Spell of Magic – Part 5
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008
The Story So Far: Seeking evidence for Interpol, Merlo joins a gang of diamond smugglers. Using an ingenious radio-controlled submarine, Merlo smuggles a consignment of jewels off a ship at Cannes. But when, under cover of night, he goes down to the shore to collect the sub and its cargo, he is followed by Tonio, one of the smugglers. Tonio strikes and – and Merlo crumples to the beach…
Merlo fought to escape the haze of red pain that was flooding his senses, but he could not. The blow on the head hadn’t knocked him out – but it had paralysed his body. When Tonio struck down with the knife he could only lie on the sand without moving, even when agony tore at his chest. In the darkness the blow had missed its mark, cutting his side and sliding from his ribs. But the next blow would not miss. The knife was raised and he could not force himself to roll out of its way.
A whistle shrilled suddenly, and running footsteps thudded on the hard-packed sand at the water’s edge. Tonio cursed, jumped and ran in the opposite direction with the precious package under his arm. The policeman who patrolled beaches at night hurried over to Merlo.
“Monsieur is hurt…?” He asked.
“No…” Merlo almost gasped the words. “Just knocked down… I’ll be all right. But stop that man – he stole my money… winnings from the Casino!” Merlo did not dare mention the stolen diamonds.
The whistle shrilled again and the police officer pounded into the darkness after the vanished Tonio. From the street a second whistle sounded as another policeman heard and joined the chase.
Merlo sat up groggily, angry with himself that he had allowed Tonio to follow him, outwit him and get the diamonds. Only the fact that a policeman had happened to be close by had prevented Tonio from killing him, too. Merlo had been over confident. He had thought that the tip-off to the Customs was the only danger that he had to face. He had let his guard down for an instant – and had lost the diamonds and almost his life as well.
That was over now. He dragged himself to his feet, ignoring the pain in his throbbing head, and touched the cut in his side. It was narrow and not too deep, and was not bleeding too much. He would just have to ignore it. In less than eight hours he would be meeting Petritz to give him the diamonds. If he did not have them by then he would be signing his own death warrant. If he told about Tonio’s attack he would not be believed. He had to get the diamonds back.
At a stumbling run he made his way down the beach after the policemen. Bit by bit his head cleared and he could think more clearly. He was surprised to find that he still clutched his portable radio.
The road turned to go around the yacht basin, and it was silent and empty.
“Stop and think!” Merlo said to himself, sinking down on to the sea-wall. “You can run all night and never catch Tonio. He has the entire city to hide in. Or has he?”
Merlo looked closely around at the empty street, the darkened yachts and boats tied in even rows, and at the black mouths of the side streets. Would Tonio, a stranger in this city, have run into these side streets, not knowing if they were dead ends or if other police were coming? The policemen seemed to think so; they were out of sight now. But Tonio could have hidden somewhere else.
On one of these boats or yachts?
The idea seemed a good one, and he had to put it to the test. Tonio would still be carrying the tiny, radio-controlled submarine until he had a chance to examine it and remove the diamonds. And the radio Merlo carried would control the tiny sub! The magician carefully set the controls on the transmitter and pressed the button that would start the sub’s electric motor.
From somewhere among the yachts there came a tiny, whining sound. Tonio was there! Silently Merlo slipped along the dock and pressed the button again. The sound was closer.
He must be careful. He was still weak, and Tonio was armed and deadly. Merlo had only one thing that might even be called a weapon. The jewel on the heavy signet ring he wore flipped open when he turned it. Inside was a glass globe containing tear-gas. With this he might even the odds.
A last touch on the radio control brought an answering buzz from the bow of a nearby yacht. Carefully putting down the radio, he swung on to the yacht. The glass ball of tear-gas was ready in his hands as he moved towards the dark bow.
Suddenly, footsteps hammered along the deck behind him and an iron-hard arm closed about his neck. He had been tricked! Tonio had known what the buzzing of the sub meant and had put it in the bow whilst he hid in the stern. His baited trap had worked!
With the last of his strength, Merlo turned and grasped the arm that was tightening on his neck like a band of iron. He held on, and both men staggered off balance and plunged from the deck into the water. Merlo had time for a single breath before they went under.
As a slum child of Naples, Tonio had grown up near the water and was a good swimmer. He smiled into the darkness and tightened his arm about Merlo’s throat. He would hold him under water until he was dead!
The idea should have worked – but long seconds passed and Merlo still struggled. Tonio, fighting for breath, pushed the other man away and made towards the surface. But they had drifted beneath the yacht, and instead of air his face met barnacle-covered wood. He fought to get out… fought and fought…
Merlo’s head broke out of the water and he gasped in a wonderful breath of air. Around him the water was smooth and unbroken. Tonio had met the death he had meant for his victim, Merlo. Really it was quite an ironical situation.
Tonio had been a good swimmer – but he had forgotten that Merlo was a professional magician. And one of Merlo’s most famous tricks had been an under-water escape from chains and locks. He had trained himself to hold his breath up to five minutes, if necessary. This training had saved his life yet again.
When some of his strength had returned, Merlo wearily dragged himself from the water and found the tiny sub. The diamonds were still there! He wrapped them in his handkerchief and sank the sub in the deep water at the other end of the basin. He would look strange enough in his battered and soaked condition, without carrying that around with him.
He rested while his clothes dried a bit, and did what he could to make himself look more normal. The police passed back by the yachts but did not see him in the shadows. When they were safely out of sight, he made his way by back streets to the servants’ entrance of the Majestic Hotel.
Once in his room, Merlo had a hot bath, shaved, dressed the sore spot on his head and the slash in his side. Then he lay down for some rest. It was almost dawn and Petritz would soon be there for the diamonds.
A distant knocking pulled him from a deep sleep, and he went yawning to the door. It seemed a little early for the expected visit of the agent of the smuggling ring. He opened the door.
The man in the hall was a stranger, a grim-looking one.
“My name is DuPont,” he announced, holding out an opened wallet with his identification. “I’m a detective. You had better let me in. I want to talk to you about smuggled diamonds.”
To be continued…