Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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Three people vanished from the earth. What did a strange bow of crystal have to do with it?
IT was close to midnight, and of all the offices of the fifty some floors that comprised the massive, towering structure of the opera building, mine was one of the few whose windows still blinked pinpoints of light out into the black, starless night that shrouded the huge city.
It was still Monday, however, and I had another hour before my copy was due in the offices of the Chicago Blade, where I held the titular position of Music and Dramatic Critic. It was generally this way after a Monday night opening. Frantic, last- minute efforts to knock out a review in time for the third metropolitan edition.
I crushed out another cigarette, stuffed my second page into the typewriter and picked up where I'd left off.
And the scintillating brilliance of Madeline Trudeau's glorious voice was doubly heightened by her unequalled dramatic ability and her striking, dark-haired beauty.
Leaning back in my battered chair, I lighted another cigarette and deliberated for a minute. Rigoletto might have been performed with lovelier voices than Madeline Trudeau's singing the role of Gilda, but never had I seen such a dazzling combination of voice, beauty, and emotional magnificence as tonight's performance by the raven-haired soprano. There was no exaggeration in the lines I'd just written. And my laudatory criticism was totally uninfluenced by the fact that I was very much in love with the little operatic star.
I got back to work. I was to meet Madeline at one o'clock. I didn't want to keep her waiting, even though I was supposed to pick her up at an after-the-opera party on Lakeshore Drive. There would be far too many other eager escorts waiting to step into my place if they got the chance. Madeline's loveliness was never lacking thronged male admiration.
This thought alone was enough to speed my efforts as I went about finishing up my copy. And precisely twenty minutes sooner than I had hoped, I'd finished my review and was stepping out of the opera building and hailing a cab.
When I turned in my copy at the offices of the Blade, Hendrick, my city editor, looked up at me sharply.
"Get any late dope on the disappearance of Frederick Loche?"
I looked at Hendrick bewilderedly. Frederick Loche, veteran in musical and operatic fields, was a well-known composer and the ex-conductor of a symphony orchestra. He was also director of the opera company which had performed Rigoletto less than three hours ago.
"Loche?" I blinked. "Disappeared?" I shook my head. "I hadn't heard a damned thing about it, Hendrick. What's the story?"
Hendrick threw up his hands.
"I'd certainly hate to run a news paper that depended on news from you music critics," he snorted. "You mean to tell me that you were covering tonight's performance and never had an inkling of the story that broke right under your nose?"
"Look," I was getting a little sore at his attitude. "I cover the opera, the music, the voices. That's my job. If an usher happened to stab a contralto on the middle of the stage, I'd see it. But as for covering an opera like a police beat, that's not my line."
"Well whether you know about it or not, your pal Fredrick Loche is gone—missing. He was last seen about the middle of the performance. People backstage saw him go out for a breath of air. He never returned."
"Maybe he wasn't feeling too well. Perhaps he went home," I said. "Loche invariably has a case of jitters when it's opening night. He's not so young any more, you know."
"His apartment has been checked," Hendrick said, "and he didn't go there. He didn't even have his hat or coat with him when he left. They're still around."
I began to get a little worried.
"When did they realize he was gone too long?"
"When he didn't come back," Hendrick said with sarcastic patience.
"Perhaps he went right to his apartment, forgetting his hat and coat, picked up a coat there, and left again," I suggested.
"Don't ever," Hendrick said disgustedly, "try to get a job as a police reporter on this sheet, Lannister, you're too naive. Everything was checked, including the fact that he didn't return to his apartment since he left for the opera tonight at seven."
"Anyone see him when he stepped outside for some air?"
Hendrick nodded affirmatively.
"One of the property men. He saw a uniformed messenger come up to Loche when he was about ten yards away from the stage door and hand him a long package. He says Loche seemed surprised, and that the messenger beat it immediately."
"What happened then?" I asked.
"The property man had to get back in for a scene change. He didn't see anything after that."
I was worried more than before, now. But there was still the chance that Hendrick, ever seeking to blow up an incident into a five-hour headline, was making too much of this purported disappearance of Frederick Loche. But the old man was one of my closest friends. I owed him a lot. It was he who got me my first musical reporting job. And if there was anything to Hendrick's suspicions, I wanted to find out.
"Why don't you see what you can pick up on the story?" Hendrick asked. "You knew the old guy pretty well, didn't you?" He must have been reading my mind.
"That's just what I intend to do," I declared. I turned and started away.
"Give us a ring the minute you learn anything," Hendrick shouted after me. "Anything at all, understand?"
I CAUGHT a cab outside the office of the Blade. It was just a five-minute ride over to the Lakeshore Drive apartment where the after-opera party was being held, and where Madeline would be waiting for me, surrounded, I strongly suspected, by a convoy of admiring males.
I suppose I might have worried more about Fredrick Loche's supposed disappearance, if I hadn't been more than half-convinced that Hendrick, stuck for local news, was merely hoping to make a few columns to carry until the home editions came out. I had noticed that he hadn't played up the Loche disappearance in any of the first metropolitan editions as yet. He was too smart an editor to stick his neck out on the block unless it had been absolutely established that the old director had disappeared. Hendrick was just building a hunch around the circumstances which must have come to his attention by a semi-frantic tipoff from a reporter who'd been backstage when Loche turned missing.
But I knew Loche well enough to realize that a situation such as this, to him, was not particularly unusual. If he hadn't been the brilliant genius that he was, people would have tagged him as eccentric long ago. He really wasn't eccentric, however. His habits, like his great mind, differed vastly from the ordinary human pattern.
A butler let me into the twelve room suite on the Drive where a wealthy patron of the opera—I can't recall his name now—was entertaining for as varied a group of guests as you could imagine.
There was wealth there, much of it stuffy and dull, some of it clever. There was also talent, and charm, and intelligence gathered in that array. Champagne was being served by stripe- shirted caterers, and I'd no sooner removed my coat than I was taking a glass from a broad silver tray.
Several people had already nodded to me, smilingly calling my name, but I answered with the briefest of greetings, moving through the confusion of cigarette smoke, conversation, and laughter toward the largest drawing room of the place.
I caught sight of a group of black dinner jackets, formed in a circle almost two deep, and grinned to myself. Madeline was in the center of that circle, I wagered mentally.
She was. And it was several minutes before I could get her off by herself out onto the glass-enclosed terrace of the swank apartment.
"Finally," I said at last, taking her tiny hands in mine, "I can talk to the great soprano alone."
Madeline laughed, and it was like tinkling music, beautiful music. She was wearing a silvered gown that set off her raven- haired five feet and one inch of incredible loveliness like a lustrous jewel.
"Did you like me tonight, Tommy?" she asked.
Madeline's question was what you could expect from any star to a critic, and yet there was something else in her voice. Something honest and open and sincere.
I grinned, shaking my head from side to side.
"You'd never believe me," I said. "Read my review tomorrow. But," I added, "I'll apologize here and now for suddenly finding myself woefully short of adjectives. I didn't use enough of them. Few critics could have."
Madeline took her hands from mine and squeezed my arm lightly.
"You say wonderful things sometimes, Tommy. Aren't you afraid they'll go to my head eventually?"
I shook my head.
"I have an antidote if they ever do."
"What's that?" Madeline demanded.
"I'll marry you," I grinned. "No woman could ever remain conceited with a lout like Tom Lannister for a husband."
"You aren't as bad as all that," Madeline protested in mock horror. Then, expression jokingly judicial, she stepped back a pace.
"You have nice eyes," Madeline decided, putting a finger to her chin and pursuing her lovely red lips contemplatively. "They're gray, and clean, and somehow a person knows that their owner will be decent and honest."
"Thank you," I made a half-bow, like a symphony conductor.
"You're rather short, however," she went on.
"Five feet eight inches," I broke in. "And what right have you, my celebrated soprano, to speak of lack of height?"
"But you're sturdy," Madeline resumed the game. "Your shoulders are wide, and your hands are strong, and you walk with the assurance of a trained athlete."
"How flattering," I laughed. "This is fine, go right on. My college coach would be pleased to know he made a man of me."
Madeline shook her head. She sighed.
"Ahhh," she added in mock despair, "but look what football did to your features."
"Quarterbacks," I sighed ruefully, "always get the worst of the beating. Go ahead, I can take it."
"Your brows," she said, "are just a trifle beetled, bumpy. It's a wonder all those kicks on the head didn't jar your brain."
I made a gibbering face.
"Sometimes I think they did, haw!"
"I agree with that diagnosis sometimes myself," she went on. "But I can't ignore your nose. Adonis would never have lasted a minute with a nose like that."
"Adonis," I reminded her, "never tried to bring down Nagurski in an open field."
"But it isn't so bad," Madeline decided. "Just a trifle flattened at the bridge. And anyway your smile is nice. It's so white and even I'm sure you see your dentist three times a year instead of two."
"And now that I've been taken apart and put back together again," I declared, "what about you?"
"I am a small girl with a big salary and black hair," Madeline said quickly, "plus a terrible craving at the moment for a glass of champagne. Anything else you might add would never be believed."
I sighed disappointedly.
"Very well, discourage me just because I'm not tall and handsome."
"I despise handsome men," Madeline said. "They're all so dull."
"That's something in my favor then," I said. "And just for those kind words, spoken generally, I'll take your hint about the thirst for champagne and scout up a couple of drinks."
Madeline made a mock curtsy.
"Mistah Lannister, suh, youah sooo gallaant!"
"Just call me Rhett," I answered. "You know, Rhett Butler. Then I'll be gone with the wind."
"Offfoo!" Madeline made a face of sharp pain. "That was quite terrible. If there's one thing worse than a pun, it's a bad pun. Run for those drinks before I throw something!"
AS much as I hated to leave Madeline for even an instant, I found myself threading my way through the crowded drawing room toward the bar a minute later. Of course it took a little time. Things always take time when you're in a hurry. People had things to chat about as I passed, and other people wanted to shake hands. And when I finally reached the bar, it was just in time to see Geno Marelli, the very temperamental and exceedingly famous tenor, staggering drunkenly away from it.
I don't think he recognized me. He was muttering thickly under his breath, and his heavy, almost purple marceled hair was tumbled down over his forehead. His handsome, swarthy features were a mask of rage.
I called for a couple of champagnes, and stood there watching Marelli's back disappear amid the groups in the drawing room. Vaguely, I wondered what was eating him. His performance that night in Rigoletto had been dashingly brilliant—a fact which I hadn't omitted in my review—and so superbly done that I suspected he was definitely trying to outdo Madeline's magnificent work. Certainly he couldn't have been disgruntled over anything concerned with his work.
One of the musicians in the opera orchestra tapped me on the shoulder. His name was Bostwick—a round, dumpy, bald little man—and I'd known him several years.
"You'd better watch it, Lannister," he grinned. "The World's Greatest Tenor is muttering about getting your scalp."
"Geno Marelli?" I blinked in surprise.
"No less. The Great Voice seemed jealous of the fact that you were out on the veranda with Madeline. And he was also mumbling something about 'having it out' with Frederick Loche."
This time I looked at Bostwick sharply.
"What about Loche?" I demanded. "Has anyone located him since he left the opera house tonight?"
"Not yet. He's probably down on the lower level of the Michigan Avenue bridge, looking at the Chicago river wend by. Tricks like that aren't unusual for the old man."
"I suppose you're right," I said. "I hope so."
"I think Marelli was headed for the veranda," Bostwick said. "Maybe you'd better get back to Madeline. When Geno is nasty, he's poisonous."
I picked up the glasses of champagne.
"You're right," I nodded. "Thanks."
IT didn't bother me that a lot of the champagne spilled over the edges of the glasses as I hurried back through the crowded drawing room.
And when I stepped out onto the veranda it was deserted save for two people locked in furious embrace.
Those two people were Madeline Trudeau and Geno Marelli!
I dropped the glasses I held in either hand. Dropped the glasses and took three swift steps in their direction. Then I was yanking hard on Marelli's shoulder with my right hand, and swinging him around into a smashing hook delivered with my left. I put every last ounce of weight and sinew into that punch.
Marelli caught it flush on the chin.
I stood back, watching him drop like a newsreel run slow motion. He slid to his face on the veranda flagstones, directly between Madeline and me.
Madeline's face was white, terrified. Her mouth was half open as if she'd been trying to scream and no sounds came. The shoulder strap on her gown was half torn. And the marks of Marelli's paws on her white shoulders had left red marks.
She was breathing in quick gasps.
"You shouldn't have done that, Tommy," she said. "You should never have done that. He'll kill you for it. He's killed other men before, and now he'll kill you!"
I looked at her in astonishment. Her voice was low, husky, shaking with terror.
IT was noon when I woke up the following morning in my bachelor apartment at the club. I wouldn't have wakened if it hadn't been for the constant ringing of my telephone beside the bed.
When I picked the instrument out of the cradle my vision and senses were still blurred from sleep. But the voice on the other end of the wire snapped me out of my fog immediately.
"Lannister!" it barked. "What in the hell have you been doing, eating opium?"
It belonged to Hendrick, that voice. Hendrick, my city editor.
"What's up?" I growled. "I'm in no mood for wise cracks."
"I don't suppose you've seen the extra editions of the Blade," he said. Hendrick would be lost without sarcasm.
"I went to bed at five. I never read the papers until I get up."
"Fredrick Loche has disappeared," Hendrick said. His voice underlined the "has."
"Are you certain?" I demanded. "Sometimes he roams for a day or so."
"I'm certain," Hendrick snapped. "So certain I want you to get right over to the apartment of Geno Marelli, the temperamental tenor, and accuse him of Loche's murder."
"My God," I gasped, sinking back weakly on the pillow. "Now who's been eating opium!" Then I said, "You're out of your mind. Have you found a body?"
"No," Hendrick began, "but—"
"Have the police found Loche's body?"
"Of course not," Hendrick snapped. "I'm playing a hunch. Loche has disappeared. I've reason to believe he's been murdered. He and Marelli had a terrific verbal tangle backstage before the curtain went up on the opera opening last night. Marelli threatened in front of five people to cut Loche's heart out. Now Loche can't be found."
"And so I'm supposed to trot over to Marelli's and accuse him of murdering Loche and doing away with the body, eh?"
Hendrick's voice came back excitedly.
"That's it. Good God, Lannister—don't you see what a helluva headline we'll have if we scoop everyone including the cops on that?"
"Sure," I said, "I can see the headline. Killer of director stabs music critic to death when confronted with guilt. Exclusive story in the Blade. Read all about it. Two cents a copy. Go to hell!"
I slammed down the receiver and lay back.
THE telephone was jangling again in another minute. I picked it up.
The voice squawking on the other end might have been an enraged Donald Duck, or it might have been my city editor Hendrick. Reason led me to assume it was the latter.
"When you finish ranting," I said calmly, "I'll be able to understand you."
Hendrick became intelligible. Hang up on him, would I? I was a lousy, blank, blank so-and-so, and my ancestry was lurid and rife with scarlet shame. Who did I think was paying me more than I was worth every week? Did I forget that I wasn't just working for the managing editor, and that the city editor could also give me orders which I'd damned well better follow out—or else?
A job was a job.
"All right," I said, when Hendrick was running the length of the field again. "All right. I'll bare my throat to his damned stiletto. I'll call you back as soon as I've seen him. I'll give you his reactions. But if he pulls a knife, or a gun, or even bites me in the ankle, I get a two-hundred dollar bonus, understand?"
"Listen," Hendrick screeched. "I got a nephew just outta high school. He can play a piano and write fairly intelligible English. He'd love your job as music critic."
"All right," I said. "All right. You can skip the bonus if that's the way you feel about it." I paused. "But about this talented nephew of yours," I added, "if he wants my job there's one other qualification he'll have to have."
"What's that?" Hendrick demanded.
"He'll have to be able to take orders from a screw-loose moron," I said. Then I hung up.
MOST of the opera celebrities were staying at the swankiest Loop hotels. But Geno Marelli preferred to live apart, and was quartered in a modest ten-room suite in the ritziest hotel on the north side of town.
I gave the cabbie the address of that hotel, when I caught a yellow just outside the door of my club. I'd picked up a copy of the Blade from the desk in the lobby on my way out, and now I settled back to scan Hendrick's lurid suppositions about the Fredrick Loche disappearance last night.
It yelped about a lot, with two-column cuts of Loche, Madeline, and other stars of the old man's opera company. It yelped about a lot, but it didn't say much. Hendrick had put out his neck, but not awfully far. He was no dummy, even if he did love to play hunches. The story made sensational reading, but when you put the paper down you couldn't remember exactly what it said. One of those yarns.
I gave my attention to the passing scenery on the Outer Drive. The morning was cold, but bright and sunny and brisk. An exhilarating morning, or I should say an exhilarating early afternoon, for it was about a quarter to one by now.
We pulled up in front of the north side hotel at exactly one.
I got Marelli's room number at the desk, and three minutes later I was pressing the buzzer at the door to his apartment. After what must have been about thirty seconds, the door opened and a head peered out. A swarthy, Latin-looking head.
"Is Geno Marelli in?" I asked.
The brown eyes in the Latin head regarded me dubiously. Then the fat lips moved.
"I am sorry, sir. Senor Marelli seems to have left the suite in my absence. He was not here when I returned. Do you wish to leave your name?"
I shook my head.
"Never mind," I declared.
The door closed and I went back to the middle of the hall and pressed the elevator button. On the way down, since the elevator was deserted, I asked the boy a question.
"Did the opera singer, Geno Marelli, leave his apartment yet?" I don't know what prompted me to ask that.
The elevator boy shook his head.
"Not by this elevator, sir."
There were three other elevators, and when I stepped out into the hotel lobby again, I waited around until each of them came down. None of the elevator boys had taken Marelli downstairs. His suite was on the fifteenth floor. It was unlikely that he'd walked. Marelli was a lazy lout and he'd sooner have jumped.
I stepped into another elevator and went back up to Marelli's apartment again. This time when I pressed the buzzer and the Latin head stuck itself out of the door again, I pushed hard against it and found myself standing inside Marelli's apartment, confronting a spluttering valet who was babbling excitedly and indignantly in Italian.
"Are you going to get your boss out of bed and tell him he has a visitor, or am I going to wake him?" I demanded loudly, flicking a hand at my coat lapel.
OF course I had no badge under my lapel, but the gesture was so swift and significant that Marelli's valet seemed to get the idea I'd wanted him to.
"But Senor officer," he protested, "my master is not here—I swear it!"
I pushed past him, walking swiftly through the luxurious rooms. It took me four minutes to convince myself that the valet was telling the truth. Marelli wasn't around.
Then I went back to the living room. The valet had followed me, muttering bewilderedly in his native tongue. I turned on him.
"When you left, was he still here?"
The valet nodded excitedly.
"Yes, Senor officer. That was perhaps twenty, twenty-five minutes ago. I have been back only ten minutes."
"Then, at the most, you were only gone fifteen minutes, eh?"
The valet nodded.
"And he was here when you left?"
"Yes, Senor. He was sound asleep. He was feeling ill. He came in about four o'clock this morning. His eye was badly bruised and his jaw was swollen."
I hid a grin, rubbing the fist that had done that neat little job. Then the significance of what the valet had said hit me.
"You said he was asleep when you left?" I demanded.
"Yes, Senor. Soundly. It seemed strange to find him gone when I returned. He was never one to leave without breaking fast. In addition to that, his morning toilet generally consumed half an hour while he selected the apparel he would wear that day."
That sounded like Geno Marelli, all right. And it made everything increasingly puzzling.
I went back to Marelli's bedroom. The valet was following.
"Look through his closets and see if any of his wardrobe has been removed."
This took the valet several minutes. Then he shook his head bewilderedly.
"No, Senor. Nothing has been removed."
"Then he walked out in his purple pajamas," I said. "How very interesting."
I WENT to the rear of the apartment, opened the kitchen door that led out into a back hallway. There was a freight elevator door in the middle of the hallway. I pressed the button on it. A janitor in blue coveralls opened the doors and looked out at me when the elevator came up to our floor.
"Taking something down?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"You been operating this elevator all morning?"
He nodded affirmatively.
"Take any passengers down in it from this floor?"
He thought a minute.
"One," he said.
He shook his head.
"How should I know. He was just a messenger. He brought a long package up to this floor, told me to wait, rang the back doorbell, and give the package to Mr. Marelli, the opera fella. Marelli closed the door and went back inside. I remember he was sleepy and cross and in his pajamas. He looked like he'd been in a fight somewhere the night before. The messenger got back in the elevator and left. That's all.
"Say," and his voice took on a high querulous, suspicion, "why do you wanta know?"
"I'm running a contest," I said. "Put what you just said in fifty words, send it in to us with the top of your elevator, and who knows but what you'll be the winner of a thousand dollars a year for the rest of your life."
I went back into Marelli's apartment. The valet was still trailing wonderingly behind me.
I stood there in the kitchen, thinking out loud.
"A long package," I said. "And now he disappeared. Gone right in broad daylight. Lovely." I was frowning.
The valet disappeared and returned a moment later.
"There is no trace of such a package in the apartment, Senor," he said.
I snapped my fingers. I had one of those flashes of inspiration that are usually pictured in newspaper comics by a light bulb bursting above a character's head.
"That's it," I muttered. "Of course that's it! Loche was seen taking a package—a long package—from a messenger. Then, in the middle of a city of four million people he disappears completely. Both disappearances are positively alike!"
The valet looked at me uncomprehendingly.
"Where's the telephone?" I asked him. "I got a call to make!"
HENDRICKS sat still in his editorial throne long enough to listen to the entire story. This time I told him everything I knew—not all of it for print—including the fact that I'd bopped Marelli in the face the previous evening when I'd caught him making wild advances at Madeline.
"Well I'll be—" Hendricks exclaimed. "It's a cinch that those two disappearances are alike. Unless," and he slapped his palm down hard on the desk to emphasize his doubt, "Marelli really did away with Loche, and then got his own hide out of the way by faking this coincidental disappearance."
"I thought you said you'd checked Marelli's actions from seven o'clock until four a.m.," I said. "His time is accounted for straight through those hours, without a break. He couldn't have had the chance to remove Loche, let alone hide him."
"An accomplice, or two of them, couldda done the job for Marelli," Hendrick said. "That's easy enough. But even so, I've a new theory on this. And the new theory is that the two of them were spirited away and slain, or vice versa."
"Because they've disappeared," I said, "you got to make them dead." I shook my head despairingly. "You haven't a single fact to show that either one of them is dead. Take it easy on that angle. Let it go that they've disappeared until you're able to prove the rest of your theory."
"The trouble with you," Hendrick declared sympathetically, "is that you've got no imagination. You'll never be an honest-to-God newspaperman."
"Like you?" I asked.
"Thank God for that," I said. I left then, to get back to the club for a spot of lunch and perhaps a short nap. It was while I ate my lunch that I went over the scene that had occurred on the veranda of the Lakeshore Drive apartment the night before. In the light of Marelli's addition to this growing enigma, what happened there might have been important.
Hell, after those two disappearances, anything that happened might be important.
I recalled that after I'd slugged Marelli, he'd been unobtrusively removed from the scene to a bedroom where he came to and received treatment for his eye. At Madeline's request, I'd taken her home right after that.
My efforts to find out what she'd been so horribly afraid of when I'd knocked Marelli cold were unavailing. She wouldn't talk about it, and nothing I could say would persuade her to do so. She was stubborn, yet trying to get me to understand that she'd let me know whenever she felt it was safe to do so.
Even the warmth we'd shared during the brief period together on the veranda, seemed to have vanished in that cab ride to her apartment. I had the feeling that she was keeping me away from her mentally. Not as if she wanted to do so, but more as if she felt she had to—as funny as it sounds—for my sake.
And of course I recalled her words: "He's killed other men before, and now he'll kill you!"
THAT was incredibly strange. Aside from a more or less vague and mutual dislike for one another, Geno Marelli and I were scarcely more than acquaintances. Why should he want to kill me?
A punch in the jaw didn't seem to be motivation enough. His hot Latin blood, in a moment of drunken jealousy, might motivate him to knife a rival for Madeline's affections. But the cold light of reason would keep him from doing such a senseless thing once the rage flashed past him.
It was definitely a tough nut to crack. No matter how I went at it, there seemed to be no tip-of-the-fingers solution. I gave it up, then, resolving to get in touch with Madeline before the second performance at the opera this evening.
This last thought made me realize, in a flash, that if Geno Marelli wasn't found before evening, there'd be another tenor in the leading role. I'd never thought of it that way before.
But thinking of it from that angle produced no more than any other approach. So I left the remains of my luncheon no further ahead in the snarl. I decided to go upstairs for a quick nap.
Which proved to be a good idea, for when I entered my apartment the telephone was ringing. Hendrick was on the other end of the wire.
"Look," he said when I picked up the receiver, "I'm calling you about this because you know more about the opera crowd, the singers and all, than any man on our staff—but not because I value your opinion."
"I wish you'd let a man sleep. Just because you don't value his opinion is no reason to drive him to insomnia," I snapped. "What's up now?"
"There's an old maid in Marelli's hotel," Hendrick said, "who occupies an apartment across from him. She used to watch through her window, since he's been in town, for glimpses of him moving around the apartment. She's got a case of hero worship for all singers, especially handsome ones, I guess. Anyway, one of our smart reporters got into Marelli's apartment, saw that it faced one other apartment in the entire hotel, and took a chance that someone in the other apartment had been looking in on Marelli about the time he disappeared, see?"
"It sounds terribly involved," I yawned.
"Our reporter talks to this old maid, and she admits that she was just glancing casually across at his window—undoubtedly she was actually peeking—when she saw him in his blue pajamas about the time he disappeared."
This got a little more interesting.
"Go on," I said.
"Evidently Marelli had just gotten outta bed. He was rubbing his eyes and swaying a little as he walked through the drawing room—that's the room the old maid can see—and headed for the kitchen."
"To answer the back bell," I broke in excitedly. "Go ahead."
"WELL," Hendrick's voice resumed, "that must have been it. For he came back into the drawing room carrying a long package. He was opening it, tearing the wrapping away, while the old maid across from his apartment looked on." Hendrick's voice poised dramatically. "Guess what he pulled out of the package."
"Three complimentary tickets to the Mudville Choir Practice?" I asked.
"Smart guy, huh?" Hendrick snorted. "He pulled out a long bow, sort of a crystal bow."
"Yeah, like the Indians used to use," Hendrick said. "You know, bow-and-arrow."
"No, just a bow. This funny looking crystal-like bow," Hendrick said impatiently. "Now here's what I want to ask you, was Marelli interested in archery or anything like that?"
"No," I said.
"Did he collect strange weapons?"
"Not to my knowledge," I answered. "Unless you can call blondes weapons."
"That's what I thought," Hendrick's voice declared. "The old maid told our reporter that Marelli was looking at it in complete astonishment. Then he shrugged, puzzledly, sort of, and turned and walked back to the bedroom, slowly, turning the bow around in his hands as if he was trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with the damned thing."
Hendrick's voice had stopped talking.
"And then what?" I asked.
"Then he was in his bedroom and she couldn't see him any more," Hendrick said.
"That's a helluva note," I exclaimed. "He must have disappeared minutes after that. A crystal bow, eh? Have you seen it yet?"
"Seen it?" Hendrick's voice was disgusted. "It wasn't around the apartment anywhere. You didn't see it around when you were there, did you?"
"No," I admitted. "No, I didn't."
"If those two long packages that Marelli and Loche both received were identical, then Loche probably got a bow too," Hendrick said.
"Yes," I said sarcastically, "the chances are very strong, especially if they were, as you say, identical."
"So he wasn't interested in archery?" Hendrick asked again.
"No," I told him once more.
"I could say almost positively that Loche wasn't either," I answered.
"Then it was probably unexpected and unfamiliar to Loche, too," Hendrick said.
"If it was a crystal bow that he got, yes," I agreed. "But supposing it wasn't."
"It was a bow, all right," Hendrick said, "and probably a crystal one. I just got a hunch."
"Just so long as your hunches don't keep me awake," I said, "it's all right with me."
"I'll wake you up again if it's necessary," Hendrick snapped.
"You didn't wake me up," I said. "I'm just getting down to sleep. Now I lay me—" I began lazily.
Hendrick said a nasty word, almost knocking my eardrum loose with the noise he made hanging up. I put the receiver into the cradle and sat down on the edge of my bed.
SOMETHING new had been added—a crystal bow.
And instead of serving to clarify the mystery, it had only filled in as an additionally tangling knot. For five or ten minutes I sat there on the edge of my bed, trying to turn back through the pages of my mind in an effort to recall anything pertaining to a crystal bow.
If there was anything there I was too tired to think of it. Finally I realized that a fresh brain could tackle the problem a little bit more successfully. And a nap would freshen my brain. I sank back, and was putting my head to the pillow with deep and luxurious satisfaction.
It was the damned telephone again. I clenched my teeth and tried to shut out the sound with my pillow. To hell with it. Let it ring itself out.
Hendrick, no doubt, with something inane to ask me. Probably the next thing he'd be asking was what I knew about the Indian Rope Trick. Let him look in the encyclopedia.
It was no go. My nerves weren't strong enough to stand a battle with that telephone. And even if my nerves held out for a short spell, my curiosity was bound to win out.
I took the receiver off the cradle.
"Hello, Tommy," said the voice on the other end of the wire. "I didn't rouse you from a sound sleep, did I?"
I didn't have to ask who was speaking. Madeline Trudeau was the only girl I knew who spoke like silver, tinkling bells.
"Madeline!" I didn't try to hide the surprised elation in my voice.
"I just wanted to thank you for what you did last night, Tommy," she said. "I know I must have acted strangely to you, and I'm sorry I was such a chatter-knees. I don't know what ever made me say what I did when you pried Geno away from me."
This was daylight. What had happened was done. Madeline had time to think it over, and now she wanted me to forget it all, just like that. But the terror that had been in her eyes and voice hadn't been synthetic. It had been hard, real. Listening to the bells tinkle in her voice now, however, it was hard to keep that in mind. She was the Madeline I'd talked to on the veranda before I went for the champagne.
"That's all right," I said. "And about the rescue scene, don't mention it. Any of the Rover Boys could have come through as nobly in the pinch as I did."
Madeline laughed. Maybe it was only my imagination that led me to believe that laugh wasn't as natural, as genuine, as it might have been.
"Seen the papers yet, Madeline?"
THERE was a silence. She knew I meant the Fredrick Loche disappearance yarn in the Blade. Her voice was casual, too casual, when she answered.
"It's not true, is it, Tommy?"
"The suppositions, you mean?" I asked.
"No, I don't believe they're true. Hendrick, the city editor, draws heavily on his imagination in such stories. I'm pretty sure Loche is off somewhere, looking at paintings in an obscure gallery, or sunning himself conspicuously on the lawn of Lincoln Park. He's done things like that before."
"Yes, that's true. I'm glad to hear you think that, Tommy," Madeline said. She seemed vastly relieved, in spite of the casual reference to it at the start. Of course there were a lot of reasons why she might be vastly relieved. The first was that few people who were connected with music or opera didn't know and love old Fredrick Loche.
I was wondering if it would be smart to mention anything about the Marelli disappearance, or anything about the increasingly snarled mystery that was piling up.
"Just a moment, Tommy," Madeline said. "There's someone at the apartment door making an awful racket with the buzzer. The maid is out and I'll have to answer it." Her voice faded away.
I sat there waiting, still wondering if I should mention the Marelli mess. Perhaps a minute passed. Then her voice came through to me.
"Strange thing," she said conversationally. "That was a messenger delivering a long package addressed to me. I haven't opened it yet, but I'm terribly curious to see what's in it!"
TIME hung motionless as the significance of Madeline's words hit me.
Then a thousand wild premonitions raced crazily around in my mind. A long package. Loche and Marelli had both received packages of the same description before they'd mysteriously vanished. And now Madeline. This could be coincidence, of course, sheer coincidence. But there was an ominous hunch crawling along my spine. Too ominous.
"Madeline!" I barked. "For God's sake listen to me carefully, Madeline!"
I heard her gasp in surprise, start to say something. I cut in on her swiftly.
"That package you just received," I began.
There was a sudden click and a buzzing static in my ear. It was as if someone had cut in on the wire.
"Hello!" I shouted. "Madeline—do you hear me?"
A voice came lazily into my ear.
"So sorry, sir. I'm afraid I cut you off accidentally."
It was the voice of the switchboard operator in the lobby. I cursed steadily while I heard her fiddling with plugs and switches. Moments trickled by. Sweat stood out on my forehead. The switchboard operator's voice came in lazily once more. She spoke through a mouth full of chewing gum.
"What was the number you were calling, Mr. Lannister?"
I started to tell her. She cut me off again.
"That's right, sir. I almost forgot. The call was an incoming one. If you just hang up, I'm certain your party will call back in a minute or so."
I scorched the wires with my reply, concluding: "And damn your vacant little blonde bean, get that number in a hurry!"
The operator's voice was pained.
"Yes, Mr. Lannister. After all, Mr. Lannister, mistakes—"
"Get that number!" I blazed.
I heard the connections being made again. Then there was a buzzing, loud, sharp, evenly spaced.
The operator's voice broke in again.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Lannister. Your party seems to have a busy wire at the moment."
I slammed the telephone back into the cradle, cursing. In the interim between the time the fuzzy-headed, red-lipped, gum- chewing moron at the switchboard had messed up the connections in my talk with Madeline, someone else had probably called that apartment.
I stood up, lighting a cigarette. Madeline's apartment was about ten minutes by cab from the club. I had no idea of how long she'd be on the telephone with whoever had called her just now.
Grabbing my coat, I made for the door.
TWO minutes later the club doorman was hailing a cab for me. And when I jumped inside I barked Madeline's address to the driver. He threw the car into gear and I leaned forward anxiously shouting:
"Make it in five minutes and it'll be worth your while!"
The cabbie nodded, and immediately jammed hard on the accelerator. We whipped around a narrow corner and shot for Michigan Boulevard just in time to beat a red light. Madeline's apartment was on the south end of the Loop. And the cabbie handled his hack like a halfback swivel-hipping through a broken field toward a touchdown. He was in and out of traffic snarls like an elusive ghost. But we made time.
In exactly four minutes after we'd pulled away from the curb at my club, the taxi rolled in front of the Michigan Boulevard hotel at which Madeline was staying.
I threw the driver a five-dollar bill and rushed past the startled doorman into the lobby of the place. There was an elevator line at the other side of the lobby, and the operator was just about to shut the doors before going up.
My bellowed "Hold it!" must have startled the operator and all the sedate residents of the hostelry in the lobby out of many years growth. But he held it.
There were three floor stops made before Madeline's floor number was reached. And during the interval it took to make those stops and discharge passengers—scant seconds though each one was—I died a million deaths of anxiety and frantic impatience. But at last I was out of the elevator and dashing down the twenty-fifth floor hallway toward Madeline's suite.
I pushed hard on the buzzer of her door with one hand and knocked loudly and insistently with the other.
The door was opened almost immediately. Opened by the fat person of Frieda, Madeline's South African, coffee-colored personal maid.
Her face, through all that coffee-color tan, was ghastly white. Her thick lips were twitching, and her usual cheerful smile of greeting was replaced by a grimace of sheer terror. Her big brown eyes were wide and filled with horror and unmistakable hysteria.
"Mister Lannister!" she gasped. "Mister Lannister, oh I am glad, so glad, you are here!"
"Frieda," I blurted, moving past her into the apartment, "where is Miss Madeline?"
I was in the drawing room by now, looking frantically around. And two things were immediately apparent. Madeline was not there, and on the center of the living room floor there lay, amid several sheets of brown wrapping paper, a bow of curious crystal composition!
"Madeline!" I shouted, fighting off the ominous terror that assailed me. "Madeline—where are you?"
FRIEDA came up behind me. Now she was sobbing uncontrollably. I wheeled to face her, placing my hand on her shoulder in a gesture that was meant to steady her.
"Frieda," I demanded. "Frieda, for the love of God, tell me where your mistress is!"
Frieda made choking noises that should have been words. She was trying desperately to say something, but she was reverting to a mixture of South African that was unintelligible.
"Frieda!" I shouted, "for God's sake, tell me what this is all about!"
Her eyes rolled, glazed, then closed. She toppled toward me in a dead faint. I caught her as she fell, lifting her in my arms and carrying her over to a chair, cursing as I did so.
I left Frieda propped there in the chair and swiftly started through the other rooms in the house. There was no sign of Madeline in any of them. In the bathroom I ransacked the medicine cabinets, got a bottle of ammonia, a cold towel, and returned quickly to the drawing room.
It took several minutes to bring Frieda back to consciousness, and another two minutes before she was able to say anything. Her eyes fell on the curious crystal bow still lying in the center of the room, and she shuddered involuntarily.
"Where is Miss Madeline?" I demanded again. "What has happened?"
"She is gone," Frieda said faintly. "I saw her go."
"Where?" I demanded. "Where has she gone?"
Frieda began to shudder again, and her eyes grew wider, fixing themselves in horrified fascination at the crystal bow lying on the thick red rug.
"Where, Frieda?" I repeated. "Where has she gone?"
"The Lord would know," she shuddered, "I do not."
"But you said you saw her go!" I insisted. "For God's sake, girl, speak up!"
Frieda suddenly seemed to go into a trance. She said nothing, merely continued to stare in hypnotic fascination at the crystal bow. I shook her shoulder gently.
"Tell me what happened," I begged, "right from the beginning."
This seemed to be a better approach. It was as if she were able to talk of anything that was not immediately related to that crystal bow and whatever had happened to Madeline.
"I was out, Mr. Lannister," she whispered huskily. "I had just gone to make arrangements with her hairdresser. A matter of minutes, you understand, I was away."
She hesitated again for an instant.
"Go on," I demanded.
"When I was coming down the hallway, after just stepping from the elevator, I saw a messenger turning away from the door of the suite. I do not notice him as he passes me. I was just concerned that I was not there to receive whatever package he left."
Again a pause, and again the terrified glance at the crystal bow lying ominously on the rich red rug.
THIS time I didn't have to prompt her to go on, however, for she hesitated only a moment before resuming.
"When I was entering the apartment, coming through the drawing room, Madeline was just leaving the telephone. She smiled at me and asked for what time I have arranged her appointment with the hairdresser. She added that she had just been talking to you and that the connection was somehow interrupted. She said she expected that you will call back, Mr. Lannister, and would I please notify her when you do so."
Frieda paused again, this time keeping her eyes from the crystal bow. When she resumed, she seemed to be fighting for self control.
"Madeline then went into the drawing room where she had left the recently delivered package. I was in another room, and I could hear the sounds of paper wrappings being torn away as she opened it. My curiosity is strong, of course, Mr. Lannister, and I was about to enter the drawing room when the telephone rang. I went to answer it. The person on the other end of the wire said he was a reporter from a newspaper, that he had some questions he would like to ask Miss Madeline and would I call her to the telephone. I told him to wait, and put the telephone to the side while I went to the drawing room to inform my mistress that there was a call waiting."
The pause in the narrative of Frieda was longer now, and her fight against the impending terror in it was more difficult. There was nothing I could do but wait, while she closed her eyes and squeezed her nails hard into the flesh of her palms while her thick lips went flat against her white teeth.
"She was standing there in the drawing room," Frieda said huskily now. "The package she had already unwrapped. In her hands she had the bow of shining crystal—" She broke off, shaken by violent shudders. Then stumblingly she went on.
"She was holding it—so." Frieda made an illustrative gesture with her hands. "Holding it and gazing at it like, like, ohhh, how you say—a rabbit gazing at a snake!" Tears welled in Frieda's large brown eyes now. "There was a light shining from that damnable instrument, that weapon of crystal death. A light reflected in its shimmering string as the sunlight pouring through the window struck it. It was horrible!"
I looked swiftly at the crystal bow, then back at Frieda.
"Miss Madeline," she whispered huskily, "was staring at the bow as if she hadn't heard me come into the drawing room. And then something—I, I, could never describe it to you, caused me to cry out sharply, in fear. Miss Madeline had been just in the act of plucking the string on the bow, in fact she did so just as I cried out."
"And then?" I blurted, leaning anxiously forward.
"The bowstring, it sang zeeeeeiiiing, so, its vibrations ringing through the room like the cry of a wild beast. My scream must have come at the same moment, for I recall Miss Madeline turning, open-mouthed in astonishment, toward me. The shock of my cry caused her to drop the bow to the floor, as she vanished, disappeared completely, into thin air but a second later!"
FRIEDA had scarcely finished before she collapsed completely, sobbing wildly, shuddering brokenly, and all the while mumbling incoherently to herself in a combination of English and African dialect.
I was stunned, shocked, incredulous. The coffee-colored maid was out of her mind. She had to be. What she had described was more than humanly believable, more than humanly possible. There must have been something else, something that had brought about this temporary hallucination from which she suffered.
But no matter what the truth of the matter happened to be, one fact remained. Parts of her tale were indisputable; and other parts fitted into perfect coincidence with what had happened to Frederick Loche and Geno Marelli. The facts that fitted were two. Madeline had received the mysterious crystal bow. For it was lying before me on the rich red rug of the drawing room that very moment. Secondly, Madeline was gone.
I stood up, then, lifting Frieda in my arms like a child. I carried her over to the divan, placed her there, then went to a telephone and called the house physician of the hotel. The poor girl was more than merely distraught. She needed a doctor and a sedative badly. Then, perhaps, after she had rested, I would be able to obtain more coherent information from her.
When I returned from the telephone, Frieda was lying on the couch in a dazed, almost uncomprehending state. Her eyes stared dully almost glassily, at the ceiling. Her body was limp from utter nervous exhaustion. She was breathing heavily, like a person sleeping through an unpleasant dream. I didn't try to talk to her.
Then, for no reason I was sure of at the moment, I picked up the mysterious crystal bow and the wrappings that had covered it. I carried the bow and the wrappings to the kitchen where I disposed of the latter in the incinerator.
I stood there for several minutes, then, examining the crystal bow.
It was a strange, weirdly constructed weapon, fashioned—as I stated before—of a smooth, translucent, crystal substance that felt as soft as silk to the touch of my fingers. The center section of it was flanged slightly, yet rather narrow, while the sections on either end of the instrument were of wider flanges. It had about it the style of an ancient Mongol, or perhaps Persian, design. The bowstring, stretched tightly from end to end, was a thin strand of what seemed to be a solid silver thread.
I was turning the weapon around in my hands, examining it with more than curiosity, when the buzzer to the front door of the apartment sounded sharply several times.
There was a cupboard on my left, and I opened it hastily. The bow would just fit in there—it was perhaps five feet long—I found as I hastily placed it on a shelf. I still wasn't certain what prompted me to conceal it, or what had prompted me to destroy the wrappings moments before.
WHEN I went to the door the house physician, carrying the ever present black bag, was standing there impatiently. He was a little man, old, with thinning gray hair and pince-nez glasses.
"In there," I said, pointing toward the divan where Frieda lay in the drawing room. "Miss Trudeau's maid has had a severe shock. I arrived here a few moments ago to find her practically incoherent. I think she'll need a sedative."
The doctor looked at me a moment curiously.
"Where is Miss Trudeau?" he asked.
"She's out," I said. "I expect her back shortly." Again I knew that I was concealing information, evidence of this mystery. And again I wasn't certain what prompted me to do so.
"And you are...?" the doctor asked.
"I am Thomas Lannister," I said. "A friend of Miss Trudeau's. I'm waiting for her."
"Oh yes," the Doctor said. "Music critic chap from the Blade, eh?"
He went into the drawing room, then, and I went back into the kitchen, lighting a cigarette. For the next several minutes I paced back and forth, taking deep draughts from my cigarette and trying to find some way to pierce the cloud of mystery and foreboding terror that lurked around the strange circumstances of the past twenty hours.
My anxiety for the safety of Madeline was foremost in my thoughts, of course, and it was only the almost obvious connection between her disappearance and that of Loche and Marelli that kept me returning to the circumstances of those other two mysteries. I was vaguely aware that—whatever was behind all this—the three occurrences were definitely linked to one another.
But every idea I had met inevitably against a stone wall in the blind alley of deduction. And before I knew it the doctor appeared in the kitchen.
"I would like you to help me move Miss Trudeau's maid to her bedroom," he said crisply. "You were right in presuming that she's had a severe shock of some sort. I gave her a hypo. She should sleep for five or six hours. After that time I'll be in to see her again."
I nodded vaguely, and went with the little medico back to the drawing room. There we both lifted Frieda gently from the divan and carried her into her bedroom. I found a heavy quilt comforter and placed it over her, while the doctor arranged the pillow beneath her head.
"I'll be back about the time she should be waking," he said.
"Thank you," I told him. "If you should be needed sooner I'll have Miss Trudeau call you."
The doctor left, then, and I closed the door of Frieda's room behind me and started back to the kitchen.
IT was while I was moving through the small hallway leading to the kitchen that I passed the telephone table there. There was a loud, static buzzing issuing from the receiving end of the telephone, and I saw instantly that Frieda had left it out of the cradle when she'd gone to call Madeline in the drawing room. After what had happened then she had quite naturally forgotten all about it, and left it as it was.
I stopped to put the telephone back into the cradle, realizing as I did so that here was the explanation for Madeline's line having been busy for so long. Obviously, right after my connection with her had been broken, the reporter from the newspaper Frieda'd mentioned had called. Frieda had then left the telephone momentarily to call Madeline and had never returned to it, thus leaving the line open and busy.
And quite suddenly another thought occurred to me. A reporter had been on the other end of the wire. And unless I was very much mistaken that reporter had probably been calling on Hendrick's advice from the offices of the Blade. With the wire open, and with the chap waiting for Madeline to answer him, he'd have been able to hear Frieda's sharp cry, or scream, and the ensuing commotion that followed when I arrived at the apartment.
Obviously, then, unless the staff of the Blade had lost its nose for news completely, a reporter would soon be over here to see what was going on. I hadn't figured on that. I hadn't figured on that any more than I'd figured on calling Hendrick to tip him off on this last disappearance. What the hell, newspaperman or not, this last occurrence was something for me and me alone to handle. And until I found out just what was what, Madeline's name wasn't going to be dragged across the front pages of Hendrick's Blade. Even if I hadn't been in love with the girl, I'd have thought too much of her for that.
I tried to calculate approximately how long it had been since the reporter from the Blade had called and gotten suspicious of his reception on the telephone. Fifteen minutes, perhaps. Maybe twenty. But at the outside, twenty minutes would just about give him time to be arriving here now.
Still debating mentally about the advisability of being on hand when the reporter from the Blade arrived, I went back into the kitchen. I took the crystal bow from the long cupboard in which I had concealed it, and again the very weirdness of its design, its appearance, reached out for my fascinated inspection.
There was an exit to a rear hallway from the kitchen. It would lead, I knew, to a freight elevator, and flights of fireproof stairs. If I wanted to leave, I'd better do so now, before Hendrick's snoop would arrive on the scene.
I thought for a moment of waiting him out, letting him sound the buzzer until his finger wore off. After all, aside from Frieda—who was now definitely "out" for the next few hours.—I was the only one present. If I didn't let him in, he wouldn't get in.
False reasoning, of course, and I realized it an instant later. No answer from this apartment would only further arouse the newshawk's suspicions. He'd go to a bell captain, or a day manager, and under the guise of grave concern, get them to force an entry to the apartment.
And yet I couldn't walk out now, leaving Frieda holding the bag on the entire ghastly mystery. It wouldn't be fair, especially since she was on the verge of a complete breakdown. And then, if she had had wild hallucinations, Madeline might very well return to the apartment.
My faith in the last presumption, however, was growing weaker with every passing moment. For something in the back of my subconscious was busily weaving an inner conviction that possibly Frieda's story of the disappearance into thin air was actual fact. My mind knew better, of course. That is, my active, thinking conscious mind knew better. But deep at the core of the soul of every man there lies a hidden, primitive, unrecognized factor that psychologists call sixth sense and gamblers term a hunch. And that hidden factor that sorts all unknown factors and arrives at an unspoken conclusion was pushing my mind eerily toward the conviction that there was more than hallucination and hysteria to Frieda's terrified account of what had happened.
And if what she had described had actually occurred—
I lingered over the implications of this thought an instant, turning it around in my mind as I turned the strange crystal bow unthinkingly in my hands.
Madeline had been in the act of plucking the bowstring when Frieda—strangely set to terror by the very sight of the weapon and the consuming fascination of Madeline's regard for it—had cried forth. Simultaneously with Madeline's plucking of the bowstring, Frieda's cry had rent the air.
Obviously, it had been the cry of horror that had startled Madeline into releasing her grasp on the crystal bow. Perhaps, too, it was her reaction to the weird sound set up by the plucking of the bowstring.
I recalled that Geno Marelli, although he had been seen with the bow in his hands minutes before his disappearance, had not left it behind him when he vanished. As for Frederick Loche, I could assume that he too had been given the package containing the bow. And if he had left it behind him it hadn't been found.
Could this bow in my hands, this weird crystal weapon, be the same one that was delivered to Loche, Marelli, and Madeline in turn?
And was it an actual instrument involved in the disappearances of the three, or just a symbol, an indication of what was to happen to them?
Evidence pointed toward its being the former. And yet, aside from the somewhat unique design of the weapon, it appeared to have no potential power. The bowstring was silver. That in itself was, of course, exceedingly strange. The crystal substance of which the actual strangely shaped staff of the bow was made seemed to be nothing more than glass. Unusually well processed glass, of course, but still nothing more mysterious than glass. So the very elements from which the bow had been constructed were not in themselves unfamiliar.
And yet the strange combination of the silver and glass in a bow of such weird design could, purposely perhaps, be a catalyst that gave an entirely foreign result.
I HAD continued to turn the weapon around in my hands as I pondered these confusing mazes of speculation, and suddenly I was aware that my right hand seemed subconsciously itching toward the silver bowstring. I shifted the stock of the bow into my left hand, held it up half as an archer might, reaching out the fingers of my right hand to pluck the silver bowstring.
The impulse to follow through my gesture became at once almost unhumanly overpowering. And it was an instinct born of something stronger and deeper than natural reflex action. It was almost as if I had received a command from some mind stronger than my own. An almost irresistible command to place my fingers around that silver bowstring, draw it back, and release it.
My fingers reached forward, and I felt an inexplicable sensation of giddying weakness, chilling helplessness.
As if from a great distance, an evenly spaced ringing came to my ears. Vaguely, I was aware that it was the telephone in the hallway of the apartment.
The ringing continued, still as if from a distance, while I stood there posed like a futile archer without an arrow, my hand reaching for the silver bowstring.
I was conscious of that fact that every instinct seemed to tell me to answer that telephone. I was aware, also, that whoever was on that wire might have some connection with Madeline's disappearance.
It is impossible to describe the sensations that held me frozen in the same position while the telephone kept ringing. It was just as if—as I said before—some force, some power, some mind stronger than the resistance I could offer, was fighting back my natural reactions to break away from the overpowering command that urged me to pluck that bowstring.
I felt as if I were standing off at a distance, watching myself, witnessing my struggle to break the grip of that steel band of fascinating hypnosis. Watching the cold sweat on my forehead, the shaky uncertainty of my knees. Watching myself succumb to a terrifying power that was crushing my very instinct, my will itself in an ever closing fist of iron.
It was the sound of the telephone that gave me my last grasp on the straws of reality. It was something to cling to desperately, frantically, while I fought to keep from being drawn off into a wild, fearsome sea of black, unknown forces.
Then the telephone stopped! My grip was gone. My hand inched closer and closer to the bowstring. My fingers circled around it. My arm bent slightly, and I drew the bowstring back.
There was no stopping the irresistible compulsion to release the string. My fingers opened, my mind an agony of revulsion. The string twanged...
I WAS conscious, instants later, that every last material fibre of my being seemed engulfed in an overwhelming explosion of blinding electrical force.
Vaguely, in the chaos of sound and concussion that swept me into blackness, I could hear a strange, eerie zziinnng that I suspected dimly to be caused by the vibration of the bowstring I'd released.
The sound grew louder, louder, like circles spreading in a pool of water into which a pebble has been dropped. The blackness became a suffocating mantle which I was no longer able to thrust from my head and shoulders. The ringing of the explosion was still in my ears, shutting out further sensation as the blackness did the light. My right hand was clenched fast to the center of the crystal bow, fingers numb. And then I knew no more...
ETERNITY might have passed unnoticed in the interval before I opened my eyes again. I know that I had no sensation that time had passed. No realization, immediately, of what had happened.
I was clutching hard to an object, like a straw in a turbulent sea. Gradually the bright white lights all around me were coming into clearer focus. My head was aching badly, and my body tingled weirdly. I was sprawled on a hard, warm, smooth floor. The crystal bow was still clenched in my right hand—the straw in the sea of dizziness.
And quite suddenly, then, my consciousness returned fully. I had plucked the silver bowstring. I had been standing in Madeline's apartment, and then—
Dazedly, I raised myself on my fore-arms. But this place in which I now found myself was—was certainly not Madeline's apartment! It was a huge, high domed room of tremendous proportions. It was fully a mile in length, a quarter of a mile high. It was white and crystalline, and utterly bare of anything save the walls and the floor and the vast ceiling!
And the source of strong white light that made me blink and peer dazedly at what I saw was nowhere visible.
Instinctively, my heart began to pound in the ominous excitement of the unknown. My mouth was suddenly dry, and I ran my tongue across my lips tentatively, climbing to my feet.
There was no sound in this vast room save the sound of my own labored breathing. There was no sign of life about me, anywhere. The floor, the walls, the incredibly distant ceiling—all these were signs of life if you like. Signs, at any rate, of human activity, human ingenuity and construction prowess, but not of human presence.
And now I realized that the bow was still in my hand. I gaped at it foolishly, as if I'd never seen it before.
I WAITED there, for what I don't know. Waited there, while the sound of my own breathing came softly to me as if in echo thrown down from that vast white ceiling. The excited beating of my heart refused to still.
Some of the shakiness had left my limbs. The tingling in my body had stopped. My temples throbbed with aching monotony.
Something instinctive, some stray fragment of knowledge, had been at the back of my mind from the instant I'd opened my eyes in this incredible room. And now I realized what it was. Everything around me—the floor, the walls, the ceiling, was constructed of precisely the same crystal substances as the mysterious bow I held in my hand!
I was perhaps a dozen yards from the wall on my right, and I moved over to it, running my hand along the almost silky surface of it. There was about it the feeling of something akin to vibrancy. It seemed somehow alive to my touch. A ridiculous idea, of course. But nevertheless I took my hand from it swiftly.
My brain, all this time, had been working with increasing speed as I tried to sort the strange series of events that had led me to this weird room under such strange circumstances.
Knowledge as to precisely where I was, of course, was lacking. As far as I knew this could be Siam or Salt Lake. A week could have passed since I was in Madeline's apartment, or a month, or an hour. I had absolutely no idea of the time element.
How I had gotten here was something else as yet unfathomable. The forces that had brought me here were also beyond my ken. I recalled the swimming blackness that had engulfed me almost at the instant that I plucked the silver bowstring.
Apparently, shortly after my loss of consciousness, a person or persons had delivered me to where I now found myself. That much seemed evident—except for the fact that the person or persons seemed nowhere about.
This had happened to Madeline. I knew that much. She had then disappeared. Undoubtedly it had happened, too, to Marelli. Loche, also, had evidently undergone the same experience. The bow, the terrifying compulsion to draw the silver bowstring, the exploding blackness—and oblivion.
I wondered, suddenly, if they, too, had been brought to this vast and incomprehensible room of crystal and white light. And then I wondered how they had vanished. Perhaps by now I was also on the list of those who had "vanished." I cursed the wave of darkness that had deadened my senses and thus prevented my forming the haziest notion of how I had been brought here.
If the pattern were not to be broken—that is the pattern as I had imagined it until now—I was undoubtedly standing in a room in which Loche, and Marelli, and Madeline had stood before me.
But there was no trace of others having been here before. And the maddening, vast silence of my surroundings seemed to mock my effort to pierce their mystery.
THERE was a small door at the far end of this room, and now I started for it. For some reason of which I was unaware at the moment, I still carried the crystal bow.
My footsteps, strangely enough, made no sound in the vast hall. And yet my breathing continued to echo softly back to my ears. As I moved on doggedly toward the door, a cold sweat suddenly beaded my forehead and at the same instant I had the sensation that eyes were watching me from some invisible vantage point.
Several times I stopped, looked to the right and left and behind me. But there was still no sign of human presence. I felt those eyes more strongly after each such instance.
The door was not far away now, perhaps several hundred yards, and I found myself moving faster, as if trying to evade some unseen forces following behind me in that naked hall.
I could make out the general structural detail of the door more clearly now. It, too, was of crystal substance. It seemed to have no knobs or grasping points, but otherwise resembled a standard door in size and appearance.
The distance left to the door was now less than a hundred yards. I was wondering, of course, what lay beyond it. Wondering, when it opened quite swiftly, unexpectedly.
I stopped, my fist tightening around the bow in my right hand. A man stood outlined in the door frame. He was of medium height, with unusually wide shoulders, unusually thick arms, extraordinarily stocky legs. These physical characteristics were easily discernible, since he was attired in a tight-fitting costume of a grayish leather tunic top, and ankle-length breeches of the same leather and tightness.
He was staring at me—not hostilely, not cordially. He had gray eyes that seemed utterly devoid of any capacity for emotion. His face was round, rugged, and struck me as being a remarkable composite of all the peasant stock features of all races. There was no flicker of intelligence in the muscles of that face. It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
He had paused there momentarily in the doorway, staring at me. Yet I swear there was not even a trace of appraisal in that stare. There was nothing in his look that could be classified as human or unhuman. Yet, physically, this person was undoubtedly human. And now he started toward me.
I had been frozen, rooted by the shock of his sudden, startling entrance. Now I found voice.
"Who are you?" I demanded shakily. "Who are you, and what is this place?"
THE man in the grayish leather tunic continued to advance toward me. His facial muscular reaction to my words were unchanged, unblinking. He continued toward me. Instinctively I stepped back, although there seemed to be nothing you could interpret as menace in his advance.
"What is this all about?" I demanded hoarsely. This time there was a definite crack in my voice.
The creature in gray moved closer, less than five yards away now. His eyes were still fixed on mine, unwinkingly, unemotionally. I could read nothing in those impassive features.
But there was one positive indication in his advance that belied his outward lack of emotional display. The tight breeches he wore were snug enough to reveal the fact that his thigh muscles were bunching into readiness for swift action. I saw this the instant my eyes flicked to his legs. An old backfield trick, that leg watching. With it I'd been able to elude numerous would- be tacklers on the college gridirons in my student days. The very stance of a man advancing on you betrays his intentions.
This time I backed no further. I stood there waiting, watching on the balls of my feet, catching my timing from the rhythm of this fellow's stride.
He was four feet from me when I dove headlong at his muscular legs, pitching the crystal bow sideward as I did so.
I felt the solid crunch as my right shoulder drove into his thighs. Then my feet were stabbing the smooth floor, driving hard, picking up momentum as my arms wrapped around the back of his legs. It was close to a perfect tackle, and my adversary hadn't expected it.
We spilled to the floor an instant later as I jerked his legs up from under. I was on top, and my palm had come up against his forehead, slamming his head back onto the floor, but hard, as we hit. The solid clack of skull hitting floor surface was grimly, swiftly satisfying. Then his legs went limp. He was out cold.
I stood up quickly, untangling myself from the inert lump of emotionless humanity that lay at my feet.
Stood up to see the man I had just knocked unconscious coming through the door at me once more!
I stepped back in amazement, then looked again at the figure lying at my feet. No—the creature coming through the door was not the same chap who lay at my feet. Not the same chap at all—merely his twin!
The same medium height, the same unusually wide shoulder, unusually thick arms, incredibly stocky legs, and the same grayish leather tunic top and breeches of the same material. The facial similarity was also identical to the fellow lying at my feet. Even to the lack of emotion stamped on the newcomer!
If two people were ever stamped from the same mold, they were the man who lay at my feet and the other who was now advancing toward me from the door!
And the second chap seemed not to notice his counterpart lying unconscious at my feet. The gaze he had fixed on me was identical to the gaze the other had directed at me when he'd first entered. No curiosity, no hostility, no friendliness—absolutely no emotional reaction of any sort.
Except the same bunching, tightening, of the thigh muscles to indicate that he possessed the same intent as his predecessor.
THIS time I didn't wait. Perhaps I'd forgotten that timing was everything. Or perhaps my easy victory over his counterpart had made me too confident. I just drove in, bent low, head down, arms swinging like sledges at this second adversary. The mistake was mine, I knew it the instant my first punch had flattened my knuckles against the solid wall of granite-like muscle that should have been his solar plexus.
And then an open-handed swipe from a hard palm against the side of my head sent the world spinning and my knees buckling. I recall that I wondered foggily why my head hadn't parted company with the rest of my body after such a tremendous wallop. And I remember, too, that I kept throwing punches into the incredible muscle-armor of this new adversary. And then there was another solid, even more terrific open-palmed swipe, thrown down this time, down on the base of my skull. A sledge couldn't have done the job more neatly. I felt the floodgates of my will open wide as my knees turned to water and refused to support me any longer. A myriad of stardust whirled giddily around against a rich purple backdrop of utter darkness.
I felt as if I were falling through a million miles of space. Falling—while an incredible number of faces, all of them exactly alike, all of them the same as my adversary's, peered unemotionally down at me from a million miles above...
THERE was an immediate sense of luxurious comfort in my every muscle when I opened my eyes again.
I felt as buoyant and refreshed as a man who has slept fifteen hours with an easy conscience. Under me there was a mattress of some sort of down which I suspected to have been gathered from the wings of angels. Covering my body were silken sheets, and beneath my head a silken pillow of the same angel-down.
There was no ache in my head, no uneasy sensations in my limbs or stomach. I had the sensation of never having felt better in years. My waking had been caused by nothing of which I was immediately conscious. And now there was no foggy, fuzzy aftermath of sleep to cloud my mind. The first thing I remembered distinctly, almost instantly, on waking was my recent unsuccessful struggle with the emotionless humans in the hall of crystal.
I felt the side and back of my head in instinctive wonder. It should have been throbbing horribly. But as I said before, physically I was utterly refurbished, completely atuned. And now, sitting up in my luxurious bed, I turned my attention to my new and strange surroundings.
The room in which I found myself was also crystal. This time, however, I was in much smaller quarters. Quarters not much larger than a double bedroom. The bed in which I was lying was a huge affair, a dozen feet long and some six feet wide. On the crystal that was the floor of my strange room there were scattered rugs of richly woven silk, thick and shimmering in the indirect lighting that seemed to come from the crystal walls.
There were doors at either end of my chamber. Doors similar to the one I'd seen in the great hall. There were chairs, several thick tables of a rich, dark wood I couldn't recognize, and a lounge. And spread out carefully on the lounge was a complete set of clothing.
I realized, then, that I was wearing silken pajamas. I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to find an explanation for all this. It was no use. Moments, or hours, before I had been attacked by strange men in gray tunics. Vigorously, forcefully attacked. And yet I now lay comfortably in the midst of utterly strange but exceedingly comfortable surroundings.
There was no doubt that I was still in the precincts to which the experience with the silver bowstring had taken me. But where I was, or how I had arrived here, was still an enigma. And it was while I was still groping with this baffling maze of weird circumstances, that the music began.
IT WAS faint at first, so faint that only subtly did I begin to realize its presence. Strange music, coming apparently from nowhere. Music of perfect, utterly precise arrangement. Music that was undeniably mechanically exquisite. Every note, every bar, in mechanically gem-like sequence.
I sat on the edge of my strange bed and listened, frowning. As perfect as it was, as mechanically flawless, the music was utterly devoid of emotion. Just as lacking in emotion as the faces of the two assailants in the great crystal hall.
I shuddered involuntarily. The very iciness in the measured music that filled the room was somehow terrible.
And then while I dressed, donning the clothes that had been left for me on the lounge, the music continued. The clothes that had been left for me were of a silken material, soft, rich. There was a coat that was cut as a tunic, trousers cut almost as my own had been. All of the apparel, however, was alien, strange, different to the most minute details from garments I had seen before. But they fitted as perfectly as if they had been tailored to my measure.
By the time I had finished dressing, the music had stopped. I stood there for a moment by the lounge, debating as to what should by my next move. Strangely enough, I had the feeling of comfortable unhurried assurance that a house guest in familiar surroundings might have had. Perhaps this was due to the fact that everything seemed to have been ready for my wakening, and that the room in which I found myself seemed to have been prepared especially for me.
I moved over to the door on the right of my room. It opened easily, soundlessly, to my pressure. I stepped out into a hallway. By now I wasn't surprised to find that the walls, ceiling, and flooring of the hallway was also made of the crystal substance.
Again I had the impression that hidden eyes were watching my movements. I looked to the right and left. The hallway was less than twenty yards long, and on either end were other doors. No one was visible.
I started toward the door at the right end of the hallway. Now I felt even more certain I was being watched.
When I reached this second door I hesitated an instant before pressing my hand against the crystal panel. And in that second, a voice from the other side of the door said:
"You will please enter, Lannister."
I WAS caught off guard. My jaw fell open. My eyes widened.
"You will please enter, Lannister," the words came again from the other side of the door. The voice that spoke them was deep, rich, and yet the words seemed totally without emotion.
I caught my breath, clamped my jaws hard, and pushed against the door. And as it opened, I had a split-second photographic glimpse of the speaker and the room in which he presided.
He was a rather tall man, black-haired and ruggedly handsome. He wore a tunic similar to mine, except for the fact that it seemed to have military designations on the coat. He was standing beside a wide desk in what appeared to be a combination study and laboratory. A small room, richly carpeted in thick silk, luxuriously furnished in every detail.
The desk beside which he stood faced a huge window which extended from the ceiling and from wall to wall. It was in itself an entire wall. Strong sunshine flooded its unsectioned surface, filling the room, outlining the figure of the man who stood beside the desk. The black-haired, tunicked fellow smiled briefly at my confusion.
"Do step in, Lannister," he said in his deep rich voice. "I see that you are, ah, more or less emotionally disturbed by all that has happened to you in the hours that passed."
Mechanically, my eyes still moving from object to object in the room, I obeyed.
"I am Grael," said the man beside the desk. He still stood there motionless, as if those three words were explanation sufficient in themselves.
"Whoever you are," I answered, "perhaps you can tell me where I am and what has happened." I didn't bother to keep the hostility from my voice.
The man called Grael smiled briefly.
"That in due time," he said. "It seems that it should be sufficient that you are safe and unharmed." There was no menace in his voice, for there was no emotional register to it.
"What about the others?" I demanded. "What about Loche, and the girl, and Marelli? Are they here?"
"You will see them presently, Lannister." He paused an instant. "They, too, are safe and unharmed."
I noticed his eyes, then. Pale eyes, a light gray green. They, too, showed no emotion.
"You slept well, I trust?" Grael asked.
"Too well," I snapped. My nerves were fraying. "What is this all about? Where in the hell am I? Where is Madeline Trudeau? What did you do to all of us?"
"You are very inquisitive," Grael observed. "It is odd to see emotion displayed to such a degree. Interesting. Like browsing through an ancient document."
I wasn't getting this. I wasn't getting any of it. I didn't like it. And there was something about the person who called himself Grael that I didn't like. Something other than the fact that he seemed to be the one with the key to this bewildering situation.
Now Grael half turned, waving briefly with his hand to the huge window behind his back.
"Step over here, Lannister. Step over here and satisfy your insatiable curiosity if you must."
I FOUND myself moving over to the window. Grael had stepped from the desk to move beside me. Stupidly, I stared down at the scene revealed beneath that window.
A city lay sprawled below us. An incredible city. A city that stretched on and on, as far as my eyes could see. Vast, unbelievably modern. A metropolis of towers and turrets, and roads that were layer on layer around the spiraling structures they circled. A city of magnificent design, of endless architectural perfection.
A city made entirely of crystal!
I stood there dumbly, staring in mute fascination at the marvels that spread beneath that window. I don't know how long it was before Grael broke the silence.
"Your reactions are the same as the others displayed," he said calmly. "And I do not wonder."
"But this—" I stammered, waving my hand at the scene below us.
"Is perfection," Grael finished. "Absolute perfection. The result of centuries of toil toward just this goal."
"But this is not—" I started to protest.
"Not possible?" Grael broke in again. "It has been accomplished, but it is not possible? Not in your world, Lannister. Not in your world, of course."
"My world?" I blurted. "You—"
Grael interrupted once more.
"Your world, Lannister. The world you left in the past."
The words seemed to echo and reecho in my mind. I couldn't grasp their significance. They were impossible words, unbelievable words, and meant nothing that was real, nothing that was—
"You are not in your own world any longer, Lannister," Grael's deep rich voice was speaking again. "You have been taken through time, into what for you is a thousand years in the future."
I tore my eyes from the scene below us. I wheeled to face this person who called himself Grael. I started to speak.
"You are an intelligent man, Lannister," Grael said quietly. "You are more intelligent than the mass mind of your era. The others were more intelligent also. Think, Lannister. Consider my words. Gaze below you. Remember what has happened. You have no alternative but to believe what I have told you. Use your intelligence."
I stood there with my hand pressed to my face, as if trying to hide the incredible truth from the eyes of my mind.
Sanity screamed that I deny this. Reason, coldly, irrevocably made me know that somehow this was true. A thousand years—a thousand years beyond my own time era!
Finally then, I looked up at Grael.
"Why," I said huskily, "why in God's name did you bring us here?"
GRAEL moved away from the window, took a seat behind his desk.
He waved me to another chair on the opposite side of it.
"The others, Loche, Marelli, and Madeline Trudeau," he said calmly, "were brought here. I wanted them."
"The bow," I said, "that crystal bow was the instrument that—"
Grael cut in.
"That served as the vibrational impetus to hurl them from their time era into this. Yes, that is true. That was the manner in which I summoned them. You, however, are here quite by chance, by accident, Lannister."
"That doesn't made a great deal of difference now," I said quietly. "How I got here is unimportant. Why did you want Loche and Marelli and the girl?"
Grael smiled briefly. As I expected, there was no emotion in the smile. It, too, was mechanical. Yet it was ominous.
"I don't see why I should trouble myself with an answer to that," Grael said. "I am merely stressing the point that your arrival here was somewhat unforeseen, Lannister. I really don't know what I'm going to do with you. If Madeline Trudeau hadn't dropped the crystal bow, you never would have found it. You would not have been hurled through time after her."
"What do you want with her?" I demanded.
"You must remember that this civilization is utterly different than your own, Lannister," Grael said, apparently inconsequentially. "My world is foreign to you. My purposes are also beyond your comprehension at the moment." He paused. "Perhaps you recall the creatures, one of whom you knocked senseless, you encountered on your arrival here?"
"They typify the peoples of this civilization—with the exception of myself," Grael said. "Under the direction of a few such as I, this civilization was constructed by creatures such as those you have already seen. They were bred, scientifically of course, to labor, to build, to obey."
"But—" I began.
"It was inevitable," Grael went on musingly, ignoring my interruption, "that man should one day strive to reach the ultimate in mechanical perfection. Civilization, even the civilization which you understand, grew gradually out of bestial chaos into a machine-dominated world. It was the perfection of the machine that kept man advancing. It was the very basic imperfection of man, his emotional instability, that hindered that advance. That hindrance finally became the obvious factor that stood in the way of real progress.
"Science, in the form of a small group of unusually intelligent men, finally decided to conquer that factor, to eliminate it completely. The end they sought demanded the mechanization of man himself, the standardization of human flesh and brain power, the elimination of human emotions as they were then known."
I THOUGHT of the faces of the pair I'd encountered in the great crystal hall. If they were examples of what that standardization had ultimately led to, it had been more than successful.
"Bit by bit, this standardization began," Grael went on. "It was fought, as all progress is fought by the stupid. A very bloody war became necessary. A war that almost ravaged the entire globe. It was a war of Science against the Human Element. Naturally, the imperfect failed to survive. Science, the victor, began to rebuild when it was over. Rebuild with men that were bred but to labor, to build, and to obey. Progress became infinitely more rapid. In less than two centuries the entire world was successfully mechanized."
Grael paused a moment, to turn slightly in his chair and fix his cold, emotionless eyes on me.
"But the small group of men who ruled, the men of science, began to diminish with alarming rapidity," he continued. "You see, they could not successfully fashion themselves into perfectly mechanized units of the system. They still were capable of emotion. The factor, now eliminated from the rest of the creatures of earth, seemed to concentrate itself in the men of science. They had fashioned creatures who would labor and build and obey. Now they found themselves faced with the realization that they would have to fashion, of their own numbers, creatures who could think, and direct, and command—but who were free from emotional shackles."
I sat there, spellbound by his words, stunned by their import. This was history—as it had happened in this world, his world—as it was going to happen in my world, a world a thousand years back in the past!
"The task was greater than the men of science had imagined," Grael went on, "for this time they were dealing with themselves. And until now they had been loathe to think that they were imperfect. But their very survival in the new world they had created demanded that they adapt themselves to the necessary pattern.
"And in increasingly great numbers, the few survivors among them died in their sacrifices of themselves to this objective. But the sacrifices were necessary, and costly though the experiments were, the goal had to be achieved.
"It was achieved," Grael concluded calmly. "Achieved in the last, the ultimate attempt. I am the result of that achievement. The others are gone. I alone am left to direct, and think, and rule. The world as you see it now is my world. The world of Grael, the Ruler!"
THE silence hung heavily for an instant.
"You will not survive forever," I said.
Grael smiled mechanically.
"Forever," he declared.
"But alone," I gasped, "with nothing but this, this flawless mechanical perfection everywhere around you. With none but humans no better than machines or animals for companionship!"
"The desire for companionship," Grael reminded me, "is an emotion. I am without emotions." His deep, rich voice was scornful.
"Then why are we here?" I demanded. "Why did you take Loche and Marelli and the girl from the past into this flawless hell?"
Grael smiled emotionlessly again. He made a bridge of his strong slim fingers and placed his hands against his chest.
"This world, mechanically perfect though it be," he declared, "is not quite as I would like it. Certain elements of cultural perfection have not yet quite been attained. I will draw from the past, in other cases as well as those of Loche, Marelli and the girl, the elements needed to mechanically perfect our culture."
"And how can they aid you in this?" I asked. "Our, their world is far behind your own. Your developments along any such lines would be centuries ahead of anything that they, or I, can conceive of."
There was something in the flat lustre of Grael's eyes as he answered that sent a chill down my spine.
"Quite true," he agreed. "However, I am not in need of assistance in my task. All I seek is the material with which to work!"
Grael had not described his intentions. But his inference struck home the moment he had spoken. It was ominously plain. Much too ominously plain!
MY eyes must have showed my emotions. Or perhaps my fingers tightened whitely against the arms of my chair, for Grael rose suddenly, placing his finely-molded hands atop the surface of his desk, staring coldly at me.
"And I wouldn't advise you, Lannister, to object too strenuously to any experimentation I might have in mind. You are utterly helpless in this world. Never forget it. Consider yourself fortunate to be left alive while I debate your possible worth to me!"
I started to say something, for helpless rage had suddenly engulfed me. I started to say something at the same moment that I half-rose from my chair. My intention at that instant must have been instinctive, crystallizing all the ominous dislike I had held for this creature from the first moment I'd set eyes on him. Perhaps I had intended to throttle him, perhaps just to wallop him.
But my action was never completed.
Grael's hand darted swiftly into the middle drawer of his desk. When it came out again, I was staring into the face of an utterly astounding weapon. It was a small, crystal object, shaped like a cross between a pistol and a pear. Its muzzle was as round as a half dollar.
"I wouldn't advise any foolish daring, Lannister," Grael snapped. "This antiquated weapon I hold in my hand is an object over a century old. It is called a disintegrator pistol. It is in excellent working commission. It can split your body into a thousand atoms before your eyelash could flicker."
I sat back, swallowing my impulse to mayhem.
"You could eliminate me this minute," I admitted to Grael. "What induces you not to do so?"
"I may find you valuable, Lannister. Although you came to me quite by chance, there might be some material in your being that would be of use to me. Waste is stupidity. Until I can decide what utility you might possess for me, or a lack of it, you will be fairly certain of staying alive."
I forced a mocking shrug.
"How very thoughtful of you," I said acidly.
Grael nodded contemplatively.
"But of course," he said. "This is a world that was thoughtfully constructed. It must be preserved in the same manner."
I watched him wonderingly as he dropped the disintegrator pistol contemptuously back into his drawer.
He saw my expression and grinned in cold mockery.
"The drawing of the gun was, of course, merely a gesture. It served to keep you in bounds more readily than some of my other methods. You would be more likely to understand such a gesture, than the mere waving of my hand. The waving of my hand, incidentally, would have thrown enough force around you to crush you like a thin sheet of paper."
I THOUGHT of the feeling I had had on two occasions since my arrival at this place. The sensation of being watched. I wondered if the wave of his hand he spoke of could be an agreed signal with invisible watchers. The idea was not reassuring.
"You might have been stupid, however, had I only raised my hand," Grael went on. "It might have resulted in your being crushed to death before you realized the futility of your attack. However, a method you were likely to comprehend, a drawn pistol, held you in check excellently and preserved your life for a while also."
Grael pressed a thick button on the shiny surface of his crystal desk. A panel beneath it glowed pink, then saffron. He stared down at it, thoughtfully, intensely. I had the impression that the glowing panel at which he was staring was nothing more nor less than a device from office-to-reception-room that is commonly used in present day business establishments. But I had the additional impression that if he were conversing, he was doing it mentally.
Finally Grael snapped off the switch and looked back up at me.
"In a moment you will be privileged to see the first of your number. I have already begun my experiments on the composer, Loche."
I had no time to say anything to this, for in the next instant, as if on a signal, the door to the room opened and Fredrick Loche, dazed, wild-eyed, and supported on either side by two of Grael's gray-tunicked, identical peasants, was led in!
"Loche!" The name escaped my lips in a gasp of horror.
The old man's eyes met mine, seemed to look through me, with no flicker of recognition in their bloodshot glaze. He was wearing a tunic costume, obviously supplied by Grael, and his once trim Van Dyke beard and gray moustache were weeded with gray stubble. Spittle showed at the corners of his sensitive mouth. His thin frame seemed utterly racked by weariness, and his feet dragged behind his body as he was helped along.
I wheeled on Grael.
"Damn you, you lousy roach-ridden swine!" I cursed. "What have you done to the old man?"
Grael favored me with a mechanical smile.
"I told you that Loche is the first of my experiments, Lannister. He is, unfortunately, older and more feeble than I had thought at first. In draining the necessary cultural material, the, ah, creative genius, I seem to have taxed his physical stores gravely. Too bad, perhaps. If he were to live longer I could obtain more from him."
I lunged at Grael, then, a red haze covering my mind, anger screaming for release in my muscles. I was dimly aware, as I drove in toward him, that he waved his hand.
SOMETHING seemed to crush in on me from all sides in the next instant.
Crush in on me and hold me motionless. It was like the pressure of tremendous air force. My ears rang, my chest seared with pain. I fought madly for breath, unable to move a muscle, unable to cry out. Blackness swam before my eyes.
And then the tremendous pressure was released, and I found my knees refusing to support me as I tumbled inertly to the floor. Every muscle in my body seemed paralyzed. The pain was still in my chest, in every nerve fibre. My arms and legs ached terribly in the minute while blood returned sluggishly to them.
I was climbing to my feet, then, weakly, gaspingly, shakily. Grael, watching me intently, was still smiling in that mechanical fashion of his.
"I warned you against that, Lannister." he said quietly. "I hope that will be lesson enough."
I looked at Loche, then, held between the gray-tunicked, thick-muscled workers of Grael's creation. His head had fallen forward, his chin sagging on his chest. His eyes had closed.
Grael waved lightly toward the door. Turning, the two guards dragged Loche out of the room once more. Dully, I watched them leave. I turned to Grael.
"For the love of God," I choked. "Why don't you put him out of his misery?"
"He has not been tapped fully as yet," Grael declared. "As soon as he is, just as soon as we have his musical genius transferred into units of material actuality, electrical force rays, I will dispose of him."
Until this moment I had never been fully aware of the horrible ghastliness of Grael's scheme. I had caught the implication carried in his talk of his "experiments", of course, but not until now was I fully awakened to their frightful significance.
Loche was being treated as a root from which a dye is sapped, an ore from which a precious metal is gleaned. What Grael wanted was not mere knowledge which had been ignored in this future civilization. In some hideous fashion, the man was able to transpose mental and spiritual cultural qualities, the very fluid of a human soul, into actual material forces. Forces that could be stored as serums are stored. Forces that could be administered to his slavish peoples as serums are administered!
And Loche, when his very soul fluid had been sapped from him, would be tossed aside as a useless bit of ore, or a dried husk, is thrown off!
The expression on my face might have amused Grael had he been capable of even such a trivial emotion.
"I see you comprehend at last, eh Lannister?" he said.
My lips tried to form words. My mouth was dry and wadded with cotton. I felt a horrible nausea deep at the pit of my stomach.
"It is odd," Grael said musingly, "that after ignoring the cultural attributes of progress in favor of the mechanical perfections as we have done for so many centuries, this civilization should at last attempt to restore certain of the lacking culturable attributes that would complete the perfection."
"Culture," I spat, "inoculate into the unthinking swine of this world of yours—you're mad!"
"You forget, Lannister, that you are a barbarian from a thousand years back into the past. You know nothing of our civilization and the things it can accomplish. However, you will be soon enough aware of the last experiment, the one now being so successfully undertaken with Loche." He paused. "The girl will be soon subjected to it."
My blood froze, and for the briefest moment my heartbeat faltered.
Grael was looking at me narrowly.
"You overestimate the place you and your companions hold in this scheme, Lannister," he said slowly. "You are but the first. It was by chance that Loche, Marelli, and the girl happened to be the first in my experiments. I might have sought others before them. There will be others after them, thousands and thousands of beings from the past, each with something desirable to be drained from them. Artists, sculptors, musicians, poets—any and all who have something I deem necessary to my scheme, will be torn from the past and brought to me in the same manner that the rest of you were."
"Damn you, Grael," I said hoarsely, unconscious of what he'd been saying. "Damn you, what can you want with the girl?"
"There will be the beauty and artistry, the tonal perfection of her voice," Grael said musingly. "Those qualities should be of inestimable value."
I found myself thinking wildly that this was all some hellish nightmare. That I would wake, cold with sweat and grateful to have it done with. This couldn't be reality. This creature, this city, this world of the future—it was all impossible, all hallucination. I would wake and lift the telephone and talk to Madeline. I would learn that she was safe, and that it had been nothing more than a ghastly dream, a hell created by nothing more than my imagination.
But Grael was standing there before me. And the walls of the room were close enough to touch, and the silken rug beneath my feet was real.
A feeling of helpless rage flooded me, leaving me weak and shaking. Grael's voice came to me, as if from a distance.
"You are emotionally disturbed, Lannister. Emotions are bad allies. They can destroy you. That is why you will find none in this world."
I MIGHT as well have been bound and gagged. My arms were free, my legs unshackled, my will undominated, but the mysterious force which had almost crushed the life from me as I'd rebelled at the sight of Loche, was too much to buck. There was only one thing to do for the present. One attitude to maintain if I were to help Madeline. Grael put this into words for me.
"You would be wise to keep your emotions under control," he declared, moving around from behind his desk. "Marelli and the girl, Madeline, know nothing of the ordeal Loche is undergoing. If you prize the life of the girl, and I'm certain that you do, give her no indication of what lies ahead or what has happened to Loche."
Grael had started toward the door now. He paused.
"You will be my dinner guests, the girl, yourself, and Marelli, very shortly. I'd advise you to return to the room assigned you. One of my people will call you shortly. Please remember that anything you try to do would only be futile, and disastrous to the girl."
I watched Grael leave the room, my lips working in rage, my fists clenched in impotent fury. And then I fought for calm. There were certain elements which I might muster to my advantage in regard to this creature Grael. Certain very interesting elements that were only now beginning to dawn on me.
And, too, I would very soon be close to Madeline again....
I RETURNED to my quarters after that. There was nothing else that I could do. And when two of Grael's peasant- like guards came to get me for the "dinner party", I was conscious of feeling very much like the sheep being fattened before the slaughter.
They took me through a series of corridors, not too complicated for me to fix them in my memory, and finally left me in a fairly large crystal room, ornately established with all the accoutrements of a banquet hall.
I was left alone there, evidently the first to arrive, and I was pacing nervously back and forth when the door at the other end of the room opened and two peasant-like guards ushered in—Madeline!
Our cries must have sounded simultaneously.
Madeline's eyes widened, her mouth opened in almost hysterically happy amazement.
"Tommy! Oh, Tommy!" she gasped.
I was across the room, and she was in my arms, and I was talking wildly, insanely, joyously, just to have her safe and still unharmed. She was answering just as swiftly. And as I talked she pressed her lips close to my ear and whispered furtively:
"Keep this pretense, Tommy. I know what's happened to Loche. I know what waits for us. I had a chance to overhear a laboratory scene a little while ago—"
And then she was talking loudly again, emotionally, and I could feel that someone Madeline could see had entered behind me. The rest of her message would have to wait until we got another chance to be alone.
I continued talking also, for several more moments, and then I took my arms away from her and turned. I faced Marelli.
His face was white, almost ghastly white. He seemed not to notice the fact that Madeline and I had been in each other's arms.
Our eyes met, locked. He ran a trembling hand through his dark wavy hair. His swarthy, handsome features were twisted in fear.
"So, Lannister. You are with us, eh?" he said huskily.
I looked at him distastefully.
"As much as I hate to admit being in the same boat as you, I guess you're right, Marelli."
Madeline touched my arm with her hand lightly. I knew it for a signal that I should say nothing of her whispered half-message to me. Marelli's next words confirmed my interpretation of the gesture.
"Where is Loche?" he asked.
I forced myself to shrug.
"I haven't any idea."
"That, that Grael told me that Loche was also here," Marelli said fearfully. "Good God, do you suppose they've—"
"They've what?" I interrupted.
Marelli shuddered, shrugged.
"This damnable situation is more than I can endure much longer. There's something up that Grael's sleeve that—"
MARELLI saw Madeline's eyes go to the door behind him, and he stopped as I too looked in that direction.
Grael had just entered. He was smiling mechanically, as I had imagined he would be.
"So very fine to see you all could accept my invitation," Grael said. His words were mocking, but there was no mockery in their inflection, or his manner. He had changed to another military tunic.
"Shall we all be seated?" he asked.
The table in the center of the room had been set for four people. He indicated his wish that Madeline sit at the center of the table, to his right. I sat at the other end, directly opposite him, and Marelli was placed on Grael's left, just across from Madeline.
There was a heavy, pregnant silence.
Grael looked from one to the other of us, his glance lingering a little longer on Madeline.
"You have no idea how you honor me," he said after a moment. "Lannister expressed horror at the fact that my world gave me nothing that was really close to human companionship. Now, for the first time in many years, I seem to have all of it I could desire."
Again his eyes flicked around the table in mocking scrutiny of our tense faces. And again, they lingered a little longer on Madeline.
"Documentary evidence in some of the musty archives in my library indicates that the peoples of your era engaged in much conversational interchange while dining," he resumed, his words still cutting with acid mockery. "It is strange that you are so silent."
"In a civilization much older than our outdated era," I said sarcastically, "a race called the Chinese had the philosophy that the best preparations for dining were silence and meditation."
Grael smiled automatically at this. But his eyes were unsmiling as they lanced appraisingly at mine.
"I see," he declared. "Perhaps meditation might be best. I only hope that our efforts, hasty though they are, to duplicate the fare of your own lost civilization are successful. I anticipate an unusual experience in tasting your dishes. You might not find them to your liking, since I was only able to direct that they be reproduced synthetically."
Marelli suddenly burst forth.
"When will you permit me to return?" he demanded hoarsely.
Grael smiled in that now monotonous mechanical manner.
"That is difficult to say," he declared.
Marelli stood up suddenly.
"I demand that you release me!" he shouted.
Grael looked silently at him.
"Nothing holds you back. Go where you will. You are at liberty to view all of my civilization you wish," he declared.
Marelli sat down. His face was flushed beneath the pallor of his skin.
The attendants came in then. The same, uniformly constructed features as before. The same alikeness in every detail of their body, bearing, and clothing. There were four of them, carrying trays of the synthetically prepared foods of our civilization.
IN silence we turned our attention to the meal. During the half hour that followed none of us spoke save Grael, who confined his words to brief comments on the dishes as they came. Oddly enough I found myself eating almost ravenously. Madeline scarcely touched her food. Marelli ate moderately.
If the fare was synthetic I would have defied the best chefs of my acquaintance to detect it from the genuine. Clearly, there seemed to be nothing in the way of horrors or imitation cuisine that this super civilization could not accomplish.
During the course of the meal, however, I kept Grael under a close and secretive scrutiny, studying his every movement, every word. My first dawning apprehension of certain elements in his character was now becoming a certainty. And additional proof of the ever increasing strength of these elements was even more chilling and purposefully demonstrated in the additional attention Grael was turning to Madeline.
Occasionally, too, I had time to observe Marelli. The swarthy tenor was still obviously frightened, still white and uncertain in his manner. But somehow I had the feeling that Marelli was touching up his own characterization, his own fear, with a bit of broad acting. I had the definite impression that he was not as frightened as he seemed to be. There was a watchful wariness about him that came to the surface only for the briefest of seconds when he felt he was unobserved.
Madeline was keeping a stiff upper lip, and doing a beautiful job of it. Her fright and discomfort at her surroundings was nicely registered, revealing just that and nothing more. I felt certain that Grael didn't imagine she knew what had happened to Loche.
And it was during the last course that the music began. Began in the same manner that the music in my bedroom earlier had begun, coming apparently from nowhere, faintly first, then more clearly.
It was music that differed from that I had heard before in my quarters. Different in melody, that is, though not in character. It was the same icy perfection, the same flawlessly scientific combination of bars and measures and notes.
Grael seemed strangely irritated by it, and his eyes went from mine to Marelli's to Madeline's, almost challengingly.
And now, quite suddenly, I was aware of the subtle changes that were beginning to manifest themselves in Grael's personality. They were all changes that indicated a faint but growing emotional disturbance!
His irritation was an undershading of emotion. I realized now that this was the first occasion on which I'd seen him display even so faint an undercurrent.
I was aware, too, that all Grael's commands to those who served us at table were directed mentally, through thought power. And it was only toward the end of the dinner that minor slips, errors, began to crop up in the carrying out of these orders. On several occasions the look-alike peasants who served us hesitated, floundered, did the wrong thing at the wrong time. Clearly, Grael's thought transference commands to them were not going as he wished them.
I had a feeling that Madeline knew this, or sensed it, as well as I did. And I had a feeling that she sensed something else, something I was just becoming aware of Grael's increasing attention to her.
Quite suddenly, then, the music in the background changed.
IT was instantly apparent that the icy flawlessness of the previous music was gone completely. The perfection of note and measure vanished, to be replaced by low, half-ragged, half- guttural rumblings of sound that soon became a theme in itself.
I didn't recognize this new music at once, for though it was totally different from the previous melodies, it had a strangeness that was almost barbarically stirring.
Swiftly, I glanced at Grael. His expression seemed unchanged. He was looking at Madeline, apparently unnoticing the veer in the tempo and the style of the music. But I had noticed something in this change of melody. Something that just struck home as I watched Grael.
This barbaric music in the background was a part of a never presented and still uncompleted symphony of Fredrick Loche!
"There is Ravel there," Loche had said of this music that now filled my ears. "There is Ravel there, and a sense of his Bolero, but it is too crude, too basic, too barbaric. There is no beauty to its stirring." And so Loche, some five years before, had never finished the symphonic composition.
And yet I listened to it at this moment, recognizing it for what it was, while a sudden chill touched my spine and I wondered how, and through what method of super-civilized deviltry it was now coming to us. There was one answer, an answer I didn't care to think of. An answer that involved the helpless old man and the musical genius that was stored within him. The genius that was being drained from him.
Grael suddenly rose, then. He looked first at me, and then at Madeline. He addressed her when he spoke.
"You will return to your quarters. I wish to speak with you later."
Madeline rose reluctantly. Her eyes caught mine for an instant, sending some signal I couldn't quite interpret. Then she turned from the table. Grael moved behind her, then accompanied her to the door at the far end of the room.
After a moment the door opened, and two of Grael's twin-like guards stood there. Then Madeline stepped out of the room, the door closing behind her, while Grael wheeled to face Marelli and me.
"I have decided to delay no longer," he announced suddenly. There was a feverishness in his eyes, now. "The two of you shall follow the old man Loche!"
GRAEL'S words cracked across the room like rifle fire.
Marelli and I were on our feet almost simultaneously. But it was Marelli who answered him. The swarthy tenor's face was contorted in terrified alarm.
"No!" he cried. "No, you cannot do that to me! I can be of value to you. Take the others, as you planned, as you agreed!"
I looked at Marelli trembling there. My first reaction was mingled amazement and revulsion. His words had told me something I'd never imagined. Marelli had, in his short confinement here, wasted no time. Obviously, he had volunteered to aid Grael in his madness, even at the sacrifice of Madeline, Loche, and myself. Aid him in the hope that he might save his own hide!
My movement was quick. In three steps I was beside Marelli. One second later my left chopped up in a vicious arc at his blue stubbled chin.
"You stinking scum!" I raged. "You yellow, stinking scum!"
Marelli slid slowly to the floor, his terrified expression doing a double-take, just before his eyes closed. I wheeled back to face Grael.
Grael seemed to be enjoying the swift tableau hugely. His automatic grin was wide. There was a hard, bright, glint in his eyes. Something new was in the deep rich calibre of his voice.
"This is so amusing," he laughed. "Mortal emotion running rampant. When he revives, and when you both are securely in custody in my laboratories, ask him why he was so pleased to see Loche dying; ask him why he would not have been anxious to return to his own time world if the old man had been still alive."
Every atom of instinct in my body prompted me to drive in on Grael. But the utter futility of any such attack had already been painfully revealed to me. And the memory of that lesson was still strong enough to hold me there, hesitating in helpless fury.
Grael laughed loudly, mockingly, reading my mind.
The music that had been still in the background, Loche's music, was growing mountingly stronger, wilder. I noticed suddenly that Grael's breathing was increased in tempo.
Behind me I felt the door opening. I could sense it, and could sense, too, the pair of stolid-faced, twin-like guards who were moving up behind me.
Something made me disregard them. Something made me start for Grael instead. Something similar to a wild, red, blot of rage that blanketed my brain.
I can recall the curious expression on his face as I drove in toward him—an expression of surprise, bewilderment. I remember that his hand flashed forth briefly, as it had done on the other occasion when the pressure of invisible force had almost crushed the life from me. And then I was aware that my fists were pounding hard into his solar plexus, and that I was a snarling, raging, frothing animal lusting to kill the creature before me.
HEAVY blows were being rained on my back, and then my face, and I was slipping down into a fog that grew grayer, thicker, with every instant. There was a split second of blackness. A split second of blackness that was shattered, then, by the rude awakening of a boot kicked against the side of my skull.
The room suddenly blazed with light again, and I was blinking my eyes weakly and trying to stagger to my feet to resume the battle. But arms as strong as cables were being wrapped around me, rough paws were dragging me helplessly to my feet. And I was too weak, too sick at my stomach from that crushing kick, to resist further.
Grael's face loomed before my own. Grael's face, bruised slightly, and scratched a bit, contorted with rage. His huge hand slapped me then, as I was held by one of his guards. And then his hand slapped me twice more, and the blood ran from my gums.
The guards dragged me from the room then, and I was vaguely aware that Marelli, white and shaken, and once more conscious, was also being dragged away with me.
They took us out into the corridor, and turned right, still with their cable-strength arms wrapped fast around us like unbreakable bonds of steel. There were doors we passed, and finally another door at the far end of the corridor. This door opened automatically when we were but four feet from it.
One of Grael's laboratories was revealed inside. A large room, crystal like the rest, filled with machines and instruments and complex equipment of unimaginable variety.
They pushed us into that room. Pushed us into the hands of two other guards who looked exactly like the rest of Grael's peoples, and left. And it was Marelli's hoarse scream that directed my attention to the far corner of this laboratory.
For Fredrick Loche was in the far corner of that room. Fredrick Loche as God had never ordained any man should be. Fredrick Loche, with but his head visible, face sweat streaked, Van Dyke and gray mustache smeared with brown and red blood flecks. Fredrick Loche with his eyes brimming with more screaming, burning, hideous pain than I have ever seen in the eyes of the most tortured of men or animals!
And those tortured, hell raked eyes were looking mutely at us. Looking mutely, but with positive recognition, and heart rending appeal!
LOCHE was confined in some sort of a machine. A huge, intricate, devilish device that covered all his body save his head. And from the pulsing vibrations of the hellish mechanism of that machine you somehow got an immediate and horrible insight into what was being done to the rest of his frail body.
And suddenly I was aware that in this room also were the pounding strains of savage barbaric music, Loche's music. And then I saw the guards, who had moved stupidly forward to take us in hand. And in their stolid, emotionless eyes there burned a crazy spark of hatred.
Loche's feeble cry split the air as they drove toward us.
"Look out, Tommy! They're incensed to kill, to destroy!"
And then I had time only to realize that the mouth of the guard who bore down on me was twisted in slavering rage. His arms wrapped around me in the next instant, and his weight drove me hard back against the wall, crushing the breath from me.
I was down, then, and fighting for my life!
Vaguely I recall using every trick I'd ever learned, from Queensbury to Dead End, gouging, slugging, kicking, mauling, twisting all the while to get the heavy bulk of my adversary from my chest.
I was rolling away, then, and staggering to my feet, while the guard climbed upright also, and then he was coming in on me again. Coming in on me with his head lowered, his arms wide, like a wrestling gorilla. There was the same mixture of madness and rage in his expression, the same flaming hatred.
I was breathing raggedly, and I knew that at least one of my ribs had been splintered. My strength was momentarily spent, and the brief pause I'd need to regain it wasn't going to be offered to me by my adversary.
He continued to lunge in, head down, chin out.
Instinctively, I dropped my left foot back, took a half-step forward with it, and swung my right leg up hard, sharply, accurately, in the swinging arc that had once sent punts spiraling fifty and fifty-five yards down the gridiron.
But I wasn't swinging my foot into a football this time. I was swinging it, with every last atom of strength, into the lowered head and outthrust chin of the creature who bore in on me.
I had the sickening satisfaction of feeling teeth giving 'way in his mouth, of hearing his jaw crunch as it shattered under the terrific impact of my kick.
And then the creature was twisting to the floor, falling in an inert lump. I never knew if I'd broken his neck. But I do know he didn't move in the rest of the time I was in that room.
I TURNED away, then, to find the other guard coming at me.
At least for an instant I thought it was the other guard—but it wasn't. It was Marelli, wielding a nasty- looking club of crystal reinforced by a sort of steel covering. He'd been luckier than I. He'd gotten his hands on a weapon before his adversary attacked. And now his adversary lay on the floor beside my own attacker, beaten to a bloody mess.
And Marelli was coming in at me, attacking me!
My mental instinct was amazement.
My physical instinct, fortunately enough, had been geared to survival but moments before and was still so geared.
I sidestepped the blow he'd aimed at my skull. Sidestepped as the force of his skull-splitting swing carried him through its momentum, past me. Sidestepped and stuck out my foot.
As Marelli sprawled headlong over my outstretched leg, I stepped back in and shoved hard with my palm against his back, sending him crashing head foremost into the wall.
I didn't give him a chance to rise. There wasn't time or reason for that.
I landed on top of him seconds after he crashed into the wall. The weapon he'd tried so cunningly to bash my brains out with had skewered off to one side. I fastened one arm around his neck and dragged him to his feet. Then I held him off at arm's length and let him have a right cross on the chops.
Just as he was slithering down the wall to the floor, I got him again with a left hook. He was out, obviously good for quite a snooze, before he hit the floor.
And then I was dashing toward Fredrick Loche, aware that the music flooding the room was growing to almost deafening proportions. I was at his side then, forcing myself to choke back the anguish I felt for the old man's plight.
"Tell me," I begged swiftly, "what I must do to free you from this damned thing!"
Loche shook his head negatively, slowly, as if every effort cost him hellish torment.
"It is no use, Tommy!" he whispered hoarsely. "The rest of me is—" he shuddered, "is no longer able to live outside of this machine of Grael's."
"But—" I choked.
Loche shook his head. "No, believe me, Tommy. This is the end for me."
Again I tried to speak, again a slight shake of his head cut me off.
"Get to Madeline, quickly, Tommy. The end nears for Grael, too. His civilization will all be as furiously insane as the guards in this room who attacked you. The music, my music, is destroying them... all of them."
HE closed his eyes for a moment, wetting his parched lips.
"They were fools to think they had eliminated emotion," Loche whispered again. "Grael was a madman to think it possible. Emotion is the soul force of humanity. Without it there can be no human being. They didn't destroy emotion as they had thought... They merely subjugated it, shackled it, put it to sleep... Emotion remained in all of them. Remained latent, waiting for the force that would rouse it again... The world in which they lived would never have roused it... But they brought us here, peoples from a different world of time... Our emotions hadn't been deadened... We held power over them there... Power Grael didn't realize we would have... My music demonstrated that power... stirred their dormant emotions... they weren't capable of meeting it... and but a little started their insanity."
Loche shut his eyes and clamped his jaws hard against a swift surge of pain.
"Go to Madeline, Tommy. You must save her. Marelli, leave him. Marelli killed to steal a symphonic composition from a starving friend of his. Marelli came to me later, tried to pass off the symphony as his own. I had heard it, suspected how he had obtained it. Madeline, too, had known the friend Marelli had murdered. We had no proof, we were waiting. Leave Marelli... it is better that he die here."
My mind was running a wild gamut of a million thoughts. And I took my eyes from the face of the anguished old man for but an instant. When I turned back again, Fredrick Loche was dead.
But the music, his music, was still surging through the room. Was still flooding through this flawless city of crystal. And his own vengeance was being wrought by those wildly pulsing strains.
I left Loche, then, and the laboratory.
There was but one thought in my mind. Madeline was somewhere. And wherever that was, I had to get to her side.
There were corridors again, the same ones I remembered being dragged down not so long ago. I tried every door along those corridors. Followed every turn. Minutes crawled into what seemed to be special eternities of anguish. And the music was still growing in crescendo. While outside the babble of voices was beginning to rise ferociously. Grael's slaves, rising in wrath against the man and machines who had stolen the birthright of their souls.
And still I searched, frantically, feverishly, sobbingly.
"Madeline!" I shouted. "Madeline!"
And my voice echoed back to me through those vast crystal halls like mocking death.
AND finally there was a door through which I could hear a voice coming—Grael's voice, thundering deeply, richly, madly.
"It is my world!" I could hear him declaring wildly. "The world of Grael—Grael the Ruler! But I cannot rule alone any longer. I knew that this night, do you understand? I knew that Grael needs one to rule beside him. One who is beautiful, intelligent. You will rule beside me, eh? You will share my domination. It is the world I offer you!"
"You're mad!" a voice answered him much more softly. It was Madeline's.
Unhesitating, I hurled my weight against that closed door. It gave slightly, but remained unshattered.
The music flooded the corridor, wild, unbridled, unchecked. Chords crashing one on another in a symphony of madness.
Again I hurled my weight against the door. It was impossible, now, to hear the conversation going on in there. Once more I slammed my shoulder hard into the crystal surface of the door, and this time it swung suddenly inward, released of whatever lock had held it. I was pitched head foremost into the room by my own tremendous momentum.
I heard Madeline's shrill scream as I sprawled to my face in the center of the room.
Quickly I scrambled to my feet. Scrambled to my feet and faced Grael. We were in the same room in which I had first encountered him, the thick-carpeted, luxuriously furnished study-laboratory. Madeline stood against the wall on my right, her face bleached in terror. Grael stood behind his desk, the desk that fronted the wall-length window.
His face was contorted in a mask of fury. His black hair was disarrayed, and his ruggedly handsome features were as hard as the granite glints in his insane eyes. In his hand he held the weapon he had taken from the center drawer of that desk before. The disintegrator pistol, still looking like a cross between a crystal pear and an automatic. Its round barrel was pointed at my stomach.
"You thought you would intrude, eh Lannister?" he grated.
"Put that thing away," I said sharply. "Your world is crashing around your shoulders, Grael. It's gone mad. You've gone mad. You and your emotionally starved slaves!"
"How did you get here?" Grael demanded.
I took half a step toward him.
"Tommy!" Madeline cried.
"Stand back!" Grael snarled.
"Why don't you wave your hand, Grael?" I asked him. "Why don't you wave your hand and have those invisible force fields crush in on me?"
HIS face grew more furious. The muscles in the corner of his mouth twitched. The music, Loche's music, was still rising in madness.
"You can't any longer, Grael," I said. "You can't control this flawless civilization that way any longer, for the basis on which it was constructed, lack, of human emotion, has been shattered. It's over, Grael. Your slaves are in mad revolt. Your world of crystal will soon be torn apart by the very creatures who were bred to construct it!"
Grael's fingers tightened around the strange pistol in his hand.
"Look behind you, Grael," I said. "Look down on your world of perfection, and see what is happening to it!"
Grael backed away from his desk, backed toward the window behind him.
He turned his head slightly, looking down through that huge window. His face went white in horrified amazement. He wheeled back to face me. And in that split second in which he turned his head, I drove in at him.
I could hear the weapon in his hand sounding staccato shots. I could see the fire that blazed from the muzzle of the pistol. And then the very shock of the weapon's fire—passing as close as it did—threw me violently down.
Grael was cursing then. Cursing because he'd spent the firing power in the weapon without bringing me down.
Madeline stood less than four feet from him. She must have come up on him from the side as he fired at me. She held a weapon in her hand. A weapon I could remember only too well—the crystal bow!
There was something different about it now, however. Something that carried the menace of death. There was a silver arrow shafted in its bowstring.
Grael started to move for Madeline. Started seconds too late, for in the next instant, she released the arrow, sending the silver shaft home into his chest!
GRAEL'S gurgling scream as he sprawled back against his desk was drowned, an instant later, by a wild, furious, singing vibration. The vibration of the bowstring. It grew louder, louder, wave on wave of singing vibration flooding the room.
Madeline had dropped the bow, now, standing back, looking whitely aghast at Grael. I was on my feet, and my arms were around her.
The vibrations continued to sing in ever widening circles of sound and force around us. The floor beneath our feet was rocked, shaken, by their very intensity. The walls, the room itself, were blurring, cracking into a jumbled maze of black and white that grew blacker and blacker...
I was still holding Madeline in my arms when consciousness returned. Holding her in my arms and blurting her name again and again.
We were in the drawing room of Madeline's apartment. We were back in our own time strata, our own world and civilization. The madness had passed, the holocaust of horror engulfing that future world was spared us.
Loche was gone, had sacrificed his life that we might live to return. Marelli, left there in the future, might now be torn asunder by the mobs of emotionally maddened slaves before that world became shattered.
And now Madeline had opened her eyes, and they were looking into mine bewilderedly, then widely, in amazement, as she realized we were back again, and that somehow, it was over.
"Tommy," she said. "Oh, Tommy!"
Her arms were tighter around me. I brought her closer. Unspoken was our realization that the madness had passed, and that the future, our future, waited to be faced—together....
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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