The Case of the Vanished Woman
The Case of the Vanished Woman
Hector Vail was a man who kept odd hours, as I well knew. Over the course of our acquaintance, I had several times seen him go days without sleep, seemingly with no ill effects. When Vail got his teeth into an engaging puzzle he rarely would abandon it for anything. However, on those occasions when he had no cases or mysteries at all, he would often sink into a deep, moody melancholy, and for days at a time would do nothing at all, keeping to his chambers and sleeping the day away.
So it was with some surprise that I entered the drawing room on a chilly Saturday morning in late January and found him already awake. He was seated in his favorite armchair, pipe in hand. His posture was relaxed, but expectant.
I am by habit an early riser, but on this occasion I confess I had slept late, for it was nearly mid-morning by the time I emerged from my bedchamber.
"Good morning, Pendleton," he said brightly. "You've missed breakfast, I fear, but you may be able to convince Miss Sherington to bring up an early brunch. Sleep well?"
"Er... well yes, I suppose."
Vail gave a half smile. "What's wrong, Pendleton? Surprised to see me up and about at this hour?"
"Well... not precisely that," I stammered, not wanting to give offense, "but... yes, I suppose so. It's not your habit, I mean. At least not when you have no case."
Again that smile quirked at the corner of his mouth. "Indeed, Pendleton. I have often maintained that you yourself are a very observant fellow, though you have some difficulty attaching meanings to your observations."
"Whatever do you mean?" I asked, perplexed.
In answer, he pushed a small white envelope towards me. "I mean that your observation is correct, Pendleton, though you have not managed to make the obvious deduction. We may indeed have a case. And it is shaping up to be a very interesting one. Have a look; it arrived three days ago."
I took the envelope and turned it over, glancing at the return address. It was blank. "Three days?" I asked, opening it. "Why the sudden excitement now?"
"Pendleton!" said Vail disapprovingly as my fingers closed on the letter within. "You have hardly examined the envelope at all. You would miss half the clues!"
Surprised I pulled my fingers away from the letter and closed the envelope. "But it is blank," I protested. "There is no return address; only our own."
"Indeed," he said, "there is more to see than that, should you use your eyes."
I looked, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. There were no smudge marks or thumbprints that I could see. The paper was white, fairly stiff and with a rough texture. I had seen envelopes like this before, though I wasn't certain exactly where. I turned it over in my hands once or twice, and glanced at Vail. "What am I supposed to see?" I asked.
"Never mind," he said. "Take a look at the letter."
I pulled the letter free. It was folded into halves, creased and lined. And yet as I unfolded it I could see it was of fine quality paper, slightly yellow and soft, of a type I was quite certain I had never seen before. The short message within was penned in a fine, flowing hand.
I am given to understand you are quite expert at puzzling out mysteries. I am faced with an indelicate situation concerning by betrothed which requires discretion. If it pleases you, I shall call upon you Saturday the 16th, near 11:00, as it is the earliest I may arrive, to offer fuller details of my problem.
"Well, Pendleton?" he asked, when I looked up.
I looked at it again. "I confess I cannot see what has excited your interest in this," I said. "There is very little here. Perhaps when this mysterious 'M.' appears he may offer something more tangible-"
"Tut, tut, Pendleton," said Vail. "There is a great deal there to excite interest. And 'M.' is almost certainly a woman, not a man."
I was surprised. "But how can you know that?" I asked.
He sighed. "Examine the letter again. Use all your senses. Aside from the concern for the betrothed - certainly not a trait restricted solely to females, though the fair sex often expresses concern more readily - there is a subtle but distinct perfume detectable. Likewise, the letters are flowing and even, slender and well-formed. Calligraphy is an art often mastered by the gentler sex, though I admit there are many men who write with an excellent hand as well. Still, the signs are there to see for one trained in the art of handwriting."
I lifted the letter closer, nearly brushing it against my face. Just as Vail had said there was a subtle perfume. It was so elusive that for a moment I wondered if he was wrong. I did not recognize the scent. "Perhaps you're right," I said. "But even if it is a woman, what of it?"
"A lady of breeding, Pendleton. And not from Mordent."
"Not from Mordent?"
He shook his head. "Likely the letter comes to us from Dementlieu. The paper, you will note, is a strange yellowish variety, pliable yet sturdy. It is made from Jaundiced Spruce, a very rare type of tree which grows and is harvested in that land. The rarity of the tree makes paper of this sort very expensive; only a noble would use it."
"Surely that doesn't mean the lady herself is from there," I protested.
"There are other signs," said Vail. "The perfume, for example, is le petit-envie, unless I am much mistaken, an expensive fragrance made there as well. Too, mention is made of a long journey to get here. Travel from Dementlieu hardly takes three days, but one could imagine that the writer had some affairs to put in order before leaving; and the trip is not so short as to make it convient to 'drop in' for afternoon tea either. And there is the phrase 'If it pleases you' in her letter - does not that strike you as curious? I believe it is used because the lady, though well educated, speaks english as a second language. In the language of Dementlieu 's'il vous plait' - translated, 'if you please' - would certainly be used in much the same place."
I considered. "Very well, Vail. It appears that we have a lady of some means writing to us from Dementlieu. You have certainly shed light on the letter - to a degree, anyway - but I still don't see what excites you so much about it."
Vail smiled. "Ah, here we come to the most interesting part. The letter was not sent to us from Dementlieu."
I was confused. "But I thought you just said-"
"The envelope, Pendleton, the envelope. Did not I say that half the clues were there? Look at it again. Is it composed of the same paper as the letter?"
I shook my head. "Obviously not. It is white."
"And familiar, yes? That is because it was printed at our very own 'Mordentshire Printshop' a few scant blocks from where we sit - you remember, it used to be called 'Duncan and Son, Printers'. Half the correspondance we tend to see, if not more, arrives enclosed in envelopes just like this one. The letter was sent to us from within this very city."
"But then why would the writer make mention of a journey?" I asked, puzzled.
"Excellent, Pendleton! I said you were observant. Two possibilities spring to mind. First, the writer wished us to believe that she was in Dementlieu for some unknown reason, though in fact she was here. I tend to dismiss this, based on the evidence that supports the second possibility. Which is that the letter was intercepted before it reached us, and re-sent from within Mordentshire."
"It certainly sounds likely," I said, staring at the letter with new respect. More and more I was beginning to understand Vail's interest. "But what 'evidence' do you mean?"
Vail shrugged. "Examine the letter. You will see that it has been folded into quarters to fit into the envelope. Unfold it and you will find other creases which indicate it was previously folded into thirds. The standard envelope in Dementlieu, and many other lands, tends to be wider and more slender than our own envelopes. This suggests it has been refolded, which of course suggests that it has been removed from its original envelope. Also, you will note that the address on the envelope is penned in a far different hand than that in the letter."
I held the letter up again. Certainly I had noticed it was creased before, but... "Confound it Vail," I said, moving to the window. "Why on earth have you got it so dark in here?" The curtains hung all but closed, leaving only a narrow slit through which a sliver of warm sunlight spilled. It was a bright sunny day (unusual this time of year) and I wondered why Vail had pulled them.
Vail startled me by leaping from his chair. "No, Pendleton!" he said as I reached for the pull cord, and I pulled back in surprise.
He chuckled at my expression. "Sorry, Pendleton, I didn't mean to startle you. But I'm afraid it wouldn't do at all to be seen there. Be a good fellow and come away. We don't want to frighten him off."
"Him?" I asked, taken back at Vail's sudden bizarre behavior.
"The gentleman across the street. He's been watching our window for the past three days. You may take a look, if you like, but be careful only to peer through the crack. As I said, we don't want to frighten him."
I stepped to the curtains and looked out. "We are being watched? By who? And why?"
"Excellent questions, Pendleton, and I'm afraid I have no answer for you. But it seems a strange coincidence that our apartment should be watched from the moment I recieved this letter, no?"
I was staring down at the street below, my eyes adjusting to the glare. There was a light covering of snow along the walks, maybe an inch and a half-deep, and of course a blackened layer of wet snow, salt, and dirt in the cobbled roadway, churned into ruts by the wheels of passing carriages. The sun was out and the snow was slowly melting. A few pedestrians hurried past, but I saw no-one of consequence.
"I see no-one, Vail," I said.
"The gentlemen in the beggar's clothes, selling candles," said Vail. "He will be standing near the lampost or I am very much mistaken. You see him?"
There was an old man near the lampost; he was holding a tray filled with cheap wax candles. Every so often a passerby would flip a copper into his box, but not many bothered to pick out a candle. "I see him." The man didn't move much, but other than that he looked like a perfectly ordinary beggar to me. And...
"Vail," I said. "I know I glanced out of this window yesterday, and I would swear that that man wasn't there."
Vail shook his head. "He wasn't, Pendleton. Or rather he was, but he didn't look the same. I first noticed we were being watched Thursday morning, and then it was by an old woman selling flowers. I thought it odd that she stood in the same place all day long, but it could have been coincidence. Then Friday it was a tall thin gentleman in a black overcoat. You will recall it snowed quite heavily on Friday. Perhaps that is why he made no attempt at the charade of selling something, considering himself masked by the falling flurries. And today it is the candle-beggar. I'll grant him this much; whoever he is, he is excellent at his disguises. Perhaps even better than I."
"Why should it be only one person?" I asked, still peering down at the fellow. "Couldn't it just as easily be three different people?"
"Observe the posture," said Vail. "He will be standing with the weight on his left leg. His right foot is tapping slowly. His shoulders are slightly hunched, no? And every so often he tilts his head to the right side, as if relieving a cramp. Yes?"
I stared. "Yes," I admitted.
"When he walks, which is about every half hour or so, he will pace back and forth in front of the lampost two or three times, working the cramps out of his legs. And when he does so, he will favor his right leg, as if it pains him to put weight on it."
"He isn't pacing," I said, turning from the window, "so it's impossible to say."
"Trust me," said Vail. "I have watched him; I know his habits. He will favor the leg. Each of the watchers has displayed these exact physical mannerisms; the lady, the gentleman in the overcoat, and the candle-maker. I submit that it is impossible for three different people to have precisely the same mannerisms."
"Strange," I said. "But you said the man in the overcoat was tall and thin. The man down there is short and stout. How do you account for the height difference, if it is the same man?"
"There are ways of standing so that the apparent height and weight may look different," said Vail, "though you have hit on an excellent point. The old lady was shorter still, and extremely obese. And the facial structure of all three was strikingly different. However he's doing it, I doubt it is solely a trick of makeup and posture. It is possible that he is changing his very form; shapeshifting."
"A doppleganger?" I asked, a thrill of horror going through me at the thought. Vail had taken his place in his chair again, but I glanced back at the window. If the man across the street was one of those unearthly creatures...
"It is possible, Pendleton. It is possible. You see why I find all of this very interesting."
"But what do we do?" I asked.
"At the moment, nothing, save exercise patience and wait for the arrival of 'M.'"
"Then you think she will come?" I asked. "Is it not possible that, like her letter, she too will be waylaid?"
Vail nodded. "If it passes the appointed hour and she has not yet arrived, we must assume that is what has happened. But let us not jump to assumptions just yet; it is scarcely an hour and a half away. Miss Sherington?" That last was directed to our housekeeper, who had appeared at the door. She had a disapproving look.
"There is a... gentleman to see you, Mr. Vail," she said tightly.
"Indeed?" I asked. "I did not hear a knock."
"Nor I," said Vail.
"Apparently the fellow let himself in," she said with a sniff. "Found him nosing about downstairs in the hall. Said he'd an appointment to see you, Mr. Vail. Said he'd sent you a letter. But he didn't have a card. If you want I'll send for a policeman to come and haul him away."
Vail considered. "An appointment? No... no I don't think that will be necessary, Miss Sherington. Show him in please."
She sniffed again, and turned to fetch the man, but he was already shouldering his way in behind her.
He was a hulking brute of a man, standing well over six feet in height with a broad chest and brawny arms. He actually had to stoop to pass under the doorframe.
He entered and stood there for a moment, his clear blue eyes going from Vail to me and back again, calmly measuring. He wore a ragged workman's clothes, dirty and soot-stained, and his hands were roughened with calluses and streaked with grime. He gave us a slight bow, hardly more than a nod. "Gentlemen," he said. Despite his appearance his voice was cultured and clear, the accent crisp.
"Come in," said Vail, "Mr... ?"
"Mardeth," said the man.
Vail gestured to the couch opposite. "Please," he said, and the man settled his huge frame into a sitting position. "You are the person who sent the letter?"
"Indeed," said the man. "I realize I am early for my appointment, but it was difficult to predict exactly how long the journey would take. I felt that my... problem was compelling enough that I should risk a breech of etiquette and call as soon as possible."
Vail and I exchanged a glance. Rarely have I seen my friend go so far wrong in his deductions. Vail reached for his snuff box, which lay atop the coffee table. "By journey, I assume you mean the one which took you from Dementlieu to our humble apartment," he said, opening the lid and offering it to the man, who refused with a tiny shake of his head. "No?" asked Vail, then pulled the box to himself. "Well, then, as you have undertaken such a long journey to lay your problem before us, we should hardly be gentlemen if we were to turn you out only for being early. How may we help?"
The man glanced at me. "Which one of you is Hector Vail?" he asked. "My message is for him."
"I hold that honor," said Vail, "though I assure you Col. Pendleton's discretion may be relied upon completely. What is your message?"
The man smiled. "Die!" he snarled, leaping up out of his chair, the blade of a dagger in his hand. He sprang for Vail's throat.
I started violently at the sight, but Vail was as calm and composed as if he had expected it. He lifted his pistol from the snuffbox (the place he usually kept it) and a single shot rang out.
The big man yelped in pain, clutching his suddenly bloodied hand and reeling backwards. The dagger had gone flying, and had dropped to the floor near the fireplace.
"Pendleton," said Vail, "please retrieve your pistol and train it on our friend here. I believe my own weapon may have already given him pause." Vail hardly needed to tell me this; I was already in the process of fumbling my weapon from its place on the mantel.
The man's mouth pulled into a rictus of hate. "You dare to think your puny weapons can harm me? I came here to kill you Vail - and that is what I mean to do!" With a roar he leaped for Vail again, this time with only his bare, bloodied hands.
Vail tried to twist to the side, but the big man slammed into him, and the two went tumbling to the floor. "Pendleton!" Vail cried, struggling with the larger man. "Help!"
I raced to where they struggled. The big man was on top and though Vail fought him, he had managed to lock his bloodied hands on Vail's throat.
I seized the man by the hair, pulling his head back until I could get an arm around his thick muscular neck. Then, with all my might I strained, trying to pull the man loose from his hold.
Slowly I forced him upwards, but even with all my strength I could not pry him from his grip on Vail. I could see that there was blood flowing freely from a hole in the man's left hand where Vail had wounded him. With the agony of the wound and the slipperiness of the blood, I could not see how the man could maintain his grip with that hand. And yet he did.
Vail had his own hands closed on the man's wrists, struggling wildly. His face had gone pale.
I had tucked my pistol into my waistband. Now with my free hand I pulled it free, and holding it by the barrel I clubbed the man on the back of the head.
He grunted under the blow but did not loose his hold. I swung again. Again the heavy pistol butt connected with the back his head. A trickle of blood oozed down the back of his neck. Again. Again.
At the fifth blow he went entirely limp, loosing his hold on Vail and collapsing into unconsciousness. Vail gave a rasping cough as he pushed the man's hands away and forced air into his lungs.
I tried to haul the man's body off him, but so large a fellow was he that I succeeded only in rocking him back a few inches before his weight defeated me and he crashed limply back atop Vail.
"Pull, Pendleton," rasped Vail, pushing at the man's limp form, and I tried again.
Suddenly another pair of hands appeared, hauling at the man's shoulders. It was Miss Sherington, pulling for all she was worth.
Together the three of us managed to haul the limp body off and cast it back onto the couch.
"Well, Mr. Vail," said Miss Sherington, "it appears to be a good thing I decided to investigate when I heard all the commotion. You have very interesting guests, Mr. Vail. Very interesting indeed!"
Vail was standing shakily. There were still faint blue marks on his throat where the man's fingers had tightened. For a moment he only breathed raggedly. "Thank you... Miss Sherinton," he managed after a moment. "I wonder... if you wouldn't... be good enough to fetch... a policeman."
"Vail!" I said, as the woman hurried off. "What on earth possessed the man? He went mad!"
The man himself was groaning, his head lolling to one side.
Vail shook his head. "Not mad, Pendleton - desperate. Quickly now, before he regains consciousness. We must bind him." He hurried to his workdesk, rifling through the drawers. A moment later he stood, holding a length of thin white cord. Together we tied the man's hands behind his back, then used the remainder of the line to truss his feet and secure him to the couch.
"Fetch me some smelling salts, Pendleton," said Vail when we were done. "You know where they are. I would very much like to interview our attacker before the authorities arrive."
A moment later I had returned, smelling salts in hand. Vail took them from me and passed them under the man's nose. He groaned again and his head jerked away from the smell, but his eyes did not open.
"I struck him harshly," I said. "Perhaps-"
Vail only held up a finger. "Shhh. Not now, Pendleton." Again he passed the smelling salts beneath the man's nose. This time the man grunted, his eyes flickering open, blinking. He looked hatefully from one of us to the other, then, snarling, he surged forward as if to attack. But the cords we used were tight and strong, and the man could do no more than strain against them. He fought the bonds for a moment, then relaxed, glaring balefully at us.
"Welcome back," said Vail, taking his seat across from the man again. "You can see that you are caught."
The man smiled insolently. "Caught?" he said. "Only this pathetic body. You can never hold me."
Vail leaned forward. "Who are you? Why have you come here masquerading as the girl who sent the letter?"
"You will never find her," sneered the man. "The game I play is beyond a paltry mortal like you."
"If that is the case," said Vail, "you would never have come. You feared that I would become involved, and decided to eliminate any threat I might represent. Who is your master, and who is the girl?"
"I am the master!" shouted the man. "Fool, what you see is a shell! Do not become involved in this, Vail. Not as you value your life!"
"You have already involved me," said Vail coldly. "As for your empty threats-"
But the man had suddenly collapsed again, his eyes rolling back in their sockets and his body sagging against the bonds. His face had gone chalk white, and his breathing stopped; his brown eyes stared sightlessly at us.
Vail rushed forward, checking the man's pulse.
"Is he-?" I started to ask.
"No," said Vail, stepping back. "He lives, by the slimmest of margins. But why...?" His head jerked up. "Pendleton, the window! The window!" He was already racing in that direction, flinging back the curtains. "Oh, fool that I am!" he said, turning away and dashing for the door.
I spared one brief glance at the street below, then sprinted to follow. The candle-seller was dashing away, his wares scattered in the street.
I vaulted down the stairs, three at a time, hard on Vail's heels, and the two of us raced into the street.
I looked both ways but saw no sign of the candle-seller. Vail, however, must have caught a glimpse of the man rounding the corner at the next intersection, for he sprinted like an arrow across the slush-filled roadway heading in that direction, dodging a passing hansom. I followed as best I could, waiting for the cart to pass, but his long-legged strides left me quickly behind, and by the time I had gained the far side of the street Vail was already vanishing to the right around the corner ahead.
I dashed forward, gaining the intersection moments later, and saw Vail standing in the middle of the lane, looking wildly about. For as far as we could see there was no sign of anyone. He muttered a brief curse, then immediately began searching the sidewalk for something.
"What are you doing, Vail?" I asked, slowing to a quick trot as I approached. "Footprints," he said. "Mind where you tread, Pendleton, this will be difficult enough. We may still track him; there are a wealth of footprints thanks to yesterday's snow. Perhaps we have not lost him yet... Ah!"
He began striding off, following a trail which must have been clear to him but which was entirely invisible to me. I followed at a few yards distance.
He wound his way down the sidewalk for some way, then veered off into the street and halted. I waited for a moment, but he did not look up. "Clever," he said at last. "It looks as if he had his escape planned. A two-wheeled single-horse hansom was waiting here, and our candle-beggar looks to have boarded. Likely there was a driver standing by, but he could have taken the reins himself. Either way, he's lost to us now. There are far too many other tracks from cart wheels to trace them."
For a moment he stood there on the snow, lost in thought. Abruptly he straightened. "No use crying over spilt milk, eh Pendleton? Come, let us return to our prisoner. Likely Miss Sherington has already fetched Inspector Lambert."
* * *
But when we returned to our flat, we found that Miss Sherington had not yet returned from her errand. I had left the door ajar and it swung in the slight wintry breeze that played through the street.
Vail glanced at me as we approached. "You left the door open, Pendleton?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Sorry, Vail. I must have done. At the time I was busy trying to keep up with you."
We trudged up the narrow stairs, re-entering our flat. The man lay just as we had left him, his eyes still staring sightlessly. His breathing had deepened a little, and I could see the rise and fall of his chest.
Vail bent over him, checking his pulse again, then passing the smelling salts beneath the man's nose again. There was no response. "Still alive, but unresponsive," he said.
"What's going on, Vail?" I asked, closing the door behind me. "Who is this man, and what's wrong with him - and who was that man outside that we chased?"
Vail was silent a moment. "Did you notice his eyes, Pendleton?" he asked.
Vail pointed at the bound man. I took a look... and looked again. They were a deep brown color, undilated and staring up at the ceiling. "Vail," I said, astonished. "I would swear that his eyes were blue when he first entered the room."
"And you would be right," said Vail. "They changed color after our interview - when the man collapsed again."
"But what does it mean?" I asked.
Vail shook his head. "It is difficult to be certain. But coupled with what the man said... I think that this body is little more than a shell. The man himself is something else..."
"A possessing spirit?" I asked, chilled at the thought. How could we fight such a being?
Vail frowned. "Perhaps," he said. "But if so, then the man should have been returned to his senses when the spirit fled him. Yet he is left virtually mindless; only the basic funtions of breathing and heartbeat remain. He has not even the instinct to close his eyes." As Vail spoke he gently pressed the lids closed with a forefinger; they would not close all the way, but remained slitted. "He is a vegetable. And if it were a spirit, then how could it inhabit more than one body."
"More than one body?" I asked.
"Have you forgotten the candle-seller, Pendleton? I've little doubt it was controlled by the same creature."
"If not a spirit, what then?" I asked.
Vail said nothing for a moment. "Perhaps something even more dangerous," he said at last.
"Vail," I said. "I confess I am lost. Who was this man and why did he attack you?"
"Likely he is the creature that has abducted the woman who sent the letter," said Vail. "He came because he feared that I would interfere in his plans, whatever they may be, and the simplest solution was to eliminate me."
"But how did you know he would attack you?" I asked.
"Did you not note, Pendleton, the distinct limp the man used when he entered the room? Favoring his left leg, and using the same walk as the man in the street. At the time, I thought he was the same man, and that he had merely changed disguises. But of course it wasn't the same man at all; though the same creature controlled both. From the moment he entered I suspected his intentions; he was early for the appointment. Why? Because he had spotted you staring at him from the window, and feared that the game was up. He moved quickly, hoping to take us by surprise." Vail took on a rueful look. "And despite the precaution I took of arming myself, he was very nearly successful."
The door opened and Miss Sherington bustled in, an officer at her heels. Contrary to our expectations it was not Inspector Lambert she had summoned, but rather Inspector Wilkins, a short wiry fellow with a bit of a paunch and a high forehead. Wilkins was well known to both of us; he was generally a good enough fellow, but rather blunt and stubborn. I had the feeling that he disliked both of us, though he was always polite enough.
"Ah, Inspector Wilkins," said Vail. "I had rather expected Lambert."
Wilkins sniffed. "Not available, sir. Had a day off; went to see family. Is this the fellow that accosted you?"
Vail nodded. "So to speak, though he's hardly a threat now."
Wilkins eyed the fellow warily. "Looks hurt."
"Pendleton had occasion to club him with the butt of his pistol. However, the man's state is due to no fault of our own."
Wilkins nodded. "Well, no matter. I'll have some lads come down and pick him up. When he comes to, we'll give him a good grilling and get him to talk."
Vail smiled. "I hardly think that will work, inspector, but you are welcome to try. May I first inspect the body?"
Wilkins looked surprised. "What for?"
"Clues as to who might have sent him."
Wilkins shrugged. "If you think it'll do any good. Though from what Miss Sherington described, he's probably some hooligan from the street. Half-mad, you know? They're worse in the winter. Makes them desperate. They'd kill you soon as look at you. It's happened before."
"I'm certain," said Vail absently, bending over the man's body, "but if you'll indulge me I'll have a look anyway."
"Do what you like," said Wilkins, heading for the door. "I'll be back in five minutes with some of the lads to haul him off."
I watched as Vail went through the bound man's clothing, then began examining his fingernails. "What are you searching for, Vail?"
"Hmmm? Some sign of where this man came from, of course. He must have been a normal person once, with hopes and dreams."
"How do you know? It could be that he was always this way. A mentally-catatonic person, for instance, that the... creature found and inhabited."
Vail chuckled. "Oh, I think not, Pendleton. From my own observations he was a sailor-turned-dockman who worked somewhere in the port district of Mordentshire. He worked about ten years ago aboard a vessel with a name beginning with the letter 'M'. He has a wife whose initials are either 'K.H. or J.S.' - likely 'K.H.' He also has either a son or a nephew aged between 9 and 11 years."
I was astounded. "How on earth can you know all that?"
Vail smiled. "First, he is a rather large fellow, wouldn't you agree? Those brawny arms and muscular chest would hardly be the result of an lifelong invalid, indeed, they are the product of years of heavy labor - lifting and hauling. So I think we may dismiss your theory of the comatose mental patient."
"And the rest?"
Vail tugged the man's sleeve back and displayed his forearm. "You will note the tattoo."
I leaned forward to look. There was a geometric design, underscored by the letters 'MSM 35 - 41'.
"A date?" I asked, confused.
"Indeed," said Vail, "and more. Vessels registered in Mordenshire are always christened 'Mordentshire Ship' before the name. And the design above is a representation of a knot used almost exclusively on sailing ships, the 'sailor's fist'. The man's roughened, callused palms also indicate a good deal of work with rope at some past date, though they have smoothed somewhat in later years. The picture that emerges is that he served aboard a Mordentshire-registered ship whose name began with the letter 'M' from 735 - 741."
"But how do you know that he turned from sailor to dockhand?" I asked.
"The tattoo itself is evidence that his term aboard ship lasted only until 741. Note the white scar on the left earlobe; it is evident that he once wore an earring there, a common practice among sailors of these waters. But what has he done during the intervening years? Obviously since his body has not turned to flab, he is still engaged in a line of work involving heavy labor. And if he once had an earring, why no longer? Might I suggest that it is because of the city ordinance which exists concerning all who work the docks, prohibiting the wearing of nose-rings, earrings, or lip rings of any kind? Such a line of work would be natural for a retired sailor. Who better knows the tying off of lines, for example?"
"But why should he retire at all, Vail?" I asked. "He is a young enough fellow; certainly he would make better wages at sea."
"Perhaps, Pendleton," he said, "but you are forgetting the influence of his wife." He lifted the man's left hand. "Note the wedding band - copper and well worn. And on the underside we have the inscription 'K.H. - J.S. 742'. Suggestive, eh? A marriage date following his discharge. Obviously his wife is a woman prone to worry, and not fond of the idea of becoming a widow to the sea. So an image forms. He is engaged, and at his fiancee's behest, retires from the sea. But still he must earn a living, eh? And perhaps he still has some fondness for the sea. So he takes employment as a dockworker, and is able to fulfill his wishes for both. There are other signs, Pendleton - for example the faded grease on the man's hands - but you see the line of my reasoning."
"And the son?" I asked.
"Why, Pendleton, that is the simplest of all. Take a look at what hangs from his neck."
There was a little wooden medallion, crudely carved in the shape of a dolphin. "And?" I asked.
"Do you really think he carved it himself?" asked Vail. "Sailors are usually reknowned for their carving skills - they have months at sea to refine the art of whittling. Is it likely a career sailor would carve something as crude as that and hang it from his neck for all the world to see? No, Pendleton, it is a gift. And since carving involves knives, I think it likely that the giver is a boy. As to his age, it is a simple deduction owing to the crudeness of the work."
He lifted the man's foot, taking a look at the underside of the boot. "Hello!" he said, in some surprise. "This is out of place."
I peered over his shoulder, but I saw nothing other than some bits of what looked like dried mud, a vague gray-green color.
He set the boot down again, moving to his laboratory and retrieving a small tray and a scraping knife. Quickly he knelt again, taking several scrapings.
"What is it, Vail?" I asked.
"Something interesting, Pendleton," he said. "Something that certainly has no place on the bottom of a dockworker's boots. Our first clue as to what our friend here has been up to since being taken over by the... creature."
There was a polite knock at the door. "Hello?" said a man's voice, and both Vail and I turned.
A gentleman stood there, looking at once weary and apologetic. "Hector Vail?" he asked, his green eyes locking on Vail.
The man gave an apologetic gesture towards the open door. "The front entrance was ajar," he said. "I knocked, but no-one answered, so I... showed myself in. I hope I do not offend."
"Not at all," said Vail. "We have had a somewhat... eventful morning. This is in fact the second time it has been left open. No doubt Wilkins will close it when he returns with his men. But please, come in. I percieve that you have traveled a good distance to see us."
The man nodded. "I have driven all night to reach you sir, on behalf of my master."
"From Dementlieu, I presume."
The man started to nod, then gave Vail startled look. "Mon dieu! Yes, it is true, but how could you have known?"
Vail shrugged. "The signs are there for the trained eye. Your apparel; your accent... it is a small matter. Who is your master, and why has he sent you?"
The man shook his head. "I regret that I am not at liberty to say, sir. I am only to say that my master has urgent need of your services, and as a man of substantial means, can reward you well. I am sent to fetch you back to him for a meeting. Due to... certain political constraints, he is not able to cross the border into Mordentshire."
Vail arched an eyebrow. "Indeed? And what is the nature of the problem he wishes my assistance with?"
Again the man shook his head. "I am bid only to say that it is an extremely sensitive matter, sir, and that it is urgent. A life may be at stake."
Vail glanced at me. "Well, this is an interesting turn, eh Pendleton? Ordinarily, of course, I would never make such a journey with so little information."
"It is striking," I said, "that Dementlieu is referenced yet again. Could this be connected?"
Vail gave a half-smile. "I think there is every possibility. So now we are faced with an alternative - stay and chase down the leads we have already, or go, and risk having the leads go stale. Perhaps we may find some happy medium." He looked back at the man, who had been watching our conference in some concern. "We cannot leave just yet. There are matters which I must first attend to. In four hours time I should have set events in motion. We may accompany you then."
* * *
As it happened, I was left alone in the flat for the remainder of the morning and early afternoon. Inspector Wilkins shortly returned and took the bound man into custody - though Vail warned him that the man's wounds should be tended.
"He is far more a victim than I, inspector," he had said. "There is some hope that he may yet recover his senses. In the meantime, I shall endeavor to discover his identity and locate his family. Watch him well; if he should make a sudden and miraculous recovery, or the color of his eyes should change, consult with me before releasing him."
As for the balding man from Dementlieu, he had departed as soon as Vail had assured him that we would come with him later, promising to return at the appointed hour.
Vail himself had departed shortly after seeing to the fellow's needs. "I have some errands to run, Pendleton," he had said, "tasks, I fear, for which your talents are not suited. You will wait for me here, and accompany me this evening to Dementlieu for the mysterious meeting?"
I assured him I would, and he left.
The day passed slowly. I contented myself with smoking a pipe and reading the day's edition of the Times, and Miss Sherington prepared me a very late breakfast. Still, I found myself pacing the drawing room impatiently, and more than once I found myself at the window, looking to see if the candle-seller had returned. Of course he did not, and yet for some reason I left the curtains closed. The thought of being watched from the street was unnerving.
Vail returned around half past three, and shortly thereafter we set out on the road to Dementlieu.
* * *
We traveled in a richly-appointed brougham pulled by four horses. The vehicle was new, and practically sped across the snowy landscape. For the the first half hour the farms, manors, and homesteads of the outlying areas and districts of Mordentshire raced by. Then civilization gave way to wilderness, and there was only the rough dirt road lined on both sides by snow-covered fields and forests.
Try though I might, I could not draw from Vail any real description of what he had done earlier in the day. "What Pendleton? Would you have me disclose all my secrets? That would be rather like having a magician explain how he creates his illusions while he was in the act of performing them - it certainly would strip away the wonder, eh? No, no. You'll forgive my sense of drama, but it would never do." That, with an enigmatic smile, was all he would say on the subject. Vail has always had a flair for the dramatic - no less an authoritay than William On'Arden commented once that what the criminal profession had gained with Vail, the stage had lost.
He refused to be drawn into any conversation either, and after a time I turned to the window and fixed my attention on the scenery passing by. The sun was dipping lower in the western sky, and its reddish rays swathed the snowy landscape in bloody twilight. I watched idly the play of reflections from the icy fields.
I did not realize I had dozed off until I was awakened by the touch of Vail's hand on my knee. Sometime while I had slept he had drawn the curtains and lit the oil lantern which swung from the roof between our seats.
"Awake, Pendleton?" he asked with a smile.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and pulled back the curtain. Outside full night darkened the land. A half moon overhead spilled silver light across the snow-covered trees that lined either side of the roadway. It was a light wood of sparse trees, each glazed with ice and snow which reflected and enhanced the moonlight. The glittering terrain and pockets of bright snow served only to enhance the pools of shadow which lay everywhere between. "Where are we?" I asked.
"Nearing the border," said Vail, "if we have not passed it already. We are still miles from any civilization in either direction. And, unless I miss my guess, we are nearing our meeting."
Vail was right; there was a subtle difference in the vibration of the carriage. We were slowing.
I fingered the pistol that I had pocketed before leaving Mordentshire. "Well," I said, "at least we'll find out what this is all about, anyway."
"I hardly think you'll need that," said Vail, with a nod at the weapon, "though it is as well to be prepared. But wait! We have arrived!"
Indeed, with a sudden lurch the carriage rolled to a stop. A moment later the side door was opened by the driver, who leaned his head in. "We have arrived, sirs," he said. "My master awaits."
And before either of us could reply he was gone. Vail and I exchanged a glance, and he reached for the door handle, climbing down out of the carriage. I followed a moment later.
As Vail had suggested, we were still miles from any civilization, surrounded on all sides by wilderness. The roadway was a little wider here, and standing not more than twenty paces off stood a second carriage, the lanterns hanging from the driver's perch glowing softly. Our own driver waited with the vehicle we had come in. Waiting for us on the snow between the two carriages were two men, reduced to little more than silhouettes by the darkness. The closer and shorter of the men held a small lantern, and raised it as we approached.
He was a young man, probably not more than twenty-five, with dark red hair pulled back into a short ponytail. His face was... pretty, in a gentle and beatific sort of way, and he had a friendly smile. He was slightly pudgy, but not overweight. The second man was taller, and hung back a few steps. He had graying hair, also pulled back into a ponytail, and a stern, unforgiving expression.
"Ah, you have come," said the shorter man, giving a quick bow. "My master regrets the secrecy necessary in our little meeting... I assure you, were the situation not so delicate, he would not have insisted on the mystery."
Vail took in the short man with a glance. "Indeed? Then perhaps you may put some of the mystery to rest. Who is your 'master' and exactly what is it he wishes of me?"
"My master is Guy de Montierre, Marquis du Chantonly. I am merely his humble representative. He is a man with... powerful enemies. We have reason to believe one of them has kidnapped his intended, Marie d'Rougeaux. Of course he is frantic to get her back, and the moment she was taken he insisted upon seeking your services, as your reputation precedes you, even here in Dementlieu."
"Indeed?" asked Vail sardonically. "I wonder that he thinks I am capable. Certainly the fabrication you have just offered is insulting. It presumes that I have no knowledge whatever of Dementlieu politics or the noble houses of this land, and that I am as gullible as a common fool. There is no 'Marquis du Chantonly', Guy de Montierre or otherwise. If you wish to retain my services, you must at least offer a better lie."
The short man's smile wavered. He licked his lips. "I'm not sure what you mean, sir. Are you saying-"
"What I am saying, D'Honaire, is that I wonder exactly how long you intend to carry on this charade. You have summoned me; I have come. Let us not pretend you serve any 'master' other than yourself. Did you think to gull me with that ridiculous story?"
The man went silent for a moment. His eyes took on a hard look. "You know then. Good. It shows that you are capable." He raised his voice, speaking to the older man behind him without glancing back. "You may leave us, Edward. Mr. Vail and I have things to discuss in private."
The older gentleman gave a quick nod. "As you wish, lord," he said, backing off.
"Now," said Vail, "what is it you want with me?"
"Exactly what I said," said the man Vail had named as d'Honaire. "The girl was my fiancee; we were engaged to be wed. Her name is Marie d'Rougeaux - I did not lie about that. I have many enemies, Mr. Vail. If you know who I am then you must realize that."
"I have known of you for some time," said Vail coldly. "If you have enemies, it is certainly well-deserved. You have some idea, I take it, who the kidnapper may be?"
The short man nodded. "For some months now I have been engaged in a power struggle with... a powerful opponent. A mysterious underworld figure, the leader of a criminal network. Working with the proper authorities, I have been somewhat successful in curtailing the criminal efforts of his organization, but the man himself is both clever and elusive, and I confess I have never discovered his identity or description. His organization is very powerful, and extends somewhat into Mordent, Lamordia, and other neighboring lands. Were you to apprehend him, Mr. Vail, it would be a great blow in the service of Righteousness, not only for my counry, but for your own as well."
"If you are suggesting, d'Honaire, that you were ever on the side of Righteousness in any matter, then you are insulting my intelligence again. Should I undertake the rescue of the girl, you may be certain it will be for her sake, not yours. I do not know what nefarious purpose her engagement to you serves, or what you hope to gain by taking her to wife, but you may be assured that I will strongly advise her against any such union."
D'Honaire was quiet a moment. "You think me a harsh man, Mr. Vail, no? Well, you are right. I am a harsh man. Some would say evil. But Marie... to her, I am not evil. She is... different. I live under a curse, Mr. Vail. You knew this?"
Vail stared at him. "I would think you labored under several. Men as evil and twisted as you often do."
D'Honaire gave a thin-lipped smile. "Perhaps. But there is only one that ever bothered me. You will think I have an attractive face, yes? Most people find it so. But my curse is that the more I should care for a woman, the less attractive she will find me - until at last, she sees me and is repulsed by my hideousness. You see?"
Vail said nothing. For my part, I felt deep pity for the fellow. Such a curse seemed a terrible burden to bear, and I wondered what he could ever possibly have done to deserve it.
"In spite of this, Mr. Vail, Marie loves me. She loves me. You will not think a man such as I could feel love, perhaps, but she has come to mean... redemption, of a sort. She knows nothing of my... my other life. I have kept it from her."
"I would not be so certain," said Vail. "She probably suspected something of your criminal ties; she was in fact coming to seek my advice when she was abducted. Nevertheless, you may be certain I will tell her, should I find her."
D'Honaire shook his head. "It does not matter. Even should she come to hate me, Mr. Vail, even then I will not stop caring for her. So long as she is delivered safe from her abductor - that is my concern."
"Then tell me more of this abductor," said Vail.
"You will help me, then?" asked d'Honaire.
"I will not stand idly by and see an innocent girl hurt simply because she is caught up in an underworld war, especially when it was I she was trying to reach when she was abducted. But do not think that I condone your own evils by any means, or that my efforts to bring you to justice will flag to any degree. You and I are necessarily enemies, d'Honaire, and that will not change until you have been brought to accountability under the law."
D'Honaire nodded. "I expected no less from you."
"Tell me of your opponent," said Vail. "Tell me what you know of him."
"He is powerful," said d'Honaire, "a very powerful man. He has the... talent of influencing minds. Perhaps he is a mesmerist, yes? His influence reaches beyond Dementlieu, this much I know. His organization has a strong foothold in your native city, though it is a new presence there."
"Indeed?" said Vail in some surprise. "I am remiss in my duty, then, for I have detected no such organization."
"It is new, as I said. And do not underestimate the man; he is clever and very resourceful. He will not hesitate to harm Marie should such an action aid him - he must be stopped, Mr. Vail." There was something in d'Honaire's eye that caught my attention and held me rapt. His voice became very gentle, and a sudden wave of dizziness washed over me. "You will find him, Mr. Vail. You will find him and destroy him. And then you will return my fiancee to me. To me."
Vail uttered a short bark of laughter which brought me back to myself. "Will you mesmerize me, d'Honaire? I shall think you very rude if you try. Do you wish to end our interview prematurely? I suggest you restrain your natural impulse to manipulate and hold your loathsome sorceries in check. I asked a specific question regarding the man who abducted the girl; you have answered only in generalities. Do you know nothing more?"
D'Honaire's voice returned to its former level. "His power is very strong, Mr. Vail, but it has its limits. It takes time for him to dominate a mind - the stronger the will resisting him the longer it will take. But even the weakest mind may resist him for... a half hour, perhaps. And his strength fades the farther one is from him.
"The lower classes have a name for him, Mr. Vail: Du Malaise. What I know of him I have said; that and one other thing: I may say with certainty that he is not within the boundaries of my land, not at this moment."
Vail nodded. "As it happens, I have some idea where he is already. If that is all you have to offer, then I must conclude that our interview is over." He turned away. "Come Pendleton. I will return to Mordentshire and follow the leads I have developed there. And d'Honaire," he said turning back momentarily, "you may be certain that I shall bill you when the girl is found. I usually charge my clients according to their means. In your case, I will charge a little more. It should be interesting to see ill-gotten money put to good use."
"Any price for Marie is a paltry one," said d'Honaire as we boarded the brougham. "Be careful, Mr. Vail. Others have died facing the man who holds her. There is no depth he will not plumb, and he is very dangerous indeed."
* * *
"'The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend', eh Pendleton?" said Vail, settling into his seat as we got underway for the return trip. "But perhaps he may be a temporary ally, at least."
"Who was he?" I asked. "During much of the conversation you spoke as if you were acquainted, but I confess I do not recognize the name, though it seems faintly familiar."
"That was Dominick d'Honaire, Pendleton, one of the great criminal masterminds of our day. No, we have never before met, though I have studied the man in detail. The reason his name is familiar to you is that he is one of the five great councilors to Lord-governor Guignol. In truth, he has corrupted and subverted the government of his homeland to such a degree that he has made himself all but untouchable, though I have hopes of someday catching him in his own net."
"But you each spoke as if you knew the other."
"I do know him, Pendleton, how could I not? The man is brilliant. He lurks like a spider in a web, pulling the strings of others. Robbery, extortion, murder - all these things he is responsible for, and worse, though I cannot prove it, for no direct link to him exists. As for familiarity, well, there is bound to be some measure of it between those who are committed to preserving the law and those bound to trespass it. Make no mistake, Pendleton, he is very big game. Did I never tell you of my little list of the five most deadly men? No? Well, he is on it. Any 'opponent' who can play on d'Honaire's home territory and avoid destruction is a being to command both fear and respect."
"What was it you said to him towards the end, Vail? That he should restrain his impulse to manipulate?"
Vail gazed out the window a moment in silence. "He has a very dark power, Pendleton. His father, and his father's father, were both famed mesmerists. Dominick is more skillful than both. Given the opportunity, he will implant a suggestion within another's mind, and another, and another, until that victim becomes a devoted slave."
I was shocked. "Why, Vail! Is that not strikingly similar to the force which controlled the dockman?"
He nodded. "Excellent, Pendleton. Yes, strikingly similar... and yet not quite the same. D'Honaire's manipulations, though invasive and evil, do not destroy the victim's mind. No, we are dealing with something different - and possibly more powerful. I have been giving it some thought... Well, we shall see what may be accomplished once we return to Mordentshire."
He drifted off, and would say nothing more on the subject, only staring mournfully out at the eerie passing snowscape.
* * *
By the time we reached Mordentshire, the morning sun was peeking over the distant hills, painting the land golden-red in the light of dawn.
I had tried to nap on the return trip, but found I could doze only fitfully, and by the time we pulled up to our flat I was bone-weary.
Vail, on the other hand, seemed only to have gained in enthusiasm and excitement during the trip, despite the fact that he had not slept at all. He dashed energetically into his room when we returned. "I shall be out for several hours, Pendleton," he said over his shoulder. "I must follow up on a few things, and see what has happened during out absence. You will stay here?"
"If you wish it, Vail," I said tiredly, stifling a small yawn.
He grinned. "Catch up on sleep then. I have a feeling events will come to a head sometime before evening, and you will be of far greater service if you are refreshed and alert." He was bent over one of his trunks, rifling through some of the various articles of clothing within. "For my own part, I shall be out for some hours, though I should finish my work before dark." He held up a ratty black coat, eyeing it critically. "It will make my work very much easier if I travel under some disguise, I think."
* * *
Despite Vail's advice, I determined to be ready for his return, and rather than retire to my bedroom, I rested on the couch before the fireplace, with a shawl. I remained clothed, prepared to leave on the instant, should Vail return and desire it.
I had intended only to nap, but I fell into a fitful slumber and did not awake until late in the day. The flat was still empty when I sat up again, though the fire had died down somewhat. Outside, the last grey of twilight was fading into night.
I stood and stretched, then stoked the fire up. I went to the window and looked out at the darkening street, again half-fearing I would see the same candle-seller near the streetlamp, though of course there was no-one there.
I glanced at the clock over the mantle. It read twenty past six. Vail should have returned by now, and I felt a vague sense of unease.
I returned to my seat before the fire, waiting, and time seemed to drag by.
At around a quarter to seven there was a sharp rap at the door, and I went to answer it. Miss Sherington, I recalled, had been given the day off by Vail earlier, and had left shortly after preparing breakfast for me.
There was a disheveled gaunt fellow at the door, with sullen eyes and an unshaven face. He wore an old cap and had a well-chewed pipe clamped between his teeth. "Vail," he demanded in a sour half grunt. "I'm here to see Vail."
I took an immediate dislike to the fellow. "He isn't here."
The man shuffled in. "I'll wait."
I was somewhat taken back by the fellow's directness. "If you like," I said, closing the door. "Though I do not know when to expect him."
He grunted and trudged up the stairs behind me, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his ratty black coat.
He followed me into the drawing room and immediately took a seat in Vail's armchair, propping his dirty boots up on the coffee table. "Got tea?" he grunted.
"No," I said coldly. "And if you don't mind, I'd prefer if you kept your shoes off the furniture."
He made a noncommittal grunt. "Vail owes me," he said, "so don't go giving me guff. Go get me some tea."
I had already half turned away when he spoke, but now I whirled back angrily. "Now see here-!" I started, but my jaw dropped in surprise.
Vail gave a musical laugh. Already he had removed the hat, and was pulling the flesh-colored putty from the bridge of his nose. "Ah, Pendleton, please forgive me. I simply couldn't resist. It is perhaps my dramatic nature, eh? Now now, old fellow, don't be angry with me. If you could have seen your face-"
I had seen my friend's talent for disguise several times before, but he never ceased to surprise me. "Where have you been all day?" I asked, still a little annoyed.
"I have found our missing lady, or I am much mistaken," said Vail with a triumphant smile. "Come, I will change out of this clothing and we will have a bite or two to eat; there is no hurry. I daresay Inspector Lambert will be some little while getting his men into place."
* * *
A half hour later we were winding our way down Wythe Street, near the port section of the city. It was nearly a ten minute walk from our apartment, but Vail had insisted we go by foot. "It is a fine, bright evening, Pendleton. The crisp fresh air will do us good."
Which wasn't entirely true. Though the skies were mostly clear when we started, a light sleet began falling as we went. And the moonlight was covered by a thin haze of clouds. The air was chill enough that we had bundled up in heavy cloaks, and our breath formed little clouds each time we breathed.
Still, Vail was in bright spirits, striding along at a good pace, his cane moving in time, and I had to hurry just to keep up with him.
As we rounded the corner at the end of Wythe Street and turned onto a smaller street - Tabby Lane, the ramshackle streetsign said - I spotted a policeman standing in the road some way ahead. Vail quickly approached the man, conferring with him in half-whispers.
"-said you'd be along, Mr. Vail," the man was saying as I drew up. "You're to follow me, sir, and I'll take you to him. Oh, and you too, colonel."
Vail nodded, and the man turned, heading into a tiny pathway which wound in darkness between two of the towering buildings. I followed as best I could, though the darkness in the little alleyway was nearly absolute. After a time it opened into a small, abandoned plaza. Vail and the policeman halted just at the mouth of the alley, keeping back in the shadows. I saw that another man was waiting there. In the darkness I could make nothing of his face beyond a vague shape, but when he spoke in a hoarse whisper, I immediately recognized the voice of Inspector Lambert.
"Well, Vail, you've dragged us all out on a dark cold night. I hope there's a reason."
But Vail was staring into the plaza beyond, a triumphant expression painted on his face. "A reason? I should think it was plain, inspector. Look for yourself."
I peered in the direction he indicated, but saw nothing. The plaza was completely empty, save for a beggar huddled on the steps of a run-down building on the far side. We were hard on the docks, here, and beyond the buildings in that direction I could see the gently-moving masts of ships riding their moorings in the harbor beyond.
Lambert must have been equally mystefied. "I see nothing to arouse interest, Vail, beyond the beggar."
"Inspector, you surprise me!" said Vail. "You see everything, yet do not comprehend. Look again."
Reluctantly Lambert did.
"It's only a beggar, Vail," I said.
"Only a beggar, yes. But did you ever see a more unlikely beggar? Consider your own discomfort, inspector. You complained of the dark and cold. Yet you are clothed in a heavy cloak. Compare that with the beggar, who is dressed in little more than rags, yet sits out in the open on a night such as this, begging. And can you imagine a worse place and time for him to ply his trade? It is night in an abandoned plaza in one of the poorest sections of the city - this is the place he picks for his begging? Who, pray tell, is he hoping will drop a coin in his cup? And yet, there he sits."
I stared. Vail was right. "He must be there for another reason, Vail."
"Indeed he is Pendleton. Consider the methods of our 'opponent'. He has considerable mental power over his minions - in fact, they are reduced to mindless slaves. Would he be concerned with the well-being of a slave's health? Of course not, not when there is an infinite supply abundantly available. One contracts pneumonia, for instance, from being posted out in the cold indefinitely; he is quickly replaced by another. Yes, Pendleton, this is the lair of our enemy; we must tread very carefully here. Your men are in position, inspector?"
Lambert gave a nod. "Very nearly. We have surrounded the building, as you requested. This girl, the kidnap victim you spoke of, she is inside?"
"Yes. As is our opponent, no doubt. Now remember what I told you of him, Lambert. When the men are in place and the signal is given, be very careful entering the building. You will undoubtably meet with resistance. His minions fear nothing and will go to any lengths to protect their master. I cannot give you a physical description of him. Indeed, I do not have one to give. But I believe he will be neatly groomed and clothed - he may suffer his slaves to wear rags, but he will hardly keep himself in that condition. In any case he will not fight you himself; he will try to flee. So if you find yourself engaged in combat, it will be with his minions. And as far as the girl is concerned, he will destroy her if he believes she will escape him. This entire affair must be approached very cautiously. As I told you, there is reason to believe that his mental powers take some little time before they overwhelm an unwilling mind, and they of course are stronger the closer one is to the man. None of your men should succumb to his will, not if you hurry. But keep a sharp eye out - if one of your men shows signs of being subverted immediately have him taken as far from this area as you can."
Lambert gave a nod. "Very well, Vail. My men have been briefed; we will do our best, though as you say it is likely to be tricky. As you requested, I will be going thought the front; Wilkins and his men are stationed in the rear. Where will you be?"
"I think it best if I joined Wilkins. Pendleton?"
"Right behind you, Vail," I assured him.
Lambert was still staring at the beggar across the way. "Don't know how you found this place, Vail, but it looks like you were right. Sometimes I think you're a psychic."
Vail smiled. "Ah, inspector, I fear it is a trade secret. Let us say that sometimes it is who you know rather than what you know. Come Pendleton, we must get into position."
But rather than going forward, Vail turned and threaded his way back down the twisting alleyway through which we had come. I followed at his heels, and once we reached Tabby Lane, we turned left and continued some ways in that direction before turning sharply left again, on an unnamed street which led directly to the docks.
Vail led me down to the wooden walkway which lined the harbor. At this hour it was abandoned, of course and the tide was out, so looking over the railing there was a twenty-foot drop to the water below. At various points along its length piers jutted out at right angles to it, connected by walkways to floating docks which rode low on the water. There were a few smaller vessels - dories and sloops mostly, tied up to the floating docks. Out further were moored the larger ships. Vail slowed for a moment to speak with me. "Softly, Pendleton," he said in a whisper. "We must be very careful to avoid being seen from here on out."
We continued for some distance, halting in the shadows behind one of the buildings.
"Evening, guvner," came a whisper to the right, and I confess I was startled by it, though Vail was not.
"Ah, Williams," said Vail, "you and the lads have done excellent work tonight."
A boy, not more than twelve years old, stepped into sight. "Found 'em, just like you said. Been watching all night but no-one's come or gone." He pointed down the way. "Cops showed about a half-hour ago, trying to sneak up on the place. They ain't so good at hiding, but I don't think they've been spotted neither. Course, they ain't spotted me either."
Vail flipped a coin to him; it glittered silver in the moonlight. The boy caught it deftly. "For your efforts," he said. "You've certainly earned it. Now make yourself scarce; things will get dangerous soon and this is no place for a boy your age."
The boy grinned. "Pleasure doin' business with you, Mr. Vail," he said, and melted off into the night.
Vail nodded in the direction the boy had pointed. "I see Wilkins is in place. Any moment now... Ah!"
The sound of a distant pistol shot rang out, shattering the stillness of the night. Instantly a lantern flared to light some distance ahead of us, and I saw Wilkins and three other policeman illuminated in the glow. They dashed up the rickety steps leading to the back porch of the building, and with a crash, kicked open the back door. A moment later they disappeared inside, and almost at the same instant there was the sound of shattering glass and a muffled cry, as if two people were struggling.
"Hold steady, Pendleton," said Vail, taking my arm as I started forward. "Wilkins and his men can hold their own. This drama is not yet played out, I suspect."
After several moments, the commotion within died down somewhat, and the flickering glow of the lantern from within the doorway darkened, as if the policemen had moved into another room further into the building.
Minutes passed in silence, then Vail's hand tightened on my arm. "You see them, Pendleton?" he whispered excitedly.
Indeed, the black shapes of three or four men had appeared at the darkened doorway. They paused for a moment there, then headed down the steps towards the docks.
"Just as I thought," said Vail. "He hopes to elude capture by water - likely he has a ship standing by; it is the reason he chose this place. Come!"
We hurried stealthily up the dock, closing on the moving men, Vail leading.
We had approached to within a few yards of the small group, at the foot of one of the many piers jutting out into the water, when some noise gave us away, and they whirled to face us.
I was brought up short by the face of the first man. "Wilkins!" I said, shocked. He held something box-shaped in his hands, and he recoiled from me as if struck. Another man stood behind him; the candle-seller. Farther back a dark-haired girl struggled weakly in the grasp of yet third man - a young looking fellow, well dressed and handsome.
"Don't be fooled, Pendleton!" cried Vail, leaping forward. "It is him!"
The candle-seller sprang between Wilkins and I with a snarl, and the inspector backed off a half-step, looking about wildly. The third man snatched the dark-haired girl up, throwing her over his shoulder as if she weighed no more than a bundle of rags, and began sprinting down the pier. Vail rushed after him.
I already had my pistol in hand - had I not, I believe I would have been lost. For the candle-seller sprang upon me so quickly that I fired only reflexively, and I was thrown backwards under the weight of his attack to land hard on my back, the air driven from my lungs.
The man's strength was unearthly. Though I fought him his fingers were like iron, and they closed on my throat in a crushing grip that I am certain would have meant the end of me - except that even as his fingers closed on me his eyes glazed over with death. My shot had been true, and the ball had pierced the man's heart, slaying him almost instantly.
Still, his death grasp was locked in place, and I was forced to bend all my strength to the task of prying his hands from their hold. While I wrestled, helplessly pinned, I was peripherally aware that Wilkins rushed past me, heading in the opposite direction from that which the other policeman had taken, away from the dock.
Farther down the pier I heard a shrill scream and the sound of a pistol shot.
I managed to pull the body of the candle-seller off of me, and rolled onto my side. I saw that the other third man had nearly reached the midpoint of the pier (there was a sleek-looking sailing sloop tied up to the floating dock at the end - no doubt that had been his objective) before Vail had caught up with him. What had happened in the exchange that followed I could not guess, but the policeman lay slumped face down on the dock and Vail was stretched over the railing, grasping desperately at the dark-haired girl's hand.
She dangled precariously in open space, a sharp drop to the rocks below. She screamed again as I rose, and I could see the Vail was close to losing his grip.
"Hurry Pendleton!" he cried. "I am overbalancing!"
I rushed down the pier towards him. Behind me, nearer the building, I heard the whinny and galloping of horses as a carriage rolled away and charged into the night.
I reached Vail just in time, grasping his waist and hauling him back to safety. Together the two of us managed to pull the dark-haired woman over the railing. She was exhausted from her ordeal, and did little more than slump against Vail, thanking him over and over again with a thick Dementlieu accent.
Bearing lanterns, Inspector Lambert and his men appeared on the pier, coming in response to the two pistol shots.
* * *
"What a bloody fool I was," said Vail again. We were back in our rooms on High Street, the evening's excitement over. Vail was in a foul mood, owing to the escape of 'Du Malaise'. "I had him, Pendleton! I had him in my grasp and lost him!"
"The girl was rescued, at least," I pointed out. "In that much you succeeded. Besides, you can hardly claim that his escape was your fault."
"But it was, Pendleton, it was! He had two separate escape plans. Had I taken that possibility into account... And the girl was saved, yes, though it may be weeks before she recovers fully. But four of Lambert's men are either dead or missing - including Inspector Wilkins. I assumed - wrongly - that what we faced was a man. A man with dangerous powers, but a man nonetheless. Thus when I recognized Wilkins and the candle-seller, I was certain that the third man was the mentalist, and I pursued him accordingly. But it wasn't him, Pendleton - it wasn't him!"
"But how can you be certain?"
"Because when I shot the man, none of the other minions ceased to struggle. Cut off the head, Pendleton, and the body is useless. It was quite plain that I had not cut off the head. No, 'Du Malaise', whoever or whatever he is, fled in the opposite direction - with Inspector Wilkins."
"Wilkins?" I asked, surprised. "But Wilkins was alone."
"Have you forgotten the object Wilkins was carrying, Pendleton? It was boxlike, and covered, around the same general size as a birdcage."
"Surely you are not suggesting that the mentalist was within that!" I said, my skin crawling at the thought. What manner of horror could this 'Du Malaise' be?
"That is exactly what I am suggesting, Pendleton. Indeed, there can be no other explanation. As to what manner of creature it was... Perhaps even the reknowned Dr. Van Richten would have trouble putting a name to it. Certainly it is nothing I have ever before encountered."
"Poor Wilkins," I said. "Stripped of his will; a slave to that... thing. Will we never see him again?"
Vail was silent a moment. "I cannot say. As for the thing we faced... yes, I think I may say with some certainty that our paths will cross again. And gods help us if I fail again."
* * *
Author's note: This is the longest Hector Vail story so far, and though it is not so long as to constitute a novelette by any means, it is a fair sized short story. I had not planned for it to run so long and did my best to shorten it, but the subject demanded some amount of detail. This is also a different kind of story than the first two. By no means is it a 'locked room - figure-it-out' type scenario. I imagine most readers familiar with Ravenloft would have guessed who the principle villains were by the halfway point, if not sooner. But Vail and Pendleton did know - could not know, so the journey had to be made. This is the first time 'famous' people have been introduced into a Vail story. Of course 90% of the people who seek Vail's help are going to be regular folks, but sometimes even famous people will cross his path, and it makes for an interesting dynamic. Most Vail stories will involve ordinary 'non-famous' people, but there will be a few... look for people like Jandar Sunstar, Alanik Ray, Van Richten, etc to at least get mentioned in future stories. Also, there were a few things/references in this one to different interesting items I picked up from the listserv. I hope nobody gets angry about me including them; I only meant to compliment the extremely good ideas I saw. 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' or something like that. :)