Authors: John Bellairs
Fergie and the professor stopped in the doorway, and they stared. Before them lay a rock-walled room that was lit by three oil lamps. On a table lay Johnny, stiff and still and deathly pale, and near him stood the old man from the gas station. He was wearing a white smock and rubber gloves, and in one hand he held a glittering sharp scalpel. The other hand clutched a mirror.
"You dirty dog!"
screeched the professor, and he rushed at the man, knocking him backwards across the marble-topped stand. Instruments clattered to the floor, and the glass jar full of moss shattered. The old man fell, but he sprang up nimbly with the scalpel still in his hand. He lunged at the professor, but he missed, and suddenly the professor was on him, hammering at his midsection and yelling all sorts of unpleasant things. The old man crumpled. The professor's foot came down on his wrist, and the scalpel fell from his fingers.
snarled the professor fiercely. His face was beet red, and he was breathing hard. "You rotten fourteenth-rate excuse for a human being!" he roared. "I'll fix you, by the eternal powers I will!"
The old man lay on the floor, cowering. "Please... please don't kill me," he said in a quavering voice.
The professor glanced down, and then he turned away. Fergie was standing by the table, his hand on Johnny's heart. With fear in his eyes, he looked up.
"He's alive, prof!" said Fergie. "I mean, his heart's beatin', but he's out cold. Whaddaya think that old crud did to him?"
"He probably fainted from sheer terror," snapped the professor. "And he may be drugged. Can you lift him? We'll just have to try to ..."
The professor's voice died away. From the dark basement that lay beyond the doorway came the sound of crunching glass. Heavy footsteps moved closer, and then the robot came lurching into the lamplit room. Its large blue eyes were lit by an evil, insane glow. As soon as he saw the thing, the old man let out a bloodcurdling yell and scrambled to his feet. He stood cowering against the wall, and he covered his face with his hands.
"Oh, my Lord, no!" he sobbed. "No, no! What have you fools done? What have you
A hush fell over the room. Fergie stood watching the robot, with Johnny's head propped up in his hands. The professor's mind was racingâhe was trying to remember the name of the thing that you were supposed to use to control the robot. And then it came to him.
he exclaimed, turning to the old man. "Sloane, you detestable wretch! Where is the Key of Arbaces? Do you have it?"
Sloane took his hands away from his face. "It... it's in the sideboard behind you. In the top drawer. Itâ"
Suddenly the robot moved forward. With heavy, dragging steps, it stumped past the table where Johnny lay and reached out its arms to grab Sloane. He shrieked and dodged out of the way, and the robot bumped clumsily against the wall. Meanwhile, the professor was fumbling madly with pot holders and medicine bottles in the top drawer of the sideboard. Finally the professor's fingers closed over a key. It looked like an ordinary house key, and a cardboard tag dangled from it on a string.
"Is this it? Is this the key?" he yelled waving the key in the air.
"Yes! Yes!" Sloane babbled as he moved farther along the wall. "Put it in the hole in the back of his neck and turn it! For God's sake,
As Sloane talked, the robot began shuffling along next to the wall like a great oversized toy. Then it took three steps toward Sloane and, with a sweep of its arm, knocked him to his knees. With the key in his hand, the professor began to sneak up behind the robot. He was horribly afraid that the thing would turn on him, but it was not interested in anyone but Evaristus Sloane. Seizing Sloane by the shoulders, the robot picked him up and slammed him against the wall. The professor crept closer, and now he could see a small oblong hole in the creature's neck. It was just above his shirt collar. With a sudden leap, the professor reached up, plunged the key into the hole, and twisted it. The robot stiffened, and its arms fell to its sides. It turned halfway round, and then fell to the floor with a loud metallic clatter. The professor and Fergie looked down, and as they watched, the robot's body shimmered and wavered. The human form melted away, and there lay the shiny aluminum man in his metal baseball uniform.
As the professor was trying to figure out what to do next, Sloane made a dash for the door.
"Hey!" Fergie yelled. "Go after him, prof! Are you gonna let that rat get away?"
"He can run all the way to the St. Lawrence Seaway, for all I care!" growled the professor. "We'd better get Johnny back to the car. Maybe we can find a doctor in Stark Corners who will be willing to look him over. Let's get a move on!"
Quickly the professor glanced at the corpselike metal statue that stood in a corner of the room. He shuddered, and then he moved to the end of the table and lifted Johnny's legs. Fergie put his hands under Johnny's armpits, and together they carried him out of the room and across the dark basement. As they maneuvered Johnny up the cellar steps, the professor half expected to see Evaristus Sloane waiting for them with a pistol or an axe in his hands. Fortunately, though, he wasn't there, and they went on their way with Johnny's limp body, out the back door of the house and across the field toward the road. Johnny began to groan and make muffled noises. He tossed his head like somebody having a bad dream.
"Thank God!" breathed the professor. "The way he looked, I thought he was three quarters of the way toward death. Hang on, my boyâhang on! We're going to get help for you as soon as we can!"
A little while later, the professor and Fergie were sitting in the waiting room of a doctor's office. They had taken Johnny to the first doctor they could find, a Dr. Smethers who lived in a large Victorian house on the main street of Stark Corners. The doctor had been a bit annoyed when Fergie and the professor banged on his door late at night, but as soon as he saw that there was a real emergency, he got to work. He had been examining Johnny for a long time, and Fergie and the professor were starting to get impatient. The longer they waited, the more they worried about Johnny. Maybe he was dying, and the doctor was afraid to tell them. Whatever the situation was, they wanted to know about it.
Finally Dr. Smethers opened the door. He was a very distinguished-looking man with a gray mustache and curly hair.
"Well?" said the professor as he jumped up out of his seat.
The doctor smiled reassuringly. "Relax," he said. "Your friend is going to be all right. He was given some drug that I don't know the name ofâa muscle-relaxing drug like curare. At any rate, he didn't get a big dose, and the effects are starting to wear off. What on earth happened to the poor boy?"
The professor looked the doctor straight in the eye. He tried hard to seem sincere and honest. "He was grabbed by a madman who had set up some sort of insane laboratory in the basement of an old stone house up on Mount Creed. We were camped near there, and we managed to get Johnny away from this character. But he may still be up there. Will you call the police to the house to see if they can nab him?"
The doctor looked grave. "I certainly will!" he said in a shocked voice. "Good Lord, that's the old Sloane place! It has certainly seen its share of evil goings-on over the yearsâbut then, that's something you wouldn't know about, would you? Look, I'll go call the police and see how your friend is doing. Stay calmâeverything's going to be all right!"
The professor and Fergie settled down in a couple of easy chairs and started going through a tall stack of
After half an hour, two policemen arrived, and they looked pretty upset. According to them, the Sloane house had been on fire when they arrived on the scene. It was burning like a torch, and since there was no source of water nearby, they couldn't do anything but watch it.
"Good Lord!" exclaimed the professor. "So the old place is gone! I'll bet one of those oil lamps got upsetâwe saw three of them in the basement of the house when we... but see here, gentlemen! Dr. Smethers must have told you on the phone about the things that happened to us up at that house."
"He told us somethin'," said the taller policeman as he reached into his shirt pocket for a pen and a pad of paper. "But we'd like to get some kind of statement from you. Are you ready to give us one?"
The professor sighed unhappily. He knew that he would have to tell the two cops the same story that he had told Dr. Smethers. Once again he recited his odd little half-true tale, but this time he gave a very exact description of Evaristus Sloane. When he got to the part about the wart on Sloane's nose, the tall cop let out a loud exclamation.
"My gosh!" he said. "That's old Emmett Oglesby, the guy that runs the gas station out on the highway! I always thought he was a nice old fella, the kind that wouldn't hurt a fly!"
"Well, you never know about some people," said the professor, his jaw clenched. "If you can catch the old creep, I think he ought to be charged with kidnaping and maybe attempted murder, or at least assault with intent to do great bodily harm."
The tall cop gave the professor a dirty lookâhe hated it when people threw legal terms at him. "We'll do what we can, sir," he said coldly. "But in the meantime I wanta ask you: Do you have any idea why Mr. Oglesby would want to kidnap this kid?"
The professor shook his head. "I haven't the foggiest idea, officer," he said. "If you can see into the mind of a vicious lunatic, you are a lot cleverer than I am. If you find out anything, I have left my name and telephone number with Dr. Smethers. For now, I think I will be happy when I find out that young John Dixon is well enough to go back to Duston Heights with me."
The policemen left, and Dr. Smethers came out of his office and announced that Johnny was ready to go. "He'll probably sleep on the way home," he explained as he led Fergie and the professor into the inner office. "By the way, are you sure you wouldn't rather spend the night up here at the inn? It's pretty late."
The professor shook his head. "No. I'd rather drive straight home. I'm wide awake, and if I can get a cup of strong tea from you, I'll make it all right."
Dr. Smethers boiled some water on the hot plate in his office, and the professor had tea. Meanwhile Fergie talked to Johnny, who was pale and woozy, but otherwise cheerful. The professor paid the doctor, thanked him, and left with the boys. Johnny got into the backseat of the Pontiac, stretched out, and fell asleep immediately. Fergie and the professor climbed into the front seat, and they drove off. To Fergie's surprise, the professor did not head toward U.S. 302, which would have taken them home. Instead he went the other way, on the road that led toward Mount Creed.
"What are you up to, prof?" asked Fergie, who was beginning to get alarmed. "Aren't we supposed to be headin' home?"
be heading homeâeventually," said the professor as he swerved off onto the mountain road. "But I will not be able to rest until I find out if Sloane rescued his two robots and the magic key before he torched the house. You don't have to come along. In fact, I want you to stay in the car with John until I return. I won't be gone long, so don't worry."
The professor drove up the road. They passed Sloane's car, which had been shoved off into a deep ditch by the policemen, and kept going until they reached the place where the road became impossibly bumpy and rocky. The professor got out, and Fergie heard the trunk lid slam. By the light of the setting moon, he saw the professor stalk up the road with the jack handle clutched firmly in his fist. Time passed. After half an hour the professor returned. His hands and face were smudged with soot, there were burn holes on his shirt and trousers, and he was scowling hatefully.
"Didja find out anything?" asked Fergie as the professor climbed into the driver's seat.
Angrily the professor slammed the car door and shoved the jack handle into Fergie's hands. "Do I
as if I found out anything?" he snapped.
The house is still smoldering, and all the timbers and some of the stone walls have fallen into the basement. The place is still glowing like a blast furnace. Maybe we can come up here again in a few days after the fire has burned itself out." And with that, he shoved the key into the ignition and started the car.
As the professor was turning the car around, Fergie glanced at Johnny, who was still sound asleep in the backseat. Then he peered out the window at the dark mountain that loomed above them. "It's too bad you couldn't get into the old dump," he muttered glumly. "But look, profâare you sure you can drive all the way home without fallin' asleep at the wheel? It's a pretty long way to go.
"Oh, I'll be all right," said the professor, shrugging. "But I would like to ask a favor of you: Would you sing
Ninety-Eight Bottles of Beer on the Wall?
You know, the song the Boy Scouts sing on long bus rides?"
Fergie laughed. "Yeah, sureâI'll sing it. But would you mind my askin' why?"
"Not at all," said the professor. "It's a song I hate, and if I'm annoyed, I'll stay awake till we get home. Any more questions? No? Then start singing. We've got a long way to go!"
They got back to Duston Heights in the wee small hours of the morning. It was much too late to be waking up the Dixons and the Fergusons, so the professor put the boys up at his house. Fergie was very tired and went upstairs and fell asleep immediately. But Johnny was wide awake now, and the professor was still running on nervous energy, so the two of them sat in the kitchen and talked for a while. Johnny had guessed that the old man was Evaristus Sloane, and he had a pretty good idea of what Sloane had intended to do to him. The horror of the experience was still fresh in his mind, and every now and then he would pause, close his eyes, and shudder.
"But how could he still be alive, professor?" Johnny asked, as he sipped the cocoa the professor had made. "Didn't you say that he had died?"