The snow was blowing fit to kill. Margo grinned and held on to her hat as she darted from their cab to the doors of the Hotel Somerset. Her heels slipped on the icy pavement, but she had a hold on her companion's arm and nothing so trivial was going to ruin her evening now.
"My mother always said it was good luck," she said.
"A blizzard? How do you figure?" Lamont held the door open for her and they stepped out of the howling wind into the Somerset's lobby. Gleaming marble, gilded fixtures, and a doorman dressed in blue and white greeted them. The place looked quite as it always did.
"Miss Abbott's New Year's party?" the doorman asked. At Lamont's nod, he half-bowed towards the elevators and said, "30th floor. You're expected, Miss Lane."
"Thank you," Margo said, unbuttoning her coat. She was pleased to see that her dress, a wine-red, gauzy Elsa Schiaparelli affair with seed pearls strewn around the neckline, had escaped the ravages of the storm unruffled. And what a storm it was; she couldn't ever remember one so fierce. It wasn't stopping anyone from making a fine New Year's Eve of it, of course, least of all her. They had a potential mystery to investigate, and if there was one thing she liked better than a party, it was a mystery.
"As I was saying," she said, smiling at Lamont's wind-blown reflection in the elevator doors, "it's good luck. Snow on New Year's means a fresh start."
"You're an optimistic woman, Margo," Lamont said. Snowflakes were melting on the shoulders of his overcoat. He pressed the elevator button, his eyes rising to watch the swinging hand that indicated the floors. He looked every bit the idle young man-about-town, smart, self-indulgent, and a bit bored; no one would've guessed that he was here on any other business than welcoming in 1933 with music and champagne.
Margo knew better. Lamont’s mind was on anything but revelry. She could almost feel it, the way you felt a person in the room with you even if you couldn't see him. A presence. It was odd, knowing someone so well when she hardly knew him at all. She couldn't fill the back of an envelope with the things she'd learned about Lamont Cranston since they’d met a few months back, but he felt as familiar to her as her own father.
It was the connection they shared, the one she'd sensed the moment they met. Lamont called it telepathy. It sounded like science fiction to her, but there was no denying she could read his mind sometimes. He faded in and out like a bad radio signal, and the more time she spent around him, the easier it was to catch the shadows of his thoughts.
She knew he didn't like it. He had dark thoughts and he struggled to keep them hidden, even at the cost of avoiding her. He hated to talk about what he'd learned in the Orient, or about anything else that had happened in the Orient, or about what he did when he roamed the streets at night. Lamont was tight-lipped unless he needed something: information, a rescue, a party invitation... once, a kiss.
Baffling man. It was lucky for him she had a taste for the droll. And then there were those magical moments when the wires connected and his mind was an open book to her, full of heady and foreign curiosities. They lasted just long enough to dig their hooks into her, and then he was opaque again behind his mask of callow leisure. Sometimes she thought he did it on purpose.
It didn't make a bit of difference; she was, she thought ruefully, caught wriggling like a fish on a hook. He was far too fascinating. It gave her a little guilty thrill, being privy to his secret - or secrets, some of them anyway - in a way no one else could be. Besides, he needed her.
"One of us has to be," she chided.
"Well, then, it's a good thing you decided to come along," he said with his most affable smile.
"Not a bit of it. After all, I got an invitation."
She wouldn't have missed Mattie's party in any case. The fact that Mattie had a rather well-publicized, mysterious, interesting guest this year was just the cherry on top: one Dr. Ashton Greene, a so-called world expert in hypnosis. The rumor mill said he'd promised to perform some party tricks to amuse his hostess' friends tonight. It was unlike sensible Mattie Abbott to dabble in mysticism, and New York society had as good as agreed that the only reason she gave Dr. Greene the time of day was to amuse her flighty and eccentric friend, Margo Lane.
Which was all to the good, since Margo had far more weighty reasons than entertainment to be interested in Ashton Greene. After the havoc Shiwan Khan had wreaked with his psychic abilities, a little snooping was in order at any mention of hypnosis. For Mattie's sake, she hoped Dr. Greene was a fraud, or at least harmless, but – well, in the event that he was a danger, Lamont had accompanied her, two long silver pistols and the other accoutrements of New York's enigmatic vigilante, the Shadow, secreted away in the folds of his overcoat.
The elevator doors pinged open and the operator, clad in blue and white like the doorman, offered them a polite smile. The elevator was as opulent as the rest of the Somerset: deep crimson carpet, walls half-mahogany and half-mirrored, a gilded rail running around the edge at waist height. With a faint twinge of surprise, she realized the operator was one she hadn't seen before, a tall, lanky man with a mournful expression and jet-black hair.
He waved them in and remarked that she was beautiful, which seemed a bit forward for the staff. Never mind; the evening offered too much excitement to waste attention on etiquette.
"Thank you," she said with her best winning smile.
He gave her an inquiring look. Perhaps he wasn't used to being thanked.
"Robert have the night off today?" she asked, trying to smooth over the awkward moment as the doors closed behind them.
"That's right, ma'am," the operator said. "It's John Sidney and I'll see you up all right."
She nodded without great interest. It was good to give the regulars holidays off. Lamont was staring upwards at the elevator's ceiling. She wondered if he could sense something from the - telepath. The hypnotist. Lamont wasn't exactly forthcoming about how his psychic abilities worked, which was a shame, as she would've been partial to mastering some of them herself. She stole a sideways glance at him and, feeling like a naughty child, concentrated on listening.
She had not an inkling, really, of how one went about deliberately eavesdropping on people's thoughts - they seemed to simply pop into her head at random, and only ever with her cousin and Lamont - but there ought to be some way of doing it on purpose. She tried not to think about anything, to make her mind quiet and empty, holding her breath by reflex. The elevator whirred upwards. The operator, Sidney, was humming a very soft tune under his breath. She didn't hear a damn thing else.
Margo expelled the breath she'd been holding in one frustrated burst. Lamont's eyes dropped to hers, questioning, and he opened his mouth to say something.
The lights went out and the elevator lurched. Margo yelped, clinging to the round golden rail as the machine shuddered and trembled. She heard Sidney bite back what sounded like a rather vulgar curse. Everything fell silent, dark and still.
"Are you hurt, Margo?" Lamont's voice came in the blackness. A small light flared and she saw that he held a burning match. It reflected four-fold in the elevator's mirrored walls.
"I'm fine, just fine," she said. "Have we broken down?" How aggravating. She would've expected better from the Somerset.
"Half a moment," Sidney said. "There's a flashlight stowed here."
In the precarious flicker of the match, he opened a compartment under the elevator controls and produced a flashlight. A moment later, a bright white beam split the darkness. Margo shielded her eyes with a hand. The beam wandered along the walls and to the door, then switched off. Perfect darkness closed in again, not even a seam of light showing through the doors. Sidney switched the beam back on.
"Might be the whole building's gone out, sir, ma'am," he said reluctantly.
"I suppose it's the storm," Lamont said. "Lucky might not've been quite the word, Margo. Let's try the doors."
He and Sidney flanked the door. Margo held the light for them while they tried to slip their fingers into the crack and pry it open. They managed only about a foot, revealing nothing but the solid concrete of the elevator shaft.
"Damn," Lamont said, letting the door roll shut again.
"Someone'll be coming along any minute," Sidney said. "We'll be out soon enough, you'll see. Terribly sorry about this."
"Yes, it seems we're missing the party," Lamont said with a trace of annoyance. "It'd be a shame to be stuck in here at the stroke of midnight."
"I'm sure it'll be fixed any moment," Margo said. There was no need to alarm the staff, no matter how annoying the situation. Dr. Ashton Greene would simply have to wait.
Unfortunately, the elevator was not fixed at any moment. Instead, the darkness stretched out minute after minute, an hour, two, and still no one came to let them out. Lamont grew impatient, Sidney grew apologetic, and Margo's legs grew tired. She sat down, piling her hat and coat in the corner, and tried not to feel petulant. The bubble of excitement at investigating a mystery - something that might interest the Shadow - fizzled out, smothered by the monotonous dark. Being trapped in an elevator was about the most boring way to spend New Year's Eve that she could think of. Worse, with Sidney there she couldn't even talk to Lamont openly.
"That's 1933 here now," Lamont said some time later, looking at his pocket watch. He leaned against the wall, legs crossed flippantly. "Happy New Year, Margo."
"Happy New Year, Lamont," she replied wryly. She hoped 1933 wasn't going to continue this way for much longer.
The night felt endless. Eventually Lamont and Sidney joined her on the floor. She amused herself trying to listen, for Lamont's thoughts, for the sounds of the party that was probably going merrily on without them upstairs - but it was fruitless and the attempt left her mind tired and wrung out. The hotel was quiet as a grave and the only sound in the elevator was her companions' slow breathing. She saw Sidney begin to nod off and caught her own chin dropping a few times before she slipped into a doze.
She was half-aware that she slept; part of her was drowsing in the dark, while another part, senses dazed, wandered in a dream.
She dreamed of fire, flames filling the elevator; it was a little gold box of flames and in their heart stood Lamont, speaking to her through the rippling air. The heat pressed a flush to her skin until she tingled all over. She still couldn't hear a thing. There was no sound at all, no words and no crackling flames. What? She sent him the silent question, but felt nothing in reply. He looked angry; he flung out a hand as if to dismiss her.
Then she was on a mountainside and it was snowing. People screamed around her, running through the falling snow, tripping and rolling down the steep, craggy ground. Dark shapes in armor with crude weapons pursued them as they cried and fled. Despite the cold, she burned and sweat rolled down her temples. All the heat that had felt pleasant in the fire assaulted her in force now. But her mouth was smiling; someone else's smile plastered hard on her lips.
She ran after one of the fleeing figures: an old man, she could see his dark, wrinkled face, plain as day. There was a long, curved knife in her hand. This was their punishment, someone else’s exultant thought said in her mind.
She caught the old man with ease. A heavy gauntleted hand - her hand - dug into his shoulder. She raised her knife, that hideous smile making her cheeks ache, and the moment she met her victim's eyes, the snow-drenched world spun and it was her, she was looking up into Lamont's grinning face, the wicked gleam of his upraised dagger mesmerizing in its deadly immediacy. She tried to struggle, tried to scream, but she was frozen in place. She watched, paralyzed, her voice shrieking only in her mind, unable to so much as open her mouth, as the knife came flashing down at her heart.
She threw all her strength into one last attempt to wrench away. Her body gave a heave and she started awake, finding herself half-fallen over on the floor. Her heart pounded in her ears; she gasped for breath, one hand fluttering to her throat.
A nightmare, she thought, gulping down air to calm herself. It was only a nightmare. Anyone would have bad dreams after being stuck in this dark box for hours. When were the damn repairmen going to come let them out? She tried to drive the vestiges of fear away with prim irritation. She was going to have a talk with whoever was in charge of building management around here.
After a few moments, her pulse began to slow and a sense of foolishness crept over her. There was no need to get overexcited about a nightmare. She couldn't see Lamont in the shadows, but she hoped he'd fallen asleep and hadn't witnessed her starting awake. He might be even less inclined to invite her along on Shadow-related affairs if he thought she was scared of the damn dark.
She leaned back against the wall again, feeling more like herself. Her hands slid down to the ground.
The carpet under her left palm was damp. She lifted it, frowning. It was difficult to see in the darkness, but something was smeared across her hand. She didn't like the look of it, black and congealed. On an ugly hunch, she brought the hand to her face and sniffed.
Heavy and sharp. Coppery.
She scrambled to her feet, a sudden superstitious horror tearing through her. She snatched up the flashlight from where it lay on the ground and sent its shivering beam around the small space. Shards of glass glittered on the floor... no, not glass, she thought, shards of mirror, as if someone had punched the wall. Some of them were quite large.
The beam found a splayed foot, unmoving. Her hand tightened on the flashlight as she moved it further up. The carpet squelched under her heel when she took a step closer. The beam trembled over a blue jacket, a red-stained white shirt, the gleaming buttons of an elevator man's uniform; then up, up to where the pale skin of John Sidney's throat lay slashed open from ear to ear in a gaping crimson smile.
Margo's shoulders thudded against the wall. Suddenly she could smell the blood, pungent and cloying in the air.
She jerked the flashlight beam down at Lamont. He still sat across from her against the other wall. When she shone the light in his face, he twitched and opened his eyes as if he'd only now awoken. They were murky with sleep, those eyes she'd just seen glaring murder in her nightmare. They met her own, and the magical wires between them connected with a spark.
She heard his voice, clear and anguished as a bell in her mind.
I killed him.
She must have misheard. Lamont blinked at her, pale and washed-out in the harsh light. A man she knew so well and yet knew not at all.
"Margo?" He raised a hand to block the light. The shadows of his fingers crawled across his face. "Would you point that thing some place else? What's the matter with you?"
Maybe she was still dreaming. Maybe there wasn't really a body lying on the floor and Lamont hadn't just confessed to murder.
She snapped the light back to where the corpse lay. The blue uniform and bright red blood remained unchanged, determinedly not a figment of her imagination.
"My God!" Lamont exclaimed. He jumped to his feet. "What happened?"
"He's dead," Margo said needlessly. It felt just as unreal when said aloud. "I found him like this."
Lamont crouched by the body, careful not to touch it or the carpet around it. "Hold the light steady, Margo."
She did, letting the white beam illuminate every detail of the horrible scene. The skin on her back was trying to crawl off her body.
"The blood's fresh, but there's a lot of it," Lamont said, so calm it unnerved her even more. "It's had time to bleed out. Twenty minutes or so, I'd say."
Enough time for the blood to thoroughly soak the carpet. It could be on her dress, too; it was all red, there was no way of telling. Margo shuddered. The light trembled.
"Margo?” Lamont looked up at her, concerned. "Don’t worry if you feel ill, it’s quite normal." He didn't appear the least bit discomposed himself.
"I don't feel ill," she said. She felt cold and empty. "He's leaning against the door. There's nothing but solid concrete behind it. We looked."
"Yes..." Lamont bent back down to examine the body. "It’s a deep cut. His neck's been nearly sawed in half from ear to ear." He paused for a moment. "He couldn't have done it himself. Not enough leverage."
"It would have to be someone with a lot of strength," Margo said faintly. Brutal strength. Her imagination sparked, conjuring the image of a hulking shape all in black, slashing and cutting and hacking -
"Are there any other ways out of here?" Lamont said. "A trapdoor? A wall panel that can be removed?"
They made a careful circuit of the elevator, checking ceiling, walls, and floor inch by inch. The mirror on the back wall was shattered; it looked like a heavy object had hit it right in the center. The pieces lay scattered around beneath their feet. They found no seams, hinges, or panels. No other way out.
When they finished the search, they stood for a moment in silence.
"If I'm understanding this correctly," Lamont said, "roughly half an hour ago someone broke that mirror and brutally cut Mr. Sidney's throat. The only people here are you and me and there's no way out of this box. Which is all very odd, Margo, because I'm quite sure I didn't do it."
"Well, neither did I!" she said hotly.
"I know," he replied. "I know."
"But there’s no one else here. Only you."
"Only you,” he echoed. His eyes had that cynical, faraway look and the lines around his mouth were grim and dissolute, as if he'd seen death so often it was only a squalid footnote to him now. She tried to claw through the numbness that held her in its grip. This was Lamont, Lamont. She would rather believe that she’d gone mad than that he’d killed someone in a fit of… remembered frenzy. She could almost still feel that loathsome smile pulling at her lips. But he’d left that life behind long ago, buried that side of him. Or was that naïve?
"You didn't mean for me to hear, did you?" she said.
He was watching her closely, but she wasn’t afraid; he couldn’t read her mind, his telepathy didn’t manifest that way.
"You said... you said 'I killed him.' Just that."
He stared at her for a long moment. "I didn't say it. I was thinking it. But not about him. Margo, your hand is bleeding."
"What?" she said. "No, it's - it's his blood. From the carpet. I put my hand down on it."
He took her hand in his and turned it over, wiping away some of the blood. A stab of pain made her hiss as much in surprise as anything. Two cuts crossed her palm from thumb to pinky and there were smaller ones on her fingers. They didn't hurt at all; that seemed strange.
"I don't understand," she said.
Lamont stooped and picked up one of the pieces of mirror from the floor, holding it gingerly in a handkerchief. Congealing blood coated one edge, and fainter streaks marred the other. He held the shard along Margo's palm. The faint streaks matched the cuts on her hand for length.
As if she'd... as if she'd gripped the sharp edge hard...
"No," she breathed. "It's impossible, I would remember."
"What do you remember?"
"I - I fell asleep. I was dreaming - a nightmare. You were in it." The words stumbled out, bereft of eloquence.
"So you were really there," he said, and grimaced. "Haven't I told you that you don't belong in my head?"
She hadn't just dreamed about him, she'd been him. She remembered the exultation of punishment, remembered raising a dagger with every intention of plunging it into a man's heart. Her cut hand closed slowly, painlessly; but her heart ached, her eyes stung.
She'd been under someone's psychic control once before. Shiwan Khan had hypnotized her and instructed her to kill Lamont - and she'd almost done it, saved only by a lucky coincidence. That had been like dreaming, too, dreaming with a voice in her head telling her over and over what to do. It stood to reason that if other people’s thoughts could slip into her head, so could their intentions , impulses – even sleeping ones.
"I did it, didn't I?" she said. The words seemed to come from far away. "I killed him."
The graceless corpse drew her eyes. Less than an hour ago that had been a living man, with family somewhere, no doubt, and years of his life ahead of him. Now he was - gone, his soul fled and nothing but empty flesh left behind. She had done that. She'd taken his life away from him.
The cold finality of it robbed her of all levity. Had she really come here this evening with a mind full of parties and mysteries? It seemed like a childhood dream, something small and old and faded. That was all behind her; nothing would ever be the same again. She knew that with a certainty that pierced her bones.
Lamont was shaking her gently by the shoulders. "Margo? Are you listening to me?"
"No," she said.
"Then you’d better start. This is not your fault, Margo," he said in a low, urgent tone. "You were under my hypnotic influence, a puppet acting out my thoughts."
Lamont had made her do it, she thought in confusion. No; it had been an accident. Lamont had been dreaming, remembering someone he'd killed long ago, in a past life, when he was another man. And she'd wandered into that memory and become part of that past and brought it back here to this day.
"You're a dangerous man," she whispered, understanding for the first time how true it was.
"I should never have brought you here," he said.
She shook her head, groping for words. “I was invited.” That was trivial, it wasn’t what she wanted to say. “It doesn’t matter now. Oh Lamont, can’t you see it doesn’t matter? It’s already happened and there’s no changing it. What time is it? Lamont, what's the time?"
He checked his pocket watch. "Close to five in the morning."
It was nearly day. There was a body. The doorman had seen them go into the elevator. Mattie and her friends would know they'd never arrived at the party. Their whereabouts and company would be unambiguous, so much that even the lack of motive wouldn’t be much defense. Police, Margo thought. Trial. Infamy. Prison. That awful Barth man considered her practically a madwoman already. Panic rose in her throat, but it was dwarfed still by the enormity of it, of what she had to bear, of what had been thrust on her.
"Someone will find us soon,” she said, clinging to practicalities. “And we're going to have to tell them something."
"Let me do the talking," Lamont said firmly. He had a steady grip on her shoulders, as if he thought she might fly away, but he was scanning the bloody scene with a calculating eye.
He was going to tell them he'd done it, she realized. "Not a chance," she burst out without thinking. Somehow that, the very notion of it, was the most intolerable thing of all. That she had this monstrous misfortune on her conscience and Lamont would rot for it.
"I won't see you in jail on my account," he snapped.
"And I won't be responsible for putting the Shadow behind bars!" He had far more important things to do than save her at the price of his own freedom.
"Which of us do you think they're going to believe? You don't exactly look a murderess, Margo." A darker shadow seemed to fall over his face and his eyes grew very bright. "I can make them believe me. Everyone."
Damn him, damn him, how could he lay this on her as well? “You can’t – you can’t –“ she choked.
"You’re not angry at me for tangling you up in a murder, you’re angry at me for trying to save you?” he said incredulously.
"You can't stop me from telling them the truth," Margo finally got out. "The evidence will prove me right. There’s the m-murder weapon, and the cuts on my hand. Any detective worth his salt will see through whatever you say."
His face hardened. "Is that so?” He drew one of his long silver pistols and aimed it, steady-handed, at the corpse. “And what will the evidence prove when they find bullets in the body?"
Bullets from his gun, she thought. "No!" she cried, grabbing for his wrist too late, too late.
Her mouth was still hanging open in shock when the gunshots shattered the air. Her head rang; it felt as if a hammer had struck the elevator. She was an ant trapped in a booming gong. But even through her double-vision, she saw the room flicker and change, and the shock that crushed her swept away everything that had gone before.
The body was gone. The elevator door stood open. There was no elevator shaft; instead, they were staring into a broad unlit corridor. There was no blood.
There was no body.
John Sidney stood, gloriously and wickedly alive, in the hallway, pointing a pistol at them.
She saw him pull the trigger with what seemed like agonizing slowness. The elevator pealed again; the floor, the walls, the air rang around her. A heavy weight knocked into her and she was on the ground, on the mercifully blood-free carpet, with Lamont was on top of her, pressing her down out of harm’s way. The ringing slowly faded from her ears until she could hear their hoarse breathing and, somewhere not so far away, footsteps receding into the distance.
"Lamont, what is going on?" she whispered.
He helped her back to her feet. They stared at the pristine elevator, spell-bound like children.
"My hands," Margo said. "The cuts – they’re gone." Her hands were smooth and neat. Not a speck of blood. Magic, she thought, nearly giggling. No, there must be a rational explanation.
"It was an illusion," Lamont said slowly. “Incredible. An illusion so subtle and detailed we didn’t perceive it even while we were in the middle of it.” Then he burst out laughing. "Margo, I've been a fool! John Sidney? How about Dr. Ashton Greene? We've both been caught in his hypnosis!"
"An illusion," she said wonderingly. “It wasn’t real.” The truth sank in like a hot knife through butter – she was innocent, she hadn’t killed anyone, no one was dead at all. A brutal hand seemed to surrender its bruising grip on her heart. She felt light as a feather, felt her own laughter bubbling up; but at the same time, she was not the same as she’d been before, as if something had settled permanently into her soul. "My God, what a nasty trick! I don’t think my heart will ever be the same. Whatever did he mean by it?"
"Nasty, but creative," Lamont murmured. "The clever villain almost had me turning myself in."
"Lamont!" she gasped, clutching his forearms. "He knows you're the Shadow! He heard me say it."
"Yes," he said, pacing to the door and peering down the corridor in the direction Sidney had run. "I imagine that was the point of all this theater - to trick us into speaking freely. He must have announced his attendance at the party knowing the Shadow would seek him out. And then installed himself as the elevator operator so he'd see everyone who arrived in private. But what tipped him off that we might be his target?"
Margo thought back to their arrival, to everything they’d said and done. "It - might have been me," she said with a burst of insight. "I thought he said something to me earlier, but I think I was reading his mind. He must’ve noticed I answered his thought." Her relief and elation were still so great that she didn’t even care that she’d been the one to drop the clue.
"Maybe. However he did it, he’s obviously got a bone to pick with the Shadow."
Lamont smiled in a way that was distinctly unfriendly. "I can think of a way to find out, can't you?" He delved into the pockets of his overcoat, pulling forth a scarlet scarf, a broad-brimmed hat, another blocky silver pistol. In the darkness his face began to change, growing harder and uglier, more menacing; but she wasn't the least bit afraid, no, the sight of it all just about made her cheer. If Sidney wanted the Shadow, let him find out what he’d blundered into. He’d thoroughly earned himself the pleasure.
"Maybe you should give him what he wants," she said.
"A visit from the Shadow," Lamont said, wrapping the scarf around the lower half of his face. His voice had grown hoarse, but she could still hear that ominous smile in it: the seed of the Shadow’s laughter. "Now listen carefully, Margo."
Mattie Abbott, speaking with hesitation and fear.
Margo followed the sound to a door standing slightly ajar. She peeked through the crack into a dining hall – deserted aside from Mattie and whoever she was talking to.
The room spread out in a broad parquet oval, scattered tables filling the space between the door and the musicians’ stage at the far end. A huge clock hung over the stage; it read 5:26 in the morning. A few guttering candles sat on the tables. The guests were gone, driven away early by the lack of lights, she supposed, since otherwise many would have stayed until dawn. Snow still fell outside the windows and it was on the chilly side.
It was dark enough that she could barely see, but Mattie was easy to make out: she was sitting in a chair in the middle of the dance floor, holding a candle on her lap. A figure stood at her shoulder, and Margo didn’t need light to know that it was John Sidney. Mattie, the hopeless woman, was probably trying to reason with him.
Margo’s feet refused to turn around and leave her friend in the hands of a madman. She switched off the flashlight, slid out of her shoes, and slipped through the door.
Sidney must have been watching the entrance. Margo thought she’d been perfectly silent, but the moment she was inside, he fired on her. She ducked behind a table, her heart in her mouth. The pistol felt heavy in her hand. Should she... shoot him? She grimaced. She would probably hit Mattie instead; or more likely, the wall. Besides, the thought of killing, of spilling blood, turned her stomach more than ever tonight. Where in God’s name was Lamont?
“You don’t have to do this,” she heard Mattie say. “Whatever it is you want, I’m sure there’s a better way to get it.”
“Quiet, you little fool,” Sidney said. He raised his voice to a shout. It echoed hollowly under the tall ceiling. "Come out, Shadow! Show yourself or I'll kill her!”
Damn, he must think it had been Lamont who’d come through the door. She could hardly pass herself off as the Shadow, and Sidney was going to shoot Mattie if he didn’t get what he wanted. Should she stand up? But she’d only be handing Sidney two hostages instead of one. Her breath sounded terrifying loud in her ears and the pistol grip felt slippery in her hand. She had no idea what this man was capable of. He could fool people into seeing things that weren’t there – he could be hypnotizing her this very moment. And he seemed quite prepared to commit murder.
The echoes of Sidney’s words died, softer and softer, until they'd almost vanished - and then they grew again, building on themselves in wave after wave, not of words, but of laughter: the Shadow's marrow-freezing laughter. The candles flames danced in time with it, their dark halos waxing and waning. She’d never heard a sweeter sound in her life.
Margo peeked around the curtain of the white tablecloth. Sidney had the gun pushed close against Mattie's temple and his other hand clamped on her shoulder. He was hissing something into her ear. It was a toss-up as to who looked more terrified.
"Did you think you could fool me, Sidney? Did you think I wouldn't see through you in the end?" the Shadow whispered. The voice flowed and bubbled in the corners of the room, black and icy and smooth, pricking its listeners with terror. Darkness and fear were the Shadow’s alchemy.
“Show yourself!” Sidney repeated, failing to hide his cold sweats. “I want to see you or she dies!”
“I’m right here, Sidney,” the Shadow said. “Behind you, beside you, before you. I’m everywhere.” The laughter magnified, tumbling over itself in an avalanche of cruel mockery. It sounded inhuman – evil. It sounded gleeful. Shadows writhed along the floor and ceiling like unearthly feelers, reaching for the man who’d dared challenge them.
"You're a monster, Shadow!" Sidney shouted.
The laughter hissed like acid. "You're the one holding a woman at gunpoint, Sidney."
A shadow, far too large to be a man, stirred along the wall by the musician's niche. Swathes of darkness billowed out to either side like wings - or a cape fluttering in a wind, too slowly to be natural. Sidney shifted nervously, but the gun didn't waver. Mattie sat as if petrified.
"You're a murderer," Sidney snarled. "You've killed people, made them kill themselves, all in the name of justice. Not everyone’s content to sit back and let someone like you have the run of this town!"
"Are you going to kill her, Sidney?" the Shadow laughed. "Are you going to be the murderer?"
"You can’t hide forever!" Sidney pulled something out of his pocket and touched it to the candle on Mattie’s lap. Margo strained to see, her fingers clenching convulsively in the tablecloth.
He cast the object onto the floor. It exploded into light, sparking and whistling. A firework – a spinner, Margo thought deliriously. The small kind you set off at home; they must have had some at the party, to light on the balcony or the roof.
The hall lit up in leaping silver. Sparks flurried in frenzied arcs; surfaces gleamed white and shadows grew twice as sharp and twice as black. And among them coalesced one shaped like a man, a towering man standing very close to Sidney.
Sidney turned, first slowly, his jaw growing slack, and then snapping with panicked speed, his gun coming up. He shot into the black shape – and hit nothing, nothing but emptiness. Soft, hard laughter echoed as Sidney spun back, too slowly.
He cursed, but he'd taken the gun off his hostage for an instant too long. The chair moved of its own accord, sliding over the floor with its occupant gripping the seat. Invisible hands closed on Sidney’s throat and forearm and he grappled with the air, with the night, with the shadows.
Mattie leaped from the chair with a scream. Margo scrambled out from her cover and snagged her friend's hand as she fled, pulling her back behind the table. The sounds of a fight continued out of sight.
"Margo?" Mattie panted. "What are you doing here? Why didn’t you come tonight? We have to call the police!"
"Never mind that, are you all right?"
"I'm shaken up fit to break! Is that the Shadow? What's going on?"
"A melodrama, Mattie," Margo said. "Let's - "
Three more shots rang out. A man screamed in pain - Sidney, she thought. She hoped.
"Wait here. I have to make sure of something," she said. She couldn’t just run off while Lamont might be fighting for his life.
"Are you crazy?" Mattie said, aghast, clutching at her hand.
Very likely, Margo reflected. This was a hare-brained idea if she'd ever had one.
She shook free of Mattie and dashed to the next table, staying bent over to keep out of sight, and peered around a chair at the fight. Wood screeched as the two men crashed into another of the tables. The Shadow had taken on human shape. Lamont didn't look like he was hit, but he hadn't disarmed Sidney yet, either.
She crept closer, feeling silly and exposed. She had very little experience being stealthy.
The Shadow slammed Sidney onto a table top. The two men rolled in a tangle of arms and legs, thudding heavily onto the floor. They struggled to their feet without separating, locked in a brutal contest of muscle and will. Margo’s nerves sang. She could feel – movement, not physical but psychic, like two gusts of howling wind meeting and tangling, silent but tangible. Half-understood whispers tugged at her mind.
She straightened slowly. A voice murmured in her ear, shoot him, shoot him, help me. She brushed it aside, but suddenly the silver gun in her hand felt awake.
It wasn’t that she wanted revenge on Sidney. She never wanted to see the man again, that was all. But there was only so much damage a girl could take to her New Year’s plans, and he’d already destroyed her peace of mind. He wasn’t going to take her friend as well. She lingered at a distance, wincing at every blow, waiting – just in case, just in case he needed her.
Sidney must have sensed her presence, because the scene changed before her eyes. Margo blinked. The two men spun and shifted and suddenly they weren't the Shadow and Sidney, they were the Shadow and the Shadow, two identical dark caped figures wrestling, each with a hand grasping at the butt of Sidney’s gun raised above their heads.
"Margo! Shoot him!" one of them cried.
"No! Margo, he's hypnotizing you!" the other said.
She didn't move, uncertain. They looked exactly alike.
One of them was forcing the gun barrel down towards his opponent's face, a finger stretching for the trigger. The other heaved against him and the gun arced back, shuddering, pushed back and forth between opponents of near equal strength. One of them was about to get shot any moment, and she had no idea which was which.
"Margo!" shouted one. "Now would be good!"
She took a deep breath, searching for calm, and tried to quiet her mind. She felt for that familiar aura, that presence that belonged to Lamont. She raised the gun.
"For God's sake, Margo!" the other. "I've nearly got him!"
She shot him.
Margo shook her head. They were sitting at one of the tables. Mattie had a death grip on a cup of tea one of the deputies had been kind enough to make. Margo kept her own hands hidden beneath the table where no one could see them tremble. Early sunshine slanted through the windows, revealing a snow-clad New York. The storm had blown itself out.
"I only got him in the arm, thank God. Although it would've been more useful to hit him in the leg, I suppose. Then he wouldn't have been able to run."
He'd gotten away, damn it. A man with a vendetta against the Shadow, a man with powerful telepathic abilities, and he knew Lamont's true identity. And hers.
Mattie gave a strained little laugh. "But he... the Shadow... will find him, won't he?"
"I expect so. It’s the sort of thing he does."
Mattie hesitated a moment before saying, "You’ve met him. You’ve actually met him."
Margo smiled wanly. "So have you."
"Being rescued from a raving gunman isn’t exactly a proper introduction. You could tell them apart! This is a strange business, even for you. I hope you know what you're mixed up in."
She was mixed up in something madder than her dad’s inventions and darker than she’d dared imagine before last night. The worst – or best – of it was, she couldn’t even claim ignorance as an excuse: she had perfect insight into what she was in for. And she was going to keep sticking her fingers in the fire anyway. Well, she was the daughter of Reinhardt Lane, so perhaps no one had a right to be surprised.
"Don't worry, Mattie," she said. "I know."
The police asked a lot of questions, and she answered them with vague, exaggerated exclamations and vacant smiles until they let her go. She took the stairs down, all thirty flights of them, carrying her uncomfortable shoes. The tension drained out of her bit by bit as she watched the sun tiptoe over the horizon, shining pink and gold on the fresh snow. Margo, a voice said in her mind.
She found Lamont waiting for her outside, hands stuffed in his pockets. He had his head tipped back, watching the gleaming skyscrapers.
"You called?" she said.
"How's the investigation?" he said.
"No sign of John Sidney, alias Dr. Ashton Greene," she said. "And no sign of the Shadow. The police are quite unhappy with you both."
"I'll have to send them all gift baskets to apologize."
She shivered. Her hat and coat had been left in the elevator. Lamont took off his overcoat and draped it over her shoulders.
"You were right, you know," he said softly. "I'm a dangerous man. Especially to you. That could’ve been real last night."
"Do you say that to your other agents?" she said with a teasing smile.
"My other agents aren't latent telepaths. Besides, you're not an agent."
"What am I, then?"
He did up the top button of the overcoat, not answering.
"What do you call someone who knows far too much about you for your own good?"
She thought of the nightmares that slipped into her head when she was around him, of the names Yingko and Lamont Cranston and the Shadow; and his voice saying do you know what it's like to have done things you can never forgive yourself for? She remembered the cold, empty feeling in her heart when she'd believed she'd killed Sidney. She thought maybe - maybe she could imagine what it was like, yes. Maybe she did understand more about him than she’d thought.
"Out of all the people in the world, how many could've told the two of you apart in the middle of that fight?" she asked him.
He glanced at her, his smile growing warm. "Only you."
She smiled back. "You don't have to keep your secrets from me."
He pondered that for a minute before holding out his elbow. "You know, 'agent' really is far too... impersonal. How does 'confidante' sound to you?"
She laughed, her spirits rising with the sun. It was a new day, a new year. It promised to be an eventful one, and she had new things to offer it. "It sounds like a fresh start," she said, and took his arm.