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Title: Terror Beneath the Streets Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304731h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Apr 2017 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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At one moment it was a gay, carefree city of pleasure-seekers; the next it became a dark metropolis of the damned, with a million men and women cowering from the clutches of the Little Men who sprang from their dank lairs, to pillage and murder at will. Somewhere, Roy Parker knew, was the girl he loved, held by the dread Master of Darkness whose mad designs brought tortured, bestial death to all who came within his power!
AFTERWARDS, it was known that an essential element of the terror which ran riot through New York City on the night of March fourth was its perfect timing. But to Roy Parker the fact that the Trinity Church clock hands pointed to precisely seven o'clock meant little, and for a good reason. For at that moment he was standing on the northeast corner of Broadway and Pine Street, holding Ethel Vine in his arms.
Her lithe form was tiny against his huge body. She stood on tiptoe to reach him. Yet her small hands, slim and flowerlike on his burly shoulders, could twist and mould him at will. He loved her and as in everything else he did, Parker threw his whole soul and being into that love.
Those two; and a second slender, pert-visaged girl who watched the lovers with a half-smile on her lips—and a furtive shadow of pain in her gray eyes—were incongruously alone where an hour before a torrent of shouting, laughing humanity had poured. The air that had been palpitant with the ordered chaos of the nation's business heart was hushed, and there was a brooding, almost uncanny quality to the silence that lay heavily in the deep canyons of the financial district.
Towering buildings loomed, dark and dismal, jutting incredibly high to touch the moonless bowl of an overcast sky. They seemed lifeless cliffs enormously ponderous, enormously sinister. Street lamps struggled feebly against a creeping murk that was not fog but the forerunning shadow of fog.
Halfway down the block a single square splotch of neon glare spotlighted the all-night restaurant where the three had met for supper. A block to the east the tall pilasters of the Stock Exchange Building glimmered, and the black silhouette of a lonely policeman paced before it.
"Hey, Roy," Ann Vine said dryly, "isn't it about time you finished saying goodbye? You did give me your ticket for the theater, you know, so Ethel wouldn't have to go alone, and I refuse to sit in the orchestra in this tailored suit. Besides, I seem to remember your saying something about having work to do."
"There you are!" Parker grinned at her over his sweetheart's ash-blonde head. "The demon sister-in-law is getting practical again." There was gruff affection in his rumbling tones. "If Ethel would only shove you under a subway train tonight I'd take her down to City Hall tomorrow morning and get spliced."
"No you wouldn't! You'd track her to the end of the earth and send her to the electric chair with that nasty grin still on your homely mug." Ann's tip-tilted nose crinkled with pretended distaste. "That's why I've been trying to throw a monkey wrench in this affair of yours. I don't like the idea of having a famous detective in the family—just in case I decide to steal a batch of Rascomb Sloane's bonds." She shuddered prettily.
"Your boss would undoubtedly call me in on the case. And how I'd love to slip the steel bracelets on your wrists. I—"
"Stop it, Roy!" Ethel thrust away from him. "I won't have you two going on like that." White-frocked, slender and graceful as long-stemmed lily, she seemed to glow in the dimness with an inward light. "I know it's kidding, but some time one of you will say something that hurts, and then..."
"Aw, Kitten, Ann knows I love her," Parker slid a columnar arm around the slim waist of his fiancée's younger sister, drew her close to him, "darn near as much as—Hey! You're shivering, Ann! Frightened of the dark, Kitten? What's the matter?"
"I—I don't know." The tiny oval of her face looked up at him; tight, tawny ringlets framing its still pallor. "I'm all jittery and nervous inside." She pressed a hand to the tender, virginal swell of her bosom. "I—maybe it's the quiet around here, but I feel as if something—something awful—is going to happen—any second."
"Why, you—" Parker broke off, shrugged. "And I called you practical! Downtown's always like this after hours."
Ann shook her head, her pupils dilated, her long-lashed lids wide. "No. It's—different tonight. Listen!"
Underlying the brooding silence, the muted roar of the city came from the north where the residential and pleasure districts were just waking to their nocturnal life. From nearer at hand came the rush of an elevated train, the melancholy hoot of a ferryboat on the Hudson, the endless chug, chug, chug of some unseen machine. It was all utterly familiar—and yet somehow strangely ominous.
It was Ann herself who broke the taut, listening spell that held the trio. "Oh, I'm being awfully silly," she exclaimed, wrenching out of Parker's hold. "But not too silly to know it's getting later by the minute. Come on, Ethel. We certainly won't have time to shower and change unless we get started. We'll walk over to the Seventh Avenue subway at Cortland Street. 'Bye, Roy."
"Night, girls. Have a good time."
It was exactly seven-four when Roy Parker watched the two girls cross Broadway and vanish into the dim shadows of Cedar Street. Beneath his feet a long, rumbling growl sounded. It was the subway, of course, but it seemed as though some huge, subterranean monster stirred in its lightless, grisly lair. And as though the chug, chug, chug of the distant machine was its panting, hot breath...
That sound grew louder, sharper, more insistent, as the sisters neared it, walking fast beneath the gloomy loom of the sleeping skyscrapers. Ethel Vine's hand crept into Ann's, and it was icy, trembling.
"I'm worried," the older girl said, low-toned, apprehension husky in her voice. "I'm always worried when Roy works late. He's made so many enemies..."
"He can take care of himself." Ann achieved lightness in her tone with perceptible effort. "And after all it isn't as if he were a city policeman, fighting gangsters and killers. His work for the Stock Exchange is mostly checking up on brokers who break their rules."
"Mostly, yes. But he's had some terrible people to deal with, too. That gang of insurance swindlers, a month ago. And the band that was selling narcotics to bond and stock runners. And..."
"He handled them all right. That man of yours is a wildcat in a scrap—Ethel! Look! What on earth is that?"
They had rounded a corner into Church Street. Dead ahead of them a high, gaunt tower of interlaced beams straddled half the street. From somewhere within it glared a blinding white light, blackly barred by the criss-crossed timbers, and the machinelike chug, chug pounded out of its very heart.
"It's only some kind of drill," Ethel answered Ann's exclamation. "They're always boring into New York's vitals. Testing for a new subway, or a water tunnel or something."
"Oh yes, I remember now. Mr. Sloane said something about it only the other day." Ann slowed. "He said there are so many things under the surface of the streets; gas and water and sewer mains, telephone and telegraph cables, mail tubes and subways and so on; that nobody really knows all of it. So every time they want to build something new they have to bore way down. It's fascinating, though, and eerie. Queer, the thing seems to be working all by itself. I don't see anyone... Let's watch for a minute." She stopped.
"I thought you were in a hurry to get home and primp for the show—Oh, goodness!" Ethel's voice showed annoyance.
"Now what's the matter."
"The tickets! Roy forgot to give them to me! We'll have to go back to his office."
"But we haven't time."
"I'll 'phone him to call a messenger and send them to the theater. Look, there's a cigar store on the corner."
"All right. Go ahead. I'll stay here and watch this while you're calling up."
Fumbling in her bag for a nickel, Ethel brushed by a heavy-jowled, barrel-chested man lounging in the cigar store's doorway. Telephone booths were ranged across the front of the shop, their backs open against its plate glass window, so that as she went into one of them she could look out into the street and see Ann, a slim, fragile silhouette against the white glare from the drill-tower.
Her nickel rattled in the slot, pinged a small bell.
It was one of the few manual telephones left in the district. Ethel waited for the operator's voice. Her eyes strayed to the shop door, and she saw that a clock set into its transom gave the time as seven-fourteen. Her glance dropped to the man in the doorway. He seemed queerly tensed. He was watching Ann.
"Number please," sounded in Ethel Vine's ear.
"Hanover six, four-one-eight-two." The blue-jawed man's head jerked around, his eyes slitting, peering at her. He shouted something over his shoulder, started to come in.
A scream, shrill and terrorized, stabbed through the glass; pulled Ethel's startled gaze out through it. A black, uncouth shadow had materialized out of the angular shadows of the tower. It leaped at Ann...
The girl's scream choked off suddenly.
Fingers rasped at the door behind Ethel. She jammed her pocketbook through its inner handle, locking it shut for a precious second. The man who had been in the outer doorway cursed and lifted a burly fist to smash in the glass panel...
AT seven o'clock on the evening of March fourth, a suave, liveried waiter bent over a table in a discreet and high-priced restaurant in Fifty-Third Street, just off Fifth Avenue. "I hope everysing ees sateesfactory," he murmured.
"Quite, Henri," the tall, distinguished man in evening dress responded. "And now..." His eyes moved to the door of the little private dining room, significantly. His head was finely formed, its black hair relieved by flecks of steel gray at the temples.
Henri padded quietly out, shutting the door softly behind him.
The girl's laugh was a silvery tinkle. "You did that well, Courtney," she giggled. "I feel just as if I were having an assignation with some illegal lover instead of dining with my husband." Her fingers, sparkling with jewels, adjusted a filmy scarf about her marble-smooth shoulders. "But they cater to you so. I'm sure they know who you are."
"No. They don't know me as Courtney Bale, president of the Telephone Company. But they smell money about me and they try to rub off a little on themselves." His dark eyes narrowed. "I sometimes wonder, my dear, if it isn't for somewhat the same reason that you married me."
"Courtney, you silly!" Edna's too-red lips puckered to an adorable moue. "That's horrible! You know how much I love you..."
"Really, Edna?" Bale's carefully manicured hands pushed down on the white cloth. He lifted, started around the table. "Can you really love a man twice your age...?"
Through the tightly drawn portieres over the room's one window a rhythmic sound throbbed, the muffled chug, chug, chug of some unseen machinery in the street outside...
MAISIE JENKINS was still dreamy-eyed as she hurried out through the lobby of a Madison Avenue movie, in the Seventies. If only for one little half-hour Clark Gable would make love to her as he had to...! She glanced at her wrist watch, and her lips tightened.
"Fourteen minutes past seven!" she exclaimed. "Oh Lordie, Jim must be home already, hungry as a bear. Will he be mad!"
She started running along the crowded sidewalk toward the corner, where stood a high, trestled tower. From somewhere within it an invisible machine chugged rhythmically, endlessly...
"NO, Gardener," a high-pitched, querulous voice squeaked, "I will not retire from the chairmanship, tomorrow or any other time!"
The speaker was bundled in blankets in a high-backed, ornately carved chair. He was shriveled, incredibly wrinkled, his hairless head a corrugated, gray skull. "I still control the majority stock in the city subways, and I intend to keep on voting it the way I see fit. Good-bye."
His claw-like fingers dropped a telephone receiver into its cradle. "Thompson," he called. "Come in and take this thing away."
Across the vast, brightly lighted space of the high-ceiled living room a panel slid open. A liveried butler, almost as aged as his master, entered. He pushed a two-wheeled small wagon in front of him, its waist-high top covered by a cloth of lustrous white linen.
"Heh," the bundled-up ancient cackled. "They think Harlow Grant's getting too old to handle his business. They think they can pull the wool over his eyes, eh? But I'll show 'em. I'll—What's that you have there?"
"Your supper, Mr. Grant. It is late, sir. You are supposed to have it at seven and it is now almost a quarter past."
"Some more pap! I won't eat it. Take it away and bring me a steak smothered in onions."
"Yes, sir. Very good, sir." But Thompson came on, wheeling the portable table alongside Grant's chair.
The old man seemed to forget his refusal. He canted his bird-like head toward the tall, curtained embrasures of the room's windows.
"They haven't stopped that infernal chugging yet, Thompson," he whined. "Why haven't you had it stopped? Can't I have any peace even here on Sutton Place? You know the doctors say I must have absolute quiet if I'm to live to a hundred. And I intend to, Thompson. I intend to..."
AT seven-fourteen and a half Roy Parker was bent over the cluttered desk in his twelfth story office on Pine Street, studying column upon column of neat figures. A frown darkened his square-jawed, broadly sculptured features.
"Look's like there's a job for me, all right," he muttered. "Someone's raiding the municipal utilities with a bunch of wash sales. He isn't getting anywhere, but it's up to me to..."
The telephone clamored across his thoughts, shrill, insistent.
He reached for the instrument, got it to his ear. "Roy Par—"
"Roy!" Ethel's voice shrieked in his ear. "They've got Ann and they're after me. Church and Liberty. Help...!"
The crash of splintering glass, of smashing wood drowned the cry. Then there was nothing except the flat, mocking hum of an open wire. And a muffled scream that abruptly cut off.
"God!" Parker groaned, thrusting fisted hands down on the desk to push himself up out of his seat. "What—?"
Blackness smashed in on him, thick, viscid. The desk light had gone out! But the window in front of him was also black! The scattered nearer lights, and the multitude of farther ones of the city were blotted out, as though a stygian pall had dropped suddenly over the metropolis!
Parker whirled, diving through the darkness to where he knew his office door must be. He plunged out into the absolutely lightless corridor, remembered the flashlight in his pocket. His hand snatched for it, its beam stabbed out.
It struck the elevator gates. The indicator over the night lift was immovable between the bronze four and five of its numbered arc. The power, too, was surely off.
Roy lunged for the stairs. Twelve flights was a long way to go. But he had to get down to the street. He had to!
THE DARKNESS smashed down on New York at the instant of seven-fifteen of March fourth. It caught Maisie Jenkins halfway down the block, stopped her in midstride.
"Gawd," she spluttered. "What's happened to the lights?" She peered about her, at the street that was suddenly utterly strange, suddenly menacing. "They—they've gone out," she said dully.
The city dwellers had forgotten the real meaning of night. They had forgotten how sinister the dark can be, how their forebears would crawl into their caves as soon as the sun set, and roll huge boulders across the openings, and cower behind the barrier, listening to the roar of the gigantic jungle carnivores, the pad, pad of the sabre-toothed tiger and the sudden sharp scream of some small thing caught unaware...
So the fear that struck at them now was an appalling thing, a thing which was imbedded deep in their instincts, reasonless and paralyzing, just as this sudden deluge of darkness seemed reasonless and paralyzing.
Maisie seemed to hear a whimpering of fear all about her, from the throats of black, fearful presences that an instant before had been familiar men and women and children, half-seen, wholly unnoticed. She did not know that she too was whimpering, a frightened babe in a thick prison of darkness against which the headlights of halted autos seemed to batter in vain.
A police whistle blasted somewhere, and that high, piercing sound was the very essence of panic...
And then a voice shouted through the terrible blindness, a voice loud and raucous, but welcome for what it said.
"Candles! Candles, ladies and gents. Get your candles here."
Maisie turned to it. She saw the flicker of a tiny flame, saw another yellow spark flower in the murky gloom.
The man was standing with his back against the now silent drill tower at the Seventy-Third Street corner. A shallow box, sticking out like a shelf from his waist, was suspended by a harness that ran over his shoulders. He had lit four of the tapers by now, along the outer row of his box, and there were others, a great heap of them, piled within it.
"Candles," he called huskily. "Get your candles here. Ten cents. Ten cents a-piece. Candles."
A knot formed around him, grew rapidly. Coins clinked. Maisie was abruptly scared that all the candles would be sold before she could get some, and she started running again. Other people were running alongside of her. She was shoving through the crowd, struggling to get to the peddler.
"Candles. Candles. Get your candles here."
The crowd blocked her view of the man, but she could see the lighted tapers. They weren't very good, she thought. They were big enough, but they were a funny kind of red, almost like frozen blood, and a thin streamer of smoke trailed away from each flame. He had a nerve to be asking ten cents for them, when he knew people had to have them.
She got to the front. "Gimme five," she said, holding out a half-dollar. Then she saw the candle-seller, close by, and a shuddering chill ran up and down her spine.
It wasn't altogether that his weazened, scrawny body was clothed in a tight-fitting black fabric that was all of one piece, with no buttons, no apparent opening of any kind. Nor that his face and hollow-cheeked, hook-nosed, and pointed-chinned. It was grayish, too, no color even in his thin lips that kept crying, "Candles. Candles."
All this was queer enough. But it was his eyes that terrified Maisie. They were like little black beads, set too close together. And they didn't have any lashes. Their lids, a peculiar blue, kept closing over them and opening again, slowly, continually. They were like the eyelids of a vulture Maisie had once seen in the Central Park Zoo.
A taloned hand clawed the silver coin from her, another thrust candles into hers. Someone shoved Maisie, snarling. "Give another guy a chance, will ya? I want some, too!"
Somehow she was out of the crowd, clutching the candles to her breast. There were more flickering little lights up and down Madison Avenue now. There were other men in black tights yelling, "Candles, candles..."
That queerly raucous cry, shouted by stooped, scrawny men whose eyes were strangely like those of evil birds of prey was echoing all over New York.
It was all about Roy Parker as he pelted past the black-shrouded graves of Trinity churchyard, as he slewed around into Church Street, and started at a run uptown, toward Liberty...
"Candles! Candles! Here y'are, ladies an' gents. Candles."
But Parker didn't hear it. He heard only Ethel's shriek. "They've got Ann, and they're after me. Help..."
Her wild appeal had torn Ethel Vine's larynx, and then the telephone booth pane had smashed in, showering splintered glass about her.
The burly thug snatched her bag out from under the handle, crashed open the door. His harsh palm clamped over Ethel's scream.
"Smart, huh," he grated. "Didn't think I'd know that number." His free arm slid around her, pinning her elbows helpless to her sides in a band of irresistible steel. He lifted her, carrying her out of the booth with him.
And the lights went out!
Ethel was suddenly in fathomless dark, struggling frenziedly, futilely in the grip of the man who had inexplicably attacked her. Her tiny shoes kicked frantically against his. She squirmed, tried to bite the hand that was tightly held over her mouth, but to no avail. He carried her out into the lightless street from which Ann had vanished.
The girl twisted, forgetting her own predicament as she recalled that. Tiny lights were flickering there where the drill tower must be. Tiny candle lights. In their wavering luminance she saw a weird procession file out from under the netted timbers, a parade of bent, scrawny men in black tights from whose necks hung boxes of taper-filled candles.
They were shouting, huskily. "Candles. Ten cents each. Candles!"
Swiftly, so swiftly that almost it seemed they were blown apart by some unseen, unfelt wind, they disappeared into the deserted, darkened streets. But Ethel could still hear them crying, "Candles."
She was being carried toward the gaunt, high trestle that now was a blacker shape against the unnatural blackness...
ALL New York went dark on the instant of seven-fifteen. And everywhere the eerie candle-sellers sprang up, vulture-eyed, hoarsely crying their wares.
Courtney Bale pulled Edna's arms from around his neck. He bumped against the table, and there was a splintering tinkle of broken crystal. Then he was at the door, flinging it open.
"My light has gone out..." he started to call, and stopped. There was darkness in the main dining room, too. There was little, frightened feminine cries out there. A man was cursing, ribaldry, drunkenly. Another laughed, hysteria blurring the keen edge of that laughter.
The street door creaked open. "Candles!" A weazened, grotesque little man was silhouetted in the opening, his gray face hook-nosed, oddly vulture-like in the flickering light of lighted tapers on his tray. "Candles!" he shouted raucously. "Ten cents each."
"Of a surety we want les chandelles," the bustling, van-dyked restaurant manager spluttered. "Geeve me all you have." He trotted toward the door, waving a sheaf of bills in his excited hand.
Bale turned. "It's all right, Edna. We'll have light in a moment, there's a peddler here with candles." He moved back to his wife's side. "That will be more romantic still, my dear, making love by candle light."
The girl's voice was tiny, shaken. "I'm frightened, Courtney. There's something about this that frightens me. Let's go home."
"I think it will be better for us to stay here, darling. There isn't any light in the streets, either, and it might be dangerous driving through them. It can't take long before the electricity is turned on again, and then we'll leave—Oh, here's Henri with a candle for us."
"Oui, monsieur." The waiter came in, deftly adjusted the taper in a slender silver vase that had held a single rose. "Eet ees not vairy good, but eet ees ze bes' we could obtain."
The thing stood upright on the table. It was of a strange red hue, the color of frozen blood, and a thin black streamer of smoke rose vertically from it to eddy under the low ceiling. There was a gold band around it, midway.
IN those first minutes of darkness millions of candles were sold, and lit, in the vast city. And, oddly enough, the blackness deepened. Perhaps it was because each of those candles gave off its own little streamer of black smoke, and the millions of streamers joined, so that the air slowly thickened with a stygian fog, against which the automobile headlights and the flashlights of the police were useless.
By seven-twenty-five the voice of the city was the voice of blind fear. It was composed of the nerve-stirring wail of rushing sirens, of muted shouts abruptly cut off, of the sudden thunder of shots and the screams of women who fought desperately, frantically against drooling, lustful-eyed men...
The crash of plate-glass store fronts echoed through New York's streets, the splintering protest of battered doors, the squeal of broken locks. The murk investing the city was the gloom of a jungle night. There are many among the metropolis' seven million who are ravening jungle beasts, fearing fire and light as the jungle beasts do. With light gone, they were free to loot, to ravage and despoil...
The police fought them. But there are only twenty thousand police, and the length of New York is thirty-six miles, its breadth seventeen. Their radio stations were silenced by the failure of power, their telephones mute. The men in blue did their best, but their best was not enough.
Behind drawn shades the city's people cowered, as their ancestors had cowered in their caves. They had only the light of the red candles the peddlers had hawked.
For a time that wavering radiance was comforting, but after awhile the comfort waned; and a creeping, terrible fear took its place. The curling tendrils of smoke that rose from the bloody tapers took on grotesque, eerie shapes. Leering apparitions of gruesome dread they seemed; half-perceived wraiths from the land where nightmares are born...
Shapes moved in the streets, silent and purposeful under the cloak of the darkness and the savage looting.
The strange, weazened men cried their candles no longer. They were busy on other more stealthy, more furtive missions.
ROY PARKER pulled a shaking, sweat-dampened palm across his forehead. There had been nobody at Liberty and Church Streets when he had reached it. It had been ghastly, starkly deserted.
He had stormed up and down the light-less block, battering at locked doors, tearing his fingers on rusted, tight-shut iron shutters, yelling frantically "Ethel"—"Ethel" and hearing the hollow echoes of his agonized cries flung mockingly back at him.
There had been one open door, that of the cigar store on the corner. The window of a 'phone booth within it had been shattered, and the receiver hung from the end of its cord. He knew Ethel must have called him from that booth, but there was no other trace of her there. No trace anywhere of Ann. It was as if the earth had opened and swallowed them.
The earth had... Incredible, weird thought! But he had looked everywhere else. His thumb pressed the button of his flashlight. A bright shaft leaped out, laid a disk of luminance on the smooth asphalt. Parker's dry lips twitched in a humorless grin at the senselessness of his act.
An exclamation sounded, far back in his throat. On the ground, the circle of his light was splotched by gray markings. They were footprints, the prints of men's feet. And there was something queer about them.
The detective went to his knees for a closer look. He touched one of the marks with a tentative finger and felt the grit. Then he looked at the fingertip. It was blackly smudged.
The little hairs bristled at the back of Roy Parker's neck. The stain on his finger was smeared ash!
The footprints—themselves, then, were the spoor of ash-covered shoes, of soles that had been covered by a fine, gray ash—such as only tremendous heat could produce.
But no ashmen ever came into this district. These buildings were heated and powered by steam piped to them in underground mains from gigantic boilers on the East River. Space here was too valuable to waste on furnaces and coal bins.
A pulse hammered in Parker's temple. How then had these ashy footprints come here? Was there any connection between them and the disappearance of the two girls?
Did they have anything to do with the darkness that overlaid the city, a funereal pall?
Parker moved the hand that held his torch, following with its light in the direction from which the line of strange marks came. Other lines of ashen footprints branched in, joining them. The moving disk of light reached the flat wooden beams forming the base of a latticed tower erected to support one of the huge drills with which engineers are forever probing the city's entrails.
The footprints, fanning out in every direction, came from there!
The detective lifted. His face was a grim, stony mask, but his eyes glittered with excitement. That senseless idea of his, that the sisters had vanished underground, might not be so insane after all. His pace, as he moved toward the tower, was soundless, despite his big-muscled frame.
He reached it, glanced around, went in under its high-piled timbers. His flashlight showed him the drill hanging free, showed him the hole it had bored. The trail he followed ended at the very edge of that hole, and it was big enough in circumference to accommodate the frame of a small man... Or, of a slip of a girl!
Parker leaned over it, sent his light down into it. The yellow rays flashed from glass smooth sides of a vertical tube till it faded into nothingness.
The hole was deep, enormously deep. It pierced the very bowels of Manhattan Island.
The detective's skin was suddenly an icy sheath for his body as an unbelievable thought twisted in his brain. It seemed as if that shaft must go down to Hell itself. As if the ashes on the feet of whatever beings had come out of it were the ashes of the fires of Hades. As if...
He twisted, to the warning of some sixth sense that more than once had saved his life. A shadow moved, in the darkness just behind him. It leaped, a weazened, vulture-faced little man in whose talons a needle-pointed knife flailed straight for Parker's throat!
THE sounds of the dark terror that stalked New York reached only faintly to the tapestry-hung penthouse room atop a certain Park Avenue apartment house. But one of the macabre candle-hawkers had climbed even here, for seven blood-hued candles burned in a seven branched Menorah candelabra which stood on a great desk whose exotic dark wood glowed softly in their light. Each was marked with a gold band, midway of its height.
A little notebook lay open on that desk, its pages covered with words in a minuscule, copper-plate script. But Aaron Weinberg was no longer writing, although a fountain pen of yellow amber was clutched in his hand that lay on the desk top like a great blob of yeasty dough.
Weinberg's obese form overflowed the armchair in which he sat, though it was large enough for two ordinary men. His chins lay against his chest, two great folds of pasty flesh, and his small, fat-drowned eyes were fastened with a curious drowsy intentness on a gray little woman, as tiny as he was huge, who sat across the desk from him. She was reading in a yellow-paged, tatter-leaved book.
The printed letters of that book were queerly formed, and the woman's eyes had been following them from right to left across the page. Her dress was of gray silk that had cost a king's ransom, but the tight black wig of the orthodox Hebrew matron capped her age-withered skull.
The man's gargantuan form stirred. "Does your Talmud tell, Momma, how it is that a man can practically own the Electric Light Company of a big city and yet he must work by candlelight?" His voice was a breathed whisper, but there was fear in it. A creeping, deadly fear.
The woman did not move, did not answer. She was like a statue carved out of old ivory.
"Momma!" The fear was a startled black flame in her son's eyes. "Momma!"
Still there was no sound, no movement to show that she had heard his gasped cry.
Weinberg stared at her for an endless instant. He tried to rise. There was no strength in his limbs. A strange lassitude ran through them, a terrible weakness that made them water-weak.
The effect of so great a body disturbed the air, so that the dark haze floating under the ceiling and the smoke risen from the candles felt the currents. It billowed, sent out long tendrils that reached Weinberg and coiled about him. It seemed to him, suddenly, that it was the smoke that held him motionless, the smoke that squeezed his brain with ghastly terror.
There seemed to be more smoke seeping in through the pictured fabric that overhung the room's arched entrance. But no, it was a man, a strange little man in stygian tights that clung close to his weazened, macabre frame, who glided in so soundlessly. His gray face was hawk-nosed, sharp-chinned, and a thin, lashless membrane filmed his eyes so that he was appallingly like a vulture. Others, eerily, blood-chillingly identical, followed him.
Weinberg had only time to notice that their noiseless feet tracked his priceless Ispahan rug with ashen footprints. Then they were all about him, their claw-like hands fastening on him, lifting him out of his chair.
He tried to scream. The sound he made was a hoarse, almost inaudible rasp...
"THOMPSON!" Harlow Grant squealed, in his two-storied living room on Sutton Place. "Thompson! Get more candles! Get a lot more candles. I don't like the shadows in here. They're moving. They're—How did you get in here? Who are...?"
SIGHT of the blade slashing at him and the outthrust of Roy Parker's clenched fist, were a single, instantaneous flash. But quick as his counter was, the reaction of the sudden attacker was almost as quick, so that Parker's knuckles struck the killer only glancingly, only enough to jolt him aside so that the knife missed its mark.
The knife-man thumped against an upright, and leaped again. But Parker's shoulder holstered gun had sprung magically into his hand, in that second's respite. It shot, and shot again.
The hammer-blow of lead crashed the little man back against the beam, pinned him there for an agonized instant. He slid down along the wood, and was a flaccid, unmoving bundle on the asphalt.
Parker swung, his finger on his trigger. He sprang out into the open. His slitted, dangerous eyes probed the street. It was dark, deserted as it always had been. Nothing moved.
He had looked around just before he had peered down into the drill-hole. No living thing had been in sight. Impossible for the knifer to have reached him from one of the bordering houses in the second that he had peered down into the curious shaft.
The detective's scalp was a tight cap for his skull. The thought came to his bewildered brain that the attacker was not a man at all. That he was an evil Thing that had materialized out of the dreadful night, full-formed out of the murky shadows to leap upon him...
Then he saw the round black spot blotching the glimmering asphalt, not ten feet away. He heard the muffled rush of oily water.
That was a sewer manhole, and it was open. That was where the little man had come from. It was off to one side, easy for Parker to have missed it, concentrating on the macabre footprints as he had been, as he had followed them with his flashlight.
He had been watched, all the time! Clinging to the iron ladder within the manhole the killer had lain in ambush, waiting his chance to spring.
If Parker had not noticed the strange footprints on the asphalt, if he had not followed them to the drill shaft, would he have been permitted to leave unscathed? Had he been on the brink of some discovery, of some knowledge it were death to possess?
Half-crouched, his jaw set, his automatic snouting from his tight fist, he quivered with the eerie knowledge that though the street was deserted and dark and dead he was not alone. He felt an invisible gaze upon him. Malign, hating eyes pierced the darkness...
Parker's every sense was awakened now, sharpened to the almost preternatural keenness they attained in those moments of lethal threat with which his adventurous life was replete. He was aware now that the unknown peril that had snatched Ethel and Ann from the ken of living men hung over him also.
The air was tinted with a vague odor of burning wax. An almost imperceptible breeze from the north brought faint sound to him. The far-off wail of police sirens; the clangor of bells from the fire wagons which by seven-forty had begun patrolling the streets because the alarm system was useless; the whole tremendous terror-inspired tumult that forever will haunt the dreams of those who were in New York on that dreadful night of March fourth, merged into a single vast tide of blind and terrible fear.
Roy Parker heard it, and at last he knew that his agony and despair over the girls he loved was only a single tiny part of the agony and despair over which the clouded, starless sky brooded pitilessly.
It was then, for the first time, that he connected the Darkness with their disappearance; for the first time he suspected that the sudden failure of light and power was not due to such an accident as had once before affected a small section of the metropolis.
Speculation formed itself in his pulsing brain. The many strange footprints he still could see on the asphalt, the kidnapping of the girls, and the lethal attack on himself, were these all indices of one thing, that the crux of what was happening lay right here? Was the headquarters of some incredible gang that was invading New York somewhere nearby? Somewhere—and he thought of the strangely large drill shaft, of the open manhole—underground?
Once more the eerie implication of the ash-strewn spoor chilled his pulse. Had they been left by living, incredible creatures from some unsuspected Hell under the city streets...?
That answer was madness, utter insanity. These Things had come from below, but they were human. Beneath the asphalt and the paving there was an endless labyrinth of passages, some of them ancient and forgotten, but vast enough to conceal an army. A human army. And the man who had tried to kill him had been human... Must have been human!
Perhaps his attacker was not altogether dead. Perhaps Parker could still find out from him the secret of these mysterious happenings. The detective straightened, swung around and started back to the tower.
He froze! His torch, making a tunnel of light through the dark, was halted by the zig-zag bulk of the towering, crisscrossed beams beneath which that sharp, deadly struggle had occurred. The radiance from the torch revealed every least bit of them, and every small inequality of the concrete from which they sprang.
But only the beams were there. The man into whom Parker's lead had pounded was gone! As if he melted into nothingness, into the night out of which he had formed!
A dark, chill flood of panic ran in Roy Parker's veins. Panic shrieked in his ears to run, to flee from this unholy spot, from the beings with which it was haunted that no mortal man could hope to combat.
He fought the terror off, fought back to sanity. From where he had crouched, listening, he must have heard or seen anyone approaching the tower or leaving it. But the fellow might have managed to slide down into the bore within it, or been dragged down into it. He was down there now.
Were Ethel and Ann down there too? Prisoners? If they had been killed he would have found their bodies somewhere up here. They were being held prisoners!
Red rage flared up in Parker. He heaved forward, growling, shouldering his great body back to the mysterious bore within which terror dwelt. Instinct rather than reason flicked off his torch, so that kneeling again beside the round aperture, he should not be once more a mark for some lurking assassin.
The act deprived him of sight, but he could hear. Kneeling there, conscious of some prowling threat that might spring upon him at any instant, Roy Parker probed the darkness with the one sense that could function in the sightless gloom.
At first nothing but a vague roar came to him, such as one hears holding a sea-shell to one's ear. Gradually a deeper sound grew audible, the rush of water, somehow oily and viscid.
He shook his head annoyedly. That was from the open sewer manhole behind him? No. Distinctly it was coming from the bore over which he leaned.
And then he heard a shriller sound. Infinitely small, infinitely distant, there was yet no mistaking it from what it was. It was a scream, a woman's scream, tenuous, rife with torment and terror. It cut off sharply.
No doubt about it now. Ethel was down there! Ethel or Ann, or both, down there in the bowels of New York. One of them was screaming for help. The other...
Parker thrust his gun back into its holster and his flashlight into his pocket. His hands closed on the edge of the bore, then he was going down. Men or devils, whatever awaited him below, he was going down to fight them, to wrest his loved ones from them...
Something twanged, a taut cable suddenly parted. The sound jerked Parker's startled glance to it.
He did not see the gigantic drill, tons of sharp pointed steel, rush down on him from where it had been suspended above him by the cable, which had snapped...
ONE curious incident of the obliteration of all communication in New York that night was that for an incredibly long time no effectual effort was made by the trouble-shooters of the Electric Companies to restore service. That was because the superintendent of each great power station and sub-station, testing the apparatus in his charge and finding nothing wrong, assumed that someone else was working on the difficulty. There were no telephones working, no telegraph, no radio. At one blow the center of twentieth century civilization had been thrown back into the Dark Ages when all messages had to be carried on foot or by vehicle.
By a quarter to eight, however, the police had set up an efficient messenger network. They were using the hundreds of squad cars to do this, and had commandeered buses and trucks to rush reinforcements to points where the rioting and looting was greatest.
The smouldering embers of race hatred had flared into a conflagration in Harlem. A pitched battle was in progress from the low Nineties to the Harlem River, and the precincts from Forty-Second Street up were stripped of every man that could be spared to halt it.
So it was that Officer Malone was alone on Fifth Avenue when he heard the thunderous crash of a plate glass store front at the Fifty-Third Street corner. Running, he saw a man reaching in to snatch at whatever precious objects were displayed there.
Malone, acting with commendable promptitude, drew his revolver and fired a shot at the marauder as he launched into a run toward him. The range was too great, he missed, and before the cop could fire again the thief had darted around the corner.
The policeman made the distance in very nearly Olympic record time, and glimpsed his quarry sprinting toward Sixth Avenue. He fired again, saw dust puff from the sidewalk at the fellow's heels, saw him twist and dive into a doorway.
Malone got there only seconds later, lunged into the restaurant where his quarry had taken to earth. By the light of a multitude of candles he saw him twisting open another door at the rear. The cop fired again, and this time did not miss.
The looter toppled through the door he had opened, and it swung shut behind him. The patrolman hesitated a minute, some incongruity in his surroundings penetrating the excitement of the chase and making his skin prickle eerily.
He looked about him, his eyes widening. The restaurant was full. Every table was occupied by dress-suited men, by bare-shouldered women over whose gleaming shoulders the luminance of the candles wavered with a weird effect. Shadows moved, thick and ominous, in the aisles. Beneath the ornate ceiling a cloud of black smoke billowed. But the diners were motionless...
That was what was wrong! A hundred people sat about Malone and not one of them moved. They sat there, staring at him with glassy, unseeing eyes and there was not so much as the twitch of a muscle in a single pallid face.
Chasing a thief, Officer Malone had blundered upon a banquet of the dead!
The full impact of what he saw half-stunned the policeman's somewhat stodgy mentality. He acted mechanically, obeying the precepts that had been drilled into him in Training School, swung around to the cashier's desk at the door for a telephone over which he might at once notify Headquarters of his discovery.
The sight of the receiver in the voluptuous-bosomed Frenchwoman's dead hand reminded him that the phone was not working. He couldn't call Headquarters. He couldn't call anyone. He had to handle this alone.
Malone thrust spatulate fingers under his cap and scratched his head. There was, really, nothing to handle. These people were very dead, that was all, and there wasn't any sign of how they had come to be that way.
Wait. Maybe there was. Maybe he ought to look for clues. Fingerprints, maybe. How did one look for fingerprints? Or tracks. Hell, there wouldn't be any tracks on this tiled floor.
But there were. He saw now. There were footprints on the floor, gray dabs of—of ashes, by the Saints! They came in at the door, and they wandered straight across the floor, past him straight to...
To the door, through which the man he had shot had fallen.
Officer Malone may not have been a savant, but there was not a cowardly fiber in his big blue-uniformed body. He was alone with a hundred staring, lifeless corpses. Ahead of him was a closed door behind which might be, for all he knew, those who had committed this mass murder. They might be waiting for him, watching him to see what he would do, willing to let him go scot-free if he would only turn and go out into the street again. No one would know that he had done that. No one would censure him.
But Patrolman Patrick Malone plodded straight back to the door where death might be waiting for him.
Revolver in one hand, half-crouched, his every muscle taut for instant action, he shoved against it. It thudded against something soft, against something that held it half-open. Then the thing moved to let the door go past. Malone's trigger finger tightened...
But there was no one in the little room. No one, that is, except the contorted, bloody shape of the thief. There was a table strewn with the remnants of a meal, there were two shoved-back chairs and a couch against the further wall. A candle upright in a slender silver flower vase guttered faintly on the table.
That candle was a little different from the ones Malone had seen the peddlers selling. Those had been plain. This one had a gold band around it to which the smoking flame had almost burned down. Rather inconsequentially, the cop recalled that the other candles, out in the restaurant proper, also were marked with gold bands.
What difference did that make? There had been a lot of candles sold; of course they wouldn't all be alike. But those footmarks he had followed were important. They were in here, all over the blue rug. More than one man had made them, that was evident.
They didn't go anywhere near the window, so the men must have gone out the way they had come in. Malone turned. Yes. They toed both ways. Maybe he could follow them. Maybe they would lead him somewhere. Visions of a citation, of a transfer to the plainclothes squad, rose before the policeman.
The tracks went out of the restaurant, across the sidewalk, and a little way into the street. And there they vanished!
Pat Malone scratched his head again. There was nothing to them then. Ash collectors had made them, bringing out the cans from the kitchen, and emptying them into a truck. Funny that the cans should have been kept in that little room, though. Perhaps the hoists weren't working or something.
Patrolman Patrick Malone did not notice that just where the tracks ended the black circle of a manhole cover broke the gray glimmer of the asphalt.
There are hundreds of thousands of such manholes all over the city...
ROY PARKER, twisting to the twang of the severed cable, saw a shape, blacker against the black, dart out of the shadows. His spring was a lightning flash of movement possible only to the co-ordination of brain and muscles to which he had assiduously trained himself from the days when he had been sprint champion at New Haven.
It carried him out from over the hole just as the drill whooshed down into it. His hand snatched at splintered wood, straightening him, swinging him around to the fugitive...
A blast of wind, a thunderous crash of steel on stone, rocked him. But his gun leaped into his fist and spewed orange-red jets at the fleeing shadow. Suddenly the shadow was fleeing no longer. It rolled over and over in the gutter, skidded against the curb, was motionless there.
Only then did Parker turn to stare at the huge column of the steel drill jutting out of the bore over which, an instant before, he had leaned. He gasped then, and his stomach retched, aware that but for the instantaneous reaction of his muscles, he would be lying under that now, a pulped and gory mass, resembling nothing human.
Twice within a span of minutes, he had escaped grisly death. Impossible not to be aware that he was in deadly peril right now. He had killed two of his unknown enemies, but there were more. Somewhere near by, ready to take instant advantage of his every unguarded moment, other killers waited.
If he remained here they must surely bring him down. His luck could not hold. Safety lay only in flight.
Flight—when the danger that threatened him had already taken Ethel, and Ann? Flight, when only a minute ago he had become certain that the path to their rescue lay down...?
Down where? Now the path to them was blocked! Jammed tight by tons of ponderous steel, the cable that might have lifted it was cut. Even if the electric windlass hadn't been inert, without power, it would take dynamite to open the bore again.
Despair seared Parker, seemed, for the moment to sap his magnificent strength. An iron band constricted his forehead.
Then a stirring breeze brought a fetid, noisome odor to his nostrils—the smell of sewage from the open manhole. The sewer!—He remembered the sound of rushing water he had heard coming out of the bore, just before he had heard that scream.
A new hope revivified him. The first man to attack him had climbed out of the sewer...!
Light, glaring, almost blinding, scythed the darkness. The roar of a powerful motor blasted to him, and stopped.
"Parker!" someone shouted. "Roy Parker. Thank God!"
The light was from the headlamps of a long, sleek limousine which had swept around the corner and now stood panting, twenty feet from the detective. Its front door opened. A man stumbled out, short, gray-haired, his twitching face gray as his hair.
"Thank God I've found you," the man cried, tottering across the asphalt to him. "I want you, man. I need you."
He came into the glare of the headlights, and Parker recognized him. It was Rascomb Sloane, the Wall Street operator for whom Ann Vine worked. Roy had seen him often, but he almost didn't recognize him. The man was livid with terror, his small hands shaking, his white-browed eyes bulging, big-pupiled.
Those shaking hands snatched at Parker's lapels, tugged at them. "Come with me. Protect me. Hurry, before they catch up with me."
"What the devil?" Parker grunted his surprise. "What do you want me for, Mr. Sloane? What—?"
"I told you I wanted you to protect me, to act as my bodyguard." Sloane's blue lips were chattering so that his words were hardly distinguishable. "Every wealthy man in the city has vanished—Grant! Weinberg! Bale! Stanley Corbin of the Steam Corporation! They're after me. They killed my chauffeur, my valet. I escaped down the backstairs. The Holland Tunnel is shut off by the police. No lights. I was making for the ferry to Staten Island. But they'll get me. I can't shoot. You can. You're the only man who can protect me. You must—"
"For the love of—Who's this that's after you?"
"The little men!" Sloane was almost foaming in the excess of his fear. "The ghastly little men who turned off the lights and are looting, pillaging, killing every where. They're devils from Hell. Listen, Parker. I'll give you five thousand, ten thousand, anything you want, only come with me and get me safely away from the little men. Get me somewhere where there is light..."
"Little men, all over the city?" And this was where they had come from, Parker thought. "They turned off the lights! I get it, I think. Listen, Mr. Sloane! My sweetheart, her sister, were kidnapped from here. They must have found out something and were snatched to stop them from talking. There have been two attacks on my life while I was looking for them. That means something. The nerve-center of this whole thing is somewhere very near here. If I can find it, I can stop the raid."
"But everything is dark around here. In which building are you going to look?"
"In none. I'm going underground, Sloane. Down in that sewer!"
"No. You can't do that. You've got to take care of me." The terrified financier pulled at Parker's coat, trying to drag him toward his car. "I told you I'll pay anything...!"
"Damn your pay!" Parker could temporize with the man's gibbering madness of fear no longer. He wrenched free. "It's my sweetheart who's down there, do you hear? The girl I love—Look out!"
He dove at Sloane in a low tackle, pounded him to the gutter. A stone crashed alongside them—a fist-size stone flung with such terrific force that if it had hit the financier's head it would have crushed his skull. The stone skittered away into the empty street.
Parker came up to his knees, his gun snouting. He saw no one, for a tense, throbbing instant, except the sprawling, gibbering financier. Then a small black form jogged the edge of the auto's spray of light, an ebony shape crouched and scuttling with a strange soundlessness toward him. It was man-shape but it was queerly, grotesquely distorted, as though it were something unhuman that had borrowed only temporarily the form of a man.
The detective's weapon jetted flame. The Thing jerked, skidded into the darkness. A howl rose from where it had vanished; a jabbering, bestial shriek.
"The little men," Sloane gasped, terror robbing his voice of all resonance. "Save me, Parker. Save me!"
Even in that moment Parker was nauseated with disgust at the man's crawling, spineless cowardice. Sloane was known as a market raider, his daring operations a legend on the Street. But put to the test of physical danger he was lacking all manhood. The thought went fleetingly through the detective's mind, and then he was too busy to talk.
Like a dark wave of horror, the little men surged upon him. How many there were he could not tell, but he saw their vulturine visages, their claw-like gray hands wielding clubs, knives, all manner of lethal but silent weapons. They swept upon him like a flood.
His gun spewed leaden death, rolling long echoes in the dark, man-built canyon that was suddenly an arena of phantasmal savagery. One, two, three of the attackers went down, floundering in agony on the asphalt. The others hesitated.
"Get back," Parker shouted. "Get back, you devils," and pressed the trigger again.
His pistol clicked on an empty shell...
THE macabre line quivered with realization of Roy Parker's helplessness and surged forward again, still curiously silent save for the whimpers of their wounded.
"Here!" Sloane jabbered. "Take mine." and thrust an automatic into Parker's fist.
"You had one all the time," the detective snarled. "And you didn't—" The roar of his new weapon drowned the rest of his sentence. Orange-red streaks lashed the gloom...
But his shots had no effect! His gun spat lethal lead, but no more of the little men went down. They came on, soundless, deadly, appalling.
Parker leaped erect. He still might have fled, but he charged them, bellowing a wordless challenge. He was among them, his fist, his clubbed automatic, were lashing at them, pounding them. Bullets might have no effect, but gun-butt and knuckles almost as hard, crunched satisfyingly on solid flesh. Whatever they were, they were material, real. They went down under his crashing blows, staggered back when they did not land quite square.
Knives slashed at him, ripping his clothes, ripping his flesh. Clubs thudded on him, bruising. Parker whirled incessantly, growling, fighting like a mad man, like the wildcat Ann Vine had termed him. So furiously he fought that the little men could wound him but could not get in a disabling slash, a stunning blow. He towered above them; a red avatar of battle; his fists and his gun crunching incessantly on flesh that was somehow queasy, somehow revolting.
There were many of them, however; how many Parker never knew, and the odds were so tremendously against him that eventually he realized they must bring him down. Already a terrible fatigue, the loss of blood from his many wounds, were weakening him. His blows were losing force...
"Parker!" a hysteric scream penetrated to his reeling senses. "They've got me!" Sloane's shriek was a thin filament of terror and despair, threading the curiously muted sounds of the battle. "Help. Help!"
Whatever Sloane might be, he was a man, and these Things were carrying him off. The roar of a wounded bull blasted from Roy Parker. He bent, snatched at the ankles of one of his attackers, lifted again. The little man was whirling, gigantic club in his powerful grip, a living hammer of Thor that cleared away his antagonists and cleared a path to where the money tycoon was a threshing, screaming prisoner in the little men's hands.
There was no resisting that berserk charge. Parker went through the leaping black host like a hot knife through butter, smashed them away from their screaming victim. Sloane dropped to the concrete, lay there, suddenly quiet.
Parker dropped the limp and boneless creature with whom he had swept his devastating path, and then he realized that just above Sloane the limousine loomed, its doors open, its motor running sweetly. He bent again, lifted the man he had rescued, flung him into the car.
"You can drive," he yammered. "Get going."
Sloane turned a face of ghastly dread to him. "You—you—," he gasped. "Come..."
Roy Parker threw a haunted, quick glance behind him. The little men were re-forming their lines, gathering to renew their attack.
The big-motored, powerful car offered the only chance of escape from those fierce hordes which had conquered a city and were snatching men from among the living to take them to some unthinkable Hell. Between him and the grisly creatures gaped the open manhole, the gaping entrance to a yawning Hell.
Somewhere down there were Ethel and Ann. And somewhere down there was the vulnerable point of the terror that stalked New York!
"Get going!" Roy Parker grated from the running board, and slammed the car door. The crash of its closing was like an explosion that hurled him across the asphalt. His feet spurned the manhole rim. He leaped, feet first, into the black mystery beneath the street...
Liquid filth splashed high about him, closed around him. He went down into noisome, viscid putrescence, scraped a harsh bottom. He rose again, his lungs bursting, the fetid chill of the sewage striking into his bones, numbing him; its acid bite searing the lacerations that netted his body. His head broke the surface.
He was already yards away from the dim glimmer of the aperture through which he had leaped. A swift current tore at him, sweeping him riverward. Desperately, he flung out an arm. His fingers touched slimy metal, grasped an iron bar fastened to the brick wall of the sewer.
A horn blasted, faintly, from above him. A motor's roar faded. Sloane then, had escaped.
Parker pulled air into his tortured chest, strained his burning eyes through the gloom. The circular edge of the manhole opening was knobbed with grotesque shadows, black silhouettes of the little men's queer shaped heads against the grayish black of the sky he might never seen again. Green sparks glinted in pairs from them, feral eyes catching what little light there was in that murk.
"He's done for!" The thin, high-pitched voice was like the squeal of a rat weirdly made vocal. "He can't live in that."
"Better make sure," another piped. "I've got some of the stuff." The shadows moved, changed shape. Something splashed beneath the aperture.
What was it, poison, acid, that they had spilled in the water to make sure of his death? He must get out of it! The thought had not finished forming before Parker had lifted out of the noisome bath, was perched miraculously on the bar he had grasped, finger nails digging into the slimed-over arching brick to hold him.
There was a faint hissing beneath him and a pungent odor stung his nostrils. "That will take care of him," the second voice squeaked. "We don't have to be afraid of him any more."
"You better go down and let them know its all clear here again. Go through the sewer, the drill hole's stopped up."
"All right." A black lump slid over the manhole edge, dipped into the blackness below it. A muscle twitched in Parker's cheek. They had just done something to the putrid liquid flowing in the sewer that they were certain would kill a man—yet, one of them was not afraid to descend the iron ladder and enter it!
Once more a gelid quiver ran through him, the shudder of chill fear that afflicts even the bravest in the presence of the Unknowable.
The clangor of the iron lid reverberated above him; the paler circle of light was obliterated. The thick impenetrable night that pressed on Parker's eyes was like the closing in of death itself; like the shutting of a door on a sepulcher in which, still alive, he was entombed forever.
Panic ran through Roy Parker's veins, blind and terrible, for an instant. His feet were starting to slip from their perilous hold. His teeth sank into the flesh of his lip to repress a scream. Then the salt taste of his blood on his tongue shocked him back to a state approaching the normal.
Somehow he managed not to drop into the fluid below him that now he knew was black liquid death. Parker listened for the sound of the liquid against a body which seemed immune to its lethal quality. He held his breath, tensed against making any noise that might betray him.
The rush of the debris-filled torrent was unbroken. But Parker heard something else. The stealthy scrape of fabric against brick. The almost inaudible pad of footsteps fading into the darkness.
The little man had not gone down into the sewage. He was walking on something, was moving away into the sightless murk.
Parker fought to clear his mind, to think clearly. The being—he could not think of him as human—was going to the source of all the mystery. If the detective could only follow him!
The Thing was walking on something above the flood. Parker groped above his head—and found what that something was. There was a ledge just above him, a narrow shelf built out from the side of the sewer. Its brick construction showed that this was one of the oldest sewers in this oldest part of the city. It was ten feet in diameter. There was plenty of room for a man to walk up there.
Parker managed to get up on the ledge. He could no longer hear the little man. But he knew the direction in which he had gone. He wanted to run, but he dared not. Weaponless and alone, he dared not betray his presence. He slipped off his shoes, left them there, and got going.
The rough brick cut the soles of his feet. His body was criss-crossed with pain, and his brain reeled with the poisonous fumes of the rotting waste that was being carried beneath him toward the sea. Once a furry body ran across his foot and scuttered squealing away into the darkness. Once a flying shape battered leathery wings against his head. Parker forged on, not knowing what dread fate it was toward which he hurried.
The ledge lifted in a gradual ascent. It widened, and the iron bars of another manhole ladder brushed Parker's side. Just beyond that the tunnel wall angled sharply away to the right.
This must be a branch sewer coming in. Roy Parker groped around the corner, breathed a little easier when he found that the new conduit, though smaller, was still big enough for him to progress. He started off in the new direction. And then stopped, abruptly rigid. The sound that had halted him came again, a low moan of intense suffering.
He crouched, listening, heard the moan once more. It was near, very near. It was beside him. It was on the other side of the sewer!
Parker remembered the scream that he had heard, leaning over the drill bore. Could it have come from here?
He had no means of knowing how far behind the little man he was. He was certain that if his presence were discovered his life would be extinguished in that choking, lethal stream of darkness below. But he had to know who it was that moaned like that.
"Ethel?" he whispered. "Ann?"
The moan checked.
"Ethel?" he said again.
"Roy?" Parker's heart pounded against its caging ribs. "Roy. Save me!"
The voice was racked, changed beyond recognition by ineffable pain. But it was a woman's voice. It was the voice of one of the girls he had fought so hard to find.
She was there. She was only a few feet from him. A few feet that were infinitely long because they spanned sightless darkness and the growling rush of the flood which it was sure death to dip into.
"Roy! I knew you'd come. I knew..." The breathed words gusted into a sigh. Then there was only silence, and the liquid rush of water...
Roy Parker crouched, swaying in the darkness. He did not know how far across the sewer was. He did not know whether there was another ledge on its other side, or a blank wall...
But he leaped into the darkness. He leaped high over the muttering flood which seemed to reach out for him...
TIME has a habit of slowing in moments of extreme peril and of rending doubt. When Fate hangs upon a half-second's space, that space stretches out and out into infinity, so that it seems its end will never come.
So it was with the heart-beat's time that Roy Parker arced through the utter blackness of that sewer. He seemed to hang in a timeless, spaceless void. To hang forever...
And then he thudded down on solid, unyielding brick, sprawled forward, coming down hard. His hands snatched frenziedly for a hold, for any sort of hold that would keep him from rolling off again into the sewer's torrent.
Amazingly he was aware that he needed no such hold. He was stretched full length on a harsh floor, at right angles to the swishing rush below him. His arms were outstretched, and he felt no wall at all.
He had leaped, the detective instantly realized, into some sort of niche or indentation in the sewer wall. He had dared greatly, and won.
He pushed himself to his knees. His fingers touched something that rolled under them, fastened on them. The thing was round, and hard and long. A half-inch bit of string protruded from one end of it. It was a candle.
A candle. Light. He must have light. But to light the candle he must have matches.
He thrust groping fingers into a pocket, touched a book of paper matches that were soaked by his plunge, useless. And he touched the cold metal of Sloane's automatic that instinctively he had thrust there when he had found it useless.
Parker pulled it out, laid it carefully on the floor at his knees, slipped out of his coat. He picked up the candle and gun again, managed to hold them in one hand so that the candle wick lay next to the automatic's muzzle. With the other hand he wrapped the sodden fabric about the two. And then he pulled the trigger.
The explosion was a muffled thud, not very loud. Instantly Parker whipped away the coat. A red spark glowed in the dark. The wick had caught fire, was smouldering.
Anxiety tearing at him with taloned fingers, Parker blew on that red spark. It glowed more brightly and flowered into a tiny flame.
The blackness retreated to the limits of a square, brick-walled chamber, about two yards square and seven feet in height. One side opened to the noisome fumes of the duct. The candle flame burned more brightly.
The dancing radiance fell on the slender, gleaming form of a girl, her back to Parker. She was held swayingly erect by a rope from the ceiling to which her wrists were lashed. Her head lolled limply on her shoulders. She was clothed only in a film of sweat, of the sweat of unendurable agony, that stood out in little droplets on her white skin.
There was moisture of another sort on her tiny feet. It was scarlet, viscid. Cruel spikes had pierced them, spikes which jutted up from the floor.
Horror struck at Parker as he leaped up. The girl had hung there above the spikes. She could keep them from piercing the soles of her feet only as long as she lifted herself by the vertical rope. When the muscles of her small arms could endure that agony no longer, she would have to let go, and a fiercer agony would jab her. Then she would jerk herself up again...
He had her in one arm, lifting her from the cruel steel. His other hand fought with the knot at her wrists. He had it loose. She felt limply across his shoulder.
Roy knelt, laying the girl down. He saw her face, seamed by pain, waxen and terribly pallid.
"Ann!" he jabbered, chafing her wrists. "Ann! Sis! Wake up. Wake—"
The tired eyelids flickered. She was looking at him, her eyes dark with pain. Her lips moved.
"Ethel!" Parker could hardly make out the name. "Ethel!"
He glanced quickly around. There was no one else in the torture cubicle. "Where—where is she?" he husked. "Where is—?"
One of the hands he held jerked. He looked down at it. A quivering finger pointed—to the blank, gray-slimed rear wall of the cubicle. "What do you mean?" he grated.
There was no answer. Ann's lids had shut again. But there was a tiny smile on her piteous lips, as of a sleeping child who had awakened from a nightmare and has fallen asleep again, trustingly in its mother's arms.
"Ann!" Roy Parker groaned. "Ann!" His icy, trembling fingers lay against the girl's warm, virginal breast. It was utterly still. The overstrained heart beneath it throbbed no longer.
Ann Vine had found release, forever, from pain. From the torture inflicted upon her by the little men, and from the other pain that had been a furtive shadow in her gray eyes as she watched two lovers kiss under the clock of old Trinity. Roy Parker was never to know it, but the agony he had inflicted on her when he had embraced her and told her he loved her almost as much as Ethel had been perhaps more poignant than the physical suffering that had killed her. And the other would have been unending...
Ann Vine was dead; the knowledge of it beat at him. But Ethel, his sweetheart, the girl he loved more than life itself, was—where?
Behind that blank, slimy wall?
He could not cover the still, nude body with his jacket that was soaked with the filth of the sewer. He had to leave her unshrouded, the white, perfect curves of her as beautiful as a white rose in the mire where she lay; that little smile on her wan lips...
Roy Parker turned to the wall, his visage masklike, his eyes burning. There was, in his manner as he prowled toward it, an awesome quality which transcended even human wrath. His great fingers worked slowly, almost eerily, as though he held something, or some one, in their grip and was tearing them, slow bit by slow bit, into small, palpitant pieces.
He stared at the vertical barrier that confronted him. It was solid seeming as the wall of the sewer itself. There was no apparent inequality of the stone, nothing to show how it could be penetrated except by blasting.
Had Ann really pointed at it, to show him the way Ethel had been taken? Or had that finger pointed meaninglessly, in a last small paroxysm of muscles from which life had already fled?
Parker reached out, touched the smeared stone with a tentative finger. It was moving! Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it was swinging away from him.
Half the wall jumped inward, a door recoiling from his touch. The aperture where it had been was occupied by a burly, blue-jowelled thug, a black revolver lifting, surprise showing on the man's heavy-set face.
"So that was the noise, huh!" he growled. His knuckles whitened to the pressure of his finger on his gun's trigger...
THE muted boom of a striking clock was a sound from some other world. Eight times the dull impact pounded against Ethel Vine's aching head.
Eight o'clock, she thought. Exactly an hour ago she was in Roy's arms, his eager lips warm against her own.
Now she was lashed tightly erect to a rusted iron stanchion in a place so strange that were it not for the pain of the ropes which cut into her arms and legs she would be certain she was dreaming a ghostly nightmare.
It was a long, comparatively narrow cavern. Its walls were of roughly hewn rock, damp-black and glittering with the calcareous seepings of many years. Pallid icicles of stone hung from the low roof above her, stalactites such as she had once seen in Howe Caverns. Stalagmites jutted up from the cave's floor, but between them there were two lines of rusted iron that came out of darkness and ran past Ethel into darkness.
These were tracks, so old, so long disused, that the very steel was crumbling. The stanchion to which she was lashed was part of the framework of a car, its wooden parts long since rotted away. In the flickering light of eight tall candles, queerly red as though they were made of frozen blood, all this was like the skeleton of a railroad that long ago had died and been buried.
She was not alone in this weird cavern. Lashed to other uprights of the moldering car there were others. Next to her was a man elephantine in his obesity, tied beside him a little old woman, a black wig askew on her small head.
Beyond them was another couple. The dress-suited man was tall, suave, steel gray flecks of hair at his temples lending him an air of distinction. The woman was a good deal younger than he. Her evening-dress was torn, as though she had been struggling, to reveal a voluptuous bosom. Beyond, a shriveled little man was strapped alone to a brown upright. He looked like a dried up mummy, his hairless head a gray skull. The last of the prisoners were a thick-necked, barrel-bodied man also in tail coat and white tie, with him a young, curly-haired boy of about twelve.
These people were all familiar to Ethel, as they were to every newspaper reader. Aaron Weinberg and the mother he venerated; Courtney and Edna Bale; Harlow Grant; Stanley Corbin and his son Roger; she named them over to herself, trying, as she had been trying for what seemed long ages of dread, to fight off madness with such inconsequential tricks.
She had need of some such device to keep from going stark, raving insane. For the eight candles were ranged; one, two, two, one and two; one for each of the bound prisoners along the wall they faced. The tapers were fastened on a shelf-like inequality of the wall. To a staple in that wall, behind each candle, a thread was attached. Each cotton filament touched the side of a candle an inch below its flame, ran to a pulley in the roof over the head of one of the prisoners and down to a small cage of wire mesh that was lashed to his or her throat.
The cage-side against each throbbing throat was a tin plate loose in a metal groove. The threads held these from dropping out. When the candles burned that final inch, the flames would burn instantly through the slender filaments, and there would be nothing to keep the squealing, terrible things imprisoned in the cages from attacking their human victims.
It was rats that squealed! Sewer-rats they were, shaggy, and black and starved till their natural ferocity had been multiplied ten-fold by hunger.
The saving barrier removed, they would rip, and tear, and champ their way into human flesh. But that was not all. Those cruel fangs had been smeared with a culture of bubonic plague. A man nipped only once would surely die, slowly, and very horribly.
The man had explained that, in strange hissing tones. He stood there now, in front of his victims, watching them. He was cloaked in a robe dyed the same red as the candles. A red hood covered his head, so that he was a shapeless, dreadful apparition. He had told them that, and only that, and then he had ceased to talk.
He watched them in that dreadful quiet, and they watched the candles burning down, inexorably burning down.
The robed man had come only a little while ago. Before that there had been Ethel's capture. She had been blindfolded under the trestle, had felt herself being lowered somewhere.
Once she had heard a startled scream, cut off almost instantly by the thud of a shutting door. The smell had changed after that, had become earthy instead of malodorous. Another door had opened and shut. She had been tied here, the blindfold removed.
Little men; queer grisly little men, had brought other prisoners. Ethel had wondered why they bothered to tie them. They had seemed dead...
But after the cages and the cords had been adjusted and the little men had gone away, they had stirred one by one and awakened to horror.
Then the hooded man had appeared, and made his dreadful speech...
There had been someone else, a vague form in the darkness beyond Corbin. He had vanished at the sound of a dull thud that had come very faintly into the cavern. The candles were slowly burning down. They seemed to Ethel to be burning into her brain.
"What do you want of us?" she cried, hysterically. "In God's name why are you doing this?"
The hooded man did not stir, but Ethel knew his gaze had shifted to her.
"I was waiting for someone to ask that," the curiously reptilian voice answered her. "I am glad it was you. From you I want nothing except—yourself. When I saw that beautiful body of yours..."
"You devil!" Stanley Corbin's voice boomed. "Stop torturing this boy..."
"You love him, don't you?" the self-styled Emperor of the Dark interrupted. "And you would give your soul for your Edna, Bale. Weinberg, you for your mother. But the love all of you hold for these is as nothing to the love of Harlow Grant for himself."
"You rapscallion," the ancient squealed. "When I'm through with you, you..."
"First, my dear Grant, I shall be through with you. The rats will find very little to chew on your carcass, but you'll suffer only the more because of that."
"Damn you!" Bale's voice was a husked, unresonant rasp. "You're bluffing."
"Bluffing?" The cloaked man plucked the cord that led to Courtney Bale's throat. The thud of a plunging rat was gruesomely distinct.
The scream that rang out was a sound of horror. It hung in that strange, wavering darkness. Then Bale's lips clamped tight upon it, cutting it off, but he was suddenly gaunt, hollow-cheeked, his brow wet with cold sweat.
"Mister Bale," the Emperor of the Dark snarled, "will tell you that I am not bluffing. Or does anyone else wish to find out for himself?"
"The candles are burning down," Weinberg said, heavily. "Tell us what it is you want us to do."
"Solomon speaks," the Emperor bowed. "'What are the terms?' he asks, as his forebears have always asked, confronted by a hard bargain and ready to make the best of it. The terms are these, gentlemen: Behind you, on the bed of the car, there are documents ready for your signature. They are bills of sale for your holdings in the various companies you control; the Gas and Electricity, Steam, Telephone and Subway corporations. They are made out to various holding companies. I would advise you to sign them before my little pets are released. The candles have only three-eighths of an inch more to go."
"I'll be hanged," Corbin exclaimed. "You want us to make you a present of New York City!"
"Of New York's underground," the cloaked man assented. "Of all that lies beneath the surface. It was stolen from me originally, I am taking it back."
"I'll be damned if I'll do it!" Grant's querulous accents were shrill, quavering. "I—"
"I am signing, Mr. Grant," Weinberg interjected, "and I should advise you to do the same. I notice that we can each just reach the pens our host has so thoughtfully provided. Sign, gentlemen."
"That is good advice, Weinberg," the Emperor chuckled. "Even if the thought glimmering in your wily brain will never come to fruition. You won't be able to trace me and upset the sales, because, Mr. Weinberg, you will all be dead, except my consort—unless she prefers the rats."
The obese man jerked around. "But you offered a bargain..."
"The terms were—sign or be eaten by the rats. I said nothing about letting you go free."
"Then I do not sign. And you will not kill us by the rats or any other way, because your scheme will be defeated then."
"Still trading, Weinberg, even when there is only a quarter inch left to go. Sixty seconds, Weinberg. You forget that the death of you four will send your stocks down so low that they can be bought for a song."
"A very expensive song." In the face of an inevitable death more awful than any his ancestors had faced in the dark centuries of their persecution, Aaron Weinberg's voice was as steady, as emotionless as though he sat at the desk in his ornate office. "You haven't got—"
"Oh yes, I have. It is dark in New York, Weinberg, and thieves are busy. They are busy for me. They are stealing the money I shall need to buy in your stocks. They will be mine and..."
"The candles!" Harlow Grant's scream was a shriek of living terror. "Look at the candles. I'm signing! But I'll give you a million more, two million, if you'll let me live. I don't want to die. I'm afraid to die!"
Weinberg shrugged. "We are beaten." His fat-encircled eyes were veiled, he was utterly withdrawn. But Ethel heard his whisper, "Momma," and then the intoning of a droning prayer. "Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melech..."
Hardly a sixteenth of an inch of softening wax remained between the flames and the threads that would release the caged carnivores. The cavern was suddenly extended, beyond Corbin, by wavering candle-luminance, outlining an opening aperture. The place from which the light came was a recess sunken into the wall, but its reflection fell on the opposite wall, and it was blotched by huge shadows.
There was the silhouette of a burly man, a leveled revolver snouting from the shadow of his hand. There was another shadow, crouching, and then it abruptly sprung, it seemed to Ethel, with the flashing swiftness of a projectile.
Gunshot thundered out of the recess, appallingly loud. Through its reverberation came the sickening crunch of snapped bone, the sudden shrill shriek of a strong man's death agony.
Then the crouching shadow was a shadow no longer, but a man springing into the cavern.
That man hesitated, for the merest eye-blink of time, his face obscured. The Emperor twisted, his hand, holding a gun, appearing from beneath his sanguine robe. The gun spurted flame, but its target had moved. Now the man was leaping, a blur of motion, down the long line of candles. He was snuffing them, one by one, with pinched thumb and forefinger, his flying body jolting to the impact of the red-robed torturer's flying lead.
The last flame was gone. But in the darkness a veritable Hades of sound detonated. There were the sound of shots, the cries of the watchers, the crash of stalactites smashed from their age-old suspension. The shuddersome squealing of the frenzied rats.
And underneath was the drone of a man and his old mother muttering their prayer to their ancient God.
A white beam flashed suddenly out of the tumultuous blackness; impaled the fluttering red robes of the fiend who had loosed terror upon New York. The Emperor's gun-hand slewed to the blazing lens of the flashlight, the other reached out to snatch at the threads and tear them loose.
Then that hand was suddenly a scarlet splash in the spotlight. But the automatic in the other spat leaden death—and the flashlight went out!
Fingers of despair closed on Ethel Vine's heart. The unknown rescuer was slain. He had had to keep that light on so that his bullets should not reach one of the prisoners. That had made him an unmissable target.
There wasn't any more shooting. The Emperor of the Dark was getting a light now, so; that he could see the cords, so that he could rip them loose.
There was a babble of voices in the darkness. There was the sound of someone creeping... creeping. There was light, suddenly. The light of the hand torch.
By it Ethel Vine saw a heap of red draperies on the serrated floor. They were very still, and they were glistening wet, and redder than before. The hand that held the flashlight moved. The beam struck a glistening stalagmite, was reflected back to the man who held the torch.
It was Roy! It was Roy Parker! Blood-spattered, battered, his eyes two soot marks thumbed into his pallid face, her lover dragged himself along the floor. He reached that heap of tumbled draperies, tugged at them. Cloth ripped. A face appeared, a long-jawed face out of which stared eyes glassy in death.
"Rascomb Sloane!" Courtney Bale exclaimed. "I'll be everlastingly damned! The man must have been mad."
"Mad," Grant cackled. "Maybe he was. But I know why he did this. I know what he was after."
"Spill it, then," Corbin grunted.
"You know what this is? This is the old Sloane subway. Ford Sloane built it at his own expense in 1870, under Broadway. He was laughed at for his pains, the thing was shut up, and Sloane disappeared. His ideas were used later, when the first working subway was built."
"And Rascombe Sloane...?"
"Is his grandson. All this that has happened was a scheme of his for revenge on New York for what it did to his grandfather, and a plan to take back the underground empire he thought was rightfully his by inheritance."
NEW YORK'S darkness ended at eight-fifteen. As the lights came on, the radios started to function again. Blaring-voiced, excited announcers told of the discovery that switches had been thrown in underground transformer chambers all over the city, at a single zero hour to blind the city. They told of how the police were capturing little men, dressed in black tights, whose eyelashes were shaved and blue-penciled, whose shoes had been covered with ashes so that to the terror of the Dark there might be added the other terror of the supernatural. They were loaded down with loot, these men...
The announcers told of how some of the candles the little men had sold were gold bonded, and of how analysts had already found that their wax was impregnated with a soporific drug that breathed for long in a confined space would put to sleep those who inhaled the fumes. Breathed too long, those fumes were lethal...
But the announcers did not tell, because they did not know, of a man who broke, in halting, white-lipped tones, the news of her sister's death to a white-faced girl.
"I don't understand why Sloane did that to her," Roy Parker finished.
"I think I do," Ethel managed to answer. "She told me yesterday about some confidential work she was doing for him. She couldn't understand it, but there was something about it that troubled her. When Sloane learned that she had been captured at the drill tower, and that I had been phoning you, he must have leaped to the conclusion that she had fathomed his scheme and was betraying him. He took that terrible way of punishing her." Ethel's voice broke. "Poor Ann. Poor, poor Ann!"
Her lover's arms went around her. His lips were on hers, warm, consoling. "We'll never forget her, dear," he whispered. "And—and we'll name our first daughter Ann, so as to make sure..."
It was exactly eight-fifteen. New York's sixty minutes of Hell was ended. But the time meant nothing to Roy Parker. Nor to Ethel Vine.
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