THE CASE OF THE LEFT HAND OF THOTH
by Mark Hodder (2006)
Paul Gunner Misses a Meeting
They approached Paul Gunner, the elderly President of Holloway-Stoddard Industries, at the airport at eleven in the morning, grabbed his arm, and surreptitiously injected a drug into it.
'A needle projecting from a ring worn on his third finger,' thought Gunner as a strange warmth flooded into his skull.
He became compliant and mumbled "Whatzuh matter?" as his head fell forward.
"Just come with us please, sir. You've been taken ill."
The men were tall and bulky and dressed in black suits. The speaker, the largest of the pair, had a short beard and an open collar. The other was blonde and pale and brutal-looking. He wore a loud, tasteless tie.
Gunner allowed them to lead him out of the airport and into the car park. He deliberately stumbled and swayed, mumbling incoherently.
They stopped by a white van with tinted widows and opened the back doors.
"Whuh?" drawled Gunner.
"Up you get, sir — into the ambulance."
He was hoisted into the van and slumped onto a mattress in the back. The bearded man climbed in beside him and pulled the doors shut. His colleague got into the front and started the engine. As the vehicle began moving, Gunner allowed his head to roll slightly. The drug was stronger than he'd predicted and his cranium felt inflated like a big balloon.
From beneath half closed eyes, he examined the bearded man. He saw manicured nails and well cared-for skin; meticulously trimmed facial hair and large hazel-coloured eyes. The suit was expensive and specially tailored to disguise the bulge beneath the left arm.
'Dangerous,' thought Gunner, 'Very dangerous!'
He groaned loudly and slurred, "Muzzin miss meetin. Godda fly t' Noo Yurk."
"Quiet now," said his guard. "You won't be going to New York today but you can phone your secretary later and she'll reschedule for you."
"Gurrr," said Gunner and pretended to lapse into semi-oblivion. Then it occurred to him that he wasn't really pretending, so he made a concerted effort to focus his mind by trying to calculate how far they were travelling and in what direction. The movement of the van made his jowls wobble. It felt peculiar to have an old face.
After a journey of maybe less than two miles, a sharp turn was followed by a sudden stop and the engine died. He concluded that they were still on the outskirts of the airport.
"Keep your eyes closed," said the bearded man.
Gunner complied. He heard the doors yanked open. His ankles were grabbed and he was pulled halfway out of the vehicle, helped to stand, then manoeuvred and lowered into a wheelchair. It was pushed up a ramp and he felt the quality of the air change as he entered a building.
"Fnurrr," he murmured.
Gunner was wheeled along a straight corridor but the narcotic made it feel like he was sliding down a lengthy spiral.
"Nearly there, sir."
From the corner of his slitted right eye, he saw a plain cream-coloured wall and a linoleum-covered floor. He was pushed past three metal doors, marked Room 1, Room 3 and Room 5, then in through a fourth: Room 7. As far as he could see, the room beyond was completely empty. The bearded man steered him across it and in through another door. Gunner caught a glimpse of a table before closing his eyes fully as the wheelchair came to a halt. He was lifted out of it, shifted to his left and lowered into a chair. This was pushed forward until he felt the edge of the table gently nudge against him, just below his breastbone.
From in front, a deep, oddly melodious voice said, "Thank you. Please leave."
He heard the bearded man move away and out of the door which clicked shut. Forty seconds of silence followed. He smelt cigarette smoke and sensed eyes upon him.
From behind, a gentle tread brought someone up to the back of his chair. Cold, dry hands closed on either side of his face and lifted his head into an upright position, holding it still. Beneath the grasp, the unfamiliar elasticity and wrinkling of his face felt horrible.
"Open your eyes, Mr Gunner," said the velvety voice.
He slowly raised his eyelids and allowed his pupils to remain unfocused for a few seconds before finally looking directly at his kidnapper.
The man sitting opposite was cadaverously thin; emaciated, in fact. Blotched, bloodless skin stretched over a long narrow face; the lips were pulled taught over yellow teeth and seemed fixed in a mirthless grin. He was wearing a white laboratory coat.
The man's eyes were slightly slanted and such a pale grey as to seem almost white, like a wolf's. They held immense power and, as Gunner looked into them, he felt his attention irresistibly locked into place.
"Ah," sighed his skeletal host, "I see that you're with me."
"Wuz wrong?" mumbled Gunner. "Am I ill?"
"Don't worry Mr Gunner. You'll be perfectly fine. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Doctor Quaestor."
Gunner began to feel nauseous as the drug battled with the protective agents he'd swallowed three hours previously. He tried to slump forward but the hands on his face held him fast.
Quaestor lifted a cigarette and took a deep drag. When he continued speaking, the smoke billowed out from his nose and mouth:
"Mr Gunner, you understand that I care for you welfare? You recognise my concern for your wellbeing? Can you see in my eyes that I'm your friend?"
'Hypnosis,' thought Gunner, and his psychological countermeasures automatically fell into place.
"Yezz," he said.
"Good. I'm very pleased to hear that. I only want what's best for you. And it will take some treatment. You've had a very bad attack. You'll be with us for two days, at least. But there's really nothing to worry about. We'll have you right as rain in no time at all."
Gunner licked his lips. His mouth felt dry and the room was slowly somersaulting around him. The man opposite was an unbelievably powerful mesmerist. Gunner had encountered the art many times in the past but never had he felt so threatened by it.
"First things first," oozed Quaestor, "I believe you were due to fly to New York for a meeting?"
"Um. Yezz. Meeding."
"Well, I'm afraid that's going to be impossible. You'll have to reschedule. Look at me, Mr Gunner; I'm going to make everything alright, yes? Speak clearly please."
"Yes," said Gunner, keeping his eyes fixed on the lupine gaze. "Yes, everything's alright."
"So, the first thing we need to organise is your timetable. I suggest you telephone your secretary and have her set a new date for the meeting — let's say five days from now. That's the 19th. What do you think? I'm right. aren't I?"
Doctor Quaestor reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a mobile phone.
"Now," he said, "I want you to speak clearly and naturally. No slurring or mumbling, you understand? Can you manage that?"
"I understand," said Gunner.
"I want you to call your secretary and make the arrangements as we've agreed."
"Can you hold your head up?"
"Here you are then. Just reschedule the meeting and tell her that you're having private medical treatment, that it's an emergency and a personal matter, and that you'll see her again on the 18th and will fly to New York on the 19th or thereafter. Understood?"
The man standing behind him removed his hands and Gunner allowed his head to wobble slightly as if he were struggling to keep it stable which, in fact, he was.
Quaestor slipped the mobile across the table and Gunner picked it up. He held it in his palm and slowly started dialling with his thumb, concentrating hard. He angled it so that the screen reflected the man behind. Gunner saw a shockingly white face, white hair and pink eyes and nearly dropped the phone in shock. He recognised the features but knew he must be mistaken, for they were those of a man who'd died during the Second World War.
He finished dialling and raised the mobile to his ear.
"Look at me while you talk, Mr Gunner," ordered the doctor.
The dial tone buzzed three times before a young female voice answered:
"Hello Miss Williams," said Gunner, staring into Quaestor's eyes, "I have a problem."
Stuart Smedley Looks for Work
Kitty Lang was 26-years-old. She had curly black shoulder-length hair and very dark, very pretty eyes. Her lips turned up at the corners and when she smiled she displayed small, even white teeth.
Kitty was a receptionist, a typist, a linguist, and a secret agent. She worked in an office on Baker Street and, for the most part, spent each day engaged in fairly mundane tasks, just like those undertaken by receptionists in practically every other office in London.
There were two telephones on her desk. One of them she used quite a lot. It was grey and ordinary. The other, which she used less often, was blue and unlike any other telephone in the city. It had a Winnie the Pooh sticker on the receiver. Whenever this particular telephone rang, Kitty started earning her rather large salary — a salary her office manager would be astonished to learn was six times bigger than his own.
Usually, calls on the blue 'phone came from people seeking an appointment with the man who lived in the three-storey flat above the office. Kitty's job was to vet them — to sort the wheat from the chaff. The man upstairs was very particular indeed about who he would or would not see.
But on other occasions, the calls were rather more complicated. Sometimes they involved Kitty in top secret business ... dangerous business, even.
The call she answered now was of this latter variety.
"Hello?" she said.
"Hello Miss Williams. I have a problem."
Kitty pressed a red button on the dial pad. It was a button you wouldn't find on an ordinary telephone.
"Oh, hello Mr Gunner ... what do you need me to do?"
She pressed another button, this one just beneath the top of her desk. It made a bell ring in the flat upstairs.
"Um," said Mr Gunner's voice. He sounded tired. "I've been taken ill."
"Oh no! Are you alright?"
"I'm afraid not. I have to ... uh ... have treatment. I'll be away until ... until ..."
"Yes, Mr Gunner? Until when?"
"Until the 18th. It's a personal matter, you ... you understand?"
"Of course. So you didn't make your flight then?" asked Kitty.
"No, I have to reschedule the meeting. Any time from the ... er... the 19th. Can you sort that out for me?"
"No problem at all, sir."
Over near the office entrance, a door-sized mirror by the coat stand swung open and a young man stepped through. He had long dark hair and an unshaven chin, National Health spectacles and crooked teeth. He pushed the mirror back into place and slouched over to Kitty's desk.
"Is there anything else, Mr Gunner?" she was asking. "Okay then, leave it all with me. Get well soon, won't you? And don't worry; I'll keep everything in order here. Bye!"
She put down the receiver and looked up at the young man.
"Who are you?"
"Stuart Smedley," he grunted, "What's the story?"
"He's been hooked."
Smedley pursed his lips and asked, "And the Institute?"
"Yes," she said, "I got it relayed to them immediately. They'll reply in a minute. You look bloody horrible."
"Thanks. These teeth hurt. I think they got knocked out of shape when we moved in upstairs. I'll have to get new ones made."
"Is everything unpacked now?"
"Yes. Tell you what, as soon as this business is sorted out, you'll have to come up for dinner one night."
"My mother warned me about you," said Kitty.
Something on her computer screen flashed.
"Here we are. I'll print it for you."
She tapped at the keyboard. The printer beside her desk groaned and started to hum.
"God!" Kitty suddenly exclaimed, "You stink too!"
"Patchouli oil," said Smedley. "It disguises the smell of dope."
"I see. Much the same as a T-shirt with 'I smoke pot' printed on it?"
She handed the completed print-out to him. He read it and raised his dyed eyebrows.
"They haven't taken him far — just to the edge of the airport — and the Institute's given me a fifteen-man squad."
"Good. I thought you were going to go it alone, as usual."
He smiled grimly. "Not this time. Better be off. Cheers, Kitty!"
As he shuffled away, she muttered, "Break a leg, Sweetheart!"
Smedley walked out of the office, pulled on a woollen hat against the January cold, then sauntered along the road and into Marylebone tube station. He travelled four stops along the Bakerloo Line and got off at Maida Vale. After a ten minute stroll, he arrived at a small building in a quiet, mainly suburban area. A sign above the window read 'Cornhill Employment' and postcards taped to the glass advertised a variety of uninspiring opportunities ranging from a vacancy for a litter collector to a temporary position in a call centre.
Smedley pushed open the door and entered. A fat bald man was slumped behind a counter, smoking a cigarette and reading a tabloid newspaper. The grimy office was otherwise empty.
"I'm looking for a job," announced Smedley.
The man didn't look up. "Vacancies on the board," he mumbled.
"Not really my sort of thing," Smedley advised, and slid an identity card onto the newspaper. "I'd like to be a zoologist or a pearl diver."
The fat man flicked ash onto the floor and looked up. "How 'bout becoming an entomologist? We're always looking for entomologists. They're in very short supply."
"I don't like creepy crawlies. Would that be a problem?"
The man indicated a door marked 'Private'.
"Through there and out the back," he said.
Having successfully exchanged the code words, Smedley turned his back on the man, walked to the door and passed through it into a filthy kitchen. He crossed it, opened another door and stepped into a large yard. A number of men were waiting, gathered around a minibus. One of them moved forward and grinned at the new arrival.
"Hello, lad," he said, "I'm Franklin Goodheart."
"You look utterly ridiculous," he snorted, "Like a bank manager dressed for a nature ramble! And what are you doing here, anyway? Aren't you too important for this sort of thing?"
Goodheart rubbed his bristly moustache with his forefinger and shrugged.
"I like to be hands-on," he said, "Besides, you know — he's a friend."
Smedley slapped Goodheart's shoulder.
"Good man," he smiled, "Let's get on with it then!"
They all piled into the minibus. The driver started the engine, steered out of the yard and set course for Heathrow.
In the back, Goodheart opened a detailed map of the airport.
"We think he's either in this building—" he said, pointing to a storage depot on the outskirts of the complex, "or this one. The Institute has disabled the three CCTV cameras which overlook the area. Funny thing about that. In this kind of operation we usually hack into them and just make them point in the other direction. These ones seemed oddly resistant, though; every time we took control it was reclaimed, almost as if the system had some sort of countermeasures; which we know isn't the case. In the end we resorted to a power surge to burn the circuitry. All very unusual... but beside the point. They're out of action; that's all that matters right now. In addition, when we give the word, an 'incident' will occur outside the entrance to the airport. It will be serious enough to draw away any security personnel who happen to be patrolling these depots."
"Excellent," said Smedley. He looked around at his team. They were dressed in overalls and worn suits, denim jackets and heavy boots. "You lot," he said, "will blend into the landscape. You'll be ordinary working men going about your business. It just so happens that your business surrounds these two buildings. You know the routine."
Nods and thumbs-up came in response.
A little later the minibus was left parked half a mile from the target area and the men moved off. Goodheart wished Smedley luck then ambled along a few yards behind the youth as he headed towards the depots.
Smedley wandered along the perimeter of a fenced-in enclosure. The building within was a hive of activity, with fork-lifts loading crates onto trucks and workmen milling around shouting to one another. It was very obviously not what Smedley was looking for.
He moved on to the next enclosure. This presented a totally different prospect. It was quiet and virtually abandoned, with a just a few men idling in its doorways. Smedley counted four in all. They were dressed as security guards.
He stopped at the entrance gate then meandered in. One of the men straightened and eyed him speculatively before moving forward to meet him.
"What you want?" growled the guard. He was Japanese.
"Got any work?"
"No. Try next door; they're busy, we're not."
"Already tried; they're fully manned. You sure?" pressed Smedley.
"Sure I'm sure! Now move on!"
The security guard watched as the young man shuffled away and disappeared around a corner. He spat, turned, and moved back to the doorway he'd been leaning against. It was the main entrance. Above it a sign declared 'Bays 1 – 15'. A white van with tinted windows was parked nearby.
A few yards away, Smedley was talking in a low voice into a mobile.
"Four guards — Agreed?"
"Agreed," came the response; Goodheart's voice.
"And this is the place?"
"Me too. Let's get on with it then."
Gatecrashers Spoil the Party
Paul Gunner was loosing all sense of reality. They had strapped him to a chair and subjected him to a light show which left multicoloured after-images dancing across his retina. Headphones were clamped to his ears, pumping out an almost subsonic beat which, he recognised, reproduced the Alpha and Theta rhythms of the human brain.
His defences were pushed to the limit.
Quaestor's eyes sliced through the visual cacophony and drilled into his skull. Speaking into a throat mike, the Doctor's voice seemed to bypass Gunner's ears altogether, planting an insidious directive in the centre of his brain like a fast-growing weed, its tendrils creeping into the nooks and crannies of his psyche. Gunner was being primed to react in a particular fashion when key phrases were uttered or when particular conditions arose.
At its heart — in the deepest root of this horrible weed — lay the false premise that Holloway-Stoddard Industries, of which Paul Gunner was President, was a bloated, inefficient, money-wasting giant which needed to be stripped back to basics in order to survive and prosper. Redundancies must be made. Budgets must be cut. Research and development must be curtailed.
All of this, Gunner knew, was absolute nonsense.
But with Quaestor's decree firmly embedded in his subconscious mind, he would begin an unnecessary campaign of streamlining. It would bring the company to its knees. And when Gunner spoke in public about his industrial hooliganism, he would inadvertently find himself saying exactly the wrong things to exactly the wrong people at exactly the wrong times. Soon, he would become a press favourite — a once powerful man fallen from grace; a brilliant entrepreneur transformed into a bumbling clown to be mocked and lambasted. Holloway-Stoddard Industries would collapse. The stranglehold, under which its competitors had laboured for so long, would be unexpectedly released — and those who had invested in the competition would reap the benefits. Doctor Quaestor and his cohorts, of course, had invested heavily.
It was an audacious plan — so incredible, in fact, that few people would believe that such a thing could happen. And therein lay its strength.
Gunner's conditioning must be infallible. So the merciless mesmerism continued. For three hours now, his senses had been assaulted; the seeds of his downfall planted.
Gunner ran through mathematical equations, played an imaginary game of chess, mentally coded a bolt-on program for his computer's firewall defences, furtively examined his opponent; all this to maintain his psychological fortifications while, at the same time, appearing to succumb.
He sank into the pulsating colours, the throbbing rumble, the droning voice; found himself imagining the structure of Holloway-Stoddard Industries and visualising the weak spots which he, as President, would weaken further until the whole edifice collapsed.
It became authentic; an illusion made fact — and Gunner felt himself slipping away.
A noise intruded and broke the spell: the click of a door. The blonde man with the horrible tie swam into view and bent over at Quaestor's side, whispered into his ear.
The doctor looked momentarily disconcerted then signalled with his hand. The normal room lights snapped on and the headphones were pulled from Gunner's head by someone standing behind him. He hadn't realised anyone was there. He groaned and toppled forward, laying his forehead on the table.
"Untie him," ordered Quaestor.
He felt the straps pulled from his arms.
"We have visitors. It's time to go. Mr Vertex and I will lead. You bring him. How many men have we got?"
"Me, Quill and five others," said a voice from over Gunner's shoulder. He recognised it as that of the bearded man.
'Who's Quill?' he wondered. 'And who's Mr Vertex?'
"Make time for us," Quaestor commanded.
The door clicked open again. Someone shouted in the distance. Hands reached under Gunner's armpits and pulled him up. He opened his eyes. The room was empty except for himself and his guard.
"It's alright," he told his captor, "I can walk."
The bearded man pulled a pistol from his shoulder holster and pointed it at Gunner's side:
"Then do so!"
Gunner staggered towards the door and out into the room beyond. His guard stayed close.
The door to the corridor was standing wide open. As Gunner approached it, a security man skidded to a halt outside, shouted "Back!" to someone further along the corridor, and then jerked straight up into the air before hitting the ground in an angular heap. He lay twitching.
"Needle gun," muttered Gunner and span on the spot, putting all his weight into his right fist. It caught the bearded man on the point of the chin and he buckled, falling to his knees as if his bones had suddenly turned to rubber. His pistol went clattering across the linoleum. He swayed, blinking rapidly. Gunner shrugged and hit him again. This time he went down, out for the count.
Gunner sucked his knuckles and stepped into the corridor. A needle sizzled past his head. He turned and looked at an overall-clad individual standing halfway through the main entrance.
"Careful with that thing," he said, "you nearly hit me."
"Sorry, sir," came the sheepish response, "I didn't recognise you."
"I hardly recognise myself at the moment. Give me a sit-rep."
The man stepped in and walked up to Gunner, keeping his needle gun raised and his eyes on the stretch of corridor beyond. He was short and wiry; dark-skinned and tense.
"Fifteen of us, sir, plus SD6. CCTV cameras are off. Police and airport security have been decoyed. We surrounded the place; kept out of sight. SD6 did a recon then ordered a full assault, so here we are. All four outer guards were needled. Then I got this chap here—" he nudged the man on the floor with his foot. "The others have entered through side and back doors. There's SD6 now."
Gunner turned and saw a grubby youth approaching from the far end of the corridor. On either side of him, doors started opening and heads and needle guns poked out as the invading force slowly gathered towards the centre of the building. Shouts of "Clear!" echoed along the hall. The man beside Gunner moved off towards his comrades.
The youth arrived and smiled, displaying gnarled teeth.
"Hello," he said cheerfully, "you look like hell."
"Thanks. Who're you meant to be?"
"Stupid name. Couldn't you think of a better one?"
"Theodore Thistlethwaite? Bertie Biggleswicke? Timothy Tiddlywink?"
Sexton Blake sighed and lowered his face into his hands. He rubbed it vigorously.
"I don't like being Paul Gunner. It feels strange having an old face," he grumbled, "I wish this stuff would wear off!"
"It'll hurt like blazes when it does, guv'nor. All your facial muscles will cramp up."
"I know, I know. And I've been pumped full of narcotics and hypnotised too. My head's spinning. Who's in charge of the CI men? Let's get an update then go home. I want to sleep for a week."
Stuart Smedley, otherwise known as SD6, otherwise known as Edward Carter, otherwise known as Tinker, hooked out his artificial teeth and threw them onto the floor with a grimace. He and Blake always wore disguises when operating with the CI mob — just as a precaution — but sometimes, like right now, it seemed a wasted effort.
He called to one of the men from the Craille Institute.
Franklin Goodheart extricated himself from the small group further down the corridor and walked over.
"All done and dusted," he reported, "Hallo Blake!"
"Coutts!" exclaimed the Baker Street detective, "What on earth are you doing here?"
"Oh, just getting my hands dirty for a change."
George Coutts was the descendent of a CID man. He was also CID but in his case the initials stood for 'Craille Institute — Director'. He was head of an ultra-top secret organisation. It made him one of the most powerful men in the country, though few people knew it. As such, he definitely should not have been 'out in the field'. His place was behind a desk, pulling strings and manipulating events.
"A typical Coutts," noted Sexton Blake, who had known the family for many years, "Steaming in without thought for the consequences!"
"Got to look after my people," grunted Coutts. "And you."
Blake smiled, grasped the Director's hand, shook it firmly, and then asked, "So what have we got?"
"Five men," said Coutts. He spotted the bearded man on the floor behind the detective and corrected himself: "Sorry. Six."
"Six?" jerked Blake.
"Four guards outside; this one in the corridor; and that one in there."
Blake glared at him.
"There's three more: a young blond thug, an undernourished doctor and an albino!"
"We've searched! No sign!"
"Well search again, dammit!"
Coutts raced back to his men.
Tinker pulled a vicious-looking weapon from his jacket and handed it to Blake. The needle gun held six three-inch long darts which, upon hitting a target would release a 50,000 volt charge, over-riding the victim's central nervous system with incredible takedown power. It was far more sophisticated than its nearest equivalent, the police tazer, whose darts remained attached to the gun by 15-foot wires.
Blake took it and ordered his assistant to start searching for a hidden exit. For the next fifteen minutes each member of the assault team — apart from three who were loading the captives into the minibus which had been driven up and parked outside — scoured every inch of wall and floor space. But it was Sexton Blake who found the trapdoor. It was in Room 2, cunningly obscured by a pile of linoleum cuttings.
He called the CI squad together and, lifting the door, led the way down a short flight of steps. He found himself in a maintenance tunnel which ran in a straight line off towards the airport runways. It was lit by regularly spaced red light bulbs.
Blake turned to Coutts.
"Would you send all but four of your men above ground to find the other end of this tunnel and guard it? Have them look at the plans first. If they find the tunnel joins others, they should split into teams and cover all the exits. I want this escape route locked down."
"Right ho," snapped Coutts. "Carrington, Jones, Murray, Holland; you're with SD5 and myself. The rest of you heard the man: get going!"
As eight of the CI men moved away, Blake muttered, "You should go with them, Coutts."
"No chance!" replied the Director, in a low growl.
"Okay," sighed Blake, "Bring up the rear, I'll lead."
They moved into the tunnel, needle guns at the ready.
George Coutts Meets His Match
The lighting was dim and, despite the straightness of the tunnel, it was difficult to see far ahead. As they moved along for what seemed an interminable time, they passed pipes and great tangles of cables, big junction boxes and metal supports. Occasional doors opened onto generator rooms and storage space. It all offered a man umpteen places to hide — and that man was the blonde wearer of a bad tie.
They had been walking for about five minutes when he suddenly stepped into view and fired a pistol. The bullet screamed past Sexton Blake's head, clanged off a pipe and ricocheted through Holland's forearm. With lightning speed, Tinker crouched, raised his needle gun and pulled the trigger. Its dart went crackling down the tunnel and buried itself in the blonde man's right thigh. He jerked sideways, crashed into the side wall and fell to the floor, his eyes rolling and his arms and legs shuddering spasmodically.
Sexton Blake ran forward, followed by his assistant and the CI men.
"Quaestor and someone named Vertex went on ahead," said the detective, looking down at the stricken man, "So this must be Quill. Good shooting, Tinker!"
Coutts checked Holland's arm and, seeing that his man had only suffered a minor flesh wound, ordered him to drag Quill back to the depot and load him aboard the minibus.
As Blake, Carrington, Jones and Murray started forward again, Tinker dropped behind and asked Coutts, "What will happen to the captives?"
"They'll be processed," grunted the Director.
Tinker remained silent. He knew what that meant and he loathed it with a passion. Like Sexton Blake, he possessed a Victorian sense of ethics; he believed that good was good and bad was bad and there wasn't much grey in between. He despised the fact that the Craille Institute employed methods which, in themselves, were almost as offensive as those used by the criminals it was set up to hunt. But, also like Blake, he recognised that the modern world didn't share his ethical outlook — and all the things he hated about the CI were outweighed by the necessity of its existence. It wasn't something to admire — but it was needed. And, he thought, glancing at Coutts, at least there was a truly decent man at its helm; a man who would curb its excesses and keep the organisation focused on its mission.
"Eustace Craille," Tinker muttered under his breath, "what a monster you were!"
They crept on, listening for movement ahead. Then they came to a fork in the tunnel and paused.
"I guess we split up," said Murray.
"Yup," agreed Blake, rubbing tetchily at his slack face muscles. The bags beneath his eyes were beginning to ache; a sure sign that the treatment was wearing off. "Director Coutts, I suggest you, Carrington and Jones go one way and Tinker, Murray and I will go the other."
Coutts nodded and moved off down the left-hand branch with his two men in tow. Blake, Tinker and Murray disappeared to the right.
For five minutes, the Director of the Craille Institute led Carrington and Jones along the red-lit passage. He felt edgy; it had been some time since he was at the sharp end of an operation.
"How long are these damned tunnels?" he grumbled.
"Right across the airport and beyond, I think," answered Carrington.
"Can't be much farther to—"
Coutts came to a halt so suddenly that Jones bumped into him. Up ahead, a man was standing in the centre of the tunnel, facing them, his hands casually resting behind his back. His hair and skin were crimson, reflecting the red light bulbs.
Coutts aimed his needle gun and shouted "Don't move!"
The man didn't.
"Careful now!" the Director whispered to his men, "If he blinks, needle him!"
Coutts crept forward, his eyes fixed on the figure. Jones and Carrington followed, one to each side of him, guns poised.
As he drew closer, Coutts noticed that the man's eyes were also red. He had angular cheekbones, a wide forehead and a strong slightly pointed jaw. He appeared to be about sixty years old and was immaculately dressed in a black suit with a Nehru collar and an oriental-style black silk shirt. He stood perfectly still and watched the three CI men approach.
"Who are you?" demanded Coutts, suddenly realising that this was the albino Blake had spoken of.
The man gave a slight, sardonic smile.
"Vertex," he said and stepped to one side, disappearing behind a large metal conduit. Three needles hissed past his ear.
Coutts looked down as something rolled against his foot: a small canister. He smelled a peculiar odour and suddenly the floor rose up and hit him in the face.
He awoke in a store room. It was illuminated by a normal 40-watt bulb and was large; lined with grey lockers. Piles of cable and coils of wire were heaped against the walls. He was sitting on a bench. To either side, sat Jones and Carrington. Their ankles and arms were tightly bound with cable. Gaffer tape covered their mouths.
"Gas," said Vertex. He was standing in the middle of the room, looking down at the three men. Now Coutts could see that his skin and hair were as white as alabaster. "Fast acting and quick to wear off; you'll feel fine in a moment."
Coutts coughed and shook his head. 'Damn the man,' he thought and stubbornly struggled to his feet.
"An interesting weapon," noted Vertex, levelling a needle gun at the Director's chest. "Not police issue. Certainly not a toy I'd expect to find in the hands of airport security. Which raises the question: who do you represent?"
Coutts clamped his mouth shut and glared.
Vertex considered a moment, then: "Well now, let's see how this works, shall we?"
He pointed the gun past Coutts and fired a needle into Jones. The CI man went into seizure and collapsed onto his side.
"Most effective!" exclaimed the albino, and squeezed the trigger again. Another needle sizzled past Coutts, striking Carrington in the stomach. Vertex watched him shudder and twitch.
He turned his attention back to Coutts.
"My dear fellow, I don't believe even the Intelligence Services have anything quite like this little beauty! So you're something else; something special. I don't want to incapacitate your ability to talk, so—"
He fired three needles into the floor at the Director's feet, emptying the gun's chamber, and then threw the weapon aside into a bundle of coiled wires, "Now perhaps you'd care to enlighten me?"
Coutts leaped at him like a charging bull and tripped over the albino's foot as Vertex sidestepped. He landed on all fours, jumped back up, turned and swung a fist. His foe lifted his chin just enough for the fist to sail underneath. The CI chief was off-balance and received a quick slap to the side of his head which sent him crashing into the prone Carrington.
"Let's start with a name," said Vertex smoothly, "I believe I've already introduced myself?"
Coutts lifted himself off the floor and growled "Franklin Goodheart."
Vertex smiled, "Somehow I doubt that. Are you finished?"
George Coutts charged again, ducked, and threw a punch at the albino's stomach. Vertex twisted out of the way and buried a fist in the Director's side. Coutts felt as if he'd been hit by a steam hammer. He doubled over and fell to his knees, struggling for breath.
"I may be a good deal older than you, Mr Whoever-you-are, but don't make the mistake of underestimating me," suggested Vertex. He brushed a speck of dust from his sleeve, "Or, for that matter," he added, "my organisation."
"The Hand of Thoth," gasped Coutts.
"Well, well! We are well-informed! Now I'm even more curious!"
Vertex grabbed the back of the Director's collar and hoisted him to his feet. He pushed, sending him reeling into a locker. Coutts turned to face his adversary.
"You and Doctor Quaestor," he wheezed.
"Indeed, yes," agreed Vertex, "We are the Left Hand of Thoth. A rather catchy title, don't you think?"
"And the right hand?"
"My dear chap! You haven't even told me your real name! This isn't exactly a fair exchange of information, is it?"
"That's better! And who, may I ask, is George Coutts?"
"He's the finish of you!"
Coutts threw himself at Vertex, feinted with his left fist, and sent the right into the albino's face. Finally he made contact and his enemy stumbled backwards. The CI man followed through with a fierce left hook but received a terrible blow to his jaw in return. But he refused to go down again.
Upon the hard floor of the large store room, under the dim glow of the light, from side to side, over piles of junk and electrics, across the prone bodies of Jones and Carrington, the battle raged.
A pile-driver of a punch sent Vertex hurtling into the door but the albino came right back, no less dangerous than before.
Coutts fought with unabated fury. His lips were split and swollen; blood streamed from his nose. An ornate ring worn on the middle finger of his opponent's right hand had sliced into his cheek.
But no less battered was Vertex; blood poured from a deep gash on the bridge of his nose; his left eye was a blackened slit; a rib on his right side grated painfully when he moved.
There was no respite and no finesse; the affair was a slugging match, savage and silent.
'He's in his sixties, for God's sake!" thought Coutts at one point as he hammered a fist into the albino's side. He received a head butt in the mouth and tottered back. A heel smashed into the side of his knee and his leg buckled. He fell.
Suddenly it came to an end; his wrist was locked in a vice-like grip and yanked up between his shoulder-blades, immobilising him and sending daggers of excruciating pain into his upper arm. He gritted his teeth and felt the albino's hot breath against his ear:
"I think it's time I left, Mr Coutts. I don't yet know how, but I shall certainly find out more about you. And take this as a warning: you have been noticed by the Hand of Thoth. Few people would consider that an enviable position."
With his free hand, Vertex grabbed the Director by the hair, pulled his head up and slammed it into the floor. Coutts saw stars.
By the time he regained his senses, Vertex had gone.
Coutts noticed that the blood on his hands was congealing, suggesting that he'd been unconscious for no small amount of time.
He tottered to his feet and looked around the room, hoping to find either Jones' or Carrington's needle gun but there was no sign of the weapons. Leaving his unconscious companions to be taken care of later, he limped to the door and entered the tunnel, heading in the same direction he'd been going when he'd encountered the albino. Eventually, he reached a short staircase and, looking up, saw four of his men pointing their guns at his head.
"Has anyone passed? How long have you been here?" he slurred.
They lowered their weapons.
"Nobody, sir," said one, "We entered from outside about ten minutes ago. There are two exits from the tunnel system. We have the other one covered as well. Are you okay, sir?"
"Yes," grunted Coutts. His enemy must have gone back down the tunnel and up the other fork.
The Director ordered two of the men to stay put and the others to follow. He began a painful jog back the way he had come. When he reached the door to the store room he ordered one of the men to go inside to release Jones and Carrington. Then he moved on with the remaining CI man, whose name was Temple, until he came to the junction where the tunnel divided into two; it was farther away than he remembered. Entering the right-hand branch, he continued on, his battered body complaining with every step. Temple offered to help support his weight but Coutts irritably shrugged him off.
It seemed to take an eternity but eventually they reached the exit. Four of his men were sprawled on the steps, their limbs juddering. Tinker was leaning over them, extracting needles from various parts of their anatomies. Murray was standing guard. As Coutts hobbled up, the door at the top of the steps opened and Sexton Blake entered. He saw the dishevelled Director and gave a cry:
"Coutts! What happened? Are you hurt?"
"I'll live. Did Vertex come this way?"
"No," answered Blake, "but Quaestor did. The man is the most incredible mesmerist I've ever encountered. Your men tried to stop him; he hypnotised all four of them. When we arrived, they were waiting for us."
"You mean you've been fighting our own people?" exclaimed Coutts.
"Yes. And I'm not convinced they won't start on us again the moment they come round. We'd better tie them up. I've just had a scout around outside. Quaestor got clean away."
Something suddenly occurred to the CI man. He told Blake to wait and staggered up the steps to the door where he could get reception for his mobile. He called his men back at the depot but there was no reply. He sank onto a step and rested his elbows on his knees.
"I've been a damned fool," he told the detective, "I should have realised that Vertex would go back along the tunnel to the depot. Four of my men were there with the minibus and the prisoners. They aren't replying. I think the albino has rescued his troops."
He ordered Temple to race as fast as he could along the length of the tunnel to the depot and to 'phone back a report. The man turned and set off.
Tinker climbed up to where Coutts sat and examined his wounds.
"You're a mess, Couttsy old chap, but I'm afraid the face rearrangement isn't permanent; you'll soon be as ugly as ever!"
The Director snorted and asked Tinker whether his needle gun was still loaded.
"Yes," came the answer.
"Then be a good lad and shoot yourself in the backside."
A Baker Street Interlude
The real Paul Gunner, who'd been temporarily living in a guest room on the top floor of Sexton Blake's Baker Street home, was now somewhere over the Atlantic on his way to New York. The threat to him seemed to have passed, though he was accompanied by two CI men as a precaution.
In Blake's consulting room, smokeless fuel burned in the hearth and the great detective sat staring into the flames. He no longer wore the wig or cheek pads which had helped form the illusion that he was the President of Holloway-Stoddard Industries. His face, though, remained old and slack.
His mouth was set in a grim line and his teeth clamped down hard on the stem of his pipe. Evil-smelling tobacco fumes contaminated the air.
His housekeeper, Mrs Bardell, coughed discreetly as she placed a tray containing a steaming pot of coffee on a small table beside him.
"Baked 'am and new 'taters for supper, sir," she announced. "Ready in an hour."
She received a distracted grunt in reply, so waddled out of the room and tut-tutted all the way back to the kitchen.
The mission, thought Blake, had been an unqualified failure. Yes, they had prevented the kidnapping and conditioning of Gunner; yes, they had encountered two of the four men known as the Hand of Thoth; yes, they had ruined one of that organisation's money-making schemes — but not a single man had been captured, not a single item of really useful information had been recovered, and worse — far worse — George Coutts, in the heat of battle, had told Vertex his real name.
That, Sexton Blake knew, posed the biggest security threat the Craille Institute had ever faced.
A sharp pain flared across the front of the detective's neck. He took his pipe and tapped it on the hearth, stretched and groaned. Lying at his feet, Pedro the bloodhound raised his head and gazed forlornly at the unfamiliar features of his beloved master.
"Not long now, old boy," muttered Blake.
The door opened and Tinker, free of his Stuart Smedley disguise and freshly scrubbed, entered the room. He poured two cups of coffee, handed one to Blake, and threw himself into the chair opposite his mentor.
The detective raised the cup to his lips.
"Too hot?" asked Tinker.
A ripple ran across Blake's left cheek. He winced and grunted, "No, the face is coming back."
Tinker watched, fascinated, as Gunner's pendulous jowls suddenly tightened and shrank, revealing Sexton Blake's firm jaw line.
"I suppose it could be thought of as a sort of anti-Botox," Tinker suggested. "Instead of tightening your facial muscles, it loosens them. Probably won't catch on in beauty parlours though."
Blake put his coffee aside and slapped his hands to the sides of his head. "Gaah!" he repeated. The bags beneath his eyes contracted and vanished.
Pedro let loose a mournful howl.
"Muzzle it!" ordered Tinker, yanking the big dog's ear.
"Do you remember," panted the detective, "the days when we used theatrical gum and rubber prosthetics for our disguises?"
"Well," continued the Baker Street man, "That's the way we're ... gaah!... we're going to do it from now on!"
An hour and a hot bath later, Sexton Blake looked like Sexton Blake once again and did so with fervent relief. When he emerged from his bedroom, wrapped in a threadbare dressing gown, he found Murray, the CI man, sitting in the consulting room with Tinker. He greeted him and offered a whisky and soda, which Murray accepted with pleasure. He looked exhausted.
"I have news from Director Coutts," he explained.
"Go on," said Blake, sitting down.
"We've had a stroke of good fortune. During the clean up operation, a computer's USB drive was found lying in a corner of the store room where the Director fought with Vertex. Since there are no computer systems down there, it seemed to be rather out of place."
Blake leaned forward eagerly.
"We've just been looking at its contents," continued Murray, "and we've concluded that during the fight it must have fallen out of the albino's pocket."
"What was on it?" snapped the detective.
"Financial records; complete details of recent investments and acquisitions made by a company named the Harley Financial Group."
"Ha!" Blake slapped the arm of his chair, "Harley be damned! It's the Hand of Thoth!"
"That's what we think," the CI man confirmed.
"You know what this means? It means we can play the scoundrels at their own game!"
"We're already onto it. Our financial people are out for blood, so to speak."
"Excellent! Excellent! Presumably this cover organisation — for that's all it is — has offices?"
"Yes, Mr Blake. They're out near Leytonstone."
"And the Institute has men watching the place?"
"Like a flock of hawks. If hawks flock, sir."
"Good. Then, if you'll pardon my abruptness, Murray, I think Tinker and I had better get on!"
Murray rose and shook Sexton Blake's hand. "You're off to Leytonstone, sir?"
"No, I think the Harley Financial Group is nicely boxed in without our help. We have other fish to fry; a doctor and an albino, to be precise."
Murray paused by the door. "May I have some idea of your mission? Just to pass on to Director Coutts, you understand?"
Blake smiled, "I think not. No offence intended, Murray, but your chief has too much to worry about right now. No point in adding a further burden."
"Let me do things my way, there's a good chap."
"Well, you do have Special Dispensation, so ..." The CI man cleared his throat, "Just call if you need me, Mr Blake!"
The detective closed the door behind Murray and listened to him descend the stairs. "Good man, that!" he muttered.
"They all are," noted Tinker, "So what's the game, guv'nor?"
"How tired are you, young'un?"
"I'm wide awake!"
"Well, I'm not," said the detective, falling back into his chair, "I've had my face twisted out of shape, I've been pumped full of protective agents, then flooded with narcotics, then brainwashed, then shot at. I want to sleep. So I'm relying on your youthful energy — you're taking the first watch."
"Watch? Watch what? Where?"
"Think, lad! How does the Hand of Thoth operate? Review what we know about them ... and tell me what they know about us."
Tinker paced the floor, his brow wrinkled.
"We first heard of them, during the Loring case last month," he ruminated,* "They were reputed to be master manipulators of the press. We know their primary aim is to acquire wealth. They employ subversive methods of persuasion to make 'movers and shakers' in the commercial world cause mayhem in their own particular field of endeavour — and they do this primarily through Doctor Quaestor's powerful hypnotic abilities. Their victim is then exposed to public ridicule in newspapers and on television. His 'stock', so to speak, plummets, taking his weakened business with it. Rival companies expand into the space left behind. The rise in their fortunes is reflected in the financial markets and investors reap the rewards — the Hand of Thoth being the primary beneficiary."
"Correct!" snapped Blake, "But what's the most important thing we learned from the Loring affair?"
Tinker scratched his head and glanced at Pedro, who was following him as he paced back and forth.
"An author named Michael Loring received a manuscript from an anonymous source. He claimed it revealed details about the Thoth operation and the four men at its head. That suggests someone close to the group is willing to betray them."
"Exactly!" said Sexton Blake.
"Thoth sent a man named Rupert Billings to kill Loring and destroy the manuscript. He was successful on both counts and subsequently vanished. That's where we entered the scene. Having learned that Thoth was more than the urban myth it was reputed to be, we examined the fortunes of various companies over the past few years and noticed instances where a collapse in fortunes could be attributed to the actions of particular individuals. Then we started looking for the next potential target and found—"
Tinker tripped over Pedro and stumbled into a bureau, sending a pile of books tumbling to the floor.
"At this point in your development," chuckled Blake, "you really aught to have mastered the art of thinking and walking at the same time!"
"Oh, stow it!" muttered his assistant, "Where was I?"
"Paul Gunner. We identified him, replaced him, and saved him from a humiliating experience."
"And," added Tinker, stacking the books back on the bureau, "we encountered two of the four men behind the criminal organisation: Doctor Quaestor and Mr Vertex; which brings me to something I've been meaning to ask you."
"I wondered when you'd get around to it."
"Vertex the Albino? I mean, surely that's not a coincidence!"
"Nope — too much of a family resemblance."
"Oh Lord!" Tinker threw up his hands and walked over to his chair. "So who is he?" he asked, sprawling into it.
"I rather suppose," said Blake, "that he's the son of our old and deceased enemy, Zenith."
"It never rains but it pours," noted Tinker. "By the way, I still don't know what I'm supposed to be doing while you're getting your much-required beauty sleep."
"I'll ignore the implications inherent in the phrasing of that question," smiled Blake, "And will ask once again: what has the Hand of Thoth learned about us?"
Tinker pondered for a minute then started counting off points with his fingers:
"One: it isn't aware of you and I as anything separate from the Craille Institute, so it probably thinks it's being opposed by a single organisation. Two: it must have deduced — from the needle guns — that it's up against a technologically advanced and highly secretive opponent. Three: the only names it possesses in connection with its new-found foe are 'Miss Williams' — who Quaestor heard you telephone, who doesn't actually exist and who, thanks to CI equipment, can't possibly be traced — and 'George Coutts' who does and—"
Tinker leaped to his feet.
"Exactly," confirmed the detective. "They're unlikely to trace George Coutts, the current Director of the Institute, but they'll certainly find his father and predecessor, Sir George Coutts. His activities as one-time head of the Institute may be secret but in his other role, as a government advisor, he's always had a reasonably high profile. And once they see the family resemblance, they'll know they've hit upon the right target."
"What will they do?" gasped Tinker.
"I predict that they'll grab him, hypnotise him, and extract from him everything he knows. They'll then use him to expose and destroy the Institute. Unless we prevent it, Sir George Coutts is going to feature on the front page of every tabloid in the land!"
Tinker Cleans Up
The Left Hand of Thoth needed time to regroup, thought Sexton Blake, so he didn't expect them to move against Sir George Coutts that night.
But they did.
Tinker witnessed this at four o'clock in the morning when a Post Office van drew up outside the senior Coutts' residence in Highbury Gardens. He watched from behind the tinted windows of the Grey Panther, Blake's powerful Mercedes Benz, as two men got out of the van.
"He we go, Pedro," he whispered.
A soft rumble sounded in the back of the bloodhound's throat. The huge dog sat on the passenger seat, his alert brown eyes fixed on the men as they ascended the steps to Sir George's front door and bent over the lock.
Tinker had seen one of them before, lying unconscious on the floor of the depot at Heathrow; it was the bearded man. The other he recognised from Blake's description as Doctor Quaestor.
They picked the lock with ease and silently slipped into the house. Twenty minutes later, they emerged with Sir George Coutts at their side. He walked freely, his arms slack, his burly form wrapped in a dressing gown. There was a blank expression on his face.
"Hypnotised!" exclaimed Tinker.
Quaestor and Sir George climbed into the back of the van while the bearded man sat behind the wheel and started the engine. It moved off and, some way behind, the Grey Panther followed.
"I don't 'old with mooses, Mr Blake," declared Mrs Bardell as she placed a dish of buttered kippers in front of the detective. "English breakfast like what Queen Victoria used to partake herself of, that's what's best! I've said it once and I'll say it again!"
"Mooses, Mrs Bardell? Whoever eats moose for breakfast?"
"Them Swizzerlandians, sir."
"Ah, I think you mean muesli!"
"That's right, Mr Blake," agreed the housekeeper, pouring a cup of tea, "All that sawdust and chippings — it ain't going to fortificate you for the day, 'specially what with you bein' an overactivated defective an' all!"
Sexton Blake smiled and spread marmalade on his toast.
"I agree! You can't beat a good kipper!"
Blake's mobile telephone warbled and Mrs Bardell jumped.
"Land sakes!" she cried, "Where's that compounded thing now?"
"On the bureau, Mrs B. Pass it over, would you?"
"Never know when the blessed thing's going to go off next!" she complained, "Nor where, neither! I don't 'old with these hostile telebones!"
She handed the mobile to her employer and waddled out of the room, muttering under her breath.
Blake put the phone to his ear and heard a mechanical accent announce "Skylock One" — the Institute's security kicking in — before the line opened and Tinker's voice came through.
"Hello young'un! What news?"
"They've got him! Picked him up a couple of hours ago and drove him out to a house on the edge of an estate in Bromley. The most innocuous-looking residence you've ever seen!"
"Right ho, lad. Don't make a move unless you have to. I'm on my way."
Tinker gave Blake the address and hung up. The detective wolfed down his breakfast, threw on his coat, and left the flat by the back door. He descended the stairs into the yard, went out through a gate, across a narrow alley and into the mews where he garaged his vehicles.
He eyed Tinker's Cameron sports car — a genuine pre-First World War racer which, throughout the decades, had been kept in pristine condition (though fitted with a specially made modern engine some years back) — but decided against it and, instead, lifted his motorcycle leathers down from a hook.
Moments later, he swung into Marylebone on his MTT Turbine Superbike, its Rolls Royce Allison engine growling beneath him.
On the outskirts of Bromley, a postman passed a house and thanked his lucky stars that he'd nothing to deliver to that address. The cause of his relief was a huge bloodhound which sat on the doorstep with its eyes fixed on the front door and its muscles coiled ready to spring.
Tinker had given Pedro the 'guard' command. The great dog was as motionless as a statue — a circumstance which would change in a terrifying instant should anyone be unwise enough to leave the house by that particular exit.
Meanwhile, in the back garden, sheltered from the nearest neighbour by a tall wooden fence, Tinker crouched and peered into an almost unfurnished room through a gap beneath a drawn blind.
The room contained two chairs and three men. The chairs faced each other. In one sat Doctor Quaestor; in the other: Sir George Coutts. The bearded man leaned against a wall.
Like all members of the Craille Institute, Sir George was trained to resist hypnosis. Unfortunately, the training didn't take into account a man as exceptional as Quaestor. The mesmerist may have met his match in Sexton Blake but his current subject was far less of a challenge.
But neither was he a pushover.
"Your son is a member of a secret organisation," said the doctor, "What is it called?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," wheezed the Institute's former director, struggling against a terrible urge to reveal the truth.
"Now, now, Sir George! Look at me; can't you see that I'm your friend? You can trust me. And that pain you're feeling in your chest — that awful, constricting pain — it will go away if you unburden yourself. It's the holding back that hurts. So why not tell me, hey? Tell me the name of the organisation."
Sweat beaded the old man's forehead as he tried, unsuccessfully, to tear his eyes away from Quaestor's steady gaze.
"Go ... to ... Hell!" he gasped.
"Sleep," snapped the hypnotist, and Sir George's eyes shut and his head flopped forward.
Quaestor turned to the bearded man, "Mr Billings, I think our guest requires some encouragement. Maybe a little sodium amytal?"
Outside, Tinker's eyes widened: so the bearded man was Billings! Rupert Billings — the man who'd murdered Michael and Helen Loring!
He watched as Billings left the room and returned a moment later with a small attaché case. It was laid down, opened and a small phial was produced. The criminal took out a syringe.
Tinker reached into his jacket and pulled out his needle gun. By now, he calculated, Sexton Blake must be about fifteen minutes away. Waiting for his arrival was no longer an option.
To Tinker's left, a rickety back door led into a kitchen which opened onto the room where Sir George was being interrogated. It was locked but a solid kick should be enough to solve that problem.
Tinker crashed into the house just as Billings leaned over to administer the drug. He pointed his needle gun at the man and squeezed the trigger at exactly the moment a doormat slipped sideways beneath his feet. The needle crackled out of the gun, flew out of the kitchen, fizzled past Billings' right ear, and embedded itself in the wall.
Doctor Quaestor, who had his back to the kitchen, threw his skeletal body sideways off the chair. Billings hurled the syringe over him straight at Tinker's face. It hit him in the eye; not point-first, fortunately, but was painful enough nevertheless. Tinker flinched and his second needle hissed into the ceiling.
Quaestor ducked out of the room leaving his henchman to keep the detective at bay. Billings set himself to this task with a will. He kicked the needle gun from Tinker's hand then twisted sideways as his adversary lunged at him and smashed a fist into the side of the lad's head. Tinker reeled and crashed into the seat just vacated by the doctor. It shattered beneath him. He took a couple of heavy kicks to the ribs then twisted and whacked Billings in the shin with a splintered chair leg. The murderer yelled in pain and fell forward onto him, head butting his face. Tinker felt the room spin and the strength momentarily drained out of him. Iron-hard fingers closed around his neck. Dimly, through the pounding in his ears, he heard a scream, a growl and the distant roar of an approaching motorcycle.
He shoved his thumbs hard into his attacker's eyes. Billings screeched and reared up, his hands leaving Tinker's throat. The detective punched him in the stomach and, as Billings' head came back down, he paid back the head butt in kind.
Billings groaned and rolled to the left. Tinker gave him an elbow in the mouth for good measure.
Outside, the bike was drawing near.
Sexton Blake's assistant staggered to his feet and pulled two tough plastic cable ties from his pocket. He used these to secure Billings' wrists and ankles. He took out a handkerchief and mopped the blood from his swollen nose while looking down at his prisoner.
"How are your eyes?" he asked.
Tinker checked Sir George and found him to be in a deep sleep. He shook him but got no response.
The motorcycle stopped outside.
Tinker moved out into the hall and saw that the front door was open. Doctor Quaestor was lying on his back within the house, a terrified expression on his face and Pedro on his chest. The huge bloodhound's head was bent low, his face up against Quaestor's, his teeth bared.
"Can't you hypnotise animals, Doctor?" asked Tinker, pleasantly.
Sexton Blake walked up the driveway and entered the house, pulling off his motorcycle helmet.
"Sorry," he said, "It seems I missed all the fun!"
"You still managed to get here ten minutes earlier than I expected," noted his assistant. "The guy with the beard is trussed up in the back. He's Rupert Billings."
"Ah," said Blake, closing the front door behind him, "Netted at last. How are you Doctor Quaestor?"
He looked down at the stricken hypnotist, who hissed in reply, "Get this ugly creature off me!"
"All in good time," came the response.
Sexton Blake squatted down beside his foe and glanced up at Tinker, "I think it's time to put Pedro's training to the test!"
"Good idea. While you're doing that, I'll call a clean-up crew."
Tinker took out his mobile 'phone and retired to the back room to call in the Craille Institute's specialists.
Blake, meanwhile, gave the Doctor some rather disturbing news:
"This," he said, "is the first time Pedro's met a real villain. He's not much more than a puppy, you see, though one who's descended from a long line of excellent criminal-catchers, all of whom bore his name. He's a clever dog — very clever — but he's young and maybe a little over eager where undesirables like yourself are concerned. I can't be absolutely certain that he won't take matters into his own hands ... er ... I mean, paws. Let's give it a go, see what happens—"
Doctor Quaestor swallowed hard and his bony fingers dug into the floor.
"Pedro," ordered Blake, "Give the bad man a kiss!"
Very slowly, the bloodhound's enormous jaws opened until they gaped wide, the full length of his sharp white fangs exposed. He turned his head sideways and gradually lowered it until his teeth touched Quaestor's face on either side, just in front of the man's ears. Quaestor's features were almost entirely enclosed. The doctor whimpered.
"The thing is, Doctor, if Pedro's training holds, he'll not bite unless I tell him to. On the other hand, you said he was ugly; so there's a distinct possibility that he might remove your face just for the hell of it."
"What do you want?" gasped the hypnotist.
"Names, to start with. You and Vertex are the Right Hand of Thoth. Who are the left?"
"I don't know!"
Pedro's mighty jaws closed a fraction. Quaestor squealed.
Tinker returned and squatted beside Blake. The bridge of his nose was still swelling and when he spoke he sounded rather bunged up.
"I don't like the look of it, guv'nor. Pedro has a nasty glint in his eye."
"How long before he gives in to temptation, do you think?" asked Blake.
"Bet you a fiver it's within three minutes."
"He didn't have any breakfast."
Quaestor wailed, "I don't know! I don't know! It was set up so the two partnerships would never meet. For security!"
"Set up by whom?" asked Blake.
"A fifth person. The two partnerships don't know each other and we don't know him except by his codename!"
"Hmm, of course. How do you communicate?"
"Text messages. In code."
Sexton Blake considered for a moment. If Thoth sent text messages the Craille Institute would be able to monitor the networks for anything transmitted bearing the characteristics of the code. They'd be able to track them to their source. First, though, they'd need to persuade Doctor Quaestor to show them examples of coded messages and reveal the cipher. That wouldn't be a problem; the Institute could be very persuasive when it wanted to be — something the detective didn't like to dwell on.
"One last question for now," he continued, "Where can I find Mr Vertex?"
His prisoner remained silent.
Blake cleared his throat and said, "Pedro—"
"Stop!" snapped Quaestor. "There's a place called Smith's. It's underground — an offshoot of the old Victorian sewer tunnels beneath houses along the Essex Road. He'll be there tonight!"
Blake looked at Tinker in surprise. His assistant whistled and said, "Not the Smith's, surely! We shut down that place decades ago!"
"Sounds like the old den of iniquity is under new management," muttered Blake. "Let's get this fellow trussed up and see to Sir George. Pedro — release!"
The giant bloodhound lifted his head. Strands of drool stretched from his closing jaws to the doctor's frightened face. The dog stepped off Quaestor's prone body and sat beside him, staring down at him regretfully, as if "Bite!" would have been the preferred command.
Tinker stepped over the prisoner and knelt by his ankles, reaching down to strap them together with cable ties. Suddenly he hesitated and swayed.
Blake leaned forward and put a hand over Quaestor's eyes.
"Don't look at his face, Tinker," he quietly advised.
His assistant blinked and shook his head: "Phew, I lost focus for a moment."
"Easily done," commented Blake. "Tie his wrists and blindfold him."
Blake stood and stretched. The clean-up squad would arrive within the next forty-five minutes or so. He'd use that time to bring Sir George back to consciousness and to remove any traces left by Quaestor's mesmerism.
The detective moved towards the back room and heard Tinker stand to follow. Suddenly Quaestor's voice rang out: "Billings! Wrack and ruin!"
Tinker swivelled and dropped, clapping a hand over the doctor's mouth. Blake ran forward to where Rupert Billings lay just in time to watch awareness leave the man's eyes. They became wide and vacant. His head lolled to one side, the lips parted, the tongue flopped out. Spittle slowly oozed onto the carpet.
Billings was alive — but his brain had just shut down.
Mr Vertex Has a New Mission
There was no password to Smith's. There never had been. Admission consisted simply of a key and the knowledge of the door to which it belonged. These had been bequeathed to Sexton Blake by one of his many underworld contacts; an elderly ex-fence named Harry McCoy.
"If they discover you're a private dick, they'll tear you limb from limb," the grizzled old man had warned.
Blake had smiled bleakly as he pocketed the key, "They'll only discover what I am," he replied, "if you 'phone and tell them."
And Harry had chuckled as if he might do just that.
The seven separate entrances to Smith's were located on and around the Essex Road area. As Blake approached, he remembered Old Smith, the founder of the original 'thieves' kitchen' and one of the greatest recipients of stolen property in the whole of Europe. He, like Zenith the Albino who had supplied a great deal of that property, had died during the Second World War. So who, wondered Blake, was the 'new Smith'?
He entered a narrow alley and opened a metal door upon which a notice announced 'High Voltage! No Entry! Danger of Death!'
The room beyond was small, square, and dominated by a humming power transformer. On the wall opposite there was another door with another notice: 'Entry Strictly Prohibited! Beware Falling Masonry! Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted!'
He crossed to it, opened it, and found himself at the top of a grimy brick-built stairwell. Blake reached into his overcoat's inner pocket and pulled out a plastic mask — an alien's face, silvery grey with huge slanted black eyes, a pointed chin and a small hole for a mouth. He slipped it over his head, securing it with an elastic strap, and descended the stairs, peering through the narrow eye-slits.
The stairs went down a long way. When he finally reached their base, he found himself in a dimly lit passage which, after about thirty feet, ended at a door guarded by two men, both wearing alien masks identical to his own. They were holding baseball bats.
"No violence," advised the left-hand alien.
"That's good to know," grunted Blake as he used Harry McCoy's key to open the door. He passed into a cellar beyond; the first of a number of empty rooms separated by concealed doors every ten paces or so. The detective hadn't been in this den of criminals for many, many years but he remembered it well and soon found himself traversing a familiar oak-panelled corridor, beautifully carpeted, which appeared to slope downwards into the bowels of the earth. It ended at a revolving door guarded by another alien-faced attendant; this one dressed like a hotel usher.
Sexton Blake passed through into what might have been the foyer of a fashionable 1920s gentlemen's club. The years seemed to fall away and he found his thoughts taking on the patterns and mannerisms of that distant yet familiar era.
He lounged into the main apartment, and chose a seat close against a wall where he could examine proceedings without attracting too much attention. Without it being ordered, a waiter brought him a brandy cocktail, and, sipping this through a straw which fitted into his mask's mouth-hole, the detective began to scrutinise his fellow guests, all the time experiencing an almost overpowering sense of déjŕ vu.
Despite their grey alien masks, it was easy to see that a very particular class of villain was represented here. The smart suits and manicures, expensive watches and diamond rings; they spoke of the businessman criminal — the international arms dealer and dishonest financier, expert hacker and master forger. And this, pondered the detective, was a change from the Smith's of old; for that had been a truly democratic establishment where a common pick-pocket could rub shoulders with a dandy cracksman.
Presently, a tall, elegant and broad-shouldered individual entered and sauntered through the room, obviously enjoying the attention which he received from many of the guests. And then, with a slight bow of apology, he turned away from them, pulled up a chair, and sat down at the table occupied by Sexton Blake.
Blake was astonished but imperturbable. He had been prepared for any eventuality except, perhaps, this; for, without a doubt, he was in the presence of Mr Vertex.
The stylish albino — masked and gloved but with the white skin of his neck exposed — signalled to a waiter, who placed fresh cocktails before the two men. Vertex raised his glass, and Blake followed his example.
"I drink," said the albino, "to Detective Sexton Blake, the man who murdered my father!"
"And I," said the detective, "to Mr Vertex, whose father was killed by a German bomb in 1943!"
They drained their glasses through straws.
"You are too modest, Mr Blake," explained Mr Vertex. "The tales of your unceasing quest to capture Monsieur Zenith were told to me throughout my unhappy childhood. Your pursuit was relentless, uncompromising and, ultimately, fatal!"
"Your father was as big a scoundrel as you, Mr Vertex — bigger, in fact. But I liked him. He was a gentleman and he saved my life on more than one occasion. I would have killed him in self-defence, it is true — but though our duel was long and ferocious, I didn't. If you want the absolute truth of the matter, it's this: during an air raid, Monsieur Zenith and I were locked in a battle to the finish but it was neither he nor I who brought it to an end. A bomb fell on the house in which we fought. I emerged from the wreckage; the unfortunate Monsieur Zenith did not."
Alien eyes rested on the detective.
"How odd," Vertex muttered, after a long pause. "I find that I believe you."
"I'm pleased to hear it," Blake responded. "And now, having exchanged one truth, perhaps we can exchange another? How do you know who I am?"
"You think I would not keep an eye on a man of your repute, sir? The man I had thought responsible for denying me a father? The man who, above all other men, would be most likely to interfere with my various projects? As, I should add, you recently have done!"
Blake shrugged, carelessly.
"And," continued Vertex in his low, melodious voice, "how could I possibly ignore such a man when, as the years of watching and avoiding pass, he displays not a single sign of ageing? I am sixty-three years old; you, beneath that mask, appear to be in your mid forties — as you did the first time I ever saw you; when I was six years old. How is that possible? What is your secret, Mr Sexton Blake?"
Blake remained silent for a moment, then:
"There is a reason but, I'm afraid, it's a story that will never be told."
"Is that so? How interesting!"
Mr Vertex pulled a silver cigarette case from his jacket pocket, flipped it open and offered it to Blake. The detective smiled when he saw that among the cigarettes one had a thin red band around it.
"No thank you," he said. "I might choose the wrong one. I see that you share another of your father's habits."
"Another, Mr Blake?" queried Vertex.
"Yes; criminal activity and a suicide cigarette to smoke when you're captured!"
"I prefer 'if' to 'when', sir," noted the albino, and he selected a cigarette and lit it. The pungent odour of opium reached the detective's nostrils.
"How did you know I would be here, Mr Vertex?" asked Blake.
"I once extracted Harry McCoy from a tricky situation. He paid the debt. As to how I recognised you when I entered: the cut of the suit, the strength of the hands, the way your gaze followed me across the room. Now that we've finally met, I hope you aren't going to make a scene."
"Not if you come quietly."
"Yes, I suppose it is too much to ask. You're aware, of course, that we have Doctor Quaestor in custody?"
"It must be terribly inconvenient for you! How many of your people has he hypnotised so far?"
"We're keeping a blindfold on him."
"Given a little time, he can do it with just his voice."
" ... And he's gagged."
Vertex put his head back and laughed.
"What an awkward interrogation! How is he answering your questions? Through the medium of dance, perhaps?"
And now they laughed together.
"It is rather awkward. Poor old Coutts is tearing his hair out!" the detective chuckled.
"Ah," said Vertex, "The redoubtable George Coutts. I do hope I didn't bruise him too badly. If it's any consolation to him, please let him know that he broke one of my ribs."
A moment of silence fell between the two men; of companionship, almost. But such moments cannot last between enemies and it was Vertex who broke the spell:
"Mr Blake, there are two things I want you to know. The first is this: I'm withdrawing from the Hand of Thoth. My participation had two motives; one was to make money, which I did, and a lot of it. The second was to use the organisation's ability to manipulate the press to destroy you. In this, I was blocked by Thoth himself—"
"Who is he?" Blake interrupted.
"I don't know. But whoever he is, he knows and fears you. I was given explicit instructions to avoid you at all costs. Of course, I had no intention of following that directive. I planned to overthrow Thoth and take control of the enterprise myself but, since you have discovered the organisation's existence, and since I believe that you've told me the truth about my father's death, the whole venture has become pointless."
"And the second thing?"
"The second thing, sir, is that the boundaries of the law mean nothing to me and I shall continue to pursue my career despite them. Furthermore, I have it in mind to uncover your secret. I may be extraordinarily fit and healthy but I am, inescapably, approaching the end of my natural span. You possess, it seems, the Fountain of Youth. I want it and I mean to get it."
"Think again," snapped Blake. "You're coming with me!"
Quick as lightening he reached across the table and grabbed the albino's wrist.
Sexton Blake didn't see his opponent give any signal but suddenly Smith's was plunged into darkness and the next moment a fist slammed into his jaw with the force of a kicking horse, sending him spinning from his chair. Vertex twisted out of his grasp and Blake rolled to the left as he heard many footsteps moving towards him. He leaped to his feet and ran around the edge of the room, narrowly avoiding tables and chairs, aiming for the bar at the back. He hoped that a disguised door in the panelling to its right, which had been there many years before, still existed. It did — the detective located it with his fingertips and slipped through, pulling it almost closed just as the lights were turned back on. He held the door open just enough to peer back into the room. The guests were milling about but, as he suspected would be the case, the elegant albino was not among them.
Half the Thoth organisation was destroyed, pondered the detective as he navigated through empty cellars towards one of the exits, but now he had a new enemy with a fresh agenda; the son of one of his greatest foes.
Life, thought Sexton Blake, had just become a lot more interesting.
Attentive passengers on London Underground's Piccadilly Line may note as their train passes between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park that there is a short stretch of tunnel where the walls are of a lighter hue. Behind those paler bricks are the platforms of Down Street Station, built in 1907 and closed, due to infrequent use, in 1932.
Abandoned and left to gather dust, Down Street would have faded from history were it not for Adolf Hitler. His blitz of the capital inspired the Emergency Railway Committee to offer the disused station to Winston Churchill and his War Time Cabinet as a shelter. Reinforced with new walls and air tight steel doors, it provided the Prime Minister with one of the few places where he could sleep peacefully while the bombs were falling. He nicknamed it 'The Burrow.'
A few years later, the war ended and Down Street slept again.
Then one day in 1971, a large key was thrust into a rusty lock and a steel door screeched as it was heaved open. A torch shone into the web-festooned darkness and an elderly man named Eustace Craille stepped in.
Ferociously patriotic, manipulative in the extreme, and totally lacking the spirit of compromise, Craille was searching for a base for his new organisation. He had created the Institute in utmost secrecy to fight a very particular breed of villain; criminals who operated from 'beyond the credibility gap' — threats so extraordinary that normal law enforcement agencies simply didn't believe in their existence.
The Burrow was perfect for the Craille Institute. It wasn't the abandoned platforms and tunnels themselves; it was what Churchill had ordered secretly built beneath them — a network of offices, accommodation rooms and bunkers. All the paperwork relating to this complex had been destroyed and only one man who'd ever worked in it during the war still lived. And that man was Craille himself.
Thirty-five years later, a portrait of the 'Old Goat', as the current Director insisted on calling the Institute's founder, hung on the wall behind George Coutts' desk.
As Sexton Blake and Tinker settled into the comfortable leather chairs facing it, they both glanced up at the picture, remembering the bony, wrinkled features as they'd been in life. They had both liked Craille. And they had both been appalled by him.
"Rupert Billings is dead," said Coutts, by way of a greeting. The Director's eyes were blackened and swollen, his face cut and bruised. The fight with Vertex had been vicious.
"The cause?" asked Blake.
"As you suggested: hypnotically induced self-destruction activated by a key word or phrase—"
"Wrack and ruin," muttered Tinker.
"And, once activated, it infected his cerebral processes like a virus infects a computer, shutting systems down one after the other. Initially, he forgot how to think. A few hours later, he forgot how to breathe."
The Director's secretary, a quiet Chinese gentleman named Shen Mi, entered and placed a tray containing three cups of coffee onto the desk. He withdrew, the door clicking shut behind him.
"How are you handling Doctor Quaestor?" asked Blake.
Coutts stroked his bristly moustache with a forefinger.
"Difficult!" he grunted. "Sedation for the moment. We'll move him to Lazarus, I suppose."
Blake winced. 'Lazarus' was the name of the Institute's so-called hospital hidden deep beneath an otherwise uninhabited island off the Norwegian coast. A criminal, after a long sojourn there, would emerge reborn; the desire to operate outside the law 'corrected'; the personality altered beyond all recognition.
Either that or the criminal would never be seen again.
It offended the detective's morals.
"And what about the Harley Financial Group?" he asked.
"Our people have done their job well. Within the next two or three weeks, the company will collapse, its finances decimated. At the same time, details of their rather illicit business practices will be sent, anonymously, to the police. We'll leave them to mop up the staff."
Tinker took a cup of coffee and asked, "Any success shadowing?"
"I'm afraid not. We were hoping one of the Harley people would lead us to the remaining Thoth gang but it didn't happen. They're the organisation's cover but whether they, as individual employees, actually know anything about the Hand of Thoth is doubtful."
"So we're left in the dark," observed Blake. "We know there are two more Thoth operatives at work but we don't know who they are. We also know they're controlled by a fifth person."
"They'll be on their guard now," added Tinker.
There was a lengthy silence.
Coutts suddenly banged a fist on his desk and growled, "They went after my father!"
"How is the old chap?" enquired Blake, gently.
"Tough as old leather. But — dammit! — I wish we knew where to look! How are we going to pick up the trail?"
"I'm going to advertise."
"What do you mean?"
Sexton Blake gave a harsh smile.
"By now, whoever tried to betray the Hand of Thoth by sending Michael Loring written evidence of its existence will know who I am. They just need to know how to find me. I'm going to advertise my services as a detective in the financial section of The Globe newspaper."
"And then we wait."
In another part of London, quite some distance from The Burrow, in a tall, luxurious building overlooking the River Thames, there is a privately rented office. In it, a plush leather armchair faces a wall upon which a bank of monitor screens flicker. Beside the armchair, on an antique occasional table, there is a keyboard, and with this the armchair's occupant can control the view on each of the screens.
Behind a door in the wall opposite the monitors, powerful computers quietly hum. They each contain programs fashioned by a hacker of amazing ability — a man who would be hunted by every Intelligence agency in the world if they but knew of his existence.
The programs give the hacker's employer — the gentleman who sits in the armchair — complete access to CCTV cameras right across the city. He can watch almost anything he chooses. Many of the screens receive their pictures from the high security cameras in London's top financial institutions and even from inside bank vaults.
Two of the monitors attract his attention most often. They record events through cameras located on one of the city's most famous thoroughfares — Baker Street — and the Watcher keeps them directed at the entrance to a particular building.
The city council has serviced those two cameras on numerous occasions and cannot understand why they persist in having a mind of their own; why, when their operators try to turn them away from that building, they soon swivel their lenses back towards it. The council has replaced the hardware on four occasions — it didn't solve the problem. It has replaced the software three times — no use. It has rebooted, reviewed, rewired and redesigned — all useless.
The 'Baker Street Glitch' has become almost legendary among that small band of men and women who service the city's CCTV. If one of them should ever solve the mystery, he or she will become a hero. And, in all probability, a murder victim.
The Watcher values those two cameras more than any of the others.
He leans forward now and gazes with blazing agate-green eyes as two men stop outside the Baker Street building. One of them is tall and athletic with hair receding at the temples. The other is shorter and blonde; boyish in appearance.
The door before them opens and an elderly woman appears on the step. She tries to restrain a huge bloodhound as it leaps up to greet its master.
And the tanned hands of the Watcher tighten into fists. The knuckles turn white and, even though the fingernails are bitten to the quick, still they draw blood from the palms.
He utters one word; a sulphuric hiss so filled with hatred it might issue from Hell itself. It is a word that consumes him; a word that guides his every thought and action.