The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XX. The Plague of Cold
Without pause, and three steps at a time, Darrow ran down three flights of stairs. Then, recovering from his initial excitement somewhat, he caught the elevator and shot to the street. There he walked rapidly to the subway, which he took as far as City Hall Square. On emerging from the subway station he started across for the Despatch office as fast as he could walk. By the entrance to the City Hall, however, he came to an abrupt halt. From the open doorway rushed his friend, Officer Burns, of the City Hall Station. The policeman's face was chalky white; his eyes were staring, his cap was over one side, he staggered uncertainly. As he caught sight of Darrow he stumbled to the young man and clung to his neck, muttering incoherently. People passing in and out looked at him curiously and smiled.
"My God!" gasped Burns, his eyes roving. "I says to him, 'Mike, I don't wonder you've got cold feet.' And there he was, and the mayor--Heaven save--and his secretary! My God!"
Darrow shook his shoulder.
"Here," he said decisively, "what are you talking about? Get yourself together! Remember you're an officer; don't lose your nerve this way!"
At the touch to his pride Burns did pull himself together somewhat, but went on under evident strong excitement.
"I went in just now to the mayor's office a minute," said he, "and saw my friend Mike Mallory, the doorkeeper, settin' in his chair, as usual. It was cold-like, and I went up to him and says, 'Mike, no wonder you get cold feet down here,' just by way of a joke; and when he didn't answer, I went up to him, and he was dead, there in his chair!"
"Well, you've seen dead men before. There's no occasion to lose your nerve, even if you did know him," said Darrow.
The brutality of the speech had its intended effect. Burns straightened.
"That's all very well," said he more collectively. "But the man was froze!"
"Frozen!" muttered Darrow, and whistled.
"Yes, and what's more, his little dog, setting by the chair, was froze, too; so when I stepped back sudden and hit against him, he tumbled over bang, like a cast-iron dog! That got my goat! I ran!"
"Come with me," ordered Darrow decisively.
They entered the building and ran up the single flight of stairs to the second-story room which the mayor of that term had fitted up as a sort of private office of his own. A sharp chill hung in the hallways; this increased as they neared the executive's office. Outside the door sat the doorkeeper in his armchair. Beside him was a dog, in the attitude of an animal seated on its haunches, but lying on its side, one fore leg sticking straight out. Darrow touched the man and stooped over to peer in his face. The attitude was most lifelike; the color was good. A deadly chill ran from Darrow's finger tips up his arm.
He pushed open the door cautiously and looked in.
"All right, Burns," said he. "The atmosphere has become gaseous again. We can go in." With which strange remark he entered the room, followed closely, but uncertainly by the officer.
The private office possessed the atmosphere of a cold-storage vault. Four men occupied it. At the desk was seated the mayor, leaning forward in an attitude of attention, his triple chin on one clenched fist, his heavy face scowling in concentration. Opposite him lounged two men, one leaning against the table, the other against the wall. One had his hand raised in argument, and his mouth open. The other was watching, an expression of alertness on his sharp countenance. At a typewriter lolled the clerk, his hand fumbling among some papers.
The group was exceedingly lifelike, more so, Darrow thought, than any wax figures the Eden Musee had ever placed for the mystification of its country visitors. Indeed, the only indication that the men had not merely suspended action on the entrance of the visitors was a fine white rime frost that sparkled across the burly countenance of the mayor. Darrow remembered that, summer and winter, that dignitary had always perspired!
Burns stood by the door, rooted to the spot, his jaw dropped, his eye staring. Darrow quite calmly walked to the desk. He picked up the inkstand and gazed curiously at its solidified contents, touched the nearest man, gazed curiously at the papers on the desk, and addressed Burns.
"These seem to be frozen, too," he remarked almost sleepily, "and about time, too. This is a sweet gang to be getting together on this sort of a job!"
Quite calmly he gathered the papers on the desk and stuffed them into his pocket. He picked up the desk telephone, giving a number. "Ouch, this receiver's cold," he remarked to Burns. "Hello, Despatch. Is Hallowell in the office? Just in? Send him over right quick, keen jump, City Hall, mayor's second-story office. No, right now. Tell him it's Darrow."
He hung up the receiver.
"Curious phenomenon," he remarked to Burns, who still stood rooted to the spot. "You see, their bodies were naturally almost in equilibrium, and, as they were frozen immediately, that equilibrium was maintained. And the color. I suppose the blood was congealed in the smaller veins, and did not, as in more gradual freezing, recede to the larger blood-vessels. I'm getting frost bitten myself in here. Let's get outside."
But Officer Burns heard none of this. As Darrow moved toward the door he crossed himself and bolted. Darrow heard his heels clattering on the cement of the corridors. He smiled.
"And now the deluge!" he remarked.
The crowds, terrified, inquisitive, sceptical, and speculative, gathered. Officials swept them out and took possession. Hallowell and Darrow conferred earnestly together.
"He has the power to stop heat vibrations, you see," Darrow said. "That makes him really dangerous. His activities here are in line with his other warnings; but he is not ready to go to extremes yet. The city is yet safe."
"Why?" asked Hallowell.
"I know it. But he has the power. If he gets dangerous we must stop him."
"You are sure you can do it?"
"Then, for God's sake, do it! Don't you realize what will happen when news of this gets out, and people understand what it means? Don't you feel your guilt at those men's deaths?" He struck his hand in the direction of the City Hall.
"The people will buy a lot of experience, at cost of a little fright and annoyance," replied Percy Darrow carelessly. "It'll do them good. When it's over, they'll come back again and be good. As for that bunch in there--when you look over those papers I think you'll be inclined to agree with what the religious fanatics will say--that it was a visitation of God."
"But the old, the sick--there'll be deaths among them--the responsibility is something fearful--"
"Never knew a battle fought yet without some loss," observed Darrow.
Hallowell was staring at him.
"I don't understand you," said the reporter. "You have no heart. You are as bad as this Monsieur X, and between you you hold a city in your power--one way or the other!"
"Well, I rather like being a little god," remarked Darrow.
Hallowell started once more to plead, but Darrow cut him short.
"You are thinking of the present," he said. "I am thinking of the future. It's a good thing for people to find out that there's something bigger than they are, or than anything they can make. That fact is the basis of the idea of a God. These are getting to be a godless people." He turned on Hallowell, his sleepy eyes lighting up. "I should be very sorry if I had not intellect enough and imagination enough to see what this may mean to my fellow people; and I should despise myself if I should let an unrestrained compassion lose to four million people the rare opportunity vouchsafed them."
He spoke very solemnly. Hallowell looked at him puzzled.
"Besides," said Darrow whimsically, "I like to devil Eldridge."
He dove into the subway. Hallowell gazed after him.
"There goes either a great man or a crazy fool," he remarked to an English sparrow. He turned over rapidly the papers Darrow had found on the mayor's desk, and smiled grimly. "Of all the barefaced, bald-headed steals!" he said.
Darrow soon mounted once more the elevator of the Atlas Building. He found Jack and Helen still waiting. Before entering the wireless office Darrow cast a scrutinizing glance along the empty hall.
"It's all right," he said. "I'm surer than ever. Everything fits exactly. Now, Helen," he said, "I want you to go home, and I want you to stay there. No matter what happens, do not move from the house. This town is going to have the biggest scare thrown into it that any town ever had since Sodom and Gomorrah got their little jolt. In the language of the Western prophet, 'Hell will soon be popping.' Let her pop. Sit tight; tell your friends to sit tight. If necessary, tell them Monsieur X is captured, and all his works. Tell them I said so."
His air of languid indifference had fallen from him. His eye was bright, and he spoke with authority and vigor.
"You take her home, Jack," he commanded, "and return here at once. Don't forget that nice new-blued pop-gun of yours; we're coming to the time when we may need it."
Jack rose instantly to his mood.
"Correct, General!" he saluted. "Where'd you collect the plunder?" he asked, pointing to a square black bag of some size that Darrow had brought back with him.
"That," said Darrow, "is the first fruit of my larcenous tendencies. I stole that from the mayor's office in the City Hall."
"What is it?"
"That," said Darrow, "I do not know."
He deposited the bag carefully by his chair, and turned, smiling, to Helen.
"Good-by," said he. "Sleep tight."
They went out. Darrow seated himself in his chair, drew his hat over his eyes, and fell into a doze. In the meantime, outside, all through the city, hell was getting ready to pop.