CHAPTER 20: The Storm

Doc sat in the great leather-covered chair behind his desk.  A week had passed since he's opened his eyes to find himself in his own recovery room.  In that week, he had exercised his muscles back to their former robust state.  At this point, his physical health left little to be desired.  His mental turmoil, however, had grown with each passing hour.

His men had assured him that he had not left the 86th floor in the past two weeks -- that all he remembered of the Moldanian excursion was a dream.

As soon as they had been assured that he was on the mend, they had departed to pick up the strings of their own lives that had been left dangling when he had needed them.

Left alone, at last, Doc had made several hurried phone calls. All of the answers he's received had only confirmed his men's side of the story.

A call to the morgue disclosed that there had been no bodies received from his offices on the day he indicated.

Some of the personnel working at the morgue at the time of the inquiry had been transferred to other areas, but this was departmental policy that helped to reduce corruption.  It would have been almost impossible for the records to have been tampered with -- and they had clearly indicated no bodies consigned from Savage headquarters within the last several weeks.

"Things awful quiet in your area these days, eh, Sir?" the attendant had chuckled.

A call to the Long Island flying field where he had quartered the tri-motored amphibian also surprised him.  He had expected the attendants to say that it had never returned from one of its flights.

Yes, the attendant had said, his tri-motor had been there -- but unfortunately had been destroyed in a hangar fire several days previously.  They had gotten in touch with a Mr. Brooks, who handled all of Doc's legal work, and had been told that Doc was out of town -- but had forwarded the insurance check covering the value of the plane to his office.  New, fire-proof hangars were presently under construction, and the concern hoped to be able to be of service to him once again in the near future.

Doc had replaced the receiver and rummaged through he myriad piles of correspondence and newspaper clipping s on his desk.  Sure enough, there was the check, clipped to a newspaper account of the hangar fire.

The proofs for the reality of his 'dream' had been melting away one after the other!!

He had checked the sides of the window, searching for evidence of the strafing run the war-plan had made that stormy night.  There was nothing.  The glass was unblemished as was the surrounding masonry.  Every evidence pointed to his 'dream' as only that -- a dream!

He rose and walked to the window.  The setting sun sprayed golden radiance across the western face of the edifice.  To the east, clouds heralded an approaching storm.

A torrid flush suffused his features and for a moment he felt a great, consuming thirst.  It was a reaction that he'd had ever since he'd awakened from the two-week coma.  It happened every evening...just at sundown, and had been gradually disappearing over the course of the week.

He rested his head for a moment on the cool windowpane.  A sparkle of reflected light caught his eye.

He opened the window and leaned far out.  Balancing precariously on the window ledge 86 floors above the ground, Doc could see the whole side of the building.  For several feet on either side of the window, the masonry was smooth and unblemished, but beyond that, where he ordinarily would not have looked -- had it not been for the dying sun's disclosure -- was a parade of evenly-spaced pock marks.  THE STRAFING RUN!!

Doc returned to his office, self-doubts beginning to dissolve.  He gathered up all of the issues of the Balkan newspapers for the past two weeks and quickly scanned them for clues to the Moldanian border crisis.  It was a few moments before he realized that there was one paper missing.  This was not especially unusual, since delivery of the Balkan papers was sporadic at times.

On a hunch, he crossed tot he pneumatic tube that delivered the papers from a newsstand in the lobby.  There was a catch-all corner that occasionally gobbled up a newspaper in the receiving bin.

A short examination brought to light the very paper he was missing.  It had obviously gotten pushed into the nook and been overlooked when his men removed the accumulating papers.

He read in the waning light of the sun...not bothering to snap on the electric lights that would illuminate the office.  The third page of the paper held the abbreviated obituary notice and small photograph.  The black eyes of the Reubens portrait stared out at him.  "Death of beloved Countess...due to frail and failing health...fiefdom according to will passes to distant cousin..."

Doc's hands shook in the glowing gloom.  It could still be coincidence.  This death was very possibly a normal occurrence.  His office had been attacked often enough to explain the pock-marks on the exterior...

A wave of cold certainty washed over him.  There was one proof that would tell him for good and all if he had been dreaming -- or if his men had, for whatever reason, lied to him!

He strode to his personal quarters and returned to the office bearing his suitcase.  He opened it.  All seemed in perfect order...clothes and personal effects ready for a split-second departure.  He removed the clothing. In the bottom of the suitcase was a cleverly concealed secret compartment.  His aides did not know of this compartment, for he had never told them of it.  It would contain the final proof!

Doc sat back in the darkness and stared at the case.  Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed as the storm moved across the city from the east.

"Do I really want to know?" Doc thought.  "Wouldn't it just be easier to believe Monk and Ham and the others?  Wouldn't it be simpler to destroy the case -- and never know if the 'dream' was more than just a dream?"

The flashing lightning of the growing storm illuminated the office.  The open suitcase lay on his desk...beckoning...offering sanity...offering madness!

"No..." he thought, "If I start turning away from reality -- no matter how painful -- now, I'll be running for the rest of my life!"  He reached for the secret compartment.

It yielded a padded case.  Within that case were airtight vials.  If his men were telling the truth, they should all be empty -- if not...

He opened the case.  Three of the vials were empty.  The fourth contained a rose -- its topmost thorn still stained with his own blood!

Hot tears stung his eyes.  Doc let them roll unhindered down his bronze cheeks.  His shoulders shook with silent weeping as he let the grief wash through him, exorcising itself.  He knew she would always be there, waiting on the other side of death...waiting for him.  That part of his soul that she had taken -- in exchange for her that he carried within himself -- bound them together.  Someday, he knew, they would be one...once more.  That knowledge, however, did not help to ease the loss he felt now.  The night passed endlessly as he relived the joy, the love, the knowledge, the pain...

The pain...his men had sought to spare him this!  That was why they had -- oh, so cleverly -- done what they had done!  And they had done it all...from bribing officials and falsifying records to buying planes and destroying hangars to subverting his own doctor!  It had all been done with one thought in spare him this soul-searing pain!  Knowledge of their unselfish love for him mellowed the pain, eased the grief, made it easier to bear.

The storm which had lashed the night air with its fury had mirrored the storm within him.  Nature's fury had abated in one night -- his own could not -- he knew this.  It would take weeks -- perhaps months to reconcile what had been -- what was -- and what must be!  He needed time to come to come to terms with what had happened to him.  Dawn light was beginning to cast its grayish pallor over the buildings below him.

"I know what you have done, brothers, but you will never know that I know!" he murmured as he wrote a single word on the window glass with the invisible chalk he always used to leave messages for his men.

He crossed to the desk and repacked the suitcase...including the newspaper and the vial that contained the rose.  He carried it to the pneumatic tube that connected his 86th floor offices with the Hidalgo Trading Company waterfront warehouse.  Wetness still glistened on his cheeks as the quitted the office.

The ultra-violet light his men would scan the glass with when the returned to find him gone would reveal only one word -- yet that word would satisfy them and quiet any fears they might have that their hoax had been discovered.  It would simply indicate that Doc was back to normal.

The word was...'Fortress'.


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.