“This is it,” Nick Deene said with enthusiasm, after he had stared down at the old Carriday house for a couple of minutes. “This is what I had in mind. Right down to the last rusty hinge and creaking floorboard.”
Danny Lomax heaved a sigh of relief. “Praise be!” he said. “We’ve wasted almost a week finding a joint that suited you just right, and that doesn’t leave us much time to start beating the drum. Although I’ll admit” — Danny squinted down at the brooding old pile of stone and lumber that still retained some traces of a one-time dignity — “I’ll admit you’ve really turned up a honey. If that isn’t a haunted house, it’ll do until one comes along.”
Nick Deene stood for a moment longer, appraising the Carriday mansion, on whose arched entrance the carved figure 1784 still defied the corroding elements. The building was a long, L-shaped Colonial type house, with stone foundations and hand-sawed clapboard upper structure. It had been painted some dark color once, but the color had gone with the years, leaving the structure a scabrous mottled hue that had, to the eye of one who stared too long at it in the uncertain light of dusk, an unpleasant appearance of slow, sinuous movement.
The building was two-storied, with attics, and seemed to contain a number of rooms. Woods, once cut back, had crept up almost to the walls, and though it was only second growth stuff, pine and cedar, they gave the place a cramped, crowded feeling. A weed-grown dirt carriage drive connecting with a half-impassable county and the tumbled ruins of a couple of outbuildings finished off the scene.
“It has everything, Danny!” Nick Deene went on, with animation. “Absolutely everything but a ghost.”
“Which is just fine with me,” asserted the technical assistant allotted him by his radio hour sponsors (So-Pure Soaps present Dare Danger with Deene!) “Of course, I don’t believe in ghosts, as the hill-billy said about the hippopotamus, but that’s all the more reason I don’t want to go meeting one. I’m too old to go around revising my beliefs just to please a spook.”
“That’s just it,” Nick Deene told him. “A resident ha’nt that somebody or other had seen, or thought he’d seen, and described, would cramp my style. Of course, nobody comes out here, and it’s spooky enough to make any casual passerby take another road, but there’s no definite legend attached to it, and what I’ve been looking for — that, plus a proper background. And this has the proper background. Three generations of Carridays died here — of malaria, probably; look at the swamp back there. The last Carriday ran away to sea and died in Java. The place’s been empty fifteen years now, except for a tramp found in it one winter, dead of pneumonia. Nobody’s going to buy it, not away out here in a swampy section of woods, and for a couple thousand dollars the estate agent will be glad enough to let us have the key and do anything we want to it, including furnishing it with a nice, brand-new ghost. Which is just what I’m going to do.”
“Nicholas Deene, Hand-Tailored Spooks, Ghost Maker to the Nobility,” Danny Lomax grunted. “You know, I used to read your books and believe ’em. That chapter where you told about the doomed dancing girl in the old temple at Angkor Wat and how you saved her just before the priest came for her, gave me a big kick once. I was sap enough to think it had really happened!”
“Well there is a temple at Angkor Wat,” Nick Deene grinned. “And dancing girls too. For all I know, one of them may be a virgin. So if you enjoyed the story, why complain? You believed it when you read it, didn’t you?” .
“Yeah,” Danny Lomax agreed, stamping out a cigarette. “I believed it.”
“Then you got your money’s worth,” the tall, bronzed man asserted (Sun lamp treatments every evening, carefully timed by his valet, Walters, kept that bronze in good repair.) “And a million people still believe that story. Just as five million people are going to believe in the Carriday Curse.”
“Okay, okay,” the small, wiry man assented. “I’m not here to argue. Let’s scram. Even if the Carriday Curse is strictly a Nick Deene fake, I don’t like this dump in these shadows. If I had a lot of baby spooks I wanted to raise to be nice, big ha’nts I’d bring ’em here and plant ’em. The atmosphere is so unhealthy!”
Nick Deene grinned again, the flashing-toothed smile that had won him indulgence all around the globe, had been photographed against the columns of the Athenaeum, halfway up Mount Everest, atop an elephant going over the Alps, and too many other places to list. He brushed back the jet black hair that lay so smoothly against his skull, and started back toward the road from the little knoll they’d climbed to get a view of the house. Danny Lomax followed, making plans out loud.
“We can have ’em run a rebroadcast unit on a truck, up to the road here,” he decided. “You’ll have a portable sender on your back and the truck will pick it up and retransmit to Hartford. Hartford will pipe it into New York and out through the networks. We’ll give the equipment a thorough check and there’s not much chance of anything going wrong. Your ratings have been falling off lately, but this’ll put you up on top again. Most of your listeners have already read the stuff you’ve been dramatizing on the air, you know. This one, a direct broadcast from a haunted house at night on Friday the 13th, will pull ’em in. You’re a fake, Deene, but you’ve got some good ideas and this is one of the better ones, if…”
“If what?” Nick demanded as they reached the road and prepared to clamber into the gleaming car that had gotten them there.
“If you pull it off,” Danny Lomax took the right hand seat and slammed the door. “A lot of newspaper guys don’t like you any too well, and if there’s any stink to this thing they’ll horse-laugh it to death. There has to be a ghost, and your audience has to believe in it. Don’t make any mistake about that.”
“There’ll be a ghost,” Nick Deene shrugged, putting the car into motion. “And they’ll believe in it. I’ll be right in the room with ’em. I’m working on the script now. I’m going to ask them to turn out the light when they listen, and imagine they’re with me, waiting in the dark for the Thing that for a hundred years has been the Curse of the Carridays to appear. I’ll be armed only with a flashlight, a bible, and -”
“And a contract,” Danny interrupted. “Sorry. But I’ve lost all my illusions since meeting you.”
“And a crucifix,” Deene continued, a little nettled by now. “They’ll hear boards creaking, and a death-watch beetle ticking in the wall. And plenty of other details. I’ll make them up as I go along. Spontaneity always gives the most convincing effect, I’ve found. And they’ll be convinced. Aren’t they always?”
“Yeah,” the little advertising man agreed reluctantly. “When you turn on the heat, old ladies swoon with excitement and little kids scream all night in their cribs. There was one heart-failure — an old maid in Dubuque — after last month’s show, the one in which you were fighting an octopus forty feet beneath the surface, down in the Malay pearling waters.”
“There’ll be half a dozen this time,” Nick Deene prophesied complacently. “When I start into the Carriday house to meet the Thing with a face like an oyster -”
“A face like an oyster, huh?” Danny Lomax repeated, and swallowed hard. “That’s what it’s going to look like?”
Nick Deene chuckled and nodded. “If there’s anything deader-looking than a watery blue oyster that’s been open too long,” he said, “I don’t know what it is. Where was I? Oh, yes. Well, when I start into that house to wait for the approach of the Thing with an oyster face, I’m going to scare the living daylights out of five million people, if you guys do your jobs right.”
“We will, we will,” Danny promised. “We’ll ship out photos of the house, I’ll plant the story the locals should repeat to a couple of fellows in the village, we’ll ballyhoo you all the way down the line. The only thing we won’t do is try to fix the weatherman to make it a stormy night. You’ll have to take your chances on that.”
“It’s generally foggy down here in the swamps at night,” Deene replied, quite seriously. “Fog is as good as a storm any time.”
“Yeah,” Danny Lomax agreed, twisting around to look down at the house in the hollow below — the road having taken them up a slope behind it. Fog was already forming in tenuous gray wisps, as the disappearance of the sun brought cool air currents rolling down into the swampy dell. They made a little dancing approach toward the empty, silent building that was quite unappetizing to anyone with a good imagination.
“Fog’s good enough for me, any time. You know, Deene, maybe it’s a good thing you don’t believe in spooks yourself.”
“Maybe it is, at that.” Nick Deene grinned as they topped a rise and the Carriday house disappeared from view. “Maybe it is, at that.”
It was not a foggy night. Yet there were mists about the Carriday house as Danny Lomax, Nicholas Deene, and two newspapermen — Ken Blake and Larry Miller — prepared to enter it.
Sitting as it did in the very bottom of a little glen, so that any cool, mist-producing air currents there might be would flow toward it, it was wrapped in pale vapor that danced and shifted in slow, stately movements. A quarter moon thrust a weak finger of radiance down into the woods.
It was eleven o’clock, and time for Dare Danger With Deene to hit the ether with its special broadcast. Danny Lomax had earphones clamped to his ears, tentacles of wire trailing back from them to the broadcast truck pulled up beside the road, on the little rise that overlooked the house. The house was four hundred yards away, and Danny Lomax was conscious of a vague regret it wasn’t four million as he snatched off the earphones and dropped his hand.
Nick Deene caught the signal, which meant that the theme song was finished, as well as the lengthy announcement outlining the circumstances of the broadcast, from the New York studio. His deep, expressive voice took up the tale without a hitch.
“This is Nicholas Deene speaking,” he said easily into the mike attached to his chest, and connected to the pack broadcaster slung over his shoulder.
“The old Carriday mansion lies in a depression below mo, some four hundred yards away. Wan moonlight illuminates it. Veils of fog wrap around it as if to hide it from man’s gaze. For fifteen years no human being has spent a night beneath its roof – alive.”
His voice paused significantly to let his unseen audience experience its first prickle of pleasurable terror.
“But tonight I am going to brave the curse of the Carridays. I am going to enter the house, and in the great master bedroom where three generations of Carridays died, I am going to wait for the unknown Thing that legends tell of to appear.
“I am going toward the house now, with two reputable newspaper men at my side. One of them has a pair of handcuffs, the other the key. They are going to cuff me to the sturdy bedposts of the ancient four-poster that can be seen through the dust-covered window, in the master bedroom. That is to insure that I shall not leave before midnight strikes — before this ill-omened Friday the thirteenth passes away into the limbo of the vanished days.”
Nick Deene’s voice went on, rising and falling in carefully cadenced rolls, doing little tricks to the emotions of listeners a mile, a thousand miles, three thousand miles away. He and Danny Lomax and the two reporters trudged on downhill toward the house.
This was a last-minute inspiration of Nick Deene’s, this handcuff business. The press had taken a somewhat scoffing note toward the stunt broadcast. But Nick Deene’s showman instinct had risen to the occasion. There was a compellingness to the idea of a man being chained in a deserted house, haunted or not — being unable to leave — which had impressed the radio-column writers.
Deene kept on talking as they approached the old mansion, flashlight beams dancing ahead of them. He described the woods, the night sounds, the dancing mist, the appearance of the empty, silent mansion ahead of them, and did a good job.
Not that it was necessary for the three men with him. Even before they reached the house, the carefully cultivated skepticism which Blake and Miller had sported was gone from their faces. Cynical though they were, Danny Lomax thought he could catch traces of uneasiness on their countenances. The place had that kind of an atmosphere about it.
“We are standing on the rotten, creaking porch now,” Deene was telling his audience. “One reporter is unlocking the door with the key given us reluctantly by the white-haired agent for the property, a man whose expression tells us that he knows many things about this house his closed lips will not reveal.
“The door creaks open. The door creaks open. Our lights probe the black throat of the hall. Dust is everywhere, seeming inches thick. It rises and swirls about us as we enter—”
They went in, and Nick Deene’s tread was the firmest of the four as they strode the length of a narrow hall and reached the stairs. Their lights showed side rooms, filled with old furniture whose dust covers had not been removed in almost two decades. The stairs were winding, and creaked. The air was as musty as it always is in houses long closed.
They reached the upstairs, and a finger of moonlight intruded through an end window. Their flashlights reflected off a dusty mirror, and Larry Miller jumped uneasily. Nick Deene chuckled into the microphone, and a million listeners nodded in quick approval of his courage.
“My friends are nervous,” Nick Deene was telling them. “They feel the atmosphere that hangs so heavy in these silent rooms trod only by creatures of the unseen. But we are now in the bedroom where I shall wait -”
The bedroom was big. The door leading into it, though, was low and narrow, and the windows were small. A broken shutter hanging outside creaked in an unseen air current. There were two old chairs, a bureau, a cedar chest, a rag rug — and the four-poster bedstead. A coverlet, gray with dust, lay over the mattress. Nick Deene grimaced as he saw it, but his voice did not falter. Danny Lomax snatched the coverlet off the bed and shook it. Dust filled the air, and he coughed as he put the coverlet back into place. He slid a chair up beside the bed, and Nick Deene, without disturbing the broadcast, slid off his pack transmitter and placed it on the chair. He lay down on the bed, and Larry Miller, with a pair of handcuffs from his pocket, linked one ankle to the left bedpost. Danny Lomax adjusted the mike so that Nick Deene could speak into it without having to hold it, and Deene waved his hand in a signal of preparedness.
“My friends are preparing to depart,” he told his audience, and his words leaped from the room to the waiting truck, from there to Hartford, twenty miles away, and thence to New York, then to the world, or whatever part of it might be listening.
“In a moment I shall be alone. I have a flashlight, but to conserve the batteries I am going to turn it out. “May I make a suggestion? Why don’t you, who are listening, turn out your lights too, and we will wait together in darkness for the approach of the creature known as the Curse of the Carridays — a creature which I hope, before the next hour is over, to describe to you.
“What it is or what it looks like, I do not know. The one man who could tell — the agent for the property, faithful to his trust though the last Carriday died long since in far off Java — will not speak. Yet, if the portents are favorable, we – you and I – may see it tonight.”
Clever, Danny Lomax thought, his trick of identifying the audience with himself, making them feel as if they were on the spot, too. One of the big secrets of his success.
“Now,” Nick Deene was saying, “I take my leave of my companions— ”
Then Danny and the two reporters were leaving. Nick Deene kicked his leg, the chain of the handcuff rattled, and Larry Miller jumped. Nick waved a sardonic hand after them.
They went downstairs, not dawdling, and no one spoke until they were outside. Then Blake drew a deep breath.
“He’s a phony,” he said, with a reluctant admiration. “And you know as well as I do that if he sees anything tonight, it’ll be strictly the product of his imagination — or of that bottle in his coat pocket. But just the same, I wouldn’t spend an hour in that place, handcuffed to the furniture for a month’s pay.”
Without hesitating, they set off for the waiting truck, and the small knot of men — technicians, reporters, and advertising agency men — clustered around it. And as they hurried — in Boston, in Sioux Falls, Kalmazoo, Santa Barbara and a thousand other towns, lights went out in a house here, another there, as some off Nick Deene’s farflung audience obeyed his melodramatic suggestion to listen to him in the darkness. And two million families settled themselves to wait with him, hanging on his every word, their acceptance of everything he said complete, their belief utter.
When the three of them reached the rebroadcast truck again, the little group of half a dozen men there were clustered about the rear, where a half-circle of light burned through the darkness and a loudspeaker repeated Nick Deene’s every word. Deene was building atmosphere still. His resonant voice was picturing the house, the shadows, the dust, the darkness that seemed to crouch within the hallways, and as he spoke, not a man there but could see the pictures he evoked rising up he evoked rising up before their eyes.
“Listen,” Nick Deene was saying, and Danny Lomax could visualize the big bronze man grinning sardonically as he spoke, “and here with me the small night sounds that infest this ancient, spirit-ridden dwelling. Somewhere a board is creaking — perhaps for no tangible cause. I cannot tell. But it comes to me clearly.”
Listening, they could hear it, too. The eerie, chill-provoking creak of a floor board or stairway, in midnight silence. Nick Deene had two bits of wood in his pocket that he rubbed together to get that effect, but only Danny Lomax knew that. And even knowing, he did not like the sound.
“I hear the creaking ” Nick Deene’s voice was low, suspense-filled now “I hear the creaking, and something else. A monotonous tick-tick-tick that seems to become louder and louder as I listen to it, the frightening beat of the death-watch beetle within the walls of this room —”
They could hear it too, as Nick Deene’s voice died out. Hear it, and their own breathing became faster as if they too were in that room, listening with a man bound to the great four-poster there. And in Atlanta, in Rochester, in Cincinnati, in Memphis, Mobile, Reno, Cheyenne, and a thousand other cities and towns, Nick Deene’s listeners heard it too in the hushed silence in which they listened. They swallowed a little harder, looked about them a little uneasily, and smiled — smiles that were palpably artificial. And they believed –
Danny Lomax would have believed, too, if he hadn’t known of the small metal contrivance by which Nick Deene managed the “death-watch beetle” noises. Even knowing, he admitted to himself that it was an impressive performance. When Nick Deene had boasted that he would make five million people believe in the “curse of the Carridays” he had exaggerated — but not about their believing. His audience probably didn’t number more than five million. But he had most of that five million by now in a complete state of acceptance for anything he might want to say next.
Danny glanced at his watch, turning his wrist so that the timepiece caught the light. Thirty-five minutes gone. Twenty-five to go. Time now for Deene to start turning on the heat. Time for the sock punch to start developing. He’d built up his background and sold his audience. Now he ought to begin to deliver.
He did. A moment later, Nick Deene’s voice paused abruptly. The sudden silence held more suspense than any words he could have spoken. It held for ten seconds, twenty, thirty. Then he broke it only with a half-whispered announcement.
“I think I can hear something moving outside the house,”
Around the sound truck, there was utter silence, save for the whine of the generator that was pumping the broadcast over the hills and woods to Hartford. “Whatever it is — ” Nick Deene’s voice was still low, still that of a man who whispers an aside even while intent upon something else – “whatever it is it’s coming closer. It seems to be moving slowly up from the small patch of swamp just south of the house.”
Absently, Danny Lomax reached for a cigarette. Nick was sticking to the general script they’d outlined. Almost at the last minute, they’d decided against a spiritual manifestation, a ghost, pure and simple. Instead, with his usual instinct for getting the right note, Nick Deene had switched to a Thing. Something nameless, something formless, something unclassifiable. Something out of the night and the swamp and the unknown. Something that might be alive and might not be alive. But something that, when Nick Deene got through describing it, would be very, very real “Whatever it is, it’s coming closer,” Nick Deene reported then. “I hear a dragging, dull sound, as of something heavy moving through dead brush and over rough ground. It may be just an animal, perhaps even a stray cow, or a horse, or a wild pig escaped from a pen somewhere on an adjacent farm ”
Five million listeners held their breath a moment, then prepared to let it go. Of course, just a starving horse, or a cow. Something warm, something familiar, something harmless. Then — “It’s pulling at the boards which cover the cellar windows!” Nick Deene exclaimed. “It’s trying to get into the house!”
Danny Lomax held his cigarette unlighted, until the flaring match burned his fingers. In spite of their determined skepticism, there was an intentness to the faces of the reporters and technicians gathered around the end of the sound truck. They knew or guessed this was a phony. Yet the sudden jolt, after Deene had given their nerves a moment in which to relax, got them all. Just as it was getting the whole great, unseen audience.
Danny Lomax, from years of listening to radio programs behind the scenes, had developed a sixth sense of his own. He could tell almost to a degree just how a program was going over — whether it was smashing home or laying an egg. He could feel the audience that listened reacting, and he could sense what their reactions were. Now something was pulling at him — something strained and tense and uneasy. Several million people or more were listening, were believing, were living through the scene with Nicholas Deene, and crouched there in the chilly night beside the broadcast truck, Danny Lomax could feel the waves of their belief sweeping past him, impalpable but very real.
Nick Deene’s voice had quickened. He was reporting now the sound of nails shrieking as they pulled free, as boards gave way. He described a heavy, squashy body forcing its way through the tiny window. He made his listeners hear the soft, squashy sounds of something large and flabby moving through the darkness of the cellar of the house, finding the stairs, going up them slowly, slowly, slowly —
“Now it’s in the hall.” The big man’s words were short, sharp, electric. “It’s coming toward the door. I hear boards creaking beneath its weight. It senses that I’m here. It’s searching for me. I confess I’m frightened. No sane man could fail to be. However, I am convinced it can’t hurt me. If it’s a psychic manifestation, it’s harmless, however horrifying its appearance may be. So I am keeping a firm grip on my nerves. Only if they betray me can I be endangered. They will not betray me.
“Whatever it is, it’s just outside the doorway now. I can sense it looking in at me. The room is in darkness. The moon has set. I have my flashlight, though, and I am going to turn it full on the thing in the doorway. “I can smell a musty, damp odor, as of swamps and wet places. It is very strong. Almost overpowering. But now I’m going to turn on the light -”
Nick Deene’s voice ceased. Danny Lomax’s wrist- watch ticked as loudly as an alarm clock. The seconds passed. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Forty. Someone shifted position. Someone’s breath was rasping like that of a choking sleeper.
Then “It’s going!” Nick Deene’s voice was a whisper. “It looked at me, and would have entered. I could sense what it wished. It wished — me. But I have the Bible and crucifix I brought tightly in my hand, the light has been shining full into its — its face, if I can call it that. I did not lower my gaze, and now it’s going. I can no longer see it. The light of my flash falls on the black, empty frame of the doorway. It is slithering back down the hall, toward the steps. It is returning to the swamp from which it came when it sensed my presence here.
“I can hardly describe it. I don’t know what it was. It stood as high as a man, yet its legs were only stumps of grayness without feet of any kind. Its body was long and bulbous, like a misshapen turnip, its flesh grayish and uneven. It shone a little, as if with slime, and I saw droplets of water on it catch the light of my torch.
“It had a head , a great round head that was as hairless as the rest off it. And a face – I cannot make you see it as I saw it. Staring into it, I could only think of an oyster. A monstrous, wet, blue-gray oyster, with two darker spots that must have been eyes.
“It had arms. At least, two masses of matter attached to either side of its body reached out a little toward me. There were no hands on the ends of them. Just strings of — corruption.
“That was all I could see. Then it turned. Now it has gone. It has reached the bottom steps, going down with a shuffling, bumping noise. It is moving toward the cellar stairs, the floor creaking beneath it, back to the cellar window through which it forced itself, back to the depths of the swamp from which it emerged. Yet the sense of it still hangs in this room, and I know that if my will should slacken, it could feel it, and return. But it must not. I will not let it. It must return to the bottomless muck from which it came —”
Danny Lomax touched his dry lips with his tongue. This was it. This was the high spot. This was where Nick Deene got over, or fell flat on his face. Danny knew that whichever it was, he’d be able to sense it. And he did. Not failure. Success! The unseen currents that eddied around him were belief. The belief of millions of people, wrapped in a skein spun of words. The belief of millions of listeners seeing in their minds something that had never existed, but which Nick Deene had created and put there. Tomorrow they might laugh. They might belittle and ridicule the very fact that they had listened. But they’d never be able to forget how they had felt. And now, for the moment at least, they believed.
Danny let out a breath, and looked at his watch. Almost midnight. Nick Deene was speaking again.
“It’s gone now. It’s outside again, seeking the swamp from which it came. This is Nicholas Deene speaking. I’m going to sign off now. I’ve been through quite a nerve strain. Thanks for listening, everybody. I’m glad that you weren’t disappointed, that something happened tonight to make this broadcast worth your listening. Good night, all. This is Nicholas Deene saying good night.”
Danny Lomax saw the chief engineer throw a switch, and nod to him. He leaned forward toward a secondary mike in the truck, slipping on a pair of headphones.
“All right, Nick,” he said. “You’re off the air. We’re coming down to unlock you now.”
“Okay,” Nick Deene’s voice came back, a little ragged. “Hurry, will you? The last couple of minutes, I could swear I have heard noises outside. Maybe I’m too good. I’m believing myself. How’d it go?”
“Went fine,” Danny told him. “They ate it up. Five million people are sitting in their parlors this minute, getting the stiffness out of their muscles, and trying to pretend they didn’t believe you.”
“I told you they would.” Deene’s voice was momentarily complacent. Then it became edged again. “Listen, hurry, will you? Damn it, there is something moving around outside this house — You say they ate it up?”
“Straight,” Danny Lomax told him. “I could feel it. They’re all still seeing that Thing you described, with the oyster face, crawling in through the cellar window, slithering up the stairs, standing in your doorway — ”
“Cut it!” Deene ordered abruptly. “And come down here. I’m — There’s something coming in the cellar window where we loosened the boards for the reporters to find!”
Lomax turned. “Oh, Joe,” he called to the driver. “Take the truck down in front of the house, will you? Save walking… What did you say then, Nick? I missed it.”
“I said there’s something coming in the cellar window!” Nick Deene’s voice was almost shrill. “It’s knocking around in the cellar. It’s coming toward the stairs!”
“Steady, Nick, steady,” Danny Lomax cautioned. “Don’t let your nerves go now. You and I know it’s just a gag. Don’t go and -”
“Good grief!” Deene’s breath was coming in gasps. Danny could hear it whistle into the mike at the other end of the two-way hook-up. “There’s something coming up the stairs! Come and get me out of here!”
Danny looked up, a frown between his eyes. “Joe, get going, will you?” he snapped, and the driver looked around in annoyed surprise.
“Right away,” he grunted, and the truck jerked forward. “This fast enough to suit you?”
Danny Lomax didn’t answer. “Nick, you all right?” he demanded of the mike, and Deene’s voice, almost unrecognizable, came back.
“Danny, Danny,” it gobbled, “there’s something coming up the stairs with a sort of thump-thump. I can smell marsh gas and ammonia. There’s something making a slithery sound. I tell you something has got into this house from the swamp and is after me!”
The truck was jolting in second down the long unused road. The reporters had swung on. They were staring at Danny, sensing something, they didn’t know what, going wrong. Danny, the earphones tight, hung over the mike.
“Take it easy, take it easy,” he soothed. “Just had one drink too many, Nick. We wrote all that down. It’s just on the paper. You just said it. Five million people believed it, but you and I don’t have to, Nick. We ”
“Listen to me!” Nick cried. “There’s something in the hall. Something that scrapes and thumps. The floorboards are creaking. Danny, you know I’m chained here. It’s coming after me. It is! It is!” Nick Deene’s voice was hysterical. “It’s at the doorway. It’s — ”
The voice was drowned out by a scraping of gravel as the truck’s brakes went on abruptly. Wheels fought for traction, lost it. A muddy spot had slewed the broadcast unit to one side. The long-untended road gave no hold. The rear wheels slid toward the ditch beside the road. The unit jolted, toppled, was caught as the hubs dug into a clay bank. The newspapermen were jolted off. Danny Lomax was bounced away from the mike, his earphones torn off his head.
He scrambled back toward the mike, pulling himself up against the slant of the body. The earphones were cracked. He threw a switch cutting in the speaker.
“Nick!” he cried. “Nick!”
“— in the doorway now!” came the terror-shrill wail from the speaker. “Coming in! Oyster face – great, blank, watery oyster-face – Danny, Danny, put me back on the air, tell ’em all it’s just a joke, tell ’em it isn’t so, tell ’em not to believe, not to believe. Danny, do you hear, tell ’em not to believe!
“It’s coming in! It wants me! It smells, and it’s all wet and watery and its face — its face! Danny, tell ’em not to believe! It’s ’cause they believe. It didn’t exist. I thought it up. But they all believed me. You said they did! Five million people, all believing at the same time! Believing strong enough for you to feel! They’ve made it, Danny, they’ve brought it to life! It’s doing just what I said it did, and it looks just like I — like I — Danny! Help me! HELP ME!”
The speaker screamed, vibrated shrilly at the overload and was silent. And in the sudden hush, an echo came from the night. No, not an echo, but the scream itself they had been hearing. Faint, and dreadful, it reached them, and Danny Lomax was quite unable to move for an instant. Then he galvanized into action, and as he ran into the darkness, the others followed. With horrifying abruptness, Nick Deene’s faint screams had ceased. He could see the Carriday house ahead, dark, silent, tomb-like. It was three hundred yards away, and the curve of the road hid it momentarily.
The three hundred yards took almost a minute to make. Then Danny, gasping, turned into the old carriage drive. Nick Deene’s words still screamed in his mind.
“They’ve made it, Danny! They’ve brought it to life! Five million people, all believing at the same time —”
Could — Could — His mind wouldn’t ask itself the question, or answer it. But he had felt the currents of belief. In a million homes or more, five million people had sat, and listened, and believed, and in the concentrated power of their believing, had they stirred some spark of force into life, had they jelled into the form of their belief a creature that —
Fleet pounded behind him. Someone had a flashlight. The beam of it, thrown out ahead, stabbed the night. It played over the house, and for a moment darted into the darkness beyond and to one side. And Danny Lomax caught a glimpse of movement. A vague, gray-white glimmer of motion, a half-seen shape that moved with speed through the dense vegetation toward the four-acre swamp south of the house and for an instant shone faintly, as if with slime and wetness.
If there was any sound of movement, Danny Lomax didn’t hear it because the scuffle of running feet and the hoarse breathing of running men behind drowned it out. But as he listened intently, he thought he heard a single scream, muffled and cut abruptly short, as though a man had tried to cry out with his mouth almost covered by something wet and soft and pulpy—
Danny Lomax pulled up and stood quite still, as the newspaper men and technicians came up with him and ran past. He scarcely heard them, was scarcely aware of them, for his whole body was cold, something was squeezing his insides with a giant hand, and he knew that in just an instant he was going to be deathly sick. And he knew already that the bedroom upstairs was empty. That the searchers would find only half a handcuff hanging from the footboard of the bed, its chain twisted in two, some marks in the dust, and a few drops of slimy water to tell where Nick Deene had gone. Only those, and an odor hanging pungent and acrid in the halls.