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…
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…