Spell of Magic – Part 11
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008
The Story So Far: Merlo the magician has astounded audiences with his skill as an escape artiste. Now, trapped in a cell, with the water level rapidly rising, Merlo needs all his skill to escape from the dungeon before he is drowned. Merlo has been exposed as a police spy to the gang of smugglers he has tried to join. This is their vengeance. Now read on…
Merlo’s fingers slipped from the rusty iron of the bar and he slid back into the dark water of the cell.
“I’m not finished yet!” he thought to himself, and his fingers probed the waistband of his trousers. He had a number of interesting devices concealed in his clothing, and the searchers had not found them all. With the lock-pick he tore open the stitches that sealed the waistband, and his probing fingers pulled out a two-foot length of stiff wire with a loop at either end. This was his last ace. If it didn’t work, he would drown.
This was no ordinary piece of wire, but a surgical tool known as a Gigli saw. Tiny teeth had been cut into the hard metal, turning it into a saw blade that could cut in any direction. It would cut easily through bone and, given enough time, it could saw through iron or mild steel. But was there time? Merlo did not even dare to think about that.
Treading water, he looked up at the grille. The combination lock was concealed behind a metal plate and there was no way to get at it. He might be able to get the saw next to the bolt of the lock, but this was sure to be made of hardened steel and impossible to cut. The hinges! These were two simple rings set into the stone. If he could cut through them, the grille could be lifted free.
Reaching the grille was easier this time, for the rising water in which he swam was almost up to its level. It was easy enough to get the Gigli saw around the hinge pin – but he needed three hands!
“There has to be an answer! I need two hands to use the saw – and at least one more hand to hold on with…”
For a long moment the answer escaped him – until he remembered the handcuffs. Quickly snapping one of the cuffs around his wrist he locked the other one on to a bar of the grille. It hurt, but he could hang from it. And the water held up part of his weight. With slow, strong movements he began pulling back and forth on the blade and it sank slowly into the thick iron.
But had he enough time? He tried to ignore the rising water. Panic would only make death certain – and he had to keep his sawing even and firm.
Slowly, painfully slowly, he worked on. The handcuff chafed his wrist… and his strength was failing. How long could he hold out?
The water reached his chin and the first bar still held. He could no longer see what he was doing, since he had to keep his face pressed through the bars in order to breathe. His moving arms raised waves that washed salt water into his mouth and over his nose.
Then the saw was suddenly loose in his hands – he was through! When he pushed upwards, the end of the grille lifted. But it was still held by the other hinge and the lock.
Racing against the rising tide, Merlo freed his arm from the handcuff and filled his lungs with air. Then he lowered himself below the water, braced hands and feet against the edge of the pit and pushed up against the bars with his back. Harder and harder, until fire tore at his muscles and his lungs ached…
The lock twisted out of its seat and the grille crashed open. Weakened but victorious, Merlo climbed out of the water-filled cell. Water washed over his ankles as he waded towards the stairs. A half-minute more in the cell and he would have been drowned. Silently, he climbed the stone steps and looked carefully into the room above.
“Empty – except for my clothes!” he breathed, in a delighted whisper.
Most of his gadgets had been taken when the guards had emptied the pockets, but some remained. There was a slight tell-tale bump in the thin shoulder-pad of his jacket, and he opened the seam and squeezed a tiny camera into his hand. It was no bigger than a matchbox, yet the fast film with which it was loaded would take a clear picture in any light – even that of a single candle. The case was waterproof and shockproof, and the camera in perfect working order. He dressed quickly and bounced the tiny camera in his hand.
“Now to get a little evidence. If I get out of this den alive, I want to be able to come back with the police and clean it out.”
Silently as a ghost, he went up the stairs. Luck was on his side in the deserted hallways. He met no one as he climbed. Two floors above he recognized a doorway. He slipped through it into the room where he had first been left. It was empty, and once more he made the leap between the close balconies.
But this time there was no one to observe him as he stood outside the window and watched the busy, native diamond cutters at work on smuggled gems. The camera blinked silently as he took careful pictures of the scene. With this film, Interpol would have a perfect case.
Now to find a way out of the building. The shortest way out was from the room where The Duke talked to his men through his TV and radio apparatus. The door was still halfway off its hinges. Through the opening, he could hear the familiar, muffled tones of The Duke.
Merlo risked a single quick look into the room. Four men faced the curtain, their backs to him, receiving instructions about a shipment of diamonds. While he memorized the orders, Merlo held the camera at the opening and took a quick picture. More evidence against The Duke and his gang.
Then the curiosity bug hit him. If The Duke was talking to his men, he must be in the control room. Merlo could see him – find out who he was! It was almost like suicide to go farther into the building, but The Duke’s identity would be the final piece of evidence needed to close this case. Even though he was running a terrible risk, Merlo knew that he had to do it!
A minute’s search found the door to the other wing of the building, and there, before him, was the door he had last seen standing open – the door to the control room. The Duke would be inside. He tried the knob gently, it was unlocked. He turned it
“It’s Merlo! Get him!”
An instant after the shout, a gun was fired and the bullet screamed down the hall. It did not find its mark. Merlo moved at the first sound and was already away from the door and on to the stairs. Someone was coming up from below, so he had to climb. He ran.
There were shouts from below, and the heavy thud of feet coming after him. Ignoring his fatigue and the pain of his aching body, he climbed. He forced his tired muscles to run at top speed. And he stayed ahead of his pursuers. The roof door was ahead.
A man stepped through it, his gun raised and pointing at Merlo’s chest.
Merlo hit him, putting all the weight of his body behind a pile-driver punch to the jaw. He had no time to fight, just time for one blow. The man sagged and Merlo was jumping over the fallen body even before it had hit the stairs. The roof ahead was empty. Merlo’s hope rose, but his nerves were tingling.
There was a desperate choice to be made. Merlo might find one of the other stairways and go back into the building. Yet he felt in his bones that this would be suicide. He was unarmed and one man against countless others. Was there another way off the roof? He remembered the brief sight of the sea he had had several days before. Could he reach it? He ran for the far edge of the roof.
Far, far below the ocean frothed white as it washed over the fanged rocks of the bay. Could anyone possibly survive such a drop and still have the strength to swim away? Could he dive and miss the rocks? Was the water deep enough to cushion his fall?
Voices roared behind him – dangerously close – he knew he had no choice.
To be continued…