From Supernatural Stories 20 - 1958





Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe

Used with permission


“On silent wings of velvet death . . . the hideous creature circled the valley . . .”


Val Stearman picked up his copy of the “Daily Globe” and read his column with evident satisfaction. His lovely, dark-haired wife, La Noire, smiled with womanly understanding.

        “You’re terribly conceited,” she teased.

        “I’m not,” he grinned, “I’m simply the best columnist they’ve got — and I know it!”

        She put her arms around him and kissed him tenderly.

        “You’re the best husband that I’ve got — and I know it,” she said gently. She was reading a Reuter news flash over his shoulder.

        “George Haldane, well-known author of ‘I Go As I Please’ and other travel stories, has been reported missing in Central Europe. Mr. Haldane was believed to have been compiling a book on European folklore at the time of his disappearance. Interpol are investigating the case, and search is at present centred on Bruksbergen, a remote Bavarian village, at the entrance of Vaskag Valley.”

        “What do you make of that?” she asked as he re-read the paragraph.

        “Bruksbergen,” he murmured thoughtfully. “Never heard of the place before, have you?” She shook her long dark tresses slowly.

        “Not so far as I can recall,” she answered.

        “It’s strange, sinister country out there,” went on Val. “I flew over Vaskag Valley once on a trip behind the Iron Curtain, a few years ago.”

        “What was it like?” queried La Noire with great interest.

        “Very much what you’d expect,” he replied, “remote and desolate, lined with centuries-old pine forests, and boulder-strewn from the glaciation period.” He closed his eyes and tried to remember half-forgotten details. “I didn’t see anything of the village,” he mused, “but I believe there was an old medieval chateau, half-hidden by trees — looking very furtive and sinister!”

        He helped himself to another coffee and the old familiar light of adventure began to sparkle in his eyes.

        “It might have the makings of a good story,” he said, half to himself. . . .

        “I think so, too,” murmured La Noire, running her fingers through his hair.

        “I’ll go and ‘phone Mac,” announced Val. James Bruce MacDonald was the editor of the “Daily Globe”.

        “All right — so it has the makings of a good story, a verra good story,” he agreed reluctantly, “but hoots, mon, what about your column?”

        “I’ll cable it,” answered Val, winking at La Noire.

        “If I could replace ye, I’d fire ye,” thundered Mac. “Do ye think the ‘Globe’s’ made o’ money. There’s more than one paper had to close recently — what with advertisers going over to the ‘telly’, and newsprint costing more every week . . .”

        “. . . and our circulation’s up 30,000 on last month and you know it!” retorted Val. “Now, come on, Mac — I want to do this story. George Haldane’s a big man. It’s news! Can’t you see that headline: ‘”Globe” reporter finds Haldane’? It’ll sell an extra edition on sight!”

        “All right,” grunted MacDonald, “ye’ve a slick tongue, Stearman. You’ve done it again, you Sassenach. But don’t you dare be late with that column or I’ll have your head mounted on Tower Bridge, or else paraded down Fleet Street as a warning to others!” The editor hung up with a crash, and Val replaced his receiver with a broad smile.

        “He’s a likeable old rogue, in spite of his bark,” he commented with a grin. La Noire nodded.

        “He always makes me think of a bulldog,” she murmured. Val picked up the phone once more and rattled off a string of instructions to their travel agent.

        “Plane leaves at midday,” he announced, after he had finished.

        “Why don’t you pack, and let me phone the travel agent!” purred La Noire sweetly.

        “For once, I’ll help,” chuckled Val. “But mind you, I’m not establishing a precedent!”

        A few hours later they were winging over the Channel, leaving the picturesque white cliffs behind them, under their canopy of drifting white clouds. The big skyliner was half-way to its destination when two smartly-dressed city types called at Stearman’s flat. . . . One was tall and thin, the other round as a barrel, and there was a sinister familiarity about them which their dark suits and bowlers failed to completely disguise. The fat man’s fleshy face was cloaked by a heavy moustache, which he had carefully affixed the night before, he also wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses which he did not need, and completed the transformation with a curved briar. Behind the disguise beat the black heart of Professor Van Haak. Dr. Jules, his companion, had applied skilful lines of grease-paint to his cadaverous visage, and the transformation was startling. Beneath the mask of the grease-paint his own face remained unchanged — so did the man! They were as unsavoury a pair as one might have the misfortune to encounter. Van Haak was a vicious voluptuary, whose podgy torso testified to his avid self-indulgence. He was a treacherous, double-crossing rat, whose entire life was motivated by selfishness and greed. Dr. Jules was infinitely more dangerous. He had more than one murder to his discredit already, and he possessed a terrifying, perverted determination to pursue his own ends relentlessly. . . . He was as cunning and deadly as a rattlesnake. A frightening, remorseless enemy.

        “They don’t seem to be in,” muttered Van Haak.

        “A pity,” hissed Jules sibilantly. “A very great pity. I had been so looking forward to renewing our acquaintance.”

        “Never mind,” grunted the other, “we shall simply have to set it, and hope they’ll be in when it acts.”

        “As you say,” whispered the doctor, and with a quick glance up and down the street to be certain they were unobserved, the unholy pair forced the door.

        “I think perhaps the radiogram would be an ideal spot,” muttered Van Haak.

        “Agreed,” said Jules, and they set rapidly to work. When they had finished there was no visible trace of their coming, but a silent mechanism lay inside the Stearmans’ radiogram, as it drew inexorably nearer to its violent zenith. . . . They let themselves out and vanished amongst the London crowds. At two a.m. the neighbours were awakened by an ear-splitting crash. The whole block trembled and shook as the entire Stearman flat was wrecked by the blast. Nothing could have been expected to live through such an inferno. Several miles away, Van Haak and Jules, now minus their city suits and disguises, smiled at one another conspiratorially.

        “A little toast to the dear departed?” asked Jules.

        “Excellent,” replied his confederate, and they drank slowly, savouring their wine of success. . . . A glance at the early editions a few hours later turned the wine bitter in their throats:

        “Stop Press. No one was injured when a mystery explosion destroyed 114A, Tudor Close, S.W.l, in the early hours of the morning. The owner of the property, Mr. Val Stearman, a journalist, is at present abroad on an assignment.”

        “Damn them!” exclaimed Van Haak savagely, angry and frustrated. He took a pace round their apartment,

        “There will be another round,” whispered Jules, half to himself, “and this time we shall not fail!”

        “How the devil do they keep eluding us?” demanded Van Haak. “Every time we try, something hinders our plans.”

        “It is the woman, of course,” mused Jules pensively. “She knows far too much about the occult sciences. All the time her accursed mental defences are in position. We launch the valediction against them and it rebounds, or glances off. We try physical violence and her damnable husband is too strong for us. He shoots like an old-time Western hero!” The doctor spat derisively into the hearth. “We summon the Dark Ones to destroy them — and what happens?”

        “He has silver bullets,” groaned the fat man despairingly.

        “We blow up their flat, and by a stroke of ill-fortune, they are abroad,” he paused. “We will discover where they have gone, and follow. Come, I will consult the crystal.” He strode through into the next room and took a transparent sphere from its velvet stand. It seemed to vibrate, emitting weird emanations that were not of this world. Jules caressed it lovingly in his long sensitive hands.

        “Atha Volo, Seer of the East, guide us with the light of your presence across the seas and continents to the hiding place of our enemies. Hear, O goddess of Darkness, incline your ear, Priestess of the Night. Show us your enemies and our enemies that we may destroy them together.” They watched intently as the crystal began to cloud over. . . .

        Seven hundred miles away, La Noire tossed restlessly in her sleep.

        “Val,” she murmured drowsily. Val woke up. “Someone is watching us.” Her husband propped himself up on one elbow and blinked his eyes open.

        “Huh?” he grunted blearily. La Noire was awake now.

        “The Shield,” she whispered fiercely.

        “Darling, are you all right?” asked Val in alarm. Her eyes glazed over and she slid into a deep trance.

        “Go back, Atha Volo,” she commanded. “In the Name of the Most High, I order you to return empty-handed to those evil ones who send you; begone goddess of Darkness. Go, Priestess of Night and carry nothing with you. We call upon the powers of light to defend us from your dark presence.”

        Val held her tightly. She was trembling with a strange suppressed energy, as if she had become the focal point of a great supernatural struggle.

        “Darling,” he whispered encouragingly in her dainty ear. “Darling, can you hear me?” She gave a convulsive start and her eyes opened wide.

        “Val . . . dearest,” she gasped, “where am I?”

        “It’s all right, I’m with you,” he murmured comfortingly. “You were in some sort of trance, talking to Atha Volo, the dark goddess. Who is she? What was happening?”

        La Noire shook her head slowly as if to clear it, and then she looked at her husband steadily.

        “It was Jules and Van Haak again,” she began. Val snorted angrily.

        “I thought perhaps it would have curbed their enthusiasm when I disposed of the hunchback,” he exclaimed.

        “It seems they will never give up,” she sighed.

        “They will,” gritted Val, “if I have to lay them in their graves first, they’ll give up all right!”

        “You give me new courage,” smiled La Noire. “Their ceaseless persecution brings me to the brink of despair at times.”

        He hugged her comfortingly to him.

        “Tell me about this Atha Volo,” he persisted.

        “She is one of the highest order of Dark Beings,” murmured La Noire, “almost as powerful as Zamiel himself, the Prince of Darkness, the Lord of the Underworld. She is the messenger who speeds across time and space carrying pictures to the great crystals.”

        “The great crystals?” echoed Val.

        “There is more than one type of crystal,” explained La Noire. “The one I had was a seer’s crystal, a comparatively limited psychic medium, but the Great Crystals are endowed with tremendous powers. Through them a servant of the dark master can summon Atha Volo, the infernal messenger, and send her to do his bidding. As you know I shield us by day and night, ceaselessly, against the evil forces which our enemies hurl at us. This shield is sufficient to repel the power of an ordinary seer’s crystal, but not enough to throw back Atha Volo. However, it warned me of her coming, and my astral body sped to the Most High for aid, in the Eternal Courts of Light. The power of good repelled Atha Volo as the archangels repel the serpent, and she took no message back to Jules and Van Haak.”

        “What did they want to now?” asked Val keenly.

        “Our whereabouts,” she answered simply. “They plan some evil, I can feel it.”

        “They always do!” gritted Val. “Still, we’ve beaten them before and we’ll beat them again. At any rate they don’t know where we are . . .” His voice trailed off and his face fell dejectedly.

        “What’s wrong?” asked La Noire anxiously.

        “That blasted column. I started off: ‘I’m writing from Bruksbergen in the heart of mysterious old Bavaria, land of the Vaskag Valley.’”

        “Never mind,” said La Noire, “they only had to phone Mac and ask for you. . . .”

        “Yes, I suppose so,” he muttered wryly. “Still, it would have delayed them a little if I hadn’t advertised it so blatantly.”

        “I wonder how long it’ll be before they get here,” murmured La Noire pensively. Val shook his head.

        “Not long enough — it never is. Though I must say they’ve been lying pretty low since that escapade we had with the Ghoul.”

        “Jules has always been the big danger,” said La Noire. “Van Haak would turn tail and run if it wasn’t for the sinister doctor.”

        “That’s certainly true,” agreed Val. “The professor hasn’t got the guts of a dormouse he’s vicious and spiteful, but he’s a slobbering coward without Jules.”

        “It’s probably the fear of Jules that keeps him loyal,” murmured La Noire. “I expect he’s more afraid of the consequences of disobeying, than afraid of carrying out Jules’s orders.”

        “More than likely,” agreed Val. “Do you feel O.K. now?” he went on.

        “Pretty well,” she replied reassuringly. As a sudden thought struck him, Val put his hand under the pillow.

        “I must be getting old and careless,” he muttered,

        “What’s wrong?” asked La Noire.

        “I’ve left you-know-what hanging in the wardrobe with my jacket,” he answered. He turned on the bedside lamp and padded quickly across the floor. “You don’t often live to make that mistake more than once,” he said grimly as he drew the big Browning automatic from its neat shoulder-holster and thrust it under his pillow. Val Stearman’s gun was an expensive weapon to fire. It was loaded with silver bullets, for they had more than once encountered enemies who were unaffected by lead . . . With the big gun once more in its accustomed place Val felt more inclined to lie back and try to sleep again. But La Noire felt strangely disturbed by her encounter with Atha Volo the dark goddess. For a long time she lay awake staring up at their hotel room ceiling, listening to Val’s deep regular breathing, watching the first grey light of dawn steal through the gaily-patterned curtains and chase the shadows of night before it. . . .

        Immediately after breakfast, Val dispatched a five- hundred-word cable on the joys of modern flying and the beauty of Bavaria to the “Globe”, charged it up gaily to his expenses account, and then they were striding down the steps of the little hotel into the sunlit streets of Bruksbergen. This quaint old village at the door of the valley had an unspoiled medieval charm that is not often found by the casual tourist. . . . It made Val think of a musical box scene, or the picture painted on the side of a pewter-lidded beer tankard. But over and above its old-world atmosphere there was something else. The charm was a frieze; a veil; a tapestry hanging over something dark and sinister, in a vain effort to hide it. The hyper-sensitive La Noire spotted it almost as soon as she had walked a dozen paces over the cobbled streets.

        “They’re hiding something,” she whispered to Val. “The whole place is a kind of elaborate mask for something evil, this beauty on the surface is concealing an ugliness that frightens me.” Val had felt it too, and he nodded understandingly, as his wife put her fears into words.

        “It’s fear,” he murmured quietly, as they paused to look in the lead-paned windows of an old toymaker’s shop. “There’s fear behind the facade — I can sense it. But what are they afraid of here . . . ?”

        “What happened to George Haldane?” asked La Noire with a little shudder. “I feel as if they know but no one wants to speak about it.”

        “Let’s go and have a chat with this character,” suggested Val, and they strolled casually into the old toymaker’s picturesque little shop. More than anything, he looked like Walt Disney’s interpretation of Gepetto from the film “Pinocchio”.

        “How’s your German?” asked La Noire teasingly, as they entered.

        “Good enough to get by,” grinned Val. “You just listen!” He turned to the aged proprietor.

        “Good morning! May we see some toys?” The old man smiled delightedly.

        “With pleasure, sir. How old are your children?” La Noire blushed.

        “We haven’t any — yet,” grinned Val. “We just want a nice souvenir for ourselves. Your work looks very good.”

        “Thank you, thank you,” beamed the old toymaker.

        “My friend, Herr Haldane, was here a day or two ago,” said Val. “He mentioned your shop in a letter to me. Said he looked in the window one day and was most impressed. . . .”

        The old Bavarian’s eyes clouded over.

        “Herr Haldane, ze writer gentleman?” he asked.

        “That’s right,” encouraged Val, “I’m a writer, too, by the way, but I’m not so well known as Herr Haldane. I’m only a journalist.” He smiled wryly. “We work harder than authors and earn much less.”

        “It is a great pity about Herr Haldane,” muttered the old man. “It was unfortunate. He wanted to know so much. It is not good to ask questions in Bruksbergen. The Baron does not like it. . . .”

        “The Baron?” echoed Val. “What Baron is that?”

        The old toymaker’s voice dropped to a frightened whisper.

        “Baron Geisstein, the Lord of the Valley.” He pointed a trembling hand through the lead-paned glass. “He lives in the ancient chateau yonder.”

        “O, does he now,” murmured Val. Afraid of rousing the toymaker’s suspicions too much, he changed the subject, and began inspecting the beautifully handcarved wooden figures.

        “Have you been making toys long?” asked Val idly.

        The Bavarian sighed audibly, thankful that his customers had apparently lost interest in the Baron.

        “All my life, and I’m eighty years of age,” he proclaimed proudly. La Noire picked up an exquisite model horse.

        “I’d like this,” she said softly. Val produced his wallet, and marks changed hands, the old toymaker wrapped it up carefully.

        “I’m glad to sell my toys, and yet at the same time, I’m sorry to part with them. They are the comfort of my old age, and I grow to love them like children.” He paused and began to knot the string. “I know he is going to a good home, so I will not grieve for him.” He handed the parcel to them and bowed courteously as they left the shop. They took the horse back to their hotel and laid it with their luggage.

        “I see you have a souvenir already,” smiled the commissionaire. “One of old Father Jan’s wooden toys — am I right?”

        “Why, yes,” said Val in mild surprise, “how did you know?” The commissionaire chuckled.

        “There are not so many shops in Bruksbergen, and they all wrap their goods differently.”

        “Is there a police inspector staying at the hotel, by the way?” asked Val. Some of the commissionaire’s friendly smile began to fade,

        “There is, unfortunately — did you wish to see him?”

        “Yes, I’m a reporter,” answered Val, “and I wondered if he’d like to give me a story.”

        “He’s in room 10,” said the commissionaire. “He has not gone out this morning, yet, sir, if you wish to go up.”

        “I think, perhaps, we will,” said Val purposefully. They walked back across the hall and up the broad wooden stairs to the first landing. There was no answer to Val’s polite knock.

        “Herr Inspector,” he called. Still no answer. . . . “Inspector!” more loudly this time. Again no response. The big reporter thundered on the door with the palm of his muscular hand. “Inspector,” he roared, “are you all right?” The commissionaire was looking up at him with a mixture of curiosity and concern on his flat face. “Are you sure he hasn’t gone out?” demanded Val. The Bavarian shook his head,

        “Quite sure,” he answered flatly. Val tried the door and to his surprise it opened readily. The window was open on the far side of the room and the curtains were blowing eerily in the morning breeze.

        “Look!” gasped La Noire and pointed to the bed. Inspector Reutler of Interpol had solved his last case. The detective lay as though asleep, but his wide, staring eyes bore mute testimony to the fact that it was a sleep from which he would never wake. . . . Val crossed the room in three quick strides and peered down angrily at the white, terrified face of the dead policeman. Below the detective’s square jaw, Stearman’s keen eyes detected a pair of small round punctures in the skin, and with a shudder he knew what the autopsy would reveal — Franz Reutler had been bled to death by a vampire!

        “Is it . . . ?” asked La Noire, a catch in her voice.

        “I’m afraid so,” he said slowly, “and I also have a pretty shrewd suspicion where to look for the killer.”

        “Baron Geisstein?” whispered his wife.

        “Baron Geisstein,” he confirmed, “and there’s no time like the present!”

        “I’m going out,” he told the commissionaire. “Inform the authorities at once, and don’t let anyone in until the police arrive.”

        “Of course, sir,” murmured the other unhappily. “Oh, this is a black day indeed!” Val and La Noire hurried past him, and began making their way out of the village towards the sinister old chateau. There was only a rough cart track leading to it along the valley floor and it seemed to take them an interminable time to reach.

        “My feet hurt,” exclaimed La Noire after they had been tramping over the rough terrain for half-an-hour.

        “So do mine, to be quite honest,” muttered Val. “These old-world beauty spots are all very well, but they could do with a bit of modernisation as far as the traveling facilities are concerned.”

        They slogged on over the cart track beneath the grim forbidding shadows of the dark pine trees overhead. It was one of those eerie corners of the earth where the hand of man has been stayed from ringing the changes of civilisation on the rural locality. If Charlemagne had camped in the valley with his mighty armies he would not have noticed any great change in it, between his day and ours. Had Caesar and his marching legions returned, even they would have recognised their old battleground once more. The neolithic huntsmen and nomads whose long-forgotten bones rested beneath the pine roots could have reopened their resurrected eyes in Vaskag Valley, picked up their flint spears and gone about their business with no real surprise at its contemporary appearance. It is as if certain localities offer harder resistance to the inroads of time, in the same way that some rocks outlive their brethren when battered by the sea. . . . Vaskag Valley was such a place. Time had rolled over it as the tide rolls over granite, and it was not moved. Men walked softly beneath its pines, and none despoiled its venerable face with the mutilations of progress. The valley was dead and yet — it still lived. It made no contribution to the welfare of mankind, no hydro-electric turbines rose from its slopes. No railways crossed it with a towering viaduct, no peasant scratched his meagre living from its soil. It was barren, and yet it clung tenaciously to its existence. . . .

        Val thought about it as he trudged towards the chateau, and the more he thought of it the more fitting it seemed for the ghastly creature that had its dwelling beneath the pines. The cart track ended at a pair of wrought-iron gates, terminating in savage curved spikes. On either side of these, a tall stone wall encircled the ancient chateau itself. Like the gates, this wall was topped with vicious iron spikes. Through the gates they could see a wide garden, set with ornamental ponds and marble fountains, but the pools were foul and stagnant, the fountains silent and still. An aura of death and decay hung over the chateau like a pall and an atmosphere of forlorn neglect radiated from it. La Noire shivered, despite the warmth of the sun. There was something indescribably evil in the whole appearance of the place, and even the dauntless Stearman hesitated a moment before opening the massive gates. They were stiff on their hinges as though unaccustomed to use, and with a tingling sensation at the back of his skull, Val realised that if the Baron was what he suspected, he would have no need to open them! They walked cautiously up the drive, hand in hand, and stopped every few paces to listen intently. No sound disturbed the sinister calm, no bird sang within its walls and no living animal moved within its tangled vegetation. . . . Like the whole sinister valley, it was dead, and yet it clung tenaciously to an unholy half-life of its own. Here grotesque stone figures, eternally caught in weird, unnatural poses, leant drunkenly against the bolls of rotting, fallen trees. . . . Nearby, the pale underside of a blanched fish floated lifelessly in a stagnant pool. To their left the gnarled branches of some ancient tree seemed to form clutching hands that reached out towards them with sinister purpose. To their right a mass of tangled briars and undergrowth completely blocked a little bridle path. Behind them the breeze suddenly rustled the leaves until the silence of the forlorn grounds was broken by a sibilant whisper of “Beware”. In front of them loomed the dreadful old chateau itself. The blind eyes of its shuttered windows looked out across the desolate gardens as if they had no tears left to weep. A creeping green mildew covered its ancient stonework and no smoke curled up from its tall chimneys.

        The Chateau Geisstein was only a ghost of a dwelling, derelict and decaying. Val and La Noire stepped under the carved stone portico and rang the ancient bell. Its macabre notes rang weirdly in the depths of the lonely old building.

        “I don’t like this,” whispered the girl, moving closer to her husband.

        “Neither do I, to be quite frank,” agreed Val, “and I don’t suppose the inside will be any more cheerful than the exterior.” His arm swung round in a sweeping gesture that included the whole melancholy panorama of house and grounds, more eloquently than words could have done.

        “Do you think he — it — will answer?” asked La Noire, and then checked herself. “They can’t by day, can they?” she went on, thoughtfully. “If he is one, of course.”

        “He might have a servant of some sort.” Slow dragging footsteps sounded in the corridor beyond, and the Stearmans exchanged quick meaning glances.

        “They never walk by day?” Val’s voice held a question. La Noire shook her raven tresses.

        “Never,” she affirmed. Her husband patted the big Browning beneath his left shoulder, nonetheless. . . . With a hollow creak of time-worn hinges, the chateau door swung open to reveal the bent form of an aged retainer. His snow-white hair was cropped close to his head, and his face was the colour of ancient parchment.

        “What is it?” he croaked stiffly.

        “My name is Stearman,” began Val, “I have urgent business with the Baron. . . .” The old man looked at him strangely.

        “My master is not to be seen by day,” he answered and made as if to close the door. Val stepped forward purposefully.

        “I can’t take ‘No’ for an answer,” he said firmly, “I must see him.” He paused. “I’m a police officer investigating the disappearance of George Haldane and the murder of Inspector Franz Reutler,” he bluffed. “I have a warrant to search this house,” he continued brazenly. The old servant stepped back a pace.

        “Wait here,” he muttered thickly, “I must go and speak with the Baron.” He left them standing uncertainly on the doorstep, and shuffled away down the stone-floored corridor as fast as his ancient legs would carry him. . . . They waited for what seemed an aeon before they heard his footsteps returning.

        “This way,” he muttered and led them along the passage.

        “Careful,” whispered La Noire. “It’s probably a trap Geisstein would never see us by day.” She had hardly finished speaking when there was a scraping sound from the stonework above them.

        “Look out!” yelled Val desperately, and flung her back along the corridor, as a massive iron grid crashed down between them. The old servant gave a cackle of insane laughter.

        “My master will see you tonight,” he screeched. “As dusk falls he will rise to greet you.”

        Val drew the Browning with a streaking movement that was too fast for the eye to follow.

        “Open this cage,” he demanded coldly, “or I’ll shoot you down where you stand.” The old concierge gave another insane chuckle.

        “I can’t open it,” he crowed. “Only the Baron knows the secret lock.”

        “I’ll give you ten seconds,” said Val, and meant it. The aged one began shuffling away unconcernedly. . . .

        “Then damn you,” said Stearman in a voice of terrible quietness, and shot him once, straight through the heart.

        La Noire picked herself up and started looking for the lever that operated the mechanism — an hour later she was still searching desperately. Val leant on the bars of the cage, looking grim. He had already exerted every ounce of his not inconsiderable strength on the iron, but without avail . . . the ancient cage would have held an elephant.

        “What are we going to do?” asked his wife, despair beginning to sound in her lovely voice.

        “You’ll have to go back to the village for help,” said Val, “but from what old Father Jan said this morning, I don’t suppose anyone will be very keen to come.”

        “I’d already thought of that,” she answered.

        “So you’ll have to phone the authorities — contact Interpol if necessary, and get them back here as quickly as possible.” Val’s brow suddenly darkened. “I’ve just remembered Jules and Van Haak,” he said thickly. “There’s every possibility that those two devils have reached Bruksbergen by now.” He paused, deep in thought.

        “I’ll go,” said La Noire, “it’s the only way.” Val shook his head stubbornly.

        “I’d sooner be dead than have those two get at you,” he answered in a voice that brooked no denial.

        “I’m going,” she said, “— and you can’t stop me!” He saw the logic of her words.

        “You can only go if you take the gun,” he persisted. She hesitated.

        “But what if Geisstein wakes before I get back?”

        “You’ll be back long before dark,” said Val reassuringly. “Now then, take the gun and get started.” Reluctantly, she slid the big Browning into the pocket of her coat and started down the drive, and the long cart track beyond it. . . . After she had disappeared down the road to the village, the big journalist felt terribly alone. . . .

        The whole house was filled with a million strange noises — or were they all in his imagination? He kept trying his strength on the thick bars, but it was worse than hopeless. It would have taken hours to cut his way out — even with a hacksaw. With bare hands alone, it was pointless to attempt it. But at least it kept his mind occupied and prevented him from dwelling too closely upon the sinister thing that lay waiting its time somewhere in the depths of the ancient chateau. . . . Seconds were hours long, and each dragging minute seemed a day. Vaguely he recalled one of Shakespeare’s quotations about time. “With some it walks, with some it runs and with some it stands still,” the bard had said, he reflected. It was very definitely standing still for Val Stearman. Anxiety for La Noire was his constant companion, and he paced the narrow confines of his cage a hundred times — back and forth — as he waited for some sign of her safe return. . . . The sun began sinking slowly but surely in the western sky, and still no sign of her. Val looked at his watch for the thousandth time. It had been just after two when she left — it was now four-thirty. An hour should have been ample time for her to reach the village, half-an-hour more for her to telephone for help, and another hour to walk back. She should be here at any moment, he told himself repeatedly.

        Another half-hour dragged by and still La Noire had not returned.


*        *        *


        As she hurried back towards the village, her one thought was for Val. “They didn’t walk by day,” she kept reassuring herself, “they couldn’t walk by day . . . they mustn’t walk by day. She thought of all the things that might delay her, and then thrust them determinedly from her mind. A broken ankle in one of those ruts? She walked carefully in the centre of the rough track. Jules and Van Haak? She wondered if they were here yet, and if so — where? A slim but determined hand rested on the butt of Val’s big automatic, and she kept her eyes keenly about her as she walked. She was more than half-way to the village when she thought she heard a stealthy footfall among the trees. . . . The tall pines on either side created a million perfect hiding-places . . . and she hurried on with a swift sidelong glance. Concealed by the thick trunks, Van Haak gestured to his sinister companion and they closed in on La Noire, as she rounded a bend in the path. Van Haak stepped out in front of her, his pudgy hands swung out, and she swerved involuntarily.

        “How nice to find you alone, my dear,” grated the professor, “we’ve waited so long for this.” The cadaverous Jules was already stealing up behind her. La Noire drew the automatic and levelled it steadily at Van Haak’s chest.

        “Out of my way,” she snapped, and with a gasp of dismay the fat man drew aside. La Noire turned and began to sidle past him . . . Jules reached out for her. His sinewy arm encircled her throat and she writhed desperately to free herself. Before the doctor could reach her gun wrist, the big Browning exploded twice and with a groan of agony Van Haak clasped his bloated stomach and collapsed to the roadway. Jules wrenched the gun away from her and threw her down in a heap at his feet . . . her head struck a stone in the rutted pathway and she lay still where she had fallen. . . .

        The doctor stooped to examine Van Haak.

        “How bad?” moaned the fat man as his blood oozed away among the roots of the pine trees. Jules had neither tact nor pity. He looked at the professor coldly, as if he was examining a corpse.

        “Fatal,” he said at last, straightening up.

        “You’re joking,” moaned Van Haak incredulously. “I’m all right, Jules! For mercy’s sake tell me I’m all right! I’m your friend. You’ve got to save me. I’ve always helped you . . .” His voice tailed off in a great gasp of pain.

        “A pity,” muttered the doctor absently, “he has been useful to me in his way, but he is finished.” The fat man’s face twitched and his eyes flickered.

        “Can’t you do anything?” he begged.

        “Yes,” mused the sinister doctor, “perhaps I can.” He leveled the automatic.

        “No,” choked Van Haak, “not that.” There was a crash which echoed among the trees lining the valley, and then silence, deeper than before. Professor Van Haak lay very still by the roadside — he was dead.

        La Noire’s eyelids fluttered and Jules jerked the girl viciously to her feet.

        “This is all your doing, damn you,” he snarled at her, “but you’ll pay for it, woman.” He produced a length of cord from his pocket and secured her hands behind her.

        “I’ve found a nice empty cottage on the edge of Bruksbergen,” he told her as they set out along the track, “we shall go there now to plan your death. A sacrifice to the dark master. A little gift for Zamiel.” He laughed drily, “Of course, you’re a trifle overdue, but that’s hardly our fault, is it? If I’d had my way you’d have died after the seance that night long ago. . . . But there was always that interfering husband to deal with, wasn’t there?” he went on mockingly. “By the way, where is he?” She made no answer. “I have ways and means of finding out,” he hissed sibilantly. “Have you forgotten my hypnotic gifts?”

        “My mind is as strong as yours,” snapped La Noire, “and you’ll find out where Val is soon enough, when he gets his hands on you.” Dr. Jules looked at her thoughtfully, trying to weigh up the situation. It had been only by the sheerest stroke of luck that he had captured her. . . . He had arrived in Bruksbergen with the late unlamented Professor Van Haak and made enquiries at the hotel. No one knew anything about the big journalist and his wife except for the fact that they had hurried from the hotel, leaving a dead policeman in number 10. An Interpol doctor was examining the body and Jules managed to snatch a professional word with him amidst the general confusion and excitement. He learnt two things very swiftly — the prosaic pathologist had no idea how Franz Reutler had been bled to death, and the villagers had an instinctive dislike of the ancient chateau. He put two and two together very rapidly. George Haldane had disappeared, Val Stearman had come looking for him. So had Interpol. Inspector Reutler had made some inquiries and someone or something had silenced him, in a particularly horrible way. . . . Stearman and La Noire had found the body and then dashed off somewhere — obviously to the chateau, reasoned Jules logically enough. He had set out after them with no fixed plan in his mind when La Noire had come hurrying along the track. It was a pity about Van Haak, he had been a useful catspaw on many occasions, but the girl would pay, he consoled himself. That left the problem of Stearman himself. If the girl was hurrying back from the chateau alone her husband was probably still there — was he dead? Jules brightened visibly at the thought but he realised it didn’t fit. Trapped perhaps, or injured, and in need of help? That made better sense. If he was dead there would be no need for her to hurry — she would have been walking slowly, dejectedly. No, decided Jules, it must be the other alternative. Two trains of thought started off simultaneously in his mind — would it be best to go straight back and deal with Stearman at once, while he was under some handicap — or should he leave him to his fate? He decided on the latter course. Val was dangerous at close quarters, and the sinister doctor much preferred to conduct the war at long range. . . . Besides, he wanted to attend to La Noire before she slipped through his fingers again. . . .

        They reached the empty cottage he had earmarked for his foul purpose and dragged her inside. It was sufficiently far from the village for him to be undisturbed, and with a grim smile on his thin lips he knew that the chateau and its ghastly master were responsible — none of the natives wanted to live so close to the sinister Baron. Jules barred the door carefully and lit an oil lamp, for it was shadowy inside the shuttered windows of the cottage.

        “As you say,” he began, “you can probably resist my hypnotism — but there are other less pleasant ways which will serve as a prelude to the sacrifice itself.” His cold eyes became slits of evil in his hideous face. “Poor Van Haak would have enjoyed this . . . a pity.”

        “. . . A pity I didn’t get you too,” spat out La Noire.

        “How very genteel and ladylike,” murmured the doctor. “But we are wasting time.” He busied himself lighting a fire. “Man’s greatest boon — fire,” he murmured softly, “a good servant but a terrible master.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “So little heat will produce so great a flow of words.” La Noire had turned paler, but she looked at him contemptuously.

        “Just wait till Val gets here,” she bluffed defiantly, “he’ll break you in pieces!” It was a good bluff and it was not without its effect. Jules began to change his mind. Perhaps whatever had happened to Stearman was only going to be temporary in its effects. What if he had already found Van Haak’s body and was even now on his way to the cottage?

        “I think perhaps a little journey is called for,” he said quietly, “but first I must make you quite comfortable.” He gagged her with a strip off her own coat, and brought more cord from his pocket. A few minutes later she was trussed helplessly to an iron bolt projecting from the wall.

        “I do trust you won’t be too bored,” he mocked, “but you can while away the time contemplating the fun we shall have on my return.” Her eyes flashed spurning hatred at him as he left. The time passed with agonising slowness and her heart sank with the sun as it crept ever closer to the horizon. Hope faded with the day as she reviewed the position. Val helplessly imprisoned in the cage at the chateau, with Baron Geisstein, the Vampire, due to rise from his coffin at sunset . . . she herself four miles away tied hand and foot, and the vital silver-shot pistol in the hands of their mortal enemy, Jules! True they hadn’t gone down without a struggle. Val had accounted for the Baron’s aged servant and she had settled with Van Haak, but Jules and the Vampire were still at large and both were deadly dangerous. Suddenly she heard footsteps outside, limping footsteps . . . her heart missed a beat — was it Jules coming back to torture her? He hadn’t limped when he left, but he might have injured himself on the cart track. Was it Val, broken free from the trap and miraculously come to save her? It didn’t sound like him, and again he hadn’t been limping either, unless he had received an injury from the Baron or Jules. Was it someone from the village? She hardly dared to hope.

        “Hello! Anyone there?” called a voice she didn’t recognise, an English voice. She made frantic inarticulate sounds through the gag . . . more footsteps . . . was he going away? Her heart sank again, and then, wonder of wonders, the door opened. . . . He was a tall, broad-shouldered character with a pleasantly ugly face and iron-grey hair. She noticed dry bloodstains on his left shoe.

        “What the blazes . . .?” he exclaimed and crossed to her as quickly as his ankle would permit. She liked the sound of his voice. It was deep and resonant, like Val’s, but a trifle more cultured. He knelt swiftly beside her and gently removed the gag.

        “Don’t try to talk,” he said softly. “I’ll set you free first. . . .”

        “Who are you . . .?” she began, though she had already guessed the answer before he spoke.

        “George Haldane,” he answered.

        “We came looking for you,” exclaimed La Noire.

        “We?” he asked.

        “Val Stearman, my husband and I. He’s a reporter on the ‘Globe’. What happened?” She glanced at his ankle.

        “Some maniac, whom I suspect is Baron Geisstein, has the anti-social habit of setting bear-traps in the woods,” he answered grimly. “I was stuck in the unmentionable thing for three days. It was only the devil’s own luck that I had a haversack of supplies with me, otherwise I don’t suppose I’d be here now.”

        La Noire stood up and rubbed the circulation back into her limbs.

        “I must hurry,” she gasped as she looked at the sun, low now in the western sky.

        “Where?” asked Haldane.

        “The chateau,” she replied. “There’s no time to explain, it’s life and death.”

        “Can I help?” he asked.

        “What about your ankle?”

        “It’ll stand a bit more,” he grinned gamely. “Tell me as we go.”

        They left the cottage and made what speed they could back down the cart track towards the chateau. The late afternoon sunlight cast sombre shadows among the thick pines, and the whole Vaskag Valley took on an aura of weird mystery with the approach of darkness.

        “It all began with the Reuter report of your disappearance,” said La Noire.

        “I’ve got a pal who is one of their correspondents, I should have phoned him that night,” said Haldane. “That’s how I came to be missing so quickly, no doubt.”

        “We flew out here yesterday,” went on the girl, “and this morning a chat with Father Jan, the toymaker, made us pretty suspicious about Baron Geisstein. When we got back to the hotel, Val found Franz Reutler, the Interpol man who’d been looking for you, dead in his bed.”

        “Vampirism?” interjected Haldane quietly. La Noire nodded. It was rapidly approaching sunset now, and they redoubled their efforts, Haldane’s ankle was giving him hell, but he bit his lip and ignored it.

        “We came straight down to the chateau after that,” she said. “It’s a horrible place, overgrown and derelict. An old servant opened the door and Val told him we were the police. He said at first that the Baron never saw anyone by day . . . and then, he let us in. We suspected a trap, but we went down the corridor a few paces, and suddenly a huge iron cage crashed down. Val threw me clear, but it caught him.”

        “Bad luck,” sympathised George. “What happened next?”

        “The old servant began to cackle with horrible, insane laughter, and Val gave him ten seconds to release him.” She paused a moment. “He said only Geisstein could do that, and that he would at dusk, then Val shot him dead. . . .”

        “I don’t blame him,” said Haldane grimly, “I’d have done the same.”

        “After that I tried to find the release lever, or whatever operated the thing — for over an hour,” she continued, “but it was hopeless. Finally I decided to go back to the village and phone the authorities for help. Val made me take the gun. The locals would never have dared to turn out.”

        “Too true,” agreed Haldane, “they didn’t seem to have organised any search parties for me, at any rate. . . .”

        “That’s where Jules and Van Haak come into the story,” she pointed suddenly to the silent, dark object lying by the side of the road. “That’s Van Haak,” she whispered, “I shot him!”

        “Ye gods and little fishes,” said Haldane, “you’ve been having a heck of a day . . . how did this all happen?”

        “Years ago I was a member of a Coven, a black magic society,” she explained. “Jules and Van Haak were two of the leaders. Val rescued me from them, rather violently, and they’ve been tracking us down ever since. Without exaggeration I believe they’ve made over twenty attempts on our lives.”

        “Holy mackerel,” said Haldane, “what a vendetta!”

        “As I was going back to the village,” she went on, “Van Haak sprang out at me, and I drew the gun and told him to get out of my way. He started backing up and then Jules grabbed me from behind. The gun went off, and Van Haak got it in the stomach twice. It was horrible the way he went down, and he kept moaning to Jules about not wanting to die. In the end, after he’d knocked me down . . .”

        “. . . the cad!” exclaimed Haldane angrily,

        “He shot Van Haak through the head to put him out of his misery,” she concluded.

        “And then I suppose he dragged you off to that empty cottage?” asked Haldane. She nodded.

        “When you came he’d gone off somewhere, I’m almost certain it was the chateau, and Val’s still trapped in the cage.” Haldane looked up at the sky.

        “We shall just about make it,” he gritted. “I’ve a feeling something very horrible is coming to life in that chateau at dusk.”

        They hurried on until they reached the tall spiked gates. The sun set behind the horizon and the evening shadows fell darkly across the sinister slopes of Vaskag Valley.

        “O God, let me be in time,” prayed La Noire as they hurried up the drive. Suddenly she glanced up into the greying heavens. Something black and sinister was swooping down towards the chateau. A creature neither animal nor human. A monster neither living nor dead.

        “Look,” whispered Haldane as his pointing finger travelled towards the unworldly aeronaut, “It’s the Vampire!” Even as he spoke the beast swept down into the shadows on the other side of the chateau and vanished in the gloom. They hurried on breathlessly towards the medieval building, not sure of what they would do once they got there, concerned only to reach the imprisoned Stearman before the terrible beast of prey. Unless they were already too late! La Noire went pale as the thought occurred to her. Had the hideous vampire of Vaskag Valley already sunk its filthy fangs into Val’s throat? They reached the door after what seemed an age and rushed inside. The vampire was opening the cage as they got there, and the cadaverous Jules was watching with ill-concealed delight as Val struck desperately out at the hideous creature of the night. He knew that Stearman’s gun was loaded with silver, and he knew that because of it, he himself was safe from the demon of the chateau.

        Big George Haldane’s flying leap took him by surprise. La Noire, too, darted at him with incredible speed and wrenched the gun from his hand with a strength born of desperation. But for agonising seconds she dared not fire, for Val was between her and the Vampire. And then the big journalist spun to one side as he sought to elude the Baron’s raking talons, and La Noire pressed the trigger of the heavy Browning three times in quick succession. The three silver slugs tore savagely into the hideous Vampire. Its cavernous jaws opened in a shriek of pain and amazement. The greeny-yellow eyes blazed with terrible malevolence, and then the black reaper reached out for Satan’s hideous child, and drew Baron Geisstein down into a lost eternity. The Vampire quivered for an instant and then it seemed to suddenly dissolve — like an image fading from a screen.

        La Noire dropped the gun and fainted with relief as Val stepped shakily from the cage and took her in his arms.

        “Darling,” he breathed thankfully, “however did you manage it? I thought I was a goner!” He broke off sharply and stared at the two men rolling over in a desperate struggle on the floor.

        “George Haldane,” he breathed, “I thought I’d seen a ghost.” At that moment Haldane stopped a vicious kick on his injured ankle and was forced to relinquish his hold with a gasp of agony. Jules seized his opportunity in a flash. The wily doctor slithered to his feet and sprinted madly for the door. By the time Val had snatched up his gun from the floor Jules had slammed the heavy portal behind him and disappeared into the darkness of Vaskag Valley.

        “Blast him,” gritted Val in frustration. “I thought we’d got the swine this time.”

        “Sorry, old man,” murmured Haldane, “the blessed ankle let me down.” Val laid his arm on the other’s shoulder.

        “For Pete’s sake don’t apologise — if it hadn’t been for you coming up here just in time with La Noire, I probably shouldn’t be alive at this moment.” The girl opened her eyes, and a few minutes later Val knew the whole story.

        “So we got Van Haak at last,” he breathed with satisfaction. “That compensates in part for the loss of our sinister doctor. I wonder if he’ll try again?”

        “He will,” sighed La. Noire. “Nothing will stop Jules.”

        “A bullet will,” said Val grimly, as he replaced the Browning. “By the way, remind me to buy another of these — for you. I don’t ever want to be caught without this one again — particularly when I’m in a cage with a vampire!”

        He gave Haldane a playful dig in the ribs.

        “Your reappearance has spoilt my story,” he complained good-humouredly. “But I’m mighty glad it happened all the same.”

        All three set off along the valley road together, towards Bruksbergen, and it seemed as if a centuries-old cloud had lifted from the pine-filled slopes. . . .