The Heads of Cerberus
by Francis Stevens
CHAPTER 1: 'WELCOME, HOWEVER YOU COME!'
UPON a walnut bed in a small, plainly furnished room which dawn had just begun grayly to illuminate, a man lay unconscious.
His thin face, indefinably boyish for all its gauntness, wore that placid, uncaring look which death shares with complete insensibility. Under him his right arm was doubled in an uncomfortable, strained position, while the left hand, slender and well cared for, trailed limp to the floor by the bedside. On his right temple there showed an ugly wound, evidently made by some blunt, heavy instrument, for the skin was burst rather than cut. His fair hair was plastered with blood from the wound, and a good deal of blood had also run down over the side of the face, lending a sinister and tragic aspect to his otherwise not unpleasant countenance. Fully dressed in a rather shabby blue serge, both appearance and attitude suggested that the man had been flung down here and left brutally to die or revive, as he might.
The dawn light grew brighter, and as if in sympathy with its brightening, the face of the man on the bed began to take on a look more akin to that of life. That alien, wax-like placidity of one who is done with pain slowly softened and changed. The features twitched; the lips which had fallen slightly apart, closed firmly. With a sudden contraction of the brows the man opened his eyes.
For several minutes he lay quiet, staring upward. Then he attempted to withdraw his right hand from beneath him, groaned, and by a considerable effort at last raised himself on one elbow. Gazing about the room with bewildered, pain-stricken eyes, he raised his hand to his head and afterward stared stupidly at the blood on his fingers. He seemed like one who, having fallen victim to some powerful drug, awakens in unfamiliar and inexplicable surroundings.
As he again looked about him, however, the expression changed. What he saw, it seemed, had revived some memory that mingled with a new and different bewilderment.
In a corner of the room, near the one window, stood a small, old-fashioned, black steel safe. The door of it was swung wide open, while scattered on the floor before it lay a mass of papers. From between loose pages and folded, elastic-bound documents gleamed a few small articles of jewelry. Two or three empty morocco cases had been carelessly tossed on top of the pile.
With eyes fixed on this heap, the man swung his legs over the side of the bed, and, staggering across to the safe, dropped on his knees beside it. He ran his hand through the papers, uncovered a small brooch which he picked up and examined with a curious frowning intentness; then let it fall and again raised a hand to his head.
In another corner of the room was a doorway through which he glimpsed a porcelain washbowl. Toward this the man dragged himself. Wetting a towel that hung there, he began bathing the wound on his temple. The cold water seemed to relieve the dizziness or nausea from which he suffered. Presently he was able to draw himself erect, and having contemplated his disheveled countenance in the small mirror above the bowl, he proceeded with some care to remove the more obvious traces of disaster. The blood fortunately had clotted and ceased to flow. Having washed, he sought about the room, found his hat, a worn, soft gray felt, on the floor near the bed, and, returning to the mirror, adjusted it with the apparent intent to conceal his wound.
The effort, though attended by a grimace of pain, was successful, and now at length the man returned his attention to that stack of miscellanies which had been the safe's contents.
Ignoring the papers, he began separating from them the few bits of jewelry. Beside the brooch there was a man's heavy gold signet ring, a pair of cuff links set with seed pearls, a bar pin of silver and moonstones, and a few similar trifles. He sorted and searched with an odd scowl, as if the task were unpleasant, though it might equally well have been the pain of his wound which troubled him.
As he found each piece he thrust it in his pocket without examination, until the displacing of a small bundle of insurance policies disclosed the first thing of any real value in the entire collection.
With an astonished ejaculation the man seized upon it, scrutinized it with wide, horrified eyes, and for a moment afterward knelt motionless, while his pallid face slowly flushed until it was nearly crimson in color.
The man flung the thing from him as if it had burned his fingers. In a sudden frenzy of haste he tore from his pockets the trinkets he had placed there a few moments earlier, threw them all back on the stack of papers, and without another glance for the safe or its contents fairly ran across the room to the door. Flinging it open, he emerged into a short, narrow passageway.
There, however, he paused, listening intently at the head of a narrow stairway that led downward. Two other doors opened off the passage; but both were closed. Behind those doors and throughout the house below all was quiet. Ever and again, from the street, three stories below, there rose the heavy rattle of a passing truck or cart. Within the house there was no sound at all.
Assured of that, the man raised his eyes toward the ceiling. In its center was a closed wooden transom. Frowning, the man tested the transom with his finger tips, found it immovable, and, after some further hesitation, began descending the narrow stairs, a step at a time, very cautiously. They creaked under him, every creak startlingly loud in that otherwise silent place.
Reaching the landing at the floor below, he was about to essay the next flight downward, when abruptly, somewhere in the rear of the ground floor, a door opened and closed. The sound was followed by swift, light footfalls. They crossed the reception hall below, reached the stair, and began to mount.
His face bathed in a sudden sweat of desperation, the man above darted back along the second-floor hallway. One after the other he swiftly turned the handles of three closed doors. One was locked, one opened upon a closet stacked to overflowing with trunks and bags; the third disclosed a large bedroom, apparently empty, though the bed had evidently been slept in.
He sprang inside, shut the door softly, looked for a key, found none, and thereafter stood motionless, his hand gripping the knob, one ear against the panel.
Having ascended the stairs, the footsteps were now advancing along the passage. They reached that very door against which the man stood listening. They halted there. Some one rapped lightly.
With a groan the man inside drew back. Even as he did so he found himself whirled irresistibly about and away from the door.
A great hand had descended upon his shoulder from behind. That large hand, he discovered, belonged to a man immensely tall-a huge, looming giant of a man, who had stolen upon him while he had ears only for those footsteps in the passage.
The fellow's only garment was a Turkish robe, flung loosely about his enormous shoulders. His black hair, damp from the bath, stood out like a fierce, shaggy mane above a dark, savage face in which a pair of singularly bright blue eyes blazed angrily upon the intruder. This forceful and sudden apparition in a room which the latter had believed unoccupied, was sufficiently alarming. In the little sharp cry which escaped the intruder's throat, however, there seemed a note of emotion other than terror-different from and more painful than mere terror.
'You-you!' he muttered, and fell silent.
'For the love of-' began the giant. But he, too, seemed suddenly moved past verbal expression. As a somber landscape lights to the flash of sunshine, his heavy face changed and brightened. The black scowl vanished. Shaggy brows went up in a look of intense surprise, and the fiercely set mouth relaxed to a grin of amazed but supremely good-humored delight.
'Why, it is!' he ejaculated at length. 'It surely is-Bob Drayton!'
And then, with a great, pleased laugh, he released the other's shoulder and reached for his hand.
The intruder made no movement of response. Instead, he drew away shrinkingly, and with hands behind him stood leaning against the door. When he spoke it was in the tone of quiet despair with which a man might accept an intolerable situation from which escape has become impossible.
'Yes, Trenmore, it's I,' he said. Even as the words left his lips there came another loud rapping from outside. Some one tried the handle, and only Drayton's weight against the door kept it closed.