Darker Than You Think (2 page)

BOOK: Darker Than You Think
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"A
big one," Barbee said. "Dr. Lamarck Mondrick. Kingpin of
the Humane Research Foundation, out by the university. He's due here
tonight, on a chartered plane from the West Coast, with his little
expedition. They've been to the Gobi—but probably you know all
about them?"

"No."
Something in her voice stirred his pulse. "What about them?"

"Archeologists,"
he said. "They had dug in Mongolia before the war. When the Japs
surrendered, in
'45,
they
cut all sorts of diplomatic red tape to get back again. Sam Quain,
who is Mondrick's right hand man, had served on some war mission to
China, and he knew the ropes. I don't know exactly what they went to
look for, but it must be something special."

She
looked interested, and he went on: "They're our home-town boys,
coming back tonight, after two years of perilous tangles with armies
and bandits and sandstorms and scorpions, in darkest Mongolia.
They're supposed to be bringing home something that will rock the
world of archeology."

"And
what would that be?"

"My
job tonight is to find that out." Barbee still studied her with
gray puzzled eyes. The black kitten blinked at him happily. Nothing
about her explained that brief tingle of intuitive alarm. Her
green-eyed smile seemed still aloofly impersonal, and he was afraid
she would go away. Gulping, he asked desperately: "Do I know
you?"

"I'm
a rival." She was suddenly less remote; her voice held a purring
chuckle of friendliness. "April Bell, of the
Clarendon
Call."
She
showed him a tiny black notebook, palmed in her left hand. "I
was warned to beware of you, Will Barbee."

"Oh."
He grinned and nodded toward the little groups of passengers inside
the glass front of the terminal building, waiting for the airliner.
"I was afraid you had just stopped off, on your way back to
Hollywood or Broadway. But you aren't really on the
Call?"

He
looked at that flame-colored hair, and shook his head in admiration.
"I'd have seen you."

"I'm
new," she admitted. "In fact, I took my journalism degree
just last summer. I only began Monday on the
Call,
and
this is my first real assignment." Her voice was childishly
confidential. "I'm afraid I'm pretty much a stranger in
Clarendon, now—I was born here, but we went to California when
I was still a little girl."

Her
white teeth gleamed, in a smile innocently hopeful.

"I'm
so new," she confided softly, "and I want so much to make
good on the
Call.
I
do want to turn in a good story on this Mondrick expedition. It all
sounds so strange and thrilling, but I'm afraid I didn't learn many
ologies in college. Would you mind, Barbee, if I ask you a few silly
questions?"

Barbee
was looking at her teeth. They were even and strong and very
white—the sort of teeth with which beautiful women in
dentifrice advertisements gnawed bones. It occurred to him that the
spectacle of April Bell gnawing a red bone would be infinitely
fascinating.

"Would
you really mind?"

Barbee
gulped and called back his thoughts. He grinned at her, beginning to
understand. She was a fresh cub, new to the newspaper game—but
clever as Lilith. The kitten was doubtless intended to complete a
touching picture of helpless femininity, and annihilate any male
resistance that her appealing eyes and devastating hair had failed to
conquer.

"We're
rivals, lady," he reminded her, as sternly as possible. Her look
of hurt reproach tugged at him, but he kept the gruff abruptness in
his voice. "And your name couldn't really be April Bell."

"It
was Susan." Her greenish eyes turned dark, pleading hopefully.
"But I think April will look so much nicer on my first by-line."
Her voice was small and husky. "Please—about the
expedition—Dr. Mondrick must be pretty important, if all the
papers want a story on him?"

"He'll
make good copy," Barbee agreed. "His whole expedition is
only four men, and I'm sure they had quite an adventure, just getting
to those sites in the desert and back again, in times like these. Sam
Quain has Chinese friends, and they must have helped."

With
a tiny fountain pen, she made flowing marks in the little black
notebook. The deft smooth grace of her white hands, oddly, made him
think of some wild creature, unfettered and shy.

Chinese
friends," she murmured as she wrote, and looked up beseechingly.
"Really, haven't you any idea what it is they're bringing back?"

"Not
even a hint," he told her. "Somebody at the Foundation just
called the
Star
this
afternoon, and tipped us off that they'd be here in a chartered
plane, by seven. The Foundation man said they'd have a hot story—some
big scientific announcement. He wanted photographers, and scientific
staff writers, but the
Star
doesn't
go in for heavy science. I'm supposed to cover Walraven and the
expedition, too."

He
was trying to remember the name of a certain mythological lady. She
had been fascinating—as lovely, no doubt, as April Bell. But,
in the legend, she had a disturbing way of changing the men she
fascinated into unpleasant beasts. What was her name— Circe?

Barbee
hadn't spoken that name aloud—he was certain of it. But a
quick, humorous quirk of the girl's red mouth, and a gleam of
slightly malicious amusement in her eyes, gave him a brief, rattled
impression that he had—though he didn't even know what had made
him think of that mythical sorceress.

For
an uncomfortable instant, he tried to unravel the association. He had
read a little of Menninger and Freud, and sampled Frazer's
Golden
Bough.
The
symbolism of such folktales, he knew, expressed the fears and hopes
of early man, and the notion popping into his own head must betray
something about his own unconscious. Exactly what, he didn't want to
know.

He
laughed abruptly, and said: "I'll tell you anything I can—though
I'll probably get it in the neck when Preston Troy reads my story in
the
Call,
too.
Or shall I write it out for you?"

"My
shorthand is very good, thank you."

"Well,
Dr. Mondrick was a big-shot anthropologist at Clarendon University,
before he resigned, ten years ago, to establish his Foundation. He's
not one of your narrow specialists, and he doesn't blow his own horn.
But any of his associates will tell you that he's about the greatest
all-around student of mankind in the world today. Biologist,
psychologist, archeologist, sociologist, ethnologist—he seems
to know everything that matters about his pet subject, mankind.

"Mondrick
is the big shot of the Foundation. He raises the jack and spends
it—without much publicity about the exact projects he's at work
on. He led three expeditions to the Gobi, before the war interrupted,
and then he rushed right back. The digs are in the Ala-shan section
of the southwestern Gobi—just about the driest, meanest,
hottest desert going."

"Go
on," the girl prompted eagerly, pen poised above her tiny
notebook. "Haven't you any idea what they're after?"

"We
start even there—and the best man wins!" Barbee grinned.
"But, whatever it is, Mondrick has been after it for twenty
years. He organized the Foundation, just to find it. It's his life
work, and the life work of such a man is apt to be important."

The
little groups of spectators stirred expectantly outside the steel
fence, and a small boy pointed excitedly into the gray overcast. The
damp wind shuddered to the drum of mighty motors. Barbee looked at
his watch.

"Five
forty," he told the girl. "The airliner isn't due till six,
the dispatcher says. So this must be Mondrick's plane coming in
early."

"Already?"
Greenish eyes shining, she seemed almost as breathless as the
pointing boy. But she watched him, not the sky. "You know the
others?" she asked. "The men with Mondrick?"

A
flood of memories slowed Barbee's reply. His mind saw three
once-familiar faces, and the murmur of the waiting crowd became the
haunting echo of once-known voices, ringing down the years. He
nodded, a little sadly.

"Yes,
I know them."

"Then
tell me."

April
Bell's crisp voice broke his brief reverie. She waited, with her
quick pen ready. He knew he shouldn't spill all his background
material to a rival from the
Call,
but
her hair was sullen flame, and the dark warmth of her oddly long eyes
thawed his reluctance.

"The
three men who went back to Mongolia with Mondrick in
'45
are
Sam Quain and Nick Spivak and Rex Chittum. They're the oldest friends
I have. We were all freshmen together at the university, while
Mondrick still was teaching there. Sam and I boarded two years at
Mondrick's house, and afterwards the four of us were all suitemates
in Trojan Hall on the campus. We all took Mondrick's courses,
and—well— you see—"

Barbee
stammered, and halted awkwardly. An old pain awakened, throbbing at
his throat.

"Go
on," whispered April Bell, and the quick flash of her
sympathetic smile made him resume.

"Mondrick
was already gathering his disciples, you see. He must already have
planned this Research Foundation, though he didn't organize it until
after I graduated. I believe he was picking men, then, to train for
this search in the Gobi, for whatever it is."

Something
made him gulp.

"Anyway,
we all took his courses—in what he called the 'humane
sciences.' We worshipped him. He got scholarships for us, and gave us
all the special help he could, and took us with him on his summer
field trips to Central America and Peru."

The
girl's eyes were uncomfortably penetrating.

"What
happened to you, Barbee?"

"I
was somehow left out," he admitted awkwardly. "I never
quite knew why—because the same bug had bitten me. I loved all
the work, and my grades were higher than Sam's. I'd have given my
right arm to be with them on the first dig in the Gobi."

BOOK: Darker Than You Think
3.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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