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Title: Collected "Secret Agent X" Stories
Author: Emile C. Tepperman
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Language: English
Date first posted:  Mar 2013
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Collected "Secret Agent X" Stories


Emile C. Tepperman

Cover Image

First published in this form by PGA/RGL E-Book Editions, 2013

An illustrated collection of short stories and novelettes by Emile C. Tepperman published in the Secret Agent "X" magazine between September 1934 and April 1938.


  1. Call From Hell
    (From Secret Agent "X", Nov 1934)
  2. Considine Laughs
    (From Secret Agent "X", Sep 1934)
  3. The Eyes Of Durga
    (From Secret Agent "X", Apr 1934)
  4. The Murder Monster
    (From Secret Agent "X", Dec 1934)
  5. No Living Witness
    (From Secret Agent "X", Jun 1934)
  6. Paid In Slugs
    (From Secret Agent "X", Sep 1935)
  7. Satan's Scalpel
    (From Secret Agent "X", Mar 1934)
  8. Tomb Of Torture
    (From Secret Agent "X", May 1935)
  9. Tong Torture
    (From Secret Agent "X", Aug 1934)
  10. The Terror's Trade-Mark
    (From Secret Agent "X", Feb 1935)
  11. Taking No Chances
    (From Secret Agent "X", Apr 1935)
  12. The Suicide Coterie
    (From Secret Agent "X", Apr 1938)


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent "X", November 1934

That low eerie moan coming out of the darkness was driving Jerry Taylor crazy. It seemed to come from nowhere, yet he knew it was the anguished call of a woman in agony.

I’LL admit when I first heard it, my instinct was to get back in the car and step on the gas and go away from that place very fast.

In plain English, I was scared; and if any wise egg thinks he can get a belly laugh out of Jerry Taylor being scared, why, go aheadr and laugh, egg! But get the picture before you laugh.

This tourist camp was just off Highway Fourteen, which goes right spank through the middle of Towanda County. There’s the gas station alongside the road, and about, say, a hundred feet in, and surrounded by birch trees, are the cabins—twelve of them.

Now, Mr. Egg, suppose you drove up to this gas station at two A. M., and there was nobody around; and suppose just as you got out of the car to take a look- see if you could rouse somebody, you hear this weird moan that seems to come from right next to you. And you look around, and there’s no place that sound could have come from!

Would you be scared, egg, or wouldn’t you?

Well, I was scared. But I didn’t go away, for the very good reason that this was the place I’d been sent to by the sheriff of Towanda County.

So I kind of braced myself against the shivery feeling that crept up between my shoulder blades, and peered around to make sure there were no bodies lying around.

There weren’t.

There were just these two pumps. One was red, and it had a sign that said, “Hi- Test—$.18 plus tax.” The other was green, and its sign read, “Seabord Gas—$.14—plus tax.”

My car was in the narrow drive between the pumps and the comfort station in back of them. There was a big hundred and fifty watt bulb glaring over the roof of the comfort station, and it lit up a sign that was tacked to the front of the shack. The sign was newish, and it had black letters painted on a white background:

Flats Fixed
24-Hour Service

The cabins in back were all dark. Right next to the shack, about a dozen cars were parked with the lights out. I assumed they were the cars of tourists who were staying over night, and business seemed to be good for the Stovers.

I should tell you that I noticed all this when I first got out of the car. That was before I heard it.

The first thing I did when I climbed out of the car was to poke my head in the comfort station. It was empty, but there were two doors in the rear, a gent’s room and a ladies’ room. I figured that the guy in charge would be right out, and I walked around to the front of the car to see if that slow leak in the right hand tire had got any worse.

And that’s when I heard it.

It was a low moan of agony, like a person makes after he’s been, hurt bad—I mean, real bad. Only it wasn’t a “he,” because that voice was a woman’s.

Well, I can tell you that I jumped a little; the voice seemed to come out of the air right alongside of me.

My heel bumped a pail of water that stood next to the middle pump, and it clattered over and spilled. I didn’t pay any attention at all to the pail I just stood still for a minute till I got over the shivers, and then I looked around to try to trace the source of that moan.

There wasn’t any source.

I peered into the shadows of the parked cars, but I was sure it hadn’t come from that far away; the parking space was at least ten feet distant from the pumps. The tall trees on the other side of the road rustled a little in the wind, and made little soughing noises; but I knew that wasn’t what I had heard. I’d heard a woman moan in agony, and nobody could tell me different.

There was just that single moan, and then it was cut short, as if the woman had been suddenly gagged. And there was no more sound, except for the wind whispering along through the trees, and stirring up a little dust on the road.

I felt like taking out the gun from the holster that was sewed in my right hand pants pocket, but I figured what a laugh that might hand to the gas station attendant when he came out and found me flourishing a cannon for nothing. So I didn’t yank out the gun; I walked around the car, opened the door of the comfort station, and yelled in, “Hey! Anybody there?”

I waited a minute, and then stepped inside. It was a little room, and it was crowded with furniture and tools. At one side was a work bench with a little vat of water that was used for testing tubes and fixing tires. And in back were these two doors that I told you about.

I WAS getting kind of leery of this whole thing, and I figured there was something that was not all right, especially in view of the reason that had brought me here. So I unbuttoned my coat to make it easier to grab the gun, and went over to the door of the gent’s room and pulled it open.

And here was this guy, sitting on the floor, with his head popped back, and his eyes wide open, staring up. Only he didn’t see me, because he was dead. I knew he was dead, even though I didn’t see the back of his head at first I’ve seen enough stiffs to be able to tell ‘em.

His knees had been up in front of him, with his feet resting against the door, and when I opened the door his knees went down, and his feet came sliding out at me. At the same time his whole body slumped, and his head lolled forward, and I saw what had killed him—the back of his head had been smashed in. And right beside him lay a tire- iron; you know, one of those things they use to pry the tires off the rims with. One end of it was all bloody and messy. The white stuff, I figured, was brains.

This guy wore a dirty, oil-stained windbreaker, and a pair of greasy, baggy work-pants. His hair was a brownish color. He was about thirty, and looked like he might have been handsome if the grime was washed off his face.

Well, I didn’t stop there taking stock of him; that was just the impression I got in a flash. Because the next thing I did was to back away from that door, and get my back to the wall. I didn’t like to think of the bird that had socked him, coming back on the prowl for more customers.

I ran my eye over the rest of the room; everything seemed to be in order. I looked at the door of the ladies’ room and hesitated, and said to myself, “Nix, Jerry. Leave bad enough alone. If there’s another one in there, it would be too much of a strain on you.”

So I put my hand on the butt of the gun, and went out in the darkness. You can be sure I took a good look around before I stepped out; if there was a head- smasher around, I wanted to see him first. But you couldn’t set anything except where my headlights cut a swath through the trees on the other side of the comfort station from the parking lot.

I looked back toward the cabins; they were still dark. All asleep.

I took a quick step over to the car, stuck my hand in the window, and rested it on the horn. It wasn’t a musical horn—it just made a loud, strong noise. And after about four pushes, I saw a light go on in one of the cabins.

I let up on the horn then, and a minute or two later I saw a girl’s shadow passing in front of the shade of the cabin with the light, and I could see that she was putting something on over a nightgown. Then the door opened, and this girl stood framed in the doorway. I could see that her hair was a goldish yellow, reflected in the light from the cabin, and her face was small—and boy, was she pretty!

She called out in a low voice, “Isn’t the man there?” and started to come over.

And just then I had to hear that damn wailing moan once more!

It rose in a chilling scream of pain, then ended suddenly. I whirled around because that weird sound had seemed to come from the air right around me. But there wasn’t anything—only the bloody body of that dead man framed in the doorway inside the comfort station.

The girl had stopped short, one hand over her mouth, the other holding her bathrobe together. I could see that she was scared stiffer than I, and that was something. She swayed a little, then started to come toward me, and her little oval of a face was very white in the darkness.

I went in her direction, putting my gun away, because I didn’t want her to see the body of the dead man. She’d be sure to keel over if she saw it after hearing that yell.

I called out to her, “It’s all right, miss. I’m the detective from New York,” and came up close just in time to catch her as her knees started to buckle. She didn’t faint, as I expected she was going to do, but hung on to my shoulder for a minute. She had her mouth closed tight, and she was trembling.

I turned her around and said, “Let’s get back to that cabin, miss. You can tell me all about it in there. I guess you’re Wanda Stover, aren’t you?”

She nodded weakly, and allowed me to lead her back. “Yes. I’m so glad you’ve come. The local police are worse than useless; and I couldn’t have stood it here another night. I wake up a dozen times, and imagine the most horrible things.”

I had her inside by this time and sat her down on the bunk that was built into the wall. The cabin was nicely furnished. It had this bunk, and another one at the opposite wall. In one corner was a wash basin, and there was a dresser and two chairs. Everything clean and tip-top.

But the girl’s eyes held a sort of dazed terror, like a person who has just seen or heard a ghost.

I STILL had a vivid picture of the dead man back in the comfort station, and my ears still rang with the echo of that last unearthly shriek. I didn’t blame her much for feeling the way she did if she’d been hearing those damn noises that came from nowhere at all.

In my job as trouble expert for the Jewelers’ Protective Association, I had run into many a queer layout in my day; but this was the damnedest set-up I’d ever hit.

My reason for being out here was that I’d been asked to look into a delicate matter for one of our largest members—the firm of Larkin Brothers and Company, wholesale jewelers. Caleb Larkin, senior member, had been making his usual annual trip with his wife, combining business and pleasure. Every year he stayed over at this tourist camp, which was his second stop out of New York, and this time, the girl, Wanda Stover, had phoned the firm that he and his wife had both disappeared, together with his baggage. And Larkin Brothers had frantically informed that old man Caleb’s baggage contained one hundred thousand dollars worth of jewelry stock!

Larkin Brothers had requested the local constable to lay off summoning the county police till I got on the scene—they didn’t want any undue publicity if the story was unfounded. So here I was, and the first thing I smack into is a guy with his head staved in, and the next thing is these uncanny moans that come from nowhere.

I gave the girl my name now, and said, “All right, Miss Stover, see if you can get yourself together and hand me the low-down on this business. Just what happened here?”

She nodded eagerly, as if anxious to get the thing off her chest “We didn’t think much of it at first—that is, dad and myself. Mr. and Mrs. Larkin had this very cabin. Last night, about twelve-thirty, I was just going to sleep, when there was the sound of a scuffle of some sort from in here, and then a low cry from Mrs. Larkin. I had cabin number five, right across the row, and I came out for a minute.

“Dad was outside, and he said not to pay any attention to it, because a man had a right to have a fight with his wife if he wanted to. We didn’t do anything about it—and this morning there was no Mr. and Mrs. Larkin in here. They were gone! But their car’s still here. They couldn’t have walked away in the night, carrying the three heavy suit-cases.” She clenched her hands. “I was sure something happened to them. And then, tonight, those moans. I can’t tell where they come from. They seem to grow right out of the air. It’s—”

She stopped and shuddered, as a thin wail cut through the air from somewhere outside. It was bloodcurdling, like a call right out of hell. I jumped up, yanked the door open, and peered into the night. There was still nothing to be seen. The comfort station was brightly lit, and I knew what was in there. It wasn’t that guy that was doing the moaning and wailing.

The other cabins were all dark. The sound hadn’t been loud enough to awaken any of the tourists—just enough to curdle the blood of anybody who heard it. I said to Wanda Stover, “Maybe in the morning we’ll find somebody else disappeared out of one of the other cabins.”

She shivered. “That sound isn’t coming from the cabins. It seems to come from the road. It’s as if—as if some soul in torment were haunting the place!” She wrapped her robe more tightly about her to keep out the chill of the night air. “I wish dad would come back. He went to get Constable Jaeger when we started to hear those noises tonight. And Kellman—I wonder where he is. He’s supposed to be on duty at the tanks tonight.”

“This Kellman,” I asked dryly, “is he a young fellow, about thirty, with brownish hair, kind of dirty looking?”

She stared at me wide-eyed. “That’s Kellman, the handy-man. Where did you see him?”

“Out near the road as I came,” I answered evasively.

She might have asked me some more, but just then a car pulled in to the driveway from the road. Two men get out. Both were tall; one was lanky, the other was fat and round, and had trouble squirming out.

The girl exclaimed, “There’s dad—and he’s brought Constable Jaeger.” She started to run toward them, but I grabbed her arm, held her back.

“Never mind,” I said hastily. “They’ll come here.” I didn’t want her to see the body of Kellman in there. I urged her back into the cabin, sat her down on the bunk.

Pretty soon I heard loud talking from the direction of the comfort station. They’d discovered the body. After a while we could hear them walking over to the cabin, still talking loud. They barged in, looked me over like I was a freak, and their mouths clamped shut.

The girl said to the fat man, “Dad, this is Mr. Taylor from the Jewelers’ Protective Association. And this,” indicating the lanky individual, who was eyeing me awful suspicious, “is Constable Jaeger.”

Constable Jaeger stretched out a long arm, shook hands with me. “I hope you fellers appreciate what I done fer you, not notifyin’ the county officials till you come out. I’m sorry now I didn’t. It’s murder now!”

Wanda Stover put her hand to her mouth, eyes wide. “Murder!”

Jaeger nodded vigorously. “Head bashed in. We cain’t fool around with this no longer. I got to phone the Sheriff of Towanda County.”

“Wait a minute, constable,” I broke in. “I was in touch with the sheriff before coming. He’s going to have some county detectives out here in the morning.”

JAEGER was a pretty keen fellow for a hick cop. He looked searchingly from me to Stover, then eyed the girl speculatively. “I can’t take a chance on not phoning him,” he said slowly. “You may be all right, young feller, but I don’t know you from Adam. I’ll just call him up anyway, to make sure there’ll be somebody here in the morning to take the responsibility off my shoulders.”

He turned to open the door, said over his shoulder, “There’s a phone over at the roadhouse down the highway a piece. Don’t none of you leave, till I get back.”

He cast a queer look at Stover, seemed to hesitate, and said, “Come along with me, Stover. There’s somethin’ I’d like to talk to you about!”

Stover shuffled uneasily, shifted from one foot to the other. “Look here, Bill,” he exclaimed. “They ain’t—”

He stopped, because Wanda suddenly uttered an ear-piercing shriek. Her face was white with fear, and she was pointing to the window. The shade was down, and I couldn’t see a thing. But she cried, “Some one’s out there! I saw the shadow!”

Jaeger flung the door open, slipping a gun out of his side pocket with amazing speed. I was right after him into the night, and we both saw a figure running fast toward the shadows at the left of the gas station where the cars were parked. Jaeger roared out in a voice that shattered the stillness of the night, “Stop right there!”

The figure didn’t stop, but kept on running, disappeared into the shadows of the parking space. And just then we heard that damn screech once more. It seemed to come from the edge of the road, just beyond the lights of the comfort station. Jaeger paid no attention to the screech. He had launched himself after that fleeing shadow, with me right close behind him. I had my own gun out now. In back of us I could hear Stover yelling, “Get back in the cabin, Wanda. Close that door!”

Jaeger and I had reached the parking space now, and we separated, going in different directions between the darkened, parked cars. I saw a little blur of movement inside a big door closed silently. The starter whirred, and gears clashed. I raised the butt of my gun, smashed in the glass, and jumped on the running-board. The car was already in motion. I saw a thin, desperate face in the darkness of the interior, and I slammed out with my reversed gun. I felt the butt crunch into the face, and there was a gasp from within. The car stalled, came to an abrupt stop. The figure slumped away from the wheel.

Jaeger had come running, and now I reached in, opened the door from inside, and the two of us lifted out the semi-conscious man from within. My gun butt had done plenty damage to his face. His nose was broken, and the butt had raked his cheek. He moaned a little, and offered no resistance as Jaeger clamped handcuffs on, pinioning his hands behind him. The man’s eyes shifted desperately from me to Jaeger, and his mouth twitched peculiarly. I couldn’t tell if the twitch was natural, or the result of the sock I’d given him.

Stover came puffing up to us, looked down at this guy’s face, and exclaimed, “Why, that’s Mr. Birch, from cabin number four!”

Jaeger grunted, turned his flash down on the man’s face. “I’ve seen that mug before,” he muttered. “Seems like I seen it on a handbill in the office. Take him into cabin number eight, next to Wanda’s.”

We carried him back to number eight. A lot of doors in the other cabins were open now, and people were peering out—people in all states of undress, awakened from their sleep by the rumpus.

Jaeger yelled at them, “You can all go back to sleep, ladies and gents. It’s just a little accident. Ever’thing is all right”

Some of the people crowded up to the door of the cabin, but Jaeger growled at them, and closed the door in their faces. Birch was breathing hard now, and his eyes were closed.

Being a Jewelers’ Protective man above everything else, I sneaked across to number four while Stover and Jaeger were attending to Birch, and took a quick look around for Larkin’s baggage, which contained the jewelry stock, which was what I wanted. But there wasn’t a sign of it in there. Birch’s only baggage was a small overnight bag, and there was nothing in that to show who he might be, or where he came from. I had noted that his car had a New York license, and that was all I knew.

I went back to cabin number eight. A couple of the tourists were still hanging around, but they went back to their cabins when they saw that nothing else was happening. In number eight, Stover was saying as I came in, “I cain’t find no identification on him. He’s out from the pain. Wait’ll he comes to; we’ll make him talk plenty!”

Jaeger looked up, said to me, “He’ll need a doctor after what you done to him. I’ll phone for Doc Swiggins from the village when I go down to the roadhouse.”

He made for the door, and I went out with him. I was kind of worried about Wanda Stover, alone in the cabin there. Jaeger ordered Stover, “You stay by him till the doctor comes. Don’t let nobody in here. He must be workin’ with some one else, an’ they may try to rescue him.”

Stover looked up from where he knelt by the injured man’s bunk, opened his mouth as if to say something, looked from the constable to me, and then gulped, stayed silent.

I didn’t like it. There was something still wrong in the set-up, and it was emphasized for me as Jaeger and I went out. The people from the other cabins had gone back to sleep. There was still a light in number ten next door, where Wanda Stover was waiting, and there were lights in a couple more down the line. Some of them went out as we stood there.

And then, from down the road came that eerie wail once more. This time it was a little weak, as if the ghost of somebody or other had kind of tired himself out. I looked at Jaeger, and his face was sweating a little—I could see it in the darkness. He said, “Hully gee, Taylor, that ain’t no human voice. I never believed much in ghosts, but this—”

“What about Birch?” I asked him dryly. “Does he look like a ghost to you?”

He shook his head. “I reckon you’re right. This is human bein’s doin’s. Especially that there jewelry of Larkin’s. Ghosts don’t wear no jewelry, do they?”

I lit a cigarette, offered him one which he refused. He took out a battered corn-cob pipe, stuffed it full of vile tobacco, and lighted up. He pursed his lips, allowed a cloud of milky-colored smoke to seep out, and looked at me speculatively. “Look here, Taylor. You got the look of the kind of guy that can handle himself. I want you to stick close to Wanda Stover while I’m gone; don’t let nothin’ happen to her!”

I HAD that idea myself. In fact, the idea was very strong with me, ever since I’d seen that picture of Wanda framed in the doorway of the cabin, with her goldish- yellow hair and her white, soft face and throat. But I didn’t let on. I only asked him, “What’s on your mind, constable? You thinking of something in particular?”

He nodded somberly, puffing away at the corn-cob. “Aye. Something on my mind.” He bent closer, his eye on number eight where Stover watched our prisoner. “Ye don’t know, do ye, that Stover ain’t Wanda’s real father? He’s her step-father. That ain’t so much by itself.”

He hesitated, seemed to come to a decision, and spoke swiftly. “I’m tellin’ ye this confidential, of course—Stover an’ me, we used to own this here tourist station in partners. It never paid as a tourist camp. But we made it pay—outten—bootleggin’! We run liquor outta here, supplied the whole territory. It was sweet while it lasted. Then we had to go an’ sock our dough in Wall Street, an’ them wolves took it away from us.”

I grinned, and he grinned back at me sheepishly, went on. “Bootlegging wasn’t no real crime; plenty of law officers made their fortunes outten it. The only thing is, we let it slip. Then, when prohibition came, we was practically put outta business. I got smart, an’ sold my half interest to Stover, an’ he got Wanda back from boarding school to help run the place on the level. Well,” he paused, continued reluctantly, “my guess is, he found he couldn’t get by on the level; he’s got a loan due at the bank that he can’t meet. He’s in danger of losing the whul place here. A man pushed like that’ll do awful things.” He reached out, put a pleading hand on my lapel. “If Stover turns out to have a hand in it, go easy on him. I couldn’t stand to have Wanda faced with all that misery. I’ll help you to get the jewels back, if possible, but give Stover a break. All you want is to get the jewels back anyway, ain’t it?”

I shook my head. “Sorry, constable. I know how you feel. But this is murder. I may be working for the Jewelers’ Protective, but I can’t condone murder.”

He eyed me silently for a moment, then bowed his head. “I—guess you’re right.” He sighed. “Well, look out for Wanda till I get back.”

I watched him go, then stepped toward cabin number ten. And just then the wailing shriek came again, this time with a note of appeal in it that was enough to drive one frantic. I saw the constable stop short, peer around in the darkness, throwing his flash every which way. He had his gun out again, and he seemed scared stiff. The shriek tapered off into silence, ending in a moan.

Jaeger turned to me, and his face, reflected in the light from the comfort station was drawn, apprehensive. He saw that I was looking at him, and kind of straightened out, sort of ashamed of himself. He called out to me, “Jist stay there a minute, will you, Taylor, till I git in the car?”

I said “Okay,” and watched him get in his flivver and drive away. The night was silent now. The people in the other cabins didn’t come out any more. They were probably making up their minds to get away from this place the first thing in the morning. Ghosts don’t mix well with vacations.

I looked over to number eight, where Stover was watching Birch. The light was on, and everything in there seemed quiet enough. The thought occurred to me that if Stover was in on the thing with Birch, it would be a good spot for him to let Birch make a getaway. However, Birch was semi- conscious; he’d be hard to move noiselessly; anyway, I was anxious to get to Wanda Stover and kind of console her—like the constable had asked me to, only for reasons of my own.

I knocked on the door, and went in. The girl was sitting on the bunk; and that was a kind of a surprise to me—the damn place was getting on my nerves so that I’d almost expected to find her gone, the same as had happened to Mr. and Mrs. Larkin. But she wasn’t gone. She was there all right.

She had been crying, and had wiped her eyes, and I could see streaks on her cheeks where the face powder had caked from her tears.

I sat down on the bunk next to her, and tried to sort of cheer her up, but she didn’t cheer much. She did snuggle her hand in mine though, and say, stuttering like, as if she was about to burst into tears once more, “Poor Kellman! He w- was saving up his money to go in business for himself n-next year. Now he’s dead; and this place is ruined. N-nobody will come here any more.”

I did the best consoling job on her that I could. I handed her the line about Fate, and Kismet, and some more blooey. All the time I was thinking about how nice it would be for her if it came out that her step-father was mixed up in this business, but I acted cheerful, even if I didn’t feel that way. After a little more of the old blarney, I had her thoughts away from the murder, away from the disappearance of Larkin and his wife. She was telling me about her school life, and everything would have been hunky-dory, if that scream hadn’t come to us again from out of the night.

She stiffened. Her little hands tightened on mine, and a shudder went through her whole body. “Jerry!—” she was calling me Jerry by this time— “where in God’s earth can that be coming from?”

I started to say something, to reassure her, but I stopped short in the middle of a syllable. I don’t remember what it was I had been about to say to her, for then the lights went out with a suddenness that made me gasp.

I spun off the bunk, sneaked my gun out, and started for the door, dragging her along. I could hear her breathing hard, terrified like, and she clutched my hand, whispered, “W- who did that?”

I said “Sh!” and gently disengaged my hand. It was the hand with the gun in it, and I wanted that free. Somebody had turned those lights out from outside, and whoever did it must have a purpose—he wasn’t playing pranks at two- thirty A.M. I wanted to be ready for the next act.

But she grabbed onto me again, pressed close. “I’m frightened!” she whispered.

I wanted to say “So am I!” but that wasn’t the right thing to say, so I kept quiet. I stuck my free hand in my pocket to get the flashlight out, and suddenly I felt the girl’s whole body shiver. Her lips, close to my ear, murmured, “Look—the bunk!”

IN the darkness the bunk in the opposite wall was nothing more than an indistinct blur, but I could see what she meant. That bunk was moving! It was swinging out on some sort of pivot, and it disclosed an opening underneath it, even darker than the interior of the cabin.

I wrenched my gun hand free from her grip, shoved her behind me, and faced the opening. Nothing came out of it. I got out the flashlight, clicked it on, and stepped close. My light illuminated a short ladder that led downward into what seemed to be a sort of cave. And while I listened, a moan came out of there!

Wanda Stover had come after me, and she stood close behind me now, clinging to my coat. I said to her over my shoulder, “Are you game to stay here while I go down? I think this is the answer to the whole story.”

She shivered. “No, no. Don’t leave me alone. Wait till the constable comes back.”

“That moan,” I said, “sounds like somebody’s in a bad way. They may get killed while we’re waiting. I got to go now.”

She hesitated, then said reluctantly, “I’ll go with you.”

I didn’t wait for her to change her mind, but started down the ladder, she right close above me. I got to the bottom—there were six steps; it’s funny how you notice things like that at such a time. I don’t think I’ve ever counted steps before, but I did then. It wasn’t important, it didn’t matter, but I counted them. I helped the girl down the last couple, and swung my flash around.

This was a natural cave in the rock. Farther on I could see two bulky steel objects, about four feet high and ten in diameter. Pipes led upward from them to the surface of the ground. I knew what they were—the two gasoline tanks that supplied the pumps up above. The builders had made use of the natural cave to place the tanks there. Farther on, to the left, was a circular opening cut into the ceiling of the cave—the manhole which permitted the attendant to go down and clean the tanks.

I started to walk forward, keeping my gun ready, when the girl cried out sharply. I turned, and followed her finger pointing upward. The opening through which we had come down was closing; the bunk above was swinging back in place. We were trapped!

I sprang up that ladder, but too late. The bunk had slid back in place and I couldn’t move it from underneath.

I glanced down, saw the girl gazing up at me with terror-stricken eyes, and climbed down again.

And once more we heard that moan.

It was quite distinct now, and I could have sworn that it came from one of the gas tanks. Wanda Stover threw her arms around my neck and screamed. I patted her shoulder, said, “Take it easy, girlie.”

I started toward the tanks, and heard another sound; this was a masculine shout, and the words were plain enough— “Help! Help!”

That came from the tanks all right, and no mistake. I played the flash on the nearest one, and sure enough, there was a round plate set in the wall of the tank. It had been cut out probably with an acetylene torch. A handle had been fitted to it so that it could be removed. I grabbed that handle, yanked, and the plate came out. I threw the beam of my flash inside, and got the full impact of the gasoline fumes. I didn’t even notice the fumes, because of what I saw. There was about five inches of gasoline in the tank, and on the floor, right in the gasoline, lay four trussed-up figures. Two of them lay there inertly, while the other two were struggling, straining to free themselves. One of those two was a man, and he was gagged; the other was a woman, and she, too, had been gagged, but she had worked the gag off. It was she who had been doing all the moaning and shrieking.

Mr. and Mrs. Larkin—that’s who it was. I couldn’t see the faces of the other two, but I could make a good guess who they might be.

I started to step into that tank, and just then I heard the sound of an automobile starter from up outside. I don’t know what made me look up, what made me wonder about the starter. It was the smartest thing I ever did in my life—so smart that I can’t get over it yet. For there, hanging out of the manhole entrance, I noticed two wires. I played the flash along those wires, and saw that their ends were connected to a spark plug.

For a minute my mind didn’t function. The starter was whirring up above, and I was looking at that spark plug as if it didn’t mean a thing in my life. But it did. And suddenly I got it.

I let out a wild yell, dropped the gun, and jumped about four feet in the air. My frantic fingers just caught that spark plug, tore at it wildly; and when I landed back on the floor, I was holding the plug and the wires were dangling loose. I felt cold sweat all over me. The starter above had just caught on, and I could hear the motor running, being speeded up.

Wanda Stover said, “W-what’s the matter?”

“The matter! When that motor started it would have created a spark at the plug there, and all this free gas would have been ignited. We’d be three quarters of the way up to heaven by this time!”

Wanda exclaimed, “That man, Birch! Maybe he was shamming that he was hurt. I wonder what he did to dad!”

I COULD have told her where her dad was. She was too excited to notice, but I had seen that one of the unconscious figures in the gasoline tank was big, bulky, like her stepfather.

I heard footsteps crunching on the gravel above, and hissed, “Keep quiet. He’s coming to see why we haven’t exploded!”

I turned out the flashlight, whispered to Wanda, “Go in there and untie those people while I watch here.”

She had got some of her courage back, and she pressed my arm, stole away toward the tank.

I looked upward toward the manhole, saw a dim shape peer over, saw him turn a flash down at the loose ends of the wire, and curse under his breath. He started to pull the wires up, evidently intending to try again with another plug. This time he would not lower it so far down I guessed.

I raised my gun, aimed at the head, and stopped. I had just thought of something. The explosion of my gun would do as much to the free gases in the cave as that spark plug would have done. No good. No shooting.

I dropped the gun quick, made a flying leap for the ends of the wires. I just caught them, gripped hard, and yanked downward with my descending body. The guy up there had a grip on those wires, was probably kneeling over the manhole. The drag on the wires pulled him forward, took him by surprise, and he came toppling down through the manhole. He landed on top of me with a grunt, but I grunted more—the wind was almost all knocked out of me.

He jabbed an elbow into my face, and things got jumpy for me, but I held on, lifted my knees, lashed out with my feet, and turned over. He was thrown off me. My flash had gone out when I dropped it, and I could hear him swear like hell in the dark.

I let a fist go fast in the direction of the swear words and it crunched into teeth. The swear words stopped.

My face hurt like the devil. I was sore. So I drove a couple more fast ones at that face that I couldn’t see, and then reached out and grabbed a neck in both hands. But there wasn’t any resistance. The guy was out for the count.

I scrambled up to my feet, saw shadowy figures coming out of the tank. Wanda was helping her stepfather out, and after them came Mr. and Mrs. Larkin. Larkin was being supported by his wife. It looked like a case of the women had all the stamina.

Last of all came the fourth man who’d been tied up in that tank.

Larkin said, trying to sound like he’d never been scared, “Good work, my man. You’re from the Jewelers’ Protective, aren’t you?”

I didn’t bother answering. “Give us a lift, somebody,” I called out, “so I can get out through that manhole; I’ll go see if I can open the bunk from up in the cabin.”

“I can open it,” came Stover’s voice. “There’s a couple of switches down here. We used this place for storing liquor in the old days, and the bunks in number eight an’ number ten are fixed to swivel out so’s we could load the cases in.”

It took us about fifteen minutes to get everybody up in the cabin. The fourth man who had been tied up in the tank proved to be Birch, the little guy I had caught in the car, before.

I went down again, got the unconscious body of the bird I’d knocked out in the cave, and slung him over my shoulder, climbed the ladder into the bunk. When I got him into the light, Wanda gave a gasp. “It’s Constable Jaeger!”

“Sure.” I nodded bitterly. “He was fixing to send us all up in bits, and not leave a shred of evidence. He had the jewels, and he was going to destroy everybody who might have been able to give the cops a clue. He’s the one that bashed in Kellman’s head. Kellman probably got wise to him.”

Jaeger was stirring, regaining his consciousness. “Wait’ll he comes to,” I told Larkin, whose wife was wiping his face for him with a wet towel. “We’ll make him tell us where the jewels are.”

Stover broke in. “They’re in number eight. He brought the suit-cases up through the bunk in there—it opens up the same as this one. That’s why he told us to bring Birch in there. He surprised me while I was watching Birch, knocked me out, and dragged us both down in the tank. It’s my fault for not telling you about that cave before. I kinda suspected what was going on, but I couldn’t talk to you while Jaeger was around. I was afraid he’d shoot up the two of us. I was goin’ to come in to see you in number ten, but Jaeger got me first.”

I swung around on Birch. “What did you have to do with all this?” I demanded. “What were you listening at the window for? And what did you take it on the lam for?”

He hung his head, then raised his eyes to mine with a pleading look. When he spoke his voice was strangely refined. “I-I’m on the—er—lam, as you put it—from my wife. She’s got an order for me to pay her five hundred dollars a month alimony, and if I don’t pay it, I go to jail. So I just packed up and took a trip. When I heard the constable talking here, I thought he was on my trail, and I came over to listen.” He was certainly in a pitiable state. “W-what are you going to do to me? For God’s sake, don’t send me back to that wife of mine!”

I bent down and put handcuffs on Jaeger, who was waking up.

Then I straightened up and grinned at Birch. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t even know you’re here. I can sympathize with you—some guys pick wrong when they marry. I won’t.”

I knew I couldn’t pick wrong, because I saw the look in Wanda’s eyes. Larkin began talking, telling me something about the send- off he was going to give me at the Jewelers’ Protective, but I didn’t really pay any attention to him. I was busy.

And I’m sure Wanda wasn’t listening to him either.


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent "X", September 1934

For sixteen long years these four men lived together in a fierce hate and distrust. Each was like a crouching vulture ready to spring. Only one thing held them together—greed.

STEVE DAGGETT thought it strange that no one had met him at the station. He waited until the train pulled out, leaving him alone in the gathering gloom. There was no one on duty at the station, not a soul around. It was one of those local stop-on-signal-only spots.

Steve waited a few moments, then shrugged and started up the road. Lanson had given him a fairly good idea of Doctor Mizenor's cabin. The night air was cool and crisp. He shivered slightly, and turned up the collar of his overcoat.

He had started from the office at a moment's notice and carried no baggage. Lanson, his boss, had said, "Take the call, Steve. If you make the two-ten, it'll bring you up there in the early evening. Mizenor promised to have some one meet the train, but you can't go by that; he seemed scared stiff on the phone and might not remember. Got an overcoat? Better take it—the Adirondacks are cold in October."

That was all the notice he had had, and Steve hadn't squawked, because the motto of the Star Detective Service was, "Give 'em service—and charge them plenty!"

A hundred yards down, the road turned east. As he trudged along, Steve could see the lights of Chateaugay far away at his left, across the lake. It was one of those clear evenings that are so frequent in the Adirondacks, when one can see for miles in every direction, until the view is cut off by a towering mountain.

Just ahead of him he caught sight of the sign-post he had been looking for. It pointed off to the right, and said, "Brant Lake—1 Mile."

He turned into the road indicated by the sign-post. This was a paved road, but narrower than the one he had just quit; and the hard pavement seemed cold and bleak, in keeping with the surly mood of the mountains on every side. The road sloped sharply uphill, and disappeared on the other side of the slope. Lanson had said that Doctor Mizenor's cabin would be just beyond the top of the hill, and Steve tried to estimate how much farther he would have to trudge.

Somehow the clearness of the night, instead of making him feel at ease, caused him a queer, prickly uneasiness, as if hidden eyes were closely watching: his progress. He had no idea why Mizenor had summoned a detective, knew very little about him, in fact.

But Lanson had said that the man seemed on the verge of hysterics on the phone, apparently in fear of something that he was afraid even to mention. Mizenor had wanted a detective at once; and he didn't quibble at the preposterous fee Lanson had asked. Lanson, of course, had taken the precaution of calling the bank that Mizenor had given as reference, and he had whistled when the credit man had mentioned the prospective client's balance.

Steve wondered what dread shadow of menace could possibly be hanging over that mountain cabin, what queer purposes caused a man like Mizenor to remain up there in the middle of October.

And suddenly he stopped short, caught his breath in a spasm of terror.

In spite of the cool night air, his face and hands became bathed in sweat as he realized what it was that he saw ahead of him on the path!

It was only fifty feet ahead, and he could see it clearly, unmistakably, every detail of it.

The man was dead, without doubt. He was tied to the tree, arms twisted behind him, head hanging to one side, and mouth horribly open and bloody where he had bit his lips in the sudden agony of death.

The thing that had killed him was a sharpened stake cut from the branch of a fir sapling. It had been driven into his heart with tremendous force!

Steve felt panicky for a minute, swung his head all around, but saw no one. He felt in his overcoat pocket where he had his gun, and approached the body. He wished it was pitch dark. It was still too light. He had the feeling that total darkness would be welcome, so he could lose himself in it. As it was, he could easily be seen, was a ready target for another one of those sharpened stakes. Shivery-chills crept up his unprotected back.

He came close and saw that the body was that of a big man, almost six feet, powerfully built. He had been in his fifties, iron-gray hair, clean-shaven face, with a stiff Hohenzollern moustache. The man had been killed only a short while ago, for the blood still dripped from the horrid wound, forming a vermilion pool on the ground. The man's body was sagging in the ropes, and the stake stuck out at right angles; about four feet of it. It must have taken tremendous strength, Steve thought, to drive that stake into his heart. Whoever had done it was no puny one, must at least have been as big as the victim.

Steve didn't touch the body. There was no use doing that, no use searching around on the cement road. The answer to this gruesome scarecrow of death posted on the highway must lie in Doctor Mizenor's cabin.

Steve suddenly gasped at the thought that this might be Doctor Mizenor, that the doom that threatened his client had caught up with him before help could come. And was that doom lurking somewhere around, waiting for another victim?

Steve's grip tightened on the gun as he made his way up the road, leaving the horrid marker of murder there behind him. There'd be plenty of time to come back and investigate after he found what awaited him at the cabin. He could call the local police from there, too.

HE topped the knoll and saw the cabin, fifty feet off the road, standing alone and secluded.

The place was strangely quiet, apparently lifeless, dark. But as he approached, a light went on in the room opening on the veranda. Figures moved inside that room, before the drawn shades—figures that seemed strangely ominous in the surroundings.

Steve clutched his gun firmly, climbed the porch. A man's voice came through the door, thin, high-pitched, querulous, containing an overtone of hysterical fear. The words were unintelligible, for they were uttered in a foreign tongue. Another voice, deep-toned, replied in the same language. Then Steve's tread caused the boards of the porch to squeak, and the voices were suddenly hushed, as if a large blade had swept through the air and cut off the words in mid-sentence.

Steve kept his right hand on the gun and knocked at the door with his left. There was absolute silence while Steve's chest heaved with the accelerated pumping of his heart. Then the thin voice uttered a short impatient word of command, and light steps approached the door, undid one lock, then another. The door opened a crack, held by a chain. The one who looked through that crack was short—his eyes were no higher than the level of the top button of Steve's vest. The eyes were black, sharp, intelligent. The face was that of a youth, downy, untouched yet by a razor. It was a remarkably thin face, appearing almost gnomelike, with hair cropped close to the skull in eastern European fashion.

A low voice asked in fairly good English, "Who are you?" The words came with a slight tremor and were accompanied by a glance, half appraising, half fearful.

"The name is Daggett," Steve said, meeting those dark eyes steadily. "Doctor Mizenor live here?"

The man inside nodded shortly, saying nothing, waiting tautly.

"I'm from the Star Detective Service. The doctor sent for me."

The little man said, "Wait," and almost before the word was out, he closed the door. Steve waited uncertainly, while a low-voiced colloquy went on inside. Once more the door was opened, this time wide, without use of the chain.

The little man stood aside and said, "Come in, please."

Steve walked in. He held the automatic in his pocket and slipped off the safety catch. He didn't know, yet, what he was walking into. The door closed behind him, and he found himself facing three men in the brightly lighted living room. The little servant stood beside him and indicating one of the men, said, "Herr Doktor Mizenor, this is the detective."

Herr Doktor Mizenor was taller than Steve, who was himself a good five foot ten and a half. But he was so thin that he seemed on the point of caving in. He wore a blue business suit, and the vest was literally concave where his stomach should have been. He was so attenuated that he seemed to have no stomach at all. His starched collar was at least an inch too big for the long, scrawny neck that supported a head with hollow cheeks and deep-sunk eyes. A thin moustache with the points unturned was a futile gesture of bravado, for beads of sweat glistened on the man's cheek-bones. He was quite evidently in a complete state of funk. Without preamble, he asked, "Where is Colonel Walczek? Did you not meet him at the station?"

Steve let his eyes wander to the two other men in the room. They were both standing, and he appraised them, almost unconsciously, with an eye to their strength, to their capacity for driving a sharpened stake into a man's heart! Either of those two could have done it. They were both powerful-looking men, broad shouldered, well-muscled. One was blond, of medium height, with the tapered hips of an athlete. His expression was sullen. He stood silent, hands at his sides, eyes steadily fixed on Steve. Those hands were wide, hairy, dangerous.

The other man was squat, brutish, probably the stronger of the two. There was a queer expression on his face, as if he were communing with some inner spirit. Constantly, nervously, he hitched up his right shoulder. It was an irritating trick, especially to one who was on edge, like Steve at that moment.

Mizenor's impatient voice interrupted his observations. "I say—did you meet Colonel Walczek at the train?"

Steve turned his eyes to the doctor. "I don't know; what does he look like?"

Mizenor turned to the blond man, fists clenched, nails biting into the palms of his hands. "You see, Considine? I told you Walczek was a traitor. He was sold out to our—Nemesis. He has left us to our fate. He will not return."

The blond man who had been addressed as Considine shrugged. "What of it? There will be one less to divide—"

The squat one, who had said nothing up to now, hitched up his shoulder and broke in hurriedly; he spoke in the slurred fashion common to eastern Europeans. "Yes, yes, Considine. We understand. No need to mention—" he glanced significantly at Steve.

Considine showed even white teeth in a grin. "It matters little. If we are to use him at all, he must know the whole story." He turned to Mizenor. "My dear Doktor. You have neglected to introduce us to this gentleman."

Mizenor said absently, "Of course."

Steve said, "My name is Daggett."

The blond man said, "I am Count Anatole Considine. This," indicating the short, squat man, "is Herr Flecknitz."

Steve acknowledged the surly nod of Herr Flecknitz.

"And this," Considine went on, indicating the little servant who had opened the door, "is Petrus. Petrus is invaluable. He can mix the most delightful cocktails. Go now, Petrus—" his voice took on an edge of scornful authority, "and make drinks."

PETRUS bowed meekly and left the room. His eyes were veiled, but Steve had been startled by the momentary flash of hatred that he saw in the little servant's eyes before he allowed his long lashes to hide it.

Considine laughed carelessly. "Sometimes I think, my dear Mizenor, that if this Nemesis of ours that you speak of so much does not destroy us, your precious Petrus will accomplish the task for him. I would insist that you discharge him, except that I enjoy the added hazard of being stabbed in the back some dark night by a disgruntled servant. These are the things, Mister Detective, that make life—bearable!"

He flung himself into an easy chair near the window, extracted a straw-tipped cigarette from a silver case and offered one to Steve, who accepted. "My friends do not smoke," Considine went on, as he held a light to Steve's cigarette. "In fact, they do nothing for the last two days, but cower in fear of this 'Nemesis.'" He seemed to take a malicious pleasure in baiting the others. His eyes flicked up to the doctor, who was striding up and down, hands sunk in trousers pockets. "Not so, my dear Mizenor?"

Flecknitz, the squat man, turned and looked moodily into the glowing open fireplace. He said over his shoulder, "Let us get through with this, Considine. We must find what has happened to Walczek. I am sure he did not drop us—the loss to him would be too great."

"This Colonel Walczek," Steve asked, "is he a big man, closely shaven, with an imperial moustache?"

Flecknitz swung away from the fireplace, faced him tensely. "You met him?"

Mizenor stopped in midstride across the room, turned his head slightly, awaiting Steve's reply. Steve watched them all carefully. He had saved the announcement for a moment when he could note each man's reaction to the news he was going to break. That one of them had driven the stake into the man's heart, he was almost sure. Would he betray himself now?

Considine's eyes suddenly narrowed. He held his cigarette poised, half way to his lips. "You have described Walczek," he said softly. "Where did you see him?"

Steve braced himself. "He's down the road—tied to a tree. Dead. Killed by a sharpened stake driven through his heart!"

They had expected it. The announcement was almost like an anti-climax. Their attitude reminded Steve subconsciously of the story of the dog biting the man, it was no news. They had all been sure Walczek was dead. It would have been news to them if he had stated that Walczek was still alive.

Considine was the coolest of the three. His face betrayed nothing. Slowly, as if he were continuing an action that had never been interrupted, he brought the cigarette to his lips, inhaled deeply, and allowed the milky-colored smoke to seep gently from his nostrils. His eyes were narrow, inscrutable.

Mizenor's face was very pale, and he allowed a wheezing breath to emanate from his throat.

Flecknitz said, almost triumphantly, "I told you that Walczek would not walk out on us. He had to be killed to keep him away from his share!" He came close to Considine's chair, leaned over a little, face thrust out, and said slowly, "Was it not you, Considine, who said yesterday that if this Nemesis destroys only three of us, the fourth would be fabulously wealthy if he survived, for he would not have to share the booty?"

Considine lounged back in his seat, apparently careless; but Steve could see that the count's powerful body was like a coiled spring, ready to leap into instant, destructive action. "Flecknitz, Flecknitz," he said reprovingly. "You will talk yourself into your death one of these days. I did say that. But it was only an expression of the secret thoughts that you yourself have been too timid to utter. Do not deny that you have been considering the same contingency—as has also, without doubt, my dear friend, Herr Doktor Mizenor! Who wouldn't with a million dollars in the scales?" He blew smoke straight up from his mouth into the face of Flecknitz.

Steve saw Flecknitz's body become taut, saw muscles bulge under his coat sleeves. There was dynamite in that room, and it was due to be ignited at any moment.

But Flecknitz restrained himself. A shadow, almost of fear, crossed his countenance, and he straightened, moved away.

Considine laughed the same arrogant, careless laugh that he had uttered a few moments ago when he sent the servant out. "Always cautious, Flecknitz, eh? Is it that you are too well acquainted with my reputation? Or is it that you plan the same fate for me that Walczek received?"

He was deliberately goading the other, probably with a definite purpose. Steve wondered that these men could have lived together here for any time at all with the cross purposes of hatred and greed that seemed to fill the house. He felt out of place here, wondered why he had been brought there, what the booty was that amounted to a million dollars. A million dollars! A sum that could drive many men to murder and worse. These men could hardly be criminals, or they would never have summoned a private detective from an agency with the reputation of the Star. If they were fleeing from some ancient vengeance, it could not be far from them, as evidenced by the bloody body of Colonel Walczek in the road.

He watched Flecknitz closely now. The man's eyes were rimmed with red. He was working himself up to the point of courage where he could attack Considine. Steve knew that there would be only one outcome of such an encounter. Considine was the cooler of the two, the more dangerous.

But Doctor Mizenor came between them. "Let us not quarrel among ourselves now! A hideous danger threatens us all and must not find us disunited—or else we will all die with stakes in our hearts!"

Flecknitz shrugged. He seemed to relax. "Let him not drive me then. I am not a man to bear insult."

Mizenor, anxious to change the subject, raised his voice. "Petrus!" he shouted. "Where are those drinks?"

The little servant came through the door, bearing a tray. He said nothing, but his face was pale. They drank silently, while Petrus waited with the tray.

Considine drank quickly and bent his gaze on the servant. Steve could see that the count's vicious nature was bent on torturing someone. The servant was handy. "Petrus," said the count, "do you know what has happened to Colonel Walczek?"

"I—I do, sir." The servant's face was white and drawn. "I—I was listening at the door." He shuddered, and the tall glass that Considine had replaced almost slid from the tray.

Mizenor shouted angrily, "Get out! If I catch you listening again, I'll kill you!"

Petrus fled before his wrath.

Steve said, "Any time you're ready to tell me what it's all about, doctor—"

Considine laughed. "Certainly, Herr Doktor, you should tell the detective. You brought him here for that purpose. Go on. Tell him about the coronet; tell him about Walther von Surtep; tell him about that night in Prague!"

Mizenor nodded. His drink was only half finished. He put it down with a gesture of distaste, looked for a long time at Steve, then came up close to him. He said very low, "My friends here laugh at me; but they have the same fear in their hearts that I have; what you just told us about Colonel Walczek has affected them more than you think—and me, too. For another man once died in the same way—with a stake driven through his body. On a night in the spring of 1918 he died, in our own country of Hungary. It was we four who killed him, though it was Walczek's arm that thrust the stake into him."

Mizenor's whole frame seemed to shudder, and he closed his eyes violently. Considine still seemed to be at ease, but Flecknitz's hand suddenly contracted about his glass and the stem snapped off. The glass fell to the floor, broke tinklingly, and the red liquor stained the pine boards.

Mizenor cried, "God! It's like his blood!" He gripped the lapels of Steve's coat in frantic fingers. "Tell me, Mr. Daggett, before I go mad—do you believe it possible that a man can live with a stake driven through his heart? Live for sixteen long years, and then come to wreak vengeance on those who tortured him? My friends say no. My own medical knowledge tells me no. I want to believe that it cannot be. Yet Walczek has been killed in the same way. And the words that are carved on the door—you didn't see them when you came in because it was too dark. But they are there: Walther von Surtep, they say, has come for his pay!' That is why I sent for you. None of us here can look at this thing dispassionately. We need a man whose business is to deal with strange things. You must help us."

"Who was this Walther von Surtep?" Steve asked.

Mizenor picked up his drink and downed it. Flecknitz did not move. He stood before the fireplace, eyes fixed moodily on the tall, thin doctor. Considine looked on sardonically, swinging his left leg which was crossed over the right knee.

Mizenor put down the empty glass and went on. "In 1918 there was a revolution in Hungary. Charles, the seventh emperor of Austria, and fourth king of Hungary of that name, abdicated. The coronet of state, which he wore at ceremonies, when he appeared in his capacity of king of Hungary, was given into the safe keeping of Baron Walther von Surtep. He tried to make his way out of the country with it, accompanied only by his little sister, a girl of ten."

The doctor stopped, his throat working spasmodically. He was in the throes of emotion as he recalled the incident, it seemed to Steve.

Considine said, "Go on, Herr Doktor. You are doing very well. Quite dramatic."

Mizenor appeared not to have heard. He continued, waving his arm to include the count and Flecknitz. "We three, and Colonel Walczek, found ourselves penniless after the revolution, forced to flee. We met Walther von Surtep at the border. We had provided ourselves with rude weapons—branches of saplings, which we had sharpened to points. We knew that von Surtep had the coronet, and we killed him for it; killed him in the presence of his sister, and I will never forget the scream of pure horror that she uttered when she saw her brother die, transfixed by the thrust of Walczek's stake—while Considine and Flecknitz held him down on the ground."

STEVE had listened with rapt attention to the recital. Now he felt an involuntary revulsion for these men which he did not trouble to hide. He caught Considine regarding him quizzically. The man was a devil. He must have no human emotions whatever.

Mizenor went on with an effort. "We got the coronet out of the traveling bag and clustered about it, estimating its value, figuring the worth of the stones if sold separately in Amsterdam. The girl fled into the forest, but we didn't bother with her. We had the coronet."

The doctor stopped, waited while Considine coolly lit another cigarette. The room seemed to be getting hot and stuffy. The story that Steve was hearing was a brutal, revolting one of greed and ruthlessness. Somehow, it made him feel full of anger, almost made him dizzy. The heat from the wood fire was growing uncomfortable. Steve backed up to the wall, leaned against it. The thin spirals of smoke from Considine's cigarette seemed to weave fantastic figures before his eyes. Things were getting spotty, indistinct.

Mechanically he listened to Mizenor.

"We didn't take the coronet to Amsterdam. To break it up would have destroyed its value. We decided to find a private purchaser in America, and came here—all together."

Count Considine's hateful voice interjected, "You see, though we are all gentlemen, we could not bring ourselves to trust any one of us with the coronet alone. So we have been faithful companions for sixteen years!"

Steve couldn't tell whether Considine's voice was coming in uneven jerks, or if something was the matter with his own hearing. Anyway, there was something wrong. The room began to tilt a little. Flecknitz's thick-set form seemed to broaden and shorten. Mizenor's grew thinner and taller as he went on.

"The time was inauspicious to sell such a valuable object. We waited, selling a few stones from the coronet at intervals when we were short of money. Last week we found a purchaser. He communicated with us by letter. We are to meet him here; this cabin is rented by him. He did not give us his name. It seems he is a great figure in national life, an ardent collector. He is to pay a million dollars for the coronet. We recognized that it might be some sort of trap—what you Americans call 'hijacking.' But we were four, and as you can imagine, we felt well able to take care of ourselves. We had no inkling of this 'Nemesis'

on our trail, had, in fact, managed to erase the memory of Walther von Surtep from our minds."

Mizenor's voice, too, was coming jerkily. Something was radically wrong. Steve felt his whole body bathed in a cold sweat. It was like some sort of fever. He gathered his nerves together, held himself tight, and succeeded in clearing the fog before his eyes.

He saw that Mizenor was wobbling, supporting himself with a hand on the table. Steve swung his eyes to Considine, noted that the count's cigarette was dropping from nerveless fingers, watched it fall to the floor and smolder on the boards. There was an expression of utter amazement on Considine's face, mingled with a dawning terror. For once, the self-possessed count was losing his poise, his attitude of cold mockery. They were all in the grip of some hideous influence.

All? Steve forced his swirling mind to function, glanced at Flecknitz. The stocky man was in complete control of his faculties. He stood tense, watching the three of them with a sort of speculative interest. There was a cunning light in his eyes, a glimmer of greedy hope ....

Mizenor suddenly tottered, put both hands to his head. "God! What—" and then he crumpled to the floor, lay there gasping for a moment, and then his body relaxed, eyes closed.


Steve looked down at him through a swirling mist that clouded his vision. No. He was breathing stertorously. He was unconscious.

Steve quickly turned to Considine. The count lay sprawled on the sofa.

"The drinks!" Steve exclaimed. "Doped!" And he saw confirmation in Flecknitz's eyes, saw the blood-red stain on the floor where Flecknitz's drink had fallen when he broke the glass. Flecknitz had not drunk!

Steve stumbled away from the support of the wall, saw the little servant, Petrus, standing in the doorway, gazing wide-eyed at Flecknitz. Then he stumbled; there was a beating pain in his head, and he felt himself pitching forward into oblivion ....

COOL, crisp, night air awoke him. A slight breeze was whipping into his face. He knew he was outdoors. He opened his eyes, but it hurt his head, so he closed them again. He tried to move his hands, but couldn't. They were tied. Then he realized that he was standing—or, rather, tied in a standing position.

In spite of the ache in his head, he opened his eyes again. It was much darker than when he had come, but the night was clear and he could see everything around him. He was tied to a tree along the sloping road. He turned his eyes to the left and shuddered involuntarily. The tree a few feet away was the one to which Colonel Walczek was tied. His body still sagged there, with the stake projecting. He had stopped bleeding.

A deep groan drew Steve's eyes to the right. The two trees next to his also held men tied to them. Considine and Mizenor. Mizenor was the nearest. They were both unconscious yet. It was Mizenor who had groaned. He was stirring slightly.

Down the road from the knoll came two struggling figures. As they approached, Steve recognized the stocky form of Flecknitz, dragging with him the futilely struggling figure of the little servant, Petrus.

Flecknitz dragged the servant close up to Steve's tree. On the ground near by lay several lengths of rope, and three sharpened stakes similar to the one in Walczek's body.

Petrus, slight and frail, was squirming in the stocky man's grip, resisting bitterly, silently, but ineffectually. Suddenly Petrus stopped struggling, bent his head, and bit viciously into Flecknitz's hand. The stocky man uttered a gasp of pain, then cursed violently and struck Petrus a wicked blow on the side of the head. The little servant slumped, and Flecknitz seized the front of his coat and shirt in a big paw, set himself to deliver another blow. The coat and shirt ripped under the weight of the little man's body, and he fell to the ground at Steve's feet, moaned, and lay still, face up.

Steve looked down, and his body stiffened at what he saw. He hoped Flecknitz hadn't noticed, and was relieved when the stocky man said, disregarding Petrus's body, "I see you have revived, my good detective. Your constitution must be strong. It would be better for you if you were not so hardy; it is easier to die with a stake through your heart when you are unconscious—like these two."

Steve's voice was steady with a great effort. "You're going to kill us all—with those stakes?"

Flecknitz nodded. In the gloom he loomed squat, almost deformed. "The same as I killed Walczek. Then I will take the coronet. I will not be suspected. It will be thought that they were killed by this 'Nemesis' that Mizenor feared."

"You doped our drinks?"

"No. Petrus did that. It must have been he who wrote that message on the door. He, too, must have had designs on the coronet."

Flecknitz picked up one of the stakes. "I will dispose of you three now. Then I will throw Petrus in the lake, weighted down. They will never find him." He lifted the stake, stepped over to the tree that held Mizenor. "Would you like to see your client die? Watch!" He had the stake gripped by the thick part, whittled point toward the doctor's body. He drew his arm back, set himself for the blow.

Steve could do nothing. He struggled against his ropes—uselessly. At the last moment he closed his eyes and turned his head away. He heard the impact of the stake in Mizenor's flesh, heard Flecknitz grunt as he delivered the death blow. He was still a little giddy from the doped cocktail and found it difficult to open his eyes again. As in a daze he heard Flecknitz pick up another stake, heard another horrid impact, a scream, and a grunt. That would be Considine. His turn was next.

HE opened his eyes after what seemed an age of frightful expectancy of death. In reality it had only been a moment. He saw the two bodies to his left—Mizenor and Considine. Mizenor was dead, but Considine took his time about dying. He was threshing about in his ropes, the stake that had pierced his body doing a strange macabre jig in the air as he jerked. A moment more and he stiffened and was quiet. Steve felt strangely detached, uncomprehending. Even when Flecknitz picked up the third stake and stood poised before him, stake raised in the air, eyes a little wild. Steve felt nothing but a queer sort of numbness. The region of his body around the heart tingled queerly, as if preparing to receive the point of the stake driven by the muscled arm of the stocky man. He couldn't close his eyes now, could only stare fascinated at Flecknitz, waiting helplessly for death.

And then, from the top of the knoll there came a deep glow, followed by a gush of fire that rose into the night air. The cabin, invisible to them from that spot, was on fire. It burned fast; flames shot to the sky.

Flecknitz glanced in that direction, suddenly became like a madman. "The cabin!" he exclaimed.

Steve said hoarsely, more to himself than to the other, "Considine's cigarette! It started the blaze!"

But Flecknitz had forgotten him. "The coronet!" he shouted wildly, thickly. "It's in there!" He had forgotten Steve, forgotten everything but that bauble of diamonds for which he was murdering men hideously.

He dropped the stake, raced up the knoll, cursing madly.

Steve was fully awake now, aware of his danger. The three bodies bound to the trees were mute if horrid evidence of the death he had so narrowly missed.

Somberly he gazed down at the slowly stirring form of Petrus, close to his feet. He saw again that which Flecknitz had failed to see. Petrus' body was bared at the throat where the coat and shirt had been ripped, revealing a creamy white skin, the soft contours of a woman's form. Petrus was a woman!

Steve reached out with his foot. It just touched Petrus's knee, and he poked. "Petrus!" he shouted. "Petrus!"

The woman stirred, moaned, raised to her elbow. Steve could see, now that he knew, that the small slim shape, the delicately formed head, could be none other than feminine. The voice had been husky, passed well for a man.

The woman gazed about her dazedly for a moment, let her eyes rest on Steve in a sort of dull query, then flicked them toward the bodies hanging gruesomely in their bonds. She uttered a scream, buried her face in her arms.

Steve said, "Never mind the hysterics. Flecknitz has gone to get the coronet out of the cabin—see the fire? He'll be back soon and go on with the operations. He intends to throw you in the lake and blame our murders on you. Get up, will you! Don't lie there and wait for him to come back. Untie these ropes for me!"

Half dazedly she got to her feet, fumbled with the knots behind Steve's tree. She kept her eyes on the knots, studiously avoiding the horrible corpses that lined the road on either side of them.

While she worked, Steve said, "Why did you dope the drinks? Are you von Surtep's sister?"

"Yes," she said, in a low voice. "That day in the forest when these four beasts killed my brother and I fled screaming, I vowed that I would follow them around the world if necessary and make them pay. Also, I swore to get back the coronet which had been entrusted to Walther and return it to its rightful owners. When the revolution in Hungary was crushed, the family estates reverted to me, so that I had all the money I needed to accomplish my purpose."

She had one of the knots open, unwound a length of rope. Steve could now move his shoulders. She set to work on the rope that held his wrists behind the tree. From behind the knoll the flames licked up toward the sky, burning hungrily.

"I found them here in New York," she went on, "and got a job with Mizenor. I reversed the spelling of my name, called myself Petrus instead of Surtep: I shaved my hair and passed for a man. When they came up here, I knew they would bring the coronet along. I am the mysterious buyer they were expecting. I wrote the message on the door. I didn't know where the coronet was hidden, and I wanted to frighten them into bringing it out."

She got the last knot free and Steve stepped away from the tree, flexed his muscles. She held her coat together at the throat, looked up at him helplessly. "Flecknitz must have got the inspiration from that message I left. He killed Walczek, planned to kill the others. Then, when he failed to drink the cocktail I had prepared, he saw his chance; you were all helpless. When he saw me, he realized that I was the obvious one to be accused of the murders."

Steve seized her shoulder. "Here comes Flecknitz!"

THE stocky man was coming down the road; in one hand was the stake, while under the other arm there rested an oak box almost a foot square. When his saw them, he dropped the box and ran toward them, poising the stake in the air to thrust.

Steve's hand slid to his pocket, and he went cold. The gun had been taken from him! Flecknitz was only a half dozen feet away now, and literally launched himself through the air at Steve. Steve dropped to the ground just as the point of the stake swished past his head. The stake missed him, but Flecknitz's solid body struck his shoulder and he was bowled over. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the woman running up the path toward the box that Flecknitz had dropped. The sheet of fire from beyond the knoll formed a fitting background for the scene of murder.

That was all the impression he was allowed to gather, for Flecknitz's heavy weight smothered him, and he felt Flecknitz's bulky hands meet around his throat.

The breath was forced back into his lungs; there was a queer constriction about his heart.

Desperately, he heaved, and they rolled over and over toward the trees, Flecknitz's grip never relaxing. He pounded weakly at the other's face, but the stocky man took the blows stolidly. His face was set in a grim mask as he slowly rose to his feet, dragging Steve up by the grip on his throat.

Steve's fists had cut his lip open, blackened one of his eyes, but he continued that throttling hold relentlessly.

And then they heard the awful scream from the woman. Steve's eyes were blurred, but Flecknitz turned his head, looked up the knoll, and uttered a quick gasp. He stepped back a pace, right into the pool of blood before Considine's body. His foot slipped in the coagulating liquid and his body shot backward, landed with an ugly thud on the concrete road, with Steve on top of him.

Flecknitz didn't stir. Steve breathed in deep, painful lungfuls of air, then rose clumsily to his feet. Flecknitz was dead. His skull had cracked open on the concrete.

Steve made his way unsteadily up the road to where the woman knelt in the road over the open wooden box. She seemed stunned. Steve bent to look, and saw that the box, plush-lined, was empty save for a folded sheet of paper.

The woman was babbling incoherently now. Steve picked the paper out of the box, unfolded and read it by the lurid light of the flames from the burning cabin:

My dear friends:

For sixteen years I have laughed at you as well as at myself; four once honorable gentlemen, turned murderers for a bauble of jewelry. For sixteen years I have been seeing van Surtep dead on the ground, with the stake in his heart. And now that we have a buyer, I cannot go on with it. I have thrown the coronet into Brant Lake where it can never be recovered. I am staying on with you to the end of this filthy farce, because I must have my last laugh at you. My life is worth nothing, so perhaps you will kill me for this, and I will pay for my part in the murder of von Surtep.

I am one of you, but I thank the Devil that I can still laugh at you.


Anatole, Count Considine.

Steve looked up from the paper, down the road, with a new sort of respect, at the body of Considine, whose face, strangely illuminated by the reflection of the flames, seemed to be still laughing at the other corpses, even in death. Laughing with a sort of queer, sardonic humor, much as he had laughed in life.


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent X magazine, April 1934

Twice in ten minutes drawn guns threatened death to Denison if he did not deliver the Eyes of Durga. The first time a stranger saved him. But nothing could save him a second time, for Denison had never even heard of the Eyes of Durga.



DENISON decided he was going to have company. The woman's figure had passed and repassed before the ground glass of the office door time and again. She was patrolling the corridor outside, it seemed, and had at last decided to come in. He could see the outline of her against the light in the hallway, past the lettering on the door which announced to passers, “Spartan Investigating Company.”

They were a division of the Spartan Insurance Company and handled nothing but that company's matters—were, in fact, on the tenth floor of the Spartan Building. Denison was a new man and had been given the night shift. He was alone now.

The door knob turned diffidently, the door opened, and the woman came in. Denison grinned appreciatively, she was a beautiful work of art—tall for a woman, perhaps five feet seven, her face an oval of cucumber- creamed whiteness, lips and cheeks properly reddened, eyelashes mascaraed to a nicety of perfection. Her body, delightfully contoured, was encased in a tailored suit that was a miracle of fashion.

She smiled charmingly and said, with an enticing hint of accent, “You ar-re een charge?”

Denison got up from behind the desk and said, “Yes, ma'am. Can I help you?”

“Yes,” she answered. She opened her hand bag and took out a little gun-metal revolver which she pointed at Denison unwaveringly. The smile vanished. Her eyes had suddenly become dangerous. She spoke low, almost whispered: “If you have the eyes of Durga, you will give them to me, pleas-se! If you do not have them, it is too bad, for I shall kill you!”

Denison said, “What do you want someone eye's eyes for—your own are pretty enough.”

She liked that. He could tell by the momentary twitch of her lips. But she held the gun steady. “Do not jest. You are close to death.” She held out the other hand in an imperious gesture. “Give me the eyes of Durga!”

“If I knew what you were talking about—”

“Don't lie! You must have them! I have waited for Zadukian to come here for a half- hour. I must have missed him. He must have been here before I came, and given them to you. I want them!”

Denison was growing impatient. He never liked to stay quiescent under the muzzle of a gun—no matter how enticing its owner was. He took a step toward her. “Listen, now—”

He stopped. Her finger had contracted around the trigger. There was no panic in her eyes. He knew she would shoot.

Suddenly there came the hurried clicking of a pair of excited feet on the tiles of the corridor outside. The woman became breathless. “It must be Zadukian!” Her eyes glinted. They darted around the office and lighted on a door at the left. “Where does that lead?” she demanded.

Denison was amused. This was getting interesting. “That's the door to one of the inner offices.”

She ran across to it, the gun swinging in a slow arc to keep him covered. “I will hide. But I will leave the door open a crack. Be careful—I shall keep this gun trained on you all the time!”

She slipped behind the door.

DENISON frowned. The footsteps outside had arrived at the corridor door. They slowed, stopped. There was a shadow on the ground glass, then the door opened.

A short, fat man in a wrinkled gray business suit came in. His hat was far back on his head. There was sweat on his brow. His small, piggish eyes were restless, frightened. His collar was slightly wilted, and the knot of his tie a little askew.

He stopped, undecided, fat hands at his sides, the fingers working nervously. “You— you the boss?” he demanded jerkily.

Denison nodded. “I'm in charge at night. What can I do for you?” Out of the corner of his eye he tried to glimpse the door at his right behind which the woman hid.

The fat man came up close to the desk. “The eyes of Durga—your company has them insured—no?”

Denison said, “I wouldn't know about that. I'm a new man here.”

The visitor gestured impatiently. “Yes, yes. I know you insure them. You pay rewards when stolen articles are returned?”

Denison nodded. “Yes.”

The fat man blew out his breath noisily and leaned across the desk. “How much you pay—to get back the eyes of Durga?”

“Who the hell is Durga—and what would I want her eyes for?”

The fat man slapped the desk angrily with the palm of his hand. “Fool! This is no time to joke. The eyes of Durga are insured with your company for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. They are of the Masterson collection a part. Tonight they were stolen. How much will you pay to get them back?”

Denison said: “We haven't been notified of the robbery. But if what you say is true, I can get you five thousand.”

“And no questions asked?”

“No questions asked.”

The little man said eagerly: “All right. You come at twelve tonight to Number 1118 Worthing Avenue in the Bronx, Apartment 4D. Bring the money. I will have them for you.”

“Hold on a minute,” Denison exclaimed. “Where do you get that stuff? How am I gonna get five grand this late at night? And how do I know they've been stolen at all—these eyes of whosis? And if they have been stolen, how do I know you can deliver?”

“I will prove to you,” the other said simply. He drew from his pocket a long, glittering, platinum bar. There were a dozen small diamonds in it, but at either end there was an unfilled space. The prongs had been bent back and two stones removed. “That is the setting.”

“I'll have to call my boss,” said Denison.

“Call now—I will wait. But remember, I must have the money tonight. Tomorrow I will be far away!”

Denison was about to reach for the phone, but the woman's voice cut at him from the inner doorway. “You weel call no one!” He stopped with his hand at the instrument.

The little man had gone a pasty white. He trembled. “Nina!” he gasped. The fear of death was on him.

The woman, Nina, said softly, dangerously: “So, my friend, Zadukian, you are what they call a twice-crosser! Give me now the eyes of Durga—quick!”

Zadukian swallowed hard and spread his hands in a pleading gesture. “Don't shoot, Nina. They are not here. I was afraid to bring them.”

Slowly Denison's hand slipped up to his shoulder holster. He got his gun out. The woman's eyes were blazing at Zadukian; for the moment she had forgotten Denison. She turned to him, startled, as he covered her now. Her gun wavered. It was trained on the fat man.

Denison said: “Put the gun away, Nina. We'll just talk this over sensibly and find out what it's all about.”

She smiled at him, changing her mood instantly. “Would you shoot a woman, Mr. Detective?”

“I would,” Denison assured her. “I can get you in the wrist from here. It'll hurt like hell.”

She eyed him a moment, then she lowered her gun. “I believe you mean it. You ar-re not a gentleman!”

Denison grinned. “Nope, not if it means getting shot at!” Suddenly Zadukian went into a blur of motion. A gun appeared in his hand. He was looking murderously at the woman.

DENISON acted fast. He swung his open left hand down across the desk in a chopping blow. It caught Zadukian's wrist and slammed it down on the glass top. The gun exploded and a bullet crashed into the ground glass of the corridor door.

The fat man uttered a yelp, and then a scream of fear. Denison gasped. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that the woman had raised her gun and was coldly drawing a bead on Zadukian.

Denison shouted, “Stop it, you!” He yanked at Zadukian's hand. The fat man's body followed the hand across the desk just as her gun barked. The bullet missed Zadukian's head by inches. Denison's action had saved him.

Denison swung around the desk and grappled with the woman. She raised her right hand and tried to slash him over the head with the barrel of her gun. Her white, even teeth were bared in a vicious little snarl.

Denison caught her wrist, twisted it behind her with his arm around her waist, and held her tight. She stopped fighting and relaxed, her head against his chest.

He grunted. “Can't fool me, girlie. If I let you go, you'll start shooting again. Drop the gun.”

She lifted her head with a jerk and raised her free hand to his face and raked his cheek with her long nails. He had his gun in his right hand and could do nothing about it. He swore, twisted at her left wrist, which he held imprisoned behind her back, until she gasped and let her revolver drop.

He swung her away from him, stooped and picked up the revolver. “If you weren't such a little killer,” he said, “it would be a pleasure to hold on to you?”

She stood erect, panting. Her suit was slightly disarranged. She smiled at him, started to say, “I like the way you—” Then she stopped and gasped. Her gaze roved the office.

Denison swore. Zadukian was gone! On the desk the platinum bar glittered under the electric light.


AND then the telephone rang. Denison sighed, bolstered his gun, and said, “Well, I'm glad he's gone. Now there won't be any shooting for a while.

The woman asked, “What ar-re you going to do with me?”

“Wait'll I answer the phone.”

She nodded and slumped into a chair. Now that the fat man had disappeared, the fight seemed to have left her.

Denison picked up the platinum bar from the desk, pocketed it, and lifted the French phone.

“Hello!” a voice barked into his ear. “Spartan?”

“Right,” said Denison.

“Who's this talking?”

“Ed Denison.”

“This is Detective Sergeant Rice, Homicide Bureau. I don't think I know you.”

“I'm a new man here. Used to be in business for myself in Chicago.”

“All right. Better send a representative up here to Raymond Masterson's house—Fifth Avenue and Sixty-eighth. It seems some stuff you insure has been stolen.”

“Did you say—Homicide Bureau?” Denison demanded.

“That's right. There's been murder here besides robbery. Masterson's been killed!”

Denison exclaimed, “The hell you say!” Then: “Okay, Rice, thanks for calling. The boss will appreciate it. We'll have someone up there right away.”

He hung up and looked at Nina. “Well, lady, it's murder!”

She shrugged. “Masterson was a fool. He kept the eyes of Durga in a wall safe. They had to kill him.”

“You're in a tough spot, lady,” Denison said. “Open up and maybe I'll be able to help you.”

“I deed not keel Masterson,” she said matter- of- factly.

“Who did—Zadukian?”

She shook her head scornfully. “He has no—what you call—guts.”

“Well, who did?”

She was silent, eyeing him appraisingly. Then suddenly she leaned forward in her chair. “I like you, Mr. Detective. You would make a gr-rand lover; and I could make you happy— so happy!” Her eyes were black, misty, promising. “Let us go together to this address in the Bronx that Zadukian gave you. We will together take from him the eyes of Durga, and we will go away together. I know where I can get much money for them—a hundred thousand dollars! You and I will spend it together—on the Riviera!” She breathed the last throatily, hungrily.

Denison grinned. “That's a good act, lady. You missed your vocation.”

She snapped at him, “Fool! Men have—”

She was interrupted by the telephone. Denison picked it up, still grinning.

It was Zadukian. “That woman—” he demanded, “—she is still there?”

“Yes,” Denison answered guardedly.

“Be careful. She is dangerous.”

“I know it. Thanks for your interest. Is that what you called for?”

“I wish to be sure that you come tonight to Worthing Street. You will bring the reward?”


“But come alone; No police. You promise it?”


“If you bring police, you do not get the eyes of Durga.”

“You can take my word for it”

Zadukian hung up. Denison clicked down the hook and dialed a private number. It rang for two minutes before he got a sleepy “Hello.”

“This is Denison, boss,” he said. “The eyes of Durga—whatever they are—have been stolen. Masterson, their owner, is murdered. I've got a wild woman here in the office, who wanted to shoot up the place. And I've just promised five thousand reward to get those damn' eyes back—have an appointment for twelve o'clock. Okay so far?”

Bannister, the boss, growled at the other end. “Sure! Go up to ten if you have to. We got them covered for a hundred and fifty grand! Who's the woman?”

“I don't know yet. I don't seem to know anything. What the hell are these here eyes of Durga?”

“They're a pair of matched rubies that came from a Hindu shrine once—the shrine of some goddess named Durga.”

“All right,” Denison said. “Now I know. Where can I get the five grand?”

“I've got cash here. I'll meet you with it in a half- hour at Masterson's house. Who has charge over there?”

“A guy named Rice. He's the one that called up.”

“Rice is okay. But watch your tongue up there. If he gets wise to your appointment, he's liable to gum the works.”

Denison was about to answer when he heard a startled exclamation from the woman. He looked up, eyes narrowed. Two men had just slipped in from the corridor, with drawn guns.

One of them grinned wickedly at Nina, the other covered Denison and clipped out, “Drop the phone!”

Denison calmly held on and spoke into the mouthpiece. “Two guys with guns. One is tall and cross-eyed, the other is a little runt with two broken teeth in front—”

THE tall man cursed and sprang across the room. He brought the barrel of his gun down on Denison's head. Denison jerked aside and the barrel raked his cheek. He dropped the phone and sat still, looking into the hole of the muzzle. He could hear Bannister's frantic voice coming out of the instrument on the desk. “Denison! What's happened? Denison! Denison!”

The tall man motioned toward the phone. “Tell him it's a joke!”

Denison looked at the bleak eyes that stared unwinkingly at him over the gun. He shrugged, picked up the phone and said, “It's a joke.”

The tall man tore the phone from his fingers and slammed it down in the cradle.

“Funny, ain't you?” he snarled.

The little man had come up close to the woman. “Look who we got here, Gratz,” he said in a deep voice that sounded queer coming from such a small man. “Little Nina's playin' wit' the bulls now!” He put out a hand and patted her shoulder.

She squirmed in her chair, her hands tightly clenched.

Gratz growled, “Stow it, Bliss. We got business.” Then to Denison, “Get up, you, and come over here!”

Denison got up and came around the desk. He touched his finger to the gash in his cheek, left by the gun barrel.

“I owe you for this,” he said quietly.

The big man slapped him in the face with a gloved hand. “You'll owe me more yet!” He said to the other, “Come over here and fan him, Bliss.”

Bliss came around in back of him and ran expert hands over his person. Gratz moved back so that he covered both Denison and the woman.

Bliss got Denison's gun from the shoulder holster, and the woman's gun from the left- hand pocket. From his right-hand pocket he took out the platinum bar. “Got it!” he exclaimed. “This is the setting. He must have the rubies, too!”

He searched thoroughly, feeling in the lining of Denison's coat, in the lining of his, tie, under his garters. He apparently knew all the places to look. Finally he said: “They're not on him, Gratz. He must have hid them some place in the room. We'll have to tear it apart.”

“No time,” said Gratz. “That guy at the other end of the phone wasn't fooled. There'll be cops here any minute.” He poked his gun into Denison's chest. “Talk, guy! Or get rubbed out!” His jaw jutted. “You know how a guy feels with a slug in his lungs?”

Denison said, “I haven't got them.”

“You have. We saw Zadukian come out of here. You have the setting. He must've turned them over to you for the reward.”

“No, he didn't,” said Denison. “And besides that, you can go to hell. You're not doing any killing now. I gave your description over the wire just now. They'd pick you up in half an hour!”

Gratz leered at him. “It don't matter, guy, we're wanted for murder anyway! Now— talk!”

Denison was silent.

“All right, guy, I'm giving it to you. We'll make the woman talk. Here goes!”

Denison lunged sideways. At the same time his hand flashed up and struck at Gratz's gun wrist. The gun exploded and Denison felt a flash of hot pain across his ribs. He staggered back. The gun had been deflected enough for the bullet to just graze his side.

Gratz snarled. He swung the gun into line again. Denison felt a little dizzy. He wanted to dive in at the big gunman but his legs wavered. A forty-five will do that to a man, even if it only tickles his ribs. He saw death in Gratz's trigger finger.

And it was the woman who saved him.

Suddenly she called out shrilly, “Gratz! Don't shoot! He has not the rubies! Zadukian deed not bring them!”

Gratz stopped, looked at her. Bliss said, “Get through, Gratz. The cops'll be here!”

And from the street, ten floors below, they heard the thin, shrill scream of a police siren.

“The radio cars!” Gratz exclaimed. “Let's get out of here. Grab that dame, Bliss. We'll take her!”

Bliss seized the woman about the waist. She struggled, scratched, kicked. Bliss raised his fist and brought it down on the side of her head. She gasped, slumped in his arms. He raised her and carried her out over his shoulder.

Gratz backed out after him, his eyes and the muzzle of his gun boring at Denison. Denison supported himself weakly, both hands behind him on the desk, gathering strength. He knew that Gratz wasn't going to leave him behind alive—knew it from Gratz's face.

He saw the ridges of muscle tighten along the tall gunman's jaw. He saw the gun stop wavering and settle, with the sight along his chest. And he dived—dived a split second before the gun roared and the window behind him was shattered.

He struck Gratz below the knees. Gratz stumbled backward out of the doorway. Denison dropped behind the wall, out of sight from the corridor. He heard Bliss call, “Come on, Gratz. To hell with him. We got to run down ten flights!”

He poked his head out of the doorway and saw the two of them, Bliss still carrying the woman, hurrying through the door with the red light above it at the end of the hall. Gratz turned and saw him, and fired once more. He pulled his head in and heard the slug bury itself in the woodwork.

He had struck Gratz with his shoulder. It hurt badly. His side burned, too. He cursed when he tried to stand up.

After a moment or two he made it, looked cautiously out again. The others had disappeared. He staggered out into the corridor. The indicator on the elevator shaft showed that a cage was racing up. The indicator reached ten, and the door banged open. Two policemen barged out, guns drawn.

“H'ist 'em!” one of them rapped at Denison.

Denison yelled, “Cut it, sap! I'm a Spartan man. Those guys got away down the stairs!”

“Yeah? Hold him here, Jerry. I'll go see if he's right.” He dashed for the stairway door.

“You damn' fool!” Denison called after him. “There's two of 'em with guns. Head them off. Take the elevator down!”

The cop who remained with him shoved him back with a hand on his chest. “Never mind, bo. We know our business! Let's go in that office an' see what's what.”

Suddenly there came the sound of gunshots from the stairway. They both ran to the door, the cop cursing. They had to go down three flights before they saw the body of the policeman who had just left them. There was a hole in his head.


THE cop who had come down with Denison was a young rookie. He looked sick. “God!” he whispered. “Grady's through! An' he was just tellin' me about his kids not five minutes ago in the car!”

Denison said bitterly, “If he had only listened to me! We could have headed them off.”

“They'll be headed off all right,” the cop said grimly. “There was another radio car with us. The crew is downstairs in the lobby.”

Denison shook his head. “No good. There's a mezzanine on the second floor. It connects through with the next building. They go through that and come out on Fifth Avenue—in the clear.”

“What'll we do?” asked the cop.

“Let me take Grady's gun. They got mine. I'll go down after them.”

The cop shook his head. “No. I'll go. I'd like to get them in shooting distance!”

“A tall guy and a short guy,” Denison told him. “One of 'em will be carrying a woman. Don't shoot her.”

The cop went down the stairs. Denison waited beside Grady's body. Soon he heard people coming down. It was a precinct captain with a couple of plain-clothes men. With them was Bannister, Denison's boss.

The police captain swore when he saw Grady's body.

“What's been happening here?” Bannister demanded. “I called headquarters after you hung up and told 'em to send the radio cars.”

“Those two guys,” Denison explained. “They started shooting.”

“Know why?” one of the detectives asked.

“Nope. They barged in and started fireworks.”

Bannister took Denison by the arm and led him up to their floor. “Were they connected with this Masterson business?”

“I'll say they were, boss. They wanted those damned eyes of Durga. Wouldn't believe I didn't have them.”

He told Bannister everything that had happened. “This Zadukian,” he finished, “seems to have the goods. Promised to deliver at Number 1118 Worthing Avenue, at midnight.”

“If those two eggs that were here don't get to him first.” Bannister took out a long manila envelope from his breast pocket. “There it is. Five grand in hundreds, twenties, and tens. Put it away and don't let these coppers get wise we're going for the stuff. They'd raid the place and scare him away.”

Denison had just put the envelope in his pocket when the police captain appeared in the corridor. He looked gloomy.

“Let's go down to the lobby,” he said. “We'll see what luck they had.”

They got in the elevator. Bannister said: “Those guys know their way around. They wouldn't take the lobby. They must have gone through the connecting corridor and out on Fifth Avenue.”

He was right. The policemen in the lobby hadn't seen anybody. One of the plain-clothes men who had gone around the corner belatedly said that a pedestrian had seen two men and a woman take a taxi only a minute or two before. He couldn't recall what kind of taxi it was.

Denison gave a close description of them, and the captain snapped to one of the men, “Phone down town. Get out an alarm.”

Bannister said, “Can I take my man along now? I need him.”

The police captain eyed him shrewdly. “You've got something up your sleeve, Bannister. Come across.”

“I haven't, Lacey,” Bannister assured him.

“Everybody knows you make deals with these guys. All you want is to get the stolen stuff back. I bet this is tied in with the Masterson job!”

“If it is, we'll find out soon enough. What do you say—does Denison come with me?”

“Go ahead,” Lacey conceded. “But see that he's available when we need him.” He put a big hand on Bannister's shoulder as they were about to leave. “Remember, Bannister—if you're holding anything out on me, God help you! A cop's been killed!”

THEY got in a taxi at the corner. Bannister told the driver, “Sixty-eighth and Fifth.” To Denison he said, looking at his wrist watch: “It's only ten-thirty. It shouldn't take more than a half-hour to get to the Bronx. We'll stop at Masterson's place and see what's what. Maybe we can get a line on those two hoods of yours. From what you tell me, they must be the ones who killed Masterson and got the rubies. If so, how the hell did this rat of a Zadukian get them? And where does the dame fit?”

Denison managed a grin. “Are you asking me or telling me? I feel dizzy—like a merry- go-round.” He touched the gash in his cheek, took out a handkerchief and wiped it.

Bannister asked, “How's your side?”

“It hurts. But it isn't bad. It was just scraped—no fault of Gratz's. He did his best to make a good job of it.”

“Can you keep going? I'd hate to have somebody else go up to the Bronx. Zadukian would probably fly the coop. He knows you.”

“I'll last,” Denison said.

At Masterson's home, Detective Sergeant Rice shook hands with Denison at Bannister's introduction.

“Where did Masterson get it?” Bannister asked him.

“Up in his bedroom. There's a wall-safe there. They must have known the combination, because the safe was opened without soup. Masterson must have come in on them while they were working. He got stabbed in the throat.”

“Let's take a look.”

Rice grumbled. “We're always helping you guys out. And what do we get? You go and make deals behind our back. All you're interested in is to recover the swag!”

Bannister patted him on the back. “I've always treated you square, haven't I?”

“Oh, nuts!” Rice growled. “Come on up.”

They followed him upstairs and into Masterson's bedroom.

“The body's just been taken away,” Rice told them. “But if you've had supper recently, you're better off not seeing it. There's the wall safe. Everything left in it but the eyes of Durga. There were no other jewels. The rest are in a bigger safe downstairs. He kept some securities here, but they weren't touched.”

Denison went over to the dresser on which were spread a number of papers that Rice had evidently been working on.

“Those are papers and things from the servants' rooms,” the detective sergeant informed him. “I was just going over them.”

Denison picked up a flat little folder with a stiff cover.

“That's a seaman's book,” Rice said. “It belongs to Masterson's valet, an Armenian named Karabajian. This is his day off—hasn't been around since this morning. We'll question him when he gets back.”

Denison opened the seaman's book. A photograph of Karabajian was pasted to the inside of the cover.

Rice came over and said: “Notice when he came to this country—1929, off the Greek steamer, Acropolis. He evidently jumped ship and stayed in this country illegally. He can be deported if we turn him over to the immigration people. Funny how guys get in trouble when there's a murder. They think they're okay, then plop — someone gets bumped and we go poking into their past life. Take this guy Karabajian. He could have stayed in this country for the rest of his life if Masterson hadn't got bopped.”

Denison was listening to Rice's disquisition with only one ear. For the picture of the valet, Karabajian, was an exact likeness of Zadukian!

THE telephone alongside the bed rang, and Rice went to answer the call.

Denison said to Bannister out of the corner of his mouth: “Take a look at this mug, boss. It's Zadukian—the guy I'm going to meet at twelve o'clock!”

Bannister pursed his lips in a noiseless whistle. “Holy Mike! The valet! He was in on it, and it's murder, Ed. If we trade with him, we're accessories after the fact!”

Denison put the picture down. “He didn't kill Masterson, boss. The dame told me he didn't. It's Gratz and Bliss who are the killers in that crowd.” He stroked the gash in his cheek. “I'd like to get my paws on that Gratz!”

Bannister said, “Sh-h!”

Rice was through with the phone. He hung up, looking grim, straight at Denison.

“So there was a little scrap over at your office,” he said.

Denison grinned uncomfortably.

“Yeah. I got this—and this.” He indicated his cheek and the rent in his coat where Gratz's bullet had grazed him.

Rice nodded. “Yeah. You left in an awful hurry.”

Bannister protested. “Lacey said it was okay.”

“Sure. That was Lacey on the phone just now. He's all in a sweat. Claims you talked him into letting Denison go when he should have taken him down town to look at pictures in the rogues' gallery. He's supposed to try to identify the two mugs that shot Grady.”

“Hell!” Bannister exclaimed. “He should have thought of that before. We have to go now. We got an appointment.”

“Sorry,” Rice said amiably. “The chief inspector's on the scene over there and he bawled the sweat off Captain Lacey. So orders is, Denison stays here till a squad car picks him up.”

Bannister was red in the face. “But listen—”

“Don't argue with me,” Rice grinned. “Argue with the chief inspector. I gotta follow orders. Anyway, why get hot? It won't take long down town—a couple of hours. He'll be out by one or two o'clock.” He grimaced at Denison. “You ought to be glad you ain't held as a material witness!”

Bannister stormed. “This is outrageous. Let me take him with me now. I'll guarantee to bring him back by twelve-thirty.”

Rice shook his head. “Want me to get suspended or something? Nix! Come on downstairs till the squad-car comes.” He thwacked Bannister on the back. “Take it like a good sport.”

“It's unconstitutional!” Bannister blazed. “It's interfering with the rights of a citizen. I'll get him out on a writ!”

“Take it easy,” Rice soothed, as he herded them down the stairs. “I'll begin to suspect you got a deal on to get back the rubies.” He stopped short on the steps. “Hell! I bet that's what it is! You two have an appointment to pick up the rubies tonight! Well, you'll just stick around, boys—the two of you.”

Bannister controlled himself with difficulty. Down in the hallway he buttonholed the detective sergeant. “I've treated you fair in the past, Rice,” he cajoled. “Don't cross me in this. It's important”

Rice shook his head. “No, sir. We got to get Grady's killers. I don't care if it costs your damn' company a million dollars!”

Denison was standing behind Rice. He winked at Bannister, then put his hand to his side and groaned.

Rice turned around.

Denison groaned again. “God, my side! That bullet must have nicked a rib! I feel weak!” He closed his eyes, clutched at Rice's sleeve, and allowed his body to sink down to the floor.

Bannister cried, “He's fainted!”

Rice said, “What the hell! We didn't have to argue. He couldn't go with you anyway.”

Bannister knelt and cradled Denison's head under his arm. “He must be hurt worse than he thought. Better get some water.”

Rice hurried to the back of the house, toward the kitchen. As soon as he had disappeared, Denison squirmed to his feet. “Gimme your gun,” he said to Bannister. 'I'm on my way. Hold the bloodhound back.”

Bannister gave him his gun. “Good boy. Go ahead. I'll handle Rice. I know how to talk to these boys.”

DENISON sneaked out the front door. The uniformed patrolman outside the door looked at him, said, “It's a nice night, ain't it?”

“If it don't snow,” said Denison.

He started up the street, trying to keep himself from running.

And then he got a break.

A cab slowed up alongside the curb, the driver evidently looking at house numbers. Denison reached for the door, opened it, started to get in.

The driver said, “Wait a minute, mister. Sorry, but I can't take you. I'm here on police business.”

Denison got in and closed the door. “Drive uptown,” he ordered. “You can tell me all about it on the way. I'm in a hurry!”

“But I was told to ask for Captain Lacey. They said at headquarters that he'd be here, at the Masterson home.”

Denison flashed his shield. “Take a look, bo. I'm Lacey. Get started!”

The driver turned his head, saw the glint of the shield. “Okay, cap!” He stepped on the gas. “Suits me.”

Denison looked out of the rear window and saw Rice dash out of the house and stand at the curb looking after them. It was too dark to distinguish the numbers on the license plates, and Denison felt reasonably safe.

“Where'll I take you, captain?” the driver inquired.

“Drive up the east side toward the Bronx. Now tell me what it's all about.”

“Well,” the driver said, “I had my radio tuned in for the short wave, and I heard that headquarters wanted information about three people who took a cab on Fifth Avenue about a half-hour ago—two men and a woman—in connection with a cop gettin' killed. So I called up headquarters, an' they told me to shoot right up to the Masterson home, that you were on your way over there.”

They made a left turn, then another left turn, and sped up Madison Avenue.

Denison's pulse raced. “What about those three people?” he demanded impatiently.

“Well, I'm the guy that rode them. And what's more, captain, I know where they went!”


“THIS is where I dropped 'em,” said the cab driver. He had pulled up before a shabby rooming house in the West One Hundred and Thirties, off Seventh Avenue.

“They went in there, the three of them. The woman didn't seem so happy about it, either.”

“All right,” said Denison. “Wait for me.”

He climbed the tall stoop and rang a dirty bell. After a while the door was opened by a lean woman with bleary eyes. She wore a torn, cheap house dress.

“Yes?” she asked, as if she didn't care what he wanted.

Denison pushed the door open and walked into the hallway.

The woman shrilled at him. “Sa-ay—”

Denison closed the door and faced her. He flashed his badge. “A woman and two men,” he said. “They came here a short while ago. One of the guys is little with two broken front teeth. The tall one is cross-eyed. Names of Gratz and Bliss—or maybe different names. What room?”

The woman eyed him defiantly. “Never seen them, mister.”

Denison leaned close, whispered, “Will you tell me, sister, or do I take the house apart?”

She waved at him angrily. “Get out of here! You can't fool me. You're only a private dick. Get out before I call the cops!”

He caught her wrist. “This is murder, sister. Don't fool around with murder. You show me their room or I'll call the cops!”

She went pale. “You ain't kiddin', are you?”


“All right. It's room eight. Up at the head of the stairs. But the two men went out. It's their room. They said they were leaving the woman to catch some sleep—she wasn't feeling well.”

Denison was halfway up the stairs. The woman came after him.

The door of room eight was locked.

“I have a pass-key,” she said. Her fingers fumbled it nervously. “God,” she exclaimed, “I hope I don't get mixed in this. I can't afford to have cops comin' in here. It'll ruin business.”

Denison took the key from her. He inserted it in the lock, turned it, and flung the door open.

The room was lit. It contained a bed, a dresser, and one chair. On the bed was the woman, Nina.

She was dead. There was a knife in her throat. The blanket was red and wet. There was a broad stain of crimson on the bosom of her tailored suit. Denison shivered. He had held her warm body less than an hour ago.

He approached the bed.

She had no shoes on. They lay on the floor. Near them were numerous burned matches.

The stockings had been ripped from her legs. The soles of both her feet were blackened and scorched. They told him a story. She had been tortured for information and then killed. She must have told them the address on Worthing Street, where he was to meet Zadukian. And then they had killed her. It took him a moment to get control of himself. As he turned to go, he almost stumbled over the woman who had admitted him. She had fainted. He stepped over her and dashed down the stairs with teeth clenched tight.

Gratz and Bliss! Gratz and Bliss! He kept repeating the names in his mind. He wanted them now. He didn't care about the rubies so much any more. He wanted those two killers!

OUTSIDE, the cab still stood at the curb, but the driver was nowhere in sight. He came close to the cab, and heard the radio inside it. A voice was intoning: “Calling all cars! Repeating instructions! Pick up Edward Denison, private detective. Wanted as material witness! He has a fresh scar on his left cheek. Last seen in the vicinity of Fifth Avenue and Sixty- eighth Street. May be riding in a taxicab. Look out for tricks. He is very clever. Calling—” And the voice went on, repeating the instructions once more in a monotone.

Denison stiffened. He saw the taxi driver come running down the street with a patrolman beside him. The driver was pointing to him.

Denison looked around. The street was quiet, only one or two pedestrians. The driver and the cop were still half a block away.

He got behind the wheel of the cab. The motor was running. He shoved the stick into first and stepped on the accelerator. The cab lunged ahead, away from the two pursuers. Behind him he heard a shout, then the shrill of a police whistle.

He was in high now, racing toward Lenox. He heard a shot from behind, then another. But he was too far away from the cop.

There was a green light at Lenox Avenue, and he rounded into it in a wide left-hand turn at forty miles an hour. There was a red light at the next corner. He made a right turn, shot across town to Fifth, and across the bridge to the Bronx.

Soon the radio in back began to stutter, and the same monotonous voice began to intone: “Calling all cars! Look out for Black and Tan cab, license number 0453. Stolen by Edward Denison. He has a gash—”

Denison swore. He pulled to the curb on a dark street along the Yankee Stadium, cut off the motor and got out.

He walked over to Jerome Avenue and watched for a cab that didn't have a sign, “Radio Equip't.”

He finally got one and gave the address on Worthing Street. As the cab got under way, he glanced at his wrist watch. It was eleven-forty-five.

WORTHING STREET was in the extreme East Bronx. Number eleven-eighteen was a four-story walk-up apartment house of the cheaper class.

Denison said to the cab driver: “Stick around. Wait for me. And don't go wandering away listening to radios or anything. I'll take care of you.”

He went into the dark vestibule and examined the names on the bells. Few of the tenants had bothered to put their names in the slides above the bells. This was a section of the city where visitors were apt to be process servers or men to take away unpaid-for furniture. The tenants here evidently had no desire to make it easy for such callers to locate them. The name of Zadukian or Karabajian did not appear.

Denison went on into the unlit hallway and climbed the stairs. Apartment 4D, the number Zadukian had given him, was on the top floor.

Denison negotiated the last flight cautiously. The electric light bulbs were lit only on the first and third floors. The second and fourth were in darkness. He snapped on his flashlight and managed to decipher a faded “4D” on one of the doors. A sliver of light shone under it. He transferred Bannister's gun from the shoulder holster to his coat pocket. Then he knocked.

There was a slight sound of movement from within, and almost immediately the light went out. He waited, straining his ears. There was no further sound inside.

He put out his flashlight, and tried the door, turning the knob carefully.

The door was not locked!

He knelt down and pushed it open, then crawled in on his hands and knees. Gently, he closed the door, and stood up. He could see nothing in the pitch blackness. He held his flashlight at arm's length and snapped it on. He swung the beam around the room, and cut off the light quickly. Then he changed his position.

He swallowed hard. His hands were clammy. For in the second that the light had been on he had seen a terrible thing. The body of Zadukian hung from the chandelier in the center of the room!

His throat had been cut, and the head hung at a queer angle, looking down at his dangling heels. His white shirt front was coated with blood, and there was a pool of blood on the floor beneath him.

Denison crouched, listening. He had that peculiar awareness that there were others in the room with him.

His hand touched something, and he drew it away quickly. He took out his gun. Then he put out his hand again. It was a couch he had touched. He ran his hand along it to feel the contour.

HE was sure now that there were others in the room with him. But why hadn't they shot when he had lit the flashlight? Perhaps they were closing in to use cold steel, as they had done on Zadukian.

And suddenly somebody jumped him!

An arm clawed around his neck. He shifted sidewise, carrying the other with him. There was a hot breath in his face and something swished by his cheek.

It caught him in the shoulder, ripped the cloth of his sleeve, tore into his arm. And he felt a numbing, searing pain from shoulder to elbow as the knife raked him.

He raised his right hand and brought the barrel down viciously. He felt it crunch into bone. There was a gasp, and his attacker slumped, sank down.

There was a cautious movement at the other end of the room. A low voice demanded, “Bliss! Did you get him?”

Denison fired at the voice.

There was a startled oath, and the sound of someone stumbling. Then a gun roared from the other side and a slug whined past Denison's head and thugged into the wall. Denison fired again, a little to the right of the gun-flash.

He heard a long sigh from the other side. There were no more shots.

After a while he ventured to snap on his light again. Gratz was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, panting. He was ghastly white, and was holding both hands to his stomach where Denison's last slug had got him, trying to stanch the flow of blood.

Denison swung his flashlight down to where Bliss lay unconscious at his feet, with a bloody gash in his head. Then he crossed the room, past the grisly, hanging corpse of Zadukian, and knelt beside Gratz.

Gratz was trying to say something. His pallid lips were trying to form words.

Denison brought his ear close. Gratz was saying, “Get a doctor, for God's sake!” Even as he said it, he closed his eyes and died.

Denison found the light switch and put it on. He shuddered as the room became brightly illuminated. Bliss stirred and opened his eyes.

Denison heard the mumbling of voices outside. Evidently the neighbors had heard the shooting, but were afraid to come in.

He knelt beside Bliss, gripping his gun by the stock. He waved the barrel in front of the little gunman's eyes. “Talk,” he said, “or I'll rake you with the sight till your face is in ribbons. Where are those rubies?”

Bliss was fully conscious now. There was abject fear in his eyes as they looked into Denison's. “Gratz's pocket,” he whispered.

Denison went over to Gratz and put his hand in the dead man's pocket. He brought it out clutching the eyes of Durga. There was blood on them, and blood on his hand.

He came back to Bliss. “You might as well come through with the whole thing now.”

Bliss said weakly: “Nina framed it. She had it on Zadukian—knew he was in the country illegally. She made him open Masterson's safe and take the rubies. He knew the combination. But Zadukian wouldn't do it except he had an out—wanted it to look like an outside job.” He stopped, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. “My head hurts like hell.”

“Never mind,” Denison ordered. “Your head'll hurt worse if I drag this gun across it. Go ahead.”

'Nina sent for us. We come from Detroit. The lay was for Zadukian to take the rubies out of the safe in the morning, before he went off for the day. We were supposed to bust in and mess the place up, make it look like an outside job. But Masterson walked in on us and I—gave it to him.

“Then Zadukian got cold feet and figured he'd cross us, turn in the stones for the reward. And Nina—” he managed a sickly grin, “— she figured on crossing all of us. She wanted to get the rubies from Zadukian and lam by herself.”

Denison said, “What a gang!”

There was a noisy rush of feet on the stairway outside. Excited voices shouted, “In there—in 4D. Someone's been shooting!”

And a gruff, authoritative voice, “Stand back, everybody, we're goin' in!”

Denison opened the door. Outside there was Captain Lacey, with Detective Sergeant Rice and a squad of men. And next to Lacey was Bannister.

Bannister grinned like a cat when he saw Denison on his feet.

“Come in, boys,” Denison invited. “Everything is under control.” He suddenly felt very weak.

He stood aside while they trooped into the room. Bannister grabbed his arm and he winced.

“Hell, you're all cut up!” Bannister said.

“No, just sliced here and there.”

Lacy exclaimed, “What the devil's been going on here?”

“I got worried about you,” Bannister told Denison. “With the police after you, and these gorillas on the other end, and everything. So I opened up to Lacey. Told him where you were going. That's why we're here. And Lacey agreed to withdraw all charges against you. I fixed everything.”

Denison tried to smile. “Yeah. You fixed everything. Here's your damn' rubies.” And he fainted.


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent X magazine, December 1934


  1. Storm Clouds Of Crime
  2. Mr. Vardis Of Nowhere
  3. Linky Teagle
  4. In The Name Of Charity
  5. Frankenstein
  6. The Betrayal
  7. Four Who Waited
  8. The Lair Of The Monster
  9. Desperate Plan
  10. The Monster's Man
  11. Enter—Brinz
  12. Gilly The Gunman
  13. Perilous Trail
  14. Devil's Dragnet
  15. Satan Recruits
  16. "The Charge Is Murder!"
  17. Via Short Wave
  18. The Monster Pays A Visit
  19. Bird's-Eye Trail
  20. Hell's Headquarters
  21. Flames Of Hate
  22. "De Mortuis Nihil Nisi Bonum"


The setting sun cast a cold, hard glint across the waters of the Hudson. Brittle spearheads of light flashed athwart the waves that rippled at the bank of the river below the somber walls of the State Prison.

The chill of early November dusk was in the air; almost it seemed to reflect a spirit of dreadful foreboding, to presage the approach of calamity. Somehow, the air seemed charged with thunderbolts of doom, poised and waiting to be hurled at the grim walls of the gloomy pile that loomed above the river, imprisoning fifteen hundred bitter men.

It was Sunday afternoon, and the inmates were being given a glimpse of life in the world beyond their cells. They were being treated to a football game between their own team and the team of Ervinton College, an institution that played the State Prison once a year.

The players on the field, convicts and college boys alike, were lost in the excitement of the game. But the convict spectators displayed only a listless half-interest. Behind the high wire screen that separated their section from that of the visitors, they sat tensely, eyeing each other furtively, shifting nervously in their seats. Over the whole prison there seemed to be an air of tension, of taut expectancy.

That sixth sense that is so highly developed among men who are confined alone for a long time seemed to have divined that death hovered near. Many cast glances backward toward the main building, where were confined the more recalcitrant prisoners—dangerous criminals, untamed by their imprisonment, who were denied the privilege of witnessing the game.

The closing whistle blew, interrupting the play at nothing to nothing. Rousing cheers came from the section set apart for the visiting college spectators. The convicts cheered half-heartedly. They were casting furtive glances around the field and toward the grandstand where the warden sat, entertaining the faculty of Ervinton. The keepers, who were stationed ten feet apart across the front of the prisoners' seats, called out, "Everybody remain seated till the teams are off the field!"

The visiting team deployed from the field, trotted into the basement through the side entrance of the main building, where showers and a locker room had been set up for them. The convicts watched them gloomily, in marked contrast to the hilarity of the college boys. For they were not going home to well-cooked meals in comfortable dining rooms, to the fond glances of proud parents, to the arms of sweethearts. They were going in to a dreary supper and dismal cells, to their lonely thoughts and gnawing memories.

An inch of fiery red sun showed over the top of the wooded hills to the west, across the river. Dusk had come quickly. It was growing dark fast, and the guards now hurried the convicts into a double line and marched them toward the main entrance. The warden, with two of his deputies, stood in the grandstand talking to several of the faculty of Ervinton College who had come down to see the game.

The warden was a tall man, with a lined, wrinkled face topped by iron- gray hair. The weight of responsibility for all these prisoners sat heavily on his shoulders. Moodily, as he talked, his eyes rested on the leading ranks of convicts marching dispiritedly toward the building.

In a moment that front rank would step through the entrance, would be led to the mess hall. Another dreary day would be done, a dreary night would commence.

But that marching line never reached the entrance.

For there erupted, at that moment from the basement exit in the side of the building, a disorderly swarm of men. The Ervinton college players, the substitutes and the coaches, were being herded out, still in their football uniforms. Some stumbled, others ran, and it was evident that something terrible had happened inside.

The warden leaped from the grandstand to the field, started to run toward the basement exit, followed by his deputies. Several guards swung in after him. The long marching line of convicts had halted at a command from the head keeper, and stood silent, watching the strange exodus.

And suddenly the warden, who had been running across the field, stopped short in his tracks, his face white, his hands trembling. For right behind the college players, forcing the boys ahead at the point of submachine guns and rifles, there appeared other men—men who were dressed in the street clothes which the college boys had left in the lockers, but who did not look like college boys.

The warden exclaimed, "God! It's the lifers! They've gotten loose somehow —and they must have broken into the armory; they've all got weapons! Look, there's Gilly, and Furber, and—" he named others of them whom he knew by sight. "Quick, Turner," he addressed the deputy immediately behind him, "signal the gatehouse guard to close the gate. Have the two tower guards enfilade them with machine gun fire!"

The deputy turned to obey. At the same moment, one of the armed convicts raised a Thompson gun to his shoulder and directed a stream of lead into the gatehouse. The guard there was flung against the wall of his little enclosure, his body riddled by a dozen slugs; the gate, which had been opened to permit the egress of the visitors, remained open.

And now was demonstrated the devilish ingenuity behind this well-planned escape. The convicts, their faces screwed into snarling masks of defiance and hatred, were herding the college players along in front of them, pushing them toward the open gate. No shots were fired at them from the wall towers; for the very good reason that the college boys, being in front, would be the first to be hit.

The warden could do nothing. He stood there helpless, his face bleak, and watched the most dangerous criminals in his charge march through that gate to freedom. He said hoarsely to the deputy, "Good God, Turner, they're using the Ervinton boys as shields!" His hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically. "We can't fire at them now. Those innocent boys would be the first to be hit!"

And Turner did not signal the tower guards. A small group gathered about the warden, gazed spellbound at the vicious faces of the escaping convicts. Turner and the other deputy flanked their chief, hands hovering over the service revolvers holstered at their hips, not daring to draw them, lest such an overt act provoke the vicious lifers to let loose again with the machine guns and mow down innocent spectators as they had killed the gatehouse guard. But after that one burst of fire from the Thompson, the escaping convicts rushed grimly across the yard toward the gate. The long line of marching prisoners proceeding toward the main building had stopped without orders from the keepers who flanked them. The marching convicts cast envious glances at those who were escaping, but they made no move toward a break for freedom themselves. They had no living shields, like the others. The warden raised his voice, calling hoarsely to some of the armed convicts. "Gilly! Renzor! You can't get away with that. You'll be caught before you get a mile from here. Drop those—"

He stopped as Gilly, one of the two he had addressed, swung snarling toward him, bringing the submachine gun around to bear on the little group. The warden and those with him dropped to the ground to avoid the threatened barrage. But Gilly did not fire, for a tall, heavyset convict who was running alongside him shouted, "Never mind that stuff, Gilly! Keep on goin'!"

Gilly grumbled, but obeyed. The convicts hustled the terrorized college boys along through the gate. Outside, there waited a huge closed truck, with motor running. The convicts piled into this, the motor roared, and the truck sped away, leaving the Ervinton boys with their hands in the air.

Now the guards in the towers directed a withering fire at the swiftly moving truck. But no damage was done; its sides were of sheet metal, and wheels were equipped with solid tires. In less than three minutes it had rounded a bend in the road to the south, and disappeared from view.

Inside the prison grounds, bedlam reigned. The hundreds of excited spectators were shouting and gesticulating, running aimlessly around the ball field. In the yard the keepers were herding the remaining prisoners into the main building, while the warden uttered crisp commands to his deputies.

"Shut the gates! March the men to the cell blocks—we'll feed them later. Turner, go into my office and start the siren; then phone all the towns along the roads; get out the state police." He addressed the other deputy, "You, Seely, see the men safely in their cells, then get out every available keeper and guard—organize a posse. I'll lead it personally."

One of the professors from Ervinton College, who had joined him at the first sign of the break, tapped him on the shoulder. "I am afraid, warden, that you will not be successful in catching those men. This was a well-planned escape."

There was a look of desperation in the warden's face. "We must get those men back, Professor Larrabie!" he exclaimed. "They are the most vicious criminals in the state. Gilly, the one that wanted to mow us down with the machine-gun, is a killer many times over. He was about to be transferred to the death house!" The warden went on, his words tumbling out with hysterical speed, "And the others—Dubrot, Renzor, Gerlan—the brainiest, most ruthless fiends we've ever had here! Can you imagine what it means—a gang like that at liberty?" He shuddered. "If I don't bring them back I—" his voice broke, "there'd be nothing left for me. I couldn't face the governor!"

"Nonsense!" the professor retorted. Professor Larrabie was a tall, kindly man. He was extremely wealthy in his own right, but was also an enthusiastic scholar. Though he had no need for the income, he loved his scholastic work. He held the position of associate dean of Ervinton, and was far from a worldly man. But he showed that, for all his unworldliness, he had a well-developed sense of observation. For he said, "I believe this was done by one of the visitors, Warden. Just prior to the end of the game, I noted that someone from the visitors' stand arose and entered the building. He came out immediately before the escape. I believe that person to be responsible. But the sun was in my eyes, and I could not see his features."

Just then Turner, the deputy, came running out of the main building. He was breathless, and his face was ashen. He exclaimed, "The siren doesn't work, sir—it's been tampered with. And the phone is dead! I can't get a connection to notify anybody!"

The warden turned a haggard face to Professor Larrabie. "Ten minutes ago, Professor, I'd have staked my life that a thing like this was impossible." He seemed to have aged ten years in those ten minutes. "It's a perfect jail break!"

Professor Larrabie nodded. "It would be. The deliverer of those men is very clever. He foresaw everything!" The professor's gaze wandered over the field where the crowd of visiting spectators was milling around, shouting and gesticulating excitedly. He indicated a figure running toward them across the field. "Here comes Harry Pringle, the son of the deputy police commissioner of New York. Harry is a school chum of my own son, Jack. They are both alumni of Ervinton." The professor stared near-sightedly at the running youth. "He seems to have something momentous on his mind!"

Harry Pringle reached them, breathless, greeted the professor, then swung to the warden. "Look here, sir!" His thin, ascetic face was burning with intense excitement. "I saw somebody leave the stand a little while ago and enter the building, then come out in about ten minutes. I've been searching through the crowd for him, but I can't find him now. I thought you ought to know about it."

The warden nodded. "Thanks, Pringle. Professor Larrabie has told me the same thing. But the sun was in his eyes, and he couldn't tell who it was. Did you recognize him?"

Harry Pringle shook his head. "It was nobody I know. But," he added eagerly, "I'd recognize him if I saw him again. I'll never forget that face —now!"

The warden said, "Then I shall have the gates closed and give you an opportunity to examine every person on the grounds. But," he put his hand on young Pringle's shoulder, "I'd advise you to be careful. If the person who aided those criminals to escape should learn that you saw him, your life wouldn't be worth two cents, my boy."

An armed file of guards emerged from the building at this moment. The warden said to Turner, "I'm heading the posse. You take charge in my absence. Nobody is to leave the grounds until Mr. Pringle here has seen his face."

The guards piled into three or four cars, the warden got into the first, and the posse started out. Professor Larrabie watched them go, and shook his head sadly. "He will never catch them," he said to Turner. "They have too much of a start."

The professor was right. Late that night the warden and his men returned. They had not been able to pick up a single trace of the truck. Nobody had seen it. He sighed deeply, tired and worn from the long, fruitless search. He asked Turner, "Did that young fellow Pringle have any luck?"

"No, sir. He looked everybody over, but not a face like the one he saw. The police are going to have him go through the rogues' gallery in the morning on the chance that he may recognize one of the pictures."

The warden looked hopelessly at his deputy. "He won't, Turner, he won't recognize it. Whoever that man was, he's too smart to have his picture in the rogues' gallery. This whole thing has been done too cleverly and ingeniously."

He sank wearily into the chair behind his desk. He seemed to have shrunk within himself. His whole bearing was that of a beaten man.

"I am afraid, Turner," he said, "that there are bad days ahead."


On a night, some four weeks after the sensational escape of the twenty- five convicts from the State Prison, a quiet, strikingly handsome gentleman might have been seen seated alone at a table in the Diamond Club.

The Diamond Club was the swankiest resort of the New York City underworld. During prohibition it had been a carefully conducted speakeasy, so elaborately rigged up with safety devices and complicated alarm systems that, though it had been raided a dozen times by prohibition agents, not a drop of liquor had ever been found on the premises.

The proprietor of the club was "Duke" Marcy, former beer baron. Marcy had always been too clever to get into the toils of the law, and now he was able to secure a liquor license, and to operate the Diamond Club as a legitimate enterprise. He took particular pleasure in exhibiting the various devices by which he had frustrated raids in the old days, and these secret liquor caches, light signals and false doors were a never-ending source of attraction to the crowds which nightly thronged the place.

"Duke" Marcy's floor show was the talk of the town, his prices were exorbitantly high, and he did a thriving business. With it all, people wondered why Marcy, who was said to have reaped a fortune out of his former illegal activities, should bother with comparatively small-time stuff like running a night club; they wondered if its purpose was not to cover up some darker, more insidious operations of the underworld czar.

The handsome gentleman who sat alone at the table near the dance floor watched with detached interest while Leane Manners, the star of the floor show, pirouetted expertly through the steps of a complicated and exquisitely delicate dance, with the spotlight following her every graceful movement.

At the end of the dance a thunder of applause filled the room, mingled with cries of "Encore, encore!"

The dancer's eyes swept over the gay, flashily dressed audience, flickered for an instant as they met the gaze of the quiet gentleman, and then she swept into motion once more as the orchestra swung into the rhythm of the music for her encore.

When the encore was over, she was compelled to take three bows before retiring. She did not go back to the dressing room, but threw a cloak over her shoulders, stepped off the floor. Half a dozen unattached men rose enthusiastically, inviting her to their tables. But she favored the quiet gentleman who had also risen and was bowing to her with the innate courtesy of an old world aristocrat. She made her way toward his table.

"How do you do, Mr. Vardis?" she said. She knew this man only as Mr. Vardis, a quiet, unobtrusive gentleman of wealth, with powerful affiliations. It was he who had been instrumental in bringing her to the attention of influential booking agents, resulting in her engagement by "Duke" Marcy for the Diamond Club.

She was not aware—nor was anybody else in the world, for that matter—that the firm mouth, the aquiline, masterful nose, the high forehead and the coal-black hair of the mysterious Mr. Vardis were an elaborate disguise masking the features of a being even more mysterious. For the person behind that disguise was—Secret Agent "X." [1]

[1 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Regular readers of these exploits will need no introduction to Secret Agent "X." The man who hides his identity behind that symbol of the unknown quantity has figured in previous chronicles. Little is known about him personally, except that he saw active service during the War, was wounded in action, and later entered the Intelligence Service. In this branch he so distinguished himself that the value of his special resources and abilities was recognized by the government to be as necessary in peace times as in time of war. Accordingly, after the Armistice, a remarkable proposition was made to him by an official high in government circles. He was made a free-lance agent, commissioned to combat crime wherever it reared its ugly head in the country. It was guaranteed that his anonymity would be preserved.]

Mr. Vardis courteously held a chair for her.

The orchestra struck into a waltz, the lights were dimmed, and couples left their tables to dance. As a waiter approached within hearing, Mr. Vardis invited Leane to dance, but the beautiful red-haired girl laughingly refused.

"I'd much rather sit and talk to you," she smiled. Her voice was musical, cultured, bore out the impression one somehow got that she was a girl of refinement and education.

Mr. Vardis smiled depreciatingly. "That will be as great a pleasure for me." He seated himself, and gave the hovering waiter an order for wine, selecting it from the wine list with the care of a connoisseur.

Leane maintained the attitude of a careless young dancer having a good time. She continued to smile at her host; but her voice took on a quick urgency. "I'm so glad you've come, Mr. Vardis. There are some things you'll want to know."

Leane Manners had not been introduced to the Diamond Club by accident —nor had Secret Agent "X" become interested in her by accident. She was the fiancée of another of the Agent's lieutenants, and he was given carte blanche to proceed in any manner that he saw fit, reporting to no one, responsible only to himself. The powers granted to him were unprecedented but they were warranted by the wave of unlawfulness that swept the land after the War, rendering the usual law enforcement agencies almost helpless.

Secret Agent "X" as he became known, fully justified the confidence that had been placed in him. He never betrayed that trust, no matter what personal sacrifice his duty entailed. To finance his activities ten wealthy men, who were unknown to him and to whom he was unknown, subscribed an unlimited fund which is on deposit to his credit in the name of Elisha Pond at the First National Bank. As this fund becomes depleted by his necessary expenditures in the battle against crime, it is replenished by these wealthy men, who never ask an accounting, never know how it is used. But they feel that it has been well spent when they read in their newspapers of the destruction of another criminal gang, or of the capture of some vicious master criminal whom the police have been unable to cope with. Always, in these cases, there remains at the end an element of mystery, for the police themselves do not know how the discomfiture of the criminals was brought about, except that some mysterious force entered the situation at the opportune moment. Reading these accounts, those wealthy men smile knowingly, and feel that their money has been put to good use.

The young man was named Jim Hobart. Hobart did not know Mr. Vardis; he knew Secret Agent "X" by another name. The Agent never permitted his assistants to know more than one of the various identities he assumed in his operations.

When Jim Hobart had mentioned that Leane, who lived in a middle western town, wanted to come on to work in New York, "X" had concurred in the idea, had sent for her, referred her to "Mr. Vardis." As Vardis, he had gotten her the introduction to the booking agents, had maneuvered so that she came to the Diamond Club. In addition to the salary she received here, the Agent maintained her on his own payroll. Her duty was to watch for information that would be useful to him. All over the country he had such representatives, received stray bits of information that often helped him to prevent crime before it was even committed.

Now he nodded somberly. "I expected that you would learn something of interest here." Then casually lighting a cigarette, he threw a side glance at the occupants of the near-by tables who were regarding him and Leane with curiosity, and leaned over the table, his lips smiling as if he were whispering a soft compliment.

In reality he was saying, "So that you will be able to work intelligently for me, I will tell you what brought me here tonight. You have read, of course, about the jail break from State Prison last month?"

She nodded.

"Those escaped convicts," the Agent told her, "have not been seen or heard of since the escape. They were not the average run of criminals. Among them were fiends like Dubrot, who has a giant mentality—perverted strangely toward evil; men like Gilly and Renzor, who take human life without blinking an eyelash.

"And there were twenty-five of them—twentyfive vicious, depraved criminals who can no more rid themselves of the urge to evil than a leopard can change its spots. Those men are loose somewhere in the country, hiding out, planning death and destruction!"

The Agent had spoken forcefully, eloquently, with a purpose. Now, Leane sat tensely, gripped by the picture of menace that his words had evoked. She listened raptly as he continued.

He was still smiling for the benefit of those at the other tables. But his words were in deadly earnest.

"It goes without saying that they did not escape without outside help. Therefore there must be some one, somewhere, who knows about them, perhaps holds the secret of their present hiding place. So far all the forces of the law haven't turned up a single clue." His voice dropped even lower than before. "I want to find those men! I am asking everybody with whom I have contacts to keep their eyes open—to watch for any little hint that may be of help. I am asking you to observe carefully everything that happens here in the Diamond Club; and for a very good reason—Baylor and Nagle, two of the escaped convicts, used to be 'Duke' Marcy's private gunmen. It is just possible that Marcy may have had something to do with the escape. Keep constantly alert, report everything to me, no matter how trivial—"

She interrupted him, her face suddenly flushed.

"I think I can tell you something, Mr. Vardis. Baylor and Nagle— I've heard their names mentioned here, but it slipped my mind until you just brought them up. It was on the very day of the jail break, too. Linky Teagle had come in to see 'Duke' Marcy. You know Linky Teagle?"

"Yes. I've seen him around. He used to be Marcy's pay-off man."

She nodded nervously. "That's right, Mr. Vardis. Teagle and Marcy came out of the private office in back, past the dressing room. I had come in early, and I was resting there. They thought they were alone, and I heard Teagle say, 'Baylor and Nagle are in on it, too, Duke.' Marcy said something I couldn't hear, and then they stepped out of the hall. At the time, the names didn't mean anything to me, so I paid no attention. But now—"

The Agent leaned back in his chair, his fingers drumming on the table. "Teagle!" he repeated. "Teagle would never talk. However, it's worth trying. Thanks, Leane."

"Another thing," she went on swiftly. "Marcy had been staying away from here more and more, until a couple of days ago. Just yesterday he began spending more time here. His old girl friend, Mabel Boling, with whom he's supposed to have broken off, has been here to see him twice today, and twice yesterday. She comes in the back way, and goes right to his office. Everybody is supposed to think they're angry at each other, but it's not so. They're up to something, those two."

The soft music of the waltz hardly made it necessary to raise the voice above a whisper. Leane watched the calm face of Mr. Vardis as he cogitated the information she had just given him. She felt almost as if she were under a spell beneath the keen, penetrating eyes that burned in that otherwise austere face. Though she knew nothing about Mr. Vardis, except that a friend of her fiancé's had recommended him highly. [2]

[2 AUTHOR'S NOTE: This feeling of Leane's was amply justified by past events. Jim Hobart had been a young policeman, discharged from the force in disgrace when the agent had met him. "X" had known that Hobart was innocent of the charges upon which his dismissal had been predicated, and he had befriended the red-haired, good-natured young man, given him employment. Hobart didn't suspect the true identity of his employer. He knew only that his benefactor was a newspaper man by the name of A. J. Martin, and that Mr. Martin could do wonderful things, and had many strange powers. Jim Hobart received credit for capturing the criminals. Due to this Hobart had received the commendation of the police commissioner and had been permitted to obtain a license as a private detective. He now operated the Hobart Detective Agency, the most profitable client being Mr. A. J. Martin. It looked very much as if Leane Manners would shortly become Mrs. Jim Hobart. It was thus that the Agent requited faithful services.]

Only recently, on a case that the Agent had solved, he had so arranged it that She felt that she could trust him, that the fortunes of herself and her sweetheart were secure in his hands. She started to speak again. "If Linky Teagle should come here again—" Suddenly she stopped, lowered her eyes, and her voice changed to a casual, conversational tone. "I'm so thankful that I have this job, Mr. Vardis. It's easy work, and the pay is good—"

No muscle of Mr. Vardis' face moved to show that he was aware of the reason for the sudden change of tone. But he had noted as quickly as Leane, the shadows that suddenly stood near the table. One was their waiter, carefully carrying a musty wine bottle which he held in a napkin. The other was a huge man, faultlessly attired in evening clothes—"Duke" Marcy himself.

WHILE the waiter poured the wine, "Duke" Marcy bowed first to Leane, then to Mr. Vardis, as Leane introduced him. Marcy spoke in a soft, unctuous voice that went ill with his tremendous physique. He said, "Forgive me for taking the liberty of stepping over to your table. I was eager to meet this friend of Miss Manners, who displays such an excellent taste in ordering wines." His eyes followed the almost caressing hands of the waiter who handled the bottle. "Only a connoisseur of the first rank would order Montrachet of the vintage of 1904. It is the only bottle we have. I had hoped to preserve it for my own use."

Mr. Vardis, who had arisen, said politely, "You will join us, of course?"

As "Duke" Marcy seated himself in the chair which the waiter brought, he said with a grand gesture, "No, Mr. Vardis, I am not joining you. You are joining me. This bottle of Montrachet comes with the compliments of the house!"

Mr. Vardis accepted graciously. Leane Manners fidgeted as they sipped the exquisite Burgundy. Marcy's eyes were veiled throughout the conversation that followed. As he turned from Vardis to Leane in the course of the talk, the huge muscles of his shoulders and upper arms showed in rippling undulations through his dress jacket. The corded veins of his thick, squat neck moved as he spoke. He seemed capable, should the occasion arise, of taking a man like Mr. Vardis and breaking him in his hands.

Leane's hand shook as she sought Vardis' eyes. Had Marcy heard her utter the name of Linky Teagle? Was he playing with them?

The waltz ended, and as Marcy turned for a moment to view the next number of the floor show, Leane caught a distinct flicker of the eyelid from Mr. Vardis, and a slight nod of reassurance. She smiled once more, relieved. She trusted him implicitly.

Marcy evinced no disposition to leave. He seemed bent on outstaying Mr. Vardis.

When this became apparent, Mr. Vardis rose, excusing himself. There was no point in his remaining now. The single name that the girl had uttered had been sufficient for him. There were some other things that he wanted to know, but he could get the other information elsewhere. He bowed in courtly fashion over Leane's hand, shook hands with Marcy.

Marcy's huge paw encircled his own hand, and Marcy, grinning, with his eyes narrow-slitted, began to exert pressure. It was his favorite means of instilling respect in men he met. That crushing bear grip of his brought sweat to men's foreheads, left them weak and tingling, with their right hand useless for hours afterwards.

But now, Marcy's brows contracted in surprise. This man was his match.

Leane, who knew that trick of Marcy's, watched breathlessly, helpless to stop the pain she knew was going to be inflicted on her friend. But suddenly she sighed in relief as she saw Mr. Vardis' hand wriggle slightly, clasp itself about Marcy's big paw, and contract.

Mr. Vardis' hands were slim, long fingered and powerful. The tips of the fingers barely met behind Marcy's knuckles, yet Marcy winced. Only a second did Vardis continue the punishing grip, then he suddenly released his hold, still smiling courteously. Once more he bowed to Leane, and made his way leisurely toward the door.

Marcy gazed after him with a puzzled expression. He said to Leane, "Say, girlie, that friend of yours is no slouch." His lower lip protruded slightly, his eyes became pinpoint. "I'll have to pay more attention to him in the future!"


Mr. Vardis had excused himself at the Diamond Club, stating that he had an appointment for which he was late. But upon leaving the place, he no longer seemed to be in a hurry. Instead, he strolled down Broadway in a leisurely manner, and entered a cigar store. He stepped into the telephone booth and dialed a number that was not in any book. Almost at once, a precise voice came over the wire. "Bates talking."

Vardis asked, "Who is on duty tonight, Bates?"

Bates recognized the voice, answered quickly, "Stegman and Oliver, sir. They are here now, awaiting orders."

"Good," said Mr. Vardis. "Have them go out and inquire around cautiously. I want to know where Linky Teagle can be found tonight. I will call back in an hour." [3]

[3 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Secret Agent "X" did not depend on any one organization, such as Jim Hobart's detective agency, for all his information. At a good deal of trouble and expense, he built up the organization headed by Bates. "X" has steadfastly refused to disclose to the author just where the office is, or where Bates is located, or what the telephone number is. Men all over the country report to Bates, who is more or less of a clearing house for news of national importance. That "X" has other agents besides those headed by Bates there is no doubt. He often uses a man from Jim Hobart's outfit, one or two from Bates' office, and, perhaps, others whom I do not yet know about. The reason for this, I understand, is so that they may not be able to check with each other to discover his identity. One thing is very definite: though these men are from every walk in life, they have been thoroughly investigated by the Agent, and are absolutely dependable.]

Bates repeated the orders crisply to be sure he had them right. "Information is wanted as to the whereabouts of Linky Teagle. It is wanted within an hour." He paused a moment, and "X" heard him issuing swift instructions at the other end. Then his voice came again. "Okay, sir. Stegman and Oliver have left. Anything else?"

"Yes," said Mr. Vardis. "What reports have you on the robot murders?"

"Nothing helpful, sir," regretfully. "All the witnesses of the crimes who have been interviewed by our men swear that the murderers are a strange race of robots. They did not talk, and they walked stiffly, as automatons do. The four murders reported have netted them large sums of cash and were all attended by an absolute lack of mercy. In no case were the victims warned, or threatened. In fact, no word was spoken. The robots merely shot to kill, then walked off with the money."

"I know all that," Mr. Vardis said shortly. "I will call you back every hour from now on. Have the men circulate in the underworld; let them try for any kind of lead to these robots. Any further reports now?"

"Only one, sir. The man who is shadowing 'Duke' Marcy reports that Marcy has done nothing suspicious today, in fact seems to be busy running the Diamond Club. The only thing of possible interest was a short conversation that Marcy had only a few minutes ago with a stranger named Vardis. Our man recommends looking up this Vardis."

"Vardis is all right," said Mr. Vardis. "I know all about him. Proceed with the investigation of the robot murders, and with the matter of Linky Teagle."

Mr. Vardis left the telephone booth and walked east, purchasing an evening paper on the way. He turned in at a dilapidated brownstone house west of Sixth Avenue. This was one of a row that had deteriorated into boarding houses for down-at-heels theatrical people. Mr. Vardis had been able to secure the basement floor at a nominal rental, and he lived here alone, coming at odd times, going as he pleased, with no one to note his actions, which were, at times, more or less surprising. Now, in the seclusion of an inner room, he set himself to scan the paper carefully, studying the reports of the so-called "robot murders."

A great deal of space was devoted to them, for they bore all the qualities of sensational terror that aided in the building of newspaper circulation.

The first of them had occurred the day before yesterday, and had been attended with an exhibition of daring, ingenuity and ruthlessness that had left the city gasping.

At eleven-thirty at night, four figures had strutted stiffly into the office of the cashier on the mezzanine floor of the Grand Central Station. This was the office where all the ticket clerks brought their cash from the ticket windows on the upper level of the station. It was estimated that the cash on hand exceeded twenty thousand dollars.

The four figures might have been men—they had the faces and bodies of men—except for the fact that they moved stiffly, jerkily, like automatons, and never uttered a word. They bore a striking facial resemblance to each other—so much so, that they might have all been cast from a single mould. Their faces were youthful in appearance, pleasant and harmless looking. But they quickly demonstrated that they were far from harmless. For they drew automatics with silencers attached, and shot to death the cashier, the assistant cashier, and a guard on duty in the office.

Then they scooped up the cash in sacks which they produced from under their clothing, and boldly marched out through the lower level exit. It was not until they were well away that the bodies of the murdered men were found in the office. The assistant cashier lived long enough to tell the story to the police.

The police might not have believed the story in its entirety, even though the four robots had attracted attention in their march through the station, had there not come in swiftly upon the heels of this crime, the news of three other robberies committed at almost the same time by men answering the same description. In one case a patrolman on the beat where the robbery took place had seen them escaping with a sack of loot from a local post office, and had emptied his service thirty-eight at them. Bystanders swore that every one of the patrolman's shots had struck the robots, yet they were not wounded. Instead, one of the robots turned as if impelled by some mechanical device, raised its gun and fired at the policeman, killing him instantly.

For three days now those robberies had continued with impunity, the robots striking in parts of the city where they were least expected, always avoiding spots where the police had massed to trap them. The city was growing panicky. Deputy Commissioner Pringle, in charge while Commissioner Foster was away in Europe, had cancelled all leaves, had every available man on duty.

Mr. Vardis put down the paper, clenched his hands tightly. His eyes were bleak, almost fathomless. This menace of inhuman robots devoted to crime was a possibility that he had often envisaged with dread—not for himself, but for the community where they would strike. For it was inevitable that at some time or other there would arise a criminal with a mind of such scientific skill, of such devilish ingenuity, that it might develop such robots to do its work.

Such a criminal would be difficult to combat, for he would be clever, dangerous; he would remain hidden in security while his machines robbed and killed. And even if some of those machine-like fiends of man's creative skill should be caught or disabled, the criminal himself would still be free to continue in his diabolical traffic.

If this thing had arisen now, it was a most inopportune time for the agencies of law enforcement, because of the added menace of those twenty-five hard-bitten convicts who were still at large, and who might be heard from at any moment now—also with reports of pillage and murder.

The newspaper flares about these escaped criminals had not died down yet, even after a month. The accounts of the nation-wide search being conducted for them shared honors with the robot murders. In addition to the rewards offered by the government, many individual newspapers were offering large sums for information leading to their capture—dead or alive. But no amount of tempting cash reward had so far succeeded in coaxing a single hint as to their whereabouts. Were they out of the country? The editorial writers hoped so —for, though it might reflect on America's penal institutions that these convicts had been able to make a clean getaway, yet thousands of citizens would sleep easier if they were sure that those vicious men were no longer a hidden menace to their families.

"X" was almost certain that they were still somewhere in the country, hiding in some extremely clever retreat until they were ready to make their presence felt. The task of locating them, however, seemed utterly hopeless. He had reports from his agents everywhere—with not a single helpful hint among them.

So far, the only lead he had was the name which Leane Manners had spoken —that of Linky Teagle.

"Duke" Marcy's former pay-off man. "X" knew him as a crook of a low order of intelligence, who, since Marcy had turned from bootlegging to other, possibly more subtly insidious enterprises, had existed as a hanger-on at the fringe of the aristocracy of the underworld.

It was his business to "spot lays" for daring hold-ups, to "put the finger" on likely looking victims for kidnap plans; it was quite likely that a man like him would know where those escaped convicts were hiding out— but very unlikely that he would impart this information to a casual questioner. His very value to the underworld lay in the fact that he could be relied upon not to talk under any circumstances. Many a time had he been sweated in headquarters, "put through the mill," but never had he uttered a word of betrayal. Teagle must be handled in a skillful manner to be induced to disclose information.

Mr. Vardis opened a cunningly concealed door in the wall of his room. A closet was disclosed, containing a row of filing cabinets. From one of the drawers labeled "G," he took a thick folder, and proceeded to examine its contents carefully.

The name on the edge of this folder was "Gilly"—a name he had good cause to remember. It was also the name of one of those twenty-five vicious criminals who had been released from State Prison. [4]

[4 AUTHOR'S NOTE: The name of Gilly will be recalled be those who read the recent exploit of Secret Agent "X" related under the title of "Servants of the Skull." Gilly was one of the vicious gunmen who acknowledged the criminal known as the Skull as his master. Gilly almost caused the Agent's death during those exciting days of hairbreath adventure; but when the Skull's plans were disrupted, and his headquarters were invaded by the Police under the guidance of the Agent, Gilly had been captured with the others. Gilly had been serving a life sentence for his part in the Skull's crimes when the jail break took place, and he was one of the twenty-five to escape.]

Delving into the folder, Mr. Vardis picked out several sheets which were clipped together. They were headed, "Friends of Gilly." Among them was a sheet containing photographs, side and back, of one John Harder, once an associate of Gilly's. Harder was a fugitive from justice in the Middle West, and there was very little likelihood of Gilly's having been in touch with him recently.

Mr. Vardis placed these photographs on a little dressing table in one corner, turned on a strong daylight bulb, and spread out the contents of a flat black box which he withdrew from a drawer. This box contained all the material necessary to change the appearance of his face; a wide range of pigments, specially prepared plastic material, face plates of different sizes and degrees of concavity, nose plates, even sets of plates of various sizes to slip over the teeth. [5]

[5 AUTHOR'S NOTE: To the reader these disguises which the Agent assumes may appear to be simple matters, requiring little effort or expenditure of energy; just as, in hearing a pianist playing a difficult number, we may watch his fingers racing across the keyboard and imagine that it is easy. On the contrary, each disguise that "X" assumes requires a degree of skill, or artistry, of sheer genius that it is impossible to estimate. It is known how difficult is the modeling of a head by a sculptor working at his ease with clay. Imagine then, how much more difficult it is to model upon one's own face the likeness of another man, duplicating facial muscles, pigmentation, and the thousand other details that make the individuality of a man.]

The long, facile fingers worked swiftly. Under their deft manipulation, the face of Mr. Vardis began to melt, finally disappeared, revealing for an instant the true features of that man of mystery—Secret Agent "X." They were young, strong features, expressive of indomitable will, high intelligence, keenness and courage. They were features that no man now living could boast of ever having seen.

Only for a moment did that powerful face remain under the glare of the daylight bulb. The long skillful fingers worked surely, efficiently, and shortly there appeared the face of John Harder—the fugitive from justice, the friend of Gilly, the gunman.

An hour later of that same evening a man might have been seen making his way west across Times Square, hat brim pulled down and coat collar turned up against the steady drizzle that was slanting downward out of a pitch-black sky. Any policeman in New York would have recognized the features of that man if he had looked into his face; for they were the features of the notorious John Harder, wanted for murder in three states, whose picture had been broadcast in every newspaper in the country.

But Secret Agent "X" passed unmolested across the world's busiest thoroughfare, proving once more the truth of the old adage that the best hiding place is generally in the most conspicuous spot.

The clock on the Paramount Building said ten o'clock. Electric signs flashed all along Forty-second Street, announcing burlesque, movies, legitimate drama, penny arcades, restaurants, special sales, announcing, in fact, every possible attraction to lure pennies, quarters, halves and dollars from the pockets of the amusement seekers who thronged the streets. None of those amusement seekers was aware that here, almost at their very elbows, was being staged a greater, tenser drama than any they could pay their good money to see in the gaudily lit theatres. Secret Agent "X" made his way over to Eighth Avenue. The rain was increasing in intensity, and he lowered his head to allow the water to slide off his hat brim. But he kept his eyes ever watchful, eyeing passers-by and loiterers, appraising them swiftly, certainly. The unknown foes that he was setting out to pit himself against were diabolically clever. They might even be shadowing him already. At the corner of Eighth Avenue and Forty-second, a man stood looking into the window of a cheap clothing store.

The Agent came up beside this man, but did not look at him. Instead, he glanced in the window, appeared to be interested in the display. After a moment, "X" began to run his forefinger along the front of the window, tracing an idle pattern. He noted that the man was watching now, out of the corner of one eye, and the Agent swiftly wrote the word, "Bates" on the wet pane. The man saw it, but made no motion to indicate that he understood. After a moment, though, he turned and walked unconcernedly around the corner and up Eighth Avenue.

He stopped in the middle of the block before the brightly lit window of Haley's Bar and Grill. There was a colorful display of bottles in the window, accompanied by the sign, "Licensed to serve wines and liquors."

The man who had led "X" around the corner stopped for a moment, nodded almost imperceptibly in the direction of a second man who stood close to the doorway of Haley's, and continued on his walk.

The Secret Agent turned toward the entrance, drawing a cigarette from his pocket. At the door he stopped, asked the man standing there for a light. The man obligingly produced a book of matches, lit one and cupped the flame from the rain while "X" lit his cigarette. He murmured, "Teagle is in the rear room in the third booth on the left. Stegman and I picked him up easy. He's all alone; seems to be waiting for some one." [6]

[6 AUTHOR'S NOTE: These two operatives of Bates', like all the others, had no idea who their real employer was, or what was the ultimate purpose of the various queer tasks.]

"X" said, "Good work, Oliver. You and Stegman are relieved for the night. Report back to Bates, then you can go home."

Oliver said, "Right, sir," and left, walking in the direction Stegman had taken. If he recognized the face of the man he had just spoken to, he gave no sign of it. Those who were in the employ of Secret Agent "X" were trained never to ask questions, never to wonder at the sometimes curious things they were ordered to do.

All they knew was that they were called upon to perform. All they knew was that their work was dangerous but not illegal, and that they were extremely well paid. Their loyalty to their unknown chief was above suspicion, and they never asked questions. Many of them, like Oliver, were reformed criminals; some, like Jim Hobart, were ex-policemen. There were even numbered among those on "X's" payroll a former sword-swallower from a circus side-show, and a general of the old Imperial Russian Army.

The Secret Agent, meanwhile, entered the barroom, walked through, past the long bar lined with drinkers, and into the rear room. This was equipped with tables set into booths along both walls.

Linky Teagle sat in the third booth, as Oliver had said. He was glowering moodily at a glass of beer, half empty, on the table before him. Teagle was a man of medium size, with a thin, pinched face, small eyes that never rested and never looked directly at any one. Sparse, muddy-colored hair was combed back from a low forehead in an effort to conceal the fact that he was almost bald. He was dressed in a tight fitting double-breasted blue serge suit, and the automatic holstered under his left armpit made a visible bulge under his coat.

He looked up with a start as the Agent slid into the seat opposite him, and frowned when he found it was not the person he apparently expected. His frown changed to a look of consternation as "X" removed his hat, and he recognized the widely advertised features of John Harder. He glanced around furtively, made sure that no one had noticed, and muttered without moving his lips, "Put that hat on, quick! You nuts?"

"X" obeyed, smiling grimly. His ruse was thus far successful. Everything depended now upon whether Linky Teagle was really in possession of any information about those escaped convicts, as Leane Manners had suggested in the hint she had dropped.

Teagle said, "You're Harder. What the hell you doin' in this town? You'll get spotted inside of half an hour!"

"X" said slowly, his voice assuming a toughness that went well with the character he was impersonating, "That's my lookout, Teagle. I got to talk to you."

"Not here, damn it. Wouldn't I look swell, bein' found with you? The cops would ride me for ten years. There's a law in this state about consortin' with known criminals. Who sent you to me?"

"I've heard o' you," said "X." "I got to get in touch with an old pal o' mine by the name o' Gilly—" he watched the other keenly as he mentioned Gilly's name, and detected a quickly suppressed start of alarm. "He broke outta jail a while ago with some more guys, an' I gotta see him. I've been told you know where he is. How about it?"

Teagle made to rise. "We can't talk about that here. Let's get out some place—"

"X" put out a hand, restrained him. He was close to victory. By his very attitude, Teagle had half admitted that he knew where Gilly was. Taken by surprise, his mind had failed to react quickly enough so that he could make immediate denial. By failing to make that denial, he had implied that he knew what "X" wanted to know.

"X" spoke tensely. "We don't need to talk about it. You know me. You know I'm one of the boys. Take me to Gilly."

Teagle's face was pale, but there was a crafty gleam in his eyes. "Forget it. I don't know a thing about it; ain't heard from Gilly since he broke outta State Prison with the rest of the boys. Whoever told you I know where he is was givin' you a sleigh ride." He glanced around the place nervously, and gulped the rest of his beer. "Better scram, big boy. I can't help you, an' you'll only make it bad for me if I'm found wit' you. Besides," he added urgently, "I'm expectin' some one here any minute now—an' it wouldn't be so good for you to meet—that person."

The Agent made no move to leave. His eyes bored into the other's as he said slowly, very low, "Teagle, I know you can put me wise where Gilly is. I need to see him bad. If you hold out on me, I'll figure you for a wrong guy. And, Teagle, you know how I handle wrong guys!" He waited a moment, watched Linky Teagle's hands move aimlessly, nervously on the table. The go-between knew Harder's reputation, knew that Harder had killed often in the past on very little provocation.

The Agent went on gently, "On the other hand, I'm a great guy to my pals. Anybody who treats me right don't suffer by it. I got plenty of dough, Teagle, an' I'm willing to pay for favors!"

Teagle's hands stopped moving on the table. There was a greedy, appraising look in his eyes. He wet his lips. "How—how much would it be worth to you—supposin' I could dig up the dope on Gilly?"

"How does a couple of grand sound to you, Teagle?"

The Agent saw the light of avarice dissipate the sullenness from the other's face.

Teagle hesitated a moment, then said, "I—I think maybe it could be managed. I'd have to get in touch with some people, an' maybe it would take a couple of hours. Tell you what—" he was almost eager now—"you meet me in front of this place at twelve tonight, an' I'll tell you if it's okay. Better go now, before my friend that I'm expectin' gets here."

The Secret Agent rose. "I'll be here at twelve," he said shortly.

Teagle looked up at him, said, "I ain't tryin' to give you advice or nothin', but you better put on some work clothes, an' grease up your face. You're takin' an awful chance walkin' the streets this way."

"I'll worry about that," the Agent told him. He leaned over the table, acting out the character of the tough John Harder. "You wouldn't be thinkin' of any kind of a double-cross, would you, Teagle?"

Linky Teagle stared back into the hard face above him. "I got a reputation," he exclaimed indignantly, keeping his voice low with an effort. "Nobody can say that Linky Teagle ever squealed!"

The Agent nodded. "See that you keep that reputation."

He walked through the front bar, with his hat brim turned low. Outside, the rain was coming down fast. But the Agent did not hurry away. Instead, he turned into a nearby doorway, and with swift fingers he remodeled the lines of his face. John Harder, the fugitive from justice, disappeared. Working in the dark, by the sense of touch only, the Agent smoothed away the lines of dissipation that had marked the features of Harder, removed the plate from his teeth, inserting another. He discarded the slouch hat, replacing it with a cap which he produced from an inside pocket, and took off the brilliant-hued necktie he had worn, donned, instead, a staid green tie. He reversed his topcoat. The inside became the outside now, and being of waterproofed tweed, gave the appearance of a raincoat. [7]

[7 AUTHOR'S NOTE: For the necessities of quick change, When he emerged from the doorway, he was no longer John Harder, but a pale, anaemic looking clerk in search of a drink. Once more he entered Haley's Grill, made his way to the rear, and seated himself in a booth commanding a view of Linky Teagle's table. Teagle's expected guest had already arrived. "X" tensed as he recognized the broad shoulders, the bull neck, and the dominating features of "Duke" Marcy!]

Marcy was talking very low, almost inaudibly, and Teagle was bent forward, ears straining to catch his words. When Teagle spoke in reply, his voice was just as low. It was impossible to overhear their conversation, impossible to get any closer without arousing suspicion. The subject of their talk would have to remain their secret for the present.

The Agent ate a few bites of the sandwich he had ordered, drank part of the coffee, and left. He would have given much to know what Marcy and Teagle were discussing, but there were many things he had to do yet tonight. He felt somehow that he was drawing closer to the heart of the mystery surrounding that ruthless jail break. If Teagle kept his appointment at midnight, he might reach to the very core of it. He might, too, be walking into a trap— especially in view of the fact that Teagle was intimate with Marcy. But that was a risk that Secret Agent "X" was always prepared to take. [8]

[8 AUTHOR'S NOTE: From the very first, upon entering into his strange career, the man who is known as Secret Agent "X" had decided that his life was forfeit to the cause he was espousing. He knew that peril would beset his every step, that there would await him around each corner the danger of a death without honor or acclaim—a death that might be lingering, full of agony. But long ago on a battlefield in France, when he recovered from a wound that should have killed him, he considered that his life was no longer his own; so he risked it daily, feeling that already he was living beyond the span of time allotted to him in the scheme of things. His sole regret upon the contemplation of death would be that he could no longer be of service to humanity in its constant struggle against evil.]

If "X" had continued to shadow Linky Teagle, he might have heard a very illuminating conversation. For Teagle, after a short talk with Marcy, arose, while the ex-gangster waited for him, the Secret Agent has several stock disguises which are simpler than most of the other's, and which he has used so often that he can build them even in the dark, by the sense of touch alone.

[?] and went outside, crossed the street to a phone booth in a drug store. The rumble of the subway drowned most of his conversation, but some fragmentary phrases were audible. "—wants to join up... not a chance? —how'll I stall him?... what! You sure Harder died last month? Then this guy must be phony... I'm meetin' him at twelve... will you have some men around?... I don't know who he can be—say! There's only one guy I ever heard of who could pull a make-up like that to fool me! I bet it's..."

When Teagle returned to the booth where Marcy awaited him, his cunning little eyes were shining with excitement. He could not repress his news. He leaned over the table, whispered confidentially to the big ex- gangster...


Secret Agent "X" was also making a telephone call at a booth not a block away from the drug store where Teagle was talking. "X's" call was to another of his lieutenants, perhaps the most trusted—Betty Dale. [9]

[9 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Betty Dale is already well known to readers of previous annals. The daughter of a police captain who was killed in action, she was left alone in the world but for Secret Agent "X," who was a friend of her father's. "X" aided her to finish her schooling, then saw her well placed as a reporter for a daily newspaper. Many times in the past had he found occasion to enlist her services in his battle with crime. And Betty had grown to care more than she liked to admit for this strange man, whose true features she had never seen. She was always glad to help him, eager to hear his voice.]

Often weeks passed during which she did not hear from him, during which she lived in an agony of uncertainty as to whether or not he still lived; for she knew that his chosen career carried him ever into the byways of danger where a man's life is, more often than not, measured by the speed of a lethal bullet or the flashing arc of a sharp-edged knife.

Only when she heard his voice on the wire after such a period did she breathe a sigh of relief, only to give way once more to concern over his safety —for she also knew that when he called her he was again engaged in some stupendous battle with crime and required her services.

She wasted no time in banalities now, for she knew what matter the Agent was working on, recognized the urgency in his voice.

"I haven't been able to dig up a thing on the jail break," she told him regretfully. "My paper is going to increase its offer of a reward to ten thousand dollars; but I'm afraid it won't do any good. If there are people in the underworld who have information, they are too much in fear of their lives to try to sell it.

"I know, Betty," the Agent said. "But there is another angle I want to look into, and I think you can help."

"What is that?" she asked eagerly.

"Didn't you do some publicity work last year for a Broadway show?"

"Yes. The name of it was, 'Woman in Black.' Mabel Boling was the star."

"Exactly. You got to know Mabel Boling pretty well, didn't you?"

Betty sounded puzzled. "Why, yes. Mabel feels she owes me a lot; her show would have been a failure without the publicity I developed for her. But —what has she got to do with this—"

The Agent's voice interrupted her "Mabel Boling is very close to 'Duke' Marcy. And there may be a connection there with this matter I'm investigating. I'd like to meet Mabel Boling, Betty."

"You couldn't have called at a better time," Betty told him. "I can arrange for you to meet her tonight if you wish!"


"There's a bazaar at the Grand Central Palace. It's a society affair and is being given to raise a fund for the relief of the unemployed. Mabel Boling is going to be there."

"Mabel Boling—at a society bazaar?" the Agent asked.

Betty laughed. "It may sound funny, but Mabel's up in the world these days. She doesn't see 'Duke' Marcy any more—at least, not in public. She hangs out a lot with young Harry Pringle, the deputy commissioner's son —he's crazy about her. And, since Harry is on the bazaar committee, Mabel will be there, too.

"I see," said "X," reflectively.

"I was just dressing to attend the bazaar myself. I am covering it for my paper. If you'll meet me there, I'll introduce you to Mabel."

The Agent figured time quickly. His appointment with Linky Teagle was for midnight. It was not ten-thirty. He'd have ample time to stop in at the bazaar, meet Mabel Boling, and still keep the appointment.

"I'll be there," he said.

Betty's voice was troubled. "How will I know you?" [10]

[10 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Though Betty Dale was perhaps closer to him than anybody else, in the world, she had never been allowed to meet Secret Agent "X" in any of his permanent assumed personalties, such as Elisha Pond or A. J. Martin. Thus, she never knew in what guise he would next present himself to her. This man whose face she had never seen, she admired and loved for his kindliness, his courage, his bravery and strength. And she often wondered if it would ever be vouchsafed her to talk with him for an hour without having the shadow of some horrible crime looming over them, calling him into perilous paths.]

"Don't worry," he chuckled. "I'll make myself known to you!"

Betty Dale did not know at the moment that by her eager invitation she was unwittingly placing the man she admired most in the world in the greatest danger he had ever faced in his career.

The 1934 Unemployment Bazaar was the most lavish undertaking in years. Society had subscribed heavily, men and women of wealth entered into the spirit of the affair with the greatest of enthusiasm. It was as if these favored of fortune were seeking by some means to ease their consciences of the burden of the knowledge that thousands of families went without food and clothing while they basked in the lap of luxury.

Limousines were parked down the length of Lexington Avenue and in all the side streets. Fully five thousand people were circulating upstairs in the huge bazaar room, which had been equipped with booths all around the four walls. Manufacturers of everything under the sun had rented booths here, content to display their names, to give out samples of their merchandise, and to have it known that they supported the cause.

Other booths had wheels of chance at a dollar to five dollars a throw. And at these booths the elite of New York's wealthy class amused themselves, winning baby dolls and trinkets of no intrinsic value. One man, immaculate in his evening clothes and accompanied by two ladies in dresses that must have cost enough to feed a hundred families, spent fifty dollars at one of the wheels before he got a winning number and won a stuffed kewpie. He presented it to one of the ladies with him. She carried it around with her proudly. The man was Roderick Pringle, wealthy banker, who was serving as deputy police commissioner. He was the father of Harry Pringle, the young man whom Betty Dale had mentioned. The lady to whom he had presented the kewpie was his daughter, the other was his wife.

The daughter said, pouting, "It's a wonder, dad, that Harry doesn't pay some attention to us. He's one of the committee here and supposed to be busy, but he does nothing except hang on to the skirts of that Boling woman!"

Roderick Pringle, frowning, followed with his eyes the glance of his daughter, across to where a handsome young man of perhaps twenty-nine or thirty stood in earnest conversation with a beautiful, hard-faced, dark-haired woman at least five years his senior.

The face of the portly deputy commissioner became choleric. "He's at it again, in spite of what I told him! He has no consideration for his official position. The woman's not even a good actress—and she consorts with underworld characters." His voice became caustic. "A fine crowd for the son of the deputy police commissioner to hang out with!" He clenched his fist. "Wait till we get home—I'll give it to that young pup. This has got to stop, once and for all!"

His daughter, perhaps regretting that she had called his attention to Harry's companion, tried to change the subject. She tugged at his sleeve. "Dad! Who's that terribly attractive man who just came in over there? Isn't he handsome? And he looks so dignified!"

Roderick Pringle swung his gaze from his son around to the entrance towards which his daughter was looking. "I don't know the man, Irma. Never saw him around before." He bent bushy brows on his daughter. "Now don't you go getting interested in strange men. I've got enough on my hands with Harry!"

Irma Pringle laughed. "I'm sure he's somebody important, dad. Look, he seems to be coming in our direction!"

The tall, dignified gentleman was indeed approaching them, having noted their presence as he entered. When he came up to them, he bowed in courtly fashion, spoke with the modulated accents of good breeding. "I beg your pardon, sir. You are Commissioner Pringle, are you not?"

Pringle nodded.

"My name is Vardis. I am a stranger in New York, but my friend, Commissioner Foster, wrote me before leaving for Europe that if I visited the city I was to look you up. I took this opportunity of making myself known to you."

Pringle thawed out at mention of Foster's name, and introduced Mr. Vardis to the ladies. The conversation drifted into various channels, and as they talked they moved around, examining the interestingly equipped booths. Mr. Vardis was an engrossing conversationalist when he wanted to be, and his listeners were entranced by the swift flow of anecdote and comment that came from his lips.

They stopped before one booth in the line of brilliantly lit stalls along the wall that was not open. The wooden shutters were still in place. It bore the number, thirteen. Pringle nodded toward it. "There's a generous contributor to the cause of charity. The people who rented that booth contributed five thousand dollars to the bazaar fund."

On the closed shutters was a sign reading as follows:

This booth donated by anonymous benefactor. It will be opened shortly before midnight, and a surprise is promised to all. Be sure to stay for the opening.

"It's probably the contribution of some manufacturer or department store," Pringle said. "It'll make good advertising for them when it's opened."

Mr. Vardis noted two young men who approached them across the floor. They, like Harry Pringle, bore buttons in their lapels announcing that they were on the bazaar committee.

Irma Pringle exclaimed, "Here come Jack Larrabie and Fred Barton, dad. I wonder where Ranny Coulter is?"

The commissioner grunted. "Probably up to some mischief. It's a wonder Jack and Fred aren't up to some crazy stunts, too!" He turned to Mr. Vardis, explained quickly as the two young men approached, "These two, together with Ranny Coulter, are chums of my boy. The four of them are generally always together. I wish some one would take them in hand and whip some sense into them. They've all graduated from college, mastered professions, but they won't work. It's a sickness—too—muchmoneyitis! If I lost all my money, it might be a good thing for my boy, Harry; and the same goes for Jack and Fred, here, and Ranny Coulter."

The two young men came up, were introduced to Mr. Vardis. He noted that Irma Pringle monopolized young Jack Larrabie in a possessive manner. Vardis smiled at the commissioner. "Engaged?" he asked.

"Hell, no," Pringle returned. "They want to be, but I won't let them till Jack goes in practice for himself. He's studied medicine, but he won't practice —says what's the use, when his dad is worth a couple of million dollars. His father is Professor Larrabie of Ervinton College, you know. A millionaire in his own right."

"I seem to recall the name," said Mr. Vardis. "Wasn't it Professor Larrabie who was present at State Prison at the time of the jail break?"

"The same. My son was also there. Harry actually saw the man who is suspected of having killed the guards and paved the way for the escape. I'm worried about Harry's safety on that score. But the boy's stubborn— won't have a bodyguard; says his three pals are all the protection he needs."

The crowd before booth thirteen had grown much larger now, and there was a buzz of excited comment and speculation as to the identity of the donors of the five thousand dollars.

Fred Barton, who had been left somewhat alone while his chum, Jack Larrabie, was engrossed with Irma Pringle, joined Mr. Vardis and the commissioner, and the talk turned to the news of the day. Mr. Vardis tried to broach the subject of the escaped convicts, but the commissioner was already answering a question of Fred Barton's about the robot murders.

"I don't think, Fred," the commissioner said with a note of authority "that there is any chance of the robots attacking this bazaar. There are uniformed officers on guard at all the entrances downstairs and at the doors up here. Anybody who looks like a robot wouldn't stand a chance of getting near this place."

"That's a consolation, anyway," Fred Barton remarked. "This would be tempting pickings for them. I bet there's a hundred thousand in cash here tonight."

Mr. Vardis was listening closely now. "Do you believe they are robots or mechanical men?" he asked. "I understand they were shot at, but couldn't be hurt."

"That is true," the commissioner said slowly, "It is a hard thing to imagine, but I am forced to believe that they are robots. In no other way can their peculiar actions be explained."

Fred Barton scoffed. "Impossible!" he declared. "As you know, I've made a thorough study of chemistry and physics. The creation of mechanical men is as far-fetched, as impossible, as the discovery of the legendary Fountain of Youth. It would be physically impossible to exercise remote control, by radio, or by any other device, of the arm, leg and head movements of a mechanical man. These so-called robots act and fight like human beings. They must be human beings."

"And yet," said Commissioner Pringle, with a troubled look in his eyes, "you know that famous line—'There are more things in heaven and earth than the mind of man can conceive of!' Anything is possible in this day and age. How do you feel about it, Mr. Vardis?"

"Naturally," Mr. Vardis replied modestly, "I have not sufficient information on which to base an opinion. However, I am inclined to agree with young Mr. Barton, here. Isn't there a possibility, commissioner, that these robots are, in reality, those twenty-five convicts who escaped from State Prison?"

Pringle shook his head. "Emphatically no. Those robots were seen to touch various articles with their bare hands. They left prints. And those prints match no classification on file anywhere in the world! The only explanation I can see is that they are robots—that they have all been created exactly alike by some master fiend who has acquired more scientific knowledge and skill than our greatest students!"

They were interrupted by the approach of a trimly dressed young lady, hardly more than a girl. Mr. Vardis' eyes grew kindly as they took cognizance of her sparkling blue eyes, of the golden blond hair, showing under the small, chic hat. This was Betty Dale.

She glanced casualty at Mr. Vardis, with no hint of recognition, smiled at Fred Barton, but concentrated on Pringle. "I hope you'll pardon the intrusion, commissioner. I am Betty Dale, of the Herald. I was wondering if you'd grant me a short interview on the robot murders?"

Pringle smiled. "I remember you well, Miss Dale. You don't need to introduce yourself to me. Do you know Fred Barton? And Mr. Vardis?"

Mr. Vardis bowed. Betty did not know him, did not guess who he was. She asked Pringle a number of questions, making notes on a small pad of paper she produced from her bag. When she had finished, she thanked him.

"I'm sorry, Miss Dale," Pringle told her, "that there is little I can add to the news that appeared in the evening papers. We have no idea where these robots will strike again, but I can assure you that the men of the police department are doing everything in their power to protect the residents of the city—from the commissioner down to the lowliest patrolman!"

Several other people approached the commissioner, and Mr. Vardis found himself alone with Betty for a moment—rather, he maneuvered so that they were alone. "I think, Miss Dale," he said, "that I know a friend of yours."

She looked at him quickly. He could see that she was not interested in him, that her eyes were restlessly roving over the crowd as if she sought some one. She remarked politely, "Really? That is interesting. Who is it?"

"Someone," he replied in a voice that had suddenly assumed a peculiar inflection—one that he reserved for her alone—"someone who shall be nameless!"

Her face paled, her eyes widened. Emotion struggled for utterance, but was repressed. "You—Mr. Vardis!" she exclaimed. Then her eyes clouded with concern as he led her farther away from the group around booth thirteen, toward the center of the floor. "You're working on these robot murders?"

He nodded. "That—and more. I haven't much time now, Betty. Let's find Mabel Boling so I can have a little talk with her. Right at this time I am interested in her ex-friend, 'Duke' Marcy—and, also, in young Pringle."

Betty's eyes lowered. She uttered a warning sound. "There she is— with Harry Pringle. It'll be easy; she's coming up to talk to me."

Mabel Boling greeted Betty Dale effusively. She still recalled the debt she owed to the pretty, blond newspaper girl. Betty knew Harry Pringle by sight, too; and she performed the introductions.

"X" led them across the floor to a booth where cocktails were being served in the name of charity at one dollar each. He bought drinks for everybody, while he covertly sized up Mabel Boling. She was unquestionably beautiful. In addition she was vivacious, and an actress of parts. "X" could understand how she would be the perfect companion, for a man like "Duke" Marcy. But she lacked culture, poise. "X" wondered what attraction she possessed that could hold a young man of education and refinement like Harry Pringle.

Betty Dale adroitly managed to engross young Pringle in conversation, leaving the Agent more or less téte-a-téte with the actress. "X" skillfully turned the conversation to "Duke" Marcy. Mabel Boling's face went blank. "I haven't seen him for months," she declared emphatically. "He was the great mistake, of my life." She glanced fondly at Harry Pringle. "I don't even like to think of those days any more."

Though she was a good actress, "X" felt that underlying her words there was a queer note of insincerity. He sensed that she was on guard more or less; that there was something on her mind. Keen judge of human nature, he felt that she could be drawn out at the proper time and place. So, after a little further conversation, he intrigued her into accepting his invitation to have lunch with him the next day. He was a little surprised at the alacrity with which she accepted the invitation, while she cast a wary eye on Harry Pringle to make sure that he hadn't overheard.

Was it possible that she was as anxious to talk to him as he was to talk to her? There was the chance that "Duke" Marcy had spoken to her of his encounter with Mr. Vardis at the Diamond Club.

The Agent betrayed nothing of his thoughts. His face showed only pleasure at the prospect of lunching with an attractive woman. "Suppose I phone you tomorrow?"

She nodded, and whispered her number. And shortly after, she drifted away on Harry Pringle's arm.

The bazaar was in full swing now; women shone resplendent in their gorgeous evening gowns and glittering jewels. Men were spending money freely, placing dollar and five dollar bills on the wheels, paying a dollar apiece for drinks. The Agent agreed with Fred Barton's estimate that over a hundred thousand dollars was being spent in the booths that evening.

He turned back to Betty Dale to find her conversing with a short, wiry, hawk-nosed man whose bald head glittered under the sharp electric lights. Though "X" knew this man, he betrayed no sign of recognition as Betty Dale introduced them.

"Mr. Vardis, this is Mr. Runkle." Her eyes flickered slightly as she looked at the Agent in an endeavor to convey some message.

Runkle shook hands enthusiastically, his full red lips expanding in an unctuous smile. "I saw you talking with the commissioner a while ago," he said. "I suppose it was about the subject that is on everybody's tongue these days?"

"If you mean the robot murders," the Agent replied, "you are correct. One couldn't help discussing them."

Runkle's ferretlike eyes probed into the Agent, almost as if he were aware that this, was a disguise. "You don't happen to be a police officer, do you?"

"I have no connection with the police whatsoever," "X" told him. "What gave you that impression?"

Runkle shrugged. "One sometimes gets a feeling."

Ed Runkle was a criminal lawyer, probably the shrewdest and most successful in the profession. It was he who had once defended "Duke" Marcy on a charge of income tax evasion and got him an acquittal. Runkle had also handled the cases of many of Marcy's old gang including some of those who had escaped from State Prison in the recent jail break. Runkle was saying, "Look at all these people, enjoying themselves here, while murder and robbery goes on in the city. Just as I came in they were crying an extra about another robot murder." He demanded suddenly, "Are you interested in crime, Mr. Vardis?"

"X" shrugged. "Who wouldn't be—when it is so close to us?" The Agent perceived that, for some reason, Runkle was making an attempt to draw him out. "X" would have enjoyed allowing himself to be drawn out, perhaps even to glean some profitable information for himself in the process. But he consulted his watch and noted that it was eleven-thirty. He must leave if he wanted to keep his appointment with Linky Teagle.

He excused himself, and Betty Dale walked as far as the door with him. She wore a troubled expression. "I don't know what it is," she said, "but I feel a strange kind of nervousness—as if something terrible were brewing. It must be recent events. That awful jail break, and now these robot murders." She shuddered. "It's almost as if some evil super-mind were enfolding the city in a fog of terror. People don't feel safe any more. If things like the robot murders can take place day after day here, and the police be powerless to stop them, unable to find a single clue, people will take to barricading themselves in their homes."

Secret Agent "X" nodded somberly. "It's all you say it is, Betty. And there is no tangible lead by which they can be run down. However," he murmured as he bowed over her hand, "with a little luck, I may run into something tonight."

As Betty Dale watched the Agent cross the corridor to the elevator, she felt a sudden premonition of danger, felt almost as if she had seen for the last time the strange man who was Secret Agent "X." Something seemed to tug at her heart.

[?] shouting a warning. But she turned back to the busy bazaar, smothering that feeling in a sudden access of energy. She had work to do; she had to cover the event for her paper.

She stepped inside the doorway, and stopped stock still, frozen at sight of the thing that was happening in the glitteringly lit room.


Booth 13—the mystery booth rented by the anonymous donor of five thousand dollars—had been opened! The crowd of hilarious men and women had stopped their laughter, remained rooted where they stood, gaping aghast at the terrifying figures that swarmed out of the interior of the booth. They were like men, yes. And they were clad like men, all in gray suits and gray slouch hats. But they moved with the quick, jerky strides of automatons.

No word was uttered by them, no sound, except for an occasional unintelligible grunt that might have been expressive of pain or of sadistic pleasure. They seemed to be obscene beings endowed with the shapes of men. Each was armed with a snub-nosed automatic equipped with a silencer, and each walked stiffly to a particular spot in the room. Within a minute every exit was covered. The pleasure-seeking crowd of the bazaar was trapped by these manlike beasts.

And then there stepped to the front of the booth, a hideous, awe- inspiring monster. It walked like a man, but stiffly, as did the others. Yet it differed from the others; for it wore a peculiar contraption like a gas mask. The rest of its body was encased, from the gas mask to the feet in a grayish, rough sort of material that might have been asbestos. Its torso was round, stocky, the shape and size of a large barrel. From its gloved right hand protruded a peculiar sort of tube, ending in a tapering point, not unlike a large hypodermic syringe.

This hideous figure stood for a long minute surveying the crowd, silently, grotesquely, like a frankensteinian monster.

Many of the people in the crowd had not yet noticed this monster, for their eyes were glued in horror to the white, expressionless countenances of the mechanical-appearing men who had swarmed out first; and a slow murmur spread through the throng, tinged with sudden fear.

"The robot murderers!" The word went from one to the other in the amazed throng. These were the beings who had committed the robot murders, emblazoned on the front-page of every newspaper in the city for the past week. No wonder the description was alike in every case. These beings were as alike as peas in a pod—clothes, features, bearing—everything!

The whispered word went around, "automatons!"

Betty Dale felt herself brushed aside by one of these creatures who completely disregarded her as he made for the door, turned and stood on guard, automatic pointed at the crowd.

But she paid him no attention. For her eyes were now focused on that awful figure in the booth—that awkward, ungainly monster that stood silently surveying the room.

The first to regain his wits was a patrolman, one of the twelve assigned to duty in the bazaar. He pushed through the crowd toward the booth, shouting to the other uniformed men, "Let's take 'em, boys! It's the robots!"

He was reaching to his hip pocket as he advanced.

The monster turned its ponderous head toward him as if it were a giant dinosaur noticing a lizard in its path. Its right arm rose, the index finger; lined up with that peculiar hypo-like tube, pointed at the blue-coat.

Only that, and nothing more. No sound, no flash. But suddenly, as if an invisible giant hand had been placed against his chest, the unfortunate policeman was brought to a halt. A look of incredible terror and amazement appeared on his round, moonlike face. And in a moment, fierce, torrid flames were leaping up all about him; sizzling, white-hot flames that scorched the clothes from his body, and the flesh from his face. He screamed again and again —screams of dreadful agony that made the blood of Betty Dale and every one of the spectators run cold with horror.

He rolled on the cement floor, clawed about him frenziedly. No one dared approach for fear of being engulfed in that raging furnace which he had become. A wide circle had been cleared about him. And then, suddenly, he lay still, a pitiful scorched thing, that had just now been a man, an officer of the law, a human being with a love of life, perhaps the father of a family.

Men and women stood silent, petrified by the sudden calamity. A quietness as of the tomb descended upon the assembled company. And then, strained nerves could stand no more. The sight of that lifeless thing that had been burned to death before their very eyes released hysteric floodgates of emotion.

A woman screamed, shrilly, piercingly, and fainted. It was Mabel Boling. She slid to the floor, inert and unconscious. Harry Pringle, who was still with her, stooped to aid the senseless woman, as echoes of her shriek were taken up by women all over the room. The bazaar suddenly became a bedlam of high-pitched, hysterical voices. People milled about in panic, shrinking from the awful figure in the booth.

Harry Pringle knelt beside Mabel Boling, shouting, "Give her air! Give her air! Some water, somebody!"

And in the midst of that pandemonium, the ungainly monster stirred slowly, and a deep, metallic cadaverous voice issued from somewhere in the depths of its barrel-like body. "Let nobody move. Stand still with your hands in the air!"

It was as if some one at a great distance were broadcasting, the voice emanating from a receiving set somewhere in the monstrous shape that dominated the room.

Men and women stiffened to frightened attention as those deep, ominous tones resounded through the place. The uniformed men, cowed by the hideous death of their colleague, obeyed the command with the others. The robot killers who guarded the doors stood motionless, as if they had nothing to do with what was going on. But their automatics were trained upon the crowd. It would have been suicide for anyone to defy the order.

Only Harry Pringle, oblivious to everything, still knelt beside Mabel Boling, striving wildly to bring her back to consciousness.

The macabre being in the booth raised its hand once more, and without warning, without repeating the command, pointed at Pringle. From somewhere in the middle of the room came the agonized cry of Pringle's mother, "Harry! Harry! My boy!"

Too late.

White hot flames sprang up from the young man. The revolting odor of scorched flesh once more pervaded the room. He threshed wildly about, trying to beat out the flames, to no avail, People backed away from him, forming a wide circle. He started to cry, "Damn you—" but his voice was suddenly smothered by the flames, as he twisted horribly in the throes of excruciating agony.

Jack Larrabie, his young friend, was standing close to the far wall. Behind him was a fire extinguisher, hanging ready for use. Stealthily he reached up for it, but the murder monster seemed to have all-seeing eyes. Again that metallic voice, "Don't touch it!"

The gloved hand made a half-move toward Larrabie, stopped as the young physician stayed his reaching arm in mid-air. He was glaring murderously at the monster.

All this had taken only a few seconds; and in that short time young Harry Pringle's agony ended in merciful death. He seemed to shrivel up, drop to the floor. Flames still licked his pathetic form, and even though he was dead, his body twitched.

Toward the middle of the room, a white-haired woman struggled frantically in the restraining arms of her husband, the commissioner, moaning in a dead voice, "My boy! My boy!"

Roderick Pringle, his face gray, held desperately to his wife's arms. To let her leap to her son would only mean death for her, too.

Of a sudden, wild, uncontrollable laughter burst from the half-crazed woman-no mother's sanity could help cracking under the strain of witnessing such a sight.

But above her strident shrieks of mad laughter, there rose once more that metallic voice. "Gag her! Stop that noise, or—"

The pointing finger started to swing in her direction warningly.

Frantically, desperately, Roderick Pringle, himself on the point of breaking down, threw his arms about his wife, smothering, her cries. At last the surcease of unconsciousness came to the bereaved mother, and she sagged in her husband's arms. Her daughter already lay in a merciful faint on the floor.

Mabel Boling stirred, sighed, and opened her eyes. Her uncomprehending gaze fell on the charred remains of Harry Pringle. She did not realize yet what had befallen him; she was still dazed, and she weakly allowed her head to drop back on the concrete floor.

And now the murder monster and his hellish cohorts had the throng subdued, resistless. From a gay, insouciant gathering, spending money freely in the name of charity, this bazaar had been transformed to a grisly scene of murder and terror, with two smouldering bodies, strangely twisted in death, as mute evidence of the dread horror that had suddenly come among them.


The resonant voice of the gruesome being in the booth now rose in terse, metallic command to its cohorts of robot killers. "Take up the collection!"

The automatons snapped into motion at the order. They swarmed from booth to booth, producing from somewhere in their clothing large canvas bags into which they poured the cash which had been taken in.

The robbery was proceeding with the timed efficiency of a well-rehearsed play, every movement of the automatons seeming to have been carefully planned in advance. The whole thing took very little time. While they were emptying the cash drawers, that ominous voice of the specter in the booth spoke again, addressing the cowering throng.

"Make no resistance and you will be harmed no more. The sooner you learn that resistance is useless, the better off you will be. Remember that for the future when we appear again!"

Betty Dale tried hard to remember every inflection of that voice. But she knew it was useless. The voice was disguised, and besides it was issuing from some sort of metal speaker which made it impossible to identify it.

An outcry from the doorway behind her made her turn suddenly about.

This doorway opened into the hallway close to the stairs and the elevator. She saw the two elevator cages open, with the robot killer who had brushed past her before, standing guard. He had shot the two operators with his silenced gun, and their bodies lay now, one of them huddled—in the cage, the other sprawled half in and half out of the other cage, a pool of blood, seeping along the cement floor from a wound in the head.

The cry that caused her to turn was uttered by a uniformed man who had come down the stairs from the floor above, no doubt attracted by the screams of the women. He was one of the special policemen employed by the building. His gun was holstered at his side, but he drew it as he noted the situation through the open doorway.

He raised his gun, fired six times through the open door at the barrel- like figure in the booth. The heavy slugs from the thirty-eight whined across the room to the thunderous reverberations of the gun and buried themselves in that unholy being—without effect!

The figure staggered slightly from the smashing impact of the bullets, but recovered its balance, raised a pointing finger at the brave attacker.

But the robot killer at the elevator cages was already in action. He emptied his automatic into the body of the special, who staggered, ran a few steps on the concrete floor, and flung headlong down the stairs leading to the floor below. But the searching finger of the ugly monster in the gas mask had found him too, and his body burst into flames, forming a veritable ball of fire that rolled down the steps.

The metallic voice issued an order to the killer at the elevators. "Guard those stairs. Allow no one up or down. We leave now!"

The robot seemed to understand the order as if it were a human being. It moved stiffly toward the head of the stairs, and took up a position there, then proceeded to insert a new clip in the automatic it had just emptied into the body of the special policeman. Betty Dale had her hand to her mouth in consternation. She had no eyes now for the swift movement of the horde of robots and their leader. For she had seen something that made her blood chill with sharp concern. Just before the flaming body of the policeman had hurtled downward, carrying fiery destruction for anyone who might be in its path, she had glimpsed a face—the face of a man who was running up the stairs. It was the face of Mr. Vardis—Secret Agent "X"—returning, attracted, as had been the special policeman who was now hurtling down upon him, by the screams of the women.

Secret Agent "X" had heard those screams as he stepped from the elevator downstairs and started to cross the lobby to the street. He turned to go back, but the cage was already rising in response to insistent ringing from above, where the robot killer was summoning the operator back to meet his death.

The Agent's sure instinct told him that those screams were not occasioned by any ordinary accident—he caught the edge of frightful terror in them.

He noted from the indicator that the second cage was not descending, and his swiftly roving eyes saw the staircase at the left. Several people were in the lobby, and he shouted to them, "Call headquarters, somebody! Send in a riot call!" Then he dashed for the stairs, sprinted up them with a speed that left those in the lobby agape.

On the way up, as he passed landing after landing on the way to the fourth floor, he heard further cries, then silence, which was even more ominous. He passed the third floor, was approaching the fourth, when he saw the special policeman on the landing, got a swift glimpse of the room with the hideous figure in the booth, saw the uniformed officer burst into flame and come tumbling down right at him.

The stairway was narrow, there was no chance of avoiding that hurtling bundle of fire. It would strike him in a moment, engulf him in its flaming destruction.

His brain worked with the speed of lightning. He seized the banister, vaulted over, and hung by his hands on the outside, as the ball of fire rolled down, thumped on the lower landing, and came to a stop against the wall.

The Agent easily supported himself by his hands. He hung there for a moment longer, while the full import of the situation came to him. He heard the metallic voice from the booth order, "You will all remain quiet while we leave. Keep your hands in the air."

There was silence within that room, then the voice again, "All right, we're leaving. File out the back way."

Hanging there by his hands, "X" saw the shape of the robot who had shot the officer at the head of the stairs.

The Agent realized at once what was taking place. Those beings who had committed the robot murders had struck again, this time at the gay throng assembled here in the name of charity; they had brought terror and frightful death along with them; and now they were making good their escape. That escape could not be prevented. But there was one thing that could be done—one of these so-called robots must be captured if possible.

Without hesitation, "X" leaped into action. He swung over the banister, dashed up the stairs, at the same time drawing a peculiar-shaped gun. [11]

[11 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Secret Agent "X" does not use lethal weapons. His gas gun contains a highly volatile, quick-acting anaesthetizing gas of his own compounding, which serves the same purpose as a lethal weapon without inflicting injury or death. It renders the subject instantly unconscious, and leaves no ill effects.]

The robot on the landing was just turning to depart. From below came the shrill note of a police whistle, the tramp of many feet on the stairs.

As "X" reached the top landing, he got a glimpse into the bazaar room, saw the ghastly figure of the murder monster moving with ungainly, ponderous motions as it stepped through a doorway at the far end of the room, followed by the horde of robots who marched across the floor in its wake.

The robot who had stood at the head of the stairs was just stepping through the doorway to cross the room and join the others. "X" leveled his gas gun and pulled the trigger. A stream of gas was ejected from the muzzle, enveloping the robot's head. The action was a desperate one, for if the robot were protected and not susceptible to the effects of the gas, it would immediately turn upon the Agent and loose a stream of lead from its automatic, which, at that short range, could mean nothing but death.

"X" poised on the balls of his feet, ready to leap forward at the figure if it swung toward him. But it didn't. Suddenly, as the gas struck, the robot sagged, and crumpled to a heap on the floor!

Pandemonium reigned within the bazaar room as the last of the unholy horde left through the far exit. "X" paid no attention to the riot within. He stooped swiftly beside the unconscious figure, looked deeply into the smooth features. He ran his hand along the inert shape. His fingers encountered metal. The figure was wearing a bullet-proof vest, and leg, thigh and arm guards of the same material. No wonder bullets had no effect! He raised his head sharply as a frantic figure raced up beside him. It was Betty Dale. Her face was flushed with excitement, and her hands shook. Her voice was barely audible above the cacophony of sound from inside the bazaar room. "I—I saw you on the stairs!" she exclaimed. She shuddered, closed her eyes tight as if to shut out some terrible sight, "I thought you'd be burned! God! It's horrible! That—that monster—it killed Harry Pringle, and a policeman. And those robots—" "X" arose from beside the inert form on the floor. The feet of the police were pounding closer on the stairs. They were on the landing below now. The Agent put a hand on Betty's shoulder that seemed to soothe her as if by magic. His eyes glittered. "That is all over and done with, Betty. The dead are dead. But this man on the floor here will change the situation. From now on the police and the public will know that these are not robots, not mechanical men, not supernatural beings. The police were rapidly becoming demoralized by the feeling that they had to face super-human beings. From now on they will fight with renewed vigor, knowing that their enemies are no more than men."

He drew Betty Dale away before the first of the uniformed men came into sight on the stairs. "It's too bad that I won't have an opportunity to question this man. I am afraid the police won't get anywhere with him," He shrugged. "Perhaps I can arrange to question him later. Now I must get out of here. I have an appointment."

He pressed her hand, left her, and slipped into the throng in the bazaar room. Betty watched him, speechless, while he mingled with the hysterical crowd who still kept a wide space cleared around the smouldering, scorched bodies of Harry Pringle and the unfortunate policeman who had defied the murder monster.


It was twenty minutes past midnight when Secret Agent "X" appeared again on Eighth Avenue outside Haley's Bar and Grill. He had been delayed by the police investigation at the bazaar, had been compelled to wait while the names of all those present had been taken. The police had been puzzled at finding the killer's unconscious body, had been at a loss to understand how he had been rendered insensible. But no one except Betty Dale had seen the Agent fire his gas gun at the robot-like killer, and she said nothing.

Haley's Bar and Grill was still doing a rushing business. Outside the rain had stopped, but the sky was cloudy and dark. "X" stood near the curb, away from the light that streamed out of Haley's windows. He was twenty minutes late for his appointment with Linky Teagle.

Once more he was in the role of John Harder, fugitive from justice, friend of Gilly, the gunman. He had confidence in the perfection of his disguise, in his knowledge of the characteristics of the man he was impersonating, for he had studied them thoroughly. He would have felt a good deal less confident, however, had he possessed knowledge of a fact not yet reported to the police—the fact that John Harder, the man he was impersonating tonight, was dead! Harder had accidentally shot himself in the leg while examining a machine gun. Harder had fallen on the Tommy, had for two days lain in the lonely hut where he was hiding out, until two of his gang returned. But Harder was dead when they found him—for gangrene had set in. The two pals took his body and buried it in a barren field near the hut. That was the end of Harder.

Gilly, many miles away in State Prison, got word of that event by means of the grapevine telegraph of the underworld, because he was known to be a one- time pal of Harder's. And so, though Secret Agent "X" did not know that he was impersonating a dead man, others did...

The Agent strolled up and down the street in front of Haley's, wondering whether Linky Teagle had been there and gone, or whether he would soon appear. "X" was not unconscious of the possibility that this appointment might be a trap of some sort. He kept a wary eye out for passing automobiles from which a sub-machine gun might spout lead. He now carried an automatic holstered under his left armpit; and few could use it with a dexterity to equal his. He did not intend to inflict death if he could help it—yet it would come in handy if he were being "put on the spot."

No overt attack was made, however. And soon a shadowy figure approached out of the misty night, came close. It was Linky Teagle. Teagle scanned his face, and grunted. "You got nerve, wandering around the city with a fat reward posted for you in every post office in town!"

"X" brushed the remark aside. "Well?" he demanded, "How about Gilly?"

Teagle took his time about answering. "You got that two grand you promised?"

The Agent nodded. "I got it, right here." He tapped the breast pocket of his coat.

Teagle's face was eager. "Okay. Give us it, an' I'll take you to him!"

"X" brought out an envelope and handed it to the other. Teagle almost snatched it from his fingers, opened the flap and drew out the contents. Twenty crisp one hundred dollar bills. He looked up suspiciously. "This ain't— swag from some hold-up, is it? Will I get my neck in a sling if I try to pass it?"

The Agent reassured him. "That ain't hot money, Teagle. It's good cash. You can change it in any bank in the city. Think I'm a sap?"

Teagle pocketed the money. "Okay, Harder. Come along." He turned, proceeded up Eighth Avenue.

The Agent swung in beside him. "Where do we have to go?"

"Don't ask so many questions!" the other growled. "You'll see."

They walked up two blocks, turned the corner and stopped before a small store with windows which, had been frosted to prevent passers—by from looking in. The street was deserted, but "X" noted two doorways across the street, where the shadows seemed, thicker than elsewhere. Also, as Teagle rang the bell at the door, the Agent saw two men appear out of a hallway several doors down.

These men strolled casually toward the store with frosted windows, their hands in their overcoat pockets. At the same time, the two shadows on the opposite side moved, resolved themselves into men, and started across. The Agent did not appear to notice all this, but he crowded closer to Linky, slid the automatic from his shoulder holster and put it into his coat pocket. He did not take his hand out of the pocket, but he looked significantly at Teagle.

Linky looked down at the bulge the automatic made close to his own side, looked up at "X", and said, "What's the idea, friend?"

"X" laughed harshly. "Just an old habit of mine when I go into strange places. You can never tell what's on the cards."

The door of the store opened to Teagle's ring, and a big, heavy-set, man with a walrus moustache looked inquiringly at them, then said, "Oh, hello, Linky. Come on in." He turned and went back down the short, dark hall, motioning them to follow him.

Teagle said to the Agent, "This is where we meet your friend. You don't have to worry about nothin' happening. This joint is okay."

"X" crowded in beside Linky, shut the door behind them so quickly that anybody outside who might have been waiting for a clear potshot at him would have been disappointed.

OUT in the street, the four shadows converged before the door. They did not ring the bell. No word was spoken among them. They seemed to be acting according to prearranged plan, and waited silently.

In a few moments the door opened, and the big man with the walrus moustache appeared again, stood aside for them to enter. They filed in past him and walked down the short hall. The big man closed the door, followed them into the lighted room at the end of the hall

This was a barroom, with a small bar at one end. Near the bar was another door, which was closed. This other door led into a private room where guests could drink undisturbed, transact whatever private business they had.

The big man stepped behind the bar, saying nothing to the four who had entered. They stood near the wall now, hands in pockets, unmoving, their eyes on the door to the inner room. There was something peculiar about them— something that caused the bartender to shudder. They looked like brothers —and they walked stiffly, mechanically. There was nothing to indicate that they were human except four pair of eyes that glittered out of those faces with a merciless light that made the man with the walrus moustache feel, somehow, cold and clammy.

The four men waited stolidly, never speaking.

Presently the door of the inner room opened and Linky Teagle came out —alone. A shadow crossed his face—was it a shadow of fear? —as he saw those four silent figures. He gulped, looked away from them with an effort, and said to the bartender, "He took the doped drink like a fish; he's out cold already."

The bartender grinned nervously, rubbing his hands. "A Mickey Finn always works, Linky. Only I was afraid that guy was too slick to take it. He certainly fell fer the whole lay, just like a sap—expectin' you to lead him to Gilly!" He glanced at the four men. "You can go in an' get him now, boys." He spoke diffidently, as if he almost thought they would not understand him. But they did. One of them produced from his coat a capacious sugar sack, which he unfolded and shook out. It was large enough to hold an unconscious man. The four of them then advanced into the inner room.

The bartender peered over Teagle's shoulder, glimpsed the inert form that lay with head on table, unconscious. He poured out two stiff jolts of whisky, handed one to Teagle, and downed his own at a gulp, sighed gustily. "I'm glad that's over. Did you scratch his face to see if he had make-up?"

Teagle nodded. "It's make-up all right, and damn clever. If I didn't know for sure that Harder was dead, I'd swear it was him."

The four men closed the inner door behind them as they went about their gruesome task of stuffing the inert form into the sack. The bartender shivered slightly. "God! Those guys give me the heeby-jeebies—they don't seem to have no soul. They don't talk or anything; they just look at you with those killer-eyes!"

Teagle's eyes were on the inner door. He seemed to share some of the walrus-moustached one's feelings, but he said nothing. He appeared tense, alert.

The bartender asked huskily, "What'll they do with that guy in the sack —after they're through asking him questions?"

Linky Teagle shrugged. "Maybe there won't be anything left of him by that time." He moved toward the door. "I wonder what's keeping them so long."

The man with the walrus moustache came around to the front of the bar. He said, uneasily, "I'm wonderin'—whoever their boss is, how come he trusts us to see all this? Suppose—" his voice dropped to a whisper —"suppose he give them orders to knock us off after they finish this job?"

Linky Teagle said, "I was thinking of the same thing. We better take a look in there."

His hand snaked inside his coat, produced a gun. He reached out, opened the door wide. The inner room was empty.

The bartender gasped. "They musta gone out the back way!"

And just then there was the sound of heavy steps in the short hall that led from the front door. There had been no sound of anyone entering, but there was the distinct noise of a ponderous tread in the hall now.

The bartender's face went pale. "They left the outside door unlocked —so they could go around from in back!"

Teagle swung his gun toward the hallway, just as a strange, monstrous figure came into view. It was the same horrid being that had struck terror into the crowds at the bazaar, that had launched invisible death at Harry Pringle and the policeman. Its barrel-like body waddled as it walked, and its ghastly gas-masked head peered through the gloom.

It stopped in the doorway, slowly and ponderously raised its hand, with the finger pointing at the bartender.

The bartender screamed, started to duck behind the bar. Linky Teagle had his gun poised. His finger now contracted on the trigger, and seven slugs —seven livid streams of death streaked from the muzzle straight at the monster. But the heavy figure was unmoved by the hail of lead. It was as if those death-dealing bullets that would have been fatal to any man were no more than pellets from a boy's toy sling. With a sure, inexorable motion, its pointing finger sought the bartender, and a flash of flame sprang from the screaming man's clothing. In an instant he had become his own fiery funeral pyre. His screams tore through the small room; horrible, hideous screams that mingled with the echoes of Teagle's gun. He swept his arms in a desperate, flail-like motion over the bar, and the whisky bottle was hurled to the floor, shattered, The alcoholic liquid spread, and the dying man rolled across the floor, right into it. Flames spread, fed by the alcohol, and the place became an inferno. In the meantime, the hellish monster had turned its death-finger toward Teagle. But Teagle, acting with desperate speed, had slipped through the inner door that led to the back room and kicked the door shut.

The room became bright as the flames spread. For a moment the huge, ungainly monster stood there, watching its handiwork. If it entertained any emotion of anger at being balked of its other prey, any disappointment at missing Linky Teagle, there was no way of telling. It turned ponderously and made its way out of the short hall, into the night, where it stepped into the rear of a closed truck that sped away.


A square room, poorly, lit. Chairs arranged in a semicircle before a raised platform with, curtains at the rear.

Walls of whitewashed brick, with small windows high up near the ceiling —a typical cellar room, converted to its present use.

In the chairs were seated beings that resembled men—rather, shells of men, lacking a human spark. They were awaiting something or someone. They smoked, but did not talk. Their startlingly youthful, features bore an uncanny resemblance to each other—as if they were all members of a single family. And in their eyes there was a ruthlessness, a cold-blooded killer lust that it was hard to credit. It was as if they had made a bargain with the devil—trading their immortal souls for a quality of merciless viciousness beyond human conception.

There were four chairs vacant in the semicircle. None of those strange beings paid any attention to the empty chairs. They did not even stir when four of their fellows entered through a side door, carrying a sack in which something squirmed.

They deposited the sack on the floor, and one of them stooped, cut open the rope that tied it at the top. They helped out the half-conscious man who was within it, stood him on his feet. The doped drink had not yet worn off entirely, and the man was still groggy, wobbling, dazed.

The face of John Harder stared about the room with swollen, uncomprehending eyes. He was no longer the desperate fugitive from justice; he was a man with half his senses deadened by dope, unable to familiarize himself with his surroundings.

No words were spoken by the robot killers who held his arms. There was utter silence in the room for a space of minutes. And then the curtains parted at the back of the narrow platform, and the murder monster stepped out— huge, ungainly, terrifying.

At sight of that monster, the captive wrenched wildly at the hands that held him; but his strength had been sapped by the dope, and he was as a child in the grip of his grinning captors.

The monstrous figure on the platform paid him no attention at first. It stood there, planted solidly, its hideous head moving from side to side as it took stock of those present.

Finally, from somewhere in its bowels there emanated the same sonorous metallic voice, that had struck terror into the hearts of the people at the bazaar.

"I have no fault to find with the way you all acted tonight at the bazaar. You were true sons of the monster! Always remember that you must be ruthless, merciless! Do not hesitate to kill—a dead enemy is a harmless enemy; and we have no friends! By striking terror into the hearts of everybody, we eliminate resistance."

The voice paused for a moment, then went on, "In future, however, you must be more careful. Tonight we lost one of you—Number Eight is reported missing, capture by the police. If he had come at once in answer to my order, he would not have been caught. It is imperative now that we release him. My plans are all set for tomorrow morning at eleven o'clock, when he is to be arraigned in court. You will all participate; your instructions will be issued later. Now we must attend to another matter."

The ungainly monster half turned toward the captive, ordered those holding him, "Bring the prisoner forward!" Then it once more addressed the seated audience of killers, "There is one enemy whom I knew all along I would have to eliminate in this campaign, for he was sure to interfere with our progress. That enemy is the man known as Secret Agent 'X.' You have all heard how impossible it is to find him, how dangerous he is. Well, gentlemen, I have the honor to show you—Secret Agent 'X'! He was caught by a simple trick; he practically walked into our hands."

The four men led their struggling captive down to the foot of the platform.

The monster continued, "I am sure that this is Secret Agent 'X' because nobody else in the world could have disguised himself as John Harder. He tried to crash into this organization in that role; gentlemen, John Harder is dead. But this man didn't know it. And there he stands. Look at that disguise. Perfect! It shall now be our pleasure to scrape that putty off his face, and see for the first time the real features of—Secret Agent 'X'! And after we are through asking him a few questions, I will treat him to a bath of fire!"

There was no trace of pity in the eyes of the smooth-faced killers who watched the captive struggle ineffectually with those who held him. He tried to talk, but the powerful drug had paralyzed the muscles of his throat temporarily. It was wearing off slowly, and confused syllables issued from his mouth, syllables that had no coherence or meaning.

He was rapidly searched, and an automatic taken from his shoulder holster, together with a few other papers. Then those who held him proceeded to scratch the plaster and make-up from his face.

While they were doing it, the resonant voice of the monster spoke mockingly, "For once the famous Secret Agent 'X' has nothing to say; for once he is helpless. At last he has met his master! This, gentlemen, is the end of Secret Agent 'X'! There was a note of proud triumph in that voice now—a note of evil, unmerciful triumph, which ended in a gasp of rage as the last of the make-up was removed, revealing the face of—Linky Teagle!

A rustle of excitement, spread among the assembled killers, but even then no word was spoken among them—only, here and—there were heard gross, unintelligible grunts, and the wheezy, terror-impregnated breathing of Linky Teagle.

Above the sound of those inhuman grunts rose the metallic, but now enraged voice of the murder monster. "If this is a trick, somebody is going to pay for it! Scratch that face and see if it's another disguise!"

One of the four killers, grinning as a child might grin when it crushes a grasshopper with its foot, drew a knife and scraped the point along the captive's face, eliciting a muted howl of agony. But no plaster came off. Blood ran freely where the knife point had scored into the flesh. It was indeed Linky Teagle.

The monster uttered a single ominous word, "Explain!"

Teagle gulped, tried to talk, and succeeded only in emitting grotesque sounds. He was in the grip of terror, and he tried desperately to talk. Finally, urged by his dread, he managed to get out some words. The dope was wearing off, easing his throat muscles.

"It's no joke, boss. I had this guy 'X' in the back room, and the bartender brought in the doped drink. But he must have got wise. Because—" he stopped, swallowed hard, and found it impossible to continue.

The monster ordered, "Bring him water."

One of the four disappeared through the side door, returned in a moment with a glass of water which Teagle gulped at a single draught. His throat felt better, and he went on.

"He must have got wise, somehow. Because all of a sudden he pulls out a funny shaped gun. I says, 'What's that, Harder?'—makin' believe, see, that I still thought he was Harder. An' he says to me, lookin' kinda funny, 'So you know who I am! Well, I will show you how to make a quick change, only you won't be able to witness it, Linky.' An' with that, he shoots off this funny gun that don't make no noise, an' I feel a sudden kind of sickish sweet feelin', an' that's all I know till I wake up in the sack! So help me, boss, it ain't no joke!"

Several of the killers stirred uneasily in the silence that followed Linky's recital, It was difficult to tell from their impassive countenances what they felt. Only their eyes blazed with a dangerous lust. But they looked tensely at the monster on the platform. Somehow the monster's rage and bafflement seemed to pervade the whole room.

The resonant voice burst from the bowels of the barrel-like shape. "So he put you to sleep, eh, Teagle? And then he changed places with you—made up as you, and made you up as Harder. Then he came out and sent my men in to put you in the sack." The voice paused, then continued ruminatively, "And to think—I almost got him. I wondered that Linky Teagle could be so quick- witted as to escape the fire bath!"

Teagle looked up, sudden fear in his eyes. "What do you mean, boss —escape the fire bath?"

"You didn't think, Teagle, that you would be allowed to live after learning so much of our secret? Well, perhaps you did. So did that foolish bartender. I killed him. I thought I failed with you. This time I shall not fail."

Slowly the ominous finger rose, pointing st Teagle. "Stand away from him!" ordered the metallic voice.

The four smooth-faced killers who had held him now sprang away. Teagle cried out piteously, "What you gonna do to—"

He never ended the sentence, for he was suddenly enveloped in flames...


Secret Agent "X" did not permit himself to rest after escaping the trap set for him by Linky Teagle.

He knew that the murder monster would quickly discover the ruse by which he had substituted Linky Teagle for himself in the sack. He knew that the murder monster would be spurred to redoubled activity by the realisation that it was the Secret Agent, and not Teagle, who had escaped from the menace of the flaming death in the smelly barroom on Eighth Avenue.

And "X," too, was spurred to feverish activity by the knowledge that there was much to be done yet if the monster was to be prevented from striking again with that horrible flaming death. All hope of gaining admittance to the inner ring of the monster's cohorts was now dissipated. He must follow along other lines of inquiry.

The most promising lead was the actress, Mabel Boling. She was a former friend of "Duke" Marcy. She had been with Harry Pringle when he was killed. The Agent was to phone her tomorrow. But that was too long to wait. If she knew anything, she must be made to talk before morning.

It was to see her, therefore, that the Agent was now on his way. He had discarded, temporarily, the personality of Mr. Vardis. To appear before Mabel Boling in that character might make her suspicious now. He was Mr. A. J. Martin, a newspaper man. As such, he had every legitimate reason to approach her; he would be collecting news on the atrocity at the bazaar, and it was certain that she would not be asleep after her harrowing experience—she would probably be home, being interviewed by other representatives of the press.

"X" drove toward the address she had given him in the West Eighties. On the way he passed a newsboy crying an extra. He pulled in at the curb, bought a copy.

His hands clenched on the paper, his mouth set grimly as he read the screaming headline:


Mabel Boling, Actress, Is Burned to Death
in Her Apartment by Mysterious Death Blast


At one A.M. this morning, the Murder Monster struck again. This time his victim was a beautiful woman, Mabel Boling. It will be recalled that she recently broke with "Duke" Marcy—

Secret Agent "X" skipped the rest of the account. He ran his eye to the next column where the heading announced that Deputy Commissioner Pringle, on the job despite the death of his son, had issued a call for every detective on vacation to return to active duty until the murder monster was captured or killed.

It added that the police were seeking "Duke" Marcy for questioning, but that he had disappeared from all his known haunts; a general alarm had been issued for him, and it was expected that he would be apprehended shortly.

The Agent put the paper down, headed his car back the way he had come. The murder monster had acted swiftly. There must be a keen brain, indeed, behind that clumsy automaton; for it had foreseen that Mabel might be possible source of information, had taken immediate, ruthless steps to eliminate her. Every avenue of information that might lead to the murder monster had been blocked. With bitterness in his heart, the Agent drove to an apartment that he maintained near by where he kept copious records of the reports of his far-flung operatives. Here he ensconced himself in solitude, and spent the few remaining hours of the night in studying every angle and manifestation of the case.

He had long ago discovered what few men have learned—that two or three hours of concentrated thought are often worth days of feverish activity.

He checked through his records of every single one of those twenty-five convicts who had escaped from State Prison, familiarizing himself with the habits and recorded peculiarities of each. He consulted voluminous indexes and cross-indexes, searching down every little detail that came to his attention.

It was well on in the morning when he laid sway the last record with an air of decisiveness. Purposefully he picked up the newspaper once more and sought for a certain item. He found it, crowded to the second page by the news of Mabel Boling's death. It announced that the so-called robot killer who had been captured the night before at the bazaar would be arraigned at eleven o'clock in the morning before a judge of the Court of General Sessions.

The reason for this quick arraignment, it was stated, was because of a writ of habeas corpus which had been secured by the defendant's attorney.

And the name of the attorney, which stared up at "X" out of the printed page with a sinister implication, was the name of the man he had talked to at the bazaar—Edward Runkle! Runkle was defending the murder monster's man —Runkle, the shrewdest criminal lawyer in the city, who boasted that no client of his had ever gone to the chair!

Automatically, the Agent read the last few lines of the item, which stated that though the defendant had been grilled intensely by the police and the district attorney, he had refused to make any kind of statement— had, in fact, sat there without opening his mouth, just like the robot he had been previously supposed to be!

The Agent consulted his wrist watch, noted that it was eight-thirty. He left the apartment, drove to a drug store a few blocks away that was just opening for the morning. Here he entered one of the phone booths and dialed a number. It was the number of the Hobart Detective Agency, a new and highly successful inquiry bureau. Its head was a young, red-headed former patrolman; and though he had only been in business for a short time, he employed more than fifty operatives all over the country. Nobody suspected that Hobart, though ostensibly the boss, took his orders from the obscure newspaperman, A. J. Martin. And Hobart himself did not know that A. J. Martin was—Secret Agent "X." [12]

[12 AUTHOR'S NOTE: As has been mentioned before it was in the role of A.J. Martin that Secret Agent "X" had first befriended Jim Hobart. Jim took his orders, and obeyed them without question. Often he saw from the results of the work he was doing that his employer was a man of unusual capacity. If he was inclined to make any conjectures in that direction, he certainly kept them to himself. In any event, he never doubted that A. J. Martin was the man he represented himself to be. Jim sometimes wondered If the orders he received from Mr. Martin had not originated with someone else who was using Martin as a go-between. If that was so, Jim had a good idea, or thought he had, who that "someone else" was. But he was thoroughly satisfied to continue, because he was in a position to know, the opinion of the police to the contrary, that the "someone else" was emphatically on the side of law and order.]

Though it was only eight-thirty, Hobart was on the job, and his voice came cheerfully over the wire.

When he learned who was on the phone, he said, "Gosh, chief, there's big doings. Did you see the papers?"

"I did. And there's plenty of work for you." "On the murder monster case?"

"Yes. Here's what I want you to do. Get hold of half a dozen of your men. Be sure they are well armed. Have them ready for duty in the corridor at the court of General Sessions by ten o'clock, at the opening of court.

"Don't use any local operatives who might be known to the police— phone out of town, have six or seven outside operatives fly in; they should be able to get here by ten o'clock. By the time they get here, you will receive by messenger written instructions as to what to do. Carry out those instructions to the letter!"

"Depend on me, chief."

"The orders may sound, peculiar, Jim, but it's imperatve that you follow them implicitly. It may even seem to you that you are acting in a way to frustrate the law—but you must carry the orders through. Do you understand?"

"I understand perfectly, chief. I ought to know by this time that anything you do is okay. You figuring to take that killer out of court by force? If you say so, I'll do it."

"Not exactly by force, Jim; but I suspect that the 'Murder Monster,' as you call him, will make an attempt to rescue him—or kill him. He has so far succeeded in murdering everybody who might be able to betray him. There is no doubt that he will try to do the same in court today. We must stop him!"

"Okay, chief. By the way—have you seen Leane recently? I've been so busy I haven't had a chance. And I'm worried about her, working in that fast night club of Marcy's, especially since he's been tied up by the police with this murder monster. Also, I understand that this Mr. Vardis that you recommended her to has been hanging around her a lot. Is he okay?"

"Leane will be all right," the Agent assured him. "She needn't work at the Diamond Club any longer. And Mr. Vardis won't see her any more—he's gone on a long trip. From now on she can work with you, directly under my orders. How's that?" "Swell, chief!"


The Court of General Sessions was a scene of bustling activity that mourning. In Part 1, on the first floor, where the captured robot killer was to be arraigned later that morning, two uniformed guards stood at the door. Nobody was admitted unless he had business in the court room. Spectators were barred because of the dangerous character of the killer.

Inside the court room, though spectators were not admitted, all the seats were filled with attorneys and witnesses in the various cases scheduled on the calendar for the day. The judge had not yet appeared, but Chief Assistant District Attorney Fenton, tall, gaunt, stern, a relentless prosecutor, was already seated at the long table inside the enclosure before the bench. He was going through a sheaf of papers, stopping every few moments to converse with his two clerks who hovered around him.

He looked up, frowning, as the bald-headed, oily Ed Runkle approached him.

"Hello, Joe," Runkle greeted him. "How's tricks?"

Fenton grunted an answer. He had nothing but contempt for Runkle's breed of lawyer, who would accept as a client the most vicious enemy of society, provided a fee accompanied the case. But Runkle's tremendous political connections made it unwise to antagonize him.

"I'm busy, Runkle. Is there anything you want?"

"What time is my client's case coming up this morning?" the lawyer asked.

Fenton ran his finger down the calendar to the line which read: "People vs. John Doe—motion on writ of habeas corpus."

"It should be reached about eleven, Runkle—after the call of the calendar and the sentencing of convicted defendants."

"Can't you move it up a little, Fenton?" Runkle was smiling ingratiatingly now. "I have another case on in Brooklyn, and I'd like to get away early."

The D.A. put down his papers, glared up at the little lawyer, and exclaimed impatiently, "Why should I do anything for you? You know damn well that this man is a murderer—he was caught red-handed at the bazaar. Yet you ask for a writ of habeas corpus! You know damn well that you're only doing it so as to prevent the police from grilling him further. You know he'll never be discharged." Runkle shrugged "I'm only doing my duty as an attorney." He added unctuously, "Every man is entitled to be considered innocent until he is convicted by a jury; and it's his privilege to be brought before a judge within forty-eight hours." "Sure, sure!" Fenton said bitterly. "You know the law inside and out. Of course it's your privilege. But did you consider that, in forcing us to bring him here out of the security of the jail, you make it possible for his associates to rescue him? For all we know, they may be planning to attack us here the way they attacked the bazaar last night!"

"I'm sorry if you feel that way about it," Runkle said, getting ugly. "If you don't like the law, why don't you get yourself elected to the legislature and change it? You don't care if a man is guilty or innocent—all you want is convictions to build up your record!"

Fenton sprang to his feet, face purple. "You know that's a lie, Runkle! For that matter, how about you? You'd use every quirk of the law to get your client out, even if you knew he was as guilty as hell! How about this case? Who hired you? Who paid your fee?" He shook an apoplectic finger under the little lawyer's nose. "I'm going to put you on the stand and make you tell us who hired you! It's birds like you that make it so easy for criminals!"

Everybody in the court was watching with interest now, attracted by the loud words. The scene might perhaps have ended in a fist fight, if the door at the side of the court room had not just then opened. An attendant stepped through, announced in a brittle voice. "His Honor, the Judge. All rise!"

Fenton turned away from Runkle, choking down his rage. The little criminal lawyer, unruffled by the other's burst of irascibility, smiled thinly as he faced the bench, while everybody in the court room stood in deference to the majesty of the law represented here by the black-robed judge who entered behind the attendant and seated himself in the tall chair behind the bench.

Judge Rothmere was one of the oldest of the justices of the court in point of service. He was also the sternest. Criminals and their lawyers tried to avoid him by every possible means, going to extremes to get their cases postponed to times when he was not presiding; for every criminal knew that if he was convicted in Judge Rothmere's court, he would be sentenced to the maximum prescribed by law.

The judge glanced over the court room while the clerk intoned the usual formula for opening the session. His eyes, under the bushy eyebrows, took cognizance of the strained attitudes of Runkle and Fenton.

Runkle was by far the cooler of the two; he owed his great success as a criminal lawyer to the fact that he never lost his head in the court room. Now, as the judge leaned forward over the bench, he stepped up, speaking in a self-contained, calm manner of injured righteousness.

"If Your Honor please, the district attorney just finished some very disparaging remarks about me before you entered the court room. I am here to argue a motion on a writ of habeas corpus for one, John Doe, charged with murder in the first degree. The district attorney has scheduled this motion for eleven o'clock, and has absolutely refused my request to have it called earlier. It is highly important that I leave shortly, as I have a pressing engagement, and I appeal to Your Honor not to permit Mr. Fenton to run this court, but to have the defendant, John Doe, brought here now."

Judge Rothmere, who, ordinarily made no concessions to defendants' lawyers, seemed to feel that Runkle deserved special consideration. He turned to Fenton, asked, "What is your objection, Mr. Fenton, to accommodating Mr. Runkle?"

Fenton spluttered. "If the Court please, I don't think Runkle is entitled to any consideration. This writ is entirely uncalled for. In the ordinary course of events, the defendant would have been indicted some time this week and duly brought to trial. Runkle has taken this action merely to get this killer of his out of the hands of the police before he can be made to talk. It's a shame that any attorney could be got to handle this case, and I intend to question Mr. Runkle as to who retained him!"

The judge nodded, turned to Runkle. He was listening to both sides impartially.

Runkle did not lose his patience. He said, "I am perfectly willing to explain how I was retained. Early this morning, about three A. M., I was awakened by the ringing of the telephone beside my bed. A muffled voice told me that if I went down to my front door I would find ten thousand dollars, and that it was the fee paid to me in advance for defending this man. I was warned that if I did not take the case I would regret it. Then my unknown caller hung up.

"The money was there in front of my door, tied in a neat parcel. I immediately called police headquarters, and the call was traced to a drug store pay station. The bills in the package of ten thousand dollars were checked carefully and found not to correspond to any that were known to have been stolen from the bazaar. Under the circumstances, Your Honor, I felt entirely justified in taking the case, and I at once proceeded to obtain a writ of habeas corpus. It is what any other attorney would do under the circumstances. I co-operated fully with the police, and there should be no fault to find with my actions."

Runkle stopped drew a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his lips. He shook a deep breath and went on. "I once more ask Your Honor to exercise the discretion of the court, and have this defendant produced now instead of at eleven o'clock."

Judge Rothmere had listened closely to Runkle's explanation. Now he addressed Fenton sternly. "I see nothing wrong in Mr. Runkle's conduct, Mr. District Attorney. The defendant is entitled to the services of counsel, and Mr. Runkle is doing the best he can for his client. I will grant the request of defendant's attorney." He raised his voice; "Bailiff! Bring. in the defendant, John Doe. Number—" he glanced down at his copy of the calendar— "Number twenty-seven."

When the bailiff left to obey the order, the judge bent his imposing, bushy eyebrows and looked at the district attorney. "Perhaps this will be a lesson to you, Mr. Fenton, not to attempt, in the future, to assume the prerogatives of the Court. As a matter of fact, for certain other reasons that have been brought to my attention, I had intended having this defendant brought up earlier, even if Mr. Runkle had not requested it."

Fenton gnawed his lower lip, glaring at Runkle, who grinned at him.

There was a stir in the courtroom as the bailiff and two armed guards led in the robot-like killer who was down on the police blotter as John Doe. No trace of emotion or interest showed on his smooth face. Though he had not shaved, his cheeks were still smooth. No beard had grown there. Only his eyes showed a sign of human intelligence. They darted about the courtroom, glittering with expectancy—as if he sought some one he knew should be there. He walked less stiffly now, for he had been divested of his ingeniously contrived bullet-proof under-clothing.

He was lead up to the bar, and the clerk rose, began to intone the usual questions. "Prisoner, what is your name?"

The prisoner remained stolid, did not speak.

The judge leaned forward a little, inspecting him closely, while Runkle stepped to his side, whispered in his ear so that everybody could hear. "I'm your lawyer. It's all right. You can answer the questions."

Still the prisoner said nothing. He stood there like an automaton, or, perhaps, a man in a trance.

Finally the bailiff ventured to say, "If it please Your Honor, that's the way he's been since he was arrested. He was grilled all night but he wouldn't open his mouth. They had to book him as John Doe!"

"All right," the judge snapped. "Enter his name as John Doe. We will leave the other questions till later. Perhaps we can make him realize that he's in real trouble." He turned to Runkle. "Now, sir, what is the purpose of this motion?"

Runkle wiped his lips with his handkerchief—it seemed to be a habit with him whenever he talked—and began a long argument to the effect that his client should be discharged because of lack of evidence. He finished by making the formal request, "I move that this defendant be discharged because there is no evidence that a crime has been committed in this jurisdiction."

It was a motion that is always made as a matter of routine, but never granted. Judge Rothmere, however, seemed to weigh Runkle's argument seriously. He turned to Fenton, asked, "Have the defendant's prints been taken? What is his criminal record?"

The district attorney answered reluctantly, "There is no record at all for him, judge. His fingerprints do not fall into any category on file."

"You see, your honor," Runkle began, "this defendant hasn't even got a record. He's being framed—"

Fenton laughed scornfully. "Framed! That's what Runkle claims about every one of his clients, Your Honor. It's his stock in trade. He'll soon be telling us about this man's poor old mother and father in South Bend, Indiana, or some place!" Fenton gestured eloquently. "Judge, the mere fact that Runkle has been retained here should prove that the defendant has something to worry about. It's common knowledge in the underworld that Runkle can help a criminal to beat any kind of 'rap.' If a defendant can pay Runkle's fee, he can get away with murder!"

Runkle smiled, not deigning to reply. His eyes were on the judge.

And Judge Rothmere suddenly threw a bombshell into the court room. In his august, judicial voice he announced, "Mr. Runkle, I will grant your motion. The defendant is dismissed!"

Nothing that the judge could conceivably have said or done could have caused greater consternation in the courtroom than those four words.

Men stared at each other as if their hearing had suddenly betrayed them. The bailiff and the guards stood speechless. District Attorney, Fenton seemed suddenly to choke, then he waved his hands in the air and rushed up to the bench. "You can't do that!" he shouted. "This man is a murderer! Are you crazy?" The unexpectedness of the decision had deprived him of all sense of discretion.

The killer at the bar remained unmoved, unspeaking, as if none of this concerned him in the least.

Runkle seized him by the elbow, urged him toward the door. "You're free, do you understand? Get out of here before they hold you for something else. Beat it!"

Fenton turned from the bench, ran shouting after them. "Stop! Stop! I'll swear out another warrant for him. He can't go free. He's a murderer!"

Judge Rothmere frowned, called out, "Mr. Fenton! Do you forget where you are? This is a courtroom!"

Fenton paid no attention to him, ran after the prisoner, The judge pounded with his gavel "Bailiff," he shouted. "Seize Mr. Fenton. I declare him in contempt of court!"

The bailiff stared at him uncomprehendingly, too dazed to act.

The judge half rose in his bench, thundered at the unfortunate bailiff, "Did you hear me?"

That official finally came out of his daze, stammered, "Y—yes, Your Honor," and sped after the district attorney, gripping him by the arm. "Sorry, sir, it's the judge's orders!"

Fenton fumed in the bailiff's grip, but the delay was enough to allow the robot killer and his attorney to leave the court room. As the door closed behind them, Fenton turned to the bench. There were tears of rage in his eyes. "Do you know what you've done, Judge? You've released a cold-blooded killer. He'll kill again, as sure as you're sitting there, Why did you do it?" Judge Rothmere rose dignifiedly from the bench, tapped once with the gavel. "Court," he announced quietly, "is adjourned till ten o'clock tomorrow morning! Till then, Mr. Fenton, I will parole you in your own custody to answer to a charge of contempt of this court!"

And the judge turned, left the bench and went out through the side door, leaving the room in a state of seething excitement.

He was out in the corridor now, but before crossing to his chambers across the hall, he walked down a few paces and peered around the bend. He could now see the front door of the court room through which Runkle and the killer had gone.

They stood there now, faced by five men in plain clothes who wore on the lapels of their coats badges of the Department of Justice. One of these men was saying to the baby-faced killer, "We want you, boy. We have a warrant for the arrest of one, John Doe, now held by the state authorities, for questioning in a kidnaping investigation. I guess you're our man." He turned to the others. "Take him, boys!"

Runkle started to protest, but he suddenly found himself looking into the barrel of a revolver. The officer who had spoken before held that gun, and he said, softly, "We don't want you—yet, mister. But we'll take you along if you open your trap once more. Yeah, we'll take you along—feet first!"

Runkle's face went pale. Before he could collect himself, the other men had snapped handcuffs on the now struggling killer, and were leading him out of the building with a gun stuck in the small of his back.

Runkle started to shout after them, "You're no officers—" but he stopped quickly, cowering, as one of them swung around, raised his gun. The man did not fire. He merely laughed, turned around and followed the others. So quickly and quietly had the thing been done that the few people in the corridor had not even noticed it until Runkle began to shout. Then it was too late, for the five men with their prisoner were gone.

Runkle sped after them, stood in the entrance watching the high-powered car into which they had climbed speeding around the corner on two wheels. He cursed, then shrugged, turned to the small crowd that had gathered behind him; "I got my fee, anyway," he said, grinning. "And nobody can say I'm hiding him from the law, because you all saw him snatched from under my eyes."

Around the bend in the corridor, Judge Rothmere had watched the drama with interest. He now turned and directed his steps toward the chambers. An attendant who had followed him from the court room approached, asked, "Can I help you, sir?"

"No. I won't need you any more today. You may go home."

The judge entered his chambers, using a key, and went into an inner room. Here a man lay on the floor, gagged, glaring up in impotent fury. He was dressed in an ordinary business suit, the judge wore a judicial robe, but there the difference ended. For their faces were exactly alike.

The man in the robe said, "I am sorry, Judge Rothmere, if I caused you inconvenience. It was necessary, in the cause of true justice, that I pose as you for a few minutes. I will leave you bound now, and I will also leave my mark before I go, so that it will be known that it wasn't you who just sat on the bench. Otherwise you might have some difficult explaining to do."

Now the man in the judicial robe left the gagged man, stepped into the outer room. Here he doffed the robes, raised long fingers to his face. Swiftly the features of Judge Rothmere disappeared, only to give place in a few moments to the face of A. J. Martin, newspaper man.

The whole transformation took less than six minutes. Now he spoke to the gagged man in the inner room. "If any one asks you who did this, judge, you can tell them I left my card on the table out here."

As he spoke, he deposited on the small table a card, on which there was the reproduction of a glowing "X."

Then he silently opened the door and stepped into the corridor.


When the five men who wore the federal badges sped away in the car with the robot killer in their custody, the large clock on the City Hall building showed the time to be exactly twenty-nine minutes past ten o'clock. The whole thing was over, thirty-one minutes before the scheduled time for the arraignment.

The car swung around the corner and passed out of the sight and ken of the crowd surrounding Runkle and Fenton. But there were others who were interested in that car. Near the corner, a tan-and-gray cab had been parked all morning, with the flag up. The driver smoked cigarette after cigarette, but never took his eyes off the court house. Once in a while he would turn to say a few words to the sole occupant of the cab, or to answer a curt question. The occupant of the cab was a stocky, sullen sort of man, with a long, thin face that contrasted oddly with his squat body.

He chewed on an unlighted cigar, and leaned forward. "What time, is it, Kardos?" he asked the driver.

"Twenty-five after ten," Kardos replied. "The boss ought to be here soon."

The stocky, man with the long face continued to chew nervously on the cigar. "This business is gettin' my goat. Workin' for this guy, Kardos, is dangerous stuff. Linky Teagle works for him an' he didn't show up this morning. I'm wonderin'—"

He stopped, as Kardos stiffened in his seat, cried hoarsely, "Looka that! Some other crowd is takin' that guy away!"

He pointed to the court house steps, down which were coming the five men with the federal badges, dragging along the prisoner known as John Doe.

The stocky man jerked open the door of the cab, leaped to the sidewalk. His hand went to his armpit, but he didn't draw the gun. "What's the use?" he said to the driver. "We can't take the whole five of 'em."

Kardos swung to him, "What'll we do, Brinz? We were told not to let any one take him away."

Brinz shrugged. "Tell you what—you tail them in the cab. See where they go—and for the luva Pete, don't lose them. I'll stick around, an' when this boss of ours gets here, I'll break the sad news to him. You call back when they hole out."

The car with the five federal men swung around the corner, passing close to the cab. Kardos called out, "Okay, Brinz, here I go." He shifted into gear, set off in the wake of the escaping car.

Brinz remained at the curb, still chewing his cigar. He appeared oblivious of the crowd that had swarmed out of the court house. But their voices were raised, loudly, excitedly, and he could hear them plainly. He heard Runkle cry, "I tell you, they were no federal men. Their badges were fakes! But they took me by surprise. By the time I knew what it was all about, they had that fellow out of the building!"

Brinz continued to listen worriedly. He heard District Attorney Fenton say bitterly, "So you say, Runkle! I'm willing to bet that you knew all the time what was going to happen!" Brinz swung his eyes away suddenly from the crowd across the street. For a truck had drawn up quietly at the curb. Its side bore the lettering, "Interstate Express—Deliveries Everywhere."

The driver's compartment of this truck was entirely enclosed so that the man who sat behind the wheel could not be seen. A close inspection of the body would have shown that it was constructed of bullet-proof sheet steel, with a large double door at the back, and a small grilled window on either side.

Brinz stepped close to the grilled window. A deep, metallic voice spoke from the darkness within. "What has happened here? Is everything set?" Brinz shook his head. There was a little awe in his tone, as if he were almost afraid to break the news. "It's all gone haywire, boss. This here John Doe must have been brought up in court ahead of time. Just now he got taken away by five men in a car—practically snatched out of the court room, what it looks like. That crowd across the street is wonderin' what's happened."

The metallic voice carried a note of rage. "Did you find out who those men were?"

"I didn't, boss." Brinz shuddered slightly, for that voice had sounded very ominous to him. He added eagerly, "But I tell you what I did— Kardos was in his cab over at the corner, an' I told him to tail them. Maybe he'll call back an' give us some dope on them." He went on swiftly as there came no answer from the truck, "I done the best I could, boss. I couldn't stop 'em alone, could I? And anyway, Kardos'll probably be calling back pretty soon."

For a moment there was silence. Then the resonant voice said, "Kardos had better call back—for the sake of both of you!"

The side window closed with a snap, and the truck rolled away from the curb, disappeared around the corner.

Brinz wiped his face with the sleeve of his coat. There was a fine sweat on his face and on the back of his hands. He had been close to death just now. His broad nose, which had at some time been flattened by a smashing blow, twitched with the reflexes of relief from fright. He stood a moment undecided, then he suddenly nodded to himself and crossed the street.

He elbowed through the crowd in front of the court room until he was close to Runkle, and tapped him on the shoulder. The little attorney turned, said, "Hello, Brinz, where've you been for the last couple of years?"

"Here an' there," he answered evasively. "Can I talk to you—in private—Mr. Runkle?" "Certainly. Are you in trouble again?"

"Yes. But not with the law. This is something different."

Kunkle regarded him curiously. "All right. Let's go over to my office."

He led the way out of the crowd, and down the street, Brinz walking close beside him, and looking furtively about as if he feared being observed.

One man observed them. That was District Attorney Fenton, who watched them speculatively until they turned into the shabby building past the next corner, where Runkle had his office.

Fenton's eyes were veiled as he turned and re-entered the court house without speaking to anyone.

In the meantime, the car with the five men and the prisoner sped east for two blocks, slowed up and swung into a garage in the middle of one of the East Side slum blocks. The taxi that was following pulled up just beyond the entrance, and waited with its motor running.

Within the garage, the five men bundled their prisoner out. He was handcuffed now, but still silent, though there was growing fear reflected in the black, reptilian eyes.

The men gagged the killer, tied his ankles with wire, and joined the end of the wire to the handcuffs behind his back, rendering him helpless. Then they bundled him into the rear compartment of a showy green coupe that stood in the shadows in the rear.

A young, red-headed man sat at the wheel of this coupe. When the top of the compartment closed over the prisoner, he said to the five men, "All right, boys. You can go now. Get back to your regular jobs and forget all about this. Forget you ever flew to New York this morning!"

They did not notice the figure of Kardos, who had left his cab and stolen to the door, where he peered inside, noting what was taking place.

The pseudo federal men grinned at the red-headed young man. "Don't worry, Mr. Hobart. Our memories are going to be something terrible from now on. As far as we're concerned, we never saw this town in our life!"

Kardos, outside, slipped away from the door as he saw them prepare to leave, and he returned to his taxicab, watched them walking away in different directions.

Inside the garage, the red-headed Jim Hobart issued swift orders to two mechanics, who took the car in which "John Doe" had been brought there, and rolled it on to a circular platform. They set to work upon it at once, removing the license plates first. Within two hours enough work would have been done on that car to make it impossible to recognize it as the one in which Runkle's client had been abducted.

Jim Hobart, in the meantime, locked the rumble compartment of his coupe, in which the killer had been stowed, then drove slowly out of the garage and turned the corner. He headed north. But he did not see the taxicab that followed him at a discreet distance.


When Secret Agent "X" stepped out of Judge Rothmere's chambers into the corridor of the court house, he made his way without stopping down the back staircase and out the rear entrance into Lafayette Street. A small sedan was parked near by and in this he made his way uptown.

On the way he stopped and called the Hobart Detective Agency. Jim Hobart had just got back. "It's okay, Mr. Martin," he reported. "The boys got this John Doe as per orders, and I just delivered him at the apartment on Eighth Avenue at the address you gave me. He's there now, all nicely tied up."

"Good work, Jim," the Agent commended. "I'll get in touch with you later. There'll be more work to do today," he added grimly.

Before leaving the booth, he made one more phone call, to Bates. He ordered Bates to place two men on the task of shadowing Runkle, the lawyer, and of checking up on anybody he might meet.

That done, the Agent returned to his car and drove to the apartment on Eighth Avenue. He could not know that even at that moment, the taxi driver, Kardos, was phoning certain information to a number not listed in any telephone directory.

At the apartment, which was on the third floor of an old, run-down apartment house, the Agent nodded in satisfaction as he saw the bound and blindfolded figure of the robot killer squirming on the floor. Here was his only avenue of approach to the murder monster. By his own daring and ingenuity he had balked the monster in its attempt to rescue this killer; he now had him alone where it might be possible to apply sufficient pressure to draw out certain information. Before removing the blindfold, the Agent stepped to a mirror and worked swiftly on his own face. The features of A. J. Martin disappeared, were replaced by those of a thin, ascetic looking man in the middle forties. The purpose of this was to save the personality of A. J. Martin for future use; he was not ready to discard it, and if this killer should see him as Martin, the personality of Martin would be helpless.

"X" now stepped to the side of the killer, removed the gag. The killer's features were smooth, expressionless. Only his eyes showed emotion, and they stared up at the Agent with mingled defiance and fear.

"X" examined him closely, stooped and touched his face with long, sensitive fingers. The killer shrank from his touch, looked around the room, for the first time became aware of his surroundings. He tried to roll away from "X's" searching fingers on his face, but the Agent held him firmly with one hand.

Suddenly the Agent uttered an exclamation of surprise. His sensitive, probing fingers had found something that it would have been impossible for anyone whose senses were less keenly on the alert to discover. It was a slight ridge under the chin, so infinitesimal as to be invisible to the naked eye.

The Agent's eyes glittered, as he seized the killer under the arms, dragged him, squirming and struggling, to the opposite side of the room where his make-up table stood. He placed him on the floor, and turned on the powerful lamp that stood beside the table.

The lamp, which the Agent used when he fashioned his careful disguises, bathed the helpless killer's face in a merciless light, illuminating every detail of his features.

Now the Agent went to the cabinet in the corner, brought out a peculiarly shaped magnifying glass. This was constructed along the lines of the lenses used by bacteriologists, but more adaptable to being carried about for handy use. There was little that this instrument did not reveal when applied under a strong light.

"X" held the killer in a viselike grip while he examined his face. The glass showed a tiny line that ran under the chin from ear to ear. It was such a line as might have been left by a healing scar that was perfectly tended. The Agent followed that line from the right ear, up along the fringe of the killer's scalp, and around to the other ear.

For a long time he studied it, maintaining utter silence. Then at last he smiled softly.

"I see, my friend," he said.

But his eyes were clouded with a strange emotion—the emotion of discovering something that has hitherto been considered incredible by the mind of man. For that line, indicative of a healed scar, had given him the clue to a momentous discovery. It had given him a glimpse of a thing so weird, so monstrous, as to stagger the imagination.

The Agent's grip tightened; he held the other helpless in the crook of his arm, while the long, sensitive fingers of his right hand probed further, feeling the contours of the man's head. The brownish, nondescript-colored hair was wiry, unnatural. The Agent pressed with his thumb and forefinger, and the whole scalp seemed to move. The man was wearing a cunningly contrived wig!

The killer's eyes betrayed a venomous hatred as "X" removed the wig. It was fitted with a suction cap that clung to his shaven skull. At one spot on that skull, the Agent's magnifying glass revealed another scar, not more than an inch long, and entirely healed.

The Agent did not examine the scar at this time. His mind was occupied with the horrid, monstrous secret he had discovered.

He said, "My friend, the masquerade is over!"

The killer glared up at him, tried to heave himself upright, and emitted a series of inarticulate, horrible grunts.

"X" studied the killer's eyes. He was interested in them, for they seemed to evoke a memory somewhere within him—a memory of another face, of those same eyes peering out of a face that in no way resembled this one. He went on, watching the other intently.

"Your face has been changed, my friend—changed by a marvelous job of plastic surgery. This monster master of yours has had your face changed to resemble the others whom he uses. You acted like robots to fool the public and the police—and why shouldn't they be fooled, when you were all facsimiles of each other!"

"X" knew he was right in his findings, because the killer bared his teeth in a snarl, threw him a venomous glance.

The Agent hardly dared to put into concrete thoughts the revolting conclusion suggested by that line around the rim of the killer's face. But now, as he noted the killer's reaction, he was convinced that he had guessed right —this man had had his face transformed by a highly skilled surgeon!

At the urge of a sudden flash of inspiration, Secret Agent "X" twisted the killer's body around, seized the handcuffed wrists, and examined his fingertips. They were smooth, white, soft. Holding the killer's hand firmly, the Agent directed his magnifying glass on the right thumb. And under that glass, which mercilessly showed every line and mark, the Agent was able to detect a minute scar running across the under side of the thumb. Each finger in turn that he examined showed the same scar. A remarkably skillful surgeon had grafted fresh skin onto each finger-skin that had been miraculously provided with a set of loops and whorls!

The Agent's lips set grimly. "Very clever—very clever indeed!" he remarked. "No wonder the police could discover no record for you!"

Once more he turned the killer around facing him. "Your fingertips have also been changed. You have been made into a different man. I wonder if you knew in advance that you were going to be made into a replica of those others —or did your master have that done to you against your will?"

The killer regarded him sullenly, saying nothing.

"X" arose from his knees, stood over him. "All the world knows now that you and your fellows are not robots. Why continue the pretense? Why don't you talk now? Is it because you are afraid to let me hear your voice? Are you afraid that I will recognize you—Gilly?"

That last sentence, deliberately spoken with sudden intensity, seemed to have the effect of a charge of electricity upon the killer. His whole body shook with an uncontrollable spasm of terror. His mouth opened, but no sound issued except a short series of horrible inarticulate grunting noises. The man seemed to be straining his larynx to utter words that rebelled at being spoken.

The Agent said to him, "You wonder how I guessed who you are, Gilly?" He smiled grimly. "I wasn't quite sure—but now I see that I am right. It was your eyes that gave you away, Gilly. You could change your face a thousand times, but I would always remember your eyes!"

"X" spoke tautly, quickly now. He wanted to follow up his advantage.

"I can send you back to the death house, Gilly—or I can let you escape, give you enough money to go to another country and change your name. All you have to do is give me the name of your master, tell me where your headquarters are. Which do you choose?"

Gilly's eyes lost their glare of hatred. They seemed to be imbued now with a sort of dumb terror. They looked up at "X" with a note of helpless appeal. He opened his mouth, tried to talk, but nothing resulted—only those horrid animal grunts.

The Agent suddenly knelt beside him again. "I wonder—" he muttered. "It can't be possible. It's too fiendish even for the murder monster." Once more he examined Gilly's shaven skull, his fingers passing over the short scar.

Gilly did not draw away from him now. On the contrary, he bent his head, as if anxious for "X" to see that scar.

The Agent drew in his breath sharply as he suddenly understood its significance. Gilly had had more than his face and fingertips changed— some one had operated on his brain, as well. An incision had been made into the brain cells controlling his power of speech. He had been rendered mute!


Secret Agent "X" never allowed emotion to play a part in his life. But now, as he studied his captive, he felt a surge of bitter repugnance against the unholy being that had conceived this diabolical jest of making veritable robots of his men.

The Agent had sought by every means possible to locate those twenty-five convicts who had escaped from the State Prison. And if he had succeeded in finding them, he would not have hesitated at turning them over to the law, for they constituted a menace to the society he devoted his life to protecting. But nothing the law could have done to them even approached in horror and in pure cruelty the things that this murder monster had done.

"X" should have been elated at discovering this important link between the escaped convicts and the murder monster—for he knew now what the police did not as yet suspect—that the so-called robots were in reality the convicts whom every agency of the law was seeking throughout the country.

But he was far from elated. For he realized now what a stupendous task still faced him. No matter how dangerous those convicts might have been while they were free, the Agent now saw the shadow of a menace infinitely greater. What an inhuman monster this must be, that had freed these men only to chain them by a series of hideous operations in a more horrid slavery than any they had ever known in State Prison!

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden ominous sound from the hallway outside the apartment. Boards creaked under a heavy, ponderous tread, and a resonant, metallic voice called out, "Number Eight! Where are you? Number Eight! Where are you?"

Gilly twisted violently out of the Agent's hands and started to drag himself toward the door in spite of his bound hands. He opened his mouth and uttered a weird, inhuman sound, for all the world like some obscene animal calling to its master.

That sound was heard, for from outside came the mechanical sounding voice of the monster. "Get away from the door, Number Eight. It's going to be smashed in!"

Gilly stopped crawling toward the door. He rested on his back, his face twisted into a grimacing leer of triumph as he stared up at "X." It was difficult to understand how this little gunman of the underworld should be so loyal to a master that had done such inhuman things to him. "X" had offered Gilly freedom, immunity from prosecution, for information. Gilly could not feel that he was in any danger from the Agent. Yet he welcomed the approach of the murder monster, welcomed the prospect of being brought once more under that fiendish domination!

There must be some powerful hold—some powerful attraction— that the monster exerted over these men. "X" wondered if it was possible that the operation on the brains of Gilly and the others—almost certain now that they had all been subjected to the knife—accomplished more than merely depriving them of speech; if it was possible that it had, in fact, converted them all into veritable robots without personal initiative or will of their own.

There came a smashing impact against the door; the monster must have hurled its huge form against it. But the panels were strong, the door was solid, for the Agent always made it a point to provide his retreat with reinforced doors for just such a contingency. Yet, strong as it was, it yielded a little under the impact of that heavy body. "X" saw that it would not stand up long under the attack. If he remained in the room he would become a target for that finger of death. He would go up in flames, leaving his task unfinished, taking with him the secret of the identity of the robots, leaving the city at the mercy of these cohorts of hell.

He never left himself, however, without some means of retreat. Now, he sprang to the window, slid it open while the handcuffed Gilly watched him with narrowed, mad eyes. The Agent counted for escape on the drain pipe which ran up to the roof, close to the window. But the monster had taken care of that, too. For, no sooner had "X" showed himself at the window than there was a wicked spat, and a bullet imbedded itself in the woodwork close to his head. Somewhere outside, a rifleman was stationed with a silenced rifle. Nobody was going to be able to leave that building, by window or otherwise, till the monster had got his man. "X" did not stop to wonder how the monster had learned of the apartment. He immediately set to work.

From a cabinet in the corner, he produced a pot-bellied jar to which was attached a metal hose. This jar was made of dull, burnished metal, and had a sort of stand beneath it, into which was fitted a Bunsen burner.

While the heavy oak door bent under the repeated charges of the monster outside, "X" methodically lit the Bunsen burner and ran the hose close to the window. Then he donned a pair of goggles, and took a hypodermic syringe from the cabinet.

Gilly watched him with a puzzled gaze as he filled the container of the hypodermic with a light-colored liquid. Gilly shrank away from him as he approached, tried to wriggle from his grip. But the Agent held him tight, thrust the needle into his arm, and drove the plunger home.

The whites of Gilly's eyes showed, his lids drooped, he wheezed, and was unconscious within half a minute. The hypodermic had been loaded with a highly potent, quick-acting anaesthetic. The dose was sufficient to keep a man unconscious for at least forty-eight hours. Since the Agent could not take Gilly out of that apartment, he had made sure that the monster would not be able to make use of him for the next two days.

The blows on the door were telling. Splinters were flying. In a moment there would be a large enough opening for the monster to aim his finger through. "X" turned to the window, observed with satisfaction that the hose from the pot-bellied jar was now giving off a vapor that thickened as it rose out of the window into heavy clouds of smoke. As the smoke grew in volume, it became impossible to see through it. To the riflemen stationed outside the house, the window would be invisible. This was the latest development in smoke screens—a chemical which the Agent had developed himself and was using now for the first time.

Under the protection of the smoke screen, the Agent swung himself out of the window, clinging to the drain pipe. But instead of descending as he might have been expected to do, he drew himself up, inch by inch, slowly, painfully. The smoke swirled around him, but his eyes were protected by the goggles. Gripping the pipe with taut fingers and tight knees, he worked himself up toward the roof. It was several minutes before he heard a crash from within the apartment he had just left. He heard heavy, lumbering steps, the crash of furniture. That would be the monster feeling his way around in the room, probably unable to see through the smoke which must be filling the place by this time.

Suddenly from below there came a shower of high-powered slugs, as the riflemen stationed outside realized that "X" must be using the smoke screen to escape. The slugs clanged against the drain pipe below the point where the smoke came out. Soon they would raise their sights on the chance that he was working upward instead of down. He could not hope to reach the roof before that; in fact, if he ascended any higher, he would emerge from the protection of the smoke screen and would be a clear target.

He was now alongside the window on the floor directly above his own. Without hesitation he swung his feet over the sill, crashing the glass. He leaped through the jagged opening into the room. It was unfurnished, vacant. His trousers were cut by the glass, there was a long gash in his right hand, and a jagged scratch on his cheek. But he did not stop; he dashed through the room, out into the hall. Doors were opening everywhere, heads were peering out —heads of people who looked bewildered, frightened by the sudden uproar in their house.

On the landing below "X" heard heavy steps, heard the monster ascending the stairs. The monster was quick-witted, had divined what "X" had done to escape, and was coming after him.

The Agent ran up the stairs. People ducked their heads inside at sight of his bloody face, made no move to hinder him as he raced to the roof. He pushed open the skylight, raised himself up, and sped across to the roof of the adjoining house.

He ducked down through the skylight of the next building, just getting a glimpse of the monster's hideous masked head peering after him out of the opening he had left. The monster was too unwieldy to hoist itself through the skylight after him. "X" sped down four flights of steps to the street. A crowd was milling around, attracted by the strange happenings. "X" mingled with the crowd, listening to comment. "It's the murder monster!" some one said. "He came in that truck across the street and went in this house here. And they're firing out of the truck at the house! "X" noted the truck opposite. He could tell that it was armored, an impregnable fortress. He waited until he saw the murder monster appear in the street again. The horrible gas-masked figure was flanked by several of the robots who were carrying the body of Gilly.

From near-by came the sound of a police siren. The Agent hoped fervently that the monster would leave before the police got there, for he knew that the uniformed men wouldn't stand the ghost of a chance against the horrible weapon of fire that the monster wielded.

He himself had fled from it, for he was not yet ready to meet it on even terms; and a senseless attack at this time would not have served the cause of justice—might even have hindered it by removing the only man in existence who knew the secret of the escaped convicts.

"X" breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the monster and the robots pile into the truck, and the truck pull away before the police car rounded the corner. Then he himself turned and walked away from there swiftly. He had retreated before the monster, had, apparently, lost the first encounter with it. But he was far closer to victory than he had yet been, for he now knew much about the monster and the robots that the monster did not suspect him of knowing.

And he proceeded to act upon that knowledge.


The actions of Secret Agent "X" during the next two or three hours might have appeared highly peculiar to an uninformed observer. He went to another of his apartments and changed back to the disguise of Mr. Vardis. Leaving the apartment, his first stop was at the office of a large theatrical supply firm, where he was closeted with the manager for some twenty minutes before he emerged with a large bundle that he deposited in his car. He then drove to a quiet store in the East Fifties, on the window of which appeared the modest lettering, "Corlear & Son, Custom Tailors." He took his package inside, and spent almost an hour in the fitting room with Mr. Corlear himself. The casual observer would have wondered that a man engaged in so desperate a battle with crime should find time for such apparently frivolous occupations. But Mr. Vardis seemed to have nothing on his mind but securing a perfect fit in the clothing he was ordering. Mr. Corlear finally escorted him to the door personally, saying, "I promise you, Mr. Vardis, that it will be ready for you by tomorrow morning. I will myself work all night on this job." From Corlear's, Mr. Vardis drove to the nearest pay telephone and phoned Bates. He issued careful instructions. "You will hold the two planes in readiness in the field in Brooklyn. At the first alarm they will go up over the city." "The planes will be ready, sir," Bates replied. "How about our other operations— shall we continue them?" "Absolutely. Keep Runkle under constant observation. I will continue to call you every half hour for news. Have you been able to pick up any trace of 'Duke' Marcy as yet?"

"No, sir. I have more than a dozen men on his trail, but no success."

"Keep after him. It's important that he be located within the next twenty- four hours."

When he had completed his call to Bates, the Agent called the office of the Hobart Detective Agency. "This is Mr. Martin," he told the girl who answered the phone. "Please let me talk to Mr. Hobart."

That young man was bubbling with excitement when he got on the wire. "I'm glad you called, Mr. Martin. I've been offered a retainer to work on this robot murder case, and I was wondering if I should accept it!"

"A retainer? By whom?"

"They're in my private office now. Young Jack Larrabie, and Randolph Coulter. It seems they expect to be next on the monster's list. Their friend Pringle—"

"Take the case, Jim! Ask them to wait. I'll send up a man to handle it for you—a Mr. Fearson. Give him every co-operation; follow his orders as if they were my own. He'll be there in a half hour!"

He hung up, leaving Jim Hobart slightly bewildered. Now he wasted no time. He returned to his car, and sitting in the back, he set up his portable mirror, worked on his face. In a short time there appeared once more the features of the thin, ascetic looking, middle-aged man who had questioned Gilly a few hours earlier. That completed, he selected a set of cards and papers from a small portfolio. These papers established that he was a Mr. Arvold Fearson, private investigator. He had a license in that name, and the picture attached to that license was a duplicate of his new face. It was only one of a dozen identities which the Agent had prepared in advance for instant use. Well within the half hour specified, he presented himself to the switchboard girl in the Hobart Detective Agency and gave his name.

The girl flashed him a smile. "Mr. Hobart is expecting you, Mr. Fearson. He has two clients inside, but he told me to let him know the minute you arrived."

"X" nodded and seated himself while the girl called inside, and he surveyed the busy office. There were five girls employed here; one was Jim Hobart's secretary, three were file clerks, and one was the switchboard operator. The office was large, well furnished. Behind the telephone girl was the door of Jim Hobart's sanctum, while to the left was another door leading to a large room where each operative had a desk of his own where he could study material, make out reports, and plan his work.

In the short time that Jim Hobart had been running this agency, he had achieved phenomenal success. This was partly due to the aid which "X" had given him. In his role of Elisha Pond, he had recommended the agency to banks and insurance companies, had helped to secure large and profitable accounts. The Hobart Detective Agency was well known throughout the country now, and it was consulted more and more by people who had heard the name, or seen it mentioned in the papers. This was exactly what "X" wanted, for in this fashion the agency was enabled to build up large files on criminals, on underworld connections, and to keep its pulse on the trend of criminal events.

Sometimes, through cases that came to it, the Agent was apprised of crimes in the making of which the police did not even have an inkling. He had not been surprised, therefore, to learn that young Larrabie and his friend, Ranny Coulter, were consulting the agency.

In a few moments the door of the inner office opened, and Jim Hobart came out. He smiled at "X," and asked, "Mr. Fearson?" The Agent nodded. He arose and produced one of his cards, which he handed over. Jim Hobart read the name, "Arvold Fearson, Private Investigator." In the lower left-hand corner there appeared a queer initial, written in ink. Young Hobart said, "That is Mr. Martin's initial, all right."

"X" said, "I am working on this case of the murder monster for him and have acquired a good deal of information. That is why Mr. Martin sent me. He was sure you would not resent having me take charge, since I have all the facts at my fingertips."

Jim Hobart nodded, appraising "X." He did not pierce the disguise, but he was not yet wholly satisfied. "Did Mr. Martin give you any other message for me?"

"Yes. He said to tell you that there is blood on the moon." [13]

[13 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Though there was very little likelihood of a stranger working himself into the organization of Secret Agent "X," the Agent considered it one of those things which are "possible but not probable." Therefore he took every precaution to prevent such an occurrence. It was required that his assistants identify themselves doubly when contacting each other—once by their papers, and once more by the password, which was changed every few days. If "X," posing as Fearson, had failed to give the proper password. Jim Hobart would immediately have had him seized and held for questioning.]

Jim smiled. "That's better. Now I'm sure you're okay. We can't be too careful, you know. Now, if you will come inside, Larrabie and Coulter can tell you their story at first hand. I'll introduce you as my chief operative."

The Agent acquiesced, and followed him inside. Jim closed the door carefully, and introduced "X" to the two young men who were waiting with tense, drawn faces. "Doctor Larrabie and Mr. Coulter—this is Mr. Fearson, my best man. I'm giving him charge of your case. Please tell him what you told me."

Young Larrabie was high strung, much more nervous than he had appeared last night when he had seen his friend, Harry Pringle, murdered before his eyes. Ranny Coulter was stouter, more phlegmatic, but he, too, appeared to be laboring under a great strain.

It was young Larrabie who assumed the burden of explaining their difficulty. "You know, of course, about what happened to Harry Pringle last night." At "X's" nod, he continued. "We thought at first that damn monster gave him the works just as an example to the others present. It was bad enough that way, and Ranny here, and Fred Barton and myself decided to work on the thing, try to get that monster. We were all present at the bazaar last night, and we realized it was a tough job. We didn't understand how tough it really was until this morning."

"What happened this morning?" the Agent asked quietly.

Larrabie told him grimly. "Fred Barton's disappeared!"

Ranny Coulter broke in. "It's not just his disappearing—we're sure something's happened to him. We were supposed to get together this morning at Jack's house, but Fred didn't show up. So we phoned, and got no answer. Jack and I drove over to his apartment—he lives alone, you know, away from his family. I have a passkey, and when we got in we found the place had been thoroughly searched, and some of the furniture was upset. An end table had been turned over and smashed—it looked like a struggle had taken place."

Coulter stopped. There was a moment of silence. Jim Hobart, who had been standing behind "X," shifted uneasily. Young Larrabie said slowly, "It looks very much as if this murder monster is after the four of us for some reason —first, Harry Pringle, then Fred. The four of us have always stuck together. It may be our turn next—Ranny's or mine. That's why we've come here."

"Can you think of any reason," the Agent asked, "why this monster should be interested in you four?"

They shook their heads. "Unless," Coulter said, "he figures we'll try to get back at him for murdering Harry that way last night and is eliminating us before we can interfere."

"X" shook his head. "If the murder monster is behind your friend Barton's disappearance, it is not for that reason. The monster has more dangerous enemies whom he would try to eliminate first. Have you notified the police?"

"No," Larrabie told him. "The police have been so helpless in the whole thing, we thought we'd use your agency."

"They will have to be notified soon," said the Agent. "In the meantime I suggest that the first thing to be done is to interview Fred Barton's father. Suppose we do that first, and then decide on the next step in the light of what we may learn from him."

The two young men agreed, placing themselves in the agency's hands. As they were leaving, "X" lagged behind to give Jim Hobart some instructions. "How many operatives have you available in the city now?" he asked.

"I could dig up about fifteen," Jim told him. "There are a few unimportant cases that I could pull them off."

"All right. Round up as many as you can, keep them ready for instant duty. I'll call you back."

As "X" and the two young men drove downtown to the financial district in Ranny Coulter's car, the Agent was careful to look behind frequently. But they were not followed.


Ranny Coulter drove silently, while Jack Larrabie explained to the Agent, "We ought to catch Fred's father in his office about this time. You've heard of him, of course—Giles Barton, head of the Eastern Steel Institute. That's the clearing house for the eastern branches of all the big steel manufacturing companies." Young Larrabie smiled ruefully. "I hate to break the news to him about Fred; the old man's a terror when he's aroused. I could almost wish we wouldn't find him in."

They did find him in, however, and had no trouble in getting in to see him, for Coulter's and Larrabie's families were quite friendly with the Bartons.

When they were ushered into the old man's luxuriously furnished, richly carpeted office, they found him pacing up and down, his face purple with rage, yet with a hint of apprehension in his eyes.

He was about to burst into a torrent of words at the two young men, but noticed "X," and looked questioningly at them.

"This is Arvold Fearson, Mr. Barton," young Larrabie introduced. "He's all right. We've hired his agency to do some work for us. What's the trouble?"

Barton spluttered. "Trouble! Have you seen Fred today?"

Ranny Coulter lowered his eyes, then glanced at Jack Larrabie. "You tell him."

Young Larrabie said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Barton, but I think— something's happened to Fred."

"You think!" the old man barked. "I damn well know it! You young cubs go chasing around, wasting your lives, and all you can get into is trouble! Here —take a look at this!"

He snatched up a sheet of paper from his desk, thrust it at them. Larrabie took it, read it in silence, and in silence passed it over to the Agent, saying softly, "I'm—sorry, Mr. Barton. You can depend on us to do all we can."

"X" read the note quickly, while young Coulter looked over his shoulder. Then he reread it more carefully. It was worth a second perusal:

Dear Mr. Barton: Your son, Fred, is in my hands. You need not be alarmed—this is not a kidnaping. I have taken your son because he is a brilliant student of chemistry and physics, and I need his services. If your son performs the work I shall order him to do, he will be allowed to live. The purpose of this letter is to request you, as you value your son's life, not to do anything that might endanger it—do not attempt to trace him, or to communicate with the police!
The Master Of The Monster.

Old man Barton was fuming. "The insolence of him! To dare to write me anything like this! I'll have every policeman in the city on the trail of this mountebank within an hour! Nobody can do this to me and get away with it!"

Jack Larrabie said drily, "If you'd been at the bazaar last night, Mr. Barton, you'd think differently. This monster is no mounteback—he's a deadly murderer. The police can't do any good—he kills them like flies!"

Barton strode up and down biting his upper lip. "What are we to do then?" he cried in desperation.

"We've hired the Hobart Agency," Larrabie told him. "Just sit tight, Mr. Barton. The monster says in the letter that Fred isn't going to be killed. I only hope," he added fervently, "that Fred has the sense to play along with him. He's so damn hot-headed, he's liable to tell this murder monster to go to hell!"

"If he's any son of mine," the steel magnate barked, "that's just what he'll do!"

"X" had remained silent, studying the three of them, at the same time trying to analyze the contents of the letter Barton had received, trying to arrive at a mental picture of the man who had written it.

He nodded shortly to Barton when they left, following the two young men in silence, his mind still concentrating on the problem.

Outside, in front of Barton's building, he seemed to return to realities again with a snap. He said firmly to the two young men, "I am convinced that there is a deeper motive behind your friend's disappearance than merely a desire to use his scientific knowledge. Though he may be brilliant, there are still many men who are far more advanced in the intricacies of chemistry and physics than he is—men in the great industrial laboratories of the country, for instance. I feel that perhaps that letter was only written for the purpose of lulling your suspicions. It may be that there is some sort of plan to wipe out you four young men; perhaps you offended this murder master in some way—you may have, for you don't know who he is in private life."

"What do you think we ought to do?" asked Ranny Coulter, nervously.

"I think you each ought to have a bodyguard. I will arrange it with Mr. Hobart right now." He made for a phone booth across the street, disregarding their protests.

"Damn it," Larrabie growled, "we came to Hobart because we wanted him to work with us offensively. We didn't come because we were afraid and wanted protection!"

"Nevertheless, you shall have protection. You have given us this case, and we are going to work it our way!"

The Agent's dynamic personality, the assurance with which he overrode their objections, left them no alternative but to agree.

When he was through phoning, he turned to them. "Wait here. Hobart is sending down a man for each of you. There will be some one with you day and night. It is quite possible that an attempt will be made against one or both of you, and I advise you to keep to your homes. Let the agency work on it from now on."

"All right," Larrabie agreed. "We'll stand for the bodyguards, but I'll be damned if we stay home quietly while you have all the fun. Take it or leave it!"

The Agent sighed. "Well, I guess that's the best I can do with you. But if you must expose yourselves, please be careful. If you don't care about your own hides, remember that our operatives are valuable to us—don't place them in unnecessary danger. Now, if you will excuse me, gentlemen, I have work to do."

He left them before they could ask him where he was going, just as a car deposited two of Jim Hobart'a operatives on the sidewalk. As he walked up the street, he noted with satisfaction that Hobart had obeyed his instructions to the letter. For another car had pulled up behind the first; and from this second car there stepped two more operatives. These two were poorly dressed, and carried sandwich-board signs, back and front, advertising the virtues of some cafeteria.

The two sandwich men proceeded down the street behind the first two operatives, strolling along with an air of casual indifference which concealed their alertness. They were covering the first two men assigned to guarding Larrabie and Coulter. If the murder monster should attack the young physician and his friend, the monster would be due for a surprise. For those sandwich signs were constructed of bullet-proof, fire-proof steel; and underneath each, conveniently placed on a hook so that it could be brought into action at a moment's notice, was a Thompson sub-machine gun!

The Agent was planning an interesting reception for the murder monster!


The next twenty-four hours produced no new crimes, no new wave of terror. It was almost as if some evil prescience had warned the murder monster that traps were being laid, preparations being made for the reception of its cohorts of crime.

Secret Agent "X" kept unceasing vigil. He knew that this was only a lull before the storm. He spent the time in perfecting his arrangements, keeping in constant touch with Bates and Hobart. Under his orders their operatives flocked into the city from every part of the country and were immediately assigned to stations where it was likely that the monster would strike next. They were instructed not to offer resistance in the event of an attack, for that would have been suicide, but to call either Bates or Hobart at once.

Banks, jewelry establishments, even the subtreasury, had these unobtrusive watchers stationed nearby, on the alert every minute of the day.

Young Doctor Larrabie and Ranny Coulter remained together all day at "X's" suggestion in order to make it easier for their bodyguards. And wherever those bodyguards were, there, not far off, could be seen the two sandwich men, shambling along with their innocuous looking signs hanging from their shoulders.

Larrabie and Coulter even slept together that night at the home of Ranny Coulter's family. The two bodyguards prowled in and out of the house all night, while across the street the two sandwich men kept constant vigil from the shelter of a small private park.

In the morning, Secret Agent "X" paid a visit to the tailoring establishment of Corlear & Son, where he had stopped in the day before. Mr. Corlear himself conducted him into the fitting room, and locked the door, arousing a good deal of speculation among the clerks as to the identity of the mysterious customer.

It was twenty minutes before the Agent left Corlear's. He was wearing a gray sack suit that to all outward appearance differed in no way from the hundreds of other suits Corlear's made and sold. The clerks in the store would have been immeasurably more curious had they known that the mysterious customer had paid two hundred and ten dollars for that ordinary appearing suit!

The Agent stopped in at one of his apartments and changed from the disguise of Mr. Vardis to that of Arvold Fearson, but continued to wear the gray suit. Upon leaving the apartment, he drove downtown, stopping on the way to phone Bates for a report.

Bates had been awaiting his call anxiously. "We've finally got something on Runkle!" he announced. "I put two men on him as you ordered. They picked him up a while ago and followed him to a house in Brooklyn. It's a private house —Number Twenty-two Belvidere Road. Fowler and Grace, the two men who are shadowing him, just phoned in again. There's an empty house next door to Number Twenty-two, and they got into it somehow. They can look into the room where Runkle is sitting. He's there with another man, a gangster named Brinz. They seem to be waiting for someone."

"Who is Brinz?" asked the Agent. "What have you got on him?"

"I figured you'd want to know that, sir, so I've got the file handy. Brinz served a term in the Federal Detention House here in the city for transporting and selling liquor. That was before repeal. He got out eight months ago and hasn't been up to much since. During prohibition he worked for 'Duke' Marcy, but there doesn't seem to be any record of his present connections." Bates added a short description of Brinz, so that the Agent could know him if he saw the man.

"All right," said "X," "I'm going out to Belvidere Road. If Runkle or Brinz should leave the house in the meantime, I want to know about it. But I won't be able to stop and phone you. You'll have to use the broadcast." [14]

[14 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Secret Agent "X" has been very reticent about this broadcasting equipment. The reason for this reticence is that he still finds it very useful and does not wish to reveal anything that might help in locating it. Adjusted to the same wave-length as New York police calls, the Agent is able to pick up messages from it with an ordinary radio which is installed in every one of his cars. Thus, if the car should be found by the police and examined, no suspicion would be aroused. The sending set is fitted with a device perfected by the Agent himself, which nullifies the results of the direction-finders of the police and radio authorities who might wish to locate the station. The Agent has not imparted any information to me about this device, except that he calls it a "disperser"—it disperses the short-waves so that the point of their origin cannot be determined.]

"Right, sir. If there's anything new, I'll shoot it out to you."

"Use code A."

"Code A, sir," Bates repeated.

"X" left the phone booth and got into his car. The broadcast equipment was one that he employed very infrequently, in cases of emergency, or where it was impossible to phone for reports. It was a powerful sending set located in Bates's headquarters, sending on the same wave-length as the New York police calls, and for that reason the Agent did not make frequent use of it. But more than once in the past it had been the means of bringing him to the scene of action in time to thwart well-laid criminal plans.

Now the Agent cut over to the East Side in his car, and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. Everywhere, as he passed, he saw police patrolling the streets, with drawn, taut faces. Squad cars toured the city with riot guns ready. These men were bravely preparing to meet the next onslaught of the monster, knowing in advance what little chance they had of surviving.

The Agent stopped for a moment to buy a newspaper and saw the headline, "Governor to be asked for troops to reinforce police. City in dread of next attack of murder monster!"

The Agent increased his speed a little after crossing the bridge. Suddenly the radio in his car came to life. The voice of Bates came over the air, speaking slowly. "Station 'X' calling! Station X calling!" [15]

[15 AUTHOR'S NOTE: Since messages from the Agent's broadcast system can be received by the police as well as by himself. It is necessary that they be transmitted in code. These codes are constantly changed, and the Agent has kindly consented to reveal the key of Code A since he no longer uses it. Code A consists of a combination of three languages— French, German, English. Three words are transmitted for each word of the message itself—the other two not counting at all, but serving as camouflage. The first word of the message, for instance, would be a French word, the second a German word, the third an English word. By rotating the order of the languages, the code is farther confused for outside listeners, but is comparatively easy to interpret, especially for one with experience in these matters. As an example here is how the simple message, "I see him." would be transmitted. The capitalized words are those that count. "JE freund monkey SEHE when rein HIM esel ami." It will be observed that the order of the languages rotates in this case, as follows: first: French, German, English; second: German, English, French; third: English, French, German.]

At once the Agent drew a pencil from his pocket, wrote on a pad attached to the dashboard as the voice of Bates continued, speaking in Code A. The Agent drove with one hand, hardly slackening his speed as his pencil wrote down only those words of the message that counted.

Finally the voice of Bates ceased. The message which "X" had written on the pad stared up at him: "Fowler reports 'Duke' Marcy entered house on Belvidere Road. Fowler returning to empty house next door. Expecting you."

As the Agent drove on, he tried to puzzle out why "Duke" Marcy should be calling on Runkle and Brinz in this out-of-the-way section of Brooklyn.

He left his car in front of a drug store a block from Belvidere Road, and started to walk toward the corner. Number Twenty-two, he knew from a directory he had consulted, would be just around the corner to the left, and he did not want to attract undue attention by driving right up to the house.

This was a quiet residential section, with few people about in the streets. When the Agent was halfway up the block, he noted a large green coupé turning the corner from Belvidere on two wheels. The coupé roared down the street, gathering speed as it passed "X."

The driver, who was the sole occupant of the car, had his hands tightly on the wheel and gazed straight ahead without glancing to either side. "X" started as he recognized that driver. It was Ed Runkle!

In a flash the car had sped past and roared down the street out of sight. But in that instant "X's" eyes had been busy. His keen senses, constantly on the alert, had caught the license number of the coupé. He waited a moment to see if Runkle was being followed by Grace or Fowler, who were supposed to be watching the house on Belvidere Road. But when no other car appeared, the Agent acted instantly. It was important that Runkle should not be lost sight of at this time. It would be impossible for "X" to return to his own car in time to take up the chase. Accordingly, he turned and raced back to the drug store. The clerk behind the counter gazed at him curiously as he tore into the telephone booth and dialed Bates' number. When he got the connection, he spoke swiftly.

"Runkle has just left the house on Belvidere Road, driving a green Stutz coupé, license number L 27-2. He is not being followed by Grace or Fowler. He is probably headed back for Manhattan, so send out men in cars to cover all the bridges. If he crosses into Manhattan, they can pick him up and trail him. This is important, Bates!"

Bates repeated, "Green Stutz coupé license number L 27-2. Right, sir. I'll have the bridges covered inside of five minutes." He said anxiously, "wonder what's the matter with Grace and Fowler."

"We'll know soon enough," the Agent told him. "I'm going there now."

"X" walked up the street again, turned the corner into Belvidere. Number Twenty-two was the second house from the corner and seemed peaceful enough. So did the one next to it, which was vacant, with a "For Sale" sign pasted to one of the pillars of the front porch. The Agent walked around to the back of the vacant house and tried the rear door. It was unlocked—probably left that way by the watchers.

He entered the narrow foyer behind the kitchen to which this door opened, and was assailed by the musty atmosphere that is peculiar to houses that have been long untenanted. He pushed through to the kitchen, then stepped into the dim hallway. Little light entered here from outside, but his sharp eyes detected a huddled form close to the wall.

He stopped short, scrutinizing the shadows at the far end of the hall, the deep blobs of blackness that lay under the stairway to his left. He discerned nothing lurking there, and took a quick step forward, knelt beside the prone body. It was a dead man. He had been shot through the head at close range; there were powder marks around the wound. The floor beneath the man's head was sopping wet with blood.

The lips of Secret Agent "X" compressed grimly as he recognized the body. It was Fowler, one of the two men who had been shadowing Runkle. Fowler was still warm; the wound was still bleeding. He had died within the last few minutes.

The Agent's fists clenched involuntarily. These men whom he employed were not just impersonal names to him. He had investigated each one thoroughly, knew them, had met them under one or another of his disguises. Fowler had died in his service—another score to be settled with the murder monster.

Despite the possibility of pressing danger around him, "X" stopped here a moment, paying silent tribute to the man who had died in the performance of his duty. Then, tearing himself back to the business in hand, he stole noiselessly along the hall, seeming to merge with the shadows. His shoes made not the slightest sound as he explored the other rooms on the ground floor, found them empty and deserted.

Still silently, he went up the stairs. At the upper landing he paused, listening intently. No sound greeted his ears. It was lighter here, and he could see that the hallway was empty of life. But an open door at the right drew him toward it. This room was unfurnished, like the rest, but there was another body on the floor.

Brilliant morning sunlight poured into the room, playing upon the face of the dead man, and "X" did not need to kneel beside him to tell how he had met his death. For the gaping, bloody hole in his forehead spoke for itself. And the man was Grace, Fowler's co—watcher.

Fowler and Grace had been killed coldbloodedly, no doubt to allow the killer or killers a free hand in the house next door. The Agent's eyes were bleak as he stepped to the window through which Grace had been watching, and looked across the narrow driveway to Number Twenty-two.

He saw a room there, corresponding to the one he was standing in. It was furnished as a sitting room—evidently Runkle thought that a ground floor sitting room might be too accessible to eavesdroppers.

At first glance it appeared that the room in there was vacant. "X" wondered if Runkle's guests had also departed with the little attorney— but if they had, they certainly had not come in the green coupé with him; for there had been no one else in the car with Runkle.

And suddenly, from that room; across the driveway there came a deep moan as of a man dying in agony.

Almost before that moan was ended, the Agent had swung himself over the sill and leaped to the ground. He landed on his toes, and was in motion at once, running around to the front of Number Twenty-two. The front door was unlocked, and "X" hurled himself through into the dim hallway within. He raced up the stairs to the upper floor, and as he reached the top landing, he saw the bloody, wabbling figure of a man stagger out of the sitting room. In the uncertain light it was impossible to identify him, but the Agent saw that the man held a gun. The gun came up, wavering, pointed at the Agent, and the narrow hallway rocked with the heavy explosions as the man in the doorway fired again and again, keeping his finger down on the trigger.

But "X" had dropped to the floor at first sight of the gun in the man's hand, and the slugs whined over his head harmlessly, burying themselves in the opposite wall. Eight times the gun roared in quick succession; and then, when the Agent knew that the clip was empty, he launched himself from the floor in a flying tackle that brought down the man in the doorway, landed them both in a tangled heap inside the sitting room.

Secret Agent "X" grappled with the man, was surprised to find him offering no resistance; the man lay flat on his back, breathing heavily, gasping, almost sobbing. High above his heart was a bullet wound, and it was miraculous that he had lasted long enough to stagger through the doorway.

It was lighter in here, for the sun came in through the window on the driveway, and "X's" lips compressed as he saw the man's face. It was "Duke" Marcy!

Marcy's eyes were assuming a glassy look. His chest heaved with each breath he took, and he expelled it with a long wheeze. His lips were moving weakly.

The Agent raised his head, demanded, "Who shot you, Marcy?"

The dying man tried to form words, in fact, uttered several faintly, but so low that they were indistinguishable. There was a raucous rattle in his throat, and his head dropped back. He was dead.

From outside now, "X" heard the sound of a police whistle, of excited shouts. There were heavy steps on the stairs, and a uniformed policeman burst in with drawn gun. He covered the Agent, ordering,'"Get up, you, and raise your hands!"

"X" shrugged and obeyed. He knew what the policeman thought—that he had killed Marcy.

He said, "I did not kill this man, officer. I heard him groan and ran into the house. I found him here with a gun in his hand, dying on his feet." The policeman lowered at him. "Yeah?" He kept the revolver steady. "That's a good story. You can tell it to the homicide men!"

Brakes squealed outside, more feet were heard on the stairs. "X" glanced around the room, and for the first time saw another form huddled in a corner where it had been invisible from the window across the street. The man was Brinz—he recognized him from the description Bates had given him.

The Agent's brow wrinkled in thought. Fowler and Grace killed in cold blood; Marcy and Brinz murdered here—and Runkle driving away at breakneck speed. There were puzzling elements here that needed clearing up. Runkle had been in this very room, according to reports; it was inconceivable that he could have gone across to the empty house, shot Fowler and Grace, and returned to do the same to Marcy and Brinz. He must have had assistance, if he were the murderer. In that case, the thing must have been planned in advance —must have been a trap into which Marcy walked unsuspectingly.

Now the room filled with uniformed figures. A precinct sergeant, several plain-clothes men, and in a few moments, Inspector Cleary, in charge of the Brooklyn homicide division. The policeman who had arrived first made his report to Cleary. The inspector heard it, frowning, then said to the Agent, "What's your nime?"

"I am Arvold Fearson, inspector, a private investigator. I did not kill—"

The inspector interrupted him gruffly. "Stow that. You're under arrest, Fearson. The charge is murder. I warn you that anything you say may be used against you!"


Escape was impossible now. The room was filled with police, they were swarming through the house, and more were coming. "X" permitted himself to be handcuffed, maintaining silence. Nothing he could say now would induce Cleary to release him. Later, perhaps, a method of escape would present itself. Now, he remained quiet while a sergeant "frisked" him.

The sergeant felt the texture of the custom-made suit he wore, and frowned, but said nothing. He ran big hands over the Agent's person, and found the gas gun which reposed in an inner pocket built into the lining of the coat. He examined it curiously, and was about to ask a question, when Cleary, who had been phoning headquarters, returned from the phone.

Cleary told the sergeant, "Commissioner Pringle wants to question this man personally, Frazer. This man, Marcy, was wanted as a suspect in the robot murders, and the commissioner thinks this bird ought to know something about them."

Sergeant Frazer saluted. "This gun, sir—"

Cleary waved him away. "Take it down to headquarters with you and give it to the commissioner. I've got nothing more to do with the case. It's been taken out of my hands."

The inspector was plainly peeved that he had been superseded in the investigation. His mood saved "X" the immediate necessity of explaining away the gas gun.

Sergeant Frazer and two plain-clothes men escorted the Agent down to a squad car in front of the door. Frazer sat in front next to the chauffeur, while "X" was placed in the rear seat between the two detectives.

"Over the Brooklyn Bridge."

Frazer directed the chauffeur, "to New York headquarters."

As the car got under way, the Agent saw the medical examiner arrive together with a headquarters photographer. Nobody had mentioned the bodies of Fowler and Grace next door. Apparently they hadn't got to the empty house as yet.

While they traveled toward Manhattan, Frazer leaned forward and turned on the button of the short-wave radio receiver. Several routine calls came over, and then after a few moments these were drowned out by a powerful sending set somewhere. The Agent stiffened as he heard the voice of Bates.

"Station 'X' calling. Station 'X' calling!"

There was a moment of silence after the signal, when the regular police calls became audible again.

Frazer swore. "There's that damn station again! They haven't been able to locate it yet. Some damn amateur. When they locate him, he'll get plenty!"

The detective at the right of the Agent started to say something, but stopped as Bates's voice once more drowned out the police messages.

Slowly the alternate French, German and English words came over the short wave, sounding like nothing but the meaningless jargon of a deranged mind.

Frazer grumbled, "Let him have his fun. They'll let him fix radios in jail when he's caught!"

But Secret Agent "X" paid him no attention. He was concentrating on that message, picking out the words that counted—one French, one German, one English; one German, one English, one French, and so on. Decoding the message mentally required a swift-thinking, keen intellect. "X" could not write the words now; he had to remember each one that counted, and at the same time keep track of the progressive changes from one language to another.

He shut out his surroundings, focused his whole attention on Bates's voice. And while the others in the speeding car made petulant comments, to him those words began to assume significance.

Bates was saying, "Suspicious truck reported opposite home of Randolph Coulter. Have ordered plane number one to go up to circle the neighborhood. Am awaiting further instructions."

Bates began to repeat the message, but "X" had no need to listen. He had decoded the message as he heard it. A truck in front of Ranny Coulter's house —and Coulter and Larrabie both staying there. The truck might be innocent enough, but "X" had a vivid picture of the monster stepping into that other truck when it had nearly caught him in the apartment on Eighth Avenue.

Should he tell Frazer? The sergeant wouldn't believe him, would think "X" was trying some sort of trick. If Coulter and Larrabie were still home, they must be warned against going out, must stay inside the house until the truck had been investigated.

There was no time to be lost. "X" must get away from his captors at once; if the suspicions of Bates's operative were well grounded, then this might be the opportunity that "X" had been waiting for.

In addition, there was another, perhaps more immediate danger looming up. If the Agent were brought to headquarters, he would be thoroughly searched. The things that would be found on him would damn him a thousand times over in the eyes of the police; his bullet-proof vest, his kit of chromium tools, his make-up material. Above all, they must not be allowed to examine Mr. Corlear's suit too closely.

"X" looked up, saw that they were approaching the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge, and reached a swift decision. His manacled hands moved inconspicuously. His fingers flicked to his tie, came away with a small glass capsule that had laid in an ingeniously contrived pocket of the lining.

Too late, the detective at his right saw what he was doing and reached out to grip his hand, exclaiming, "Say! What the—"

He did not complete the sentence, for the Agent had flipped the glass capsule into the air, over the driver's shoulder. The capsule struck the windshield, shattered; and the powerful, pungent odor of concentrated ammonia gas filled the car.

Frazer and the two detectives began to cough as the stinging gas entered their throats; their eyes clouded with burning tears. The driver, in a panic of sudden agony, let go of the wheel to rub at his eyes, and the car swerved, careened into the rail at the side of the bridge. All four of them forgot completely about the presence of their prisoner in the abrupt anguish which attacked their eyes, noses and throats.

Secret Agent "X" had taken a deep breath as he hurled the capsule, and now he held it while his fingers dipped into the vest pocket of the detective at his right, emerged with the key to the handcuffs. In a twinkling the steel links were loosened and dropped to the floorboards.

The impact of the car against the rail sent them all flying in a heap to the floor, but it was the Agent who acted with the precision of a machine. He kept his eyes closed as a protection against the gas, heaved himself up, and twisted the knob of the door. The car had come to a standstill as he leaped out. Brakes screamed as the traffic behind came to an abrupt stop.

The Agent took a deep breath of the clean fresh air, and looked around. Another car had come to a halt beside them, the driver looking over at them with wide eyes. "X" sprang over, wrenched open the rear door, and swung inside.

"Drive ahead!" he ordered with a crisp incisiveness that brooked no opposition.

The driver hesitated only an instant. The Agent gripped his shoulder with hard fingers. "Get going, or I'll throw you out and drive myself!"

The man at the wheel quailed under the quiet threat of that voice. He mumbled something indistinguishable, shifted into first, and put the car in motion.

Behind them came hoarse shouts from Frazer and the other detectives in the squad car. They were not hurt, but they were helpless, blinded for the moment by the gas. An officer was lumbering toward the scene from the Manhattan end of the bridge. He did not even look toward the car that passed him, in which "X" was riding; he had eyes only for the accident farther up.

"X's" unwilling chauffeur slowed up almost imperceptibly, half-turned toward the bluecoat outside. But the Agent divined his purpose at once, pressed the hard end of a fountain pen flashlight into his shoulder blade. "Just keep going," he ordered softly.

The driver obeyed.

As they left the bridge behind, "X" moved over to the right side of the seat so that the man at the wheel could not see him in the rear vision mirror. "Turn left," he instructed. "Drive downtown till I tell you to stop."

The owner of the car did as directed. At the next corner there was a red light. "I'll have to stop for this," he said over his shoulder. "Is it okay for me to—" His voice trailed off, and he braked to a stop with a bewildered expression on his face. Then he pulled over to the curb and swore. For he had been talking to thin air.

As he had slowed up for the light, his passenger had opened the right- hand door and leaped from the car, disappearing into the lunch hour crowd around city hall. The only evidence that he had even been present in the car was a folded twenty-dollar bill which he had placed conspicuously in the slot of the door handle.


The Agent crossed City Hall Park at a fast walk, and entered the drug store at the corner of Broadway and Chambers. He looked up the number of Ranny Coulter's house, and hurried into a phone booth, put in the call, hoping that nothing had happened there yet.

He was relieved to hear Jack Larrabie's voice over the wire.

He said crisply, "This is Fearson, Larrabie. Is young Coulter there with you?"

"Yes," Larrabie answered. "We were just leaving to go down to headquarters. Harry Pringle's father, the deputy commissioner, has offered to deputize us so that we can go after the monster. We're sick and tired of sticking in the house and doing nothing!"

The Agent's voice rang with a sudden note of authority as he said, "Neither of you must leave the house till I get there, Larrabie! There is a truck parked outside which may be waiting for you to come out. Do nothing until I arrive. Is that clear?"

"Well—" young Larrabie said reluctantly.

The Agent interrupted him. "On no condition must you go out. I'll be there in less than a half hour. And stay away from the windows, too!"

He hung up without waiting for an answer, but he did not leave at once. Instead he turned his back to the glass door of the booth, set up his portable mirror on the corner of the small shelf where the telephone rested, and set to work on his face. Within three minutes, Arvold Fearson had disappeared. Mr. Vardis now stood in the booth. Though the gray suit was the same, the Agent's whole bearing was different.

As he stepped out of the booth, he no longer walked with the shuffling slouch of Fearson. Instead, he strode erect, with head held high. So perfect was the transformation, that by the very change in bearing he seemed to be inches taller than Fearson had appeared.

Out on Broadway, he met a scene of wild excitement. The street was a- swarm with police. Frazer and the plain-clothes men must have recovered by this time from the effects of the ammonia gas and given the description of Fearson.

Plain-clothes men were peering into the faces of every passer-by. The office buildings were being combed by a flood of officers that had been thrown into the district. They were apparently determined that the supposed murderer of Marcy should not escape.

But Mr. Vardis passed unquestioned, for he in no wise resembled the fugitive. He hailed a cab, gave directions to drive to the Coulter home. "If you hurry," he said to the cabby, "you can make it in twelve minutes; I want you to do better than that—I want to get there in ten. And there's ten dollars in it for you."

The cabby grinned, and stepped on the gas.

So far, all of "X's" genius had been futile in combatting this dreadful monster that terrorized the city. He had been forced to fight blindly, depending on chance, waiting for the monster to make a mistake. Even now, as he sped uptown, he realized that there was only one chance in a hundred that the truck in front of the Coulter home had anything to do with the monster. But that one chance had to be looked into. In a battle like this, nothing could be passed by lightly. The cab made it in ten minutes. It turned into Madison Avenue two blocks below the Coulter home, and the driver headed north.

Traffic was light at this time of the afternoon, and "X" could see far ahead over the cabby's shoulder. He saw the two sandwich men on the corner in front of the Coulter house, saw the large truck across the street. He consulted his watch, saw that he was well within the twenty-minute time limit and breathed a sigh of relief. He had outlined in his mind a tentative plan for investigating that truck without arousing the suspicions of its occupants, if there were any.

He leaned forward, said to the driver, "When you get up to that corner where the sandwich men are standing, pull up next to them."

The driver nodded, began to slow up. They still had one street intersection between them and the Coulter house. The green traffic light on the avenue turned red, and the cabby braked to a halt at the corner. A block away the sandwich men paced lazily with all the appearance of a couple of down-and-outers working for a day's pay. No one would have suspected them of carrying sub-machine guns concealed under those signs.

Somewhere in the immediate vicinity there would also be the two men assigned as bodyguards to Larrabie and Coulter.

But "X" had eyes only for the truck. At the distance of a whole block, his keen eyes examined it carefully. It was all white, with black lettering on its side, announcing that the "Snow-Cap Laundry Does Your Sheets Like New." It was facing north, away from him, and he could not see the driver's compartment. But he suddenly noted something that caused his whole body to grow tense.

Projecting from the roof of the truck was a short length of metal tube which was curved at the top, so that the opening faced toward the Coulter house. "X" had seen many of these in war times, knew that at the first sight of one of these rising upon the crest of a barren ocean, stark panic had been wont to tread the decks of the proudest ocean liners. It was a periscope such as is used on submarines! Somebody within that truck was watching the house across the street!

It took but a second for the Agent to note this, even while the cab was slowing up for the red light. Now he leaned forward, said tensely, "Don't mind the red light—shoot ahead, quick. If there's a fine, I'll pay it!"

But the driver shook his head. "Nix, mister. It'd be my fourth ticket —I'd lose my license. They're hard on us hackmen."

And then things began to happen.

The Agent saw the door of the Coulter house open, saw Ranny Coulter and Jack Larrabie come out and start to descend the steps to the sidewalk. His eyes smouldered. They had deliberately broken their promise to him, had not waited the full twenty minutes.

And now, almost simultaneously with the appearance of the two young men, the rear doors of the waiting truck were flung open, and a swarm of the stiff-walking, robot-like men deployed into the street. They rushed toward Larrabie and Coulter, silently, purposefully intentful; each carried a silenced automatic.

Secret Agent "X" leaped from the cab. But he was too far away. Things happened too fast.

Coulter and Larrabie had stopped transfixed, at the sudden eruption of attackers. It was the two sandwich men at the corner who stopped the rush of the robots. Even as "X" was leaping from the cab, they swung their sub-machine guns clear of the sandwich boards, and directed a hail of lead at the attackers. The sweep of their slugs bowled over the robot-like men as if they were nine-pins—but did not kill them; their bullet-proof clothing stopped the slugs, though they had the wind knocked out of them by the terrific impacts. Not one was left standing. They littered the gutter, started to crawl back toward the truck. The sandwich board trick had been successful so far.

BUT now there descended from the truck the huge, ungainly shape of the murder monster. Its robots had failed; it was swinging into action itself. It paid no attention at all to the two machine gunners, no attention to the squirming forms of the robots who were creeping back to the shelter of the truck, but lumbered with a dreadful singleness of purpose—straight toward the two stupefied young men on the steps of the house.

The Secret Agent had started to run toward the scene, but he was still almost a block away. A police whistle shrilled near by. Women passers-by screamed, others ran helter-skelter to places of safety.

The two sandwich men frantically shoved fresh clips in their Tommy guns, raised them to their shoulders, and almost as one man they pumped a rapid, steady stream of lead at that horrible figure—to no avail. The slugs buried themselves in the outer, covering of the monster, staggering it a little, but not swerving it from its course. It made a straight line toward its objective.

Larrabie and Coulter turned to run into the house. The monster raised its hand, pointed that deadly finger, and young Coulter, who had been a trifle in the lead, suddenly staggered, and became enveloped in a sheet of flame!

He screamed once, then rolled down the steps to the street, uttering choked cries which quickly changed to incoherent moans, and then died to nothingness as his scorched, crisp body jerked and twitched convulsively and lapsed into pitiful stillness.

Young Larrabie had stopped, aghast, beside his friend. The monster called out in a resonant voice that seemed to rise to the rooftops, "Come here, Larrabie. It's you I want. Come here or die!"

As in a trance, Larrabie approached the monster.

By this time Secret Agent "X" had reached the corner beside the two sandwich men, who were reloading once more, holding their ground regardless of the danger that the monster might turn its dreadful finger of doom upon them too. "X" seized a loaded Tommy from the hands of the nearest, saying, "It's all right. I'm from Jim Hobart!"

He swung the machine-gun toward the monster. His purpose was to wait till the monster got into motion once more, then direct the stream of lead at a spot just above its middle. The bullets could not pierce its protective coating, of course, but if they struck at a point just above the monster's center of gravity, they might topple him over.

But he never pulled the trip of the gun. For the monster suddenly reached out, gripped young Larrabie about the middle, and lifted him off the ground. Then, carrying him under its arm, it returned to the car, not hurrying, turning its massive, hideous head from side to side to survey the situation. To fire the sub-machine gun now would only mean the death of young Larrabie who had slumped in his captor's arms, apparently in a faint.

The injured robots had crawled into the truck, and the monster followed them, unmolested.

"X" watched, helpless to intercede, with bitterness in his heart, as the door swung shut, and the truck got into motion, sped away.

Above, the hum of an airplane motor became audible. The Agent glanced upward, and his eyes glittered as he saw the huge flying machine circling in the air. It kept its altitude, did not dive, but the radius of its circle increased gradually. Bates had been on the job. Now, if those flyers only did their work well...Secret Agent "X" nodded grimly to himself. He said to the two sandwich, men, "Get rid of those signs—drop them right here with the machine guns—and disperse. Here comes the police." The two men obeyed quickly, disappearing around the corner, piling into a car which had been parked there. No one in the fast gathering crowd tried to stop them, or noticed them. Everybody was gathered around the still smouldering body of Ranny Coulter, commiserating with his hysterical parents who had rushed out of the house. Secret Agent "X" effaced himself in the crowd just as the first police car appeared.


That afternoon the papers were devoted almost exclusively to the startling events of the day. The murders in Belvidere Road, the horrible killing of Ranny Coulter, and the abduction of young Larrabie were the subjects of excited comment throughout the city.

The police were still searching ineffectually for the truck in which the murder monster had escaped with Larrabie as his prisoner. A radio car had given it close chase for a while, until a small porthole in the rear of the truck had swung open. Through this porthole had appeared the pointing finger of the monster, and the police car had suddenly burst into flames; the two policemen in the car had been burned to death.

No one had seen the laundry truck after that. Examination of records revealed, of course, that there was no such firm as the "Snow-Cap Laundry." It was not understood how the truck could have made its escape with every exit from the city guarded, with hund reds of plain-clothes and uniformed men searching the streets and garages.

With all this bustle and excitement Secret Agent "X" did not concern himself. He was ensconced in a darkened room in one of his retreats, engaged in doing a peculiar thing.

This room was exceedingly large, some thirty feet in length. At one end a white motion-picture screen was hung on the wall. At the other end, Secret Agent "X" was engaged in threading a reel of film into a motion-picture projection machine. This completed, the Agent threw a switch, and the machine began to hum as the reels turned, the arc-light of the projector throwing a beam of light across the room. The Agent now stood tensely, watching the motion pictures which were flashed on the screen. There appeared a bird's-eye view of a portion of the city, including that section of Madison Avenue where the Coulter home was located. The Agent saw the frantic, running specks which were men and women in panic, he saw a sheet of flame in the street, and his lips compressed grimly as he realized that this was the burning body of Ranny Coulter. But his eyes followed the motions of the object that he knew was the murder truck leaving the scene of the crime. The picture flickered often, darkened sometimes to an indistinguishable blur, but it always cleared, always kept that fleeing truck in view.

These pictures had been taken by an aerial camera built in under the cockpit of the plane which had circled over the scene of the crime. It was one of the two planes which "X" had kept in readiness for just such an emergency. Knowing that the monster used a truck for transportation, the Agent had provided this means of tracing its movements.

He waited tautly, watching the flickering film. The next few minutes would tell whether the camera had been able to follow that truck to its hidden destination—a thing the police had so far failed to do. [16]

[16 AUTHOR'S NOTE: This method of tracing criminals after a major crime has been committed was devised by Secret Agent "X." He found it of such value, that he has permitted me to mention his use of it in this chronicle. He has also instructed me to offer the idea to the New York Police Department in connection with its air division. If the Police planes were equipped with aerial cameras, the procedure would be as follows: Immediately upon the alarm of a major crime such as a bank holdup, all traffic lights in the vicinity of the crime would flash red thus halting the movement of every vehicle except that in which the criminals were escaping. The police plane, taking off at the first alarm, could be over the city in a few minutes, and the aerial camera would then record the movements of the car in which the gunmen wen fleeing. Thus, if they succeeded in evading pursuit, the camera would show unerringly just where they had holed up, and the forces of the law could then proceed to smoke them out. The Agent has suggested that the aerial camera would work even better in less populous centers, but there is no reason why it should not work in a large city.]

On the screen there appeared the vast network of streets that was New York City, with humans that resembled minute ants scurrying everywhere. And through it all the Agent followed the movements of that blob that was the murder monster's truck, speeding northward, then east to the river front where it stopped at a deserted spot.

From the truck there swarmed a number of specks that were men. They were carrying two large flat objects which they fastened to the sides of the truck, and then they hurried around to back and front for a moment. Their work over, they climbed back inside, and the truck once more resumed its course, this time proceeding much more slowly, threading its way back into the heart of the city.

The Agent stirred at his spot beside the projector. He understood why that truck had not been traced. The license plates had been changed, and the truck itself had been disguised by fastening thin sheets of metal over the sides. These were probably of a different color, with another name. No wonder the police had lost it—they were still looking for a white laundry truck.

Now the disguised truck proceeded sedately through traffic, passing traffic officers, radio cars, driving boldly to its destination under the very eyes of the entire police force.

Its destination was a street on the west side of town, where genteel brownstone houses rubbed elbows with garages and tall apartment houses. The truck turned in to one of these garages, disappeared from view.

The film continued to wind through the projector, flashing further bird's- eye pictures on the screen. But "X" had no more interest in it. He had turned away into a cubbyhole just off the projection room, where a large-scale map of the city hung on the wall. On this map he was engaged in tracing the movements of the truck, which his photographic memory had recorded faithfully from the film.

In a moment his pencil rested on the exact spot where the truck had disappeared. His face was alight with a strange glow. He had traced the monster to its hole!


It was close to dusk when a dignified gentleman in a gray suit drove a large and expensive looking sedan into the street on the west side of town where the monster's truck had disappeared.

The gentleman noted, as he drove down the street, that there were several men loitering near the corner. Among them were two whom he knew as Stegman and Oliver.

On the corner was a large apartment house, and next to it was a row of old, three-story brownstones. On the other side of the street there were several garages. The Agent drove slowly, as if not certain of his destination. Finally he slowed up, swung the car into the driveway of a large garage in the middle of the block.

There were a dozen cars on the floor, here, though the space would have accommodated thirty or forty. Several of these were trucks, though none, of course, bore the name of the Snow Cap Laundry. A single attendant, who was built along the lines of a heavyweight prize-fighter, was in charge.

He approached the sedan, looking inquiringly at the driver.

"What is it, mister?"

The Agent descended leisurely from the car, said affably, "I've just moved into the neighborhood and I was looking for a good garage to store my car. What do you charge in here?"

The attendant cast an appraising glance at the visitor, and said surlily, "The boss ain't in, mister."

"Well, have you any idea what the rates are?"

The attendant had half turned away, as if to return to his duties. He stopped reluctantly. "They run around a hundred a month with service."

"A hundred a month!" the Agent exclaimed. "Why, that's almost twice the prevailing rates!"

"That's what we charge, mister. We only take in high class people."

"That's entirely too much," said "X." "I don't see how you can get any business."

The attendant shrugged. "We get along." He turned away once more. "I think it's cheaper up the block. Why don't you try over there?"

"I will. Oh, by the way—"

The attendant stopped once more, annoyed. "What—"

He never finished. For Secret Agent "X" had stepped close to him and, as he turned, delivered a smashing blow to the point of the attendant's chin. The overalled man staggered backward, his eyes growing glassy, and would have slumped to the floor had "X" not caught him and eased him down slowly. He then dragged the unconscious attendant's body over to a corner, where he deposited it.

Now he proceeded to scan every corner of the garage. There was no place of concealment anywhere. The walls were of brick, bare, without any sort of covering that might hide a secret door.

The Agent stepped to the doorway, looked out at the street. Directly opposite was a brownstone house, one of the long row that ran to the corner. They had once been the homes of comfortable families, quiet and refined. Now they all had "furnished room" signs. All, that is, except Number 346, which was the one directly opposite. This one had no sign, and did not seem to be occupied at all.

Secret Agent "X" frowned, turned away from the entrance, and went into the office of the garage, which was in the corner, facing the street. There was no one in the office, but he noticed that the large window on the street was of frosted glass, making it impossible to look in from outside.

There was a desk against one wall, and a table in the center. The floor was of concrete. There were two closed doors in the wall opposite the desk. The Agent tried them. The first opened into a wash room, the second into a closet. It was quite a roomy closet. A dozen new tires, still in their wrappings, were stacked at one side. The rest of the closet was occupied by boxes of inner tubes, cans of oil, and other innocent appealing accessories of a legitimate garage.

The Agent examined the floor and the walls, but could find no trace of an opening. His face was intent, thoughtful.

Before leaving the closet, he put his hands on the top tire of the stack, tried to lift it. He found that it could not be lifted. It was tied to the others by several lengths of heavy wire. "X" gripped the wire and pulled.

And the whole stack of tires moved outward, toward him!

They had been resting on a metal plate set just above the floor, which moved on a pivot. Below the plate there was disclosed a circular opening leading down into darkness.

Secret Agent "X" peered down into this opening and saw a set of stairs.

He was taut now, all his senses keenly alert. No sound came from the garage outside the office, no sound came from the depths below. Ominous silence lay about the place, and the gathering dusk seemed to creep upon him with damp, stifling fingers. Here then, was the lair where lurked this murder monster that had held the city in terror. Now at last, after unremitting effort, after thrusting himself into danger time and again, he was going to come to grips once more with that horrible specter of death that caused men to turn into a living blaze of torture.

The Agent lowered himself into the opening, descended the short flight of steps. It was pitch black in here, but he did not light his flash. He reached the bottom, felt a wall at his right, and followed it. He put out his left hand, felt another wall.

He was in a narrow passage, and his sense of direction told him that it ran under the street, toward Number 346, opposite. He followed the passage for about thirty feet, and found himself before a closed door.

Now he risked the flashlight, saw that the door was of steel, with a small peephole, closed now, high up at the level of the eyes.

He set the flashlight on its end so that the beam was diffused upward, and knelt before the lock, taking out his kit of tools. In less than three minutes, working with absolute silence, he had the door open, stepped through into a lighted cubbyhole.

One of the robot-men was seated here, apparently a guard. He sprang up, hand streaking for the silenced automatic that lay on a small table beside him. But the Agent was faster. He had provided himself with another gas gun to replace the one he had lost earlier in the day,[17] and he fired this full in the face of the startled robot. The man sank to the floor without a moan.

[17 AUTHOR'S NOTE: It will be recalled that the Agent's gas gun had been taken from him when he was placed under arrest by Inspector Cleary, and he had not had a chance to recover it when he made his escape from the police car. It was not a great loss, however, for, though the gun in itself was an interesting instrument, it was useless to any one without the formula for the gas which it discharged. And the police chemists would certainly not have a chance to analyze it, for the moment the gas chamber was opened, the gas would escape, rendering whoever was present unconscious for several hours. As a matter of fact, this is just what did occur, as the Agent learned some time afterward. The incident was related to him some weeks later by Commissioner Foster on his return from Europe, when they met in the Bankers' Club— which was frequented by the Agent in the personality of the wealthy Elisha Pond.]

The Secret Agent wasted no time. He knelt beside the inert form, set up his portable mirror and laid on the floor his make-up kit.

His fingers worked swiftly, dexterously, as he modeled for himself a face that was the duplicate of the face of the robot who lay before him.

Finally he arose. His gray suit was of the same cut as that of the robots; his face was an exact replica of theirs. He walked stiffly, opened a door at the other side of the cubbyhole, and stepped through, for all the world another one of those merciless killers.

He was in a short hall, musty and dank with the typical cellar smell. This must be the cellar of Number 346. He passed a rickety wooden door, heard a scraping noise behind it.

The door was fastened on the outside by a staple which he removed. He flashed his light into the dark interior, saw a huddled form, tied, with mouth and eyes taped.

He stepped inside, knelt beside the figure, and removed the tape from the mouth, leaving the man's eyes covered. The man was Ed Runkle!

Runkle had not been picked up by Bates' men—in fact he had been lost sight of after "X" had seen him driving away from Belvidere Road. And this was why he had not been picked up again. He was a prisoner of the monster —Runkle, the attorney who had defended the monster's man in court, whom "X" had seen driving away from the slaughter house on Belvidere Road!

With the tape off his mouth, the little attorney wet his lips, ran his tongue around the outside of his mouth where the tape had torn the skin. "What do you want of me?" he asked huskily. He wriggled his head as if he could in that way remove the tape from his eyes. "Are you one of the—robots? Talk, why don't you talk! Let me hear you say something!"

"X" kept his ear cocked for the possible approach of anyone along the corridor. He said, "I am not a robot. Answer my questions, but do not raise your voice. How did you get here?"

Runkle's body seemed to stiffen at the sound of "X's" voice. He exclaimed, "If you're not a robot—who are you?" He had seemed to gain courage from the news that this was not another one of the ruthless mechanical-appearing men of the monster. Even his voice seemed to assume a new tone, a tone with a tinge of cunning in it. He repeated the question—"Who are you?"

"Never mind that," the Agent told him curtly. "There's no time now for explanations. If I'm to help you, you must answer me quickly. How did you get here?"

With the instinct of his profession, Runkle began to hedge. "You want information? Why don't you take the tape off my eyes then? When I see who you are, maybe I'll tell you what you want to know."

"X" arose from beside him. "I have no time," he said shortly. "If you won't talk, I'll leave you here." He went toward the door.

Runkle called out in a low, desperate voice, "Wait! Don't leave me here! I'll talk."

The Agent returned, stood above him. "Go on."

"I don't know how I got here. I was driving, out in Brooklyn. Suddenly a large truck cut in front of me, forced me to the curb. The rear door of the truck opened, and a small army of these robots swarmed out, grabbed me and hustled me into the truck. They tied me up this way, and taped my eyes. Then I passed out, and I don't know what happened after that. I came to in here —I don't know where I am." He raised his voice in a thin whine. "For God's sake, get me out of—"

"X" quickly placed a hand over his mouth. "Silence, you fool! Do you want to attract everybody in the place?"

The Agent removed his hand from the attorney's mouth, asked, "Why did you kill Marcy and Brinz?"

Runkle shifted energetically. "God! I didn't do that! I went down to the kitchen to get some drinks for them, and when I got back I saw two of those robots in the hall upstairs, and they were firing their silenced guns into the room where Marcy and Brinz were sitting. I got scared and ran out. I got in my car and drove away from there as fast as I could go."

The Agent bent closer. "What was your business with Marcy?" he asked

Runkle was silent for a long time. Finally he said, "I don't believe you're here to help me. You're one of that monster's men. You're pumping me!" He lapsed into stubborn silence.

The Agent arose. "You need not answer," he said. "I know what you were meeting Marcy for. Brinz was bringing the two of you together—'Duke' Marcy knew who the Murder Monster is, and he wanted your help to avenge the death of Mabel Boling!" Runkle uttered a gasp of surprise. The Agent turned to the door. "I'm not taping your mouth again—but if you value your life, don't make any outcry or do anything to attract attention. I give you my word that you will be freed before I leave here." Then he added, as Runkle started to protest, "You can rely on it—it is the word of—Secret Agent'X'!"

Runkle's jaw fell open in astonishment. He was too stunned to speak.

"X" stepped out and continued down the hallway. The hall ended in a cross- corridor; at the end of the corridor was a door, and before the door stood one of the robots with an automatic in his hand. It was too late to draw back, for the robot had already seen him.

"X" advanced in his direction, but the robot seemed to take him for granted. Indeed, there was no reason why he shouldn't, for he no doubt took "X" to be one of his fellows.

He raised his hand, however, motioned for "X" to go back. He was apparently on guard at that door, with instructions to allow no one to enter.

But "X" advanced as if he had not noticed the gesture, until he was within two feet of the other. The robot stepped forward, barring his way, motioning angrily, now, for him to go back.

"X" smiled disarmingly, and fired the gas gun, which he had held out of sight, directly into the robot's face. The guard sagged, unconscious, the automatic slipping from nerveless fingers, and the Agent eased him to the floor.

He stepped over him and tried the door. It was unlocked, and he pulled it open gently, a fraction of an inch, without making a sound.


The room within was large, square. The effect of the first glimpse was an effect of whiteness and cleanliness. The walls were tiled, white. A long bench at the opposite wall ran across the full length of the room, except for the spot in the right-hand corner where there was a flat-topped, mahogany, glass-covered desk.

On the bench were retorts, test tubes, microscopes. Racks of tubes containing liquids and gasses were nailed to the wall above the bench. Everything seemed orderly, neat; so neat as to be terrifying—terrifying by the very incongruity of this white-tiled laboratory in the cellar of a run-down house in a run-down district.

The Agent, however, had nothing but a cursory glance for the setting —a glance, though, that embraced everything vital before it rested upon the two characters in the center of the room.

One of those two was young Jack Larrabie. The other was the weird figure of the murder monster.

Larrabie's face was suffused with rare. He was shouting, "Damn you! Why did you kill Coulter?"

The murder monster waddled forward slowly, stopped, facing Larrabie, and standing sideways to the door through which "X" peered. From somewhere in its depths there came the deep metallic voice that the Agent had heard before. It uttered a hideous, inhuman laugh. Then the laughter stopped suddenly, and the voice spoke.

"You seem to forget, Larrabie, that I have the whip hand. Do you know what that means? I will show you!"

Too late, young Larrabie turned, leaped away from in front of that hideous figure. He had not covered three feet before the ponderous, moving finger of the monster rose, pointing at his back. Horrid, sizzling flame burst out around the young man. He screamed once, half-turned, and his face was a mask of hate and dread.

He dropped to the floor, tried ineffectually to beat out the flames by rolling over and over. Now he was enveloped in fire, a screaming, wriggling, sizzling ball of fire.

It had all happened so quickly, almost upon the instant that the Agent had opened the door. Now, "X" flung it wide, launched himself at the monster in a flying leap that caught the gruesome figure amidships. The Agent struck with his shoulder, sent the monster staggering backward so that it would have fallen had it not ended up against the bench. It had gone right through the sheet of flame that enveloped the writhing body of young Larrabie, but had been untouched by it.

Now its dread finger came up, directed itself unerringly at "X."

The monster seemed to be quite at ease, secure in the knowledge that in another instant this intruder would likewise go up in flames. But nothing happened!

From deep within the monster came a rumble of astonishment.

The Agent laughed grimly, and leaped at the monster once more. This time he did not attempt to match his weight against that of the heavily padded and protected form. He seized the pointing arm, twisted around so that his back was to the monster.

He slid his shoulder under the padded arm.

He used the leverage of his shoulder now, heaved and twisted. The monster was carried forward for a moment, off balance. And in that moment the Agent lunged against it sideways. It staggered to one side, and unable to recover its balance, crashed to the floor. The Agent had attacked it in its one weak spot —being so heavily padded and protected, it was easily unbalanced; and once on the floor, it could not rise without great difficulty. It was something like the armored knights of old—invincible while on horseback, but at the mercy of the first attack when thrown.

The monster struggled frantically to swing its deadly finger up once more, but "X" deliberately stepped on the padded arm, pinning it to the floor.

The Agent stared down with somber eyes. "You should have pointed that finger of yours at my face—it's the only vulnerable spot. The clothes I am wearing are made to order, of sheet asbestos, specially treated to soften it so it could be tailored into a suit. It is fire-proof!"

The body of Jack Larrabie lay still, a few feet away, smouldering, scorched, a pitiful thing in death, the face now fleshless and charred. Even now, with the spark of life burned out of it, the body twitched convulsively as if it still lived in agony.

The monster tried to twist itself free of the Agent's foot, which pinned it down. But its very bulk was against it.

The Agent bent swiftly and unbuckled the straps that held the gas mask in place. He jerked it off, and found that the head beneath was nothing but an empty shell of aluminum, covered by the gas-mask. It was held to the metal body by two strong clamps. The Agent undid these, and removed the aluminum shell. Out of an opening in the barrel-like body, where the neck should have been, there stared up at him a pair of venomous eyes, sparkling with hatred.

The occupant of that monster's armor was not as tall as his shell. His head remained within the armor, while the gas-mask and the aluminum head were merely for the purpose of effect. "X" could now see two peepholes, covered with glass, in the padded body. It was through these that the man within had looked at his victims.

The Agent said, "You can crawl out of there now. You're through." His voice was flat, with a strange bitterness. He saw mental pictures of the atrocities at the bazaar, saw the lifeless forms of Fowler and Grace.

The man within the armor spoke, no longer metallically, resonantly, but in a human voice, full of anger. "You fool! What good is this going to do you? You need me. Even if your face is changed, there are enough papers in the safe deposit box to identify you to the police. Wherever you went you'd be recognized as one of the robots—you'd be seized in an hour!" Clearly, he was taken in by the Agent's makeup, believed him to be one of the robots.

At the sound of his voice, Secret Agent "X" had nodded to himself as if in confirmation of a suspicion. He said, "I am not one of your robots, Fred Barton. I am the instrument which brings you to the bar of justice!"

The man within the armor of the monster gasped. "Who are you?"

"X" did not answer. He was unstrapping the padding from the metal armor of the huge figure, still keeping his foot on that arm.

His suspicions were confirmed. The man within that shell was Fred Barton. Fred Barton, who was supposed to have been kidnaped; Fred Barton who had just consigned his friend, Jack Larrabie, to horrible death by fire!

It took fifteen minutes to get him out of that cumbersome suit of combination armor and padding. The Agent was careful to prevent him from using that deadly right arm that controlled the secret of the burning death.

He snapped a pair of handcuffs on young Barton's wrists when he dragged him out of the shell of armor. Barton tried to resist, struggled with maniacal strength. But the Agent twisted his arms in a punishing grip, and tightened the cuffs.

Barton stood there, breathing heavily, his face flushed, while "X" knelt beside the monster's suit, found the tube that ran from the underneath metal finger in the right hand to a compact tank strapped on the inside of the back.

He looked up at Barton. "You were always a clever chemist, Barton. This gas that you use here—it could have made you famous; you would have been hailed as a leader in your field—the discoverer of an invisible gas that ignites upon contact with organic substance. Why did you employ it in this way?"

Barton's youthful face twisted into a leer of malice and hatred. "You've ruined the greatest scheme the world has ever known! In a short time I would have had more power than any king or emperor!" He took an impulsive step forward.

"Whoever you are, you must be clever, ingenious, to have fought me this way. Why not join me? There will be little reward for you in turning me over to the police compared to what I can offer you. With the secret of that gas, two such men as you and I could achieve world empire. What do you say!"

"X" paid no attention to the mad offer of partnership in crime. He gazed speculatively at Barton, reflecting that there were strange motives in the world which impelled men to do mad things. This young man, possessed of wealth, education, culture, had turned to crime because of those very endowments which the world envied; surfeit of good fortune had made life empty—boring for him; and his brilliant mind had sought in crime the thrills that his jaded appetite craved.

"X" said aloud, "You had no regard even for your own father. You permitted him to think you were kidnaped—so that you would be free to appear as the monster!"

Barton waved the comment away impatiently. "What of it!" His voice became wheedling, eager. "Will you join me? You and I—nobody could stop us. We could climb the heights of power together!"

"X" shook his head. "And meet the same fate that your other partners met?"

Barton jerked his head up, eyes startled.

The Agent went on inexorably. "Of course you had partners. You didn't operate on those convicts' faces yourself—it was Jack Larrabie here that did that. And Harry Pringle, too. He planned the jail break because of his intimate knowledge of the layout of the State Prison—his father is the deputy police commissioner."

Barton stared at the Agent, fascinated, as he went on. "And Ranny Coulter —another of your jaded young thrill-seekers. This is his father's house. The whole row belongs to his father. He furnished your headquarters. You were all going to take turns at acting as the monster. But you killed them all, one after the other, when you found you didn't need them any longer."

The Agent spoke bitterly now. He pointed an accusing finger. "Barton, you are the worst of the lot—for you betrayed even your own associates.

"I have no sympathy for you—only for your father, for the fathers of Larrabie, and Coulter, and Pringle. I am thinking of the disgrace, the shame that you four thrill-seeking egomaniacs have brought upon their heads!"

Barton asked fiercely, "Who are you, anyway?" "You may call me— Secret Agent 'X'!"

Barton's body tautened. He raised his manacled hands in the air, leaped at "X" in a furious, desperate, fanatical onslaught. He brought his joined hands down in a chopping blow at the Agent's skull.

But "X" had jumped inside his guard, so that the steel cuffs glanced off his shoulder. The Agent at the same time swung a hard right list to Barton's middle, doubling him up. Barton sagged weakly to the floor. There were tears of defeat in his eyes. His breath, taken away by that blow, came in short gasps. His hands fumbled in his vest pocket, came out with a small pellet. They flashed upward, and the pellet disappeared in his mouth. He gulped, and swallowed.

Now he smiled grotesquely. "I've saved you the trouble of calling the police!" he said. "You win, Sec—"

His whole body stiffened, his face became crimson, and he collapsed.

The Agent stooped beside him. He was dead.


Now Secret Agent "X" worked swiftly, but with purpose. He stepped to the desk, rummaged through drawers, until he found a sealed envelope. He ripped this open, inspected the sheet of paper within. It was headed, "Formula for nitrocetylene." Below it were chemical symbols which the Agent took care not to look at. He did not want the responsibility of possessing the knowledge of that hideous, death-dealing gas.

Slowly, somberly, he ripped the paper to shreds, touched a match to them.

Then he stepped out of that room of horror, into another passage. At the end of this passage was a curtained doorway. "X" parted the curtains, peered through. He saw that the doorway opened upon a platform in a large room. Before the platform, rows of chairs were arranged in a semicircle. And the chairs were occupied—all but two of them, by the figures of the robot-like ex-convicts.

They were evidently awaiting the arrival of their master upon the platform; they must have been summoned for a meeting which would never take place now.

One of the robots noticed the crack in the curtains, started up in his chair. "X" gave him no time to warn the others. He held in his hand three glass capsules, larger than the one he had used in his escape from the police car on Brooklyn Bridge. They were colored red; they contained, not ammonia, but the anaesthetizing gas which the Agent used in his gun. He stepped through the curtains, onto the platform, and hurled the three capsules among the convicts.

He did not wait to see the effects; he knew that within a matter of seconds they would be rendered unconscious by that swiftly vaporizing gas, would remain that way for hours.

He stepped back into the corridor, hurried back to the laboratory. There was a phone here, and he picked it up, dialed the number of Jim Hobart's office. When Jim got on the wire, the Agent gave him the address of the house of death, issued swift instructions.

"This is Fearson," he said. "Come to this address at once. Bring with you a large black bag which Mr. Martin keeps in your office. Ring the outside bell, and I will take the bag from you."

That done, the Agent inspected the room carefully. He was seeking the hiding place of the safe which Barton had said contained the descriptions of all those convicts who were lying unconscious in the meeting hall...

IT was almost midnight when sirens sounded before that house of mystery and death. Headquarters cars, squad cars, radio cars filled the quiet street. Police swarmed in from every direction. They were headed by Deputy Commissioner Pringle in person, and they were there in answer to a mysterious telephone call. The caller had instructed them to go to this address in connection with the robot murders.

Commissioner Pringle was the first up the steps, tried the door and found it open. Burly Inspector Burks, in charge of homicide, shouldered past him. "This is my job, Commissioner," he grumbled. He strode into the dark hallway with drawn gun, flanked by two plain-clothes men with Thompsons.

But they met no opposition. Not until they reached the cellar did they know that they had not been hoaxed.

For there they found the laboratory, and on the floor the empty, monstrous armored shell of the being that had struck terror to the city. And close by lay Fred Barton, youthful and innocent looking in death, beside the scorched body of Jack Larrabie.

Pringle said with a catch in his voice, "Poor boys. They died trying to fight the monster. I hate to be the one to break the news to their families!"

From the laboratory they passed down the hall, found the meeting room. Inspector Burks stepped onto the platform, looked down, and exclaimed, "What the hell is this!" The chairs had been cleared away from the center of the room. Where they had stood, there were now ranged in a long row twenty-five unconscious bodies. And the faces were not the faces of robots, but those of the very men who were being sought all over the country—the twenty-five convicts who had escaped from State Prison!

Inspector Burks leaped from the platform, stooped and examined those heavy-breathing forms. To the chest of each was pinned a typewritten sheet bearing the identifying marks to be found on their bodies—marks which were part of the prison record of each man, and could not be denied.

Burks exclaimed, "These are the robots! Feel their bodies—they're wearing the bullet-proof clothing yet!"

He placed a hand on their faces, cried, "Good God—this is make-up! Somebody's fixed their faces to resemble their old selves. They've been delivered to us on a silver platter!"

He arose, issued orders excitedly. Men hastened in, placed handcuffs on the unconscious convicts. A call was put in for the wagon.

Pringle was trembling with emotion. "I wonder which of these convicts was the ringleader—which of them used the armor of the monster."

"We'll never know," Burks said morosely. "Whoever it was that laid them out here, must have taken out the one in the monster's shell and set him here next to the rest. It makes no difference, though—they'll all burn for murder!"

Pringle sighed. "Well, there'll be no more robot killings. At least Professor Larrabie, and Giles Barton will have the satisfaction of knowing that their sons' deaths were not in vain. They can always be proud that their boys were brave enough to risk their lives against these killers!"

And from somewhere in the distance there sounded the faint notes of an eerie whistle that jerked every man in the room to attention. That whistle was the inimitable signal of the man who was known as Secret Agent "X"—and it seemed to carry through the air the stamp of approval of Commissioner Pringle's words.

The secret of those four young men who had built a tower of terror upon a dream of power would forever be locked in the breast of a single man— Secret Agent "X."

For the sake of their families he had adopted the adage, "De mortuis, nihil nisi bonum!" [18]

[18 "About the dead let no evil be spoken!"]


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent X, June 1934

CRONIN jabbed his automatic in the man's stomach. The street, close to the water front, was dimly lit, deserted at night. Cronin's thick upper lip curled back mercilessly from discolored teeth.

"Stand still, guy. Don't raise your hands—just keep 'em where they are. Only don't make no funny moves, see?" He accompanied the admonition with a jab of the gun.

The victim was short, lean, and hard-featured. He evidently knew all about what a Colt can do to your insides if it's fired with the muzzle against your stomach. For he stopped perfectly still.

"If this is a holdup, you can have my dough. There's a ten dollar bill in my pants pocket."

"That's all I need," said Cronin. "Turn around."

The other turned, very carefully.

Cronin dug his hand into the man's pocket and dragged out the ten dollar bill, keeping the gun handy. He pocketed the bill, and suddenly his big hamlike arm encircled the little man from behind. He almost lifted him off his feet, and whispered in his ear, "I'm gonna knock you off, fella. Jake Cronin never leaves a living witness!"

The lean man squirmed, his hands clawing at the implacable arm about his neck. He tried to talk, but only a hoarse cackle gurgled out of his larynx.

Cronin's eyes glittered with killer's lust. He gloated, his lips close to the other's ear. "In case it makes you feel better, you ain't bein' rubbed out by any ordinary stickup. I'm the guy that pulled the Associated Jewelers job. That was a fifty grand haul. I just gotta have some spending money till the fence comes through with the dough for the swag."

The little fellow's face was purpling. He raised his heels in the air and drummed frantically at Cronin's shins. The sudden pain of the kicking heels drew an oath from the killer's lips. His arm tightened viciously. There was a ghastly crunching snap, and the little man ceased struggling. Cronin expelled his breath in a wheeze and dropped the inert body. It sprawled slackly on the pavement, the head tilted back at a gruesome angle.

The man was dead, all right. Cronin knew a broken neck when he saw one. Stooping, he started to go through the dead man's pockets. There was an interesting bulge under the vest But he was interrupted. Hard heels turned the far corner of the block, and he recognized the figure that passed under the street lamp. It was Detective Sergeant Pell.

Cronin cursed and melted into the doorway from which he had ambushed his victim. He felt his way through a black hallway, out into a back yard, over a fence and into an alley that led to the street beyond. As he emerged, he heard the blast of a police whistle. He grinned. That would be Pell, finding the body. Well, let him find it. They'd have to chalk up another murder to the unknown "Strangler's" account.

He strode swiftly away. A few blocks west he pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes and entered a drug store. He bought a couple of packages of cigarettes, changed the ten dollar bill, and went into a phone booth. He dialed 211 and, when he got the long distance operator, he asked for a Chicago number. He got his connection, and a thin, rasping voice said, "Hello." "This is—you know who," said Cronin, "callin' from New York."

"Gott!" said the voice. "Not Cro—"

"Shut up, you fool! You want to advertise it? It's bad enough I had to call you up. I was sick and tired of hiding out in that stinking boarding house room for five days. And no dough. When I gave you them sparklers, you promised to send me the cash as soon as you got back to Chi. Well, where is it?"

The voice shrilled despairingly. "Gott! Don't yell like that! I told you it might take me a couple of days to raise the money. That's why you held out two of the stones. You were going to pawn them, no?"

"Yes, and all the hock shops were wised up. I couldn't take a chance. If the cops caught on I was in New York, they'd figure me sure for that job. I'm supposed to be up in the mountains. I had to go out and get me some spending money on the q. t. tonight. So well where's the dough?"

The operator broke in. "Your time is up, deposit ninety cents for one minute more, sir."

Cronin thumbed three quarters, a dime and a nickel into the slots, and heard the other saying, "I raised twenty grand for that stuff this morning, and sent it with a guy named Gadwin. He's flying to New York—started early this morning. He should be there by now. Hurry up back and you'll maybe meet him."

"You sure you gave this guy Gadwin my right address, Dutchy?"

"Yes, yes. The right address he's got written down, with that phony name you're using."

"Okay," said Cronin. "I hope you ain't stringin' me, Dutchy. If you are—"

He hung up and strode out, keeping his hat brim low.

WITH the change of his ten dollar bill, he stepped into a lunch wagon and downed a plate of ham and eggs, two cups of coffee, and a cut of apple pie. He bought a newspaper and a fifteen-cent cigar, and strolled back to his rooming house.

Two-thirty-one Ellery Street, where he was temporarily stopping under the name of Jonas, was one of a row of bedraggled, crumbling four-story houses not far from the water front. Each one sported an eight-step stoop and a "furnished room" sign.

With his usual caution, he surveyed the street from the doorway of the corner store, and seeing that it was clear, walked swiftly to number two-thirty-one and ascended the stoop. He stepped into the dark hallway and stopped, motionless, his hand arrested in mid-air toward the shoulder clip where his automatic rested.

The powerful beam of a flashlight caught him full in the eyes. A moment later the hall light was switched on, the flashlight off, and his blinking eyes discerned Detective Sergeant Pell, covering him with a very steady thirty-eight.

"W-what's the big idea?" he mumbled.

Sergeant Pell was grim, the bleakness of his face denying the levity of his words. "Well, look who's here! If it ain't Jake Cronin in the flesh! And here I was thinking you were far away in the mountains!" While he talked, he frisked him deftly, and took the automatic.

"How'd you know I was here?" Cronin asked, dry-mouthed.

"Just an accident, Jake, just an accident. I wasn't looking for you. But now I know you're in town, I'm beginning to get ideas about that Associated Jewelers holdup, Monday, where the girl cashier was killed. Looks just like it might be one of your jobs. Let's go up to your room and kind of glance it over."

Cronin felt a thick sensation in his chest as he led the way upstairs with Pell's gun an inch from his spine. The two diamonds he had held out were pasted to the bottom of the bureau drawer in his room. A good place to hide them from the landlady or a casual visitor, but they would never escape Pell's practiced search.

"How—how did you find this joint?" he demanded again, over his shoulder.

"It's funny about that," said Pell. "I wasn't looking for you at all. I was looking for a bird named Jonas. You see, I ran into a guy with a broken neck down by the water front. He had a wallet pinned under his vest. In the wallet was twenty thousand berries in big bills, and a card with a name written on it—Jonas, two-thirty-one Ellery Street. So I moseyed over, looking for Jonas, and who comes walking in behind me but Jake Cronin!"

Cronin stopped short on the staircase, his face gray with the realization of what he had done. He turned quickly, his arm coming backward in a short arc. His elbow jabbed Pell in the mouth, and the detective was thrown against the wall. Cronin faced him snarling. His right fist, balled into a vicious weapon of hard knuckles, was coming up in a smashing uppercut, when Pell's gun began to roar. Three times it kicked as he pulled the trigger. The slugs caught Cronin in the chest, and he toppled down the steps with a frightful cry that was drowned by the reverberations of the gunshots in the narrow hallway. He was dead when he hit the landing.


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent X magazine, September 1935

Roger Barclay had faced death many times—at the point of a gun, in the grip of a strangler's fingers. But now he was to learn what it meant to die—artistically. For the tall, thin man with opaque eyes who towered above him like a snake about to spring boasted that he was an artist without equal—in the fine art of exquisite torture.



I SAID to the taxi driver: “You better slow up. It's in the middle of this block.”

And then I noticed Helene Rondheim, standing at the curb and motioning desperately to me. The cab driver threw back over his shoulder: “That lady wants you, I guess. Should I stop?”

I sighed. “All right.”

He pulled in to the curb several yards past her, and not far from the house of Mr. Lagurian down in the middle of the block— which was where I was going.

I paid him off and turned to Mrs. Rondheim who had come running over, a bit breathless. The exertion had brought a flush of color to her cheeks, enhancing her dark beauty a thousandfold.

She clutched my sleeve almost feverishly as the taxi pulled away, and exclaimed: “Mr. Barclay! You must not go to see Lagurian!” And she glanced with apprehension toward the house down the street.

I frowned. “Did you purposely come here to waylay me, Mrs. Rondheim, in order to tell me that? Didn't I instruct you and your husband to remain indoors? Some one may see you and follow you back to the apartment.”

She rushed on, unheeding. “Mr. Barclay, you are my husband's lawyer, and you are not paid to risk your life. If you go into that house you—you will be taking your life in your hands!”

I raised my eyebrows. “Surely, Mrs. Rondheim, you don't mean that physical harm will be offered me? What is your purpose in trying to prevent this interview between myself and Mr. Lagurian?”

She lowered her long lashes over her dark eyes, bowed her head. “I—I cannot tell you that—except that you are going into danger. My husband had no right to send you here.”

“He didn't send me,” I retorted hotly. “He merely gave me to understand that there was some sort of feud between himself and Lagurian, and that it is probably Lagurian who is suppressing the evidence that may mean your husband's acquittal when we go to trial. I hardly see—”

She put a long, slim hand on my shoulder, said huskily: “There is more, much more, Roger Barclay. The girl, Mary Consello, whom you have been trying to locate—”

“Yes, yes,” I retorted testily. “Your husband thinks Lagurian is also hiding her so that she cannot testify at the trial. That is ridiculous. However, I owe it to my client to investigate every possibility, and that is why I am here. If Lagurian has those ledgers, I am prepared—”

“You mustn't—you mustn't go there. Please—”

I raised my hat. “I am afraid I am already late, Mrs. Rondheim. If you have nothing better to tell me, I must ask you to excuse me. Please go back to the apartment and do not leave it until I tell you to.”

I left her there, staring after me with the look of one who sees a sacrificial victim going to the altar.

As I rang the bell of Mr. Lagurian's house, I glanced back down the street, and saw her, still standing there in the darkness, looking after me as if she were seeing me for the last time.

All of which, I confess, did not contribute to my peace of mind as the door was opened to my ring.

The Chinese house-boy who admitted me, and who shufflingly conducted me along a dimly lit, quiet hall to the room of his master, did nothing to diminish my disquiet.

His expressionless face betrayed nothing of the thoughts that went on behind those almond eyes of his.

To my surprise, he led me, not into a sitting room or library, but down to the end of the hall and into a blue-walled breakfast room off the kitchen.

At a table under the electric light sat the man I had come to see—Mr. Lagurian. There was an empty orange juice glass on the table, and he was eating dry toast and sipping black coffee.

Mr. Lagurian was a very thin man, and when he arose, I saw that he was also very tall. He wore an embroidered, silk dressing gown over a pair of blue pajamas. He was freshly shaven, and his coal black hair was slicked smoothly back from a high, narrow forehead.

It was his eyes that disturbed me. There was a bit of a slant to them, not unlike those of the servant, and they were opaque, suggestive of an immense force for evil. Doubtless there was more than a touch of the oriental in his ancestry.

He said: “How do you do, Mr. Barclay? You are punctual. Will you join me in a bit of breakfast?”

I glanced at my wrist watch, raised my eyebrows. “At eight-thirty in the evening?”

My tone must have conveyed to him the impression that I thought him a little mad, for his lips curled back in something that was probably intended to be a smile.

“Forgive me,” he said. “I forget that my ways must seem odd to a stranger. You see, my day begins almost when yours ends, I— er—work at night.”

I stood with my hat in my hand, not knowing what to answer. I felt I was going to be at a distinct disadvantage in transacting the bigness I had come to transact with this peculiar man.

He said sharply to the servant- “It is well, Wang Mun. Take Mr. Barclay's hat, and go.”

Wang Mun reached ever deferentially and extracted the hat from my fingers. Then he backed from the room, closing the door behind him.

MR. LAGURIAN motioned to a chair opposite him at the table, and seated himself. “We can talk here while I finish my breakfast—if you don't mind.”

“Not at all,” I said hastily. The sooner I was through with him, I felt, the better I would like it. I sat down facing him. Looking into his eyes, I wished I had brought a gun. There was a hint of mockery in those eyes as he regarded me across the table.

“Now we can discuss our business. Let me see—on the phone you said you were an attorney, didn't you?”

“That is correct,” I informed him. “I represent Mr. Alvin Rondheim, who has asked me to interview you.”

“With what purpose, please?” he asked softly, holding his slice of toast in mid-air and staring at me intently, unblinking.

“I stated my purpose on the phone.” I told him impatiently. “Mr. Rondheim has reason to believe that you have tampered with a material witness. He believes that you have bribed a young lady by the name of Mary Consello to disappear with certain ledgers and records which she had charge of in my client's banking house. Those ledgers—”

Mr. Lagurian interrupted me. He was leaning forward a little now, his toast still poised, the long white fingers of his left hand drumming on the table top. He had the look of a hawk that is about to swoop down upon a victim. “Why hasn't Mr. Rondheim come in person, Mr. Barclay?” His red lips framed each word slowly, clearly.

“You know well enough why Rondheim cannot come himself,” I replied hotly. “There are four indictments against him in the County Court in connection with the failure of his bank. If you read the papers at all, you will know that I have advised him not to surrender himself to the district attorney until we are ready to go to trial.”

“He is in hiding then?”

“If you want to call it that. I have searched all over the city for Miss Consello. She has not been at her boarding house, and her friends have not seen her. Either she has been bribed to leave town, or else she has been kidnaped. The ledgers that she took with her will prove without a shadow of doubt that Mr. Rondheim did not divert any of the funds of the bank to his own use. Until the records are found, my client dares not stand trial.”

I had grown warmer as I expounded the case of my client. Mr. Lagurian grew cooler. He nibbled at the toast, took a sip of the coffee. “Quite so,” he murmured, “quite so. He dares not stand trial.” Suddenly he put down his cup with a bang, and his eyes bored into me.

“Where is Mr. Rondheim at this time?” he demanded.

I frowned. “I came here,” I told him frostily, “to ask about those ledgers, and about Miss Mary Consello; not to answer your questions. Even if I were to admit that I know where he is, legal ethics would forbid my divulging the place.”

Mr. Lagurian appeared to give thought to what I had said. His eyes strayed to a large calendar on the opposite wall, seemed to study it. I was totally unprepared for his next statement.

“Crime, my friend,” he said suddenly, “is an art!”

If he was deliberately trying to impress me, he was succeeding admirably. There was nothing I would have liked better at that moment than to leave Mr. Lagurian's house and give up the idea of acting as intermediary for Alvin Rondheim.

My host's eyes had lost their opaqueness now, and they were glittering like those of a snake preparing to strike.

But I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of knowing how I felt. I held on to myself and said coldly: “As you know, sir. I am a criminal lawyer of repute. I am familiar with the aspects of crime. I have not come here to listen to a lecture on the subject, but to ask you whether you are holding the person of Miss Mary Consello.”

He nodded as if thinking to himself. “I see that you are a man of courage—or else a fool!” Abruptly he pushed back his coffee cup, and arose. His tall, cadaverous frame towered over me. “I was coming to the question of Miss Consello—but in my own way.”

He rested his delicately veined hands on the table, spoke down at me. “If crime is an art, Mr. Barclay, then you must put me down as a great artist. Few men know how to commit crime in an artistic manner; commit it in such a way that the victim suffers untold agony, dies a thousand deaths—yet can do nothing, nothing, nothing!

My hands were beginning to get a little clammy. I could feel beads of perspiration on my forehead. I stared, fascinated, at Mr. Lagurian.

And abruptly that thin face of his was contorted in grim lines of passion. He leaned far over the table and said with repressed venom: “Mr. Barclay, there is nothing in the world I want more than to get my hands on Alvin Rondheim. You know where he is. And you are going to tell me—in one way or another!”

I felt my face growing a dull, stubborn red. I am a member of the Bar, and I have always practiced my profession in an honorable manner, to the best interests of my clients. To disclose the whereabouts of Rondheim to this man who obviously meant him harm would have been unthinkable. Many men have retained me as their attorney when in trouble, knowing that their secrets were inviolate with me. I could never face the world if I should betray a trust reposed in me.

Lagurian was watching me, and he must have read my thoughts perfectly. For he said: “It would be better for you to tell me at once. No one will know. And I have ways of—er— making obstinate men less obstinate.”

I pushed back my chair, and stood up, facing him. It would have been a pleasure to take that scrawny throat of his in my hands and squeeze it hard. After all, why not? I was as tall as he, and heavier. I'd been something of a boxer in college, and had also come close to making the All-American one year.

I said: “Since you refuse to give me any information about Mary Consello, I shall leave. Good-night, Mr. Lagurian.”

He smiled thinly, and shook his head. “You are mistaken, Mr. Barclay. You are not leaving—just yet. Pray look behind you, and you will see why.”

I swung about, and started in surprise. I had heard no one enter. I had thought myself to be alone with my host. Yet, unbelievably, there stood, just within the doorway, Wang Mun, the house-boy, together with another high- cheeked, raw-boned North-of-China man. Their arms were folded across their chests, hands hidden in the capacious sleeves of their black jackets. Their almond eyes were fixed unswervingly upon me.

I turned back to my host, and said hotly: “I warn you not to attempt to use force with me. I am not a weakling.”

MY mind was working fast. There might be more than these two in the house. As it was, the odds against me were great, even though I felt quite sure that they would not wish to use firearms; the neighborhood was a quiet, residential one, yet the explosion of a revolver would surely attract attention.

The two Chinese stood impassively in the doorway, and Mr. Lagurian began to speak. But I did not hear what he had to say, for I had decided upon action. If I could move quickly, I might be able to effect my escape. I therefore raised the chair beside which I was standing, took two steps backward toward the window. The blind was drawn, but I disregarded that. I swung the chair above my head, crashed it against the blind, hoping to smash the glass and leap through the window.

Neither Mr. Lagurian nor his two yellow men made a motion to hinder me; and I discovered why. The chair crashed into the blind, but there came no shattering of glass. Instead, a leg of the chair splintered under the impact as it struck something hard, unyielding. I was left standing there, with the broken chair in my hands, looking rather foolish, I expert.

The two Chinamen did not move, did not show by so much as the fluttering of an eyelash, that anything out of the ordinary had taken place.

Mr. Lagurian's red lips were curved into a thin smile. “You see, Mr. Barclay,” he explained softly, “I have steel shutters on the insides of all my windows. I assure you that this house is very difficult to leave—without my consent. You—”

He stopped as the doorbell sounded from outside. Wang Mun glanced at him inquiringly, but he said impatiently: “Disregard it. Ling Sin will answer it.”

We heard the shuffling of padded feet, heard the front door open, and I was about to shout, when it closed almost at once. My hope fled. It must be one of Lagurian's own men.

I gripped my chair firmly. “All right.” I said, and I was surprised at the steadiness of my voice, “I haven't been in a good fight in years. There are three of you, but you daren't use guns. Here's where I break a couple of heads. Yours will be the first, Mr. Lagurian!”

My host raised a deprecating hand. “You are courageous, Mr. Barclay, but, as I observed before, also something of a fool. You have cleverly guessed that it would be— undesirable to use revolvers here. Surely you must understand that I have foreseen that. Let me show you.”

He swung his eyes a little, addressed the Chinese who stood next to Wang Mun: “Wang Lee, today is the first of August. Please indicate the date to Mr. Barclay.” He nodded toward the calendar on the opposite wall.

Wang Lee bobbed his head in a jerky bow. For a half-second he did not move.

My eyes were fixed on him, my hands gripping the chair. I suspected some trick, and I tensed my muscles. Then, as I watched, Wang Lee's hand emerged from his sleeve, flashed up and forward. A knife blade glittered for an instant, and sped through the air so swiftly that my eyes could not follow it. Unerringly the point of the blade struck the numeral one on the calendar, remained there quivering, embedded in the wall.

I shuddered. I was sure that a gun could not have been faster.

Mr. Lagurian said pleasantly: “Wang Lee and his brother are both experts with the knife, Mr. Barclay. If the situation is not yet plain to you, I suggest that you imagine that knife blade being directed at your throat instead of at the calendar!”

I could very well imagine what my host suggested, and it caused me a queer, prickly sensation in the neighborhood of my Adam's apple. I swallowed hard and said: “What do you want, Lagurian?”

He said tensely: “You know what I want— the hiding place of Rondheim.”

I shook my head.

He nodded to the two Chinese, ordered them: “Take him upstairs.”

The Wang brothers stepped toward me. Their hands came out of their sleeves, and I saw that each of them held a knife about eight inches long, with a bone handle. The knives were straight, and tapered to a point. Those points were directed toward me.

I took two swift steps backward, swung the broken chair up again. I was within a foot of Mr. Lagurian now, and on his side of the table. With the chair poised as I now held it. I could bring it down on Mr. Lagurian's head without stretching my arms.

I felt the blood racing to my head as I said: “If those two try to come any nearer, I'll crack your skull, Lagurian. They may get me, but I'll get you, too!”

As I tell it now, it may sound like something heroic. It wasn't. It was purely the action of a man at bay. I knew that once I was helpless in the hands of those two Wangs, there were going to be unbearable things in store for me if I did not reveal Rondheim's hiding place. I might as well die now.

The two Chinese stopped in their tracks. They glanced at Lagurian for instructions.

My host said very, calmly: “I underestimated you, Mr. Barclay. You are a man of resource. It looks like a stalemate. But how long can you keep that chair in the air?”

HE was right. I was out of condition, and my arms were beginning to tire already. I could, of course, bring it down on him now, knock him out. But that would destroy my only protection against the two knife- throwers. From the looks of them, they'd surely send those blades of theirs whizzing into my body.

I made as if to lower the chair, flexed my muscles, and hurled it straight at the face of Wang Mun. He ducked, but it caught him in the side of the head, sent him hurtling into his brother. Wang Lee was thrown off balance, which was the only thing that saved me from a blade in the throat. For he had just flicked his wrist as Mun staggered into him, and the knife which he flung at me missed my neck by a couple of inches.

Wang Mun was still a little dizzy from the blow of the chair, but a fresh knife appeared as if by magic in the hand of Wang Lee, even as he was recovering his balance.

I didn't wait for him to hurl it, but dived sideways into Mr. Lagurian, crashing him into the table, which in turn struck the knees of the dazed Wang Mun.

Lagurian frantically strove to get to his feet, shouting swift, sing-song orders to the two brothers in Cantonese. I took advantage of the momentary confusion which I had created to leap across and push open the swinging door to the kitchen.

I ducked to one side in the darkness here, just as the blade from the hand of Wang Lee sped through the air. The knife struck something that rattled—probably a pot hanging on the wall, and dropped to clatter on a porcelain sink. The door swung shut, leaving me in utter darkness.

I could still hear Lagurian's cold-voiced orders in the next room, knew they would be in here after me in a second. I put out my hand, touched a kitchen table. Upon the table I felt a heavy object. It was a flatiron.

I gripped it by the handle just as the door was pushed violently open, revealing the crouching form of Wang Lee, with Lagurian behind him, holding a flashlight.

Instinctively I raised the flatiron, crashed it against the forehead of Wang Lee. He fell backward, uttering a choked cry, crumpled to the floor, and the kitchen door swung to.

I was unused to such bloodthirsty business, and I stood there in the dark, breathing hard, but with a feeling of exultation which I could never have imagined myself experiencing at the thought of doing violent injury to a fellow man.

However, I did not intend to remain there and do battle with Mr. Lagurian and his retainers. Still clutching the flatiron, I felt my way past the table, along the wall, until I found another door. This was not the swinging variety, and I turned the knob, pulled it open. Through the swinging door, I could hear Lagurian and Wang Mun in a low-voiced colloquy.

I slipped out of the kitchen, found myself in the hall along which the house-boy had conducted me. My one desire now was to get out of this place and go and phone Mr. Rondheim and ask him a couple of very pertinent questions—such as why he hadn't told me what sort of set-up he was sending me into.

I made my way as silently as possible toward the front of the house. Behind me I heard some crashing sounds back in the kitchen, and I surmised that my host and his remaining assistant had pushed through the swinging door again.

I reached the vestibule, and stumbled over something, bent and touched a warm body. My hand came away sticky. I moved a bit so the dim light from the rear would show me who it was, and I gasped. It was a dead man— a Chinaman, and he had been stabbed through the heart. He lay in such a way that I would have to move him in order to open the front door.

I recalled what Mr. Lagurian had said about the difficulty of leaving the place; I also recalled how my chair had splintered against the steel shutter on the kitchen window. And I decided not to try for the front door.

I heard movement in the rear of the hall, turned and saw the head of Wang Mun peering out of the kitchen. When he saw me, he sprang, catlike, out into the corridor, and I saw the flash of his knife blade. He had to get clear into the hall to fling his knife, and in the second that it took him to do that, I hurled my flatiron at him. He ducked, and the iron missed, but it gave me enough time to sprint about six feet back to the staircase which led upstairs.

Before he could set himself once more, I was halfway up the flight. I heard him running down below, heard Lagurian calling after him still in Cantonese.

The upper floor was in total darkness, and I was glad of that, became I heard men coming down from the third floor. There were at least two of them, and one called down, speaking in Chinese.

Wang Mun, who was running up after me, called back excitedly, and the men above started to run down. I was cornered. Wang Mun coming up, the others coming down, all with razor-keen knives, I supposed.

I felt along the wall, touched a door knob, felt a key in the hole beneath it. I turned the key, pushed open the door, and stepped through.

There was no light in the room which I had just entered, but I closed the door behind me after extracting the key from the outside. I inserted it in the keyhole, locked it from the inside, and stood with my back to the door, listening to Wang Mun and the others from upstairs, who had met in the hall just outside, and were chattering away in their sing-song dialect. After a moment, Lagurian joined them, and I could hear his voice, chill with anger. I gathered that he must be rebuking them for having allowed me to escape thus far.

While I listened, expecting every moment that they would try the door behind which I stood, I strained my eyes in an effort to pierce the darkness of the room I found myself in.

Suddenly I stiffened, held my breath.

Clearly, distinctly, I had caught the sound of quick, labored breathing. Someone else was in this room with me!

OUTSIDE the door, the footsteps of the Chinese seemed to recede and then to die away entirely. I could hear nothing from the corridor. And within the room that slight sound of breathing had ceased, as if my entrance had been a signal for silence.

The darkness became oppressive. I expected momentarily to feel a cold knife driving at me. I strained my eyes to pierce the gloom, and gradually I began to discern bulky objects—the vague outline of a bed, a dresser.

I kept my back to the wall, with my elbows spread out on either side of me, to keep a possible assailant as far away as I could.

At last I could stand the silence no longer. I gulped, said in a hushed voice: “Miss Consello—is that you?”

I tensed, my blood racing. If it wasn't Miss Consello, I'd know it soon enough.

But nothing happened. The silence became oppressive. I repeated: “Miss Consello. This is a friend.”

No answer.

I could have sworn that I had heard breathing when I had at first entered. It had given me the creeps then; now I would have welcomed it. I would, in fact, have welcomed anything—even the sound of Mr. Lagurian's Chinese trying to get at me from the corridor with their knives. But there was no noise from the corridor. I couldn't fathom it.

My hand shook as I extracted a book of matches from my pocket, tore one out and lit it. Its glare revealed the small room to me, including the thing that lay upon the bed.

The match burned my fingers, and I hardly felt it; for I had been looking at the body of Mary Consello upon the bed; Mary Consello, lying on her back, white in death, with one of those Chinese knives in her throat!

Mr. Rondheim had shown me her picture, and I knew her—knew her in spite of the way in which fear and terror had distorted her pretty face.

I licked my scorched fingers, and felt behind me for the light switch, clicked it on.

My eyes searched the rest of the room quickly for the murderer, but there was no one. The room was empty save for myself and the dead body of Mary Consello.

I stepped closer to the bed, steeled myself, and touched her cheek. I drew my hand back quickly. She was still warm. The terrible truth impressed itself upon me. It was she whom I had heard breathing just before. She had died while I crouched there in the darkness. It was her death rattle I had heard.

She was dressed in a trim little tan sports suit, with tan stockings and shoes to match. The jacket of the suit was torn open at the throat where the killer must have gripped her before driving home his merciless blade. Thick red, clotted blood stained her soft, white flesh.

I moved backward in revulsion. My pulse throbbed more in anger than horror. But I felt violently nauseous.

My eye fell on the open fireplace at the left. Scraps of burned paper lay there. Even before I bent over them, I knew what they would be. There were the covers of several ledgers that had not yielded to the fire. The gilt lettering showed plainly: “HURON TRUST COMPANY, Loan Account.”

The pages had been torn out and burned. Nothing was left but the gutted binders of the books. These were the ledgers that Rondheim and I had been searching for—they were the books that Rondheim had told me he needed in order to establish his innocence. They were destroyed now.

Mary Consello, who had worked in the bank and could testify to all the transactions, was dead; the ledgers were destroyed. Mr. Lagurian must have been laughing up his sleeve at me all the while that he was talking to me downstairs.

I started as the bell downstairs burst out into a loud jangle. Someone was at the front door.

I waited tensely for Lagurian's servants to answer the bell. I wondered vaguely if they had moved the body of the dead Chinaman from the hallway. I wondered if I might chance a quick rush downstairs while the front door was being opened.

With that in mind, I cautiously opened the door of the room, casting a single backward glance at the still body of Mary Consello. I peered out into the corridor, saw no one. The light from the room illuminated the corridor, showed me it was empty.

I couldn't understand that. Lagurian's Chinese should have been here, breaking down the door, coming after me. Were they so sure that I was helpless in their power that they were waiting for me to come down to them?

I glanced down the stair well, toward the front door. The body of the Chinaman still lay there, just as I had seen it before. But no one came to open the door.

The bell rang again, this time more insistently. And a voice shouted:

“Open up in there, or we'll smash in the door! This is the police!”

I heaved an immense sigh of relief. I called out in a loud voice that must have been a little shaky:

“Smash it in. It's locked. And be careful. There are murderers in this—”

My voice died away, and I felt a sort of freezing process taking place within me. For I had distinctly heard a footstep in the darkness behind me.

I started to turn around, and a dark body crashed into me. I could feel hot breath on my cheek; my hands went out blindly in the dark, clutching at my unseen assailant. I felt a throat beneath my grip, began to squeeze—and something hit the side of my skull like a meteor. A terrific pain shot through my head, and I was sinking to the floor against my will.

Like those of a drowning man, my swiftly numbing fingers clawed wildly at the air, and I felt my fingernails raking my assailant's skin; the nail of my index finger broke against his stiffly starched collar. Another blow descended on my head, and I could keep my senses no longer.

The last thing I heard was the shouting of the officers outside: “Shoot the lock in, boys—” and then everything got blank for me.


WHEN I came to, I was on a couch in one of the downstairs rooms. I could tell by looking out into the hallway to the front door which was a wreck.

The room was filled with newspaper reporters and police, and I smiled faintly at Assistant District Attorney Gross, whom I knew quite well. It was he who had charge of the prosecution of my client, Alvin Rondheim.

Gross was a little, stocky man with a bald head and eyeglasses, and he carried himself with quite an air of importance. I knew that his secret ambition was to be governor some day.

He was standing over me now, and his stenographer was just a little behind him, with notebook ready.

Charley Holmes, from the Daily Tabloid, asked eagerly. “What happened in here, Mr. Barclay, after you called to the police? Who socked you?”

Gross turned on him, frowning. “Since when have you become District Attorney, Holmes? Be so good as to let me do the investigating here!”

Holmes grinned insolently, winked at me, but kept quiet.

I got to my feet, a little wobbly, but thinking fast for all that. I said to the D. A.:

“Look here. Gross, this is tied up with the Rondheim case, and it's damned fortunate that you came out on this call. That dead Chinaman in the hall—”

Gross stopped me. “What dead Chinaman?”

I said: “The one you found at the front door. What did you do—move him?”

Captain Snell of the Homicide Squad looked queerly at me. “There wasn't any such thing. Barclay. That sock on the head must have been harder than the doctor thought—”

I exclaimed: “Listen, that Chinaman was dead—I can trust my eyesight. I suppose the next thing you'll be telling me is that you didn't find Mary Consello up there with a knife in her throat.”

Snell nodded somberly. “We found her, all right.”

Gross pushed forward. “That's what I want to question you about, Barclay. Who killed her? What's been happening here?”

“Nothing, at all,” I said bitterly, “except that this man, Lagurian, tried to have his Chinese knife-throwers murder me, and I got away from them up into that room, and found Mary Consello dead. Then I heard the police downstairs, and when I came out in the hall, some one hit me on the head. Did you catch Lagurian and the Chinamen?”

Snell shook his head. “There's not a soul in the house, Mr. Barclay. There's a cellar door open downstairs—they might have got away through that while our men were breaking in the front way. The crew of the squad car didn't think to watch the rear of the house. They were just answering a phony telephone call into headquarters to the effect that some one was killed here. They thought it was a hoax till they heard you shout.”

I took a couple of steps, feeling none too steady, and said: “Mary Consello was the only person whose testimony could have helped Rondheim. She's dead. The ledgers that were stolen from the Huron Trust Company are burned.” I gripped Gross' coat lapel.

“I want your men to leave the papers upstairs in the fireplace alone till I can get somebody up here to photograph them. When Rondheim's case comes to trial, I'm going to show those photographs to the jury, and that will permit me to get in Rondheim's testimony as to what was in the ledgers.”

Gross' stenographer and the reporters were writing as fast as we were talking. Charley Holmes looked up from his notes with a gleam in his eye.

“That's clever stuff, Mr. Barclay. No jury will convict Rondheim in the face of the story of how Miss Consello was murdered.”

“That's right,” I said smugly. “Lagurian planned to leave my client in a bad spot, but he didn't realize he was providing me with first class legal ammunition.”

Gross broke in impatiently: “Never mind the legal ammunition. I'll ride Rondheim if I have to spend a million dollars of the state's money. You think because you're Roger Barclay, you can get away with anything!”

Charley Holmes interjected slyly: “He hasn't lost a case yet, Mr. Gross. That's more than we can say for the D. A.'s office!”

I tried to change the subject. “I've got to go now, Gross. You ought to work on this murder case now. Find Lagurian, and you'll have a murder conviction in the bag. I promise not to defend him.”

“Sure,” said Charley Holmes. “It'll get you a hell of a lot more publicity. It's first class murder cases that make governors out of district attorneys!”

I went out under the baleful glare of Gross, who threw after me: “Be down at my office at nine in the morning without fail. I'll want to take you before the Grand Jury. We'll indict Lagurian in record time.”

He was already thinking of the headlines with his name in them.

“It'll be a pleasure,” I told him grimly.

WHEN I got out on the street there were several press and police cars, and a crowd of loiterers. I looked for a cab, but turned as some one tapped me on the shoulder.

It was Charley Holmes, and he was grinning.

“What's funny?” I asked, frowning.

“Take a look at yourself when you get a chance,” he told me, “and you'll see.”

I put my hand up to my head, and flushed. I must have been a pretty awful sight, with that bandage tied all around me. I pulled it off, and Charley glanced at the side of my head, said:

“You'll do. There's a small patch of adhesive, and the doctor must have shaved off more hair than he needed to, but it's not so bad.”

He took my arm. “I'll walk you to the corner. You won't be able to get a cab here anyway, and I want to talk to you.”

I walked down with him silently, expecting him to ask me for an exclusive interview with Rondheim or something1 like that. He startled me by saying:

“You've got to pull me out of a jam, Mr. Barclay.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Don't tell me you need a lawyer, Charley.”

“I may.”

He pulled something bulky out from under his coat, where he had been holding it with his elbow. We were well away from the house of Mr. Lagurian by now, yet he looked about him guiltily before showing it to me.

He grinned as he saw my look of amazement. The thing that he was showing me was a small account book, about eight and a half inches long by six inches wide. It was made of expensive tooled leather, and was equipped with a small, silver plated padlock. It was the kind of fancy thing that is made to order for the personal use of important executives, and in fact it bore on the face of it, in gold letters, the inscription:

“Personal records of

I gasped: “Where did you get that?”

“That's what you've got to help me out on, Mr. Barclay. I got here right after the squad car, and I looked around in the room where Mary Consello was found. Well, this book was up on the top shelf of the closet. Whoever burned the rest of them must have overlooked this. I figured if the police got this, they might kind of mislay it by accident, you know, and that would about finish Rondheim. You've always given me a break, so I thought I'd return the compliment and hold this out for you. Here it is. But you've got to cover me up, or I'll be in one hell of a jam with Sneil and Gross. They'd bar me for the rest of my life if they found out.”

I took the ledger from him. “Charley,” I said, “you've made me ten years younger. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you right now.”

“Okay, Mr. Barclay. “Take me with you, if that's the way you feel about it.”

I tried to look blank. “Why—”

“Aw, lay off. Mr. Barclay. You're probably making tracks back to Rondheim's hideout to tell him what happened. Take me along, give me an exclusive with him. It'll knock the competition silly.”

I hesitated.

“You don't have to worry, Mr. Barclay,” he urged. “Nobody can make me talk. I'll never give away his hiding place till you're ready. The worst they can give me is thirty days for contempt if I refuse to talk.”

I said: “I'll tell you what, Charley. The day before I'm ready to bring him in for trial, I'll take you to see him. I give you my word on it.”

Charley glowered. “That's a bargain, Mr. Barclay. And I hope you find enough in that ledger to knock the props out of that swell- headed Gross baby.”

I said dubiously: “It's a self-serving document, Charley, and as such it is not admissible as evidence in a court of law. However, if the entries were made by Mary Consello, I could get it before the jury—”

I stopped to flag a cab that had just swung around the corner, but Holmes wouldn't let me get in.

“Wait a minute, Mr. Barclay. Hold the cab here. There's something else I want to show you.”

He dug into his inside pocket, pulled out a sheet of paper that had evidently been torn from some kind of scrap book. It was heavy brown paper, and a yellowed newspaper clipping was pasted to it.

“I did a little more snooping while the cops weren't looking,” he explained, “and I found this in a book of clippings on the desk in the library. I was almost caught tearing it out. This will interest you if you don't already know it.”

The clipping was from the Paris Tribune of May 11, 1928, and read as follows:

Mrs. Helene Lagurian today filed an action for a bill of divorcement from her husband, Sundelius Lagurian, in the Superior Court of the 8th Arondissement. Mrs. Lagurian, who is a resident of Chicago, instituted the action one week after her arrival in Paris. It is rumored that upon securing the final decree, she intends to marry the well known American banker, Alvin Rondheim, who has been at her side during her entire stay in Paris. The suit, of course, is uncontested.

A number of things became very clear to me with the reading of that item. I said:

“Charley, if you ever lose your job on the Tabloid, I'll give you one investigating for me.”

He grinned. “That isn't all, Mr. Barclay. Do you happen to know how Lagurian—and, for that matter, your client Rondheim, made all their money in the first place?”

I shook my head. “I assumed they had made it in their respective lines of business. I had never known Mr. Rondheim until he retained me in this case. It is true that the district attorney has been very unwilling to show me his files on the case. Perhaps—”

“I'll tell you,” said Charley. “Lagurian and Rondheim got rich in China, selling contraband arms to the revolutionary forces. There's been a story going around that they came back from the orient hating each other bitterly. It seems that Lagurian double-crossed Rondheim by tipping off a certain war-lord in Kwan-tung Province about a shipment of arms, and Rondheim was captured. He only escaped death by a miracle. They've been gunning for each other ever since, and it's no fooling, either. Lagurian is still in the gun- running business, though he's supposed to be an importer. There's always a half dozen Chinks in his house.”

“I know,” I said bitterly. “I met some of them.” My mind was working fast. What Charley Holmes just told me made me see why Lagurian should want to wreck my client's chances of acquittal. Rondheim took his wife away in Paris.

Charley chuckled. “Wait'll tonight's paper carries that story splashed all over the front page. Will Gross be sore! He's still hunting for a motive, and here it is, in black and white—Lagurian never forgave your client for taking his wife away from him, so he kills the only witness that will clear Rondheim, and destroys—or thinks he does—all the records that might help him in the trial!”

I nodded doubtfully. From what I had seen of Lagurian, I judge he was too smart a man not to have seen that the very fact of Miss Consello's being murdered would give me a powerful edge with any jury, would, in fact, almost ensure Rondheim's acquittal.

I said nothing about that to Holmes, however, but got into the cab, clutching tightly to the ledger. I waved good-by to Holmes, told the cabby: “Drive uptown to the Bronx, and then go east to Pelham Parkway.”

I saw that Charley Holmes was straining his ears to get the address, and I spoke loudly enough for him to hear.

When we were a block or so away, I tapped on the glass, told the driver: “Never mind about Pelham Parkway. Take me to Eighty-sixth Street and the East River.”


TWENTY minutes later I was on the way up in the elevator to the penthouse apartment where Rondheim was staying till I would be ready to produce him. It was the apartment of a friend of mine who was away for the summer, and I had gotten the rental of it for my client for a short term, completely furnished.

I had advised them not to employ any servants, to send down to one of the restaurants for their meals, and Mrs. Rondheim herself admitted me. I looked at her with new interest in the light of the knowledge I had gleaned from the Paris Tribune clipping. She was attired in a charming, silky negligee, and she seemed a bit startled to see me— though she had first inspected me through the little grilled peephole in the door.

I tried to act as if I didn't know any more about her past than I had known earlier in the evening. I said:

“Good evening, Mrs. Rondheim. I hope I didn't get you out of bed.”

She forced a smile, wrapping the negligee closer about her.

“Not at all, Mr. Barclay. Alvin and I were—er—discussing some matters.” She made no reference to our earlier meeting, and I guessed she hadn't mentioned it to her husband.

I noticed now that she seemed strained, under the influence of some sort of tense emotion. Perhaps I had interrupted a family quarrel.

She led me into the living room, and Mr. Rondheim arose to greet me. He was fully dressed, and puffing one of his huge cigars, as usual. I had never seen him without one.

He eyed me curiously. “You look like you've been to war, Barclay. Who hit you on the head? I hope—”

He stopped, gulped, and flushed as he saw the ledger I was carrying. He pounced on it, studied the gilt lettering. “This is one of my books!” he fairly shouted. “Where did you get it?”

“It was found in a room in Mr. Lagurian's house,” I told him. “The others are all destroyed. Who made the entries in this one?”

“Mary Consello,” he informed me. “But tell me—what happened at Lagurian's house?”

“You must prepare yourself for a shock, Mr. Rondheim. Miss Consello is dead.”

If Mr. Rondheim felt much emotion at the news, he did not show it. I hadn't seen him show much feeling even when he learned that he was indicted by the Grand Jury. He was in his late forties, and of a naturally swarthy complexion. As a banker he must have developed the knack of keeping a poker face.

But Helene Rondheim was made of weaker stuff. She uttered a quick, nervous cry, and would have fallen if I had not sprung to her assistance. I led her to the couch, deposited her there gently.

Mr. Rondheim did not move to help me, though obviously it was a husband's business to take care of a fainting wife.

But Mrs. Rondheim didn't faint after all. She shuddered, and raised her long black lashes. “I—I'll be all right, thank you, Mr. Barclay.”

I turned to my client. I was feeling vaguely irritated toward him.

“Now,” I said, “we can get down to business. Let's see what that ledger shows. Have you got the key?”

Rondheim was turning it over in his hands. “No,” he said, vaguely. “I can't seem to remember where it is.”

Mrs. Rondheim broke in nervously: “Why, of course you have it, Alvin. Don't you recall having a duplicate made in case Mary should lose the original? It's right on your key ring.”

Rondheim frowned at her. “I wish you'd leave us alone, Helen. I want to discuss some matters with Mr. Barclay.”

She arose from the couch reluctantly, and there was almost something like fright in her eyes. “I—I'll be in the music room,” she said.

We watched her as she moved gracefully to the door. Before leaving, she turned and looked at me—in much the same way as she had done before I had disregarded her advice and entered Mr. Lagurian's house. I was puzzled, but said nothing.

When the door had closed behind her, Mr. Rondheim crossed the room and seated himself at the small walnut desk which stood near the window. He placed the ledger upon the desk, and looked up at me.

“You don't need this ledger to get me acquitted. Barclay,” he said. “With Mary Consello dead, the jury will guess that her testimony would have cleared me.”

“You're right about what the jury would believe, Rondheim—provided this ledger had also been destroyed. But the jury will want to see the one book that was preserved—”

“Provided—” he interrupted me with a sly look— “provided we tell them it was preserved.”

I flushed. “If you're suggesting that I connive at suppressing evidence—”

“Wait!” he stopped me, holding up his hand. “How much am I paying you to defend me in this case?”

“You know very well how much you're paying. You gave me a retainer check of ten thousand, and you're to give me fifteen thousand more before going to trial. The fee is twenty-five thousand altogether, win or lose.”

“Very well, Barclay. I'll double the fee, and we'll forget about this ledger. The additional twenty-five thousand ought to salve your conscience as far as suppressing evidence is concerned.”

I restrained my anger, and shook my head in as dignified a way as I could. “I don't practice law that way, Rondheim. I either get you off in a legitimate way, or I don't handle the case. I don't understand your attitude about the ledger. You were eager to locate it— you said it was one of the books that would clear you. And now—”

“Let us go no further, Mr. Barclay. I think I can find a lawyer who will play my way. I'll give you a check for fifteen thousand more, and you can withdraw from the case. That ought to satisfy you, eh? Just let me keep the ledger.”

HE opened the drawer of the desk to reach for his check book, but I halted him. “Sorry, Mr. Rondheim, but I can't do that either. The ledger was found under circumstances which make it the temporary property of the law. A girl has been murdered, and there may be something in that ledger which will aid the district attorney. Even if there isn't, it must be shown to him. My thought in bringing it here first was that we might have a look at it to determine its value to ourselves, perhaps have photostats made of the pages so as to use them in the trial.”

Mr. Rondheim seemed to be thinking that over.

Finally he asked me: “The district attorney doesn't know about this yet?”

“Not yet,” I told him.

Mr. Rondheim heaved a sigh. “In that case—” his hand slid into the drawer and emerged with a small nickel-plated automatic which he pointed at me— “in that case, Barclay, he will never know!

I looked into his suddenly hard countenance, and exclaimed:

“What are you going to do, Rondheim?” What I saw in his eyes was distinctly a shock. I read there a ruthless purpose that was almost terrifying.

“You are a fool, Barclay,” he said. “I offered you fifty thousand dollars. Now all you are going to get is a slug through the heart.”

I began to laugh nervously. “You are the one who is the fool, Rondheim. Instead of being tried for larceny, you would be tried for murder. You can't just shoot me in cold blood—”

He smiled thinly. “Not in cold blood, Barclay, not in cold blood. I will be very angry and excited. You see, I have just come home, and found you together with Helene— and Helene is in negligee, to bear out my story. Imagine my anger. And what do you do? You draw a revolver.”

He reached further into the same drawer, pulled out another weapon, which he placed upon the desk.

“This will be found in your hand. You see, Barclay, I will have killed you in self-defense. Do you understand? You yourself, as a criminal lawyer, would undertake to get me off scot free, wouldn't you?”

I understood very well. I tried to bluster: “Your wife would never support that story!”

“My wife, Mr. Barclay, will be dead, too. You will hare killed her, by accident, in firing at me!” He said it softly, almost triumphantly. Then he added, still keeping the automatic pointed squarely at me: “Can you find any flaws in the plan?”

I couldn't take my eyes off the mouth of his gun. “No,” I said a bit dully. “No. I can't find any flaws. But why do you bother to explain?”

“Because, Mr. Barclay, if a clever criminal lawyer like yourself can't find any flaws, neither will the district attorney. And now, my friend—” the automatic moved up significantly, and I heard the ominous snick of the safety.

“Wait!” I exclaimed desperately. The gun stopped moving, he raised his eyebrows inquiringly.

“Do you mean to tell me,” I demanded, “that you're going to kill me and kill your wife too, merely because you want to keep the existence of that ledger secret?”

He nodded. “Also, Mr. Barclay, because my wife knows too much about me.”

“Then the ledger wouldn't clear you?”

“No. The ledger wouldn't clear me.”

“I see. The other books wouldn't have cleared you either. Mary Consello's testimony wouldn't have cleared you. You never wanted to find Mary Consello!”

“I did. I wanted to find her before the district attorney's office found her. I knew she had gone to Lagurian with the books and her story, and I knew also that Lagurian would keep her there. He wouldn't be satisfied to let the law deal with me. He hated me in a different way.”

“Yes, I know,” I told him. “You took his wife away from him.”

“Yes. Not because I loved her, but because I hated him. I wanted to hurt him badly. And he loved Helene.”

HE leered at me, and in his eyes there was a gleam of spiteful hate that almost approached fanatic madness. I shuddered at this raw glimpse of the man's soul that was revealed in his eyes.

I stared at him, hardly crediting the depth of his passion; and suddenly I noticed something that had escaped me all this time— something that I had been seeing ever since I had come into the room, but the significance of which just drove home at me:

There were two long scratches on the left side of his neck!

And there were flecks of blood on his collar.

I took a step closer to the desk, almost forgetting that automatic in his hand.

You killed Mary Consello!” I fairly shouted at him. “It was you who rang the doorbell while I was in there arguing with Lagurian. You stabbed the Chinaman. You burned those ledgers—only you did it hastily, and you overlooked this one!”

He kept nodding his head at each, accusation of mine, smiling in hateful triumph.

“That is so. Lagurian's boy, Wang Mun, was in my pay. I knew he had the girl there. Wang Mun gave me the plans of the house, and he was supposed to open the door for me, but when the other boy appeared, I had to stab him.”

I was gazing at him as one might who suddenly awakens from a gruesome nightmare only to find that the nightmare is true. “So it was you who made the phony telephone call to headquarters. You planned to incriminate Lagurian and at the same time turn the murder of Mary Consello to your own advantage at the trial!”

He continued to smile. “You are very clever. Barclay. It's a pity you have to be so— ethical.” He sighed in mock regret. “You are too honest to live.”

I saw his hand tauten on the automatic. I could almost feel the slugs tearing through my body.

And then the buzzer sounded at the rear of the apartment, at the tradesmen's entrance.

He frowned. I uttered a gasp of relief.

We both remained as we had been—I standing, he sitting at the desk with the automatic trained upon me.

Helene Rondheim's footsteps sounded as she went through the corridor to answer the buzzer.

She called through the door: “It must be the waiter from the restaurant with our supper.” She was passing the door of our room, but the door was closed, and she could not see us.

I raised my voice, called out: “Mrs. Rondheim, for God's—”

But Rondheim rose, reached across the desk, and whipped the barrel of his pistol along the aide of my head. He had moved so quickly that I had not had time to duck out of the way.

I staggered backward, and the room swam. His blow had been vicious, and it had served its purpose. I was half stunned, could not finish my warning.

Vaguely, as I clutched at a chair for support, I heard him call out: “Tell the waiter to leave the tray in the hall. When he goes, come in here.”

I wiped the blood which had started to run down the side of my face, raised my head. He had come around in front of the desk, and the automatic was less than a foot from my heart.

But I disregarded it, called out: “Mrs. Rondheim! He means to kill you!”

I thought I was going to be dead in a moment, for Rondheim's face was a vicious mask of fury. But he didn't shoot.

For Helene Rondheim had already opened the rear doer, and we heard her utter a cry of terror, heard a scuffle out there. The door of our room was thrust open, and Rondheim swung away from me to face Mr. Lagurian who stood there with a gun in his hand. Mr. Lagurian was no longer the suave, self- contained man who had held me prisoner in his house.

There was a fanatic gleam in his eye, and he was breathing hard.

He said: “Thanks, Barclay, for leading me here. I knew you'd be coming to see your—client!” All the while his eyes were on Rondheim, sparkling dangerously. “And now, Mr. Rondheim, we can settle—”

He had wasted too much time in talking. Rondheim fired from his hip, and he kept his finger on the automatic while eight slugs buried themselves in Lagurian's body. The whole thing took less than a minute, then the noise and the shooting were over.

Mr. Lagurian's face was contorted in astonishment as his body sank slowly to the floor, He jerked once, then sprawled on his back across the threshold, and lay still. His jacket was all bloody.

Rondheim turned on me, snarling like a beast. He knew his gun was empty, and he started to swing at me with it.

I was dazed by the spectacle of sudden death, but instinctively I blocked his blow with my left arm, jabbed him hard in the face with my right.

He went over backward, awkwardly, and landed on top of Lagurian's body. I saw his hand go out, and touch the gun Lagurian had dropped, saw him grin viciously as he gripped it.

I had never thought myself capable of such quick thinking, such swift action. I reached over, snatched up the revolver from the desk—the one he had planned to plant upon my dead body—and I fired it at Mr. Rondheim's face.

The report of the revolver mingled with the bark of the gun Rondheim had picked up. Rondheim had had to twist about to shoot at me, while I had fired almost pointblank.

I saw Rondheim's face disappear as the slug tore through his head. He was hurled violently backward, and lay, horribly bloody, upon the body of the man he had killed.

I threw the revolver from me in revulsion, clung to the desk for support.

Mrs. Rondheim appeared in the corridor, staring with fascinated eyes.

She raised her eyes to mine, and I thought I saw infinite relief in them.

“Madame,” I said insanely, “I am afraid you are a widow—and I no longer have a client!”


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent "X", March 1934

Roger Vane, ace dick of the B.P.A., was up against the most ghastly spectacle of his career. He saw a man with an empty skull. That living-dead man had walked the streets without a brain. And when that man died, the medical examiner could not call it murder. For it was merely an accident. The police were baffled, helpless. But Roger Vane played a hunch- and was plunged into a grisly hell-hole of horror.

WHEN Red "Killer" Dolen escaped from the death house in state prison by the absurdly simple device of walking out of the exercise corridor, apparently unscathed himself while every other inmate and official was rendered unconscious by a swiftly vaporizing gas, not a single line of news was allowed to reach the general public.

The keepers recovered their senses a half-hour later to find that Dolen, the most brutal stranger of the decade, had cheated the electric chair. How he must have laughed, they thought, as he drove through the gate, unchallenged, in the warden's personal car.

A small quantity of the gas was found where it had settled in a damp pocket of the cellar. The police chemist had difficulty in analyzing it, but thought it showed traces of a hitherto impossible combination of ethyl chloride and scopolamine.

An intensive undercover search was conducted, but at the end of a week no single trace of the escaped convict had turned up. The whole business gave evidence of having been planned and carried out by a highly scientific mind endowed with devilish ingenuity.

Now, Roger Vane, special investigator for the Bankers' Protective Association, knew about the Dolen escape all right. There was little in criminal activities that slipped past his notice. Yet the knowledge lay fallow in his mind for a week until the day he looked at the man with the empty skull.

At that particular time Roger was working on the biggest case of his career— the disappearance of three million dollars in gold from the Empire City Bank. The B.P.A. paid him a very comfortable salary for that kind of work—not to hunt for escaped murderers.

The events leading up to that disappearance, as Roger outlined them in his mind, were, briefly, as follows: Courtlandt Spears, the middle-aged president of the Empire City Bank, had returned to his office after a short vacation which he had taken for the purpose of undergoing a minor operation.

It was a bright Monday morning. The special officer in the lobby of the bank greeted him warmly. But he got only a sour nod from the president, who went straight through and up to the mezzanine where his private office was located.

MR. SPEARS' first official act was to summon the cashier. "Mr. Hubble," he said, sitting behind the immaculate glass top of his broad desk, "under this new National Recovery Act we are compelled to turn our gold in to the Government. What are we doing about it?"

Hubble shuffled from one foot to the other and arranged his tie with nervous fingers. Though he had been with the bank for twenty-two years he always felt slightly awed by "Old Man Spears" of whose moods he was wary. "We now have three million dollars in gold in the vaults, sir, all earmarked for the Treasury. We were awaiting your return, as we have no authority to move it without your formal signature."

As he summarized the situation for the president, his fascinated eyes focused on his superior's left cheek where that old familiar birthmark flamed brightly red. He called it a birthmark for want of a better term. In reality it was a discoloration of the skin about the size of a dime in diameter, just below the cheek bone. It usually flared up when Spears was laboring under some undue excitement. And now it was flaring to a brilliant hue.

"Funny," Hubble thought. "I wonder what's biting the old man now?"

Spears said to him calmly, as if ordering a chicken sandwich sent up for lunch, "Make the gold ready to be moved, Hubble. It is now ten-thirty. At eleven-thirty an armored car will be here to pick it up."

"B-but, Mr. Spears," Hubble stammered, "this is very irregular. We have no arrangement with the Treasury. They won't be ready to receive it. And besides, there should be an adequate guard. Three million—"

Courtlandt Spears interrupted him coldly, very low-voiced. "Make out the proper order and I will sign it. Do you understand me, Hubble?"

The cashier knew that tone. When the boss talked like that it was safest not to argue. So he went out and dictated the form. He brought it into the office and watched the president affix his signature—the signature with that inimitable curlicue, at the end.

"That's a signature nobody in the world can imitate, sir," Hubble said, with the proper tinge of admiration. This was one of the boss's weak points, and the cashier liked to play on it. He always made the same remark, and he always got the same satisfied smirk in response.

This time, though, Spears only peered at him in silence, lifting his eyes from the paper—and Bubble felt his chest contract with a queer, clammy coldness. The eyes of Courtlandt Spears seemed to mask some strange, grotesque personality.

Still feeling cold and creepy, he went down to the vault and superintended the moving of the gold into the armored car that appeared shortly.

When he told his story later to Roger Vane and Inspector Cummins, his face was white and his hands were cold. He could tell them nothing further to aid the investigation except that there seemed to be only one guard with the driver of the armored car, and that at the last moment Spears himself had come down and announced that he was going to ride with the gold. No one had dared to argue with him for he appeared to be in a vicious mood.

The reason for the investigation was, of course, that the armored truck never showed up at the Treasury, and that Courtlandt Spears vanished from the earth.

ROGER VANE spent a week following up the most far-fetched of clues and the thinnest of leads. The Bankers' Protective worked closely with the police, but nobody could even get to first base on it.

Roger was going over every fact at his command, hoping to catch something that had been previously overlooked, when he got the phone call from Inspector Cummins. The inspector's voice, for all, his kidding, held a strange overtone of excitement. "If you're not too busy drawing pay from the B.P.A. for nothing," he said over the wire, "come up here to Pelham Parkway. I'll show you exhibit number one in the Empire City job. And it's so-ome exhibit, believe me!"

"Okay, Mike," Roger said. "I'll be up there in twenty minutes."

"Don't call me Mike, you lanky beanstalk!" Cummins roared over the 'phone. "Inspector to you!"

"All right. Mister Inspector Michael Cummins," Roger murmured sweetly. "Just where are you at?"

He got the exact location, then put his mouth close to the instrument. "Thanks. I'll be up there pronto, Mike —you hippopotamus!" He hung up, cutting off the inspector's bellow.

Roger Vane's cab driver, enticed by the promise of double the meter reading, made it to Pelham Parkway in eighteen minutes flat.

Just past the intersection of Eastchester Road there was a good-sized crowd—and it was growing bigger by the second. The Parkway was cluttered with radio cars. An ambulance, stood near by. There was a cleared space in the center of the crowd.

Roger used his elbows ruthlessly. A couple of neck-craners got sore ribs, but he fought his way to the inner circle. He was greeted by Inspector Cummins whose double chin shook as he said, pointing to the stretcher on the ground. "There's your exhibit one. Get ready for the shock of your life."

An interne was kneeling beside the stretcher. On the canvas lay a man, naked under a white sheet. Roger's gaze traveled up the supine body to the head, and his eyes bulged. Suddenly he felt sweat on the palms of his hands. His jaw opened but he said nothing. For once he was speechless.

Cummins nudged his elbow. "You wouldn't believe it if you didn't see it, Roger!"

In the top of the man's head was a gaping hole. And the inside of his skull was empty.

The young interne's face had a greenish tinge. He was holding the man's pulse. But the other hand, that held the watch, was trembling so that the numerals on the dial seemed to be doing a macabre jig.

Roger swallowed and asked, "What killed him?"

The interne looked up from the watch. Something sounded in his throat that was meant to be a laugh. "Nothing killed him," he said in a wet voice—the kind of voice you use when your salivary glands are discharging freely, "He's not dead yet!"

"Not dead!" Roger shouted down at him. "How can a man live with his brain gone?"

The interne waved widely, nervously, with the hand that held the watch. "Did you never see a chicken stagger around without its head? Or a snake? This is the same—only it's a man!" He squeezed his eyes hard shut, and opened them swiftly. "God! I never saw anything like this!"

"How did it happen?" Roger demanded. "Where did he come from?"

But the interne hadn't heard. He bent swiftly to the stretcher, watching the man's face tautly for seconds. Then he sighed deeply and put the watch away. He allowed the wrist he had been holding to drop to the canvas.

He arose and dusted his knees. He took out a handkerchief and brushed his lips, then carefully wiped his hands. "He's dead," he announced. He fumbled for a cigarette and lit it after losing the light from three matches.

Roger waited till he got a deep inhalation out of his lungs, and repeated his question in a kindly tone. "Now, doctor, tell us something about this. Where did he come from?"

"I was in the rear of the ambulance," the interne related, "when I saw him. We were coming down the Parkway and I just happened to glance out across the field there. Do you know what he was doing?" He jabbed a finger at Roger and then at Inspector Cummins. "He was running! The field is at least half a mile wide. He must have run that far— without his brains!"

Roger Vane let his eyes travel to the gruesome form on the stretcher. "Go on," he urged. "What happened?"

"Well, I yelled for the driver to stop. And this chap came running toward us. Then he dropped right here, alongside the road. He might have lived longer, but the undue exertion severed the membranes that had been sewed together at the ends of the intraventricular channels in the cerebellum. This permitted the cerebrospinal fluid to escape. Death followed."

Roger had dabbled in many things in the course of his career. He had a smattering of the elements of surgery, and he knew enough of anatomy to understand the interne's labored explanation. But Cummins boomed out in his bull's voice, "Never mind why he died. Anybody can see he was overdue to cash in. What I'd like to know is, how he stayed alive—how he could run without a brain!"

The interne's eves were bright with an unhealthy light. "I'll tell you, inspector. This man has had an operation performed on him—one that has never before been attempted on a human being! Do you know what was done to this man?" He gulped and went on, the words coming feverishly. "Whoever cut him up is probably the greatest surgeon in the world—and a ruthless devil!

"He trephined this poor chap's skull, turned up a flap of scalp and bone, then lifted out bodily the whole cerebral cortex— the thinking part of a man's brain. He left in the cerebellum, which is that part of our brain controlling the reflex actions. A man with only a cerebellum can perform physical actions such as feeling, tasting, smelling, running. He can know fear and hate. All these faculties are governed by the cerebellum which that surgeon of hell left to this poor devil. But he took out the cerebral cortex, which is what makes man superior to animals!"

They were interrupted by the arrival of the medical examiner.

The inspector drew Roger aside. "You know why I got you up here?"

Roger nodded. "I do, Mike."

"Dammit!" Cummins growled. "Don't call me Mike!" Then, anxiously, "Well?"

Roger inclined his head again, this time very somberly. "It's Spears, all right. He's so emaciated it's almost impossible to recognize him at first glance. But that birthmark is there. You can't mistake it."

"What's the answer?" Cummins demanded.

Roger was reflective. "I don't know, Mike. It's big, whatever it is."

Cummins' laugh grated. "Sure! Three million bucks is big in any language. Whoever that surgeon is, he's a lot smarter than you and me! Can you figure out what he wanted the old man's brain for?"

Roger suddenly snapped his fingers. "Listen, Mike. Spears had just come back from an operation before he pulled that disappearing act. You looked into that end of it. Who was the surgeon?"

Cummins thumbed through a note book and read off the information. "Operated on for appendicitis at Doctor Felix Gassner's Private Sanitarium, 1800 Eastchester Road, New York City. Operation successful. Dr. Gassner is noted surgeon. His patients among wealthiest in country. He came here from Vienna five years ago. Has international reputation. Gassner states he discharged Spears in good health. Has no suggestions to offer."

Roger gripped the inspector's sleeve. "I think," he said, "that things are beginning to clear up."

Cummins scoffed. "Don't get all het up."

"Listen," Roger insisted. "1800 Eastchester Road is less than a mile from here. Spears might have come from the sanitarium."

"Sure, that's bright! And if Gassner is the one who cut out his think tank he's too smart to send him out to be found in this vicinity! And anyway, what would he want to do the whole thing for? If Spears had the gold he could just have taken it and killed him."

"Just the same," Roger replied, "let's get a warrant and go up there."

The medical examiner had finished his task. He came over to them.

"What say, Doc," Cummins asked.

Doctor Evans was putting away his stethoscope. He shook his head in a puzzled manner. "The ambulance doctor is correct. The man's cerebral cortex has been removed by a most cunning operation. The surgeon who did it is a wizard."

"How long," Roger inquired, "would an operation like that take?"

"About five hours. It is first necessary to cut through the bone of the skull. This is done nowadays with a drill and burrs. Under the bone is a layer of tough, fibrous membrane. Then below that we find the thin web-like tissue that is the envelope of the brain. All this is familiar territory. Modern surgery has occasion very often to penetrate this far in order to relieve pressure on the brain.

"But that was only the beginning for this surgeon. He had to sever all the membranes connecting with the cortex, and then he had to sew them at once to prevent the escape of the brain fluid which is contained in little hollows known as ventricles. The job has always been considered impossible."

Roger said, motioning to the body on the stretcher, "it's murder, isn't it?"

Doctor Evans shook his head. "Not technically. The operation was entirely successful. He could have lived indefinitely. His death was accidental. A membrane was severed and the brain fluid escaped."

"You mean to say," demanded Roger, incredulous, "that you're calling this accidental?"

The examiner shrugged. "What can we do? Inspector Cummins will agree with me. The evidence here points to nothing but the fact that an operation was performed. We cannot even say that it was illegal. I don't care if Spears made away with three million or thirty million. I have nothing to do with any other crimes that may be connected with this. My business is to determine how this man died, and I tell you I can't call it murder!"

Cummins grinned. "Well, Mr. Vane, how about that warrant you were going to get? What would the charge be?"

"Go ahead," Roger snapped. "Have fun! I'm going to pay a visit to Doctor Gassner anyway!"

"Your privilege," Cummins said nastily. "You're a high-class investigator. You can follow hunches and things. Me, I'm just the police. So I'm starting a house-to-house canvass of the neighborhood. Maybe we'll find some one who saw where Spears came from."

ROGER dismissed his cab a block from Dr. Gassner's sanitarium and approached the three-story brownstone on foot. He did not, however, go up the steps to the front door, but walked around and proceeded down the auto runway that ran along the side of the building.

There was a big brick garage in the rear that covered the full width of the lot.

He did not see the car that pulled up at the curb a minute behind his cab, nor did he see the figure that followed him down the block on foot and then stole up the steps into the house.

He was interested in that garage. The front of the garage consisted of four sliding doors that went up to the roof. Set in one of these doors was a smaller door that swung on hinges. This smaller door was securely fastened by a huge padlock. Roger drew a set of keys from his pocket. The padlock snapped open after a moment's work, and he stepped through the doorway into the darkness of the interior.

He snapped on his fountain pen flashlight, and his eyes narrowed. An expensive small coupe stood in one corner. But it was dwarfed by the immense moving van that occupied most of the rest of the space. This was the type of van that is used for transcontinental trips. Its rear doors were also padlocked.

He brought his keys into use again, and swung open the doors. He whistled as his flash played on the armored car within the body of the van.

He peered closer and saw that the van had a double floorboard. The lower leaf slid out when pulled, and sloped down to the ground on hinges, forming a perfect runway on which the armored car could have been driven into the body of the bigger car!

That was all he needed to see. He clicked off the flashlight and turned to go. Then he stopped, rigid, his hand arrested on its way to his shoulder holster.

The lights blared on in the garage. A man stood just inside the doorway, covering him with an automatic. The man was big. He towered over Roger's five feet ten. The hand that held the automatic was hairy, tremendous. The face was a potpourri of broad, flat features and expressionless eyes. He said to Roger in a dull voice, "Come out."

The two words were plenty. Roger came out.

"Up the back steps and in the house." his captor ordered.

Roger had more a feeling of curiosity than of fear as he let himself be herded into the house and along, the corridor into a room that was manifestly the office of the sanitarium.

A small wiry man with a hair-line mustache and keen black eyes sat at a desk. The big fellow closed the door behind them and stood with his back to it. Roger couldn't see him now. He faced the other.

The little man arose and made a signal to the one with the automatic. Then he bowed to Roger. "You are," he said in a smooth, precise voice, "the well-known Roger Vane, investigator for the Bankers' Protective Association?"

Roger nodded. "And you, I suppose, are the famous Doctor Felix Gassner?"

"Correct. You are very clever, Mr. Vane.

I am glad that I sent Ivan, here, to watch the crowd over at the Parkway. Had it not been for that, you might have surprised me."

Roger was only half listening. He was gauging the possibility of springing aside and drawing his gun before the big Ivan could attack him from the rear.

Doctor Gassner seemed to read his mind. He smiled. Roger saw that those thin lips could be utterly cruel. The black eyes stared at him like two soulless disks. "It'll do you no good, Mr. Vane. Don't you feel it already? There is a gas in this room. Look behind you and you will see the tank alongside the door. Ivan just opened the valve at my signal."

Roger cast a quick glance behind and saw that it was true. Ivan grinned at him mirthlessly.

Doctor Gassner went on. "That gas is a development of my own. It is a compound of ethyl chloride and the basic anesthetic, urethane. Your police chemists were unable to break it up, I noticed. They thought it contained scopolamine."

Roger was dazed. He felt giddy, but suddenly he saw the connection. "Then you—"

Gassner nodded with a self-satisfied smile. "I am the one that arranged Dolen's escape. But we will go into that later. I have plans for you. About the gas, though. I used urethane because I have perfected a serum which I find renders me immune to its effects. Ivan and I have both taken injections of the serum. You, of course—"

The room, and Doctor Gassner's face, suddenly lit with the anticipation of unspeakable horrors, seemed to be reeling farther and farther away from Roger's dimming senses. He tried desperately to raise his hand, to get at the automatic. His brain ordered, but his muscles were numb—they failed to react. Everything seemed to grow dull. He saw the doctor's face fade to a grotesque shadow. Then his legs gave under him, and he went to the floor under a wave of blackness.

WHEN his eyelids straggled open he was not in the same room. It was still light. His head seemed clear enough. The gas had left no aftereffects.

He tried to move but couldn't. He was strapped to an operating table. The thick leather straps were buckled tight about his elbows, wrists, thighs, and ankles. He was naked, but a sheet had been thrown over his body from the chest down. He shuddered. What plans did that fiend have in mind for him?

His eyes wandered across the room. Along the opposite wall stood a row of tall glass cabinets with glass shelves. On the shelves lay a multitude of glittering steel instruments. Among them were many knives, some straight and long, others curved and short and ugly, but all with razor-keen edges. What dreadful things those knives could do to the human body. His face blanched as he realized that he lay helpless in the operating room of Doctor Felix Gassner's sanitarium.

He tore his gaze away from that glittering array of chilled steel instruments. He turned his head in the other direction. And suddenly every fiber in his body contracted. He could feel the sheet that covered him grow wet from the sweat that began to run from every pore of him.

It was a man, yes. And it sat rigidly in a chair by the window, staring at Roger. Its eyes were dull, but behind them could be discerned a primitive killer's instinct, lurking, waiting for the spark that would bring it forth!

The top of its head was swathed in bandages.

Roger knew what he was seeing. It was another man with an empty skull.

But how different it was from viewing a body on a stretcher.

Roger forced himself to return the stare of those eyes. He inspected the face, and recognized it. He had seen Red Dolen's picture. This was Red Dolen.

It was only minutes, but to Roger it might have been hours that he lay that way while Dolen, the Strangler, stared at him with an expression impossible to fathom. And they might have been etched in bronze, for neither moved. Roger felt the sweat running down into his eyes, but he dared not remove his glance from that man who had been turned into an animal by a devilish operation.

And then the tension was relieved by the sound of a cool, precise voice from the doorway. It was Doctor Gassner.

"Have no fear, Mr. Vane. Dolen's murderous instincts are quite under my control. I have no doubt that you recognized him, of course?"

Gassner came into the room and closed the door behind him. He wore rubber gloves and was covered completely by an operating robe. He approached the operating table.

Roger gulped, and forced himself to ask with a semblance of levity, "I suppose I'm the next candidate for your skillful scalpel?"

Gassner put his hands on the table and looked down at his prostrate prisoner. "I regret to say that you are, Mr. Vane. Yours will be my third successful brain removal!" His eyes glittered. They had a trace of madness. "Such operations as have never been imagined by the profession! I experimented much in Vienna. Here I reap the rewards!" He sighed regretfully. "It is too bad I cannot write reports for the American College of Surgeons!"

Roger shrank mentally from the fanatical gleam in those wildly bright, piercingly black eyes. He asked, "Is my—er—operation necessary to your plans, Doctor?"

"It is. Would you be interested in hearing them—before I begin?"

"Nothing would interest me more," Roger murmured. And then fiercely, yielding to the terrible strain on his nerves, "Except getting my hands on your throat!"

There was a slow rustle of motion from the animal-like figure of "Red" Dolen. The strangler shifted in his chair and grunted deep in his chest. His hairy, ugly hands came away from his knees and clawed into talons.

Gassner looked sharply at the man with the empty skull. He snapped his fingers. "Be quiet!" he ordered curtly.

Dolen subsided sullenly.

Roger thought he had detected a little note of apprehension in the doctor's voice. Wildly his mind strove for a scheme. He recalled that Dolen had been convicted of choking a man to death—unnecessarily. His brain seemed to be vainly groping for something—a key to escape. In the meantime he made conversation.

"Why did you help him to escape, Doc? You might as well satisfy my curiosity."

Gassner beamed with pride. He nodded, and said, "Gladly, Mr. Vane. There are so few I can confide in, and you—are safe, now. You see, my plan was of the very essence of genius. First, I offered Dolen his liberty in exchange for the use of his brain!"

Roger started. "The use of his—brain?"

"Exactly. I smuggled a hypo of serum into him in prison, so that he was immune to the gas. Ivan did that when he visited him. Then he drove out of the prison grounds. That was how Ivan spread the gas in the prison. The exhaust of the car was fitted to a tank under the floor boards—a tank of my ethylene-urethane. In that manner everybody was gassed while Dolen walked out, a free man!"

"Marvelous," Roger gasped. "You're a genius, Doc!" He said it, partly to lull the other by the flattery which he obviously yearned for, and partly to cover up the wild light in his own eye. For he had just thought of a wild, impossible scheme to frustrate this madman—a scheme that might well end, though, in his own destruction.

Gassner went on. "That was only a single step. It happened that Courtlandt Spears, the president of the Empire City Bank, was here at the time, for an appendectomy. I timed Dolen's escape carefully to coincide with that. I removed Mr. Spears's appendix. But I went further. I also removed his cerebral cortex!

"Dolen came here from prison. He had enough confidence in my ability as a surgeon to submit to the same operation—with three million dollars of loot in sight!"

Roger looked at Dolen. The recital seemed to be making no impression on the animal part of the brain that he had left. Only in his eyes was there a hint of the smoldering instincts that had finally sent him on the road to the electric chair. Roger turned his head back to Gassner, who was going on.

"And then, my friend, I reached the pinnacle of wizardry in the profession of surgery! I placed Dolen's brain in the skull of Courtlandt Spears! Can you imagine the delicacy of such a transplantation? I had worked for years to perfect a protoplasmic substance which would knit the membranes together. This is what I used.

"The result was that when the president of the Empire City Bank returned to his office, he carried back the brain of a criminal! But the body was the body of Courtland Spears, with all his instinctive reactions. You recall, perhaps, that the cashier noted the birthmark, and that he commented on the signature? Spears was in a position to order the gold shipped out without opposition. It was, my friend, the perfect imposture!"

Roger was astounded. Merely to follow this recital taxed his imagination. But many things became clear.

"So you and your man, Ivan, drove the armored car, eh? Then you drove out to some lonely spot and ran it up the runway into the van. I see it now. That was why it looked as if Spears and the gold had vanished from the face of the earth!"

Gassner nodded enthusiastically. Then he sighed. "But I was careless. When Spears returned, I operated on him once more and removed Dolen's cerebral cortex. I left the operating room unguarded for a moment, and Spears, with the instinct of fear which was governed by his cerebellum, ran out, naked as he was, and fled across the field, to the place where he was found by that ambulance doctor."

"And now," said Roger, "you are going to replace Mr. Dolen's cerebral cortex?"

Gassner leaned closer, his lips a thin straight line of heartless cruelty. "No," he confided. "This is where you come in. I am going to put Dolen's brain in your skull!"

Roger's throat was parched. "But why?" be demanded in a hoarse whisper.

"Because then the renowned, the trusted Roger Vane, special investigator for the Bankers' Protective Association, will escort the van of gold out of the city to the boat I have chartered! Gold, my friend, is good all over the world!"

Incredible as it sounded, Roger knew that this madman could do just what he threatened. He knew, too, that Gassner would destroy him and Dolen after he was safely away. He wasn't going to split that three million with Dolen or anybody else.

This was the time, he decided, to try his almost hopeless plan. He took a deep breath. "I should think," he said, in a loud, sharp voice, "that Red Dolen would choke the life out of you, Doctor!"

Gassner started. His eyes narrowed suspiciously.

From the chair by the window came a low animal growl.

"Yes," Roger repeated, "he ought to get his two hands on you and choke you—choke you!"

Dolen half rose from his chair, eyes glued to Gassner. He was responding to the suggestion.

Gassner was pale. He snapped his fingers. "Sit down, Dolen, you fool!" he barked. The strangler seemed to hesitate. He was deeply under the surgeon's influence.

Roger desperately raised his voice to a shout "Choke him, Red! Get your hands on his throat! Choke him! Kill! Kill!"

Little red spots appeared in Dolen's eyes. He was like a bull before whom a red flag is waved. A low roar came out of his throat. Slowly he rose and walked around Roger's table. A fierce grin spread over his mouth, saliva drooled from the ends. His big hands with the red hair showing on their backs opened and closed with grim deadliness as he made for the doctor.

Roger's voice was hoarse. "Choke! Choke!" he urged in a desperate monotone.

Gassner*s eyes distended with fear. He retreated to the instrument cabinet, fumbled behind, and snatched op a keen-edged scalpel. With that in his hand he faced the advancing killer. "Get back!" he croaked. "Get back!"

But Dolen came on, ponderous, inexorable. He needed no more urging from Roger. His open pajama jacket showed the red hair of a heaving chest. His brutish features were contorted into a terrible mask of killing lust. With the bandages of that inhuman operation on his head, he was the ghastliest thing that Roger had ever seen in his life.

Gassner, with his back to the cabinet, lashed out with the steel scalpel, leaving a deep gash in Dolen's chest, from which the blood oozed horribly. But he seemed not to feel it. His hands came up, his fingers encircled the doctor's throat in a terrible grip.

Gassner lashed out again and again with the scalpel, and brought blood in a dozen places. But those implacable fingers clung to their grip. Gassner's face grew purple; he gagged; his eyes bulged. A strangled scream like the bleating of a sheep escaped from his mouth, then he sagged limply.

Roger had been unable to tear his eyes from the awful picture. Now he saw Dolen drop the doctor's body as a child would drop a discarded toy. Then he turned slowly and advanced upon Roger, hands opening and closing spasmodically.

This was what Roger had feared. The killer deep within him had tasted the sweet taste of blood and would not be stopped now. Blood gushed from a dozen wounds left by Gassner's scalpel. The bandage on his head had come askew. But he came on, his murderous eyes feasting on Roger.

Roger squirmed in his straps. He could do nothing but wait for those hungry hands to close on his windpipe.

And then while Dolen's feet brought him slowly closer, Roger heard the doorbell outside ring. As in a haze, he heard Ivan going to answer it, heard a familiar voice saying, "We're canvassing the neighborhood. Did anybody here see a little old guy running around naked? He was found on the Parkway. Came from this direction."

And he heard Ivan's answer as Dolen's claws were reaching for his throat "I'm sorry, sir, I can't help you."

Desperately, Roger shouted. "Up here, Mike! Up here, for God's sake!" His own voice sounded like a stranger's—weird, unnatural.

From the outer hallway came an angry bellow. "Don't call me Mike, dammit!"

Heavy feet in the hallway, the sounds of a scuffle.

Roger's eyes closed against his will. A hot breath was in his face. Dolen's hands were tightening on his throat. "Too late," he thought. Through his head went the refrain, "Too late, too late, too late!"

He gasped for air. Dolen's beastlike fingers were searching under his neck, to snap it. The door of the operating room was locked; he remembered that the lock had snapped when Gassner closed the door. Mike could never make it in time.

"Coming, Roger," Inspector Cummins shouted from the corridor.

Then there was a pounding at the door, and Cummins' voice raised in profanity.

And suddenly a great gust of air swept into Roger's lungs. The fingers about his throat relaxed. A great weight fell on his naked chest. He opened his eyes. Dolen lay across his chest, soaking him in his blood!

Roger breathed deeply, his lungs burning with each intake of air.

A panel of the door crashed in. A hand was inserted and turned the catch. Cummins barged into the room. He stopped short. Two uniformed men crowded in behind him.

The inspector took a look at Roger, then put his hands on his hips and roared with laughter. "Well, Big Shot," he taunted, "I never saw you look so pale before! What's happened here?"

His eyes swept the room, took in Gassner's broken body, and settled on the form of Dolen.

"This guy is Dolen," Roger whispered through a burning larynx. "He finished Gassner, over there, and he was doing the same for me."

Cummins dragged Dolen's body off Roger and started to undo the straps. "What happened to him?"

"He must have collapsed from his wounds, or else he caved in the same as Spears did. He had the same kind of operation. Gassner was our man, all right. He operated on them."

Cummins helped Roger up. Roger flexed his stiff muscles, and looked up to see the inspector grinning at him. He glanced down at himself and flushed. The two cops who had come in behind Cummins snickered.

"Just like Adam," the inspector jeered at him. "Did you forget your clothes?"

"Okay, Mike," said Roger. "Laugh! Go ahead! Give me the ha-ha for the rest of my life. Only get this—my hunch was right! And you'll find the gold in the garage in back of the house. Go ahead and laugh now!"

He had some measure of satisfaction as he saw Cummins scoot out the door for the garage. But the vision of the brainless Dolen with fingers on his throat, still clung to the retina of his eyes. As long as he lived he felt he would never be able to purge himself of the memory of that apparition out of hell!


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent X magazine, May 1935

After three days of chasing around town as bodyguard to a beautiful girl—at a hundred bucks a day and all expenses paid — Don Manton was beginning to feel that life had its moments after all. But it wasn't long after he looked into the gaunt, parchment-like face of a man named Borchard that he realized how few these moments can be.

I WAS sitting in a box with Anne Seymour, viewing a revival performance of “Emperor Jones” when I became aware that the man, Borchard, was in the house.

It was a sweet job, and I had begun to appreciate it after three days of acting as bodyguard for Miss Seymour. When her old man had hired me, he said, “Mr. Manton, expense is no object. You understand that Anne is our only daughter. Whatever this thing is that threatens her, it will be your duty to guard her against it, to find out the nature of the danger. We ourselves have been unable to get any information from her. All we know is that she's deathly afraid of something, that it is rendering her melancholy, is reducing her to a mere shadow of herself.”

Well, if you can't soak millionaires, whom are you going to soak? So, for the past three days I had been going to parties and shows, riding in taxis—in short, living on the fat of the land, with all expenses paid, and a hundred bucks a day salary.

That was all to the good, except that it was a little monotonous. It's not bad racing around all over town with the most beautiful girl in the city, if she'd only loosen up and talk a little. But in all the three days, Anne Seymour hadn't said more than about fifteen words to me. Always there was that queer sort of haunted, frightened look in her eyes. Whenever I took her arm to lead her to a table in a restaurant, or to guide her down the aisle of a theatre, she felt cold and clammy to my touch. I guess it was beginning to get on my nerves.

And on top of this we had to be seeing this goofy show that takes place in the African jungle or some place, with this guy running away through the forest, chased by natives who want to stick pins and needles or something into him and make him miserable in general. And all through it there's this queer, insistent beating of the tom-toms, like water dropping on your forehead, drip, drip, drip.

Anne Seymour was sitting straight and still next to me, her proud, beautiful profile seeming to be cut out of marble.

And then I got the funny feeling that there was somebody in the house staring at us. I looked around quickly and, as if drawn by a magnet, my eyes found the eyes of a man who was sitting in the fourth row of the orchestra. He was lean, and his face was like parchment. If it weren't for his eyes, you'd think he was a mummy in evening dress. Those eyes were deep and black—and bad. Somehow or other, I got the idea that this guy might be the devil himself, all dressed up. He hadn't been looking at me; he had been staring all the while at Anne Seymour in a curiously appraising sort of way.

I swung my eyes away from him as if I hadn't noticed him particularly, looked toward the stage, and nudged Anne Seymour, whispered to her out of the corner of my mouth, “Don't turn now. But see if you know that man in the fourth row.”

“I've already seen him,” she said huskily. She hadn't turned either, was still sitting straight, erect, and was whispering with hardly any motion of her lips. “I told dad it was no use getting me a bodyguard. You'll only be killed. I can't escape that man.”

“Listen, Miss Seymour,” I said earnestly, “my name is Don Manton. I'm no baby, and I'm no youngster at this game. You tell me what it's all about and I'll fix that guy's wagon for him. What's he got on you?”

Suddenly a shudder seemed to rack her body. “I suppose I ought to tell yon all about it. It's not fair to you not to. Will you promise not to tell dad or mother?”

“Okay,” I said. I'd have promised her anything right then, if it meant getting the truth out of her.

She went on tensely. “His name is Borchard. He's been at several places where I have been in the past week or two— theatres, night clubs, parties. Nobody knows his business, but he's extremely wealthy. And—he always looks at me like that. I seem to feel the blood freezing within me when his eyes are on me.”

“Is that all?” I asked.

“No. One thing more. Monday night— that's four nights ago—I woke up, from a sound sleep. It must have been three or four o'clock in the morning. I had felt a sudden pain in my arm—like a pin prick. I opened my eyes, and there was his face, leaning over me. And—God—it was the most horrible thing in the world. He seemed to be exuding evil. I started to scream, but my muscles were frozen. And then I suddenly became weak, and lost consciousness. I woke up in the morning, weak and dazed. I might have thought it was all a dream, except for a little red spot on my left arm. He must have done something to me—given me some sort of injection.”

“Why have you kept all this a secret?” I asked her, raising my voice a little so as to be heard above the terrified shrieks of the man on the stage who was being haunted by the ghosts of his past crimes.

Miss Seymour said, “I don't know. I suppose I was afraid of being laughed at. And since that night I've had all sorts of queer feelings. Perhaps a dozen times I've had a sudden desire to leave everything and run out into the night. It seemed that this Borchard was calling to me, calling to me, always calling to me.”

Her face was white, drawn, tense. “He— he's calling me—now.” Her little hand was clenched in her lap as if she were resisting some powerful, magnetic urge.

And just then the curtain dropped on the stage. Intermission had come. I looked down to the orchestra. The man, Borchard, was not staring at her now. He was getting up from his seat.

I turned back to Anne Seymour. She seemed to be more at ease. She managed a faint smile. “I'm—better now.”

I got up, and excused myself. “I'm going to see what's to be done about this. You stay right here, Miss Seymour, and don't move. Wait till I come back.”

She nodded meekly. Somehow, she seemed to feel better for having unburdened herself to me. “Be careful, Mr. Manton,” she said.

“Don't worry about me,” I grinned. “I've taken care of myself for a long time now. You just take it easy, and leave everything to me.”

I have to laugh now, when I think of my swell-headedness. Leave everything to me! I thought I was good. I wouldn't have thought so, if I had known what kind of a bird this Borchard was.

DOWNSTAIRS in the lobby, I looked around for him. He wasn't there. I started for the smoking room, thinking maybe he had gone down there, when suddenly somebody tapped me on the shoulder, and a cool voice with a hint of a nasty laugh in it asked, “Were you seeking me, sir?”

I swung around and looked into the long, gaunt face of the man named Borchard. He was very tall—as tall as I am, and that's saying a good deal, because I'm five feet, eleven myself. And he certainly was one to give you the creeps. If you looked at him, you couldn't help feeling sort of scared. His skin seemed to be stretched on his head as if it had been taken off at some time and shrunk, and then put back on. It was of a pale, white, sickening color—like the color of death. But the man had poise, power. You could see it in his eyes, in his whole bearing.

His face twisted into a mean sort of smile that I didn't like at all. I had a feeling suddenly that this guy had lived for ages and ages; that he would go on living forever, as long as evil lived in the world.

He said to me, “I knew, of course, that you would come looking for me. I wanted to meet you. I have a proposition for you.”

I sort of gulped, and put on a bold front. “Go ahead, mister, but talk quick. I got plenty to tell you.”

“There is no need to talk quick. There is no need for hurry, my friend. We have ages and ages before us.” Borchard put his hand on my arm, and I winced, surprised. Because his grip was like steel. “But I forget,” he went on, “that to you, time is fleeting. I will not keep you long. In brief, my proposition is this—you are receiving one hundred dollars per day plus expenses to act as bodyguard to Miss Seymour. You are a private detective, and you are interested in making money. Say you are employed for ten days. That will be a thousand dollars plus expenses. All right, I will give you a cash sum of five thousand dollars. You will notify Miss Seymour's father that you can no longer continue on the job.”

I started to laugh, but stopped quick, when I saw those eyes of his boring into me. He had talked with the assurance of one whose word is law. Now he went on in the same vein. “When you return to your hotel, you will find the money in an envelope in the top bureau drawer of your dresser. Take it, and live in peace, my friend. Otherwise, you will learn what—terror is!”

Well, I'm no saint, and five grand is five grand—especially when turning it down means bucking up against a guy like this Borchard. But I'm a pretty stubborn sort of egg, and in spite of what people say about me, I have principles of my own. Also, I remembered the beautiful curve of Anne Seymour's throat.

So I said, “Nix. Your proposition is rejected. Now listen to what I have to say.”

Borchard had been holding on to my arm all this time. Now he let go, and bowed, smiling ironically.

“I know what you have to say, Mr. Manton. You wish to tell me that you are a very honest, capable and efficient private detective; that if I do not leave Miss Seymour alone, you will break my neck, or do me other serious physical injury. I understand all that, and I wish you a very good night.”

With that, he bowed again, and turned away, walked out into the lobby of the theatre.

For a minute you could have knocked me over with a feather. He had taken the words out of my mouth, stolen my thunder. What was I going to do—sock him in the jaw right there in the crowded theatre? That wouldn't have helped any. I would only have gotten myself into a jam, and left him free to work on the girl. I began to figure that I would be earning my hundred bucks a day in the near future.

The bell rang for the end of the intermission, and I started across toward the box. I looked up in that direction, and stopped short with a cold sensation in the pit of my stomach.

Anne Seymour wasn't up in the box. She should be visible from here, but she wasn't. The box was empty.

I guess it was instinct that made me swing out through the doors into the lobby. And there I saw it.

If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it. There was a swell looking, maroon-colored limousine drawn up at the curb, chauffeured by a huge negro in a uniform that matched the color of the car.

The man, Borchard, was stepping into the car just as I caught sight of it. Another negro, who had been holding the door open, slammed it shut and swept around into the front seat beside the driver. The limousine got into motion.

But the thing that made me jump after it headlong, pushing a couple of bewildered theatre patrons out of my way without any consideration, was the glimpse I had caught of the white, proudly tilted face of Anne Seymour—sitting quietly inside that car as if she belonged there!

The car was already moving when I got out to the curb. I sprinted, came up alongside it. The windows were closed. I put my hand on the handle of the door, twisted it, but it didn't open. It was locked.

I yelled, “Miss Seymour! Miss Seymour!” But she didn't even seem to hear me.

Borchard was sitting next to the window, and I started to pound at it with my fist. The glass was shatter-proof. Borchard didn't even turn to look at me. He merely leaned over and whispered a few words to Anne Seymour. She finally turned her head, gazed at me impersonally, as if she had never seen me before, and then looked away again and stared straight ahead.

Suddenly the car gathered speed, leaped away, and the handle was torn out of my grip. I stood there in the middle of the gutter, panting, and I must have looked like one awful sap.

I STARTED to curse out loud, and then I realized that that wouldn't do any good. There was a cab across the street, and the driver was sitting there and looking at me as if I was pulling some sort of freak advertising stunt.

I sprinted across, swung inside the cab, and yelled, “Follow that limousine, guy. Twenty bucks if you don't lose it!”

I needn't have promised him the twenty dollars. The limousine made no effort at all to lose us, though Borchard must have known that I was after him. On the contrary, they seemed to slow up accommodatingly so as not to get too far away from us.

A left turn, then five blocks west through the night toward the express highway; here the speed of the limousine increased so I figured we were making fifty or sixty miles an hour.

The express highway ended, merged into Riverside Drive. The pace slackened, there were halts for red lights, and I was burning up, trying to figure what to do. I could have cut them off and had a showdown. But I remembered the way Anne Seymour had sat there in the car, not making any effort to get away, as if she wanted to be there. Borchard would probably have me arrested for disorderly conduct if I tried to start anything. The only thing was to keep on their tail, and see where they went.

At the northern extremity of the Drive, the limousine swung around in a wide curve and entered Van Cortlandt Park. Through the park we followed them slowly, then up through Yonkers and into a quiet, dark section of Westchester along dimly lit roads where there were very few houses.

And then suddenly the limousine spurted ahead, and we lost them. My driver slowed up alongside the mouth of a road that led away at right angles from the one that we were on. He turned around and said to me, “They must have swung in here, boss. They ain't up ahead.”

“Go ahead then,” I told him. “Keep after them!”

The driver shook his head. “Not a chance, boss. This thing looks phony to me. I got my own troubles, and I don't want no part of other people's. This here neighborhood is dead and God-forsaken; there could be a dozen murders happen up here, and nobody would know about them.”

“Where are we?” I asked him.

He pointed to the side road. “That there path leads up to an old cemetery that ain't been used in thirty years. The people up around here keep away from it at night. And this is as far as I go, mister.”

I shrugged, got out and handed him his twenty dollars. There was no use arguing about it.

“All right,” I said to him. “As long as you're afraid to go any further, you can wait here. I might be going back.”

He didn't say whether he'd wait or not. I left him there and worked my way along that path, guided at first by the headlights of the cab. Then there was a sharp curve, and I lost the benefit of the lights. I went along slowly, carefully, feeling my way. Ahead, there was impenetrable darkness.

Back at the road I caught the sound of a taxicab's motor racing, heard the clash of gears. The driver wasn't waiting, and I didn't blame him much.

I was in evening clothes, and I had no gun. Miss Seymour had been rushing me around like mad for the last couple of days, from parties to theatres and back again to parties, so that I'd been a little dizzy—and in changing to the tux that evening, I'd clean forgotten to take the little twenty-two that I usually lugged around with evening clothes.

I swung around another curve and saw a white wall ahead. It was a cemetery wall all right, and the gate was open. Inside, there was no sound, no hint of motion or life.

There was no other place that the limousine could have gone, so I worked my way in among the white stones which rose stark and bleak all around me. You will probably laugh at me when I tell you that I had worked up a nice little sweat by this time, and that it wasn't because of any physical exertion. I was just a little bit scared. And if you think I'm a sissy or anything, you are hereby invited to go up to that cemetery without having met a guy like Borchard in advance, and wander around in there for a half hour. I'll give you the address any time you ask for it.

Well, I guess I wandered around through that spooky place for about fifteen minutes before I found the limousine. It was standing in front of a faded, granite mausoleum, with the lights out. It must have been a couple of hundred years old; probably one of those crypts where they put whole generations of some family that was probably extinct by this time. The name, which had been carved in the stone above the doorway, was indistinguishable in the dark.

But one thing I saw that didn't make me feel much better. It was the wrought iron handle on the door. It had been fashioned into the likeness of the head of a snake!

I suppose ordinarily I wouldn't have noticed it, but all my senses were keyed up now, extremely acute.

Everything was quiet now, except for the rustling of leaves falling in the pathway from the overhanging trees. They stirred and seemed to whisper, to cackle hoarsely.

I took a peek in the limousine, saw that it was empty. Then I swung around to the door of the mausoleum, grabbed hold of that disgusting looking snake head, and swung the door open.

THE interior of the vault was in absolute darkness. And I knew that I was in the right place. Because, though there was no hint of life, neither was there any hint of death. You know what I mean—that musty smell, which is peculiar to vaults of the dead, was lacking here. This place had been opened recently. Fresh air had entered here earlier in the night.

I left the door, stepped inside cautiously, and groped around.

I felt a wall at my right, started to follow it like a blind man, touching it with my right hand while I kept my left hand extended in front of me in case I should meet somebody or something in the dark.

And suddenly I stopped still. I had the chilling knowledge that there was someone else in the vault with me. It was nothing I saw, nothing I heard; just that strange feeling that you get sometimes.

And almost at the same minute my outstretched hand touched a living being; I saw two eyes staring at me—right in front of me. I slammed out at those eyes with my right fist, and felt the crunch of bone under my knuckles, heard a gasp, and a grunt of rage.

Fingers reached out and gripped my shoulder, a fetid breath brushed my cheek. I slammed out again, this time a little lower, hoping to find a chin. And I guess I did, because the grip on my shoulder was suddenly relaxed.

But it was my unlucky night. Because from the left a flashlight suddenly clicked on, glared in my face. I started to swing toward the light, but something crashed against the side of my head.

That was an awful sock, and for a minute I staggered, weaving dizzily on my feet. And that was the minute that licked me. Because two massive arms gripped me from behind, twisted my hands in back of me, and held me helpless like a baby.

I'm no weakling, and I've been able to put up a pretty good fight in the past, even when I was groggy. But I made no headway at all against whoever it was that had this grip on me.

My head started to swim from that blow. I could feel the left side of my face wet where the blood trickled down from the split in my scalp. It had been a harder sock than I thought it was. I kept my senses all right, but I was kind of woozy, I guess for a few minutes the only thing that kept me on, my feet was this guy that was holding on to me.

As if in a daze, I was aware of figures passing in the darkness, of whispered orders, and shuffling feet.

I was suddenly lifted up in the air by the man who held me, carried a few steps and then lowered.

The guy let go of me, and I dropped— but not just a foot or two to the floor. I had been dropped through some sort of trap door, and I traveled about a dozen feet before I landed with a jar that sent the breath whistling out of my body.

Above me I could see the opening through which I had come. And even as I watched, it disappeared; a slab of stone had been shifted into place up there.

I rested on my back, breathing hard, trying to regain my wind. It was absolutely black here, but I had an idea that something was moving around—there was a kind of gliding, scraping sound not far away.

I got to one elbow, tried to stare through the darkness. And I caught a whiff of something—a noxious sort of stench. This was something I could recognize; it was snake stench. Some place around here there was a snake.

Once more I caught that slithering, scraping sound.

I put out my hand and touched some sort of wire mesh screen. There was a swift, vicious, hissing noise, and something struck that screen close to my hand.

I jerked my fingers away, took out a book of matches, and shakily lit one. I raised it up high, and I can tell you that that light was doing a waltz. My hand was certainly not steady. By the flare of the match, I saw what I was up against. Right beside me was a sort of wire mesh cage, about five feet square and as many feet high. Inside that cage were two tiny pin points of eyes that squinted redly at me. Those eyes belonged to a squirming, wriggling reptile that was about twice as long as I. And somebody must have figured that it wasn't horrid looking enough, because they had painted, its entire length in red with, some ghastly design that seemed to move and have life as the snake wriggled.

The match flickered and went out. I lit another one, raised it high and took a look all around. This wasn't just some sort of pit under the mausoleum. I was on the gallery of a vast, cleverly constructed chamber. If I had been unwise enough to take four steps forward, I would have fallen from the ledge to the floor of the chamber below; and that would have been a drop of about thirty feet. This place must have been cut into the ground away back when the mausoleum was built—and that had not been done haphazardly, for the walls, floor and ceiling were of brick, solidly constructed. I began to wish that I was in some peaceful business like the Chaco War.

I started to inch away from the cage next to me, feeling in the darkness for some way to get off the gallery. My head was throbbing now, and I started to have burning pains flashing across my eyes. My hair was matted at the spot where I had been, bit, and it was cloyed with blood. I put my head down on the brick floor of the gallery, which felt nice and cool, and I lay there quietly for a few minutes to let the cold stone draw the fever out of the wound.

In back of me, the scraping at the wire mesh of the cage seemed to grow louder. I guess the snake was kind of sore at me for not coming inside and providing him with a meal.

AND then all of a sudden, things began to happen. There was a glare of light from the floor of the chamber below, and I caught the sound of measured footsteps. I crawled to the edge of the ledge, raised my head and stared over at the singular procession that was marching in through a door at the far end of the chamber below.

Two negresses, immensely fat, dressed in long, red flowing robes, came in first. Each of them carried a tall taper whose flame flickered, casting weird shadows on the wall.

Behind them came a man who was dressed all in black, with a peaked cowl over his head, and a flowing robe that hid his feet. Out of the cowl peered a gaunt face. It was Borchard's face all right, but there was something different about him. He looked like a high priest—reminded me somehow of strange, outlandish African rites.

The two negresses crossed to a sort of dais in the middle of the floor, and set their tapers in two tall sconces on either side of the raised platform.

Then they turned around and faced toward my ledge, standing immovable.

Borchard marched solemnly across the room until he stood directly below the ledge. Then he raised his face toward the cage in which the serpent lay, and began to recite a kind of invocation in a voice that gradually grew louder and louder until he was talking so fast that the words seemed to trip over each other. He was using some sort of strange, outlandish language that I didn't recognize.

By the light of the flaring tapers, I could see the snake in his cage, and he must have been used to this sort of ceremony, for he rested his head against the wire mesh and seemed to be listening.

Suddenly Borchard's voice dropped to a whisper, and then became silent. As if it had been a signal, one of the two negresses produced a flute from under her robe, put it to her lips and started to play the weirdest, creepiest kind of tune I'd ever heard. The time was so swift that my ear could scarcely follow it. The snake responded to that music by wriggling its gruesome, sinuous length faster and faster. The hideous red marks with which it was painted made me dizzy to watch them.

Borchard reached over and pulled a chain down below there, and the cage began to move slowly. I noted for the first time that there was a kind of pulley fitted to the top of the cage, and that the pulley rode on a cable extending from the ledge down to the platform near which the negresses stood. Slowly the cage descended via the cable, until it came to rest upon the dais on the floor below.

The negress continued to play that damned flute of hers even faster, and Borchard strode across the room and unlocked a small door in the cage. The serpent was writhing frenziedly now, in tune with the music, but made no attempt to slip out of its prison.

Borchard turned and faced the doorway through which he had entered the room, and stood in an attitude of expectancy. I looked in that direction, too, and started to feel a cold sweat all over me, forgot all about the pain in my head.

Anne Seymour had come into the room.

But let me tell you how. She was crawling.

Like the two negresses, she was wearing a long red gown. She wriggled across the room slowly, sinuously, as if she were some sort of reptilian being, keeping time to the wild strains of the flute.

Her face was changed, somehow distorted. Of course, she was under the influence of some sort of drug. And she was crawling straight toward that lividly painted serpent in the cage.

And then I found out what this dizzy business was all about. Because I happened to turn my head, and there, right near me on the ledge, were these two tall negroes—still in the livery which they had worn while driving the limousine. I had been lying so quiet, with my head on the stone, that I guess they thought I was still unconscious. The face of one of them, I noticed with satisfaction, was kind of marked up. I guess that was the one that I had slammed into in the dark up in the vault.

This one was setting up a camera on a tripod, focusing it on the scene below. The other was watching him and holding a large flash-bulb overhead.

Now I got the whole picture. And was it a laugh? It was not!

I turned around, grabbed a quick look down below. Anne Seymour had crossed the floor, had reached the top step of the dais. She was resting on her elbows, so that her head was on a level with that of the serpent. Slowly, those long, powerful coils oozed out of the cage. The snake reared its ugly little head high, arched itself over her. The flute was still playing.

And it was at that minute that the flash- bulb went off.

The two negroes had taken the picture of Anne Seymour and the snake.

A lot of things happened at once. Anne Seymour screamed—screamed loud and sharp and clear. It was a scream of mortal fear and agony; and though it didn't sound so nice, it indicated at least that she had come back to her senses. Then I made a flying leap at that camera from my position on the ledge, sent it smashing over the side to crash into pieces on the floor below. The plate of that picture would never be developed. And the third thing that happened was that the flute stopped its infernal music. Why the negress stopped playing, I'll never be able to figure out for sure, but I think she'd seen me lunging for the camera up there on the ledge; or else Anne's scream had made her quit.

Then all of a sudden those two negroes were on me like a ton of bricks. I wasn't dizzy any more now. I was just mad—good and mad. And I used a couple of stunts on them that I would have hesitated to use under ordinary circumstances. In any boxing or wrestling ring in the country they would have been declared fouls, and the guy who pulled them would have been forever barred and black-listed.

Well, I confess I used them. And though I got a bad cut under my left eye, and a long knife gash in my side from one of those two boys, I had them on the floor, dead to the world inside of what must have been about sixty seconds. One of them was altogether out, having cracked his head against the stone ledge when he fell, and the other one was just doubled over, holding onto his middle and moaning with agony.

I didn't wait to offer them any consolation, but turned and raced along to the end of the ledge. I had noticed a flight of stone steps that led down to the chamber below.

I GOT down there in time to see Borchard standing at the foot of the dais with a vicious, hateful look on his face, and pushing Anne Seymour toward the cage. She was trying to get away from there, trying frantically, striving to get away from the coiled neck of the serpent which was arched above her. And Borchard wouldn't let her.

Borchard was standing as far away from the damned snake as he could, and he was holding Anne Seymour at arm's length, gripping her shoulder with those powerful fingers of his. He was afraid of that snake, I could see, for the reptile was no longer under the spell of the flute's music. Borchard hadn't intended letting the thing go so far, of course, but now that the snake was really after some supper, he figured the girl would make a better tidbit than himself.

He must surely have heard the camera smash, must have heard the sounds of the scrap I had up there on the ledge with the two negroes; but he had his hands full trying to sell the snake on the idea that the girl would make a tastier dish than himself.

Well, anyway, it's funny how one million thoughts and pictures will fill your mind in the space of about thirty seconds, because I think that's all it took for the whole tableau there by the dais to register with me.

And then I was across that floor in nothing flat, sprinting the way I had done many years past when I hung up a record for the hundred-yard dash in the Marine Corps—only I did it faster this time.

I had to stop short, or else I would have slammed into Borchard, and he would have slammed into Anne, pushing her right up against the serpent.

So I slid the last five or six feet, reached across his shoulder, shoving him sideways, and yanked Anne out from under that serpent.

Anne went sprawling on the floor, and Borchard came for me, his thin, parchment- like lips pulled back from his snarling teeth, and his hands raised like two claws. We tangled, and his hands went for my throat. I could see that snake's pin-point eyes watching us as Borchard dragged me to the floor, slammed himself down on top of me, driving the breath out of my body, and clamped those powerful fingers of his around my throat. His breath was in my face, and it smelled foul, fetid, like the stench of death.

I squirmed around, trying to break that grip, but it was no use. His hands were powerful.

I began to gasp for air. My head was getting dizzy again. I slammed out with my fist, kicked him in the shins, but he held on.

His face was close to mine, and he snarled, “Damn you—damn you! You have robbed me of a fortune!”

I couldn't talk any more, and I felt myself getting kind of weak. I wanted to yell out to Anne Seymour to get the devil out of there, but I couldn't make any sounds come out of my throat. Things began to get spotty in front of my eyes. I figured I was about through.

And then, without warning, Borchard's grip on my throat relaxed. He shrieked— again and again—while I drew great gulps of air into my lungs. I rolled away weakly, groped to my feet. And I stood there, staring stupidly, uncomprehendingly, at the struggling, threshing body of Borchard, about which was wound coil upon coil of the sinuous body of the great snake. The serpent had picked him for its supper. And I wasn't going to do anything about it except to hope that it choked on him.

A hand clutched at my sleeve, and I looked down to see Anne Seymour. She was sane now, scared out of her drugged trance.

“Take me away!” she gasped. She took one look at Borchard, just as some of his bones started to crunch. She closed her eyes and swayed, would have fallen if I hadn't caught her.

I picked her up, started for the staircase leading up to the ledge. Borchard kept on screaming behind us, but his screams were getting weaker and weaker.

WE weren't out of the woods yet, by any means. I found out that the two fat negresses could do something else besides play the flute. The last glimpse I'd gotten of them was when Borchard had me down; I had seen them standing, each at her corner of the dais, rooted to their places with fear of the serpent, afraid to come any closer than they were.

Now, as I made for the staircase, I suddenly heard the wildest, most frenzied sort of shrieking that yours truly has ever had the privilege—if you want to call it that—of listening to. I took one quick, startled look behind, and, sure enough, it was my flute playing pal and her girl friend.

They were coming after us.

Their hair was streaming out behind them as they ran; they were drooling at the mouth and shrieking at the same time; and their eyes were wide, mad, rimmed with red. They had long nails, and their hands, flourishing knives, were sort of reaching out after me as if they wanted to rip me apart and take me home for souvenirs. They looked like the pictures I had seen of those mythological dames who are known as “The Furies.”

Well, believe me, I put on a burst of speed. If I had been clocked then, I bet I would have broken not only the record for the Marine Corps, but the world record. The only thing that saved us from those two dames with the long nails and knives was the fact that they were fat, and waddled.

I beat them to the stone staircase, swung Anne Seymour over my shoulder, and raced up.

On the ledge I stumbled over one of the unconscious blacks, almost fell, but recovered my balance by a miracle. The stone slab was in place in the opening above.

I set Anne on her feet, let her lean against the wall, and climbed the few steps of the short wooden ladder that led up to it. I pushed hard with my shoulder, the slab gave, and I had it opened in a moment.

Those two fat negresses were waddling up the stairs, still screaming, but no sound came from Borchard. And I didn't look over there to see how he was getting along.

I reached down, gave Anne a hand, and fairly dragged her up the ladder into the vault.

The two negresses were paddling across along the ledge now, and I literally slammed the slab down in their faces. We were up in the darkness of the mausoleum now. I turned, found Anne Seymour's hand, and raced with her out into the night.

We didn't stop till we got out onto the highway.

Behind us we were able to see the two shadowy figures of the negresses, still coming after us.

I had no desire to tangle with them, and I looked up and down desperately for some sort of vehicle.

And there it came.

My taxi driver!

And out of the cab leaped a couple of State policemen.

The driver got out, explained sheepishly, “This business looked phony, mister, so I went back and got a couple of cops.”

“Boy,” I exclaimed, “you're Santa Claus!”

I said to the two cops, “We'll have company here in a minute—two negresses. Grab 'em.”

I couldn't be of any assistance to them, because Anne Seymour was leaning heavily against me, and I had to hold her up.

I fairly carried her into the taxicab, sat down alongside her. We watched while the two State policemen subdued the negresses.

“What—what did Borchard want with me?” Anne Seymour asked. She was still trembling. “I—hardly seem to remember what happened.”

“It was just a blackmail racket,” I explained to her. “He had a couple of guys there ready to take a picture of you as a snake worshipper, and then he would hold your old man up for plenty of jack—make him buy the picture back. It's an old racket: I've been up against these cults before; but I never saw it worked in just this way.”

“But—but what was I doing there, with that snake?” She shuddered as she asked.

“Just forget about it, kid; just forget about it,” I told her. “It's, all over now.”

I wasn't going to tell her what she had looked like to me as I saw her from up there on the ledge. Better to let it stay in the limbo of her subconscious.

The only thing I regretted was that my hundred dollar a day job was over. I consoled myself with the thought that maybe old man Seymour would come across with a bonus.

And he did. And it was a fat one.

But I didn't tell the old man about a little secret that I'm going to let you in on now— provided you promise to keep it to yourself. This is it: Borchard might have been a pretty screwy kind of blackmail artist; but he was as good as his word, and I guess he had been pretty sure of himself.

Because when I got back to my hotel, I took a chance and looked in the top drawer of my dresser. And sure enough, there was a neat little package. When I opened it, I found that it contained fifty brand new one hundred dollar bills—just as he had promised!


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent "X", August 1934

THE body of the dead Chinaman was the first thing that Nick Ronson saw when he came into the library of the wealthy Gregory Deming. Next to the Chinaman was another lumpy form.

The man from the medical examiner's office was just starting to work on the body of the little yellow man. He was not pleasant to look at; he had been shot through the head, and the bullet had come out in back.

Nick turned an inquiring glance at the others.

McGuire, of homicide, was sitting in a straight-backed chair and talking confidentially to Gregory Deming. Deming, the well-known collector of jade, seemed to be all broken up.

Not so, McGuire. The homicide man was smoking one of Deming's expensive cigars with evident relish. His trousers were pulled up at the knees, and the cuffs were an inch or so above the tops of his purple socks, which he wore without garters. He glanced away from Deming, and his self-satisfied look changed to a sulky frown when the manservant preceded Nick Ronson across the room—taking care to give the bodies a wide berth—and announced to the jade collector, "Mr. Ronson, sir."

Deming pulled himself together, arose with a word of apology to the homicide man, and offered his hand to Nick.

Nick shook hands with him, then said to the police detective, "Hello, Mac. How's tricks?"

McGuire scowled. "Pretty good till you showed up. Anybody send for you, or did you just smell trouble?"

Deming smiled apologetically at McGuire. "Sorry. I've been so upset I forgot to mention it before. I thought it best to hire a private detective as a bodyguard. These Orientals, you know—"

"Sure, sure," McGuire growled. "It's your privilege, Mr. Deming."

Nick said, "I didn't understand that you only wanted a bodyguard. I could have assigned one of my men for twenty-five a day. I don't usually—"

Deming interrupted. "I know, Mr. Ronson. But I don't want an ordinary operative. I know you're worth more than that yourself—but I'm ready to pay it. You can write your own ticket."

Nick shrugged. "All right, if that's the way you feel about it." He glanced across at the bodies. "Who did all the shooting?"

Deming said nervously, "I did." He pointed to an open wall safe. "I got back earlier than usual tonight, and found the Chinaman at the safe. He had stabbed Frayner." Deming closed his eyes hard as a surge of emotion swept over him. He indicated the body under the sheet, next to the Chinaman. "That's Frayner. He was my secretary; been with me for five years; just been married—and he has to be stabbed to death protecting my jade collection from a common thief!" The collector turned back to Nick, his chin quivering. "That Chinaman must have had the combination, because the safe was open the way it is now. When I surprised him, he came at me with a knife—the same knife he killed Frayner with. Luckily, I was armed, and I shot him."

McGuire got out of his chair. "Everything checks," he told Nick. "There's the knife on the table. The Chink's prints are on the safe. I called downtown, and Inspector Glennon said it wouldn't be necessary to bring Mr. Deming down now. It's a plain case of robbery and murder."

Nick said. "So what am I supposed to do around here? What're you afraid of, Mr. Deming?"

The tall, graceful jade collector was looking at the body of the yellow man with somber eyes. "I'm afraid there may be—reprisals. These Chinese—"

NICK walked over to the body. The medical examiner was through, and was making out a report. On the dead man's middle finger was a wide gold band. Nick bent and saw that there was an inscription in Chinese characters etched in the gold. He could read the hieroglyphics almost as well as he could read English; he had spent many eventful years in the East. That particular inscription he had seen often before. Translated, it meant roughly, "Respect the gods, but have as little as possible to do with them."

Nick arose from the body, and faced Deming. "Did the Chink get anything out of the safe?"

Deming nodded. He produced two pieces of jade from his pocket. Each piece was five and a half inches long. There were jagged edges on one side of each. Nick took them from Deming, and fitted them together. The jagged edges fell into place, the two pieces became as one, forming a little icon, or image, representing a man squatted upon a low pedestal.

Across the front of the pedestal was engraved the same inscription as on the dead man's ring!

Deming was saying, "That's a figure of Confucius, carved in nephritic jade. The workmanship is consummate; the piece is perhaps two thousand years old. It is absolutely impossible to estimate its value in dollars. I wouldn't sell it for a million."

McGuire took the cigar out of his mouth to say, "The Chink had both pieces in his pocket. That's all he was after."

There was a thoughtful expression in Nick's eyes as he handed the image back to Deming. "Looks to me," he said, "like you'll need more than protection—you'll need life insurance. This image comes from a shrine of Kung Fu-tsu, which is the Chinese equivalent of Confucius. The shrines of Kung Fu-tsu are under the special protection of the Kung Tong, and the dead Chinaman there is a member of it." He shook his head. "No thanks, Mr. Deming. I can't take the assignment. When those boys have it in for you, it's just too bad."

McGuire said sneeringly, "Just yella, huh?"

Nick glared, was about to say something nasty, when Deming interrupted hastily. "Look here, Ronson. From what I've heard of you, you're not the man to turn down a job because it's dangerous. That's why I called you in. I want to keep this jade, and I also want to stay alive. I'll pay you five thousand dollars to fix it so I don't have to worry about this Kung Tong any more—and I don't care how you do it!"

Nick considered for a moment. Then he said, "They may want indemnity—for him." He nodded toward the body.

"I'll pay it—whatever they ask. And the fee to you for arranging it."

"All right," Nick agreed. "You keep to the house—don't go out till I see what's what. I'll send a couple of my men over to take care of you in case these boys start something prematurely."

Deming said, "You want a check?"

Nick nodded. "In advance. I don't guarantee results, and I'd hate to have to sue your estate for it."

Deming made a wry face, but he sat down and wrote the check.

Nick took it, grinned at McGuire, and went out.

In the street he hailed a cab, and said, "Corner of Race and Marley."

WHEN he got out of the cab he walked down a half block, and stood for a moment, looking up at the bleak brownstone facade of the house on Marley Street.

He made sure that his .32 Special slid easy in the holster beneath his armpit, walked up the five steps of the stoop, and rang the bell.

Almost before he had his finger off the button, the door was opened by a short, skinny Chinaman, who, when he saw Nick, bobbed his head and said squeakily, "Hello, Misteh Lonson. Come lite in. Charley Mee waits for you."

Nick said nothing, but his eye went to the gold band on the middle finger of the Chinaman's right hand. It was the same kind of ring that the dead Chinaman in Deming's living room had worn.

Nick stepped into the dark hall-way, and the servant closed the door. Then he turned and led the way toward the rear, saying, "Please to follow me, Misteh Lonson."

Nick thought he detected a subtle gleam in the skinny Chinaman's eye, but he had long ago learned the futility of trying to read any sort of meaning into the expression of a Chinaman's face. He went along behind him till they reached a massive oak door at the end of the corridor.

The servant rapped in a peculiar way—twice, then once, then three times very swiftly. Almost at once there was a click, and the heavy door started to swing open.

The room within was only dimly lighted by a single low lamp that stood near the door.

In the middle of the room was a long table. There were chairs around this table, but none was occupied except the one at the head, facing the door. In this chair sat a very fat, motionless Chinaman.

Nick stepped into the room, and the door closed mechanically, leaving the skinny servant on the outside. Nick noted that the fat man was manipulating a row of buttons on the table. These, doubtless, controlled the door—also, perhaps, various other gadgets in the room.

Nick walked up to the end of the table opposite the fat man and said. "Hello, Charlie. How did you know I was coming?"

The fat man spoke impassively. His countenance, which was almost entirely in shade, hardly seemed to move, except for his lips. His English was as good as Nick's, with the exception of a slight lisp. "This poor offspring of a snail," he said, "is overwhelmed with humiliation that he cannot rise to fittingly greet the eminent Mister Ronson. But the disabilities of old age weigh heavily upon me. I—"

"Can it, Charlie," Nick interrupted him, unceremoniously. "I know you're a fraud, so why waste all the words on me. How did you know I was coming?"

Charlie Mee did not move. His voice took on an edge of sharpness. "You are the same old Nick Ronson—always getting to the point. What difference does it make how I knew? You are here. You have something to say?"

Nick nodded. He put both hands on the table, leaned forward. "I have, Charlie. And this is it. You're the head of the Kung Tong. I know it, because I learned it once when I did you a service. I was well paid for that service, and we are quits. I ask nothing for that. But I have come now to offer you something."

Charlie Mee said nothing, did not move. He waited in silence, the epitome of the patient Oriental.

Nick went on after a moment. "Today, one of your brotherhood broke into the home of Gregory Deming, the jade collector. He stabbed Deming's secretary to death, and attempted to steal a jade figure of Kung Fu-tsu, Deming surprised him, and when this member of your Tong attempted to attack, Deming shot him in the head."

Still the fat man maintained silence. Only his eyes were now glittering dangerously.

Nick continued. "Deming was justified in shooting your Tong member. But he's afraid the Tong maybe out for blood—so he's engaged me to keep his skin whole. I have taken his money, therefore it follows that I must fight his enemies. I should be very sorry if you felt that you had to avenge this member of yours who killed Deming's secretary."

Nick stopped. He had made his position clear.

For a long time Charlie Mee gazed at him impassively down the length of the bare table. Nick wondered what devious thoughts were going through that Oriental mind.

Finally Charlie Mee stirred and spoke. "The laws of the Tong forbid me to speak freely to one of an alien race, Mister Ronson. But I am sorry that you have taken this man Deming's money. For it is written that Deming must die—and you must fail in your task. Let me give you a warning—return this money and wash your hands of it. There is safety for you in that course. Otherwise, much as I regret to say it, death waits for you, as well as for him."

"You don't understand," said Nick. "Deming is willing to pay a cash indemnity to satisfy the Tong. You can practically name your own price."

Charlie Mee answered him, speaking very slowly. "There is no indemnity, Mister Ronson, that will satisfy the Kung Tong. Deming's life is forfeit. We will purchase the jade image from his estate."

NICK took his hands off the table and stood up straight. His hands hung loosely at his sides, and he nudged the armpit holster a trifle forward with his left arm. "Then it must be a war between us, Charlie. You know I never back out of a job."

The fat man nodded. "I know that, Mister Ronson, and that is why I took precautions when I learned that Deming had sent for you. I knew that you would come here first, for you are a straightforward man, a worthy opponent. But you are beaten. Deming is beaten. It is regrettable that you, whom I truly admire, must go down to destruction with your client."

Nick smiled crookedly. "All right, Charlie, we understand each other fine—you love me, and I love you—like brothers. In fact we love each other so much we're gonna have a little private war."

The fat Chinaman nodded. "Reluctantly, I agree with you. It is war!" He leaned forward a little, his eyes staring opaquely along the table.

"When," Nick asked, "does this war start—when I leave your house?"

Charlie Mee's fat lips twisted into a smile. "I am so sorry, Mister Ronson. The war must begin—now! Even though you are a guest in this poor house of mine, I cannot afford to allow you to leave it alive. You are the only white man who knows of this house. Now that you are an enemy, you must die!"

Nick scowled. His hand flashed to his armpit holster, but stopped when Charlie Mee rapped out an imperative, "Wait!"

The fat man raised a forefinger on which the elongated fingernail gleamed to a claw-like point and indicated a section of the wall at Nick's right. "I told you," he went on, "that I had taken precautions."

Nick, standing rigid, his hand within an inch of the gun butt, flicked his eyes to the right, and started.

There was a panel in the wall which must have opened soundlessly. Framed in the opening, knelt a raw-boned, high-cheeked hatchet-man. He was dressed in black, with a black skull cap. Beady eyes were sighted along the barrel of a Browning rapid-firer which was trained unswervingly on Nick's middle! A yellow hand fingered the lever tautly.

Nick swung his eyes back to the fat man. He still kept his right hand taut, and spoke through thin lips. "It won't do, Charlie. Your playmate will get me, all right, but I'll crease you, too, for sure. You know I can do it; right through the heart."

Charlie Mee smiled. "Indeed, you are renowned for your skill with a gun. But I have anticipated that, too. These buttons on the table are not the only ones. My feet—"

Even as he spoke, his feet moved, and a sheet of steel shot up from what had looked like a groove in the table. The steel snapped up to a height of about four feet, effectively screening the fat man from Nick's view.

At the same time, from behind the barrier, Charlie Mee uttered a short string of commands in Cantonese.

Nick rolled away from the table, his hand snaking out the gun at the same moment that the Browning in the hands of the hatchetman began to spit flame and to chatter wickedly in the semi-gloom.

Nick heard the wicked spat of the slugs tearing into the floor just beyond the spot where he had been. If the raw-boned Chinaman had been more adept at handling the quick-firer, he could have raked the room and torn Nick to pieces. As it was, though, he kept his finger on the trip, and exhausted the entire drum before he could shift; it takes a lot of practice to swing a Browning, even in a short arc, before the drum is empty.

The hatchet-man didn't realize his ammunition was out, and finally got the Browning around so that it bore on Nick. But it no longer spouted lead. He looked down at it with an expression of puzzlement.

The quiet in the room after the smashing chatter of the gun was oppressive.

Nick was on his knees on the floor. The hatchet-man raised his head in sudden panic as understanding came to him that he was without ammunition. He dropped the rapid-firer, and his hand darted to his sleeve, came out with a glittering, curved knife. But Nick was on his feet, grinning and yelling, "Oh Boy!"

He darted quickly across the room, and brought the barrel of his gun down on the Chinaman's skull. Yellow skin cracked, and the hatchet-man dumped forward on the floor, face down on the Browning, the knife still clutched in convulsive fingers.

Nick swung around, stepped toward the far end of the long table where Charlie Mee had been. Charlie Mee was no longer there!

He had evidently slipped out through another panel when the shooting started.

Nick came back to the open panel. The hatchet-man lay across the opening, and the panel, which had started to close, had stopped its motion when it hit him.

Nick stepped through and found himself in a long, dark corridor. The walls were of some sort of metal, lined with asbestos. Sound proof. Which accounted for the absence of police after the shooting.

The dim light from the room behind left the far part of the corridor in blackness. Nick went along slowly, gun at his hip, left hand feeling the wall.

Suddenly, up ahead, a door in the left side of the corridor opened; a shaft of weak light illumined a form that leaped into the corridor; the door was closed.

Nick knew that he was outlined by the light behind him for the benefit of whoever had come into the narrow corridor. Instinctively he crouched, just as a gleaming knife flashed through the air above him. The knife caromed against the partly closed panel behind and clattered on the floor.

Its tinkling clatter was only an echo, though, of Nick's heavy gun roaring in the darkness. He shot three times toward the one who had thrown the knife, and then lay flat on the floor for a moment. At first there was no sound from up ahead, then a slight shuffling noise, and a groan.

NICK ran forward; getting out his flashlight. The man he had shot lay half reclining against the wall. He was small, yellow, with deep sunken eyes—another hatchetman. Three distinct bubbles of blood spurted from his chest. Nick's shooting had been perfect.

Nick threw the light in the Chinaman's face, and even as he did so, the man's eyes glazed and there was a death rattle in his throat.

Nick's back was to the door that the hatchet-man had come out of, and he hastened to rectify that by hurrying away down the corridor. He glanced back at intervals, expecting the panel to open again, but it didn't. At last he reached the end of the corridor, and felt a door knob; turned, and found the door locked. He wasted no time, putting a bullet right smash into the lock between the jamb and the door. He tried the knob again, and the door swung free. Nick stepped out into the night and found himself in a back yard.

There was a litter of garbage cans around, and he started to make his way through them. He heard a window creaking open in the house above him. If he were spotted now, he could be picked off with ease. He looked about for cover. His hand rested on one of the garbage cans, and he saw that it was empty. Just as the window came up, he vaulted into the can and ducked his head.

From his retreat he heard Charlie Mee say in Cantonese, "Do not shoot; it is not desirable to attract attention to ourselves at this time. Go down into the yard and search. He has not had time to escape from there."

A moment later a voice from down in the yard near the door called out, also in Cantonese, "He has come through here, master; the lock is shot away!"

Charlie Mee ordered, "Search the yard carefully, then. Look in all the trash cans. Do not let him escape!"

Feet scurried in the yard. Nick held his gun steady, barrel pointing up toward the sky. He could see a single star above him, and a slowly moving cloud that was moving up to obscure the star.

Suddenly a gaunt yellow face hid the star and the cloud from his view. The face started to shout, and Nick fired. The face disintegrated, and Nick jumped straight up, put a foot on the edge of the can, and vaulted over.

A chorus of shrill yells came from various parts of the yard. Flashlight beams flitted about. Nick stepped over the body of the Chinaman who lay alongside the garbage can, and darted across the yard.

From the window above, Charlie Mee shouted in shrill sing-song dialect, "Shoot! Shoot now! He must not escape!"

Nick swung his gun up and took a pot-shot at the sound of Charlie's voice, and knew that he had not hit him, for wood splintered the framework of the window up there.

Lead winged past him, a slug tore at his sleeve. But the Chinese are notoriously poor shots, and he reached the fence unwounded. A dark shape hurtled at him, and Nick straight-armed that shape with the hand that held the gun. The shape uttered a pained yelp, and collapsed.

Nick hoisted himself up on a garbage can alongside the fence and jumped. Shouts rose to a tumultuous crescendo behind him; a gun barked from the window above, and just at that moment Nick's foot caught on a projecting nail as he was clearing the fence. His arms went out wildly into the air, and he hurtled over into the next yard. He landed heavily on concrete, the breath knocked out of him for the second.

He heard one of the Chinese in the next yard call out, "He is killed, master. Your aim was true!"

Charlie Mee replied from above in his unhurried voice, "Come up, then, quickly. Leave his body. We must abandon this house before the police come."

Nick got up and felt about for his gun which he had dropped when he fell, picked it up, and sped away through the yard, down an alley.

He saw the back of a policeman who was just turning the corner on the run from Race into Marley, and he walked away rapidly in the opposite direction.

At the corner of Claremont Avenue he hailed a cab and gave the address of Deming's home. Just as the cab got under way, a police radio car tore down Claremont and rounded into Race, with siren shrieking.

The driver called back through the open sliding window, "Must be another shooting. The way these cops ride, you'd think there wasn't nobody on the streets but them!"

Nick didn't answer; he was busy loading his gun.

A LITTLE surprise was waiting for him in front of Deming's house. There was a police radio car at the curb, a headquarters' car, and an ambulance. A small crowd was being held back from in front of the entrance by a couple of bluecoats.

One of the cops stopped Nick as he shoved his way to the front row of the crowd.

"What's happened?" Nick demanded of the cop.

The uniformed man didn't vouchsafe him any response, but pushed him back into the crowd. Nick lunged, shoved the cop out of the way, and sprang up the steps of the house.

The policeman roared, "Hey, you!" and leaped after him.

Nick gained the entrance, and bumped into a giant of a man in plain clothes who was just coming out.

Nick gripped the man's sleeve, panted, "H'ya, Glennon? Tell this flatfoot I'm okay, will you? He wouldn't listen to me!"

Inspector Glennon scowled at Nick, and grudgingly said to the cop, "It's all right. Get back there and hold that crowd."

Then the inspector took Nick by the arm and urged him into the house. "You're just the baby I been looking for, Ronson. There's something stinks in this whole business, and you're the fair-haired boy that knows all the answers!"

"Sure," said Nick. "I know all the answers. Any time you're stuck, just ask me. Only suppose you tell me what's happened around here?"

Glennon looked down from the height of his six-foot-two to Nick's measly five-foot-ten, and said, "Nothing's happened, baby. Nothing—at—all !"

He piloted Nick into the living room, and Nick gasped. The living room looked like a temporary field hospital. McGuire lay stretched on the sofa, groaning, while a white-coated interne wrapped bandage around his head.

Munsey, one of Nick's operatives, sat in the easy chair while another interne taped his arm. The body of the Chinaman whom Deming had killed was still on the floor next to that of Frayner, the secretary. Both were covered now.

Nick's other operative, Joe Brody, was standing by the couch trying to help the interne bandage McGuire's head. Joe Brody had his right trouser leg rolled up above his knee, and his leg was plastered up with gauze and adhesive tape.

Inspector Glennon let go of Nick's arm and said, "Well?"

Nick said, "What was it, Joe, a raid?"

Joe Brody turned from the couch and grinned sheepishly. "Just that, boss. The Chinks took us unawares. I was in here with Deming, and Munsey was outside at the door. McGuire, here, was keeping Deming and me company until the morgue wagon came for the stiffs."

"So what happened?" Nick asked impatiently.

"So the first thing," Brody went on, "we heard a battling around at the outside door, and a shot. So I get up to take a look-see, and just at that minute three wild Chinks bust in here with a sawed-off shotgun, and let fly without a single word. It got us all except Deming who was sitting in that chair over there, out of range. Then when I was on the floor with this stuff in my leg, I tried to go for my gun, and one of the Chinks covered me. So I had to lay there while they dragged Deming out."

Nick's eyes were smoldering. "Nice!" he grunted. "Fine protection we gave Deming! What happened to him?"

Glennon coughed. "They took him away in a delivery truck marked, 'Fancy Groceries.' There was an alarm out for the truck inside of five minutes, but it did no good. We found the truck down on the West Side, abandoned. They must have switched to another car."

Nick asked, "Did Deming have that jade figure on him?"

Brody shook his head. He took the two pieces of jade out of his own pocket. "No. He had given them to me to hold. And the dopes never stopped to make sure he had them. I guess they were a little nervous, even with the riot guns."

Nick snatched up the two parts of the jade figure. His eyes glinted.

Glennon growled at him, "Look here, baby—what's this all about? Where were you while this was going on?"

Nick laughed mirthlessly. "Where was I? I must have been at a movie. Or maybe I was having my nails manicured." He turned to go. "Take Munsey home when he's fixed up, Joe. And don't feel too bad about it. I should have put an army in here instead of just two guys."

Glennon's thick arm came up to bar his way. "Hold everything, baby! Where the hell do you think you're going with that jade! And where the hell do you think you're going—anyway?"

Nick stopped short and glared at him. "I'm gonna earn my five grand, you dope, by getting Deming out of one hell of a pickle. You should be the last one to stop me. I'm doing cop's work for the department, and all I get is abuse!"

"All right, all right," Glennon soothed. "Don't get huffed up. That jade figure is evidence, an' we'll need it. You can't take it away like that."

"This jade figure," Nick said slowly, "is what is going to save the police department a hell of a lot of razzing. Because it's going to bring Deming back with a whole skin. Do I get it, or don't I?"

Glennon stared at him stonily for a long while, then shrugged. "You're a hard guy to get along with, Ronson, but I got to play this your way. You're in the saddle. You wouldn't want to take me in on the know with you, eh?"

"I wouldn't," Nick told him.

Glennon sighed. "Go ahead, then." His brows came together, and he poked a finger under Nick's nose. "But if you muff this, and let Deming get bumped, I'll ride you out of town—and don't you forget it!"

Nick pocketed the jade, grinned across the room at McGuire who was sitting up on the couch looking like a Turk with the bandage on his head and a scowl on his face. "So long, Mac," he called, and went out with a mock salute to Glennon.

OUTSIDE, he saw the same cab driver who had brought him to the house. The driver grinned, and said, "I figured there'd be some sort of a ride back, so I hung around."

"All right," Nick grunted. "You get a good ride. Take me through the Holland Tunnel to Hoboken—and squeeze the minutes!"

At the corner of Ninth and Peasley, in Hoboken, Nick got out of the cab and said, "If you're looking for more business, you can wait around. I might be coming back."

The driver grinned, showing a hole where two teeth were missing. "I'll wait. You seem to be the kind of a guy that always comes back."

Nick left him and walked up past two or three buildings till he came to the dirty plate glass window on which was lettered:

Sam Mee Hand Laundry

There was a light in the store, and three undersized yellow men were working away industriously, with the sweat pouring down their necks and soaking their undershirts. They were all south of China boys, meagre of build, but wiry, and dangerous in a fight.

One of them came behind the counter when Nick entered, looked at him expectantly, as if waiting for him to produce a "tickee." But when he got a good look at Nick, his face became blank, devoid of expression. His body seemed to go taut.

Nick said, in Cantonese, "It is many months since I have seen you, Sam Mee. Your health is good, I trust?"

The other two Chinamen looked up from their work when they heard the fluent flow of sing-song syllables coming from the white man's mouth. Sam Mee did not show by a single flicker of expression that he understood what the detective had said. His hand stole along underneath the counter, while his eyes remained locked with the visitor's.

Nick saw the movement out of the corner of his eye, and shook his head reprovingly. "The wise man knows when he has met his superior," he quoted in Chinese. "Do not try to press that button which will warn those inside, Sam. You remember the time that I saved you from a murder charge? You remember how fast my shooting was then? I can still shoot, Sam."

He spoke very softly, but Sam Mee stopped the motion of his hand, brought both hands to the top of the counter.

"I remember," he answered, "the service you did me, thereby placing the whole Kung Tong in your debt. But this is a matter that is deeper than the life of any of us. My brother has told me about your visit to the tong house, how you chose to take the other side. He thought you were killed there, but I see he was in error. Now that you are still alive, I beg of you, do not go behind the rear partition tonight, for you will exhaust the patience of the gods. It will surely mean your death, and I will be sad."

Nick wagged his head from side to side. "Sorry, Sam, but I got to see this through."

He walked sideways toward the rear of the store, keeping an eye on all three of them. At the rear wall he felt around with his hand until he found a button. He pressed it, and a section of the rear wall slid open. He stepped through, and the sliding door closed behind him.

He was in a lighted, bare room. A wiry yellow man sat before a closed door at the far end. The yellow man snarled, his hands moved like lightning, and a knife came hurtling through the air. But Nick was already on his knees. The knife imbedded itself in the closed panel, and the Chinaman reached for a gun.

Nick flashed his own out of its holster, covered the other. The Chinaman froze, hand inside of his shirt.

Nick said in the other's tongue, "You are not ready to go to meet your ancestors yet. Do not draw that weapon."

His words were convincing enough, for the Chinaman took his hand slowly out of his shirt, raised it and the other in the air. Nick came up close to him, said in English, "It hurts me to do this, brother, but you know how it is!" His left fist crashed against the Chinaman's chin, and the hatchet-man went down in a heap with a muted groan.

Nick gripped hard on the knob of the door the hatchet-man had been guarding, and turned it slowly. Then he pulled it toward him very gently. The door opened.

Through the slight crack thus made, Nick could see a room luxuriously furnished in oriental style. But he could only get a view of a small portion of it. He saw a black-garbed yellow man stooping intently over something that might have been a table.

Then he heard a smothered cry of agony, and tore the door wide open, stepped in, gun at his hip.

THERE was a table in the center of the room. Deming, stripped to the waist, was strapped to the table. Charlie Mee was standing close by, regarding the proceedings with a benign expression.

The black-garbed hatchet-man, Nick now saw, was one of three around the table. He was holding a strange sort of thing that looked like a pin cushion with the pins reversed, the points sticking outward. The cushion was attached to a bamboo handle, and just as Nick stepped into the room, the hatchet-man had finished sweeping it down across Deming's naked chest in a raking blow that caused the pins to scrape bloody furrows in the jade collector's body.

There was a bandage over Deming's eyes, and he strained against his bonds in agony.

Nick said nothing, just swung his gun in an arc to cover the four yellow men. One of the black-clothed ones made a motion to go for a gun, but Charlie Mee, with a movement that was surprisingly swift for so fat a man, put a restraining hand on his arm.

The hatchet-man let his hand drop to his side, and stared at Nick out of narrow, wicked eyes.

Charlie Mee walked around the table, came close to Nick, with his hands spread out, palms up. He said very low, in Cantonese, "You are a man of miracles. I was aware that you knew of this place, but I thought that you were killed; my heart is glad now that you were not. Since you seem to have us at your mercy, I ask you to wait another moment; you may learn something that will surprise you. Please answer me in my own tongue—I do not wish that Deming should know you are present."

Nick looked into the fat man's eyes, and shrugged. "I will wait, and see what I shall see." he answered. "But I am not to be taken unawares."

Charlie Mee nodded wordlessly and returned to the table on which the blindfolded Deming was strapped. He spoke to him in English. "Where, my friend, is the image of Kung Fu-tsu? Before we go on with the Death of a Thousand Cuts, you have another chance to speak."

Deming groaned. "I tell you, I haven't got it! I gave it to that private detective. Get him. If you torture him, he'll give it to you. God, let me up! I can't stand any more!"

Charlie Mee bent lower over him. "Tell us, then, once more, what happened in your house when you killed the brother of the Kung Tong—not the story you told the police and Mr. Ronson, but the true story!"

Deming spoke with difficulty. His chest was heaving, little rivulets of blood were running down his body from the cuts onto the table. "God! I've told you that already. Can't you let me alone?"

Charlie Mee said patiently, "There is a man here whom the Tong holds in high esteem. We wish him to hear the story from your own lips. Speak quickly, and we may spare you further—er—affliction."

"All right," Deming moaned. "That Chinaman had half of the Confucius, and I had the other half. He wouldn't sell, he wanted to buy my piece. He brought his part to my house to compare it—I got him to do it, making him think I was willing to sell. And when he came, I killed him; killed him, and took his half. Together, the two halves make the most precious piece of jade in the world. I would have killed a hundred men to own the whole thing!"

Nick's eyes opened wide while Deming spoke. He took a step toward the table, his face purpling, but he stopped as Charlie Mee bent lower and ordered, "Repeat now, the part about the secretary."

"I killed Frayner, too," Deming croaked hoarsely. "Frayner came in just when I shot the Chinaman. He saw me do it. I hit him on the head, and then stabbed him with the Chinaman's knife. Then I touched the Chinaman's fingers to the safe and made it look like robbery!" His body sagged weakly in the straps. "Now, you devils, let me up," he gasped.

Charlie Mee straightened up over the table, and his eyes met Nick's. Then he waved the three hatchet-men back. The one with the pincushion went to a corner and put it away.

Charlie Mee said to Nick, still in Cantonese, "You see, my friend, the nature of the cause you have espoused? I could not explain to you before because the laws of our Tong forbid us to speak of our wrongs to one of an alien race, even if it means death to those we love. We must work out our own vengeances." He smiled a little. "But I have violated no Tong laws. I told you nothing. This man has spoken for me. Now you know."

Nick slowly put his gun away. From his other pocket he took the two jade pieces, laid them together and handed the image to the fat man. "This is yours," he said.

Charlie Mee took the icon, and for the first time he smiled. "I was desolated when I had to order you killed, but the Tong comes before all else, as you well know, who have yourself lived among my countrymen. Had you died, I intended, when the image was recovered, to follow you into death to seek your forgiveness. I am a happy man."

Nick took from his wallet the check that Deming had given him and tore it to bits.

Charlie Mee looked at the pieces of paper and said, "The Tong knows how to reward its friends. You shall not be the loser for having destroyed that check."

"The man on the table," Nick said sternly, "must be turned over to the law."

Charlie Mee bowed graciously. "We are done with him. He is yours. The price he would have received for his half of the jade shall go to the dead man's relatives as indemnity."

"All right," said Nick. "You deliver him. I'll go ahead and prepare Inspector Glennon."

From the table came a moan, and Deming called out weakly, "What are you going to do with me? What are you going to do with me? God, don't cut me with those pins anymore!"

"You," Nick said in English, "are not going to be cut any more. You are going to burn!"

And he went out to find his cab.


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent "X", Feb 1935


It was just a slip of pink paper written in Spanish, but Don Manton was one of those wise dicks who could read death in any language.


MY full name, which I now reveal publicly for the first time, is Donald Faversham Manton—not such a hot name for a case-hardened private dick like me. But let it ride. I've struggled through thirty-two years with the name. Some people call me Don Manton; a few call me Don—very few, because I'm choosey about my friends. And a great many people have called me other things, ranging from short, sharp, ugly four-letter words to longer, just-as-ugly, seven, ten and eleven-letter words.

But nobody has ever called me a sap—which this Spanish dame in the bank must have figured me for.

The way it started was like this. I was down in the vaults of the Inter-City Trust, for the purpose of getting my life insurance policies out so as to make a loan on them. Business had not been so swell of late, what with a couple of my star financier clients getting sent to jail for this and that; so I needed a little ready cash for operating expenses until I could dig up new customers.

Well, I had taken the safe-deposit box into one of those cute cubbyholes they provide for so-called privacy. It had no door, and I could see out into the corridor, across into the cubbyhole opposite. There was a gent in there with a trim moustache and a carefully clipped Vandyke. He was pawing through his box, apparently looking for some certain paper, and he looked plenty nervous and excited.

I'm always interested in people who are nervous and excited—like a bloodhound, scenting business. So I kind of kept my eye on him while I got my own stuff. I took out the policies I needed, and closed the box. As I left my cubbyhole to return it to its niche, I saw this bearded gent snatch up a small strip of pink paper and examine it avidly, sort of muttering to himself as he did so.

I had to go down the length of the corridor to get to the grilled door where you return the boxes when you're through with them. And on the way back I saw this gent coming out of his own cubbyhole, bringing his box back, too. It was a big box—one of the thirty-dollar-a-year ones—and was clumsy to carry. He had it under his arm, and was evidently laboring under some great agitation.

Well, there was nothing remarkable about a middle-aged guy carrying a safe- deposit box back to the vault—even if he was a little excited.

It was the thing that happened next that pulled me into the whole nasty nightmare.

Out of the cubbyhole next to the one I had been in, came this Spanish dame that I mentioned before. She must have been watching him, because she stepped out at the same minute that he did, and naturally, the two of them bumped in the narrow corridor.

The dame lost her balance, and stumbled, against him, grabbing his shoulder with her black-gloved hand. The old gent had a hard time of it for a second, holding on to the box and trying to support the dame. But they finally got themselves straightened out, and the dame said, in a sweet, soft voice, "A thousand pardons, señor. I am so clum-zee!"

The old gent swept off his hat and made a nifty bow. "But no, señorita. The fault is of my own boorish awkwardness!"

I could see the old gink perking up. And this dame, I can vouch, was something to perk up for. She was in her middle twenties, not over five feet four. She had a white, smooth, creamy skin. And her hair, which was coiled up in back under her wide-brimmed hat, was so black and soft-looking it made your fingers itch to run through it, sort of caressing like. Her face was a long, delicate oval under that hat, and when she smiled she was the most gorgeous thing a man could want to lay his eyes on.

She smiled at him, nodded, and passed on. And the old gent sighed deeply as if regretting his lost youth, and came down the corridor past me, with his box. He was so entranced, he didn't even notice me.

As for me, I went after the dame fast and furious.


Because I had noticed what the dame did when she stumbled against him. Her left hand had slipped into his right hand coat pocket, and came out; clutching that pink slip of paper!

Now there were a number of things I could have done at that minute. I could have told the old man that she had his paper; I could have shouted after her to come back and fork over; or, I could have gone after her the way I did. Maybe the reason for that was her looks. I'll leave it open.

Well, I got to the stairs that led up to the street level, and she was at the top, walking calmly, as if she hadn't done a thing in the world to be worried about. If I had been endowed with more of a romantic strain and less experience. I might have been tempted to believe that my eyes had deceived me. But there were no two ways about it—I had seen her lift the paper from his pocket, and what's more, I knew where she had put it—she had tucked it into the right-hand cuff of the coat of her trimly tailored navy blue suit.

And there she was, walking out of the bank as cool as a lady cucumber.

I am seventy-one and a half inches tall, and my legs are plenty long. So I took those stairs four at a time, and got to the top just as she was stepping out on the sidewalk, nodding to the doorman as if she was the queen of China or something.

She turned to the left, and I could see her walking down the street along the bank's plate glass window. I knew I had her then, so I slowed up a little and took it easy on the way out. These days, what with hold-ups and things, it doesn't do to run out of a bank—there are too many nervous guards with guns stuck in the holsters of their cute Sam Browne belts; and a nervous guard with a gun is a dangerous combination.

OUT in the street I speeded up a little, and caught up to her as she was turning the corner. I put a hand on her shoulder and spun her around. She flashed me a look as if I was dirt under her feet, and threw a disgusted glance at the paw I had on her. Boy, she was a swell actress. She had all the appearance of outraged dignity and refinement, though she must have known damn well that she was in a spot.

I beamed at her, and said, "Hello there, Gertie! Gee, ifs swell to see a girl from the old home town!" And with that I grabbed hold of her hand and started pumping it up and down.

She tried to wrench her hand away, saying, "I do not know you, señor—do you not make a meestake?"

"No, sister," I told her. "This is no mistake." And I yanked the pink slip out of her cuff. "You were just about nine seconds too slow. You should practice up. I can give you the address of a good pickpocket school, if you want it."

She started to claw for the paper, but stopped when she saw we were attracting attention. She said low and earnestly, "You will return to me at once my paper, or I call the policeman upon the corner!"

I grinned at her. "Okay, sister. Then we'll all go back to the vault and ask the old gent there if he's lost anything." I dragged at her arm. "Let's do that anyway."

"No. Wait." She held back, looking me over then dropped her eyes to the slip of paper which I was holding onto now. "Perhaps, señor, I can explain."

I grunted. "Go ahead, girlie. I wish you could."

"This paper," she said, "ees to me of great import-ance. Eet belongs to me. That man in the vault—" she shuddered prettily, "ees a what-you-call, Shy-lock, he have loaned to my brother much money, and now he weesh to blackmail heem." She stopped, asked eagerly, "You read Spanish perhaps, señor?"

I shook my head.

She went on swiftly, apparently relieved. "That paper ees my brother's note. My brother have paid heem the money, but this Shy-lock, he refuse to return thee note. He demand more money, and more money." She shrugged prettily. "So I am force' to do this for my poor brother."

"Gee, lady," I said, "I'm sorry for you." I raised the paper and glanced at it.

At this point I must stop and be ashamed to relate that I had lied to the lady. I do understand Spanish, as well as a few more lingoes that I picked up in the course of a four-year stretch in the marines a good while back.

And the first few words were, "La vida es mala—," which, in good American, means, "Life is an evil thing—"

Well, no matter how gullible a guy may be, he is sure to know that that is not the way to begin a note or any other document which promises to pay a sum of money at a future date.

I didn't get a chance to read any more of it, because she started working on me again, right away.

"You see, señor, what terreeble things a girl is sometimes force' to do! I blush with shame. But what would you have—a brother is a brother—"

"Very true, lady," I told her. "And a cat is a cat, and picking a pocket is picking a pocket. So let's go back and talk to this old gent, and see does he want to prefer a charge against you." I shoved the slip of paper in my vest pocket, and bowed, still holding on to her hand. "Or, if you prefer it, shall I take it back to him myself, and tell him I picked it up on the floor by mistake. I'd hate to see a pretty girl like you in a jam with cops and courts and so forth."

Why did I do that?

Well, I always was a softy for pretty dames, even when I knew they were putting one over on me. It's a weakness, I admit, but at least I can say that I never let it go too far. Plenty of other guys have the same weakness—in fact, I would say that ninety per cent of the male population under sixty suffer from it more or less, so why not me? It's about the only thing where I'm a softy, and I like to indulge it. So what are you going to do about it?

This time though, I was sorry I had said it. Because I saw a venomous look come into that dame's eyes that changed her whole appearance. For a half a minute she wasn't beautiful any more. Then that look went out of her eyes, and she said softly, "I see that you are more clever than you seem, señor. You will not give me the paper?"

I shook my head. "You ought to be glad I'm letting you go."

"You are generous, señor," she said mockingly. "But not generous enough. Perhaps next time—"

And she turned coolly, and walked down the street. I watched her, kind of puzzled, until her trim figure disappeared in the lunch hour throng. I didn't like that last crack of hers; it seemed, now, to contain a veiled threat.

I shrugged, and turned back toward the bank. The whole thing was more or less goofy. I wanted to catch the old gent with the Vandyke before he went away. Somehow I had a funny feeling as if this was only the beginning of something. I've had those feelings before—and there's always been trouble.


DOWNSTAIRS in the bank vaults, I looked around for the old gent, but he was not in sight. I walked down the corridor, looking in all the cubbyholes, and finally asked the guard at the vault door about him.

"He went out just after you did. Mr. Manton. He was all through with his box."

I took out a cigar which had been given to me gratis the week before, and handed it over. "Maybe," I asked, "you could tell me his name and address?"

The guard took the cigar, smelled it, rolled it in his fingers, and put it in his pocket. Then he gave me a dirty look. "I'll tell you, Mr. Manton— jobs is scarce, an' I can buy a cigar for a nickel. You know I ain't supposed to do anything like this. Thanks for the smoke, but—"

Well, I had thrown out more than one sawbuck in the past which had been charged up to advertising, goodwill, et cetera, so I said to myself, "What the hell, this may turn out to be business," and I peeled a ten-spot off my very thin roll, and slipped it to him.

"You can't buy that for a nickel," I told him. He grinned all over. "You're damn tootin' I can't, Mr. Manton." He stuck the bill in his vest pocket, sighed, then shrugged. "On twenty-two dollars a week they can't expect me to turn down a sawbuck."

He went inside to the big book they keep on the table, thumbed through the pages, and wrote a name and address, copying it from the book, on one of the bank's folders advertising the advantages of naming them the executors of your estate.

Then he came out and handed it to me. "He's Spanish, Mr. Manton. He's a gentleman, all right, but tight as hell. Used to be a big shot in Barcelona—I heard the vault manager say one day that he was police commissioner of Barcelona back in Spain."

I took the folder, and went upstairs. Outside, I took a look at it. The name the guard had written was, "Don Seguro Garcia, 14 Esplanade Terrace."

I went across the street to the drug store on the corner and consulted the phone book, but couldn't find any listing for Don Seguro. So I went in a booth and dialed information, asked for a phone at 14 Esplanade Terrace.

She said, "That is the Hotel Terranova, sir. The number is Fogarty 4- 8210."

I thanked her and hung up, dialed Fogarty 4-8210. I had heard of the Terranova. It was a small, exclusive, residential hotel that catered a lot to the Spanish aristocracy that had departed when King Alfonso abdicated.

When I got the number, I asked for Don Seguro Garcia. The clerk said, "Don Seguro has not yet returned, sir. He is expected in one hour."

I didn't leave my name, but said I'd call later, and hung up.

Just before pushing open the door of the booth to step out, I saw something that stopped me. I had a good view of the street through the drug sore window, and there at the curb was one of those long purple town cars that are supposed to cost about eight or ten grand; a wizened looking, olive-skinned chauffeur sat at the wheel, looking straight ahead of him. And on the sidewalk, just beside the car, stood a man in morning clothes, who would take your attention anywhere.

He was over sixty, that was a cinch—and maybe over eighty, for all you could tell. His face was absolutely white and expressionless, and wax-like. No one would blame you much if you mistook it for the face of a walking mummy— except for the eyes. They were black and sharp, glittering; and they peered through the window of the drug store in the direction of my booth.

Ordinarily I wouldn't have paid any more attention to this bird than to wish I didn't have to meet him some dark night in a spooky house. Only—I got a glimpse of the occupants of the car, and that was a different story. There was another man in there who kept his face in the shadow, being on the far side. But on the near side, looking out through the glass, was the pretty face of the Spanish dame from whom I'd taken the pink slip of paper just a while ago.

That put a different complexion on things. I was sure they could see me, because there was a little bulb in the booth that lit when you closed the door.

I PUSHED the door half open until the light went out, and went through the motions of pretending to put another nickel in the phone slot. What I did in reality was to hold the receiver to my ear while I dug out that slip of paper and held it up in the palm of my band so I could read it.

It started out the way I told you, and this was how the whole thing went:

"La vida es mala, pero toda queremos viviria!"

That was at the top, as a sort of heading. I recognized it as an old Spanish proverb, which means something like this: "Life is evil, but all men cling to it!"

Well, I had no argument with that, because you can't argue with proverbs. And I had seen the truth of that particular sentiment demonstrated too often. It was what came next that revealed that there was something extremely odoriferous in Denmark. It lead like this:

"por viejo que eseas, guieres vivir; lastima que dentro de viente dias tendras que morir! "

Now the gist of that last was as follows: "Though you are an old man, you still are anxious to live; what a pity that you must die within twenty days!"

Now that is a big mouthful for anybody to swallow. The note was written in a crabbed sort of handwriting, and bore no signature. There was no doubt that it was valuable to some people for some reason, aside from the nasty prophecy it contained. In view of the efforts that dame had made to get her dainty hands on it, it would not be assuming too much to anticipate that a strenuous attempt would be made to separate me from it now.

So, not being an accommodating sort of cuss, I turned my back on the door of the booth, as if I was carrying on a heavy conversation into the phone. Then I lowered the receiver, and unscrewed the circular piece that fits on the end. I stuck that pink slip of paper on the inside of the cap, and screwed the whole thing back on the receiver. That piece of paper would stay there for a long time, provided it didn't interfere with the operation of the instrument. I had to take that chance.

Then I hung up, killing the dialtone that had been buzzing all the time that I was working with the receiver, and walked out of the booth into the store.

I saw the waxy-faced gentleman near the car, sort of tense, but I took my time. I stopped at the cigar counter, bought a pack of cigarettes, lit one in leisurely fashion at the counter lighter, and then strolled out. So far I was having some fun out of this business, even if I wasn't making any money. And I was interested in who had written that threatening note, why, and to whom. If it had been written to Don Seguro Garcia, why had he kept it in his safe deposit box, and why had he been so anxious to get it out today? Was today the twentieth day?

I could have thought of a lot more questions, but by this time I was out in the street, and the gentleman with the wax-white face had stepped away from the car and was bowing to me, though his sharp, black eyes never left my face. He spoke a little stiffly, but without a trace of accent.

"I trust you will pardon the intrusion, señor. Permit me to introduce myself—I am Julian Molina."

I didn't say anything. I was busy watching him and at the same time keeping an eye on the dame and the man inside the car. Also, I couldn't seem to get over the feeling that Mr. Molina was a walking corpse or something. That white, bloodless face of his could give you the creeps on the brightest day.

Mr. Molina was standing about three feet from me, and his voice, which was very low, just barely reached me. He said, "You are the famous detective, Donald Manton, are you not?"

I grinned at him. "I see you work fast, Mr. Molina. Did you get my name from the guard down in the bank vault?"

He shrugged, his face never changing expression. "That is beside the point, Mr. Manton. The point is, I find myself in need of the services of a private detective—at an extremely generous remuneration; shall we say—one thousand dollars?"

I blinked a couple of times. "This is so sudden, sir," I told him. "When did you discover you needed my services—when your girl friend told you about me?"

"That is immaterial, Mr. Manton. I invite you to come with me to my home. There, I shall be glad to pay you the sum I mentioned. And the service which I shall require of you is trivial— merely that you hand me a certain pink slip of paper upon which are written some Spanish words. Do you agree?"

Now, a thousand dollar fee for nothing would have been the height of my ambition at nine o'clock that morning. But at this minute I didn't feel that way—especially in view of the threat of death contained in that note. I like money as well as the next man, but I learned a long time ago that a thousand bucks acquired as easy as this might cost you ten times as much in the long run, in cash, trouble, and gray hairs. And murder, threatened or accomplished, is nothing to fool around with under any circumstances.

So I said, very courteous, "I am sorry, Mr. Molina, but I am afraid I cannot accept your kind invitation."

My idea was that I'd get in touch with Don Seguro Garcia first, and then, maybe, turn the note over to Sergeant MacGuire at headquarters, if I found I couldn't make an honest dollar out of it somehow. If there turned out to be no dough in this at all, I wasn't going to be in the position of having held out on the cops. I'd done that often enough, and incurred MacGuire's animosity by doing it—but that had been only when I could profit by it. I'd be sappy to get Mac's dander up by pulling something that didn't even net me a profit.

MR. MOLINA, however, had other ideas. He didn't crack a smile on his pallid face, but he gave a jerky little bow, and said with a faint trace of mockery, "You are mistaken, Mr. Manton—you are going to accept my invitation. Observe," he went on, "what the gentleman in my car is holding." He jerked his head toward the auto.

The guy who had been sitting next to the dame was now close up to the window, and I could see that he was holding a long-barreled revolver to which was attached a silencer. The muzzle was pointed at me.

Anybody who was passing would never have noticed that revolver, because it was inside the car, and in the gloom. But my eyes are keen, and besides, I'd been told to look. Even if I hadn't seen it, I could guess what it was. People were passing on the sidewalk, and I could have taken advantage of that to make a quick jump for Mr. Molina while somebody was between me and the car.

But the eyes of the man inside convinced me that he would shoot anyway. I'd only cause the death of some innocent person.

Molina seemed to read my thoughts. For he said, "Observe further, that at the first move you make, you will not only endanger your own life, but also the life of anyone who may be passing. You will surely be killed. The car will then depart slowly, while I remain here to inform the police that you were shot from a passing taxicab. It will be far wiser, my dear Mr. Manton, to enter my car and come with us."

Now I saw why he had stayed the three feet away from me. This bird, Molina, was no amateur—he knew all the tricks of the game. And I didn't need any more evidence for that than his face. If these people had been amateurs, I might have taken a chance with them on the theory that they'd lose their nerve at the last minute. But not Molina and Company—no sir.

So I gave him a thin grin. "You win round one, old boy. Let's go."

There was no trace of emotion or relief on his face as I stepped over to the car. He had been sure of himself.

The girl opened the door, and I got inside.

The man with the revolver pushed back in the seat to the far end, leaving room between me and the girl. He was a swarthy guy with a long face, and there was a little nick at the bottom of his chin. It's funny how you notice things like that when you're all keyed up.

He didn't talk, just motioned with the revolver toward the space between them.

I sat down, and Mr. Molina got in after me, put up one of the folding seats, and sat down facing us. He closed the door, and the car started. I hadn't watched closely, but I could have sworn that the chauffeur hadn't even turned his head all this time. But he knew just when to start.

The car rolled through the streets, made a left turn and headed uptown.

The man with the nick in his chin was at my left, and he held the revolver in his left hand, pointed at me, across his chest. He was giving me the once-over. So was the dame, I discovered, when I looked at her.

"Well, Gertie," I said, "it looks like you got substantial boy friends."

She lifted her chin haughtily, and stared ahead. Mr. Molina said gently, "The lady's name is not Gertie, Mr. Manton. She is Señorita Elvira da Luna." He addressed her, "Elvira, this is Mr. Manton. You have met before, of course, but you did not have the benefit of an introduction."

"Glad to know you, Elvira," I said. "How's the pocket-picking these days? And how's your poor brother—did he ever get that money paid to the old Shy- lock?"

She raised her shoulder at me, said to Molina, "Can not you silence him, oncle? He ees very eensolting!"

Medina's face didn't show an iota of what he was thinking. He said a little sharply, "Patience, Elvira! Soon our friend will be very silent—and for a long time!"

Elvira started to say something, but he gave her a nasty look, and she shut up quick. It didn't look as if it was healthy to argue with Uncle Moley; and from what he said, it didn't look as if the future was going to be very healthy for me— whether I argued or not.

Everybody was quiet for a while, and I looked out and saw that we were crossing the Queensboro Bridge. After a time we got out into a thinly populated part of Queens, and Molina said, "Now, if you don't mind—" he nodded at the man who sat at my left— "if you will proceed as planned, Eustachio—"

My instinct worked one split second too slow that time. I started to twist away, but I was too late. Something hard and solid came down and smacked me on the side of the head with awful force.

I started to say, "What the hell—" but that was all I could get out. My arms and legs felt like lead, there was a rumbling and roaring in my head, and I felt myself floating around in air like a disembodied soul. And then I didn't know a thing. I was out cold.


I DESERVED it, of course—had no excuses to offer to myself. A guy in my line of business shouldn't go horning into other people's troubles. What I should have done back there in the bank vault was to tell that old gink, Don Seguro Garcia, that the girl had picked his pocket, and let it go at that.

But I had to go and chase her. And now, where was I?

That was one I couldn't answer. It was a room, all right, because it had four walls. But it was so damned dark that I couldn't see anything else: I knew I was on the floor, and the side of my head was sticky where Eustachio had hit me. They hadn't tied me up, which was something.

I started to feel for my fountain pen flashlight, and I suddenly got the jitters. Because my hand encountered my own bare skin where my vest should have been. I explored further. Boy, you ought to have the feeling that I had at that moment. I was absolutely and indecently naked. Not a stitch of clothing on me!

A guy can be brave if he's facing odds with a gun in his hand; or even if he's facing death without a gun in his hand. But just try to keep a stiff upper lip if you should wake up some grisly morning or night—I couldn't tell which it was—in a dark room, with no clothes on, and you can't tell where you are. Swell feeling. Nit!

My next reaction was to get mad. I'd break the necks of the dirty so-and-so's who'd taken my clothes away. Imagine if it ever got around that Don Manton had been taken for the works by a couple of foreigners, and left without his clothes. I could just picture big, red-faced MacGuire giving me the razz the next time I showed my face in headquarters—and would that face be red!

The question was, would I ever get the chance to show my face in headquarters again—or anywhere else, for that matter, except out of the head-opening of a black casket in an undertaking parlor. The way it sized up was this—I knew too much to be safe for Mr. Molina or his charming niece while I was alive.

Cheered on by this last thought, I began to feel around in the dark in an effort to discover what kind of place this was, also, if there was a way out. I got to my feet, found a wall, and guided myself along it until I bumped into a solid piece of furniture.

It was a bed.

A bed meant that there would be sheets; and sheets meant only one thing to me—something to cover myself with. I reached out a hand, felt a nice, cold sheet, and yanked it off. It resisted a little, probably where it had been tucked under the mattress, but I heaved till it came free.

In the dark I wound the thing around me like a Roman toga, and tied the two ends at my right side. It wasn't very handy if I should find myself in a hurry or in a fight, but you can't imagine how many hundred per cent better I felt with the sheet covering me.

That is, I felt better for just about one half of a minute. And then I didn't feel better any more—I felt blood!

I've been around enough to be able to tell blood when I feel it—even in the dark. And this was nice, fresh, sticky blood—and plenty of it— all over the sheet that I had just wound around myself.

Now I knew why the sheet had resisted when I yanked it—it had probably been partly under something on the bed—something like a dead body, for instance.

I didn't feel much like investigating in the dark, so I felt my way around the bed, and made for the door. My eyes were becoming a little accustomed to the dark, and I could now discern the huddled, still form on the bed, but couldn't make out who it was.

To tell you the truth, I wasn't so much interested in the identity of the corpse, as in getting out of there fast. I let go of the bed, started across the floor, and—plop! I tripped over something soft.

I landed on my hands and knees, and the sheet got untied and fell off me. I wriggled around, trying to get a grip on what I had tripped over, and I let out a sigh of relief. It wasn't another corpse. It was just a pile of clothes. My clothes. I knew they were mine, because the first thing I felt was my shoulder holster, which had a tear in it where a bullet had once slammed into it. Also, I felt my gun in the holster. They had left me my automatic!

I pawed through the rest of the clothes, and found that all the pockets had been turned inside out, and that the lining of the coat and vest had been cut to pieces. My clothes had been searched thoroughly and skillfully.

Well, I didn't mind that at all. All I wanted was to get my clothes on. I can truthfully say that I have never dressed so fast as I did then—and I never expect to again. I did it in the dark, and didn't bother to lace the shoes or put on the tie. The tie was there, all right, but I could feel where it had been ripped open.

Whoever had done it had certainly been anxious to get hold of that pink slip of paper. Well, I mentally chalked one up for Don Manton, thinking of the paper, safely tucked away in the telephone receiver. In spite of the corpse in the bed, I felt fine, let me tell you, with the automatic in my hand. Now I was in business again.

Do you know how long that fine feeling lasted? Right. You guessed it. Less than one minute. Why?

Two reasons.

First, I thought to take the clip out of the automatic. Well, they hadn't been as dumb as I thought they were—the clip was empty. Also, the spare clip was gone from my pocket, together with everything else.

Second, I heard heavy steps outside in the hallway. The steps were those of a big man, but they were kind of stealthy. And then I heard other steps. There was more than one person out there, and they were stopping in front of the door.

IF these birds were coming back to finish up the job on me, they'd know my gun wasn't loaded, and I wouldn't stand any sort of chance whatsoever. I began to think that retreat was a very great part of valor, and looked around the room for windows, kicking myself figuratively for not having thought of that before. I could see pretty well now, and made out two windows on either side of the head of the bed.

I made a quiet dash for the nearest. I stood beside the bed, not a foot from the corpse, and pried up the window. But that was as far as I got. Because there were shutters on the outside, and they were fastened with padlocks. That was why it was so all-fired dark in here—not a speck of light got in through them.

Well, thought I, here is where Donald Faversham Manton goes out in a blaze of glory, with his shoe laces untied, his pockets inside out, dying in a noble cause that he doesn't know the first thing about.

I swung around, crept back to the door, took up a position right behind it, and clubbed my automatic.

Some one on the outside was trying the knob, turning it slowly.

The door was unlocked! If I had been wider awake, not so dazed by that sock on the bean, I might have walked out before they got here! Now it was too late.

The door started to move inward, a half inch at a time. The muzzle of a heavy revolver stuck in between the door and the jamb.

Well, Napoleon had the right idea—the best defensive is a snappy offensive. I always made that my motto, and I acted on it this time. I yanked that door open fast, and the party on the other side came tumbling in. I didn't wait to see who it was, but I brought down the butt of my automatic fast and hard. It went through a derby hat, socked against a head underneath, and that party dropped his revolver and just kind of sagged down to the floor, half in and half out of the doorway.

I made a flying dive for that revolver, figuring I had one chance in four or five hundred of getting to it before whoever else was in the corridor could slam some lead into me.

And I made it.

The reason I made it was because my room was in darkness and the corridor was lit. There was a big, bulky guy out there, and I saw him holding a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other, snapping on the flashlight.

I could have shot him right then, in that split second before he bathed me in light. I had the revolver up, leveled at him. It would have been a cinch to nick him in the arm or in the shoulder.

But I didn't.

I didn't because I recognized him. That big, flabby bulk couldn't be anybody else but Detective-sergeant MacGuire, of Homicide. And that, believe it or not, is who it was.

I yelled out, "Hold it, Mac. It's me—Manton!" He saw my face in the beam of his light then, and let out an astonished yelp, came into the room slowly.

I put down the revolver on the floor beside the bird I had knocked out, and stood up, wiping sweat from my face.

MacGuire growled, "You slammed Casey pretty hard!" But he didn't lower his gun. He kept it trained on me while his flashlight roved the room, and settled on the body on the bed. MacGuire had never liked me especially, though he had had to work with me many times on account of the connections my clients used to have. Now I knew I was going to be in for it.

He said very soft, in a purring sort of way, "This is very nice, Manton—ver-y nice!"

He came into the room, and saw the light switch alongside the door, which I had been unable to find in the dark. Then he walked over to the bed and stood on the opposite side so that he still faced me, and looked down at the body.

And I looked down at it, too.

And it wouldn't have taken a feather to knock me over. In fact, I almost keeled over from surprise anyway. I guess I had been expecting anything but this.

That body lay on its back, eyes open, staring up at the ceiling. There were six or seven bullet holes in it, two of them through the head. It had stopped bleeding, but there was plenty of congealed blood on the bed.

And you see, the thing that socked me between the eyes was that it was the body of my waxy-faced kidnaper, the gent who had snatched me from in front of the drug store. In short, it was nobody else but Mr. Julian Molina, the very last one I expected it to be—which shows that I'm not so smart after all.

Now, while MacGuire was holding the gun on me and throwing his glims on that corpse at the same time, I suddenly got a flash of intuition that gave me little cold prickles all along the spine. Molina was dead—pumped full of slugs; and my gun was empty. It had been full when I had it. Can you add two and two together? I could. And it gave me a pain in the neck.

MacGuire had the same idea about the same time. Because he walked around the bed, picked up my automatic by the barrel from where it lay near the body of Casey, who was beginning to stir about on the verge of coming to from the sock I had given him.

MacGuire flipped out the clip of my gun, saw that it was empty, and looked up at me with a kind of self-satisfied expression. He waved my gun at me. "Yours, Manton?"

There was no use denying it. I nodded. "Thirty-two," he said. "Looks like seven shots've been fired out of it, an' there's that many slugs in the corpse. What about it, Manton?"

I said, "Hell, Mac—he might have been shot with my gun, but I was cold when it happened. How'd you come to get here?"

MacGuire regarded me for a minute thoughtfully. Then he said slowly, "I got a buzz at headquarters to come to this address if I wanted a line on a certain case I'm workin' on that's just come up. So I brought Casey, an' here's what we find. Looks like a tough spot for a certain guy by the name of Donald Manton!"


I WAS inclined to agree with Detective-sergeant MacGuire.

I didn't like the way he was looking me over, either.

I said, "See here, Mac, lemme tell you what this is all about."

He grinned a little, said, "I wish you would. But maybe you'd rather get yourself an attorney first. A murder rap is a serious—"

"Damn it!" I broke in, "lay off that! You know damn well I didn't kill this guy. I was snatched across the street from my bank, by him and another guy and a dame. They sapped me, and brought me here. When I woke up, this is what I found."

MacGuire's grin broadened. "Can't you just imagine a jury listening to that story. I'm surprised at you, Manton. Is it the best you could think up? You'll have to do better. Maybe you can tell me what case you were working on. Remember, I'm not makin' you talk—you're doin' it of your own free will."

"All right, all right. I wasn't working on any case. I happened to see a dame lift a piece of paper from, an old gent's pocket, and I went after her and took it away. Then she got this bird here, and they came after me. But I cached the paper in a telephone receiver."

It sounded foolish to me as I told it, and I didn't blame MacGuire for bursting out laughing the way he did. I would have done the same to anybody that told me such a dopey story— especially if I liked him as little as MacGuire did me.

He waved with his gun. "Come on with me. I'm gonna find a phone. Maybe you didn't do this, Manton, but you'll have to do a lot of tall explaining to prove it. In the meantime, I'll hold you."

"Wait a minute, Mac," I said desperately. "I can prove it about that paper. You'll find it in the telephone receiver in the drug store. It's pink, and it's got Spanish writing on it—all about how some guy is going to kick off inside of twenty days—"

I stopped, because MacGuire was looking at me queerly.

He said. "You don't say so!" He still held the gun on me, while with his left hand he fumbled in his vest pocket, brought it out, holding a pink slip of paper! "Is this it, Manton?"

He held it out, open, so I could read it. And there it was, the same message in the same crabbed handwriting. It even had folds in it the same as I had folded the slip that I had stuck in the telephone receiver.

I exclaimed, "Good God! Where did you get that?"

"That's what I'm working on," he told me. "This was received by a wealthy member of the Spanish consulate here in New York, less than an hour ago, and he reported it to me. It seems that all Spaniards know all about this when they get it. It's a funny kind of handwriting that can't be copied, if you notice how it's written. Anybody who gets that note knows that he has to pay through the nose, or else— Back in Spain, everybody pays when they get it. This is the first time it's appeared in this country."

"You mean—" I asked, "it's some kind of extortion racket?"

"That's it. The handwriting is authentic, because it's been reproduced in the newspapers, and everybody knows it. Only this feller in the consulate had the guts to come to the police with it instead of paying up."

I was too dizzy to be able to think straight. If that was the same piece of paper that I had hidden in the phone, how had it got to this member of the Spanish consulate?

Suddenly I asked, "Mac—what time is it?"

"Stop kiddin'!" he snapped at me, and bent to feel Casey's head, though he still kept an eye on me.

"I'm not kidding, Mac. What time is it?"

He grumbled, "Casey won't come to for a while yet. I hate to be you when, he does." Then he added grudgingly, "It's three-thirty."

Three-thirty! I had been out for two hours! Plenty of time for a lot of things to happen. I demanded, "Listen, Mac—does the name of the guy in the Spanish consulate happen to be Don Seguro Garcia?"

"It does not! It's Andrea da Luna."

DA Luna! Sure. Elvira da Luna. I remembered Molina, who lay on the bed now, so bloody and quiet, saying quietly in the car, "The lady's name is not Gertie—she is Señorita Elvira da Luna!" Connections, yes. But all around the mulberry bush. I was in this now, and I had to get myself out of it.

I had to get around—get to people who would know what this was all about. Elvira da Luna was one. Eustachio, the bird who had hit me, was another. And so was Don Seguro Garcia, the old gent from whom that paper had originally been stolen. I had to get around.

MacGuire was saying, "Now we'll go phone, if you're through cross-examining me. And then you'll do a little answering of questions. You seem to know more about this than you let on, Manton. An' to me you'll be no different from any other suspect. You'll talk plenty. Come—"

It was then that I hit him. There was no sense arguing with that thick cop, and I had to get around if I wanted to pry myself clear of a neatly framed murder rap.

MacGuire wasn't really expecting that I'd try anything like that. I don't think he really believed that I had killed Molina. He was just taking it out on me, trying to be nasty. So it was a surprise to him, I don't doubt, when that right of mine came up from the floor and crashed him.

As you have already heard, I am big. And when I hit, the hittee stays hit—which MacGuire proceeded to do, joining Casey on the floor.

Maybe it was a damn fool thing to do. They'd be hot after me in no time. But I wasn't one to stay in the can while the case was tightened on me. I always did the first thing I thought of, and worried about it afterwards. That's why I've done pretty well in my racket—getting a reputation for working fast and crashing through cases that might have taken another man weeks; because I'm smarter than the others, but not because I'm a simple guy that always does the first thing he thinks of doing.

And the first thing I thought of at that minute was hitting MacGuire and scramming; which I did—after thoughtfully taking Casey's revolver to shove in my shoulder holster.

So I went out of there, knowing that in about fifteen minutes or more or less—depending on how well MacGuire could take it—there'd be an alarm out for me. But my main object right then was to interview Don Seguro Garcia and see what did he know about the business.

If I'd been smart, my main object would have been to arrange for a good mouthpiece against the time I'd be picked up again. But I wasn't smart, so I went to see Don Seguro.

The last thing I did before locking the door of the room, with the key I found on the outside, was to take the pink slip of paper from MacGnire. So many people were interested in it that I thought I might as well be interested in it myself. If it was the same one I'd put in the telephone receiver, I figured I was entitled to it by this time; if it wasn't the same one, I wanted to compare it.

I went down a flight of stairs, going pretty fast, not bothering about how much noise I made; I was sure there was nobody else in the place. Outside, I took a look up at the house. It was a two-story frame proposition, and I could see that every window in the place was closely shuttered. Over to the left I could see Queens Boulevard, and straight ahead was the Queensboro Bridge. I knew just where I was now.

As for means of transportation, I solved that quick. Right in front of the door was the squad car in which MacGuire and Casey had come, with the motor running.

Nothing could be sweeter. There'd be particular hell to pay later on—but that was something to worry about later on.

I got in the car, and headed for the bridge.


THE Hotel Terranova was a quiet place that didn't seem to make any great effort to encourage transient trade. It was no more than seven or eight stories, and the entrance was sandwiched in between a row of refined stores on the street front. Then you had to go through a long hall before you got to the lobby, which was small, with a restaurant opening on the left. The restaurant was really one of the stores, and this was a sort of back entrance.

There was very little life here—only a couple of old fogies sitting around reading papers, and a clerk behind the desk. The clerk was a small fellow, dark and Latin in appearance, and he kept his eyes on me from the minute I came into the lobby to the time I got to the desk, looking at me with disfavor.

The old fogies also looked up from their papers and gave me the once over. I realized that I did not show up so hot, what with my tie missing, and my shoes unlaced, with the strings flapping. I'd clean forgotten those matters, being engrossed on the drive over the bridge, in figuring all the possible angles of this business—mainly, who the hell had killed my pal, Julian Molina, and tried to hang me on the wall in a neat frame for the job.

I stopped and laced my shoes in the middle of the lobby, and then went up to the desk.

"I'd like to see Don Seguro Garcia," I said. The clerk reached a languid hand toward the house phone, acting as if my being there gave him a bad taste, and asked, "What is the name?"

"Manton—Donald Manton."

He wiggled around on a keyboard in back of him, and pressed the key for room 403, and said into the phone, "Don Seguro, there is someone asking to see you. He gives the name of Manton."

I could see that the clerk was expecting to have the satisfaction of telling me that Don Seguro didn't know me from a hole in the wall, and that I should get to hell out of his hotel.

But he got fooled. Because after listening a moment to the voice from upstairs, he said to me, as if he still doubted it, "You may go up to suite Number 403—Don Seguro will see you."

I grinned, and crossed the lobby to the elevator.

When I knocked on 403, the door opened and I nodded at the now familiar mug of the old gent who'd had the pink slip lifted from him in the bank vault.

He bowed very courteously, and waved me in without even asking my business—this old Spanish courtesy was the nuts, thought I.

Inside, he said, "Will you not be seated, señor? Your name—I do not recall where I have heard it before—"

I sat down opposite him, and gave him the once-over. He'd just had a shave, and his smooth skin, though dark, stood out in sharp contrast to his moustache and Vandyke. He wore a dressing gown over his vest and trousers. Behind him, another door, partly opened, revealed another room. We were in a sort of sitting room, and I figured the other was a bedroom.

I said, "Don Seguro, you don't know me, but I've had occasion to look you up. This morning you were at your safe deposit vault, weren't you?"

He looked at me blankly. "I, señor? This is strange. I have no vault. You are, perhaps, mistaken?"

He rose, and though his aristocratic face showed no discourtesy, his whole attitude indicated that as far as he was concerned, the interview was over.

I stared at him for a minute. "You mean to say, Don Seguro, that you didn't take a pink slip of paper from your safe deposit box this morning— and that you later missed the paper?"

He shook his head slowly. "I do not know to what you refer, señor." He talked like I was a lunatic, and he was humoring me. "Perhaps we can go into this at some other time, if you do not mind; I am somewhat occupied—"

"Wait a minute!" I barked. I took the paper out of my pocket, held it out in front of him. "You mean to say you never saw this?"

His eyes scanned the writing, and I detected a trace of fear in them—maybe it was fear, maybe it was something else, I don't know, because things started happening fast.

He said, "If I may, señor," and extended his left hand for the paper. I snatched it away. "Nix! Everybody seems to want it. You can look at it, but don't touch it."

He smiled. "Perhaps this will induce you to give me the paper." He said it very softly, and I found myself looking into the hole of a nasty little snub- nosed automatic that had come out of his dressing-gown pocket, in his right hand.

The smile disappeared from his pan, and he just stood there, not saying anything else.

As for me, I started to curse him—under my breath. Here I'd gone and got into plenty of mess on account of feeling sorry for him losing that paper in the first place, and what does he do to show his gratitude, but make me out slightly batty, and then pull a gun on me.

Here I was, hunted by MacGuire, suspected of murder, and finally held up by the very guy I had been trying to help. Let this be a lesson to everybody in our business—never do anything for anybody unless you're paid for it. That way, at least, you have the consolation of knowing that there's a little change coming to you if you crash through. But this way—nuts to this helping hand stuff, say I.

The way I felt now, a little thing like an automatic wasn't going to stem me. This old gent couldn't be so awful fast, and I was just setting myself, figuring my chances on smacking his wrist aside, when that dame appeared in the opposite doorway.

Which dame?

Why you ought to know—Señorita Elvira da Luna, of course. The very dame who had lifted the paper from this gent in the bank! Do you feel surprised? So did I!

SHE was holding a gun, pointing it at me, and laughing sort of happy-like, like a cat that finally corners a rabbit after having chased him all over the lot.

Behind her there appeared this bird Eustachio, that had socked me in the car, and the wooden chauffeur who had driven us out to Queens. They both had guns too, and handled them awful careless like, as if they didn't care if they went off or not.

Some party, huh? And all in honor of yours very truly, Donald Manton. Oh, I like it a lot—nit!

Señorita Elvira da Luna came into the room, and stood alongside of Don Seguro. Eustachio and the chauffeur spread out on either side, in back of them, and there I was, still holding on to the paper, and feeling foolish.

The dame kept her eyes on me, and said to the old gent, "How deed he get those paper, uncle?"

Uncle! Was this dame the niece to all Spain? She'd called Julian Molina uncle, too. And Molina was dead back there in Queens, with seven slugs in his carcass. I was beginning to be sorry for Don Seguro, now—and hoping she wouldn't start "uncl'ing" me next.

Don Seguro said very quietly, "I do not know how he got the paper; I thought perhaps you could explain that. Was it not you who thought of the telephone after we had searched him? Was it not you who suggested that we use it to force money from your own husband, Señor da Luna, at the consulate? You must have known that your husband would not pay—you perhaps even expected that this detective would not be held for killing Molina." His voice got a little higher in pitch with each accusation.

Now he swung around so that his gun was pressing against her side. "And now," he went on, the señor comes here with the paper in his hand. Did you expect this too?"

I was starting to enjoy this a lot. I was getting information, and it wasn't costing me a nickel. Also, I liked the way things were turning out, though it was still mostly Greek to me.

Elvira didn't seem to take it so nice, however, with Don Seguro's gun in her side. Her face got a little pale. Don Seguro moved over a bit, grabbing hold of Elvira's arm with his left hand, while he kept the gun on her with his right.

That put Elvira between himself and Eustachio and the chauffeur. He said to her in a very unfriendly way, "Perhaps you expect even that your husband will come here to this place? You were playing with us all the time!"

Husband! Besides having uncles all over the lot, this dame also had husbands. A very versatile dame.

This all began to look more or less like a joke to me. I couldn't imagine these grown-up people shooting each other up over a slip of pink paper with some Spanish writing on it—especially in a hotel where the first shot would bring down the house.

But then I remembered Mr. Molina, all full of holes. It seemed they did shoot each other up.

The dame was keeping silent, although from the way she looked it seemed she knew she was in one hell of a spot. And to sort of encourage her to say something, Don Seguro poked her with the gun. He nodded to Eustachio and the chauffeur, and said to them, "If it becomes necessary to shoot, do not hesitate. This hotel is solidly built, and the walls have been made sound proof; nothing will be heard outside."

I could see that lots of action was coming. There was more at stake in this business than I had guessed.

Well, that was all right with me. Because now was a good time to start it.

You see, in poking that gun into the dame's side, Don Seguro had moved over just a trifle, so that I was at his right, and slightly to his rear. He must have figured that the other two had their eyes on me. What he didn't figure was that he himself would make a swell shield.

Which he did.

I flipped Casey's revolver out of my shoulder holster, moved over about six inches so he was between me and the other two birds, and let him have a feel of the muzzle in his side, just as he was doing to the dame.

"Suppose we get back to normal, ladies and gentlemen," said I.


I GUESS I was too optimistic. There were too many guns loose in that room for the party to proceed peacefully.

Don Seguro was all right. He stiffened, started to let out a very naughty Spanish cuss word, and then, when I jabbed him a little harder, he got meek and submissive, and lifted the gun away from the dame's ribs, let it drop to the rug as I requested him to do.

But the dame still had hers, and she jerked it up with a nasty look in her eyes at him. I had to reach past Don Seguro with my left hand and smack her wrist hard. She let out a yelp, and dropped the gun.

But Seguro's pal, Eustachio, swung into action at the same time, and slugs from his revolver came slamming my way. But I had given Don Seguro a quick yank to the left, and a couple of those slugs caught him with a nasty, smacking sound, and he was thrown backward, almost knocking me over, and getting in the way of my own gun hand.

I dropped to my knees, and Don Seguro fell over me, but I had a clear field now, and snapped a shot up at Eustachio that caught him over the heart. That was the end of Eustachio.

The chauffeur had been afraid to shoot, because he was a little to the left of Eustachio, and Seguro was in his line of fire. He was dancing over toward the window, from where he could get a clearer shot, but I didn't give him any chance at all to do damage. I swung Casey's revolver around, and fired, just a half-second before he did.

When I'm shooting at a guy who-seems to have a desire to sling lead my way, I never go easy. So I gave it to him right between the eyes, and the heavy slug from the service thirty-eight carried him backward, slapped him hard against the wall. He slid down to the floor. Naturally, he was dead.

I swung around just in time to kick the gun on the floor away from Senorita Elvira's hand, as she was reaching for it. She raised her eyes to me, mad as hell, and did a swell leap up at my face, both hands clawing for my eyes.

Believe me, that was a bad two minutes. Before I got hold of her two hands, she had raked her fingernails down my face a couple of times. I wouldn't be able to shave for a week now, until those furrows she made were healed.

I gripped her two hands all right, but she wasn't licked yet. She started to kick me in the shins, struggling like a wildcat.

I let go of Casey's gun, swung her around with her back to me, and got both her hands behind her. She tried to kick backward, but I held her away from me at arm's length, and her heels didn't reach.

After a minute or two she quieted down, and stood there, breathing hard, with me holding on to her, and not knowing what to do about it.

I took a glance down at Don Seguro on the floor. He was looking up at us, holding a handkerchief over his left side. Blood was also seeping up through his coat from his left shoulder.

The room was kind of smoky, but nobody came to the door. The sound of the shots had not penetrated the sound-proof walls.

I said, "Well, lady, you're certainly death on uncles!" Don Seguro had not long to live. From the location of the wound in the side, I judged that it had got him in the lung.

He glanced at her venomously. Blood frothed to his lips as he snarled. "I am no uncle of hers."

I guess I looked kind of blank. "So will some one kindly tell me what all the shooting is about?"

The dame swung around as far as my grip on her arms would allow her, half facing me. She looked weak and helpless now. All the fight seemed to be out of her.

"Please—please," she begged me, "destroy that note. I have been mees- taken about you—you are but an honest fool. Believe me, you will do a great service to a noble family if you destroy that note!"

Don Seguro began to laugh bitterly. It must have wracked him painfully to laugh, for he stopped suddenly, and his face became contorted with agony. But he managed to say, "A very honorable family. Her uncle, Julian Molina, is a murderer ten times over—the man who wrote that note, and those other notes that terrorized all Spain. He—"

The old gent couldn't say any more; his mouth was full of blood. His head dropped back, and he closed his eyes. He was breathing heavily, with a horrid bubbling sound.

I glanced at the dame. She looked wilted, licked. Her whole body drooped. However, I didn't trust her; I kept my hold on her hands. Those fingernails could do plenty damage.

"Eet ees true," she said, almost under her breath. "I was trying to save the family honor by stealing that note from Don Seguro. And now my hos-band he comes here, and he will learn all!"

"Maybe he will, lady," I told her. "But yours very truly is still in the dark. How about—"

And then there came a heavy pounding on the door. And MacGuire's voice. "Open up in there. This is the law!"

I SHRUGGED. No sense in delaying it any longer. If there had to be a showdown, it might as well be now.

I pushed her across the room, slipped back the latch. The door was shoved in. But MacGuire wasn't the first one in. The first one in was a tall thin guy with a little mustache and a look of class. He had eyes for nothing in the room but the dame I was holding on to. He croaked, "Elvira! Cara mia!" And then he sees her arms are behind her and I'm holding on, so he barks at me, "Let go of my wife, you!"

I let go of her. MacGuire was in the room now, and so was Casey, and from the nasty way they were grinning I saw that I'd have my hands full.

The dame fell into the arms of this tall thin guy, and started to moan, "Andrea! Andrea!"

MacGuire and Casey walked around them toward me. MacGuire had a red spot on his jaw where I had hit him, and Casey wasn't wearing any hat—on account of the lump on his head.

MacGuire was swinging his huge paws. "So, Mr. Manton," he said very sweetly, "you bump off a guy, and then you attack two officers of the law! I am surprised at you. Mr. Manton—surprised— and—gratified!"

His paws reached out for me, and I got ready for what was coming.

But the dame suddenly broke away from her husband, and rushed in between us.

"No, no!" she cried. "He did not keel my uncle, Julian. Eet was Don Seguro!" She pointed dramatically at the old gent, who was lying very quiet, but still alive.

MacGuire stopped very reluctantly, and for the first time he took in the rest of the room—the two bodies, and Don Seguro. He looked questioningly at the dame, and she stepped back into her husband's arms, buried her head in his shoulder, and started to sob.

I don't have to tell you I was glad of the interruption, because MacGuire and Casey looked mad enough for anything, and I couldn't blame them much.

MacGuire barked at her, "Lay off the sob-stuff, lady, and give us the straight of this!"

Her husband patted her hair, and said, "That is right, Elvira. These officers but wish to know the truth. Speak without fear. How do you come here—and who are these dead men?"

She stopped sobbing and stood up straight. Boy, she was beautiful, with her eyes full of tears. "I weel explain." She tugged her husband's lapel lightly. "Andrea, you must forgive me. I did not wish you to know, for the sake of the family honor. Julian Molina is my uncle! It was he whom all Spain feared; he whose pink notes extorted so many thousands of pesetas from the aristocracy of Spain."

He smiled down at her. "It makes no difference to me, cara mia. "

MacGuire grunted. "Yeah, but it makes a difference to me. So what about it?"

She went on. "Don Seguro, there, but recently arrived from Spain. While Alfonso was king, Don Seguro had been police commissioner in Barcelona, and that pink note which the tall detective holds had been turned over to Don Seguro by a family that had received it. Seguro brought that note to this country with him, among his other papers."

I was beginning to see a light, but it was a very dim light, I will admit.

MacGuire still couldn't see a thing. He kept throwing me nasty glances. I could see that all he wanted was a couple good cracks at me.

Señora Elvira continued. "While in this country, Don Seguro made the acquaintance of my oncle, who had also come here, likewise compelled to leave Spain upon Alfonso's abdication. Don Seguro saw my oncle's handwriting, and noted the resemblance to the writing upon the pink slip. He blackmailed my Oncle Julian—demanded a so-great sum of money for the note. Julian came to me, and insisted that I give him the money to pay to Don Seguro. I had not the money, and—" she glanced shyly at her husband, "I feared to ask you, Andrea—"

MacGuire was now looking at me in a puzzled way. Also, he was feeling his jaw. I could see that the only thought on his mind was that it was taking a hell of a long time for him to get in that sock at me.

I said desperately, "Don't you see yet, Mac? What I told you was the truth. This dame lifted the paper from the old gent there, and I caught her doing it, took it away from her. Molina must have been waiting for her around the corner somewhere, with the car, and they came back and picked me up. Isn't that right, lady?"

She nodded, raised her head miserably. "But Don Seguro must have followed us there. He killed Julian, and then he spoke to Eustachio and the chauffeur like- what-you-call-a Dutch oncle. He tol' them that he knew their records from Spain, and that they would hang if he deed not choose to save them. He tol' them he would save them from the law if they would throw in with heem. So they swore to obey heem in all things, and he promised that he would pay them well."

"Yeah," said MacGuire, "but about that note. Manton is tryin' to tell me he stuck the note in a telephone receiver. How come it got sent to your husband?"

SHE looked up at her Andrea and shuddered. She spoke to him, as if she didn't care if anyone else understood or not. "Don Seguro searched Meestair Manton, and could not find the note. He was like a wild man. He threatened—" she blushed beautifully— "to search me, to torture me! I was desperate, and I cast my mind back over the last hour. I told Don Seguro that I thought Meestair Manton had dropped that note in the telephone booth, while Julian and I watched him from the car. I deed not think it so, but I hoped that Don Seguro would go to look for it, and that so I would be spared the indignity of being—searched. I thought to gain a little time."

MacGuire looked at me disgustedly. "Can you beat it? It took a desperate dame to guess what a half-wit did with that paper!"

The dame went on breathlessly, "Eustachio and the other brought me here, while Don Seguro went to the telephone booth. Eemagine my wonder, when Don Seguro returned weeth the note! When he had arrived at that booth, he had found a repair man from the telephone company, for the paper had caused the phone to become out of order. Don Seguro saw the repair man take from the receiver the pink paper, and he claimed it as his own!"

She went on with a rush, "Don Seguro was a wicked man. He planned to use that note to extort money from Spaniards of wealth!" She swallowed hard, and dabbed her little lace handkerchief at her eyes.

"Oh, Andrea, how shall I tell you what I deed next? I pretended that I had been an accomplice of Julian's. I suggested that he should try to extort the money from—you! I said that I no longer loved you, that I wanted but your money." She raised her eyes to the ceiling. "God forgive me, I wished no one but you to receive that note. Then I could destroy it so that the shame of my Oncle Julian might remain a secret within the family!"

Andrea da Luna stooped and kissed his wife. "Cara mia, you should have told me all in the beginning. Much would have been avoided."

He held her tight, and looked up at us. "Gentlemen, those who have died, deserved to die. We Spaniards are a proud race. Can we not spare my wife and her family the disgrace that would weigh down their heads if Julian's rascality became known? That pink paper with his handwriting is the only evidence against him. He has paid with his life. Is it necessary that the pink paper should be made public? Perhaps—"

MacGuire interrupted him, red-faced. "Nothing doing. That paper—"

"What paper?" I asked.

MacGuire spun at me, scowling. "You know damn well—"

He stopped, his face went red, and his fists clenched. Because he knew what I meant. He could see plainly what had happened to it, because he saw my gullet working over it where it stuck for a second in my throat before going down. I had swallowed it.

Andrea da Luna was smiling broadly. Before MacGuire could get out the flow of profanity that was gathering within him, Da Luna said, "Sir, that was a most happy thought upon your part. Your wits are quick indeed. I shall show my gratitude by arranging for you to receive the reward."

MacGuire had been about to use more than profanity; he was towering over me, and I could almost feel those two hamlike fists of his landing in my solar plexus. But at that word reward, he stopped short. It's a very intriguing word.

Da Luna saw us look blank, and explained. "I have some influence with the present government. As you know, I am attached to the consulate. The Spanish government has offered a standing reward, which is equivalent to ten thousand dollars in United States money, for the death of the terrorist who wrote those notes. I shall see that you receive it, sir."

MacGuire bellowed, "You mean his executors—" and swung at me.

I blocked the blow, danced away grinning. "Wait a minute, Mac. You don't think I'd hog it all!"

He looked at me funny, getting all set to follow me up.

I said desperately, "Three ways, Mac—you, me and Casey. And we forget about the pink slip of paper. It's diplomatic courtesy, you know."

Mac hesitated. Thirty-three hundred and thirty-three dollars and thirty-three and a third cents is a lot of dough. He looked at Casey, and Casey looked at him, and then they both looked at me and grinned.

And did I heave a sigh of relief!

Da Luna had let go of his wife for long enough to step over to Don Seguro. "He's dead," he announced. "There will be no difficulties."

He went back and took her arm. "You see, cara mia, all has turned out well."

She smiled up at him happily, then came over and kissed me on both cheeks. "I took you for a fool, señor. I have learn' now that looks are deceiving."

Did I blush!

I said, "See here, señora—there's one thing I'd like some enlightenment on."

"Yes?" She would have told me anything I wanted to know at that minute.

"I understand about that Molina egg—but why did you call this Don Seguro 'uncle?'"

She said shyly, "He is so old. In Spain we call all old men oncle. It is an old Spanish custom!"


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent "X", April 1935

THE sirens of the state prison suddenly began to scream a shrill, raucous warning to the night; probing searchlight beams lanced through the darkness. One of these beams, swinging toward the river, picked up and outlined with implacable brightness the figures of four men running wildly, frantically, down the steep slope toward the shore.

A machine gun began to rip-rap vindictively from the southwest tower; a moment later the one on the northwest tower joined its frenzied chatter. Two lines of bullets converged on the little group of fleeing men, and seemed to meet in the body of the rearmost fugitive.

He threw up his hands and stumbled forward headlong, tripped and fell over a boulder. His three companions took shelter behind the same rock. They clustered over the prostrate man. He was dead. His chest was ripped away where the slugs had come out.

They stood up. One of them said, "Nagle's through. Let's go."

The other two followed him as he ducked away, dodging the searchlights which had lost them momentarily behind the boulder. They reached the shore. A motor boat was tied up to a tree. They got into it, and the one who had spoken before, apparently the leader, kicked over the motor. Another cast off the line. The boat woke into life, shot away into the river.

One of the men took the wheel, guided it unskillfully. He called forward to the leader, "We better get back to the land an' ditch the boat, Jake. They know we headed for the river."

Jake was big, gaunt of face, with cold killer's eyes, and the pallor of the habitual prisoner. He snarled back, "Shut up and steer, Louie. I'll tell you where to go!"

The third man said, "What a break, Nagle gettin' bopped. He's the only one that knew where the dough was cached!"

Louie held the course straight for the middle of the river. "Him an' his wife, Nick. Nagle's wife knows, too. But how we gonna get in touch with her? Didn't Nagle say she'd been pulled in herself a couple of weeks ago an' was due to take a rap for receiving stolen goods?"

Nick grumbled, "It's a hell of a note, a guy trustin' his wife with a thing like that, an' not tellin' us. Dames shouldn't be mixed up in rackets like this!"

Louie let out something like a laugh. "Not this dame, Nick. She's got brains, an' I'm told she's quite some looker. If it wasn't for her, Nagle would never of been able to plan the job in the first place."

Nick grinned and licked his lips. "I'd like to get my glims on her if she's such a looker. I ain't got such a bad face myself. Maybe now that Nagle is dead—"

Jake suddenly growled, "Stow it, you guys!"

Nick subsided under Jake's baleful glare. But Louie whined, "Aw, Jake, don't get sore. We was only figurin' how we'd get in touch with the Nagle dame now."

"Don't worry," Jake said grimly. "We'll get in touch with her, even if we have to break her out of the can to do it." Then he added ominously, "Now you two guys clam down an' attend to business. This is no pink tea. They'll be scouring the country for us, an' we got to look sharp."

"Okay," said Louie, "you're the boss now, Jake."

There had come to their ears the powerful stuttering of a launch behind them.

Suddenly Jake called out, "All right, head her into the shore."

Louie obeyed, and soon they were close in. Nick got out and held the boat, while the other two joined him. Then Jake turned the boat around, opened the throttle, and gave her a shove. The boat put-putted out into the stream.

He laughed harshly. "That'll take 'em out on a wild goose chase. They'll follow that boat till she goes aground!"

HE turned and led the way up a short slope and came out at a crossroad. The headlights of a car were approaching along one of the converging roads.

Jake said, "Get out there and lay down, Nick. We gotta stop that car."

Nick hesitated, glanced at Jake's savage face, and went out into the road. He lay down at full length on the concrete, head in his hands.

The car came close, and stopped with a squealing of brakes. There was a man and a woman in it.

Jake leaped to the door, wrenched it open. The man, who was driving, turned a startled face, and reached for his pocket. But Jake placed an enormous hand on his throat, and yanked him out. At the same time, Louie opened the other door and dragged the woman out. Nick got up and helped Jake to subdue the man.

Jake called out, "Tie up that dame, and gag her, Louie."

In a moment both the occupants of the car were tied helpless on the ground. Jake had found it necessary to hit the man twice before he submitted. The woman had put up ineffectual resistance to Louie's brutal treatment. The man was tied with the sleeves of his own coat, the woman with strips torn from her dress.

Nick said, "What's the idea, Jake? Why not knock 'em out?"

The leader scowled. "A lot of good you'd be without me to think for you. They'd have you back in stir inside of an hour!" He ordered Louie, "Heave the dame in the car!"

Louie had taken two rings from the woman's finger—a diamond solitaire and a wedding band. He held them up, grinning sheepishly. "Don't hurt, does it, Jake? We might need a stake!"

Jake's eyes gleamed with cunning when he saw them. While Louie was putting the woman in the back of the car, he bent over the helpless man. "Look, mug, we're lamming from the jail. We're takin' the car an' your wife. We're leavin' you here." He bent, closer. "Now listen careful, if you ever wanna see your wife alive again. When we go, we're followin' the left road. In about a minute the posse from the jail will get here. You'll tell 'em we took the right hand road. Because if they come up to us, I'll break your wife's neck before we're caught!"

The man struggled against the thick knot that held his arms behind him. He glared up at Jake, trying to work free of the gag.

Jake laughed, and got into the car behind the wheel. Nick and Louie got in too, and Jake turned the car around. Before he gave it gas, he called out to the struggling man in the road, "Killin' your wife won't make no difference to us—we were gonna burn for murder anyway!"

Louie sat in the back with the woman as the car sped away along the left fork of the road. "I gotta give you credit, Jake! That's a swell idea. That guy will send the posse the wrong way to save his wife, an' it'll give us time to fade away!"

The gagged woman started to struggle, squirming around on the floor at his feet. He bent down and slapped her heavily in the face. "Quit it," he growled. "We ain't in the mood for fooling around!"

Ten minutes of savage driving brought them close to the lights of a village. Jake said over his shoulder, "We can't turn off the road. I'm goin' through this town."

Nick, beside him, said, "Go ahead. That guy we tied up must of sent them the wrong way anyway."

Into the main street they sped, and then with a curse, Jake pushed down hard on the brakes. Four cars were lined up across the street, blocking it. A dozen uniformed men with riot guns lined the sidewalks.

Jake swore luridly. "That palooka didn't give a damn for his wife! Give her the works, Louie. We'll keep our word about that!"

Louie said in a thick, mad voice, "Yeah!" He bent down and wrapped his gnarled fingers about the woman's throat. The gag slipped, and she screamed once, then was silent.

Jake threw the shift into reverse, raced the car backwards in a desperate endeavor to turn it around.

One of the armed men from the sidewalk called, "Stop! Come out with your hands in the air!"

Jake got the car half way around. Nick yelled, "Go to hell!"

The man on the sidewalk shouted, "Give it to them, boys!"

The riot guns thundered. The car heaved with the impact of the heavy slugs. Glass shattered. Nick's body was jerked violently against Jake, then slumped. Louie, from the rear, started to cry, "Holy Mo—" but his voice was cut off by a death rattle. Jake was wounded, but he had been on the far side, protected partially from the rain of lead by the body of Nick. He called out weakly, "Stop, I give up!"

The killer look in his eyes had given way to one of whining dread. With shaking fingers he opened the door and came out with his hands in the air, tottered, and fell.

He was immediately surrounded by uniformed men. One of these looked into the car, and swore. "Hell! They strangled the woman!"

Jake looked up through a haze. He managed a grin of bravado. "I told that guy I'd kill his wife if we was caught!"

The officer who had looked into the car exclaimed, "Wife, hell! She's Nagle's wife. That guy you tied up is Detective Clancy. She was convicted in General Sessions last week for receiving stolen goods. Clancy was taking her up to do a five year stretch!"

Jake gagged as blood spurted from his mouth. "Nagle's—wife!" he managed to gasp. "We—had—her in the car—all the time! We could've got her—to tell us where—"

He choked, fell into a spasm of coughing, then let his head drop back weakly. His eyes were terrible to see.

"—where Nagle had cached the swag, eh?" The officer grinned down at him. "Too bad, Jake. Clancy tried to tell you who they were, but you wouldn't give him a chance. You were just a little too smart!"


Cover Image

First published in Secret Agent X, April 1938

Cover Image

Private Detective Taylor thought the assignment was only a routine bodyguard job. But in that tumbledown, gloomy hotel he found himself at the mercy of... The Suicide Coterie.

I SPOTTED the hotel before Braden did. It was getting dark, and I guess his eyesight wasn't so good anyway, what with those thick-lensed glasses that seemed to make a gargoyle out of his soft round face. I slowed up the coupe and said: "Is that it, Mr. Braden?"

The cement road sloped upward here for about half a mile, and at the top of the slope lay this old, tumbledown summer hotel, dark except for a single room on the ground floor that seemed to be brightly lit.

Braden didn't answer my question. There was sweat on his forehead, which was a pretty bad sign, considering that it was about twenty above zero outside. January first is cold in up-state New York. I had noticed that he appeared to get more fidgety as we neared our destination.

I pushed down on the brake, pulled the coupe up to the side of the road and shut off the ignition. He turned a startled face to me.

"It-it's a half mile farther, Taylor," he said. "W-why do you stop here?"

"I know it's a half mile farther, Mr. Braden," I told him. "But I figure now is the time to get the low-down on this business. I've come a hundred miles with you without asking any questions. Here you bust in on me after I've just got back from a New Year's eve celebration, and you hand me five hundred dollars to come along and be your bodyguard. You tell me you'll give me the dope on the way up here, but so far you haven't opened your mouth. Well, now is the time."

Braden lowered his lids behind the thick lenses of the glasses, avoiding my gaze. His hands folded over his round paunch. He said:

"Yes, yes. I've been so upset, you know. And then, you've been so cold and businesslike. I just couldn't bring myself—"

I shrugged. "I can see you're down in the dumps about some thing. But it's my idea, Mr. Braden, that a private detective is paid for getting his clients out of jams , not for wet-nursing them."

He took a deep breath. "I'll tell you the whole story, Taylor. There will be five men up there at the hotel. They are all dangerous men, particularly Joplin. You'll know him from the others because he is tremendous, even taller than you are, Taylor, and brutally powerful. He is a giant of a man, and strong!" Braden's voice dropped almost to a whisper. "How strong!"

"Okay," I said. "I get you—Mr. Joplin is bad medicine. So far, so good. Now, what's the setup? What's your business with these five m en, and what might they do to you that requires a five-hundred-dollar bodyguard?"

Braden fidgeted. He opened his coat, reached in to his hip pocket, took out a handkerchief. Then he took off his glasses, wiped them with the handkerchief. His small, nearsighted eyes kept blinking continuously. Finally he said:

"We meet here once a year, Taylor, on New Year's Day. We have done this for seven years now."

"Fine!" I approved. "What are you, alumni of some college; or is it a freak bet?" He was silent for a minute. Then he slowly repeated my last words, almost under his breath: "Freak bet—freak bet. Yes, you could almost call it that."

He stared at me, studying me . "Suppose we do call it that, Taylorra freak bet. That's exactly it." He moved closer to me as if he were afraid of being overheard. "Your name was given to me , Taylor, by my bank, who said that you were a reliable private detective who was fast with a gun and could keep his mouth shut. All you have to do up there at the hotel is to protect me in case Joplin or any of the others should attempt to do me—harm."

I knew a little about Braden because the Granger National Bank, for which I did some work, had called me after giving him my name. I had learned that Braden kept a very fluctuating balance, that he was a plunger on the Street. Five or six years ago he had been the head of the prosperous brokerage firm of Braden and Stanton, which had gone under in the crash. Since then he seemed to get funds in strange ways, always replenishing his balance at the bank right after the first of each year. The source of those fresh funds was always a mystery. This supplemented the little knowledge I had concerning him, which I recalled reading in the papers about a year ago: that his former partner, Frank Stanton, had committed suicide. There was something queer about the case, I remembered, but I just couldn't put my finger on it at the moment. If Stanton's death hadn't been suicide, then, maybe Braden was afraid of the same thing...:. Braden was saying: "I have every confidence in you—" But he stopped short because suddenly a pair of powerful headlights appeared behind us in the road, bathing my coupe in their brilliant glare. It came up abreast of us in no time and squealed to a stop alongside as the driver applied his brakes.

It was a big sedan, and there were two men in it. The driver was a small, pinch-faced chap, who wore a peaked cap.

The man next to him was the biggest man I have ever seen. He wore no hat, and his hair was black and cut close to his scalp. His neck bulged out over his coat collar and supported a broad head with a face that might have been carved out of oddly assorted pieces of wood. His eyes were far too small for the rest of h m, and they looked dangerous, menacing in the semi-gloom.

This man opened the door and got out. Braden, white as a sheet beside me , seemed to have an attack of the jitters at sight of him. He whispered: "T-that's Joplin!" His eyes were fixed on the huge figure which had now come up close to my window.

The big man's eyes flicked from me to Braden, and he stooped to peer in. "Well, Braden," he said in a deep, resonant voice, "I see you've come."

Braden answered with a weak attempt at bluster, "Of course I've come, Joplin. What made you think I wouldn't?" Joplin's face cracked in to a weird sort of smile. He hrugged. "Just a hunch I had." He jerked, his massive head at me . "Who's your friend?"

Braden gulped, tried to smile. "Why—why, he's my chauffeur. I've been so nervous of late, I find it hard driving long distances."

Joplin took his face away from the window. "All right," he said, "get going. I'll be right behind you." I looked at Braden, who nodded. I shifted into first and got the car in motion. After I had got into high, I glanced in the rear-vision mirror and saw the huge figure of Joplin getting into his own car.

The sedan followed close behind us all the way up the hill to the driveway of the hotel. I was sore at myself for having been maneuvered into a position where I had to go on without knowing the rest of the story, but after getting a single glimpse of Braden's face, I could never have left him without reproaching myself for the rest of my life. So I contented myself with giving him a little warning.

"Remember, Braden," I said sternly, "I'm an honest private detective—even if you didn't know there were any of the species. I'm sticking with you as long as I'm convinced you're not breaking the law. The minute I find out you're a crook, I'm dropping you—and I won't give a damn where you fall."

Braden said eagerly: "You won't regret it, Taylor. If I come out of this alive—" He didn't finish telling me what he'd do if he came out alive, because at that moment Joplin and his pinch-faced driver came up alongside my coupe. Joplin boomed: "Well, what are you waiting for? The others are all here." He indicated a group of parked cars farther down along the driveway, past the portico.

Braden said hastily: "We're coming, Joplin. We're coming."

The big man said carelessly to his driver, "Come on, Nick," and went ahead, followed by Nick, who threw us a sardonic glance in passing. We got out of the coupe, walked up the four wooden steps of the weather-beaten entrance. The lobby was now brilliantly lit. The desk was at the far end, and there was a big double door at the left, opening into a dining room.

Joplin was near the desk, talking to a swarthy man in evening dress, while Nick, the driver, had his elbows on the desk, watching us come through the door. Joplin towered more than a head above the swarthy man, who was no Lilliputian himself. The swarthy man was bowing deferentially, and Joplin was asking:

"Are the others all here, Curie?"

The swarthy man nodded, jerked his head toward the dining room. "They've been waiting for you and Braden before starting dinner."

"Let them wait," Joplin said shortly. "Take us upstairs so we can wash." Then he lowered his voice, said something that I couldn't hear. Curie's eyes swung toward us, and I guessed that Joplin was telling him something about Braden and me.

Curie said, "Yes, sir, this way, sir," and went ahead across the lobby to a wide staircase.

Joplin swung slowly, looked from Braden to me . "Follow e , gentlemen. Nick, you come last." He said it significantly, and Nick grinned, took his elbows off the desk and put his hand in his overcoat pocket. There was a bulge in that pocket, and I knew Nick wanted us to see it.

Joplin was already up the stairs after Curie. I glanced at Braden, who gave me a sort of hopeless look, then turned and followed. I went after him, and Nick brought up the rear.

Curie put on a light in the upper corridor and showed Joplin and Braden to separate rooms, then took me to a third. Nick remained out in the corridor. Apparently he didn't need to wash up.

The room that was assigned to me was a typical summer hotel bedroom: one bed, not too clean looking; one dresser, two chairs, one washstand. The washstand was in the corner alongside the window. There was a mirror in the wall above it, a small piece of guest soap next to the faucet and a dirty towel hanging In the rack below the mirror.

I said to Curie: "How about a clean towel?"

Curie was halfway out the door. He looked back, didn't even crack a smile. "You'll use that one," he said, closing the door behind him.

I shrugged, peeled off my coat and rolled up my sleeves. I needed a wash badly after the drive. What I could really have stood was a cold shower; for Braden had awakened me in the middle of a New Year's Eve hangover sleep, and my innards seemed to be doing somersaults all around the lining of my stomach.

When I bent down over the basin, my shoulder holster, which was strapped on over my vest, got in the way. So I took it off and put it on the bed under my coat. Then I filled the basin full of cold water and ducked my head into it, keeping it there for a long, cool, refreshing minute.

I had just got through washing, and was pawing around for the towel, when I heard the door open. I found the towel, wiped my eyes and took a look.

It wasn't the corridor door that had opened this time, but the connecting door leading from the next room . There was a woman standing in the doorway. She stood erect, slim, in a high-necked dress of some sort of green material that went perfectly with her long black hair, which was done up in a big knot at the back of her head. Her eyes were deep-black and flashing, and she was holding an automatic pointed straight at me.

I will swear that she had been on the point of shooting me in the back. I could see the sudden startled look of her when I took the towel away from my face; could see how she jerked that automatic up, away from the line with my stomach.

She said: "I—oh—I thought you were Jo—" Then she stopped, put her hand to her mouth as if she had said too much.

I grinned. "Lady, I'm certainly glad I'm not!" I said it fervently. If I had ever seen a beautiful lady intent on murder, she was it.

Abruptly, her little mouth hardened and her eyes flashed. "But you're one of them , anyway—one of the six. Which are you? Gage, Vincent, Freeman—"

"Madam," I said hastily, "I'm none of them. My name is Taylor, and I'm a private detective."

"Who brought you here?" she asked swiftly.

I shut up. I was talking too much.

But she guessed. Her lips curled scornfully. "Of course, it must have been Braden. He knows—"

She shot a startled glance at the corrido r door, for a knock had sounded there. Swiftly, without lost motion, she backed out into the next room, closed the door.

The knock sounded again, and the doorknob rattled. I called out, "Come in," and the door opened to admit Joplin.

He came across the room, staring at me steadily out of his narrow eyes. Then he glanced around suspiciously, asked: "Was anybody here just now?"

I said: "If they were, I wouldn't have known. I had the water running. I almost didn't hear you knock." He didn't wait for my answer, but strode across and flung open the connecting door. I held my breath, expecting to hear the bark of that small automatic I had seen in the woman's hand. But the room next door was empty. I watched while Joplin went through that room to the corridor door, opened it and called out:

"Did anybody come out of here just now, Nick?"

I heard Nick say: "Sure, boss—Mrs. Stanton. She went downstairs."

Joplin grunted, came back through the connecting door and into my room again. If I had had a chance I would have dived for my gun under the coat on the bed. But I couldn't; his eyes were on me all the time he was in the next room.

He came up close, towering over me, and rapped out: "What's your name?" The look on his wooden face wasn't reassuring.

I said: "The name is Taylor, Mr. Joplin." I tried to make myself sound as much like a chauffeur as I could. At the same time I folded the towel I was holding, and started twisting it around. In case this bird started anything, a good wet towel, twisted around, would make a better weapon than a pair of fists. Joplin wasn't dumb. His eyes dropped to the twisted towel, then raised to mine. He said:

"All right, Taylor. I know you're not a chauffeur. You're a private detective. Braden brought you along in case he got in trouble. Well, Taylor—" he took a step forward, narrowing the distance between us— "I'll give you a tip—keep your hands out of whatever happens here. I'm not asking whom you were just talking to—I know. If you want to get out of here alive, forget everything you may see. Don't listen to Mrs. Stanton's ravings, and don't start anything. If you do—" his voice got low and rumbling— "it will be—just—too—bad!"

He swung away from me, before I could answer him and covered the distance to the door in two long strides. I watched him go out, ducking his head to pass under the lintel, and slam the door behind him. He had talked like a man who was supremely sure of hims elf, as if he couldn't imagine any one standing up to him. My shoulder holster on again, I rolled down my sleeves and put on my coat. I couldn't get th at woman with the automatic out of my head. I was thinking more of her than of Joplin's warning. Mrs. Stanton. Stanton had been Braden's partner. But she didn't seem to think much of Braden.

I shrugged, went out into the corridor. Nick was standing near the staircase with his eye on my door. He still had his hand on the bulge in his pocket. I paid him no attention, but went to the door of the room that had been assigned to Braden, and knocked. There was no answer.

From behind me Nick said: "Your friend's downstairs, pal."

I always like to see for myself, so I pushed the door open, looked into the room. It was true. Braden wasn't there. I closed the door, started for the stairs.

I was about to pass Nick when he sidestepped in front of me, standing so that the bulge in his pocket was turned toward me. He grinned nastily.

"You and me is gonna stay up here, pal. There's things goin' on downstairs, and it's private—see?"

I looked him up and down. He seemed to be a pretty fast man, and he had the drop on me.

I said mildly: "Listen, Nicky, what's the gag? Why all the mystery?"

He kept that bulge poking out at me. "If you're smart, pal, you won't ask no questions—see?" He was still grinning. "Just go back in your room and be a nice boy."

I tried him on another tack. "But how about some eats? I've been driving all night, and I'm hungry."

"No eats, pal. You'll be glad if the boss lets you outta here—hungry." I said: "Nicky, you should never try to stop a starving man." My left hand clamped over the hand in his pocket, twisted it sideways. At the same tim e I brought my right fist up in a short arc that caught him on the point of the chin. He was lifted off his feet, and he would have fallen down the stairs if I hadn't been holding on to him with the othe r hand.

Although I wasn't as big as Joplin, I could hit pretty hard. There was a glazed look in Nicky's eyes, and his knees wobbled and gave under him. I eased him slowly to the floor, took his hand out of his pocket, reached in and dug out the automatic. Nicky was out. I dragged him toward my room, trying to make as little noise as possible so as not to arouse the people downstairs. I didn't want to spoil their dinner—just yet.

I got Nicky inside the room, closed the door and dragged the sheet off the bed. I tore it into strips , turned Nicky over on his face and tied his hands and feet.

When I got down to the foot of the stairs, there was nobody in the lobby. From where I stood I could see the open double-doors of the dining room, past the clerk's desk, but I couldn't see inside. There were people in there all right, because I could hear the hum of voices and the subdued clatter of dishes.

I took a couple of steps across the floor, and the boards creaked under me I stopped short, holding Nicky's automatic handy; but the talking went on inside, so I kept going till I got close to the door. I peered inside.

A large table had been set in the middle of the room. Seven people sat around it. Joplin sat with his back to me, and his massive figure would have stood out in any gathering. At his right was Braden, whose profile, turned toward me, showed his face a pasty white. His fingers were fidgeting nervously with the tablecloth, and he was not eating the soup in front of him. There were four other men around the table, and they all seemed equally as nervous as Braden.

Mrs. Stanton, the woman who had come into my room with the gun, was the seventh person at the table. She was opposite Joplin, sitting qu ite still, listening to what the big man was saying. Her eyes never left his face.

"Gentlemen," I could hear Joplin say, "at this meeting we have two visitors. One of them is—believe it or not—a detective!" The others all swung their eyes to Braden, who squirmed in his chair, seemed to shrink back into it. He looked around the table, raised a pudgy hand. "I—I d-didn't mean—" Joplin threw him a sardonic side glance, waved his hand carelessly. "Don't bother to explain, Braden. We know exactly what you had in mind." He turned to the others. "The detective's presence needn't cause us any alarm, gentlemen. He is upstairs in his room , and Nick is watching the corridor. The detective won't bother us until we are ready to deal with him."

I could see Braden sort of wilt. The news that I was taken care of was a body blow. It knocked his last prop from under him.

Joplin went on: "The other visitor—" he bowed to the woman across the table— "is Mrs. Stanton, whom you all know. She is the widow of our very dear friend, Frank Stanton, who committed suicide last year, causing us all deep sorrow." His voice was unctuous, like an undertaker saying he was sorry about the death rate.

Mrs. Stanton didn't move, didn't take her eyes off him. I could see that her whole body was tense. She said in a low voice, colorless, as if she were talking about the weather:

"That's a lie, Joplin. Fred didn't commit suicide. He was murdered. You murdered him."

There was a dead silence around the table. From the kitchen, at the far end, Curie came in, bearing a tray of food. They kept quiet while he served them. Not a word was spoken. But there was dynamite in the air.

Curie set his tray on an end table, went around collecting the soup plates and then laid other dishes before them. He did it efficiently, like a born waiter. Then he went back into the kitchen, reappeared in a moment with a tall bottle of wine that he carried carefully, reverently. From this he filled thin-stemmed glasses which stood beside each one's plate. My mouth was watering at sight of all that food and wine. I felt that if I didn't get something soon I'd collapse. As Curie stood next to Joplin, the big man motioned to him with his hand, whispered something in his ear. Curie's face did not change expression. He nodded and left the room.

It was not until he had gone into the kitchen that the conversation was resumed. It was Joplin himself who broke the tension caused by Mrs. Stanton's accusation. He said lightly, almost banteringly:

"I suppose you have good grounds for making such a statement, Mrs. Stanton? After all, we were Frank's best friends."

The corners of Mrs. Stanton's little mouth turned down tight. She was talking to Joplin, and it was as if there wasn't anybody else at the table.

"I said you murdered him , Joplin—you and these others. There were once twelve of you who met here every New Year's. Each year you drew lots, and the unlucky man who got the deuce of spades had to commit suicide. You are each insured for a hundred thousand dollars. That is how you have been living for the past seven years—on the blood money that the insurance companies paid. Each year there are fewer of you to divide the money. You are ghouls!" Her voice broke a little, but she still kept her head erect.

Joplin said, his voice lower than it had been before: "But Frank had as much chance as the rest of us."

"No, no," she broke in. "He didn't have a chance. He told me all about it for the first time last year. He felt he was going to be the unlucky one. I had just inherited my grandfather's estate, and I got Frank a hundred thousand dollars in cash. Your rule was that the man who was chosen to die could contribute the cash to the fund, if he had it, in lieu of the policy." Her gaze burned across the table at Joplin. "Frank had the money!" For the fir t time her eyes left Joplin, swung around the table at the others, resting a moment on each of them. "You were all too greedy. You took his money, and then you killed him to get th e insurance besides!"

Those people were all so fascinated by the woman's manner that they never glanced toward the doorway where I was standing. I had wedged over so I could peer through the crack between the left-hand door and the jamb, and I kept damned quiet. I had learned more in the last four or five minutes than I had learned in the long drive up with Braden, and I was beginning to think even less of my client than I had before. If Mrs. Stanton was right, Braden was as much of a murderer as the others—even more culpable, in fact, because Stanton had been his partner.

The woman's breath was coming in short gasps now, her bosom was rising and falling quickly. She said huskily: "I loved Frank. You killed him. That's why I'm here." She pushed back her plate and rose, upsetting her chair. Her hand came up from under the table. She was holding the same automatic she had pointed at me, only now it was trained on Joplin.

"Joplin," she said, her voice rising slightly, "I'm going to kill you. I know I could never prove in court that you are a murderer. So I'm going to kill you."

But Joplin wasn't slated to die right at that minute. The man sitting on her left suddenly swept up his arm, striking her wrist, and knocking the gun up in the air. It exploded, and the slug tore into the ceiling. The man who had struck her wrist seized her hand before she could fire again, twisted it behind her back. Her face white with pain, she uttered an involuntary gasp. The gun clattered to the floor.

The man grinned nastily, let her go. She sagged down into her chair, buried her head in her arms on the table. Her shoulders heaved spasmodically. She was sobbing silently.

Joplin said, coolly, for a man who had just faced death: "That was quick work, Gale. Thank you." He added dryly: "Why did you bother? It would have saved the trouble of drawing lots."

Gale flushed. He was a man of about fifty, with a long, thin face that contrasted strangely with his full, red lips. "I acted without thinking," he said frankly. "I'm sure you'll overlook the thoughtlessness, Joplin."

Braden had sat through it all as if he were paralyzed. Right then and there I decided that I wasn't going to be Mr. Braden's hired man any more. I was beginning to entertain idea s of leaving there and getting Mrs. Stanton out with me , somehow. I couldn't bring myself to feel very badly about her desire to kill Joplin, not after what I had just learned.

But I didn't get far, because just then I felt something hard jabbed into my spine. A curt voice, which I recognized as Curie's, said:

"Let the gun drop easy, mister, if you don't want your backbone cracked in two!"

I let the gun drop to the floor. I could tell that Curie meant business. Also, I was sore at myself. I should have realized that Joplin must have heard the boards creaking when I crossed the lobby, and that when he whispered to Curie at the table, he was telling him to go around the back way and take a look.

I said: "Okay, Curie. You called the turn."

Curie ordered: "Now walk inside, slow and easy."

Joplin, Braden and the others watched us come in. Braden's face was a picture. I wish I could have caught it with a camera; any movie director in Hollywood would have signed him for a ten-year contract to register fear, consternation, terror and what not. Only Braden wasn't acting.

The others were more or less surprised. The woman still had her head on the table, and Joplin had turned around in his chair to stare at me woodenly. I had to hand it to him for cool nerve. He had sat, with his back to the doorway, knowing that somebody was out there who might take a pot shot at him. He said:

"I don't see how you got by Nick. You must be smarter than I thought."

I didn't say anything, because there wasn't really anything to say. The next move was up to Joplin and his pals. And I wasn't feeling so good. Joplin said to Curie: "Pick up his gun from the floor, and leave us. I can handle him as long as he isn't armed." Curie nodded, picked up the gun, and went out through the hall. I was beginning to feel better. Joplin though that was my gun. He didn't know about my own .32 in the shoulder holster.

He got up from his chair, grabbed me by the coat collar. I thought he was going to lift me off the floor, but he didn't. He just said, coolly enough:

"You're a fool after all, Taylor. You would have been all right if you hadn't butted in. Now you've learned too much."

I couldn't get at my gun on account of the way he was holding my coat. I felt like a small boy who was going to get a thrashing for stealing apples. Joplin kept his hold on me, turned to the men at the table.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I shall explain what this is about. Our good friend Braden was beginning to worry about drawing the deuce of spades. So he brought this man along to help him welch in case he was selected to commit suicide."

Mrs. Stanton raised her head from the table while he was talking, and furtively dried her eyes with the back of her hand.

Joplin went on, talking to the men at the table, but keeping a corner of his eye on me and his big ham of a hand on my coat. "We all agreed at the outset of our—er—mutual undertaking, that any member who tried to trick the rest of us would automatically forfeit his life. What do you say, gentlemen, shall we take a vote on Braden instead of drawing lots?"

Braden started up in his seat, crying: "No, no.... Taylor, Taylor! Help me!"

I didn't make any move to help him. I was busy getting set to help myself—and Mrs. Stanton. I was easing up my body so as to slip out of my coat. I figured it was the only way to do it, for there wa s no breaking Joplin's grip.

Gale, the one who had knocked up Mrs. Stanton's wrist, growled: "Let it be Braden."

The others chimed in. It must have been a relief to all of them to find an easy goat like Braden for this picking.

Joplin boomed: "Well, that's decided." He swung his eyes on me. "You'll have to take it, too, Taylor. You know too much." Braden suddenly got active. Fear of death will put grease in anybody's knees. He leaped away from the table, ran, waddling, for the double doors. His face was twisted and chalky as he ran, and he started to yell something, but his breath was short, and he didn't get it out.

The man, Gale, dug his hand in his hip pocket, brought out an automatic, raised it deliberately and fired three slugs into Braden's back.

Braden was almost at the door when they caught him. He uttered a hoarse shriek, stumbled forward and hit the floor. He landed across the threshold on his face. His head and shoulders were in the lobby, the rest of him still in the dining room. He twitched convulsively, squirmed over on his back, clutched at the door jamb and then suddenly relaxed. He lay still.

Gale said dryly: "You boys will have to cover this up for me." He stared at me, fishy-eyed. "We can leave this gun in the detective's hand when we take care of him, and make it seem as if he murdered Braden. I—"

That was as far as he got, because I had been getting set for my own little stunt. I had been standing with my body tense, my coat in Joplin's grip. Now I raised my arms, twisted around and yanked myself out of my coat, leaving it in Joplin's hand. I had done that same thing once as a kid, when a cop caught me shooting immies* out of a bean shooter at him from around the corner. I never thought I'd have to repeat the trick as a grown man.

* immies: marbles. I got free, sidestepped just as Gale's automatic barked again and a slug missed me by a hair's-breadth. Joplin lurched after me, and I leaped across the floor in my shirtsleeves, reached the window and swung around to face that bloodthirsty crowd. I now had my own revolver out of the shoulder holster.

Gale was sighting for another try at me, and I snapped a single shot at him. I never miss when I shoot, which is a quality I've had to develop in order to survive in my business. My slug got Gale in the chest, flung him backward. He toppled against his chair, crashed to the floor. The other men in the room apparently weren't armed, for I didn't see any more guns in evidence. I saw Mrs. Stanton standing, gazing at me wide-eyed. I also saw Joplin. Joplin was coming at me now, barehanded, his face still an expressionless wooden mask. His huge body loomed in front of me, and his arms were outstretched as if he wanted to embrace me in a huge bear hug.

I swung my gun toward him, cried out shakily: "Hold it, Joplin!"

He paid no attention, but kept on coming. I hated to do it. It was massacre. But I didn't want to get inside those arms of his.

I squeezed once on the trigger. My gun bucked, roared, and the slug tore into Joplin 's right shoulder, where I had wanted it to go. I expected it to stop him. But it didn't. He didn't even falter in his step. Only his eyes got a sort of dull, murky, dangerous gray.

Desperately I shifted aim, squeezed the trigger again.

This time I wasn't fooling; I sent the lead square into his chest. I could hear the sickening crunch of bones as a sort of echo to the explosion of my revolver, he was that close to me . A little froth of blood appeared at his mouth. His arms were almost around me, and his face was still wooden.

I heard myself shouting: "Stop, Joplin, I'll kill you!" And then he was on me, blood gushing from his chest, his eyes blazing red in a wooden mask of a face. I jabbed my gun at him, let him have a bullet right through the forehead. It took that to stop him.

The momentum of his rush carried him into me, spattering me all over with blood. But he was dead. His heavy body slid down, struck the floor with a thud.

I stepped away from him, faced the rest of the room. There was no one there but Gale, who was dead; and Mrs. Stanton, standing white-faced by the table, and Braden's body, across the threshold. For a long minute we stared at each other across the room, and then there came from outside the sounds of starting motors. I swung for the window, but Mrs. Stanton's voice stopped me. "Let them go," she said wearily. "The rats have left the sinking ship." Her eyes rested somberly on the body of Joplin, and she swayed slightly. I patted her shoulder. "Stout girl," I said.

She murmured: "The murder syndicate—it's broken up!"

I nodded, glanced at the three bodies. "They never expected three deuces of spades in the one deck!" I told her.


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