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Title: The Corpse Factory Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304741h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Jan 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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Living derelicts, cast ruthlessly aside, by the power that had maimed them, they formed in time an Army of the Damned—a near-dead, moaning legion, whose fleshless faces and sightless eyes were as fuel to the flames that swept an innocent girl and man through seven fearsome hours of hell on earth!
THE road was wide and well-surfaced, as it would have to be for the trucks I had seen back there in Roton, the huge green tank trucks that brought their loads of Neosite fifty miles to the nearest railroad. But on either side the light of my headlamps sprayed out into a blank nothingness, and when the way curved their beam swept over flat swampland, vacant and desolate. The humid air, too, was heavy with a rank miasma, an odor of putrescence. I felt seeping away from me the elation with which I had started toward the biggest job of my career, the superintendency, no less, of the plant whose cheap and super-efficient product was driving other motor fuels from the market. I tried to shrug off my growing depression, but it weighed on me more and more heavily as the car that had been waiting for me at the shipping point bored on into the night.
The highway lifted in a gradual rise whose crest was sharply defined against the pale glimmer of an overcast sky. A chemical engineer should have no imagination, but I had to fight off an eerie feeling that there, just ahead, was the end of the world; that beyond was sheer emptiness. My skin prickled as I saw a formless black excrescence on that ominous skyline, a black and brooding blob of too solid shadow...Then I neared and the anomalous bulk took on human contour. Almost involuntarily my foot lifted from the gas pedal, shifted to the brake and slowed the car to a stop. I leaned out.
The fellow my headlight revealed was seated on the ground at the roadside, his long thin arms clasped around gangling, up-bent knees. I judged him to be young, about eighteen, but there was ageless vapidity in his leathery, hollow-cheeked face, dull incuriousness that was not youthful in the lackluster eyes with which he met my own. I could read not even the intelligence of an animal in his countenance; somehow it was flat and featureless as the very swamp from which he appeared to have sprung.
"How far to Newville, buddy?" I called to explain my halt.
He looked at me, unblinking. He didn't reply, but the narrow rim of his forehead wrinkled under his stringy, unkempt black hair. I repeated my question in a louder voice, as if mere noise could penetrate his stupidity.
"Five er ten mile." His husky voice was quite inflectionless and his lips scarcely moved.
"Thanks." I couldn't keep the sarcasm out of my tone. "That tells me a lot." I might as well have spared the effort; he seemed already to have forgotten my presence, was staring unseeingly through my car. I trod on the starter button...
Then, from somewhere beyond, a moaning wail sounded—low, muffled, but vibrant with an agony that was somehow uncomprehending. Like the plaint of a hurt cat it welled in a crescendo of suffering.
"Good Lord!" I gritted. "What's that?"
The youth showed not the slightest flicker of interest.
I tried to peer into the blank wall of darkness past my headlights. "What's the matter with her?" I asked.
"Nothin'. It's 'Lije. He's dyin'."
"M' brother." There was a slight tinge of expression in his tone this time, of exasperation at my continued questioning.
I switched the car lights off. The wail came again—unutterably sorrowful. The blackness faded. I saw a bulk of darker shadow, ahead and to the left of the road, and a pale rectangle of flickering yellow luminance that might be a window. "Maybe she needs help," I said sharply. "A doctor."
"Ain't no doctor kin stop the Peelin's. Ain't no doctor nigher'n Roton anyways." He sat like a clod, motionless, uncaring.
I slid to the ground and made for what was now defined as a crazily leaning hut. Maybe I wouldn't do any good, but I couldn't go on without finding out. I'm not built that way.
My feet sank into soft, sucking mire, found a narrow path of muddy but firmer ground. There was no lock on the drab door of unpainted rough boards and I pulled it open. A stench of decayed food, human filth, was febrilely warm around me. There was another scent, pungent and foul, that I could not identify. I stepped into a cluttered, grimy room where one feeble candle flickered on a debris strewn table. The beastlike wailing twisted me to a corner.
The woman was on her knees, crouched over what was at my first glance a flat pile of dirt-colored rags. The garment she wore was pulled tight over the abject curve of her back and I could trace the humped line of her spine showing through. Her hair was scraggly, streaked black and gray; and broken, black-rimmed fingertips curved claw-like over the thin lines of her shoulders.
Apparently she had not heard my entrance. I moved toward her, my lips parting to speak. And froze as I glimpsed that over which she moaned.
It wasn't a face on that pallet of rags, not such a face as even the foulest of nightmares could present. Nor was it a skull. That at least is bone, clean and dead. This was stripped clear of flesh, except where some blackened shreds still clung, but the bared muscles were there, and white threadings of nerves, and there was a quivering of agonized life over the blurred surface. The eyelids were gone. From the dark pits they should have covered, sightless balls stared a chalky, translucent white. Seared lip edges were eaten raggedly away from a yellow, rotted grin. And the head had neither nose nor ears. The rest, mercifully, was hidden from sight by a dirt-crusted, tattered blanket.
I must have made some sound, though I was not aware of it, for the woman turned. Had it not been for the other, her countenance might have inspired horror in me, so lined with suffering, so emaciated it was. Strands of bedraggled, grimy hair fell across her brow, and from behind them her eyes glittered, rat-like. Something like a rat, too, there was in the furtive startlement of her expression, in the snarling lift of her thin lips.
"What d'yer want?" she squeaked.
"Your son told me you were in trouble," I managed to speak—steadily, I hoped. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Thorndal's new superintendent. I was—" The blaze of hate in her face cut me off. She leaped to her feet and shrieked:
"Thorndal! Git out! Thet's whut yer kin do. Git out o' here. He's done ernough ter me, he an' his devils!" She snatched up a carving knife from the table. "Git out 'fore I fergit I'm a God-fearin' woman an' use this on yer."
I dodged to the door. "But—but—"
"But nothin'. Ye'll git th' other too—Zeke'll be thar tomorrer! But he ain't yers yit. Not ternight." She lunged at me, the knife sweeping in a long arc, and I dived out, slamming the ramshackle panel behind me. I missed the path, and as I floundered through the patch of swamp between hovel and road the door flung open behind me. "I hope yer mother has to look at yer," the virago shrilled after me, "a month from terday." Cackling, obscene laughter rattled in the dark.
I lurched into my car, kicked blindly at the starter. The roadside watcher, Zeke, had not moved, had not even turned his head to the clamor. But he spoke now, above the roar of my motor, and I throttled down to listen to him.
"Thar wuz a nut loose on yer license plate," he said. "I fixed it."
Gears rasped and I hurtled away from there as if ten thousand devils from Hell pursued me.
THE road along which I fled curved in a long line, dipped, and rose again. The land to the left rose with it, and here and there a tree showed, gaunt and somehow solitary against the brooding quarter-light of the horizon. I realized that the ground must be firmer here, firm enough to support the stills and gigantic retorts shown on the blueprints Andrew Thorndal had displayed to me.
He hadn't told me much about the process in the interview at which I had been engaged, at a salary startling in these days of slow recovery. There were non-patentable steps, he had explained, in the manufacture of Neosite that his competitors would pay hugely to purloin. "I'll go over the whole thing thoroughly when you get out to Newville," he had rumbled. "Where I can make sure the secrets won't be blabbered."
There had been a challenge, and a threat, in his steely eyes when he had said that across our luncheon table at the Chemist's Club in New York. I had met the challenge frankly. "My first principle is loyalty to my employers, Mr. Thorndal," I had responded. "Through self-interest if nothing else. A man in my profession who does not adhere to that policy finds his career ended very quickly."
The full lips had hardened grimly under his close-clipped gray mustache. "Stick to that, Sutton," he said, "and we'll get along. Otherwise—we're pretty well cut off from the world at Newville and I have my own methods of dealing with—traitors."
Cut off was right! I had asked him why there was no railroad spur to the plant. Even then it seemed to me his reply was evasive. Newville was surrounded by a thirty-five mile stretch of bottomless swamp land; there were no other factories or towns in the region. But the tremendous production of his own industry would have rendered a one-track branch line profitable, and the well-built highway along which I was now journeying could not have presented any lesser engineering difficulties than the building of a railroad. I wondered now whether his isolation was not deliberate.
And my thoughts returned to the scene I had just left. The flesh-stripped face of the dying man had not vanished from my inward vision; it will, I am afraid, never entirely disappear. What disease could have produced that condition? I am somewhat of an amateur physician—one has to be in the outlands to which my work takes me—but I could think of none. It wasn't leprosy—that turns the sloughing tissue an unholy white. Cold rippled along my backbone. Was it a disease at all?
A cluster of lights came into view ahead. This must be Newville, the small town Thorndal had built for his truck-drivers and skilled mechanics. My headlight picked up a barrier across the road, striped black and white for visibility, a tall, green-uniformed figure standing in front of it. I skidded to a stop, and the guard came alongside my running-board. There was a revolver in the hand he lifted to the sill of the open window to my left, and his heavy-jowled visage glowered forbiddingly.
"Who are yuh, and what do yuh want?" he demanded.
I flushed at his overbearing manner, but one doesn't argue with a man whose gun snouts at one's diaphragm. "Stanley Sutton, officer," I answered. "I'm the new superintendent at the works."
"Where's yuhr pass?"
I remembered a card Thorndal had handed me at our parting and which I had inattentively stuffed into my wallet. I got it out. The man scrutinized it, handed it back. "That looks okay," he muttered. "Yuh're to park yuhr car in the garage an' wait there for orders."
"I thought I was to put up in the town. Why—?"
"I don't know nothin'." A secretive veil appeared to drop across his face. "That's what I was told to tell yuh, an' that's all I know about it." He didn't seem to be much impressed by my new dignity. "The garage is straight on, 'bout a quarter mile. All right, Joe."
He stepped back and a dim-seen figure to one side bent and seemed to be operating a lever of some kind. The barrier lifted jerkily, and I let my clutch in. Surely the guarding of a secret process did not require an armed road patrol a mile or more from the plant where it was being carried on. What was I getting into? I fought down a sudden impulse to turn the car around and make for Roton and civilization.
Would God I had obeyed that impulse!
I had no difficulty finding the garage to which I had been directed. It was the first building I reached, stretching about five hundred feet beside the highway and correspondingly deep. As I rolled up to it I glimpsed rank upon rank of vehicles within—tanks like those I had seen at Roton, enclosed vans, platform trucks, six- and eight-wheeled trailers, all painted a distinctive, vivid green. A number of green-uniformed guards lounged in front of the structure; hard-faced individuals whose big hands were never far from their holstered guns. There was an electric feeling of tensity about the place, a brooding expectancy. But it left untouched the overalled attendant who slouched up to meet me.
He seemed of a different race. He was painfully thin, lax-jawed and dull-eyed, cut from the same pattern as the lout whose sodden indifference to his brother's terrible fate had appalled me more than his mother's agony. They were typical of the natives of this region, I found—an inbred, moronic species hardly fit for the most unexacting of common labor, dregs of humanity. The man regarded me bovinely.
"I'm Stanley Sutton," I said. "I was told to bring this car here."
"Yeh. Yer ter wait."
"For whom? How long?"
"Dunno." The infinitesimal motion of his knife-blade shoulders might have been a shrug. "Mister Mowrer 'phoned ter tell yer ter wait."
"Who is this Mowrer?" I repeated, slowly and distinctly.
There was evidently nothing to be gotten out of the creature. I slid out of the car to stretch my legs. The guards had clotted in a knot, were pretending elaborate unconcern, but I knew, as one does know those things, that I was the subject of their low talk, their furtive inspection. This was natural enough; I was destined to assume a rather important place in the community. Yet there was something other than appraisement in the one or two glances I managed to intercept, something very like compassion, it seemed to me. Nonsense! Why should anyone pity me when I had just been given a position men of twice my age might well envy?
A distant thrumming came to my ears, rose swiftly to a booming roar. From a side road a long-hooded, black Lancia thundered up, halted in a cloud of dust. Its door flung open and Thorndal popped out.
"Sutton!" he bellowed. "Glad you're here!" His big hand engulfed mine. "Waiting long?"
"Just arrived." I am no mean height, yet his massive, iron-gray head loomed above me. There was physical power in the spread of his shoulders, the hugeness of his frame; and his face, sculptured in broad, powerful strokes, was eloquent of a mental strength that explained in some part his swift conquest of an industry that was the stamping-ground of financial giants. Just now his countenance was lined with weariness, the hard glitter of his brown eyes was somewhat dulled, but the dominant virility of the man still showed through like the luminance of an inward blaze. Somehow, other men faded in Andrew Thorndal's presence like a candle in the glare of a thousand-watt airport lamp.
"Get your bag and get in!" The moment of greeting past, he was brusque, commanding. "Snap into it."
His big car was filmed with the dust and mud of a long journey. Thorndal slid under the wheel. I evinced no surprise at this; one didn't expect this man to be driven by a chauffeur. The Lancia leaped into motion.
"Pleasant trip?" asked Thorndal.
"Good enough." We were purring along Newville's Main Street; as we passed there was a perceptible tightening in the bearing of the few men on the narrow sidewalk, even of the shambling, vacant-faced natives. I could see no women.
"Can't say the same. Roads were rotten from Akron. Had to straighten something out there and the damn fools kept me longer that I expected. But this car's good for a hundred or more when she's pushed, so I was able to meet you as I planned."
"I rather imagined I was to put up in town," I said.
"No. You'll stay at the house."
Newville's trim houses dropped behind and the road was bordered by trees that arched overhead and made our path a tunnel of blackness.
"I want you where I can watch you," he added. "You might get notions."
He smiled without humor, and once again I felt as if the coils of a web were tightening around me. All these elaborate precautions must be intended to conceal something more than a mere secret process...
And then an uneasy question obtruded itself. Jimmy Haynes, my classmate at Tech and my predecessor here, was of course acquainted with all I was about to learn, all that Thorndal was going to such elaborate lengths to prevent me from communicating to the outside world. How had the manufacturer made certain of Haynes' silence? I realized now that no one had heard from the little man since he had gone, as I was going, to assume charge of the plant at Newville. Where was he now?
Something nicked the outer edge of the Lancia's beam, was revealed as a man in the center of the road, waving in a signal to stop. Thorndal grunted, but did not slow. The car hurtled at the figure.
"Look out!" I yelled. "You'll hit—" But at the last instant of catastrophe the man leaped aside; we flicked by. Something thudded against the tonneau side and glass crashed. "Good God," I jerked out. "You almost killed him!"
My employer's mouth was a straight, cruel slash. "His fault," he said. "No business getting in my way."
"But you can't—" I caught myself.
Thorndal's voice was a low growl. "Can't what?"
"You can't kill a man for getting in your path."
"I can't, eh? I wouldn't advise you to try it." His eyes were smoldering. "You might as well learn right now, young man, that getting in Andrew Thorndal's way is dangerous. Especially in Newville."
I didn't answer that. What could I say? I didn't want to talk anyway. Something beside the callous ruthlessness of my chief was making the pit of my stomach squirm.
For the second time in an hour I had seen a man from whose face the blackened flesh was sloughing in rotten decay, baring the quivering, raw muscles beneath. And there had been no covering at all on his waving hand, only gray sinews lacing skeleton fingers!
A red light showed ahead; the Lancia skidded, stopped. I saw two guards advancing, and behind them a high fence of copper wire in parallel strands. It came out from the right, crossed the road and disappeared to the left. But it was the square white sign hanging from it, man-high, that caught my eye. The letters on it were a staring red:
this fence is
to touch it
"Evening, Mr. Thorndal," one of the uniformed men was saying. "I'll have the current off in a minute. Had any trouble on the way up?"
The magnate's voice was sharp. "Why? Expect any?"
The fellow shuffled his feet uneasily. "No, sir. Only there's been someone hangin' around in the woods off there, and a couple of stones were thrown at Miss Thorndal's car when she came in last night."
"What? What's that? Nan here?" There was no doubt about it, consternation was vibrant in his tones. "How did she pass the outer lines?"
"I—I dunno. Guess they didn't dare stop her."
"Look here," snapped Thorndal, "the orders are that no one gets in without a pass. No one, do you understand, my daughter or the devil himself. Tell Captain Daley that. No! Tell him to call me at once. I'll flay the hide off him."
The man saluted, awkwardly. "Yes sir. I'll pass the word." The tiny red light at the top of the fence blinked out. "Power's off, sir." I thought there was resentment in the guard's eyes, but his swarthy face was masklike. A panel opened in the fence, gate-like, and gears clashed.
"The brat," Thorndal muttered to himself. "I told her to stay away from here! Well, she'll go back in the morning or I'll know the reason why."
GRAVEL crunched under our wheels. I was aware of a house ahead, of windows warmly lighted. We rolled to a stop, a door opened at the head of a short flight of stone steps, and a man came out. Despite his livery he shambled down the stairs, his long arms lax at his side, and there was something queerly robot-like in his movements.
"Take Mr. Sutton's bag to the room Haynes had," Thorndal snapped. Then he turned to me. "Come on in, Sutton, and I'll introduce you to your new quarters." I thought the weariness in his face had deepened in the last few minutes. Certainly there was a hint of worry in his eyes.
There was a priceless Ispahan on the floor of the entrance hall, something baronial in the lift of the curving staircase toward the rear. I thought of the hovel back on the road, where a faceless man lay dying. A door to one side opened and someone came out, peering through thick spectacles.
"Hah, Mowrer!" Thorndal rumbled. "Got those papers ready?"
The secretary was a gray little man, bent and shriveled. "Yes, Mr. Thorndal," he answered. "They are on your desk. Glad to see you back safely. Were you...Did they..."
"No. I couldn't do anything with those imbeciles. They insist there has been absolutely no change in the composition they're using on the suits. By the way, this is Stanley Sutton, our new superintendent. My secretary, Carl Mowrer."
Mowrer mumbled some sort of acknowledgment of the introduction, turned back to his superior. "Johnson reports ten additional laborers incapacitated, sir," he said. "And there's three died today."
Thorndal's face hardened. "The devil! That means more slowing up of production while they break in new hands."
"It is annoying, sir." Was I mistaken, or was there a faint hint of irony in the little man's bland voice? "Hampden is waiting in the study to see you. I told him you would be too tired for business tonight, but he insisted. Said he had something you would want to hear about immediately. Shall I tell him to come back in the morning?"
"No. I'll talk to him now. Take care of Sutton for a minute." The manufacturer wheeled eagerly to the door from which Mowrer had come, slammed it shut behind him.
The secretary sighed, and turned to me. His jaw jerked sidewise. "So you've come to take Jim Haynes' place, eh...You're not afraid?"
"Afraid?" I echoed wonderingly. "Of what?"
"Of him and his devil's brew. Hasn't he told you how Neosite is made?"
"No. He's told me nothing."
The fellow's gnarled fingers twined nervously with one another. He moved closer to me and peered up into my face. "You're young," he muttered. "Too young. Go away. Go away before he tells you. He'll let you go now. He won't after you know. You'll want to run to the end of the world. But it will be too late then. Too late!" Suddenly he was laughing, soundlessly but horrible. "Too late!"
I grabbed his thin arm, dug my fingers into it. "For the love of Peter," I gritted. "What's this all about? What's going on here?"
"Mowrer!" It was Thorndal's voice from the study door, but brittle, menacing as I had never hear it. "Come here." He had an opened letter in his hand and his face was livid with repressed rage.
"Yes sir." The old man's eyes were fixed on the letter Thorndal held. Suddenly his cheeks were the color of death. "What is it, sir?"
"Did you write this?" He thrust it at Mowrer. "Did you?"
"How did I get it? What do you think I pay Hampden for? Did you think he wouldn't know that you gave it to a truck-driver to mail in Roton?"
"Well, you have another think coming. So it was you, not Haynes, that Tri-State Oil was dickering with!"
The man made a little helpless gesture.
"You were going to sell me out for a hundred thousand, and they were willing. But they balked at sending a plane in to get you out." Thorndal's voice rumbled lower and lower, till it was like nothing so much as a volcano about to erupt. Mowrer was almost groveling before him. "Speak up! I want you to admit it with your own lips."
"It—it was the only way I could escape from here. And I had to get away—" his voice rose shrilly—"before I went completely mad. I had to get away from this hell..."
Did Thorndal flinch, infinitesimally? You couldn't tell it from the deep, deadly murmur of his tone, as he said: "You'll taste real hell, Mowrer, now. They need men in the nitration room. Go to Johnson and tell him I said you were to work there."
I felt let down. All this to-do, and then a mere demotion! What...
Then Mowrer shrieked, "Not that! Oh God! Not that! Jail me! Kill me! But don't send me there!" His lips were absolutely colorless, his eyes stared horror. He dropped to the floor and squirmed to Thorndal's feet. "Don't make me work in there!"
The tycoon shoved him away with a heavy shoe. "You should have thought of that before you tried to double-cross me." His face was granite, his eyes contemptuous. "You'll go into that room tonight, and if you make any more fuss you'll go without a suit."
"Without a suit..." Suddenly, so quickly I did not see how he managed it, Mowrer surged to his feet, was swarming, an infuriated midget, over Thorndal's huge frame, his clawed hands scoring scarlet furrows across the magnate's cheek. The big man staggered under the unexpectedness of the onslaught, tore blindly at the whirlpool of mad fury the other had become. I heard a maniacal, snarling whimper, saw Mowrer's nails go for the big man's eyes. I saw a knife flash in his other hand. And sprang.
I grabbed, caught the knife wrist, jerked it back till the little man screamed in agony, got an arm around his neck and clamped it tight. Mowrer's feet lashed out, struck Thorndal square in the belly—and then I had ripped the maddened man away from his astounded victim. I tripped, stumbled backward, crashed to the floor with the mewling, screaming fellow atop me.
A whistle shrilled, and I was threshing about the floor, scarcely able to hold the armful of explosive energy terror had made of the meek, near-sighted clerk, fighting to keep the gleaming knife out of my flesh, the clashing teeth from my skin. The tramp of heavy feet was all about me. I saw green uniforms, felt Mowrer ripped from my hold, and I lay gasping, exhausted.
Thorndal was dabbing a white handkerchief at his scratched face. Little lights crawled in his dark eyes, but there was no expression on his countenance save two white spots that came and went on either side of his nostrils. The secretary was limp in the grasp of two burly guards.
"Take him to the nitration room," Thorndal said grimly. "And tell Johnson he is to work without a suit."
Mowrer lifted his head. He had lost his glasses in the struggle, his pupils were tiny, the whites of his eyes bloodshot. But there was no fear in those blurred orbs. Hate peered from them, hate and an awful threat. Words dripped from his twisted mouth...
"There is a God, Thorndal, a God of Vengeance," he said. "He knows what you do, and prepares His punishment. Even the least of His creatures may be His instrument to that end. Even I." Then his look dropped to me.
"And you, poor fool," he said. "You have made your choice. I shall not forget you when the time comes. Pray, if you can, for you are doubly doomed."
"Take him away," Thorndal gestured imperatively. Mowrer went steadily toward the door, proudly erect between his captors. Torn, bleeding, disheveled, he dwarfted us all in that moment. The hatchet-faced manservant let them out.
I got to my feet, painfully. Thorndal stared at me, for a moment, as if he were seeing me for the first time. Then he spoke:
"I'm glad you saw that, Sutton. You'll know better than to try to fool me now."
Footsteps sounded overhead.
"Dad. Daddy! What's happened?" I twisted to the flute-like voice from the stair head. "What was all that noise?" The girl came running down the stairs, filmy draperies streaming out behind her, white face anxious. I saw full-curved, red lips, great lustrous eyes, a coif of ebony hair. "Ohhh, you're bleeding!"
"Nan!" There was a throaty tenderness in his ejaculation. He held his arms out to her and she nestled within them.
"But Dad—that's an awful scratch—"
"Never mind that." He pushed her away from him but still held a tight grip on both her arms, just above the elbow. It seemed to me his glance drank her in thirstily. Then suddenly his face was granite once more, his eyes hard. "Why did you come here, Nan? You know I forbade you to."
It was the gruffness of his tone, rather than the words, I thought, that brought the hurt look to her face. "I know. But I was lonesome for you, and Bill Lannon was motoring up this way. So I came along. He's upstairs. You'll like him."
The white spots of rage were visible again, at the outcurve of his nostrils. "You brought someone here." He said it slowly, icily.
She was petulant now, in the way girls have when trying to avoid the consequences of a transgression. "But Daddy, he's swell," she said. She half-turned, and called, "Billy...oh, Billy. Come down and meet my father."
He was a typical playboy, the fellow who rattled down the staircase, meticulously dressed, his little blond mustache waxed, his hair slicked back. His round face was insipid, his blue eyes insolent. He reached the lower floor, halted.
"This is Bill Lannon, Dad," said the girl. "Isn't he nice?"
Thorndal grunted. Lannon bowed. "I have been very anxious to make your acquaintance, sir," he said. "Nan's father, I was sure, must be exceptional."
That to the man who had swept like a meteor across industry's sky! Could the chap possibly be so arrant an ass? He looked at the girl fatuously, and I knew I disliked him heartily. But I didn't realize, then, why I did.
"Thanks." Dryly. "I hope you find the sight worth a long trip for a short stay. A very short stay...Nan is leaving here at once, and you also."
The chap looked bewildered. But Nan flashed around to her father with something of his own spirit. "Dad," she said. "You can't do that! You can't chase us out the minute we've gotten here."
Thorndal's mouth was grim, but I fancied there was anxiety mixed with the smouldering wrath in his eyes, as he answered. "I can't have you stay here, Nan, not even one night. There's something—I am too busy. And you know I don't allow visitors in Newville."
"I know. I shouldn't have come. But you're not going to send me right away. Without even a chance for one little chat with you, Daddy..."
He weakened. "All right. You may stay overnight, with the understanding that neither of you is to set foot outside this house."
The girl's lips firmed, but she knew when not to press an advantage. "All right, Dad. I won't go outside tonight and I won't let Bill." I noticed she said nothing about the morning. "We'll just sit around the fire in my sitting-room and talk. Come on up."
"Not now," he said. "I must go over matters with Mr. Sutton, my new superintendent." She looked at me for the first time, coolly. My heart skipped a beat. "We have lots to do before I can rest."
"I'm Nan Thorndal, Mr. Sutton," she said then. "I was wondering how soon Dad would see fit to introduce us."
I muttered something, I'll be hanged if I know what. She rattled on. "You must join us after you're through. Mr. Haynes and I were great pals till dad exiled me to Florida a month ago."
"We were classmates at Tech," I told her. "But he kept away from the rest of us. Sensitive about his appearance, I imagine."
"He did look rather like a queer old gnome, with his tremendous head and shriveled-up little body. But how could he have been your classmate? He must have been forty-five at least."
"No. He was no older than thirty."
"Come on, Sutton," Thorndal interrupted. "Let's get to work. You two run along."
He watched them scurry up the stairs, and his mouth twisted. I don't think he realized that he spoke aloud. "I'd give ten years of my life if she weren't here."
From somewhere outside there was a shriek, muffled shouts, the dull thud of a shot. Thorndal hurtled to the outer door, slammed it open and lunged out into the night. I followed.
A hundred yards away, across a sloping lawn, a line of red lights marked the fence, and I could see slumped forms in a dark knot just beneath one of them. As I dashed after my employer's running form an excited murmur came from the group, a shocked oath.
There was something hanging from the wire, a quivering shape outlined by a faint blue haze of electricity. My scalp tightened and my throat was dry. The shredded face seemed to be grinning at me through black lips, and the hand that was clamped to an upper wire was nothing but muscles and bones. It was the man Thorndal had tried to run down. Fire smoldered in the tattered jacket that covered the twisted torso of the tortured corpse. I sickened, then looked again. The man had an enormous head, and his body was shriveled, tiny.
I moved further away from the lethal barrier as the ground seemed to heave-under my feet. Could there be anyone else with precisely the deformity that Jim Hayne's had? Anyone else with that gnome-like shape?
My employer's voice was devoid of emotion. "What happened here, Lansio?"
One of the men in green uniforms who stood on the other side of the fence answered him: "I see him come out from the woods. He got knife in hand. I holler. He no answer. Holler 'gain. He start running. I shoot, get him in leg. He fall 'gainst wire. That all."
The red lights were gone, suddenly, and the body slumped to the ground, horribly. Someone pulled it away and the lights came on again. Thorndal turned on his heel. "We'll never get through at this rate," he grumbled. It seemed to me he was watching my face, speculatively.
What was it the woman had shrieked after me, back on the road to Newville? "I hope yer mother has to look at yer a month from terday."
I tried to say something, but the words stuck in my throat. I wanted to tell him I was going away from there. He could have his job. But that would mean I should never see Nan Thorndal again.
I followed Andrew Thorndal into the house, into his study, sat down in the chair he indicated and watched while he got paper from a drawer, adjusted an automatic pencil. And all the time I was thinking of Mowrer's warning: "After he tells you it will be too late."
I LISTENED to Thorndal's voice, flowing on and on, and watched his busy pencil jot down chemical equation after equation. There seemed nothing particularly intricate about the synthesis of Neosite so far, nothing that any ordinarily skilled chemist might not deduce from an analysis of the product itself. What was the dread secret?
"From here," he rumbled, "the liquid is piped to the nitration room. This is where my new technique comes in. As the nitric acid is poured in I also add one-tenth of a per cent of—" He named a certain organic compound. "The resultant reaction is this, rather unexpectedly." Letters and symbols formed a new line on the scribbled sheet.
I emitted a low whistle and pointed to a cabalistic inscription. "I've never run across this gas." It was a by-product. "But from its formula I should judge it to be extremely caustic."
"It is. The fumes that fill the nitration room dissolve flesh like water does salt."
"You take no chances, of course. The nitration is performed in an auto clave."
He looked at me rather queerly, I thought. "No," he answered.
My skin crawled. "Then how do you guard your laborers?"
"By suits and masks made from a special rubber compound I have devised. They are fairly efficient."
"Fairly!" I was trying to match the unemotional steadiness of his tone. "Not perfectly!"
"No. We have had occasional failures. In the past two weeks they have grown in number, inexplicably. That's why I went to Akron. I thought the trouble lay in the manufacture of the suits. But it isn't there." There was just the slightest trace of cloudiness in his eyes. "We've lost twenty men from the nitration room in the past fortnight. Breaking in new ones is hampering production."
"Twenty men!" I couldn't keep the horror out of my voice any longer. "Good God—they must die horribly!"
"They do." He said it with an utter lack of expression, but his eyes were smouldering coals. "I'm afraid that stupid as are the people around here they will soon refuse to work for us, even with increased pay."
I pushed against the tabletop with my hands, pushed myself to my feet. "Look here, Mr. Thorndal," I gritted through cold lips, "I may need the money and the job you've offered me. But I can't be mixed up in this. I'm resigning."
His mouth twisted. "Not any more, young fellow. You know too much. You're going to stay here and work for me—as superintendent or in the nitration room alongside Mowrer."
There was sodden, brooding silence in the somber room. His head lifted slightly, so that his agate eyes held mine, and his mouth was a hard, straight line. I thought of the armed guards outside, the death-dealing wires.
"All right," I said. "I'll continue as superintendent." After a while his vigilance might relax, I might see a chance to get away. "But I shall try to find a way to protect the workers."
The corners of his lips lifted in a satiric smile. "Try. But make damn sure you don't make it cost more than the expense of the labor turnover if you want me to adopt it. I won't raise the price of Neosite, and I won't cut my profit."
I shrugged. "After all, there isn't a bridge or a skyscraper built without a couple of deaths. There are fatal accidents in every factory." I must make him believe I had capitulated without reservations. "It is the price of progress."
"Now you're talking," Thorndal exclaimed, and there was satisfaction in his tone. "Sit down and we'll go on with our work."
I was searching for a weak point in the defenses, a loophole through which I might escape. And I found it!
The basic material of Neosite was crude oil, brought into the plant by pipeline from Pennsylvania fields. The huge underground tube was indicated clearly on the maps. But there was another similar but fainter tracing, angling off to the south.
"Another pipeline," he explained. "For emergencies. It connects up with the Texas tube. It's empty, never been used."
I talked about something else, disinterestedly. But my pulses throbbed. There was the road to freedom! I noted carefully that its entrance was just below a window of the nitration room.
At last we were finished. Thorndal looked at his watch. "Three a.m., by George!" he said. "I'll show you your room." Upstairs, he added: "If you get any ideas during the night, remember Mowrer." He opened a door at the other end of the hall and disappeared.
Enough illumination came in from outside for me to undress, and I didn't switch on the light in the room. My pajamas were folded across the pillow; I got into them mechanically and stretched out. I was dog-tired, physically and mentally, but I could not sleep.
I closed my eyes, and Nan Thorndal drifted across my imagining, her white grace in poignant contrast to all the horrors I had seen, gayety and fervor for living dancing in her eyes.
The loathsome triangle of a snake's head rose behind her, peered over her shoulder. I saw its forked tongue darting, saw that it was poised to strike. It hissed warningly. Its eyes were like Thorndal's, glittering hard...The hissing grew louder—I tried to yell a warning to the girl—and woke trembling.
But the hissing continued, low, insistent. It was somewhere in the room. There was a faint odor too, rank, pungent, like the unfamiliar stench in the hut where 'Lije lay dying. It had grown darker; the ceiling was only a faint, pale glimmer. I forced my head around, against the paralysis of inexplicable fear that held me—forced it around to the seeming source of the sibilant noise. And saw a green-glowing mist billowing along the floor!
It came from the gloom of the further corner, a thin veil of iridescence rolling ominously; its advancing edge sharply defined. It was coming swiftly toward my bed. Before I could gather my sleep-bemused faculties and guess its meaning, the ominous tide was lapping at the legs of my couch, was reaching tenuous, hungry filaments up toward me.
A sound at my door—someone breathing heavily—snapped the spell that gripped me. I gathered myself—launched myself in a flying leap that sent me almost to the exit. In the instant it took for me to grasp the doorknob and get the portal open, my bare feet were immersed ankle-deep in the green vapor. Then I was through, had crashed the door behind me and leaned, gasping, against the wall. Agony seared my feet where they had dipped into the gas, the excruciating torture of a burn from boiling acid.
Something scattered to my right. I twisted, saw someone flick down the curving stairs. I had only a glimpse of him in the wan light of the single burning lamp. I shouted something unintelligible, started after him—and whirled to the boom of Thorndal's voice. "Sutton!"
He was gigantic in the dimness, and he was much too near to have come all the way from his room since I had slammed the door! Red rage exploded in my skull.
"You devil," I squeezed out through a tightened throat. "What are you trying to do—kill me in my sleep?" I took a step toward him, my hands fisting, and stopped as pain shot up my legs from my scorched feet. The pain was growing worse.
His face was a frozen mask, but there was a red glow in his eyes. "What do you mean?" he rumbled, speaking low. "What's going on here?"
Doors were opening along the hall. "You know damn well what I mean," I snapped. "The gas in my room—if I hadn't wakened in time I'd be dead!"
Behind him Nan came out into the hall, a pastel-shaded negligee tightly clasped around her exquisite form. She was sleepy-eyed, pale.
"Gas in your room." There was no surprise in his calm voice.
"Yes. The green hell-gas. Look!" I lifted one foot. Already the skin was black. It was like a skin-tight shoe.
"Get in there and wash it off!" He jerked a thumb at a bathroom door, just across from my bedchamber. "Use plenty of soap. If you've had only a touch that will stop it. Hurry!" The impact of his authoritative command, my terror that in moments the flesh would peel from my extremities, drove anger from me. I dove into the room he indicated, snapped on the light and twisted bathtub spigots in frantic haste. But I left the door open, listened and watched as I flinched from the sting of the soap I had snatched up.
"Dad." Nan asked. "What...?"
"Nothing, dear. Just an accident. Sutton was fooling with something Haynes left in there and burned himself. Go back."
"But—but I'm frightened, Dad. I want to stay with you."
"Please go to your room." His voice was commanding, but his eyes devoured her. The outer skin was peeling from my feet and ankles as I rubbed the lather in, and the soap burned like fire. "You will be in the way here," he said. "I'll come to you later. Go, please."
She sighed, vanished. Lannon came into sight, in orchid pajamas. Not a hair was out of place on his head or fix that tiny, pointed mustache of his. But his insipid face was colorless, and he clutched a pearl-handled pistol in one white hand. "Is anything wrong?"
The big man ignored him. He was looking at the floor, at the threshold of the room I had quitted in such haste. I swung my legs out of the tub, reached for a jar of cold-cream. The burning was gone from my feet and ankles, but they were raw, tender. The salve relieved the pain somewhat, and I stood up gingerly, peered to see what it was Thorndal watched.
Along the lower edge of the door green smoke was seeping out.
Thorndal's head lifted. "That's got to be shut off or it will fill the home. Here you—" He turned to address someone beyond my vision, "Go in and see what you can do."
I hobbled out of the bathroom and looked to see whom he was ordering into that death-filled room, that chamber of horror. It was the robot-like servant, uniform trousers hastily pulled on over a drab, grimy union-suit in which he evidently slept. The man shambled forward as I came out, his vacuous eyes fixed on his master's. Was it ignorance or mechanical obedience that was sending him un-protesting to terrible death?
"My God!" I ripped out. "You can't let him go in there. The room must be filled with the stuff by now. Why, it's murder!"
Lannon's jaw was dropped, his mouth gaped stupidly. Thorndal looked at me and his gaze was basilisk. "Keep out of this, Sutton," he said icily.
The man's hand was on the door-knob, but my cry seemed to have penetrated his dull intellect. He said, fumblingly: "Is it the Peelin' gas, boss? I don't know as I want ter go in." There was something pathetic in his irresolution. Evidently defiance of Thorndal's orders was quite beyond his conception.
"Go in and turn it off," the latter snarled, and jerked the door open. The ominous hissing flashed out, and the room was fogged with the green haze of death. "See it?" Thorndal shouted. "A drum in the corner." His big hand struck Jever's back, thrust him in. The door slammed behind the man, and a muffled scream sounded from within—a scream of anguish. I thought I heard stumbling footsteps going across the floor. Then there was the thud of a falling body.
Thorndal's ear was against the panel. "The hissing's stopped," he said. "He shut it off before he dropped."
"Good Lord," I yammered. "It's murder. Murder!"
The other's eyes were bleak. "Not murder, Sutton. Justice. Someone had to cut the gas off or we'd all be killed. Jevers could be spared the best. And besides he had it coming to him. He helped Mowrer get his double-crossing messages out."
My pulses hammered. "You have no right to take the law into your hands!" If it meant that I would meet the same fate I had to say it. "You—"
"I am the law in Newville. Get that fixed in your mind, young man. I am the law."
With an effort I shrugged and turned away. If I ever got out of here alive I would show him there was another law, stronger than his.
Thorndal's voice broke in upon my thoughts. "Where's that nincompoop Lannon?" he asked.
"He was here a minute ago," I answered heavily. "Right here."
"I want to tell him—"
A room door had opened; the playboy bustled out. He had gotten into clothes, and he had a heavy bag in his fist. His cheeks were the color of putty.
"Hey, you! Where do you think you're going?" growled Thorndal.
"Away. I'm going away from here."
Thorndal moved toward him ominously. "Oh, no, you're not," he said grimly. "You're staying right here. You've seen too much."
Hysteria leaped into Lannon's voice; I swear there were tears in his eyes. "Don't touch me," he quavered. "Keep your hands off me!"
"I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. But if you're looking for trouble just put a foot outside this house. You'll get it."
"Good Heavens!" The bag dropped from his nerveless fingers. "I should never have come here."
"That's the first sensible thing you've said," Thorndal commented dryly. "Now, get back in your room and stay there."
THROBBING pain rendered sleep impossible, and I sat in the new room I had been given, my feet on a pillow and my chin cupped in a hand whose elbow rested on the windowsill. The sky had cleared, and below my vantage point the lawn sloped, moonlit, to the circling line of red pin-points marking the electrically-charged fence that had already taken a life that night.
Somewhere a clock struck four. Two hours to daylight yet. Three hours till I should have to go into that factory where horror stalked—till I should have to face Andrew Thorndal again.
For I knew now that it was a battle to the death between us. I must smash him, smash his fiendish mill—or die. As long as his power remained I was a prisoner, a slave, sending other helpless slaves to incredible tortures.
What kind of man was he? Incredibly hard, ruthless, murderous. And yet he was sane. In all his long exposition of the intricate manufacture of Neosite, in the hours that I had studied him, there had been no hint of anything to the contrary. He was no madman, but merely one utterly without human feeling, driving straight to his objective of the production of his motor fuel cheaply and in quantity, without regard to what sacrifice that objective entailed.
And when he discovered a spy, a traitor, he sent him to death as spies and traitors are sent to death in war—utterly without compunction.
My brow knitted. All this seemed logical—devilishly logical. But why had he tried to kill me with gas hidden in my room? That was not like him. If he trusted me, there was no reason for such an attempt. If he did not, he would not hesitate to shoot me down like a dog—or send me to the nitration room. I was utterly in his power. There was no need for deception, for the planting of an opened drum where it would take me in my sleep.
He had not bothered to deny my accusation. But somehow I could not believe him guilty of that abomination. Someone else had tried to kill me! Who, and why? Would he try again?
My scalp tightened. The struggle against Thorndal that had been forced on me was alone a titanic task. What could I do against another enemy, unknown, striking at me invisibly from the night?
At this unpleasant point in the whirligig of my tired mind I became conscious of a furtive murmur, voices too low to be intelligible. This was curious!
I looked along the house-side, and saw that someone was squatted on the slanting verandah roof, two windows away.
Could it be that the secret enemy was lurking in that chamber, unknown even to Thorndal? It would have been easy enough to steal along the slanting boards and slip a tank of gas into the room where I had been sleeping. Holy Moses! Maybe it had not been intended for me at all; perhaps it had been meant for Thorndal himself. No—he slept at the end of the hall; no possibility of a mistake. For Nan, then! My blood curdled. Perhaps the plotters were planning even now to rectify their error!
The man on the roof moved, just then, and slid over its edge. He was a shadow flitting across the lawn. A patch of moonlight caught him, momentarily, and I saw that he was tall, painfully thin, his hatless head a high, hairless dome. He went into shadow again, and vanished.
And then I saw something that drove the puzzle from my mind. The long arc of red lights blinked out! Dim forms appeared suddenly from the black cluster of the bordering woods, all along the fence, and suddenly there were silent, shadowy struggles everywhere. Not one of the surprised guards had time to shout or shoot. Even at this distance I sensed the venomous quality of those struggles.
Almost before I realized they had begun they were over, and a swarm of dark, distorted forms were climbing the wire barrier that was no longer impregnable. They were running across the lawn, queer distorted shapes, more fearful for the silence of their coming. The foremost reached the swath of moonlight and I saw that he was Mowrer, had Mowrer's slight figure at least, though the face I glimpsed was as black as coal, black as my feet had been after an instant's contact with the green gas.
Thorndal's victims had risen at last, were coming to take their vengeance. Let them come! Swift elation rose in me, then vanished. Nan! What would they do to her if they won into the house? Nan!
I plunged for the door, slammed it open, and yelled, "Thorndal! Thorndal! They're coming!"
He must have slept lightly or not at all, for he was out of his room almost before I could turn towards it. "What is it?" he snapped. "Who's coming?"
"Mowrer and a gang from the plant! They've killed the guards and—"
He had popped back through his door, was out again instantly with guns in his hands. Nan appeared, and Lannon, his blue eyes popping from his head. There was a crash from below and through the upper windows came a shrill tumult of cries, the arid yells of a bloodthirsty mob.
"Here, Sutton, take this," Thorndal shouted, and tossed a gun to me. "Watch the stair head."
He twisted to Lannon, handed a revolver to him. "Get back in your room and guard the porch roof."
"Give me one, Dad. You know how well I can shoot." Nan was pale but calm. There was something of her father in the set of her little jaw. He looked at her, and obeyed.
"God bless you, girl! You watch the porch, too; I don't trust that milksop."
She smiled bravely, jerked open the door of her bedroom and disappeared within. The bedlam from below was terrific now; something was thudding against the entrance door in great crashes that shook the building, and there was the smash of breaking glass.
Behind me there was the sound of moving furniture. "Here, help me with this," came Thorndal's voice. He was hauling a huge chifforobe out of a room close by. I sprang to his aid and got it across the stair head. It filled the space, would shield us well enough, while at either flank there was just sufficient space for us to see past and shoot I crouched at one side, Thorndal at the other. And the entrance portal crashed in!
They poured through and filled the lower hall, a howling, shrieking mob. It was dark down there and I could see them only dimly, but the foul stench of their putrescence swept up to me, and the pungent aroma of the green gas. A black shadow leaped for the stairs and my gun spat. He fell—crashed down, and sprawled in the dimness.
"Too dark," I grunted. "Too dark down there," Gun-flash answered my shot and bullets thudded into our barricade. "I can't see to shoot."
"There's a switch here," my companion growled. "Wait."
A click, and light flooded the milling crowd. It was greeted by a volley of shots and shrill, weird yelpings that made a madhouse chorus. Thorndal's weapon thudded, but for a horrified instant I could not fire.
Down there, in that luxuriously furnished lobby, some grotesque nightmare had spilled its creatures in an affrighting, obscene throng. Not one of them was human-looking. Not one. They ranged from some who were merely blackened by the first touch of the gas, through gibbering, mad-eyed beings whose cheekbones protruded and whose lips were frayed, to the incarnate horror of the dead-alive from whom all flesh had vanished. Cheekless, noseless, earless corpses, they still jerked about in a simulation of life, with a shimmering play of exposed muscles and flickering nerves whose agony was horribly visible.
If it had not been for the thought of Nan, in that moment, I should have thrust the barricade aside and thrown down to them the man who had made them what they were, thrown him down to them and plunged after. But she was there, somewhere behind, and I could not abandon her to their vengeance. I dared not think what her fate would be.
The chifforobe was jerking under the impact of their shots. They surged on.
My finger squeezed trigger and I felt the gun jump in my hand. Flayed figures fell, twitching, on the steps. Thorndal's weapon thundered beside me, took its deadly toll. But still they came on; mouthing, grimacing figures from Hell! They came slowly because they had to clamber over the contorted bodies of the fallen. Slowly, because my lead and Thorndal's was hurtling into them, driving them back. I saw one gaunt skeleton topple, his open mouth gurgling a scream, his tongue only a blackened stump in the dark cavity of his throat.
Where was Mowrer? He had led the charge across the lawn, but I could see him nowhere now. The question flicked across my horror-numbed brain, and then the hammer of my gun clicked on an empty shell. A raw, featureless face stared through my firing slit, its eyes twin pits of damnation. The chest rocked under the impact of the attackers, toppled. I sprang backward...
And from somewhere behind a shriek ripped high above the triumphant clamor of the mob. A woman's shriek. Nan!
I whirled, and hurtled down the long corridor, Thorndal's berserk roar ringing in my ears. I was conscious of Lannon's white face, his open mouth shouting something I did not hear, and then I was hurling myself into the room where I had seen the girl go.
The window framed struggling figures. I glimpsed Nan's flailing arms, the ex-secretary's face, black save where mad eyes rolled whitely under lashless lids. I leaped to them. Someone loomed at my side. I dodged—felt the breeze of a club that just missed my head—flung a fist at the dim-seen form. It thudded sickeningly against moist flesh. I heard weakened bone crunch, and twisted again to the window. It was open, empty. I lunged to it, thrust head and shoulders out.
"Help," Nan screamed from the roof-edge. "Dad! Bill! Help!" She was still fighting at the roof-edge, against Mowrer and another dark, tall form. I shouted something unintelligible, lifted a leg to the sill. A shot barked—to my right. Something crashed against my skull—crashed me into oblivion.
I THINK the first thing of which I was conscious was the pain in my feet. It seemed as if they had been rasped with sharp files and salt rubbed into the wounds. Then the racking pain at the back of my skull obtruded itself, and the weight that lay across my chest. I opened my eyes. My sensations were still purely physical—I recall that. Thought was not yet functioning at all. There was a roar in my ears and a lurid red light was all around me. I felt warm, although I was clothed only in pajamas, and I hurt all over.
Something was digging into my back and I tried to turn over. I could not move! The blow that had knocked me out had paralyzed me. I realized that I was still on the porch roof, that something lay across me, pinning me down, that I could not stir. And that the roaring I heard, the dancing red light, and the unnatural warmth could mean only one thing. Fire! The house was on fire and I could not move!
Flames licked along the upper window-sash, just within my vision, tiny jets of yellow, and red, and lucent green. Acrid sting of smoke was in my nostrils, and heat beat at me. Glass crashed somewhere and the voice of the blaze was deafening. I smelled hair burning. My own? I turned my head toward the window and saw a red face on the sill, black flesh peeling away from it, its scant hair frizzling in the heat. Soon my hair would frizzle like that, and the fire lick across my body. What a way to die!
I had turned my head! Did that mean the paralysis was gone? I heaved up, throwing off the body that lay over me. Something clattered on the roof, a cudgel. There was a bullet wound in the back of the corpse's neck and blood still seeped from it. I was on my feet, the hot tin roofing doubling my agony. A flame licked out from the window, almost caught me. I leaped from the porch-roof, doubling my feet under me, ducking my head between my shoulders, taking the fall on my back and rolling as I had been taught in gym-class at Tech. But the impact knocked the breath from me.
I struggled erect. Every move I made was painful, the grassy stubble was a torment, my head was a gigantic, whirling globe on my shoulders. I limped toward the fence where the danger lights no longer glowed, trying to gather my incoherent thoughts. Someone had shot the fellow who had stunned me just as the cudgel fell. I had been left for dead, I was free to escape from this infernal place, from this Hell on Earth. I was free to escape!
I reached the fence, crawled between copper strands. A mound in the road attracted my attention and I bent to it. Shredded bits of green cloth told me what lay there had been a uniformed guard two hours ago, filled with life. I looked away quickly to save my sanity.
I stood there, swaying. I was free to escape, I told myself; but something inside me denied it. I couldn't go away from here. There was something I must do. What was it? I put out a hand to the wire to steady myself—and remembered.
Nan! Nan Thorndal! Mowrer had her, he whose eyes had glared with such hate at her father, at me. He who had led the ravening throng of the green gas's victims to their long overdue uprising, he who had proclaimed himself God's instrument for vengeance! Would his crazed mind extend that vengeance to her? Had he not left the direct attack to the others while he stole behind our defenses and snatched her from her room?
I groaned, and shuddered with cold, despite the heat-blast that rolled across the lawn from the blazing house. What was he doing to her, what unimaginable torture was he inflicting on that lissome, slender, dreamy-eyed girl? What had he done to her, where had he taken her? I looked around wildly, and saw the looming bulk of the plant, saw that most of the windows were darkened, but that four were alight, near the ground. And against their staring oblongs, dark figures moved.
I cudgeled my brain for the plans Thorndal had shown me. And cursed as I got a glimmer of what Mowrer's scheme must be. That was the nitration room, the place where the gas was born that stripped men's flesh from them and killed them too slowly. Good Lord! Had he taken her there?
I dove across the road, was swallowed up in the shadow, and started toward those yellow windows, calming myself to coherent thought as I forced my way through underbrush that tore at my scantily covered body and slashed my already lacerated feet. I must have traced a trail of blood through those woods, but I did not feel it then. I was racked by a greater torture, hag-ridden by the vision of Nan Thorndal in Mowrer's power, in the power of his fiendish horde. Nan Thorndal—whom I knew at last that I loved, had loved from the moment I had seen her.
What could I hope to accomplish, weaponless, almost naked, weakened by all that I had passed through? I did not know, knew only that I must get to her, get to Nan, help her or share her fate.
Dread hammered at me for speed, but I could not go fast. I was too weak, the brush too thick. So I moved slowly, and had time to think.
Mowrer might be insane, but his attack had been well worked out. The stealthy gathering of his forces in the woods, their sudden silent onslaught the instant the power was off in the wires...
Hold on! How had that come about? The master switch was on the lower floor of the blazing building. That I knew from the blueprints. Someone in the house had cut the current! Jevers was the only servant who slept in—Thorndal had told me that—and Jevers, I realized grimly, could not have been the one. There was left, as far as I knew, myself, Thorndal and Nan, and Lannon.
Was there someone else, someone unknown even to the manufacturer? The same one, perhaps, who had planted the gas in my room? The one who had engaged in that midnight conversation with the prowler of the high-domed, bald head? Where had the latter gone, anyway—of which party was he? What had that furtive talk been about, and with whom?
A vast roaring twisted me toward the burning home, a tremendous crash. The roof had fallen in, the walls were toppling, crashed even as I looked, and the triumphant flames soared heavenward in a furious outburst, a geysering of lurid, blazing gases, of great beams exploding upward, of cascading sparks and fluttering, whirling embers. Through the split open building-side, I saw the curving staircase shatter and drop into the roaring lake of avid light, saw a body wrapped in flame swirl in that inferno, a human torch. I shuddered to think that if my coma had lasted a bare ten minutes longer my corpse too, or my still-living body, would have been enveloped in a fiery shroud.
There was an open space between the edge of the woods and the long low building that was my goal, a space shielded from the fading glow of the ashes so that sightless dark lay there.
A grotesque, twisted shadow flitted across one luminous aperture; thin shoulders, and a profile that showed no irregularity marking nose or chin. I crouched, shivering a little in the before-dawn chill.
One advantage alone I had—Mowrer's ignorance of my continued existence, his belief that I was dead.
An oath, deep-voiced, came faintly to me from within, and the intonations of a protesting feminine voice. The pall of dread lifted from me ever so slightly as I realized that Nan was still alive. But the sounds stirred me into action. I started across the clearing, moving gingerly to spare my feet and avoid untoward noise. The footing here was soft earth, a blessed relief after the torture of grassy stubble and twig-covered forest ground. My burning soles felt cool iron, and I bent to it.
Groping blindly, I felt that a metal disk was embedded in the ground, some three feet in diameter. By sheer luck I had blundered across the manhole cover to the unused pipeline, the steel-lined tunnel I had forgotten—but that now, I realized, must make an essential part of my plan.
Weakened as I was, blinded by darkness and hampered by the necessity for avoiding noise, it was a gigantic task to move the iron plate. But at last I managed it. Then I turned once more to the nitration room windows, just beyond.
They were frosted, as I have mentioned, blocking vision. But I could hear sounds, the padding of many feet, someone speaking in a high shrill voice, the noise of pouring liquid. A hairline of brighter light along the sill showed that the window was not quite tightly shut. I bent to see if I could peer through.
And someone leaped on me from behind! An arm slid around my neck, clamped tight. A knee dug into the small of my back. "Got you!" the garrotter grunted, and I could not breathe. I twisted desperately, flailing fists backward at empty air. But his grip was iron, the dig of his knee into my kidneys excruciating. "Mowrer!" he shouted. "Mowrer!"
My eyes were popping from their sockets, my lungs bursting. Dimly I knew that dark figures were crowding about me; the secretary's blackened face danced dizzily before me in the window-glow. The choking arm relaxed, but hands gripped my arms, my legs. I was lifted from the ground.
"Two birds at one throw," I heard Mowrer's gloating voice. "Grab Johnson, too, and bring him in."
"But I'm on your side." It was my captor's voice, thin-edged with hysteria, "I'm on your side, Mowrer. I caught the fellow for you."
Johnson! Where had I heard that name? Oh, yes. The one in charge of the nitration room, of Thorndal's hellhole!
"On my side!" said Mowrer. "Only because you can't help yourself...You can't get past my watchers where the road bottle-necks into the swamp and you think you can escape punishment this way. Nothing doing, friend Johnson. You have a long roll of misdeeds for which to answer."
There was no way out then—except through the pipeline! Good thing I had opened that manhole! Much good it would do me now. I was done for.
"I couldn't help myself," Johnson protested. "I only obeyed orders."
"You'll obey my orders now. Mine, and His whose instrument I am." There was the exaltation of the religious fanatic in Mowrer's voice, and the cold cruelty of the triumphant oppressed! No hope for mercy there, or justice. "Take him, men."
I couldn't see what was happening in the dark, but there was the sound of a scuffle, and the wordless wail of one in mortal fear. A nightmare sound! "Gag him!" Mowrer ordered implacably. Then those holding me started to move, and I saw the dark wall of the building drifting by.
Up steps, through a huge door, a vast space, shadowy, eerie with towering tanks and weird machines, half-seen. I closed my eyes to shut out the sight of my bearers, to shut out the unholy vision of those horrible faces; more horrible now for the flare of triumph, the little crawling lights of sadistic anticipation in their lidless eyes. A door opened. They lifted me over a threshold, and I heard the door shut again. Heard Nan scream, "Mr. Sutton. Oh God! They've caught you, too!" I forced myself to look, then.
I was in a long room, ablaze with the uncanny blue of spluttering mercury lamps. A line of iron pillars marched down the center of the loft, and there were three forms bound to the columns: Nan, her fear-distorted face staring white in the luxuriant frame of her Stygian hair; Lannon, his mustache still ludicrously pointed and immaculate against the fish-belly gray of his cheeks; and Thorndal! Lashed immovably to an iron post, helpless, his clothing was half-ripped from his great frame, there were angry red weals on his hairy torso, and blood dripped from a cut over one ear. But he was poised, defiant, his massive head was proudly erect and his rough-sculptured features were overlaid by a brooding thunder-cloud of wrath. Lightning flickered in his eyes as he saw me.
"Tie them up!" Mowrer's command crackled in the sudden silence that followed Nan's outburst.
Skinless, dreadful hands fumbled ropes around me, pulled them ungently tight, and I sagged, unable any longer to stand, supported against the metal stake by those ropes alone. A knot of gargoylesque figures about the next column to mine disintegrated, and I had my first view of the man who had taken me and had in his turn been nabbed. Johnson, foreman of the nitration room, was the tall, high-domed individual who had crouched on the porch roof and whispered secretively to someone within the house!
THERE were perhaps a score of them in the long room, chattering among themselves like so many apes.
Now and then one would laugh, a cackling, lascivious laugh that sent new tremors of detestation through me. Mowrer was bent over a huge rectangular vat that spread along the farther wall of the loft, watching a great pipe gurgitate into it a flood of viscous black liquid. He was talking to someone whom I could not make out. Above him there hung from the beamed ceiling a smaller glass tank, and it was filled with an iridescent fluid that I knew to be Thorndal's secret reagent. From it a pipe dipped down and ended just over the larger tank, and the corrugated wheel of a valve was within easy hand reach.
My eyes clung to that wheel and my blood curdled, for I knew that when it was turned the contents of the tank above would pour into the black fluid—and the green gas of death would boil up to dissolve the flesh, the muscles and very bones, of any who might be in that room and unprotected! In an hour anyone immersed would be tracelessly dissolved!
My eyes sought Nan's, a wordless message passed between us. My pulse leaped, the blood hammered in my veins, and emotion surged within me—wonder that the miracle I read in her veiled glance could have occurred. Then a grinning, lipless skull passed between us and our peril was recalled to me full force. My brain raced. Was there any way in which I could kill her, swiftly, before the gas seared that young beauty?
"Enough," Mowrer spoke crisply. Someone grimaced with bared facial muscles and pulled a lever over. The stream of oil cut off with a sucking sound. I could just see the surface of the black pool, two feet below the level of the floor. It heaved like some foul prehistoric monster, and noisome colors rippled over it. Mowrer turned slowly, and the man with him. My throat contorted in a soundless shriek.
His body was shriveled, tiny; the skull, all that remained of his head, gigantic. God Almighty! I had seen him dead, hours before, clamped rigid to wires vibrant with lethal lightning, seen that deformed body alight with a blue aurora that was blasting every cell within it! And now Jimmy Haynes walked across the floor, his skeleton hand on Mowrer's arm, his sightless eyes deep pits wherein white marbles rolled!
Was the little old man, whom Thorndal had condemned, indeed the instrument of God's vengeance? Had he been infused with power to raise the dead? Was this concourse of inhuman figures a gathering of the damned, raised from the grave to visit retribution upon their slayer? The solid walls rocked around me and the floor, heaved beneath my feet...
There was a desk on the dais near the entrance to this corner of Hades, and two chairs had been placed behind it. Those two went directly there, Mowrer guiding the other with infinite tenderness. They sat down. There was something appalling in their slow progress, an awful threat in their grim, still faces. To my tortured vision Haynes was Beelzebub himself, the ebony-skinned Mowrer his chief disciple.
In response to a motion of the secretary's hand the others ranged themselves to one side, intent, listening. Utter silence clotted in the room. The foul odor of rotting bodies was stench in my nostrils, and the mercury lamps added the last touch of horror with their ghastly light and the huge shadows they cast across the floor. It seemed to me that vast black wings beat overhead...
"Andrew Thorndal!" Mowrer's tones had lost their shrillness, the thinness that had spoken of age and pain. They had a husky quality, were hushed, though clear and penetrating, as if he were himself appalled by that which he was about to do. "Andrew Thorndal! That you may not hereafter complain you were unjustly condemned, a jury of those you have wronged will hear you. Have you anything to say?"
An instant Thorndal's nostrils flared, then he was speaking, calmly, steadily: "With what am I charged?"
"With exploiting for your private profit the people of a countryside. With condemning to torture and death men too dulled and stupid to withstand you."
"They were starving when I came, were clothed in rags. I gave them work, money with which to buy food and clothing."
The voice of the accuser was implacable. "You lured them into your power," he said. "You gave them suits that at first protected them, but when you had set up your fences of death and your cordons of armed guards so they could not escape, the suits failed. You cheapened them, to save a few paltry cents in the cost of the only defense they had against the hell-gas you devised."
"No!" The syllable blasted into the room. "No! The suits failed, but that was not my fault. They were the same. I swear to you they were the same. I do not know why they failed." I felt that he was not answering Mowrer then. He was answering something within himself, some question that had robbed him of sleep, that had clouded his eyes even when I brought the subject up in our first talk an eternity before.
Mowrer returned to the attack. "If that were so," he demanded, "why did you not shut the plant till you had determined the reason and remedied it?"
Thorndal looked at him unbelievingly. "Shut down! Why I could not do that. We could not meet the demand as it was. Tri-State Oil had their backs against the wall. Another month and they would have folded up. Neosite would have been in every car and airplane tank in America. Close and give them a chance to say the supply of Neosite was unreliable, could not be depended upon! That's what they wanted; that's why I had armed guards on the road, so they could not send their agents in to shut me down. They tried it, persistently. I had to go ahead. Had to!"
Good Lord! This general of industry, this master of men, was himself a slave, a Frankenstein to the monster of his own creation! In a flash I saw it. He had given himself to the service of Neosite, and Neosite had become a Juggernaut riding down and crushing out every atom of humanity in him! He would sacrifice himself to Neosite as he had sacrificed the poor, maddened creatures around us, without the least hesitation. Somewhere deep within me was born a tiny spark of pity for the man.
But not so with Mowrer and the others. The prosecutor broke the silence with, "That is your only excuse?"
"That is all." Thorndal's brown eyes had retreated again into lethargy. Something like contempt hovered about his lip corners. "I have nothing more to say."
Mowrer half-turned to the hulk in whom I had recognized Haynes. "Andrew Thorndal has condemned himself from his own mouth. Need I say more?"
The gigantic head moved slowly in negation. Then a whisper came from its mouth, an awful sibilance of sound that was like nothing save one's imagining of a voice from beyond the grave, a voice from the fleshless lips of a skeleton dead so long that even the worms had lost interest in it. Yet the words were clear: "You have heard charge and defense. What is your will?"
And that jury of the dying, those who still could talk among that jury of the damned, roared their answer: "Guilty!" Like the yapping of wild dogs it was, like a fiends' chorus from Hell.
Haynes nodded. "Andrew Thorndal," he whispered. "You will die as they died. It is my regret that you will die more quickly."
Mowrer stopped, spoke again: "Nancy Thorndal! You have danced while men died that you might clothe yourself in silks, have given yourself to pleasure while mothers' hearts were wrung with despair that you might drink fine wines..."
I shouted something, and Thorndal's voice thundered: "She knew nothing about it. Let her go, you devils!"
"'The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children...'"
"Jury," said Haynes. "What is your will?"
God! Even they could have spared her. I ripped curses at them, but I might have been crying in a desert for all the attention anyone paid to me.
And the inexorable voice of the judge came back from the dead, husked the sentence, "You shall die in the gas."
"Stanley Sutton!" The farcical trial went on. "You were warned and persisted. You aided Andrew Thorndal and defended him from me and from his other victims. You shot down the messengers of vengeance."
"Go to hell," I snarled. "What's the use of my saying anything?"
"—Die in the gas."
I didn't care. If Nan were to go that way I was satisfied to go with her...
"Randall Johnson! You were foreman of the nitration room and sent men to their death without compunction. You sat at this desk in the only suit that functioned and watched them labor in the shadow of their doom."
The tall man turned to his accuser. "I helped you in your plot," he said. "When nobody could get through the fence I told the guard something was wrong in here and I must see Thorndal at once. They passed me through and I shut off the current that would have held you back."
So it was he who had done that! But that did not tell why he had been engaged in a covert confab with someone else on the bedroom floor. Nor could it have been he who planted the tank of gas in my room. I wished now that I had not awakened then. At least I should not have had to watch Nan die.
Mowrer was pondering Johnson's plea. He raised his head now. "No!" he said. "We used you, but that did not win for you absolution from your sins." There was a murmur of approbation from the macabre group of listeners. "You were in our power and you thought to bribe us with your offer of aid. Your guilt is too black to be washed white by one act of repentance, if repentance there was."
Thorndal was looking at the bald man with burning eyes. If he were free, I thought, he would tear him to pieces with his bare hands.
Again the ritual of reference to the jury, the chorused "Guilty," and Haynes' eerie voice pronouncing sentence: "You will die in the gas."
Johnson sagged against his lashings, and his eyes were the orbs of death. "No," he whimpered. "I can't face it." He surged up as far as his lashings would permit and screamed, "Oh, God! Don't let them do it!"
A lank creature whose face was a red blob yelled, "Shut up, yuh rat. Yuh held a gun on me when I wanted ter git out o' here."
Mowrer, ignoring Johnson's screams, peered near-sightedly past the four of us who had been condemned. "You, there," he said. "What is your name?"
"Wuh—William Lannon." The popinjay's jaw shook visibly as he answered.
The little man who had brought about this holocaust turned to Haynes. "I know nothing against this man," he said. "His presence here is pure accident, and he did not fire at us when we attacked the house. But he must die that God's work that we do may go unpunished by man's blundering law. We dare leave no witness."
"Gentlemen!" Lannon's voice rang out. "I won't say anything. I swear it by everything that is holy to me. I won't say anything if you let me go."
There was a momentary pause. Then Haynes projected toneless words into the room: "You swear silence as to all that has passed?"
"I swear by my dead mother's name, by my only hope of salvation." He was cringing, pleading. "No one knows that I came to Newville. No one will ever know if you will only let me out of here." He slavered at the mouth in his eagerness.
Someone called, "Let the poor fool go! He ain't done nothrn'."
Haynes considered a moment, then nodded. Mowrer pointed to one who was less burnt than the rest. "Release him," he ordered.
"No!" It was a squeal so shrill that for an instant I could not locate its source. "Stop! I'll be damned if he'll go free and leave me to suffer." Johnson was yammering those words, straining at his ropes, his bound hands clawing at his sides. "Listen to me! Listen."
"What is it?" Mowrer clipped.
"Johnson! Don't tell them!" Lannon screamed, wild-eyed. "For God's sake, don't."
"Silence!" Haynes husked. "Silence. We shall hear him."
That voice from the dead struck Lannon dumb. But his mouth remained open in a soundless scream, and the terror in his eyes was an awful thing to witness. Yes, even in that chamber of horrors there could be a greater horror: his naked soul revealed in those staring orbs. My scalp tightened as I guessed what Johnson had to tell.
That one was speaking, malevolence vibrant in his now steady tones: "His name ain't Lannon. It's Rand, Morton Rand, and he's a vice-president of Tri-State Oil."
An inarticulate roar from Thorndal blasted the man's next words, a thunder-sound of fury.
"Silence," came the command of the judge who had been dead and was now alive. "Silence!"
"He got me, no matter how," Johnson went on. "A hundred grand they paid me—to put Neosite on the fritz. A hundred grand. For that I smeared oil on the rubber safety suits, so that they'd be porous an' let the gas through. I didn't put it on my own..."
"You lie, damn you. You lie!"
Lannon's shriek set off a cataclysmic tumult of noise. Thorndal's boom, "You dogs! You cowardly dogs!" Johnson: "It's the truth. I can prove it." Mowrer mouthing: "God's vengeance. God's wrath upon him." And the agonizing screams of the victims of the gas: "Kill! Kill! KILL!!!"
Only I was silent, horror-stricken at the lengths to which greed could go—I, and Nan. I saw that she had fainted, her head lolling, her silk-clad body erect only by virtue of the lashings that held it to the steel column next to mine.
They surged down the long room toward Lannon, those men whose tortures of the damned had been his procuring—a wave of maddened fiends. I saw one, faster moving than the rest, clutch a fleshless hand in the man's blond hair, and closed my eyes lest I see him ripped limb from limb. Someone scattered by me, and I heard Mowrer's voice: "Stop! Stop men! That death's too good for him! I claim him for the vengeance appointed by God!"
There was a scream, the spat of blows, and the sounds died away. When I looked again they were going back to their places, and Lannon—or Rand—was still bound to his post, still alive. Alive, but his face was a raw, bleeding mass, one side of his mustache had been literally torn out by its roots, his torso was bare and scored with deep, gory furrows.
The blind Haynes had not moved from his seat. He waited till they were quiet again, and then rasped out: "Go on!"
Johnson's features were twisted now with bitterness. He looked odd with that towering, hairless head of his, his long neck with the Adam's apple moving up and down as he talked. "I thought the first touch of the gas would scare the men out, or make the boss quit," he was saying. "But things went right on, an' I had to obey orders and keep on making Neosite. Last night I caught sight o' Rand drivin' up to the house, an' knew he'd come to see what was what. Afterwards he told me he'd gone to the beach where Miss Nan was and kidded her into bringing him to Newville."
"Afterwards! Then you talked to him?"
"Sure. Three times. The first was through the fence, right after the boss got home. Rand told me Thorndal had brung a new super that looked smart, wanted me to fetch him a tank o' gas so's he could scare Sutton off..."
Scare me off? Murder me! Rage was cold within me as I realized the viciousness of the man...
"...I brung it to him the second time, when the current was cut off so's they could take Jim Haynes' corpse off the wire, an' the third was when you made me go. I wanted to tip Rand off, to tell him not to fight you an' he'd be all right." Johnson had been pouring out his amazing confession in a rush of hurried words, but suddenly his voice broke into a high, venomous shrillness. "I risked my neck for the devil, but I'll be damned if I'll let him get scot-free while I die for what I've done. He's the cause of it all. He—"
"Enough! We've heard enough." Mowrer's voice was surcharged with pent fury; it was the voice of doom. "He shall not escape. 'Vengeance is mine! saith the Lord.'"
And in a dread antiphony Haynes husked the sentence, "He shall die in the gas."
If ever a man deserved death Morton Rand did. But we others... Nan...
"Men!" I twisted to the sudden bellow from Thorndal. "Men! Listen to me!" His eyes were blazing, his face alight with inspiration. "Listen!"
There was a rustle. Someone shrilled, "No! We've heard enough from you!" But Thorndal went on, roaring down all opposition: "Listen! The suits are good! You know it now—I knew it all the time. The suits are good and we can make Neosite safely. We can make Neosite and sweep Tri-State off the map. I'll raise your wages, I'll treble production. I'll give you pensions—build schools—Newville will be the wonder, industrial city of the world!"
A hissing started, venomous. High-pitched cries from blackened lips: "No!—Stop talking.—We've had enough!—Murderer!—Torturer!—The gas—Turn on the gas!"
Thorndal roared on, unhearing, uncomprehending. He was mad with renewed hope, not for his safety, not for his daughter's, but for his Neosite...
"Hell! I don't want to make any money out of this. I'll give all the profits to the workers, run the thing for nothing! Just let me go on making it. You can't kill it! You can't kill Neosite, the best damn fuel that was ever invented, the fuel of the future. It will revolutionize transportation if you give it a chance. Listen to me..."
"Silence, Thorndal." The impact of Haynes' awful voice got through him. "Silence!"
Thorndal stopped, and for the first time there was consternation in his face, realization of defeat. Not make Neosite! He just couldn't understand it.
The whisper of doom from the dead man's lips came again. "No, Andrew Thorndal," he said. "Though it was not your fault that the suits failed, yet when they did fail you drove on despite that failure, despite the black death it brought on those over whom you cracked the whip of your will, the dumb, helpless creatures you enslaved. For this you merit the death you gave them, you and yours, you and all your works. The sentence of the court stands."
And Mowrer's harsh accents put a period to hope: "'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord Jehovah. Vengeance is mine!'"
I WAS watching Nan with anxious eyes, praying that she would not revive till the gas had done its foul work. The room was clear now of that awful company. We five were alone, bound to the steel columns that were to be our stakes of martyrdom, alone save for one ghastly figure. Haynes stood with his skeleton hand on the fateful valve-wheel, Haynes who was dead already and so was not afraid to die again. He stood there, the muscles that criss-crossed his skinned head taut with some inner tension, his grotesque skull canted as though he were listening through the tiny orifices where ears had once been. What sound was he listening for, what awful sound heralding our doom?
Somehow I could not believe that this was the end. There was no hope, and yet my brain still struggled for some way out. And...inspiration flashed on me! Perhaps—now that he was alone...
"Haynes!" I cried. "I'm Sutton, Stan Sutton, from Tech. Your classmate. You can't kill me, Jim Haynes!"
The figure there at the wheel started, turned toward me his black sockets wherein sightless white orbs rolled. "Who calls Jim Haynes?" he asked.
"Stanley Sutton! We've studied together. Remember Prof. Carlon and the campus songs? Remember the night we licked Yale? Remember commencement and the two cum laudes, you and I?" Was I getting it across? Tech has a strong hold on her grads; was it strong enough to stop him? "You wouldn't blast Stan Sutton with the green gas, Jim."
His rotted teeth moved in signal that he was about to speak, and I stopped, held my breath. His voice came, that hushed, spectral voice of his that had pronounced sentence of death in the court of the damned.
"Jim Haynes is dead," it said...Then the awful thing was true..."Thorndal killed my brother Jim and I watched him die." I rocked back against the pillar. Once, once only, I had heard Haynes speak of a twin brother, Sam. "Now Thorndal dies, and his child, and his minions who have done his will."
Haynes—Sam Haynes—turned, and twisted the valve-wheel! The iridescent fluid gushed from the pipe-mouth in a six-inch stream, struck the black pool and spattered. Some of it reached me, wet my clothing and the rope that was wound around me. A drop hit my hand, stung. It was an organic acid, I recalled, caustic almost as the green gas it produced.
"I'm coming," Haynes squalled. "I'm coming, Jim," and plunged into the black pool, disappeared beneath its surface! He shrieked as the acid burned him, and his struggles mixed the reagent with the processed oil it would change to Neosite. As by magic the fluid cleared, turned pink, then a milky-white. I stared at the faint green mist that formed on its surface, that spread rapidly, that boiled up in manifold tiny bubbles from the depths below. The green gas was rising in a lifting tide of death.
God! It rose so slowly, so deathly slow. It would be hours, hours before it reached the level of our heads. I had shuddered at the thought of swift, searing extinction by that burning mist, but I had not envisioned the dragged out torture that was in store for us. Now the awfulness of our fate burst upon me full force. Tied, helpless to move, the green gas would creep up on our tormented frames, inch by slow inch, corroding our flesh, searing deep to bone as it rose, while still we lived, while still we were conscious of every agony, every torture of that slow advance!
The tendrils spread, coalesced, formed a thin pool on the stone floor, a pool that rolled nearer, gradually nearer with its terrible threat. I pulled my eyes away from it, sought Nan again. She was awake! She was staring at the green gas and her eyes were pits of terror.
"Nan," I called. "Nan!" And, forgetting they were bound, I tried to raise my arms to her.
Tried to! Almighty God! They came up! The rope snapped, and my arms lifted!
I gazed at my hands unbelievingly, saw white marks of acid burns on them. The reagent that had splashed on me—the iridescent acid...I glanced at the frayed rope-ends, moist and blackened... The acid that had spattered on them had eaten through the thongs binding me—had freed me!
"Nan," I gibbered, laughing hysterically. "Nan, it's all right. I'm loose! Heads up, Nan!" I worked frantically at my lashings and got them off, leaped to her and liberated her. There was a long shelf under the windows, a shelf on which bottles were arrayed. I lifted her to that. "Stay there till I get the others untied," I said. She should be safe there, safe for thirty minutes at least, so slowly was the gas coming.
Thorndal was exultant as I plucked at his ropes. "Good work, Sutton," he said. "Good work! We'll get out of here and start all over again. We'll build another Neosite factory somewhere else and you shall be my partner. You'll run the plant and I'll attend to distribution."
My hands dropped away from the knots. "Nothing doing, Thorndal. Swear to me there will be no more Neosite or I'll leave you here."
"No more Neosite! Man! You're crazy!"
"I will be crazy if I let you start making that hell's brew again."
"Hurry, Stan. Oh, hurry!" Nan called to me from her perch. "Look, the gas is near you. It will burn you and dad!"
I twisted. There it was, inches away from my feet, the burned feet whose pain I had forgotten in the blazing excitement of all that had happened. It was spreading all through the long room, but there was time yet. I turned back to Thorndal. "Well, what do you say?"
"No! I'll never promise that. If I did there would be no reason for me to continue living." He was honest, at least. He could have given me the promise I demanded, and broken it later.
"Then you'll stay here."
I turned away. And Nan screamed, "Stanley! Stanley Sutton! What are you doing? You're not going to leave my father. You're not!" She started to scramble down from her refuge.
"Get back there! Get back, I say!"
"Not unless you untie dad. If you don't, I shall."
I stared at her determined little face, so like Thorndal's now, and weakened. "All right, Nan," I answered. "Get back." I don't know whether I would have gone through with my bluff, but I had been determined to extort the promise from him. The first touch of the gas would have—But she had settled that. It took me seconds to complete the job.
"Fine," Thorndal grunted, stretching. "Get Nan away. I'll take care of the others."
"All right," I snapped. I was beginning to fear someone would come back to see why Haynes had not emerged, for surely they could not have known of his contemplated suicide. "We're going out the window..." I rattled my plan, then leaped for the shelving, thrust up the window. It screeched in its disused grooves.
It was broad daylight now. I saw the round black hole from which I had removed the cover...My eyes lifted, and far beyond the woods I saw figures turning to the sound of the window's opening. They started to run back, but one remained behind. I saw a rifle lift to his shoulder, saw the flash of its firing. "Come on, Nan," I gasped. "Quick."
She clung to me, frightened. "We can't get away, Stan," she said. "They'll catch us."
"Come on!" I got an arm around her, thrilling even in that instant to the warm softness of her body, and jumped. It was only a step to the opening to the oil pipe, but a bullet whistled uncomfortably close to my head as I took it, half-dragging Nan with me. Then I was kneeling, peering down into the pit. It looked dry, clean. "Down here, Nan," I said. "It's our only chance."
She hung back. "Dad. He isn't..."
"He's freeing the others. He'll be right along. Hurry!" Another bullet spat dust a foot from us. "Slide in and I'll lift you down. Quick!"
She was sitting on the well-curb, her feet within. I took her hands, swung her down. Her face lifted to me, a pale oval in the dimness of the shaft. "I can't reach bottom with my feet," she told me.
"I'll drop you. It's only a foot or two." I let go, and heard her thud to the bottom. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. It's a tunnel, Stan. I can stand almost straight in it."
"I know." I looked up. The running men were nearer, and the one with the rifle was aiming more carefully.
"Is dad coming?"
I glanced back. Thorndal was heaving through the window and something metallic gleamed in his hand. I slid into the bore, hung from its rim by my hands. "Look out, Nan!" I cried, and let go.
The hole was deeper than I thought, ten feet at least, its sides smooth. The shock of my landing sent pain shooting up my legs. The light-disc above darkened and I ducked back into the conduit. Distant shouts came to me, and Thorndal dropped down the well.
"I have a gun, Sutton," he said. "It was in the lab and I knew we'd need it. Cartridges, too, this time. We can stand them off indefinitely here."
"Johnson! Lannon! Are they coming?"
"Coming?" he snarled. "Hell! That double-crosser and the hound who bought him? They won't bother us any more. They're stewing in the tank."
My mouth opened, closed. I couldn't say anything. They deserved it, but only Thorndal could have done that. My mind flashed back to the scene in the lobby when Mowrer had been dragged off to the nitration room at his command. He hadn't changed. All he had endured was powerless to change him!
Sunlight streamed down the shaft, and dust motes danced in it. Then a shadow fell blackly down.
"Keep back," Thorndal shouted. "Keep back or I'll shoot!" He backed away from the bottom of the well, crouching, the bulldog revolver snouting...
There was a muffled clamor above, the shrill voices of the gas-blasted men whose doom we had escaped. The shadow flickered away, returned. And suddenly a twisted shape thudded down!
The thunder of Thorndal's gun deafened me. Nan screamed, and her father's full-chested bellow echoed in the pipe behind: "One down! Any more coming?" There was a note of triumph in his tones, the exultant lift of a fighting man at the smell of battle. I moved back to where Nan knelt, got an arm around her. The man Thorndal had shot was a crumpled heap in the light. He rolled his flayed face toward us, the ligaments quivering. His eyes glazed, and he didn't move again. We waited, but nothing happened.
"They're licked, Sutton," Thorndal growled. "They don't dare come down. We've got them licked!"
I could distinguish Mowrer's high-pitched voice, crisp with command, and doubted Thorndal's statement. They couldn't come down to pursue us, but he would find a way to get at us. He was indomitable, implacable. He would not allow us to escape his revenge so easily. Thus my thoughts, but to Nan I whispered, "We've won, darling. We've won! They can't touch us now." The term of endearment came naturally; I had not forgotten the message of her eyes.
"That horrible face!" She shuddered. "I can't stand it. Stan, it's driving me mad."
"Here. Hide your eyes against my shoulder."
MINUTES dragged. The huge pipe in which we had found refuge stretched back behind us into blackness, its steel walls rusty. I knew that it stretched so for miles, till it met the pipeline from the Texas oilfields.
"Sutton," Thorndal called, without turning his head. "About two miles back this pipe comes to the surface and lies along the top of the swamps. There's another manhole there, for cleaning purposes. You and Nan make for it, and get help from Roton. I'll hold the fort here."
"That will take hours. You can't keep vigilant forever. They'll catch you napping and grab you again; come after us. I'll stay here with you, and Nan will go for help."
She stirred in my arms, pulled away. "No!" she said. "No! I couldn't go through all that long dark alone. And besides, I won't leave dad and—and you, Stan."
"Good God, girl!" I burst out. "You must. It's the only way, the only way we'll ever get out of here."
"You go, dear." Ineffably sweet, that word on her lips. "You go. I'll watch here with dad. I can shoot."
There were ominous clinkings at the surface. "Sutton!" Thorndal exclaimed. "They're sticking a big pipe down the manhole, one of the conveyor tubes from the processing room. What do you think they're up to?"
My scalp prickled. "It's some devilment...Mowrer isn't beaten yet!"
"By God! He'll be beaten before I'm through with him! Beaten to a pulp!" Thorndal banged his free hand against the steel side of the pipe in an ecstasy of defiance. "Beaten to a pulp."
"Shhh!" Nan hushed him. "What's that sound?" We fell silent, listening intently. I heard a dull throb, throb; thought it was the sound of blood in my ears. Then I was certain it was not.
"Sounds like a pump," I whispered. "But it can't be! What would they be doing with a pump?"
"I'm frightened," the girl breathed in my ear. "Stan, I'm—"
There was a green glow, suddenly, in the aperture. We watched Thorndal's bulking frame silhouetted against it. He leaped back, cursing. I smelled an unmistakable odor. A trickle of the emerald vapor crept lazily into the thin cylinder of sunlight that still came down from the world above.
"Run!" I shouted, choking. "Run!" And even as we turned to flee the first great gush of the death-gas billowed forth to follow us! Mowrer had found a way indeed! Bullets were of no avail against the weapon he had devised to confound us!
We ran into the pitch blackness of that long tube, and the green glow of horror rolled after us, aided by the down-pitch of the tube, spurred by the throb, throb of the pump, the echoing thud of which followed us mercilessly.
I can't remember much of that nightmare flight, except that the steel was sharply curved, and its roof so close down that I was half-stooped over as I ran, that the soles of my feet were torn once more by rust and my scalp bruised again and again by some inequality overhead. Nan was somewhere in front, I next, then Thorndal—cursing, cursing in a rumbling monotone as he ran. His voice thundered as it echoed through that long tube, the pump throbbed, the green gas followed us with its deadly luminance. We stumbled onward through an infinity of lightless constricted space, an eternity of time.
How long, I thought, how long can we last? We may go on and on, but finally we must drop, and the gas will roll over us, over Nan, and Thorndal and me, and blacken our bodies as had been intended from the first.
It seemed to me I could hear Mowrer intoning his awful refrain: "'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.'"
Under my tortured feet the pipe curved, slanted upward. The ascent slowed us, but it slowed the gas still more. We drew ahead of the threatening glow, and I began to hope that perhaps we should beat it. If only we were far enough ahead when we reached the manhole of which Thorndal had spoken, that we might have time to get it open before the misty death caught us!
"Faster," I gasped. "Faster, Nan!" I could barely make out the pale glimmer of her, ahead.
And suddenly she was gone! Her shrill scream echoed back to me, but I could not see her. "Stop, Stan," she cried. "Oh, stop!"
I skidded to a halt. "Nan! What's happened? Where are you?"
"Here!" Her voice came from my feet, from below me! "Here. There's a deep hole here; I slid into it. The other side's vertical. I can't get out."
"A sump hole." Thorndal was right behind me. I could feel his hot breath on my neck. "A depression to clear the oil of sediment."
I threw a fearful look over my shoulder. The gas was distant, but it rolled toward us implacably. "Watch out, Nan," I said. "I'm coming down for you."
"No, Stan. It's not far across. You and dad can jump over. Don't come down here."
I took a cautious step, another. The conduit floor flattened out, slanted steeply downward. I pushed my feet over the edge, skidded, bumped into Nan's soft body. I must have fallen ten feet, at least.
"Oh, Stan! You did come! Now you can't get out, either. Feel here..." She seized my hands, placed them against the opposite wall of the sump-hole. It was straight up and down, slick.
"All right," I grunted. "I'll lift you out."
"Don't worry about me. I can climb like a fly. I'll follow you."
Of course, I lied. I could get her up, but I would have to stay behind. The gas would reach here in moments, would pour over the lip of the depression and swallow me.
"I'll be all right," I assured her. "Hurry! Up on my shoulders, then grab the top and pull yourself up. Quick!" I must not give her time to think, to argue! "Up with you!" I got hands around her waist, swung her to my shoulders. She scrambled erect, I felt her heels digging into me. Then they were gone.
"I'm up, Stan. Come on."
"Go ahead, Nan; I'll be with you in a minute. Go ahead, Thorndal, jump across. It's only three feet."
"Stan! You can't get out. Oh, my dear!"
"Run, Nan, run. If you love me, run."
She was safe...And Thorndal could save himself. It was an easy leap.
"Watch it, Sutton," Thorndal said. Good Lord! What was he doing? Why didn't he jump? The question had scarcely framed itself in my mind when he was at my side. "Up with you, boy."
"Mr. Thorndal, you—"
"Shut up. She's my daughter and you saved her life. It should have been I...It will be. Up with you—quick!"
No time for futile argument. Perhaps it was just that he should be the one to go. Rand and Johnson had paid the penalty of their crimes; why should Thorndal escape? Protesting nevertheless, I let him hoist me to his shoulders, lifted myself erect and pulled myself out of the death-trap!
I glanced back. The awful glare of the gas was close—terribly close. In seconds now it would pour down into the hole where Thorndal was.
"Nan's away," I told him. "She's safe! Maybe I can find something to help you out, maybe I can save you yet!"
"Good-bye, boy. Take good care of her. Good-bye!"
I twisted to start off.
"Stan!" It was Nan, only yards ahead. "Stan! There's something queer here. Hurry!"
I was at her side. The roof of the pipe lifted here; I could stand up straight. I felt overhead—felt a flat plate. My pulse hammered.
"It's the manhole, Nan!" I cried. "The manhole in the swamp. We're saved! We can get out!"
"Thank God! Oh, thank God!"
I got the flats of both hands against the cover, heaved. Superhuman strength must have flowed into me then; the heavy disc lifted at once, slid sidewise. Blessed sunlight struck down!
"Up with you, Nan—up!"
I grabbed her, literally threw her out of that damned pipe. And just as I did so a scream shrilled to me, a strong man's scream. I looked back. The gas had reached the pit where Thorndal was, was folding over its edge in a lazy, slow settling of doom.
I got my hands on the manhole rim, chinned, scrambled out. The oozy, scummed surface of the swamp was Eden to my eyes. Nan had slid down the tube's surface, was ankle-deep in mud.
"Father!" Her eyes widened in sudden realization. "Where's father?"
How could I tell her? I pretended breathlessness, pretended I could not speak. The great pipe was covered with wooden slats here—bound to it by wires that were rusted by the moisture of the morass. One was right at hand.
Perhaps—my brain was working lightning fast—perhaps I could get the wire off. I jerked at it—it snapped. And I was down again in the pipe, the wire coiling after me.
The sump-hole was half-filled with green vapor when I reached it. But Thorndal—a shrieking, fear-gibbering wretch—was still alive. The wire held, I got him out, just as the gas filled the pit and eddied over its edge.
I had to guide him to the manhole, to lift his hands to the rim. I thought it was because he was numbed with fear. But when he was in the light again I saw that the eyes in his blackened face were burned white. He was blind!
SOAP and hot water saved his skin. But he is a sightless, doddering old man in our home now, Nan's and mine. Our children love their grandfather, he plays with them so gently, tells such nice stories in this thin, quavering voice.
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