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Chapter Ten
Fresh Blood For The Octopus

THE SUN POURED into Carol Endicott's bedroom, and she woke to an evil memory. "It was only a dream," she thought, as reassuring daylight made a bright thing of her room. "Only a bad dream . . . ." She turned, and tried to sleep again.

But the thing which had awakened her would not be silent. Persistently, in another room, a telephone was ringing, and she knew by its tone that it was the private wire between Jeffrey Fairchild's apartment and the offices of Dr. Skull. Jeff had it installed in order to keep in constant touch with Robert, who, when he was not at the hospital, lived with the doctor.

Who, she thought through her troubled drowsiness, would be at the doctor's office now? For she and Robert were here—and the doctor was missing.

She lifted the receiver, and announced primly enough, "Mr. Fairchild's residence."

No response. Only a soft click. . . . Alarmed, Carol tried to ring the other end. It didn't work. The line was dead.

"Jeff!" She knocked at the door of his room, for it was a puzzle that justified her awakening him. But Jeffrey did not answer either. . . .

She heard the back door-bell ringing, and recalled that it was time for the cook to come to work. It would be a relief, she thought, as she went to the service entrance, to have someone else in the house to talk to—Her hand turned the knob, and a smile of welcome was on her lips when suddenly she stopped.

A scream eddied to her lips, a scream that was choked back by the huge hand that closed clammily over her mouth.

They were vast, distorted, grotesque, the man and woman on the threshold; half-human, half-nameless beasts. Carol struggled with all the power of utter revulsion against that gagging grasp, but the man was stronger than she.

"Don't be afraid," the man was saying in a harsh guttural whisper. "I don't mean to hurt you. . . . I only want to find Dr. Skull. Don't scream when I let you go; I must talk to you—"

The grip on her mouth relaxed, and Carol took a deep breath. Something in the creature's tone banished her fear and oddly now— she felt only pity.

"I'm Dr. Skull's nurse," she said. "But I don't know, myself, where he is. What made you come here? Was it you who called a moment ago?"

The man nodded. "He had us—in his house, in the cellar. We found a tunnel and it came to this building, but there were so many apartments. Then we used the phone. You told us which apartment you were in, and we found this place by the directory in the basement. No one has seen us. No one—ought to."

"I'll call Mr. Fairchild," Carol said helplessly. "He may help you more than I can. Just wait inside; I'll be right back."

She went back to Jeffrey's room, knocked again, and then opened the door. Incredulously, unhappily, she stared at four walls and a ceiling, at the bed which had not been slept in. For Jeffrey was gone.

* * *

A queer sort of grimace, half-leer, half-tragic, came over his ghastly features. "There must be lots of—people—disappearing," the man-creature said in his toneless, grunting voice.

"But, Jeffrey. . . . You don't understand," Carol mourned.

For the first time, painfully, the woman of the pair spoke. "The purple light," she said slowly. "Last night—he said—there was a purple light. Maybe—that's where they all are. Do you know anything about that?"

Carol remembered her dream—or was it a dream? "No," she said slowly, "I don't know—but it's on that new building. . ."

"You've got to take us there," he said.

Carol took a last shocked glance at her visitors, and went for her coat. No sense waking Robert—it wouldn't matter to him that Jeff was gone. And he might be a nuisance about being left alone. So, to insure privacy, she went down the back stairs with the grotesque pair, and hailed a taxi.

She had expected, at the very least, that the cabbie would be surprised, but he only looked at her with a queer I'm-glad-I'mnot-in-your-shoes kind of sympathy and said, "Victory Building, miss?"

"I guess so," Carol answered bewilderedly. Things seemed to have proceeded vastly during the night, so that the city was altogether changed. She felt like a pawn in a game whose rules she did not know, and she could not imagine at what point in the future she would be again allowed to take her fate into her own hands.

Then she saw the traffic converging as though by design, upon a single point. A whole corps of uniformed policemen were directing traffic either to or from one central point—and ahead loomed the Victory Building, its peak barely discernible in the low-lying late autumn clouds.

As the cars packed closer to one another, she realized that hers was not the only ghastly cargo of deformed humanity. There were others—hundreds of others of the gruesome half-human Things.

A sob caught in her throat, and the woman-thing beside her said, "Not nice, is it?"

Not nice . . . no, decidedly not nice. It was vast and terrifying and inexplicable, like watching a stray star rush toward the earth, knowing that collision would mean the end of history and of men. It was cruel and mad, and there was almost nothing to do about it but press through the crowd and wait. . . .

The taxi drew up in front of the entrance, and a man in white helped her get her passengers out. All three walked in the slow file across the sidewalk, and at the great portals, a man with a badge asked officially, "Your name, miss?"

"Carol Endicott," she said. "I'm a nurse, and these people are my doctor's patients. We want to find him . . . it's Dr. Skull."

Even before the man-monster behind her gasped, "Don't tell him!" she knew it had been a mistake.

The man with the badge stiffened; one hand fell heavily on her shoulder, and the other brought a whistle to his lips.

"It's the Skull's nurse!" he shouted. "Don't let her get away . . . !"

The pack behind her thickened. Only ahead, into the building, was there any sort of passage to escape. Carol writhed in the official's grasp, and her eyes widened as she saw the man-thing slam into her captor with terrific force. She felt the clasp of a cold hand on her wrist, and one of her patients whispered, "Run!"

They ran—up stairways, into elevators, down bewildering corridors, always with the hue and cry behind them, "The Skull's nurse! Don't let her get away!"

This is how a mouse feels, Carol thought hectically, with a cat after it . . . for she was not choosing her own route. Always, the pursuers seemed to circle at all but one point, as though they were deliberately leaving clear passage for her, but she dared not defy the route they seemed to have chosen for her. After all, that might just be an accident. . . .

 

Suddenly, in a short hall between two doors, the sound of pursuit ceased. Carol had no idea where she was—and when she looked questioningly at her patients, she realized that they were looking at her in the same manner.

Echoes of the chase sounded beyond the door to the right—that settled it. Carol opened the left-hand door, and walked in.

It was very dark, but there were people moving about. Something rose up in front of her, something that was sick in an ungodly way, and it said, "What are you doing here? Do you want to be killed?"

Carol blinked, and then she saw the shape of the other occupants of the room. They were dozens of monsters, in all stages of physical and mental deterioration. Carol's monster-guide stepped in front of her as though for protection, and she heard him ask hoarsely of the creature which had just accosted her, "We were chased here. Are there many of you? Will they hurt this girl?"

The creature—he was a man once, Carol realized—shrugged his flattened shoulders. "Someone else got chased here," he said. "I'll show you what they did to him. . . ."

He elbowed his way through the sniffling pack who stared at Carol with avid, hungry eyes, led them to a narrow cot on which lay a man. He seemed well enough, save for the long angry gashes on his face, throat, and bared chest.

Carol looked at him, and uttered a little gasp. "Dr. Steele! What have they done to you? Does anyone know?"

Dr. Anthony Steel lifted his head ever so little, and tried to grin. He didn't succeed, and Carol hadn't the heart to grin back at him. "You're that cute little nurse—of Dr. Skull's," said Steele. "I remember you—God, I'm glad to see—someone I know. . . ."

Carol knelt beside the cot, unmindful of the stench of the sick flesh all about her. Somehow, she was glad, too, that someone he knew would be on hand when merry young Dr. Steele. . . . No, she couldn't even think the word. But he was very low; very low and helpless. . . .

"You tell—your doc—it's Borden," Tony Steele whispered. "He— thought I was trying to—find out too much. These people—half of 'em O.K. in the noggin; the others . . . plain nuts. They—did this to me. Carol, listen: Save the sane ones. Electric heart-beat—start the heart working right again. Step it up. Seventy-two a minute, like it should be. Just a hunch—but I'm sure."

 

Carol stared miserably at Steele's white face. And at a light tap on her shoulder, she turned.

The thing she faced was more bloated and twisted than the others, and his skin was a vile yellowish color. . . . But his brown eyes had bright memories.

"You know what he means?" the monster whispered. "He means that electric stimulation will cure this condition. When you get out of here, tell that to the police!"

Something about the man's voice struck a familiar chord. . . . She must have met him somewhere, Carol thought, before this happened to him. "The police are looking for me," she said bitterly. "I'm Dr. Skull's nurse. That seems to be a crime."

The man said, "You are also someone's friend." He stepped backward, and Tony Steele was trying to talk to her again. . . .

"That's White," he said. "A good guy, White, and lousy trick they played him. . . . Carol!" He sat up suddenly, and his eyes were wide with fright. Carol reached her hand into the groping clasp, felt it squeezed hard. "Carol—it can't be over for me! I—didn't want to die! Didn't even want—to be a damn hero! Don't let me go—for the love of God, don't let me go!"

Carol put an arm behind the young man's shoulders, supporting him in a sitting position. "Steady," she murmured. "It's all right . . . all right. . . ."

"Sure," said Tony Steele, somehow more calm. "That's better. . . . Sure, it's all right, now. . . ."

This time, he succeeded to grin. It was a transient, brave gesture, then suddenly Tony Steele's body went heavy and inert against Carol's arm. As Carol laid him back slowly against the cot, she saw the blood spurt with scarlet finality from the long cruel line on the left side of Steele's chest. . . . It was his heart's-blood they had taken.

Borden, he had said, was responsible. The eminent Dr. Borden was a murderer.

And then Carol heard someone else say it, heard the monster named White crying at the others, "You all know who's at the bottom of this—you all know now, all of you whose minds haven't been wrecked, who your real enemies are. I'm going after Borden and his gang, and if you won't come with me, I'm going alone!"

A babel of shouts broke out, and Carol realized that most of the monsters were following White as he hurled himself against the door. She knelt beside Tony Steele's body, and wondered if the same thing had happened to Jeffrey. . . .

Someone grasped her wrist roughly; White had come back for her. "Some of these people are staying," he said. "They're killers. . . . You're coming with us. You'll be safer."

There was something in the hideous man's brown eyes. . . .

Carol rose, and walked by his side through the open door, down seemingly endless corridors and rooms, and then one more door. White kicked it open, and they were facing a green-colored figure wearing a pointed mask, sitting across a desk on the other side of a glass partition.

Carol gasped, "That's the man! The one who calls himself the Oc—" but she could not finish. .

For suddenly, underneath the mask, a purple light began to glow, grow stronger and larger, until it covered the whole of the face of the mask. Two gigantic eyes seemed to focus upon her, blinding her, stopping her speech.

A tremendous wave of heat seemed to shrivel her skin, as it had done on that previous occasion at the burning hospital. She heard guttural shouts all about her, miraculously heard someone calling her name, and then she was falling, falling, into purple depths of oblivion. And from a great distance she seemed to sense, rather than hear, the cruel thin laughter of the Octopus!

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Framed