Spell of Magic – Part 2
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008
The Story So Far: Merlo is a stage magician who plays a double role in life. Along with his assistant, a tiny ex-jocky called Tommy Archer, he works as a secret agent for Interpol. They have been following the trail of a gang of diamond smugglers all the way from Africa to Italy. Merlo breaks into a meeting of the smugglers in Naples and steals a shipment of diamonds. He and Tommy are examining them in their dressing-room when the door bursts open and one of the smugglers stands there. He fires at Merlo – point-blank! Now read on…
But the gunman had made a single mistake – he had taken the time to talk, to say that he was going to kill Merlo. Even as his finger tightened on the trigger, the two men he meant to be his victims were going into action. They were used to working together on the stage, and in danger, and they moved at the same time.
Tommy threw his small weight against the partly-open door, jarring the gunman. Merlo hurled himself sideways from the chair, rolling as he hit the floor. The gun barked loudly and one lead slug ripped through the chair where Merlo had just been sitting, and the other whirred by his head and dug a hole in the wall. The gunman cursed and shifted his aim – but there was no third shot. Even though he was lying on his back on the floor, Merlo was far from helpless. He was well-practised in the French form of boxing known as la savate. In savate the feet are used as well as the fists.
Fast as a striking snake, his foot lashed out and the sharp toe of his shoe caught the gunman’s wrist. The man grunted with pain and the automatic spun away through the air. As the would-be killer jumped after the gun, Merlo seized him.
“I’ll kill you!” the gunman grated through his teeth, fighting to free himself. “You can’t buck the gang…”
“We’ll see about that,” Merlo answered grimly. “Get my cigarette case from my coat, Tommy. It’s time for our friend here to take a nap.”
“I dig you!” Tommy gave the struggling man a wicked grin and slipped Merlo’s slim cigarette case from his pocket. It was made of platinum and should have held nothing more than the lighter and cigarettes. Yet, when Tommy pressed a concealed button, a small, liquid-filled plastic globe fell into his hand.
“Know what this is?” he asked, holding it before the gunman’s face.
Before the man could answer, Tommy squeezed – the thin skin broke and a cool liquid ran out, turning instantly to gas. Both Merlo and Tommy were holding their breath, but the unknowing prisoner took one lungful of the vapour, struggled for an instant and fell limp. Merlo laid him on the floor.
“You can breathe again, Tommy – after fifteen seconds in the air the sleeping gas loses its power. Now the problem is, what do we do with sleeping beauty here?”
“He knows we work for Interpol!”
“Exactly. Therefore, Interpol will have to take care of him.”
Tommy locked the door while Merlo took down from the shelf an ordinary-looking transistor radio. Merlo had rebuilt it completely and, in addition to receiving programmes, it contained a compact transmitter. The plastic grille slipped off and revealed a hidden set of controls and a telegraph key. Merlo tapped out a brief signal, waited until it was answered, then sent a longer message in code.
“That takes care of our gunman,” he said, changing the radio back to its normal guise. “The local Interpol operator will pick him up and deliver him to a special prison where he will be held until this case is over. He will be allowed to contact no one, so that he can’t give us away to his smuggling friends. You wait here until he is picked up.”
“Where will you be?”
“Visiting the gang! The time has come for us to get much closer to them if we are to find anything out about the secret diamond-cutting operation. I’m going to try to join them!”
Merlo’s rented car spun him quickly out of the city and down the autostrada along the Bay of Naples. Within minutes, he turned off at the small town of Torre del Greco. Ravali, the sinister leader of the gang, lived in a high-walled house here that seemed to be the local headquarters for the smugglers. Merlo had followed him here and noted the barbed wire, armed guards and vicious dogs that guarded it. He chose the easiest and simplest way to get in – the front door. He rang the bell. A surly-looking servant finally answered and said that Ravali could not see him. Merlo ignored this, and passed an envelope through the barred window in the door.
“Give this to Signor Ravali. He’ll see me.”
The envelope contained two of the smuggled diamonds and it worked like a charm. Within a minute the door was thrown open and two toughs – with their hands on suspicious bulges in their jackets – ushered him inside. Ravali slumped in a chair, looking more like a grey rat than ever as he plucked at his moustache, in a room filled with smoke and his bodyguards. It looked as though Merlo was interrupting an emergency meeting of the gang.
“Who are you?” Ravali snapped.
“The name is Merlo,” he said, coolly taking a cigarette and tapping it lazily on his thumb nail. “Even you should have heard of me.”
“I know him,” one of the men growled. “He’s a tin-pot magician – plays the night clubs.”
“Where did you get these?” Ravali asked, holding up the diamonds from the envelope.
“Out of this box with the others,” Merlo answered calmly, and threw the box on the table. The cover flew open and a fortune in glittering gems spilled out. The silence in the room was so thick it could have been cut with a knife.
“Where did you get them?” Ravali breathed, gaping at the diamonds he had thought lost forever.
“From your room at the hotel. I have been following the messenger who brought them to you. I recognised him on the boat. I do a good bit of smuggling myself. As a magician I find it really very simple to conceal things – even from customs officers. When I’m not smuggling goods, I like to relieve other smugglers of their goods. They rarely complain to the police.”
“Why are you telling me this? Why did you bring the diamonds back?” Ravali rasped, his fingertips inside his coat, touching his gun.
“Because I’m not a fool. I’ll buck lone wolves and small-time smugglers. But I’m not going to buck a large organisation like yours. I would rather join it. That way, there will be a larger profit for both of us. You can use me – and I can use your money!”
An angry mumble went around the room, and Ravali leaned back and scratched his jaw. “Something might be possible,” he began. Then a voice interrupted him.
“Wait a minute, Ravali!” One of the gunmen from the hotel room lumbered forward. “What happened to Gino? If this Merlo hijacked our shipment, he must be the one Gino followed. He just had time to tell me that he was following someone from the hotel – then he left. He ain’t back yet. Where is he? Ask this guy!”
All eyes were on Merlo. The magician relaxed and blew a perfect smoke-ring. The mystery of the vanishing gunman would have to be faced some time, best to get it over with now.
“Was his name Gino? I never found out. He followed me to the club and tried to kill me. That has been tried before… always with the same results. Gino is dead.”
“He killed Gino!” one of the men gasped, then in instant anger: “Kill him!”
Their guns were out now, and shining knife-blades as well. A ring of death was closing in on Merlo, yet he never flinched.
“Kill him!” they shouted.
To be continued…