Page Created 1-9-02

© R. Lionel Fanthorpe

"There could be no real peace until the horror was destroyed."

THERE was a polite tap on the door of Stearman's office.
        "Come in!"
        "Good morning, Mr. S. Package from some cove who wouldn't give his name." The copy boy grinned as Val took the bulging envelope.
        "Probably a bomb," chuckled Stearman, without any claim to originality.
        "Or a plastic gas cylinder?" suggested Ginger.
        "Photographs, anti-climax," grunted Val. "Not even pornographic."
        "Pawn a whatic?" asked the boy.
        "The kind you like!" chuckled Val.
        "Oh, how did you know?"
        "I like 'em too. The man who doesn't is a liar, a saint or a queer."
        After the boy had left Val flung the pictures into his "In" tray and began checking his column. After the third revision of the "Chorley Grange Vampire Returns," he rang for the copy boy, flipped the completed sheets across the desk and settled down to the morning's post and special deliveries.
        He was only idly curious about the pictures at first. Number one was a sporting shot: a race meeting somewhere----the date and race times appeared, as though deliberately, on a board in mid-scene. The picture was only a fortnigh' old.
        "The 'Globe' must be getting up to date," grunted Val with a grim, sardonic smile. "It's time we heard from our special correspondent in Ladysmith." His keen grey eyes ran interestedly over the crowd. The faces were unusually clear and he admired the technique of the photographer responsible.
        Recognition hit his mind like a tidal wave. A hurricane of remembrance burst violently across his consciousness.
        "God . . ." The word was torn from him in a painful gasp. His great right forearm swept across the desk in a powerful gesture that would have seemed theatrical and melodramatic in a lesser man.
        "God . . ." he breathed again. Colour drained from his face. His great square jaw set in a steel line. His eyes narrowed and the craggy forehead above them corrugated into deep lines of determined concentration. He controlled his huge frame with an effort and rang for the copy boy.
        "Ginger, you said the man who brought the photographs didn't leave his name. Could you describe him?"
        "Easily, Mr. S. He was a tall, thin character with steel-rimmed specs and a face like a warmed-up morgue attendant. Gave me the hab-dabs to look at him."
        "Would you recognise him if you saw him again?"
        "Hard to forget a face like that!"
        Val pushed the racing crowd photograph across the desk. "Is that him?"
        Ginger peered hard at the face. "Definitely! Is it important?" The boy's eyes were eager.
        "Not important, impossible!"
        "Whatcha mean, Mr. S?"
        "He was killed over twenty years ago."
        "Honest?" Ginger looked scared.
        "His name is----or was----Dr. Jules. When I knew him---- which was shortly before he died----he was one of the most dangerous men in Europe, possibly in the world."
        "What happened to him?" asked Ginger.
        "That----as they say in the classics-is another story." Some of Val's usual self-confidence had returned, but he looked grey about the face, and his eyes were not laughing.
        "He's on this one as well," said the boy as he pointed to the second picture: a Fleet Street "Walkie" snap.
        "Let me see that!" Val's hand was steady as he took the print. "There's no doubt about it; that's Jules right enough, and the man beside him is Van Haak, Professor Van Haak."
        "The fat bloke?" asked Ginger helpfully.
        "As you so lucidly put it: the fat bloke," agreed Val.
        "He looks sinister," whispered the boy.
        "He is sinister, but you've been reading too many gangster thrillers. The really dangerous character is Jules."
        "They're both on this one, with a geezer in the middle who looks like Frankenstein's monster." Ginger held up the next picture.
        "You'd be safer with Dracula," grated Val, as he took the print and studied the trio of evil faces. "The third man is Kaugrim the hunchback; he used to work with Jules and Van Haak; in fact, all three were members of a black magic coven, over twenty years ago. La Noire and I fought them for a long time . . . but that's also another story."
        "What happened?" asked Ginger with keen interest.
        "Let's say it was a fatal battle and they lost," murmured Val. He looked up at the ceiling as though for inspiration.
        "You killed them?" gasped the boy.
        "I helped," smiled Stearman. His face grew serious,
        "Are they all dead?" asked Ginger.
        "To the best of my knowledge."
        "But these pictures are recent," protested Ginger.
        "Then . . ."
        "They've either been faked or the enemy is resurrected."
        "It would take an expert to tell, but it's not difficult to superimpose heads. Take these down to the lab while I get Chalky on the blower." Ginger vanished with the pictures. Val picked up the telematic and dialed the lab. "Chalky?"
        "Ginger's on his way with some prints. Run a test on them; I think they're fakes----I hope they're fakes."
        "Okay." Chalky hung up.
        But unless Jules was back from the Pit who had delivered the pictures? Was Ginger trustworthy? He seemed a fresh, eager Cockney kid, but appearances were deceptive. Val recalled the adventure which I had chronicled for him under the title of "The Prodigy." He shuddered at the memory. The kid had looked so sweet, so innocent . . .
        There was nothing sweet or innocent about Ginger, but his impudent Cockney initiative was disarming. Stearman had known hundreds of Bow Bells boys and had never met a bad'n. Was Ginger to prove the only exception? It hardly seemed likely, but it was a damned sight more likely than the supposition that Jules and company were out of Acheron and across the Styx once more.
        Val and La Noire had plenty of extant enemies without resurrecting three they had disposed of two decades ago. As Val reconsidered the problem, the whole thing pivotted on Ginger's evidence. Ginger had produced the pictures; Ginger had described Jules and claimed to recognise him. But this was beyond the boy's potential. Who was behind the charade? Was it a charade? Val paced around his office, padding like a great caged tiger.
        The telematic rang shrilly.
        "Chalky here. I've run a quick glass over those pics. As far as I can tell they're okay. Pete and Gedder are checking them in the back room, but you get an instinct about these things. I can usually smell a fake a mile off. These are clean, Val."
        "You're sure?"
        "I'd put a quid on it!"
        "Fair enough, and many thanks."

*          *        *

        La Noire was engrossed in an early Oppenheimer when the bell rang gently. She put the novel aside with a trace of annoyance and uncurled her lithe feline body from the couch. An odd sense of unease followed her to the door of the flat she shared with Val. A sense of foreboding enveloped her. A deep, powerful misgiving clouded her mind and expressed itself in the frown on her classic face with its almost blue-black Cleopatrine fringe. There had been times when she would not have answered the door without a gun, but those days had died with Van Haak and the other coveners.
        She turned the gnurled brass lock and pulled the door slowly inwards.
        "Remember me, madam?" asked the contorted mouth of the hunchback who stared up at her hungrily. The slack lips drooled. The blemished, rheumy eyes blinked like the eyes of a great toad.
        "Kaugrim!" she gasped. "But you're dead!"
        "I've been away," mouthed the caricature.
        "You're dead!" she exclaimed again and tried to close the door. La Noire was as strong as a lioness, but the hunchback was not alone. Jules and Van Haak stepped from behind the sides of the porch and forced the door open. In a breathless heap they exploded into the flat and she stood looking at them in disbelief.
        "You can't . . ." she whispered at last. "It isn't possible . . ."
        "Your life span is not possible, yet you are here," sighed the thin doctor. He ran his hand through long, affected hair and peered at her avidly through thin- rimmed steel glasses.
        "As beautiful as ever," gloated Van Haak.
        "There will be time for that later," promised Jules. "First things first, professor."
        "Of course."
        "Will you come quietly, or shall I give my associates the pleasure of overpowering you?" asked Jules coldly. There was death behind the steel frames.
        "Val will be back at any minute," she bluffed.
        "I think not," sneered Van Haak.
        "He's probably engrossed in some photographs at the moment."
        "Photographs?" she echoed.
        "I delivered some to the 'Globe' this morning," explained Jules.
        "I hope he remembers his old friends," grunted Kaugrim.
        "It's not likely he'd forget us," hissed Jules.
        "Or we him," added the fat man grimly.
        "Tell me," said La Noire, getting herself under control. "As one immortal to another, how did you get back?"
        "Is this genuine curiosity or are you playing for time?" asked Van Haak.
        "The bodies you see are not those that were destroyed in our last encounter."
        "I thought not."
        "You may recall that we are honoured and trusted servants of the Dark Lord," said Kaugrim.
        "The mice the cat has promised to eat last," smiled La Noire gamely.
        "That was not wise," snarled Van Haak. He looked mean and dangerous. La Noire was wondering why the miracle didn't happen. Why couldn't Val walk in through that door and crack their heads together like egg-shells? Why couldn't he crash inside like an iron-grey elephant charge and throw Kaugrim through the window? Why . . . ? Her train of thought was derailed by Jules's voice.
        "Our spirits, preserved by the Dark Master, escaped clinical death and biological dissolution. We were stored until the stars were favourable to our exploit and then . . ."
        "Yes, and then?" asked La Noire.
        "We were provided with new vehicles."
        "But you look as you looked when . . ."
        "Of course! Our Master chose with care. Our spirits were rehoused in three bodies that were as close to our own lost earthly forms as we were able to find. Plastic surgery helped a little. Remember, too, that the face moulds itself to the mind."
        "Demon possession," she breathed.
        "In a sense," agreed Jules sibilantly.
        "And what are you hoping to do?"
        "We have an understandable grudge against you and Stearman," said Van Haak coldly. His pig-eyes glinted evilly.
        "Are you going to kill me?" asked La Noire.
        "Eventually," sighed Jules. "But not until you have been praying for it for several days."
        "Do you think you can destroy my immortality so easily?" she challenged.
        "Not easily, but it can be done. The Dark Lord has increased our power many degrees since our last encounter. All three of us are now in the Supreme Order of Grey Spirits. Our combined power is more than adequate for your destruction."
        "That remains to be seen," answered La Noire spiritedly, but her face was markedly paler.
        "An interesting and entertaining experiment, anticipated with considerable relish," hissed Jules. She looked away for a moment, not in fear but nausea, sickened by the revelation of such cold evil.
        "Our car is waiting," said Jules impatiently. "Will you come or must you be carried?"
        "I will not come." Her words rang out like a battle cry.
        "Bring her," ordered Jules. It, was obvious to La Noire that he was still the leader. Kaugrim began edging forward on her right, Van Haak on her left. Jules stood facing her. His thin face creased into a mocking smile.
        "You make a touching heroine," he sneered.
        "You'll need all your sympathy for yourself when Val catches up with you . . ."
        "Perhaps." The sneer had not died. Jules looked confident. "Things have changed since we last met as you are about to find out."
        La Noire made sudden dart at the hunchback. She had intended to fling him over her shoulder in a judo throw, but as she caught his sleeve a sensation of paralysing cold spread down her arm, numbing the muscles of her lithe, feminine shoulders, The hunchback laughed. His hideous face came close to hers.
        "I thought Van Haak might have had all the luck. I never knew you cared, madam; you never used to." She wanted to scream, to hit the blemished face, to wriggle free of that loathesome grip . . . Her strength had gone completely, numbed into nothingness by the paralysing cold, the unnatural death-cold that emanated from the blemished, twisted body.
        Jules and the hunchback carried her down the corridor and into the lift. She wondered idly whether Val was at that moment tearing up the stairs. The irony of it made her smile grimly to herself. Val usually disdained to use the lift. They passed the porter on the way out. He lay unnaturally still in the corner of his cubicle in the foyer. She was carried past him too quickly to see if he was dead or merely unconscious.
        Van Haak opened the rear door of a long low saloon which looked foreign. She didn't recognise the make. There was something vaguely sinister about it. The other two lifted he- inside. Jules took the wheel. As he let in the clutch and drove away the worst of the freezing paralysis began to pass.
        "Where are we going?" she asked.
        "A little trip into the country, a nice deserted airfield, then a cave where we're unlikely to be disturbed. We've been planning well in advance. You should know our methods by this time." Van Haak was laughing like a gleeful pig at a cinder heal.
        "You talk too much, professor," sighed Jules.
        "Let him talk," said La Noire. "I prefer his conversation to yours, Jules," It was a puerile attempt, she reflected.
        "Really?" chuckled Van Haak. "Do I suspect that you are trying to instigate internecine warfare between my fellows of the Grey Order and myself?" La Noire lapsed into a thoughtful silence as the car gathered speed and headed out of London towards open country.

*          *        *

        Val finished his restless pacing of the office, but his mind was still unresolved. An ominous doubt about the copy boy clouded his thinking. Fears for La Noire fell like dark shadows across his imagination. He left the office and ran down to the Globe's basement garage. His powerful sports saloon bit into the concrete ramp and glided smoothly out into Fleet Street. Val felt as though hostile eyes were watching him from impenetrable concealment. He tried to shrug off the feeling but it refused to go. Van Haak lurked behind every tree; Jules crouched at the side of each parked car; Kaugrim crawled from all the sewers.
        On reaching the flat he snapped on the brake and flung himself out of the big sports saloon. A groan from the vestibule halted him in mid-stride.
        "Help," quavered a familiar voice.
        "Tom!" shouted Val as he helped the porter to his feet. The old veteran had fought at Mons; a lesser man might not have survived the cowardly attack.
        "Three of 'em, sir," panted the porter, "A tall, thin swine, a short fat'n and one like Quasimodo."
        "Police and ambulance," ordered Val as he sat old Tom in front of the 'phone.
        "Right away," answered Tom gamely.
        Val took the stairs in a series of smooth powerful long-legged strides. The way the big journalist- adventurer climbed was quicker than the lift, a lot quicker. He slid his key into the latch and opened the door.
        "La Noire!" he shouted. Oh God, let her be here----and safe.
        There was no answer, He ransacked the flat, but there was no sign of her, no sign of a struggle . . . nothing. It didn't make sense. She would never have gone without a fight, not La Noire, Had they used guns? Chloroform? Nerve gas? Val sniffed at the air suspiciously, There was nothing but a faint trace of her oriental perfume. For some reason it made him want to cry; he gulped and swallowed, dabbing angrily at the corners of his eyes with the back of a leathery, knuckle-scarred hand,
        The 'phone rang with a shrill challenging clangour that brought him to himself with unwelcome suddenness. He detected the faintest trace of tremor in his hand as he raised the receiver from its cradle. The tremor annoyed him out of all proportion to its significance.
        "Stearman speaking."
        "Val, darling . . ."
        "La Noire! Are you all right, darling?"
        "At the moment . . ."
        "What happened?"
        "The three wise monkeys called. I didn't believe it at first . . . Then they explained. They're a good deal more powerful than before. Something to do with being in the Grey Order, I think."
        "I'm not sure if I know what that means," confessed the giant.
        "I don't either, darling, but it's something big . . . and powerful. They have a strength they lacked before. I couldn't fight them; when I touched Kaugrim I just froze----a kind of psychic paralysis set in."
        "Where, are you?" he asked.
        "It's a disused airfield, but don't come; it's a trap; they only let me call to lure you here . . ." There was a scream of pain.
        "Darling . . ." His voice was desperate.
        "Mr. Stearman? This is Dr. Jules speaking. Your wife has ceased to co-operate, so Professor Van Haak is giving her the first instalment of what we have planned for you both. She was told not to warn you to stay away, and there are certain inflexible penalties for disobedience which we observe religiously. It's the only religious thing about us, as you very well know."
        "What do you want?" demanded Val.
        "You, of course."
        "All right, release La Noire and I'll come."
        "Very touching, but not good enough. We want you both."
        "I'll kill you," threatened Val in a tone of cold, emotionless hatred.
        "That is possible, but I have already died once. Familiarity breeds a kind of contempt, you know. In any event the Dark Master would bring me back, I assure you. I am in the Grey Order now."
        "How did you join ? Saving packet tops or cigarette coupons?"
        "If you understood you would not mock. The Grey Order is as the Gestapo was to Jews . . ."
        "If you read your papers you may be aware that since 1945 the roles have been reversed. Cringing things that once wore jackboots to hide their varicose veins now cower in South America to avoid Jewish James Bonds."
        "We are no longer relevant to the subject,' hissed Jules. There was another piercing scream. "That was relevant."
        "Where are you?" asked Val.
        "Do you know East Ilsley on the Berkshire Downs?"
        "Never heard of it."
        "It's near White Horse Hill."
        "I'll find it."
        "You will come alone, won't you? She will be killed instantly if you are seen in company, particularly blue- uniformed company."
        "I'll be alone," promised the giant.
        "Oh, there's one other small point. I recall that you take a great pride in your driving. The distance is just over 80 miles; I'm starting my watch now and for every minute you take over the hour she will receive one stroke with the professor's whip----a rather interesting old 'cat' that was used in the Bridewell. It's quite an historic find really. You'd be surprised what an expert can do with it . . ."
        "The address," demanded Val.
        "The Airfield, East Ilsley. We shall clock you in at the main gate, or rather the gap in the hedge where the main gate used to be."
        Stearman's feet scarcely touched the treads as he hurled himself down the stairs. Val knew that the sinister trio meant every word they said. Thank God the tank was full and the road surface dry. He might just make it . . . might. He flung himself in behind the wheel started the powerful four litre engine and snapped off the handbrake. He was touching sixty as he cornered at the end of the road. Willesden and Ealing vanished in a roar of exhaust fumes and hot tyres. He touched the ton just before reaching Slough. A pantechnicon blocked the road as he tore down High Street. With one hand jammed hard on the horn Val threw the great car on to the pavement. Terrified shoppers dived into doorways. He hit no one. A miracle involving clutch, brakes and steering-wheel took him out clear on the other side of the pantechnicon. Police whistles were blowing. He didn't give a damn. A squad car siren sounded behind him. He trod hard on the accelerator and the triple carbs. responded to the stimulus of the supercharger. The huge continental went down the remainder of High Street like a bomb. A mile outside the town he lost the squad cars. He wondered how long it would be before they thought about setting up road blocks. He tore through Maidenhead and crossed the Thames at Henley. There were thirty-five minutes left. A mile outside the town he saw a road block being erected. Two stalwart policemen were lowering a red and white pole across the road. The taller of the two had three silver stripes on a brawny arm. He flagged Val to slow down. The big journalist accelerated. The sergeant and his companion leapt clear. There was a tinkle of glass as the pole shattered one of the spotlights. A glance in the mirror told him that they were on their feet and gesticulating furiously. He laughed for the first time since the incredible business had begun. There was a touch of Keystone about the road block.
        The laugh died away as he concentrated on the road. The needle came up around the ton twenty and continued to climb. At 150, plus or minus the error of the speedometer, the big sports car settled at its maximum. A sardonic smile crept to Val's lips as he recalled the 70 miles an hour speed limit. Allowing for speedo error he was just about doubling it. Slowing down to negotiate the twin villages of Goring and Streatley, he re-crossed the Thames and glanced at his watch: thirteen minutes left. Where was the airfield . . . ? A fingerboard pointed to East Ilsley and Val swung the big continental in the direction of the arrow hand. A long-haired farm boy was cycling home, a pitchfork tied to his crossbar.
        Val braked violently and leapt out.
        "The old airfield?" he asked urgently.
        "What the one at Ilsley?" countered the boy.
        "Is there more than one?" asked Val desperately.
        "There's an old R.A.F. station, deserted, at West Shefford, but thass a mile or two south o' here."
        "What is there at Ilsley?" demanded Val. The kid was doing his best but Stearman wanted to take him by the scruff of the neck and shake him into rapid and effectual action.
        "There's an old civvy 'drome what used to do private hire and that. I believe they went bankrupt or suffen."
        "Which way?" demanded Val.
        "You want-a go about three mile along here till you come to a 'T' junction. Turn left at the 'T' and carry on for a mile. Then you'll get to a four-cross ways. Turn right and you'll see the airfield up ahead on yer."
        Val was already moving when the boy said: "Wass on then?"
        "Motor rally," shouted Val. "I'm winning."
        "Good luck, mate," shouted the lad.
        God! I shall need it, thought Stearman. He reached the "T" in under the three minutes and turned left. The surface was deteriorating badly. It took a minute and a half more to reach the crossroads. Val poured the car around a right angled right-hander and looked for the airfield. A derelict hangar leered at him forbiddingly as he drove towards it. A few yards on a substantial gap in the hedge showed where a main gate had once been. He had nearly six minutes in hand. There was no sign of Jules or the others. There was no sign of La Noire. He looked towards a square wooden crate obviously of recent origin standing beside the hedge. In a crabbed semi-Victorian hand, someone had written: "Valentine Gregory Stearman." He grabbed a tyre lever from the boot of the steaming continental and attacked the case lid. It yielded ungraciously and he fought his way inside. There was a small radio transmitter and a large old- fashioned alarm clock with a loud tick. The transmitter was on. A note was propped on the side of the clock.
        "When the alarm rings the first lash will be administered. The dose will be repeated at one minute intervals until the clock is stopped."
        Val wrenched the clock from the case and flung it at the hangar. There was a certain satisfaction in the way it exploded against the rusty corrugated iron and fell in a musical shower of tin and glass splinters. He read some more of the note:----
        "After you have stopped the clock, turn the transmitter to 'receive' and wait for instructions."

*          *        *

        "I'm happy to tell you that the time is now ten minutes short of the limit. Perhaps you would be kind enough to strip to the waist . . . unless you would prefer the professor to remove your upper garments?"
        "I'll do it."
        Van Haak made a disappointed noise in his throat. La Noire slowly unfastened the silk blouse and unhooked her bra. She tucked them into the top of her skirt and stood, arms folded across her breasts looking at Van Haak and Jules defiantly.
        "The whipping post is over here," invited Jules. She moved towards it slowly and with dignity. He indicated the wrist shackles with the butt end of the nine-thonged whip. She drew a deep breath and raised her hands reluctantly. The steel bands fastened tightly around her wrists. She tugged experimentally but they were inescapably tight.
        "I'm afraid the ankle irons may ladder your stockings," smiled Jules apologetically. "Shall I . . . ?"
        "The stockings don't matter."
        "Your breathing seems a little fast, my dear. Are you afraid?"
        "It is wise to be afraid." Jules fastened her ankles and hung the whip on the cave wall where it was impossible for her not to see it. Time dragged with agonising slowness. She counted the seconds. Where was Val?
        "This little device may amuse you," chuckled Van Haak. "My own invention, actually." She turned her head slightly and stared at the radio transmitter/receiver in his hands.
        "What's it for?" she asked coolly.
        "I call it my Stearman-baiter," smiled the professor.
        "Is something wrong with it?" asked La Noire.
        "Oh, you've noticed the ticking," said Van Haak.
        "Explain," she asked coldly. Jules broke in on the conversation.
        "When our friend arrives at the airfield he will find a radio set like this one and, of course, the clock. If he stops the clock before the hour expires, Van Haak will be deprived of his innocent pleasures until a later date. But what he did during the telephone conversation ought to keep him going until we have you both safely in our hands."
        The memory made her shudder. Van Haak made an animal sound which reminded La Noire of the Moriarty voice in the Goon Show. There was nothing zany or in the least humorous about the professor.
        "Six minutes to go," sighed Van Haak.
        La Noire shivered, although it was warm in the cave, deep in the Berkshire Downs. The ticking stopped. Van Haak frowned angrily. Jules smiled at the fat man and shrugged apologetically.
        "You underestimated his driving," complained Van Haak.
        "Then you underestimated the car."
        "Again, impossible."
        "Then explain," challenged the fat man.
        "I overestimated."
        "His personal loyalties as opposed to his social conscience."
        "Please elucidate."
        "He could not have been there under an hour and a half unless he had driven through the towns and built up areas at a dangerous speed. There is no way of telling how many dead and injured are lying in his wake."
        "Then he will have attracted official attentions."
        "It is possible."
        "Shall we speak?"
        "The leader will speak." Jules took the transmitter and adjusted it. "Stearman, this is Dr. Jules, Master Brother of the Grey Order. Can you hear me?"
        "I can hear," grunted Stearman. Somehow the clock and transmitter trick seemed an anti-climax. He had envisaged a frontal assault on the trio at the end of the chase. There was something of the romantic in Val's make-up, a longing for dramatic rescues by cavalry at the eleventh hour. He had a Thermopylae syndrome.
        "Follow these directions carefully. Walk towards White Horse Hill," began Jules. "Just over a mile this side of the horse you will cross a bridle path. Turn left and follow it until you reach a black boulder in the shape of an eagle's head. Follow the beak's direction until you see two stunted rowan trees with a skull cut into the bark of the larger. With your back to the skull take a hundred paces across the downs. Search the ground and you will find a stone slab covered by undergrowth and bracken. There is a ring in the stone. Pull the ring and lift the slab. You will find steps below. Follow them, but first replace the slab. At the foot of the steps you will find three tunnels. Choose the left hand path and walk until you find us." He paused and held a whispered conversation with Van Haak. Jules was smiling as he gave Val the final instructions. "The professor starts work in ten minutes if you're not here."
        Cursing volubly, Val leapt back into the car and drove due west across the downs. The big continental loped into sixty in second and he changed up viciously. The magnificent car seemed to know what was expected of her, and like Turpin's Bonny Black Bess on the legendary ride to York she put all she had into it, The wheel bucked and kicked in Stearman's great hands as the car hit rabbit holes and small boulders. Shingle and turf were flung up in clouds. A front shock-absorber broke, then a spring. Val didn't care. He drove like a man demented. The broken spot light fell off, its bolt sheared like putty; the fog lamp followed. A low branch carried away the aerial.
        A hidden boulder stove in the nearside wing until it grated on the tyre. Val braked hard and leapt out. His great hands gripped the buckled wing and pulled. Veins stood out like whipcord. He sweated and strained for a full half-minute. There came a sudden agonised shriek of metal as the wing tore free. He flung it away with a curse and scrambled aboard once more. The continental rolled and bumped her way across the downs towards the horse.
        Val could see the great equine shining in the midsummer sun, white and fierce looking, twice as old as English history. He wondered who had first wrought it and why. His mind went back to La Noire as a low birch branch rattled viciously across the screen. A moment later a flying stone shattered the toughened glass into a thousand milky fragments. Without slowing down, Stearman rammed his great left fist through the milky threepenny-bits. They cascaded in all directions. The wind whipped at his face as the big car tore on. The paintwork that had been his pride was scored and scratched in a hundred places; the chromium was dented and grazed. She lurched into a tree as an unseen pothole jerked her off course and the handle of the driving door was left behind. Skidding and sliding the gallant continental closed the gap between the white horse and the desperate giant at the wheel. There was a crack like thunder as the offside rear tyre exploded. The continental lurched and swayed frantically. Stearman hung on like a Trojan. The back lurched and swayed sickeningly. Val revved up like the hammers of hell. The gyrating mirror showed him a horrible, undulating furrow where the ribbon tyre was dragging reluctantly.
        He braked again and flung open the boot. With the spare in one hand he grabbed the jack in the other and hoisted the car clear off the ground. A single blow spun off the quick-change wheel retainer and he thrust the spare into position. Another single blow tightened the replacement and Val pushed the continental viciously off the jack. Without waiting to pick it up, he leapt in and drove on. The horse didn't look more than a mile away. Hell! Where was the bridle path? He saw it suddenly, a worn brown snake among the grass, and braked furiously. The tail of the big continental swung round hard as he threw her into the bend. Time was running out. He was aware of an increasing desperation at the furlongs passed and he saw no sign of the black eaglehead boulder. It appeared with startling suddenness, like some evil bird of prey emerging from the ground, a phoenix in reverse. The smoking tyres of the sports car enveloped it in rubber fumes as Val turned the lurching bonnet in the direction the beak indicated. Another spring broke. The tortured transmission began to whine. The back axle was making a curious grating sound. It was obvious to Val that the car was close to the end of its tether. He patted the dashboard affectionately.
        "Come on, old gal, don't pack in yet." As though the machine understood it surged forward again over the rough surface of the downs. Val spotted the stunted rowans ahead. He slid down into first and crawled the battered continental towards them. Keen grey eyes picked out the grinning skull, carved into the bark and weathered by at least a score of seasons. He reversed around so that the tail was directly in front of the death symbol. Like some twentieth century buccaneer, an anachronistic swashbuckler, or cavalier born out of his century, Stearman thrust his foot to the boards and gauged the "hundred paces" as best as he could. Time was ticking out fast. He abandoned the car and began to search the undergrowth for the flat stone Jules had described. Even as he looked the ten minutes expired and great beads of sweat stood out on his craggy forehead.
        "Damn them!" he choked. "Where the hell is that slab?" Three more minutes passed as he searched frantically, tearing bushes and small trees out by the roots and hurling them aside like a wounded Titan in his death throes. At last he found the stone. His great hands closed around the ring and he tugged like a magnetic car smasher. The stone swung into the air. It weighed well over three hundredweight but Stearman flung it casually aside as though it were made of film set balsa wood. Like a fireman descending his pole, Val flung himself into the shaft. His feet barely touched the worn stone of the steps. He reached the bottom and paused for a second to recover his wind and accustom his eyes to the gloom. Then, like a wild bull elephant in search of its mate, the giant hurled himself into the left-hand tunnel.
        "La Noire!" he roared. "Where are you?" Ahead of him sounded the crack of a whip and a heart-rending scream. His great heart pounded like a trip hammer. His massive chest heaved like forge bellows. Sweat poured from his face. Stearman was not built for sprinting but he ran like a stag along the chalk passage below the downs. There was another crack and another scream, followed by the dull racking sobs of a woman in agony.
        Around the next bend he saw them. La Noire was writhing under the lash, her magnificent back covered with a score of angry red weals, blood trickling to the floor around her. Van Haak stood over her, his back towards Stearman, the whip in his pudgy hand drawn back for another stroke. Jules was watching amusedly. Kaugrim squated on the floor drooling and grinning like an imbecile. Val launched his great bulk at Van Haak. The fat man half-turned; he dropped the whip; his face contorted with fear for an instant. Val seized him by throat and stomach, raised him high into the air-almost scraping the cave roof-and hurled him head foremost against the wall. There was an indescribable sound . . . Van Haak was dead before his broken corpse hit the floor. Stearman swooped on the hunchback. Kaugrim had stopped drooling and grinning. He gibbered incoherently as the giant seized him by the hair, jerked him clear of the ground and delivered the coup de grace with a karate chop across the throat that all but severed the hunchback's head.
        "Thank you, Mr. Stearman. That will be all." Jules pointed a finger at the big journalist-adventurer and Val felt his strength submerging in a numbing wave of ice cold paralysis. His great body slumped helplessly to the floor. "You have served my purpose admirably. Now we need play games no longer." La Noire had brought the racking sobs under control, but she gasped as she breathed. Her lovely tear-filled eyes turned and rested on Val with a look of adoration and love that was out of this world. Jules continued his monologue. "The Dark Master selected three of us, his minions one might say, to carry out his tasks in a special way, and at the same time to compete against one another for a supreme office in the Dark Realm." He paused and smiled enigmatically. "I chose you, Mr. Stearman, as the most dangerous adversary I could think of. I hope you feel complimented by my choice." He smiled down at the helpless giant. "Of course, even your verve would have been unequal to the task without a little help from me. If La Noire can compose herself sufficiently to communicate coherently she will be able to tell you how powerful Kaugrim and Van Haak had become. Your vaunted physical prowess would have been worse than useless; by relying on strength and violence you would not have tried to combat them psychically until it was too late."
        "What did you do to them?" asked La Noire with a gasp. Her eyes indicated the broken corpses of the fat man and the hunchback.
        "I did nothing," protested Jules smoothly. "Mr. Stearman did the work; I was a mere catalyst, you understand. Perhaps I countered their mental powers at the last minute, neutralised their defences." He spread his hands in an affected gesture,
        "Judas," murmured Stearman from the floor.
        "An unsung hero," mused Jules. "The Christian churches are wrong in their analysis of his motives; he was a zealot of the most fanatical kind . . . He merely failed to understand his environment . . . a man who made the wrong reaction to a stimulus."
        "Now that you've betrayed your colleagues, what do you intend doing next?" asked Val.
        "That will depend largely on your answers to a number of questions."
        "Such as?" asked La Noire.
        "The secret of your immortality would be a useful bargaining piece." La Noire shook her head. Val gasped. "Didn't she tell you?" persisted Jules. "You must have guessed?" His inflexion rose interrogatively.
        "I think I suspected," agreed Val. "There were questions I couldn't ask . . . things I couldn't explain . . . a faraway look . . . her loneliness in a crowded room . . . odd remarks that meant nothing at the time and mean too much in retrospect." He dragged himself across the floor of the cave and leant against the base of the whipping post looking up at her tenderly. "Why didn't you tell me?"
        "I tried, many times, darling," she sighed, "but I couldn't find words."
        "It's happened before, of course," said Jules lightly.
        "Many times," whispered La Noire. She inclined her head.
        Jules laughed. "Handsome young Egyptian charioteers, Spartan hoplites, Roman cavalry officers, rugged Barbarian warriors, Viking sea rovers, noble Crusaders and the flower of European chivalry, a dusky Saracen or two . . ."
        "I get the point;" interrupted Stearman.
        "You've been a professional beautiful-young-widow, in a way."
        "It doesn't matter," said Val.
        "I knew you'd understand, darling," she sobbed.
        "Now let's get down to business," smiled Jules. "What is the source of the immortality?"
        "What do we get out of it if she tells you?" countered Val. A little of his strength was flowing back.
        "That's a good starting point."
        "What do we get?" asked Val.
        "Suppose I signed a truce with you?"'
        "Worthless," answered Stearman grimly.
        "You don't trust me, Mr. Stearman?" There was mockery in Jules's voice.
        "Not a millimetre."
        "Then it will be difficult to reach an agreement."
        "If I tell you about the immortality," said La Noire softly, "you will find the information of very little use."
        "Why? Is it from the cold fires of Ur?"
        "Then, as you say, the information would be difficult to use. Yet I am a practical-man. Suppose I offered you your lives in return."
        "The last two men who trusted you are in pieces on the floor," said Stearman grimly.
        "True," agreed Jules with an evil expression in his eyes. "Let that be an object lesson."
        "What if we refuse?" asked La Noire with another gasp of pain.
        "Then I shall take your immortality from you and leave you here to die of starvation in the cave."
        "I challenge your power to take it," she answered spiritedly. "Perhaps all three might have done after a great struggle . . . alone, you cannot."
        "You know too much," said Jules angrily.
        "Or we don't know enough," said Val.
        "I don't understand." Jules glared at the giant. Val half-crawled towards him. His strength was returning. "Be careful, Mr. Stearman," warned Jules.
        "Your 'fluence is wearing off," said Val grimly. "I can feel my strength again."
        "Don't count on it too much." Jules looked worried despite the confidence in his voice.
        "Do you get the feeling that this whole situation has stopped moving," said La Noire. "It's almost as though we'd slipped out of space-time into limbo, fallen into the gap between the worlds . . ."
        "Nobody knows what to do next." Val looked from one to the other, the woman he loved and the man he hated.
        "I can do nothing until you agree to trust me," said Jules.
        "I should need much more than your word, doctor," said Val. "The only collateral acceptable to me would be a gun in your back, or a knife at your scrawny throat."
        "There is no need for this personal attack; insults will neither help nor hinder any of us." Jules sounded precious.
        "Let me have a hostage and we'll think about doing a deal," said Val, rising slowly and with difficulty. Jules looked at him in disbelief.
        "I have a very high tolerance," said Stearman grimly. "Like Rasputin----I'm not an easy man to kill." He looked across at La Noire. "Get her down off there."
        "Not yet," smiled Jules craftily. "I may not have finished."
        "The three of you committed suicide the moment you touched her," said Val grimly. It was no empty threat. "You've finished."
        "The keys are in my pocket," said Jules. He patted the side of his long black jacket. "Are you strong enough to take them?"
        "I will be in a minute," Val assured him.
        "Perhaps you'd like a second dose of my power?"
        "I don't think it would be too difficult to deal with."
        "You overestimate your powers of survival. My paralysis is cumulative. Would you like to spend the remainder of your mortal life in a wheelchair?"
        "Would you like to spend yours in this cave?" countered Val.
        "Words," laughed Jules. "I no longer fear death."
        "Van Haak and Kaugrim had tried it before, They didn't seem to enjoy the second encounter."
        Val could feel his strength surging back. It was like recovering from a king-sized hangover----the nausea and weakness came and went in waves.
        There was an odd yet vaguely familiar rumbling sound from above.
        "What's that?" asked La Noire. She looked anxious.
        "The keys," ordered Stearman. He lurched purposefully towards Jules.
        "You're not strong enough," taunted the doctor and produced a vicious looking snub-nosed automatic, to be on the right side.
        "Unsure of yourself?" asked Val. He lurched closer.
        "I'll shoot," warned Jules.
        "Something's gone wrong with the master plan," grunted Val.
        "If you shoot you'll never learn the secret," threatened La Noire.
        "We are all behaving like melodramatic children, instead of responsible adults," said Jules. He pocketed the gun. "Let's discuss the problem rationally. I want the secret of her immortality. You both want to escape with your lives. Very well, then, we have a deal."
        The rumbling sounded again, louder this time.
        "What is that?" asked La Noire.
        "Earth tremor, I think," said Val grimly.
        "What, in Berkshire?" scoffed Jules.
        A slab of chalk the size of a coffin fell suddenly from the roof; it caught Jules behind the shoulder and swept him to the floor of the cave. Val lurched as the ground shook. He stumbled and crawled towards Jules, groping desperately for the crushed man's pocket. Normally the keys wouldn't have mattered, but Val was functioning at about a quarter of his normal power. The keys were essential. He didn't like the look of the cave roof. There were dangerous fault lines all over it. The chalk was writhing and creaking like an ice floe under pressure. Another huge piece fell, crushing Jules beyond recognition and missing the giant by inches.
        La Noire screamed a warning and he staggered away from the fall area. A few awkward, painful strides took him to the whipping post and his great hands fumbled slowly at the staples and lock. He was furious with frustration as the metal refused to yield. In ordinary circumstances he could have torn the staples out like drawing pins.
        "I can't move them, darling, I'm sorry." He laid his great head on her shoulder and felt strangely close to tears.
        "Never mind, you're getting stronger all the time."
        "How much time have we got?" he asked rhetorically.
        "Perhaps there won't be another fall," she said hopefully.
        "Perhaps not," he agreed. They were lying and both knew it. More chalk fell. Val looked anxiously at the half-covered body of Jules. He wanted the keys desperately.
        "Look," cried La Noire suddenly. He followed the direction of her beautiful dark eyes. Water was rising on the cave wall, flooding the hollows in the floor, welling up towards their ankles.
        "The tremors must have disturbed an underground source," said Val grimly.
        "Go, while there's time," said La Noire miserably. He put his arm around her bleeding shoulders and drew her face towards his. Their lips met in a kiss that went soul deep.
        "That was a silly thing to say," he whispered gently.
        "I know, but I had to say it. I meant it."
        "You know I couldn't go alone."
        "Yes." The monosyllable was full of tenderness and appreciation.
        The water was rising,
        "I've got to get that key," said Val determinedly. "I'm much better, but not quite." He made his way through knee deep water to the heap of rocks that half-buried Jules. The dead man's face looked weird through the swirling chalky water. Val flung himself down and got one shoulder under the coffin-shaped rock that pinned the doctor's crushed body. The water filled his mouth and nostrils but he persevered and the rock finally moved. The flood was deepening. He rested for a moment, spitting out water and breathing hard. Another boulder fell, dangerously close. He dived in again and groped for the dead man's pocket. He turned the body round and found the gun. The rising water forced him back, but the cold freshness of it was reviving him too. Strength was flowing into him as the flood rose in the cave. He felt like the dehydrated remains of an ancient river god revived by the floods of spring when the mountains thaw. He lifted the doctor's cadaver clear of the water and groped deeper into the pocket. His fingers closed around a key ring. Dropping the sodden corpse dispassionately into the rising water, Val waded across to the post and began trying various keys in the locks that held the wrist bands. The water was over his waist and rising faster than it had been at the beginning. There was an ominous roaring sound from beyond the cave wall, as though a subterranean torrent fought its way along a secret course nearby.
        Finally he selected the right key. He released her left wrist and fumbled for the other lock. The key-ring slid from his hands and vanished into the swirling chalky waters. With a loud Anglo-Saxon expletive he plunged down after it. Controlling his desperation with an effort of will that was little short of Herculean he searched systematically, even trying to allow for the direction of the swirl. The water was shoulder deep when he found the ring again, and up to their necks before he unlocked the other wrist shackle.
        "Are we going to make it?" she asked calmly.
        "Probably not." There was no more time for lying. Time was too short for anything except absolute truth and ultimate reality. Val asked himself what the Ultimate Reality was and had to admit that he didn't know.
        Struggling like an otter under the chalky flood he finally cleared her ankles and held her up with his left arm as his right gripped the top of the post. The cave roof was uneven and they found a small air-pocket which the flood had not reached. It was painfully small and Val estimated that they would exhaust its oxygen in under half-an-hour. Still, if they didn't move much or talk . . . ?
        Why lapse into silence when it only made a few minutes difference, anyway ? Better to die like man and a woman than like vegetables.
        "Darling," she whispered.
        "Why did you stay?"
        "I love you," he said simply.
        "Is there any chance?"
        "Not really."
        "We couldn't get past the rock fall?"
        "We could try, but the tunnel must be flooded all the way to the steps. We'd never make it without breathing apparatus."
        "Funny the flood should have come just when it did."
        "Do you think it was more than coincidence?"
        "Impossible to say, really."
        "I was wondering if Jules's Dark Lord, or whatever he is, got tired of him."
        "For killing the others?" she asked.
        "It's a thought."
        "Are you sure it doesn't matter about . . . the others?"
        "Which others? You're confusing me."
        "The other men I knew . . . centuries ago."
        "Of course it doesn't matter. I'm no puritan monogamist----you know about my amorous little adventures."
        "It wasn't like that, Val. I loved some of them----deeply and sincerely----the way I love you."
        "Eternity's a long time. You've had a lot to bear. How many times have you lost men you loved?"
        "Too many"
        "And now it's happening again."
        "It's not the same. I'm dying as well, this time. My immortality doesn't include invulnerability or immunity to accident. I was just free from age and decay, and I've been incredibly lucky."
        "It must be harder for you than me . . ."
        "I don't know. I've had so much longer than you. I ought not to complain."
        "What do you think lies on the other side?" he asked. She kissed his cheek lightly in the cold darkness. The cave already seemed to have assumed the proportions of the tomb.
        "There must be something."
        "I suppose so."
        "Oh, Val! We've seen so much evidence for the supernatural. Death can't be the end. Spirits go on."
        "Do spirits make love? Do they fight? Do they drive fast cars down open roads and skim yachts over blue water?"
        "I don't know."
        "I was a pretty earthy character when we met at that seance. At rock bottom I still am. The everlasting barbarian warrior. The recurrent Phillistine: that's Valentine Gregory Stearman."
        "I love you, my Phillistine."
        "That sounds like Delilah talking."
        "I met her once, in Gath," said La Noire seriously.
        "My God! A cultured history like that in one mind and it's going to be wiped out by a few gallons of chalky water under the quiet old Berkshire Downs."
        "I admit it doesn't seem right."
        "I always had a hankering to die with the maximum of ostentation, assassinating an unwanted Fascist President or crash-diving a nuclear warhead on an enemy citadel, like the wild Texan in 'Dr. Strangelove'."
        "I shall miss little things, like jokes and cinemas," said La Noire softly.
        "If I find myself floating around as a disembodied psychic tadpole I shall protest to my shop steward," grunted Val.
        "Have you noticed that the air is getting hotter?" she asked.
        "Yes . . . time's running out, I suppose."
        "I wanted to say so much, Val, but mainly . . . thank you."
        "I want to thank you, too. You've been a wonderful partner and I always said experience outweighed virginity twenty times over!" He laughed suddenly.
        "What's so funny?" she demanded.
        "I was thinking of an old army song that could have fitted this particular situation. If old Fane wrote it, they'd never have the guts to print it."
        "Val, darling, I just thought of something,"
        "Not a way out?"
        "In a way."
        "You left it late enough," he grunted good-naturedly.
        "The power, my power, it came from the cold fires of Ur. Jules was right. But it was more flexible than he thought,"
        "There was another side to it. You could change it from living immortality to a kind of suspended animation . . . and there was room for more than one."
        "This sounds too convenient to be true. It sounds too convenient to be acceptable fiction either. If Bron writes this, they won't believe him."
        "I don't suppose they believe him now," she answered.
        "Tell me about this suspended animation business."
        "Merlin the Druid rediscovered it in the Middle Ages. He was originally one of the Immortals from Ur, but his power included a kind of invulnerability; it was stronger than mine. He had spent longer in the fires and knew their forbidden secrets."
        "Is that how he preserved Arthur and the Knights in Lyonesse?"
        "Of course," she answered quickly. "Merlin gave up his own power to save the others. They all sleep below the hill until the magic calls them out."
        "Are you offering to give away your immortality to preserve us both in this cave like Arthur's Knights below Camelot?" asked Val.
        "You know I'd give it gladly to save you."
        "I know."
        "Would it make any difference if I'd felt like that about some of the others?"
        "You're sure?'
        "I did want to save Erenos, the Egyptian . . ."
        "But you couldn't?"
        "Nothing I could have done would have helped him. I saw no point in sacrificing for nothing."
        "I agree."
        "But this time it's different. This time I'm doomed anyway."
        "Would you have a better chance if you kept the power to yourself?"
        "It would make no difference. But we both have endless sleep, or we both die."
        "Shall we try the sleep, the Merlin soporific?"
        "You can still joke?"
        "Barbarian humour."
        "I love you, my barbarian."
        "I love you, too, my sorceress."
        "We've had a good run."
        "A good run . . . the air's nearly gone."
        "How do we work the oracle?" he asked.
        "Hold me tightly . . ."
        She began reciting a strange incantation that predated the Great Pyramid. Her voice rose and fell in a strange undulating rhythm. The weird syllables fell from her lips like dark jewels. As the incantation continued, Val felt strangely calmed as though a web of silken softness and indescribable strength was being folded around him. His internal processes seemed to be slowing down. A deep drowsiness fell upon him. A soft relentless lethargy enveloped him and consciousness passed from him painlessly. He lay for a few blissful seconds in a dreamy twilit world and then the darkness seemed to close with a determined finality. He was completely anachoic.
        The milky waters sank slowly, to reveal the three corpses of the Grey Order. Val and La Noire settled slowly with the receding flood and lay magically asleep, protected in each other's arms on the floor of the cavern. . .
        . . . Perchance to dream?


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