Back | Next
Contents

Chapter Five
While The City Sleeps

THAT MONDAY AT MIDNIGHT, a new beacon flared in the Manhattan skyline. It seemed to waver at first, like a star trying to be born, and then one brilliant plume of violet light shot upward and southward. A sparkling spray edged electrically bright from either side . . . and then the ray thickened, rose and seemed to comb the constellations. Feeling its way among the scattered clouds like a thing alive—huge, probing tentacle!

Then, after the momentary display which attracted a thousand eyes, it settled into a steady purple glow.

Having erected a new and notable skyscraper on Columbus Circle, the owner of the just-completed Victory Building had crowned his work with a signal so starkly beautiful that the other steel peaks of Manhattan paled by comparison. There was something eerie about the purple light, something that suggested the island's future as it towered closer and closer, dynamically victorious, towards unattainable heights of sky.

So the men in the streets thought, as they clustered in little groups to gape at the star-searcher. So the lone pilot thought, as the wing-tip of his empty transport plane seemed to catch momentary violet fire, two thousand feet above the crest of the Victory Building. But almost instinctively, for reasons he could never explain, he sent the ship into a steep bank, to avoid that purple glow.

Jeffrey Fairchild, watching from his northwest window, read another significance in the blazing beacon. It was the same light, multiplied by millions of watts, as the one that those pitiful lost souls in the basement chamber required for life. It was the same light, concentrated and directed, as he had seen glowing on the walls of the Mid-City Hospital an hour before its collapse!

The color of Satan victorious. . . . In that beacon, Jeffrey thought, he saw the risen flag of evil conquest over an already doomed city. Had the Octopus laid his plans so well, was his position already so firm, that he could hoist his eerie standard boldly in plain sight of the City's millions?

Desperately, Jeffrey assured himself that there might not be a connection. The purple beacon was—must be—only a purple beacon. But after all that had happened that day, he could hardly believe in such coincidence.

It was the end of Dr. Skull—at least for a while. Already the city itself was ready to prosecute that mild-mannered professional man for murder and worse. If the enemy had raised his standard, his next attack on the quarters of Dr. Skull would be neither insidious nor subtle. Rather, it would be the high-handed devastation of the conquering invader—there was no room in the same city for two buildings representing such opposing philosophies as the humble quarters of Dr. Skull, and the arrogant new temple of the twentieth century Satan!

Some day, Dr. Skull might continue his offices and functions, and heart-brokenly, Jeffrey hoped that he could. In the meantime, it was for Jeffrey Fairchild to discover the true nature of that ominous and brightly sinister banner.

 

Carol woke with cold sweat draining from every pore. She had dreamed of that time in Dr. Skull's office when two fiercely garnet-colored eyes had attempted to stare her into hideous obedience. . . . But now she was safe in Jeffrey Fairchild's house and it was only the Broadway dawn coming through the blinds that had caused her troubled dream of that time when she had been kidnapped.

The Broadway dawn—New York's nocturnal neon life—but what a strange color! She rose on her knees in bed, and drew the curtains.

A mile tall in the sky, sharp and radiant as a sword, pierced the shaft of purple light. Carol gasped, and rubbed her cold arms. Was this the end for them all; had the nightmare been realer than she thought? Her body ached with weariness. It had been a hard day, a dreadful day and she could still feel the chafing in her ankles where those men. . . .

Outraged, her mind shrank from the memory. Another woman might have been hysterical for days. Not Carol—but she didn't want to think. . . .

Someone else had to think for her, someone stronger than she. She could act, she could fight, she could endure. But to anticipate and face the terrors she knew to be waiting—no, she couldn't do that, till her nerves and muscles forgot that too-recent torture!

No one but Jeffrey was strong enough to help her. With Jeffrey beside her, she could kneel and be calm in the valley of sinister shadow. . . .

She pulled the curtains against that stark image in the sky, and lurched forward on her pillow.

In the morning, she thought drowsily, when true dawn cleaned the sky with serene sunlight, she would be sure that she had never wakened; she would only think that her nightmare had taken some odd and realistic twist. . . .

 

Jeffrey passed softly into the dark room where Robert slept. Before he went out into the night, he wanted to look once more at his brother's face. That one look might perforce last him through eternity.

A wind rustled the half-drawn shade, and the boy sighed quietly. Was he awake? Jeffrey half hoped so. If he could hear Robert's voice now, the night ahead would be easier. . . . But Robert did not stir.

The very darkness had a purplish cast, and that glowing arm of radiance was clearly visible from the window. As his eyes grew more accustomed to the dimness, Jeffrey saw that Robert was propped up in bed, his face turned toward the window. There was an open book in the boy's lap. He must have been reading it when the glow came, and he had turned the light off the better to watch that curious beacon.

Jeff sat beside the bed and waited for Robert to speak.

"Funny looking thing, isn't it, Jeff?"

"Very. What were you reading?"

For seconds, Robert did not answer. Then he said, "Jeff, did you notice, just before the hospital caught fire, that the walls were just that color? Sort of—purple and alive?"

"Why, yes," said Jeffrey.

"It's funny," said Robert, "that you always show up when I need you. Guess I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you . . . It's too bad, Jeff, that we can't see eye to eye on things. I sometimes wish that I could get along with you. If you'd only drop your sloppy way of living. . . . If you'd only look at things the long way, care about the things that matter, the way Dr. Skull does. . . ."

"Skull?" Jeffrey breathed. "Well, where's your Dr. Skull now?" In spite of the fact that he himself lived in the two personalities, so clear and separate an entity had Dr. Skull become to Jeffrey, that he was almost jealous of his brother's affection for the old doctor. Especially so since that affection was denied to him.

Robert's voice grew lower. "I think he's hiding somewhere, Jeff. They're after him—oh, for all sorts of things he hasn't done! Murder—human vivisection, or worse! You know, Jeff, I almost understand why people believe that. Once I—" the boy broke off, then spoke again. "It's hard to believe at first that anyone can really be as kind and unselfish as Dr. Skull is. At one time, I even thought he was the Skull Killer—and of course, that's crazy. But he's not that way! He's good, clean through, and I wish I could find him and tell him so!"

"I might find him for you," Jeffrey murmured.

"You? You wouldn't even know him. You've always been too busy, or too lazy, or just too snobbish, to meet him when I asked you to. . . ."

To change the subject, Jeffrey said, "You still haven't told me about that book you were reading."

"This book? It really belongs to Dr. Skull. He gave it to me a long time ago, when he wanted me to do research for him on something called the Purple Eye. He was writing a paper for the Medical Association. There's something here I didn't tell him. Look here, Jeff—if you should happen to run into him any time, if you should recognize him, you tell him what it is, the way I'm going to tell you. Tell him about the Mid-City Hospital fire, too.

"But this book. . . . It's a book of legends—most of them just can't be swallowed in any shape. And I didn't tell him what I found, because it didn't have anything to do with eyes. There's a story here about Rome—the night before it burned. They saw a purple light around the Coliseum, and then the flames came. Only one man told about it—Dorican Agrippa—but he isn't generally considered a reliable source."

"I'll tell Dr. Skull if I see him," Jeffrey said, his eyes narrowed and thoughtful. Purple lights in the walls of doomed buildings! And now the very sky was threaded by that forewarning of destruction. "Think I'll let you get some sleep, Robert."

"Good idea," said the boy quietly. He sighed, and fell back against his pillow.

Jeffrey turned for another look from the doorway, but Robert no longer seemed aware of him. His face turned to the window, the boy motionlessly watched that arrogant purple signal in the sky.

 

Half an hour or so later, Jeffrey heard a faint scratching sound as he tunneled toward the underground chamber below Dr. Skull's office. It grew louder; and as he opened the door, he saw his monstrous pair of half-human things scraping the wooden floor under his cot with the nails of their thick spatulate fingers. The violet light there hurt his eyes, and he blinked, standing there on the threshold.

Before he could open his eyes again, a shrill cry of surprise echoed through the little chamber, and a rancid-smelling hand reached for his throat. Helplessly, he flailed at the flesh that hemmed him in.

"It's—the other one!" he heard the woman say, and then he was free. "Wait," she continued, her form seeming to waver and seethe crazily in that dazzling light. "We can change the lights for a few minutes, so you can stay—and talk to us."

In the charged darkness, Jeffrey scarcely knew whether or not another attack would be forthcoming, and then the room seemed half-normal again with the steady blaze of his own old hundred-watt bulb.

"We can last an hour without the other light," grunted the man-thing. His great shrunken eyes traveled unblinkingly the length

of Jeffrey's person. "Are you—Dr. Skull?"

Jeffrey nodded.

"They hate you," the woman said. "They came for you." She paused. The pair took turns in speaking, as though it were difficult for one alone to sustain a conversation.

"I switched your radio," said the man. "Switched it both ways. Upstairs—we heard men upstairs. They talked—they were detectives. They wanted you—and us. They went away soon."

"Then the others," said the woman. "The doctors—the bad doctors—and the one they call the Octopus. . . . They came to find if Dr. Skull—had been arrested. You're not one of them. They said so. They want to kill you. You—may be all right."

"Help us," the man grunted in that thick, half-dead monotone.

Jeffrey backed against the wall. If he only could! Those pitiful outstretched reeds of arms, flattened into hideous fronds at the joints! He had come here to help them, but they would have to help him, too. They would have to tell him what was the matter with them, as best they could; who had done this to them; where he could find the man or men responsible for these atrocities.

"Who was your doctor?" he asked. "When this happened to you, I mean?"

"His name was Borden," the man answered. "But he—there's another, who tells him what to do. Another man—maybe another devil—the one whom I told you about."

"Who is he?" Jeffrey almost shouted.

Tragically, the woman shrilled, "We don't know. We don't know who he is, or how he did it. But he has his people all over. They call him the Octopus, but they all have crazy eyes, except Borden, who's their front. They took us here from the hospital. . . . For a long time they kept us apart. They were bad, bad. . . . But we can't—prove anything. . . ."

Who was the man behind the whole hellish scheme? Jeffrey tried agonizingly to think of a clue to his identity. "Why did they do it?" he asked. "What reason could anyone possibly have for doing this to you?"

For answer, the man squatted, and pulled something out from under the cot. "Maybe—this is the reason," he said.

Jeffrey couldn't answer; didn't know how to answer. Cold little waves of revulsion traveled up and down his spine, and he choked back the spontaneous animal cry that welled in his throat.

The thing under the cot had been a man once, before those tooth-marks had flapped the skin of its throat to loose ribbons.

There was no trace of blood at the severed jugular, no trace of blood in the entire, shrunken, half-naked frame. It was a grey, dried body, suggestively withered, with the flat layers of muscle and fat sagging against a limp bony structure . . . even the whites of the eyes were as bloodless as the belly of a dead fish. But the irises were a livid, staring purple!

"You took his blood!" Jeffrey whispered, when he could speak at all.

 

The bulbous misshapen head of the man-thing slowly rose and fell. "We must—have living blood. Otherwise—we die. That may be why—they did this to us. They are men who hate many people. They wanted us—to drink the blood of their enemies."

Jeffrey remembered Mrs. Purvins . . . and he tensed expectantly, waiting for some further attack on himself. It was impossible to tell from those hoarse gutturals whether the monsters feared, respected, or hungered for him. Their tones were utterly flat and emotionless, save for that heavy undercurrent of dread tragedy. "He came here," the woman said. "He—looked for us. He came in—but he never told the others he had found us. He will never tell now—about anything. We had to silence him. . . . And then we were thirsty."

So the enemy had committed one boomerang atrocity! It was the first time, to Jeffrey's knowledge, that such a thing had happened.

The man repeated, with a tense desperation somehow threading the harsh, lifeless guttural quality of his speech, "Help us. Please help us—Dr. Skull. . . ."

Jeffrey said, "I'll need a blood sample."

The man's lips moved in what might have been a smile. He rolled his bathrobe sleeve, baring a yellowish gash in his arm. "He did that," said the man. "That's—all I have for blood."

Jeffrey didn't have to analyze it. He tried to find the pair's pulses, and couldn't. The yellowish stuff . . . was like that cold, primitive compound which had been in the veins of Mrs. Purvins. Sea-water, in human bodies! That's why they needed the constant renewing warmth of living blood. But these people, unlike Mrs. Purvins, gave evidence of logical reasoning.

Jeffrey asked them who they had been, their ages, and how they had come under the care of Dr. Borden.

Her husband caught pneumonia, the woman said, and then she caught it from him. Because there was no one to take care of them, they had both gone to the hospital. And that was where, in the secrecy of a private room, its horror guarded from public knowledge by the almost military discipline of a hospital, the transformation had taken place.

The man was thirty, the woman twenty-six. Their name was Halliday, Stephen and Eleanor Halliday.

From the wall amplifier, came a thudding interruption. Someone was leaving the office of Dr. Skull . . . leaving in a hurry!

Back | Next
Framed