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