The wind came down the valley like a drunken giant amok. It slashed a path as if in pure berserk fury. On it rode stinging, blinding sheets of rain. Over its gusts lightning sliced jagged scars in the black heavens. Over it all was the colliding crash of thunder with the pistol-like reports of snapped-off trees puncturing it. In short, it was one hell of a night. And Charley Fringle was right smack out in it looking at the flat tire on his left forward wheel.
Rain water used the brim of his hat as a gutter. His coat hung on him like a wet paper bag. Water oozed from his shoes. His jack was jammed. And driving with that flat on the tortuous slick of high-crowned road was beyond all question. He hauled his pot-bellied body back to the rear door of the sedan and stuck his head in at his wife and sister-in-law.
"We're stuck, girls. I'll go up the line and see if I can find a telephone. Maybe a garage — " The wind stuffed the rest of it back flown his throat. He sloshed off.
Luck was with him. A few hundred yards on the patch of woodland ended. Set back from the road in the clearing was a sprawling white house.
Even as Fringle wondered if anybody was at home, wan light seeped through the shade of a ground-floor window. He stumbled up the path hemmed in by wet shrubbery and onto the tiny porch like a cavern beneath the overhanging eaves. He pushed the bell twice with no response. A shutter on his right moaned and he almost jumped out of his skin. Lightning gashed the night and Pringle noted the window inside the shutter was broken.
He rang a third, a fourth time, then beat on the door with his fist. He took a couple of steps backward to call out, "Hey, is anybody home? Is anybody — " Then he realized the big front door was opening.
It was black as a pit inside beyond it. Fringle couldn't see anybody there but the door kept opening. A guarded voice said, "What do you want?"
"My car's stuck down the road and I'd like to use your telephone, if you — "
"Phone's out of order," snapped the unseen one at the door. "No phone."
Then the lightning Masted away the rain-shot blackness again like a magnesium explosion to reveal the figure inside. He was a little shrunken piece of man with a long sallow face and big sad eyes. A wild shock of white hair capped his head.
At first Fringle thought he had but one arm. The man stood sort of sideways, the rear arm twisted back behind his body. He stood too with his head out-thrust like a suspicious animal sniffing.
"Say," Fringle said in desperation. "I've got two women folk with me. Do you suppose we could come in for a little while?"
The guarded air fell away from the little man.
"Women folk … . Why sure, sure you can come in. mister. Get 'em and come right along. Welcome, welcome."
His little creaking voice rose shrilly on the last.
Charley Fringle groped back down the path with relief, bent against the raking sheets of rain. He never saw the hulking figure coming the other way until they collided. Both grappled blindly in the storm and almost crashed into the bushes.
"Why the hell don't you look where you're going?" the other bigger man snorted as he punched foliage out of his face. "See here, can you fix me up with a room and some dry clothes and something to eat? Charge what you like — I know what you natives are. I'll pay," he added pompously.
"I don't own the place," Charley Fringle said apologetically, awed by the other's manner and towering size. "I'm stuck up the road and just stopped here myself. But the owner seems like a nice little man. He's letting me come in. So — "
The other swore as the wind ripped open his rubber poncho and snorted again. "I guess he'll let me in. I'm J. G. Nordley — Nordley Plastic Process, you know."
Charley Fringle was really awed then. Everybody knew the Nordley Plastic outfit. Million dollar stuff, that outfit. Charley thought of how when he got home he would tell the boys in the office about meeting J. G. Nordley on his trip. He put out his hand hesitantly, starting to introduce himself. There was a clap of thunder as if something had bombed Heaven and Nordley wanted to know what the devil they were waiting for.
Charley Fringle told about his women down the road and led the way back to the car. Ella, his wife, stepped out and smack into six inches of puddle.
"You would stop right here in a small lake!" she shrilled at Charley. She was a big-bosomed woman with the general air of a battleship at action stations.
Charley said, "Yes, dear," spat out half a gallon of rain water and searched a door pocket for his flashlight. When he found it the battery was so weak it couldn't throw a beam two feet.
Maisie, Ella's sister, had spotted the extra male and was hurriedly applying fresh war paint by the tonneau light. A downpour of brimstone and ashes would have held no terrors for Maisie with a loose male on the scene. She was a dyed blond, over thirty, and thought she was kitten-ish! But when a crashing tree slapped the road a few yards behind, limbs brushing the car, she bolted out of it with a squeal like a speared pig and used some very strong language.
They slogged their way back to the house with Charley plodding ahead and locating the puddles for them by floundering into them.
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It's Got A Sort of Haunted Look
"Charles!" declared Ella icily, "I think you might have selected a more inviting place! It's — it's got a sort of haunted look and — "
She choked. A yellow beam had shot out across the porch to their feet as they panted up the steps. It was the little man with a flashlight though he remained invisible. It might have been an unholy ray from the maw of a tomb.
''Come in, come in, ladies and gentlemen," his apparently disembodied voice carried weakly to them. Charley Fringle hesitated but Ella gave him a prod that sent him stumbling over the threshold. "Go right into the library. Into the library, down the hall to the left," said the little man with that dry echo of a voice. The hall was pitch black.
The four fumbled their way along and found their way into the library. It was a high-ceiled old-fashioned room, the walls panelled halfway up. The light from two small table lamps alone broke the dimness of it. The shades were drawn at all windows with heavy drapes pulled across as well. There was a constant drip-drip sound. It came from the fireplace where water drained down the chimney into the charred logs of a long-dead fire.
Nordley shed his poncho and hat and strode around in an expensive pair of slacks and a windbreaker, massaging his hands. They were huge big-knuckled things, those hands, furred with hair. He had been at a fishing camp way up at the head of the valley, he told all and sundry. Started out down the river with a guide in the boat. Late in the afternoon, the guide wanted to put into shore, insisting a big storm was coming up.
"I got tired of arguing with him, put him ashore and fired him on the spot," Nordley announced importantly, He had come on alone. The storm hit him. He was capsized in a shallow spot and waded ashore. He had pushed up the side of the valley until he found Fringle and this house.
"Which proves my point," he snorted. "If that damfool guide hadn't lost his nerve, with two men paddling, we'd have made it through easily!"
"Of course, Mr. Nordley,". yesmanned Charley Fringle.
"You outdoor men simply awe little me, Mr. Nordley." simpered sister-in-law Maisie.
"Nice night for a murder, isn't it?"
Their host stood in the doorway, rubbing his long white hands together gently with a slithering sound. He wore baggy black clothes that seemed a couple of sizes too big for him.
"Nonsense," snorted Nordley, "no murderer would come out on a night like this! My man, how about getting together some food for us and something to drink — something hot maybe."
The little man bowed his shock of white hair, closed his sad eyes. "I'm so sorry. But the servants are off tonight."
"Charley, I'm cold. This place is like a grave," announced Ella Fringle, huddled on the divan. She shuddered as the wind seemed to rock the house. Lightning licked at the windows, seeming to make the shades transparent.
"Yes, dear," said Charley. "Uh — Mister — uh — mis — "
"Reaper is the name," said the little man.
"Grim Reaper, eh? Ha-ha!" snorted Nordley.
"He-he," said Mr. Reaper. "I'll remember that."
"Could we have a fire, Mr. Reaper? Maybe if I helped you — uh — well — " Charley stumbled.
Mr. Reaper ran a sorrowful eye up the chimney. ''I'm sorry — but — but there was some trouble with the chimney last week. It hasn't been fixed yet. But — maybe you'd like a drink, a nice stiff one."
He winked knowingly.
"One to keep the worms out of the coffin. Yes."
He moved across the room, picking up their wet coats en route, and went out a door leading to the rear. He didn't make any noise when he walked.
"What does he mean, keep the worms out of the coffin?" Nordley snorted. He tapped his forehead significantly. "Weak-minded, probably. A harmless old fool — Say, this place is kind of creepy. I — "
"Let's have some music!" said Maisie, jumping up with feigned vivacity. "Let's have a party! Drinks and music. We'll probably shock the old coot out of his shoes. Let's cut a rug, boys and girls!" She undulated over to the radio. "I'll bet you shake a mean rhumba, Mr. Nordley."
She twisted the dials and found a swing band. A crooner was holding forth on "Black Magic." Pouting her over-carmined lips in what she thought was a provocative manner, Maisie held out her arms to Mr. Nordley.
"Sit down, Charley," snapped Ella Fringle. "You know you can't do anything but waltz like a sick cow. You — "
"One moment please, folks," said the station announced, interrupting the music. "A special news flash has just come in — Warning to all residents in the Piscan Valley district. … Warning — "
"That's right here where we are, Charley," said Ella.
"Yes, dear," said Charley.
"Warning," went on the radio. "Joseph 'Death' Mantas, homicidal maniac, escaped today while being taken to the State Insane Asylum when the car in which he and officers were riding struck a tree. Death Mantas dragged the unconscious officer, to whom he was handcuffed, off into the woods and killed him. The police of two counties and State officers have thrown out a dragnet but, as yet, have picked up no trace of the maniac killer. Mantas is well armed. I repeat that, ladies and gentlemen … . Death Mantas is well armed. He was nicknamed 'Death' because he is prone to talk about it as he is about to strike down a victim. Now here is an official police teletype description of Death Mantas. He — "
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The Lights Went Out
That bolt of lightning seemed to knife right through the sides of the houses. There was an ear-shattering crash of thunder that rattled the roof over them. And the lights went out. Just before they did, Charley Fringle saw Mr. Reaper standing in the doorway with a tray of drinks in one hand. He was standing twisted a little around with the rear arm out of sight behind him as he had been when Charley first came to the house.
Nordley roared, "Where's my leather jacket? I had a gun in it," forgetting that their host had taken their wet garments into the kitchen with him.
The lights flickered and then came on. Mr. Reaper was standing over by the radio. He stooped and fussed with the dials and nothing happened. Mr. Reaper made an impotent gesture.
"I'm afraid that last bolt blew out something in the radio," he said sadly. "I'm so sorry. But, come now. We'll all have a nice drink. There's nothing to worry about. You know, folks, the old saying." He moved around, passing the drinks and smiling childishly. "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. He-he."
Chatley Fringle shuddered. They were just getting their glasses to their mouths when the pounding came at the front door. Ella Fringle gave a little gasp and fell back on the divan. Maisie grabbed Nordley's arm. Charley Fringle looked around wildly, and then grabbed up the poker from beside the fireplace. The pounding came again, with redoubled force above the wind. Mr. Reaper, rubbing his pale hands softly, had glided to the very back of the room.
There was a sudden lull in the storm and Nordley bellowed, "Wh-who's out there?"
"It's me, Ed Purling, police officer from the town!" came from the porch. "Half drowned, too! I got — "
The wind sucked .away the rest.
Nobody moved for a moment. Nordley stood with his huge hands working, fingers hooking up. Then Charley Fringle saw his wife nod and went out into the hall to the door.
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Plumb Forgot My Badge
Purling came striding in, a big man in an olive-green slicker gleaming with rain. His face fell when he saw no fire in the hearth.
"Been out watching the roads for that escaped homicidal killer, Mantas," he said as he got out of his coat. He wasn't a tall man but was built like a bull with a heavy torso. He looked as if he could break a human being over his knee. He went on telling how a tree was down across the road and he couldn't get through to town. But the others in the room scarcely heard. Their eyes were locked on his armament as he unpeeled an undercoat. He had a gun in a hip holster, another rigged in a shoulder sling. The butt of a third protruded from a rear pocket.
He stared around slowly, studying them. Charley Fringle took a step backward instinctively when he was the target for those eyes. One of them had a cast in it that gave it a peculiarly wild look.
Purling said, "All strangers, eh…. Well, don't worry. Like I said, I'm the police officer from Wakill. My badge — '' He pulled his coat back from his flannel shirt to indicate it. The shirt was bare of ornament. Purling looked down and chuckled. That chuckle had a nasty cold ring to it. "Heck of a policeman I am. Plumb forgot my badge … "
Ella Fringle caught her breath with a trembling gasp. Charley Fringle looked around to where he had laid down the poker six feet away.
"All strangers," said Purling again. "Say, where's Joe Bannard? The owner, I mean. I saw him take a train to the city this morning. But he said he'd be back tonight and — "
"He's drunk," said Mr. Reaper gently.
"He — what-t? Say, I never saw Joe take more'n one drink in my life. Why — "
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A Little Prayer
Mr. Reaper smiled in a vague way, tittering a little.
"You've never been with Joe when he gets to the city, I guess, Officer. You should have heard him on the phone tonight — that was before it went out of commission … ."
"Oh." Purling whistled with surprise. A fresh onslaught of rain hit the side of the house like machine gun fire. "You're a friend of his, I reckon."
Mr. Reaper inclined his white head.
"Speaking of drinks, I think you better have one to stave off a cold. A man has one foot in the grave when he catches a cold."
He came forward, offering his own glass.
Maisie let out a little scream.
"I thought I heard someone at the window," she half sobbed, on the verge of hysteria.
Nordley scowled at Mr. Reaper.
"We've got women here! Do you have to sound like an undertaker every time you open your mouth, man?"
Mr. Reaper said he was very sorry.
Purling guffawed. "Don't worry, folks, I'm here even if I ain't got my badge. Or maybe some of you got me figured for that Mantas guy, huh? Har-har!"
Nordley had moved over beside the fire poker Charley Fringle had laid on the scuttle on the hearth.
"Haha! Why I could be Mantas, myself. I could have just said I was on a fishing trip. And, after all, I can't identify myself since I lost my wallet when the boat capsized. I — hey, Reaper, what was that noise in the kitchen? The back door locked?"
"Charley — do something!" sniffed Ella Fringle.
"Let us keep calm, everybody, please," said Mr. Reaper. "Perhaps if we all said a little prayer — "
Ella Fringle nodded eagerly.
"Yes, yes. That's a good idea."
She signed to Charley and he nodded.
Mr. Reaper laid a hand on his chest.
"Dear Lord God above," he began. A long-drawn rumble of thunder blotted out his voice. " — and we who walk in the valley of death," his words came through as the thunder ebbed, "shall have no fear."
He asked the Almighty to look over them for they were sinners who had sinned. They were not worthy but could God, in his great mercy, spare them from the destruction and damnation of His righteous anger, Mr. Reaper said. They were but the sons of mortals, doomed to return to the bowels of the earth when they had come, but would praise Him with their last breath, Mr. Reaper promised.
It was a nice prayer but a little depressing.
"Ashes to ashes and dust to dust," Mr. Reaper concluded, "Thy will be done. We — "
There was a blow on the front door.
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You Who Are About To Die —
Nordley grabbed up the poker. Then they heard a key scrape, the rasp of the lock.
"Who's there?" roared Purling, hand on a gun butt.
"'S me, Joe Bannard, Ed!" the man at the door .ailed as he stumbled in with a blast of wind on his heels. The door slammed. He came down the hall and into the room, a tall, gaunt man with rain sluicing from his clothes as he pulled off his gloves.
"Saw your car, Ed, at the other side of the down tree that blocked me. Walked up the rest of the way. Some night. Whew!"
He seemed very sober as he surveyed the rest of them.
"You folks got stuck, too, eh? All right. But whoever busted that window on the porch to get in — he's got to reimburse me for it!" His thin lips pursed up. "Really tain't legal to bust into a man's house under any conditions or — "
"Don't think none of these folks broke the window, Joe," Ed Purling said. "Your friend, Mr. Reaper, let them in."
Charley Fringle had looked at Reaper before and seen him standing in that half-twisted-around way over by the radio. He had also noted subconsciously, without realizing what it meant at the moment, that the plug of the radio connection hung down from the wall socket.
"My friend, Mr. Reaper?" Bannard said, puzzled. "Why I don't know anybody by that — " He looked to where Phrling pointed at the whitehaired man.
They all looked. They looked right into the slow-swiveling muzzles of the .45 automatics in the co-called Mr. Reaper's hands. Mr. Reaper was snickering crazily and his sad eyes were suddenly glassy with a mad light.
"Gawd help me, they said that Mantas was whitehaired!"
Death Mantas' flaccid lips curled back from his teeth in the grin of a death's-head. "Ashes to ashes.. .dust to dust." he cackled. "You who are about to die — "
~ The End ~