They dragged the screaming stranger into the asylum. His talk of Fire Gods and universal conquest seemed the ultimate in illusions. Next morning, the padded cell was burnt out...and there was no trace of the prisoner. The door was still locked, still barred.
Perhaps the arson that followed was just a coincidence?
The Brigade Chiefs called in a special investigator. No result. Finally the IPF took a hand and subsequently the investigations pointed to extra galactic interference.
When the psychiatrist, who had originally examined the mysterious 'fire god', was questioned the second time things began to add up. Those wild, strange words ha not been the ravings of a maniac but the diabolical threat of an alien entity. A thing with unbelievable power...that threatened the universe itself!
Release date: December 17, 2015
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 320
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And PC Belton was as tough and as stolid as only a seasoned Metropolitan police constable can be.
Then he saw something in the street that made him pause in his tracks. It was a racing figure. A running figure with a high forehead … tall, gaunt-looking. A figure with jerking movements. Not a drunk, he decided, definitely not a drunk! An escaped lunatic? He was too stolid a man to think that. Escaped lunatics were few and far between. He’d encountered two in thirty years on the Force. Perhaps this would make the third? The man was either out of his mind, or desperately ill. Drug-addict? That was possible.
Belton broke into a brisk walk. He didn’t fancy trying to run on that treacherous surface. He didn’t want to find himself lying spread-eagled on the pavement, just in case this did happen to be a maniac. Maniacs had unpleasant habits of doing odd things—particularly when the only company was lying prone at their feet!
“Hold on there! Half-a-minute!” roared Belton in the deep official voice that is so typical of his Force. “Hold on there! I want a word with you!”
The wild, jerking, running figure with the high forehead came closer. In the light of the street lamp Belton peered through the scurrying snowflakes and saw two deep, burning, flashing eyes. As he looked into those eyes he felt more convinced than ever before that this was a maniac.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m going to burn,” said the creature.
“I beg your pardon? I think you’d better come along with me!”
“No, no! It’s cold! I hate the cold! Fire is good and cold is bad! Don’t you understand, earthman?”
“Huh?” said PC Belton. “Cummerlongome!”
The stranger struck out at him with a long bony arm.
“Oh, no you don’t,” said Belton, dodging easily, and he got a hammer lock on this struggling stranger.
“Let go of me, you fool! I have to start a fire! Don’t you understand!” screamed the wild eyed man in the policeman’s grip.
“Not right now you don’t,” said Belton, “you just cummerlongerme! And if you give any trouble you’ll get one with the truncheon, do you understand that? Now come quietly!”
Belton was past his prime but he was tough. Despite his struggles the stranger was dragged along by the brawny constable.
They reached a doorway with a thick iron grating. Belton decided he’d had enough of snow-wrestling with this stranger. He snapped a pair of handcuffs on him through the grating.
“Now you stay there me lad, till you calm down a bit!” He drew his whistle and blew a long, sharp blast. From two blocks away he heard the sound of pounding feet and an answering whistle blast. Then another…. The two other men in the vicinity were coming. That was good, thought Belton. It was very good. He’d be glad of some assistance with this job, and he certainly hadn’t failed to make an arrest. He had the stranger well and truly under control.
The two other constables arrived.
“Jim, you stay here with me, will you. Fred, just nip down to the box and get the station car up here. We don’t want to drag this chap through the street like this. He’ll give us the devil’s own job.”
Five minutes later the squad car arrived. Three constables, a sergeant and the driver had little difficulty in bundling the strange gaunt figure with the staring eyes and abnormally high forehead, into the back seat. It was the work of but a few minutes getting him to a station cell.
“Now, if you care to give us your name!”
“Name! I am the Fire Man! I have no name! I am the Man of Flame. I am the Fire God. I am the Great One That Burns! Do you not understand? You cannot keep me here! I have a job to do. I must go out and make fire!”
“What do you think of that, Sarge?” asked PC Belton.
“We’ve got a right one ’ere. I say we’ve got a right one ’ere!” He began making copious entries in the book. “I think we’ll let him cool off here till the morning and get the doctor to him.”
“Cool! Cool! I will not be cool! I am a Man of Fire, a Man of Flame. Why do you not understand, you fools!”
“He’s definitely a nut-case! He must have escaped from somewhere,” said Fred.
“Not ’arf!” agreed Jim fervently.
They looked at their ‘guest’ with a mixture of curiosity and pity.
“If you’ll just shut up long enough to let us talk to you—would you like a cup of tea? You know, drink—tea.”
“Liquid is evil! Liquid destroys fire!”
“That’s perfectly true, I suppose,” answered a constable, “but that don’t make it evil! I think a cupper tea is one of the best things I know of. Is the pot on, by the way, Sarge?”
“Yes, not ’arf! I came out just before I could get mine, when I got that call,” said the station sergeant. “It’s on the stove keeping ’ot!” As they drank they cast furtive glances at the stranger in the cell.
Every few minutes he would shake the bars and utter the word ‘fire’ or ‘burn’ in a harsh grating voice, and his blazing eyes never left them.
“I don’t know where you’ve escaped from, mate,” said the sergeant, more to his companions than the creature, “but the sooner you get back there the happier I shall be! You’re giving me the creeps!”
“Fire and burning!” said the man with the high forehead, nodding in their direction. “Fire and burning!” He thumped a lean chest with a bony fist, “I am the Fire God! I am the Great Burning One!”
“Yes, I’m sure you are!” agreed the sergeant, “and I’m Napoleon and this ’ere gentleman is Abraham Lincoln.” He drew a deep breath and wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and put the cup back on the tray.
“I wish that bloke’d lie down. I don’t fancy spending the night on duty with him in here.”
Almost as though the creature was telepathic, it gave the bars a sudden final shake, and flung itself down on the bunk.
“That’s a queer kettle of fish,” said the sergeant.
“Very queer,” agreed Belton. “Very, very queer indeed. In fact, in all my years on the Force, I’d say that’s just about the queerest kettle of fish that I had ever seen….”
“I am the Flame Mass,” came a low voice from the cell. “I am the Burning Fiery One, there is flame in my mind! Flame to light the earth, to light the solar system, to light the Universe! I shall destroy you all because you do not understand me! You do not respect me. You do not give me the worship that is my due.” He got up from the bunk again and shook the bars with savage ferocity. “Let me out and I will destroy you all with the Flame in my mind.”
“Lie down,” said the sergeant. “We’ve ’eard all we want to ’ear from you, my boy. Just lie down. In the morning we’ll take you somewhere where you can go and be a Flame Mass as long as ever you like, if you’ll just rest quietly ’ere for the night.” The station door opened.
“O lor,” groaned the sergeant, “as if we ’aven’t got enough trouble for one night. Look who’s ’ere now!”
“Who’s ’ere, Sarge?” asked Belton, spinning slowly, ponderously on his heel, then his face fell too….
“Blimey, not all in one night. It can’t be.”
“It is,” growled the Sarge.
“Are these happy smiles an indication of my welcome?” said the tall, lean figure framed in the doorway. There was another standing close behind it.
“Now I’ve seen everything,” said the sergeant. “Every flippin ’thing I’ve seen. These two together! Look, Castor and Pollux, the ’Eavenly Twins!”
Fred was comparatively new at the station, he looked from the sergeant to Belton and back to the two strangers in the doorway.
“We’re celebrating,” said the second one in a slightly inebriated voice.
“For the love of Mike go and celebrate somewhere else,” commented the sergeant dourly. “Fred, I’d like to introduce you to the two biggest trouble makers I’ve ever seen anywhere. Unfortunately though, they seem to make their particular brand of trouble just inside the law. Matter of fact, this one even wears a uniform.”
Fred was again looking from Belton to the sergeant, and across to the newcomers. He noted the breadth of their shoulders, the light scars on their knuckles. The debonair nonchalance which even their present debauchery failed to completely cover.
“Well, who are they, sergeant?” he asked for the second time.
“If old pussyfoot, here, is too Bohemian to effect a decent introduction,” said the second figure who had just come through the shadows, “I’ll introduce myself. Name’s MacGregor, John MacGregor. Lt. John MacGregor, as a matter of fact, in the I.P.F.”
“Inter-Planetary Force,” goggled Fred.
“Precisely,” said MacGregor with an exaggerated bow. “My man, you are now in the presence of the John MacGregor who has shot down seventeen of the Martian invasion fleet.”
“—And who ever since has traded on that fact,” snapped the sergeant, “and the public gratitude is beginning to wear a bit thin.”
“You are in the presence,” went on John, “of THE Lt. MacGregor who blasted the Venusian flagship clean out of space,”
“And doesn’t he rub it in,” growled the sergeant.
“And this other gentleman,” went on the irrepressible I.P.F. Lieutenant, “is the answer to a maiden’s prayer. The detective’s headache. And a nightmare to the ungodly. All of which glorious build up adds up to the one and only Hal Delaney.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
The two adventurers grinned amiably towards the bewildered Fred.
“Not THE Hal Delaney,” said Fred.
“Is there another one?” said the newcomer.
“No, thank Gawd,” said the sergeant. “At least if there is I haven’t heard of him. This is the Hal Delaney who rounded up the Chicago boys and who pretty well trimmed up the New York underworld. He has a rather strange habit of doing these things, and a singularly unlawful method.” The look of mock resignation left his face, he broke into a broad grin. “I’d love to put you two nibs in a cell for the night for disturbing the peace.”
“US disturbing the peace?” protested Hal. “US? Do you know we could hear you shouting half way down the street that you were a fire warbler—or a reed bird or something. I wondered if you wanted any help. I thought old Belton here had been on the bottle again.”
“Shut up,” burst out Belton, adding “Sir!” as he remembered the I.P.F. ranks were above their own in seniority.
MacGregor and Hal Delaney grinned again. There was a buccaneering, swashbuckling air about the two men. The sergeant turned to Fred.
“As you are probably aware, now that you know who this bird is,” he said grimly, “he’s the Delaney who makes a hobby of sorting out Public Enemy No. 1 and shooting him. If he’d lived about three hundred years ago he’d have gone out West and been a bounty hunter! He operates on the principle that if the law can’t act because its hands are tied it’s time somebody else did.”
“Oh, I see,” said the lugubrious Fred. “Something on the principle of the Four Just Men.”
“Except that there’s only two of them. If they doubled up life would not be worth living and we’d be out of business.” The sergeant’s mock resignation was melting. It was obviously the persona that he reserved for meetings with Delaney and MacGregor. Whenever Delaney and MacGregor were in town they spelt trouble. Usually they were out of Town. More usually still they were out of the system. They were men to whom regulations—I.P.F. or otherwise—were a joke. Were a collection of old wives’ tales, which stolid respectable policemen lived by.
To the sergeant and his fellow minions of law and order, who lived by The Regulations, and based their stolid and methodical lives on them, men like Hal Delaney and John MacGregor were mercurial, enigmatical mysteries. Between them, mentally, there was a ‘great gulf fixed’—a gulf which could never be bridged. Yet they were both working towards the same end in their own vastly different ways.
There was a protracted silence. Delaney seemed to have sobered up.
“Seriously, sergeant—what’s all the trouble about?”
“I suppose you’ll know sooner or later,” said the long suffering, three-striped Police Officer. “So I may just as well tell you now—this fellow ov. . .
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