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Title: Red Finger's Murder Messenger
Author: Arthur Leo Zagat
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1400951h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Feb 2014
Most recent update: Feb 2014

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Red Finger's Murder Messenger


Arthur Leo Zagat

Cover Image


First published in Secret Service Operator #5, March 1938

Cover Image

Secret Service Operator #5, March 1938

THE shadows of a late spring dusk crept almost stealthily into that block of second-hand bookstores on New York's Fourth Avenue that is known as the Port of Ancient Books. From afar there came into its drowsy quiet a growling rumble compounded of the roar of traffic, the chatter of the mighty millions—all the tumult of the teeming city. Here, sound was limited to the soft slither of a rag lovingly dusting some rare volume, the rustle of sere pages under the hand of some browser at the sidewalk boxes trestled in front of the grimed windows of the shops, the scrape of feet as a shabbily dressed man shambled slowly down the sidewalk.

Ford Duane leaned against the doorpost of his store, that was different from the others in the block only because his name was lettered in scabrous gilt across its cornice. The drab alpaca smock, hanging loosely from his shoulders, cloaked a tall, loose-jointed figure. There seemed only lassitude in his gaunt, hollow-checked countenance, a vast disinterest in life.

Beneath Duane's drooped lids, his eyes watched with a fierce intentness the man who slowly approached. Every muscle in that apparently relaxed frame of Duane's was now gathered for instant action. So might a moving tiger have tautened with the drift of a shadow through the sunlit jungle—a shadow that might be merely a cloud drifting across the sky...or death crouching to leap upon him.

For to Ford Duane, buyer and seller of discarded tomes, human flotsam in this back eddy of life's stream, death, and worse than death, was a constant threat, eternal vigilance the price of safety.

The man whom Duane watched now shambled closer, peering at the shops as if he were searching for some particular establishment. His slow gait, and the stoop of his shoulders, did not come from age—for his face, faintly stubbled though it were, was that of one not far in his thirties. The horn-rimmed glasses, whose lenses were so thick they hid his eyes, the long hair fringing his ears, disorderly appearance of his worn clothing, stamped him as one of those accustomed to lurk in this abode of yellowed literature—a scholar to whom the search of knowledge is the only reality of life.

He came abreast of Duane's shop, turned and walked toward the tall bibliophile. Duane lifted away from the doorpost. "How do you do?" he said, before his visitor came too close.

The fellow paused. "You are Mr. Duane?" he asked, accents slurred and hesitant, "the bookseller?"

"Yes. At least, I am the Duane who keeps books and hopes that some one will buy them, occasionally. You are looking for me?"

"Yes," the other breathed. "I was told that if I want a book that is hard to find, you are the best man to come to."

"And you are looking for such a book now?" Duane prompted.

Stub-fingered hands fumbled at a pile of tattered magazines in the box beside the student as the man gave its name, "Pantagruel at Toulouse. P. Atkins Townsend was the publisher, but he's no longer in business and the book is out of print."

Duane's expression did not change, but the pulse throbbed in his wrist. There was no such book, nor had there ever been such a publisher. In the title of that book and the name of the publisher, there was concealed a signal for Duane. Their initial letters were the same—P. A. T. In many forms, that signal had previously come to him. They were the credentials of messengers from the invisible head of the phantom organization to which Duane belonged. Each time messages, thus heralded, had come, it had meant that for a little while Ford Duane would be absent from Fourth Avenue. Later, after he had returned from his mission, some chancellery of Europe or Asia would cross off a name or two from a list of secret agents and some carefully worked out, secret political scheme would be marked, Defeated!

"Pantagruel at Toulouse?" the seeming shopkeeper repeated. "I may be able to get it. But I am not sure. Can you tell me more about it?" He was far other than he seemed, this lank, almost cadaverous individual.

Duane was a soldier in a war that knows no end—a mystery-cloaked, anonymous participant in the strife of spy and counter-spy, of saboteur and shadowy defender, that goes on eternally in a land that is at peace with all the world—and all the world apparently at peace with it.

"I am sure you have the book," said the stranger. "The person who sent me here told me he saw it on your shelves. Far to the rear, he said—he described its location perfectly. If you will let me, I can show you exactly where it is."

"All right." If anything, Duane's face was blanker than before. He stepped aside, motioned the spectacled man past him. They went into dimness, moved between high stacks of books that exhaled the distinctive odor of yellowing paper, of moldering binder's cloth and worm-ridden leather, a musty smell like nothing else in the world.

"You have something to give me?" Ford Duane asked, low-toned.

"Yes," the man answered, and whipped around. "This!" Metal gleamed in the shadows—a knife flailing straight for the bookseller's heart!

IN Fourth Avenue the street lamps blinked on. The door of Ford Duane's Secondhand Bookstore opened, and closed again. A stooped man, wearing glasses with lenses so thick they hid his eyes, shambled past the box that held a stack of tattered magazines, and shuffled along the sidewalk toward the corner. He moved slowly, because he held an open book in his hands, seemingly reading it. In spite of his glasses, he was so nearsighted that he had to hold the book high—and it concealed his face.

The man's shabby clothing was too tight—as it should have been, not belonging to him. The frayed hem of his trousers exposed inches of untidy sock. He reached the corner, turned east. Then he slammed shut his book, and abruptly his long legs began to move rapidly. He reached Third Avenue and turned again, hurrying past the bedraggled shops and drab tenement doorways of that thoroughfare. Halfway down the block, he ran up a broken-stepped stoop, shoved open a door scrawled over with the chalked obscenities of small boys and dived into a dark hallway which reeked with the stale smells of yesterday's corned beef and cabbage.

Another door creaked in the darkness. The man went down rickety wooden steps, across a debris-strewn cellar floor to a plank-walled cubicle that once had been a coal bin but now was a room which a hard-pressed janitor rented to a certain derelict for a dollar a week.

The rusted lock on the door of that cubicle was curiously intricate, yet it yielded at once to the man's key—then clicked shut behind him. In the tarry darkness, to which it admitted him, a bedstead creaked, and then there came a curious scraping of brick upon brick. After a minute, the sound was repeated...then absolute silence surged through that dark cellar chamber.

Now, the man had almost reached his goal...

The curtain in the wide aperture, cut through the partition at the rear of Ford Duane's Bookstore, was looped back. Anyone, looking in from the sidewalk, could see the wooden kitchen table, food-laden shelves, two-burner gas stove that revealed the space behind as Duane's living quarters—but not the whole space. They could not see the iron cot on which a prisoner now lay, bound to it by thin but exceedingly strong cords, his mouth gagged. They could not see this prisoner's eyes blink open and stare dazedly at the ceiling, as if his brain were still foggy. This prisoner was still unable to quite figure out why his knife had not gone home, in Duane's heart, why, suddenly, a fine mist had sprayed from out the very book stacks and somehow sending him down...down into oblivion.

The prisoner's head now jerked to a furtive slither. Against the rear wall—far enough to the other end of the room so that it could not be observed from out front—a black line abruptly marked the floor. It widened, as he caught sight of it, became a slit in the floor. Now the slit was a square hole out of which came a smell of damp, dank earth, as from a tunnel. Ford Duane's head came up out of the hole, his shoulders. This was his goal.

DUANE was up in the room. The panel had slid shut again, closing the hole out of which he had come. He seated himself in a chair and started stripping off the killer's suit he had been wearing.

"Come to?" Duane said, quite pleasantly. "You didn't get much of a dose—just enough to knock you out." Duane reached for his own clothing. "You gave yourself away by asking to be taken inside. All messages are delivered to me where everybody can see they're only books, or packages. I open them at once in full view, to demonstrate the innocence of their contents." He donned his smock, stood up to button it. "There isn't a foot of those shelves that isn't equipped with hidden nozzles that will spray forth a knockout gas of my own invention, if I shove my toe against the baseboard. You didn't have a chance of reaching me with your knife."

Duane crossed to his prisoner, stood above him, studying his face. With the glasses gone, it was no longer a scholar's countenance. It was beady-eyed, ratlike—showed only enough intelligence for murder.

"You didn't work out that scheme yourself," Duane went on. "Someone sent you to kill me. I'm going to find out who that someone is, and why. But first I shall close up shop. I can do that now because my neighbors, and any confederate of yours, who might have been watching from under cover, have seen you leave and so they won't wonder what has become of you. That's why I ran out there in your clothes."

The outside book-boxes he now took in, locking the store's front door. Duane padded back to the partition at the rear, unhooked the curtain and dropped it across the doorway. He moved to the cot, leaned over and unfastened the man's gag.

"Well," he said softly. "Who sent you?"

A stream of profanity spewed from the bound man's mouth.

Duane smiled without humor. He reached a long arm to the provision shelves on the wall, took down a bottle of clear liquid labeled, Vinegar. When he extracted its waxed cork, white fumes curled from its mouth.

The man on the cot was silent, his pupils dilating.

"I'm not particularly interested in getting revenge for the attempt on my life," Duane murmured. "But the way the attempt was made shows that some message to me has been intercepted. I want to know what that message was, and the people who sent you here can tell me. I intend to find out who they are, and what they are planning."

He tipped the bottle in his hand and let a drop of the liquid from it fall on the bedclothes, where his captive could see it. The wet place darkened, was black almost at once. And then there was no spot on the blanket at all... only a tiny, awesome hole.

"Nitric Acid," Duane explained. "Just think what it could do to—your eyes!" His free hand lashed forward, and his fingers, slim but exceedingly strong, were clamped on the killer's jaw, holding his head immobile. "Just think of the pain as it burns in. Just think of being blind, of being in the dark—always in the dark—till you die." The bottle hovered above the man's eyes. A glittering drop formed on its lip, quivering.

"I'll talk," the man shrieked. "Don't let it fall. For the love of God, don't let it fall. I'll talk!"

IN THE Eighties, between Broadway and Amsterdam, the old brownstone private houses have not yet been crowded out by towering elevator apartments. They have, for the most part, however, been turned into discreet lodgings—the comings and goings of whose tenants are never questioned as long as their rent is paid.

Lizzie O'Flaherty, the landlady of a certain one of these houses, considered herself singularly fortunate in having rented her whole parlor floor to two nice-looking foreigners who had paid a whole month's rental in advance. True, they seemed to have a lot of visitors, at all hours of the day and night, but there was never any noise from their quarters—so why should she bother her head about that?

Lizzie might have been interested, if she could have looked into the rear room of her parlor floor at about ten o'clock of the same night that Ford Duane had his unusual caller. But it would have been rather difficult, since the black blinds over its tall, deeply exnbrasured windows were drawn tightly down. The doors to the hall, and to the rest of the suite, were locked and double-locked.

The table in the center of the room was piled high with green, rectangular slips of paper. The papers, of a peculiar texture and peculiarly speckled with tiny, wriggly silk fibers, were bound into inch-thick bundles by wide paper bands. Each of these bands was imprinted with figures—$500, $1000. There were a great many of them.

The chandelier in the high ceiling was none too bright. The walls were dark with the patina of age. The bulky furniture, the tall wooden wardrobe in the corner next to the windows, the wide sliding-doors in the wall opposite them, the carpeting on the floor, were battered and worn with the years. But that tremendous pile of money dominated the room so that all else in it seemed insignificant.

The two men, whom Lizzie O'Flaherty thought herself so fortunate to have as lodgers, now stood on either side of the table. One was taller than the other, and burly. His head was almost square in shape, his scalp was covered by short yellow hair upstanding and stiff as the bristles of a brush. His eyes were the exact blue shade of a bisque doll, but tiny evil lights glinted in them as though seized by intense inner excitement.

His companion was shorter, wiry, narrow, hawk-beaked countenance dark to swarthiness. His mouth was small and cruel, his hands corrugated by blue veins, their digits more like talons than fingers. One of these hands lay on the pile of bills.

"A half billion dollars, Maier," the little man said, slowly, gloatingly. "Not counterfeit, but printed on the government presses, from the government plates, on government paper, though never authorized by Congress." There was an elusive foreign intonation to his speech, each syllable clearly enunciated. "When our co-workers filter them, and all those others back in the warehouse, into circulation, what will happen to this nation that, despite its depression—despise the economic morass in which it struggles—still fatuously clings to its outworn democratic philosophy?"

A slow smile licked the blonde giant's thick lips. "Inflation," he answered, gutturally. "Prices of food, of the necessities of life, soaring beyond the reach of any but the most wealthy. The value of money falling—falling, like in my country it fell after the great war, till a handful of these will not be enough to buy a postage stamp. A half billion is not much against the wealth of America, friend Ciano, but, with all we also have in the warehouse, it will be enough to start disaster. That storm will roar on like the fires Vechkoff set two years ago in their forests of the north, till all over this proud land will be heard the cries of hungry children, moans of mothers, the trample and shouts of rioting mobs!"

"And then our forces shall spring into action, who have been gathered and trained for this purpose," Ciano took up the tale. "It has been so easy to fool these naive Americans, with sheets and hoods and secret passwords and shibboleth of patriotism—to swear them to unbreakable oaths of allegiance. Then our puppet will become—"

"Dictator of the United States," Maier broke in. "His name is already signed to the treaties that will extend to Washington the axis before which all Europe now quails in fear." He chuckled. "And so our great dream of a totalitarian state, embracing all the world, will come true. It has been easy to prepare the armed hosts who will bring this about. It will also be simple to get this money into the trade veins of an unsuspecting nation. Once out of our hands, whatever their Government attempts to quench the fire of inflation will be futile, for this is real money. Any doubt cast upon it will also cast doubt on all the other money of the land. But it was not easy to produce this half billion dollars and all the rest you have in the Balco warehouse. How was it accomplished, Ciano?"

The dark man's smile was almost lewd in its slow crawl across his face. "There are secrets of the East that we with white skins will never be permitted to know." He shrugged. "It was not hard to drug the sentries who guard the Bureau of Printing and Engraving in Washington, or to steal these plates—not with our system. It is too late for them to do anything about it. Too late, for, as you say, doubt cast on this money will cast doubt on all money—and thus the value of all America's currency will be destroyed."

"Too late," Maier licked his chops. "After midnight, when my men come for these bills, and those at the Balco warehouse, and scatter them all over the country, it will be too late to save Amer—"

"But it's not too late yet!" The sound of a shade ripping rasped across the hollow belly-voice that said this.

Maier and Ciano whirled to it, saw a black swirl come through the vertical slit in the blind and drop lightly to the floor.

"See how high you can reach, my friends," the voice said, and the apparition straightened, its black cloak swirling about it and making it shapeless.

It was faceless, too. Its broad-brimmed black hat shadowed only a grey, featureless mask, so that it seemed a sudden specter of dread that jutted a curiously thick-barreled pistol at Ciano and Maier. Stark rigid, their countenances quivering and yellow-white as dough, they lifted trembling arms above their heads. The hand that held that gun was black-gloved...except for the finger curled on its trigger. That finger was scarlet as spurting arterial blood.

Stark terror flared into Maier's eyes. "Red Finger!" spewed from his colorless snout. "It's Red Finger!"

RED FINGER! That name is not known to the millions who go about their business in America, peaceful and secure. But to the man known as Red Finger, more than to any other, they owe their peace and security. Among the grey, whispering cohorts of the invisible army that eternally gnaws to undermine American institutions, the name Red Finger is a name of fear. Many of them have met and seen him in this fearful guise, but few have lived to creep back to those who had dispatched them on some evil mission against the United States!

"Red Finger," the grim voice repeated. "But why not give me my real name? You know it, Anton Maier, do you not? You sent an assassin to dispose of me not many hours ago. You really thought that I could be knifed and left weltering in my own blood."

"I thought..." the German fluttered, "I thought..."

"If you had thought, you would not have revealed to me that you know who I am." The masked man moved slowly toward the trembling couple, a relentless, weird apparition in his swirling black robes, an avatar of gruesome doom. "For, because of your knowledge, you both must die."

Through the aperture out of which he had come now could be seen a pane of glass swinging from a cord taped to it and fastened to some hook in the outer wall. Red Finger had sliced it cleanly, without sound, from its sash. But there was no fire-escape ladder out there—only a sheer drop of twenty feet of brick wall to the backyard beneath. He must have climbed that twenty fet by clinging, flylike, to the bricks itself.

"You must die," Red Finger repeated, coming alongside the table, and to the right of it, "even before I..."

A hand darted past his right side, slashed his weapon from his grip. "It is you who must die," a peculiarly crisp voice said, "Mister Ford Duane." The squat, saffron-faced, slant-eyed individual who had slipped out of the wardrobe, as Red Finger had passed it—then come up noiselessly behind him—twisted his automatic muzzle into the counter-spy's spine. "No longer will you interfere with the destiny of the stronger races of mankind."

Maier's arms came down, and he shook with silent laughter. "Good work, Yamikoto," he chuckled. "You see, my dear Red Finger, we know your methods. We knew that you were spying upon our plans. So very openly we talked, that you would feel sure we did not suspect your presence. Your caution lulled, you have revealed yourself. But, all the time, little Yamikoto in the closet was concealed, awaiting you."

"In other words," Ciano put in. "We baited a trap for you and you walked into it quite blithely. Too bad. You were the only American we feared, and with you out of the way all the zest will be gone from our great adventure. Yet the destiny of the world demands your death. No man, however admirable he may be, can be permitted to break the triangle that henceforth will rule the earth's destiny—Europe, Asia, and America."

"You understand," Yamikoto put in, "why I regretfully must pull trigger? One minute you may say prayer and then...What that?" he broke off to exclaim sharply. "What is that smell...."

He was answered by a sudden brilliant flare of flame from the piled bills—a burst of fire that leaped about Red Finger. Red Finger dropped instantly, and rolled under the table. His strange weapon went with him, snatched somehow from the floor as he rolled.

"Your man told me a little more than you expected him to," Red Finger shouted. "I came prepared. You forgot to watch my left hand, spraying a solution of phosphorus in benzine over the bills!"

There came a curious, plopping sound—a spray of white mist into the glaring light of the blaze. The mist enfolded Yamikota, and the Asiatic, bending over to get a shot under the shielding table, thudded down, senseless.

Maier and Ciano, beating at the flames, were frantically trying to stem the fire that was consuming a half billion dollars. They did not hear the double plops from beneath the table, did not see the mist spurt again and envelope them. They folded down to the floor...were very still.

Red Finger rolled out into the open, his black robes fluttering with yellow tongues of flame. He grabbed up Yamikoto's automatic. The thud, thud, thud of his three shots were drowned by the roaring voice of the fire. And then he was tearing the mask from his face, the burning cloak from his body. Now to notify the police of that money stored in the Balco warehouse. It would be found, all right!

IT wasn't till after the chugging engines had put out the fire in Lizzie O'Flaherty's lodging house, and the three bodies were found in the back room of her parlor floor suite, that anyone thought to wonder at the tall, lank man who aroused the house before escape was cut off, and how he could possibly have seen the flames from the sidewalk whence he appeared to have come. But by that time he had vanished...

The Balco raid took place a half hour later. It was completely successful.

It was just about that time that Ford Duane pounded on the door of the store of his neighbor on Fourth Avenue. When old Naismith opened up for him, he saw that Duane's face and hands were badly burned.

"Phone for a doctor," Duane gasped, reeling against the jamb. "I was frying some potatoes on my stove and the oil caught and flared up all over me." Then he folded, sliding down along the jamb to lie inertly on Naismith's threshold.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk," old Naismith clucked, dragging Duane's unconscious body inside. "Beats all how this new generation can't stand a little pain. Why, I remember when I was on the farm, I near cut my arm off with an ax and walked a mile to the doctor for help. Here's this boy, with just a few burns, and couldn't get more'n a couple yards from his backroom to my door without passing out!"

He never suspected the truth!


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