook, see? Crooks tend to stick together, and I had a sneaking hunch that Rose was a bit of a crook herself.

I turned, gesturing behind me. “Rose, I’d like you to meet my friend, the Grey…”

But he was gone. He’d vanished, taking my secret with him, and guaranteeing that no one would ever suspect that a lowlife jewel thief like Johnny Diamonds was really the Grey Ghost.

I shrugged. “Never mind. No big deal.”

I held out an arm and she took it.

“So,” I asked, “you know any good java joints around here?”

–END–