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   Chapter 3 THE BATTLE

Whispers at Dawn; Or, The Eye By Roy J. Snell Characters: 7844

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"There! That's the one! The one up next!" Johnny sat up with a start. Arrived at the auction house where all manner of strange things lost, damaged or stolen, are sold, he had taken his place among the bidders. He had found himself crowded in between a thin man and a stout one. He knew the stout one slightly; they called him John. The slim man was new and quite strange for such a place. His clothes were new and very well kept. His face was dark. His lips were twitchy, his slim fingers ever in motion. There was on his left cheek a peculiar scar. Two marks, like a cross, as if someone had branded him, so Johnny thought.

And now, to his great astonishment, after dozing through a half hour of uninteresting auction, he found this stranger whispering shrilly in his ear. Before the whisper had come he felt a sharp punch in the ribs. The punch may have been made with a sharp elbow. Johnny had an uncomfortable feeling that the business end of some sort of short gun had been stuck into his side.

"Say!" he whispered back. "What's the big idea? This is an auction house; not a hop joint!"

"I know! I know!" came in an excited whisper from the slender, nervous-eyed man. "But listen to me!" One more prod in the ribs. "You'll remember it the longest day you live! You bid on that next package! And get it! Take it away from 'em, see? Take it away! Me? I'm broke," the stranger went on hurriedly. "But I got a hunch. An' my hunches, they're open and shut, open and shut. Just like that! So you bid! See?"

The package in question seemed about as uninteresting as it well could be-a, plain corrugated box tied round with a stout hempen cord. There were scores quite like it. Some were larger, some thinner, some thicker. Johnny had seen many such packages opened.

"Broken bits of statuary," he thought to himself, "or old clothes, like as not, or jars of cheap cosmetics. What do I want of that package?"

But the stranger was insisting. "Bid! Bid! See, I got a hunch!"

"Bid?" Johnny grumbled in a whisper. "What for?"

The auction room was warm. He guessed he must have fallen asleep. Always after a nap he felt cross. He wouldn't bid on the silly package. What if this fellow did have a hunch? He had a mind to tell him so.

Strange to say, when the package went up, he did bid. "One dollar! Two! Three dollars!" And he had it.

He turned about to look into the slim stranger's face; wanted to see how he felt about it. To his surprise he found the seat empty.

"That's queer!" he thought with a start. "Perhaps I dreamed the whole thing!... No, not all of it," he amended ten seconds later. "Here comes the collector after my deposit. I've got a good mind to tell him I didn't buy the package."

This notion too he abandoned. Digging into his watch-pocket, he dragged forth a crumpled dollar bill.

"O.K., Buddie, you get your package after the auction." The collector went his way.

Johnny had not meant to stay the auction through. Now he must, or forfeit his dollar. He debated this problem and decided to stay. The package did not interest him overmuch, but his money was up. He would have a look.

Losing all interest in the auction, he spent his time thinking through his unusual adventures of the night before. Closing his eyes, he seemed to see again that frightful wavering skeleton which in time he came to believe was his own. Two other skeletons he saw, one with a long-bladed knife wavering in its hand.

"I saw them later on the streets, those men," he told himself, "only they were all dressed up in flesh and had their skins on-clothes too. It's a queer business! Eyes staring at a fellow from the wall!" He shuddered. "Fairly gives you the creeps! Wonder why I agreed to join up with such an outfit as that old professor and his children."

"People," he whispered after a long period of deep thinking, "certain people have a way of getting inside of you and maki

ng you like them. They may be very good and they may be very bad, in certain ways, but you like them all the same. And you'll follow them as a dog follows his master. Queer old world! The professor is like that, and so's his daughter. Fellow'd come to like the boy too.

"Wonder what we were up to in that strange house," he mused. "Good thing we got out of that cellar before anyone showed up! I doubt if that boy's much of a fighter.

"Dumb!" He stirred impatiently in his seat. "Got a lot more to sell at this auction. Radios, somebody's trunks, 'with contents if any,' some puppies-hear 'em squeal!-pop-corn in a sack, six broken lamps and a hundred more things. Guess I'll get out. Buzz around here after awhile and pick up that package."

When he returned to the auction room two hours later darkness was falling. A dull, drab fog had come creeping in from the lake. Lights glowed through it like great staring eyes. They reminded him of the eyes in the wall at the professor's house.

"Bought a package here," he grumbled to the clerk. "Some busted thing, I guess. Here's the ticket and the rest of the money."

"Here you are!" The parcel man handed out his prize package.

The thing was heavier than he had expected. Prying up a corner of the box, he thrust in a hand. He touched something round, smooth and hard. "Like a skull," he whispered.

"Only some sort of electric lamp," he decided after further exploring. "Metal affair made like a jug; broken, probably. Oh well, might as well take it along."

Leaving the auction room, he came out into the street and headed west.

That portion of the city is not inviting, nor does it seem particularly friendly to well-dressed strangers. During the day, when the weather is fair, the cross streets swarm with men who once worked, who may work again, but who for the present stand and idly stare or wander up and down.

This night was damp and chill. The street was all but deserted. Halfway through a block a chance flash of light from a passing car revealed four well-dressed men standing at the entrance to an alley.

One look, and Johnny sprang back. The movement was purely instinctive. He had seen faces like theirs before, in court rooms and behind iron bars. Three of the men were in full view, one in the shadow.

Unfortunately the chance revelation of that passing car came too late. Before he could turn and show them his heels, they had him surrounded.

That there would be a fight he did not question. Why? He had not the remotest idea.

Johnny did not mind a fight, a clean fight. He kept himself fit for just such an occasion as this. He was always in training.

"But four of them!" He groaned.

No ringside rules here. One of the men was fat. Like a battering-ram, Johnny aimed his head square at that one's stomach. The man went over with a groan. But not Johnny. Regaining his balance in a flash, he swung his good right arm to bring his heavy package squarely down upon a second man's head.

The package flew from his hand. In a fair fight with one man, or even two, Johnny needed only two well-formed fists. As the third man sprang at him, he squared away to give him an uppercut under the chin that closed his jaws with the snap of a steel trap and put him out for a count of twice ten.

But at that instant something crashed down upon Johnny's skull. The fourth member of the gang, he who had hovered in the shadows, had gone into action.

Ten minutes later when a detective threw the beam of his flashlight down that alley it fell upon a lone figure huddled against the wall.

He was about to pass on, thinking it was some poor wanderer fast asleep, when something about the person's clothes caused him to look again. Two long strides and he was beside the prostrate form.

"Johnny Thompson, as I live!" he muttered after bending over for a look.

"And somebody's got him! I wonder if it's for keeps?"

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