Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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From the macabre maze of a labyrinthian world, the Skull, master of murder, reached out and destroyed the brains of mighty financiers. Money kings were his meat. And the law could not protect them... Only one man could match brains with the sinister Skull—and that man was Secret Agent "X." But the Skull did not fear "X." For "X"—the Man of a Thousand Faces, a thousand personalities, a thousand tricks—had one vulnerable spot. And the Skull knew where it lay.
THE thirty-odd men in the artificially lighted room looked up from their various occupations with tense expectancy when the heavy, iron-bound, door swung open. These men represented a strange conglomeration of criminal types; crafty, hard, ruthless, their predatory natures were reflected in the very manner in which they moved and talked. It would have seemed, at first glance, that there existed no power on earth that could control these men, no power to make them toe the mark. Yet, when that door opened they all, without exception, froze in their places. The eyes of many reflected a nameless fear; others exhibited a sort of sullen defiance. Not one of them smiled or laughed.
A distinct rustle of interest swept through the room as the opening door disclosed two figures standing in the corridor. One was a tall, slender man whose hair was graying slightly at the temples. This man had a blindfold over his eyes, and he was resting one hand, with long, tapering, sensitive fingers on the shoulder of the other man, who was guiding him.
The other man was far from a prepossessing sight. He was dressed in nondescript, soiled clothing. The sleeves were too short for the long arms, and the coat seemed too small for the barrel of a chest in the squat, powerful body. This man had been endowed with great physical strength, but there his endowment had stopped; for his face clearly indicated that he was lacking in mental balance. And in addition, that face was horribly scarred as if by a terrible disease.
They entered the room, and the one with the scarred face closed the door behind them, then turned to the other and said in a highpitched, cackling voice:
"All right, Fannon, you can take off the blindfold." A black shock of wild, disordered hair falling low, almost obscured his scars as he faced the men in the room. "Well, boys, the boss is right on the job. Here's another one to take Tyler's place. An' he's the goods, too—Frank Fannon, the best safe man in the world."
The newcomer removed the blindfold and stared coolly around the room. He returned the nods of several men who greeted him, surveyed the room with interest. His guide sidled close to him and said:
"The boss's orders is, you wait here till he sends for you. He'll tell you all the rules of the place. My name is Binks. Anything you want, you ask me for it. I'm the 'Skull's' handy man."
Fannon merely nodded, and watched Binks go out. The door snapped shut after him. Fannon noted that there was no handle on the inside of the door; it could only be opened from the corridor.
He frowned, cast an inquiring glance at the men in the room. One of them, a heavy-set man with thick, gnarled hands, burst into harsh laughter. "Whatsamatter, Fannon? Don't you like the idea o' bein' a prisoner? You oughtta be used to it by now!"
Fannon, still frowning, crossed the room to the heavy-set man who was sitting at a table with four others where they had been playing stud poker when the door opened. Fannon looked down at him thoughtfully, remarked, "I seem to know you from somewhere."
The heavy-set man guffawed heartily, turned to the others at the table. "Can you beat that? He seems to know me from somewhere! They used to call him 'Dude' Fannon where we came from. His manners is like the Prince o' Wales!" He poked a finger up at Fannon. "Sure you know me from somewhere. Don't you remember the stretch we did together at Folsom ten years ago? You oughtta remember me—Nate Frisch. We was together for five years."
Fannon smiled. "Quite so. Now I remember perfectly." He gazed around the room. "There seem to be quite a few other old friends of mine here."
"Sure," said Nate Frisch. "Let's get intro—"
He stopped, looking fearfully toward the door. A sudden terror had come into his eyes.
The door had opened soundlessly again, and Binks stood there. "My, my," he croaked, grinning at Frisch with his gruesomely mutilated face. "I see you been forgettin' the rules, Nate."
FRISCH was shivering violently, his face a pasty hue. "I—I didn't mean nothin' by it, Binks. Fannon is just an old friend o' mine, an' I was kinda recallin' old times with him." His voice was almost pleading now. "It ain't nothin' to report to the Skull, Binks. Sure I know the rules—no talkin' to new men till they been passed by the Skull. But I just forgot it for a minute. You won't mention it to him, will you? Be a regular guy for once."
Binks resembled a gargoyle when he laughed. "I'll think about it, Nate, I'll think about it. Maybe I'll toss a coin. Got a coin fer me to toss?"
"Sure, sure," Frisch said eagerly. He took out a half dollar and flipped it to Binks who caught it dexterously. "Thanks, Nate. Maybe I'll forget about it, like you said." He motioned to Fannon. "Come on. The Skull will see you now."
Fannon followed him out into the corridor, watched him swing the big door shut, heard it click. The corridor was long, dimly lit by a single weak bulb at the far end.
"We won't need no blindfold now," Binks said as he proceeded toward the illuminated end. "You couldn't get out of here in a million years unless I took you. I'm the only one," he added proudly, "outside of the Skull, that knows the way out."
"I don't even know where we are," Fannon said. "What's this, a cellar?"
Binks cackled. "Maybe the Skull will tell you. I ain't sayin' a word. It ain't healthy to talk out o' place in here."
They reached the end of the corridor. There was no door here, only a blank wall. Binks bent down, fumbled in the corner, and suddenly the wall at the end of the corridor seemed to slide away, leaving a dark opening. Binks stepped into it, and Fannon followed. Binks bent down, manipulated something again, and the panel through which they had stepped slid to, leaving them in utter blackness.
Fannon could tell that Binks was once more bending to the floor. In a moment Binks straightened up, there was a whirring of well-oiled machinery, and they began to rise. They were in some sort of elevator that moved smoothly and noiselessly. When it stopped, Binks reached down, pulled a lever. Fannon's eyes, more accustomed to the darkness now, noted the exact position of the lever, but he said nothing.
In response to Binks' manipulation of the lever, the panel slid open again, revealing another long corridor similar to the one below. Fannon estimated that they had come up one flight in the elevator. He said, as they went along this second corridor, "What's all the mystery about? You'd think the Skull was another Fu-Manchu with all these secret passages and things."
"Nobody's ever seen his face," Binks told him. "Not even me. An' he trusts me more than anybody else—I guess because I ain't got the brains to do him dirt. Ha, ha!"
There was a note of insanity in Binks' laughter; a suggestion of sadistic cruelty that made his listener shudder. Fannon tried to pump him, without seeming to do so. "What happened to this chap, Tyler, whose place I'm supposed to take?"
Binks half turned, looked up at him queerly. "You want to know? I'll show you. Wait a minute." He stopped under a dim electric light bulb set in the wall that lined the corridor. Fannon could see a narrow slot, waist high, in the wall, about a half inch long. Binks took a peculiarly shaped key from his pocket. This key was flat, just wide enough to fit into the slot.
When he slipped it in a crack appeared in the wall. The crack widened; a panel was sliding open, disclosing another passageway at right angles to the one they were in. As soon as they stepped into this passageway, the panel closed behind them. This corridor, though wider than the others, was also lit by only a single bulb at the end. On either side were heavy doors similar to the one in the room below.
Binks stopped before the second door on the left from the end. He turned the knob, opened it slowly. It was pitch dark inside, and the faint illumination from the hall failed to help. Fannon could feel an uneasy stirring from within, and then a slight groan. Binks produced a flashlight from his pocket, threw its beam into the interior of the room, illuminating the gaunt, cadaverous body of a man chained with his face to the wall.
THE man had a stubble of beard a week old, and there was a mad, fearsome light in his eyes as he blinked at the flashlight, over his shoulder. He was so chained, Fannon saw, that his toes barely touched the floor. The strain upon his arms after any considerable period of time would be unbearable.
Binks said with mock solicitude, "How do you feel, Tyler? You been gettin' plenty time to think?"
The chained prisoner only succeeded in croaking a few unintelligible syllables.
Binks remarked conversationally to Fannon, "He's been here three days now. We been havin' some fun." He lowered the flashlight so that it showed the man's naked torso, and Fannon gasped. It was criss-crossed with long bloody gashes that had been made with a whip. The man's back was a raw mass of bloody flesh. Binks continued, "But that's only the beginning. Tomorrow the Skull is gonna give him the works. Tomorrow is execution day."
Tyler managed to gasp out, "For God's sake, help me!"
Fannon restrained himself with difficulty. He threw a significant glance at the poor victim as he followed Binks out into the corridor, watched him slam the door. He had noted that this door, too, had no handle on the inside. He noted, also, that none of the doors was equipped with a lock. It was only necessary to turn the knob from the outside to open them.
As they went down the hall past a number of other closed doors, Fannon asked, "What did Tyler ever do to merit such punishment?"
Binks only laughed. "The Skull will tell you."
Fannon said nothing further. He was busy going over in his mind every inch of the route they had covered, in an effort to remember it so that he could traverse the same route alone. They passed through another of the queer sliding panels, and stood in a square anteroom. Opposite them was a door with no handle on it, while at the left was another door that did have a handle.
Binks indicated the door without the handle. "The Skull will let you in through that door," he said. "I'm not supposed to be around when he talks to you fellers. I'm not supposed to know what his plans are." He laughed idiotically. "Not much, I don't!"
Fannon watched him go out through the door at the left, saw the last grinning leer that he cast behind him before the door closed. Then Fannon went to the one chair in the anteroom, sat down, and lit a cigarette. His face was calm, betrayed no emotion, no sign of fear or perturbation. If anyone was watching him through secret peepholes, his face told nothing except, perhaps, that there was a criminal of higher type than average, who was supremely self-assured.
After a few moments, the door opposite began to open slowly. There was utter darkness beyond it. Through the doorway came a stocky man, wide-shouldered, with a square chin and a low forehead. He grinned at Fannon, showing discolored teeth. "So you're the new man, huh? Glad to know you."
FANNON did not rise. He allowed the smoke to trickle slowly from his nostrils, then said drawlingly, "I thought I was here to talk to the Skull."
The stocky man asked, frowning, "What makes you think I'm not the Skull?"
Fannon slowly shook his head. "I don't want to hurt your feelings, but you haven't got the brains to be the boss of this outfit."
The stocky man grinned again. "You win, brother. I'm Rufe Linson, second in command. The Skull always likes to test men out this way. He's watching us now. Before you can see him, I'll have to search you. Stand up."
"I was searched once, before coming in," Fannon protested, though complying.
Rufe made a derogatory gesture. "By that halfwit, Binks. I do a regular job. See, the Skull has got wind that there's a certain guy tryin' to squirm into this place—a guy called Secret Agent 'X.' You might be him for all we know. So we gotta search every man right down to the skin. This 'X' guy always has special trick stunts on him; and if we ever found gas guns or trick cigarettes or things like that on a new guy, believe me it would be tough for him."
While he talked, he searched the new man's clothing with a thoroughness that overlooked nothing. He ripped the lining of Fannon's coat, turned down the cuffs of his trousers, took the ribbon off the hat, ripped open the tie.
In the pockets he found a few coins, a package of cigarettes, and a box of matches. He broke every one of the cigarettes, then made Fannon remove his shoes. He pried open the soles to see if there was anything hidden there.
"It's all right," he assured Fannon. "When you go back to the main room, you'll find new clothing to put on. The Skull always keeps his men well dressed."
When he had finally satisfied himself that there was not a thing on the new man that might be suspicious, he said, "Okay. Put your shoes on. The Skull will see you now. Here's where you get a chance to make some real dough. I guess you can use it?"
Fannon nodded bitterly. "They made me work for almost nothing in the prison shop for five years. Now I want to make them pay me for it."
"You'll get your chance, boy. The Skull will show you how." He was watching closely while Fannon laced his shoes, fascinated by the swift movement of the long, dexterous fingers. "Boy," he admired, "no wonder you're the best safe man in the country—with them fingers. Can you open any kind of safe at all?"
"I've never hit one I couldn't," Fannon told him. He finished lacing his shoes and stood up, "What now?"
"You go inside. I guess you're okay. Be careful how you talk to the Skull. Act respectful. He don't take any lip, and he don't stand for jokes."
Fannon nodded, said, "See you later." He walked across the anteroom with a firm step, shoulders back, as if going in to face an unavoidable ordeal. He stepped from the lighted anteroom into the pitch blackness of the next room, and heard the door slam behind him. In the darkness he put his hand out behind him, felt for the knob which should be on the inside. There was none. This door had no knob on either side. It was evidently operated from another room. He was locked in there in the darkness—with the Skull.
HE stood still, waiting. Soon he heard a rumbling noise from the floor directly in front of him. A trap door of some sort had opened, and from the aperture thus formed a platform was rising. On the platform was the weirdest figure that the eyes of man had yet beheld.
A faint glow of light came up through the trapdoor, and it illuminated the form that was rising. Clad from head to foot in a bright vermilion cloak, it wore a hood of the same material and color. The face was exposed, but it was not the face of a human being. No flesh showed. There was only the grinning outline of a skull—the skull of a skeleton. There was a strange sort of glow about it that seemed to emphasize the bony structure of the fleshless head.
Fannon stood quietly in the darkness, not a muscle of his face moving, as he watched the ghostly rise of the vermilion figure. Suddenly the platform stopped moving, and a spotlight alongside the figure burst into light, flaring directly into Fannon's face. Fannon blinked once or twice, then lowered his lids.
The figure spoke, but Fannon could not see it now, because of the spotlight. "You have no doubt now, Mr. Fannon, as to whether you are talking to the Skull?"
Fannon shook his head. "No."
The Skull chuckled. "No doubt you are anxious to learn why you are being admitted to the ranks of the Servants of the Skull?"
"Because you need me," said Fannon.
The Skull grunted impatiently. "I need no one. I could get along without you very well. But your particular knowledge will help me to expand my operations. The man who preceded you was only an amateur compared to yourself in the business of opening safes. He thought himself indispensable, however, and acted disrespectfully to me. He even entertained notions of supplanting me in command here. Binks showed you how far he succeeded. Take warning from his fate."
Fannon remained silent, and after a moment the Skull continued, "Before you were released from prison you were approached with an offer of employment. You were ignorant of the nature of that employment, but you knew that its nature was criminal. Am I right?"
Fannon answered tonelessly, "You are right."
"Now that you know that it is the Skull who is employing you, are you still eager to go on?"
"I am," Fannon said. "In jail we managed to get news of every one of your exploits. We knew that you were recruiting, for we heard of several disappearances from the underworld, which were followed by crimes that only the missing men could have accomplished. These crimes were attributed to the genius of the Skull, so we knew those men had been drafted to serve you."
"That is true," said the Skull in a pleased tone. "What particular crimes did you hear of?"
"Well, the last I heard of, was the kidnaping of Ainsworth Clegg, the oil man. There had been several kidnapings before that. Then I heard that Clegg, like the others, had been found on the streets of the city, with their mentality destroyed, their bodies wrecked in some horrible manner, so that the doctors gave them only a few days longer to live. We wondered what terrible thing could have done that to them."
The Skull chuckled. "You shall have a chance to see how it is done. Now, I wish to tell you this—every man who is selected by me to become a servant of the Skull will be able to retire a wealthy man when his term of service is over. But—" the Skull's voice became hard, brittle—"in return he must give me blind obedience. He must carry out every order I give, or suffer the consequences. If you are ordered to kill your brother or your sister, you must obey!" The Skull was silent for a long minute, then asked slowly, "Are you ready to take service with me?"
And Fannon answered tersely, "Yes!"
"That is good," the Skull said, "You will now go back to the main room. For one week you will be on probation. During that week you will be assigned one task. If you carry it out successfully, you will be admitted as an equal to the ranks of the Servants of the Skull. You will be just in time to participate in the greatest coup in the history of crime which I am now planning. It will be something to astound the world, something which will net us a huge profit.
"One thing more—" as Fannon turned to the door—"no one is allowed to leave this place while in my service. You will be conducted in and out on expeditions, blindfolded, by Binks, who is the only one besides myself that knows the way out. At night, do not try to leave the main room. It is dangerous."
FANNON nodded, his eyes still veiled from the spotlight. Suddenly the spotlight clicked off, and as his eyes became accustomed once more to the gloom, he saw the hideous vermilion-cloaked Skull descending slowly on his movable platform. Then the trapdoor closed, and he was left in pitch darkness.
There was a click behind him, and the door swung open. He stepped into the lighted anteroom, and the door swung shut once more.
The anteroom was empty. He was kept waiting for almost ten minutes, which seemed an hour, before the door at the left opened and Binks reappeared. Binks said little now, seemed to be sulky. He led Fannon back through the maze of passages along which they had come. This time Fannon's keen eyes darted here and there on the return trip, noting angles of corridors, little points about the passages that would enable him to find his way through them alone.
At one spot Fannon suddenly stopped and ripped loose leather from the sole of his shoe where Rufe had cut it. Binks glowered at him suspiciously, but Fannon explained. "Rufe cut my shoes up, and the leather bunches. Makes it hard to walk."
Binks grunted, and went on; he did not notice that Fannon, instead of throwing the leather away, rolled it in the palm of his hand until it was a soft ball. At another time, just as they were passing through one of the sliding panels, Fannon tripped, and rested heavily on the halfwit. In that instant Fannon's long, dexterous fingers darted into Binks' pocket, and came out with the special key he had used to get from one corridor to another.
Binks said, "Can't you keep your feet? What's the trouble, tired?"
"I guess I need some rest," Fannon grumbled, as he palmed the key and slid it into his own pocket.
In the main room some of the men were playing cards or shooting dice; some were reading. Nate Frisch was perusing a magazine with intense interest. He put it down when Binks and Fannon came in, started to say something, but changed his mind and continued his reading. He evidently remembered the halfwit's previous warning.
Binks said, "Come on through; I'll show you your bunk."
Binks had not noticed the swift movement with which Fannon, as they came in, had inserted the rolled piece of leather into the lock of the corridor door to keep it from locking when the door was closed. He led him into a dormitory just beyond the main room. Here there were rows of cots against the walls, each with a number painted in black on the wall above it. Binks stopped before number seventeen.
"This was Tyler's," he explained. "Now it's yours." He pointed to a pile of clothes on the cot. "All new. The Skull takes care of his servants. Ha, ha!"
Fannon watched him go out through the main room, wondering how his face had become so evilly scarred. All over the place the lights were extremely dim, so that it had been impossible to examine those scars closely. Fannon wondered if the man was as silly as he appeared to be, or whether it was a pose. If a pose, what was the purpose?
He watched through the open door while Binks went through the main room and out into the corridor, watched the heavy, iron-bound door slam shut. He breathed a sigh of relief. Binks had not discovered the leather jammed into the lock. The way was open to get out of there later.
Now he undressed, went into the lavatory and washed, then returned to his cot and lay down. In less than five minutes he was sound asleep.
Two hours later he awoke, almost as if he had set an alarm clock somewhere inside his head to arouse him at that moment. He was refreshed by his sleep, cautious and wary. All around him men were sleeping. Loud snores came from many of them. Only a single night light was burning at one end of the room, and by its glow he distinguished the features of Nate Frisch asleep in the cot next to his.
Soundlessly he arose, and without waiting to dress, he stole out into the main room. It was empty. Evidently there was a curfew hour here, a compulsory bedtime. In his bare feet he was as silent as a cat. He pushed at the heavy door, and it gave under his pressure. The piece of leather had done its work.
HE stole along the outer corridor without encountering a soul, until he came to the wall at the end. He knelt as he had seen Binks do, found a short lever protruding only three inches from the wall. He pulled this downward, and saw the panel in front of him slide out. He stepped into the elevator, found the lever that closed the panel, as well as another one beside it. In a moment he was ascending, and when the cage stopped, he opened the panel, stepped out into the upper corridor.
In the middle, where the dull bulb glowed, he inserted the key he had taken from Binks' pocket in the little slot, and stepped through the opening when the panel slid out. He decided that the panel was set in motion by an electrical circuit that was closed when the metal key was inserted in the slot. He was now in the passage with the doors, one of which was the room where Tyler was confined. He had carefully counted the doors, knew it was the second one from the end.
He proceeded cautiously now, fully aware that there must be some sort of trap here for the intruder. In front of Tyler's door he paused a moment, then, standing to one side of the door, he touched the knob with his thumb and index finger, and turned it gently.
His caution saved his life.
For from a cunningly concealed hole in the center of the knob, there catapulted a small needle. A spring had ejected the needle with tremendous force. Anybody seizing the knob to turn it in the natural manner would have received the needle in the palm of his hand. As it was, the needle fell harmlessly to the floor. Fannon picked it up, and his lips set in a grim line as he noted that the tip of the needle was coated with a brownish substance. Probably a deadly poison.
But he was given no time for cogitation. For the turning of that knob had done something else besides eject that needle; it had set off some sort of alarm; for somewhere in the maze of passages, a bell began to ring with clangorous insistence. Fannon realized that he was trapped. So clever a man as the Skull would not have left doors unguarded without setting a trap of some kind for the unwary.
Without trying to get into Tyler's room, Fannon darted down to the end of the passage, toward the sliding panel he had come through. Quickly he inserted the key, watched the panel slide away underneath the dim electric bulb directly above it. The panel opened, and Fannon started to step through it, then stopped suddenly, halfway across. For on the other side stood Rufe, grinning evilly, a heavy revolver leveled at his heart.
"Lift up your hands!" Rufe grated. "High! Over your head!"
Fannon hesitated, but Rufe thrust the gun forward, finger tense on the trigger, lips snarling.
Fannon raised his hands, stood still.
Rufe taunted him. "I figured there was something phony about you, Mister Fannon! If you was really Frank Fannon, you would of recognized me as the guy that did a job with you ten years ago. But I thought maybe your time in stir kinda ruined your memory. Now I know different. Won't the Skull be glad to find out that Mister Fannon is—Secret Agent 'X!'"
THE case of Ainsworth Clegg, mentioned by Secret Agent "X," posing as Fannon, in his interview with the Skull, had stirred the city as it had seldom been stirred before.
Clegg was an extremely wealthy man, the Chairman of the Board of Paramount Oil. His kidnaping by the Servants of the Skull had been an audacious bit of business in itself, taking place in broad daylight right in front of the Paramount Oil Building on Broad Street. Clegg, a man in his early fifties, was descending from his automobile at ten A. M.
The chauffeur was holding the door for him, when three cars drove into the street, stopping one in front, one behind, and one double-parked alongside Clegg's limousine, thus blocking it off from view on three sides. From these cars there erupted a score of men armed with machine guns. They did not threaten; they acted.
Two of the gunners raked the street in both directions, clearing it of living beings. Twenty people were killed by that fusillade. Other men struck down the chauffeur, while four of their number seized Clegg and bundled him into the double-parked car.
Then the horde of criminals leaped back into the automobiles and sped away, delivering a parting volley at a radio car that just turned into the street. The radio car was wrecked, the two policemen in it killed.
Pursuit picked them up within three minutes, but the cars separated. Each one was followed for a while, but a strange thing happened in each case. At one point in the chase, each of the cars seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. One minute they had turned a corner, and the next minute, when the pursuers had come around the same corner, the quarry was gone.
The police conducted a thorough search of the streets where the disappearance had taken place, but with no success. It seemed as if some mighty power of magic had waved a wand and caused the cars, with their vicious occupants and their prisoner, to vanish into thin air.
The hue and cry was tremendous. But the next day it increased in intensity when there was delivered by mail at police headquarters an envelope containing nothing but a single card. On one side of this card was the picture of a Skull. On the other side was a message; a message so preposterous in its demands that it must have been written by a madman. It required that the sum of four million dollars in gold be raised by midnight the same day, as ransom for Clegg. It made no threats, merely contained the one sentence. And it was signed—The Skull.
The newspapers printed an appeal that afternoon, from Clegg's family, addressed to the Skull, stating that it was a physical impossibility to raise four million dollars by midnight, let alone in gold. It appealed to the Skull to set a more moderate ransom, one that it would be possible to pay. Not even a millionaire, the notice stated, could pay four million dollars, or even one million. People just didn't keep their assets in liquid cash.
It was hoped that there would be some response to this appeal, some sort of word from the kidnapers. To the consternation of Clegg's family and business associates, not a word was forthcoming. For one week they waited in anxiety and dread, until the day that Mr. Elisha Pond found Ainsworth Clegg in the street.
MR. ELISHA POND, whose means no one questioned, was himself a rather mysterious personage, whose goings and comings had long ago become the despair of society matrons. For months at a time he might not be heard from at all, and then, with no notice of his coming, he would drop into the Bankers' Club and spend a few hours with a particular group of men who usually congregated there after dinner. Among these were Pelham Grier, the stock broker, Jonathan Jewett, head of one of the largest insurance companies in America, and Commissioner Foster, at present head of the police department.
Subsequently, Mr. Pond might be seen around town for as much as a month at a time, or else he might drop out of sight again the very next day. He had long been an enigma to his friends, and they had given up speculating as to what he did with his unaccounted for time.
Mr. Pond first saw Ainsworth Clegg as he was crossing the street on the way to the club. He was standing listlessly on one of the crosswalks of the subway construction job that had caused the whole street and many others in the vicinity to be ripped up for many months now.
At first Mr. Pond thought the man was a beggar, from his dejected attitude. But a closer inspection showed that here was something far different from a casual mendicant. The man's eyes were vacant. He seemed to have no control over his muscles; for his jaw hung open.
The man's whole frame seemed to sag and shake, as if he were an automaton without any guiding control. He was resting against the railing of the crosswalk, and seemed on the point of slipping underneath the railing into the deep subway cut below.
Pond reached out a supporting hand, helped him across the street to the opposite sidewalk. The man did not walk, he shuffled. Apparently he had not enough muscular control of his body to lift his feet. Once across, Mr. Pond said to him, "You should be in a hospital. Do you want to be taken to one?"
His only answer was a vacant stare from eyes that seemed devoid of human intelligence. Pond himself was a graduate of a recognized medical college, had, in fact, at one time practiced medicine. But he was at a loss to diagnose the cause of this man's condition. And then, as he gazed more carefully at the man's countenance, he stiffened, and allowed a little gasp of amazement to escape his lips. For he recognized in this broken hulk of a man devoid of human intelligence, the once brilliant, masterful business executive, Ainsworth Clegg, Chairman of the Board of Paramount Oil.
IT was, perhaps, three quarters of an hour later that Mr. Elisha Pond sat with a group of six other distinguished gentlemen in a corner of the Bankers' Club.
Pond had brought the hulk of Ainsworth Clegg into the staff physician's room at the club, where he had been carefully examined without discovering what had caused his condition. Commissioner Foster had been at the club, and he had arranged for Clegg to be removed to a hospital without making his return known to the general public.
Now, the group of men was seriously discussing the problem. Arnold Hilary, the newspaper publisher, shifted uneasily in his seat. "Suppose," he muttered, "that this Skull, as he calls himself, should take a notion to snatch all of us who are here. What would stop him?"
Commissioner Foster, who sat next to Pond, clenched a fist and brought it down on his own knee with such vehemence that he winced. "Damn it, nothing would stop him—that's the rub! I've got every available man out, trying to pick up a lead. We place the guards on those men who might be marked as possible victims. And what happens?" He paused, and glared around at the circle of friends. "This Skull snatches them right out from under our noses! And he leaves his damned card, too! But we'll get—I swear we'll get him if I have to appoint every citizen of the city a special officer!"
Pelham Grier, the stockbroker, big, portly, red-faced, chewed a cigar thoughtfully. "Even at that, Foster, you might be appointing the Skull himself a special officer. You admit that you haven't got the faintest notion who he is. Can't you even make a guess as to his identity?"
Pond looked from one to the other. These men, titans of finance and business, were like little children when faced by a situation such as this, indulging in idle threats and guesses when there was serious work to do. Harrison Dennett, the construction man, ventured to say, "Maybe it's this criminal that's known as Secret Agent 'X.' I understand he's been able to outsmart the police every time." He cast a malicious sideglance at Foster.
The commissioner shook his head. "This Secret Agent 'X' may be a criminal. In fact, if I should lay my hands on him he'd be sent away for the rest of his natural life, and then some. But I'll say this for him—I've never known him to kill."
Dennett shuddered. "I should never have taken that subway job. It's been hoodooed from the very beginning. Four men were killed on the job in the first month, and the whole crew went on strike. They said there was a jinx around, and I almost believed them. Those four casualties happened in very peculiar ways. The rest of the men wouldn't go back to work, so I had to hire help in Philadelphia and pay their fare in. Now, Clegg is found right outside the job. I bet the men get scared again, and quit on me. I'll lose my shirt on that job!"
Dennett looked defiantly from one to the other. "There's been sabotage on that contract ever since I got the award. It almost seems as if someone is deliberately trying to ruin me so he can take the job away from me. But I tell you all right now—" his chin jutted obstinately "—I don't give up easy!"
Jonathan Jewett, the gaunt, hard-headed president of the Northern Continent Insurance Company, who had sat silent through the conversation so far, said to Dennett in a manner strangely kindly for so forbidding an old man, "I understand that you're strapped for money on account of all these delays. Why don't you stop in to see me some time at the office? I may be able to work out a program where the Northern Continent could lend you sufficient on a bond issue to pull through."
"Yes," said Dennett bitterly. "And then the Northern Continent would own the job. I'd be out in the cold." He forced a smile. "I like you personally, Jewett, but you drive a hard bargain. No, thanks. I'll try to pull through without mortgaging my soul to you!"
JEWETT shrugged. "As you please, Dennett. But remember, I offered to help."
The remaining two members of the group had listened with rapt interest. They were Pierre Laurens, proprietor of the largest jewelry store in the city, and Arnold Hilary, publisher of the Herald.
Pond, observing all of them, noted that Hilary seemed strangely nervous, while Laurens, a thin dark, lean-jawed man slightly under medium height, was quite at ease. It was Laurens whose jewelry store had been raided by the Servants of the Skull recently, and a fortune in stones taken.
Mr. Pond leaned forward. "Perhaps you have noted," he said, "that all the crimes that have been committed by this Skull have the earmarks of perfect workmanship. Take the robbery of your store, for instance, Laurens. It was perfectly timed with the time lock, was it not?"
Laurens nodded. "Not only that. In addition to the time lock I had an inner door on the safe that was supposed to be proof against dynamite. Well, one of those men knelt before the safe and twirled the dials, listening for the tumblers to drop. I had thought it was impossible to open a modern safe that way, but I saw it with my own eyes. That man opened the inner door inside of ten minutes while those ruffians held everybody at bay with machine guns, and practically took possession of the street outside!"
Commissioner Foster hitched forward in his seat. "Look here," he said. "I've a damn good idea as to who that man was that opened the safe. Tell you why." He stopped, took a drink from the long glass at his elbow, while the others waited eagerly. "There are only two men in the country could open a safe like that. One of them is Frank Fannon, who is coming out of jail tomorrow; the other is Ben Tyler.
"Naturally, it couldn't have been Fannon, since he won't be released till tomorrow morning. That leaves Tyler. Now, as to Tyler—he came out of jail three weeks ago. For a while we knew where he was, then he suddenly disappeared. Two days later, Laurens was robbed. I tell you, this Skull is recruiting criminals, experts in their line, from the underworld. He is building up an organization that it will be impossible for us to break up if we let it grow any longer."
He looked down his nose at the glass he held in his hand, then added as an afterthought, "I wish I could somehow get in touch with this Secret Agent 'X'—unofficially, of course. I'd sic him onto the Skull. He's the only one with brains enough to make it an even battle; and if they destroyed each other, I wouldn't feel too bad!"
Elisha Pond had suddenly become very thoughtful. "This Frank Fannon," he asked. "I am interested in the name. What jail is he coming out of tomorrow?"
"Folsom. He's finishing up a federal stretch for robbing a post office."
"I see," said Mr. Pond.
THE man who was known at the Bankers' Club as Elisha Pond had many unusual resources at his command, and he made brilliant use of them. It is, therefore, not surprising that when he drove up to the gates of Folsom Penitentiary the next morning, he in no wise resembled the clubman of the evening before.
His car bore on the radiator the insignia of the United States Army. His driver was a red-haired young man in military uniform, who was known in his usual haunts as Jim Hobart. At this time, Jim Hobart was arrayed in chauffeur's habiliments, and played the part to perfection.
Mr. Pond himself was dressed in the snappy whipcord of a lieutenant colonel of the United States Intelligence Service, a uniform to which, by the way, he was entitled.
As he swaggered up the steps of the administration building, and then into the warden's office, he looked for all the world like a grumpy old martinet of sixty who had been soured by a lifetime of military service.
In the warden's office he deposited his cap and swagger stick on the desk, and introduced himself. "Lieutenant Colonel Delevan, U. S. Intelligence Service, sir. I am here in connection with a prisoner by the name of Frank Fannon who is being released this morning."
The warden shook hands with him respectfully, asked in a puzzled manner, "Fannon? What can the Intelligence Service have to do with him? Of course," he added hastily, "I shall be glad to assist you—"
"Naturally, sir." The colonel produced a folded document which he neglected to open, merely holding it up in the air. "I have here a warrant of arrest for Fannon, sir. It has come to our attention that Fannon was connected with an international spy ring, and it becomes my duty to take him to Washington for questioning. Will you be good enough to see that he is turned over to me upon his discharge?"
The warden was surprised, but far from suspicious. "Of course, colonel. Fannon is almost ready now. I will go myself and bring him here. If you don't mind waiting—"
"Not at all, sir. And thank you for your cooperation."
When the colonel was left alone, he stepped to the window which overlooked the driveway outside. Jim Hobart stood beside the sedan in which they had come. He saw the colonel, nodded imperceptibly, and jerked his head toward the gate. The colonel glanced in that direction, and tensed.
Just outside the gate was a long, black, closed car. It had every appearance of hidden power, and seemed to be waiting for someone. The colonel inspected it for a long time, trying to pierce the gloom of its interior through the closed windows with his keen eyes. Satisfied finally, he turned away from the window without looking again at Jim Hobart.
IN another moment the door opened and the warden entered with the prisoner, Frank Fannon. Fannon was tall, thin, his hair graying at the temples. Prison life had embittered him, as indicated by the grim twist of his lips.
The warden said, "Here he is, colonel."
Colonel Delevan said pompously, "Fannon, I hereby place you under military arrest. You will come with me." At the same time he drew his heavy service revolver from the holster at his side, and covered the prisoner.
Fannon was surprised and angry. "Military arrest!" he exclaimed. "What for? I've been out of the army for fifteen years!"
"You will be duly informed of the charges against you after you have been questioned, and before the court-martial. Now, about face and march!"
"You're crazy!" Fannon snarled. "I won't go. It's a frame of some kind!"
The warden was about to say something when Colonel Delevan raised a hand. "If you will leave me alone for a moment with this prisoner, sir, I believe I can show him the folly of resisting an officer of the United States Army."
"Of course, of course," the warden mumbled, and went out of the room looking very puzzled.
As soon as they were alone, the colonel stepped close to Fannon, spoke very low. "You fool! Do you want to queer the whole business? Play up to me!"
Suddenly Fannon's defiant expression gave way to one of understanding. He exclaimed, "I get you. You're from the Skull! I didn't know you'd go to such lengths—"
"Never mind what you didn't know. You are going to learn a lot that you never knew before. Now, let's go."
"Sure, sure," Fannon said. "I'm sorry I didn't understand. I thought the arrangement was that the Skull was going to have a private car waiting for me at the gate."
As they left the room, the colonel's eyes lighted with triumph. His suspicions about that black car were being verified. He showed nothing of his elation, however, merely said, "Plans often have to be changed."
They met the warden in the hall. The colonel said to him, "Fannon realizes now that it is futile to offer resistance. Thank you again, sir, for your cooperation."
"Not at all, colonel. I'm always glad to be of assistance." The warden accompanied them to the main door, watched them get into the sedan, the colonel still holding his revolver in plain sight. To anyone watching the scene from that black car at the gate, it was evident that Fannon was being arrested and taken away.
Jim Hobart got behind the wheel, and without a word of instruction, turned the sedan around, drove through the gate. As they passed the black car, Fannon noted it and said, "Look, there's the car that was supposed to pick me up. I was told it would have a letter 'S' monogrammed on the door."
The colonel did not answer him, but sat silently while Jim Hobart increased their speed until they were doing seventy-five. After another minute or two, Jim glanced in the rear vision mirror, said over his shoulder, "They're following us, sir."
The colonel smiled in satisfaction. "That's fine." He holstered his revolver and took from a hip pocket a peculiarly shaped gun.
Fannon's eyes widened in sudden apprehension as the colonel raised the gun and fired it full in his face. He had no time to utter the frantic protest that rose to his lips, for the gas took immediate effect, and he slumped in the seat, unconscious.
The colonel immediately opened the windows to allow the fumes to escape.
"Now," he said crisply to Jim, "raise your rear vision mirror so you can't look in back here. And don't turn around!"
Jim did as directed. "I won't look, sir," he said. "Those are the orders that Mr. Martin gave me when he sent me on this job." He drove at the same swift pace as before, with his eyes straight ahead.
And then the colonel began to work with a smooth efficiency that would have astonished anyone who beheld him. At frequent intervals he glanced through the rear window at the pursuing car. The speed with which they were traveling made it impossible for the black car to close up the distance between them.
In no time at all the colonel had removed his own uniform and donned the clothing of the unconscious Fannon. Then he opened a box that had lain in the bottom of the sedan, and set up on the seat a collapsible mirror. The box contained pigments, paints, plastic material, mouth and nose plates; in fact everything that was needed for a consummate artist to create a perfect disguise.
THE colonel removed his own wig of gray hair and substituted for it one which he had previously prepared and which exactly matched Fannon's hair. Then he removed the make-up from his own face, revealing for an instant the firm, masterful, though almost boyish, features that no one in the world could boast of having seen—the features of that man of mystery, that man of a thousand faces, Secret Agent "X."
Then his fingers went to work, building up ridges, contours of cheek bones, changing the shape and length of teeth by means of caps, not passing over the slightest detail of Fannon's physiognomy.
If Jim Hobart had disobeyed orders and cast his eyes behind him for one second as he drove, he would have been amazed at the miraculous transformation that was taking place in the back of the sedan.
Within twelve minutes of the time he had begun, Secret Agent "X" sat up in the rear seat beside the body of Fannon, after putting away the make-up box and mirror.
He tested his throat muscles for a moment, then said, "All right, Jim, you can lower the rear vision mirror."
Jim Hobart started perceptibly, and gasped. For the voice that had just uttered those words had been the voice of the ex-convict, Frank Fannon. Every inflection, every modulation of tone, had been faithfully duplicated.
Quickly, Jim lowered the mirror, looked into it. And he clawed for the emergency brake even as his other hand deserted the wheel to reach his gun. For he was startled to see Frank Fannon sitting there behind him, smiling.
But "X" quieted him by speaking once more in Colonel Delevan's old voice. "It's all right, Hobart. Fannon is right here—still unconscious."
Jim breathed a sigh of relief that was mingled with wonder.
"I—I didn't know a thing like that could be done," he stammered. "I—I've heard of such impersonations, but I never believed them."
"Never mind about that now," the Secret Agent said crisply. "Listen carefully to what you must do now." He glanced back at the black car ploughing on behind them. "In a couple of minutes you will slow up to give our friends a chance to come closer to us. When you are down to about fifteen miles, I will open the door and leap out to the side of the road, taking my revolver. You will then stop, and fire at me—but be sure to miss." He chuckled. "You think you can shoot well enough to miss me?"
Jim grinned. "I think so, sir."
"All right. I will fire back at you, and you will act as if you were wounded. According to my plans, the next thing that should happen is that our friends in the black car will storm up and attack you. When they do, you must give your car all the gas she can take, and drive away from here. Is everything plain?"
"I've got it, sir," said Jim,
"Fine. You will drive to the abandoned farmhouse that I showed you on the way up, take Fannon in, and hide the car in the barn. You will keep Fannon a prisoner there, not letting him out, and not letting him be seen by a soul! Remember that. If he should be seen, my life might be placed in deadly danger. Do you understand?"
"I do, sir, and you can depend on me."
"Very well then. Let's go!"
The thing could not have gone off more smoothly if it had been rehearsed. When "X" leaped from the car, sprawling in the road and firing in Jim Hobart's direction, the pursuing sedan, with the letter "S" monogrammed on the door speeded up; and from it there came a fusillade that would have blasted the pretended army car into a burning wreck if it had not been built of bullet-proof steel and glass.
Jim Hobart, after sending a couple of shots backward, stepped on the accelerator and left the scene in a spurt of speed.
The Skull's car did not pursue him farther, but stopped to pick up the man they thought was Fannon. So well did "X" act that the four men in that car were completely taken in. They congratulated him on his daring escape, and looked on him with new respect when he told them that he had killed the colonel who was arresting him.
They took him to the headquarters of their master, the Skull, where we saw him conducted, blindfolded, into the main room by Binks, then later, interviewed by the Skull; and subsequently, after making a daring attempt to reach Tyler, trapped in the corridor by Rufe Linson, the Skull's second in command.
Now, as he stood with his hands in the air under the menacing muzzle of Rufe's gun, it seemed as if all the trouble he had taken to work his way in here had gone for nothing.
RUFE licked his lips in triumph. "The Skull will be here in a minute. And then you'll wish you was dead—the way Tyler does!"
"X" said nothing. His hands were in the air, his ears keenly attuned for any sounds coming from the corridor behind him where he knew the Skull's room was located. And suddenly he smiled grimly. For his fingers, high in the air, had transmitted a message to his brain—a message of hope and escape!
His hands, raised high above his head, had come in contact with the dim electric light bulb on his side of the doorway. Rufe could not see the bulb, for he was standing on the other side.
Slowly, "X" began to turn the bulb in its socket, listening for sound. And then it came—a door opening down the end of the passage, behind him.
Rufe said, "Here comes someone. That'll be Binks."
At the same time "X" gave the last turn to the bulb, tore it out of the socket. The corridor was plunged in darkness.
Rufe shouted angrily, but his voice was drowned by the crash of the bulb, which "X" had dashed on the floor. From behind the Agent came a muttered oath in the voice of Binks.
"X" reached out, met Rufe's gun arm. Rufe's fingers were just contracting on the trigger when "X" seized his hand, jerked it up. The gun exploded into the ceiling. Behind them came the sound of running feet.
Rufe clinched with "X," at the same time shouting, "Don't shoot, Binks! I got him!"
The Secret Agent bent his knees, seized Rufe by the legs, and heaved.
Rufe went into the air, over "X's" shoulder. At the same time a gun barked behind them. Rufe's body was just coming down behind "X" when the shots sounded; "X" sprang through the opening in the wall, inserted the metal key in the slot. The panel started to close.
Rufe's voice came from the floor, in a bubbling groan. "Damn you, you halfwit! You got me instead o' him. I'm—dying!"
Binks' cackling tones demanded, "Who was it, Rufe? It's too bad yore dyin', but you ought to thank me. The Skull'd fry you for missin' up like this, an' lettin' him git away. Who was it?" Rufe's only answer was a weak groan.
The panel slid shut with a click. "X" was left on the other side, not knowing whether Rufe had lived long enough to utter his name, or not. He shrugged. The chance had to be taken. He twisted the metal key in the slot until it jammed there. The panel wouldn't open now without trouble.
Then he silently made his way along the corridor to the concealed elevator, and down to the passage below. The alarm hadn't spread to this part—the walls were apparently sound-proof. "X" encountered no one on his return trip to the main room. He stopped long enough to remove the piece of leather he had jammed into the lock, then stole into the dormitory after shutting the door. The men were all asleep. He crept into bed silently, composed himself in an attitude of slumber. Someone would surely be down soon to check on them.
He turned on his left side, so he could watch the door out of half closed lids. Soon the outer door opened, padded footsteps sounded, and Binks entered. "X" closed his eyes, pretended to breathe stertorously. He heard Binks prowling about the room, felt more at ease; if Rufe had uttered his name, Binks wouldn't be prowling—he would have reported to the Skull.
Binks had stopped at the outer door as he came in to examine the lock. "X" reflected that Binks could not be imbecilic as he looked, if he was cagey enough to have surmised that the lock might have been jammed in some fashion.
Binks wandered from cot to cot, stopping at each for a moment. "X" wondered what he was doing. Soon he discovered. The halfwit had paused at Nate Frisch's cot, next to his, then he came over to stand beside him. He risked opening one eye, and saw that Binks was feeling his clothes.
It was clever—too clever for Binks. He must be acting on instructions from the Skull. "X" was glad that he had not donned his clothes when he went out; for the clothes would still retain the warmth from his body, thus betraying him.
The halfwit went through "X's" pockets, finding nothing. Finally, he uttered a harsh, discordant laugh, and stepped over to Frisch's cot, shook him roughly until he awoke. He said, "Wake up, Frisch, the Skull wants to see you!"
Frisch didn't answer for a moment. He was still full of sleep. Then, as he realized what the message might mean, he stammered in abject fear, "W-what's he want of me? I told you I didn't mean nothin' by talkin' to Fannon. For God's sake—"
Binks interrupted him, cackling wickedly. "It ain't about that; it's somethin' else. If you got a coin fer me, maybe I could tell you what."
"Here," Nate exclaimed, pressing a coin into his hand that he took from his trousers pocket. "What is it?"
"I'll tell you," said Binks. "You're goin' to be the Skull's new second in command. Rufe Linson just kicked off!"
Several of the men were awake by this time, and "X" thought it safe to do the same. He sat up with a pretense of rubbing his eyes, yawning widely. He turned around, saw Nate dressing hastily, and then looked up to see Binks grinning down at him.
He said, "Hello, there. What's up?"
Nate said, "What d'ya know? Rufe's had somethin' happen to him, an' I'm gonna take his place. I never expected nothin' like that!" He looked up at Binks, suddenly suspicious. "You ain't stringin' me, Binks, are you? What you said is right?"
Binks shrugged. The action was weird, for it raised his deformed shoulder higher than ever, making him look like a grotesque caricature of some evil god. "I'm only tellin' you what the Skull told me."
Nate finished dressing, and they started to go out. At the doorway, Binks turned, surveyed the room with a sardonic grin. Then his eyes came to rest on "X" and there was a wicked twinkle in them. "Did you sleep well your first night, Mr. Fannon?"
"X" nodded. "Pretty good—till you came in and woke me up."
"That's fine, that's fine!" said Binks, rubbing his hands. "Some people are troubled with sleepwalking. You ain't troubled with that, are you, Mr. Fannon?"
"What do you mean?" "X" sat up, rigid.
"Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. I just thought you mighta been having some dreams—about sliding panels an' so forth!"
The door closed on Binks' evilly grinning face.
THE men in the room engaged in some low-voiced, desultory conversation, then began to drop off to sleep. "X" remained awake for a short while after the last of them had begun to snore. Then he finally went to sleep.
He awoke in the morning, washed and dressed with the men, and went with them into the main room where they sat around waiting to be conducted to breakfast. The room was still lit by the dim bulbs. The only way they had of telling it was morning was the muted gong that rang somewhere in the place; for no natural light came into the room. The windows were all closely shuttered, airtight and light-proof. Over each window was stretched a fine wire mesh, and when "X" approached one of the windows he saw that there was a small card fastened on the mesh. It read:
Do not try to penetrate the screen or open the windows. The shutters are of steel and are charged with a high voltage of electricity. To touch them means death!
After a short wait, the corridor door opened, and Binks entered. The halfwit avoided looking at "X." He announced, "Breakfast's ready, boys, come along. You better eat well—I hear there's plenty work on the books for today." He turned back to the door, leering.
They trooped out after him.
The dining room was reached by traversing an entirely different set of corridors, in the other direction from the concealed elevator. "X" was compelled to admit that the Skull made his men as comfortable as possible in their enforced confinement.
There were ten tables, each set for four. Quiet-footed Jap waiters served them, anticipating their every need. "X" found himself seated at a table with Nate Frisch, a man named Elles, who had done several stretches for forgery, and a thin, dangerous-looking fellow whom Nate addressed as Gilly. Gilly, it developed, was an expert machine gunner, a former member of a nationally notorious bootleg gang in Chicago.
Nate was swelled up with his new importance. "I'm second in command now," he boasted. "I'll be gettin' two shares instead o' one. Believe me, boys, big doin's is scheduled."
Gilly, the gunner, appeared morose. "How come you was picked? There's better guys than you here."
Nate put down his knife and fork and glared at him. "You lay off that stuff, or I'll break your stinking neck. You better be careful how you talk to me from now on!"
"All right, all right," Gilly said quickly. "If the Skull picked you, I guess he knows what he's doing. I ain't lookin' fer any trouble."
"You bet he knows what he's doin'!" Nate growled. "The Skull said to me last night in that dark room, he says, 'I'm choosing you to take Rufe's place because I know you don't hesitate to kill. I need men like you.'"
A cackling voice behind him broke in. "Ha, ha! Tell 'em what else the Skull said to you, Nate." They turned to see Binks grinning at them. The halfwit came up close, his ugly, scarred face leering at Nate. "Tell 'em the rest of it, Nate."
Nate fidgeted in the chair. "Aw—"
Binks turned to the others. "You know what else the Skull said? He said to Nate, 'I'm also pickin' you because yore too dumb to try to double-cross me!' Too dumb! Ha, ha!"
An idea suddenly occurred to Nate. He pointed a finger at Binks. "How do you know what the Skull said? We was supposed to be alone in there!"
Binks only laughed again. "There's lots o' things I know about around this place. If I wanted to, I could hang the whole lot of you!" He came around the table, alongside "X." His teeth were bared in an ugly grimace. "Did you hear that, Mr. Fannon? Too dumb to doublecross him!" Binks' face came closer to "X." "Now you, Mister Fannon, you ain't dumb, are you?"
"X" looked at him impassively without replying. The halfwit did not wait for an answer, but walked away toward the kitchen.
WHEN they finished breakfast, Binks reappeared from the kitchen and led them out. "The Skull," he announced, "wants everybody in the execution room this morning. There's gonna be a show put on, an' Tyler is the main actor. He'll squeal swell."
Binks waited till they had all passed out of the dining room, then closed the door, locking in the Jap waiters and cook. They, as the others, were prisoners.
The halfwit said to "X" as they went down the corridor, "Tyler is the guy I showed you last night; the guy whose place yore takin'. The Skull ain't got much luck with his safe men, has he?"
"X" frowned down at the ugly halfwit. "What do you mean?"
"Nothin', nothin'," Binks cackled, and hurried up ahead. He led them through a maze of passages, through which it would have been hopeless for anyone to try to find his way alone. Finally they reached a narrow, dark passage that sloped downward. This was very long, and as they proceeded it got darker and damper. The slope became sharper. "X" estimated that they must be at least a hundred feet below the street level.
The passage ended in a heavy barred door. Binks removed the bars, tugged at the door until it swung open. "Go on in, boys, go on in. I gotta tell the Skull that ever'thing is ready."
They filed past him into a room that was in utter darkness. Though it was impossible to see anything here, "X" estimated that it must be a room of tremendous size, for though there were over thirty men in the group, they weren't at all crowded. The heavy door slammed shut, with Binks on the outside, and "X" heard the iron bars being replaced.
The men shuffled, talked in low, nervous tones. "X" began to feel his way around the room, along the wall. He collided with one or two of the men, but they were not in the mood to fight. "X" knew that there would be some instrument here for inflicting death or worse upon Tyler, wondered if it was the same instrument that had turned Ainsworth Clegg into a mental and physical wreck. If possible, he wanted to save Tyler—not only out of any feeling of compassion, but because Tyler would be a well of information.
He worked his way to a corner in the dark, felt his way along the wall until he was stopped by what appeared to be another wire screen like the one on the windows upstairs. He followed this screen clear across the room, realizing that it divided the room in two parts.
Suddenly there was a muffled gasp from the assembled men. A dim red light had appeared on the other side of the screen. Looking through the mesh, "X" could see a niche in the far wall in the other half of the room. This niche was the size of a large man, and was about halfway up in the wall. Apparently there must be some way of entering it from outside, for it was too high for a man to reach it from the floor.
The thing that had made the men gasp was the figure in the niche. It was the same vermilion-cloaked figure that "X" had met the night before, with the same hideously glowing skull in lieu of a face.
There was a low hum of fear-ridden voices which ended in abrupt silence as the Skull raised a vermilion-gloved hand. "Gentlemen," he said in a brittle, mocking voice, "before we proceed with the festivities, I have an announcement to make. Last night my lieutenant, Rufe Linson, met with an unfortunate accident. In his place I have appointed Nate Frisch, who will be in charge of expeditions in the future. When you are on the outside, his word will be supreme, as mine is here. The accident to Rufe is regrettable, and I am taking steps to punish the responsible party. However, I believe Nate Frisch will be able to fill the job satisfactorily."
The Skull raised his hand once more "Now, gentlemen, we will proceed."
Another light, bright and glaring, went on below the niche. It illuminated a ghastly sight. Tyler, the traitor, was strapped in a chair. It was not an ordinary chair, and he was not strapped there in the ordinary way.
THE other men on "X's" side of the wire mesh seemed to have known what to expect; but the Secret Agent, though in superb control of his nerves, barely restrained a gasp of horror.
For the chair was an exact replica of the electric chair at the state prison. And Tyler had metal electrodes strapped to his ankles, his wrists, and to the back of his neck. He was still stripped to the waist, and in spite of the straps that held him tight, he shook in a palsy of terror.
The red light in the niche went out, and the figure of the Skull was shrouded in darkness. But his voice came to them. "For the benefit of our new member I will explain that this is our method of punishment. It is a slight innovation on the legal method in use in our state prison, in that the victim is not killed. Our electrician has stepped down the current so that there is just enough to cause an intense shock to the nervous system, resulting in a paralysis of all the nerves, as well as a deadening of the brain cells."
He paused, then said, "Tyler! Do you understand what is going to happen to you?"
Tyler squirmed in the chair, tried to raise his eyes toward the niche. "For God's sake!" he babbled. "Don't do that to me! Anything! Anything! Kill me! But not that! Oh, God, save me!" His words lost themselves in a shrill scream of terror.
The Skull's brittle laughter floated down from above. "You call on God! I am God here!"
"X" thought he detected a note of insanity in the sonorous tones of the Skull. He felt a faint stir of eagerness ripple through the crowd of men in the room. They were getting ready to enjoy the spectacle.
Once more the Skull spoke from his niche. "Tyler! This is your last moment of sanity. I am about to throw the switch. This—is—your—end!"
Tyler strained against the straps, his throat working though no sound came from his lips.
From above came a blinding flash as the switch was thrown in. Tyler's body seemed to jerk in the chair. His hands spread out clawlike, spasmodically. Blood spurted from his nose. His mouth opened wide in a soundless scream, his eyes widened, almost popping from their sockets. His head was raised, his Adam's apple working frantically.
The Secret Agent had seen many gruesome sights in his career; he had seen men in Flanders who took ten hours to die, lying on the shell-pitted battlefields with their entrails squirming out of gaping wounds in their stomachs while they moaned continuously till they died. But the picture of Tyler as the current raced through his body, twisting him into horrid, incredible contortions, was one that rivaled any horror conceivable by man.
"X" shuddered in revulsion as a long sigh went up from the assembled men. They were enjoying each moment of Tyler's suffering. A long minute it lasted, while Tyler squirmed and strained in the chair.
And then it was over. The Skull must have pulled the switch, for suddenly Tyler's body relaxed, sagged in the chair. His head hung on his breast, but the quick, heavy breathing attested to the fact that he still lived.
"Tomorrow, gentlemen," the Skull said to them in the same steady voice, "Tyler will be able to get about again. His condition will no doubt be amusing to you. We will keep him around for you to play with for a day or two, then send him out into the street as a warning to those who defy the Skull!"
The light over the chair went out, leaving the room once more in utter darkness.
A LOW murmur swept through the room as the men began to comment to each other on the scene they had just witnessed. Low, incoherent moans began to come from the other side of the mesh screen where Tyler was still strapped in the chair. "X" waited silently, bitterly. He could do nothing for Tyler, and now he would be unable to learn anything from him. The man's mind had been destroyed by the ordeal. Through the mind of Secret Agent "X" there flashed a picture of Ainsworth Clegg, one day a brilliant, shrewd businessman; and the next, a doddering idiot. Now it was clear how the man's condition had been brought about. If those men at the Bankers' Club—Dennett, Grier, Hilary, Jewett—could see this diabolical means by which Clegg had been robbed of his sanity, they would hardly credit their senses.
His thoughts were interrupted by the opening of the outer door. Binks, more horrible in appearance than ever, stood there. The light from the corridor cast an evil reflection on his vacuous, scarred countenance.
"All right, boys," he announced. "The show's over. All out." He cackled, "Ha, ha—just like a movie—all out. Ha, ha!"
He waited while the men filed out past him. Five of the men he tapped on the shoulder, whispered to. Those five men stayed in the room. Among them were Nate Frisch, and Gilly, the gunman. When the Secret Agent passed him, he tapped him on the shoulder, too. "Stay here till I take these boys back," he whispered. "Then I'll take you to the Skull. He wants to see you."
"X" nodded, waited with the others. Binks closed the door on them, leaving them in utter darkness once more. "X" debated the chances of breaking out of there. He wondered if those others had been told to guard him.
Soon the door opened once more, and Binks beckoned to them. Out in the corridor he said nothing to them, but led them through a new series of passages, to another anteroom similar to the one where Rufe had searched him.
Binks left them alone, going out through the side door, giving them a last leering grin.
While they waited, the men lit cigarettes, engaged in desultory conversation. Nate Frisch, though he had been appointed second in command, seemed to know as little about the reason for their presence there as the others. "Maybe it's a new job," he said. "The Skull has been planning something extra big for a long while."
Gelter, a coarse brute of a man, who had escaped from the state prison where he had been serving a life term for kidnaping, said, "If it's a snatch job, it's right up my alley. This is good stuff, pullin' jobs an' bein' able to disappear so the cops think you got magic or something!"
They relapsed into moody silence, watching the door opposite them—the door that had no handle. They were kept waiting a long time, so long that the Secret Agent began to think it was deliberately done for the purpose of increasing their nervousness. Finally there was a click and the door began to swing open, revealing an inner room without any lights. The men strained their eyes to pierce the gloom of that inner room, but without success.
When the door had opened wide, a voice from within, the voice of the Skull, called out, "Fannon and Gilly! Come in first."
Gilly looked apprehensively at the others, wet his lips and went in. "X" followed him. The door closed behind them, and clicked as the lock caught. "X" could hear Gilly breathing hard close beside him, could hear the little gunman's body shivering close to his own. But he also sensed another presence in the room—a sinister presence that seemed to exude an aura of evil.
A soft glow began to appear in the room, bathing it in a sort of dull, uncertain luminance. It was accomplished by a system of indirect lighting, of course, but the effect was uncanny.
As the light grew stronger, there became visible at the other side of the room, the figure of the Skull, seated at a desk, facing them. The glowing outline of the skeleton head grinned at them in weird, macabre brilliance.
Secret Agent "X" inspected the room through veiled eyes. It was a large room, perhaps twenty feet square, and absolutely bare except for the desk and the chair where the Skull was seated. The floor was of varnished hardwood except for a strip about four feet wide that ran clear across the middle, between the Skull and his visitors.
The Skull noted "X's" eyes inspecting the place, and said mockingly, "You seem to be interested in my layout here, Fannon. What do you think of it?"
"It strikes me," the Secret Agent answered, "that you have gone to a great deal of trouble to make this headquarters invulnerable. It looks as if you have built a permanent place here—secret panels, electric chair, a maze of passages. Is it all necessary?"
The Skull chuckled. "You have seen only a small portion of my arrangements here, Fannon. But I assure you that every bit of it is necessary, thoroughly planned. Think, for instance—you have been here a whole day; have you any idea where you are?"
"Frankly, no," said "X," "I confess that I don't know whether we are above or below ground. I don't even know what portion of the city we are in. I can see that this place takes up a good deal of space, but I can't imagine where it could be."
THE Skull chuckled. "The location of this headquarters is nothing short of a stroke of genius, Fannon. And you see how efficient my other precautions are? No one of you can find his way out of here. No one of you can find his way back. Binks and I are the only ones who know the various ways in and out. If, by chance, one of you should be a traitor, he would never be able to lead the police here, because he knows as little as they."
The Skull turned to the little gunman, who had stood silent during the conversation. "What do you think of this set-up, Gilly?"
"Gee, boss," Gilly exclaimed, "you're a wonder! You certainly got things down pat!"
The Skull's voice suddenly became crisp. "X" felt that he was about to learn the real reason for his being there with Gilly.
"Fannon, I am going to send you out on a mission. Every new man must be tested."
"X" breathed easier. The Skull then was not sure that it had been he who had struggled with Rufe in the corridor last night. Perhaps Binks had not reported his suspicions; or perhaps Binks' manner had hinted of suspicions that did not exist in that quirked mind of his. In any event, it was a promise of action, and that was welcome.
The Skull went on. "Gilly will accompany you. Gilly is a very fast man with a gun, and he always goes out with new men. It is so easy for him to place a bullet accurately in the event that he smells treachery. You understand?"
Gilly broke in eagerly, "What's the job, boss?"
"You are going to open a safe. Fannon, who is an expert safe man, will do the opening, while you act as lookout"
"Suits me swell," said Gilly.
The Skull looked at "X." "And you?"
"X" nodded, dissembling his emotions. This was what he feared. Though he had made a study of many types of safes, though he had instruments and equipment in his various hideouts which would open any safe door, he certainly did not possess the great degree of skill which the real Fannon had developed in a lifetime of crime. He could not open a safe the way Fannon could, by listening to the fall of the tumblers. He must, in some way, get the use of his own tools. An accomplishment which seemed, on the face of it, impossible.
He said, "What kind of safe is this? Don't forget I've been in stir for five years, and I'm a little rusty. Five years is a long time to be out of practice."
THE Skull's vermilion-gloved hand waved impatiently. "I have allowed for all that. I chose this job with that in mind. The safe is an old model, and should be child's play for an old hand like you—rusty or not rusty."
"X" remained silent, thinking swiftly. There must be some way out of the dilemma. He started at the Skull's next words.
"It is the safe of a man named Harrison Dennett, in his home at number 363 Willow Street. He's the subway construction man. Have you heard of him?"
"X's" face showed no sign of recognition of the name. "We hardly hear about people like that in jail."
"That is true," the Skull said almost banteringly. "It would have been peculiar if you had heard of him, would it not? Now, as to the job. Dennett is much more than a mere construction man. He is a large scale real estate operator. But his wealth is tied up in real estate, and he has met with many—er—setbacks, on the subway job, so that he is very low on cash at this time. He has been offered loans from various sources, but on terms that would practically take the subway contract away from him."
"X's" mind raced back to that conversation at the Bankers' Club. Dennett had felt then that someone was placing obstacles in his path, trying to ease him out of the contract. It seemed, from the Skull's remarks, that Dennett's intuition had been correct. The Skull was planning another coup against the construction man.
The Skull went on. "Dennett has one source from which he can raise money without losing control of the subway contract. That is by pledging as collateral two matched pearls which he owns, and which are worth a cool half million dollars."
"X" had heard of those pearls, had actually seen them one day, when Harrison Dennett was showing them around at the club. They were a pair of gorgeous stones with a bloody history attached to them, dating back to Florentine times. No ordinary thief would have dared steal them, for they were well-known to connoisseurs of gems throughout the world, and would have been impossible to dispose of.
The Secret Agent listened closely as the Skull continued. "I have information that Dennett has arranged to secure a loan on these gems, that he has taken them out of his safe deposit box and put them in the safe at his home till tomorrow. I want those two pearls. You will open the safe and get them while Gilly watches for you."
Now it was out. There could be no doubt as to the Skull's intent. He wanted to deprive Dennett of the only hope of doing without a loan. And it was up to Secret Agent "X" to get those pearls. He must commit an act which would ruin Dennett in order to gain the confidence of this master of crime. And then came the next problem—how to open a safe. He was not a Fannon; he would need tools.
The Skull was saying, "It's a Roebler Safe Company box, series of 1927, model 42. You should be familiar with that model. It was in use before your—er—enforced retirement. The servants are taken care of for the night, and I have arranged it so that Dennett will be away. You will have a clear field. It shouldn't take you more than ten minutes."
"X" hesitated, then decided to make an effort to get hold of tools. Without them he faced defeat.
"I'm afraid it would take me much longer than that. The Roebler boxes are tough nuts. And my fingers are stiff. Maybe I ought to have some tools."
"Tools?" the Skull's voice carried an edge of sudden suspicion. "You don't want tools. This isn't a nitro job. You've got to use your head and your ears and your fingertips. Aren't those the tools of your trade?"
Gilly, who had been standing silent, snickered. "Tyler never used tools. An' I thought you was better than Tyler."
"X" snapped at him impatiently, "Tyler was in practice!" Then he turned toward the Skull. "Look here, boss, if you let me get a bag of tools I'll guarantee a hundred percent job. You've got to make allowances for me—the first job in five years."
"What kind of tools would you want?" the Skull asked. His voice was low, dangerous. "And where do you have to go to get them?"
"I have a friend in Chinatown from whom I used to borrow tools. I can get a full set from him in no time. He'd still remember me."
"Tell me what things you need, and I will see that you are supplied. There is no need for you to go to this friend in Chinatown."
"X" thought quickly. He wanted other things besides implements for opening a safe. He had come here bare of weapons, without any of the clever devices that had stood him in such good stead in the past. And lucky it was that he had done so, for the strict search to which he had been subjected would have revealed them, betrayed them.
Now he felt that in order to cope properly with the Skull, he must be properly equipped. Not only that, but the particular instrument he had in mind which might aid him in opening the safe in Dennett's house was one of his own devising, an instrument which could not be procured in any store. Its very possession would brand him in the eyes of the Skull as being more than an ordinary safe breaker, for it was a product of a high order of mechanical skill and scientific knowledge.
It was imperative that he gain permission to go for them himself.
"These are special instruments," he said. "My friend is the only one I know of who can supply them."
"All right," said the Skull. "Give me his address and I will send for them."
"He would never give them to anybody but me. I have to go myself. It would take less than a half hour."
"I wonder, Fannon," the Skull said softly, "if you really need these things, or if you are not scheming some way of escaping."
"X" concealed the sudden alarm he felt at the Skull's uncanny instinct. This man, whoever it was behind that ghastly fleshless mask, was far too fiendishly clever to be handled in any ordinary way. "X," keen student of psychology that he was, set himself to sell the Skull the idea of going for the tools. He assumed an appearance of hurt surprise at the motive imputed to him by the Skull.
"Why would I want to escape? Didn't I come here of my own free will in the first place? And then, even if I did escape, where would I go? I'm wanted for murder—for killing Colonel Delevan in the army car. You can't fool around with the government. They'd get me, all right, and I know it. I need you to protect me; I'd be crazy to try any stunts." He paused, then said eloquently, "All I want is a chance to make good."
And suddenly, surprisingly, the Skull capitulated. "All right, Fannon," he snapped. "You can go for them. But Gilly goes along—and at the least sign of treachery, Gilly will empty his gun into you. Is that clear, Gilly?"
"You bet, boss. Seven slugs in the guts!"
"X" was distrustful of the sudden change of mood in the Skull. Had he really been convinced by "X's" eloquence? The Agent doubted. The Skull was playing a deep game here, and it suited his plans to seem to acquiesce. There would no doubt be a trap somewhere along the line that would have to be met.
"X" asked, "What about Nate Frisch and those other men in the outside room? Are they coming with us?"
"No," said the Skull. "Hereafter you must learn that it is unwise to ask questions here. You will be told all you need to know. In this case, however, I was going to make an announcement to the other men after you left, so I will tell you now that I am sending Frisch on another mission of much more importance than yours."
He stopped a moment while Gilly fidgeted, and "X" waited impassively. "There is one obstacle in the path of my plans for the future. Nate Frisch and the others are going out to take steps to remove that obstacle. That is all I will tell you now. By the time Gilly and you return, I will be able to announce the successful completion of their mission, and to outline our future operations—which, by the way, will net us millions of dollars in profit and startle the city by its ingenuity!"
He raised his hand in a gesture of dismissal. "Go now. Get your tools. Then go to 363 Willow Street. The rear door will be unlocked, the house empty. Bring back the pearls. And remember, Fannon, I will accept no excuses, no excuses whatsoever! Failure is punished here severely, as you may guess. And nobody is allowed a second chance!"
THE door swung open, and "X" and Gilly passed out. From within, the Skull called out, "Nate Frisch! Bring those other men in!"
"X" and the little gunman watched them file into the darkened room. The Secret Agent wondered what mission they were being sent on. From what the Skull had said, it was one of paramount importance. The door without the handle started to swing shut. The Skull's voice came to them sepulchrally from the inner room. "Wait there, Fannon and Gilly, until Binks comes. He has his orders to lead you out, and will await your return."
The door clicked shut.
Gilly sprawled in a chair, lit a cigarette, and regarded "X" with narrow, sharp eyes. "I hope you don't try no tricks on this trip, Fannon. I'd hate to have to burn you down. You're a pretty smart guy, an' if you're on the square we'll get along fine."
"Have you ever wondered," the Secret Agent asked him, "who the Skull really is?"
Gilly shrugged. "Nope. I ain't interested as long as he takes care o' us, an' fixes the jobs so they're easy to pull. An' don't forget, it ain't healthy to wonder about things like that in here."
It was twenty minutes before Binks came in. He shuffled through the doorway from the corridor, still with that nasty leer on his face. Out of one pocket of his voluminous coat he produced a thirty-eight automatic, which he handed to Gilly together with a half dozen extra clips of ammunition.
"The Skull said to give you these."
Gilly took them, pocketed the clips, but fondled the automatic lovingly before putting it away. "X" could discern the killer's lust in his eyes.
"X" said to Binks, "How about me—don't I get a gun, too?"
Binks cackled harshly. "Not much, you don't! The Skull never trusts a new man with a gun till he's done at least one job. Gilly'll do all the shootin' you'll need on this trip!"
FROM one of his other pockets Binks produced two burlap hoods. Gilly seemed to know what they were for, for he took one and slipped it over his head. There was a slip knot at the bottom around his neck, which Binks tightened and knotted. Then he motioned to "X" to do the same.
"X" put the other hood on, felt Binks' finger jerking the cord tight. He could see nothing. The hood was a perfect blindfold. He felt Binks' fingers tying the knot, then heard Binks say:
"Here, take hold of Gilly's hand. I'll lead Gilly. Don't let go, 'cause if you ever get lost in these here passages you might easy get killed. The Skull's put lots o' traps around in here since last night."
Thus, hand in hand, they traversed an almost interminable series of passages, waiting while the halfwit manipulated sliding panels, opened hidden doors. The Secret Agent tried to memorize the many twists and turns they took, but after a while even his keen mind gave it up. The Skull had planned too well.
Once they went up in an elevator, and "X" estimated that it must have been four flights before they stopped. Once more they proceeded, with the hoods still on their heads. Now "X" sensed that they were passing through a series of rooms. His sharply attuned senses told him that these must be empty rooms, probably in some deserted building. The musty odor that pervaded here registered through his olfactory nerves in spite of the burlap hood.
They descended a creaking wooden staircase, crossed a bare wooden floor, and went down another set of stairs. Now they were in a cellar, "X" could tell. Once more they entered a series of passages. "X" judged that they must have come at least a half mile. He wondered at the thoroughness of the Skull in preparing this complicated means of egress, only to be further astonished when Binks drew back from up ahead.
"This is exit number three. When you come back we'll use another way."
"Number three!" he exclaimed. "How many are there?"
Binks chuckled. "That'd be tellin'. All I can say is, they's more'n six; that is, that I know of. Then maybe they's a couple the Skull ain't told me about."
At last they came to the end of the journey. They walked through a door that Binks held open for them, and "X" smelled fresh air. Binks said, "Now, let go hands. I'm gonna whirl you around." He took hold of "X", turned him around six or seven times, then said, "All right, you can take the hood off."
"X" fumbled with the string, got it off just as Binks was through doing the same for Gilly. Gilly took off his hood, blinked, and said, "Jeez! I never come out this way before!"
They were in a narrow alley between two large apartment houses. Each house had a service entrance on the alley, and "X" saw why Binks had whirled them around. The idea was to prevent their telling from which house they had come.
"All right, boys," Binks told them. "Go ahead an' do yore job. When yore through, you come to number 18 Slocum Street. That's a apartment house. You go through to the rear, an' you'll find a door in the fence. I'll be on the other side o' that door."
"Okay," said "X". "I'll remember the address—18 Slocum Street."
"What time'll you boys be done?"
"I don't know. I have to go to Chinatown and get my tools first. What time is it now?"
Gilly consulted a wrist watch. "Eleven."
"X" figured quickly. "I can't see my Chinese friend till noon. It'll take him about an hour to get the kit for me. Then the job itself shouldn't take more than a few minutes. Make it three o'clock."
Binks nodded. "Three o'clock is right. The other boys with Nate Frisch'll be back by one, an' that'll give me time to meet you. The Skull told me to tell you that the back door of that guy's house that you're goin' to is gonna be left open. He arranged it."
"He sure does things thoroughly," the Secret Agent remarked.
"I'll say he does," Gilly chimed in.
The two of them went out of the alley, leaving Binks behind. When "X" turned back at the mouth of the alley, the halfwit had already disappeared. There was no telling which of the two houses he had gone into. "X" gave up the idea of tricking Gilly, trussing him up and going back to trace his way into the Skull's headquarters. The Skull had taken too many precautions for that. The only other course open was to perform the job he had been assigned, and try to get into the good graces of the master criminal, try to discover enough about him to break up the gang.
THEY found themselves on a side street less than two blocks from the Bankers' Club. As they walked past it, "X" looked into the broad windows, saw Jonathan Jewett, the dyspeptic old insurance president, talking to Laurens, the jeweler, in a pair of easy chairs overlooking the street. He played with the thought of how they would react if they suddenly learned that one of the two men slinking along outside was Elisha Pond, their fellow club member.
Gilly said, "Where do we go from here, Fannon?"
"Let's get something to eat. We might as well, as long as we have the time."
Gilly laughed. "You got guts, Fannon. Here you are, wanted for murder, and here's me, wanted for murder an' plenty more, an' you wanna go in a public restaurant an' eat!"
"X" shrugged. "What of it? We have to eat. Come on, I'll show you how to get away with it."
He led the gunman a block west to where the subway job was under way. There were dozens of men at work here. Some of them were having their lunch in a coffee pot on the corner, and it was here that "X" led his companion.
"This is one place nobody'll look for us," he told Gilly. "Anyway, we'll take the chance."
Sitting next to a couple of laborers, they partook of a hearty lunch, and left.
Gilly looked at "X" with new respect. "I like a guy with guts," he said. "Just play square, an' we'll get along fine."
They took a cab down to Pell Street, and "X" wound his way through the tortuous streets, as if he had been born there.
"Jeez," Gilly wondered. "How come you remember these streets after being in the can for five years?"
"I used to come down here pretty often," the Agent told him. He stopped before a narrow, old brick building sandwiched in between a restaurant and a Chinese theatre. Unhesitatingly, he entered the dark hallway, started to climb the narrow, winding staircase. Gilly came close after him. "Say, Fannon," he wheezed, "what's this joint? What'd that sign say over the doorway?"
"I don't know," the Agent told, him. He could have told him if he had wanted to. The sign read, "Ming Tong."
The Ming Tong was the most powerful tong in America, numbering members all over the country. This was its headquarters.
At the head of the staircase, a tall, raw-boned Chinaman stood with his arms folded in front of him, hands in the voluminous sleeves of his jacket. He stood there impassively, blocking the stairs.
"X" knew that he had an automatic in each of the hands that were hidden.
He stopped when he was about three steps below the Chinaman, and Gilly brought up short behind him. Suddenly he felt Gilly's gun poking into his back.
"Look, Fannon," the gunman muttered, "I don't like this. If it's a trap for me, I'm gonna hand it to you right in the liver!"
"X" said irritably over his shoulder, "Don't be a sap, Gilly. This guy is a guard for my friend. My friend is a big man in Chinatown."
Gilly muttered something, but ceased his protests. He still kept his gun out, however.
"X" looked up at the big Chinaman and said, "Brother, I come in peace, seeking speech with Lo Mong Yung." He said this in fluent Cantonese, the sing-song syllables falling from his lips naturally, as if it were his native tongue.
The Chinaman started perceptibly at the sound of his native tongue spoken so fluently, stared down trying to discern the features of the caller in the uncertain light that filtered in from outside.
Gilly exclaimed, "Jeez, Fannon, you sure can sling that lingo! Where—" He stopped as the Chinaman burst into speech, answering "X" in Cantonese.
"O stranger, who comes here calling my brother, I know not your face. There is only one white man in the world who has earned the right to be called brother by the men of the Ming Tong, and you are not he. What is your business?"
"X" said quietly, "Look not in my face, O Brother, search my heart and my speech. You say that there is only one white man who may be called your brother. I am that man!"
The Chinaman was skeptical. "O stranger, your words are false. What business have you with Lo Mong Yung, the venerable father of our tong?"
"X" was about to answer, when from an inner room further down on the floor, came the thin voice of an old man. His tone was low, just loud enough to be heard in the hall, but it carried a weight of authority that many a king might have envied. He said, "My old ears know that voice, Sung! Let him come!"
The big Chinaman stepped aside with alacrity, said, "Pass, stranger."
He allowed "X" to pass, but put out an arm to bar the way for Gilly. The gunman snarled, raised his gun.
"X" said quickly, "Let him come, Brother. He is a friend."
From within came the same thin voice of authority, "Let both pass, Sung!"
The big Chinaman glowered at Gilly, called back in Cantonese, "This second one, master, waves a gun, and snarls like a wild animal of the forest."
"Let both pass, Sung, but come behind them."
Sung stood aside, still glowering. "X" went down the hall toward an open door. He stepped inside a brightly lighted room, with Gilly close behind him, and with Sung right in back of Gilly.
Anyone who might have expected to find an orientally furnished room in these surroundings would have received a surprise. "X" knew this room, but Gilly, just behind him, whistled in amazement.
They were now in a completely equipped office. A row of filing cases stood along one wall. Near the door a stenographer was working industriously at a noiseless typewriter. She was a young Chinese girl, and it spoke well for her training that she did not even look up as the visitors entered, but continued with her work.
In the center of the room, at a large, glass-covered desk, sat a Chinaman who might have been ninety years old but for the keen restlessness of his eyes. His face was lined and creased with a thousand wrinkles, and the skin on the shrunken hands that rested on the glass top of the desk resembled yellow parchment. He said nothing, but watched the two visitors sharply.
"X" said, still in the flowing Cantonese that he had used in the hall, "Greetings, Father of the Ming Tong, from a lowly son and brother of the Ming Men!"
Lo Mong Yung remained silent for a long time, inspecting him critically, casting not a single glance at Gilly. Finally he said, "The voice I hear is one I know; yet the face of him who speaks is strange to me. I am an old man, and my eyes are prone to deceive me. But my ears are sharp, and recognize the voice of one who is a brother of the Ming Tong. You are—"
"X" held up his hand. "Let no names be spoken here. Your ears have told you the truth. But this one who is with me knows me by the name of Fannon, and it is the face of Fannon which you behold."
The old man nodded. "I hear and I believe. Yet one thing more. Step close to me, brother of the Ming Tong, and whisper that word which is known only to the Ming Men. Thus shall I be sure that you are he whose voice I hear."
"X" came forward slowly, bent low, and whispered close to the old man's ear. Lo Mong Yung's eyes lighted, and he nodded his head in satisfaction. "You are a master artist, my son. If you can thus confuse your friends, surely you will succeed in confusing your enemies. Now speak your needs. The tong is yours to command, for it is long in your debt."
Gilly stirred restlessly. "Say," he exclaimed suspiciously, "what the hell is all this chinky palaver about? Are you pullin' anything? If you are—"
"Take your time, Gilly," the Secret Agent growled. "I'm trying to talk him in to lending me a kit."
"If he don't want to, you tell me, an' I'll shoot the roof off this place. That's the way to treat Chinks!"
"It's all right. He's almost sold." As "X" turned back to Lo Mong Yung, he noted a humorous light in the old man's eyes.
"My son," he said, "I hear and understand what this one speaks of to you. It seems that he is an enemy. Do you want him removed? I have but to raise a hand to Sung, who is behind him, and the lowly vermin will no longer trouble your footsteps."
"NO, no," the Agent said hastily. "It is important to me that he shall remain alive. He is but a minor tool of the fiend whom I must overcome. But there is something that I would ask of you."
"It is granted, my son."
"At the Belleville Apartments on Twenty-third Street, resides a young lady who is known by the name of—" he paused, then spelled out, slowly and laboriously in Cantonese, an English name. The name he spelled was—B-e-t-t-y D-a-l-e.
"I would ask you, Father," he continued, "to send there one of the tong brothers. Let him say to her that a certain friend of hers is sending for the bag of tools that is in the secret compartment of the closet in her bedroom. To prove to her that he is truly my messenger, let him tell her how that compartment is opened—by pressing upward on the shelf in the closet as one stands with his feet on the threshold. And then let him bring the bag of tools back here as quickly as he can, lest this one who is with me should become suspicious."
Lo Mong Yung nodded, raised his hand and spoke to the big Chinaman at the door. "You have heard, Sung. Go and tell one of the brothers to do this at once. Be sure to remember the name and address of the white lady on Twenty-third Street."
Sung bowed in a dignified manner, glowered at Gilly, and left the room.
"Now, my son, while you are waiting, you will have refreshments. My niece, Anna, will attend to your wants."
As if it had been a command, the girl who had been typewriting stopped her work, and arose from the desk. "If you will please to step this way, honorable sirs," she said in English, with a dainty hint of a lisp, "I shall be happy to serve you."
She led them into an alcove behind a screen at one end of the room. Here was a table beautifully inlaid, with richly lacquered chairs bearing upon their back, a coat-of-arms representing a dragon's head holding a man in its teeth. This was the insignia of the Ming Tong.
Gilly seated opposite "X," saying surlily, "What's the play now? What we waitin' for?" His suspicions had been lulled to the extent that he had put his gun away, but he was not thoroughly at ease.
The Secret Agent explained to him that it was necessary for his Chinese friend to send for the tools, as he did not keep them on the premises.
"How long'll it take?" Gilly demanded, munching one of the soft, buttery almond cakes that Anna had placed on the table.
"About a half hour. We might as well make ourselves comfortable." "X" lit a cigarette, drew a deep lungful and allowed the smoke to exhale slowly from his nostrils. Then he took a sip of tea from a transparent, blue, paper-thin china cup that Anna had placed before him. He was at home here, among friends. Under the name they knew him by, he was a welcome guest in any of the tong's headquarters throughout the country.
Gilly allowed himself to be beguiled by the tea and cakes, and shortly he was in a better humor. After the tea, the Chinese girl served them tiny glasses of a thick amber liquid, sweet and strong and heady. Gilly's eyes began to sparkle. "Boy!" he exclaimed. "This is the real McCoy. Talk about cordials! It's got 'em all beat!"
"X," too, relished the flavor of the drink. It was a cordial distilled in small quantities in China, from macerated poppy-seeds, coriander, and a mixture of rare herbs and perfumes. Nothing like it was available in the Western world because of the limited quantities in which it was produced.
As they were finishing a second glass of the cordial, "X" heard the door open. Lo Mong Yung's voice called to him, "Come in, my son. Our messenger has returned."
He arose from the table, and went around the screen with Gilly. Sung was just placing a black bag on the desk.
"X" asked in Cantonese, "Was the lady home, Sung?"
THE big Chinaman shook his head. "No, O Brother. But there is something strange that I must tell you—the lady's apartment was broken into and searched before I came!"
"X" took a quick step forward, forgetful of the presence of Gilly, seized Sung by the sleeve. "Tell me what you found, quick."
"It was this way, O Brother. I rang the bell of the lady's apartment, but no one answered. The door, however, was open to my touch, and when I entered the apartment I saw that trouble had been there. Every room was upset, seemed to have been thoroughly searched. Pictures were removed from the walls, the couch and chairs were ripped open, the rugs were torn up. There had been a struggle there, I could see, for the telephone lay on the floor where it had been thrown over. Someone must have carried off this lady who is a friend of yours.
"There was nothing I could do, so I went to the closet in the bedroom, followed your instructions, and got the bag from its hiding place. I am sad, O Brother, because I must bring this sad news about one who I can see is dear to you."
Mechanically, "X" nodded his thanks, picked up the black bag.
Gilly said to him, "Do we go now, Fannon?"
But he scarcely heard him. His mind was occupied with the news. Betty Dale had been taken away from her apartment by force. He cast around for possible motives, for a mental clue as to who might be behind it. That it was connected in some way with himself, he was sure. He had many enemies. Some, or one of them, could have learned of her association with him. They would consider it an excellent means of striking at the Secret Agent through her.
There was only one thing to do—get done with the present job as quickly as possible, go to Betty's apartment and see what clues he could pick up there. He started toward the door, followed by Gilly.
Lo Mong Yung called after him, "My son, I see that you walk in sorrow. Remember that the men of the Ming Tong ever stand ready to aid you."
"I will remember, Father of the Ming Men," said Secret Agent "X." "I thank you. But this is a matter that only I can attend to, I am a man who has always thought himself to be sufficient unto himself; but now I learn that no one of us—not even myself, who have trained my body and mind for many years—is above the human instincts that have been planted in our race."
AS they sped uptown in a cab, Secret Agent "X" paid little attention to Gilly. His mind was not on the immediate mission he and Gilly had to accomplish.
He was sorely tempted to stop off at Betty Dale's empty apartment and look the place over. But that would have interfered with, possibly have wrecked, all the elaborate steps he had taken to worm his way into the Skull's organization.
The mind of Secret Agent "X" always worked along clear, logical lines. He refused to jump to conclusions, to indulge in guess work as to who had taken Betty away, unless he had something definite to go on. To speculate at random would only lead to the wrong conclusion, would be a waste of time.
Recently he had engaged in a struggle with an organization known as the DOACs. Some of these DOACs still were at large, and they knew of his connection with Betty. This might be a manifestation of their desire for revenge. There were many others in the past who had reason to remember the Agent with bitterness, and it was futile to try to guess haphazard at the identity of her abductor.
By a deliberate mental effort he turned his thoughts to other things for the time being. And hardly soon enough. For Gilly had been watching him in a peculiar way. Now he said suddenly, "What the hell's eatin' you, Fannon? You ain't said a word since we left the Chink's house!"
"X" was startled. He had not thought that he appeared so preoccupied that Gilly would notice it. Above all he must not arouse the suspicions of Gilly or the Skull. If he did, he might as well drop this business now and go after Betty Dale.
He forced a smile. "Nothing is eating me, Gilly. I always like to figure out a job ahead of time. It's easier to do your thinking before than after."
Gilly looked at him queerly, his hand in the pocket where the automatic rested. "Some guys lose their nerve after bein' in stir, Fannon. I hope you ain't lost yours. Because if you have, you ain't no good to the Skull, an' the best thing would be a slug behind the ear for you."
The eyes of Secret Agent "X" bored into the little gunman's. "Don't worry about me, Gilly," he said softly. "I'm going to pull this job at Dennett's, and pull it right. You take care of your end, and I'll take care of mine." His face came closer to the other's, eyes still fixed on him. "And something else, Gilly, watch your tongue. I'm not used to taking guff from your kind. Do you understand?"
Gilly's eyes were the first to drop from that clash of glances. Sullenly he said, "Oh, all right, Fannon. I didn't mean nothing."
Somehow, Gilly knew that this man who sat beside him was in no fear of the automatic in his pocket. Somehow, he knew that that man would complete successfully anything that he undertook. He had felt the force of intelligence and power behind those eyes that had fascinated him for a moment.
The cab slowed up, pulled in at the curb. The driver called to them, "This is the corner of Willow and Briggs where you told me to stop. Okay?"
They got out and dismissed the cab, "X" carrying his bag. Willow Street was a short street no more than a hundred feet long, off one of the main thoroughfares. It boasted a row of old, rich looking private homes that had survived the feverish days of demolition and construction which had swept the city during the boom days of 1929. The numbers began at 350, and 363, Harrison Dennett's house, was only a few doors from the corner. "X" knew its layout, for he had visited it a number of times as Elisha Pond.
Now, he and Gilly made their way to the street behind Willow with the intention of cutting through the rear. The street behind it, they were surprised to find, was Slocum Street, where they were to meet Binks. In sharp contrast to Willow, it consisted of a row of towering apartment houses, of which number eighteen was the smallest and oldest. The subway spur which Dennett was building started at Briggs Avenue here, and both Briggs and Slocum were all cut up. Men were working, and there was the sound of a steam shovel from one of the excavations.
"Hell!" Gilly exclaimed. "We can't make it on this side. There's too many people around. How come the Skull told us to go in the back way? He musta known there'd be men workin' here."
"It's all right," the Secret Agent told him. "In my business we have ways of getting around that." He opened his bag, took out a gold-plated badge which he pinned inside the lapel of his coat. Gilly grinned in appreciation as he read the inscription on the badge. It said: "Inspector, Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity, City of New York."
"These things come in handy in this game," the Agent explained, as he led the way through an alley between two apartment houses, which led into the rear of 363 Willow. "If anyone should stop us here, we're inspectors checking up on gas mains and water connections on account of the subway construction. That's the way we turn what seems to be an obstacle into an advantage."
"Jeez!" Gilly exclaimed. "I guess you got the goods, all right, Fannon. The Skull knew what he was doin' when he picked you."
THE back door of Dennett's house was unlocked, as the Skull had promised. Gilly said, "Okay, Fannon, go on in an' do your stuff. I'll cover the outside, an' I'll give you the office if anybody comes, by comin' up an' ringin' the back doorbell three times quick. If you hear that, you know you gotta scram quick. I'll cover you."
He took from his pocket a card which he handed to "X." It bore on its face the facsimile of a hideous looking skull—the trademark of their master.
"Leave that when you finish the job," Gilly grinned. "We always leave 'em our compliments."
"Okay," the Secret Agent said. "See you soon."
He went up the three steps of the back stoop, went in through the unlocked door. He was now unlawfully entering a man's home with the intention of committing robbery.
There was a pantry just inside the door, and "X" went through this into the kitchen. The kitchen was unoccupied, as was the broad, carpeted hallway beyond. The Skull had planned well. The servants were out.
As "X" made his way to the library, he felt that for the first time in his life he was working under a great nervous strain. He could not erase from his mind the thought of Betty Dale in trouble.
At the end of the hall was the library. He knew its location, had often drunk a whiskey-and-soda there with Dennett. Once in the library, he was no longer a prey to worry. He pushed every thought from his mind but the business in hand. He became once more that marvel of selfless efficiency—Secret Agent "X." He had a given task to accomplish.
He knelt before the safe which was in the far wall of the room, between two windows, and opened his black bag. He nodded in satisfaction as he saw that it contained all the instruments that he would need in the next twenty-four hours—not only for this job, but also for his subsequent trip to the Skull's headquarters. There were no weapons in the bag, however. His gas gun, dart equipment and hypo he generally carried about his person, and not in the bag. These he had left, and very wisely, when he went to the Skull's lair in the guise of Fannon.
First he took from the bag a queer framework contraption which fitted under the sole of his shoe. It had clamps around the edges, which held it firmly in place, and when he stood up it was impossible to notice that there was anything attached to the under part of his shoe.
After that he proceeded to stow several items from the bag about his person. That done, he knelt once more before the safe, and delved into the bag.
He did not see the figure of Harrison Dennett which appeared in the open doorway connecting with the inner room; did not see Dennett stop short upon seeing him, glide back into the other room, and reappear with a heavy automatic which he directed at the intruder's back.
"X" worked swiftly.
HE took from the bag a small box with earphone attachment. This was a listening device perfected by himself, which magnified sound. He placed the diaphragm of this box close to the door of the safe, alongside the dial. With the long, sensitive fingers of his right hand, he twirled the dial slowly, listening for the drop of the tumblers which would be magnified so that he could hear it through his ear phones.
This was one of the most delicate tasks in the world; a task which the real Frank Fannon could probably perform without the aid of an amplifying instrument. It had been this instrument that "X" had wanted in particular, for without it he would never have been able to tackle the job.
Dennett, holding the gun tight, bent forward interestedly as he saw the use to which that amplifier was being put. He watched tensely, his face in the shadow, as the Secret Agent twirled the dial back and forth; took an involuntary step forward, then checked himself, as "X" gave the dial a final twirl and swung open the door.
Inside was a second door; with a keyhole. "X" put the amplifier down, and picked out of the bag a flat, silk-covered instrument case. He examined the keyhole for a second, then, out of the instrument case which he unfolded, he picked unerringly, a single key, from a collection of perhaps two dozen. A turn of the key, and the inner door was open.
There were stacks of papers in the inner compartment, and in the corner lay a chamois bag. "X" took the bag, opened it, and poured into the palm of his hand two pearls so beautiful that they seemed to live in his hand. They were a perfect pair, and from them emanated rays of a dozen brilliant hues. Truly, they were worth every dollar of the Skull's estimate. Matched pearls—the most priceless jewels in the world.
And then Dennett stepped forward, raising the gun, and said, "Don't move!" as "X" started, began to turn. "I've got you covered, and I'll shoot to kill!"
"X" remained frozen on the floor, the pearls in his hand. He had recognized the voice of Harrison Dennett; he was trapped as a common housebreaker.
HARRISON DENNETT stayed in the doorway, keeping a safe distance between himself and the intruder. "Now," he said, "get up slowly, keep your hands in front of you, and turn around. I want to see your face."
"X" obeyed, faced the contractor.
Dennett's gun was steady, centered on "X's" heart. His eyes were hard.
This was the end; "X" was posing here in the guise of Frank Fannon, a hardened ex-convict, caught in the commission of a felony. Prison. If he tried to escape, Dennett would be justified in shooting him without compunction; and he could not, and would not, injure Dennett. It was against his policy to kill even dangerous criminals.
It would not be any better—perhaps be even worse—if he disclosed his identity as Secret Agent "X." Commissioner Foster and Inspector Burks would each give much to arrest Secret Agent "X"—would free ten Fannons to do it.
Dennett's mouth was grim. He said, "You were after those pearls, and nothing else. And you're an expert, I can see that by the instrument you were using to listen for the tumblers. No expert would go after those pearls for their own value. You could never sell them. What did you want them for?"
"X" assumed a sulky appearance. "What difference does it make? You got me cold. What're you going to do?"
There flashed through his mind the disturbing realization that Gilly had not warned him of Dennett's approach. Gilly wasn't yellow—he would have made sure to sound a warning. Which meant that Dennett must have been in the house all the time; the Skull had been wrong. Or—had the Skull intended to be wrong? Had he deliberately sent him out to be caught here in Dennett's house? If he had, then he knew that Fannon was not Fannon. It would be death to go back, even if he did succeed in escaping from the menace of Dennett's gun.
He glanced up as he heard the contractor say, "Who sent you here?"
"X" veiled his eyes. "I came on my own."
"That's funny. All my servants happen to be away. Isn't it a coincidence that you should pick this time to break in here?"
"Suppose it is?"
Dennett's cold eyes were on the two pearls which "X" held in his hand. He said coldly, "Someone sent you here to get those pearls. No ordinary thief would go after them. Who sent you? Tell me that and maybe I'll be inclined to go easy on you."
"X" maintained silence, merely shook his head.
"I think," Dennett said, his eyes narrowing, "that I know the answer to that question. You are one of the Servants of the Skull! Speak up, quick! Are you?"
"X" shrugged. "I'm not saying a thing."
"All right," Dennett exclaimed, his jaws snapping shut with an ominous grimness. It's your funeral." He waved the gun. "Put those pearls back in the safe. Put them back!" as "X" hesitated.
THE agent's body was taut, his fingers tense. He knelt before the safe, opened the chamois bag, started to pour the two pearls back. The first one slipped to the floor as if he were awkward with his hands. He picked it up. And now, instead of being awkward, his hands moved with lightning speed. It was a little trick of prestidigitation which had deceived shrewder men than Dennett. The pearls seemed to be going into the bag. In reality, what went into it were a couple of keys from the open, silk-covered case on the floor.
"X" palmed the pearls, and slipped the chamois bag into the safe under Dennett's eyes. The safe door clanged shut. Dennett relaxed a bit. He was sure—would have sworn—that those pearls were in the safe. It was as quick a sleight-of-hand trick as had ever been executed on the stage.
Dennett said, "Now hand me that instrument you were listening to the tumblers with. I am interested in it."
"X's" hand felt on the floor, while his eyes locked with the contractor's. He gripped the amplifier, raised it, and hurled it straight at Dennett.
Dennett saw the swift motion of "X's" arm, started back involuntarily, and his finger tightened on the trigger. But his aim had been spoiled. He fired just as the amplifier box struck his shoulder, fell to the floor and was shattered. The shot went wild.
"X" scooped up his bag, leaped from his kneeling position half-way across the room, and was out through the hall door before Dennett had recovered his senses enough to fire another shot.
He sped toward the rear of the hall. As he swung into the kitchen, another shot from the contractor's gun barked through the house, crashed into a shelf of chinaware, smashing several dishes.
But "X" was already out through the back door, dashing across the small strip of yard of the rear. Gilly was running too, just ahead of him, looking back. Gilly stopped, waited for him. "What the hell happened?" he demanded.
"X" kept on running beside the gunman. "Dennett jumped me with a gun," he explained. "I had to take a chance on a fast one to break away from him. And he almost got me at that!"
They were through the alley between the houses now, out on Slocum. Workmen looked up from their work in the subway cut, but none made a motion to interfere with them. Gilly was waving his gun. He shouted to "X," "There's number 18, across the street. Let's get over there!"
They dodged across the crosswalk over the excavation. From behind them came a wild shout.
A policeman down the street saw them and came running, tugging for his gun. Gilly threw a shot in his direction, and just then, as if by pre-arrangement, one of the workmen, down in the excavation started a riveting machine going. The staccato carvings of the riveting machine drowned the sounds of Gilly's shot, and of the policeman's answering blast.
"X" and Gilly dashed into the entrance of number 18, ran through the empty foyer, and out through the rear. They found the door in the back fence, slid through it; but there was no Binks. Gilly consulted his wrist watch, and cursed.
"Hell! It's only half past two. He wasn't supposed to meet us till three. This is a hell of a mess!"
On the other side of the fence they could hear the policeman shouting, could hear many people talking. "X" had noticed a bar in the door through the fence, and he slid this home. "It'll give us another minute," he remarked. "Now we better get out of here."
He looked around, and whistled. They were in an empty lot facing the river. Along the curb stood a black sedan, a driver at the wheel, looking over toward them. When he caught "X's" eye, he motioned toward them. "X" nudged Gilly, who looked in that direction, snarled, and brought his gun around. "X" knocked it up, exclaiming, "You damn fool! Don't you see the 'S' on the door? That's the Skull's car! Let's go."
Gilly shouted, "Jeez, Fannon, you're right!"
They ran down to the curb.
The chauffeur was a stocky, stolid-faced man they had never seen before. He opened the door as they came up, called out, "Get in."
Gilly piled in, "X" after him. The driver slammed the door and stepped on the gas almost in the same motion. As the car jumped away from the curb, "X," looking back, saw the policeman top the fence. He didn't even notice the car, which was already rounding the corner into the river front street.
A FEW blocks down, the driver pulled up at the curb, and turned around grinning. "I bet you guys thought you was forgotten!"
Gilly said, "I hope to tell you, pal. I thought we would have to shoot it out with that dumb cop. How come you was there, pal?"
"Me? My name's Gordon. I drive for the boss. He always has me around when there's a job on the books, in case that nitwit, Binks, can't get there to bring the boys in. Sort of insurance. We'll drive around for a while, then go to another place an' see if Binks is there."
Gordon drove them around for an hour. At the end of that time, he stopped off and made a telephone call. When he came out he said, "Okay. We'll meet Binks now. He says to come to entrance number seven."
Number seven proved to be a pool parlor in a cheap residential section not far from Slocum. "X" and Gilly got out of the car. Gordon said, "Go through the pool room an' you'll find an alley in back, at the right. Go half-way up the alley to where you see a cellar door. Stop there till Binks comes."
He drove off, and they followed his instructions. Binks was waiting for them, his head just above the open cellar door. "Too bad," he crackled. "Too bad, boys. That was an awful flop. Well, come on, we might as well go back."
They stepped down into the cellar, and Gilly closed the door over their heads at Binks' direction. Then the halfwit gave them hoods to put on again, and led them through passage after passage, up and down flights of stairs. "X" was still carrying his black bag, and he had to hold on to Gilly with the other hand.
After what seemed an interminable time, they stopped and Binks said, "Take 'em off, boys."
"X" put the bag down and removed his hood. He saw that they were in the same anteroom where he had waited for his instructions that morning. Binks picked up the bag, saying, "I'll take it now. The Skull will want to keep that till the next time."
"Look here," the Agent protested. "That's only borrowed. I have to return it to my friend."
Binks paid him no attention, but shuffled out. "Tell it to the Skull," he threw back. "His orders was to bring him the bag."
"X" and the gunman were left alone. Gilly said, "Well, it looks bad for us, pal. The Skull don't like guys that flop, no matter how come."
"Flop?" the Agent asked.
"Sure. You was supposed to get them pearls. The guy busted in on you when he wasn't supposed to even be around, but the Skull won't take that for an excuse. He don't take excuses."
"Well, why did we come back then?" The Secret Agent did not tell Gilly that he had the pearls in his pocket.
Gilly laughed harshly. "Where could we go? In the first place, we'd both be picked up in no time wandering around the city. And in the second place, I'd hate to be on the lam from the Skull. Did you see what he did to Tyler? How'd you like to have the same thing happen to you?"
HE stopped as the door facing them started to open. The Skull's voice came through it. "I will see Fannon first."
Gilly looked at "X" and grinned. "Well, so long, pal. You was a good fellow while you lasted. What kind of flowers do you like?"
"X" paid him no attention, but walked in.
The door closed behind him, as before. The room was very faintly lighted, disclosing the Skull seated at a desk at the far end of the room. Once more "X" noted the four foot wide strip running across the floor.
The hideous death's head of the Skull grinned at him out of the vermilion hood. The boss raised one vermilion-gloved hand, motioned him to remain where he was at the door. With the other hand, he indicated a short-wave radio set on the desk at his elbow. "Wait," he said. "I am just getting the police calls on your job."
"X" stood close to the door, measuring the distance between himself and the desk. He was tempted to make a quick leap, lock his hands about the throat of that repulsive figure, and throttle him to death. But he restrained the impulse. It looked too easy. So clever a man as the Skull had not left himself unguarded in this room. He waited. And soon the radio came to life.
"Calling all cars! Be on the lookout for Frank Fannon, ex-convict wanted for burglarious entry into the home of Harrison Dennett. Dennett reports nothing stolen, as he forced Fannon to replace the loot. Fannon escaped with one companion, identified as Jack Gilly, after gunfight with patrolman. Both are dangerous. Exert great care in stopping suspects. Fannon is forty, tall—"
With a vicious gesture, the Skull snapped off the radio. "So you failed?" It was more a statement than a question, low-voiced, ominous. The glowing death's head brooding in the semi-dark seemed to be evolving some Satanic form of punishment "You know how failure is rewarded here?"
Again the Secret Agent measured the distance between himself and the desk. So far the breaks had been with him. With patience he would no doubt prevail. But patience was what he had little of today, with Betty Dale a prisoner in the hands of some unknown enemies. A slight rustling sound at his left diverted his attention for the moment, and he smiled to see that it was a large rat scampering across the floor from one hole to another. He turned back to the Skull.
"What makes you think I've failed?"
"Didn't you hear the radio? Dennett stated to the police that you put the jewels back in the safe. That, my friend, is failure!"
"But you told me that Dennett would be away, that I would have a clear coast. Instead, he surprised me in the middle of the job."
Slowly the Skull's head shook from side to side. "It makes no difference. I make the best preparations for you that I can. Sometimes a little thing miscarries. Then you must use your own wits to save the situation. You thought more of escaping with a whole skin than of my orders. My men learn that it is no good coming back here with a whole skin and empty hands. They would be far better off to die on the job." He paused. "I am sorry that I must treat you as I would treat any of the others, Fannon. I had hoped that you would make good, for you have possibilities. But now—"
He stopped, for "X" had put his hand in his pocket. "If that is a gun, Fannon, it'll do you no good. Keep your hand in your pocket!" Accompanying the words, a blinding spot-light snapped on, no doubt in response to a button the Skull had pressed on his desk. It blared full in "X's" eyes, blinding him, making it impossible for him to shoot even if he had had a gun.
"X" stood still in the light, and forced his lips into a smile. "It is not a gun," he said calmly. "It is the pearls from Harrison Dennett's safe. I got them after all; I wanted to spring them on you as a surprise."
From behind the spotlight came the Skull's vicious snarl. "You lie! You haven't got those pearls. They're in Dennett's safe where he said he made you replace them!"
"X" shrugged. "If you will allow me to take my hand out, I will show them to you."
"All right. Take your hand out. You are helpless under the spotlight anyway. I call your bluff, Fannon. Let me see the pearls, or you go to the chair! Like Tyler!"
SLOWLY, carefully, "X" withdrew his hand from his pocket holding the two gems in his fingers. They glowed with deep, mysterious color under the spotlight. Anyone could see that they were pearls of immense value.
From the Skull there came the wheeze of a sudden, amazed intake of breath. A moment there was silence, then the spotlight clicked off. "X" blinked his eyes, peered through the sudden comparative darkness in which he could see once more.
The Skull said, "Fannon, I hardly believe my eyes. How did you do it?"
"X" explained coolly. "Dennett thought I put them back. But when he opens his safe, he will discover that the hand is quicker than the eye. There's only a worthless key in the safe now."
"Give them to me," the Skull ordered eagerly.
"X" took a step forward, but the Skull exclaimed, "Wait. Do not come closer. Put them in the basket."
The Skull pressed a button, and from the side of his desk there began to slide out a bamboo pole with a hook on the end of it. From this hook there hung suspended a small wicker basket. The basket came to rest about a foot from the Agent, and he deposited the two gems in it. Slowly the pole began to recede. It was operated by some sort of spring attached to the side of the desk.
"X" reflected that the Skull took plenty of precautions. He would not even allow his men to come close enough to the desk to put anything on it. It would be difficult to overcome him—especially when time pressed. Perhaps the best way would be a quick leap across the intervening space. He set himself, poised on the balls of his feet, his body taut. This was the moment. The Skull's attention was away from him for the second, for he was leaning over the desk, reaching eager, vermilion-gloved hands for the pearls.
"X's" knees bent. Three swift steps. Now!
And he stopped. For again there was that scraping sound in the corner of the room. The Skull raised his eyes irritably. The rat was scampering across the room now, directly toward the desk. "X" relaxed. The opportune moment was gone. He must wait for another.
And then his body grew rigid. For the rat, scurrying toward the desk, had reached the four-foot wide strip in the floor. There was a violent flash, the smell of scorching flesh, and the rat seemed to shrivel, curl up. It remained motionless on the edge of that four foot strip, scorched crisp.
"Damn those rats!" the Skull exclaimed. He looked up at "X." "So you know now!" The horrible, flesh-less skull seemed to leer more wickedly than ever. "That is why I did not want you to come closer. Had you tried to attack me, tried to jump me, the same thing would have happened to you that just happened to the rat! That—" he laughed harshly—"is how I treat all rats! Good joke, eh, Fannon?"
"X" tried to imagine how the real Fannon would react to what he had just seen. Frightened? Awed? That was it. Even a hardened, worldly-wise ex-convict like Fannon would be awed at beholding such infernal cleverness.
"Gosh, boss," he said. "I'd never rat on you! Look—I brought you the pearls. You didn't know I had them. I could have taken a powder with them!"
"That is true, Fannon. I will remember it. I need an honest man as lieutenant here. You are intelligent, clever. You have just shown your loyalty. Perhaps you noted that the calibre of the men I have here is not high. You have a good chance to become second in command. Now," he raised a hand and beckoned, "you may come closer to the desk while I talk to you."
"X" looked surprised, hesitated. "You want me to cross the room?"
It was asking much, with the body of the electrocuted rat still on the floor, but "X" squared his shoulders, and without further hesitation, he went toward the desk, stepping full on the strip in the floor. He was staking everything again on his confidence in his own uncanny intuition about human nature.
He had a momentary feeling of coldness along his spine as his foot came down close beside the dead rat, but nothing happened. He came close to the desk, noting that the Skull's hand had come above the glass top now, holding an automatic trained on his stomach.
HE stood there quietly, looking into the cavernous physiognomy of evil that leered up at him.
"Bravo!" exclaimed the Skull. "I wondered if you had confidence in me. There is a switch under the desk here. I shut off the current with my foot. Not many men would have had the courage to cross that strip at my command. You see, I am testing you in many ways, Fannon. You may now step back."
"X" said, "Thank you," and stepped back to the door. He saw the Skull make a movement with his foot under the desk.
"The current is on again, Fannon." The Skull put down the automatic. "The gun was merely a precaution in case you were tempted to attack me in spite of your professed loyalty. It is a habit of mine never to trust anyone fully. I don't even trust Binks entirely, and he is harmless enough."
The Skull seemed now to be in a mellow mood. But "X" waited tensely, silently. He felt there was something else coming, something behind the Skull's new affability. And all the time his thoughts were darting back to that empty apartment of Betty Dale's. When, when would he be able to get to that!
The Skull was talking again. "Frankly, Fannon, I had my doubts about you. Something happened in one of the corridors last night; something that I have not solved yet. One of my men was killed. Rufe—you met him. He had apparently discovered someone in the passage who had no business there. That someone killed Rufe. I entertained some suspicions of you!"
"Why should I want to kill Rufe?" the Secret Agent asked. "It was my first night here. How would I be able to find my way around in those passages?"
"I thought of all that, Fannon, and that is why you are still alive today. It couldn't have been you, or any of my servants; for everybody is locked in at night. And that leads me to the only other logical conclusion—that there is an outsider prowling loose in the corridors. If there is, I have a good idea as to his name. Fannon," the Skull leaned over the desk, emphasizing each word, "have you ever heard of Secret Agent 'X'?"
IF the situation had not been so tense, the Agent could have enjoyed the sardonic humor of being asked whether he had ever heard of himself. As it was, he merely nodded, composing his voice to a casual tone. "I've heard of him. They say he's poison to crooks, and poison to the police also. You think he's the one who's doing the prowling?"
"I believe so. It wouldn't be strange if he interested himself in me. I am now the most powerful man engaged in criminal activities in America, perhaps the only one mentally worthy of the steel of such a man as this Secret Agent 'X'."
"From what I have seen," said "X," "I think you could give him cards and spades."
"Perhaps, Fannon, perhaps." There was a measure of pride to be detected in the Skull's voice now. "It may be that I have him in a tight spot right now."
"X" tensed. Had the Skull been playing with him all along? He told himself that it could not be. He was too keen a judge of people to have been deceived. He would have detected a false note in the Skull's speech before now. Still, the Skull was clever. Every man, even "X" himself, was bound at some time to meet a man who was his mental superior.
The Skull's next words set him at rest on that score. The Skull was not playing with him. But they brought to the Agent a new problem. For the master said, "You will recall, Fannon, that when I sent you to Dennett's, I also sent Nate Frisch with some other men on another mission. Well, that mission has been accomplished successfully. Take this key." He threw across the room a small flat key similar to the one Binks used. "Binks has gone out to meet some of the men, so you will have to guide yourself."
"X's" eyes gleamed. Was this to be the opportunity? He caught the key in the air, and waited.
"Use that key in the slot of the panel at the end of the corridor. Go through the opening, and turn left. You will find a heavy, barred door. Unbar it, then wait till I press the button from the inside, which unlocks it."
The Agent nodded. He was going to be left alone, with a key. Was the Skull growing careless, or was he trusting him?
The Skull went on. "I will need you in that room. Nate Frisch has gone on another errand; and anyway, I think your higher intelligence will be better suited to my needs in this case. For in that room, Fannon, is the answer to the identity of Secret Agent 'X'! It is the master stroke of mine that will remove him from my path! Go now, and wait at the barred door!"
The door behind the Secret Agent opened, and he stepped out into the anteroom. Here was something that required careful action. Without a doubt he must go into that room behind the barred door and see what the Skull's stroke of genius consisted of.
He made his way down the corridor, through the sliding panel, and unbarred the heavy door. As he waited, he searched his subconscious mind, and was amazed to discover that the thought of Betty Dale's possible predicament overshadowed his present task. He had never thought that the emotion of deep friendly regard—almost of protectorship—had grown so strong in him. Perhaps it was the realization that he was here, helpless to aid her at the moment, which preyed so upon him.
His revery was interrupted by a slight click, following which the heavy door swung open, revealing a room in utter darkness. "X" entered grimly, and the door swung shut behind him. He couldn't see a foot in front of him now.
SUDDENLY a dull glow began to grow high up along the wall, and "X" started, his lips forming into a thin line as he realized where he was. The glow dimly illuminated the forbidding figure of the Skull standing in a niche in the wall. And below the niche, built into the floor, was the electric chair in which Tyler had been executed. And beside the chair was a trussed-up figure that stirred and uttered a helpless little moan.
The wire mesh that had separated the room into two parts before was now raised so that a man could pass under it. "X" took an involuntary step toward that pitiful figure on the floor, but stopped, restraining himself by an iron exercise of will power.
And suddenly the spotlight from up above burst into brilliant luminance, bathing the chair and the trussed-up figure in a merciless light.
And "X" gasped. For that helpless figure on the floor was the golden-haired figure of Betty Dale.
She was bound and gagged, but her eyes were wide open, reflecting hopeless resignation.
From the niche came the Skull's voice. "This lady, Fannon, is known as Miss Betty Dale. She is in the confidence of Secret Agent 'X,' and should be in a position to supply us with some very interesting information about that gentleman. She is unwilling to talk, but I feel sure we can remedy that."
"X" wet his lips and stepped forward under the brilliant blare of the spotlight.
The Skull said crisply, "Take off her gag, Fannon, and see if she would like to talk before we begin to do things to her."
"X" knelt beside Betty Dale, and his fingers moved clumsily to remove the gag while he looked down into her determined little face. He dared not say a word to her lest it be heard by the Skull in the stillness that had descended upon the room. He tried to make his eyes expressive, but it was no use.
In him now, she saw nothing but a vicious criminal henchman of the master who stood in the niche above. She had never been able to penetrate any of his disguises, and could not be expected to do so now with her nerves in the frayed condition that they must be in before the ordeal which she knew was inevitable.
When the gag was off, the Skull said in the mocking tone which "X" had begun to loathe, "Well, Miss Dale, you must talk now if you wish to avoid the things I have in store for you. Will you give me the information I need?"
She opened her mouth, but gulped, not trusting herself to talk. She clamped her lips tight and shook her head, staring defiantly up into the spotlight.
The Skull sighed, and went on, as if explaining some elementary proposition to a child. "You don't understand, Miss Dale. I am sure, that after I have described to you what I intend to do to you, you will be very glad to tell me all you know." The vermilion-cloaked arm rose, and a gloved finger pointed to the electric chair. "You know what that is, of course, Miss Dale, since you are a newspaper woman; it is an electric chair. You look at it, contemplate death, and feel yourself strong enough to die rather than betray this friend of yours who is known as Secret Agent 'X'."
He uttered a short, mocking laugh. Betty remained silent, her face white, biting her lower lip. "X" felt a surge of blind anger sweep over him at the sight of the girl's mental anguish, at the contemplation of the physical anguish which the Skull planned for her. But his will conquered his instinct. To make a rash move now would gain neither of them anything but death; for the Skull was impregnable in his niche up there, surrounded no doubt, by clever, ingenious defenses.
The Skull went on. "What will you say, Miss Dale, when I tell you that this electric chair does not kill! It will maim you! Maim you mentally and physically, will make you an imbecile within five seconds of the moment when I pull the switch. You have heard of the men who were found in the streets—strong men, intelligent men. When they were picked up in the streets, it was found that their bodies and minds were shattered. That, Miss Dale, is what will happen to you. You will be thrown out into the street to be found by your friend and protector, Secret Agent 'X'! I shall send you as a challenge to him—a challenge from the one man who is his match!"
Betty Dale's eyes reflected the horror of the words she had just heard. Her chin trembled.
"X" clenched his fists so that the nails bit into the palms of his hands, in an effort to restrain himself from leaping up at the Skull.
The Skull said to "X," "You were here this morning, Fannon. Tell her how it works."
"X" bent over Betty, said in a clear voice, "It would be better for you to talk, Miss Dale. What the Skull tells you is true—there is just enough current to shatter the nerves, destroy the brain cells. Believe me, it is not pleasant."
Betty turned her eyes from the niche to the face of "X," staring at him in loathing. "You fiends!" she cried huskily. "You wouldn't dare!"
Once more the Skull's horrid, mocking voice addressed him. "She doesn't believe that we'd do it, eh, Fannon? Let's show her." The vermilion-cloaked figure raised a hand and pointed to the opposite wall. "Look!"
At the same moment the spotlight shifted, focusing on a spot in the wall. A small panel, about four feet square slid up, revealing a barred opening.
"Untie her, Fannon, and take her over there. Let her look in."
"X" knelt beside her, fumbled for the knots, and untied Betty Dale. He helped her to her feet silently, though she shrank from him. It was impossible to whisper a word here that would not be overheard by the sinister figure in the niche above him. "X" had noticed already that the acoustic properties of the room were such that the slightest whisper could be heard.
Betty struggled, moaned, "I don't want to look at anything. Leave me alone."
"Make her look, Fannon!"
"X" gripped her arm in his powerful fingers, led her to the barred window. Somehow, his touch seemed to quiet her, for she went with him. The aperture was at the height of a tall man's chest. Betty's eyes barely reached above the ledge, but it was enough to enable her to see that which was in the room beyond. She looked, and "X" felt her whole body grow rigid. But she did not faint. From her throat there came shriek after shriek of horror.
"X" pulled her away from the aperture, and the panel slid down. The spotlight was shifted from the wall, snapped off for an instant, leaving the room in darkness except for the glow that illumined the vermilion Skull in his niche.
"X" let Betty scream. He gripped her arm tightly, as if to reassure her. He had seen something while the wall was flooded with light—something that the Skull had probably never intended that he should see. It was a small lever in the corner, such as was found in all the passages. Its presence meant that there was another panel there, somewhere in the wall—a panel leading to a corridor, perhaps to freedom.
When the light went out, Betty stopped screaming, and leaned weakly on "X." She said hurriedly, in a low, husky whisper, "Please—don't let him do that to me. You are a man. Can you allow such things to be done? Save me!"
The spotlight clicked on, and the Secret Agent could only give her arm a friendly squeeze, which he hoped she would understand, before the Skull's hateful voice addressed them.
"I heard what you just said to Fannon, Miss Dale. You have no chance with him. He is wanted for murder, and is dependent on me for protection. Besides, neither he nor anybody else could get you out of this place against my wishes. So you see, you must do as I ask."
He paused a moment as Betty closed her eyes in despair, then went on. "The sight of what my chair can do has unnerved you, I see. I don't blame you. Tyler is not a pretty sight for even a strong man to see. The man you saw in there was a cunning cracksman yesterday. Today he is a driveling idiot." He paused. "Will you talk now?"
"X," with his hand on Betty's arm, felt a tremor course through her. Her chin jutted, though, and she uttered a single word, "No!"
The Skull's voice crackled with sudden, venomous anger. "Fannon! Strap her in the chair!"
THE Secret Agent looked up into the blinding core of the spotlight. By a supreme effort he kept his voice even. "Isn't there some other way? Do we have to put her in the chair? I—"
He stopped as the Skull's icy cold voice interrupted him. "So you are soft, after all, Fannon? No one who is soft can go far with me. I must have men who stop at nothing—when the Skull commands! If you are soft you are useless to me. And useless men are dangerous men. Do you know what I mean, Fannon?"
"X" caught himself up, snapped out of the momentary forgetfulness of his role. The real Fannon would not have uttered that plea. Cold enemy of society that he was, he would have been far from reluctant to inflict torture upon anyone who stood between him and his goal.
"X" said, "It's not that I'm soft, chief. You ought to know that from my record. I only thought that if you sent the current through her, she'd never be able to talk any more. I thought maybe we could try something else on her—something that wouldn't destroy her mind—"
The Skull interrupted him once more. "I see. It seemed to me for a moment that you were trying to intercede for her; and that would have been very bad—for you. Your suggestion may be appropriate, but I have said that she goes to the chair, and to the chair she goes. As a matter of fact, I am glad that she refuses to talk. I have never had a woman in the chair, and I am curious to see if the effects of the current are greater or less than on a man. So—in she goes!"
"X" could no longer afford to hesitate. He swung her around, affecting to treat her with roughness. But Betty, with a surge of desperation, wrenched her arm out of "X's" grip, turned and fled toward the heavy, iron-bound door at the other end of the room. "X" leaped after her. That was not the way to safety. But before Betty had taken two steps, the heavy mesh screen that separated the room into two parts, and which had been raised some six feet up to now, suddenly descended with a clattering bang, right in front of her. Had she been a foot farther toward the door she would have been crushed under it. As it was, she was trapped by the screen.
The Skull said, "It was useless, my dear. You are helpless down there. I enjoy your antics at escape, for all I have to do is move a finger, pull a switch, and you are caught again. Make up your mind that there is no way out. Now," crisply to "X," "begin. My time is valuable."
Betty had wilted with the last opportunity of escape gone. Her head hung, and she offered no resistance as "X" led her to the chair and began to strap her in.
Two electrodes fitted at her wrists, one at the back of her neck, and two at her ankles. If he had any thought of strapping them loosely so that the metal should not come in contact with her body, he was compelled to discard it, for the Skull watched every move, instructing him how to tighten them properly, how to place the electrode at the nape of her neck.
She was following the motions of "X's" hands, now, as if fascinated by them, unable to move. She raised her eyes to his in a mute appeal, and he tried to convey to her a message with his own eyes. But suddenly her lids drooped, and her head lolled on her breast. She had fainted.
THE chair had a high back, and from his niche in the wall the Skull could not tell that Betty was unconscious. To him she appeared to be drooping with the flight of hope. He asked, "Finished, Fannon?"
"X" nodded. There was a gleam in his eye. He could not speak now, for he was flexing the muscles of his throat, tensing his whole body for the thing that he was about to do. He was about to perform the greatest piece of acting he had ever been called upon to stage in his career—with the lives of Betty Dale and himself as the forfeit if he failed.
The Skull said, "Well, Miss Dale, I am about to throw the switch which will send enough current through your body to make you just like that man you saw in the next room. Have you anything to say?"
But Betty couldn't answer. She was breathing irregularly now, as if a prey to nightmares in her unconscious condition. All the color had fled from her cheeks, and her long lashes lay supine over her eyes.
The Skull repeated impatiently, "Quick! You have one second more!"
And then the miracle took place.
Out of Betty's slack mouth there came words. Low words, mumbled at first, almost incoherent, then gaining clearness—and in Betty's voice. "God! Don't, no! I'll tell you anything!"
But it was not Betty who was talking. Secret Agent "X" was leaning over her, his lips parted, as if intensely eager to hear what she said. And it was he who was uttering those words by a supreme achievement of ventriloquism.
The Skull was deceived. Clever man that he was, the performance deceived him. He clucked in satisfaction. "That is very wise, Miss Dale. Now tell us—" his voice assumed an edge of keen expectancy—"who is Secret Agent 'X'?"
Once more the voice of Betty Dale floated up to the niche, emanating by some strange alchemy of skill from the parted, unmoving lips of Secret Agent "X," but appearing to be spoken by the girl. "I—I don't know. I never saw his face. But I know where he is."
"Where?" The Skull rapped out the one word with a sharp eagerness that was full of venom.
Again the throat muscles of Secret Agent "X" began to contract and expand, and Betty Dale seemed to say, "He's right here in your place. He told me he was going to get in under a disguise."
"Who? What's his disguise?"
"He's disguised as a halfwit—a man by the name of Binks!" Betty's voice from the lips of "X" seemed to utter the last word with hesitation, regret. It was a superb piece of acting. On the stage it would have brought down the house. Here it elicited an astounded exclamation from the Skull.
"Binks! Impossible! No one could make up like that halfwit, no matter how clever he is!"
Once more Betty seemed to cry, "That's all I know. Now release me. Let me go!"
The Skull paid no attention to her. He mused, "Binks, eh? What do you think, Fannon? Could she be making it up? Binks is the last one here I would have suspected. To tell you the truth, it might have been anybody else but Binks—even you. I suspected you, too, frankly. But Binks!"
"X" stood erect, said, resuming the voice of Fannon, "Has she ever seen Binks?"
"By Jove!" the Skull exclaimed. "You're right. She's never seen him. She was unconscious when she was brought here, and Binks has been out on errands all this time."
"So she couldn't be making it up. Where could she have learned that there is such a person except from this Secret Agent himself?"
"I'll send for him," the Skull said suddenly. It'll be easy to prove if he's Secret Agent 'X.'" He paused, then asked Betty, "First, Miss Dale, suppose you tell us when it was that Secret Agent 'X' informed you he was coming here disguised as Binks?"
Once more "X" bent over Betty Dale. Once more his lips pursed, his throat muscles contracted. "I—" he began in Betty's voice. But that was as far as he got. For suddenly Betty stirred, opened her eyes, and cried, her voice clashing with the voice "X" was using, "I won't talk, I tell you! I won't!"
The effect was weird, as of twins talking at the same time.
From the niche above came an ominous purr, more deadly in portent than the rattle of a snake before striking.
"So-o, Mr. Frank Fannon alias Secret Agent 'X'! You are a master of ventriloquism among your many other accomplishments! Let us see if you can avoid the slugs from my gun which will now break both your legs!"
THE heavy report of the Skull's gun came as an echo of his last word, filling the room with cacophonous detonation. But the Secret Agent had jerked into motion with the first words of Betty Dale. For he realized at once that the game was lost unless he acted swiftly.
His long fingers flew as he unbuckled the straps from her wrists, while the Skull talked, sure of his prey.
As he worked, Betty looked at him, wide-eyed, happy laughter mingling with her tears. "You!" she exclaimed happily.
And even before the report of the Skull's gun boomed through the room, "X" was on his knees beside the electric chair. His hand had gone to his pocket and come out again with a lightning-like motion, holding one of the gadgets which he had transferred from the black bag.
This gadget was an ingeniously constructed pair of nippers, attached to which was a needle capable of piercing a heavy electric wire.
At the spot where "X" knelt, the heavy cable which conducted the powerful current to the electric chair came out of the wall, and branched to each of the electrodes. Into this cable "X" plunged the needle, clamping the nippers around the cable. The short circuit thus effected caused a blinding flash, and plunged the room into darkness.
In the blackness "X" could hear Betty's quick breathing between the resounding explosions of the Skull's automatic. Shots ripped into the framework of the chair, crunched into the cement floor, filled the room with acrid powder stench.
"X" seized Betty by the wrist, dragged her to the corner of the room where he had seen the lever in the wall.
The Skull had stopped shooting, his clip evidently empty. He was not shouting; his silence was more ominous than any cries of rage he might have uttered.
"X" felt about in the darkness until he located the lever, and he pressed it downward quickly.
Somewhere in the place an alarm bell was jangling loudly. "X" heard hoarse shouts as the panel in the wall slid upward exposing a narrow passageway. He dragged Betty through it, pressed the lever on the other side. The panel slid down just as another hail of shots came from the Skull's reloaded automatic. The panel, however, slid to, protecting "X" and the girl from the slugs.
The bell was still raucously clanging its alarm as "X" turned to lead Betty down the passageway. He heard a gasp from Betty, looked ahead, and stopped short. Rushing toward them from the other end where he had just come through a panel, was the gunman, Gilly, drawn gun in his hand.
BEHIND Gilly came Nate Frisch and three or four others. Frisch and Gilly were the only ones armed.
Gilly shouted, "What's up, Fannon?"
"There's a stranger in the corridors!" the Secret Agent told him hurriedly. "We got to spread out and get him."
"Hey," demanded Nate Frisch. "What you doin' with that girl? That's the dame we brought here."
"The Skull told me to take her out of there. Let me through here."
Frisch had pushed past Gilly, was almost convinced by the Agent, when suddenly another demonstration was given of the Skull's thoroughness. Through the corridor echoed the Skull's voice, carried evidently by some hidden annunciator. He was broadcasting through the passages, just as the police did.
"Stop Fannon. Stop Fannon. He is Secret Agent 'X' in disguise! Kill Fannon! He is Secret Agent 'X' in disguise. All men into the corridors. Stop Fannon! Those who are armed will shoot him on sight. Others will grapple with him and call for help. It is impossible for him to escape, so continue the search until he is found."
As the meaning of the Skull's words became apparent to the group of men in the corridor, Frisch raised his gun, snarling.
"X's" swift movements, however, took him by surprise. Long, crushing, irresistible fingers seized his gun wrist, twisted it sharply. Other long fingers gripped his shoulder, heaved with all the power of "X's" supple body. Frisch went tumbling backward in the narrow corridor, backward into Gilly and the others, catapulting into them with a force that threw them off their balance, tumbling them to the floor in a tangled, confused heap.
And "X," in that moment of respite, under the awe-struck gaze of Betty Dale, produced from a pocket the key that the Skull had given him, inserted it in a slot in the wall at his elbow. A panel slid open, and he thrust her through it, stopped but a second to deliver a straight-arm jab into the jaw of Gilly who was struggling up out of the mess of writhing men on the floor. Gilly was the only dangerous one at the moment, for he still had a gun; Frisch having dropped his under the cruel pressure of "X's" fingers.
Gilly tumbled backward, groggy from the straight-arm jab, and "X" stepped through the opening, inserted his key on the other side, and watched the panel slide closed again.
Betty was waiting for him, white-faced. Her eyes were starry. "I might have known," she said, "that you wouldn't let him—"
He put one hand over her mouth, smiling as he did so. "Of course I wouldn't, Betty. But we'll talk about that later. Now, we must get out of here. Let's see where we are."
They were in another narrow passage branching off at right angles from the one they had just quit. It was, like the others, dimly lit by a single small bulb at the end.
He led her along it, silently.
"But how can we ever get out?" she asked. "That man said that no one—"
"Wait!" was all he told her.
He used his key at the other end to admit them to another corridor, much wider, with doors on either side. "X" thought he recognized this as the corridor along which was the door of Tyler's cell.
He opened the second door on the left and, sure enough, there was the grisly sight of the man who had been the victim of the Skull's fiendish ingenuity. It was this room that Betty had been made to look into through the barred aperture in the "execution room."
Tyler was no longer chained. No needle had sprung from the knob though "X" had taken the precaution to stand at one side, and to keep Betty behind him as he turned the knob. Evidently events had been moving too fast even for the Skull since last night, and he had not had time to replace the needle. But when the door opened a bell began to ring, the same as last night. The alarm was given once more, and the Skull now knew which corridor they were in.
Tyler looked up at them inanely, without the slightest sign of intelligence in his eyes. His hands were shaking as if from palsy, and his lower jaw hung slack, as if out of his control, allowing saliva to dribble down to his chin.
Betty uttered a horrified gasp, leaned against the wall for support.
"X" stepped into the room, gripped Tyler by the arm. "Come on," he said in a gentle voice. "I'll take you out of here."
But Tyler shrank back, uttering an incoherent sound that was between a scream and a moan.
Suddenly the hidden amplifier in the corridors came to life once more, echoing the voice of the Skull. "Fannon is now in corridor H, in Tyler's cell. Every one is to converge on corridor H. Do not let him escape again. Converge on corridor H!"
AT the same moment a panel high up in the wall began to slide up, revealing the same barred aperture through which Betty had been forced to look. As the opening, at first narrow, began to widen, "X" could see the bright light of the powerful spotlight in the execution room focused on it. Once that opening got wide enough, he would be bathed in its rays, helpless against the Skull who was undoubtedly still there.
Shrugging, he relinquished his grip on Tyler, slipped out of the room, and slammed the door. In the corridor Betty was still leaning weakly against the wall. "How terrible!" she murmured. "That man must be destroyed before he does the same thing to more people."
"He will be," the Secret Agent assured her grimly. "Now let's worry about ourselves."
He led the way along the corridor, just as the amplifier announced, "Fools! Can't you find corridor H? Binks has not returned yet. You must find it yourselves. Fannon cannot escape; he must be found and killed; the girl, too."
Betty asked tremulously, "Is there no way out?"
"X" had taken a peculiar, boxlike contraption from his pocket; this was no larger than a package of cigarettes, but it had a hole at either end, in which, Betty could see, there were lenses. He now stooped and removed the framework that had fitted under the sole of his shoe, and which he had worn on the way in with Gilly and Binks. He placed this in his pocket, and examined the floor as they went along. They worked their way through two more passages, and came to an elevator without encountering anybody. As they went down in the elevator, Betty asked, "What is that box—a camera?"
He smiled. "No, but it is the instrument of our salvation. It is a box containing a specially angled series of lenses which I built myself. It is constructed in accordance with a little known theory of light refraction, and shows markings invisible to the naked eye."
The elevator stopped, and they came out into another corridor.
"X" stooped and looked through the lens, then allowed Betty to do so. She saw faint scraping marks on the floor.
"This is one of the passages through which I entered with Binks. I wore a short piece of gray graphite attached to the sole of my shoe when I came in, and particles of the graphite detached themselves as I walked. By following them we will get out!"
She looked up at him, suddenly smiling, suddenly hopeful. "And then?"
"And then," he told her grimly, "I must begin all over again—work my way once more into the ranks of the Servants of the Skull. He must be destroyed!"
They were now following the particles of graphite through a damp tunnel that gave every evidence of being far below the surface of the ground. This was not one of the elaborately constructed passages, but evidently the outlet of route number seven, that by which Binks had brought him and Gilly in. The amplifier did not reach here, but far behind them they could still hear its metallic tones, hear confused shouts as men scurried around in search of them.
This tunnel led them at last into a small room without windows. There was a door at the opposite end which "X" tried, but found locked. There was no light here, but "X" used his thin pocket flash.
Betty waited while he brought out the kit of chromium steel tools which he had taken from the bag. In a few moments he had the lock open, swung the door wide—and Betty gasped behind him. For behind the door was a blank concrete wall.
"X" tapped the wall, and found that it was solid. There was no egress from the room except by the door by which they had come.
Betty asked, "Must we go back?"
"There's something queer here," said the Secret Agent. He stooped and examined the floor with the box-lens. "Here are particles of the graphite leading away from this blank wall. We must have come in through here all right, but this wall is solid, there's no doubt of that."
He went back to the other door, into the tunnel, and opened it a crack, then stopped, rigid. From the tunnel, not a hundred feet away, had come the tread of many feet. Then, as he listened, motioning Betty to silence, Binks' cackling voice came to them.
"If they came along here, they're trapped all righty. There's a room down the end of this tunnel, but he won't know how to get out of it, nohow. The door ain't got no lock on the inside, an' you fellows can just rake that room with your machine guns."
They heard Gilly say, "Boy, gimme a chance at that guy. I'll cut him in half with lead!"
"X" cautiously closed the door, noting as he did so, the truth of Binks' statement—there was no way to lock the door from the inside. He snapped his flash on again, saw Betty gazing at him with trustful eyes. She had every confidence that he would get her out of this impossible situation.
Once more he crossed to the door opening on the concrete wall. He closed it, began to throw his light along the wall of the room, on either side of the door. The approaching footsteps sounded louder outside.
Suddenly "X" uttered an exclamation of satisfaction.
Betty asked, "What is it? Have you found a way out?"
"I think so. See this lever? I believe I remember now what this room must be. I was blindfolded when we came in, and couldn't tell just what was going on. Let's see what happens."
He jerked the lever downward. For a moment nothing happened, then there was a smooth whirring of well-oiled machinery, and the whole room began to move upward.
The room was an elevator.
They heard shouts from the tunnel outside, oaths in Binks' cackling voice. Then the stuttering of a machine-gun. But they were already well above the level of the tunnel, and the shots had no effect.
Betty cried, "We're going to escape! We're going to escape!"
"We're not out yet," the Secret Agent said grimly. "As I recall it, the entrance to this route was through a cellar. We still have to reach that. And Binks and his crew know we are on our way and can head us off." He took her hand. "This is going to be a gruelling ordeal, Betty. You must keep a stiff upper lip. I—have doubts now, about our ever getting out of here alive."
Betty's mouth was firm, but her eyes were wet. "I—don't care. If you die—then I should like to die—too."
The Agent gripped her hand, pressed it. They waited together for the elevator to reach the upper level, for whatever lay in store beyond.
THERE was a grinding noise, and the elevator came to rest. "X" opened the door which had presented to him only a blank wall before, and found that it now led into a narrow hallway. The quartz markings on the floor appeared under the box-lens, and they followed these.
They were apparently in an empty house of some sort. No light entered here, for the windows were boarded up with steel shutters like those on the windows in the headquarters of the Skull.
The markings led them to another small room, with another door opening on a blank wall. Here the Agent did not hesitate. He sought and found a lever in the wall, pressed it, and the elevator descended swiftly. When it stopped, the agent put his hand on the knob, opened the door a crack, and stopped. Just outside he had caught the sound of whispered words. There were men out there in the darkness, waiting for them. Softly he closed the door, turned to Betty in the dark.
"Binks must have taken a short cut," he told her. "They're out there, waiting for us."
"What are you going to do?"
"They must have heard the noise of the machinery," the Agent told her. "They know we are here and are waiting for the door to open. If we don't come out pretty soon they'll come in after us."
"Too much depends on our getting out. Nothing must stop us!"
She couldn't see his face in the dark, but she heard the grim resolve in his tone.
Soon, Binks' voice came to them. "Go on, Gilly, I'll hold the flashlight. You go on in there an' mop 'em up. They ain't got no guns. It'll be a pipe!"
"Okay!" Gilly exclaimed. "Here I go!"
"X" crouched beside the door, holding Betty behind him. They were in such a position that they would be screened by the door when it opened.
They heard Gilly approach, felt the door give under his push. A beam of light penetrated the crack. There was a hard push from Gilly and the door swung wide. Gilly had pushed it with the snout of the sub-machine gun which he held at his shoulder. For a second that snout showed in the doorway, and "X," reaching a long arm around the door, gripped it and tugged.
Gilly uttered a shout, came tumbling into the room after the gun, sprawled on the floor. The gun slipped from his hands as he tried frantically to rise. He was in the center of the room, outlined by the beam of the flashlight. For "X" to have stepped out there from behind the door would have meant death from the other guns in the darkness.
Binks shouted, "Go on in there, boys! Blast him before he gets his hands on Gilly's gun!"
There was a rush of feet toward the doorway. But "X" slammed it shut in the faces of the advancing attackers, stooped to the floor, and yanked upward on the lever.
The door heaved inward under the thrust of a heavy shoulder, and the big, brutish form of Gelter, one of the men who had gone on the mission to kidnap Betty, appeared, with a gun in his hand.
But the room had already begun to move upward in response to "X's" touch on the lever. The floor of the room was now higher than the outer floor, and Gelter tripped, sprawled half in and half out. The floor rose to the accompaniment of shouts from the men outside, and Gelter struggled to maintain a hold, with his legs hanging over the edge of the rising floor.
Gilly scrambled to his knees; murderous, slitted eyes on the Secret Agent. He reached for his machine gun. "X" took a quick step forward, brought the edge of his open hand down in a chopping blow to his neck, and the little gunman slumped down, unconscious, his grip on the Thompson relaxing.
And just then Betty Dale shrieked—again and again. "X" looked at her swiftly, turned his eyes to follow the wavering finger that pointed. Gelter had waited too long; the floor had risen to the top of the doorway, clamping his body at the waist. As he felt the inexorable pressure, the big kidnaper's face turned yellow with terror. His big, hairy arms strained against the floor in a futile attempt to stop it from rising. His eyes were on "X" and he shouted hoarsely, "God! Stop it! It's crushing me!"
"X" leaped to the lever, depressed it. The elevator stopped for a moment, then moved downward; but not before there was a horrible crunching of bones, and Gelter screamed shrilly, then became silent as his body slumped on the floor.
The floor, moving downward, released him from the terrible grip, and he slid off, falling into the outer room below. The flashlight was still flaring up at them. "X" picked up the submachine gun, put it to his shoulder, aiming low into the room below, and pressed the trip.
Lead belched from it into the floor of the cellar room below. There were confused shouts, cries of panic, and a rush of feet away from the spraying lead. Binks' voice, raised in a cackling, querulous shout of anger, rose above the stuttering of the gun. "C'mere, you monkeys! He's comin' down. Get him!"
But the flying lead, on top of the sight of Gelter's broken body hurtling down upon them, was too much for the innately cowardly men. They fled, and Binks followed them. His flashlight disappeared, leaving the place in utter darkness. By the time the elevator was down to the level of the cellar room once more, there was no opposition to the egress of "X" and Betty Dale.
The Secret Agent gave Betty his flashlight, told her to keep the pencil of light ahead of them. He advanced before her, the machine gun still at his shoulder. Her light showed they were in a cellar, flicked around and found the door, opening upward. "X" went up the steps first, looked out and saw that the alley above was clear. He stepped up, followed by Betty, and quickly moved into a darker spot, whispering over his shoulder, "Douse the light."
She did so, and not a moment too soon. For a patrolman came running into the alley, no doubt attracted by the shots. He saw the open cellar door, clicked on his flashlight, drew his gun, and stepped down into it. "X" seized the opportunity to grip Betty's arm and dash with her into the back entrance of the pool room through which he had entered that afternoon. The sight of the machine gun at his shoulder cowed the occupants of the pool room, and they shrank out of the way.
The Secret Agent rushed Betty through, out into the street. As he had expected, Binks and the others had not given up the chase so easily. A black car was waiting at the curb. The minute "X" appeared in the doorway of the pool room, the muzzle of a Thompson was thrust out of one of the windows. "X" had his Thompson at his shoulder and spitting fire before the gunner in the car could get set. "X" kept his finger on the trip this time, till the drum was empty. He saw the Thompson in the car drop from a suddenly nerveless hand and clatter to the gutter, saw a close-cropped head loll out of the window as the frightened driver shot the car from there.
Even before the car had disappeared around the corner, "X" had hurried Betty in the opposite direction. Around the near corner he dragged her, dropping the empty Tommy, and down the street until he saw a cruising cab.
He flagged this, bundled her into it, and gave an address uptown. In the cab Betty tried to catch her breath. Finally, when she was breathing more regularly, she said, "I don't know how you did it, but I'm sure no one else in the world could have got out of that nightmare prison! Where are you going now?"
"X" was fingering the radio in the cab, trying to tune in to some station that would be broadcasting news. He said morosely, "First I'm going to take you where you'll be safe. Then I'm going to work on the Skull once more. I'll never feel you're really safe till the Skull is destroyed."
HE found a station, tuned it in, and sat back as the announcer said, "A sensational item of news has just reached me. Harrison Dennett, the noted real estate operator and subway contractor, upon whose home an unsuccessful attempt at robbery was made this afternoon, did not have such good luck this evening. At six-thirty tonight he was kidnaped from his automobile. The kidnapers seemed to have vanished into thin air with their victim, leaving not the slightest trace. In the car was left a card bearing the gruesome reproduction of a skull. This card has been left at most of the major crimes that have been committed in the past few months. There is no doubt that some fiendish master of crime has—"
"X" snapped off the radio, lapsed into thought.
"What does it mean?" asked Betty.
"It means," the Secret Agent said bitterly, "that the Skull is getting himself more patients for that electric chair of his!"
THE darkened room gave off an animal smell; a smell of unwashed bodies. Muted voices buzzed with excited comment. There was the noise of shuffling as nervous men shifted their feet; rustling of clothing; here and there a nervous laugh.
All became still as a dull glow illuminated a niche high up in the wall, limning the horrid figure of the vermilion-garbed Skull. A spotlight flared down in the upturned faces of the expectant men below.
The Skull spoke, his hideous face leering at his listeners.
"I have called you all together," he began, "because I have an important announcement to make. You all know that the man who was known as Fannon was really the person who goes by the name of Secret Agent 'X.' You also know that he was almost trapped here, and escaped only by some extremely lucky accidents. I cannot understand yet how he found his way out of this place, but I assure you he will never find his way in again—except as a prisoner."
The Skull paused a moment, appraising the men below him, as if trying to ascertain how much damage had been done to his prestige by the sensational escape. Utter silence reigned in the room. The men were still evidently as much in awe of him as they had ever been.
Their master surveyed them sardonically for a moment, noting the varied emotions written on the coarse faces below him, mercilessly exposed by the searching beams of the spotlight. He went on.
"I have never made it a practice to announce my plans in advance. This time, however, I am making an exception, for the reason that I want you all to perform enthusiastically the work which I shall assign to each of you. We have already launched the operation which I have been planning for some time; the operation which is going to net us ten million dollars in cash."
He paused to let that sink in, noting the sudden greedy interest that the men began to evince.
"I flatter myself," he continued, "that I have conceived one of the most original methods of prying money loose from the public in the annals of crime. We are going to kidnap ten wealthy men, whose names I have carefully chosen after certain investigations. The first of these, Harrison Dennett, the construction man, is already here, in our power. The other nine will be brought in today. Each of you will be assigned a certain task, which must be performed with the precision of clockwork, for every one of the nine other kidnapings has been timed carefully with the habits of these men, which I have taken great pains to check on.
"As you return with the prisoners, Binks will meet you at the different entrances assigned you, and you will conduct the prisoners to the cell down below. One prisoner, and no more, is to go in each cell. I have a particular reason for that, which you will learn later. Now, are there any questions?"
For a while there was silence as the men digested the peculiar information they had just received. Then Gilly raised a hand, blinking in the spotlight.
"Gilly," said the Skull, "what is your question?"
The little gunman shuffled from one foot to the other. Already he regretted having raised his hand, was astounded at his own temerity.
"Well?" the Skull snapped. "Talk up. What is it?"
GILLY fidgeted, looked sheepishly at the men around him, then up toward the niche which he couldn't see because of the blinding light. "Jeez, boss, I don't mean to be fresh or nothin'. But I been in the snatchin' racket myself, out West; an' I know what these rich guys is like. We once snatched a guy what was supposed to be a millionaire, an' it turned out that all he had was houses an' stocks, but no cash. It took his family almost a month to raise the dough, an' then we had to settle for a hundred grand. That was all they could lay their mitts on." He stopped, licked his lips nervously.
The Skull asked, encouragingly, "What is the point you wish to make, Gilly?"
"Well, boss, I was wonderin' if you could get ten million dollars from those ten guys. How're they gonna raise all that cash?"
The Skull laughed harshly. "I told you that my plan was one of the most original in the history of crime, Gilly. I am glad that you mentioned this matter. It shows that you are wide awake. But I, also, thought of it; and the method I have devised for making it possible to raise the cash is what makes my plan original. You see, Gilly, we shall not ask these men to pay one cent out of their own pockets! There will be no demands for ransom from their families, or from the firms which they head. But—the money will be forthcoming!"
Gilly wet his lips again. "How?" he asked in a dry whisper.
"That, men, will remain a secret until tomorrow morning. When we have these ten men safely in the cells, I will send an announcement to the newspapers, and they will print it. And it will open the way for a new kind of crime—wholesale kidnaping, with payment of the ransom money absolutely assured! There will be no hesitation about paying it, for they will have Ainsworth Clegg and the others as examples of my art. You will recall that I told you at the time we seized Clegg and the others, that I did not intend to make any money on them. They were doomed, for I wanted to let it be seen what would happen to those who defied me. So I deliberately set the ransom demand at a preposterous figure. Now, with those examples before them, there will be a rush to make the payment. Tomorrow morning you will learn who is going to pay the ransom!"
Gilly had no more questions. The group of men in the room with him stirred nervously. Their curiosity was piqued. They wondered how their master intended to cause ten million dollars to be raised for ransom. They were no children; many of them, like Gilly, had at one time or another turned their hands to kidnaping, and they knew from bitter experience that large ransoms are more easily demanded than produced. Fresh in their minds was the recent case of a kidnaped upstate politician whose family, it had been supposed, measured its wealth in multiples of millions, but who had been released for a measly ninety thousand dollars. Each was busy trying to solve the puzzle in his own mind.
"Now," said the Skull, "we will once more discuss Secret Agent 'X.' I will admit that he, whoever he may be, is the only man with courage and cleverness enough to be a possible menace to our plans. I will also admit that he succeeded in escaping from what was a perfect trap. But I assure you that I will have him here, in one of the cells downstairs, within twenty-four hours!"
A low murmur of interest was heard from the men.
The Skull went on, emphasizing his words. "I am sure that when be learns of our present operation, he will make a desperate attempt to work his way in here again. In what disguise, I do not know. A man who could successfully deceive me by posing as Fannon may do anything. It is even possible that he may place himself in the role of one of the men who is to be kidnaped. I shall make it easy for him to do so, as you will see when you are given your instructions. But—" the Skull paused to let the words sink in—"whatever disguise he uses, I shall know him! Do you want to know why?"
The master's voice rang with evil triumph as he went on swiftly. "Because, my friends, though he may be known as The Man of a Thousand Faces, he has only ten fingers! And—I have prints of all ten of them! We will fingerprint every prisoner, every stranger who enters here. And sooner or later Secret Agent 'X' will come into our hands!"
IN a quiet section of the city stands the Montgomery mansion, a relic of the old blue-stocking aristocracy. Few know how old the house really is. At one time it was far uptown, almost suburban; until the bustling tide of business and residential buildings swept up around and past it, so that now it is "downtown."
For many years it has stood silent and apparently unused, seeming to reflect upon its ancient grandeur and the wealth of its former owners.
A curious sightseer would have had difficulty in making his way into the house. For if he successfully climbed the high stone fence, he would have found, upon going up the old porch, that the door and all the windows were boarded up securely. If he wandered around to the rear, through a garden strewn with ancient statuary, if he succeeded in finding the entrance in the back that led into the house through the butler's pantry, and if he made his way along the hall to the front of the ground floor, he would have been surprised to find that the rooms which he supposed un-tenanted were very comfortably equipped. Peeking into one of them, he would have seen a pleasantly furnished bedroom, and on the bed, sleeping the sleep of exhaustion, a very beautiful blonde young lady.
And if this sightseer were a careful reader of the newspapers he would have uttered a gasp of surprise upon recognizing the features of the young lady as being those of a Miss Betty Dale whose disappearance and suspected abduction were one of the big news items of the evening.
Still more surprised would the uninvited guest have been had he stepped into the alcove adjoining the next room. For here he would have seen another person whose picture was appearing in the evening paper—one Frank Fannon, ex-convict, who was reported to have figured in a series of queer episodes since he was released from jail the day before.
Now, this uninvited sightseer, if he had remained silent and watched the man in the alcove, would shortly have rubbed his eyes in amazement at what was taking place. For this man, Fannon, was seated before a triple mirror, doing things to his face. Soon the face of Frank Fannon disappeared under the long, agile fingers, revealing for a moment the countenance of a keen-eyed young man with a mobile, restless mouth and an imperious nose—a face which the sightseer would surely not have recognized, for it was a face that no one in the world had ever seen.
And under the eyes of the astounded sightseer that face would soon have begun to assume an entirely different appearance. The temples became grayed, the lips fuller, the eyebrows thicker; in fact, a complete metamorphosis took place, and instead of Frank Fannon, there sat before the triple mirror the suave, urbane millionaire clubman, Elisha Pond.
After a few careful finishing touches to his face, Mr. Pond arose and proceeded to change to faultless evening attire. When he was finished, he stepped into the next room, took a last look at Betty Dale who was still in deep slumber, induced by the sedative he had given her. She was safe here from the Servants of the Skull.
He had given her the sedative before bringing her here, and, after the peril was over, he would return and take her away before she regained consciousness. She would never know where she had slept, would never know where she had been afforded sanctuary. The less she knew, the better it would be for her.
Mr. Pond left her there, and went out through the hall to the cellar, through the cellar to the back of the house. Here the curious sightseer would no longer have been able to follow him, for his dark-clad figure merged with the darkness of the night. A tall gate in the stone fence swung open on well-oiled hinges, and Mr. Elisha Pond stepped through it into the garden of the house next door. This house was known to the world as the home of Mr. Pond; but none knew of the excursions that its master made in the night to the Montgomery mansion next door, where he prepared himself to do battle against hideous crime.
Mr. Pond went through the garden and into the garage at the rear of his home. The chauffeur, who lived above the garage, was downstairs tinkering with one of the cars, of which there were four here. He touched his cap respectfully, said, "Good evening, sir. I didn't know you were home, sir. Will you want me to drive you tonight?"
"No, Carl, I will take the small coupe and drive myself."
"It is all ready, sir."
Mr. Elisha Pond nodded genially, got into the car, and drove off. To his servants here he was known as a kindly, wealthy master who treated them considerately and was a snap to work for, since he was away most of the time.
Mr. Pond's first stop was at the Bankers' Club. He had to park a block away because of the subway construction going on. As he crossed the street over the subway cut where he had found Ainsworth Clegg, he wondered if one day shortly, Harrison Dennett would not be found in the same fashion, mind and body wrecked. Dennett was a strong, cool sort of man, and the thought of how he would be after a treatment of the fiendish electric chair was particularly horrible.
At the Bankers' Club there was an undercurrent of uneasiness that was reflected even in the greeting of the doorman who was usually a paragon of stiff respectfulness.
Inside, the club seemed deserted, a pall of gloom lying over it. In the corner by the window where at this hour there usually congregated Commissioner Foster, Pelham Grier, Pierre Laurens, Jonathan Jewett, Dennett and others, there were only Jewett and Commissioner Foster. They sat in silence, as if they were utterly weary. Commissioner Foster appeared harried and worn. He looked up as Pond approached them.
"Hello, Pond," he said. "I'm glad to see that you're here at least. You shouldn't wander around the town unprotected like this—he'll get you, too."
"Who'll get me?" Pond asked lightly, seating himself beside Jewett. The tall, gaunt Insurance Company president barked, "You don't mean to say you don't know what's been happening today?"
"I heard that Dennett was robbed and then kidnaped. I haven't seen a paper since. Has anybody else been abducted?"
JEWETT snorted. "Where've you been tonight—taking a beauty nap? Take a look around here. Do you see Grier? Do you see Laurens? No! I'll tell you why. They've both been abducted by the Skull!"
The eyes of Mr. Elisha Pond became veiled as he glanced from the insurance man to the police commissioner. "The situation," he said slowly, "becomes alarming."
Commissioner Foster looked haggard. "More than alarming, Pond. It is terrifying. That is not all. Grier and Laurens are not the only ones besides Dennett who have been abducted. Five more are gone. I sit here in dread. Every hour I receive reports of more kidnapings. So far there is a total of eight of the wealthiest men in the city in the power of the Skull. I have assigned guards to every one who might be a possible future victim, but I confess that I am helpless. The abductions are performed with great daring, must be carefully planned, for these 'snatchers' disappear with their victims almost under the very eyes of the pursuers."
Mr. Pond asked, "Where is Arnold Hilary?" Hilary was another one of the group that frequented this corner of the Bankers' Club after dinner. He was the proprietor of the Herald, the newspaper that Betty Dale worked for, and had, on occasion, received substantial financial assistance from Elisha Pond. The use of his unlimited resources in this way had often aided the Agent in his work, by establishing powerful connections for him. The use of these connections had often meant the difference between success and failure.
In answer to his question Foster told him, "Hilary is keeping close to his home. I've put a guard around it. We think he might be in danger of abduction, too."
"What leads you to believe that?" Pond asked with quick interest.
Foster coughed behind his hand, hesitated a moment, then said, "Look here, Pond, this is strictly confidential. It hasn't been released to the papers. It was reported that a card with a drawing of a skull was found in Dennett's car when he was kidnaped, and that similar cards were found in the homes of Grier, Laurens and the others. That is true. But there was a message on those cards that was not printed in the newspapers."
"Yes?" Pond asked.
"Those cards are downtown at headquarters now, but the message on each was identical. I remember it word for word: 'Do not prepare to raise ransom money. No ransom will be demanded from the family or business connections of my prisoners. Ten men are to be abducted today. Let them not offer resistance, lest they receive the same treatment that Ainsworth Clegg and the others received. Tomorrow I will make known the terms upon which I will release these men. Until then, do nothing.' And it was signed, 'The Skull'!"
Foster finished reciting the message, stopped and lit a long cigar that he extracted from his pocket. The match trembled a little. He did not see the swift gleam in Pond's eyes as he heard the strange wording on the cards.
It was Jewett who broke the silence that followed. "I tell you, Pond, it's like fighting the darkness! This Skull, as he calls himself, is fiendishly clever. And he's Satan himself. Imagine Grier, Laurens, Dennett and the others being in the power of such a being; why, we don't know when we'll find their broken bodies in the street. We don't know what he plans! Why, he even says that he isn't going to ask for ransom from their families! The man must be a maniac!"
"I don't think so," said Elisha Pond. "I think he has a definite plan, which we shall learn tomorrow when he makes his announcement. But why, Jewett, are you so wrought up? You seem to feel that he has done you a personal injury."
Jewett's eyes blazed. "You're damn right, he has! Do you know that every one of those men who've been taken by the Skull is insured to the hilt? Approximately six million dollars of life insurance is the maximum that anybody can get, and each of those men has the maximum. Ten men. Sixty million dollars. Can you understand what that would do to the life insurance companies of the country if they were all killed? Not only that, but if ten men can be kidnaped, why not a hundred? Why not a thousand? It would be disaster for the institution of life insurance, which it has taken decades to build up to its present strength!"
"I see," Elisha Pond said very quietly. "I begin to see more clearly." Suddenly he arose. "I must go now, gentlemen. If there is anything I can do, commissioner, please let me know."
"I will," Foster said glumly. "But I'm afraid we're all helpless. This Skull must be a genius of crime; and I fear the police are not equipped to combat him. It's a bitter admission to make, but there's no use glossing the facts. So far, we've been worse than useless. Take care of yourself. Do you want a guard?"
"Hardly," laughed Pond. "I don't think the Skull is interested in me—not if he's after insured men. I haven't much insurance."
"He can't get it," Jewett explained to Foster. "He lives too dangerous a life—exploring in Africa, flying planes. Why, he's even got the rank of general in the Chinese Army!"
As Pond was at the door, Jewett called after him, "Tell you what you can do, if you want to, Pond. You can stop in at Hilary's hotel and buck him up a bit. He's heavily insured, and he seems to be pretty scared about this business."
"That's an idea," said Elisha Pond. "I was thinking of doing that myself."
SECRET AGENT "X" never underestimated an opponent. He was far too intelligent for that. Therefore he was quite sure that it would be useless to return to the cellar behind the pool room in an effort to win into the Skull's headquarters through entrance number seven. He put himself mentally in the Skull's place, and imagined what the Skull would do. Either he would destroy the entrance as being of no further value since its existence was known, or else he would lay some sort of trap in anticipation of the Agent's attempt to come back that way.
The rear of the apartment house on Slocum Street, where he and Gilly had been originally supposed to meet Binks, offered another slender thread that might lead him back into the lair of the Skull, but this too he thrust aside. The Skull would no doubt have taken similar precautions there, and, possibly, at every one of his other entrances.
From the Bankers' Club, "X" had gone to an apartment that he maintained near the waterfront. Here he stepped out of the character of Elisha Pond, and became A. J. Martin, an Associated Press correspondent. Before going to the apartment, he had phoned Jim Hobart at the farm where he was keeping the real Frank Fannon a prisoner, instructed him to give Fannon a dose of a powder which would keep him unconscious for another twenty-four hours. Hobart was then to come to the city and meet "X," whom he knew only as A. J. Martin.
The Secret Agent paid particular attention to his equipment now, realizing that if his line of reasoning was correct, he would be placing himself in greater jeopardy than ever in his life by doing the thing that he now intended doing.
He left the apartment, went to a near-by garage and got a small sedan which was always kept ready there for him in the name of Martin. He drove in leisurely fashion up to the East Eighties, and parked there for fifteen minutes. Soon a cab drew up at the corner and Jim Hobart alighted from it, minus his army chauffeur's uniform. The young man was bubbling with excitement as he ran to his employer's car.
"Say, Mr. Martin," he exclaimed as "X" drove farther uptown, "that Colonel Delevan that you sent me to do the job for is certainly a wonder. You should have seen him make himself up like Fannon. I turned around, and did I get a jolt when I saw that there were two Fannon's in the back of the car. Why, they might have been twins. He's a genius, that Colonel Delevan!"
"Thank you," the Agent murmured.
"Eh, what did you say, Mr. Martin?"
"Nothing at all," the Secret Agent said hastily. "Now listen carefully, Jim. I'm going to give you a job now that is of the utmost importance. I know I can rely on you."
"You bet your boots, Mr. Martin. I've been having a better time since I met you than I ever had in my life."
"I know that, Jim, and I'm taking advantage of it."
"X" braked the car just then across the street, and about a hundred feet from a large residential hotel. "In that hotel," he said, "is staying a man named Arnold Hilary, who is the proprietor of the Herald. I am going to leave you now. If I do not return, I want you to remain here and watch for him. If he comes out alone, don't bother about him any more, but go back home and wait to hear from me. But—if he comes out with anybody else, I want you to follow them; discreetly. It'll be as much as your life is worth if you should be noticed. So be extremely careful. Do you understand?"
JIM HOBART nodded eagerly. "I understand, Mr. Martin. I'll be careful, all right."
"You will note where they go, and remain on watch there, for an hour. At the end of that time you will go to police headquarters and ask to see either Commissioner Foster or Inspector Burks. You will tell them that you saw where Hilary was taken, and lead them to the place. Tell them to bring along a wrecking crew. Is everything clear now?"
"I got it, Mr. Martin. I'm all set."
"X" got out. "Of course, I may be wrong in my deductions, in which case I'll be right back. Well, good luck." He turned and strode off in the direction of the hotel.
As soon as he got abreast of it, he saw that his deductions had been correct. For parked opposite the entrance was a black sedan, and at the wheel was Nate Frisch. Nate Frisch, dressed in a peculiar gray-green uniform, with a visored cap.
Inside the lobby he saw another one of the Servants of the Skull, a man named Orson, whom he recognized at once. He might be too late; perhaps the Skull was already striking here. Orson was lounging in a corner, smoking a cigarette and surveying the lobby through slitted eyes. He glanced at "X," then allowed his gaze to slide away. He did not recognize in the man who was posing as A. J. Martin, the Frank Fannon who had slept in the same room with him the night before.
"X" hurried up to the desk. Near the desk a uniformed patrolman stood on guard, with a riot gun under the crook of his elbow. He frowned as "X" said to the clerk, "I would like to see Mr. Hilary, please."
Before the clerk could answer, the patrolman came up close, demanded, "What's your name, mister, and what do you want to see Mr. Hilary for?"
"X" took a card from his pocket and handed it to the policeman. It was the card of Mr. Elisha Pond, and on the back was written in ink, "Dear Hilary, This is Mr. A. J. Martin, whom I phoned you about. He has a matter of great importance which he must see you about at once. E. P."
The patrolman said grudgingly, "Yeah. Mr. Hilary phoned down an' said to send you right up when you came. Go ahead. We got to be careful," he explained. "There's another man on guard upstairs. Not a soul is allowed on the fourteenth floor unless we know who he is. This here Skull has got the whole department buffaloed!"
"You don't say so!" Mr. Martin commented. "I'd think you'd arrest him or something, if he's so dangerous. My, what the city is coming to!"
The policeman snorted, and picked up the phone to notify the officer on the fourteenth floor that a visitor was coming up. "X" entered the elevator, noting that the eyes of Orson were now following him with interest. He had noted the conversation with the policeman.
Upstairs, a plainclothes man with a gun openly holstered at his hip met "X" and conducted him to the suite of the newspaper publisher. Hilary was alone in the sitting room of his three-room suite. He was settled comfortably on the sofa, reading, with a whiskey-and-soda beside him. "X" suspected that Hilary had deliberately placed himself there with the book, as a pose, when he learned that he was going to have company. Hilary was distinctly ill at ease, too worried about something or other to have been able to read so quietly.
He rose and shook hands with "X." "I don't know your business with me, Mr. Martin, but Elisha Pond said you were okay, and I'll take his word for anything. Sit down. Here, have a drink. Pour it yourself. It's fourteen-year-old Bourbon." His tone of cordiality seemed forced, with an undertone of nervousness in it.
"Thanks," said the Secret Agent. "I never drink when I'm working."
HILARY eased himself onto the sofa again, picked up his glass with a shrug. There were dark rings under his eyes. "Just as you say, Mr. Martin. Now, what can I do for you?"
"I've come here, Mr. Hilary, about—the Skull." The Agent stopped a moment as Hilary started, then went on. "I have reason to believe that the Skull intends to kidnap you tonight."
Hilary's face went ashen. "How—how do you know?"
"I have means of getting information. It doesn't matter how, but I'm almost sure of what I say."
Hilary gulped down the rest of his drink, put the glass on the table beside the couch. His hand shook so that the glass wobbled and fell to the floor when he released it. It struck the thick carpet on its edge, and did not break, but rolled over. Hilary looked down at it stupidly, then raised his eyes to "X."
"W-why do you come here to tell me this?"
"Because I intend to prevent your kidnaping. I believe that Mr. Pond told you on the phone that you could rely implicitly on me, could do anything I suggest without any fear. How far do you trust Mr. Pond?" He leaned forward in his chair to emphasize the question, his keen eyes burning into the other.
Hilary seemed fascinated by those eyes. "Why, there's nothing I wouldn't do for Mr. Pond. I owe most of my success to him. I'd do anything he asked."
"Would you allow me to change places with you?"
"You mean—you want to be kidnaped instead of me?"
"I mean just that"
"You couldn't get away with it. The Skull's men would know me. They'd know in a minute you weren't I. They'd kill you."
"Suppose you let me worry about that, Mr. Hilary. Now, quickly—there isn't much time, if my guess is correct—will you do it?"
"I'll do it," Hilary agreed. "But I don't understand why you want to. I've got a police guard—"
"So did the others—Grier, Laurens. But the Skull got them. Do you think that if he goes after you those guards outside will be a barrier?"
"You're right, Martin." Hilary was almost eager now. "What must I do?"
"Come into the next room." The Secret Agent picked up the open bottle of Bourbon and the bottle of charged water. "Take your glass, and come on. We must hurry."
As he led the way into the next room, "X's" fingers were busy. From his pocket he extracted a small pellet which he had kept there in readiness. He knew Hilary's habit of drinking when he was alone, and had planned accordingly.
The next room was a bedroom. Hilary came in with him, sat down on the bed, and reached for the bottle. He poured himself a stiff drink, downed it straight, and coughed. "I needed that," he muttered apologetically. "You don't know what a strain it's been today; not knowing whether I was going to be the next victim or not. And I want to tell you that there are plenty more men in the city who've been worried, the same as I. This Skull, nobody knows where he'll strike next. And he's so clever; no precautions—"
His voice trailed off, his head sank to his breast, and in a moment he sprawled on the bed, breathing stertorously, inert and unconscious.
"X" was already moving swiftly, efficiently. He peeled off his outer clothing, undressed Hilary, and donned the publisher's habiliments. Then he took from his inner pocket the flat black case containing make-up material, and set to work. Within ten minutes there were two Hilarys in the room.
The Secret Agent wasted no time in practicing the speech of the man he was impersonating. He dragged the body of Hilary to the clothes closet, and placed him on the floor there, propping his head up with his discarded clothes.
He had hardly straightened the room up, put away his paraphernalia and carried the bottles and glass back into the living room, before there was a discreet tap on the door. He went to the door and unlocked it. The plainclothes man on duty in the hall pushed his way in.
He said, "Say, Mr. Hilary, do you know anything about extra guards being ordered from the Home Detective Agency?"
"Extra guards?" the Agent asked. "I don't know of any." His voice as he spoke was the voice of Hilary to the last subtle inflection.
"Well, there's four of 'em out here. They've been sent to stay here with you day and night. I phoned the Agency, and their office says the men were ordered by Commissioner Foster. He's using their men because he don't want to take extra patrolmen off their regular work."
"X" was worried by this new development. His whole plan would be ruined if he had too much protection. Foster meant well, no doubt, but by this move the commissioner might be destroying the only possible chance of checkmating the Skull. Everything depended upon "X's" getting back into the Skull's headquarters.
"X" frowned, and said, "Send them in while I phone Foster and have them called off. This is ridiculous. The Skull must certainly feel flattered to know that the whole police department of the city isn't enough to cope with him!"
The detective nodded, and went to the door while "X" picked up the phone. The detective opened the door, and four men in the gray-green uniforms, guns in hand, entered. The first of the men was Nate Frisch, and the second was Gilly.
SECRET AGENT "X" cradled the telephone as the four men spread out in the room, shutting the door after them. The detective sensed from the pregnant silence that suddenly permeated the room that something was wrong, and he instinctively went for his gun. But Gilly, who was at his left and a trifle behind him, brought the butt of a heavy automatic down on his head, and the plainclothes man tumbled to the floor in a heap.
The other two men stooped and dragged his inert body to one side, while Frisch advanced upon "X," menacing him with a gun, and grinning savagely.
"All right, Mr. Hilary," he said, "I guess you know who we are. We ain't from any detective agency. We're from the Skull!"
"X" simulated extreme panic, as Hilary might have done. "The Skull!" he cried. "What do you want with me?" He seemed to shrink away from Frisch with just the right degree of fear.
"You're comin' out with us, Mr. Hilary. I'll be on one side o' you, an' that little guy will be on the other. We'll both have guns in our pockets. Our two pals'll be right behind. If you make one single wrong yap we'll let you have it from both sides, right in the liver. You'll take a long time dyin', an' you'll wish you'd have kept your trap shut. Now stand up!"
"X" stood up hesitantly. "You—you're going to take me to the Skull?" He managed to put a quaver in his voice that would have done credit to any Thespian.
"You're damn right we are. An' when that dumb cop in the lobby asks you how come you're goin' out, you'll tell him you're goin' on personal business, an' takin' your private guards along. Get it?"
As "X" marched to the elevators with Frisch on one side and Gilly on the other, he was compelled to admire the daring simplicity of the plan. The Skull had no doubt established this detective agency address, so that when the plainclothes man called, as he was sure to do, they could answer properly, allaying his suspicions.
The Skull was very thorough. On the cap of each of the four men was a gold shield with the lettering, "Home Detective Agency." The uniforms were well-cut and expensive, giving the impression of a solid, respectable agency. "X" recalled now, that he had seen advertisements of the Home Detective Agency in several newspapers for some time past.
The Skull had probably built up the fictitious organization for some such use as this. Probably if the police went there to investigate, now, they would find nothing but an empty office. The person in whose name the license had been obtained would no doubt be out of the country, or dead, by this time.
Down in the lobby, just as Frisch had anticipated, the patrolman stared as he saw them come out of the elevator, then walked over. "Hello, Mr. Hilary," he exclaimed, surprised. "I thought you was staying upstairs!"
"X" felt a hard object poked into his ribs from each side. He could hear Frisch's heavy breathing, so close was the man to him. The threat of death was close.
"I'm going out on business," he said. "I—hope to be back soon. These men are plenty of protection for me."
The policeman was doubtful. "Don't you think you ought to call up headquarters first, Mr. Hilary? My orders—"
Frisch interrupted him harshly. The words he uttered were not in his usual style. The Skull had evidently made him learn them by rote. "See here, officer. Mr. Hilary is not a prisoner. If he chooses to go out, you have no right to detain him. You may report to headquarters yourself if you wish, but Mr. Hilary is in a hurry, and can't wait!"
Frisch's hand on the Secret Agent's arm urged him on, and they stepped past the policeman. The policeman, however, was not looking at Frisch; he was looking at Gilly.
"Sa-a-y!" he exclaimed. "I know your face! You ain't a private guard! Why, I've seen your mug in the lineup! You—"
He stopped, his eyes wide with horror, as he saw guns magically appear in the hands of the four. In the moment of realization, he started to raise the riot gun, but a storm of lead tore into his body from four guns. He dropped the riot gun, clutched at his stomach, cried, "My God!" and collapsed on the tiled floor of the lobby, his lifeblood gushing out of him.
Cries and shouts arose about them. The desk clerk reached for the phone, then dropped it and ducked under the desk as Gilly threw a shot at him. Still holding "X" between them, they rushed out of the lobby, crossed the street on the run, and piled into the black sedan.
Frisch took the wheel, and the car was spurting away from the curb before any of the passers-by knew what was taking place. Gilly and one of the others had "X" between them on the rear seat, while the fourth sat next to Frisch, looking backward out of the open window, with his gun ready.
"X" simulated great terror, he was eager to know if Jim Hobart was following, but dared not risk a glance through the rear window lest he arouse the suspicions of his captors.
THE sedan wound through several streets under Frisch's manipulation. They heard the siren of a radio car on the next block, and Frisch turned right, tore across town for three blocks, then headed south. The truck driveway of a large warehouse yawned open at their left, and Frisch turned into it. The door closed behind them, shutting out, partly, the sound of another police car siren outside. When the police car got to the spot where they had driven into the warehouse, the officers would find no single trace of them. They would begin to search the warehouses on the block, no doubt, and "X" waited to see how the Skull had planned to cover up. He was keenly interested in how the Servants of the Skull always managed to disappear without leaving a clue behind.
He was soon to see. The place had been in darkness when they entered, for Frisch had snapped off his headlamps early in the chase. Now a light sprang up toward the rear, showing the interior of the place, stacked with bales of goods, unlabeled, along the walls. The middle of the floor, where the car stood, was entirely clear. The reason for this became obvious in a moment, when a narrow strip of the floor, upon which the car stood, began to tilt downwards, forming a sort of runway down which Frisch drove the car. He stopped on a sort of platform below the floor level, and the strip of floor rose above them. The garage above was now empty of cars in case it should be searched.
There was a dim bulb down here, similar to the ones used in the corridors of the Skull's headquarters. Slowly the car began to turn. "X" realized that they were on a turntable. The car stopped turning and "X" looked ahead to see that they were facing a long, dark tunnel. Out of this tunnel came the slouching figure of Binks; Binks, the halfwit, with his hideously scarred and mutilated face.
"X" stirred in his seat, and Gilly, beside him, poked him savagely with the gun. "Hold still, you!" he snarled, "if you know what's good for you!"
"X" said nothing, but subsided, watching keenly. Binks came up to the car, peered in, and cackled. "I see you got'm, fellers. That makes number ten. The Skull will be tickled. Everything goin' off like clockwork."
Frisch said, "We had a tough time. Had to slug a dick an' kill a cop."
"Tell that to the Skull," Binks cackled. "Hurry up, now. The boss is waitin'. He wants to see this guy that you got here! Put a blindfold on 'im and let's go!"
Gilly produced a hood from next to him on the seat, and placed it over "X's" head. The Secret Agent offered no resistance. With the hood on his head, he could see nothing, of course, but he felt the car proceeding slowly ahead. After a short while Frisch turned the car, backed it up, then drove ahead some ten feet, and stopped. "X" heard the click of the ignition being turned off, heard the motor die. He waited silently, expecting to be taken from the car. Instead he heard Binks' voice.
"All right, boys, you can all put the hoods on now. From now on you got to follow me blind. You got to trust Binksy!"
"X" heard the men donning their hoods, grumbling as they did so. Frisch said, "It's a wonder the Skull picks a nitwit like you to take us through them passages. Suppose you forgot the way?"
Binks' shrill laughter answered him. "That'd be too damn bad fer you boys. You'd starve to death in them passages, 'cause you'd never get out!"
"I know a guy that got out," Frisch taunted. "This place ain't fool-proof."
THERE was silence for a moment, then Binks said, "I'll tell the Skull what you think about the place, Nate. I bet the Skull'll like to hear that."
"Nix, nix!" Nate pleaded. "I didn't mean nothin', Binks. You wouldn't squeal on a guy, would you?"
"Not if he had a coin to toss in the air that I could catch. I like coins. I save 'em."
"Sure," Frisch cried eagerly. "Here you are. It's a half a buck."
Binks laughed gleefully. "See how I caught it? That's great, Nate. You're a nice feller. If the Skull ever gets tired of you, or mad at you, and puts you in the electric chair, I'll tell you what I'll do for you—I'll put you out of your misery quick, with a knife, afterwards. It'll save you a lot of pain. Would you like me to do that for you?"
"Aw, shut up!" Frisch growled.
Binks laughed shrilly. "X" noted that they were moving again, but the motor was not running! They were on some sort of moving platform. There was a continuous sound of clanking from just behind them; otherwise there was silence. None of the men in the car spoke.
After about fifteen minutes they came to rest slowly. "X" heard Binks open the door of the car and say, "All right, boys, come on out one at a time, and hold hands. Use the cuffs on Hilary."
Gilly snapped a pair of cuffs on "X's" hand, then snapped the other on his own. Frisch did the same with "X's" other hand. The Agent was now in the middle of the living link that was moving toward the lair of the Skull. Binks went first, holding Frisch's hand, and the other two men followed after Gilly.
After negotiating a dozen winding passages, they finally came to a halt. Binks said, "You can take them hoods off, boys, but leave Hilary's on. Cuff his hands behind him."
Gilly and Frisch, after removing their hoods, snapped the handcuffs off their own wrists, and joined the two empty circlets of steel behind "X's" back. He was now handcuffed with two pair of cuffs, with his hands behind him.
He heard a door open in front of him, and was led through it, with Gilly and Frisch still on either side of him.
Binks said, "I'll take the other two boys back to the main room. Gilly and Frisch, you stay here with him till the boss comes."
Frisch growled a sullen "Okay." When the door closed behind Binks, he grumbled to Gilly, "One o' these days I'll take that damn half wit an' break his neck for him—Skull or no Skull."
Gilly snickered. "You're just talkin' big, Nate. You know you're dead afraid of the Skull."
"Who wouldn't be?" Frisch demanded. "But Binks, he's different. We could do without him fine."
Suddenly "X" felt Frisch stiffen beside him. Gilly stirred uneasily. A mocking voice spoke from above them. "Well, well. So we are honored by the company of Mr.—ah—Hilary! Take off the hood, Nate. Let me see his face!"
"X" recognized those hateful tones. The Skull was in the room.
NATE FRISCH'S fingers fumbled with the knot, and in a moment he removed the hood.
Once more Secret Agent "X" faced the Skull across the desk in that room with the four-foot strip of charged flooring. To him it felt as if he had hardly been out of the room; the same leering, fleshless death's-head sat behind the desk. The weak illumination cast a weird shadow upon the vermilion-hooded face of the Skull. Only the dead rat was missing; it had been removed.
Under the influence of the familiar surroundings, he almost reverted, unconsciously, to the role of Fannon, whom he had impersonated here that morning. Almost, he felt as if Betty Dale were still a prisoner, under threat of a hideous fate, and that he must still exert himself to the utmost to snatch her out of the clutches of this master of deviltry.
But the Skull spoke once more, and the words snapped him out of it. "Mr. Hilary, you have been highly honored; you have been chosen by me as one of the first ten men to be kidnaped under my new plan of operations. I am now going to ask you some questions, the answers to which I need; and I counsel you to reply quickly and accurately. You have seen the things that happen to those who arouse my anger. You were acquainted with Ainsworth Clegg, were you not?"
"X" felt the deep, heavy breathing of Frisch, the wheezy breath of Gilly, one on either side of him. He took a step forward, felt his arms seized on either side by Gilly and Frisch. He said, imitating Hilary's voice, "You must be crazy, whoever you are. You gained nothing by what you did to Clegg. Now, you kidnap me and the others, and expect to get millions in ransom. I can tell you now that you won't get it. None of us can raise that much cash. It's impossible!" He wanted to draw out the Skull, to make him talk. He had observed previously that this master of devilish plans had a slight trace of vanity, and he was now playing on it.
The Skull said, "Frisch! Gilly! Let him go. In this room I do not need your protection." He waited a moment until they dropped their grips on "X's" arms, then he said to "X," "My actions, Mr. Hilary, may seem insane to you, but believe me they are not As the old saying goes, 'There is method in my madness.' You think I gained nothing by breaking Ainsworth Clegg, destroying his mind and his body. You are wrong."
The Skull stopped, raised his hand and pointed at "X" to emphasize his words. "Clegg was an investment in horror; an object lesson in advance—a sort of sales talk to stimulate the eagerness of the public to raise large sums to ransom those whom I may kidnap in the future. And it is immaterial to me whether I get ransom for you and those others in the cells, or not; for if I send the ten of you out into the streets, broken hulks of men, I will be able to collect twice as much on the next batch."
The Secret Agent found it difficult to repress a gesture of loathing for the cold-blooded callousness displayed by the Skull. Instead, he allowed his eyes to grow wide in simulated admiration. "A man like you could conquer the world. You have no conscience—no compunctions about anything; there is nothing to stop you!" He could see the skeleton head nodding as if its owner were pleased. "X" had gauged correctly the extent and the nature of the man's vanity. But that was only the first step. His work was still to do. He wanted very much to discover how the Skull proposed to get ten million dollars out of his captives.
The Skull said, "As you say, there will be nothing to stop me from conquering the world. Money, today, is, more powerful than weapons. And I shall have ten million dollars to start with!"
"X" felt Gilly and Frisch stirring restlessly beside him. This sort of talk was beyond their comprehension. He took advantage of the Skull's momentary relaxation of mood to broach the subject uppermost in his mind. "I can't imagine a man like you making a mistake," he began. "But I don't understand how you expect me and the others to raise a million dollars apiece. Frankly, I couldn't raise a hundred thousand in cash; and I know that Grier and Laurens couldn't, either."
The Skull laughed in a pleased manner. "I am making no mistake, Hilary. I realize that you and your friends aren't able to produce any sizable amounts in cash; but I know where the cash can be forthcoming. And it will be, never fear!"
THE Agent waited, hoping that the Skull would elaborate. And he did.
"I might as well tell you now, for it will be public property in a few hours when I release my notice to the newspapers. You see," he leaned forward over the desk as he spoke, eyes gleaming in the half light, under the flap of the vermilion hood, "you see, each of you is insured to the hilt. That means that each of you carries approximately six million dollars of life insurance."
The Secret Agent tensed. He had suspected something like this. Now his suspicions were crystallized into certainty. The plan was devilishly ingenious.
The Skull went on. "Do you understand now where the money will be coming from? I am asking the insurance companies to chip in one million dollars for each of you—a total of ten million dollars, which is less than the sixty million they would have to pay if you all died. The companies will be eager to do it, for they know I mean business. They will have to pay out about five or six million on Clegg when he dies, as he surely will within a day or so. No man can live long after the treatment I give him!"
"X" nodded. He was compelled to admit that the plan was a sound one. The companies would pay. Men like Jonathan Jewett were shrewd, hardheaded business men, but they knew when they were licked. They would pay the ten million to save sixty million, and they would reduce the policies by the amount they paid out, so that in the end they would not be the losers at all.
The Skull was almost sure to get his ransom. And then—what couldn't a super-criminal like him do once he had the resources which ten million dollars could procure for him. There would be no stopping him. Atrocities would pile up with breath-taking rapidity. The city, the nation—the world, possibly—would offer an open field for his vicious depredations.
Only he, a lone man, with his hands manacled behind his back, might, by some lucky break, be able to stem the mushroom growth of this vilest criminal since the Borgias.
The Skull continued arrogantly, "I have already notified the insurance companies of my terms. They must pay me one million dollars a week for ten weeks; and each week, upon payment of the installment, one of you will be released. If the money is not forthcoming one of you will be released anyway—but not until I have played with him awhile. I am sure, my friend, that neither you nor your friends in the cells here wish to be found in the street some gray morning, in the same state that Ainsworth Clegg was found. So you'd better pray that your insurance companies be prompt!"
"X" wondered if the Skull was wholly sane. He asked, "How in the world do you expect to get away with such a sum of money? Don't you know that the numbers of the bills will be recorded? You could never use that money."
The man in vermilion laughed. "I have taken care of that, too, my friend. The money is to be in one-thousand-dollar bills. It is now ten P.M., and I have specified in my ultimatum to the companies that the first million dollars is to be delivered at midnight. Tomorrow morning I shall send out all of my men to change the bills at various banks. They will go in boldly and change them for small bills. They will not be molested, for," he wagged a finger at "X," "I still hold you.
"Every day for a week they will continue to change them. No doubt they will be followed, attempts will be made to locate this place. These attempts will fail, for as you saw, my men are able to disappear at will by entering this place through any one of fifteen entrances—the one you came through is an example." He paused, then snapped, "All right, Hilary! We have had enough of this! Take that pad and pencil, and write the names of all the companies you are insured with, and the amounts."
At the same time he pressed a button, and the bamboo pole slid out from the side of the desk. The basket hooked on its end stopped within a foot of him. In the basket was a small pad of paper, and a pencil.
The Skull ordered, "Frisch! Open his handcuffs the same as you did with the other prisoners. But keep each of his wrists cuffed to your own while he writes."
FRISCH extracted a key from his pocket, opened one set of handcuffs, and snapped the empty bracelet on Gilly's wrist. Then he did the same with the other handcuff, attaching it to his own. Then he swung his hand around, bringing "X's" right hand in front of him. "X" could now move both hands, but only with the wrist of one or the other of the gunman accompanying it. It was awkward, but permitted him to reach the basket and to write. If he tried to escape he would have to carry both gunmen with him.
He reached into the basket and picked out the pad and pencil, appearing to do so reluctantly.
The Skull said, "Do not hesitate, my friend. You seem to be an intelligent man. You can comprehend how terrible it would be for you to have that intelligence—destroyed—like Clegg!"
"X" was in a quandary. He did not know the particulars of Hilary's insurance policies; he knew that the publisher carried a large amount with Jewett's company, and he also knew, by chance, of one other company that covered him for a large sum.
It was possible that the Skull already had some of the information, and would discover at once that he was bluffing. He started to write, saying, "I really don't recall the exact amounts. I leave most of that to my agent. But I'll put it down to the best of my recollection."
He wrote the names of some of the larger companies, setting fictitious sums next to each. He could not be far wrong, for a man like Hilary would have his insurance spread over as many companies as possible.
When he finished, he replaced the pad and pencil in the basket. The Skull pressed another button, and the bamboo pole slid back. Gilly and Frisch swung his hands in behind his back again, but this time they did not leave the two handcuffs. They removed one, and cuffed his hands with the one set, thus leaving the Agent even less play for his hands than he had had before. He offered no resistance.
"X" watched the Skull pick the pad out of the basket. But the Skull did not bother to read what he had written; instead he tore the cardboard back off, holding it carefully by the edges. "Most of the information that you have written here, Mr. Hilary, I already have. What I really wanted was the cardboard back which has been specially treated to take the impressions of your fingerprints. You see, though I do not suspect you of being anybody but yourself, I am very thoroughgoing; it is possible that a certain man may try to work his way in here under a disguise, and I am therefore taking the prints of everyone who enters here."
"X's" eyes narrowed to slits. He had not looked forward to this. He had anticipated, of course, that any new recruit would be fingerprinted, and he had deliberately conceived the idea of entering the stronghold of the Skull as a captive, thus turning suspicion away from himself. But he had not anticipated that the Skull would be so careful as to check on the very men he kidnaped.
He hid his uneasiness with an artful bit of acting. "I must hand it to you, Mr. Skull. You don't leave any loopholes, do you?"
"In this business," the Skull replied didactically, "there must be no loopholes. I am at war with society, and in war a careful general never leaves himself unguarded." The Skull arose. "All right," he snapped at Gilly and Frisch. "Take him away. Put him in cell number ten. And send Griscoll in to check these prints for me."
THE cell where Frisch and Gilly conducted the Secret Agent was one of the rooms in the corridor where he had first seen Tyler tied to the wall. The doors now all had numbered cards tacked on them. Number ten was the first room on the left as they entered the passage. It was next to Tyler's room, which was nine.
They left the handcuffs on him, and in addition they picked up the end of a chain set in the wall, snapped the padlock at its end onto the links of the cuffs. The chain was less than four feet long, and was attached to a ring in the wall close to the floor. They went out, and Gilly peered back from the corridor to throw him a last taunt before he slammed the heavy door.
"Sorry we ain't got one o' your papers for you to read, Mister Hilary. Would you like breakfast in bed in the morning?"
"X" did not reply. He waited for the door to close, then took a tentative step in the pitch darkness that descended upon the room. He took one more step and found that he had reached the end of the chain. That was as far as he could go.
He realized that he had but five minutes at the most before he would receive visitors. It would not take the Skull longer than that to have the fingerprints checked, and "X" knew that once the Skull learned his identity he would not delay in taking swift action.
"X" wondered if Jim Hobart had succeeded in following them to the garage; he thought it very unlikely. In any event he must depend on his own wits and resources during the next half hour, which would perhaps be the most crucial of his life.
From the room next to his came the sound of groans, then the babbling of a terrified man. "X" recognized the voice. It was that of Laurens, the jeweler. He, too, was one of the prisoners. Laurens suddenly ceased his babbling, and a moment later his voice came again, high-pitched, speaking quickly, slurring words. "X" listened keenly. It was hard to tell what he was saying through the wall, but after a moment the Agent understood. Laurens was praying. Laurens, cool, phlegmatic, hard-headed, was praying. So strongly did the Skull affect men.
"X" reflected that Laurens had probably never uttered those words since his childhood. Now, in the face of terror they came back to him with facility. It was at times like these that men crept back to the bosom of a Deity they had all but forgotten in the turmoil of their crass existence.
Now there arose cries from other rooms in the double row. Men called out hoarsely to each other from room to room. "X" recognized Grier's formerly hearty voice, now thick with fear. They were shouting encouragement to each other, giving their names so that they could know who else shared their danger.
"X" did not call to them. He was laboring swiftly, silently, in the dark. He had twisted his arms around so that the fingers of his right hand came up close to the lining of his coat where lay the flat black case containing his chromium steel tools. His fingertips just reached the lower edge of the pocket where it lay, and he tried to nudge it out, inch by inch, so that it would fall to the floor.
He succeeded partially, had it halfway out, when he found he could move his hand no farther forward. He squirmed, trying to force the case out. He estimated that fully five minutes were gone since he had been taken from the Skull's presence; ample time for the prints to have been checked, and the Skull notified.
"X" clenched his teeth, strained his muscles. His fingers gripped the cloth on the under side of the pocket in the lining, and he wrenched with all his strength. The pocket ripped under the grip, and the case slid out to the floor, struck on its edge, and came to rest in the middle of the room.
It was out of his reach.
With his hands behind his back he had no means of reaching out to pick it up. It lay there, tantalizing, spread open by the fall, the metal instruments which had so often been the keys to safety for him gleaming dully in the dark.
And just then a panel in the wall close beside him slid open, and a blinding spotlight filled the small room. He remembered now, that this was how the Skull had forced Betty to look in on Tyler. There must be such a sliding panel for each of these rooms, so that the Skull could look in on all his prisoners when he chose.
"X" faced the spotlight, blinking. He so placed his body that the kit of tools was hidden from view.
From behind the spotlight came the mocking voice of the Skull. "How do you do, Secret Agent 'X'? You are very clever, my friend; I had never expected to see you here as Hilary. But welcome back in any disguise. You are going to provide me with a half hour of pleasure before I place you in the chair. Under my gentle persuasion you shall disclose to me all the little secrets that you have; and I shall see your face—perhaps show you mine before you are deprived of your sanity!"
THE Skull laughed long and loud. "You made a terrible mistake when you undertook to outwit the Skull. You see, my friend of a Thousand Faces, you have only ten fingers—and they ruined you!" The Skull raised his voice. "Binks! Go and get him. Keep a gun on him every minute, and don't take the handcuffs off him. Bring him here!"
The panel slid down, leaving the cell once more in complete darkness. No sooner was it fully closed than "X" broke into action. He recalled how long it had taken Gilly and Frisch to bring him here, coming through the connecting passages—no more than four or five minutes. That was the length of time he had.
He did not deceive himself that he could overcome the halfwit while he was opening the padlock that linked his handcuffs to the chain; Binks, he told himself, was not as dumb as he looked. He would be wary, knowing that this prisoner was not an ordinary one. He must do whatever he had to do before Binks arrived, must be ready for him.
He stretched out on the floor on his face, his hands suspended in the air behind him by the chain. The floor was of wood, moldy and dank, and he felt a furry creature scurrying over his ankle, then another. Rats. A weaker man might have shuddered in revulsion as those rats reminded him of the one that had been electrocuted in the Skull's office earlier in the day.
"X" set his lips grimly, and not even bothering to shake off the rats, he stretched out his legs toward the instrument case, gripped it with both feet, and turned on his side, straining against his manacled arms. Then he drew up his feet until the instrument case was close beside him.
He let it lie there, squirmed to his knees, then squatted on the floor over the case. His hands were now directly over it, and his fingers flew as he searched it, withdrew a set of keys. In the darkness he felt of them, and unerringly, as always, selected the right one. He twisted his hand, inserted the key in the lock of the handcuffs, just as there came the noise of someone fumbling at the door.
The door began to open, and "X" coughed loudly to cover the click made by the key as it turned in the lock of the cuffs. Binks came into the room, leaving the door wide open. Light streamed into the cell, and Binks saw the open case on the floor. He looked up at "X" in swift suspicion, and stooped for the case. That was a mistake. "X" let the open handcuffs slide to the floor, and seizing the halfwit by both wrists, twisted them behind his back.
Binks emitted a choked cry, attempted to struggle, and then subsided sullenly as the Agent picked up the handcuffs and snapped them on his wrists. Strangely enough he was silent, astute enough to know that a protest would be unavailing.
Yet "X" wondered why he made no outcry. He was prepared for that, ready to spread his hand over the other's mouth if he should open it to call out. A shout could be easily heard by the Skull, for the voices of the imprisoned men in the other cells came clearly enough.
"X" wasted no time in wondering. He placed the instrument case in the outside pocket of his coat, since the inner pocket was torn, and prodded Binks through the door. Out in the corridor he hesitated for a moment. Was it wise to release the other men now? He could not herd them through all the corridors to safety with the Skull still commanding the situation, sending his gunmen after them, directing them through the hidden amplifiers. They would be so many sheep to be slaughtered in the passages. He could not protect them all. It would be wiser to seek out the Skull—fight it out.
THE thought occurred to him suddenly: suppose the Skull overcame him? These men would still be prisoners. He saw that Binks had half-turned, was regarding him quizzically in the semi-gloom left by the single bulb at the end of the corridor.
The halfwit cackled, and asked, "Whatchu worryin' about? It ain't all easy sailin', is it? You better be smart an' go back in that cell o' yo'rn. You can't beat the Skull, Mister Whatever-yore-name-is!"
"X" made no reply. He prodded him on toward the middle of the corridor, called out in a low but urgent voice, "Dennett! Which cell are you in?"
The discordant voices of the prisoners suddenly ceased. There was stillness in the corridor, and no answer to his question. "X" repeated it, this time a little louder.
From one of the cells came a cautious voice, that of Grier, the stockbroker. "Who is that?"
"This is Hilary. Is that you, Grier?"
"Yes. For God's sake, where are you?"
"Out in the corridor. I can't release you all yet, for a certain reason. Where's Dennett?"
"X's" plan was to release Dennett, leave him here with instructions to release all the others if he did not return within a certain time. The reason he had chosen Dennett was because he felt from his experience with him that the contractor was the coolest of them all, the least liable to yield to panic.
Grier's voice came to him. "Dennett's in one of these rooms. We heard him led in. I haven't heard him talk since, though."
The Agent turned to Binks. "Tell me which cell Dennett is in. Quickly, if you want to live."
Binks cackled. "I ain't tellin' you nothin'. An' I ain't afraid o' you, neither. Everybody knows Secret Agent 'X' don't kill!" He said it in a loud voice, and at the mention of the name the voices of the imprisoned men which had arisen in pleas to him to be released at once became hushed.
Grier exclaimed, "God! I could have sworn it was Hilary's voice!"
Binks cried, "He ain't Hilary. He's took Hilary's place. You look out fer him. He's worse than the Skull!"
"X" took hold of the halfwit and shook him roughly, pushed him toward the end of the corridor. His plan was spoiled by Binks. There was no use releasing any of those men now; they would turn upon him, demand explanations of his impersonation of Hilary, impede his actions. He would have to risk leaving them there until he had finished with the Skull.
At the end of the corridor he pressed the lever in the wall, and pushed Binks through the sliding panel. He was worried about Dennett; he wondered if the Skull had done anything to the contractor. He remembered that the Skull had insisted on the pearls being taken from Dennett's safe—an act which could have been expected to ruin him by preventing the loan. Did the Skull have a personal grudge against the contractor, and had he sacrificed him to that hate without waiting for ransom?
As they made their way down the second corridor, Binks unwillingly in the lead, the halfwit seemed to read his mind by some prescience of the mentally afflicted.
"I bet yo're wonderin' about Dennett, huh? Well, the boss gave him some o' that special treatment. He didn't like him nohow. Dennett's gonna be picked up in the street tomorrow morning—just like Clegg was. Ha-ha! It'll be funny. I didn't like that guy neither!"
"X's" eyes smoldered. Another strong man broken mentally and physically. The Skull, wrecker of men, must be destroyed. Anything was warranted now—even the thing that he proposed to do with Binks.
The Secret Agent had learned enough about the layout of the place by this time to be able to find his way to the "execution" room unaided. Binks did not appear to be in any special fear of him; either his mind failed to grasp the fact that he was in the hands of the Skull's greatest enemy, or else he had sublime faith that the Skull would step in at any moment.
In fact, "X" also had the idea that the Skull would undoubtedly become impatient when Binks did not return at once, and be on his guard. He wanted to surprise the Skull in the execution room. No compunctions were going to stand in his way. He was going to kill that monster if necessary. He hoped, however, that he would not be forced to do so. He now had his gas gun, and that should be sufficient to overpower the Skull.
BINKS asked, "Where you takin' me to, mister? You gonna see the Skull?" He turned toward "X" as he asked the question, stopping in his shuffling walk.
The Agent nodded. They were now in the corridor with the execution room. They stood before the heavy door, which had been left partly open by Binks when he went to get "X." There was a dim light in the room, and the Agent could see that it was unoccupied. The wire mesh screen that ordinarily cut it in half was now raised.
"X" propelled Binks into the room. He steeled himself for what he was going to do. He hadn't expected to find the Skull here, had been almost sure that he would have to exert pressure on Binks to make him talk.
He whirled the halfwit around, set him in the electric chair, clamped an electrode around his neck, and fastened it. Then he stooped and examined the cable. It had been repaired where he had cut it. The fatal chair was again in working order.
Binks suddenly whined, terror in his voice, "What you gonna do to me?"
"X" said sternly, "I am going to strap you in and give you a dose of the current that your master has been giving to his victims!"
Binks shouted wildly, "No, no! Don't do that!"
"X's" mouth was grim. "Your boss did this to Clegg and Dennett and Tyler, and God knows how many others, without even giving them a chance to get out of it. I'm going to give you a chance, at least, before turning on the current. I want to know where the Skull went from here. I know he was in this room a few minutes ago."
Binks subsided in the chair. Cunning eyes peered out at the Agent from the horribly distorted face. Panic had given way to scheming. "You couldn't never reach the Skull. He'll get you before you even see him. He knows this place like a book, an' you don't." As he talked he cast a side glance up at the niche as if he were expecting his master to appear at any moment to rescue him.
"X" said impatiently, "You have one more chance before I strap you in. Talk up."
Binks said triumphantly, "You can't turn on the current. The switch is up in the niche, an' you can't reach it from here. I ain't sayin' nothin', mister!"
"X" bent and opened the handcuffs, then swiftly strapped his ankles and wrists. Binks was now helpless in the chair, as Betty Dale had been a few hours before. The Agent turned and made for the door. "You forget," he threw over his shoulder, "that I've been around in this place. I know how to get up to that niche from the outside." He had the door half-opened. "It's too bad you won't talk, Binks." He hoped fervently that the halfwit would weaken.
He was sure that he could never throw that switch, never submit even the vilest creature living to the inhuman punishment of that chair. But it was imperative that he find the Skull, and quickly. Even now the master of the leering death's-head might be approaching along one of the tortuous corridors, planning to take him by surprise. The Skull must certainly know by this time that he had escaped from the cell.
Binks' hoarse, pleading voice stopped him. Binks did not know that he was as safe in that chair as out of it. In the vicious world he lived in it was difficult to understand that anyone would hesitate at inflicting cruel and painful torture upon an enemy. He fully believed that "X" was going to pull that switch.
"Wait, wait!" he begged. "Come back. I'll do what you want."
With a surge of relief, "X" came back into the room and approached the chair. He stood over the other and asked, "All right. Where is the Skull?"
Binks peered up at him, cunning once more now that the immediate danger was over. "The boss is gone to his private room where I was supposed to bring you. Only him an' me knows about that room. If I take you there, an' you put it over on him—" he reminded "X" now of a rat that was deserting a sinking ship "—will you let me go free?"
"X" hesitated only a moment. Binks was small fry compared to his boss. The destruction of the Skull was worth the freedom of a hundred Binkses. "I will," he promised.
Binks seemed almost eager now, to betray his master—too eager, the Agent thought. "Unstrap me!" he pleaded. "I'll take you there. An' you let me go. Remember, you promised!"
"X" bent and opened the straps. Binks hoped to outwit him on the way—that was evident. He was playing both sides; if he didn't succeed in outwitting the Agent, he had his promise to go free. If he did succeed by some ruse in outwitting him, the halfwit would earn the commendation of the Skull.
"X" helped him up, clamped the handcuffs once more on his wrists, behind his back. "Now," he ordered, "get going. And if you try any tricks—" he produced his gas gun and flourished it under Binks' nose "—I'll give you a dose of this."
BINKS' eyes widened. "I won't try no tricks, mister. To tell you the truth, I'll be glad to get rid of the Skull. All the time I been with him, I never know when he's goin' to put me in that chair, like the others. He'd kill his own brother if he took the notion. It ain't been no pleasure, I'm tellin' you!"
"X" did not relax his vigilance as they went through a new set of passages that he had never seen before. They met no one; and "X" reflected that the Skull's system of locking his men in when they were not working was boomeranging against the boss now, for they proceeded unmolested. He wondered that the Skull had permitted Binks to come alone to get him, without assistance.
This might be explained by the fact that the Skull did not want any of the other men to learn of this section of his headquarters; and he might also have felt that "X," handcuffed helplessly, would not be too much for Binks to handle.
The halfwit was strangely silent now, as he preceded the Agent. They passed from one dimly lit corridor to another, "X" keeping his gas gun in evidence. Binks was unaware that the gun was not a lethal instrument, and probably was in dread of doing anything that might cause his captor to use it on him.
At the end of one corridor, Binks used his key and they stepped into a narrow elevator, descended for what might have been two stories. "X" was keenly observing everything. He was curious as to the location of this headquarters. It was a tribute to the Skull's ingenuity that the Agent had not yet been able to guess just where he had been able to build so complicated a series of passages and rooms in the heart of the city.
"X" was also curious as to the source of the power that fed the electric chair. The voltage used in that heavy cable would require a very large dynamo—and he had not heard any noise such as a dynamo is bound to make.
When the elevator came to rest, Binks stooped and raised the lever that opened the door. "X" asked him, "How far is it now?"
The halfwit said, "It's right close. Better not make any noise now. It's at the end of this here passage." The panel of the elevator slid open revealing another passage that turned at right angles a few feet away. "X" kept his gas gun handy. He would give the Skull no opportunity to use any of the devious defenses that the master of crime had erected about himself. He would give him a quick dose of the gas at first sight.
Binks stepped out of the elevator, and the Agent made to follow him. "X" was carefully watching Binks, expecting that the halfwit might resort to some trick at the last moment. He did not expect what really took place. Binks touched nothing with his hands. He merely took a step forward, and as his foot pressed into one of the boards on the floor, the elevator door slid shut with a bang, closing "X" into the darkness of the small compartment.
"X" understood at once, though too late, that Binks had led him through all these passages merely to get him into this one elevator; he was trapped.
Swiftly he stooped to the lever, pressed it downward. The door did not open. Binks must have disconnected it from the outside. "X" tried the other lever that started the car, but that, too, failed to respond.
And from out in the corridor he heard the sardonic laughter of the Skull.
"X'S" lips clamped tight. He took out his pencil flash and inspected his narrow prison. The walls were of wood, expertly joined. With his implements, and given time, he could work his way out of here. But he knew that he would not be given time. The Skull had big things on his hands now, and would hasten the end.
From outside the Skull taunted him. "You aren't the only great impersonator, Mister 'X'! My own impersonation fooled you to the end; fooled you so that you let me out of that chair when you had me helpless!"
"Impersonation?" The Agent's head snapped up. In that instant he understood what the Skull meant. He exclaimed, "Then—you are Binks?" talking at the blank walls of the little cubicle.
"Now you know, my friend. But you know too late to do you any good. You made a mistake when you spared the poor, half-witted Binks. It was those scars and mutilations on my face that led you astray. Merely a tight-fitting rubber mask, my friend. And now—"
"X's" mind raced backward, from point to point of his contacts in this place. It was possible. He recalled that Binks had never appeared at the same time as the Skull. Always there had been a period of waiting between the time the halfwit left him and the appearance of the master. And no wonder that no one else in the place had ever been trusted with the secret of the entrances and exits. The Skull had never, in effect, trusted anybody but himself. He had been able to snoop around, to overhear the conversations of his men; always in dim light, so that the rubber mask on his face would not be discovered.
"And now—" the Skull had said.
And now there was a soft whirring of well-oiled machinery, and the elevator started to descend slowly, ominously.
And "X" heard the Skull say, "Do you know where you are going, my friend? You are descending to a chamber on the level of the river. And I am going to open certain valves—" He laughed. "Your body will be found in the river in a few days—bloated, rotted. And in just thirty minutes the poor halfwit, Binks, will go to the main room and let out two of my men who are to go and pick up the first payment of ransom money!" The voice rose to a paean of triumph. "Thirty minutes exactly! And my plan succeeds. Triumph! Triumph! And for you—your death, my friend, shall be unwept, unhonored and unsung!"
The cage descended for a long time. "X" wondered if Jim Hobart had succeeded in following him to the entrance in the garage; and if so, whether the police would believe his story that the car had disappeared into the apparently empty garage. He doubted that they could find their way in here, even if they did believe him; doubted that they could pierce the clever camouflages the Skull had placed in the way—the movable ramp in the interior of the garage, the long trip underground on some sort of moving vehicle while he was blindfolded.
"X" decided that there was little to hope for help from the police. The lives of those men in the cells upstairs depended on him alone. And he was caged here, with the prospect of death by drowning.
The elevator ceased its motion. For several minutes there was silence. "X" reflected bitterly that the Skull had quoted the ancient poet with great aptness: "Unwept, unhonored and unsung!" Truly that would be his fate. None would ever know that the Secret Agent had toiled here mightily to save men from a hideous fate. He would simply vanish from the earth, and the body of an unknown man would be fished out of the river. The papers would report it as the suicide of a derelict.
Elisha Pond and others whom the Agent had created would walk no more in their accustomed haunts, and some would wonder where they had gone. Betty Dale would awake in the old Montgomery Mansion, and make her way home. If she escaped the future attentions of the Skull, she would wonder at "X's" nonappearance, await him, perhaps, for years. And then, at last, she would reluctantly yield to the conclusion that he must be dead. She alone might guess how he had perished. And he knew that her sorrow would be great. He visualized her, waiting from year to year, hoping against hope that he would some day present himself to her in another disguise.
Above everything Secret Agent "X" felt most poignantly the fact that the Skull would remain with a free hand to wreak his insidious will upon helpless men and women—to go on destroying the minds and bodies of intelligent men in his ruthless climb to power.
All these things flashed through his subconscious being with kaleidoscopic swiftness as the cage descended. His conscious intelligence, in the meanwhile, was coping with the problem in hand. For Secret Agent "X" was not one to bow his head and await what seemed to be inevitable. For more times than one the things that had appeared to be inevitable had turned out to be avoidable by the exercise of his keen brain.
Now he was swiftly examining the ceiling of his cage. There was a flat plate screwed into the center of the ceiling, probably the terminal of the cable that lifted the elevator. "X" took a small screwdriver out of the flat black case in his pocket, and raised himself so that he could reach the plate.
It was the only thing that offered itself to work on, and he was not one to remain idle under any circumstances. In order to raise himself, he pressed his knees outward against the sides of the cage, which was no more than two feet wide. Then he rested his back against one wall, pushed the soles of his shoes against the opposite wall. In this manner he managed to raise himself so that he could reach the plate with the screwdriver.
He was off the floor, and working on the first of the screws by the time the cage came to a stop. And it was to this that he owed his life. For he heard the Skull shout from above:
"All right, Mister 'X'! This is a quicker end than I planned for you, but I am short of time. See how you like swimming down there. Good-by forever!" And the Skull's laughter rose cruelly, mercilessly, while the floor of the cage dropped open with a sudden jerk.
Had "X" been standing on the floor he would have been hurled down the shaft that now yawned below!
THE Agent clung to his precarious hold, pressing his feet against the opposite wall, looked down. About fifteen feet below, at the bottom of the shaft, was an opening. And just below the opening he could see the white foam of swirling water. The river was rushing in here, the water making low, grumbling noises as it was forced in by a tremendous pressure from somewhere at the mouth of that tunnel that must lead from the waterfront.
No man could have lived down there. Refuse shot past at express train speed. Even as he looked, a heavy piece of rotten lumber was slammed against a side of the watery tunnel below there; slammed with a crash that would have shattered a man's ribs.
The Skull must just have opened the valves, and the inrush of water was devastating to anything it might catch there. "X" assumed that the Skull would soon open another valve that would lead the water out again through another pipe, back to the river where his body would have been carried had he fallen down there. And while he watched he was afforded another evidence of the Skull's devilish ingenuity.
For, probably in response to another switch or lever, a heavy grating slid over the top of the opening over the rushing water. He smiled grimly. The Skull was taking no chances on his climbing out of there once he fell through the opening.
"X" estimated the distance to the grating below, allowed his body to relax, and jumped straight down through the open trapdoor. He landed on all fours, bending his knees and elbows to take up the shock of the drop. His right hand slipped between the bars, and he went down, his head striking the grating. For a moment he was stunned; the cold, swirling water below licked at his hand, hanging down, and drops cascaded on his cheek.
He rolled over on his back, and breathed deeply to get air into his lungs and drive the dizziness from his head. He lay there for a while with his eyes closed. The right side of his head hurt badly, and he put up a hand to feel blood where the skin had cracked.
His make-up was ruined, rubbed off in spots. He could not pass for Hilary any longer unless he took the time to touch himself up. And that was out of the question. He felt that speed was essential now; the Skull believed him dead, and must be taken by surprise.
He looked up to see the trap door in the elevator above him snap shut with a clang. He watched as the cage rose a little way, then stopped once again. Suddenly he felt the grating upon which he was resting heave. It was sliding away from under him! Either the Skull could see that he hadn't fallen through yet, or else he was just making sure.
The water had risen now so that it was bubbling above the grating. In a moment there would be nothing for him to rest upon. He would drop down into that maelstrom.
He glanced upward quickly. The shaft of wood came down flush with the opening here; there was no handhold except the elevator tracks, and these were slippery with grease. "X" tried to brace himself against the opposite wall as he had done in the elevator, but the walls were wet where the water from below had slapped against them, and his feet slipped. The grating was halfway open now. It was sliding into a slot in the wall into which it fitted snugly. He stood on the slowly moving bars, back to the wall, and watched the space in front of him grow wider and wider—the space into which he would be hurled when his foothold slid entirely away from under him.
The moving bars made a rasping sound against his wet rubber heels. He looked down into the water below, watched it foam past, rumbling and roaring as if impatient at being deprived for so long of its prey. He wondered how long a strong swimmer could live down there. A sudden sound above him drew his gaze upward, and he saw that the trapdoor of the cage had opened once more. The cage was descending upon him at express train speed.
IF it didn't stop it would crush him there, or else hurl him into the water. He crouched, ready to dive, and noted something for the first time. The grating had opened wide now, leaving him only about four inches to stand on. He could see clearly now, and noticed that there was a cord of some sort stretched across the opening, fluttering around in the foaming waters.
Barely had his brain grasped the significance of this cord stretched across the opening, before the cage was upon him. Only a half-inch of foothold remained, and he was ready to dive, when that sixth sense of his held him there. And he was not crushed. For the cage had stopped with a sudden lurch, not a foot from his crouched head; it stopped with a jerk that would have dislodged anybody clinging to its sides.
And with that half-inch of foothold remaining to him, "X" did the thing that his sudden understanding of the situation dictated. He stooped far over, gripped that cord, and yanked it upward. At the same time he reached up and gripped the hanging edge of the open trapdoor in the cage.
His pull on the cord brought instant response in the form of a clamorous bell ringing somewhere above. The last half-inch of grating disappeared from under his feet, and he let go the cord, clung with both hands to the trapdoor.
His quick intuition had grasped the situation instantly. That cord was there to tell the Skull whether or not his man had fallen through the opening. If the bell rang, the Skull knew the job was done; if it didn't he knew that his victim was still clinging to the elevator. So he had dropped the cage with a jerk to dislodge him. And now that "X" had pulled the cord, the Skull would think that he had gone through this time.
And "X" had judged correctly. For the grating started to slide back once more, until it covered the opening again. If the Agent had fallen through, he would be trapped there in the rushing water, unable to climb out. And the water was now a good half-inch above the bars of the grating, rising faster and faster.
"X" did not look down again. He devoted his attention to getting back in the elevator. His hold on the edge of the trapdoor had been precarious, but now he could stand on the grating. He reached up, gripped the lever just inside the cage, lifted himself by that, then managed to scramble up by getting a purchase on the upper edge of the trapdoor for here it was hinged to the wall of the cage.
He raised one foot, then the other, and levered himself up. He was now resting his fingertips on the hinged edge of the trapdoor. He strained his muscles, and inch by inch he moved himself upward.
Now he had his back against one wall, and the soles of his shoes against the other, resting on the lever. He was well within the cage when the trapdoor suddenly swung shut beneath him. With a sigh of relaxing muscles he rested on the floor; if the trapdoor had remained open another half minute he would have been compelled to give up his hold and drop back to the grating.
Slowly, the cage began to rise. The Skull must by now be convinced that he was beneath the grating, carried along by the rushing force of the river water. He had dropped his gas gun and screwdriver in the first mad fall of the elevator. If he should come to grips with the master of murder he must use some other means to fight him.
He waited, breathing deeply, while the cage rose for what he estimated were about three flights. It was dark in the cage; but the Agent did not take out his flashlight. Darkness was his friend now.
When the elevator came to a stop, Secret Agent "X" rose to his feet and tried the lever that controlled the door. It worked. The Skull had apparently hooked up the connection again from the outside, intending no doubt to use the cage when he was through with the valves controlling the river flow.
The panel slid open, and "X" stepped into the corridor. He did not close the panel behind him. It might be necessary to have it conveniently open on the way back.
NOW, the Agent proceeded swiftly from passage to passage, his uncanny instinct for direction guiding him right. Yet he was cautious, proceeding soundlessly through the empty passages. For he was unarmed, and the Skull would be fully equipped and dangerous; even though he might be taken by surprise at finding "X" still alive.
The Agent met no one as he retraced his steps and reached the huge barred door of the execution chamber. He did not stop here, but made his way into the next corridor, opened a door and stepped carefully into the anteroom of the Skull's private sanctum. This was where he had originally been searched by Rufe Linson when he came as Fannon. Before him was the door without a handle. The door which led to the inner lair of the Skull.
Quickly, silently, "X" stooped before that door, and laid out at his side the flat black case containing his chromium steel instruments. From this case he extracted a long, thin, tempered steel tool, which he inserted in the crack between the door and the jamb. He knew that the door was opened electrically from within, and being familiar with such mechanisms, he knew exactly what tool to use.
The steel jimmy, a perfect conductor of electricity, closed the circuit which controlled the door, and it swung open on well-oiled hinges.
The room within was utterly dark. Would it be occupied?
The Agent tensed as he saw that the face of the Skull was gleaming at him from the darkness—that luminous face, weird and revolting.
"X" waited tautly. He was in the light, at the mercy of the demoniac master of evil who sat there. Not a word was spoken. The Skull's face did not move.
Suddenly, "X's" eyes began to gleam. He sensed something; no man could sit there so quietly, absolutely immovable. With a quick motion he produced his flashlight, clicked it on, directed its beam at the desk. Its rays bathed the hideous face. And the Agent, with a sigh of relief, scooped up his tools, darted into the room. He stopped short just within; he had been about to dart across to the desk—and in doing so he would have stepped on that four-foot strip of electrically charged floor.
The Agent jumped, cleared the strip, and came close to the desk. The thing that glowed there luminous and ugly was not the head of a man, but a mask—the mask which the Skull used. It was painted with phosphorus to resemble the bony structure of the head, and in the dark the phosphorus gleamed in the semblance of a skull. Over the back of the chair lay the vermilion-hooded cloak of the master of crime.
That mask and cloak could mean only one thing. That the Skull was still out in the guise of Binks. "X" glanced at his watch; ten-thirty. Yes. The Skull had said where he was going. He would be in the main room now, preparing to take some men out to collect the ransom for the first of the millionaires.
The Agent found a shaded lamp on the desk. He turned this on; it cast a dull light, sufficient to illuminate the room. In the wall to the left of the desk there was an open panel. "X" could see a narrow spiral staircase just outside the panel, leading upward. He knew where it went, from his knowledge of the location of the rooms; it led up to the niche in the execution chamber, where the Skull held his cruel rites.
And then the Agent's eyes gleamed as he noted something else—something close to the desk, something which had failed to register with him until that moment. It was a microphone. A microphone on a stand, right beside the Skull's chair. Vividly the Agent recalled the picture of himself and Betty Dale escaping through the passages, while the stentorian voice had bellowed through the hidden amplifiers, directing the pursuit.
And slowly the lips of Secret Agent "X" tightened into a thin smile as he contemplated an idea, grimly ironic in its conception, daringly dangerous in execution.
Swiftly he donned the mask and robe, seated himself, and drew the microphone toward him. He flexed the muscles of his throat, tautened, and spoke into it; and his voice was a perfect imitation of the voice used by the Skull.
"This is the Skull talking!" he called sonorously. "Seize Binks! Seize Binks! Seize Binks! Binks is a traitor! Binks is a traitor!"
HE stopped, and his voice came rolling back to him from the amplifiers in the corridor outside: "—a traitor!"
Once more he spoke into the microphone. "Binks is a traitor! Bring him to my office. I will hold you all responsible if he escapes. Get Binks and bring him to my office at once! Do not fail, as you value your lives! When he is caught, let everybody come to my office!"
He ceased talking, waited tensely. Within a few moments he would know if his trick was successful. The Skull might talk the men out of it. If they did turn on him, he might escape, might come back alone to the office.
"X" waited, his ears keenly attuned for sounds outside that would tell him whether many men were coming, or only one. After what seemed an age of waiting, during which he sat unmoving, not showing by so much as the twitch of a muscle the suspense that he felt, there was the sound of voices in the corridor, and the outside door of the anteroom opened.
The men were all there. In the forefront walked Frisch and Gilly, with Binks, handcuffed, between them.
Their brutish faces suggested puzzlement mingled with awe. Frisch and Gilly stopped, hesitantly, at the threshold of the office, waiting for orders from the man who wore the mask of the Skull.
Binks, who had been expostulating shrilly, became quiet when he saw that an impostor sat in his chair. He gazed with burning eyes through his rubber mask at the Agent, then said, "I see you're hard to kill, Mister 'X'!" There was open venom in his voice, and a tinge of fear.
Frisch said, "We got him, boss. He was in the main room with us, tellin' us that you wanted me and Gilly to go out an' pick up the ransom. When you broadcasted, we grabbed him, an' he's been tryin' to tell us all the way up here that you ain't the Skull. He says you're Secret Agent 'X'! I socked him one, but he wouldn't keep quiet."
The other men were crowding close behind, and "X" could see that none of them looked sorry for Binks. They all more or less hated the apparent halfwit, who had prodded and taunted them. Frisch, especially, took a particular pleasure in buffeting Binks around. He no doubt recalled the half-dollars he had thrown to him, recalled that the halfwit had ridiculed him before all the men.
The Agent said, "Bring him in."
Frisch and Gilly propelled their prisoner toward the desk.
Before they reached the four-foot strip of electrified flooring, "X" said, "That's far enough. Now—"
But the Skull, his hands manacled behind his back, interrupted, shouting at the men who had crowded in behind, "You fools! This isn't the Skull. I tell you, it's Secret Agent 'X'! Rip that mask off his face, an' you'll see it isn't the Skull!"
Gilly laughed wickedly. "You have been half nuts for a long time," he taunted. "Now you're all nuts. Maybe you'll tell us next that you're the Skull!" He looked toward "X" behind the desk, as if wondering whether his levity was going to be rebuked.
The Agent said, "Binks is a traitor, men. He was planning to kill the two men who went for the ransom, and collect it for himself. You know that punishment we have for traitors?"
They shouted, "Put him in the chair. Let's see him wriggle!"
"X" nodded, and the slow motion of his hideous mask must have been impressive to the gathered ruffians. The Skull made another, a desperate attempt to convince them.
"I tell you," he screamed, "That's not the Skull. I'm the Skull!" He stopped as a gale of derisive laughter swept the men.
Gilly cried, "See that? Just what I said he'd claim. Can you imagine this here halfwit bein' our boss!"
Binks cried desperately, "I'll prove it, you damned idiots. I know all about you. You, Gilly!" He stopped for a moment, and then continued and his voice had suddenly become the voice that the men had become accustomed to hear from the Skull himself. He had been a little panicky before, but now he realized that he must control himself, prove to these men beyond doubt that he was their leader. The voice of the Skull, coming to them from Binks, would, at least, cause them to waver, would induce them to listen to him.
ONCE he had their ear, he could prove that he was the Skull. He knew things about them that only the Skull could know; if he mentioned those things, they would be convinced. He started to talk again, using the voice of the Skull. "You, Gilly! Do you remember—"
But Secret Agent "X," whose brain was keenly attuned to the least change in the situation, detected the change in the voice with the very first words, before the men did. The Skull's voice was hardly audible above the men's derisive shouts; they had not yet caught the significance of the change of tone.
Before they had a chance to do so, the Agent arose and thundered, "That's enough! We will have an execution at once! It will be a lesson to those who betray the Skull!"
Binks tried to shout, but "X" motioned to Frisch, ordered, "Shut him up. He's said enough!"
Frisch grinned wickedly, raised a fist and brought it down heavily at the side of his prisoner's head. Binks staggered, and cringed. The blow had hurt.
"X" said curtly, "We will have everybody present at the execution. I want to have those millionaires see how our chair works. You, Frisch, take some men and bring them out of the cells. Take them to the execution room; all you other men, go there and wait for me. Leave me alone with Binks. I want a few words with him alone to show him how bad his mistake has been!"
The men did not question the command. They filed out, shutting the outer anteroom door behind them. Binks stood in a corner, his hideous rubber mask seeming the very incarnation of madness. From under that mask his eyes gleamed fiercely, calculatingly, at the Agent. He was by no means ready to acknowledge defeat. He said with a trace of cunning in his voice, "Look here—I know you're 'X.' You're a cleverer man than I thought, to have gotten out of the elevator shaft. Why don't you come in with me? I can make you a rich man. You'd never have to work again—"
He stopped as he saw "X" shake his head slowly in the negative. He burst out, snarling, "You fool! You think you can take my place? You think you can go on with my plans?"
The Agent said softly, "That is not what I intend, Mister Skull."
"Then you must be looking for a reward! I will give you more than you can ever collect in rewards! Come in with me, and I will give you a third of my profits—three million dollars! And who knows how much more—with two clever men like us working together. Come on," he urged, as he saw that "X" was silent, "join me. Every man has a price. Three million dollars for a starter should be enough for anyone!"
His eyes widened as he saw the Agent produce a hypodermic syringe from his pocket, and load it from a small vial of muddy-colored liquid. "I'll make it five million!" he screamed. "Half of my profits!"
The Agent said, as though explaining an elementary lesson to a child, "You have not learned yet, Mister Skull, that all men cannot be bought. There are higher things than money, Mister Skull."
"You're crazy!" the manacled man snarled. "Nobody turns down money. You must be playing a deeper game than I can figure. What is it? You couldn't be fool enough to turn down five million. Don't you understand? Five million dollars! There's nothing that it couldn't buy you—ease, comfort, power!"
"You are wrong, Mister Skull. There are honor and ease of conscience and the pride of serving humanity. Those are things that you can't understand, Mister Skull."
The Agent finished loading the hypodermic, came around the desk, and jumped the four-foot strip of electrified flooring.
The Skull shrank back against the wall. "What are you going to do?" he demanded hoarsely.
Secret Agent "X" advanced upon him grimly, purposefully. "I'm going to put you to sleep. And then I'm going to rip off that rubber mask, and verify my suspicions as to whose face is really under it. I'm going to see the face of the Skull!"
THE police at last had a lead to the headquarters of the Skull. It had come none too soon, for the first installment of the ransom was to be paid at midnight—one million dollars in thousand-dollar bills. The insurance companies had rushed through special agreements with the heirs of the abducted millionaires, whereby the companies were authorized to pay out the money and to reduce the policies by the amounts paid.
Headquarters confessed itself checkmated. There was no possible hope, barring a lucky break, that the lair of the Skull could be located in time to save the millionaires and prevent the payment of the ransom. The terrible prospect presented itself of having the same crime repeated time and time again, with impunity. For there was nothing to prevent the Skull, once he had carried this operation to a successful conclusion, from repeating with another group of heavily insured men. The situation threatened to disrupt the entire insurance institution of the nation. The companies would be chary in the future of issuing large policies, and men would be reluctant to purchase them, lest they become victims of the Skull.
Commissioner Foster and Inspector Burks had been in almost constant conference with insurance company officials, and in telephonic communication with state and national officials. Nothing remained but abject capitulation to the terms of the master criminal; to allow those millionaires to be rendered pitiable wrecks like Ainsworth Clegg was unthinkable. Commissioner Foster reluctantly gave the word that he would cooperate with the companies in the delivery of the ransom money.
And then, just when spirits were at their lowest, came a bright ray of hope. Jim Hobart, former patrolman, informed Inspector Burks that he could lead him to the spot where the car which had kidnaped Hilary had disappeared.
Everything suddenly became bustle and stir. Squad cars were ordered; reserves were called out. Foster himself said to young Jim Hobart, "Look here, young man, if your lead turns out to be the means of breaking this case, I'll see that you are reinstated on the force—no matter what you were ever charged with!"
And sure enough, the false floor in the garage was discovered, the lever that lowered the runway found. Plainclothes men swarmed down, to find themselves faced with an impasse. For here there were no passages, no rooms, no hideouts; there was only a break in the concrete wall, which opened into the new subway cut under construction. They found here the improvised tracks used for hauling material, and a handcar on the tracks.
Jim Hobart could give them no further information. He was as puzzled as they—until he noted that on the wall there was drawn an arrow pointing to the right. The peculiar thing about this arrow was that it showed brightly in the dark.
Inspector Burks, looking at it closely, exclaimed in wonder. "Hell, that's drawn with radium! Look at how it shines!"
They found, as they went in the direction indicated by the arrow, that at every point where there was a choice of directions, there, too, was an arrow. They followed them eagerly, from the subway cut into a maze of complicated passages. Panels were open, and needed no manipulation. It was as if the way had been paved for them by a friend.
At last they came to a heavily barred door, which opened automatically at their approach. And in the room behind that door they witnessed a remarkable scene.
THE room was cut in half by a heavy wire mesh screen that seemed to run from floor to ceiling. On their side of the screen as they entered the room, stood, stupefied at the sudden entrance of the police, some thirty-odd men, all with criminal records. They seemed to have been cut off from the rest of the room by the wire screen.
On the other side of the screen, near the wall, was an electric chair. And near the chair stood the kidnaped millionaires, looks of joy and relief crossing their harassed countenances as they saw the police. They cried, shouted, gesticulated, and then became suddenly silent as one of their number, Grier, the stockbroker, exclaimed, "The Skull! He's still there!" and pointed to the niche above the electric chair.
Inspector Burks followed Grier's pointing finger, and gasped in amazement. For there stood a man garbed in a vermilion cloak and hood, wearing on his face a hideous mask resembling the head of a skeleton. This man had one hand raised, gripping the handle of a switch, and seemed to be leering down at the scene.
There was a slight blur of motion in the semi-darkness of that niche, and suddenly, as if by its own volition, the heavy screen began to rise. The police, who had come into the room behind Burks, trained submachine guns on the thirty-odd ex-convicts who crouched in terror, looking up to the figure of the Skull in his niche, as if seeking aid from him. But the Skull was silent, not moving, seeming to regard the whole scene with leering, sardonic humor.
Burks raised his heavy service revolver, covered the vermilion figure, and bellowed, "Come down from there, or I'll shoot!"
There was no response from the Skull.
The millionaires huddled together, as if fearing some last terrible action from the master of evil, which would wipe them all out. After a moment Burks stepped toward the niche, motioning for a couple of his men to follow him. He came up close under the niche, reached up and pulled at the Skull's robe, shouting, "Come on, there! You're under arrest!"
In answer to the inspector's pull, the figure of the Skull suddenly toppled forward, and fell from the niche, its fall being broken by the three men underneath.
Burks scrambled to his feet, leveled his gun. But the Skull was prostrate on the floor, not moving.
Burks reached down, gripped an edge of the mask, and plucked it away.
A gasp went up from everybody present, including the Servants of the Skull.
For the face that was exposed beneath the mask was the face of Harrison Dennett, the subway contractor.
Grier came up beside Burks, exclaimed, "Good God! We thought Dennett had been killed, and it was he all the time. We were told Dennett had been killed first, so we wouldn't suspect him!"
Burks said grimly, "He's not dead—just unconscious. Looks like someone gave him a shot of some sort of anesthetic."
Laurens, the little jeweler, exclaimed, "Think of it! He was our friend, and he turned out to be such a devil! He was broke, and losing the subway job, so he figured he'd recoup this way!"
Burks said, "I wonder who laid him out here; and who left those arrows for us to follow. It looks like—"
He paused, for just then, from the corridor outside there came a series of incoherent cries, and the sound of wildly stumbling feet. There reeled into the room a young patrolman, one of those who had been assigned to guard the corridors. He staggered in, his hands to his eyes, rubbing them madly.
Burks jumped up, seized him by the shoulder. "What's the matter, O'Brien? You hurt?"
O'Brien rubbed knuckles at his tortured eyes. It was several minutes before he could speak, and then he said, "Someone was in the corridor, inspector. He came through a panel—looked like some sort of a halfwit, with a face that was full of scars. I called to him to stop, but he started to run away, so I pulled my gun. An' then, what does he do but turn around an' throw some sort of a little pellet at me. It burst on the floor—tear gas! I couldn't see a thing, an' he escaped!"
Just then there came an eerie whistle from somewhere out in the maze of passages—a whistle strangely musical in its quality, that seemed to pierce to the very marrow of the bones of the men in that room.
Inspector Burks raised his head, and there was a peculiar light in his eyes. "Now I understand," he said. "I've heard that whistle before. I—think—I know who it is!"
Non sibi sed omnibus
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