Mad Music

by Anthony Pelcher

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The sixty stories of the perfectly constructed Colossus building had mysteriously crashed! What was the connection between this catastrophe and the weird strains of the Mad Musician's violin?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

To the accompaniment of a crashing roar, not unlike rumbling thunder, the proud Colossus Building, which a few minutes before had reared its sixty stories of artistic architecture towards the blue dome of the sky, crashed in a rugged, dusty heap of stone, brick, cement and mortar. The steel framework, like the skeleton of some prehistoric monster, still reared to dizzy heights but in a bent and twisted shape of grotesque outline.

No one knew how many lives were snuffed out in the avalanche.

As the collapse occurred in the early dawn it was not believed the death list would be large. It was admitted, however, that autos, cabs and surface cars may have been caught under the falling rock. One train was known to have been wrecked in the subway due to a cave-in from the surface under the ragged mountain of debris.

The litter fairly filled a part of Times Square, the most congested cross-roads on God’s footstool. Straggling brick and rock had rolled across the street to the west and had crashed into windows and doors of innocent small tradesmen’s shops.

A few minutes after the crash a mad crowd of people had piled from subway exits as far away as Penn Station and Columbus Circle and from cross streets. These milled about, gesticulating and shouting hysterically. All neighboring police stations were hard put to handle the growing mob.

Hundreds of dead and maimed were being carried to the surface from the wrecked train in the subway. Trucks and cabs joined the ambulance crews in the work of transporting these to morgues and hospitals. As the morning grew older and the news of the disaster spread, more milling thousands tried to crowd into the square. Many were craning necks hopelessly on the outskirts of the throng, blocks away, trying vainly to get a view of what lay beyond.

The fire department and finally several companies of militia joined the police in handling the crowd. Newsies, never asleep, yowled their “Wuxtras” and made much small money.

The newspapers devoted solid pages in attempting to describe what had happened. Nervously, efficient reporters had written and written, using all their best adjectives and inventing new ones in attempts to picture the crash and the hysterics which followed.

When the excitement was at its height a middle-aged man, bleeding at the head, clothes torn and dusty, staggered into the West 47th street police station. He found a lone sergeant at the desk.

The police sergeant jumped to his feet as the bedraggled man entered and stumbled to a bench.

“I’m Pat Brennan, street floor watchman of the Colossus,” he said. “I ran for it. I got caught in the edge of the wreck and a brick clipped me. I musta been out for some time. When I came around I looked back just once at the wreck and then I beat it over here. Phone my boss.”

“I’ll let you phone your boss,” said the sergeant, “but first tell me just what happened.”

“Earthquake, I guess. I saw the floor heaving in waves. Glass was crashing and falling into the street. All windows in the arcade buckled, either in or out. I ran into the street and looked up. God, what a sight! The building from sidewalk to towers was rocking and waving and twisting and buckling and I saw it was bound to crumple, so I lit out and ran. I heard a roar like all Hell broke loose and then something nicked me and my light went out.”

“How many got caught in the building?”

“Nobody got out but me, I guess. There weren’t many tenants. The building is all rented, but not everybody had moved in yet and those as had didn’t spend their nights there. There was a watchman for every five stories. An engineer and his crew. Three elevator operators had come in. There was no names of tenants in or out on my book after 4 A.M. The crash musta come about 6. That’s all.”

Throughout the country the news of the crash was received with great interest and wonderment, but in one small circle it caused absolute consternation. That was in the offices of the Muller Construction Company, the builders of the Colossus. Jason V. Linane, chief engineer of the company, was in conference with its president, James J. Muller.

Muller sat with his head in his hands, and his face wore an expression of a man in absolute anguish. Linane was pacing the floor, a wild expression in his eyes, and at times he muttered and mumbled under his breath.

In the other offices the entire force from manager to office boys was hushed and awed, for they had seen the expressions on the faces of the heads of the concern when they stalked into the inner office that morning.

Muller finally looked up, rather hopelessly, at Linane.

“Unless we can prove that the crash was due to some circumstance over which we had no control, we are ruined,” he said, and there actually were tears in his eyes.

“No doubt about that,” agreed Linane, “but I can swear that the Colossus went up according to specifications and that every ounce and splinter of material was of the best. The workmanship was faultless. We have built scores of the biggest blocks in the world and of them all this Colossus was the most perfect. I had prided myself on it. Muller, it was perfection. I simply cannot account for it. I cannot. It should have stood up for thousands of years. The foundation was solid rock. It positively was not an earthquake. No other building in the section was even jarred. No other earthquake was ever localized to one half block of the earth’s crust, and we can positively eliminate an earthquake or an explosion as the possible cause. I am sure we are not to blame, but we will have to find the exact cause.”

“If there was some flaw?” questioned Muller, although he knew the answer.

“If there was some flaw, then we’re sunk. The newspapers are already clamoring for probes, of us, of the building, of the owners and everybody and everything. We have got to have something damned plausible when we go to bat on this proposition or every dollar we have in the world will have to be paid out.”

“That is not all,” said Muller: “not only will we be penniless, but we may have to go to jail and we will never be able to show our faces in reputable business circles again. Who was the last to go over that building?”

“I sent Teddy Jenks. He is a cub and is swell headed and too big for his pants, but I would bank my life on his judgment. He has the judgment of a much older man and I would also bank my life and reputation on his engineering skill and knowledge. He pronounced the building positively O.K.--100 per cent.”

“Where is Jenks?”

“He will be here as soon as his car can drive down from Tarrytown. He should be here now.”

As they talked Jenks, the youngest member of the engineering force, entered. He entered like a whirlwind. He threw his hat on the floor and drew out a drawer of a cabinet. He pulled out the plans for the Colossus, big blue prints, some of them yards in extent, and threw them on the floor. Then he dropped to his knees and began poring over them.

“This is a hell of a time for you to begin getting around,” exploded Muller. “What were you doing, cabareting all night?”

“It sure is terrible--awful,” said Jenks, half to himself.

“Answer me,” thundered Muller.

“Oh yes,” said Jenks, looking up. He saw the look of anguish on his boss’s face and forgot his own excitement in sympathy. He jumped to his feet, placed his arm about the shoulders of the older man and led him to a chair. Linane only scowled at the young man.

“I was delayed because I stopped by to see the wreck. My God, Mr. Muller, it is awful.” Jenks drew his hand across his eye as if to erase the scene of the wrecked building. Then patting the older man affectionately on the back he said:

“Buck up. I’m on the job, as usual. I’ll find out about it. It could not have been our fault. Why man, that building was as strong as Gibraltar itself!”

“You were the last to inspect it,” accused Muller, with a break in his voice.

“Nobody knows that better than I, and I can swear by all that’s square and honest that it was no fault of the material or the construction. It must have been--”

“Must have been what?”

“I’ll be damned if I know.”

“That’s like him,” said Linane, who, while really kindly intentioned, had always rather enjoyed prodding the young engineer.

“Like me, like the devil,” shouted Jenks, glaring at Linane. “I suppose you know all about it, you’re so blamed wise.”

“No, I don’t know,” admitted Linane. “But I do know that you don’t like me to tell you anything. Nevertheless, I am going to tell you that you had better get busy and find out what caused it, or--”

“That’s just what I’m doing,” said Jenks, and he dived for his plans on the floor.

Newspaper reporters, many of them, were fighting outside to get in. Muller looked at Linane when a stenographer had announced the reporters for the tenth time.

“We had better let them in,” he said, “it looks bad to crawl for cover.”

“What are you going to tell them?” asked Linane.

“God only knows,” said Muller.

“Let me handle them,” said Jenks, looking up confidently.

The newspapermen had rushed the office. They came in like a wild wave. Questions flew like feathers at a cock-fight.

Muller held up his hand and there was something in his grief-stricken eyes that held the gentlemen of the press in silence. They had time to look around. They saw the handsome, dark-haired, brown-eyed Jenks poring over the plans. Dust from the carpet smudged his knees, and he had rubbed some of it over a sweating forehead, but he still looked the picture of self-confident efficiency.

“Gentlemen,” said Muller slowly, “I can answer all your questions at once. Our firm is one of the oldest and staunchest in the trade. Our buildings stand as monuments to our integrity--”

“All but one,” said a young Irishman.

“You are right. All but one,” confessed Muller. “But that one, believe me, has been visited by an act of God. Some form of earthquake or some unlooked for, uncontrolled, almost unbelievable catastrophe has happened. The Muller company stands back of its work to its last dollar. Gentlemen, you know as much as we do. Mr. Jenks there, whose reputation as an engineer is quite sturdy, I assure you, was the last to inspect the building. He passed upon it when it was finished. He is at your service.”

Jenks arose, brushed some dust from his knees.

“You look like you’d been praying,” bandied the Irishman.

“Maybe I have. Now let me talk. Don’t broadside me with questions. I know what you want to know. Let me talk.”

The newspapermen were silent.

“There has been talk of probing this disaster, naturally,” began Jenks. “You all know, gentlemen, that we will aid any inquiry to our utmost. You want to know what we have to say about it--who is responsible. In a reasonable time I will have a statement to make that will be startling in the extreme. I am not sure of my ground now.”

“How about the ground under the Colossus?” said the Irishman.

“Don’t let’s kid each other,” pleaded Jenks. “Look at Mr. Muller: it is as if he had lost his whole family. We are good people. I am doing all I can. Mr. Linane, who had charge of the construction, is doing all he can. We believe we are blameless. If it is proven otherwise we will acknowledge our fault, assume financial responsibility, and take our medicine. Believe me, that building was perfection plus, like all our buildings. That covers the entire situation.”

Hundreds of questions were parried and answered by the three engineers, and the reporters left convinced that if the Muller Construction Company was responsible, it was not through any fault of its own.

The fact that Jenks and Linane were not strong for each other, except to recognize each other’s ability as engineers, was due to an incident of the past. This incident had caused a ripple of mirth in engineering circles when it happened, and the laugh was on the older man, Linane.

It was when radio was new. Linane, a structural engineer, had paid little attention to radio. Jenks was the kind of an engineer who dabbled in all sciences. He knew his radio.

When Jenks first came to work with a technical sheepskin and a few tons of brass, Linane accorded him only passing notice. Jenks craved the plaudits of the older man and his palship. Linane treated him as a son, but did not warm to his social advances.

“I’m as good an engineer as he is,” mused Jenks, “and if he is going to high-hat me, I’ll just put a swift one over on him and compel his notice.”

The next day Jenks approached Linane in conference and said:

“I’ve got a curious bet on, Mr. Linane. I am betting sound can travel a mile quicker than it travels a quarter of a mile.”

“What?” said Linane.

“I’m betting fifty that sound can travel a mile quicker than it can travel a quarter of a mile.”

“Oh no--it can’t,” insisted Linane.

“Oh yes--it can!” decided Jenks.

“I’ll take some of that fool money myself,” said Linane.

“How much?” asked Jenks.

“As much as you want.”

“All right--five hundred dollars.”

“How you going to prove your contention?”

“By stop watches, and your men can hold the watches. We’ll bet that a pistol shot can be heard two miles away quicker than it can be heard a quarter of a mile away.”

“Sound travels about a fifth of a mile a second. The rate varies slightly according to temperature,” explained Linane. “At the freezing point the rate is 1,090 feet per second and increases a little over one foot for every degree Fahrenheit.”

“Hot or cold,” breezed Jenks, “I am betting you five hundred dollars that sound can travel two miles quicker than a quarter-mile.”

“You’re on, you damned idiot!” shouted the completely exasperated Linane.

Jenks let Linane’s friends hold the watches and his friend held the money. Jenks was to fire the shot.

Jenks fired the shot in front of a microphone on a football field. One of Linane’s friends picked the sound up instantaneously on a three-tube radio set two miles away. The other watch holder was standing in the open a quarter of a mile away and his watch showed a second and a fraction.

All hands agreed that Jenks had won the bet fairly. Linane never exactly liked Jenks after that.

Then Jenks rather aggravated matters by a habit. Whenever Linane would make a very positive statement Jenks would look owl-eyed and say: “Mr. Linane, I’ll have to sound you out about that.” The heavy accent on the word “sound” nettled Linane somewhat.

Linane never completely forgave Jenks for putting over this “fast one.” Socially they were always more or less at loggerheads, but neither let this feeling interfere with their work. They worked together faithfully enough and each recognized the ability of the other.

And so it was that Linane and Jenks, their heads together, worked all night in an attempt to find some cause that would tie responsibility for the disaster on mother nature.

They failed to find it and, sleepy-eyed, they were forced to admit failure, so far.

The newspapers, to whom Muller had said that he would not shirk any responsibility, began a hue and cry for the arrest of all parties in any way concerned with the direction of the building of the Colossus.

When the death list from the crash and subway wreck reached 97, the press waxed nasty and demanded the arrest of Muller, Linane and Jenks in no uncertain tones.

Half dead from lack of sleep, the three men were taken by the police to the district attorney’s offices and, after a strenuous grilling, were formally placed under arrest on charges of criminal negligence. They put up a $50,000 bond in each case and were permitted to go and seek further to find the cause of what the newspapers now began calling the “Colossal Failure.”

Several days were spent by Linane and Jenks in examining the wreckage which was being removed from Times Square, truckload after truckload, to a point outside the city. Here it was again sorted and examined and piled for future disposal.

So far as could be found every brick, stone and ounce of material used in the building was perfect. Attorneys, however, assured Linane, Jenks and Muller that they would have to find the real cause of the disaster if they were to escape possible long prison sentences.

Night after night Jenks courted sleep, but it would not come. He began to grow wan and haggard.

Jenks took to walking the streets at night, mile after mile, thinking, always thinking, and searching his mind for a solution of the mystery.

It was evening. He had walked past the scene of the Colossus crash several times. He found himself on a side street. He looked up and saw in electric lights:


Munsterbergen, the Mad Musician Concert Here To-night.

He took five dollars from his pocket and bought a ticket. He entered with the crowd and was ushered to a seat. He looked neither to the right or left. His eyes were sunken, his face lined with worry.

Something within Jenks caused him to turn slightly. He was curiously aware of a beautiful girl who sat beside him. She had a mass of golden hair which seemed to defy control. It was wild, positively tempestuous. Her eyes were deep blue and her skin as white as fleecy clouds in spring. He was dimly conscious that those glorious eyes were troubled.

She glanced at him. She was aware that he was suffering. A great surge of sympathy welled in her heart. She could not explain the feeling.

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