By: Cora Buhlert
* * * *
The ballroom of the Hotel Mandalay was gleaming with Art Deco splendour and sparkling with a thousand lights. A big band was playing swing, waiters were flitting to and fro between men in tuxedoes and women in evening gowns.
On the dancefloor, Constance Allen - orphan, heiress and noted beauty - was whirling around with Police Captain Justin O’Grady. For an instant, she was drawn close to O’Grady’s chest. Almost immediately, the captain let go of her again, nearly stumbling over his own feet. A flush of red raced across his stoic face. Constance smiled. Apparently, Justin had just realized that she was not wearing a brassiere.
“Underwear”, Monsieur Gilbert, couturier to the rich and the famous, had exclaimed in horror, when Constance had pointed out to him the one flaw in the elegant gown of cream-coloured satin he had tailored onto her statuesque frame, “One does not wear underwear with a gown by Gilbert. Do you think La Garbo wears underwear? Jean Harlow? Norma Shearer? Underwear is for the fat and the ugly. A perfect body does not need it.”
Hearing Monsieur Gilbert call her body perfect in his faux French accent had done much to persuade Constance to accept his rather unconventional ideas about proper female dress. Besides, it was a stunning gown and set off her titian hair to perfection. And so Constance had finally agreed to do away with the brassiere, though she had drawn the line at panties. Never, she had told the couturier, would she be seen in public without panties. So, reluctantly, Monsieur Gilbert had come up with something silky and slinky and nigh invisible for underneath and widened the flare of the hip-hugging skirt so it would not show.
Old Mrs Van Aken drifted past in the arms of a potbellied councilman and Constance couldn’t help but wonder how that pinnacle of respectability would react if she knew that Constance was not wearing a brassiere tonight. Most likely, she would be shocked. After all, Mrs Van Aken probably even went to bed laced and boned and corseted up to her neck. It was a miracle that she could breathe at all.
Whereas Constance was beginning to enjoy her scandalous lack of undergarments. The satin lay lightly on her bare skin, and in the overcrowded, overheated air of the ballroom it was a relief to be able to draw a deep breath, unconstrained by wires and laces and elastics.
On the downside, Justin O’Grady was very careful to keep his distance, almost as if Constance had suddenly become afflicted with lepers. But then, she hadn’t purchased this gown in the expectation of dancing with Justin. She had hoped she would be dancing with Richard, the man she loved, the man she hoped to marry someday. As usual, fate had different ideas.
The music stopped and Justin led her from the dancefloor, always careful to keep at least a foot of air between them. He was not going to ask her to dance again tonight, that much was obvious. Well, maybe Mrs Van Aken hadn’t quite exhausted that potbellied politician yet. After all, a single girl at a ball couldn’t be too choosy.
“God, I need a drink”, Justin announced, “How about you?”
Constance nodded in agreement and watched as he made his way across the ballroom to the bar only to find himself accosted by Commissioner Johnston’s wife. She sighed. This might take a while.
Beside her, two elderly women were discussing the latest series of crimes to hit the city. Scraps of their conversation drifted over to Constance.
“...calls himself Baron Tormento...”
“...shot George Harriman, can you believe it...”
“...they found the Porter girl, crucified and nude...”
“...impaled on a spike, a most grisly sight...”
In spite of the heat, she suppressed a shudder. Where was Richard, she wondered. What perils was he facing? Damn it, she should be by his side, aiding him. Not playing wallflower at the annual charity ball of the “Police Widows and Orphans Association”.
Suddenly, Constance felt a hand on her bare shoulder. She spun around, only to find herself face to face with Justin O’Grady, a glass in each hand. Martini for Constance, Bourbon for himself.
“Back already?”, she asked, taking the glass from him, “I saw the Mrs Johnston corner you and resigned myself to waiting at least half an hour for my drink.”
Justin grinned. “I excused myself and told her that there was a beautiful woman waiting for me.” The grin vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Constance followed Justin’s gaze and saw that Mrs Johnston was staring at them from across the dancefloor. Like Justin she knew that the commissioner’s wife was an infernal gossip and she could imagine only too well what tales she would be spreading within the hour. Unlike Justin, however, Constance did not care.
“Damn, it’s hot in here”, Justin exclaimed, theatrically wiping his forehead with a handkerchief, “I need air. If you’d excuse me, please...” He bowed and was gone.
Constance looked after him as he strutted towards the huge plate glass doors that led out onto the terrace. She could, she spontaneously decided, use some fresh air herself. So she spun around in a whirl of cream-coloured satin and sauntered after Justin, Martini in hand.
The evening air was pleasantly cool, though unfortunately it also served to illustrate one major drawback of bra-less existence. The rooftop terrace of the Hotel Mandalay was deserted except for a young police sergeant who was making out with a platinum haired beauty on a deck chair beside the pool. Constance ignored them and made her way to O’Grady. She found him leaning at the balustrade, looking down at the streets and houses far below. Or maybe he was just staring into his whiskey glass. It was hard to tell.
“Enjoying the quiet?”, she asked.
“You shouldn’t be out here.”
“Why not? The air in there truly was beyond stuffy.”
“You’re giving Mrs Johnston ideas.”
“Screw Mrs Johnston!” O’Grady’s eyebrows rose at that unladylike expression. “I am a happily engaged woman. Even if I’m without a partner tonight.”
O’Grady sighed. “Tell me the truth...”
Constance flinched as she always did when someone asked her that particular question.
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy dancing with the most beautiful woman in the room tonight...”
She flashed him a smile.
“...but really, Constance, what is it that’s keeping Richard from his duties? Again.”
Her smile faded. “He’s working”, she said.
“Hacking away on one of those damned novels of his, I bet.”
The smile returned, though this time around it seemed forced. “He’s on a deadline”, she said apologetically.
“He’s always on a deadline”, O’Grady replied and took a sip of Bourbon. “Honestly, I don’t understand why Richard bothers with those silly pulp novels in the first place. Typing his fingers off, hacking out serial novels at half a cent a word - why? It can’t be the money, I know Richard doesn’t need any.”
Constance looked out across the darkened city sprinkled with pinpoints of light. Somewhere out there was Richard, risking his life to bring justice to the backstreets and alleys, protecting those whom no one else protected. True, Richard Blakemore wrote novels. Cheap, gaudy pulp novels about a masked avenger called the Silencer. But that was not all he did. For by night, Richard Blakemore donned a mask of polished steel to stalk the streets in the guise of the Silencer.
“Maybe he likes what he’s doing”, she said quietly, “Maybe he thinks it’s important.”
O’Grady took another sip of Bourbon. “Okay, so he wants to write novels. Fine, I can accept that. But why can’t he write proper novels like Hemingway or that Steinbeck fellow? Why must he write for those damned junk mags? Even worse, he’s glorifying crime. The Silencer, the real one, is a problem. A huge problem. And Richard is turning him into a hero.”
“Many people”, Constance said pointedly, “believe that the Silencer is a hero. I happen to be one of them.”
O’Grady sighed. “Still carrying a torch for that fellow?”
“He saved my life.” On more than one occasion.
“Yes, I know that the Silencer rescued you from the Scarlet Executioner and his guillotine. And I realize how horrible that experience must have been for you...”
Involuntarily, Constance’s mind flashed back almost two years. She saw herself bound to the guillotine again, she felt the rough caress of the leather straps on her bare skin, she saw the gleaming blade hovering above her, ready to strike, ready to cut her throat at the throw of a lever. No, Justin, had absolutely no idea how horrible that experience had been.
“...but that doesn’t change the fact that the Silencer is a criminal. A killer. No matter how noble his motives, he just can’t take the law into his own hands.”
“Maybe if the law wasn’t out partying...”, Constance said with a glance at the assembly of police officers, prosecutors, judges and politicians waltzing behind the plate glass windows of the ballroom, “...while a gruesome killer stalks the city, then maybe then there wouldn’t be a need for the Silencer.”
“Dammit, Constance, that was a low blow! I have my people working doubleshifts. I have every available man on the street. We will track down Baron Tormento and we will find the missing girls...”
But would he find them in time?
Justin would have said more, but at that moment they were interrupted by a waiter. “Captain O’Grady? There is someone waiting for you downstairs. A police officer.” The waiter wrinkled his nose, as if the fact that there was a police officer in the hotel was incredibly distasteful to him. Which was strange, considering that the hotel was hosting the “Police Widows and Orphans Association” charity ball.
“Yes, of course, I’ll be down immediately”, O’Grady said. He looked spooked. Without another word he turned around and followed the waiter.
Constance took another look over the nighttime city. There was only one reason why Justin would be called away in the middle of the ball. Baron Tormento, the villain who had already murdered two young women. The very man the Silencer was hunting. So if there was news of the Baron, Richard would certainly want to know.
Although, come to think about it, there was another possible reason for O’Grady being called away. The Silencer. So whatever the reason for Justin’s departure, it was either about Richard or about the man he was hunting. In any case, Constance had to hear it. Determinedly, she picked up the train of her ballgown and went after O’Grady.
Constance attracted some attention as she slipped through various doors labeled “Staff only”, but no one tried to stop her. She caught up with O’Grady at the kitchen entrance. Apparently, the hotel would not tolerate the blot of a police uniform on a more public part of the premises.
The kitchen opened onto a darkened alley. Light spilled onto the pavement, somewhat relieving the gloom. Constance spotted O’Grady conferring with a uniformed patrolman. A second policeman stood close by. Strangely enough, there was no squad car to be seen. Quite possibly it was parked behind the black delivery truck, which blocked half the alley.
Neither Justin nor the two patrolmen had noticed her, they were much too engaged in whatever it was they were discussing. Constance was still too far away to make out words over the noise of the kitchen. But she could tell from the tense expression on O’Grady’s face that it was bad news. She was just about to call out, when a most alarming turn of events stopped her dead in her tracks.
One of the uniformed men suddenly pulled a curious object from his pocket. An object that looked almost like a bottle of perfume. As soon as the bottle appeared, O’Grady took a step backwards in alarm. He reached beneath his tuxedo jacket where even on this strictly social occasion he carried his gun. Justin O’Grady was a quick draw and excellent shot as Constance had herself had ample opportunity to observe. The man with the bottle, however, was quicker. He gave the rubber balloon a little squeeze and O’Grady collapsed. He would have hit the pavement, had not the second man caught his limp body just in time.
Constance spun around and dashed back towards the light and safety of the kitchen. Out here, she could not help Justin. She was unarmed and outnumbered. No, best to return to the hotel and raise the alarm. All those police officers at the ball would have the entire neighbourhood cordoned off in no time. What was more, she had to find Richard and let him know what happened.
She had almost reached the kitchen door, when all of a sudden the heel of one of her jeweled sandals got caught in a pothole. Constance stumbled and let out an involuntary cry. She got herself under control again almost immediately, but it was too late. The fake policemen had already spotted her. One of them was advancing towards Constance, bottle in hand, while the other continued dragging Justin’s unconscious body towards the black truck.
Constance was screaming now, screaming at the top of her lungs, praying that someone, anyone would hear. But the hissing of stoves and clatter of pots and chatter of kitchen personnel drowned out all other sounds and no one came to her aid. She tried to get up, run those last few yards to the safety of the kitchen, but she had sprained her ankle in the fall and found that she could not move. She was trapped.
The uniformed man came closer, ever closer. Constance felt his eyes on her body, felt them lingering on her breasts, clearly outlined beneath the thin satin fabric. Her hand fumbled for her mesh bag, which she had lost during the fall. After a few tense seconds, she found it and opened the bag. True, she might be unarmed, but she was far from defenseless.
She let the man come as close as possible. She let him bend down, let him point the nozzle of the spray bottle at her. Only then did she grab something from her bag and hurled it full force into the face of the fake cop.
It was an old trick, one that had been known to women for decades. Keep a bag of ground black pepper in your purse and should someone attack you, hold your breath and throw the pepper at him. It was surprisingly effective, too. The bag caught the man square in the face and burst open, spreading fine particles of pepper all around. For a split second the fake cop just stood there, gasping. Then the pepper took effect. Tears burst from his eyes, as he doubled over in a battery of sneezes and dropped the spray bottle in the process. The bottled hit the ground and shattered into a billion pieces, spilling a pinkish liquid onto the pavement.
Constance scrambled to her feet. But first she needed air. She gaped for breath and not only inhaled the remaining pepper particles but also the fine vapours rising from the puddle of spilled liquid. And then everything around her went black.
The factory was deserted, one of the many that had closed in the wake of the great crash of '29. Sitting in the driver's seat of his black Maybach Zeppelin, Richard Blakemore checked the address again. 29 Dockside Drive. Yep, this was the place.
The lead that connected the fiendish kidnapper and extortionist Baron Tormento to this place was very promising. It was also, most likely, a trap. Which was why Richard came prepared. He buttoned up the collar of his long black coat and checked the two silver-pleated .45 automatics that were resting in the holsters beneath his arms. Finally, he adjusted the polished steel mask of the Silencer and pulled the black fedora deep into his face.
His rubber-soled shoes made hardly any sound, as he began to explore the gutted ruin, keeping his hands on the grips of his twin automatics all the time. The grounds of the former factory were pitch-black, but a gadget built into his mask - brand-new technology using infrared rays - gave him a limited range of vision. It also gave his eyes an angry red glow, which was fine by Richard. The figure of the Silencer had been designed to strike fear into the hearts of men. All the better if his eyes glowed like those of a demon straight from the deepest pits of hell. The more striking the costume, the more likely were his enemies to forget the frail human flesh beneath.
It were fiends like Baron Tormento that had driven Richard Blakemore to don the mask of the Silencer for real instead of merely spinning out his yarns on the typewriter. In essence, Tormento was a blackmailer, not unlike those despicable creatures who frightened society ladies out of their jewels in exchange for keeping their silence about some indiscretion or other. Blackmailers were scum, rats that fed on other people's fear. Tormento was worse. He was not content with baubles and bundles of dollars. No, Tormento had taken the concept of blackmail one step further. He kidnapped young girls to get a hold on their families. And instead of money, Tormento demanded favours. Criminal favours.
Judge Clayton had been the first. He had been told to let a bankrobber - a man who had shot five people and was guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt - go free in exchange for the life of his daughter. The judge was an upright man, so naturally he had refused and called in the police. For two days, every cop in the city had been on the lookout for Enid Clayton, leaving no stone unturned. They finally found her in a deserted factory quite similar this one, nude and impaled on an iron spike, not two hours after the bankrobber had been sentenced to die in the electric chair.
Jonathan Porter, vice president of Harriman's Bank, had been next. Well aware of the horrible fate of Enid Clayton, Porter had not called in the cops when his daughter Helena disappeared. Instead, he had followed Tormento's instructions to the letter. Instructions that included shooting the bank's president, George Harriman, and raiding the vault. The police found Porter in the vault, Harriman's blood still dripping from his hands. They also found Helena, in an abandoned waterfront warehouse, stripped naked and crucified. She was still alive, though just barely, her beautiful young body quivering on the cross in a macabre ballet of agony. She died on the way to the hospital and her father hanged himself in his cell two days later.
June Carvington, the daughter of industrialist Sam Carvington, was the next to vanish. Cautioned by the fate of the previous two victims, Carvington did contact the police, but also stated that he would fulfill Tormento's demands, whatever those demands might be. It had been three days since June's kidnapping now, but so far no demands were forthcoming. Perhaps, the police attention had forced Tormento to lie low. Or maybe he was just biding his time, heightening the torture of the girl's hapless father.
Finally, there was Angelica Varnese, the most mysterious case by far. Two days ago, Angelica had been reported missing by the headmistress of the convent school she attended. A few hours later, however, Angelica's father - mobster Tony Varnese - had called the police himself to report that his daughter was not missing, that she had just run away from school over some disagreement or other and that she was with her family now, safe and sound. At first glance, Varnese's story had seemed believable enough. But when the officer in charge had asked to speak to Angelica, to make sure that everything was all right, Tony Varnese had refused, saying that his daughter was tired and needed rest. What was more, nobody had seen the girl since her supposed disappearance. Hence, the police had come to the conclusion that Angelica Varnese was the fourth victim to fall into the hands of Baron Tormento and that the mob was dealing with the problem in its own way. Which would be worrisome enough, even without the life of a young girl hanging in the balance.
Four girls missing. Four people dead. Tormento was doing well, for one whose known crime career had lasted no more than two weeks. But Tormento's trail of terror would end. Tonight. Richard would make sure of that.
The informant had told him that Tormento was holding the girls in the old foundry. Thus, Richard moved with extra caution as he approached the heart of the derelict complex. There was no light here. No sounds, no sign of human occupation. Just a cluster of bats, fluttering out into the night.
The foundry was a massive building. Unlike most others, it was still largely intact. Huge double doors loomed before Richard. A chain was looped around the handles, but the padlock had been left open. Convenient. A little too convenient for Richard's taste. The further he got, the more this whole setup was smelling like a trap. Richard removed the chain and padlock, careful not to make any sound. He drew his twin .45 automatics, took a step back, kicked open the doors and stormed into the foundry.
Light hit him, blindingly bright, overloading the nightvision gadget in his mask at once. The sound came a fraction later. Laughter - hollow, mocking, metallic and seemingly coming from all directions at once. Richard did not wait for the bullets that would certainly follow. He dove sideways, both guns blazing away. He hit the floor, rolled over and finally found cover, still firing blindly at anything that made a sound. He could only hope that the girls would not be hit in the crossfire.
It was only when he had to reload that Richard noticed something was wrong. There was nobody shooting back at him. No bullets whizzing past his head or hitting the wall behind him. Just that curious metallic voice, droning on seemingly untroubled by the hot lead spewing in its direction.
"Welcome, Silencer! So kind of you to follow my invitation..."
Richard fingered for the switch of his nightvision gadget and turned it off. His eyes, their sensitivity no longer artificially enhanced, needed a few seconds to adjust themselves.
"You've been something of a pain in the behind I must say. Far more so than those idiots of the police..."
Carefully, Richard peered out from behind his cover. The building, he could now see, was empty. Empty except for an array of hot bright arc lights, the kind that was used in Hollywood studios, and four loudspeakers, set in a square roughly 25 feet across. A wire led from the doors to some kind of electrical switchboard, to set off the barrage of light and sound as soon as the door was opened. He had been suckered.
"But I bear you no grudge, Silencer. We are alike, you and me. Both hiding our face behind a mask and our identity behind a nom de guerre. I don't know why you do what you're doing and I don't care either. Live and let live."
Richard emerged from cover, one gun still in his hand, though its twin had been returned to his holster. Was Baron Tormento somewhere nearby, watching and gloating? Or was he miles away, following some fiendish plan of his own while Richard was chasing smoke out here in the boondocks?
"But a word of warning, Silencer. We can peacefully coexist, you and me, as long as you keep out of my way. But cross me and you shall suffer the consequences..."
The voice, a brief examination revealed, came from a Vitaphone-like device, prerecorded. All carefully rigged up and triggered by the slightest tug on the wire.
"To convince you of the utter seriousness of my intentions, I have left you a little present..."
More lights went on, in the back of the building. Richard aimed his gun, but it was just another step in this preprogrammed chain of events. The foundry was still empty, no one was there. Just a curious object, conical, metallic and about as tall as a man, stood in the circle of light. Tormento's "present", no doubt.
"I thought you might appreciate it..."
Richard approached the object with caution. True, the building might be empty, but that did not mean the gift was harmless. What had set off lights and sound might just as well trigger a bomb.
The object turned out to be an upright container of steel with vaguely human features. It resembled a sarcophagus, though Richard feared its purpose was far blacker.
"You know what this is, don't you, Silencer?"
He had read about such contraptions. Iron virgin they were called, a torture and execution device from Medieval times. Most likely, true iron virgins had never existed - the surviving examples such as the famous one from Nuremberg were forgeries dating back to the previous century. Nonetheless, the legend of the iron virgin and the horror it evoked persisted throughout the ages. And with good reason, too. For upon closer examination, he noticed that eyeholes had been cut into the virgin's expressionless steel face. And from behind those apertures, a pair of human eyes, bright blue and widened in nameless terror, was staring out at him.
Richard gripped the handles at the front of the figure, a sinking feeling in his stomach. The contraption opened with a moanful creak, followed by the squishy sound of razor-sharp spikes being withdrawn from human flesh. Inside the iron virgin, there was the body of a young girl, nude, her soft white skin, tender breasts, even the most private parts of her youthful body pierced by the cruel spikes. For an instant, the girl just stood there, blood dripping from a dozen wounds. Then, abruptly, she collapsed onto the floor.
Richard bent down to examine her, feeling for her pulse, though deep inside his heart he knew she was dead. He turned the body over, forcing himself to look into her face. The girl was staring up at him in silent accusation. If only he'd been a little quicker, if only he hadn't wasted time shooting at phantoms, then maybe he could have saved her. Now she was dead. Dead because the Silencer had failed.
The dead girl, he noticed, was neither June Carvington nor Angelica Varnese. No, this was a girl Richard had never seen before. Another young woman, fallen prey to the twisted games of Baron Tormento.
"In case you're wondering, Silencer, she was nobody. A nameless girl taken off the streets, a tenement dweller that won't be missed. But cross me again, Silencer, and the next victim of the virgin's kiss may be someone you know, someone close to you, someone you love."
Richard closed the dead girl's eyes and clenched his fists. Tormento would pay for this. There was no place left for him to hide. The Silencer would track him down. And then Tormento would pay. Pay for all the lives he had so casually snuffed out.
When Constance came to again, every bone in her body was hurting. She wanted to move, but could not. With some difficulty she tried to open her eyes and was immediately assaulted by a wave of nausea. An aftereffect of the drug that had knocked her out, no doubt.
Once she succeeded in keeping her eyes open, the first thing she saw was her cream satin gown, now soiled and torn. Her shoes were gone, as was most of her jewelry. For some inexplicable reason, she was standing upright, bosom thrust outward, arms raised high above her head. She tried to settle in a more comfortable position, only to find herself thwarted by the rattle of iron. Only then did she realize that her body had not assumed this unpleasant position of its own accord. No, Constance had been tied up like this.
With notable effort, she tilted her head upwards, suppressing the desire to throw up. Her hands were encircled by heavy manacles that were connected to a chain. The iron bands were biting into her wrists, the chain looked thick and sturdy. No chance of wriggling her way out.
Constance let her head drop down again and closed her eyes, still fighting down waves of nausea. Her arms were aching due to the unnatural position in which she had been chained. Breathing was difficult. Constance had once read that when people were crucified, they did not die of bloodloss due to the nails driven into the palms of their hands and soles of their feet. No, they died of asphyxiation because of the position in which their bodies were nailed to the cross. Was that what would happen, what was happening to her?
Constance gaped for air, her lungs straining against the bodice of her gown. Calm down, she told herself. Panic had never helped anybody. Think. What would the Silencer do in this situation? What would Richard do?
The first thing he would do was look around, try to find out where he was, locate possible avenues of escape. So Constance forced her eyes open and did just that. She was in a windowless chamber. A naked lightbulb was dangling from the ceiling, but it was too weak to pierce the gloom that swallowed up the far corners of the room. Sinister forms rose from the shadows, forms that vaguely resembled machinery, the purpose of which was not discernible.
The chain which bound Constance was attached to a heavy iron ring. Similar rings were set into the wall at regular intervals. Most of them were empty, awaiting prisoners. Not so the ring next to Constance’s. A body was chained to the ring, a man’s body. He was dressed in black tuxedo pants and a once elegant shirt that was now soiled and torn beyond recognition. Unruly dark hair fell into his face and on his left arm he wore a golden wristwatch. A shiver ran down her spine. She knew this watch. It belonged to Justin O’Grady.
Of course, since they had been kidnapped together it was only logical that they would also be imprisoned together. But who had taken them? And why? Constance did not know. But maybe O’Grady did. “Justin”, she called out to the limp figure next to her, “Justin.” No reply. Perhaps he was still unconscious. Or dead.
After repeating his name for a couple of times, Constance finally did get a reply, though from a wholly unexpected direction. “H...Hello” It was scarcely more than a whisper and it seemed to come from somewhere in the shadows at the edge of her vision. “Is... is there anybody here?”
Constance turned her head towards the source of the voice. Her eyes had adjusted to the gloom by now and so she could make out a flash of white at the far end of the wall. A pale glint that was shaped vaguely like a human being. Another prisoner no doubt.
“My name is Constance Allen”, she called out to the pallid form in the distance, “and this is Police Captain Justin O’Grady. And who are you?”
“I'm June Carvington”, the form replied, “There was another girl here. Angelica. They... they took her away and... and I think they’ve hurt her. He likes to tell us what he’ll do to us, you know. Horrible things. He says that he will punish us and that he wants to hear us scream. I... I’m so afraid that he’s hurt Angelica.”
No need asking who “he” was. Baron Tormento, the mysterious villain behind the recent kidnappings.
“June, do you have any idea where we are?”
“I... I don’t know. One moment I was taking Puffy for a walk in the park and then... then I was suddenly here. I don’t know what happened.”
“Think, June. Any little detail can be important.”
“I don’t remember anything. I’m sorry.” She broke off, sobbing.
It was useless trying to get anything more out of June Carvington. The girl was terrified and with good reason, too. Four girls had been kidnapped by Baron Tormento. Two had been returned, dead, their young bodies broken and mutilated. The exact details of the girls’ torments had been withheld from the public, but rumours were running wild in the city. And Constance knew exactly what had happened to those girls, how they had suffered. She had seen the police photos which Richard had managed to procure somehow.
Enid Clayton, nineteen years of age, impaled on a spike like a pitted chicken in a rotisserie. And Helena Porter, aged eighteen, crucified. She remembered every detail of the photographs. Those nude young bodies, not yet fully ripened and yet already cold and dead. The blood, the faces twisted by pain beyond human imagination. Anger rose within her, raw anger. It lent strength to her body, her muscles. With all her might she tore at the chains, chafing her wrists raw in the process. But it was to no avail. The iron was too strong for her.
Constance’s strength ebbed along with her fury leaving behind only exhaustion and despair. June Carvington was still sobbing softly to herself. And Constance just wanted to join her, wanted to cry until her tears ran out. A moan startled her, snapped her out of the despair that threatened to overcome her. There was another moan, followed by the rattle of chains. O’Grady. He was finally coming to.
“Justin”, Constance called, “Justin, wake up.”
More rattles and moans. Apparently, O’Grady was going through the same painful awakening process that Constance herself had just been through. His head snapped upright, sagged again and then slowly turned. “Uh... what... where...” His eyes struggled open, gradually focussing on his fellow prisoner. “Constance, what...?” He erupted in a stream of profanities, as he became aware of their predicament. “Damn little bastard gassed me!”
“Didn’t you realize that the two troopers were fake?”
O’Grady shook his head, rattling his chains in the process. “Sure, I didn’t know the men. But that’s not unusual, they said they were from a different precinct. And I was so focussed on the message that I didn’t take a closer look at the messenger. Damn, I should never have been so stupid!”
“That message... - what was it?”
“What do you think? It was about the one case that’s been keeping every cop in this city on his toes.”
Baron Tormento. And the kidnappings. Of course. What other bait could have induced Justin to drop his guard? But if Baron Tormento had decided to kidnap one of his chief pursuers, it could only mean one thing: The police were getting close.
“He said they’d found one of the girls, Angelica Varnese. Or rather they found part of her. The head...”
A scream pierced the darkness. “Angelica, no! No!”
Startled, Justin looked around and finally became aware of the third prisoner. “Who?”
“June Carvington.” The girl must have overheard her talk with Justin. “She’s been here since she was kidnapped it seems and she’s terrified.”
“Miss Carvington is here?”
“Angelica Varnese as well”, Constance whispered, “June said they took her away some time ago.” She exchanged a glance with Justin and shuddered, imagining the horrible fate that might have befallen the poor girl. June, meanwhile, had started to cry again.
Before anybody could say another word, they were interrupted by a creak like the moan of a lost soul. A stab of light fell into the chamber. An instant later, the room was bathed in brilliance, blindingly bright. The shadowy forms coalesced into sinister machines covered in spikes and chains, devices that looked like they came straight from the torture chambers of Torquemada himself. The room itself appeared to be underground, brick-walled and low-ceilinged. There was a single door set into the opposite wall. The door was open now and two men in black suits and black hoods were dragging something in. A body. A naked body. The naked body of a young girl. Angelica Varnese. Straggled black hair was falling into her face. Her lightly bronzed skin was covered with angry red streaks. She had been tortured.
The two thugs were dragging Angelica's body as if it were a sack of potatoes. At first, Constance feared the girl was dead. But then she emitted a low-pitched moan and a shudder ran across her mutilated body. So at least Angelica was still alive.
Angelica’s near unconscious body was chained up next to June Carvington. Like her fellow prisoner, June was naked. Only a tuft of pale pubic hair protected her modesty from the prying eyes of the two goons. The men were rough, lewdly fingering the bodies of their hapless prisoners. One of them pinched the nipples of June's small firm breasts, the other was stroking the more ample forms of the unconscious Angelica.
"Leave them alone, bastards", O'Grady exclaimed, which earned him a slap across the face.
"And who's gonna stop us? You, copper? Lemme tell you something. When we're finished with those two chickies, we'll do the same to your broad."
As if to prove his words, one of the goons grabbed hold of Constance's gown and ripped it open down to the navel. "What's a fine broad like you want with that stinking cop anyway?" His eyes were hungry, his stinking breath was in her face. "I'm gonna show you what a real man's made of, bitch!" His fingers were clawing into the slinky satin again. One more pull and Constance would be left as naked as June and Angelica. She closed her eyes, bracing herself for the inevitable.
"Leave her, Janos", a sharp voice ordered.
A man stood in the doorway. He was in uniform. But this uniform had never been worn by any army. No, this was a fantasy uniform, glittering like a Christmas tree under the load of countless medals, ribbons, tassels and brass buttons. His hair was a washed out red, as was his precisely clipped beard. His eyes, finally, were hidden behind a domino mask. In anyone else, this get-up would have seemed theatrical, even silly. But in him, the mask was menacing rather than melodramatic. And the tinselly uniform did not make him look like a refuge from some operetta, but lent him a sinister authority. So this was Baron Tormento. Three men were with him, clad in black suits and black hoods like the two that had brought in Angelica.
"I must apologize for keeping you waiting", the Baron said in tones that were smooth, suave, conversational, "but Miss Varnese's family has been considerably less than cooperative and required a token of my seriousness."
"What have you done to her, bastard?", Justin growled.
"No much. Miss Varnese just had an encounter with the whipping post, that's all. She should recover in due time." Tormento crossed the room and came to a halt directly in front of Justin. "By the way, welcome, Captain O'Grady. It's a pleasure to meet you at last. And your most charming companion..." He threw a questioning glance at Constance. "What was your name again, Miss?"
"Allen. Constance Allen." She tried to keep her voice as neutral as possible, as if Tormento was just someone to whom she was being introduced at a party and not a quadruple murderer.
Justin, however, was in no mood to make small talk. "Let us go, madman! Let us go and maybe, just maybe you won't end up in the electric chair..."
"Do you honestly believe you are in any position to make threats?", Tormento asked. His voice was still amiable, but there was an edge of steel beneath his civilized tones. "I need only wag a finger to order your execution. But have no fear, Captain, I shan't kill you. At least not yet. You've given me quite a chase and I value a worthy opponent. There are so few of them around. Just two, in fact. You and that Silencer chap. And he has been dealt with."
He has been dealt with? Oh God, Richard! What had this monster done with Richard?
"I must confess, Captain, for a while I suspected you and he were one and the same."
"The Silencer. You think I'm the Silencer. That's ridiculous."
"Yes, it is quite clear now that you are not him." Tormento stroked his beard. "Still, it would have explained a lot of things. But back to business. I want you to call off your troops, O'Grady. At once."
"The hell I will..."
"Oh, but you will. You see, Captain, I had you brought here to demonstrate to you the sorry fate that awaits Miss Carvington and Miss Varnese if my commands are not obeyed. But now chance has given me an even better demonstration object. The most lovely Miss Allen." Tormento turned to his men. "Take her to the rack!"
Two of the black-clad goons stepped forward. "Leave her alone", Justin yelled. One of the men produced a ring of keys and proceeded to open Constance's manacles. Suddenly free of her bonds, released of the pressure on her chest and her spine, she collapsed and would have fallen had not one of the men caught her just in time. Her relief was only short, for the men dragged her across the room and dumped her down on a wooden board about the size of a door. Bands of iron were set onto the four corners of the board and before Constance knew what was happening the two goons swiftly fastened these bands around her wrists and ankles. Soon she was bound once more, spread-eagled on her back.
One of the goons let his hand run down her armpit, caressing her right breast through the thin fabric of her gown. Constance twisted, but she could not escape his loathsome touch. "Nice", the man said, "Very nice." His other hand was slowly pushing the remnants of her skirt upwards, exposing her silken thighs.
"Stop that, Janos. There'll be time enough for play later. Now pull her up!"
There was the squeal of a chain running over a rusty pulley. Slowly, the wooden board to which Constance was chained was brought into an upright position.
"You are familiar with my work I assume, Captain?", Tormento said, "You have seen what happened to dear little Enid and sweet little Helena. Unfortunately, you haven't had the chance to see the lovely little surprise that I left for our masked friend, but I can assure you it was quite delicious."
"You are a monster, Tormento!"
"Might be. But at the moment, I am the monster that is holding the life of your beloved in his hands. Literally. Show him, Milos!"
The board to which Constance had been chained was hovering above a pit. One of Tormento's henchmen pulled a lever and something began to rise from the pit. An iron platform, studded with spikes of steel, each a foot high and razor-sharp. A bellows was attached to one side of the device. Constance stared down at the nail-studded platform at her feet, a queasy feeling rising in her stomach.
"This most unique device is based upon those used in the torture chambers of the Spanish inquisition", Tormento explained, "Though I have added a few refinements of my own. The platform to which your charming companion has been tied, Captain, is suspended only by this chain." As if to emphasize his words, Tormento rattled the chain. The platform swayed precariously and Constance held her breath.
"Oh, you need have no fear, my sweet. This chain is quite sturdy. It runs across the pulley to this wheel here. By turning the wheel, I can tighten the chain or loosen it. Which allows me to tilt the platform to which the young lady has been strapped. I can tilt it backwards..." He gave the wheel the smallest of twists and Constance suddenly found herself inclined backwards by a few inches until she could no longer see the spikes at her feet. "...or forwards..." Abruptly, the wheel reversed direction. Constance was pulled upwards again, but instead of coming to a halt at the top, the platform immediately tilted downwards again. "...allowing me to slowly lower the young lady onto the spikes..."
It was no more than an inch actually, not nearly close enough for the spikes to pose any danger. Nevertheless, the sensation of being suspended over an array of sharp spikes was most unpleasant.
Tormento stepped away from the wheel and bent down to run a finger across the tip of one of the spikes. He held up his bleeding finger as if to demonstrate their sharpness. Then he put the finger into his mouth and licked away the droplet of blood.
"Have you ever seen a device like this applied, O'Grady? It's a most stimulating sight. That moment when the spikes pierce the soft white skin and enter the tender flesh - almost like the deflowering of a virgin girl. The spikes are arranged in such a way that they miss all vital organs and arteries. The victims take a long time to die. Every movement drives the spikes even deeper into their flesh. So they have no choice but to lie still, watching their life drain away drop by drop by drop. The spikes are heated from below, by the way, cauterizing the wounds they inflict and thus prolonging the victim's agony for hours. Of course, sometimes the victims do pass out, but that can easily be remedied by applying smelling salts, allowing the victim to savour her torment to the fullest. A most exquisite instrument of death, wouldn't you say?"
This man was insane, Constance realized. Whatever he hoped to gain by his blackmail ploys, whether it was money, power or something else altogether, that was not the reason he was doing all this. No, the real reason why Tormento tortured young women to death was because he enjoyed it. There was no reasoning with such a man. No bargaining. Unless she somehow managed to break free - which was impossible for her bonds were solid iron - Constance was doomed.
"Now, O'Grady, for a start I want you to call off your troops."
"You know I can't do that, Tormento. I don't have the authority..."
"Call off you troops or Miss Allen here will have a rather intimate encounter with this bed of spikes."
For a fraction of a second, Constance caught Justin's eyes. Like herself, he knew that arguing with Tormento was futile, that there was no hope for either of them. Nevertheless, he had to try. "For God's sake, Tormento, let her go. She has nothing to do with this. Take me if you must. But let her go."
"So you would suffer the spikes in her stead? How very noble of you, O'Grady! But unfortunately, I cannot oblige. You see, I know your type. You would let yourself be strapped to the rack, you would face the spikes, silent and stoic, probably not even crying out as they pierce your limbs. And through it all, you wouldn't say a single word. You would endure the ordeal and in the end you would die, but you wouldn't give me what I want. And we can't have that, can we?"
He let a gloved hand run down Constance's body, a cold and loathsome touch bare of any pity. "But you will not stand by and watch the woman you love suffer."
"You're mistaken", Constance began, "We're not..."
"Miss Allen is just a good friend, nothing more..."
"Don't play me for stupid", Tormento hissed, "I've got eyes. And however you choose to define your relationship with Miss Allen, I know that you will not stand by and let her suffer. When the hot iron caresses her soft white skin...", his revolting fingers stroked Constance's half-exposed thigh, "...and leaves its bloody mark, then O'Grady, then you will obey my every command."
"He's lying, Justin. He will kill me, whatever you do, just as he killed Enid and Helena."
With startling abruptness, Tormento struck Constance right across the face. "That, Miss Allen, was quite enough out of you. Milos, let her down!"
The pulley shrieked and Constance fell, fell towards the razor-sharp spikes. Her fall lasted barely a second, yet to Constance it seemed an eternity, as she saw the spikes coming closer, ever closer. And in spite of her resolve to endure this ordeal in silence, she cried out.
There was a screech and the pulley stopped, the chain yanked to a halt. Constance was left hanging in a slightly tilted position, suspended above the deadly spikes.
A ghastly laugh echoed through the chamber. “Did you hear that, O'Grady? The steel has not yet touched her flesh and already she screams. So, will you release your lady love and follow my commands?"
"What do you want me to do?", O'Grady asked, resignation in his voice.
"To begin with I want you to call off your troops."
"I can't do that, Tormento. The commissioner..."
"Ah yes, Commissioner Johnston. A real annoyance and unfortunately, a man without a weak spot to exploit. I'd actually be doing him a favour if I took that gossipy wife of his. Therefore, O'Grady, I want you to get rid of the commissioner for me. Kill him! And for goodness sake, don't make a mess of it like that idiot Porter."
"That's all you have to say? Milos, some more please!"
Again the squeak of metal on metal. The platform was lowered another couple of inches. One of the black-clad goons was pumping the bellows and Constance could feel searing heat rising up from the bed of spikes.
"So, O'Grady, what is your answer?"
"Go to hell! When I get my hands free, I swear I will..."
"Oh, really! Milos!"
The pulley screeched again. The spikes came closer, ever closer, their red-hot tips about to pierce her flesh. Pain exploded in her legs and Constance knew that one of the iron nails had touched flesh. She was being impaled, impaled alive. Unable to contain her terror any longer, she screamed. A long agonized scream.
Then, suddenly, the pain stopped. The pulley shrieked in protest, as the chain reversed its direction. Constance was pulled upwards again until her body hovered a mere half inch above the red hot spikes.
The heat was everywhere, blasting against her bare skin. Sweat erupted all over her body, drenching the remnants of her gown. Constance could no longer see the dungeon or her torturers. All she could see was the spikes, red hot and menacing, reaching upwards for her flesh. The spikes were her world.
“That was just a taste of the torments to come. It will get worse, much worse. So for the last time, O'Grady, will you obey me?"
He could not give in. No matter the feelings between them, friendship, perhaps even more - yes, Constance had suspected for a long time that Justin's feelings for her were more than mere sympathy for the fiancee of his best friend. But whatever had been between them, Justin could not possibly give in to the demands of a madman like Tormento. He could not and he would not give in. Which meant that Constance was doomed.
It seemed to take him a long time to reply and when he did, his voice was almost inaudible. "I'm sorry, Constance."
"Don't be, Justin. I... I know you're doing what you have to. Please... please tell Richard that I love him."
She had expected that Tormento would interrupt her, but to her own surprise he didn't. But then, Tormento was a sadist. He was enjoying this spectacle. He wanted to savour it, dying speeches and all.
“Oh, I see, O'Grady. She doesn't share your feelings, she loves somebody else, so you let her die. Well, if that's the way you want it..."
"You goddamned bastard! When I get my hands on you, I swear I'll kill you. I swear I'll choke the life out of you with my own two hands..."
This time, Tormento was not in the mood to hear him out. "Let her down, Milos! But make it slow. I want to hear her scream.”
Constance could not see him, but she could hear the smile in his voice, cruel and twisted. She knew what Tormento wanted. He wanted to hear her cry, hear her beg for her life, hear her scream as he tortured her to death. But Constance would not give him that satisfaction. She would face her end bravely. As bravely as Richard had faced it, a hundred times over.
Constance closed her eyes, thinking of Richard, her fiancé, the man she loved more than any other. It was a good thought to die upon. Any second now, the spikes would touch her flesh, impale her. The razor-sharp tips would pierce skin and muscles, drive themselves into her inner organs. Yet for an endless instant, nothing happened. Nothing at all. END OF PAGE 62
She could hear the two kidnapped girls whimpering softly to themselves. She could hear Justin O'Grady, still spewing out a stream of profanities in helpless rage. And she could hear the beating of her own heart, like a sledgehammer in her breast. Any second now...
Suddenly, to her own surprise, Constance found herself hoisted upwards. She opened her eyes and indeed, the spikes were retreating. The platform was being pulled up again. She was safe. She would not die. Somehow, she had been spared. Somehow, Richard had managed to save her. And then she understood.
This was no rescue attempt. She was only pulled upwards to be let down again, slowly, gradually. She would see the spikes approach, coming closer, ever closer. She would feel them driving into her flesh, inch by inch. There was no rescue. She would die. She would die a slow and agonizing death.
The contraption had reached its zenith now. The wooden platform to which Constance was strapped stood almost vertical. She could see the cellar again with its moist walls of weathered stone. She could see the heavy iron chain that held the platform aloft. She could see the pulley that would lower her to her doom. She could see the man operating the wheel, his face hidden by a black hood. She could see June and Angelica, their naked bodies and tearstained faces. She could see Justin O’Grady, straining against the chains that held him with an effort that was nigh superhuman yet ultimately so futile. And she could see Baron Tormento, could see the flush of excitement on his cheeks, could see that vicious smile on his face, could see his left hand massaging his crotch through his tight uniform pants. Tormento was staring at her, his hateful eyes following the curves of her body. Sweat was glistening in his beard, as he gave the sign.
The pulley creaked again. And Constance was going down...
Richard Blakemore had spent all night tracking down Baron Tormento. After a minute examination of the foundry, he had stopped at a public pay phone and rung up the Hotel Mandalay, demanding to speak to Justin O'Grady. Justin, it turned out, was nowhere to be found - probably he had left early to join his men in the hunt for Tormento. Richard resisted the impulse to ask for Constance instead, it would have endangered her cover and his own. So finally, he had Commissioner Johnston fetched to the phone and informed him that Tormento had struck again. Within minutes now, the deserted factory would be swarming with cops. Which was fine by Richard. He had a few leads of his own to follow.
There weren't too many places where one might purchase state-of-the-art electrical equipment of the type Tormento had used to rig up his little surprise at the foundry. In fact, there were only a handful of shops in town selling that sort of thing. The shopowners were not exactly thrilled about being woken up and questioned in the middle of the night. But the Silencer's costume had the useful side effect of striking fear into the hearts of men, even those who had done no wrong. Thus, Richard's questions were answered quickly and promptly by the trembling merchants. At the third shop he got lucky. The owner not only remembered selling the equipment in question, he could even - after some rummaging through his books - tell him exactly where the equipment had been delivered to.
The shipping address turned out to be inconspicuous brownstone in a middle class neighbourhood. Not exactly where one might expect to find the lair of a master criminal. From a pocket of his long black coat, Richard fished a crumpled piece of paper and compared the address. Yes, this was the place.
From another pocket, he pulled a small but powerful flashlight and pointed the beam at a brass plate beside the door. Warren Goodring Wolfe was engraved upon the polished metal. Strange. There was something familiar about that name.
Richard bent down to pick the lock. Less than two seconds and the door opened. He fastened the Silencer's mask over his face, switched on the nightvision gadget and crept inside. Silently, he explored the ground floor of the house. Hallway, kitchen, dining room, living room, a small study. There was no trace of the kidnapped girls, no unusual electrical equipment, there was absolutely nothing here to suggest that this was anything else than an ordinary home. Had Tormento tricked him again then? Had this address been nothing but a false lead?
In the study, he found a stack of pulp magazines and stopped to flip through one of them, out of purely professional curiosity. This mags were the products of a rival publisher, he noted. A publisher that was known for gratuitous depictions of torture and sadism, venturing close to the limits of what was acceptable. But did a poor taste in reading material automatically condemn whoever was living in this house?
Richard threw a casual glance at the contents page of the magazine. One name jumped out at him. Warren G. Wolfe. Of course, that was why the name had seemed so familiar. Because Mr Wolfe was a fellow writer. Richard had met him once or twice at the meetings of the American Association of Popular Fiction Writers. True, he had never attended these meetings regularly and he had never exchanged more than a few casual words with Warren G. Wolfe. Still, it was the perfect pretext to call on Mr Wolfe in his civilian identity and talk to him as one pulp writer to another. That would have to wait until tomorrow, though.
Richard was just about to leave, when all of a sudden he heard a sound. Footsteps. A door opening. Someone was coming. Shit. Swiftly, he stepped into the deep shadows behind the door and waited. A man trotted along the hallway towards the kitchen. A man dressed in black pants and an equally black shirt. A silvery pistol was jammed into the waistband of his pants. His face was covered by a hood, as black as the rest of his attire.
Now pulp writers were a weird lot and it wasn't entirely inconceivable that Warren G. Wolfe might have a perfectly good reason for wandering around his own house armed and in disguise in the middle of the night. After all, Richard was often doing the same. Still, this was highly suspicious and warranted further investigation.
In his hiding place behind the door, Richard waited and listened. He heard a cupboard being opened in the kitchen, he heard a drink being poured. Then, after barely a minute, the strange figure reappeared and trotted back along the hallway before vanishing behind the cellar door. Richard counted to twenty and followed. It was pitch black inside the cellar, but the infrared gadget inside his mask was helping him find his way down the staircase without problems. It also helped him to spot the barrel of a gun that suddenly appeared not two foot in front of him.
Richard's reaction was lightning fast. He sprang forward and grabbed hold of the gun before its owner had any chance to fire, slamming the gun and the hand that held it against the nearest wall. The man emitted a yelp of pain, as the gun landed on the staircase with a dull thud. Richard never gave the man a chance to recover his balance, but dropped him with a karate chop to the jugular before he could raise an alarm.
He bent down over the crumpled form at his feet and pulled the hood from the man's head. The face beneath did not belong to Warren G. Wolfe, it was that of a perfect stranger. Just a burglar, caught red-handed? Or something more sinister? Whatever, this man wouldn't be giving answers any time soon. He would be out cold for a while yet. Nevertheless, Richard relieved the unconscious man of his weapon. The hood made a serviceable gag, and just to be on the safe side Richard also trussed the man up with a length of grappling cord. Then he dragged the limp body down the stairs, careful not to make any unnecessary noise.
The cellar was something of a disappointment. Richard wasn't entirely sure what he had expected, torture chambers, prison cells, cages in which the unfortunate girls were held. At any rate, he hadn't expected this. For at the bottom of the stairs, there was nothing but a perfectly ordinary cellar. A rusty bicycle, some old furniture, a couple of trunks and crates, a shelf of homemade fruit preserve and a rack of wine bottles. There was absolutely nothing that was in the slightest bit suspicious.
Still, that crook on the stairs must have come from somewhere. He certainly hadn't been down here just to nab a glass of fruit preserve. Plus, the man had never switched on the lights, he had known his way around in the dark. All of which suggested that this cellar wasn't as innocent as it seemed at first glance.
Richard whipped out his flashlight and switched off the nightvision device. The press of a button and the flashlight emitted rays of ultraviolet in addition to the visible spectrum. Ultraviolet light might be invisible to the human eye, but it had certain other advantages. For example, it could reveal that what was hidden. Old bloodstains, lines and cracks unseen by normal light. Methodically, Richard let the beam of his flashlight sweep up and down the walls, bathing the cellar in its unnatural purplish light. It did not take long to find what he was looking for.
It was the shelf of homemade fruit preserve. That should have made him suspicious from the start. Judging by what he had seen above, Wolfe was a bachelor and lived alone. Where on Earth should he have acquired a shelf of homemade fruit preserve? He looked closer, searching for some switch or mechanism that would open the hidden door. The second jar to the right was suspiciously free of dust, compared to the rest of the cellar. He reached out, pushing and probing. Half a twist of the lid of the jar and the shelf swung outwards, revealing a concealed passage.
Richard put away the flashlight and switched on the infrared device again. He drew his guns and stepped into the passage. There was yet another staircase spiraling downwards to far below cellar level. The staircase finally ended in a tiled passage. In the distance, Richard could hear a train rumbling past and all of a sudden he realized where he was. This place was an abandoned subway tunnel, probably part of a station that had closed years ago or had never been opened in the first place. There were dozens, perhaps even hundreds of these tunnels, forming an underground network that was largely unmapped and uncharted. The perfect hideout for any criminal.
Richard followed the passage to its end, where it opened into another larger tunnel. Faded posters were hanging from the walls, advertising soap, shaving cream and corsets that had gone out of fashion a quarter of a century ago. A rat scurried past, briefly staring at Richard through its black button eyes before vanishing again in the darkness. He explored the passages that led off the main tunnel, running into a few dead ends and one that was very much alive.
There was light here, the dim gleam of service lights, so Richard switched off the nightvision gadget. This chamber had once been yet another abandoned subway tunnel, but Tormento had furnished it to suit his own needs. A pillar in the center of the tunnel had been converted into a whipping post, while the wall held an array of rods and whips, from bamboo canes via long bullwhips to the knotted cat o'nine tails. All around the whipping post, the floor was sprinkled with droplets of blood. Fresh blood. Somebody had been tortured here. Recently. In a corner of the room, there was a pile of clothes. The uniform of the St. Agnes Institute for Young Ladies. The school from which Angelica Varnese had disappeared.
The next room was even more horrible than the first. The utilitarian walls were splattered with blood. Though contrary to the blood around the whipping post, this was old blood. So this was where Tormento had killed his victims. Enid Clayton, Helena Porter and the nameless girl at the foundry.
Richard crossed the murder room and stepped into another passage. There was light at the end of the passage. Not the dim service lights that illuminated most of Tormento's lair, this was proper light. There were sounds as well, a curious mixture of male voices, the creaking of machinery and the wail of a woman crying.
He crept forwards with extra caution, keeping close to the wall. The twin .45 automatics were in his hands, ready to blaze away hot lead at whatever terror waited in the room beyond. The voices were louder now, loud enough so that Richard could make out words. Actually, there was only a single voice, a man, crying out every foul word he had ever heard in his life. Richard listened and froze. He knew that voice. It was Justin. Justin O'Grady.
What the hell was Justin doing here, when he should be at that ball at the Hotel Mandalay? Except that he hadn't been there when Richard had called the hotel. Still, how had he gotten here? Had Justin followed some lead of his own, had he been lured here by some sinister bait like Richard had been lured to the deserted factory? Had he been kidnapped even? Whatever, the fact that Justin was yelling rather than doing something suggested that he was in trouble of some kind.
Richard Blakemore and Justin O'Grady might be friends, but unfortunately that friendship did not extend to his Silencer persona. Facing Justin in the guise of the Silencer might cause problems. All sorts of problems. But Richard had no choice. His friend needed help. Not to mention the innocent girls that Tormento was holding prisoner.
The door was right in front of him now. It stood slightly ajar, spilling light and sound into the darkened passage. Richard checked his guns once more, took a deep breath and stormed into the chamber beyond, straight into a scene of horror.
The room was filled with machinery, bizarre spike-studded devices that served only a single purpose - to inflict pain. Black-clad guards, Richard counted five of them, were positioned around the room. All were armed. Two young girls, June Carvington and Angelica Varnese, were chained to the wall, stark naked, their blossoming bodies exposed for all to see. Justin was chained to the wall as well, though contrary to the girls he was still dressed in the remnants of his tuxedo. Tears were streaming down his face and his wrists were bleeding from trying to break free. He was screaming, screaming obscenities at Baron Tormento. For the figure towering above his prisoners, clad in a carnival uniform and domino mask, could be none other than the Baron. Though Richard had little more than a glance to spare for the fiend he had been hunting these past two weeks. For there, in the middle of the room was Constance, his beloved, the woman he was going to marry, strapped to one of the torture devices and about to be lowered onto a bed of feet-long spikes. Richard had no idea how Constance came to be here, how Tormento had been able to capture her and use her to strike against the Silencer, and he did not care, either. This was not the time for questions. This was the time for bullets.
With reflexes born of years of practice, Richard took aim and fired, barely a second after bursting through the door. The target, however, was not Tormento himself but one of his black-clad henchmen. For that man posed a much more immediate threat, as he was operating the wheel via which Constance was lowered onto the spikes. The man collapsed as the bullet pierced his heart. For an endless second, the chain continued running freely over the pulley, dropping Constance towards the deadly spikes. Finally, it yanked to a halt, blocked by the dead body of its operator. Another goon, who had been operating a monstrous bellows, sprang forward to relieve his fallen comrade. Before he could ever reach the wheel, a bullet stopped him dead in his tracks.
"It's the goddamned Silencer", Tormento roared, "Tomas, Janos, get him."
In response, one of the men drew an automatic and aimed it at the Silencer. Richard spun around, aiming his own guns. But before either man could fire, Justin O'Grady sprang into action. With all his remaining strength, he heaved himself upwards and swung forwards, delivering a mighty kick into the gunman's back. The man lost his footing and fell flat onto his face, knocking himself out in the process. The shot exploded harmlessly against the ceiling.
From the corner of his eye, Richard saw another goon rushing at him, armed with something that looked like a firepoker. He swiveled around, but before he could aim his guns, the man was upon him. Richard ducked to avoid the firepoker. Then he drove his fist, still clutching the gun, into the man's exposed abdomen. The effect was like being hit with a sledgehammer in the solar plexus. The man doubled over and was simultaneously thrown backwards, straight against one of the torture devices, a nail-studded wheel. One of the nails bored itself into the man's skull, killing him instantly.
"Behind you", Constance yelled. And not a moment too soon, for the last of Tormento's men had managed to creep up on Richard and suddenly jumped at him from behind, locking his arm around Richard's neck.
Justin O'Grady, meanwhile, was trying the same trick that had knocked out one of the goons with Tormento himself. He swung his legs outward, but unlike his subordinate the Baron did manage to evade the kick. Justin did not give up, however. He tried hooking his own legs around Tormento's and was rewarded with an elbow to his face for all his troubles. The Baron's strike was nasty and powerful, leaving O'Grady hanging limp in his chains, unconscious, blood dripping from his jaw.
Richard was still struggling with the last goon. He gripped the man's arm and hurled him over his shoulder in a neatly executed judo throw. The man landed flat on his back. Before he could struggle to his feet, Richard punched his lights out.
Tormento was sprinting towards the torture device to which Constance was strapped. Still regaining his balance after the struggle with the goon, Richard aimed his guns at Tormento, ready to pump hot lead into the Baron's black heart. But he was too late. For Tormento had already reached his goal. The wheel that operated the device to which Constance was strapped. He kicked away the fallen corpse of his henchman, released the safety locks on the wheel and grabbed hold of the chain which held Constance aloft.
"Right now, Silencer, my muscles are all that's keeping Miss Allen from meeting her end upon the spikes. Shoot me and she dies. For you'll never be quick enough to catch the chain in time."
He was right. Richard had no chance.
"And now, Silencer, I want you to lay down your weapons. Slowly."
"Don't do it", Constance cried out, "Kill him and don't worry about me!"
Richard looked at Constance, looked at her as if to burn the image into his mind for all eternity. That dear face, so brave in the face of death. Those eyes, so large and dark and frightened. Those chestnut curls, disheveled now and drenched with sweat. The gentle slope of her breasts, the tender curve of her hips, that silky skin exposed by the tattered remains of her gown. No, he could not, would not do it. Slowly, he laid down his weapons.
"Don't...", Constance whispered. A single tear rolled down her cheek.
"Ah, that's much better", the Baron exclaimed, "I must confess I wasn't quite sure if saving the girl would be more important to you than the pleasure of putting a bullet in my chest."
"I would never stand by and allow an innocent to suffer."
"How predictably noble of you!" Behind his mask, Tormento's eyes narrowed, as he looked from Richard to Constance, then back to Richard again. "Ah, you know this lady, don't you, Silencer? She means something to you."
Richard and Constance had a rule that there must never pass any sign of affection between them, while he was in the guise of the Silencer, lest it endanger his cover and both their lives. And even now, in the face of certain death, Constance had kept true to her vow and had given no sign of recognition. And the steel mask of the Silencer was devoid of all emotion. Nevertheless, Tormento had somehow guessed their secret.
"First O'Grady and now you. What is it about this woman?" Tormento reached out and let his free hand run along Constance's breasts, defiling the tender flesh with his vile fingers. For an instant, Richard had a vision of putting a bullet straight through that hand before burying a second right between the fiend's eyes. But he could not, must not. For Constance's sake.
"I mean, she's not bad, but way too thin in my opinion. The voluptuous forms of Miss Varnese over there are far more to my taste."
Upon hearing her name mentioned, Angelica Varnese emitted a loud sob. Goodness, had this fiend laid his filthy hands on the poor girl, raped her even?
Tormento let a few inches of chain run through his fingers and for a terrible second Constance fell freely towards the deadly spikes. "Now that I've got your attention, Silencer", the Baron said, yanking the chain to a halt, "this is what I want you to do. I had planned to use our mutual friend O'Grady for my purposes, but he remained stubborn. Would have let Miss Allen die rather than obey my orders. I trust, Silencer, that you will be more cooperative. Now your first task - and I'm sure you will enjoy this one - is to kill Justin O'Grady. For the death of one of their own, at the hands of a notorious vigilante no less, should keep the cops nicely occupied while I make my escape with my two gilded geese. And Miss Allen, of course, so you will not get any stupid ideas."
Constance's eyes were a silent plea, begging him not to sacrifice Justin's life for hers. She was right, too. So far, the Baron has left none of his victims alive, whether his demands had been met or not.
"Mind you, Silencer, none of this unpleasantness need have happened, if only you'd kept to your own damned business. But no, you had to stick your damned silver-pleated nose into my affairs. Vigilantes - pah, never could stand them. City playboys with way too much money who've got nothing better to do than interfere with hardworking folks. Yes, I've read your mag, Silencer. Got to keep up with what the competition's doing, you know..."
"How", Richard interrupted the Baron's ravings, "How do you want me to kill him?"
"No, don't do it", Constance exclaimed, "He'll kill me anyway! He'll kill us all..."
The Baron painfully pinched her into the right breast. "Shut up, you stupid bitch!"
Richard took a few steps forward and stopped before the limp form of Justin O'Grady. Surreptitiously, he had also moved closer to the Baron. "Do you want me to strangle him?", he asked, regarding his unconscious friend, "No, you'll want something that leaves fingerprints and plenty of evidence. Shall I shoot him? With my own gun?"
Tormento stroked his beard in consideration. Richard took the chance to inch even closer to the fiend. "Yes", the Baron finally said, "Yes, that should do nicely. Get your gun and shoot him, Silencer!"
"Don't do it", Constance pleaded, "Please don't..."
Richard took one last long look at the woman he loved. Slowly, he circled around Tormento and the torture device, finally stopping beside the bed of spikes where one of his guns had fallen. With deliberate slowness he bent down, as if to pick up the weapon. Then, at the last possible instant, he spun around and hurled himself at the Baron.
For the space of a heartbeat, Tormento was too stunned to react. He did let go of the chain. But before Constance could fall more than a few inches, Richard had grabbed hold of the wheel and twisted it to the left, hoisting Constance upwards again, away from the red-hot spikes. The pulley shrieked in protest. These few instants were all Tormento needed to regain his balance. He, too, grabbed the wheel and tried to pull it to the right, into the direction that would send Constance downwards onto the bed of spikes. A furious struggle ensued, as each man tried to pull the wheel in his direction. It was like an arm wrestling match, only that the prize was the life of Constance Allen.
Constance felt even the slightest shift in this battle of wills, as she found herself either pulled upwards or lowered towards the razor-sharp spikes. One inch upwards, two inches down. Up, down, up down. The pulley creaked and moaned, protesting abuse it had never been built to withstand.
Richard was clutching the wheel with both his hands, pitting all his weight and his strength against the Baron. He was a strong man, powerfully built with muscles hardened by years of training. Nevertheless, he could feel his strength slipping, could feel his arms weakening. Somehow, he had to break free. Richard focussed all his remaining strength into his right leg and kicked out. The tip of his shoe, steel-capped beneath smooth black leather, drove itself deep into Tormento's abdomen. Staggered by the impact, the Baron's hands slipped. He let go of the wheel, stumbled and fell backwards. A scream pierced the grim silence as Tormento landed upon the nail-studded bed that he had intended for Constance. An iron spike, foot-long and red-hot, protruded from the Baron's chest, another from his abdomen, a third had pierced his throat. Baron Tormento was dead.
For an instant, Richard rested slumped over the wheel, panting with exhaustion. Then he slowly began to haul Constance upwards again. The machinery creaked, as if complaining about the renewed strain. It had been designed to lift crates onboard of trucks and ships. It was not supposed to endure this constant up, down, up, down. Sooner or later, something had to give. And something did. For all of a sudden, the chain jumped off the pulley. The wooden platform, now unrestrained by wheel and pulley, crashed downwards. Constance cried out, as she fell towards the deadly spikes below.
Richard reacted with lightning speed reflexes. He abandoned the wheel - it wouldn't do any good now - and threw himself beneath the falling platform, catching it barely an instant before it hit the spikes. The weight was crushing, not just Constance's body was bearing down on him but also the platform of sturdy wood to which she had been strapped. Richard felt his knees giving way beneath him. Pain exploded in his right calf, as one of the red-hot spikes drove itself deep into the soft flesh. But Richard did not give in. Inch by inch he managed to press the platform upwards, until it had once more reached its zenith. Gravity did its work now. The platform fell once more, backwards this time. Wood splintered, as it crashed to the floor. Richard tumbled after it, the weight suddenly gone off his shoulders, and landed on top of Constance with an excellent view at the delicious nothing of panties she was wearing. In another context, it might have been enjoyable.
"Are you all right?", Richard asked.
"I think so. Gonna be bruised all over, though. How about you?"
"I'm fine." It was a lie. His leg was hurting like hell and come the morning, he'd probably be as bruised as Constance. Still, he was alive. They both were.
"Could... Could you get off me, please? You're damned heavy."
"Sorry." He rolled to the side, somehow managed to sit up and began to work at freeing Constance from her bonds. Unfortunately, she had been tied to the platform with rings of sturdy iron, which made things somewhat difficult.
"Keys", she said, "one of the guards has them."
Richard picked himself up, searched the fallen bodies of the guards, found the keys and proceeded to free Constance. She embraced him fiercely, as if she was never going to let him go again. Richard responded in kind, crushing her bruised body to his chest. He longed to do more, he wanted to tear off his damned mask and cover her face with kisses. But he could not. He was still the Silencer.
Reluctantly, he let go of her and rose to his feet, unsteadily. "I... I think I had better leave now. Will you be all right?"
"Don't worry. I'll call the police. And your fiancé of course."
Scarcely an hour later, Richard Blakemore rushed into the subterranean torture chamber of the late Baron Tormento. He was dressed in tweed slacks and a knitted sweater, for all appearances just called away from an all-nighter at the typewriter. Many of the policemen bustling through Tormento's lair knew Richard by sight and waved him through. None of them paid any attention to the fact that he was limping slightly.
Constance jumped up and raced towards him. Richard caught her in his arms and kissed her, a long and passionate kiss. "My darling!" He buried his face in her chestnut curls. "What would I have done if I'd lost you?" He led her over to the very platform, where a mere hour ago Constance had been tortured, and sat down. Constance's head was resting on his shoulder, his arms were wrapped around her, her supple body was leaning against his.
He spotted Justin O'Grady, still dressed in the remnants of his tuxedo. His lip was swollen where Tormento had hit him, and his wrists were freshly bandaged. Yet he was already snapping orders at his men. Richard stretched out his hand. "Justin, old friend. It's good to see you alive and well."
"Thanks to your masked friend, the Silencer", O'Grady grumbled. Clearly, he did not like being indebted to one he considered a criminal.
"I know. He called me, told me to come here, that Constance was in danger. Justin, what happened here? Why did this monster kidnap Constance? Was he planning to blackmail me next?"
Constance shook her head. "It had nothing to do with you. It was an accident, sort of. I happened to be with Justin when they took him, so they took me, too, thinking they could use me as a leverage against him. Gladly, the Silencer tracked down Tormento and saved us both."
This was news to Richard. Up to now, he had believed that somehow Tormento had managed to find out about him and Constance and had kidnapped her to make good of his threat at the foundry. He had felt guilty enough that the woman he loved had suffered for his sake. But to hear that the sole reason for all her torment was that Constance had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, that was even worse. "God, I should never have let you go to that ball alone!"
"No", O'Grady said sourly, "you shouldn't." He gave Richard a strange look. "By the way, I noticed a limp when you walked in. What happened?"
Good old Justin, still as sharp-eyed as ever. "Oh that? That's nothing." Richard laughed as if to brush away the injury, despite the fact that only a copious dose of painkillers was keeping him on his feet. "I was pacing up and down the study, stumbled over the edge of the carpet and twisted my ankle. The perils of writerdom." He laughed again, hoping that Justin would not catch the false note. Constance squeezed his hand in sympathy.
"Talking of which, Baron Tormento was actually a colleague of yours. One Warren Goodring Wolfe. Ever heard of him?"
This particular tidbit was not news to Richard. Tormento may have been wearing a mask, but his hair and beard and particularly their washed-out red colour, were quite unmistakable. He could not let Justin know that, however. "I met him a few times", he said carefully, "but I didn't really know him. He wrote the really lurid stuff. Torture, bondage, cannibalism and the like."
"Looks like he did more than just write about it", O'Grady pointed at the torture instruments all around them, "But it's all just entertainment, good clean entertainment, eh Richard?"
O'Grady's dislike for Richard's day job probably even exceeded his dislike for the Silencer's nocturnal activities, if that was possible. "You're not being fair, Justin", he said calmly, "There are bad people in every walk of life, as you should know best of all. But let me assure you, the vast majority of pulp writers does not dress up in bizarre costumes and reenact their tales in the real world."
O'Grady shot him an acid look. "Oh, really, Richard? They don't?"