Liquid Death and other Stories
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by John Russell Fearn
Description: John Russell Fearn began his writing career as a pioneer in the science fiction field, appearing in all of the American pulp science fiction magazines in the early 1930s. However, many of his fans don't know that Fearn was also a prolific and successful writer in other genres, especially crime and detective fiction. This volume contains some of his best stories from the famous "weird menace" pulp magazine, Thrilling Mystery Stories, plus several others, including two which are previously unpublished. Included are:
; "Liquid Death"; "Death Asks the Question"; "Foolproof"; "Beast of the Tarn"; "Safety in Numbers"; "Glass Nemesis"; "The Wailing Hybrid"; "Boomerang"; "Last Extra"; "The Stain that Grew"; Introduction, by Philip Harbottle
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2002
eBookwise Release Date: February 2002
8 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [322 KB]
Reading time: 205-288 min.
The man in the cloth cap, coarse flannel shirt, and corduroy trousers tied just below the knee with string was obviously a laborer. For this very reason he looked distinctly incongruous as he waited outside the polished green door of a typical London house of the Georgian period. After his ringing at the bell there was a long interval, then the door opened and a manservant gazed out into the late summer afternoon in obvious horror.
"Tradesmen's entrance is at the rear," he stated briefly. "On your way, my man."
"I would if I wus a tradesman -- but I'm not." The man gave a broad grin. "Nick Gregson's the name, pal. I want to see the guv'nor."
"You cannot possibly mean..."
"I mean Henry Garside, the bloke as owns them 'ouses down Stepney way. The ones that's bein' demolished now."
The manservant frowned and then seemed to recollect something. "Am I to understand you are connected with the demolition firm, Mr. -- er -- Gregson?"
"Right, pal. And I must see the guv. It's important."
The manservant's nostrils distended. "I will enquire if the master is at home. Wait there."
The laborer shrugged and took a firmer hold of the stiff brown paper parcel he was hugging. Or rather, it was dirty yellow, splashed with whitewash, and advertised a famous cement. Plainly it had been picked up on the demolition site.
"This way," the manservant directed coldly re-appearing. "And wipe those boots, if you don't mind."
Nick Gregson humbly did as ordered and then took off his cap from lank hair as he followed the majestic being across a somber, spotless hall to a nearby door. Once beyond it, Nick found himself facing a tubby, middle-aged man in a velvet smoking jacket, reclining in a deep armchair beside the fire. Having evidently been prewarned as to the appearance of his visitor, he expressed no surprise as he viewed him.
"Well, my man? And what can I do for you? Excuse my not asking you to sit down. Those working clothes are hardly..."
"Aw, that's all right, guv'nor. This won't take long."
Gregson brought the dirty paper bag more clearly into view and was about to dump it on the Shereton occasional table when a howl of protest stopped him.
"Not on your life, man! Don't you dare dump anything on that table! Come to the point, can't you?"
"All right. See this bag? In it there's five hundred sovereigns! Queen Victoria, from the look of 'em."
"Why come to me?" Henry Garside's pink face was impatient.
"Because I thought as 'ow you might like to buy 'em. Nice price for sovereigns these days, guv'nor. Around forty-five quid a sov., isn't it?"
"I'm not certain of the exact market value. And I repeat -- why come to me? Why don't you take them to a pawnbroker, or somebody?"
"Because a bloke like me might get looked at, with five 'undred sovereigns! 'Sides, there's a reason why I've come to you. I found these this afternoon in an old tin box in number six, Fordney Crescent, one of them rows of 'ouses of yours which we're wreckin'. I s'pose I should've let the foreman know about it, but instead, I got to thinkin'. I found 'em, and there's some sort of law about buried treasure that lets a man keep what he finds -- or a part of it, or summat."
Garside's impatience had gone. He was looking astonished instead. After thinking for a moment he took up a newspaper from the stand beside him and spread it over his immaculate trousers.
"Come over here, my man. Let me see some of those coins."
Nick Gregson moved swiftly and, from the cement bag, poured about a score of the old, stained coins on to the newspaper. Garside picked several of them up in turn, examined them intently, and finally began to nod his bald head slowly back and forth.
"Mmm, seems little doubt about it, my man. So you found them in number six, Fordney Crescent, did you? Whereabouts?"
"Under the ground floor -- but I kept it to meself."
"Very illegal of you -- but I'm damned if I blame you for that! Let me see, now; my tenant at number six was--" Garside mused with his mouth open. "Oh, yes, Mrs. Brice. The little widow with hardly a penny to her name. Dead now, though. No guarantee the sovereigns were hers, anyway. So you came to hand them over to me? That was very honest of you, Mr. Gregson. To be strictly accurate, the police should be told."
The laborer's expression changed. "Now, wait a minute, guv. I didn't come to give 'em to you. I want to sell 'em. More chance of doing it to you than to a pop-shop. Somebody might try an' say I pinched 'em. Five hundred sovs. take a lot of explaining."
"On my property, Mr. Gregson -- therefore I call them mine."
"Findings keepings, I say."
"No doubt..." Garside's face melted slowly into a grin. "However, I'm not a hard man and you are obviously far more in need of money than I am. I'll buy them from you -- at twenty-two pounds fifty a sovereign."
Gregson glared. "What in hell sort uv a bargain is that? These is worth forty-five pounds each -- or near it."
"Exactly. Hence the fifty-fifty. You hardly expect me to pay market value, do you? What would I get out of it?"
"Same's you've paid me! Fair's fair, I say."
The smile on Garside's cherubic faded again. "Better take my offer, Mr. Gregson. If I withdraw it, I can claim all these, and you'll get nothing. You seem good at sayings; you would do well to remember one about looking a gift horse in the mouth."
Gregson scowled in thought and rubbed the back of his weather-beaten neck. Then, at last, he sighed.
"Okay -- I'll take it. I'll probably get nothing the other way. Let's see -- that's twenty-two pounds fifty, five hundred times, and..." he broke off, floundering.
"Eleven thousand, two hundred and fifty pounds, my man, and consider yourself well paid. Let me see them all. Here -- put them on the rug."
Garside spread the newspaper at his feet and emptied the dirty bag over it. For the next twenty minutes Garside was busy counting and re-counting, then at last he struggled from his knees to his feet and lumbered across to a wall safe.
"Naturally, you'll prefer cash?" he asked over his shoulder.
"I ain't got no blasted bank account, if that's what you mean."
"Quite so." From the safe Garside took the required amount in high denomination notes and handed them over. Gregson went through them steadily with a dirty thumb and forefinger, and finally he nodded.
"Thanks, guv. Not what I expected, but it'll have to do."
"And should you find any more sovereigns on my property in the course of its demolishing, we can perhaps do further business, my friend. Good day to you."
Gregson nodded and took his departure at the side of the scandalized manservant -- and it was about this time that a similar scene to the Gregson-Garside performance was being enacted in the Soho district; and this time, the setting was Reuben Goldstein's, the pawnbroker.
Reuben Goldstein was no longer a young man. His eyes had no longer their intense keenness. He did not hear so well any more, either -- but there was not much he missed. And he watched with interest as two customers arrived together almost at closing time. One was a man of apparent age -- early eighties at least -- and with him was a powerful young man who proudly carried a wooden box on one broad shoulder. Plainly it was heavy, for he dropped it with considerable force on the counter and then mopped his sharp-featured face.
"Good evening, gentlemen." Goldstein looked from one to the other and rubbed his gnarled hands together.
"And vot is your pleasure?"
The elderly man, impeccably dressed, raised his malacea cane briefly. "Open it up, Harry. Let him see."
"Okay, grandpa." The young man pulled a small screwdriver from his pocket, removed three screws from the box's wooden lid, then heaved it up on hinges. The pawnbroker gazed fixedly, much as Edmond Dantes must have done when he first beheld the treasure of Monte Cristo.
"Sovereigns!" he exclaimed, throwing up his hands. "I never saw so many sovereigns all at vun time!"
"Mr. Goldstein, there are five thousand sovereigns there!" The elderly man spoke with firm, cultured quietness. "The collection of a lifetime. I am eighty-six years of age, and have spent my life collecting sovereigns as a hobby. Now I know I have not much longer to go, I am selling my possessions, and that naturally includes these. I assume you are interested? My grandson here remarked that you are one of the fairest dealers in this region."
"I always give a square deal!" Goldstein looked very resolute about it, his hooked nose nearly touching his chin. "But five t'ousand! That is a lot of gold."
"Course it is! I wouldn't be wasting my time on trifles, believe me. It isn't money I need; just commonsense value for my offspring. Take them -- take them. Look at them. Test them."
Goldstein scooped up a handful of the coins and disappeared to mysterious regions at the shop's rear. The young man and the elderly man exchanged glances and waited. Then, at length, Goldstein came back.
"Obviously, I cannot take time to count five t'ousand coins, so I..."
"There are five thousand, Mr. Goldstein. You have my word on that. And, let me tell you, it has never been broken."
"I vould not doubt it for a moment -- not for a moment. And I vould like to do business. These sovereigns I have tested are perfect -- real gold."
The elderly man looked indignant. "Did you think they were brass?"
"I am a business man," Goldstein said solemnly. "I have to weigh gold and test it with acid. If those two tests are right, then I am glad. But to count and test five t'ousand of them is a long job. Ve can do business," he finished firmly, "if you trust me with these sovereigns until this time tomorrow night."
The elderly man reflected, then the young man gave a shrug.
"Might as well, grandpa. Whoever you take these coins to, they'd have to examine them as Mr. Goldstein wishes to do. Only to be expected."
"Ah, well -- I suppose so. I so dislike delays. Very well, Mr. Goldstein; give me your receipt and I will return this time tomorrow. My name is Vincent P. Caxton -- if you wish to know."
Goldstein nodded and laboriously wrote out a receipt, upon which his two customers left with the promise to return at five-forty-five the following afternoon.
And, at the home of a certain famous financier and industrialist in Mayfair, there took place that same evening a most confidential meeting between the financier himself -- Elliot K. Marsden and globe-trotter Jeremiah (Jerry) Bax, just back from a jaunt which had kept him out of England for twelve years. Long enough for society to forget about him, even to think of him as a complete stranger when he landed back. Jerry Bax was a clever man. He had the charm necessary to convince the devil himself that black can be white -- sometimes.
"Thirty thousand sovereigns, eh?" Elliot K. Marsden drew gently on his cigar and surveyed the three boxes which three strong servants had carried into this library a little while earlier. "It's mighty good going, Jerry."
"So I think." Jerry was a tall, easy-going man in the early fifties, military in features, bronzed in complexion, and nearly always smiling. "I never expected to find the damned treasure mind you. I knew of it from an old sailor friend of mine. He knew the stuff had been buried on one of the remote Pacific islands when the ship carrying it had been wrecked, but I was the only man to find it. Naturally, I want to make something out of it. It occurred to me you might want to make something out of it, too -- not as actual sovereigns, but as gold in bulk. So it's up to you."
The financier picked up one or two of the coins and examined them intently.
"They look genuine enough."
"Look! They damned well are. Put them through any test you like."
"I intend to, before we talk business. I've asked Walters to come over. He's my chief analyst."
"Analyst?" Jerry frowned. "What on earth has a financier in common with an analyst?"
Elliot K. grinned. "You've evidently forgotten that I own a number of combines -- steel, rubber, plastics, and heaven knows what. I could be swindled with materials if it were not for my analysts -- and Walters is the best of them all."
Jerry shrugged. "Okay. But I'm surprised you can't take my word. I'm well known enough."
"With all due respect, Jerry, I've only your word for that, too. Nobody seems to remember you in select circles, in spite of your saying you were once closely connected with them."
"Twelve years is a long time, E.K. People forget, and..."
"Mr. Walters, sir," the manservant announced gravely as he appeared like a phantom.
"Oh, yes, Peters; show him in here, please."
Walters was a thin-nosed, unsmiling man of uncertain age, carrying with him a square box of portable equipment. He said "good evening" to his employer, nodded briefly to Jerry Bax and then -- having been given his instructions beforehand -- went to work on six selected sovereigns. In silence the industrialist and the explorer watched him, even though they could not follow the entire sequence of the test. The acid and the weight tests were obvious enough, but other experiments between magnets, and using instruments like flashlamps except that they had no beams -- were beyond them. Nor did Walters' expression give anything away.
Finally, however, he folded up his equipment and tossed the coins back in the nearest box.
"Genuine gold in each case, Mr. Marsden," he announced. "Atomic weight is correct, and so is the response to ultrasonic vibration. Acid-proof and correct normal weight -- as opposed to atomic."
"Then, if those six are pure gold, so must the others be?"
Walters flashed a brief glance at Jerry. "I suppose so. One could hardly select six at random, sir, and have all the others spurious."
"I should damned well think not!" Jerry objected. "Look here, E.K., what do you take me for?"
"All right -- no offence!" the financier grinned. "Can't blame me for taking precautions. Right, Walters, that's all. Many thanks."
The analyst nodded and took his departure. Marsden poured out drinks and brought them back to the table, handing one to Jerry.
"All right -- we talk business," he said. "What's your price?"
"Top market value, of course. Two hundred and twenty-five thousand pounds. I can get that anywhere, and you know it. You, using them for their actual gold value, can probably make a handsome profit, even at that figure."
"Could be," the tycoon grinned. "But my figure is one hundred and ninety thousand, top limit. I'm going to be under considerable expense operating with so much gold."
"One hundred and ninety-five thousand, or I go elsewhere."
Marsden reflected and then held out his hand. "One hundred and ninety-five thousand it is. You shall have my check before you leave this evening. Now let's have another drink."
Copyright © 2002 by Philip Harbottle