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Chapter 1

You were a real person, a normal individual. You lived a real life, in a real world. And then in one day, in a few hours of one day, it all fell away around you like a structure of thin paper crumbling in the rain, and you found that you had stepped right out of it into an abyss as wide and dark as the cosmos, without beginning, without end, without one solid truth to cling to.

That was the way it seemed to Neil Banning. He was thirty-one years old, he was a New York publisher's, salesman, he was healthy, well-adjusted, and he liked his job. He ate three meals a day, worried about his income tax, and thought occasionally about getting married. He had a past, and a future. But that was before he went to Greenville.

It was pure chance. A sales trip to the West Coast, the realization on the train that he was only a hundred miles from his boyhood home, and a sudden sentimental decision. Three hours later, in bright spring sunshine, he debarked in the little Nebraska town.

He looked up at the blue prairie sky with the cloud-flecks in it, and he looked along the wide, unbusy main street. He smiled. It hadn't changed too much. Towns like Greenville are timeless.

There was one taxi-cab at the station. The driver, a long-jawed young man with a nondescript cap on the back of his head, put Banning's bags in the cab and said, "Excelsior Hotel, mister? It's the best one."

Banning said, "Just take the bags there. I'll walk."

The young man looked at him. "Cost you fifty cents anyway. Might as well ride."

Banning paid him. I'll still walk."

"It's your money, mister," said the young man. He drove off, and Banning started along the street with the fresh prairie wind whipping his topcoat around his legs,

The feed store, the lumber company, the old Horton hardware, Del Parker's barber shop. The Court House, set squat and dumpy in its square. The Dairy Lunch had a new sign featuring a colossal triple-deck ice-cream cone, and the Hiway Garage was bigger now, with a side lot full of farm implements.

He walked slowly, taking his time. The people he passed looked at him with the open, friendly curiosity of the Middle West, and he looked at them, but he didn't know any of them. After all, ten years was a long time to be away. Still, there ought to be at least one familiar face to welcome him home. Ten years wasn't that long.

He turned right at the old bank building and went down Hollins Street. Two long straggling blocks. The house, anyway, should still be standing.

It wasn't.

Banning stopped. He looked up and down the street. No mistake. This was the place, and the houses on either side were exactly as he remembered them, but where his uncle's house had stood was nothing now but weeds.

"Burned down," he thought. "Or been moved to another lot, maybe."

But he felt uneasily that there was something wrong about it. A house isn't easily erased from the surface of the earth. There's always something—a rubble-heap where the cellar was filled in, the outline of the foundation, a trace of the old walks, the trees and garden beds.

There was nothing here, nothing but a weedy vacant lot. That didn't seem right at all. He felt disappointed—the house you had grown up in was like a part of you, the focal point of your whole childhood, too full of memories to be easily lost. But he was puzzled, too, and oddly worried.

"The Greggs would know," he thought, and went on to the next house and up onto its porch. "If they still live here."

His knock was answered by an old man he didn't know, a pink-faced cheery little gnome who came around from the back yard with a garden hoe in his hands. He didn't mind talking. But he couldn't seem to understand Banning's questions at all. He kept shaking his head, and finally he said, "You've got the wrong street, young fellow. Never was any Jesse Banning lived around here."

"It was ten years ago," Banning explained. "Maybe before you came here—"

The old man stopped smiling. "Listen, I'm Martin Wallace. I've lived in this house forty-two years. You ask anybody. And I never heard of any Bannings, Furthermore, there's never been any house on that vacant lot. I know. I own it."

The first touch of real fright slid over Banning. "But I lived in a house on that lot! I lived in it for years when I was a boy. It belonged to my uncle. You weren't here then, the Greggs lived here, they had a daughter with two yellow pigtails, and a boy named Sam. I used to play—"

"See here," said the old man. All his friendliness was gone, he looked a little angry and a little alarmed. "If this is a joke, it ain't funny. If it ain't a joke, you're drunk or crazy. You get out of here!"

Banning stared at him. He didn't move. "Please," he said. "That apple-tree, at the foot of your lot—I fell out of it when I was eight years old and broke my wrist. You don't forget things like that."

The old man dropped his hoe, and backed into his house. "If you ain't off my place in two seconds," he said, "I'm going to call the police." He slammed the door, and bolted it.

Banning glared at the door, furious himself now because that faint edge of fear had sharpened and was beginning to cut into him. Deep.

"Crazy," he muttered. "Must be senile." He looked again at the vacant lot, then at the big brick house across the street. He started toward it. He remembered that house very well, and the people who had lived in it. Their name was Lewis, and they had had a daughter too, and he had taken her to dances, and picnics, and on hayrides. If they still lived here they would know what had happened.

"Lewises?" said the large, red-faced woman who answered his ring. "No, no Lewises here."

"Ten years ago," he said desperately. "They were here then, and the Bannings lived where that vacant lot is."

She stared. "I've lived here sixteen years myself, and before that I lived in that grey house three doors down. I was born there. There were never any Lewises here or any Bannings either. And there wasn't ever any house on that vacant lot."

She didn't say any more. Neither did Banning. He watched the door close. He lifted his hand to pound on it, to break it down and get hold of the red-faced woman and make her explain who was crazy, or lying, or what. Then he thought, this is ridiculous, letting them get me upset. There must be an explanation, some reason for it. Maybe a property deal, maybe they're afraid I have some claim on my uncle's old place. Maybe that's why they're lying to me, trying to make me believe I'm mistaken.

There was one place to find out for sure. One place where there was no chance of anybody lying. He walked back, fast, to the main street, and up to the Court House.

He told the girl clerk what he wanted, and waited while she checked the records. She was not in any hurry about it. Banning smoked nervously. He was sweating, and his hands shook a little.

The girl came back with a slip of paper. She seemed rather annoyed with him. "There's never been any house at 344 Hollins," she said. "Here's the record. The property—"

Banning grabbed the paper out of her hands. It said that Martin W. Wallace had purchased a house and lot at 346 Hollin, together with the unimproved lot adjoining it, legal description as follows, from a Walter Bergstrander in 1912. The lot was still unimproved.

Banning stopped sweating. He got cold. "Listen," he said to the girl. "Look up these names in Vital Statistics." He scribbled them down for her. "In the death records, Jesse Banning and Ila Roberts Banning." He scribbled dates beside each one.

The girl took the list and flounced away with it. She was gone a long time. When she came back, she was no longer annoyed. She was angry.

"Are you trying to be funny or something?" she demanded. "Wasting a person's time like this! There's no record of any of those people." She slammed the list down in front of Banning and turned away.

The wicket gate was just beside him. He pushed it open and went in. "Look again," he said. "Please. They're there. They have to be there."

"You're not allowed in here," she told him, edging away. "What's the matter with you? I told you they're not—"

He caught her arm. "Show me the books then. I'll look for myself."

She yelled and pulled away. He let her go, and she ran out of the office and down the hall, calling, "Mr. Harkness! Mr. Harkness!"

Banning, in the record room, looked helplessly at the tall shelves of heavy ledgers. He didn't understand the markings on them, he wanted to tear them all down and search them till he found the proofs that must be there, the proofs that he wasn't crazy or lying. But where to start?

He didn't start. There was a heavy footstep, and a hand on his shoulder. It was a beefy, unperturbed man with a cigar in his mouth. He took the cigar out and said, "Now young fellow, what are you creating a disturbance about?"

Banning began angrily, "Listen, whoever you are—"

"Harkness," said the beefy man. "I'm Roy Harkness, and I'm Sheriff of this county. You'd better come along to my office."

Hours later, Banning sat in the Sheriff's office and finished telling his story for the third time.

"It's a conspiracy," he said wearily. "I don't know what it's all about, but you're all in on it."

Neither the Sheriff, nor his deputy, nor the reporter and photographer from the Greenville newspaper, laughed outright. But he could see the grins they didn't quite suppress.

"You're charging," said the Sheriff, "that the whole city of Greenville has got together and deliberately falsified the records. That's a serious charge. And what reason would we have?"

Banning felt sick. He knew he was sane, and yet the world had suddenly ceased to make sense. "That's what I can't figure out. Why? Why would you people want to take my past away?" He shook his head. "I don't know. But I know that that old Mr. Wallace was lying. Maybe he's behind this."

"Only trouble is," said the sheriff, "that I've known the old man all my life. I can tell you for certain that he's owned that lot for forty-two years and there's never been so much as a hencoop on it."

Banning said, "Then I'm lying about this? But why would I?"

The Sheriff shrugged. "Could be build-up for some kind of extortion scheme. Could be a cute gag because you want publicity for some reason. And could be, you're nuts."

Banning got up, rage flaring in him. "So that's it-frame this up and then tell me I'm crazy. Well, we'll see.

He started toward the door. The Sheriff made a gesture. The photographer got a fine action shot as the deputy grabbed Banning and hustled him expertly into the jail-wing beyond the office, and into a cell.

"Psycho," said the reporter, staring at Banning through the bars. "You can't tell by looking at them, can you?"

Banning looked stupidly back through the bars at them, unable to believe that this was happening. "A frame-up—," he said thickly.

"No frame-up at all, son," the Sheriff said. "You come in and make a disturbance, you charge a lot of people with conspiracy—well, you got to stay here till we check up on you." He turned to his deputy. "Better wire to that New York publisher he says he works for. Give them a general description—six feet tall, black hair, black eyes, and so on, just in case."

He went away, and so did the deputy and the reporter and photographer. Banning was alone in the cell-wing.

He sat down and put his head between his hands. Bright sunlight poured through the high barred window, but as far as Banning was concerned it was midnight, and the darkest he had ever known.

If only he had not decided to visit the old home town—

But he had. And now he was faced with questions. Who was lying, who was crazy? He could not find any answers.

Evening came. They brought him food, and he asked about arranging bail, but he could get no definite answer. The Sheriff was out. He demanded a lawyer, and was told not to worry. He sat down again, and waited. And worried.

For lack of anything else to do, he went over the years of his life, starting from the first thing he could remember. They were all there. There were gaps and vague spots, of course, but everybody had those—the countless days in a lifetime when nothing much happened. But the main facts remained. He was Neil Banning, and he had spent a lot of his life in Greenville, in a house that everyone said had never existed.

In the morning Harkness came in and spoke to him. "I heard from New York," he said. "You're all clear on that angle."

He studied Banning through the bars. "Look, you seem a decent enough young fellow. Why don't you tell me what this is all about?"

"I wish I could," said Banning grimly.

Harkness sighed. "Pete's right, you can't tell by looking at them. I'm afraid we have to hold you for a psychiatric."

"A what?"

"Listen, I've combed this town and its records. There just never were any Bannings here. There weren't even any Greggs. And the only Lewises I could find live on a farm twenty miles from here and they never heard of you." He spread his hands. "What am I suppose to think?"

Banning turned his back. "You're lying," he said. "Get out."

"Okay." Harkness tossed something through the bars. "This might interest you, anyway." He went off down the corridor. After a while Banning picked the thing up. It was the local newspaper of the previous evening. It had a good story, the nut from New York accusing a little Nebraska town of stealing away his past. It was a story so droll that Banning knew it would surely be on all the wire services.

Banning read it three times. He began to think that soon he really would need a psychiatrist, and probably a straitjacket, too.

Just before sundown the deputy came in and said, "You've got a visitor."

Banning sprang up. Someone must have remembered him, someone who would prove that he was telling the truth.

But the man who came down the corridor was a stranger, a dark, hard, massive man of middle years, who wore his clothes with a curious awkwardness. He strode up to the cell door, walking lightly for all his bulk. He looked at Banning, and his eyes were very dark, very intense.

His bleak, square face did not change expression. Yet a subtle change did come over this massive man as he stared. He had the look of a man who has waited and endured for ages, a grim and somber man of stone who at last sees that for which he waited.

"The Valkar," he said softly, not to Banning only, but to himself, his voice leaping with a harsh throb. "Kyle Valkar. It's been a long time, but I've found you."

Banning stared. "What did you call me? And who are you? I never saw you before!"

"Didn't you?" said the stranger. "But you did. I'm Rolf. And you're the Valkar. And the bitter years are over."

Quite unexpectedly, he reached through the bars and took Banning's right hand, and set it against his own bowed forehead, in a gesture of obeisance.

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