From Supernatural Stories 17 - 1958
THE SECRET ROOM
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“What ghastly mystery lay hidden within the castle?”
“Good morning, Mrs. Stearman,” said the postman brightly as he handed a small registered parcel to the almond-eyed beauty who stood framed in the doorway.
“Thank you,” murmured La Noire, and her rich husky voice gave the postman a strange tingling sensation at the back of his skull. Val Stearman certainly is a lucky man, he thought as he strode off down the street, the vision of the raven-haired enchantress still vivid in his mind.
“What’s new?” called Val from the breakfast table, and his wife laid the parcel down beside him. He glanced up at her quizzically — his instinct told him something was wrong!
“What’s the matter, darling?” he asked softly. La Noire did not answer; she simply pointed to the innocent-looking package and shook her head.
“I don’t like it,” she whispered at last. “It feels evil.” Val Stearman had already seen enough of his wife’s psychic powers in the past to know that she meant what she said. He picked the parcel up carefully and severed the string near the knot.
“It doesn’t tick, at any rate,” he said with an attempt at joviality which he did not really feel.
“There are things in the spirit world a thousand times more dangerous than bombs,” said La Noire. “Silent things are more terrible than the roar of an explosion.” Val looked at her oddly for a moment — she was so deep, so hard to weigh up, this beautiful, strange girl he had married after rescuing her from the clutches of a black magic society.
He undid the brown paper beneath its red sealing wax, and found a small square wooden box. There did, not appear to be any sign of a lid, hinges, or sliding panels, and but for its lightness, Val would have dismissed it as a solid cube. La Noire was looking at it aghast, with a nameless fear on her beautiful face.
“The Casket of Aswami,” she gasped. “The omen of vengeance!” Val turned to her quickly.
“Do you know what this means, then?” he asked excitedly. Slowly she nodded, and her eyes never once left the box.
“Please tell me,” coaxed Val. “How do you open it?” Silently his wife made strange mystic passes in the air above it and to Stearman’s amazement the sides of the box began to unfold until their wooden sheets lay flat upon the table. In the centre lay a delicate carving of the finest, interlaced black and white ivory. Every symbol of evil seemed to have been incorporated into that statuette, and even the matter-of-fact journalist recoiled from it instinctively.
A pair of savage horns jutted from each side of the most hideously misshapen head Val had ever seen. The heavy brow was Neanderthalic, and the eyes — tiny twin emeralds — gleamed in deep, malevolent sockets. The rest of the features were equally repulsive, from the thick, ugly neck, down to the sinister cloven hooves.
“Who does it represent?” asked Val in an awe-struck whisper.
“Aswami — prince of the night — brother of Zamiel the evil one,” answered La Noire. In the legends of the black arts he is the lord of vengeance. His dreadful likeness is always sent as a warning to those who leave the Coven.”
She looked at her husband with a mixture of love and fear. “I must go back,” she whispered in an agonised voice. “Back to Jules and Van Haak — for they will kill us both if I do not return.” Val stood up suddenly, sending his chair over with a resounding crash. He took La Noire in his arms and held her tightly to his heart.
“Never!” he said fiercely. “You’re never going back to them — do you understand!”
“But, Val, they’ll kill you!” she begged. “I must go!”
“I’d die a thousand times before I’d let you go!” said Stearman resolutely. “We’ve beaten them once; we can beat them again.” She took courage from his words.
“We have beaten them once,” she repeated in her exciting, husky voice. “We can beat them again.” She paused. “Do you know why we beat them, my husband,” she went on rhetorically. “We beat them because of your courage, and new-found faith in Goodness.” He nodded slowly.
“Faith,” he said, “can move mountains. Good can overcome evil.” He turned to the statuette. “There’s just one place for this.” he remarked decisively, “and that’s the fire!” He flung the delicate ivory work into the grate, and watched with evident satisfaction as it began to burn. Then he picked up the fallen chair and slowly finished his coffee. “I always believe that attack is the best form of defence,” he announced. “Where did our friends used to live?”
“Who? Van Haak and Jules?” asked his wife. He nodded.
“Dr. Jules had a practice in Aldgate,” she said. “I don’t know about the Professor — he just used to come with Jules.”
“That’s enough to start on,” said her husband. “Aldgate, here we come!”
He crossed to the drawer of his desk, unlocked it and pulled out a shoulder holster in which was a deadly Browning. Peeling off his jacket, he strapped the gun into place and patted it affectionately. Only he and La Noire knew the secret of that gun. She had taught Stearman a great deal about the supernatural, and not least — that a man with enemies in another realm needed silver bullets, not lead!
A few minutes later they had piled into the journalist’s powerful sports car and were headed east across the city. Twenty traffic-jammed minutes later they passed Aldgate Pump and, thence La Noire directed their route. Left, right, and left again, down a maze of east end side streets, they threaded their way until suddenly she whispered:
“There it is — on the left.” Val pulled up and they leapt out. A dingy green door between two shuttered windows carried a brass plate which bore the legend “N. V. Jules, M.D.” The big reporter rapped sharply on the peeling woodwork, and the unaccustomed sound echoed hollowly through the doctor’s empty consulting rooms. There was no response and Val knocked again, louder this time. A window opened down the street, and a blowsy peroxide blonde shouted in strong Cockney:
“‘E’s scarpered, mate. Yer wastin’ yer time!”
“Do you know where I can find him?” Stearman called back. She shook her peroxide tresses vigorously. “It’s worth a quid,” went on Val persuasively. Her eyes brightened.
“I’ll ask Sally,” and she disappeared momentarily, then her front door opened and she beckoned them inside. “You ain’t the police, are yer?” she enquired anxiously.
“Nope — Press!” replied Val and flashed his card. The blonde sighed with relief. “Sally says she heard his charwoman say he was going up north, somewhere, but he never left no forwarding address.” Val’s rugged features registered his disappointment. “I don’t suppose you know where I could find her?” he asked after a pause.
“What? Mrs. Maggs?” asked the woman incredulously. “She’ll be in the ‘Blue Lion’ at twelve, but I don’t know where she is now.”
“Where’s the ‘Blue Lion’?” asked Val.
“In Marple Road — two blocks down and turn right.”
“Thanks,” said the journalist. “Here’s what I promised you.” He glanced at his watch as she showed them out. “It’s just after ten-thirty,” he murmured to La Noire. “We’re stuck for an hour and a half by the look of things.” His wife nodded.
“I wonder if there’s a back way into that surgery,” she whispered when their informant had gone.
“It’s worth a try,” agreed Val and together they walked unobtrusively around the block. A few paces brought them to a narrow passage between the closely-packed houses.
“This could be it,” said the journalist quietly, and they slipped rapidly into its shadows. The windowless walls ‘rose high and sheer above them like the forbidding towers of an ogre’s castle. The accumulated dirt and refuse of twenty years seemed to have found its way into that passage, and there was an all-pervading smell of decay clinging to its sinister walls.
“I don’t like this,” whispered La Noire.
“Neither do I, to be quite frank,” agreed Val, “if it’s like this in broad daylight, what sort of place is it by night?” They came to another green door, even more dilapidated than the one at the front, its panels were warped and falling from their joints. One hinge sagged drunkenly.
“Watch the road entrance,” whispered Val tensely as he got his powerful hands around the decaying wood.
“It’s O.K.” murmured La Noire. There was a muffled creak and a tearing sound, accompanied by the grate of a breaking hinge. The door was open — and taking his wife’s hand, Val led the way inside.
“Is this the place?” he asked. She nodded.
“Yes, I used to come fairly often in the old days — the Coven met here quite frequently.” If possible the interior was worse than the outside. The room they stood in was unfurnished, save for a broken cane chair and piles of old newspaper that littered the floor . . .
Hesitantly they crossed the room and Val looked questioningly at La Noire.
“Have you got any idea where to start looking?” he asked. She shook her lovely head.
“If Jules has taken the trouble to go, he’s methodical enough to have covered his tracks pretty thoroughly.” Val nodded.
“That’s what I thought,” he said, kicking idly at the heap of papers on the floor. He stooped and picked one up.
“Last March,” he said with a wry smile. “Strange how time affects news. For one brief period of its existence this newsprint was really hot. Look at it now!” He paused reflectively. Just think what it would be worth if it were dated for next year instead of last year!” La Noire shook her head.
“It is not good to look,” she said softly. “The eyes are holden for the good of the soul, and there are so many possible futures . . . All the occult arts together cannot reveal what will be, only what might be!”
Val paused thoughtfully and kicked at the floor. His wife looked at him curiously. Suddenly the big reporter knelt and began pushing the litter of old papers to one side . . .
“Can you smell anything?” he asked with a strange edge to his voice. La Noire sniffed daintily and then nodded. Her eyes opened wide with something that was akin to fear.
“I smell death,” she said simply. So could Stearman. He had smelt it before many times during his adventurous life, but not often death that was as old as this! He took a strong-bladed knife from his pocket and began to prise at the uneven boards. As he worked the foetid odour of decay grew more pronounced, and the dingy room became increasingly reminiscent of a charnel house . . . La Noire took out a dainty handkerchief and held it to her nose.
At last Stearman succeeded in prising the board clear. The foul smell became overpowering and he straightened up, gasping for breath. A revolting sight met their gaze: in the cavity below the floor-boards were the dismembered remains of a human leg! Fighting back an instinctive nausea, Val prised up a second board and a further selection of decaying humanity was exposed. La Noire was looking on in horror as her husband continued to lay bare yet more of the mutilated corpse. Suddenly she pointed to where a twisted hand lay grotesquely.
“That ring,” she whispered. Val followed her pointing finger, and his eyes came to rest on a superb green emerald in a curious setting of twining snakes on the third finger.
“Do you recognise it?” he asked excitedly. She nodded. Val looked at the hand more closely, and realised why it was twisted so strangely. The murderer had evidently attempted to wrench off the ring but failed . . . “Who was she?” he asked tautly.
“Her name was Elvira,” answered La Noire softly. “She was Jules’ secretary.” Val looked at her quizzically.
“Was she —?” he began and La Noire inclined her head.
“Yes,” she said simply. “Elvira was also one of us.”
“What does it all mean?” asked Stearman in a perplexed voice. La Noire looked thoughtful.
“There is only one thing it can mean,” she replied. “There could only be one reason for this killing.”
“What was it, then?” asked her husband tensely.
“The Vengeance of Aswami,” whispered La Noire. “She must have wanted to leave and there is only one Door through which any can leave the Society of Satan — the Door of Death!”
“I got you out alive,” reminded Val. She rounded on him.
“Yes, but for how long? They will never give up! They’ll follow us! Hound us down! Every moving shadow that we see will be Jules or Van Haak. Every dark roadway will hide their lurking vengeance. Poison, too, can lurk in every drink — in every mouthful of food! All the time we must watch — watch, watch!” She was trembling visibly and Stearman realised that the sight of Elvira’s dismembered corpse had upset her considerably. Comfortingly he put his arm about her.
“Steady, darling,” he whispered. “Just keep calm and remember we are hunting them just as surely as they are hunting us.” He led her slowly away from that scene of carnage. They walked back into the sinister stone-walled passage outside.
“Do you think we should tell the police?” La Noire asked suddenly, a thoughtful frown on her beautiful face. Val hesitated for a moment, then nodded.
“I think we should,” he answered at length. “On the other hand, I don’t think it would be policy to give lengthy explanations about breaking in! Perhaps an anonymous ‘phone call might fill the bill.”
They reached a call box, and disguising his voice with a thick American accent, Stearman told the startled police telephonist that there was “one hell of a smell from a certain back-street surgery, which made him think that the doctor had gone, and left the last patient dead on the floor, all of which seemed kinda careless.” Before the startled police officer could phrase a reply, Stearman had hung up and left the box hurriedly. They walked back to the car, and he glanced at his watch again.
“In about ten minutes mine host at the ‘Blue Lion’ should be opening his hospitable doors,” remarked the journalist, “and I know a certain representative of the Daily Globe who could sink several measures of Scotch and soda.”
“I think I could use a drink, too,” sighed La Noire, and five minutes later Stearman parked the powerful sports car beneath the creaking sign on which an improbable blue quadruped was depicted. A distant church clock began to chime and they walked through the doors of the public bar. The landlord was a short, fat, genial man, whose tattooed arms protruded from the rolled-up sleeves of a shirt that had not seen soap and water for many moons!
“Wot’ll it be?” he asked cheerily.
“Martini?” asked La Noire hopefully. Surprisingly the rubicund one produced a dusty bottle and Stearman got the impression that if the landlord had possessed a tail he would have wagged it!
“Mine’s a Scotch,” said the journalist, as he recorked the Martini. “How about you?”
“Thank you very much, sir. I’ll just have half of bitter,” replied the fat man.
Two rounds later the door opened to admit a thin, scrawny woman of indefinite age.
“‘Ello, Mrs. Maggs? Usual?” queried the landlord.
“Yes, please, Mr. Brooks,” she answered, and Stearman turned to look at her with feigned casualness. As she reached for her purse, the journalist smiled broadly and said invitingly,
“Have this one on me. It’s my birthday!” Mrs. Maggs put her purse away at something approaching the speed of light, and Val was rewarded with a toothy smile. Mrs. Maggs’ teeth were one of the sights of Aldgate, and it had often been said that with the exception of a white, she had a complete snooker set. “Nice weather for the time of year,” went on Val politely.
“Lovely,” gargled Mrs. Maggs through a mouthful of gin. It took three more gins, and a port, to bring the conversation round to Dr. Jules, but Val was delighted to find that having once started on the topic, the charlady was loth to stop . . . Dr. Jules was everything which the hearty, healthy Eastender dislikes intensely. He was silent, secretive and snobbish. He was possessed of those indefinable evils, “airs and graces” and above all he had committed the unforgivable sin of obvious condescension.
“It was a good thing for this district when ‘e left,” confided Mrs. Maggs with great deliberation.
“Where did he go?” asked Stearman, and she laughed knowingly.
“Oh, that was funny, that was,” she chortled, “‘E didn’t want anybody to know — told me he was goin’ down to Devon. But I saw a rail ticket on his desk to Clayburn in Argyllshire!”
“Did you, now,” echoed the journalist in mock surprise. “That was pretty smart.” Five minutes later he bought her another drink and left the pub.
“May the stars of heaven forgive my little white lies,” he murmured piously as he let in the clutch and headed the big sports car back towards their flat.
La Noire suddenly snapped her fingers.
“Clayburn,” she exclaimed excitedly. “I thought I’d heard that name somewhere before. Now I remember! Clayburn Castle!”
“What about Clayburn Castle?” asked Val with great interest.
“The secret room!” whispered La Noire mysteriously.
“Secret room?” echoed her husband. “Sounds fascinating. Tell me more.”
“I read about it several years ago,” began La Noire. “The story goes back to the Dark Ages.” She paused for a moment. “It seems that during a war between two clans, some fugitives arrived at Clayburn, seeking refuge, and although frightened of becoming involved in the dispute, the laird reluctantly admitted them. With the sounds of pursuit drawing nearer every moment he conducted them to a secret room built in the very heart of the ancient fortress. A dark, hidden room without light or windows. When they were all inside he secured the secret door and left them to their fate . . . whether he ever intended to return and release them no man knows, but according to the legend they were entombed there . . . for ever!”
“How horrible!” muttered Stearman. “I suppose their unhappy ghosts haunt the castle?”
“Something haunts the castle,” replied La Noire. “But what, no one knows. For there is more than one legend of the secret room. According to another story, Laird Clayburn had a servant who was a vampire — one of the living dead, and it is supposedly this dreadful retainer who is in incarcerated in the secret room.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” murmured the journalist as he felt the icy tingle of fear running down his spine.
“Whatever the real truth of the Castle’s secret room,” went on La Noire, “there’s no doubt that Clayburn has always been associated with the supernatural, and the black arts.”
They arrived back at the flat without further incident, and as Stearman glanced round the breakfast room he suddenly became aware of the discarded wrapping paper in which the effigy of Aswami the Avenger had been sent.
The postmark, he thought suddenly. The most vital clue of all, right under our very noses, and we never thought of it. He began examining the paper closely and as he did so his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. The postmark was quite distinct, and so was the blue and white registration label. “Clayburn, Argyll.,” he read out pensively. “It was handed in the day before yesterday . . . which means that the sender could be anywhere by now . . . maybe even hiding down the street somewhere, waiting for us to go out.”
“I wonder why they went up to Clayburn in the first place,” said La Noire, thoughtfully. Val scratched his head.
“No idea,” he answered ruefully, “unless whatever’s hidden in the secret room has some part in their revenge.”
“That might be it!” exclaimed La Noire, suddenly snapping her fingers. “They may realise that we are not completely defenceless, in the occult realm. My knowledge and supernatural gifts, combined with your physical strength and courage, may be proving too great an obstacle to their present resources. They need more power and they have gone to Clayburn to get it.”
Val stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose it could be something like that,” he agreed slowly, but I still don’t quite see it.”
“Look at it this way,” explained La Noire. “The Coven not only resorts to physical violence, they use the black arts to kill mysteriously from a distance. The earliest forms of witchcraft employed spells for the destruction of enemies. They used clay or wax figures, to which parts of the victim’s clothes had been added, and the parings from his fingernails, perhaps a lock of his hair as well. When the correct incantations were used, vibrations of intense hatred were transmitted over the ether and quite often the victims would die.”
“I have read cases of the sort,” said Val. “But I thought they usually stuck pins into the wax figure.” La Noire nodded.
“The transfixing is only the focal point of the hate — it is the psychic shock wave that destroys. When the witch or wizard stabs the effigy, he is concentrating his hate and evil thoughts on the corresponding part of the victim, which is why the pain is felt there,” she explained.
“Is there any protection?” asked her husband. She nodded. “Definitely.” He looked at her inquiringly.
“Psychic forces are very strange, even after all the years I have spent studying and practising the occult sciences there is much I still do not understand,” went on La Noire. “There is a little known effect called the ‘shock of the rebound.’ It means that when the evil emanations are released towards the victim, there is a kind of recoil, like the kick of a gun. If the victim is prepared, if his shield is up, then the very forces sent out to destroy him may easily be reflected back to the destroyer.”
“What happens then?” interrupted the journalist with great interest.
“The power of death is still the power of death,” answered La Noire. “The bullet that is deflected from its rightful target is the same bullet; its only purpose is to strike and destroy. So with the inanimate power of evil. Once the death force has been released it will continue until its purpose has been achieved. It is senseless and blind; as incapable of thought or independent action as a rifle bullet.”
“You mean if the victim is well shielded this barrage of evil thought will recoil on the sender?” asked Val.
His wife nodded. “And may well destroy him,” she answered. “Do you know how to prepare these defences?” asked the journalist. She smiled inscrutably. “They have been ceaselessly round us both from the day you took me out of the cellar,” she answered.
Val looked incredulous. “But . . . but where are they?” he gasped. “What do they consist of?”
Once more La Noire answered him with her inscrutable, almost Oriental smile, and as he looked at her, Val was reminded more than ever of the popular conception of Cleopatra.
“They’re in my mind,” she whispered at last. “The best defence of all. Talismans are all very well, but they may be lost or defeated by a more powerful charm. The defence in the mind is always there.”
“But why didn’t you tell me?” asked the journalist. “And anyway what happens when you sleep?”
“There is part of my mind that never sleeps,” answered La Noire, “and it is here that the defences lie. They are as much a part of me as breathing, or feeling hungry and thirsty . . . they are so deeply rooted in the subconscious now that I doubt if even hypnotism could shake them.”
“But why didn’t you tell me?” persisted Val. “It must be putting a terrific strain on you.” Again she smiled, a trifle wistfully.
“There was nothing you could do,” she answered softly. “And it would only have worried you.”
He put his arm round her affectionately. There were tremendous depths in La Noire, her potential for good or evil was enormous. Hers was the choice to be a saint or a sorceress. There was no middle way. You either loved her or hated her. You could worship her or despise her — but it was impossible to ignore her.
Stearman glanced, at the wrapping paper again and the tell-tale words “Clayburn, Argyll.” He was a man of action, a man of quick decisions . . . if he erred at all it was on the side of impulsiveness rather than over-caution.
“Let’s get started,” he said suddenly, and screwing up the crumpled paper he tossed it in the wake of the sinister idol. It burned with a smoky flame and he watched for a second as it crumbled to ashes in the grate.
A few moments later they were opening the front door and stepping out into the street once more. A sinister, bent figure drew swiftly back into a doorway, but neither of them saw it and they climbed unsuspectingly into the car. Two evil eyes watched them with malevolent satisfaction as the powerful sports roared away down the road. The hunchback slunk out of the doorway and shuffled across to the nearby ‘phone box . . .
* * *
As Val reached the corner, a brick lorry was trying to overtake a trolley-bus. Used to the hazards of metropolitan traffic the reporter swung skillfully round on the inside of the two thundering vehicles and put his foot down hard on the brake — nothing happened!
La Noire screamed a warning, and Val wrenched the wheel hard over. “What the —” he began savagely. The ‘bus pulled out to avoid him, scraped agonisingly along the side of the lorry and stopped with a shriek of tortured brakes. The driver leapt out white-faced and shaken.
“You crazy idiot!” he roared at Stearman. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The journalist ignored him. He had climbed out and began examining his brakes. “Look at this,” he answered quietly, and held up a severed cable for inspection. The ‘bus driver stopped swearing. “Strewth!” he exclaimed aghast. “It’s been cut.”
“It certainly has,” said Val grimly. He looked at La Noire. She, too, was white and shaken. “They’re not wasting any time,” he went on. She shook her head.
“I was afraid of this. Treachery of this kind is so typical of them,” she said softly. Remembering Elvira, he agreed. By the time the police had been informed and a mutual exchange of names, addresses and insurance companies had taken place, Val was fuming impatiently about the loss of time. They got the car to a garage, and the big reporter personally assisted the mechanic to conduct a thorough check. Finally, with the brake cables renewed, they set off once more.
Hour after hour they thundered north in the speeding, car until the threat of a heavy fog began to descend. La Noire glanced at the road map which they carried in the dashboard locker.
“We’re just coming into York,” she informed him, “and this fog looks like getting thicker.”
“Yes, I think we’ll pull in for the night,” agreed Val, and a few moments later he parked the car at the rear of an old-world coaching inn, on the outskirts of the historic city. As they stepped through the oak-lintelled doorway, visions of Dick Turpin and the lawless era which he personified flashed into Stearman’s mind.
“What ho for Bonny Black Bess and a brace of smooth-bore pistols,” he grinned. La Noire smiled wryly.
“You’ll find that Browning much more useful before long, I’m thinking,” she commented. He winked at her and patted his shoulder holster reassuringly. They bought a drink and enquired about accommodation. The landlord of the ‘Golden Bell’ was as old-world as his inn. A middle-aged man of medium height, with friendly eyes, a walrus moustache and mutton-chop whiskers. He smiled broadly and began to extol the merits of his accommodation.
“They knew how to build in those days,” he began enthusiastically, “between two and three feet thick these walls!” He smacked the flat of his hand against the plaster as if to emphasise his claim. “There’s no draughts here — not like these modern places.” It became apparent than any building completed after about 1800 came under the condemnation of being ‘modern’.
They had supper in a charming atmosphere of mellow timber and gleaming copper ornaments, and went upstairs to a room which was all the landlord had claimed for it. Beautiful oak panelling, with carvings that could only have been wrought by a master craftsman, decorated its spacious walls. A cheerful log fire burnt in a grate of rustic red brick below a heavily timbered mantelpiece, and the flickering firelight cast a cheerful rosy glow over the whole of the interior. Val and La Noire were in that state of cosy tiredness which follows a trying day, a long journey, a heavy supper, and too much good wine. Accordingly they were soon asleep . . .
Suddenly Stearman was awake — listening intently. The fire had died down and the room was a pit of Stygian darkness. For a few seconds he had no idea of what had disturbed him. Then he heard it again! The unmistakable creak of an ancient floorboard beneath a stealthy foot . . .
Like a tiger tensed to strike, Val lay utterly motionless in the darkness as his keen ears sought to locate the sound. Again the boards creaked — nearer this time, and he realised that the intruder must be less than six feet from his head! Every nerve in his body was alert now, tingling with anticipation, and he wondered who the unknown prowler might be . . . Was it the cadaverous Jules or the trembling mountain of flesh that called itself Van Haak?
Could it be the hunchback? Val guessed from the sounds that it must be either the doctor or the latter. Van Haak would be physically incapable of such silent stealth.
Another footstep! The journalist had visions of an upraised knife! Descending?!? Like a steel spring uncoiling, Val Stearman went into action! His powerful muscles carried him clear of the bed in a headlong dive, and his outflung arms suddenly encountered somebody’s waist! There was a grunt of surprise and Val and the intruder crashed to the floor in a rolling, struggling heap.
La Noire woke suddenly, screamed, and reached for the light. As she snapped it on, Val found himself clutching an antagonist that was more animal than human . . . The man, if man it was, equalled him in size, but its simian countenance and guttural snarling made him think of a gorilla! Now that Val’s first advantage of surprise was over, the ape-man had gained a slight advantage, and Stearman was having his work cut out to keep the other’s powerful hands away from his throat . . . This was not an occasion for the Queensbury rules! The big reporter fought accordingly. A thick, hairy arm was shutting off his breath when he succeeded in lodging a thumb in his opponent’s left eye — with a howl of pain the intruder leapt back and the side of Stearman’s hand descended on the back of his neck, like an executioner’s axe! Most normal men would have dropped insensible, but apparently the stranger had a spine like a bull. Stearman looked surprised, and followed up almost instantly with a pile-driving right hook to the side of the head.
There was more guttural snarling and the creature flew at him with renewed ferocity . . . Val side-stepped and landed a beautifully timed kick in the monster’s stomach. Had the point of his toe connected with a football a tattered shred of leather would have floated back to earth in the region of the Outer Hebrides! The effect on the ape man was less spectacular, but still effective. There was a long drawn-out “wheeeeeehhhhhh” as the air was driven out of him, and the simian slumped to the floor, hors de combat!
Breathing heavily, Val rolled him over for La Noire’s inspection.
“Recognise him?” he asked. His wife shook her head.
“Never seen him before,” she answered thoughtfully. “Look at the back of his right hand.”
Curiously, Val pulled back the other’s sleeve and looked. A strange symbol was tattooed there!
“I thought so!” whispered La Noire. “He is one of them.”
“One of them?” echoed Stearman.
“It is the mark of Aswami the Avenger,” explained La Noire. “It means that he has been sent by the Coven to destroy us.”
“He didn’t make it, did he?” said Stearman confidently, and even as he spoke the prostrate form at his feet became re-animated. The Neanderthal sucked air into his famished lungs in great painful gulps and sat up, his eyes blazing hate.
“I kill!” he hissed savagely, and flung himself at the journalist a second time. Taken by surprise, Val staggered back and tripped over the foot of the bed, while La Noire ran to the door and screamed for help!
Over and over they crashed in a life and death struggle round the room. Stearman’s knee thudded solidly into the tender solar plexus of his attacker and panting heavily, the journalist broke clear. Before the assassin could get to grips again, Val had crashed home a pair of sledgehammer punches to the point of his jaw, but their only effect was to halt the ape man momentarily. Still swinging punches, Val began backing away towards the door. Footsteps sounded on the stairs behind him and he saw a look of frustrated anger on his attacker’s face as the landlord and a burly bar-tender burst through the doorway. The ape man snarled viciously and bounded towards the window. There was a crash of broken glass, and he disappeared into the night . . .
Stearman and the others crossed the room in three quick strides, but there was no sign of him.
“He must have jumped like a kangaroo,” said mine host. “It’s a good twelve feet down there!”
“It certainly is,” said the barman. “But he looked more like an ape than a man, anyway.” The landlord was more concerned with the comfort of his guests, and the good name of his house rather than with pursuing elusive shadows into the fog. With the minimum delay he got Stearman and La Noire re-established in a fresh room, and they spent the remainder of the night with the door locked and the window shuttered.
“Lesson number one,” said Val ruefully, when they were alone once more. “Never leave your gun on a chair-back — keep it under the pillow!”
Breakfast, an early one, was a solemn, rather thoughtful meal. All kinds of questions kept presenting themselves and demanding solution. Who was their unwelcome visitor of the previous night? How many more dangerous assassins lurked in the thick Yorkshire fog, with the sinister sign of Aswami on their hands? What sort of reception awaited them at Clayburn Castle?
Val was just about to drink his coffee when he noticed a sleek black cat rubbing itself affectionately against the leg of his chair. He bent to stroke it and on a sudden impulse poured a few drops of the milky coffee into a saucer and offered it to the friendly feline. The big cat began to lap eagerly, but a few seconds later a ghastly change came over it. Its eyes dilated and it gave a pitiful little mew of pain.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked La Noire concernedly.
“I don’t know,” replied her husband. “But he certainly looks bad.” Even as he spoke the unfortunate cat rolled over pathetically and lay very still on the carpet.
“Landlord!” called Val loudly. “Could you spare a moment?” Mine host hurried through from the kitchens, anxious to oblige. He took in the prostrate cat at a glance, and his genial face clouded perceptibly.
“Is he yours?” asked La Noire sympathetically.
“He was,” said the landlord, stooping to examine his pet. “Poor old Silky,” he murmured under his breath.
“I just gave him a drop of coffee . . .” began Stearman, and suddenly the truth dawned on him. “Coffee!” he shouted and dashed La Noire’s cup from her lips. All three remained motionless for several seconds. “Someone poisoned the coffee,” said Val slowly.
“But that’s impossible,” protested the landlord. “I’ll swear by the entire staff.”
“I’m not accusing you, or your staff,” retorted Val. “It was either that Mongoloid who broke in last night, or one of his wilier confederates.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” began the landlord. Stearman cut him short. “To put it bluntly,” he explained, “we’ve fallen foul of a Coven, a black magic society, and they’re prepared to stop at nothing.” The landlord stared at the big journalist disbelievingly. “They’ve killed one woman already,” went on Stearman grimly. The jovial landlord had grown deadly serious.
“I’ll call the police,” he said with grave decision. The police were duly called and the coffee analysed. It was found to contain sufficient arsenic to kill twenty people.
“I always said black cats were lucky,” said Val as they drove on northwards towards the border. “But I’ve never been so grateful to one as I was to poor old Silky. He was a lovely cat, too.” With the typical Englishman’s love of all defenceless creatures, and the instinct of true strength to defend the weak, Val found it harder to forget the death of the cat than the attempt on his own life. To him the cat had been an innocent bystander, and it had suffered unjustly at the ends of evil men.
“I, too, love cats,” murmured La Noire. “Remember they have long been associated with the occult. Do you recall the casket of Set on that first day that we met?”
“Can I ever forget it?” answered her husband. “That example of necromancy shook me to the core.” They drove on in silence for a few minutes, each wondering where the enemy would strike next.
First it had been the brakes, then the mysterious intruder and, lastly poison . . .
“It beats me how they know where we are?” said Stearman.
“The crystal,” answered La Noire. “It can be made to do many things. I once showed you history through the power of its magic. It can span space and time, as easily as a bridge can span a river.”
“It seems incredible,” remarked her husband. “If I hadn’t seen yours, I should never have believed it.”
“I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot! What do you think they’ll do next?” His wife looked pensive.
“I think they’re still afraid to use the psychic death force in case of a rebound, so they’ll still be relying on physical attacks,” she murmured.
“This is as bad as the MI5 stuff,” grunted Val. “It means watching everywhere, all the time.”
“It isn’t that so much that worries me,” said La Noire after a brief pause. “I’m afraid of what they’ll be able to use against us when they’ve mastered the power of the secret room . . . As I’ve said already, there are so many things which I do not understand, and there may be some sinister force capable of penetrating my defences. The secret death that strikes from afar is more greatly to be feared than the assassin’s knife or bullet.”
The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, and despite the delaying effects of the fog they found themselves crossing the Argyllshire border before nightfall. Val parked the car on a wide grass verge and paused to consult the map.
“We’re still a few miles south of Dalmally and Glen Orchy,” said La Noire, pointing to the thin red lines. Val nodded. “And Clayburn is north of Loch Etive to the east of Portnacroish, and about ten miles south of Glencoe — you know, where the massacre took place.”
He started the engine again and they drove on through the thickening mist towards their sinister destination.
The heights of Starav and Bidean Nam Bian passed unnoticed in the mist and shortly afterwards a lop-sided sign bearing the legend, ‘Clayburn Castle 1 mile,’ sprang up in the headlights.
“We’re here,” breathed Stearman excitedly as he nosed the powerful sports car down the unkempt road, and the dark outline of the sinister castle beyond.
Clayburn Castle was a massive pile of bleak, black granite, grim, forbidding and surrounded by an aura of malevolent evil. It stood like some grim, dark sentinel guarding the Western Isles, and the sightless eyes of its narrow windows looked out over the stern Atlantic storms. As they drew nearer the Stearman’s could see a few pinpoints of pale yellow light, fighting hard to be seen through the obscuring mist. La Noire shuddered involuntarily.
“I don’t like it,” she whispered. “I can feel the evil in its atmosphere.”
“So can I,” said Val as he drove cautiously towards it. Five minutes more, and they drew up below the grim, black battlements. “What next . . .” began the journalist. With a sudden unexpected strength, La Noire seized his collar, and flung herself out of the car, dragging him with her.
There was a dull thud from somewhere above them, and a sharp resounding crash as a huge coping stone smashed down onto the canvas hood of the big sports. They lay quite still for a second, their hearts racing madly. “Accident?” asked Val, sarcastically. His wife shook her head. “How did you know it was coming?” he asked breathlessly. “I thought I heard it being prised loose,” she whispered, “but before I could think what the sounds meant, it was on us. I had no time to speak. I could only pull you and hope — hope that I was strong enough.”
He put an arm comfortingly round her waist “You’re a real wonder,” he whispered affectionately.
“I should have no desire to escape without you,” she answered simply. He kissed her tenderly before they scrambled up.
“As I was about to say when that came down,” went on Val. “Where do we go from here? Shall we try and break in or do we ring the bell and give them our visiting cards?” Even as he spoke an idea was forming in La Noire’s quick mind.
“Let’s do that,” she said softly.
“What, ring the bell?” echoed her husband. You’re joking, dearest.”
“I’m not,” she answered. “If we ring the bell at the front and then break in at the back, it ought to confuse the issue a little.”
“Regular little secret service woman, aren’t you?” said Val admiringly, seizing the massive iron bell pull as he spoke. The sonorous tones of the ancient metal boomed out hollowly in the castle’s dark, secret interior, and long before the final echoes had died away, Val and La Noire were moving with stealthy speed in the shadow of the wall.
“Look,” whispered the journalist excitedly, hardly able to believe their good fortune, the back door stood ajar! Throwing caution to the wind they stepped quickly inside and found themselves in a long stone-floored corridor. Its tall, entombing walls seemed to engulf them like the jaws of some fantastic leviathan . . . As rapidly as possible they walked on into the macabre heart of the ancient castle. Ahead of them in the darkness they could hear the sound of muffled voices and as he listened Stearman clenched his big fists in anger, for two of the voices at least he recognised! One the cadaverous Jules, the other was the obese Van Haak.
They proceeded slowly towards the door from behind which the sounds issued and as they approached it, Val slid the Browning out of its holster.
“When I say ‘now’ turn the handle and stand back,” he whispered to La Noire.
“Right,” she replied softly.
“Now!” hissed Stearman and as she released the catch he kicked open the door with a reverberating crash, and leapt through into the room beyond.
There was a sudden startled silence for five seconds that seemed an eternity, and in that five seconds the big reporter took in the scene with a long, sweeping glance . . . Van Haak and Jules were interrogating the simian character who had escaped from the York hotel the night before. A brass candelabra flickered in its yellow light from the centre of the chamber and in its glow Stearman could see the baleful animosity on the faces of the black magicians.
“So we meet again, Mr. Stearman,” said Jules, in a voice of thin icy calm. “We were just talking about you, weren’t we, Borradin?” The ape man nodded uncomfortably, hidden fury lurking in its deep-set eyes. “This is the nice gentleman who kicked you in the stomach, Borradin,” went on the sinister doctor. The ape man snarled unintelligibly and pawed the air. “You see?” went on Jules. “He remembers you.”
“We remember him, too,” said Stearman coldly. “And if he inches one step nearer I shall take the greatest pleasure in shooting him through the head.” Borradin snarled again and edged back . . .
“What do you intend to do?” piped Van Haak and there was noticeable fear in the fat man’s voice. “Nothing, yet,” said Stearman. “Except to ask a few questions. For instance, which of you humorists cut the brakes on my car yesterday? Who poisoned the coffee? And who tosses coping stones off the roof for a hobby?” Behind the humour was a grim, stark tone which sent fear pulsating through the hearts of his listeners. The steadiness of his voice seemed to emphasise the rock-like grip on the Browning.
They made him no answer, and his keen eyes darted impatiently from one to the other. “By the way, Jules,” he said, suddenly. “The police have been taking up floor-boards at the back of your surgery — guess what they found?” Beneath his poker-faced exterior the sinister doctor was shaken.
“What did they find?” he asked flatly.
“Elvira,” said La Noire, in an accusing tone.
Van Haak seemed to have collapsed in his chair, gibbering to himself.
“I knew they’d find her,” he raved. “We shouldn’t have done it. We shouldn’t have done it!”
“Shut up, you fool,” snarled Jules. “They’re only guessing!” Before Stearman could speak again, La Noire shouted a sudden warning. Rapidly he glanced towards the open door and just for a second he was off-guard. With unexpected agility the twisted hunchback threw himself straight towards the reporter. Val stopped him with a straight left, but the ape man was already reaching for the gun. He got it! Val’s fingers closed round the trigger and two big silver slugs crashed into Borradin’s chest. With a choking cry the Neanderthal collapsed, still clutching Stearman’s gun arm. The dying man’s weight forced Val to his knees and before he could recover his balance, Jules snatched up the heavy brass candelabra and crashed it down on his head.
La Noire tried to reach the gun in the darkness and confusion, but Van Haak recovered with surprising swiftness and pinioned the girl’s arms from behind. She struggled fiercely, but the professor was too strong for her.
When they awoke it was utterly black all around them. Val’s head felt as if it was opening and shutting to the accompaniment of the Anvil Chorus. It ached abominably, and he felt sick. He tried to put his hand to his brow and discovered that he was securely tied. Gradually he became aware of something soft and warm in the darkness beside him. He wriggled a little to try to ease his bonds.
“Val, darling,” whispered La Noire and he heaved a sigh of relief.
“Dearest! Are you all right?” he enquired anxiously.
“Yes,” she whispered again,
“What happened?” he asked slowly through the red mists that were threatening to re-engulf him in unconsciousness.
”After you hit the hunchback and shot Borradin, Jules hit you with the candle-stick. Then they tied us up and shut us in here.”
“Where’s here?” muttered her husband thickly. She hesitated for an instant.
“I think it’s the secret room . . .” she answered at length. Val was silent, as he struggled furiously with the ropes.
“Wriggle round so I can reach your hands with my teeth,” he grunted at last and slowly she managed to maneuver the knots into the required position. It was a long, slow, painful process, but at last he had her hands free. After that it was the work of only a moment to release them both. Cramped and stiff they stood up and began groping their way slowly around the Stygian darkness of the sinister chamber. So far as they could tell there was no obvious means of egress and cautiously Val made his way across the centre of the floor. Mid-way he stopped suddenly — there was nothing beneath his foot! He retreated a pace, and knelt to examine the aperture. To his horror he realised that the centre of the secret room was a deep circular abyss.
“Don’t move, darling!” he cried grimly. “Stay against the wall!”
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“There’s what seems to be a well in the centre of the floor,” he answered quietly.
“How horrible . . .” she began and then gave a sudden gasp of alarm.
“What’s wrong?” called Val quickly.
“It’s the wall!” she screamed. “It’s moving!”
“Moving?” he echoed, incredulous horror in his voice, and suddenly the whole diabolical plan flashed into his mind. The moving walls of the secret room were designed to force captives into the dreadful well! He knew now what had happened to the luckless refugees in the legend. They had not starved to death — they had been callously murdered by this fiendish device, and disappeared without trace . . .
He took a couple of paces backwards and clasped her tightly in his arms, as they tried unsuccessfully to hold back the relentless walls that were forcing them inexorably closer to the brink of the dreadful well! The room was growing perceptibly colder and gradually an eerie green light began to emanate from the top of the shaft. La Noire had assumed a trance-like expression.
“We are not alone,” she sighed in a dreamy voice. “Those from the other side are present . . .” Still holding her tightly, Val stared in horrified fascination at the uncanny green glow. Agonised faces began to form in the dim, misty light. The faces of those who had died in this evil room centuries before. The unhappy, restless spirits of heaven alone knew how many luckless victims, seemed to rise in greeting for those doomed to join them!
With the faces came sounds; low, despairing cries as of souls in torment; hollow, hopeless moans and a confused murmur of voices. The cloud of green light rose higher above the aperture of the well, and by its light Stearman suddenly saw their one slim chance of escape: a grill-like ventilator set in the roof above him. The walls were coming closer with every passing second, and he knew there was no time to lose. He shook La Noire roughly to rouse her from her trance-like condition and pointed excitedly at the ceiling.
She understood him in a moment, and standing as close to the yawning chasm as he dared, he lifted her on to his shoulder and watched anxiously as she tugged at the ancient metal.
For seconds that seemed an eternity it defied her strength and then with a suddenness that almost overbalanced them the grill came clear, and the road to freedom was open! With a quick heave he hoisted her out to safety and taking a deep breath, put every last ounce of strength into a tremendous leap for the ceiling. That leap above the abyss seemed to last for a millennium, and then his groping fingers clutched desperately at the stone work of the roof, and La Noire seized his jacket and helped him onto the roof beside her. For a long time they rested silently behind the battlements, still scarcely able to believe that they had really escaped from the dreadful chamber of death.
Silently they stole away in the shadows to the corner tower, with its spiral staircase, and crept unnoticed from the castle, out across the grounds and away across country on foot towards Portnacroish police station. They staggered exhausted into the reception office and gasped the whole incredible story to the duty officer.
* * *
When the police reached Clayburn Castle, however, the birds had flown and only the lifeless body of the ape-like Borrodin awaited them.
As the Stearman’s returned to London by train, they wondered from what quarter their enemies would strike next. The second round was over, with the score still unsettled . . .
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