Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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Wherever she went Kitty Brian felt those cold, baleful eyes upon her. They were following her, she knew, relentlessly, remorselessly—and would not stop until her slender, white neck had cracked under the terrible noose of the deadly, mysterious garroter. For how could she, a lone and helpless girl, escape the fate that had reduced strong men to gaping-mouthed, bulging-eyed corpses?
THE raucous tones of the radio flooded the room:
"—the saturnalia of extortion and murder that has so long ravaged Halesburg must stop," it was blaring. "It shall stop, if the decent people of our fair city will aid me. The sadistic, ruthless racketeer who masks himself under the name of the Strangler trembled when an aroused citizenry swept me into office with the command, free us from terror! He saw the imminence of his doom when the legislature of Massikota placed in my hands the one weapon I need to defeat him. He cowers now in his lair, shaking, afraid. Mr. Strangler: whoever you are, wherever you may be, your end is at hand!"
A gasp of indrawn breath ended the speech, but the odd quiver of fear that had underlain its orotund bravado lingered in Kitty Brian's ears. That fear seemed to have seeped into the very house, seemed to hang about the girl; a chill, miasmic shadow which the living room lights could not dispel...
"You have been listening to an address by G. Harold Corbett, district attorney of Hale County. This is WKUP, the voice of the Halesburg Courier. A short interlude of organ..."
Switch-click cut off the announcer's unctuous accents and silence smashed down, a brooding silence somehow pregnant with threat. Kitty's fingers tightened on the embroidery hoop they held. This was silly, this nervousness, this mood of chill apprehension that tortured her. Childish! Just because she was alone in the house for the first time since Dad's death. She'd have to learn to live alone. She couldn't stay in Uncle Frank's house forever, kindly solicitous as he was...
Sudden auto brakes, shrieking, pulled her startled glance to the shaded window. Skidding tires squealed. Running footfalls crunched on the gravel path and the frantic pound of the knocker on the entrance door echoed through the house.
Apprehension of midnight disaster struck color and warmth from Kitty's cheeks. Uncle Frank! Had the Strangler's killers...? But he wasn't mayor any longer. The futile fight had been taken from him... She was out in the hall, was unbolting the great oak portal.
The man's face was livid, contorted, his slight body taut, quivering. Words spewed from him in a thin terror-squeal. "Mr. Brian. I got to see him. Do you hear me? I got to..."
"But he isn't here," the girl gasped. "He went to New York..."
Her words jolted him back, as though they had been physical blows. "Then I'm done for," he groaned, "The Strangler..."
The rest was lost as he whirled, and catapulted down the path between black masses of shrubbery, toward the vague shape of a curb-parked roadster.
Motor-roar thundered, drowning the pound of his footfalls. As he reached the sidewalk a dark sedan hurtled around the corner. Something snakelike writhed from the careening vehicle's open window, flicked to the fleeing man's neck. He leaped—was jerked—into mid-air, soared grotesquely to crash on the roadway. He was a thudding black bundle bouncing, skidding, plunging horribly in the wake of the rushing murder-car.
The horror vanished, far up the glimmering midnight stretch of Halesburg's Pershing Boulevard. Kitty Brian's fingers tore at her neck as if the Strangler's noose were clamped about its whiteness to choke off the scream that sliced her chest, rasped her throat, and would not come. It had not happened! It could not have happened!
Could not? How many times had it happened already, in the past terrible year? How many times had the noose of the Strangler's killers garotted the throats of those who had refused his extortionate demands, of members of his own gang who had obscurely offended him, of witnesses to the flicking, lethal swoop of his executioner's loops...
TERROR surged, a nightmare flood in Kitty Brian's veins. Was she marked now for the inevitable death that had terrorized Halesburg so long? In the instant the black sedan had swept around the corner, the roadster's headlights had sprayed through its windshield and spotlighted the visage of the killer. The brutal, apelike countenance was ineradicably limned on the screen of her memory—and she had recognized it!
But Martin Glatow could not know it! Engrossed in his crime he could not have seen her. If Kitty kept silent the Strangler would never know what she had seen. If she shut the door, and went to bed, and was surprised in the morning to read of another body found, somewhere, with the red mark of the lethal noose around its neck, she would be safe.
But if she told? No one had ever lived to appear in court against a servant of the Strangler. No one at all—no matter how the police had tried to protect them, how secret their identity had been kept...
"... It shall stop if the decent people of our fair city will aid me!" It seemed as if the radio had spoken again, with Hal Corbett's shaken, earnest appeal. Kitty Brian turned. An invisible viscid fluid seemed to cling to her limbs so that she had to use all her strength to reach the telephone. But her voice was clear and firm as she spoke into the transmitter's black maw.
"Give me Harold Corbett's home, operator. And hurry. Hurry!"
LIGHT, its source artfully concealed, glinted cheerfully from the chromium fittings of the air-conditioned car. The staccato clacking of track joints, underneath, did its best to tell Kitty Brian that each minute of the train's smooth speed added another to the thousand miles stretching between her and terror. A thousand miles—but dread was still a hard, cold lump in the girl's chest, a queasy, slow creep of febrile chill in her veins. Dread that had accompanied her furtive flight across dawn-dreary fields, that had ridden with her the eternal, fearful day, that whispered now in the rush of speed-wind against the night-darkened panel of the window beside her.
She shrugged lower in her seat, tried to focus her attention on the magazine the news-dealer had sold her, but the print blurred into a mass of illegible grey as the nape of Kitty's neck prickled with the eerie, frightening feel of eyes upon her, of watching, inimical eyes.
But she did not again spin around in a futile attempt to trap the watcher. Each such attempt had been met by rows of inscrutable faces utterly disinterested in her. This time she caught herself in time. Yawning, she picked up her pocketbook from the seat, fumbled in it, pushed aside a tiny, pearl-handled pistol, extracted a red-enamelled powder compact.
The girl snapped open its lid. Her face in the small mirror was pert, downy-skinned. The chestnut nimbus of her hair softly fringed a high, white brow. But beneath it apprehension, unforgettable horror, peered from the tawny lambency of her long-lashed eyes. Lifting the glass as though to inspect the results of her ministrations she captured a reflection of the passengers behind her.
They swayed slightly, keeping time in a queer jiggling sway with the motion of the speeding train. The shoulder of a tired-looking mother supported her small daughter's blonde curls. A broker's billowing rotundity crushed his pince-nezed, professorial-looking seatmate, and their contrasting countenances were both dazed with the half-stupor of the long journey. Kitty's hand moved a bit. Across the aisle two schoolgirls chattered and behind them a man in a navy-blue suit was absorbed in a book...
Or was he just pretending to be absorbed? A pulse pounded in Kitty's temples and the compact dropped from nerveless fingers into her lap. From under the man's drooped eyelids she had caught the glint of a covert gaze fastened on her, of a steel-grey, baleful scrutiny stealthily sinister.
Breath hissed from between the girl's teeth and despair squeezed her heart with cold fingers. She'd been a fool to think that she could escape the Strangler. A pitiable fool. The grim, inevitable doom, through which he had fastened his tentacles on terror-haunted Halesburg to drain it dry, reached out a thousand miles to close upon her. Nowhere was there any safety for her. Truce for the moment, perhaps, in the train; but when the turbulent, terrifying immensity of New York had swallowed her his emissary would strike...!
How? With the noose that was the Strangler's favorite weapon? Or with a hail of lead that on occasion his underworld retainers had felled their victims with? Chattering machine-gun lead—there had been that massacre in Courthouse Square when a dozen policemen had been mowed down so that the one cringing youth they guarded might be kept from the witness stand... No use to appeal to the police. Even if they believed her...
"STAMFORD," a brakeman bellowed. "Stamford. Next stop New York."
Next stop—only a half-hour more and then—what? Only a half-hour to think. To devise some way of escape. Not for nothing did she bear that name, Brian, proud heritage of an ancestry whose fighting fame still lived in the sagas of old Ireland. Her pallid countenance frozen into an expressionless mask, she racked her brain for some plan, some inkling of a plan...
"Papers!" The train was moving again and the news-vendor's raucous shout echoed from behind her. "Late New York papers. Last chance for California and Massikota papers, delivered by airplane. Find out what's happened in your hometown since you left."
Kitty twisted about. "Have you got the Halesburg Courier?" she called, her clear voice flinging impulsive defiance at the man in the blue suit.
His head came up. His slitted stare sought her face, flickered away. He was a stranger to her, and some queer feminine quirk darted the thought through Kitty that under other circumstances she might have regretted that. There was strength in his flat-planed, youthful visage; an intriguing hint of the out-of-doors in his bronzed skin, in the tiny weather-wrinkles raying from the corners of his eyes. Then a puckered scar; a blue, healed bullet-furrow slanting from nose-bridge to his ebony hair, to remind her that he was a hired killer of the underworld, a paid dispenser of murder...
The train-vendor's bulk came between them. "Here's your Courier, miss. Fi' cents."...
Her own picture was boxed on the paper's front page and above it black headlines screamed:
THE STRANGLER STRIKES ONCE MORE
ROPE MURDER WITNESS VANISHES
Kitty's burning glance stabbed along the swollen, bold-faced type-lines.
Servants returning from holiday find empty house... No marks of forcible entry... No clues... Ex-mayor Francis Brian, uncle of kidnapped girl, is in New York, cannot be reached... Police net thrown out, radio cars patrol all roads.
"This time the Strangler has overreached himself," District Attorney G. Harold Corbett stated to a Courier interviewer. "His dastardly crime will not save his creature, Martin Glatow. Catherine Brian's eye-witness account of the brutal killing is in my safe, and under the new law it is admissible evidence against the prisoner if the person who swore to it is dead or otherwise unavailable to give verbal testimony.
"Confronted by the inevitability of his conviction, the murderer will break and reveal the identity of the mysterious Underworld King who has so long terrorized Halesburg. The Strangler is at the end of his rope, and his useless attack on Miss Brian shows that, facing defeat, he has lost his head.
"I regret, however, that overestimating the terrorist's shrewdness, I advised Miss Brian that she had nothing to fear from him..."
Nothing to fear! Kitty's mouth twisted bitterly as the threatening, ominous gaze of the Strangler's slayer bored into her back. Corbett had been terribly wrong, and even Uncle Frank only half right. His letter was in her bag, but its phrases, which had ignited the flaming terror that seared her now, were burned into her throbbing brain.
"Corbett's a criminal ass if he thinks the Strangler can't get around the fool law he raves about in the Courier. Documents have disappeared from the City Hall vault before now, as I know to my cost, and this one will go too. Then he will silence you..."
"Your only chance, my dear niece, is to flee Halesburg. Don't say a word, even to Corbett, for fear of some leak. Come to New York. I'll hide you here till the trial is over... I've made arrangements..."
"NEW YORK!" The brakeman's shout was a knell of doom. "New York. All out." Panic clawed the girl's breast as brakes screamed, as the terminal's clangor beat about her. "All out. All out." Down the car's long aisle people rustled to their feet, lifted valises from the baggage rack, their faces beaming. For them that cry meant homecoming, for her...?
She shot a glance over her shoulder. The scar-faced man was buttoning his jacket, was going back to the rear exit. Was she mistaken? After all her perturbation was he innocent of connection with the Strangler? He turned, darted a swift look at her, turned away. The glimmer of hope died as quickly as it had been born. She could take only one passage from the train and he would be waiting there for her.
Kitty choked down a sob. She rose, swung down her little week-end case, tailed on to the end of the line of passengers slowly vanishing through the front end of the car. Desperation hammered the chaos within her skull. Somehow she must evade him before she reached the appalling open of the city streets and he put the finger of death upon her.
KITTY BRIAN hesitated in the vestibule. Below her, the arrival platform was filled with a scurrying throng, with sweating, red-capped porters plying their trade, with lumbering, high-piled baggage trucks. The blue-suited man came past, his grey eyes searching for her.
Kitty was certain he saw her leaving the car as the crowd shoved him by. He didn't have to keep behind her, she must go along this platform to the brass-railed exit far up there. That was where he would lie in wait for her.
A luggage elevator came down through the train-shed's vaulted ceiling and alongside her a waiting truck lumbered onto its small platform. Yards ahead Kitty's pursuer was framed in a square of white light from Grand Central's domed concourse. He turned to make sure she was following, went through. He could wait, out there, but he would not be permitted to return without at least momentary delay for expostulation and argument.
The girl's heart pounded and she snatched at the baggage-man's overall-sleeved arm. "Take me up with you. Please take me up. Please."
"No, lady," the fellow grunted, pulling away. "It's against the rules."
Her eyes pleaded with him, desperately. "My husband—he's sent a detective after me." Kitty's hand slid to the workman's wrist and she pressed a crisp bill into his calloused palm. "Can't you forget the rules..." Her fearful gaze fled to the open door through which the last of the crowd dribbled.
"Hell! Old man gettin' leery, eh? Well I'm a sport, hop on."
She was on the lift and it was slowly climbing the open shaft—too slowly! A confused, shouting swirl at the exit spewed out a lithe, blue-clad form. It catapulted down the platform, hunched, leaped without perceptible pause, cleared the barred, man-high gate. Hands clutched the edge of the elevator-floor, pulled their owner breast high of it.
Kitty whimpered, slammed her small valise full into the scarred face... It was gone, she heard a sickening thud from the concrete below, and the ceiling line cut off her vision.
A scream fighting for utterance, she rose into the bustle of the terminal's baggage room. "Gees, you've got guts," the laborer exploded. "Wisht I wuz the boyfriend you're meetin'."
Curious faces gaped at the girl and the seamed visage of a walrus-mustached old man purpled as he started out from behind a brass-topped counter. "Beat it, kid," her companion blurted, starting her off with a hearty push. "Grab that taxi that's just unloaded out there. I got to do some fast talking to get outta this."
THE hackman leered knowingly at Kitty Brian as she paid him off, and then his gaudily painted cab roared away. It left behind a stench of burned gas and a dim silence, sinisterly emphasized by the far-off, unsleeping murmur of the giant city. The street was a narrow, dead ravine between looming, dark loft-buildings whose iron-shuttered windows were oddly blind in the pale glimmer of wide-spaced lamps.
A terrible loneliness invested the girl, and the dread of which her triumph at Grand Central had for a while relieved her was again an almost tangible pall oppressing her. She stared at the bleary facade of the low structure before which she stood. Could this be the hotel to which Uncle Frank's letter had directed her?
"At one of the better places you would be sure to be recognized," he had written, "so you will have to be content with a second-rate establishment." Reasonable enough. But could he have meant this battered wreck crushed between its towering, gloom-shrouded neighbors! Had the driver made a mistake?
Once-gilt lettering, tarnished now and flaking off, blotched the glass panel of a door through which grimed luminance struggled. Kitty moved closer, peering.
HOTEL HADES, the letters spelled. Hotel Hades! Her heart thumped, and then hysteric laughter quivered in her throat. Hotel Hardesty, it should be. That was the name in the letter. Hotel Hardesty. A gruesome accident of erosion had made of it that other, ominous title.
Fury at the panic into which her frayed nerves had tricked her flared up in Kitty and she fairly threw herself up the short steps leading to that door. She reached for its knob...
She spun around to a sudden shrill cackle of weird laughter, a high-pitched, mindless cachinnation tearing to shreds the street's sepulchral hush... Where had she come from, that straggle-haired, age-bent harridan who spewed mad laughter from across the narrow gutter? From which of the haunted, stygian shadows had she materialized to stand there, shaken with gibbering mirth, flinging at the girl a bony arm whose fleshless, gnarled fingers were curled to the ghastly similitude of a skeleton claw? An instant ago there had been no one there. Kitty was certain of that. No one.
The girl's skin was an icy sheath for her shrinking body, and fear crawled her spine.
"What—what are you laughing at? Who are you?"
She had managed only to whisper. But somehow the hag had heard. Her eerie laugh cut off, as if a faucet had turned to stop it, and her answer came to Kitty across the murk. "Ask him." A toneless, intonationless voice, like the voice of a phantom risen from some mouldering grave. "Ask him in there. Maybe he'll tell you. Or maybe he'll let you find out for yourself."
The weird accents soared to shrillness, to the humorless shrill cackle that had first announced the macaber apparition's presence—and ended abruptly as it had begun. Ended—because the woman who made it was gone! As if a nightmare had blinked out she had vanished, and there was only the pale glimmer of the dim sidewalk for Kitty to stare at, and the sightless, mocking gaze of the shuttered windows, and the flat, dark pools of shadow the street-lamps' feeble radiance could not disperse.
BUT she had been there, the shaken, trembling girl told herself. She had been there. She knew that she must convince herself that the laugher had really been there, that the hag had, perhaps, only jumped back into the deep blackness of that building entrance just in front of which she had appeared. The alternative was...
"Well, lady—are you coming in?" Kitty jumped at the impact of the dry, querulous question from behind her. She twisted about. The hotel door was open, held by a weazened, hunch-backed gnome of a man from whose knifelike shoulders a threadbare, gray alpaca hung loosely.
"Who was she?" Kitty blurted. "Tell me! Who was she?"
His head was grotesquely too big for his shrunken body. "Who was who?" His speech rustled as dead leaves rustle, stirred by a November wind. "What're you talkin' about?"
"That woman. That old woman across the street. She said you knew her."
He peered at her, and a curious look came into his eyes that were rheumy, bloodshot about tiny, colorless pupils. "I don't know what you mean. I've been here five minutes an' I ain't seen nobody but you, standin' there an' mumblin' to yourself."
The night, dank, damply chill, shut in on Kitty with the oppression of a nameless fear. "But—but you must have seen her. You must have heard her laugh..." She didn't recognize her own voice, so thin, so shrill it was.
"I ain't seen nobody and I ain't heard nothin'," the fellow spat at her venomously. "An' what's more I don't want no hopheads nor nuts in here. Jim Hardesty don't run no looney house. Good night!" He started to close the door.
Kitty threw her slight form against it, bore it backward. "You can't do that. You can't shut me out." Where could she go at this hour? How would Uncle Frank find her? "Someone's meeting me here... Let me in!"
She was inside, by the time she had finished, and the door had creaked shut behind her. "Meetin' you? What you say your name was?"
Dust choked her, and stagnant, vitiated air. "Catherine Brian."
Where was Uncle Frank? He had written that he would be here, waiting for her, but there was no one in the small, unswept lobby around which her glance darted, except the two of them.
"BRIAN," mused the man. "Brian. Oh yes. There's a message here for you." He shambled past worn, decrepit chairs, past pot-bellied cuspidors whose verdigrised metal might once have been gleaming brass, went behind a paint-peeled small counter and poked a yellow envelope out of one of a set of nicked pigeonholes that covered the wall behind it. "Here."
The high counter came up to the man's chin, so that Kitty could see only his head. The raw glare of a single, unshaded bulb, high up, showed her that despite its uncanny disproportion the yellow skin was drawn tightly over its bones, so that it seemed almost as if a jaundiced false-face rested on the drab shelf. He seemed to have forgotten about what had happened at the door, or was willing to ignore it. She was grateful for that.
She put her small valise down at her feet, picked up the envelope. It rattled in her shaking hands but she managed to get it open. "My dear," the note ran. "I've been delayed but I'll come to you as soon as I can. Your room's reserved. Don't leave it till I come. Uncle."
Kitty licked dry lips. She couldn't stay here alone. The musty atmosphere of the ancient hostelry was loaded with brooding threat, was creepily alive with elusive terror. She couldn't... But she must. She had no choice.
"You—you have a room for me?"
"Yes," Hardesty's sere tones rustled. "Yes. Upstairs." A tagged key clanked on the wood. "Jane! Jane! You've been sleeping there long enough. Wake up. Take the lady to one-one-nine!"
Whom was he calling? There had been no one in the lobby. The whisper of shuffling feet sounded behind. Kitty turned, wondering. Across the dreary space someone came toward her, moving with the weary decrepitude that imbued everything, animate or inanimate, within this gloomy inn. It was a bent, scrawny female, her emaciated form tight-buttoned in a black and threadbare travesty of a bellboy's uniform, skirted in concession to the sex of its wearer. The shadow of a pillar obscured her face, slid away—and incredibly it was the raddled countenance of the hag who had laughed at the girl—who had laughed and vanished!
"Oh no-o-o!", Kitty moaned, staggering back against the desk. "No-o-o!" The touch of the wood threw her away from it, threw her to the entrance. Her icy fingers clawed at the rot-pitted knob, twisted.
Half perceived movement in the gloom-ridden street pulled her dilated, frantic stare through the smeared glass of the opening door... She flung back into the lobby, the fiery blaze of an earlier terror searing to inconsequence the panic that had driven her to unthinking, wild flight.
She staggered with outstretched shaking arms to the leering hunchback, to the glazed-eyed, gaping hag. "Hide me!" she mouthed. "Please hide me."
In the shadows, out there, she had glimpsed the lithe, pantherine form of the blue-suited, scar-faced man whom the Strangler had dispatched to destroy her! He was angling across the street, was coming straight to this door to rout her out of the sanctuary where she had sought to conceal herself from him.
"IN there. Quick!" Hardesty snapped. "Jane will show you..." At Kitty's gasped appeal the woman had grabbed up her luggage, was scuttling, with a speed uncanny by contrast to her apparent senility, through an arched doorway, and disappeared up an uncarpeted stairway that rose to obscurity behind it. The terrified girl dashed after her, darted up the murky ascent, came out into a long drab corridor, door-lined and musty with the same brooding threat that had filled the lobby below.
But here there was a sense of presences behind the shut, paint-peeled doors that were numbered by scabrous small plaques. Of a lurking life somehow not altogether human, tinged somehow with ineffable evil.
A premonition of dread leaped to frigid life in the girl's bosom. She slowed, half twisted around to flee from this macaber gloom. Below rusted hinges creaked, the hinges of the lobby-door. He was coming in, the Strangler's emissary! She flung around again, launched again into headlong pursuit of her weird guide.
Down there was concrete, real peril, the revulsion from this gloomy vista was only born of her shredded, quivering nerves. To have gone down there again would have been madness! Kitty gulped, grabbed at a door-jamb, swung herself through the door, far down the passage, that had opened to Jane's clanking key. Her frigid, shaking hands slammed shut the portal. She leaned against it, pulling dusty air into her laboring lungs, fighting for breath, fighting a glacial quiver of fear that jelled her blood.
She must get a grip on herself. There was nothing uncanny, nothing supernatural about the black-garbed woman who had pulled down its shade over the sleazy room's single window and removed the threadbare but clean-looking spread of an iron-posted bed. The bracketed light she had switched on threw her shadow across the counterpane, her movements made small sounds in the little chamber. Queer, Kitty thought, that she should be surprised at such signs of naturalness. It was beyond reason that this was the hag who so horribly had laughed at her. That had been some mind-shattered waif of the streets, Hardesty's disclaimer of whose presence was explicable enough. She herself had stood in front of him, hiding his view of the street, and he was, perhaps, hard of hearing.
That other though, the man who had pursued her from Halesburg, who had traced her here! He was no phantom of a distraught imagination. "He'll find me," she spoke her thought aloud. "The old man can't keep him from finding me..."
Jane turned to the girl. "No one gets by Jim Hardesty that he don't want to," the woman cackled. "He's too old a bird at this game not to know how to get rid of them as he wants to get rid of." The wrinkled, saffron parchment of her visage was spasmodically distorted by what might have been meant to be a grin. "You needn't be afeared o' that."
Kitty pushed herself away from the wall. "Do you think so?" she quavered. The need for companionship, for reassurance, made her forget her queasy fear of the old servitor. She seized a dry, bony hand in her trembling fingers, held on to it as a frightened child might clutch its mother. "I've been so terrified for days. Do you really think I needn't be afraid any more?"
Jane made no effort to release herself, but peered at the tremulous girl for a long moment. "Why," she muttered. "You're a dear little thing. You're not..." Some obscure emotion silenced her, some impulse against which she appeared to be battling. Her whole scrawny frame was shaken by a strange wavering; was rigid, abruptly, with decision. "Afeared!" she flung at Kitty. "I don't know what 'tis that's scared you till now, but it don't hold a candle to what there really is to fear in this hellhole. Don't stay here another minute. Get out! Get out, I tell you, afore..."
Then she choked off, her hand tightening convulsively on Kitty's. Her old eyes darted to the door, the faded pupils dilating, and a sudden, fearful silence was brittle in the dreary room.
A SILENCE in which a faint, furtive whisper of sound was terribly distinct, the hiss of fabric, of someone's clothing, rubbing against plaster in the corridor. "I'll bring you towels right away, miss." Jane said, somewhat more loudly than necessary. "Is there anything else what you need?"
"No, thank you." Kitty took the cue. It was hard, terribly hard to speak naturally while fear twisted at the pit of her stomach. "This is very nice."
Fierce entreaty in the woman's eyes warned her to inaction. It was as if Jane was saying, "My only hope is that he did not hear me." The withered hand shook as it reached for the doorknob. The grimy panel started to open and Kitty's heart contracted with dread.
The slit between door-edge and door-jamb grew, slowly. It seemed to Kitty that she saw the flicker of a shadow, moving away. Then the aperture was wide enough for her burning eyes to stare past Jane, and there was nothing outside but the gloom of the passage and the blank face of the opposite door.
A muscle twitched in her cheek. She thought, "Of course he got away. You were so slow about opening the door." But Jane was leaving the doorway.
Kitty grasped the key with numbed fingers, twisted it and heard the bolt click into its socket. Then something caused her eyes to fly to the window.
Something was on its sill! A bit of white paper! Only a jagged-edged piece of torn paper, but Kitty whimpered at the sight of it. It had not been there—she was certain it had not been there—when she had watched the old woman pull down that shade.
How had it gotten there? What was its meaning? Had Jane, perhaps, left it there unnoticed while her own attention had been concentrated on the sound betraying the prowler at the door?
Words were scrawled on it. "I'll be back," they said. "When you're alone." There was no signature. There didn't need to be a signature. Kitty knew who had written that threat. Hardesty had not admitted him but the man from Halesburg had reached her in spite of him.
The girl's flesh crawled at the thought of what Jane's presence had saved her from. Saved her only for the moment, his threat... He might be out there now...
She snatched her tiny gun from the pocketbook still clutched in her hand by ingrained habit, snapped up the shade, flung up the window sash...
Across a narrow area the high, windowless bricks soared. The hotel wall dropped sheer to the gloom of a malodorous alley. To one side a fire escape clung to the clifflike facade—and a shadow moved on its spidery ladder!
Kitty's teeth bit into her under lip. Her gun jerked up, at the approaching prowler. Her trigger finger hesitated an instant as the blurred climber was obscured by something hung over a landing rail—and behind her the light went out, flooding the room with darkness!
A rolling sound whirled the girl about. Intense gloom blinded her eyes but she sensed stealthy movement somewhere within it. She crouched, striving to penetrate the obscurity, striving to locate this new menace while the imminence of that other threatened her from behind. Something thudded, meatily, as though a limp body had struck the floor.
Her finger jerked, involuntarily. Orange-red flash jetted from her gun, the small butt jumped in her palm. The momentary light left an impression on Kitty's retina of a huge, dark phantasm looming just ahead of her, a shapeless, batlike form about to swoop down upon her. A fetid, graveyard stench assailed her nostrils. She was enveloped suddenly by a whirl of voluminous, musty cloth. Before she could fire again the pistol was jerked from her hand.
A SOUNDLESS scream rasping her throat, Kitty flailed out at the stuff in which she was tangled. Her fists battered unavailingly at the whirling, suffocating fabric. They met with nothing tangible beneath it, nothing to assure her that it was other than the creature of a nightmare with which she battled.
Eerie panic stabbed her, ran livid in her veins. An incoherent shout impacted against her ears. Incredibly she was free of the tangling, horrible maelstrom.
A concatenation of animal howls, of bestial snarling, burst out alongside her. Kitty was conscious that it came from the window whose grey rectangle heaved with a black, tumultuous mass. Realization pounded in her brain that this was her chance... She whirled, hurled herself to the door, her frantic fingers found and closed on the knob, twisted, jerked. The door resisted her efforts, would not open. Her other hand, automatically thrusting against the panel, was bruised by the key, just where she had left it! The door was locked from inside! How then, had the—whatever it was that had attacked her—managed entrance?
The noise of the macaber struggle at the window battered the appalling query from her reeling mind. She thrust over the key, the door jerked open. She plunged out.
Light, returning suddenly as it had gone, pulled Kitty around. Something on the room's floor leaped at her, photographed itself on the quivering screen of her brain. A body sprawled there, awkwardly contorted. The death-etched face of Jane stared at Kitty with mute reproach. A knife-haft jutted from the scrawny, pinched breast, and around the depression it made, the black uniform glistened wet with a gruesome seepage. The old woman had been overheard then, by the eavesdropper, as she was trying to warn Kitty of some terror that prowled the corridors of the hotel and swift punishment had overtaken her.
A muffled shriek jerked the girl's burning gaze to the window. A black bulk vanished through it. The rectangle gaped vacant, terribly vacant, but the shriek came again. Fainter. From below a vague thud sickened Kitty. The thud of human flesh fallen three high stories to concrete.
They had both done for themselves. Both the attackers who so terribly had menaced her. Fighting over her they had both fallen...
But—the edge of the window-frame was jagged by clutching fingers, and then a face appeared in the opening, a face across whose forehead a puckered, livid scar ran from nose-bridge to ebony hair.
The girl slammed the door and ran screaming down the passage.
A WOMAN screamed some incomprehensible phrase, a doorway suddenly open, was filled with a portly, pajamaed figure whose fat-drowned little eyes blinked sleepily. Kitty Brian shot past, winged by terror, reached the staircase, half-ran, half-fell down it. On the last step she lost her footing, catapulted out into the lobby, crashed, face down, on its splintered floor.
The girl lay there, the wind knocked out of her, half-stunned. Lay there and cringed, her flesh prickling with anticipation of a bullet blasting into her, of a noose settling about her neck.
"Kitty!" someone exclaimed. "Kitty! What in Jehosaphat...!"
She shrank closer to the floor, whimpering, not daring to look up. "Kitty," the voice said again, Francis Brian's voice, and his hand was on her shoulder. "Are you hurt? What's the matter?"
The girl pushed her palms against the floor, thrust herself up. Faded blue eyes peered anxiously at her out of a sunken-cheeked face pointed by a familiar iron-grey vandyke.
"Uncle Frank! Take me out of here! Take me out of here quick." She rolled over so that she could face the stairs, gazed fearfully at them.
"Why?" Brian exclaimed sharply. "What were you running from?" A muted clamor of voices from above came out of the arched opening, of questioning voices from a huddle she sensed at the head of the stairs.
"Dead," Kitty moaned. "Murdered, on the floor." There were limits to the audacity of the Strangler's minion, he had not dared follow her past the roomers whom her screams had aroused and brought streaming into that corridor. But he was still somewhere near. She knew now he would never give up till he had accomplished his sinister mission.
"Murdered!" said Hardesty. The girl had not noticed the hunchback hovering over them. "Who? Where?"
"Jane! In my room!" Hysteria pumping in her veins made speech almost impossible. "And he's there too, the killer."
"Yes?" Hardesty whispered. "Yes?" Curiously his gargoylesque face seemed to harden, to change into a mask of brutal ferocity. "In my hotel?" There was a gun in his hand and he went up the stairs, stiff-legged, passed out of sight. "Keep back." His command reached her, rustling against a murmurous background. "Keep back, folks, if you don't want to get hurt. The girl says there's someone been killed in her room."
Brian lifted her to her feet. She clung to him. "Take me away from here," she moaned. "Take me away from this terrible place."
He looked troubled. "I can't, honey. It's two o'clock in the morning. There isn't another hotel in town that would take us in, without baggage, at this hour. Hardesty has known me a long time and..."
"Mr. Brian," the hotel man called from above. "Will you come up here, please, with your niece."
"Come, Kitty," Brian said. "Come."
The girl shuddered, started to refuse, then realized that with all those people up there there wasn't any danger. When Uncle Frank saw that corpse on the floor he'd know why she couldn't stay here.
They went up the stairs together, Kitty holding her uncle's hand as she used to when she was a child and he came to visit her motherless home. "Why doesn't he call the police?" she quavered.
"He boasts that no policeman has entered here, on business, in forty years. He won't break that record now unless he has to."
A KNOT of people clustered around the door of her room, dishevelled, in pajamas, nightgowns, the women with curlers making grotesque halos round their heads.
Except for Hardesty, standing in the center of the floor with his revolver still in his hand, it was empty! Starkly empty. The corpse, Jane's corpse, had vanished!
"Miss Brian," the man greeted her. "Where's this person you said was murdered here?"
Kitty was rigid in the grip of a nightmare paralysis, staring at the place on the worn carpet where she had seen Jane's knifed body. What had become of it? Had the scar-faced man...? But that was absurd!
"Is this the room?" Uncle Frank said. "Are you sure this is the room you were in?"
"That's it, of course..." But, looking up, she saw her bag on the dresser, saw the plaque on the door with the number, 119. An icy tide rose within her throbbing skull, the tide of a ghastly fear. Reason could not explain what had happened to her, what she thought had happened. Reason could not—she snatched at a saving hint flung up from something in her subconscious, something she'd read. Murders in hotels were bad for business, were covered up...
She wheeled to Hardesty, her small fists lifting, her eyes blazing. "She was right here, your servant Jane, right there where you're standing, with a knife in her breast. You've taken the corpse away, you're hiding it!"
"I looked in here right after you came flying out, miss," the obese man who had gaped at her interrupted. "There wasn't nothin' in here that ain't here now."
"You lie!" Kitty swung on him. "You..." Then she was stricken dumb. Shoving through the gathering, towels over her arm and her fleshless lips mumbling some inarticulate apology, came the old woman she had seen, a knifed and lifeless corpse, lying on this floor!
A woman laughed. It was she herself who was laughing, who was squealing a wild, writhing thread of laughter from a twisting throat while dark phantasmal shapes formed on the walls, the ceiling, swooped upon her, merged, and swallowed her in a dreadful night of madness...
MADNESS! Kitty kept her eyes tight shut against terror. How could it be anything else but that? Such things could simply not be real. The horrible woman who had laughed at her in the street; the scar-faced man closing in on her, always closing in; the eerie attack upon her in the suddenly darkened room; Jane's corpse that was alive—they were all phantasms of a mind that had given way from the strain of long fear. Paranoia, they called it, she remembered, delusions of persecution.
No! Her whole being revolted from the thought. She was not mad! Not she. Not Kitty Brian. There was some other explanation... The silk of her nightgown was cool against her fevered skin. Her weary body was cushioned on a bed, sheets covered her. She had been asleep, had just awakened. That was it! She had dreamed it all. Was ever nightmare so real, so terribly, appallingly real? What would she see if she opened her eyes? The quilted walls of a padded cell? Or the room in Francis Brian's house where he had made her so warmly welcome?
She was afraid to look. Afraid... But she must. She must know. Now. Now!
Vague light danced, flickered on a dingy, cracked ceiling. A shadow moved across it—gigantic, awesome. The shadow of a thin head, horned and pointed-chinned. The shadow of Satan! Clawlike hands were silhouetted against the grey-white, swooped down at her clutching...!
"Are you awake, Kitty dear? How do you feel now?"
Uncle Frank's familiar, kindly face hovered above her, blotting out the fearsome shadow. "Where—where am I?" Kitty murmured. "Where...?"
"Still in Hardesty's Hotel, honey, but in a different room. You've nothing to be afraid of any more. Nothing at all."
There was tenderness in the way he said it and strength. Calming strength. "It—it was a dream, Uncle Frank. Tell me it was only a dream."
He hesitated, his look clouded. "It didn't happen, Kitty. But don't worry about that. You'll be..."
The girl sat up in bed. "Uncle Frank! Then it wasn't a... Then I am..."
"Hush, child. Don't excite yourself again. Just remember that I'm here now and that nothing's going to happen to you. Sleep. You've got to get some sleep so that when the doctor comes in the morning..."
"The doctor! But I'm not sick." She knew what he meant. She knew what kind of doctor he meant "I'm not...!"
"I'm afraid you are, my dear." Brian hitched closer and the girl saw now that he was seated at her bedside; that the flickering radiance came from a wick floating in a glass of oil, a nightlight such as she had lit many times in her father's sickroom. "I'm afraid that you have inherited a terrible illness—from your mother."
"My—mother—!" Her lips were numbed, frozen. She could hardly move them to speak. "But—but there was nothing wrong with her. She died in childbirth!"
A spasm of pain contorted her uncle's face. "Kitty," he said. "Ralph—your father—made me promise never to tell you." He took her hand in his. "But I'm afraid that you must know. If you are to make the best of the ordeal awaiting you in the morning, I must tell you. Ralph, if he were here, would agree with me. My dear, the mother you have never known, the mother they told you died when you were born, is still alive."
"Alive!" The word was a whisper of sound falling flatly on the air. "Alive! What do you mean?" She knew. She knew the terrible truth before he answered. The pound of her heart against her ribs told her, the aching throb in her temples.
"It wasn't death you brought her, Kitty." His fingers had slipped to her wrist, were tightening there as if to hold her down. "It was something far more dreadful. A life in death. A never-ending darkness. Fear incarnate shrilling through eternal night." His eyes bored into her ears, seemed to pierce, knifelike to the shrieking horror that was her brain. "Insanity, Kitty. Insanity. The day they took you home they took her to an insane asylum, a raving maniac. That is your inheritance my dear. That is the fate that has hovered over you from your natal day. That is the doom that has overtaken you at last!"
COMPREHENSION exploded in her brain, shattering hope; exploded with physical violence in her whole slim body, constricting its muscles, seizing her with a writhing convulsion that save for Brian's steely grip would have thrown her out of the bed. He held her down, with a strength unsuspected in his aged frame, held her as she tossed and fought to free herself while the uttermost terror that man can know seethed through her, ran riot through the giddy vortex of her consciousness, howled through the black and lonely aisles of her hopeless soul...
At last Kitty fell back exhausted, great sobs shaking her dry, tearless eyes staring at the man who suffered with her in her Gethsemane. "Mad," she whispered. "Mad!" And somewhere within her a hollow voice echoed, "Mad. Forever mad."
"That's better," Francis Brian said, releasing her. "That's a good girl. If we face it calmly we can make the best of it."
The corners of her mouth quirked with the laughter, with mindless laughter that fluttered in her corded neck but she choked it down. "The best of it," she parroted. She must not give way again. She must not. "Let me think." He was right, she must make the best of it. A sly, crafty cunning was born within her. "Look," she said. "Look, uncle. I can fool the doctors. I can fool them yet."
"What do you mean?" he questioned sharply.
She sat up, excitement pounding in her temples. "Look. I'll say I fell asleep in my clothes and had a bad dream."
A veil seemed to drop across Brian's eyes. "I'm afraid we can't get away with that," he said musingly. Kitty had never noticed before how much like a vulture he was... But it wasn't true, it was her madness making her fear even him. "All those people saw your antics, heard you say that you had seen the corpse of a woman who was alive and knew nothing about any attack."
"I'll say that I was so tired I fell asleep in my clothes. And you'll tell them that I've always walked in my sleep, that I've frequently waked up from nightmares screaming. It's natural that I should tonight with that man following me from Halesburg..."
"What man!" Brian's exclamation cut across her speech. "What man are you talking about?"
Kitty remembered that she had not told him. "I noticed him in the train, slipped away from him at Grand Central—a young man, nice looking except for a scar across his forehead, like this." Her forefinger stroked her temple, descriptively. "He—what's the matter?"
Brian had jumped up, his face a mask of livid fury for a moment. Then it cleared, was expressionless once more. "I thought that was one of your hallucinations, but... Kitty! I didn't come to New York to see my bankers, as I told you. Even though they defeated me for re-election, the people of Halesburg are my people and I was determined to spend my private funds to rid them of the Strangler. I hired investigators—they called me here because they had finally discovered his identity. His name is Allan Ford, they told me. And they described him to me. Kitty! The man with that scar is the Strangler himself."
"The... Strangler!" Despite all the horror into which she had plunged since her attempt to flee from them had begun, that name still had power to jell her blood. "He's here now! That's real anyway. He's here...!"
Brian's fingers were on her shoulders, were digging in. "Here!" he snapped. "What are you saying? I thought you'd gotten rid of him."
"I thought so too! But I saw him coming across the street. I saw him at my window. I didn't imagine that..."
Brian's thin lips writhed. "No! You didn't... We didn't figure on..." He was stammering, broken phrases that seemed to have no intelligible meaning. "I've got to tell Hardesty, he'll know what to do about it." He started for the door, turned again as a thought seemed to strike him.
"Listen, Kitty," he said. "I'll take care of Allan Ford. Go to sleep and don't worry about him. But get it firmly fixed in your mind that the best place for you is a sanitarium. The less you fight against commitment, the easier it will be for you. Admit your delusions and..."
"No," the girl flared. "I won't." From somewhere had come sudden strength to defy the horror to which she seemed doomed. "I'm not crazy. I'm not..." She couldn't keep her voice down, couldn't keep the shrillness out of it.
The Brian temper blazed in the old man's eyes. For an instant Kitty thought that he was about to strike her. Then, with evident effort, he gained control of himself, cloaked himself with an icy calm. "Perhaps you're not," he said soothingly. "Perhaps you're not. We'll see by morning."
THE door closed on his spare form, Kitty heard his footsteps moving away, stumbling, weary. He was exhausted, she thought, tenderness welling up in her, by loss of sleep, by the distressing scene she had made. He wasn't young any more. He was all she had, now that Dad was gone, and he was trying to do his best for her. For Halesburg too! That was so like him, keeping up the fight against the Strangler even after the city had repudiated him. He had been hit hard by that, poor Uncle Frank...
What was that? Uncle Frank's footfalls had died away, but the corridor wasn't silent. Something had brushed against the door panel, was slithering away. Rapidly but covertly, as though someone was following the old man, was stalking him...! Could the Strangler have overheard? If he had been lurking out there, if he had been listening, Brian was in terrible danger. Knowing that he knew him as Allan Ford the Strangler must silence him.
Kitty leaped to the floor. She flicked out the nightlight that it might not betray her by shining out into the passage, padded to the door. She forced herself to open it slowly, silently, though her pulses hammered and the need for haste twisted in her breast. She slid out into the corridor. It stretched away on either side, dim, empty...
This room was nearer, much nearer the stairhead than one-nineteen. Uncle Frank and the man who hunted him, had gone to the left, toward those stairs. To the right was room one-nineteen, where terror had first assailed her. Kitty recalled the fire escape outside its window. The Strangler, Ford, had only momentarily abandoned his designs on her. Brian disposed of, he would return to kill her! Through that room, out of that window, lay the road to safety for herself.
If she screamed a warning, aroused the people... but they would think her again seized by a fit of madness. They wouldn't believe her, would try to restrain her. While that was happening Ford would blast down Brian... She couldn't save Uncle Frank. She could save only herself, by turning to the right...
Kitty turned to the left. Her bare feet made no sound at all as she glided, her heart pounding, down the hall. She reached the stairs, held her breath as she peered below.
The opening into the lobby was an arch of pallid light. Silhouetted against it was a crouching form. A vagrant beam glinted from metal in Ford's hand, from a gun. It was rising, slowly rising, somehow more deadly because of its leisurely certitude.
If she could get within striking distance before the murder-gun brought to bear on its target! Kitty moved cautiously down the long stairs. A murmur of indistinguishable voices came from beyond the killer and he seemed intent on listening to them, holding his fire while he eavesdropped on plans for his capture. The girl's blood was a dark surge in her veins. Fear dropped away from her, she was conscious only of the clawing of her hands, of the quivering of sinews across the back of her shoulders, in her thighs as they tensed for a pounce.
Her toe caught in a hole in the carpet, made a tiny ripping sound. It was enough! The killer heard it, whirled. His gun snouted at her.
Kitty froze. Ford didn't shoot. He came up towards her, pantherine, his baneful gaze upon her, hypnotic, holding her rigid and voiceless, his free hand fumbling under the happing fold of his coat. Why didn't he shoot and get it over with? Of course! It was to be the noose for her, the silent, strangling-noose!
THE noose! A black filament coiled against the lobby-light, writhed snakelike, flailed down! Tightened—on the killer's throat! His gun arced away. Ford sprawled backward, thudded down at Hardesty's feet, at the feet of the big-headed hunchback who had suddenly appeared behind him and lassoed him. A terror-quenched gasp from Kitty Brian had warned Hardesty, in that last moment, and the Strangler was defeated by his own weird weapon!
Not yet! Kitty realized abruptly that he had thrown himself backward, at the first touch of the rope; in the only possible counter; had thrown himself toward the garroter to keep the noose from tightening. He rolled over now. His hands flashed out, gripped Hardesty's ankles. The cripple pounded down on top of him. The two heaved in a flashing moment of terrific combat. A fist rose and fell, there was the crunch of knuckles against bone. Ford sprang erect. He was tearing the lasso from his neck and Hardesty was a flaccid, motionless bundle at his feet.
Pent breath gusted from between Kitty's lips; the same breath the sight of Hardesty had stopped in her throat, so short had the combat been. The Strangler flung the rope from him, wheeled to come at her once more.
She whirled, hurled herself up the stairs. Ford's feet pounded behind her, and he shouted, amazingly, "Wait! Wait, Miss Brian!"
He thought, too, that she was insane. He couldn't catch her. He didn't have his gun to fling lead after her and he thought she would stop when he told her. She wasn't as crazy as all that.
She plunged out into the corridor again. It wasn't empty any longer. Thank God it wasn't empty. There were people here, dim forms clustered around the door of the room from which she had come. She sped toward them.
"Help!" she cried. "Help me."
"Here she comes," a strange, high voice sounded. "Get her." Terror clawed at Kitty as the figures turned, as she saw that they were cloaked in the white of hospital attendants, that their faces were concealed by the white half-masks of surgeons. Trying to stop herself she stumbled, catapulted right into their midst.
Hands grabbed at her, lifted her from her feet. A wet cloth smacked across her mouth, gagging her. Weird, bulging eyes stared at her. She tossed, struggling. The smell of ether was sickly sweet in her nostrils, in the back of her throat. A nauseous giddiness whirred inside her skull. The faces, the eyes, ballooned till they were large as half the world...
Her own head was a swollen balloon within which a sick miasma billowed in a vast vacancy. The vertiginous odor of ether permeated that aching void and twisted with impalpable fingers at the girl's stomach. The very wretchedness in which she was sunk brought her up out of weltering oblivion.
KITTY BRIAN opened her eyes and was not quite certain that she had opened them! For a nubian darkness pressed against them, a terrible absence of light so dense it seemed to have tangible weight. An utter, palpitant soundlessness rendered the awful gloom even more fearful. Except for a vague impression of limiting boundaries, near or far she could not tell, Kitty might have been buried erect in her grave...
Was she dead? Was death like this? Had they killed her, those specters in the white garb of mercy who had had no mercy for her?... Agony stabbed her temples, sent jagged streamers of fierce torture down through her rigid body...
Kitty tried to lift a hand to still the agony in her head. Her brain commanded, her muscles responded, but her arm did not move! It was awkwardly twisted, held in a long sleeve and pressed tight against her body. Her other arm was held in such a sleeve, and her legs were clamped immovably by a rigid, unyielding constriction that corseted her body from agonizingly squeezed breasts to ague-shaken calves! The sheer silk of her nightdress was no bar to the harsh pressure of some rough-surfaced, strong fabric that bruised her soft flesh, that rasped it to anguished rawness. Something like a jacket of canvas...
A jacket of canvas. A tight canvas jacket with sleeves tremendously long to bind one's arms! A straitjacket. That was what it was! A straitjacket!
A straitjacket! Kitty knew now, terribly she knew, what they had done to her, where they had taken her. Straitjackets are for the insane, the howling, violent wretches whose souls have gone down into the shrieking, hopeless depths of Bedlam!
And out of the darkness a voice spoke the word that quivered on the brink of her mind. "Mad!" A hushed voice pregnant with despair. "Mad!"
An arctic tremor thrilled through the girl.
"My baby. I've waited for her so long, so terribly long." Impossible to tell where it came from, whether from within the whirling hell of her distrait mind or from somewhere in the palpitant black. "But I have my Kitty at last. Mad—and mine at last." The voice streaked higher, shrill with gibbering triumph. "All mine forever!"
It wasn't her mother. It couldn't be her mother... The insane hear voices that do not exist. If she didn't hear it, if she could keep herself from believing she heard it, she was not insane...
There. That was better. She wasn't mad. She didn't hear the voice any more. That proved it, didn't it...?
A hazy, green-tinged glow assumed existence in front of Kitty, a shimmering vapor oddly luminous that did not so much dissipate the darkness as make visible a part of it. Make visible a seated woman cloaked in sombre black whose head was bent to the babe cradled in her arms. Kitty could not see the woman's face, could only vaguely distinguish her form, but there was something dimly familiar about her, some elusive reminiscence buried so deep in the mists of time memory could not evoke it...
The woman's black cloak was a little open to expose the ivory round of a breast the babe's head dented... A gasp of horror gusted from the staring girl. That was not the head of an infant. It was the lifeless, crudely modeled head of a doll!
And she was staring at nothing but impenetrable murk... The insane see things that are not. The insane...
The light returned, this time over her. Kitty threw her head back so that she could see it. It hung there, a viridescent cloud jagged by a black, foot-thick beam that jutted into it from an unseen support. The end of that beam was just over the girl and from it a rope dangled, a rope whose nearer end was a noose. The new hemp was stiff and held that loop open so that it was just large enough to slip over her head, to slip and tighten... But it was too short, by two feet at least. It was too short to reach her, to settle about her neck... Was it lower, imperceptibly lower? Was it coming slowly down?
The darkness blotted it out, and Kitty could not be sure. But it still was there.
"The only release from madness is death."
Who had said that? Who...?
A HAND, a naked arm, was struck out of the darkness by green light that illuminated it and nothing else. The hand twisted, its fingers writhing with some demoniac anguish that meshed the arm with a network of swollen veins. The arm folded at the elbow. The fingers clawed at something, at a neck about which a rope was knotted, cutting in! Bulging eyes leaped out of the gloom, an engorged face darkened by the purple of suffocation... It vanished. The flitting green spotlight of her hallucination pulled the girl's dilated gaze back to the noose over her head. It was lower! It was lower by six inches at least. It was descending, slow as the minute hand of a clock, as slow and as inexorable. The noose of the Strangler was descending, the noose of the terror that had made Halesburg a haunted city.
There was no more darkness. The light had expanded till it filled a cavern that to the distrait girl seemed huge as space itself. Shadows dashed soundlessly across a vague floor, gigantic shadows of beings grotesquely human. They were convulsed by a strange, appalling agony, by a torture against which they struggled unavailingly as Kitty herself struggled against madness that clamored for the last shred of reason she retained. They seemed to leap up from the floor, to take more solid form.
Over there, to one side, one of the shadows attained a spectral reality. It was the twitching form of a woman, and about her throat there was the red mark of the strangler's noose. The woman was Jane!
A feathery touch brushed Kitty's hair. It jerked her wild, staring eyes upward again. That which had touched her was the hangman's rope. It had come still lower. It was settling down over her head. In instants now it would reach the level of her throat and then it would tighten...
A scream pulled her gaze away from the creeping death. Another shadow had taken gruesome life. It had the contorted, fear-struck features of the man whose murder she had witnessed. In the moment she glimpsed it something snakelike writhed out of darkness, flicked to the man's neck. He was jerked into the air...
Blackness smashed in, blackness through which Kitty heard the roar of a motor surging away, the horrible bump, bump of a strangled corpse it dragged in its wake. Had that been a hallucination, too, the first terrible illusion of her madness?
"Come to me, Kitty," her mother's voice shrieked out of the ambient dark. "I can save you from it. Only I can save you from the Strangler. Come to me! Scream!"
That scream took shape in Kitty's throat, fought for utterance. She fought to hold it in. The noose was on her throat now, was tightening. Death was tightening on her throat. Death or madness. Death or madness. The rope constricted. Gibbering lunacy or the awful mystery of extinction. A pulse now, the space of a heart beat, and she could scream no more.
Terror of death, terror of lunacy, fought for possession of Kitty's soul. Now! Now she must choose or forever after...
KITTY pitched forward, crashed to the floor. The impact jarred her, but even as pain darted through her she realized that at that last moment of ineffable terror whatever bonds had held her erect had given way, had loosed her from the threat of the lethal noose. It was still about her neck but it hung limp, merely a rope now, not the throttling finger of death.
She was saved—or was this another trick her wrecked mind was playing upon her? For pandemonium burst loose all about her, an eldritch shrieking, the trample of many running feet, shouts, the thunder of blasting guns.
She rolled, was aware that light—real light and not the weird viridescence that had exposed horror to her—filled a large, beam-ceiled chamber walled by dirt-encrusted brick. Just over her was a gallows tree, a cut rope dangling over a waist-high post—behind it ladderlike stairs.
A maelstrom of fleeing figures surged near the opposite end of the basement. A half-dozen dark-clad men were advancing in a crouching crescent upon them. Kitty's light-dazed vision cleared, she recognized Hardesty among those who, reaching the impasse of the wall, had turned now, were firing back at their attackers. She saw the portly man who had tried to stop her first frantic flight, others who had been in the curious crowd awakened by her screams. She saw Hardesty go down, his grotesque countenance suddenly a bloody mask.
She half-understood now. The Strangler had captured her, had brought her down here to kill her. Because she had defied him so long he had devised the cruel, lingering torture of the leisurely descending noose. The voices, the visions—perhaps she had been temporarily crazed by her plight. Hardesty had led a band to her rescue...
But he had failed. The others from the hotel, their leader down, were throwing up hands in surrender.
Someone was coming down the stairs, moving silently. Long legs came into view, a gnarled hand in which a gleaming knife was clutched. A thin torso. The pallid, vandyked countenance of Uncle Frank! The knife in the old man's hand told the story. It was he who had cut her free to save her from the noose. He had had to flee the Strangler's descent, but now, with infinite courage, he was returning to complete the rescue.
Crisp footsteps detached themselves from the mutter. Ford was coming toward her, his gun still in his hand. Too late! He would see Uncle Frank...!
"Uncle Frank," she screamed. "Run. He's coming. Run. Save yourself."
The old man heard her, but valiantly he came on, leaping to her in a frantic but hopeless effort to still save her from the Strangler. He reached her, knelt, his eyes glittering strangely. His knife lifted, started to slash the strait jacket...
Ford's gun crashed. Brian jolted away from Kitty, slammed down, sprawled, twitching. Ford was bending over her, his smoking gun snouting at her. Kitty gathered herself to receive the tearing lead.
IT did not come. The Strangler thrust the weapon into his pocket, his hands, closed on her shoulders.
"Shoot me," Kitty mouthed. "Please shoot me. Don't hang me. Kill me with a bullet."
Peculiarly, her plea seemed to stun the killer. His mouth worked. "I'll be damned!" he ejaculated. "Who do you think I am?"
"Who? The Strangler, of course."
He whirled away from her, was lifting Uncle Frank. Death's grey pallor already spread over his seamed countenance, a scarlet dribble oozed from the corner of his mouth. A burned hole over his breast, a crimson stain, told where he had been hit.
"Brian," Ford yelled. "Brian! You are done for. You're finished. Tell her, for God's sake before you pass out."
Brian stared glassily, unseeingly. But his lips writhed. "Kit—ty." It wasn't his voice any more. "I—am the Strangler. I—fooled everybody except—" A red bubble popped from his lips, burst. He didn't say any more. He never would say anything any more.
"Uncle Frank," Kitty moaned. "The Strangler. Then—then who are you?"
"Allan Ford. Department of Justice." He laid the old man's body carefully down, turned to her and started tugging at the straitjacket straps.
"Corbett's an old college chum of mine. He asked me for help. I went to Halesburg, uncovered various traces that made me suspect your precious uncle. But they weren't evidence, and I couldn't do anything officially as long as he confined his activities to Halesburg. I did watch his mail however, steamed open his letter that brought you here.
"That stuff about your affidavit being stolen was pure bunk, and we thought he was simply getting you here to persuade you to repudiate it. His use of the mails might bring the D.J. into the picture if that was true.
"That little fracas at Grand Central delayed me, but of course I knew where you were going. I came here, started to enter the lobby when it occurred to me that maybe the hotel man was part of his gang. As it turned out he was.
"I located your room by the light coming on, climbed the fire escape to see if I could manage to listen in. That hag's talk got me worried about you. I slipped a note under the window, went down to take a look around. When I came back you were fighting with a fellow dressed in a lot of black draperies.
"He saw me at the window, hopped me. I thought I was a goner for a minute but I managed to pull him through, sling him down to the walk. You saw me from the door, and screamed.
"I pulled back, but kept watching. The hag jumped up from the floor, pushed the dresser and went out through a door to the next room that it hid, pulling it back in place—"
"That was how they got in," Kitty gasped. "But why didn't they kill me? They could have..."
"Wait a minute, girl. I couldn't do anything—just then. You had the whole place in an uproar. I ducked down to the street again, 'phoned for help from the local office of the D.J., poked around, found there was a way in from the street that didn't lead to the lobby and used that."
"She used it too, after she laughed at me."
Kitty explained, Ford grimaced. "So they'd started right in, eh? Well, you weren't in room 119. I didn't find out where they had moved you till Brian came out of another room. I followed him, was getting an earful of his talk with Hardesty that pretty well completed my case when you showed up.
"I thought that was my chance to put you wise, but Hardesty noosed me, and by the time I got rid of him you'd jammed the works. I got out of the place by the skin of my teeth. Your uncle chased me, I ducked him, met my men and posted them. But I wanted to get you out before the fireworks started. Once more you had vanished and the damned place was deserted. I nearly went nuts tracking you down. Finally I uncovered a concealed hatchway.
"I crept down here, found them going through a lot of hocus-pocus with a green spot-light, black-out skits, hidden voices and so on. There's a half-dozen broken-down old actors been staying here."
THE straitjacket came free. Kitty was free to move again, but she lay there staring up at him. "Why," she sobbed. "Tell me why they did all that to me?"
"Don't you understand? That affidavit had Glatow on the way to the chair and he would have spilled the whole works to save himself. Brian was on the spot. He didn't dare kill you; that would have only made matters worse because then the deposition couldn't have been shaken. But if you were insane it wouldn't be worth the paper it was written on. So he got you here to make you that way. You fought back, but the more you fought the more determined he was to succeed. This business down here was his final resort..."
"And except for you, it almost succeeded." Again a long shudder ran through the girl. "Then—then none of it was true. Not even that my mother was—was..."
"I hope not." Something warm, bold, came into Ford's gaze upon her, and for the first time Kitty realized that the flimsy sheerness of her nightdress was all too revealing. A hot flush mounted to her cheeks. "I don't mind marrying the niece of a murderer but I wouldn't want my children to have any insanity in their blood. Not any, that is, except this kind."
And then he had lifted her in his arms, was holding her close to him while his lips sought hers in a long kiss.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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