VAL STEARMAN sat comfortably in a tubular steel, leather upholstered swivel chair, replaced the plastic cover of his big, and rather battered typewriter, smiled to himself in the polished surface of the filing cabinet door, and glanced at his watch. It had, he decided, been a pretty good day. His column had gone like a bird. Even old Mac, the irrascible Scots editor of the "Daily Globe," had managed to be civil and the copy boys had been there on time, The tea had been good, the coffee had been excellent, and he felt like echoing the old poetic sentiment that God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world.
There was a knock at the door. There had been a time in the not so very distant past, when the slightest sound would have made Val Stearman reach for his coat pocket, and dive for cover. But those times seemed to have passed. Life had been pleasantly quiet, surprisingly quiet, by Stearman's standards, for several months. So, instead of diving for the big Browning automatic, which he still carried just to be on the safe side, the big reporter contented himself with spinning round in his chair to face the door, and calling, "Come in." It was a deep, powerful voice and it echoed round the small office like the boom of a ship's siren, that has inadvertently been connected up in a railway cloakroom.
The door opened timidly, and Stearman found himself looking into the dark, worried eyes of a lad of about thirteen or fourteen.
"Are you Mr. Stearman?"
"I am what you accuse me of," replied Val with a grin.
"Can you spare a minute?"
"Money is replaceable, my boy, time is not."
The boy looked at him strangely.
"All right, I can spare a minute. Come on, what do you want? Autograph?"
The boy shook his head.
"No," he said scornfully, "that's kids' stuff!"
"Oh, I see," answered Val, "of course, you're an old man."
"I'm fourteen," said the boy.
"It's a good age," agreed Val. "I should stay there if I were you. Don't get any older son. All kinds of complexities will rise during the next two years, like having to go out earning a living."
"I'd rather be at work than at school," said the boy, with commendable frankness.
"You may have got something there," answered Stearman. "From what I remember of school it wasn't all honey. We had a half-witted form master who used to explain little and cane much. I used to console myself with thoughts of what I'd do to the idiot when I left. And when I left I just shook hands with him and said 'Good-bye, sir.' So much for the dreams! But you look worried. Come and tell Uncle Val all about it."
The boy moved awkwardly, nervously across the room.
"Those columns you write, Mr. Stearman, about funny things happening, you know, things you can't explain. Are they true?"
"Some of them," answered Val.
"Are the queer bits true?" persisted the boy,
"Life is all queer," said Stearman, "what do you mean by the 'queer' bits?"
"I mean bits about somebody disappearing, and nobody ever knew why. Like Benjamin Bathurst. I read your article about him, when he walked round the horses and wasn't seen again, and about Kaspar Hauser, the child of Nuremberg who just appeared out of nowhere. And I've read some of your own adventures; are they true?" The boy sounded desperate.
"I expect you're man enough to appreciate honesty," said Stearman. "All I can tell you is this----there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies. There are some things which science either will not, or cannot, explain. Things have happened to me which I cannot explain, and I expect that during the next seventy or eighty years things will happen to you which you can't explain. At the same time, 99.9 per cent of life follows set rules and it can be explained; it can be cut, dried and measured. It's just that awkward .l per cent."
".l per cent isn't much," commented the boy.
"No," agreed Val, "it's not. But if you ate a dinner weighing a pound and a half, and only point one per cent of that dinner was composed of arsenic, or strychnine, you'd know it was there, because you'd be under the table with your toes turned up by the time you'd finished it."
The boy laughed. He was sounding more relaxed.
"I thought it was going to be hard to talk to you, Mr. Stearman. I thought you wouldn't want to bother."
"Well, you've had the minute that you came for," said Stearman, "and you haven't told me anything yet. I suppose you now want another minute to tell me why you really came."
"Yes please," said the boy. He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose, hard. Val guessed that if he had been just a little younger he might have wanted to cry.
"My name is Dick Lomas. My father's a farmer. We live in Shropshire."
"A very nice county, too," said Val. "But did you come all the way to the 'Daily Globe' just to tell me that?"
The boy shook his head.
"We're up in London for the Smithfield," he said.
"I see," said Stearman. From force of habit he reached for a pad and started scribbling notes. "What's happened?"
"My father's gone," said the boy.
"Why come and tell me? It's a job for the police. I'm very sorry, and I'll ring the police for you with pleasure. They have a lot more facilities for finding your father than I have."
"It isn't the sort of thing I can tell the police." Stearman looked at him.
"I don't think they'd believe me. I don't want to finish up in a remand home, or anything. You see, there is only my father. Mother left him when I was a baby. I've always been scared that something would happen to him and I'd have to go to a blinkin' home. I've seen some of the lads at school that come from a home. I don't want to look like them,"
Stearman nodded sympathetically.
"All right," he said, "now then. Who looks after you at home when your father's not there?"
"Nobody. We look after each other. Dad had a housekeeper when I was younger, but since I was twelve, we cook our own food, and the washing's gone to the laundry ----you know, that sort of thing. There's a woman comes from the village, and makes the beds and cleans up."
Stearman nodded, "Go on, Dick," he said, and this time his voice had lost all its banter. He was just straightforward sympathy and strength.
"We came to London for the Smithfield, as I said. We didn't book up in advance 'cause father wasn't sure that he'd be able to get away. And as it was the Smithfield there were a lot of people in Town, and we had a job to find a hotel."
"That makes sense," agreed Stearman. "Go on."
"Well, this was last night, you see."
"Yes, I see," said Stearman.
"Look, this is why I kept asking you about those things that you write in the paper, whether any of them were true, whether any of them were real. 'Cos if they're not, then I must have gone mad."
"I've been kicking around this interesting old world for two and a half score years----very nearly," said Stearman. "On my travels I have met literally millions of people. Not just hundreds, boy, not just thousands, but millions. Black, white, brown, yellow, all the races of the world, I know. Good men, bad men, ordinary men; saints, sinners; criminals, detectives; writers, artists, actors, railway porters; tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor you know how the rhyme goes. I've also met a lot of madmen. Some of them were locked up, and some weren't.
"Some of those inside ought to have been out, in my opinion, and some of those I have seen outside ought to have been in. I have also met a lot of sane people to whom strange things have happened, and who thought that they were going mad. Now listen to me, boy. There's nothing the matter with you at all, you had a scare, you're lonely and quite understandably, you're a bit frightened. But that does not mean that you're mad. It doesn't mean anything of the kind. Because what happened to you cannot be easily explained it doesn't mean that it's impossible. A lot of the things that Houdini the great escapologist used to perform didn't make sense. But he did them."
Dick Lomas nodded his appreciation of Stearman's remarks.
Val fished in the drawer of his desk. "I'd like to offer you a drink, but I've only got whisky in here."
"I sometimes have one with my father, at home."
"All right," said Val with a grin. He poured out about a quarter of an inch of best Scotch whisky and passed it to the lad.
"You'll get me locked up!" he grinned. Dick Lomas drank it, and coughed a little.
"Now," said Stearman, "let's hear the story."
"We booked into this hotel," said the boy. "It was the Green Star, in Coverly Street."
"Ah yes. I know it. It's not very far from the Show, is it?"
"No, that's why we felt pretty lucky. We didn't want to have to travel in too far. Dad doesn't like driving in London."
"I can't blame him!" said Stearman. "Even for those of us who know the ropes it's not very amusing."
"Dad went off to meet some friends who live in Berkshire and always come in for the Smithfield as well. They all went for a drink, and I went to the pictures. Dad said he'd be home by half past ten, so I left the cinema about ten twenty and waited nearly a quarter of an hour for a bus. I got back to the Green Star about ten minutes to eleven."
"I see," said Val.
"I opened the door, and went up to our room."
"What was the number?" asked Val.
"It sounds daft, but it was thirteen. I didn't like it very much."
"Thirteen," murmured Stearman. "Go on."
"The place looked a bit different. I didn't recognise the man behind the desk. He looked at me a bit strangely, as if he wondered what I was doing in there. But I didn't take any notice. I just walked on upstairs. When I got there, there wasn't a room thirteen. They went from twelve to fourteen."
"The devil they did," said Stearman.
"I walked up and down two or three times, and then I went down and asked the man at the desk," said Dick. "I asked 'Excuse me this is the Green Star Hotel, isn't it?' He said 'yes.' Then I said 'I'm Dick Lomas, I've got a room here with my father. We booked in earlier this afternoon.' And he said, 'We've got no Mr. Lomas staying here, my boy.' I said 'You must have----there isn't another Green Star near here, is there?' 'No, this is the only one in Coverly Street.' And I said 'I know it was Coverly Street.' He said 'Look for yourself,' and he showed me the register. The register was different. I remember there was a strange foreign name like 'Vanderleuf' or 'Vanderhoff' just above my father's name, and mine. I remember seeing it, and my father said he was probably one of the continental cattle buyers. But there was no foreign name there then. I said to the man 'you must be making a mistake.' I knew we had a room there, and that it was room 13. He laughed, and said that they had never had a room thirteen."
Stearman drew a deep breath.
"Dick, my boy, you interest me. You interest me immensely."
"Can I have another whisky?" asked the boy,
"No, you can't," replied Val firmly. "In moderation it probably steadies the nerves and does you a bit of good. Start knocking it back in large doses and it cakes up the liver, among other things. It also hardens the arteries and softens the brain." The boy grinned. Stearman dialled his own number. An exciting feminine voice said:
"How the devil did you know it was me?" grunted her husband. But La Noire had so many strange psychic gifts and tricks up her sleeve that Val had long since ceased to be really puzzled by anything.
"Now listen, darling. I have a young gentleman in my office with a very sticky problem. He booked in at the Green Star Hotel in Coverly Street with his father. Father went out for a drink, the lad went to the pictures and when he got back, no sign of father, and the room they had booked into didn't exist!" He turned to the boy as a sudden thought struck him. "What did you do with yourself last night, Dick?"
"Wandered about," admitted Dick, "and dodged into doorways if I saw a copper about."
Val smiled. "A night on the tiles, eh. It wasn't all that sweaty last night, was it?"
"No, it wasn't really, Mr. Stearman."
"Call me Val. My friends do, and I have a feeling that you are going to be one of that group. Now, look, if you'd like to, come and stay with La Noire and I at our flat. We've got a couple of spare rooms, and she's a very good cook."
"I heard that," put in La Noire.
"I meant you to," commented Val, "that was the sugar coating." La Noire laughed. It was one of the most beautiful and exciting sounds that Val had ever heard. Her voice conjured up a picture of the woman as she was. Dark, exciting and Cleopatrine was her beauty, of a kind that is ageless and mysterious.
Val hung up and escorted his guest down to the car park at the back of the "Daily Globe" buildings. Val's large sports saloon was garaged near the door, its nose pointing to the entrance, as though poised for a quick getaway. Val unlocked the car and swung the passenger door open.
"I never thought anything like this would really happen to me in real life," said the boy.
"What kind of car has your father got?" asked Val.
"One of those big, round, comfortable, family saloons; typical farmer's car, you know. Draw-bar on the back and usually a trailer dangling on behind it, with pigs in."
"Hardly built for the race track?" suggested Stearman.
"What'll yours do?" asked Dick.
"Ton forty, ton fifty, perhaps, depending on road conditions, and whether or not she's just been tuned."
"Gosh!" Dick Lomas' exclamation sounded to Val almost like something out of a pre-war Public School story. He grinned quietly to himself, remembering that Dick was a country boy, and that the rural teenager is not necessarily quite as sophisticated as his metropolitan equivalent. "Gosh," would have been a very "square" exclamation to a young London gentleman of Lomas' age.
The traffic had not yet built up, for Stearman had finished his day early. He garaged the powerful sports saloon at the rear of his flat, and led the way to the lift, which was standing empty at the bottom. He and the lad zoomed up to the Stearman apartment.
La Noire opened the door as Val stepped out of the lift.
"How did you----?" began Stearman, and then laughed. She ran forward and kissed him lightly on the forehead, then shook hands solemnly with Dick Lomas.
"I'm very pleased to meet you," she said. "Come on in." Dick could not take his eyes off La Noire, and in a whisper that La Noire could not help overhearing he murmured to Val, "Coo, isn't she lovely?"
Val grinned. "You've got excellent taste, my boy," he said. Over tea Dick told his story again to La Noire.
"What do you suggest we do?" asked Val,
"The obvious place to start is the Green Star Hotel," replied his wife.
Val nodded his agreement.
"Do you want me to come?" asked Dick.
"I don't think so," answered Val. "We don't really want them to know at this stage that you're with us, if you know what I mean. There's a 625 line colour television in the corner over here," said Val. "You will find various drinks in the cocktail cabinet, but I put you on your honour not to touch anything but the minerals and squash," Dick nodded. "All right, Mr. Stearman," he said grudgingly.
"If you get tired of watching the goggle box before we get back," said Val. "Your bedroom is first on the left, down that passage. Oh, one more thing, just in case something dark, dirty, and sinister is going on, don't open the door to anybody, La Noire and I have keys. Don't answer the phone either."
"All right," agreed Dick. "This is like a spy thriller," he went on.
Val grinned inwardly, already some of the boy's anxiety about his father had been alleviated.
Val and La Noire went down to the car.
"I want to think," said Val. He settled back and La Noire drove. She pulled up outside the Green Star, and Val swung his long, muscular legs on to the pavement, skipped round the car and opened the door for her.
He locked up, and followed her up the steps of the Green Star Hotel.
Coverley Street was a line of tall, old Georgian and early Victorian mansions. Most of them were now hotels or office blocks, but one or two still appeared to be privately owned. Stearman leant an enormous elbow on the bell push on the reception desk, and kept it there until a rabbity looking clerk appeared from some nether portion of the hotel.
"Got a room?" asked Stearman. There was something odd-looking about the clerk, he thought, and a swift glance which La Noire flashed to him told him the same thing. Val amused himself by looking at a point in space about three inches above the clerk's head, and watched the rabbit faced man grow hot and uncomfortable.
"We have a number of vacancies, sir. Have you any preference?" he said as he consulted the register.
"I'd like number thirteen," said Stearman. "I'm superstitious about that, in reverse. It always works well for me, and I'm here on important business."
The little rabbity man's eyes twitched in their sockets. It was a most unpleasant phenomenon. Val glanced away. The rabbity eyes stopped twitching.
"Yes, sir," he answered, "we have a vacancy in room 13. Will that be----a----er----er----a double room, sir'?" He looked at Stearman as though he expected him to sign "Smith" in the register. Val's big dark eyes rested on the rabbit faced clerk.
"A double room," he affirmed. The clerk smiled, a rather evil, lecherous smile. The kind of smile that a man smiles when he thinks he is a man of the world. Stearman, who had begun by disliking the rabbit faced clerk instinctively, began to dislike him more and more as the moments passed.
He signed the register boldly, "Mr. and Mrs. Stearman." The little man looked at him and winked, as though "Stearman" was an interesting variation of the perenial "Smith."
"We haven't any luggage," said Val, and his stomach turned over at the degree of lecherousness which now expressed itself on the almost rodentine face of the reception clerk.
Val and La Noire went upstairs and began to examine the room. The interior decoration seemed rather old-fashioned to Stearman's way of thinking.
La Noire crossed the threshold and then stood hesitantly as though she were listening, not with her ears, but with her soul.
"Val," she said, "there's something very strange about this room. It doesn't ring true."
"What I want to do," said Stearman, "is to repeat, as far as possible, the circumstances of the boy's father's disappearance. I'd like you to take the car home and then go to the pictures, or park the car outside the pictures, it doesn't matter, but don't come back here before ten-fifty. I'll go out for a drink and come back at about ten-thirty. I may be being a bit over-exact, but there maybe some causative factors in the exact movements of the boy and his father which will prevent the experiment from working if we don't duplicate them as exactly as we can." La Noire nodded. The clerk looked surprised when they came downstairs again so quickly.
"I'm going out to have a drink with some friends," said Stearman, "I'll be back about ten-thirty."
The clerk nodded.
La Noire took the car, garaged it at the back of the flat, but did not go into the apartment itself. She took a bus to the Marble Arch Odeon and tried to interest herself in the film. It was not the fault of the celluloid masterpiece that La Noire was unable to really interest herself. Her brilliant, hypersensitive mind was working at lightning speed all the time, thinking about the incredible circumstances which had led Dick Lomas to Val's office, that had brought the boy back to their flat, and which had taken Val and herself to that strange hotel in Coverley Street.
She left the cinema at ten-twenty, picked up a bus, and ten minutes later alighted, at 10:45, at the corner of Coverly Street. She sauntered down the street slowly, walked up the steps of the little hotel, and felt immediately that there had been a subtle yet important change in the atmosphere of the building.
The rabbity man was no longer on duty behind the reception desk. A tall, rather ordinary-looking clerk smiled as she came in.
"Good evening, madam; can I help you?"
"I'm just going up to my room," she informed him.
The man looked at her in amazement.
"I don't think I've had the pleasure of taking madam's booking," he said. "Are you sure you have the right hotel? This is the Green Star."
"Yes," she said, "I came in with my husband, we booked room 13."
The man behind the desk stopped looking bored.
"An incredible coincidence, madam, but last night we had a young lad in here who said that he was looking for room 13 as well. He was quite sure that he had booked in with his father. I felt quite sorry for the boy. I wondered whether I ought to have called the police.
"You mean I have the wrong hotel?" asked La Noire.
"I'm afraid so, madam, but it does seem a strange coincidence that the boy should have done so as well. Please go upstairs and satisfy yourself, or have a look at the register. But we have no room 13."
La Noire walked quietly up the steps. Number twelve was there, so was number fourteen. But there was nothing in between----not even a space. The two doors were separated only by the dividing wall.
La Noire looked carefully at the doors, at the doors and the numbers. It did not seem possible that they could have been changed and repainted in the time.
She came down again, and smiled at the reception clerk.
"I'm so sorry to have bothered you," she said. "It was silly of me."
"Not at all, madam."
La Noire was the kind of woman for whom it was never any trouble to do anything.
The clerk skipped out from behind his desk, and opened the doors for her. The doorman frowned at him as though he had wanted that privilege.
She returned by bus to the flat, slipped her key into the lock, and found that Dick Lomas was still watching television.
"Where's Mr. Stearman?" he asked. La Noire looked very grim and thoughtful.
"It's happened again," she said softly. "It's happened again, Dick!"
Dick Lomas looked at La Noire as though unable to believe his ears.
"You mean----you mean, Mr. Stearman?" He could not bring himself to put the thought into words. Suddenly he brightened. "He'll be able to help my dad, won't he?"
"Yes, of course he will," assured La Noire.
"But where? Where have they gone?" asked the boy again. The enormity of the situation now seemed to be weighing very heavily on his young mind.
"If we knew that," said La Noire, "we could get straight after them, but at the moment we must stop and think."
"I'm hungry," said Dick suddenly.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said La Noire, "I should have got you some supper as soon as I came in."
"I wasn't hungry till now, honest," said Dick. La Noire smiled at him, ran her fingers through his hair.
"I expect your father must be very proud of you," she said.
"We get along all right," said Dick. "That's very much the same thing," answered La Noire. She went into the kitchen and returned with banana sandwiches and a glass of full cream milk.
"Lovely!" said Dick.
Doing something, even something as simple as getting supper had a therapeutic effect on La Noire's thinking processes.
They had gone into this thing with their eyes opened. They had half-hoped that this would happen. The point was, what ought she to do next? They hadn't got around to discussing the second stage of the plan. Whatever had happened to Dick Lomas' father, had also happened to Val Stearman. La Noire comforted herself with the thought that whereas the Shropshire farmer might be completely out of his depths at finding himself involved in these weird supernatural agencies, her Val was more than capable. She thought back, long long back, to the day when Val had rescued her from the coven of black magicians, and of how their lives had been dogged by the sinister professor and the deadly doctor, Jules and Von Haak, not to mention the sinister hunchback. She shuddered now at the memory of them.
One by one, Jules, Von Haak and the hunchback had gone to meet the dark master whom they had professed to serve. There had been other adventures. She watched the boy eating his supper. She and Val had fought against weird, elemental spirits. They had had encounters with things that must have been spawned in hell. They had pitted their wits, and the powers of light, against ghouls and vampires, werewolves and zombies; in every corner of the great supernatural realm the name of Stearman was known, and in places where evil dwelt, the name of Stearman was cursed and feared. It was a name and designation of which Val and La Noire were justifiably proud.
Dick Lomas finished his supper.
"Would you like some more milk?" asked La Noire. He looked at the glass thoughtfully for a moment.
"Just half a one, please, if it's no trouble."
"Of course it's no trouble Dick, we're glad to have you. I mean----I'm glad to have you"
"Mr. Stearman will be all right, won't he?" asked Dick. "I feel that this is all my fault. I thought that because of those articles he wrote in the "Daily Globe" he'd be able to help me."
"Of course he'll be able to help you."
"What's happened to them?" he asked again.
"There are other realms, Dick, other dimensions; sometimes Time itself slips, like a gear slipping a cogwheel. There are dangerous corners in Time and sometimes we slip on those corners."
The boy was looking at her strangely.
"There are probability tracks that branch off into every second of Time and Space."
"What do you mean by 'probability tracks'?" asked the boy.
"I mean at this moment we could do one of several things," said La Noire. "We could go out; we could go to sleep, we could have another glass of milk. You could ask for another sandwich, and I could get them, or refuse to get them, or I could follow you if you went out, and depending on what we did that particular probability track would become reality."
"I don't think I quite understand," said Dick.
"It's very complicated," said La Noire, "but suppose you did something like going outside. You got on to your bike, say, and as you went round the corner you accidentally knocked someone over and killed them. If you hadn't gone outside that person would still have been alive. This is where the probability tracks part from each other, like forks in a road. Every part of every probability track also forks again."
"You mean it's like having two worlds running parallel," said Dick.
"In a way," answered La Noire. "In one world you accidentally ran somebody over, on the other world you didn't go out, so that person is still alive."
"Then if I could cross from one world to the other," said Dick----
"That's right," she replied, "if you could cross from one world to the other you would find that the man you'd killed was still alive."
"It's creepy!" said Dick, with a little shudder.
"I suppose it is," answered La Noire. "At other times," she went on, "I wonder if there are gateways through to upper and lower regions, as if there were other planes of existence higher and lower than our own. And sometimes when they come too close together we slip from one to the other."
The boy was trembling a little.
"I'm sorry," said La Noire, "I didn't mean to frighten you, but you see, there are so many places they could have gone."
"Yes, I see that," answered the boy.
"Time you were in bed," smiled La Noire.
"Yes," said the boy. "I'm just going. Thank you for the supper."
"You're welcome," she smiled.
Dick went to bed, and La Noire sat staring into space, thinking. Would there be any point, or purpose in going back to that Green Star Hotel? She asked herself over and over again whether she would accomplish anything by going back. It didn't seem very likely. Then, she told herself, what would she accomplish by sitting here worrying about it?
She tiptoed down the corridor to make certain that the boy was asleep, then returned to the lounge and took her crystal from its case. She turned off the light and made mystic passes in the air in front of the crystal. She uttered a timeless incantation in a soft, husky whisper. Slowly at first, then more rapidly as power from a hundred centuries began to roll through the mysterious sphere, the crystal began to cloud over. The interior gleamed with a peculiar opalescence, as though the power was so great that it expressed itself partially as light, and partially as something indescribable. Psychic vibrations emanated from the crystal. La Noire ceased making her mystic passes. There was a strange tension in the room. The crystal cleared and La Noire peered into it's mysterious depths. She saw Val and a strange man about Val's age. He was a big, raw-boned, red-faced man; he wore a cloth cap and a checkered overcoat. He was nearly as big as Val, but his waist had spread with the onset of middle age, whereas Stearman was as trim, as rugged and as muscular, as he had ever been.
La Noire focussed all her mysterious hyperacuity and sensitivity into the crystal. The picture grew brighter, stronger and clearer. She could see the two men talking together, but their background was affected, and the crystal gave her little or no clue as to where they were. All that she could see around them was a kind of soft grey light. Shapes were moving in the greyness, but they were too vague and indistinct to give La Noire any useful information.
Stearman and the man whom she guessed to be Dick Lomas' father, were apparently deep in conversation. One of the mysterious shapes in the grey mist came closer. She saw Val put an arm out protectively in front of his companion. At the same time Stearman drew his gun. She gave a little gasp, as she saw the recoil of the heavy weapon in Val's strong hand. The grey shape stopped moving. She saw Val and the man with him stoop and examine the grey shape, but in her crystal it remained strangely formless. The picture faded and was gone. The crystal seemed to fill with smoke and then it was only an ordinary sphere of transparent rock.
La Noire replaced it in the case, and sat thinking about what she had seen. Despite all her psychic adventures and all her knowledge of ancient lore and mystery, she could not place this realm that she had seen revealed in the crystal ball. It worried her. It was obviously a place of danger and of evil. How could she get Val and Dick Lomas' father safely back?
She took a pace around the lounge. Then sudden inspiration came to her. From the cupboard where the crystal ball was stored she took a Ouija board. With pencil clasped lightly in her fingers she relaxed until she was in a semitrance. She was aware that the pencil was moving; a message was coming through. She remained perfectly still and relaxed, except for the hand that was writing. The writing stopped with a bold, decisive, underlining stroke; typical of Val, she thought.
She opened her eyes and came softly back from the trance, through a stage of soft reverie, until she was fully awake again and in command of her faculties. She looked at the writing on the paper below the Ouija board. There was no mistaking the broad, bold characters of Val Stearman's signature below the message.
I know that you are trying to reach me. A few seconds ago I sensed that you were watching me, perhaps you were using the crystal. I feel at this moment that you are particularly receptive and sensitive. Maybe you have the Ouija, or planchette boards out. I get the sensation that I am dictating this message to a part of your mind below the conscious level. It is as though my soul had borrowed that particular area of your brain which looks after the writing mechanism. It doesn't matter, all that matters is that I feel I'm getting through to you. Maybe I'm in direct telepathy. I don't know; I've just got a sense that we're in contact, and so, while that sense lasts, I'll try and tell you what's happened. I met a couple of the lads. from the 'Globe' quite by accident as I was walking down Coverly Street. We went to Victoria and knocked back six or seven of the best and had a game of darts. I went back to the Green Star just on ten-thirty. The little rabbity man was still there and I got the impression that he was excited about something. The air seemed to be tingling as I walked upstairs, but it may only have been the beer! I had a job getting hold of the door handle, and, as I went through, I felt as if I had missed a step. The next second the room had gone. There was nothing there at all, just grey mist. I knew I was in some kind of psychic realm and I guessed that this was what had happened to Lomas, Dick's father. I also guessed that if he didn't know anything about the supernatural he must be pretty well out of his mind wondering what had happened. So I shouted. I called his name and heard him answer. Then he came walking through this grey misty stuff towards me. I told him who I was and told him his boy had come to get me. I told him what had happened to us. There wasn't any more I could tell him. We're wandering around in it now. It's like some kind of limbo. There are grey shapes, evil entities of some sort. I've shot one or two, but the ammunition's getting low. They're getting bolder, we've got to find some way back pretty quickly. I hope this message reaches you.
La Noire felt a tear trying to form in the corner of her eye. She blinked it back and smiled.
"Val," she whispered softly, "Oh, Val----"
It seemed awfully quiet in the lounge, and yet she knew that wherever he was he was reaching her. There was some link at any rate.
She replaced the Ouija board and began going through their occult library. She found the book she sought and drew a pentagon on the floor. Candles and sprays of garlic stood at the points of the pentagon. Slowly, in the same husky whisper that she had used for the crystal incantation, La Noire recited a spell that was older than Ur of the Chaldeas. Something shimmered. Something that was dark and greenish-yellow. It moved angrily in the centre of the pentagon. It moved in the direction of the garlic sprigs as though trying to escape, and then moved rapidly back again as it sensed that it was imprisoned.
"I have sent for you, O elemental spirit of evil wisdom," said La Noire, "to answer a riddle."
The thing vibrated more angrily than ever.
"You are committed to the powers of light, I answer nothing to you."
"Then you will stay in the pentagon, and I will fetch Holy Water and the silver cross to destroy even your elemental power."
La Noire crossed the room and came back carrying a beautifully engraved Renaissance silver cross of exquisite Italian workmanship. She also carried a silver flask of Holy Water. There were many strange objects in various cupboards in Stearman's flat. The shimmering grew more violent than before.
"I will answer one question."
"You will answer all I ask, or the water shall be sprinkled," threatened La Noire. The shimmering grew even more intense. The whole flat seemed to be vibrating with it. La Noire uncorked the flask of Holy Water.
"Stop!" came the hideous voice from the vibrating thing. "I will answer----
"Where is my husband?" asked La Noire,
"He is in the space between the realms."
"I have not heard of such a space," returned La Noire.
"Nevertheless that is where he is."
"How can he return?"
"I do not know that it is possible to return."
"It must be possible to return!" said La Noire.
"What will you trade?"
"What do you want?" asked La Noire.
"Blood," said the elemental thing.
"Of course. Human blood?" asked La Noire.
"Human blood," said the elemental thing. The door opened, La Noire's attention was distracted from the pentagon. Dick Lomas stood in the doorway, looking ridiculous in a pair of Val Stearman's enormous pyjamas.
"I thought I heard voices," announced Dick. "I wondered whether Mr. Stearman was back." He looked at the pentagon, "Gosh, what's this?"
"Keep still," said La Noire. A horrible thought came into her mind.
"I will return Stearman unharmed in return for the boy's blood," said the thing.
La Noire raised the flask.
"I dismiss you," she said. "Return. I was wrong to think that any information you gave would be of any use." There was a rooaarrr like thunder and a powerful smell of brimstone filled the air. La Noire sprinkled Holy Water over the pentagon and placed the silver cross up right in the centre of it. The smell of brimstone vanished, and the roaring, thunderous sound died away.
"Gosh," ejaculated Dick Lomas. "Who was that? What happened?"
"I was trying to find out where Val and your father are. That was an elemental spirit. When you read the New Testament you will see that St. Paul writes of principalities and powers. That was one of them. An evil spirit of knowledge. Not true knowledge but a twisted, perverted knowledge----I knew that it could be summoned, and I had hoped that I could glean something from it, but all that it said was that Val and your father were in the spaces between the worlds."
"What was that bit about it wanting blood?" asked the boy. La Noire smiled. "They feed on sacrifice. Blood is a symbol of sacrifice to them. It wanted me to kill you and then it would have brought Val back." The boy shuddered.
"Did it really exist, or was I dreaming?"
"I'm afraid that it really existed," affirmed La Noire. The boy shuddered again.
"It was horrible," he said.
"I waited till you had gone to bed before I tried it," she reminded him. Then she told Dick about the message she had had through the Ouija board, what she had seen in the crystal.
"Isn't there anything in any of the books that would tell us how to reach them?"
"I think we shall have to fight fire with fire," said La Noire. "We shall have to put pressure on them. Now, tell me, the one who was in the reception desk when you went with your father, was he a tall, tired looking man or was he a little rabbity looking man?"
"Oh, a little ferret-faced man," answered the boy. "And his eyes twitched," he added.
"When you went back," persisted La Noire, "who was in the desk then?"
"A tall man," answered Dick.
"I see," said La Noire. She bit her lip thoughtfully.
"I don't think the tall man has got anything to do with it," said the boy, "I think he's just ordinary."
"Yes, I do, too," agreed La Noire.
"I didn't like the look of that other man when we went and got the room," said the boy.
"If we could get him----" said La Noire.
"I tell you what," exclaimed the boy, "there was no doorman when the little man was there, but there was a doorman when the tall man was there."
"Yes," agreed La Noire, "the tall man came and opened the door for me, and I remember the doorman frowning a bit, as if he wanted to."
"I bet he did!" avowed Dick.
La Noire smiled.
"Let's go and see who's there now," said La Noire.
"All right," agreed Dick, "I'm ready."
"You can't go like that!" pointed out La Noire. "Even the best detectives and reporters dress before going out to get a story or to arrest a criminal!"
"Gosh, I'd forgotten!" said Dick. "Look like a clown, don't I?"
"You'll grow," said La Noire.
Dick dashed back to the bedroom and changed. His face was serious and he looked more like a young man than a boy. In some people's faces it is possible to see reflections of the past----and predictions of the future. The faces of some adult men show the boy they used to be. The faces of some boys show the men that they will become. At this particular moment Dick Lomas' face reflected the man he would become. The strength of Shropshire stone could be seen in the set of his jaw. His eyes were hard as Shropshire flints, his expression was the expression of a man who sees his duty and sees it plain, the expression of a man who knows that he is going into danger but is nevertheless determined to go.
"Luckily we have two of these things," announced La Noire, as she unlocked the drawer of Val's desk. Dick's eyes opened very wide at the sight of the gun.
"Is it loaded, Mrs. Stearman?"
"Yes, we always keep it loaded," said La Noire. She checked the clip with surprising efficiency, just to make sure. She had to take her purse and compact out of her handbag to make room for the gun. Even then there was quite a bulge----
"But, if they aren't ordinary," said the boy, "will the gun be any good?"
La Noire smiled.
"This isn't an ordinary gun," she informed him, "it has silver bullets."
"Silver!" echoed the boy. La Noire nodded. Her hair cascaded deliciously across her shoulders as she did so.
She and Dick went down to the garage and got the car out.
"Oh, I nearly forgot, we need some weapons for you as well."
"Can I have a gun?" asked the boy.
La Noire shook her head.
"I haven't another. You could if I had."
"I'd love a gun!" said Dick. "I've got a .410 at home, I shoot rats in the barn occasionally. I'd like a revolver!" "It's not a revolver," answered La Noire, "it's an automatic. Revolvers have cylinders. Fancy a boy not knowing that!" she smiled.
La Noire went up to the flat and came back carrying a flask of Holy Water and the silver cross.
"Put the flask in your pocket; keep the cross under your jacket," she said. "If we are up against evil beings, things that serve the powers of darkness instead of the powers of light they will be desperately afraid of the cross and the holy water."
"What will it do to them?" asked the boy.
"The water scalds them, as though it was boiling," La Noire informed him, "and the cross in unbearably hot to the touch----to them."
"No wonder they're frightened," said the boy.
"Nothing dark in the spirit realm is able to hurt you while you carry the cross, particularly a silver cross. Silver is the holy metal. It is deadly poison to them."
"I see." The boy paused reflectively. "I've read that in Mr. Stearman's articles in the 'Daily Globe'."
"Ah, yes, those articles!" murmured La Noire.
"I was asking Mr. Stearman in his office," said Dick, "whether all those adventures were really true."
"Most of them," said La Noire. "Sometimes we alter things a bit, or change an ending, but most of them are true."
"I'd like to be a psychic investigator when I leave school," announced Dick.
"Perhaps we can find a place for you in the team," smiled La Noire, "I don't think Val would mind having an apprentice!"
"Oh, that would be super!" said the boy.
"What about your father's farm?" asked La Noire.
"I could work on the farm most times, and when you were going on an adventure you could telephone me and I'd come. I could leave my father in charge!"
"I see you've got it all worked out!" commented La Noire,
"I'd like to marry somebody just like you when I grow up," said the boy, "and live in a flat just like yours, and have a great big car like this, and two guns with silver bullets!"
La Noire was smiling to herself as she drove. There was something so fresh and boyish about his enthusiasm, yet it contrasted strangely with his grim expression. She thought of the young pilots, scarcely more than boys, who had fought like men, and supermen, in the 1914-18 war, and in the later war. There was something of the eternal schoolboy in their mystique and their courage. Something of that same combination of boyish simplicity and eagerness coupled with the strength of the budding warrior, was now shining on Dick Lomas' face. La Noire remembered the young men who had gone to the 1914-18 War, and yet she scarcely looked more than twenty herself. This was 1964. She hadn't aged in all the years that Val had known her. She hadn't aged for a long, long time. Far longer than Val could ever have guessed, for there was almost as much mystery about the beautiful La Noire now as there had been when he had first known her. She knew strange secrets; far more strange secrets than could have been learnt in one lifetime. They reached the Green Star----
La Noire drove past deliberately and parked the car two blocks down. She and Dick got out very quietly and walked softly back in the direction of the hotel, Dick with the cross and the flask of holy water hidden carefully under his coat. They reached the steps of the hotel.
"Look," whispered Dick, "there's no doorman."
La Noire opened her bag, slipped out the Browning, checked the safety catch and concealed it under her costume jacket. Dick shouldered the door open and La Noire walked quietly in behind him. Holding on to his cross and holy water, Dick held the door open with his heel until she was through and then let the door swing quietly back on its hinges. There was nobody in the reception desk. La Noire was tingling with excitement.
"Ring the bell," she whispered to Dick. The boy touched the bell push. They heard footsteps. It was the ferret-faced man, the little rodent-like character, with the eyes that twitched and the strange aura of evil surrounding him. He looked at La Noire strangely.
"What do you want?" his voice was low and deep in his throat.
"I'm looking for my room," said La Noire. "I have the key here!" The gun came out from under her costume jacket. Dick standing close beside her hid all sight of it, and his eyes began to twitch again in their characteristic way.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"We want my husband and Dick's father," said La Noire.
"You're too late," announced the ferret-faced man, and there was a sound of evil triumph in his voice.
"You're a lot too late! They're in the space between the realms, and nobody's ever come back from there yet. They're out there with the grey ones!" He laughed.
"And are you working for the grey ones?"
"Yes. I work for the grey ones, I work for the dark powers, and I'm not frightened of any gun."
"I think you'll be frightened of this one," said La Noire, "you see it has silver bullets!"
"I don't believe you," replied the ferret-faced man, but his eyes were twitching.
"Show him what else we've brought, Dick," said La Noire. The boy let his jacket swing back. The silver cross shone; its light fell directly on to the ferrety face of the reception clerk.
"Aah," the little man covered his face with his hands.
"Don't move," said La Noire. "I'm sure it would be death for you if I pressed this trigger! But you haven't seen everything yet," she added. "Guess what's in the flask!" Dick removed the stopper, dipped one finger in the holy water, and flicked it at the face of the evil-looking receptionist. He screamed and moved back as a tiny droplet of water touched his forehead. A sudden red blister sprang up.
"So you are one of them!" said La Noire.
The eyes were moving uncontrollably now.
"What do you want me to do?" he screamed.
"Bring my husband and Mr. Lomas safely back."
"I can't. It's too late."
"Then it's too late for you," announced La Noire and her finger began to tighten on the trigger.
"Tell us all you know," said the boy grimly. The man looked at him.
"There's a room-that-never-was," he said. "It lures them."
"You're not really here, either, are you?" said La Noire. The man shook his head.
"This Green Star comes and goes," he said. "Most times it's an ordinary hotel, quite innocent."
"But the real staff, the receptionist, the doorman, what accounts for that?" asked La Noire.
"We stop time when we are here. The second you step across this threshold you step out of time, when we are here."
"I see," said La Noire, "that's why it was so difficult for me to understand what had happened. You come in between the microseconds, and time stands still for you."
"And for any who cross the threshold," said the rodent-faced man.
La Noire was nodding her beautiful head.
"What about this space between the realms?" she asked.
"It's where the grey ones live, the grey terrors, the nameless things."
La Noire shook her head.
"I've never heard of them," she said.
"They have great power. They feed on the souls of men." La Noire felt her finger tightening automatically on the trigger.
"How can we get there?" she said.
"Only through the room-that-never-was."
"Is it there now?"
"Yes. Ready for another victim!" answered the man.
Dick Lomas looked older, stronger and more manly than La Noire had yet seen him. He held the silver cross before him as a young lieutenant might hold the flag to rally a company of men, who were weary of the battle.
"Come on," he said, and led the way up the stairs.
"For the evil that you have done you must die," said La Noire, and pulled the trigger. The eyes twitched for the last time. The rat-faced man collapsed across the counter of the reception desk. He coughed once, a horrible, gurgling cough. Thick blood oozed from the corner of his mouth; his hands twitched spasmodically. Then his whole body seemed to undergo a peculiar transformation. For a few seconds it aged incredibly, then it began to decay. When La Noire looked back from half way up the stairs, ancient bones with wisps of black flesh clinging to them lay strewn across the desk and the floor. Dick Lomas didn't even turn around.
"Here's the room," he said. He tried the door, "It won't open."
She put the muzzle of the Browning against the lock and steadied it with both hands. There was a reverberating roar, the lock splintered, the door swung inwards.
Dick and La Noire crossed the threshold. She had her hand on the boy's shoulder she felt him stumble as if he was missing a step, then she, too, had the peculiar sensation of falling forward into nothingness. Next second all around them was greyness----
"The cross," she cried, "hold on to the cross."
"I've got it," he said. The greyness seemed to draw back all around them. The cross began to glow with a pure white radiance that was a thousand times brighter than the light from a magnesium flare. Grey shapes seemed to be massing angrily on the edges of the mist beyond the sphere of pure white radiance.
"Val," shouted La Noire, "Val, darling, it's me!"
"Father," shouted Dick. "Father!"
"We're over here," came a voice from the greyness.
"Dick, is that you?" came another voice.
Val and Lomas!
La Noire and the boy hurried towards the sound of the voices. Val and the farmer were standing back to back. Around them masses of amorphous grey shapes waited in the mist. Even as La Noire and the boy drew closer the largest of the grey shapes made a movement towards Stearman. Val's gun exploded and the grey shape dissolved into nothingness.
"That was the last shot," said Val grimly.
"It wasn't," said La Noire. "There are nine in here!" She handed him the other Browning.
He embraced her. Dick's father put his arm round the boy's shoulders.
"Val, darling, you are wonderful," said La Noire. "I thought they had got you."
"It's you who are wonderful," returned Stearman. "How the devil did you get through here?"
"She shot the receptionist," said Dick excitedly. "Just like you see on a television show. Shot him dead!"
"Dick threw holy water at him," said La Noire. "It raised an enormous blister. He was one of them!"
"He had to be," said Val.
The grey shapes were massing, "I've never seen anything like this before, have you?" asked La Noire.
Val shook his head.
"There's something so horrible about them because of their very shapelessness," he said grimly.
La Noire was nodding.
"Any idea how we're going to get out?" asked the farmer.
"Yes, I think I have," said Stearman. "The next time one tries to come towards us, we link hands and surround it. We will it to keep still using all the combined mental power we've got. Then, it either releases us, or we destroy it," he said grimly, "and we won't destroy it quickly or easily."
La Noire nodded.
Almost as soon as Val had finished speaking one of the hideous, amorphous grey shapes glided towards them. They made as if to retreat and the grey shape came closer.
"Now!" roared Val. Linking hands they surrounded it. Val broke the circle and stepped forward holding up the cross which he had taken from Dick. The grey thing was all around him; there was a sickly sweet smell, and Val felt a sensation of loathing such as he had never felt before. Not even the ghoul, the werewolf, the poltergeist, the doppleganger nor the ghosts he had seen had ever produced this same degree of horror and revulsion, particularly revulsion. He was aware that the thing was communicating with him.
"Let us out," said Stearman, "or we shall destroy you as we destroyed the others."
He sensed reluctance, hatred, antipathy and then the thing seemed to explode like a bucking bronco trying to escape. Stearman thrust the silver cross into the very heart of it. There was a sense of frustrated acquiescence. He withdrew the cross and held it high above his head. One by one he watched La Noire, the boy, and the farmer disappear.
"Now get me out," he said, he moved the cross threateningly towards the grey thing, and, suddenly, he was standing in the Green Star Hotel lounge and the tall, bored looking receptionist wasn't looking bored any more.
"Where the devil did you come from?" he asked. He looked at La Noire. "You're the lady who came in asking for room thirteen." His eyes narrowed and he looked at the boy. "And you're the one who came in asking as well. You wanted your father."
"I've found him," said Dick.
"And I've found my husband," said La Noire.
"It beats me," said the receptionist.
"It very nearly beat us," said Stearman. He looked at Lomas senior, "You've got a fine boy, there," he said.
"Aye!" said the farmer. "He's a Shropshire lad!"