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The Pit of Hell
About the Author: Martin Hill Ortiz is a professor of Pharmacology at the Ponce University of Health Sciences in Ponce, PR where he lives with his wife and son. Along with four novels, he has had over a score of short stories published in magazines and anthologies. One of his works, A Very Entertaining Death, appeared in the March 7, 2016 issue of Mystery Weekly. His recent novel, A Predator's Game, Rook's Page Publishing, takes place in 1896, where Nikola Tesla and Arthur Conan Doyle endeavor to stop a madman.

Dixon MacGrath’s head was missing: that couldn’t be good for his health. Peeking a bit more closely at his full body cast, I noticed that the rest of him had also vanished. Full immobilization, his doctor had ordered. Did disappearing count the same as moving?

The twenties have been a time of scientific marvels: of aeroplanes and rustless steel, of baseball games over the radio and iron-clad tanks. I’d take science over spirits, except for the liquid kind found in a speakeasy. There had to be a rational explanation.

Left behind on top of a hospital bed was an empty plaster husk. Lying on its back, the stiff arms and legs of the shell pointed up like a puppy begging for a belly scratch. I rapped a knuckle on the cast: nothing but an empty thud.

I noted my signature among a dozen others on the dried plaster: this wasn’t a copy-cat cast. I tipped the shell on its side to search for signs of cleaving or rejoining. The rough latticework of gauze set beneath the plaster circled around and around the cast without break. There was an evacuation hole at the rear end for the times when the nurses fit his hinder parts to a bedpan.

Either escape artist MacGrath had squeezed his way up through the neck-hole or he’d shat his way to freedom. By one means or another, he’d finally pulled off a miraculous feat, even if it had come a day too late.

Cobb, the assignment editor at the Evening World, had the patrician look of Woodrow Wilson to go along with the hard-bitten stubbornness that comes from being the last remaining knight on a crusade. He knew high and low journalism and relished each.

Yesterday in the a.m. he summoned me to his office and closed the door. He pictured himself as a tough general leading his troops, and he enjoyed cursing out his newsmen while screaming at the top of his lungs so that the whole floor could hear him. I braced for one of his tirades. Instead, he invited me to sit down and make myself comfortable. He looked peaceable, his hands folded. I didn’t relax, he always had an angle. “Alan,” he said, “I’ve got an assignment for you, one right up your alley. There’s this ballyhoo dare-devil, Dixon MacGrath.”

“I’ve heard of him,” I said.

“He’s performing a stunt this afternoon in front of Karswell’s Dry Goods down along Tenth. He’s set to escape from a straitjacket while tied to the end of a flagpole which sticks out from the store’s third floor. You’ve got a talent for dealing with those stunt artist types. You know how to squeeze the color out of their stories. They talk to you. You’re like one of them—only harmless.”

That was Cobb’s oh-so-subtle way of saying that, since losing my hand and retiring from the stage, my fellow illusionists pitied me as a cripple. Hell, he was right: even I pitied me.

“The problem,” I told Cobb, “is that these straitjacket escapes are a nickel-a-shot. If I write this up, I’ll be lucky to buy three lines on page zed.”

“Have faith in me, Alan.” He patted me on the shoulder all chummy like he was set to pick my pocket. “This one is different. MacGrath is going to escape from a straitjacket while hung out on a flagpole and … he’s going to do it after being set on fire.”

So far the twenties had been all boom, the bootleggers and the market players had started one unending party as though Prohibition had outlawed hangovers, not liquor. Not even Harding’s clown parade could spoil the celebration. Progress steamed forward with the fury of the Twentieth Century—the train, not the years.

Still, all of this prosperity came with a catch: one person’s gusher was another’s hole in the ground. With Manhattan’s prosperity came more people and with more humans came more human waste. When the municipal fathers decreed the sewage tunnels along Tenth Avenue needed to be widened, city workers dug a reeking pit in front of Karswell’s Dry Goods, transforming the business into Hell’s Friendly Neighbor, five floors of vacant staring windows.

By the time the proprietor, Jarmon Karswell, unfurled a banner in front of his establishment announcing his store was still open, he might as well have swung a white flag in surrender. His next desperate maneuver came in the form of a publicity stunt. He hired Dixon MacGrath to conjure up a crowd. MacGrath: a bargain-basement escape artist who couldn’t escape from a bargain basement. Dixon announced he would free himself from a tightly-laced straitjacket at the end of a flagpole, dangling three floors above the excavation pit. All of this after being set on fire.

This story appears in our OCT 2016 Issue
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