The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 10

The Fourth Victim

THE three quondam prisoners, seated about a table where they had done full justice to an excellent repast, were alone. The scene about them was no longer of barbaric magnificence, but presented the more comfortable and familiar luxury of a good hotel. Lovely, or rather Loveliest, for such they had discovered the lady’s full title to be, had done her work with surprising thoroughness and munificence. Having made herself responsible for their custody, she had ordered the two men freed, carried them all in her own motor car to a large hotel on South Broad Street, and there engaged for them a suite consisting of bedrooms, private baths and a large parlor.

Her exact standing in this new Philadelphia, so like the old and so unlike, was as yet unknown to them. So far as their needs were concerned, she seemed to possess a power of command practically unlimited.

The hotel in itself presented no apparent difference to any other large, metropolitan hostelry. Drayton, in fact, who had once before stopped at this identical hotel, could have sworn that even the furnishings were the same as upon his former visit. The clerk at the desk was perhaps a trifle too obsequious for a normal hotel clerk. Otherwise, their introduction had been attended by no bizarre circumstance. Having seen them comfortably established, having begged them to send out for anything they might require and have the price charged to “Penn Service”— that mysterious, ubiquitous Service again! — their odd protectress had assured Trenmore that she would look in on them early next day and departed.

The lady had whirled them so rapidly through this period of change in their fortunes that they had been able to ask no questions, and though she had talked almost incessantly, the monologue had conveyed little meaning. They found themselves continually bewildered by references, simple in themselves, and yet cryptic for lack of a key to them.

The conclusion of their late dinner, served in their own rooms, at least found them more comfortable than at any time since that fatal hour when the Cerberus was uncapped. If they were still under police surveillance, there was no evidence to show it. By common consent, however, they had abjured for the present any idea of escape. Precarious though their position might be, such an attempt in their state of ignorance was predoomed to failure.

The meal finished, and the servant having departed for the last time, Drayton asked a question which had been in the back of his head for two hours past.

“Miss Viola, what were you saying about Ulithia when Mercy interrupted? Before the pit was opened, I mean, while we stood beneath the Red Bell?”

“I remember. It was merely a notion of mine, Mr. Drayton.”

“But tell it,” urged her brother.

“When we meddled with that strange dust,” the girl said softly, “I think we intruded upon that which was never meant for mortals. The White Weaver said it — she said we had no place in Ulithia. And she told us to go forward, go deeper, and that the door was open before us.”

“Yes, she did,” sighed Drayton.

“And so,” continued the girl, “we escaped from Ulithia, but went forward. Just how far is what we have yet to discover.”

“You mean,” said the ex-lawyer slowly, “that some six hours ago by my watch — which has not been wound by the way, yet is still running — we practically stepped out of space and time as we know them into a realm where those words have no meaning? And that when we passed through the moon gate, we returned into space at almost the place from which we started, but into time at a point perhaps many years later?”

“Yes. You say it better than I, but that is what I believe.”

Drayton shook his head, smiling. “Something like that occurred to me, Miss Viola, but the more I think of it the more impossible it seems.”

“And why, Bobby?” queried Trenmore impatiently. “Sure, ’tis the only moderately reasonable explanation of all the unreasonability we have met!”

“Because if enough years had passed to so completely change the laws, the customs, even the value of human life, why is it that Time has left costumes, language, even buildings, except for City Hall, exactly as we have always known them? Why, this very hotel has not so much as changed the livery of its bell boys since I was here three years ago!”

“That is a difficulty,” admitted Viola. Then she added quickly, “How very stupid I am! Terry, won’t you ring for one of those same bell boys and ask him to bring us an evening paper?”

So obvious a source of information and so easily obtainable! Drayton and Trenmore sprang as one man for the push button. Just as they reached it, however, there came a loud crash, as of something heavy and breakable falling upon a bare floor. The sound issued from the bedroom assigned to Trenmore. A moment later that gentleman had flung open the door. The chamber within was dark, save for what light entered it from the parlor. Peering uncertainly, Trenmore stood poised for a moment. Then he had hurled himself through the doorway. There was another crash, this time of an overturned chair.

Drayton, following, ran his hand along the wall inside the door. An instant later he had thrown on the light. The illumination disclosed the Irishman clasping a kicking man to his bosom with both mighty arms. Though the fellow fought desperately, he might as well have contended with an Alaskan bear. Trenmore simply squeezed the tighter. The breath left the captive’s lungs in a despairing groan, and he was tossed, limp as a wrung rag, upon the bed.

By now Viola was in the room. “I hope you haven’t hurt him, Terry,” she cried. “The man might be a policeman in plain clothes!”

“If he is, he might better have watched us openly,” growled Trenmore. “Here, you! Why were you after hiding in my bedroom? Was it eavesdropping you were?”

The figure on the bed sat up weakly.

“You can bet your sweet life I’d of been somewhere else, if I’d knowed you was around, chum! Why not tackle a guy your own size?”

Drayton burst out laughing, and after a moment Terence joined him.

The man on the bed could hardly have been over five feet in height, but what he lacked in length was made up in rotundity. His round face was smooth-shaven and wore an expression of abused innocence which would have done credit to an injured cherub. Though disheveled, the captive’s dark-green suit was of good material and irreproachable cut. Socks and tie matched it in color. His one false color note was the glaring yellow of a large identification button, pinned duly beneath the left shoulder, and the too-brilliant tan of his broad-soled Oxfords.

“I say,” repeated Trenmore, “what are you doing in my room? Or did you but come here to break the cut-glass carafe, and the noise of it betrayed you?”

“I came here-” The man on the bed hesitated, but only for a moment. “I came here,” he announced with great dignity, “because I believed this to be my own room, sir. The numbers in this corridor are confusing! I shall speak to the management in the morning. If I have disturbed you, I’m sorry.”

The little fellow had assumed a quaint dignity of manner and phraseology which for a moment took them all aback. Then Trenmore walked over to the outer door and tried it. The door was locked.

“And how’s this?” demanded Terence, his blue eyes twinkling.

“I-er-locked it, sir, when I entered.”

“Yes? And have you the key, then?”

The man made a pretense of searching his pockets; then smiled wryly and threw up his hands.

“Ob, what’s the use? You got me! I came in through the window.”

“Just so. Well, Bobby, ’tis the same old world, after all. Take a glance through the lad’s pockets, will you? Something of interest might be there.”

Catching the man’s wrists he twisted them back and held the two easily in one hand. This time Trenmore’s victim knew better than to struggle. He stood quiet while Drayton conducted the suggested search.

Viola wondered why the lawyer’s face was suddenly so red. She had been told nothing of the episode at the house on Walnut Street; but Drayton had remembered, and the memory sickened him. The parallel to be drawn between this sneak thief and himself was not pleasant to contemplate.

His search was at first rewarded by nothing more interesting than a silk handkerchief, a plain gold watch, some loose change and a bunch of rather peculiar-looking keys. Then, while exploring the captive’s right-hand coat pocket, Drayton came on a thing which could have shocked him no more had it been a coiled live rattlesnake.

“Why-why-” he stammered, extending it in a suddenly tremulous hand. “Look at this, Terry. Look at what I found in his pocket!”

“’Tis the Cerberus! The Cerberus vial itself!” The Irishman’s voice was no more than awed whisper.

“Where did you get this?” Drayton uttered the demand so fiercely that the captive shrank back. “Where?” cried Drayton again, brandishing the vial as though intending to brain the man with it.

“Where did you get it?”

“Don’t hit me! I ain’t done nothing! I picked it up in street.”

Trenmore twisted him around and glared in a manner so fiendishly terrifying that the little man’s ruddy face paled to a sickly greenish white.

“The truth, little rat! Where did you get it?”

“I-I-Leggo my arm; you’re twisting it off! I’ll tell you.”

Terence, who had not really meant to torture the little round man, released him but continued to glare.

“I got it over in a house on Walnut Street.”

“You did? When?”

The man glanced from one to the other. His cherubic face assumed a look of sudden, piteous doubt, like a child about to cry.

“Well, as near as I can make things out, it was about two hundred years ago I done that! But I’d of took oath it was no later than this morning! Now send me to the bughouse if you want. I’m down and out!”

“Two-hundred-years!” This from Drayton. “Terry, I begin to see daylight in one direction, at least. My man, where did you acquire that yellow button you are wearing?”

The captive glanced down at his lapel. “I lifted it off a guy that had been hittin’ up the booze. Everybody else in town was wearing one, and I got pinched for not; but I shook the cop and then I got in style.” He grinned deprecatingly.

“I thought the button was obtained in some such manner. Terry, this fellow is the crook, or one of the crooks, who were hired by your unknown collector friend to steal the Cerberus! He is here by the same route as ourselves.” He whirled upon the thief. “Did you or did you not pass through a kind of dream, or place, or condition called Ulithia?”

“Say,” demanded the prisoner in turn, “is either of you fellows the guy that owns that bottle? Are you the guys that left that gray, dusty stuff laying on a newspaper on the floor?”

“We are those very identical guys,” retorted Drayton solemnly.

“Suppose we all compare notes, Mr. Burglar,” suggested Viola. “Perhaps we can help each other.”

It was after three a.m. before the suggested conference ended. Any animosity which might have existed between robber and robbed was by then buried in the grave of that distant, unregainable past from which all four of them had been so ruthlessly uprooted. From the moment when the three first-comers became assured that Arnold Bertram — self-introduced, and a very fine name to be sure, as Trenmore commented — was actually a man of their own old, lost world, they welcomed him almost as a brother. There was surprising satisfaction and relief in relating their recent adventures to him. So far as they knew, Bertram was the only man living in whom they could confide, unbranded as outrageous liars. Bertram understood and believed them, and Bertram had good reason to do so. At the conclusion of their story, he frankly explained about the vial.

“I was near down and out,” said he. “Nothing doing for weeks, and whatever I put my hand to fizzling like wet firecrackers. Then an old guy comes along and says to me and Tim — Tim’s my sidekick —‘Boys, there’s a little glass bottle with three dogs’ heads on the top. A guy named Trenmore stole it off me. Get it back and there’s two thousand bucks layin’ in the bank for each of you!’ Well, he didn’t put that ‘stole it’ stuff over on me and Tim. We’re wise, all right, but most anybody’d crack a box for two grand, and he let on the job was an easy one. So we tried it that night and the old boy with us. He would come along, but we wished later we’d made him stay behind. We was going to jimmy the trap off the roof, but when we got to your house, Mr. Trenmore, darned if the trap wasn’t open. Down we go, the old guy making a noise like a ton of brick; but nobody wakes up. Then we seen the light of a bull’s -eye in the front bedroom on the top floor. We sneaks in quiet. There’s a guy and his torch just showin’ up the neatest kind of an easy, old-fashioned safe. So we knocks this convenient competition on the noggin, and opens the box. There’s some ice there, but no bottle. Me an’ Tim, we was satisfied to take the ice; but what does this old guy that brung us there do? Why, he flashes a rod, and makes us beat it and leave the stuff layin’ there!”

Here Trenmore glanced quizzically at his friend, and again Drayton blushed. Viola, however, was far too intent on the burglar’s tale to give heed.

“That must have happened before my brother and Mr. Drayton opened the vial,” she observed. “How did you come —”

“I’ll get to that in a minute, lady. We’d missed the bottle some way, and the old guy was scared to look any further that night. Next day, though, I goes back on my own, just for a glance around, and there was the front door of your house, Mr. Trenmore, standing wide open. ‘Dear me, but these people are friendly,’ thinks I. ‘Come at it from the roof or the street, it’s Welcome Home!’ So up I goes, and once inside I seen this here bottle, right out in the middle of the floor. Things seem most too easy, but I picks it up, and then, like the nut I am, I have to go meddling with the gray stuff on the floor, wondering what it is and does the boss want that, too. He’d let on the bottle was full of gray powder.

“Next thing I knowed the room went all foggy. Then I found I was somewhere else than I ought to be, and hell — beg pardon, lady — but honest, if what I went through didn’t send me off my nut nothin’ ever will!”

It seemed he had almost exactly trod in their footsteps so far as the Market Street Ferry. Beyond that, however, Bertram’s adaptable ingenuity had spared him a duplication of their more painful adventures. Though arrested soon after his arrival, he had escaped with proud ease, legalized his status with the “borrowed” identification button, and shortly thereafter a newspaper filched from a convenient pocket had furnished him with a date. “It put me down for the count,” said Bertram, “but it give me the dope I needed.” That date had been September 21st, 2118.

“Two centuries!” interpolated Drayton in a sort of groaning undertone.

“Yep. Twenty-one eighteen! Old Rip had nothin’ on us eh?”

Recovering from the shock, Bertram had determined to recoup his fortunes. Hence, very naturally, the incident of the fire escape, the open window, and Terence Trenmore’s hotel bedroom.

“And now,” he concluded, “I’ve come clean; but hell! — beg pardon, lady — what I want to know is this: What was that gray stuff you guys left layin’ on the floor?”

“I’ll tell you,” responded Drayton gravely. “It was dust from the rocks of Purgatory, gathered by the great poet Dante, and placed in this crystal vial by a certain Florentine nobleman. Any other little thing you’d like to learn?”

“I guess not!” The burglar’s eyes were fairly popping from his head. “Gee, if I’d heard about that Purgatory stuff, I wouldn’t have touched the thing with a ten foot pole!”

“Don’t let Mr. Drayton frighten you,” laughed Viola. “He has no more idea than yourself what that dust is — or was. That’s a foolish old legend, and even Terry doesn’t really believe in it.”

The Irishman shook his head dubiously. “And if it was not that, then what was it, Viola, my dear?”

Drayton sprang to his feet.

“If we continue talking and thinking about the dust, we shall all end in the madhouse! We are in a tight spot and must make the best of it. Before I for my part can believe that this is the year A.D. 2118, some one will need to explain how the Hotel Belleclaire has remained the Hotel Belleclaire two centuries, without the change of a button on a bell-hop’s coat. But that can wait. I move that we spend what’s left of the night in sleep. Perhaps”— he smiled grimly —“whichever one of us is dreaming this nightmare will wake up sane to-morrow, and we’ll get out of it that way!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30