Authors: John Bellairs
"So you say," the woman muttered. She pursed her lips and looked doubtful. "I am probably a fool to let myself be drawn into this plan with you, butâas you sayâthere may be great rewards. At any rate, if the robot fails again, you can always go to work and build a better one. It wouldn't take long, and as you know, we have the essential ingredient right here with us." She grinned unpleasantly, and glanced over her shoulder at Johnny.
Johnny closed his eyes and made a muffled groaning sound. He was sick with fear. It was bad enough knowing that they were going to kill him, but when he thought of the other things they might do, it was much, much worse. He was absolutely sure that they intended to get rid of himâthey hadn't said so in so many words, but then they didn't have to. When your kidnappers sat around and talked as if you weren't there, when they made no attempt to disguise themselves, you knew what was going to happen.
I wonder if it will hurt to die,
thought Johnny. Maybe they would give him a bigger dose of the stuff they had shot into his arm in the doctor's office. Then he would just go to sleep for ever and ever. But he didn't want that, he wanted to fight them. Frantically, Johnny tugged at the handcuffs. He lifted his head from the pillow and made mooing noises.
"I think we ought to give the boy something to drink," said Sloane. "He's probably out of his head with thirst."
"Aren't you the sympathetic one!" crooned the woman nastily. "But I suppose you're rightâwe wouldn't want him to die on us. Not yet, anyway." She turned again and grinned at Johnny. "Calm down, young man. If you thrash about you'll choke on that handkerchief, and then where'll you be?" Turning back to Sloane, she pointed at the Thermos. "Bring that over to the bed, Ev. I have some more tape in my purse, and we can do up his mouth again after we've given him a drink of tea and a bite to eat. And then I think we had better be on our way back to Duston Heights. You need to practice some more with that robot so that you can get him to do the right things at the ball park tomorrow night."
"If we leave him up here alone, do you think anyone will find him?" asked Sloane.
The woman sniffed. "I don't think there's much chance of that. An old railroad switchman's house on an abandoned railway in the White Mountains does not exactly draw hordes of gawking tourists. So stop your fretting, and we'll attend to our friend here."
The chair creaked as the woman got up. With her purse in her hand, she walked over to the bed and knelt down near Johnny's head. As she reached out to loosen the tape over his lips, her eyes met Johnny's, and his blood froze. Old Sloane was crazyâhe knew thatâbut this woman was sane. Sane, but absolutely heartless. Johnny knew that she wouldn't mind causing him painâshe wouldn't mind killing him.
On the following night, a large crowd of people gathered at the athletic field in Duston Heights to watch Cliff Bullard as he went to bat against the best pitchers that Essex County had to offer. The banks of lights over the field were blazing, and there was a carnival atmosphere inside the small brick stadiumâpeople were laughing and talking, and munching hot dogs, caramel corn, and peanuts. It was a chilly night, and the man who was selling hot coffee and hot cider under the stands was doing a lively business. In the front row on the first-base side sat Fergie and Professor Childermass. Gramma and Grampa had decided to stay homeâthey were too worried about Johnny to think about having fun. Fergie was looking all shiny and clean in his brown suede jacket and corduroy trousers. He spent a lot of time muttering to the professor, who kept nodding and pointing at various things. The professor was properly done up for the occasion: he was wearing his blue woollen suit with the Knights of Columbus pin in the lapel, and he had brought the sword cane with him. Fergie wondered why he had brought the cane, but then he was wondering a lot right now about the professor's great planâit all seemed pretty screwy to him.
"Do you think it's gonna work, prof?" whispered Fergie. "How's Higgy gonna get close enough to the robot to do somethin' like that?"
The professor glowered. "You haven't been
to me, Byron!" he growled. And once more he explained his plan: Father Higgins, the pastor of St. Michael's church in Duston Heights, was going to be the umpire of the strikeout contest. Since the robot was a cursed thing, brought to life by evil magic, the professor thought that a dose of holy water would stop it. Father Higgins would be bringing a corked test tube with some of the blessed water, and he was going to slop some on the baseball before giving it to the robot, when the creature came out to pitch against Cliff Bullard.
"It's going to be sort of a spitball in reverse," said the professor with a grim chuckle. "I haven't got the faintest idea of what will happen when that aluminum monster touches the holy water. Maybe he'll run away shrieking, or maybe his pitching arm will rust all to pieces and fall off. What I'm hoping for is that people will get to see what kind of a creature he really is. At any rate, I think the holy water will put an end to the robot's pitching career, and then we can turn our attention to Sloane and his dear sweet wifey. If the robot is stopped, I think that they'll get scared and run. I borrowed Higgy's Olds-mobile, and I'll follow them to wherever they're holding Johnny. And then... Well, we shall see what we shall see."
Fergie glanced uncertainly at the professor. "Have you got a gun with you, prof?"
The professor gave Fergie a scornful look. "You know that I detest firearms, Byron," he said. "That is why I have brought this sword cane along. I can use it to threaten the two of them, and if I have to, I can defend myself. After all, I was the fencing champion of my regiment during World War One."
Fergie glanced at the professor doubtfully. He was about to say something when the professor poked him hard in the arm.
"Look! Here comes Higgy!" whispered the professor excitedly. "Now we'll see what's what!"
Fergie looked up and saw Father Higgins walking toward them across the baseball diamond. He was wearing his black clerical outfit with the stiff Roman collar and an umpire's padded chest protector. Father Higgins was over six feet tall, and he had a squarish jowly face. He was frowning, but this did not mean anythingâFather Higgins often frowned, even when he was feeling fine. When he saw Fergie, the priest smiled and waved. Fergie had once played on a Softball team that the priest had coached, and they were old friends.
"Hi, Byron!" boomed the priest. "How goes it?" He reached into the stands and shook Fergie's hand. Then he turned to the professor, and the grim look returned to his face. "I'm afraid we've got problems, Rod," he said softly. "Can I have a word with you in private?"
The professor stared blankly. What could have happened? Without a word he got up and swung himself over the low brick wall that separated the field from the stands. Fergie watched as the two men walked a short way out into right field and stood there on the grass, talking. After a few minutes, Father Higgins turned away and trotted across the field toward home plate, where Cliff Bullard was standing with a bat in his hands. The professor returned to his seat, and Fergie saw that he was very pale. The corner of his mouth was twitching, and his hand shook as he picked up the cane.
"What's wrong?" asked Fergie breathlessly. "What'd Higgy say?"
"He said a great deal," the professor muttered through his teeth. "But the gist of it is this: He's lost the tube with the holy water in it."
Fergie's mouth dropped open. "Oh, my gosh, no! How'd
"He doesn't know. He put the tube in a satchel that held some of his umpiring equipment, and he left the satchel in the locker room under the stands for a few minutes. When he went back to get it, the satchel was still there, but the tube was gone!" The professor paused. He banged the butt of his cane on the concrete floor.
he exclaimed angrily. "It seems that some people are a lot more clever than we give them credit for! That old bat knows I'm on to her, and she probably guessed that we'd try something cute tonight. I'm afraid we're on our own now!"
Fergie's heart sank. "Prof?" he asked in an anxious whisper. "What're we gonna do now?"
"I don't know," the professor answered quietly. "If I think of something, I'll let you know."
RITTY CHITTY BOOM!
RITTY CHITTY BOOM!
RITTY CHITTY, RITTY CHITTY
ROT BAM BOOM!
With a riffle and rattle of snare drums, the Duston Heights High School marching band paraded out onto the field. Then, as everyone stood, they played "The Star-Spangled Banner." The drumming resumed, and they trotted off the field double-time. The preliminaries were over. Now the fun would begin.
First came a home-run hitting exhibition. A pitcher who traveled with Cliff Bullard went out to the mound and served up batting-practice pitches. Bullard hit them all over the place. One shot disappeared over the top of the center-field scoreboard, 450 feet away from home plate. Others went rocketing over the roof of the grandstand, and still others landed in the center-field bleachers, where kids chased them down and proudly carried them off as souvenirs. Finally it was time for the strikeout contest. As photographers popped their flashbulbs, Bullard posed at home plate and a voice on the public address system explained the rules: There would be ten pitchers in the contest, and each pitcher would get one try. Every try would be like a regular time at bat during a baseball game: if Bullard hit the ball or drew a walk, he won. If the pitcher struck him out, he won ten thousand dollars. Nobody really thought that any of the pitchers on the list could whiff the mighty Bullard, but it would be fun to see if somebody came close.
"It'd almost be worth it to see that wretched robot strike him out," muttered the professor as the first pitcher began his warm-up tosses. "I'd love to see the look on that big mug's face when the ball came sizzling in at one hundred and ten miles an hour!"
"Well, we're probably gonna get to see it happen," said Fergie gloomily. "Unless, of course, you've had any bright ideas, prof. Have you?"
"Not one," said the professor. He reached into his jacket pocket and took out a folded sheet of yellow paper. Sheets like this one had been handed out to everyone at the entrance to the stadiumâthey listed the pitchers in the order in which they would appear. Quickly the professor ran his finger down the row of names: Charles Hebden, Al McGee, Jack Humphrey, Spencer Talus ...
The professor's finger stopped on the name
Spencer Talus. "Ah-hah!"
he said, and he gave Fergie a nudge in the ribs. "This fourth name on the list has got to be the robot! Talus is the name of the iron man in a fairy-tale poem by an old writer named Edmund Spenser. My, my! Aren't they the clever ones! So he's going to be fourth on the listâwe won't have to wait long, it seems!"
"Have you seen those two creeps?" Fergie asked. "Sloane and his wife. I mean, are they here?"
The professor nodded. "Oh, they're here all right! They're sitting across the way, in box seats behind the third-base line. And I'm sure they're chortling and cackling about the money they're going to make, and the evil rotten things they're going to do later." The professor thought about Johnny, and his face grew hard. "By heaven," he said, in a low voice, "it's a good thing I hate guns! I'd be tempted to take a pot shot at them from where I'm sitting. By the way, I think I will have a closer look at them, just to make myself feel bad."
He reached in under his seat and came up with a battered leather case. From it he took an old-fashioned pair of field glasses. Twiddling the little wheel, he scanned the crowd on the other side of the stadium, and finally focused in on the evil pair: Sloane was wearing dark glasses and a droopy white fake mustache; his wife was in a maroon tailored suit and pillbox hat. Her purse was balanced on her knees, and she clutched it tight with both hands.
"Ah, there they are, the Gruesome Twosome!" muttered the professor. "If you wanted to lose weight, all you'd have to do would be to look at them, and it'd kill your appetite for days! By the way, I'll bet the old hag has the Key of Arbaces in that purse she's holding. That's how they control theâ"
The professor's little monologue was cut off by a loud burst of applause. Cliff Bullard had stepped into the batter's box. Father Higgins and the catcher took their places behind the batter. The pitcher went into his windup, and the ball came whizzing in.
Bullard swung, and the ball went sailing in a long majestic arc into the left-field stands. The first pitcher had failed, and now the second came on. He had a pretty good curveball, but he had trouble getting it in there for strikes. The count ran to three balls and two strikes, and then the pitcher made a mistake: a fastball right across the middle of the plate. Bullard sent it rattling off the right-field fence. Then Jack Humphrey had his try: his specialty was a knuckle-ball, but it wasn't a very good one, and Bullard golfed Mr. Humphrey's third pitch high into the air. The ball sailed up over the roof of the left-field stands and disappeared into the night.
The crowd applauded. Bullard grinned and tipped his hat to the stands, and the people roared in response. It was really a grand night for Bullard, at least it had been so far. As the cheering continued Bullard took a brief time out. He walked to the home-team dugout, had a glass of water, and mopped his face with a towel. Then he slowly returned to the plate. A figure stepped out of the visitors' dugout across the way. It was a tall man with a big mop of blond hair and staring blue eyes. He walked stiffly, and as he advanced an odd hush fell over the crowd. Even Bullard paused and watched silentlyâhe seemed to sense that this was no ordinary person coming to challenge him. The name of Spencer Talus was announced over the P.A. system, and a polite ripple of applause greeted him. Father Higgins walked out to the mound to give Talus the baseball and explain a few things to him. The big blond man nodded as the priest spoke, and he held his hand out awkwardly to take the ball. But instead of handing the ball to the pitcher, Father Higgins did an odd thing: He raised his right hand and made the sign of the cross in the air. The robot staggered back a couple of paces, but then it stopped. Angrily it lurched forward and grabbed the ball from the priest. A murmur ran through the crowd as people realized that something peculiar was going on. For a few seconds more, the priest and the robot faced each other. Then Father Higgins turned away and started walking slowly back to home plate.