Page Created 6-20-03
By BRON FANE
© R. Lionel Fanthorpe
"The set wasn't even plugged in . . . but a picture was forming."
TONY CORELLI folded his notebook and clicked the elastic band around the covers with a final, decisive snap. There was, he decided, nothing else worth noting. The auction was tailing off, the impressive pieces had gone, the struggle between connoisseurs and collectors was over, the battle between the dealers was dying down, petering away. Through the window Tony watched the antique correspondents of two rival national dailies making their way with a rather bored air, towards their cars, and thence their typewriters.
Corelli glanced at his watch and decided that it might be a good idea to emulate their example. He thought of the lines of shorthand in his notebook, and decided that there wasn't that much urgency. The lads, now passed out of his line of vision, had been doing antique columns for perhaps weeks or months. Corelli ran a hand through thinning black hair and scratched his scalp gently with one beautifully manicured nail. He had been writing columns when there wasn't any scalp to be seen, he thought rather sorrowfully. His mind followed a rebound trail as his eyes went from the auctioneer to the half dozen junk lots remaining at the end of the important pieces.
Derelict, he thought, tenacious survivors, they've hung on a long time. 'Old reporters never die, they just go grey, or bald, and turn into sub-editors'----maybe, if they're lucky. Or perhaps they just get pensioned off to the 'agony' column! Maybe somebody gives them a desk in the advertising department when they are too old and slow for the competitive business of reporting----or maybe reporters didn't get old? Tony tried hard to think how many men on the Globe were older than he was. There was Stearman, but you couldn't tell with Stearman, he'd been there since before Corelli's time----somewhere between forty and fifty, but that was vague. Mack, more an institution than the Globe itself, was timeless and ageless, a kind of Fleet Street Puck.
Corelli looked back at the last five items: an old brass bedstead, he saw it sold for five shillings; a marble topped washstand complete with jug and basin, the toilet requisites of a by-gone age. What were they using 'gozunders' for now, anyway? Ice-cubes at Chelsea parties? Perhaps I'm letting my asthetic awareness run away with me, thought Corelli, but I wouldn't fancy ice cubes from a 'gozunder' even if it had been boiled in Jeyes' Fluid for a week!
The washstand made ten shillings.
The auctioneers had the paunchy sleepy look of a Hollywood slave trader trying to persuade a cynical audience that the happy, beaming, bejewelled and bikini'd ex Miss Worlds on their dainty little silver chains were really slaves. Three things to go. A pair of kitchen chairs at half-a-crown, and only two little nigger boys remain, thought Tony. A hand-made rabbit hutch, what in the name of God was that doing here? There must be more humour in that auctioneer than I thought. . . . The last item. Have I got some kind of superstitious streak? Lucky last----an old television set. Funny how the value goes out of a television as soon as you take it home, plug it in and stand a glass of sherry on the top so that it leaves a ring. Wonder what it will fetch?
While he had been watching the disposal of the last few lots Tony had walked closer to the auctioneer. There were only half-a-dozen buyers left, and Corelli understood now why most of the junk lots were put in first. These had obviously been brought late to the auction----too late to go among the appetite whetters in the building outside. Corelli felt a sneeze coming on. He suffered from a mild allergy to dust and these last few lots were quietly but noticeably covered in it. The auctioneer's assistant was sending up clouds of nasal irritation.
"Your price then," the auctioneer was saying. Corelli's handkerchief fluttered. He sneezed.
"----shilling I'll take. Shilling to start me."
Tony finished wiping his nose and put the handkerchief back in his pocket.
"Is there any advance on a shilling? I believe the set's in working order. Cheap lot for somebody! The wood alone is worth more! Do I hear any advance?"
Tony looked round interestedly to see who had bought the television, but the little knot of curious hangers-on had vanished. There was just the auctioneer, his assistant, and the television set. The truth dawned on Corelli suddenly.
"Would you like to pay now, sir?" The auctioneer's assistant, young, and with pimples, held out his card enthusiastically.
"Do you mean I just bought that?"
"Well, I took your bid, sir," said the auctioneer, looking more alert than he had done for some minutes past. Corelli had the kind of sense of humour which was prepared to pay a shilling for a good laugh. This, he reflected, was the kind of thing you read about, the kind of thing you heard above at the club. This was the sort of story that filled in odd corners of the second page. It would get a laugh from Mac. He wondered if he could put it down to expenses.
"I didn't really want it, but----it has a joke value!" Corelli flipped half-a-crown to the auctioneer's assistant, who rummaged through the leather sling bag at his waist. "It's all right, keep the change, boy."
There was a look of outraged dignity on the assistant's face. It reminded Corelli of a head waiter to whom he had once given threepence. He still chuckled at the memory of that scene. He could see it as clearly as though it were yesterday. He could see the purposeful, robot-like advance of the 'bouncer' standing monolithically behind the head waiter, ferocity and aggression in every line of the thick jaw, of the bullying face. He remembered how that expression had changed when Stearman had pushed his chair back and stood up. He wondered how the affair might have ended if Val had not been with him that night. Laughing a little, Corelli slapped the top of the set, then he sneezed again as a miniature dust cloud enveloped his probocis. When coherent speech was available again he said quietly:
"Just bring that to my car, there's a good lad."
The auctioneer's assistant changed colour with a speed and completeness that would have been the envy of the chameleon. Han jangled his money bag like an outraged Scotsman flourishing his sporran. His eyes gleamed with suppressed anger. The auctioneer nodded to him curtly, and as Corelli looked from one to the other he found it difficult to decide which he liked least. The boy hoisted the television awkwardly off the floor and carried it to Corelli's car. He set it down in the seat with unnecessary violence.
"Mind the tube!" said Tony gaily. The lad turned on his heel muttering something under his breath. Corelli, grinning broadly, climbed into the front seat and banged the door behind him. The car rocked a little. Tony switched on and turned the key a fraction further to operate the starter motor. At the second turn the engine fired. Corelli revved up a little and then slid skillfully into gear, eased up the clutch, increased the throttle a fraction and glided silkily away towards Fleet Street.
He passed Stearman on his way out and in too much of a hurry to hear the anecdote of the television set. They exchanged a cheery 'Good-night' on the stairs.
Corelli reached his office, unlocked his typewriter case, and reached down his definitive antique-lovers' handbook. It took him exactly twelve minutes to finish writing his copy. A touch on the button brought the boy to the door. Corelli waved the copy away as though he were an Eastern potentate of great power and dignity dismissing the meanest of his courtiers. There remained, he decided, the problem of what to do with the television set and the rest of the evening. If the television worked----which he doubted----the two problems would be mutually soluble. But Corelli was no TV enthusiast, a satisfactory picture on a good set bored him, and he doubted whether the dusty old 'idiot's lantern' in the boot of his car would be able to compare with a magic lantern for entertainment value. There was, he reflected, the bored reporter's surest, most faithful and slowly lethal ally: the nearest bar.
Sometimes Corelli wondered whether there was quite as much sense in soaking the liver with alcohol night after night as there had seemed to be years ago. It was a question he asked with increased significance round about tea-time every day, and which became quite pointless once the first whisky was down.
That first whisky was the pioneer, the trail blazer; the wagon trains followed in its wake. Every humbling wheel made the way smoother for the next.
Corelli slipped down the latch, closed the office door behind him, strolled down the stairs in a leisurely fashion and sauntered across the oil-spotted concrete of the Globe's car park floor. He drove around the West End for a little while, looking idly at theatre and cinema posters. Nothing took his fancy. There had to be something a man could do except drink! The answer, he thought, lay in that first glass. If you could say 'No' to one, you could say 'No' to two. It seemed childishly simple. It was the 'one' that raised the problem. He thought of the breach in a Dutch dyke. Once the sea was in the hole would get bigger until nothing could stop the great pressure of water. He laughed as he thought of the boy who had put his finger in the hole. Legend, he told himself, it had to be legend. It wouldn't work in real life for two reasons . . . one scientific and the other psychological. The cure the kid had tried wouldn't have been effective. Secondly, nobody could be that stupid. Corelli had a theory that all heroes were accidental. He had elaborated on it at some length to Stearman who for once had made no effective reply. Corelli thought at the time that it had been a kind of verbal victory, a dialectical success. On further reflection he had realised that Stearman, being Stearman, was in no position to reply! A hero cannot ethically state his own case. Yet, somehow, modesty had never seemed to affect Val, as it affected other men of his stature. Oh, damn Stearman, anyway! He was never bored, thought Corelli, mainly because he liked what he did. In a fleeting moment of truth Tony realised that he himself was bored with antiques. Maybe I should have a change, he thought, do that supernatural column for Val. Funny, he seems to be some kind of psychic magnet, things happen----they never happen to me. They never happen to anybody else I know. Stearman just has to take a walk in the country and ghosts fall over themselves to appear! Vampires develop thrombosis in their eagerness to get up and confront him! Werewolves howl themselves inside out to attract his attention! Poltergeists drop rocks conveniently at his feet! Time travellers and Beings from other worlds head for Stearman like mosquitoes in the mating season heading for a waterhole! But me----what adventures do I have? I go to auctions and buy defunct television sets! He laughed a little thinly to himself before parking the car and walking into the saloon bar of the nearest pub.
The bar was empty when he arrived, it filled up slowly, and emptied against before he left. He had been the first in, the last out. He thought if they only gave medals for that I'd have a chest full of gongs. He moved unsteadily towards the car. A policeman surveyed him interestedly. Corelli had the knack of sobering in the midst of his alcohol whenever it was necessary. He could control the degree to which he allowed himself to enjoy his whisky. When the brakes were off he could get mellow on two small glasses. When something turned up that was important or ominous he could drink the best part of a bottle and remain in control of the situation. He stood looking back challengingly at the young officer on the other side of the road. The policeman turned as though uncertain, unable to meet the challenge in Corelli's mocking glance. He moved ponderously and deliberately. I wonder if they teach them that? wondered Corelli, as he opened the door. How did their statements go? "I was proceeding----" that was the word. Maybe they had lessons in how to 'proceed.' It wasn't a stroll, it certainly wasn't a saunter, yet it was more purposeful than the plodding of a ploughboy, or the pacings of a worried business man across an office floor. Corelli started the engine and listened to it for a moment. It had a sweet sound. There was almost music in it. Tony moved the car away from the kerb and purred slowly and carefully past the young policeman. For a moment he was tempted to wave, to nod, to hoot even, but the cynical streak was repeating that it would be most effective of all to remain as silent and as sober as the proverbial judge. With a poker face and an inward sneer Tony Corelli drove home, leaving the young, probationer constable contemplating, debating the merits and demerits, the pros and cons of the Case That Never Was. As he watched the rear lights retreat up the road he was thinking in terms of breathalisers and blood tests.
Corelli reached home, garaged the car smoothly and expansively and stood leaning for a moment on the garage door at the side of his maisonette. He looked down the road, grinning inanely yet challengingly, as though to say that with all your hazards and complications I can beat you, drunk or sober. He opened the front door with a slipping latch key, propped it open against the hall table and went back to the garage. He fumbled with the boot fastener and snapped his fingers angrily to bring them back under control. The boot sprang upwards like the jaw of a crocodile. He lifted the television out and held it in front of him like a drum major. He skinned the knuckles of his left hand manoeuvring through the door, curved, and almost dropped the set.
"The thing is," he said aloud, "where the hell am I going to put you?"
One great blank eye looked back at him with a kind of dull insolence.
"On the off chance that you work," muttered Corelli, his voice now thickening considerably, "I think I'll take you upstairs. I could do with a spare television in the bedroom. Bed is the best place to watch from----damn thing sends you to sleep anyhow! Still, I don't suppose you'll work."
He bumped his way upstairs like a Keystone furniture removing company.
The frame of the bedroom door accounted for another skinned knuckle, then Corelli had the set dumped on the foot of the bed. Dust came up as he lowered it. He coughed and sneezed for a moment then looked round for some suitable, permanent resting place. Corelli's bedroom would not have impressed Marie Antoinette, but the women whom he usually entertained there had little other than an ethical code in common with that unhappy queen. Corelli set up a pair of leather suitcases that had been expensive when they were new and had once----long ago----looked impressive. By the time he had finished arranging the television on top the whole bore a marked resemblance to a ziggurat or Babylonian moon-worshippers' temple. The television seemed to be enshrined on top of the ageing leather cases. "The green eye of the little yellow god," muttered Corelli and pointed accusingly at the set, then struck a declamatory pose and began----
"There's a little yellow idol to the North of Katmandu,
There's a little marble cross below the town,
There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew
While the little yellow idol gazes down. . . ."
"How the devil does it go on from there? You wouldn't know, I suppose?"
The television looked back at him blankly.
"I don't suppose you'll talk unless I plug you in, will you?"
He fumbled at the back of the cases.
"Ah, the wrong damn plug! It would be! You must have come out of the ark, my square-eyed friend. Some- body still using round-pin. Oh, well, where there's a will there's a way, I suppose!"
He produced a penknife and sliced through the cable behind the old five amp, three-pin plug top dangling on the end of its long wire.
"We'll try again!" he muttered, stripping the flex----and a little more skin. He watched a small drop of blood drip through the ventilation slit in the back of the television.
"There's an offering on the altar!" he said. "First sacrifice to the one-eyed monster!"
Chuckling throatily, Corelli thrust the wires he had just bared towards the thirteen amp socket set on the skirting board. They buckled clumsily and came back at him, like the antenna of a defeated snail.
"Oh, it's one of those blasted safety things!"
He looked around for a plug top, selected one that was attached to a bedside lamp, thrust the earth pin upside down into the top hole of the socket and forced the shuttering back on the live and neutral holes. Rather unsteadily he inserted the wires and turned the switch on the set.
"Aerial," he muttered, and descended the stairs like a sciatic elephant. He took the portable room aerial off his big set in the lounge, brought it back, puffing a little and belching whisky fumes. He plugged it into the back of the aerial socket, and adjusted the antennae until they pricked like the ears of an inquisitive metal rabbit in a painted hay field. The set began to hum; a moment later strains of music filled the room. . . .
"O.K. for sound, anyway," muttered Corelli. "It's not going to be such a bad bob's worth after all!"
The screen began to glow, he stroked it with a carefully manicured hand.
"Give me a picture!"
Another drop of blood trickled against the screen. He rubbed at it with a handkerchief, but the smear did not vanish entirely. The picture appeared but the frames weren't locked. What appeared to be a ballroom scene descended as though successions of dancers were being sucked into some infernal region as a result of the anger of a primitive pagan deity. A few more adjustments and the picture steadied down, The tube, although not in the first flush of its youth, had not reached senescence, The picture, although a little lacking in definition and focus, was adequate. Corelli decided some of the blurring was subjective rather than objective. He kicked off his shoes and threw his clothes into an untidy heap beside the bed, then lowering himself comfortably on to the pillows he lay watching the screen. The dance programme ended and there was a weather forecast followed by the late night news bulletin. The programmes closed down and the screen became a mass of aimlessly shifting points of random light. The alcohol was having a pronouncedly soporific effect on Corelli's brain. With a dull, sleepy grunt he slumped lower in the bed, yawned heavily, and fell asleep.
He was awakened by the uncanny feeling that he was not alone in the room. There was cold perspiration trickling off his forehead and his neck felt strangely stiff and uncomfortable. He opened one eye slowly, winced at the light, and shut it again. He felt as though his whole system were congested by self-produced poisons. His head throbbed, his tongue felt furry and thick, his mouth uncomfortably dry, breathing was difficult. There seemed to be no air in the bedroom. He struggled into a sitting position and opened his right eye by the smallest possible margin. Through the shading mercy of the lashes he saw the television screen. It was glowing with strange green light. If it was a tube breakdown, he thought, he had never seen one quite like it. There was an eldritch, otherworldly quality about that light. It was a sickly, unwholesome, blemished light, as though it originated from some strange bourne of death and decay. Corelli threw back the sheets, swung his legs over the side of the bed, and groped towards the set. An invisible force barred his path, icy fingers clutched at him, impeding his progress, thrusting him back. He pawed at the air as an animal in a zoological collection paws at a glass screen it cannot penetrate. The green light was shadowy in places, as though dim, half-guessed images were forming. Corelli, interested despite his fear----or perhaps, because of his fear----stared at the screen like a hypnotised coney. The shadows continued to move behind the green glow, every moment brought them more sharply into focus. In less than five minutes the outlines had condensed and sharpened into recognisable forms, patterns and symmetries. An old women, grey and bent, sat in a leather armchair. A small table containing a tray and beakers stood close beside her. Her eyes were closed and her venerable head tilted forward as though she slept. She wore a dress of black lace, very old fashioned, and somehow strangely charming in an anachronistic way. Corelli fancied he could almost smell the lavender water.
A door opened with a faint creak, and the sound of a stealthy step was reproduced perfectly by the speaker of the television set. Corelli was filled with a sense of foreboding, a nameless dread, a horror disproportionate to the events that he was watching. A man moved into the field of vision; a face showed directly on the screen like a camera close-up, but this was a face unlike any other Corelli had seen. Journalists do not live sheltered lives, and Corelli had seen his fair share of evil stamped indelibly on a human countenance, but this was something indescribable. There was malevolence and insanity in the thick black hair, destructive madness in the wild jet eyes. Lunacy leapt from the flared nostrils, the snarling mouth was the gateway to the pit of Acheron.
Corelli tried to back away from the set. He had seen more than enough. The strange psychic force that had prevented him from approaching the switch now held him rooted to the spot. He could no more retreat than previously he could have advanced. He wanted to scream but even the relief of calling out was denied him by the compelling grip of the unknown power.
He was no longer aware of the familiar surroundings of his own room, his bulging eyes and throbbing brain had become engrossed, identified with the set, and the scene of impending disaster which was being played out behind the screen. As far as Corelli was concerned the universe had been condensed into that screen. This was a microcosm of creation, a bounded microcosm in which he was hopelessly involved. He knew, without stopping to think it, that he was holding his breath. It was a strange sensation, an awareness of suspended breathing rather than conscious knowledge of it. The nightmare figure now moved so that its back showed on the scene, which held the mesmerised reporter. There were indescribable sounds and terrible jerking movements. A shoe slithered suddenly across the bottom of the picture and vanished, an old fashioned, high buttoned shoe. Corelli stared at it fascinated; there was something wrong about that shoe----and then, with a sickening feeling of diabolical horror, he realised what it was. But before the full impact had assaulted his mind it was replaced by another of greater magnitude. The thing that had been covering the leather armchair turned and strode swiftly across the room. For one terrible instant its face was visible again, streaked and splashed with something dark and ominous. It was a mask of exultant triumph, rampant evil in its dark glory radiated from the face like blemished sunlight on an alien world of strange horrors and pre-human monstrosities.
Corelli looked at the overturned armchair that now held the centre of the picture. He knew, without looking, what he would see. He prayed for the strength and will power to close his eyes, but they would not close. The old woman's mutilated body was macabre beyond description. Corelli felt his senses reeling, the green light died suddenly in the set. The strange power that held him relaxed its hold, and Tony fell like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He lay where he was on the floor for a long time, unable to rally sufficient strength to crawl back towards the bed and the telephone. Strength returned slowly, and he crept towards the phone like a man dying of thirst creeping towards an oasis. The receiver seemed to weigh a hundredweight in his nerveless fingers, but he finally succeeded in pulling it off the rest; he dialed with a hand that shook uncontrollably, and all the time his tormented eyes cast furtive glances towards the set.
* *   *
Val was stretched comfortably across his side of the bed, the telephone side, his vast bulk moulding the mattress to itself by sheer inexorable weight and superior tensile strength. The keen grey eyes were closed, the iron grey curls rested seraphically on the pillow. La Noire's slender, graceful arm encircled the sleeping journalist's muscular shoulder. Val was in the middle of a dream, a deep and pleasant dream. He had just received a personal invitation to attend the coronation of the great Poobah in Ruritania, all expenses paid, and Mac as his assistant! The junketting was due to last for three months and the entertainment was to be set in the Oriental style. The Ruritanian airliner resembled a huge feathered bedstead. He was being shown aboard by a bikini clad hostess with a warm willing smile, when the roaring of the engines suddenly transmuted itself into the ringing of the phone. Val grunted sleepily, reached out reluctantly and picked up the receiver. He had been about to grasp the bikini clad air hostess as his fingers closed over the cold pastel plastic of the telephone.
"Stearman here." He had the happy knack of being able to answer the phone in his sleep without waking up too much.
"Val, Val, it's Tony! For God's sake come over and help me! Please!"
Stearman was awake almost instantly. He shook La Noire gently and propped himself up on one elbow.
Suspicion clouded Stearman's mind.
"Corelli, if this is a joke I'm going to bust you so hard in the morning you'll think you're doing an eye-witness account of a nuclear explosion. Is that clear?"
"It's no joke, Val, I swear to God! Get over here!"
"Your flat?" demanded Stearman. Now there was no anger in his voice, no threat.
"Who is it, darling?" asked his wife.
"I'll be right over!"
Val replaced the rest and turned to La Noire.
"The antique chap?"
"What on earth's the matter with him?"
"I don't know, but he sounds as if he's called up half a brigade from Dante's 'Inferno' and can't find the right way to dismiss his squad!"
La Noire laughed but the laugh ended in a shudder.
"Corelli's a cynic," she said. "He's callous. That kind of man has no defence against the----"
"The Outside, do you mean?" asked Val.
"No defence against an impact which penetrates his cynicism," ended La Noire, enigmatically. She slipped out of bed, and began to dress.
"Are you coming too?" asked Val.
"Of course," she laughed and pouted coquettishly. "Do you think I'd let you go wandering around London on your own at this hour of the night?"
"I was having a wonderful dream," said Val. "Blast Corelli and his phone call!"
"What was it about?"
"The dream?" asked Val. He heaved a beatific sigh. "There was a coronation in Ruritania; I'd got Mac as my assistant, we were going off for three months. It was the queerest airliner you ever saw, a sort of feathered flying bedstead, and there was this hostess----"
"In just a minute," said La Noire, "I shall be jealous!"
Val looked at her appreciatively and whistled.
"There is no need to be!" he grinned.
"Would you like some coffee before we go?" she asked.
"I think, much as I would like some, that we shall have to forego the pleasure," answered the big journalist adventurer, as he made his way down the stairs, with La Noire close at his heels. "I gleaned the impression, putting it mildly, that Corelli is either having a nervous breakdown, or things are so serious he wishes he was!"
The supernatural column, which Val contributed scintillatingly to the Globe as regularly as clockwork, had provided him with, among other things, a superb continental sports saloon of extravagant horsepower and the speed of the wind. He and La Noire drove to Corelli's flat through the quiet, nearly deserted, early morning streets of the metropolis. London at two o'clock in the morning had a strange half-life, and a fascination of its own for Stearman. It was a time when the silent city stirred uneasily in its deep. The traffic that passed them, though sparse, was intriguing. Who was the thick, dark shape in the back of the Rolls Bentley? Who was the sinister, scar-faced man in the American sports car? Who was the swarthy, black-jacketed motor cyclist? On what strange, nocturnal errands did they speed? And the big police saloon that had passed them at the last intersection, its blue light flashing, whom did it pursue, and why?
It was a shaken and white-faced Corelli who admitted them.
"Thank God!" be blurted. He was as pale as chalk, as gaunt as a Slavonic goddess in an exhibition of primitive sculpture.
"What happened to you?" asked Val.
Stearman and his wife stepped into Corelli's lounge, the door closed behind them. The antique man crossed to the cocktail cabinet and opened the lid unsteadily.
"What would you like?"
"I'll have a Dubonnet if you've got one," answered La Noire.
"Will you join me in some Scotch, Val?"
"I think so, though I prefer brandy."
"I think I have a little."
"You'd better let me do that, sit down." Stearman mixed drinks with enviable expertise. He handed one to La Noire and another to the still trembling Corelli.
"Now," he prompted.
In hesitant, jerking sentences, Corelli told them of the television incident.
"In the first place," said Val, "don't go tagging a supernatural label to this thing. You've got to face facts, Tony. You're a hard drinker, have you ever heard of delirium tremens?"
"Of course I ruddy well have!" Corelli sounded angry, not at the implication of D.T.s, but that he didn't know what it was. "Course I have!" he affirmed again. The anger helped him to get some control over his trembling body.
"Secondly," said Val, "and I'm speaking very bluntly, Tony, how do you know you're not having hallucinations?"
"A n-n-nervous b-b-breakdown?"
"Something like that," said Stearman.
"Why should I?" Corelli sat unhappily on the edge of an armchair, one pyjamaed leg crossed over the other, his dressing gown half open. "Why should I?" he repeated, gulping down his whisky.
"Because you are a man who has failed to face reality, for a long time," answered Val. "Tony, I neither like nor dislike you. You are there on the staff, you are a man I work with, I suppose the word would be 'tolerate'----"
"Go on," said Corelli, coolly.
"This cynicism of yours doesn't make you any easier to get on with." Stearman was choosing his words with care. "There are various little affectations as well which irritate me and some of the other men in the office, but that's neither here nor there, the way you lead you life is your affair."
"What's this sermon leading up to?"
"You're in conflict with yourself," said Val. "I'm not a psychologist. If I was I would need more time than this in which to analyse you, but you're basically unsure about a number of things. You're a man of problems, at variance with the world. There are stresses and strains in your life. Sometimes the subconscious tries to cure stresses and strains which it finds unendurable, by relapsing into some kind of insanity."
"You think I've gone mad?"
"No, not necessarily,"
"Then why say it?"
"Because I've got to look at the possibilities first. If I said I was interested in the supernatural, in what I believe is the great spirit world over, above and beyond this one, it would be an understatement. I'm not just interested in it, I'm fascinated by it. I consciously want that unseen world to exist. Because I want it to exist, I make myself examine all the other possibilties first. I try every other solution to a problem before I fall back on the eldritch and unusual. Because I know of my own predisposition to the occult, I compel my mind to investigate every other possibility. Only then will I let myself go forward on a new supernatural adventure. If you want to know what I am by inclination, I suppose I'd call myself a supernatural romantic."
"I like that phrase," said La Noire. "One day, centuries ahead, some literary critic may give that name to an entire school, 'Bron Fane and the Supernatural Romantics' of the mid-twentieth century."
Val shuddered a little. "You're giving me goose pimples!" he complained. "I feel as though I were already dead and part of history!"
"Sorry." La Noire went suddenly quiet, her face lost a little of its colour.
"Come and see the set," urged Corelli.
"I only hope it performs again," said Val.
"Perhaps it won't." Corelli sounded dejected.
"There's always tomorrow night," consoled Stearman.
The three of them went through to Corelli's bedroom and sat in silent darkness, watching the flickering lights on the screen.
"Something's happening," whispered La Noire. "I can feel it."
"The room is growing colder," agreed Val. He felt a strange psychic chill, as though an etheric wind from some other world was blowing through the bedroom. It seemed to lower the temperature till Corelli shivered.
"There is a presence," murmured La Noire, "something from Out There." Her voice had sunk to a sepulchral whisper. Val watched the screen turning from grey to a strange canescent verdure. The green and white markings danced like the fiends from some mad choreographer's private hell. They crystallised as they had crystallised previously for Corelli.
Val watched intently. One glance at Corelli's face told him what the man was going through and Stearman's basic human sympathy came to the fore. He put a hand on Corelli's shoulder.
"Steady," he whispered. "I'm here. We're with you."
Corelli relaxed visibly. The images on the screen continued to crystallise and condense. Val and La Noire watched in fascinated horror as the scene which Corelli had witnessed was re-enacted. When it was finished Val gave a deep sigh, switched on the light and went across to inspect the set.
"What's this?" he asked suddenly, pointing to the dull smear.
"Blood, I think. I cut my hand." Corelli showed his damaged knuckle.
La Noire looked at the smear on the set, a drop of dried blood rested above a ventilator slit.
"Is this yours, too?"
"Yes, I suppose so, but I don't understand."
"None of us understands everything by any means," said La Noire, "but you have unwittingly done something which is very close to the old parallels of 'sympathetic magic'; murder will out; blood will have blood, since the legend of Cain. The principle has been deeply rooted in the folk-memory of all peoples."
"The black magician," broke in Val, "who takes samples of hair and fingernails from his intended victim----you see the similarity?"
"Yes, I think I do. You mean my blood activated something in that set. But why?"
"That's a question I should be very interested to answer," conceded Stearman.
He sat back deep in thought.
"Those faces are familiar," he said, "but not strongly familiar. I've seen them somewhere in the files at the Globe office." He looked thoughtfully at the set and jotted down its serial number. "I'm going to do some backtracking," he said. "By the way, where was this auction you went to?"
Corelli gave him the address of the firm.
"What----what are you going to do?" he asked. "Don't leave me, please!"
"I'll put the set in the other room so you can get some sleep," said Val. He unplugged it and carried it through.
"What do you think happened? Why----?" asked Tony.
"If I tried to answer I'd only be guessing," replied Stearman, "and I much prefer an empirical investigation to a hotch-patch of profitless supposition."
Corelli looked at Val and La Noire gratefully.
"I haven't thanked you yet for coming. I had no right to disturb you like that."
"It's O.K. I'm glad you did call." Val put a hand across Corelli's shoulders. "Now, go to bed and sleep, have another whisky, it'll probably help."
Corelli raised one eyebrow quizzically. "You don't think it'll aggravate my D.T.s?" he asked.
"It's not very likely," answered Val.
He and La Noire drove back to their own flat.
"Now I'll have that coffee you suggested before we went out," said the big journalist. He paced the lounge floor, running leathery fingers continually through the iron-grey curls above the corrugated ridges of his rugged forehead. "There has to be some sort of answer," he murmured, "some sort of parallel, but what? The blood would account for the triggering of the sequence. I must try to get that scene orientated in my mind. Why it was all shot from that angle . . ."
La Noire snapped her fingers suddenly as she came out of the kitchen while the coffee simmered invitingly.
"Val," she said softly, "I think I've got an idea."
"Yes?" he prompted.
"The legend of the eye retaining a picture of the last thing it sees."
"What if that old woman was watching that particular television when the----murder----" she shuddered, "took place?"
"So?" urged Val again.
"What if the screen in some strange way had absorbed the last image it saw. We're seeing it as though we were looking out from the screen itself. We've got the television's own view of what happened."
"But if the old woman had been watching," objected Val, "there would have been a programme, surely? I can't imagine any ghostly image getting absorbed by a set while it was churning out a variety show!"
La Noire shook her head. The beautiful dark Cleopatrine fringe moved tantalisingly, the wonderful black almond eyes looked up with the allure of the eternal Eve.
"The old woman was asleep. That's another parallel. Perhaps the programme had finished. The screen was blank but alive. A vacuum, in a sense. 'Nature abhors a vacuum'."
"Plausible," agreed Val, "very plausible." He stopped pacing and went through to the kitchen to pour himself some coffee. As he sipped the aromatic brown liquid his mind was working urgently on the problem which Corelli's experience had presented.
* *   *
Val was in his office early. The image which had been flung at him on the television screen demanded a certain urgency. It was a picture of a horror so gross that it might have been calculated to produce some sort of reaction, some kind of revulsion, a sensation of shock in a hard, calloused mind. Stearman was sensitive beneath the rock hard personna; something akin to the soul of a poet lived beneath the brazen armour of the journalist-adventurer. This innermost sensitivity had been galvanised into what almost amounted into a crusade by the senseless, bestial murder of an old women sleeping innocently and harmlessly in front of her television set. The pathos stirred a chord of deep sympathy in the lower region of Stearman's mind. By the interesting process of psychological grafting, of homogenising, the tenderness from the deep sympathies in the inner sanctum of Stearman's mental make-up became a cold furious anger against whoever, or whatever, had perpetrated this thing. He saw again on the sharp, clear screen of memory the face of dark insanity and malevolent evil gloating and exultant in its black triumph. Val's great fists clenched, the knuckles gleamed white, the nails bit aggressively into the broad, muscular, leathery palms. Val Stearman----like Goldfinger's legendary Odd Job----could have crushed a golf ball to white pulp and shredded elastic in those vice-like hands. In a mood of grim purposefulness he went through to the Globe's record office. A gnome-like Irishman, named Magiligan sat behind an expanse of mahogany marked by the cigarette ends and gin rings of decades. Magiligan, like Mac, was an institution at the Globe. Val looked at the marmoset-like figure of the file keeper. Stearman's mind flashed over the old statistical supposition to the effect that a chimpanzee with a typewriter working for all eternity would reproduce every book in the British Museum. Magiligan was the eternal chimpanzee, and his typewriter looked as though it had already completed half its task. He glanced up shrewdly as Stearman entered. A monk-like tonsure accentuated the height and breadth of Magiligan's forehead, which was creased and wrinkled like Persephone's original pomegranate. The eyes beneath beetling brows looked out inquisitively. Magiligan gave Val the impression that those eyes were recording cameras. Everything they saw was neatly photographed and carefully filed for future reference. The little Irishman was the living epitomisation of the Dewey decimal classification system.
"Good morning, Mr. Stearman!"
"Good morning, Magiligan!"
"What would ye be wantin'?"
The mouth turned down sadly at the corners between each staccato sentence.
"I'm not sure, Magiligan, I----er----want some advice mainly."
The Irishman's lips pursed a little.
"And who would ye be after killing?"
There was dry humour in the retort.
"Something about an old lady. It may be several years ago."
"Lots of old ladies get murdered. They haven't much defence." The Irishman's lips twitched a little as though his native, sporting instincts were violated by the idea of that kind of killing.
"Television sets," said Val, quietly, like a psychologist on a word association test.
"An old lady murdered watching a television set," mused Magiligan. He took an alphabetical index from a shelf and began thumbing through it.
"I may be able to find you something. Try 275 DL 9, it's over there."
Stearman walked across eagerly. Magiligan was as infallible as the BBC gramophone record librarians. He could produce almost anything from the archives, in a matter of seconds, when put to the test.
"Page 98, left-hand column," said the Irishman.
Stearman opened the book. He brought it over to Magiligan's battle-scarred, mahogany working surface, and a thin, curved, Celtic finger, like the claw of an elderly bird, rested triumphantly on a fading headline.
"Nineteen fifty-nine it was," said the Irishman, checking his date system at the bottom of the page. Stearman nodded. He could almost feel Magiligan's triumph. The Irishman was kind of this little world. His people----his paper subjects----were disciplined into an orderly, obedient efficiency which would have been the envy of the most ruthless despot, or totalitarian tyrant the world had ever seen.
"Magiligan, you're a genius!" said Stearman.
"Take it over to the photo-copier," said the gnome.
Val knew well enough how closely the Irishman guarded his precious volumes. No green-eyed yellow god could have been better protected by fanatical priests, no mountain lamasery could have kept the Hair of Buddha more safely, no Eastern potentate could have quarantined his harem more effectively than Magiligan isolated his files. Under the Irish gnome's eagle eye Val took a photostat and replaced the volume on its proper shelf.
"Any time." Magiligan resumed his eternal typing.
Val went back to his office and read through the photostat slowly, thoughtfully, and with painstaking care. Very vaguely he remembered something about the case. The photograph of the dead woman, flat and unreal on the photostat, brought back vivid recollections of the image on the screen which he had seen a few hours earlier. There was no doubt in his mind that this was the same case, and it was still unsolved . . .
Val locked the photostat in his desk and pressed the intercom button that connected his telephone with Mac's. The irrascible Scots editor barked like a Cairn terrier.
"What is it, Stearman? I'm busy!"
Briefly Val explained, and Mac listened with a subdued quietness which was strangely out of character. At last he said, simply:
"Ye'd better look into it! Take what time ye need!"
"Thanks." Val replaced the phone, and switched to Exchange. He lifted the receiver again and called La Noire.
"I've found it" he began. "It was a Mrs. Dalton, Agatha Dalton, brutally murdered and dismembered, in Stepney, in 1959."
"And still unsolved, of course?" suggested La Noire.
"That's about it. I've spoken to Mac. He says to go ahead."
"Where do we start?" "
Well, the Leprechaun let me have a photostat. It's got an address. I'll be able to pick you up in about fifteen minutes."
"Right, darling. Good-bye."
Val replaced the phone, and sat deep in silent thought, his fingers drummed constantly at the edge of his desk. He gathered himself together, unlocked the drawer, rolled the photostat neatly and slipped it into his inside pocket before descending to the Globe's basement car park and driving home to collect La Noire. The mid-morning sun bit through Stepney grime as Val and La Noire turned down into a narrow, early-Victorian side street which turned out to be the address of the murder victim. The house, which had never been a thing of beauty, even in its prime, had degenerated into an overcrowded tenement with a cosmopolitan admixture of occupants, until it resembled some sort of unhappy parody of the United Nations. First in a Polish accent, then in a rich West Indian dialect, finally in high Pakistani, Val and La Noire were told politely that nobody here knew anything of Mrs. Dalton or her murder.
On the fourth floor, however, Stearman was encountered by a grim old Cockney with a peg leg of such jutting aggressiveness that he would have needed only a crutch and parrot to resemble a senescent Long John Silver. Val was vaguely expecting him to preface every sentence with: "Aaaahhhh, Jim lad!" or "Pieces of eight!" but no such buccaneering impedimenta burdened the old Cockney's limited----if colourful----vocabulary.
"Aggie Dalton, mate? Yea, 'corse I remember 'er!" Rheumy old eyes came to life, temporarily. "What's it worf then?"
Stearman produced a pound note and crackled it under a red, bulbous nose.
"Cor! Fanks!" The pound note disappeared with a speed reminiscent of prestidigitation, "You'd better come into my room and sit darn. I can tell yer a lot for a quid!"
Val and La Noire followed the ancient metropolite into a dingy bed-sitter that smelt powerfully of tripe and ascetic acid, of stale beer and strong, cheap tobacco. The old man thumped his peg leg noisily against the side of a rickety old table.
"It all began six or seven year ago. Ol' Aggie'd bin 'ere for years. I fink she was 'ere before me, an' I've bin 'ere since just arter the war. Used to be a night watchman till they retired me."
"Tell us about the murder."
"All right, mate, I'm coming to it, don't be in a hurry." The rheumy old eyes looked from one to the other as though glad of company, glad of an audience held captive and willing. "Used to 'ave a room across the way from 'ere."
"Do you mean there?" Stearman pointed across the landing.
"Yea It's empty now. There was a foreign geezer in there, Greek I think 'e was, was 'e done a midnight flit. Couldn't pay ol' Sharpy 'is rent!"
"How long has it been empty?" asked Val with interest.
"Free or four days. I don't fink Sharpy knows 'e's gorn yet."
"Sharpy's the landlord?"
"Not 'arf 'e ain't! Talk about Rachmanism! Blimey!" The peg leg thudded angrily against the side of the rickety table again, as though the old Cockney was removing Sharpy's teeth with considerable relish.
"Tell me more about Mrs. Dalton," prompted Stearman; it was difficult to keep the old man to the point.
"Watching 'er goggle box she was, one night; reckon she fell orf to sleep when it finished. First I 'eard was 'orrible screams and thump an' that!"
"You actually heard the screams?"
"Yer. Couldn't 'elp but 'ear! She woke the 'ole place! I come to the door, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a bit younger then, but I wasn't going to get mixed up with that. When you get my age the only thing you want ter do is get older! 'Ero stuff is for the kids!"
"So?" prompted Val again.
"I got out 'ere and 'ad a butcher's, an' there was this bloke----if it was a man----more like a ruddy gorilla----climbing up the ladder to the attic and on to the roof. Two or free of 'em went up arter 'im, but only sort of 'arf 'eartedly. I don't fink they really wanted to catch 'im. I went across and 'ad a look. Gawd A'mighty! You never saw such an 'orrible mess in yer life! Like a slaughter 'ouse!"
"Yes, all right," said Stearman. "I can imagine."
"'Er 'ead----" began the old man, with new relish.
"I know the details."
"Wot yer arskin' for, then?"
"If possible, the investigation is being re-opened."
"Are you a copper?"
"No. I'm a reporter."
"Oh, that's different. I don't talk to the police. It ain't done, not abaht 'ere."
"Yes, I think I understand."
"Funny thing about these sort o' places, yer know, the locks ain't all they might be." The old man fiddled with a key on the end of his watch chain. "I wouldn't swear to it, mind you, but it's just possible that my key 'ud open that door. Yer could see the blood stain on the floor. 'E never scrubbed it orf. He just put a bit o' lino over it."
"Really?" said Stearman.
"Yes. Straight up!"
"I see. Well, I think it might well be worth while having a look."
"'Corse, I'd be takin' a risk lendin' you the key. I don't know you, do I?" Val produced another pound note. "Ah, now, it's all right, then! Can I come in wiv yer? Just to keep an eye on me key."
"Yes, all right. What about you Mister Sharpy?"
"Oh, 'e won't be around. 'E don't get up till the arternoon, Sharpy don't. Makes 'is money while 'e sleeps!" The old man gave a grotesque wink, which made La Noire think of a chipped gargoyle fallen from its place in the church roof, crumbling away amidst grass and rank weeds.
Peg-leg hobbled across the landing, opened the door with such facility that he had obviously done it often before, and stood back to allow the Stearmans to enter. An interesting smell of garlic and rancid cooking oil came out of the room.
"The blood stain's just under 'ere." Peg-leg lifted the lino for them. Val and La Noire looked at an old, but still ominous, red-brown patch. There was nothing much to the room, a bed, a chest of drawers and a small, rickety table; it was badly in need of cleaning and redecorating. Val shuddered, his social conscience outraged with the thought that men made in the image of God should be compelled by the greed of other men to live in a manner that would not have been fitting for a beast.
"'Corse it ain't luxury," said Peg-leg, as though on some superficial level of his own, the old man had guessed at Stearman's thoughts. "But what can you do when you ain't got the money?"
"What can you do" echoed Val.
"Thanks very much," said La Noire, and Val gave the old man another pound, as he locked the door behind them.
"Do you think we could have a look on the roof, the way you say the monster escaped?"
"Don't see why you shouldn't."
"Has it changed at all----any alterations"
"Alterations in a Sharpy 'ouse Cor, give us a chance!"
"You mean it's just the same as it was when old Mrs. Dalton was killed?"
"Yerss. 'Cept it's a bit dirtier! Bit more broken darn!"
Val and La Noire climbed the rickety ladder to the flat, grimy roof of the dilapidated building. A doleful panorama of cracking chimney pots, soot, grime, dirt, dust and starling dung met their gaze. Val crossed cautiously to the ancient balustrade surrounding the roof. To the north and south the street ran like a row of tightly packed coffins stacked vertically against an undertaker's wall. To the east the road cut off any possible escape. To the west a yard, festooned with grubby washing on untidy, random lines, seemed to preclude the possibility of traveling far.
"He went either north or south," said Val. La Noire nodded. "They say that an experienced cat burglar, or an acrobat, can travel for miles over the roofs of old London," said Stearman softly.
"More so fifty years ago than now," murmured La Noire. "but still strangely true."
"I don't think we're going to get much further here," said Val, disappointedly. "The trail is nearly seven years old"
"It's a long time. Our killer may even have reached the Great Beyond himself by this time, but I have a feeling he is still alive."
"It's only a feeling, but it persists. I think if we are going to trace him we must trace him by occult means rather than by any kind of orthodox detection."
"Supposing we went back to Corelli and took your crystal," said Val, "do you think we could focus the television through the crystal? Would that trigger off the psychic emanations?"
"It might," agreed La Noire, "it's well worth trying."
"Right," decided Val.
* *   *
Corelli watched with a kind of reluctant fascination as Val and La Noire rigged up the experiment. La Noire's crystal was as old as the pyramids, a beautiful sphere of mysterious translucency which could, in her dainty hands, produce images of incredible sharpness and complexity. A successful crystal gazer needs a superb instrument and a mind that is both sensitive and perceptive to an uncanny degree. La Noire possessed both. Val made a final adjustment to the macabre old television and La Noire settled down to scry into the opalescent sphere. The cloudy effect slowly cleared and her deep, dark, pre-Egyptian eyes opened wider as the image she sought formed in the heart of the crystal.
The strange curved miniature, flickering in green and white, condensed the horror re-enacted on the television screen, but viewed it from another angle. A trembling Corelli opened his mouth as though to speak. Val put a restraining finger to his lips. The two men looked over La Noire's shoulder as she murmured a low, soft, sweet incantation, in a tongue that had been known to the first Indo-European peoples before the land mass of the ancient world had changed its shape, a tongue that had been known before the submergence of Atlantis, the loss of Lemuria, or the inundation of Mesopotamia. La Noire used an incantation which would have been recognised by the strange forgotten race who had farmed the wide North African plain in the dead heart of the modern Sahara Desert when it had been the granary of the ancient world. The words that she used would not have sounded unfamiliar to the sailors of the long lost Cretan civilization; men who had seen the Minotaur would have recognised those words. The Attic heroes of the Trojan war would have associated them with the sybils and priestesses of their own time; they were dim echoes from the dark rearward and abyss, the dawn of humanity.
The words of the chant floated around the crystal, holding the scene. The television faltered and died at the same point where its image had ended previously, but the image in the crystal continued to hold. Without looking up and scarcely interrupting her own ancient incantation, La Noire whispered:
Val and Tony saw the sinister face, a green and white mask of ferocious evil; snarling at them from the crystal sphere. La Noire made a number of mystic gestures and passes with her hands, there was a grace and an artistry in every movement that was reminiscent of the timeless art of the Siamese choreographers and the oldest forms of the Chinese theatre.
As her slim, dainty, sensitive fingers performed the time honoured symmetries and prehistoric patterns, a feeling of eldritch cold emanated from the crystal sphere. Val felt Corelli trembling uncontrollably beside him. La Noire continued her investigations with the crystal and Val knew that the superb sphere from the dawn of Time had glided over the seven-year interval as though it were nothing. Like an electric train taking the points smoothly and gracefully, the crystal moved from the time track of 1959 to their own day. The scene it showed now was not a shadow tragedy from the dead past but an actual con- temporary scene. Val watched as a man in a luxurious apartment lay asleep beside an open window. He seemed between forty and fifty years of age. His hair was dark, just tingeing with grey; his face, even in sleep, was mean and crafty. The eyes moved beneath closed lids as though dark dreams troubled the sleeper. There was little resemblance between this face and the face of savage evil which the television had shown, yet Val knew that La Noire's power had not failed. The answer came with a shaft of moonlight. . . . Pale, silver beams fell like the finger of a condemning god upon the mean, crafty features of the sleeping man. Slowly at first, but gaining momentum with each passing second, a hideous transformation began to take place. It was as though some partial lycanthropy operated from the moonbeam's kiss. The hair no longer looked elegant and distinguished. It was short and black. The face foreshortened and contorted until it resembled the face of a beast. The eyes opened sudden and they were full of baleful fury.
"That's him!" Corelli's hoarse whisper was stark and terrified beside Val's ear. The big journalist-adventurer again held up a finger for silence. La Noire's dark, Cleopatrine eyes continued to hold the weird scene unfolding before them in the crystal. With a snarl that they could almost hear, the thing in the picture flung back the sheets and loped like a great baboon towards the window, through which the moonlight fell. It flung up the elaborate sash and sprang through on to a fire escape. Like a film camera tracking in, the crystal held faithfully, and as La Noire continued her mystic passes and the ancient incantation, the three watchers in Tony's flat followed the hideous form of the beast-man as it loped through moonlight and shadow. Val patted the pocket of the long sports coat he wore, the right-hand pocket which drooped a little with the weight of the big Browning automatic. There had once been a time when Val would not even have gone down the road to buy his evening paper without that gun. He had slept with it, bathed with it beside him, eaten with it, for years. But now it came out of the locked drawer of his desk only on special occasions. He slid a hand into his pocket and touched the cold, hard, reassuring butt of the big Browning. Apart from its fire power and superb balance and accuracy, its bullets were expensively unusual. Stearman's Browning was loaded with pure silver----the traditional holy metal, the white metal which was poison to the foul, black metabolism of things which owed allegiance to the lord of Darkness. That gun had stopped vampires and werewolves. It had brought down unnamed horrors spawned Out There. Val looked over La Noire's shoulder, saw the bestial face in the crystal and was glad of the big Browning.
At last came the sight they had waited for. In a patch of moonlight, the loping half-beast was caught against the nameplate of a street.
"Corelli, have you got an 'A to Z'?"
"Yes, I think so."
"That was Guthrie Mews. Find it, and quick!"
Corelli went through into the kitchen, turned on the light, and with trembling hands fumbled through the pages of his London Street Guide.
Val and La Noire continued to watch the progress of the thing which had murdered and mutilated old Mrs. Dalton seven years before.
"G-g-g-got it!" Corelli was stammering with nervous fear.
Val took the street plan from him and looked carefully at the area. He had a natural flair for locations and urban geography.
"Right," he said quickly. "I think we've got him."
"Wh-wh-what are you going to do?"
"We're going after him! Bring the crystal."
Corelli and Stearman sat in the front of the powerful sports saloon, while La Noire relaxed in the upholstery of the back, and guided them with the crystal as though it were some strange, infallible psychic radar. Like a post office detector van beaming down on a pirate radio, Stearman's saloon nosed urgently into Guthrie Mews.
"He's not far," whispered La Noire. "I can sense him."
The moonlight at the back of a tall, elegant Georgian building suddenly silhouetted its own strange child.
"There he is!" Corelli knew fear as he had never experienced it before, as he saw in three dimensional reality the living face of the monster whose image on the television screen alone had almost stopped his heart. "That's him!"
Val was out of the car in a leaping bound. La Noire replaced her crystal in its carefully padded, thick, black velvet case and let out a long, low sigh, as though the outpouring of psychic energy involved in the scrying had exhausted her. Corelli, hunched and anxious, bit his nails and stared through the screen at the beast-thing on the fire escape.
Val hauled himself powerfully over the garden wall, dropped like a Commando sergeant on the other side and raced like an express for the foot of the fire escape. The thing above his head gave vent to a wild, cackling laugh, turned and launched itself murderously at the big journalist. It was completely unexpected, that suicidal leap, and although Val began moving back he was still caught by part of the descending werebeast, and sent crashing to the ground. He landed in the soft earth of a flower bed and rolled aside among smashed petunias and crushed petals as the thing, snarling like a wild cat, hooked its misshapen hands into murderous claws and raked towards his throat. In the fall Val, had lost his grip on the big Browning, it was somewhere among the battered petunias. For all the use it was to him it might have been back in the drawer of his desk. Cursing savagely, Stearman ripped off his jacket and used it like a full fighter's cloak. Leaving the trembling Corelli decimating his nails, La Noire slipped out of the car and ran towards Val. The claws raked down once more, to be caught on the strong material of the jacket. It parted with a tearing sound. Val snatched it back and retreated a step. He felt the wind of one claw as it slashed through the air, narrowly missing his face. The third attack drew blood on his shoulder, then he succeeded in getting the torn remains of his jacket wrapped securely around the raking talons; holding them with his left, he brought over a sledge hammer right that jerked the beast face back as though the creature had been pole-axed. The look of malevolent, triumphant evil died, to be replaced by an expression of surprise and fury, tinged with fear; in all its blemished career the thing had never been hit like that.
Stearman landed another punch. The evil light in the eyes dimmed. Any human head which had received those two blows would have died as its brain scrambled from the impact. But the werebeast was no mortal opponent. Recovering all to quickly, its talons ripped free of the shredded jacket and raked towards Stearman yet again. He flung up an arm to protect his face and threw over another heavy right that connected with a leathery stomach. There was a sound like an elephant treading on a football, and the thing went down writhing. On most occasions no one supported the Marquis of Queensbury's sporting code more honourably than the veteran fighting journalist, but now Val reckoned that the only ethic was to win, the only acceptable moral was that 'might was right.' He delivered a steam hammer kick at the winded werebeast. It howled in pain and fury . . .
Windows in the mews were being flung open, pyjamaed torsos were thrust out inquisitively. Somebody was shouting. In the distance he heard a police whistle being blown. La Noire reached Val as he stood panting over the winded but still deadly dangerous werebeast.
"The gun, for God's sake find the gun, it's in the blasted flower bed!" he panted.
La Noire's keen dark eyes penetrated the gloom like the eyes of a cat. With a swift graceful movement, she retrieved the big Browning automatic, unpinned an elegant brooch from the front of her dress and cleared soil particles from the barrel with the pin. While she worked on the gun the thing lumbered to its feet. The eyes blazed again now, as though, like the giant of Greek mythology which had antagonised the mighty Hercules, the monster's power had been restored by contact with the earth. The claws, like the slashing hooks of a revolting peasant army, flashed through the moonlight towards Stearman's face. He ducked swiftly, came in a little to the side of the werebeast, and brought down a karate chop which would have decapitated an average opponent and K.O.'d the strongest. It connected with beautiful, geometrical precision at the base of the monster's skull. So hard was that blow that Stearman felt a shock like an electric current tingling up his arm. The werebeast staggered, reeled and then came in again. Val spotted a low beam jutting from the rear of a small outbuilding. He retreated strategically, snatched at the beam, swung his great bulk into the air and landed a supported flying drop kick full in the monster's face. With another weird scream it crashed away backwards, staggering and clawing at the air like a Tasmanian Devil. There was something as terrifying as nightmare in the invincibility of the beast-thing.
La Noire was finally satisfied that the barrel of the big Browning was clear enough to risk firing. Steadying the gun with both hands, she pointed it towards the snarling fiend and squeezed the trigger steadily. There was a crack of detonating cordite and a silver bullet leapt from the gun to bury itself in the leaping body of the half man.
A hideous metamorphosis took place.
The scream stopped in mid-note. The beast-man fell to the earth like a punctured balloon.
As Val and La Noire watched the features changed, flowing like plastic, until the soft, silver light revealed the face of a crafty man in late middle age, whose mean eyes stared wide and lifeless to the sky. People were staring from Mews windows and shouting. The police whistle sounded nearer.
Val groped urgently around the body. He ran back to the spot from which La Noire had fired and looked along the line the bullet must have taken.
"It went right through him," he grunted. Time was running out. . . .
"The tree," said La Noire. She pointed.
A thick walnut grew in a direct line with the path the bullet must have taken.
Val drew his old Army clasp knife from his pocket and ran his fingers swiftly down the tree trunk. He encountered the bullet hole.
"Got it!" The official footsteps sounded frighteningly close.
"Get to the car, quick!" ordered Val. "Drive round the block, meet me on the other corner."
" Right." La Noire hauled herself up with a lithe athletic spring over the wall, swung, in behind the wheel, and roared away down the mews to the accompaniment of excited shouts and the blowing of police whistles. A cloud obscured the moon as Stearman dug powerfully for the bullet. Three second passed like ten years, then he had it out intact. He offered up a brief prayer to whatever gods of adventure were on his side, pocketed the clasp knife and vaulted the wall on the other side of the garden just as two stalwart London constables climbed the wall of the Mews. He reached the corner and waited in the shadows until he recognised the headlights of his own powerful continental sports. La Noire pulled in to the kerb, Val heaved open the door, and flung himself down almost on top of the trembling Corelli. They roared away into the London night, and after circling for ten minutes to ensure that there was no trace of pursuit they drove back to Corelli's apartment. Val put him to bed with two aspirins, a glass of whisky and strict instructions to forget everything.
* *   *
Mac looked at Val a little disappointedly.
"You weren't able to make anything out of that Corelli business?"
"I'm afraid not. The trail was too old."
"That's interesting; it might make the supernatural column?"
"Yes, I think it would. You know----T.V. Set with a conscience. Relationship of man and machine. How far can electronic circuits emulate the human brain?"
"That's the line. I like that."
Mac's face clouded a little.
"By the way, we got scooped on that murder."
"Oh, what murder?"
"The police seem to think it will remain unsolved."
"I still don't know which murder."
Mac handed across a copy of their big rival daily, The Planet.
SLUM LANDLORD SHARPY MURDERED IN GUTHRIE MEWS
Val pursed his lips and whistled quietly.
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