Friday, February 26, 2010

Lorelei Of the Red Mist - Kelly Freas

Interior artwork for the story :-

4.5 out of 5

Lorelei Of the Red Mist - Rick Jackson

And some Kelly Freas.

Talks about his process for doing artwork for a Wonder Ebooks version of Lorelei of the Red Mist.

4.5 out of 5

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

Child of the Sun - Leigh Brackett


Eric Falken stood utterly still, staring down at his leashed and helpless hands on the controls of the spaceship Falcon.

The red lights on his indicator panel showed Hiltonist ships in a three-dimensional half-moon, above, behind, and below him. Pincer jaws, closing fast.

The animal instinct of escape prodded him, but he couldn't obey. He had fuel enough for one last burst of speed. But there was no way through that ring of ships. Tractor-beams, criss-crossing between them, would net the Falcon like a fish.

There was no way out ahead, either. Mercury was there, harsh and bitter in the naked blaze of the sun. The ships of Gantry Hilton, President of the Federation of Worlds, inventor of the Psycho-Adjuster, and ruler of men's souls, were herding him down to a landing at the lonely Spaceguard outpost.

A landing he couldn't dodge. And then . . . .

For Paul Avery, a choice of death or Happiness. For himself and Sheila Moore, there was no choice. It was death.

The red lights blurred before Falken's eyes. The throb of the plates under his feet faded into distance. He'd stood at the controls for four chronometer days, ever since the Hiltonists had chased him up from Losangles, back on Earth.

He knew it was because he was exhausted that he couldn't think, or stop the nightmare of the past days from tramping through his brain, hammering the incessant question at him. How?

How had the Hiltonists traced him back from New York? Paul Avery, the Unregenerate recruit he went to get, had passed a rigid psycho-search—which, incidentally, revealed the finest brain ever to come to the Unregenerate cause. He couldn't be a spy. And he'd spoken to no one but Falken.

Yet they were traced. Hiltonist Black Guards were busy now, destroying the last avenues of escape from Earth, avenues that he, Falken, had led them through.

But how? He knew he hadn't given himself away. For thirty years he'd been spiriting Unregenerates away from Gantry Hilton's strongholds of Peace and Happiness. He was too old a hand for blunders.

Yet, somehow, the Black Guards caught up with them at Losangles, where the Falcon lay hidden. And, somehow, they got away, with a starving green-eyed girl named Kitty . . . .

"Not Kitty," Falken muttered. "Kitty's Happy. Hilton took Kitty, thirty years ago. On our wedding day."

A starving waif named Sheila Moore, who begged him for help, because he was Eric Falken and almost a god to the Unregenerates. They got away in the Falcon, but the Hiltonist ships followed.

Driven, hopeless flight, desperate effort to shake pursuit before he was too close to the Sun. Time and again, using precious fuel and accelerations that tried even his tough body, Falken thought he had escaped.

But they found him again. It was uncanny, the way they found him.

Now he couldn't run any more. At least he'd led the Hiltonists away from the pitiful starving holes where his people hid, on the outer planets and barren asteroids and dark derelict hulks floating far outside the traveled lanes.

And he'd kill himself before the Hiltonist psycho-search could pick his brain of information about the Unregenerates. Kill himself, if he could wake up.

He began to laugh, a drunken, ragged chuckle. He couldn't stop laughing. He clung to the panel edge and laughed until the tears ran down his scarred, dark face.

"Stop it," said Sheila Moore. "Stop it, Falken!"

"Can't. It's funny. We live in hell for thirty years, we Unregenerates, fighting Hiltonism. We're licked, now. We were before we started.

"Now I'm going to die so they can suffer hell a few weeks more. It's so damned funny!"
* * *

Sleep dragged at him. Sleep, urgent and powerful. So powerful that it seemed like an outside force gripping his mind. His hands relaxed on the panel edge.

"Falken," said Sheila Moore. "Eric Falken!"

Some steely thing in her voice lashed him erect again. She crouched on the shelf bunk against the wall, her feral green eyes blazing, her thin body taut in its torn green silk.

"You've got to get away, Falken. You've got to escape."

He had stopped laughing. "Why?" he asked dully.

"We need you, Falken. You're a legend, a hope we cling to. If you give up, what are we to go on?"

She rose and paced the narrow deck. Paul Avery watched her from the bunk on the opposite wall, his amber eyes dull with the deep weariness that slackened his broad young body.

Falken watched her, too. The terrible urge for sleep hammered at him, bowed his grey-shot, savage head, drew the strength from his lean muscles. But he watched Sheila Moore.

That was why he had risked his life, and Avery's, and broken Unregenerate law to save her, unknown and untested. She blazed, somehow. She stabbed his brain with the same cold fire he had felt after Kitty was taken from him.

"You've got to escape," she said. "We can't give up, yet."

Her voice was distant, her raw-gold hair a detached haze of light. Darkness crept on Falken's brain.

"How?" he whispered.

"I don't know . . . Falken!" She caught him with thin painful fingers. "They're driving you down on Mercury. Why not trick them? Why not go—beyond?"

He stared at her. Even he would never have thought of that. Beyond the orbit of Mercury there was only death.

Avery leaped to his feet. For a startled instant Falken's brain cleared, and he saw the trapped, wild terror in Avery's face.

"We'd die," said Avery hoarsely. "The heat . . ."

Sheila faced him. "We'll die anyway, unless you want Psycho-Change. Why not try it, Eric? Their instruments won't work close to the Sun. They may even be afraid to follow."

The wiry, febrile force of her beat at them. "Try, Eric. We have nothing to lose."

Paul Avery stared from one to the other of them and then to the red lights that were ships. Abruptly he sank down on the edge of his bunk and dropped his broad, fair head in his hands. Falken saw the cords like drawn harp-strings on the backs of them.

"I . . . can't," whispered Falken. The command to sleep was once more a vast shout in his brain. "I can't think."

"You must!" said Sheila. "If you sleep, we'll be taken. You won't be able to kill yourself. They'll pick your brain empty. Then they'll Hiltonize you with the Psycho-Adjuster.

"They'll blank your brain with electric impulses and then transmit a whole new memory-pattern, even shifting the thought-circuits so that you won't think the same way. They'll change your metabolism, your glandular balance, your pigmentation, your face, and your fingerprints."

He knew she was recounting these things deliberately, to force him to fight. But still the weak darkness shrouded him.

"Even your name will be gone," she said. "You'll be placid and lifeless, lazing your life away, just one of Hilton's cattle." She took a deep breath and added, "Like Kitty."

He caught her shoulders, then, grinding the thin bone of them. "How did you know?"

"That night, when you saw me, you said her name. Perhaps I made you think of her. I know how it feels, Eric. They took the boy I loved away from me."

He clung to her, the blue distant fire in his eyes taking life from the hot, green blaze of hers. There was iron in her. He could feel the spark and clash of it against his mind.

"Talk to me," he whispered. "Keep me awake. I'll try."

Waves of sleep clutched Falken with physical hands. But he turned to the control panel.

The bitter blaze of Mercury stabbed his bloodshot eyes. Red lights hemmed him in. He couldn't think. And then Sheila Moore began to talk. Standing behind him, her thin vital hands on his shoulders, telling him the story of Hiltonism.

"Gantry Hilton's Psycho-Adjuster was a good thing at first. Through the mapping and artificial blanking of brain-waves and the use of electro-hypnotism—the transmission of thought-patterns directly to the brain—it cured non-lesional insanity, neuroses, and criminal tendencies. Then, at the end of the Interplanetary War . . ."

Red lights closing in. How could he get past the Spaceguard battery? Sheila's voice fought back the darkness. Speed, that was what he needed. And more guts than he'd ever had to use in his life before. And luck.

"Keep talking, Sheila. Keep me awake."

" . . . Hilton boomed his discovery. The people were worn out with six years of struggle. They wanted Hiltonism, Peace and Happiness. The passion for escape from life drove them like lunatics."

He found the emergency lever and thrust it down. The last ounce of hoarded power slammed into the rocket tubes. The Falcon reared and staggered.

Then she shot straight for Mercury, with the thin high scream of tortured metal shivering along the cabin walls.

Spaceshells burst. They shook the Falcon, but they were far behind. The ring of red lights was falling away. Acceleration tore at Falken's body, but the web of sleep was loosening. Sheila's voice cried to him, the story of man's slavery.

The naked, hungry peaks of Mercury snarled at Falken. And then the guns of the Spaceguard post woke up.

"Talk, Sheila!" he cried. "Keep talking!"

"So Gantry Hilton made himself a sort of God, regulating the thoughts and emotions of his people. There is no opposition now, except for the Unregenerates, and we have no power. Humanity walks in a placid stupor. It cannot feel dissatisfaction, disloyalty, or the will to grow and change. It cannot fight, even morally.

"Gantry Hilton is a god. His son after him will be a god. And humanity is dying."

There was a strange, almost audible snap in Falken's brain. He felt a quick, terrible stab of hate that startled him because it seemed no part of himself. Then it was gone, and his mind was clear.

He was tired to exhaustion, but he could think, and fight.

Livid, flaming stars leaped and died around him. Racked plates screamed in agony. Falken's lean hands raced across the controls. He knew now what he was going to do.

Down, down, straight into the black, belching mouths of the guns, gambling that his sudden burst of speed would confuse the gunners, that the tiny speck of his ship hurtling bow-on would be hard to see against the star-flecked depths of space.

Falken's lips were white. Sheila's thin hands were a sharp unnoticed pain on his shoulders. Down, down . . . . The peaks of Mercury almost grazed his hull.

A shell burst searingly, dead ahead. Blinded, dazed, Falken held his ship by sheer instinct. Thundering rockets fought the gravitational pull for a moment. Then he was through, and across.

Across Mercury, in free space, a speeding mote lost against the titanic fires of the Sun.
* * *

Falken turned. Paul Avery lay still in his bunk, but his golden eyes were wide, staring at Falken. They dropped to Sheila Moore, who had slipped exhausted to the floor, and came back to Falken and stared and stared with a queer, stark look that Falken couldn't read.

Falken cut the rockets and locked the controls. Heat was already seeping through the hull. He looked through shaded ports at the vast and swollen Sun.

No man in the history of space travel had ventured so close before. He wondered how long they could stand the heat, and whether the hull could screen off the powerful radiations.

His brain, with all its knowledge of the Unregenerate camps, was safe for a time. Knowing the hopelessness of it, he smiled sardonically, wondering if sheer habit had taken the place of reason.

Then Sheila's bright head made him think of Kitty, and he knew that his tired body had betrayed him. He could never give up.

He went down beside Sheila. He took her hands and said:

"Thank you. Thank you, Sheila Moore."

And then, quite peacefully, he was asleep with his head in her lap.

* * *

The heat was a malignant, vampire presence. Eric Falken felt it even before he wakened. He was lying in Avery's bunk, and the sweat that ran from his body made a sticky pool under him.

Sheila lay across from him, eyes closed, raw-gold hair pushed back from her temples. The torn green silk of her dress clung damply. The starved thinness of her gave her a strange beauty, clear and brittle, like sculptured ice.

She'd lived in alleys and cellars, hiding from the Hiltonists, because she wouldn't be Happy. She was strong, that girl. Like an unwanted cat that simply wouldn't die.

Avery sat in the pilot's chair, watching through the shaded port. He swung around as Falken got up. The exhaustion was gone from his square young face, but his eyes were still veiled and strange. Falken couldn't read them, but he sensed fear.

He asked, "How long have I slept?"

Avery shrugged. "The chronometer stopped. A long time, though. Twenty hours, perhaps."

Falken went to the controls. "Better go back now. We'll swing wide of Mercury, and perhaps we can get through." He hoped their constant velocity hadn't carried them too far for their fuel.

Relief surged over Avery's face. "The size of that Sun," he said jerkily. "It's terrifying. I never felt . . ."

He broke off sharply. Something about his tone brought Sheila's eyes wide open.

Suddenly, the bell of the mass-detector began to ring, a wild insistent jangle.

"Meteor!" cried Falken and leaped for the Visor screen. Then he froze, staring.

It was no meteor, rushing at them out of the vast blaze of the Sun. It was a planet.

A dark planet, black as the infinity behind it, barren and cruel as starvation, touched in its jagged peaks with subtle, phosphorescent fires.

Paul Avery whispered, "Good Lord! A planet, here? But it's impossible!"

Sheila Moore sprang up.

"No! Remember the old legends about Vulcan, the planet between Mercury and the Sun? Nobody believed in it, because they could never find it. But they could never explain Mercury's crazy orbit, either, except by the gravitational interference of another body."

Avery said, "Surely the Mercurian observatories would have found it?" A pulse began to beat in his strong white throat.

"It's there," snapped Falken impatiently. "And we'll crash it in a minute if we . . . Sheila! Sheila Moore!"

The dull glare from the ports caught the proud, bleak lines of his gypsy face, the sudden fire in his blue eyes.

"This is a world, Sheila! It might be a world for us, a world where Unregenerates could live, and wait!"

She gasped and stared at him, and Paul Avery said:

"Look at it, Falken! No one, nothing could live there."

Falken said softly, "Afraid to land and see?"

Yellow eyes burned into his, confused and wild. Then Avery turned jerkily away.

"No. But you can't land, Falken. Look at it."

Falken looked, using a powerful search-beam, probing. Vulcan was smaller even than Mercury. There was no atmosphere. Peaks like splinters of black glass bristled upward, revolving slowly in the Sun's tremendous blaze.

The beam went down into the bottomless dark of the canyons. There was nothing there, but the glassy rock and the dim glints of light through it.

"All the same," said Falken, "I'm going to land." If there was even a tiny chance, he couldn't let it slip.

Unregeneracy was almost dead in the inhabited worlds. Paul Avery was the only recruit in months. And it was dying in the miserable outer strongholds of independence.

Starvation, plague, cold, and darkness. Insecurity and danger, and the awful lost terror of humans torn from earth and light. Unless they could find a place of safety, with warmth and light and dirt to grow food in, where babies could be born and live, Gantry Hilton would soon have the whole Solar System for his toy.

There were no more protests. Falken set the ship down with infinite skill on a ledge on the night side. Then he turned, feeling the blood beat in his wrists and throat.

"Vac suits," he said. "There are two and a spare."

They got into them, shuffled through the airlock, and stood still, the first humans on an undiscovered world.
* * *

Lead weights in their boots held them so that they could walk. Falken thrust at the rock with a steel-shod alpenstock.

"It's like glass," he said. "Some unfamiliar compound, probably, fused out of raw force in the Solar disturbance that created the planets. That would explain its resistance to heat."

Radio headphones carried Avery's voice back to him clearly, and Falken realized that the stuff of the planet insulated against Solar waves, which would normally have blanketed communication.

"Whatever it is," said Avery, "it sucks up light. That's why it's never been seen. Only little glimmers seep through, too feeble for telescopes even on Mercury to pick up against the Sun. Its mass is too tiny for its transits to be visible, and it doesn't reflect."

"A sort of dark stranger, hiding in space," said Sheila, and shivered. "Look, Eric! Isn't that a cave mouth?"

Falken's heart gave a great leap of hope. There were caves on Pluto. Perhaps, in the hidden heart of this queer world . . . .

They went toward the opening. It was surprisingly warm. Falken guessed that the black rock diffused the Sun's heat instead of stopping it.

Thin ragged spires reared overhead, stabbing at the stars. Furtive glints of light came and went in ebon depths. The cave opened before them, and their torches showed glistening walls dropping sheer away into blackness.

Falken uncoiled a thousand-foot length of synthetic fiber rope from his belt. It was no larger than a spider web, and strong enough to hold Falken and Avery together. He tied one each of their metal boots to it and let it down.

It floated endlessly out, the lead weight dropping slowly in the light gravity. Eight hundred, nine hundred feet. When there were five feet of rope left in Falken's hand it stopped.

"Well," he said. "There is a bottom."

Paul Avery caught his arm. "You aren't going down?"

"Why not?" Falken scowled at him, puzzled. "Stay here, if you prefer. Sheila?"

"I'm coming with you."

"All right," whispered Avery. "I'll come.'" His amber eyes were momentarily those of a lion caught in a pit. Afraid, and dangerous.

Dangerous? Falken shook his head irritably He drove his alpenstock into a crack and made the rope fast.

"Hang onto it," he said. "We'll float like balloons, but be careful. I'll go first. If there's anything wrong down there, chuck off your other boot and climb up fast."

They went down, floating endlessly on the weighted rope. Little glints of light fled through the night-dark walls. It grew hot. Then Falken struck a jog in the cleft wall and felt himself sliding down a forty-five-degree offset. Abruptly, there was light.

Falken yelled, in sharp, wild warning.

The thing was almost on him. A colossus with burning eyes set on foot-long stalks, with fanged jaws agape and muscles straining.

Falken grabbed for his blaster. The quick motion over-balanced him. Sheila slid down on him and they fell slowly together, staring helplessly at destruction charging at them through a rainbow swirl of light.

The creature rushed by, in utter silence.

Paul Avery landed, his blaster ready. Falken and Sheila scrambled up, cold with the sweat of terror.

"What was it?" gasped Sheila.

Falken said shakily, "God knows!" He turned to look at their surroundings.

And swept the others back into the shadow of the cleft.

Riders hunted the colossus. Riders of a shape so mad that even in madness no human could have conceived them. Riders on steeds like the arrowing tails of comets, hallooing on behind a pack of nightmare hounds . . . .

Cold sweat drenched him. "How can they live without air?" he whispered. "And why didn't they see us?"

There was no answer. But they were safe, for the moment. The light, a shifting web of prismatic colors, showed nothing moving.

They stood on a floor of the glassy black rock. Above and on both sides walls curved away into the wild light—sunlight, apparently, splintered by the shell of the planet. Ahead there was an ebon plain, curving to match the curve of the vault.

Falken stared at it bitterly There was no haven here. No life as he knew it could survive in this pit. Yet there was life, of some mad sort. Another time, they might not escape.

"Better go back," he said wearily, and turned to catch the rope.

The cleft was gone.

Smooth and unbroken, the black wall mocked him. Yet he hadn't moved more than two paces. He smothered a swift stab of fear.

"Look for it," he snapped. "It must be here."

But it wasn't. They searched, and came again together, to stare at each other with eyes already a little mad.

Paul Avery laughed sharply. "There's something here," he said. "Something alive."

Falken snarled, "Of course, you fool! Those creatures . . . ."

"No. Something else. Something laughing at us."

"Shut up, Avery," said Sheila. "We can't go to pieces now."

"And we can't just stand here glaring." Falken looked out through the rainbow dazzle. "We may as well explore. Perhaps there's another way out."

Avery chuckled, without mirth. "And perhaps there isn't. Perhaps there was never a way in. What happened to it, Falken?"

"Control yourself," said Falken silkily, "or I'll rip off your oxygen valve. All right. Let's go."

They went a long way across the plain in the airless, unechoing silence, slipping on glassy rock, dazzled by the wheeling colors.

Then Falken saw the castle.

It loomed quite suddenly—a bulk of squat wings with queer, twisted turrets and straggling windows. Falken scowled. He was sure he hadn't seen it before. Perhaps the light . . .

They hesitated. Icy moth-wings flittered over Falken's skin. He would have gone around, but black walls seemed to stretch endlessly on either side of the castle.

"We go in," he said, and shuddered at the thought of meeting folk like those who hunted the flaming-eyed colossus.

Blasters ready, they went up flat titanic steps. A hall without doors stretched before them. They went down it.
* * *

Falken had a dizzy sense of change. The walls quivered as though with a wash of water over them. And then there were doors opening out of a round hall.

He opened one. There was a round hall beyond, with further doors. He turned back. The hall down which they had come had vanished. There were only doors. Hundreds of them, of odd shapes and sizes, like things imperfectly remembered.

Paul Avery began to laugh.

Falken struck him, hard, over the helmet. He stopped, and Sheila caught Falken's arm, pointing.

Shadows came, rushing and wheeling like monstrous birds. Cold dread caught Falken's heart. Shadows, hunting them . . .

He choked down the mad laughter rising in his own throat. He opened another door.

Halls, with doors. The shadows swept after them. Falken hurled the doors open, faster and faster, but there was never anything beyond but another hall, with doors.

His heart was gorged and painful. His clothing was cold on his sweating body. He plunged on and on through black halls and drifting shards of light, with the shadows dancing all around and doors, doors, doors.

Paul Avery made a little empty chuckle. "It's laughing," he mumbled and went down on the black floor. The shadows leaped.

Sheila's eyes were staring fire in her starved white face. Her terror shocked against Falken's brain and steadied it.

"Take his feet," he said harshly. "Take his feet."

They staggered on with their burden. And presently there were no more doors, and no roof overhead. Only the light and the glassy walls, and the dancing shadows.

The walls were thin in places. Through them Falken saw the dark colossus with its flaming eyes, straining through the spangled light. After it came the hounds and hunters, not gaining nor falling back, riding in blind absorption.

The walls faded, and the shadows. They were alone in the center of the black plain. Falken looked back at the castle.

There was nothing but the flat and naked rock.

He laid Avery down. He saw Sheila Moore fall beside him. He laughed, one small, mad chuckle. Then he crouched beside the others, his scarred gypsy face a mask of living stone.

Whether it was then, or hours later that he heard the voice, Falken never knew. But it spoke loudly in his mind, that voice. It brought him up, his futile blaster raised.

"You are humans," said the voice. "How wonderful!"

Falken looked upward, sensing a change in the light.

Something floated overhead. A ten-foot area of curdled glory, a core of blinding brilliance set in a lacy froth of fire.

The beauty of it caught Falken's throat. It shimmered with a sparkling opalescence, infinitely lovely—a living, tender flame floating in the rainbow light. It caught his heart, too, with a deep sadness that drifted in dim, faded colors beneath the brilliant veil.

It said, clearly as a spoken voice in his mind:

"Yes. I live, and I speak to you."

Sheila and Avery had risen. They stared, wide-eyed, and Sheila whispered, "What are you?"

The fire-thing coiled within itself. Little snapping flames licked from its edges, and its colors laughed.

"A female, isn't it? Splendid! I shall devise something very special." Colors rippled as its thoughts changed. "You amaze me, humans. I cannot read your minds, beyond thoughts telepathically directed at me, but I can sense their energy output.

"I had picked the yellow one for the strongest. He appeared to be so. Yet he failed, and you others fought through."

Avery stared at Falken with the dawn of an appalled realization in his amber eyes. Falken asked of the light:

"What are you?"

The floating fire dipped and swirled. Preening peacock tints rippled through it, to be drowned in fierce, proud scarlet. It said: "I am a child of the Sun."

It watched them gape in stunned amazement, and laughed with mocking golden notes.

"I will tell you, humans. It will amuse me to have an audience not of my own creating. Watch!"

A slab of the glassy rock took form before them. Deep in it, a spot of brilliance grew:

It was a Sun, in the first blaze of its virile youth. It strode the path of its galactic orbit alone. Then, from the wheeling depths of space, a second Sun approached.

It was huge, burning with a blue-white radiance. There was a mating, and the nine worlds were born in a rush of supernal fire.

And there was life. Not on the nine burning planets. But in free space, little globes of fire, bits of the Sun itself shocked somehow to intelligence in the vast explosion of energy.

The picture blurred. The colors of the floating light were dulled and dreamy.

"There were many of us," it sighed. "We were like tiny Suns, living on the conversion of our own atoms. We played, in open space . . . ."

Dim pictures washed the screen, glories beyond human comprehension—a faded vision of splendor, of alien worlds and the great wheeling Suns of outer space. The voice murmured:

"Like Suns, we radiated our energy. We could draw strength from our parent, but not enough. We died. But I was stronger than the rest, and more intelligent. I built myself a shell."

"Built it!" whispered Avery. "But how?"

"All matter is built of raw energy, electron and proton existing in a free state. With a part of my own mass I built this world around myself, to hold the energy of the Sun and check the radiation of my own vitality.

"I have lived, where my race died. I have watched the planets cool and live and die. I am not immortal. My mass grows less as it drains away through my shell. But it will be a long, long time. I shall watch the Sun die, too."

The voice was silent. The colors were ashes of light. Falken was stricken with a great poignant grief.

Then, presently, the little malicious flames frothed to life again, and the voice said.

"My greatest problem is amusement. Here in this black shell I am forced to devise pleasures from my own imagination."

Falken gasped. "The hunters, the cleft that vanished, and that hellish castle?" He was suddenly cold and hot at once.

"Clever, eh? I created my hunt some eons ago. According to my plan the beast can neither escape nor the hunters catch him. But, owing to the uncertainty factor, there is one chance in some hundreds of billions that one or the other event may occur. It affords me endless amusement."

"And the castle?" said Falken silkily. "That amused you, too."

"Oh, yes! Your emotional reactions . . . . Most interesting!" Falken raised his blaster and fired at the core of the light.

Living fire coiled and writhed. The Sun-child laughed.

"Raw energy only feeds me. What, are there no questions?"

Falken's voice was almost gentle. "Do you think of nothing but amusement?"

Savage colors rippled against the dim, sad mauves. "What else is there, to fill the time?"

Time. Time since little frozen Pluto was incandescent gas.

"You closed the opening we came through," said Avery abruptly.

"Of course."

"But you'll open it again? You'll let us go?"

The tone of his voice betrayed him. Falken knew, and Sheila.

"No," said Sheila throatily. "It won't let us go. It'll keep us up here to play with, until we die."

Ugly dark reds washed the Sun-child. "Death!" it whispered. "My creatures exist until I bid them vanish. But death, true death—that would be a supreme amusement!"
* * *

A DESPERATE, helpless rage gripped Falken. The vast empty vault mocked him with his dead hopes. It jeered at him with solid walls that were built and shifted like smoke by the power of this lovely, soulless flame.

Built, and shifted . . .

Sudden fire struck his brain. He stood rigid, stricken dumb by the sheer magnificence of his idea. He began to tremble, and the wild hope swelled in him until his veins were gorged and aching.

He said, with infinite care, "You can't create real living creatures, can you?"

"No," said the Sun-child. "I can build the chemicals of their bodies, but the vital spark eludes me. My creatures are simply toys activated by the electrical interplay of atoms. They think, in limited ways, and they feel crude emotions, but they do not live in the true sense."

"But you can build other things? Rocks, soil, water, air?"

"Of course. It would take a great deal of my strength, and it would weaken my shell, since I should have to break down part of the rock to its primary particles and rebuild. But even that I could do, without serious loss."

There was silence. The blue distant fires flared in Falken's eyes. He saw the others staring at him. He saw the chances of failure bulk over him like black thunderheads, crowned with madness and death.

But his soul shivered in ecstasy at the thing that was in it.

The Sun-child said silkily, "Why should I do all this?"

"For amusement," whispered Falken. "The most colossal game you have ever had."

Brilliant colors flared. "Tell me, human!"

"I must make a bargain first."

"Why should I bargain? You're mine, to do with as I will."

"Quite. But we couldn't last very long. Why waste your imagination on the three of us when you might have thousands?"

Avery's amber eyes opened wide. A shocked incredulity slackened Sheila's rigid muscles. The voice cried:

"Thousands of humans to play with?"

The eager greed sickened Falken. Like a child wanting a bright toy—only the toys were human souls.

"Not until the bargain is made," he said.

"Well? What is the bargain? Quick!"

"Let us go, in return for the game which I shall tell you."

"I might lose you, and then have nothing."

"You can trust us," Falken insisted. He was shaking, and his nerves ached. "Listen. There are thousands of my people, living like hunted beasts in the deserts of the Solar System. They need a world, to survive at all. If you'll build them one in the heart of this planet, I'll bring them here.

"You wouldn't kill them. You'd let them live, to admire and praise you for saving them. It would amuse you just to watch them for some time. Then you could take one, once in a while, for a special game.

"I don't want to do this. But it's better that they should live that way than be destroyed."

"And better for you, too, eh?" The Sun-child swirled reflectively. "Breed men like cattle, always have a supply. It's a wonderful idea . . ."

"Then you'll do it?" Sweat dampened Falken's brow.

"Perhaps . . . Yes! Tell me, quickly, what you want!"

Falken swung to his stunned and unbelieving companions. He gripped an arm of each, painfully hard.

"Trust me. Trust me, for God's sake!" he whispered. Then, aloud, "Help me to tell it what we need."

There was a little laughing ripple of golden notes in the Sun-child's light, but Falken was watching Sheila's eyes. A flash of understanding crossed them, a glint of savage hope.

"Oxygen," she said. "Nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide . . . ."

"And soil," said Falken. "Lime, iron, aluminum, silicon . . . ."
* * *

They came to on a slope of raw, red earth, still wet from the rain. A range of low hills lifted in the distance against a strange black sky. Small tattered clouds drifted close above in the rainbow's light.

Falken got to his feet. As far as he could see there were rolling stretches of naked earth, flecked with brassy pools and little ruddy streams. He opened his helmet and breathed the warm wet air. He let the rich soil trickle through his fingers and thought of the Unregenerates in their frozen burrows.

He smiled, because there were tears in his hard blue eyes.

Sheila gave a little sobbing laugh and cried, "Eric, it's done!" Paul Avery lifted dark golden eyes to the hills and was silent.

There was a laughing tremble of color in the air where the Sun-child floated. Small wicked flames drowned the sad, soft mauves. The Sun-child said:

"Look, Eric Falken. There, behind you."

Falken turned—and looked into his own face.

It stood there, his own lean body in the worn vac suit, his own gypsy face and the tangle of frosted curls. Only the eyes were different. The chill, distant blue was right, but there were spiteful flecks of gold, a malicious sparkle that was like . . . .

"Yes," purred the Sun-child. "Myself, a tiny particle, to activate the shell. A perfect likeness, no?"

A slow, creeping chill touched Falken's heart. "Why?" he asked.

"Long ago I learned the art of lying from men. I lied about reading minds. Your plan to trick me into building this world and then destroy me was plain on the instant of conception."

Laughing wicked colors coiled and spun.

"Oh, but I'm enjoying this! Not since I built my shell have I had such a game! Can you guess why I made your double?"

Falken's lips were tight with pain, his eyes savage with remorse at his own stupidity.

"It—he will go in my ship to bring my people here."

He knew that the Sun-child had picked his unwitting brain as cleanly as any Hiltonist psycho-search.

In sudden desperation he drew his blaster and shot at the mocking likeness. Before he tripped the trigger-stud a wall of ebon glass was raised between them. The blast-ray slid away in harmless fire and died, burned out.

The other Falken turned and strode away across the new land. Falken watched him out of sight, not moving nor speaking, because there was nothing to do, nothing to say.

The lovely wicked fire of the Sun-child faded suddenly.

"I am tired," it said. "I shall suckle the Sun, and rest."

It floated away. For all his agony, Falken felt the heart-stab of its sad, dim colors. It faded like a wisp of lonely smoke into the splintered light.

Presently there was a blinding flash and a sharp surge of air as a fissure was opened. Falken saw the creature, far away, pressed to the roof of the vault and pulsing as it drank the raw blaze of the Sun.

"Oh, God," whispered Falken. "Oh, God, what have I done?"

Falken laughed, one harsh wild cry. Then he stood quite still his hands at his sides, his face a mask cut deep in dark stone.

"Eric," whispered Sheila. "Please. I can't be brave for you all the time."

He was ashamed of himself then. He shook the black despair away with cynical fatalism.

"All right, Sheila. We'll be heroes to the bitter end. You, Avery. Get your great brain working. How can we save our people, and, incidentally, our own skins?"

Avery flinched as though some swift fear had stabbed him. "Don't ask me, Falken. Don't!"

"Why not? What the devil's the matter . . . ." Falken broke off sharply. Something cold and fierce and terrifying came into his face. "Just a minute, Avery," he said gently. "Does that mean you think you know a way?"

"I . . . For God's sake, let me alone!"

"You do know a way," said Falken inexorably. "Why shouldn't I ask you, Paul Avery? Why shouldn't you try to save your people?"

Golden eyes met his, desperate, defiant, bewildered, and pitiful all at once.

"They're not my people," whispered Avery.

They were caught, then, in a strange silence. Soundless wheeling rainbows brushed the new earth, glimmered in the brassy pools. Far up on the black crystal of the vault the Sun-child pulsed and breathed. And there was stillness, like the morning of creation.

Eric Falken took one slow, taut step, and said, "Who are you?"

The answer whispered across the raw red earth.

"Miner Hilton, the son of Gantry."
* * *

Falken raised the blaster, forgotten in his hand. Miner Hilton, who had been Paul Avery, looked at it and then at Falken's face, a shield of dark iron over cold, terrible flame.

He shivered, but he didn't move, nor speak.

"You know a way to fight that thing," said Falken, very softly, in his throat. "I want to kill you. But you know a way."

"I—I don't know. I can't . . ." Golden tortured eyes went to Sheila Moore and stayed there, with a dreadful lost intensity.

Falken's white teeth showed. "You want to tell, Miner Hilton. You want to help us, don't you? Because of Sheila!"

Young Hilton's face flamed red, and then went white. Sheila cried sharply, "Eric, don't! Can't you see he's suffering?"

But Falken remembered Kitty, and the babies who were born and died on freezing rock, without sun or shelter. He said, "She'd never have you, Hilton. And I'll tell you this. Perhaps I can't force out of you what you know. But if I can't, I swear to God I'll kill you with my own hands."

He threw back his head and laughed suddenly "Gantry Hilton's son—in love with an Unregenerate!"

"Wait, Eric." Sheila Moore put a hand on his arm to stop him, and went forward. She took Miner Hilton by the shoulders and looked up at him, and said, "It isn't so impossible, Miner Hilton. Not if what I think is true."

Falken stared at her in stunned amazement, beyond speech or movement. Then his heart was torn with sudden pain, and he knew, with the clarity of utter truth, that he loved Sheila Moore.

She said to Miner Hilton, "Why did you do this? And how?"

Young Hilton's voice was flat and strained. He made a move as though to take her hands from his shoulders, but he didn't. He stared across her red-gold head, at Falken.

"Something had to be done to stamp out the Unregenerates. They're a barrier to complete peace, a constant trouble. Eric Falken is their god, as—as Sheila said. If we could trap him, the rest would be easy. We could cure his people.

"My father couldn't do it himself. He's old, and too well-known.

"He sent me, because mine is the only other brain that could stand what I had to do. My father has trained me well.

"To get me by the psycho-search, my father gave me a temporary brain pattern. After I was accepted as a refugee, I established mental contact with him . . . ."

"Mental contact," breathed Falken. "That was it. That's why you were always so tired, why I couldn't shake pursuit."

"Go on," said Sheila, with a queer gentleness.

Hilton stared into space, without seeing.

"I almost had you in Losangles, Falken, but you were too quick for the Guards. Then, when we were trapped at Mercury, I tried to make you sleep. I was leading those ships, too.

"But I was tired, and you fought too well, you and Sheila. After that we were too close to the Sun. My thought waves wouldn't carry back to the ships."

He looked at Falken, and then down at Sheila's thin face.

"I didn't know there were people like you," he whispered. "I didn't know men could feel things, and fight for them like that. In my world, no one wants anything, no one fights, or tries . . . And I have no strength. I'm afraid."

Sheila's green eyes caught his, compelled them.

"Leave that world," she said. "You see it's wrong. Help us to make it right again."

In that second, Falken saw what she was doing. He was filled with admiration, and joy that she didn't really care for Hilton—and then doubt, that perhaps she did.

Miner Hilton closed his eyes. He struck her hands suddenly away and stepped back, and his blaster came ready into his hand.

"I can't," he whispered. His lips were white. "My father has taught me. He trusts me. And I believe in him. I must!"

Hilton looked where the glow of the Sun-child pulsed against ebon rock. "The Unregenerates won't trouble us anymore."

He raised the muzzle of his blaster to his head.
* * *

It was then that Falken remembered his was empty. He dropped it and sprang. He shocked hard against Hilton's middle, struck him down, clawing for his gun arm. But Hilton was heavy, and strong.

He rolled away and brought his barrel lashing down across Falken's temple. Falken crouched, dazed and bleeding, in the mud.

He laughed, and said, "Why don't you kill me, Hilton?"

Hilton looked from Falken's uncowed, snarling face to Sheila. The blaster slipped suddenly from his fingers. He covered his face with his hands and was silent, shivering.

Falken said, with curious gentleness, "That proves it. You've got to have faith in a thing, to kill or die for it."

Hilton whispered, "Sheila!" She smiled and kissed him, and Falken looked steadfastly away, wiping the blood out of his eyes.

Hilton grasped suddenly at the helmet of his vac-suit. He talked, rapidly, as he worked.

"The Sun-child creates with the force of its mind. It understands telekinesis, the control of the basic electrical force of the universe by thought, just as the wise men of our earth understood it. The men who walked on the water, and moved mountains, and healed the sick.

"We can only attack it through its mind. We'll try to weaken its thought-force, destroy anything it sends against us."

His fingers flashed between the helmet radio and the repair kit which is a part of every vac suit, using wires, spare parts, tools.

"There," said Hilton, after a long time. "Now yours."

Falken gave him his helmet. "Won't the Sun-child know what we're doing?" he asked, rather harshly.

Hilton shook his fair head. "It's weak now. It won't think about us until it has fed. Perhaps two hours more."

"Can you read its thoughts?" demanded Falken sourly.

"A very little," said Hilton, and Sheila laughed, quietly.

Hilton worked feverishly. Falken watched his deft fingers weaving a bewildering web of wires between the three helmets, watched him shift and change, tune and adjust. He watched the Sun-child throb and sparkle as the strength of the Sun sank into it. He watched Sheila Moore, staring at Hilton with eyes of brilliant green.

He never knew how much time passed. Only that the Sun-child gave a little rippling sigh of light and floated down. The fissure closed above it. Sheila caught her breath, sharp between her teeth.

Hilton rose. He said rapidly,

"I've done the best I can. It's crude, but the batteries are strong. The helmets will pick up and amplify the energy-impulses of our brains. We'll broadcast a single negative impulse, opposed to every desire the Sun-thing has.

"Stay close together, because if the wires are broken between the helmets we lose power, and it's going to take all the strength we have to beat that creature."

Falken put on his helmet. Little copper discs, cut from the sheet in the repair kit and soldered to wires with Hilton's blaster, fitted to his temples. Through the vision ports he could see the web of wires that ran from the three helmets through a maze of spare grids and a condenser, and then into the slender shaft of a crude directional antenna.

Hilton said, "Concentrate on the single negative, No."

Falken looked at the lovely shimmering cloud, coming toward them.

"It won't be easy," he said grimly, "to concentrate."

Sheila's eyes were savage and feral, watching that foam of living flame. Hilton's face was hidden. He said, "Switch on your radios."

Power hummed from the batteries. Falken felt a queer tingle in his brain.

The Sun-child hovered over them. Its mind-voice was silent, and Falken knew that the electrical current in his helmet was blanking his own thoughts.

They linked arms. Falken set his brain to beating out an impulse, like a radio signal, opposing the negative of his mind to the positive of the Sun-child's.
* * *

Falken stood with the others on spongy, yielding soil. Dim plant-shapes rose on all sides as far as he could see, forming an impenetrable tangle of queer geometric shapes that made him reel with a sense of spatial distortion.

Overhead, in a sea-green sky, three tiny suns wheeled in mad orbits about a common center. There was a smell in the air, a rotting stench that was neither animal or vegetable.

Falken stood still, pouring all his strength into that single mental command to stop.

The tangled geometric trees wavered momentarily. Dizzily, through the wheeling triple suns, the Sun-child showed, stabbed through with puzzled, angry scarlet.

The landscape steadied again. And the ground began to move.

It crawled in small hungry wavelets about Falken's feet. The musky, rotten smell was heavy as oil. Sheila and Hilton seemed distant and unreal, their faces hidden in the helmets.

Falken gripped them together and drove his brain to its task. He knew what this was. The reproduction of another world, remembered from the Sun-child's youth. If they could only stand still, and not think about it . . . .

He felt the earth lurch upward, and guessed that the Sun-child had raised its creation off the floor of the cavern.

The earth began to coil away from under his feet.
* * *

For a giddy instant Falken saw the true world far below, and the Sun-child floating in rainbow light.

It was angry. He could tell that from its color. Then suddenly the anger was drowned in a swirl of golden motes.

It was laughing. The Sun-child was laughing.

Falken fought down a sharp despair. A terrible fear of falling oppressed him. He heard Sheila scream. The world closed in again.

Sheila Moore looked at him from between two writhing trees.

He hadn't let her go. But she was there. Hairy branches coiled around her, tore her vac-suit. She shrieked . . . .

Falken cried out and went forward. Something held him. He fought it off, driven by the agony in Sheila's cry.

Something snapped thinly. There was a flaring shock inside his helmet. He fell, and staggered up and on, and the hungry branches whipped away from the girl.

She stood there, her thin white body showing through the torn vac-suit, and laughed at him.

He saw Miner Hilton crawling dazed on the living ground, toward the thing that looked like Sheila and laughed with mocking golden motes in its eyes.

A vast darkness settled on Falken's soul. He turned. Sheila Moore crouched where he had thrown her from him, in his struggle to help the lying shell among the trees.

He went and picked her up. He said to Miner Hilton, "Can we fix these broken wires?"

Hilton shook his head. The shock of the breaking seemed to have steadied him a little. "No," he said. "Too much burned out."

"Then we're beaten." Falken turned a bitter, snarling face to the green sky, raised one futile fist and shook it. Then he was silent, looking at the others.

Sheila Moore said softly, "This is the end, isn't it?"

Falken nodded. And Miner Hilton said, "I'm not afraid now." He looked at the trees that hung over them, waiting, and shook his head. "I don't understand. Now that I know I'm going to die, I'm not afraid."

Sheila's green eyes were soft and misty. She kissed Hilton, slowly and tenderly, on the lips.

Falken turned his back and stared at the twisted ugly trees. He didn't see them. And he wasn't thinking of the Unregenerates and the world he'd won and then lost.
* * *

Sheila's hand touched him. She whispered, "Eric . . ."

Her eyes were deep, glorious green. Her pale starved face had the brittle beauty of wind-carved snow. She held up her arms and smiled.

Falken took her and buried his gypsy face in the raw gold of her hair.

"How did you know?" he whispered. "How did you know I loved you?"

"I just—knew."

"And Hilton?"

"He doesn't love me, Eric. He loves what I stand for. And anyway . . . I can say this now, because we're going to die. I've loved you since I first saw you. I love you more than Tom, and I'd have died for him."

Hungry tree branches reached for them, barely too short. Buds were shooting up underfoot. But Falken forgot them, the alien life and the wheeling suns that were only a monstrous dream, and the Sun-child who dreamed them.

For that single instant he was happy, as he had not been since Kitty was lost.

Presently he turned and smiled at Hilton, and the wolf look was gone from his face. Hilton said quietly, "Maybe she's right, about me. I don't know. There's so much I don't know. I'm sorry I'm not going to live to find out."

"We're all sorry," said Falken, "about not living." A sudden sharp flare lighted his eyes. "Wait a minute!" he whispered. "There may be a chance . . . ."

He was taut and quivering with terrible urgency, and the buds grew and yearned upward around their feet.

"You said we could only attack it through its mind. But there may be another way. Its memories, its pride . . . ."

He raised his scarred gypsy face to the green sky and shouted, "You, Child of the Sun! Listen to me! You have beaten us. Go ahead and kill us. But remember this. You're a child of the Sun, and we're only puny humans, little ground-crawlers, shackled with weakness and fear.

"But we're greater than you! Always and forever, greater than you!"

The writhing trees paused, the buds faltered in their hungry growth. Faintly, very faintly, the landscape flickered. Falken's voice rose to a ringing shout.

"You were a child of the Sun. You had the galaxy for a toy, all the vast depths of space to play in. And what did you do? You sealed yourself like a craven into a black tomb, and lost all your greatness in the whimsies of a wicked child.

"You were afraid of your destiny. You were too weak for your own strength. We fought you, we little humans, and our strength was so great that you had to beat us by a lying trick.

"You can read our minds, Sun-child. Read them. See whether we fear you. And see whether we respect you, you who boast of your parentage and dream dreams of lost glory, and hide in a dark hole like a frightened rat!"
* * *

For one terrible moment the alien world was suffused with a glare of scarlet—anger so great that it was almost tangible. Then it greyed and faded, and Falken could see Sheila's face, calm and smiling, and Hilton's fingers locked in hers.

The ground dropped suddenly. Blurred trees writhed against a fading sky, and the suns went out in ebon shadow. Falken felt clean earth under him. The rotting stench was gone.

He looked up. The Sun-child floated overhead, under the rocky vault. They were back in the cavern world.

The Sun-child's voice spoke in his brain, and its fires were a smoldering, dusky crimson.

"What was that you said, human?"

"Look into my mind and read it. You've thrown away your greatness. We had little, compared to you, but we kept it. You've won, but your very winning is a shame to you, that a child of the Sun should stoop to fight with little men."

The smoldering crimson burned and grew, into glorious wicked fire that was sheer fury made visible. Falken felt death coiling to strike him out of that fire. But he faced it with bitter, mocking eyes, and he was surprised, even then, that he wasn't afraid.

And the raging crimson fire faded and greyed, was quenched to a trembling mist of sad, dim mauves.

"You are right," whispered the Sun-child. "And I am shamed."

The ashes of burned-out flame stirred briefly. "I think I began to realize that when you fought me so well. You, Falken, who let your love betray you, and then shook your fist at me. I could kill you, but I couldn't break you. You made me remember . . ."

Deep in the core of the Sun-child there was a flash of the old proud scarlet.

"I am a child of the Sun, with the galaxy to play with. I have so nearly forgotten. I have tried to forget, because I knew that what I did was weak and shameful and craven. But you haven't let me forget, Falken. You've forced me to see, and know.

"You have made me remember. Remember! I am very old. I shall die soon, in open space. But I wish to see the Sun unveiled, and play again among the stars. The hunger has torn me for eons, but I was afraid. Afraid of death!

"Take this world, in payment for the pain I caused you. My creature will return here in Falken's ship and vanish on the instant of landing. And now . . . ."

The scarlet fire burned and writhed. Shafts of joyous gold pierced through it. The Sun-child trembled, and its little foaming flames were sheer glory, the hearts of Sun-born opals.

It rose in the rainbow air, higher and higher, rushing in a cloud of living light toward the black crystal of the vault.

Once more there was a blinding flash and a quick sharp rush of air. Faintly, in Falken's mind, a voice said, "Thank you, human! Thank you for waking me from a dying sleep!"

A last wild shout of color on the air. And then it was gone, into open space and the naked fire of the Sun, and the rocky roof was whole.

Three silent people stood on the raw red earth of a new world.

3.5 out of 5

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel - Michael Moorcock

A homage to Brackett. Appeared in Peter Crowther's Mars Probes anthology, and is also in The Space Opera Renaissance by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.

A link to the podcast version by Starship Sofa :-

4 out of 5

The Sky People - S. M. Stirling

"Deera of the Cloud Mountain People ran as she had through the short hours of darkness, without hope and without much fear. The mild warm air of the midlands made the sweat on her face and flanks feel almost cool as it dried, and the tall grass beat against her thighs as her long legs scissored endlessly. The morning sun was still low, casting the seven runners' shadows before them and turning the clouds to the color of raw gold; they had trotted through the short bright summer night and would run on into the long span of daylight, until the great yellow globe of Sauweli sank in the east... if they lived that long, which was unlikely.

She would run until she could run no more; then the Wergu would catch them, and they would fight, and they would die. If they were fortunate, they would die quickly; her warriors had orders to make sure of that for her. There had been some slight chance that they would reach the foothills before the beastmen came up with them, being longer-limbed, but their foes had gained too quickly for that to seem likely. The Cloud Mountain party had been tired from a long journey when the ambush struck, and those who broke away had not had time to snatch up more than their weapons, nor had they been able to build enough of a lead to hide their trail. Now hunger gnawed at them as well as weariness, and they had had no time to do anything but scoop up water in their hands as they forded pool or creek. The Wergu were fresh, with gourds of water at their belts and dried meat in their pouches to eat as they pursued.

Then her mate Jaran broke the deep rhythm of his breath, sniffing deeply.

"What is it, my love?" Deera said. "What do you scent?"

Before he could answer, she smelled it herself, and spoke: "Fire!"

The land before the dozen-strong war party was gently rolling, covered in long green grass starred with flowers crimson and white, with copses of trees along the occasional small streams. They passed small herds of tharg and churr, but luckily nothing bigger, and most animals-of-fur avoided men. Not longtooths or greatwolves or crescent-horns, but there weren't any of those in sight either. Then they saw the thread of smoke rising skyward, and saw animals and flyers heading away. Men and beastmen used fire... or it might be wild-fire from a lightning strike, deadly in grassland country if it spread.

"We go there," Deera said, pointing; the sunlight broke off the bright bronze of her spearhead.

She alone of their party carried metal weapons, the spear and the knife at her belt; their trading mission to the coastal cities hadn't reached its goal before the Wergu found them.

"That is where the streak-of-light pointed," her mate said doubtfully. "A bad omen."

"It is a new thing. If we go on with no new thing, the beastmen will crack our bones for marrow before the sun sets. If it is not a new thing we can use, we cannot be killed any more surely.""

4 out of 5

Murder In the Family - Leigh Brackett

Murder In the Family


DANNY THAYER WALKED THROUGH the La Brea Tar Pits that night because he was looking for a place to sleep, free. He wasn't thinking about anything in particular. His brain had grown rather numb these last few days.
He was hungry. So hungry it felt like rats chewing inside of him. Maybe he could forget that, if he went to sleep. Have to watch out for a cop, though. The signs at the park entrance said, CLOSED TO PUBLIC AFTER SUNDOWN.
The Pits stretched out before him, a great barren sweep of weeds and scrub and baked earth dotted with clumps of dark I trees and the pits themselves where scientists had dug up fossils, and white scattered glints where stone sculptures of I prehistoric beasts loomed in the cloudy moonlight.
Danny Thayer shivered. He was nineteen, homeless, jobless, and hungry, but he could feel the loneliness of the place. It was more than just empty. It was—ancient.
Wilshire Boulevard was just beyond the wall of eucalyptus trees and ornamental shrubs. The lights of Hollywood painted the clouds off to his left. But they seemed a million miles away.
He walked on. Just walking, a tall lanky kid trying to forget how hungry he was. Past asphalt funnels bubbling stickily behind low protective walls. Past the statue of a short-faced bear, and two ground-sloths, and across a choked and stagnant creek.
The path led between pits choked with reeds higher than his head, over a low stone bridge. There was a thick clump of trees up ahead. The place had a sullen, biting smell. It seemed to be waiting, somehow. Waiting, and hungry.
Then, sharp and sudden in the dead silence, a woman's voice cried out.
"What are you doing? No! Oh God, don't. . . !"
And she screamed. It was a short scream, choked off abruptly in a sort of gurgle, like thick muddy water between stones.
Danny stopped. Something like a strong cold hand held him, still and not breathing. Then he started to run, toward the clump of trees ahead, his feet ringing hollow on the stone bridge.
He stumbled out of the path between the trees. The moon was playing hide-and-seek in drifting clouds. And someone was running, fast, toward the Wilshire entrance.
Someone in a dark suit, with a dark head bent. Running doubled over, so that in that light you couldn't see size and shape.
Danny Thayer yelled, almost as though his throat had done it alone.
The someone stopped, jerked around like a puppet on wires, already shadowed by the barrier trees. The moon broke out, clear and bright. For an instant they stood, the figure in the shadows, the boy clear in the cold brilliance. Then the dirt path was empty.
Danny stood stiff, his body needled with sweat, choking on his own heartbeats. The sullen pungence of the pits seemed suddenly triumphant, as though what they'd waited for had come.
He turned toward where the scream had come from.
There was a stone group under the trees, showing a bison mired in a pit and two sabre-tooth cats fighting over the carcass. One of them reared up over four feet, his head thrown back, fangs bared impotently while the other tore his throat.
Only now his fangs weren't bared. They were buried deep in a woman's throat.
A woman's throat, wedged with savage strength into the gaping mouth. The cat's fangs were metal, because they were too long for crumbly stone.
Metal. Not very sharp. But sharp enough.
Clouds nagged at the moon. Danny's heart beat full and slow and very loud. He shivered, and the veins in his neck hurt.
She was small and slender, bent backward and hanging from the cat's mouth. She wore an evening gown of some pale, shining stuff, tight across her small curved breasts. The blood had made a dark, glinting pool between them.
She must have been pretty, without her face so twisted and her eyes empty and staring. Her hair was dull gold against the stone.
It was very still and lonely there, and the pits smelt of death.
Danny put out his hands and tried to get her loose. But the curving fangs were hooked hard against her jaw. She was dead, anyway. Apart from the bleeding, the jerk of her body downward had snapped her neck.
He drew back. He wanted to be sick, but the retching was agony to the emptiness in him. And then he saw her purse, a little scrap of satin and seed-pearls, dropped in the dust beside one small foot.
He stood quite still, looking at it. His bony hands opened and closed. He could still feel her flesh against his palms.
Warm, but already cooling. Warm, but dead.
Just a dime, for a hamburger. It was stealing. But she wouldn't need it any more. Maybe it wasn't wrong to rob a person when he didn't need money any more.
Danny's jaw was long and jutting, covered with a dark soft stubble of beard. It set suddenly, hard, and his blue eyes narrowed.
"The hell with right or wrong! She's dead. And I'm hungry."
He stooped and caught up the purse and opened it. A roll of bills fell out into his hands. A thick, fat, solid roll of bills.
Not the sort a girl carries in case of taxi fare.
Danny stood there, staring at it. And suddenly there was light in his face that wasn't moonlight, and a man's voice yelling.
Danny Thayer reacted from sheer brute instinct. He dropped the purse and lurched back into the shadow of the trees, and ran.
A whistle shrilled. Heavy boots pounded on the baked earth.
A voice yelled, "Stop or I'll fire!" A prowl car must have slopped out on Curson Street, too far away for him to hear.
Me regular patrolman, clearing bums and lovers out of the park.
Danny ran. Fear lent him strength. Stumbling, staggering, doubled over with his back-muscles tight for the rip of a bullet, lie raced around the pit where the bridge was, sheltered by the reeds.
He ducked in among the low walls. Something cracked like a dry branch behind him and there was a nasty whining sound over his head.
There were two sets of boots pounding, now. But the second ccop, summoned by the whistle, was way behind.
The gun cracked again. Dust and splinters exploded from the wall beside him. It was hard to breathe, and his feet weren't sure.
He broke suddenly around a big pit with a sort of pump-house built over it, doubling back under the shelter of the tall cattails that choked the creek. The creek ran back almost to the Sixth Street side of the Pits. If he could make it. . . .
The first policeman went into the tangle of low walls, carefully, lest Danny have a gun. Danny tried to go quietly, but he couldn't control his feet. His breath was hot and it had a saw-edge to it.
The second policeman, way behind the first, saw him.
He let out a whoop and pelted across the shortened distance. He must have thought the boy was wounded, the way he was running, for he held his fire. Danny moaned and struck out for the shrubbery bordering Sixth Street.
The first man vaulted a wall and came running. Danny could hear their boots hitting the ground. They were going to run him down, because they were strong and not hungry. They were going to take him. They were going to arrest him for murder, because he'd been standing by a body with a purse in his hands.
Murder for robbery. Twelve men, and the gas chamber. And he didn't have even a description of the killer.
He was suddenly furious, the fury of an animal cornered and in pain. He grabbed up a big clod of earth and whirled around and threw it. His thin young lips were snarling, and his eyes were queer.
The leading policeman reached the creek. There was a gap in the reeds there, and he jumped. The clod took him, then, in the face. He lost his footing and crashed down, his head going under in strangling, acrid stuff, half water, half pure asphalt.
Danny ran on.
The other man yelled at him, and fired. Bullets kicked the dust, but he was weaving from sheer weakness, and the light was bad. They missed. He staggered into the shelter of the trees and looked back.
The cop had had to stop and pull his mate out of the creek. And now there were people coming into the pits from the Wilshire entrances, drawn by the whistles and the shots. He'd have to stay there, to guard the body and whatever clues there might be.
Danny Thayer stumbled on. No one was walking on Sixth Street at that hour, and the few cars went by fast. Nobody saw him, in the shadows. He went across into the grounds of a swank nursery, and then down on his knees in a dark corner, his breath knifing his lungs, his heart slamming his ribs like a hammer.
Far away a siren began to wail.
He had to get on. There'd be a cordon. He'd been a fool to run away. But his body did it without asking his mind, and I hen he'd been afraid to stop. Now nobody'd believe him.
But would they have believed him anyhow? A kid, broke and starving, standing beside a dead girl with his fists full of money?
Money. Bills, a thick roll of them, clenched in his sweating hand. He'd taken it, then. Now they'd never believe him. Never.
Money. Something he'd prayed for, with his belly crying for food. Blood money, to buy him the gas chamber. He got up, whimpering, and raised his hand, as if to throw it away.
he couldn't throw it away. It meant bus fare, to get away from here, quick. It might save his life. And it meant food. Just one full meal, before they caught him.
He began to rip feverishly at the bills. Got to hurry. Sirens. God, let them be small. Fives, tens, twenties. A lot of money. Why was she carrying it? A fiver. He pulled it out, and a scrap of paper fell at his feet.
He scooped it up and began to run again.
Out onto Wilshire Boulevard. Slowly, so as not to attract attention. Sirens, coming fast, Fairfax Avenue. There was a bus coming, heading toward Hollywood. People were beginning to stop and look for the sirens.
He sprinted across the intersection against the lights and caught the bus. The driver grumbled about changing the five, digging for dollar bills. The sirens screamed closer. Danny forced his hands to be steady, taking the change and dropping a dime in the box.
They started, jamming through on the caution light, the driver still sore about the change. They were in the last batch of cars through before the cordon closed around Wilshire and Fairfax.
The bus was half empty. Danny sat by himself, trying not to sob when he breathed, trying to look peaceful. The roll fitted into his hand in his pocket, hard and accusing.
When they got as far north as Santa Monica Boulevard he began to relax a little. He got off there and went into a Log Cabin and ate. Then he took a red car and caught another bus on La Brea and went on to Hollywood. He went to three more drive-ins before he'd had enough to eat. He didn't dare have it all in one place, for fear of drawing notice.
Then he went out onto Sunset Boulevard, not knowing where to go next, or what to do. And for the first time he was really afraid.
He'd been afraid back at the Pits, with the hot animal fear of death. But this was different, this was being lost in a dark, cold place, where there was nothing but silence and waiting.
The night fog was coming in, chilly and smelling of the sea. It made little halos around the glare of Earl Carroll's. He could see people inside and hear music. The two big radio buildings across the street and the Palladium Ballroom radiated life and energy.
People, eating and drinking and having fun. Working. Fighting, maybe. not afraid. Not behind a wall, like he was.
He sat down on a bench, shivering. The roll of bills made a lump against his thigh.
The policeman had seen him pretty clearly by his flashlight. There'd be a description in the morning papers.
They'd get him. They always got you.
The cop he'd hit wasn't dead, anyway. He'd moved and tried to get up when the other guy helped him.
If he could have caught the killer, or even seen his face. That girl, so little and golden-haired, with her throat ripped and jammed against those snarling fangs–and they thought Danny Thayer had done it!
How the killer must have hated her, to take her living throat in his hands and force it down. . . . What could a girl like that do to make anyone hate her so?
Surely, if he gave himself up, they'd know he couldn't have (lone a thing like that. But somebody might say, "You hated her because she had money and you were hungry, so you killed her."
Now he had money. Sure. Money. Money to buy the gas chamber.
It wasn't till then that he remembered the bit of paper.
It was still in his pocket. He spread it out under the lights from Earl Carroll's. Pencilled in a hasty, angry scrawl were he words, "This is all I can give you, ever, no matter what you do. Damn you, damn you, damn you!"
Danny turned the paper over. It was a strip torn from a department store sales slip. There was a name and address on it. Miss Cicely Rieff, who lived on Fountain Avenue.
The dead girl. She'd been taking that money to someone. Blackmail, sure as shooting. She must have been pretty desperate when she rolled the money up, to grab the nearest paper and scribble a note like that and wrap it in the heart of the wad.
Was the murderer the blackmailer? Maybe. The girl must have known him, to go into the Pits alone with him after dark. But why did he go off without his money, then? Had Danny scared him?
Danny Thayer, who was a fugitive from justice, with a roll of bills he couldn't spend. Danny, who was going to die in the gas chamber, unless. . . .
Unless he could catch the murderer before the police caught him.


IT WAS ALMOST AS THOUGH his brain took hold and began to click without him, like a machine. He had clues–the note, the money, and the girl's name and address. He knew he wasn't the killer. That was more than the police had.
There hadn't been anything else in the girl's purse. Maybe it would take the police a little while to identify her. Until the morning papers came out, maybe, and somebody saw her picture.
It had been nearly ten when he found the body. It was nearly midnight now. Four or five hours he might hope for. Four or five hours to break into something from the outside and catch a killer.
It was hopeless, and he knew it. But it was better than just waiting, crouching in the dark with fear lying cold in his belly. He'd still be in trouble, of course, even if a miracle happened and he did find the murderer. He'd do time for stealing and hitting a cop. But he could face that all right. It was the terrible fear of dying, for something he didn't do, that froze him.
He got up, thinking of the description the cop would give. There was a service station across the street. Nobody saw him go into the men's room and lock the door. He still had his cheap razor. Nothing for that in a hock shop.
He managed to scrape his face pretty clean, using just soap and water. Then he used the blade to chop his hair shorter. It looked ragged, but at least it was short. Then he did what he could to make his clothes look decent.
When he came out he looked different enough so that cops hunting for a shag-haired, unshaven kid wouldn't grab him straight off. He forced himself to walk with jaunty casualness, trying to keep in shadow without being too obvious about it.
It was well after midnight when he found the Fountain Avenue house.
It was one of those big old frame places–two stories and a half–left over from better days. A porch overgrown with bougainvillea ran around two sides. It was on a corner and there was a sign in the front bay window–ROOMS FOR RENT.
There were only one or two lights upstairs. That meant the police hadn't identified the body yet. If they had, the place would be blazing and full of people. He went around to the driveway. It led between high lattice fences, grown heavy with morning glory vines, back to an old stable that was a garage now, with an apartment over it.
There were no lights in the back. Danny went softly down the drive. His heart was jumping like something trying to break loose.
The fog was heavier, but there was still moonlight. Everything was overgrown with vines and shrubs. It smelt musty and secret, and the lattice-covered back porch was a black hole with the garbage cans like ogre's eyes looking dully from under it.
He stood still by the corner of the house, then. He was here, but what next? He couldn't break into the house, yelling, "Who killed her?" The sharp chill of the air got inside him, and he felt the terrible, helpless weakness of an animal in a trap.
He went on, aimlessly, around the house. Noises came suddenly down to him from the garage apartment, so that he jumped and crouched trembling under a bush. A man's low thick laughter and a scuffling sound, and one sharp high titter in a woman's voice, and silence.
Danny crept on, still sweating with shock. He went along a dirt path between straggling flower beds, looking up at the dark house, wishing he were like Superman and could look right through walls.
Probably the killer wasn't here at all. If he was, there was no way to get at him. He might as well go and give himself up, now.
He didn't see the summer house until he almost ran into it. It was lattice like the fence, at the end of a pergola leading to a side porch. It was all choked with vines, smelling dusty and rotten in the damp night air.
And there were people inside.
A man's voice spoke, right at Danny's shoulder, just beyond the vines. A low voice, smooth and drawling and soft, and somehow worse than if it hadn't been.
"I just want to know where she is, Frieda."
"I tell you I don't know!" It was a woman this time, breathless, frightened, almost crying. "I haven't any control over Cicely."
"Very well, Frieda," said the man pleasantly. "I'm in no hurry."
"I don't understand." The tone of the woman's whisper did something to Danny's insides. "Teddy, if you've harmed her. . . . "
"Why should I harm Cicely? Just because Mother doesn't love her darling niece?" There was a rustle of swift movement and a sharply indrawn breath.
"Don't, Teddy! It hurts!"
The man said silkily, "Does it? I'm glad. Just remember it, in case. . . . What's that? There's someone outside!"
Danny got up and ran. A big moth had blundered suddenly into his face, so that he jerked his head and struck the vines and rustled them. He dodged into the shadows of a big tree and around it to the garage, where steps came down from the apartment.
Feet were running close behind him.
He knew he'd have nightmares about running feet all the rest of his life. He'd slip behind the garage to the street, and then. . . .
There was no way behind the garage, and the fence was too high to get over in time. He was caught.
He turned, then, his bony young face snarling, his fists balled. Scared, and angry because he was scared, and furious suddenly with fate for picking on him. A tall slender man in slacks and a sport coat was almost on him, running gracefully, like a dancer.
Danny lashed out at a smooth blond head, missed because the head moved aside a fraction, and felt something crash below his left ear.
He went sprawling, the breath knocked out of him against hard ground. A hand gripped his collar, dragged him upward, strangling, and then knuckles slashed him twice across the mouth.
The darkness turned suddenly red. Danny made an animal noise and doubled his feet up and kicked. The blond man grunted and lurched back, his handsome face twisted like a fiend's in the moonlight.
The girl cried out sharply, then. She'd been a long way behind the man. Now she got between him and Danny, and said rapidly, "Wait, Teddy! Don't! It's my friend Dick Taylor, from back home."
Teddy scowled down at her, his fists clenched and showing blood on the knuckles. "You're lying," he said.
"I'm not, I swear it! Dick, you tell him I'm not. Dicky!"
Danny's brain was numbed with anger and pain and wondering if the girl was crazy. Almost without thinking, he mumbled, "Sure I'm her friend. Who'd you think I was–Hitler? Hi, Frieda."
Lucky he'd heard her name. Teddy stood irresolute, swinging his fists in little tight arcs, like a cat swings its paws. And then the door opened, up above at the head of the stairs.
A man came out. He was wearing a big coat and carrying his hat, and his feet stumbled on the wooden platform. He said thickly, "G'nigh', Princess. Thursday, huh?" He chuckled and turned, and then he saw the group at the foot of the stairs.
Danny saw his face for one stricken moment. Then the man slammed his hat on and pulled it hard over his face and ran down the stairs, hanging onto the rail and stumbling until
Danny thought he'd fall. He shoved past with his head down and went lurching down the drive.
Danny knew who the man was. He made a lot of money, kissing pretty women for the movies.
A woman came out of the door upstairs. She wore a thin silk robe, and she was a looker. She leaned over the rail, with her dark hair hanging over her shoulders, and blew a long plume of smoke. Her voice was tired and bored.
"What goes on?"
"Nothing," said Frieda. "Just a friend of mine from back home. He hitch-hiked all the way out here, and then Teddy. . . ."
Teddy's voice was sullen, but still smooth. "What's he doing prowling in the yard at this time of night?"
Danny's brain had been churning furiously. The girl must have her reason for this. And it gave him his chance to get inside. The least he could do was play up to her.
He got up, wiping the blood off his chin, and said, "Trying to get hold of Frieda. I'm broke, and I didn't think the landlady would let me in, the way I look. Sure quick with your fists, aren't you?"
"Quick," said Teddy softly, "and accurate."
The woman in the silk robe came down the stairs, her slipper heels clicking. Her legs showed white against the darkness.
"Spoils," she said bitterly, and let something glitter in her hand. "Now I'll go find the old highbinder."
"The intricate pattern of crime," said Teddy, almost absently. "So much more fascinating than a jigsaw puzzle. Isn't it, Frieda?"
Frieda didn't say anything. Danny had his first real look at her. She wore something plain and dark, and she wasn't very tall. Her hair was the color of wheat, falling loose on her shoulders.
He thought her eyes were blue, but in that light all he knew was that they had hate in them. Hate, and fear, looking at Teddy.
"Come on, Dick," she said. "I'll get you a room."
He followed her. Out in the street a motor roared and coughed, as though someone were in an awful hurry to get away. And a light went on in the second story, as though the motor was a signal.
Teddy laughed behind them, a soft nasty little sound. The woman in the silk robe plodded up into the black hole of the porch. And Frieda shrank suddenly against Danny and cried, "What's that?"
There was something sprawled in the shadows of a clump of hydrangeas. Danny hadn't seen it before. But the moonlight had shifted a bit, and one white hand showed up against the grass.
A man's hand, lying across the dull metal of a gun.
They went to it, not speaking at first. Teddy knelt down and rolled the body partly over by the shoulder. The woman in the silk robe made a little choked scream and came back, her heels scuffing.
"It's Halstead," said Teddy. "Somebody's knocked him on the head."
Frieda said, in a queer flat whisper, "My God. Who would want to kill poor Mr. Halstead?"
Teddy's eyes were slanted like a cat's, glinting in the moonlight. He pointed to the gun. "Who did poor Mr. Halstead want to kill? Can't guess, can you, Frieda?"
Frieda pressed tight against Danny, so tight he could feel the roll of bills in his pocket digging into her. She shivered and said wearily, "Haven't you any heart at all?"
The woman gripped her thin robe together at the throat. "I'm getting out of here. The other I'm used to, but murder. . . !"
Teddy got up, dusting his knees. "No use, Princess. The police don't like the contestants running out on their quiz shows."
Policemen. Policemen coming from one murder to another and finding Danny Thayer. There wouldn't be any time, now. They'd recognize him. Frieda would admit her lie. And if he ran away. . . .
He was scared. Cold inside, and scared, and kind of dazed, like an animal when it finds the steel jaws in its leg are there to stay.
The porch door opened. A woman's harsh whisper said, "Get in here, you fools! Want everybody. . . . My God, what's that!"
"A corpse, Mother," said Teddy. "Your late boarder, Mr. Halstead." There was a malicious, concealed amusement in his easy voice.
The porch door shut. A woman scuffed heavily out from under the shrouding vines and down the steps as fast as her heavy bulk could make it. Her frizzed white hair stuck out, quilled here and there with curlers. When she came across the wet grass she pulled up the straggling skirts of her nightgown and flannel wrapper, and Danny saw her ankles, thick and white and bunchy with veins.
"He must have had a heart attack," she said. "A heart attack. His heart was weak, you know." Then she saw the gun and slopped, her breath wheezing in her thick throat. "Suicide?"
"He hasn't been shot. And I don't think he cracked his own skull." Danny saw the cat-glitter of his eyes, studying the woman, laughing.
"We'll have to call the police," said Frieda. Teddy shot her a bright, hard look, and smiled. He was handsome, like a blond Satan.
The fat woman said rapidly, "No, wait. Maybe he cut himself falling. Let's get him inside–" Then she saw Danny. Her voice went suddenly ugly. "Who's this?"
"I'm a pal of Frieda's, from back home." Her eyes were like small hard pebbles, staring right through Danny. They made him tighten inside. But she was scared, too. She didn't want the police. If he could bluff this through, hang onto his chance. . . .
Her face was like a coarse, evil mask of stone in the moonlight. Danny could sense her thoughts running like rats behind it. Then she said, "All right. Grab hold of his feet and help Mr. Rieff."
Teddy Rieff. The dead girl had been his cousin, then. Danny got the corpse around the knees. Everything was quiet. The people in the front hadn't heard. The dead man was heavy, and his clothes were damp. Teddy pocketed the gun.
They went in through the dark porch, to a stale-smelling kitchen. A night light burned in the hall beyond. They went toward it, as quietly as they could, across a bare, creaky wooden floor.
They were almost there. And then a door opened suddenly, right at Danny's shoulder, so that he almost dropped the body. Dim light from the hallway outlined a woman's head against the darkness.
Hair flattened in wet curls under a net, with a face the shape of a pear sagging out from under it, a wide weak mouth and eyes that popped a little. Eyes that were wide open and staring, fixed on the dead man's bloody face, lolling back against Teddy's stomach.


SHE DIDN'T SPEAK. Danny didn't know how long they stood there. Then Mrs. Rieff said sharply, "Go to your room. Princess. I'll see you later."
Princess went out, holding her silk robe away as she passed the corpse. And Mrs. Rieff moved, very quickly for a heavy woman.
Her right hand clamped just above the staring woman's elbow. Her left smothered the whimpering cry of pain. She whispered savagely, "You know about this, Millie, don't you?" Her fingers tightened. The woman strained away, her pale eyes stretched with fear.
"Tell me," said Mrs. Rieff softly, "or you'll get no nights off for six months."
The woman made a strangled whining sound and tried to nod. Mrs. Rieff took her hand away. Millie started to speak, her mouth open as though once started the stream of words wouldn't stop.
"Not here!" snapped Mrs. Rieff, and shook her viciously. "Upstairs, and be quiet!"
Down a dingy hall and up back stairs that must have been worked on lately, because they didn't creak, Mrs. Rieff opened a door and motioned them in, listened a minute, and then came after them.
Lamps made a subdued purplish light. Danny guessed it was Mrs. Rieff's room. There were photographs and expensive knicknacks all over the mantel and the tables. It was all crowded and choked and overdone.
He helped Teddy Rieff put the body down on a couch. Mr. Halstead had been a kindly-looking man, grey-haired and tired. There was a bruise and a big cut on his face.
Danny straightened up, waiting. He put his hands in his pockets to steady them, and the roll felt big and hard, like a judge's hammer when he passes sentence.
He saw Frieda looking at him. A queer, desperate look. And then Mrs. Rieff's pebble eyes were fixed on him.
Her face was coarse and puffed, with red broken veins under the skin. Danny was afraid of her, suddenly. She said sharply, "So you're a friend of Frieda's, eh?"
"Sure. My name's Dick Taylor. I hitch-hiked out here, and landed broke. I wanted to get hold of Frieda first. I didn't think you'd let me in, the way I look. I. . . . "
"Well, you're in now." There was something terrible in the slow, reflective way she said it. "Frieda, where's Cicely?"
"I don't know." She was pretty, now that you could see her face. She looked tired and sort of stony. Danny felt suddenly protective.
Mrs. Rieff smiled. It was like Teddy's smile, catlike, malicious and secret. She turned suddenly on the staring, pale-eyed woman.
"All right, you, Millie. What about this?"
Millie licked her lips. She seemed drugged and dazed with fear. She stood utterly still, her big rough hands hanging, staring at the sprawling corpse. She wore bright green silk pajamas and a pink wrapper and pink slippers of quilted satin.
Her mouth worked for a long time before the words came, ragged and tumbling.
"'I was coming back from the trashpile. I saw him, hiding in the bushes. He was waiting. . . . "
"What were you doing at the trashpile at that hour?"
"I–please, Mrs. Rieff, I only took two slices. Don't!"
Mrs. Rieff did, with relish. "Stealing bacon again, and trying to hide the grease. Well, stop rubbing your stupid face. Go on."
Millie's pale, protruding eyes swung again to the body.
"He had a gun," she whispered. "He looked sick. He told me to go away, but I knew what he was doing. He was waiting to kill Miss Cicely. I heard him tell her he would, if she didn't let him alone."
Her big rough hands knotted together suddenly. "He wouldn't stop. So I hit him with the skillet, on the head. He–he made a funny choking noise and fell down. I was scared. I ran inside. . . ."
Millie crumpled slowly down to her knees, staring straight ahead of her, her hands loose in her lap.
"I didn't mean to kill him," she said dully. "I only didn't want him to hurt Miss Cicely. She's kind to me. She's the only person that ever was kind to me. She gives me pretty things, and money enough to go to two movies on my night off."
She looked up then, with something bright and burning in her eyes.
"You all hate her," she said. "You all wish she was dead. But she's kind to me. And no one's going to hurt her, if I can help it!"
She relaxed, as though there was nothing left in her, and just sat there, tears running silently down her flabby cheeks. Teddy had been bending over the body. He spoke now, rapidly.
"I don't think this whack was hard enough to kill him, Mother. Stunned him, probably, and he raked his face on the bushes, falling. The old boy had a weak heart. Probably the strain of planning the murder, and getting caught, and the Mow, ow, brought on a fatal attack."
Mrs. Rieff looked down at the body with hard, narrow eyes.
"So Cicely was blackmailing him, eh? Clever girl. Let that be a lesson to you, my son. Only a genius would have looked for profit in that dried-up old priss!"
She laughed suddenly, a startling wheeze of private mirth, and settled heavily into an overstuffed chair.
"Get up, Millie. Go to bed. And if you open your mouth about this, I'll swear you killed him. Just forget Mr. Halstead, Millie. And you can forget your night off this week, too, so you'll remember the bacon."
Millie said, "Then I didn't really kill him?"
"No. But I can swear you did. Now go and dream of Clark Gable."
Millie got up. She looked at Mrs. Rieff with dumb, weary hate, like a beaten animal, and went. Mrs. Rieff said briskly, "That's that. We'll forget about the gun. Halstead had a heart attack and hurt his head falling. We brought him in, but it was too late. Teddy, you and the kid carry him to his room and then call a doctor. Make all the noise you want to. We want witnesses."
She got up and took the gun out of Teddy's pocket and wiped it carefully. Then she pressed Halstead's stiffening fingers on it, in several places, wrapped it in a handkerchief, and gave it back.
"Stick it in one of his drawers. If he had a license they'll look for it. If he hasn't, well, we don't know anything about it."
She looked at Danny, with her hard, flat pebble eyes, and said, "Then you can have Number Eight, here in the rear. Any friend of my niece's—we don't want you to get away too soon."
Teddy smiled. "Welcome to our happy home. Grab his feet again."
Danny did. Frieda started out with them, but Mrs. Rieff said, "Stay here, dear. Two of them is enough."
Frieda shot him a veiled, urgent look and stopped, reluctantly. They went on with the body, through a door that closed he back part of the hall off from the front. They made a lot of noise. Presently there were people swarming around, talking, questioning, staring.
They got Halstead into his room. Teddy palmed the gun somehow and got somebody busy calling a doctor and went out again with Danny. Danny was only vaguely conscious of what went on. His brain was spinning like a squirrel in a cage, and making about as much progress.
The things he had found out, instead of simplifying the problem, had only made it harder. Cicely Rieff had been a blackmailer. The servant said everybody hated her. Halstead had been driven to murder.
Who else in this house was Cicely blackmailing? And who I tad been blackmailing her? And what about?
Frieda, who must be Cicely's sister, was afraid of Teddy Rieff. Why? And was there really some pleased and secret knowledge in Mrs. Rieff's eyes, or had he just imagined it? The girl Frieda was the pivot. If he could be alone with
Teddy Rieff closed the hall door behind them. "The Great Divide," he chuckled. "The back is strictly family territory. The boarders even have to garage their cars elsewhere, and here are no keys to the back door given out."
His slanting cat-eyes were fixed sharply on Danny. "Therefore you are the first outsider to see what you have seen."
He meant about the apartment over the garage. Danny grinned. "I know how to keep quiet. Say, I'd like to see Frieda before I turn in. Been a long time, and we were pretty chummy."
"Sure," said Teddy. "Four years is a long time. How are things back in Kansas?"
"About the same," said Danny warily. Teddy stopped before a door and opened it, snapping the light on inside. "This is your room, kid. Suit you?"
"Sure, anything." He wanted to see Frieda, alone–and quick. A siren wailed suddenly over on Sunset, and his guts knotted tight inside him. But it went by. He started off down the hall.
He didn't even have time to turn. The swift movement behind him melted right into the chopping blow on the side of his neck. His heart seemed to close up on him, and his body just folded, heavily.
He didn't quite go out. He felt Teddy's arms like lean steel cables around him, and knew dimly that he was dragged and lifted and stretched on something. He began to struggle then, glaring up at Teddy in a sort of dazed fury.
But it was too late. He was spread-eagled on the bed, tied wrist and ankle to the brass posts. Teddy smiled down at him. "Frieda's only been out here two years," he said gently, "and she came from Michigan. Better start talking, kid."
The blood thundered in Danny's head. It hurt, and he couldn't think. He whispered, "You go to hell."
"Inevitably. But not just yet." Teddy's long fingers twisted cruelly in Danny's hair, lifting his head. "What's between you and Frieda? Something about Cicely?"
Danny wasn't afraid now. Just mad. He thrashed his head about and tried to bite Teddy's wrist. Teddy laughed and slapped him, just hard enough to make his ears ring.
"Okay. We'll do it the hard way." He whipped his handkerchief tight around Danny's jaws to keep him from yelling, and went through his pockets.
Then he stood silent for a long minute, looking at the roll of bills and the crumpled paper with the note and the address on it.
He pocketed them at last, slowly, and bent over Danny again. His handsome face had deep, cruel lines in it. "She's dead, then."
Danny nodded. No use trying to hide that any longer. Teddy ripped off the gag.
"What do you know about this?"
Danny burst out, "Nothing! I was just walking through the Tar Pits, looking for a place to sleep. I heard a woman scream, and saw someone running away. Then I found the body, and the money–and then the cops found me. They think I did it."
"They do!" said Teddy softly. His hand closed on Danny's shirt collar, pulled him up ruthlessly to the reach of his bound arms. Teddy's cat-eyes were pale and cold and yet somehow blazing. He said, "Did you see the killer?"
"Only someone running."
"Man or woman?"
"Someone in pants. Dark hair."
"Dark hair. You're sure of that?"
Danny looked at the light shining on Teddy's smooth blond head. "You could have worn a cap," he said grimly. Shot in the dark. He shivered, looking at Teddy's face. Teddy laughed. A soft, secret little laugh. "Yes. I could, couldn't I?" He let Danny down again and replaced the gag. "Just lie still, little one. Daddy has business to attend to. Oh, yes. Big, important business. And I need you!"
The lights went out. Teddy opened the door and closed it softly behind him, and Danny Thayer was alone.
He lay there with the blood pounding in his bruised neck, his legs and arms beginning to ache where they were tied, and thought, "He did it. He did it, and he's going to pin it on me."
His brain began to click over again, like a well-oiled engine. What motive could Teddy Rieff have for killing his cousin Cicely? Well, Cicely was blackmailing at least one other person so that he was willing to murder her. Why not Teddy, too? Or Teddy's mother?
Teddy's mother. That apartment over the garage, Princess, and the prominent actor. Mrs. Rieff was prosperous. Boardinghouse keepers don't get that way solely from the boarders, and women who run small apartments over garages don't get that way splitting diamond bracelets with the girls. There's another, quicker way. . . .
Blackmail. You always came to blackmail in this house. Ten to one Mrs. Rieff blackmailed the men who came to the rear apartment. She'd want to keep her skirts clean, though, in case of trouble. She took plenty of precautions. It wouldn't be easy to get anything on her.
But suppose somebody did. Wouldn't she rather split her profits than be exposed or give the whole thing up? All right. Say Cicely Rieff, her niece and therefore admitted into the family circle, had proof of Mrs. Rieff's business and blackmailed her with it. Remembering Mrs. Rieff's heavy face and hard pebble eyes, Danny didn't think she'd take it too long. She'd get busy figuring out a way to rid herself of the blackmailer.
She wouldn't do it herself. She'd delegate someone else. And who better than her son, Teddy? Just like, a few minutes ago, she had said, "We don't want you to get away too soon," and Teddy had smiled. . . .
Perhaps Frieda Rieff knew too much. Perhaps that was why Teddy had threatened her in the summer house.
Danny groaned. Just guessing wouldn't do him any good. He had to have proof. Time, the little time he had, was rushing by. And here he was, trussed up and waiting.
Waiting. Remembering Teddy's long sinewy hands, Danny shuddered. And then, very softly, somebody opened the door.


DANNY LAY QUITE STILL, hardly breathing. His nails dug into his palms, but he didn't feel them. He watched the dark huddled bulk come in, saw the door swing shut again, and listened to feet scuffing stealthily across the carpet.
A match flared and sputtered startlingly, close to his face. And Millie's voice, hushed to a hoarse whisper, asked, "Are you all right?"
All the strength poured out of Danny's rigid body. He said shakily, "Sure. Untie me, quick. What are you doing here?" The match went out. He could feel her rough fingers fumbling at his wrists. Her voice came raggedly, as though some great pent-up emotion in her forced it out against a barrier of fear.
"Miss Frieda sent me. She upset a vase on her dress, so she could get away from the old woman for a minute to change it, and she sent me up here. She thought they were going to do something to you. She needs your help. That's why she lied about knowing you."
Millie's voice broke in a dry sob. "I heard through the wall, waiting in the next room for Teddy to go away. Poor Miss Cicely! She knew they wanted to kill her. She was afraid. I know she wasn't bad! She was kind to me, and I loved her.She had one wrist free and started on the other. Teddy had tied hard knots in the handkerchiefs he used. Her voice stumbled on.
"I heard Mr. Halstead threaten her yesterday, and the old woman was in a black fury all day. I know Cicely was asking for more money, and I know she was in trouble. She hasn't been herself ever since Frieda had to go back to Michigan on business, four months ago. "I wanted to help her." But she'd never tell me what was wrong. Anyway, there was nothing I could do. There–never has been."
Wrists free, and both of them working on ankles lashed tight with leather belts, Millie's shaken voice went on again. "She was frightened, I tell you. She gave me three dollars this morning, and then she said, 'This may be the last money
I'll ever give you, Millie. If anything happens to me, Frieda will–' And then Mrs. Rieff came into the kitchen and she stopped.
"I think she was going to say that Miss Frieda would give me things. I don't think so. She's a nice girl, but she lives inside herself so much. But I don't care about that. I loved Miss Cicely. She's the only person I ever had to love."
Danny was glad it was dark. He hated to see women cry. He said, "Why haven't you left this place, or called the police?"
"I didn't have anything the all the police about. The old woman's careful about that. I'd only have gotten Princess and Miss Cicely in trouble. Besides–" She helped him off the bed, and he could hear her throat working, trying to keep the terror and the tears in check.
"Besides, I didn't have anyplace else to go. I'm not young. It isn't easy to find a place these days. Mrs. Rieff knows that, and she knows I'm too dumb and too scared to fight her."
Her voice dropped suddenly to a strange tight whisper. "Only this time I'm not. They've killed Cicely, she and her wicked son. They've killed her. And I'm not going to let them get away with it!"
Danny said awkwardly, "Come on, then. We'll get Frieda." His hand was on the knob when Millie's fingers closed
sharply on his wrist. He heard them, then. Slow, heavy foot-steps, coming closer.
The old woman," whispered Millie. "Maybe she's coming to make sure. "They waited. No time, no place to hide or get away. There was sweat on Danny's temples. The footsteps stopped outside the door. He could hear her heavy breathing beyond the thin panel.
The knob turned in his fingers.
The barrier door down the hall opened, and a voice said, rather timidly, "The doctor's here, Mrs. Rieff."
She said, "All right," and let go of the knob and went on.
Danny's knees sagged. He waited until the outside door closed, and went out.
There was nothing in the hall but silence and the dim glow of the night light, until they reached the door of Mrs. Rieff's room. There were voices behind that, low but not very guarded, as though they were sure of not being overheard. Frieda's voice, tight and shaken, saying, "What a filthy trick! You were blackmailing your own mother."
"Naturally. Lucrative work, if you can get it. Of course, I knew it wouldn't last forever. That's why I kept asking for more, and Cissy had to shake more out of the victims in order to meet all her–er–obligations. Naturally, the victims began to kick. The last raise was just the final spur."
He laughed. "This will be a shock to Mother. She trusts my filial devotion so completely!"
"And that boy?"
"That boy," said Teddy softly, "is going to be a scapegoat. I'm going to tie all his little curiosities to his horns and run him straight back to the police–dead."
There was a queer sharp edge to Frieda's voice, a stillness. "And what about me?"
"Now that this game is played out, I'm thinking of taking over Mother's business and enlarging it. I want. . . . " He seemed to move closer to the girl, and his voice dropped so that Danny couldn't hear.
Frieda's voice came suddenly, sharp and harsh. "No! You devil, I won't do it! Teddy, you . . . oh!"
Danny said quietly, "Millie, go phone the police. I'm going in there."
He still had no direct, incriminating evidence. Teddy's implied confession wouldn't be enough to condemn him. But Danny figured he'd have at least a chance this way. And he couldn't let Teddy just go on. Cicely had already died. Frieda might be next.
Millie gripped his arm tight. "Be careful–and I hope this'll mean the rope for both of 'em!"
She went off down the hall, almost running, her bright green pajamas flapping around her thin legs. Danny, very quietly, opened the door.
They didn't see him come in, for a moment. Teddy had his back to Danny, his hands on Frieda's arms below the shoulders. She had changed into a dark blue wrapper with a long gold arrow on the collar. She was straining away from him, her eyes blazing out of a face white and hard as scraped bone.
Teddy murmured, "You'd be a pretty woman, Frieda, if you weren't such a blasted martinet!"
She said something, so low and hissing that Danny couldn't get it. Then she saw him, coming up behind Teddy. Her blue eyes widened.
Teddy turned swiftly, his handsome face startled and wicked as a blond Satan. Frieda cried out, "Help me! Please help me!"
Danny said evenly, "I'm just waiting for the chance."
It was the first time in his short life he'd ever felt real hate. He went in on Teddy Rieff, watching the poise of his blond head, the swing of his fists and shoulders. His first blow just grazed Teddy's jaw. He twisted to take the counterblow on his shoulder, crouched, and slashed upward.
His fist smashed into a belly tight and hard as board. It jolted both of them. Then a roundhouse swing connected, with Danny's ear. He went down, grabbing at Teddy's knees, pulling him off balance and into a table loaded with china and glass.
It went over with a crash. Frieda had closed the hall door and was standing flat against it, watching with wide, bright eyes. Teddy cut his hand on a broken vase, and there began to be red splashes over the rug and Danny Thayer.
There wasn't much science to it. Danny just hung on, punching, kicking, grappling. Teddy was heavier and experienced. Danny's long rangy frame hadn't reached its real strength yet. But Danny had made up his mind to one thing. This time he wasn't going to be licked.
Teddy's knee ground agonizingly into his belly. Hard knuckles slashed and pounded at his face. His mouth was full of blood and his ears roared. He set his teeth and twisted like an eel, grabbing out blindly.
He got Teddy by the shirt collar. The cloth was stout. Danny's arm was long, and his position gave him leverage. He dragged Teddy over, heaving his body underneath to break his balance. His eyes were swelling and full of blood, but he could feel.
He twisted the collar tight, working his fingers like a bulldog's jaws, in and in, his head sunk and his back humped to take Teddy's blows.
Teddy swore, viciously, between his teeth. He was dragging at Danny's wrist now, but Danny's long bony fingers were tangled in the cloth, twisting, twisting. Teddy lurched back and up, shaking himself.
Danny kicked at his ankles and brought him down again, hard. He got his other hand on the collar and his knee on Teddy's right arm. Teddy's left hand raged at his face, clawing. Danny put his head deep between his shoulders to save his eyes, and then Teddy found his ear.
Danny screamed, and Teddy laughed, a sort of strangled gurgle. Danny flung himself downward suddenly. Teddy's nails slipped out of his ear. His right arm came free as Danny's knee moved with his body.
Danny lay flat on top of Teddy, grinding his fingers in, twisting the cloth tighter and tighter. He could feel the hard, straining cords of Teddy's throat, the softer spot beneath the Adam's apple. He began to get scared. He didn't want to kill.
Teddy's nails were ripping his shirt and the flesh under it, He tore away suddenly and loosed one hand from Teddy's throat and brought it crashing down against his temple.
Teddy's hands faltered. Danny flailed his fist down twice more. Teddy Rieff lay still, breathing hoarsely through his mouth.
Danny got up. Very slowly, waiting for the pain to break through the numbness. Through a wavering red curtain he saw Frieda.
"Tie him up," he said thickly. "Keep him. Police. . . . " The golden arrow on her collar flashed at him. "Police?"
"Coming. Millie sent for them. Teddy killed your sister–"
"Yes," she said. "Yes. I know that. Are you all right?"
"I guess so." He wiped the blood out of his eyes and swallowed what was in his mouth. Teddy was groaning on the floor. Danny said, "We'll have to take care of his mother somehow. Lock the door, maybe. Keep her out till the police come."
Frieda nodded and turned the key. Teddy looked awful, bloody and choking on his breath. It scared Danny. What if Teddy died?
He was Danny's only proof of innocence. There was no direct evidence against him. But the police would at least investigate, might find some, might even force him to confess. But with Teddy dead, at Danny's hands. . . .
He wasn't dead. He was tough. A little blood didn't mean much. Danny pulled himself together and helped Frieda tie him with curtain cords.
Then he just sat, looking across at Frieda. Her hair looked even paler against the dark blue robe, gold and shining like the arrow on her collar. Her eyes were very blue. She smiled tremulously, and said, "This is what I prayed you'd do. I've been so frightened. My sister wasn't good to me, and Teddy . . . I didn't know anyone to ask help from, and when you came, I–you might have been killed. Can you ever forgive me?"
He waved a bruised hand awkwardly. "You gave me my chance. The cops think I killed your sister."
"Teddy told me about that."
"How did the old woman let herself get blackmailed?" Frieda shrugged wearily. "Cicely's been working on it ever since we came out here to live with Aunt Grace. Our parents died, you see. Cicely never told me much, but I think she got a candid camera shot of Aunt Grace–Mrs. Rieff–taking a necklace from Princess. It didn't mean much by itself. But Cicely had a case all built up in her mind, enough so that my aunt didn't want to risk an investigation."
She caught her breath suddenly, looking toward the door. "She's coming back."
Danny got up and went to the door. Fear began to knot his insides again, he didn't know why. She was a woman, and locked out. But there was something about her, about her eyes. . . .
Her heavy footsteps came up, and stopped outside, and for the second time that night the knob turned under Danny's fingers. He said, "The door's locked, Mrs. Rieff. It's going to stay locked until the police get here."
There was a startled intake of breath, and a silence. Then her voice came, ominously quiet.
"Have you hurt Teddy?"
"He'll be all right. Only he's staying here, for the police." And then, sharp and taut behind him, Frieda screamed. Danny whirled around. Frieda was half crouched over
Teddy, her hands pressed over her heart. She looked up at him, slowly.
"He's dead," she whispered. "You've killed him."
Danny went forward, three wavering, leaden steps. Teddy lay utterly still, not groaning, not breathing. His lips were blue. Mrs. Rieff called from beyond the door, but Danny hardly heard her.
He stood staring down at the body. His bony hands opened and closed slowly, still feeling Teddy's living throat against them.
Teddy's throat. Cicely's throat. They'd never believe him now. "Frieda. Frieda!"
The girl looked at him, dazed.
"Frieda, you'll tell them how it happened. You'll tell them. . . ."
She crumpled down gently at his feet, lying like a tired child with her cheek on her hand, the arrow glinting on her breast. It was then that Mrs. Rieff came in. There must have been another door into the hall. She came slowly through the bedroom door to Danny's right. She carried a snub-nosed automatic, with a silencer on it.


HER EYES WERE LIKE SMALL polished bits of steel, sunk deep under heavy lids, seeing everything. Teddy's battered body. Blood splashed over the carpet. Danny standing on wide-braced feet, beaten and torn and half stripped, wild with numb terror. And Frieda, lying quiet, her wheat-gold hair burning against the rug.
Without speaking or letting the automatic waver a fraction of an inch, Mrs. Rieff bent down and put her free hand on Teddy's throat, feeling for the pulse under the jaw. Then she pilled back an eyelid and gave one swift, keen look.
She got up. Her heavy face was almost expressionless, but Danny's heart twisted in him like a scared animal. She whispered, "I didn't mean to kill him."
"That's too bad." Her voice, held tight to a level, throaty whisper, betrayed what she was feeling. "That's too bad!" 'lime, the room, the universe, shrank in on Danny Thayer so lie could hardly breathe. The focal point of the whole cosmos was Mrs. Rieff's finger, tightening on the trigger.
He said, stupidly, "Teddy killed the girl. He was going to kill me. I had to. . . . "
"I know, I sent him to do both."
Danny backed off a step. She followed, Death in a nightgown and a flannel wrapper, with curlers in its hair. She said softly, "I want to kill you. I want to kill you myself, for killing my son. And even if I didn't, do you think I could let you leave this house alive after all you've learned this night?"
"They'll get you for killing me. They'll be here soon."
She laughed, softly. "Look at this room, and you, and Teddy. Who'll blame me for shooting a crazy killer, already wanted?"
"Frieda. Millie. They'll tell. . . . "
"I'll take care of Frieda and Millie."
The automatic came up, steadied, rock-like in her thick hand. Danny said, "Wait. Did you know Teddy was blackmailing Cicely and keeping the money? Your money?"
Her hard pebble eyes blinked. "You're lying."
"Why do you think she was demanding more and more money? Just yesterday, so that you and Halstead both wanted to kill her on the same night. Look in Teddy's pockets. You'll find the bills I stole from the body, and a note."
"You're a fool. Teddy wouldn't have left money on her body, even if he had been lying to me."
"I frightened him away, running across that stone bridge."
Her eyes were ugly with pain and hate. She was only listening with the top of her mind, watching him, thinking how he was going to die.
"What stone bridge?"
"In the La Brea Pits, where he killed her."
"You're crazy," said Mrs. Rieff dreamily. "He drove her car off the road into Coldwater Canyon."
The round black eye of the automatic was staring at Danny's heart.
He dropped, twisting sideways back of a chair. The bullet sang just over his head and thunked into the plaster.
He cried out, "I tell you he killed her in the Pits! He jammed her throat down into the mouth of that sabre-tooth cat. For God's sake, look!"
Perhaps missing her shot had shaken her a little, or perhaps the truth was naked in Danny's voice. She bent, slowly, never taking her eyes from the chair where the boy crouched, and felt Teddy's pockets.
Danny could see part of her, under the chair. He saw her hand draw the bills out and hold them for a minute, and he listened for a siren, praying. But there was only silence.
Mrs. Rieff whispered, "You did. You lied to me, Teddy. You said you couldn't get anything on her to make her stop. That's why we had to kill her."
Then her hand dropped the bills and lay for a moment tenderly on Teddy's face. "It doesn't matter now." She got up. "It doesn't matter now, does it, you there behind the chair? They're both dead now, and it doesn't matter!" Danny, under the chair, watched her thick white ankles come slowly toward him. Beyond them was Frieda, lying still, the golden arrow glittering softly as she breathed. Frieda knew what Teddy had on Cicely. She could tell the whole story of Teddy's double-cross. But she was out. And it didn't matter, anyway. They were both dead, and he was going to be.
The ankles stopped beyond the chair. He could see the veins up on them, blue and bunchy. His long jaw stiffened. If he got up suddenly, and pushed the chair over into her. . . . Frieda stirred, just the faintest contraction of the muscles, the golden arrow shot a wicked barb of light into his eyes.
Danny's muscles tightened. There were fragments of glass and china on the floor from the table he and Teddy had knocked over. He got a handful, caught a deep breath, and surged up.
The chair crashed over, almost into Mrs. Rieff's knees, so that she had to move back. And the handful of fragments shot out like shrapnel from Danny's hand.
They struck Frieda Rieff full in the face and neck. She cried out and sprang up, startled and furious, her face twisted into a devil's mask frighteningly like Teddy's.
Danny shouted, "Don't shoot. I didn't kill your son. She did!"
For a long moment there was silence. Then Frieda began to cry softly, the look on her face gone so swiftly that it might have been imagination. Mrs. Rieff said, almost soundlessly, "What are you trying to do?"
"Save my neck," said Danny. She had her balance again. She could shoot, any time. Frieda was standing with her face in her hands, her wheat-gold hair falling over them, shaking a little.
Danny said, "Frieda was faking. She was waiting for you to kill me. That way I'd take the blame for both murders."
"That's not true." Frieda's voice was a broken, childish sob. "I did faint. When I came to I was scared. I just lay there. How can you say I killed my own cousin?"
For an instant Danny was shaken. She was so soft, so lovely, so miserable. Mrs. Rieff saw his hesitation. She said, "You're stalling."
Faintly, then, there was a siren wailing. Far away, but coming. Sweat needled Danny's face.
Frieda burst out, "How could I have killed Teddy? You were right with me all the time. And there's no mark on him you didn't put there!"
"Frieda," he said quietly, "where does that golden arrow belong?"
Her hand flew to her collar, slid down slowly to her breast. "No place in particular. Anywhere. Anywhere I want to put it.
Mrs. Rieff said slowly, "It's always on the collar. It was on the collar half an hour ago. Why did you move it?"
"I don't know. What difference does it make. Why do you want to treat me this way?"
She crumpled into a chair, crying. Mrs. Rieff was staring at her with hard pebble eyes. Danny took a chance. He walked over to her and pulled her head back by the wheat-gold hair and said, "When I was standing at the door with my back turned you took the gold arrow off your robe. What did you do with it, Frieda?"
"I—nothing. I didn't know I did it. Aunt Grace!"
Mrs. Rieff stood still, watching. Danny reached down suddenly and unfastened the pin and held it up.
There was blood, just a tiny smear of it, in the joint of the pin. A brass pin, five inches long, and sharp at the tip.
She sat there, quite still, her face hardening like soft clay glazing in the kiln. Danny said slowly, "You couldn't stab him to the heart with that. You didn't open a vein. But. . . . "He knelt suddenly by the body, looking down into the haltered, bloodstained face. He found what he was looking for, and felt sick.
"Through the eye," he said. "Into the brain. She thought a little prick like that would never be noticed, in the corner of the eye."
Mrs. Rieff looked down, and then up again, at Frieda. She shrank back, her eyes wide.
"I tell you I didn't! He's lying. Why should I kill Teddy?" "Because," said Danny, "you killed Cicely, too, and he knew it."
He felt suddenly weary. He didn't even get up from the corpse. He just squatted there, and heard his voice run on. "You've had bad luck tonight, haven't you, Frieda? You lost your temper and killed Cicely. I saw her body, and I know you lost your temper. Then I scared you away from the money, and you weren't sure I hadn't seen you.
"You saw me. I forgot that. When I turned up here you were scared. Maybe I'd recognize you. I had the money, too, and you wanted that. You felt it in my pocket when you leaned against me out there in the yard, when we found Halstead.
"Only there was Teddy. You wanted to use me against Teddy, and you succeeded. But Teddy got the money first. He knew then that Cicely was dead, that he hadn't killed her, and that left only you.
"Because he knew all about you, Frieda. He tried to force you to come in with him. Then I knocked him out and tried to keep him for the police, and you knew he'd have to tell the truth in order to save his own neck. So you killed him, with the only weapon you had–that pin.
"You aren't very used to murder, though. You got flustered, between doing it and putting on an act for me, and you got the pin back in the wrong place. You'd have been all right, if it hadn't been for that. But I saw it was wrong, and I wondered why, and all of a sudden a lot of things lined right up and made sense."
Mrs. Rieff said, "You don't make sense, kid." But she wasn't going to shoot. She was looking at the gold arrow.
"I didn't," said Danny wearily. "I'm a hell of a detective. I was fooled, like everybody else, into thinking Cicely was a hard-boiled blackmailer. I went on from there and built up a perfect case against Teddy, just like everybody else. I was almost right, too.
"But I was an awful dope. I swallowed that picture of Cicely you all had, and didn't pay any attention to the Cicely that Millie knew. A gentle, kindly girl who was scared out of her wits and knew something was going to happen to her.
"Would a hard-boiled criminal show all that to a servant? Wouldn't she do something about it? She'd apparently done enough before. And what could Teddy have on her, to make her pay blackmail?
"I didn't think much about that, either. I guess I thought he was threatening to expose her to the police. But he couldn't have done that. He was in too deep himself. So it had to be something else–someone else that Cicely was afraid of.
"I'd never have guessed who, if Frieda hadn't been forced to kill Teddy."
Mrs. Rieff still hadn't moved, but her hard little eyes were intent. Frieda hid her face in her hands. Her voice came small died soft and piteous, "You're mad! Cicely's always dominated me. I don't know what was between her and Teddy, but I didn't kill her! I wouldn't have the strength. And you said yourself the killer was a man."
"I thought so. I'm used to thinking of pants as masculine. But Cicely was awfully small, and you're no weakling, Frieda. What did you do with your dark slack suit, Frieda, and the thing that goes around your head and covers up that blonde hair?"
She didn't answer, and Mrs. Rieff said, "Yes. Where is it?"
"I gave it away. Yesterday. The War Relief people."
"The police," said Danny, "can trace it, then. Especially with all that blood on it."
"All right!" Frieda was standing suddenly, her face white and hard, her eyes startingly like Teddy's, narrow and cat-like. "I changed my clothes in my car. I wrapped the slack suit around a big rock and threw it in the sump of an abandoned oil well.
"Sure, I killed her. I didn't mean to. I've used Cicely since we were kids, making her do my dirty work and take the blame. She was useful to me. But she went soft tonight. She said she was going to the police, that she couldn't go on this way. I lost my temper. . . .
"I was mad anyway. I found out about Teddy. He made love to her while I was gone, and the fool fell for it. He found out all about me, and used Cicely's fear of me to blackmail her. Pretty little set-up, wasn't it, Aunt Grace? Me behind Cicely, Cicely blackmailing you and Halstead and a couple of others, and Teddy milking the lot of us.
"Cicely couldn't keep it up. There just wasn't enough money for both Teddy and me. She had to confess. And by that time, Teddy was dangerous to me. And the rest–well, you're pretty clever, kid."
She turned on her aunt. There wasn't any fear or softness in her. Just tough flexible realism, seeing, weighing, acting.
"What do we do now, Aunt Grace? If you go ahead and shoot the boy, we're both in the clear on those murders. If you shoot me, the police will get you. If you don't shoot either of us, I'll spill all I know about Rieff Blackmail, Incorporated, before I die."
"But if I shoot both of you," said Mrs. Rieff gently, "the boy will be saddled with three murders, and I'll be clear."
Danny hurled himself just as the silenced gun plopped softly. The bullet snarled past his ear, biting a little chunk of flesh from the cartilage. Then he had smashed into Mrs. Rieff.
She was too heavy to move fast enough. The gun spoke once more, harmlessly. Then Danny's fingers had crushed it out of her hand.
He sat down, then, holding the gun on two women who looked more like trapped wolves than women. The sirens screamed up outside the house, and stopped, and presently there were feet tramping through the house.
Big, heavy feet. And for the first time, Danny Thayer was glad to hear them.

4 out of 5