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Title: They Dine in Darkness Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304771h.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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Bestial, shadowy things that fed gruesomely, lurked in the dark hallways of that long-deserted office building. Could her love transcend horror, and steel the heart of June Forsythe as shapes of weird terror stalked her remorselessly through that tumbledown abode of mystery and death?
JUNE FORSYTHE'S hand flew to her throat as though to stifle the scream that rose in it—the scream that, if given utterance, would betray her to the unknown horror that lurked in that ancient corridor. She stood stock-still, horribly unable to move as she listened to the grisly, scraping sounds that came from out of the eerie shadows ahead—the shadows through which she must pass.
The sounds were tiny sounds, such as might have been made by the scrape of claws on wood, the rubbing of a furry form against the rotting, mildewed plaster. From each of the many doorways let into the walls of this high-ceilinged passageway the sounds had come at intervals. Each doorway was a pocket of ominous blackness, and in each pocket sly horror lurked.
June's white lips moved in a soundless prayer for light. If only she possessed even a candle, she might be able to drive back the things that waited out there, but in the sprawling expanse of this rotting, deserted old office building there was no light of any kind, or any means of obtaining one. There was nothing at all but reverberant emptiness, hollowly, faintly echoing the city's roar that seeped vaguely through the thick old walls. Nothing but the dank fetor of a dead structure that had once been overwhelmingly alive... Nothing but the whispering scamper of the vileness its death had spawned.
But she couldn't stay here forever like this, rigid in the numbing grip of fear. The things that awaited her must be met, eventually—and they would not wait indefinitely. They would creep upon her, if she delayed too long, emboldened by her stillness—they would leap at her...
The girl drew a long quivering breath and dashed forward. Small, loathsome creatures squealed and scattered before the reckless impetuosity of her flight. One sleek gray beast, larger than the rest, did not flee. It crouched, and bared white fangs that gleamed in the darkness. Before it could spring, June's slim shoe struck it. There was a crunch of a small, snapped spine, the feel of a crushed body. June whimpered as nausea swept over her, and fled on down the hall on trembling limbs.
The patter of her rushing footfalls echoed and reechoed through the brooding silence. She snatched at a verdigrised doorknob. Sheer momentum almost tore her grasp from it. She held, and it swung her around to face tall double-doors of time-darkened oak, deeply set back in an arched embrasure. She opened the door and went it.
"Good morning, Miss Gordon," a voice greeted her.
June stood with her back against the door and shuddered. Hand to heaving breast she fought for breath, for control of her nerves. But Jeffery van Gandt had not looked up from the chaotic litter on the table he used as a desk. "I hope your dreams were pleasant ones." It was his customary greeting, spoken in deep-throated, mellow tones.
The grime on the huge window behind him could not keep out the blaze of the morning sun, so that van Gandt's body was detailless, a black silhouette against the glare. A silhouette such as might have been cast by a beau of the last century. For he wore a broad-brimmed grey top-hat on his finely modelled head, and a high, wing collar and big-knotted cravat added their bits to his old-fashioned outline.
"I won't come here any more!" June sobbed. "I won't!... They'll drive me mad!"
Van Gandt's look was mildly questioning. "What have your dreams, mad or otherwise, to do with your working for me?"
Hysteria was plucking at the girl's nerves, pulsing in her throat. "Dreams? Not dreams! Rats! The place is alive with them. Crawling with them!"
"Rats?" The man seemed puzzled. "Of course there are rats." He rose, came forward. He was very tall, and where the hair showed from under his anachronistic headgear it was quite white. But his clean-shaven face was fresh-complexioned, unwrinkled; and his figure slender, lithe within his grey frock coat, double-breasted vest, and tight pantaloons.
He peered nearsightedly at the girl. "My child," he exclaimed, suddenly solicitous. "You are pale. You stare so. You—you are frightened." He laid a long, sensitive hand on her arm, gently.
"Frightened! I'm terrified!" But even as she said it her terror seemed to be oozing away, almost as if that hand on her arm were driving off the fear.
"Yes." His tone was musing, thoughtful. "Yes, I see that you are frightened... of rats." He hesitated, seemed to ponder. His hand fell away.
Mechanically June removed her hat, her trim suit-coat, got crisp paper from the drawer of her own small desk that she might fold and clip it for cuffs. The accustomed routine was bringing her back to normal, but within she was still trembling.
"Are others as afraid of rats as you?" There was an oddly eager light in the bleared grey of van Gandt's eyes.
"All women fear them. Terribly. They're so—so terribly cruel." She could not repress the long shudder that ran through her delicately molded body.
"And men too, I think. I made Dan admit that he did, once. Before—before..." She caught herself. That was a slip. Van Gandt mustn't know that she had been married. But she had to blink back the tears that the thought of her stalwart husband still brought to her eyes.
It had been two years since that single, despairing radio call had come out of the sea's grey mystery: "Help! Help! Oh God, help us!"—but these two years had not availed to heal the hurt of her great loss. She had had him for so short a time, and then he had sailed away on the Marietta, and the secret of the ship's vanishing had never been solved. There had been no hint as to her fate except a tramp steamer's report of a red flare on the horizon, just about where the doomed vessel might have been.
Van Gandt went back to his table. Somehow his footfalls made no sound on the splintered, bare floor. "Rats," he murmured musingly as he collected a number of white papers covered with minuscule writing and tapped them into a neat pile. "I must make a note of that."
June Forsythe bustled busily at her own place, but from the corners of her eyes she watched her employer open a small and battered safe that stood under the broad sill of the window, watched him place the mass of papers within. Her pulse pounded sharply as she glimpsed the safe's shadowed interior. The grey back of an account book, inside, was splotched with red ink.
Van Gandt swung the iron door closed, twirled the combination dial. He did that every morning, right after she came in, and always there were more white sheets in the mass than there had been the morning before. He must write all night, June thought, by the light of his green-shaded oil lamp. What was it that he wrote, that he must guard it so carefully?
She inserted paper into her shiny typewriter. For the three days since she had answered van Gandt's ad she had copied long columns of names and figures from dusty, time-yellowed ledgers. The pages of the ancient books crumbled as she turned them, sent little spurts of dust up into her face. June shivered a little—not with the cold and dampness that pervaded this place with the atmosphere of a tomb—with dread. With the creeping, almost tangible dread that seemed the only really live thing in this place. But stronger than that was the hate burning like a cold flame within her to temper the steel-hard determination with which she faced the grisly menace of the rat-infested passageways.
Suddenly van Gandt's voice came from beside her. "I will return shortly," he said. He moved like a wraith, this man, like an immaterial phantom! "Continue with your work."
He was going out! He was leaving her here alone! June fought to keep her elation from showing in her face. Her chance had come so soon! She watched the great door shut behind his tall, out-of-date figure. And then she leaped to her feet, panic surging through her brain, as a metallic click came sharply from that door!
She was at the door, was tugging at its knob. It refused to move. Appallingly it refused to move! He had locked her in! Good Lord! He had locked her in with...
The girl twisted about to face the room. Her apprehensive glance swept its expanse, probed its every inch. There were her desk, his, the safe behind it, the window, darkening already with the shadow of the skyscraper whose towering, windowless wall it faced. There was the other long table to the right, with its row of cane-bottomed chairs. There was the closet door in the wall on the left, the door that she had never seen opened. And there was nothing else. No one else. Whence, then, came the feeling of another presence, the spine-chilling sensation of eyes, of inimical, hostile eyes, glaring at her?
June flattened herself against the door, as if she were trying to force herself through the very wood and thus escape from this dreadful chamber. She was afraid, with a fear the more hideous for its being seemingly baseless. It clutched her throat with icy fingers, shook her quivering body in a palsy of terror.
There was nothing of which to be afraid. Nothing. She said it over and over to a tight brain that would not listen. There was no one in the office with her. Van Gandt did not suspect her—could not possibly suspect her. He had locked the door unthinkingly, through habit. It was only three days after all, that she had been with him; before that he had always had to lock the door when he went out.
Even through that door's thick wood the rat noises came in from the corridor, their scamperings, their little squeals. They seemed to be gathering around the threshold, to be waiting for her. Even if she could she would not dare go out there!
She was alone in the rambling, ten-story structure. Utterly alone. The building, long ago, had been scheduled to be torn down to make way for just such a skyscraper as the two between which it cowered. The other tenants had been evacuated, electricity, telephones, had been cut off. Van Gandt had delayed, loath to quit the second-floor office where his whole working life had been spent. The prospective builders had humored him. And then the fateful October ninth of 'Twenty-nine had swooped down upon them and the project had been abandoned. He had stayed on ever since, rent free, undisturbed, and alone.
June shook herself angrily. She must get her nerves under control. She was not in danger. Nothing threatened her, nothing could possibly harm her. If she could not get out of the office, neither could anyone get in.
The pounding of her heart eased. She pushed herself away from the door. She was wasting time. Van Gandt might be back before...
Wood scraped on wood, loudly! Right here! Right in the office with her—
Oh God! The heavy window was moving slowly upward. Through the coating of dirt that made its glass translucent the terrified girl could see a huge, shapeless bulk, and fingers jogged the lower edge of the dirt-drab sash. Mother in Heaven! Those fingers were black, were shaggy with coarse hair! And the way they grasped the wood was weirdly, blood-chillingly unhuman.
A SCREAM grew in June's chest, seared upward, died at her pallid lips in a choked rasp. The strength drained out of her legs so it seemed in the next moment she must crumple to the floor. There was infinite threat in the window's slow movement, in the way the hand, leathery and black, snaked in, closed in a strained clutch on the sill-edge. The other hand shifted. The sash squealed as it moved rapidly in its groove.
That sound released the girl from the fear-paralysis that held her. There was only one hiding place for her, only one possible sanctuary. She darted across the room to the closet door, jerked at it, gasped with quick relief as it opened. Quickly she sprang into the yawning darkness and slammed the door between her and terror.
A silent sob shook her. There was no way to bar this door. No way at all. If the prowler found her here she was trapped, hopelessly trapped. Out there she might at least have dodged him for a while, might have snatched up some impromptu weapon, might have gotten to the open window and screamed. Here she was completely helpless. What a fool she had been!
There was a dull thud on the floor. He was in the room, then... It was in the room! No man possessed a hand like that. No man could climb twenty sheer feet of brick wall to reach that window. Some impossible monster was out there in the office. Some Thing of faceless horror moved about in there, snuffling, thudding blindly against the room's furnishings, searching, searching...
The sounds of movement stopped! What was he doing? Was he crouching before this frail panel that was the only thing between them? Was he reaching a dreadful hand, black and shaggy with coarse hair, to twist its knob? To twist, momentarily afterward, her neck? In fancy June could feel thick, spatulate, savage fingers closing on her throat...
Something cold struck her cheek, something cold and damp! A heavy something bumped flaccidly against her, from behind! June twisted about in the utter dark, flailed out insanely with her small fists. Clammy flesh soughed under the impact of her blows, a cold hand caught at her wrist, missed its mark.
The girl whirled again, clawed at the closet door. Nothing could be worse than this horror in the dark. The barrier gave way, she fell through, sprawling out face down across the office floor.
A guttural snarl came from the direction of van Gandt's table. Through the space under it she saw a dark, hunching, ungainly figure. It had beady, feral eyes that stared at her behind a mop of shaggy hair.
Thick, bestial lips drew back from yellow fangs. The awful face moved, came towards her. Terror exploded in June's brain, blinded and deafened her. She was dizzy in a whirlpool of swirling blackness. "June! June!" Dan's voice called to her from beyond his watery grave. She slid down and down into merciful oblivion...
HANDS tore at her. June beat weakly at her attacker, kept her eyes tight shut, knowing that sight of him must drive her surely mad.
"No," she moaned. "No"
"Wake up, child," Jeffery van Gandt's voice said. "Wake up." Liquid coolness splashed against her lips. He was holding a glass of water to her mouth and his eyes were anxious. "What happened to you?"
The water was grateful to the girl's parched throat. She gulped it down, pushed herself up in a sitting posture, looked fearfully around. "Where—where is he?" she quavered.
"Where is who?" Fine wrinkles sprayed from the corners of van Gandt's eyes and his lids narrowed. June saw that they two were alone in the office. Nothing appeared disturbed and the closet door was closed. "When I opened the door there was no one here but you—on the floor, in a dead faint." Something flickered, evasively, behind the bland veil of his aquiline face.
June got slowly to her feet. Now she could see that the window, also, was tight shut. She ran unsteady fingers through her close-cut boyish hair, straightening as best she could its unruly tangle of tight brown curls. Thought slid through her mind like a blurring cinema film. She came to a decision.
"I—I felt ill," she said slowly, "and dizzy. I had an impression that someone came into the room, but it must have been an illusion." She forced a smile, a toss of the head. "I don't know why it should have happened to me unless it's because of the scare the rats gave me. This is the first time in my life that I have fainted."
"Perhaps you ought to go home now, rest up. There is no hurry about the work you are doing, you know."
"No, thank you. I shall stay. I am quite all right. There is no need of my going home." If she could. If she only could! But there was her promise to Dan's memory. There was the oath she had sworn to his picture on that dreadful night when she had found the entry in his diary and at last had given up hope.
June imagined that the spirit of the old building resented the tapping of her typewriter. After so many long years of bustle the place was weary, longed for sleep. And now she was waking it with vibrant challenge... June bit her lip. These were mad thoughts crawling through her brain! She must stop them—stop them!
"SS. Holden Hall," she wrote, heading a new sheet. "From La Guiara 15 April, 1896." This one had carried hides that voyage and its hold must have been alive with rats. The Marietta had carried hides, too, down into the limbo of oblivion. Had the rats poured up on deck in the final, awful moment? Had they attacked the crew in their frenzy, attacked Dan—? Oh God!
White teeth bit into the girl's lower lip. Steady, June, steady. Enough that those pictures, those visions, trail through your dreams at night, and wake you, screaming, to lie awake through the awful hours. Go on with your work. Go on!
"Puerto Cabello, 15 April, no cargo," she copied the next entry. Then she turned the ledger page, began again. And a frigid chill ran through her. "21 July, 1897," she wrote. "Received from Marine Underwriters Ltd. $45,000 in settlement of all claims for loss of ship and cargo."
Good Lord! Had it begun so long ago? So... long... ago!
Van Gandt seemed almost asleep in his chair, he was so quiet, so motionless. But his eyes were fixed on her, speculatively. The nape of the girl's neck bristled and her breath came a little faster. Someone fumbled furtively at the door behind her!
Before June could turn, another sound came into the room's quiet, a queerly muffled thump against the panel. Again. There was a weird combination of timorousness and insistence about the furtive rap, as though he who was asking admittance were terrified at the thought of what awaited him, yet wanted to get the inevitable over and done with. An answering apprehension stirred in the girl's bosom as she rose and moved toward the entrance. Obscurely she sensed that she was threatened by the same influence that the visitor seemed to dread. She opened the door hesitantly.
"Mr. van Gandt iss in?"
June stared, momentarily speechless. Coming from the man-mountain who bulked in the doorway, the thin piping voice was weirdly incongruous. The face that hung before her was like a full moon of hairless pink flesh in whose rounded contours a tiny mouth pursed. Pendulous fat rolls concealed the neck and lay quivering on the outcurve of a clothed balloon that was his chest and unbelievably bloated abdomen.
"Yes," the girl managed to gasp. "Who is it?"
The caller sucked in breath, simpering. "Karl Potten, please." At the end of one columnar arm a hand like half-shaped dough clutched an umbrella by the middle. "I can see Herr van Gandt? Yes?"
"Yes," June repeated, parrotlike. "I suppose so." But she did not move aside to permit his entrance.
His hat was in his other hand and he was completely bald. A cold shiver so shook the girl that she could barely conceal it. Her fascinated gaze sought his eyes, tiny beads almost lost in the billowing expanse of his cheeks. Behind their china-blue hardness she sensed a soul in torment.
"Karl!" Startlingly van Gandt's voice was right behind her. "Come in, man. Come in."
Her employer had the visitor by the arm, as much of it as his long fingers could encompass. "It has been a long time since last we met," he went on, his mellow accents warm, cordial. The two, contrasting so sharply that their juxtaposition was grotesque, moved across the long room. Van Gandt's progress was as eerily soundless as usual, but Potten's great weight brought his feet down with a peculiarly distinctive sound: pud, pud, pud...
Van Gant pulled a second chair over to his desk. Potten lowered himself to it gingerly, as though expecting it to collapse, and June caught herself holding her breath in expectation of the same catastrophe.
"Miss Gordon," van Gandt said. "Will you take your lunch now, please?"
June realized that he was demanding privacy for the interview with Potten. "Very well," she murmured, and turned to the rack holding her street clothes.
She went out into the gloomy, rat-infested corridor. Her heels clicked as she broke into a run down the hall. Van Gandt would expect her to run through the menace of the rodents...
The girl ran the length of the corridor, then she turned about and tip-toed back to the door she had just left. She pressed up against it, her ear close against its rough surface. Behind her the grisly small creatures seemed to her to make a semi-circular ring of red-eyed threat, a ring that slowly, implacably closed in upon her.
But the girl, shivering with fear though she was, stuck to her post.
Karl Potten's piping voice came clearly through the wood. "Name your price, Cheffery, und I vill pay it. Udderwise..." He broke off. Somehow June could guess at the gesture that accompanied that pause. He would have made it with the ponderous arm that held the umbrella, and it would not have been pleasant.
Van Gandt's insouciant answer seemed quite irrelevant. "You and I are old, Karl," he said. "Old enough to be afraid of death." The eavesdropper pictured his slow cold smile. "It is not the young who fear death, it is easy to recruit armies, hazardous expeditions, from among them. But naturally enough, as a man approaches nearer and nearer his inevitable dissolution, his fear of that inescapable end grows greater and more insupportable. It makes a groveling, superstitious coward of him, Karl, a spineless creature ready to bribe God or the Devil for a few more days, a few more hours. Life becomes a torture to him because of the terror of oblivion that gnaws at his brain, and claws at his entrails, and clots in his hardening veins, yet he will not let it go."
"Vot are you talking aboudt?" The other's voice thickened with the fear that was in him. "Vy do you say dot?"
"Because, my old friend, in the next few seconds one of us will be released from that fear." The words dripped slowly into an aghast silence, as honey drips from a broken comb. And a threat buzzed in it as robbed insects buzz angry threat. "Released from fear by the thing he fears. By death!"
"Very well," Karl Potten responded, a new grimness in his thin voice. "If dot iss the way you want it..."
Momentarily there was no further sound within there. No sound at all. But June knew that in that room horror grew like a bubble, grew, grew, till its walls were too thin to hold longer—
There was a scream that was a thin sound of uttermost agony. It wavered, faded, rose again to insupportable intensity, thickened and spread into an obscure burbling... ended with an awful finality. Ended—but echoed still in June's ears, in her reeling brain...
Someone moved on the other side of the door. Someone turned its knob. The girl crushed herself against the side of the embrasure. The great wooden leaf swung outward, hiding her from whoever was coming out of that chamber where a man had screamed—and hiding him from her...
Who was it that rushed away down that long corridor and vanished beyond a further curve?
JUNE FORSYTHE licked her parched lips as she crouched in the triangular space between the open door and the narrow wall of the archway within which it was sunk. Silence beat dully against her ears. Even the rats seemed silenced by horror, even the senile groans of the ancient structure seemed stilled. June Forsythe recoiled in every atom of her being from the thought of entering the room where death lurked—and knew that she must do so.
It was her chance, the chance she had waited for. Once before the opportunity had been offered her and had been snatched away. She must not fail her husband, her lover this time. She must not fail.
Shadows blurred the corners of the soundless office. Beyond the table van Gandt used as a desk something was on the floor, something that had not been there before. From where she stood, in the doorway, June could not see what it was. But, of course, she knew what it was. Dreadfully, she knew. Only its identity was unknown to her.
A viscous, unseen fluid seemed to cling to her legs, so that she had to force her way through it, slowly. The journey across the room was interminable. Was it from van Gandt she had learned the trick of moving so that her shoes made no sound on the uncarpeted floor? Or was she dreaming this? Was it part of the nightmare she had lived since Dan had left her?
She reached the desk. She swayed, rested one hand on its paper-littered top to steady herself. She moved around the table towards the end where was the chair, now empty, upon which Karl Potten had sat.
Breath hissed from between her teeth. The mound on the floor was like a deflated balloon. The hat was still clutched in one hand, the umbrella in the other. June held on to the table and stared at it, and the gray-white head seemed to her like that of some noisome slug, mysteriously grown enormous.
The black, decent clothing of that gross corpse was hardly disarrayed. The body lay almost as if it were asleep—except that its head was grotesquely twisted to the left, and that there were blue blotches on the fat-drowned neck, blue blotches that were bruises made by brutal, murderous fingers.
As a deep cut by a clean blade is its own anesthetic, so excess of horror lost its power to shock the girl. She gazed almost calmly at the thing lying there, and wondered that there had been strength enough in van Gandt's fingers to have done this thing.
Wind from the opened window rustled papers, and June jumped. Her eyes went to the safe from whose iron the paint had peeled, but on whose front faint gold letters still were legible: "J. van Gandt and Partners. Shipping." She would, she saw, have to touch that which had been Karl Potten not so long ago. It lay so that she would have to climb over it to reach that safe. She could not hope to move it.
The cadaver was still warm, still soft. She slipped. Her knee sank into its mass and it seemed to move under the pressure. Panic seized June again, stopping her breath, clutching her heart. She had to put her hand on the massive face to push herself over. The damp clamminess sucked at her fingers, engulfing them. Hysteria gibbered in her skull.
"Dan," she whispered. "Dan." The softly repeated name took hold of her like tender hands—quieted her. She knelt in front of the antique strong box. She had prepared for this moment, knew just what to do, knew that in minutes the iron door would swing open for her. She was trembling again, but not with fear.
June got her ear against the cold metal, just above the dull nickel of the combination-dial. This brought her around so that she had to look at the corpse and she shut her eyes against the gruesome vision. Her hand closed on the dial. She turned it slowly, was concentrated on listening for the first click of tumblers falling into place...
An arm slid around her waist, lifted her. A hand clamped over her face, a rasping, rough-palmed hand. It shut off breath and blinded her!
June flailed frantic heels backward. They beat a futile tattoo against muscles that had no resilience. She squirmed, tried to bite the hand that stifled and blinded her. As well bite tanned, hardened leather. Her captor's strength was enormous, she was utterly helpless. He was carrying her off, easily as one would carry a doll, despite her desperate struggles.
The girl's lungs were laboring agonizedly and darkness swirled in her brain, mingling pain and terror. She tugged feebly at the arm that encircled her, that crushed her. Appallingly she realized that it was sleeveless, that it was covered by shaggy, coarse hair...
The Thing that had hold of her snuffled revoltingly. Its hand lifted away from her face for an instant, clamped down again. She had just time to snatch a breath of air tinctured with a musty, indescribable odor, to glimpse the same brutish, savage countenance that before had stared at her from under van Gandt's desk!
June was not unconscious, but sensation, thought, were a chaotic whirlpool within her that was the essence of madness. Her horrid captor's lewd face gibbered at her from the swirling darkness, hooked talons, blackly hirsute, clawed at her as though to strip her naked. June came momentarily back to some dim sanity and was aware that her captor was climbing stairs, that he was grunting a bit with the effort.
Terror, and unutterable fear and despair flooded in on her once more, swamping consciousness...
WHEN June regained her senses, she was lying, asprawl, on a wooden floor.
She dared not open her eyes. Another glimpse of the monster that had brought her here would, she knew, send her back into the grey and horrible mists of insanity, and she would never again escape from them.
It was quiet here. There wasn't any sound, except her own breathing. Surely, pressed against the floor as she was, she should hear, sense, some vibration if anyone was near. Perhaps her fearful captor had gone to complete whatever task he had been engaged in, before—finishing with her.
She was alone in the room. June opened her eyes and looked fearfully about her, sat up. This place was just like the other office except that it was unfurnished. There was the big arc-topped window, and behind her the door—but this one had a glass transom over it...
June got to her feet, swaying. Agony pounded in her temples. Her knees buckled with weakness, but she managed to get to the door, to try it. She wasn't surprised to find that it was locked. But—the window...
Her muscles were so sluggish, responded so dully. If she didn't hurry the monster would be back before she could reach the window, and then...! June whimpered. Thick dust on the sill was gritty to her palms as she leaned on them, resting momentarily. Dirt coated the glass so that light filtered through only dimly.
It was so hard to move the window-sash. So awfully hard. Strained muscles tore at the small of her back, but at last, it grated open. Cool air, coming through the slowly widening opening, was grateful. Traffic noises came in, also, blessedly sane. The blare of motor horns, the far-off shrilling of a policeman's whistle.
Far-off! Far down! June leaned out to gaze down and down the precipitous steep wall to a concrete alley appallingly far below. She was on the top floor! There could be no escape this way! No use, even, to scream for help. A towering, unpierced wall leered at her from across the alley. The skyscraper that was to have been built on this site was planned to abut on that other with no provision for light or air. Behind that wall were hundreds of people, only a score of feet away, yet she was as alone, as far beyond the reach of aid, as though she were buried in primeval jungle.
Sound pulled June around to face the door, slithering sound from the corridor beyond it. Her skin, prickled with terror and despair, was a leaden weight in her breast.
The noise of the monster's approach came nearer, nearer. His return was leisurely. She was safely held, he knew, for his pleasure when he chose to take it
June turned, climbed up and crouched on the broad window-sill. The giddy height made her dizzy, urged her to plunge out and down. Her burning eyes sought the entrance. When it opened—he must see how she had escaped him—she would lean out through the window, would let go all holds.
Soft footfalls thudded closer. A tiny muscle in June's cheek began twitching. She put a finger to it to try and stop it. Her other hand was over her head, holding on to the sash. Straightening that arm would send her spinning out...
Now! The footfalls were at the door, right outside... were passing!... were moving away, down the hall! It wasn't her captor at all! It was someone else! Someone who might help her. And she was letting him go! June slid off the sill to the floor and her throat constricted to a cry for help...
But before she could give it utterance a new thought blazed across the chaos of her brain. Suppose it were another such monster as the one that had brought her here! Suppose it were van Gandt, looking for her. She knew that he was a murderer—and murderers did not hesitate to kill again! Before she called she must see who walked out there.
The white-faced girl slipped off her shoes, darted across the floor. She lifted a stockinged foot to the doorknob, clawed at the door itself with desperate fingers. She was up, was clinging to the transom ledge with clutching hands, and her face was level with the glass. She rubbed away dust, peered through.
The long, hazy vista of the corridor stretched away. Halfway to the disused elevators and the stairway, she could see the figure of a man moving along, wearily. He came into a shaft of light from an open door and there was something queerly familiar about him—
"Help!" June screamed. "Help!"
The man hesitated, as if uncertain that he had heard aright. Started on again. "Help!" the girl shrilled. He turned.
And then June knew she had gone completely mad.
Dead eyes stared out of deep-sunk, dark pits in the face that was turned toward her. One side of it was eaten away by a livid scar that jutted a hairless wedge into the man's scalp and wrenched his mouth out of shape to make of it a horrible, one-sided grin. But battered, dreadful as that face was, it was the face of Dan Forsythe—of her husband who had died two years ago!
THE impact of that vision was like a physical blow, striking June away from her precarious hold. She reeled, her hand slipped on the ledge, her foot almost slipped from the knob. By some miracle her toes clung, and her fingertips—and contorted her body, fighting to save herself from a bone-crashing fall. Then she caught herself, and got a new grip on the transom frame with cold, shaking hands, and thrust her twitching face hard against the glass, against the peephole she had made in its film of grime.
The long passage was blurred to her straining vision. Then her sight cleared and she saw that the hall was horribly, mockingly empty...
Where had he gone? Oh, merciful God! Where had Dan gone?
Had she seen him at all? Had she seen anyone? In the glass before her, June's reflection stared back at her, features sheet-white, drawn, eyes great dark pools outlined by quivering, blue lids, colorless lips twisting... The face of a madwoman!
No! She was not mad! She had seen Dan! Dan had come back to her! He was alive! He was out there somewhere...
June's little fist beat at the transom glass. Went through. The shards splintered about her face, ripped her hand, her arm. Crashed to the floor below. She tugged at the jagged remnants of glass still remaining in the frame and they were slippery with her blood, so that her grip slithered off. Whimpering with the pain, the girl struck and tugged at the remaining shards.
The opening was wide enough at last. June pulled herself up, got a knee up on that high ledge, pulled herself through. Sharp points tore at her clothes, ripped her blouse away from one shoulder, dug into her flesh. She squirmed around, hung from extended arms, dropped. Twisted lithely as a cat as she fell, so that she faced the direction in which she had seen, or thought she had seen, Dan. She ran down the corridor in stocking feet with blood streaming from her cheek from her gashed shoulder. With blood, that she did not feel, dripping down across one white breast.
"Dan!" she cried. "Dan...!"
The hollow, empty labyrinths of the old structure took up her cry, and flung it from one moldering wall to another, mocking her with their endless echoing of his name. She reached the room with the open door and stopped to glance in, saw only dust and vacancy, and ran out. She reached the staircase that spiralled down as they used to build them, above the elevator shaft.
"Dan!" she called down that lightless well. "Dan!" Listened for a reply—The musty darkness swallowed her agonized call, muffled it. Then the staircase was as silent as it was dark.
June Forsythe held herself upright by wedging herself into the wall-corner behind her. Tears were hot in her eyes, and her heart pounded against its caging ribs as though about to break through. She had found him only to lose him again. He was gone—irretrievably gone. For her utter damnation she had been given one last glimpse of him, of his flame-seared, fire-tortured features, and then he had gone from her forever.
He had not even known how near she was. He had not heard her call.
If that which she had seen were a phantom, a ghost out of the dead past sent to torture her, it would have known she was there, it would have come to her through the very walls. No! Dan was alive. It was Dan she had seen. Thus the thoughts whirling through her tortured brain. Dan had gone down those stairs, down to where van Gandt, the murderer, lurked. Down to where the monster prowled. They would kill him again, one or the other of them.
She must follow—to warn him, to save him. She must follow down through that ominous, dreadful darkness. Even though terror of what she might encounter clawed her breast—
From the gloom below a wail floated up. It rose higher and higher in pitch until it was a thin scream of unendurable pain, of torment unspeakable. And then, suddenly, terribly, the sound choked off.
Deathly silence closed in... What new horror was enclosed in those ghastly walls? Jeffery van Gandt had struck again. But whom? Oh God! Whom?
June Forsythe half ran, half fell, down interminable steps. In the dark rectangles that marked the exits from each floor, gibbering, murderous things seemed to crouch, waiting for her—seemed to snatch at her with long, misty arms. Between, on the stygian flights, there was a scuttering of furry small bodies, and the gnashing of long fangs in pinched, sharp jaws, and the fetor of the rats. One blundered into her, squealed, and ran on up the stairs. Another. By tens, by scores, they poured past her, scampering upward. They went past her, as though she were not there, as though blinded to her presence, blinded by fear.
Something unutterably fearsome was down below. Something from which the rats fled headlong, their ferocity forgotten, swamped by terror. The monster was somewhere down there, the monster from whose cell she had escaped; and Jeffery van Gandt was down there, surely awake now to the danger for him that her continued existence implied. They were waiting for her...
If she turned off at one of these floors she was passing, hid in one of these deserted offices, they would never find her. There were thousands of cubicles in the ten-story, sprawling building, dozens of interlaced, wandering corridors. It would take an army to ferret her out. She could be safe from them—so easily she could be safe...
But Dan was down there. Dan!
June hurried on, downward through the unending darkness.
The pound of each footfall sent darts of pain stabbing up her weary legs. Pain tore at June's laboring lungs, and utter exhaustion beat heavily within her skull. She must rest... She clung desperately to an unseen railing, held herself erect with the last shred of her strength. The damp cold of the brick wall was grateful to her throbbing forehead. In a minute—in just a minute she would go on again.
Just below her in the darkness there was a soft sound. The lipping of an arid mouth against torn flesh. The gnawing of teeth on bone.
Just below her, just around the sharp corner of the elevator shaft, something fed, snuffling with gluttonous, bestial satisfaction. Dead flesh thumped dully as the feaster tugged at it. It sounded like an arm threshing about, thudding against the wall. Icy prickles crawled up June Forsythe's backbone. Cold talons clutched her throat. What was it upon which the unseen carnivore fed? Who was it?
She must know! The need to know fought within her against soul-searing dread, against revulsion, against unutterable fear. Step by step it dragged her down to where the treads became triangular to turn the shaft-corner, dragged her around that corner...
Something bulked blackly against the grey oblong of the floor door. A beast large as a Newfoundland dog, incredibly large as a month-old calf. A loathsome thing whose shape was unmistakable against the pallid light by which it was half-revealed: sleek, narrow body, long head, sharp-pointed, pinched jaw with out-jutting teeth that tore into flesh and stripped it from bones. It was an enormous, a gigantic rat... Impossibly, it was a rat bloated to ten times the size of the largest rat that ever was, its foulness multiplied a thousandfold. And that over which it slavered, that which it nuzzled and tore at and vilely munched, that unbelievable rodent's dreadful meal still retained some grotesque semblance of its original—of its human—form!
Here, on the steps down which she was so certain Dan had preceded her, a human being had been struck down by this overgrown foulness...
The giant rat snarled, whipped around to her. It had scented her, heard her. It raised itself from its crouching posture. Its vile head was breast high to her. Its sinister eyes glowed redly in the murk. Its forelimbs were oddly, repugnantly man-like as they dangled in midair before it, and each yellow, encrusted fang was the size of a big man's thumb. Its black, split lip twitched, waving the long bristles of its mustache in unison, but the brute made no sound. Horribly, it made no sound.
Its odor reached, enveloped June. Her senses reeled with the stench of the beast. Every quivering cell of her shrieked separate warning that the brute was about to leap upon her, was about to drag her down. In anticipation her flesh felt the rip of those awful fangs, the slice of those terrible claws. But appallingly she could not move. As if she were a reptile-fascinated bird, a nightmare paralysis had her in its inexorable grip, a rigidity that would not loose her to flee. She could only shudder, and moan—and wait helplessly for the gargantuan rat to spring.
The gaunt, horrible body tautened for the lethal leap. A prayer rose in the maelstrom of her mind. "Oh Father, take me..."
The beast crouched...
Thunder blasted in June's ear and orange flame darted past her, searing her cheek. The rat jerked, snarled. The gun barked again. The beast whirled, was gone through the door behind it.
June's knees folded, refused support. She toppled, slid down along the shaft-wall, bumped headlong down the few remaining steps to the landing. Her hand thrust forward to break her fall and went into warm, viscous liquid. A face stared into her own, a face from which the flesh had been stripped so that it was a gory, grinning skull. Whose? Oh merciful God! Whose?
Her other hand came forward, pawed for the torn body. Felt shredded flesh, bared ribs. Found a flank that had been spared, that her coming had saved from the mammoth rodent's slicing teeth. Felt hair, shaggy coarse hair matting that bloody side. Hair such as she had felt—it seemed ages ago—on the arm of a two-legged brute that crushed her to its shaggy breast and carried her off to its lair.
Not Dan! Oh, thank God! Not Dan.
She was conscious of a presence above her. She twisted about to stare upwards at Jeffrey van Gandt! He towered above her, impeccable, and in his steady, almost transparent hand a revolver rested. June got unsteadily to her feet. The gun gestured toward her, she flung herself backward, twisted around the lintel of the floor door, and dashed down the passage. Before van Gandt could get into the corridor for a clear shot at her she had reached, dived down, a side hall, had twisted into another. She flattened herself into a doorway and waited, listening.
THERE was no indication that van Gandt had followed her. The silence of the ancient building closed in around June, brooding, pregnant with cryptic threat. He moved so noiselessly, so sinisterly without sound, that he might be almost upon her, might be there, just around that wall-angle that blocked off her sight. The girl's heart pounded, and fear crawled in her veins. He knew probably every nook and cranny of the place—he might be circling to creep up on her from the other side, hoping to catch her unaware.
June felt behind her, found a doorknob, twisted it. In there she would be safer by a tiny bit, would at least have warning of his approach. She was inside, the door was closed, the room's mustiness folded about her.
She was his quarry, his prey. He would track her down. He must hunt her down. He dared not let her escape. He dared not let her get out into the street with her story of what had happened to Karl Potten. At her report the police would come, would search...
Would open his safe and find there the damning evidence of his more horrible crimes which she had risked so much, endured so much, in the attempt to obtain!
No. Jeffrey Van Gandt would never let her get out of here alive. He dared not...
But why, then, had he saved her from the giant rat?
June shuddered, remembering the horror the unbelievable beast had wrought, remembering how it had crouched to leap upon her. A bullet would be more merciful. If rightly aimed death would be swift, painless. Almost, she wished she had stayed to take van Gandt's shot. Then she could have joined Dan, somewhere beyond the Veil...
But Dan wasn't dead. Memory ran through her, warning her. How could she have forgotten? She had seen Dan, had followed him...
Where was he? Where in this dim maze of death, of the fear of death and the fear of things far worse than death was her husband, her lover? He was sick, feeble! Mentally ill. The one glimpse she had had of his face had told her that. And there was so much of danger in this place to threaten him. She must find him! She must find her Dan!
But how? Where could she look... June's throat tightened at the thud of a footfall near by. She whirled... There was no one here. No one at all. Only she was here within these leprous walls. Yet those were footsteps of an invisible walker, coming towards her! Heavy, ponderous footfalls she recognized. Pud—pud... She could feel the floor shake to their steady fall. Pud—pud... Footfalls of approaching doom. Footfalls like those of Karl Potten walking across van Gandt's office. Walking to his death!
The air was suddenly icy, in this chamber where an unseen corpse walked. June thrust shaking, cold hands out in front of her, fending it off, fending off the menace she could not see, the thing of utter fear that thudded toward her—slowly, implacably. Without conscious volition, she backed from before its steady approach...
The dank odor of a sepulchre was in her nostrils, dank breath of a tomb brushed her with feathery touch. She was against the mildewed, damp wall, she was crushed against the wall, and still the ominous, slow march came on. She could go no further. She was lost. Irredeemably she was lost...
And then it was upon her! Its unseen, flabby hands were at her throat. A shriek burst from that throat before it was too late, before she could shriek no longer...
June slid, limply, to the floor. The thudding footfalls continued. They went on. On—through the solid wall against which she lay! They faded, pounding off into the distance.
The girl crouched on the floor, racked by supernatural fear. The terrors that thus far she had endured, soul-wrenching as they had been, were more or less explicable, more or less within the bounds of reason. But this—this invisible, intangible sound that had come slowly toward her with infinite menace, this parade of footfalls made by legs, which she had seen immobile in death, that had come in to her through solid brick and plaster, that had gone out through walls as impenetrable—what hypothesis could explain that? Except—that the wrath of Karl Potten had returned to stalk his murderer—to hunt down Jeffery van Gandt as van Gandt hunted her.
But—but that was utterly mad! There were no such things as ghosts. There was no such thing as survival after death...
Was there not? What was it, then, that had walked through a wall into this room, and out through another wall. What—if not a ghost, a vengeful wraith?
But if the dead veritably walked in this house of ancient evil, then was Dan—the momentary glimpse of whom had wrung her heart and awakened full force all her burning love for him, all the torment the frustration of that love had brought upon her—was Dan a ghost? Was he a phantom come back to haunt the schemer who had sent him back to die? Only a phantom?
June's brow furrowed in an attempt at thought. Her reason groped in dim, unfamiliar channels. If, by some miracle, Dan had survived the Marietta's destruction, had lain somewhere hurt, delirious perhaps, had recovered at last and found his way back to New York, he would have come to her at once. Of course he would...
It was, then, not Dan whom she had seen. Not a living Dan. Dan was dead and the hope, the pain-shot joy that had flared within her at the sight of him must be quenched by final despair...
No! God would not be so cruel. Dan was alive. He was somewhere within the time-blackened walls of this building and she would find him!
The girl's lips tightened as she forced herself painfully to her knees. Her wounds had ceased to bleed, but everywhere dried blood caked her skin, and pain throbbed in a network encasing her tortured body. She pushed herself laboriously erect, reeled to the door of the room where she had vainly sought sanctuary.
The passage outside was long, and very dim. June was conscious of a feeling that night was near. The passage was dim and silent, and dread lay in it like a palpable presence. Flecked-off, once-showy gilt lettering on the door through which she had just come read, "Room 263."
Hazily, this made June aware of her location. She was on the second floor once more. To the left, down this corridor, then left again, and again left, was van Gandt's office. That was the way to the room of uncanny death, the room where there was a corpulent corpse that would not lie still, where a closet hid some dreadful secret. Where the giant rat...
June pulled back into the doorway's embrasure, her heart pounding. A barely heard whisper of movement had warned that someone was nearby. Her fingers curled, trembling, about the doorknob, turned it slowly, without sound. She must get back in there, must hide...
But—suppose it were Dan coming, searching for her. Suppose she hid from him, and he passed, and they never could find one another again...! In reality it was less than the space of a clock-tick, but it seemed to June that she hesitated for hours, while that soft susurration brushed nearer—nearer—bringing deadly peril or the lost lover for whom her arms ached.
Which? She must know! She must know, despite terror that stopped her breath, robbed her of strength...
Slowly her hand let the doorknob come back. Then, trembling violently, she peered around the corner of the wall.
The corridor was a long tunnel of darkness, a narrowing vista that ended in a greyish translucence that was the pallid wall of another hall. For an instant June saw nothing—then there was something against the wan screen, a tall silhouette, the detailless black outline of a tall man out of the past, with canted top-hat and wing collar, and tight pantaloons. But one black hand of this silhouette was thrust stiffly out before it, and in that hand snouted the black shape of a very modern, very efficient revolver.
Van Gandt's shadow drifted to her right across the end of the corridor and was gone. Breath burst from June's aching lungs—caught at her throat. Another silhouette had thrust out against that oblong of greyish light. Another form was momentarily occupying that eerie stage. Like the enormous projection of a close-up on a cinema screen it bulked for an instant; sharp-snouted, thin-legged, scaly-tailed—a macaber picturization of foul ferocity, of dire and dreadful death. The great rat crept with belly close to the ground, and its progress was utterly, gruesomely, silent as it stalked the human killer who had gone before.
It, too, vanished. Like a grisly nightmare the two had passed across her vision and were silently gone, the brute human stalking—herself—and the foul beast that hunted him.
June's mouth twisted with a grim, sardonic humor. Van Gandt had saved her from the rodent, was the rodent now to save her from van Gandt? There would be weird justice in such a denouement.
Her way was clear! Realization beat in on her consciousness. Her way to van Gandt's office was clear, her way to van Gandt's office and the safe in that office, and the grey book with the ink-splotched back that lay in that safe.
She started running, breathlessly, down the corridor. She reached its end in the passage along which he had gone—he who was at once hunter and hunted, and the thing that hunted him. She threw a wild, frightened look over her shoulder as she twisted to the left. A little way beyond, that hall turned again, and they were beyond the turn. She kept on, fear prickling her spine, the nape of her neck, fear that they might hear, that they might return. The fetor of the giant rodent was strong in the stagnant air.
She turned left again. Somewhat safer now. Left once more. This corridor was more familiar—this corridor and the door at its further end.
She crept down the long hall to the door, turned the knob, and entered the musty office where all this weird adventure had begun. The sheet on which she had been working when Karl Potten knocked, asking admittance to death, was still in the typewriter. The table-desk before the window was quite undisturbed. But—there was no cadaver on the floor before the safe!
June flung a harried glance at the inscrutable door of the closet to the left. There was space in there, space even for Potten's tremendous bulk to companion that other cold and clammy thing that had resented her hiding there. She pulled her eyes away from that, saw a huge packing case bulking against the other wall. A stab of eerie terror shot through her as the faint sound of furtive movement seemed to come from within it. Her lips tightened and she went on toward her objective. She had too much to fear from the living to be afraid of the dead. Even of the dead who walked.
She crept past the desk, knelt in front of the safe. She put her cheek against the chill of its iron and twirled the dial, listening for the fall of the tumblers into their places. Elation surged within her, momentarily surmounting her fear—the ghastly memory of what had occurred when once before she had attempted this deed. The shaggy brute, at least, would not trouble her again. Faint nausea retched at her as she remembered how she had seen him last...
It was done. The last tumbler clicked, and June pulled the door open. The safe's shelved interior was open to her...
Dismay spread like a black pool in her consciousness. The ancient shelves before her was empty. Swept clean. The grey book was not there. The manuscript on which van Gandt had labored was gone...
"Something told me that I should find you here," a mellow, suave voice said from behind her. "I am fortunate to have gotten back in time."
DESPAIR and the realization of utter defeat engulfed June. She came slowly erect, turned about. She had put her hands on the back of van Gandt's chair to steady herself as her legs threatened to refuse support.
The room was almost quite dark now, so that he was a looming, indefinite shadow in its gloom. The fantastic quality with which his outdated dress had always invested him was emphasized by the darkness, so that he seemed altogether unreal. He was a vague clotting of the darkness, a tall spectre of infinite threat. But a stray gleam of light impinged on the gun in his pale hand, and that was all too concrete.
The tiny metallic glitter pulled June's eyes to it. Why didn't he shoot, she wondered wearily, and end this agony? Why did he stand there so silently? Why did his smouldering eyes sweep up and down her quivering frame? She was half-nude, she knew. But he must have seen feminine flesh before—flesh not torn, not lacerated as hers was.
"Where—" he said at last—"where are the things that have been taken from that safe?" His speech was still quiet, still low-pitched. But behind the tone of imperative demand in it there were undertones of an inexplicable scorn, of savage anger. "Where have you hidden them?"
That was why he had saved her from the giant rat, why he did not shoot her now, off-hand. Someone had beaten her to it, had extracted the account-book and the manuscript from their repository, and he thought it was she. He would not kill her until they were back again in his hands.
June lifted her head to look squarely at him. Her lips moved. At first they made no sound. Then words breathed from between them. "I did not—hide them. I did not—take them."
She said it, and then gasped, within herself. It was the wrong thing to say. Utterly the wrong thing. If he believed her there was no longer any reason for him to spare her, every reason to do away with the sole witness to his murder of Potten. If he did not believe her he would try to force the answer to his demand from her. And there was that in his face, even in the posture of his body, that told her he would stop at nothing to force her...
"Where—are—they?" Syllable by soft syllable the question thudded into the room's gathering darkness.
June's throat constricted. He did not believe that she knew nothing about the book's whereabouts and that of the manuscript. He didn't believe...
"I tell you I don't know." The sentence tore her throat as she formed it and a sob was its period, a sob she could not repress. She was tired, so terribly tired of fighting, of pain. "I—don't—know."
Even in the murk she could see her tormenter stiffen, could sense the decision to which he had come. "It would be better for you to remember," he said, and there was a new grimness, a new threat in his voice. "Before I—take steps to make you—remember."
The gentleness was gone from his features now. They had sharpened, somehow, and the muscles beneath the anomalous youth of his skin seemed to have melted, so that his face was a skull-like mask of sadistic ferocity through dark pits in which eyes stared that mirrored madness. And suddenly van Gandt advanced toward the terrified girl. He seemed to grow taller as he came, appallingly to grow taller, so that he seemed a spectre of doom.
June's hand fluttered to her mouth in an uncontrollable gesture of abandoned terror as van Gandt came to the desk, moved silently around it to reach her. She was utterly incapable of movement, utterly unable to make even a futile gesture at escape.
He was upon her! His free hand lashed out, its skinny fingers closed on her arm, dug in. Each separate digit burned into her quivering flesh. A supernatural strength was in those fingers and all the slender, frail-seeming frame of the man. June was forced backward, irresistibly backward, till the upper edge of the open safe door was against her back.
Van Gandt thrust his knee within the steel portal, held it immovable. The inexorable pressure of the hand on June's arm bent her over backward, the small of her back fulcruming on the metal, bent her still further backward until burning pain cut across her spine, tore across the stretched muscles of her abdomen.
A scream burbled in the girl's chest. Van Gandt's hand released her arm, lashed for her throat, clenched it, quenched the shriek before it reached her lips. Her own arm was caught behind her in the narrow V at the hinge of the safe door, and the door was closed upon it, clamped it.
Van Gandt's knee was on the outside of the door now, and his hand that still clutched his gun utilized the tremendous leverage to close the steel upon the girl's soft arm. It was crushing her bone. The pain she had already suffered was as nothing to the excruciating agony that slowly closing vise inflicted now...
"Will you—tell me—now?" van Gandt grunted, and the clutch of his grip on her throat relaxed an instant.
"Can't," the agonized girl forced out. "Don't—know—"
Rage flared in the torturer's eyes, and his hot breath gusted in her face. "You'll tell before I am through with you," he grunted. "You'll tell." He swung his hip against the safe door and it was forced an inch nearer to closing. Pain burst the bonds of June's arm, shrilled through her whole body. Pain insupportable. The tortures of hell could be no worse... Blackness swirled about June, but she prayed in vain for the release of unconsciousness.
Then, dimly she realized that the agonizing pressure was relaxing, that there was sound somewhere, the sound of heavy footfalls, of rapping on the office door.
People were out there, were demanding admittance. People! Had Dan managed to get out, to call the police? Was it Dan come to rescue her...?
"One moment, please, while I light up." Van Gandt must have iron nerves! His voice was steady, unperturbed, and as he spoke he lifted her free of the safe. She could breathe but his hand remained on her throat, in warning to silence. June knew only hazily what was going on, her perception fogged by the swirling chaos that consciousness had become for her. But she was aware that the man was moving swiftly to get something out of his desk drawer, that her lips were suddenly tight clamped by something he had stripped across them, that the same something was binding her wrists, her ankles. That was adhesive tape gagging her, holding her helpless.
He rolled her under the table, and lit the oil lamp above. Its dull glow filled the office that had been a torture-chamber, but where June was the shadow was impenetrable. Anyone looking in her direction would be blinded by the blaze of light above, could not possibly see her in the deep blackness where she lay. But she lay facing the door and the room, and could see everything there.
Whoever was at the door rapped again, but so swiftly had van Gandt worked that there was yet no real impatience in the knock. He flitted across the room, turned the key in the lock.
"Come in," van Gandt said smoothly.
"I must have fallen asleep while I was waiting for you and when your knock woke me it was pitch-dark."
Hope seeped from June, left her trembling with despair. He had been expecting the newcomers. Of course! They were friends of his, men come to take away the packing case and its grisly contents. They would be gone in a few minutes and he would again be free to torture her...
The black tide of physical suffering and mental despair welled up into her consciousness, blotted sight, hearing. Then a stab of poignant pain cleared her senses again. She saw legs, feet moving across the floor, three pairs of them. She recognized van Gandt's in the lead by their gray gaiters, tight-fitting over elastic-sided Congress shoes. The others were modern, a pair of brown ties, a snub-nosed, stumping pair of black oxfords. The six feet thumped across the floor, and their footfalls pounded on June's rasped nerves, on the unbearable ache of her crushed, limp arm, so that her brain swam.
They were going toward the packing case, where it stood at the head of the long table. It was so big, June fretted in a queer inconsequence that was delirium, and what was in it was so heavy that two men wouldn't be strong enough to carry it...
"Will you take your accustomed seats, gentlemen," Jeffery van Gandt said, amazingly, "and we'll get down to business." There was a crisp competence in his tone that had not been there before.
An answering voice was age-thinned, querulous. "What is your purpose in bringing us here again, Jeffery? I thought we'd split up for good. Settled everything." Chairs scraped. June could see up as far as the chair seats, could see spindly shanks, thin buttocks, settle into one; could see a sturdier form occupy the other. Van Gandt remained standing, at the head of the table. One hand rested on the huge box, the other was unconcernedly in a pocket of his long frock coat where a lump might be his fist—or the revolver.
"There is something still to adjust, Hugh Tomlinson," he responded in a grim voice. "Something I did not know about last month, when we split partnership."
"You're not going back on our bargain now," the third man rumbled. "You got all the better of it as it is. We gave you what was left of the business when we pulled out. I'm not signing any more documents."
"Yes, you are, Stoughton," van Gandt said softly. "Yes, you are." His hand that was on the case moved out of June's sight. A paper rustled as if he were bringing it out of a breast pocket. "You are signing this one."
Tomlinson's senile utterance cut across the other's sentence. "Where's Karl? Where's Karl Potten? I don't see why Karl Potten isn't here."
June could sense the hard-mouthed leer in the reply. "Don't worry about Karl. I've settled with him already." She wondered if the others realized the threat in what he said. If she could warn them. If only she could warn them!
"What's on that paper?" Stoughton's deep tones fell flatly into the momentary pause. "What is it you want us to sign?"
"A confession." It seemed as though van Gandt were relishing each word, so slowly did it come forth. "A confession—of grand larceny, fraud, and—mass murder."
"What!" His chair went spinning across the room as Stoughton lunged out of it to his feet. "You're insane..."
"Hold it!" Van Gandt's gun was out of its concealing pocket now. Its blue barrel jutted rock-steady, menacing. "I'll use this if I have to."
The man's big-thewed limbs froze, but June saw the tensity of their muscles, the taut quiver of their knees. This man was not licked, not yet. He was waiting, hawklike, for a momentary wavering in van Gandt's attention, the flicker of a chance for him to spring, to wrest the gun from the other, to beat him to his knees. The girl prayed that he might have that chance.
"I knew I shouldn't come here," Tomlinson wailed. "My heart—"
"Shut up you old fool," Stoughton growled. Then, to van Gandt. "What's this rigamarole you're pulling on us?"
"Listen! Here's the confession you are going to sign before you leave here. I'll read it so that Hugh also will understand, I see he is too upset to put on his spectacles: 'We the undersigned, Hugh Tomlinson and James Stoughton, for fifty years members of the firm of J. van Gandt and Partners, in the business of owning, chartering and operating freight ships, do hereby confess that during the said fifty years we conspired to destroy, and did destroy without trace, ten various vessels owned by the said firm, together with the crews thereof, for the purpose of securing to ourselves the insurance upon said vessels and upon the cargoes thereof which we had insured at far above their actual value. The names of the said vessels are attached hereto.
" 'We also state that Jeffery van Gandt of the said firm was at no time aware of the said conspiracy and is altogether innocent of participation therein.
" 'In witness whereof...!' "
The floor seemed to heave under June, her blood to curdle in her veins. It was all true, then, the crime Dan had suspected, evidence of which she had come here to uncover. It was true, but van Gandt was setting upon it the capstone of a greater infamy. With the disappearance of that very evidence he was sliding out from under its revelations, was foistering his own guilt on his ex-partners. Whether or not they were tarred with the same pitch, this confession would sign their death warrants and let him go free! He was evil incarnate...
"And how are you going to make us sign?" Stoughton was saying. "By holding a gun on us?" Mass murderer, or not, he was courageous. His feet were planted foursquare, his voice had no quiver in it. "We'd be signing our own death warrant. It would be better to die with a swift bullet than in the electric chair." Tomlinson was slumped laxly in his chair. Had he fainted, or...
Van Gandt chuckled. "No, James. Knowing you I do not expect to force you to sign this confession by threatening to shoot you. It is because I did not quite see how I could accomplish it that I waited, writing the history of the frauds, petty and great, that my partners perpetrated during our long association. You left the books with me, you know. The books wherein the seeing eye could easily trace out that history.
"In the meantime I studied something else, James. I studied fear. In literature, James, and in life. And, curiously enough, it was your own emissary that taught me how to make you sign, James. Your emissary who succeeded in opening my safe—too late." The man's short laugh was humorless, cruel. "Isn't it funny that the girl you sent to steal from me should give me the weapon I needed?"
June caught her breath with the realization that van Gandt thought these men had sent her. He thought they had sent her to open his safe and steal—
"What weapon?" asked Stoughton hoarsely. "What weapon?"
"Are you afraid of rats?" van Gandt said softly. "Are you afraid of rats, James?"
"Of rats. You're crazy! Of course not!"
Under the table in the pool of darkness blacker than night, fear clotted around June as she sensed what van Gandt intended. His hand was back to the packing case, was fumbling at a metal catch she had not before noticed.
"I think you will be afraid of this one, James." The case's wooden sides dropped away, their metal lining flashing momentarily as it caught the rays of the lamp. Then there was a cage beside the tall, gaunt man, a cage of inch-thick bamboo shafts. And within that cage was an ungainly grey form that heaved to splay feet and stood for a moment blinking little red eyes at the light. A gigantic rat, larger even than the one that had prowled the dank corridors, thrust a sharp nose against the bamboo and twitched split, black lips to reveal long, cruel fangs.
"Ohhh!" Tomlinson squealed, his flaccid limbs jerking to sudden life. "Ohhh!" he gurgled. "My heart!" He pitched out of his chair down onto the floor. He shuddered, lay still.
"Are you not afraid of this rat, James Stoughton?" van Gandt asked again as he backed slowly away from that cage and its dreadful prisoner, backed on silent feet to the room door. "Are you not afraid?"
JUNE could not see Stoughton's face, but she could see his great hands, his big-knuckled hands, tight against his trouser legs. She could see them open and close, open and close, in the pregnant silence. She could see them begin to quiver, could see them flutter like the leaves of an aspen in the wind.
Jeffery van Gandt was at the door. He faced the office, and his revolver snouted from his hip, menacing. Momentarily the shocked silence held. And then was broken by the scrape of great yellow teeth.
The sound pulled June's gaze back to the cage in time to see a splinter tear away from a bar of that cage, to see the rat's fangs return to the attack and tear off another long shred of fibrous wood.
"How long," van Gandt asked, conversationally. "Do you think it will take him to get out, if I do not shoot him?"
Stoughton's words were a husked stage-whisper. "You don't dare let him out, Jeffery. He'll get you too."
"No. I can get out in time, and lock the door. But you—Stay back!" Orange flame spat from van Gandt's gun, a bullet plunked into the floor at Stoughton's feet. "The next one will break your leg, James, and stretch you helpless for the rat!"
Stretch him helpless! Good God! June herself was already stretched helpless on the floor where the rat must surely find her. A swift vision rose before her of that other rat's prey, of the grinning skull to which shreds of torn flesh still adhered. If Stoughton did not sign—
"Will you sign, James? Will you sign so that I may use a bullet on the brute? Or shall I leave you here with the rat of which you are not afraid?"
"Damn you, van Gandt," Stoughton groaned, broken-voiced.
Crrrack! The huge rodent had already gnawed half through the bar. It worked steadily, savagely, ignoring the men's voices, ignoring the terror it inspired. Those teeth, that sheared tough bamboo so readily, what would they do to human flesh, to human bone?
Why didn't he give in? Oh, God! Why didn't Stoughton give in?
"Well?" Van Gandt's free hand was behind him. The rattle of the turning doorknob added its omen to the steady rasp of the rat's teeth. The great wooden leaf was slowly moving, June could see the opening widen. "I can't wait much longer, James."
Stoughton's hands were like writhing snakes. June's ear was against the floor and she could hear sound not audible to the others. The sound she heard was the thump of a ponderous foot that was dead. Pud—pud... It didn't mean anything to the girl just then. She too, would be dead in moments. Horribly dead.
Crrrack! There was only a thread of fibre remaining, now, to hold that rat in. Only a thread. June could not tear her eyes from the cage, though she heard the door squeak fully open.
"Shoot! For God's sake shoot it! I'll sign!" It was the gibbering, fear-maddened voice of Stoughton. "Here. I've signed it."
The last filament of the bar broke through. The rat's fangs clenched on the severed rod, bent it inward. But there was no shot! The great, vile beast was free!
"Karl!" van Gandt choked. "Don't, Karl"
A columnar, black-clothed arm was clamped around van Gandt's chest. A tremendous hand, doughy pale, was folded over his gun, was wresting it from him. The murderer, struggled with the apparition of his victim, surged backward, out of the room. The door slammed shut!
The rat crouched, its beady, ferocious eyes on Stoughton. It leaped...
June closed her eyes as a heavy body struck the floor, as a strong man screamed in uttermost horror and agony. There was the sound of a brief struggle out there on the floor. Then there was only the snarling snuffle of a feeding rodent, the scrape of fangs on bared bone.
Suddenly the grisly sounds stopped too. The girl was aware of eyes upon her, of a hostile stare prickling her spine with warning. She had to look.
The huge beast was crouched over the gory, indescribable thing that not so long ago had moved, and spoken, and known fear. Its pinched jaw thrust at June where she lay in shadow, and its pointed nose wrinkled to the scent that had just come to it...
Movement pulled June's eyes beyond the creature. The office door was once more open. Its opening framed—Dan!
Dan's arm crooked. There was a gun in his hand and that gun belched flame. The rat jerked to the impact of its projectile. Jerked again—and again. Then it collapsed, lifeless atop the bloody body upon which it had dined.
Dan leaned against the door-jamb. The color had drained from his face, except where his scar flamed scarlet across tortured flesh. His eyes were agonized as he stared at the shambles in that room, at what once was Stoughton, at Tomlinson's corpse with its blue-tinged face and hands telling the story of an overburdened heart that terror had burst, at the rat. His head turned to the door, and he said, in a dull dead voice—"She isn't here..."
June writhed, arced her body, threw herself over. Rolled out from under the table. Dan saw her and a great joy flashed into his face, transfigured it.
"June!" he cried. "My little wife!" He was on his knees beside her. She was in his arms again, and his kisses were warm on her torn face. She gestured and he pulled the tape from her mouth so that she could answer those kisses, from her wrists so that she could answer his embrace.
"Haven't you two love-birds had enough?" van Gandt asked.
Terror was a cold tide sweeping June once more. "Dan!" she croaked. "Watch out, Dan!"
"It's all right, darling," Dan said. "Quite all right"
"No!" Jeffery van Gandt denied. "It is not all right. Not yet." He was still tall, still saturnine in the doorway, but his tall hat was gone, his coat ripped from his shoulders, his collar ripped from his neck. "It will not be all right till I make such amends as I may to Mrs. Forsythe for what I have done to her."
June pulled herself to a sitting posture. "Done to me!" she gasped. "What about what you have done to him and those who sailed with him on the Marietta? What about what you did to those other crews—"
"No, June," Dan interrupted. "No! I've read the books that were in the safe and I know now that van Gandt knew nothing about the conspiracy. He only discovered it afterward and was working to expose his ex-partners. They got wind of what he was doing. Stoughton sent men to steal it, Potten tried to buy him off—"
"But he killed Potten, and then the German came back to haunt him. I—"
"June! Potten wasn't killed. Goonah knocked him out, but he came to after a while, and..."
"The half-crazy Lascar stoker Stoughton hired to get van Gandt's manuscript. A hairy ape he was, if there ever was one..."
"The—monster! Dan! Was he the monster that carried me off?"
"Yes. To hide you from van Gandt. We were afraid that..."
"We were afraid. Were you mixed up in... Look here, Dan, you had better tell me about all this from the beginning. That is if you want to keep me sane."
"Another kiss first." Dan held her.
June pushed him away. "You didn't seem to think enough of me to let me know you were alive. Dan—why...?"
The man's head hung, abashed. "I'm so hideous. I didn't think you could stand the sight of me. I didn't think you would love me any longer."
"You foolish, foolish boy." June kissed him as the tears welled in her eyes. "But I'm still waiting for your story," she said at last.
"The Marietta went up in a sudden blaze," began Dan, "and there wasn't a dog's chance of anyone's surviving, except that we were hove to, and I happened to be out overside in a dinghy, looking over the hull to see if it needed painting. As it was, a spurt of flame burned me terribly, and when I was picked up, days afterward, I was out of my mind. I was taken to a hospital in New Zealand, took a year to recover, another to work my way back home. But all the time I was thinking of something I had seen here in this office in an old account book that I glimpsed over Tomlinson's shoulder. It was a list of lost vessels and the insurance collected for them, and at the bottom there was a notation that..."
"Yes, I know. You wrote about in your diary, and about the suspicions of organized ship-scuttling it roused in you—and your intention of looking into the matter further when you came back from that voyage. When the Marietta was lost I made up my mind to bring the criminals to justice. That is why I tried to get into this office, and finally succeeded..."
Dan smiled his pathetically twisted smile. "I had forgotten that I made that entry. So you wanted to avenge me, you brave kid, and bit off more than you bargained for. Well, I sneaked into this building last night, but I found the old curmudgeon writing all night. There was plenty of room to hide in this place however, and I did so. Van Gandt did leave the room early in the morning, and I got into it. But he came back almost immediately and I just about managed to slide into that closet over there just in time. I was in there when you came in, and recognized your voice. I was frantic to get to you, but he was in the room...
"I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew you came bounding into the closet as if the devil himself were after you. I touched you, started to speak to you, when you screeched and dived out again. I followed, saw you on the floor, saw a shaggy-haired brute at the safe, working to open it. Before I could do or say anything van Gandt was at the door again.
"The Lascar dived out of the window, and I saw that he had come down a rope from an upper floor. I followed him, swarmed up the rope after him, and we pulled it up just in time to avoid van Gandt's seeing it.
"Goonah told me he was after something in the safe, that he had been hired to get it. He assumed that Tomlinson or Potten had sent me on the same mission, fell in easily with my suggestion that we work together. I told him that you were my girl, that I was afraid for you and anxious to get you out of here. He slid down the rope once more to spy.
"Van Gandt saw him, got off some rigamarole about death, and suddenly whirled to grab at him. He pulled Goonah in, but the Lascar sent him spinning. Potten made a grab at him, and he twisted the Dutchman's neck, came back up the rope. He told me what had happened, that van Gandt had run out of the room, scared. I sent him down to make a try at the safe.
"You had beaten him to it. He remembered what I had said about wanting you out of there, picked you up and scooted. Took you all the way up to the top floor and locked you in a room. I went up to look for you, but suddenly Goonah called me from below and I started down again. Before I got two flights down he screamed, horribly. I rushed down the rest of the way, saw that a capybara had gotten him, that it was too late for me to do anything, and got out of the way before the thing would go for me."
"What was that you called it?" June stirred. "A capy—what?"
"A capybara. It's a ratlike animal from the wilds of Brazil. I can't imagine where van Gandt could have gotten them. I thought the only specimen in this country was in the Bronx Zoo."
"I had a couple in a South Street warehouse waiting to be shipped to the Cleveland Park," van Gandt interrupted. "The first time I went out, this morning, I arranged to have them sent here. One got away and it took me hours to track it down, kill it."
"At any rate," Dan resumed, "I finally got a chance to come down the rope, get into the safe, get what I was after. I was upstairs again, had just discovered van Gandt's innocence, when I heard shots, shouting, rushed down here and saw him struggling with Potten. 'Save the girl,' he yelled as he saw me, 'in there,' and kicked a gun that was on the floor at me. I knew the girl must be you, snatched up the gun and came in, and..."
"I suddenly realized that none of my three sweet partners," Jeffery van Gandt explained, "had given any evidence of knowing of your existence. I knew then that I was mistaken in thinking you were an emissary of their's and when I saw Forsythe I sent him in to save you from the capybara. That's only the beginning of my payment for torturing you. I am a bachelor, have no relatives. You shall be my heirs."
It was not till the next day, when Dan came in to tell her of the arraignment of Karl Potten before a magistrate and his being held for the Grand Jury that June remembered how he had walked invisibly through the room where she was and terrorized her. She told Dan about it. He scoffed at her, gently.
"But I did hear him. It was as if he were in the very room with me and yet he wasn't. It was Room 263—"
"Wait," Dan grunted. "Wait, June. I know the answer. The rooms in that corridor are back to back with the one where van Gandt's office is, and the floor boards run right through. Potten was walking in the passage, but he walks so heavily that the boards carried the sound right through into the room where you were."
"There goes my last ghost," June mourned—and the word "ghost" came faintly, all but smothered out beneath June's smiling lips.
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