A MANHUNT CHILLER
THE AVENGING AX
by Gardner F. Fox
Originally written for MANHUNT #1 (1947) and published by Magazine Enterprises
The London fog swirled in around the girl as she came to a halt, screaming. The soft pad pad of feet never stopped. They followed her, just as they had followed her father before he had been killed, just as they had followed her brothers, before their heads had been cloven in two with an ax ...
Inspector Ronald Kirk of Scotland Yard came to a sudden stop. A girl had screamed not far from him. There was stark fear and horror in that scream. His big right hand slipped down to the grip of his official revolver.
"No ...no! Stay away ... aaaagh!"
His hair uplifted on the nape of his neck, Kirk plunged forward through the swirling mists. The deep booming tones of Big Ben pierced the fog. His feet raced across the wet pavement as the great clock tolled out the hour of midnight.
"I'm coming!" he called out. "Where are you?"
"Over here ... on the corner near the Old Church!”
He saw her through a shifting section of the mist. She was tall and lovely, her white face pinched and haggard under the sloping brim of her cloche hat. Long yellow hair fell in a straight bob to her shoulders. Huddled in a tan polo coat, she kept her shoulders to the wet stones of the wall, staring at him.
"Heard you cry out, Miss. Someone bothering you?" Kirk called as he pounded up be side her.
Her red-nailed fingers tightened on his arm. She cried out, Did you see him? Did you see the Executioner?"
"Executioner? Miss, you aren't—you haven't been having too much at one of the local pubs?”
Her long nails dug into his wrist. Her big blue eyes were wide with fright. She shook her head until the yellow hair swirled.
"No, no. I'm sober—and scared! That man the Executioner—killed my father ... my brothers! Now ... now he's after me!"
Kirk scowled in the darkness. "Oh? I do recall something... a report I read in the Yard. The Prentice case!"
"I'm Olga Prentice! My father was head of a diving expedition a few years ago. There was an unfortunate accident. A man died when the air lines snapped. He left one relative ... a brother, half insane! That man swore vengeance on our whole family!"
The girl paused, sobbing. Her shoulders in side the tan coat shook. Kirk patted her hand, his alert gray eyes roving through the fog, across the wet sidewalks. His ears were tuned for the faintest sound. The girl quieted.
She opened her coat, disclosing a bright red dress. Her quivering hands hunted for a handkerchief. She wiped her eyes.
"I–I'm a little hysterical," she smiled tremulously. "But I'm the only one left. I—I'm scared!"
"You're safe enough now," smiled Inspector Ronald Kirk encouragingly.
"A Prentice is never safe from ... the Executioner!”
The voice was everywhere about them, all through the fog. It came from above and from below, from north and from south. Kirk grasped his service revolver and brought it out into the sickly light of a mist-hidden street light
Olga Prentice shrank against him. Kirk could feel her trembling even through the tan polo coat. And then something lashed about his ankle and jerked hard.
Kirk went off his feet, crashed to the wet pavement. His revolver bounced from his hand and clattered on the stones. Olga Prentice shrieked, and her scream rang loud—then stilled, as though a hand had clasped down over her straining mouth.
When he got to his feet, Olga was gone.
Kirk ran a few steps into the fog, then came back. "She couldn't have disappeared into thin air!” he told himself savagely. "She was right beside me ..."
He saw it, then. A semi-circle of stones above an opening level with the street. A basement window, wide open. It would be easy for a man hidden there to whisper up at them. The whisper would seem to come from all around them. And a cane, hooked around his leg to topple him would give the Executioner time to spring at Olga Prentice, carry her away with him..
Kirk dropped to his stomach and went head foremost into the window. He put his hands on a section of rusted pipe and swung into the dark basement.
Far ahead of him he heard pounding feet running heavily as if under a load. Kirk could visualize Olga flung across a shoulder. He ran toward the sound, a hand out in the darkness to shield himself from walls or an open door. From somewhere above him a beam of silvery light filtered through to mark out the long corridor down which he was running....
Olga Prentice opened her eyes. A cold wind was blowing across her face. In the mist, she could see the low, squat form of a man a few feet away. A black square of silk formed a mask over his face. In his right hand he held a big, broad-bladed ax. An ax that executioners swung, in medieval days.
She inched away from him, moving slowly. quietly. She turned her head and gasped. She was high on a parapet of the Old Church, that looked out over the city of London.
She got to her feet and took a step. A hand closed down on her shoulder and pulled her back.
Struggling silently, fighting with every last bit of energy in her frightened muscles, she twisted free of the coat and left it dangling in the Executioner's hand. Her red dress was torn and wet with the saint drizzle.
"You cannot escape," a voice said behind her.
Olga lurched forward to the parapet. Below her were the stone gargoyles carved by a long dead hand. She put out her hands and caught hold of one, steadying herself.
Trembling, she began to inch her way forward, while the Executioner swung up his ax and laughed triumphantly.
"On hands and knees!" he howled. “As all victims of the ax must die. Your head will make a pretty thing on the sidewalk far below!"
Inspector Ronald Kirk of Scotland Yard went up the old steps two at a time. Once he hit against the wall of a landing in the dark and bounced back, stunned. Groping, he turned and followed the steps where they twisted sideways and upward.
The stairs swung past the organ balcony and threaded a path into the higher blacknesses. Clinging to the slender rail, Kirk went on and up.
The sweet night air brushed his cheeks and left them chilled, whispering as it came through the stone tracery. He heard someone moving ahead of him, on the parapet.
Inspector Kirk crawled between the stone ornaments on the church facade. He came out onto a narrow stone ledge. On hands and knees he crawled along.
He turned a corner, saw Olga Prentice on hands and knees, crouching down on a stone gargoyle. Fright was etched in her white cheeks and deep-set eyes, in the frightened gash of her mouth. Where her hands clung to the gargoyle, her knuckles were white and big.
He saw the Executioner now ... a fat man with a mask of black silk whipped against his face by the wind, garbed in medieval leather and wool. The ax, double-edged and big, was swinging upward for the blow.
Kirk cried out. He lunged to his feet and ran, trying to forget that a false step would send him falling hundreds of feet down to the London pavements.
His gun came up and barked red flame, but his aim was wild.
The Executioner whirled, leaped for Kirk. The ax went around in a circular movement, right at Kirk's neck. If that ax landed ...!
Kirk side-stepped and brought the barrel of his gun against the man's jaw. He hooked a left under his ribs. He drove the left into the masked face.
The Executioner reeled back. His ax dropped, caught at his legs, tripping him off balance. With a horrible scream, unable to right his heavy body, the masked killer toppled into the low stone parapet that formed the edge of the balcony.
For one long moment he hung there. And then his legs gave way and went backwards and downwards before Kirk could reach out and grasp him. He fell slowly at first, then faster and faster. Kirk turned away before that dropping hulk hit the sidewalk far below.
Olga Prentice lay on the stone gargoyle in a faint. Carefully, Inspector Kirk drew her back to safety.
She opened her eyes; whispered, "Where—is he?"
"Dead on the sidewalk below. Killed, you might say, by his own ax that he tripped over."
The girl whispered, "He used to call it the avenging ax I guess ... that's just what it ... was!"
- THE END -
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