a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
|BROWSE the site for other works by this author
(and our other authors) or get HELP Reading, Downloading and Converting files)
SEARCH the entire site with Google Site Search
Title: The City Condemned to Hell Author: Randall Craig * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0604231h.html Edition: 1 Language: English Character set encoding: Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit Date first posted: July 2006 Date most recently updated: October 2007 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
GO TO Project Gutenberg of Australia HOME PAGE
THE young nurse nodded downward at the mummy-like thing on the cot in Ward Seven. "She's been trying to move, Doctor," she said. "Are you sure you need the stimulants?"
Dr. Skull nodded absently. His keen brown eyes, the liveliest thing in his gentle old face, were appraising the swathed figure of Mrs. Purvins, and there was an ancient satisfaction in them, ancient as medicine itself. He remembered the day, almost a month ago, when a frightened woman stripped herself in his office, and whispered, "Is it cancer, Doctor. Will I die soon?"
She had been ghastly, that woman, with the hard black growth ridging her body like the tentacles of a deep sea monster. Ghastly even to the case-hardened eye of the surgeon.
There had been something about the growth that suggested more than medical abnormality, something uniform and patterned, as though a deliberate perverted will had planned it so.
"Only the skin," Skull had told her. "It's operable. There's a good chance. You're young--you have a young woman's heart, a young woman's capacity for recovery..."
She had been brave, that frightened little Mrs. Purvins. And so she had taken the chance, a greater chance than her surgeon cared to tell her, and for weeks she had lain in a ward cot at the Mid-City Hospital, too sick to speak, swathed like a mummy, but blessedly, beautifully alive! Alive, and with the malignant growth ripped out root and branch. Yet her greatest battle was just beginning.
With justifiable triumph Dr. Skull began to snip at the white bandages and behind curtains veiling the procedure from other occupants of Ward Seven, his surgeon's handiwork came to light. To no one but a doctor or a nurse, used to the ravages of suffering, would Mrs. Purvins have seemed anything but a horribly scarred and suppurating grotesque imposed upon a human form. But to the two who watched her, she was neither unbeautiful nor disheartening.
"It's a marvelous job, Doctor," the nurse said fervently. "Such a clean incision...I don't think there's another surgeon in the world who could have accomplished anything with her. And a man with your skill, giving all his time to charity cases...Sometimes I just don't understand it."
It was more than either skill or charity that the case of Mrs. Purvins had called for, but the nurse didn't know that. And even now, Dr. Skull, his brown eyes fixed almost unbelievingly on Mrs. Purvins, wondered if he had succeeded. For she had been more than a charity patient with cancer.
Her poor scarred body had been the battleground between Dr. Skull and whatever it was that had been foisted on her--those marks that were like nothing so much as the puckered souvenirs of some cruelly hungry orifice, sucking at her skin!
A battleground for salvation against a fate medically uncharted--Dr. Skull stared into his patient's eyes, and her own eyes stared back unblinkingly. Suddenly he realized that those large grey eyes, which had gazed on Ward Seven through slits in the bandages for days, had not blinked before, either...No, he could not remember seeing her eyelids move! His brows drew together thoughtfully. No, not since the operation!
THE raw sutures would heal in time, he knew. The body would be smooth again, and skin--grafting could take care of the scars that might be left on her face. But--those markings! And those eyes!
He made a hurried examination, and a ghastly suspicion crossed his mind. "Nurse," he said brusquely, "please leave me alone with the patient for a few moments."
Alone with Mrs. Purvins, Dr. Skull repeated his examination more carefully--but his hands still shook as though with ague, and his lined old face was drawn and pale.
The sick woman seemed barely aware of the hands which felt for her pulse, strove to locate her heartbeat--she did not even try to talk, and her fixed, staring grey eyes had somehow an eerie, glistening witlessness.
Dr. Skull took a blood sample, called the nurse back in, and went to the laboratories on the third floor.
It was incredible, this thing that had apparently happened to Mrs. Purvins; yes, utterly, fantastically unbelievable...But still it made his palms wet and his heart race!
Under the white light of the laboratory lamp he tested the blood sample. The thin fluid did not clot, didn't even smell like blood...
And then he steeled himself to the ultimate chemical analysis. He felt his pulse pound in his veins as once more he repeated the test, to make sure. There could be no mistake! The blood was of the temperature and approximate consistency of sea-water!
A telephone sounded in the laboratory anteroom. Someone murmured, "For you, Dr. Skull."
It was the nurse from Ward Seven. "Dr. Skull," she said tensely, "your patient, Doctor--I started to take her pulse, and--and she hasn't any..."
Softly, Dr. Skull put the phone back on its receiver. No pulse...? He had found worse than that. Mrs. Purvins hadn't a heartbeat, either. And yet, when he had taken the bandages off, she had given every outward indication that the operation had been a success.
Sea-water! He opened a drawer marked with his own name, rummaged in it for the newspaper clipping which had first interested him in Mrs. Purvins: "Delirious Woman Picked Up Near East River," the headline read...
They had found her, battered and half-crazed, the victim of an inexplicable assault that left her almost drained of blood. And she had moaned, repeatedly something about an octopus...
Dr. Skull frowned. There are no octopi in the East River--nor anywhere in that part of the Atlantic coastal waters, for that matter. And from his later conversations with Mrs. Purvins, after the first scars of that attack had healed, leaving in their wake a still more inexplicable cancerous growth, he was sure that her attacker had been no monster of the deep, but rather some equally monstrous human being.
Yet the sea was the cradle of all life, for before living organisms had made their slow progress onto land, eons ago, unicellular creatures had taken their nourishment and vitality from the water of primordial oceans. And all life still--even man himself--must carry the chemical composition of ocean water within itself. All living protoplasm cells on land are bathed in blood, which has the same elements as sea-water. The lower forms of life are still bound to ocean.
But blood and sea-water, as media of life, are separated by a million years of evolution--and it was those millions of years that had slipped from the heritage of Mrs. Purvins!
Either the phenomenon was inherent in those strange puckered markings which had been unlike ordinary cancer--or else, he--Dr. Skull--had created an atavism!
Dr. Skull rushed back to Ward Seven. Surgery couldn't--but it must have been his own surgery, his clean simple excision of a cancerous growth. Yet what strange, eerie quirk of the laws of chance had upset in this woman a balance older than the oldest mountain ranges?
He brushed past the curtains which still veiled Mrs. Purvins from the rest of Ward Seven. And then he paused, some deep-seated instinct muffled the cry in his throat...
Mrs. Purvins' mouth was fastened like a suction pump on the nurse's bosom, and in the staring grey eyes there was stark, maddened hunger!
DR. SKULL seized his patient's shoulders, his muscular fingers pulled against that sucking, intractable force even as he gasped at the hideous strength of those hungry lips...Then, with a soft whoosh, he pulled her clear.
The nurse dropped like a dead weight, with a three-inch circle of raw muscle bleeding over her heart, and even more terrifying in its implications, he saw the shredded, torn remnants of part of her uniform on the floor!
The Thing that had been his patient turned its shining unhuman eyes on the doctor. Suddenly it reared--not on its legs, but with a swift upward surge that seemed to involve every molecule of matter in its body. He felt the white surgeon's jacket torn from him as though it were cheesecloth, and suddenly he understood why the nurse had been unable to give alarm when she had been attacked.
The Thing's clammy hand slapped against his mouth, jammed into his throat, nearly suffocating him, while, with the swiftness of a striking snake, that terrible mouth fastened on his shoulder, its suction rending his skin, tearing with intolerable pain at the muscular flesh beneath.
He lunged desperately with arms and legs--felt himself free, and gasped for air. He cried out then, trying to call for help as his staring eyes saw his erstwhile patient rear up at the window, and with a peculiarly undulating movement slip outside. He staggered after it, his fingers clutching the sill as the Thing descended the fire-escape with unbelievable rapidity...And then he saw something else that momentarily caused him to forget his pain, and his horror.
As the Thing passed the third floor, a shakily prehensile arm whirled a net from the window, trapped the creature that had been Mrs. Purvins, and pulled her back inside the hospital.
And that, he knew, was one of the windows opening from the maternity ward!
He heard himself shouting orders to the internes who were streaming into the curtained enclosure. The room was swaying crazily about him, but someone had to look after the young nurse who was lying unconscious on the floor. And someone had to capture the monster that a short while ago had been his patient, Mrs. Purvins; someone had to capture and kill the monstrous thing that had trapped her.
One of the internes was applying a hasty dressing to his shoulder wound when Dr. Borden, head of the hospital, was suddenly and excitedly among them.
Borden cried, "What's this about?"
Dr. Skull didn't answer, but he felt Borden's restraining hand on his arm as he lunged forward.
"Come along, Doctor!" he gasped, "We've got to get--to the--maternity ward!"
He leaned dizzily against Borden in the corridor, struggling to retain consciousness in the descending elevator. The car came to a stop at the third floor.
Skull started out, but a human form slammed into him with stunning impact. He felt his knees folding, felt darkness sweeping over him, and Dr. Borden's grip relaxing on his arm.
Desperately he twisted his body, even as he began to fall--through the humming, drumming darkness that was closing over him he saw Borden struggling--not in the grip of a monster, but of some human adversary. A knife glinted in the hand of Borden's attacker.
His own hand stabbed downward, almost reflexively, and his fingers grasped the small automatic which he carried with him on night calls about the slum districts of the city. He hardly knew he had pressed the trigger, but there was a deafening explosion in the clean white corridor, and the man who had been grappling with Borden slumped to the floor.
Incredulously, Skull stared at the man he had shot, as Borden shouted: "Do you know this man, Doctor?" Nor did Skull miss the vitriolic accusation in the hospital chief's voice.
At last, Skull nodded. "The--the husband of my patient--Henry Purvins. He tried to kill you, didn't he?"
"Does it occur to you that he might have had a grievance?" Borden asked coldly. "After what you did to his wife--Look!"
Skull's eyes followed Borden's pointing finger, and he saw internes wheeling a stretcher out of the maternity ward--a stretcher on which something formless and gelid struggled frantically against sheets that tied it down--sheets covered with the pale pink compound that had passed for blood in the veins of Mrs. Purvins.
Borden, with almost venomous deliberation, went on, "You did that to her...And now, you try to silence a husband's reasonable indignation by murder! Doctor, is it your duty to create malformations, and to kill?"
SKULL'S eyes traveled from Borden's face to those of the three internes who held him; to the nurses who stood about, almost hysterically tense, and the white-jacketed orderlies who bent over that body on the floor.
In the eyes of his accusers he read a completely unreasoning hatred--and something more! Behind the irises of everyone of them, with the exception of Borden, he saw flickering specks of color...And he recognized in that color the mark of insanity! He had seen it before in human eyes...
Again he looked at the face of the man he had shot. Even in death, the gaping unseeing eyes had that unearthly purplish glint...Dr. Skull remembered that even Mrs. Purvins had warned him of her husband's "oddness." Oddness? Most damnable oddness! Murderousness, rather...How close Skull had been to suspecting that Henry Purvins might have been his wife's attacker when she had been found wandering by the East River!
Then Borden stooped sanctimoniously over the corpse, and suddenly the beginning of an incredible conviction snapped into Dr. Skull's mind. The hospital chief's watch fob dangled from his waist. It was of gold, heavy and carefully wrought, and repulsive as artistry could make it. A golden octopus, with one jeweled purple eye gleaming in its head...In her terrified delirium, Mrs. Purvins had babbled about an octopus--and now Mrs. Purvins was hideously, unhumanly dead!
The internes holding Skull were not prepared for the strength and fury of his attack. He bent over swiftly, and the man directly behind him doubled up with his breath knocked out. With an ease that belied his years, Skull ripped his arms free and sent another colleague spinning with a hook to the jaw. As Borden was leaping for him, Dr. Skull side-stepped and swung. Then he jumped for the elevator.
The man at the controls tried to rush him, and Skull grasped his arm, and with a jiu-jitsu hold, threw him into the melee in the hall. He slammed the doors, and his fingers were cold on the control lever as he started the car downward.
His shoulder ached agonizingly, and after that brief desperate spurt of energy, he was again dizzy and weak...twice the car bounced jerkily against its basement springs before Skull remembered to release the controls. Blindly, he levered the doors open, and staggered into the cellar's cool dusk.
Into the darkness behind the huge heating unit he dived, leaning heavily against a dusty, jutting plank. There was a brief whir of chains, and a section of the wall gave way. Skull lurched into the opening, and sank to his knees, completely exhausted. Behind him, he dimly heard again the soft whir of the chains, and then he was alone in the cool darkness of an unsuspected hollow in the wall.
SILENT seconds passed, bringing with them some return of strength to the old doctor's nerves and muscles. And with the strength, a fiery determination glinted again in his eyes.
Sparing the torn shoulder as best he could, he slowly removed his white surgeon's jacket, and began briskly to rub his face with it. Then it seemed as if a miracle occurred, for the sunken wrinkles disappeared completely from his jaws, cheeks and forehead...He tore off the strips which secured the grey wig, revealing a head of lustrous dark hair beneath. The removal of two padded wire hooks from his lower jaw altered the shape of his face considerably. It was a far younger Dr. Skull who finally turned on his back, and lay motionless, staring upward into the darkness with alertly thoughtful brown eyes.
A half-naked young man, his were an athlete's trained and rippling muscles...Weary as he was, with the bloody shoulder bandage, there was an aura of health, strength and competence about him. Hospital authorities would have recognized him as Jeffrey Fairchild, son of the late Dr. Henry Fairchild, who had achieved medical fame and a sizable fortune before his death.
Jeffrey, as administrator of his father's estate, had been instrumental in the erection of the Mid-City Hospital, and from that estate, large sums were still available to the hospital on request. That much he had done for humanity in his father's name and his own. There were people who said he might have done more, for Jeffrey, a brilliant student, had graduated at the head of his class from the best medical school in the country, and was not known ever to have started practice.
But people did not know about Dr. Skull...
It was as Dr. Skull, the kindly philanthropic little East Side surgeon, that Jeffrey Fairchild had been able to fight more battles for humanity than confining his skill solely to the struggle against disease. He had been born with a love of adventure and a genius for compassion, and inevitably he had allied himself against those who have no compassion, and who prey upon the defenseless and helpless. In the slums, breeding--place of crime, Dr. Skull had been the unyielding adversary of all criminals.
No Park Avenue surgeon could have done what Dr. Skull had done, known what Dr. Skull knew. They came to him in the slums, the victims of poverty and ignorance and fear, and they trusted him to heal more than their bodies. For behind Dr. Skull himself, unknown even to his patients, there was the almost phantom figure of the Skull Killer, known only by the corpses he left behind him.
It was typical of Dr. Skull that he should have tried to find a reason for that unholy glint of purple madness in the eyes of Henry Purvins when he first began to treat the man's wife. Another doctor would have either disregarded it entirely, or considered it a phenomenon he had not been called upon to delve.
He'd labored through months and years of untiring research, research that was also adventure--and then, in the half-factual, half-superstitious chronicles of forgotten medieval savants, Dr. Skull had found the reference he sought.
He had been excited, moved--and at the same time wondered if he were allowing his credulity to be conditioned by the inevitable superstitions of the patients with whom he worked. He remembered the article he had actually written, intending it for the American Medical Journal, and which he had then decided not to send, as too fantastic for men of science to accept:
During every great social catastrophe in ancient history, purple eyes have made their appearance as eternal harbingers of destruction. They have been either the cause or effect of terror among a people already ravaged by war or pestilence, inducing an unaccountable mass hysteria, often leading to wholesale atrocities.
This mass hysteria reduced the population in some cases as high as seventy percent in certain districts of Central Europe, after barbaric invasions, and ruined entire sections of civilized society. By dint of incredible and impoverishing taxes, terrorized peoples have sometimes bought off self-claimed leaders of the purple eyes, who many insist to have been the same person, living through centuries.
Superstition? Certainly. And yet, there was the undeniable fact of those purple eyes in modern, up-to-date New York. But whereas the medieval leaders of the purple-eyed ones had been able to operate openly in a superstitious civilization separated by the thinnest of veneers from chaos, their modern counterpart would be driven to operate through the weak-minded and credulous. He would be forced to use some startling and fear invoking disguise...
The Octopus! Mrs. Purvins, who had been marked for a sentence worse than death, had babbled its name...Again Jeffrey Fairchild remembered Borden's watch-fob of the purple-eyed octopus. Did Borden know its implications, or was he an unwitting tool in a more sinister hand, as Henry Purvins undoubtedly had been?
Jeffrey trembled slightly, as he rested in the coolness of his basement chamber, which was the terminus of an abandoned water main reaching far under the city's streets. He came to his feet, steadied himself, and moved deeper into the subterranean passage. From a wall niche, he took a concealed gun, to replace the weapon he had lost in the scuffle upstairs, and thus armed, re-entered the basement of the Mid-City Hospital.
Through the shadows he skulked, a pale moving figure in the darkness, toward a little white-washed door. For a moment, he listened behind it, and then Jeffrey Fairchild slipped into the cool sterile-smelling interior of the hospital morgue.
One by one, he drew the sheets from cold white faces, with some innate reverence in him asking forgiveness of the helpless dead for this intrusion. One by one, among those silent speechless people who had passed beyond earthly help or harm, he sought the man he wanted--the man he himself had killed.
Jeffrey stared with growing concentration into the wide eyes of Henry Purvins' corpse, and his mouth went grim. Was his imagination running riot, or did he actually see even in the darkness, those inhuman jewel-like eyes glowing purple...? No; someone had been behind that series of concerted and unrelated incidents which he had just experienced, a series too concerted not to be directed by some purposeful malevolent agency. In life, Henry Purvins had been the tool of the most malignant personality ever spewed out of hell, and in death, the devil would claim his own!
There was just a chance--more than a chance--that the evidence he needed was here, in the form of Purvins' body, with those ghastly, purplish luminescent eyes...Did it point to a hospital whose staff would not bear investigation, to someone unknown who must, for some evil purpose, soon commune with this body?
He uncovered the corpse, placed it on another stretcher. Then he took its place, and pulled the sheet over him. Quiet as the dead he lay, and the only sound in that half-way station to the tomb was his own whispered breath.
OLD ANGUS BURKE, the morgue-keeper of the hospital, didn't like the tone they'd used when they brought down the latest corpse.
"Shot?" grunted Angus. "Now that's the damndest yet! You've brought me some funny stiffs lately, lads, but for a man to die of hot lead in a hospital...!"
"You're not being paid for your opinions," the young interne had answered tartly, and old Angus didn't like that. He'd been handling stiffs before that whipper-snapper was born, and he knew how people died in a hospital, and how they didn't.
They didn't die, for instance, of diabetes and lockjaw at the same time. Not in a proper hospital, that is. Maybe in some beleaguered army ward where the enemy had cut off surgical supplies--but even in war, old Angus remembered, you didn't get much blood-poisoning.
He thought uneasily of the sort of cases they'd been bringing down there recently. Tetanus, elephantiasis, and other things he couldn't even name, and didn't like to think about--sure, they'd been bringing him mighty strange stiffs lately!
And now this one, with a bullet between the eyes...The doctors must be crazy, he thought; like as if they didn't know their business, and the poor folks who trust 'em might better have saved their money and die peaceful.
Well, he was glad to know about it, old Angus thought, as he played double solitaire against himself in his cubby-hole of an office. He'd been thinking of asking one of the doctors for something for his rheumatism. He wouldn't now, no-sirree! Except he'd been sure of that nice old Dr. Skull. A real gentleman, he was, who didn't treat a man any different because he kept dead stiffs instead of dying ones.
But it was Dr. Skull, so they said, who'd made the latest stiff, the oddest one of all. Shot him dead, they said. Old Angus shook his head. A mighty peculiar business, and he didn't like any of it. Shouldn't be surprised if they all lost their jobs of it, either...
"Can't you hear anything?"
Old Angus stood up, looking at his visitors, two of them, dressed in civilian clothes. "I ain't so deaf that you have to yell loud enough to wake these poor peaceful dead folks down here," he said with asperity. And he added, "I'm the keeper here. I suppose you're looking for that Purvins fellow?"
One of the men nodded. "I'm his brother. Where is he?"
A pretty strange sort of a brother, old Angus thought. Usually folks came down here with their eyes red and sniffling, not caring what you said to them...It's the world these days, he considered, as he led the unfeeling brother and his companion into the morgue itself.
Old Angus hobbled up to the latest stiff, and lifted the sheet from its face...
And then the corpse yelled at him, "Duck, they'll kill you!" And a bullet sang above the old man's head!
He hadn't really ducked, it had been more like his knees gave way. And then, in the darkness, the corpse and his brother started firing at one another...
Angus tried to whine for help, but nothing audible was coming out of his windpipe.
Like nothing dead, the stiff was letting them have it with the revolver...
Old Angus shut his eyes, and his brain busied itself with a prayer.
When the shots stopped, he peered dazedly about. The two visitors were dead, and the corpse was doing something to their faces.
"A-aah," managed old Angus.
The corpse glanced at him briefly, and then it darted out of the room.
Minutes later, the old man looked at his visitors. Red and plain on their foreheads, the corpse had branded the mark of a human skull!
Later, when he told the newspapermen about it, old Angus realized that he had been a hero.
"So that was the Skull Killer?" he mused aloud. "Him as always leaves his mark, and never gets caught?"
"That's right, Mr. Burke," said the reporter. "You're the only man alive who's ever seen him make a kill. It's a wonder you're here to tell the tale. If you're not afraid--and I don't think you're the type of man who scares easy, Mr. Burke--suppose you try to tell us what you noticed about him. It would be a great help to the police, and a big story for us."
Old Angus peered importantly at the reporter. No, he wasn't afraid. He leaned over close. "They brought him down here dead," whispered old Angus solemnly. "One o' my regular stiffs, with a bullet between the eyes. And mister, they don't come deader than that!"
NEWSPAPERS didn't print it quite as old Angus gave it to them. They didn't swallow that bullet between the eyes, although they did ask if the Skull Killer were vulnerable at all.
For six years, that phantom image had preyed on the population of New York's underworld, sporadically and without detection. No one had ever seen him, but everyone had seen pictures, on the front pages, of the corpses he left in various parts of the city, with that red brand burned into their foreheads as if by acid.
His motive? The newspapers guessed him to be some lone fanatic, crusading against crime. Or, as one newspaper guessed, he might be a higher-up in the Police Department, for he knew so much about criminals and where to find them. He must be a gangster, said another, for it's the gangsters who kill their own kind. A prominent psychologist, when interviewed, explained technically and at great length, that a killer who left his mark was an incurable exhibitionist. He had probably had a thwarted childhood, said the prominent psychologist, quoting effectively from Freud and Jung.
In the end, people knew as much about the Skull Killer as they had known before, which was nothing. There was a momentary connection between the fact that a certain Dr. Skull had left the third floor of the Mid-City Hospital under hurried circumstances, only twenty minutes before the Skull Killer appeared in its basement.
But old Angus Burke, whose opinion had to be respected, since there was no one to contradict him, swore that the Skull Killer was a young man, a good thirty years younger than Dr. Skull, whom old Angus would have known if he'd met him in hell. This seemed to tally with the facts, for it was ridiculous to suspect an old man who has spent his life in study and medical practice, of murdering the toughest gangsters in the city single-handed, over a period of six years.
CAROL ENDICOTT, standing beside an old-fashioned roll-top desk in the clean and shabby doctor's office, stared wide-eyed at a slip of paper in her hand. For the second time she read the neatly typed words:
My Dear Dr. Skull:
I have followed with the greatest interest your efforts in behalf of the unfortunate Mrs. Purvins, whose remarkable story regarding my existence received so little credence on the part of the authorities.
Fisherman's luck! I find I am to be congratulated on the size of my catch! When I set poor Mrs. Purvins out as bait for an old East Side medico, I had no idea that I should shortly be playing a most extraordinary young man on the end of my line.
By the time you receive this note, you will have met--and found out how you may cooperate with The Octopus.
Carol's slim fingers sought out and rested on the bulky thing in the pocket of her neatly starched nurse's uniform, and she frowned almost imperceptibly. The note had arrived in an unsealed and unstamped envelope in the doctor's morning mail, and she had neither been able to reach the doctor--who had an important appointment at the Mid-City Hospital in connection with the Mrs. Purvins whom the note mentioned--nor had she been able to figure out the meaning of the missive. So she had spent the past half hour oiling and cleaning the old revolver which her father had used twenty years ago in France.
Consequently, at this moment, there was about Carol Endicott, little of the immaculate nurse whom Dr. Skull's patients were accustomed to seeing. Her white uniform had grease smudges on it, and a large smudge bridged her freckled, pert little nose, while there was a rather unprofessional competence about her movements. She was again the independent and rather harassed New York slum girl, whom Jeffrey Fairchild had persuaded to trust the old East Side doctor in order that she might have a home, decency and security.
Decency had always been one of Carol's attributes, though often, in the old days, she had had to fight for it. Young, tall, with a clear ivory skin and lustrous dark hair that carried in it a reddish glint, she had attracted considerable attention in the tenement district where she lived. Personal danger wasn't exactly a new thing to her. This particular type of danger, however, was.
She shivered a little, remembering Mrs. Purvins as she had looked when the doctor had first interested himself in her case, shortly after they'd found her unconscious near the East River, mumbling incoherently about "the octopus." She shivered, and took a slightly firmer grip on the butt of the old revolver. She didn't know whether she could actualy fire it, or what would happen if she tried, but its comfort was good.
The ringing of the telephone almost made her jump. Then, wiping her hands on her skirt, thereby adding a few more spots to it, she picked up the phone.
"Dr. Skull's office," she said.
"Board of Health calling. This is a routine call. Is the doctor in?"
"I'm his nurse. I'll take a message."
"Very well. We're warning all doctors not to hospitalize their patients unless it's absolutely necessary, until further notice. We're checking all hospitals, doing the best we can. Thank you."
"What!" she exclaimed. "Say, what's been--" Then she realized that she was talking into a dead phone, and hung up.
This was serious, Carol thought. She couldn't tie things together, but this was the second extraordinary telephone call she had received that morning, after discovering the crank letter.
Dr. Steele had called, asking if Skull couldn't join him at once in a consultation...and Steele had been most unprofessionally vague about details. Then a little Italian boy, one of the doctor's former patients, had run in a short while ago, to say his father was looking for the doctor, and the doctor had better watch out.
She'd tried calling the Mid-City Hospital then, but the hospital authorities had been most uncooperative about disturbing the doctor, and she hadn't even been able to put her message through.
And now this warning about hospitals. Dr. Skull had another patient at the Mid-City, besides Mrs. Purvins--one Robert Fairchild. Robert Fairchild, the crippled eighteen-year-old, who idolized the old doctor so that he had become a resident patient.
Robert had been taken to the Mid-City a few weeks ago for another of a series of operations through which the doctor eventually hoped to cure the boy, and lift him from the wheelchair, to which he now seemed condemned for life.
Carol decided to try the Mid-City again, and see if she could talk to Robert...Not that anything bad would happen to Robert--about whom too many people worried already. There was Dr. Skull, for one, who treated him like a son. And there was Jeffrey Fairchild, Robert's brother, with whom, oddly enough, Robert couldn't get along at all...
Carol smiled a little grimly when she thought of the relationship between the two brothers.
It was Jeffrey, whom she privately considered worth a half-a-dozen Roberts, who made all the overtures, and it was Robert who rejected them--the spoiled, ungrateful brat!
SHE dialed Mid-City Hospital again, and got the switchboard girl.
"Private Pavilion," she said, and tried to light a cigarette during the ensuing pause. She had to laugh at herself, she was so nervous. Three matches, and none of them took!
"Mr. Robert Fairchild," she demanded, when they gave her the floor phone.
"Who's calling, please?"
"I'm his nurse. This is Dr. Skull's office."
"Oh--is the doctor there?" the voice inquired.
"No," said Carol. "He should be at the hospital. If you could find him for me, it's impor--"
But a definite click at the other end of the wire told her that the connection had been killed. And the operator informed her, "Your party hung up, miss."
Carol's cheeks flushed, and then went white again. She was as angry as she had ever been in her life almost angry enough to forget what she had tried so very hard to remember lately, namely, that she was a lady.
It was Jeffrey Fairchild who had first impressed that idea upon her, when he had gotten Dr. Skull to give her her present job, and it was for the sake of Jeffrey that she nearly forgot it now. If anything were to happen to Robert Fairchild, it would break Jeffrey's heart...and Jeffrey, at one point in her life, had been her very real saviour.
The tough look that came over Carol's piquantly lovely features had nothing lady-like about it. Rather, it reflected a portion of her life she had nearly forgotten--her upbringing in a rough-and-ready slum neighborhood, and the battle she had waged continually not only for respectability among the worst elements of humanity, but for her very survival.
She lifted the phone receiver again, and dialed Jeffrey Fairchild's Park Avenue apartment. While she waited, her fingers again sought the reassuring bulge of the ancient revolver in her pocket.
There was no answer.
Slowly Carol Endicott replaced the receiver. A stony determination spread over her face as she turned toward the closet for her coat. If the hospital authorities chose to be snooty about giving her information about Robert Fairchild, she'd find a means of getting it out of them!
It was at this point that the door opened, and a perfectly strange voice told her to stand right where she was.
HER unexpected visitor's command to Carol carried farther than Dr. Skull's office. In a small chamber hidden behind a basement wall in the same building, a tall young man was in the act of changing from a blood-stained surgeon's uniform into a custom-made tweed suit. He put his ear to a wall amplifier as the stranger's command snapped out to Carol Endicott.
Jeffrey Fairchild, after his battle in the morgue of the Mid-City Hospital, had again taken his secret exit from the hospital basement. From there, he had proceeded through a maze of abandoned gas and water mains which peppered the earth under New York's streets. Relics of another era, these passages had been forgotten by citizens and authorities alike. Jeffrey had come upon them accidentally as a young boy, and later they had suggested to him the feasibility of his double life.
The terminals of that underground maze had been Jeffrey's chief reason for the location of Dr. Skull's office, of his own apartment, and even of the site he had chosen for the Mid-City Hospital.
The chamber where he was now dressing had been furnished with a cot, a chair, and a bureau. Its wall amplifier enabled him to keep posted on events in the office above, and its location made it a convenient dressing-room for exchanges of personality between Dr. Skull and Jeffrey Fairchild.
"What do you want?" he heard Carol demand.
There was a sinister purring note in the reply. "We're waiting for the doctor--got a little present for him. O.K., boys, bring in the crate."
Shuffling sounds, the scrape of wood across the floor--and then staccato little footsteps.
"You stay right here, sister!" snapped the intruder's voice. "You're not going anywhere till the doctor comes--this is a surprise party!"
As Jeffrey finished dressing, into the silence above broke the screech of metal, the scream of the girl. Carol, the innocent gambit in a desperate battle whose stakes Jeffrey could only guess, was alone up there with the spawn of hell...
Swiftly Jeffrey moved through the coal-bin door, took the cellar staircase three steps at a time, and emerged through the rear door to Dr. Skull's office, his gun drawn.
A startled oath broke from a man's lips, and the girl cried out defiantly. Jeffrey saw the flare of explosive brilliance before he heard the shot...and then Carol, entrenched behind the roll-top desk, swayed dizzily. Her bloody hand unclenched and dropped, and the shattered remnants of the revolver she had been holding fell to the floor.
Somehow that gun had exploded in her grasp at her first attempt to use it!
Jeffrey's bullet snarled just as one man reached the unconscious girl. The startled intruder spun to his knees, and as Jeffrey leaped into the room, he realized that he had drawn fire from two hostile guns.
He lunged forward as lead whined past his cheek, and let them have it again. Two men were sprawled on the floor, and the third was retreating. Agonizingly, Jeffrey shifted his bandaged shoulder to avoid a shot and fired half-blindly in the same gesture.
The third man had fled.
And then they crawled out of the open wooden crate which Jeffrey had barely noticed on Dr. Skull's floor. With a sick sense of fatality, Jeffrey realized that he could not fire upon those obscenely crawling, even if they killed him. His physician's instinct, outraged and muted by the ghastly sight, still was strong enough to make him lower the smoking weapon in his hand.
ONCE they had been a man and a woman. Jeffrey recognized their greyish flannel bathrobes as the regulation equipment in the city's largest charity ward. But the bodies under those bathrobes, spindly as matches in the bony structure, hideously swollen and protruding at every joint, were like no patients Jeffrey had seen in that hospital or any other.
The man's shoulder-joints were bulbous as huge gourds on the frail vine-like torso, and the woman's pelvic girdle was flattened wide till she seemed to be sitting on a portable chair even as she moved painfully toward him.
And their faces! The wide eyes stared, hideous with hatred and pain, from their shrunken mummy sockets. The lower jaws were huge, contrasting inhumanly with the shrunken craniums, like platters supporting a pointed pudding.
So this was the surprise party!
Slowly, deliberately, the creatures were advancing on him...These ghastly abortions, obviously abducted from hospital wards, would have been further damning evidence against Dr. Skull--if there had been anything left of Dr. Skull when his enemies were through with him.
"What do you want of me?" Jeffrey asked softly. His nerves were stinging with pain and shock, but he stood erect and untrembling. "Can I help you?"
The man-thing's monstrous lower jaw moved gigantically, and a hoarse, unearthly laugh with no joy in it ripped from the match-stick chest.
"There--is no--help," he stated in harsh, deliberate gutturals, as though speech had become difficult. "If you're--a doctor, I want to--kill you."
The woman-thing started to laugh in high, tinny laughter. Maybe the damned laugh that way in hell, Jeffrey thought feverishly. But this wasn't hell! This was New York, civilization...
"I am a doctor, of sorts," he admitted to the monstrous creatures. "And I don't want to hurt you. As you see, I have a gun. I can defend myself, but hope that won't be necessary. I want you to trust me!"
He didn't finish, for at that moment, the two foul distortions of human shape leaped upon him. Their huge hams of hands covered his throat, his face, pinned his arms to his sides...unutterable repulsion rose in him, as he smelled the faint but undeniable tinge of putrescence in that sick flesh...
He twisted his body at the waist, used his upper torso as a club, and then he was free. A guttural howl thudded against his ear-drums, and then a powerful lower jaw sank into his arm. With both hands, Jeffrey seized the man-thing's throat, squeezed till the eyes popped and the jaw loosened.
The woman-thing fell to her knees beside the sprawled figure of her mate, and from her round bulbous eyes a few tears squeezed out.
"He's not dead," Jeffrey gasped. "He--won't die. You two...I've got to--help you."
THE man's body was clumsy, but no heavier than any other body. As Jeffrey dragged it haltingly down into his cellar, the woman followed. He noticed that she stopped for something which had been in the crate, wondered if it were some kind of weapon.
It was only when he had stretched the man-thing on his cot in the underground chamber behind the coal-bin that the woman stretched out her hand. In that vast swollen palm, there was an ordinary glazed electric bulb.
"Light," said the woman. "Give us light, or--we die."
Jeffrey frowned at the pleading, half-beaten quality in that harsh painful voice. He removed his own bulb from the wall socket, and inserted the bulb she gave him.
Instantly, the subterranean room was flooded with a pale but glaring indigo radiance that hurt Jeffrey's eyes. Ultraviolet! Why, what...?
"Go!" commanded the monstrous woman. "It will hurt you; we need it. We need it because doctors have...done this to us..."
The glare was dizzying. It hurt his skin, tickled a vibrant heat into his bones. On the cot, the man-thing began to stir.
"There's a box of package groceries on the shelf," Jeffrey said, "and water in the tap there. Here--" he made some adjustments in his wall amplifier, transforming it into what it had been originally, a radio loud speaker, "if you turn on that switch, you'll have a radio. I'll be back later, with books, cooked food--"
The woman nodded again. Her gnarled flattened body might have been twenty years old or a hundred, but it seemed now as ancient as human tragedy itself. "Go," she said again.
The ultraviolet light was beginning to break his skin. Jeffrey left them there and cautiously locked the door from the outside.
What had they been, what ghoulish distortion of the scientific mind had made them monsters?
The question seared Jeffrey's brain, blazed a new scar of hatred across it like the hot blade of a branding-knife. There was a passion in him for health and normalcy, and he had discerned the ghost of those things in that ungodly pair.
Their vengeful attack was understandable.
Beyond that murderous rage, their minds seemed unimpaired. He thought again of the woman-thing's tears when she thought her mate was dead, and of the way she had followed him...
Would he really be able to help them, as he passionately hoped to do? He had not helped Mrs. Purvins--so far.
Suddenly the sick certainty dawned on Jeffrey that there would be more cases, and more still, until the very name of doctors and healing medicine were anathemas to an outraged humanity!
SHORTLY, he guessed, there would be more intruders in the office of Dr. Skull. They would be men with badges from the police and health departments, who had been informed that two medical monsters, additional damning proof of malpractice, were to be found in Dr. Skull's office.
He uttered a fervent inward prayer of thanks for that hidden chamber where the two monstrosities might be safe until he found out what had deformed them. In that discovery lay his only chance of helping them.
He stopped upstairs, dragged the unconscious Carol to a couch, and bathed her blasted hand with antiseptic. That right hand would be useless for weeks, but no other harm had been done.
"Good little soldier!" he whispered.
The homeless girl Jeffrey had befriended when she had no one else to turn to, did not hear him. But her strong slender body seemed to relax, as though she knew a friend was near...And Jeff guessed that this wouldn't be the last time he got Carol out of a tight spot, just as it wasn't the first.
He stared briefly at the two dead faces on Dr. Skull's office floor, faces in which the sightless eyes glowed like purple grave-lights! That was the characteristic of those who had given their souls to a devil's keeping, but for what reward, Jeffrey did not know.
He bent down, and with a rubber stamp whose handle was a vial containing acid, he burned the Mark of the Skull on the two cold brows. Contrary to erudite psychological opinion, that brand was no mere braggart gesture. In Jeffrey's ceaseless war on evil, he had found that the brand gave him a definite authority over his enemy. Sometimes indeed, it acted as a deterrent, for those marked corpses were proof to the living that the Skull Killer was alive and active...
His hands moved swiftly after that, exploring the clothing of the two, in an effort to find some mark of identification. In the breast pocket of one he found a sealed envelope--and its contents, as he eagerly scanned them, caused him to forget everything but his immediate mission.
Now, with the ghastly knowledge which a brief glimpse at the dead man's papers had given him, he wondered if he would be in time. One thing was sure--he had to leave Carol, and surmised that the next intruders in his office wouldn't harm her. As a police siren sounded outside, he raced into the street and hailed a taxi.
IT WAS night, a cold starry November night, with Orion making a clear pale pattern above Manhattan, as it had done for the past five thousand Novembers. Dark stone buildings squatted or soared in contemplative peace above the small streets. But the Mid-City Hospital--that modern medical colossus--seemed no part of the pattern, seemed to be breaking out of the background in an ominous haze of color.
Dim but unmistakable in the darkness, the hospital walls glowed like a new earthbound star. Nor were they the color of stars--they were purple!
He had seen that color in human eyes...He had seen it half an hour ago in the incredible ultraviolet life-ray of two who were heirs to hell. It was the color of damnation--and ironically now the color of the building dedicated to the relief of human suffering!
Robert was in that building--Robert, who was the point and meaning of his brother Jeff's existence...
As the cab slowed to a snail's pace then stopped amid a blare of horns and carts of doormen in the Monday night theatre traffic, Jeffrey handed his driver a dollar bill, and proceeded on foot.
If he could make it in time! But in time for what?
He didn't know, couldn't know yet, in just what fashion hell would break loose in the Mid-City Hospital--whether it would take seconds or hours before horror burst like shrapnel upon the thousand helpless inmates. Whether, in some vile secret part of that magnificent edifice, it had not already happened...
A nurse nodded to him pleasantly at the desk, and he brushed past hurriedly into an elevator, and was soon in the eighth floor pavilion where Robert had a private suite.
The boy was sitting in his wheelchair, reading a book of sonnets. One lamp cast its glow on the chiseled beauty of the boy's dark head... there was something almost unearthly in the boy's sculptured profile, Jeffrey thought with a sharp pang of solicitude.
He himself was rough-hewn, fit for the hard eventualities of life, but Robert wasn't. A fierce tenderness welled in the big man for the crippled boy, a tenderness that played through his first half-humorous phrase.
"It's moving-day, Robert. I've come to take you home."
"Are you crazy?" the boy asked petulantly. It was his whole greeting. "If you think I'm just playing sick, I might tell you that Dr. Skull said--"
"I don't give a damn!" Jeffrey told him, and then he lifted the boy bodily from his wheelchair. Robert gasped, shut his eyes, and then relaxed in his brother's arms. The book fell from his grasp, and Jeffrey noted its title hastily, planning in some corner of his mind to replace it later.
He ran into the corridor, and with that living burden clutched against his chest, began a rapid round of the rooms.
"If you can walk or crawl or move in any way at all," he shouted to one startled patient after another, "get out of this place! It's no spot for the sick or the well!"
Screams echoed behind him, as patients and nurses alike recognized in this enraged young man the chief patron of the hospital. The corridors were becoming a chaos with those who tried to flee, and others who tried to hold them back. And a few times, Jeffrey intervened to help some frantic refugee get clear passage to freedom...
"Jeffrey Fairchild, are you insane?" There was excitement and anger on the dignified professional face before him, as the man in white who had appeared in the corridor excitedly waving his arms. "I've always liked you, but you've gone too far this time..."
Jeffrey swept Dr. Borden, staff director of the hospital, aside with one gesture of his left arm, and continued down the corridor, yelling commands for exodus.
"Stop that maniac!" he heard Borden shriek behind him, and then three husky orderlies were trying to wrest Robert from him...
It was then that the queer crackling began to echo ominously through every part of the building's structure. For a second Jeffrey's heart went acrobatic...and then the smell came!
It made him gasp. It was a little like acid, but stronger, a little like smoke, but more throttling, and as yet invisible. The crackling sound grew like the laugh of a giant devil.
An orderly shrieked, as he ran headlong from the man he was supposed to detain. "The X-ray films! My God, the X-ray room's on fire. That means poison gas!"
Jeffrey didn't remember the details later, but he would hold all through his life the hectic impressions of that roaring chaos...How he carried Robert to willing helpers in the air outside, and then plunged back into the building.
How heavy the old woman was, when she fainted on her bed, and he had to drag her to safety because everyone else had forgotten her. How the young man went berserk, using the plaster cast on his arm for a club, and had to be knocked out before Jeff could save him. And always the dreadful, suffocating smell grew heavier, and the enormous crackling laugh of the burning walls more taunting and hateful. Through it all, his brain screamed in pain and desperation for vengeance on the conscious agent who had caused all this...
Everywhere, now, firemen were dragging, wheeling and carrying, the shrieking patients to safety. The lower floors had to be vacated first, for that was where the deadly fumes were heaviest.
Jeffrey had nowhere seen Mrs. Purvins, who was reported under observation at the hospital.
He choked his way up a staircase at last, passing white figures of the thickening, swirling, deadly mist. Had she already been taken from the hospital? Suddenly he found himself in a corridor where the trend was downward, downward, with a frantic stream of refugees making their tortured way toward the exit and into the blessed air of night.
He lurched against the door of the psychopathic ward where he guessed the rescuers would arrive last. Here, most likely, they had sent Mrs. Purvins.
And then he broke into inferno...
All who were left were strapped to their cots, or confined in straitjackets. The others must have fled. A howling like the howling of purgatory clangored with the wall-crackling. Crazed, twisted shapes wormed across the hot floor, humping in torture toward escape, bound as they were...
There was fury in Jeff's heart as he freed them, working over those bonds with a superhuman reserve of strength, allowing the maddened human things to scamper for their lives.
He found one cold and shapeless form on a far cot, knew it for Mrs. Purvins. Was she dead, then? He didn't know, couldn't tell, for there was no heart-beat to guide him. He slung the sloshing mass of flesh over his shoulder, and fought through the smoke to freedom.
Fury rose hotly in his heart, and death seemed to clot his lungs...He was blind, drowning in a sea of white acrid smoke, but he clung tenaciously to that burden in his arms.
Then life was coming back to his tortured body, and somewhere above him the stars were glowing serenely. He felt the burden lifted from his arms, heard men's voices. Someone was holding cool water to his mouth.
He saw--when he could be sure of what he was seeing--that he was on the veranda outside the hospital, and that the men about him wore black and red helmets of the fire department. Suddenly, from the bowels of the doomed building, Jeffrey heard a woman scream in mortal terror.
Maybe the others heard it--maybe they could persuade themselves of the futility of rescue. Jeffrey didn't stop to argue. But before any one could stop him, he burst back into the hot white hell of fire and radium fumes that had been the Mid-City Hospital...
WHEN Carol opened her eyes, the office was dark. She touched a hand to her forehead and felt the cloth.
Her hand--someone had bandaged her hand! She remembered now, how her father's gun had exploded in her palm. Poor old Pop! He'd come back from over there with an army gun and a lot of faith in nothing at all. Other men gave their lives, and Pop had given his soul...She might have known he'd never leave her anything useful!
Those men who had been waiting for Dr. Skull--had they gone? She stumbled toward the wall switch, still puzzled by that big salt-smelling bandage, thinking that possibly Dr. Skull had come after all...
Carol cried aloud, a little cry of fear that died in her throat. Two men--she recognized them as the intruders--were sprawled on the floor. Gingerly, she looked at them more closely, afraid to wake them to further activity. But there was no cause for such fear. They were completely dead.
And on the foreheads of each, was the Mark of the Skull. The Skull Killer! That half-legendary figure whom Carol, and many other New Yorkers, had half-believed a fabrication of the newspapers...He had been here, he had killed her attackers. And it must have been he who had bandaged her hand!
She leaned against the wall, trying to puzzle out what had just happened to her. There were things in herself that were new to her. There was this desperate, uneasy foreboding, that was somehow worse than actual fear...And then she remembered Robert!
That was where she should have gone, hours ago. She had been on her way to the hospital when those men...
Carol struggled into her coat, ran out into the street. A policeman looked at her idly, and she had the fleeting thought that this was no moment to report a double killing. She hadn't the time. Later, perhaps...
The streets were crowded with people, coming home from work, going to the movies, laughing and talking and getting last-minute purchases for dinner, but Carol's nerves were raw and angry with that queer unease. She wanted to warn all the people, tell them it was no good going to the movies or taking life calmly, while the forces of some cryptic hurricane gathered over them, ready to bring its tragic destruction to blight their lives.
What would she find in the hospital, what would it mean to her and to all the cheerfully noisy people about her? She couldn't, no matter how hard she tried, assure herself that it would be all right, that the hospital would tower at it had always done over central Manhattan, with every polite interne ready to explain that visiting hours were almost over, but if she really wanted to drop in...No, it wasn't going to be like that!
She knew it three blocks away, knew it from the sudden change in tempo of the crowd about her, from the loud wail of hook-and-ladder sirens.
The hospital was on fire!
UNIFORMED men were beginning to throw a cordon about the flaming pile of stone as she fought her way through the thick crowd. She heard shouts, screams...And through it all ran the half-meaningless phrase, "It's the X-ray films! They haven't a chance!"
Fires don't smell like this she thought, with that queer, cold tension in her tightening to a certainty. Something unearthly, some thing devastating as an earthquake, had happened to Robert, and to all the other people in there!
It came to her, then, like a bolt from hell. Suppose that Jeffrey were in there with Robert! The thought sent her whirling lithely through the press of people right to the half-formed cordon of fire-fighters. Her coat was ripped off and lost in the crowd as she pressed closer. The hot flames made a blazing summer out of that November night, poisoning the pure air with soaring smoke.
Behind that screen of smoke, she managed to slip into the doomed building.
Heat and gas rolled like ocean waves through her body...She could hardly bear it, she would die here, and no one would know what had happened to her!
Figures brushed past her in the mist, and she could not identify them. She merely guessed that they were refugee and human...She would never find Jeffrey or Robert!
Out...She must get out, into the clean air...
Carol stumbled forward through the roaring smoke, arms outstretched before her. She was nearly there, she could see the vague outline of an exit ahead of her.
Someone caught her waist and she murmured faintly, "Take me--out of here..." Then she relaxed simply into strong masculine arms, her swaying body grateful for that support.
The smoke was getting worse, she thought dully; it must be all over the city by now. And then she realized with sharp fright that she was being carried away from the exit--back into the burning heart of the building!
"It's the wrong way!" she screamed at the man who held her. "We'll die if you don't--"
A strangely hollow laugh cut short her protest. She looked at the man who carried her, and even in that heat, she felt a quick, hideous chill. For it wasn't a human face at all! It was a--a--gargoyle...And now there were other gargoyles, scampering toward them, returning to sport in the hell they had created.
She had not thought herself capable of the mighty effort which pulled her loose from the thing that held her...but she was on her own legs again, running like a hunted thing for freedom...
They circled off her escape, all of them, devil-faced creatures of poisoned smoke, and then they were carrying her back with them, into unimaginable torment.
THEY were not gargoyles, Carol realized; they were men in gas masks. She saw that as soon as they passed the door marked, "X-Ray Room. Keep Out."
Here the smoke had cleared, but the heat was unbearable, and that ghastly smell was stronger than it had been outside.
"Everything here's burned itself out," one of the masked men remarked tersely. "That was quick."
Carol looked about wildly at the blackened interior. Strips of charred wood clung to the twisted steel frame-work. She could only guess at the immense heat which had twisted that steel. Her strength, she felt was growing less. And meanwhile, the men's voices echoed in her ears, like voices heard in a dream.
"The girl's going to die soon," she heard one of her captors say. "This air must be terrific. Are we leaving her?" As he spoke, Carol felt the hold on her relaxed. She sagged to the floor, shrieked as her skin blistered at the contact.
One of the figures picked her up, held her at arm's length--and then hot air seared her lungs as she gasped it in and began to scream--but regularly, repeatedly. An evil staring mask wavered before her eyes, seemed to grow larger and more hideous, just as the body beneath it seemed to swell. A million tearing pains shot through her tortured flesh, seeming to rend it asunder, and she knew that not one but four arms encircled her, arms that held her not by a grip, but by powerful suction.
The Octopus! It seemed to her as though a sudden silence had fallen in the room, a silence through which a meaning clearer than words floated into her consciousness.
"The Skull's nurse," it seemed to say. "She'll be a good object lesson by the time he finds her!"
Into the dim haze of her consciousness came the memory of the morning, and of the arrival of the threatening missive. This monster was human, then; and the thought revived some of her ebbing courage. She tried feebly to struggle.
But there was no strength in Carol anywhere, save in her voice, and even her shrieks were growing fainter...
SHE had not quite lost consciousness--she insisted later--but she could not remember how she came to be upright and on her feet again, with the blood streaming dizzily through her veins, and the various suction cups on her skin releasing their hold. She was leaning against the wall, also against someone, and the fiery little room was loud with shouts.
Fearfully, she turned her head. Jeffrey Fairchild had found her. How, or when--that didn't matter. She realized that all the laughing gargoyles had lost their masks excepting one who had last held her. There was a smoking gun in Jeff's hand. He was raising the gun and taking point-blank aim at the remaining devil--the Octopus.
Simultaneously with Jeff's pulling the trigger, she saw one of those long green arms snake out and fasten around his wrist, and she thought she could hear the audible click as the gun-hammer hit on a spent cartridge. Jeff seemed suddenly torn from her side, but then she realized that he had hit the monster with a flying tackle that carried them both across the room.
They squirmed and rolled in a tangle of flying limbs, with those long green arms encircling Jeff. Jeff had switched his gun into his left hand which was still free, and with it he kept beading the monster back, hitting it in the face, while he had managed to get his right hand near his side in spite of the gripping scaly tentacle.
She saw his fingers flick briefly into the side pocket of his jacket, and come out holding something that glistened in the dim light of the smoke-filled room. He swung his fist, holding the shining object toward the side of the monster's head, but the other eluded him by throwing himself backward and releasing Jeff altogether.
The monster rolled over into a corner, one of the long arms reached far back and threw something, and suddenly the room was dark, filled with acrid, lung-searing gas.
She coughed, struggled for breath with which to scream, and then she felt Jeff's arms around her again, lifting her up, carrying her outside.
She tried to ask him about it, when at last they were outside; what was it that had made the monster suddenly release him and act as if he were afraid? But Jeff wasn't listening. He wrapped his own torn coat around her, and then she was in a taxi with Jeff and Robert. She was growing ill, for that smell seemed to linger on every square inch of her body...
Jeff seemed to know about the poison that seemed to be eating into her skin. In his own apartment, he sponged her aching body with warm water and some kind of liniment.
"Sorry to make you play nursemaid," she smiled faintly.
He didn't answer, merely pulled the cool sheet over her, and reached for her wounded hand. Carefully, he began to wind a new bandage about it.
"Where's Dr. Skull?" she asked. "There were some men, and a letter--from that thing..."
She told him about the letter that had come in the doctor's mail, and Jeff listened, quietly.
"I think Dr. Skull will take care of himself," Jeffrey said then. "You try to sleep. And--better leave guns alone!"
She writhed into some kind of comfort in the cool darkness. How had Jeffrey known that her hand had been hurt by the explosion of an old revolver? Did it look that bad?
She fell asleep in the middle of plans for securing an up-to-date, non-burstable, conveniently concealable police revolver. It was all very well to be a lady in normal times--but when armed intruders entered your place of business, and when you were likely to meet an octopus--in a place several degrees hotter than hades...well, even a lady might be pardoned for packing her own protection!
THAT Monday at midnight, a new beacon flared in the Manhattan skyline. It seemed to waver at first, like a star trying to be born, and then one brilliant plume of violet light shot upward and southward. A sparkling spray edged electrically bright from either side...and then the ray thickened, rose and seemed to comb the constellations. Feeling its way among the scattered clouds like a thing alive--huge, probing tentacle!
Then, after the momentary display which attracted a thousand eyes, it settled into a steady purple glow.
Having erected a new and notable skyscraper on Columbus Circle, the owner of the just-completed Victory Building had crowned his work with a signal so starkly beautiful that the other steel peaks of Manhattan paled by comparison. There was something eerie about the purple light, something that suggested the dynamically victorious, towards unattainable heights of sky.
So the men in the streets thought, as they clustered in little groups to gape at the star-searcher. So the lone pilot thought, as the wing-tip of his empty transport plane seemed to catch momentary violet fire, two thousand feet above the crest of the Victory Building. But almost instinctively, for reasons he could never explain, he sent the ship into a steep bank, to avail that purple glow.
Jeffrey Fairchild, watching from his northwest window, read another significance in the blazing beacon. It was the same light, multiplied by millions of watts, as the one that those pitiful lost souls in the basement chamber required for life. It was the same light, concentrated and directed, as he had seen glowing on the walls of the Mid-City Hospital an hour before its collapse!
The color of Satan victorious...In that beacon, Jeffrey thought, he saw the risen flag of evil conquest over an already doomed city. Had the Octopus laid his plans so well, was his position already so firm that he could hoist his eerie standard boldly in plain sight of the City's millions?
Desperately, Jeffrey assured himself that there might not be a connection. The purple beacon was--must be--only a purple beacon. But after all that had happened that day, he could hardly believe in such coincidence.
It was the end of Dr. Skull--at least for a while. Already the city itself was ready to prosecute that mild-mannered professional man for murder and worse. If the enemy had raised his standard, his next attack on the quarters of Dr. Skull would be neither insidious nor subtle. Rather, it would be the high-handed devastation of the conquering invader--there was no room in the same city for two buildings representing such opposing philosophies as the humble quarters of Dr. Skull, and the arrogant new temple of the twentieth century Satan!
Some day, Dr. Skull might continue his offices and functions, and heart-brokenly, Jeffrey hoped that he could. In the meantime, it was for Jeffrey Fairchild to discover the true nature of that ominous and brightly sinister banner.
CAROL woke with cold sweat draining from every pore. She had dreamed of that time in Dr. Skull's office when two fiercely garnet-colored eyes had attempted to stare her into hideous obedience...But now she was safe in Jeffrey Fairchild's house and it was only the Broadway dawn coming through the blinds that had caused her troubled dream of that time when she had been kidnapped.
The Broadway dawn--New York's nocturnal neon life--but what a strange color! She rose on her knees in bed, and drew the curtains.
A mile tall in the sky, sharp and radiant as a sword, pierced the shaft of purple light. Carol gasped, and rubbed her cold arms. Was this the end for them all; had the nightmare been realer than she thought? Her body ached with weariness. It had been a hard day, a dreadful day and she could still feel the chafe in her ankles where those men...
Outraged, her mind shrank from the memory. Another woman might have been hysterical for days. Not Carol--but she didn't want to think...
Someone else had to think for her, someone stronger than she. She could act, she could fight, she could endure. But to anticipate and face the terrors she knew to be waiting--no, she couldn't do that, till her nerves and muscles forgot that too recent torture!
No one but Jeffrey was strong enough to help her. With Jeffrey beside her, she could kneel and be calm in the valley of sinister shadow...
She pulled the curtains against that stark image in the sky, and lurched forward on her pillow.
In the morning, she thought drowsily, when true dawn cleaned the sky with serene sunlight, she would be sure that she had never wakened; she would only think that her nightmare had taken some odd and realistic twist...
JEFFREY passed softly into the dark room where Robert slept. Before he went out into the night, he wanted to look once more at his brother's face. That one look might perforce last him through eternity.
A wind rustled the half-drawn shade, and the boy sighed quietly. Was he awake? Jeffrey half hoped so. If he could hear Robert's voice now, the night ahead would be easier...But Robert did not stir.
The very darkness had a purplish cast, and that glowing arm of radiance was clearly visible from the window. As his eyes grew more accustomed to the dimness, Jeffrey saw that Robert was propped up in bed, his face turned toward the window. There was an open book in the boy's lap. He must have been reading it when the glow came, and he had turned the light off the better to watch that curious beacon.
Jeff sat beside the bed and waited for Robert to speak.
"Funny looking thing, isn't it, Jeff?"
"Very. What were you reading?"
For seconds, Robert did not answer. Then he said, "Jeff, did you notice, just before the hospital caught fire, that the walls were just that color? Sort of--purple and alive?"
"Why, yes," said Jeffrey.
"It's funny," said Robert, "that you always show up when I need you. Guess I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you...It's too bad, Jeff, that we can't see eye to eye on things. I sometimes wish that I could get along with you. If you'd only drop your sloppy way of living...If you'd only look at things the long way, care about the things that matter, the way Dr. Skull does..."
"Skull?" Jeffrey breathed. "Well, where's your Dr. Skull now?" In spite of the fact that he himself lived in the two personalities, so clear and separate an entity had Dr. Skull become to Jeffrey, that he was almost jealous of his brother's affection for the old doctor. Especially so since that affection was denied to him.
Robert's voice grew lower. "I think he's hiding somewhere, Jeff. They're after him--oh, for all sorts of things he hasn't done! Murder--human vivisection, or worse! You know, Jeff, I almost understand why people believe that. Once I--" the boy broke off, then spoke again. "It's hard to believe at first that anyone can really be as kind and unselfish as Dr. Skull is. At one time, I even thought he was the Skull Killer--and of course, that's crazy. But he's not that way! He's good, clean through, and I wish I could find him and tell him so!"
"I might find him for you," Jeffrey murmured.
"You? You wouldn't even know him. You've always been too busy, or too lazy or just too snobbish, to meet him when I asked you to..."
To change the subject, Jeffrey said, "You still haven't told me about that book you were reading."
"This book? It really belongs to Dr. Skull. He gave it to me a long time ago, when he wanted me to do research for him on something called the Purple Eye. He was writing a paper for the Medical Association. There's something here I didn't tell him. Look here, Jeff--if you should happen to run into him any time, if you should recognize him, you tell him what it is, the way I'm going to tell you. Tell him about the Mid-City Hospital fire, too.
"But this book...It's a book of legends--most of them just can't be swallowed in any shape. And I didn't tell him what I found, because it didn't have anything to do with eyes. There's a story here about Rome--the night before it burned. They saw a purple light around the Coliseum, and then the flames came. Only one man told about it--Dorican Agrippa--but he isn't generally considered a reliable source."
"I'll tell Dr. Skull if I see him," Jeffrey said, his eyes narrowed and thoughtful. Purple lights in the walls of doomed buildings! And now the very sky was threaded by that forewarning of destruction. "Think I'll let you get some sleep, Robert."
"Good idea," said the boy quietly. He sighed, and fell back against his pillow.
Jeffrey turned for another look from the doorway, but Robert no longer seemed aware of him. His face turned to the window, the boy motionlessly watched that arrogant purple signal in the sky.
HALF an hour or so later, Jeffrey heard a faint scratching sound as he tunneled toward the underground chamber below Dr. Skull's office. It grew louder; and as he opened the door, he saw his monstrous pair of half-human things scraping the wooden floor under his cot with the nails of their thick spatulate fingers. The violet light there hurt his eyes, and he blinked, standing there on the threshold.
Before he could open his eyes again, a shrill cry of surprise echoed through the little chamber, and a rancid-smelling hand reached for his throat. Helplessly, he flailed at the flesh that hemmed him in.
"It's--the other one!" he heard the woman say, and then he was free. "Wait," she continued, her form seeming to waver and seethe crazily in that dazzling light. "We can change the lights for a few minutes, so you can stay--and talk to us."
In the charged darkness, Jeffrey scarcely knew whether or not another attack would be forthcoming, and then the room seemed half-normal again with the steady blaze of his own old hundred-watt bulb.
"We can last an hour without the other light," grunted the man-thing. His great shrunken eyes traveled unblinkingly the length of Jeffrey's person. "Are you--Dr. Skull?"
"They hate you," the woman said. "They came for you." She paused. The pair took turns in speaking, as though it were difficult for one alone to sustain a conversation.
"I switched your radio," said the man. "Switched it both ways. Upstairs--we heard men upstairs. They talked--they were detectives. They wanted you and us. They went away soon."
"Then the others," said the woman. "The doctors--the bad doctors and the one they call the Octopus...They came to find if Dr. Skull--had been arrested. You're not one of them. They said so. They want to kill you. You--may be all right."
"Help us," the man grunted in that thick, half-dead monotone.
Jeffrey backed against the wall. If he only could! Those pitiful outstretched reeds of arms, flattened into hideous fronds at the joints! He had come here to help them, but they would have to help him, too. They would have to tell him what was the matter with them, as best they could; who had done this to them; where he could find the man or men responsible for these atrocities.
"Who was your doctor?" he asked. "When this happened to you, I mean?"
"His name was Borden," the man answered. "But he--there's another, who tells him what to do. Another man--maybe another devil--the one whom I told you about."
"Who is he?" Jeffrey almost shouted.
Tragically, the woman shrilled, "We don't know. We don't know who he is, or how he did it. But he has his people all over. They call him the Octopus, but they all have crazy eyes, except Borden, who's their front. They took us here from the hospital...For a long time they kept us apart. They were bad, bad...But we can't--prove anything..."
Who was the man behind the whole hellish scheme? Jeffrey tried agonizingly to think of a clue to his identity. "Why did they do it?" he asked. "What reason could anyone possibly have for doing this to you?"
For answer, the man squatted, and pulled something out from under the cot. "Maybe--this is the reason," he said.
Jeffrey couldn't answer; didn't know how to answer. Cold little waves of revulsion traveled up and down his spine, and he choked back the spontaneous animal cry that welled in his throat.
The thing under the cot had been a man once, before those tooth-marks had flapped the skin of its throat to loose ribbon.
There was no trace of blood at the severed jugular, no trace of blood in the entire, shrunken, half-naked frame. It was a grey, dried body, suggestively withered, with the flat layers of muscle and fat sagging against a limp bony structure...even the whites of the eyes were as bloodless as the belly of a dead fish. But the irises were a livid, staring purple!
"You took his blood!" Jeffrey whispered, when he could speak at all.
THE bulbous misshapen head of the man--thing slowly rose and fell. "We must--have living blood. Otherwise--we die. That may be why--they did this to us. They are men who hate many people. They wanted us--to drink the blood of their enemies."
Jeffrey remembered Mrs. Purvins...and he tensed expectantly, waiting for some further attack on himself. It was impossible to tell from those hoarse gutturals whether the monsters feared, respected, or hungered for him. Their tones were utterly flat and emotionless, save for that heavy undercurrent of dread tragedy.
"He came here," the woman said. "He--looked for us. He came in--but he never told the others he had found us. He will never tell now--about anything. We had to silence him...And then we were thirsty."
So the enemy had committed one boomerang atrocity! It was the first time, to Jeffrey's knowledge, that such a thing had happened.
The man repeated, with a tense desperation somehow threading the harsh, lifeless guttural quality of his speech, "Help us. Please help us--Dr. Skull..."
Jeffrey said, "I'll need a blood sample."
The man's lips moved in what might have been a smile. He rolled his bathrobe sleeve, baring a yellowish gash in his arm. "He did that," said the man. "That's--all I have for blood."
Jeffrey didn't have to analyze it. He tried to find the pair's pulses, and couldn't. The yellowish stuff...was like that cold, primitive compound which had been in the veins of Mrs. Purvins. Sea-water, in human bodies! That's why they needed the constant renewing warmth of living blood. But these people, unlike Mrs. Purvins, gave evidence of logical reasoning.
Jeffrey asked them who they had been, their ages, and how they had come under the care of Dr. Borden.
Her husband caught pneumonia, the woman said, and then she caught it from him. Because there was no one to take care of them, they had both gone to the hospital. And that was where, in the secrecy of a private room, its horror guarded from public knowledge by the almost military discipline of a hospital, the transformation had taken place.
The man was thirty, the woman twenty-six. Their name was Halliday, Stephen and Eleanor Halliday.
From the wall amplifier, came a thudding interruption. Someone was leaving the office of Dr. Skull...leaving in a hurry!
THE man-thing threw himself on Jeffrey, keeping him from running up to investigate. "You can't go!" the monster gutturaled. "We know what they're doing--we heard them planning it!"
A deafening detonation roared through the chamber, rocked the walls. For a breathless second, the fore-wall cracked and swayed, and then the quake was over, with all walls in a jagged ungeometric pattern, but they were still standing.
The man-thing kept his broad fingers clutched on Jeffrey's coat. "I saved your life," he rasped. "Remember that. And unless you help us, we will claim that life, as we claimed his--" his malformed thumb gestured awkwardly toward the drained corpse on the floor. "We will find you, wherever you are. They will help us find you, if we go back to them. We don't care--we're not afraid of anything--not even of them. That's why we were made like this--nothing worse can happen, and there's nothing left for us to fear. That's why they expected us to be good tools for them. But they made a mistake--when they brought us here."
These monsters, even with their desperate threats, gave Jeffrey more hope than anything else he had encountered. They seemed to know more about the Octopus than anyone else was willing to admit...
"Do you know anything about the new purple search-light?" he asked. "There's one over Manhattan tonight, and I think it's theirs."
The monsters looked at one another, and shook their great heads. "No. And you'd--better go soon," said the woman, "We--must have our own light on again."
Jeffrey turned toward the door.
"You can work for us in peace, Dr. Skull," said the man. "They think you're dead, now. When one of their men disappeared--the one who found us--they were sure you were somewhere--in the building. We heard them say so. That's why they blew up the building. They think now that you died in the explosion. Remember us...And we shall not forget you!"
The woman busied herself with the lightbulb. "I'll remember," Jeffrey promised.
He could not lock the door again, for that first intruder had smashed the lock. But he was sure the man and woman would await him peaceably enough, secluded both from their enemies and cruel public scrutiny if he came back within a reasonable time.
He wanted to stop at the office, to see if there was anything he could salvage, but debris blocked the way. He couldn't even get past the coal-bin into the basement. Then growing louder above him, he heard the hungry crackle and roar of flames.
Through that voracious sound of destruction came the approaching clang and whine of the fire-trucks...But Jeffrey knew that before those raging flames could be tamed, the whole building and everything in it would be lost beyond redemption.
For an instant a pang of heart-ache assailed him as he thought of the associations which that humble edifice had for him during the past six years...For Dr. Skull had made it a haven for the poor and the ailing of this downtrodden neighborhood.
Then, after a few minutes, he emerged out on the street, the flaming structure blocks away. He entered a drug store, stepped swiftly into a phone booth, and dialed the number of his garage.
EXCEPTING for the powerful Diesel motor which he had designed and installed himself, there was nothing to mark Jeffrey's car as different from a thousand other sedans on the streets. He nodded to the garage mechanic as the car was brought up to the drug store, then, alone behind the wheel, he headed southward, toward the Holland tunnel to New Jersey, while the purple beacon sprayed its light into the heavens above Manhattan...
A hundred miles out at sea that night, sleepless navigators stared with marvelling eyes at a harbor-light no sailor had seen before. On Long Island, and in the Westchester and Connecticut suburbs to the north of the city, residents wondered at the new splendor of New York's nightlife reflected in the skies.
And in Manhattan itself, people stared--as Manhattanites will at each new marvel their city produces--and some wondered if the glaring ray would not blind aviators rather than guide them.
And if there shouldn't be a law, or an ordinance...
Jeffrey headed under the Hudson, and on the Jersey shore he made for the Newark airport. Occasionally, he had found use for a trim little two-seater kept there. It had a lofty wing-spread, which gave it some of the qualities of a glider, and powerful little motor. At the airport he was known as a wealthy and idle young man, with a penchant for playing with air currents and the scientific side of flying.
The little ship took to the heavens like a bird, and in ten minutes he was circling above the heart of Manhattan, with the jewelled crest of the Victory Building glowing below him. He dared not fly through the beacon itself, if its nature were what he feared, such an attempt might mean suicide.
He cut his motor, doused his riding lights, and silently circled in the upward air currents caused by the canyon streets. As he neared the column of purple glare, he felt an almost unbearable heat in his open cockpit.
Holding the stick between his knees, he reached into his pocket for a piece of cloth, which he smeared thickly with a heavy, tar-like substance from a long, narrow flask. After waiting for the cloth to dry, he wrapped it around his hand.
Despite the upward air current, the weight of his little plane carried him lower and lower. The heat intensified momentarily as he dipped into the purple glare, and he felt his hands and face almost blistering--all but that part of his right hand which had been covered with the saturated cloth.
A grim look of satisfaction on his face, he pulled back on the stick, and soared skyward. The beam of light trembled beneath him, then swung slightly, seeking him out. He threw the plane into a steep bank, barely avoiding that purple radiance, and momentarily the little craft, not built for such quick maneuvering, fluttered like a leaf. He steadied her in a long glide, and again nosed up...
Then he knew! The ray on the Victory Building was the purple arm of death--an ultraviolet ray!
Now he was sure that the new building in midtown Manhattan was his enemy's citadel. From the air, it was impregnable. No craft could hope to remain aloft above that death-dealing flare.
By land...Jeffrey frowned, guessing that the light could be deflected downward as well as up. No army in the world could march through a street swept by the purple beam.
Excitedly, Jeffrey tried to imagine the purpose of the citadel, and its connection with the monsters that the Octopus had created. It was important now for him to warn all aircraft in the vicinity about the light.
HIS plane was equipped with a two-way transmitter. As he switched it on, he heard a loud spluttering that ran through all wave lengths, as though an important political speech were being broadcast over every station.
As he tried to clear it, he ran into the broadcast itself. It was the most bizarre and unholy announcement, Jeffrey realized, that had ever gone through ether:
Station WVI, on top of the Victory Building, New York City. We bring you our half-hourly announcement again. All other stations please sign off. The life of every man, woman and child in New York City is at stake.
A short, spluttering pause. And then a deep, indefinably sinister voice that sent the nerve-ends in Jeffrey's spine into a dizzy jig.
Citizens of New York! You are in the grip of an epidemic with which your ordinary health facilities cannot and will not deal. Even more than your lives are at stake.
Tonight there will walk among you the patients of your hospitals. They have been hospitalized for the ordinary diseases, but now they come from the hospitals unrecognizable as human beings. They are monsters.
Another pause. Jeffrey's plane stirred southward for seconds, poised above Radio City, and circled there during the broadcast.
Not one of you is immune to this spreading plague. Do not trust your doctors! Do not trust your hospitals! They are the chief agents of this unnamable disease! In their hands; you too may become unfit to bear the name of man.
There is one way, and one way only, to keep the plague from torturing yourselves and your families. We have gathered here, in the offices of the Victory Building, all those doctors who are still worthy of the name--men of national and international reputation, who will co-operate with you to stamp out this plague. They have come together under the name of The Citizens' Emergency Medical Committee.
Tomorrow, all citizens employed in gainful occupation, whether by private or government enterprise, are requested to send one day's pay to the Citizens' Emergency Medical Committee, address, the Victory Building, New York City, as the only safe form of health insurance for yourselves and your families. Thus insured, you will receive medical treatment by New York's only safe doctors in the event that disease strikes.
To outlying territories, we broadcast this warning: Do not permit trains, busses, pleasure cars, boats or aircraft to cross your borders from metropolitan New York, lest you bring the epidemic on yourselves. Warning especially the State of New Jersey; Westchester County and the City of Yonkers in particular. Since all of Long Island has been stricken also, we warn the State of Connecticut to prohibit ferry traffic across Long Island Sound to and from the counties of Nassau and Suffolk.
Do not hesitate to comply. This is for your own good. Do not attempt to enter the Victory Building until you require the services of a physician. Send all insurance money by mail, and you will receive your receipt-cards the following day. To those cranks and fanatics who are always ready to attack a new development, we broadcast a warning: By attacking the Victory Building, you cut New York completely off from medical salvation. You doom millions of innocent human beings! We welcome an investigation by proper authorities, peaceably conducted.
We will bring you another broadcast within the half hour.
JEFFREY stared at the silent transmitter as the broadcast ended, almost wishing it were alive, so that he might throttle the thing that had uttered those words. Extortion--with the stakes not mere loss of reputation, nor even life itself, but a warping in body and mind of great sections of the population!
He was almost directly above Radio City, then he switched on his own short-wave transmitter, and spoke into it. "This is the Skull Killer, calling Radio City. Please rebroadcast over your regular wave length. Reply when ready."
There was no answer...
"Skull Killer, still calling Radio City. This is in relation to the broadcast by the Citizen's Emergency Medical Committee, which you have just heard. Please reply."
For silent seconds, Jeffrey despaired of receiving any response. They must have taken the first broadcast as a practical joke, as they might be taking his own plea. And then, faintly and uncertainly, a voice said, "Ready. Go ahead, Skull Killer..."
And so that night, the voice of the Skull Killer, whose face no man could describe, was heard through the length and breadth of a thousand square miles through the City of New York.
"Citizens of New York!" he began fervently. "This is the Skull Killer...I wish to advise you about this so-called Citizens' Emergency Medical Committee. It is not a joke. Neither is it to be taken at face value.
"I have only this to go by: The purple light seen over the Victory Building tonight is an ultraviolet ray of hitherto unknown strength. All aircraft are warned not to venture near or through the light. The motives of the new medical committee seem bent more toward destruction than conservation of human life.
"They have invited the investigation of authorities; see to it that your authorities really do investigate. And in the meanwhile, on my own part, I tell you that there will be a thorough private investigation. That is all."
As Jeffrey flew southward from Radio City, there was a fresh broadcast from the Victory Building:
Tonight we are submitting to the authorities undeniable proof of the Skull Killer's identity, and of the fact that he himself, in the guise of a doctor, is responsible for several of the monstrosities which you see on the streets tonight.
What would New York's streets be like, during the remainder of the night, Jeffrey wondered as he headed again toward Newark. As he had expected, no emergency measures, had as yet been adopted; no cordon of official planes were quarantining Manhattan. Most people who had heard that early morning broadcast from the Victory Building would have taken it as a practical joke--gruesome, perhaps, but a joke still.
And that broadcast of the Skull Killer? Didn't the very fact that the Skull Killer had been granted a use of popular airwaves bespeak the fact that the Citizens' Emergency Medical Committee's speech had made some impression. He wondered how many people he had reached, and what they thought--or had they really given him a wavelength at all?
They must have, for the Medical Committee's last words had been an oblique answer to his message! Jeffrey Fairchild felt a thrill of elation. He was starting his greatest battle; already he had made some progress and must make more if he hoped to save the nation's greatest metropolis from ghastly destruction!
He was allowed to land at the airport without interference, and to drive back to the City through the tunnel.
He wondered at the ability of his enemy to make broadcasts at regular half-hour intervals without interference from the authorities. WVI must be a newly-licensed station--and the threat in those announcements of the Citizens' Medical Committee had been so cunningly veiled, that outside their definite disquieting influence, even those who took them seriously might never recognize them for the sinister demands they were. Unless the true nature of that purple beacon was known, listeners would not even look upon those announcements as threats.
That much he had accomplished, but even now some sort of account must be had from the City authorities regarding the Committee...And that account he knew, it was his responsibility to get at once.
DR. ANTHONY STEELE took the position which had been assigned to him, at the entrance to the Victory Building. It was an hour after midnight, and up the steel canyons, came a sharp Hudson wind. Dr. Steele shivered--the War must have been like this, he thought, the War in which his uncle had been an army doctor, from which he had not come back.
Thus it was to serve your country, or even your city, against a still-unconquered enemy, an enemy even more formidable in its hidden, sinister mystery. Dr. Steele had been shivering a little bit all day.
When they'd told him that old Dr. Skull was responsible for a new and ghastly form of disease, he'd been upset about that, and had tried to get in touch with the man. But Dr. Skull could not be reached...
Then, the call from Borden, at Tony Steele's customary comfortable bed-time, impressing him into this Emergency Medical Committee...
Wild talk, frightening talk--that had been his impression of the first Committee meeting in the new Victory Building. If it hadn't been for Borden, he wouldn't have been there; he wouldn't have trusted any of the others. And if ever he had seen the fires of insanity reflected in human eyes, he had seen them in the eyes of several of the supposed leaders of the Committee, and they all seemed to belong to a secret order of sorts; all wearing watch fobs in the shape of a purple-eyed octopus.
But how could you tell? Those might have been fever-lights, signs of this growing pestilence! The men might have been stricken with the first stages of the malady, and were working on nevertheless, sacrificing themselves for their fellows, for nobody could tell yet how this thing really started.
There was nothing really to go by, except the talk, and a few apparently unrelated facts. The Mid-City Hospital had burned down, and some Committee members had openly accused the monstrous patients, who apparently hated doctors and hospitals. Borden and a few of his medical friends had accused Jeffrey Fairchild, of all people! Said his wealth had made him a thrill-criminal. Borden even claimed to have seen Jeff at the fire, purposely, he said, contributing to the confusion. Jeffrey Fairchild, that amiable and intelligent young man about town who had been so helpful when Steel first started practice, four years ago!
And now the monsters were coming, for aid, for treatment, and it was Steele's job to admit them. It hadn't been hard getting them out of hospitals, he surmised, or away from the care of their private physicians--it seemed part of the disease to mistrust any known sort of medical help. Tony Steele looked at them, not realizing how he trembled...
Hundreds of headlamps, from ambulances and private cars, played a false dawn on the pavement about the Victor Building. Escorted by police, by internes and nurses, by private citizens who seemed normal in all but their distraught perplexity, they were coming. Hundreds of them, scrambling for the lighted doors of the Victory Building. As though the lame and the halt of the world had converged at the purple point...As though the lame and the halt of history had risen half-rotting from their graves for some weird rite of resuscitation.
And the overpowering odor! Not even the effluvium of stale sweat, this thing; It was more like the humors that might arise in an overheated morgue...
And he was supposed to help, to cure, he who had specialized in those diseases which are a luxury.
A policeman joined him, and then the crowd became something between a mob and an Act of God. For what seemed hours, Dr. Steel stood there, assorting those who sought to surge inward, allowing only the damnably sick to pass, and in spite of the dark morning's chill, he began to sweat. His voice grew hoarse with shouting directions. All about him, he sensed the press of grotesque and tragic humanity, hobbling toward possible salvation from God knew what hell of self-loathing...
He didn't know! He hardly knew what great work he was engaged in, what was the beginning and the end of this process which began when the monsters left their ward beds, to end their grim trek upstairs on the forty-fourth floor of the Victory Building. He somehow felt himself a sentient tool, taking orders standing at the doorway between mystery and mystery...
How had they sickened? How would they be cured? What was he about here, and how had this vast and grisly chaos come so unpredictably, so violently, into his pleasant life? He wondered if Charon had felt as he did, bound forever to the Styx, witlessly rowing souls between remembered life and anticipated death...
ANOTHER man tapped Tony Steele's shoulder, and said, "I'll relieve you, Doctor. You're needed upstairs."
Steele sighed, the breath coming hard through his nostrils. Upstairs, at least, was more where a doctor belonged. Tony Steele was no tough-minded man. He liked people, liked to see them well and happy. It was for that reason, as much as for anything, that he had concentrated on rich patients. The rich, when they were ill, could be cheered so easily, could be sent to handsome hospital suites, could be ordered to take Napoleon brandy as a tonic, or luxury cruises on palatial liners...
But the poor...No, there was less you could do for the poor. You had to see them hungry-eyed and listless, in those airless sunless flats, worrying about money, worrying about bills, worrying about the cost of medicine...You had to see a fifth child born into a three-room hovel, knowing that from its birth that the child would have to fight for its right to food, its right to a corner of the world, its very right to live...
But now, Tony Steele was looking on human suffering in a stark and inexplicable shape. What good was a bedside manner for these shapes that might have been conceived in hell?
It was more than a clinical manner they needed, something of the all-wise, little father attitude...Tony Steele went up to the forty-fourth floor, where the emergency clinic had been equipped to diagnose these patients.
Shuddering at some internal chill, Steele took his place in the busy clinic, and waited for the monsters to file in. He had not long to wait, for a nurse escorted a hobbling thing to him, a thing that looked at him with strange malevolence out of its huge unblinking eyes...
"Name?" he asked, trying hard to remember the clinical manner.
The thing grunted its response. Steele asked the other questions, insanely irrelevant questions, about age, address, and occupation. Those are the things you ask a man, he thought. But this thing isn't a man--not any more! It's a shell around a private hades...
"You cannot help me," the thing said, after it had answered all the questions. There was the ghost of manhood in those harsh tones. "I prefer--to die."
"Now, now, Mr. White..." Steele protested, half-heartedly. Hell, why shouldn't the thing prefer to die! Who was he to interrupt that choice? "If you'll just trust us, we'll do so much for you...We'll make you well again!"
The man said, "Fool." That was all, and the nurse led him away.
Steele stared after him, trembling. He was unaware of another patient in front of him, a patient whose mind had gone, who struggled wordlessly, and had to be held by two strong young men.
"Fool." What had that meant? It had been so concise, so unemotional...Steele saw another doctor at his elbow. There were a lot of them standing around.
"Here," he shouted at his fellow-practitioner. "You take the cases. I've got to see somebody."
It wasn't quite suspicion--it was more like a passionate disquietude. So much suffering, so much madness...fool, the monster had called him, after saying also, I prefer to die.
That living, suffering organism who had once known a man named White--he'd sounded so like an educated man. A little like Steele's usual well-mannered patients. There might be something, maybe neuro-vascular tests that could relieve him. Perhaps it had been done already, but Steele knew a million men could take the same experiment and only one of them read anything like a correct diagnosis out of it.
He'd have to check with Borden on that. Borden would have to give him that much of a free hand. It might be simple, there might be a simple magic solution that would make the world right again, that would send Tony Steele back to his fine offices on West End Avenue, where he could believe again in the innate cheeriness of things.
Monster and nurse were vanishing down the corridor. He knew they were going to the treatment rooms on the floor above. Borden was in charge of all that--Borden was there, too.
Steele went down the corridor after them, but he took a different elevator. Somehow, he didn't want to face White again...
BORDEN was sitting in that important-looking office, giving directions to tired and respectful-looking doctors. Steele considered that he hadn't been paid a cent, and so owed no respect to anyone.
"Give me a laboratory," he demanded of Borden without prelude.
Borden's eyes assumed a surprised expression. No one else spoke. "Why should I?" Borden inquired.
Steele, a nerve specialist, attacked the problem from that angle almost out of habit. "It's their whole systems," he explained. "I'm sure of it. There isn't a breakdown in any one place--it's the whole system getting wrong stimuli, as nerves transmitting wrong stimuli to the body cells. Almost as though they were reacting to a different environment--as different, say, as though they'd all been transplanted to the moon."
"Pardon me if I seem skeptical," Borden remarked wearily, "but I've been approaching the problem from so practical an angle myself, that I haven't much patience with theories. Medicine is medicine--it's complicated, detailed, difficult...And you don't get cures by saying your patients have been transplanted to the moon."
"I didn't say that," Steele answered hotly.
Borden shrugged. "Very well. You're needed downstairs, but if it's going to make you any happier, you can have your laboratory. I'd suggest, however, that you first take a good look into the ward, unless it's against your theories to clutter your mind with factual details about the people you're supposed to cure."
The two older doctors in Borden's office snickered, and the three younger ones looked sympathetically crushed. Steele felt the hot flush under his cheeks, checked an impulse to tell Borden to go to hell. The old coot was getting so darned officious lately...
"I'll take a look," he said, mustering some kind of calm into his tone. Borden pointed to the large door on his left.
"Right down that corridor," Borden directed. "If you have the heart to waste time on theories after you see those people, you're a harder man than I think."
But he wasn't hard! Tony Steele only wished he were. He was sorry now, that he made the gesture of going into the ward. As he walked down the short corridor between Borden's office and the ward, he had an overwhelming sense of repugnance. He knew they were sick, not ghastly, only sick...But he could smell them even before he entered the ward...
As he stepped across the threshold, an eerie howl, like the baying of a dog, sent the short hair bristling up his spine. Then the howl turned into a chorus, and Steele turned, would have fled, but a shapeless and gelid force grasped him, pulled him back into the room.
The monsters--what did they want with him?
As they circled about, pawing and clutching at him, he screamed that he was a doctor, that he had come on a routine examination.
The last thing he heard, before the blood roaring in his ears drowned out all external sound, was the wild unearthly laughter that greeted his protest. He realized that he was being held as a rabbit is held by a pack of dogs...that naked teeth were ripping the covering of his flesh...searching for veins and arteries.
Weakly, he could see his own blood dribbling richly over their enormous chins, the stuff of his life. He could feel the seeping of cold air into his emptying arteries...
And then he saw the monster called White standing a little way apart, arms folded over his chest.
It seemed in a dream of drumming revulsion that White's lips moved, repeating the word, "Fool." And now Steele knew what he had meant when he said, "I prefer to die."
Borden--Borden had sent him here. Borden must have known, and wanted him out of the way, after he proposed a cure!
If he could only make them understand, these people! Understand that he was worth more to them alive...
The last thing he saw was White walking toward him, but he never knew whether White reached him or not...
AS Jeffrey Fairchild drove up out of the tunnel under the river, he looked again at the sky. Suddenly, he stiffened at the wheel. The purple beacon atop the Victory Building went out even as he looked at it. It was out for a full minute, while Jeffrey's roadster wormed its way through the nearly empty Manhattan streets--and then it flashed on again.
But now it was a different light. That illusion of topless height had gone; the beacon's tip lost itself visibly into darkness. The glow was steadier, without that eerie sparkle which had given it a queer light of its own.
Jeffrey could have sworn that now the beacon was dead and cold as it had not been before...Perhaps, he hazarded, there was an investigation going on as a result of his warning broadcast. He stamped on the gas pedal, and raced northward.
An ambulance siren's scream warned him of his recklessness. As he slowed down, he heard others--ambulances, police cars, private automobiles whose drivers seemed to jam one hand to their horns, as they bore down, all toward the same point--the Victory Building in Columbus Circle.
Jeffrey traveled with them, and it was soon unmistakable what grim cavalcade he had joined.
The monsters were answering a summons that had been tacit in the strange broadcast from Station WVI. In terrifying quantities, they had come from their secret places, with their twisted and hideous bodies, with unimaginable things reflected in their wide unblinking eyes...
And then Jeffrey saw the windows, knew why they came. For even behind drawn curtains, a splash of purple threaded out from various lofty angles of the Victory Building's interior--that was the life-light for creatures of sentient death, the ultraviolet salvation of the dreadful and pitiful malformed things that breathed and moved. He parked his car, and pressed into the crowd.
Near the doorway, the pack thickened oppressively. From the harried policemen who were keeping the thing from becoming a stampede, he knew the authorities were in on this, at least to the extent of cooperating. How much more did they really know...How far did they really trust that surprise broadcast from the new station?
Soon Jeffrey would know...a heavy hand fell on his shoulder, and someone said, "Jeffrey Fairchild!" in a voice almost too weary for surprise.
Jeff looked up into the haggard face of Captain Manning, a grey-haired and soldierly police officer, in uniform. "Hello, Captain," Jeffrey said quietly. "You're just the man I want to see."
Captain Manning said, "Is it important, Mr. Fairchild? If it's not, I've got my hands full enough..."
"Damned important," said Jeffrey grimly. "I want to search the Victory Building, and I want you to come with me."
"It's been done," said Manning tersely. He added, in a lower voice, "You shouldn't be here, Mr. Fairchild. The Commissioner's in there now, talking to the head of this medical committee, whatever its name is. I think they're talking about you. You'll probably never hear of it--it's so cockeyed, but if you want to wait at the entrance and talk to the Commissioner when he comes out..."
Jeffrey was known throughout the force as one of the Commissioner's oldest friends, and though he would never have used that influence to deter the humblest rookie cop from his duties, his word carried weight with the entire department.
"Suppose you tell me what it's all about," he suggested. "Why are they talking about me, and who's the head of the Committee, as it calls itself?"
Manning swore, then answered, "Some of these docs are damfools when they get away from medicine. Fellow named Borden--a big doctor, they say--is boss in there. He's been talking high, wide and handsome, about what the department ought to do to you for the Mid-City Hospital fire."
Jeffrey gasped, and Manning continued, "Of course, there's nothing for you to worry about. We'll settle that headache before it gets to you."
Jeffrey's lowered eyelids almost concealed the hard thoughtfulness of his gaze. Borden! Borden, whom the monsters in his own basement had accused of almost unbelievable malpractice...Borden, whom he himself had elevated to a position of trust and importance in that ruined hospital...Borden, head of this mysterious Committee...the streets were violet with filtered light, but the lights in Jeffrey's brain were red.
He thanked Manning, and pushed back toward the entrance. If he could make Tom Wiley, the Commissioner, understand what was going on...the Mid-City Hospital had been Jeffrey's, and at the core of Borden's guilty soul, there must be a desperate, snakelike urge to accuse before he was accused himself.
Borden couldn't be dismissed as a medical man gone haywire out of his own sphere.
There was a man behind Borden--maybe a devil, the monsters had told Jeff. And that could only be the Octopus himself! Everything Borden said or did would be calculated to dupe organized medicine and organized justice until it was too late to retrench, until New York was delivered over to the enemy...
But it wasn't yet too late. It couldn't be. There'd been no report to the public of an official investigation, and Jeff could reach Tom Wiley before one was made...
But what if Tom Wiley never came out of that building? No--the man he had to reach was Borden! And the report that must be made was the revelation promised by the Skull Killer!
JEFFREY found himself in the great entrance hall of the Victory Building. He had seen other skyscrapers when they were new, he had seen the Queen Mary when that giant floating palace had first docked in New York; he was accustomed to the city's newest and finest hotels.
But he had never--not in all his life--seen an interior like that great hall.
It was lofty, nearly five stories high, with starkly subdued indirect lighting that gave the impression of unfathomable violet depths and heights. Each wall panel held its mural--and so cleverly had the murals been designed, that the figures represented there also gave that topless, boundless impression. Jeffrey realized that the representations were simple, most of them merely huge, realistic, portraits or impressions, of contemporary scenes from the city. Yet somehow, they seemed to be the work of an artist with torture in his eyes...
Then it came to him. They were exactly like the thing the city was fast turning into! An eerie and uncertain place, with limitless possibilities of stark tragedy, of malformed beings with crippled, tortured souls!
Jeffrey shuddered, and made for an elevator. The crowd that had been so dense in the street outside had ample room in the hall...Here, even those incredibly warped figures seemed dwarfed to inconspicuousness by the chamber's shadowed proportions.
"I want to see Dr. Borden," Jeffrey told the uniformed elevator man, whose hard eyes measured him.
A denial seemed to hover on the other's lips.
Jeffrey said, "I'm Mr. Fairchild--Jeffrey Fairchild."
If Manning's warning hadn't been unfounded, and if the things he himself suspected of Borden were true, that name should have an effect on a henchman of Borden's--and it did. The hard look in the elevator man's eyes was replaced by a queer purposefulness. "Forty-fifth floor, sir," he muttered.
Jeffrey entered the car. He noticed that he was the only occupant of the elevator, which made no stops between the first floor and the forty-fifth.
In the gleamingly sterile corridor of the forty-fifth floor, a woman in white sat at a desk. The place looked exactly like a hospital, Jeffrey thought. This must be the headquarters of the Citizens' Emergency Medical Committee. But a queer sort of hospital, for no sound echoed through the long corridors, there were no red-checked young girls in blue-and-white uniforms wheeling trays and smiling at internes. About it all was that ominous sterility which seemed to extend farther than germ life.
"I'd like to see Dr. Borden," Jeffrey told the woman at the desk.
Mechanically, she inquired, "Who's calling, please?"
The woman's eyes stared up at him.
"Straight down that corridor, then turn to your left."
Uneasily, Jeffrey strode down the long hallway. No lamps were visible, but the windowless hall was bright as the sky at early dusk...
After narrow yards of walking, he came to a cross-hall, and took a left turn. He had met no one, heard no one. It was almost too easy, this entrance of his, and he sensed some abrupt reception that must have been waiting, in these silent offices, for him.
The left hall ended after twenty yards at a sort of booth where a young man in white sat cleaning surgical instruments. Jeffrey asked him, "Can you tell me where to find Dr. Borden?"
A small dagger-like scalpel slipped from the young man's hands, but he did not look up. In a strangely monotone voice, he countered, "Who did you say you were?"
Jeffrey again gave his name--and the young man looked at him through eyes as opaquely sharp and radiant as the steel of his surgical blades. "Straight ahead," he directed, pointing down a turn in the corridor. "Fifth door on your right. Just walk in."
The young man did not look up again as Jeffrey passed...
He opened the fifth door on his right, looked about before he entered. The room seemed empty, but there was a curtain stretched across its width, and he guessed Borden might be behind that curtain.
Jeff left the door ajar and stepped softly inside...
Then behind him the heavy door clicked quietly.
HE WHEELED about, pulled at the inside handle. The door was locked. Jeffrey cursed aloud, and darted behind the curtains.
There was nothing. Not a chair, not a stick or a straw to indicate that the windowless square chamber had ever been entered before. The walls were white, and gave somehow the impression of porousness, like the sound-proofed walls of a broadcasting studio. Jeffrey had been locked inside a white square box, with ten cubic feet of air and a curtain.
He tried shouting, and the sound of his own voice hit back at his eardrums with hammer-force in that sealed chamber. From a distance of a few feet he fired his revolver at the invisible door-lock, and the detonation nearly deafened him, while his bullet caromed harmlessly from a steel plate beneath that porous white substance.
He felt at those walls with his hands, searching a weak spot, and suddenly felt the walls warm under his touch. That warmth was increasing...
Jeffrey stepped back, and then, from under the white porous wall-covering there shone a violet radiance, a strange pulsing light that seared his eyeballs and radiated heat that seemed to penetrate with rhythmic sequence beneath his skin, into the very marrow of his bones!
Now the walls seemed alive with that shimmering fluid glow, the light and the heat were somehow rendered indirect by that asbestos-like substance that coated the walls, so that his skin did not break, but he felt the veins in his body swelling with excruciating pain, as though his blood were reaching a boiling point. Then, as he fought for breath to find release through his vocal cords, that seething irradiance died, and the walls once more became dull and white.
The insufferable heat was seeping out of his veins, his heart, which momentarily seemed to cease beating except in harmony with that pulsing glow, slowly came back to normal. Jeffrey found himself crouching unnaturally in the middle of the room, as though his flesh had shrunk, causing contraction in all his muscles, dried and seared by the heat.
Slowly, with infinite effort, he was able to knead his limbs to normal semblance, then he stood silently--and waited.
For he knew now that the "treatment" would be repeated. It would be repeated over and over, until he--Jeffrey Fairchild--had become a monster, a dried and rotting corpse, requiring for its abnormal functions the indigo glare of the ultraviolet light--needing for sustenance the warm blood of his fellows.
The cause and the cure were the same--ultraviolet radiance differently directed first caused these malformations, and later enabled the monsters to survive. Penetrating into the very marrow of the bony structure where blood corpuscles were manufactured, its heat brought about an aberration of functions, broke down the stages of evolution, reduced blood to its simplest elementals, and at the same time effected the necessary changes in the living cells to enable them to survive, provided they were subjected to that very radiance which had first caused their distortion.
Far back, in the very first stages of evolution, when the simplest forms of life had crawled out of the primordial swamps, the ultraviolet contained in sunlight must have caused parallel changes in the structure of living things--distorted them, changed them into what their fellows must have felt were monsters, until sunlight had become a necessity, without which their life could not continue.
It was a matter, in some respects, of resistance, which culminated in the building of a new type of life. The process would not be too rapid, Jeffrey knew, as he experienced his breathing spell. These things having become clear to him, certain elements of the fiendish activities of his enemy were more understandable, also.
The Mid-City Hospital fire, and the purple glow which had seemed to bathe the walls of certain parts of the building, had emanated from walls built as the walls of his chamber were built, from rooms in which transformations such as he was about to undergo had been effected on other unfortunate humans...
Borden was behind it, and Borden had been ready to resume operations elsewhere! The Mid-City Hospital had been destroyed so as to obliterate all evidence of those indigo walls...
Borden, then, Jeff figured, had found another backer for his nefarious activities than the philanthropic patron of the Mid-City Hospital, and that backer was the builder and owner of the Victory Building. He must be the Octopus himself!
But the other hospitals--the other sick wards whence also human malformations had emanated--what about them? Would they, too be destroyed tonight so that there would be no evidence, so that the enemy would remain triumphantly unsuspected, entrenched in the very heart of Manhattan in the guise of a philanthropic organization which stamped out its own corruption and bled society in the process?
The walls were cool again, and Jeffrey moved painfully about the room. Like a trapped animal he sought desperately for an opening in his trap, a means of escape from this locked, white-walled hell...
IT SEEMED a long while before he could actually bring his mind to bear on any practical plan of escape. The torture he had undergone seemed almost to have induced amnesia in his brain. Then he went berserk, and, brutishly, desperately, insanely clawed at the walls of his prison, while something he had meant to remember teased agonizingly at the back of his mind.
Too many other things intruded. There was the futility of his own plight, the ominous threat to all decency, all peace in this greatest of all cities--all these things seemed to batter like a million fists at his consciousness and prevented his concentration. He knew he was wasting precious seconds, and was unable to do anything about it.
There was something he had anticipated, and desperately he tried to think of what it had been. It hadn't been capture--at least, not this kind of capture--but something else. Almost mechanically his hands explored his person. There should be something, he felt, some precaution he had taken...And then he found it.
It was a long flat tube of make-up grease. There, in his hands--Jeffrey's mouth quirked a little crazily at the thought--he held nearly all of the identity of Dr. Skull. And Dr. Skull was completely unrecognizable, compressed, as it were, in this little tube!
Feverishly, Jeffrey's hands tore into his clothing, ripping open the inner seams. Concealed in the shoulder padding of his coat, in the upper seams of his trousers, were other tubes of makeup, but these were the things he always carried...yet there was something else, something important...
As he threw his coat aside, with a puzzled gesture, the thing he sought rolled out of the inside breast pocket--a long, narrow flask...
His brain suddenly clear, Jeffrey looked hastily at his watch. It had stopped, the glass had smashed at some point in his struggles. He tried to compute, from his knowledge of ultraviolet rays, how long it would be before they would judge he could stand another dose, but all concept of time had fled him and he set to work.
He undressed completely, and tore his inner garments to shreds. There he wound puttee-like over as much of his anatomy as they would cover. Bits of handkerchief he trussed into his mouth, inside the cheeks. Then he attacked the curtain which had been hung in the middle of the room, presumably to lure him in, and with thread-thin strips of this managed to cover the rest of his torso.
Then he went to work, covering himself with the substance of the various make-up tubes. The stuff sufficed barely to give him a coating of tenuous grease, like a transparent, oily outer skin, through which his bandages showed. Over his face spread the pale-yellow color of age--and then Jeffrey Fairchild paused.
His fingers held the long black flask while his ears sought desperately to detect some sound beyond the room. But there was only silence.
HE TOOK a deep breath, and uncorked the flask. From it he shook some of that thick, tarry substance with which he had experimented in the plane--a zinc composition. Carefully, he began to smear himself with that, then put on his coat and trousers.
The stuff congealed into a flexible, airtight covering over his body. He wouldn't last long with that, even with the loose padding of porous strips of cloth next to his skin, for it would close his sweat pores. Somberly he hoped it would do what he meant that it should--protect him at least to some extent, from those penetrating rays...
He had barely time to slip on trousers and jacket, when it came again. The room began to grow warm. Jeffrey threw himself flat on the floor, and cradled his unprotected face in the shelter of his arms. He could feel the heat sweeping over him, feel his body struggling futilely to exude moisture, and almost a wave of insanity crossed his brain at this violence to his body processes.
It was worse than the first time, and as the heat abated Jeffrey lay limp, unable to move. But there wasn't that dry contraction in his muscles that the first treatment had given him...And then the door opened.
Jeffrey Fairchild could hear it, though he didn't dare to look. Somebody was coming for him, as he had expected they would. If they didn't intend to kill him, they had to come in, as soon as they thought him powerless, to prepare him for future treatments.
As the footsteps neared him, Jeffrey felt the enervating limpness disappear from his muscles at the approach of danger. When the newcomer came to a stop beside him, he rolled, groaning, on his back. Then, almost in the same movement, his hands shot out to grasp the ankles which came to his view, and he heaved with all his strength.
There was a startled exclamation from the other man, as Jeffrey swarmed over him, but the yell was cut short by Jeffrey's hands closing the other's windpipe. The man sputtered, tried to smash something he held in his hand into Jeffrey's face, but Jeffrey dodged the blow, and his own fist sent the object spinning from the other's fingers.
Then the cold rage in him settled him grimly to his task. His adversary's eyes grew wide and popping, then assumed that familiar purple glow. Convulsively the other rose half-way in a last desperate gesture, as though the evil spirit symbolized by that unearthly gleam in his eyes were giving him strength to the last, and then the man fell back limply.
Jeffrey rose to his knees. Caution against disclosing his identity precluded his marking the corpse with the mark of the skull--besides, the Skull Killer was stalking bigger game! But where was his deadly quarry?
Jeffrey, as he staggered to his feet and out of the room, into the lofty, medically clean corridors of the Victory Building, did not know.
HE WONDERED a little at the emptiness of this part of the building. Peering cautiously up and down the gleaming hall, he could see no living soul, but slightly to the left and across the hall he saw a door marked Washroom.
Lurching towards it, he made it, still unseen, and once inside, again stripped himself. Carefully, he peeled off as much of the zinc coating as he could, and then dressed once more, again emerged into the empty corridors.
From the death-like silence of this part of the building, he drew one important conclusion. It must be near that section of the Victory building which was purposely kept secluded. He wondered if even the police, in conducting their baffled and openly invited investigation, had penetrated here...
A glance at the washroom mirror had told him that the disguise his practiced hands had applied in that torture chamber a short while ago would pass muster. The facial creams he had used to give the aged color to the skin of his face, when he had wanted to masquerade as Dr. Skull, now gave his smooth cheeks the pale, sweaty look of illness, and the strips of rolled handkerchief in his mouth gave a swelling to his lower jaws, which was at least a good imitation of the facial shape of the monsters.
His speech through these impediments to the movements of his tongue, would carry the resemblance further, and the bandages crisscrossing his body produced the effect of deformity, which he could accentuate with a dragging limp.
He passed slowly down the long corridor, and came to a door. There were sounds beyond the door, and for a moment he listened, then slipped through. Another long hall stretched before him, a hall through which moved slowly a line of deformed monsters, not unlike himself in appearance.
He joined the procession, which was flanked occasionally by orderlies and nurses, and which led past a desk where a white-coated doctor sat, taking down the case histories of the patients.
As he neared the desk, Jeffrey recognized the doctor. It was Anthony Steele--a man whose acquaintance Jeffrey had cultivated after the other had become a professional admirer and friend of Dr. Skull.
Was Steele involved in this, also? Jeffrey could hardly believe it. His turn came, and Dr. Steele's eyes, tired, and with something aghast struggling in their depths, were lifted to his.
"Name?" muttered Steele.
"White," said Jeffrey, "Robert White."
He knew suddenly that as far as Tony Steele was concerned, the deception was unnecessary. Tony Steele looked as if he'd been through hell, and might drop any minute--but because of that very fatigue, he might not be able to keep a secret.
No; Jeffrey had to play a lone hand. Nor was it hard for him to become immersed in the part he elected to play...
THE sun poured into Carol Endicott's bedroom, and she woke to an evil memory. "It was only a dream," she thought, as reassuring daylight made a bright thing of her room. "Only a bad dream..." She turned, and tried to sleep again.
But the thing which had awakened her would not be silent. Persistently, in another room, a telephone was ringing, and she knew by its tone that it was the private wire between Jeffrey Fairchild's apartment and the offices of Dr. Skull. Jeff had it installed in order to keep in constant touch with Robert, who, when he was not at the hospital, lived with the doctor.
Who, she thought through her troubled drowsiness, would be at the doctor's office now? For she and Robert were here and the doctor was missing.
She lifted the receiver, and announced primly enough, "Mr. Fairchild's residence."
No response. Only a soft click...Alarmed, Carol tried to ring the other end. It didn't work. The line was dead.
"Jeff!" She knocked at the door of his room, for it was a puzzle that justified her awakening him. But Jeffrey did not answer either...
She heard the back door-bell ringing, and recalled that it was time for the cook to come to work. It would be a relief, she thought, as she went to the service entrance, to have someone else in the house to talk to--Her hand turned the knob, and a smile of welcome was on her lips when suddenly she stopped.
A scream eddied to her lips, a scream that was choked back by the huge hand that closed clammily over her mouth.
They were vast, distorted, grotesque, the man and woman on the threshold; half-human, half-nameless beasts. Carol struggled with all the power of utter revulsion against that gagging grasp, but the man was stronger than she.
"Don't be afraid," the man was saying in a harsh guttural whisper. "I don't mean to hurt you...I only want to find Dr. Skull. Don't scream when I let you go; I must talk to you."
The grip on her mouth relaxed, and Carol took a deep breath. Something in the creature's tone banished her fear and oddly now--she felt only pity.
"I'm Dr. Skull's nurse," she said. "But I don't know, myself, where he is. What made you come here? Was it you who called a moment ago?"
The man nodded. "He had us--in his house, in the cellar. We found a tunnel and it came to this building, but there were so many apartments. Then we used the phone. You told us which apartment you were in, and we found this place by the directory in the basement. No one has seen us. No one--ought to."
"I'll call Mr. Fairchild," Carol said helplessly. "He may help you more than I can. Just wait inside; I'll be right back."
She went back to Jeffrey's room, Knocked again, and then opened the door. Incredulously, unhappily, she stared at four walls and a ceiling, at the bed which had not been slept in. For Jeffrey was gone.
A QUEER sort of grimace, half-leer, half-tragic, came over his ghastly features. "There must be lot of people--disappearing," the man-creature said in his toneless, grunting voice.
"But, Jeffrey...You don't understand," Carol mourned.
For the first time, painfully, the woman of the pair spoke. "The purple light," she said slowly. "Last night--he said--there was a purple light. Maybe--that's where they all are. Do you know anything about that?"
Carol remembered her dream--or was it a dream? "No," she said slowly, "I don't know--but it's on that new building..."
"You've got to take us there," he said.
Carol took a last shocked glance at her visitors, and went for her coat. No sense waking Robert--it wouldn't matter to him that Jeff was gone. And he might be a nuisance about being left alone. So, to insure privacy, she went down the back stairs with the grotesque pair, and hailed a taxi.
She had expected, at the very least, that the cabbie would be surprised, but he only looked at her with a queer I'm-glad-I'm-not-in-your-shoes kind of sympathy and said, "Victory Building, miss?"
"I guess so," Carol answered bewilderedly. Things seemed to have proceeded vastly during the night, so that the city was altogether changed. She felt like a pawn in a game whose rules she did not know, and she could not imagine at what point in the future she would be again allowed to take her fate into her own hands.
Then she saw the traffic converging as though by design, upon a single point. A whole corps of uniformed policemen were directing traffic either to or from one central point--and ahead loomed the Victory Building, its peak barely discernible in the low-lying late autumn clouds.
As the cars packed closer to one another, she realized that hers was not the only ghastly cargo of deformed humanity. There were others--hundreds of others of the gruesome half-human Things.
A sob caught in her throat, and the woman-thing beside her said, "Not nice, is it?"
Not nice...no, decidedly not nice. It was vast and terrifying and inexplicable, like watching a stray star rush toward the earth, knowing that collision would mean the end of history and of men. It was cruel and mad, and there was almost nothing to do about it but press through the crowd and wait...
The taxi drew up in front of the entrance, and a man in white helped her get her passengers out. All three walked in the slow file across the sidewalk, and at the great portals, a man with a badge asked officially, "Your name, miss?"
"Carol Endicott," she said. "I'm a nurse, and these people are my doctor's patients. We want to find him...it's Dr. Skull."
Even before the man-monster behind her gasped, "Don't tell him!" she knew it had been a mistake.
The man with the badge stiffened; one hand fell heavily on her shoulder, and the other brought a whistle to his lips.
"It's the Skull's nurse!" he shouted. "Don't let her get away...!"
The pack behind her thickened. Only ahead, into the building, was there any sort of passage to escape. Carol writhed in the official's grasp, and her eyes widened as she saw the man-thing slam into her captor with terrific force. She felt the clasp of a cold hand on her wrist, and one of her patients whispered, "Run!"
They ran--up stairways, into elevators, down bewildering corridors, always with the hue and cry behind them, "The Skull's nurse! Don't let her get away!"
This is how a mouse feels, Carol thought hectically, with a cat after it...for she was not choosing her own route. Always, the pursuers seemed to circle at all but one point, as though they were deliberately leaving clear passage for her, but she dared not defy the route they seemed to have chosen for her. After all, that might just be an accident...
SUDDENLY, in a short hall between two doors, the sound of pursuit ceased. Carol had no idea where she was--and when she looked questioningly at her patients, she realized that they were looking at her in the same manner.
Echoes of the chase sounded beyond the door to the right--that settled it. Carol opened the left-hand door, and walked in.
It was very dark, but there were people moving about. Something rose up in front of her, something that was sick in an ungodly way, and it said, "What are you doing here? Do you want to be killed?"
Carol blinked, and then she saw the shape of the other occupants of the room. They were dozens of monsters, in all stages of physical and mental deterioration. Carol's monster-guide stepped in front of her as though for protection, and she heard him ask hoarsely of the creature which had just accosted her, "We were chased here. Are there many of you? Will they hurt this girl?"
The creature--he was a man once, Carol realized--shrugged his flattened shoulders. "Someone else got chased here," he said. "I'll show you what they did to him..."
He elbowed his way through the sniffling pack who stared at Carol with avid, hungry eyes, led them to a narrow cot on which lay a man. He seemed well enough, save for the long angry gashes on his face, throat, and bared chest.
Carol looked at him, and uttered a little gasp. "Dr. Steele! What have they done to you? Does anyone know?"
Dr. Anthony Steele lifted his head ever so little, and tried to grin. He didn't succeed, and Carol hadn't the heart to grin back at him. "You're that cute little nurse--of Dr. Skull's," said Steele. "I remember you--God, I'm glad to see--someone I know..."
Carol knelt beside the cot, unmindful of the stench of the sick flesh all about her. Somehow, she was glad, too, that someone he knew would be on hand when merry young Dr. Steele...No, she couldn't even think the word. But he was very low; very low and helpless...
"You tell--your doc--it's Borden," Tony Steele whispered. "He--thought I was trying to--find out too much. These people--half of 'em O.K. in the noggin; the others...plain nuts. They--did this to me. Carol, listen: Save the sane ones. Electric heart-beat--start the heart working right again. Step it up. Seventy-two a minute, like it should be. Just a hunch--but I'm sure."
CAROL stared miserably at Steele's white face. And at a light tap on her shoulder, she turned.
The thing she faced was more bloated and twisted than the others, and his skin was a vile yellowish color...But his brown eyes had bright memories.
"You know what he means?" the monster whispered. "He means that electric stimulation will cure this condition. When you get out of here, tell that to the police!"
Something about the man's voice struck a familiar chord...She must have met him somewhere, Carol thought, before this happened to him. "The police are looking for me," she said bitterly. "I'm Dr. Skull's nurse. That seems to be a crime."
The man said, "You are also someone's friend." He stepped backward, and Tony Steele was trying to talk to her again...
"That's White," he said. "A good guy, White, and lousy trick they played him...Carol!" He sat up suddenly, and his eyes were wide with fright. Carol reached her hand into the groping clasp, felt it squeezed hard. "Carol--it can't be over for me! I--didn't want to die! Didn't even want--to be a damn hero! Don't let me go--for the love of God, don't let me go!"
Carol put an arm behind the young man's shoulders, supporting him in a sitting position. "Steady," she murmured. "It's all right...all right..."
"Sure," said Tony Steele, somehow more calm. "That's better...Sure, it's all right, now."
This time, he succeeded to grin. It was a transient, brave gesture, then suddenly Tony Steele's body went heavy and inert against Carol's arm. As Carol laid him back slowly against the cot, she saw the blood spurt with scarlet finality from the long cruel line on the left side of Steele's chest...It was his heart's-blood they had taken.
Borden, he had said, was responsible. The eminent Dr. Borden was a murderer.
And then Carol heard someone else say it, heard the monster named White crying at the others, "You all know who's at the bottom of this--you all know now all of you whose minds haven't been wrecked, who your real enemies are. I'm going after Borden and his gang, and if you won't come with me, I'm going alone!"
A babel of shouts broke out, and Carol realized that most of the monsters were following White as he hurled himself against the door. She knelt beside Tony Steele's body, and wondered if the same thing had happened to Jeffrey...
Someone grasped her wrist roughly; White had come back for her. "Some of these people are staying," he said. "They're killers...You're coming with us. You'll be safer."
There was something in the hideous man's brown eyes...
Carol rose, and walked by his side through the open door, down seemingly endless corridors and rooms, and then one more door. White kicked it open, and they were facing a green-colored figure wearing a pointed mask, sitting across a desk on the other side of a glass partition.
Carol gasped, "That's the man! The one who calls himself the Oc--" but she could not finish.
For suddenly, underneath the mask, a purple light began to glow, grow stronger and larger, until it covered the whole of the face of the mask. Two gigantic eyes seemed to focus upon her, blinding her, stopping her speech.
A tremendous wave of heat seemed to shrivel her skin, as it had done on that previous occasion at the burning hospital. She heard guttural shouts all abut her, miraculously heard someone calling her name, and then she was falling, falling, into purple depths of oblivion. And from a great distance she seemed to sense, rather than hear, the cruel thin laughter of the Octopus!
THE effect of someone speaking seemed to filter into Carol's understanding as she opened her eyes. Through the dull ache of her semiconsciousness she felt she had been aware of that sound moving through her dream like the murmur of evil doom.
She saw that she was in the same room where the flash of purple light had rendered her momentarily unconscious--and about her, were the same monsters. White's arm circled her slim body with an impersonal protectiveness--and somehow, though he was hideously sick as the rest, that contact did not repulse her.
The monotone effect of their speech lingered with her, seemed to pound with peculiarly sympathetic cadence against her tortured eardrums. Perhaps it was because the very elements of her understanding had so recently been outraged; perhaps, she thought, she was still only half-conscious. Then suddenly it seemed to her that it was no human speech she was hearing.
She couldn't distinguish words in that monotone murmur, that felt as though it exuded from some sort of mechanism, yet the sound had carried conviction, as though by cadence rather than by words, and it seemed to penetrate somehow into the bases of her comprehension...And it carried a message.
She looked about her again, and saw all the monsters, including White, listening attentively. The message related to them. Carol became somehow aware that these monsters had rights--they had a right to live, they had a right to kill and perform atrocities, to preserve the living spark that animated them...just as much right to all these things as she had, as any normal person had!
Yet certainly these convictions of hers did not grow out of her own reason! Her eyes transcended her immediate surroundings, and she became aware of a cloudy glass-like partition in the middle of the room, behind which were two figures. One was Borden, the other that shapeless, bulbous mass with the long tentacles and the oddly gleaming eyes, whose light was no longer directed at her...Its motionless lack of feature suggested something ageless and evil that might have come down through centuries of untold suffering and darkness...
The message she was hearing must be emanating from that gelid mass...The purple orbs were moving, shifting. Perhaps this Thing was speaking words, but before they came through the glass screen which divided the room, they must have passed through some sort of mechanism that removed from them the elements of speech, reduced them to an eerily comprehensible murmur that carried with it a persuasive undertone of menace.
"You'll believe, or you die..." Somehow that thought intruded into Carol's mind, and every instinct in her body shrieked its willingness to believe, crying for safety and self-preservation.
White's arm tightened perceptibly about her, and her bewildered awareness was now absorbing another part of the message: The Victory Building, she found herself realizing, was the only place where the monsters could live. It was the only place where they could be fed the food they required--the blood of living things...
The man who was speaking was their saviour; it was he who had set up Borden in this most modern of all hospitals, specifically built to withstand the ravages of this new disease that was turning men into monsters with no blood in their veins...It was an altar dedicated to the salvation of those unfortunates, who were what they were through no fault of their own...
Abruptly she heard White exclaim beside her: "How will you provide us with what we require--how can we be sure that you won't fail us...That the authorities won't stop you, for you know what we need. Let us take our chances on the outside..."
The monotone murmur seemed to snap an order. The room grew dark behind the glass partition, and somewhere a door opened.
Carol screamed at the sight that met her eyes.
THEY were chained in a slave-file by the wrists and ankles, and their faces were the faces of the damned. Carol sobbed aloud when she saw them led in, for the prisoners of that evil orator were neither sick nor mad. Except for the despairing horror on their faces, and the marks of struggle on their persons and clothing, they were as normal as Carol herself.
There was an elderly woman who might have been sweet-faced two days ago, and there was a boy of thirteen who had forgotten the meaning of courage. Young and old, of mixed sexes and conditions...nearly forty of them, Carol reckoned, were led in chained by the purple-eyed guards who applied whips and clubs when the file threatened to become unruly.
The evil voice continued, and Carol knew that the people in chains were intended food for the monsters that had been human. Knew also, with a strangely hopeless assurance, that these victims had been carefully chosen for their ambiguous background, they were people without relatives and without friends who might send authorities investigating their disappearance!
That was the Satanic orator's answer to White's objection! "If you were on your own, on the outside," that toneless murmur asked, "could you do better. Indeed, could you do as well?"
She heard White cry out then, and as the pane lifted, angry-eyed guards rushed toward him.
They were rushing toward him because he still retained enough of his humanity to be unwilling to sacrifice those helpless ones for his own survival...And they were also intent upon wresting her from his protective arm.
How long, she wondered, had he been protecting her from his hungry fellow-monsters, who were now making hungry gestures in her direction?
Startled, she heard them ask White whether he wanted her...and why he wanted her, and she could read their thoughts in their shriveled eyes. Sudden fright brought her close to collapse as she tried desperately to divine White's intentions, and the other's brown eyes remained unreadable.
She realized, through the stampede of bodies that jolted the struggle between White and the guards, that the monsters were rushing upon their victims. Shrieks pierced her ear-drums, which would re-echo to those ghastly sounds as long as she lived--if indeed she could live for more than a few minutes in this charnel house of misery.
God in heaven, she thought, nothing that had been born of woman should value its own life so highly! Life wasn't worth the rending of your fellow man, the bloody mouthing of raw and unkilled human flesh...
Carol heard her own shrieks joining with the rest, and she knew she was not quite sane at that point. But sanity had ceased to exist, sanity was a hopeless memory that had gone into limbo with all other good things...
White was playing for space, dodging through the stampede, with the guards gingerly following him, as if they feared that these Frankenstein creations might slip from control, and turn red-toothed upon those who fed them...
If it had not been for White, Carol realized, she would have gone shrieking with the rest, to tear into the monsters as they tore into their hapless victims, to be trampled underfoot or torn to shreds for her blood...But White never relinquished his hold on her, he always kept a shifting arm's-length between her and the blood-crazed pack.
Through the hungry cries and the shrieks of the dying, rose the evil voice, again and again as, with monotone deviltry, he was urging his guards to capture White.
And then one of the guards reached them. Carol felt hasty hands laid irreverently on herself, and even before she cried out, White's fist came crashing against the guard's face. There was something sharply shining in her champion's hand, and she heard the startled man screech with pain as that shining thing landed between his eyes.
For a moment, they had a breathing-space, as the guard plunged headlong before them. His face was turned, but not turned so much that Carol could not see, between his staring purple eyes, the Mark of the Skull.
White, her rescuer, was the Skull Killer!
IN AN awed voice she whispered "You've killed him!" though she did not know how it happened.
White grasped her wrist, and pulled her rapidly through the crowd. Voices jelled into a chorus--and the burden of the chorus was that the Skull Killer had come among them.
Now the guards were even more loath to press toward the deformed figure of that famous avenger, and even the blood-starved sick gave him clearance of a sort in that awed moment of recognition.
It was only a moment, but by the time the madness had broken again, this time on an even more terrifying note of rage and murderousness, White had led Carol through the milling monsters.
She heard the rising babel of pursuit as he bolted the door behind him. If they were caught now, she knew, the tortures of those pitiful chained souls would be as nothing compared to her own. At the concept of pain and horror such as that, her knees wavered under her, and her breath came in sharp cold stabs through her lungs.
White looked at her, and something in those clear brown eyes gave her a reckless courage. "Don't be afraid," he said. "I won't let them get you."
Into a hidden corner of her soul she shelved her fears until such time as the cause for them should be over. In the meantime, unthinking as a child and glad of it, she trusted herself unreservedly to this monstrous champion. Outside, the clangor of attack resounded ominously against the door which was their barricade, and it could not hold forever!
THEY made a silent exit through another door, into the sterile white corridor, only to hear the approaching echo of many feet. They were being headed off. She must not doubt, Carol told herself, that this man could save her, for she would go mad if she doubted.
From both directions, that sound was growing in volume as White bolted up the corridor, and hurled his weight against a jammed door.
Twice he rammed into it, and their pursuers were coming nearer. Desperately, the third time, Carol also pitted her weight against the door--and hurtled inward as it suddenly gave.
They were in another ward, she realized, with a sudden fresh access of fright, and among other unspeakably alive things. Curiously, the lumbering creatures stared at them.
White gasped breathlessly, "They've found a cure for us. If we can only get out of here!"
A humming, monotone message interrupted him. It was the same sort of message, half-words, half-sensation, that Carol had sensed in the divided room where they had left other monsters to their dreadful feeding.
"The Skull Killer is loose," it seemed to say. "There's a girl with him, a girl with fresh red blood and they have disobeyed the rules of the institution. Be careful--he's dangerous..."
Still, the lumbering monsters only stared, and the monotone message droned on. It was clear to the girl that doors were no barrier against that incarnation of evil, and Carol's hand tightened spasmodically about the Skull Killer's.
The monsters stared and began to close in on them, in an ominous circle. White's brown eyes met theirs, and there was a tension that would break, if it broke at all, in murder--or worse...
But when it happened, the episode was too swift for Carol to realize details. For seconds later she was aware of one of the malformities springing directly at her in a wavelike, hungry surge. But even before her nerves had time to carry a message of fear to her brain, White's arm traveled in a semi-arc; there was an earsplitting yell of pain, and the monster seemed to crumble at her feet.
On the sloping, fish-belly brow, the Mark of the Skull made a smoking outline--but a fraction of that flashing action made her gasp her horror. For she noticed that as the Skull Killer pulled back his arm, the small object in his hand parted from his victim's forehead with a distinct wrench, and she caught a glimpse of a sharp point in the middle of the tool that made that fearsome print--a point that in the practiced hand of White must have smashed right through the skull-bone.
"That was self defense," she heard White murmur--and then she was screaming a warning, as the door opened behind them.
LATER, she was conscious of remembering a sickening struggle of nightmarish proportions. Through that open door had emerged two more of the malformations, but these looked somehow familiar, and afterwards she decided they must have been the monsters who originally brought her into the Victory Building.
They delved past her and White, into the mass of those others, fighting on her side...With peculiar dexterity she felt herself extricated from the melee and drawn back through that door, and then she and White were once more running through the endless, gleaming corridors.
Something in the words White gasped to her while they were running should have given her some kind of a message, she felt, though at the moment she was unable to grasp it: "They won't kill their own kind," he said. "At least--I hope they won't. I've got to get you away..."
What was there in the simple statement that she felt she should have understood--and didn't?
In the world outside, it would be late morning, a grey November morning, with no harshness in it. But here in the Victory Building there was neither night nor day, there were only miles of sterile, luminous corridor...
"What are we looking for?" Carol asked. Partly, the Skull Killer was leading her, partly he was dragging her. Her legs had long ago ceased to feel as though they had life of their own...
"There's some way of getting to the part of the building behind that glass-paned room," he whispered. "We'll get back the keys of the city if we reach that far--and I'm pretty sure we're on the right track, because the building's full of authorities and investigators, and none of them seem to have gotten here." A queer grim smile came over his yellowed face. "And if we persuade a few of these poor creatures, on our way, that the Skull Killer is a better gamble than the Octopus, it won't hurt our cause, either!"
And Carol shivered at the sight of his smile.
As their continued escape brought her never long-downed feeling of confidence nearer its healthy norm, it occurred to her that she was being something of a burden to this man--and her brain busied itself with plans and schemes for getting into the stronghold of the enemy.
The toneless voice was sending its message out again--"The Skull Killer is loose among us. Be careful--he is dangerous...you are urged to kill him on sight..." And then followed directions for the chase, giving what Carol surmised was their approximate location in the building.
Carol said, "That must be a sort of broadcast--it follows us all over, right through this part of the building. That means there's a wiring system, maybe with photo-electric cells. He knows where we are because we shut the connections...If we could find the wires, and trace them, we'd have him. I'm going to look for them right now."
The brown eyes turned searchingly on Carol then, warmly appreciative. "Bright girl," White said. "Though I doubt it's so simple."
Still, he made Carol feel good--so good that she immediately began the search for hidden wiring, pressing her palms up and down the wall, against the floor. Then a small electric shock made her hop back to an erect position, and with rapidly beating heart, she announced, "I've found it!"
THE wiring appeared only as a thinnish white ridge along the gleaming floor. It was almost imperceptible to the casual glance, but once recognized, it was easy to follow. Momentarily Carol wondered that it hadn't been hidden more thoroughly, and the same idea seemed to have occurred to White, who murmured.
"He probably didn't want this wiring out of reach of handy repair, if it ever went wrong," White murmured. "That's why it's not in the wall--thank God! Look, that's the direction we've got to go, because there's a junction."
Suddenly the constant messages changed in tenor, became addressed directly to Carol and her companion.
"Don't be fools, you two! I know you're coming--and what you seek to do is hopeless. The city is full of the dead and deformed who have only incidentally displeased me--how much more terrible do you think my vengeance will be on you who deliberately seek to ruin me? You still have a chance to save yourselves. Go back, before it is too late!"
Carol shuddered, then she heard White whisper exultantly, "He's scared! We must be almost there. He's afraid his men won't get to us in time, and he's starting to bluff!"
Carol tried hard to be sure of that, and kept her eyes downward on the guiding white ridge. Suddenly she cried out with dismay, for the ridge ended in a blank wall.
And from somewhere on the other side of the wall came a muffled series of shrieked pleas, as of a human being in prolonged death agony.
CAROL looked about the jointure of wall and floorboard, almost as though she might find a loose seam there--and suddenly she was less concerned with further progress than with defense. For people were coming toward them, and already she was conscious of the peculiar overpowering smell heralding the approach of that evil and parasitic life.
White knew it, too. He stepped rapidly in front of her, and his brown eyes, the only recognizably human feature in his face, grew suddenly cold with alarm.
There were two people, a man and a woman. Carol recognized them as the pair with whom she had come to the Victory Building. They hadn't seemed evil then, only sick...But now she didn't know. For, as the two came nearer, those grotesque faces were utterly without expression.
The omnipresent murmuring voice broke into command to the two approaching monsters. "Capture these people, and bring them to me! They are enemies of your own kind."
Carol braced herself for swift attack, but there was only the guttural voice of the man-thing, saying, "Give us light. Without the light, we are too weak."
Instantly, a dull steady indigo glare flooded the corridor. It was not strong enough to send Carol again into semi-consciousness, but her eyes smarted to the point of dizziness and her whole body trembled.
She heard White's startled exclamation, and when her eyes could penetrate the glare she realized that the dead-end wall had become transparent in the glow. And beyond that wall, was the thing whose voice had followed them through the building.
A young girl's nearly nude body was hanging taut, and suspended by the wrists from a rope in the ceiling, her feet barely grazing the floor. Her body was pitted with little black holes and it was only too obvious what had caused those holes.
The gruesome Thing with its weaving tentacles stood beside the girl; she could see the dark blood on the rim of the knifelike circular suction cups of its tentacles. On the girl's other side stood a deformed monster, drawing still more of the life-fluid from that white body, by means of a sharpened metal pipe which he had inserted in the victim's side. Carol stared, weak with horror, while the shapeless living mass was finishing its ghoulish feast with passionate greed!
Carol looked behind her, almost ready now to run recklessly back the way she had come, shrieking for human aid, but the passageway was closed.
Over a score of the misshapen, ravenous monster-things choked the corridor!
WHITE'S hand closed about hers firmly, as though he knew what berserk madness was hatching in her brain. "They won't kill their own kind," White had said--but she, Carol, wasn't their kind! The girl--the girl whose blood was being drained...They'll do that to me, Carol thought, with only death as the end of agony...
But the monsters, though they circled impassably about, made no move to attack. Their bodies seemed to wax in the purple glow, and an eerie sheen played on the sick flesh...
The green Octopus seemed to laugh softly as a tentacle reached out with a sinuously caressing movement that meant death. The nude girl's body writhed a very little bit...
THE voice came again: "When I raise this wall, my people will attend to the young lady. You, White--you're going to see that girl with you drained as this girl is being drained. I know what you are, and it's not what you pretend to be. The Skull Killer, monster though he appears, is not one of our patients."
Carol could almost hear the rigidity of the diseased bodies about her as they stiffened. "They won't kill their own kind!" but, as she had half suspected, the Skull Killer wasn't their kind at all. He was disguised, and now the Octopus had shattered the Skull's safety.
Then she realized that it was another thought which had caused the monsters to become so tensely rigid. She could not read it in their immobile expressions, but that very immobility was eloquent. It was not the Skull Killer their leashed fury waited to attack, for the Octopus, by stating that the Skull Killer was not one of his patients, had undermined the very reason for the monsters' allegiance! The disease was supposed to be epidemic, and in an epidemic, no man can say who will, and who will not be stricken. Looking upon the hideously malformed White, how could he say then, that the Skull Killer was positively not afflicted? To all practical purposes, the monstrosity had admitted to his victims that there was a deliberate plan behind their deformity--and that the plan was his!
Carol's heart pounded almost triumphantly. She looked again at the man named White, and her terror-numbed brain struggled with the thought that she should have known him. Those brown eyes...No, the identity eluded her.
Leering like a carrion thing about to strike, the Octopus rose erect, his snakelike tentacles slowly waving, and the wall began to raise!
CAROL and White were fairly swept into the chamber by the onrush of waiting monsters. Now the murmuring voice was loud with hatred. Carol, strongly fascinated by the weird, sea-green thing before her, the cupped, weaving tentacles, the hideously malformed legs, and the small mask through which glowed the purple, luminous eyes, heard orders concerning herself that chilled her to the marrow, but only for a tense moment.
After that moment, their throats raucous with a battle cry of the vengeful damned, the monsters rushed to the attack. But the object of their attack was--the Octopus himself!
Now a new voice arose in command clear and calm. It was the voice of the Skull Killer beside her and he seemed not at all surprised at the turn of events. As Carol flattened herself against the wall to avoid the trampling, seething mob of monsters, she realized that White and the two man- and woman-things with whom she had come to the Victory Building were working together as though by some carefully prearranged plan.
Again her mind flashed back to the time when those two monsters had aided her and the Skull Killer's escape from their fellows. Though she had been too dazed to realize it then, that room where the monsters had been kept, must have been a pre-arranged meeting place between White and his malformed helpers. They must have made their plans at some point either when she had been unconscious or had her attention diverted.
It had been the duty of those friendly monsters to convince their fellows that, in White's words, "The Skull Killer was a better bet than the Octopus." They had succeeded, and then followed White and herself through the long corridors, biding their time, waiting for the opportunity to avenge their wrongs.
The sight of that vengeance now sickened Carol. Man after sniveling man, Borden, and the white-jacketed orderlies, were being torn to shreds by the fury of that attack. She felt the Octopus screaming, saw the room grow darker, as those indigo eyes were extinguished. Then merciful darkness closed over her...
Slowly she became conscious of the Skull Killer's voice again. He was speaking into a microphone contained in a little glass cage set apart in one corner of the room, like the control--room of a radio station.
"This is station WVI, on top of the Victory Building, New York City. Skull Killer speaking. In reference to my previous broadcast, which promised an investigation of the Citizens' Emergency Medical Committee, that investigation has taken place. The Committee has been purged of various vicious and deadly elements which had control of it."
"The disease against which you have been warned in previous broadcasts from this same station, is no natural disease at all--but was the work of fiendish human beings. I speak of them in the past tense, because they have ceased now to exist."
There was a pause, then White went on, "You will be glad to learn that there is no further danger of contamination to you, nor need you send any but voluntary contributions to aid your stricken fellow citizens. A cure has been suggested for them by Dr. Anthony Steele, late member of the Emergency Committee, who died heroically, doing his duty as a doctor.
"Authorities are requested to come to the west wing of the forty-fifth floor of this building, where they will find corroboration of what I have just said, in a hitherto inaccessible part of the Victory Building...That is all!"
White suddenly rushed out of the glass-enclosed booth. He paused before her, his hideously swollen, yellow face inches removed from her own.
HE WHISPERED, "I must go now. When the authorities come, tell them what Steele said. That'll clear you--then tell them everything else. These--people," his arm gestured briefly towards the monsters, who had fallen silent and stood regarding him, "will corroborate your testimony, and help clear any friends of yours from charges...Do your best!"
He reached for a switch, and the room became dark. Carol was conscious of an almost overwhelming physical relief as the purple glare of the ultraviolet light was extinguished. She had hardly noticed its torturous presence in the recent excitement, but now she was weak and faint.
Strong arms encircled her, supported her. She thought they were White's, but when presently the room was flooded again with the light, she saw that he had disappeared. A frightened cry escaped her lips. She was completely alone and surrounded by the hideous, half-human malformations, and it was a woman who held her up.
"Don't worry," the woman said gutturally, "you'll be--all right."
And then the police, with their red and healthy human faces, were entering that place of deadly violet dusk...
JEFFREY FAIRCHILD picked her up at Police Headquarters. She had told her story, and had only been half-believed. Still, Jeffrey's influence had been sufficient to secure her release, and the pending investigation, the quizzing of the monsters, was all in her favor, and thus, automatically, in favor of her employer, Dr. Skull.
She wondered a little where Skull could be, and remembered the brown eyes of the monster, Robert White, the Skull Killer. She realized, shuddering, that with a little altering of the lines about them, those eyes might have been Dr. Skull's.
Had the elderly physician given himself those same treatments, that turned men into monsters, simply so that he would be able to fight that dread disease? Then she remembered the youth and strength of White... it was impossible that old Dr. Skull could have been as strong as that.
Seriously, however, she offered her surmises to Jeffrey, who laughed at them.
"Silly kid," he said indulgently. "You've just risked your life with the net effect of clearing Dr. Skull, and now it seems you've convinced everyone but yourself! Personally, I always thought those rumors about the doctor and the Skull Killer were much dream-stuff. I just saw Dr. Skull, half an hour ago, and he was no more diseased than I am."
Carol shook her head perplexedly. "I wish he'd have let me know that earlier," she said. "I suppose my job's still open?"
Jeffrey nodded. "Dr. Skull's going to do some special work at the Victory Building. You'll probably be working right there with him."
Already Jeff had opened negotiations for purchase of the skyscraper whose owners could not be found. For he realized that, with its magnificent medical equipment, the Victory Building would be a logical substitute for the ruined Mid-City Hospital in service to the community.
But the Octopus--that incredibly evil personality who had been the skyscraper's first master--would his presence really be gone forever from the place he had lorded? Jeffrey recalled those old legends of the Deathless One, and he couldn't swear that the man was dead. It had been impossible to identify all the mangled bodies after that dreadful revenge.
He forced himself to think sensibly of the whole matter. It was true that he could not account for the Octopus, nor for his purple-eyed followers, neither in their origin or nature.
Albinism, attended by a mental aberration--he thought of that as an explanation. But why should there have risen a leader for these suddenly-appearing purple-eyed albinos?
Jeffrey sighed. He had done his part in the freeing of his city; he could only continue to do his part in the interests of its welfare. If sometime in the unpredictable future that essence of evil threatened once more to test its malignant, deadly powers, the new owner of the Victory Building would have to do his part again...
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia