Archive for December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 5

13 December, 2008

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…

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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…

Spell of Magic – Part 4

12 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 4
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

The Story So Far: Stage magician Merlo is also an agent for Interpol. He has joined a gang of smugglers to collect evidence. The gang have ordered him to smuggle ashore a package from a liner on which he is traveling to Cannes…

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The two-day trip from Naples to Cannes should have been a holiday – but Merlo, could not shake off a nagging fear. Soon after the ship had cast off, the second mate slipped into Merlo’s cabin, handed him a paper-backed German thriller – and vanished.

The pages of the book were glued together. Merlo cut them apart, and took a handful of glittering cut diamonds from the hollowed-out inside.

Then he threw the book out of the porthole. Merlo would have relaxed then, but for the feeling that things were going too easily… that he was walking into the open jaws of a trap. When the ship dropped anchor at Cannes, he was glad that he did not have to walk ashore with the smuggled diamonds. In a matter of seconds, the mysterious torpedo-like device he had brought with him was unpacked and checked. The concealed motor spun the tiny propeller and the guiding vanes flipped up and down. Merlo opened its pointed nose and slipped the diamonds inside.

From the top of the machine sprang a length of insulated wire that vanished into a piece of bleached driftwood. A crooked piece of rusty wire stuck above the wood.

Merlo opened his porthole and looked out. There was no one at the rail above nor were there any boats in sight. Everyone would be at the other side of the ship watching the small boats come out from the shore for the passengers. It was only a moment’s work to let the little machine down into the sea on its length of wire – then throw the wood after it. Immediately, the torpedo-like device vanished, and only the innocent-looking piece of driftwood floated on the surface. It was weighted so that the rusty wire stuck straight into the air. Merlo, walked up to the deck. The shore boat was already loading with disembarking passengers. He stepped aboard, and a minute later was heading towards shore with the other passengers who were also landing at Cannes.

“Will you step in here, please?” an officer asked, waving to an office, as Merlo walked into the Customs shed.

Merlo’s eyebrows rose. “Why?” he asked. “All the other passengers are going right through.”

“A routine matter,” the officer murmured, touching his arm.

They had been speaking English, so the officer was caught off-balance when Merlo snapped a question at him in his own tongue, Provençal-accented French. Merlo’s voice was low.
“You have been tipped off about me?”

Looking at the man out of the corner of his eyes, Merlo saw him start as the barb sunk home. This, then, was the trap. The Customs had been tipped off that he might be smuggling.

The Customs men were experienced and complete, and the only reason they found no contraband was because Merlo was carrying none. They searched him and they searched his bag. They prised open the heels of his shoes, and even opened his transistor radio. Finally they offered polite apologies for the delay and called a cab to take him to the Hotel Majestic where he had reserved a room. Only when the cab had started and he was safely on his way did Merlo allow himself a small smile of victory. He had expected trouble and had found it. And he was sure he could look forward to more.

It arrived a moment after the pageboy had pocketed his tip and left the room. As Merlo locked the door, a man stepped from the bathroom and said: “I’ll take those diamonds now.”

Merlo did not answer or even look at the intruder until he had put his radio on the table and had walked across the room and opened the blinds.

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said, turning to face the man.

“The diamonds you just smuggled into this country. Give them to me.” The stranger raised a large automatic that was almost hidden in one great, meaty hand. He was fat and he was tall, and he bulged like a pear in the middle. Yet there was nothing of the funny fat man about him: the icy-blue eyes were as cold as death.

“Get out!” Merlo snapped.

“Only with the diamonds. You have ten seconds to hand them over. Then I shoot!”

“You do make it difficult,” Merlo sighed. “What would you do if I told you there was someone standing behind you with a gun pointed at your spine?”

“I’d laugh. That trick is so old it has whiskers!”

“Really?” Merlo, asked, raising his eyebrows. “Then we had better have a demonstration.” He clapped his hands together twice, sharply.

“Just freeze, or you’re dead,” a voice snapped behind the intruder. “Now raise your hands over your head… slowly!”

The fat man’s eyes bulged and his mouth gaped open. As he raised his hands over his head, Merlo reached out and took the gun from his limp, trembling fingers.

“Tell him not to shoot!” the man begged, his skin damp with sudden sweat. “I’m your contact man. Petritz is my name. The code word is blue summer. I was told to do this… to try to frighten you. Orders from upstairs. They wanted to see how well you would take care of the shipment.”

“I thought as much,” Merlo laughed. “You can relax. There’s no one here.”

“B… but the voice – I heard it behind me!” Petritz gasped, looking around at the empty room.

“Magic. Call it ventriloquism, if you like.”

Merlo had no intention of telling how the trick had been done. He had turned on the transistor radio when Petritz had first appeared… then deliberately stood on the other side of the room so the man would have his back to it. The two sharp hand-claps had been his signal, picked up by a sensitive microphone in the radio. This had turned on a tiny tape-recorder, hidden there, which had spoken the recorded speech. It was a useful gadget that had saved his life more than once.
“Can I have the diamonds now?” Petritz asked weakly, mopping at his damp face.

“Tomorrow. They are in a place where even the Customs guards could not find them when they searched me. Do you know anything about that? Someone must have told them.”

“No… but I’ll look into it. It sounds like they were tipped off. And that could only have been done by someone inside the organisation. This is bad. Will you have the diamonds in the morning?”

“Join me here for breakfast and I’ll turn them over to you,” Merlo replied.

Petritz, satisfied, hurried out. After unpacking, Merlo went down to the hotel restaurant and enjoyed a leisurely dinner. He was one step closer to his goal.

It was near midnight when he left the hotel, carrying his portable radio that contained so many secrets. After making sure that he was not being followed, he walked far out on La Croisette, the street that runs along the shore, until he came to one of the dark and deserted beaches. Standing at the water’s edge, Merlo raised the whip antenna on the radio, turned on the power and waited. A powerful signal beamed out from the little transmitter, and out in the bay his miniature submarine stirred to life. The rusty wire on the driftwood was really an excellent aerial, and it picked up his broadcast signal. The electric motor started, the screw turned, steering rudders flipped and the machine headed towards the shore.

It landed almost at Merlo’s feet and he had only to remove his sandals and wade out to get it. He wrapped it in paper he had brought for this purpose, so that it looked like a package bought in some tourist store.

“Now, I’ll just take those diamonds!” a voice gloated from the darkness, and the hulking form of Tonio appeared. The blade of the knife in his hand glittered viciously.

Merlo turned to escape the knife… and too late realised that he had been tricked. An iron bar in Tonio’s other hand crashed against Merlo’s head, knocking him to the sand. The package was torn from his hands and the knife plunged into his side like a finger of fire. Merlo groaned with agony.

“You kill my friend!” Tonio cried. “Now I kill you!”

To be continued…

Spell of Magic – Part 3

11 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 3
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

The Story So Far: Stage magician Merlo is determined to smash a dangerous international smuggling ring. His first step is to visit sinister Naples gang boss, Ravali. Pretending to be a smuggler himself, he asks to join the gang. But Ravali’s henchmen are suspicious. They close in on him, threateningly…

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The ring of killers closed in on Merlo, yet he sat calmly ignoring them! This bothered even these professional murderers and slowed them down for one vital moment.

“Don’t make any mistakes!” Merlo, said softly, yet the menace in his tone was unmistakable. “I didn’t come here to get knocked off. The first one that tries anything will die – I promise that!”

And while he talked, he stubbed out his cigarette and took a fresh one from his case.

One man ignored the warning. He pushed forward, carrying a long-bladed knife in his hand.

“You killed Gino,” he growled. “He was my friend. For that you die!”

“It was a fair fight,” Merlo replied grimly. “Gino tried to murder me – only I shot first. Be careful, or you’ll be joining him in the river.”

The man snarled in answer and leaped forward. But what happened next shocked everyone in the room.

“Then die!” Merlo snapped, and pointed his finger at his attacker. The man jerked to a halt, clutched his throat in sudden pain and fell to the floor. The knife dropped from his limp fingers and he did not move again.

“Anyone else want that?” Merlo asked, and no one moved. “Then clear out of here until I’m through. I have some things to talk to Ravali about.”

The rat-like leader nibbled his moustache for a moment, then nodded his head. His gangsters quickly left the room.

“He is not dead,” Merlo said, pointing to the body on the floor with his toe. “He’ll come to in a few hours.”

“But… but how did you do it?” Ravali asked, fear and amazement in his voice.

Merlo smiled. “Trade secret; you should never ask a magician how he does anything.”

As he talked he took a fresh cigarette from his case, at the same time slipping back into it the ‘cigarette’ he had just used. This was a white metal tube containing a tiny pressure tank of carbon-dioxide gas of the same sort that makes soda bottles fizz. In front of it was a plastic dart tipped with a strong drug. A squeeze on the tube projected the dart with a blast of gas. The dart had hit the would-be killer in the neck.

“I don’t suppose you are too sorry about losing Gino?” Merlo asked.

“Gino! I can hire a hundred like him by lifting a finger. And a killer who can’t kill is of no use to me,” Ravali replied.

“Just as I thought,” said Merlo, “which is why I was sure you wouldn’t have me killed if I came here. And you have the diamonds as proof of my good intentions. Now, can you use me? I can get diamonds into any country in the world for your organisation – and I’ll never be caught.”

“Yes… yes, we could use a reliable messenger,” Ravali mumbled over the thought, darting little glances at Merlo. “But I cannot decide myself. There are others, higher up. They will tell me. Stay in Naples and I will get in touch with you.”

Merlo left then, without any trouble, and found his assistant, Tommy Archer, waiting anxiously at the club.

The magician grinned at the sight of Tommy’s anxious face.

“Relax, Tommy! I’m as good as a member of the gang. They’ll try me out – and keep a close watch for any funny moves on my part. So we’ll just finish this run at the club, then enjoy the beaches on Capri until they make up their minds. It’s about time we had a holiday!”

But they never did. The same day their show closed, Merlo has a call from Ravali and went out for a luncheon conference. He returned in high humour, hurling his hat across the room to score a perfect landing on the light bulb over the mirror.

“Time to pack,” he said. “I’m going on a little sea voyage.”
“But what about me?” Tommy asked.

“You are going ahead by train with our props, and we’ll meet in Cannes, the pearl of the French Riviera. I’m going alone by ship, the King Hercules, which docks here tomorrow. She is on a cruise to Canada, but I’m only going as far as Cannes, a short, two-day trip. And while I’m on board I’ll have a chat with the second mate, who will slip me a small box worth a few hundred thousand pounds. All I have to do is land it safely ashore in France. They are Ravali’s orders.”

“But… it’s not going to be easy…”

“You can say that again, Tommy,” Merlo, answered. “Interpol can’t help me this time; I’ll be watched too closely. I’ll have to do a genuine job of smuggling that can’t possibly be detected. And I have just the gadget to do it with.”

“Not that toy rocket ship you have been working on all week?” Tommy asked, pointing to the silvery tube that lay on the workbench.

The tube lay among a clutter of half-finished gadgets on the bench. For Merlo spent much of his time inventing, building and experimenting with contrivances that he used both for his act as a magician and his work as an Interpol agent. The gas ‘blow-pipe’ with which he had stopped the gangster’s knife attack at Ravali’s house had, in fact, been invented and built at this workbench.

“The very thing,” Merlo said, picking it up, “though it’s not a rocket ship. Here, hold it, and I’ll show you something.”

The tube was about two feet long, pointed at both ends, and had a tiny propeller and fins at the back. Tommy took it and held it unhappily. Merlo turned on some of his radio and electronic machines, and when the valves had warmed he pressed a button. The tiny propeller began to spin and whir, while the fins flapped up and down. Tommy was so surprised that he almost dropped the machine.

“Hey – it works!” He looked at it more closely. “I bet it’s a boat of some kind, and that it can go by itself in the water!”

“Right both times. Now help me pack these things up. My ship sails at eight in the morning.”

They parted at the club the next morning, and a taxi took Merlo and his single suitcase to the dock where the big, brightly-coloured King Hercules was tied up. There was only a small crowd, and within a few minutes he was through Customs and boarding the ship. He did not notice the two men who stood well back in the shadows of the shed and watched him climb the gang-plank. One of them glared at Merlo’s back, his fingers opening and closing on the knife in his pocket.

“Don’t get into any trouble, Tonio,” the other man warned. “This Merlo is pure poison.”

“He killed my friend,” Tonio snarled, “and I’m fixing him for that.”

“He’s tough – he’ll be hard to get.”

“I know what I’m doing. It’ll be two days before he can get to France in this tub. And I’m flying there at noon. When he tries to walk off that ship at Cannes, Signor Merlo is going to have a big surprise waiting for him…”

To be continued…

Spell of Magic – Part 2

10 December, 2008

Spell of Magic – Part 2
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

The Story So Far: Merlo is a stage magician who plays a double role in life. Along with his assistant, a tiny ex-jocky called Tommy Archer, he works as a secret agent for Interpol. They have been following the trail of a gang of diamond smugglers all the way from Africa to Italy. Merlo breaks into a meeting of the smugglers in Naples and steals a shipment of diamonds. He and Tommy are examining them in their dressing-room when the door bursts open and one of the smugglers stands there. He fires at Merlo – point-blank! Now read on…

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But the gunman had made a single mistake – he had taken the time to talk, to say that he was going to kill Merlo. Even as his finger tightened on the trigger, the two men he meant to be his victims were going into action. They were used to working together on the stage, and in danger, and they moved at the same time.

Tommy threw his small weight against the partly-open door, jarring the gunman. Merlo hurled himself sideways from the chair, rolling as he hit the floor. The gun barked loudly and one lead slug ripped through the chair where Merlo had just been sitting, and the other whirred by his head and dug a hole in the wall. The gunman cursed and shifted his aim – but there was no third shot. Even though he was lying on his back on the floor, Merlo was far from helpless. He was well-practised in the French form of boxing known as la savate. In savate the feet are used as well as the fists.

Fast as a striking snake, his foot lashed out and the sharp toe of his shoe caught the gunman’s wrist. The man grunted with pain and the automatic spun away through the air. As the would-be killer jumped after the gun, Merlo seized him.

“I’ll kill you!” the gunman grated through his teeth, fighting to free himself. “You can’t buck the gang…”

“We’ll see about that,” Merlo answered grimly. “Get my cigarette case from my coat, Tommy. It’s time for our friend here to take a nap.”

“I dig you!” Tommy gave the struggling man a wicked grin and slipped Merlo’s slim cigarette case from his pocket. It was made of platinum and should have held nothing more than the lighter and cigarettes. Yet, when Tommy pressed a concealed button, a small, liquid-filled plastic globe fell into his hand.

“Know what this is?” he asked, holding it before the gunman’s face.

Before the man could answer, Tommy squeezed – the thin skin broke and a cool liquid ran out, turning instantly to gas. Both Merlo and Tommy were holding their breath, but the unknowing prisoner took one lungful of the vapour, struggled for an instant and fell limp. Merlo laid him on the floor.

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“You can breathe again, Tommy – after fifteen seconds in the air the sleeping gas loses its power. Now the problem is, what do we do with sleeping beauty here?”

“He knows we work for Interpol!”

“Exactly. Therefore, Interpol will have to take care of him.”

Tommy locked the door while Merlo took down from the shelf an ordinary-looking transistor radio. Merlo had rebuilt it completely and, in addition to receiving programmes, it contained a compact transmitter. The plastic grille slipped off and revealed a hidden set of controls and a telegraph key. Merlo tapped out a brief signal, waited until it was answered, then sent a longer message in code.

“That takes care of our gunman,” he said, changing the radio back to its normal guise. “The local Interpol operator will pick him up and deliver him to a special prison where he will be held until this case is over. He will be allowed to contact no one, so that he can’t give us away to his smuggling friends. You wait here until he is picked up.”

“Where will you be?”

“Visiting the gang! The time has come for us to get much closer to them if we are to find anything out about the secret diamond-cutting operation. I’m going to try to join them!”

Merlo’s rented car spun him quickly out of the city and down the autostrada along the Bay of Naples. Within minutes, he turned off at the small town of Torre del Greco. Ravali, the sinister leader of the gang, lived in a high-walled house here that seemed to be the local headquarters for the smugglers. Merlo had followed him here and noted the barbed wire, armed guards and vicious dogs that guarded it. He chose the easiest and simplest way to get in – the front door. He rang the bell. A surly-looking servant finally answered and said that Ravali could not see him. Merlo ignored this, and passed an envelope through the barred window in the door.

“Give this to Signor Ravali. He’ll see me.”

The envelope contained two of the smuggled diamonds and it worked like a charm. Within a minute the door was thrown open and two toughs – with their hands on suspicious bulges in their jackets – ushered him inside. Ravali slumped in a chair, looking more like a grey rat than ever as he plucked at his moustache, in a room filled with smoke and his bodyguards. It looked as though Merlo was interrupting an emergency meeting of the gang.

“Who are you?” Ravali snapped.

“The name is Merlo,” he said, coolly taking a cigarette and tapping it lazily on his thumb nail. “Even you should have heard of me.”

“I know him,” one of the men growled. “He’s a tin-pot magician – plays the night clubs.”

“Where did you get these?” Ravali asked, holding up the diamonds from the envelope.

“Out of this box with the others,” Merlo answered calmly, and threw the box on the table. The cover flew open and a fortune in glittering gems spilled out. The silence in the room was so thick it could have been cut with a knife.

“Where did you get them?” Ravali breathed, gaping at the diamonds he had thought lost forever.

“From your room at the hotel. I have been following the messenger who brought them to you. I recognised him on the boat. I do a good bit of smuggling myself. As a magician I find it really very simple to conceal things – even from customs officers. When I’m not smuggling goods, I like to relieve other smugglers of their goods. They rarely complain to the police.”

“Why are you telling me this? Why did you bring the diamonds back?” Ravali rasped, his fingertips inside his coat, touching his gun.

“Because I’m not a fool. I’ll buck lone wolves and small-time smugglers. But I’m not going to buck a large organisation like yours. I would rather join it. That way, there will be a larger profit for both of us. You can use me – and I can use your money!”

An angry mumble went around the room, and Ravali leaned back and scratched his jaw. “Something might be possible,” he began. Then a voice interrupted him.

“Wait a minute, Ravali!” One of the gunmen from the hotel room lumbered forward. “What happened to Gino? If this Merlo hijacked our shipment, he must be the one Gino followed. He just had time to tell me that he was following someone from the hotel – then he left. He ain’t back yet. Where is he? Ask this guy!”

All eyes were on Merlo. The magician relaxed and blew a perfect smoke-ring. The mystery of the vanishing gunman would have to be faced some time, best to get it over with now.

“Was his name Gino? I never found out. He followed me to the club and tried to kill me. That has been tried before… always with the same results. Gino is dead.”

“He killed Gino!” one of the men gasped, then in instant anger: “Kill him!”

Their guns were out now, and shining knife-blades as well. A ring of death was closing in on Merlo, yet he never flinched.
     
“Kill him!” they shouted.

 

To be continued…

Merlo, The Magician

9 December, 2008

In the run up to Christmas I thought we’d do something a little different, so over the next 13 days I’m going to post a serial by Harry Harrison which originally appeared in the British comic Boy’s World in 1963. It’s a cliffhanger in the old tradition, with plenty of action, reminiscent of the Stainless Steel Rat series.

The complete story runs to around 20,000 words, which is about a third of a 1960s novel!

Harry wrote another two Merlo, the Magician stories for Boy’s World which were in comic format. The series was then, I think, continued by Ken Bulmer.

Spell of Magic was the first Merlo story, and in Harry’s original manuscript the character was actually named Merlin, but as Harry recalled in an interview: “They changed the name to Merlo: they didn’t want to defame the name of Merlin!”

 

Spell of Magic – Part 1

by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008

 

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Merlo sat with one leg dangling over the ten-storey drop to where the ocean lashed the jagged rocks below. In his hand he held a thin thread, woven from one of the new miracle plastics. In another moment, Merlo’s life would be hanging from it. The knot where he had tied the thread to the radiator inside his hotel room held firm when he put his weight against it. It would do.

Carefully, so that no sudden jerk would come on the strand, he eased himself out of the window until he was hanging from the sill by one tanned and muscled hand. Then, very carefully, he loosened his fingers so that his weight shifted to his other hand, and on to the strange gun-like device he held there. It had a stirrup-shaped handle that he held and a round case above, out of which came the gleaming strand of thread. He hung from the handle now, his feet swinging free over the blackness of that awful drop. Below, in the Bay of Naples, he could hear the pounding of the waves. Merlo ignored it, concentrating all his attention on the thin thread from which he hung. It had a breaking strength of three hundred pounds … and any sharp tugs might snap it. He gently pushed a button on the handle and the reel inside began to turn, letting out more thread. Slowly, he dropped down the smooth wall of the hotel.

(more…)

Take That, You Alpha Centaurian Swine!

8 December, 2008

The best article I have ever read on hand-to-hand combat in space was written by Harry Harrison and published in the fanzine Amra.” – Frederik Pohl

I’ve mentioned before that coincidence seems to play a large part in tracking down the more obscure items written by Harry Harrison. I came across the above quote, in Pohl’s autobiography The Way the Future Was; it refers to an article by Harry Harrison that I’d never seen.

A quick search on Google revealed that the article was titled ‘Take That, You Alpha Centaurian Swine!’ and was published in the October 1967 issue of Amra. Google also showed that a collection of back issues of the fanzine had sold in the recent past for megabucks. Not much chance of getting hold of a copy then.

But a couple of months later I was going through a box of Harry’s papers and came across the original typescript and Harry’s accompanying sketches.

I’m not sure what the illustrations in Amra were like – but here I’m posting the article with the author’s own sketches.

And, coincidentally, I was OCRing some of Harry’s short stories last week, and had ‘No War, Or Battle’s Sound’ on the scanner. As I was fixing the text I noticed that the weapons described in the story had a familiar ring to them. That story was published in 1968.

Here then is – probably – the best article ever on hand-to-hand combat in space. And if anyone wants to take up Harry Harrison’s challenge at the end of the article – forty-odd years after he made it – then you can do so by leaving your comments here.

If anyone has the original issue of Amra, then please get in touch, as I’d like to see a scan of it.

 

Take That, You Alpha Centaurian Swine!
by Harry Harrison

The general level of weaponry in hand-to-hand space battling is very depressing. All of the invention seems to have been done by E.E. Smith a few generations back, and the authors who came along later have been happy to use Doc’s armory without modification. The names may be changed, but call it what you will – it is still Van Buskirk’s space axe that crunches through the helmet.

And what about that space axe? As described by the immortal Doc even the iron-thewed Van couldn’t have done much damage with it in a null-G situation. You only have to think of all the complex tools that have been designed to turn nuts and bolts in space – without having the operator turn in the opposite direction – to realize what would happen when that mighty axe was swung.

I have brooded on this problem, and the possibilities of new weaponry in space, and present the results here. They are free for all to use, I ask only that authors retain the names I have assigned so I can enjoy a bit of egoboo.

Firstly that axe. It will have to become a Power Axe that will operate independently of gravity. To all appearances a normal axe, it has a power source concealed in the haft and four small jets located in the tip beyond the blade. The only pressure required to swing it is the pressure of a fingertip on a switch.

power-axe
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Exclusive News – New Stainless Steel Rat Book!

3 December, 2008

Here’s a piece of great news just in from Harry Harrison — he’s writing a new Stainless Steel Rat book!

At the end of The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus he wrote ‘The End?’ so we weren’t sure there’d be another one, but now we know.

The Stainless Steel Rat Returns will be published in the US by Tor, hopefully before the end of 2009. So far only the opening chapter has been written. No news yet on UK or Russian editions, but it will only be a matter of time before they’re announced, I’m sure.


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