All characters are © the author. All characters in this story are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The Packer Building stood four-square on the corner of 12 th & Rosemartin, Delacote City, NH. Delacote was a city, but not a big city; located on the Atlantic coast halfway between Hampton and Rye. The Packer was a skyscraper; but not a high skyscraper. ‘ Drever & Cartwright ' were a small firm, with a small angle, in a small business: but they got by. Now the two leading lights of the firm were ascending in the elevator to floor 12b, intent on showing their clients just how good they could get by, when required. The year was 1935; the time was 9.35pm; the season was the first chill edge of winter; and the day was All Hallow's Eve, October 31 st .
“This here's a bum rap, sister, an' you know it!”
The speaker; brown-haired, blue-eyed, medium-statured, 26 years old and sassy, leaned against the glass mirror set in the side of the elevator and contemplated her long-term partner, Fiona ‘Fay' Cartwright.
“Can it, gal.”
Fiona; 28 years old, black-haired, hazel-eyed, and marginally taller, merely vouchsafed her ever-lovin' better half a tight-lipped sneer. Alice Drever was a beautiful partner, both behind a desk expertly fielding the lower class of client, and in bed making love like only she could. They'd been partners in business for six years, and partners in the crap-game of life for five years. Alice could be all sorts of a snappy-talker, but Fiona figured she had her pretty much sussed out by now. At least as much as a mix of Valkyrie, East-Coast broad, and one of the more self-assured of O Henry's heroines, could ever be.
“So, what d'ya think this Stoddart character wants?” Alice was not particularly happy with the summons, received half an hour earlier by telephone, to talk urgently with the President of ‘ Marchlight Products, Inc '. “I haven't come all the way up from our office on the 5 th floor t'be told his wife's lost her poodle, Mei-Mei, an' he wants t'engage us t'find the bi—”
“Al, talk sense.” Fiona's reply was caustic. “We're detectives, not Lost Property clerks. You heard how concerned he was over the phone. He's got something substantial t'worry us with, don't fret. Scared'a chasing a poodle? Maybe worried it'd bite you?”
“Relax, baby.” Alice sounded complaisant. “Gim'me a break. God, you look good in that brown tweed suit. But ain't the waist-belt kind'a tight? Not that I'm complaining.”
“I'm fine.” Fiona allowed herself a slight smile. “I got a thin waist. If you'd only stick t'your diet you'd manage the same way.”
“Hey. I ain't fat.” Al took umbrage at this snide remark. “Thirty-two, Fay. Thirty-two. And don't try t'wriggle out of it. You can't come close.”
“I'm taller.” Fiona smirked with open derision. “That's what it is. There's just more of me.”
“Yeah. About a—”
Before this obviously offensive reply could hit the streets the elevator whined to its destination, with a clanking, quivering rattle; as if this was the last action of its long life. Fiona jerked open the metal cage-like door and they both walked out onto floor 12b. Alice closed the door behind them; wouldn't want any other late-night office workers, not that there were any, to have to use the stairs.
“So, where's ‘ Marchlight Products Inc '?”
“Turn left, Fay.” Al twisted her head in annoyance. “See the sign on the wall, right opposite ya? The first listing—‘ Marchlight Products, Inc—Turn Left '. It's that way, dear.”
“All these corridors always look the same to me.” Fiona however dutifully turned in the direction indicated. “Just like Hotels. I always get lost in Hotels.”
“Darling, you'd get lost on your way from our bedroom t'the bathroom.”
The office in question appeared on their left, halfway along the corridor. There were several other doors leading off the corridor on each side; but the women had reached the scene of their forthcoming appointment.
Fiona turned the door-handle and both women entered the office, to find themselves in the quintessential secretary's lair. The ceiling light was on; there was a hat-stand in the corner; a long leather couch on the right-hand side against the wall; a chair and small desk, the desk sporting a modern inter-com and a large typewriter; two doors in the long far wall, the nearer of which was partially open; and one window, looking out on the delights, and gas-fumes, of the crossroads far below.
“Ladies? In here, if you will.”
Fiona again stepped forward, to push wider the first of the two doors. Inside, the main office revealed itself as a large high-ceilinged room bordered by lines of steel filing-cabinets; two tall windows with closed venetian blinds; with a table and three chairs on the left side; and a large desk on the right, facing the windows. Standing behind the desk was a short, pale, rather overweight, balding man in his late fifties; sporting a sweating brow and an anxious expression.
“Mr Stoddart?” Alice took command with an insouciant air. “We got your call. So, what's up?”
“Just a moment.” Stoddart hurried round his desk and passed-by the ladies at a rate of knots, hauling a handkerchief from his trouser's-pocket to wipe his brow as he went. “Got'ta lock the outer door. Privacy, you know.”
Fiona regarded the passing of their client with a jaundiced eye. If there was one thing she liked above all else it was manners; these weren't manners. Alice, however, was made of sterner stuff. She gazed around, examining the appointments of the office. The floor was bare wood, stained a shiny dark brown. There was a smell of metal, varnish, polish, and stale cigarette smoke in the air.
“Huh. Welcome to the Astoria.” She whispered low into her partner's ear, not forgetting to blow gently as an encore. Then she walked across to sit on a chair, leaning her left elbow casually but decoratively, on the table. “OK, what's the gen, Fay?”
“How do I know.” Fiona finished rubbing her ear, as if a gnat had settled on it for a moment, then sat on one of the two chairs beside the now abandoned desk. “Stoddart'll tell us, when he gets back from his mission. Did you remember t'deposit the cheque from ‘ Ruthering & Complaice '; regarding that little contretemps we cleared up for them a fortnight ago?”
Alice at first forbore to answer such a silly enquiry. She never forgot to deposit cheques—it was her First Commandment, after all. Then she thought better of it.
“That contretemps, as you so sweetly call it, damn nearly took my left ear off; with that bullet from ‘ Braces ' Brannigan.” Alice curled her lip at the memory. “Damn bastard.”
“Hell, you know how bad a shot ‘ Braces ' is.” Fiona was unmoved. “Everyone knows he couldn't hit a barn-door if he was two feet away from it. Surprised his bullet came so close to ya.”
At that moment there was a heavy thump, as of something falling on the floor, from the outer secretary's office. The women listened for a few seconds, then returned to their conversation.
“Stoddart, probably trying to throw his hat on the stand an' knocking it over, instead.” Alice could be hard and unfeeling when required. “So, if this is gon'na turn out t'be a kosher case when can we fit it in our schedule, Fay?”
“Our schedule Al, as you well know, has enough empty space t'sail an ocean liner through without scraping its paint.” Fiona, on the other hand, was getting impatient. Her chief failing, so her partner was fond of remarking. “Say, where's Stoddart got to? How long does it take t'close a door, fer Chri—”
“Calm down. Don't get heated. You know it only makes you sweat.” Alice rose from her chair and walked over to the office door. “I'd give him a yell, but we ain't really acquainted yet. Hey, Mr Stodd—”
Alice's voice broke off, and there was a period of silence lasting several seconds before she turned once more to her partner sitting at the desk.
“Fiona, get your gun out, now!” Alice put her hand in the wide pocket of her tweed skirt and brought into the light her own .38 Colt Special. “There's a blood-soaked body at the main door, lying half-way into the outside corridor; an' I think it's Stoddart's.”
“What d'ya mean, ya think?” Fiona, gun in hand, came over to her companion's side. “Either it is Stoddart, or it's someone else— Jeesus! ”
The mess, and it was a bona-fide mess, which greeted her eyes consisted of the rear-end and legs of an unidentified body, lying on its stomach by the outer door with its chest and shoulders in the public corridor. The trousers were stained with spilt blood. There was a spreading pool of blood on the dark floorboards to either side of the body. The wall to the right of the door-entrance was liberally splashed with blood streaks; and the only visible arm and hand were crimson from the top of the shirt sleeve to the fingertips. There was no movement, and it was clear that the man, whoever he might be, was dead. Principally because, as the women drew closer, it became obvious that where his head used to be now lay only a torn still-dripping raw wound—there was no head.
“Ker—riist!” Fiona took a firmer grip on her snub-nosed revolver. “Stay away from the door, Al. If anybody suddenly appears, an' looks the least bit dangerous or suspicious, blast ‘em. God, what a mess. What happened to his head? Was it a shotgun?”
“A shotgun we would've heard, don't you think?” Alice, though shocked, was beginning to act like the detective she was. “There don't seem t'be any—any pieces of bone or—or—”
“I get ya, Al.” Fiona stepped carefully to the door, keeping away from the pool of blood. “Cover me. I'm gon'na peep round the door, an' see what's happening in the corridor.”
To her right, the way they had approached the office a few minutes ago, there was only the empty corridor. The ceiling lights shone on the slick linoleum covered floor all the way along to the elevator and beyond, where the corridor made a right-angled bend and disappeared. To her left, at the far end of the corridor, a light was out; leaving that area in darkness, with only the faint glow of the lights shining from further along the unseen left-angle of the corridor round the sharp bend. As Fiona looked to this far corner she suddenly saw, appearing silhouetted for an instant in the darkness there, a shape which rapidly slipped round the corner and was lost to sight almost as quickly as she had glimpsed it.
“Al, we got a problem.” She stepped back to join Alice nearer the centre of the secretary's office. “There's something out there. I saw it disappear round the corner of the left-hand corridor.”
“Something? Something? What d'ya mean, some- thing ?”
“I couldn't see it clearly in the dark at the end of the corridor.” Fiona tried to be specific and analytical. “But whatever it was, it wasn't human.”
“Not human.” Alice ignored the outstretched arm and worried frown of her companion and stepped delicately to the door. Putting her head round, she examined the far corridor bend. “Only darkness and shadows. It must'a been the shadows. You didn't get a clear look, an' mistook what you did see, that's all.”
“Oh yeah.” Fiona played her trump card. “So what happened to Stoddart's head? I'm assuming it is Stoddart. His head ain't just blasted to shrapnel, or squashed into goo, lady. It ain't here at all. It's gone. Now, how did anybody do that. So silently; so quickly; so expertly? Only askin'.”
This question brought up a forensic point of technique which made Alice turn pale; but she steeled her nerve and stepped forward to the body again.
“Was it cut off, or ripped off?” Alice gave the body a quick glance, then turned away. “God! I can't believe this is happening. I couldn't see, Fay.”
Fiona moved to her partner, and pulled her gently back towards the secretary's desk. “It's OK, Al. Here, sit down for a minute. I know it ain't a pretty sight.”
While Alice sat and took a few deep breaths, Fiona did her own bit of investigating. Bending down, she took a quick glance that appalled her; then a more determined, searching look at the remains; before she returned to Alice.
“Ripped off. Jagged edges an'—an' things.” Fiona took a breath herself. “Whoever did it is a monster. Whether human or not.”
“But why?” Alice had recovered her bearings, and began to bring a detective's cool logic to the situation. “What reason? What motive? Why Stoddart? What the Hell's goin' on here?”
“First off, we got'ta get means to close an' lock that outer door.” Fiona rose and extended her hand to her lover. “Come on. You go an' search the office desk. What we want are the door-keys. I'll—I'll try an' see if they're in the trouser pockets. OK?”
Three minutes later Alice opened the last drawer on the left-hand side of the desk, and found nothing of interest lying within. Then Fiona's voice came from the outer office.
“Got ‘em, Al. Come on.”
“OK, I think—God, what're you doin', Fay—that's illegal! The cop's'll have a fit or three.”
Fiona, in Alice's absence, had taken the opportunity to grab the body's ankles and haul the remains further into the small room. Then she had stepped over the pools of congealing blood to quietly push closed the door, till it clicked shut.
“We got'ta have the door closed an' locked, Al.” Fiona jingled the set of keys in her hand. “Found ‘em. Quicker it's locked, the better.”
A moment later the solid door, thankfully not one of those glass-panelled examples with etched or painted titles emblazoned across it, was firmly locked. The body lay in the centre of the floor, limp, ragged, bloodied, and somehow pathetic in its near shapelessness: all real humanity having departed from its confines. Fiona and Alice retreated to the abandoned inner office, to consult.
“Well, what d'we know?” Fiona was first to speak, once more. This was their usual method—to argue through all possible motives and reasons for a crime, till they came up with some rational possibility.
“We know that Stoddart's dead.” Alice always liked to start off these discussions by clearing up the main known facts. “He's as dead as Clyde Barrow, or Bonnie Parker. Or both, in fact. Now all we need'ta find out is why the murderer, or murderers, decided to take a piece of him away with them. Mafia, d'ya think? The Italian Mob?”
“No. Even they wouldn't do this.” Fiona shook her head. “We got'ta understand the method here. His head was ripped clean off. Or, as clean as you can rip somebody's head off. This is not your ordinary gangster hit, Al. There's real mean evil goin' on here.”
Alice considered this for a moment, rubbing her chin with her left hand. But there did not seem to be anything concrete to be gained by further examination of this aspect.
“OK. Well an' good.” She looked at Fiona, who was idly twirling her revolver in her right hand. “Stop that, it's dangerous. So,—motive. Why did someone want Stoddart dead. Let's ignore the way he bought it, for the moment. Why did he buy it?”
“What about the cops?” Fiona sat up, and indicated the telephone now at Alice's elbow where she reclined in the leather chair behind the large desk. “Figure we could do with the expert's advice on this one, Al. The quicker the better. Tell ‘em the perp's probably still in the building.”
It took only seconds for Alice to lift the receiver, dial a number, listen intently, dial the number again, listen once more, then hand the receiver to Fiona. When Fiona put the telephone to her ear she heard only silence. The phone, like their erstwhile client, was dead.
“I got'ta tell ya, Fay, I'm beginnin' t'get a bad feeling about this one.” Alice shuffled uncomfortably in her seat. “A headless body; a shapeless something lurking at the end of the corridor; telephone dead; an' I only have six extra bullets to reload with. How about you?”
“I got twelve.” Fiona frowned in concentration. “Right, this is what we do. There's no point in stayin' here. We got'ta get out'ta this office. Christ! We got'ta get out'ta this whole damn building. Then we call the cops from the street, or a drug-store. Then we relax. Whad'ya say?”
“Sounds like a plan t'me.” Alice cast a glance over the desk where she sat. “Hey. Wonder if Stoddart was tooled up?”
“You search the desk again.” Fiona rose, heading for the door. “I'll take another look at the—the shirt an' trouser pockets. If there ain't anything, search the whole damn room, just in case. I figure him for the kind'a guy who would have a roscoe somewhere near at hand.”
It took Fiona only a minute to declare the remains gun-free; then she returned to help search the office. It was Alice, a couple of minutes later, who opened a filing cabinet beside the second window and gazed into the tray inside.
Both women stood by the filing cabinet, looking at the contents of the drawer; then they whistled softly together.
“That's a Colt M1911 automatic.” Fiona knew her hand-guns.
“An' the other's a Colt New Service .45 revolver.” Alice was not to be outdone in this arena. “An' look at all the ammo he's hoarded. Boxes of the stuff. I could start a minor war with all this ammo.”
“So, I take it you're bagging the .45 an' leaving me with the M1911?” Fiona could be sarcastic when circumstances called for it.
“Hell, it's a .45 too!” Alice shrugged her shoulders. “Put a coupl'a boxes of ammo in your jacket pockets, like I'm doin', an' we'll be able to face anything that's out there, sister.”
“Anything normal, y'mean.”
“Well, let's be scientific about this, Fay.” Alice, loaded for bear and showing the fighting spirit of her ancestors (Piscataqua River-pirates to a man, and a woman), stuck her chin firmly in the air. “If we see this character, we arrest him. If he don't wan'na be arrested, we shoot the bozo. If we meet some thing , we shoot it . If it bleeds, we then proceed to fill the damn thing full'a lead. If it don't bleed, an' shows other signs of inappropriate behaviour—”
“We run.” Alice took the philosophical approach. “We run like hell for the main door. That covers everything, I think.”
“Al, I love ya. OK, let's go.”
There was no sign of life in the corridor. Fiona carefully locked the office door behind them and then gazed towards the elevator.
“Al, I don't think it'd be wise t'take the elevator.” She transferred her eyes to the woman by her side. “Too dangerous for us t'be confined in a tight space, considering what may happen. We better take the stairs.”
“What! From the twelfth floor?” Alice, on the other hand, knew her comforts. “It'll take us half-an-hour, at least.”
“But safer, I think.” Fiona shrugged. “Come on, the staircase door's just beside the elevator. This is floor twelve B, anyway.”
“Twelve B?” Alice made the logical deduction from this statement of fact. “Jesus! This is the thirteenth floor? Oh, great. That's all I need. If I'da known that, Fay, I never would'a come up with ya.”
“Don't give me that, Al.” Fiona pushed the door by the lift open. “I know you ain't superstitious. Right, this is the plan. We're in the stair-well. All we need'ta do now is go down to street-level; run like hell through the hallway to the main door; unlock it with our own keys; then beat it to the nearest drug-store an' call the cops. Any questions?”
“Lots. But they'll keep. After you.”
Neither woman wore particularly high heels, preferring low thick heels for easy walking and running. But still the clatter as they sped down the plain concrete stairs echoed shockingly loudly in the high stair-well as they descended.
Alice was keeping an eye on the stairs above, as Fiona kept careful watch on the lower stairs as they approached them. After reaching the eighth floor they paused to catch their breath.
“I need'ta visit Johnson's Gym more often.” Alice took several deep breaths. “I'm a little out'ta training for this sort'a thing. Wassat?”
From above, in the stair-well, had come the clanging bang and echoes of a door being closed. Then, after a second came the further echoes of a rasping animal-like growl; swiftly followed by the scraping of concrete as something came after them down the stairs.
“Christ! It's on our trail.” Fiona grabbed Alice's arm and dragged her onwards. “Time t'run for cover. Keep up with me.”
“What about stopping an' shooting the thing t'pieces?”
“An' what if it don't take much notice of bullets, Al?”
“I see your point. Run faster.”
Both women wore wide loose skirts, which gave leg-room for long strides. After getting into a rhythm they found it curiously easy to fly down the never-ending short flights of steps at a remarkably fast pace. But they could still hear their pursuer behind and above them, though apparently closer.
“We ain't gon'na reach the ground-floor, Al.” Fiona steadied Alice as she bumped into her. They now stood beside the door to the fifth floor where their office was located. “Let's make a break for our office. Surely our telephone still works.”
“Bloody hope so.”
Through the door they found themselves on known territory. A quick run along the deserted corridor brought them to their own door, like Stoddart's a solid wooden door with their nameplate screwed to it. Fiona drew out their keys and unlocked it, then paused. From back along the corridor came the grunting noise of their unknown pursuer, followed by unmistakable snarls. Then the lights at the end of the corridor, from where it approached, went out. Both women saw a tall, formless silhouetted shape as the thing rounded the corner fifty feet away, advancing towards them. With one accord they fired together, sending a withering blast down the length of the corridor; the noise of their weapons and of the numerous ricochets in the confined space nearly deafening them. From far along the corridor, in the darkness, came a series of snarling roars, then the sound of something big, heavy, and angry, coming remorselessly towards them commenced once more.
“ Jeez! ”
Fiona took out her M1911 and, holding it with both hands at eye-level, fired off a complete clip. The noise this time was unbearable, and the corridor around the women filled with the acrid fumes and white smoke of burned cordite. But still they both heard the thing growling and advancing, as if unscathed.
“God Almighty!” Alice grabbed her lover's arm. “Damn shooting at it. It don't care. Come on. Along to the end of the corridor. The service stairs are there. We can use them. Run!”
Reaching the door, painted a curious bilious light green, they found behind it another flight of stairs. Fiona paused again to shift, with Alice's help, a tall wide metal locker nearby on the landing against the closed door. Then they resumed running down the stairs. As they reached the third floor landing from above came a rending crash, followed by loud snarls; the thing was still after them.
“God. Don't it ever give up?” Alice slid down the stairs, leaning on the railing and sliding most of the way down each flight; as Fiona was doing, ahead of her. Finally they came to a stop at the last landing and Fiona opened the door, dragging Alice unceremoniously through behind her. They had finally reached the ground-floor hall. Beside the door stood a small waist-height Coca Cola machine. It took merely a second for Fiona to unplug the bulky contraption and, between them, haul it across to block the door; its width covering the entrance completely.
“That might help.” Fiona gasped for breath, then grabbed Alice's hand. “Head for the main door. We got'ta get out'ta here fast.”
The door to the stair-well, and the lift access, was located round a corner of the main hall. The main street entrance was out of sight round this corner; but it took the women only a second and a half to reach it. When found, of course, it was locked.
“You got the entrance key, Al?”
“What? Jesus! No, I thought you had it.”
The door was a two-panel glass example set in a wide glass wall-frame with an interior single ceiling-light shining immediately above, which only made the shadows in the hall behind them all the gloomier; though making it easier for anyone outside to glance into the interior of the wide hall, or for those in the hall to look outside.
“Well, I don't.” Fiona tightened her jaw, looking at Alice grimly. “Looks like we're gon'na have t'answer to the Building authorities. Stand back.”
She raised the M1911 again, but before she could take any action there was another crash from the vicinity of the now unseen stair-well. Then came the snarls of the thing once more. As they stood transfixed a dark tall silhouette came into view round the corner; only forty feet away across the dim hall and still heading inexorably towards them.
Fiona fired off another couple of shots then turned her fire-power on the glass door. Alice took careful aim, holding revolvers in both hands, and blasted away at the centre of the body of the rapidly advancing though still shadowy target; shooting continuously, like a battleship firing a rolling broadside. Still though, she heard the sound of her partner's shots and of shattering glass beside her. Then Fiona's strong hand grabbed her shoulder.
“Come on, gal. Time t'quit the premises. Head along the pavement. If it follows us, we'll both stop an' blast it back to Hell!”
They ran, with all their remaining strength, away from the Building entrance, not stopping till they had covered a couple of hundred yards. Then they looked back, panting. The building they now stood beside was a brownstone which only had small unlit windows; so they were in relative darkness. Back the way they had come the shattered glass of the entrance door of their own building littered the pavement, easily visible in the swathe of bright light from the wide hallway within. But of any activity or sign of life there was none. The pavement was straight and clear, giving no hiding-place, so it was obvious to both women that whatever had chased them, inside the Packer Building, had now thought better of continuing the pursuit out in the street.
“Jeez!” Alice drew a hard breath; put one of her revolvers away in her skirt pocket; and grasped Fiona's hand tightly. “It's given up, thank God. Let's find a damn cop. I've had enough of this, for one night.”
Inspector Jacob Fletcher, of the 5 th Precinct, was a man of middle-age, tall and slim, short greyish hair, and piercing brown eyes in a square face with a high straight forehead. He looked every inch the kind of cop who had come up through the ranks, making his way by determination and intelligence. Right now he stood by the desk in his office, regarding the two women beside him. Their firearms, of which there appeared to him to be an excess, were laid out on the desk-top.
“That's the way of it, Inspector.” Fiona had taken the brunt of explaining the circumstances of their being found by the cops on the pavement near the Packer Building, armed for warfare. “Just the facts, as Alice and I discovered them. Plain and simple.”
“Plain and simple?” Fletcher growled in disbelief. “A headless corpse; blood all over the corridor; dismantled doors; a broken Coke machine, someone'll have t'answer for that, y'know; the whole glass front of the entrance blown apart; and you two armed with enough weapons and ammunition to take on an entire Infantry Division, an' probably win! What in Hell happened back there? Now give it to me straight, Cartwright.”
“There ain't anything else to add, Inspector.” Alice butted in, curling her lip in disgust. “You got everything you need. A corpse; boy, what a corpse. A crime scene; an' two eye-witness reports from impeccable sources. What more d'you want? Something killed poor old Stoddart. Something that really didn't like him. The ball's in your court, Inspector; Fiona and I give up custody. I'm sure you'll be a lovin' an' considerate father to this case. Good luck.”
“Hold on! Hold it!” Fletcher knew a bum steer when it tried to lick him in the face. “You just stand easy there. I ain't finished with you two by a long way. Some- thing my ass! Some- body , y'mean. An' I'll find out who by the end of the week, I tell ya. The night's young. Here, sit there; don't leave this office; don't read my files; don't make a mess; an' be ready with a real story when I come back. The sergeant'll send in coffee in a coupl'a minutes.”
The door slammed behind the irate Inspector, and the women were left alone.
“Well, that went well, I thought.” Alice could be sarcastic when required. “A supernatural monster rips the head off our client; pursues us down to the street with murderous intent; disappears as if it had never existed; we're fingered as possible perp's by darling old Inspector Fletcher; an' now we get to spend the night in his very own personal Waldorf suite. Things could be worse.”
“That thing back there could'a caught us, Fay.”
“That's true.” Fiona considered the matter for a few seconds. “Yep. You're right; things could'a been worse.”
The coffee, when it arrived, was hot black and strong. Just the way both women liked it. Which was hardly surprising, considering the number of previous times they had honoured the Precinct HQ with their presence over the last five years. And it gave them time to lean back on the old leather settee and close their eyes for a few minutes. Then Inspector Fletcher returned.
“OK. OK.” He seemed more stressed than when he had left them, slamming the door shut with a bang as he entered. “We got an eye-witness—a real eye-witness account. Some old bearded sidewinder mooching along the pavement outside the building. Says he saw it all. Saw you two blasting away in the hallway, like it was the OK Corral all over again. Saw something shadowy, but damn big, apparently pursuing you. Saw you break out the building an' run for your lives. Says he thinks the perpetrator faded back out of sight in the hallway, an' that's all he saw.”
“So?” Alice was calm and prim. Like an old time school-mistress.
“So, go home. An' don't bother me again till I clear this damn mess up.” Fletcher looked at the armament on his desk. “Here, take your own pistols—but I'm holding Stoddart's weapons. What the hell was he doin', keeping an arsenal in his private office?”
“Beats me, Inspector.”
Alice contrived to sound as innocent as a month old lamb; but it didn't fool Fletcher, he knew her.
“Get out. The both of ya. Don't leave the state; don't leave the city; in fact, if you so much as stick your heads out your apartment door to shout for a bottle of milk, I wan'na know about it before it happens. Get out!”
“I ain't very happy about stayin' here after six o'clock, darling. But someone's got'ta cover your ass, I suppose.”
Alice made her decision known as they approached the shattered, but now boarded up, remains of the Packer Building entrance. It was 10.30am on a sunny morning on the 1 st of November, and they had both reluctantly left behind the warm bed, and remnants of breakfast, in their apartment; like a lost romantic dream.
“There's no way the police'll let us onto the thirteenth floor, Fay.” She continued her tale of woe, in a subdued tone. “The whole floor'll be cordoned off, as a crime scene. I'll be surprised if we're allowed in our own office.”
“What? What about Mr Hoffmann?” Alice pulled up short, nearly making a passing young blonde secretary bump into her. “Hey, watch where you're goin', gal. Hah! The same t'you. Where was I, Fay? Oh yeah. What d'you wan'na bother Mr Hoffmann for? Oh, I get it. He's the caretaker; so he's got all the keys, is that it?”
“All the keys; a complete knowledge of the lay-out of the whole Building; and probably the entire social history of the Packer Building since it was first built.” Fiona nodded complacently as they passed the police-officer on guard at the entrance. “That's what I'm really after. Where's his office, again?”
“Come in. Please, come in.”
Mr Hoffmann was indeed old. White hair, close-cropped; a high forehead; infinitely sad eyes; and brown wrinkled skin, as if he were a hundred years old.
“Hope we ain't bothering you, Mr Hoffmann?” Alice stepped into the meticulously clean office, ahead of Fiona. “We're not holding you back from your work, I hope?”
“Good gracious, no.” The caretaker was dressed in a clean pair of blue overalls, with sparklingly polished black boots. “What with this, er, incident on the thirteenth floor I got all the time in the world. The police won't hardly let me go above, to the high floors, without I give them a blood-test and references every time they see me. What can I do for you ladies? Can I make you a cup of tea? It won't be any bother.”
“Thanks, I could do with a cup.” Fiona nodded in agreement with this perfectly judged question. “It's about the thirteenth floor, or should I say floor twelve B.”
“Hah!” Mr Hoffmann laughed, but like a rusty engine that needed an oil-check; as if he didn't laugh often. “That's what the owners insisted on, back when the Building opened for business. I was there; at the very beginning. They thought it'd help bring in tenants, I suppose. Superstition, you know. Here you are, ladies. There's milk and sugar on the table. Please, sit on these chairs. They ain't exactly modern, but they won't collapse under you, I promise.”
After a minute, when everyone was comfortably settled, Fiona brought up the subject of their enquiry.
“We were sort'a wondering about the history of the thirteenth floor, Mr Hoffmann.” Fiona glanced over at Alice for encouragement. “Mr Stoddart had his office there. How long has he been resident?”
“Mr Stoddart? Let me see.” Mr Hoffmann considered the question, while he scratched his chin. “Right. He came here two years ago, almost to the week. Never been any bother; until about three weeks ago, when he started to complain about noises in the corridor outside his office when he worked late.”
“Noises?” Alice became interested at once. “What kind'a noises?”
“Oh, he was rather vague.” The caretaker mused for a moment. “Some kind of scratching, at first. Then, a few days later, he said there must be a dog loose in the corridor. Growls and snarls, he could hear; so he told me.”
“Did you investigate?” Alice watched the man's face keenly. “Or report it to the building supervisors?”
“Well,” Mr Hoffmann hesitated. He looked from Alice to Fiona, then made up his mind. “It depends what you'd call investigating. No, I didn't bother the supervisors. What would they do about supernatural Demons?”
Both women sat up and started taking notice. This was news to them.
“Demons? In the Packer Building?” Fiona was first to reply. “You got'ta be joking? On the other hand, I apologise. Yeah, I can believe that, after last night. What about you, Al?”
“Yeah, I'm with you.” Alice willingly fell in beside her partner. “After what happened to us last night, Mr Hoffmann, I'd believe there's a door to Hell somewhere in this building, trust me.”
Both women put their cups on the table in unison. Fiona fixed the caretaker with an intense air of interest. Alice leaned forward in her chair, and crossed her hands on her lap as she too concentrated all her attention on the white-haired old man.
“Would you explain that, please.” Fiona spoke softly, but with immense seriousness.
Mr Hoffmann sat back in his chair; tapping a finger against the side of his tea-cup, making a ringing bell-like sound. He looked at the cup; glanced over at another table where various objects and small electric machines lay; then finally looked back at his visitors.
“It's been a long time.” He sighed, as in relief. “I got'ta tell someone, I know. It better be you ladies, after all. You're interested in the whole thing—”
“Damn straight.” Alice spoke softly, but with no anger.
“—so I think I better start from the beginning.” Although a pale man, his face seemed somehow even paler now. “It was nineteen-seventeen; the Great War was hurling all society upside-down. Things were all at sixes and sevens. No-one knew what was going to be the outcome. Several businesses shut down; a number of offices in the Building were let go by their tenants. The supervisors even thought closure might be nearing. But then things picked up again. War-work, you know. People started making profits from almost any direction, and in any way, you could imagine. The offices started being taken once more; and that's when Augustus Neilson arrived.”
“Who was he?” Fiona spoke quietly, encouraging the caretaker. “What did he work at? And was his office on the thirteenth floor?”
“Oh, he had one of those Import/Export businesses.” Mr Hoffmann shrugged non-commitally. “Buy and sell almost anything. Transport cargo anywhere you wanted. That sort of thing. Yes, he took an office on the thirteenth.”
“So?” Alice took up the burden of promoting the old man's memories. “What happened then?”
“What happened was he got a bad reputation.” Mr Hoffmann seemed to get his second wind, and proceeded more quickly and surely. “He started having visitors to his office-suite; a big concern, about twice the size of the ordinary offices. Started treating the place like a hotel; staying overnight and whatnot. And he brought, ah, customers and, er, visitors with him on occasion. It all eventually became something of a scandal: he ended by not taking much heed of people's criticisms. Then he did some things that came to the notice of the supervisors; the other tenants on that floor; and the police.”
“Sounds pretty bad.” Alice frowned over these revelations. “What sort of things are we talking about here? Was it booze? Or gambling? Or the numbers racket? Or prostitution, or what?”
“Well, ma'am.” Mr Hoffmann, for the first time, seemed really embarrassed. “That last subject has a lot of, what do you call it?—nuances? There's your ordinary street ladies; then the private houses people frequent, for pleasure; then there's—there's sort'a more specialised places; where really—outrageous—things can be had for the right price. Even things that'd make you sick with horror!”
He broke off to look both women in the eye, with a cold hard stare quite unlike his normal personality.
“Let me get this straight, Mr Hoffmann.” Fiona took the forefront again, with a sick fear at her heart. “Are we talking about what I think we're talking about?”
The old man returned both women's gaze with his own steady expression; then he slowly nodded.
“Oh, God!” Fiona sat back in shock.
“Oh, God!” Alice clasped her hands and fingers together in a vice-like grip.
“It all became more or less public in February 1922.” Mr Hoffmann was talking now as if impelled by an outside force. “Someone he had been—involved with—went to the police. Well, you can imagine the result. They were round here, like dogs after a rat; which was pretty much the actual circumstance. But they didn't get here quick enough to prevent Neilson getting news, and blowing his brains out in his office.”
“Shit!” Alice couldn't stop herself; the whole history was so tragic, for Neilson's victims.
“So what happened afterwards?” Fiona asked the pertinent question, while Mr Hoffmann's head lowered as his memories overtook him.
“Oh,” The caretaker looked up again, recovering. “The supervisors thought about letting the office to other tenants, but then instead locked the place up for a while. Finally, they ordered me to keep it locked, as they weren't going to let it out in future. It's been locked up ever since.”
“Why was that?” Alice pressed home her question, looking for information.
“Oh, the other tenants on the thirteenth floor had started coming forward with a number of unbelievable stories, about the office-suite and the floor in general. Stories that quite upset the supervisors.”
“And these stories?” Alice continued fishing for information. “What were they? And did you see anything?”
“The usual stuff.” Mr Hoffmann shook his head, as if taking no responsibility. “Noises, apparitions; on a few occasions, attacks, or near attacks anyway. Me? After the suite was locked up nothing ever happened again. Except for the week preceding Halloween every year.”
“What? What about Halloween? Christ, that was yesterday!” Fiona regarded the man with raised eyebrows. “Has that something to do with the –the appearances?”
“Yes.” The caretaker nodded in affirmation. “Every year, in the coupl'a weeks leading up to Halloween, the noises and sounds re-appear, and gradually get louder running up to the actual night; the thirty-first! One Halloween evening, four years ago, I was on the thirteenth floor. There wasn't anybody else there; it was late. I heard these growling sounds; then saw—something—along at the end of the corridor. Near the door of the locked suite.”
“What happened?” Alice leant over and took the old man's hand in a quiet grip. “What did you do?”
“I ran.” Mr Hoffmann looked into Alice's face, with a tear running down his face. “I ran like I never knew I could. I ran down to the entrance hallway. Went out the main door, and locked it behind me faster than you'd think possible. I didn't return till the next morning. I've never stayed any longer than I have to on the thirteenth floor since.”
It was quiet in the little room. No-one spoke for some considerable time. Then Fiona reached out to gently pat the old man's shoulder.
“We won't ask any more questions, Mr Hoffmann.” She looked across at Alice. “We got all the information we need. What we do want, though, is the keys to the thirteenth floor. Have you got a spare set? I know the police must'a taken the regular one's.”
The caretaker rose and crossed to the other table where, from a drawer, he produced the necessary keys.
“OK, Mr Hoffmann.” Alice took over describing their plan. “This is what's gon'na happen. Fiona and I are goin' to go up there tonight. We're goin' to enter that office-suite, and find out all we can about what might be causing this whole tragic business. Can you tell us anything about how the cops are guarding the place; and what's inside the office?”
“The cops come down to the entrance-hallway at ten pm.” The caretaker seemed grateful to get the knowledge off his conscience. “They told me this morning that'll be their routine. A single cop'll guard the entrance all night, but the thirteenth itself'll be empty.”
“OK, that's good.” Fiona regarded the keys in her hand. “So, what can we expect to find in the suite?”
“It's never been emptied.” Mr Hoffmann spoke more strongly now, knowing his facts. “The supervisors ordered the suite locked up before it had its fittings taken out. They never got around to doing that, ever. So the place is exactly as Mr Neilson left it; furnishings, fittings; personal items, an' all.”
“That sounds just what we want.” Fiona nodded. “Right. You go off duty just as normal this evening, Mr Hoffmann. Alice and I'll stay in our own office till we're sure the cops have gone, an' there's only the one in the hallway left. Then we mean to enter that damned office and see—well, whatever we can see.”
“If we find anything we think's connected to the, er, apparition.” Alice's tone was firm and hard. “Then we'll get rid of it, somehow. Even if we have to wreck the joint, an' destroy all the furniture or whatever. So don't be alarmed at whatever you may find tomorrow, OK?”
A few minutes later they left the caretaker, now showing signs of recovering his spirits, and headed up to their office on the 5 th floor. It was time to shape their plan in detail.
Fiona opened the stair-well door silently, and peered through into the hallway of the thirteenth floor. The lift showed its cage-gate to her right, while the rest of the corridor ran off to her left; just as everything had been the night before. Both women stepped onto the shiny linoleum covering the floor and examined their surroundings. They saw various boxes and piles of equipment on the floor nearby, obviously belonging to the police. Otherwise there was no difference to the layout as they remembered it.
“Come on. Quicker the better.” Fiona spoke in a whisper. “Never know when that cop down in the main entrance might decide to come up to inspect the place.”
“I'm right with you, Fay.” Alice gazed along the empty corridor. “Any chance of, er, things happening tonight? I don't wan'na hav'ta run for my life again, like last night.”
“From what Mr Hoffmann told us it seems the crisis, the climax, always comes on Halloween.” Fiona glanced at her partner. “We found that out, didn't we?”
“Too true.” Alice acknowledged this fact with a grimace. “So, you think things'll be quieter tonight?”
“Let's hope so.” Fiona nodded. “Here's Mr Stoddart's office.”
“God.” Alice was appalled at what greeted them as they stood by the locked door. “The cops haven't cleaned up the blood. What a mess.”
“Probably need to examine it scientifically.” Fiona guided her partner round the dark stain spreading out from the foot of the office door. “The locked office—Neilson's office—is along in this direction.”
“All the ceiling lights seem t'be working again.” Alice noted this fact for future reference. “D'you suppose they went out by accident, or were they—affected—in some way?”
“God knows.” Fiona was intent on her searching examination of each of the doors they were now passing. “Could'a been either I expect. Here we are—‘ Kalos Export/Import Inc '.”
The door, as they stood before it, seemed a disappointment. There was nothing to differentiate it from any other door along the corridor. Except, perhaps, that the other doors seemed further away on each side than the average.
“Mr Hoffmann did say the suite was larger than the usual size.” Alice glanced backwards and forwards along the brightly lit corridor. “Seems he was right. What's the drill, Fay?”
“We go in; see what there is to see,” Fiona stepped up and clicked the key into the lock. “if anything catches our eyes, we figure out what to do; then we do it. Ready?”
Fiona depressed the door-handle and, for the second time in twenty four hours, the women walked into an unknown office. As previously, they found themselves in a small entrance room; a secretary's office. There was a desk, a chair, a couch, and a small window, but nothing else.
“There ain't no inter-com or typewriter.” Alice made the obvious observations. “There's plenty of dust, though. Mr Hoffmann was right, no-one's occupied this place in a long time.”
The far wall contained two doors, past which was a small corridor leading along the side of these, its outside wall being the exterior corridor wall. Taking a few steps along this they saw another closed door at the far end, before they returned to the secretary's room.
“There seem to be at least three rooms, Fay.” Alice set out the possibilities. “Three separate offices. Must have been rather a big concern when it was going full steam. Wonder how many people Neilson employed here?”
“Who knows.” Fiona finished flicking through the contents of the two drawers of the desk. “Nothing here. Just bits of old blank paper, and a small calendar for nineteen twenty-one. Let's take the rooms as we come to them. This one first. Go ahead.”
The door was locked, but Fiona passed across the keys and Alice soon found the right one. They stepped across the threshold, Fiona in the rear, and stood just within. Fiona swept a hand up the door-edge to find the light-switch and flicked it. The room was suddenly bathed in bright light, allowing them both to view their surroundings. Nothing could have been more of a surprise than that which greeted their astonished gaze.
“A photographer's studio.” Alice stepped forward. “A set of lighting stands. A glass-plate camera on its tripod. An' an old couch covered in colourful blankets and sheets, with a Persian carpet on the floor. Jesus, what went on here, d'you suppose, Fay?”
“From what Mr Hoffmann suggested, I don't want to know.” Fiona stepped back towards the door. “Come on. We still need t'look at the other rooms. Time's a'wastin.”
The second door opened effortlessly to Alice's keys, revealing a fair-sized office. There were two high windows, now closely curtained by material which looked as it was on the verge of rotting into dust. A few chairs were scattered about. An old wooden filing cabinet took up space against the opposite wall, and near the left corner of the big desk a wide dark stain was clearly visible spreading over the bare varnished floorboards.
“Oh Jesus!” Alice groaned in horror. “That'll be where he blew his brains out. It must date from nineteen twenty-two. Doesn't anybody in this damned building ever clean the floors?”
Fiona had again been doing her desk-examination routine. Now she took something bulky from a drawer and placed it on the dust-covered desk.
“What d'you suppose this could be, Alice?”
They both bent over the thick book-like object. It was Alice who came up with the likely truth,
“It's one of those old-fashioned photograph albums, Fay.” Alice looked up doubtfully at her companion. “We're gon'na have to open it, I presume?”
Fiona answered by doing just that. As they leant over the volume, turning several pages and looking at the contents, a chill ran down both women's backs; till Alice put out a hand and prevented Fiona from revealing any further pages.
“There's no need, Fay.” There was a tremble in her voice. “We've seen all that's necessary. God, he really was a monster, wasn't he? How could anyone treat innocent—people—like that?”
“He was never really human, I think.” Fiona closed the volume and stood back from the desk. “We take that with us, and destroy it later tonight, if we destroy nothing else. That thing that killed poor Mr Stoddart; that tried to kill us last night; it's probably nearer Neilson's true soul than any human concept could ever be. Come on, we better see what's in the room at the end of the corridor.”
Fiona led the way down the narrow internal passageway, one side the brick wall of the exterior corridor, the other the oak panelling which made up the internal office rooms. Twenty feet along they came to another door on the left side.
“Hang on. What's this, Fay?”
Alice grasped the handle and readily opened the door. Inside there was only darkness but, after Alice had fumbled for and found an electric switch, the light showed the room as a small bathroom and toilet. There were all the usual fittings, including a porcelain basin with hot and cold taps. Alice crossed to twist the cold tap and, surprisingly, clear water immediately flowed into the white basin.
“Well, that was unexpected.” She turned the tap off again, then followed Fiona back into the corridor.
Finally, the end door faced them; like a cell-door in a prison. Both women had mixed feelings as they stood there, but eventually Fiona stepped forward with the keys which Alice had returned to her. Placing the last key in the lock she twisted the handle along with the key. The door slid open without a creak disclosing, once more, only a dark impenetrable interior.
Alice leaned past Fiona's shoulder and flicked the light-switch by the door. Everything lit up as if in a film studio. If nothing else the office complex seemed to have been fitted with top-notch electric bulbs. And this room, again, was a revelation. It was a genuine state-of-the-art bedroom. A large bed, of what would be called Royal size, took up about a third of the space. There were wardrobes against each corner of the far wall. A dressing-table opposite the foot of the bed. The bed itself was still made-up, with black silk sheets now dulled by a thick layer of dust. And on the wall opposite the bed and above the dressing-table hung a picture; an oil painting, somewhere around five feet high by four feet wide. It was at once splendidly painted by an obvious expert; yet utterly grotesque in its subject-matter: which confirmed the women's worst nightmares about just what Augustus Neilson had been engaged in, and capable of.
The painting was a bright sketch of a sunny beach scene. A small sandy cove, with low rocks on either hand, encircled a small pool with emerald green water. On the beach were portrayed three subjects. Two together, and one standing to one side facing outwards towards the spectator. What was happening in the picture was entirely evident, and clearly detailed; there was absolutely no room for doubt. The action was carefully composed; entirely without moral judgement or restraint; and simperingly, salaciously, focussed, with degrading clarity, on the position of one of the subjects. The tall subject standing to one side was obviously a portrait, in nature, of Augustus Neilson himself. The sickly expression suffusing his features was all that was necessary to show his moral stance, and willing involvement, in what was occurring beside him.
“ Oh! ”
Alice stepped back a pace; gave Fiona a look of horror, mixed with pity, at what they were looking at; then turned and ran from the room. A moment later Fiona heard the bathroom water flowing, and the sound of Alice retching. She took one last glance around the chamber, then went to join her partner.
“God. How could anyone be so evil?” Alice had recovered somewhat and was standing in the corridor again, discussing their options. “Those photos, and that ghastly painting. God, he was a monster.”
“He still is, evidently.” Fiona put a gentle hand on her companion's shoulder. “Feeling better? Are you up to the rest of what we need to do?”
“Damn straight I'm up for it.” Alice almost growled her agreement. “Am I right in supposing you think Neilson lives on, somehow, in that painting?”
“Yep. That seems t'be the nature of the beast, as far as I can tell.” Fiona nodded, with downcast lips. “His spirit, or whatever evil thing animated him in life, has found a sort'a sanctuary in the picture. It's an utterly evil representation of something that most likely actually happened in real life. It holds him like a magnet all year round. Except for the few weeks leading up to Halloween, when he grows in strength, then breaks free from the confines of the picture; to roam the corridors of the thirteenth floor.”
“Looking for more victims?”
“Not so much looking, I think.” Fiona eased her neck muscles as she pondered the problem. “No, I just think he—it—attacks any living thing it meets, when it has the power. Near or on Halloween. All Hallows' Eve, y'know. When, people say, dead souls can return to haunt the scene of their actions in life.”
“That pretty much fits in with what our Demon is doing, or has done. Then it retires to that evil oil-painting to wait for another year?” Alice curled her lips in disgust. “OK, Fay. We got'ta get rid of the damned thing. And that horrible photo-album. What d'you say? Burn them?”
“Yep.” Fiona nodded. “Thank God we both brought good knives with us, just in case they were needed. We cut the painting out of its frame; break the frame too; then take the debris in our car to the beach an' set fire to the whole lot.”
“Right.” Alice had never sounded as determined as she did now. “We know we can evade that sleepy cop in the entrance-hall. Thank goodness Mr Hoffmann gave us the key to the rear goods-entrance, where your car's parked. Let's go. The night's rolling on.”
Fiona's car was a huge dark crimson Buick, with enormous boot-space. They had no trouble packing the rolled up canvas and photo-album, along with the shattered remnants of the picture frame, into the boot. The powerful engine also meant they could make good time through the deserted night-time city, towards the coast with its many beaches. 12 th Street, thankfully, was the main thoroughfare leading out of the city to join Ocean Boulevard. Within ten minutes of starting they were on this road, with no other vehicle in sight.
“How long will it take us, Fay?”
“I heading for Tamber Beach; it'll be deserted at this time of night.” Fiona glanced over at the small silhouette of her lover sitting by her side in the dim light inside the car. “You warm enough?”
“Yeah. I'm great.” Alice smiled at her partner. “My coat's really cosy. Hell, this is some way t'spend the night. I could think of better things t'do.”
“So could I, darling. But not tonight.” Fiona returned to keeping an eye on the dark road. “It'll be another twenty minutes or so; then we can take all this rubbish down to the beach from the road, and start the fire.”
“We've got enough spare gas.” Alice ticked off the relevant details on her fingers. “I put three one-gallon cans in the boot. That should be enough. I brought two packets of matches, and a full cigarette lighter. Nothing like bein' sure, sister.”
Fiona laughed shortly; things were obviously coming to a head.
“OK. Just dump it all here.” Fiona pointed at the sand by her feet. “We're far enough away from the road so no-one'll see anything. And the beach is certainly deserted. What time is it?”
“Ten after three.” Alice consulted the fluorescent face of her wrist-watch. “Right, that's every last scrap of the painting in that pile. I took careful note of the pieces; there ain't any missing.”
“Is the rest of the frame there, too?” Fiona was beginning to get really nervous for some reason. Maybe it was the cold night air. She shivered. “God, it's cold tonight. Is the photo-album there?”
“Yes.” Alice shivered in her turn, as she lit a match. “I made certain of that. Look, you can see it's corner under that piece of canvas. You sure made a job of soaking it all in gas.”
“Never shirk on a good job, Al.” Fiona stepped back a few paces from the ready-made bonfire. “Come close to me, Al. Don't get too near; you can throw the match from here. Ready?”
For answer Alice jerked her arm forward, throwing the lit match into the centre of the pile of material on the sand. There was a low fluumph, then flames shot into the sky in an orange fireball. The heat was so unexpectedly intense that both women darted back ten yards or so, even then still being able to feel the heat. The dry oil-covered canvas took the flames in a rush, and within seconds the whole pile of rubbish was engulfed in fire, rushing upwards into the black sky.
Suddenly there came a loud grunting snarl from somewhere on the other side of the blinding flames. Both women looked at each other, as if denying they had heard anything; then the cry, animal-like, roaring in pain, and certainly real, came again. In another second they saw movement to the far side of the bonfire. A huge shape, nearly unrecognisable as anything human, staggered into view waving its arms in the air; and almost screaming in anger and pain. For a fleeting moment Alice thought she could make out white fangs in a demonic face; then it seemed to flit away behind the fire. There was another roar, as the flames of the bonfire caught their full strength, and the shape came into view once more. It was still hardly visible, just a silhouette or shadow; but it roared now with increased power and greater agony. For one brief instant it became almost clear and visible to both women, then some sort of force seemed to overcome it. It flowed out of shape, as if it were melting; flames from the bonfire appeared to fly horizontally towards the thing and wrap themselves around it; then the whole of the dark shape lost its coherence and swept, like water, into the heart of the fire. One last great roar of agony seemed to rise from the flames, then all that could be seen or heard was the bright, blinding light of the bonfire; consuming to ashes all that lay within its borders.
The morning was bright and sunny; the sky was blue from horizon to horizon: and the citizens of Delacote City, heading unwillingly to their offices, thought yearningly of the last enticingly cold ice-creams of the year while strolling in Haverford Park, or forth-coming week-ends upstate fishing and sailing. Fiona and Alice sat on the verandah of their condominium, enjoying the fresh sweet air.
“What are we gon'na do then, Fay?”
“We, darling, are goin' to clear our stuff out'ta that damned Packer Building just as fast as the movers can get themselves off their everlovin' butts.” Fiona held out her hand and grasped Alice's tightly. “Then we move down 12 th Street to the corner of Cadesco—”
“Where the Lottis Building is? Art Deco, y'know. Pretty.” Alice licked her lips enticingly. “I could get to like that. New worlds. New fields to explore. New pleasures to enjoy. Would you like to enjoy new pleasures, Fay?”
The telephone, back in the sitting-room, rang with its insistent bell. Alice got up reluctantly, gave Fiona a chaste kiss on her cheek; then went to answer it. Half a minute went by, then—
“Fay. It's Inspector Fletcher. He wants to know when it would be convenient for us to visit him. Says an hour from now would be good.”
“Oh, damn.” Fiona sat up with a snarl. “OK. OK. Tell him we'll be delighted.”
Seconds later Alice rejoined her paramour, but this time she slid gently onto Fiona's lap.
“I feel so tired I really think I need to lie on our bed for, oh, about another hour.” She flicked her fingers through Fiona's long dark hair. “Fletcher can keep for an hour—do his ulcer good. So, bed? Wan'na join me?”
In one fluid movement, which showed off all Fiona's innate strength, she clasped Alice round the waist; stood up with an easy graceful swing; kissed her partner tenderly on the brow; then carried her through into the shade of the cool bedroom.
Inspector Fletcher had to wait three hours, fuming all the while.
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