Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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She danced—and stars came down. When they lifted, she was gone...
THE glorious Hollywood sun that slanted through the windows of the writer's building on the Apex Films lot did not particularly impress Laird Baxter, for that young man was sound asleep on the leather office sofa which had been thoughtfully provided by studio heads for exhausted genius.
Laird Baxter was not exhausted. He had slept soundly the night before and he had done nothing since arriving at the studio except open his mail, which had consisted of several duns and a curt note from a second cousin demanding a loan of five hundred dollars.
These he had consigned to the wastebasket without delay and then, having completed his chores for the day, he stretched his lean frame out on the sofa, tipped a hat over his eyes, and went quietly to sleep.
He was still sleeping when his office boy entered sometime around eleven in the morning.
"Hey, boss!" the boy's brassy shout was a blend of sarcastic deference and envy. "Old W.W. wants to see you. His secretary sent me over here to get you."
Laird Baxter lifted the hat from his face and peered with dislike at the scrawny youth standing in the doorway.
"Go away," he said. He put the hat back over his face and closed his eyes.
"I'm just telling you, that's all. There's a big conference going on over there and he wants you to come right over."
"I am resting," Laird's voice was muffled behind the hand. "I am restocking my depleted emotional reservoirs. Begone!"
"All right, I'm going," the office boy said. "But, if anybody asks me, you're crazy."
"No one is liable to ask you," Laird said, "so don't let it get you down." He took the hat away from his face again and studied the youth in the doorway. "And why," he said, squinting, "would you be so quick to tell this hypothetical questioner that I am a mental case?"
"Well, gee, Gloria Turner is over there in W.W.'s office. Anybody who'd pass up the chance to view that blonde blitzkrieg at close range must be nuts."
Laird Baxter got to his feet with suspicious haste. He adjusted his tie and smoothed his black rumpled hair with both hands.
"Why didn't you say so?" he asked the grinning office boy. "You've been around this screwy joint long enough to realize the importance of coming to the point immediately."
"But you said—"
"Please don't quote me," Laird said sternly. "The quickest way to make a fool of a man is to quote him verbatim."
"Yes sir. Then I'll tell W.W.'s secretary you're coming?"
Laird put his hat on and strode to the door.
"Never mind, I'll tell him myself," he said, and left.
As he hurried across the wide sun-splashed lot that separated the executive buildings from those of the poor peons of the writing trade, his thoughts were of Gloria Turner and very pleasant thoughts they were.
Laird Baxter was not just another of the Hollywood wolves in padded sports coats who began drooling at the sight of the comely wenches who were scattered so profusely and delightfully about the magic city of celluloid. He was different.
His interest in Gloria Turner, although he had only met her once or twice, was the real thing, complete with dreams of an ivy-trellised bungalow for two and a crib for one.
He realized that he was a sap for kidding himself along that way, but there didn't seem to be anything to do about it. In an environment where love was as outdated and old fashioned as the silent screen, Laird Baxter found himself, not only in love, but in love in a starry-eyed adolescent sort of way that was almost embarrassing.
HE entered the portals of the executive's building and stopped at the receptionist's desk in the vast, palm-dotted lobby.
The receptionist, a pretty girl who had come to Hollywood three years ago because her high school dramatic coach thought she "had something" smiled at him.
"Go right in Mr. Baxter," she said, "they're expecting you."
"Thanks," he said. "And where are these assorted fruits and nuts assembled?"
"In W.W.'s office."
Laird bowed chivalrously to the girl and proceeded down a wide corridor that led to a vast mahogany door which bore in letters of solid gold the name of W.W. Winterbloom.
His knock was answered by a full-throated bellow from beyond the door, which could have been interpreted a dozen ways. Laird opened the door and stepped into an office which might have doubled in size for a skating rink and which was cloudy with layers of swirling smoke and hot air.
Through the fog banks of smoke he made out W.W. Winterbloom standing in front of his dramatically oversized ebony desk with a smile of welcome on his round wrinkled face.
"It is so nice to see you, my boy," he beamed. "We were just talking about you."
Laird glanced around at the assembled group of writers, directors and studio press agents and a cynical grin touched his face.
"Really? Nobody went so far as to say something good about me, did they?"
"Ah, my boy," W.W. chortled, "always quick with the joking, aren't you? But today we got problems to settle and the joking must wait for a while. This is not the time for procrastificration."
Laird raised a polite eyebrow.
W.W. waved a pudgy hand in a gesture of irritation.
"You know the word I am always using in times like this," he said, frowning.
"Oh yes," Laird nodded, "that one. Procrastination."
"That's it," W.W. Winterbloom cried triumphantly. "Just like I said this is not the time for pro—for that."
He began pacing back and forth in front of his desk in the pose which his press agents had made famous, hands clasped behind his short thick neck and eyes raised ceiling-ward with an expression of great earnestness on his face.
Laird sighed gently. W.W. was in one of his genius moods and the act might last indefinitely. He regarded the little man's pacing figure with a smile of pity. He could never quite decide whether the volatile little producer had simply never grown up, or whether he was the victim of senility at an early age.
And he really didn't care particularly.
"Hello, Laird," a soft voice said behind him, "aren't you speaking to your old friends any more?"
Laird turned in surprise. Smiling up at him from the depths of a huge leather chair was a small girl with honey colored hair and enormous eyes of lake-water blue.
This was Gloria Turner and Laird's heart skipped several beats in appreciation of the fact. She didn't resemble the studio publicity stills which were plastered throughout the nation's magazines and newspapers. There was lacking the sultry, high- voltage appeal that a camera caught. She looked surprisingly intelligent and nice. She was wearing a simple blue dress with a white lace collar and her jewelry consisted of one small bracelet.
Laird sat down beside her because, he was afraid his legs weren't going to be trustworthy much longer. There was already a perceptible tremor at the knees.
"Nice weather, isn't it?"
She grinned at him and he mentally berated himself for a stupid lout. Words were supposed to be his business and here he was gibbering about the weather like Andy Hardy on his first date. Next he would probably loosen his tie and mutter that it was getting warm.
He did and said precisely that.
The girl laughed softly.
"I hadn't noticed it," she said gravely. She glanced sideways at him with an impish grin. "That just about takes care of the weather, doesn't it, Mr. Baxter?"
Laird grinned back at her and lit a cigarette. Somehow, he felt at ease again. That was the wonderful thing about this girl. Although he had only spoken to her a few times he felt that he had known her always. There was something genuine and friendly in her attitude that charmed everyone she met, from producer to propboy.
"Why the heap big powwow?" he asked.
"I haven't the faintest idea," she answered. "It's some idea that W.W. has cooked up."
"It will probably be sensational then," Laird said dryly.
W.W. Winterbloom suddenly stopped pacing. For an instant he stood stock-still, head bowed. Then he turned slowly and smiled at the roomful of people. His mood had changed.
"Thank you for coming," he said gently. "It makes an old man feel good to know that someone is still willing to listen to him." He sighed and clasped his hands behind his back. Any moment he would blink back a tear and that, Laird felt, was the point at which he would surely retch.
W.W. padded slowly across the thickly carpeted floor and stopped in front of Gloria Turner. There was a mild, paternal beam in his eye. He patted her gently on the head.
"This little girl is like a daughter to me," he said with heavy sentimentality. "I have watched her climbing up the ladder of success with steady strokes that quickly brought her out of the waters of oblivion to the oasis of stardom."
He paused for a second, obviously pleased with this happy figure of speech. "And now my little girl is going up again, past the top to the—"
He paused again and from the look on his face it was apparent that even his literary ingenuity was stumped with the problem of what was beyond the top.
"The heights," suggested Laird.
"As I was about to say," W.W. continued with a grateful glance at Laird for the assist, "I have watched my little girl reach the top and then go on to scale the heights. But she is not yet through. In fact, this next year she is going to be bigger than ever. I have decided that our own little Gloria will be Apex's featured star for the coming year. That is one of the things I wanted to tell you today. That is one of the reasons I asked you to be here today."
W.W. began pacing again and now there was the look of eagles in his eyes. The mood had changed again and the little producer was tearing into another of his favorite roles.
"And how are we going to build up our little Gloria?" he demanded. No answer was expected and none was forthcoming. W.W. paused and swung his gaze about the circle of assistants. "Ha!" he cried abruptly. "You have nothing to say? You are stumped? We face a crisis here that may affect the entire motion picture industry and on my own shoulders it is all falling." His tone softened. "I do not blame you. Perhaps it is too much to expect ordinary flesh and blood to take my load of work and worry. It is lucky I am here with you in this hour of trouble and woe. I am not stumped. I do not hesitate or falter. I have the answer to our problem!"
"What is it, W.W.?" an assistant director who longed for full directorial status asked in an awed, hushed voice.
"I am glad someone asked that." the little producer said briskly. He waddled back to his desk, a personification of decisive energy.
"I will tell you. We need a publicity campaign to build up Miss Turner in the eyes of the American public. That is your answer; publicity! Now we come to my other reason for calling this conference."
He stepped aside suddenly and pointed at a small, ornately carven box on top of his desk. "Maybe you have noticed this box," he said, smiling mysteriously. He beckoned them to his side with an expansive gesture. "Come closer my loyal workers, and I will show you the greatest publicity idea since I discovered the bathing suit."
"Come on," Laird murmured to Gloria, "this is going to be good."
They joined the circle at the desk and W.W. smiled fondly at Gloria.
"This is all for you my child," he said.
He opened the box and lifted out a small pair of slippers and, with a dramatic flourish, extended them for their inspection.
The slippers were small and exquisitely fashioned. Sparkling, jeweled straps crisscrossed the thin soles which were apparently made of lustrous ebony. The heels were of medium height and smoothly carved from gleaming ivory.
"Why, they're lovely!" Gloria cried. "Where did you get them?"
"Ah!" the rotund producer smiled mysteriously. "Already you are asking that I Soon all America will be asking that and Apex Films will have the answer. These slippers came here with a refugee from Iran, formerly Persia. I know, because I looked it up."
"That's very interesting," Laird said politely. "Now what?"
W.W. smiled inscrutably.
"That is a good question. Now what? I will tell you. These slippers are a thousand years old. They were made by a famous wizard of Persia for the most beautiful princess who ever lived. Whoever wears them the wizard said will dance on the stars and rule all men."
"That might be fun," Gloria said, glancing at Laird with a smile.
W.W. Winterbloom had drawn himself up to his full five feet four as he was speaking.
"This is our new publicity campaign," he declared impressively.
LAIRD felt again the strange sense of bewilderment and confusion that always claimed him when he was forced to watch at close range the working of that strange thing known as the Hollywood mind. W.W. Winterbloom was perfectly convinced that he had proposed an idea that ranked in importance to human advancement right alongside the Magna Carta.
"That's very brilliant," someone in the background commented cautiously.
Laird regarded the slippers with a jaundiced and dubious eye.
"Let's have an encore on the history of these things," he said. "I'm afraid that some of the salient bits about the wizard slipped by me."
"You should be more attentive," W.W. said reprovingly. "These slippers are enchanted." He looked solemnly about the circle of faces and nodded secretively, as if he actually believed what he was saying.
"You don't say!" someone said in awed tones.
"Absolutely," W.W. said emphatically. "Of course, that's just the story." He shrugged. "Might be that they ain't."
"Might be," Laird said dryly.
"The important thing," W.W. went on, "is to sell the public on the idea. Now, I figure that if we arrange a big sort of pageant and have Gloria put on the slippers for the first time there and dance in 'em, we'll sock the public right in the eye. Anyway, that's my idea. Now, if any of you don't like it, speak up. I like frankness. If it stinks, say so."
There was silence for an instant.
"Well," W.W. said, and there was an ominous undertone in his voice, "what's the matter?"
"I think it's great," the assistant director said hurriedly, beating everyone else to the punch and practically assuring himself a full directorship.
W.W. Winterbloom beamed on the young man.
"Do you really?" he smiled. "I'm glad to hear you saying so. I like your independence, young man. I like a man with a mind of his own. Now what do the rest of you think?"
There was a swelling chorus of adulation and praise heaped on W.W.'s brain-child and the smile on his face widened until he was beaming like a department store Santa Claus.
"I am touched," he said softly. "Deeply touched by your faith in my suggestion."
Laird was getting bored. He could stand W.W. Winterbloom, but only in small doses, and he had just about reached the saturation point.
"Well, I'm glad everyone's happy," he said. "I'll be running along now to—"
"Just a minute, my son," Winterbloom said, putting a hand on his shoulder; "there's something I want to say to you. I've been watching your work and"—he paused and nodded solemnly—"it's good."
"Well, thanks," Laird said weakly, "I'm glad you—"
"It's so good that I've decided to give you a real opportunity to show your ability. I'm going to put you in complete charge of Gloria's magic slipper pageant."
"Naturally you're surprised," Winterbloom chuckled, patting his shoulder. "But you will find, my boy, that good fortune has a way of striking when you least expect it."
"Now listen," said Laird grimly, "I'm a writer, not a publicity hound. I don't know a thing about this sort of thing."
"Don't ever doubt your own ability," Winterbloom said firmly. "Always remember—I have faith in you."
"Hah!" Laird snorted bitterly. He was on the point of telling Winterbloom precisely what he could do with the job, when a thought occurred to him. This set-up would give him an unparalleled opportunity to be near Gloria Turner. He was a sap not to have thought of that immediately.
HE WAS on the point of telling Winterbloom how overjoyed he was when the door opened and a dark cyclone of feminine fury blew into the room.
"You stinking rat!" she screamed.
Everyone in the room turned guiltily. Standing in the doorway, clad in a skintight, black satin dress, was a voluptuous, raven- haired creature, whose hot blazing eyes shot lightning about the room. Her hands were set pugnaciously on hips that seemed to undulate even while she was standing still and the polished toe of one spike-heeled sandal was tapping the floor ominously. She wore black net hose over her long white legs and she looked like a burlesque queen whose butter and egg man had sold out before price ceilings were fixed.
She was breathtaking in a violent sort of way.
She was Colette D'Arcieux, fading star of Apex Films and a tornado of temperament when aroused. And from all reliable indications she was plenty aroused now.
"Hello, my dear," Winterbloom said with a nervous smile. "So nice to see you again."
"Don't give me that oil," Colette blazed. She drew red lips back against her very white teeth and snarled like a lady panther whose cubs were in danger. "You little sneak, I oughta cut your heart out and squeeze it like a sponge in front of your eyes."
Winterbloom moaned and closed his eyes. A sheen of perspiration glistened on his high forehead.
"Such a thought," he muttered. "You should be ashamed to talk like that to your old friend, Colette."
Colette wheeled on slim ankles and glared at Gloria. A very unladylike sneer twisted her carmined lips.
"So this is the twist that goin' to take my place, eh?" She took in her rival's fragile blonde loveliness with frank scorn. "It's like throwin' chocolates to wolves after they've gotten used to hamburger," she said icily.
Gloria picked up her hat and gloves.
"If that's all," she said evenly, looking at Winterbloom, "I think I'll be running along."
"Please, my dear," W.W. said hastily, "don't go. There's something I must discuss with you—alone."
"All right, you don't have to hit me with a lead pipe," Colette said caustically; "I'll roll my hoop, but if you think I'm through with you, you little weasel, you've got another guess coming."
She tossed a thousand dollar fur piece about her neck with a scornful gesture and flung out of the room, slamming the door after her.
A loud, painful silence followed her departure.
"A very high-strung creature," Winterbloom said, mopping his forehead and breaking the silence. He smiled weakly. "Temperamental a little, she is, too."
"You'd hardly notice it," Laird murmured.
"You were probably noticing something else," Gloria said in a cool little voice.
Laird had been staring at Colette. It had been impossible to do otherwise. A man could no longer ignore her smouldering appeal than he could the July sun at high noon.
But he hadn't thought Gloria had noticed his fascinated gaze. And, even so, he couldn't see why it should bother her. Laird frowned and, as very bright people sometimes do, he completely missed the obvious explanation.
"Now, now," Winterbloom said, rubbing his hands together briskly. "We mustn't stand around wasting time. We must all get busy on this big idea of mine. Laird, I'll expect you to have things ready for a dress rehearsal by next week."
Gloria had already left as Laird turned back to his boss.
"O.K.," he said wearily. "I'll have your magic slippers shod and ready to go, come Monday."
WHEN Monday rolled around, Laird was as surprised as everyone else that he had kept his word. He had bullied and badgered the prop departments into getting his set ready on time and he had rehearsed Gloria until she knew by heart the silly routine she was to go through for the greater honor and profits of Apex Films and for the advancement of her own career.
The act was simple. A line of chorines supplied the background for Gloria's dance. She reclined on a soft, billowing couch in a diaphanous gown of silver and lace that was cunningly fashioned to reveal practically as much as it concealed.
As she rose to her feet the magic slippers descended amid a shower of electric stars and from there on she went into a simple dance routine that was old when Pericles was staging his Greek festivals.
There wasn't much to it, but the publicity about the enchanted slippers and the strange story connected with them was supposed to whet Johnnie Public's appetite and counterbalance any shortcomings in the actual presentation.
Laird was waiting impatiently to get the nonsense over when Winterbloom strode onto the set, wearing a wild sport coat and a yachting cap on top of his bald head.
"My boy, you've done miracles," he cried enthusiastically.
"Not quite," said Laird sourly.
The coziness he had imagined would develop between himself and Gloria as a result of their working together had, strangely enough, not materialized. She had been friendly, but there was a certain aloofness in her manner that troubled him. He was a very disgusted young man and he was extremely anxious to get the job done so he could get back to the comparatively respectable employment of writing scenarios.
Everything was set to roll as Winterbloom seated himself with an expectant look on his face in the first row of the seats that had been erected especially for this performance.
"I'm all pins and needles," he said smilingly to Laird. "I feel I am going to witness something big."
"Let's hope you aren't disappointed," Laird said.
Gloria was reclining on a huge cot on the center of the stage, her gown spreading about her in waves of soft silver. Her long golden hair was brushed down to her shoulders and huge sunflowers winked against its bright sheen. She looked too lovely to be real, Laird thought wistfully.
"Whenever you're ready," he called out.
"O.K.," she answered, waving.
Laird signaled and the lights went down to a pale soft glow and the entire scene was transformed into a picture of fairy-like beauty.
The chorus went through its introductory steps with slow, languorous motions and Gloria, moving with lithe grace, raised herself from the great couch and spread her arms wide in a gesture of supplication and immolation.
"It is beautiful," Winterbloom said huskily. "I am feeling tears in my eyes."
"And I am feeling a pain in the neck," Laird muttered under his breath.
"What?" Winterbloom asked absently.
Laird didn't bother to answer. The act was apparently just what the old boy wanted and that was that. He, personally, was of the opinion that the entire thing was ridiculous.
Gloria had risen to her knees and was swaying slowly back and forth, her eyes closed and the lashes dark shadows against the theatrical whiteness of her face.
FROM above her head a scintillating galaxy of stars suddenly showered down onto the stage, brushing her long golden hair and settling softly on the billowing folds of her silver dress.
"Terrific!" breathed Winterbloom in Laird's ear.
Gloria had raised her face to the settling stars and she swayed voluptuously as they caressed her cheeks and eyes before drifting down to lie strewn about her feet like the petals of flowers.
Then through the mist of miniature stars the ebony slippers appeared, descending slowly toward Gloria's upraised arms. This seeming miracle was accomplished by a prop boy who lowered the slippers on thin strands of piano wire, which were invisible in the maze of artificial stars. The effect, however, was quite impressive.
Gloria took the slippers when they were within reach and slipped them on her narrow bare feet. Then with a lithe motion she sprang from the couch and pirouetted brilliantly before going into her dance routine.
"Marvelous!" Winterbloom said huskily. "Such beauty and grace is too much to be bearing."
Laird realized then that he didn't have and probably never would have what it took to become an impresario of W.W. Winterbloom's mettle. The first requirement necessary to reaching such an exalted state would seem to be a juvenile conception of drama and an imbecilic idea of what constituted good entertainment. Equipped with these fundamentals, a man could go far in Hollywood, Laird realized.
This moody reverie was shattered as the little producer grabbed his arm excitedly.
"Magnificent!" he hissed. "How did you do it?"
Laird turned his attention back to the stage, wondering what had provoked Winterbloom's amazed admiration. And when he saw what was happening on the set his mouth dropped open, foolishly.
Another swarm of stars had descended—but these stars were not the product of electrical ingenuity and they were not manipulated by prop men perched above the stage.
These stars were an unscheduled attraction. They glowed with a wild, fierce light and Laird saw that they were almost six inches in diameter.
Gloria danced on, apparently oblivious to the arrival of this host of mysterious stars. Her eyes were closed and there was an unreal expression of ecstasy on her lovely white features. The stars floated down, forming a brilliant cone of light directly above her shining head.
Laird rose involuntarily to his feet. Something was radically wrong and he felt a strange fear plucking at his nerves.
"Gloria!" he shouted.
She apparently didn't hear, for she paid no attention to his cry. There was a dreamy, drugged look on her beautiful face as she raised her eyes to the cone of stars that was settling over her. She raised her arms longingly as the brilliant light enveloped her, obscuring her completely with misting, cloying radiance.
Laird started for the stage, but the little producer dragged him back.
"It's glorious, my boy," he cried. "I will make you a genius with your ability."
Laird shook his arm loose and sprang for the set. Something was terribly screwy here and he felt his heart thudding anxiously against his ribs.
But before he could reach the stage the cloud of stars suddenly flamed with blinding brilliance and the next instant they were gone.
Laird had thrown an arm instinctively over his eyes, and now when he looked at the stage again he saw that the line of chorus girls were staring in frightened horror at the place where Gloria had been dancing.
Laird ran a hand through his hair dazedly. He could hear W.W.'s voice bleating behind him and he was vaguely aware of the scared, frightened whispers of the girls and prop men.
But nothing penetrated the fog of mystery and worry that was settling over his mind.
For Gloria had vanished with the brilliant host of stars, and that one fact was enough to occupy all of Laird's attention!
It didn't make sense. The whole thing was crazy and incredible, but—
Gloria was gone!
W.W. WINTERBLOOM tapped him on the shoulder. The little producer was shaking his head sadly.
"I am disappointed, my boy," he said, heaving a great sigh. "I am not impressed with the finale. Magic is no good on the screen these days. People are fed up with disappearing acts."
"That was no act," Laird said grimly. "There's something screwy as hell going on here and I'm going to find out what it is."
He leaped onto the stage and stared with baffled helplessness at the frightened, whispering line of chorus girls.
"Did any of you see Gloria leave the stage?" he barked the question at them.
They shook their heads and then all began chattering at once. From their slightly hysterical stories Laird realized they knew no more than he did about the mysteriously materialized stars and Gloria's subsequent disappearance.
He waved them into silence.
Winterbloom was at his side again, panting from the exertion of having climbed onto the stage.
"My boy," he said kindly, "don't take this too hard. I, too, have made mistakes. The disappearing act is a lemon? That fact you must be facing. You will have to work out something else. Bring Gloria back here now and we will talk this over. Remember, Winterbloom is behind you and you cannot fail."
Laird ran both hands through his hair distractedly.
"Listen!" he said, grabbing the little producer's lapels; "Gloria is gone. I had nothing to do with it. I don't know where in hell she is. We've got to find her. Send out an order to the studio and we'll comb the lot until we do find her."
Winterbloom patted him on the shoulder in a fatherly way.
"You mustn't drive yourself so hard, my boy," he said gently. "A rest you must be taking for yourself."
"Gloria is gone!" Laird shouted. "Can't you get that fact through the armor plate that you use for a skull?"
Winterbloom flushed a delicate shade of pink.
"I do not like your tone," he said stiffly. "I am a big man, a generous man; even my enemies cannot deny that. But unless you apologize—"
"Oh, for God's sake," Laird groaned, "will you stop acting like the injured heroine at the second act curtain? This is no time for petty nonsense. Don't you realize that something damnably queer has happened here? That your top-flight star has just vanished into thin air? If you aren't worried about her, at least think of your investment!"
This blow struck home. Winterbloom mopped his damp brow with a lavender handkerchief and regarded Laird with suddenly worried eyes.
"You are not joking with an old man, are you, my boy?" he asked in a husky voice. "If Gloria is gone we must find her. But this is impossible! Where would she go? Why would she go?"
"We'll send out a studio alarm first," Laird said crisply. "We've got to keep this out of the papers for a while. If she doesn't turn up by tonight we'll notify the police."
"The police?" Winterbloom's voice quavered on the word. "You don't think—"
"I don't know what I think," Laird said, "but I'm damned worried."
Winterbloom swallowed with an effort.
"I will get busy," he said and waddled hurriedly away.
One of the chorus girls tapped Laird on the arm as Winterbloom.
"Mr. Baxter," she said, "I just found something you might like to take a gander at."
"What is it?"
The girl held out a small slipper. It was one of the ebony- soled slippers that Gloria had been wearing during the dance.
Laird took it from the girl and studied it with worried eyes.
"Where did you find it?" he asked.
"Right in the center of the stage." The girl looked at the slipper and shuddered slightly. "It must have fallen off when," she swallowed uneasily, "when she—left," she finished, emphasizing the last word queerly.
Laird put the slipper in his pocket.
"Thanks," he said to the girl. "Please don't say anything about this right away."
"Trust me," the girl said. "I want no part of this deal. Something's goin' on here that I don't like."
She walked away quickly and Laird tried to fight down the premonition that her words had evoked. But it was no use. Even though his reason insisted that there would be a perfectly natural and plausible explanation for Gloria's mysterious disappearance, he was still worried. Damned worried....
THE next afternoon when he entered Winterbloom's office his worry had increased so with each passing hour that he was on the point of blowing his top completely.
There were three of four cops in the office and at least a dozen newspapermen, who immediately swarmed over Laird.
"Have you heard from her, Mr. Baxter?"
"Is this just a publicity gag?"
"Has she eloped?"
Laird waved away the questions wearily.
"For God's sake," he said, "lay off. This is no gag. Gloria has just disappeared."
W.W. Winterbloom was slumped behind his immense desk, managing to look melancholy and angry at the same time. He pointed a shaking finger at Laird.
"I am holding you personally responsible," he fumed. "If it hadn't been for you all of this would never have happened to my pretty little star."
Captain Duffy, a solid, red-faced officer from the Hollywood police station looked inquiringly at Laird.
"How about it Mr. Baxter?" he said, "do you know something you haven't spilled yet? Mr. Winterbloom seems to be implying that you know something."
"Mr. Winterbloom is a victim of chronic stupidity," Laird said angrily. "I don't know a damn thing. He was there when she disappeared and I don't know anymore than he does."
Captain Duffy inspected his fingernails carefully.
"Your position in this thing isn't quite clear," he said quietly. "You had worked with Gloria Turner on this special publicity gag, I understand. Is that right?"
"Right," Laird said, "but—"
"This disappearance might be part of the gag," Captain Duffy said thoughtfully. He frowned and studied Laird for a minute. "If it is it's only fair to warn you that I am not going to be amused."
"How much longer are you going to beat around the bush?" Laird asked. "I've told everything I know. So has everyone else. The girl is gone; the studio has posted a reward. Why the hell don't you get busy on the case instead of making stupid conversation?"
Captain Duffy frowned.
"I don't need you to tell me how to handle this," he snapped. "I think it might be a good idea to hold you for questioning."
Laird waved his hands despairingly.
"Well, do something," he said.
"This is terrible," moaned Winterbloom. "Every day that girl is gone is costing me thousands of dollars."
"That's the fine unselfish attitude that has made you loved and respected throughout the industry," Laird said sarcastically. He put his hat on and walked to the door. "If anybody wants me I'll be at the studio bar getting drunk."
"Now, Laird, my boy," Winterbloom cried, "don't do anything foolish. Why don't you go back to your office and finish the script you are working on? That will take your mind off this terrible thing. Also, I am paying you to work not to sit around getting drunk with liquor."
Laird regarded him sourly for an instant and then left the office, banging the door behind him with enough force to cause the three autographed pictures of W.W. Winterbloom which decorated the walls of that worthy's office, to quiver for seventeen seconds.
LAIRD went directly to the studio bar and ordered a bottle of scotch. He knew the scotch wouldn't help his thinking particularly but it might calm his nerves.
Two hours later his nerves were not noticeably any calmer, but Laird was definitely and noticeably drunk. The bottle of scotch was empty at his elbow and the last cigarette of his second pack was burning low in his fingers.
He signaled a waiter by holding one leg high above his table, in what seemed to him an ingenious and effective manner. It was effective for the waiter dropped everything to hurry to his side.
"You feel all right, Mr. Baxter?" he asked solicitously.
Laird regarded him stonily.
"Your question implies that I shouldn't be feeling all right," he said with slow dignity and missing only about half of the vowels and consonants in the sentence. He lowered his leg solemnly.
"You been drinking pretty steady," the waiter said. "Maybe you should sort of taper off."
This seemed like rather stupid advice to Laird. He decided that the waiter must be a dull fellow.
"Bring me another bottle and Gloria Turner," he said moodily. He stared dejectedly at his empty glass. The mention of her name had pierced sharply through the alcoholic fog with which he was trying to cloud his thoughts. He sighed wearily. He wasn't as drunk as he'd hoped. He could still remember.
He got up and left the bar unsteadily. Outside it was getting dark and there was a chill in the air that penetrated his warm armor of scotch.
He started for his own office, wondering miserably what he could do to help find Gloria. He couldn't just wait around until some definite word was received. He'd go nuts. There must be something he could do.
When he reached the long gravelled lane that connected the executive's building with the writer's he saw a slim dark girl just emerging from the palatial entrance of the studio head's lair.
She was Colette D'Arcieux and she looked like a sleek tigress that had just polished off about ten pounds of succulent deer steak. She sauntered past Laird with her chin in the air and it wasn't until she was a dozen steps away that a sudden brainstorm hit him.
"Colette!" he yelled, trotting after her.
She turned with swivel-hipped grace and regarded him with languorous surprised eyes.
She was wearing a tight red silk dress and her long blue-black hair fell to her shoulders framing her hard white face in a halo of dark enchantment. Her legs were symphonies of slender symmetry in hose that was as sheer as moon-mist. She looked regal and terrific and she was completely aware of that fact.
"I want to talk to you a moment," Laird said. He smiled, as an afterthought, for the girl's charm left him completely cold. He could have as soon worked up enthusiasm over a marble statue.
"I've got an appointment," Colette said. "What was it you wanted to talk to me about?" She was smart enough to know that Laird was one of the bright young men of the studio and that he might some day be helpful. He wasn't a producer but who knows what might develop in Hollywood?
"It's a rather personal matter," Laird said. His idea was now fully developed and while it was probably crazy and nonsensical he wanted to give it a chance.
Colette was looking at him queerly and he smiled.
"You're drunk," Colette said regarding him suspiciously.
"With the magic of your nearness," Laird said with a courtly bow that almost landed him on his head. The line was corny but it was the best he could manage in his condition. Anyway Colette wasn't the discriminating type; the producers she consorted with thought brains were something kept in laboratory bottles.
Colette smiled and there was speculation in her eyes.
"That's very sweet of you," she murmured.
"This little matter I want to discuss with you is rather of a private nature," Laird said. "Supposing we go up to my apartment. It's quiet there and the fireplace works wonderfully on chilly nights like this. You won't be bored I promise you."
Colette chuckled softly in her throat. She smiled archly.
"You too?" she said. "I thought you were different, honey."
"It's just a vicious rumor," Laird smiled.
"Obviously," said Colette. Her smile was provocatively warm but the lights of speculation in her eyes were cold and sharp. She was obviously weighing all the angles.
Finally she slipped her hand through Laird's arm.
"Come on. We'll go to my apartment. I'm dying to hear what you have to say."
Laird smiled into her deep glinting eyes.
"You'll be surprised," he said.
"I don't think so," murmured Colette, squeezing his arm gently.
Laird turned his face to hide the grin on his face. What a hell of a surprise you're in for, he thought wickedly....
COLETTE'S apartment was an immense affair strewn with trophies of the type dear to its mistress's adamantine heart. These spoils of battle were in the form of furniture, rugs and accessories that would have ransomed a casting director and they were a lush tribute to the money if not the brains of Hollywood's most generous producers.
Colette ordered her maid to bring drinks and then settled down on a lounge and crossed her long silken legs.
"Do you feel like talking business now," she asked with a smile.
"Not right away," Laird said.
The maid came in with martinis. Laird took one with considerable misgivings. The scotch he had drunk was doing its work very effectively and he didn't need the additional stimulation of this martini but there was nothing else to do so he drank it.
Colette sipped her drink and told the maid as she was leaving to bring in the vermouth, gin and some ice. When the maid returned, Colette told her she could have the rest of the evening off. The maid did not seem surprised by this development. She obviously expected it.
When she had gone and the apartment was quiet Colette leaned back against the softly cushioned lounge and smiled softly at Laird.
"It's cozy here, isn't it?"
"Very nice," Laird said. He mixed two more drinks and he spiked Colette's very heavily. She would have to catch up with him before he could try out his little idea.
Colette patted the sofa beside her and smiled meaningfully at Laird.
"I feel taller standing up," Laird muttered. He wondered then with the first twinge of misgivings if he were going to be able to put this thing over. It would all depend on Colette's state of mind and her mind was running in one rather definite direction at the moment. But he couldn't risk offending her.
She was regarding him in a puzzled fashion so he mixed two more drinks and sat down beside her. She ran a hand through his hair and smiled lazily.
"That's better, isn't it?"
"Much." He fidgeted a moment. "You need another drink!" he said abruptly.
"But I haven't started this one?"
"That's what I mean. Drink up."
Colette giggled and finished the martini. Laird got up promptly and that was almost a mistake. The room revolved in a crazy circle and he felt his knees buckling and it took all his will power to keep on his feet. He took two drinks back to the lounge and his navigation defied every premise of the law of gravity.
"Honey," said Colette, "you're getting drunk."
"It is your mind I admire," Laird said thickly. "That streak of discerning observation! Uncanny! Positively uncanny!"
"That sounds like a crack," Colette said with a noticeable trace of grimness.
"At the sound of the cracking it will be exactly time for another drink," Laird said solemnly. He got up and made his way again to the cocktail table. He wondered vaguely who was supposed to be getting whom drunk.
On the lounge again Colette studied him with puzzled eyes. She was getting tight but the little points of speculation still gleamed brightly in her eyes.
"Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?" she asked. Her coquettish air was fading; there was a definite hardness in her voice.
"Yes, indeed," Laird frowned. "I must talk with you. A very important matter which—" His voice trailed out slowly and the frown deepened on his brow. What the hell was he supposed to talk to her about? He stared drunkenly about the lushly furnished apartment. Why was he here in the first place? He had had an idea, that was it. But what kind of an idea? He looked closely at Colette and then shook his head. It hadn't been that. She still didn't appeal to him.
HE fumbled for a cigarette and his hand touched a hard object in his coat pocket. There were hard beaded straps attached to this object and after a moment of frowning thought he realized it was the slipper that Gloria had dropped the day she disappeared.
He had carried it with him since then, hoping it would lead in some way to a solution of the mystery of her disappearance.
That was it! That was his idea. He snapped his fingers excitedly
"Forget something?" Colette asked. "Another appointment?"
"No, I remembered something," Laird said. He turned and smiled at her. "Do you mind if I turn on the radio?"
Colette stared at him in surprise and then a slow smile brushed her lips. She settled back on the lounge.
"That's more like it," she murmured.
Laird turned on the radio and dialed to a concert orchestra playing a dreamy waltz. He made his way back to Colette and took her hands.
"Dance!" Colette said sharply. "What kind of an act is this?"
"Please," Laird said urgently. "You were made for dancing, for smooth flowing motion, for the graceful movements of music and water."
"Well, I put in my hitch on the burly circuit," Colette said, "but nobody ever watched my dancing."
"I can well imagine," Laird murmured.
Reluctantly Colette stood up and moved into his arms. They began dancing slowly to the music. Laird danced badly under any circumstances but fortified as he was by an immense amount of alcoholic beverage he was several notches below lousy.
"Oh, ecstasy," Colette muttered sardonically, "where are the diver's boots?"
"Fine, isn't it?" Laird beamed at her.
"For the people who make corn plasters I suppose you mean," Colette said wearily.
"Your shoes are probably too tight," Laird said sternly. "Did you ever try dancing without shoes? As one who was once known to his intimates as the shoeless wonder of the waltz I can't recommend it too highly."
"You're crazy," Colette said.
"That's right," Laird agreed, "but it's still a good idea."
He danced silently for a few seconds and pondered the situation. It called for drastic measures. With a sigh he deliberately trod heavily on Colette's left foot.
She yelled something unprintable at him and hopped across the room to a chair. She took off her patent leather pump and threw it at him with more enthusiasm than aim.
"You clumsy oaf," she snapped, as she massaged her foot tenderly with her hand. "You must have learned how to dance from a truck horse."
"I can't tell you how sorry I am," Laird said sorrowfully. "Here let me help."
He knelt in front of her and took her foot in his hands. He patted it gently. "That feels better, doesn't it?"
"Well, yes," Colette admitted without too much enthusiasm.
"All you need now is another shoe," Laird said. He frowned and then snapped his fingers. "Presto!"
He dug into his pocket and pulled out the tiny ebony slipper. "To the rescue."
He slipped it on her foot before she could say a word.
"You're all set now," he said briskly, standing up. "Let's finish our dance."
"I've had enough of your brand of waltzing," Colette said. She was turning her foot about, studying the ebony slipper with the jeweled straps and ivory heel. "Where did you get this fancy job? Where's the mate?"
Laird wagged a finger at her.
"Ah, did Cinderella ask for the other shoe?"
"I don't know," Colette said. "I never liked her script, anyway. She should've married the prince before twelve and to hell with the consequences."
LAIRD took her hands again.
"Please let's finish our dance. I'll be more careful."
"Do I look crazy?"
Laird let go her hands and pulled out his handkerchief. He mopped his brow in despair. His whole wacky idea depended on her dancing with him now, while she was wearing the slipper. His idea was based on the simple logic of a drunk. Something had happened to Gloria while she was dancing in those slippers. Duplicate the circumstances with the slipper she'd left behind and the same thing might happen again. That was his simple and uncomplicated reasoning.
It wasn't that he wanted Colette to disappear as Gloria had, but he hoped to learn something this time of Gloria's whereabouts. Colette was simply a guinea pig; a damned uncooperative one at that.
The time, he knew, had come when pressure was needed.
"Darling," he said softly, "did you know that W.W. is giving me a shot at my own production this year?"
Colette's sulky look faded magically.
"How wonderful!" she cried.
Laird smiled benignly and nodded.
"That's what I thought," he said. "Would you like to dance now, my dear?"
"Why, of course," Colette said, springing to her feet, an ecstatic expression on her face.
"Thank you," Laird said, grinning.
They started dancing again, moving slowly to the music.
Colette's eyes were closed and she was smiling softly.
Laird's eyes were open and he was watching the ceiling hopefully. They had been dancing several minutes before he noticed the faint brilliance forming above their heads. Miniature stars seemed to be swirling down from the ceiling, settling softly about them in a cloying, dazzling haze.
"Darling," Colette murmured, "someone must have turned on the lights in the apartment across the court. It seems to be getting brighter here."
"Keep your eyes closed," Laird said. "You look absolutely divine that way."
"You sweet boy!"
The stars were swimming down now, brighter and larger, and suddenly Laird felt the tug of a powerful suction that seemed to be as inevitable and ruthless as the surge of a mighty tide.
Colette opened her eyes and there was a wild fear in their depths. She screamed and fought his arm around her waist.
"Laird! What's happening? Let me go!"
Laird felt the powerful suction dragging the girl from his arm and he tightened his grip and clung to her with all his strength.
A blackness was spilling over him, blotting out all thoughts and sensation.
He heard Colette's wild scream, a mixture of terror and anger, and then he felt himself plunging headlong into a vast tunnel of brilliant radiance that stretched ahead of him endlessly and limitessly.
That was his last conscious thought.
LAIRD regained consciousness, not slowly and gradually as he had always imagined it happened, but in one brief flash his eyes were open, his head was clear and he was staring about in considerable amazement.
He was lying on what was apparently a vast, silken bed which could have accommodated the sextet from Lucia. Above him a vast ceiling, gleaming with a soft pearl light, vaulted to a majestic arch dozens of feet in the air.
The room he was lying in was huge and it was furnished in a style of barbaric luxury that was astonishing. Great tiger skins were strewn carelessly about the shining black marble floor; in the corners deep burnished incense pots were smouldering; the heavily scented smoke drifted toward the ceiling in slow languorous wreaths and collected there in a filmy pall that was like a cloud on a bright day.
Couches covered with soft gleaming silk and strewn with great fat pillows lined the walls. The room, Laird thought, looked like the ideal setting for a Dionysian carousal.
He noticed that he was wearing his tweed suit; it seemed very much out of place in this chamber of sensuous luxury. He was surprised to find that he had no hangover. His head felt clear and his body felt well rested.
"What the hell set is this?"
Laird hadn't spoken. He looked around in surprise and saw no one. But he knew that voice. He crawled across the huge bed and looked over the side. There, sitting on the marble floor with a comical expression of mingled bewilderment and rage on her cold features was Colette D'Arcieux. She was still wearing her tight red dress but it looked pretty wrinkled and Laird also noticed that the small, graceful magic slipper still adorned her left foot.
She scrambled to her feet when she saw him, her eyes flashing with anger.
"What kind of a gag is this?" she shouted in a high shrill voice. She placed her hands on her hips in a belligerent gesture. "What was the idea of bringing me here? You'd better make with the explanations, smart boy!"
Laird leaned back and yawned with irritating slowness.
"I do not know a thing, my pretty little witch," he said sweetly.
He was thinking of the last scene he remembered in Colette's apartment. The swirling cone of stars had been sweeping them up and away, precisely as they had done to Gloria. Where they were, how they had gotten here, what was in store for them, were questions he couldn't answer.
Colette, from the expression on her face, was apparently remembering a few things also; she looked at the slipper she was wearing and a puzzled, vaguely troubled look clouded her face.
"We must've been pretty drunk," she said uncertainly. "I must've had the D.T.'s for sure." She shuddered slightly and looked about the vast, silent incense-clouded room. "A lot of funny things happened while we were dancing. Just before I passed out I seem to remember a flock of stars floating down from the ceiling. Crazy, isn't it?"
"Maybe," said Laird, "maybe not."
Colette suddenly shook her long dark hair angrily.
"This is some kind of a gag and I don't like it. You must've slipped me a Mickey you—you rat! I'm getting out of this dump on the double quick. And wait'll I tell old Winterbloom what kind of a heel you are. He'll—" A GREAT booming gong shattered the stillness. The sound of its mighty tones caused the solid marble under their feet to quiver. The ringing sonorous sound faded slowly and the silence that followed pressed in on them inexorably.
Colette glanced nervously around and moved closer to Laird.
"What goes?" she asked sharply. "I don't like this joint one bit. It's too much like the hideout of Fu Manchu to suit me."
Laird saw then that two mighty bronze doors at the opposite end of the room were opening slowly. He stood up and straightened his tie.
"Look your best," he murmured to Colette. "We have company."
Colette followed his gaze and her hand suddenly tightened on his arm.
"Laird, I'm scared," she whispered.
"Well, don't feel lonesome," Laird said. "So am I."
The doors swung open soundlessly.
The first thing Laird saw was another vast room revealed through the open doorway; the second was the small round figure that was standing under the high arch of the great bronze doors, regarding them in silence.
"Who's he?" whispered Colette.
"My dear girl," Laird said, "this is not my country estate. I know nothing of what goes on here. He might be the shah of Persia for all I know."
The little man, after his momentary pause in the doorway, moved toward them slowly. He wore high-waisted, loose silk trousers that fell in billowing folds to his pointed red leather slippers. A huge ornate turban was swathed about his head and he seemed to be bowed a bit under its weight. His face was round and soft and brown; his eyes looked sad; his age was indeterminable.
He stopped about six feet from them and looked from Colette to Laird. He looked back to Colette and his sad eyes blinked several times. The expression on his face, however, remained a sad mixture of melancholy resignation.
"I am El Amo, the Shah of Persia," he said. He spoke in English without changing expression. He had a slight lisp and he looked as if he were pouting when he talked.
"And I'm Buffalo Bill," said Laird cordially. "The pleasure is all mine." He bowed to Colette. "My colleague, Sitting Bull."
"Very funny," the little man said in a mournful voice. He was about as round as he was tall and when he spoke he seemed to quiver all over like a mound of soft jelly.
There was something in his voice that strangely affected Laird. It was a quality of sincerity and honesty. If the little guy were crazy he didn't know it. But, Laird realized, so many screwy things had happened to him in the past few days that who the hell was he to decide who or who wasn't nuts?
Maybe he was crazy himself. Not maybe, probably!
The little round man who called himself the shah of Persia was regarding Colette with the type of interest with which most men regarded Colette; and Colette was studying the big bright emerald that adorned the shah's turban with the type of attention most girls bestow on big bright emeralds.
"Ah, soul mates!" murmured Laird.
"Would you like to join my harem?" the shah asked Colette with a wistful note in his voice.
"Would you like to take a jump in the lake?" snapped Colette.
"She means 'yes'," Laird said to the shah, "But can't we put off all this delightful nonsense until later? Right now I'm just a mite curious about where I am and how I got here. Would you care to oblige us, shah, with a little information?"
"Y—Yes," said the shah.
"Look at me and you won't stutter," Laird advised him.
THE shah blinked his eyes rapidly and with an obvious effort turned from Colette to Laird.
"I will tell you what you want to know but you won't believe me," he said sadly. His round brown face was sad; his soft brown eyes were sad. He looked sad all over.
"Well, shoot," Laird said.
"If you will just try and believe me instead of telling me that I am crazy," the shah said, "it will be better for all of us."
He looked sadly from Laird to Colette.
"I am the shah of Persia. This is the eleventh century. You came here through the medium of a time device." He glanced moodily at the slipper Colette was wearing and shook his fat head slowly. "The slipper did it," he murmured almost to himself.
Colette laughed bitterly.
"You're nuttier than a fruit cake, chum."
The shah turned sad eyes to her and shrugged his fat round shoulders despairingly.
He turned to Laird.
"You think I'm crazy too?"
Laird scratched his head and sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Somebody is," he said. He suddenly remembered Gloria. "Have you seen anything of a blonde girl around here?"
The shah nodded somberly.
"They have her," he said gloomily.
"Who are 'they'?" demanded Laird.
"My Grand Vizer and my cousin. Very soon they will exile me and rule Persia." He sighed unhappily.
"I don't get this," said Laird. "Supposing you start at the beginning and bring me up to date."
"My Grand Vizer is a very ruthless man by name of Raschid. My cousin is a very lovely, heartless girl by name of Seramidis. They are conspiring to put Seramidis on the throne of Persia in my place." He glanced moodily down at the slipper on Colette's foot. "They will do it now without delay."
"Now they have both the magic slippers. The blonde girl was brought here by them but one of the slippers was gone. They were very enraged; but there was nothing they could do with only one slipper. Now they will have both and I will soon be exiled." He sighed again. "I am very unhappy." He glanced at Colette. "You're sure you don't want to join my harem?"
"You're afflicted with a one-track mind," Laird said. "Where is Gloria now?"
"The blonde girl. The one we were talking about."
"Oh, her. They have her. She is in one of the dungeons, I suppose. Seramidis doesn't like pretty girls around her."
Laird got to his feet grimly.
"Dungeons, eh? We'll see about that. What the hell do they mean treating the kid that way?"
The shah shrugged unhappily.
"I don't know. I wouldn't do that to her. I would ask her to join my harem."
"Look, wise guy," snapped Laird, "another crack like that and I'll churn that fat of yours into butter."
The shah smiled weakly. "It doesn't mean anything." He shrugged disconsolately. "They never join anyway."
Colette stamped her foot angrily. "This is all a waste of time," she blazed. "I want to get out of here and go home. I'm sick and tired of listening to this mad man rave on."
"I'm not leaving without Gloria," Laird said. "I'll find her if I have to tear this joint down with my bare hands."
"This isn't one of your scripts, you know," Colette said.
The shah held up his soft little hands in an entreating gesture.
"Please listen to me. I am telling you the truth. You will not be able to leave here until Raschid gives the word. You will save yourself much trouble if you accept the situation. Maybe, together, we can do something."
"I am a patient man," Laird said ominously, "but I too am tiring of your chatter, my little round chum. You're either as batty as an old church steeple or you're an out-and-out phony. If you're the shah of Persia how does it happen you're speaking good English?"
"We learned it from the Crusaders. They have been through here many times you know." He smiled weakly. "They speak it rather oddly. They say 'methinks', ‘God wot' and other things like that. We don't use those expressions because they seem silly."
"That tops everything so far," Laird said.
"I'm getting out of here," Colette cried. "This place is getting on my nerves."
The shah shook his head sadly and his fat jowls quivered.
"You are in for a great disappointment, I fear," he said.
As he finished speaking the great gong sounded again, shattering the stillness of the room with its mighty reverberations. The huge bronze doors began to swing open slowly.
"Who's this?" asked Laird worriedly. "Raschid and Seramidis," the shah said gloomily. He shuddered and raised his eyes to the heavens. "Allah save us!"
"Heaven will protect the working girl," Colette said; but her voice was nervously weak.
"Fine," Laird said, "but who's going to look after me?"
The mighty doors opened slowly.
THREE majestic Nubian eunuchs marched slowly through the open door. They were great magnificent specimens, nearly eight feet in height and as wide across as two ordinary men. Their clothing was silken and the tiny jewels sewed along the seams glittering brilliantly in the light of the room. Turbans as large as pumpkins were wound around their great dark heads.
"Harem guards," the shah informed Laird and Colette moodily. "They prevent anyone from entering the private quarters of the harem girls of Raschid." He sighed. "I have to have guards to keep my girls in."
Following the giant guards were a tall, imperious couple, clothed extravagantly in lush silks and decorated with dozens of brilliant jewels of all types and description.
The three guards separated as they approached and the man and woman they were escorting moved forward with deliberate, majestic strides until they were within a few yards of Laird, Colette and the fat little shah.
There they stopped. The man, Raschid, was tall and spare. His face was gray and against this grayness his glittering eyes seemed burningly alive. He fingered a tiny jeweled knife at his sash and smiled coldly.
"It was thoughtful of you to receive our guests," he murmured, addressing the shah. "I hope you have put them at their ease."
El Amo shrugged and looked helplessly at Laird and Colette.
Seramidis was studying Laird intently and Laird felt acutely uncomfortable under the directness of her gaze. She was an attractive woman in a brittle, statuesque sort of way. Her skin was as pale as ivory and the only color in her face was in the ruby redness of her full lips and in the deep blue pools of her eyes. The soft silken garment she wore concealed and at the same time accentuated the slim perfection of her form. There was no warmth in her beauty. Even her long red hair was a hard lusterless shade that seemed to emphasize the whiteness of her classic features and the cold blue of her eyes.
Laird felt a perspiration breaking out on his forehead. He could imagine this creature condemning a slave to torture with the same graceful motion that she would pluck a petal from a rose.
"You seem to be making an impression," Colette said sardonically.
At the sound of her voice Seramidis turned her attention from Laird and studied Colette with the same cold expressionless gaze. Finally she smiled contemptuously.
"The man looks interesting," she murmured to Raschid, "but the girl," she lifted her delicate eyebrows scornfully. "She would not even draw a second glance at the slave marts."
"That takes care of you," Laird grinned.
Colette shook her long hair angrily. She bared her small white teeth in a very unladylike snarl.
"Listen you cheap looking bag of bones," she yelled, "I've seen classier dames than you waiting table in flop houses."
As she moved forward with mayhem in mind Seramidis' gaze dropped to her feet and instantly a spot of excited color flamed in her white cheeks.
She took Raschid's arm with tense fingers.
"Look!" she whispered. Her other hand was pointing at the ivory slipper Colette was wearing on her left foot.
"Praise to Allah!" murmured Raschid piously. "The enemy has been delivered into our hands."
He uttered a sharp command in a strange tongue.
One of the huge guards stepped to Colette's side and with one arm about her waist swung her into the air as easily as he would a doll. Colette's arms and legs flailed wildly and she screamed in surprised terror; but she was carried helplessly to where Seramidis and Raschid stood.
RASCHID removed the slipper from her foot and almost lost his front teeth in the process as Colette kicked viciously at his face. He presented the slipper to Seramidis, who pressed it to her breast with a fervent cry of ecstatic triumph.
"May Allah save us!" the shah murmured to Laird. "There is no hope left from any other source."
The giant guard deposited Colette on the floor and seemed extremely happy to be relieved of his clawing, scratching burden.
"I'll teach you to manhandle a lady, you big jerk!" Colette screamed, shaking her fist in the guard's surprised, vacant face. She would have had to stand on a beer barrel to hit him, but the guard backed away uneasily, a tragic look of bewilderment on his stupid blank features.
"Pardon my curiosity," Laird said sarcastically to Raschid, "but I feel we're entitled to a bit of information. We came looking for a young girl, whom we have reason to believe is here somewhere. We'd also like to know where we are and when we can leave."
Raschid smiled but there was no amusement in his eyes.
"The girl you mention is here," he said. "The land you are in is Persia; the time, 1095, A.D. Your last question in regard to when you may leave I can answer in one word: Never!"
"I'm going to have something to say about that!" Laird snapped. "I'm—"
Raschid barked an order. Two of the guards closed in on Laird and he was instantly pinioned helplessly in the grip of their mighty hands. He didn't even bother to struggle. It would have been like picking a scrap with Gargantua.
The other guard scooped up Colette beneath an arm as thick as the trunk of an oak tree and held her there despite her clawing screaming struggles.
"I am tired of your company," Raschid murmured. "Perhaps a few days in the dungeons will make you more interesting."
He gave another sharp command to the guards and they lumbered toward the door carrying Colette and Laird as easily as if they'd been children....
The dungeon to which Laird and Colette were forcibly escorted by the huge guards proved to be a vast drafty room with slate walls and ceiling on which a damp sweat collected and trickled to the floor.
The place was musty and dank and it stank from the fumes of the coarse candles which supplied a flickering, uncertain illumination.
IN the center of this room were two scaffolds with thick iron rings attached to the cross-bar. Laird's hands were bound together with thick leather thongs and the end of this strap was passed through the iron ring and pulled up until he was practically standing on his toes with his hands suspended above his head.
The position was not particularly uncomfortable but he didn't relish the thought of spending the remainder of his life in the attitude of a man going after a forward pass.
The guards then strung Colette up in the same position so that she faced Laird. After an inspection of the straps and a few grunted monosyllables the giant guards lumbered away, closing and locking the heavy stone door behind them.
"Alone at last," Laird said with a sigh. "Ah, the ecstasy of it all."
Colette struggled futilely at her bonds and glared at him with eyes that would have shamed an enraged panther.
"You got me into this!" she cried. "If I ever get loose you'll pay for this Laird Baxter!"
"That is a very uncharitable sentiment," Laird observed mildly. "We're both in the same boat and the least you could do is be cheerful about it. Wouldn't you like to join me in a rollicking campfire girl song? Wonderful thing for the spirits, I'm told."
"Shut up!" Colette screamed. She tugged angrily on the strap that held her wrists and then in a rage she kicked her remaining shoe at Laird.
Fortunately it missed.
"Very unwise," Laird smiled. "The high heel added two inches to your height. Now you're going to learn toe dancing whether you like it or not."
Colette soon discovered that Laird was telling the truth. Standing on tiptoes she glared at him as if he was entirely responsible for her new predicament.
"Tut, tut, mustn't swear," Laird said quickly. "Now be reasonable, baby. This is a tough spot and we're going to have to work together to come out on top."
Colette tossed her head sulkily.
"You got me into it, you get me out."
"That's a fine spirited attitude," Laird said, "but it won't do you one damn bit of good."
"I'm cold," Colette said in a more reasonable voice.
"Can't do much about that," Laird said. "The big job is to get out of here?"
"Yes, but where are we?"
"My guess would be that we are in dear old romantic Persia sometime during the eleventh century. If that sounds crazy don't mention it. I know it does. But it's the only answer I can think of."
"You're getting buggy as that chubby wolf, El Amo," Colette said sarcastically. "What do you mean this is Persia in the eleventh century!"
"Lady," said Laird, "I don't pretend to knew the why and wherefore but I just know these people we've met aren't kidding."
"You're nuts," said Colette. She was silent then for a while. But after a few moments she asked: "If this is Persia and it's the eleventh century what the devil are we going to do?"
Laird shrugged and smiled.
"Let's just hang around a while and see what happens," he suggested.
"On top of everything else you gotta make with the puns," Colette said disgustedly. She twisted uncomfortably and raised herself on her toes to relieve the strain on her arms. "Why did I ever meet you?" she wailed.
FOR almost an hour they stared at each other without further conversation and with each passing second they became more uncomfortable.
But just about the time that Laird was losing hope the lock rattled on the solid stone door and an instant later El Amo, the shah, waddled into the dungeon.
Colette gave a cry of relief.
"You look as good as a million nineteen twenty six dollars," she said fervently.
El Amo looked sadder than usual. His face looked like a melancholy pumpkin. He sighed heavily.
"There is no hope for any of us," he said, sighing again and quivering with the effort. "Seramidis has the slippers and is now in complete command. I am going to be exiled."
"But what's going to happen to us?" asked Laird.
El Amo shrugged. He seemed to shrug all over.
"I don't know. Probably you will be killed. I am going to be exiled."
"You said that before," Laird said. "You have my sympathy of course, but I am still selfish enough to be worried about us. When is that she-wolf going to give us the works?"
"Pretty soon," El Amo answered. He didn't sound very interested. He looked at Colette wistfully. "I am going to be exiled. Will you come with me?"
Colette's eyes lit with hope.
"Sold!" she snapped. "To get out of this rat trap I'd go with Frankenstein's monster."
El Amo appeared additionally saddened by this information.
"Seramidis would never let you go," he said, almost on the verge of tears.
"Listen to me," Laird said. "Give us at least a chance. Cut us down and maybe we can help you put the lid on this Seramidis dish."
"It wouldn't help," El Amo said. "She has the slippers now and is invincible. The legend says that the wearer of the magic slippers will dance on the stars and rule all men. The stars mean the time device and the ruler of all men part means just what it says. There is no hope. I will be exiled." He sniffed sadly.
"I seem to recall your mentioning that before," Laird said.
El Amo drew a small dagger from his sash and cut the strap that held Laird's wrists.
"I do not know what we can do," he said mournfully.
Laird rubbed his wrists gratefully.
"Anyway we can try," he said.
"Hey, don't forget me!" Colette yelled.
El Amo cut her down from the scaffold and slashed the thongs that bound her wrists. She stretched like a cat to relieve her cramped muscles and then padded to the door with them in her stocking feet.
"Where to?" asked Laird.
"We have only one chance," El Amo said. "We must gain possession of the slippers." He coughed nervously. "Seramidis is wearing them now. She and Raschid are together in one of their hidden meeting chambers. I will show you the way there. That is all I can do."
"That may be enough," Laird said.
He and Colette followed El Amo out of the dungeon and through a maze of dimly lit inter-twining passages that honey-combed the sub structure of the shah's palace. They passed dozens of guards and minor officials but El Amo's presence was a sure-fire passport. As yet he was still head man.
Finally they came to a marble door at the end of a long corridor. El Amo opened this and beckoned them to follow him into the long, well-lighted passageway that stretched ahead. He also laid a finger over his lips. His meaning was obvious.
WHEN they reached the end of this passageway El Amo pointed meaningfully to a heavy drapery that covered a wide, high-arched portal. From beyond the drapery Laird could hear the soft murmur of a feminine voice.
"She is in there," El Amo whispered. His entire body was shaking like a model-T Ford.
Laird moved softly across the floor and peered through a vent in the drapery. The room into which he looked was small and exquisitely furnished. Reclining on a deep couch in the center of the chamber was Seramidis. Her flaming red hair fell over the rolled back of the lounge to brush against the blue-veined marble floor. She was lying on her back, her long slim legs stretched out on the sofa and on her narrow, high-arched feet twinkled the ivory slippers.
Raschid was pacing slowly back and forth, smoking a long- stemmed pipe and passing within inches of Laird each time he reversed his steps.
"Here's our chance!" he whispered tensely to Colette.
The next time Raschid passed the drapery Laird went into action. With one hand he flung the curtain aside and with the other he grabbed the Grand Vizer by the neck.
Raschid wheeled and broke away from his grip. His lean hard face was frozen in an astonished mask. With a gesture to swift for an eye to follow his hand streaked to the jeweled dagger that was sheathed in his broad waist sash.
That was his big mistake. He hadn't ever heard of the Marquis of Queensbury and the innovations that had been developed in the future concerning the effectiveness of the right cross.
Laird swung all his lean hard weight behind the punch and it caught the Grand Vizer squarely on the point of his long jaw. The Grand Vizer went down and stayed down. Laird leaped over his prostrate form and lunged toward Seramidis.
She was scrambling to her feet as he charged. Her cool classic features were white with rage.
"Stop!" she cried.
Something seemed to crash into the base of Laird's skull. It wasn't anything physical; it was his own mental reaction to the command of the flaming woman who stood before him, arms raised imperiously. He couldn't help himself. He stopped as if he had collided with a stone wall.
"You fool!" Seramidis said scathingly. "Have you forgotten that I am the master of all men? You are helpless to disobey my commands. With the power of the magic slippers I rule the will of every man."
Laird fought to take a step toward the woman; but he was completely helpless. His muscles seemed to be locked in a deadly paralysis.
"You may control men," a cold hard voice said behind him, "but what about women?"
Laird's eyes were on Seramidis' face and he saw her suddenly shift her gaze to a point beyond his shoulder. The expression on her face with diabolical.
"I have this for women!" she cried. Her hand swept to the glittering dagger at her waist.
A dark cyclone whipped past Laird and he had a panoramic glimpse of a flying skirt and streaming black hair as Colette charged into Seramidis as if she had been shot from a catapult.
The two women went to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs; and at the same instant the freezing paralysis that had gripped Laird suddenly was released.
He started for the heap of feminine fury that was engaged on the floor but one glance assured him his assistance would be superfluous.
Colette was already assuming complete command. Seramidis might have been a tough customer in her own league, but Colette had learned the womanly art of self defense from countless brushes with the wolves of Hollywood and she had learned it thoroughly.
She had jammed her rival's face into the suffocating depths of a huge pillow by the simple expedient of sitting on the back of her head. With her knees she had effected a doubled arm-lock on the would-be Empress of Persia that Jim Londos might have envied. And she had secured her opponent's ankles in her hands and was in the process of bending Seramidis into the shape of dangerously tautened long-bow.
There was a muffled cry from the depths of the pillow that might have been interpreted a number of ways and then all resistance ceased.
Colette removed the slippers from Seramidis and was in the act of slipping them on her own feet when Laird happened to glance up just as Raschid was scuttling like a battered crab for the doorway.
Laird plunged after him but Raschid leaped to his feet and ran down the corridor, obviously uninterested in another demonstration of the science of the Marquis of Queensbury. He reached an open door before Laird and was in the act of slamming it shut when Laird's shoulder crashed against it with all of his weight and speed.
The door flew inward and Raschid again landed on the floor.
Laird risked a swift glance about the sumptuously appointed chamber and when he saw a small, trussed figure struggling on the bed he knew that he had found Gloria.
"Get up," he said softly to Raschid.
Raschid climbed to his feet, breathing heavily.
Laird moved in and pulled the trigger on another right cross.
But Raschid knew all about right crosses now. He had seen one, he had felt one, in fact if asked, he would probably have stated that he was authority on all varieties of the right cross.
But he knew nothing about the art of feinting.
Laird's right cross stopped in mid-circuit. Raschid had thrown up a hand to block it and to his consternation he suddenly found himself vulnerable on several other fronts.
Laird took his time and snapped a smoking left hook into the Raschid's jowls. The Grand Vizer howled wildly and doubled up turning his back to Laird.
There was nothing left for Laird to do but blast away at the only target available. He drew back his foot and kicked Raschid with such force that the Grand Vizer slid ten feet on his nose across the smooth floor.
Laird reached the huge bed in two strides. He quickly untied Gloria and removed the gag from her mouth. She was crying hysterically as he lifted her in his arms and carried her out of the room.
"It's all over, honey," he said soothingly. "Everything is going to be all right now." He hoped so, anyway.
She cried until he kissed her with considerable thoroughness. Then she melted into his arms and her blonde head nestled comfortably against his shoulder.
When they reached the chamber where he had left Colette he heard El Amo's voice carrying into the corridor.
"You are the most glorious woman in the world," the shah was blubbering. "I cannot live without you. You must stay her with me always."
Laird set Gloria on her feet in the corridor and then he tip- toed to the drapery and peered into the room.
Colette was standing in the center of the room with her back to Laird. She was wearing the ebony slippers. Seramidis was still lying on the floor at her feet looking like a tired pretzel.
"I think I am going to stay here," Colette said in her cool speculative voice. "There are jewels and wealth and power here and with these slippers I'll rule all men. That'll be kind of fun. I've already figured out a few paces I want to put Mr. Laird Baxter through. That'll be the most fun of all. Yep, shah, you can consider me a permanent addition."
Laird loosened his tight collar. This situation called for something drastic.
Without wasting time on strategy he stepped softly through the curtain and moved across the floor until he was standing directly behind Colette.
He raised his fist then lowered it. No! He couldn't do it. He couldn't slug a woman—not with her back turned anyway.
"Colette, darling," he said.
She wheeled in surprise and before she could utter a word he clipped her neatly on the jaw with a punch that hardly traveled six inches. He caught her as she fell and laid her gently on the couch. With a smile he removed the slippers from her feet.
"You won't need these to control men," he murmured to her unconscious figure. "You've always done that without benefit of magic."
He turned to El Amo who was wringing his hands and staring pitifully at Colette's still form.
"She'll be okay," Laird assured him. "You'd better put Seramidis and Raschid on ice while they're still groggy. When Colette comes to give her my regards. And one more thing, El Amo—"
Laird studied the shah's round sad face and then shook his head slowly. "I was going to tell you too cheer up; that things were never as bad as they seem. But," he glanced at Colette and shook his head somberly. "You'd find out soon enough that I was only kidding."
He stepped back through the doorway then and took Gloria by the shoulders. "We're on our way," he snapped. "Speed is of the essence."
He knelt and fastened the slippers onto her bare feet.
"Now let's dance."
"But Laird," Gloria said, "there are so many questions I want to ask. Everything has been so strange and wild. What is this place? Where is it? How—?"
"Later, my pet," Laird said.
He took her in his arms and began to whistle the Blue Danube waltz as they danced down the corridor. When the cone of stars commenced to materialize over their heads he felt a deep surge of relief and hope welling inside him. They settled slowly in brilliant arcs of radiant fire and Laird watched them happily.
A draft swirled under them, billowing Gloria's skirt above her waist and she smiled in embarrassed confusion.
The draft of the suction grew steadily more powerful.
Laird tightened his arm about Gloria's waist.
"Here we go, honey," he said.
"I'll be damned if I know," Laird said cheerfully, "but we're going together."
They were smiling into each other's eyes as the roaring suction crescendoed into a powerful roar in their ears....
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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