Sunday, March 29, 2009

Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (part 4 of 22)

By Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson
IV -- The Red Death Promise

An interval of a dozen seconds, Doc waited.
"Let's go!" he breathed then. "You fellows make for that room quick!"
The 5 men spun and began descending from the platform as swiftly as they dared. But it would take them minutes in the darkness and the jumble of girders to reach the spot where the elevators could carry them on.
"Where's Doc?" Monk rumbled when they were down a couple of stories.
Doc was not with them, they now noted.
"He stayed behind!" snapped waspish Ham. Then as Monk accidentally nudged him in the dangerous murk, "Listen, Monk! Do you want me to kick you off here?"
Doc, however, had not exactly remained behind. With the uncanny nimbleness of a forest-dwelling monkey, he had flashed across a precarious path of girders until he reached the supply elevators, erected by the workmen on the outside of the building for fetching up materials.
The cages were hundreds-of-feet below on the ground. And there was no one to operate the controls. But Doc knew that.
On the lip of the elevator shaft -- balanced by the grip of his powerful knees -- he shucked off his coat. He made it into a bundle in his hands.
The stout wire cables which lifted the elevator cab were barely discernible. A full 8 feet out over space they hung. But with a gentle leap, Doc launched out and seized them. Using his coat to protect his palms from the friction heat sure to be generated, he let himself slide down the cables.
Air swished past his ears and plucked at his trouser legs and shirtsleeves. The coat smoked and began to leave a trail of sparks. Halfway down, Doc braked to a stop by tightening his powerful hands and changed to a fresh spot in the coat.
So it was that Doc had already reached the street even while thin waspish Ham was threatening to kick the gigantic Monk off the girder if Monk shoved him again.
It was imperative to get to the office before the departure of the prowler who had lighted the match! Doc plunged into the taxi he had left standing in front and rapped an order.
Doc's voice had a magical quality of compelling sudden obedience to an order. With a squawl of clashing gears and a whine of spinning tires, the taxi doubled around in the street. It covered the several blocks in a fraction-of-a-minute.
A bronze streak, Doc was out of the cab and in the skyscraper lobby. He confronted the elevator operator.
"What sort of a looking man did you take up to '86' a few minutes ago?"
"There ain't a soul come in this building since you left!" said the elevator operator positively.

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Doc's brain fought the problem an instant. He had naturally supposed the sniper had invaded the room above. But it seemed not.
"Get this!" he clipped at the operator. "You wait here and be ready to sic my 5 men on anybody who comes out of this building. They will be here in a minute. I'm taking your cage up."
In the cage with the last word, Doc sent it sighing upward a couple of city blocks. He stopped it one floor below the 86th … quitted it there … and crept furtively up the stairs and to the suite of offices which had been his father's but which was now Doc's own.
The suite door gaped ajar. Inside was sepia blackness that might hold anything.
Doc popped the corridor lights off as a matter of safety. He feared no encounter in the dark. He had trained his ears by a system of scientific sound exercises which was a part of the 2 hours of intensive physical and mental drill Doc gave himself daily. So powerful and sensitive had his hearing become that he could detect sounds absolutely inaudible to other people. And ears were all-important in a scrimmage in the dark!
But a quick round of the 3 rooms -- a moment of listening in each -- convinced Doc the quarry had fled.
His men arrived in the corridor with a great deal of racket. Doc lighted the offices and watched them come in. Monk was absent.
"Monk remained downstairs on guard," Renny explained.
Doc nodded, his golden eyes flickering at the table. On that table -- where none had been before -- was propped a blood-red envelope!
Crossing over quickly, Doc picked up a book, opened it, and used it like pincers to pick up the strange scarlet missive. He carried it into the Laboratory and dunked it in a bath of concentrated disinfectant fluid -- stuff calculated to destroy every possible germ.
"I've heard of murderers leaving their victims an envelope full of the germs of some rare disease," he told the others dryly. "And remember, it was a strange malady that seized my father."
Carefully, he picked the crimson envelope apart until he had disclosed the missive it held. Words were lettered on scarlet paper with an odious black ink. They read:


Turn back from your quest lest the Red Death strike once again.

There was no signature.
A silent group, they went back to the room where they had found the vermilion missive.

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It was Long Tom who gave voice to a new discovery. He leveled a rather pale hand at the box which held the ultraviolet light apparatus.
"That isn't sitting where we left it!" he declared.
Doc nodded. He had already noticed that, but he did not say so. He made it a policy never to disillusion one of his men who thought he had been first to notice something or get an idea although Doc himself might have discovered it far earlier. It was this modesty of Doc's which helped endear him to everybody he was associated with.
"The prowler who came in and left the red note used the black-light apparatus," he told Long Tom. "It's a safe guess that he inspected the window Johnny put together."
"Then he read the invisible writing on the glass!" Renny rumbled.
"Very likely."
"Could he make heads-or-tails of it?"
"I hope he could," Doc said mysteriously.
They all betrayed surprise at that. But Doc -- turning away -- indicated he wasn't ready to amplify on his strange statement. Doc borrowed the magnifying glass that Johnny wore in his left spectacle lens and inspected the door for fingerprints.
"We'll get whoever it was," Ham decided. The waspish lawyer made a wry smile. "One look at Monk's ugly phiz and nobody would try to get out of here!"
But at that instant, the elevator doors rolled back out in the corridor.
Monk waddled from the lift like a huge anthropoid.
"What d'you want?" he asked them.
They stared at him, puzzled.
Monk's big mouth crooked a gigantic scowl. "Didn't one of you phone downstairs for me to come right up?"
Doc shook his bronze head slowly. "No."
Monk let out a bellow that would have shamed the beast he resembled! He stamped up-and-down. He waved his huge corded arms that were inches longer than his legs.
"Somebody run a whizzer on me!" he howled. "Whoever if was, I'll wring his neck! I'll pull off his ears! I'll give …"
"You'll be in a cage at the zoo if you don't learn the manners of a man," waspish Ham said bitingly.
Monk promptly stopped his ape-like prancing and bellowing. He looked steadily at Ham -- starting with Ham's distinguished shock of prematurely gray hair and running his little eyes slowly down Ham's well-cared-for face, perfect business suit, and small shoes.
Suddenly Monk began to laugh! His mirth was a loud, hearty roar.
At the gusty laughter, Ham stiffened. His face became very red with embarrassment.
For all Monk had to do to get Ham's goat was laugh at him. It had all started back in the War when "Ham" was Brigadier General Theodore Marley Brooks. The brigadier general had been the moving spirit in a little scheme to teach Monk certain French words which had a meaning entirely different than Monk thought. As a result, Monk had spent a session in the guardhouse for some things he had innocently called a French general.
A few days after that, though, Brigadier General Theodore Marley Brooks was suddenly hauled up before a court-martial, accused of stealing hams. And convicted! Somebody had expertly planted plenty of evidence.
"Ham" got his nickname right there. And to this day, he had not been able to prove it was the homely Monk who framed him. That rankled Ham's lawyer soul.
Unnoticed, Doc Savage had reached over and turned on the ultraviolet-light apparatus. He focused it on the pieced-together window and then called to the others: "Take a look!"
The message on the glass had been changed!

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There now glowed with an eerie blue luminance exactly 8 more words than had been in the original message. The communication now read:
Important papers back of the red brick house at corner of Mountainair and Farmwell Streets
"Hey!" exploded the giant Renny. "How …"
With a lifted hand and a nod at the door, Doc silenced Renny and sent them all piling into the corridor.
As the elevator rushed them downward, Doc explained. "Somebody decoyed you upstairs so they could get away, Monk."
"Don't I know it!" Monk mumbled. "But what I can't savvy is who added words to that message?"
"That was my doing," Doc admitted. "I had a hunch the sniper might have seen us working with the ultraviolet-light apparatus. And he would be smart enough to see what it was. I hoped he'd try to read the message. So I changed it to lead him into a trap."
Monk popped the knuckles in hands that were near as big as gallon pails. "Trap is right! Wait'll I get my lunch shovels on that guy!"
Their taxi was still waiting outside. The driver began a wailing, "Say! When am I gonna get paid? You gotta pay for the time I been waitin' …"
Doc handed the man a bill that not only silenced him but also nearly made his eyes jump out!
North on Fifth Avenue, the taxi raced. Water whipped the windshield and washed the windows. Doc and Renny -- riding outside once more -- were pelted with the moisture drops. Renny bent his face away from the stinging drops. But Doc seemed no more affected than had he really been of bronze. His hair and skin showed not the least wetness.
"This red brick house at the corner of Mountainair and Farmwell Streets is deserted," Doc called once. "That's why I gave that address in the addition to the note."
Inside the cab, Monk rumbled about what he would do to whoever had tricked him.
A motorcycle cop fell in behind them, opened his siren, and came up rapidly. But when he caught sight of Doc -- like a striking figure of bronze on the side of the taxi -- the officer waved his hand respectfully. Doc didn't even know the man. The officer must have been one who knew and revered the elder Savage.
The cab reeled into a less frequented street, slanting around corners. Rows of unlighted houses made the thoroughfare like a black, ominous tunnel.
"Here we are," Doc told their driver at last.

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"Ghostly" described the neighborhood. The streets were narrow and the sidewalks narrower. The cement of both was cracked and rutted and gone entirely in places. Chugholes filled with water reached half to their knees.
"You each have one of Monk's gas bombs?" Doc asked, just to be sure.
They had.
Doc breathed terse orders of campaign. "Monk in front, Long Tom and Johnny on the right, Renny on the left. I'll take the back. Ham, you stay off to one side as a sort of reserve if some quick-thinking and moving has to be done."
Doc gave them half-a-minute to place themselves. Not long. But all the time they needed. He went forward himself.
The red brick house on the corner had 2 ramshackle stories. It had been deserted a long time. 2 of the 3 porch posts canted crazily. Shingles still clung to the roof only in scabs. The windows were planked up solid. And the brick looked rotten and soft.
The streetlamp at the corner cast light so pale as to be near nonexistent.
Doc encountered brush and eased into it with a peculiar twisting, worming movement of his powerful, supple frame. He had seen great jungle cats slide through dense leafage in that strangely noiseless fashion and had copied it himself. He made absolutely no sound.
And in a moment, he had raised his quarry.
The man was at the rear of the house, going over the back yard a foot-at-a-time, lighting matches in succession.
He was short but perfectly formed with a smooth yellow skin and a seeming plumpness that probably meant great muscular development. His nose was curving, slightly hooked; his lips full; and his chin not particularly large. A man of a strange race.
The ends of his fingers were dyed a brilliant scarlet.
Doc did not reveal himself at once but watched curiously.
The stocky, golden-skinned man seemed very puzzled. As indeed he had reason to be for what he sought was not there. He muttered disgustedly in some strange clucking language.
When he heard the words, Doc held back even longer. He was astounded! He had never expected to hear a man speaking that language as though it were his native tongue.
For it was the lingo of a lost civilization!
The stocky man showed signs of giving up his search. He lit one more match, putting his box away as though he didn't intend to ignite more. Then he stiffened.
Into the soaking night had permeated a low, mellow, trilling sound like the song of some exotic bird. It seemed to emanate from underfoot, overhead, to the sides, everywhere … and nowhere. The stocky man was bewildered. The sound was startling, but not awesome.
Doc was telling his men to beware. There might be more of the enemy about than this one fellow.
The stocky man half-turned, searching the darkness. He took a step toward a big, double-barreled elephant rifle that leaned against a pile of scrap wood near him. It was of huge caliber that rifle, fitted with telescopic sights. The man's hand started to close over the gun …
… and Doc had him!
Doc's leap was more expert even than the lunge of a jungle prowler. For the victim gave not even a single bleat before he was pinned, helpless in arms that banded him like steel and a hand that cut off his wind as though his throat had been poured full of lead!

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Swiftly, the others came up. They had found no one else about.
"I'd be glad to hold him for you!" Monk suggested hopefully to Doc. His furry fingers opened and shut.
Doc shook his head and released the prisoner. The man instantly started to run. But Doc's hand -- floating out with incredible speed -- stopped the man with a snap that made his teeth pop together like clapped hands!
"Why did you shoot at us?" Doc demanded in English.
The stocky man spewed clucking gutturals, highly excited.
Doc looked swiftly aside at Johnny.
The gaunt archaeologist -- who knew a great deal about ancient races -- was scratching his head with thick fingers. He took off the glasses with the magnifying lens on the left side … then nervously put them back on again.
"It's incredible!" he muttered. "The language that fellow speaks … I think it is ancient Mayan. The lingo of the tribe that built the great pyramids at Chichen Itza -- then vanished. I probably know as much about that language as anybody on Earth. Wait a minute and I'll think of a few words."
But Doc was not waiting. To the squat man, he spoke in ancient Mayan! Slowly … halting … having difficulty with the syllables, it was true … but he spoke nevertheless understandably.
And the squat man -- more excited than ever -- spouted more gutturals.
Doc asked a question.
The man made a stubborn answer.
"He won't talk," Doc complained. "All he will say is a lot of stuff about having to kill me to save his people from something he calls the Red Death!"

To Be Continued...Now!

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