The Walk Home

Background: A week or two ago I ended up in a discussion with Caroline Furlong on how to create tension in a story. Later I tried to come up with a simple ‘example’ scenario to illustrate my ideas. I ended up liking it enough that I turned it into a quick short, which I now present below. Enjoy!

Shit!

Kathy turned slowly on the spot, shining her flashlight along the three diverging paths in the night-shrouded woods. Overhead the sky was a solid black roof, and the air was thick with the threat of rain.

How long was it since she’d left the roadhouse? An hour? Probably less than that, but certainly much longer than it should have been. And much too long to try to go back now.

Damn you, Cheryl, you stupid idiot! She thought.

The night out had been Cheryl’s idea. She was the ‘friendly’ one of the two sisters, and despite being three years older than Kathy, most people pegged her as the younger. She got carded everywhere she went, while Kathy never did. That wasn’t because Kathy looked so much older – she was twenty-five and knew herself to be attractive – but rather because something about her face and the way she carried herself made her appear mature and reliable.

And Kathy was mature. She had a good job and was already rising through the corporate ranks. She was confident, athletic, knew her own mind, and didn’t take crap from anyone.

A night out at the roadhouse wasn’t usually her thing, but Cheryl had wanted to go and had talked her into coming.

“After all that work, you need a night off!” she’d said. “Come on, we’ll go out, have some drinks, maybe meet a couple guys, it’ll be fun!”

She’d pressed her so insistently that, in the end, Kathy had given in. Truth was, she had been overworking herself lately and she did need a night off.

And it had been fun for a while. They’d had a few drinks (Cheryl had a few more), danced a little, chatted up the boys, and generally had a good time. A good time, that is, until Cheryl slipped off with one of her new temporary beaus. By then Kathy was getting tired, and since she always strictly moderated her drinking (she didn’t like to lose control of anything, least of all herself) she had just about reached her limit as far as alcoholic entertainment was concerned. She waited idly at the bar, chewing peanuts and dividing her time between half-heartedly watching the muted TV and talking disinterestedly with one of the men present.

Finally, when Cheryl had been away what seemed more than long enough, Kathy had gone in search of her.

It was then that one of the more alert of her recent acquaintances had told her that Cheryl had left with her new boy-toy a half an hour ago. Left not only without telling her, but more importantly without giving Kathy the keys to her car.

Since Kathy always drank less than Cheryl, the deal had been that Cheryl would drive them there – since she knew the way – and Kathy would drive back. But Cheryl had neglected to give her sister the keys when they first arrived, and had apparently been too drunk and too in love to remember to give them to her before she left.

Muttering curses against her older sister, Kathy had tried to call her cell phone. This had only yielded a flashing light and the muffled notes of an obnoxious ringtone from the front-seat of the car.

Left stranded, Kathy’s options had been to either wait for Cheryl to return – which she probably wouldn’t do until morning – or call her father to come pick her up. Her skin crawled at the idea. Her father didn’t approve of fun nights out, or his daughters flirting and drinking with strangers, or living on their own and chasing a good career, or really anything they did, it seemed. He was always on to her to ‘find someone who could take care of her’ and ‘settle down’. As if she weren’t an adult who could take care of herself! If he had to come and pick her up in the middle of the night from a bar, she’d never hear the end of it.

The man who’d informed her of Cheryl’s departure offered to give her a ride home, but Kathy liked the idea of accepting help from a strange man – even if he seemed decent enough – even less than calling her father. ‘White knight syndrome,’ she called it contemptuously. She could look after herself without depending on the kindness of strangers.

The bar wasn’t really that far from her apartment, say three or four miles in a straight line, and Kathy was an experienced hiker in good condition. She had decided she’d simply walk, taking a path that, she’d thought, led through the state park back to town, cutting off the better part of the journey by road.

Only, she was relatively certain that there ought not to be this three-way split in the path. And she wasn’t even sure what direction she was going anymore. Leaving the bar, she’d neglected to consider that she had no compass or map and only a vague idea of what direction town lay.

Shit!

Kathy pushed a slightly-damp lock of chestnut-brown hair out of her face as she considered the three ways. It would help if she had some stars to guide her at the very least, but the stars were lost in the clouds. Clouds that promised rain.

She took out her phone and tried to bring up a map to give herself some idea of where she was. For what felt like several minutes, she watched the GPS app spin its loading wheel before showing the little orange arrow indicating her position…in the middle of a completely featureless blob of grey. The paths, apparently weren’t even marked on the app. Frustrated, she tried to zoom out and was met with the loading wheel again. At the same time, a roll of thunder sounded overhead.

“Damn it!” she shouted aloud, shoving the phone back into her pocket. “Cheryl, I swear I will kill you for this!”

On an impulse, Kathy decided on the left path. That way, at least, went roughly in the direction of the road (she was almost sure), so if the worst came to the worst she could at least find her way there and take the longer, but surer route. She thanked her stars that she’d never developed a taste for heels and had worn comfortable, high-top boots for her ‘fun night out’.

She hurried along the path as fast as the darkness and rough terrain would allow, for the path dipped and rose frequently, and tree roots cast jagged traps for her feet. Now and again she looked up at the sky to check if the weather had changed. A few minutes after taking the path, Kathy saw the woods about her lit up with harsh white light as lightning flashed in the distance. But it was some seconds before the thunder reached her, so the main storm was still some way off at least. Perhaps she’d get lucky for once that night and it wouldn’t come this way at all.

As she walked, Kathy thought back, trying to recall if the TV in the bar had said anything about a storm that night. She dimly recalled absent-mindedly watching a weather report during one of the idle moments….

Suddenly, she froze. For she had remembered something else: another scarcely-noticed television report seen that very night. She’d noted it, commented on it even, and then forgotten it in the light of subsequent events that had seemed so much more immediately important.

The pallid, thickly-spectacled face of a middle-aged man. The affectedly concerned expression on the muted anchoress’s face as she read the report, shown in black-and-white closed captioning along the bottom the screen that nearly, but not quite obscured the banner headline:

ESCAPED SERIAL KILLER AT LARGE.

Shit, shit, Shit, SHIT!

Kathy swung the light around the woods with a new urgency while her heart jumped in her chest. The oncoming storm ceased to be a factor in her mind as a darker anxiety rose to cast its shadow. How could she have been so stupid? A walk home at night, through the woods, alone…what was she thinking?

For a moment, she stood very still, trying to control her breathing as she swept the woods with her flashlight. The wind was rising, and the trees around her waved and clashed together. That was on top of the many scufflings and scratchings and similar sounds from the underbrush.

Like most people of her age and upbringing, Kathy had very rarely felt experienced genuine fear. Her chief references for being scared were things like watching a scary movie, or having a bad nightmare. Real, honest-to-God threats to her own life and safety had rarely, if ever come her way. The possibility she might meet someone or something in the darkness that would mean she would never see the dawn was completely alien to her experience, and the sick clenching of her stomach as this idea took hold made her almost too frightened to move.

Get a grip, Kathy, she told herself firmly. Escaped serial killer doesn’t mean he’s here, in this park tonight. He probably isn’t. He’s probably a hundred miles away heading for the border. That’s what escaped criminals do; they don’t hang out in the woods like Bigfoot. Besides, you can take care of yourself, whatever happens!

With such sensible reassurances, Kathy successfully reasoned herself into going on. The beam of her flashlight cast a narrow, yellowish glow over the path ahead, sending livid shadows up from every tree, rock, and root, shadows that wavered and moved unsettlingly as she walked. Every so often, she saw a yellow or green or red pair of eyes flash out at her from the darkness on either side, making her jump.

Squirrels and rabbits, she told herself. Keep it together!

The thunder rumbled again overhead. The first cold drops landed on her head.

Damnit.

Things had gone far enough. She didn’t know what help he could bring at this point, but she wanted to call her father. It would help to hear a familiar voice at least! And perhaps that way, when she did find the road, he’d be able to come pick her up. Kathy would almost welcome a lecture at this point, if only it meant she didn’t have to spend a moment longer than she had to out in this damned night.

She reached for her phone. Then stopped and began feeling frantically in all her pockets, the cold clenching in her stomach growing tighter. Her phone was gone. When she’d put it away at the crossroads, it must have caught and slipped out of her pocket, and she’d been too agitated to notice.

Kathy looked behind her at the long tunnel of rain-swept night. Should she go back and look for it? She could hardly stand the mere idea of it. Besides, it was already at least a quarter mile back.

And were those footsteps she heard behind her? Was that a shadowy figure she saw among the trees at the very edge of her flashlight beam?

Rationally, Kathy knew she was being foolish. There was nothing there, no footsteps, no shadowy figure. Escaped serial killers didn’t lurk in rain-swept woods waiting for unsuspecting victims to pass.

Rationally, she knew there was probably nothing to fear. But she ran for it nonetheless.

Heedless of the rain, her flashlight swinging wildly, Kathy fled along the path. Every waving shadow and flashing tree seemed to her disturbed mind to herald that nightmare figure with his pallid, evil face and thick glasses stepping out of the night to grab her. Her own breath sounded loud in her ears, and the rain pounded down harder, soaking her and seeming to drag her down, as if even the weather wished to make her sluggish and prevent her escape.

The path dipped and her pace increased. She felt herself losing control of her own feet as they tried to compensate for the rapid descent. Mentally, she yelled at herself to slow down, but too late. Her foot caught suddenly on a root and with a scream she pitched forward, trying to brace herself with her hands as she tumbled the rest of the way down the short slope.

She fetch up on the bottom in absolute darkness, having dropped her flashlight in the fall. Hands stinging, a twinge of sharp pain in her leg, Kathy rose to her hands and knees, an inarticulate sound of frustration on her lips. The pain was almost irrelevant: it was the fear and sense of urgency that gnawed at her and filled her mind as she frantically felt about for the flashlight with trembling hands.

“Come on, come on, where are you?” she muttered furiously.

Finally her searching fingers brushed against the smooth plastic handle and she seized it with an exclamation of thanks and flicked it on.

Nothing happened.

“No. No, no, no, no….”

Again and again she turned the switch from off to on, on to off. She tightened the cap and tried again. Nothing. It was broken.

With a furious, incoherent scream of despair, she threw the useless thing into the night. For a moment, she knelt in the pouring rain, hugging herself and shivering violently as she turned her head this way and that, scanning the solid night. It was almost completely dark, with nothing but the faint hint of deeper shadows to mark the trees. The steady tinnitus of the driving rain made her nearly as deaf as she was blind. If anyone was in the woods tonight, she would neither see nor hear them….

That means they won’t see or hear you either, she told herself. And why would anyone be out there tonight, unless they’re as stupid as you are? Get a grip, Kathy! The road can’t be too far off.

But for a while she stayed where she was, trying to muster the courage to press on into the darkness. Each breath seemed to catch in her throat, and every sound above the pattering of the rain made her jump.

Lightning flashed across the forest once again, sending coal-black shadows chasing behind trees. Kathy saw that she was still on the path, still going – she hoped – the right way.

With a burst of effort, she rose to her feet and began walking blind, hands outstretched, sweeping the ground before her with her feet. Every passing branch, every tree trunk that met her searching fingers made her flinch, but she kept going. There was nothing else to do.

Then, after what felt like hours, she saw light through the trees. Abandoning the path, she plunged through the trees, making straight for it, pushing her way though the wet branches. Cold water splashed up past the top of her boots from puddles that had formed from hollows between trees, and more than once she found herself caught up on bushes and branches and had to find another way through.

At last, though, the trees abruptly thinned on either side and Kathy found herself struggling up a steep bank beneath the faded glow of a street light veiled by the rain. She paused at the top, breathing hard and feeling relief flooding through her. She had found the road!

She set off walking as quick as she could with her hurt leg, but with more control now than when she had fled through the forest. No sense wearing herself out if she had to do this all the way home. Intermittent streetlights cast a ghostly sheen over the road, glittering against the infinity of raindrops that continued to pound down around her and glistening against the asphalt as if it were newly laid with tar..

After a few minutes, Kathy rounded a curve and with an exclamation of thanks beheld the neon glare of a gas station. The light in the little store was still on, harsh against the darkness and she fairly ran the rest of the way.

There were no cars at the pumps, and no one inside but the clerk, who was bending over a magazine on the counter. He looked up and started as she came in, dripping wet, covered in mud, and breathing hard, her face red with exertion.

“Jesus, are you okay?” he exclaimed.

Kathy almost laughed.

“I’ve had a rough night,” she said. “Do you have a phone I can use?”

He pointed silently to the public telephone that stood in a corner before the front window. Heart still hammering, but feeling the first pangs of relaxing nerves, Kathy dialed the listed number for a cab company with trembling fingers.

A half-hour later, Kathy stumbled into her apartment, exhausted, drenched, and filthy. Her hands were scrapped and raw, and her knee hurt rather badly from when she had fallen and from having walked on it for so longer after, but that didn’t seem to matter much compared with the relief of being home at last. She immediately went into the bathroom and took a long, hot shower. As she stepped out of it and into her pajamas, part of her wanted to go to bed immediately. Another part wanted to get the really stinging email that she meant to send to Cheryl off right now before she had a chance to cool off.

She wavered a moment, but in the end she decided that she would sleep better once she’d vented some of the anger that was searing in her chest. Now that she was through and her fears were over, Kathy felt a proportional degree of fury, made all the stronger for being mingled with shame at her panic of earlier. Really, how childish she’d been to lose her head like that.

She sat down at her desk, booted up her computer, and opened her email, her mind sifting through the many possibilities for verbally punishing her sister for this debacle.

But when she opened her email, she found a new message waiting for her. A message sent from her own account. Without thinking, she clicked it.

The email showed a large photo, somewhat blurry from the rain. A photo shot looking in through the gas station window. It showed herself on the pay phone leaning against the wall, looking absently out the window at the darkness while she waited for an answer, her soaking wet brown hair hanging limp about her flushed, tired face. Beneath the photo was a message.

See you soon, Kathy.

Batman: The Terror pt 3. The Final Night

The final installment of The Terror is now up at fanfiction.net!

Terror lays thick over Gotham. As another night falls, Batman vows that the killings will end before dawn. But who among the dwindling population of supervillains is the murderer? Is it perhaps the Riddler, who claims to know all? Or the Joker, orchestrating events from the shadows? Or is it someone else: someone Batman is loathe to even suspect?

Read the thrilling final chapter here!

Read Part Two here

And Read Part One here

Batman: The Terror pt. 2: The Second Night

Part Two of The Terror is now up at Fanfiction.net! And just in time for Halloween, too.

Night falls again over Gotham and the Terror continues. One by one, the rogues of Gotham fall, each death more brutal than the last, yet each suited to their crimes. Meanwhile, Batman races to try to uncover the truth behind the killings before it’s too late. But as the body count rises, the mystery only deepens.

Read the startling second installment here.

And if you missed it, Part One can be read here.

Stay tuned next week for the conclusion.

Batman: The Terror pt. 1: The First Night

Just up at Fanfiction.net:

It seemed a night like any other in Gotham City, when word reached Batman of a death: one of the city’s rogues found brutally murdered. Then comes word of another. And another. A new terror is stalking Gotham, preying upon the city’s supervillains. But who is it? And what do they want?

Read the thrilling first installment here.

Parts Two and Three to follow.

The Temple of the Night

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“Magnificent!”

The young Englishwoman gazed out over the deep, mist-filled gorge. The mountains crowded in on all sides, their grey flanks dyed red in the rising sun, while the valley below was so deep and so narrow that what little could be seen through the breaks in the blanket of mists was lost in shadow. It was as though she were looking down upon a second sky.

She stood a moment upon the edge of the cliff, as still as if the light had turned her into a carved figure of ivory. Then with the quick, precise movements of a bird gathering its treasure, she swung the heavy pack off of her shoulders and pulled out a sketchbook and some pencils. Seating herself crosslegged upon a rock at the very edge of the precipice, she began to draw the scene, seemingly heedless of the thousand-foot drop immediately before her.

This – though perhaps few of her acquaintances in London would have believed it – was Lady Emma Worthing, and she looked as out of place sitting on a rock on a mountain deep in the Peruvian jungle as it was possible for a person to look. Every line, curve, and tone of her spoke of fashion, society, and elegance, from her perfectly fitted, custom-made clothing to her upright, well-trained posture.

She was tall and graceful with a fine figure. Her face was aristocratic, with a Roman nose (one she thought a trifle too big) and large eyes that glittered like opals whenever she was eager or excited. Down her back ran a long, tapering line of braided hair that was so deeply black as to appear blue in places.

Her clothing was entirely done in varying shades of white, save for the black of her hiking boots (now sadly scuffed from many days of walking), and she wore a white pleated skirt in lieu of trousers. This had raised many eyebrows and several people, including her hired guide, had tried strenuously to talk her out of it. But she would hear none of it.

“A lady must always look her best, whether in society or the jungle,” she’d insisted.

When Lady Emma sat down to commence her sketch, the two men accompanying her took off their own packs and stood waiting for her to finish. By now this had become quite a routine. During the course of their three day trek through the jungle, Lady Emma had already stopped at least a dozen times to make sketches and notes for paintings she might like to make once she had the chance. That she should do so even now, just as they had reached their destination, was only to be expected.

One of the two was an elderly, upright figure with heavy jowls and a fringe of perfectly white hair under the rim of his hat. The other was young, handsome, and with the lean, lithe air of a wolf about him. He smiled rather fixedly on the young woman as she sat sketching.

“Do I take it you came all the way to the Sombra Gorge merely to draw it, Senorita?” he asked

“One might do worse,” she answered carelessly. “Though as it happens, I have something else in mind. But do be quiet; I want to catch this light. One must be quick about such things.”

The Peruvian cast an expressive look at the old man, who did not return it.

“As you wish,” said Malveda, with a shrug. He leaned back against a tree and began to roll a cigarette, watching the young woman as she drew. Truth be told, he didn’t much mind the interludes. He still had no idea what had possessed this English lady to insist on being brought all the way here to this little known and less visited formation in the mountains, but she had money, and as long he was being paid, he wasn’t about to complain. Besides, a man might have to go a long way to see a woman better worth looking at.

The other man was George Nicholson, butler to the Worthing estate. He had watched over Lady Emma from the time when she had been young enough to believe his name was “Nibbles’em,” and he accompanied his charge wherever she went, always as straight-backed and dependable as he had been as a young batman to her father in Burma some forty years before.

Emma’s pencils flew over the paper. She wished, as she always did in such cases, that she had more time. There were always details she was missing, always some element of the scene that didn’t quite come out. But then, that was the nature of beauty: one never could quite catch it all.

At last she decided the sketch would have to do. She put the last stroke to it, packed up her pencils, and stowed the whole apparatus back into her pack.

“There we are,” she said, producing a small compact mirror and examining her face. “Oh, bother this humidity….”

“Now that we are here, senorita….” Malveda began.

“Yes, yes; I did promise to explain once we reached the gorge, did I not?” she replied, brushing some dirt from her forehead and shaking her head at her own reflection. She snapped the mirror shut and tucked it into her pocket. “It isn’t anything especially exciting, I’m afraid. You see, I am something of an amateur antiquarian. It is a hobby of mine to recover rare and lost pieces of art.”

“Is that so?” he answered. “And you think you will find such a thing in the Sombra Gorge?”

“More or less,” she said as she unfolded a compact, single-strap bag from the large backpack she had been carrying. “Nibs, be a dear and get this ready for me, will you?”

“As you wish, your ladyship,” Nicholson answered. He wore a look of faint disapproval, but his charge seemed not to notice it as she checked the knife and the revolver buckled around her waist.

“It is said that no one has ever entered the Sombra Gorge alive,” Malveda said.

“I should think leaving it alive would be the tricky part,” Emma answered, peering into the depths. “But I do not intend to go all the way in. If my information is correct, there is a small cave in the cliff wall a short ways from here, around the other side of this hill.”

She nodded at the looming side of the mountain that overshadowed their little shelf to the north, forming one wall of the narrow, doubtful pass they had traversed to find the gorge.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the Javias people? They occupied these mountains many centuries ago and were conquered by the Incas. It’s said they had a certain temple that they kept an absolute secret, and then when the Spanish came….”

Malvedas’s whole attitude changed abruptly. He stiffened, like a dog that had caught a scent and look sharply at his employer.

“The Temple of the Night? The cursed idol of Yectclo? That is what you seek?”

“Oh, you have heard of it,” Emma said, drawing a long coil of rope from one of the packs and slinging it over her shoulder. “Yes, that’s the one.”

“Who in these mountains has not heard that legend? But…but what makes you think it is here?”

“That’s rather a long story, but the short version is I came across some notes by a Professor Luis Rondon, who pieced together the information back in the 1890s. He, unfortunately, never returned from the jungle, but I think his reasoning was sound. I’m merely following his footsteps.”

A hungry, wolfish look slowly spread upon Malvedas’s handsome features, like the dawning of some evil sun.

“And the idol,” he said. “Is it true what they say, that it is as a valuable as a mountain of gold?”

“It is supposedly an absolutely unique piece of ancient artistry,” she answered. “One can’t really put a monetary value on that, though certainly I would pay a good deal for it. In fact, I would say I am doing so,” she added ruefully, wiping the sweat from her face. “Sacrificing my poor, poor complexion in the name of preserving art. Are we ready, Nibs?”

Nicholson handed her the bag.

“May have a word with you, your Ladyship?”

“Of course. Malvedas, will you see to the tents? Back a ways from the cliff, if you don’t mind.”

Malvedas nodded, his eyes still gleaming wolfishly as he carried the packs a little ways down the trail.

“Are you quite certain of your plan, Lady Emma?” Nicholson asked once they were alone.

“I hardly would have gone through the discomfort of the past few days if I hadn’t been sure enough,” she answered, slinging the bag over her shoulders. “Do you have something to say, Nibs? If so, please do so. I’m in rather a hurry to get started.”

Nicholson hesitated, his jowls growing perhaps a trifle more pronounced as he frowned at her.

“Only this,” he said. “Do please, please be careful, your ladyship.”

“I am always careful.”

“With respect, you certainly are not,” he answered. “You are, if you will permit me, far too reckless. I have said it before and I shall repeat myself now: there was no reason whatever for you to undertake this expedition on your own.”

“If you mean I should have invited Lord Peter to come and hog all the credit….”

“I mean that you take far too many unnecessary risks, and late though it is, I must beg you to promise me that you will not take any such during this endeavor of yours.”

Emma gave a slight, musical laugh.

“How can I promise such a thing, Nibs? I don’t even know fully what the risks will be!”

“And how shall I ever face your father when my time comes if any harm comes to you?”

Emma’s smile vanished and she blinked in some surprise. Just for a moment a breath of guilt swept through her heart. Nicholson had promised her father on his deathbed that he would keep her safe. Now she was about to go and risk her life where he couldn’t be there to make good on that promise.

The feeling passed almost as quick as it came, leaving nothing but a slight chill. Her smile returned, warmer than before, and she hugged him.

“Nibs, dear, you’re doing all you need to. And for your sake I will promise to at least not run any unnecessary risks. But really, if you didn’t let me enjoy a little danger now and then I should die of boredom. I really should. Now don’t you worry any more of those lovely white hairs away: you’ve not got many left to spare.”

He did not look mollified, but his face softened a little.

“Just be sure you come back safe,” he ordered.

“Naturally,” she said. And with that she set off along the edge of the cliff, following the curve of the mountain.

Professor Rondon, following God alone knew what ancient sources, had pieced together a detailed supposition of the temple’s position and layout. In the Javias mythology, the night god was the master of magic, divination, and other mysterious arts which only the initiate were permitted to know. Therefore, his temple, where the mystery rites were performed, was hidden where none could find it and only the bravest could approach.

The summit of the mountain was only a few hundred feet above the pass where they were making their camp, and Emma was able to circumvent it fairly easily, keeping as far from the sheer drop as she could. On the far side there were several stout young trees growing near the cliff’s edge. Emma took hold of one of these and against leaned out over the cliff to peer down into the gloom.

Just as she had hoped. About forty feet down from where she stood there was a very narrow ledge, no more than two or three feet wide if that. Harsh grasses and small plants eked out a grim existence in its soil. It ran along the line of the cliff to where the side of the mountain curved around in a kind of oxbow, forming a narrow bay between its steep grey walls. There, barely to be seen beneath an overhang of the cliff, was a cave.

That cave was her destination, and the only way to reach it was the ledge. For here the mountains became so steep as to be impassible, and no one but a mountain goat could have found his way up and around to a spot directly above the secret cave.

Emma took the rope from her shoulder and made it fast about the tree, tested it, and swung out over the thousand-foot drop. She climbed down, hand-over-hand, her feet braced against the cliff-face. She was an excellent climber and soon set her feet upon the narrow, downward-sloping ledge.

Even as she stood with one hand on the rope, trying once more to squint down into the gloom to catch a glimpse of the ravine floor that it was said no living man had ever set foot upon, she was uncomfortably conscious of the tug of gravity pulling her feet towards the edge and seemingly endless empty space below. With its covering of mist and unseen bottom, Emma had the suddenly idea that if she fell, she would be falling upwards, into the endless depth of the sky.

The thought thrilled more than terrified her. Emma was not and never could be afraid of heights. From above, everything took on a new aspect and a new loveliness, lending beauty even to things that looked quite commonplace and squalid from the ground. Nothing that did that could ever frighten her.

And besides, as she had told Nicholson more than once, she rather liked danger. All things, life included, had their own proper beauty, and to her mind a dash of peril now and then added just the right texture to life.

She released the rope and keeping one hand on the cliff wall began to walk along the slopping narrow ledge, putting one nimble booted foot ahead of the other. The wind was high here, compressed by the canyon walls and it whipped her skirt about her legs and at times felt as thought it threatened to tear her from the wall. Here and there the ledge narrowed so much that she was obliged to creep along sideways, her back pressed to the wall, her feet half hanging over empty space.

Then came her first real check. About halfway along the cliff she came to a gap of perhaps four or five feet where there was no ledge at all.

Emma paused a moment, considering. The ledge both here and on the other side of the gap was about as wide as it ever was, though it looked to be steeper on the far side. To her left was a solid, sheer wall of rock. To her right was empty air and racing wind.

What was behind her didn’t matter, since she didn’t consider going back for even a moment.

Emma squared her shoulders, lifted her skirt, took three quick steps forward, and jumped. She soared deer-like over the empty shadow and landed lightly and nimbly on the other side. She stumbled for one breathless moment as her feet slid on the inclined surface, then she caught herself on the extreme edge of the precipice, sending several small stones tumbling into the mists below.

She let out a long slow breath, looked back, and gave a satisfied nod. The ballet training she had received as a girl served her well yet again.

The cave drew nearer without appearing to grow much larger. Emma found she had to duck to enter it. As soon as she did so she was conscious of a foul, musty odor. Switching on her electric torch, she played it around the walls of the cavern and soon found the source. At first glance, it looked like a moss-covered rock. But there was something off about the shape. She edged closer and nudged it with her boot.

It was a bag. A very old bag, almost completely rotted in the jungle humidity. Nevertheless, Emma felt obligated to open it, though she shuddered at the touch.

It came apart almost at once and a large number of insects spilled out, agitated by the sudden disruption of their damp home. Emma grave a cry of disgust and stepped back, brushing a few off that had gotten onto her clothing. The bag, it seemed, had once been full of tools and rations, but everything was mildewed, rusted, and molded to the point of being utterly useless.

This, she thought, must be Professor Rondon’s bag. So he had gotten that far at least. But that meant it had been lying there for about ninety years.

And what had happened to its owner?

That Emma felt queasily certain she would soon find out.

At the back of the cavern was a pit, more like a well than anything else. Emma leaned over it, squinting into the deep darkness. She got out a small flare and dropped it. It fell about twenty feet, disturbing a number of bats that came fluttering up and once again caused her to back away in disgust as they flittered about, seeking to escape the light.

Once the bats had departed, Emma secured a rope to a stalagmite that stood not far from the well’s edge and climbed down into the Temple of the Night, the flare casting its red light up at her.

At the bottom, her feet landed not on bare stone, but on a carved floor, unweathered by the many centuries that had come and gone. Emma drew out her torch and looked around her.

Demon eyes glared out from every direction. The light of the flare and torch sent a riot of jagged shadows upon the carved walls, while the jeweled eyes of figures long lost to knowledge gleamed as if alive.

“Gentlemen,” she said in a voice with only a sleight tremor in it. “You will please excuse me: I’m only passing through.”

Emma dusted a few cobwebs off of her shirt (trying not to think of the state that her hair and clothing would be in after this, nor about the possibility of a spider or two having hitched a ride) then examined the chamber she had dropped into. It was fairly small, perhaps ten feet square. The stone was primarily black, or perhaps a dark blue in color, edged here and there in white. A similar coloring prevailed upon the floor.

On three sides the walls were covered in carved geometric imagery, similar in style to that used by the Incas, though in a heavier, more angular style. Between these figures were lines of strange, eerie designs: not exactly writing, but not quite pictures either. They were spiky, almost spidery marks that made the hair on Emma’s neck prickle. She almost thought she could detect human figures among the designs, though what they were meant to be doing she couldn’t begin to conjecture. They were mixed with other, stranger characters that she thought must represent writing, being too odd and too spindly to depict anything that could exist in real life. She resolved, if there was time, to come back after she found the idol and copy some of these images for further study.

The remaining side of the room consisted of an incline leading up to a doorway flanked by stone figures. Both figures were holding their hands up as though in warning.

Emma made straight for the doorway, her sharp eyes alive for any sign of a trap. The legend said that it was death for any but the priests to enter the Temple of the Night, and she had long since learned to pay special heed to such legends.

The doorway seemed to have been carved through about two feet of living rock. On the other side was a rectangular chamber some twelve yards long. Here too the walls were carved in flat, intricate designs, with the same dark colored stone, and here too jeweled eyes gleamed in the torchlight at the invader. The floor was checkered in an intricate pattern of green, blue, and white tile in alternating patterns, so that one row would show red, blue, then white, and the one next to it white, red, and blue. This made a rather kaleidoscopic impression in the narrow light of the torch.

As she entered the chamber, Emma’s foot landed on something hard and round. She stepped back at once, looked down, and clutched her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream of horror. What she had stepped on was the skeletal remains of a human hand!

A skeleton, dry and covered in dust lay before her, its hands outstretched as though reaching for the door. Its skull was crushed and most of its bones broken, its dried up clothes half rotted away. The dead man seemed to have been cut down in the very act of fleeing the room.

Professor Rondon, I presume, she thought. My God, what happened to you?

Slowly, she played her light around the chamber, but saw nothing that looked as if it could have killed him. All was silent and empty, unless you counted the glittering eyes of the carved figures on the walls.

Emma felt a stream of ice run up and down her spine. For a fleeting moment, she wondered whether those stone images had come to life and struck down the man who had dared to trespass in their domain, guarding the secrets of the dark priests even centuries after their disappearance.

She chided herself for thinking such nonsense, but drew her revolver nonetheless. There was some kind of trap here, some protection against thieves. She could feel it. As she crossed the room, Emma kept her keen eyes wide and alert to any sign of danger.

She was not quite careful enough.

She was about halfway across the chamber when she felt a tile sink slightly under her foot. There was a heavy click, and a moment later a low rumbling sound, like a huge mill wheel grinding flower. Emma looked behind her and cried aloud as she beheld a stone door lowering over the entrance from whence she had just come. She turned and darted back, seeking to escape before she sealed in, but she was far too late. The door settled into place even as she reached it and beat the butt of her gun futilely upon it. There was neither handle nor keyhole; it was nothing but a solid block of cold gray stone. Turning around, Emma saw that the exit had similarly been sealed. She was trapped!

Her heart hammered and her breathing came fast. Buried alive, left to suffocate in an airless tomb! That had been the fate of Professor Rondon…or had it?

For she suddenly became aware that the low rumbling that had accompanied the closing of the doors had not ceased. As she puzzled over what it might mean, she felt something drop onto her head. Reaching up, she found it was a little bit of stone or gravel. Then she turned her torch upward.

The ceiling – the vast, solid, stone ceiling, as black as the night sky – was descending slowly, but inexorably over her head. It had been about twelve feet heigh when she’d entered. Now it was closer to ten.

“Oh, my God…”

A flash of panic blazed through Emma’s mind, but only a flash. She caught herself before it could take hold of her. Now, if ever, she needed every ounce of wit she possessed.

Furiously, she tried to think. She examined the edge of the door, but there was not the slightest possibility of her lifting it or breaking through it. Rondon had tried that. He had died clawing at it.

Emma glanced at the crushed remains of her predecessor. Soon, she thought, that would be her fate: smashed to jelly under that massive weight with nothing but the pitiless eyes of those stone devils for company. Left to rot where no one would ever find whatever remained of her body.

And what will this do to poor Nibs….

Suddenly, she caught hold of something in her mind. Rondon had sprung the trap and died beneath it. Yet she had been able to enter the chamber. That meant the trap had somehow reset in the meantime.

Had someone, some hidden guardian of the temple come and restored the chamber? No. Even if that were at all probable, they would have removed the body. That meant – it could only mean – that there was some mechanism for automatically resetting the chamber.

Emma struggled to think while the destroying stone mass continued to descend from overhead. The skeleton was crushed, but not crushed all the way. The narrower bones – the arms and legs – were intact. That meant the trigger, whatever it was, had to be such as to be sprung when the ceiling was perhaps an inch or so off the ground. It have to be some kind of lever or spring that would be pressed when the trap reached a certain point. If she could find it….

Emma began searching along the wall, shining her light upon the floor, looking for anything that seemed to rise above the level of the stone tiles. The thought occurred to her that the trigger may well be somewhere in the upper reaches of the destroying machine, built with God-only-knew-what ancient engineering techniques. She pushed the idea aside and focused all of her considerable powers of concentration upon the search.

Meanwhile the descending stone was now low enough that she could have reached up and touched it.

With a cry of relief, Emma found what she sought: a stone foot belonging to one of the square demons that stuck out perhaps six inches from the wall and three high. A closer examination revealed that it did not rest upon the floor, but sank into it.

Emma dropped to her knees and pressed her full weight upon it. But it didn’t so much as wobble.

For a second, she doubted: might this not be the trigger? Then she came to her senses. Of course, the designers of the trap would have considered the possibility of their victims doing exactly what she was attempting to do. The trigger was built to be moved by the immeasurable weight of the descending stone. But by the time the stone reached it, Emma would certainly be dead.

Unless she could trigger it early. Even just a little early.

She rose to her feet, ducking as her head brushed the descending stone. Throwing off her bag to make herself as thin as possible, she darted back across the chamber to where the skeleton lay. With no time for niceties, she grabbed a handful of his dried up arm and leg bones and scrambled back to the lever. She was now bent almost double: less than five feet to go…

Breathing quickly to try to steady her hands, Emma wrapped the strap of her bag around the bones and braced them upon the lever – if lever it was.

Then there was nothing to do but wait as the descending death closed the final few feet to the topmost bones. From having seemed terrifyingly quick while she was racing about trying to find a means of salvation, it now appeared to her agonizingly slow as waited for it to render a final verdict upon her plan.

The bones were, of course, all different lengths. The longest two, the leg bones, were reached first.

Crack!

They splintered and fell from the mass. Emma lay flat on her front, holding the grisly bundle with all her might. In desperation, she drew her hunting knife with its thick, steel blade and ivory handle and jammed it in alongside the bundle to lend it every bit of strength she could give it.

Crack! Crack! More bones broke away before the destroying roof. There was barely more than a foot of clearance. Emma pressed herself against the floor and whispered a prayer. She felt the cold, heavy stone settle onto her back….

But even as she did, the lever shifted at last. A moment later and there was another heavy click. The ceiling ground to a halt, pressing Emma to the floor. She gritted her teeth, eyes shut tight, unable to move even if she had wanted to, scarcely able to breathe.

Then the rumbling resumed, and her heart skipped a beat. But now the ceiling was ascending, rising as slowly as it had sunk. The terrible weight lifted from her back, and Emma let out a long, slow breath. Only then did she realize that she had been holding it.

She rose to her knees, trembling and trying to catch her breath. That had been much too close, even for her taste!

Once again at liberty to be conscious of what she was holding, she laid the remaining bundle of bones upon the floor with a slight shudder and wiped her hands gingerly against her skirt.

“My apologies, professor,” she said with a deprecatory gesture towards the crushed remains at the front of the chamber. “Under any other circumstances, I would not have dreamt of taking such liberties. I’m sure you understand.”

Then she sheathed her knife (now considerably blunted), holstered her gun, and gathering her pack and torch made her way to the far side of the room. She carefully felt each step as she went to avoid triggering any further traps.

Passing through the far door, Emma found herself in what could only be the holy of holies, the central chamber of the temple. The roof was high overhead, and there was a long, narrow shaft through which a faint ray of sunlight, brought from who knew how far through the side of the mountain cast a dim, twilit glow upon the room.

And there, on a pedestal in the middle of the chamber, was the idol of Yectclo.

It was completely different from any Mezoamerican idol that she had ever seen. In place of the heavy, squared-off shape that so many of those had, this one was more slender, more curved, the form more naturalistic. It was overall in the shape of a human being, though the head was shaped like a crescent moon, curving back over its shoulders like a cresting wave. The features were carved with remarkable skill, the god seeming to gaze upwards in contemplation of the heavens, its slender, almost-stick-lick arms crossed across its chest, its palms held up and outward to either side. From either shoulder the figure bore great, curved wings, like those of a moth, and its legs, which were drawn up to its elbows as though it were squatting, were very long and very thin.

The whole figure was perhaps nine inches high. Even in the dim half-light, it shone silver and bright, as though it were illumined from within, save on the inside of the wings, which appeared to be lined with obsidian and had the same spindly semi-pictorial writing she had seen in the entry chamber carved upon them and inlaid with silver.

Emma approached the figure, awed by its beauty and craftsmanship. Though even this work of art couldn’t quite eclipse the fright she had just had, and she went cautiously nonetheless. But no traps sprung in this chamber, even as she walked straight up to the pedestal and gazed at the statue.

Seen up close, the strangeness and uniqueness of the image increased. She had thought at first that it was made of silver, or more likely of stone or wood lined in silver. But she didn’t think so anymore. The material was not quite the color of silver: its white had more of a pinkish tone to it, and it seemed far too lustrous in the half-light.

Whatever else it was, it was an exquisite work of art.

Carefully, she took hold of it and lifted it gingerly from the pedestal. It was much lighter than she had expected. With a leap of her heart, she stowed it safely in her bag. She had done it!

But even as she slung the bag back over her shoulder, Emma realized that something was wrong.

There was a heavy thud, as though of a great stone gear sliding into place. Then, at the far end of the chamber, the wall buckled suddenly. The stone cracked, and from every fissure rivulets of dirty brown water clawed forth, advanced tendrils of the monster to come.

Emma understood what was happening in an instant and she wasted no more time. Turning like a deer that has scented a predator, she raced from the chamber and back into the trap room. She was halfway across before another terrible roar behind her warned that the wall was giving way.

But she didn’t dare look back, for in the wildly waving light of her torch she saw the stone door was descending once again. In her haste, she must had triggered the trap once more without realizing it. But this time was different. This time she had a head start. She could make it….

A rush of water poured in, half stemmed by the descending door on the far end, but enough to nearly trip her up. She caught herself, saved once again by her excellent balance, and put on a burst of speed. The door was descending rapidly. It was halfway closed, but she was almost there. She dove forward, sliding on her front upon the wet floor beneath the descending stone and into the entrance chamber. She just had time to whip her legs out of the way before the stone settled into place, sealing the chamber once more.

Emma scrambled to her feet, breathing hard. Another much too close call, and now she was soaking wet with badly scrapped arms and, what was more, in absolute darkness, her torch having fallen from her grasp as she dove for safety. But at least the trap chamber would hold the destroying water back for a time. With luck.

She felt her way across the lightless chamber to where the rope still hung and began to climb. A short distance up, then back along the cliff, and it would all be over. Over and successfully done!

Emma pulled herself over the edge of the pit with deep sigh of relief, thankful especially for the faint light coming in through the entrance. She rose to her feet, trying in vain to knock some of the dirt off of her clothes.

As she lifted her head, she was suddenly dazzled in the light from a torch. Squinting and holding her hand up to try to shield her eyes, she realized that she was looking down the barrel of a pistol.

“Hola, Senorita.”

“Malveda!” Emma exclaimed. “What on earth do you….”

“Did you get it?” he demanded.

“What do you mean?”

As her eyes adjusted, Emma saw that the man’s face was flushed and his eyes were gleaming with that wolfish light. He was breathing hard, and the hand holding the gun shook slightly.

“The idol,” he said. “Do not play games with me! Do you have the idol?”

Rapidly, Emma’s mind began to work. She would certainly never be able to draw her own gun in time. Once Malveda had the idol, he might well shoot her anyway. In fact, that would be the only sensible thing for him to do. And she doubted he would believe her if she flat out denied it.

The best play was to stall for as long as possible.

“See for yourself,” she answered. Slowly, so as to give him no reason to fire, she unslung her bag and set it on the floor.

Malveda hesitated, looking from her to the bag as though making up his mind whether it was a trick. Then, before he could decide how to proceed, Emma made her desperate play. In the split second his eyes were off of her, she grabbed at the gun, trying to twist his away from her. There was an ear-shattering bang as the weapon went off. Malveda was far the stronger, but Emma was stronger than he had expected her to be, and that was enough to break the gun from his grasp. It bounced upon the stone floor and clattered away into the pit.

With a snarl of angry Spanish, Malveda drove his body against Emma’s shoving her backwards. She felt the ground disappear beneath her and clutched out for the rope, catching herself about halfway down, crying aloud as the rope burned her hands.

Emma had barely had time to steady herself when she saw the guide looming over the edge, his face appearing almost monstrous in the harsh electric light, his machete in his hand. She had only just enough time to realize what was about to happen before the blade fell and the rope went slack in her hands.

She fell straight down, curling her legs under her to absorb the impact. She landed, rolled, and tucked her head. The experience of landing was no joy, but nothing broke. Trying to catch her breath, she looked up to see Malveda blow her a kiss.

“Adios, senorita!”

Emma cursed him in the strongest language she knew, but he was already gone with the idol, leaving her in total darkness.

After all her work, that precious idol would be sold for mere money like any common trinket. More pressingly, any second now the door would open and a wave of rushing water would sweep through the door and slam her against the rocks. It was certainly possible that she would survive uninjured, perhaps even be able to ride the rising tide up the shaft. But she didn’t intend to risk it, or to spend the time. Not while she still had one more card of her own to play.

Quickly, Emma unbuckled her skirt and slipped out of it. True, her primary reason for insisting upon wearing it even in the jungle had been aesthetic (trousers were simply too drab for words), but it was not wholly impractical, despite what some thought. The skirts she wore on such occasions were all custom made and of her own special design. They were, in fact, not single sheathes of fabric, but rather constructed of row after row of a light, strong material held together by strips of velcro. With a quick tug, the coils of fabric came loose one after another, and with a twist the belt buckle was turned around to form a hook. What she now had, in place of her lovely white skirt, was a long, strong line of cloth with a grapple at one end.

She swung the buckled end around, and with a practiced hand hurled it up to where she knew the stalagmite lay. Her aim, even in the pitch dark, was true. The hook caught. She pulled it tight…

And just then, she heard the grinding of the stone door as it opened, unleashing the many tons of pent-up water upon her.

Emma just had time to get above the level of the initial onrush. The water surged about her, tearing at her boots and causing the rope to swing wildly. The spray drenched her still further, but she was able to keep climbing, hand over hand, as quickly as any acrobat in the circus, heedless of the pain in her hands. The water rose beneath her, but she rose faster.

A moment later she was in the cavern. Her own revolver was in her hand and she rushed to the mouth of the cave.

Malveda had not gotten far. He was still edging his way along the inside of the cliff, the bag slung over his shoulder. He had not yet reached the gap.

“Malveda!” she shouted as she started onto the ledge after him. Her right hand gripped the wall. Her left held her revolver.

He looked back, and his face showed blank shock as he saw her. She shook the damp black hair out of her face and walked toward him, her feet firm on the narrow surface.

“Put down that bag,” she commanded. “I’m willing to forgive a momentary lapse in judgment, but I will not trust you with that artifact.”

“How did you…”

“That is not your concern at present. Put the idol down on the path. Carefully.”

He stared at her. He had lost his own gun, and to rush her with his machete on this narrow pathway would be tantamount to suicide. Even so, he seemed to be calculating his odds.

“You will not shoot me,” he said. “You will not risk its loss.”

“Much as I would hate that, I will risk it if you force me, and be all the gladder to be rid of you,” she answered. “Or do you care to bet your life that I wouldn’t? Put it down.”

As she had done mere minutes before, Malveda seemed to have made his judgment. He crouched over the narrow ledge, unslung Emma’s bag from his shoulders, and placed it upon the path, leaning it safely against the cliff wall.

“Very good,” she said. “Now back away from the idol.”

Malveda took a few steps back, holding tight to the cliff and still watching her.

Lady Emma advanced, one sure, slim foot in front of the other, gripping the cliff with her right hand and covering Malveda with the revolver in her left. The warm jungle wind drove against her, catching at her hair, but she didn’t take her eyes off of him for a moment.

She reached the idol. Slowly, she crouched over it. Now came the difficult part. With great care, she took her right hand off the cliff wall and reached for the bag. Her eyes dropped to look at it.

Malveda struck with the speed of a springing wolf. He seemed to swarm up the path and kicked at the gun. Emma cried out in pain as his foot connected with her hand and the weapon flew free. Instinctively, she snatched the bag up in her right hand and darted back up the path, leaping away from him as advanced, trusting to her nimble feet and superb balance to avoid plunging into nothingness.

The man lunged after her, but as he went his foot landed on a loose stone. He stumbled, tried to grab at the wall, missed, and with a terrible scream he was gone.

***

“Dear Emma!” Nicholson cried as she arrived back at camp, pale, bruised, and bleeding. “What happened? I heard screaming. Where is Malveda? He said he was going to watch for your return.…”

Emma allowed him to pull her into a warm, fatherly hug before attempting to explain.

“He didn’t just wait. He came down after me and…and he fell, I’m afraid.”

Nicholson looked at her sharply and his keen eyes swept over her.

“You are injured.”

“Not badly.”

“Where’s your skirt? And your gun?”

“I…had to use them,” she said with a grimace.

“Did he…hurt you?”

“He tried quite hard to,” she admitted. “But don’t you worry about that: I’m all right and he’s gone to his reward, poor soul.”

Nicholson shook his head.

“I never liked the blighter,” he grunted. “Never trusted him either. Well, too late for that now.”

He seated her firmly upon a stone he had set beside the campfire, draped her in a blanket, and set about bandaging and tending to her many scrapes and cuts.

“Did you…get it after all?” he asked.

Emma smiled, set the plate aside, and lifted the idol out of her bag in triumph.

“Yectclo, god of the night, at your service,” she said. She set it upon the ground, the two of them gazed at it from all sides. The sun had gone behind the clouds, but even so it seem to blaze with cold, silvery fire, its strangely-shaped head fixated upon the sky.

“By George, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Nicholson.

“Nor I,” she replied. “Nor, I wager, have any mortal eyes for over five hundred years, and very few before that.”

She gently caressed the figure, drinking in the strange, almost eerie effects of color and shape. The more she looked at it, the more unique and precious it seemed to become.

Emma got out some old cloth and wrapped the idol carefully in it. There would be plenty of time to formally examine the piece when they got back to civilization. She had had more than enough excitement for the time being. Now she was looking forward to warm beds, hot baths, and most of all, clean, beautiful clothes.

“My goodness, Nibs,” she said, eying her many bandaged wounds, her soaked, blood-stained shirt, and the bare, scrapped legs beneath her shorts. “Am I glad that you are the only one who can see me! I must look an absolute nightmare. Be a dear and fetch my vanity kit.”

R.E. Howard: Skulls in the Stars

For this Saturday’s entertainment, here’s one of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories: Skulls in the Stars

Credit: Guillem H. Pongiluppi, Art Station

He told how murders walk the earth
Beneath the curse of Cain,
With crimson clouds before their eyes
And flames about their brain:
For blood has left upon their souls
Its everlasting stain.
—Hood

I

There are two roads to Torkertown. One, the shorter and more direct route, leads across a barren upland moor, and the other, which is much longer, winds its tortuous way in and out among the hummocks and quagmires of the swamps, skirting the low hills to the east. It was a dangerous and tedious trail; so Solomon Kane halted in amazement when a breathless youth from the village he had just left overtook him and implored him for God’s sake to take the swamp road.

“The swamp road!” Kane stared at the boy. He was a tall, gaunt man, Solomon Kane, his darkly pallid face and deep brooding eyes made more sombre by the drab Puritanical garb he affected.

“Yes, sir, ’tis far safer,” the youngster answered to his surprised exclamation.

“Then the moor road must be haunted by Satan himself, for your townsmen warned me against traversing the other.”

“Because of the quagmires, sir, that you might not see in the dark. You had better return to the village and continue your journey in the morning, sir.”

“Taking the swamp road?”

“Yes, sir.”

Kane shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

“The moon rises almost as soon as twilight dies. By its light I can reach Torkertown in a few hours, across the moor.”

“Sir, you had better not. No one ever goes that way. There are no houses at all upon the moor, while in the swamp there is the house of old Ezra who lives there all alone since his maniac cousin, Gideon, wandered off and died in the swamp and was never found—and old Ezra though a miser would not refuse you lodging should you decide to stop until morning. Since you must go, you had better go the swamp road.”

Kane eyed the boy piercingly. The lad squirmed and shuffled his feet.

“Since this moor road is so dour to wayfarers,” said the Puritan, “why did not the villagers tell me the whole tale, instead of vague mouthings?”

“Men like not to talk of it, sir. We hoped that you would take the swamp road after the men advised you to, but when we watched and saw that you turned not at the forks, they sent me to run after you and beg you to reconsider.”

“Name of the Devil!” exclaimed Kane sharply, the unaccustomed oath showing his irritation; “the swamp road and the moor road—what is it that threatens me and why should I go miles out of my way and risk the bogs and mires?”

Sir,” said the boy, dropping his voice and drawing closer, “we be simple villagers who like not to talk of such things lest foul fortune befall us, but the moor road is a way accurst and hath not been traversed by any of the countryside for a year or more. It is death to walk those moors by night, as hath been found by some score of unfortunates. Some foul horror haunts the way and claims men for his victims.”

“So? And what is this thing like?”

“No man knows. None has ever seen, it and lived, but late-farers have heard terrible laughter far out on the fen and men have heard the horrid shrieks of its victims. Sir, in God’s name return to the village, there pass the night, and tomorrow take the swamp trail to Torkertown.”

Far back in Kane’s gloomy eyes a scintillant light had begun to glimmer, like a witch’s torch glinting under fathoms of cold grey ice. His blood quickened. Adventure! The lure of life-risk and drama! Not that Kane recognized his sensations as such. He sincerely considered that he voiced his real feelings when he said:

“These things be deeds of some power of evil. The lords of darkness have laid a curse upon the country. A strong man is needed to combat Satan and his might. Therefore I go, who have defied him many a time.”

“Sir,” the boy began, then closed his mouth as he saw the futility of argument. He only added, “The corpses of the victims are bruised and torn, sir.”

He stood there at the crossroads, sighing regretfully as he watched the tall, rangy figure swinging up the road that led toward the moors.

The sun was setting as Kane came over the brow of the low hill which debouched into the upland fen. Huge and blood-red it sank down behind the sullen horizon of the moors, seeming to touch the rank grass with fire; so for a moment the watcher seemed to be gazing out across a sea of blood. Then the dark shadows came gliding from the east, the western blaze faded, and Solomon Kane struck out, boldly in the gathering darkness.

The road was dim from disuse but was clearly defined. Kane went swiftly but warily, sword and pistols at hand. Stars blinked out and night winds whispered among the grass like weeping spectres. The moon began to rise, lean and haggard, like a skull among the stars.

Then suddenly Kane stopped short. From somewhere in front of him sounded a strange and eery echo—or something like an echo. Again, this time louder. Kane started forward again. Were his senses deceiving him? No!

Far out, there pealed a whisper of frightful laughter. And again, closer this time. No human being ever laughed like that—there was no mirth in it, only hatred and horror and soul-destroying terror. Kane halted. He was not afraid, but for the second he was almost unnerved. Then, stabbing through that awesome laughter, came the sound of a scream that was undoubtedly human. Kane started forward, increasing his gait. He cursed the illusive lights and flickering shadows which veiled the moor in the rising moon and made accurate sight impossible. The laughter continued, growing louder, as did the screams. Then sounded faintly the drum of frantic human feet. Kane broke into a run. Some human was being hunted to death out there on the fen, and by what manner of horror God only knew. The sound of the flying feet halted abruptly and the screaming rose unbearably, mingled with other sounds unnameable and hideous. Evidently the man had been overtaken, and Kane, his flesh crawling, visualized some ghastly fiend of the darkness crouching on the back of its victim crouching and tearing. Then the noise of a terrible and short struggle came clearly through the abysmal silence of the night and the footfalls began again, but stumbling and uneven. The screaming continued, but with a gasping gurgle. The sweat stood cold on Kane’s forehead and body. This was heaping horror on horror in an intolerable manner. God, for a moment’s clear light! The frightful drama was being enacted within a very short distance of him, to judge by the ease with which the sounds reached him. But this hellish half-light veiled all in shifting shadows, so that the moors appeared a haze of blurred illusions, and stunted trees, and bushes seemed like giants.

Kane shouted, striving to increase the speed of his advance. The shrieks of the unknown broke into a hideous shrill squealing; again there was the sound of a struggle, and then from the shadows of the tall grass a thing came reeling — a thing that had once been a man—a gore-covered, frightful thing that fell at Kane’s feet and writhed and grovelled and raised its terrible face to the rising moon, and gibbered and yammered, and fell down again and died in its own blood.

The moon was up now and the light was better. Kane bent above the body, which lay stark in its unnameable mutilation, and he shuddered; a rare thing for him, who had seen the deeds of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch-finders.

Some wayfarer, he supposed. Then like a hand of ice on his spine he was aware that he was not alone. He looked up, his cold eyes piercing the shadows whence the dead man had staggered. He saw nothing, but he knew — he felt—that other eyes gave back his stare, terrible eyes not of this earth. He straightened and drew a pistol, waiting. The moonlight spread like a lake of pale blood over the moor, and trees and grasses took on their proper sizes. The shadows melted, and Kane saw! At first he thought it only a shadow of mist, a wisp of moor fog that swayed in the tall grass before him. He gazed. More illusion, he thought. Then the thing began to take on shape, vague and indistinct. Two hideous eyes flamed at him—eyes which held all the stark horror which has been the heritage of man since the fearful dawn ages—eyes frightful and insane, with an insanity transcending earthly insanity. The form of the thing was misty and vague, a brain-shattering travesty on the human form, like, yet horribly unlike. The grass and bushes beyond showed clearly through it.

Kane felt the blood pound in his temples, yet he was as cold as ice. How such an unstable being as that which wavered before him could harm a man in a physical way was more than he could understand, yet the red horror at his feet gave mute testimony that the fiend could act with terrible material effect.

Of one thing Kane was sure; there would be no hunting of him across the dreary moors, no screaming and fleeing to be dragged down again and again. If he must die he would die in his tracks, his wounds in front.

Now a vague and grisly mouth gaped wide and the demoniac laughter again shrieked but, soul-shaking in its nearness. And in the midst of feat threat of doom, Kane deliberately levelled his long pistol and fired. A maniacal yell of rage and mockery answered the report, and the thing came at him like a flying sheet of smoke, long shadowy arms stretched to drag him down.

Kane, moving with the dynamic speed of a famished wolf, fired the second pistol with as little effect, snatched his long rapier from its sheath and thrust into the centre of the misty attacker. The blade sang as it passed clear through, encountering no solid resistance, and Kane felt icy fingers grip his limbs, bestial talons tear his garments and the skin beneath,

He dropped the useless sword and sought to grapple with his foe. It was like fighting a floating mist, a flying shadow armed with dagger-like claws. His savage blows met empty air, his leanly mighty arms, in whose grasp strong men had died, swept nothingness and clutched emptiness. Naught was solid or real save the flaying, apelike fingers with their crooked talons, and the crazy eyes which burned into the shuddering depths of his soul.

Kane realized that he was in a desperate plight indeed. Already his garments hung in tatters and he bled from a score of deep wounds. But he never flinched, and the thought of flight never entered his mind. He had never fled from a single foe, and had the thought occurred to him he would have flushed with shame.

He saw no help for it now, but that his form should lie there beside the fragments of the other ‘ victim, but the thought held no terrors for him. His only wish was to give as good an account of himself as possible before the end came, and if he could, to inflict some damage on his unearthly foe. There above the dead man’s torn body, man fought with demon under the pale light of the rising moon, with all the advantages with the demon, save one. And that one was enough to overcome the others. For if abstract hate may bring into material substance a ghostly thing, may not courage, equally abstract, form a concrete weapon to combat that ghost? Kane fought with his arms and his feet and his hands, and he was aware at last that the ghost began to give back before him, and the fearful slaughter changed to screams of baffled fury. For man’s only weapon is courage that flinches not from the gates of Hell itself, and against such not even the legions of Hell can stand. Of this Kane knew nothing; he only knew that the talons which tore and rended him seemed to grow weaker and wavering, that a wild light grew and grew in the horrible eyes. And reeling and gasping, he rushed in, grappled the thing at last and threw it, and as they tumbled about on the moor and it writhed and lapped his limbs like a serpent of smoke, his flesh crawled and his hair stood on end, for he began to understand its gibbering. He did not hear and comprehend as a man hears and comprehends the speech of a man, but the frightful secrets it imparted in whisperings and yammerings and screaming silences sank fingers of ice into his soul, and he knew.

II

The hut of old Ezra the miser stood by the road in the midst of the swamp, half screened by the sullen trees which grew about it. The wall were rotting, the roof crumbling, and great pallid and green fungus-monsters clung to it and writhed about the doors and windows, as if seeking to peer within. The trees leaned above it and their grey branches intertwined so that it crouched in semi-darkness like a monstrous dwarf over whose shoulder ogres leer.

The road, which wound down into the swamp among rotting stumps and rank hummocks and scummy, snake-haunted pools and bogs, crawled past the hut. Many people passed that way these days, but few saw old Ezra, save a glimpse of a yellow face, peering through the fungus-screened windows, itself like an ugly fungus.

Old Ezra the miser partook much of the quality of the swamp, for he was gnarled and bent and sullen; his fingers were like clutching parasitic plants and his locks hung like drab moss above eyes trained to the murk of the swamplands. His eyes were like a dead man’s, yet hinted of depths abysmal and loathsome as the dead lakes of the swamplands.

These eyes gleamed now at the man who stood in front of his hut. This man was tall and gaunt and dark, his face was haggard and claw-marked, and he was bandaged of arm and leg. Somewhat behind this man stood a number of villagers.

“You are Ezra of the swamp road?”

“Aye, and what want ye of me?”

“Where is your cousin Gideon, the maniac youth who abode with you?”

“Gideon?”

“Aye.”

“He wandered away into the swamp and never came back. No doubt he lost his way and was set upon by wolves or died in a quagmire or was struck by an adder.”

“How long ago?”

“Over a year.”

“Aye. Hark ye, Ezra the miser. Soon after your cousin’s disappearance, a countryman, coming home across the moors, was set upon by some unknown fiend and torn to pieces, and thereafter it became death to cross those moors. First men of the countryside, then strangers who wandered over the fen, fell to the clutches of the thing. Many men have died, since the first one.

“Last night I crossed the moors, and heard the flight and pursuing of another victim, a stranger who knew not the evil of the moors. Ezra the miser, it was a fearful thing, for the wretch twice broke from the fiend, terribly wounded, and each time the demon caught and dragged him down again. And at last he fell dead at my very feet, done to death in a manner that would freeze the statue of a saint.”

The villagers moved restlessly and murmured fearfully to each other, and old Ezra’s eyes shifted furtively. Yet the sombre expression of Solomon Kane never altered, and his condor-like stare seemed to transfix the miser.

“Aye, aye!” muttered old Ezra hurriedly; “a bad thing, a bad thing! Yet why do you tell this thing to me?”

“Aye, a sad thing. Harken further, Ezra. The fiend came out of the shadows and I fought with it over the body of its victim. Aye, how I overcame it, I know not, for the battle was hard and long but the powers of good and light were on my side, which are mightier than the powers of Hell.

“At the last I was stronger, and it broke from me and fled, and I followed to no avail. Yet before it fled it whispered to me a monstrous truth.”

Old Ezra started, stared wildly, seemed to shrink into himself.

“Nay, why tell me this?” he muttered.

“I returned to the village and told my tale, said Kane, “for I knew that now I had the power to rid the moors of its curse forever! Ezra, come with us!”

“Where?” gasped the miser.

“To the rotting oak on the moors.” Ezra reeled as though struck; he screamed incoherently and turned to flee.

On the instant, at Kane’s sharp order, two brawny villagers sprang forward and seized the miser. They twisted the dagger from his withered hand, and pinioned his arms, shuddering as their fingers encountered his clammy flesh.

Kane motioned them to follow, and turning strode up the trail, followed by the villagers, who found their strength taxed to the utmost in their task of bearing their prisoner along. Through the swamp they went and out, taking a little-used trail which led up over the low hills and out on the moors.

The sun was sliding down the horizon and old Ezra stared at it with bulging eyes—stared as if he could not gaze enough. Far out on the moors geared up the great oak tree, like a gibbet, now only a decaying shell. There Solomon Kane halted.

Old Ezra writhed in his captor’s grasp and made inarticulate noises.

“Over a year ago,” said Solomon Kane, “you, fearing that your insane cousin Gideon would tell men of your cruelties to him, brought him away from the swamp by the very trail by which we came, and murdered him here in the night.”

Ezra cringed and snarled.

“You can not prove this lie!”

Kane spoke a few words to an agile villager. The youth clambered up the rotting bole of the tree and from a crevice, high up, dragged something that fell with a clatter at the feet of the miser. Ezra went limp with a terrible shriek.

The object was a man’s skeleton, the skull cleft.

“You—how knew you this? You are Satan!” gibbered old Ezra.

Kane folded his arms.

“The thing I fought last night told me this thing as we reeled in battle, and I followed it to this tree. For the fiend is Gideon’s ghost.”

Ezra shrieked again and fought savagely.

“You knew,” said Kane sombrely, “you knew what things did these deeds. You feared the ghost of the maniac, and that is why you chose to leave his body on the fen instead of concealing it in the swamp. For you knew the ghost would haunt the place of his death. He was insane in life, and in death he did not know where to find his slayer; else he had come to you in your hut. He hates no man but you, but his mazed spirit can not tell one man from another, and he slays all, lest he let his killer escape. Yet he will know you and rest in peace, forever after. Hate hath made of his ghost, a solid thing that can rend and slay, and though he feared you terribly in life, in death he fears you not at all.”

Kane halted. He glanced at the sun.

“All this I had from Gideon’s ghost, in his yammerings and his whisperings and his shrieking silences. Naught but your death will lay that ghost.”

Ezra listened in breathless silence and Kane pronounced the words of his doom.

“A hard thing it is,” said Kane sombrely, “to sentence a man to death in cold blood and in such a manner as I have in mind, but you must die that others may live—and God knoweth you deserve death.

“You shall not die by noose, bullet or sword, but at the talons of him you slew—for naught else will satiate him.”

At these words Ezra’s brain shattered, his knees gave way and he fell grovelling and screaming for death, begging them to burn him at the stake, to flay him alive. Kane’s face was set like death, and the villagers, the fear rousing their cruelty, bound the screeching wretch to the oak tree, and one of them bade him make his peace with God. But Ezra made no answer, shrieking in a high shrill voice with unbearable monotony. Then the villager would have struck the miser across across the face, but Kane stayed him.

“Let him make his peace with Satan, whom he is more like to meet,” said the Puritan grimly. “The sun is about to set. Loose his cords so that he may work loose by dark, since it is better to meet death free and unshackled than bound like a sacrifice.” As they turned to leave him, old Ezra yammered and gibbered unhuman sounds and then fell silent, staring at the sun with terrible intensity.

They walked away across the fen, and Kane flung a last look at the grotesque form bound to the tree, seeming in the uncertain light like a great fungus growing to the bole. And suddenly the miser screamed hideously:

“Death! Death! There are skulls in the Stars!”

“Life was good to him, though he was gnarled and churlish and evil,” Kane sighed. “Mayhap God has a place for such souls where fire and sacrifice may cleanse them of their dross as fire cleans the forest of fungus things. Yet my heart is heavy within me.”

“Nay, sir,” one of the villagers spoke, “you have done but the will of God, and good alone shall come of this night’s deed.”

“Nay,” answered Kane heavily. “I know not — I know not.”

The sun had gone down and night spread with amazing swiftness, as if great shadows came rushing down from unknown voids to cloak the world with hurrying darkness. Through the thick night came a weird echo, and the men halted and looked back the way they had come.

Nothing could be seen. The moor was an ocean of shadows and the tall grass about them bent in long waves before the, faint wind, breaking the deathly stillness with breathless murmurings.

Then far away the red disk of the moon rose over the fen, and for an instant a grim silhouette was etched blackly against it. A shape came flying across the face of the moon — a bent, grotesque thing whose feet seemed scarcely to touch the earth; and close behind came a thing like a flying shadow—a nameless, shapeless horror.

A moment the racing twain stood out boldly against the moon; then they merged into one unnameable, formless mass, and vanished in the shadows.

Far across the fen sounded a single shriek of terrible laughter.

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The Key Question: A Malachi Burke Mystery

“Most crimes, Alfred lad,” said my friend and mentor Malachi Burke one evening after supper, “are absurdly obvious once ye take the time to think them through. The trouble is that most folk don’t bother.”

He reclined in his great wingback chair, pulling on his pipe. I sat opposite him, enjoying one of his excellent cigars. Burke’s sitting room was a model of comfort. Shelves of books alternated on the walls with fine paintings. Rich colored rugs of greens and golds and blacks welcomed one’s feet, and the cushions of the wingback chair seemed to embrace me like a mother’s arms.

It was spring, very soon after I began my apprenticeship in the ways of detection, and it had been a damp, dreary kind of day. A cheerful fire roaring in the grate made me bless the wet weather. A large window gave a glorious view over Brooklyn, largely obscured by the rain, though the lamps and electric lights could be seen gleaming through the haze like stars.

The one jarring note in all of this elegance was my host. Malachi Burke, the master detective, looked rather like an ogre out of some fairy tale. He was tall, with a massive breadth of shoulder, a barrel of a chest, and huge, long arms ending in gnarled, calloused hands. His ebony cane leaned against one of the arms of his chair while his lame right leg stretched out before him onto the carpet. His scarred, weather-beaten face gave the impression of having been carved out of some hoary old wood and his dark hair was tinged with grey. It was as though a farmer from the roughest corner of Ireland had been dug out of the ground and planted in the middle of Brooklyn society. Which is, indeed, rather close to the truth.

“You mean,” I said, preparing myself for one of his usual post-supper lectures on crime. “That once you understand the facts, they usually point only one way.”

“I mean that often times the whole thing can be settled once you ask the right question,” he said. “Criminals usually aren’t as clever as all that, it’s just that crime is such an outlier to most folk’s experience that they don’t consider things properly and know what to ask.”

He drew out his pipe, blew a perfect smoke ring into the air, and related the following story. Though not, of course, in these words.

###

“A gentleman and lady to see you, sir.”

Malachi Burke regarded the young couple that entered his office. The young man was long-faced, pale, and moderately good-looking, his black hair neatly combed and his suit, while of cheap make, was clean and well-kept. His appearance suggested a clerk or perhaps a young lawyer.

The lady was a small, quietly pretty young woman. Burke put her age at perhaps nineteen. The cut of her dark-brown hair, unstyled and bound back from her face, suggested a working girl. Her plain, dark-green dress contributed to the impression.

He noted these details in a swift, almost unconscious manner while he observed their demeanor. They were both anxious, that much was sure. There was definite tension about the mouth and the eyes. The woman’s gloved hands were twisting unceasingly as she walked in, and the young man kept darting glances about the room as though seeking for some source of reassurance. He had blanched noticeably when he caught sight of the great detective, a reaction Burke was quite used to.

But there was something else in the woman’s face: the lift of her chin and the set of her jaw suggested a higher degree of determination than her soft features would have implied.

The huge detective pushed himself to his feet in the manner of a great standing stone being raised into place and bowed to his visitors. The girl visibly quailed before the giant.

“Good afternoon,” he said in his deep Irish brogue. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of making your acquaintances yet.”

“My name is Stanley Cutter,” said the young man. “This is my fiancee, Miss Margaret Pierson.”

“Thank you for agreeing to see us,” said the lady.

“Not at all. Won’t you please have a seat?”

They sat down in the chairs opposite his great oak desk. Horatio, Burke’s impeccable butler, retired on silent feet and Burke lowered himself ponderously back into his chair.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

The two glanced at each other.

“I am told,” said Stanley. “That you are a detective.”

“Did anyone beside the notice in the papers or the sign on my door tell you that?” he inquired.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I put that badly. Margaret…Miss Pierson here works for a Mrs. Henrietta Freeman, who recommended you to us. She said that she employed you once and that you were both very honest and very good at your job.”

“I did indeed help her out once,” said Burke, nodding. “So what brings you here today?”

Here Margaret swallowed and squared her small shoulders.

“We would like to hire you,” she said. “We don’t have much money, but we can get a loan if necessary.”

“Before you do that, you might tell me what you want to hire me to do,” he said.

“That is rather delicate,” said Stanley. “You see…”

Again he looked at his fiancee, as though expecting her to take the lead. Burke guessed that this visit had been her idea.

“We want you to prove that…that Stanley did not murder his employer.”

Burke regarded her a moment with a heavy, serious gaze, and then shook his head.

“I do not do that sort of work.”

“Oh, but Mrs. Freeman said….”

“Let me explain a moment,” he said, holding up one of his huge hands. “I do not engage to prove anyone’s guilt or innocence. That’s a lawyer’s job. I engage to find out the truth. That is my only business. Whether it is to your liking or not, or whether it will hold up in court is another matter, but it is the truth and nothing but that I will discover. D’ye understand?”

“We understand perfectly,” she said. “And that is what we want, isn’t it Stanley?”

“Of course we want the truth,” he said, though with rather less conviction than she. “If you think you can get it. The trouble is that…well, let’s put it frankly. Things look so black against me that I honestly think I’d be better off going straight to a lawyer.”

Burke leaned back in his chair, studying the young man.

“Is that a confession then?”

“Certainly not!” Stanley said hotly. “I didn’t kill anyone. But I’m a practical man, Mr. Burke, and I can see how things are setting. If I could just figure out what did happen, then maybe I’d have a chance, but the thing just doesn’t make sense.”

“You interest me,” said Burke. “I believe I will take this case after all. Now, supposing you tell me just what happened. From the beginning now.”

Stanley Cutter drew a deep breath. His fiancee patted him on the arm, and he grasped her hand in his.

“Very well then,” he said. “I work – or have worked – in the offices of Caribel Brothers. They are an insurance firm, covering shipping, trade goods, and the like. It is a very lucrative business, as you can imagine. Men like to feel that their livelihoods don’t rest on the whim of chance.”

“They do indeed. Superstitions are ever welcome in the human heart. Please continue.”

Stanley looked slightly bewildered by this, but he went on.

“Well, early this morning we came in and found Mr. Bartholomew Caribel dead in his office. He, ah,” he glanced at Margaret. “He had been stabbed behind the right ear with a letter opener.”

“You were one of them that found the body, then?”

“I was. Myself, Angus Caribel, and Nicholas Feldstein, one of our clerks. We came in as normal, sat down to work….”

“What manner of work do you do for them?”

“Oh, I am secretary to the two brothers,” he said. “As I say, Mr. Angus opened up the office and we sat down to work as usual. Mr. Angus commented that Bartholomew must have slept here again last night as he hadn’t been home – he often did that when he had work to do late at night – and knocked on his door. Getting no answer, he tried the knob, found it unlocked, and…and found him. Of course the police were summoned at once and they interviewed all of us.”

“Can you describe the morning routine more precisely? What time, for instance, did you arrive?”

“A little before seven,” said Stanley. “I was early that day, though it doesn’t really matter: the office wasn’t open yet, so I waited in the hallway for a bit with Mr. Feldstein. Then Mr. Angus showed up at seven precisely – they’re always very precise – and let us in. I went to my desk, Mr. Feldstein went into the clerks’ office, and Mr. Angus went to Mr. Bartholomew’s office door and knocked and called for him…then it all happened like I said.”

“And what makes you so sure you’ll be suspected?” asked Burke.

“Ah, well, here we come to some rather delicate matters,” said Stanley.

“More delicate than your neck, are they?”

Margaret gave a faint gasp. Stanley turned a little paler.

“You have a way of putting things,” he said. “All right. The truth is I had words with Mr. Bartholomew the night before.”

“Tell him the whole story, Stanley,” said Margaret. “About the man.”

“I told you, Margaret, that can’t have anything to do with it.”

“Why not?”

“Perhaps I did not make myself, clear,” said Burke. “If you want me to help you, you need to tell me everything. Understand?”

“Very well,” said Stanley. “What happened is…to be clear, Margaret here works in the same building as I do.”

“Doing what?”

“I am a typist,” she said. “I work in the floor above for Mrs. Freeman. That is how we met. You see, I get off of work at six and Stanley doesn’t get off until seven. So for some time it’s been our custom for me to go down and sit in the lobby with him.”

“And your employers didn’t mind this?”

“Not at all, provided she didn’t make a nuisance of herself,” said Stanley. “And since she would sometimes help me with a bit of work they were actually the gainers by the scheme.”

“I see. And you did this yesterday evening.”

“Yes,” said Margaret.

“What happened next? Tell me exactly.”

“The clerks get off at six thirty,” said Stanley. “Then Mr. Angus left about twenty to seven. Then not long after he left was when someone threw something against the window.”

“Before you go any further, can you describe the lay of the office to me?”

“Certainly,” said Stanley. “It’s on the second floor on the corner. There’s a door leading off the hall that opens into the lobby. That’s where I sit. My desk is to the left of the door under the window. To the right is the door into the office where the clerks sit. Directly across from the hallway door are the two doors leading into the brothers’ private offices.”

“They each have their own?”

“That’s correct.”

“Windows in them?”

“Yes, there are two windows in Mr. Angus’s office and one in Mr. Bartholomew’s, behind his desk.”

“And your window faces what direction?”

“South.”

“Southwest corner then, is it?”

“That’s right.”

“I see. Go on then.”

“All right. As I say, someone threw something against the window. I naturally went to look and there was a man in the alley below. He was shouting and cursing in the most disgraceful manner. I tried to shout down to him that there was a lady listening, but he wouldn’t hear me.”

“Did you see this man, Miss Pierson?”

“Yes. I went to the window as well,” she said.

“Why?”

“Just curious, I guess,” she said with a faint shrug.

“Can you describe him?”

“He was a dirty, disheveled kind of man,” she said. “All wild hair and torn clothes. I thought he looked like a drunkard.”

“I’m sure he was,” said Stanley.

“Was there any substance to what he was saying? I mean, was it more than just profanity?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact,” said Stanley in a hesitant kind of manner. “He was shouting about how we had cheated him. That he was ruined because of us. Specifically by Mr. Bartholomew.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. He said he would kill him. ‘Tell that old,’” Stanley caught himself. “’That old person that I will kill him for what he did to me.’ That’s what he said.”

“That’s right,” said Margaret. “He said it at least twice. Then Stanley told him he would summon the police and the man took off.”

“Did you summon the police?”

“No,” Stanley admitted. “I guess I should have, but I thought the man was just drunk and that the brothers wouldn’t want the police hanging around if they could help it and I…I didn’t really take it seriously. You don’t really expect your employers to be murdered, Mr. Burke.”

Malachi Burke did not comment on that.

“Did the man have any peculiar way of speaking? Was he, perhaps, Italian? Or Irish?”

“No, just ordinary American, I think,” said Margaret. She then caught herself and flushed. “Not that…I don’t mean to imply…”

“You ain’t implying anything, lass,” he said gently. “I’m just trying to get a picture of what you saw. So you sent the man on his way. What happened next?”

“A few minutes later, Mr. Bartholomew called me into his office,” said Stanley.

“Yes?”

He swallowed hard.

“Now…this is where we get into the delicate matters, Mr. Burke,” he said. “I must beg you to believe me when I say that I never intended to break the law.”

“That is never a good thing to have to say, lad,” said Burke.

“Yes, I know. Well, here’s what happened. And it is the God’s honest truth, sir. I went into his office. He was sitting there, half-turned and looking at the wall. He had a way of doing that, you see: not looking at you when was speaking to you. He said he liked to concentrate on what he was saying and not on your expression. Well, anyway, he started to dictate to me as usual. It was a simple correspondence. Didn’t take more than five minutes. When I’d finished he said ‘I’d like a word with you before you go, Mr. Cutter.’

“’All right sir,’ I said.

“’I happened to be looking through our old accounts,’ he said. ‘What can you tell me about the Scalzi account?’

“That was when I knew I’d had it,” said Stanley. He looked at Margaret and gripped her hand rather tightly. “See, the Scalzis are an Italian wine importing firm. Very good kind of people. There was an incident last year where they filed a claim that wasn’t quite covered by our policy. I…took the liberty of editing their claim a little before passing it on to the clerks.”

“So you committed fraud.”

“Yes, I suppose I did,” said Stanley. “I never imagined they’d find out. I still don’t know how: Mr. Bartholomew doesn’t even attend to the client side of the business very often.”

“So what did you do when he brought this to your attention?”

“I didn’t do anything!” he said. “I tried to explain my side of it, of course, and he let me have it pretty good. Something you should know about the late Mr. Bartholomew, Mr. Burke, is that he never raised his voice, but he knew how to twist the knife in you. Oh!” he said as the implications of the phrase struck him. “I didn’t mean…”

“Yes, yes, quite all right,” said Malachi Burke, waving away the mistake. “Never mind that now. What happened next?”

“He said we would discuss my future in the morning,” said Stanley with a grimace. “The way he put it, I could tell I wasn’t going to have much of one. Once he put it about to his connections that I’d been fired for fraud, that’d be all up for me. I’d be lucky if he didn’t call the police on me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse than when I left that office.”

Burke turned to Margaret Pierson.

“Would you say his appearance bore that out?” he asked.

“Oh yes!” she said. “He looked terrible, all pale and shaken. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he’d tell me later. He just wanted to get out of there.”

“I sort of snapped at her,” Stanley admitted. “I feel terrible about it, but that’s how agitated I was.”

“He apologized later,” Margaret hastened to reassure him.

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Burke. “Did you leave the office straight away?”

“Yes, like I said, I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” said Stanley. “We went walking for a bit while I tried to get my head straight, then we went to a show and I walked her home.”

“What time was that?”

“About half-past-ten I would think,” said Stanley.”

“And where do you live, Miss Pierson, if I may ask?”

“I live in a boarding house on Galt street,” she answered.

“And you Mr. Cutter?”

“Apartment on 7th.”

Burke nodded.

“What happened the next morning?”

“I told you. I went to the office like usual and we found Mr. Bartholomew.”

“Ah, yes. Of course.”

Burke leaned back in his chair, thinking a moment.

“As you say, things look very black against you from a certain point of view. When did you tell Miss Pierson about the argument?”

Stanley swallowed.

“Not…not until this afternoon. Just before we came here.”

“After you were interviewed by the police.”

“Yes.”

“Did they question you, Miss Pierson?”

“They did, yes.”

“And you told them that your fiancee came out of the office very agitated and upset following an argument with his employer.”

“I…yes, I did.”

“And you were the last people to leave the office. Are you sure about that?”

“Quite sure, yes,” said Stanley.

“Hm.”

“There is something more as well,” said Margaret in a hurried kind of voice. “I…the police asked me and I didn’t know how to avoid telling them.” She swallowed and looked pleadingly at her fiancee. “Stanley asked if I would run away with him last night.”

“And you told the police that?” he said in a horrified tone.

“I didn’t mean to, darling!” she wailed. “But they asked and they badgered and it was half way out before I knew what I was saying!”

“I’m surprised they didn’t arrest me already,” he moaned.

“I’m so sorry!”

“Oh, well,” he muttered, patting her hand. “I guess they would have found out sooner or later.”

They turned to Malachi Burke with expressions of desperation.

“Well, Mr. Burke?” said Stanley. “Do you think you can help us?”

Burke didn’t answer right away. He knocked his pipe out into an ashtray with a series of slow, heavy thumps.

“I’ve just a few more questions,” he said. “These Caribel brothers. I never saw them myself: what are they like?”

“Hard-nosed businessmen,” said Stanley. “There’s not a spec of imagination or human feeling between them I should say.”

“What do they look like?”

“Mr. Bartholomew I always thought looked like a wire-haired terrier,” said Stanley. “I’m sorry, I know I probably shouldn’t speak that way of the dead, but there it is. He had a tangled gray mane of hair and a long, drooping kind of face. And he wore glasses: round glasses that always seemed to catch the light, like a cat’s eyes in the dark. Mr. Angus is completely bald and a good deal taller than his brother. He wears half-rim spectacles. He’s a bit more agreeable, I’d say. He at least looks at you when he’s speaking.”

“Did you ever see that tramp again?”

“No. I certainly didn’t,” said Stanley, looking at Margaret.

“Me neither.”

“Was anything taken from the dead man? Anything missing from his desk or his pockets?”

“The police had Mr. Angus do a thorough inventory,” said Stanley. “But no, as far as he knew nothing was missing. All his money, his watch, his keys, his correspondence, his checkbook, all it was there.”

“Now this is very important. When you left the office, have you described your movement exactly? You simply walked out and down the stairs and out the door, not stopping or going back for anything?”

“Oh!” said Margaret, her small hand going to her mouth. “Actually I…I ran back for my coat.”

“You what?” Burke said sharply, making her jump.

“Stanley was so eager to leave that I almost forgot it,” she said. “We had almost reached the first floor when I remembered and ran back. I wasn’t more than a minute.”

“You ran back,” Burke repeated.

“If you’re thinking she…” Stanley began hotly. But Malachi Burke silenced him with a look of his flashing green eyes.

“Did you notice anything while you were there?”

“No,” said Margaret. “Nothing. I was only in the office for a second to grab my coat. I…” she hesitated. “I think maybe I heard Mr. Bartholomew walking about in his office, but I didn’t pay any attention to it, except to hurry back out since I definitely didn’t want him to come out and find me.”

“How long was she gone?” Burke asked Stanley.

“Not more than…half a minute,” said Stanley in a firm tone. “Just long enough to go up and get her coat.”

“And you didn’t notice anything strange,” said Burke.

“Nothing,” she said firmly.

Again, he nodded his great head.

“Now Mr. Cutter, once again think very hard. The next morning, did you notice anything usual when you came in? Anything at all?”

“No,” said Stanley. “I came in a little early. I…I was anxious of course. I figured it was liable to be my last day. Only then I had to wait about in the hallway with the clerks, and that didn’t do my nerves any favors. I remember Mr. Feldstein was in an infuriatingly cheerful mood. Kept talking about some bet he’d won the night before. Then Mr. Angus came and let us in and we went to check on Mr. Bartholomew.”

“It was that quick, was it?”

“Yes. Right away. Mr. Angus said, ‘Bartholomew must have slept here last night again, I am going to wake him.’ Then he went in and kind of screamed, and Feldstein and I rushed in after him.”

“Did you go near the body?”

“No, I hung back. I was in shock, I didn’t know what to think.”

Malachi Burke nodded once more, bobbing his great head up and down like a wooden doll.

“I think,” he said. “That is all I’ll need from the two of you.”

“Do you…is there any hope?” asked Margaret in a tentative voice.

Burke looked at her, and to her evident surprise bestowed one of his kindly smiles on her.

“Hope is a gift of God, lass,” he said.

His next move after shooing the young people out was to put on his hat and coat – it was a chill April morning – and go to see the detective in charge of the case. Detective Levinson, like many in the department, had been a colleague of protege of his and greeted Burke warmly. Burke was pleased to find that Mr. Angus Caribel was also present settling some arrangements with the police about his brother’s property.

“You’re in luck, Mr. Caribel,” said Levinson. “If Malachi Burke is on the case, your brother’s killer won’t get far.”

“Do you have any suspicions, Mr. Burke?” asked Angus Caribel after shaking hands.

“One or two,” said Burke, easing himself into a chair and stretching his lame leg. “Ach, this damn thing gets worse every year,” he groaned, rubbing it. Even the taxi ride from his apartment had been taxing on the old wound.

“What can we do for you, Burke?” asked Levinson.

“First I want to hear what you know of the case so far,” said Burke. “See how well it tallies with what I’ve heard this afternoon.”

Levinson nodded and gave a summary of events. Burke listened and nodded along, satisfied that it fit the story that the young couple had given him.

“Was there any sign of a struggle?”

“No, none,” said Levinson. “He was a very neat man and things on his desk were perfectly arranged.”

Burke nodded.

“Is that about right Mr. Caribel?”

“Exactly, yes, to the best of my knowledge,” said Angus Caribel. “I don’t want to tell the police their business, but…it seems to me that there is a fairly strong case against young Cutter. Though I’d be very glad to told I’m wrong in that. He’s quite an efficient young man, though this story of fraud is…unfortunate. Makes me question everything I thought I knew about him.”

“Well, there is that tramp,” said Burke. “Have you been able to trace him at all? Or find any further evidence of his existence?”

“As a matter of fact, we did,” said Levinson. “The fella’s name is Harold Climpson, used to be a bit of a big name in shipping…”

“Climpson!” said Caribel in surprise. “Why, I know the man! We used to do business together, until his stock was unfortunately wiped out in a fire.”

“Yes, and he blames your brother for not paying on his claim,” said Levinson. “Very hot on the subject it seems.”

“Our policy was very clear that such events were not covered,” said Angus Caribel. “But you don’t think…”

“I would if not for the fact that he has an alibi,” said Levinson. “It seems that after he got done shouting at the building, he went straight to the nearest bar and drank himself into a stupor, still ranting about your brother to anyone who would listen. He ended up so drunk he tried to knock another patron’s head in and spent the night in jail. He’s there now if you want to see him, Burke, nursing a nasty headache and a nastier temper.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary just yet,” said Burke. “I was only curious, but I am glad we have it. It makes it all that much simpler.”

“Simpler? What do you mean?”

“I mean I know what happened, and he’ll make it easier to prove….”

###

At this point, as he usually did in his recitals, Malachi Burke paused and looked expectantly at me.

“Well?” he said. “Do you see it, lad?”

I thought about it hard, then waved a hand in surrender.

“No, I don’t. I guessed that the young man didn’t do it. Apart from everything else, I don’t think he would have calmly gone out with his girl and come back to work the next day if he had. He would have booked the first ticket out west at the very least. But I don’t see how it could have been done otherwise. Unless…were the people at the bar certain about the time that Climpson came in?”

“Sure enough,” said Burke. “They were busy and couldn’t quite swear to it exactly, but they’re fairly sure it was well before seven-thirty.”

“With quick work he might have managed it,” I said.

“He might have, but do you think Mr. Bartholomew would have sat there calmly while an irate tramp burst into his office and let himself be stabbed without a struggle?”

“No, I see what you mean,” I said. “Then there’s one other possibility I can see.”

“Which is?”

“I hate to say it, but you always say suspect everyone. The girl.”

“Ah! I’m glad to hear you bein’ broadminded on the subject!” he said. “Sometimes I think you’re reluctant to believe a pretty face can hide a murderess’s heart. Though it might just be because you haven’t seen her.”

“Maybe,” I admitted with a sheepish grin. “But from the way you describe her she sounds like one of these apparently-soft women who are like steel when those they love are in danger. I can see her listening in on the argument, thinking that her man was going to be ruined, and, in a burst of anger running back and stabbing the old man before he knew what was happening. Was he deaf at all?”

“I don’t believe so, no. Very nearsighted, but his hearing was excellent.”

“Yes, but he wouldn’t expect a gentle-looking creature like that to be dangerous, so he might not have realized what was happening until it was too late.”

“That’s well considered,” he said, nodding. “It might have happened like that, I’ll grant ye. Only, you’re missing the important question. Only ask that and the whole thing becomes clear.”

“What question is that?”

Malachi Burke re-lit his pipe and blew a large smoke-ring.

“The question I asked Angus Caribel a moment later, after I’d confirmed that his version of the morning’s events tallied exactly with young Cutter’s. The question is, who locked the door?”

“What door?” I asked.

“Faith, lad, weren’t you listening at all? The hallway door. The door that the Caribels had to open for their employees every morning. Remember, it was locked when they got there. Mr. Angus had to open it for them. So who locked it?”

I thought a moment. Then I saw.

“Cutter didn’t have the key.”

“No, nor did Miss Pierson. Nor did Mr. Climpson. Mr. Bartholomew’s key was still found on him. So only one man could have locked the door, and thus only one man could have killed him. Mr. Angus.”

“’Don’t show how it might have been: show it couldn’t have been done any other way’,” I said, quoting one of his commandments.

“Exactly.”

“But then I don’t see,” I said. “Cutter swore that Angus left before any of it happened, and the girl said the same thing. How did he get back in? I suppose he just waited around outside for his brother to be alone.”

“Not such a fool,” said Burke. “In the first place, he’d be likely to be seen loitering about. In the second, he knew that an open police investigation is an incalculable thing, and if there wasn’t an obvious suspect, then anything might happen. He was cautious devil. So he arranged to pin it on young Cutter. I suppose it was discovering Cutter’s messing about with the letters that put the idea into his head. Nothing like finding a motive for someone else to make murder seem practical.”

“Then what did he do? Hide in the hallway, or the stairwell?”

“Ah, lad,” Burke shook his head. “You don’t see it at all. Consider the tramp.”

I did, but I didn’t see what the tramp had to do with it.

“What about him?”

“Don’t you think Mr. Climpson’s behavior was a might odd? It struck me at once, right off I heard the two young people describe it.”

“Well, he was drunk.”

“Drunk or no, if he’d done business with them he knew where Mr. Bartholomew’s office was. If his purpose were to spew his threats and his hatred at the man, why would he throw stones at the secretary? Did he expect him to take it as a memo? Why wouldn’t he stand below Mr. Bartholomew’s window and scream and swear at him?”

“Oh,” I said. “I hadn’t thought of that. Then…why?”

“Well,” said Burke, blowing another smoke ring. “A good way to find out why someone did something is to look at what that something actually did. And what did it do?”

“It…well, nothing, except to bring Mr. Cutter and the girl to the window and to provide…oh!”

“You see it then,” he said. “It brought them to the window, giving Mr. Angus a chance to slip back across the lobby and into his brother’s office.”

“Into his…”

“Yes. That is when he killed him. He shut the door, said something like ‘Oh, I forgot to mention so-and-so to you, brother. Have a look at this…’ He puts a bit of paper under his brother’s nose, his brother bends over….”

I could see it. See it as clearly as if it had happened right before my eyes.

“That’s clear enough,” I said. “But then Cutter spoke with him afterwards. Had his meeting with…you mean that was Angus?”

“You’re picking up lad. Yes, that was Angus, not Bartholomew. They were brothers, after all. They may have been superficially very different to look at, but the structure of their faces was much of a piece. All he needed was a wire-haired wig and his brother’s glasses to play the part. It helped that Mr. Bartholomew didn’t look people in eye when he spoke to them, and that the window faced west so that at seven o’clock the sun would be shining right behind him.”

“I see. So he berated Cutter to emphasize his motive and so that it would seem that Bartholomew was still alive well after he had left.”

“Quite so. The plan was that Cutter would be the last one to see Bartholomew alive, and had been threatened with ruin while alone in the office with him. All things considered, it was a fine little plan. Then Angus went and ruined it all when, by sheer force of habit, he thoughtlessly locked the door behind him as he left the office.”

I shook my head, admiring how neatly everything fell into place as he described it.

“Like you said, absurdly obvious. But do you mean to say,” I added, frowning slightly. “That if he hadn’t gone and locked up that he would have gotten away with it and poor Cutter would have been hanged?”

“Oh, no, there was another weak point in his scheme,” said Burke. “Climpson.”

“Climpson?”

“Well, obviously Angus hired him. You don’t suppose he left something like that up to chance? No, he paid him well to be part of the scheme, and Climpson was only too happy to help murder the man he regarded as his enemy. Only, Angus didn’t count on the consequences of Climpson’s character. A man like that with money in his pocket and hatred in his soul is sure to do only one thing: go to the nearest tavern, rant and rave, get roaring drunk, and so end up in jail. The very last place in the world that Angus would have wanted him. He might have passed a common police interview without incident, but I would have soon had him spilling the whole story.”

I shook my head.

“What did Angus think would happen?”

“I suspect he meant to meet the fella’ somewhere to celebrate and perhaps pay the rest of the money. Then he would have maybe knocked him on the head. No one would look twice at a drunk tramp with a bashed in skull, would they?”

“So, Angus Caribel was done in by his own responsibility and his failure to understand another man’s debauchery,” I said. “That doesn’t seem a proper lesson at all.”

“It shows you must learn to think things through, or you’ll be done in by something absurdly obvious. As I say, most criminals are.”

“What about Mr. Cutter and Miss Pierson?”

“Oh, Mr. Cutter’s doin’ quite well last I heard. In Chicago I believe. They sent me a photo of them and their children a few years back. Quite a happy little family they seem.”

He puffed on his pipe a moment, then began to hum an Irish folk song, and I knew we were finished with crime for the evening.

Learn how Alfred More’s apprenticeship with Malachi Burke began in The Ten Commandments of Murder, available for kindle or print on demand

Escape to Some Fantastic Schools

Want to take your mind off things? Pick up a volume or two of Fantastic Schools (now both available in paperback: a nice, thick volume to decorate your shelf and that can’t be digitally taken away from you).

Official Blurb:
Have you ever wanted to go to magic school? To cast spells and brew potions and fly on broomsticks and—perhaps—battle threats both common and supernatural? Come with us into worlds of magic, where students become magicians and teachers do everything in their power to ensure the kids survive long enough to graduate. Welcome to … Fantastic Schools.

Vol. 1
Follow a girl trying desperately to find her place in a school of dark magic, a band of witches desperate to prove they can be as good as the wizards, a school of magical monsters standing between the evil one and ultimate power, a businesswoman discovering the secrets of darkest evil … and what happens when a magical education goes badly wrong.

Vol. 2
Follow a mundane teacher striding into a world of magic, a spy on a mission, a guided tour of a magical school, a school dance for monsters, a dangerous reunion … and many more.

Follow us into worlds different, magical …

… And very human.

My own story, Halloween Dance is the final entry in the second volume. It’s all about the trials and complications of young love, particularly when the boy has a troubled past and is covered in scales, the girl is outgoing, friendly, and gorgeous, but can’t show her face without killing someone, and both are attending a school for monsters where unspeakable evil can strike at any time.

Pick up a copy today and escape into some fantastic schools.

Rising of the Sun: Sol Anthology Live!

Tuscany Bay Books’ Planetary Anthology: Sol is now live!

Featuring thirteen stories centered on the theme of nobility and righteousness, including my own Under the Midnight Sun.

Far in the future, the dying sun has swollen and scorched most of the earth. The last known remnants of humanity dwell about the South Pole, where the sun rises and sets only once a year. There the beautiful, imaginative Gienna cherishes dreams of marrying for love, like the heroines of her favorite stories. By an unexpected chance, she at last meets a man who touches her heart, but who is he really and what secrets does he hide?

The Sun may die, but love, hope, and nobility need not.

(This is what happens when you read The Curse of Capistrano and The Night Land at roughly the same time)

“Oh thou bright orb, ruler of the sky…”

Pick it up today! Enjoy tales of nobility and goodness, and drop a review letting us know what you think! Feedback is always appreciated.

Fantastic Schools Vol. 2 is Live!

Fantastic Schools Volume 2 is now live!

https://m.media-amazon.com/images/I/517ywgcMzJL.jpg

Well, mostly. We’re still waiting on the paperback. So, think of it as ‘live’ in the sense of Frankenstein’s Monster when he first awoke, but was too disoriented and confused to form any kind of conscious thought or intention. It’ll be a few hours before he can stumble out of the laboratory to look at the Sun for the first time, if you follow me.

But it is available for Kindle purchase as of now, so you can pick it up and enjoy a dozen different stories by massively talented authors, plus my own Halloween Dance, all dealing with the trials and tribulations of life at fantastic schools.

(As you might guess, my own story is pretty seasonally appropriate. Just throwing that out there).