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.
ALMOST everyone in Weston saw the planes that morning. Crowds pouring from the subways and elevateds on their way to work stopped in the middle of the business district to crane their necks heavenward in gaping astonishment. Traffic became horribly snarled, and the policemen let it stay that way while they, too, watched the writing in the sky.
Ordinary commercial smoke-writing would not have merited more than a passing glance from the citizenry of Weston. But this was certainly different. To begin with there were ten planes printing the sky message. Secondly, they were flying so low that it appeared as if they would inevitably crash into the office buildings of the district. And last but not least, there was the message itself.
"HONESTY," it read, "IS THE BEST POLICY!"
The skywriting continued for another half hour, during which time the message must have been spelled out fifty times in all. Then the smoke planes departed, and Weston was shrouded by the cloak of blue vapor left in their wake.
ON the twenty-first floor of the Radio Building, located in the heart of Weston, Jack Train, staff announcer for Station W-E-S-T, left the window where he had been watching the skywriting. It was two minutes to nine, and he was due in Studio F at nine o'clock.
"Whew!" snorted Train, "those ships were flying so low you could even smell the smoke." He sniffed deeply as if to prove it to himself.
"Funny smoke at that," he said as he entered Studio F. "It's sort of sweet and fresh smelling."
He cleared his throat and looked at the glass partition behind which the engineer was sitting. The engineer signalled the "on-the-air."
"Goooood morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is Jack Train, your Pobo Toothpaste announcer, greeting you. Have you brushed your teeth today? Don't forget, Pobo is the Toothpaste Supreme. It gives your molars that brilliant lustre so necessary to movie stars. It removes dirty, dingy stains."
As if in a dream, Train heard his voice continuing gaily on past the point where the commercial ended.
"Yes indeed. It removes stains. It removes enamel. Give it a little time and it removes your teeth, too!"....
THE business man was coughing slightly. Smoke always made his throat harsh, and those blankety-blank skywriters spread enough smoke around the city to gag a man. He turned into his office building and was standing in front of the elevator when someone slapped him on the back. It was Jones, another business associate whom he hadn't seen in several weeks.
"Good old J. T.," boomed Jones. "Glad to see you, old boy. How have you been? Where've you been keeping yourself? Really great to see you, great!"
A mechanical smile came to the business man's face as he opened his mouth to reply. Something, at that moment, seized control of his tongue.
"You're a damned liar," he heard himself saying. "We hate one another's guts and you know it."....
LINDA MEADE, salesgirl in Weston's most exclusive millinery shop, brought forth another hat for Mrs. Blythe. It was the fourteenth hat that Linda had tried on the society matron in the last half hour. Mrs. Blythe coughed disapprovingly as Linda adjusted the hat. "Terribly smoky in here, m'dear."
"It's from those skywriters, modom," Linda explained patiently. "They flew so low that the entire city seems to be filled with it."
Mrs. Blythe, hat on head, began peering this way and that into the mirror before her. She turned to Linda, smiling sweetly. "What do you think of this one, m'dear?"
"It makes you look," said Linda, horrified at what she knew was coming, "like a rather pretty mountain goat!"
LANCE RANDELL placed the telephone back in its cradle and turned to face Professor Merlo. "It's a call from the airport," he stated. "The planes are all in. They've covered the city with our smoke-writing."
Professor Merlo, a sparse, bird-like little man, ran a nervous hand through his white hair. "Fine," he said, "splendid. In another hour we should be getting reports on the effect of our experiment."
Randell grinned. "You mean your experiment, Professor. Your experiment, not mine."
"Without your financial backing," the Professor reminded him, "it would still be a dream. It is yours as much as mine." He beamed fondly on the rugged young man.
"It's still hard to believe," said Randell reflectively. "A gas made from Truth Serum. If it has effect, Professor, are you still sure it will make everyone tell the truth?"
"Yes, my boy. Dishonesty will be an impossibility, providing the gas works."
"Maybe. We must first see what effect it has on one city. If it works on Weston we can change the world. At the end of this hour, every citizen in Weston should be affected by it."
Lance Randell lit a cigarette as the Professor fell silent. For the first time in his life, Randell told himself, he was putting his wealth to a good use. A world of Truth! Little shivers of excitement ran through him at the thought of how near they were to changing the course of destiny. He drummed his fingers impatiently on the arm of his chair. This waiting was nerve-racking.
Restlessly he went to the window and gazed for a moment at the serenity of the countryside. "Nice out here," he observed. "So quiet. But right this minute, this peace is killing me."
He turned back from the window. "If you don't mind, I'm going into the city."
Professor Merlo smiled. "Go ahead. I'm a little old to be impatient. I'll stay here to get the reports, and then you might drive back to give me a first hand account."
Randell grabbed his hat. "Swell. Soon as I take a look at our Utopia, I'll call you."
A few minutes later, behind the wheel of his roadster, Randell said to himself, "Somehow this is like—like playing God!"
It sent a shudder through him.
IT was only a fifteen minute drive from Professor Merlo's suburban laboratories to the city limits of Weston, but Randall tried to make it in ten. Halfway there, two sirens began to scream behind him.
"Pull over," snarled the motorcycle copper on his right. Randell brought his car to an abrupt stop. His pursuers walked over to his car. They looked grim and determined and were pulling little black books from their hip pockets.
"Thought you'd shake us at the city limits, eh?"
"I suppose you're gonna tell us you didn't know how fast you was going?" said the second, a tall, morose fellow, the sarcasm dripping from him. "A lousy seventy-five per."
Randell would have sworn that it wasn't his own voice replying with such cheerful unconcern. "Yes," he heard himself saying, "I had been hoping to shake you fellows at the city limits. You wouldn't have been able to pinch me in Weston, y'know. I was not, however, doing seventy-five. Last time I looked, I was inching up close to ninety."
During the ominous silence that followed this announcement, Randell collected the pieces. He sniffed the air suspiciously. Yes, there it was, that faint, sweet freshness! No wonder: the Truth Gas extended all the way to the city limits!
Suddenly the realization hit him. The officers, themselves, must be affected by the gas, too!
Randell kept his face straight during his next question.
"Haven't you policemen ever broken the speeding laws?"
The policemen started to speak and stopped. They looked at each other queerly. "Of course," they declared in stupefied unison. "Lots of times!"
"Fun, ain't it?"
"Great sport," said the flabbergasted motorcycle cops.
"Now," said Randell severely, "after admitting that you break the speed laws yourselves, adding that it's great fun, do you still think you ought to give me a ticket?"
"No," said the morose cop, with an oddly bright glance. "It wouldn't be fair!"
"Well," said Randell, putting his car into gear, "so long, then!"
In his rear vision mirror Lance Randell could see the bewildered motor cops standing at the city limits, scratching their heads. He couldn't hold back any longer. He broke into peals of laughter. But he wasn't laughing by the time he arrived in Weston's business district.
DORIS MARTIN sat at her neat little desk in the ornate offices of Lance Randell Enterprises, Inc., sorting the batch of morning mail. The clock on her desk told her that it was almost ten o'clock. She sighed. The Boss could be expected about noon, if he came in at all that day.
At the thought of Lance Randell, Doris permitted herself another sigh, and still sighing she stared for a moment into the mirror. An oval face, framed by auburn hair and presenting a pert, freckled nose, level gray eyes and mischievous mouth, stared back at her.
The mouth smiled, revealing an even row of dazzlingly white teeth. "You," declared the mouth, "might as well be an office fixture." Doris snapped the compact shut. She coughed slightly. The office seemed terribly smoky this morning. Probably due to those planes that had been skywriting over the city.
She got up to close the window next to her desk when she saw the familiar blue roadster roll up in front of the building. She watched the rugged figure of her boss get quickly out of the car and walk swiftly to the entrance.
She walked back to her desk and sat down, making a conscious effort to assemble the mail. It wasn't any use. There were little thoughts spinning around in her mind....
Doris heard the doorknob turning, and her heart did a more than its usual routine flip-flop. Randell came into the room.
"How's the staff?"
He always said that to her. It was his standard form of greeting, rain or shine, day in and day out. And he seldom waited for an answer. He just kept walking into his office.
Doris followed him.
"Here's your mail, Mr. Randell," she said, keeping her voice carefully impersonal.
She watched him while he sorted swiftly through the letters, noticing the way he hunched his wide shoulders in preoccupation. Then fearing that he might glance up, she turned back to some trivial matter.
"Ahhh." She knew from the sound of his sigh that he'd come to the letter he was looking for. The perfumed message from the bubble dancer.
"Darling," Randell read to himself, even a day away from you seems like simply years." As he read on, all thoughts of the past twenty-four hours vanished. From time to time he repeated his sigh. Finally there was the signature, "Your darling Edie."
He looked up from the letter, entranced. "She's wonderful," he said rhetorically to his secretary, "isn't she?"
"Do you mean Miss Dalmar?" Doris heard herself reply.
Randell seemed startled back to reality. He wasn't expecting an answer to his statement. "Why, yes," he said "who else would I mean?"
Doris was flustered. Something had happened. She never meant to say that. It just popped out, and to her astonishment a torrent of words were following her first unintended sentence. She heard her voice continue.
"If you mean she's wonderful," Doris was saying, "I don't think she is. As a matter of fact I think she's nothing but a cheap, gold-digging little vixen. If you'd remove her warpaint, keep her away from the beauty parlor, and eliminate the dubious glamour of her profession, you'd see nothing but a washed-out, frizzled-haired little know-nothing!"
Randell's jaw was hanging foolishly agape at the outburst.
"You are just sap enough," Doris went on, "to think that she loves you. She hasn't room enough in that shallow heart of hers for love of anything but money and herself. You have plenty of money, and that's what she's after. Everyone in town knows it but you." Her voice was shaking now, and she knew that she would be crying in another minute.
Automatically Doris was picking up her things, moving toward the door. "It probably never entered your skull that there might be someone in the world who'd care for you even if you didn't have a—"
She was at the door, now, her hand on the knob, speaking again. "It probably never occurred to you that someone could love you so much that nothing else mattered except to see you do something with your utterly pleasant and equally worthless life besides waste it on a bubble dancer!"
FOR five full minutes Lance sat on the edge of his desk, staring at the door. "Well, I'll be damned," he kept repeating to himself. "Well, I'll be damned!"
His brain was going through the futile thought mechanisms that confront any man when trying to arrive at a logical reason for the actions of a woman. Suddenly the explanation flashed before him. He had forgotten all about the experiment, all about the gas! Doris was affected by the Truth Gas, that explained It all!
But if she—no, it couldn't be. Lance tried to eliminate the logical conclusion to his deductions. With a sinking feeling he was realizing that if the Truth Gas was the cause of her outburst, what she said must have been true, even about Edie!
Lance dashed for the door. There was only one answer to the agony of doubt that filled his mind. Edie was the only person who could supply that answer!
THE ash-tray next to the radio in Professor Merlo's study was heaped with cigarette stubs. Slumped in an armchair before the radio ever since Randell's departure, Professor Merlo had been listening to news flashes from the scene of his Truth Gas experiment. To be precise about it, the first bulletin was read at 9:45.
"The Weston Board of Health," said the announcer, "is investigating the rumor that an odd epidemic of insanity has broken forth in the heart of the city's business district. Victims of this strange malady are reported to be possessed with the desire to make preposterous and often insulting statements. As yet, however, these rumors have not been authenticated."
Professor Merlo smiled.
The announcer concluded with, "This bulletin has come to you through the courtesy of the Weston Daily Herald, the world's worst newspaper!"
Professor Merlo had guffawed. Now several hours after that, however, his laughter was changed to shocked amazement.
"It can't be so," the white haired little man was telling himself. "All this is but the first spasm. When it has spent itself, everything will settle into our expected pattern. Out of it will grow perfect order and Utopia. It is only natural that confusion should be the first result of such an experiment. By noon everything should be well again!"
But even as he spoke, the Professor had a feeling of uneasiness. He'd been saying the same thing for the last hour and a half. The Professor gulped, his Adam's apple bobbing along his scrawny neck like an egg in a hose. He wished fervently that Randell would return.
The radio news announcer was jabbering excitedly once more. Dully, like a man expecting an unavoidable blow, Merlo turned his head to listen.
"As the strange epidemic of mass insanity grows in Weston, today, it has been learned that three more suicides have occurred in the business district. These happened when the owners of Weston's three largest department stores leaped to their deaths rather than meet the financial ruin facing their establishments."
The Professor shuddered. He was expecting something like that ever since the bulletin of an hour ago which stated that the clerk's in the downtown department stores were selling all goods at less than cost price. Fifteen minutes after that particular bulletin it was announced that delighted shoppers were buying up every bit of stock in the stores—at a net loss of several million dollars to the owners of the stores.
The announcer was babbling on, "This brings today's death rate to the staggering total of one hundred persons. Many of these, as you probably learned in previous flashes, were victims of murder."
Professor Merlo cringed, remembering the thirty-or-so husbands whose wives dispatched them to their Maker over blood-stained breakfast tables, the fifty-odd revenge slayings perpetrated by persons who learned of long-concealed treacheries by friends or partners, the suicides whose doctors were forced to admit that they were victims of incurable diseases.
"God!" Professor Merlo muttered, covering his face with his hands, "God!"
"Police have stated," continued the announcer, "that they are as yet unable to control the army of a thousand men and women who have formed a marching brigade through the streets of- the city. These marchers, victims of the strange malady, were all thrown out of work early this morning when they told insulted employers what they thought of them. At present they are fairly orderly, but it is feared that, once they realize their power, looting and bloodshed will result."
Professor Merlo winced, thinking of the hundreds more who would join the marchers the moment the department stores were shut down.
The telephone was jangling insistently, and Merlo crossed the room slowly to where it stood. He knew what the call would probably be. He'd had nine of them already. He picked the receiver off the hook. "Yes?"
"Hello, Professor Merlo?" a voice on the other end inquired. In an almost toneless whisper the Professor admitted it was.
"This is J. Weems Sharp," said the voice.
The Professor was sure of the call now.
"Yes," said Merlo, "I think I understand what you're calling for. You want to tell me that you're withdrawing your endowment from my Civic Scientific Foundation."
The voice was amazed. "Yes, that's right. How did you know?"
Merlo ignored the question. "You want to withdraw your endowment from the Foundation because you are quite willing to admit that you don't give a damn for the betterment of your fellows."
"That's right," agreed the voice. "I never cared what happened to the masses. No sense in my wasting money on other people when I can keep it all for myself. I was a chump to let you talk me into it for the past ten years. Now it can go to the devil., I—"
Professor Merlo put his thumb down on the hook, breaking the connection.
"That makes the tenth one," he told himself bitterly, beginning to pace the floor. "They can all tell the truth, now. They'll admit that they're miserly monsters, and refuse to give any more to scientific charity. It's just about the end of my Foundation. Oh Lord," he thought, "for ten years I've been able to play on the hypocrisy of those money-bags, making them shell out money for the good of their fellow-man, pleasing their egos by giving their charity a lot of publicity. But now," he shuddered, "they admit that they don't give a damn for charity!"
THE Civic Scientific Foundation had been the pride and joy of Merlo's existence, and seeing it crumble was one of the hardest blows of the day. Ten years of progress was being wiped out in the space of several hours.
It was clear to the Professor, now, what he and Lance failed to take into consideration before the experiment. People affected by the Truth Gas would not only tell what they knew to be true, but would also admit to things which had been lying under the hypocritical cloak of their subconscious thoughts for years. In other words, the gas was exposing ideas which people never even previously suspected they cherished!
"Something," muttered the tight-lipped scientist, "has to be done, and done fast." He paused before the window. And as he looked out across the countryside, it seemed as though nature itself had fallen under the mood of gloomy foreboding. The sun was hidden behind ominous formations of black rain-laden clouds.
IF Lance Randell hadn't been so preoccupied with the doubts that clouded his romance he might have noticed the growing confusion in Weston. As it was, however, he looked neither left nor right as he put his high-powered roadster into gear and shot out for the Weston Tower Hotel where the blonde Edie had an apartment.
The crowds that were beginning to surge through the streets escaped his notice, the clang of speeding ambulances and police wagons failed to enter his brain, so one-tracked was his determination.
In a little less than three minutes after he'd left the office Randall drew up in front of the elaborate canopy marking the entrance to the sky-scraping Weston Tower Hotel. Edie's apartment was on the fortieth floor, and Randell didn't bother to telephone from the lobby. He crossed the room swiftly and stepped into an elevator.
Edie Dalmar, when she opened the door, was astonished to see a breathless and strangely intense Lance Randell standing there with his hat in his hand. For a moment her oval, doll-like features registered amazement, then Weston's Loveliest Bubble Dancer regained her composure. She arched delicately penciled eyebrows in a smile.
"Daahhling, what a surprise! What are you doing heah at this hour?"
Lance entered the room and put his hat on the mantel. He turned and spoke.
"Edie, there are some things I have to ask you. It's very important, and I don't want you to be angry with me."
Edie moved sinuously across the room, smoothing her dark hair with scarlet nailed fingers. She sat down on the couch and turned violet eyes on Lance. "Why, deah, ah don't know jes' what it's all about, but go right ahead and ask me anything you want to."
Lance removed an enormous, floppy Cupid doll from the cushion next to her and sat down. For a moment he was silent. This wasn't going to be easy. He knew that any question he'd ask would bring a starkly truthful answer. But he had to know. He forced himself to speak.
"Edie, do you really love me?"
The bubble dancer opened her slightly petulant lips to protest, but Lance went on. "I mean, do you love me for myself? Is it, is it me that you love, or is it my money?"
There, Lance told himself, it was done. He felt his heart hammering wildly as Edie started to speak. He felt as though the answer would mean the difference between life and death.
"Why, daahhling, of course I love you! Honey, whatevah made you fancy that I cared a speck about your money? I'd marry you even if you were a pauper!"
Randell was ecstatic in his relief. They were all wrong! Doris had been a spiteful, jealous wench. Edie was true! He knew it all along, Edie was true! She didn't give a damn for his money. She loved him for himself alone.
By now, however, Edie was pouting. Two enormous tears began to trickle down her cheeks. She was sobbing silently, dabbing at her eyes with a scrap of lace.
"Honey," said Randell, sensing that he had wounded her feelings, "I never meant to doubt you, honestly. I'm sorry I ever asked you, but I was desperately unsure. I had to know. Please forgive me."
Edie, however, was not so easily consoled. She increased her snuffling. "You thought I, I, I, I was cheap!" she wailed.
Lance Randell had a sudden inspiration. "Edie!"
No reply, merely more snuffling.
"Edie," he repeated. This time she looked up.
"What?" she asked between sobs.
"You know that coat you admired so much the other day?"
Edie's snuffling lessened perceptibly. "Yes?"
"I'd like you to have it as a present, dear."
Gone were the tears, silenced was the sobbing. Edie's doll face was wreathed m smiles. She was in his arms.
"Daahhling," breathed Edie.
"My dear," said Randell.
The floppy Cupid doll looked up from the floor where it had been dropped, its button eyes shining cynically.
WITH singing heart Lance left Edie's apartment. The world was once more righted, and now he had time to think of the second most important thing in his life, the experiment. Then, too, he'd almost forgotten that Merlo was waiting for a call from him back in the laboratories.
He glanced at his watch. 10:30. Plenty should be happening by now. The gas had had more than an hour and a half to take effect on the populace. There should be some interesting developments. There were.
As he stepped from the elevator into the lobby, Randell was immediately aware that things were popping in the Weston Tower Hotel. There had been a scant twenty people sitting about in the spacious room when Randell had first arrived there. Now, not more than a half hour later, the place was literally jammed with people. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, and in the voices there was a growing undercurrent of hysteria.
The fever spot seemed to be located around the Room Desk, and Randell began elbowing through the mob, moving in that direction.
"Stand back, buddy!"
Lance Randell was in the front of the circle around the Desk, when a blue-clad arm shot out to stop his progress. He noticed, then, that a cordon of eight policemen had blocked off a space around the desk, and were holding the crowd back.
In the middle of the space, face downward, lay a gray-haired man dressed in morning coat and striped trousers. His head was pillowed in a pool of his own blood, and his right hand held a death-like clutch on an automatic pistol.
Horrified, Randell addressed the policeman who barred his way.
"What happened, Officer?"
"Suicide," was the terse reply. "Shot himself while we were on the way to get him."
A pop-eyed little man on his right supplied Lance with the rest of the information. "It's Gordon Carver," the little man blurted. "He's killed himself, rather than go to jail."
Gordon Carver! Randell was stunned. Gordon Carver was Weston's greatest philanthropist, most charitable millionaire, a leading citizen! He looked at the millionaire's body, so queerly sprawled out across the cold marble floor. The pop-eyed champ was still talking.
"Yeah," said Pop-Eyes, "he called the Police about a half an hour ago, confessed that he had committed some crime years ago, and was an escaped convict. He told them to come to the Weston Tower Hotel, that he'd be waiting in the lobby to surrender to 'em." Pop-Eyes paused to shudder. "I guess he couldn't stand the thought of going back to prison, so he plugged hisself just as the cops walked in the lobby."
Suddenly Lance Randell knew that he had to get away from that circle. He fought his way back through the crowd, feeling that he might succumb to nausea at any moment. The voices all around him were still floating to his consciousness. "What's happened to this town?" "It's the end of the world." "Terrible, out in the streets, rioting." "I saw a little child... killed..."
Randell found a telephone booth, managed to push inside. With a hand that trembled slightly, he fished through his pockets until he found a nickel. Then he was dialing Professor Merlo's number. After what seemed like an eternity he heard the old scientist's voice.
"Professor, it's me—Lance. I—" he was cut off by the sharp voice on the other end of the wire.
"Yes," he heard Merlo saying, "I know all about it. Got it all through news flashes. We haven't any time to lose. Have to act quickly. Where are you?"
"At the Weston Towers, but—" Kendall began.
"Stay there," Merlo continued, "I'll meet you as quickly as possible. Every moment that this gas stays over the city means more lives. I think I've hit on a solution."
"How? What?" Randell began. Then he cursed. Merlo had hung up.
What did the old man mean? What possible solution could there be? They had no anti-toxin to the gas. They knew that it would wear off in twenty-four hours, of course, but in twenty-four hours—. He shuddered at the thought of what was in store for Weston if the gas held that long!
A feeling of utter hopelessness, complete futility came over Randell as he stepped back into the lobby of the Weston Towers. Another twenty-four hours before the gas would drift from the city. Twenty-four hours in which hell would rage unchecked! The thought was staggering. Foolishly, it occurred to him that he was suffering the same emotions that Dr. Frankenstein had known upon creating his monster.
Then and there his heart went into a sickening tailspin. He had forgotten about Edie! If this bedlam was going to continue throughout Weston, no one would be safe. He had to get her out of the city,, had to get her to safety while there was still time. Desperately, Randell began to push back through the crowded lobby toward the elevators.
PROFESSOR MERLO waited a moment after hanging up on Lance Randell. Then he picked up the telephone again and dialed a number. As the receiver buzzed in his ear he drummed his fingers impatiently on the table, staring out the window at the darkening skies.
"It should work," the old man muttered to himself. "It has to work." Then he heard a voice on the other end of the wire.
"Weston Contractors," said the voice.
Merlo began speaking excitedly, emphatically, allowing his listener no time for interruptions. After several minutes he concluded, "Is everything straight? It's a question of time. I want them there as quickly as possible."
"Certainly, Professor," was the reply. "I understand. We'll get them there as fast as is humanly possible. But such an enormous load of sand, I can't imagine what you intend—"
"Damn you," shouted Merlo, his face purpling, "you don't have to imagine. All you have to do is get them there, and get them there in a hurry!"
"Yes, Professor," the voice was startled, "never fear. They'll be there on time."
Merlo slammed the instrument back on its cradle and stood up. He seized his hat from the top of a bookcase and stamped out of the room. A few moments later he was turning his black sedan out of his garage and onto the highway leading to Weston. Then he pushed the accelerator down to the floorboards....
LESS than a mile from the Weston Tower Hotel, a pretty, red-headed young girl was being swept along by the semi-frantic crowds thronging the business district. For the first time since she dashed tearfully from the offices of Lance Randell Enterprises, over an hour ago, Doris Martin was becoming aware of the frenzied hysteria gripping the city.
Despair at what she said to the man she loved had driven her into the streets, made her wander about aimlessly, until finally, Doris Martin knew what she had to do. And she was going to do it. No one on earth could stop her.
People were passing her, crowds elbowed by, the ordinary hum of the city increased to a tone approaching an angry howl, but Doris walked on, scarcely conscious of anything but the pavement beneath her feet. Where she was going, how long she'd been walking, nothing made any difference.
"Watch where ye're goin', sister!"
Doris had a confused vision of a fat red face peering angrily at her. A sweaty, shirt-sleeved fellow in a sailor straw had wrapped his pudgy hand around her arm and jerked her backward. Her first instinct was one of anger, and she started to speak.
"Ya wanna get kilt?" The fat man was pointing to the cars rushing by in the street, and then Doris realized that they were standing on the curbing, that the fat fellow had pulled her out of the path of the automobiles hurtling past them.
Her ears were torn by the screech of hastily applied automobile brakes. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a black sedan jolting to an abrupt stop. Terrified, she stood rooted in the center of the street.
"Good God, girl," someone shouted. "I might have killed you!" Doris saw that it was the driver of the sedan, and that he was climbing out of his car. The driver was walking over to her now, his face white, jaws shut.
"Doris!" The driver stopped short in shocked amazement.
It was then that she recognized Professor Merlo. He had her by the arm, was propelling her to his car and talking rapidly.
"What are you doing here? Life isn't safe anywhere in Weston. You must be mad to be roaming the streets while this turmoil is raging. Don't you know, haven't you seen it?"
They were in Merlo's sedan now, once more moving along in the stream of traffic. Doris found her voice at last. "Where are you going, Professor? What, what has happened to the city?"
"Plenty," Merlo snapped. "We're going to the Weston Towers. Lance is there, waiting for me. There's a lot to be done. Can't explain it all now."
At the mention of Lance, Doris paled. "Good!" she said firmly. "I was on my way there. I've a little business of my own there."
"Not with Lance, I suspect?" said Merlo, looking at her with less surprise than he might have.
"No," Doris' voice was amazingly different. "I'll tend to that—"
Suddenly the little black sedan shot across an intersection at the same moment that a lumber truck came hurtling through from the side street. It was too late for Merlo to swing the sedan out of its path. The sickening, futile squealing of brakes preceded the rending crash of a side-on collision. In the blackness that was closing around him, Merlo heard a woman scream....
IT had only been his dogged determination that enabled Lance Randell to get Edie Dalmar to leave her apartment. At first she was coyly amused at his insistence that she dress and leave with him immediately. Then, as she began to notice the unsmiling set to his mouth, the feverish gleam in his eyes, she became a little frightened and decided to humor him.
They stepped out of the elevator into the lobby and Randell looked swiftly through the crowd in an effort to see if Merlo had arrived yet. Edie tugged at his sleeve.
"Jus' what is this heah all about, daahling?" she demanded.
Randell tore his eyes from the crowd. Wordlessly he took her arm, piloting her across the room to a quiet corner. They found a lounge.
"What's this all about?" repeated Edie, her voice oddly different in accent. She jerked her arm out of his grasp.
"Look, Honey," he began in a rush of words. "As I said before. Something terrible has happened to the city. I can't tell you any more than that for the present. You'll have to trust me. It isn't safe in Weston any more, and I'm going to get you out of here as soon as Merlo comes!"
Edie's starry eyes narrowed perceptibly. "Have you gone daffy?"
Lance Randell groaned. Then, remembering Edie had seen nothing of the effects of the gas, hadn't even heard of it yet, he made another effort to explain.
"Listen, Darling. Weston is a city suddenly gone mad. Something has happened. It's no longer safe to go out into the streets. Business is being ruined. Financial houses are collapsing. Lives are being taken recklessly. You must understand me, you have to believe me. If this keeps up, dear, everything will be ruined. It begins to look like you'll have to keep your promise about marrying me even if I were a pauper." Lance stopped abruptly. Edie was staring at him strangely.
"What's that you just said?" she demanded frigidly.
"I said that all business is being ruined. It means that all my investments will be wiped out if this continues, that I'll be a pauper," said Lance in confusion.
"Are you sure of that?" Her tone was like an Arctic breeze.
"I'm afraid so." Randell had pushed his hat back on his forehead and was staring in amazement at the expression that crossed Edie's face.
"Then," said Edie deliberately, "you might as well get out of my sight, you boob. Do you think for a minute that I have any time for a pauper. Why, you sap, all I ever wanted was your dough. This little gal looks out for herself. If you haven't got the bankroll I can get a guy that has." She was standing up now, looking scornfully at him. "Excuse me, chump. I'm leaving. Don't bother to come again!"
Feeling as if he had just been thoroughly gone over by a steam-roller, Randell sat gazing in aching astonishment at Edie's retreating back.
FOR a time Lance Randell was unable to do anything more than stare dumbly into space. Edie Dalmar's sudden change had affected him just as forcibly as a left hook to the jaw, leaving him dazed, uncomprehending, paralyzed. His first reactions were those of hurt and bewilderment, bitterness and heartbreak. Then reason began to return, and with it the demand for an explanation of her actions.
She undoubtedly was acting under the effects of the gas, he was certain of that much. But why hadn't she spoken the truth when he talked to her in her apartment? Why didn't the gas influence her until they were down in the lobby?
Suddenly Randell looked at his watch. He remembered at that moment that Merlo should be somewhere in the lobby. The Professor had had more than enough time to get there. His personal troubles vanished as he realized once more that as every moment passed Weston was coming closer and closer to the brink of utter madness. And then, as he glanced in the direction of the revolving doors at the hotel entrance, he gasped.
A grotesque caricature of a man was entering. On his head was a battered fedora, mashed down over wild white hair and a blood-caked brow. His suit was literally ripped to shreds, the left pants leg torn off at the knee, and the coat sticky with oil and blood. He looked wildly about for an instant—
Randell gasped again, "Professor Merlo!"
In several swift strides Randell was at the old man's side. He threw an arm around his waist and half-carried him over to a couch. "Wasn't sure I'd make it," Merlo said faintly. "There was an accident. Truck. Hit me from the side. Doris, Doris Martin was in the car with me. I must have been out cold for five minutes. When I came around, she was gone. Couldn't look for her. Came the rest of the way by cab. Had to tell you. We must work fast!"
"Where is Doris—" But Randell stopped, fighting to drive all other thoughts from his mind. One thing alone was more important than any others. "Remember you said you'd found a solution?"
"Yes," Merlo said quietly. "It's in the weather."
Lance Randell felt suddenly sick inside. The old man was out of his head, delirious from the accident. His mouth felt dry, and all at once he knew it was all over.
They were beaten. There would be no solution. The one chance of saving the city was in the Professor's plan. And that plan had evidently been jarred from the old man's mind in the collision. Automatically he listened, while the Professor went on:
"Did you notice the weather?"
"No," Randell said, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice.
"Rainclouds," said Merlo, "huge formations of them above Weston. I called the weather bureau. But the rain isn't expected until evening. Then it will be too late. We can't wait for evening, Lance. We must have rain, now. Evening will be too late."
The Professor stopped, and looked at Lance strangely.
"My God, Lance, don't you see what I'm getting at? Do you think I'm out of my head? Rain! Rain! It'll save us, man. Remember your elementary chemistry! The rain will destroy our Truth Gas, will disintegrate its molecular formation! Water can do that to gas, don't you see?"
There was life once more in Randell's expression, hope in his eyes as he spoke. Gone was his conviction that Merlo was babbling. "Good Lord, I see what you mean, Professor! But you said that rain isn't expected until evening—"
"That's what I said," agreed Merlo, "but we're going to make rain, Lance. Now!"
Randell was visibly perplexed, but he waited while Merlo continued.
"I've ordered sand," said the Professor, "twelve trucks of it. They should be at the Weston Airport this minute. I've hired airplanes. They're the type used in spraying vegetation and smoking orchards. Those planes are going to fly above the raincloud formations. They're going to bomb [*] the clouds, with sand!"
[*Nothing is so tantalizing to drought sufferers as rainclouds which, because of some peculiar quirk in atmospheric conditions, refuse to precipitate rain. In the Southwestern section of the country, considerable success in the past was achieved by airplanes which sprayed or "bombed" with sand stubborn rainclouds above drought-stricken crops or sun-baked city streets. Action of the sand on the clouds released the rain. —Ed.]
"With sand!" repeated Merlo. "The sand will shatter the cloud formations, release the rain on the city immediately!"
Lance Randell was on his feet.
"You say the planes and the sand are waiting at the Airport?"
Merlo nodded. "I'd planned that we both go to the field. It will make it easier if there are two of us to direct the operations."
The youth helped the old scientist to his feet. "Think you'll be okay, Professor?"
"I think so," said Merlo. But his face was a sickening white.
Randell looked quickly at the Professor, indecision crossing his face. At that instant confusion broke forth in the lobby of Weston Towers, signalled by a hoarse shout of terror from the direction of the elevators. Then a woman screamed and every voice in the place became raised in bedlam.
The Professor and Randell wheeled in the direction of this fresh outburst. People were rushing back and forth in front of a corner elevator like so many frightened chickens. They seemed desperately eager to get away from that particular spot.
Then they saw the cause of the terror, a mousey little man who was standing alone in the elevator, shouting hysterically. The fellow had one hand on the controls and the other was clutching a small, vial-like object.
"Going up, going up, going up," his voice carried to where Randell and Professor Merlo were standing.
"Good Lord," someone cried, "stop him before it's too late."
"Get the Manager," a woman was screaming. "He wants to kill himself."
Lance cursed in anguish. Another one. He struggled through the retreating crowds until he stood behind a cordon of the more courageous spectators, some twenty feet from the elevator row. Merlo had followed directly behind him.
"Get back," the bespectacled little fellow in the elevator was shouting. "Get away from here, all of you, unless you want to come with me!"
The man peered owlishly at the crowd through the thick lenses of his glasses, raising the object in his hand aloft. "This is nitroglycerine! It can blow us all to eternity! Stand back!"
Instinctively, the row in front of Lance and Merlo surged back. Lance turned to Merlo. "It's another suicide attempt!"
The little man was shouting at the crowd again. "I'm going up through this roof. Up in a blaze of glory. Glory, for the first time in my miserable life! I've been kidding myself too long. My worthless hide doesn't mean a thing in the scheme of things, and all the time I've been a miserable failure, a fraud. But this morning I stopped lying to myself. Now I'm going out—out and up—with this nitro in my hand! Who wants to come along, eh? Who wants to come along?"
The Professor put a hand to his head, wiping away beads of perspiration. He looked at Randell. "There's nothing we can do about it."
"Good God," Randell cried, "we can't let him kill himself. It's our fault if he dies!" His voice had become anguished, impassioned, and Merlo placed a quieting hand on his arm.
"Steady, Lance. We couldn't foresee all this. There's nothing we can do about it. Every minute we stand here means at least ten such similar deaths throughout the city. Our duty is at the Airport. Let's get out of here, immediately."
Suddenly Lance Randell trembled. Then he quieted.
"You're right. Sorry. Let's get going!" He turned, pushing back through the crowd, when he noticed that Merlo was not moving. The Professor stood frozen motionless, staring in astonishment at the elevator.
"Going up! Going up!" Randell heard the demoniacal little man chanting. He also heard a gasp from the crowd, heard Merlo mutter a familiar name incredulously. Randell spun around to face the elevator.
"Doris!" the name tumbled from his lips in horror, for from a side entrance to the lobby Doris Martin was walking in a direct line toward the madman's elevator!
In the brief agonized glimpse Lance Randell had of the girl he could see instantly that something was wrong. She walked with the measured step of a sleepwalker, her face blank, eyes unseeing. And in the shocked hush that fell over the lobby he heard her muttering almost inaudibly.
"Lance Randell, you're a fool. A fool." She seemed to be sobbing. "I love you, Lance. She'll never take you...."
"Going up! Going up!" The wild cry of the maniac rang out through the sudden silence like an unclean cackle. He swung the grilled doors of the elevator open momentarily, and in that instant Doris Martin, unseeingly, stepped inside the cage. "Ha—ha! Going up, sister! Glad you're coming along!"
As the elevator door clanged shut Lance Randell's mind became a crimson blot. With an animal snarl he lashed out, at the bodies that had blocked his way to the elevator, beating a path before him, hurling himself through the opening. He didn't notice Merlo barging along behind him. He didn't notice anything but the cage with the little suicide and the dazed young girl.
A wild laugh came from the tiny cage, and Randell shouted as he saw it start upward. The light above the door flickered white. Merlo was beside Randall by this time, grabbing him by the arm. He wheeled as he felt the old man's fingers digging into his sleeve.
"What in the hell are we standing here for?" Randell yelled. "Doris is in that elevator, and by God I'm going after her!"
"Get a grip on yourself, Lance," Merlo's fingers dug deeper into his arm and his voice was low, fierce. "Remember what I told you, man. For every moment that we're delayed from the Airport, something like this happens somewhere else in Weston. We've wasted too much time already!"
The Professor's voice brought calm back to Randell—calm and agony at the full import of the situation. "Professor," he muttered shakily, "Doris will be blown to eternity. I have to follow!"
"You'll be sacrificing a hundred lives for one."
Randell looked at the small puddle of blood forming beneath Merlo's leg. "Can you make it alone, Professor?"
"You love the girl?" The Professor's voice was soft.
"Yes... I never realized..." said Randell, and he realized with bitter irony that the Truth Gas was at work once more.
Merlo held out his hand. "I'll make it, Lance, somehow. God give you luck, lad, and speed!" Then the Professor was gone, moving unsteadily off through the crowds. The open door of an adjoining elevator caught Randell's eye and he stepped toward it without hesitation.
"Don't be a fool," snapped a voice directly behind him.
Lance Randell wheeled to see a tall, broad shouldered fellow standing behind him. "Keep out of that elevator. Get back into the crowd. There's a lunatic loose in an elevator with a vial of nitroglycerine. We're clearing the lobby."
"Thanks," Randell grated, "for the information!" As he spoke his fist swung simultaneously. The efficient-looking young gentleman went down heavily. The elevator doors closed with a wild clang.
Lance Randell grabbed the controls of the car, throwing them forward instantly. In his heart was the horrible fear that he'd wasted too much time, that he would be too late. The car lurched forward from the quick start, then shot upward. From the moment when he first spied the insane operator in the elevator, something had been hammering at the back of his consciousness. It seemed to hinge, somehow with Edie Dalmar. And now, with every second holding the answer between life and death, he racked his brain in an effort to hit upon a plan.
He knew that his only hope of stopping the suicide and saving Doris, lay in that elusive subconscious discovery. He glanced swiftly about the narrow confines of the cage, mentally thanking God that it was not one of the modern, room-type elevators enclosed on all sides. Instead, the upper-half of the walls were merely spaced iron grillwork, making it possible to see across the shaft from one elevator to another.
He peered out through the grill. With a silent prayer of thanks he saw that the cables in the adjoining shaft were moving slowly.
"He's taking his time," he muttered. "If I can catch the car before he drives it through the roof I—" Suddenly the elusive plan that had been hiding in his subconscious was crystallized for Randell. He had it.
Of course! The Truth Gas didn't carry to the upper floors of the hotel. It was a heavier-than-air substance. That accounted for Edie being unaffected by it when she was in her apartment!
His plan was clear in his mind, now. He knew that his one chance of saving Doris lay in forcing the lunatic to the upper floors of the Hotel without discharging the nitro. Once above the gas, the little man would return to normality, would listen to reason.
The little car shot past the twenty-fifth floor. Five floors more and Randell caught a glimpse of the understructure of his quarry's elevator.
Face taut, Randell began to slow his own cage. Three seconds, and he was adjoining the death car. He threw his controls back to stop.
"Ha!" He could see the crazed little man turn from where he stood at the controls of the car. He peered through the grillwork at Randell.
Suddenly the suicide's voice cackled, "So you want to come along, too?"
His eyes sweeping desperately across the car in an effort to see Doris, Randell called, "Where's the girl?"
The little man glanced downward in devilish amusement. "She's lying on the floor. Passed out a moment after we started up."
Randell was talking rapidly, "You can't take that girl to her death. For the love of heaven, man, she has nothing to do with you or your life. Let her out!"
Another hysterical burst of laughter from the demented little fellow was the only answer. Randell opened his mouth to speak, when the other car began to ascend once more. Cursing, he threw the controls forward again.
"32" flashed by.
"33" dropped past. "36" faded by, and cold sweat trickled off Randell's forehead, smarting into his eyes. He forced himself to look upward, catching a glimpse of the car above. Suddenly he cursed. Something was wrong.
The other car had come to a stop, and was bobbing between floors, "He's going to drop the nitro," Randell thought desperately. He slowed his tiny cage down until he was beside the other.
Looking across the shaft, he was startled. Neither Doris nor the nitro-man was visible!
Instinctively he called out, "Doris!" The silent elevator shafts echoed and re-echoed his cry.
He set his controls, rushing to the grill work wall, trying to get a better view of the cage in the opposite shaft. Then he saw them. In one corner of the elevator Doris was lying face downward. In the front, next to the controls, the madman was stretched out flat on his back. Next to his open hand was the vial of nitroglycerine—rolling gently back and forth on the floor of the car!
With a numbing sensation of horror, Randell saw that the controls of the car were not set correctly, that they might slip any moment!
Steeling himself, he swept his eyes across the cage in the opposite shaft, looking frantically for some solution to the dilemma. The car was stuck between floors, making it impossible to get to it from a hall door.
Randell realized as much instantly. There was only one other solution, and breathing a silent supplication for time, he set to work on the wall grillwork of his cage.
Precious moments rushed by as he began the laborious effort required to unscrew the thick screen fastenings. It would have been a difficult enough job with tools, but Randell had only his hands, and inside of two minutes they were torn and bleeding.
Sobbing under his breath, knowing that the controls might loosen in the opposite car at any instant, Lance Randell paused only to wipe away the sweat that clouded his eyes. Then at last one side of the screen was loosened.
It was enough. Calling on every last ounce of strength, he pulled backward on the grilling, bending it enough to push his head and shoulders through the scant opening. Hoisting himself up to the ledge where the screening began, he stood teetering, looking down thirty-seven floors of elevator shaft.
He closed his eyes for a moment, grating his teeth against the pain he knew was coming, then seized one of the black, greasy cables with his lacerated hands. It was an almost superhuman act of will that let him swing his feet from the comparatively safe ledge of his own car out into space.
For an agonized second, Randell was sure that his grip on the cable was loosening, that he was going to pitch headlong down the shaft. He wrapped his legs around the huge black coil, hoping to God that the grease wouldn't make such a grip impossible. It was now or never.
One hand lost the cable. The motion made him slide several sickening feet. His hand caught the grilling on the death car, held him there.
With his free hand Randell went to work on the screen fastenings of the cage in which Doris was lying. Time was a blur now, and every frantic second spent in tearing at the bolt fastenings seemed like a section of eternity. He knew he wasn't going to make it, felt his legs growing weak in their grip around the cable, felt the flesh tearing open wider and wider on the hand clutching the coil. But he continued feverishly.
The grilled siding was almost opened, one more bolt, it was loose....
Through the daze of sweat, exhaustion and pain Randell knew that he had to throw all his weight over the half-side of the death car, and as he realized the fact, he caught a split-second vision of the via! of nitroglycerine on the floor, of the control lever that might slip with the slightest jarring of the cage.
He grabbed, releasing all but his legs from the cable, got his elbows over the side of the car. Now his legs were free, and he was clambering into the tiny elevator, making for the controls....
DORIS stood close against Lance Randell, and his arms were around her. They stood in the street outside the Weston Towers. The angry howl of the city had subsided to a tranquil hum, above which could be heard the drone of many airplanes, growing softer, fainter.
Tiny grains of sand were falling in many places over the city, but they were unfelt, locked in droplets of rain. And the rain kept falling gently, steadily, washing away the madness and sorrow and death that a plague of truth had given freedom.
Lance Randell looked down at the girl.
"Why, darling," he said softly, "you're crying!"
She turned her face upward. "No," she murmured, "it's just the rain on my cheeks."
He drew her tighter. "Liar," he whispered....
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.