Spell of Magic – Part 10
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008
The Story So Far: Merlo, a stage magician, has joined a ruthless gang of smugglers to get evidence against them for Interpol, the international police. But now, in the headquarters of the sinister gang leader, The Duke, Merlo’s identity is revealed. He is trapped on the roof by an angry gang. Now read on…
Painful, tense seconds ticked by as Merlo stood at the edge of the roof, facing the leveled guns.
What Petritz said was true. A jump to the rocky ground far below would be suicide. Merlo caught a glint of water beyond the far wall of the house. There might be a way to dive into the sea on that side – but he would never reach the edge alive. He would be shot before he was half-way there.
“For once we agree, Petritz,” Merlo said, and forced his taut muscles to relax. He sat down slowly on the parapet. “The next move, I’m sorry to say, is yours.”
The big smuggler stepped forward, his fat cheeks suddenly burning with anger. His meaty hand lashed out. It hit Merlo full in the face, almost knocking him backwards off the parapet. Then the other hand struck before Merlo could regain his balance. When Merlo straightened up, the smuggler had stepped back again behind the protection of the guns. Merlo was helpless, and knew he was completely at the mercy of Petritz.
“That is my next move,” Petritz said. “A small sample of what is to come. The Duke wants certain information from you – and I am going to get it. By the time I am through, you will be wishing that you had made the other choice and jumped from this roof when you had the chance.” He waved the guards forward. “Take him to the cellars.”
Merlo waited for his chance, but there was none. The guards knew what they were doing. One kept his gun pointed while the other handcuffed Merlo’s wrists. Then they prodded him at gunpoint towards an open door farther down the roof. Stairs wound down and down, through the building and deep into the earth below. The plastered walls gave way to joined stone, crumbling and dusty with age. Petritz was waiting here, in the damp and musty cellar.
What followed was bad, worse than Merlo had ever imagined pain could be. There was very little Petritz did not know about the terrible art of torture. He worked hard, but he did not wring a single word from Merlo’s sealed lips. He asked about Interpol, who their agents were, and how much they knew about this diamond smuggling gang. But he got no answers. Merlo knew that men in pain will say things without meaning to, so he resolved to say nothing. Only once did he break this promise to himself, half-way through the endless night.
“Who is The Duke?” Merlo asked. “If he came here and asked the questions himself, I might give him some answers.”
“You are curious, aren’t you? You know you are going to die, but you would like the answer to this little mystery before you go. You shall not have it. The Duke does not choose to reveal himself to you – or even to me. You will talk, and you will die with your curiosity unsatisfied.”
But Merlo did not talk. That night seemed to go on for ever, yet he did not speak again. Other endless days and nights followed, when Merlo still stubbornly refused to speak.
“Well – it’s the third day,” one of the guards said, lighting a fresh cigarette. “I think you can torture this one for ever and he will never speak. He is that kind.”
“I think you are right,” Petritz agreed, dropping into a chair. “And I think The Duke knew that in advance. He ordered that if Merlo doesn’t talk this time, we’re to put him in the water cell.”
“Very good,” the guard nodded. “A very unpleasant kind of death. But we must be careful. He is a magician and an escape artiste, remember.”
Petritz nodded. “We will take his shoes, coat, belt – everything that might conceal trickery. We will empty his pockets. He will not escape.”
Handcuffed again, Merlo was dragged down another flight of stone steps, damp and slippery, smelling of the sea. The room below was hollowed out of the solid rock and Petritz pointed to a dark mark half-way up the wall.
“See that line? Down here, we are below the level of the sea – which will flow in through tunnels in the rock. At high tide, the water will reach to that mark. And you will be locked in the water cell which is lower than this floor. Can you imagine what will happen to you?”
Merlo did not bother to answer, nor did he resist when he was pushed across the stones to an opening in the floor. It was covered with a metal grille of thick bars, now held open by the other guard. Below was only blackness, unlit by the single bulb in the ceiling above. Merlo stopped at the edge of the opening, but Petritz laughed and gave him a shove.
“Goodbye, magician – goodbye for ever!”
Merlo struggled to keep his balance as he fell, to keep his legs beneath him and bend his knees for the shock. The water cell was at least 12 feet deep, but there was about 2 feet of water in it, which softened his landing. But he still fell hard, crashing into the water and stone below, struggling to his feet in spite of this new pain.
Above him, the metal grille crashed down and he heard the footsteps retreating across the room. He stood in the rising water, listening, hearing nothing from the chamber above. Only when he was sure he was absolutely alone did his lips separate. He laughed!
“I should thank you, Petritz – you and your boss,” he shouted up into the empty room. The echoes rolled. “You’re really being too kind – locking up an escape artiste in this simple way.” He laughed again, still weak with pain, but happy with the thought that there still might be a slim chance to escape alive.
The handcuffs were in the way and would have to go first. He carefully unbuttoned his shirt and reached up into his armpit. His groping fingers felt for the flesh-colored piece of sticking plaster that had escaped the notice of his searchers. He worked his fingernail under its edge and carefully tore it loose. Concealed beneath it was a tiny, steel lock-pick! It was only a tiny bit of curled, pointed metal, but, used skillfully, it would open any lock in a matter of seconds.
Deftly inserting it into the lock of the handcuffs, he probed a bit, then pushed and turned. There was a click… and the lock opened. The other hand was freed with the same speed.
“I’ll hold on to these,” he said to himself, stuffing the handcuffs into the top of his trousers. “They may be of some use later. And now I’ll just look around this water cell to see if there is anything else that might come in handy.”
He talked to himself to stay awake; to combat the tiredness that fogged his brain; to forget for a moment the bruises on his body, stung now by the salt water. The sea was rising swiftly, almost to his chest now. With his fingers, he made a search of the wall, feeling the floor with his feet at the same time. There was nothing. Just slippery rock and water. The metal grille that sealed the cell was far above. He could not reach it. After putting the lock-pick into his mouth so he would not lose it, he tried to climb the wall. There were tiny cracks between the blocks of stone – but they were not big enough. He managed to drag himself a few feet up the wall before his tired fingers could find no grip and he splashed back into the dark water below. It was up to his chin now.
“Just relax,” he told himself. “Tread water and float and the rising sea will carry me up to the level of the grille.”
The water flowed in slowly through unseen channels and he floated higher and higher. The grille was almost at his fingertips, but he made himself relax a few minutes more until he could grasp it easily. His fingers closed on a bar and he pulled his face to examine the lock, to see how to open it.
A pang of horror shot through him.
“A combination lock!” he gasped. There was no keyhole! It might take hours to open this lock.
And within a few minutes the water would rise and drown him.
To be continued…