Spell of Magic – Part 3
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008
The Story So Far: Stage magician Merlo is determined to smash a dangerous international smuggling ring. His first step is to visit sinister Naples gang boss, Ravali. Pretending to be a smuggler himself, he asks to join the gang. But Ravali’s henchmen are suspicious. They close in on him, threateningly…
The ring of killers closed in on Merlo, yet he sat calmly ignoring them! This bothered even these professional murderers and slowed them down for one vital moment.
“Don’t make any mistakes!” Merlo, said softly, yet the menace in his tone was unmistakable. “I didn’t come here to get knocked off. The first one that tries anything will die – I promise that!”
And while he talked, he stubbed out his cigarette and took a fresh one from his case.
One man ignored the warning. He pushed forward, carrying a long-bladed knife in his hand.
“You killed Gino,” he growled. “He was my friend. For that you die!”
“It was a fair fight,” Merlo replied grimly. “Gino tried to murder me – only I shot first. Be careful, or you’ll be joining him in the river.”
The man snarled in answer and leaped forward. But what happened next shocked everyone in the room.
“Then die!” Merlo snapped, and pointed his finger at his attacker. The man jerked to a halt, clutched his throat in sudden pain and fell to the floor. The knife dropped from his limp fingers and he did not move again.
“Anyone else want that?” Merlo asked, and no one moved. “Then clear out of here until I’m through. I have some things to talk to Ravali about.”
The rat-like leader nibbled his moustache for a moment, then nodded his head. His gangsters quickly left the room.
“He is not dead,” Merlo said, pointing to the body on the floor with his toe. “He’ll come to in a few hours.”
“But… but how did you do it?” Ravali asked, fear and amazement in his voice.
Merlo smiled. “Trade secret; you should never ask a magician how he does anything.”
As he talked he took a fresh cigarette from his case, at the same time slipping back into it the ‘cigarette’ he had just used. This was a white metal tube containing a tiny pressure tank of carbon-dioxide gas of the same sort that makes soda bottles fizz. In front of it was a plastic dart tipped with a strong drug. A squeeze on the tube projected the dart with a blast of gas. The dart had hit the would-be killer in the neck.
“I don’t suppose you are too sorry about losing Gino?” Merlo asked.
“Gino! I can hire a hundred like him by lifting a finger. And a killer who can’t kill is of no use to me,” Ravali replied.
“Just as I thought,” said Merlo, “which is why I was sure you wouldn’t have me killed if I came here. And you have the diamonds as proof of my good intentions. Now, can you use me? I can get diamonds into any country in the world for your organisation – and I’ll never be caught.”
“Yes… yes, we could use a reliable messenger,” Ravali mumbled over the thought, darting little glances at Merlo. “But I cannot decide myself. There are others, higher up. They will tell me. Stay in Naples and I will get in touch with you.”
Merlo left then, without any trouble, and found his assistant, Tommy Archer, waiting anxiously at the club.
The magician grinned at the sight of Tommy’s anxious face.
“Relax, Tommy! I’m as good as a member of the gang. They’ll try me out – and keep a close watch for any funny moves on my part. So we’ll just finish this run at the club, then enjoy the beaches on Capri until they make up their minds. It’s about time we had a holiday!”
But they never did. The same day their show closed, Merlo has a call from Ravali and went out for a luncheon conference. He returned in high humour, hurling his hat across the room to score a perfect landing on the light bulb over the mirror.
“Time to pack,” he said. “I’m going on a little sea voyage.”
“But what about me?” Tommy asked.
“You are going ahead by train with our props, and we’ll meet in Cannes, the pearl of the French Riviera. I’m going alone by ship, the King Hercules, which docks here tomorrow. She is on a cruise to Canada, but I’m only going as far as Cannes, a short, two-day trip. And while I’m on board I’ll have a chat with the second mate, who will slip me a small box worth a few hundred thousand pounds. All I have to do is land it safely ashore in France. They are Ravali’s orders.”
“But… it’s not going to be easy…”
“You can say that again, Tommy,” Merlo, answered. “Interpol can’t help me this time; I’ll be watched too closely. I’ll have to do a genuine job of smuggling that can’t possibly be detected. And I have just the gadget to do it with.”
“Not that toy rocket ship you have been working on all week?” Tommy asked, pointing to the silvery tube that lay on the workbench.
The tube lay among a clutter of half-finished gadgets on the bench. For Merlo spent much of his time inventing, building and experimenting with contrivances that he used both for his act as a magician and his work as an Interpol agent. The gas ‘blow-pipe’ with which he had stopped the gangster’s knife attack at Ravali’s house had, in fact, been invented and built at this workbench.
“The very thing,” Merlo said, picking it up, “though it’s not a rocket ship. Here, hold it, and I’ll show you something.”
The tube was about two feet long, pointed at both ends, and had a tiny propeller and fins at the back. Tommy took it and held it unhappily. Merlo turned on some of his radio and electronic machines, and when the valves had warmed he pressed a button. The tiny propeller began to spin and whir, while the fins flapped up and down. Tommy was so surprised that he almost dropped the machine.
“Hey – it works!” He looked at it more closely. “I bet it’s a boat of some kind, and that it can go by itself in the water!”
“Right both times. Now help me pack these things up. My ship sails at eight in the morning.”
They parted at the club the next morning, and a taxi took Merlo and his single suitcase to the dock where the big, brightly-coloured King Hercules was tied up. There was only a small crowd, and within a few minutes he was through Customs and boarding the ship. He did not notice the two men who stood well back in the shadows of the shed and watched him climb the gang-plank. One of them glared at Merlo’s back, his fingers opening and closing on the knife in his pocket.
“Don’t get into any trouble, Tonio,” the other man warned. “This Merlo is pure poison.”
“He killed my friend,” Tonio snarled, “and I’m fixing him for that.”
“He’s tough – he’ll be hard to get.”
“I know what I’m doing. It’ll be two days before he can get to France in this tub. And I’m flying there at noon. When he tries to walk off that ship at Cannes, Signor Merlo is going to have a big surprise waiting for him…”
To be continued…