Archive for December, 2008

Tragedy in Tibet

26 December, 2008

Tragedy in Tibet
by Harry Harrison
(c) Copyright 1990

This was it. The year 2000 in Tibet. The Worldcon to end all Worldcons.

Unhappily it did.

It was going to be the best con, the perfect con. The rented lamasary had been repainted, refurbished, with toilets in every monastery occupied by the Americans. The grass was the best, pure Dalai lama gold. The drink the best, fermented yak’s milk. But, what the hell, that’s what fandom is all about. Unhappily, at the height of the celebrations there was a distant rumble as of a freight train going over a metal bridge. Or maybe it sounded like an avalanche. Which it was. The fen were safe, for there is a power above that looks down on every fan, from pimply comic fan to geriatric First Trekkie Fandom fan. They were safe. The avalanche missed the main halls and struck at the East Wing where all the pros were having a very exclusive party; no fen admitted. Which was perhaps a good thing for fandom. And even better for the poor SF hacks too broke to come to the con, couldn’t afford the trip, who now had rich new markets opened up for them.

For the pros were gone. Every one of them. Buried, crushed, snuffed under tons of snow in the valley far below.

“Gone!” a femfan groupie wailed, memories of many an illicit kinky encounter bringing tears to her eyes.

“Gone!” an avid collector wailed, thinking of all his books never to be autographed.

“Gone!” the con chairman shrieked thinking of the gigantic bar bills now never to be paid.

“What has happened to them?” a neofan queried.

You might very well ask.

“Where did all this damned fog come from,” Harry Harrison grumbled. “I can’t find my drink.”

“Me neither,” Joe Haldeman said. “Or see my hand in front of my face. Worse than Florida.”

“Like a bad movie from the Thirties,” Wolfgang Jeschke said. “You remember there was a car crash or something and they all die suddenly, but don’t know it, and wake up in heaven.”

The fog suddenly cleared – and that’s where they were. There was a great Golden Gate before them and an old guy in a bathrobe of some kind writing in a big book. But more important were the glad cries of recognition.

“Harry!” Brian Aldiss called out. “Sam Lundwall and I have been looking for you behind all the clouds.”

“Is this what I think it is?” Joe asked suspiciously.

“Either that or a damn good illusion,” Sam said with a solid Swedish phlegm. “Wasn’t Isaac Asimov here just a moment ago?”

“I was – and am. Just doing a quick test on the clouds with my pocket atomic analyzer. Very interesting.”

“What are they made of?” the massed voices intoned.

“Water vapor. What did you expect – malted milk?”

“Silence!” the man with the book ordered. “Don’t you know where you are?”

“On a cheap movie set?” Harry suggested.

“Or, if I read the props right,” Isaac said, being a student of the Old Testament as well as everything else, “we are in heaven, the pearly gates are there, so you might be Peter known also as the fisherman, a fisher of souls, San Pietro in Italian…”

“Enough!” Peter cried. “I have been warned about you lot. And boy!, have we been waiting for you!”

“And we are all here? En masse?” Brian observed. “Quite a coincidence all of us here at once. Timely timed avalanche.”

“Any of you guys set the timer?” Joe asked with heartfelt suspicion.

“Not my department,” Peter mumbled, flipping the strained pages of the book before him. “And that is old news as well. The new news and good news is that you are not my responsibility. You scruffy and undeserving lot – for reasons I cannot fathom – have the unbearable pleasure of being interviewed by someone whose name I cannot mention.”

“Let me see,” Isaac said, finger didactically raised. “Elohim, or JHVH, or even JHVH Elohim. 7000 times in the Old Testament you’ll find JHVH probably pronounced Yahveh…”

“Beware, mortal,” a thunderous voice rumbled through the clouds, which instantly parted to reveal, mistily seen, what appeared to be a gray-bearded man reclining on a golden dais. “Beware!” he thundered again, “My name is not bespoken.”

“Of course not,” Frederik Polh said, strolling over. “Because we haven’t been introduced. My name is Fred…”

“Silence!” This time the voice was so powerful that eardrums cracked and heads rang like bells.

“What did he say?” Poul Anderson asked, hand cupped to ear.

Instead of silence there was some quick conversation, opinions exchanged and plots confabulated as to what was happening, going to happen, should or might happen. It was Philip José Farmer who noticed that the old man’s face was turning redder and redder and out of concern, and not really wanting to watch a heavenly coronary, changed the subject.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Riverboat Captain, Sir. I sincerely hope you won’t mind a few questions…”

“Not from you, Farmer!” Thunder rolled and lightning crashed. “You who have usurped my plotting privileges, doubted my word…”

“Not so much doubt as query,” Isaac said. “There are so many conflicting statements in the bible. This is a wonderful opportunity to straighten them out since if anyone knows I guess you should.”

“That’s enough from you – who even doubt the validity of my Heavenly Inspired astrological forecasts. You join Farmer…”

“Ridiculous,” Harry said. “Phoney, astrological self-serving crap for weepy widows. You can’t expect us to believe…”

“I expect that I expect you to join those other unbelievers.” Thunder, rumble.

“You do seem to be projecting the rather unattractive face of theism,” Brian observed. “I would have hoped for a little more breadth of mind…”

“Over with the others, Aldiss. You who first published that anti-religious drivel The Streets of Ashkelon. That alone gets you a couple of million millennia on the cooker. Wait, where are you all going, I haven’t spoken to the rest of you yet, ordered you! You just can’t walk away from me.”

“Watch,” Robert Silverberg said. “At about 2000 BC we invented you and now we don’t like what we see. So, in the name of the Jews, I turn my back on you.”

“The goyim as well,” Sam said. “Did I pronounce it right?”

“For a goy, not too bad,” Barry Malzberg said, taking Sam by the arm as they turned their backs on Old Thunderthighs and strolled over to join the others. This gives me an idea for a story…”

“Enough!” This time the thunderous words were so immensely loud that the ground stirred as in an earthquake and everyone was thrown down. “That’s better,” JHVH said, mistaking collapse for supineness, or at least faking it to save face. He rushed on before anyone could speak again, wishing that instead of this alcoholic bunch of freethinkers he could have a Pope and a lot of sycophantic cardinals.

“Tremble in fear! Do you not realize what is in store for you?”

“An elevator ride?” Wolfgang asked, just as a smoking, redhot elevator burst up through the ground thereby stealing JHVH’s punchline.

“Listen guys,” Joe said. “This penthouse party is pooping out. Let’s go see if there is any action basement.”

Strolling, chatting, plotting, lying, cursing – just like always – the massed science fiction writers of the world walked into the red elevator. The gate crashed shut behind the last heel and the floor fell away beneath them.

“Neat,” Isaac said. “Free fall. Must be a long way down. I estimate our acceleration to be…”

“Save it for your column,” Bob said. “Shouldn’t we be talking about this?”

“Why?” asked Fred.

“Good question,” Brian said. “Though I do have a certain interest in what we’ll see when that door opens.”

They crashed to a stop and the door opened.

“Still no surprises,” Poul said. “Looks like a bad Doré illustration.”

“Silence!” The red man on the smoking throne ordered. Lighting flashed from between his teeth while sparks oozed from his pores.

“Good effects,” Harry said. “Better than computer animation.”

Unlike his associate on the top floor this guy did not listen very much, was too carried away with the sound of his own voice.

“Woe unto thee! Shiver and quake and beg for mercy which shall be denied for eternity. Boiling oil, charcoal, grilled flesh…”

“Sounds like a barbecue,” Philip Klass whispered.

“… molten lava, oh, how you shall suffer and scream while I laugh, ha-ha, for all eternity and after.”

“Mutually exclusive terms. You can’t do anything after eternity,” John Campbell said, opening the door in the rock wall and waving them over. “You don’t have to listen if you don’t want to. I did, in the beginning, but after I pointed out all the errors of logic, even wrote an editorial for him to straighten him out, he gave us this room and would not talk to us anymore.”

John looked over his shoulder and called out. “Move some of the chairs back, Hugo. Robert will help you. Ted S. and Ted C. push that table on one side.”

John turned back to the waiting authors. “Come on now, you are just in time for the editorial lunch. I have some ideas I want to kick around.”

Death at 60,000

24 December, 2008

Two of the more obscure Harry Harrison short stories – and the most difficult to track down – are ‘Death at 60,000′ and ‘Tragedy in Tibet.’

In order to make them easier to find, I’m going to post the full text of them here on the blog.

‘Tragedy in Tibet’ is a fun piece from the 1990 Worldcon souvenir book, while ‘Death at 60,000′ only ever appeared in the May 1962 issue of the British edition The Saint Mystery Magazine.

Thanks to Dan Bodenheimer at www.saint.org who sent me the scan of ‘Death at 60,00′ which appears below. And thanks to Michael Carroll for the scan of ‘Tragedy in Tibet’ which will appear the day after tomorrow.

This is my last day in work in 2009 – I shall be staying away from computers until the new year, so seasons greetings to everyone, and may you receive all the presents that you deserve… :)

- Paul

 

Death at 60,000
by Henry Dempsey [Harry Harrison]
(c) Copyright Harry Harrison 1962 and 2008

“Ben – your navigation is as bad as ever. You didn’t allow for this sixty-knot crosswind and we must be at least three degrees off course,” Ridge Kranowsky growled.

“It’s not that bad, Ridge,” Ben said wearily. “I took into account…”

“It’s never that bad with you,” Ridge snapped, banging his ham-sized fist on the engine-control column. He scowled down at the banked clouds far below. “You never checked the topping of the reserve tanks in Phoenix. And that blowout, wasn’t that tyre overdue for replacement?”

Ben nodded agreement and scarcely listened as the voice droned on and on. Big Ridge Kranowsky still thought he was flying a bomber in the Air Force and no one could ever forget that he had been the hottest pilot in the European theatre. He never forgot any other pilots’ faults – and never forgot to mention them at every opportunity. In addition to being a bore, he was also an excellent pilot, so the other pilots didn’t even have the opportunity to strike back. So they avoided him. This was hard for Ben Slange, Ridge’s co-pilot, since he bore the brunt of Ridge’s eternal complaints.

As soon as the flow of complaints died down Ben rose and stretched. “Going to get some sleep,” he said, “so I can fly the last leg into Idlewild.”

The passengers, relaxed and sleepy after the big lunch, looked up with interest when the door to the pilots’ cabin opened, peering with bored curiosity into the instrument-filled sanctum. The co-pilot came out, on the way to the rest bunk on the tail. He smiled as he passed the stewardess, serving a second round of coffee. She moved to let him squeeze by, then went back to serving coffee. The big plane droned smoothly on through the clear sky. Below were solid banks of clouds, perhaps even rain, but they were well above any storms.

The thin sound of the buzzer could scarcely be heard above the rumble of the engines, but the stewardess, Sue, had been listening for it.

“Will there be anything else?” she asked the passenger she was serving. “The pilot is buzzing for his coffee and I don’t want to keep him waiting.” The passenger shook his head no and she hurried off. Ridge had a way of giving lectures if he had to be kept waiting. When she came back most of the male eyes followed her passage towards the pilots’ door. She had a good figure and fine legs, and moved in a way that was most satisfying to look at. The patient eyes waited until she emerged a minute later without the coffee tray and went back to serving the rest of the passengers. There was a sudden scratching sound and the hum of an amplifier from the speakers in the ceiling.

“This is your pilot,” the self-assured voice said, “Captain Kranowsky. We are now flying at 60,000 feet and the outside temperature is…” The voice droned on with such vital facts as their air speed and ground speed, wind direction and estimated flying time left to New York City. They were over the Great Lakes, but nothing was visible except the cottony clouds below. When the speaker clicked off, the passengers settled deeper in their seats and peace descended on the cabin.

It must have been a half an hour after this before Sue finished with the extra coffees, drinks, magazines and the rest of the urgent requests. There was a quiet moment then and she used it to retrieve the pilot’s coffee tray. She opened the door to the pilot compartment, stepped through it, closed it – and screamed.

At least that is what the couple in the seats nearest the door thought. They looked at each other, uncertain what to do next. Their minds were made up for them. The door burst open and the stewardess stood in the opening, screaming, then slowly slid to the floor. The first man to reach her was Dr. Bronstein, a passenger in the second row of seats. There seemed to be nothing wrong and he assumed she had only fainted. He went inside to ask the pilot what had happened – then realized that the man was dead. There was a bullet hole in the side of his neck, and blood from it had soaked into his shirt and uniform. When the doctor touched the already chill flesh he realized that there was nothing anyone could ever do again to help Captain Kranowsky.

Someone had the sense to call the co-pilot and Ben, still in shirtsleeves and blinking the sleep from his eyes, pushed his way through the crowd. He pushed all of them out except the doctor and closed the door. As soon as the noise of the crowd was gone they heard the shrill whistling of air and turned together to look at the plastic window, on the side opposite to the dead pilot. A neat round bullet hole had been drilled through the plexiglass.

“I’m going to cover the hole with friction tape,” Ben said, “that will be good enough until we land. Then I’m going to call Idlewild and have them contact the police. You had better stay here until they tell me what to do.”

It wasn’t easy to explain what had happened, but once the fact got across that this was no gruesome joke the wheels of authority began to turn. Ben was ordered to proceed on the original flight plan and not to touch the body. He unlocked the robot pilot and corrected their course. He sent the stewardess for his jacket, and when everything was in order locked everyone out of the cabin and began the difficult task of single-handedly bringing in the large liner. The landing wasn’t bad, but instead of being directed to the passenger terminal, the plane was led to one of the service ramps where an ambulance and three police cars were waiting. Lieutenant Green was the first one aboard when the door was opened, and after a single long look at the corpse he took charge. He had a very strong feeling that this was going to be a hard one.

He was right. Over half the people in the plane swore to the fact that Ridge Kranowsky had been alone when he died, that no one had gone near the door at all. The other passengers had been asleep or reading and hadn’t noticed. Death must have occurred soon after Sue had brought the coffee, because only a single cup had been drunk. It appeared that he had finished the coffee, made the talk to the passengers, poured a second cup – and died. A .30 calibre bullet had plunged through the side window and killed him. This was simple enough.

But where had the bullet come from?

Logic said that the odds were fantastically against a bullet of that small size being fired from another plane – either by accident or design – and killing so unerringly. Particularly since none of the passengers had noticed a plane near by. But everyone knew how far bullets carried, and there had been clouds. Lieutenant Green had the inside and outside of the side window carefully marked and sent it by motorcycle to the police lab. Within an hour he had the report. Microscopic examination of the stress lines and cracks in the plastic showed without a doubt that the bullet had come in from outside the plane.

Lieutenant Green looked at the people from the plane and scowled. The stewardess’s hysterics had ended and she was sitting red-eyed, clutching a damp handkerchief. She had seemed an obvious suspect, being the last one to see the pilot alive. This theory had crumbled when he had discovered that Sue’s last name was Kranowsky and she and the dead pilot had been married less than a year.

“Can we go yet, Lieutenant?” the co-pilot asked. “It’s been a long day.”

“A few minutes more,” Lieutenant Green said unhappily. The luggage, the passengers and the entire plane were being searched. No gun and nothing of absolutely any relevancy had been found. A gloomy looking sergeant reported that the search was complete. Nothing. Green chewed his lip and was about to release them all when the call came from headquarters. He took it in the next room. When he came back his face was impassive, yet something seemed to have changed.

“Everyone can go,” he said. “Except for the co-pilot and the stewardess, I want to talk to them first.” He led the way to the empty office he was using and closed the door.

“What’s up, Lieutenant?” Ben asked.

“This,” Lieutenant Green said, and snapped a pair of handcuffs on the startled pilot’s wrists.

“What are you doing?” Sue gasped.

“Putting on handcuffs,” Green said imperturbably as he clicked another pair on her wrists. Sue looked down at them, shocked and uncomprehending.

“This some kind of joke?” Ben snapped.

“Murder is never a joke,” Green said. “I’m arresting you both for the murder of Captain Kranowsky.”

“Have you gone crazy…”

“Perhaps – but hear me out first, Ben. See if it doesn’t make sense. I’m guessing at a lot, but you’ll straighten it out later. Let’s say that you and Sue here wanted to get rid of Kranowsky. Maybe she doesn’t love him any more, wants her freedom, he won’t give it to her, maybe he has money in the bank. I don’t know yet, but that should be easy to find out.”

“I’m not going to sit here and listen to this!” Sue shouted, jumping to her feet.

“Yes you are,” Lieutenant Green said, and something in his voice silenced her and she dropped back into the chair.

“You want to kill him,” Green went on, “but of course you don’t want to be blamed for his death. So you came up with this plan. A very good one and it looked foolproof. Ben here has a pistol with a silencer, and when Ridge isn’t looking he stands on the other side of the cabin and shoots him through the neck. He is, of course, far enough away so there are no powder burns. Then he walks to the other side of the cabin – again far enough so there will be no burns – and shoots a hole in the opposite window.”

“But the marks,” Ben shouted. “You yourself told me the bullet came from outside!”

“Be patient – I’ll get to that part in a minute. After you shot him, Ben, you propped him in the seat and walked out of the cabin. You signalled Sue that the job was done. She’s a strong girl – which is probably why she had hysterics later on – because she went into that cabin with a corpse and drank a cup of coffee for it. While the automatic pilot flew you all merrily along. Then she came out…”

“Nonsense,” Ben said. “Ridge couldn’t have been dead then, because he talked to everyone in the cabin over the speaker system afterwards.”

Someone talked to them. But if they had never heard his voice before and someone said he was the captain – why should they doubt it? And there is a microphone for the PA system in the galley, isn’t there? Right next to the sleeping compartment?” There was no answer, so he went on.

“Things stayed that way while the corpse cooled awhile, until it was time for Sue to find the body and go into her act. I don’t know much about that plane you were flying, but I’m willing to bet there is a way to open a hatch or something by the sleeping compartment and throw a gun out. You had time enough to do that. Then the body and the bullet hole were discovered and reported. Then you were alone again – with the body. You didn’t touch that, but you did take out the side window – I saw myself that it is just a minute’s work with a screwdriver – and put in the one you had prepared earlier. The one you had shot a bullet through in the right direction. Since you were making a swing over the ocean then and were lower down, you probably dropped the old window into the Atlantic.”

“This is all nonsense,” Ben said coolly, lighting a cigarette in spite of the handicapping cuffs. “It might be true – but you have no proof. It takes more than theory to go to court.”

“I know,” Lieutenant Green said, smiling. “It takes evidence. Like a thirty calibre revolver with a silencer on it – and fingerprints too I imagine – that fell in a pasture and killed a farmer’s cow a few hours ago. He was very angry. Said he heard a plane overhead at the time. Is that the kind of evidence you mean?”

“No!” Ben gasped. “It can’t be! We were over the Great Lakes…”

“We should have been over the Great Lakes,” Sue said with lip curling disgust. “Ridge always did say that you were a lousy navigator.”

Spell of Magic – Part 13

21 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 13
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

The Story So Far: A ruthless gang of diamond smugglers discover that Merlo, the magician who has joined them, is an Interpol spy. Merlo escapes their vengeance, and now leads a raid by Greek Marines on their H.Q. He hears the voice of the mysterious gang leader, The Duke, giving orders from behind the door. He bursts into the room, but it is empty. The orders are coming from a tape recorder…

spell-13s

“But the Duke has to be here!” Tommy raged. “There’s no possible way he could have known we were coming.”

Merlo looked at his assistant thoughtfully. “You’re right, Tommy,” he said. “I think there is another reason altogether for this.” He pointed at the tape-recorder playing The Duke’s orders into the microphone to the members of the gang in the other room. He could see them on the television screen, six of them, with two familiar figures in the front row.

“Look who we have caught in our trap,” Merlo said. “Standing there next to Petritz…”

“It looks like that gang-leader from Naples – Ravali. His gang is being arrested right now. Interpol has carefully timed raids in every country to bring in every member of every gang in this ring…”

Shots sounded outside the building as the Marines closed in – then suddenly blasted louder inside the building. They saw the smugglers on the TV screen turn startled faces, then run from the room.

“After them!” Merlo shouted. “Something has gone wrong.”

When they reached the other room, the smugglers were gone. The two Marines who had been left on guard outside the door were lying on the floor. Both had been shot.

“They’re still alive,” Merlo said, bending to them.

“Surprised…” one of the wounded Marines gasped. “Two others… from down the hall… the ones in the room… got away…”

“Don’t worry about them,” Merlo said. “They can’t get far. The house is surrounded and they don’t know that we are inside with them.”

One Marine was left to bandage and guard the casualties while the rest followed Merlo down the stairs. A crackle of gunfire from the front of the building told them where the smugglers were fighting back.

The building would have been hard to capture if Merlo and his Marines had not been inside. At the first alarm, steel shutters had dropped in front of all the windows, and the smugglers were firing back through gun-slits. They had heavy machine guns and boxes of ammunition. But they had no defense against attack from inside. The Marines cleared out one room after another until they reached the last. Merlo himself stood in the doorway, a captured gun in his hands, pointed and ready.

“Drop the guns and turn around!” he ordered.

“You!” Ravali gasped, mouth open and teeth showing, looking like a trapped rat. “I should have killed you when I had the chance…”

“Yes,” Merlo agreed, “you’ll have plenty of years in jail to think about that.”

“I must say you had me fooled,” the other man said coolly. It was Petritz. “But I can get some small pleasure from the fact that you have not captured The Duke – he left here this afternoon!”

“Really?” Merlo laughed. “A good try – but not good enough. You see, I have captured The Duke. Because you are The Duke.”

“You’re mad,” Petritz said calmly. “We were together when The Duke talked to us…”

“Easy enough to rig. I know a thing or two about tricks with tape-recorders myself. You recorded the first speech, telling yourself to leave, and turned it on by a concealed switch when we came into the room. Then, while I was answering the prepared questions, you ducked round into the control room and took over from there.”

Petritz looked flabbergasted. “You cannot prove that. I am only a member of this organization.”

“You are The Duke. I’ll wager that your fingerprints are all over the machines in the control room – and no one else’s. As Petritz, you might get a light sentence. As The Duke you will face more than one charge of murder…”

“Lies…” Petritz mumbled in a thick voice, his face suddenly white. He stumbled and leaned against the wall. “Just lies… my heart…”

“Watch out!” Merlo shouted, but it was too late.

One of the Marines had stepped forward to aid what he thought was a sick man. As he came close, Petritz straightened up with movements astonishingly fast for a man so big. Large hands clutched the Marine, lifted him clear of the floor and sent him crashing into the others. Before they could fight clear of the tangle, Petritz was out of the door and running for the stairs.

“Take him alive if you can!” Merlo, shouted, and led the pursuit. Only Tommy and a single Marine followed him; the rest guarded the prisoners.

Petritz started to go down to the ground floor, but hurled himself about at the last instant. He turned and ran upwards instead.

“We have him trapped now,” Merlo shouted as they charged after the escaping man.

They did not gain an inch on him, and they were still a floor below when he banged out through the door on to the roof.

Merlo ran out in time to see him dive behind a water tank. “Surrender, Petritz!” he shouted. “You don’t stand a chance.”

“I do not die – and I do not surrender,” the voice came back.

And a bullet thudded into the door near Merlo’s head.

“Is there another door to this roof?” the Marine sergeant asked.

“Yes,” Merlo, said. “It comes out on that side, over there…”

“Draw his fire. I’ll try and work behind him.” The Marine was gone before Merlo could stop him.

A full moon rode the sky, a tricky light to shoot by, but strong enough to see any detail. Petritz – The Duke – was trapped by their fire, but he must have expected them to try the other stairs. As soon as the other door opened, he jumped into the clear and raced across the roof, towards the side that faced the sea.

A single shot broke the darkness and the running man stumbled, clutching his side. Then he was up again and staggering on to the very edge of the roof.

“Take him!” Merlo shouted as they rushed forward.

“Never!” answered The Duke. Then he was gone. He toppled over the edge of the roof and fell towards the ocean far below, vanishing instantly in the darkness of the night. They looked down at the unseen water, listening to the rumblings of the waves.

“He’s dead,” Tommy said. “The bullet… then the fall…”

“I lived,” Merlo said quietly. “I wonder if we will ever know what happened to him? Know for sure…”

The End

Spell of Magic – Part 12

20 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 12
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

Previously in Spell of Magic: The armed smugglers close in on Merlo. His only chance of escape is to jump from the roof of the gangs’ headquarters – a dizzy, bone-crushing drop to the sea, hundreds of feet below. Merlo has no choice. He jumps – with bitterness in his mind that he has failed his duty as an Interpol agent to bring the gang to justice…

spell-12s

As Merlo leaped from the roof the guns behind him cracked. Bullets screamed past him. None of them came too close, and Merlo scarcely noticed them. He was thinking of the sea below, and the waves and rocks rushing towards him. The air tore at him as he struggled to dive straight. If he turned and hit the water sideways, the impact would kill him.

The white wall of the building rushed by him, then the cliff, and he was still falling. He would miss the rocks – but there was another danger below he had not counted on. A man in a rowing boat at just the spot where he would enter the water!

The sound of the shots had been heard by the boatman. He looked up. His mouth dropped open with shock when he saw Merlo’s body falling straight towards him. He pulled madly at the oars. This was the last thing Merlo saw when he put his arms over his head, his fingers clasped tightly together. His chin was tight against his chest. He would have to hit the water as cleanly as an arrow if he were not to kill himself. If he missed the boat…

Then a spine-jarring crash shook his whole body.

Stunned by the blow, his first thought was that he had hit the boat. But the water rushing past told him he had missed. Pressure pushed on his chest and he bent his arms to curve his dive back to the surface. But the water was not deep enough. A deeper blackness crashed into him – the sandy bottom of the cove. The impact drove precious air from his lungs. Fighting against the numbness that wanted to drag him down, Merlo began the slow battle back to the surface.

Above him was the dark shadow of the rowing boat, and he could make out the outline of the boatman leaning over the side. In spite of the burning in his lungs, Merlo forced himself to swim to the other side of the boat, to raise his face silently from the water, and to breathe in the life-giving air without a sound.

“Can you see him?”

The voice floated down from the cliff above. Merlo could not see the speaker, he was covered by the side of the rowing boat. Neither could anyone see him.

“He hit right here!” the boatman shouted. “I saw him go down. Just like a rock. Probably broke his neck. The undertow around these rocks will carry his body out to sea.”

“Keep looking!” the voice called from above. “We must be sure he’s dead…”

“He’s dead – take my word for it!”

While they talked, the pain slipped from Merlo’s body and the ache died from his lungs. He breathed deeply, preparing for a long underwater swim. The entrance to the cove was two hundred yards away. He should be able to swim that without coming up for air. The cove was in shadow. If he swam deep he would not be seen from the house above. Once out of the cove he would be safe.

With a last deep breath of air he slipped beneath the surface again and began to swim.

No ripple disturbed the surface from Merlo’s strong, steady movements. The dim shape of the rocks at the entrance of the cove came towards him and he rounded them, staying underwater as long as he could. When he finally surfaced he was safely out of sight behind the cliff.

From out at sea he heard the beat of a powerful engine. When he rose on a wave he caught sight of a big motor-launch. Both her color and lines indicated she was a warship. On the next wave he made out a Greek naval ensign at her stern. Merlo swam towards the boat and wondered what chance had brought her here at this time. He had a feeling it was more than luck.

Merlo was right. When he was close enough to wave, there came an answering shout from the boat – in a familiar voice!

“Tommy Archer!” he laughed, as his assistant reached down to help him from the sea. “Ugly as your face is, I can’t think of a prettier sight at this moment! You made fast time getting here – and brought the navy, too.”

“That was their idea,” Tommy said, helping Merlo into the boat and wrapping a blanket around him. “As soon as I got your letter I flew to Athens and talked to the Interpol guy there. He got all excited about the diamond smugglers maybe having an HQ in his country, and everyone wanted to help me. There just happened to be a naval ship on maneuvers near here.”

“So you found yourself with a naval escort instead of looking around quietly on your own!”

“You said it! They pin-pointed that big building on the cliff as the only spot where the smugglers might be, and we’ve been sort of keeping an eye on it.”

“Well, you found the right place. They are all in there now. I wonder if the Greek Marines would like to see some action?”

“Like?” Tommy snorted. “They have been breathing fire! The Interpol man has been working full-time with the cruiser captain to stop them from landing and wiping the island clean!”

“Well, they are going to get their wish!”

Merlo found that Tommy had been right. Holding back the Marines was harder than getting their aid. Each one of the sixty Marines on the ship wanted to be the one to personally stamp out the international diamond smugglers who dared to use a Greek island as the center for their world racket. They grumbled, but agreed to have the building surrounded by an hour after dark – and not to attack for a quarter of an hour more. This was to give Merlo, Tommy and five rugged Marines a chance to climb the steep part from the sea and to enter the house from the rear.

It was after dark when the rubber dinghy nosed into the dark cove. Merlo led the way, climbing the rough trail by touch alone. Someone coughed at the cliff edge above – a guard. Merlo leapt into silent, lethal action. A few seconds later the guard sighed gently, and one of the Marines helped Merlo ease the unconscious body to the ground.
“Single file, in the house,” Merlo whispered. “Stay close behind me.”

He led his raiders in through a window he opened with the tip of his flick-knife. They were in a dark room, and when Merlo checked the hall outside it was empty also.

Merlo hissed his orders.

“We’ll move fast from here on – but try to avoid any extra noise. Keep the guns for last. We have four minutes left before the attack starts and we are going to try and capture The Duke, the leader of this gang; and hold him until the building is taken.”

“Let’s go!” Tommy whispered. “I’m itching for a good brawl.”

“Watch out you don’t get stepped on,” one of the big Marines said, picking up the tiny ex-jockey and holding him out at arm’s length.

“Three minutes… up the stairs… NOW!”

They went in a silent rush. One of the guards was coming down the stairs. But before he could raise his gun or even shout, a weighted cosh spun through the air and he fell. The attackers ran by a closed door and Merlo stopped them.

“Listen!” he said. Through the dark wood came the muffled tones of The Duke giving orders.

“Two of you stay here,” hissed Merlo. “There will be some of the gang in this room. The Duke is talking to them through a radio set-up. He must be in the control room. The rest of you come with me.”

They reached the door of the control room exactly at zero hour. Merlo crashed the door open and they plunged in. The Duke’s voice went on without change.

The room was empty! His voice was coming from the spinning reel of a tape-recorder, playing into a microphone to the other room.

“He knew we were coming!” Tommy shouted. “He got away!” In the distance a whistle and scattered shots signaled the beginning of the main attack.

To be continued…

Spell of Magic – Part 10

19 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 10
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

The Story So Far: Merlo, a stage magician, has joined a ruthless gang of smugglers to get evidence against them for Interpol, the international police. But now, in the headquarters of the sinister gang leader, The Duke, Merlo’s identity is revealed. He is trapped on the roof by an angry gang. Now read on…

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Painful, tense seconds ticked by as Merlo stood at the edge of the roof, facing the leveled guns.

What Petritz said was true. A jump to the rocky ground far below would be suicide. Merlo caught a glint of water beyond the far wall of the house. There might be a way to dive into the sea on that side – but he would never reach the edge alive. He would be shot before he was half-way there.

“For once we agree, Petritz,” Merlo said, and forced his taut muscles to relax. He sat down slowly on the parapet. “The next move, I’m sorry to say, is yours.”

The big smuggler stepped forward, his fat cheeks suddenly burning with anger. His meaty hand lashed out. It hit Merlo full in the face, almost knocking him backwards off the parapet. Then the other hand struck before Merlo could regain his balance. When Merlo straightened up, the smuggler had stepped back again behind the protection of the guns. Merlo was helpless, and knew he was completely at the mercy of Petritz.

“That is my next move,” Petritz said. “A small sample of what is to come. The Duke wants certain information from you – and I am going to get it. By the time I am through, you will be wishing that you had made the other choice and jumped from this roof when you had the chance.” He waved the guards forward. “Take him to the cellars.”

Merlo waited for his chance, but there was none. The guards knew what they were doing. One kept his gun pointed while the other handcuffed Merlo’s wrists. Then they prodded him at gunpoint towards an open door farther down the roof. Stairs wound down and down, through the building and deep into the earth below. The plastered walls gave way to joined stone, crumbling and dusty with age. Petritz was waiting here, in the damp and musty cellar.

What followed was bad, worse than Merlo had ever imagined pain could be. There was very little Petritz did not know about the terrible art of torture. He worked hard, but he did not wring a single word from Merlo’s sealed lips. He asked about Interpol, who their agents were, and how much they knew about this diamond smuggling gang. But he got no answers. Merlo knew that men in pain will say things without meaning to, so he resolved to say nothing. Only once did he break this promise to himself, half-way through the endless night.

“Who is The Duke?” Merlo asked. “If he came here and asked the questions himself, I might give him some answers.”

“You are curious, aren’t you? You know you are going to die, but you would like the answer to this little mystery before you go. You shall not have it. The Duke does not choose to reveal himself to you – or even to me. You will talk, and you will die with your curiosity unsatisfied.”

But Merlo did not talk. That night seemed to go on for ever, yet he did not speak again. Other endless days and nights followed, when Merlo still stubbornly refused to speak.

“Well – it’s the third day,” one of the guards said, lighting a fresh cigarette. “I think you can torture this one for ever and he will never speak. He is that kind.”

“I think you are right,” Petritz agreed, dropping into a chair. “And I think The Duke knew that in advance. He ordered that if Merlo doesn’t talk this time, we’re to put him in the water cell.”

“Very good,” the guard nodded. “A very unpleasant kind of death. But we must be careful. He is a magician and an escape artiste, remember.”

Petritz nodded. “We will take his shoes, coat, belt – everything that might conceal trickery. We will empty his pockets. He will not escape.”

Handcuffed again, Merlo was dragged down another flight of stone steps, damp and slippery, smelling of the sea. The room below was hollowed out of the solid rock and Petritz pointed to a dark mark half-way up the wall.

“See that line? Down here, we are below the level of the sea – which will flow in through tunnels in the rock. At high tide, the water will reach to that mark. And you will be locked in the water cell which is lower than this floor. Can you imagine what will happen to you?”

Merlo did not bother to answer, nor did he resist when he was pushed across the stones to an opening in the floor. It was covered with a metal grille of thick bars, now held open by the other guard. Below was only blackness, unlit by the single bulb in the ceiling above. Merlo stopped at the edge of the opening, but Petritz laughed and gave him a shove.

“Goodbye, magician – goodbye for ever!”

Merlo struggled to keep his balance as he fell, to keep his legs beneath him and bend his knees for the shock. The water cell was at least 12 feet deep, but there was about 2 feet of water in it, which softened his landing. But he still fell hard, crashing into the water and stone below, struggling to his feet in spite of this new pain.

Above him, the metal grille crashed down and he heard the footsteps retreating across the room. He stood in the rising water, listening, hearing nothing from the chamber above. Only when he was sure he was absolutely alone did his lips separate. He laughed!

“I should thank you, Petritz – you and your boss,” he shouted up into the empty room. The echoes rolled. “You’re really being too kind – locking up an escape artiste in this simple way.” He laughed again, still weak with pain, but happy with the thought that there still might be a slim chance to escape alive.

The handcuffs were in the way and would have to go first. He carefully unbuttoned his shirt and reached up into his armpit. His groping fingers felt for the flesh-colored piece of sticking plaster that had escaped the notice of his searchers. He worked his fingernail under its edge and carefully tore it loose. Concealed beneath it was a tiny, steel lock-pick! It was only a tiny bit of curled, pointed metal, but, used skillfully, it would open any lock in a matter of seconds.

Deftly inserting it into the lock of the handcuffs, he probed a bit, then pushed and turned. There was a click… and the lock opened. The other hand was freed with the same speed.

“I’ll hold on to these,” he said to himself, stuffing the handcuffs into the top of his trousers. “They may be of some use later. And now I’ll just look around this water cell to see if there is anything else that might come in handy.”

He talked to himself to stay awake; to combat the tiredness that fogged his brain; to forget for a moment the bruises on his body, stung now by the salt water. The sea was rising swiftly, almost to his chest now. With his fingers, he made a search of the wall, feeling the floor with his feet at the same time. There was nothing. Just slippery rock and water. The metal grille that sealed the cell was far above. He could not reach it. After putting the lock-pick into his mouth so he would not lose it, he tried to climb the wall. There were tiny cracks between the blocks of stone – but they were not big enough. He managed to drag himself a few feet up the wall before his tired fingers could find no grip and he splashed back into the dark water below. It was up to his chin now.

“Just relax,” he told himself. “Tread water and float and the rising sea will carry me up to the level of the grille.”

The water flowed in slowly through unseen channels and he floated higher and higher. The grille was almost at his fingertips, but he made himself relax a few minutes more until he could grasp it easily. His fingers closed on a bar and he pulled his face to examine the lock, to see how to open it.

A pang of horror shot through him.

“A combination lock!” he gasped. There was no keyhole! It might take hours to open this lock.

And within a few minutes the water would rise and drown him.

To be continued…

Spell of Magic – Part 11

18 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 11
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

The Story So Far: Merlo the magician has astounded audiences with his skill as an escape artiste. Now, trapped in a cell, with the water level rapidly rising, Merlo needs all his skill to escape from the dungeon before he is drowned. Merlo has been exposed as a police spy to the gang of smugglers he has tried to join. This is their vengeance. Now read on…

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Merlo’s fingers slipped from the rusty iron of the bar and he slid back into the dark water of the cell.

“I’m not finished yet!” he thought to himself, and his fingers probed the waistband of his trousers. He had a number of interesting devices concealed in his clothing, and the searchers had not found them all. With the lock-pick he tore open the stitches that sealed the waistband, and his probing fingers pulled out a two-foot length of stiff wire with a loop at either end. This was his last ace. If it didn’t work, he would drown.

This was no ordinary piece of wire, but a surgical tool known as a Gigli saw. Tiny teeth had been cut into the hard metal, turning it into a saw blade that could cut in any direction. It would cut easily through bone and, given enough time, it could saw through iron or mild steel. But was there time? Merlo did not even dare to think about that.

Treading water, he looked up at the grille. The combination lock was concealed behind a metal plate and there was no way to get at it. He might be able to get the saw next to the bolt of the lock, but this was sure to be made of hardened steel and impossible to cut. The hinges! These were two simple rings set into the stone. If he could cut through them, the grille could be lifted free.

Reaching the grille was easier this time, for the rising water in which he swam was almost up to its level. It was easy enough to get the Gigli saw around the hinge pin – but he needed three hands!

“There has to be an answer! I need two hands to use the saw – and at least one more hand to hold on with…”

For a long moment the answer escaped him – until he remembered the handcuffs. Quickly snapping one of the cuffs around his wrist he locked the other one on to a bar of the grille. It hurt, but he could hang from it. And the water held up part of his weight. With slow, strong movements he began pulling back and forth on the blade and it sank slowly into the thick iron.

But had he enough time? He tried to ignore the rising water. Panic would only make death certain – and he had to keep his sawing even and firm.

Slowly, painfully slowly, he worked on. The handcuff chafed his wrist… and his strength was failing. How long could he hold out?

The water reached his chin and the first bar still held. He could no longer see what he was doing, since he had to keep his face pressed through the bars in order to breathe. His moving arms raised waves that washed salt water into his mouth and over his nose.

Then the saw was suddenly loose in his hands – he was through! When he pushed upwards, the end of the grille lifted. But it was still held by the other hinge and the lock.

Racing against the rising tide, Merlo freed his arm from the handcuff and filled his lungs with air. Then he lowered himself below the water, braced hands and feet against the edge of the pit and pushed up against the bars with his back. Harder and harder, until fire tore at his muscles and his lungs ached…

The lock twisted out of its seat and the grille crashed open. Weakened but victorious, Merlo climbed out of the water-filled cell. Water washed over his ankles as he waded towards the stairs. A half-minute more in the cell and he would have been drowned. Silently, he climbed the stone steps and looked carefully into the room above.

“Empty – except for my clothes!” he breathed, in a delighted whisper.

Most of his gadgets had been taken when the guards had emptied the pockets, but some remained. There was a slight tell-tale bump in the thin shoulder-pad of his jacket, and he opened the seam and squeezed a tiny camera into his hand. It was no bigger than a matchbox, yet the fast film with which it was loaded would take a clear picture in any light – even that of a single candle. The case was waterproof and shockproof, and the camera in perfect working order. He dressed quickly and bounced the tiny camera in his hand.

“Now to get a little evidence. If I get out of this den alive, I want to be able to come back with the police and clean it out.”

Silently as a ghost, he went up the stairs. Luck was on his side in the deserted hallways. He met no one as he climbed. Two floors above he recognized a doorway. He slipped through it into the room where he had first been left. It was empty, and once more he made the leap between the close balconies.

But this time there was no one to observe him as he stood outside the window and watched the busy, native diamond cutters at work on smuggled gems. The camera blinked silently as he took careful pictures of the scene. With this film, Interpol would have a perfect case.

Now to find a way out of the building. The shortest way out was from the room where The Duke talked to his men through his TV and radio apparatus. The door was still halfway off its hinges. Through the opening, he could hear the familiar, muffled tones of The Duke.

Merlo risked a single quick look into the room. Four men faced the curtain, their backs to him, receiving instructions about a shipment of diamonds. While he memorized the orders, Merlo held the camera at the opening and took a quick picture. More evidence against The Duke and his gang.

Then the curiosity bug hit him. If The Duke was talking to his men, he must be in the control room. Merlo could see him – find out who he was! It was almost like suicide to go farther into the building, but The Duke’s identity would be the final piece of evidence needed to close this case. Even though he was running a terrible risk, Merlo knew that he had to do it!

A minute’s search found the door to the other wing of the building, and there, before him, was the door he had last seen standing open – the door to the control room. The Duke would be inside. He tried the knob gently, it was unlocked. He turned it

“It’s Merlo! Get him!”

An instant after the shout, a gun was fired and the bullet screamed down the hall. It did not find its mark. Merlo moved at the first sound and was already away from the door and on to the stairs. Someone was coming up from below, so he had to climb. He ran.

There were shouts from below, and the heavy thud of feet coming after him. Ignoring his fatigue and the pain of his aching body, he climbed. He forced his tired muscles to run at top speed. And he stayed ahead of his pursuers. The roof door was ahead.

A man stepped through it, his gun raised and pointing at Merlo’s chest.

Merlo hit him, putting all the weight of his body behind a pile-driver punch to the jaw. He had no time to fight, just time for one blow. The man sagged and Merlo was jumping over the fallen body even before it had hit the stairs. The roof ahead was empty. Merlo’s hope rose, but his nerves were tingling.

There was a desperate choice to be made. Merlo might find one of the other stairways and go back into the building. Yet he felt in his bones that this would be suicide. He was unarmed and one man against countless others. Was there another way off the roof? He remembered the brief sight of the sea he had had several days before. Could he reach it? He ran for the far edge of the roof.

Far, far below the ocean frothed white as it washed over the fanged rocks of the bay. Could anyone possibly survive such a drop and still have the strength to swim away? Could he dive and miss the rocks? Was the water deep enough to cushion his fall?

Voices roared behind him – dangerously close – he knew he had no choice.

To be continued…

Spell of Magic – Part 9

17 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 9
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

Previously in Spell of Magic: Stage magician Merlo is an agent for Interpol. Pretending to be a crook, he has joined a gang of diamond smugglers, hoping to discover the gang leader’s identity. Merlo is in the mysterious headquarters of the gang when DuPont, whom Merlo believed to be in jail, suddenly arrives to expose him as a police agent…

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Merlo dived to the attack, moving a single instant before the man in the doorway.

DuPont tried to turn to face the charge, but there was no time. Merlo hit him with all his weight, knocking the man across the room. This barely slowed his charge. He went on to crash into the door and slam it shut in the surprised faces of the guards before they could follow DuPont through the door.

But their rifles were raised, and if they had the sense to use them, the thick door would offer as little protection as a piece of paper.

The steel slugs would tear through it, and through Merlo’s body. He could almost feel their impact as he shot home the heavy bolt and turned the key in the lock… He was diving to get clear of the door when a sharp pain shot through his shoulder.

His first thought was that one of the bullets had hit him, so fierce was the agony. But the force of the blow had spun him about. He had a quick glimpse of the wickedly grinning DuPont swinging his fist and was just in time to dodge the blow. It whistled by his head, then he had to move back again as DuPont forced home the attack.

“Do not kill him, DuPont – I will do that myself after he has been questioned.” The Duke’s muffled voice spoke front the speaker on the table. “Hurt him all you want, but keep him alive. I’m sending men now to break down the door.”

“You speak and I obey, Duke,” DuPont shouted towards the microphone, and closed in on Merlo.

Merlo dodged another blow and backed away again. There was little else he could do. DuPont moved and fought like a professional boxer – and on each fist he had a savage knuckle-duster with spikes on the outer edge. The single blow that had struck Merlo had half-paralyzed his arm. Weaponless as he was, Merlo had no defense against this terrible attack.

He turned and ran.

“Come back, you coward!” DuPont shouted. “We’re locked in this room together and you can’t get away. Stand and fight…”

DuPont’s bragging words ended in a howl of anger as he saw what Merlo was doing. He had not been running away – he had really been preparing to kill two birds with a single stone. He grabbed the edge of the table and lifted, and the TV and radio apparatus fell crashing to the floor.

“Stop him…” The Duke’s voice shouted, then broke off as the loudspeaker smashed.

“That takes care of your mysterious boss,” Merlo said, gasping with pain as he took the weight of the table on his injured arm. He forced his fingers to cling on and to lift – to hold the table clear of the floor while he spun about.

“And that should take care of you,” he gasped as the plunging DuPont crashed into the table and fell.

The table ha only knocked the smuggler down, but before he could rise to his feet, Merlo was on top of him. This was no time for fair fighting: there was nothing fair about this gang’s dealings. Merlo chopped his open hand down. The outer edge caught DuPont on the side of his neck. The smuggler’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed.

Merlo wasted no more time on him. With a quick jerk he pulled the black hangings from the wall. It was solid, without openings of any kind. Behind him there was a thud as some heavy object struck the door, and it shuddered. Merlo jumped over the unconscious body on the floor and tried the other wall. The cloth fell away and he saw a window-frame. But the sudden spurt of hope died. The window was bricked and cemented, sealed for ever.

The door shook again to a heavy blow and this time there was a cracking sound the lock broke. Pieces of metal flew across the room. The bolt still held – but for how long?

When the door went down, the chase would be over and Merlo would be as good as dead. He sprinted to the rear wall, but it was as solid as the others.

Yet it did contain one opening – a small hole no bigger than a man’s thumb – that had been pierced through the plaster a foot above the floor. Through the hole ran the wires from the television and radio equipment that allowed The Duke to speak to anyone in the room.

‘Good enough!’ Merlo thought, and with controlled speed pulled his cigarette case from his pocket and thumbed a hidden release catch.

This thin platinum case was Merlo’s constant companion, containing many of the small devices that he used with a magician’s skill. It contained plastic pellets of sleeping gas, and it also held a small supply of micro-grenades. One of these tiny bombs fell into his waiting palm now.

Small, black and no bigger than a sixpence, it held almost as much explosive power as a full-sized hand-grenade. It had a three-second fuse in it. Merlo squeezed the fuse, pushed the micro-grenade into the hole in the wall and fell to the floor, to one side.

Behind him there was a crash and a howl of victory from the hallway as the door splintered and almost went down.

“Once more!” a voice shouted – then the words were drowned out in the boom of the explosion.

Dust and smoke billowed and Merlo could just make out a ragged hole that had been blasted through the plaster to an adjoining room.

Without looking behind him, Merlo dived for the hole, and forced himself through it, despite the ragged ends of wood and cement that tore at his clothes. Behind him, the shouts turned to cries of anger as they saw his escape.

The door was open and the room deserted, but against one wall stood a bank of television and radio equipment. This was where The Duke watched and talked to the other room – he could have left only moments before. For one instant, Merlo wondered at the identity of this mysterious leader of the diamond smugglers – then forced the thought from his mind. He could solve this puzzle only if he escaped.

There was another door leading from the room, and Merlo tried it, in the hope that he could confuse his trail a bit. It opened easily and revealed a rising stairway. Merlo slipped through, silently locked the door behind him and began noiselessly to climb the stairs.

Muffled shouts echoed from the room he had just left, and someone rattled the knob of the door, then went away. Quicker now, Merlo ran up the stairs, feeling his way in the darkness.

They seemed to go on for ever, and there were no doors at any of the landings. Merlo was gasping for breath when he saw a dim light above him. A few seconds later he had reached the door at the top of the stairs.

Sunlight came in through the keyhole and, when he pressed his eye to it, Merlo could see only blue sky. But waiting solved nothing. Merlo opened the door.

Before him stretched a few feet of sun-blistered tar roofing, and beyond this was a stone parapet. He stepped forward and looked down at an immense drop. The house was built on the very edge of the cliff, and it was a straight drop from the roof to the rocky ground below.

There was a low chuckle behind Merlo, and he spun round to face Petritz and two guards with leveled rifles, who stood facing him across the flat roof.

“Jump,” Petritz said, “or surrender. It makes no difference. The end will be the same either way.”

To be continued…

Spell of Magic – Part 8

16 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 8
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

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The Story So Far: Stage-magician Merlo has joined a gang of smugglers in order to get evidence against them for Interpol – the international police. He is taken to the hideout of The ‘Duke,’ and begins to investigate a mysterious room. But, suddenly, comes a challenging voice. He looks up to see Petritz, one of the gang, threatening him with a gun…

“You’re not going to shoot me just because I was curious, are you?” Merlo asked, outwardly calm, looking up at the threatening black muzzle of the gun above him.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Petritz growled, leaning out from the balcony, the big revolver aimed and unmoving. “You have disobeyed me, snooped when I warned you not to…”

“Get this straight!” Merlo snapped in icy fury. “Until The Duke tells me differently, I do just as I please. He is in charge of the organization – not you! I’m interested in the set-up here and I mean to find out as much about it as I can. If The Duke wants me to trust him, he is going to have to trust me!”

“That is for The Duke to decide!” Petritz’s fat cheeks were red and shaking with anger. “He sent me to get you – so make your excuses to him!”

“Happy to oblige,” Merlo said cheerfully, and, ignoring the man and his threatening he swung smoothly back to his own balcony and into the room.

Petritz was waiting in the hall when Merlo came out, and without a word led him deeper into the large building. They stopped before a giant door of carved mahogany. Petritz knocked twice, then threw the door open without waiting for an answer. He waved Merlo ahead and followed him into the room.

They walked into solid blackness, black in every way. Dark tapestries hung in thick folds from the walls, their midnight fringes brushing the thick, black rug that soaked up their footsteps as they entered. The only light came from black candles set in smoked metal holders, and their light was so weak that it only accented the gloom of the dark chamber. Merlo did not laugh, even smile, at this tomb-like atmosphere: he was far too good a magician not to appreciate a fine set of props.

“You may leave now, Petritz – I will talk to this one alone.”

The voice came from behind a black curtain at the far end of the room and had a strange, muffled quality, as though the speaker were talking through many layers of cloth. Petritz nodded his head and almost bowed at the order. Then he shuffled quickly back through the door. As soon as it was closed, the voice continued:

“I am The Duke. You are the one called Merlo the Magician. It has been reported that you wish to work for me. But I know very little about you.”

“I’m sure you know all about me by now,” Merlo said. To show his calm, he leaned against the wall and folded his arms.

“My history is just what it appears to be. I’m a professional stage magician and have never been anything else – if you don’t count the war years, that is. I have never been in jail or been arrested, if that is what is bothering you. Some years back I realized that I was not making enough money from my act, but it made a perfect cover for other activities.”

“What kind of activities?” The Duke’s muffled voice asked.

“Smuggling for the most part. My sleight-of-hand skills and my constant traveling make that kind of work childishly easy. But I’m sure you know all this. What do you want me to do – and how much are you willing to pay?”

This time the answering voice had an edge of cold anger. “It is I who give the orders here and ask the questions – not you! I could have you killed…”

“No threats, please,” Merlo said in a highly bored voice. “If you wanted to kill, you could have done it far more simply and easily than by bringing me to this island hide-away of yours. You want help from me, so it would pay you to be frank. Now that I have seen the diamond cutters and know how you operate here…”

“You have been snooping!”

“I have. I like to know what I am getting into. When I saw those gem cutters wearing turbans I knew you were a man of imagination whom I would enjoy working with. While all the diamond cutters in Europe are licensed and carefully watched, the Orient is a different matter altogether. And the art of gem cutting was invented there. You could train them in the modern style of diamond cutting. They’ll do your work for you, they won’t ask any questions and won’t be able to talk because they don’t know any of the local languages.”

There was a long silence before The Duke spoke again.

“You have been very curious, Merlo. I do not know if I like it.”

“You had better learn to like it if we are to work together. I don’t go into anything blind. I particularly don’t like to work with people I cannot see.”

“You will have to grow used to that. No one may see my face. It is forbidden!”

“Is it?” Merlo asked, tiny smile pulling at the comers of his mouth. “But if I were to pull the curtains aside…”
“It is forbidden! You will die…”

But even as the muffled voice of The Duke was raised in anger, Merlo was quickly stepping forward. He grasped the curtain in both hands and jerked it to one side.

“I thought it would be like this,” he said. “It was the way your voice sounded, Duke.”

The Duke was silent. And he wasn’t there. In fact he had never been there.

The end of the room that had been curtained off was empty and dusty. It contained I single table. On the table was a loudspeaker, a microphone and a small television camera. The camera had been placed behind a hole in the curtain and this was what Merlo had first noticed.

“Your curiosity has gone too far this time,” The Duke’s muffled voice rasped from the speaker.

“Has it?” Merlo asked calmly, and paused to light a cigarette. ‘”know nothing more than I did before – except for the fact that you’re seeing me through that ‘IV gadget and listening to me through the microphone. I still have no idea of your identity, and we can keep it that way if that is the way you must work.”

The Duke’s answer was cut off by a sudden hammering on the door. Merlo, drew back against the wall as the knocking broke off and the door was flung open. A man in dirty, travel-worn clothes stood there, panting with fatigue. Behind him were two of the guards, armed with rifles. The man stumbled into the room and, for the first time in his life, Merlo lost his self-control. He stared in amazement and his jaw dropped. It just couldn’t be!

But it was. The man in the doorway was DuPont, the detective who had been hired by the smugglers to trap Merlo; the man Merlo had ‘killed’ and sent to a maximum-security Interpol prison. He could not be here – yet he was.

“Duke! Are you here?” DuPont shouted. “I managed to escape, to warn you – Merlo is a police spy! He works for Interpol…”

At that moment he saw Merlo and his teeth clenched with anger.

“Still here! So I am not too late. You will suffer before you die!”

DuPont and the armed guards blocked the door – and there was no other way out. Merlo’s stomach sank as he realized that he had taken one chance too many. This time there would be no escape.

To be continued…

Spell of Magic – Part 7

15 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 7
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

The Story So Far: Stage magician Merlo is an agent for Interpol. He has joined a gang of smugglers to get evidence against them. Now, a private detective named DuPont tries to bribe Merlo into giving him information about the gang. To Petritz, a watching member of the gang, it seems that Merlo has killed the detective who has tried to make him turn traitor…

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Petritz had been shocked by the cold-blooded killing and his immense form was dark and silent as they walked back along the dock. He was reflecting on how mercilessly Merlo had pushed the body into the ocean. It had been so frighteningly casual.

When Merlo spoke it was almost as if he had read the diamond smuggler’s mind. The big man started, because the words were so close to what he had been thinking.

“Killing that man didn’t bother me at all,” Merlo said quietly, “so it shouldn’t upset you. He was a spy, so I did us all a favor by killing him. Now, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

“You’re going to have a chance to work for the organization,” Petritz finally said. “I’ll pick you up at your hotel in the morning. Pack your bag, because we are going to be away for a few days.”

“All right,” Merlo answered, knowing better than to ask any questions. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

Merlo, returned alone to his hotel, the Majestic, and the calmness of his face did not show any of the feelings that were churning inside him. Only when he was safely in his room did he relax.

He burst out laughing… and he was still laughing when his assistant, Tommy, came in a few moments later. And Tommy joined in the laughter.

“The look on Petritz’s face must have been something to see,” Tommy finally said. “Now can you tell me what this whole thing is about, now that your ‘dead’ man is safe under lock and key?”

“It’s really very simple. As soon as DuPont, the detective I ‘killed’, talked to me, I suspected that he had been sent by the smugglers as a test – that is why I arranged to meet him later. A call to Interpol proved that he was a private detective, but he was certainly not working for any diamond organization.”

Tommy’s eyebrows rose. “Then he was a spy for the gem smugglers? A colleague of Petritz and the rest of the gang?”

“Exactly. That is when I set up the ‘murder’. The smugglers wanted to see how I would react to a bribe. So I showed them. I stabbed their spy… except the knife was one of my stage props. The blade slides back into the handle without doing any harm. I changed it a bit by putting a hypodermic needle on the tip, filled with a sleeping drug. The needle hurt a bit, DuPont shouted and grabbed his stomach – then passed out. So I pushed him off the dock with my most evil laugh, knowing that you were there to take over.”

“On-the-spot-Tommy, that’s me all right! I had one of those rubber raft things out of sight under the dock and was enjoying a bit of a swim. DuPont splashed in right under my nose, and I had him under the dock with his head on the raft long before anyone looked over. The Interpol car picked him up as soon as you and that elephant-sized smuggler were gone.”

“Well done, Tommy. So right now, DuPont is in a ‘maximum security’ prison and will be allowed to contact no one. The smugglers will think he is dead.”

“Aren’t they going to get angry at you for knocking off so many of their men?”

“Maybe – but that’s a chance I must take. They are ruthless men, and now they believe I am the same sort, I hope they’ll want to use me! I’m going somewhere with Petritz tomorrow. You stay here until I can contact you. Check the post office box twice a day.”

“All right,” Tommy said gloomily. “But I wish I had some of the fun, too.”

It was a longer trip than Merlo had thought. With Petritz, he boarded a private plane at the airport a few miles down the coast. As they climbed above the clouds, Merlo noted that their course was roughly south-east. A few hours later, there were mountains visible through a break in the clouds, then water again. They must have passed over Italy. Petritz slept most of the way and told him nothing of their destination. But when the plane finally swept down through the cloud cover and Merlo saw islands below, he knew they were somewhere between Turkey and Greece.

Seconds later, the little plane swept down towards a short, bumpy field. The aircraft was unsuited to such a landing strip. With a spine-jarring crash, it slewed round on to a wing as a tire burst on touch-down. Desperately, the pilot fought with the controls as the machine careered across the ruts and hollows, the rubber tearing off in shreds from the burst tire. With brakes jammed on, the plane came to a halt in a flurry of dust and flying rocks – a few yards from the ditch at the end of the field.

As they stepped from the plane, Merlo had never been happier to be on firm ground. But he had no time to think. Petritz hurried him over to a waiting car. Then they were careering down a dusty road and through a small town.

“Stop here!” Merlo told the driver, and the man obediently put on the brakes.

“What are you doing?” Petritz asked suspiciously.

“Buying some cigarettes in this hotel,” Merlo answered, already half out of the car. “Come in with me if you are worried.”

Petritz did come, and looked on with suspicion as Merlo ordered and paid for the cigarettes. They had left the counter and had gone just a few steps when Merlo turned back.

“I forgot matches,” he said loudly enough for the clerk and Petritz to both hear. The clerk reached for the matches as Petritz was still turning. That was the moment when Merlo pressed his elbow against his side and, like magic, an envelope suddenly appeared in his hand. He dropped it on the counter along with some coins from his change that he had palmed a moment before.
“Mail that, will you please,” he said, just loud enough for the clerk to hear, then turned quickly with the matches so that his body blocked the letter from Petritz’s sight.

“Thank you, sir,” the clerk said, looking at the extra coins.

Merlo walked away, face relaxed, but tense as a coiled spring inside. If the clerk mentioned the letter there would be trouble.

But the clerk said nothing as they walked out of the door, and climbing back into the car, some of the strain left Merlo. If the clerk was honest and mailed it, that letter should tell Tommy where he was. There was just a blank piece of paper inside – but the envelope would tell Tommy all he needed to know. The postage stamp would name the country and Merlo hoped for a clear postage mark that would name the town.

Merlo had prepared the letter in his hotel and clipped it into the ‘hold-out’ up his sleeve. This was a device that strapped on to his arm. When it was ‘triggered,’ a combination of springs and folding metal arms shot the letter down his sleeve and into his hand, Crooked gamblers used such gadgets to produce aces at the right time, while magicians used them to make small objects appear from nowhere.

Now the car was climbing in low gear even higher into the mountains at the north end of the island. There were no buildings here, except for a large, walled building – almost a castle. They swept through a gate in the wall and Merlo saw guards locking it behind them.

“You’ll be shown to your room,” Petritz said when they had stopped in the courtyard. “You will wait there until The Duke is ready to talk to you.”

“The Duke? Who is that?” Merlo demanded quickly.

“The man in charge of the organization. He is known by no other name. Now – take my advice, and don’t ask too many questions. People who ask questions lead short lives.”

Merlo thought about this warning as he was shown into a well-furnished bedroom on the second floor. He locked the door and, after a quick look around the room, went to the window. There was a balcony there, and when he stepped out on it he could hear the drone of machinery and a murmur of voices from the next window, not five feet away. It had a balcony, too. There was no one in sight at the other windows in the wall, so, in instant decision, Merlo leaped over the gap and landed lightly on the other balcony.

Inside the room were a number of gem cutting and polishing machines being operated by small, dark men in turbans. This was where the illegal diamonds were cut.

“I warned you not to be too curious,” a chill voice said, and Merlo looked up.

Petritz stood on the balcony above, leaning over, pointing a large revolver at Merlo’s head.

To be continued…

Spell of Magic – Part 6

14 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 6
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

The Story So Far: Merlo, an Interpol agent, pretends to be a smuggler to join an international gang of crooks. He has successfully smuggled a consignment of diamonds ashore at Cannes. But now, a detective calls at his hotel room…

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Merlo tried to blink away the fatigue and sleep as he stared at the man outside the door.

“I don’t quite understand what you want…” Merlo began.

“You understand well enough,” the detective answered coldly. “Let me in and we’ll have a nice, private chat about smuggled diamonds. I think you could tell me a lot.” He pushed past Merlo and into the room, a lean, gray man with short-cropped hair and a web of wrinkles around his eyes.

“I can call the desk and have you thrown out,” Merlo said.

“Why do that?” DuPont asked, dropping into a chair. “I’m not here to cause trouble. I want to do you a favor. You saw my identification, didn’t you?”

“Yes. It said only that you were a private detective working for a firm in Paris.”
“That’s all I am, believe me. I don’t want to put you into jail or cause you any trouble. I just want some information.” He dug into his side pocket and produced a thick wad of bank-notes that he threw on the table. “That could be yours. Four thousand new francs. Just for giving me some information about diamond smuggling.”

“What could I possibly know about that?”

“Don’t kid me,” DuPont snapped angrily. “The Customs men gave you a shaking up yesterday on a tip from a thug named Tonio… who has been mixed up in illegal diamonds himself. You know something. Tell me and I’ll pay for it. I work for a syndicate of diamond buyers in Paris who want to stop illegal gems from flooding the market. They don’t want to see you in trouble. They just want to stop the diamonds from coming into the country.”

Merlo found a cigarette and lit it before he answered.

“You have me interested… but not here and not now.” He pushed the money back. “Meet me at eleven o’clock tonight, DuPont, at the end of the ferry dock. It’ll be empty then and we can have a private talk. I might well have something for you.”

“You’re a smart man,” DuPont said, climbing to his feet and stuffing the notes back into his pocket. “At eleven then.”

When the detective had gone, Merlo yawned and slowly dressed. Yesterday had been a hard day – and this one was not going to be any easier.

As he strolled out on to the main terrace he saw that Petritz was there and had already ordered his breakfast. Merlo slid into the empty chair and casually dropped his newspaper on to the table.

“Well?” Petritz asked. “Where are they? You do have the diamonds… don’t you?”

“Relax, read the paper – plenty of time for business later.” He pushed the newspaper across the table, ignoring the pistol that suddenly appeared in Petritz’s fat hand.

There was no mistaking the menace that crept into Petritz’s voice. “Don’t play any games, Merlo. I want those diamonds…” Then his hand fell on the folded newspaper and he felt the bulge in it. He opened it as if he was going to read it, but instead took a long look at the plastic bag pinned inside.

Petritz breathed a sigh of relief. “Very good,” he finally said, and slipped the gun back into his pocket. “It looks like you are as good at this business as they said in Naples. There is something else we would like…”

“Don’t tell me now,” Merlo broke in. “It’s too early in the morning, and besides, I have some things to take care of first. Can you be back here at ten tonight?”

“Ten it is.” Petritz heaved his fat bulk to his feet. “I want to get rid of this shipment first, anyway.”

After breakfast, Merlo went back to his room and was not at all surprised to find his assistant, Tommy Archer, waiting there. The little ex-jockey jumped to his feet happily.

“You’re all right! I can tell you now, Merlo – I was worried about this job.”

“So was I… with good reason,” Merlo admitted, and told Tommy about the attack by Tonio and the earlier visit of the detective. “I don’t like it, not at all. Too many people seem to know my business and to be lying in wait for me. Breaking into this gang is going to be a lot harder than I thought, I have the feeling that someone is watching me and laying traps. When I get out of one there is another waiting.”

“Let’s turn the whole thing over to Interpol and get out while our skins are still in one piece.”

“No… I’m too dose to the inside now. The more I know, the more dangerous it gets. And the way things are happening to me, I begin to feel that the answer is very close. If I can find out how and where the illegal diamonds are being cut – and who is in charge of this international ring – I’ll have a real case for Interpol. If they act now, all they’ll pick up will be the small fry. I have a little plan that might crack this business open, and I’ll need your help to carry it out.”

Tommy listened. Then he set off to obey the magician’s instructions.

Merlo spent a quiet day preparing for what was sure to be a very busy evening. He met Petritz at ten and they strolled along the waterfront, looking out across the bay at the lights of the American fleet lying at anchor.

“I don’t get you…” Petritz complained. “What’s this all about?”

“It’s very simple,” Merlo grinned. “I just want you to stand behind that building on the dock out of sight, but where you can hear a conversation.”

“Why?”

“You’ll know why, once you hear it. Now, come on… we don’t have too much time.”

The diamond smuggler was stationed behind the dark ferry office when DuPont walked out on the deserted dock. He went over to where Merlo stood at the very edge.

“Well?” the detective asked. “You got the information for me about the diamond smugglers?”

“I have something for you right here,” Merlo said, reaching into his pocket. The detective gasped when he saw the wicked-looking knife that Merlo brought out.

“What are you doing?” he gasped.

“Taking care of a rat,” Merlo said coldly. “You want to know about diamonds? I’ll tell you this much. You should have asked someone else. I’m not a stool-pigeon.”

With those words, before the detective could protect himself, Merlo’s hand lashed forward. DuPont staggered backwards and fell over the edge of the dock. There was a splash in the, water below.

“What are you doing?” Petritz gasped, running up at a fast waddle. “You killed him!” He looked down at the dark water below, but nothing was visible.

Merlo had a strange smile as he put the knife back into his pocket. “You heard what he said to me. He wanted me to sell him information on the organization. That means he knew about me… and he may have known about you and the others. A man like that is dangerous, my friend, even if you tell him nothing.”

“But… but to kill him like – like that!”

Merlo looked down at the water, now smooth and dark and holding its mystery.

“That is the way – the only way – to treat people like that. Don’t you agree?”

Petritz took a long time to answer, and when he did there was a new tone in his voice.

“Yes. That is the only way to treat them. Now come with me. I have something very important to tell you.”

To be continued…


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