CHAPTER 1: Terror in the Night

It was a turbulent night.  The moon was a waxing sliver of light, spangling the restless trees with silver.  Clouds scudded across the sky. The wind moaned through the convoluted hillsides, whipping branches and bushes in its fury.

The branches, partially denuded of their leaves by the torrent of wind, reached out like gnarled fingers to pluck at the garments of the running man.  They slowed him as he tried desperately to push through them.

Had anyone been watching, they would have seen that the man was terrified!  His eyes rolled and searched the semi-darkness behind him.  No one was watching.  No one saw the great, dark shape that hovered over him.

The man looked up and saw the thing.  It was large and black and had eyes of fire that burned into the man's face.  One could have seen his features reflecting the flickering light of those crimson orbs.

The thing hung motionless for a second; then, with fiendish intent, it dived at the fleeing man.

With a screech, he threw himself off the side of an undercut hill.  Cascading dirt and rock rolled with him to the bottom of the cut.

The lights of a town twinkled in a nearby valley.  If he could make it to the town he would be safe!  He looked at the sky and despaired.  The monstrous black thing had swung around and was between him and the safety of the houses.

A leathery swishing noise came from the thing as it came nearer.  The sound lent wings to the terrified man's feet.  There was nowhere to go but backwards -- into the darkness of the forest!  He turned and fled!

"Get away from me!"  the man whimpered.  "Begone, demon!"  He ducked and ran moaning into the night as the black form dove towards him.

The very wind in the hills seemed to laugh...a low and wicked laugh.  

The man screamed once as the black form enveloped him.  Then, all was silent.  The ebon shape soon floated away into the night sky.

By the time the wolves found the body, it was cold.  They sniffed it once and backed away.  This was unusual, for these scavengers would consume virtually any dead thing found in the woods.  For them to pass up and easy meal was against all the laws of nature.  A woodman watching them would have been dumbfounded.

The man had almost made it to the safety of the nearby town before the great ebon shape had caught him.  His body's proximity to civilization was probably why the corpse was discovered lat the next day by a passing tourist.

The tourist notified the local constabulary, which in turn notified the central government of the small Balkan country.  By sundown, officials were swarming over the area.  This was not the first time this had happened!  There were several bodies in the local morgue -- all collected within the last half-year.  All were strangers, whose bodies were unclaimed and who would stay at the morgue until the cases were closed as unsolved and unsolvable.

The bodies had another thing in common -- the throat of each had literally been ripped to shreds!

Since the body had been discovered by a tourist passing through the area, it could not simply be ignored.  The tourist's squawkings had brought scores of concerned dignitaries from the capitol city.

"Six uff dem...und in less den haff a year!  You see, Countess, ve must really call in help.  This is very, very mysterious und frightening!"  The plump, balding man wiped his brow.  He was perspiring even in the cool evening air of the mountains.

"But...General Tepesh of your own Militia and his troops have been investigating..."

"Und getting nowheres!  Dey haf been here for at least six months -- und der murders still happen!  Ve need der expert on strangnesses!  I haf given it much thought, und I know just who can do der job!  But...he is so far avay!"

"Not a foreigner, I hope!"  The woman's large, dark eyes became cold.  "All a paid adventurer ever does is exploit the country he pretends to save!"

"He is an American..."

"Ah!  They are the worst!  Surely," the pacing woman said, "Surely there is another way!"

"No, Madame...it appears ve haf no udder choice.  I vill leaf tomorrow for America, where I will contact dis person.  He has a very goot reputation for solving vierd mysteries!  It is his profession!"

"Humph!  And how much will he demand for these great services?  Will you bring someone here to exploit and bankrupt us?"

"No, no!"  The pompous little man smiled a cherubic smile.  "Dis man does not charge for his services unless people can vell afford to pay.  But, since dis province is fairly vealthy, I vould suspect he vill ask for his regular fee."

"And that is..."

"Oh, dat ve build a charity hospital for der poor, und establish a trust fund to see to its continued maintenance."

The woman's eyebrows shot skyward.  "His USUAL fee...is this?"

"Yes, Madame, he has done this quite often in various spots around der world.  I haf researched dis man carefully.  Belief me, he vill not do our country any harm."

The woman considered.  "Wilhelm, you know that I am considered a fairly good judge of human nature...

The man bobbed assent, and the woman continued.

"Let me come with you," she said, "and meet this...paragon of yours.  If he is an exploiter I shall know it immediately, and we shall look elsewhere for help.  If he is, however, all you seem to think he is, I will offer him the use of my estate in his investigations.  Fair enough?"

"Countess, Countess, dat is vhat I hoped you vould say!"  The little man was overjoyed.

"Very well, but do give me a few days to find out what I can about this fellow."

"Uff course, uff course!  Ve vill put off goink to America until next veek sometime.  I vill call you about der trip later."  He gathered his retinue about him and departed, having given her the name of the man they were to contact.

The tall, regal woman in black watched him go.  A tiny frown creased her forehead.

"I am not sure this is wise," said a silky voice beside her.

"Yes, Radu, I know.  I do not like the idea of bringing in foreigners.  They are always disruptive -- and rarely of any real use!  I am, however, rather intrigued by an adventurer who refuses payment unless it is in the form of charitable services or institutions!"

"Humph!  Is the man an adventurer or a philanthropist?  The two do not seem go go together.  And what does he get out of it?  Every man gets something out of his profession!"

"We shall see, Radu."  The woman was icily serious.  "If the Premier is bound and determined to bring this person here, perhaps it is best that he be encouraged to use my home as his base of operations.  In that way we can keep an eye on him.  Then, we shall see just what kind of man is this...Doc Savage!"

TAKE ME TO THE NEXT CHAPTER, PLEASE! 

The Doc Savage characters are the property of Conde Nast.  All text and images are  1999 by Paty Cockrum and may not be copied without her express written permission.