Darker Than You Think (8 page)

BOOK: Darker Than You Think
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"Back!"
Sam Quain shouted. "He's dying for air."

A
flashbulb detonated blindingly. Policemen pushed back the news
photographers, crowding nearer for a better shot. Somebody shouted
for the crash truck, but Mondrick had already ceased to move.

"Marck!"

Barbee
heard that piercing scream. He saw Mondrick's blind wife dart away
from that guarded group by the terminal building, the huge dog beside
her, running as surely as if she could see again. One of the officers
tried to stop her and fell back from the dog's silent snarl. She
reached the fallen man and knelt to dwell upon his splotched face and
lax hands with her desperately searching fingers. Light shone cold on
her silver rings and bracelets and burned in the tears streaming from
the empty scars under her dark lenses.

"Marck,
my poor blind darling!" Barbee heard her stricken whisper. "Why
didn't you let me come with Turk to guard you? Couldn't you see them
closing in?"

CHAPTER
THREE

The
White Jade
Wolf

The
man sprawled dead on the taxiway didn't answer that bitter whisper,
and the huddled blind woman made no other sound. With a shaken
gesture, Barbee beckoned the other newsmen back. His throat hurt and
something cold had touched his spine. Silently, he turned to Sam
Quain.

Quain's
blue eyes were staring vacantly at the man on the ground. Beneath a
thin undershirt, his goose-pimpled flesh was shuddering. He didn't
seem aware of the clamoring reporters, and at first he made no sign
when Barbee stripped off his own topcoat to fling around him.

"Thanks,
Will," he murmured emptily at last. "I suppose it's cold."

He
caught his breath, and turned to the newsmen.

"There's
a story for you, gentlemen," he said quietly, his dry voice
oddly flat and slow. "The death of Dr. Lamarck Mondrick, noted
anthropologist and explorer. Be sure you get the spelling right—he
was always particular about the
c
in
Lamarck."

Barbee
snatched at his taut arm.

"What
killed him, Sam?"

"Natural
causes, the coroner will say." His voice stayed flat and dull,
but Barbee felt him stiffen. "He has had that asthma, you know,
for a great many years. He told me out there in the Ala-shan that he
knew he was suffering from a valvular heart disease—and knew it
before we ever started. Our expedition was no picnic, you know. Not
for a sick man, at his age. We're all pretty tired. When this attack
struck, I guess his old pump just couldn't take the strain."

Barbee
glanced at the still form on the ground and the woman in black
sobbing silently.

"Tell
me, Sam—what was Dr. Mondrick trying to say?"

Sam
Quain swallowed hard. His blue eyes fled from Barbee's face into the
cold gloom, and came back again. He shrugged in the borrowed topcoat,
and it seemed to Barbee that he tried to shake off the horror that
hung like a dark garment on him.

"Nothing,"
he muttered hoarsely. "Nothing, really."

"Huh,
Quain?" rapped a hard voice over Barbee's shoulder. "You
can't give us any runaround now."

Sam
Quain gulped again, hesitant and visibly ill.

"Spill
it, Quain!" demanded the radio reporter. "You can't tell us
all that build-up was just for nothing."

But
Sam Quain nodded his sun-bleached head, seeming to make up his mind.

"Nothing
worth big headlines, I'm afraid." Pity touched and softened the
horror lingering on his square-jawed face. "Dr. Mondrick had
been ill for some time, you see, and I'm afraid his splendid mind had
lost its old acuity. Nobody can question the accuracy and originality
of his work, but we had tried to restrain him from this rather
melodramatic manner of making it public."

"You
mean," the radio man snarled indignantly, "that all this
talk about your discoveries in Mongolia is just a crazy gag?"

"On
the contrary," Sam Quain assured him, "Dr. Mondrick's work
is both sound and important. His theories, and the evidences we have
gathered to support them, are worth the attention of every
professional scientist in the anthropological fields."

Sam
Quain kept his haunted eyes away from the old man's body and the
silent woman. His taut, dry voice was carefully calm.

"Dr.
Mondrick's discoveries are quite important," he insisted flatly.
"The rest of us tried to persuade him, however, to make the
announcement in the usual way— in a formal paper, presented
before some recognized scientific body. And that, since this tragedy,
is what we shall doubtless do in time."

"But
the old man kept hinting about some danger," rapped a
photographer. "About somebody that didn't want him to talk. And
then he conked off, right in the middle of what he had to say. That's
pretty damn funny. You aren't just possibly frightened out, Quain?"

Sam
Quain gulped nervously.

"Naturally,
we're upset," he admitted huskily. "But where's any
tangible proof that Dr. Mondrick had any enemy here?" His own
haggard eyes peered away into the thick dusk, narrowing as if to
hunted fear. "There's none," he insisted. "Dr.
Mondrick's death at this moment can be nothing more than a tragic
coincidence. Perhaps it was less. The fatal attack was doubtless
brought on by his own excitement."

"But
what about his 'Child of Night'?" the radio reporter broke in.
"His 'Black Messiah'?"

Sam
Quain's bleak face tried to smile.

"Dr.
Mondrick read detective stories. His Child of Night, I believe, is
merely a figure of speech—a personification of human ignorance,
perhaps. He was given to figurative language, and he wanted to make
his announcement dramatic."

Sam
Quain nodded toward the wooden box.

"There
lies your story, gentlemen. I'm afraid Dr. Mondrick chose an
unfortunate publicity device. After all, the theory of human
evolution is no longer frontpage news. Every known detail of the
origin of mankind is extremely important to such a specialist as Dr.
Mondrick, but it doesn't interest the man in the street —unless
it's dramatized."

"Hell!"
The radio man turned away. "That old buzzard sure took me for a
ride." An ambulance drew up beside the plane, and he watched the
blind woman bidding her husband a final farewell. Barbee was glad she
couldn't see the flashbulbs flickering.

"What
are your plans now, Mr. Quain?" demanded a hawk-faced man in
black—a science reporter, as Barbee knew him, for one of the
press associations. "When are you going to give us the rest of
this interrupted announcement?"

"Not
soon." Sam Quain patiently turned his head for a photographer
and blinked at the cruel flashbulbs. "We all felt, you see, that
Dr. Mondrick was speaking prematurely. I think all my associates in
the Foundation will agree with me that the objects we brought back
from the Ala-shan must be studied carefully in our own laboratory,
along with all Dr. Mondrick's notes and papers, before we have any
statement for the public. In due time, the Foundation will publish a
monograph to present his work. That may take a year. Perhaps two."

Somebody
in the impatient group made an impolite sound through his lips.

"We've
got a story, anyhow." The science reporter grinned at him
cheerfully. "If that's the way you want it, we'll use what we
have. I can see the tabloid heads already—'Prehistoric Curse
Clips Grave Robber.'"

"Print
what you like." Sam Quain peered around him in the windy gloom,
and Barbee could see his veiled unease. "But we have no further
statement now —except that I want to offer our apologies, on
behalf of the Foundation, for this tragic anticlimax. I do hope you
will be generous in anything you write about Dr. Mondrick. He was
truly great—if sometimes a trifle eccentric. His work, when
fully published, will place him securely among the honored few of the
humane sciences, along with Freud and Darwin."

His
weary jaw set stubbornly.

"That's
all that I—or any of us—will have to say."

The
photographers flashed a final bulb at his set face, and began packing
their equipment. The radio man coiled up his cable and took down his
microphone. The newsmen scattered reluctantly, to file their stories
of an obscure and unresolved event.

Barbee
looked for April Bell and glimpsed her entering the terminal
building. She had slipped away, he supposed, to telephone her story
to a rewrite man on the
Call.
But
Barbee's own deadline was midnight, for the early edition of the
Star.
He
still had time to try to solve the riddle he felt in Mondrick's
death.

He
pushed impulsively forward to seize Sam Quain's arm. The tall
explorer recoiled from his unexpected touch with a little gasping
cry, and then manufactured a tortured grimace of a smile. Naturally
he was nervous after that tragic ordeal. Barbee led him aside, toward
the tail of the huge silent plane.

"What's
the matter, Sam?" he demanded huskily. "Your deflation of
the suspense was good—but not good enough. Old Mondrick's
build-up rang true. I know you were all scared spitless. What is it
you're afraid of?"

Dark
and wild, Sam Quain's blue eyes looked into his. They searched him,
Barbee thought, as penetratingly as if to discover and unveil some
monstrous enemy. Sam Quain shivered, hunching his wide shoulders in
the tight borrowed coat, yet his patient, weary voice seemed calm
enough.

"We
were all afraid of exactly what happened," he insisted. "We
all knew Dr. Mondrick was ill. We had to climb over a cold front on
the flight here from the coast, and the altitude must have strained
his bad heart. He insisted on making his statement here and now—
probably just because he knew his time was nearly up."

Barbee
shook his head.

"That
makes sense—almost," he said slowly. "But asthmatic
attacks aren't commonly fatal, nor heart attacks predictable. I can't
help believing you were all afraid of something else." He caught
Quain's arm. "Can't you trust me, Sam? Aren't we still friends?"

"Don't
be a fool, Will." A quivering urgency began to mar Quain's
forced calm. I don't think Dr. Mondrick quite trusted you. There were
few he did trust. But of course we're still friends."

He
shrugged uneasily, and his hunted eyes fled to the locked box with
Spivak and Chittum tautly alert beside it.

"Now
I must go, Will. Too many things to do. We must arrange about Dr.
Mondrick's body, and take care of the box, and get the rest of our
freight hauled out to the Foundation." He shucked off the tight
coat, shivering. "Thanks, Will. You need it, and I had a coat on
the plane. Excuse me now."

Barbee
accepted the topcoat, urging: "Take time to see Nora—you
know she's here to meet you, with little Pat." He nodded toward
the lights of the terminal building. "Old Ben's over there, to
see Rex, and the Spivaks came all the way from Brooklyn to meet
Nick." Bewilderment echoed in his voice. "What's the
matter, Sam? Can't you take a moment to meet your own families?"

BOOK: Darker Than You Think
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