From Supernatural Stories 21 - 1959
THE SILENT STRANGER
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“Who was the silent stranger . . . who spoke to animals . . . but not to men . . . ?”
Sam Gedgeon belonged to a breed that are unfortunately not yet extinct. He was a heavily built red faced individual, with a choleric temper, and a flow of barrack room epithets that never seemed to dry up. He was ruthlessly violent in word and deed, and tragically, he was a cattle dealer. The dumb wide-eyed, gentle beasts went in constant terror of the thick cudgel, with which he layed violently about him whenever they failed to show an almost telephonic ability to understand the commands he bellowed at them. An animal only needed a few moments in the presence of Sam Gedgeon to become a shivering cowering wreck. He was anachronistic in the twentieth century. The R.S.P.C.A. had summoned him repeatedly, despite his threats to seek physical retribution on the local inspector, but the petty fines, imposed by an outdated bench were no check upon his harsh and violent manner. If anything they served only to raise his temper to the further suffering of the cattle that passed through his vicious hands.
He was driving a herd up to Nottingham Goose Fair, for the prices there were usually enough to justify the traveling expenses, and his temper was at its usual ugly pitch.
“Get along there, damn and blast you” he roared, as he slashed viciously into one of the defenceless heifers “Stir yourselves now.”
Perhaps, he decided, he had better keep his voice down a little, for he was now moving into the jurisdiction of the Nottingham Magistrates, who were in all probability sterner with cruelty cases than the local bench.
But the cudgel kept on cutting into the unfortunate cattle unmercifully as he goaded them angrily along the road.
The tall, youthful looking man was crouching in a ditch, as Gedgeon drove his herd past. He was an odd looking character, with latin features and curly black hair. His dark eyes flashed angrily as the brutal drover drew level, and his small fists clenched determinedly. That the big red faced man with the stick was twice his size at least never entered his head for a moment. Without a sound the newcomer leapt suddenly from his hiding place and rushed at the drover. Sam didn’t hear him coming until a hard bony fist, landed in his face from the side. With an angry roar the big man turned and struck out with the cudgel. It caught the other on the side of the head and he staggered back, with eyes blazing. The setback was only momentary, and the slim youth came darting in again, like a proud, young stag attacking a buffalo. Sam, looked at him in amazement for a second, and then the youngster’s stinging fist crashed into the drover’s florid face and drew blood. All vestiges of self control fell from Gedgeon, and he slashed out wildly with the cudgel. There was a heavy thud as it caught the boy in the ribs and dropped him in a winded heap on the road. Gedgeon, however, was far from satisfied and he raised the heavy stick to strike again. As the blow descended he became aware that a powerful sports car had drawn up beside him with a slither of rapid brakes.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” snapped a deep powerful voice. Sam spun to face the newcomer. His face was purple. “Mind your own — business” he stormed.
“This looks as if it might be my business” rapped the newcomer. “Are you in the habit of beating boys up?” There was a wicked edge to his voice that would have warned most men to be careful, but Sam’s temper was too highly risen. “O go to hell,” he screached.
With eyes blazing he swung the heavy stick at this impertinent stranger. It was one of the worst mistakes he had ever made in his life. Val Stearman caught his wrist in a hand like a steel vice and with a quick, terrible pressure threw the dealer onto his back. Calmly he broke the heavy cudgel into three pieces as though it had been made of matchwood. Gedgeon scrambled to his feet, snorting like a bull. “I’ll kill you” he screamed, in a voice crazy with pent up rage.
“You won’t be the first to try, and I’m still here,” grinned the journalist. The cool assurance in the others remark was the last straw. Sam Gedgeon charged at him, both ham like fists flailing madly. The dealer’s massive 18 stone, gave him a 3 stone advantage over Stearman, but there wasn’t an ounce of wasted flesh on the journalist, and his muscles were as hard as iron.
He let Gedgeon land one wild swing on his rock hard shoulder, and the inflamed dealer felt as if he had punched a brick wall.
Next instant a pile-driver left, sent the fat man reeling back, and before he knew what had happened an atom bomb right exploded under his blue chin, with a force that nearly rocked his head from his shoulders. His eyes snapped shut and he collapsed in a heap on the tarmac. Val glanced swiftly to left and right. Their luck was in; the road was deserted. Rather artistically, he draped the unconscious Gedgeon, over a milestone in a posture that looked remarkable natural to the casual glance. Then, quite gently, he picked up the boy and La Noire lifted up the seat, as he laid him in the back of the car. The cattle had made good their escape and were browsing contentedly along the lush green hedgerows as if nothing had happened. It seemed that in some strange way of their own, they knew that Sam Gedgeon had met part, at least, of his deserts.
As Val drove on, into Nottingham, La Noire bent over the back seat and examined the boy. Gradually his eyes flickered open, and he looked up at the lovely dark haired girl in startled surprise. His lips moved involuntarily but no sound came out. “Ask him who he is” murmured Val. “What’s your name?” smiled his wife gently.
As if he felt that he could trust her instinctively the boy smiled back, but it was a smiled tinged with pain.
“I think that Brute hurt his ribs,” said La Noire anxiously. “We had better get him to a doctor, Val.”
“You’re right” answered the big journalist, after a second’s hesitation. “Though if we can avoid any unnecessary publicity I think it might be advisable. There’s one gentleman in particular who always seems to trace our whereabouts all too quickly, as it is.”
La Noire nodded slowly. The movement sent fascinating ripples through her long dark tresses. “I wonder where Jules is now?” she murmured interrogatively.
“I wish I knew” gritted Val. “I’d get straight there and put a bullet in him!”
La Noire shuddered slightly, as if a dreadful memory troubled her.
“What’s wrong Darling?” asked Val tenderly. “What’s on your mind?”
“I was thinking of that episode in Bavaria” she whispered.
“You mean the adventure in Voskag Valley?” prompted Val.
“Yes . . . when Van Haak came at me on the path and the gun went off . . .” he paused for a second. “I was thinking of the difference between the talk of shooting a man, and the reality. It was horrible. Evil as Van Haak was, it was horrible beyond words. I shall always remember the look on his face, the fear and the helplessness as he looked up at Jules and pleaded for aid.”
“He certainly got it,” said Val grimly. “They were a pair of soul mates and no mistake. The sinister doctor shot him in cold blood, and left him by the side of the road for the rats and the carrion crows.”
“I can’t bear to think of you trapped in that cage, with the Vampire about to awake,” whispered La Noire. “It was a dreadful moment.” Her expression underwent a sudden change. “Why can’t Jules leave us alone? Surely he knows that it’s futile. Isn’t he satisfied? The hunchback is dead. Van Haak is dead . . . . Several of the Lesser Ones are also dead . . . .”
“It won’t end until Jules is dead himself, and deep down we know that.” said Val softly as he swung the big sports round a corner, and drew up in front of a brass plate, bearing the legend “Dr. Charles Fortescue, M.D., F.R.C.S.”
“Can you walk?” asked Val gently, turning to the boy. Slowly the other nodded.
“I wonder why he won’t speak,” mused La Noire. “He seems to understand us allright.”
“That’s rather odd” agreed Val. “I thought at first he didn’t speak English, but as you say, he can certainly understand.”
“We want you to come with us to the doctor,” explained La Noire gently. “He’ll take the pain away, and make you well again.”
Once more the strange boy nodded his understanding, and followed them, happily, into the waiting room.
Val knew Charles Fortescue of old. They had, been at school together in fact. But where Charles had favoured Latin and Chemistry, Val had been a keen advocate of rugger, and boxing. Despite his owl-like studiousness however the worthy doctor was a remarkably good fellow, and he never forgot a friend.
His eyes blinked short sightedly behind their thick lenses as he opened the door in answer to their knock.
“I’m afraid surgery is over, but I’ll help if it’s urgent . . .” he began, and then he recognized the big reporter, and shook his hand warmly. “Val my dear old friend! Do come in.”
He ushered them inside.
“May I present, my wife, La Noire,” introduced Val proudly, and Charles took her hand courteously.
“You’re a lucky man, Val” he smiled. “Allow me to offer you my belated congratulations.” He paused, rather vaguely for he was not overgifted with the social graces, and he was uncertain about what to do next. “Will you have a drink?” he asked brightening suddenly.
“Thanks, but we wouldn’t dream of putting you out. This is business really. Confidential.”
“Come through into the consulting room,” invited Charles. Val drew the silent stranger gently forward by the arm.
“This lad is presenting us with a bit of a problem, Charles,” he began. “You see as we were driving in this morning, there was a singularly unpleasant drover, on the road ahead of us with a herd of cattle. Even from where we were, I could see him laying into them with a stick, a great deal more than was necessary.”
“He was a proper thug,” confirmed La Noire.
The doctor nodded. “What happened?” he asked.
“It seems this young fellow has some very deep and proper feelings about the welfare of animals,” continued Stearman. “But it’s rather hard to be certain, because despite all our efforts at conversation, he either can’t or won’t speak. He can understand though, can’t you, son?” he looked quickly towards the boy, who smiled and nodded happily.
“Please go on,” urged Charles. “This is most interesting.”
“Well before we could get there, this lad leapt out of a ditch, by the side of the road and set about our friend the drover, in no uncertain manner. Mind you this brute weighed about eighteen stone, and he was carrying a rather nasty cudgel.” Val paused for a moment and tousled the boy’s curly hair, affectionately. “You may not be a linguist, but I like your spirit,” he said gently. “Anyway, he went on turning back to the doctor. “The result of this one sided contest was obvious and inevitable, and our rather unpleasant drover, knocked the boy down, and got ready to paste him with the cudgel.”
“The unspeakable cad!” exclaimed Fortescue, in shocked surprise. “You mean to say, that not only did he hit the boy, but he was going to hit him again when he was down?”
La Noire took up the story. “That was when my own personal Sir Galahad arrived. Not on the traditional white charger, but in the big cream sports car,” she smiled. “He leapt out with great alacrity and having removed the ogres club, broke it in three pieces and set about him properly. The final outcome was that we left the gentleman asleep on a milestone, the cows scattered to the four corners of the earth, and the lad unconscious in the back of our car.”
“And a jolly fine show too,” congratulated Charles. “More power to your arm Val, though I must say that it doesn’t seem to need much.”
“We’re rather anxious about the boy’s ribs,” said La Noire. “He stopped a very nasty one, before we got there.”
“I’ll examine him at once,” agreed Charles. “Though it may need an X-ray to make quite certain, if there’s any major damage.”
“You’ll be allright with the doctor,” said La Noire, and the silent stranger nodded contentedly. There was still a great deal of pain in his eyes, and the girl hoped that his injuries would not prove too extensive.
Ten minutes elapsed before the surgery door opened again and Charles led the boy out. “I’ve bound up his ribs,” he explained. “I’m glad to say.”
“That’s fine,” said Val “I’m sorry he’s hurt at all of course, what I really mean is, I’m glad it’s no worse.”
Fortescue smiled “I understand perfectly. That’s one of the vagaries of language. It allows for ambiguity.”
“How much are we in your debt for services rendered?” asked Val as he dived a hand inside his jacket for his wallet.
“Don’t you dare” said Fortescue, in threatening tones.
“But you can’t put him down as a Health Service case,” grinned Val. “He hasn’t got a name, let alone a number.”
“If you think I’m going to let the Samaritan pay the usual fee for being a good scout, you must be in need of psycho-treatment yourself,” said Fortescue firmly. “Enough of your arguments Stearman. And don’t try to browbeat me into acceptance with your superior stature and notable physical prowess.” He grinned broadly. “For heaven’s sake Val, don’t be an ass. I wouldn’t dream of taking a penny off the boy any way, especially because he came with you. I think he’s a darned fine youngster, and I’m only sorry that he got hurt in the first place.”
The boy was looking from one to the other and smiling broadly. “Come on,” said La Noire “I bet you could do with a good meal.” Again the silent youth nodded readily.
“Be seeing you Charles,” called Val. He turned to the boy. “Have you ever been in a restaurant, son? You know, a cafe?” The boy shook his head in bewilderment.
“Where do you usually eat?” asked La Noire.
The boy swung his arm round in a big expressive gesture that conveyed a general impression of the great outdoors.
“You mean you eat off the land?” asked Val in amazement. The silent stranger nodded.
“Poor kid” murmured La Noire. “No wonder he looks thin.”
“We’d better buy some sandwiches to eat in the car,” said Val without any great enthusiasm, for the big reporter had a certain fondness for high living.
They pulled up in a shady spot overlooking the beautiful sweep of the Trent, and watched with evident satisfaction as the boy ate ravenously.
Between mouthfuls they questioned him gently, but he never spoke a word. It was like a weird game of twenty questions, in which they never reached the answer.
“What’s your name?” asked Val. The stranger looked at him, and shook his head. “Do you have a name?” asked La Noire kindly. He nodded.
“Can you speak?” He sat quite motionless, lost in thoughts of his own. The reporter and his wife exchanged glances.
“I wonder if it’s can’t or won’t?” said La Noire softly.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Val patiently. “Do you have a name that we’re likely to have heard of? A name like Peter, or John for instance.” Sadly the boy shook his head again.
“Are you English?” asked La Noire with sudden inspiration. “I mean, is this country your home? Were you born here?”
Again the boy shook his head.
“Are you an Italian?” asked Val with increased interest. Again that negative shake of the head.
“South American?” asked La Noire.
“Spanish?” prompted Val. Still that shake of the head. “I give up.” said Val helplessly. “This could go on all day.”
“There are millions of places he could have come from. Let’s try something different. How old are you?” He picked up another sandwich.
Yet again the boy shook his head. Val looked at him carefully.
“Are you fifteen or more?” he asked. The boy nodded eagerly.
La Noire was studying him intently.
“Very much more?” she asked surprisingly.
The boy looked carefully from one to the other, and then nodded again. Val chuckled.
“Over a hundred?” he laughed good humouredly. The boy fixed him with big serious eyes and nodded again.
“Are you sure you understand what we mean?” asked La Noire earnestly,
“We want to know how old you are?” repeated Val slowly and clearly. “You know, how many years since you were born?”
The boy shook his head.
“Were you born?” asked La Noire with a flash of sudden intuition.
Again that negative response.
“What?” gasped Val. “But you must have been born.”
Stubbornly and seriously, the silent stranger shook his head. “Either he’s crazy or we are,” exploded the journalist. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
“Oh Val I thought you had seen enough of the Other World to know that a host of things don’t make sense in the earthly way,” reproved his wife. “The creature of Voskag Valley didn’t make earthly, material sense. Nor did the secret room in the castle. My own crystal doesn’t make sense in that way, nor do ghouls and werewolves, ghosts, demons and witches. But they still exist. Life itself doesn’t make sense really. But we’re here. We’re alive.”
“By kind permission of Jules,” chimed in Val grimly. “O.K. so it’s psychically possible. The boy looks fifteen, and he’s really as old as the hills. I’m sorry Darling, I get this way sometimes. It’s my nasty suspicious journalist’s nature coming to the fore. Some of the adventures we’ve had hardly seem credible in the light of day. We sit here in the bright English summer sunshine, and the placid old Trent rolls past this ancient city as it has rolled for centuries. The Voskag Valley, and the secret room in the haunted castle all seem like part of another life.” He paused reflectively. “Our memories are terribly short really. We can recall past happenings, but not with any degree of the same intensity. We look back at the past as if we were looking at images on a screen. It’s lost it’s poignancy, it’s lost its, hold over us somehow. Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with me, I never take full advantage of my past mistakes. I pay for experience and then fail to take full advantage of it.”
La Noire took his big strong hand in her dainty one, and smiled up at him re-assuringly. “There’s nothing wrong with you Val,” she whispered. “You’re good, and strong and practical.” She looked trustingly up into his eyes. “If it wasn’t for people like you the world would stop rotating. The dreamers and magicians couldn’t run it alone.”
“I love my dreamy magician.” He whispered tenderly and oblivious of the mysterious boy on the back seat, and the passing crowds outside, he gathered La Noire up in his arms and kissed her passionately. After what seemed an eternity, she laughed and fought him off, blushing furiously.
“Won’t you ever learn to behave?” she asked.
“Only when they carry me out in a box!” he grinned. “But back to business, and our problem child here . . .”
His voice tailed off. The back seat was empty. The silent stranger had vanished.
“Where is he?” gasped La Noire. The car was only a two door sports. There was no way out except through the front doors, and for that the seats had to be lifted. Val and La Noire had not left the car for a second. They had closed their eyes, kissed, opened them again . . . and the boy was gone.
“It seems you were right,” admitted Val slowly. “There was something more than a normal boy here in the car. But he seemed so real, so human,” he paused in thought. “Damn it all, he was solid enough to be bandaged. His rib was cracked . . . It doesn’t add up Darling. It just doesn’t add up at all.”
The girl had lapsed into a deep thoughtful silence, and when at last she spoke, her voice sounded strange and faraway. “I can’t think what order he belonged to Val,” she whispered softly. “I’ve never come across anything like it before. He wasn’t evil, I’d have felt it if he was; I’m sure of that, at least. But he wasn’t one of the Bright Beings either, there wasn’t the feeling of spiritual warmth and power which one feels in the presence of the Celestial Ones. He was more than man I’m sure but he didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. He was more like an accident, a throwback somehow. As if he was stranded, out of his own time and place . . . I don’t now any more than that at the moment. But I want to know.” Her voice vibrated with purpose. “I’ve got to know. He troubles me that boy, or man or whatever he is. I think he needs help. And I don’t only mean because he can’t or won’t speak, but because he seems to be spiritually lost. He’s a wandering soul, and he needs our assistance.”
“How did he disappear?” asked Val. “Have you got any ideas about that?” La Noire nodded slowly.
“There are several explanations, really,” she began.
“I suppose it was just vaguely possibly for him to have got out of the car in the normal, human way, without our being aware of it. Only I don’t think that’s very likely.”
“Million to one against,” agreed Val. “We should have been almost bound to hear it, or feel the car move as he got out. So let’s discount that for the time being. How else could it have happened?”
“Appearance and disappearance are all based on the perception of the beholder.” said La Noire thoughtfully. “If only we could see them we should become aware of the countless other Beings inhabiting this same space and time. Their structures are vibrating at a different frequency. Their whole realm lives and moves and has its being at a different metabolic rate. The laws of this world are not the laws of their world. And yet both are equally real to those who inhabit them. Spirit is aware of spirit, just as material is aware of material. Yet neither is aware of the other, except in those rare moments of clairvoyance when the curtains are drawn and the gulf is bridged. Then we glimpse into their land, and they glimpse into ours. A few like myself, and some other mediums are lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to be able to see into the other world. We can bridge the gulf for a few fleeting moments. Our senses are able to probe into the dark corners, where the eyes of other men are blind, and we catch a flashing glimpse of the Others and the unknown realm in which they live.” She paused reflectively “But, of course, we have both known this for a long time.” she went on. “When a ghost, or one of the Others crosses into this world, he is usually visible only to those of us who are able to see, and perceive the Others. But this boy was not like that. He was visible, too, touchable even, to all of us. The drover who struck him, the doctor who bandaged him,” She looked at Val, intently. “You picked him up in your arms and laid him in the car? Did he weigh much? Did he feel as heavy and solid as a normal boy?”
“Yes.” said Val hesitantly. “I suppose he must have done otherwise I should have noticed it.”
La Noire bit her lip thoughtfully. “So then, in every respect that we’re aware of, he belonged to our space-time. He was one of us rather than one of them. He belonged on our side of the bridge, and yet in some respects he didn’t quite fit. He didn’t speak. She paused for a moment. “I wonder why? Was it couldn’t or wouldn’t?” Val shook his head.
“I don’t think it was inability, not physical inability anyhow. Although he might have been under some sort of order not to speak, some moral compulsion,” he said.
La Noire snapped her fingers excitedly. “I wonder if that’s a clue.” she began quickly. “Suppose there was some sort of special reason for his silence. I wonder what that reason could have been?”
“I’ve got a hunch,” murmured Val as he threw the empty sandwich packet into the dashboard locker. “But it’s too vague to reduce to words really.”
“Try and tell me,” encouraged La Noire. “I’ll understand — you know I will.”
“Well, it’s just this,” said Val, “When wine tasters and whisky blenders are working to very fine limits, they have to abstain from certain things in order to let their palates reach a high degree of sensitivity.” He paused, and pushed back his broad brimmed trilby. “I wonder if in some psychic way, abstinence from speech would quicken some other faculty. For instance, perhaps if he doesn’t talk to men he’ll be able to talk to ghosts.”
“I see what you mean,” agreed La Noire. “And it certainly sounds possible.”
“There’s another thing,” murmured her husband thoughtfully. “The old saints and mystics used to fast in order to quicken their spiritual perception — it might be something on those lines.”
“Of course it might,” agreed La Noire. “Some of the Monastic Orders took vows of silence. There must have been some sort of purpose in those vows. Something more than self discipline.”
“All this is making my head spin,” confessed Val. “I think we’d better drive round to the hotel and check in.”
He started the car and headed round towards “The Green Lizard,” a quaint old hostelry that dated back to the middle ages.
Despite its fascinating age and appearance, the service at the little Inn was wonderfully up to date. An efficient hostess, smiled charmingly at the handsome reporter until she became aware of La Noire’s disapproving glance. The smile became formally polite. “The Green Lizard” was one of those, all too rare, oases of old world charm that stand out so refreshingly in a wilderness of sham and sub-topia. Its dark oak beams seemed saturated with the atmosphere of a by-gone age and between them the ceiling was blackened with the smoke of long forgotten lamps. Electric bulbs now gleamed from inside genuine horse-lanterns. Their light was reflected by the rows of finely-polished copper jugs that hung along the rafters. To the right of the well-stocked bar an enormous brick fireplace framed a cheerful pyre of logs that lay ready to be kindled should the evening prove cold. To the left of the bar a majestic oak staircase of unguessable age swept proudly to the upper floor. As he glanced at it, Val wondered whether Roundheads and Cavaliers had vied with one another above its balustrade. In places, the oak was stained a darker shade, and it crossed his mind that these patches might have some sinister significance. The hall porter took their bags and led the way upstairs.
The room into which he ushered them was a magnificent oak-paneled chamber, still furnished in the tradition of another century. Thick tapestries ornamented the walls, and the bed itself was an imposing four-poster affair.
Green silken draperies hung from the canopy, to be reflected in the huge curved mirror that surmounted the massive old-fashioned dressing table. On the opposite side of the room a large dark oaken wardrobe took up almost half the inside wall. A lead-paned casement looked out with a thousand diamond eyes into the courtyard beneath. The Stearman’s crossed to it and looked out admiringly onto the cobbles below. The old mounting blocks stood as they had stood for centuries . . . a line of stable half-doors faced the window. Something inside Val never went completely off guard, even in the most tranquil surroundings. A highly developed adventurer’s sixth sense made him look subconsciously for things that most men would never notice. With a sudden cry of alarm, he seized La Noire, threw her hurriedly aside and fell flat to the floor. A split second later there was a muffled, “phut” and something thudded heavily into the wall behind his head.
A second “phut,” and another bullet embedded itself in the window sill. With the speed of a striking snake, Val’s heavy automatic leapt from its holster and the room reverberated to the sound of crashing shots. There was a sobbing scream from behind one stable door and then, stopping only to reassure himself that the girl was unhurt, Val was streaking down the stairs past the startled hall porter, the smoking gun still in his hand. He sprinted across the hall crashed through the hall door, and throwing caution to the wind, hurled himself into the stable. A leg was disappearing out of the window on the far side. He took a snap shot at the retreating foot and was rewarded with another shriek of pain. A swift glance showed him a blood trail leading from the floor, across the stable to the open window. He raced across and leaped through in pursuit of his quarry. On the other side of the window a narrow alley-way led off between two rows of tall houses. He glanced swiftly to left and right. The blood trail disappeared at a thick iron-studded door. He crossed the alley-way in two quick strides and flung the door open. Beyond it, another passage ran between two of the houses into a busy main street. The blood spots disappeared at the far end. Even as he raced along it he heard a powerful engine revving up, and cursed under his breath as he saw Jules’ car threading its way rapidly through the traffic. He dared not risk another shot, and darting back into the alley-way he thrust the big Browning back into its holster.
When he arrived at the hotel, La Noire was waiting for him in the lounge.
She gave a sigh of relief as he entered.
“Jules?” she asked. He nodded silently. She clasped her hands together anxiously. “Why doesn’t the devil leave us alone?” Gradually she became aware of the look of grim satisfaction on Val’s face, “Did you get him?” she breathed.
“I winged him,” said Val. “Twice as a matter of fact.” Briefly he told her exactly what had taken place. He had scarcely finished, when the manager, who had apparently been having a hurried conversation with the hall porter, stepped briskly over and invited him into his office. He was a plump, sleek individual, of early middle-age, and his normally placid features were now showing signs of considerable agitation.
“I am most distressed to learn that some scoundrel made an attack upon you sir,” he began breathlessly. “I trust you won’t regard it as a failure on the part of the house. I never had anything like this happen in the ten years I have been here.”
“Don’t let it worry you,” said Stearman. “I’m used to being shot at.” He smiled grimly. “In the last twelve months or so I have had more attempts made upon my life than all the South American presidents put together.”
“Oh, my dear sir,” gasped the proprietor. “How very distressing.” Val continued to smile as he ticked off the incidents on his fingers.
“We have had coping stones dropped on our car; we have had bombs planted in our flats; we have been assaulted by unsavoury gentlemen with knives, guns and blunt instruments. Once they tried to gas us, and on another occasion I was locked in an enormous cage while a particularly horrible creature, who knew how to get in, started walking down the passage towards me.”
There was an adventurous glint in Val’s dashing dark eyes, “But I mustn’t bore you with these little reminiscences, which after all are just as much my stock in trade, as beers, wines and spirits are yours. However I would like a room that doesn’t overlook those stables, if you could oblige me.”
“You mean you still want to stay here?” The proprietor sounded surprised and delighted. Val put a hand on his shoulder.
“My friend, we shall be as safe here as we are anywhere, and without going into unnecessary details I think I’d better explain what we’re up against.”
The proprietor settled back to listen.
“A long time ago my wife was mixed, up quite innocently with a coven, or Black Magic Society. When she tried to leave, they began tracking us down. They followed us all over England and half way across Europe. They tracked us from London to Inverness, and from Dartmoor to Dover. For weeks, no, months, life has been a twenty-four-hours a day running fight, and so far we’ve been lucky.” He grinned. “That is a fact which I attribute to either the Lord or the devil looking after his own — I wouldn’t presume to say which! On every occasion when they come close enough to make a real fight of it, we reduce the odds a bit. The three main villains of the piece were a cadaverous doctor by the name of Jules, who was already wanted for murder, a fat slob by the name of Professor Van Haak, and a sadistic hunchback.”
Val laid his big browning quietly on the table and pointed to the notches in the well-worn butt. “We got the hunchback first,” he said without emotion, “and my wife shot Van Haak over in Bavaria after they had followed us out there. The man who’s left is Jules, and he is by far the most dangerous.”
He paused and replaced the gun in its holster. “Whether or not you believe in the supernatural, I can assure you that the unsavoury doctor Jules has highly developed psychic powers. Powers that enable him to keep a closer track on us, than the most efficient police department could ever keep on a man with two heads and a bright green skin. No matter how we try and cover our traces, we seem to stick out like a sore thumb as far as Jules is concerned.”
La Noire suddenly noticed that the little proprietor had turned pale.
“This Jules?” he asked with considerable agitation, “What does he look like?”
“Very tall and thin,” answered La Noire “With black hair and a face that makes Frankenstein’s monster look like a Sunday School teacher.”
“I’ve seen him,” whispered the proprietor dramatically. “He came here yesterday, and said he was from the police department; he asked to look at my list of reservations and then inspected the premises.”
“The devil, he did.” said Stearman. “Well he’s got the devil’s own nerve, I will say that for him: I wonder what his next move will be?”
There was a polite but urgent knock on the manager’s door and a servile voice called softly, “Telegram for Mr. Stearman, Sir.”
The proprietor hurried across and opened the door, the white coated steward handed him the buff envelope dramatically and without a word he passed it to Stearman. Val tore it open quickly and read the contents at a glance. When he looked up again his eyes were twinkling gaily.
With an enigmatical smile he showed it to La Noire.
“But it can’t be!” she exclaimed suddenly, “he doesn’t know we’re staying here.”
“Exactly,” agreed Val. “So my previous question is answered. We now know his next move?”
“Jules?” whispered La Noire.
“Jules — or I’m a Maltese mud-turtle,” confirmed her husband.
“You mean it’s a fake?” squeaked the proprietor anxiously.
“It’s as phoney as an ersatz egg,” grinned Val, “It almost smells like one.”
Slowly, he read out the message: “Stearman. stop. Proceed at once to 197 Newark Road. Photographer waiting with details of story. Tremendous scoop possible, stop. City Editor, Daily Globe.”
Val examined the form carefully, “Handed in about ten minutes ago in Nottingham,” he said. “Poor old Jules must be losing his grip. But I expect he’s practically on his own now.” He slid the phoney telegram carefully into his wallet and started towards the door.
“You’re not going?” gasped La Noire.
“But, of course,” he smiled, “There’s only one way to deal with this character, and that’s to get him on the business end of a gun and shoot first.”
“It’s a trap.” she pleaded, “Don’t go. You’re playing right into his hands.”
Traps have been known to catch the fingers of those who set them,” said Val philosophically. “And there’s the world of difference between walking blindly into 197 Newark Road, and asking for a story, or treating the place as a battle area and acting accordingly.” Suddenly all the humour dropped from him and, he became deadly serious. “We can’t go on like this, La Noire. We’ve got to bring things to a head. This is the show down.”
“I’m coming too,” said La Noire firmly. Sadly Val shook his head.
“Sorry darling, not this time.”
“But why not,” she protested.
“I don’t want you to worry about this, but there is a chance that Jules will shoot first, or let off his bomb first, or press a hydraulic jack and bring the roof down on my head first. One of us has got to stay somewhere safe, then you can get him if he gets me. . . . . . . . .”
“But I want to come,” she repeated.
“No darling, I’m sorry,” his voice was tender but it brooked no argument. “If I’m not back in an hour, bring the police there.” He made towards the door when another thought struck him, “I’m going by taxi. It isn’t unknown for people to do things to our brakes.” She nodded understandingly. A tear glistened in her lovely eyes.
Val paid off the cab two blocks away from his destination. His heart was beating rapidly, and his every nerve was on edge. He felt as he had felt during the war years in the seconds before a journey into no man’s land or on a sorti behind enemy lines. He could feel the blood racing madly through his veins, wild tingling excitement, little electric thrills were chasing each other up and down his spine and his swift right hand flexed automatically, as the powerful muscles of his arm prepared subconsciously to dive for the big Browning. It was a special gun that Browning — an expensive weapon to fire — for in their varied adventures into the realm of the supernatural, Val and La Noire had encountered many enemies who could only be stopped with a silver bullet.
Only one block separated him from number 197 now . . . He pulled the big trilby well down over his eyes and crossed the road unconcernedly. There were no signs of life evident. Newark Road was a quiet semisuburban area, and the majority of its houses had been constructed during the last fifty years . . . 197, however, was an exception . . . it had a mid-nineteenth century look about it, and an unwholesome green fungus had crept over most of its exterior . . .
Broken shutters hung forlornly from its heavily curtained windows and there was about it a general air of age and neglect. It was, decided Val very definitely the type of place which would suit the sinister doctor’s unholy scheme. There was still no sign of movement as Val walked slowly across and rang the ancient bell. From deep within the house the hollow clanging reverberated and echoed weirdly. Val put his head on one side and listened. When a house echoed like that, it usually meant no furniture!
He rang again, and once more the mocking tones of the bell boomed out their dismal clangour.
There was no other sound at all. No scuffling, no footsteps, no nothing.
Cautiously Val tried the door, as he had half expected, it opened at a touch. “Booby-trap” whispered a warning voice in his brain. The whole place will probably go up like an arsenal at any second.” He edged the door open very slowly, and his keen eyes suddenly spotted the trailing wire. The wire didn’t fit in with the rest of the house, it was new. The warning signal in his subconscious was flashing out ‘Danger’ in letters a mile high. He stooped down and touched the wire very, very gently. Scarcely daring to breathe, he drew a pen knife from his pocket and severed it with a swift careful motion . . . Nothing had happened . . . and he edged the door slowly until the gap was wide enough to admit him.
As he stood in the passage he surveyed the doctor’s handiwork with ill concealed admiration . . . it was only that one trailing wire which had betrayed him . . . A container of nitro-glycerine stood deadly and sinister at the back of the door . . . A pair of home made contacts on the inside edge of the hinge acted as plungers
. . . and had the door been opened in the normal way, Val realised that whoever opened it would have been taken home in a matchbox.
Hardened as he was to such things, he did not find the thought a particularly pleasant one, and for several seconds he stood quite still mopping cold perspiration from his forehead.
It was not until he turned that he noticed the scrap of paper pinned to the wall behind him.
Dear Mr. Stearman, you will not of course, read this if the little surprise I arranged for you works satisfactorily. However, there is a dual purpose to my invitation. I am sure I do not under-estimate you, when I say that I am sure you noticed the Nottingham postmark on the telegram. Sensing danger you will have left the charming La Noire alone at the hotel. How very kind.
Yours as ever,
Val snatched the paper from the wall and crumpled it to the floor in helpless fury.
“Idiot.” he snarled savagely. Blind, blithering idiot. Pausing only to tear the wires from the nitro-glycerine container, in case some unfortunate caretaker should accidently join them, he raced headlong from the house, and out into the roadway. With frantic hand signals he stopped the first surprised motorist who passed . . . by an amazing stroke of good fortune it was his old friend Dr. Fortescue returning from his afternoon rounds.
“The Green Lizard, Charlie” Val snapped, “and drive like hell. I’ll explain as we go.” Charles has been a doctor long enough to undertake rapid action when necessary, and he was content to wait for the promised explanation. Despite his short-sightedness he drove with considerable nerve; and they reached the hotel in a matter of minutes.
Val flung open the door and raced into the lounge, with sudden shocked disbelief, he saw a familiar figure leaning nonchalantly across the bar. It was Dr. Jules.
* * *
Prince couldn’t understand why the grass didn’t taste the same. The sweet country air wasn’t so fresh either . . . He trotted slowly down the side of the meadow, with his head held back at an uncomfortable angle. There was a nagging misery inside him. It had been there for a long time, getting worse each day. He couldn’t trot as he had done a few years ago and a lot of the spring had gone out of his four sturdy legs. What was it that farmer had said the other day? “Poor old Prince, I’m afraid he’ll have to go.” What did it mean? ‘Have to go’? And what was ‘old’? Perhaps he thought the carthorse, ‘old’ meant having a misery inside so that the grass tasted wrong and the air wasn’t so good. Perhaps ‘old’ was what had happened to Boxer his friend who had vanished two summers ago. He had liked Boxer, they had pulled many ploughs together, and drawn countless wagons in their time. Perhaps Boxer had ‘had to go’? If he had to go too, they might meet again. It would be good to stand beside Boxer like they used to in the old days and brush the flies from each other’s faces. Prince had no particular fear about going, he looked forward to it, if anything. Vaguely he felt that it would probably mean an end of ploughing and pulling carts. The pain inside him grew worse and his legs felt suddenly weak. Before he knew it, they had given way and he found himself lying on the grass unable to rise. After what seemed an interminable time, Farmer came. Farmer and another called Vet. Vet looked at Prince, shook his head, and whispered something about humane killer. Perhaps humane killer was something to do with old and going away, thought the horse. He didn’t care really — there was too much pain inside him . . . Farmer and Vet went away again; he watched them walk slowly across the meadow and climb into the cart that went without horses Farmer called it Jeep. They both looked sad and Prince wondered why. Perhaps going away meant that he wouldn’t see Farmer. He thought it over as he lay helplessly on the grass. There was a sudden swift movement from the ditch beneath the hedge and a stranger appeared. Prince was usually half afraid of strangers, but the pain had made him forget nerves, and besides, this stranger was different. He was smaller than Farmer or Vet, younger and slimmer. He had dark curly hair and his face was different, perhaps he comes from a long way away thought Prince. Stranger came close to him and looked at him affectionately. Then he did something that no other human being had ever done before in all the twenty-odd years that Prince had lived. He bent down close to the old horse’s ear and whispered something soft and low in the language of the horses. Prince’s legs twitched with the shock of it. The stranger patted his neck and whispered something more. Prince neighed a gentle answer, telling the stranger all about his pain and getting old. Then he told him all about Vet and Farmer and Humane Killer. A look of great sadness clouded the Stranger’s face. He kept on stroking the old horse’s neck and his other hand withdrew a phial from the pocket of the old fashioned tunic he wore. Still whispering in the soft and beautiful language of the horses, the Stranger told Prince to open his mouth. Trustingly the old horse obeyed, and felt the contents of the phial trickling down his throat . . . It was very sweet to the taste, like the very finest oats, and it had a strange tang to it as well, unlike anything that Prince had ever tasted before . . . The effect it had was miraculous, as the elixir reached his stomach and began to be assimilated by system, he felt a warm, rosy glow creeping over his whole tired, old body. As the feeling spread the tiredness went. He felt young again. The elixir reached the pain and the pain died before the power of the miracle. With a quick, energetic bound Prince stood up and set off across the meadow at a gallop.
“Did you see that boy?” asked Tom Johnson from the driving scat of the Jeep, “The one who was down on his knees by the side of poor old Prince?” Bill Reynolds the Vet nodded.
“I can’t believe it,” he gasped, “That horse was dying, Tom, I’ll swear he was; now look at him. Frisking like a two-year-old. It’s incredible.”
“It’s wonderful!” exclaimed Tom.
They left the jeep at the gate and raced across the field to the spot where the mysterious boy had disappeared. Prince cantered over to them briskly and nuzzled Farmer’s hand.
“I’d give that lad a golden sovereign, if I could find him.” exclaimed Tom, as he patted the old horse affectionately. “My word, Prince.” he went on, as he patted the old horse again. “Whatever he gave you certainly did a power of good. Why, bless my soul, I haven’t seen you looking so well for years.”
Prince whinnied appreciatively, and set off on a canter round the field.
Bill Reynolds took his departure, with the humane killer undischarged, and he was glad. For he was a genuine animal lover and, his profession was a vocation to him. He stopped for his usual homeward bound pint, and the strange story of the mysterious boy was soon common property in the four ale bar.
Among the company was a certain traveling gentleman by the name of Morris, who had, quite coincidentally booked a room at the “Green Lizard” that night.
* * *
Val had scarcely left on his ill fated journey to Newark Road, when the window of the manager’s office, had opened violently, to admit the sinister Dr. Jules.
La Noire screamed a warning and darted towards the door but she was not quite quick enough.
An ugly silenced automatic covered them both, and there was an expression on the doctor’s diabolical face, which told them that he meant business. It took only a second for La Noire to notice that his other arm was stiff, as though it had been newly bandaged, and he was walking with a pronounced limp.
“One move and I shall shoot you both without hesitation,” he said slowly, in a thin dangerous voice.
“Who are you?” gasped the manager, in a frightened whisper “What do you want?”
Jules inclined his head in La Noire’s direction. “Her.” The proprietor had turned deathly pale.
“This is an outrage” he blustered. “‘How dare you come into my office, and threaten my guests.” He was clearly terrified, but to give him his full due, he tried to do his duty.
“Shut up,” snapped Jules. “This isn’t some juvenile game of cops and robbers you fool.” He looked at La Noire evilly.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment with eager anticipation, for a very long time.” he snarled. It was a sound more animal than human.
“You’ll never get away with it,” said the woman coldly. “Val will be on your track in a matter of minutes.”
“I don’t think our mutual friend will ever return from the little assignment I gave him at 197 Newark Road,” smiled Jules cruelly. “There was a certain, hastily constructed, but none-the-less efficient device inside the front door, which should keep him occupied for rather a long time . . .” He broke off, chuckling horribly to himself. It was obvious that the terrible doctor was insane — and his very insanity made him a thousand times more dangerous.
“What have you done, you fiend?” asked La Noire, in a voice that was strained with emotion. Her only answer was another devilish cackle. When at last Jules spoke, his eyes were glittering like two lighted coals, it seemed that hell itself was looking out of his hideous face.
“There’s a nice little container of nitro-glycerine, wired to explode when the door is opened” gritted Jules at length. “There won’t be enough left of him for you to bury, my dear. But then,” his voice became even harsher. “You won’t be in a position to bury him. I have other plans for you.” He glared at her savagely. “You broke your vows, you vixen. You betrayed the brotherhood, and now you must pay in full. The Dark Master demands it.”
“I am no longer under any obligation to the Dark Master,” answered La Noire proudly and fearlessly. “I have confessed my sin to the Most High, and I have found forgiveness and absolution, I have seen the truth Jules and the Truth has made me free.”
Jules spat angrily on the floor. “By my standards, there is no release from the service of the Dark Master, except the release of death, either the sacrificial death of the traitor, or the entry into fuller service for the disciple. You have betrayed our cause. You, and that accursed Stearman have gone over to the forces of Light. You have destroyed many of the brotherhood. The hunchback is dead. The professor is dead. Even I, the leader, have been wounded. But at last my hour has come. You will come with me now . . . to the place of execution. And I can assure you that you will not die quickly — your crime against the brotherhood has been great, the punishment shall be greater.” He broke off suddenly, and glanced at the proprietor. The sleek little publican could contain himself no longer. With a wild quixotic movement he leapt forward and dived for the automatic. La Noire hear a muffled “PFFFT” behind her, and then a scream of pain, as the gallant little publican fell dying on the carpet. He had the best courage of all, she thought to herself, the courage that goes on in spite of fear. She had almost reached the door when Jules brought the automatic crashing down on her head and she fell to the floor senseless. Despite the handicap of his injuries the sinister doctor worked with swift ruthless efficiency. The manager’s dead body was stowed unceremoniously into a large cupboard, Jules turned the key, with a rapid decisive movement, and then thrust it into his pocket.
He replaced the big silenced automatic in its holster and lifted La Noir’s senseless figure over his shoulder, with a muffled grunt of pain. A quick, furtive glance around him, and then his long legs swung over the sill, and he was into his car and away.
The sheer audacity of it was breathtaking. In broad daylight he had broken into the manager’s private office. Shot him dead with a silenced automatic, knocked the girl insensible, and got her into his car. It hardly seemed credible, but it had happened. He revved up the powerful engine and drove away furiously into the busy whirl of Nottingham’s late afternoon traffic.
When La Noire finally opened her eyes again with a dull groan, the big black saloon had stopped. She had no idea where she was, or what had happened to her, vaguely she recalled Jules breaking into the manager’s office, there had been a shot . . . She shuddered at the memory of it. Her head ached abominably, and she felt faintly sick. There was a violent throbbing at the base of her skull, and she realised that after Jules had shot the proprietor, he must have struck her with the gun butt.
She tried hard to think, but it was almost impossible. Where was Val, she wondered. Dimly she recalled a telegram. Throb. Throb. Throb. Why was it so hard to remember? The aching eased a little, and she became aware that something was happening to her. Jules was trying to drag her out of the car. Good . . . that meant he thought she was still unconscious. She let herself go limp and closed her eyes. Suddenly she remembered about Val and 197 Newark Road, and a shiver of deathly cold fear ran through her. Nitro-glycerine. Had it exploded? Jules had hoisted her inert form over his shoulder, and she could hear his laboured breathing as he carried her down what seemed to be a flight of steps. They came to a doorway and the sinister doctor paused for a moment, to search for his key. At the thought of the door closing behind them, La Noire suddenly panicked, and with a wild convulsive jerk, she tore free of his grasp. Jules gave a grunt of pain and anger, and his bony hand descended on her shoulder. She fought back at him gamely, but the sinister doctor was too much for her. Screaming and struggling she was dragged down the steps, the heavy door opened, and Jules threw her inside.
“Got you!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “At last I’ve really got you.” She backed away from him as fast as she could, until the cold dark cellar wall halted her retreat.
“There isn’t much point in screaming, my dear, because this room is practically soundproof,” he croaked darkly. “Though I have very little doubt that you’ll do more than scream before I’ve finished with you.” With an evil laugh he threw her to the floor and began to tie her securely.
She wondered what had happened to Val. With a deep despairing ache in her very soul she thought about the nitro-glycerine that Jules had prepared for him.
The ghastly doctor finished the last knot and straightened up with a look of sinister triumph.
“I shall have to leave you, just for a little while,” he smiled satanically. “I hope you won’t get too bored, and besides you’ll have the rats for company,” La Noire suddenly became aware of a thousand furtive little scurrying noises. “I was very lucky to find this place really . . .” mused Jules. “It hasn’t been used for years.”
“Where are we,” asked the girl steadily.
“It’s the cellar of a disused water mill,” answered Jules readily.
“I’ve adapted it a trifle, of course,” he chuckled slily. “By digging a new channel for the surplus water at the back of the sluice.”
La Noire felt her throat going dry, icy trickles of fear began running down her back.
“Guess what will happen when the sluice is opened?” invited Jules as he prepared to leave.
“This cellar will flood,” answered the girl, with a calmness which, she did not feel.
“You guess well,” gritted the doctor. “But that is just a precaution which I had to take before I leave. You see all being well I shall be bringing our dear Val back to watch your execution, in the unlikely event of his not having been blown up by my nitro-glycerine. However, being a very practical man I had to admit grudgingly that he too is a man to be reckoned with — for one thing he shoots unpleasantly well — so I had to ensure an automatic annihilation for you if I fail to return. Drowning is terribly quick of course, and not at all the sort of end I plan for you, but it is far more satisfactory than allowing you to live.” He left the cellar and locked the heavy door behind him. La Noire listened to the sound of his limping foot-steps dragging up the steps, and then, when they had died away into silence, she broke down in a flood of quiet tears. The rats kept scurrying busily past her as they scavenged for food, and she shrank back from the dozens of beady eyes that glinted weirdly in the darkness. How long before Jules returned, either satisfied that Val was dead or with her husband as his prisoner? What if he never returned? How long had she got before the sluice opened, or before she died of hunger?
* * *
Val could scarcely believe his eyes. It simply wasn’t true. Jules would never have had the nerve to do it. Yet here he was wanted for murder by the police forces of half Europe, and leaning on the bar of the “Green Lizard” sipping a cocktail as though he was on a pleasure trip. “Jules.” hissed Val. It wasn’t a mirage, he decided, the hideous looking doctor still stood there.
“Let’s go somewhere where we can talk,” suggested Jules.
“I’ve only, got one thing to say to you, and I can say that here,” whispered Val in an urgent undertone. “Where’s my wife, you grinning devil? If any harm has come to her at your hands, I’ll tear you into pieces, so help me. You’ll die as no man ever died before.” Something like a flicker of fear passed swiftly over the doctor’s cadaverous features.
“But if you kill me dear boy,” he whispered back “She will most certainly never be seen again. You see I alone know where she is. I alone know of the particular danger that will threaten her if I do not return within a reasonable time. If you have her welfare at heart you have no option but to do as I say,” an evil expression of triumph twisted, across his deformed face. “What do you say to that, Mr. Stearman?”
Val shrugged his massive shoulders helplessly.
“For this round you hold the ace of trumps,” he grunted angrily. “But this isn’t the final round by any means. I’ll come with you, but if this is another trap, remember I wasn’t born yesterday, and I can shoot you considerably faster than you can shoot me.”
“That’s one of the conditions,” lipped the doctor thinly. “I want your gun!”
Val hesitated in an agony of indecision. What could he do for the best, Much as it hurt him to think of the possibility, he knew that Jules might well have killed La Noire already, in which case nothing would be gained by handing over the big Browning. Far better to shoot Jules down like a dog, and take whatever consequences law wished to administer. But, he kept telling himself, there was a slim possibility that Jules was telling the truth.
No matter how slender the chance, if La Noire’s life was the stake, then he had to take the risk. The very value of the prize made it justifiable. Even without the gun he reckoned that he had a reasonable chance of beating Jules to it. He had noticed the stiff arm already, and has the unholy doctor began to walk away from the bar, Val noticed the limp as well. It gave him a certain primitive satisfaction to think that his shots of the afternoon had gone home. Grudgingly he had admire the strange animal courage of the man, he knew of very few people who could have accomplished as much as Jules had that day even without two bullet wounds.
“My car is outside,” hissed the doctor. “We will leave now.” They crossed, the floor, slowly and tensely, and strode out into the gathering dusk of the evening.
Jules opened the door for Val, with that strange old world courtesy, that made him all the more sinister. ‘The steel claw in the velvet glove’ thought the big journalist. It conjured up visions that made him shudder.
“And now, the gun please,” demanded Jules. Very, very slowly Val handed it to him. With a quick practised glance, Jules broke it open and checked the magazine. “I dare say I shall find these silver bullets useful at some future date.” mused Jules, “Although to be perfectly frank, most of the creatures against whom they are effective, are on the same side as I am.” He grinned sardonically and slipped the gun into his pocket.
With a stiff-legged movement, he let in the clutch and his big black saloon was soon speeding away towards the Western side of the city and the upper Trent, where the derelict mill concealed his captive.
Val took careful, mental note of every turn they made, watching like a hawk for every possible landmark, which would, identify the route for any future occasion.
At last they reached the mill and Jules drew up. “I shall have to tie your hands at this juncture,” he snarled. “Don’t forget, one false move, and you seal her fate.”
“I shan’t forget,” grated Val sarcastically. “You aren’t, likely to let me forget, are you?”
Jules gave one of his eerie insane cackles. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” he screeched. “And now everything is working out splendidly. Better than I had hoped in fact. The Dark Master is with me. I can feel the power of his presence.”
It had always been one of Val’s major regrets in his psychic investigation, that his degree of sensitivity was not a high one. Now, however, even he could sense the presence of something. Something malevolent and vibrating with tremendous psychic power. Something intrinsically evil. Like a huge black cloud the Dark Master seemed to hover over the old mill.
Jules completed the knots, securing Val’s hands and drew the gun. “Down these steps,” he ordered. “Oh what a triumph!” His voice cracked with insane sadistic anticipation. “You shall watch as I torture her to death.” Val felt suddenly sick. A wave of white hot anger swept through him like an avalanche and his powerful muscles gave an experimental tug at the ropes. That was Jules first mistake he decided, the rope would have held most men, but it was going to take it all its time to hold Val Stearman, particularly a desperate Val Stearman.
They reached the cellar, and Jules carefully locked the heavy door behind them, keeping Val covered unwaveringly, the while.
He couldn’t reach La Noire to comfort her as he longed to, but their eyes conveyed messages which were beyond interpretation into mere speech.
Jules looked from one to the other, with the eyes of a connoisseur. “I think it is high time to begin,” he said in a hideous voice. “The overdue sacrifice is about to commence.” He looked at Val. “I do trust you will enjoy the entertainment,” he smiled.
“You unspeakable swine,” choked the big journalist. This is it he told himself. Gun or no gun — it’s now or never. To let the insane murderer so much as touch La Noire was unthinkable.
With a roar like an angry bull ape, big Val Stearman, strained at the ropes which secured his wrists, strained till the veins stood out on his forehead, and his heart pounded like a trip-hammer, strained till the ropes tore the skin from his wrists — and then suddenly there was a snap like the crack of a whip and they parted.
“Get back,” screamed Jules in terror, and cunningly he trained the big automatic, not at the advancing Val Stearman, but at the helplessly bound figure of the girl. For a second it seemed that the whole world was frozen into a tense tableaux of dramatic and eternal immobility, Val dare not advance in case the insane doctor fired at La Noire. Jules dare not carry out his threat, for he knew that once he had done his worst Val would tear him to pieces in terrible retribution. He was only safe as long as La Noire was alive to use as a hostage. It was the perfect deadlock. The two deadly enemies stood as motionless as statues. Their eyes blazed death at one another, and above it all hung the sinister evil presence of Jules’ Dark Master. Although apparently helpless on the floor, La Noire was doing the one vitally important thing which she could do. She prayed. She prayed with a depth and a fervour that cost a tremendous physical and mental effort, and in a miraculous way her prayers were answered. The dark shadow of the evil presence became violently agitated and disturbed — as though the all-conquering forces of light were descending upon it in deadly spiritual conflict.
But it was the sudden flash of pure white light, and the thunder-clap of sound that really startled them . . . . there were four of them in the room now . . . the newcomer was the mysterious boy whom they had befriended earlier in the day. Jules threw his arm up over his face to ward off the blinding white light that streamed from the dazzling youth, and in that unguarded second Val leaped at Jules. As swiftly as they had come the psychic forces of light and darkness melted back into the spirit realm, and Val was alone, with La Noire and Jules, fighting desperately for both their lives. The big journalist’s clutching fingers closed round the gun and he wrenched it away from La Noire’s direction, with a cry of relief, but before he could tear it from the mad doctor’s hand Jules pulled the trigger, and Val staggered back as a blinding pain, smashed into his shoulder. Jules gave a shout of insane triumph as he saw the bloodstain spreading across Val’s jacket but it was the last sound he ever made. The big reporter’s huge left hand took him by the throat in a terrible relentless grip and Val shook him as a terrier shakes a rat. With a final roar of anger Val carried the dying man bodily forward and crashed him against the wall with devastating force, and Dr. Jules, traitor, assassin and murderer, died in the cellar where he had planned to end the lives of Val and La Noire. Quickly Val released his wife and she looked carefully at his shoulder. “How bad is it?” she asked anxiously. “I’ll live,” answered Val with a broad grin, and his left arm encircled her in a warm embrace.
“The silent stranger came back to rescue us,” she whispered. “Oh Val who was he? What was he? I thought I knew but I was miles out.” Her husband shook his head slowly.
“Beats me,” he answered thoughtfully. “But I have a feeling we may run into him again somewhere in the future, either in this world or the next.” And with that they had to be content.
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