Authors: John Bellairs
Johnny nodded. He was so jittery that he would have started stammering if he had tried to speak.
Dr. Pimlico's smile got broader. She motioned for Johnny to come closer. Awkwardly he shuffled forward. He noticed an odd collection of things lying on the doctor's desk: a wide roll of adhesive tape, a pair of scissors, a neatly folded white handkerchief, and a hypodermic syringe full of some clear fluid. Nervously Johnny glanced to his left. There was a doorway there, and it probably led to an inner office. Over the doorway hung a dark green curtain.
Dr. Pimlico cocked her head to one side. Her smile was still pleasant, but there was a hard glint in her eyes. Johnny was trembling all over by now, and when he opened his mouth to speak, he found that he couldn't. He closed his eyes, and in that instant, he heard the curtain slide back on its rings. Hands grabbed his shoulders from behind. He knew that he was a prisoner. He knew he was doomed.
The professor was enjoying himself, as he always did when he rummaged around in a used bookstore. He loved the smell of damp paper, and the tables loaded with old, battered, dog-eared books. As he browsed, he talked to himself, and sometimes he whistled bits of old tunes, like "Lilliburlero" and the "Londonderry Air." Now and then he would make remarks to the owner, a grumpy fat man who sat at the back of the shop playing solitaire on the counter.
"What time is it, Al?" the professor called as he leafed through a book. "I left my watch at home, and I have to pick up a young man who is visiting the eye doctor."
The owner shifted in his seat and peered at a clock that hung somewhere in the shadows at the back of the shop. "It's 'bout quarter to three," he said wheezily. "That is, if the clock's right, which sometimes it's not."
"Thanks a lot," muttered the professor, and he grinned wryly. Whether the clock was right or not, he was going to browse for maybe ten minutes more. Putting the book down, he moved across the shop to another table. But just as he was reaching to pull another book out of the disorderly heap, he noticed something that interested him. Hanging on the wall above the table was an old faded tea towel. It was obviously a souvenir, because the design on it was a map of the London Underground, the English subway system. The professor had ridden on the Underground many times, and he loved the odd names that many of the stops had: Cockfosters, Hanger Lane, Shepherds Bush, and his favorite, Elephant and Castle. Whistling quietly, the professor examined the map. Suddenly he stopped whistling. Not far from the center of the map he had found two names, two subway stops that were fairly close together. One was
and the other was
Sloane. Pimlico. Pimlico. Sloane.
The professor felt cold all over. The palms of his hands got sweaty, and his heart began to beat faster. Had he stumbled on to something important, or was this just a trick of his imagination? Pimlico was an odd name for a person to have, a very odd name indeed. The professor realized that he did not know very much about Evaristus Sloane's life. He knew that he had left New Hampshire when he was in his thirties, but he did not know where he had gone. Had he gone to London? Was that where he had picked up that English accent? And had he met... had he met ...
"Good God! His WIFE!"
roared the professor. As the startled shop owner watched, the professor flung down the book he was holding and made a dash for the door.
A few minutes later, the professor's car came to a screeching halt in front of the First National Bank building. The professor jumped out and raced into the bank, leaving the car door hanging open behind him. After pausing for a moment by the elevators, he ran to the stairs. Not many old men could have raced up five flights of stairs without stopping, but the professor did. On the way he elbowed people out of the way and yelled things like "I'll
her, so help me, I will!" At last he reached the door of Dr. Pimlico's office, and he rattled the knob furiously. His heart sank. As he had guessed, the place was locked up tight. A small white card was taped to the frosted glass with this message neatly printed:
Due to an illness in her family, Dr. Pimlico has been called away suddenly. She should return in about two weeks.
The professor stood clenching and unclenching his fists. His face was getting red, and he felt an uncontrollable rage welling up inside his chest. He wanted to seize this so-called "Dr. Pimlico" by the shoulders and shake her. She was long gone. For a moment the professor thought about smashing the glass and breaking into the office, but he realized that it would be useless. Besides, he'd better not hang around much longerâthe bank guards were probably on their way up to the fifth floor to catch the crazy old man who was loose in the building. With an angry, frustrated sigh, the professor turned away. As he went clumping down the back stairs, it suddenly occurred to him that he understood one of the clues. Johnny had met the snuffbox ghost three times: twice the ghost had spoken, and each time it had said the same thingâ
They took my eyes!
The professor had wondered who
wereâhe had always figured that Sloane worked by him-self.
But he had help,
muttered the professor to himself.
The old bat had been with him, even then. It's a fine time for me to find out about that, now that she's taken Johnny! A fine time!
By the time he got back to his car, the professor had begun to calm down a bit. He realized with a sinking heart that he would have to tell Gramma and Grampa what had happened. At least he wouldn't have to tell them the
truth, he said to himself with a shudder. He wouldn't have to explain about the robot, and spell out the reasons why Evaristus Sloane wanted Johnny. But it was going to be difficult enough to tell them that Johnny had been kidnaped.
When he got to the Dixons' house, the professor discovered that they had already heard the bad news. Grampa came to the door with a tear-stained face and a note in his hand. It was a sheet of dime-store tablet paper with a message printed on it in big black capital letters.
YOUR GRANDSON IS WITH US. WE DO NOT WANT A RANSOM, BUT WE NEED YOUR COOPERATION. DO NOT TRY TO STOP US WHEN WE PUT OUR PLAN INTO ACTION. LATER, JOHN WILL BE RETURNED TO YOU.
As the professor read the note, he found that his scrambled thoughts were beginning to straighten out. He already knew that Dr. Pimlico's nephew had entered the strikeout contest, but now he realized that the "nephew" had to be Sloane's robot. The old devil had rescued one of the robots from the houseâbut which one? The professor thought a bit, and he realized that it had to be the old one, the fifty-year-old baseball-pitching robot. The house on Mount Creed had burned down on the night of September 27th. Even if Sloane had stolen someone's eyes that very night, he wouldn't have had time to activate the new robot: it took forty days for the spell to be completed, and the strikeout contest was on October 15th, three days from now.
the professor told himself.
So they're going to use the robot, and they knew I'd figure out what they were up to. This note is really a warning to me, so I won't try to interfere with their wonderful plans. By heaven, I'd like to wring their necks!
As the professor stood there on the Dixons' front porch, his mind was racing. He clutched the note and made squinchy faces. Suddenly he snapped out of his trance and remembered where he was. Grampa was staring at him strangely.
"Rod?" asked Grampa. "What's the matter with you? You act like you was off on Cloud Nine."
The professor blinked and frowned. "I'm not on Cloud Nine," he snapped tartly. "I'm down in the flames of Hell, sticking pitchforks into two very nasty people. Look, HenryâI think I know who kidnaped Johnny, and I even have some vague idea of why they did it. But I don't want you to do anything. Don't tell the police, don't even tell the neighbors. If anyone asks about Johnny, tell them he's gone to see his father at that Air Force base in Virginia. We've got to move carefully, and if we do the wrong thing, Johnny might lose his life. Do you understand me?"
Grampa nodded sadly. "I guess so. But doncha think we oughta tell the police? I meanâ"
"Absolutely not!" said the professor, shaking his head violently. "The police of this town would mess up a tic-tac-toe game if you put it into their hands. We've got to keep this whole business secret for a while. In the meantime, I will tell you that Fergie and I will be going to the strikeout contest on the fifteenth. You and Kate are welcome too, but you might be happier if you... By the way, where is Kate? Is she all right?"
Grampa jerked his thumb toward the back of the house. "She's in the downstairs bedroom, lyin' down. When this rotten note came, she darn near had a conniption fit; she cried an' took on somethin' awful! I think she'll be okay-thoughâshe's a pretty tough old cookie. But if you don't mind tellin' me, why the blue blazes are you an' Fergie goin' to the strikeout thing? An' what the heck does that have to do with Johnny gettin' kidnaped?"
The professor pursed his lips and scratched his ear. "I hate to be so secretive," he said with a sad smile, "but if I tried to explain this whole weird business to you, you would think I had gone off my rocker. I will say this: I think John will be safe until that stupid contest is over. But after, he's going to be in terribly great danger, and that is why we have to go find him and find him fast!" The professor paused. Then he smiled sympathetically and patted Grampa on the elbow. "Have faith in me, old friend," he said softly. "I've helped Johnny out of some bad scrapes in the past, and I'm sure I can save him again. But you have to do what I've told you. Will you?"
Again Grampa nodded. "Sure, Rod. I trust you." He held out his hand for the professor to shake. "Good luck!"
"Thanks. I will most certainly need it!" said the professor, as he shook Grampa's hand. "I'll talk to you later." And with that, he turned on his heel and marched back across the street. As he walked, his mind was churning out plans and strategies. He would have to call Fergie and tell him that he was going to the strikeout contest. Fergie didn't know it yet, but he
going, if the professor had to drag him there by the heels. Actually, Fergie probably wouldn't need much persuadingâhe loved excitement, and excitement there would be if the professor's clever plan worked. Now if only ...
The professor paused in his front hall and struggled to make his feverish brain calm down. He was thinking of too many things at once, and he needed to be orderly and logical, if he could possibly manage it. Nervously he glanced around the dusty hallway and happened to notice the umbrella stand and the mysterious sword cane. Now
was something utterly, totally illogical: the ghost had led them to the cane, but what were they supposed to do with it? Were they supposed to use it to kill Evaristus Sloane?
that's what he wants, he's out of luck,
said the professor to himself. He was a cantankerous person, but he did not believe in killing people, even when they had done horrible things. Besides, killing Sloane would not get Johnny back. However, cold steel could look pretty threatening, couldn't it? The professor went to the stand, pulled out the cane, and drew the blade half out of its sheath. With a loud
he slid the blade back and stuck the cane into the rack. Then he dashed into the house to make some phone calls.
Johnny lay still and stared at the sunlight that seeped through a crack in the rough wooden wall. Then he shifted a little, and the springs of the iron cot jangled under him. He groaned, but the sound was faintâa handkerchief had been stuffed into his mouth, and the lower part of his face was wrapped in a tight band of adhesive tape. His hands were flung above his head and fastened to the cot with two pairs of handcuffs. He was in a strange, dilapidated room. Long iron levers stuck up out of slits in the floor, and a faded calendar was tacked to the wall nearby. In the middle of the room stood a rickety oak table with an oil lamp and Thermos on top of it," and two cane-bottomed chairs. The door on the far side of the room opened, and two people stepped in: the eye doctor and the gaunt old man named Evaristus Sloane. After glancing scornfully at Johnny, the woman walked to the table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. With a sigh, Sloane followed her. When he was seated, he unscrewed the top of the Thermos and poured some steaming liquid into the cup-shaped lid. He sipped, and then gave the woman a nasty look. For a long time neither one of them said anything.
Finally Sloane spoke. "I don't care what you say, it
work. I know it will. I've learned a lot in fifty years, and I can control the wretched creature now."
The woman laughed harshly. "Let us hope that you do better than you did back then. As I recall, you lost the key, and the thing went hog-wild and killed three people before you found the key and got it under control again."
"Yes," put in Sloane bitterly. "And then people blamed the murders on me! They thought the robot was a madman who was living with me. So then I had to tear the creature apart and store it away and leave my lovely home andâ"
"Yes, yes!" said the woman impatiently. "I know all about it! I was up there, I helped you make the robotâ remember? And now you're going to use it again to win that silly contest. Wonderful! All I'm saying is this: I would have been happier if you had been able to rescue your
robot from the house before it burned down. It was almost finished, and you had laid spells on it. I have a hunch it would have been better than the old one."
"Well, what's done is done," said Sloane bitterly. "I was going to try to save both of them, but I knocked over the oil lamp on my way out. Besides, I knew I had to leave because that runty little man, that professor, was going to call the police. At any rate, my dear Amalia, we are stuck with my old robot. I never wanted to use it again after the things that it did, but it's back in action, and I'm sure it'll work better this time.*' Sloane paused and sipped from the cup. "And I'll tell you something," he went on, "this silly baseball contest is just the beginning. It's only a test run to show you that the robot can be controlled, that it can work wonders. Just think! We'll have a burglar who can pass through the steel doors of bank vaults and come back with gold and fistfuls of jewels and hundred dollar bills! We'll both be unbelievably rich!"