Welcome to the Arena of Souls, my new, Doc Savage-style, pulp adventure I’ll be publishing in serial format every week. Hope you enjoy it!
Arena Of Souls
Chapter 1: The Mark
“He’s just a kid,” Stumpy muttered. “If he’s seen thirty, I’ll eat my hat.” His hand drifted to his hip, and the solid comfort of the Colt .45 secreted under his jacket. Once he got close enough to his mark, he’d fill the wheat with air. There was no question the guy was a wheat: no hat, no jacket, no belt, loose-fitting shirt worn open at the neck. He was as out of place in the big city as anyone Stumpy had ever seen.
He lowered his head, tipped his hat forward, and moved with the crowd that scurried along B Street. He’d heard tell the government was going to rename it Constitution Avenue, but it would always be B Street to him. He liked things simple. The people around him seemed intent on their business and none would have any reason to take notice of one more plainly dressed man in a group of many, and that suited him just fine. Hide in plain sight, that was the ticket.
The sky turned gray and thunder rumbled in the distance. The scent of rain lay heavy on the cool breeze, and the people around Stumpy quickened their pace. But not his mark. He strolled along as if he hadn’t a worry in the world, his blond head and broad shoulders sticking up above the throng of humanity. His size might pose a problem in a tussle, though Stumpy could handle himself all right, but the convincer on his hip rendered the point moot.
“Brock Stone,” Stumpy muttered. “Rich orphan, football hero, army washout. Where have you been the past two years?”
Stone suddenly left the sidewalk and headed across the Mall in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial. Stumpy had to double-time it to keep pace, so long were Stone’s legs and so great was the distance eaten up with each long stride. He uttered a curse. Of the many types of people he despised, tall men were, fittingly, at the top of the list. The next time a dame in a gin mil told him, “Sorry, you’re too short,” he was going to burn the place down.
Stone navigated the throngs of tourists and climbed the steps up to the gleaming marble monument without breaking a stride. Stumpy found a spot in the shelter of a nearby tree where he could keep an eye on Stone. On the steps, he might be noticed, and that was no good. His orders were clear: follow him, learn what you can, then ice him when the time is right. Besides, why climb all those steps if he didn’t have to?
He leaned back against the tree, drew a rolled newspaper from his inside jacket pocket, opened it to the front page, and held it just high enough that he could peer over the top. The headline screamed CAPONE PLEADS GUILTY, but the article held no interest for Stumpy. He had a feeling the judge wasn’t about to accept the slap on the wrist Capone had negotiated with prosecutors. No sir. Making and example of gangsters was a big thing these days.
Stone didn’t remain at the top of the memorial for very long. He descended the steps and headed back toward B Street. Stumpy tossed his paper in a nearby bin and returned to stalking his quarry.
Some men might feel conspicuous walking armed down a crowded street, following a man who would be dead by sunset, but not Stumpy. He was completely at home in this warren of crowded streets and tall buildings. The lion had its savanna, the tiger its jungle, and Stumpy had the city. At moments like this, he could almost imagine himself the angel of death.
Except Stumpy got paid a lot better.
A master of languages would have been baffled trying to name the tongue the man spoke. A profound student might have identified the dialect. The knowledge would be hard to believe, for the words were of a lost race, the language of a civilization long vanished!
A forked tongue of lightning split the sky and thunder boomed like cannon fire. Everyone flinched at the sound. Everyone except Stumpy… and Stone.
“Do you have nerves of steel, or are you just a twit?” Stumpy found himself growing more and more curious as he stalked his prey. Understanding the man you were going to kill was important— it helped you predict his actions, but for Stumpy, it was more than that. There was something about taking a life that bonded you with that person in a deep, personal way. It was the closest to spirituality he ever came, Christmas and Easter mass included.
“I’ll know more about you once I put this baby in action.” He patted the flat, rectangular package tucked into his belt just to make sure it was there. He’d never used it before, but his employer had explained how it worked, and it seemed simple enough.
The first drops of rain spattered the street, and a forest of umbrellas sprouted in response. Suddenly, Stone was not so easy to see. Stumpy quickened his pace, and caught sight of the big man as he disappeared into an office building. The sign on the front read Edgar Porter and Associates, Attorneys At Law. Stumpy had learned that Stone’s parents had passed away a few years back, while Stone was in the army, right about the time Stone seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth. Perhaps he was here about his inheritance.
Stumpy hurried to the front door and paused. This would be a close thing. If Stone spotted him, Stumpy would have to end things right there, and that meant a major cut in pay: half for the information, half to put an end to the big man. He caught the door with his heel, and leaned against the wall, pretending to take respite from the rain beneath the tiny awning, and strained his ears to listen.
“May I help you?” a silky, feminine voice asked.
“Brock Stone. I have an appointment.” Stone’s words were curt, but his tone was polite, if not friendly.
“Yes, sir. Mister Porter will be meeting with you personally. Second floor. You’ll see his door when you reach the top of the stairs. He’s expecting you, so feel free to go right in.”
Stumpy dared a glance inside. Stone was climbing the stairs and the secretary, a doll with chestnut hair and curves in all the right places, stared after him with a look akin to hunger in her brown eyes. No way he’d be able to slip past her. A quick glance up the stairs told him that Porter’s office was on the back side of the building. He’d try there first and see how it shook out.
His feet clopped on the wet pavement as he ducked through an alley and circled around the building. Winded, he took a moment to catch hi breath as he scanned the back face of the law office. Unlike its marble facade, the back wall was red brick, with an iron fire escape running to the roof. Perfect!
Stumpy took out the rectangular package, a leather case the size of a book, unsnapped the end flap, and withdrew a tiny box with an antenna and cuplike attachment, and flicked the switch on the bottom. A green light flickered to life, telling him the transmitter was live. Next, he withdrew an earpiece on a coiled wire, inserted it in his ear, and plugged it into the device inside the leather box. Finally, he flipped a switch on the device. Static crackled in his earpiece, and the recorder inside began to whir. Satisfied, he crept up the fire escape.
Porter’s office was typical for a rich guy: oversized and ostentatious. Through one of the half-dozen windows, he saw the attorney, a bear of a man with glassed and thinning hair, seated behind a mahogany desk, facing Stone, who sat ramrod-straight in a leather chair. Cautiously, Stumpy pressed the cup to the window pane, turned it until it stuck, and drew away from the window. Through the earpiece, he could hear the men’s conversation, the sound tinny and hollow, but the words clear as a nice glass of gin.
“If you don’t mind my saying, you’re a difficult man to reach, Mister Stone.”
“I’ve been traveling out of the country for some time. I only returned a few days ago and received your letters.”
“I understand. I fear I have bad news. Your grandfather passed away three weeks ago.”
So this was about an estate, but not that of Stone’s parents. Stumpy listened with keen interest.
“How did it happen?” Stone’s voice betrayed no emotion, but when Stumpy stole a glance through the window, sadness painted the young man’s strong face and flooded his downcast brown eyes.
“I only know it was sudden. The doctors do not believe he suffered.” A brief pause, the whisper of shuffling papers, and Porter went on. My instructions are to give these to you. It is your inheritance, though I’m given to understand there’s very little money in the estate.”
“Money I have. My parents left me everything.”
“You’ve had more than one loss in the past few years.”
“More than you know.” The sound of tearing paper, and Stone uttered a confused grunt. “He’s left me his mansion on the Potomac and a copy of The Lost World.”
“That’s a fine bequest,” Porter said. “I’ve been to the mansion. It’s but a stone’s throw from Mount Vernon and offers a beautiful view of the river.”
“It’s a dust and cobweb-filled rat trap,” Stone said. “My grandfather seldom ventured above the first floor. More than once, I asked him why he held on to the place, but he would just laugh and say he needed a house large enough to hold all his secrets.”
“I assume the book holds some significance?”
“It was my favorite book as a child. I lost count of how many times I made him read it to me.” Stone cleared his throat. “Mister Porter, I neither want, nor need the mansion. Can you see to its disposal?”
“What do you mean?”
“Sell it, give it away, burn it to the ground for all I care. My parents’ house in Alexandria is more than enough for me.”
“I think that would be mistake.” Porter spoke slowly. “Your grandfather made a point to impress upon me the importance of you assuming ownership of the mansion. I’ve never seen him so insistent.”
“Did he say why?”
“He said I should insist that you sit in the window seat and read the book one last time, whatever that means.”
“I know what he means, but I’ll be hanged if I understand his reasons. I suppose I should get this over with. Thank you for your time, Mister Porter. I’ll be in touch.”
Stumpy switched the recorder to the off position, removed the earpiece, and set it on the fire escape. He would learn no more from this meeting. Drawing his Colt, he moved back to the window. It was time to close the deal.