Back | Next
Contents

Chapter Four
Hell's Hospital

SHORTLY, he guessed, there would be more intruders in the office of Dr. Skull. They would be men with badges from the police and health departments, who had been informed that two medical monsters, additional damning proof of malpractice, were to be found in Dr. Skull's office.

He uttered a fervent inward prayer of thanks for that hidden chamber where the two monstrosities might be safe until he found out what had deformed them. In that discovery lay his only chance of helping them.

He stopped upstairs, dragged the unconscious Carol to a couch, and bathed her blasted hand with antiseptic. That right hand would be useless for weeks, but no other harm had been done.

"Good little soldier!" he whispered.

The homeless girl Jeffrey had befriended when she had no one else to turn to did not hear him. But her strong slender body seemed to relax, as though she knew a friend was near. . . . And Jeff guessed that this wouldn't be the last time he got Carol out of a tight spot, just as it wasn't the first.

He stared briefly at the two dead faces on Dr. Skull's office floor, faces in which the sightless eyes glowed like purple grave-lights! That was the characteristic of those who had given their souls to a devil's keeping, but for what reward, Jeffrey did not know.

He bent down, and with a rubber stamp whose handle was a vial containing acid, he burned the Mark of the Skull on the two cold brows. Contrary to erudite psychological opinion, that brand was no mere braggart gesture. In Jeffrey's ceaseless war on evil, he had found that the brand gave him a definite authority over his enemy. Sometimes indeed, it acted as a deterrent, for those marked corpses were proof to the living that the Skull Killer was alive and active. . . .

His hands moved swiftly after that, exploring the clothing of the two, in an effort to find some mark of identification. In the breast pocket of one he found a sealed envelope—and its contents, as he eagerly scanned them, caused him to forget everything but his immediate mission.

Now, with the ghastly knowledge which a brief glimpse at the dead man's papers had given him, he wondered if he would be in time. One thing was sure—he had to leave Carol, and surmised that the next intruders in his office wouldn't harm her. As a police siren sounded outside, he raced into the street and hailed a taxi.

 

It was night, a cold starry November night, with Orion making a clear pale pattern above Manhattan, as it had done for the past five thousand Novembers. Dark stone buildings squatted or soared in contemplative peace above the small streets. But the Mid-City Hospital—that modern medical colossus—seemed no part of the pattern, seemed to be breaking out of the background in an ominous haze of color.

Dim but unmistakable in the darkness, the hospital walls glowed like a new earthbound star. Nor were they the color of stars—they were purple!

He had seen that color in human eyes. . . . He had seen it half an hour ago in the incredible ultra-violet life-ray of two who were heirs to hell. It was the color of damnation—and ironically now the color of the building dedicated to the relief of human suffering!

Robert was in that building—Robert, who was the point and meaning of his brother Jeff's existence. . . .

As the cab slowed to a snail's pace then stopped amid a blare of horns and calls of doormen in the Monday night theatre traffic, Jeffrey handed his driver a dollar bill, arid proceeded on foot.

If he could make it in time! But in time for what?

He didn't know, couldn't know yet, in just what fashion hell would break loose in the Mid-City Hospital—whether it would take seconds or hours before horror burst like shrapnel upon the thousand helpless inmates. Whether, in some vile secret part of that magnificent edifice, it had not already happened. . . .

A nurse nodded to him pleasantly at the desk, and he brushed past hurriedly into an elevator, and was soon in the eighth floor pavilion where Robert had a private suite.

The boy was sitting in his wheel-chair, reading a book of sonnets. One lamp cast its glow on the chiseled beauty of the boy's dark head . . . there was something almost unearthly in the boy's sculptured profile, Jeffrey thought with a sharp pang of solicitude.

He himself was rough-hewn, fit for the hard eventualities of life, but Robert wasn't. A fierce tenderness welled in the big man for the crippled boy, a tenderness that played through his first half-humorous phrase.

"It's moving-day, Robert. I've come to take you home."

"Are you crazy?" the boy asked petulantly. It was his whole greeting. "If you think I'm just playing sick, I might tell you that Dr. Skull said—"

"I don't give a damn!" Jeffrey told him, and then he lifted the boy bodily from his wheel chair. Robert gasped, shut his eyes, and then relaxed in his brother's arms. The book fell from his grasp, and Jeffrey noted its title hastily, planning in some corner of his mind to replace it later.

He ran into the corridor, and with that living burden clutched against his chest, began a rapid round of the rooms.

"If you can walk or crawl or move in any way at all," he shouted to one startled patient after another, "get out of this place! It's no spot for the sick or the well!"

Screams echoed behind him, as patients and nurses alike recognized in this enraged young man the chief patron of the hospital. The corridors were becoming a chaos with those who tried to flee, and others who tried to hold them back. And a few times, Jeffrey intervened to help some frantic refugee get clear passage to freedom. . . .

"Jeffrey Fairchild, are you insane?" There was excitement and anger on the dignified professional face before him, as the man in white who had appeared in the corridor excitedly waving his arms. "I've always liked you, but you've gone too far this time. . . ."

Jeffrey swept Dr. Borden, staff director of the hospital, aside with one gesture of his left arm, and continued down the corridor, yelling commands for exodus.

"Stop that maniac!" he heard Borden shriek behind him, and then three husky orderlies were trying to wrest Robert from him. . . .

It was then that the queer crackling began to echo ominously through every part of the building's structure. For a second Jeffrey's heart went acrobatic. . . . And then the smell came!

It made him gasp. It was a little like acid, but stronger, a little like smoke, but more throttling, and as yet invisible. The crackling sound grew like the laugh of a giant devil.

An orderly shrieked,, as he ran headlong from the man he was supposed to detain. "The X-ray films! My God, the X-ray room's on fire. That means poison gas!"

Jeffrey didn't remember the details later, but he would hold all through his life the hectic impressions of that roaring chaos. . . . How he carried Robert to willing helpers in the air outside, and then plunged back into the building.

How heavy the old woman was, when she fainted on her bed, and he had to drag her to safety because everyone else had forgotten her. How the young man went berserk, using the plaster cast on his arm for a club, and had to be knocked out before Jeff could save him. And always the dreadful, suffocating smell grew heavier, and the enormous crackling laugh of the burning walls more taunting and hateful. Through it all, his brain screamed in pain and desperation for vengeance on the conscious agent who had caused all this. . . .

Everywhere, now, firemen were dragging, wheeling and carrying the shrieking patients to safety. The lower floors had to be vacated first, for that was where the deadly fumes were heaviest.

Jeffrey had nowhere seen Mrs. Purvins, who was reported under observation at the hospital. He choked his way up a staircase at last, passing white figures of the thickening, swirling, deadly mist. Had she already been taken from the hospital? Suddenly he found himself in a corridor where the trend was downward, downward, with a frantic stream of refugees making their tortured way toward the exit and into the blessed air of night.

He lurched against the door of the psychopathic ward where he guessed the rescuers would arrive last. Here, most likely, they had sent Mrs. Purvins.

And then he broke into inferno. . . .

All who were left were strapped to their cots, or confined in straitjackets. The others must have fled. A howling like the howling of purgatory clangored with the wall-crackling. Crazed, twisted shapes wormed across the hot floor, humping in torture toward escape, bound as they were. . . .

There was fury in Jeff's heart as he freed them, working over those bonds with a superhuman reserve of strength, allowing the maddened human things to scamper, for their lives.

He found one cold and shapeless form on a far cot, knew it for Mrs. Purvins. Was she dead, then? He didn't know, couldn't tell, for there was no heart-beat to guide him. He slung the sloshing mass of flesh over his shoulder, and fought through the smoke to freedom.

Fury rose hotly in his heart, and death seemed to clot his lungs. . . . He was blind, drowning in a sea of white acrid smoke, but he clung tenaciously to that burden in his arms.

Then life was coming back to his tortured body, and somewhere above him the stars were glowing serenely. He felt the burden lifted from his arms, heard men's voices. Someone was holding cool water to his mouth.

He saw—when he could be sure of what he was seeing—that he was on the veranda outside the hospital, and that the men about him wore black and red helmets of the fire department. Suddenly, from the bowels of the doomed building, Jeffrey heard a woman scream in mortal terror.

Maybe the others heard it—maybe they could persuade themselves of the futility of rescue. Jeffrey didn't stop to argue. But before any one could stop him, he burst back into the hot white hell of fire and radium fumes that had been the Mid-City Hospital. . . .

 

When Carol opened her eyes, the office was dark. She touched a hand to her forehead and felt the cloth.

Her hand—someone had bandaged her hand! She remembered now, how her father's gun had exploded in her palm. Poor old Pop! He'd come back from over there with an army gun and a lot of faith in nothing at all. Other men gave their lives, and Pop had given his soul. . . . She might have known he'd never leave her anything useful!

Those men who had been waiting for Dr. Skull—had they gone? She stumbled toward the wall switch, still puzzled by that big salt-smelling bandage, thinking that possibly Dr. Skull had come after all. . . .

Carol cried aloud, a little cry of fear that died in her throat. Two men—she recognized them as the intruders—were sprawled on the floor. Gingerly, she looked at them more closely, afraid to wake them to further activity. But there was no cause for such fear. They were completely dead.

And on the foreheads of each, was the Mark of the Skull. The Skull Killer! That half-legendary figure whom Carol, and many other New Yorkers, had half-believed a fabrication of the newspapers. . . . He had been here, he had killed her attackers. And it must have been he who had bandaged her hand!

She leaned against the wall, trying to puzzle out what had just happened to her. There were things in herself that were new to her. There was this desperate, uneasy foreboding, that was somehow worse than actual fear. . . . And then she remembered Robert!

That was where she should have gone, hours ago. She had been on her way to the hospital when those men. . . .

Carol struggled into her coat, ran out into the street. A policeman looked at her idly, and she had the fleeting thought that this was no moment to report a double killing. She hadn't the time. Later, perhaps. . . .

The streets were crowded with people, coming home from work, going to the movies, laughing and talking and getting last-minute purchases for dinner, but Carol's nerve's were raw and angry with that queer unease. She wanted to warn all the people, tell them it was no good going to the movies or taking life calmly, while the forces of some cryptic hurricane gathered over them, ready to bring its tragic destruction to blight their lives.

What would she find in the hospital, what would it mean to her and to all the cheerfully noisy people about her? She couldn't, no matter how hard she tried, assure herself that it would be all right, that the hospital would tower as it had always done over central Manhattan, with every polite interne ready to explain that visiting hours were almost over, but if she really wanted to drop in. . . . No, it wasn't going to be like that!

She knew it three blocks away, knew it from the sudden change in tempo of the crowd about her, from the loud wail of hook-and-ladder sirens. . . .

The hospital was on fire!

 

Uniformed men were beginning to throw a cordon about the flaming pile of stone as she fought her way through the thick crowd. She heard shouts, screams. . . . And through it all ran the half-meaningless phrase, "It's the X-ray films! They haven't a chance!"

Fires don't smell like this she thought, with that queer, cold tension in her tightening to a certainty. Something unearthly, something devastating as an earthquake, had happened to Robert, and to all the other people in there!

It came to her, then, like a bolt from hell. Suppose that Jeffrey were in there with Robert! The thought sent her whirling lithely through the press of people right to the half-formed cordon of firefighters. Her coat was ripped off and lost in the crowd as she pressed closer. The hot flames made a blazing summer out of that November night, poisoning the pure air with soaring smoke.

Behind that screen of smoke, she managed to slip into the doomed building.

Heat and gas rolled like ocean waves through her body . . . She could hardly bear it, she would die here, and no one would know what had happened to her!

Figures brushed past her in the mist, and she could not identify them. She merely guessed that they were refugee and human. . . . She would never find Jeffrey or Robert!

Out. . . . She must get out, into the clean air. . . .

Carol stumbled forward through the roaring smoke, arms outstretched before her. She was nearly there, she could see the vague outline of an exit ahead of her.

Someone caught her waist and she murmured faintly, "Take me— out of here. . . ." Then she relaxed limply into strong masculine arms, her swaying body grateful for that support.

The smoke was getting worse, she thought dully; it must be all over the city by now. And then she realized with sharp fright that she was being carried away from the exit—back into the burning heart of the building!

"It's the wrong way!" she screamed at the man who held her. "We'll die if you don't—"

A strangely hollow laugh cut short her protest. She looked at the man who carried her, and even in that heat, she felt a quick, hideous chill. For it wasn't a human face at all! It was a—a—gargoyle . . . And now there were other gargoyles, scampering toward them, returning to sport in the hell they had created.

She had not thought herself capable of the mighty effort which pulled her loose from the thing that held her . . . but she was on her own legs again, running like a hunted thing for freedom. . . .

They circled off her escape, all of them, devil-faced creatures of poisoned smoke, and then they were carrying her back with them, into unimaginable torment.

 

They were not gargoyles, Carol realized; they were men in gas masks. She saw that as soon as they passed the door marked, "X-Ray Room. Keep Out."

Here the smoke had cleared, but the heat was unbearable, and that ghastly smell was stronger than it had been outside.

"Everything here's burned itself out," one of the masked men remarked tersely, "That was quick."

Carol looked about wildly at the blackened interior. Strips of charred wood clung to the twisted steel frame-work. She could only guess at the immense heat which had twisted that steel. Her strength, she felt was growing less. And meanwhile, the men's voices echoed in her ears, like voices heard in a dream.

"The girl's going to die soon," she heard one of her captors say. "This air must be terrific. Are we leaving her?" As he spoke, Carol felt the hold on her relaxed. She sagged to the floor, shrieked as her skin blistered at the contact.

One of the figures picked her up, held her at arm's length—and then hot air seared her lungs as she gasped it in and began to scream—but regularly, repeatedly. An evil staring mask wavered before her eyes, seemed to grow larger and more hideous, just as the body beneath it seemed to swell. A million tearing pains shot through her tortured flesh, seeming to rend it asunder, and she knew that not one but four arms encircled her, arms that held her not by a grip, but by powerful suction.

The Octopus! It seemed to her as though a sudden silence had fallen in the room, a silence through which a meaning clearer than words floated into her consciousness.

"The Skull's nurse," it seemed to say. "She'll be a good object lesson by the time he finds her!"

Into the dim haze of her consciousness came the memory of the morning, and of the arrival of the threatening missive. This monster was human, then; and the thought revived some of her ebbing courage. She tried feebly to struggle.

But there was no strength in Carol anywhere, save in her voice, and even her shrieks were growing fainter. . . .

 

She had not quite lost consciousness—she insisted later—but she could not remember how she came to be upright and on her feet again, with the blood streaming dizzily through her veins, and the various suction cups on her skin releasing their hold. She was leaning against the wall, also against someone, and the fiery little room was loud with shouts.

Fearfully, she turned her head. Jeffrey Fairchild had found her. How, or when—that didn't matter. She realized that all the laughing gargoyles had lost their masks—excepting one who had last held her. There was a smoking gun in Jeff's hand. He was raising the gun and taking point-blank aim at the remaining devil—the Octopus.

Simultaneously with Jeff's pulling the trigger, she saw one of those long green arms snake out and fasten around his wrist, and she thought she could hear the audible click as the gun-hammer hit on a spent cartridge. Jeff seemed suddenly torn from her side, but then she realized that he had hit the monster with a flying tackle that carried them both across the room.

They squirmed and rolled in a tangle of flying limbs, with those long green arms encircling Jeff. Jeff had switched his gun into his left hand which was still free, and with it he kept beating the monster back, hitting it in the face, while he had managed to get his right hand near his side in spite of the gripping scaly tentacle.

She saw his fingers flick briefly into the side pocket of his jacket, and come out holding something that glistened in the dim light of the smoke-filled room. He swung his fist, holding the shining object toward the side of the monster's head, but the other eluded him by throwing himself backward and releasing Jeff altogether.

The monster rolled over into a corner, one of the long arms reached far back and threw something, and suddenly the room was dark, filled with acrid, lung-searing gas.

She coughed, struggled for breath with which to scream, and then she felt Jeff's arms around her again, lifting her up, carrying her outside.

She tried to ask him about it, when at last they were outside; what was it that had made the monster suddenly release him and act as if he were afraid? But Jeff wasn't listening. He wrapped his own torn coat around her, and then she was in a taxi with Jeff and Robert. She was growing ill, for that smell seemed to linger on every square inch of her body. . . .

Jeff seemed to know about the poison that seemed to be eating into her skin. In his own apartment, he sponged her aching body with warm water and some kind of liniment.

"Sorry to make you play nursemaid," she smiled faintly.

He didn't answer, merely pulled the cool sheet over her, and reached for her wounded hand. Carefully, he began to wind a new bandage about it.

"Where's Dr. Skull?" she asked. "There were some men, and a letter—from that thing. . . ."

She told him about the letter that had come in the doctor's mail, and Jeff listened, quietly.

"I think Dr. Skull will take care of himself," Jeffrey said then. "You try to sleep. And—better leave guns alone!"

She writhed into some kind of comfort in the cool darkness. How had Jeffrey known that her hand had been hurt by the explosion of an old revolver? Did it look that bad?

She fell asleep in the middle of plans for securing an up-to-date, non-burstable, conveniently concealable police revolver. It was all very well to be a lady in normal times—but when armed intruders entered your place of business, and when you were likely to meet an—octopus—in a place several degrees hotter than hades . . . well, even a lady might be pardoned for packing her own protection!

Back | Next
Framed