Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.

ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

RIVERFRONT HORROR

Cover Image

First published in Terror Tales, February 1935
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2016
Version Date: 2016-07-27
Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan

Only the original raw text of this book is in the public domain.
All content added by RGL is proprietary and protected by copyright.

Click here for more books by this author



The Thing that came up from the fog, to strike fear to the hearts of the wretched inhabitants of New Deal Town, was only a ghostly black horror glimpsed in the greyness. Yet it struck with rending claws of steel, leaving behind it mangled, headless tokens. It was spawned of hell, no human thing—but one by one it was driving them, screaming, from their last refuge!...



Cover Image

Terror Tales, February 1935



TABLE OF CONTENTS



I. — ATTACK IN NEW DEAL TOWN

THE night it all happened, we were feeling pretty high in the hut that Jim Hawks and I had made out of wood scrap and old tomato cans. Marge Beals had started to sing a song. Mother Machree it was, and I forgot everything else listening to the kind of husk in her voice that makes it hard for me to swallow. I didn't hear the yowling of Red Connors and Rat-Face Floyd from under the railroad embankment over their smoke—that stuff they stew out of rubbing alky and throw into their lead-lined guts. I didn't hear the slither of the river sliding by under the fog. I didn't even hear the bawling of the ferry-boats—till that one hoot, so close and loud it drowned out the quivery sadness of Marge's singing—and ended in a high, thin scream!

Wow! It was like somebody stabbed a knife right through the dark, and the shack wall, and into my chest. I saw the girl's mouth stay open without any sound coming out of it, and her eyes were all of a sudden big and round and black with the scare of that shriek. I saw Jim's face go the color of a dead fish's belly.

Then the scream came again, wire-edged with pain and something more terrible than pain, and it cut off right in the middle. Then there wasn't any more noise except the hoot of boats feeling along in the fog like blind men, and the rasp of our breathing that made the silence more silent and scary.

In the bunch of lopsided shacks made out of broken boxes, rusting sheet-iron and what have you that we called New Deal Town, we were used to screams. But this one was different. It wasn't any souse that had made it, nor any cokey. You knew the guy that had screamed that way had seen something a man wasn't supposed to see, and it had killed him, and he'd gone crazy before he died.

Marge moved first, twisting to the door and reaching her little hand to open it. That got Jim and me started. We jumped up together. I shoved the kid aside, barking, "Stay here. We'll go!" And my buddy and I jammed in the doorway.

In the seconds it took for us to get through, the yellow fog outside came alive with guys yelling and the squeals of rusty opening hinges and the pound of running feet.

I pushed hard, tumbled as I came out, scraped my face with mud and cinders. As I twisted to get up, Jim pounded by me towards the hollering of the gang, that was going away towards the other end of the muck plot. There was someone else alongside of me. Marge said, "Hen, is that you?" and I felt her little hand on mine. She helped me get up and I started to follow Jim.

"Wait," Marge whispered. "Wait, Hen." I could hear her teeth clicking through her words.

I started to whisper something. Only started—I didn't finish. Because just then the light from the shack-door was gone, and something big and black and shaped like nothing God ever made was there instead, and it was lunging at us like a big bird come out of the fog. I saw a tremendous black wing and hooked claws flashing silvery like, and I yelled and threw myself at Marge. The two of us went down in the mud and the big thing missed us and pounded past.

My yell was answered by yells from the gang and I heard the bunch coming. But I heard something else that made gooseflesh all up and down my backbone. It was a laugh, a laugh thin and loud and screechy and terrible...

Marge pulled at me, pulled me up. "Come on," she gasped. "Come on. It went this way." Nuts. The girl was nuts, but she started away and I couldn't let her go alone.

I didn't catch her till she was stopped by the river. I grabbed her. "What's the big idea, Marge?" I said. "Running—"

"Hush," she whispered. "Hush. Listen."

I shut up. I couldn't hear a thing, nearby, except the oily lap-lap of the river along the rock. The gang hadn't seen us go, and we were alone there.

We were alone, and we weren't. There was someone else there, someone or some thing else. I couldn't see it. I couldn't really hear it. It just was there, if you know what I mean. A feel like eyes on the back of my neck. But no sound, not anything to let me know I was right. Nothing except the little shiver of Marge's slim, cold hand in mine and a whimper from her throat that told me she felt it too.

And then, like the snap of a finger, whatever it was, was gone. But a footfall thudded over to one side of us. I jerked around, started to go after it, stubbed my toe in something soft, and tumbled again. Tumbled and came down hard on something limp laying there. My arms flailed out. One hand splashed into the cold wet of river water. The other touched something wet too—a warm, sticky wetness on skin—on human skin.

I gagged, fought to get away from what I had fallen on. I pushed myself up. Right under me I saw a red face, a face that was red because it was drenched with blood like as if someone had poured a bucket of the stuff over it!

It was lopsided and all twisted around, but I knew it. "Baldy Thomas!" I said, and looked at the top of his head to make sure. My stomach came up into my throat. Because there wasn't any top to his head. His skull had been peeled open like you peel the shell off a soft-boiled egg. And the mess inside was awful.

I was sick. So sick that I didn't think to wonder where the light was coming from that I saw by. But something clicked, and it was dark again. I managed to get to my knees, and to my feet, without touching it again. Then I knew that the light had been from a flashlight and none of us had one, and I grabbed at where I judged the light had come from.

I caught hold of a coat lapel and held on tight. The sounds I squeezed out of my throat didn't make words, and then they did. "Who're you? What—what are you...?"

The man kind of gasped and jerked away. My hand slipped along the coat edge, caught against a button. A fist exploded against my jaw, rocked me back. And in that minute the fellow tore away. I heard foot-thuds running off.

I shook my head to clear it. Marge yelled, "Hen! Are you all right? Hen!" and I felt her grab hold of me. Then there was a lot more shouting all around, and I knew the bunch had found us.

Someone scratched a match, cursed, and I knew he had seen what was left of Baldy. I pushed against Marge, pushing her out of the mob. That wasn't anything for a dame to look at.

"What was it, Hen?" Her voice was like silk tearing. "What awful thing was that behind us just before—before you jumped away from me?"

It takes a woman to crack to the kernel of a nut. As soon as she talked about it, I somehow knew that what had happened to Baldy was only the beginning. No, I haven't got second sight, or anything like that, but I knew just like I had seen them that there had been hate in the eyes watching us from the fog, and a yen to kill that wouldn't be satisfied with just the one stiff. What had been done to Thomas was a giveaway on that too. Back home—don't ask me where that is—there was a sheep-dog went killer once, and something about Baldy's corpse reminded me of the ewes we found in the field the next morning. But this time it was us the killer was after, and not sheep.

"Listen," I said. "Listen kid. Where's Mom Stone?"

"I don't know. In our shack, I guess. She was lying down when I came over to yours."

Mom was the little old dame Marge lived with. A sweet-faced old lady with hair white and soft as the little clouds you see in the morning sky. Kind of gentle too. She and Marge made a pair, though the kid was nineteen and Mom three times that. There wasn't a guy in New Deal Town wouldn't lay down and let either of them walk all over him if it did them any good, and that goes for Red Connors and his mob of hoboes as well as the rest of us what have hopes of going back to our trades sometime.

I say to Marge, "Well, I'm taking you to her, and you're barring the door, and then I'm going for the cops." While I'm saying this I start walking, shouldering her gentle-like toward the little rise about the middle of the lot where their hut is.

"The cops! Hen, some of the boys—"

"Yeah. I know some of the boys won't like it. But they've got to take their chances. This thin—"

I stop as wood crashes somewheres ahead and there's another shriek. It's a regular banshee howl, but Marge plops out, "That's Mom," and starts running. I take out after her, catch up and pass her just as Mom yells again.

I feel the ground lift under me. Sudden-like there's a lighted doorway in front of me and there's something coming out of it. A man? Well, maybe. But all I see as I jump for it is fluttery blackness, big as King Kong, it seems like, and two green spots of light like cat's eyes.

I spring, throw an overhand left jab at those eyes. It lands square...

But it seems like my knuckles just smash! An awful pain shoots up my arm. I screech. Then a locomotive hits the side of my head and I slam up against the side of the shack, slam into blackness. A screaming, crazy laugh follows me out, a laugh that turns my blood cold...



II — I PUT HER ON THE SPOT

THERE'S hammers pounding in my head. Light and shadow do a crazy jig in front of my eyes that are open but don't see anything. My left fist feels like pulp and my left arm is paralyzed. A ratty thought slides through my head that I must have hit rock or metal. My other hand is clenched tight too, and there's something hard in it, something small and hard. I wonder dumb-like what it is.

I'm laying on my side in the doorway of Marge's shack. I'm facing in and the floor gets clear to me, the floor a couple of us have made for Mom and Marge out of boards we lugged from a wrecking job on the Boulevard. It's the only wood floor in the settlement and I remember the feel of the old dame's thin lips when she kissed me for finishing it. She scrubbed it every morning to keep it clean.

It isn't clean now. It's all over mud from the broken shoes that's trampling it. I look in between sockless ankles and frayed pants bottoms, and see the white sheet hanging down over Mom Stone's cot.

But that isn't white either. It's red. It's dripping red and the smell of the blood that's making it red comes to me through all the other smells, warm and sickish.

Then someone moves, and I see the old dame is still on the cot, and I see where her head ought to be. Gees! I get sick all over. Hell! I've been through a lot, and I've seen a lot, and I can take it. But I couldn't take that.

There was others couldn't take it too. There's a squeal like a stepped-on dog and Rat-Face Floyd comes busting out, howling. His face is like jello without any color in it and two little coals for eyes. "I'm getting out of here!" he squeals. "Fast as my dogs will take me."

And that, for some reason, gives me a laugh. Only this afternoon we were all sort of celebrating because the papers tell us we're gonna be allowed to stay in this God-awful place!

I can still see that clipping, which all of us had read so many times. It had sure enough given us a kick!


New Deal Town To Continue
G. Watts Condon's Plea for Squatters Wins

An application for condemnation of waterfront property occupied by homeless men and women was today denied in the Supreme Court. In his decision Judge Barton said that the prospect for private profit so overshadowed any public interest in the proposed development by the applicant, the Riverbank Corporation, that he saw no reason to disturb the squatters who have found refuge on the land in question.

"I wish particularly to commend," he continued, "the self-sacrifice of Mr. Condon, owner of the property, who appeared before me in opposition to this motion. I happen to know that Mr. Condon refused a munificent offer for the property solely because of his reluctance to deprive unfortunates of the asylum they have found on his land. The gentleman has this once again added to the philanthropies for which he is publicly revered."

Richard Barkley, the young attorney representing the Corporation, again refused to reveal the identity of its backers.


We'd been feeling pretty high—then. For though New Deal Town ain't no luxurious place, it's sure enough a devil of a lot better than city flop-houses and the like of that. And we ain't got any other place to go... Now, though, it don't seem so healthy.

Someone else shoots past me so fast I can't see who it is, and this bozo steps on my busted hand. That pulls a yell out of me my old man must have heard in Wyoming. Everything goes dark for a second, and when I can see again Marge is on her knees beside me, shutting out sight of what's in the shack, and she's blubbering, "Hen! You're hurt You're terribly hurt."

There's a girl for you! Not pretty. No, not pretty at all. But I'd a damn sight rather look at her pushed-up little nose and her eyes that's always been crinkly-cornered with smiles, and her mouth that's kind of—kind of clean and sweet—than at the best looker in Minsky's chorus. When she looked at you, straight and level, you got uneasy and a little ashamed thinking of all the rotten things you'd done in your life. She's sort of boy-like, with her short-cut hair that's like a cap of curly fur. Boy-like in the grinning way she takes the tough breaks that's brought her to New Deal Town from—no, I can't tell that, even now. If I told her real name you'd know it, and you'd remember a piece in the paper along about November 1929 about a certain banker and his wife taking a dive from a top-floor hotel window. Or maybe you wouldn't because there was lots of pieces in the paper like that just then, and you might of forgotten all about it, like Marge's ritzy friends forgot all about her. No. I can't tell you no more. I promised her not ever to spill it.

But boy-like as she was, Marge was all woman, make no mistake about that. If things had been different with me...

There's no smile in her eyes now, but she ain't thinking of herself. "You're hurt, Hen," she says again, and pulls at me, trying to get me straight.

"No," I push through teeth that I can't get apart. "No. I'm all right. Just—knocked cuckoo for a minute. I'll be all right." I'm trying to stop the squirrels that's running around inside my brain-cage, trying to think what's best to do for her. "Where's—Jim?"

"In there." Her lips twitch when she says it. "Looking at—Mom."

"Call him."

Jim's mug is frozen, when he gets to us, but his shirt's torn just above the rope holding up his pants and I can see his belly-skin quivering. "Waddye want, pal?" he grunts.

"I want—out of here and I can't make it," I groan. I didn't really know if I could and I wasn't trying. "You'll have to—help me get to—our dump."

There's a flicker in Jim's eyes that makes me guess he's tumbled, and what he says tells me he has. "Sure. You oughta get inside. But you're no light weight and—"

"I'll help," Marge sticks in, just like we'd put the words in her mouth. "Take his shoulders Jim, and I'll lift his legs." You see, I was figuring on getting her inside our hut. With the three of us together, and something jammed against the door she ought to be fairly safe till someone gets sense and calls the cops.

But they've just got me to the shack when the third yell cuts the fog, this time from the top of the railroad embankment.

As luck would have it, I'm facing that way and just then the fog all lights up with the searchlight of a coming loco. I see the big, black, shapeless thing up top there, see its arm like a huge wing come down again on a smaller black shadow, and hear—hear, I tell you—the crunch of crushed bone.

What its hit flings down off the wall. Another black head shows. The killer twists toward it and it ducks back. The train roars out of the fog. The car windows make a streak of light sweeping by, but there isn't anything up there. Not anything at all! The tracks are right along the edge of the stone. God, I think, has the loco cut the killer down?

The cars screech around a curve, scream away into the night. Silence pounds on my eardrums—and give way to a laugh, the crazy laugh of a loon coming out of the yellow dark. Wow! No, the killer isn't cut down. He's alive.

Or is he alive? Is he alive like what we call being alive? Could any real thing have stayed on top that wall and escaped the wheels of that streaking train?

Scared? Say! I'm that scared I can't hardly breathe. This killer that's loose in the night ain't something you can fight. It's a devil that's sneaked out of hell, it's a doom that's been sent to wipe us out. All of us. We can't get away from it. We can't get away!

Jim almost drops me, but the kid hollers, "Hold it. Hold on!" We're inside the shack, and the light kind of calms me, kind of lets me think again. Cops! I snicker. There ain't going to be no cops called tonight. There ain't anyone going across those tracks to call the cops.

Jim shoves the door shut with his shoulder. They drop me on the bunk, and he dives back to grab up a broken-handled axe and wedge it under the jamb. The kid's making little whining noises I know she doesn't hear herself. Her hands are like ice when she pulls me around to make me comfortable, but they're rock-steady as she lifts me to pull my coat down off my shoulders and down over my fist that's swollen ham-size by now.

"Jim," she says, low and calm. "Put a pot on the stove with water to heat. We've got to get this hand in water as hot as it can stand."

I couldn't have said anything just then, and I'll bet Hawks couldn't have squeezed out a word, but she did, and there wasn't a sign of a shake in her voice. Not even when the pound of running feet came through to us, and Red Connor yelling, "It's got a face of iron. It's got claws of steel. Oh Jesus, it's made of iron and it almost got me! It got Rat-Face! Oh Mother of Mercy, it's a fiend from hell itself!"

He goes past, and I hear other steps pounding after him, and I know all hell is loose out there. Their fear strikes through into me, and I see it flare in Jim's eyes as he stands back to the door, his arms spread out either side of him and his palms against the wood.

But Marge says again, "Put a pot on the stove with water." She doesn't yell, she doesn't even turn around, but there's something in her voice that gets him going. That girl...

Her fingers are on my right hand. "What have you got in there, Hen? What are you holding so tight?"

Funny, all through everything I'd kept that fist tight closed on something little and hard and round. "I don't know," I says, kind of slow. "I don't know."

"Well, open it up and let's see."

I open it. And what is in it is a button, a brown button off a man's coat, still sewed to a scrap of brown wool.

"For the love of Pete," Jim rumbles, coming over to see. "Where did you get that?"

I don't answer right away. I'm choked up, kind of, with something heavy that had been in my chest lifting off. Devils don't wear coats of brown wool buttoned with brown buttons. And they don't use flashlights. The killer wasn't a devil, he was a man. He was the man whose fist had bounced off my jaw and who had run away from the corpse of Baldy Thomas. Run away to kill again, to kill Mom Stone. And being a man he could be stopped.

"It's from the coat of the murderer," I say finally. "I had hold of it when he sloughed me and it tore out when he pulled away. This piece of bone and rag is going to put someone in the chair to burn. All we've got to do is match it up."

Jim whistles. Marge takes the thing from me, and looks at it with a funny look on her face, a look I can't understand. I start to say something, don't. And my scalp all at once goes tight.

The bunk I'm on is right up against the wall that was just thin boards patched together and covered with flat-pounded cans on the outside to stop the chinks. It did keep wind out, but it didn't keep out sound. It don't keep out the soft sound I hear now, the scrape of cloth against tin—cloth, or my name's not Henry Trent, like the scrap that button was sewed to.

The wall don't keep sound out and it don't keep sound in. The killer's up against it and he's heard every word I said! He knows what I've got and he knows it'll burn him if he don't get it. And he knows there is only one way he can get it.

I'm shaking like jelly inside. I'd brought Marge inside here because it was the safest place I could think of, and now it's the most dangerous.

I'm thinking fast now. I've got to get Marge out of here. I've got to get her out right away. But the very thing I'd used to get her here would keep her here. She wouldn't leave me, thinking me as sick as I'd made out I was.

"Listen," I croak, "this thing's got to stop, and the only ones that can stop it is the cops. Someone's got to get them."

"Yeah," Hawks grumbles. "That's right. But you seen what chance anyone's got to get over the tracks and out. You seen what happened to Rat-Face and you heard Red Connors yammering."

"There's another way." I roll over, far away from the wall as I can. "Look." I'm talking so low they've got to bend down to hear me. "He's watching the embankment, ain't he? He's got to stay thereabouts to do that, don't he?"

Jim just grunts, but I see in the kid's face she catches on. I don't stop, and I don't look at her. I'm talking to Jim, see. "That means the river bank is clear. You can swim like a fish." He could, but Marge could leave him tied to a post, and I knew it. "He won't expect anyone to go that way. You slip down, swim with the tide, a half-mile or more, and get to shore. The rest is easy."

Jim licks his lips. He's afraid. He's afraid to go, and he hasn't got the guts to say no. But Marge butts in, just like I counted on. "I'll go," she whispers. "I can swim better than Jim and I can move quicker. I'll go."

"No," I say. "It's no job for a girl."

"And is there anything a man can do I can't do better?" she flares. I'm laughing inside of me, she falls for it so neat.

"Goodbye, Hen," she says. "I'll be back with a gang."

She tosses her hair back, straightens up, kicks the axe out of the door and is through it like a flash. Jim makes a pass to stop her but she's so quick he misses. Then he's out too. God! I hadn't figured on that. I hadn't figured he'd hang back and then be ashamed to let her go alone. I hadn't figured on being left alone in the shack to wait for the killer.

With all I could do for Marge done, I got time to think of myself and now I'm afraid for myself. Afraid! So afraid I'm like a lump of ice laying there and waiting for the killer to come. I don't want to die. I don't want to die! It's a scream that makes no sound, a million separate voices yelling, "I don't want to die!"

I'm going nuts. Sure as shooting I'm going nuts. I got to think of something else. Of the button. I got to hide it. I—Cripes! I ain't got it! I ain't got the button! Marge has it!

Marge has it, and she's outside there in the fog where he can get at her without taking any chances! I've sent her out to get killed! I've sent her out to have the same awful thing happen to her as happened to Baldy and Mom and Rat-Face! I've killed her just as if I'd stuck a knife in her throat myself.

I push up to go after her. That is, I try to push up. I bang my bum fin against the wood and the whole damn shack whirls around me like all possessed, and I drop down again with a thud. My head seems to split open. I wasn't kidding about not being able to move myself. I wasn't kidding. The slough—I'd gotten must have been tougher than I thought.

I lie there waiting for her to scream. Waiting to hear the scream that will mean the killer's got her. The scream that will mean the top of her head...



III. — ALONE WITH THE KILLER

AFTER a few minutes I try to get up again, but it's no go. The light, from the busted stove and a couple candles stuck in bottles, goes bleary, and my arm pumps like a plugged fire-hose. My head, too. Pump. Pump. Pump. And I can't make out if things I hear is real: shivery hoots of fog-horns from the river; a kind of rumble that might be the voices of the fellows nearer by; the growl of the big city that's spread all along the river.

All the noises blur like the light, and I'm crying a little with weakness, and still listening for Marge's scream. And I'm beginning to hope a little that maybe God has had mercy on her and let her get by, when a sound gets through the blur to me. It's the soft thud of a footfall right outside the shack door—and the fumble of a hand on its wood.

Maybe it's one of the fellows. Maybe its Marge come back, or Jim. But I know it isn't. I know it isn't anyone that's been in the shack before. There's a little trick to opening that door. Nothing much—but whoever's there don't know it.

I go cold all over, and try to yell for help. The squeak I get past my tonsils can't be heard two feet away. And I can't move. All I can do is lay there and watch that door. Watch it start to open. I see the opening grow between the door-edge and the sash, and see the fog show in that space. Not yellow now, but a kind of dull red, like blood—drying blood.

Afterwards I find out the fellows have built a big bonfire on the flat and it's the light of their fire makes the fog red. But I don't know that, and the color of mist to me then is just the color of bloody death, reaching in a hazy arm to take me. Not making any sound, but getting solid and black in the space opening slow between the door and the jamb.

It gets to be the black shadow of a man and comes in. It closes the door behind itself, and stands there, all blurred because my eyes is blurred, and shuts the door on any help that might come.

Funny how your brain works sometimes. I'm afraid. Sure I'm afraid, like nobody's ever been afraid before. But under my fear there's a couple of thoughts. One is that if the killer is here he can't be after Marge. Maybe she's got away, maybe he didn't catch her.

The other thought is different. I'm thinking it at the same time. How could that be? There is the feeling of being scared, and at the same time there's these two thoughts. One the hope for Marge. The other that the killer is so sure of getting me he's letting me see that he's a man and not the big black thing with wings, kind of, and no face except for two green lights where its eyes ought to be.

He's a man all right, in a brown suit and without a hat. I don't see his face yet, because he's turned around, like as if he's listening through the door. He isn't bothering about anything I can do, and he's right. I can't do anything. Not if my life depended on it.

That's funny. My life does depend on it. Because Marge has kicked the axe over against the bunk and if I can pick it up I can fling it at him and knock him down. I try to get my hand moving to it—God knows I try.

Maybe I do move it a little. Maybe I make some sound moving it. Because he turns around, quick, and he's looking at me. And I'm looking at him, and I know who he is. It's Barkley. It's Richard Barkley, the young lawyer that's been doing the dirty work for the Riverbank Corporation!

His face is white and his eyes is like—like fire would be if fire could be black. But he don't look like a murderer. His mouth kind of twists, and all of a sudden I'm sore at myself for being paralyzed with fear of him. This guy's scared, to death himself.

"Where's the girl?" he croaks. "They told me she was here."

"What—what the hell's that to you?" I say. And I'm listening again, with one ear, for the sound I'm afraid will come to tell me the answer. Because if he isn't the killer... Part of me's doing that, and part of me's remembering how he's looked at her the couple of times he's been around with G. Watts Condon, arguing with him to put us off the plot. How he's looked at her, and how she's looked at him when she thought he wouldn't see. "What do you want her for?"

His hands go up to his throat as if he's choking. "I—I want her. I want her to..." I don't hear the rest of what he says, because his hand comes down just then, and I see the front of his brown coat. And fear blows up inside me like a shot in hard rock. Because I see the front of his coat now, and the top button's missing, and his other buttons are of brown bone...

There's no doubt about it now. Richard Barkley's the killer and he's come to get me because I know about the button even if I ain't got it any more. And there's no doubt about something else, too. He wouldn't be here if Marge was still alive. Marge and Jim. He's gotten them first, outside somewhere. And now he's come to clean up.

My mind goes black and then it's red—hot red with hate. But it turns cold after that—cold as sly. He's stalling. For some reason he's stalling for time, making believe he's looking for the kid where he knows damn well she isn't. Maybe I can use that stalling. Maybe I can pay him off for Marge. "... and the rest of you had better get out, too. If you stay you'll all get it." All that must have gone through my head in no time, flat, for he's still talking. "You can't stop it. Tell that to the rest. Tell it to them. They won't believe me."

So that's the game! He isn't going to bump me—yet. He's giving me a message for the crowd. Buying the plot hasn't worked, nor getting it condemned. We've got to be chased off and that's the way he's doing it. Killing. Killing like a maniac. Sending me with the message.

He takes a step toward me. And another. But it's funny. I'm so scared I'm not afraid any more. Now that I know the kid's gone and he's just plain human, just a filthy murderer, I'm not afraid. I'll either go out like a candle or go somewhere Marge might be. There's a chance I'll get to see her again, and there's no chance if I stay alive.

But if I'm kicking off he's going with me. That's the only thing I'm afraid of now, that I'll go and leave him behind, and I'm more sore than afraid. So sore that I get a little strength back, and feel that I can move my good arm. That'll have to be enough.

"All right," I say, weak. "All right. I'll tell them. Call them in here and I'll tell them."

Barkley stops, and his eyes slide to the door. For a minute I'm stumped. Is he going to do it? Is he going to call the gang in here? I can't make that out.

But I see his hand come up and fumble at the torn place the button come out of. And he turns back to me. "No," he says. "I've got to go and find her. You call them."

"Hell," I say. "Can't you see I'm bunged up? I can't move. I can't yell that loud."

Whatever else, he's a good actor. He fidgets, starts for the door, starts back. "I can't," he husks. "I don't dare chance getting held up here. You'll have to manage it."

"All right" I talk mush-mouthed. "I'll try. But give me a drink. For the love of God, give me a drink from that water can on the table. Maybe then I can holler loud enough to bring someone."

He twists to the can. That takes his look off me just long enough for me to drop my hand over the side of the bunk. Then he's turned back and is coming towards me with the can. He's bending over—the can's to my mouth...

I grit my teeth and jerk up my bum arm. I jerk it around his neck in spite of the red-hot irons shooting through it. I pull him down on my chest and jerk up my other arm with the axe in its hand...

But it don't come down! Someone screams. Wet fingers grab my wrist, pull the axe out of my hand! Barkley slams a fist into my belly, slams himself up and away from me, twisting.

Wow! It's not the pound of his knuckles in my solar plexus that's got me winging. It's who I see standing there. It's Marge! Dripping wet, her hair plastered around her pale face and her dress pasted to her so that there might as well be no clothes on her at all, Marge is standing there, the axe in her hand. Her lips are blue, she's shaking like a leaf in the wind. But she's there, alive!

Everything's frozen like a movie with the film stuck and the light still on. There's the kid, not boy-like now. Not with the round of her breasts heaving, kind of, as she gasps for breath. And her eyes sort of swallowing Barkley. And there's him, half-twisted to her and meeting her look while a little muscle twitches at the point of his cheekbone.

Just for a second it's like that, then things start moving again. But slow at first. His arms coming up, slow. And she swaying toward him. And me fighting for voice, but not getting it because a half-dozen things I want to say get jammed up together. And inside me a jumble of gladness that she's not dead, and fright at what he's going to do to her, and something else. Something that hurts more than my arm or my busted fist. Something I see in his face and hers.

The axe drops out of her fingers, pounds to the ground, and brings me up sitting. "Marge!" I yell. "Marge! Look at his coat!" Foolish, I guess. But it's the best I can manage. "Look at his coat."

Does she hear me? I don't know. Because he's yelling something, too, something I don't get. And he's swept her up, lifted her right from the ground and is plunging out. Oh, Mother of Mercy! He's carrying her out of the shack, out into the fog that's dripping with blood!

I roll out of the bunk. My feet tangle in the blankets, and I pound down—down on my swollen arm and my busted hand. Ten thousand devils rake me with white-hot pitchforks, but I roll, get clear, get to my feet and reel for the door that's slammed behind them.

I can't see it. I feel something, though. Wet clothes. Rough, wet clothes and someone inside them.

"Hen!" someone yells, and I can see again. I can see Jim, wet as hell, water running off his hair and down his face. "Hen! Where's Marge? For God's sake, where's the kid?"

"He's got her, Jim!" I yammer while he holds me and my legs are rubber under me. "The killer's got her! Just now! Lemme—" I try to push past him. "Lemme go after him. Leggo!"

But he hangs on to me, and I see that his eyes ain't sane. They're like red glass marbles with lights inside them, lights that don't show anything but fear. I paw at him, and twist to get away from the death-grip he's got on me, but I'm weak as a babe and I can't do anything.

"Jim!" I shriek. "Let go!"

That gets to him, starts him moving. But not the way I want. No. He barges in, carrying me with him, and then he drops me to twist to the door and slam it again.

Jim turns around and is backed up against the door like he was when the kid told him to put a pot on the stove. He looks down at me crawling toward him, and his eyes clear a little.

"Hen," he mouths, "I seen the killer. It's—"

Zowie! The wood slashes in, right at his head! Something slashes through, slashes into his skull. It's metal! Pronged metal!

It pulls back, pulling through bone and wood, jamming Jim back against the door. His face is gone, it's just a mess of spurting blood and pulped brains, and he pounds down. Through the gash in the door I see fluttery black, and I hear the screaming laugh of the killer. Then the splintered wood frames nothing but red fog, and what was once my buddy is just an awful mess on the ground.

My throat tears with a shriek I don't know I'm letting out till it's out. I'm scrabbling the ground, dragging myself toward it, toward Jim. I don't get to him, because my shriek brings the pound of feet, and shouts. The door busts in, pushing Jim along the ground, and there's the bunch.

They've got scantlings in their fists, and iron bars, and such things, and their faces are all grey and their eyes bulging like Jim's was when he had a face. Their yells are all mixed up in my head, but there's one voice that's bawling the others down. That's Red Connors yelling: "We've got to get out! We've got to get out of here or the devil will get us all. Come on! All together we can make it. Come on!"

From where I'm layin', I see their faces work, like inside them they're fighting between being afraid to stay and being afraid to go. He howls again, "Come on! All together. Up the embankment and out!" And someone else yells, "I'm with you, Red!" and then they're all yelling that, and they're streaming out of the shack. They're streaming out and pounding away through the fog and the mud, and I hear them yell as they go.

And I know the yellow curs have left me here for the killer. Left me helpless on the ground that's all blood, and mucked brains.

Left me helpless, and left Marge somewhere out on the flat where the killer has carried her...

How long I lay there I don't know. I'm like someone dead and in hell, but the hell is all inside my head. It's a picture of the kid, laying out in the mud and fog with—Oh, Mother of Mercy!—with the top of her head...

How long I lay there and think of that I don't ever know, but somehow I feel strength coming back into me, strength to get up on my feet and stumble towards the axe so that I can beat the killer to it. I whirl to the door and through it as a scream rips to me from out there!

"Hen! Help! Help! It's Marge!"

Marge's scream cutting off, and the killer laughing his mad laugh that's like a crazed loon crying in the marshes...



IV. — GOOD-BYE TO MARGE

I GET out the door, twist to where that scream has come from, towards the river. Towards where the killer must be.

Devil or human, I'll get him. Devil or human, I'll tear him to bits with my bare hands. He's killed her. He's killed Marge and he's killed Jim, and he's not getting away with it.

Maybe I'm crazy right then. I guess I am crazy. I've got the strength of a crazy man, anyhow, and like a crazy man I don't care what happens to me so long as I can do what I want. And what I want is to kill Barkley. That's all that's left for me to want.

I plough like that through the fog, and I veer towards where a kind of red glare shows the fire the crowd has built. Why, I don't know. I just run.

Then all at once I trip on something in the mud, and flop. I skid in the slime, bring up against something soft. I roll to get up again and see by the firelight what it is that's stopped my slide. Marge. Marge's body, limp in the mud and red. Oh, God—red with...

But it's not blood. It's the firelight that makes her red, and the water on her face taking the red of the fire. At least the killer hasn't ripped her skull. At least her lips are still there for me to kiss goodbye. Lips I'd never dared even think of kissing when she was alive.

Oh, God! They are still warm to my lips. Warm! And they move. Great Almighty, they move! She isn't dead! Marge isn't dead!

She moans...

Right then a shadow falls across me—a black shadow that cuts off the firelight. I twist around. A black form towers above me, high in the fog. The black is all fluttery, and the firelight plays on where its face ought to be—and there's no face there, but only a blankness shining like silver, out of which two eyes look that are green lights from hell itself.

I see that, and I scream like Baldy Thomas screamed out of the night, and like Mom Stone screamed. The Thing lifts an arm like a huge black wing, blanking out the fire. At its end there's metal prongs shining, the same metal prongs I've seen pound through wood and through Jim Hawks' skull.

I roll. I roll over on top of Marge so that I'll cover her. So that maybe the killer won't see that she's alive and'll kill only me and leave her alive.

That brings me face down so I can't see the killer's arm come down. I can see only Marge's face under mine, and feel the warmth of her body against mine, and I kiss her again. And I wait for the slash of those prongs into my skull.

But it don't come. A clang comes instead, like a rock on a bell! I roll over again. The killer is leaping away into the night and a rock does splash down into the mud, just missing my hand.

I heave up. I grab up the rock, and pound into the dark where I hear the thud of running footfalls. Two sets of footfalls, the killer and someone he's chasing. Whoever it is that's saved me by throwing that rock. I've got to save him now.

The chase pounds along shore, through the fog. The killer pulls away from me, and the one he's chasing pulls ahead of him, but that isn't going to do him any good. The railroad embankment curves in to the river a ways ahead, twenty feet high and straight up. It can be climbed, but not in a hurry. Not quick enough.

I try to run faster. But they pull away...

It's hours we run like that. Minutes, of course, seconds, maybe, but it seems like hours. Then the grey loom of the embankment shows ahead, and against it a shadow that's a running man, and behind him a bigger shadow that's a man maybe, or a devil.

A street lamp above makes the light that shows me that, and there's another shadow up there, a man peering over. It's funny that I think, even then, that the man up there ought to come down and help instead of looking down like a ninny.

Then there's the thunder of a train coming, and the first man in our chase comes up against the embankment and starts climbing. I'm going faster and yelling, and the killer is just ahead of me, reaching up with his black wing and just reaching the first man's coat with the prongs, and sinking them in.

Everything seems to happen all at once. A locomotive roaring around the curve, and the killer tangled with the other man in front of me, and my jumping about ten foot and landing right behind them, and my swinging my arm with the rock and bringing it down kerplunk on blackness that I know covers the killer. I feel bone crush under that swipe that's got the weight of the rock, and the swing of my arm, and the pound of my jump behind it. And right then I hear another sound above me, a shriek like hell let loose, and something pounds down alongside of me.

There's yelling up above, and the scream of brakes locking, and sparks spurting as car wheels slide along steel. There's a yell down here where I am, and I fall forward on top of the killer and get all tangled up in a lot of black cloth. I feel him quivering underneath me, and somehow there's a lot more light all around than there's been before.

My head comes clear of the cloth and I'm looking up into the light. I see a face over me, a face with lips snarled back from white teeth, and eyes burning black in whiteness, and my insides turn over. For I'd felt the spine of the killer crunch under the rock I'd brought down on it, and he must be dead. But he wasn't dead. It was Barkley's face looking down at me. Barkley's face! The face of the killer!

It's white, that face, a queer kind of dead white, except on its forehead and one cheek, where it's smeared with blood...

I'm gone then. I know I'm gone. But I'm still going to make a fight of it. So I jerk my good arm free and throw its fist at Barkley's jaw.

Anyhow, I think I'm throwing it, but the killer's head floats away into mist. There isn't anything there but mist full of white light, and that blurs and gets dark. Hoarse voices rumble in my ears but don't make sense, and I go down, down the side of a black wave into blackness.

Then the wave lifts me up into light again, but my head's spinning and I'm seeing things. I'm looking along the ground, and there's a mound of black cloth and out of it is sticking a carrot-topped head that it seems to me is the head of Red Connors. And right beside it there's another body all twisted so that I know every bone in it is smashed. The face that belongs to it is thin, and grizzled, and from the corner of its mouth blood dribbles down into a pointed grey goatee. Then I know I've gone nuts altogether, for that's the face of G. Watts Condon and what would he be doing laying all crumpled up in the mud?

The white lights move around and shadows move on the ground, and I look up to see what's throwing the shadows. And I'll be a crop-eared donkey if it isn't a man and a woman clinching, his arms around her and their faces so tight together you can't push a piece of paper between them. The light gets stronger, or my eyes clearer, and I see who they are, and the ground seems to rock under me and I groan out loud.

They jump apart and Marge swoops down on me. "Hen! Hen, dear! Are you—are you all right?" And Barkley bends to look over her shoulder, and he says, "How comes it, old man?" in a hearty voice.

This all has got me winging. It don't make sense at all. I push up and look around. I see a couple of guys in overalls holding lanterns and whispering together, and I hear a loco puffing overhead. Then I see a kind of mask laying near Red Connor's head, a mask of polished steel, and inside it a couple of little green bulbs and wires, and I begin to get a glimmer of the truth.

I look back at Marge and try to say something. But all I can manage is, "What—what the...?"

But the kid catches on. She smiles, kind of sad-like, and says, "Yes. The killer was Red Connors. He had a mask, and a cloak of black cloth that he could get in and out of very quickly, and a heavy fork with five curved steel prongs with which he did the killing."

"But—but why?"

"For money. For money paid to him by—" her voice kind of broke—"by G. Watts Condon."

That certainly don't make sense. My lips move; maybe I ask the question. Maybe she just reads it in my eyes. Anyways, she turns to Barkley and says, "Tell him, Dick."

He uses a lot of big words, but I kind of untangle what he means. And it's plenty. Seems like this: Condon's been caught in the market and if he don't get what the Riverbank Corp's ready to pay him for the flat where New Deal Town is, he's going to have to move down with us, but if he does he can save near all his cash. But he's always been nuts about being an all right guy and giving till it hurts and the way people kowtow to him for that means more than a flock of autos and yachts and dames to other guys in the money. If he puts us out he figures everybody will be thumbs down on him and having the money ain't going to be no good to him, so he's s. o. l. either way. But he's a nut, see, crazy as a bedbug, and...

But this is the way Dick Barkley puts it: "But if you were driven off, the dilemma would be solved. And so this great philanthropist evolved the scheme that's made horror here tonight. I came down tonight to see Marge." I winced at that. "I'd seen her here several times and I couldn't get her out of my head. I had just gotten across the tracks when I heard a scream down by the river. I ran down there, flashed my light, and as you jumped up realized that I, a stranger, would surely be accused of the crime. So I pulled away from you, ran away.

"Then I heard a woman scream, and, remembering some things Condon had let drop, guessed what was up. I was frightened for Marge, started to hunt for her..."

"Dick may not have been able to get me out of his head," the kid put in, blushing. "But I wasn't much better. I saw him when he flashed the light on poor Baldy, recognized him. And something inside of me told me he couldn't be the killer. So when you showed me the button I got it from you and grabbed the chance you gave me to get out and warn him. But Jim went with me and I had to start swimming. I managed to lose him. I came back, and as I landed I saw Red Connors just putting on his black cloak. I ran to the shack to tell you and got there just in time to save you from killing Dick. Then, when he carried me off—"

"I had to get you away, dear. I didn't know when the killer might break in and go for you...' "

"I told Dick what I'd seen. Connors must have overheard us, because he loomed up suddenly in the fog. I screamed, and his first wild swing stunned me—"

"And I pounded a fist into his mid-riff. It staggered him. I ran off, keeping just near enough to him to make him think he could catch me. That was to lure him away from Marge. But suddenly he tumbled and turned back. I followed, saw him bending over you and threw a stone I'd picked up... The rest I guess you know."

"Yeah," I say slowly. "Except—" I pointed to Condon. "How'd he get what was coming to him?"

Barkley looks grave. "That, Henry, was just one of those things we can explain only as the inscrutable justice of an omniscient God. Condon must have been hanging around to see how his scheme was working, gotten so interested in the chase down here that he didn't hear the train coming, and—there he lies."

Marge shudders. "Oh, it's been horrible. A horrible thing. I'll—I'll dream about it forever."

Barkley pulls her to him. "It's been horrible, all right," he says. "But it gave us one thing that's worth it all. It's given us the knowledge of our love."

That hurts. It hurts like hell. Then I think what it means for Marge, and it don't hurt so much.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.