Authors: Kenneth Bulmer
ACE BOOKS, INC.
1120 Avenue of the Americas New York, N.Y. 10036
Copyright ©, 1967, by Ace Books, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Printed in U.S.A.
Comprising a fine set of intestines, a reconditioned heart and a fully-functioning kidney—ah.” The auctioneer inclined his head more closely at the catalog on the auction block set up on an antique table. “A left kidney, ladies and gentlemen, male, in excellent condition and barely used. Now what offers have I?” He raised his eloquent hands and eyes supplicatingly. “Yes—a lady over there—”
I assumed the lady in question, a purposeful lady large in every bodily requisite, wished to prolong her husband’s life for a few more years of nagging and domination.
The ballroom of Gannets should have been left as it was, a place for fans and feathers, light laughter, the tinkle of punch glasses and the swirling intoxicating strains of waltzes, instead of being crammed in undignified disorder with most of the movable contents of the great house. Much we had seen earlier, walking soft-voiced through the long rooms of Gannets, seeing revealed a broad perspective of a family’s voyage through time, our catalogs in hand. Now, with coarser voices, we bid for coveted lots.
“If,” said George Pomfret beside me, with a nasty undercurent of avarice brightening his voice, “if I don’t get that Bernini Aphrodite I shall—why, it’s lain here unknown for over a thousand years, in a private house, just a statue furnishing the hallway—” George Pomfret shook his head, quite obviously finding the pranks of time and fate too much for him.
He was a fine tall man with a ruddy brick-dust complexion and a pair of gray eyes he tried to make bore through people, and which then gave him the look of a man suffering from excruciating indigestion. He dressed loudly; he carried a shooting stick. But he was a good sport and good companion, at least for a weekend.
As for myself, I had come, as any idler does, with a friend to an auction. Grand and remote old country houses are few and far enough apart these days, goodness knows, for them to be of interest in themselves. In addition to its respected ancientness in its own right, Gannets had been found on the death of the owner to contain a private treasury of enormous, incredible and downright patrician extent and beauty. A stoiy, reputed to be strange, clung about the house and owner whose portrait glowered down on us assembled barbarians. Pomfret could tell me the story over lunch; he owed me that much, at least.
I confess I did glance with interest at the humanoid-robot standing patiently in its place—Lot Fifty—with some idea of buying him for a body servant. But he was a Domestic/Gardener/Chauffeur/General duties robot, and although looking remarkably talented, was not a servant I could with justice see myself employing. Since coming back a couple of months earlier from our Mediterranean aquiculture project and resuming my acquaintance with fresh air and sunshine, I had done nothing more strenuous than a few hard sets of tennis, a shooting expedition and a trip to my only relative, Aunt Nora, who lived in the tropical climate of the South Pole Estate and worried herself sick over her Siamese cats to the exclusion of her subaqueous nephew.
No, robots were all very well; but I fancied this fellow would rust rather quickly where I earned my living.
Pomfret had a long wait ahead of him: the Bernini Aphrodite whose marble limbs glowed with that secret voluptuous promise of warm reality found only in the work of the masters had obviously been selected as the great focal point for the auction; as the piece de resistance she would occupy a place of honor. Probably, I decided with a wetnecks’ cynicism, after lunch when postprandial digestive juices loosened wallets.
“She’s beautiful!” sighed Pomfret, his florid face looking like a bull’s contemplating a herd of finest Jerseys.
“And you’ll have to pay a price—”
“I know. I recognize a handful of dealers down from Town. But there’s no chance of a ring—on a find of this magnitude—”
“I can’t understand why the estate didn’t send it to an international house, instead of just lumping it in with the rest—”
“It!” said Pomfret reproachfully. “You are a heathen, aren’t you?”
I was looking again at the subtle curves of the Aphrodite and admiring yet again the art and the craft and the girl herself—whoever she had been, a Baroque mid
seventeenth century waif from the streets of Rome, or a st
ormy rival to Costanza Buonarelli
—when beyond that exquisite shoulder I saw a man’s face staring out at me from the shadows. I would not have been surprised even at the unexpected occurrence of someone standing just behind the statue in the shadows beneath the carved oak staircase, had not something about the face, some cast of features, some change of expression, filled me with an apprehension I could not understand.
I looked again, but the face had gone.
“A heathen, I said, Bert, and a confounded Vandal I meant.”
Old George Pomfret liked to ride a horse once he began. That face—I’d seen it before, somewhere, of that I felt convinced and its very familiarity eluded me and made me infuriated with the gossamer-like evasiveness of face and name.
“Vandal?” I said, vaguely. “Well, hell, George, it’s only a lump of marble—maybe it is Carrara—but—”
But, furious, his nostrils showing a crimping of white among the red, George Pomfret turned away from me. Smiling with the satisfaction of one who has successfully thumped a shark on the nose, I went back to trying to recall the shape and coloring, the expression and feeling, of that mysterious face.
And then, well, the old saws cut the finest; the doppelganger effect had struck again. Of course. The face had been my own.
The fine set of intestines, and the reconditioned heart and the fully-functioning left kidney had been knocked down—I wondered without curiosity to whom they had belonged—and after the house’s computerized atmospheric controls had been disposed of (a late addition to Gannets they could be stripped out without affecting the fabric of the house), I tried to stir an interest in Lot Thirty-three. Four fine rapiers.
That face—certainly the whole structure had resembled mine. I looked at once for a glass in the shadows beneath the stairs but was not surprised at not finding one. Could it have been—? I had no relations apart from cat-loving Aunt Nora. An angle of light, a trick of shadow, surely these must be the answer to that passing resemblance?
The upsetting feeling of imbalance made me irritable; an easy enough state for me to get into at the best of times and just for a moment, standing there in the soft early summer sunshine surrounded by the civilized artifacts of a dead family’s life, I felt a great desire for the surge of water all about me and the welcoming sight of the lights of my undersea home dancing through the water toward me. I shook myself and looked at the four fine rapiers. Scottish, they were of excellent craftsman-shipn but I decided not to bid; I had too many rapiers already and these four, although fine, were nothing out of the ordinary. They went to a mousy-looking man whose delicate features must wince at the mere thought of what the rapiers were for.
“Lot Thirty-Four. Comprising two first editions: Wilfred Owen and Gerard Manly Hopkins, in remarkably fine condition, the twentieth century bindings intact, a little foxing and numerous bookplates and inscriptions on the flies—”
I tried but the price shot way up above what I was prepared to pay for what were, after all, merely books. I knew the Owen and the Hopkins and all their work graced my shelves belowsea; first edition mania had never, thank God and my bank managers apoplexy, ever struck me.
I turned back and I stared at myself from behind a suit of Milanese armor—
This time, half-prepared, I took a step forward. Then as the man vanished I stopped, shaken and dumbfounded; for the vision
me—and it had literally vanished into thin air.
No doubt whatsoever entered my mind. The man had vanished. One moment he stood there staring at me with a lopsided smile—a trick of expression I hate and have been trying to correct for years—and the next I could see past the armor the flank of a cavalry group in bronze, the blue and crimson highlights striking back from swelling haunches of horses and spurs. Just like that—flick!—the man had disappeared.
I blinked. The reaction was normal. I swallowed. That, too, much as I might hate it, was normal reaction.
Taking another few steps I walked as carefully as I could, considering the circumstances, toward the cavalry group. I rested my left hand on the pauldron—the suit was amazingly beautiful and a possession any man might covet—and stared again at the cavalry, at the entwined thin legs, the drooping sabers, the stirrups thrust so rigidly forward. If the man had merely walked off and in the instant of his going I had blinked, a phenomenon of quite ordinary occurrence and so often explaining these so-called miraculous disappearances, he must have been still in the angle formed by the wall, the cavalry group and the suit of armor. He could not have got out any other way. He was not there. I had not expected him to be.
He had been wearing a strange costume, too: tightly-fitting gray tunic and slacks showed beneath a dark blue cloak that hung by golden chains from his shoulders. No flaring movement from the cloak had followed his vanishment, another clue to the manner of his going. The strangeness of the costume in this age of laissez-faire in dress had lain in the Greek Corinthian helmet he wore pushed back on his forehead to reveal his face, for the helmet’s bronze had been painted in vulgar blue and yellow squares in checkerboard pattern.
When I had first seen him staring at me from the Bernini Aphrodite I had not noticed the helmet, and I concluded he must not then have been wearing it. What significance that point had I did not know. I felt hot and uncomfortable and a little amused at my own reactions.
The absurd always makes the brain tick faster and locks that absurdity in the memory where reality and adherence to life is glossed over and forgotten.
George Pomfret, whose highly-colored cheeks did not for once bespeak a glutton, glanced across at me and then, surprising me, walked across quickly.
“Hey, Bert—are you all right? You look—”
“As though I’d seen a ghost?”
“Well—if you must have it, yes. You all right?”
“Yes. Thought I saw—oh, never mind, George. I think I must have been daydreaming."
“Hm. Well.” Pomfret made up his mind, evidently, not to press the matter. “That cabinet we looked at is up next. Are you still interested?”
“Cabinet?” My mind spiraled back from impossibles to life.
“Yes, Bert. That trick cabinet that stood beneath a window of the picture gallery on the first floor.”
“Oh, yes. I know. Of course.” I saw Pomfret looking at me. “Well, let’s get to it before it’s gone. I’m all right now, George—for Heaven’s sake
“All right, all right.”
But he gave me another look as we went across to the waiting crowd behind the double row of gilt chairs before the auctioneer.
The cabinet—a chest more, in a way—glowed in sullen and smoky orange walnut as the auctioneer s robot wheeled it into a vantage point on the trolley. Simple, austere but elegant lines and a functional directness spoke eloquently of the work of Samuel Bennet, who, although less renowned than his fellow Englishman Thomas Chippendale, yet commanded a rare price and following in the true lovers of antique furniture.
“You’ll never afford it,” said Pomfret with reluctant conviction.
“I’m afraid you’re right.” I realized, looking at the concentrated faces of the professionals bidding for consortia and groups, for international houses and for world-renowned museums and art galleries, that I was the worst kind of fool for even imagining that I stood a chance of outbidding them. But the experience would be fun.
“Lot Forty. A chest commode by Samuel Bennet, inlaid walnut, gilt fittings, about seventeen eighty”—the auctioneer detailed the rest of the mouth-watering goodies. I smiled at Pomfret at the assurance with which Bennet had been credited with the commode—it made little difference, now, really. It was not a Chippendale, that was the main thing.
The auctioneers robot opened one of the drawers, the top half-drawer, to show how after all these years the wood stayed true and sweet, the fit perfect, the drawer squeakless. I had opened all the drawers myself only an hour or so previously in a last minute delight of the piece. I knew the chest was perfect.
The robot bent to the lowest largest drawer. His well-disciplined tug gentled the handle; the drawer did not slide out. He pulled a little harder and I frowned.
That drawer had slid out on one handle, so well had the piece been constructed; but now, the robot pulled again and I heard one or two people murmur a soft little under-the-breath warning.
Then the drawer slid open with unexpected suddenness.
It shot right out, jumping the retaining strips of wood and thumped to the floor. With quick instinctive response the robot had swung a hand up to catch the drawer and his metal fingers struck the wood jarringly. Tire drawer tipped over.
A long, rolled bundle toppled out.
I heard around me in that society of rich and dignified patrons of the arts, of matrons well-endowed sitting enjoying their auction, of professionals adept at hardhitting bidding, of a world of art and refinement apart from any other world on the same planet, a sigh and a shiver of affrighted expectation.
The robot caught one end of the roll of cloth and spun it around, undoing, unwinding. From its revealed center an object spilled out onto the floor before the auctioneer and the crowd.
A girl’s body, naked, decapitated and smothered in blood, sprawled laxly before us.