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Title: The Man Who Would Not Die Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304351h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2013 Most recent update: July 2016 This eBook was produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan. 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 To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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"Not even Death itself can part us," he had sworn that day. Miriam Borisoff had not believed his ugly threat until that grim procession of horrible beings came stalking her, one by one, out of the night—exacting the revenge of Satan's blood-brother!
BLUE flames flickered above the coal on the stone-framed hearth, blue phantoms of fire that threw no light into the vague tunnel of the long room. Even their warmth was cheerless, and their dull mutter ominous, as though brooding fear had found expression in the low crackle of the fire. There was no other sound, except the whispered rattle of a pulled-down window shade, whispering to the uncontrollable quiver of a slim hand that gripped its edge.
The woman whose white fingers crumpled the hem of the blind, pulling it away from the glass minutely to make a slit for her to peer through fearfully, was a taut, pale blur against the broader, vertical shadow of the window's embrasure. The man just behind her, shrouded in gloom so that only the glimmer of his white shirt-front and the pallid oval of his blunt-jawed face were visible; ached to take her slender, maturely rounded form in his arms—to cover her lips with kisses—although his scalp was a cap squeezing his skull and his spine was an icy shiver. But instead, his hand tightened on the rough butt of an automatic in the pocket of his dinner jacket; his ears strained for some hint of approaching menace.
Outside, the long slope of the hill was a boundaryless down-sweep of soft luminousness into which great white snowflakes were endlessly falling out of the night. They came down in hushed myriads, silent as Death, implacable as Time, fluttering straight down in slow haste, merging with those that had fallen before till the blanched field seemed to lift visibly, inch by inch—a rising tide of soundless doom.
But it was not the snow of which the two watchers were afraid. Not the chill smooth snow, blanketing the brown earth. The woman whimpered, far back in her throat. The man stirred, laid a hand on her bare, cold arm. "Come, dear, this is foolish. Even if you were right, he won't come tonight. No one could get here from the valley. The snow must be six feet deep by now and..."
She didn't move, but her vibrant contralto voice, tight-cadenced with the fight she was making for control, cut across his speech. "He will come. Tonight. And—and then—God help us."
"Good Lord, Miriam!" the other was suddenly gruff. "That's impossible!" The harshness of his voice rose to shrillness. "You identified his body yourself—what was left of it when they put the fire out and pulled, it out of the wrecked train."
She whirled at that, half-crouching with virulence, and her response was staccato, bitter. "Yes, I said it was he. The watch was his, and the scarf-pin. That charred, blackened thing wasn't even human, but I was sure it was his corpse. I..."
"There you are. A woman couldn't be mistaken after she had been married to a man for five years..."
"Not if he were an ordinary man, but you know what he could do to himself. The critics called him the greatest artist in make-up ever born. I am not sure that I ever saw him as he really was."
"That's more nonsense. His screen-stuff—"
"Was nothing to what he did at home. I sometimes thought that the parts he played, the monsters and madmen, had warped his soul till he became like them. He used his skill to torture me, to try and drive me insane. He came into my room once, as a bent old man, with eyes sunk in a cadaverous, leprous face—with long-nailed claws with which he tore my night clothes from me and—" She stopped, a shudder ran through her. "He was that awful old man, Ned. How do I know that his usual aspect was less of a fraud? How do I know that it wasn't my wild hope of release at last—and the thought of you—that made me certain the corpse they showed me was his?"
"No one escaped from that smoking car. He must have been killed." Ned said it defiantly but his eyes slid to the shade, smoky, still half dubious. "It is impossible that he is still alive."
Miriam seemed to be listening, listening intently for a sound that did not come. Words dripped slowly from her lips. "Then he is dead. But, alive or dead, he has sent me a message that he will be here tonight. And when he does appear—" her voice dropped to a husked whisper, "we shall not know him—until he strikes."
"A message!" Ned jerked out. "You call that a message!" He twisted. A stride of his long legs took him to the center of the room. A lamp switch clicked and light swirled down to lay a cloth of luminousness on a table-top. A tiny object seemed to gather the light into itself, tinting it yellow—a semi-circle of gold, half of a broken ring. The man glowered down at it as if it were something vile, something beyond the pale. "That piece of junk!"
Miriam spoke, startlingly beside him; he had not heard her move. "'These rings bind us indissolubly together. Even death cannot break their bond.' He said that on our wedding day, putting one ring on my finger and one on his own, and I thrilled to the romantic ring in his voice." She laughed, and the short undertone of that laugh was a curse. "Fool that I was! 'Remember that, my love, not even death.' That was just six years ago—tonight!"
"He might have said it," the man growled, "but his saying it could not make it true. He is dead, and you are rid of him forever."
"Then how did that come here?" the woman questioned. "We found it here when we came in at sunset, right here, and there were no tracks in the snow except our own, no tracks in snow that had just begun to fall and—no one in the house when we searched!"
"Your own ring—?"
"It's in my jewel box, upstairs, locked in. I looked. No. That is half of his ring he sent. Living or dead, he sent it on ahead to let us know that he would follow." Her flat, hopeless accents were utterly resigned. "Ned, can a soul be so evil that it cannot die? So vile that even Hell rejects it and it must remain earth-bound forever?"
"No!" He flung the negative at her, swept the half-ring up from the table. "Damn it, no! When a man's dead, he is eternally dead. This was in your clothes, somewhere, in a handkerchief, in your bag. It dropped out on this table when we went out and you didn't notice it."
His hand jerked. A flash of gold streaked through the murk, clinked into the fireplace, vanished between two coals into the white heart of the fire. "That's the end of that, and we'll forget it. We'll forget him too—" He whirled, seizing her, pulling her roughly to him, devouring her lips with burning, avid kisses. "You're my wife now, my wife! He's dead and gone and he cannot come between us."
"Ned! Ned, darling. I... What's that?"
They clung to each other and the ague of fear shook them. Fear hissed in the slow burning of the coals, gibbered from black shadow-pools beyond the lamp's radiance. Terror was a living presence in the room, brooding in the white silence outside the close-pulled blinds. Fear was a voice calling from that silence—a long-drawn wail, snow-muffled, that rose, died away, and came again—nearer. "He-e-lp! He-e-lp!"
Ned moistened dry lips. "Miriam. It's someone out in the storm, calling for help. Someone in the snow!"
"Someone in the snow," the woman repeated, shuddering. Then as the man moved, "No! No, Ned!" Her fingers snatched at him feverishly, caught his lapels. "Don't open the door. Don't go out. Maybe..."
He hesitated, his mouth tightening. "But dear," he almost groaned. "This is the only house in miles. That snow is death to anyone on foot. I..." He checked himself as the cry came once more.
Miriam stiffened; her hands ceased their flutter. "That sounded like a woman, Ned. A woman." Her whisper was plaintive. "He could not imitate a woman's voice, could he?"
The man pulled her wrists away from his coat. "I don't know and I don't care. I'm going out to see. Woman or ghost or devil, I'll take care of you." Saying it flogged his own courage to belief. "I'm not skulking here like a scared dog any longer." The feel of the gun in his hand was comforting as he thrust out through the portières to the entrance hall, his broad shoulders swinging.
There was no wind, but the snowfall had redoubled so that the beam of the flashlight he had snatched up in the foyer shone against a white wall only a few feet ahead of him, unrevealingly. He went knee deep into wet softness that clogged his legs; wet lumps settled on his mackinaw and uncovered head. "Hello," he yelled, and the snow-filled air swallowed his shout. "Hell-o-o, where are you?"
Silence again, and the soft hiss of the descending flakes. Ned's skin prickled to the sensation of unseen eyes watching him, inimical eyes somewhere in the snow-filled night. He threw a haunted glance over his shoulder. Nothing was there but the blanketed loom of the house, its windows black, irregular oblongs against the white. "Where are you?" he called again.
A moan answered him, to the right, not far off. It couldn't be far off or he would not have heard it. He plowed a step in that direction, swung his torch, and its ray picked out a curling mound in the snow—a mound that was not yet all white. He heaved to it, saw brown fur, shaggy, framing an incredible face. It was huge, unbelievably large. Beetling eyebrows and the faint down of a mustache were ice-speckled. There was something unmistakably feminine about it; but something evil, too, as only a woman can be evil.
Ned shuddered, but he thrust the gun and flashlight into pockets, bent, and pushed his arms under the great bulk. He could not lift her; he had to drag her, and the snow fought silently, viciously, to keep its prey. Another yard—he thought as he felt stone steps under him—and he might not have made it. "Miriam! It's all right. Open up!"
The knob rattled above him; warm air swept out and around him. Miriam was at his side, helping him with his burden, sobbing a bit. "She's frozen, exhausted. Oh, the poor thing! And I—wanted to keep you from helping her."
They had her on the floor, near the fire. Her fur coat was a dark pile near the table, lying in a gathering pool of melted snow. She was tremendous, her lax arms elephantine, the slow heave of her bosom like nothing so much as the swell of the sea. Her face was dough-colored, was like a blob of unshaped dough. Straggly black hair was plastered against the dead-white of her forehead. "I'll give her some whiskey, Ned, and you go up and get the blankets from our bed. We've got to get her warm."
The man stripped off his wet mackinaw as he hurried through the entrance hall, tossed it over the banister-post of the stairs up which he ran. Pitch blackness greeted him in the upper corridor, but he did not stop to switch on a light. He would be up here only a moment, and he would have his hands full when be returned.
His footfalls thudded on thick carpeting, echoed—did they echo? He stopped short, his throat drying, and those other footsteps stopped too. Of course what he had heard had been an echo. Something, the snow perhaps, had made this hall reverberant. Why, his very breathing was unnaturally loud in the quiet up here.
But he could not rid himself of the eerie sensation that he was not alone—that someone, something, was waiting in the dark. Ned's hand stole to his pocket, fumbled in, fumbling for the gun, felt only cloth. He had forgotten it—left it in the thick-fabriced, short coat down below. He bit his lip, shrugged. He'd get the blankets, get down again. And get the automatic out of the mackinaw pocket as he passed.
A little light seeped into the bedroom. Ned stripped blankets from the bed hastily, turned back to the door. What was that thrumming noise? Did it come from within the house or from outside? Just as he heard it, it stopped, and silence swept in again. It had sounded almost like a laboring automobile motor, but no auto could be passing on the hill road, deep as it was in the clogging snow. What then? Could... A scream sliced the darkness, "Ned! Ned!"
"MIRIAM! Coming, Miriam!" Ned hurtled down the hall, flung himself down the long stairs, twisted and jerked aside the curtains hiding the living room. Against the blue glow from the fireplace a heaving mass swayed. Miriam screamed again, and Ned saw that the monstrous woman from the snow towered erect. One ham-like hand was tangled in his wife's long, golden hair, dragging so that Miriam's body was arched backward, her white neck stretched taut. The woman's face was contorted, a clammy gargoyle of mad fury, and a knife gleamed in her other upraised hand even as Miriam's small fists beat unavailingly at her pillowed, shaking breasts.
Ned's legs exploded under him like uncoiled springs. He flung himself across the room, catapulted through the murky air, quivering with horror, hurled himself against the sickeningly soft mass of the woman's frame. His right hand snatched at, clutched the sharp blade of the descending knife; his left fist thudded against her chin. It smacked, rather, for there seemed to be no bone under the fleshy roll. The fat dew-lap seemed to suck his knuckles in—to nullify the force of the blow as putty would have. Ned gasped, twisted at the knife. He did not feel its cut, but his hand was suddenly scarlet, glistening. He pounded at the grayish face, at the beady, reptilian eyes; he might have been flailing at a statue of undried clay for all the effect his frantic blows had.
He heard sounds, like the plop of a steam bubble in geyser mud; he felt movements like the stirring of primordial slime in the huge body against which he strained—and a clammy hand was on his neck. Cold, moist, formless, the puttylike mass seemed to spread till blobbed fingertips met over his throat, firmed and tightened. They tightened slowly, inevitably, till his breath whistled through his squeezed windpipe, till it was cut off and his lungs were bursting. Tiny lightnings danced before his bulging eyes—vanished in a black swirl of billowing blackness. Agony stabbed mercilessly through his chest, pounded his temples. The blackness invaded his brain...
Dull sound exploded somewhere finally, and he could breath again. He pulled air into his tortured lungs, went down under a sudden smothering bulk that fell on him and bore him to the floor. His vision cleared; he saw Miriam standing over him, holding in her hand splintered wood that had once been a small end-table. Her mouth was a black circle in her pallid, distorted face. Blood roared in his eyes, through its rumble he heard: "—right? Ned! Are you all right?" He knew that it was her voice that he heard.
"Yes." The monosyllable was a croak that rasped his throat. "Yes, dear. You?"
"I—I think so." Her hair was an aureate cascade over the white round shoulders from which the gossamer frock had been torn. Her eyes were wide, dark pools of terror. Ned heaved; the flaccid mass overlaying him slid off; he realized that it was the woman who had repaid rescue by a murderous attack. He sat up, pain racking him. "Ned! Your hand! Your poor hand!"
He felt dull pain-throb in his right hand, looked down at it dazedly. It was a scarlet mass of blood, dripping from a gash clear to the bone across the palm. "Nothing!" he muttered. "Nothing, dear. Tie—it up. What—what happened?"
"She let go of me—was choking you, killing you. I had to do something. I grabbed this up, hit her over the head. She—"
"Brave—girl." Somehow he was on his feet, clamping his wrist to stop the blood flow. "But—before. How?"
"There are no bandages in the house. I—"
"Handkerchief—my pocket." The room was whirling dizzily. Ned fumbled to a chair, sat heavily down. Miriam was over him, the sweet scent of her around him warm, grateful, as she bound his wound.
Her voice was a murmur in his ears. "I got some whiskey between her lips. She came to, grabbed the bottle from me and half of it was down her throat in a flash. I tried to take it from her and, suddenly, she was a crazed thing. She heaved to her feet, had me by the hair and was pulling that knife from her bosom before I knew what was happening. I screamed for you—her eyes—Ned—hell itself burned in her eyes. She laughed, horribly, the knife was coming down—and then you were there..."
"Good Lord! If I'd been a second slower—She must have wandered in the snow for hours, driven mad by her sufferings. She—"
"Ned." Miriam's fingers trembled as she pulled the improvised bandage tight. "Perhaps he—sent her. Or maybe—" She stopped but the unspoken thought quivered fearsomely between them.
The man forced a laugh. "Silly. She is a woman, isn't she?"
"Yes. I loosened her clothing. She is a woman, but—"
"But nothing. Listen, sweet, get that damnable idea out of your head. With all his foul cleverness he couldn't change his body, his sex. Besides, he's dead, six feet under. He's—"
"That's it. That's just it. He's dead, but his hate lives on. And—Oh God!"
Sudden pounding reverberated like thunder through the house. It choked off Miriam's speech, pulled Ned's head slowly around till he stared fearfully at the opening into the entrance hall. The hammering stopped, was renewed—a booming hollow sound like the beating of savage drums. Her hand slid into his un-bandaged one, fluttered there—icy.
"It's—at the door," Ned pushed the words through stiffened lips. "Someone—knocking."
"Someone—Who, Ned? Who? In this storm, this snow, who?"
"I—don't know." The sound was a steady thump, implacable, demanding. He pushed himself up out of his chair. "Got—to see."
"Ned! He—" She clung to him, her face gray with terror, "If it is he—"
The man put her from him, gently. "There's no danger." His drawn cheeks denied the bravado of his words. "I'll get my gun—" The thought warmed him a bit as he made his legs move through the viscous invisible fluid that seemed to sap the strength from them. Miriam whimpered behind him, he was out in the foyer. The knocking was loud on the other side of the bolted, sturdy door. One hand found the rough cloth of his coat, still hanging on the banister-post. His bandaged right dipped into its pocket for the automatic.
It wasn't there! The other, then. His fingers felt the cold round of the flashlight—and nothing else! A steel band constricted Ned's forehead. He reeled, pulled himself back against the banister. Who—?
There was an instant's silence, quivering with unutterable fear, a muffled shout reached him and the thumping on the door resumed. He must have lost the gun in the snow outside, dragging the woman in. That was it—it had slipped out of his pocket into the snow. No one had taken it from the coat. No one could have taken it from the coat; there was no one else in the house. But someone was trying to get in!
He managed the few steps to the door, leaned against it. "Who is it?" he called. Then more strongly, "Who's there?"
The knob rattled under his hand. "Let us in!" The voice was far away—no, it was close by. The thick wood made it faint. Ned shook his head, trying to clear it, trying to think. If Miriam were right—but she couldn't be. The dead stayed dead, and Pavel Borisoff was certainly dead.
God but his hand hurt now. "Who's there?" he shouted.
"State-police. Open—door." Relief whistled spent breath through Ned's teeth. His fingers shook as they rattled bolts out of their sockets, clicked the lock over, turned the knob. The big oak portal swung inward, pushing him aside. Two figures surged into the hall, flat caps of fur piled high with snow—snow deep on thick shoulders. Boots were clotted with clinging flakes, but between their tops and the border of the sheepskin short-coats, the gray-green breeches of the rural constabulary showed.
"'Bout time," one grunted gruffly. "What's the matter in here, everybody asleep?"
The big trooper who spoke stamped brawny legs and pulled a furry collar away from his face. It was blue-jowled, brutish. Ned's skin crawled at the heat in his eyes but he contrived a hoarse, "We've had trouble. A woman—"
"Big female, face like a fat cow and arms like elephant's legs?" the officer interrupted eagerly.
"Yes. How did you know? She..."
"Yes, hear that, Dan? She's here. Fat Frieda's here!" Then to Ned. "Where is she? She do any damage?" He saw the blood-stained bandage and his hand went under his coat, came out with a blued, squat revolver. "Gawd, I see she did. Is—"
"She's knocked out."
"Cripes! How'd you do it? I'll be damned if I'd want to meet up with her alone. Wrung a matron's neck and sliced a guard's gullet before she got away from Loomis."
"Looney house up at Vinefield. Didn't you—"
"Yes. I remember. Where the penitentiary is, too. So she's insane. No—"
"She dead?" The other officer was shorter than the first. There was a whine in his voice and his face was pinched, somehow wolfish.
"We'd better get the cuffs on her then before she comes to."
The taller cop turned to a door in the wall to the left, but Ned stopped him. "Not in there, that's the dining room. She's in here." He pointed.
"Oke," crisply. "Come on Dan. Get your cuffs out."
"How're we goin' to get the car started? How're we goin' to find it? How're we goin' to lug her through th' damn' snow? She weighs a ton." Dan's words ran together, complainingly, but steel clinked in his hands and he was first through the archway. Miriam was a white flame in the center of the room, her eyes wide. She saw the officers and her hand went up, pulling the shreds of her dress around her shoulders. The taller one grinned at her, but Dan went right past her, knelt at the side of the stertorously breathing flesh-mass they had called Fat Frieda. His hands moved deftly and his cuffs clinked around her wrists. "Gimme yours, guy, for her ankles."
"Oke. Here they are." The other tossed them, holstered his gun. "She won't bother you none with them on, ma'am. Your husband tells me there was a shindig here."
"Yes. Yes, she did make a fuss." Ned wondered why her face didn't lighten, why that little muscle twitched at the corner of her mouth. There was nothing to fear any longer. The two policemen could be persuaded to stay the night. Their guns would protect them against any peril, fancied or otherwise.
Dan got to his feet, stood looking down at his prisoner. "An' they expect me to haul that in to the station by myself? Ain't that like 'em? If I hadn't met up with you—"
"Place looks like she did," the other went on, ignoring his partner's complaints. "But you ain't got nothin' to worry about now. Private Bill Sloane of the State Police will see to that."
Dan half-turned, appeared puzzled about something. "You'll stay till morning?" Ned asked eagerly. "Your friend is right, you couldn't get anywhere in this snow."
"Sure, we'll stay. I wouldn't go out again in that for money." Sloane was gruffly hearty. "I—"
"My orders are to bring her in pronto, Sloane, if I find her. You know the regulations." Dan's voice had lost its whine, there was a new quality in it, vibrant. "You may be on vacation, as you said, but I'm on patrol." His hand moved toward his gun-butt, checked.
The bigger man came around, lazily, but his cheek-muscles hardened. "You said it, Dan Regan. I'm on vacation an' I'm stayin' here." Tenseness had suddenly come back into the room, the peculiar tenseness of a thunderstorm just before it breaks. "I can't see how you're goin' to manage it alone."
Miriam's eyes caught Ned's. She was trying to signal something to him, trying to get a silent message across to him. He didn't understand, but the hair at the back of his skull bristled, inexplicably. He seemed to be caught up in an intangible maelstrom of eerie dread. The clash between the uniformed pair was somehow more meaningful than the mere disagreement as to procedure it appeared on the surface. It involved him, obscurely, and Miriam.
"Alone!" Dan's word crackled, and his gun was suddenly in his hand, snouting point-blank at the other trooper. "Reach, damn you! I had a hunch there was something wrong about you when you asked for a lift. Now I know—"
Shot-crash pounded to the lance of orange flame from Dan's gat as Sloane dropped to the floor, rolled to the bulking shelter of a heavy sofa. Shot-crash answered from the floor; a red streak whipped across Dan's cheek and stone-dust spurted from the mantel behind him. He was down too, sheltered by the mound of the madwoman's massive frame—Ned leaped to Miriam, thrust her against the wall. "Oh, God," she whimpered, "oh dear God!"
There were no more shots as the antagonists lay flat behind their respective shields. No more shots, but the tang of cordite was the perfume of death in the opponents' nostrils, and death poised, grinning, avid, for an incautious move on either's part.
"Alone!" Dan snarled. "No trooper would run out on a pal, snow or no snow. You fooled me for a while, but that crack tipped me. What's your game?"
"That's for me to know, wise guy, and for you to find out." Sloane growled from the safety of the thick-padded, heavy sofa. Miriam's fingers tightened on Ned's shoulders.
"It's up now anyway," Dan snarled. "You can't stay there forever. Throw your gun out in the middle of the floor and maybe I'll forget one of the charges against you, resisting an officer. That'll take six months off your sentence, whatever else you get."
The one who called himself Sloane laughed grimly. "Guess again, trooper. Mebbe I can't hit yeh without drillin' through Fat Frieda, but the other lady's right over my sights an' I kin burn lead into her without battin' an eyelash."
In the shadows where he lay across the floor, Ned could see the pseudo trooper's eyes, weird red balls glaring out of the gloom. Something in their uncanny light sent a shiver of sickish dread through him that was distinct from the sharp flare of fear for Miriam. Despite the heat radiating from the burning coals, a feverish chill quivered in the room—a chill that seemed to transmit itself to the woman's body, pressed against him. Ned's heart was a leaden lump in his breast.
"You—yellow-belly!" Dan's curse was a groan. "You wouldn't do that. It's a dog's trick."
"Try me," the other chuckled, evilly. "Just try me, mister. I'll give you till I count five. One—"
He mouthed the count with a sadistic, avid drawl and Ned knew that the man longed to hear the thump of lead into white feminine flesh—to see blood spurt over rounded breasts.
"Two—" Even if Dan surrendered there was no safety for Miriam. He who called himself Sloane would have them all his mercy, then and that was what he had come for!
"Three—" Each tolled syllable retched Ned's stomach, popped bitter fluid into his throat. His right arm was around Miriam, clutching her to him in a frenzy of despairing farewell, but his left hand crept along the wall, feeling its wood-paneled surface, groping.
"Four—" He knew an intaglio plaster cast of Janus was hanging there. He found it, clutched it, ripped it from its fastenings in one convulsive movement and hurled it! It crashed against blued metal of Sloane's gun, smashed to a thousand fragments. Flame spurted, thudded into the floor. Dan was up—the pound of his shot a thunder-clap; its flash, a lightning-bolt. Sloane jerked, screamed once—horribly. His long body twisted out from behind the sofa spasmodically—and was limply still. A dark stain spread on the rug, alongside his breast.
Dan twisted, thrust a gnarled hand at Ned. "Thanks, buddy," he growled. "I was just goin' to give in."
Miriam sobbed. Ned went over to her. She was crushed against the wall, her arms outspread, palms flat. But her face was alight. Terror and consuming dread had lifted from it. Her lips moved. Ned bent closer. "I felt that it was he as soon as I saw him. And now he's really dead—at last."
Ned brushed a kiss across her lips, turned to look once more at the corpse over which Dan was bending. Borisoff had been as big as Sloane. It was like his malevolent cunning to have gained entrance to the house disguised as a trooper. How he must have laughed inwardly at his meeting with the veritable officer, making his ruse certain of success. But how had he escaped the train-wreck? The smoking-car into which he had gone had been smashed to splinters by a following locomotive, and then had flared to a fiery pyre. There was no hint even of burn-scars on this dead man. And how had he managed to get the half-ring onto the table, hours before?
"Jeez!" the State cop looked around, his nostrils flaring, his voice low, tense. "What do you know? This guy's Stan Lindinger—one of the two yeggs who broke out of the pen day before yesterday. Look!" He pointed. Ned saw that he had opened the man's shirt, saw a puckered scar at the base of the corded neck. "Another con did that with a file—two years ago." Dan's mouth worked. "Fifteen grand reward in my pocket—just like that!"
The words beat dully against Ned's numbed brain. "Pen—two years." In those two years Borisoff had stalked across a million screens, his incredibly gruesome portrayals distorting light into blood-chilling horror. This wasn't he, then. The menace still hung over Miriam, over him—the menace heralded by the inexplicable appearance of the half-ring that was now a lump of molten gold.
Heavily, like a black pall, fear settled down on him once again, gelid fear that seemed one with the dark pools of shadow lurking along the oak-paneled walls and in the far corners of this room where the only lights were from the bright cone beating down on the round central table and the red glow of the aging fire. And with it—an obscure premonition of horror yet to come—there crept over him the weird feeling that he whom they dreaded was close by, watching with narrowed, evil eyes the flutterings of these beleaguered humans against the slow closing-in of inescapable doom.
THE jelly-like bulk of the mad-woman stirred, pulling Ned's glance to her. Her lewd eyes stared at him from the formless expanse of gray-white flesh that was her face. Her incongruously small mouth was edged by a mirthless, obscene smile. He knew that she was shackled, hand and foot, yet a ripple of apprehension prickled Ned's spine, and he felt again the smooth yet implacable pressure of her clammily soft fingers about his neck. His hands knotted—then he saw that Dan was watching him queerly. He forced unmeaning words to his tongue. "An escaped convict, eh? Had you fooled nicely!"
"Said he was from Scottsville station, other end of the state. Busted in a crap-game and hiking back to his station when the snowstorm caught him. I was just startin' to follow Frieda's tracks, draggin' into your field, an' I was glad o' help. Didn't ask too many questions. Gawd! He almost got me!" The cop shrugged his shoulders. "You never know..."
"How about some hot coffee, trooper?" Miriam's tone was natural, as it had not been since they had come in and found the broken circlet of gold. "You must be frozen." It was evident she had not heard Dan's identification of Sloane; still thought he was Borisoff. Ned started to speak, tightened his lips. Better that way; she had endured enough already. From now on he must watch for her as well as himself.
"Cripes, lady," Dan was answering her, "that would be swell. I ain't got the cold out of my bones yet."
"We'll soon fix that," she threw over her shoulder, moving lithely toward the hall.
"Wait!" Ned snapped. "Wait!" Miriam turned, looked inquiring. "I'm going with you, I'll help you." It sounded lame after the urgency of his exclamation. Miriam didn't notice that, but the trooper caught the inflection and his glance flickered to Ned's face again, flickered away. "I'll set the pantry table while you put up the percolator. I couldn't swallow anything in here."
They went through the curtains, across the foyer. Melting snow made a pool on the floor. Ned glanced at his mackinaw. Queer! He had been so certain that he had thrust the automatic deep into his pocket out there, that he had tucked in the flap. But it must have fallen out in spite of that. No other explanation for its disappearance was within reason. Reason! What had reason to do with this mad night—with the fear that still brooded blackly within him?
"I was so happy when he brought me through that door and told me he had built this house for me, that it was mine. I thought it meant that he had changed, that life with him would no longer be hell." Miriam had paused, musingly, with her hand on the knob of the dining-room door. "That was what he wanted me to think. Disillusion would be all the more poignant."
Ned pulled her to him, drank greedily of her lips. "That's all over now, sweetheart. I'll make it all up to you." Brave words, but a bell seemed to clang within his skull, a deep-toned gong of warning, and the kisses could not warm his blood. He held her in his arms. The longer he held her, the longer it would be before she opened that door. He was afraid of what might be within!
But she pushed him from her, tenderly, her eyes starry. She turned the knob. Blackness glowered at them. She clicked a switch beside the door frame—Ned blinked to the sudden light. His vision cleared. No one was there. He laughed silently at his fears. The darkly gleaming oval of the big table seemed to fill the room with its broad expanse. A long flat shadow lay across it.
Ned froze, staring. Directly in the centre of the glowing oak, stubby and ominous, was his automatic! Light splintered on it, flashed from it to stab his brain...
Glass crashed from the living room. A shot pounded. A man shrieked in agony, and as Ned snatched up the gun, whirled, shouted, "Stay here, Miriam!" The turmoil was cut off by sudden silence. "Stay here," he repeated and was out in the foyer, across it, lunging against velvet fabric that whipped across his face and blinded him. It held him like something alive, virulent. He ripped the portières aside, plunged through, stopped just within them. A vicious, bestial snarl—an animal-sound—greeted him from thick darkness. There was the acrid, pungent odor of burning flesh.
What he saw photographed itself on his mind. It was implanted forever like a deep-branded nightmare terror. The lamp was out, red embers were scattered on the hearth. The little trooper lay face down atop the hot coals. The still quivering haft of a knife projected from his back; a dark fluid welled around its buried blade. Frieda's mass was gone from the floor!
A cold wind chilled Ned's cheek. The snarl came again—pulled his aghast eyes from the murdered man to where something loomed against the jagged, pale aperture of a smashed window. The thing moved, growling. A pallid glow from the snow-filled night fell across it. It was a veritable giant of a man, stripped to the waist, bloody gashes netting his torso, blood masking his face so that Ned saw only crazed eyes and long green fangs revealed by pulled-back, black lips.
The intruder bounded forward into a shadow, bounded forward, long arms lifting, curved claws hooking. Ned crouched to the attack, jerked up his gun, pulled the trigger. A click answered him, a mocking click. He had time only to realize that the magazine had been stripped when the sweaty, fetid monster thudded down on him, overwhelmed him with its stink and horror, pounded him down with its blood-slippery weight...
His skull crashed violently against wood. Miriam screamed somewhere. Bursting oblivion took him...
Ned weltered up, slowly, painfully, through agony-filled blackness—through a gibbering chaos of madness and despair—till drab consciousness tugged at his eyelids and dragged them open. A slaughter-house stench was in his nostrils, the odor of blood and burned flesh—human blood and human flesh! The eerie pale glimmer of a sky from which snow fluttered, sifted into the room, obscuring rather than illuminating it. The pain-wracked man pushed himself to a sitting posture, wondering that he was still alive—that he had not been torn to bits by the half-human monster which he had glimpsed for an appalling second.
He was alive, miraculously. Strength seeped slowly into his muscles and he staggered to his feet, staggered to a wall-switch that no one had thought to use during the swift succession of horrors this room had witnessed. His thumb pressed the white button, and a chandelier, high in the beamed ceiling, spilled yellow light on a shattered shambles that had once been a luxurious living room.
Ned's aching stare fumbled to the fireplace. It held only gray ashes now, and Dan's flaccid form. The madwoman was gone. Only a great clotted stain showed where Sloane's corpse had lain. Bloodstained splinters of glass lay on the floor beside it, on the couch that had been a barricade for the fraudulent trooper. Jagged splinters of glass framed the window above it, and the sill of that window was wet with blood and melted snow.
The shattered threads of his brain began to knit together, slowly, painfully. The half-nude giant must have smashed that window, surging through it reckless of sharp edges tearing his flesh. He must have plunged his knife into Dan's back so suddenly that the officer had had time for only one shot, one scream. And then—but what had become of Frieda and of Sloane's body?
Ned's burning gaze searched the rest of the floor. They were nowhere. But—his skin crawled—but what was that? That yellow gleam just at the edge of the curtains—just where they closed the archway and hugged the floor?
The tiny thing wiped horror from his mind with greater horror. A tiny thing—a semi-circle of gold—its ends serrated, broken. Half of an old fashioned wedding ring. The other half of the ring that had brought dread and nameless fear into this house.
HE WAS in the house! Pavel Borisoff! The bloody, green-fanged giant was Borisoff. He had come at last to claim his wife, Miriam! Her name, the thought of her, was a red-hot iron searing Ned. Miriam! He had her! He had her in his evil clutches—that devil, that fiend whom hell itself had rejected! Ned pushed himself away from the wall, whirled, started through the curtains.
Started through! His legs thumped against something hidden by the dark velvet! He fell forward; his flung-out hand plunged into an oozy, squashy mass, queasily repulsive even in that instant of falling. His other hand felt rounded, cold flesh. He sprawled across a hulking body, rolled away from it. And he lay, shuddering, on the foyer floor, staring at that over which he had fallen.
It was the nude, green-fanged giant! No longer green-fanged. His head was a pulped, unrecognizable mass into which Ned's hand had squashed. Ned's stomach turned over; nausea retched him. Then the significance of the sight penetrated and he heaved to his feet, his throat rasping to his cry: "Miriam! Miriam! Where are you?"
The squealed, hysterical call sliced silence—was quenched by the same silence. The spasm that had brought Ned erect—that ripped the cry from him, passed—was succeeded by a rigid paralysis holding him immobile, voiceless. Only his eyes were alive and they were focused on a thick iron bar, a black bar smeared with red and with gray. This was the weapon that had pounded—he understood now—had pounded through the curtains, killed the giant and saved his life. Saved him—but had it been meant to save? Whoever had wielded it had struck through the curtains, had crashed it into darkness. Only in that very instant had the giant's head loomed over his own head to take the blow. And in that same instant, Borisoff's half-ring had dropped to where he had found it, from a pocket of the person who struck that blow!
That one was Borisoff! But who, in God's name, who? Not Dan, lying inside, murdered. Not Frieda—Miriam said she was a woman, truly a woman. Not Sloane—shot dead long ago—shot dead—Ned's whirling mind stuck at that. Perhaps those once dead and returned to life can not again be killed!
Blood thumped in his temples, pounded in his ears. Miriam—what had he done to her? Where had he taken her? That pounding was not in his ears. It was a slow thump, thump, thump from somewhere beneath. The floor shook to it. It pounded against the soles of Ned's feet, up his tensed legs, pulsing life back into him—horror-filled, black-brained life, quivering to the obscure, utter terror of that slow dinning that was so like the leisurely blows of a hammer driving nails into a coffin-lid!
Ned's face was a blood-spattered, stony mask of grim despair. His sunken eyes were dead orbs in which smoldered twin hell-candles of hate and vengeance. He bent jerkily—picked up the brain-smeared bar, straightened. He moved, fancying that he heard the creaking of his pain-stiffened joints. The muffled, significant thumping continued; his body twitched to each dulled impact as if it were a sledge-blow at the base of his spine. Half-crouched, he sidled to a door in the stair-casing; a door that led to the cellar from which that sound must come. He fumbled it open, eased through.
The door closed behind him without noise, and blackness engulfed him. But the pounding was louder, clearer. Each thump was a clink of metal on metal, under laid by a curious, soft thud that rippled inexplicable horror through him.
Someone whimpered below. A husky, sexless voice said: "It's pretty, isn't it, my lovely one? But you'll look even better. Ah, yes!"
Ned tried to hurry but his terror-bound muscles would move just so fast, and no faster. He curved around the winding steps, and the darkness lightened slightly to dimness. The voice came again: "One more, then it's your turn." The hammer-pound slowed, as if it were reluctant to quit its task.
Ned made the last turn.
A single pendant light spread hazy illumination in a vaulted basement. High stone arches were supported by vertical posts of bark-stripped logs. Directly ahead Miriam lay, bound with strips of her own gown that cut into her white arms, into the firm loveliness of her bared thighs. To one side, somehow fouler by contrast with his wife's sweet curves, loomed the gross mass of the madwoman. Her monstrous countenance was contorted, blood-engorged. Her too-red lips were parted in lewd ecstasy. The ruptured chain of a handcuff dangled from the wrist of one upraised, columnar arm, and its hand clutched a short-handled, heavy-headed hammer. Arm and hammer swept down—to crash on a gleaming spike projecting from a throat, from the encarmined throat of Sloane. His naked, big-thewed frame bristled with spikes that held it to the gory wood of a splintered pillar.
Frieda grinned, stepped back to gloat over her grisly work. "He didn't last long," she lipped sorrowfully. "That bullet took most of the life out of him and spoiled the fun. But you'll be different, dearie. You'll scream sweetly, and beg me to kill you." She half-turned, chuckling. "Well, now, if you haven't gone and fainted. I'll have to go upstairs and get some water for you, so that you won't miss anything." She came fully around—and fury blazed in her face as she saw Ned, immobile with horror. She squealed, lumbered toward him.
Ned jerked awake. The bar he held snapped up, whistled as it flew from his hand, straight at the straggly black of her head. Incredibly agile, she flung her hammer-hand up, parried it. The iron crashed against the tool, both arced through the air. From his slight elevation, Ned hurled himself at her. The top of his head thudded between pendulous, pillow-like breasts; his fists flailed into gruesome softness. The madwoman went down before his sudden onslaught; he pounded frantically, blinded by his frenzy, shaken by the red lust to kill that possessed him. The mass under him rolled over, was atop him, crushing him with its loathsome weight. Panic exploded desperate strength in him. He heaved, threw her off momentarily, rolled away. She squirmed after him, uncannily swift—clamped doughy, irresistible fingers on his ankle, hauled him back to her. He glimpsed her slavering mouth and the lurid laughter in her mad eyes. His other leg jerked up, straightened, its shod foot sank into her belly.
An inhuman screech burst from her, her hold left his ankle—and clamped on his throat! She rolled over atop him again; she flowed, rather, like some un-skeletoned, protoplasmic horror from primeval slime. He was flat on his back, his useless arms outstretched to either side, the back of his head grinding into the slimed concrete floor of the cellar. The boneless fingers on his throat tightened. Suddenly they ceased the slow increase of their pressure, but held their lethal squeeze.
Dimly, through the roaring in his ears, he heard viscid words drip from the fish-belly gray of the amorphous face above him. "No! Not so easy, my love. I have spikes enough for you and her too. She shall share my sport with you."
Her meaning penetrated, and obscurely, Ned was glad. He would take long to die—he determined—very long, thus delaying the inevitable torture that must come to Miriam when he was gone. Perhaps—indomitable hope still smoldered within him even now—a miracle would occur to save his wife.
The woman-fiend slightly released her sodden weight. Her other clammy hand gripped his shoulder to lift him—just as a calf might be lifted by the butcher—to the column against which he was to be crucified. She handled him as one would a toy. He felt cold metal press into his hand, the sharp edges of the bar.
His fingers constricted, gripped. His arm-muscles lashed upward. The iron was a live thing in his hand. It seemed to fly up of its own volition. Bone crunched sickeningly; the red-gleaming, pig small eyes above him were suddenly glazed; blood gushed from the tiny, lascivious mouth, spewed its foetid nauseating warmth over him. Jelly-like weight thumped down on him, but his throat was free and he could breathe again.
There was almost no strength left in him. He crawled toward Miriam, lay full length on the floor as he worked at her lashings. But her dear voice, even edged by hysteria, was limpid, musical, in his ears. "I saw you come down the stairs, pretended to faint so that I could close my eyes for fear their expression would betray you. Then I heard the crash of your bar, looked and saw you fighting with her. I saw that the bar had landed here, right here where I could reach it with my tied hands, but I couldn't do anything more—couldn't do anything to help you until just now when she had beaten you. Then I managed to squirm a bit nearer and get it into your hand. I was afraid, my sweet, deathly afraid that I was too late."
"Nothing to be afraid of any more. But we're going to get out of this house, snow or no snow, as soon as I get you loose."
"Out of this dreadful house!" It was a prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving. "And never come back. But even in your arms, Ned, I shall dream of what I saw in that entrance hall."
"I know, I saw it."
"And that bar was at the woman's feet. I screamed. She whirled, had her hands on me before I could move, held me helpless while she tore the rest of my dress from me and tied me up. Then she went in through the curtains, came out with Sloane slung over one shoulder. He was groaning—I was startled to realize that he was still alive—but limp, unconscious. She slung me to her other shoulder—"
"Don't talk about it. Don't think about it." Ned had Miriam's arms free, started work on the bindings of her legs. His fingers trembled, and weird, impossible thoughts crawled through the aching morass of his mind. "The curtains acted queerly as I went through them, she must have had them folded around her. But I can't understand—" His mouth shut.
"What, Ned? What?"
"Nothing, dear. Nothing important." But it was important. If the half-ring had been dropped by Frieda, she was Borisoff. But that didn't make sense. Miriam knew her to be a woman. Unless—could an outcast soul find lodging in another form—a form vacated, perhaps, by its own soul and therefore called mad? Or had Borisoff been other than human?
Heavy footfalls sounded, descending the spiral stairs.
Oh, God! It was not yet finished!
NED'S neck muscles corded so that it took all the little strength that was left in his spent body to bring his head around—till he could see at last the narrow opening in the basement wall behind which those stairs ended.
The rays of the single small lamp burning down here did not quite reach that wall. It was a misty barrier in the center of which was a vertical rectangle of darker shadow, mysterious, pregnant with dread.
The footfalls came slowly, but unhesitantly. Their very leisureliness bespoke the certainty of the doom they heralded.
Miriam's fingers were icy, death-still on Ned's temple. There was no sound in the dim basement except the implacable pud, pud, pud of that which was coming.
Light spread from the straight-sided aperture, wavering light that slid across the scummed floor and was suddenly still. The sides of the opening cut it off so that it was a glistening bar of uncanny light on that floor.
A shadow jagged the light-bar, the shadow of a clawed hand. It grew, intermittently, with the thudding approach of the threat, grew and crept toward the rigid couple till it was a gigantic hand of blackness, reaching for them.
The hand was suddenly gone. But someone stood in the opening. An oil lamp shielded by his hand threw light up on to his bulking form. It threw unnatural shadows up across his broad-planed face, made his heavy jaw, his thick lips, his heavy nose and dark-browed, abysmal eyes into a countenance of infinite threat.
Breath puffed from Miriam, forming a name. "Pavel!"
Borisoff's smile was a ghastly thing, and Ned knew that he could fight no longer.
"Tableau!" the man in the doorway said. "Enoch Arden returns to find his faithless wife in the arms of another. But this wife did not wait the conventional year to go to the arms of her lover. And this Arden does not intend to slink back into the night from which he came."
"What are you going to do to us?"
"Do?" The booming, sepulchral voice mused. "Do? I wonder. What is there that will give me greater pleasure on the night of my wedding anniversary than that which I have already had, watching your appreciation of the entertainment I staged for you? They played their parts well; the convicts I aided to escape from their cells, the madwoman to whom I supplied the knife with which she made good her evasion. I sent them here, promising them sanctuary. I regret exceedingly," mockery curdled his phrasing, "that circumstances prevented my keeping that promise. I tried to help my guests by knifing the trooper and releasing the feminine member of my trio, but—"
"You—you were here all the time?"
"All evening, watching you and laughing at you. You forgot, my dear wife, that I too might have a key to this house that I built for you, that I might not have gambled it away on the ill-fated smoker as I gambled away my watch and scarf-pin. Nor the ring. Never the ring."
"Then it was not you that...?"
"No. The joy that leaped into your face when you looked at the thing you thought was my charred corpse was uncalled for. I saw that, from the bushes where I had been thrown, passing between cars to return to you, and where I lay numbed, unable to move, but fully conscious. If there had been a single twinge of regret in your expression I might have had the farmer to whose home I was carried let you know that I was alive. But you would not have welcomed that news from the mouth of a stranger. I am sure you like it better from mine. Do you not?"
Speech returned to Ned. "Damn your soul, Borisoff! You've done enough to her. If you're human at all you'll stop torturing her with your rotten tongue. It's hell enough for her to know you're still alive."
Borisoff's demoniac smile deepened. "Ah, the gigolo is ungrateful, even though I saved his life by spilling the brains of my third guest. All right, my friend, I am a quite complacent husband. I'll stop 'torturing her with my tongue,' as you so aptly put it. On second thought, I'll even go away and leave you two here—to burn as you hoped I had burned!" He shouted the last and hurled the lamp far back into the cellar. It crashed, spattered flame; Ned saw a great pile of dried wood there, its chinks stuffed with rags and paper. He saw the blazing oil pour over that pile, saw it roar up into a flare of torrid, whirling flame. He turned back, Borisoff was gone. A door slammed above; the rattle of bolts was quite clear. Running feet thudded overhead, and another door slammed.
Unsupportable heat beat upon them already from the fiery maelstrom. Ned lifted himself from the floor, Miriam came up with him, and they dashed for the stairs, hoping against hope.
Heat surged up to them, enveloped them, and acrid smoke choked them. Cursing, Ned battered at the door—battered till his fists were bleeding, pulped—till he could scarcely breathe and could not see although the black smoke that billowed around him was shot through by scarlet glare. He felt consciousness slipping from him. Sliding down along the immovable door, found Miriam's slumped form, found her lips with his own. And hers moved a little, returning his kiss...
Something crashed, somewhere. The door against which he leaned shook. A pillar must have fallen, burned through, in the raging furnace below. Another fell sounding like the knell of a doom-bell. Voices were shouting somewhere near. How he managed it, Ned could never remember, but he contrived one frantic yell, "Help!" and knew nothing more.
Dimly, through waves of agony, Ned began to sense again. His whole body was one vast ache, inside and out. Someone said, above him, "The woman's all right but we've got to get this one to a doctor damn' quick." Ned got his eyes open and saw a red glare in the sky on a snow field with black silhouetted figures moving phantasmally about him.
"What—what happened?" he gasped. "Where—where—"
A face was bending over him, fur-capped, and under it was a collar with the insignia of the state police. A gruff, kindly voice said: "You come to, eh, guy? Gawd, we thought you'd never talk again."
"The lady's fine—didn't even get burned. You fell across her and kept the flames from her."
"How did we get here? Dan Regan 'phoned the station that he had trace of Fat Frieda. He told us he was going ahead, but to send help. We had a hell of a time getting through, and just as we got to where he said he'd be, we saw a fire blaze out through cellar windows. Took a chance on axing the door and damn' good thing we did. Second later and you'd both been goners. Was there anyone else alive in the house?"
"No. Yes. Big man—think he got out." Borisoff had escaped; there would be no peace for Miriam while he lived. And he—he wasn't her husband—never had been. The thought seared Ned's dizzy brain. He...
"Sorry, old man. Your friend got out of the house, but—" The trooper stopped. "Hell," he growled. "I'm forgettin' you're a damn' sick guy. Plenty of time for that later."
Incredulous hope stirred within Ned. "No. Tell me. Tell me now!"
"Sure yuh can take it?"
Ned nodded, emphatically, eagerly.
"Well, he must of gotten twisted around in the snow or something. Anyways, there's a well out here, covered with snow. He slipped on some ice, runnin', and tumbled into it. We got him out, but there wasn't no use. His neck's broken."
Ned's lips twitched. Then he said something that made the trooper sure he was delirious. "Can I take it? Oh boy, can I take that!"
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