The Hand of Attila
Story Number: 30
Writer: Peter O’Donnell
Artist: Steve Dowling/ John Allard
Published: 3rd July 1956 – 1st January 1957 (P157 – Q1)
Number of Episodes: 155
Lumiere receives a cable from Homer Lucas, a former scientific colleague who had left science for commerce many years ago. Lucas was now the multi-millionaire Vice-President of Lucrane Incorporated, a huge construction company in New York. He has begged Lumiere to fly out – at his expense – and help protect him, because his life is being threatened by a man known only as ‘Attila’.
Since Attila was an Asiatic barbarian dead for fifteen hundred years, both Garth and Lumiere are intrigued, and make arrangements to fly to New York.
Arriving by car at Lucas’ large country house in Long Island, they find to gates to the driveway are locked. Garth climbs over the wall, and is promptly set upon by a number of men concealed in the grounds, who are protecting the house. Exerting his strength and fighting skills, Garth lays out his attackers right and left, until their leader orders him to desist at the point of a tommy-gun.
Garth and Lumiere are then searched for weapons before being allowed into the house. Lumiere gives his name, and protests that they are there at the invitation of Lucas. If they will only fetch him, he can explain. The head of the protection team remarks cryptically that they will have to wait a few minutes – until 10.00pm – before Lucas can see them…if he is still alive!
At the appointed time, the door to their room is flung open, admitting Crane, the President of Lucane Constriction, and Morley, a co-director. Crane is apprised of Lumiere’s story, which he accepts; Lucas had spoken about contacting him. They learn that they are too late to help him because he has just died, despite all his precautions.
He had been in his office with Crane, Morley and Walsh, another director, when at exactly 10 pm, he had jumped up from his desk with convulsions, before dropping dead.
Examining the fallen body, Lumiere diagnoses that Lucas had died of cyanide poisoning. Despite Garth’s protests, Crane informs them that they will not be calling in the police. Using their millions, Crane and his directors will have the death attributed to natural causes – as, in fact, they had already done with the earlier deaths of two other directors. All of them had received notes from someone signing himself as ‘Attila’ demanding they leave the sum of half a million dollars in cash at a specified location – otherwise the recipient of the note will dies at a predicted time. All three to date has refused to pay, and had subsequently died at the appointed time.
Twenty years earlier, there had been a seventh partner, Alan Tiller, who had discovered a gold strike on a prospecting expedition. He had refused to share it with his partners, and a violent argument had broken out. As they scuffled, Tiller had accidentally fallen down a deep ravine to certain death. His six partners had not reported his death and had made their company’s fortune, claiming the strike for themselves. That is why they cannot now involve the police.
One of the directors, Mallory – who is in a perpetual state of anxiety and jitters – believes that Tiller has somehow survived, perhaps suffering amnesia. He has recently recovered, and is now seeking his revenge on the directors of the company formed by exploiting his discovery, styling himself as ‘Atilla’ – A. Tiller.
Walsh is the next director to receive a note demanding the half million in cash or face death. This time Walsh agrees to pay, leaving the details to Crane. Meanwhile, Lumiere’s investigations have revealed how Lucas died. An immensely proud man, boasting of his physical prowess, Lucas had secretly been addicted to pep pills, which he took surreptitiously at regular intervals three times a day, the last at 10.00pm. Somehow, ‘Attila’ had discovered his secret, and had planted a cyanide tablet in his phial container.
Crane handles the placing of the money in a large kitbag, and Garth agrees to drop this off at a flop house. Cue some padding to the plot as Garth has to fight the flophouse bully. Unknown to Garth, Crane has packed the kitbag with worthless paper, and detailed men from his protection agency to spy on the flophouse and follow whoever picks up the kitbag. But no one turns up. Unsurprisingly, in the meantime Walsh is murdered in a staged ‘accident’ in his car in his garage – carbon monoxide poisoning.
Crane then receives an anonymous phone call. He is told that if he is interested in learning more about ‘Attila’ he should ask one Goldie Floyd.
Floyd is a big-time racketeer who controls crime in the area, but is astute enough to pose as a respectable business man, and avoid arrest by the police. Garth volunteers to talk to him, and using his trademark cunning and strength manages to knock out all Floyd’s men and get inside his stronghold to confront Floyd in his pool-room. Floyd, a young Al Capone type, is mightily impressed at Garth’s prowess in penetrating his defences, and hears him out as Garth tells him about ‘Attila’ and that Floyd is supposed to know who he is.
Floyd has never heard of him, but is concerned that another crook is operating his racket in his territory. He agrees with Garth that he will use his contacts to try and find out more.
When Garth reports back to Crane, he learns that Crane has received new threatening note for half a million dollars or face dying at noon the next Thursday. Crane intends to defy the demand, and has a plan how to do so: he will lock himself in his firm’s large safe vault, half an hour before noon. He has reset the combination so that it is only known to himself. On entering the safe he will hand the combination to Garth in a sealed envelope; the safe is to be reopened an hour after noon.
(This identical sub-plot had been used before by John Russell Fearn in his 1953 sf/detective novel, The Master Must Die, which O’Donnell may well have read – or he could have come up with the same idea himself. We’ll never know!)
As the deadline approaches, Lumiere inspects the safe vault, which has been stripped bare. There are no hidden bombs, and no vents by which a lethal gas might be introduced. Shortly before Crane enters the vault, Goldie Floyd and his entourage make a surprise appearance. He announces that he is on Crane’s side in the smashing of Attila and he and his men will stay around to lend their protection and support.
Morley is more nervous than ever, and is drinking heavily. His shaking hand slops his drink over Crane’s hand and wrist. Crane has to remove his watch to wash his hand before replacing it.
Crane then enters the vault, and an hour later Garth swings open the great door to the vault – to find Crane lying dead on the floor! Lumiere stoops to examine his body, whilst Morey kneeling alongside him announces that he cannot detect any pulse. Lumiere diagnoses that the constriction of Crane’s muscles indicates that he has somehow been injected with curare, and had died at noon.
Garth announces that it is finally time to call in the police, but as he moves to the phone he is hit from behind with a blackjack, by Floyd. Since he was present at the death, he cannot risk police involvement. He orders Morley to cover up the murder.
When Garth comes to, he finds he is back in his hotel room. Lumiere tells Garth that he now has a fantastic theory concerning Attila, but before he can expound it, the doorbell buzzes. Lumiere opens the door to a find a man standing there, who languidly announces that his name is Alan Tiller! He has come to deliver his last warning. Morley now has a price of one million dollars on his head, and will soon receive his instructions on how to pay.
Garth is all set to grab Tiller, but Lumiere intervenes and he is allowed to leave unmolested. An angry Garth demands an explanation as to why they’ve let Attila go. Lumiere’s enigmatic answer is that Attila has signed his own death warrant!
Morley then arrives at their hotel room, and is apprised by Lumiere of Tiller’s new demand. An agitated Morley warns everyone to keep out of his affairs. He will be paying up, and will handle everything himself.
Lumiere asks Garth to see Floyd and persuade him to lend the services of one of his gang who is an expert safe-cracker. Floyd agrees, and one ‘Louie’ leaves with Garth to await Lumiere’s instructions.
After midnight Lumiere arrives at Garth’s room, wearing outdoor clothes, and has Garth drive the three of them to another country house. With Louie’s help, they break into the house and Louie cracks open a large safe. Inside, amongst cash and old documents, they find a wristwatch and Lumiere warns that no one must touch the watch itself; it is dangerous, and must be handled only by it strap. It is in fact the murder weapon that killed Crane. It is a duplicate of the one worn by Crane, but had been fitted with an injector mechanism to jab a curare-tipped needle at the appointed time, into Crane’s wrist.
As Garth asks how the switch with the watch had been made, the door to the room opens, and Morley enters, gun in hand. He is in a dressing gown, whereby the reader learns that Lumiere has broken into Morley’s home.
The boastful (and slightly mad) Morley reveals that he is Attila. There was no surviving Alan Tiller – he had merely hired an actor to speak lines he had paid him to say. Similarly the lead to Goldie Floyd was a false trail laid by Morley, to throw them off the track. But Lumiere had not been fooled – he had worked out how Crane had been killed, remembering Morley slopping his drink on Crane’s watch hand, giving him a chance to switch watches as Crane washed his hand at a sink. Later, in the vault, whilst Morley was pretending to check Crane’s pulse, he had switched the watches back again.
In Morley’s safe is a document drawn up when Lucrane Construction was founded, wherein if anyone in the group should die, his holding would pass to the others. Morley had long thirsted for total control to take the company in a new amoral direction, hence his elaborate plotting to divert suspicion from himself.
He now plans to shoot all three men as intruders to his house, claiming self-defence. Garth takes a desperate chance. Pushing Lumiere and Louie down behind furniture – out of Morley’s line of fire – he advances on Morley, telling him that he reckons he can survive a couple of bullets and still get his hands around Morley’s neck to throttle him before he dies.
As Morley is about to fire at Garth, another shot rings out from the French windows, killing Morley. It has been fired by Floyd, who enters the room with a henchman. They had covertly followed Lumiere to the house to see why he had wanted Louie. Garth remarks that he had suspected he might have done so, and hearing a noise outside the window, he had decided to take a chance, manoeuvring Morley so that he had his back to the window before threatening him. Floyd admiringly remarks to Lumiere: “He’s got me figured, Prof!”
Garth and Lumiere have been so involved in the several killings that they cannot now risk calling in the police. With his reputation, Floyd would not get a fair hearing from them either, when claiming he had only shot to save Garth and the others. So they leave matters to Floyd and his gang to clear things up. This they do by burning Morley’s house – with his body inside – to the ground. The newspapers carry the story the next day – cause unknown!
Later, at a New York airport as Garth and Lumiere are about to board their plane for England, Floyd offers them both jobs in his own organisation. They turn down his flattering offer!
Synopsis by Philip Harbottle
In a feature encompassing the entire history of the much-loved strip, Garth writer Philip Harbottle pays tribute to artist and editor John Allard, who worked at the Mirror for over 50 years, outlining his huge contribution to Garth‘s enduring success
Strip dates given are those of their original appearance in the British newspaper the Daily Mirror, first compiled by Geoffrey Wren and Ann Holmes and updated by Ant Jones and Philip Harbottle
Garth © REACH/ Daily Mirror